Chasing Forever (This Time Forever, #3)
Old wounds, new directions, and a forever worth chasing.
Malcolm Montgomery was a history teacher and track coach until an accident left him with two broken legs. He’ll recover, but life has knocked his feet out twice now. He’s not sure if he’s ready to try again, especially when it comes to love—and slick guys like Brian Kenway. Still, he needs help mentoring the school’s LGBTQ society, so he asks Brian to take some responsibility.
Brian has been hiding behind his reputation as a liar and a cheat for so long that he actually believes he’s that guy—until his nephew, Josh, turns up on his couch, tossed out for being gay. Brian has never considered being a father, but he knows all about being rejected by loved ones. Now Brian wants to be more: a partner for Mal and a role model for Josh.
But when Mal’s recovery is set back and the sad truth of Brian’s past is revealed, the forever they’ve been chasing seems even further from their grasps. It’ll take a rescue effort to revive their sense of worth and make Brian, Mal, and Josh into a family of their own.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Description of child abuse
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, angst, cheating (past lover), child abuse / neglect, commitment, depression, disability / disfigurement, duty, first love, fitting in, found family, geeks / nerds, grief, homelessness, homophobia / transphobia, hurt / comfort, isolation, kids, mental illness, pets, pining / UST, prostitution, protection, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Malcolm Montgomery loved Morristown. Anyone who thought New Jersey was a shithole hadn’t ventured far enough west. Or south. Or east. In fact, they probably hadn’t left the turnpike, breezing past the ports without stopping at Ikea. Maybe they’d been stranded on the wrong side of the Ben Franklin Bridge at 4 a.m. or they’d heard the horror stories about Newark, despite phrases like urban renewal.
Morristown, though . . . Morristown was Small Town America on a grand scale, and still only forty-five commuter minutes from New York City. Fringed by farms and centered by Morristown Green, the town had everything a body could need, including the Colonial, a bar that had survived urban rethinking, beautification, a five-minute spell of popularity when they built the hotel across the street, and the casual indifference of a lifelong patronage.
The Colonial was where the locals drank. It was named for the high school football team, and trimmed with decades of memorabilia. Mal’s father had drunk there, though thankfully didn’t anymore. His father would fit into the daytime crowd, but the after-hours patrons would be a little too rowdy for him. Tonight, they seemed a little too rowdy for Mal, and the brilliant idea he’d had two hours before—that a beer or two and some lively conversation would somehow alleviate the weight of the past five months—had faded to a dull buzz in the back of his head.
But he loved the Colonial. It was a permanent pin on the board of this town. It wouldn’t win any awards for décor or service, unless you liked looking at photos, newspaper clippings, and pennants; a healthy dose of sarcasm; and hot wings that weren’t particularly hot. The place had always been there for him, though, and the barstools were pretty comfortable.
Mal nudged his empty glass through a beery puddle. “Sure.” He’d had a coaster. Bits of it clung to his fingers, rolled into pills. The rest spread out beneath his feet like bird food.
Leo Green, great-grandson of Bernard Green, founder of this faded collection of wood and brass on the north side of Morristown Green (no correlation), dropped a fresh cardboard coaster onto the bar and topped it with a foaming glass of porter.
“Want to close out your tab?” Leo asked, voice tinged with something that might be pity, might be hope. Probably hope. It was, after all, Christmas Eve, and he had a man to get home to.
“Not yet. I’m still not having a good time.”
On cue, “Jingle Bell Rock” straddled the airwaves, climbing over the mild flutter of conversation floating through the bar. Everyone else seemed to be having a good time. Drinking, talking, planning, maybe getting ready to go out and party or go home and party. All except the couple at the table behind him: Brian Kenway and a woman Mal didn’t recognize.
Glancing over his shoulder, Mal took another peek at the pair. They made a striking couple; Brian with golden-blond hair, paler at the temples, and maybe blue eyes—Mal had never gotten close enough to confirm the exact color. He’d wanted to, but he and Brian moved in different circles. Brian’s companion had the look that fashion magazines would describe as gamine. Chin-length hair, dark and glossy. Wide, dark eyes.
The frowns they leveled at each other over several empty glasses marred their beauty somewhat, though.
Turning back around, Mal asked, “Why don’t you have any live music?”
“Because I don’t want to be open past ten.”
“The Pig and the Frog have live acts tonight.”
“Maybe you should go drink there.”
Leo flipped open the dishwasher behind the bar and spoke through a wispy cloud of steam. “No pleasing some people.”
“Ever think of changing your name to the Slothful Sloth?”
“You complaining about the service?”
“Nope. Just the crowd.”
Shaking his head, Leo slid two clean glasses onto a shelf with maybe a little more force than necessary. After the clinking stopped, he said, “Seriously, Mal, you’re pissing me off.”
Mal dug out a grin. “Good. You can join me in my pity party.”
Leo sighed, but smiled. “When do you go back to work?”
Grin fading, Mal ran his palm down the length of his left thigh. He wasn’t sure if the ache in his bones was real or not, but he felt it all hours of the day. Sometimes at night too. His right leg—that was a whole different story and often required something stronger than beer. But not tonight. Tonight he had to drive, because gone were the days when he could rely on the mile-long walk home to sober him up.
