Building Forever (This Time Forever, #1)
A new town, a new neighbor, and a new chance to build a forever.
Charlie King is doing fine. Sure, he’s a widower raising a teenage daughter who just got her first boyfriend, his book series isn’t writing itself, and he has a crush on his new neighbor — the guy next door. But everything’s just fine.
Simon Lynley is doing better. He moved to Bethlehem to fall out of love and rebuild his career. An affair with his neighbor isn’t part of the plan, but the attraction between them is too hard to ignore.
But when Simon’s ex follows him to Pennsylvania seeking reconciliation, and Charlie’s life starts to feel like a video on repeat, everything comes apart. Charlie worries that he’s failing as a father, and Simon is a distraction he can’t afford. Meanwhile Simon doesn’t know if he could survive being left again, and he hasn’t come all this way to make the same mistakes. But despite their fears, it’s only together that they’ll find the strength to slay old foes and build the forever they’ve been waiting for.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
For all he didn’t consider himself a religious man, Charlie King had a particular reverence for Cheez-Its. Now and again, he’d worship a single cracker by placing it on his tongue like a communion wafer. As sucking the life out of one little square usually proved unsatisfying, he more often scooped up handfuls and shoved them in the general direction of his mouth. It could be a messy business; he often ended up playing catch with a stray cracker or two, which was exactly what he was doing when Simon Lynley walked into his life.
Charlie glanced at the open kitchen door and spluttered through a mouthful of cheesy crumbs. Approximate translations might have been Hello, hold on, and Holy shit, are those contacts? His visitor’s eyes were an impossible shade of blue. Like the sky on a sunny day. Dark and light at the same time. Golden, but still blue. Celestial.
His wife’s eyes had been a greenish sort of brown, and simply one part of the whole that was her face. He could rhapsodize about her face, but then he’d been stupidly in love. Merry could have had a mole sprouting hair at the end of her nose . . .
Okay, maybe not.
His visitor’s eyes were extraordinary, particularly against a vague impression of fair skin framed by black hair, eyebrows, and a shadow of stubble . . . and Charlie was staring. Possibly gaping. Also, he was thirsty. Blue Eyes’ appearance had interrupted his chewing. Charlie grabbed a glass off the rack by the sink, filled it, and washed away the cracker sludge gathering around his molars. Then he figured he should say something.
He indicated the faucet with the empty glass. “Can I get you some water?”
Blue Eyes’ forehead wrinkled quizzically. “Ah . . . sure.”
Charlie handed him a glass of water. A fresh glass, not one sullied with cheesy crumbs. “Is this about the front porch? Listen, I know it looks old and it’s probably about ready to fall off the house, but I can’t afford to do that and the roof. I need a roof. I don’t need a porch.”
Blue Eyes gave him a blank look in response. Then Herbert started howling. Well, resumed howling. Charlie hadn’t actually registered when he’d stopped. The dog had been competing with the sounds of eighties rock and nail guns all afternoon.
“Is it the dog? I can take him out for a walk if the barking is bothering you guys. Oh, by the way, my daughter has to get out of the driveway—” Charlie checked the digital display on the microwave “—soonish. Sorry, I know we should have parked her car on the street last night, but my friend was blocking the driveway until late.” Friday nights with Phil and the Xbox were near tradition. “Then, between walking the dog and checking in on a neighbor who thought she heard something, I totally forgot.”
Blue Eyes hadn’t taken a drink yet. In fact, he’d paused with the glass raised halfway to his lips. “I’m not one of your contractors.”
Right, no Kendricks Roofing logo on his neat polo. No tool belt, no baseball cap. Just a stranger, standing in the middle of Charlie’s kitchen, looking at the glass in his hand as if he suspected the water was poisoned.
“Uh . . .” Charlie cleared his throat.
“I’m your new neighbor,” Blue Eyes said. “Moving in next door?” He tipped his head toward the door, through which Charlie could see the open gate in the hedge between their properties. Beyond that, the outline of a moving truck in the driveway.
Blue Eyes frowned.
Charlie scrubbed his free hand on the side of his jeans and offered it up. “Sorry, took me a bit by surprise there. I’m Charlie. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Simon.” A warm hand folded around Charlie’s, and the touch was as shocking as that first glimpse of his blue, blue, very blue eyes. What the heck?
Charlie let go and rubbed his palm on his jeans again.
Simon watched, a serious little frown marring his brow.
“Sorry, I had Cheez-Its all over my hand, and I didn’t want to— Yeah, you already— Or I . . . Um . . .”
The brilliance of Simon’s eyes had dimmed enough for Charlie to appreciate the rest of him and . . . Simon was a really good-looking guy. Charlie hadn’t noticed a guy and thought Wow since high school—and that had only been because Billy McHugh, captain of the football team, had been physically perfect, and the envy of every guy at Liberty High.
He was staring again, wasn’t he?
