Sundays with Oliver (Hearts & Crafts, 1)

Sundays with Oliver (Hearts & Crafts, 1)

Author: Kelly Jensen

Two empty-nesters. Two bruised hearts. One chance to make things right.

Oliver expected to miss his daughter when she left for college, but he’s surprised by the size of the hole she leaves. Or maybe he hadn’t expected to spend his days watching grass grow and making sad cookies. Or to lose his job. Meeting Nick—the uncle of his daughter’s roommate—is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy forecast. Nick is focused, talented, and as beautiful as the dollhouses he builds. Being near him might bring light and purpose to Oliver’s life.

Nick expected to miss his niece when she left for college, but he’s still figuring out how to cope with her absence, when his brother reappears after twelve years, complicating the emotional puzzle. Then there’s Oliver, the sweet, calm, and competent man who looks at Nick like no one ever has. Spending Sundays in Oliver’s company is the balm he needs, though Nick is waiting for Oliver to decide their relationship is too much work.

But just as Nick begins to get comfortable, Oliver’s need to provide for all of the people he loves threatens to pull them apart. If their relationship is to survive, they will have to learn to let go. For Oliver, this means asking himself what he really wants, this time around. For Nick, it means letting himself grieve the people who can’t come back and love the people who always will.

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Part of the series: Hearts & Crafts
Price: $4.99

This title comes with no special warnings.

Chapter One

Breakfast was Oliver’s favorite meal of the day. He would lie in bed at night considering recipes, already tasting melted butter or the crisp edge of a lightly browned biscuit. Last night, it had been the dainty texture of crepes and the sweet contrast of peach compote. Peach season was nearly done. But as August waned, along with summer, autumn would bring new fruits and new breakfast options.

Oliver preferred not to think about what else autumn would bring, but he’d done that too, lying there in the dark, flipping crepes in his mind. In just five short days, he’d be delivering his best recipe to college: his daughter.

With morning sunlight splashing through the kitchen windows, Oliver slid a second batch of crepes into the warming drawer, stirred the peaches, and nodded with satisfaction. Breakfast was almost ready. He flicked off the burners and unknotted the strings of his apron.

His footsteps echoed off the risers as he climbed the stairs, his tread deliberately heavy and noisy as he approached Danica’s bedroom. Waking a teenager could be like raising the dead; advance warning and preparation were always recommended. Oliver paused outside the door, listening for signs of life before he knocked.

Nothing.

“Dani?”

Still nothing. He opened the door and leaned into the miasma that had developed roughly three years ago, only ever dissipating when Dani left for summer camp with instructions not to open her windows “because spiders.”

Oliver always ignored such instructions. He would lie in bed the night before she left, picturing her curtains rippling in a fresh breeze—right after he’d settled on what he would serve for breakfast in the morning.

Stacked plastic tubs formed a wall between the door and the bed. His ankle turned as he stepped on something soft and he stumbled into a tub before catching himself on a bedpost. Plastic lids slid off the desk chair and clattered to the floor. The chair squeaked and turned, knocking into the desk, and feathers from Dani’s latest costume design puffed up and began a lazy descent. Oliver spat one away from his lips and leaned sideways. The bed creaked as he adjusted his weight.

His daughter did not stir.

“Dear lord, Dani.”

Should he feel for a pulse?

Who would feel for her pulse next week when she lay comatose in her college dorm room?

Oliver laid a hand on his daughter’s sleep-warm head. “It’s time to get up.” He lifted his voice to match the bright sunshine seeping in around the edges of the curtains. “I made crepes.”

Dani curled tighter, the movement providing a much-needed sign of life.

“You love my crepes. You won’t be able to get them in the city.”

“They sell crepes in New York, Dad.” Dani’s voice croaked and cracked.

“Not like mine.” And if he left them in the warming drawer for too much longer, they’d suffer, and not in a way that made them stronger, faster, better. Oliver shook Dani’s shoulder. “C’mon. Up and at ’em. The crepes will get stiff if we don’t eat them soon. And the compote will get cold. It’s peach, your favorite.”

An inarticulate mutter drifted up from her pillow.

“We’ve only got five more breakfasts together.”

“Da-ad.”

Oliver prepared to navigate a path back across the teenage minefield. “You’ll miss me at that fancy college of yours.”

“No, I won’t.”

She would.

Or, if not, he’d simply miss her enough for the both of them.

Smile fixed, Oliver paused by the door. “Yes, you will. Now get up. I don’t want to have to bring a bucket of ice water up here.”

Dani moaned and burrowed and Oliver left the room. He had actually hauled a bucket upstairs once, half-excited, half-afraid she’d make him go through with it. That much water would have ruined her mattress and mattresses weren’t cheap. Her screams would have been good currency, though; coin he could pull out and reminisce over for years.

Downstairs, he assembled two plates and took a couple of photos of the finished product. It’d been a week or so since he’d posted to his mostly cooking but sometimes other stuff blog, Out with Ollie.

He hadn’t really considered the title when he got started. He’d meant out and about. He’d meant to post about being a single dad. Cooking, parenting. More cooking. Making costumes with Dani for conventions. Who knew the gay-dad perspective would make the mundane seem interesting? Now that he had a following, he tried to keep up with it.

Ten minutes later, Dani sat opposite him at the breakfast table, poking her fork through a fan of carefully folded crepes, now drizzled with shiny cinnamon peaches and dusted with sugar. She looked like the wicked witch of the west with her dark hair snarling across her forehead, leaving only her little nose and tiny mouth visible.

How was his daughter eighteen and about to leave home? How was she going to cope with being in New York? No, how was he going to cope with her being in New York? Thank goodness she’d only be ninety miles away.

“What’s on your agenda today?” he asked.

Dani shrugged. “I’ll probably finish packing this afternoon.”

“Was there anything else we needed to get? Aside from food.”

“They do sell food in the city, Dad.”

