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Daybreak in Sandbridge

By Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2018 Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend

ISBN 9781634866576

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

Daybreak in Sandbridge

By Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend

Chapter 1

The first clear memory Winston “Scooter” Stahl had was of falling.

He knew he should have more memories than that, and if he concentrated, he could summon a few. Like his sister’s seventeenth birthday, when she kissed a boy in her bedroom and Scooter told on her. The stinging rat-tail Mary-Alice gave him in retaliation a few days afterward is a little clearer. But neither of them was as clear and bright and indelible as the memory of falling.

Even years later, the memory haunted his dreams.

* * * *

Lorraine Stahl, Scooter’s mother, was a good-looking woman, tall and gray-eyed. She was an excellent cook, a skilled wood-carver, a capable seamstress, and an amateur historian. The latter two interests served her well when she got involved in reenactment and joined the 3rd Virginia Regiment. Big Win, her husband and Scooter’s father, thought the whole thing was ridiculous. He refused to dress up in “hot, fussy” Colonial gear and pretend to fight with antiquated weapons in battles long since decided. Much less cook outdoors, sleep in canvas tents, and shoot powder blanks at smaller groups of pretend Redcoats.

Scooter had heard from his sister about some of the arguments Lorraine and Big Win had, back before Scooter was born, but in the end, as usual, Lorraine had her way. She was gone from home maybe five weekends out of the year. Big Win didn’t want his kids underfoot while he tried to run the family restaurant, Dockside, on his own, so until Mary-Alice—or Mace, as she insisted on being called—was sixteen, Lorraine took both of the kids with her.

Mace hated it. It was always too hot or too cold, and the clothes were uncomfortable, and she didn’t like sleeping on a pallet of hay. The boys were boring and the girls insipid. She was expected to cook and darn socks and sit and be ladylike. She thought the whole thing was awful.

Whether it was because he was a boy or because of a difference in underlying personality, Scooter loved going on his ma’s trips. He liked listening to the unit’s surgeon, with his case of tools and unguents, explain about amputation and leeches. He liked the freedom of running around all day with other kids and only having to report to his mother for meals. Some of the other kids complained about having to help clean up after meals, but by the time Scooter was six, he’d been helping out in the kitchens at home, so dishes for three people was nothing. He loved learning to load and fire the flint and powder muskets, and that was the only part of the whole thing that Big Win was happy to listen to him talk about, after.

He was eight (and a half!) when he discovered the great tree on the green in Colonial Williamsburg. The Market Days event in mid-September was one of the biggest events of the year; dozens of units converged on the historical site, and the sea of canvas tents spread as far as the eye could see. Dozens of other kids ran through the wide paths between the tents, dressed in linen shirts and breeches. The cannons were fired regularly, rending the air with their loud booming.

The boiled leather shoes that were considered historically appropriate for children were not the best he could have selected for tree-climbing, but Scooter was eight (and a half!) and he didn’t stop to think about things like that. The tree had huge branches, some wider than a picnic bench. He was more than twenty feet up without even thinking about it, and by the time he found a good branch, he could barely see the ground through the leaves. Perched high, he stood on a branch, playing pirate. He could see the powder magazine from where he was, and no one could see him. It was terribly exciting.

But he’d forgotten about the cannons and when one of them fired, he startled, and lost his footing. The slick leather shoes gave no purchase, and he went down over the side.

He remembered, very clearly, hitting one large branch on the way down. His arm made a sudden, unexpected noise, and he screamed. Oh, he screamed. Hitting the branch slowed his fall. He tumbled the rest of the way down until he was laying flat on the hard-packed dirt under the tree.

Later, the nurse in the ER would tell his mother it was a miracle that he was still alive.

As it was, he broke his arm in three places and spent the next four months in a cast. (He met his best friend during those months. Jason wasn’t allowed to participate in gym class either because he had trouble with breathing, so the two boys sat together on the side of the gym and watched the other children and struck up a friendship.)

Being so badly frightened and injured changed things for Scooter. He hesitated to splash in the ocean, refused to climb even the short scrub pines near home. Stopped running pell-mell down the dock that gave the restaurant its name. Wouldn’t even step up on the stool to help decorate the Christmas tree. He could feel his mother’s eyes on him, but he tried to ignore it.

As soon as the weather warmed, Lorraine took a day off. She put Scooter in their truck and drove them all the way to Williamsburg. It had never seemed so far before, but his ma didn’t say why they were going and Scooter was nine now and he had a sick suspicion it wasn’t a late birthday treat and the ninety minute drive seemed forever.

Scooter walked with his mom, all the way down Dog Street (he was a lot older before he discovered that it was really Duke of Gloucester Street, abbreviated by the locals to DoG). He started dragging his feet when she crossed the green, but Lorraine didn’t stop.

“You need to go up again, Winnie Stahl,” she said. She looked at him, stern and kind and scary all at once. “I know you’re scared, but if you let it win, let the tree win, you’ll be backing down your whole life.” She cupped her hands to offer him a boost, and the look on her face said there was no getting out of it.

Scooter cried. He was too old to cry, he knew that, but he cried anyway. His arm hurt where it had been broken. He was going to fall again.

Lorraine merely watched and waited until his panic eventually subsided, then handed him a tissue and made him blow his nose. She cupped her hands again and waited some more.

His ma could have waited all day, Scooter knew. Finally, knowing he had no other choice, he put his foot in the stirrup formed by her hands and she boosted him onto that first branch. With a grunt of effort, his mother grabbed hold of the lowest branch and hauled herself up into the tree, too.

Scooter had been scared, but the sight of his ma climbing a tree startled him out of it. He’d never seen her do anything like that before. She passed him, scaling another fifteen feet or so. “Well, you gonna make me climb this tree all by m’self?”

That first bit, when he let go of the safety of the lowest branch, stood up, and reached, might have been the hardest thing he’d ever done in his short life. But he did it. Hooked his leg over the branch and pulled himself up. And again. And again. His ma kept just out of reach, until they got near to the top and Scooter realized he was right back where he’d been.