“I’m going to get to the front porch soon,” Charlie explained, not sure where they’d left the conversation but somehow convinced Simon was there because of the noise, or his cheap-ass choice of roofing tile. “I’d have done the roof myself if my daughter hadn’t threatened me with an emancipation suit, whatever that is, if I got up there. She does not want to live in Florida with my folks. Something about frizzy hair and alligators. Not that I’m in the habit of falling off things, but it is kinda high up there. And a long way down.”
Simon was staring at him now and probably not thinking, Wow his eyes are so brown.
“This isn’t going how you expected it to, is it?” Charlie said. “It’s not too late to shove everything back in the truck and move again. No one wants to live next to the weird guy.”
Simon’s laugh was sudden and very, very welcome. Charlie inspected the floor rather than the way Simon’s eyes crinkled and twinkled. He’d done enough staring for one afternoon. Besides, the back of his neck itched—the sensation almost unfamiliar. He was blushing. Standing in his kitchen with a stranger, staring at his floor, and blushing.
“For all you know, I could be the weird one,” Simon said. “I did just let myself into your kitchen, after all.”
Charlie glanced up. “Right past my howling attack dog.”
“He was busy chewing something that looked like a plastic chair leg.”
“I can’t have nice things. Not plastic things, anyway. So, where’d you move from?”
Simon was finally taking a sip of his water. Charlie busied himself with refilling his own glass instead of watching Simon’s mouth, lips, and the drinking-swallowing thing. He really needed to get out more if he was tempted to watch strangers swallow—and the question of why he might watch, with extreme interest, his male neighbor swallow would be tabled until later.
“Morristown,” Simon answered.
Huh? Oh, right, where he’d moved from. Get with the program, Charlie.
“What brings you across the border?” Moving across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania used to make sense. Lower taxes, less traffic. Now the bills and roads were just as crazy.
Simon’s smile faded a little. “Looking for a change of scenery.” He turned and put his glass back on the counter. “Anyway, I was checking out the gate in the hedge and when it opened and your door was open and you were standing here, I thought I’d introduce myself.” He glanced over his shoulder. “And I left it open, didn’t I?”
“’S okay. Herbert is on a chain. He’ll strangle himself long before he gets close to the gate.”
“Good to know.”
“He’s managed to push through the hedge when he’s off the chain, though. I’ll try not to let that happen.”
“Hey, it’s all good. He seems like a nice dog.”
“He is, mostly. Friendly. Had him since Olivia was ten.”
“Olivia is your daughter?”
Charlie’s smile was involuntary, as it always was when Olivia wandered into the conversation. She had him happily wrapped around her little finger, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it. His days started and ended with his girl. “Yeah. You got kids?”
“No, it’s just me.”
“That’s a big house for one . . . Um, unless you’ve got a lot of hobbies or like space. A lot of rooms.” Moving on, “This is a good neighborhood. Quiet. Well, usually, when Herbert isn’t saying hello, and contractors aren’t playing music. A few kids, a couple of retirees. The lesbian couple on the corner.” Why tell a complete stranger about the supposed sexual orientation of the couple on the corner? “They’re very nice. Sue always brings the best salads to cookouts . . . and I’m gonna stop talking now.”
Simon was laughing again. “You spend a lot of time alone, don’t you?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“What do you do?”
“That would explain it. What do you write?”
As if the conversation weren’t awkward enough. “Technical writer by day, science fiction author by night.”
Simon’s eyebrows rose. “Like aliens and stuff?”
“Do you read?”
“Not much,” Simon said. “I used to. Even read some science fiction when I was a kid.”
Because grown men didn’t read stories about space pirates. Nope.
“I haven’t read anything but a trade magazine in years,” Simon continued.
“What do you do?”
“Oh yeah? You really don’t want to look at my front porch, then.”
Simon smiled. “I’ll be working with Arthur Beckwith.”
“Beckwith and Associates on Main Street? You’ll have to tell us who his associates are. We have theories, but no one has ever met any of them. Anyway, I think he redid the place on the corner. They had a sign in their yard for a while after.”
“The lesbian couple?” From the sparkle in his eyes, it was clear Simon was messing with Charlie.
“Other corner,” Charlie said, grinning. “I thought about using him, but I don’t want to do everything at once.”
Even though his parents had moved to Florida almost a year ago, the place still felt like their house. Putting on a new roof for now and making plans for the front porch, and maybe the garden, made the house feel more like his.
“One day I might knock out the back wall of the kitchen and put in a nook sorta thing. Like to eat in. Or maybe a sunroom.”
Simon smiled again and the whole kitchen felt warmer. “You’ve definitely got the space for it, and a good aspect.”
Charlie’s best project to date chose that moment to blow in. “Dad!”
