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Excerpt for More Than Christmas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Keeping life simple can be a complicated business…

On a two-year assignment to America, young British auto executive Nick Harris is interested in only one thing—boosting his career—until he meets his hunk of a next-door neighbour, and landlord, Dale Hepburn.

The problem is that Dale’s interest in Nick seems to be more changeable than the Michigan weather. One day they’re training in Dale’s garage gym and he’s giving Nick smouldering looks from under the barbell. The next, Nick’s attempts to turn up the heat on their friendship get the cold shoulder.

Dale finally claims he’s holding out for love that will last, and Nick’s stay in America is only temporary. But a neighbour’s accidental remark suggests otherwise. Humiliated and hurt, Nick confronts Dale—with disastrous consequences. Now, with painful truths revealed, and hearts bruised, Nick must find a way to convince Dale they can be more than Christmas.


Follow a Brit’s romantic journey, through his first Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in Michigan, including a costume party, a blizzard, and a family crisis, to a heart-warming HFN.

More Than Christmas

(Michigan Seasons Book 1)

By Lane Swift

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The Licensed Art Material is being used for illustrative purposes only.

More Than Christmas

By Lane Swift

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © Lane Swift 2016

Cover Art: Tiferet Design (www.TiferetDesign.com)

Copyright © Tiferet Design 2016

Editor: Victoria Milne (www.VictoriaMilne.com)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher, and where permitted by law. Reviewers may quote brief passages in a review.

First edition December 2016

Second revised edition December 2018

Acknowledgements

Thanks as always belong to my editor and friend, Victoria Milne. I never forget how lucky I am to have struck up that conversation with her at the UK Meet a few years ago, despite how shy we both were. Nothing but good things have followed.

The will and inspiration to finish this trilogy waned between the second and third volumes, but I have my cheerleaders in Jo, George, Rhys, Anna and Aleks. Thank you, all of you. Finally, I have revised this first edition of More Than Christmas, incorporating more of Dale’s story. And soon, very soon, Dale and Nick will get their happy-ever-after.



Contents

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

About The Author

Excerpt: After The Snow (Michigan Seasons 2)

Also by Lane Swift

Share Your Experience

Chapter 1

I’LL NEVER forget the moment I first laid eyes on Dale Hepburn. How, for a heartbeat, it felt as if the world had stopped turning. How that short glimpse of him left an indelible mark on my soul.

It was a meltingly hot August afternoon in southern Michigan. My work schedule was rammed, and I had one day to find a place to live before flying back to England to pack up my life. Yet every one of the ten apartments Debra had shown me since nine that morning had looked like the ‘before’ in a Queer Eye makeover.

I’d mistakenly imagined my generous rental allowance would get me into a smart downtown loft with exposed brickwork and steel pipes. Somewhere I could play my records loud while I danced around in my designer underpants drinking power smoothies.

‘Debra,’ I said, wringing my hands in despair. ‘Imagine you were a twenty-nine-year-old gay man. New in town. Single. Hoping to find a bit of company on the odd weekend. Would you want to live here?’

Her heavily made-up eyes widened with a sort of manic glee, like she was suddenly seeing me in a whole new and favourable light. ‘You’re gay?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s so great. We have one more viewing, and it’s in Ferndale,’ she said, as if I was supposed to know what that meant.

‘I’ve got to meet my relocation assistant at three. She’s taking me to an appointment at the Social Security Office.’

‘We have time.’

She broke the speed limit. Turned off Woodward Avenue and stopped the car on a tree-lined residential street. The houses were small, detached and pastel-painted, each with its own driveway and garage. Cute and homely. I could almost smell the baking cookies.

‘If I remember rightly.’ Debra reached into her bag and thumbed through some papers. ‘Garden maintenance is included, and snow clearance in the winter. In case that was putting you off renting a house. You said you travel a lot for work.’

‘I do. I mean, I will. For my new job.’

Gazing resignedly out the passenger window, I decided if the inside was as pristine as the outside, I’d take it. This would be my life. A house with a lawn as flat and trim as a putting green, and neat rows of red flowers bordering steps leading to the front door, veranda and shuttered windows. To the far side, a driveway and garage also bordered with flowers. Not what I’d imagined for myself—the place hardly screamed high-flying young executive—but at least it was perfectly located for my office and the airport.

‘What’s so special about Ferndale?’ I said, exiting the car, hoping I was somehow inadvertently missing some exciting draw to life in the leafy, sleepy suburb.

Two steps onto the grass verge, in my peripheral vision, I glimpsed something hurtling through the air towards me—too late to respond to Debra’s screeched, ‘Look out!’ Whatever it was made eye-watering contact with the side of my head.

Knocked sideways, I staggered with one hand over my throbbing, stinging ear to the nearest tree, muttering a few choice expletives. Meanwhile, the offending brown oval ball bounced once in front of me and rolled across the grass.

From the opposite direction to the ear-busting missile, a great muscled hunk of a man thundered onto the lawn with a speed that belied his size. He scooped up the ball in one of his massive hands and shouted down the street, his voice deep, commanding. ‘Hey! Careful!’

A boy’s quavering voice returned, ‘Sorry!’ And to me, ‘Sorry, sir.’

The guy lobbed the ball overarm, across the eight or nine front gardens between me and the kids. It sailed gracefully through the air and landed directly in the boy’s waiting arms. Then, as if what had happened wasn’t even the tiniest blip on his radar, the guy strode away across the front lawns to the next house and disappeared around its side. Leaving me, mouth hanging open, stunned. And mildly aroused.

The short-sleeved cotton shirt he’d worn tucked into a pair of thin grey chinos left nothing to the imagination, certainly as far as the bulge of his enormous pecs were concerned. Downwards from his broad shoulders and trim waist, his muscular frame continued to long, thick thighs. The outfit looked like a uniform of some sort and, if my memory served, there had been a name badge or perhaps a logo on the front pocket of his shirt.

