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Beauty in the Breakdown

E.L. Esch

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Luke Martin Cleary isn't out of the closet to his brother, and that's always been okay since he isn't involved. Then he meets Rowan, a fragile man with a dark past and one hot body. But Rowan's heart and body are broken and guarde...
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Luke Martin Cleary isn't out of the closet to his brother, and that's always been okay since he isn't involved. Then he meets Rowan, a fragile man with a dark past and one hot body. But Rowan's heart and body are broken and guarded, and it's going to take a lot of love to touch someone so completely untouchable. Literally.

Rowan Wilheim Nails is a man in pain. Ever since an abusive falling out with his ex-boyfriend, he's developed a phobia of being touched by another person--a phobia of being hurt again. So when Luke and Rowan meet at a bar and end up at Luke's apartment later on, Rowan is skeptical of spending the night in Luke's bed. There's only one thing he can do to make touching Luke's skin bearable--get drunk.

Luke hates Rowan's coping method, but how can he help change it when he doesn't understand Rowan's situation? By getting involved, he decides, even if that means divulging his secret to his brother. And so Luke begins breaking Rowan and his walls down, slowly and tenderly and maybe a little more roughly in the bedroom, but definitely without hurting him again. No matter how long it takes or how untouchable Rowan claims to be, Luke is determined to heal Rowan so that one day there'll be nothing between their hearts but each other's skin.

  • Note: This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language, and material that some readers may find objectionable: male/male sexual practices.
I often wonder things. I often wonder things that, once upon a time, people would have been sent to asylums for thinking. Now people can think whatever they like, and the worst they’ll get is a cross look. That’s a good thing, though, for someone like me.

Now let me say this first—I’m dying. “We both are. You’ll understand someday.” At least that’s what I’ve been told. That’s why I suppose I’m wondering things now. I’m wondering things that, once upon a time, people would have been sent to asylums for thinking.

For instance, if I muse over what the flesh of another human being tastes like, does that make me a cannibal? If I think the world needs to change no matter the cost, does that make me a terrorist? If for some reason I know we, he and I, are both dying but refuse to elaborate on how, does that make me a criminal?

These are just thoughts, though. No harm, right? Not anymore. Not today. However, everything evolves from thought: danger, peace, love, hate, change, everything.

Maybe I’m just getting dramatic because I’m dying. “We both are. You’ll understand someday.” Or maybe it’s just that I’m confused by the fact that I’m dying when I feel fine.

Why would I be confused? Simply, it’s because of him. He’s the reason for all of these thoughts.

He is a slim, nimble young man, maybe in his midtwenties. He’s a pretty normal character, except that he makes me think things that, once upon a time, people would have been sent to asylums for thinking. He’s beautiful and fair-skinned and gentle and shy. He has a problem with people touching his body, and he gets harassed for it. Around his eyes sit horn-rimmed glasses, just the right fit over his elegant nose and cheeks, protecting the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen. Capping his head is wispy, soft, and naturally untamable hair of a color I likened to that of a dingy fire. His hands aren’t large, but they aren’t small either, with slender fingers that match the knobbiness of his hips and shoulders perfectly. He is him, and God did he make me think.

When I asked him his name, his thin, pale lips curved into a smile, and I suppose what he said in response started all these thoughts. “I’m dying. We both are. You’ll understand someday.”

If at that moment I wondered what his skin tasted like, did that make me a creep? Did that make me wrong or a sinner or a breaker of taboo? If at that moment I wanted to change myself, did it make me a terrorist to my own conscience? Or did it just make me a fool?

“Wait!” I remember myself calling out to him, to that majestic creature who made me think. I was confused then too. Maybe he really was dying. Maybe we all were somehow, but I didn’t care.

He stopped and turned halfway. “Yes?”

He was a contortionist, I’d thought then. He had to be.

“I want to know your name,” I’d repeated. I think I’d smiled too, but recalling it makes me feel rather stupid so I can’t say I’m sure I did.

“Rowan.”

“Ah, an olden name.” I did smile then.

“Yours?”

“Luke.”

“Also olden.” And then he shook his head and stared at me up through his eyelashes. “I told you, I’m dying.”

“I heard.”

“But you asked my name.”

“Yes.”

He paused. “Get a drink with me, stranger?”

“Stranger?”

“Luke.”

“Yes.”

It was the only instance since I’d met Rowan that I didn’t think. I just took him by the arm and let him lead me down the street like we were a happy couple.

I think I realized then—I was a terrorist, a sinner, a criminal, a fool, and even a bit of a creep. The only thing I wasn’t was a cannibal, but that still didn’t stop me from thinking thoughts that, once upon a time, people would have been sent to asylums for thinking.

* * *

“So, Luke, do you let yourself get picked up by strangers often?”

He kept saying “stranger.” “No. Much less…”

“Men?”

I laughed, and I couldn’t help it. Much, much less men, but the way Rowan put it, flat and blunt, was hilarious. Or maybe the fact that it was the truth, the bizarre, unlikely truth, was what made it funny.

We were sitting at a bar, the one I’d seen him in front of. The name I didn’t recognize, but Rowan seemed familiar with the place. Naturally it smelled of liquor, but there was another scent on the air that I couldn’t place. It was thick and heavy and toxic, a bit dangerous and kind of exciting. I liked it.

“Luke, then,” Rowan said suddenly, tracing the edge of his glass with his forefinger. He was drinking ouzo, and the very sight of it made me anxious. This man was obviously planning to get drunk, where my malt whisky would give me a light buzz at most.

I ordered another.

