The Square Peg 3: The Empty Box

Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow

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Dave’s taking life day by day after leaving Travis, his emotionally abusive partner of fifteen years. Working as the cook at the Square Peg is all the social life he has and he’s content with that. When a swerving car leave...
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Dave’s taking life day by day after leaving Travis, his emotionally abusive partner of fifteen years. Working as the cook at the Square Peg is all the social life he has and he’s content with that.

When a swerving car leaves him sprawled on the snowy sidewalk with a broken ankle, being rescued by his new neighbor, young, sinfully pretty Jeremy, seems like the start of something good, even if twenty years separate the two men. But Travis isn’t content to let Dave slip away and Dave’s his own worst enemy, holding Jeremy at arms’ length when Jeremy wants to get as close as possible.

With decisions about his future complicated by his tangled past, can Dave accept the second chance Jeremy offers or will his heart stay empty of love?

  • Note:
    The Empty Box
The wind drove tiny hailstones directly into Dave’s face, scouring skin raw and making him squint when he checked for traffic. This late at night, the only window lit in the block of condos was his. He always left a lamp burning because he hated walking into a dark room. The block held four apartments, two on each floor, compact but more than large enough for a single man. He’d moved there after Travis walked out, selling the fixer-upper only he’d ever put any effort into working on. Travis had slapped a coat of paint on a wall or two, then lost interest. Maybe if Dave had put the house in both their names, it would’ve made a difference, but it’d belonged to his grandmother and something had stopped him from taking that step. After the first year, Travis had abandoned even the pretense of paying rent, compensating by taking Dave out to overpriced restaurants or buying him expensive, useless gifts.

Mr. and Mrs. Seldon on the ground floor would be in bed, and their neighbor, Phil, a brash salesman who had a handshake firm enough to leave Dave’s fingers numb, was away on business. The man who lived next door to Dave was new. He’d moved in the week before and hadn’t gotten around to introducing himself. Dave had seen him walking down the stairs and formed a vague impression of height without bulk and a shock of straw-colored hair. A scarecrow, but one dressed in a long black coat that even fashion-blind Dave knew was cashmere.

He hurried across the road, head down, intent on reaching the haven of the lobby. Snow buried the curb, but he’d dug out a path earlier that week, braving the latest January storm, and he aimed for the gap in the wall of plowed snow.

Almost there. He could soak in a hot bath, treat himself to a splash of brandy in a cup of cocoa. Burrow down under his comforter and listen to the wind without its sting against his skin. Heaven after the long shift.

A car horn blasted nearby. He jerked his head around, blinking against the eye-watering flurries. Black SUV, lights on full beam. Jesus, it was right on top of him and swerving erratically, the driver going insanely fast on the icy roads. Spurred on by the imminent danger, he leaped forward, his goal no longer warmth, but safety.

The moment’s relief he felt at reaching the curb was fleeting; his heel came down solidly enough, but ice coated the cement and his forward momentum threw him off balance. He pinwheeled his arms frantically, trying to recover, and failed. His left ankle twisted in one direction, and the rest of him went the other. The next thing he knew, he was down on the ground without knowing how he’d gotten there.

It hurt so much he couldn’t do anything but sit there, wet soaking into his slacks, the combination of bitter cold and nauseating pain more than he could bear. After a minute or so, he remembered the SUV, but it was quiet now except for the bouncing of the hail. The guy had almost run him over, then left him. If he hadn’t been so overwhelmed with the pain, Dave would have been indignant, even pissed off, but he didn’t have the energy or focus for anything except praying that the agony would ease and he could get up off the sidewalk before he froze to death.

Tentatively, he placed one hand down against the ground and tried to shift his weight. The fresh bolt of pain that went from the sole of his foot to above his knee disabused him of the notion that he could get up unaided. He fumbled to get his phone out of his pocket, then heard someone ask, “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I always sit on the ground in the middle of snowstorms,” Dave growled. It was hard not to be an asshole under the circumstances, though he’d regret it later.

He looked up to see his new neighbor standing over him. The man had a gorgeous, probably designer scarf wrapped around his neck and held a paper bag twisted around a bottle. “What happened?”

“Some idiot almost ran me over, and I fell.”

His neighbor bit his lip uncertainly. “Can you get up?”

“No.” Dave was all out of snark. “And I can’t get my phone out of my pocket.”

The man tucked the bottle under his arm and dug his phone out of his overcoat. “We could use mine?”

“That might work,” Dave agreed. His rescuer wasn’t winning prizes for initiative or problem solving, but he’d said we, not you, and that got him points. Dave tried to make out the man’s features, but craning his neck hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. Younger than him, the thick fair hair disheveled by the hailstorm. Not a scarecrow tonight, but a dandelion gone to seed.