At the time, I’d thought that perhaps he could be a car mechanic. Judging by his tanned face and sinewy arms, he’d certainly looked the kind of grimy and sweaty a man gets from a physically hard day’s work. Or a hard night’s pummelling, come to that. Even in my state of shock, my gaze followed him and lingered for seconds after he’d gone, as I wondered if under that hard, salty shell hid a deliciously soft caramel centre.

Nick,’ Debra said, interrupting the ringing in my head. She sounded as if she’d had to repeat herself a couple of times already. ‘Do you still want to view the house?’

I rubbed the sting from the side of my face and walked towards the front steps. ‘Oh, yes.’

Debra angled past me to the lockbox attached to the front door and punched in the code to release the keys. She opened the door and, wow. A polished dark wood floor and walls freshly painted in a calming stone grey. The kind of modern décor that could be adapted for many tastes.

I followed Debra to the kitchen area, furnished with white Shaker cabinets and granite countertops a few shades darker than the walls. Downstairs was open plan. Living space at the front, cooking and eating at the back. Debra’s glossy pink lips moved silently as she skimmed down the property details page she’d pulled from her briefcase. ‘It’s unfurnished. Would that be a problem?’

‘Not really.’

My relocation package included a moving-in allowance. Not enough for a houseful of furniture, but enough to get me started. My cousin, Becca, lived nearby, and she’d promised to show me around and take me shopping for household necessities. She wouldn’t mind if that included furniture.

I could already see where I’d put my record player, a flat screen television and a huge sofa. Maybe even a corner unit so I could really sprawl out of an evening.

Debra handed me the property details and pointed to the notes at the bottom of the page. ‘There’s one more thing. The landlord lives next door.’

‘Which side?’

She nodded in the direction we’d seen the football-throwing guy.

‘Do you think that was him?’ I asked. ‘The guy we just saw?’

‘I don’t know. I mean, he didn’t seem very friendly. You’d think if he was the owner of this house he’d show a little more warmth to a potential tenant.’

True. Or maybe he didn’t want to come over as pushy. No tenant wanted a fussy landlord breathing down their neck every five minutes. I almost snorted at the thought. Football guy, breathing down my neck? How about any time he liked?


Later that same day, I visited Becca. She lived in nearby Bloomfield with her husband, Mike, who’d been my boss when he did his overseas stint in England. That was how they’d met.

As soon as I pulled my hire car onto her driveway, she opened the door to her veritable mansion and ran down the driveway to meet me.

‘Nick! You’re finally here. I can’t believe it.’

I hadn’t seen her in a year, and we hugged long and hard, once on the driveway and again once we got inside. She’d put on a few pounds most noticeably around her face, and if I was honest, she looked tired. Dark under the eyes and lacking in her usual spark. But when I told her about the little pastel-painted house in Ferndale she laughed her head off.

‘How did you not know Ferndale is to Michigan what Brighton is to England? I’m surprised Debra didn’t offer to drive you past the gay bars on Nine Mile before she took you back to work.’

‘We were pushed for time. And I think meeting the guy next door threw her off her game.’

Sitting on her raised deck with an ice-cold Coke, I recounted in elaborate, and perhaps exaggerated, detail my brief encounter with a football and the strapping guy next door. His sculpted arms. His backside. My God, his backside.

‘It sounds more like he threw you off your game.’ More seriously, she added, ‘Why were you looking at apartments anyway? You’ll get a lot more for your money with a small house.’

That had become patently obvious. But. ‘Look at me, Becks. I’m not a big guy. I’m half-Asian. And I’m gay. People treat me like I’m a pushover. They think they can take advantage. You know as well as I do, they have taken advantage. That’s if they even see me at all. When I move here, I’ve got a chance to reinvent myself. To start as I mean to go on.’

Her brow furrowed, and she looked at me penetratingly with her dark brown eyes. Tucked her glossy brown hair behind her ear. ‘You thought living in an industrial loft would make you look more sophisticated? Or like some macho sex god?’

When she said it like that it didn’t sound as good as it had in my head—the idea that living in a downtown apartment would make me feel and act more like the man I wanted other people to see.

She went on, ‘Because I hate to break it to you, love, but you’re no Brian Kinney. Which is a compliment, by the way.’

Brian Kinney. The slick and successful ad executive from Queer as Folk who never got emotionally involved with his conquests until he met Justin.

Only I didn’t want a Justin. All I wanted was respect.

Still, I admitted, ‘The house was beautiful, and under budget.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘Take it, I think.’

‘Good. I spoke to Mum on the phone last night. She and Auntie Cath discussed the idea of them all coming over in the spring. I love your parents, but I’m not sure about having yours and mine staying here at the same time. You know what they’re like.’

I did. We came from a big, loud, close family. The nomadic genes that had brought our grandparents to England from East Asia had skipped a generation with our parents, uncles and aunts. All six siblings and a dozen cousins lived inside a ten-mile radius.

A whining buzz sounded close to my ear. Becca cursed and slapped her arm. The sun was close to setting and the mosquitoes had come out.

‘Let’s go inside.’ She yawned, and moved sluggishly, every step seeming to cost her energy she didn’t possess.

Then, in the kitchen, Becca rolled out her neck and sighed. Since my arrival I’d been wrapped up in my news, but now it was all off my chest, it occurred to me again that she didn’t seem quite herself. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I wouldn’t have gone so far as to say she seemed ill or depressed, but maybe something in between.

‘Becks, you’d tell me if you weren’t happy here, wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes. I am happy. Why would you think I wasn’t?’

‘You seem… tired.’ Selfishly, I considered my impending relocation. If Becca was struggling to cope and adjust to life in a new country, with a husband and extended family looking out for her, how the hell would I manage by myself?

Becca pursed her lips, at war with something on her mind.

At last, she rubbed her hand over her stomach and said, ‘I’m not supposed to tell anyone yet. Mike and I were going to make a formal announcement at the weekend, so you’re going to have to keep your mouth shut until then.’

