Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fractured Hymns: First Three Chapters

Releasing October 24, 2016

Chapter One


Ethaniel Shockley waited until the top of the extension ladder was flush to the side of the house and the base secure on the ground before putting his foot on the bottom rung. He double-checked his tool belt, as was his habit before going up, because coming down for a forgotten tool was a pain in the ass. Better to be thorough than waste time.
“You drop your balls somewhere or what, E?” Andy Tolley asked. The skinny Pole from Chicago never missed a chance to give Ethan shit about his insistence on preparedness. Even though Andy had served in the 82nd Infantry, he acted like an unbroken pony—spirited, high-strung and galloping toward disaster.
“At least I brought my balls back with me,” Ethan snapped.
Behind Andy, Butch Pelligrino guffawed loudly at the familiar line. The three of them had been roofing houses together for almost two years, and they got along like bread and butter—despite the fact that Butch was former Navy, while Ethan and Andy were both Army. They all three wanted to do their jobs, earn a paycheck, and sleep without having nightmares. Since his return from Afghanistan eight years ago, Ethan had found that a long day’s labor in the hot summer sun meant a deep, dreamless sleep.
Winters were more difficult.
“Supervisor said the north end of the roof is rotted, right?” Ethan asked. “The rest is safe to walk on?”
“For the sixth time, yes,” Andy said. “They surveyed these roofs yesterday, and this one’s mostly fine. The roofs on the two end units are rotted through all around.”
Ethan ascended the ladder, carefully placing his feet each time. He had no problem with heights, but sometimes ladders gave him fits. He’d fallen off the barn ladder twice as a kid, and he hated that free-falling feeling. Probably why he’d never bothered with the airborne division. He preferred his feet on a firm, flat surface.
Their company was replacing the roofs on a two-story converted apartment unit. Three bottom units, three top units, and they’d been leaking all winter. The landlord had finally ponied up for an assessment, and the company they worked for got the bid. Ethan, Andy, and Butch were going up to start ripping out the old tar paper so they could look at the structure underneath.
At the top of the ladder, Ethan paused and studied the roof. Big, square patch with little to visibly divide the three units, except some duct tape their boss had placed yesterday. Ethan squinted at the lines. This was where he’d been told to place the ladder so they’d come up on a firm portion of roof, but the whole thing looked warped and sad.
“You gonna make love to it with your eyeballs, or what?” Butch yelled from farther down the ladder.
“At least the monk would be makin’ love to somethin’,” Andy said.
Ethan removed his hand from the ladder rung long enough to flip them both off, then hoisted one leg over the ledge. The ceiling felt firm enough beneath his right foot, so he climbed off.
So far, so good.
He moved to his right so Andy could get up and over.
“Oh, hey, so’s I don’t forget,” Andy said while Butch climbed up. “Susan is throwing an anniversary party for us next weekend, and she told me to invite anyone I wanted. Since this is mostly going to be her girlfriends, I’m inviting all the men I know.”
“Then why are you inviting Butch?” Ethan asked.
Butch took a lighthearted swing at him that Ethan ducked. “Says the guy who couldn’t get a piece of snatch if he paid her. You gonna bring a girlfriend around once in a while?”
Ethan ignored the gentle pang of apprehension that always plagued him when his lack of a love life came up in conversations at work. He never brought a girlfriend around, or even talked about one, because he had no interest. And the men he used to scratch the occasional itch were rarely worth a second look.
“I would if I was the girlfriend type,” Ethan said, playing up his role as a love-them-and-leave-them ladies’ man.
Butch snorted. “You are so full of shit. Just wait, one of these days you’ll fall for a pair of big brown eyes and long legs.”
He hoped so, as long as they came attached to a dick.
“Whatever, you two,” Andy said, “just show up.”
“Definitely,” Ethan said. He wasn’t much of a social butterfly, especially with the guys he worked with. They were all former military, he took great pains to stay firmly in the closet around them. His family, as well. But Andy and Susan had been married for three years and Susan was six months pregnant with their first child. Ethan could suffer a few hours of social niceties in order to wish his work buddy well.
“Let’s do this,” Butch said.
Ethan walked farther out onto the roof, using his crowbar to test the tar paper with each step. Despite the supervisor’s report, something felt off in this section. Too soft. He stopped halfway to the spot where the roof was supposed to be rotted. Instincts that he trusted without question screamed at him to wait. Something wasn’t right.
“Guys, hold up a minute,” he said.
“What?” Andy kept walking, putting two feet between them before turning around.
Ethan pressed with his left foot. Something snapped. Groaned. His stomach dropped. He glanced back at Butch, whose eyes went wide with alarm. “Back up slow,” he said to Butch. “Andy? Really, really slow.”
“They told us this was solid,” Andy said.
“I know, but it’s not.”
Ethan shuffled back a few inches, towards Butch. The structure beneath him shuddered and rumbled. Someone’s voice squawked over his radio.
The ceiling beneath Andy caved in first, and he was gone in a crash of wood and plaster. Ethan yelled his name.
Butch screamed.
Ethan’s world gave out, and he plummeted into darkness.