“January second.” He reached for his beer.
Leo picked up the glass he kept under the bar. Tonight, the inch of liquor was a few shades darker than Leo’s brown skin. Mal had given up guessing what Leo drank after he began to suspect Leo changed it whenever he got it right. Leo lifted his glass in a toast. “To January second.”
“Just because I’m going back to work doesn’t mean I’m going to stop decorating your bar on a Friday night.”
“Let a man have his dreams.”
Leo clinked his glass to Mal’s. “Back at you.”
“So what are your plans for the holidays?”
“You’re looking at them.”
“Kelsey in town for a while?” Kelsey, Leo’s husband, was an artist. He traveled six months of the year, exhibiting and gathering inspiration for his next show.
“Yeah. At least until Feb.”
“What about you?” Leo sounded interested and he would be. They’d gone to high school together and had both landed back in Morristown before it was cool to be gay. Still wasn’t . . . totally. But they got by. Quietly.
“Donny is hosting this year,” Mal said. “We’re all due at noon to open presents and admire the inaugural wrecking of his new kitchen.”
“That fuckwit finally finished your brother’s kitchen?”
“Donny threatened to sue if it wasn’t done by Christmas.”
Leo made a show of checking his watch. “It only took them eight months.”
“I told him not to use that guy. He shoulda used my guy.”
“Isn’t there some family relationship or . . .” Leo trailed off as the voices behind them rose. His brows arched up. He nodded, tight dreads bouncing, and Mal turned.
As Mal watched, a scowl spread across Brian’s face, an expression Mal hadn’t seen on him before. Brian more often wore a laconic smile—and usually at one of the other bars in town. In fact, the last time Mal had seen him had been at the Pig on the one night a month they hosted Miss Bacon and Friends. Unfortunate name, but Mal always enjoyed the show. Miss Bacon was another Morristown High alumni, five years after him and Leo, and didn’t care if Morristown was cool with the gay thing or the drag-queen thing.
Brian’s companion stood, shaking her head. Brian said something.
She slapped him. The sharp crack of her palm meeting his skin split apart Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones as the entire bar took in a breath.
Brian didn’t cup his cheek. He didn’t scowl or rock back. Nor did he speak. No defensive words parted his lips, no apology. He just sat there, stone-faced and . . . handsome . . . and watched as the woman collected her coat and purse. She rummaged for a minute before pulling out a folded bill that she let flutter to the table. Brian’s expression soured a little, as though her leaving money offended him. Then he watched her go, along with everyone else in the bar.
When all eyes turned back to him, Brian stood, seemed to wrestle with the appropriate mind-set for a moment—at least, that was how it appeared to Mal. As though he couldn’t quite decide if he was pissed, amused, sad, or indifferent. Then, jawline hardening over a squaring of admirably wide shoulders, Brian stalked toward the door.
Apparently, the show was over or taking a commercial break. So everyone in the bar did what everyone usually did while the ads played. They got another drink, visited the restroom, and occasionally glanced back at the screen. In this instance, the table where Brian’s jacket still hugged the shoulders of one chair.
Mal didn’t need a refill, so he pushed his glasses back up his nose and waited out the pause, letting Leo serve other customers, then tipped his head in the direction of the abandoned table. “I’ve seen him around. Didn’t think he was straight or into women.”
In Mal’s fantasies, he definitely wasn’t.
“He’s not. Or I didn’t think he was. He’s in here pretty regularly on Thursdays.” Pickup night. “And never takes women home. So unless he’s climbed the fence, which, granted, some folks do when they’re bored . . .” Leo held out his hands. “I don’t fucking know. So long as he pays his bill, I don’t care, either.”
“A regular on Thursdays?”
So much for that idea, not that Mal had entertained it for long. He’d indulged in a daydream or two (or four), but he knew Brian was way out of his league. Usually dressed in a suit, or the remnants of one, except to Miss Bacon’s shows, when he dressed to impress. And he always had someone by his side, which was why Mal had never bothered approaching him.
“Not your type,” Leo confirmed.
“Yeah? Who do you think is my type?”
“I dunno. Someone quiet and bookish like you. Don’t you gaming nerds have conventions or something? Go get yourself one of them guys.”
Been there, done that, twice—once with a guy out on the West Coast who only ever answered to the name Aether Flameshadow. Online relationships weren’t his thing. After being single for so long, Mal was starting to wonder if relationships were his thing.
Leo interrupted his train of thought with, “Maybe another professor.”
“I’m a high school teacher.”
“And Brian Kenway is a player.”
Mal wasn’t surprised that Leo knew Brian’s name. Leo knew everyone in Morristown.
The door opened with a rush of cold air, and Brian reentered the bar, pausing only to stamp a little snow from his shoes, before eyeing the assembled patronage, all tuned back in to his channel, and giving them a short salute. Everyone went back to their business as he collected his jacket, his bill, his empty glass, and approached the bar.