Oh. Oh. My stomach flipped. A grin tore up the sides of my face. ‘You’re not?’

‘I am!’ she shrieked, her loud, bright elation sparking like a fountain firework. ‘Thirteen weeks pregnant. I’ve had a scan and there’s a good heartbeat.’

We hugged and sobbed. Becca had had two early miscarriages before this pregnancy, which she’d told me was a surprisingly common occurrence. That didn’t make it any less heartbreaking.

What a contrast, to feel every ounce of her joy with her laughing, shuddering body in my arms.

‘When’s it due?’ I sniffed.

‘February.’ She wiped the tears from my cheeks with the pads of her thumbs. ‘I know I’ve got Mike and his family, and Mum and Dad will come at Easter, but I’m so glad you’ll be here when the baby arrives.’

‘Me too.’

My best cousin, the first person I’d told I was gay, the person I told pretty much everything, was going to be a mama. And I’d be here for her and her precious bundle of love. The news felt like an omen, or a sign. I’d always been the baby of my family, and sometimes it felt like I’d never grow out of the part. But when I moved to America that would finally change.

I settled on a stool at the breakfast bar. Becca put on the kettle, opened a packet of Minstrels and poured them into a bowl. Pushed it in my direction.

‘No thanks. I carted those across the Atlantic for you.’

I was extra pleased I had now I knew she was eating for two. I didn’t know much about pregnancy except that women got cravings, and Becca was a slut for chocolate.

As if on cue, she put one in her mouth, crunched through the candy shell and groaned. If she hadn’t been my cousin, I’d have said the noise she made was borderline erotic. ‘You’d think with all the other indulgences they have to eat here I wouldn’t miss British chocolate. But I do. And Mum’s cooking.’

She had a point. Auntie Josie made fish curry, and flat noodles with belachan, just like our gran used to. All our uncles and my mum, Cath, said so.

I relented and helped myself. Regarded Becca with so much happiness I could have cried all over again. ‘I was nervous about the move. But now you and the baby. I’m just excited.’

‘You’ll be fine. No need to be nervous. You’ve got me and Mike. And wait until you meet his family. I’ve told them all about you. Mike’s mum’s already talking about us all spending Thanksgiving and Christmas together.’

‘I was thinking about flying home for Christmas. Mum and Dad are sort of expecting it.’

‘With your travel schedule? Believe me, if Lamplin have you globe-trotting half as much as Mike, you won’t want to go anywhere when you get that precious week off. Anyway, if you went home, you’d miss your first white Christmas. The snow here is amazing.’

Sitting in Becca’s kitchen to escape the bugs, sipping a beer as the early evening sun set the treeline ablaze, it was hard to imagine this place knee-deep in snow. But that was the power of Detroit in August, in all its hot, sultry glory. It was almost impossible to remember feeling cold.

Chapter 2

A MONTH after my August look-see, a week after Labor Day, I said a tearful, hopeful goodbye to my parents, and boarded a Delta flight with a one-way ticket from London to Detroit. Eight hours later, I touched down Stateside.

The temperature still nudged thirty Celsius, but the air had lost the cloying humidity of August. I shed my jacket and boarded the shuttle bus to the Enterprise rental office where I collected the Chrysler 200 I’d drive until delivery of my company car. Half an hour later, I exited I-75 at Nine Mile Road, executed a perfect ‘Michigan left’ turn, and cruised into Ferndale.

Nick Harris, newly appointed account manager at Lamplin Corporation, North American Automotive Division had arrived. Idling the car on the driveway of my new rental house on Frank Street, the realisation slapped the burgeoning smile right off my face. Aside from Becca, I had no one here. I’d gone from being less than an hour from dozens of relatives and a handful of friends, to being completely on my own. The solitary passage of the following months stretched like the street and the long front yards to my left and my right, as far as I could see.

My phone buzzed. A text from my boss, Patrick. Would I be coming into the office before the day’s end? I supposed I should thank heavens for small mercies. There’d be no time to be lonely. Work would easily fill my waking hours until I made friends.

I dumped my suitcases inside my front door, splashed some water on my face in the downstairs loo, remembered my one and only towel was buried in my luggage, and had to wipe my face on the napkins I’d pilfered from the Caribou Coffee at the airport. Twenty minutes later, I stood in Patrick’s office in Southfield.

‘You look beat,’ he said, faintly surprised, as if it hadn’t occurred to him I might be flagging after eight hours on a plane. ‘We could do this tomorrow.’

The clock on the wall said five o’clock. In England it was ten. Nearly bedtime. Already travel-weary, my body was winding down for sleep. I ran my fingers through my hair and plastered on a smile. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Great. Let’s make a pit stop at HR, and then I can introduce you to the guys in IT. After that, I’ll show you those JV files you’ll need to work from.’

Patrick talked and walked fast. I had to jog to keep up as he shot down the corridor; opted for the stairs rather than the lift. No wonder he was as thin as a whippet.

I collected my new laptop and my ID badge, and ended my whistle-stop tour of the building, lightly sweating, at my very first, very own office, overlooking the car park.

‘Make yourself at home,’ Patrick said. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

He left the door open on his way out. I sat behind my desk and spun around a couple of times on the chair. Opened the drawers, which were empty. Thought about raiding the stationery cupboard and decided against it until tomorrow. I was ready to go home and crash, plus if I went for my pens and stapler in the morning I’d be more likely to meet some of my colleagues. From the silence, I guessed I’d already missed my chance today.

It was so silent I heard the door at the end of the corridor open and close. A light cough and footsteps on the thin carpet.

A middle-aged man I didn’t recognise, in light chinos and a navy polo shirt, appeared in my doorway. Rapped his knuckle on the door and stepped in. ‘Hi, Nick. I’m Logan Cruz. I work in Purchasing.’

His name and face were as familiar as anyone who might have appeared in company emails or publications. In the flesh, I could see he worked out. Objectively speaking, fit and handsome, but a bit too tight-looking for my taste.