Chapter Two


“Are you sure you don’t want to come to church with us, honey?” Mom asked, with expected precision, at nine-thirty on Sunday morning. She was already in her blue floral dress and matching flats, and flanked on either side by his sister-in-law Jillian and niece Sarah.
Ethan looked up from the scrambled eggs he was still choking down at the kitchen table, fork poised to spear some more of the fluffy yellow mess. In the month-plus that he’d been back home to recuperate from his accident, his mother asked the same question every single Sunday on her way out the door.
His answer never changed. “No, thank you, ma’am.”
“You know it’s an open offer. You might meet some young people your age.”
“I know.”
“Bye, Uncle Ethan,” Sarah said as she followed her mother and Gram out the kitchen door. Sarah was eight and the spitting image of her mother, which Ethan thanked God for every day the thought occurred to him, and he didn’t thank God very often. Other than some DNA, Sarah shared little in common with her father, Ethan’s brother Daniel.
Sarah wasn’t his daughter, but she was the closest thing Ethan would ever have to one, and he adored her. The only good thing his busted leg had done for him was force him to move home from Pennsylvania to Delaware, where Jillian and Sarah lived with the rest of Ethan’s expansive family on two hundred acres of land. Most of the land was for the horse farm they’d been running for three generations. Smaller sections had been handed off to his siblings as they married and settled down, keeping the eldest three Shockley kids tethered to home.
Ethan had been so eager to get away from the stifling horse farm as a teen that he’d enlisted in the Army as soon as he graduated high school—he’d never expected getting away from home to cost him so much of himself.
He shoveled down the last of the cold eggs, along with a glass of orange juice, because he’d promised Mom he would. Eating had become more of a chore than a pleasure since the accident. He never knew what would nauseate him. Sometimes foods he used to love tasted awful for no good reason.
One more side effect of the concussion that had laid him up in the hospital for most of September.
The cast on his right leg, from ankle to above his knee, was the other reason for his long hospital stay. Losing both his mobility and his independence had been the most humiliating time of his life. The decision to move home had also made him a hermit on the farm. The last thing he wanted was (a) sympathetic looks and platitudes, (b) well-meaning questions, or (c) something going wrong in public.
Something like getting dizzy while stepping out of the tub and face-planting on the bathroom floor.
The bruise on his cheek from that incident had almost completely faded.
He leaned on one crutch while he hobbled first his plate and fork, and then his juice glass over to the dishwasher. Putting them in was easy enough. Getting a detergent pod from under the sink required a little extra finesse. Leaning down was like courting a dizzy spell. He stuck his cast-covered leg out to the side, then squatted on his left leg to retrieve the pod. His leg screamed from the stress of standing back up, and he was panting by the time the dishwasher was locked and on.
Sunday mornings were generally quiet around the stables. They didn’t open for riders until one o’clock, which gave the family free time to do whatever they wanted. Some of them—Mom, Jillian, Sarah, his brother Caleb and Caleb’s fiancĂ©e Polly, his sister Abigail’s family—attended the Methodist church in town. Dad, Benny, and Benny’s two sons went fishing at the pond on the southern edge of the property. Benny’s wife Lesley…well, he didn’t know what she did on Sundays. Laundry?
Ethan did the same thing he did pretty much every single day: he collected his iPod from its charger on the back kitchen counter, crutched his way out to the front porch, and settled onto the wicker swing with his leg up on a waterproof cushion.
Audiobooks had saved his sanity. He’d always been an avid reader, and he had sixteen boxes of books stored in his parents’ attic. Thanks to his concussion, reading printed words for longer than fifteen minutes produced mind-numbing headaches. Even if they’d had high speed internet—which they didn’t, because they were in the middle of nowhere—he couldn’t have spent more than fifteen or twenty minutes online before getting off, even to play games. More than an hour of television usually ended with a migraine. Coupled with his inability to do anything more physical than hobble a hundred yards from the house to the practice arena, audiobooks were all he had as entertainment.
Earbuds in place, he started his audiobook from the last chapter and lost himself in the narration.
A formation of snow geese flew overhead, migrating elsewhere. This late in October, most of the geese were either gone or had settled into their winter homes. The leaves in the forest surrounding the edges of the horse pasture were a stunning mix of yellows, golds, and reds, and they weren’t finished turning yet. It had been an unusually warm autumn so far, but the weather could snap cold anytime.
The family car appeared at the far end of the paved driveway, coming back toward the house. The driveway curved past the main public barn, as well as the smaller private barn—where they housed other people’s horses—and the practice arena, before ending in the private family lot. Mom parked her red station wagon in its usual spot.
His three favorite women climbed out of the car, along with a fourth, unexpected face. He didn’t know Angel Garrett very well. The young stable hand showed up at the house for dinner most nights because his apartment only had a hot plate, but he always ate in the kitchen instead of the family dining room. He lived on the property, had worked for his parents for three years, and mostly kept to himself. For some reason, seeing Angel get out of his mother’s car wearing pressed slacks and a button-up dress shirt surprised him. He wouldn’t have pegged the kid as the church-going type.
Then again, what did he actually know about Angel?
Angel said something to Mom, then strolled off toward the garage where his apartment was. Caleb had lived in that tiny apartment before meeting Polly. The two had moved into their own new house on the northwest side of the property last month—an engagement gift from Mom and Dad. Abby had lived in the apartment before that, giving it up for marriage and four kids. Ethan had joined the Army before he could be offered the apartment’s moderate amount of privacy. And even if Angel wasn’t living there, Ethan could never have managed that long flight of stairs in his present condition.
Mom and Jillian went inside through the kitchen door on the side of the house, but Sarah bounced around to the front porch.
Ethan saw her coming and paused his book.  “Hey, chicklet, how was church?”
“It was okay. We didn’t have kids’ church because the choir sang today. They sang a lot of songs, and then Pastor Jameson talked for a while. He talks to the grownups, though, so I didn’t like it much.”
“I don’t like it much, either. That’s why I don’t go.”
“Mommy says I have to go until I’m fourteen. Then I can choose if I want to go, and I probably won’t.”
“Why not?”
“You don’t go. I’d rather stay here with you.”
Ethan wanted to tell her that in six years he might not be here anymore, so she shouldn’t use him as an excuse. Instead, he said, “Well, I think it’s good that you go. I know your mommy likes it, and church is good for kids.”
Sarah scowled. “Then how come none of my cousins have to go?”
“You know what? You should ask Aunt Abby and Uncle Benny the next time you see them.”
His siblings were going to love him for that. Abigail was the eldest of the five Shockley kids, and she had four children of her own, ages fourteen to five, with her husband Mark. They lived in a big house on the north side of the property. A path through the woods connected their home to the main farmhouse, as well as the house where his eldest brother Benny and his family lived. Benny and Lesley’s two sons, Doug and Zack, were eight and ten, and they were hell beasts on a good day. Ethan tended to gravitate to the porch when they were inside, because their voices grated on his nerves like sandpaper.
He was a little scared of the offspring that Caleb and Polly were likely to produce.
What had once been a constant barrage of “When are you going to settle down and have kids, Ethan?” had dried up to a mere trickle this past year, and Ethan was glad of it. Mom and Jillian were the only two people in the family who knew he was gay, and they’d subtly gotten the rest to back off.
“What book are you hearing?” Sarah asked.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a young man who wants to be a special guard for the king of France, and he ends up having a lot of adventures.”
“Adventures like you had?”
Ethan’s pulse jumped. Sarah only had a vague idea of what it meant to be in the Army, and he’d explained it as far as “we went overseas to protect innocent people.” She didn’t need to know anything else until she was older. “Something like that, yeah.”
“Sarah!” Jillian’s call from inside the house startled them both. “Please come inside and change into your play clothes!”
Sarah giggled, then scampered in through the front door. Ethan un-paused his book.