Olivia took after her mother, which meant she was blessed with beauty, poise, and a complete lack of hairy moles. Glossy brown hair she spent two hours doing stuff to every morning, and a pixie-like face. She had Charlie’s eyes—more brown than green—long limbs, and a knockout smile. At seventeen going on twenty-seven, she didn’t smile enough for his liking, though. Of course, all Charlie remembered about seventeen was not listening to anyone’s advice on anything, particularly when it had come to Merry. He should be grateful Liv hadn’t lost her head yet.
“I need to go, and there’s a truck blocking the driveway,” she said.
Charlie gestured between his new neighbor and his daughter. “Simon, Olivia. Olivia, Simon. Daughter, new neighbor. Back in a second, Simon. I want to ask the guys to move their truck.”
“I should head next door, anyway. Make sure my movers are moving.”
“Well, nice to meet you. If you need anything, I’m usually around.”
With a wave, Simon disappeared, taking his blue eyes and sunshine with him. Charlie probably stared at the empty doorway for too long. He told himself he was practicing a lingering gaze for a scene he wanted to write. Then he glanced over at Olivia.
Her eyes were narrowed. Her jaw moved once, twice, and then gum snapped behind her teeth. “He’s hot.”
“And way too old for you. Jesus. Don’t give your dad a heart attack. I haven’t finished doing up the house.”
Chuckling, she followed him outside into the late-summer sunshine.
It was hard to say whose company Simon had enjoyed better: Charlie’s or that of his house. They both exuded personality. Both obviously had history. It was the house that had called him next door, however.
Something more substantial than history surrounded the fieldstone and timber structure that rambled in true farmhouse tradition. Simon called it story. The house spoke of generations of use and abuse. Not that the place looked ready to fall down. Rather, the house showed signs of weathering many storms, within and without, and of standing strong through it all.
It was the sort of house he wanted to live in one day. The sort of house he’d like to dedicate his career to finding and restoring.
From his side of the unruly hedge, only the upper stories were visible. Sunlight glanced off of the half-finished slate roof and weathered siding, brightening the soft gray. The colors complemented the fieldstone chimney, and he wondered if Charlie had chosen them. Charlie, the living component of the house next door—not that houses couldn’t live and breathe. They did. Each had a soul, some more unique than others. Charlie . . . He was something else entirely.
Though he couldn’t be over forty, he was a lot like his house. Simon had been able to see over the top of his head, which put him at just under six feet, but with a sense of movement. As if he’d recently come from somewhere, or intended to go somewhere. Energy and momentum in human form.
He was a good-looking guy too, with rich-brown hair that might not have seen a comb in near on a decade. The mess suited him. Brown eyes, tanned skin, and lines around his mouth and eyes that spoke of frequent smiles.
Simon closed his eyes. Fantasizing about married men stood pretty much at the top of the stupid list. But, Lordy, that mouth. Charlie’s garrulous nature only drew attention to the fact he had generous lips and straight white teeth that he flicked with his tongue now and again. He could have been searching for cracker crumbs, but every time the pink tip had shown, Simon had thought about kissing him. Playing with that tongue, and what it would feel like alongside his own.
“I’d offer a penny for your thoughts, but the look on your face suggests they’re worth a lot more.”
Simon opened his eyes. Frank stood in front of him, eyebrows raised.
“I was just checking out the house next door,” Simon said.
“With your eyes closed.”
“Fixing it in memory. It’s probably original to the area. I’d like to study it some more.”
“Mm-hmm. Did you meet the neighbors?”
“Yeah. A writer and his family.” Simon gestured toward the moving truck. “Have they broken anything yet?”
“No, but soon they’ll be squaring up for piano versus door.”
Simon surveyed the house on his side of the gate, absently checking the width of the front door. This was his home for the next six months—maybe longer. The owner wanted to sell the place, but Simon had no interest in a 1960s-era pile of cream brick. He’d seen some fascinating interpretations of split-level ranch homes, but they didn’t appeal to him on a gut level. Hopefully, within six months he’d find something that filled him with wonder and delight. Simon glanced over the hedge again. Something like the place next door would do—preferably with someone like Charlie still in residence.
Married, Simon. And if the wife was anywhere near as beautiful as the daughter, unlikely to look elsewhere. Except he had. Simon could have sworn he’d felt Charlie’s gaze at his throat while he was drinking. Then there’d been the long, lingering look when he’d said hello. Charlie had actually gaped, which had been amusing in one sense as cracker crumbs had spilled from his lips, and flattering in another as the source of those crumbs had obviously been forgotten.
Then there’d been all the talking. Simon smiled. He liked men who talked. They made up for his quietness.
Shouts and grunts wafted from the back of the truck. Simon crunched across the gravel drive in time to see the movers struggling with his second-most-precious possession: a grand piano. His heart fluttered anew. Had they already unloaded his drafting table?
“Please don’t tilt the piano too much,” he said, trying to keep calm.
Even an hour in the moving truck meant he’d have to have the instrument tuned, but excessive jostling would only make it worse.