Logan took a step inside the office and said, ‘Let me know if you need anything. Anything at all. It can be tough your first few months in a new country.’

A lot of my senior co-workers had worked overseas for Lamplin on temporary assignments ranging from several months to several years, including Patrick as well as Becca’s Mike. ‘That’s very kind of you.’

‘Not at all. Maybe you’d let me buy you a beer sometime. I know a couple of good bars in Ferndale.’

‘You do?’

Nothing but friendliness his steely grey eyes. ‘My wife’s a hairstylist. We have friends…’ He trailed off, like he was mildly embarrassed. Like maybe he wanted to let me know he was a true ally, not someone feigning tolerance in his workplace because he had no choice in the matter.

But what I wanted to know was, ‘Who told you I’m gay?’

He blushed. Hesitated. ‘I don’t recall exactly. It came up at a senior team meeting.’

Right. Well there was that question definitively answered.

I smiled sweetly. ‘Give me a few days to get over the jetlag, and then I’ll see how my schedule looks.’

‘Great. I’ll check back in with you in a few days.’ He closed the door on his way out, and left me scowling at my new laptop.

A flare-up of paranoia had ignited that derisory voice in my head. The one that constantly questioned my worthiness. The one that said the only reason I got this promotion was to fill the minority quota. Gay and ethnic. Two for the price of one. As discussed at a senior team meeting, and courteously relayed to me by Logan Cruz.

‘That’s nonsense, and you know it,’ I mumbled under my breath.

The salient facts remained: Lamplin maintained good share prices and kept their shareholders happy because they put profits first. It cost tens of thousands of dollars more per year to bring in an overseas employee. They wouldn’t do it unless there was a significant and quantifiable return on investment. For them, that included spotting talent and doing what it took to keep it, with clearly defined and achievable career progression for those who made the grade. That was why I was here.

Still, I knew I would have to work harder and smarter than my contemporaries to prove that a puny little brown boy had what it took to make it in the fast lane of corporate sales. That wouldn’t leave much of me over for anything else. A quiet house in a family neighbourhood was the most sensible option while I found my stride.

The flashy apartment would have to wait for another couple of years.

Chapter 3

THE NEXT few days passed uneventfully. Friday rolled around, and Logan appeared to have forgotten about me. We didn’t cross paths, and he didn’t visit my office again, much to my relief. But the bars on Nine Mile Road beckoned. No mattered where I laid my head at night, I was still a single guy alone in a new city.

Late in the evening, I left the house on foot, dressed in shirt sleeves and a pair of arse-hugging jeans.

On Nine Mile Road the shops and restaurants seemed lively. Once I made friends, I could easily see myself merrily strutting my stuff as I headed downtown for a burger and a pint. Then I caught my reflection in a shopfront window; saw the current me scurrying along like a startled beetle. I needed a drink.

The online reviews for Beats looked the most promising for my needs. It was early for clubbing—only ten o’clock—but from the pictures of the interior posted online, I could start the night in the extensive bar and seating area. Knock back a few shots. Check out the lay of the land while I gave myself plenty of time to warm up.

Two burly suits stood at the doorway checking ID. One was a black man, the other white. The white guy reminded me of my new landlord. I hadn’t seen him since my arrival, but his image from the day of the house-viewing remained emblazoned on my memory: the way his powerful muscles had bunched and flexed when he lobbed that football halfway down the street. The confident, economical way he strode back to his house. His shining chestnut hair and glowing suntan.

I had a name for him now, too. Dale Hepburn. Seen and remembered from signing the contract for my two-year lease.

Sat at the bar, I ordered a martini from a fresh-skinned, blond-haired twink with cheekbones that could cut glass. We didn’t get the chance to have a conversation beyond my order, as other customers vied for his attention.

Around me, the seats filled with groups and couples. I sipped my cocktail, assessing the calibre of the talent. Along the bar, a swarthy man about my age sat with a beer bottle poised at his mouth, people watching. He didn’t interest me, and I had apparently not interested him, but his presence as another lone drinker was welcome reassurance.

An hour or so and another couple of drinks later, the volume of the music kicked up a notch and the dancefloor quickly filled. Though the music was unfamiliar, the beat was universal.

‘Come on, Nick,’ I said, buoying myself over the final wave of hesitation.

I rolled up my shirtsleeves and undid all my buttons; slid in with the pump and grind, letting the sweat and heat of mostly male bodies surround me. We moved together like a single animal, transformed, wild and hungry for the heaving rhythm and the fleeting contact.

A few songs in, a pair of warm hands gently clasped my waist from behind. I turned to see a topless Adonis, slightly taller and slimmer than me, with glistening abs and a hopeful, luminous smile. I hooked my fingers into his waistband and pulled him closer.


I didn’t bring the guy home. We got what we needed from each other in a dark corner of the car park.

Like every one of the few nights since my arrival, I slept like a log in the very comfortable bed that my landlord had provided. For a few hundred a month more in rent, Dale had also furnished the rest of the house. Beautifully, I might add.

The deep, growling buzz of a lawnmower awoke me. I smacked my lips together, grumbled under my breath and checked my phone, grudgingly accepting that ten o’clock in the morning was a perfectly acceptable hour for my neighbours to cut their grass.

The air in the house was warm enough that I’d kicked the covers to the floor. I stretched, scratched, and ambled downstairs in my boxers. Sleepy-eyed and dry-mouthed, I shuffled into the kitchen, heading straight for the kettle. I hadn’t shut the blinds across the patio doors the night before, and through them I had a crystal-clear view. The lawnmower I’d heard was in my garden, and Dale was pushing it.

He hadn’t seen me. He was at the back fence, about to turn. I could have gone upstairs and put on some clothes before I introduced myself, but the previous night’s encounter had awoken a brazen devil in me. After scrubbing my face with my hands, I slid open the patio door, walked onto the deck and, hands on hips, waited for Dale to notice.

