When Michael answered the door, Alan’s libido jumped up and did a little dance.
Whoa, down boy.
Once more he reminded himself that he was only there to read the mail. But with Michael looking positively lickable in a long-sleeve black T-shirt and faded jeans, worn indecently thin in certain strategic places, it was going to be hard to remember that the only things he was likely to be licking tonight were the flaps of envelopes.
“Hey, Michael. It’s Alan Stuart.”
Michael nodded. “Yeah, I recognize your voice. C’mon in.”
Alan followed Michael through the foyer and into a cozy book-lined room. A large fireplace took up almost one entire wall, and cushy leather furniture was grouped around a low coffee table. A long oak-topped counter with built-in shelves and drawers held a laptop, fax machine and printer/copier. The laptop was open as if he’d interrupted Michael’s work.
“Nice…library?” Alan guessed.
“This was Phillip’s study.” Michael walked to the counter, picked up a pile of mail and brought it over to the coffee table. “Pull up a rock, Alan. Want a beer, or coffee maybe?”
“No, thanks, I’m good.” Alan sat on the couch. The cushions sighed under him. “I’m sorry if I interrupted your work. I guess
I’m a little early. It’s a character flaw.”
“My work?” Michael lifted a brow.
“The laptop. If you need to finish something…”
“Oh, that. No, I was just…actually, would you mind looking at the screen and telling me what it says?”
“Sure.” Alan walked to the desk and woke the laptop with a finger to the touchpad. He could feel Michael standing behind him, could imagine Michael bending him over this very desk and—
“This was Phillip’s laptop.” Michael’s statement yanked Alan out of his little perverted fantasy and back to the matter at hand. Completely oblivious to the pictures in his guest’s head, Michael continued. “I wanted to install my screen reader software on it so I could, you know, go through some stuff. But I can’t get the damn thing to boot up. If you could just tell me what it’s doing…”
“It wants a password.”
“Damn it. I was afraid it might be something like that. Try just hitting enter. That’s how I have mine set up.”
That was how Alan’s brother Tommy had set his up too. He hit enter. Nothing happened. “Sorry, that’s not going to cut it.” Turning, he propped his butt against the desk just so he could look at Michael. “No idea what Phillip used for his password? My brother says most people have one or two passwords they use for everything, and usually they’re something common that’s easy to guess.”
“Your brother is some kind of computer whiz?”
Alan nodded, then remembered Michael couldn’t see him. “Tommy’s an engineer in his evil day job. But, yeah, he’s a computer whiz too. That’s just for fun though.”
“And you said he’s your brother? Older or younger?”
“Yeah? I always thought it would be cool to have a twin. Are you identical?”
“Yeah. Though we’re nothing alike.”
Michael laughed. “Is he gay too?”
“I…” Alan hesitated. Not because Tommy would mind him telling Michael, but because the question had surprised him. “Yeah, he is, actually.”
“Did I say something wrong? I mean, you are gay, right? Or did I just put my foot in it big time?”
“No. I mean, yeah, I am gay. And no, you didn’t put your foot in it. But how did you know?”
Michael shrugged. “I don’t know, just a vibe, I guess.” He paused. “So, do you think your brother could tell us how to get around this password thing?”
“Probably. I could call him and ask.”
Michael smiled. He had a great smile. “That would be great.”
Tommy picked up on the third ring. “Yeah?”
“Tom, it’s me.”
“Hey, Alan. How’s it hanging?”
“Good. And you?”
“It’ll hang much higher if I can ever get out of here tonight.”
“You’re still at work?”
“I won’t keep you. I just have a quick question.”
Alan heard the sound of typing in the background. He explained what they wanted to do.
“What operating system?”
“I’m not sure. Hang on.” He asked Michael.
“Windows, I guess it’s Windows, anyway.”
“We think it’s Windows,” Alan told his brother.
“Oh, piece of cake, if you have the software, which I happen to have.”
“We were sort of hoping there was something we could do without special software.”
“You mean besides guess?” Tommy laughed.
“No. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, dude. But if you bring me the computer say…Saturday afternoon, I’ll run the software and fix you up.”
“That would be great. Thanks, man.” “No prob, Bro.” Tommy hung up.
Alan gave Michael a rundown of his conversation with Tommy, including his brother’s offer to fix the problem. “But I’ll need to take the laptop to him, if you’re okay with that.”
Michael nodded. “Sure, I’d appreciate it.”
After shutting down the laptop and gathering up the power cord, they stowed the computer in its case. Not bothering with a coat, Alan carried it out to his car and popped the trunk. The wind blew hard, its icy breath penetrating his shirt and raising goosebumps up and down his arms. Alan shivered, slammed the trunk lid and hurried back inside.