The only door wide enough to admit the piano was at the back of the house. Simon followed the movers across the lawn and onto the patio, wincing every time the piano hummed and groaned. He’d packed the inside according to a “How To” he’d found on Google, but too much stuffing could be as detrimental as not enough. He breathed a sigh of relief when the movers set the piano down in the middle of the open-plan family room.
“Where did you want it?” Big asked. Simon had dubbed the movers Big and Little in lieu of actually remembering their names.
Pursing his lips, Simon studied the available space.
“How about there?” Frank gestured toward the long expanse of windows looking out over the patio.
The light would reflect nicely off the polished wood of the piano, but the temperature variance might stress the delicate equilibrium of the finely tuned instrument. Besides, it would be nice to put his sofa between the fireplace and the view. Simon turned to the opposite corner, where two walls met in a sort of shaded alcove. Originally he’d planned to install his bookcases there, but perhaps—
“Over here.” Simon indicated the corner.
After having the men turn the piano one hundred and eighty degrees, then back seventy and finally rotating it the other way, Simon was satisfied with the placement. Soon after, the rest of his belongings were in semi-appropriate positions and Little was handing him a clipboard.
“I just need your signature.”
Simon felt an odd reluctance to let the movers go. The new house wasn’t large, but as Charlie had so helpfully pointed out, it was a lot of space for one person. One person alone. Frank would want to start the drive back to Jersey City soon.
Simon signed the clipboard and handed it back with a cash tip. “Thanks, guys.”
He closed the door on his old life and turned around to take in the new. Frank ducked out of the kitchen area with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Where did you find all that?”
“Your boxes are labeled with lists, Simon. You’re predictably anal in all the ways.”
Snorting softly, Simon took the glasses and held them while Frank wrestled the cork from the bottle. He didn’t recognize the label, which meant Frank must have brought it with him.
Glancing up, Frank smiled. “I’ve also got some nibbles in a picnic basket in the car. I’d suggest spreading a rug on the floor and getting all rustic, but my knees are about thirty years beyond such shenanigans.”
“I’d thought you might want to get going.”
“And leave you all alone in the wilds of Pennsylvania?”
“You’re such a giver.”
Frank filled the glasses and waved the bottle toward the loose arrangement of furniture between the windows and the stone fireplace. “Go sit and I’ll get the food in.” He put the bottle on the kitchen island and gathered up his car keys. “And don’t touch a single box while I’m gone. You can do that tomorrow.”
Simon did as bid, weaving around a stack of boxes to get to the sofa. The light-gray microfiber looked appealing in the afternoon light. If not for Frank, Simon might have taken a nap. But as he sat, he acknowledged the fact that he’d more likely lie there thinking than sleeping. Instead, he surveyed the open-plan space that formed the heart of his new home.
Until he unpacked the boxes piled in every room, the house wouldn’t feel like his. It might never feel like his, especially if he didn’t stay long. He should make an effort, though. A good part of his motivation to move had been to find his own space—which sounded better than finding his self. This new space echoed with fewer memories of what he’d lost, but each box or familiar piece of furniture served as a subtle reminder.
Simon jerked, startled. He hadn’t heard Frank return. He looked down at the glasses he still held in his hands, worried he might have spilled some wine, and leaned forward to set them on the table. Frank started laying out a selection of cheese, crackers, dips, olives, sausage, and fruit, all from a gourmet deli in Bethlehem, according to the labels. Trust Frank to have already surveyed the town.
“You grew up somewhere near here, didn’t you?” Simon asked.
Frank waved toward the front door. “North. Pocono Mountains. Which is a fact you’re supposed to have conveniently forgotten. Now stop thinking about Brian and help me spread out our supper.”
The reference to his ex brought with it the usual stab of sadness, but nine months had dulled any sharp points. Simon’s sadness was now just that. Purely sad. Not angry, not certain they could work it out, not wrestling with guilt and a need to forgive Brian’s sins. Just sad.
“I was thinking more about my new house. My future.”
“Know what I like about you?” Frank asked, sitting beside him.
“My anal tendencies?” Simon handed him a glass and lifted the other.
“As if you’d ever let me near that ass of yours.”
It was an old joke between old friends. They’d tried once, but the timing had been off, with neither of them in a position to commit. Since, their friendship had deepened to a point where Simon wasn’t sure it could ever work between them. He loved Frank—as a friend. As the person who would pack a frivolous picnic basket and keep him company the first day in his new house.
Frank held his glass up. “It’s your courage I’m admiring right now. Here you are—a new state, a new job. Brian didn’t know you.”
Frank clinked his glass to Simon’s. “To the first day of the rest of your life.”
Smiling faintly, Simon sipped his wine.
By the time Frank was shaking the last drops from the bottle, a warm glow had settled over Simon’s mood. He felt brave. Comfortable in his decision to start over at forty-six, even though he wasn’t exactly starting over—more doing what he’d always wanted to do. Investing in a business that wasn’t his and Brian’s, but would one day be just his and his alone. The word didn’t sound so ominous when put that way.