Mal straightened in his seat, not wanting to appear too slumped over his beer. He thought about pushing his fingers through his hair, then remembered he didn’t have hair anymore. Well, he did, but it was a lot shorter than it used to be. Grayer, too. He nudged his crutches deeper into the shadowy nook he’d tucked them into and then tried putting one elbow on the bar, wincing when it slipped through the beer puddle, nearly landing him face-first on the varnished wood. The scent of hops and old French fries wafted up to meet him before a warm hand caught his shoulder.
The pressure on his shoulder was enough to wake some of the old athletic reflex—whatever hadn’t abandoned him on the side of Lake Road last August—and jerk Mal back to an upright position in front of an extremely well-made face.
“Thanks,” Mal muttered and wondered if his cheeks were as warm as they felt.
Brian squeezed his shoulder. “See, it’s not all bad.”
“Right when you think your life is about to do a body slide along the length of the bar, someone comes along and stops everything.”
Mal blinked questioningly at the man in front of him, the man who did have blue eyes, he now saw. Four shades bluer than Mal’s own washed-out denim color. And the sort of handsomeness that wasn’t a mask. Attractiveness was ingrained in every line of Brian’s face. From the easy laugh lines cornering his mouth and eyes, to the way his brows refused to curl against nature, but still managed to look rugged. His nose was long and straight, but pointed a little sideways, as if it’d been broken at some point. Of course, that only made him more interesting. His hair wasn’t all blond, just mostly, the paler strands at his temples only serving to highlight the fact that Brian had been designed by nature to age well.
Brian’s mouth tilted upward, slightly. A smile or possibly an amused smirk.
Mal cleared his throat. Reached for his glass. Then decided to go for it. He stuck out his hand. “Mal Montgomery and I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
For a moment, it seemed as though Brian might take offense. Then he tipped his head back and laughed—quietly and not for long enough to embarrass himself or Mal. He gripped Mal’s hand in a solid shake. “Brian Kenway.”
“I know.” Whoops.
Brian’s eyebrows did not jump up. Instead, he widened his smile. “My reputation precedes me.”
“Something like that.”
“Leo been gossiping about me again?”
“We were wondering what happened to your friend,” Leo said.
Brian flipped one hand carelessly in the direction of the door. “I was an asshole. She’ll forgive me tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that.”
Okay, then. “So . . .” Mal moved his mouth a couple more times, but no words came out. What the heck? He had a doctorate in medieval and premodern European history, an area that did, on occasion, dip into language studies. “Want a beer?” he finally managed.
Grinning, Brian draped his jacket over one stool and sat on the other. Right next to Mal. “Sure. What are we drinking?”
“Snowdrift Vanilla Porter.” That had been a serious question, right? One he was supposed to answer.
Brian nodded toward Leo, who got busy fitting another glass under the tap. Brian waited until he had his glass before lifting it for a toast. “What should we drink to?”
Mal picked up his glass. “Health.”
They clinked and sipped. Brian appeared to savor the beer before swallowing, humming, and then licking his lips with a long, slow swipe of his tongue. “Tasty.”
It wasn’t that original a line, but it shot straight to Mal’s cock, along with the imaginary press of that tongue, to stir the slumbering beast. Not so much he had to shift on the stool, but enough to feel a little like Rip Van Winkle waking to a new world.
“So, what have you heard about me?” Brian asked.
“What nonsense has Leo been filling your ears with?”
“Oh, um . . .” Mal had never been a good flirt—he didn’t have the gene for it. Or the knack. Or enough opportunity to practice. Generally, he was much wittier online, especially when he knew what he was talking about. “Ah . . .” Had he tried that sound yet? “Thursday nights. We talked about Thursday nights.”
“How come I’ve never seen you in here on a Thursday?”
Because I’m a high school teacher didn’t seem like the right answer. Neither did an explanation about his legs. “I’ve been busy.”
Brian smiled again, a boyish grin that suited his face. Made him look mischievous and even sorta cute, if you could get away with calling a good-looking guy cute. “What do you do?”
Okay, Mal knew how to handle this one. Short answer, not long. And make it sexy. “Right now, I split my time between . . .” So much easier online. “I play video games.”
“For a living?”
“No. I’m on leave from what I do for a living.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Is this an administrative kind of leave? Did you do something naughty, Malcolm?”
“No one calls me Malcolm”—except his father and only when they were going to have a talk—“and no, I did not. What about you?” Mal let his gaze slide left to the fading pink mark on Brian’s cheek.
Brian returned one of his rascal grins. “Recently, offending my best friend and business partner. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.”
Leo appeared in the middle of them, or as middle as he could get with a foot of bar in the way. “Ready to settle your tab, Professor?”
Brian’s eyebrows danced again. “Professor?”
“It’s a joke and . . .” Mal couldn’t do a sideways glance when facing someone, and he didn’t know how to do coy, either. Another guy would know where to go from here. A less awkward man might simply ask if Brian was interested in taking this elsewhere. Not Mal. Not his thing, the fact his cock still tingled notwithstanding. Brian was a fantasy, not reality.
Besides, what did he have to offer a man like Brian Kenway? Now, in particular. He couldn’t get to his knees. Heck, he could barely walk. Sex was probably completely out of the question, even if Brian wasn’t put off by the first two facts.
