“I’ll trade you tonight. Shutting down circulation for reshelving,” Daniel offered, already rolling up his sleeves. He stopped for the second it took to tip back his demitasse cup and swallow the last drops of still-steaming espresso and exhaled with a small, pleased sound. They tasted as rich, dark, and decadent as they smelled.
He never would understand people who swore the scent and flavor of coffee were worlds apart. Then again, people skills were never his strong suit. Mostly Daniel figured he’d be grateful to the geniuses who’d decided cafés and libraries went well together. Who knew how many times it’d saved his sanity?
Minnie, plain and tall and too thin, young and dressed in cocoa brown from collar to boot cuffs, gave Daniel a sideways, dubious look. The only other full-time librarian on staff in this small branch in a small city by the shore, she knew full well no one in any library, ever, jumped at a chance to reshelve returned or discarded books. Thankless, frustrating, and, above all, tedious.
And in all honestly, exactly what Daniel wanted tonight.
Not to be bored, not as such. Rather, to take a few minutes in peace and quiet to center his thoughts and occupy his hands. Otherwise, he’d risk turning to the barista within instead of a bottle for overcaffeinated comfort. He’d deplete the library’s secret stash of 100% Kona, his own hidden cache of Jamaican Blue Mountain, and even the national brand in its plastic red jugs they were just able to afford on a budget as tiny as the branch library itself.
Shelving. The meditation of repetition. Zen.
Minnie considered him in silence, then shrugged as if to say your funeral
. “You do know a few kids were in here earlier building forts in the reference shelves?”
“Oh yes. I’m aware.” Daniel breathed in, breathed out, and pushed his hair off his forehead, out of his eyes, and behind his ears. “Better me than you.” A memory tickled itself awake. “Besides, I still owe you one for filling in for a few extra shifts last month.”
Minnie waved her hand from side to side in a comme ci, comme ça gesture. “You’d do the same for me. Flu’s a miserable thing.”
It was the longest conversation they’d shared since she’d arrived midafternoon; even then she hadn’t questioned his choice to pull a double shift but only directed him toward the café end and kept the process rolling. Short on words she might be, but Daniel liked Minnie. She cared, in her way, and they kept an eye out for one another.
She wouldn’t ask about Kevin, or Daniel’s stubborn refusal to answer his phone all afternoon long. She didn’t have to, because she’d put the pieces together by herself, and she could add two and two. She’d simply know about the crash and burn of his relationship.
If Daniel could call it a relationship with a man so needy he nearly crushed the breath out of him, yet who’d been stupid enough to break it off in a text. Daniel remained up in the air about that one. What he could and did call it was the last
time he’d let someone who meant well try to take charge of his love life, claiming, “He’s perfect for you, I promise.”
Daniel didn’t know what “perfect for him” could be, but Kevin? Not it.
And as for Minnie’s silent sympathy, perhaps to call it librarian solidarity would be close enough.
Daniel tipped her a salute of silent thanks and tweaked the small orangutan figurine on the circulation desk as he passed. He dodged her light slap at his wrist and disappeared as quickly as dignity and a squeaky-wheeled cart would allow into the tall shelves that smelled of old ink and paper.
Ahh. So much better.
Daniel closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting the quiet envelop him. Even better, in deference to the cooler weather, they’d opened the windows a few inches earlier in the afternoon. Now, as Daniel stood directly in the path of a good strong breeze that made the twilight almost brisk so close to the end of summer, he could let the serenity of the ocean soothe his fractious temper.
Best of all, he could smell the richness of roasting coffee blending surprisingly well with salt breezes rolling in from the Pacific only a handful of blocks away. And, because it bore repeating, decadent coffee.
Minnie would know what prompted Daniel’s small moan of appreciation, and she laughed quietly at him from the circulation desk. He wasn’t bothered; her soft mirth stemmed from fondness. Besides, Daniel readily acknowledged his addiction. Everyone was allowed at least one vice, and if they weren’t, they should be.
Daniel unspooled a set of earbuds from the MP3 player he kept in his hip pocket and plugged himself in as he set to work. Electric violin went well with this kind of mood and task, energy that needed using and confusion that needed sorting out.