This had become Dani’s favorite refrain, the word food substituted for everything Oliver wanted to pack and ship to Manhattan with his only child.

“I know, but—”

“I want to finish up my Jingwei mask before I go.” Her summer project and perhaps the most ambitious mask she’d made to date. “Mom needs pictures.”

“Maybe the three of us can video chat toward the end of the week.” He and his ex-wife, Tai, got along well. They didn’t talk often but tried to stay in touch with each other’s lives.

“Sure, and I promised Adam that I’d sketch out some ideas for his Comic Con costume.”

Oliver liked Dani’s boyfriend, Adam, who was already in the city studying journalism. He’d been amazed that their relationship had weathered the past year, with his daughter a senior in high school and Adam tackling college, but it had. This coming year would be another test of a sort, with them both having to balance their course load with new living spaces, new friendships, new everything.

Oliver suppressed a sigh. He wouldn’t be a part of it; nor would he have the pleasure of seeing Dani wear her Jingwei mask at this year’s convention. He couldn’t afford the tickets. Between getting her ready for college and paying the first semester of tuition, cash had been tight. They’d had to secure a loan for the remainder of the year.

He had saved what he’d thought would be enough. Tai had chipped in what she could, but Oliver was responsible for the bulk of it. He’d been proud of the balance—and had imagined it would cover more than it actually did. His daughter had chosen what was, quite possibly, the most expensive school in New York City.

A hollow feeling opened up in his gut, and he imagined his half-digested crepes tipping over the edge and into an abyss.

“What about you?” Dani lifted her chin. “How come you’re all dressed up?”

Oliver glanced at his pressed shirt and trousers. Sugar dusted his pant leg beside the napkin he’d carefully placed in his lap. He flicked at the powder and watched in dismay as it formed a wispy white line across his thigh.

“I’ve got a meeting in Philly.” He usually worked from home, but every now and then had to head down to Philadelphia to coordinate with his team or meet with a client. He stopped fussing with his pants. “You know how our company was recently acquired by Altostratus?”

“The cloud people.”

“Right. Well, the deal has been finalized, and today we’re all meeting to determine which departments will merge and which won’t.”

“And yours?”

“Ours will merge. I’ve actually got some really good ideas for how to integrate our product with Alto’s services. That report I was working on at the beginning of the summer?”

Dani offered a dutiful nod as she shoved a forkful of crepes toward her mouth.

“Rich”—his boss—“was pretty excited about some of my suggestions. We’ll discuss that and where I’ll fit in.” He was the product manager, after all.

“What time will you be home?”

Oliver checked his watch. “My first meeting is at ten, which means I need to get going. I’ll be home midafternoon. Want anything while I’m out?”

“Nah. I’m going to work all day.”

“And pack.”

“And pack.”

“Okay. What do you want for dinner?”

“Food.”

Oh, the curse of having a child who didn’t really care what she ate. Dani could muster excitement for a new dish when she sensed he needed the encouragement, but she could also exist on macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles—and likely would this coming year.

Oliver stood and made another attempt to brush the sugar off his pants. “Can you stack the dishwasher?”

“Okay.”

“Right. Love you.” He rounded the small table to drop a kiss onto the top of his daughter’s head.

“Love you too.” Dani’s attention was mostly on her phone.

Oliver grabbed his jacket and tie, filled a travel mug from the coffee maker, and whistled his way to the car.

The fact his daughter was leaving still felt somewhat unreal. Maybe he could do a blog series about it. Out with Ollie attempting to feather his empty nest. His nest didn’t have to stay empty, though. It’d been a while since he’d cooked for his friend Gray. He could visit his parents more often. Maybe even start dating again.

Or maybe he’d be too busy for all that, what with the merger happening and all of the opportunity alongside.

***

Three hours later, Oliver leaned forward in the chair facing his boss’s desk. Richard White regarded him with what could only be described as professional sympathy.

Oliver had been late to the meeting and had spent the past ten minutes trying to catch his breath. “Huh?” was about all he could manage.

“I’m sorry, Oliver, but they have their own people at your level who have more knowledge.”

“About their product, sure. But what about ours? I know more about Agile Backup than anyone on the East Coast. It’s my product. I’ve been selling it and managing its sales for fifteen years.”

“Agile is a dead product. No one does backups anymore. It’s all on the cloud. That’s why we agreed to this merger.”

“Right, so we could integrate our product with theirs.”

Rich was shaking his head. A shift in his expression had Oliver collapsing back in his chair, trousers burping against the leather.

He let out a defeated breath. “You suspected I wasn’t going to be a part of this new setup, didn’t you?”

Rich steepled his hands and said nothing.

“Why did you ask for that report if you knew my product was going to be retired?” Oliver asked.

“I didn’t ask for the report. You submitted it and I didn’t stop you.”

“But you were excited about the possibilities.”

“I did think we might be able to do something along the lines of what you were suggesting, but it didn’t pan out.”

“When were you going to tell me this?”

“I’m telling you now.”

Oliver stared at the large white envelope on his side of the desk. His RIF package. He didn’t think of it as a Reduction in Force, but a reduction in life. An RIL package. How the heck was he supposed to finance a second year of college without a job?

A bitter peach flavor stole up the back of his throat. Swallowing, he squared his shoulders and looked at his boss, a man he’d thought was his friend, in the eye. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. Shook his head.

His questions might have answers, but what difference would they make? He was out of work, period.

“You’ve been with us for a long time, and if there had been any way to keep you, I’d have found it. I want you to know that,” Rich said quietly.

Oliver grabbed the envelope. Then he stood, tucked what remained of his career beneath his arm, and left the office.

Chapter Two

Nick stilled his hands as the music rose in volume, the story of Edward Elgar’s friend and mentor, Jaegar, extending out of ruefulness and into acceptance. As always, the calmness of the piece spread through Nick’s limbs, subtly pulling his spine straight as he waited not only for the moment of triumphant understanding but the quiet measure beyond. A space of almost nothingness that whispered and caressed.