When his bladder and butt demanded he get up and move around, he left his iPod on the swing and crutched into the downstairs bathroom. He avoided the kitchen, where the sweet scent of cooking hamburgers made his stomach roll unpleasantly. He retreated to the fresh air of the porch, determined to take a short walk. The five steps down from the porch to the front yard took some careful maneuvering, but he managed it without breaking a sweat or having a dizzy spell, so he counted that as a win. Dad had offered several times to build a ramp, but Ethan didn’t want him to go to all that trouble. His leg would heal eventually.
His head was another story.
Dad’s pickup truck rumbled up the driveway with Dad and Benny in the cab and Ethan’s nephews standing up in the back. He waited for the truck to park next to Mom’s car, then hobbled over.
“We caught fish,” Zack announced. He leapt out of the back with a white pickle bucket in both hands. Water sloshed out, and something inside thrashed. “We caught four fish to eat for lunch.”
Ethan checked out the four black crappies. “Nice haul. Who caught them?”
“I did,” Zack and Doug said at the same time.
Doug bounced over to join his big brother. “I caught one. That one right there.”
Ethan had no idea which fish Doug was pointing at. “That’s a nice one, pal. Great job.”
“I caught the other three,” Zack said, puffing up his chest.
“So that means Dad and Paps were slacking, huh?”
Benny flipped him the bird over his kids’ heads. Paps chuckled while he gathered up the poles from the truck bed. William Shockley’s four sons looked exactly like him: light brown hair with shades of blond, dark green eyes, long noses, sharp cheekbones. Zack, Doug, and his niece Dana had inherited those looks to a T. Only Abigail and her other three kids had Ruth Shockley’s dark brown hair and brown eyes.
“You better get those fish to Gram fast, because she’s already cooking hamburgers for lunch,” Ethan said.
Doug and Zack raced off with their catch, and moments later the kitchen door slammed.
“How’s the leg today, son?” Dad asked. A familiar, repeated question.
“Hurts less than yesterday,” was Ethan’s canned response. It wasn’t always true, but today he could say it honestly.
“Sleep last night?”
“Good. Sleep helps bones heal faster.”
Ethan didn’t know if that was true, but it helped his dad to say it, so he accepted it. Dad never seemed to know what to do with his two youngest sons. Growing up, Ethan had never shown the same interest in horses as his two eldest brothers. Daniel, who was barely a year older, had even less use for the horses, and he’d gotten into a lot of trouble in high school, going so far as to get suspended twice during Ethan’s junior year. Daniel had nearly been held back his senior year, but some last minute power-studying with help from Ethan and Jillian—who’d dated Daniel since they were fifteen—had helped him graduate.
Sometimes Ethan missed how close he and Daniel used to be, before high school complicated things. And then Ethan enlisted, Daniel started drinking, and they each ended up in very different kinds of prisons. Daniel’s was physical, while Ethan’s was emotional.
Benny and Dad carried the fishing equipment into the garage behind the house. Doug and Zack raced back out of the kitchen with their bucket, yelling about cleaning them so Gram could cook them.
Ethan hobbled in the opposite direction. If hamburgers made him queasy, he was pretty sure frying fish would give him dry heaves.
He ended up outside the roofed arena most often used for dressage competitions. Angel was near the middle of the arena, raking out the sand. Even on Sunday, when everyone else took the morning off, the kid was working. Although maybe “kid” was unfair. From a distance he looked eighteen, but Mom said that Angel was twenty-four. Up close—on the few occasions he’d seen Angel up close—Ethan saw the faded scars and worry lines of someone who’d lived hard over a short number of years.
Angel’s lean shape blurred out of focus briefly. Ethan blinked a few times, then moved to sit on the first row of built-in bleachers. He’d been standing for too long. His vision cleared after a few minutes off his feet, only to be filled by a sweating bottle of water.
He looked past the bottle at Angel’s concerned frown.
“I d-d-didn’t open it.”
Strange thing to say, but okay. Ethan took the bottle. “Thanks.”
“You okay, s-s-sir?”
“Just a little tired.” He twisted off the cap. “And you don’t have to call me sir. Makes me feel like I’m still in the Army.”
Ethan drank the water in small sips, waiting for each to settle before adding more, until he’d managed about half of the sixteen ounces. His audience hadn’t left. “You must be more bored than I am if you’re standing there watching me drink water.”
Angel’s cheeks darkened. “Apologies. Ruth asked me to keep an eye on you when you’re about. S-s-says you get d-d-dizzy s-s-spells.”
“Oh.” Everyone in the family knew about his post-concussive syndrome, so why not the hired help? “Thanks, I guess.”
“You’re n-n-not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
Angel shrugged, clearly out of his element and unsure how to extricate himself from the conversation. He had a bashful cuteness about him, if only he’d smile. His curly brown hair had streaks of gold, likely from time spent in the sun, and his dark brown eyes were haunted with more things than Ethan dared ask about. Another ten pounds on him wouldn’t hurt, either.
Twenty-four going on sixty.
“What?” Angel asked. He touched his cheeks like he expected to find something clinging to his tanned skin.
“Nothing. Sorry.” He should probably excuse himself, but he was in the unique position of having a conversation with the reticent stable hand. Perfect time to ask a few questions. “Is Angel your real name?”
“N-n-no. It’s Matthew.”
“Where did Angel come from?”
“My grandmother. She d-d-died when I was ten.”
“Oh. Sorry.”
Angel shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Cancer.”
“Mom had cancer. Breast cancer. She’s been in remission for almost five years.” After months of chemo, a double mastectomy, and a lot of prayers from a son who rarely saw a reason to speak to God.
“She told me. She’s very brave.”
“Yeah, she is.”
“You took care of her while she was s-s-sick.”
Ethan tilted his head up to study Angel more closely. Mom didn’t talk about her illness very often, and it surprised him that Angel knew so much about an event that occurred two years before he came to the stables. She obviously liked him. She’d always had a special place in her heart for down-on-their-luck strays. Dad had once said that she insisted they hire Angel, even though he had no experience with horses. Mom used to say you could see someone’s heart in their eyes.
He tried to study Angel’s eyes more closely, but Angel was looking at the ground.
“Mom needed someone here, and I could take the time off,” Ethan said.
“You have s-s-siblings.” Angel sounded oddly frustrated.
“They have their own families, and they had to keep the stables running.”
“You gave up your life to help her.”
“It wasn’t much of a life, trust me.”
Angel’s gaze flickered briefly toward him. “It was very s-s-selfless.”
“Family comes first, right?” He glared at his cast. “Maybe if I’d stayed, I wouldn’t be such a mess right now.”
“You think you’re a mess?”
“You don’t? My tibia has a spiral fracture that’s taking forever to heal. The Post Concussive Syndrome makes getting dressed in the morning an Olympic event and eating a trip to the fifth level of hell. I’ve not slept a solid night since the accident, and now I’m unloading all my bullshit onto a near stranger. Sorry.”
“D-d-don’t apologize. I’m a good listener.”
“Well, if you’re going to listen, can you sit down? You’re straining my neck.”
Angel perched on the edge of the bleacher next to him, keeping a very deliberate three feet between them. His gaze stayed on the sand, as if looking Ethan in the eye was grounds for termination. Something had happened to this kid to put so much fear into him, and the idea of anyone hurting Angel lit a strange, unexpected burn in Ethan’s chest.
“Did you grow up around here?” Ethan asked.
Not much of an answer. The Shockley property was in southern Delaware, which made “hereabouts” pretty much the entire Delmarva peninsula. “You have any family in the area?”
Angel shook his head. “N-n-not alive.” He squinted at Ethan, almost making eye contact. “They d-d-didn’t tell you about me?”
“Apparently not. Something I should know?”
“Hey, there you are.” Benny ambled into the arena, hands deep in the pockets of his cargo pants. “Mom sent me to tell you lunch is almost ready.”
Lunch. Another exercise in gag reflex control. “Thanks.” To Angel, he asked, “You coming up? They caught some crappies at the pond.”
“N-n-no, thank you,” Angel said. He retreated from the bleacher and picked up his abandoned rake. “I have work to d-d—finish.”
“Thanks for the water.”
“You’re welcome.”
Angel wandered to a different part of the arena and continued to rake out the sand. Ethan stood and tucked the half-empty water bottle into the waist of his sweatpants, and then followed Benny toward the house.
“Making friends with the stray dog?” Benny asked. The comment was unusually cruel, and almost made Ethan stumble. Benny didn’t like Angel, that much was clear, but why not? The kid seemed harmless enough.
“Some new stable rule about the owners not being allowed to talk to the hired hands?”
“Mom didn’t tell you?”
“Obviously not.”
Benny spared a disgusted glance behind him, directed at the arena. “Our so-called Angel? Watch your back around him, bro. He went to prison for killing a guy.”

