John expected the knock on his front door, had been waiting for it, nerves jangling, but he paused for a moment and took a deep breath before answering it.
He’d seen the sign on the bulletin board at Gardiner College about a professor looking for a room to rent, and called to set up a meeting the day before. In the year since his wife moved out unexpectedly, declaring their marriage was over, he’d considered from time to time renting his garage apartment. Living so close to campus, there were always students looking for a place to stay, and the thought of someone else under the same roof was comforting somehow, even if it was on the other side of a wall. Still, he’d hesitated to pull the trigger, reluctant to put himself in a position of having to evict someone if Ava came back. She’d used the apartment as an art studio, and no matter how slim the chances of her returning, she’d be furious with him for co-opting her space if she did.
He’d taken the sign as
a sign, a nudge from the universe to push him forward out of his months of stasis, waiting for a call that never came.
It was a source of reassurance that the person in need of a room was a college professor. He pictured a quiet, older man, educated enough to make stimulating conversation. No parties or loud music to contend with. He drew the line at renting to an undergraduate student. They seemed impossibly young and brash. What would he have in common with them? Nothing at all. They were playing here, putting off joining the real world.
And here he was, putting off answering the door.
He strode the few steps necessary and opened it, revealing a man who looked so little like his expectations, he was shocked into silence. Young. Younger than his thirty-nine years, for sure. The man was tattooed, colorful designs crawling up his arms, disappearing under the rolled-up sleeves of a heavy cotton shirt in navy. Long dark hair pushed behind his ears and an arrogant, lithe strength were more appealing, but the man unsettled him.
“Logan Briscoe?” John asked doubtfully.
“That’s me. John Lee Sailer?”
“Also me.” John realized he was staring into Logan’s dark blue-gray eyes and forced himself to normalcy. “Come in, please.” He stepped back to make room and closed the door by pushing it with his foot. “I don’t say this often, but this week I’m glad for daylight saving time; at least you weren’t getting here in the dark. Hard to assess the neighborhood if you can’t see it.”
“I’ve been living on the other side of town.” Logan gestured vaguely behind him. “Similar neighborhood, though.”
“Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Water? Beer?” This was a business transaction, he remembered too late, not a social call, but he couldn’t take back the offer now.
“Sure, a beer would be great.” Logan followed John into the kitchen and accepted the cold bottle John handed to him. “Thanks.”
“Anyway, this is my place, and the apartment’s through there and up the stairs.” He’d left the door from the kitchen to the garage ajar. “I spent an hour on it after work, but there’s still a fair amount to go. Well, you’ll see.”
“Why postpone the inevitable?” This time Logan went first, swinging the door open the rest of the way and heading for the narrow stairs.
The ceiling light in the apartment’s kitchen was already on, and John saw the space with fresh eyes. There was no evidence of the hour’s cleaning he’d done. The sink’s porcelain was stained, maybe permanently, with a muted rainbow of colors, and one of the cabinet doors was missing, revealing a collection of small jars of paint, cups with paintbrushes propped up haphazardly, and stacks of old newspapers. The air held smells of chemicals and decay.
The sound Logan made, a choked-off grunt of dismay, had John turning to look at him. “I know. I’m embarrassed to show it to you. It’s not up to my standards. I hope you see that from the rest of the house. I— When my wife left, this space was so much hers that I acted as if it didn’t exist. As if without her using it, it ceased
“That’s understandable.” Logan wrinkled his nose. “Not good for you in the long run, but I guess you don’t need me to tell you that.”
“No. I don’t.” God, he was prickly these days. Moderating his snappish tone, he asked, “So do you want to see the rest of it? Bathroom’s in good shape, and the bedroom’s over here with a small room opposite.”
Logan grinned. How old was he? The smile took his age down to a teenager’s, impish, inviting. “Are the walls pink? Because I adore my current landlady, but the room I live in belonged to a young girl, and I’m this close to having Barbie tattooed on my ass.” He held up his hand, fingers pinching the air to illustrate.
“So there’s room for one more? From here, it looks as if you’ve used every available piece of skin.” It slipped out before he censored himself, the question tinged with his distaste. He hated tattoos. They were so often badly done and such a waste of money.
“Ooh, burn.” Logan’s smile disappeared. “The ink on my body disturbs you enough that you can’t help criticizing it a few minutes after we meet? Now that
might be a problem. And I plan on having men over for sex from time to time since I’m gay as well as tattooed.” He tilted his chin up, challenging John. “Want to tell me how that offends you too? Go ahead, but if you do, you can rent this dump to someone else.”