He then hit a perfectly timed pause, halting the transition from “Nimrod” to “Dorabella.” Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” formed some of his most treasured listening experiences, but each piece was short, and he often wore himself out straining for the unifying threads. Exposing himself to music like that helped him appreciate change, though. Or so he liked to think.

“Uncle Nick?”

Emma waited in the doorway to his workroom. His niece was showered and dressed, her hair pulled back into a neat braid, makeup skillfully applied, clothes crisp—as if she’d ironed them. Had she ironed them? Nick was still wearing his pajamas and wouldn’t change until he showered sawdust, paint, and glue from his hair that afternoon. Since he didn’t leave the house on Tuesdays, clean pajamas would cover the evening shift as well.

He pulled a small smile out of his stock. “Breakfast?” It was only 7:21 a.m.

“Yeah. I wanted to get into work early, so breakfast is early.”

“Okay. Let me straighten my tools.” He always needed about fifteen seconds (almost always exactly fifteen seconds) to make the adjustment from work to not-work, even though breakfast was a regular part of his schedule. Because Emma was pressed for time, he settled for checking that none of his blades were about to fall to the floor and that he’d put the lid back on the glue.

The miniature bookcase he’d just finished gluing together would probably be dry by the time they were done eating. The early breakfast wasn’t really an interruption.

Nick followed Emma up the basement stairs. The aroma of coffee enticed, as did the prospect of sitting with his niece, the young woman who was like a daughter to him. It had been her idea that they should breakfast together as many mornings as they could manage. A part of Emma’s “Socialize Nick” plan back when, well . . . back when things had been a lot more awkward than they were now.

He appreciated it, just as he did most of the other holes Emma poked into his schedule. If not for his niece, he’d rarely leave the basement. Nick loved his work, but he did understand the importance of getting fresh air. Seeing the sun. Interacting with other humans, though he tried to limit that to Wednesdays when he got lunch at a café by the river, and Thursday night trips to the supermarket when the aisles were blessedly unpopulated.

After washing his hands in the sink, he sat at his place at the table—the chair facing the kitchen and putting his back to the windows—and picked up his spoon. “What’s going on at work today that you need to get in early?”

Emma swallowed a mouthful of her eggs and reached for her coffee. “I’ve only got two days left to train my replacement. She’s nice”—it was typical of her to find something good to say before she delved into the bad—“but her organizational skills could use work.”

Emma worked as the assistant to fashion photographer Maria Clemente, a woman who expected to put her hand out and have the correct item placed in her palm within seconds. Nick had admired the symphony of movement between Maria and Emma on the two occasions he had watched them work together.

Nick sipped his coffee, noting the similar effect the bitter taste and promise of caffeine had to listening to the swell of agreement in “Nimrod.”

“I’m sure a single day of handing Maria the wrong lens will organize her.”

“I hope so! I feel bad for leaving Maria like this, but—”

“Emma.” Nick slid his free hand across the table to grip his niece’s forearm. Emma’s quiet exhale told him it had been the right thing to do. “The next four years are yours, exclusively. You can’t be Maria’s assistant forever.”

He met her gaze, briefly, before returning his attention to breakfast, releasing Emma’s wrist to pick up his spoon. The mouthful of oatmeal caught in his throat, something that had been happening a lot recently, as if he’d suddenly developed a swallowing problem. Nick forced the lump down and winced over the burn in his esophagus. He should set aside a few minutes this afternoon for some internet research. He was only seventy-eight percent confident his difficulty wasn’t related to a lung disease.

He swallowed again and swirled some more of the remaining syrup through the cooling oatmeal in his bowl. Although eating wasn’t going well, he persisted, washing every second mouthful down with bitter coffee. After eight swallows, he noticed Emma wasn’t talking.

When he risked a peek in her direction, she was watching him eat. Nick concentrated on finishing his breakfast. Whatever Emma wanted to say would have to remain unsaid because he didn’t know how to talk about whatever was going on with his digestive system, except to note that it probably wasn’t emphysema. More likely, it was related to an emotive situation he hadn’t figured out yet.

Given time, he would.

“Can we talk about the lawn?” Emma finally asked.

Through the windows behind him, Nick could feel the sun on his back, reminding him of all the summers gone past. He could picture the green of the grass and imagine the buzz of a lazy bee, conjure the scent of flowers from the planters lining the patio. Remember how the various heights of the stakes in the vegetable patches resembled a green graph at the edge of the lawn. The irregular line of trees at the very end of the garden that thickened into a twelve-acre preserve running behind all the houses on this side of the street. Rebecca—his sister and Emma’s mother—would be on her knees in front of one of the beds, digging, humming, a large floppy hat shading half her face.

If he turned around, he’d have to face the reality of a backyard that no longer looked quite like that. Of Rebecca being not there.

“Billy is leaving for college this weekend too,” Emma said, her tone careful, “so he won’t be able to do the mowing anymore. Do you want me to ask him if there’s someone else, or—”

“I finished one of the towers,” Nick spoke over the top of his spoon.

“For Grey Towers?” Emma brightened. “Really? Can I see it?”

“Well, it’s not quite done. There’s no roof yet.”

Grey Towers was one of the few aspects of Nick’s life that didn’t have a detailed plan beyond: finish one day. The ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot, former governor of Pennsylvania, Grey Towers had been open to the public for about twenty years and Rebecca had loved going there. She’d loved the garden more than the house, but had always told Nick he should build a dollhouse just like the mansion.

He’d dismissed the project as too complicated (how would he replicate all those bricks?) until the day he’d had to carry his sister back to the parking lot from the store because she couldn’t walk and breathe at the same time. She’d died twenty-three months, two days, seven hours, and thirty-one minutes later—measured from the time he’d had to scoop her into his arms.