The second he did, the buzz of the lawnmower withered and died, along with his fierce expression of concentration. His jaw dropped. He looked away, and lifted his hand, like he was trying to shield his eyes from the sight of me in my undies. He seemed so shocked, I looked down to see if my dick was hanging out. (It had been known to happen, once or twice, though that’s another story.)

‘I didn’t think you were home,’ he said to the back of his hand, so different to the man I’d glimpsed a month ago. ‘I knocked but there was no answer.’

‘I was out late last night. I didn’t hear it.’

My nipples tightened. The temperature was cooler outside than it appeared from inside the house. My body’s response was to the chill and had nothing to do with Dale in a white T-shirt tight enough that I could see the outline of his nipples and the shape of his pecs through the fabric.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I woke you.’

‘Nah. You’re good.’ He already looked guilty and embarrassed enough. To add to it would have been cruel. ‘Can I get you a drink?’

‘Ah, yeah. Sure.’ Dale clutched at the back of his neck and his ample bicep bulged. ‘I’ll have whatever you’re having.’

‘That would be tea. With milk.’

For a moment, it looked like the beginnings of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. I wasn’t sure with his face still partially turned away.

‘If you have ice, I’ll take mine cold, no milk. Two sugars.’

He knew I had ice. The refrigerator he’d installed in the kitchen had a water and ice dispenser. I couldn’t believe it. I must have really flustered him. Me!

With a smirk and a flirtatious wiggle of my hips, to shake off the chill, I said, ‘How about a slice of lemon?’

‘Sure. That would be great.’

While the kettle boiled, I ran upstairs and pulled on joggers and a tee. Dale was mowing the final edge of the small square of lawn by the time I brought out the drinks. When he was done, he strode to the deck with an easy gait, different again from the man I recalled in the summer, and the man I’d seen ten minutes ago. His cheeks had a ruddy flush, and he gave me a broad, welcoming, and unexpected smile. Sent my stomach cartwheeling up to my chest.

I held out my hand, finding safety in the convention and the formality. The devil in me had long fled. ‘I haven’t properly introduced myself. Nick Harris.’

‘Dale Hepburn. It’s good to meet you, Nick.’ His hand was bigger than mine, yet his handshake as gentle and embracing as a hug. I could instantly tell he wasn’t one of those men who threw his size around, using it to humiliate or intimidate smaller men. I breathed easier. Relaxed.

Dale took his iced tea and sat on the bench built around the edge of the deck. ‘So, you’re British?’

‘Yes.’

‘Here for work?’

‘Yes. At Lamplin. The Southfield office.’

‘It must be a good job, for them to bring you over from Britain.’

‘Pretty good.’ I’m not usually one to brag, but I added proudly, ‘I’m the youngest account manager in my division.’

‘That’s impressive.’

‘It pays the rent.’

‘And my mortgage.’

I caught his smirk and returned it. ‘I’ll drink to that.’

Taking a seat beside him, I clinked his glass with my mug. Watched, mesmerised by the movement of his throat, as he drank the whole glass of iced tea in one go. I’d never made iced tea before then. If that was the view it got me, I’d make it for Dale every lawn mowing day.

An unfamiliar bright red bird flew by and landed in a neighbour’s tree. In the past few days I’d seen a lot of new wildlife, including a chipmunk on the deck and a black squirrel running across the back fence. I’d had to take a picture of the squirrel with my phone and email it to my mum and dad because they didn’t believe me when I mentioned it.

‘What’s that bird?’

‘A cardinal. You don’t get those in Britain?’

‘Nope. No skunks, raccoons or chipmunks either.’

‘I wouldn’t mind that. Raccoons are a menace. What do you have? Foxes?’

‘Yes. Foxes. And hedgehogs.’

‘Hedgehogs are cute. We don’t get those here.’

‘We might not have them back home much longer if people keep running them over.’

The local wildlife? Definitely not my usual opening topic of conversation when talking to a hot guy for the first time. Not that sort of wildlife, anyway. But Dale spoke easily and at length, alternating his gaze from me to the garden, moving the conversation along naturally from one topic to the next.

I took the opportunity to find out more about him. ‘What do you do? For a living, I mean? Do you work around here?’

‘Yes. I teach high school chemistry in Highland Park. It’s not far.’ He pointed over the fence on his side. ‘A few miles that-a-way.’

‘You’re a teacher?’

‘Yeah.’ He looked at me with an all-too-endearing side-eye. ‘Why so surprised?’

‘For some strange reason… I don’t know. I thought you were a car mechanic. That day I came to look at the house in the summer, I thought you were wearing a uniform.’

He frowned momentarily, and then a light seemed to go on and his expression lifted. ‘Oh yeah. During the summer I earn some extra cash working for a moving company.’

‘Because teaching isn’t hard enough?’

‘No. Because twelve weeks off is a long break for a single guy with no kids.’

He went on to tell me that he didn’t teach summer school; he liked doing something different some of the year. He’d renovated both my house and his own over the last year too. I listened with interest but the end of that one sentence he’d spoken kept returning to me, like an itch, demanding I give it further attention.

A single guy with no kids. Why would Dale have told me something like that? Was he subtly trying to say he was available and without baggage? Or were those simply the casual words of a guy chewing the fat with another guy?

I glanced at him. This close, I could see his irises. A warm, chocolatey brown, the same colour as his hair. He really was a looker, as well as a warm, comforting sort of brawny. But I absolutely could not tell whether he was gay, straight, bi or any other colour of the rainbow. No clue.

If I leaned to my right our shoulders would touch. Not that I would have dared take the liberty. Yet, strangely, I felt completely at ease—with no alcohol inside me to brass my balls, and no dim lights to soften Dale’s scrutiny.

My mouth was still dry though I’d finished my tea. I swirled around the dregs in my cup and cleared my throat. ‘If I had twelve weeks off, I’d travel. Doesn’t that appeal to you?’

‘Not anymore. I’ve done my fair share of moving about.’

‘So you’re not from around here?’