Chapter Three

Angel worked the tines of the rake through the loose sand in a careful forward/back rhythm that helped focus his thoughts. Nothing mattered except preparing the arena for the next round of dressage practice, which was on the schedule for three p.m. He’d meant to finish it last night before bed, but he’d gotten lost in his latest book and forgotten until morning.
The mistake had been both fortuitous and torturous. Fortuitous in that he’d managed an entire conversation with Ethaniel Shockley. Torturous for the exact same reason.
He’d first seen Ethaniel three years ago in the family photos lining the walls of the Shockleys’ den. Angel had walked into Pine Creek Methodist Church that Sunday on a whim, needing something more in his life than filling out job applications and avoiding fights at the halfway house. He’d prayed for peace, and in response God sent him Ruth Shockley.
Ruth had struck up a conversation with him after that Sunday’s service, claiming she’d heard him singing the hymns in the row ahead of her and had been struck by the beauty of his voice. Angel had never considered his voice anything special, but the compliment endeared the older woman to him. And he’d opened up, surprising both of them with his bluntness. He was on parole, living in a horrible group home, and he needed a job so he could get out of there.
She’d driven him to Shockley Stables for lunch, introduced him to her husband William, and they’d hired him to muck stalls and feed the horses. All in five hours’ time.
For three long years in prison, Angel thought God had abandoned him. That Sunday afternoon, over a lunch of pot roast sandwiches, he’d thought maybe God gave a damn again.
Within a week, he’d met all of the Shockley children, the children’s respective spouses, and the grandchildren—everyone except Ethaniel, who lived in Pennsylvania and only visited on holidays. Ethaniel, who was handsome and fit and carried a familiar, haunted shadow everywhere he went. Angel was smitten from the moment he saw Ethaniel that first Christmas, admiring him from a distance, and he’d made it his mission to stay far, far away from the youngest Shockley son.
Someone like Ethaniel would never want anyone as damaged and dirty as Angel Garrett, so he took the conversation they’d had and locked it up tight inside of his heart. He’d bring it out later and replay it, maybe pretend Ethaniel was actually his friend, and they were jawing as friends did over silly things like the weather and a couple of crappies.
He’d protect their conversation from spoilage, because sooner or later, Ethaniel would know what he’d done. He’d know and he would look at Angel the way the rest of the Shockley kids looked at him—with disdain and distrust. No one trusted an ex-con, especially one who’d served time for killing a man.
Bless Ruth, William, and the stable manager Russ Hanlon for keeping his other secret.
Angel lost himself in raking the arena, spending far too much time perfecting the smoothness of the ground that would be trodden down and kicked up in only a few hours. This sort of busy work relaxed him. It gave him something to focus on besides the constant soundtrack of regret and pain that screeched through his mind. He finished his task with pleasantly weary arms and a slightly sore back.
He returned the rake to the work shed near the arena. They had a few lessons on the books for today, and he needed to make sure he wasn’t needed on-hand for any of them—which meant walking down to the public barn where the office was. He circled behind the private barn in order to keep out of sight of the riders who’d shown up to check on their prize horses. He didn’t like speaking to the people who boarded their horses. Not because he disliked them or was afraid of them. He gave very little thought to who they were outside of these acres of land and pasture, so long as they treated their horses good. Mostly he avoided contact in order to avoid The Look.
The Look: He’s the one who killed his momma’s boyfriend.
The Look: He went away for three years for beating that man to death.
The Look: You know someone made that kid their bitch. He probably liked it, too.
Angel had had enough of The Look.
“Hey! Hey, with the blue shirt!”
The feminine voice startled him into stopping. He’d reached the corner of the private barn and had twenty feet of walking to get to the safety of the other barn, but the voice was speaking to him. He was wearing his blue Shockley Stables polo like he always did when performing official stables tasks, even if he was technically off the clock. A clean white tee was waiting for him on his bed for when he was no longer at work.
Angel turned and blinked at a pair of big brown eyes. He stumbled backward several steps, heart tripping, amazed the girl had gotten so close without him noticing. She was slim, blonde hair pulled back into a thick bun at the nape of her neck, dressed in expensive riding clothes, a hat clutched in one hand. Maybe seventeen, with a cocked hip full of attitude.
With his pulse racing and his personal space invaded, he choked getting the words out. “Can I help you, M-m-miss?”
She couldn’t hide The Look: Oh great, I’m asking questions of a moron.
“You work here, right?” she asked.
Angel glanced down at his shirt. Maybe he wasn’t the moron in the conversation. “Yes.”
“Awesome. Do you know where I can find Caleb Shockley? I’m supposed to have a riding lesson, like, five minutes ago, and I can’t find anyone.”
“D-d-did you check the office?”
“He may s-s-still be at the house. I c-c-can check.”
“Great, thanks. I’ll be with my horse.”
“Your n-n-name?”
“Jennifer Rosen.”
Angel walked past Jennifer, adjusting his course to head back to the main house via the driveway. He would have preferred sticking to his less visible routes, but he didn’t want to miss Caleb if he passed him. A familiar shape was lounging on the porch swing, eyes closed, earbuds in. Angel’s palms went instantly sweaty.
He paused at the bottom of the stairs and waited, hating the idea of disturbing the sleeping man. If Angel stood there long enough, maybe Caleb would come outside and save him the task of knocking. Ethaniel looked so peaceful, so relaxed. On the few occasions Angel saw him around the farm, he always seemed agitated. Exhausted.
True peace was a rare thing.
Angel counted to sixty, giving Ethaniel another minute of fleeting peace, but he had a job to do.
He ascended the five wood steps to the porch as quietly as possible. Shuffled across the time-worn boards to the front door and raised his hand to knock.
Pain exploded in his left calf, and then he was on the ground. The back of his head cracked off the wood. He raised both hands over his face, knees curling in tight to protect his midsection, anticipating the next blow, needing to guard his head. Fear and adrenaline surged through him, making his hands shake, but he didn’t put them down.
“Jesus Christ. Angel? Shit, I’m sorry. Angel?”
A soft, repentant voice. Not the growl of an enemy or the snarl of a predator. Angel peeked through splayed fingers, still not completely certain who he’d see or what had hit him.
A crutch lay on the porch between him and Ethaniel, who was sitting on the ground near the swing, an arm outstretched in his direction. Ethaniel’s face was red, his breath coming in short pants—surprise, pain, he wasn’t sure. Angel couldn’t make the scene come together.
“Ethan?” Ruth’s voice, from inside. “What happened? Did you—oh my.”
The screen door squealed open. Angel lowered his hands and blinked up at Ruth, who was looking back and forth between them like she didn’t know who to help first. A bit of flour was smeared on the front of her green dress—a faded, casual thing she kept for Sunday only. Every other day of the week she was out in the stables in jeans and a polo, like the rest of her employees.
“My fault, Mom,” Ethaniel said.
“What happened?”
Angel hauled himself into a sitting position, then poked at the back of his head. No skin breaks. Thank fuck. “N-n-no, my fault.”
“No, it was me.” Ethaniel flinched. “I overreacted. I knew someone was close by, but they weren’t making much noise. I just…I reacted. I’m sorry I hit you, Angel.”
“You hit him?” Ruth glared at her son, then crouched in front of Angel. “Are you bleeding?”
“N-n-no, ma’am,” Angel said. “Hit my ankle, is all.”
“With the crutch,” Ethaniel said.
Lashing out with the crutch had made Ethaniel fall off the swing. “Are you okay, s-s-sir?”
“Well, I definitely embarrassed myself.”
“Your leg?”
Ethaniel’s eyebrows jumped, like he was surprised by the concern. “Gave it a good jolt, but I think my ass hurts more.”
“Well, why don’t you both get up off the floor and sit properly,” Ruth said. “I’ll get you boys some iced tea.”
Angel scrambled up. His ankle smarted a bit from the blow, but he’d survived far worse. Ruth had already gone inside, and Ethaniel was staring helplessly at the swing behind him. “Help you?” Angel asked.
“Why not? I’m only the jerk who knocked you onto your ass.”
“I’ve had worse.”
Ethaniel’s dark green eyes flickered toward him, then away. Angel ignored the odd way that made him feel inside—like Ethaniel was scared of him, but curious at the same time. Angel saw that particular Look less frequently than the others.
He hitched his forearms under Ethaniel’s pits. Once Ethaniel got his left leg beneath him, Angel lifted. Ethaniel levered with his good leg, and they got him into the swing. Angel grabbed the chain to steady it while Ethaniel settled his cast on the cushion.
“Thanks,” Ethaniel said. “And I am sorry about hitting you like that.”
“You were s-s-startled. My fault.”
“No, it really was mine. If I’d opened my eyes and looked, instead of reacting like I was back in—” Something darkened his eyes, and he stopped talking.
Afghanistan. War.
Angel knew a thing or two about jumping at ghosts.
“I’m not hurt,” Angel said.
Ruth bustled back onto the porch with two tall glasses of iced tea. “Angel, why don’t you sit and rest a minute?”
“Can’t, ma’am.” He’d had a reason for coming to the house. “Caleb has a lesson. Jennifer Rosen is looking for him.”
“Oh that boy.” Ruth handed off the teas, then stormed back into the house, hollering for her son.
Ethaniel grunted. “Caleb will be lucky to be on time to his own wedding.”
Angel had no response, other than to agree, which might be seen as rude. He wasn’t a member of the Shockley family, and he had no reason to think Ethaniel would appreciate jokes at his brother’s expense. So he remained silent, cold tea in one hand, his back straight, shoulders tense. He wanted to leave now that his task was finished, but Ruth had given him tea and leaving it untouched definitely was rude, and he’d never purposely do something to upset her. She’d only ever been kind to him.
The screen door burst open and Caleb jogged out, down the steps, toward the driveway. Angel watched him go, amused at his fumbling haste, then sipped his tea. Too sweet for him, but this was Ruth’s house and her pitcher of iced tea, so he wouldn’t complain. Considering his life before coming to Shockley Stables, he had very little to complain about.
“You can sit, you know.”
He blinked at Ethaniel, confused by the statement. Of course he could sit. He was fully capable—oh. Ethaniel was pointing at the wicker chair near the swing. “I can’t s-s-stay.”
“Why not? You aren’t working this afternoon, are you?”
“You got someplace to be?”
“Good, then you can keep me company a while. All I do is sit around and listen to audiobooks, so you’ll shake up my day a little bit.”
“You don’t mind?”
Ethaniel smiled, showing off a dimple in his left cheek. “I invited you, didn’t I?”
“Your brothers d-d-don’t like me n-n-near the house.”
“You eat here almost every day.”
“And then I go.”
His smile dimmed. “Caleb and Benny give you shit?”
“It’s their land.” Angel could take dirty looks and the occasional insult. Child’s play, really. He’d survived worse than two privileged horse breeders and their rude comments. And he might as well make sure Ethaniel had no illusions about Angel’s past. “And I’m a convicted killer their mother hired and let live in her garage.”
Ethaniel’s eyes narrowed over his tea glass. “You in any danger of killing again?”
An angry burn settled in Angel’s chest, and he gripped his glass tight enough to make his knuckles ache. “No, sir. N-n-not unless I’m pushed again.”
“Pushed.” Ethaniel said the word like he was trying it out, unsure what it sounded like on his own tongue. The thoughtfulness confused Angel. “Benny told me you were in jail for killing someone, but not why.”
“I was in prison. Jail is d-d-different.” Most people didn’t know that, and a deep shudder tore down his spine. The few weeks he’d spent in jail between his arrest, arraignment and eventual sentencing—the court system moved much faster when you pled guilty—were a holiday at the beach compared to the harsh realities of life in a state prison.
“Okay, prison then,” Ethaniel said. “What happened?”
His heart sped up and his brain fumbled. “My mother’s boyfriend was beating her. N-n-not for the first time, but this time with a bottle. She was s-s-screaming. Bleeding. I grabbed a bat and hit him. Twice.”
The entire experience had lasted only a few minutes, but the build-up had taken months. At first, Angel had kind of liked Shawn. Shawn hadn’t been an addict of any kind, unlike Angel’s mother, who was on and off heroin, and then meth for years. Shawn had kept her straight for a while. And then Angel turned eighteen, Shawn kicked him out, and his mother started showing up with bruises. A lot of bruises.
Angel had always been thin and underfed—par for his existence as extra baggage when his mother was using, and as another mouth in crowded group homes when she tried rehab again. And again. And again. He possessed no real feelings of love for his mother anymore, but he’d loved her once. Loved her enough to protect her from the man who was beating her on a daily basis.
He’d stopped loving her when she refused to testify in his defense. She was too angry that her lover was dead and she had nowhere to live.
“Even if you go to prison, you’ll have a bed and three meals a day. What the fuck do I have now, huh? What? What about me?”
Always, always, it was what about her? Her lack of support was why he’d pled guilty. He’d done it, after all, and he would do it again to protect her even though she’d never lifted a finger for him. In Delaware, manslaughter was a Class B felony that carried a sentence anywhere from two to twenty-five years. The judge in his case had been sympathetic enough to Angel’s past to give him a fairly light sentence, considering a man was dead.
A worthless piece of abusive garbage, but still a man.
“You got manslaughter?” Ethaniel asked.
“Yes. S-s-served three years. Finished my parole this s-s-pring.”
“Free man.”
“No.” Angel shook his head. “N-n-never free.”
“I hear you.” Ethaniel’s voice softened, hinting at the demons he probably carried from his days in Afghanistan.
Angel could never pretend to understand that sort of pain.
They didn’t talk for a while. Angel sipped his tea, hoping to stomach about half before making his excuses. But the longer he stood there, the more he wanted to stay. Ethaniel was kind to him, like Ruth and William and Russ. And Jillian, to some degree, even though she told him to stay away from Sarah. The others looked at him like the hired hand he was, and they didn’t let him forget his place.
He didn’t want to stay long enough for one of them to shoo him off.
“I should go.” Angel put his glass on the porch railing.
“Sure.” Ethaniel put the earbuds back in. “Stop by whenever. I’m here most days.”
Angel didn’t respond. Ethaniel probably didn’t mean it. He was saying it to be polite. He’d already been extraordinarily polite, given their circumstances. Ethaniel owed Angel nothing, not even a conversation.
So why did Angel walk away feeling like he’d done Ethaniel some kind of favor?

 (c) 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cover and Blurb Reveal: Fractured Hymns

It's almost here! 

Fractured Hymns is a book that is near and dear to my heart. I began writing it almost three years ago, not long after completing another novel called Foundation of Trust, the fifth Cost of Repairs novel. A minor character named Ethaniel appears in FoT, and while he was basically there to serve as a plot device, he started to poke at me. Why does he live so far from home? Why does he tell people his niece Sarah is his daughter? What’s his story?

Well, I began his story, got about 100 pages into it, and then hit a blank. I left my two heroes sitting in a cold garage, mid-conversation, for almost two years, before finally completing it in September 2015. I finally gave my beautiful, broken Ethaniel and his shy, stuttering hero Angel their happily ever after, and I’m excited to show you guys the gorgeous cover by Lyn Taylor, as well as the blurb. The publication date is tentatively set for October 24, and I hope to have pre-order links soon.