“You seem to be doing a lot of thinking over there, Professor,” Brian said, his tone quiet. “Can I offer a suggestion?”
Mal shook his head and the sharp movement failed to throw off his descending gloom. He felt in his pocket for his wallet. “No. I’m good. Leo, I think I’ll settle up.”
Brian seemed to wrestle with his mind-set again, and fascinated, Mal watched, now employing a sideways look as he counted the bills in his wallet. By the time he’d laid his cash on the bar, Brian Kenway had obviously decided how to react.
He smiled. Offered a gracious dip of his chin. “I’ll wish you a happy holidays, then.” Brian turned to Leo, gave him the same smile, same little nod. Then he laid a hundred-dollar bill on the bar. “On me.”
He swept his jacket off the other stool and swung it over his shoulders in a gesture that, if Mal tried to emulate it, would result in him collecting every glass along the length of the bar and sweeping them to the floor. And then Brian was gone, the Colonial falling silent once more as though someone had clicked the remote, pausing the show in the middle of the final scene.
Brian didn’t hate Morristown. More, he struggled against what he perceived as the pull of a small town that kept sucking him back in. He did like the center. He lived there and worked there. Drank there and fucked there. The center of Morristown was like an island in the middle of quicksand. He was comfortable there, and safe. But he often felt as though he were cut off from the rest of the world by an inward tide. Every time he struck out, he became mired by a curious sense of inertia.
Take what had happened at the Colonial tonight. The professor was a nice-looking guy and the law of averages usually meant the nice-looking guy should end up in Brian’s bed. Or at least in the restroom for a quick exchange of lustful intent. But right when Brian seemed to be crossing that divide, leaving his island, the quicksand had yanked him back. Along with a little help from Malcolm Montgomery.
Just as well. Mal wasn’t his type. Too bookish. Too educated. Too nice. Mal’s shy and slightly awkward manner probably only seemed endearing in the moment—cheeks flushed, glasses catching the light. In the morning, he’d be even more obviously not Brian’s type. Too serious. Too put together.
Mal’s smile, though. It’d been a while since another man’s smile had made Brian’s gut clench.
Hunching his shoulders and turning his jacket up around his ears, Brian angled southward through Morristown Green, taking the path that would lead him to the other side of the island, to Dumont Place, and along there to King Street and the condominium he called home.
Brian disliked living on King Street. The name reminded him too much of Charlie King, the current partner of his ex, Simon. Brian and Simon had been together for twelve years before Charlie . . . Well, it hadn’t been quite like that. Actually, it hadn’t been like that at all. Brian had been the one to move out, thinking it was the only way to let Simon know how much he needed him. Who’d have guessed leaving would mean the end? Like, the real end. Not Brian, but then, he obviously had no idea how to do a relationship, despite years of practice.
So he’d moved into one of his stable of condos on King Street. That was how they’d been sold to him, as a fucking stable, even though the architecture was so far from farm-like, a horse would probably take offense. Regardless, he’d claimed the one he’d never managed to rent, and settled into his post-relationship funk, which, so far, alternated between two states: an unsettling likeness to being in a relationship because nothing had changed, and a deep loneliness that echoed so loudly, he was convinced Simon and Charlie could hear it all the way across the Delaware River in their cozy farmhouse (that horses would probably line up to be next to) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The cold had started to edge in on Brian’s mood by the time he reached the end of Dumont Place, numbing him. The couple of Manhattans he’d drunk at the bar had boiled away in his bloodstream, and only the taste of the beer he’d had at the end lingered on his tongue.
He should call Vanessa and apologize for being an asshole. Shuffling a hand in his jacket pocket, he eased his phone out and woke the display. Ten thirty. He was walking home from a bar at ten fucking thirty. Vanessa was likely still on her way back to Newark, and he doubted she’d take a call from him tonight, anyway.
Brian crossed Pine, started up King Place, which would become King Street, and made plans, once again, to sell his stable and find somewhere else to live. Somewhere off the island.
The condos were a package of four, all facing different directions to give the illusion of privacy. The roof structure helped, making each “home” seem like a separate dwelling. The shared parking lot was more convenient than fourth wall breaking, and if you were social, which Brian was, being able to sit out the back and converse with the neighbors could be pleasant.
The architecture was that odd mixture of country and cape that often popped up in western New Jersey. It was blandly East Coast, with sloped roofs, dormers, a porch, and neat, cream-colored vinyl siding. They were pretty houses, each with a postage-stamp sized front garden, complete with a path and flowered border. Brian couldn’t take credit for his own garden; he paid someone to look after it.
He pushed open the cute gate in the adorable white picket fence and trudged up the perfect path lined with snow-covered shrubs. After stomping his feet on the stairs leading up to the porch to knock away any trace of snow that hadn’t been meticulously swept from the path, he dug into his pocket for his keys. The jingle echoed like a cold bell, metal on the verge of cracking, as he slid the right key home and turned the lock. Brian pushed inside, already lifting his chin in anticipation of the warmth that would bathe his face, and stopped as air nearly as cold as outside fluttered across his cheeks.