‘Yeah, I am. Well, originally from Downriver. Trenton. But I went out of state for college, and… yeah. I’ve travelled.’ His voice drifted off a little. ‘I’ve never been to Europe though. Maybe someday I’ll go.’

‘You should if you get the chance.’

He held out his glass and stood. ‘Shall I put this inside?’

‘No. It’s okay. I’ll do it.’

I took Dale’s glass and our knuckles brushed, raining sparks like static electricity over my skin. Then Dale passed by, assailing me with the scent of his skin and of freshly cut grass. My breath went with my power to think. To tell if his proximity was a neighbourly distance or something closer.

On my way upstairs for a shower, the lawnmower started again. Dale mowing the front lawn. I resisted the urge to watch, as much as I wanted to. A more pressing matter filled the front of my underpants, and needed taking in hand.

It must have taken all of half a minute to get myself off on the memory of Dale brushing past me. Later, after the blood returned to my brain, I rewound and scrutinised my memories of his every word, his every gesture. Was Dale up for some international relations? Or was I reading too much into his smile? I didn’t want to come on too strong, in case I was mistaken.

Me, too strong? Now there was a laugh. I’d seen Dale in action. If I read the signs wrong, he’d swat me away like a fly.

Chapter 4

IN THE first weeks of September, I took to dozing on my sofa—a big corner unit with plush cushions that fit snugly in front of the fireplace. Part of my ever-increasing workload had included showing my face at automotive production plants in Georgia and South Carolina. I’d also had meetings in Ohio and phone conferences with customers in Korea and Japan. Flying, driving and keeping ungodly hours to accommodate international time zones left me sleeping when I should have been awake, and awake when I should have been sleeping. The sofa had become my no man’s land. My haven. My life raft. Like a boy escaping crocodiles. In the fading light, I stirred slowly, allowing my eyelids a leisurely rise and fall, enjoying the silence.

Outside, a car door slammed. A female voice called a greeting and a small child answered. I couldn’t make out exact words, only happy tones. That made me smile. I had a soft spot for kids. No immediate plans to have any of my own though. Being an uncle-figure to Becca’s baby was more than enough for me.

For some long seconds, the voices were soothing background noise. I reached towards the coffee table for the remainder of my neglected beer, no longer cold, and drained the bottle. Stretched and belched.

A bellow of deep laughter roused me, and my curiosity. Was that Dale? Who I hadn’t seen since he cut my grass a few weeks ago?

Crouched behind the sofa cushions, using my thumb and finger, I parted two of the slats in the front window blinds. On Dale’s lawn a tall skinny woman, her hair pulled into a bushy ponytail, lifted a little boy into her arms. In front of her, with his back to me, stood Dale.

I shifted closer to the window. From the undulations of their voices, their relaxed stances, and the intermittent peals of laughter, the exchange was pleasant and friendly. I couldn’t hear what they said.

Then the woman put the little boy in the backseat of the car parked on Dale’s drive. She kissed Dale on the cheek, got in her car and backed onto the road. On foot, Dale followed them as far as the end of the driveway and as she drove off he waved her goodbye. After she’d gone, he remained on that same spot for a while, looking down the empty street.

In turn, I got a long look at him standing with his fingers tucked into the front pockets of his blue jeans. What a handsome man he was. Thick chestnut hair combed back off his face, short trimmed beard, square jaw…

He glanced in the direction of my front windows. I shrunk back into the seat cushions, and by the time my thoughts coalesced into something sensible, like going outside and saying hello, it was too late to do anything proactive. Dale had gone. He hadn’t, as I’d half-expected, walked up my front steps and knocked on my door, just to be friendly. Which left me the rest of a long evening to speculate.

Dale hadn’t hurried back into his house. He’d been rooted to that same spot long after the car disappeared from view. That struck me as sad. It suggested he hadn’t wanted either the boy or the woman—or both—to leave.

Did Dale work those twelve weeks over the summer to fill the time he wasn’t able to spend with his child? Did the man crave some company and comfort, devoid of ties? Because if the woman was an ex, and the child his, it didn’t mean he had no interest in men. For all I knew, the woman could be a lesbian, and Dale the sperm donor for her and her partner.

God, I was nosy. I had it all wrong too.


One evening the following week, Dale saw me pull onto my driveway in my brand spanking new Nissan Altima. He crossed the front yards—I was using the local lingo more and more each day—and as I exited the vehicle he said, ‘Nice ride.’

‘Thanks. It’s not necessarily what I’d have chosen but it’s a company car and it handles well enough.’

‘It’s front-wheel drive, yeah?’

‘Yes. So I should get better traction in the snow. How about that pickup of yours?’

Dale puffed out his chest. Glanced over at his Chevy Silverado like a proud father. ‘Handles anything. It’s a four-wheel drive, with a G80 locking differential. I bought it second hand from a guy who was moving back to Europe, summer last year. Got it for a good price too. There are some perks to working in the moving business.’

‘What about teaching? Any perks to that?’

‘No. None. Except the privilege of shaping young minds.’

We laughed easily, and it had the undertones of something flirtatious. He stood closer than would be considered merely neighbourly, sending shivers down my spine. I needed to say something to impress or flatter, but my mind had gone blank. Then Dale said goodbye and it was too late for me to work my charm.

Ordinarily, I had no problem communicating my interest when I received the kind of signals Dale sent. But something about Dale seemed to leave me tongue-tied and hesitant. Not because he was my landlord. Not that exactly. His maturity intimidated me. I suspected we were similar in age, but he seemed so settled. Solid and sure of himself.

A week or so later, when the tips of the leaves had turned orange on the maple trees, and the air carried the nutty smell of autumn, he knocked to ask if I’d like some pumpkins on my doorstep and some spooky decals on the windows. ‘For Halloween. For the kids,’ he added. ‘It’s a big night here.’ I was on the phone at the start of a lengthy conference call, and only managed to nod.

Before I could offer to help, the job had been done and I didn’t see Dale again for several more days.