Other librarians he’d worked with in the past tended to regard Daniel with a mixture of awe and confusion, wondering if his reserve meant he was cold, crazy, didn’t give a damn about the job or the team, or spent most of his time thinking up different ways to kill them all in their sleep.
Daniel clicked his tongue. Honestly. Eccentric? Not inaccurate. Cold? Not so. Shy in a way he’d never outgrow if he hadn’t managed the task by age thirty-five. Reserved.
The problem with that? Most people interpreted his mien as frigid and unreadable, his arm permanently outthrust to warn them they’d better stay back. Even when they got to know him. If
they got to know him.
Only one man of Daniel’s acquaintance ever blew past those wards as if they weren’t even there. Or, if he’d noticed, didn’t waste time being bothered by climbing the walls or seeing a need to hammer-and-chisel them down. Easier and quicker to make like they didn’t exist, and who knew? Maybe, for Ian, they didn’t.
Tempting to miss his closest friend on such a night, but who knew where Ian might be around this time of year? The man made a living as a treasure hunter--of sorts--and careened around the globe in search of what an exclusive client list asked him to hunt down, whether hundred-year-old Scotch or a guitar signed by a rock legend--from Uzbekistan.
They’d come a long way from the still-gangly, still-innocent college freshmen they’d been when they met. Daniel remembered their initial meeting as if it were yesterday. Hate--or rather, the distaste of two young opposites upon colliding--at first sight. That’d lasted all of a week, until the night when Ian’s first upperclassman crush ditched him for someone more exciting, and Daniel brewed them both glasses of sweet, cold Thai coffee as his awkward way of offering comfort.
After that? Friends. To be brutally honest, Daniel hadn’t made a closer friend before or since Ian.
He wouldn’t have wanted one either.
Tempting, tempting, tempting to call him... Daniel tapped out a rhythm on the second-topmost shelf, a habit that calmed him and that Ian had an odd fondness for. Most times he’d pick up the tune and start singing almost under his breath, almost off-key but not quite. Close enough to pitch to sound unique, not bad.
He could e-mail Ian instead of calling or could see if he’d be up for an Internet video chat, but neither was the same. He’d wait. Ian had a habit of turning up when least expected, anyway.
. Daniel thought a moment. If he followed the string of logic through to its natural conclusion and combined it with his sure and certain knowledge of the man, he wouldn’t be surprised, not at all, if Ian showed his face tonight.
Daniel chuckled wryly at himself and got back to work. A nice dream, but dreams were only that: flights of fancy.
Still. Wouldn’t it be something to have called that one right?
* * *
Ian never had trouble picking Daniel out of a crowd. He could have done it with his eyes closed and his ears plugged with thick puffs of cotton, and even if someone had taken him and spun him around in circles to make sure he’d lost his bearings. He’d still find Daniel, orienting himself toward the man.
He figured later he should have seen there was more to his focus on Daniel than just friendship, but no one ever saw anything clearly in the moment. At least Ian didn’t. He took long walks off short piers and jumped, knowing when he surfaced he could swim to Daniel standing on the shore. He couldn’t do anything else and still be himself.
That was okay. Daniel might keep himself anchored on solid ground, but he’d be there waiting for Ian. Always.
Ian figured he should have paid more attention to what that
He never thought too hard about it, though. Overthinking wasn’t his forte.
If anyone asked Ian why he did--well, most of the things he did--he never quite knew how to answer the question. How did a guy explain why he was who he was if the person asking couldn’t tell just by looking?
Ian didn’t think of himself as complicated. C’mon. He saw opportunities and went after them. He leaped before he looked, and by the grace of whatever gods looked after fools and man-children, usually came in for a smooth landing. When he didn’t, he picked up the pieces, stuck them back together, and got a move on before the glue had a chance to dry. He didn’t have a home, living in a series of hotels, and ate a home-cooked meal once, maybe twice a year, and his longest-lasting relationships extended through breakfast the next morning.
And yet--he loved his life. Mostly. Ninety-nine percent of the time. Maybe 95 percent.
Every now and then, though, Ian found himself in a place where he needed to be somewhere that was...else. Not the ends of the earth, the Alaskan Pipeline or the Foreign Legion, nor a bar where everyone knew his name. The place he needed to be: a tiny town with a crumb of California coastline, close enough to shouting distance of San Francisco but far enough away to see the stars at night.
So when he’d known this morning, after waking up alone one time too many, he’d had one cup more than “enough” for now, he’d tossed together a duffel’s worth of odds and ends, including an old Turkish coffee set he’d bought on a whim because Daniel would love it, paid up on his Portland suite through the weekend, and sweet-talked his way into a last-minute ticket on a plane down the coast, and--
And here he was, standing outside a library no bigger than a postage stamp, breathing deep of an intoxicating mix of roasting coffee, clean sea air, and the last sweet kisses of one of the final summer-warm twilights of the year. Content to be
, there and then, putting off clattering up the stairs to the library’s second-story main entrance for the sake of saving up anticipation until he couldn’t take it anymore.
Good thing Daniel wouldn’t know he was watching, not with the doors of the café separating them. Ian didn’t often get a chance to stand still and look as much as he wanted, and he was a man who appreciated beauty even when planted in a half-parcel of parking lot, on the outside looking in.
Daniel had no idea he’d come tonight. Ian bet he’d be in for getting his ear chewed off; he laughed at the thought, not minding a bit. Besides, he’d tried to call. More than once. Let the surprise be on his own head; at least--Ian thought--it’d be a pleasant surprise. Meantime, he could take
his time to relax, far and away from the race for gold and goal, and enjoy the view.
A good friend? Worth his weight in gold. Daniel? Worth his weight in espresso beans.
Ian knew his friend well enough to be positive Daniel would prefer being described as such.
Ian hummed under his breath, content for the moment to stand still and watch his friend work. Some kind of gorgeous man, that one, his Daniel. Silken-soft hair richer and deeper a hue than dark chocolate, long enough to curl around his neck and over his ears and tumble across his forehead in the humidity of the salt-rich wind off the sea. Startling blue-gray eyes, an inheritance from his father, were the first things that’d caught Ian’s interest way back when. Like the skies before a storm, with a thick fringe of sooty lashes. He wore a simple white shirt and dark gray slacks tonight, sleeves rolled up and two buttons undone, and when he reached over his head to wedge a fat blue book back into place on a shelf, he moved with the sort of grace, wholly unconscious, dancers only wished they could learn.
With all credit to the guy who wrote Fight Club
, describing Daniel as beautiful wasn’t the right word, but it was the first word that came to mind. Funny how so few others saw it. Ian never had understood why they didn’t, and he’d given up trying.
Sometimes, when Ian stopped to think, he wondered if it was selfishness that he didn’t mind being one of the lucky few. Daniel deserved someone who’d love him tender and love him true, and at thirty-five, Ian could tell he’d started losing the thin edge of optimism he’d hung on to since his twenties.
He shook the mood, as insubstantial as cobwebs--usually--off, or tried to. Thirty-five wasn’t old. Far from it, and Daniel was the kind of man who’d age well. Ian looked forward to seeing it.
Odd, though...seeing Daniel from this angle struck Ian differently tonight. Almost always muted, the spark that set Daniel apart, something like a flicker of lightning in a cool dusky sky, came through crystal clear.
Some kind of gorgeous man, all right--and such a dork. Ian laughed quietly, fondly, absolutely sure Daniel had no clue he moved ever so slightly to the beat of his different drummer, or electric violinist, as the case might be, and the music fed through the trail of white headphones from pocket to ears.
No one could learn to be the kind of friend Daniel was to Ian. You were born to be that close to one another or not, and how Ian had been lucky enough to stumble across a guy who took him for who he was, charms and flaws and risks and rewards and everything else...eh.
Why tempt fate trying to figure out the whys and hows? He’d just be glad as hell and leave it there. Like always.
Ian tapped the toe of his shoe on the pavement, considering Daniel’s movements through the window.
Y’know what? Ian questioned himself. Anticipation is one thing. Delayed gratification is another. Neither stands much of a chance when I weigh them against a chance in a million to take Daniel off guard.
Decision: made. Ian hit speed-dial one more time for the fun of it, and then he hit the stairs, taking them two at a time, excited by the electric sparks that flickered to life in his veins.
. This was what he’d come for.