Logan’s confrontational attitude rocked John back. Shit, what was wrong with him? When had he become so judgmental? He hastened to speak, panicked in case Logan interpreted his silence as prejudice. “I’m not offended. It’s none of my business what you do with your body.” He meant it on multiple levels. He was the landlord; as long as the men Logan was fucking weren’t underage, it didn’t matter to him. He rallied, meeting Logan’s gaze unflinchingly. “And we both know you’ll rent this dump because from what you told me on the phone, you’re down to the wire and don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Logan eyed him with what seemed like grudging admiration. “Yeah. That’s true enough. But if my having guys over is a problem, well, I’d rather know before I move in.”
“It won’t be a problem.” Explaining his recent sexual history wasn’t something he wanted to get into then, though he assumed they’d talk about it sooner or later if Logan became his tenant. It wasn’t a secret. Personal, yes.
“You have any gay friends?” Logan asked, so clearly expecting the answer to be no that John smiled.
“The answer to that is not as simple as you might think.” Friends? Not anymore. When his life had been as half a couple, John-and-Ava, he’d thought they had plenty of gay friends, but after Ava left, they’d faded out of his life with vague promises to keep in touch. Her crowd had been artists, musicians, creative types that included flamboyant gay men and plenty of people whose sexual orientations seemed fluid. “I thought I did. Turned out they were my wife’s friends, not mine.”
Nodding, Logan said, “That happens sometimes.”
Logan poked his head around the bedroom and bathroom door, seemingly satisfied with what he saw. They were small rooms, but what could he expect from a garage apartment?
“Anyway, that’s the extra room there.” At nine-by-ten, it was suitable for an office or maybe a nursery. Everywhere they stepped, years’ worth of artwork was scattered around, some of it lying flat on the floor, other pieces leaning against the walls or each other. There was barely a pathway through the space into the small room, requiring the careful placement of feet like a child playing some twisted form of hopscotch.
“I’d tell you not to worry about stepping on anything, but…”
“It’d be disrespectful,” Logan told him. “You don’t have to explain.”
“I know it’s kind of a mess right now, but I’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Yeah, it’ll be fine.” Logan went over and tapped the wall the room shared with the main house. “What’s on the other side?”
John wasn’t sure why it mattered, but there was no reason not to answer. “Spare room. I use it for my books and storage. My bedroom’s at the far end of the house, so don’t worry, you won’t hear me snoring. And apparently, I do. Did.”
“Sometimes I talk in my sleep. Maybe your snoring and my talking will cancel each other out.”
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way, but we can only hope. So what do you think?”
Logan didn’t keep him waiting long. “It has potential. Yeah. Let’s do it. I’m willing to make do without a kitchen for a week if it means I can sleep in my bed instead of getting an aching back on a friend’s couch.”
“I’ve done that myself.” The couch was the one in his house, when he and Ava had argued until the atmosphere in the bedroom was rank with anger and he’d escaped, leaving her to the victory of a lonely bed.
“I can borrow a truck on Saturday and move my stuff in then if that works. And help with whatever’s left of the cleanup over the weekend.” Logan shook his head. “Hang on. I never asked what you want for rent, or if you need references before you make a final decision.”
“Going through this process once is enough for me. How long have you been at the current place?”
“Over a year. It’s month to month, and that works for me, but if you’d prefer a lease, I’m fine with that.”
“According to the Internet, that’s safest for both of us. I was thinking eight hundred a month.” John headed for the stairs, unwilling to spend any longer in the apartment. Cleaning it out would be a catharsis and an ordeal, but in that moment he needed to be away from the memories.
Logan followed him down the stairs, a shadow at John’s back. He was aware of the man’s scent with each breath. He was sensitive to personal odors. If he didn’t like the way someone smelled, he usually disliked them. His reaction to Logan’s musk was complex. It stirred him in ways he couldn’t give a name to, disturbing him.
“Eight hundred?” Logan echoed. “Wait, are there bodies buried under the foundation? Is the place haunted?”
John led the way through the garage and pushed open the door into the kitchen, then locked it behind them. “That seems low to you?”
Logan ran his hands through the wealth of his hair, static leaving strands of it clinging to his fingers. Ava’s hair had been long once, down to her waist, until she’d cut it off in a spurt of temper after getting paint stuck in it. The loss of it, a sensual cloak falling across her body, brushing his skin when they made love, had devastated him.