Quite a few of the houses along Frank Street, including mine, had been decorated with pumpkins, ghosts and gravestones. The same in Becca’s neighbourhood. I’d not long returned home from a brief visit, with the remains of a pumpkin pie, and a chicken and vegetable curry. She worried I wasn’t eating healthily with all the corporate lunches and dinners on my agenda, and the amount of fast food at my disposal. She was right. I hadn’t used my oven once in the month and a half since I’d moved in and my jeans were beginning to feel uncomfortably snug.

Even though it was a Friday, and I could have gone downtown for some company, I decided to have an evening in, eat my home-cooked curry and watch some shows on Netflix. After changing from jeans into joggers, I worked my way around the house closing the blinds. I was at the back, in the kitchen, when an ear-piercing screech of tyres sounded out the front. The slam of a car door. Angry yelling.

I skidded in my socked feet to the window, thinking someone had crashed. But no. A black Escalade had cut a line through the grass in my front yard and swerved to a stop on Dale’s. A man holding a baseball bat stalked back and forth beside the car, shouting for Dale to, ‘Come out here!’

My first instinct was to hide behind the sofa. I’m not proud of this. The man on the lawn was at least as tall as Dale and at least as well-built, which put him at six-two or three, and somewhere in the region of two hundred and something pounds. Veins bulged out of his neck like he was about to combust. And what if he had a gun? What if he had friends with him that I couldn’t see? With guns?

Sweat broke out on the back of my neck and on my palms as my next thought followed milliseconds behind my first: What about Dale?

I scanned the room for my phone.

In the time it took me to snatch it from the coffee table and return to the window, Dale had come outside. I heard him before I saw him walk down his steps onto the grass, as I clutched my phone so tightly my fingers numbed. Dale’s deep, crisp teacher’s voice cut off the other man’s ranting with the deftness and precision of a sharp blade. ‘What do you want, Bill?’

‘Keep your hands off my wife and my boy! You hear me?’

‘The whole neighbourhood can hear you.’

‘Then I’ll make sure they hear this. You think you know everything? You don’t know nothing. But I know about you. I know all about you. Just you remember that.’

The man’s voice was tremulous. The anxiety he couldn’t disguise offered me a sliver of hope that Dale had the situation fully under his control. This was my only consolation as my shaking thumb hovered over the keypad on my phone.

While I stood frozen, unable to move or breathe, Dale turned from Bill and walked away, saying nothing. I caught a glimpse of his face, and his grim frown. Other than that, his demeanour gave no clues as to his state of mind.

He reminded me of a soldier. Someone exceptionally in command of his emotions and his response. Certainly not the warm and fuzzy high school chemistry teacher who’d sat on my deck and chatted about birds and hedgehogs.

Dale had taken three steps, maybe four, when Bill lifted the baseball bat over his head. I cried out involuntarily—and missed a few moments of what happened next, because I dropped my phone.

After I picked it up, I couldn’t see Dale. I bolted to the front door, swung it open and ran out onto the porch. Dale was nowhere to be seen. Bill and his baseball bat, however, were going to work on Dale’s Halloween decorations.

When Bill had smashed every pumpkin, torn down every fluttering ghost and kicked an innocent straw-filled scarecrow into oblivion, he returned to his monster of a car and drove away. By this time, other neighbours had also come outside. Laura from over the street, and a couple of teens I hadn’t seen before, took tentative steps towards the carnage on Dale’s front lawn. Moments later, Dale emerged from inside his house with a fistful of black bin liners.

He apologised, as if he had anything to be sorry for, and began clearing up. No questions asked, and no explanation offered. I wondered if that meant something like this had happened before.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked. My legs had turned to jelly and my voice didn’t sound much firmer.

‘I’m fine. You don’t need to be out here. I can take care of this.’

‘No. Please. I want to help.’

Dale nodded tightly and picked up a chunk of pumpkin.

One of the teens, a girl of about fifteen, said, ‘You could leave everything where it is. It looks kinda cool. We could call it the Frank Street Halloween massacre.’

Dale replied evenly, ‘No chance. Take a picture if you like but this is all going in the trash before the raccoons get at it.’

The kids posed for a few shots. Dale said to me, ‘Seriously, you don’t need to…’ He motioned to the scarecrow’s decapitated head.

Dale’s arms and shoulders were rigid and the tendon in his jaw twitched. I couldn’t tell if he was teetering on the edge of an explosion of rage, or on the verge of complete breakdown.

Laura took one of the bin liners, shook it open and handed it to me. ‘It’ll get done quicker if we all pitch in. Come on, you two,’ she said to the teens, ‘stop fooling around and pick up some of this trash.’

A gust of wind lifted part of a polystyrene gravestone. I ran after it and dutifully shoved it in my bag. My heart hurt more with each broken piece of plastic I put in my bin liner, and with each glance at Dale with his head down, grimly doing the same. What must have taken him hours to arrange only took us minutes to clear away.

The teens made their escape the instant their bag was filled, and Laura shortly after as she had a lasagne in the oven that would burn if she didn’t return to it. That left Dale and me, and an awkward silence.

My feet were frozen. In my panic, I’d forgotten to put on shoes and my socks were sopping wet from the evening dew. But I stood my ground because I couldn’t bear to let Dale go inside to an empty house. He might have been trying not to show it, but he was obviously shaken.

I said, ‘Have you eaten?’

‘Not yet.’

‘I have a chicken curry and some rice that’ll take five minutes to warm up if you fancy joining me?’

Dale hesitated. ‘Are you sure you have enough?’

‘Positive.’

In my kitchen, I put on some music and set about warming the dinner and opening us beers. Dale nursed his bottle and didn’t say much except to ask me where I kept my ‘silverware’.

Busying myself with arranging and rearranging two plates, I said, ‘I’ve had a couple of boyfriends with tempers, but nothing like that. Who was he?’

‘Not my boyfriend.’

‘I guessed that much.’

The microwave pinged. I ignored it and waited for Dale to answer my question. The seconds stretched into a rift, until Dale said wearily, ‘Maggie’s going to flip when she hears about this.’