Frank leaned in to rest his head on Simon’s shoulder. Their conversation had stalled a little while ago, and neither had rushed to resurrect it.
Simon slipped his arm around the back of Frank’s shoulders and pulled him in close. “Thanks for staying. I feel less morose with you here.”
“I’m going to count that as a win.”
“You want me to make up the couch for you?” They’d shared only a single bottle of wine, but it would be a long drive after a long day.
Frank turned in the half embrace and put his hand on Simon’s thigh. “You’ve a big bed.”
Simon looked down at his friend, who’d lifted his face. They were close. Kissably close. The slight fog of wine and fatigue seemed to form a glue, or a field of inertia, and Simon didn’t immediately pull back. With the specter of loneliness still lingering in the shadows of the haphazardly furnished living room, he nearly leaned forward. Frank was comfortable, easy. Sex with him could be easy and comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. He needed . . .
Simon saw that when he focused. Saw it in the directness of Frank’s gaze, the mood of his light-brown eyes. Frank wanted something Simon couldn’t give.
Tucking his arm a little more securely around Frank’s shoulders, Simon snuggled in closer and let his head tip to the side so their temples touched, their faces side to side rather than mouth to mouth. It was the gentlest way he could think of saying no.
Tension seemed to stiffen Frank’s shoulders briefly before bleeding away. Then he relaxed into Simon’s embrace. “It’ll be cozy here come winter,” he commented absently, his head brushing Simon’s as he nodded toward the dark fireplace.
“I might not be here that long.”
“We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
Charlie put his nose to the monitor to see if he could actually count the pixels. Straining his eyes made his head hurt, though, and no new words magically appeared onscreen. Leaning back, he looked at the window behind the monitor. Because the sun had disappeared some hours ago, he caught only a shady outline of himself. But what he saw was Kaze Rider, space pirate: dashing, handsome, daring, smart as the proverbial whatever, and blessed with uncanny luck.
Yeah, Charlie wrote a better self into his books. Or the self he wanted to be in his dreams, because when he was awake, he loved being a writer and he loved being a dad.
Through his ghostly reflection, he could just see the street in front of the house. Supposedly, he was trying to make chapter four work—and for the book to have gone so far off the rails at only chapter four should have told him something. He needed to replot. But watching for Olivia’s car seemed more important. She’d missed her curfew twice already over the past couple of weeks. Charlie was beginning to suspect she had a boyfriend, an idea that filled him with nostalgia and concern. He’d married his first girlfriend and then he’d . . . he’d been the one to rob them all of Merry’s brightness and vitality. Not every love story ended so badly, but—
Lights finally flashed around the distant corner, cruised down the street, and turned into the driveway. Pushing away from the desk, Charlie made his way through the attic den toward the narrow staircase that led down. If he hurried, he could be in the kitchen before Olivia got inside the house—filling the kettle, rummaging in the fridge, ignoring the piteous cries of four cats who always thought they were starving.
Herbert stirred from his pillow next to the desk and followed him. They met Olivia at the back door.
“I saw you looking through your creepy attic window, Dad. I swear the neighborhood is going to start telling stories about you.”
“It’s late, Liv. Where have you been?”
She stopped short. He didn’t normally go on the attack so early, but this was the third time. “I told you,” she said. “I was at Rosalie’s. We’re working on a project together.”
“What’s the project?”
“You don’t believe me?” She dug her phone out of a pocket. “Call her.”
“I don’t want to talk to Rosalie. I want to know why you’ve been missing curfew. I’m a reasonable dad, Liv. I don’t hassle you about much. I’ve never had to before now.”
“Are you still stuck on chapter four?”
“Don’t change the subject!”
Flinching, Olivia picked up one of the cats winding around her ankles, and buried her face in Riddle’s soft black fur. Without thinking about it, Charlie reached out to scratch behind Riddle’s ears.
He was pretty sure pausing in the middle of an argument amounted to a loss of momentum. At times like these, he really wished he could use such time-honored phrases as: Listen, we’ll keep this one from your mother. Or: I won’t tell your mom you were out this late, but it can’t happen again. He needed a bad cop to his good cop, and vice versa.
“Liv . . .”
“So, this guy asked me out on a date.”
The small hairs on the back of Charlie’s neck rose to attention. He hadn’t made this happen by thinking about it, had he? Also, Holy subject change, Liv.
“We’re going out next Friday night,” she continued, either blithely unaware of the tornado sweeping through Charlie’s middle, or counting on it to make him stupid and agreeable.
“Okay.” He had a week to scroll through her Facebook friends looking for likely candidates. “How do you know this guy?”
“School doesn’t start back for two weeks.”
“He moved here over the summer.”
“Were you with him tonight?” Liv had never lied to him before—not about the big stuff. Then again, to his knowledge, she hadn’t been with a guy before. Had they had the talk enough times?