“Shit, yeah! I’m paying six hundred for a bedroom in a small house. This is an apartment. What else? Oh yeah. Utilities? Will I have a hard time setting up Wi-Fi?”
“I have unlimited Internet, and the router’s on this side of the house, so you’re welcome to the password if you don’t abuse it by downloading illegally and getting me into trouble with my ISP.”
“And the utilities…” John scratched his mouth with his thumb, then stopped when he saw Logan stare at his lips, a glimmer of interest in his eyes. Did Logan think he was flirting? “Provisionally, let’s add fifty dollars to the rent, and after three months, we can sit down and compare bills from before you arrived with after you moved in to see if that’s fair. If I’m overcharging you, I’ll give you a refund; if you’re having hour-long showers and running up huge bills, I’ll increase it.”
“Works for me.”
“Obviously, you need to be considerate when it comes to noise, but so do I.” John smiled at him, a rusty creak of a smile. God, he was in such a slump. Still, renting the place was a step in the right direction. He took pride in that. “Now’s the time to confess about your electric guitar.”
Logan smiled. “No guitar. I’d reassure you by saying my current landlady never complained, but she’s pretty hard of hearing. I promise I’ll keep it down, and on the off chance my TV’s too loud, bang on the wall to let me know.”
“That’s what texting’s for. Oh, hey, we forgot our beers.” Back in John’s clean, neat kitchen, their bottles were still sitting on the countertop. “I printed out a sample rental agreement for you to look at and give me your thoughts. It’s a draft, and I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of.”
An hour later, beer abandoned in favor of coffee, John decided they’d get along well enough. They’d hammered out a lease agreement that suited them and moved on to more general conversation. John steered talk away from his private life but told Logan about his job leading the HR department at the local factory.
“Heilsa? I’m addicted to the Green Dream smoothie and the cherry-almond bars.” Logan was clearly delighted.
“The original owner was Icelandic, which is where the name came from,” John told him. “He retired when his health failed, but his children took over, and they’re committed to keeping everything organic and green, whatever that means in real terms. I’m not involved in that side of it. My job would be the same if I worked for a company building spaceships or making paper clips. I don’t go out of my way to buy expensive snacks.”
“Expensive’s in the eye of the beholder.” Logan finished his coffee and set the mug down gently. “It sounds like you’re saying you don’t have a passion for your work.”
“It’s not that,” John protested. “I’m saying that my work, personally, is separate from what the company manufactures. Though I do prefer to avoid junk food, so I approve of what they make. I care about HR, following the law, and finding compromises that keep my employer and its employees happy. If I didn’t, I’d find another job.” He was passionate enough about what he did from day to day that he didn’t think it mattered whether he cared about the products.
“What if the company was making something you were morally opposed to?” Logan’s expression was intense. He rested his tattooed forearms on the table, and it was obvious he was invested in the conversation.
A flicker of resentment sharpening his words, John said, “I’m not morally opposed to granola bars.”
“That’s not what I’m asking. Say Heilsa closed down, and a different manufacturing company opened in its place and wanted to retain you in your position. What if that company made, I don’t know, bullets, and you were part of the gun-control crowd?”
part of that crowd, but that doesn’t mean I’m morally opposed to bullets.”
“You must be morally opposed to something!”
John picked up his mug, peered at the inch of cool coffee remaining, and set it down again. “Cruelty?”
“Well, sure. To animals in particular.”
“Okay. So pretend your new employer manufactures dog-fighting equipment.”
“Isn’t all you need for dog-fighting a couple of dogs? Are we really having this conversation?” John suspected Logan was pushing his buttons, but the reason for the goading escaped him.
“I want to know what kind of man you are.”
Oh. “I’m not sure you can learn that from one conversation.”
“Maybe not.” Logan leaned forward, tapping the side of his thumb against the table. “You strike me as a man who takes a while to open up, and we’re virtually strangers. I know nothing. Yet. And I won’t unless I ask questions.”
Intensely uncomfortable, John looked down at his hands. “I’ve already told you more about myself than I’d tell a stranger.” He didn’t know why he’d shared even that much, not when it might be used against him.
“I wouldn’t use it to hurt you.”
Their gazes met, held, an electric moment of connection leaving John adrift when Logan glanced away, as if a lifeline had been withdrawn when his fingers were about to close around it.
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow