Chandler Stowe lounged across the chair, swinging his legs off the armrest, trying not to think about his past. Blessedly alone in the teachers’ lounge, he pressed the cold compress across his eyes. He had forgotten about the horrendous allergy season in this godforsaken town. While his artistic side loved the flowering acacias, his sinuses didn’t love the trees. Oh well, he would make the best of his situation. He’d promised Robyn he would get out more, and teaching an after-school art class at the local high school was his first step in getting his life back together.
The door creaked on its hinges, an awful, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard kind of noise. He pressed the icy compress tighter and waited, hoping whoever walked in would see he was resting and walk right out. No such luck. Heavy footsteps echoed on the linoleum floor.
The scent of musk hit his nostrils first, followed by an underlayer of cologne. Nice scent -- very nice. And masculine -- very masculine. He loved the smell of a good and sweaty man. He sat up quickly, his compress sliding down to his lap. When he blinked, he almost gasped at the sight.
A big man walked past him, and he caught a glimpse of some very nice assets: wide shoulders; sturdy back; thick, corded thighs encased in pressed khakis that showed off a round ass; and a tight -- yes, very tight -- polo shirt. Those were some well-defined biceps bulging from the short sleeves.
The hunk didn’t bother to stop and introduce himself as he beelined for the coffeepot. He poured day-old coffee into a chipped mug and zapped it in the microwave.
Chandler circled the base of his left ring finger with his thumb and forefinger. “Hi, I’m Chandler Stowe.”
The man turned around. “Yeah. Heard about you. The LA artist, right?”
Chandler nodded, but before he could get out another word, the man looked him over from top to bottom with a pair of impossibly blue eyes. His heart skipped. Yeah, skipped. And shit, it’d been a while since any man had made him react like that. A sucker for blue eyes, he was not usually crazy about blonds, but he’d make an exception for this one.
The big man’s gaze stopped at the compress Chandler gripped in his lap. “Need some aspirin? I think there’s some here.” He flipped open a cabinet door above the sink and removed a white plastic bottle. He tossed it toward Chandler.
Chandler caught it with ease. “Allergies. It’ll pass.”
“Yeah, they’re a bitch this time of year. So they got you teaching a class?” He leaned against the counter and drank slowly. The cup seemed too small in his broad hand -- a hand that could crush the cup into smithereens.
“I’m doing it gratis, so we’ll see how it goes.” Chandler uncapped the bottle and dry swallowed a couple of pills. “You seem to know about me. And you are...?”
“Titan Douglas. I’m the football coach.”
Chandler almost laughed. No shit. Of course he had to be the coach, looking like that. And then a spark of recognition made him sit up straighter. Everyone in Cholla knew of the Douglas family; their ancestors had practically built the town.
Being several years younger than Titan, he’d never gone to school with the guy, but you couldn’t live here without hearing about Boy Wonder. Strange that the once-NFL star had set up house in a town of less than a few thousand residents. He had to be wealthier than God and could live anywhere.
Titan peered over the rim of his coffee cup. “Yeah, my parents call me Ti, and as a joke, my teammates starting calling me Titan. The nickname stuck.” He shifted on his feet. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
“Thanks. After my mom died, he had a hard time of it. I don’t think he wanted to live without her.”
Titan nodded. “He always treated me well. Is that why you’re back in town?”
“That and other things. You know Robyn? She teaches here. She’s the one that talked me into teaching an art class. Sports aren’t the only game in town.” Although some rumble and tumble with this man might be fun.
“People here would disagree with you.”
“I plan on changing a few minds.”
“In this town? Good luck with that.” The deep chuckle rose from his chest, and when Titan smiled, two dimples popped out. A delightful surprise. “Although” -- he ran his hand across his chest as he kept his piercing gaze on Chandler -- “you just might be the one to change someone’s mind.”
A prickly heat rushed over Chandler as he watched that strong, square hand glide across the burly chest. Oh boy, it was trouble when his gut twisted like it just had. Titan stood real quiet with that half-crooked smile. Chandler felt naked under that intense gaze. All that primal energy seemed to be aimed right at him, which was crazy -- Titan had to be as straight as they came.
Chandler tossed the aspirin bottle back to Titan, who caught it easily with one hand and set it on the counter. Titan then grinned and said with a tease in his voice, “Nice throw. Ever gone out for football? A little more muscle, and you’d make a great quarterback with those quick reflexes.”
Chandler’s stomach lurched at the implication that Titan had even noticed his body, let alone commented on it. He chose to ignore it. The man had to be playing with him. The big, bad jock teasing the gay boy. Just like when he was a student in this high school.
Chandler set the compress on the armrest and stood. He picked up his jacket from the back of a chair. Best to beat it out of there. “Well, I should go. It was nice meeting you.”
A few quick steps and Titan stood next to Chandler. The man swallowed up the space between them, blocking out the rest of the room. That smell of male sweat and musk wafted under Chandler’s nose. He grabbed the doorknob, ready to make his escape.
“I hear you have Rory Stewart in your class.”
Chandler paused. “Yeah. Tall redheaded kid with spiky hair?”
“That’s the one. He’s one of my better players. Even though it’s off-season, make sure your lessons don’t interfere with his training. My boys need to keep up their strength, and they have weight training after school.”
Chandler shrugged. “It’s a free country, last I heard. If Rory chooses art over football, it’s not my concern.”
“Yeah, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Titan ran his hands through his short hair, and the strands glittered like gold as they righted themselves. Then he looked at his wristwatch, a frown replacing that dazzling smile. “Ah fuck.”