Still firmly in the closet at the age of thirty, Ethaniel Shockley is content leading a solitary—if lonely—life working on a construction crew with fellow military vets. After a tragic worksite accident leaves two of his friends dead, Ethaniel returns to his family home to recuperate from a spiral leg fracture and severe Post Concussive Syndrome. He may be lucky to be alive, but he hates the independence he’s lost.
 Matthew “Angel” Garrett has worked at Shockley Stables for three years, content to muck stalls and polish saddles, and to be as unnoticeable as possible. Except for weekly church outings, he avoids going into town so he doesn’t see The Look. The Look that says “I know you went to prison for killing a man.”

A chance conversation with Ethaniel gives Angel hope that maybe he can have a friendship with the gorgeous Shockley sibling he’s crushed on for years. But the more time they spend indulging in their shared love of music, the clearer it becomes that they both want more. Ethaniel sees a kindred spirit in Angel, whose soul is just as fractured from his time in prison as Ethaniel’s is from war. But Angel has another, deeper secret that haunts him—one he’s positive will destroy this new song with Ethaniel before it’s even written.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Available Now: Say It Right

After his parents kicked him out for being gay, Marc Villegas lived on the streets before getting a second chance. Now he’s giving back by working at a shelter for LGBT teenagers—because helping fight their demons keeps his own at bay. Including his infatuation with the former best friend he’s sure is straight. 
Anthony Romano hasn’t seen Marc since Marc left home eight years ago. In his confidant’s absence, Anthony turned to heroin. Now at rock bottom, he has an offer from Marc to help him get clean. Detox is hard and ugly, but not as hard as admitting the truth: he’s in love with Marc. Always has been. 
Marc swore he’d never date an addict, but he never dreamed the one in question would be the man he’s always wanted to be with. As the two explore their feelings for each other, Marc faces a difficult choice. Say yes, and it could cost him his sobriety; say no, and it could cost him his heart.

Carina Press
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Steady Stroke Release Day!

After a tragic accident, Lincoln West’s dreams of making it big as a guitarist fell apart. Unable to play music, he’s battling a hopeless downward spiral, and takes his friend’s offer to stay at their beach house for the summer. While at an open mic night at local bar Off Beat, he locks eyes with a busboy who doesn’t make Linc feel so broken anymore. 

Emmett Westmore lives for the anonymity of busing tables in his aunt’s quirky bar where no one pities him for the fire that killed everyone he loved. He blames himself for the fire, and he doesn’t want anyone to see him—except for Linc. Emmett’s walls drop when he’s around the gorgeous blue-eyed guitarist, but he has a secret that could destroy his budding relationship with Linc.

Both Linc and Emmett are looking for a way to live again…will they let their fears control them or take a chance on something real?

Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/hufedb7
Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/gqq5mwc
Nook: http://tinyurl.com/gudhoof
Kobo: http://tinyurl.com/hxzspzy

Monday, September 5, 2016

Say It Right (All Saints #2): First 2 Chapters

Chapter 1

Marc jerked upright in bed, instantly alert, but uncertain what had woken him. A hint of light made it through the blackout curtains on his only window, enough to show he was alone in his room. He snagged his phone off the bedside table, but no one was calling him. No texts, and the alarm wasn’t going off.

Only a little after noon. He’d gotten home from his overnight at the shelter less than two hours ago and crashed right away.

Why the hell am I awake?

The distant chime of his doorbell, then muffled banging.

He sat up, covers falling to his waist. No one ever knocked on his door. The Beware Pit Bull sign on his front gate deterred solicitors, and he rarely ordered anything that needed to be delivered. People didn’t ring his bell for no good reason, and that sent Marc diving for a pair of workout shorts.

Sleeping in the nude wasn’t conducive to quickly answering the door.

The stairs challenged him a little, but whatever. Two hours of sleep. At the bottom, he pressed his eye close to the peephole. A young Latina, maybe late teens or early twenties, stood on his stoop. Familiarity hit him in the heart. Her face was thinner, her hair longer, but he knew her.

He snapped the two locks and flung the door open. “Maddy?”

“Hey, Marcos.” Madeline Romano haunted his stoop like a ghost from the past—which she very much was. Maddy was the little sister of his high school best friend, and he hadn’t seen her since he was sixteen years old.

“It’s Marc now.” Stupid thing to say. “What are you doing here?”

“I need your help.”

“Okay. Come in.”

He stepped back, shut the front door once she was inside and out of the January cold, then ushered her toward his lumpy sofa. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I’m fine.” She was pretty far from fine, or she wouldn’t be here after eight years. “Did I wake you up?”

Marc glanced down at his backward shorts. “Um, give me one sec, okay?”

He fled upstairs for proper clothes. Whatever was wrong, he didn’t need to hear it in his underwear. After finding clean briefs, he put on jeans and a sweater. Maddy hadn’t moved from the couch. She clutched at a small purse like she expected it to disappear at any moment.

“How did you find me?” Marc asked as he sat next to her.

“The internet. You stayed in the city.”

“I did. Where are you living?”

“Philadelphia. Sort of. It’s where we moved to when I was twelve. I’m home on winter break. Senior year of college.”

“Good for you. What school?”


“Damn, chica. Congrats on that.”

She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks.”

“What’s Anthony up to?” Marc hadn’t thought about his former best friend in a while. After Marc’s parents had kicked him out at the end of his junior year of high school, Anthony’s family refused to help him or let them remain in contact. Marc hadn’t had any real way to keep in touch, anyhow. No money, no phone, no place to live. Maintaining a friendship hadn’t been part of his survival plan, and the one time he’d sought Anthony out, he discovered the entire family had moved. Apparently to Philly. And after enough years passed, finding Anthony again stopped feeling important.

After all, Anthony had never come looking for him.

Maddy squeezed her purse tight enough to make the leather squeak in protest. “He’s why I’m here.”

Marc’s heart kicked. “What happened?”

“After you left, he became a different person. Moody, angry, acting out. He quit the soccer team. Started getting into fights. He barely graduated, and our parents didn’t know what to do. A few months after graduation, he was arrested for possession.”

That news punched Marc in the gut. Anthony had always been about getting a soccer scholarship that would carry him to college first, then all the way to Europe. He’d dreamed of being a big-name soccer star, and he’d hated the idea of drugs. He’d turned his nose up at weed and didn’t even like to drink at parties.

“He got probation the first time.”

“The first time?” Marc squawked.

“Less than a month later, he was arrested again. He served four months.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Anthony had been in prison for drug possession.

“It destroyed our parents,” Maddy said. “None of us understood what happened. Why he changed like that. When he got out, he was clean for a while. Even got a job at a car wash. We all thought he was doing good. Then Mom’s jewelry started going missing. Cash was missing. He kept staying out.”

“He was using again.” The words were bitter in Marc’s mouth.

“We had a family intervention. Rehab, or they’d kick him out. He chose rehab, got his act together and came home. He went to meetings, got a job. He was fun to be around again. Everyone thought he was okay until this past summer. Same thing, different day. But instead of rehab or begging for another chance, he just left. He left, and no one knows where he’s been for months.”

The heartbreak in Maddy’s voice put hot tears in Marc’s eyes.


“Fuck.” He blinked the tears away, then tucked Maddy close to his chest, acting on instinct. She clung to him without crying, and he tried not to tense up.

Marc knew the dangers of living on the streets better than anyone. He knew all of the different fates that could befall someone, especially an addict. He’d seen acquaintances overdose on bad shit. Seen them beaten up for what little they had on them, be it cash or dope. Seen them killed outright for standing on the wrong corner.

“How can I help?” Marc asked.

“I saw in the paper about your homeless shelter. It’s awesome that you do that.”

“Thanks, but Anthony’s never come to the shelter.” He wouldn’t have been admitted by Dave or Tate, even if he had. The shelter was for LGBT teenagers, not twenty-four-year-old former soccer stars. And no one brought drugs inside. “Why do you think he’d come back to Wilmington? Your family moved to Philadelphia not long after I lost touch.”

“It’s a guess. I’ve searched all over Philly. All of his old hangouts, his old friends. Dad even checked in with his detective buddy, and no one can find him there. Plus he talked about you a few times after the last rehab.”

And here Marc hadn’t thought anything else could surprise him today. “He did?”

“He wondered what you were doing, if you were okay. Said he owed you an apology, and part of staying sober was making amends. I figured searching here was worth a shot.”

Marc wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Anthony could be right around the block, shooting his own death up his arm, and Marc wanted to cry almost as much as he wanted to punch something. “If he came back to Wilmington, he’s never tried to make contact with me.”

“But don’t you know people? Someone who could help us find him?”

“I’m not sure.” Marc had more resources for this kind of thing than Maddy, but addicts weren’t quick to snitch on each other. Not unless money was involved, and Marc didn’t have a lot of spare twenties to flash in front of people for what would probably be worthless information.

One thought came to mind, though. An acquaintance who might be able to give him a lead.

He ran back upstairs for his cell phone, dialing on his way back to the living room. It rang until he expected voice mail. Then a sleepy voice said, “What’s wrong?”

His best friend and shelter co-founder, Tate Dawson, slept through the day on Saturday, same as him. “Long story, but I need a small favor. Do you have Donner Davis’s phone number?”

“Um, I know Jonas has it. Why?”