“No! I told you, I was with Rosalie—”
“Doing a project, right. Liv, school doesn’t start for two weeks. How could you have a project?”
Herbert lapped loudly at his empty food bowl before upending it. It spun across the floor. Olivia put Riddle down and pulled out her phone again.
“Liv, I told you I don’t want to—”
She showed him the screen. Rendered in miniature was an intricate colonial scene. Water wheels along the river, log cabins, small figures. Charlie took the phone, enlarged the picture to check the detail, and smiled as he recognized his daughter’s distinctive style. The figures were wraithlike, but not in a spooky way. Rather, they were suggestions of beings, made from a few strokes of well-placed color. The buildings and creek were the same, but Rosalie’s hand was evident as well in the slightly skewed dimensions. The scene made little sense, though. The girls normally drew and painted imaginary landscapes. Surreal stuff. Depressing visions of futures he didn’t want to know about. This scene was pastoral and picturesque.
“What is this?” Herbert butted the back of his knees, nearly pushing him off-balance. Charlie handed the phone to Olivia and nudged the dog aside. “Go play with your bowl. We’ll go out in a bit.”
“It’s not quite done,” Olivia said. “I was going to show you when we were finished. It’s our entry in the Historic Bethlehem Contest. Winners get to paint their mural on the side of the parking garage behind the hotel. Facing the old village.”
That would be Hotel Bethlehem, anchoring the bottom corner of Main Street. “This is what you’ve been working on with Rosalie?”
“I love it, Liv. I really do.”
“I’m sorry I’ve missed curfew a couple of times. But you know what it’s like when you get wrapped up in something. Time goes by.”
Charlie exhaled noisily, as if trying to make a statement with breath. Maybe he was. “Who is this guy you want to go out with?”
“The one I am going out with, you mean?”
“The one you are going out with.” He had to trust her judgment, but the idea of her out alone with a walking bag of male hormones freaked him out. Charlie knew all about seventeen. He’d been having sex at seventeen. With Olivia’s mother. “I’m sorry I jumped all over you. I just . . .”
Olivia touched his arm. “Not everyone with a boyfriend gets pregnant by accident, Dad. And not every pregnancy means cancer.”
Herbert evidently decided he’d had enough chitchat and started whining.
Clearing his throat, Charlie turned away from the sympathy in his daughter’s face. “I gotta take Herbert out.”
“It’s okay, we can talk tomorrow.”
“How about Pancake Place for breakfast?”
“Are you going to make me go hiking afterward?”
Charlie found a quiet chuckle for that. “Not if you don’t want to. If it’s nice, maybe we could walk somewhere?”
“Slow hiking, with sitting in between. We can talk about this guy. And your project. And maybe college?”
“I knew there’d be a catch.”
“We need to talk about it soon, Liv.”
She kissed his cheek and winced. “You need to shave.”
Smiling tiredly, he ignored another subject change. “Night, Duck.”
He didn’t make the “waddle waddle” sound as she walked away, but he heard it in his head. Could easily picture her at two and three, when she had waddled. When guys and college had been visions of another future he hadn’t wanted to know about.
Oh, Merry. How was he going to get through this part alone? His little girl wasn’t little anymore, and the day was fast approaching—might already be here—when she might repeat what he considered to be his biggest mistake. But could he really stop her? Could he tell her not to live her life to the fullest?
After all, Olivia was not a mistake. She was, by far, the best thing he’d ever done with this life.
Olivia went to bed, and Charlie took Herbert for his all-important last walk. One of the cats shadowed them down the street. Probably Joker. Something dead would turn up on the back doorstep in the morning.
The township of Bethlehem sprawled across the map like a coffee stain, clipping Highway 22 to the north and Interstate 78 to the south. The business district, such as it was, nestled in the middle, hidden from both highways by roving suburbia and rambling woods. It was a pretty area, a picturesque town, and unexpectedly lively on a Sunday morning.
Simon watched, amused, as Frank turned his head until his neck cracked, then swiveled back the other way to continue monitoring a cluster of lanky young men crossing Main Street.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked.
“Just assuaging the sting of your rejection.” Frank arched an eyebrow as he picked up his coffee cup. “I’m beginning to get why you moved here.”
“It’s an eclectic mix of architecture, isn’t it? You have that brute of a hotel down on the corner and the juxtaposition of Federation and Victorian styles, which isn’t unusual for this corner of the world. It’s the historic district I really want to study, though. The Moravian influence.”
“Can architects be nerds?”
“I was talking about all the college students roaming around, waiting for an older, steadier hand to show them—”
Simon held up an older, steadier hand. “I’m going to stop you right there.”
Frank hid a grin behind his coffee cup. Frank might be fortysomething, but his eyes—and wandering gaze—would always be twentysomething. His focus sharpened again as he glanced up from his cup. Simon resisted the urge to turn and check out the next gorgeous young thing to catch Frank’s eye, until someone called his name from behind.