‘Maggie?’

‘Maggie’s an old friend, and Bill is her ever-loving husband.’

I dished up the food and Dale told me about Maggie. She’d lived next door to Dale when they were growing up in Trenton and when they were small the two of them had been like brother and sister. Later, in high school, they’d dated briefly, but after graduation Dale had gone down to Ohio to play football for the Buckeyes and Maggie had gone up to Michigan State.

‘We drifted apart. I was playing football and acting like a typical jock, whereas Maggie seemed to grow up overnight. She married Bill straight out of college and moved into a big house near Bill’s family in Clarkston. I didn’t get invited to the wedding, and I guessed that meant she and I were no longer friends.’ He picked at the paper label on the beer bottle. ‘Then about two years ago she found out from my mom—when she was visiting her mom—that I’d started teaching and moved in here. That was when she got back in touch.’

‘And you kissed and made up?’

‘We made up. And she saw me through some tough times. I still owe her big for that. But there was no kissing.’

Either Dale was straight, or he was bi, or he was gay but had once tried to be straight. I had no answers. Not that it mattered to me then. Dale was upset, and more than anything I wanted to comfort him.

I sat at his side, at the breakfast bar, with my plate of curry. ‘I take it Bill doesn’t approve of you and Maggie being friends?’

‘Maybe. I think it has more to do with me babysitting his son.’

It must have been Maggie and her son that I’d seen on Dale’s driveway back in September. ‘Why?’

‘It’s complicated.’

Dale ate a mouthful of food and I took that to mean the subject was closed. Only after he swallowed, he took a swig of his beer and said, ‘After Tyler was born, Maggie had postpartum depression. She lost a lot of weight, she had it rough. Bill’s mom pretty much took over looking after the baby while Bill… Bill started seeing some woman or other not very far behind Maggie’s back.’

‘But Maggie was in no fit state to leave him?’

‘If she’d tried, she’d have had to walk away from Tyler.’

Shit. ‘I think I saw her on your drive once. Tall? Blonde frizzy hair?’

‘That’s her. She’s a lot better now. She still goes to talk to a therapist once every couple of weeks, and I watch Tyler if I can. That way she doesn’t have to involve Bill’s parents or any of her and Bill’s mutual friends.’ He smiled ruefully. ‘Seems like Bill might have only just found out though.’

‘Are she and Bill still together?’

‘Believe it or not, they are. Like I said, it’s complicated. Maggie hasn’t always been an angel herself. She and Bill love each other, but they’re both mixed up.’

I put down my fork. ‘My God. When you hear about shit like that it makes you glad to be single.’

Dale grunted noncommittally and tucked into his food. I’d given him a hearty helping and he cleaned the plate, right down to the last grain of rice.

‘There are a few mouthfuls left if you want any more.’

‘No thanks. I’m good. But it was delicious. Did you make it?’

‘No. My cousin. She lives in Bloomfield.’

‘You have family here?’

‘Just Becca. She married an American.’

I told Dale the story of how Mike had gone to England on a two-year assignment with Lamplin, and how in the beginning, as an eager young graduate, I’d suffered the straight pubs and gone out for drinks with him a couple of times a month. Then Mike met Becca, they fell in love and came back to the US together once his assignment ended. It was a good story. A nice, light-hearted one. It seemed to lift Dale’s mood at least, and I was glad of that.

‘Becca’s a year and a half older than me. Her mum and my mum are sisters and we grew up living less than a mile from each other. We’re closer to each other than we are our own siblings.’ Those fond memories warmed me like spring sunshine. I sighed contentedly. ‘I came out here at the right time. She’s going to have a baby in February.’

‘That’s wonderful. She’ll be glad to have you close.’

‘I think so.’

Dale rubbed his hands along the fronts of his thighs. ‘Thanks for helping me out earlier. If you ever need anything, you know where I am.’

‘Thanks. I appreciate that.’

I cleared the plates and put them in the dishwasher, wondering if Dale had nowhere to be. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time making his way from the breakfast bar to the front door. Like he didn’t want to leave.

‘You don’t need to rush off on my account. I was only going to veg out in front of the telly tonight. Why don’t you stay? I have Netflix. And Amazon,’ I quickly added.

Nice one, Nick. Perfectly cringey.

Dale seemed oblivious. Maybe he hadn’t heard of ‘Netflix and chill’, though I doubted it; he taught at a high school. Maybe he didn’t want to dwell on any sort of sexual innuendo in case it gave me ideas.

Little did he know, it was a bit late for that. I’d had plenty of ideas about what I’d wanted to do with Dale and his spectacular thighs well before this evening. Not tonight, though. Not after Bill’s meltdown.

We retired to the living area to eat pumpkin pie, drink beer and pick a film. A couple of hours later, Dale fell asleep in the middle of The Amityville Horror. He’d made no attempt to get close to me, and in his slumber he’d sloped away from where I huddled with a cushion on my lap.

I stopped paying attention to the film. The light from the television screen flickered over Dale’s skin, casting shadows that softened his features, making him look young and vulnerable. I felt a rush of affection. Of need to reach out and touch him, to push that stray wisp of hair off his forehead.

Dale sucked in a shuddering breath and breathed out heavily. He was sound asleep, poor love. I didn’t have the heart to wake him. Instead, slowly, carefully, I put down the emergency cushion I’d held during the horror film. Dale’s arms rested loosely at his sides. As I slid off the sofa, his fingers twitched and for a heart-stopping second, I thought he might wake up. But he didn’t. So I gently covered him with a blanket and went to bed, where I mulled over the evening, Dale’s scent, and the tantalising allure of his big, expressive hands.

It was a crying shame, but I knew in my heart of hearts that after this evening I’d missed my opportunity for a casual hook up with Dale, if there’d ever been one. That door had been closed the moment I invited him over for a curry and asked him to bear his soul. Never mind though. I could use a friend, and I still had downtown Ferndale on my doorstep.


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