“You can’t stay down there. You’ll freeze. But moving you is a bad idea too.” The man shook his head, frustration roughening his voice. “I suck at real life. Too many variables.”

That was one way of putting it. Dave pushed aside the shakiness twisting his stomach into knots and projected calm certainty. “I’ve sprained my ankle, maybe broken it. I didn’t hurt my back, and I didn’t bang my head. If you can get me to the bench over there, that would be great. You can call 911 and get me an ambulance.”

“Or I could get my car and take you to the hospital myself. That would be faster.” The man nodded, eagerness replacing hesitancy. “And we need ice. Ice is good for sprains. There’s this acronym. RICE. It stands for—”

Biting back a pitiful whimper, Dave said, “I know what it stands for. The bench. Please—uh, what’s your name?”

“Jeremy Reed.”

“Jeremy. Great. I’m Dave Adams. The bench? Please?”

“Okay. Take it easy. Don’t put any weight on it if you can help it.” Jeremy was trying hard to be helpful, but Dave wanted to snap at him to stop talking and concentrate. Hopping on one foot still hurt like hell, and he was terrified he’d slip and sprain the other ankle. “Easy. Okay, good.” Jeremy straightened, now that Dave was sitting on the bench, and looked over his shoulder. “So do you want ice? Should I call the ambulance? Or do you want me to bring my car over?”

“I’ll pass on the ice.” Dave gritted his teeth, then tried to force himself to relax. “It’s cold enough out here.”

“It’ll take a minute to get my car. Stay here.”

As if he had any choice in the matter. Dave cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew into them to warm them. This was great. Not only was he supposed to work tomorrow night, but now his new neighbor would despise him for being a klutz, and a klutz who begged for help at that. He wouldn’t even think about the medical bills; he had insurance, so they wouldn’t destroy him, thank God.

Jeremy was quick to bring the car around, and careful to position it so it was a straight shot from the bench to the passenger seat. That didn’t make it any easier to hop over there, even with Jeremy’s shoulder to lean on.

“I’ll turn the heat up. Fasten your seat belt. It would suck if we slid off the road and you ended up needing the emergency room for more than one injury.” Jeremy grinned at him, showing the first hint of a sense of humor, and pulled away cautiously. “You live across the hall, right?”


“Have you lived here long?”

“About a year and a half. It’s good. The downstairs neighbors are nice. You’ll like it.”

“The last place I lived was a nightmare,” Jeremy said. “Bigger building, lots more neighbors, and most of them were college students or recent graduates. It was a round-the-clock frat party.”

“You like a quiet life, huh?” Concentrating on the conversation was a distraction from the pain.

Jeremy tapped his index finger against the wheel. No gloves. No hat. Just the scarf. Long fingers, the nails trimmed, not bitten. Dave focused on Jeremy’s hand, because watching the whirl of snowflakes that’d replaced the hail did nothing to settle his stomach. “Interesting question.” It was? It’d seemed like the most banal collection of words possible. “I like noise when I’m making it. When I can turn it up or down or off. I work best at night, so they weren’t keeping me awake, but they were distracting.”

“Were you planning to work tonight? I’m sorry for imposing like this.”

The tapping stopped. “I chose to help you. Offered to drive you. That’s not an imposition. I could’ve called 911 and left you on the bench.” Jeremy straightened in his seat. “I did okay, didn’t I? Didn’t panic. Much. I mean, at first I thought you were drunk. That worried me because you freeze faster when you’re drunk. Weird, because alcohol doesn’t freeze.”

“It lowers your core temperature. So you drink it and warm up for a moment or two, but it’s not helping.” Dave wondered if Jeremy always rambled like this when talking to someone he didn’t know, or if maybe, like he’d said, it was due to panic.

“Yeah. Want to know something funny? I had a bottle of brandy in the bag.”

“Why is that— Oh! Like a Saint Bernard dog in the Alps?”

“Mm. It’s cooking brandy, but I don’t suppose they give the dogs the good stuff. I saw this recipe on TV I wanted to try, and I had everything but the brandy. And the peppercorns. Oh, and the shallots, but I decided onions would be close enough.”

“Right.” Any other time, Dave would’ve explained that shallots and onions weren’t as interchangeable as most people thought, but it was too much effort. His ankle throbbed even when he wasn’t moving it, the pain shooting into the red with the smallest shift of his foot.

“Is talking helping?” Jeremy gave him a worried look. “I mean, is it distracting in a good way? Or is it making it worse?”

“It’s good. What do you do for work, that you do it at night instead of the daytime, and at home?”

“I build computers. You must have seen all the deliveries I get? Boxes upon boxes, even though I buy some stuff through a wholesale place that’s semilocal.”