He turned and smiled quickly as he recognized his new partner, Arthur Beckwith. Slight, a little stooped, but obviously fighting the advancing curve of his spine, Arthur looked exactly like what he was: an older, somewhat distinguished gentleman dressed in a well-tailored suit, perhaps one shade darker than the gray of his hair. His soft-blue tie matched his eyes and the folded handkerchief poking up in a perfect triangle from his left breast pocket.
Standing, Simon offered his hand. “Arthur.”
The handshake was light but firm, somewhat like Arthur himself.
Simon made introductions. “Frank, Arthur Beckwith. Arthur, this is my friend Franklin Tern.”
Frank shook Arthur’s hand and gestured expansively toward their table. “Would you like to join us?”
“Hmm, oh, no, but thank you. I’m on my way to a meeting with Historic Bethlehem.”
A blank look replaced the invitation on Frank’s face.
“The local historical society,” Simon clarified.
“Oh, of course. Simon has been talking architecture at me all morning.” What a lie. “He’s excited to be here.”
I’m not five. Swallowing his peevishness, Simon nodded toward Arthur. “It’s nice to see you, Arthur. I hope the meeting goes well.”
“You’d be most welcome to come,” Arthur said, glancing between Simon and Frank. “We’re at the old hotel. We’ll be discussing the Christmas City Stroll, I expect. And Winnie has a proposal regarding the Kemerer Museum.”
An odd flame kindled inside Simon’s chest, and it took him a moment to categorize it. Excitement. This was what he’d come here for. The chance to get involved. To immerse himself in a like-minded community, converse with people who, like him, wanted to preserve the old rather than flatten it to make way for the new. Possibility expanded before him.
Frank was wiping his mouth with a napkin. He put it down and grasped Simon’s shoulder. “Go on. It’s time I headed back across the border anyway.”
“Give me a call when you’re settled in the house. We’ll do something.”
Irrationally—or perhaps not—Simon was reluctant to part with Frank. He felt like a kid on the first day of school, watching his mother get ready to walk away. The opportunities of a new town excited him, both personally and professionally. But once Frank left, Simon would be—
Get a grip. He’d been living alone in Morristown for the past few months. He could do this.
Simon pulled Frank into a quick embrace. “Thanks for everything and drive safely.”
“Wait, how am I going to get home?” Frank had driven them to town for brunch.
“I can drop you off,” Arthur said.
Frank and Arthur exchanged a friendly farewell, and then Frank walked one way, Simon and Arthur the other. They arrived at the hotel, and that first day of school feeling returned and dissipated once more as he was met with the welcome of Historic Bethlehem.
Two hours passed in a colorful blur of names, proposals, event planning, and general enthusiasm for subject and project. Simon quite forgot his nerves, asking questions and adding a thought here and there. After the meeting, when he stood back to let the collected men and women file out the hotel conference room, he—with certificates in reservation and broodiness—was smiling. Almost grinning.
One meeting did not make him a part of the community, but his opinions had been listened to—and responded to—with interest and respect.
Had he found his place?
“Thank you for inviting me.” Simon allowed another smile for his new business partner.
“Oh, I’m just glad I ran into you, though I’d have invited you along next month certainly. If we’re going to make our mark on this town, this is the place to start.”
Simon’s smile faded. We? Our mark? Surely Arthur hadn’t changed his mind regarding retirement?
Deciding Arthur was using a collective we, Simon filed away his niggles and held the door open while they exited the hotel. Outside, rain had transformed the day from light and lively to varying shades of gray. He and Arthur ducked from doorway to doorway on their way to the Walnut Street garage.
“It’s been a surprisingly wet summer considering this whole global-warming business,” Arthur commented as they stood dripping beside a late-model Volvo. “Do you believe in that?”
“Yes, all this about the planet getting hotter. Seems to me we’re getting wetter. Four feet of snow in March. Rain all summer. Unbelievable.”
“Well . . .” How in depth to get? “I think ‘global warming’ is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Climate change’ might be more accurate.”
“I’ll say. And all that flooding down South. It’s like the end of days. Are you a religious man, Simon?”
“Ah, no. Not really. I’d never disrespect another man’s beliefs, though.”
Arthur smiled. “What about your friend’s religion? Frank.”
Anything that promised an afterlife filled with fulsome young men. Not that Frank was easy. He looked far more often than he touched. “I expect his views are similar to mine,” Simon said. “Live and let live.”
“Just so.” Arthur nodded. “I think we’re going to get along fine.”
Simon’s gut tightened slightly. He had invested all of his available assets in Beckwith and Associates. He liked Arthur. Respected what the man had done with his small architectural firm. Arthur had maintained a fair balance between the historic and the necessary—or what clients deemed necessary with building and renovating.
But Simon anticipated the day when he could call the business his own. When he didn’t have to answer to a boss or a partner. When he could decide which clients were right for him. Reject projects that didn’t make his heart sing.