Ma stretched out on one of the branches, one leg on either side, chin balanced on her hands. Scooter did the same on the branch next to her, so he could watch her face instead of looking down at the ground.

“Fear’s not a bad thing,” she said, finally. “It keeps us alive, allows us to exercise some caution. But too much fear can freeze you up, make it hard to keep movin’ forward. And life don’t care much for you if you’re standing still. Best way to live isn’t to never be afraid, but to be afraid…and do it anyway. That’s bravery, Winnie.”

“Are you afraid?”

Ma smiled at him. “Always am,” she said. “These days my fear’s a bit different. I’m afraid of bad things happening to you or your sister. I’m afraid of the restaurant failing. Of owing money. Of getting older. But life’s not gonna stop just because I’m afraid.”

“Are you afraid of being up in this tree?” Scooter attempted to clarify.

Ma looked at him, then looked down, then back at him. “You bet your buns I am,” she said. “But I’m up here anyway.”

* * * *

“After Ma died, it was a while before I was able to come back here,” Scooter said. Andy had been listening attentively, hands clasped behind his back to keep from interrupting. “After she passed, everything just…fell apart. Dad fell apart. He was never the same after she was gone. By the end of that first summer after she was gone, I was pretty much running the place on my own. Came up here a year after she died. I…don’t know. I feel closer to Ma here than anywhere else. Even Dockside. At Dockside, she belonged to everyone. Here…here she was just mine.”

Scooter tugged gently, leading them off the gravel-strewn path they’d been walking on, and across the grass toward an enormous tree. Andy looked up at it, and simultaneously saw why a child would feel a deep and urgent need to climb this tree, and also a nonsensical spurt of terror that Scooter had been all the way up there with no one to catch him when he fell. He shivered, and held Scooter’s hand tighter. But it was a magnificent tree, no doubt about that. “I’m glad you came back,” Andy said. “That would’ve been a shame. It’s gorgeous.”

Scooter dropped to one knee and cupped his hands. “Wanna go up with me?”

Andy hesitated. He’d never climbed a tree before. He could only imagine the furor it would have caused when he was a child. But Scooter was looking at him with that hopeful smile, and Andy was pretty much defenseless against that. He set a foot in Scooter’s cupped hands and reached up for the closest branch. It had to be easier than the climbing wall at the park, right? “Not too high?” he hedged anyway. “I’ve…never done this before.”

“Okay,” Scooter said. “Not too far. There’s a good set of branches about four up from here.” Scooter stood, lifting, and Andy found himself halfway over the first branch without any effort on his part. Scooter took a few steps over and leaped, getting one hand on Andy’s branch and another on the one next to it and shoved himself through the fork with a grunt. “Used to be easier, before they took the picnic table away. I was shorter then, too, though, so maybe I’m just remembering it being easier.”

“Well, you weigh more now,” Andy pointed out reasonably. He was half-sitting, half-kneeling on his branch, and looking around for the next decent handhold. There, that one wasn’t too far away. He pulled himself up onto his knees and grabbed it before putting his feet under him. Easier than the climbing wall at the park, but not nearly as stable. Every time Scooter moved, it seemed to shake the whole tree. Or at least Andy’s whole branch. He managed to pull himself up—ug, how long had it been since he’d had to do pullups in gym class?

Scooter went up quick, his body flexing as he swung himself from branch to branch with the ease of practice. His shirt rucked up and he hissed as he scraped a bit of skin on the branch, but he got himself settled, back against the trunk, legs spread wide over on a particularly huge branch. He hooked his foot under it on one side and offered Andy a hand. “We can sit here, yeah?” The branch had a fork about three feet away from the trunk, thick enough to rest against. If Andy looked up and not down.

He took Scooter’s hand, and that felt safer. Andy’s balance had been getting better by the time they’d put their surfboards away for the winter, but they’d gone out again in wetsuits as soon as the spring storms hit, and he’d felt as wobbly as a newborn kitten. Scooter would never let him fall, though. Scooter tugged, and Andy threw his leg over the branch, and they were settled. He looked up—the sky was only visible in tiny spots between the still-pale spring green of the leaves. “Nice.”

“I always liked it,” Scooter said. He rested his head against the trunk. “Sometimes I think I can still hear her. The firepit used to be over there.” He pointed to a spot maybe twenty feet from the base of the tree. Andy guessed. He didn’t really feel like looking down. “Remember one time, someone wanted me to powder monkey for the cannon crew. ‘Hey, Lori, where’s that boy o’ yours?’ ‘Up the tree,’ she said. ‘Think he’s got a crush.’” Scooter smiled, fond. “I did, too, but I didn’t know really know, you know? I didn’t think it was possible, I wouldn’t have believed anyone if they’d told me. That I could…that I could love a person as much as I love you, Andy.”

Same here, Andy thought. He’d thought he loved Nick once, but that had really just been lust, mixed with gratitude for the man who’d helped him escape his father. Nick hadn’t loved him back, either, not really. Not the way Scooter did, the way Scooter was looking at him now, like Andy was some kind of miracle. He couldn’t stand the space between them, suddenly, and let go of the branch to curl his hand around the side of Scooter’s neck, brushing Scooter’s jaw with his thumb. “Love you, too.”

Scooter turned his head and kissed Andy’s palm. “Good,” he said. “I um…” Scooter let go of the tree, rummaging through his pockets, then…”Close your eyes for, like, ten seconds, okay?”

Andy stared at him, but then took hold of the branch again and shut his eyes.

“Okay,” he said, and Scooter sounded nervous. “I was…you know, I kinda rehearsed this, even, but…Andy, I’d…Be honored if you’d agree to marry me.”

Andy’s eyes flew open. Scooter had a small box in one hand, the sort that everyone who’d ever watched a cheesy rom-com was familiar with, black velvet and square. Scooter turned the box to face Andy and cracked the lid. His offering was simple; a gold band with a square sapphire, flanked by smaller, rectangular diamonds.