“My assistant’s gone for the day, so I just lost my ride.” Titan sucked in his lower lip, then shrugged as if he’d just made up his mind about something. “Did you drive here?”
“Can I bum a ride from you? My car’s in the shop. You’re the only one here besides the janitor.”
Another grin lit that ruggedly handsome face, those generous lips revealing perfectly even white teeth. He wasn’t so sure he wanted Titan in the close quarters of his truck. Not after this strange banter between them. He didn’t want any complications -- like unrequited lust -- in his life. Titan would take up the front seat, and their bodies would be in close proximity. But he didn’t want to make enemies of the most popular guy in Cholla. Titan had given the folks in town something to cheer about -- the team’s first winning season since 1938.
“Sure, no prob.” Chandler hoped his words would prove true. Titan Douglas looked like a whole lot of trouble.
* * * * *
Titan had no idea why he asked Chandler Stowe for a ride. Sure, he needed one, but he could have asked his sister, who lived just a few blocks from the high school. Maybe it was how Chandler had stood up to him, not intimidated by his size. Nah, who was he kidding? Not himself. He knew who he was -- a queer in the closet -- and the artist was an attractive gay man. Very
attractive, and it was fun teasing him a bit, but really, the man seemed almost shy. Titan had expected more camp from the artist, but the blush on his cheeks had been cute and kind of sweet.
Titan shifted in the passenger’s seat of the cab. “You plan to set up shop here? You’re pretty well-known for --”
“For an artist.” Chandler laughed as he set the gear into drive. “I’ll be staying for a while.”
This sent an unexpected thrill through Titan. So, the artist would be sticking around. “I have a small art collection, and I’ve seen your work before.”
Chandler raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t be so smug. Just because I’m a jock doesn’t mean I’m a Neanderthal.”
He studied Chandler’s profile, admiring the olive skin stretched over prominent cheekbones and straight nose. Glossy dark hair edged his shoulders. He was tempted to pull back the thick locks. He glanced at the long-fingered hand resting on the gearshift. The guy smelled nice, making Titan aware of his own sweaty shirt from spending all day on the practice field. He glanced out the window -- anywhere but at that striking face.
“I do miss my studio...”
Titan picked up on what wasn’t being said. Art and his studio weren’t the only things Chandler missed about living in Los Angeles. His voice was too wistful. And he had noticed the artist twisting an invisible ring on his finger. Maybe a gift from a past boyfriend?
Turning back from his view of Main Street, he glanced at Chandler. “Are you looking to rent a space?”
“There’s not much choice here, and I’d hate to have to commute to Tucson.”
“Not much industrial space around to speak of, but there must be someplace that’d work. What about your parents’ house?”
“I thought of that, but it’s a small bungalow. I work fairly large, and my equipment takes up a lot of space. You know, table saws, welding torches... Don’t think the neighbors would appreciate the noise. I work odd hours.”
“How about you build one?”
Chandler smiled at Titan. “Didn’t really think of that.” He turned back to concentrate on the road as he stroked his chin.
A nice jaw, and Titan shifted in his seat as he looked straight ahead. An idea formed, and before he could shove it down, his mouth ran ahead of his common sense. “If you’re interested in building, I own several acres close to town.”
He’d had the acreage up for sale for a while. A developer had his hungry eyes on it, but Titan didn’t want to see a bunch of ticky-tacky houses next to his property. “I’d be willing to sell off a couple of them. Utility lines already in place, water --”
“Wow, that’d be sweet. When can I see the property?”
He didn’t want to dwell on why he had opened his big mouth and told Chandler about the land. Besides, it was too late. He’d already offered, so he couldn’t very well take it back.
“How about Sunday?”
“Works for me.”
Titan pointed out the window. “The garage is across the street. It’ll be easier if you pull over here.”
“Chief Auto, right? Does Stan still work there?”
“He owns it now. The man’s great when it comes to cars, but he’s not the genius your dad was.”
Chandler grinned. “Yeah. He could coax a purr from the most complicated engine.”
I’d like to coax a purr from you.
Titan’s cheeks burned from his crazy thoughts. Having sex with an openly gay man who lived in town would be idiotic. Even thinking about it was wrong. But he already knew he’d take the risk.
Chandler briefly touched Titan’s arm. “Uh, what time on Sunday?”
Titan wondered how those artistic fingers would feel on his bare skin. Good. More than good. Great.
“How about two o’clock?” He pulled out an old receipt from his jacket pocket. “I’ll write down my address, but I need a pen.”
“In the glove box. Wait, I’ll get it. It sticks sometimes.” Chandler bent across the seat to reach the glove compartment and gave it a good whack with the butt of his hand. “It’s temperamental.”
Titan’s breath hitched as Chandler’s body brushed against him. He leaned over slightly and breathed in a whiff of shampoo, then stretched out his hand to caress the artist’s hair. It reminded him of a stallion’s mane -- thick and silky looking. A smile crossed his face as he thought of another part of Chandler’s anatomy he’d bet was the same. He quickly folded his hands in his lap.
Chandler riffled through maps and CDs, then settled into his seat after handing Titan a pen.
After scribbling the address and a quick map on the wrinkled receipt, Titan shoved it in Chandler’s hand.
Chandler stuffed the note in his shirt pocket. “I’ll be there.”
Titan grunted good-bye and got out. He kept his focus straight ahead. He’d show Chandler around his property, then be done with it. And if Chandler did want to purchase the land, they’d be neighbors, and -- Oh Christ, he desired him, wanted him, and hell, it’d been too long since he’d had a good fuck. He hesitated in his step, close to waving Chandler back and telling him he’d decided not to sell. Having an attractive gay man as his neighbor could prove to be his undoing.