“Can you text it to me? I’ll explain later.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Marc hung up and waited for the number. Ever since the charity fundraiser last November, Tate and his boyfriend Jonas had been hanging out with Donner and his partner Ezra more frequently. Marc knew Ezra from his coffee shop Half-Dozen, and had met Donner once, right after Christmas; he liked the pair. Donner was a full-time bartender who also ran what was basically a traveling soup kitchen with Jonas and another friend, and they saw dozens, if not hundreds, of Wilmington’s homeless every week.

Maybe Donner had seen Anthony.

“Do you have a recent picture of him?” Marc asked.

“Sure,” Maddy replied.

“Send it to me, okay?”

The photo she texted to his phone made his heart pound. Anthony was still as handsome as ever. Jet black hair, olive skin, rugged features. Beard scruff on his chin and cheeks. He was older, obviously, and thinner. His eyes had a deadness to them that tore at Marc’s heart. Like he’d forgotten how to live.

Goddamn drugs.

He called Donner, who actually picked up on an unknown number.
“Donner Davis.”

“Hey, it’s Tate’s friend Marc.”

“Hi, Marc. Is Tate okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine.” Marc glanced at Maddy. “This is going to sound a little odd, but I need a favor. I just found out that an old friend of mine has been using and living on the streets, and I was hoping I could send a recent photo of him over. Maybe you’ve seen him at Street Feed.”

“Of course, send it over.”

“Thanks. Give me a sec.” Marc fiddled with his phone. “Okay, on its way.”

Donner’s end went silent for a while. Long enough that Marc expected bad news. “I think I have a few times,” Donner said. “Pretty sure only when we’re set up north of Pennsylvania Avenue, so that’s probably his hunting ground.”

Marc’s heart nearly beat out of his chest. “Thank you. That’s totally helpful.”

“I hope you find your friend, man.”

“I appreciate it.” He hung up.

“You have a lead?” Maddy asked.

“I have an area.” Marc knew the city well enough to figure out a few spots where Anthony could have landed.

“Then let’s go.” She shot to her feet.

“Give me a minute to get something.”

He went back upstairs to his bedroom. In his nightstand, beneath his stash of condoms and lube, was a black wooden box. He pulled it out and removed the .22LR Ruger he kept for personal safety. Checked the ammunition. He doubted they would need it, but Marc wasn’t putting Maddy at risk by not taking it with them.

* * *

Three stops later—one for coffee and two others at potential crash pads—Marc parked behind an abandoned gas station that showed signs of squatters. Empty food containers, fresh cigarette butts, newspaper-covered glass windows. Marc had lived in a place like this for a few weeks once.

Traffic was light, giving the gas station building and missing pumps a sense of abandonment. The smell of oil still lingered, as did the fainter odor of rot. He didn’t bother asking Maddy to stay in the car this time. She’d just ignore him again.

He tucked the gun into the back waistband of his jeans before locking the car doors. The heap wasn’t worth much. Most of the machine was pre-first Bush, but the engine had a few new parts on it that might entice thieves.

The building was big and boxy and covered with graffiti. One side had doors for exterior restrooms. Both were unlocked and reeked beyond words. Old syringes and pieces of foil littered the floors of both, and people had recently been using the bathrooms for their intended purposes, but neither showed signs of long-term life.

The back door was marked with a faded Employees Only sign. The lock showed obvious signs of tampering, and the knob actually turned when he twisted it. Rusty hinges squealed loudly enough that he flinched. Maddy stayed behind him as he pulled the door open. The stale stink of old air, rotten food and something he hadn’t smelled in years wafted out.

The rancid butterscotch odor of smoked heroin.

He stepped into a supply area full of empty boxes and littered with trash. Beer cans, liquor bottles, fast food bags, used cigarettes. Tucked in the corner was a half-open door to what might have been the manager’s office. The place had no electricity and the freezing interior was too dim to see far.

Maddy brought up a flashlight app on her phone and handed it over for him to use. He stepped closer to the office and picked up the rhythmic sounds of someone snoring.

Marc held up a finger; Maddy stopped following him. He inched closer and shone the light inside. A skinny figure was curled up in a ball under a dirty blanket, hoodie pulled tight around his face to block the cold. Marc couldn’t see enough of his face to know for sure who it was, and the last thing he wanted to do was scare a stranger awake. Dude could be high on anything.

He squatted, angling the light lower. Caught enough of the man’s face to register familiarity.

Oh fuck.

“Anthony!” Maddy shoved past him and dropped to her knees next to the sleeping man. She shoved him hard. “Wake up.”

Anthony moaned and mumbled something, then tugged the blanket over his head. Maddy yanked it off him with a force that surprised Marc. She pulled the hoodie down, revealing gnarly hair and a gaunt, dirt-smudged face. But beneath the surface, that was his Anthony.

He knelt next to Maddie. “Anthony, get up.”

Anthony blinked bloodshot eyes open. Stared blankly, then covered them with one hand. “Fuck, I’m hallucinating. Never buying from that asshole again. ¡Gilipollas!

“You aren’t imagining me, pal.” Marc pinched his ear.

“Ow, fuck.” The hand dropped away. “Marcos?”

He didn’t bother correcting him. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Why are you here?”

“For you, you jackass. Maddy came to me because she’s worried about you.”

Anthony didn’t seem to notice Maddy right next to him. “Why’s she worried?”

“You’re living in a fucking gas station. Duh. Now get up.”


“Because I’m taking you home.”

“No.” Anthony scrambled to his feet faster than Marc expected. He fled to the corner of the tiny office, hands up like a shield. “They’ll just kick me out again.”

“Not your home, my home.” Marc made the decision in the moment. He hadn’t thought past finding Anthony, much less where to plant him. It was a better plan than dumping him into a rehab facility that he’d probably resent and leave before finishing treatment.

Anthony stared at him like he’d grown a third eye. “Why would you do that?”

“Because you’re not the Anthony I remember, and I want to help get him back. Drugs, dude? This wasn’t you.”

“Things changed.”

No fucking shit. “Come on, it’s freezing in here.”

Anthony still didn’t move or acknowledge his sister. He couldn’t seem to stop staring at Marc, and it was getting creepy. “It’s been eight years,” Anthony said. “Why are you doing this? Why do you even still care?”

“I honestly don’t know. You were important to me once, Tone. You never stopped being important to me.”

For an instant, Marc thought Anthony was going to burst into tears. Instead, he cleared his throat. “I’m an addict.”

“I kind of figured that one out. But that stops today.”

Anthony crossed his arms. “Says you.”

“And says me,” Maddy snapped. She got in his face, riled up like Marc had never seen her. “I have been scared out of my mind ever since you chose drugs over our family. I love you, but you are sick and you need help. All of this shit started after Marcos was kicked out. That’s why I brought him back to you. Let him help you.”

Marc stared at the back of Maddy’s head, her harsh words tumbling around in his brain. No way had Anthony started using because of Marc. That didn’t make sense. Sure, they’d been best friends since elementary school, but they’d both had other friends. Anthony had college plans. He wanted to have a huge soccer career, and then retire to work on sports programs with low-income kids. He’d had dreams and a future.

“Let me help you,” Marc said.

Anthony wilted, his resolve fleeing. “Okay.”

He started moving forward, but Maddy blocked the way. “Uh uh. Empty your pockets.”

With the slow motions of someone in terrible pain, Anthony removed a plastic baggie from his hoodie that contained foil, a lighter and a tiny gray-black ball. He dropped it on the floor. The lighter clattered loudly on the old tile. Anthony stared at it a beat, then raised his head. Something new shone in his eyes, and it took Marc a moment to understand what it was.


Chapter 2

Anthony was in hell. Actual, real hell, and it was one of his own making.

Medicated detox in rehab was one thing, but going cold turkey with nothing to wean him off?


Knowing Marcos was there helped, though. Marcos never seemed to leave his side, tucking in blankets and wiping his face. Holding the barf bucket. Changing sheets a lot. Holding him down when he tried to leave because he really needed a hit right fucking now.

This was dope-sick times infinity, and it lasted forever, until Anthony really, truly wanted to die. And then he woke up and it wasn’t as awful. He napped a lot after that, between feeling sick and nibbling on crackers and dry toast. Always Marcos. Sometimes Maddy, but she was less important.

Marcos had come back.

Anthony woke again feeling less sick. Mostly exhausted. He stretched sore limbs and brushed something warm nearby. Glanced over.

Marcos was asleep on the other half of the bed. He was on his side, facing Anthony, and he looked amazing. Marcos had filled out, put on some muscle. His dark hair was cut short, and his chin and cheeks held a few days’ worth of scruff. As beautiful as he’d always been.

A knight in shining winter coat who’d strode into the mess Anthony had made of his life and saved him from it.

Once you’re on your feet, he’ll leave again.

And that was okay. Anthony didn’t deserve Marcos. Not anymore. Maybe he never had, because Marcos had been strong enough to stand up for himself and admit what he was to the world, while Anthony hid. He hid from the truth and ignored his own feelings, and when those feelings became toxic, he numbed them with drugs. He’d made a complete and utter disaster of his life, and once Marcos saw that, he’d tell Anthony to leave.

I should go. Save him the trouble.

Only, sitting up felt like too much of an impossibility, much less walking to the bedroom door. He was tired and shaky and kind of hungry, despite the rolling nausea deep in his gut. He did, however, have to piss something awful, and fuzzy memories of Marcos pushing his dick into a bottle so he could pee made his face flush hot.