Andy couldn’t talk. He couldn’t even breathe. He hadn’t…They hadn’t been together for a whole year yet, and Andy already loved Scooter more than anything he’d ever felt before and oh God, he was tearing up, and if he did that he wouldn’t be able to see and he’d never be able to get down from this tree, he was just…”Oh my God,” he managed to squeak. “Are you—you really mean that?”

“I really do,” Scooter said. “You’re the one for me, Andy. I…can’t even, I mean, if you’re…it could be a long engagement, or, you know—”

“Oh, God, stop it, yes, of course, and also no we’re not waiting. Well, you know, a little bit of waiting so we can do plans and have some ideas and did you have any particular time frame in mind but oh God I can’t shut up please make me shut up now—”

Scooter leaned forward and very gently brushed his mouth over Andy’s lips. “Give me your hand, baby.”

Andy shuffled closer and then let Scooter take his hand. He waited until Scooter had taken the ring out of its padding and said, “If you drop that and we lose it in the grass, I’m going to laugh so hard.”

“You said yes,” Scooter said, balancing the ring between his thumb and forefinger. “Can’t get out of it now, even if we lose the ring forever.” But he didn’t drop it, merely slid it onto Andy’s left ring finger where it fit snug in place. “Ah, good job,” Scooter said, holding Andy’s hand up to admire it.

“Wouldn’t want out of it,” Andy said. He leaned in cautiously to kiss Scooter, slow and then hot. “That’s why I said yes.” He glanced up at the leaves. “Hope she approves.”

“She’d adore you,” Scooter said. “Even if it was just because you make me so happy. But I think she’d see the same things in you that I do. Bravery, kindness, intelligence. Great sense of humor. You’re a fine catch, Andy. Thank you.”

Andy kissed Scooter again. Then, because if they kept being sappy he was going to tear up and seriously not be able to climb back down, he wiggled his eyebrows ridiculously and said, “Well, I’m happy you’re the one who caught me. Ready to take me home and stuff me properly?”

Scooter laughed, soft and a little wicked. “Oh, I’ll nail you up against the wall any time you want, baby doll.”

Andy started laughing helplessly. “That’s…that’s just terrible. That’s a terrible pun. I can’t live with this. The wedding’s off until the pun-tax has been paid!”

“Yeah?” Scooter shifted, preparing to climb down. “What sort of currency is acceptable? I’m sure I can come up with a suitable bribe.” He gave Andy a haughty look, “But I’ll have you know, I’m a faithful sort of man. I only have sex with my fiancé.”

“Oh, yeah?” Andy let Scooter help him down a level of branches. Going down was harder than going up. What even the hell. “I’m pretty sure I could talk to him, make a deal with him to get you on loan.”

“I wouldn’t,” Scooter said. “The interest rates are insane. Probably better just to buy outright.”

“Hmm, I dunno. I’m not sure I could afford you. Maybe I’ll ask my boss for a raise.”

Scooter swung down and touched the ground lightly, holding out his arms for Andy. “He’ll probably say no; he’s a little strapped. Got a wedding to pay for and a husband to support. Maybe you should just marry me, sounds like it’ll be easier.”

Andy could have dropped to the ground easily from the lowest branch, but he jumped into Scooter’s arms anyway, and wrapped his arms around Scooter’s neck. “You make a compelling argument,” he admitted, grinning.

“That’s good,” Scooter said. “Pretty sure Sam would turn me down flat. And then I’d have this ring and nothing to do with it.” He grinned back, then threw his head back and whooped. Scooter picked Andy up and swung him around in a circle before kissing him soundly. “You said yes!” he crowed. “God, baby, I was so scared. That you’d say it was too soon, or…”

Andy wrapped his arms around his fiancé’s waist and held on tight. “Good thing your Ma taught you to be brave, then.”

* * * *

Chapter 2

Andy was almost, almost tall enough to reach the light fixture while he was standing on one of the long picnic tables in Dockside’s dining room. Almost.

But not quite.

He folded his arms and glared at the shorted-out fixture. It was an easy five-minute fix, as soon as he could get his hands on it, he was pretty sure—there was a similar fixture in Scooter’s private kitchen that had blown just last week, and it had only needed to have a bit of patching on one of the wires.

Their private kitchen, Scooter would correct, but some part of Andy was always going to think of the Dockside diner and the private residence on the second floor as Scooter’s. Especially since there were three rooms that Scooter kept closed. Andy was pretty sure one of them was the master bedroom, the room that both Scooter’s parents had died in, but he wasn’t sure what the other two were—or even a hundred percent sure which one was the master. He’d tried asking about them once and Scooter had asked if they could hold off on the discussion for a while. Andy figured it wasn’t important enough to push the matter—they didn’t need all that much space anyway—but it did add to the feeling that it was Scooter’s house and Andy was just living in it.

Not that he wasn’t grateful for that. Living with Scooter these last couple of months had been pretty damn great.

Andy reached for the fixture again, just in case he’d grown another three inches or something in the last thirty seconds. Nope, no dice.

Just as he was glaring at it, Kat pushed in from the kitchen carrying a big tray of napkin-rolled utensils. “You must hurry,” she told him. “They are not back yet, and lunch prep must be done soon. And I must wipe your shoe prints off the table before a customer sits there.”

Andy twisted around to look at the big clock on the wall behind the register, and frowned. Scooter had promised he and Jason would be back in time for the lunch opening; they could wing it for half an hour or so without Scooter, if they had to, or without Jason, but no one else who worked at Dockside had quite mastered the grill, and a diner without a cook was pretty useless. He fished his phone out of his pocket, but there weren’t any messages. He sighed and put the phone away.

“Okay,” he told Kat. “I just want to get this one light fixed, it’ll only take a minute. Hey, drag one of the porch chairs in here, would you?”

Kat narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you going to put a wobbly chair on the table with gaps between the boards and then stand on it?” she asked, voice dangerously smooth.

“It’s really not as hazardous as you’re making it sound,” Andy said. “Come on, I thought we were in a hurry.”