His first thought was that he’d left a window open, but Brian never opened his windows. Even in good weather. He suspected his housekeeper did sometimes. Either that or she had an air freshener that made the place smell like she had.
The cold breeze was coming from the kitchen end of the long hall and did not abate when Brian shut the front door. He kept his jacket on as he paced the length of the condo to the frigid and moonlit kitchen. Glass crunched under his feet, spilling out in a rough circle from a pane over the handle of the back door.
Feeling for the warm rectangle of his phone, Brian turned a quick circle. The kitchen looked about the same as he’d left it: clean and uncluttered. All the knife handles were sticking out of the block on the counter and the microwave blinked the time at him from over the range. He retreated to the hallway, breath puffing in little clouds in front of his face, passed the closed door of the downstairs powder room, and ducked his head into the dining room he’d repurposed into a home office. At first glance, his stuff seemed to be where it should be. The laptop on the desk, the TV on the console across from there, the frames on the wall—though why anyone would steal a photo, an architectural print, or award with his name on it confounded him. Likewise, the few things he kept in the glass cabinet opposite the door all seemed to be in attendance.
Brian pulled out his phone as he crossed the hall to the living room. He’d dialed a nine and a one but not the second one when he saw the figure on the couch. Whoever it was had taken the blanket from the back, and the other blanket from the love seat and had both tucked so tight, Brian couldn’t be sure the shape was human. He knew, though. He also knew the need that wrapped a person so tight, not even a finger stuck out. Nothing to show, nothing to lose. He knew what it was like to be that cold, that afraid, and that lost.
Why this kid—and it had to be a kid, that was the only thing that made sense—had chosen his house made no sense. He rarely dropped into the youth centers in Newark managed by the Smart Foundation. His name was on the stationery, but he was Vanessa’s quiet partner. He wrote letters and checks. That was their agreement.
Tucking his phone into his pocket, Brian approached the couch with a heavy step. He was surprised when the figure didn’t move. The kid should have been up and over the back by now, eyeing him with a mixture of hope and distrust, maybe a good portion of disdain, and even a little loathing.
He didn’t have a dead body on his couch, did he?
So far, he’d had a pretty crap night. Vanessa had lost patience with him, which was rare—they’d been friends forever. Then the professor had proved immune to his charms.
Brian sat down on the love seat, putting him at a ninety-degree angle to the sofa, and considered his options. Calling 911 still felt like a good choice. The kid had broken into his house and was using his blankets. But nothing seemed to have been stolen, and with it being Christmas Eve, the kid would be stuck in a cell for a couple of days, or one of those holding tanks, the transitional homes where screenwriters collected plotlines for their TV dramas and still managed to get it wrong.
Shuffling closer to the sofa, Brian grabbed a fold of blanket and tugged.
The body didn’t move.
He tugged harder and the body groaned, the sound so small and feeble that Brian reached for more blanket. He peeled it away from the kid’s face and the odor of unwashed skin and clothes drifted up. Brian let go to switch on the lamp set in the corner of the sofa and love seat.
The reaction was instant. The boy screwed up his pale face and burrowed back into his nest, hiding all but his shocking blue hair and the ring at the top of one ear. A second later, that disappeared too, leaving a single wisp of hair.
“Hey.” Brian tugged the blanket away again, exposing the boy’s face. His skin had a porcelain quality to it, fine and almost translucent, a tracery of veins apparent near his ear, the hollows of his cheeks without color, his lips almost blue. And he wasn’t wearing lipstick. The kid was cold.
Really, really cold.
“Listen, I don’t care who you are or why you’re here, but if we don’t get you warmed up, and real soon, we’re both going to have more to deal with than some broken glass and a police report.”
Brian plucked the blanket away, exposing the shoulder of the boy’s coat—wool, not down, and fashionable rather than functional. Beneath, he wore a sweater, the round neck stretched to show the T-shirt beneath. Clothing enough for a quick walk home from the Colonial. Not for whatever this kid had been doing—which, judging by the smell of him, had been at least a week of outdoor living.
A funk Brian had never quite forgotten, even if he hadn’t been able to smell it on himself after the second week . . .
The boy opened his eyes, also blue, and cringed, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. “You’re going to call the police?” His voice was soft and high. Not girlish, just not quite settled into adulthood. Or shy. Could be that.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
Pale brows crooked together, drawing Brian’s attention to the fact that they were blond, which accounted for the shocking shade of his hair. Blond hair loved color.
“C’mon. I can offer you a shower and warm clothes while we wash the rat’s nest you’re sleeping in. Some food and you’ll feel halfway decent. Then we’ll talk about what we’re going to do.” Brian kept his voice and tone quiet and all of the options open. He didn’t want the boy to run. Didn’t particularly want him hanging around, either, in case his friends figured this was a safe place to park their flea-ridden asses. But he could offer one night.
The boy looked at him for about half a minute, his reaction time likely more affected by the cold than a need to think things through. He probably hadn’t been living rough for long. He didn’t seem wary or frightened enough.
Finally, he asked, “Don’t you want to know who I am?”
“That can wait until you’re clean and warm, I think.”