Not again. He’d fucking crawl to the bathroom.

He glanced around the small bedroom, which had no real style or decorations. The water stains on the ceiling and faded wallpaper suggested old housing, and the half-drawn curtain blocked out a lot of light and the view of wherever he’d ended up. There were two doors. The room’s smaller, closed door was narrow and warped and probably a closet, which meant the bathroom was in the hall.

Anthony rolled onto his side, toward the edge of the bed. Marcos snuffled in his sleep. Fingers lightly brushed Anthony’s lower back. He wanted to press into that touch, to encourage Marcos to touch him anywhere he wanted to.

Don’t. He doesn’t want you, he’s probably dreaming.

His insides wobbled all over the place as he sat up, resettling into a vertical alignment after being horizontal for fuck knew how long. Days, at least. The wood floor was cold beneath his bare feet, which he got firmly situated before levering up. Up.

Standing. Standing was good.

The world tilted, went gray, and Anthony hit the ground in an ungraceful heap. His elbow cracked off the hard wood, sending a jolt straight to his shoulder, and he shouted a few choice words in Spanish.

“What?” Marcos was kneeling next to him in an instant, those familiar dark eyes wide with fright. “Tone? You okay?”

“Fell.” Like Marcos couldn’t see that for himself.

“Why were you getting up?”

“Have to piss.”

Marcos frowned. “You could have woken me.”

For some reason, that made Anthony’s rebellious side sit up and take notice. “I’m not a child.”

“No, you’re a fucking drug addict coming down from a hard detox. This isn’t the flu, okay? Your body is flushing out some pretty toxic shit, and you’re going to feel it for a while.”

He grunted at Marcos. “Thank you, Dr. Villegas. I’ve been here before, okay?”

“Yeah, Maddy told me.”

Great, his little sister told his former best friend all about the many times Anthony had fucked up his life and hurt his family. Perfect.

“Christ, you’re still as stubborn as you used to be,” Marcos said. “Will you stop pouting and let me help you to the bathroom?”

“Fine.” Anthony didn’t have the energy to argue that he wasn’t pouting, or that his bladder was a few minutes away from releasing, no matter where Anthony was parked.

Getting to his feet would have been a lot easier if he’d asked for help from the bed, but they were way past that now. The physical gymnastics necessary to get him up from the floor proved two things to him—one, that Marcos was in incredible physical shape, and two, that Anthony wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Tackle hanging out for the world to see. Once he was standing on both feet, straight-backed, with Marcos’s arm around his waist, Anthony brought up the dick-shaped elephant in the room.

“Why am I naked?”

“Because you barfed on, sweated through or shit in every pair of shorts or T-shirt I wrestled you into, and I’m sick of doing laundry,” Marcos replied. So matter-of-fact, like he nursed someone through withdrawal all the time.

“Oh.” Now he really felt like an ass for putting Marcos through all that. “Sorry.”

“We’re past it. Come on.”

They shuffle-walked out the door and down a short, narrow hall to a tiny bathroom that hadn’t been updated since the eighties. Salmon-colored walls, ivory tub. The tiny sink was close enough to the head that Anthony could lean on it with one hand and aim with the other. He missed Marcos’s touch after he released him, but no way was he gonna say that out loud.

He pissed out a hell of a lot of liquid.

Even Marcos whistled when he finished. “Thank you for not letting that go on my bedroom floor.”

Anthony grunted. “You’re welcome.”

“Feel up to taking a shower? No offense, dude, but you reek.”

He’d have to take Marcos’s word for that. His senses were all out of whack. “Not sure how long I can stand up.”

Marcos whipped off the sleeveless tee he was wearing, but left his running shorts on. “Fine, I’ll get in with you and keep you upright. But you seriously need to shower right now before my neighbors start to complain about the smell.”

He stared at the man his ex-best friend had grown into. Work-honed muscles, an unexpected four-pack under a thin pelt of black hair. Strong legs under those shorts, with more dark hair dusting them from top to bottom. So strong. Anthony glanced down at his too-thin frame, ashamed at how his athletic build had wasted away to skin and bone.

“Dude, I’m not gonna lunge at you,” Marcos snapped. “This is so far from a sexy situation right now, and you are layered in days’ worth of sweat and grossness. Get in the shower before I call your sister over and make her help you.”


With a little help from Marcos, they both got in the narrow tub, curtain closed, with steamy water cascading down Anthony’s front. He closed his eyes and gave in to the awesomeness that was an actual hot shower. He hadn’t had one in months. Not like this. Not with someone he trusted standing behind him, massaging a bar of soap into a washcloth.

Anthony had no real shame left, so he simply stood there while Marcos scrubbed him down with something that smelled vaguely medicinal. He relaxed into the sensations of a friendly touch, one meant to help not hurt. Back, arms, legs, torso, neck. Almost every inch.

Marcos slapped the washcloth into his hand. “Wash your junk, dude.”


He braced a hand on the wall and did as told, soaping up his dick, balls and ass. After he rinsed himself down, Marcos turned him to face away, then started washing his hair with shampoo that smelled kind of like tar.

“What is that?” he asked.

“It’s for head lice.”

“I don’t—”

“I didn’t ask.”

Anthony did pout that time. He didn’t have fucking head lice, but whatever. Marcos was still touching him, every single caress helping to relax some of the wariness and tension he lived with every day on the streets. Proving to his hyperaware senses that he was in a safe place. He could let his guard down.

Marcos wouldn’t hurt him.

Once that stinky shit was out of his hair, Anthony squeezed out the excess water. “Do you wanna do a flea dip, too?”

“Trust me, I considered it.”

Since he wasn’t entirely sure if Marcos was serious, Anthony didn’t press his luck. Marcos turned off the water, then reached past the curtain for a towel. He wrapped it around his own waist, then tugged his soaked shorts to the ground. They stayed behind while Marcos got out and toweled himself off. Anthony remained where he was, leaning on the side of the tub until Marcos returned, dressed again, with another towel and extra clothes.

Getting dressed was an exercise in patience and dexterity, because Anthony swayed and leaned more than helped. His balance was off and he had no real energy to move his gangly limbs. Once he had on a pair of boxers and a too-big tee, Marcos helped him shuffle into a different bedroom than the first one. This had a box spring and mattress on the floor, and a lamp on a side table. Nada else.

“Whose room is this?”

“Yours for now.” Marcos dumped him on the bed.

Anthony bounced, his stomach sloshing angrily at the sudden landing. “Dude, the fuck?”


Oh yeah, he sounded sorry.

“Was I in your room before?” Anthony asked.

Marcos shrugged. “It was easier to keep an eye on you there. Now that I’m sure you won’t roll over and choke on your own vomit in the middle of the night, you can sleep in here. Besides, I need to change the sheets again.”

“Oh.” He started to leave, and Anthony’s heart sank. “Marcos?”

He froze in the doorway, still facing away. “It’s Marc now.”

“Marc. Why are you doing this for me?”

Seconds stretched out into a silent eternity, before Marcos finally turned to face him. Stiff-shouldered, face irritatingly blank. “Maddy came to my door and asked me to help find you, and to get you clean. I’m making good on a promise.”

Any hope Anthony had clung to that Marcos had come to save him because he still cared ghosted away. Gone. Marcos was doing Maddy a favor, nothing else. And why not? They’d lost touch years ago. Marcos didn’t owe Anthony anything, not even the borrowed clothes on his back.

Something flickered in Marcos’s eyes. “Relax a while. I’ll bring some soup up later.”

“Thank you.” As much as Anthony didn’t want Marcos to go, his brain was still too mushy for a long conversation. And Marcos had better things to do than keep babysitting his useless ass.

“I won’t do this twice, Tone. You start using again, and it’s not my problem.”

“I get it.” The need for a hit started clawing at his chest, a hundred tiny mice with hundreds of tiny claws. Dope dimmed the anxiety and the self-loathing, made him care less that he’d ruined his life and made everyone who cared about him suffer.

Dope turned off the part of his brain that still missed Marcos, even after eight years apart, and that knew Marcos would hate what he’d become. And he did hate it. Anthony saw it in his eyes and his posture and his declaration that this was a one-and-done deal. No second chances.

His fingers twitched with the need to hold his lighter. Flick it open. The smoke that always came. The euphoria and peace that took over, wrangling all of his doubt and self-hatred into a tiny ball that wasn’t quite so suffocating—like it was suffocating him now.
He curled around a pillow and tried to make the need go away.

* * *

Marc stared at the stockpile of canned chicken noodle soup that Maddy had left in his cupboard the day before. She’d also delivered a case of sports drinks, a family-sized box of crackers, a loaf of bread and a giant sack of hard candies in assorted flavors. The candy, she said, was to help Anthony with the cravings. Give him something to do with his mouth.

He wasn’t sure how sucking on a sour apple candy was supposed to help with heroin withdrawal, but he trusted her.

Taking care of Anthony for the last seventy-odd hours had been one of the most frustrating, terrifying and kind-of rewarding experiences of his life. Watching someone he’d adored as a child shake and shiver and sob in his lap had broken his heart. Cleaning up vomit and shit (very literal shit) wasn’t his favorite thing ever, but he’d done it before and he’d probably do it again. His ancient washer and dryer were about two more heavy loads away from giving up the ghost.