“We are,” Kat said. “Which is why the light can wait until the afternoon lull, or even until tomorrow, when we can get the ladder and do it properly.”

“Ugh, you’re no fun.”

“Down,” Kat said, pointing at the floor beside her like she was talking to Trick.

Andy rolled his eyes, but clambered down off the table. “Is this a thing that happens when you get married?” he wondered. “You get all safety-conscious and boring? Because if so, I might have to tell Scooter that we have to call off the wedding and keep living in sin for another decade or so.”

“Are we calling off the wedding again?” Scooter mock-sighed, coming in from the kitchen door, several bags hanging from his elbow. “What now?”

“Marriage has drained away Kat’s sense of adventure,” Andy explained, giving Scooter a quick kiss hello. “We can’t risk becoming staid and dull.”

“Oh, well, that’s fair,” Scooter allowed, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. “Guess the wedding’s off, then.”

“Only because I do not want Andrushka to topple over and break his head on the floor,” Kat said haughtily. “Go on, Andy, tell Scooter what you were going to do, and see how much sin your living has in it then.”

Scooter looked from her to Andy, eyebrow raised.

“It was nothing,” Andy said, waving a hand around airily. “Just a little improvisation that Kat seemed to think was unsafe, because she’s old and married and boring now. Not to mention cruel,” he directed to Kat, pressing his hand over his heart. “I knew you were heartless, but wow.”

Jason pushed the swinging door open, but just leaned around it to eye them all. “Much as I appreciate the charm of verbally abusing my wife,” he said drily, “I understand we’ve got some sort of business to run here? Maybe we should think about getting on with it?”

Andy rolled his eyes and stuffed his screwdriver into his back pocket. “Such a nag,” he grumbled at Jason. “You two deserve each other.” He headed toward the kitchen to get on with his portion of the prep, but Scooter caught his arm and tugged him back.

“I would be very put out if you broke your head on the floor,” he said mildly.

“Good thing that wouldn’t have happened then,” Andy promised. He kissed Scooter again, letting it linger for just a moment longer. “We were just playing. Promise, honey.”

“Good.” Scooter said. “Guess that means the wedding’s back on, too.”

Andy huffed a huge sigh. “If we must.”

“We must.” Scooter kissed the pout off his face, then swatted his ass and grinned unrepentantly at Andy’s yelp. “Now get to work.”

Andy was already pushing through the door to the kitchen when Scooter called after him, “Oh, almost forgot—there was a letter for you in the mail.”

* * * *

Andy sat in Scooter’s chair in the office for a long, long time, looking at the letter on the desk. He wasn’t sure he wanted to touch it, much less open it. There was no return address, but he knew that handwriting. It had gotten shakier over the years, but he’d know that swooping loop on the end of his name anywhere.

Scooter rapped on the doorframe, his normal, brilliant grin in place. “Hey, space cadet,” he said. “Earth to Andy.”

Andy glanced up and smiled. “Hey, honey.” He looked back at the letter, rubbing his hands on his jeans. “Why? After all this time?”

“What, why?” Scooter stepped into the tiny office, put a hand on Andy’s shoulder. “Something wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Andy said, leaning into Scooter’s touch. He nodded at the letter. “That’s from my mom.”

Scooter blinked. “I didn’t realize. Well, of course you have a mom, but. You never talk about her, not at all.” He plucked up the envelope and turned it over in his hand. “Do…you want me to throw it out for you? Or read it?”

Andy closed his eyes, breathing slowly. “No, I…I’ll read it myself. But. Stay with me?”

“Always.” Scooter ran a hand through Andy’s hair, pulling on the short scruff lightly. He put the letter back down on the desk in front of Andy before leaning on the desk to face away, giving Andy as much privacy as the confines of his office allowed. “I’m right here.”

Andy picked up the envelope and carefully slid his finger under the edge, tearing it open. There was only one sheet of paper inside, the heavy, creamy stock she kept in her desk. He unfolded it, and his hand sought Scooter’s as he read.

Dearest Andrew,

I know that you left us for good reason, and I couldn’t blame you for not wanting to come back. When we found out you’d moved again, I hoped you might send us your new address, at least, but you didn’t. I’ve tried to respect your wishes and stay away.

I’m sorry for intruding now, truly I am, and at your place of employment, no less. I hope this hasn’t gotten you in trouble with your employer. But I hope you’ll agree it was necessary.

Your father is gravely ill, and has been admitted to hospice care. He has a few weeks, maybe a month.

Please, come home to New York to say goodbye. If not for his sake, then for mine, and if not for mine, then for your inheritance.

My number is below, if you need money for tickets or anything else. However you decide, know that I will always love you.

Mama

“Oh, God,” he breathed. His heart was pounding like it was trying to climb out of his chest. “Oh, God, I don’t…” He looked at it again, but the letters were blurring from the trembling in his hand. “What the hell.”

“You want to tell me?” Scooter’s voice was cautious, full of an emotion Andy wasn’t sure how to interpret. Restrained, in a way he rarely was. His hand continued to move over Andy’s hair, stroking and soothing. “Bad news?”

Andy laughed joylessly. “I wish I could say.” He held out the letter for Scooter to take. “Maybe you can tell me.”

Scooter scanned the letter, eyes flickering from the graceful scrawl and then to check the emotional weather on Andy’s face. The paper was shaking, just slightly, when he put it back down on the desk. “She knew. About how your father treated you?”

Andy shrugged and then nodded. “He didn’t treat her much better.”

Scooter nodded. “Know a little about that,” he said. “Ask Jason sometime.” He scrubbed at his chin, the scruff there making soft sounds against his palm. “You love her?”

Andy had to think about that. For a long time, he had hated her for not stopping his father, for not leaving. But he’d missed her desperately when he’d left on his own. And he’d come to understand, slowly, that it wasn’t as black-and-white for her as it had been for him. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I don’t always like her, but…she’s my mom.”

Scooter took a long, deep breath. “Then you should go,” he said. “Not for your dad; he can go straight to hell after he dies and I’ll help push. But for her sake. And yours. The last thing you want in this is to regret it.”