“Luke?” Rowan touched my shoulder, my knee, but never my skin.

“Yes?”

“Luke. It’s Greek, did you know? It means ‘from Lucania,’ a region of Italy. Are you Italian?”

Somewhat startled by this man’s vat of knowledge, I shook my head. “Maybe, maybe not. I never cared to find out. What about you, Rowan?”

He laughed. “It means red-haired and rugged, nothing interesting.”

It was interesting to me, but I didn’t press the subject. Both Rowan and I knew what was going on. We knew where that night would end, or at least I thought we did. This prattle about name origins was just a conversation starter, a fire kindler. I could guess this from the ouzo, yet another thing Greek.

“Rowan…” I took a swig of my Scotch, hoping it would make the question easier. “Are you really…dying?”

“We both are.”

“Okay…”

Rowan chuckled, a low sound deep in his throat. He fumbled with the edge of his glass again, finding a nick and pulling back his hand with a start. “Yes, I’m dying. I was diagnosed with death.”

“With death?”

“It’s not cancer or anything like that. It is what it is. It’s death. I just know it is.”

Was this man a seer of some sort? A psychic? Or was he just playing with me? No, he didn’t seem the type for that.

“Just death? That simple?”

Much to my surprise, he nodded. Nodded! Death wasn’t simple! Yet I forced myself to let it go. Maybe it was personal and he just didn’t want to talk about it. There were a lot of maybes when it came to this guy.

“So why ouzo?”

“Ouzo.” Rowan smiled down at his reflection in the bar top. “Because I don’t like being touched.”

At this I was gravely insulted. Who wouldn’t be? “Then why did you ask me—”

“For a drink? Because I wanted to.”

My expression must have been ridiculous, for Rowan laughed long and hard.

“Don’t look that way. It’s not you. I have a psychological problem. I just don’t like being touched.”

“Then why—”

“So I don’t realize it.”

“Ah.” Did strangers usually tell each other about their psychological issues? I was beginning to think this man, who had gone with me, sat down, and planned on getting happy-ass drunk, and I were going through some demented kind of therapy session. Who the therapy was for, I couldn’t tell.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Rowan’s hand was on my knee again, but not my skin. “If I don’t realize it, why even bother?”

“Something like that.” I nodded. It wasn’t a complete lie.

“Because.“ Rowan’s hair fell in front of his glasses.

His nose was pointed down again so I couldn’t see his face, and it worried me. Something dark and unwanted loomed over the man’s shoulders then, something I couldn’t help but want to shoo away. I couldn’t, though, because I didn’t know how.

“I want to get over it.” Rowan lifted his head. “I don’t want to die until my time.”

I tried not to look confused. “If you want to get over it…” I stood, reaching into my back pocket for my wallet. ”Let the drink sit, and come home with me.”

Rowan’s eyes widened. He looked as if he stared death square in the face that very moment. All of a sudden his prim, orderly demeanor vanished. “I…I can’t. Let a dying man have a drink and wait, won’t you?”

“No.” I snaked a hand into Rowan’s dull-fire hair. He twitched but didn’t pull away, probably because I never touched his skin. He had a piercing, I noticed then. A single, simple, silver ball embedded in the lobe of his right ear. It flashed with the reflection of my hand as I stroked his hair behind his ear to get a better look. The bartender shot me warning glares, but I didn’t care. Who was she, this lanky girl with her brown hair up in curls and a beer in each hand, to tell me what to do? “No,” I repeated, forcefully this time. “Because you’re not dying. We’re not dying. I say so.”

What gave me the right to say so? Nothing, but I said so anyway.

“You’re gonna stop death?” Rowan folded his arms and looked at me with such sharply intense eyes that I would have backed off if not for the way he tilted his head into my fingers.

I shrugged. Screw it. I was lost, puzzled, a bit upset, and a terrorist, a fool, a sinner, a criminal, and even a bit of a creep. Why couldn’t I stop death too? “Sure, for you.”

Long and hard, Rowan laughed. So did I, although I didn’t understand why.

“Even so.” The gloom leeching off Rowan seemed to have disappeared. “I still need my drink.”

“Only if you tell me how we’re both supposedly dying.”

“We’re not. We’re healing, hopefully, though we both still might die.”

“Everyone does.”

“Yes.” Rowan smiled. “I’m glad you understand.”

“You know…” I sat back down with a sigh, scratching my head. God, did Rowan make me think. “You know,” I started. “You could have just asked me out for drinks.”

“Nah.” Rowan shook his head, taking a nice, long draught of ouzo and winking sidelong at me. The empty glass hit the bar with a clatter and an almost suffocated sigh. “Because then you wouldn’t have understood why I asked you.”

“Strangers and a couple of drinks, it’s not that uncommon.” Damn, now I’m saying “stranger.”

“No.” Rowan called for another glass of alcohol.

My jaw almost dropped. Happy-ass drunk, I thought. Beyond happy-ass drunk.

“Luke and Rowan,” Rowan continued. “Neither strangers nor common.”

“Then I’ll make sure I have a bucket for you in the morning.” I snickered, eying his second glass. “And a nice long lecture about how we’re not going to die.”

“I never really was dying, you know. And hopefully I have quite some time before I do. You too.” The expression on Rowan’s face was fantastic—devilish and gentle; sly and weary; uncertain yet fearless.

So I wasn’t dying, then. Well, not anytime soon. Neither was Rowan, the clever bastard. But that didn’t mean the sneaky man could ever make me stop thinking thoughts that, once upon a time, were asylum-worthy thoughts.

Copyright © E.L. Esch

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