Nick cleared a new obstruction from his throat. “Want to go visit your mom this afternoon?”

Emma offered a sober nod. “Yeah. Thanks. I wanted to go before Saturday.”

Nick didn’t enjoy visits to his sister’s grave, but he went for Emma. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for Emma.

“So . . .” Emma abandoned her attempt to scrape up the last crumble of scrambled egg and set her fork across her plate. “Did you want me to talk to Billy about someone for the yard? It’ll be October before you know it and the gutters will need doing.”

Nick jammed his spoon into his bowl and it hit the side, producing a ring of metal against porcelain. Across the table, Emma flinched. He exhaled slowly. Be the adult, Nick. Be the one who handles shit.

“I’ll handle it. I’ve just been busy this past month.”

“Work’s going well, then?”

Emma’s smile was hesitant, and Nick had to remind himself to consider her feelings. Just because he had difficulty processing his didn’t mean he got to ignore those of others.

“I’m going to miss you when you go away,” he said, “and not only because you’re the one who reminds me to leave the basement.”

Emma’s smile warmed. “I’ll try not to call every day to ask if you’ve been outside.”

Nick allowed a grin. “Exercise is Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at three. Bike rides on Wednesdays, weather permitting.”

“Mowing the lawn could be exercise.”

Nick poked at his remaining oatmeal. “I’ll do better. I promise.”

A quiet thump traveled through the house, the sound similar to the morning paper delivery, except heavier. Nick glanced toward the front hall right as a sharp knock sounded. “Was Maria picking you up?”

Emma shook her head. “No.”

Nick followed his niece to the door, hoping whatever the interruption was, they could deal with it quickly. He needed to get back to his basement workshop.

Emma pulled open the front door and sunlight slashed across the hall, raising dust. Wincing, Nick shaded his eyes against the glare and peered at the silhouette on the front porch until his eyes adjusted.

It was his brother, Cameron, and he would not be dealt with quickly.

“Nicky! Emma!” Cameron barreled forward, arms outstretched. He caught Emma first. “Oh my God, girl, you’re all grown up! What are you now? Sixteen, seventeen?”

“Uncle Cam!” Emma squeaked. She was hugging Cameron just as tightly as he hugged her.

“Emma is eighteen,” Nick said to their backs.

Emma had turned eighteen two weeks and three days ago, which Cameron would know if he hadn’t been off wherever he’d been for the past however many years. It was a testament to Nick’s unsettled mental state that he couldn’t calculate the length of his brother’s absence more specifically.

Cameron turned to Nick, arms still held high, giving off a whiff of stale sweat and unwashed clothing. “Got a hug for your big bro, Nicky?”

Nick stiffened. “I prefer Nick.” Nicholas worked too.

“Still got that pole wedged firmly up your ass, I see.” Cameron dropped his arms. “Or have you got a whole two-by-four up there now?”

“There is nothing wedged in my ass. What are you doing here?”

Cameron directed his chin toward the large and well-worn military-style duffel sprawled across the porch. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and say hello.”

“You were in Milford, Pennsylvania, at seven forty-five on a Tuesday morning.”

“Just got off the bus.”

The earliest bus from New York didn’t arrive in Milford until 12:05 on weekdays. Nick narrowed his eyes. Where, exactly, had his brother come from?

“It’s great to see you, Uncle Cameron, but I have to get going.” Emma was edging out of the door. “Will you be here this afternoon?”

Judging by the size of Cameron’s bag, he’d be here next month.

“Sure will. Where are you off to, little lady?”

“I’ve got work.”

“Well, look at you. Where are you working?”

“I’ll tell you all about it when I get home. Bye!” Folding her fingers into a wave, Emma scooped up her backpack, stepped off the porch, and practically ran for her car.

Nick quickly identified the swirl in his gut: betrayal. But he couldn’t blame Emma for leaving. She had a legitimate excuse.

He turned to his brother. “You can’t stay here.”

Over the sound of Emma’s car coughing toward a start, Cameron moved his lips, probably in a cajoling platitude.

Nick waited for Emma to back out of the drive before restating his position. “You cannot stay here.”

“Then where am I supposed to go? This is my home too.”

“Not anymore, it’s not.”

Their parents’ will had left the house to the three children, equally. Ten years ago (four months, two weeks, one day) Cameron had sold his share to Rebecca and Nick, citing a need for cash to invest in a business venture.

Rebecca had left her share to Nick, and he had promised to take care of Emma for as long as necessary. To him, that included making sure she always had a home, as Rebecca had done for him after their parents had died.

“What do you mean?” Cam asked.

“The house is Emma’s. I’m holding it for when she finishes college.”

Nick’s plans for after then fell into the same category as his plans for Grey Towers—occasionally pulled apart and reconstructed, but generally left vague.

“I’m pretty sure Emma won’t mind me staying.” Cameron collected his bag and swung it over his shoulder before pushing into the front hall. “I just need a couple of days, then I’ll get out of your hair.” Annoyingly, he flipped Nick’s hair on the way past. “I won’t even bunk with you. I’ll camp out in the basement.”

Nick tucked his hair back behind his ear. “You can’t use the basement. That’s where I work.”

“Our room doesn’t still have two beds, does it? That’d be tragic, Nicky. Tell me you’ve traded up to a big boy bed.”

Gritting his teeth, Nick followed Cameron down the hall. “Where have you been, anyway?”

“Everywhere, man.” Cameron hummed a quick tune as he bounced into the kitchen, dropped his bag, and claimed a seat at the table. Nick’s seat. He leaned back with a long, growly sigh. “Something smells good.” Picking up Nick’s spoon, he poked at the remains of Nick’s oatmeal. “Got any coffee left?”

“No.”

“Lighten up, little bro. We’re family. And Emma’s expecting me for dinner.”

Emma hadn’t said anything about dinner.

Relaying that fact to Cameron wasn’t likely to shift him out of Nick’s chair, though, or stop him from eating the remains of Nick’s breakfast or leaning over the spread-out newspaper to lift a page. Nick stood there for a handful of seconds, wishing he could measure the outrage spilling through his body.

“I’m going back to work.”

Without looking up, Cameron flicked a hand in his direction. “You do what you got to do.”

Nick dug his phone out of his pajama pocket and checked the time: 8:03 a.m. He was only three minutes off schedule, but as he walked with deliberate calm toward the door leading down to his basement workroom, the floor threatened to tilt beneath his feet.

He hadn’t had time to adjust to Emma leaving for college, yet. Now he had to deal with another person in his space. Nick ignored the tremble in his fingers as he shoved his phone away and pulled the basement door closed behind him.

Chapter Three

“There are only two elevators and one just broke down,” Dani explained when Oliver returned from parking the car to find his daughter, all her possessions stacked inside a huge plastic wheelie bin, somewhere near the end of a long, long, very long line snaking down Broadway.

Instead of succumbing to the protest building in his throat like the squawk of an old rocking chair, Oliver flipped a mental switch, the one to cue acceptance of a long and difficult day. The Tisch School of Arts was Dani’s dream, as was living in Manhattan.

An approximate eon later, they reached the front of the queue. The cramped lobby of the residence building was dark and hot. Thankfully, the elevator arrived promptly. But when the doors opened, Oliver contemplated the interior with consternation. Surely they wouldn’t fit the bin, and Dani, and him, in there. And how high was this building? How long would he have to exist in such a tiny space?

They fit, with little room to spare. He wouldn’t be doing any deep breathing on this ride. Just as well: the small space smelled like sweat and bubblegum. Also, the cables creaked, and something banged against the wall as they passed the fifth floor.

He nearly fell through the doors when they opened and had to resist the urge to kiss the vinyl flooring. Supporting himself against the far wall of the corridor, Oliver concentrated on breathing normally until Dani finished wrestling her bin out of the death trap.

“You okay there?” She didn’t even try to hide her smile.

“I think I’ll take the stairs down.” And back up, if required.

Room 1008 was light, bright, and half-occupied. With a restrained squeal, Dani pushed past Oliver to hug her roommate. They’d been making friends all summer via text and video chat. After a few seconds, Dani released her new bestie and grabbed her hand to drag her toward him.

“Dad, this is Emma. Emma, this is my dad.”

“Nice to meet you, Emma,” Oliver said.

“You too.” Emma gestured over her shoulder. “That’s my uncle Nick.”

Oliver followed the gesture and wondered how he hadn’t noticed the other man in the room. Then again, Uncle Nick appeared to be doing all he could to disappear into the wall beside his niece’s bed. Longish hair hid most of his face, and his shoulders turned inward. A bulge to either side of his denim-clad hips indicated the hands shoved deeply into each pocket formed fists.

“Uncle Nick?” Emma called.

Nick glanced up, as though startled out of deep thought, and Oliver’s breath caught as the chin-length hair slid back to reveal sharp cheekbones and brown eyes with a definite green tint. Nick’s eyebrows were the same mid-brown as his hair. His mouth—fantasies were born and died glorious deaths upon lips like those. A square jaw and strong chin completed the picture of perfection.

Oliver put on his best smile and stuck out a hand. “Oliver Jurić.”

The quiet space between Oliver speaking and Nick responding had only just started to get too long (like half a minute ago) when Nick finally wrestled a fist out of his pocket, shook out his fingers, and clasped Oliver’s hand in a firm grip. “Nicholas Zimmermann. Two Ms, two Ns.” The mellow honey of his voice contrasted his awkward cadence and smile. It was as though the guy had forgotten how to speak. Or move his mouth.

Dani pushed in beside Oliver with a merry wave. “Hi! It’s so nice to meet you. Emma’s told me everything about your dollhouses. Your website is amazing!”

Oliver was still trying to place the two Ms and Ns.

Apparently unaware that Nick seemed to be trying to reintegrate with the wall, Dani pressed on, “I want to study mainly costume design, but I’ll be doing a lot of production courses, and set design is a huge weakness for me. I’d love to hear how you plan out the rooms.”

Nick blinked several times while his hands disappeared back inside his pockets, fists stretching the faded denim. He spoke to the floor. “Ah, it depends on the project. If it’s an existing house, I match the interior to whatever data I have. If I can tour, I will. I usually base the layout on the most efficient use of space.” He paused long enough for Oliver to think he was finished before producing another off-kilter smile. “Emma tells me if it’s too efficient.”

Emma chimed in. “Uncle Nick has a thing for efficiency. You should see the way he loads a dishwasher.”

Oliver barked a laugh, drawing all of the gazes in the room, though Nick glanced away almost immediately. Oliver held up his hands. “Maybe I should interview you too. Dani is forever restacking our washer after I’ve done my best.”

Nick offered no answer.

Sensing they were perhaps crowding a shy man, Oliver stepped away and bumped into the wheelie bin. He turned to steady it before it somehow rolled down the hall and back into the elevator of horrors. “Right. Well. Let’s get you unpacked.”

Dani’s side of the room hosted a single bed against the wall, a desk, a chair, and a dresser, all made from the same pale wood. Everything appeared clean and sturdy, though battle-tested. Oliver wondered if they should sterilize the mattress before they put Dani’s sheets down. Dani gave him a look that said don’t you dare. Oliver made the bed while Dani and Emma unpacked clothes and toiletries.

Nick lurked in his corner.

Oliver didn’t turn to check, but he imagined he was being watched through a curtain of dark hair. He should have worn nicer pants. Or gone for a run. One run wasn’t going to do much about two decades of kitchen-testing every recipe he could lay his hands on, though.

Every time he had to lean toward the wall to tuck in a sheet, then the quilt, Oliver regretted a life spent sitting on his ass. He’d ridden his chair pretty hard over the past few days, tweaking his résumé and searching job sites. It’d be nice if clenching his muscles as he stressed over his budget counted as exercise, or at least toned his butt.