Andy nodded. Scooter was probably right. At least if he went, he could say he’d tried. He leaned into Scooter, closing his eyes and burying his face in Scooter’s shirt, breathing in the warm scent that had come to mean home. “I’ll…ask around, see if I can string together some subs for me for a few days.”

Scooter picked up his phone, tapped into the screen. He frowned, tapped again. “Do…would you want me to come with you?”

Andy looked up, eyes stretching wide. He hadn’t even dared to hope. Dockside was Scooter’s life; usually it was like pulling teeth just to get Scooter to take a whole day off. “Could you? I know you…it’s not like you have vacation you can cash in.”

Scooter’s phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen. “I can,” he said, and turned the phone to show Andy.

Scooter: gt ur ass bak hre. Nd u 4 a fw dys.

New text from Jeff: not far. Charleston. be home tomorrow.

Jeff hadn’t even asked why. Fuck, Andy was going to start crying or something. “Okay, then. Yeah. Let’s…” He took a couple of quick breaths. “I’ll look up air fares tonight.” He wrapped his arms around Scooter’s waist and squeezed. “Thank you.”

“Never been on a plane before,” Scooter mused. He put his arms around Andy, gently. “It’ll be okay, babe. I promise, I won’t let anything happen.” He kissed Andy’s hair. “Let’s finish getting closed up, yeah?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s…Yeah.” A sudden laugh bubbled up out of Andy’s throat. “Oh, God, you’ve never flown and I’m going to take us to La Guardia.” But he felt better, knowing Scooter would be with him. He let go, then took the hand Scooter offered to stand. “Maybe I’ll drag you sightseeing while we’re there. So you’ll finally know what it’s like to be the tourist.”

“Yeah, okay,” Scooter said, a little hesitant. “We can do some of that, if you want. Maybe it’ll give me patience with some of th’ idjits we get around here sometimes.”

“Unlikely,” Andy said. “But it’ll give us an excuse not to hang around the house all the time, at least.” Andy tugged Scooter close and kissed him, soft and chaste. “Love you. So much.” He sighed, tucked the letter in his pocket, and shoved his hand through his hair. “You think Kat and Jason will believe we’ve been skiving off cleanup and close so I could blow you in here?”

“Pretty sure Kat’ll believe just about anything from you,” Scooter said, groaning into Andy’s neck. “The question is, will Jason believe I’d let you. Or you think Kat’ll open the door to prove it to him?”

“And then she’d probably kill us both,” Andy sighed. “Feed our bodies to the jellyfish.”

Scooter appeared to consider it. “Jellyfish get hungry, too,” he said, raising one eyebrow hopefully.

And, well, Andy had said it as something between a joke and an excuse not to have to talk to the others about the letter and its news yet, but if Scooter was actually going to let Andy blow him in his office, with Kat and Jason still in the restaurant, just on the other side of the door…

Well, that was an opportunity too good to pass up. Andy pushed Scooter back against the desk and slid to his knees, unfastening Scooter’s pants. “You going to be able to keep quiet for me?” he teased, looking up at Scooter through his eyelashes.

Scooter sucked in air and bit his lip. “Gonna try,” he promised. Quiet was not a thing either of them did very well.

Andy worked Scooter’s pants and underwear down, just enough to let him pull out Scooter’s cock, already half-hard. Andy had seen it hundreds of times now, but it never failed to make his mouth water. He licked up its length, a broad, slow stripe, then tipped his head to watch Scooter’s face as he took the head into his mouth to suckle gently, tracing each tiny fold of skin with his tongue.

Scooter’s fingers threaded into Andy’s hair. “God, baby, love the things you do,” he whispered. He chuckled, low and wicked. “Gotta marry you soon, before I get sued for sexually harassing my employees.”

“You keep saying that, and here we are, still not married,” Andy pointed out. “Mr. Stahl, are you just stringing me along so you can have your wicked way with me?” He punctuated that with another slow lick up Scooter’s now mostly-hard prick.

Scooter pretended to consider that, which would have been more impressive had he not also been clutching, white knuckled, at the desk behind him. “Depends. Do I get more, or less sex once I marry you?” He wobbled a bit, then let out a low moan.

“Shhhh,” Andy warned. He wrapped one hand around the base of Scooter’s cock and braced the other on Scooter’s hip, and sucked Scooter in, slow and steady, teasing at his own gag reflex and humming happily.

Scooter shivered. He shifted his balance, hooking one leg around Andy’s lower back, the muscle in his calf flexing. Breathless, wordless, he watched, staring down at Andy with wide, ocean-gray eyes as Andy took him in. Andy tongued at him, and Scooter twitched, breathing slow, so slow, then jerked his hips as Andy found a particularly wicked combination. “God.”

Andy chuckled a little at that, and sucked harder. Not for the first time he wished he could talk while doing this. He wanted to tell Scooter how good this was, how much he loved this, Scooter’s taste and scent overwhelming everything else. He wanted to tease Scooter with the reminder that the others were still nearby, could walk in on them at any moment. He settled for humming vibrations into Scooter’s skin, keeping his eyes on Scooter’s face so Scooter couldn’t look away.

Scooter wasn’t above cheating; he licked his lips, then sucked the lower one into his mouth, denting the skin with his teeth. Using the back of Andy’s leg, he flicked one ancient sneaker off and rubbed his foot against Andy’s thigh, teasing until he got an angle on Andy’s stiffening prick, pressing lightly. “Hey there,” he said, soft.

Ohhhh, that felt nice. Andy let his eyelids flutter shut for a moment, rocking into Scooter’s touch. He redoubled his efforts; there were times he wanted to draw this out as long as he could, see just how desperate he could get Scooter, but not this time. The possibility of getting caught was a fun added adrenaline rush, but actually getting caught was slightly embarrassing and also rude as hell to the people who hadn’t wanted to be involved in their sex life. And the longer they were in here, the more likely it was that someone would come looking.