A quick nod and the kid started pushing out of his nest. Once he was standing, Brian guessed the boy was fourteen or so. He was small enough to be twelve, but he stood with the attitude of someone resigned to being slight. Someone who’d decided he’d always be on the lighter side of normal, with ghostlike skin and huge eyes. A boy who’d dyed his hair blue and pierced his ears all the way around because, what-the-fuck-ever, he was already weird.
Brian collected the blankets and nodded toward the hall. “Upstairs. I’m leaving the kitchen door unlocked. You know the way out if you want to leave.”
“Why would I want to leave?”
Kid definitely hadn’t been doing this for long.
Brian directed him to the guest bathroom. “Towels in the linen closet there, soap and shampoo in the tub. Pull the little thing up to get the water coming out of the showerhead and use as much hot water as you like. Dump your clothes outside the door before you get in. I’m going to put them in the washer. You’ll find some sweats right here when you’re done. Okay?”
The boy gave him a wide-eyed nod. “Okay.”
“You like cheese?”
“Can you eat cheese?”
“No. I’m, um, lactose intolerant.”
Of course he was, because being on his own wasn’t hard enough. “How about some soup, then. Tomato? Chicken noodle?”
“Tomato. Thank you.”
“Okay. Give me your clothes. You stink.” He didn’t mean to be harsh, but he also kinda did. While he wanted to make the kid feel safe, he also knew the kid would feel better when he was clean and warm. More open and more receptive. If he’d been taking care of himself for much longer than a couple of weeks, Brian’s tactics wouldn’t work, but he’d already proven that he was fluffy as a newborn chick.
The bathroom door closed, and Brian heard the shower curtain rings rattle. He paused in the upstairs hallway to dump his armful of blankets outside the closet housing his washer and dryer, then went to find something small enough for his guest to wear. His sweats would all be too long, but the kid wasn’t going anywhere. He also grabbed a long-sleeve T-shirt, a hoodie that was too small but still had sentimental value, and a thick pair of socks.
The boy’s clothes were in the hallway as requested. Brian exchanged them for the clean ones. The coat was dry-clean only, so he stuck it on a hanger over the dryer. It would get aired out, at least. The rest, he shoved into the machine before setting the selector to antibacterial. Then he went to inspect his soup collection.
A cold wind met him at the bottom of the stairs. “Goddamn it.” First, he needed a piece of cardboard and a roll of duct tape.
Brian had a can of rustic tomato (whatever the hell that was) heating on the range when the boy appeared in the kitchen, his already slight figure swamped by Brian’s clothes. His cheeks were pink, though, and his lips had lost their blue tinge. He also looked tired, as though he’d fall over if he had to stand up for too long. Indicating a stool on the other side of the island he used as a dining area, Brian set him up with soup, toast, and a glass of water. He put a multivitamin next to the glass.
The kid nodded. “Yeah.”
“Okay. How about we get to know each other a little bit?”
Again, the almost requisite panic failed to register in those wide blue eyes.
“I’m Josh,” the boy said. “Joshua Kenway.”
Kenway? Brian arched a quizzical eyebrow.
“I’m your nephew. Ellen’s son? You are my Uncle Brian, aren’t you?”
“Uncle Mal, Uncle Mal!”
Unlike the accident that had wrecked his legs, Mal could see this one coming. He braced one crutch against the brick step, digging the rubber tip into a groove as his niece and nephew crashed into him, and for a bare second, he thought he’d be okay. Then he was tipping backward, crutch falling away, leaving one arm free to flail while the sky wheeled overhead. The time before he hit the ground seemed endless. Flashes of memory assaulted him—the sensation of flying, bright lights, voices out of nowhere, and fear. His recollection of the accident didn’t always coincide with what had actually happened, but the moment the car had hit him, that sudden and sharp impact, would always be remembered as fear.
A strong arm caught him around the back of the shoulders. Mal slipped sideways a little, his braced leg sliding across the bricks, but the anticipated smack of hard concrete didn’t happen.
“Hey! Hey, I’ve got you,” his rescuer said.
Donny hauled Mal upright and the wrench in his knee sent a flare of pain up and down his right leg. Swallowing a yell, Mal concentrated on keeping a hold of his remaining crutch—though it might have been better to let it go. His right shoulder wasn’t happy, and all he needed was to rip open multiple old injuries. But Donny held him steady and stood there, arm still around Mal’s shoulders, until Mal offered him a nod.
“How’re we doing?” Donny asked.
Rather than admit that a curl of fear still lingered in his gut and that everything hurt, Mal tried for a smile that felt more like a grimace. “I’m good.”
His niece chose that moment to burst into tears.
Christmas Day was off to a great start.
Arriving at the scene of averted disaster, his mother pushed through the struggling mess of Donny and kids, and immediately echoed Mal’s expression, lips thinning as she shook her head. Like it was his fault he was standing there with a leg brace, one crutch, and various aching body parts. At least he was wearing a coat?
“You okay?” she asked, frown softening.
“Yeah, Ma. I’m okay.”
She pulled her bawling granddaughter into a hug. “See, Uncle Mal’s just fine.”