“No, I work a weird combination of late first and second shift.” It wasn’t the most accurate way to describe his work hours, but Dave had found it made sense to people. “Usually not around when the mail is delivered.”

It was as if Jeremy hadn’t heard him or was determined to share every detail about his packages, because he added, “And a lot of it I have to sign for, because it’s valuable.” Jeremy frowned and slowed down, peering out the windshield at the falling snow. “Damn, I missed the turn. I should have plugged in the GPS, but it’s in the glove compartment and I always think I’ll figure it out.”

“No, you’re okay. Take the next left.” Dave decided that Jeremy wasn’t really weird, just a little awkward. Spending most of his time alone wouldn’t help.

“Do you visit the emergency room often?” Jeremy asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dave shook his head. “No, but I’ve lived here for a while. In the area, I mean. Are you new to town?”

“No. Guess I’ve been lucky with my health. Oh, there’s the sign.” Jeremy drove carefully, which Dave appreciated under the circumstances.

Once inside the grounds, Jeremy drove up to the emergency entrance and, with a blithe disregard for signs telling him not to linger, helped Dave out and into the reception area, less crowded than Dave had feared. There were wheelchairs there, battered but serviceable, and Dave sank into one with a small sigh of relief. “Thanks. So much.”

“You look awful. Maybe it’s the lights in here.”

His jeans were soaked, the discomfort of cold, clammy denim against his legs and ass making itself known now that he was inside. It’d been a long night. Patrick had sulked because he’d wanted to flirt with Vin, so Shane had put them on opposite shifts. Then a late order from a group of six had come in near closing. Awful probably didn’t come close to describing it. Jeremy, on the other hand, was as delectable as a chocolate-dipped strawberry, all high cheekbones and lush lips, with thick dark lashes around deep blue eyes. His nose had a bump in it that saved him from perfection, and he seemed unaware of the admiring glances from the woman behind the reception desk, but he was still too damn pretty for a man who must be in his midtwenties.

“No, I can safely say it’s me. I can handle it from here. You’d better go before they tow your car. And thanks again. I owe you.”

“Are you kidding? What kind of an asshole do you think I am?” Jeremy seemed genuinely affronted. “I’m not leaving you here on your own. You’re right about the car, though. I’d better move it. I’ll be right back.”

He returned while Dave was still waiting for his assessment, which he assumed would include X-rays. Jeremy came in, brushing snow away. Instead of his damp hair making him seem mussed or unkempt, he ended up looking more like a fashion model. He built computers? The man was a riddle.

“Okay, what can I get for you? Do you want a coffee? A bottle of water?” Jeremy glanced around the waiting area. “A four-year-old magazine?”

Dave snorted despite himself, which made him wince. “I’m fine. Sit down and keep me company, if you’re insistent on playing the hero.”

“You’re lucky I’m so mellow,” Jeremy told him, sitting in the nearest chair. “You aren’t the easiest guy to get along with, you know.”

“I actually am. You’re not seeing me at my best.”

“Appearance or attitude?”

“Both, but don’t get the idea I clean up much better than this. I’d hate to get your hopes up.”

Jeremy gazed at him thoughtfully, his attention focused but impersonal. “You have good bone structure, and I like the color of your eyes. They’re not washed-out like most people’s so you can’t tell if they’re blue or gray or whatever. Yours are dark gray. It’s different.”

Dave scratched the back of his head, ruffling damp hair that matched his eyes, though he hoped Jeremy didn’t mention it. “Thanks. I think.”

“I’m sorry.” Jeremy smacked the side of his head lightly. “Bad me. It’s from working alone all day. I say what comes into my head, and usually the only person listening is my cat, and he doesn’t tell me to back off. You can. I won’t mind.”

“I’m not that rude. And I shouldn’t be fussy about compliments. They don’t come my way often.” Dave heard the words and rolled his eyes. “And that sounded pathetic. Ignore me. My ankle’s broken, not my self-esteem.”

“Do you think it is? Broken, not sprained?”

“I heard it crack.” The sound played back in his head, definite, uncompromising, though at the time, it’d been less of a sound than a sensation. “They say it’s better to break it. Heals faster and cleaner.”

Jeremy grimaced. “Nothing about it sounds better to me. I’ve never broken anything, and I prefer to keep it that way.”

A nurse came to collect him, cutting short the conversation. “Well, thanks,” Dave said when the nurse turned his wheelchair. “I appreciate the help.”

“No problem. I’ll hang around for a while.”

“Because hospitals are so much fun?” Dave knew he was being difficult, and he was self-aware enough to know why, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself.

“Are you kidding? I love a good gift shop.” Jeremy waved as if Dave were setting sail on an ocean voyage, not traveling a short distance to a cubicle. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” It sounded grumpy even to him.