Andy pulled off, just long enough to gasp, “Come on, baby, come for me, and then you can take me upstairs and make me scream, hm?” and swallowed him back down, even deeper, hand sliding between Scooter’s thighs to cup his balls and press gently just behind them.

Andy fucked Scooter with his mouth and Scooter returned the favor, cupping one hand behind Andy’s head and sliding in and out with deep relish. “Jesus,” he whispered, then lost the ability to speak at all, his mouth working but no sound coming out. He thrust twice, hard, almost gagging Andy, then stiffened. He raised one hand to his mouth, bit down hard on the meaty part of his palm, just under the thumb. His cock jumped, twitched inside Andy’s mouth. Scooter convulsed once, violent, and came, thick streams of it, spurting into Andy’s willing throat.

Andy swallowed and swallowed again, and kept licking and sucking, softer, until the last weak pulses were spent and a tiny whine of overstimulation slipped from Scooter’s throat. Andy pulled back and very carefully tucked Scooter back into his underwear and pants. “That was awesome,” he said, just to hear the rasp in his voice. He nuzzled at Scooter’s fly a little, then climbed to his feet. “We are so doing that again.”

“Holy shit, Andy,” Scooter said, low and reverent. He tried to stand up and fell back weakly against his desk, knocking over the jar of pens and pencils. He rubbed his thumb over Andy’s lip, then along the side of his jaw. “God, you look well and thoroughly molested.”

Andy grinned. “Good.” He leaned in to kiss Scooter, feeling a hundred times better than he had before. “Come on, let’s go finish cleanup so Kat and Jason will go away.”

* * * *

Chapter 3

Eleanor Howard pushed the door open slowly. She hadn’t been here for a while, but every time she stepped into her son’s room, she forgot that so much time had passed.

Twice weekly cleanings had kept the room dust free, but her orders to the housekeeping service had been exacting. Nothing was to be moved. Andrew’s room must stay exactly as it had always been. He would want it that way, would want to be comfortable when he came home. Would want his things exactly as he’d left them, his father’s child in ways neither of them wanted to admit.

Sometimes, Eleanor could pretend he’d never left; that it was only a few more hours until he would be home from high school, flinging his backpack onto the bed and vanishing into his computer programs until she called him to dinner, and then he would come reluctantly downstairs to eat and report to Charles on his studies.

The air in his room, still and unlived in, told a different story. It spoke of arguments grown out of control as Andrew tried on the mantle of his growth and Charles attempted to push his son back into the place designated for him since before his birth. Of heated words and raised hands.

Eleanor sat on Andrew’s bed, her hands spreading the lines of her dress into tidy folds. She could never look anything other than her best; that had been trained into her for years before she married, and enforced by a husband who wanted—and deserved—nothing but the best.

The room had aged; the colors were faded. The collectors’ figures were contained in their boxes, neat and unopened. They were valuable, but the movies had faded from importance. Perhaps Andrew would want to sell them. He was a man grown now.

Eleanor got to her feet, all grace and ease, even though her heart was beating furiously. She had not seen her son, not even pictures in…more time than she wanted to remember. She had to check the calendar. The one in Andrew’s room was still turned to March of 2011, the very last time he was home, that Easter before he’d—

She was gasping, hand pressed to her chest. Underneath her dress, her heart was racing. She staggered a step and fumbled at her bracelet. It had once been a fancy engraved watch, but she’d convinced a jeweler to remove the watch components. Under the watch face was a tiny compartment that held three pale peach tablets. She considered them for a moment, then dry-swallowed two of them, waiting for her medication to calm her.

Her cellular vibrated. She’d put the wretched thing down again, as she’d come into Andrew’s room, but—ah, there it was. She picked it up. Charles was always telling her she’d forget her head if it wasn’t attached, and sometimes his reminders came with a sharp grip on her forearm. She rubbed the spots where his fingers left bruises sometimes; he truly did not know his own strength.

Ah, yes. The phone. She turned the screen over.

The letters swam in front of her and she held the cellular out, trying to focus. The reminder pinged. She struggled to remember how to turn it off before the sound drove her absolutely wild. Right, right. She’d set an alarm; Andrew would be getting off a plane in two hours. She’d told her driver—Charles was always so concerned for her health, and he disapproved of women driving—to fetch her son and his bride-to-be from the airport.

Eleanor should remind the driver. If he left now, he would be awaiting Andrew before the plane landed. Eleanor considered: was she well enough to go with him? No, no, the airport was a dirty and crowded place. Too many pick-abouts and tourists. Greeting her son like a common traveler would be undignified, and her grace and charm was what Charles loved in her.

She would remain here and greet him as befitted the matron of a soon-to-grow family.

Her son was getting married. How delightful. He’d sent her a cellular message to that effect when he’d let her know that he would come visit. She navigated slowly to the messages screen to look at it again, the first communication from her son in so many years.

coming wednesdy, wire $$ for tix, btw bringing my fiance

Andrew’s spelling was horrible. The cellular messages were particularly unpleasant that way. Young people, shortening down words and typing in abominable code. She’d sent the money immediately, of course, enough for two first class tickets, and had the housekeeping staff open up the goldenrod guest suite. The conservatory was right off that bedroom, and perhaps the young lady would like to hear Andrew’s performance on the piano. She hoped he’d managed to keep up with his practice.

Eleanor had never met the young lady, but of course her Andrew would select a wonderful girl. Eleanor could barely contain her excitement. Perhaps, perhaps, one day there would even be grandbabies. And of course they should have the wedding here, in the city, where Eleanor could be in charge of the planning. She was a delightful event planner.

Oh! The driver, of course! She’d almost forgotten. She took one last look at Andrew’s room. She would see him soon!

She pulled the door shut carefully behind her.

* * * *

Andy was definitely nervous, not that Scooter could blame him. He’d been bouncing back and forth between uncertain silence and random babbling since the moment they’d set foot in the airport back in Virginia. Now, as they made their way through the terminal in New York—Christ, it was crowded, worse than the beaches on the Fourth of July—Andy was all but vibrating, moving his backpack from one hand to the other, slinging it over a shoulder only to drop it back to his hand a few steps later.

Andy veered sharply around a corner and led Scooter toward an escalator. “—someone to meet us,” he was saying. “But if she forgot, we’ll just grab a cab. I’m not going to subject you to the subway until we’ve been in the city for at least twenty-four hours.” He threw Scooter a shaky grin.

Sure. How the fuck were they gonna spot someone sent to meet them? There were so damn many people, Scooter could feel them invading his brainwaves. Not like they were paying any particular attention to him, but the press of humanity was just…Terrifying, really. Scooter’d practically memorized the clothes Andy was wearing, just so he could spot the man if they got separated in the crush.

Scooter still wasn’t too sure how he felt about flying, though the seats had been comfortable enough and the flight attendants solicitous. Andy had pointed out that they were flying first class (thanks to his mom) and that the general experience of travelers was not nearly so pleasant. The kind of money that went into their tickets was…a little boggling, really, and then she wasn’t even going to meet them herself? Scooter shook his head; Andy didn’t talk much about his family, and Scooter didn’t push, but he was starting to feel that Andy had left out even more than Scooter had suggested.

Scooter had only ever seen airports in movies, and the one time he’d dropped Jason and Kat off for a vacation. This…this was nothing like Norfolk, and Scooter wasn’t sure how Andy had any goddamn idea where he was going, but since he obviously did, Scooter kept as close as possible without actually putting a hand on Andy’s wrist like a toddler.

As soon as the escalator stopped, Andy was moving again—Jesus, how big was this place?—but he finally pulled to a halt as the walkway opened up into a broad area full of baggage carousels. They hadn’t checked any bags, but Andy was studying the board anyway. Before Scooter could ask, he started moving again. They walked past three carousels…four…Scooter was pretty sure Norfolk didn’t even have a tenth the number.

Andy’s path suddenly curved away from the actual carousels and the clusters of tired people around them. After a moment, Scooter realized they were moving toward a stocky, balding man in a suit. He was standing near the wall, posture almost military-straight, though his hands were clasped in front of him.

“Kenny!” Andy said, and the stocky man turned toward them, and his patient, bored expression split into a wide grin.

“Mr. Howard!” he said, deftly taking Andy’s bag and slinging it over his own shoulder before greeting Andy with a one-armed hug.

“Oh, God, Kenny, don’t call me that,” Andy groaned.

“Whatever you say, boss,” Kenny said, his eyes scrunching merrily.

Andy rolled his eyes extravagantly and took Scooter’s arm, tugging. “Scooter, this is Kenny, my mom’s driver. Ken, this is Scooter. My fiancé.” Andy smiled at Scooter proudly, not noticing the briefly startled look that Kenny shot him.

Jesus Christ, what had he gotten himself into? Andy’s mom had a driver? A permanent employee who had obviously been with the family long enough to remember Andy, who’d been gone from home for years. Scooter fumbled with his bag—it was new enough he still hadn’t figured out where all the straps were and it never seemed balanced correctly on his arm. He managed to get himself straightened out and offered the man a hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said, aware his drawl was…very obvious.

Kenny didn’t seem to notice. He shook Scooter’s hand firmly. “Pleasure’s all mine,” he said. “Can I take your bag, sir?”

Oh, boy. Sure. Scooter took a deep breath and shook the bag down his arm. “Thank you.” He twitched a little; there wasn’t much in the bag that was particularly valuable or anything, but he wasn’t used to people carrying his stuff. It was weird. Weirder was someone calling Andy boss. Or Mr. Howard. Andy was just…Andy. Except, obviously, he was someone else entirely here.

Kenny slung Scooter’s bag over the same shoulder as Andy’s—he didn’t seem to have trouble with the way it balanced—and said, “Car’s this way,” before heading toward the bank of smoky glass doors.

Andy caught Scooter’s hand in his as they followed. “It’s weird, huh? I guess I should’ve explained a little more. Mom doesn’t drive. I don’t think she even has a license.”

“Climate change,” Scooter said, trying not to dwell on it. “Adapt or die, right?” He squeezed Andy’s fingers, wondering if it was okay to hold hands, and then forgot about it when they got outside. Andy’s mom’s car was…something else. That was a fucking Bentley or Scooter would eat his ball cap. “Think I mighta forgot to ask about your net worth, Andy.”

Andy tightened his grip. “I turned up on your doorstep with about twenty dollars to my name,” he said seriously. “My folks are…Uh, okay, they’re pretty well-off. But it doesn’t mean anything, not for us. I promise. I won’t let you drown. C’mon.” He climbed into the back seat, tugging Scooter with him. “It’s only a couple of days, right?”

Only a couple of days. Right. Scooter was sitting in a fucking car that was worth half as much as his entire restaurant, but it was okay. “Right.” He glanced at Andy, who was both smiling and doing that weird tightness around his eyes that meant he was thinking too hard, or thinking about the wrong things, and Scooter remembered suddenly that Andy hadn’t just shown up at his door broke, but also broken. And he’d still said Nick was better than his father.

With that firmly in mind, he was able, a little, to push aside sitting in a three hundred thousand dollar car like it was only a little weird. He was here to support Andy, not make Andy spoon feed him through this mess like an infant.

Kenny closed the trunk with their bags in it and came around to the front, climbing into the driver’s seat.

Andy leaned forward, not relinquishing his hold on Scooter’s hand. “When’d you get this?” he asked Kenny. “How’re you liking it?”

And then Kenny and Andy were talking about the car’s engine and handling, and that was Andy all over. Scooter had spent more than one evening watching Andy and Martin argue about cars and engines and performance ratios and words that didn’t even make sense to Scooter’s ears. Andy glanced back at him and smiled warmly, then went back to talking to Kenny, who’d pulled out into the traffic so smoothly Scooter hadn’t even noticed the movement.