Michael was waiting for him in the study. He turned his head as Alan came in and smiled. “Thanks for doing this.”
“Tommy’s the one who’s going to do all the work.”
“I don’t mean just the computer.” Michael gestured around him. “I mean everything, the mail, everything. It’s nice of you.”
How nice would Michael think it was if he knew Alan had the hots for him, that his selfless act was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to get him naked. That piece of knowledge would certainly take some of the shine off his generosity. So all he said was, “I’m glad to do it, Michael.”
Dropping on to the couch, Alan rubbed his hands up and down his arms and eyed the fireplace. “Is the fireplace functional or just for show?”
“No, it’s functional. There’s some wood in the mudroom off the kitchen, if you want a fire.” He paused in the process of putting the mail into two separate piles. “Do you know how to build a fire?”
Alan tore his gaze away from Michael’s elegant, long-fingered hands. “I could probably get one going. Would you like a fire?”
“A fire would be nice. We haven’t had a fire since…” His voice faded away, seemed to lose strength. An expression of unspeakable grief flickered across his features and he got abruptly to his feet. “Let me get the wood.”
Alan’s heart ached for Michael as he watched him rush from the room. He sighed. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose someone you loved the way Michael had lost Phillip. The shock of having your partner ripped from your life had to be devastating. And when combined with the weight of responsibility that came with a loss like that… No wonder the man needed a minute to himself.
Alan stood and walked to the hearth. Lifting the cover on a basket to the left of the fireplace, he found a stack of old newspaper. Atop the mantle sat a box of long matches. Ignoring the little voice in his head that said a romantic fire in a cozy room with a very tempting man was just a bad idea all around, he pulled out several sheets of newsprint, crumpled them into balls and set them aside.
A few minutes later, Michael returned with an armful of wood. He brought it to the hearth and set it down in the wood box. “Here you go. It was inside so it should be plenty dry enough. Can I do anything else?”
“Nope. Just sit down and give me a few. I haven’t done this in a while so it might take me a couple tries to get it going.”
After only one false start, they had a small fire crackling away.
Closing the screen, Alan got to his feet, dusted his hands off and returned to the couch. “It should warm up in here now.”
Michael smiled and nodded. “Yeah, a fire always helps knock the chill off.”
He was seated in a large leather armchair on the opposite side of the coffee table. The flames cast shadows over his face, making his dark good looks appear even more dramatic.
And there were shadows under his eyes, Alan saw now, shadows he hadn’t seen before. Once more his heart went out to the man sitting across from him.
“Michael, listen, if you’d rather do this another time—”
“No.” Michael shook his head. “It has to be done. I’m sure there are bills in that pile that need to be paid. I’ve been letting it go, and I can’t keep doing that.”
“Okay, up to you.” Alan picked up the first stack of mail. “Do you want to hear about the junk mail? Or shall I just weed that out right off the bat?”
Michael laughed. “Hell, no, just get rid of it. If you read me all that crap, we’ll be here till next Thursday.”
They worked for half an hour, Alan sorting and reading, Michael making decisions about what had to be dealt with right away and what could be put aside for another day.
“How much was the heating bill again?” Michael asked.
Alan found the bill from PGW and consulted it. “Six hundred and fifty two dollars and thirty-three cents.” He winced. “Does it always cost so much to heat this place?”
Michael laughed. “Hell if I know. Phillip always dealt with the bills. He’d bitch about it sometimes, and I’d say if he set us up with online bill paying that I’d be glad to take over.”
“But he didn’t go for that?”
“No. He’d always say okay, we’ll do that, but it never happened. I think he liked writing checks and even enjoyed the bitching on some level.” Michael’s lips curved in a melancholy smile. “He always said he wasn’t much of a twenty-first century kind of guy.”
Alan’s gaze was drawn to the fax machine and copier on the desk across the room. It looked to him like Phillip had been just fine with the twenty-first century, but he didn’t say so. Some men enjoyed shouldering the financial responsibilities. Maybe Phillip was one of them.
“Do you mind writing some checks?” Michael asked, getting to his feet.
“Not at all. But what about signing them?”
“I can sign them.” Michael went to the built-in desk, opened a drawer and took out a leather-bound checkbook and a pen. “You just need to show me where.” He passed both to Alan then settled on the couch, entirely too close, beside him.
Alan wrote the check to the gas company first, all the while, far too conscious of Michael right there next to him. He nearly signed his own name before he caught himself.
“Okay, tell me what to do? Do I guide your hand or—”
“No. Got an envelope?”
Michael showed him how to line the edge of the envelope along the signature line of the check, then he took the pen and signed along the edge.
“That keeps my signature straight even if it’s not legible.” Michael passed the checkbook over.