“Beckwith and Lynley.” Arthur’s tone was musing. “It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
Simon forced another smile, smaller than the first. Getting along with Arthur until then would make it all easier—no doubt about that. Already, he’d eased Simon’s introduction into the local historical society. So the man wandered in conversation a bit. He was entitled. Arthur Beckwith was something of a historic piece of Bethlehem himself.
Wednesday’s examination of pixels was interrupted by a call from Shelly, Charlie’s agent. “How’s chapter twelve coming along?” she asked.
“Well, in theory.”
“Might need to fiddle with that one when I get there.”
“You’re not still on chapter three?”
“Chapter four. Technically. I’ve typed the words ‘chapter’ and ‘four.’”
“Charlie . . .”
“I’ll meet my deadline. I’ve always met my deadlines.”
“I was hoping you’d have something we could tease at Philcon.”
Charlie didn’t know his sigh was going to be that loud until it blew back at him through the phone. Maybe Shelly had sighed too?
“Okay, let’s talk things through,” she said.
They tossed ideas around for about thirty minutes until Shelly fixated on one. “Kaze needs a love interest.”
“He has at least one hookup in every book.”
“Not a sex interest, a love interest. Someone to ride off into the sunset with at the end of the book. It’d be a great way to cap the series.”
“But he needs to be free to ride the wind,” Charlie explained.
“How do you feel about writing sex?”
“He has at least one hook—”
“No, I mean giving readers a glimpse of what’s going on behind the closed door.”
“You know what would be super awesome?” Sometimes Shelly forgot she was fifty-two. “A spin-off series starring his partner, with Kaze in a lead guest role.”
What? No. “I’d still be writing Kaze, though, and I don’t want to do that. I want to retire him gracefully, not sadly.”
“Science fiction romance is a growing market.”
“Let’s table the sci-fi romance for now. I’ll think about it after this book. So . . . a permanent love interest.” As usual, while he’d immediately balked at the suggestion, some part of his brain had snatched it up and started working through the possibilities. Someone to ride off into the (windy) sunset with. Hmm. It’d almost worked for James Bond in Spectre—except the whole age-difference thing, and the plucking from past obscurity.
Charlie thought over Kaze’s hookups. The one from book three popped out to say hi and the back of his neck itched. He was blushing. Again. While on the phone to his agent.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said.
Shelly’s smile was evident in her voice. “Send me some pages next week.”
Charlie ended the call. He needed to think his idea through, and that meant putting on his running shoes. His calves complained as he stretched, and his lower back tried to convince him that couch surfing was a better form of exercise. Never mind the fact that Sunday’s post-pancake nap-a-thon was probably responsible for every twinge back there.
By the time he got to the corner, he felt less like a jar of marbles being shaken too hard. When he got to the end of Bierys Bridge Road, his stride had lengthened and his breath had fallen into a regular rhythm. A sort-of path alongside Monocacy Creek meandered all the way into Bethlehem. He didn’t usually run that far, but with as much thinking as he had to do, he needed to put a few miles beneath his shoe soles.
The dense canopy blocked most of the sun, and cool mist rose from the water. Charlie dropped into that space where his legs did one thing, his mind another. He breathed and ran and drifted. The outline of book six floated through his head, a tangled mess. He picked at the snags, one by one, until a couple pulled free. Then his thoughts turned to Olivia and The Boy. Justin. He’d gotten a name on Sunday, but neither a description nor address.
Over the past four days, his imagination had crossed Charles Manson with Donald Trump. Justin probably wasn’t a serial killer or the face of American lunacy, but any man left alone with his thoughts for too long got dangerous and maudlin. He dismissed Manson Trump, and tried to imagine a younger face. An innocent face.
And pictured Simon from next door. Damn, if Justin looked like that, he and Olivia were both in trouble.
Pausing, he leaned against a tree to stretch out his calves and hamstrings again. Bent each leg behind him to loosen his thighs a little. His breathing was good. Not shallow, not ragged. Sweat clung to the back of his neck.
Every time he blinked, he saw Simon’s face.
Then it clicked. Simon loosely resembled Jory Ondel—or close to how Charlie had imagined him, anyway. Jory was the hookup from book three. Charlie remembered the twist in his stomach when he’d submitted the pages to Shelly. He’d fully expected her to veto the idea, but she hadn’t. She’d loved Jory. His subplot had been great.
The idea of bringing Jory back, of expanding his story, was curiously exciting. What Charlie couldn’t decide was whether he liked it because of his own curiosity about Simon, or if Jory represented something deeper. Something he’d put aside nearly eighteen years ago upon hearing the words: I’m pregnant.
A breeze tickled the sweat at his nape. Charlie pushed off the tree and started running back the way he’d come. By the time he got home, he had a new plan for book six. A plan that rekindled his enthusiasm for Kaze and his retirement.
If only life was as easy to plot.