But Anthony had come down from it all and had actually been coherent for a while. Sure, he’d gone flat on his ass trying to take a piss alone, but Marc couldn’t blame the guy for wanting to be independent.

He could blame the guy for taking heroin in the first place, the stupid son of a bitch.

Marc emptied a can of soup into his dented saucepan and set the heat to medium. The microwave clock taunted him with 4:09. He’d already missed the past three nights at the shelter, and he had to leave in less than two hours to get ready for intake. They opened the doors at six in January and February when the weather was coldest, which meant longer shifts for the volunteers. He wasn’t pulling his weight, and he hated that. Tate and Dave understood, but Marc had a responsibility to All Saints House.

Open less than six months, they filled every bed every night with homeless LGBT teens. Thirty beds wasn’t enough. He wanted to do more for those kids than simply give them shelter and breakfast.
Marc didn’t want any more teens living on the streets the way he had. No kid deserved that kind of fear and uncertainty and pain. And now Marc was harboring an addict he didn’t trust to be alone in his own home—a fact he needed to keep on the down-low. They already battled with private agencies and their internalized homophobia, and the last thing Marc wanted was his personal life to affect the shelter.

His phone blared out Tate’s ringtone. “Hey, man.”

“Hey. How’re you doing?”

Marc had a recovering addict in his bed, but his best friend’s first priority was him. He kind of wanted to reach through the phone and hug Tate, and that was a rare impulse. “I’m okay. He’s awake and mostly aware. Even got his smelly ass to take a shower.”

“Well, that’s progress.”

“Progress will be him eating some soup and not barfing it up on me.”

“Ugh. Gross.”

“And before you ask, I’ll be there tonight.”

Tate made an affronted squawk. “That’s not why I was calling.”

“I know, but you were thinking about it.”

“Okay, maybe. Are you really leaving him alone at your place?”

“No.” Marc wanted to trust Anthony, but he flat-out didn’t. “Maddy’s coming over at five to babysit him tonight.”

“She’s a pretty awesome sister, putting herself out like this.”

“She’s one of a kind. And she loves her brother.”

“What about you?”

Marc stirred the soup, which was starting to steam. “What about me, what?”

“Anthony was your best friend once. You told me that one time we got really drunk on schnapps that you used to have a crush on him.”

He glanced at the kitchen doorway, as if expecting Anthony to be standing there and have somehow overheard Tate’s comment. Which was ridiculous. “I was sixteen, dude. I haven’t seen him in eight years.”

“So seeing him again didn’t bring up any old feelings?”

Finding Anthony huddled beneath the dirty blanket in that abandoned gas station had stirred up old feelings of anger and loss. Seeing how thin and unhealthy Anthony had become because of his addiction had stirred up old feelings of fear and disgust. Seeing Anthony make it through a home detox alive, without Suboxone or anything else, had stirred up old feelings of hope—hope that maybe the friend he remembered was still in there somewhere. Waiting to be seen again.

“Not the feelings you’re thinking,” Marc replied.

“Oh. Well, you need anything, you ask.”

“Appreciate it, Tate, thanks. See you tonight.”


Marc threw a sandwich together for himself and scarfed it down while the soup finished heating. He assembled a tray with the soup, a sleeve of crackers, water and a room temperature sports drink, then carried it upstairs.

Anthony snored softly on the mattress, his entire body curled around one of the pillows as if, even in sleep, he was waiting for someone to snatch it away. His hair was long and unkempt, badly in need of a proper cut, and he hadn’t shaved in days. The scruff gave him a sharper, angrier edge that was both appealing and terrifying. Despite his overall thinness, Anthony’s appearance had a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe that probably worked well on the streets.

He hated thinking of the things Anthony had probably done to make it on his own. Marc had a laundry list of choices he’d made on the streets that he’d hidden away in a part of himself that he didn’t talk about, not even to Tate. Choices that had helped and hurt him, but had ultimately led him to where he was today—safe, in his own home, working at a shelter that helped keep other kids from having to make the choices he’d made.

Except Anthony hadn’t been kicked out onto the streets by his family for being gay. According to Maddy, he’d fallen into his drug habit, refused to get better and had simply vanished.

Our lives aren’t remotely the same.

Despite that, Marc wouldn’t turn his back on Anthony now. Not if he was willing to stay clean and get his life back on track.

He set the tray on the side table, then perched on the edge of the mattress. Anthony’s face pinched and smoothed, eyes moving behind closed lids. Dreaming. His breath came out in shorter puffs, harsher gasps.

“Tone? Wake up.” Marc squeezed his bicep.

Anthony yelped and rolled away, shoving the pillow at Marc as if it could protect him. Marc caught it and held still, waiting for Anthony to fully wake up and identify his surroundings. Awareness stole over his panic, and Anthony’s entire body went slack.

“Sorry,” he said. “Forgot where I was for a sec.”

Marc put the pillow near the wall that pretended to be a headboard. “I shouldn’t have touched you. My fault.”

“Glad you woke me, though. Fuck but I hate nightmares. Especially the ones where you know you’re dreaming but you can’t wake yourself up.”

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t remember my dreams.”

Anthony’s lips twitched. “Right. Forgot about that.”

Sometimes Marc woke with the emotions surging through him—most often a sense of panic or loneliness—but he never recalled what he’d actually dreamed. Mostly he was glad for that. “What were you dreaming about?”

“You.” Anthony frowned, his dark eyes going liquid. “Someone was hurting you and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t get to you.”

The genuine distress in Anthony’s voice over a figment of his drug-addled imagination had Marc reaching out without thinking. Anthony curled a cold, trembling hand around his. “It was just a dream, Tone. I’m fine.”

“I know.” Anthony gave his hand a mighty squeeze. “I’m so fucking happy to see you, man. I mean it. I knew you’d land on your feet but part of me always worried about you.” He glanced at the room’s single window. “Where are we, anyway?”


A black eyebrow arched up. “You stayed in Wilmington?”

“It’s not like I had the money to go anyplace else. Besides, this is home. Always was, always will be.” And since the questions were inevitable… “Today’s Tuesday. We found you on Saturday. Happy fucking New Year.”

Anthony blinked at him. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“You spending New Year’s taking care of my idiotic ass.”

“It was my choice.” Marc squeezed his hand once more, then let go. “I know it’s been a while, but I do care what happens to you. I want you to get back on your feet, but Tone? No drugs. I mean it. You can stay here as long as you need, but I want your solemn vow that you’re done with drugs. I catch you using again, and you’re out.”

Anthony swallowed hard, then nodded. “I understand.”

“Uh uh. Promise me. Hand to God, may your dick fall off if you’re lying, swear.”

He raised his right hand, palm out. “I swear to God, Marcos, no more drugs.”

Marc tried to believe in that promise, but he knew from experience that addicts were chronic liars. “And no tricks. Girls, guys, whatever you’re into, don’t bring them here.”

“Okay. No problem. Haven’t gotten it up for anybody in months, anyway.”

Yeah, well, drugs will do that.

Not that Marcos had had much of a sex life lately—something Tate liked to remind him of more and more frequently, especially since Tate started living with Jonas.

Anthony picked at the blanket twisted around his knees with fingers that probably itched to light up. “Are you dating anyone?”

“No. I don’t have a lot of time for that right now. Work keeps me busy seven days a week, so I barely have time to grocery shop and sleep.”

“Really? What do you do?”

Marc hesitated, then told him about All Saints House. Meeting Tate in a bar, but instead of flirting, hatching an idea that took two years to see to fruition. Anthony’s eyebrows went higher and higher the more Marc spoke. “I have to leave in a little while to open the shelter,” Marc said. “Maddy’s coming over.”


“Honestly?” He held Anthony’s gaze. “I don’t trust you.”

Anthony flinched. “Haven’t given you a reason to trust leaving a junkie alone in your house. I get it.”

Do you? Because I don’t.

Deep down, Marc remembered and trusted the boy who’d been in his life since first grade. The boy who taught him how to ride a bike without training wheels, because Marc’s own father was too busy working and drinking to bother. The boy who stole a skin magazine at age twelve so they could stare at naked people. The teenager who gave him complete acceptance when Marc, at fifteen, admitted he thought he might be gay.

The friend whose own life had gone off the rails after Marc was sent away.

That friend was the person Marc didn’t know or trust. The one who stole and lied and used and had gone to jail.

Marc wasn’t entirely sure which combination of the two was sitting in his spare room, staring at him with wounded eyes. “It isn’t just that you’re a junkie,” Marc said. “It’s that I don’t know you. You have the same name and almost the same face as the guy I used to know, but I don’t know you anymore.”

“Maddy’s practically a stranger, same as me.”

He didn’t flinch against the truth in that statement. “Maybe, but she’s a sober stranger who came to me for help. You’re the guy I picked up off a dirty gas station floor and scrubbed down with disinfecting soap after he stopped shitting all over my sheets.”

Anthony’s face pinched as mortification stole over him. Marc didn’t want to relive the past few days, and he didn’t want to embarrass Anthony to death. It happened, moving on.

“Eat your soup,” Marc said. “Try to drink something, too.”

“Why are you doing this? Being so nice about all this?”

Marc shrugged, then stood. With his back to Anthony, because he couldn’t look the other guy in the face without crying, he said, “Because we were friends once,” and walked out the door.