It wasn’t luck that Dave ended up needing, but time, because everything took five times longer than necessary. First there were all the preliminaries such as his medical history and taking his blood pressure.

“A little high,” the nurse commented.

Dave manfully refrained from pointing out that was hardly surprising under the circumstances. Next was a series of X-rays proving his ankle was, indeed, broken. More waiting was followed by the application of a cast and a lesson in how to use crutches. By three a.m. Dave was convinced Jeremy was long gone, not that he’d blame him.

He had the number of a cab service on his contact list. All the Square Peg employees did, with orders to call one for any customer too drunk to drive. Dave didn’t often serve behind the bar these days, but the number was still there. Balancing on his right foot, the crutches tucked under his left arm, he leaned against a wall and took out his phone. Holding it in one hand, he struck the screen with a finger and brought the precarious house of cards down with a single tap. The crutches clattered to the floor, his shoulder slid on the smooth wall, and he fell again, helpless, clumsy.

“Got you,” Jeremy said with annoying cheerfulness, grabbing Dave around the waist and hoisting him up. Being treated as if he were a cross between a toddler and a sack of potatoes was bad enough, but Jeremy’s enthusiasm jarred Dave’s body from head to foot. Only his ankle was broken, but the rest of him had picked up an assortment of bruises in the fall too.

The man had waited hours to give him a ride home. Saved him from sprawling flat for a second time. He should be thinking about ways to say thank you, and instead he wanted to bat Jeremy away, acting like he was a buzzing fly that wouldn’t shoo.

“What is wrong with you?” he snapped. “Are you a martyr or something?”

“Not that I know of. Guess I’m a sucker for gray eyes.” Jeremy propped Dave back against the wall, more gently now. “You must be exhausted.”

“Yeah.” Unexpectedly, Dave felt his throat go thick with emotion. He swallowed past it and blinked a few times, overwhelmed.

“Okay. Who were you getting ready to call? A friend?”

“A cab.”

“You can put that away, then.” With one hand on Dave to steady him, Jeremy bent and retrieved the fallen crutch. “Can I trust you to hang out here while I get the car?”

Dave nodded. Jeremy studied him as if trying to decide whether to believe him, then turned and left. Raising a hand to his face, Dave silently berated himself for being an asshole. The pain was no excuse, or at least not a good one. This had to stop. By the time Jeremy came back through the automated doors, Dave had managed to plaster a smile on his face.

Jeremy faltered when he saw him. “Um.”

“What?” Belatedly, Dave realized his smile was more of a fixed grimace. “It hurts,” he said without stretching the truth too far and added a groan.

“I could get the wheelchair again. Aren’t you supposed to be in one anyway? I thought they always made you ride around until you were officially discharged.”

“It’s possible I sneaked out when they weren’t looking,” Dave admitted. “No, honestly, I want to get home, into bed, and pass out.”

“You’ll wake up eventually.” Jeremy stepped backward, watching him without touching. “Is there someone who can take care of you? I assume you don’t live with anyone, or you’d have asked me to get them.”

Dave hopped toward the exit, wary of damp patches on the floor from tracked-in snow. “I’ll call my employers in the morning and let them know what happened. Someone will come by and make sure I’m not starving to death. We’re a pretty friendly bunch.”

“Where is it you work?” Jeremy held open the door, still keeping a careful distance. “It sounds nice.”

The door swung closed, and Dave watched his breath cloud the air. The storm had passed by, and the world was still and white, crackling with cold. “I’m the chef at a local bar. The Square Peg.”

“I’ve driven past it. Never been in. What kind of crowd do you get?”

“My crowd. Gay,” Dave said bluntly, and for the first time, he studied Jeremy’s face. He wanted to see Jeremy’s reaction as it happened. If the guy was a homophobe, this was when he’d find out, and even though it would be disappointing, it was important to know.

Jeremy’s expression didn’t change. “Cool.”

“Is it?”

“Did you see me calling you a fag and pushing you down in the snow? I’m not an asshole.”

“No, you’re not,” Dave told him. “But it’s hard to know how people are going to react sometimes. Sorry.”

After a moment, Jeremy nodded. “It’s smarter to be cautious. You want to know if there’s a bigot living across the hall.” He grinned. It took ten years off him, not that he needed it. “Now can I help you to the car without you thinking I’m making a pass at you?”

“Do people even say that anymore?” Dave asked when Jeremy, not waiting for his answer, got him moving across the sidewalk.

“What, making a pass? Apparently they do. Or I do.” Jeremy opened the passenger door and took the crutches so Dave could lower himself painfully onto the seat. “Careful. Do you like it? Being a chef, I mean, not having a broken ankle. We can safely assume that part’s no fun.”

Copyright © Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow


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