A bunch of my friends were heading to Cancun. I’d gone with them last year, but the spring break capital wasn’t quite what Nurse Jon had in mind. My panic disorder was a new thing for me to deal with, and I hadn’t fully learned how to keep it under control. I was better off avoiding the disorderly college crowd that would be swarming the beaches and staggering out of the bars, drunk off their asses.
Salem was closer, much more sedate, and it agreed with my modest budget. Fortunately, my dad had tucked an envelope filled with cash into my luggage when I wasn’t looking. I’d discovered it after boarding the train at South Station in downtown Boston.
I pulled a twenty from the money he gave me and approached a cab waiting for a passenger. Opening the door, I tossed my bag onto the seat and climbed inside. “Hawthorne Hotel, please,” I requested.
The haunted establishment was my favorite place to stay, but I hadn’t been fortunate enough to witness any supernatural activity. I always heard people whisper in passing that they believed they heard footsteps in the middle of the night or felt something touch them from behind. I believed in ghosts, but I knew the power of the human mind and pinned most of their experiences on overactive imaginations.
The driver pulled over in front of the old stone building, which hadn’t changed a bit since my last visit. I paid him and exited the cab, holding my bag at my side. A heavy feeling pressed against my chest as I entered the lobby.
I checked in and went upstairs to my room to unpack. I opened the blinds to let in the light and gazed down at the people walking on the sidewalks, peering into the elaborate store-window displays. Being back reminded me of how much Salem felt like home. And I had never been able to figure out why.
My clothes had been stained with sweat in the short time I had been outside. I peeled them off and took a cold shower. I dressed in more appropriate attire for the heat and left the hotel to explore the town. There weren’t many people roaming around Salem this time of year, but I still managed to crash into a man carrying two boxes full of books.
“Sorry. Are you okay?” I asked, helping him stand. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
He wiped the dust from his hands onto his pants. “I’m fine. It’s not your fault. I couldn’t see over these damned boxes.” He looked at me, and I couldn’t help but stare back. His eyes were bright blue, and his hair was cut into a short Mohawk. He wore headphones around his neck, and his music was just barely audible. He was gorgeous, and he was injured.
I took his hand without thinking. “You’re bleeding.” I came to my senses, remembering that he was a perfect stranger and I was invading his personal space. “Sorry again. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Before I answered, I tucked my hands into my pockets, afraid of accidentally touching him again. “Victor.”
“I’m Rayne.” He licked his full, strawberry-colored lips. “I’m going to ask you a favor—two, actually.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Sure, whatever you need.”
“First, stop apologizing. You didn’t hurt me that bad.” He flashed me the minor scrape again, more superficial than anything. “And can you help me carry these books home? Otherwise I fear I might be run over before I get there.”
“Oh. Of course.” I helped pack the books back into the boxes, catching sight of one of the covers. A book on spell craft, which wasn’t unusual in the Witch City. “Do you live close by?” I asked.
Rayne pointed around the corner. “Just down that way, but without you it would take me longer to hobble there.”
I picked up a box and struggled to keep it hoisted. How the smaller man had managed to haul two of them around was beyond me. “Why did you try to carry them by yourself? These aren’t light.”
He grimaced as he stood. “It was easier than making two trips. Plus, I didn’t have a big strong man to help me…until now.” Rayne winked at me and then turned and started walking.
I considered that following a stranger toward somewhere unknown may have been a mistake, but he didn’t seem to notice my pause. I peered at the box in my hands before trotting after him. “So I guess knocking you over was a good thing.”
He stopped suddenly, his hand extending from the box to push open a metal gate in front an enormous Victorian home. His smile was playful. “Yes, I guess it was.”
I wanted to kiss that smile. Instead I blinked at him before turning back to the house, and it provided me with something halfway intelligent to say. “This is where you live? It’s…nice.” It made my apartment look like a crumby hole in the wall.
Rayne unlocked the front door and shuffled inside. “Thanks. My parents own it.”
“Do they live with you?” I asked, setting the box on the floor against a wall.
He shut the door and set his box beside the first.
Rayne pulled off his button-down shirt; his undershirt was thin and transparent from sweat. “No, we’d kill each other. They live outside of town, and my brother has a house a few minutes away.” He led me down the hall, and I struggled to tear my eyes away from his ass.
We stepped into his kitchen; it was all white with a subtle rustic charm. There were a set of French doors to my left that opened into a greenhouse filled with more plants than I could count. “Do you ever get tired of living in this big place all alone?” I asked.
“Sometimes.” He rinsed his scraped hand under the tap, then wrapped it with gauze and secured it with medical tape.
Something hooted and rustled behind me. I turned to find a barn owl staring at me from inside a cage. “Oh, hey there,” I said nervously.
“That’s Elvira.” He walked over to the enormous antique birdcage, which housed a large white owl. She was gorgeous and terrifying. “Are you all right?” he asked.
I moved closer, but not much. “I have a little bird phobia, that’s all.”
Rayne stuck a finger inside the cage. “Don’t be afraid. She’s harmless. I found her in the woods with a broken wing. I brought her home and patched her up. When I tried to let her back into the wild, she followed me home. I dug this cage out of the attic and gave her a name. That was three years ago.” He took my hand and brought me closer. “Go ahead. I promise she won’t bite.”
My pulse raced as I stuck a shaky finger inside, and I held my breath as she rubbed it with her soft face. Then she moved away and started grooming herself. “Wow. Too bad all birds aren’t as friendly,” I said.
Rayne laughed quietly. “Take the time and get to know them. Maybe you’ll find them nicer than you thought.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t have your aptitude for bird taming.”
“Who says she is tame? Friendly and tame are two entirely different things.” That playful grin had turned mischievous, and I found myself turning away from him to keep from staring.
Rayne cleared his throat. “Well, I don’t want to keep you. I appreciate your help. Nice guys like you don’t bump into me very often.” Rayne stepped closer, and the sweet sincerity in his words warmed me. I wanted to ask him out, or kiss him, or both.
Instead I fumbled over my words. “You aren’t keeping me. Honest. I’m enjoying my time with you. You even got me to bond with a bird while sober.” I was immensely drawn to the younger man, and he read gay to me. I hoped he was, anyway. I was intrigued by his quirkiness and how familiar he seemed already.