Scooter tuned that out, taking a few minutes to gawp out the tinted windows. He’d obviously seen New York City in countless movies and television shows—the most familiar skyline in the world, he’d heard it called. The sky itself seemed…very far away. Home to eight and a half million people…Jesus. Scooter ran his hand through his hair, feeling weirdly small and insignificant. Andy’s hand was warm in his, and Scooter summoned up a quick grin. “So, how long’s it take t’ get anywhere in this mess?”

Andy snorted. “In a car? You remember that day there was an accident just on the other side of the roadwork in the middle of the summer? It’s like that, only every single driver is also an entitled prick.”

Well. He supposed if you were going to spend all your time sitting in your car, it should at least be a comfortable one. Which reminded him, he should let everyone know they’d arrived safely. If that’s what he wanted to call this. Scooter dug his phone out of his back pocket. Turned it on. It buzzed several times as the texts rolled in. Ug. Kat had written all hers in Ukrainian, just to make his eyes bleed. Speaking Ukrainian was one thing, reading Cyrillic was an entirely different matter. He muttered a few choice phrases at the phone and not any of Kat’s fake cussing, but the actual swears while trying to get to the keyboard options for that language. She’d have words with him—not kind ones—if he answered her in English.

“Apparently Debbie’s trying to convince Jason that she should be in charge while we’re gone,” he reported to Andy after a while. “That should be entertaining to hear about.”

“God, why would she want—Nope, never mind, I forgot who we’re talking about.” Andy sat back in the seat and leaned into Scooter’s side. “How’s Jason taking it?”

Scooter tipped the phone to show Kat’s string of texts. “From here…to here…that’s all cussing.” And then there were some pictures she’d snapped, one of which had Jason in an apron and up to his elbows in dishwater.

“Real cussing, or Kat cussing?” Andy took the phone from him to look at the picture more closely. “Who convinced him to do a damn dish? My hat’s off to whoever it is. Even if it was Debbie.”

“Suspect it was Jeff doing his normal half-assed job,” Scooter said. “Jason’ll take the damn dishes away from you if you hand him a plate with streaks on it. Kat’ll get him back in line in a day or so. Just in time for us to come back, I reckon.”

Andy grumbled, “All this time he’s been too high-and-mighty to help out when I’m in the weeds and it turns out the reason is I’m too competent?” He scowled at Scooter exaggeratedly.

“At least we don’t have to listen to him complain,” Scooter pointed out. He thumbed back another quick message. Ugh. He had to be careful when texting in Cyrillic. Probably why Kat had done it, his normal texting grammar was hideous. He glanced out the window again; the buildings were enormous. And filthy. Ugh. And he’d thought downtown Richmond was metropolitan. He snapped a quick picture of the world outside and sent it off to Kat.

They chatted back and forth for a while, Andy pointing out points of interest amidst gossiping about their friends, and then the car shut off—rather suddenly, to Scooter—and Kenny exited the vehicle. They must have arrived. Andy closed his eyes and took a slow, bracing breath, then looked at Scooter. “Thank you for coming with me,” he said. “I don’t think I could do this without you.”

This, apparently, was a house three times the size of Scooter’s restaurant, at least. Five stories straight up, a wrought iron fence circling the whole thing, with high tech motion capture cameras set in the various corners.

“Oh, my god,” Scooter said, not quite able to stifle it. He counted: there were two other front doors in the building, so this was an end-unit, but still. For a long, long moment, Scooter wanted to just turn tail and run; there was nothing here for him, and if this was where Andy came from, this was…No. He very clearly remembered Andy, straightening up and facing down a sleazy, looming Nicholas Grant and enunciating, “I’m not going back to New York, with you or anyone else. I’m already home.”

Scooter stepped out of the car when Kenny opened the door, not because he was waiting for the driver to do it, but because Scooter was honestly stuck in the car, unable to function in the face of that intimidating house. “Yeah, baby. I’m right here with you.”

“Mrs. Howard, she’s been real excited to see you,” Kenny told Andy. “I expect she’ll be waiting right in the—”

“Front parlor,” Andy finished, with a sigh. “Yeah, I figured. Thanks for the ride, Kenny.” He took Scooter’s hand again as they faced the door, his own trembling, just slightly. “Well. Ready to go face the dragon?”

“Wish you’d told me,” Scooter said sincerely. “I’d have packed a sword.” He squeezed Andy’s hand. “A few days, an’ if we have to, we can leave whenever we want, right?”

“You bet,” Andy said. “Bus ticket to Virginia Beach is less than forty bucks.” He gave Scooter a small smile, then squared his shoulders and stepped forward.

* * * *

Home was several hundred miles south, an apartment over a beachside diner, every space brimming with warmth and love. Home was the man at his side, who had to be intimidated as fuck—Andy always forgot how big the house was, and that had been when he’d been coming back to it every few months—but was here anyway, holding tight to Andy’s hand and smiling bravely.

But it was hard to walk through the door and not call it “home,” even if it had never been half so welcoming as the place he lived or the people he loved now. Just a house, he reminded himself. His parents’ house. Soon to be his mother’s alone.

And that was another complicated knot of emotions and thoughts that Andy had been trying not to deal with for the last several days. He swallowed it back down, yet again. “I’ll give you the tour in a bit,” he promised Scooter. “Should go say hi to Mom first.” He looked toward the front parlor. The door was open only about a quarter of the way: Mom was engineering a Moment, apparently.

Andy suppressed a sigh and walked into it—if he didn’t let her have her Moment, then he was risking a Scene instead. And he was here to play nice, at least for now. He tapped lightly on the cracked door and pushed it open. “Mom?”

Eleanor Howard had aged. Of course she had; it had been seven years since he’d seen her last. But Andy had to pause to take in the differences. Her dress was a newer fashion; Mom was always an absolute pink, as far as that went, but the pearls were the same, a simple double strand. She fluttered her hand over her heart as she looked up. She got to her feet with a trembling smile that settled as she took a step forward. Her hair, always a pale, platinum blonde, was streaked with finest silver and her eyes had a thin web of wrinkles at the corners. She wore ridiculously terrible shoes; high-heeled, pointy-toed things that would be uncomfortable for a woman half her age.


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