Alan took it and their fingers brushed. The brief contact zinged through him like an electric current and had things low in his belly tensing.
Oh, get a grip, pal. You aren’t fifteen anymore.
Alan glanced at the signature. “It’s not the worst signature I’ve ever seen.” As soon as the words were out, he realized how they sounded. “I mean, it’s—”
Michael laughed. “It’s all right. Phillip used to say I could have been a doctor with my scribble. I’ve gotten better though. At least now when someone asks me to sign a book, they can sort of read what I’ve written.”
“I forgot, you’re a writer, right?” Alan tore out the check and slid it into the envelope.
“Yeah, did I tell you that? I guess I must have.”
“I think you mentioned it once. What do you write?”
“Romance.” Michael’s grin flashed, sharp and lethal.
“You do not.” Alan felt his own grin break. “You’re yanking my chain.”
“Swear to God.” Michael crossed his heart.
“Romance? Really? With heaving bosoms and everything?”
“Not unless they’re falsies.” Michael laughed. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” He laughed again. “I write gay romance as M.J. Daugherty.”
“Romance with gay couples?” Alan had heard of it, but never seen, let alone read one.
Michael nodded. “It’s still kind of a niche market, but it’s growing in popularity all the time.”
“I’ll have to get one of your books. M.J. Daugherty, you said?”
“That’s right.” Michael paused then stood. “Wait one second.” He left the room.
Alan flipped through the rest of the mail while he waited and wondered about this man who looked like a rock star and wrote gay romance for a living. Michael Stricker was something of an enigma. Fascinating and out of reach, at least for the foreseeable future.
Michael returned. He walked back to the couch and held out a book. “Here’s a copy of my latest release. It’s called The King’s Assassin
Alan took the book and glanced down at the cover. It showed two impossibly good-looking men gazing hungrily at each other. One was clearly meant to be the king and the other the assassin. “Thanks, Michael, but you didn’t have to do that.”
His host shrugged. “It’s no problem. Now, if you hate it, at least it didn’t cost you anything.”
“I’m sure I won’t hate it.” He flipped to the beginning of chapter one. And read.
“Fuck me, Jando. Gods, but you feel amazing!”
Alejandro leaned forward. His hips sped up. His cock pistoned in and out of his lover’s ass.
Heat rose to Alan’s cheeks.
After a moment, Michael laughed. “You read page one.”
“Um, yeah. It’s quite a beginning.” He let the book close.
“Nothing like starting with a bang, so to speak.”
“Hey, you’ve got to hook the reader’s interest right off the bat.” Michael sank on to the couch, propped an arm against the back and regarded Alan with an unreadable expression. “Have I hooked you, Alan?”
Alan’s mouth went dry as Michael’s fingertips grazed his shoulder. An accident, he told himself, a coincidence. He didn’t mean to touch him, did he?
“Yes,” Alan whispered. “You’ve hooked me.”
“Good.” He gave Alan’s shoulder a light squeeze. “Then I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Alan sat frozen, unable to move and hardly able to breathe for fear the moment would shatter and he might find he had dozed off and it was all a dream. He gripped the book so tightly he was sure there would be finger marks in the cover when he let go. If he ever let go.
Michael leaned in, paused. His breath fanned warm across Alan’s lips.
Michael was going to kiss him.
Michael froze, his palm against Alan’s cheek, their lips little more than a breath apart.
What the hell was he doing?
His partner of twelve years, the love of his life, was dead, hardly cold in the ground, and here he was about to kiss another man right here in his study. What kind of man did that make him?
He let his hand drop away from Alan’s lightly stubbled cheek. Collapsing back against the couch cushions, he closed his eyes and barely resisted scrubbing his hands down his face.
He had no idea what to say or if he should say anything at all. But Alan saved him from having to make that decision.
“Michael.” He touched the back of Michael’s hand then laid his own over it. He didn’t say anything more, just let his hand rest there, the pressure of his palm conveying without words that it was okay. But it wasn’t okay, far from it.
Turning his hand over, Michael interlaced their fingers, squeezed then let go. “I’m sorry, Alan. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“It doesn’t matter. And please don’t apologize.” He paused. “But I think maybe I should go, if we’re done here.”
Michael wanted to say no, don’t go. Stay. He wanted to sit here with the fire crackling in the hearth and Alan talking to him about anything at all. He had a nice voice; low and smooth and quietly masculine. He wanted conversation and the occasional laughter. But most of all he did not want to be alone.
“Okay,” Michael said and got to his feet. “Okay, well, I appreciate you coming over and helping me with the mail.”
Alan rose too. “Like I said, it’s no problem. I’m glad to do it.”
They left the study with its crackling fire and the feel of having been on the edge of something, something that still hung heavily in the air.