If only she knew.
Mal jerked his chin toward his car. “I’ve got some stuff in the car.” He made to turn and she stopped him.
“No, no. You go on inside.” After pushing him toward the door, she started organizing the children, directing each of them toward a task. Didn’t matter whose house it was, his mom was in charge of logistics.
A short while later, Mal found himself on the couch in the family room, braced leg propped up on an ottoman and a steaming mug of hot chocolate cupped between his hands. He bent forward to inhale the aroma and winced. Spiked hot chocolate. “What’s in this?”
“Whiskey,” Donny answered, sitting next to him on the couch, a similar mug in hand. “How’s the leg?”
“Which one?” Mal leaned forward to massage the left, which had started to ache, and for a moment, emotional fatigue threatened to overwhelm him. God, he was sick of being sore, of being less able, worried, broken, afraid of falling. Of feeling old before his time. Tired of wondering if he’d ever run the Patriots’ Path again. Complete another section of the Appalachian Trail.
He didn’t want to think about running a marathon. He generally saved those thoughts for when he was really depressed.
Beside him, Donny looked on quietly, as he sometimes did, almost certainly deciding between comfort and motivation. “You’ll be steady come springtime,” he finally said.
Motivation it was.
Mal tried to find the right mood, the right response, and took a slug of his doctored hot chocolate instead. And coughed and spluttered. “Jesus. How much whiskey did you put in this?”
“Enough to make sure you had a good day.”
“I need to be able to drive home.”
“You live three blocks away. I think we can manage something. Or you can stay.”
Instantly, Mal drew in. Not go home? “Lois is expecting me.”
Donny laughed. “You do realize Lois is a cat?”
“Finish your hot chocolate and I might let you come play in my new kitchen.”
Mal did as he was told because it was easier to let go. He didn’t want to be the guy who cried on Christmas Day, and he did love his family, even if every one of them but him shared the same naively optimistic philosophy: everyone was going to live long, trouble-free lives, that a setback was merely a reminder that life needed to be lived, and that everything could be fixed by a shot of whiskey.
His niece and nephew both gave him socks for Christmas, to keep his feet warm until springtime. His parents gave him a gift card to REI, where he never shopped because their cheapest hiking gear was too expensive. They meant well.
“For springtime,” his mom said, ever optimistic.
Donny gave him a bottle of whiskey. “It’s actually from Scotland.”
Studying the label, which proudly proclaimed the bottle as The Finest Scotch Whisky, Mal said, “I’d hope so.”
“No, I mean I ordered it special, doofus. Can’t get it here.”
“Thanks, Donny. That was real nice of you.” And it was.
Donny’s wife, Rachel, gave him a new trail guide for Northeastern Pennsylvania. “For springtime,” she said as well.
Blinking away tears, Mal nodded and pretended deep interest in the survey-quality maps until the focus shifted from him to someone else.
Food happened, more whiskey happened, wine too, and Mal forgot his melancholy mood. He even started to believe he might be using the trail guide come spring. Or by summer at the latest. His shoulder had stopped throbbing and his left leg, the one he’d broken, had gone pleasantly numb. His knee sent an occasional ping from beneath the massive dark brace enclosing most of his right leg, letting him know it was there. He’d managed to hobble from the table to the couch without using his crutches, but now his bladder was reminding him he’d had more than a bit to drink, and a trip to the bathroom was going to require aid, especially as his head had started to wander tipsy paths.
“Need a hand?” his dad asked.
“Yeah. I want to get down the hall. Can you get my crutches?”
“You can lean on me. I’m heading that way.”
Rather than argue—not even sure why he wanted to—Mal levered himself back to his feet and limped alongside his father to the hall bathroom. After Mal took care of business, his father said, “Wait here,” and took his turn.
Were they going to have some sort of father-son bonding moment in Donny’s drafty hallway?
“So how are you doing?” his dad said, emerging from the bathroom a minute later.
Yes. Yes, they were.
“You know how it is.”
“No, I don’t. That’s why I’m asking. You don’t look so good, Malcolm. I mean, you’re healthy enough to pacify your mother, but you’re quiet and snippy.”
“A car hit me, Dad. And left me on the side of the road with a lot of broken bones and one seriously messed-up knee.” Three torn ligaments. All the important ones. The most important so beyond fubar, he’d had to have surgery. Hence the big, obnoxious brace. “If this graft doesn’t take, I’m fucked.”
His dad’s eyebrows rose up at the curse, but he didn’t comment.
Mal bowled on, “And I was lying there for twenty minutes before anyone saw me.” He’d been knocked unconscious, which in retrospect had been a blessing. It had been an ugly leg break. Three different places. “Now I don’t know if I’ll ever walk properly again, let alone hike, and you know that’s my sanity check every summer. Forget ever running another marathon. Coaching the track team.” Then there was his love life, the lack of which he would prefer not to discuss with his father. “So, no, I’m not doing super fantastic, but I’m okay. I’m trying to live the family philosophy.”
His father winced at that. “What can I do?”
“Stop asking if I’m okay.” And get me another whiskey. Or cut me off. Mal felt as though he was in that place where the day could teeter into disaster or oblivion and couldn’t quite decide which direction to go. And he didn’t know why he was suddenly so angry. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean to snap.”
His father gripped his shoulder. “Are you seeing anyone?”
Nope. Not going there. “Why?”
“Because I care. I’m worried and I’d like to know if there’s someone else worrying. Someone looking out for you.”
Brian’s handsome face teased the periphery of Mal’s thoughts. He gave his head a quick shake. “No, there’s not.”
“Why not? It’s been years since you and Noah broke up.”
Seven, not that Mal was counting.
“You know your mom’s friend, Daphne? Her son—”
“God, Dad, no.” Mal held up one hand and stopped just short of making a warding symbol. “I don’t need you guys to set me up. Jesus, the last date Mom set up was the absolute worst.”
His dad tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a chuckle. They’d all enjoyed that story.
The son of another of his mother’s friends had been told Mal was interested in history and hiking and so had decided a trip to Gettysburg would make a great first date. Fantastic idea, in theory, until the date’s car had broken down halfway and he hadn’t had any roadside assistance. Mal had had to call his. After the car was towed and they’d been dropped off at a rental place, the date had discovered he’d left his wallet in his car. Mal had rented them a car and paid for the lunch on the way home too, because he hadn’t been going to tempt fate any further, despite the date’s insistence they could still salvage the weekend. That was when Mal had learned that a room had been booked and the date had wanted to surprise him with an overnight, on a first date.
So not his thing.
Putting away a smile, his dad clasped Mal’s shoulder. “I wish I could say the word and make everything right for you. I hate seeing you unhappy.”
“I’m happy, Dad. Deep down, under all this current misery, I’m very content, okay?” As content as he could be, having spent his fiftieth birthday recovering from the first of several surgeries that, so far, had only made him feel older. At least he’d had Donny at his side, turning fifty eight minutes after he did.
He’d always have Donny.
After dessert, when Mal was on a stool in the kitchen, pretending to dry the dishes Donny kept stacking in the rack beside him, Donny said, “Leo called me last night.”
“Said he was worried about you.”
“Seriously? I just had Dad corner me in the hallway.”
“I know. He was our elected official.”
“Jesus, Donny.” Yep, he’d always have his brother.
“Leo said that prick Kenway was sniffing around you at the bar last night.”
Cheeks flushing, Mal said, “And what business is that of Leo’s? Or yours?”
“I know Kenway. Sort of. Through his clients.” Donny worked with their father in real estate. “I made the mistake of calling him when I wanted quotes on my kitchen, and he not so politely informed me that if I wanted twenty kitchens, and the houses around them, he could help me. Apparently construction managers only consult on large projects.”
“Yeah. And then he gave me the number for the idiot that took eight months to finish the job.”
“I don’t like the way he does business.”
“Are you actually warning me off this guy?”
“Which guy?” Rachel had wandered into the kitchen.
“Oh, I know him!” She turned to Mal. “Are you and Brian a thing?”
“What? No. And Donny’s doing his best to make sure we’re not.” Which only made Brian more attractive, of course, in a whiskey-addled, you’re-not-the-boss-of-me kind of way.
“Why not? He’s a lovely guy. Handsome too!”
“How do you know him?” Donny asked.
“He’s on the board for the Smart Kids Foundation.” Rachel worked at the high school as well, as a guidance counselor.
“So he gives money to disadvantaged kids. Bully for him.”
“He does a lot more than that. He’s the one who reviews the scholarship applications and he writes to every one of the recipients after graduation to congratulate them. I’ve seen those letters, Donny. They’re on file.”
“It’s easy to write a nice letter,” Donny said.
“Why don’t you like him?”
Not currently a part of the conversation, Mal watched as husband and wife sized each other up as if to determine whether the argument was worth it. Then Donny turned to him. “Leo says he’s a player, and I didn’t like his attitude on the phone. I’ve seen him at work too—he’s ruthless. The fact he has a soft spot for kids doesn’t make him nice. He’s not your type, okay?”
“Did Leo forget to tell you I blew him off?” Mal said.
“You what?” Donny choked.
Rachel had gone bright red.
“Oh for God’s sake. I turned him down. Not . . .” Mal waved a hand.
Rachel recovered first. “He really is handsome. I’d—”
“Jesus, Rach.” Donny looked as though he wished he were still choking.
Meanwhile, Mal was letting his tired and drunken thoughts amble down the hallway of the Colonial, toward the bathroom, where he had never taken a guy, but had stumbled over a few. He wasn’t the sort to get to his knees in a public place, and with whiskey rushing through his veins, Rachel giggling to one side of him, and Donny spluttering into the sink, he couldn’t help but wonder if that was part of his problem.
Even before ending up with two broken legs, he hadn’t exactly been living life to the fullest, had he? He made it seem like he did. But fantasizing about sucking a guy off in public and doing it were two very different things.
Was he too old to try something new? To actually get out there and do what he said he would? And was Brian Kenway the guy to try that with?
Maybe? Way to be assertive, Mal.
Sighing, he pushed off the stool and limped away in search of the whiskey bottle.