“You okay?” Dani helped tug the quilt into place.

“Yep.” Oliver gave his daughter a big smile. “What’s next?”

“Can you put together the shower-caddy thing?”

“Sure.”

Oliver located the box and knelt to spill the contents out onto the floor. No instructions floated out with the pieces. Upending the box another three times didn’t shake anything free. Oliver reached inside up to his elbow to feel around. Nothing.

The logical thing to do would be to line up the pieces and compare them to the picture on the front of the box. Oliver was halfway through doing that when Nick joined him, kneeling down, hands out of his pockets. Without saying a word, Nick quickly lined up the rest of the parts and extended his hand toward the Allen wrench.

Oliver picked it up and handed it over. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”

Nick began bolting pieces together. By the time he was halfway done, Oliver had decided not to be offended. Watching Nick work was too distracting. His fingers twitched between movements, but never in a detrimental fashion. It was as though his hands knew what to do and Nick simply followed them. Within minutes, a project that could have taken Oliver most of the afternoon was finished. The shower caddy was solid too.

“If I’d built that, I’d have had to come back on Monday to fix it,” Oliver said.

Nick responded with a grunt that might have been amused.

“Need anything else put together while the expert is here?” Oliver asked the girls.

“Not right now, but could we go to The Container Store and get some more storage-type things for the closet?” Dani asked. “These dresser drawers are small.”

“Yeah, and I wouldn’t mind getting a bookshelf for between our desks. Under the window?” Emma pointed out the area, and Oliver agreed a low bookshelf would make a great use of the space.

“Sounds like a plan. Can we walk, or do we need to go get my car?”

Emma had her phone out and was tapping the screen. “We can walk.” She glanced at her uncle, who had retreated to his corner. “Up for a trip to The Container Store?”

Dani’s phone rang before Oliver could get a read on Nick’s response—or lack thereof. Then he was distracted by his daughter’s laughter and the words “Hold on, let’s do a video chat so you can see my dorm.” A moment later, Oliver was smiling and waving to his ex-wife, her bright, happy face a welcome sight on this of all days.

“Hey there, stranger,” Tai said. “How’re you holding up?”

“Just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with myself for the next four years,” Oliver replied, the thought no truer words circling his brain at the same time.

“Welcome to my world. I had to say goodbye four years ago.” Tai’s smile was kind.

“And I love you for it, Mom.” Dani jumped up and down, likely causing her image to blur and pixelate. “I did it! I’m here!”

“So you are. Proud of you, bǎo bèi.” Tai turned her gaze toward Oliver. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough for making this possible, Ollie. For making our daughter’s dreams come true.”

“All part of the service.” His voice cracked on the last word, and he swallowed. Now was not the time for tears. A formless wail about how in the heck he was going to pay for this dream without a job had to be choked back as well.

Dani turned the phone toward her side of the room to continue her tour, and Oliver looked around for one of the approximate hundred boxes of tissues he’d packed for Dani to bring to the city with her.

You will not cry. Not yet.

That’s what the drive home would be for.

Chapter Four

There was nothing like spending time with other people (plural) for reminding Nick exactly how poorly socialized he was. With frequent happy smiles that brightened his entire countenance, Oliver Jurić was the picture of balanced socialization.

And he was, most definitely, not Asian.

Was he Dani’s adoptive father? Would it be rude to ask? Oliver had pronounced his surname yoo-ri-ch but Nick had caught the spelling on Dani’s paperwork. The at the end pointed toward a Slavic heritage. Earlier, hiding behind a stack of poorly built shelving at The Container Store, Nick had googled Oliver’s first name and found, to his surprise, that it was common in Croatia, its popularity surging in the years Oliver might have been born. Jurić was the fifth most popular surname in the same country. His research had not solved the puzzle of Dani’s distinctly Asian features, however.

Nor had rebuilding the display he’d been hiding behind, but one careless bump would have pulled the shelves down on some unwary shopper.

Nick lowered his menu half an inch to peek across the table. After an afternoon spent buying and building kit furniture for the girls’ room (Nick doing the building with Oliver apparently happy to stand by handing him tools and parts), the four of them were enjoying an early dinner, with the word enjoying only encompassing three members of their party. Nick would rather be on his way home. It would have been rude to refuse the invitation, though, and Nick had promised himself (and Emma, silently) that he would be whoever she needed him to be today.

Besides, Oliver was a handsome man, his features pleasingly symmetrical. His eyes were Argentinian blue, a color Nick recognized from the wallpaper he’d used in a dollhouse two years ago. The occasional lowlight in his mostly gray (Gainsboro?) hair suggested he’d been a dark blond a few years before. The stubble rounding his jaw shaded toward white in patches. He had a straight nose, and his mouth was a touch too small. As were his jeans, which Nick had noticed on the walk to and from The Container Store. The bright yellow and blue plaid of his shirt complemented his skin tone and eyes.

Over the top of his menu, Oliver met Nick’s gaze and smiled.

Nick snapped his eyes back to the entrée selection. More specifically, the pasta dishes.

Between ordering and their meals arriving, Oliver, Dani, and Emma talked. Their conversation ranged between the girls’ prospective courses to what they wanted to do when they graduated. Nick remembered to nod and smile when their attention drifted past him. In between, he contented himself with watching Oliver without seeming to watch Oliver, and thought back to the video call with Dani’s mom. Nick hadn’t seen her face, only heard her voice, but it was clear the three were close. He wondered why she wasn’t here. He also wondered about the obvious emotions that had grasped Oliver’s face as he turned away from the call. Nick wasn’t great at reading people, but even he could see Oliver had been trying not to cry.

A recent divorce?

Would it be rude to ask?

Food arrived, eating commenced, and conversation continued. Nick’s thoughts wandered along other paths until Emma’s laughter drew him back to the table. “No, no!” She waved her hands. “You need to be behind the wheel at precisely the time Uncle Nick says, or the whole schedule is off.”

“Wait, you’re saying there’s a time for leaving the house, another one for loading the car, and a third for actually pulling out of the driveway?” Dani asked.

“Including the number of seconds it takes for the garage door to open.”

“Seventeen,” Nick supplied.

Oliver gaped at him. “You’ve measured the time it takes for the garage door to open?”

“I’ve watched it open approximately four thousand times.”

Oliver’s mouth did not close. But the corners did turn up into a smile. “Let me get this straight. You plan exactly how many seconds each part of the trip is going to take? What if there’s a rest stop?”

“Based on variable lines at the gas pump and bathroom, I can predict the time elapsed with a reasonable degree of accuracy.”

“That’s . . .” Oliver visibly struggled with words.

“Practical?” Nick provided.

“Very.” Emma grinned. “Uncle Nick always needs to know what time it is and can probably tell you, nearly to the second, without checking a clock.”

Dani bounced in her seat. “What time is it?”

Nick felt the corners of his own mouth turn up slightly. “6:33.”

Oliver checked his phone. “6:33 on the dot. How do you do that?”

“Oh!” Emma was waving her phone. “We need to go. Mandatory house meeting at seven.”

Oliver’s features transformed into another easily read expression—dismay—and Nick could commiserate. They had to say goodbye to their girls here, in a crowded restaurant. He looked to Oliver and Dani for cues. They’d somehow levitated out of their chairs and were already clasped in a tight hug.

Nick turned at a tap on his shoulder and stood to open his arms for his niece. She tucked in close, and he rested his chin on top of her head. The familiar smell of her shampoo wafted upward, and a pang of loss arrowed down. He swallowed over a sore throat (the medical websites he’d consulted had diagnosed dysphagia) and wrested his thoughts away from the possible causes of the dryness. Not multiple sclerosis. This was sadness.

Silently, through the pressure of his arms, he communicated that to Emma.

She squeezed him back.

They let go. Oliver was gripping his daughter’s shoulders and looking her in the eye. “I’m proud of you, Danica.”

She blushed and grinned.

“Go conquer the world,” Oliver said with a wobbly smile.

“It’s just a dorm meeting,” she replied. “I’m sure they’ll be telling us we can’t light candles or smoke weed or something.”

Oliver nodded. “And you will listen to every word.”

Laughing, Dani popped up to her toes and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. “I’ll text you tomorrow.”

“All right. Have a good night.”

Nick grabbed Emma’s wrist to deliver one last touch—spend one more moment connected to her—and had to consciously tell his fingers to let go.

She grabbed his nearly numb hand and smiled. “You’ll be okay.”

“I’m supposed to be the one who says that.”

“Then we’re both going to be okay.”

“I love you, Emma.” He made it a point to tell her that as often as he remembered to because one never knew when one might wreck a car in a storm or succumb to a debilitating disease. And how often those left behind might wonder if it had been true. If what everyone felt had been real.

She kissed his cheek. “Love you too.”

Then she was gone.

As though strings behind his legs had been cut, Nick dropped back into his chair. Once again seated across from him, Oliver was scrubbing his palms over his cheeks. His flushed cheeks. His blue eyes shone more brightly than the restaurant lighting warranted.

Oliver looked over the table at Nick. “Want to get dessert?”

Nick nodded his assent, and after consulting the folded card in the middle of the table, they ordered.

Their server left, and silence closed in around the table. Quiet was good in his book. Not talking meant not having to think of things to say. Not having to weigh the appropriateness or rudeness of a question or answer. But long silences between people who didn’t know each other well were not good.

Nick ran through a few possible conversational openers. What do you do for work? People always asked that one. Was it suited to this situation? He’d make a comment on the weather, but the last time he’d tried that, he’d gotten into an argument about climate change. Similarly, he should leave politics alone. Let’s see, I already know what Dani is studying . . . Maybe he could ask about her career goals?

Oliver let out a huge sigh. “I’m feeling kinda pathetic.”

Startled, Nick offered the first response that came to mind. “You’re a father.” The source of Oliver’s pathos seemed obvious.

“So, what, I’m supposed to feel this way?”

Their dessert arrived, and Oliver pulled his slice of cheesecake nice and close.

Nick’s pie smelled of warm apples and cinnamon. He forked up a mouthful. “You’re not pathetic.”

“New York is a lot safer than it used to be, right?”

Nick nodded and chewed.

“They’re going to be just fine,” Oliver said.

“Emma could navigate the Sahara with one finger and her cellphone.”

“Not sure she’d get a signal out there.”

Nick dug his fork back into his pie. “She wouldn’t need one. She’s a technology whisperer.”

“I’m glad she’s Dani’s roommate, then.”

Nick ate more of his pie while Oliver worked on demolishing his cheesecake. Was this silence comfortable enough for some of the questions he’d labeled as maybe inappropriate? He could start with an easy one. “Is Dani adopted?”

Oliver spat out a mouthful of cheesecake, the accompanying sound somewhere between a laugh and a cough.

Not a matter of timing, then. His question would always be rude. Oh! Another thought occurred. His question skirted (not politely) the issue of Dani’s race. Emma had tried to explain to him why that wasn’t polite, but Nick had never entirely understood why. Until now.

Before he could retract the question and apologize, however, Oliver cleared his throat to answer. “Ah, no. Her mother was Chinese.”

“Was? What is she now?”

“Married to another woman?”

“Really?” Nick looked up and Oliver met his gaze. Nick counted off a suitable number of seconds for normal eye contact before returning his attention to dessert.

“Really,” Oliver said. “And she’s still Chinese, by the way. Her wife is American. One of the big-boned Midwest variety. Sort of like me, I suppose, though I wasn’t born in the U.S.”

“Were you surprised?” Nick asked.

“What, that Tai is still Chinese? Or that I wasn’t born here?”

The chuckle caught Nick by surprise. He hadn’t felt a bubble of amusement travel up from his stomach, through his chest, and out in quite some time. But their conversation bordered on the absurd. Thankfully, Oliver seemed to find the exchange as amusing as Nick did. He wore a wide grin that rounded his face into the same happy shape Nick had been studying earlier in the evening.

“I meant her marrying a woman,” Nick said. “Was she always attracted to women?”

“She has and always will be Chinese and attracted to women,” Oliver said, his tone a little more sober.

“That must have been interesting.”

“Who, for her or me?”

Nick poked at his remaining bite of pie. “For both of you?”

Oliver didn’t answer right away.

“Am I being rude?” Nick asked.

“No.” Oliver waved his empty fork before putting the implement down to pick up his napkin. “It’s fine. The whole thing was odd and complicated, and I suppose it’s just as well you hear it all now. Then you can be the one who will decide whether we stay in touch or not.”

“I assumed we would. Our girls are roommates. It would be comforting to have another parent in the loop.” They lived relatively close too—a fact discovered while making dinner plans. Oliver was down in Stroudsburg, about an hour south of Milford.

“I’d appreciate that.” Oliver took a quick breath. “Tai was my first wife. We probably shouldn’t have gotten married, but we were both trying to please other people. Namely, her parents but, in hindsight, also the selves that had been raised to believe that family meant a mother and a father, two and a half children, and a dog.” He grinned again. “I never really got the half a kid part? Were we supposed to have a baby that never grew up? Or was that meant to be the family cat?”

At Nick’s blank look, Oliver waved his napkin.

“Anyway, we both knew we were gay, and we figured we could make it work. Not that marriage would fix us, but that it’d make us feel, I don’t know, more normal? For the record”—Oliver was waving his napkin again—“my mom was against the whole thing. She actually threw a party for our divorce.”

“You’re gay?” Nick asked while studiously ignoring the recognizable thrill of interest behind his breastbone.

“Yep.”

Nick frowned. “You knew you were gay and you had a second wife?”

“A Vegas thing. I know. I know. I’m the most cliché individual ever born. Our joyous union lasted eight and a half hours.”

“Just as well. Life is too short to be miserable.”

Oliver raised his coffee cup in a toast. “Here, here. What about you? Ever married? How are you related to Emma?”

“She’s my niece.”

Oliver’s eyebrows flicked upward. “I figured that from the ‘Uncle Nick’ thing.”

“She’s my sister’s daughter.”

“And your sister?”

“She’s dead.”

Oliver’s cup landed in the saucer with a clatter. “Oh. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Nick heard the mechanical quality of his voice and closed his mouth to concentrate on what he was feeling. Loss, yes. Thoughts of Rebecca—when he allowed them—always began with a deep and dragging sense of loss. He didn’t know how to articulate that here and now, though, or whether it would be appropriate. People reacted differently to death and tragedy.

“Listen.” Oliver had finally abandoned his napkin. “I’m sorry I asked. I just—”

Nick made his mouth form words. “It’s okay. We were getting to know each other.”

“Emma is lucky to have you.”

With an effort, Nick managed to swallow. Not Polio. Not Parkinson’s Disease. Could he have cancer? He tried to meet Oliver’s gaze and couldn’t. “Thank you. I’m sorry if I’m being weird. It’s a thing I do.”

“Being weird?”

“I’m not . . . I have certain quirks.”

“Don’t we all?”

“Mine are quirkier than most.”

“You haven’t seen me do laundry. Or try to vacuum the stairs. It’s a wonder Tai let Dani live with me at all.”

Grateful for the turn in conversation, Nick allowed a small smile. “You’re obviously a good father. Look where your daughter is going to college.”

“Hey, same goes for you.”

Nick tried not to duck behind his hair. “I guess we both did okay. Though Emma practically raised herself, so she probably deserves most of the credit.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years—that’s how long Dani has been living with me full-time except for the summers. Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learned or one thing that stands out—” Oliver paused for breath “—it’s that kids are stronger than we give them credit for. They’re smarter. They hear more and they know more than we might imagine. But at the end of the day, they still look up to you and expect you to just be a dad. Or an uncle.”

Oliver could be right.

“They’re pretty incredible, our girls, aren’t they?” Nick said.

“We both got lucky.”

The server chose that moment to drop the check on the table. Nick reached for it and met Oliver’s hand in the middle of the slip of paper. Rather than flinch and withdraw, Nick nudged Oliver’s hand out of the way with a firm touch. Oliver’s fingers were warm, and the brief contact was enough to renew Nick’s banked interest.

Oliver nudged his hand forward again. “Let me—”

“I’ve got it.” Nick swiped the check and pulled out his wallet. “I owe you for any and all of my inappropriate questions.”

“I’m sure we both went there.”

“And somehow we’re both still sitting here. Maybe you’re a little weird too.”

“Oh, most definitely.” Oliver grinned. “Thank you for dinner. Maybe I can return the favor sometime?” The question was casual. Oliver’s apparent interest in Nick’s answer was not.

Nick pulled out his phone. “What’s your number?”

Oliver recounted his digits, and Nick punched them in and sent him a text. While Oliver added the new number to his contacts, Nick signed the check and scooted his chair back, the scrape of legs loud in one of those odd lulls in restaurant conversation.

“Well, goodbye.” He’d chosen the shortest farewell he could think of, unsure whether something friendlier such as See you would be appropriate.

Nick was halfway to the door when a hand caught his sleeve. Flinching, he tugged his arm free and turned.

General Details

Word Count: 88,000

Page Count: 312

Cover By: L.C. Chase

Series: Hearts & Crafts

ebook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-963-8

Release Date: 09/12/2022

Price: $4.99

print Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-964-5

Release Date: 09/12/2022

Price: $15.19