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Cinnamon Eyes

By Nell Iris


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2017 Nell Iris

ISBN 9781634864404

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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.

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A big thanks as always to Addison Albright for invaluable input and unwavering support.

Thanks to Joakim Thåström for writing the song that in a roundabout way inspired the story and to my husband for late night serenades of said song on my answering machine.

And to my daughter because she’s fabulous and gives the best hugs <3

* * * *

Cinnamon Eyes

By Nell Iris

Chapter 1

It was good to be home again, especially after the last couple years of my life. Years filled with nothing but despair and misery and serious doubts I’d make it in one piece. But I had. I even had hope these days.

At least on days like today. It was awesome, particularly compared to yesterday’s spectacular setback, when my body had, more or less, shut down. My limbs had been heavy and sluggish and my energy running so low, I’d never made it out of bed.

I hadn’t had a relapse in quite some time, and I’d been taken by surprise. That I’d been thoroughly prepared to expect it by my therapist, Dr. Liza Montgomery, hadn’t helped. I could practically hear her voice—surprisingly deep for a woman—in my head. Lecturing me.

Remember it’s a long process, Cory. Don’t be discouraged when the setbacks come. And they will come.

As always, she’d been right. I had been stupid to hope the relapses would be a thing of the past, but they drove me crazy. All I wanted was to get well.

Today was entirely different. I bounced out of bed this morning, eager to get some fresh air. I took a shower, trimmed my beard, and even had breakfast. Three solid improvements from yesterday, and more in line with how I’d felt the last few months. The relapse, this time, had been short and only lasted for a day. Another win.

After eating my granola—the only remotely healthy thing the hotel offered for breakfast—I went for a long walk up and down the streets of my old neighborhood with an unusual spring in my step. The scent of freshly cut grass filled me with joy and a sense of home. When I frightened a bushy-tailed squirrel so badly it chirped at me and scurried up a tree, I smiled.

“Sorry,” I called after it.

For hours, I wandered the streets, reacquainting myself with the city I’d left so long ago. It had changed a lot in sixteen years. Everything was different, and yet still the same.

My favorite hangout, where I’d downed a million strawberry milkshakes, was now a clothing shop selling awful floral-print dresses no one under the age of seventy would want to wear. The record store—the only place in town selling vinyls when they weren’t hip—where I’d spent far more time than I cared to remember, was just an empty shop with a boarded-up window. Wide-eyed, I stared at the colorful graffiti covering the sheets of MDF. New layers of spray paint on top of old ones told me the place had been shut down for a long time.

One of the images drew my eye, and I reached out and touched it. It was a stylistic representation of a record-player—done completely in black-and-white—and it was the only motif that hadn’t been sprayed over with other artwork. As if all the other creators had left it alone in an homage to the store. Had the artist been a frequent visitor and painted the picture because he was as broken-hearted about the close-down as I was?

I had to squeeze my eyes shut to prevent hot tears from spilling down my cheeks. Even if I’d passed the days of constant crying, this was too much.

How could it be gone?

My hand shot to my earlobe, and I pulled on it. When the tears refused to back off, I pinched. Hard. Pain flashed through my skull, and I whimpered. The pinch had the desired effect. When I was certain I’d regained control of my runaway emotions, I opened my eyes.

When was the last time I’d taken the time to sit down and listen to music? Pulled out a vinyl record from its inner sleeve and put it on the turntable, carefully aiming so the pickup would land in just the right place and not slide off the edge or end up a few beats into the first song?

I missed the familiar crackling of the needle tracing the grooves before the music started playing, the smell of a brand-new record, and reading the lyrics off of the inner sleeve.

A deep sigh slipped out, and I rubbed my neck. Another of my joys in life that had bitten the dust in favor of the soul-sucking job. I didn’t own a record player anymore, and I decided there and then that I was going to buy one.

If this town had a music store these days.

I turned my back to the abandoned storefront and walked away to stop myself from drowning in sentimental memories. I didn’t want to risk a relapse two days in a row.

It only took a couple more minutes before I arrived at my destination, and I stopped on the sidewalk next to a restaurant that hadn’t yet opened for business. Leaning against the brick wall, I stared at the bar on the other side of the street.

The reason I’d come back in the first place.

Not the bar itself, but the man owning it. The best friend I’ve ever had. The boy who’d preferred chocolate milkshake over strawberry, but had loved buying records as much as I had.

Asher Cross.

We’d been fifteen the last time we’d seen each other. He’d towered over me, tall and gangly, with limbs that had grown too fast and refused to be controlled properly. He’d reminded me of a newborn foal: staggering around on long, unfamiliar legs, trying to gain his footing. With coal black hair in a wild mess and bangs slanted over his forehead—more often than not, covering his eyes—he’d been the cutest boy I’d ever seen.

His hair was one of the many things that had driven my mother crazy.

And it had been one of the many things that had lit my heart on fire every time I’d lain eyes on him.

He hadn’t known. I’d just started to figure it out myself. Figure out why I had a hard time breathing as soon as he was around, or why my stomach had ached in the most delicious way.

I hadn’t had time to work up the courage to talk to him about it. My chance to find out if he felt the same had been taken away from me when my parents decided to move across the country.

Sixteen years later, when my therapist had asked me in one of our many sessions what I wanted if I could choose anything in the world, the answer had been easy.

I want to see Asher again.

So here I stood. Staring at his bar, trying to find the courage to walk over and knock on the door.

I pulled off my baseball cap, rubbed the back of my neck, and exhaled so hard, my lips made a sputtering noise.

My eyes were glued to the three-story building in front of me. Big neon, rainbow-colored letters covered the entire front of the narrow house: Broken Brick Bar.

The ground floor was made up of enormous windows, but the second and third stories looked like a residence with red brick walls and white trim. The building was dark, except for one of the classic Budweiser signs hanging on the door and a dim light coming from the single third-floor window.

When I’d rushed out of my hotel early this morning, I hadn’t taken into consideration that any time before noon wasn’t prime hours for a bar.

Before I had time to start obsessing about what to do next, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and groaned when I saw who was calling.

Of course.

I smacked the hat back on my head, turned, and started walking back from where I’d come before accepting the call.

“Hi, Mother.”

“Cory? It’s Tuesday. You didn’t call yesterday.” She sounded genuinely worried, which was unusual for her. I also had to give her credit for waiting until a decent hour instead of calling at six A.M. like she would have done a few months back.

“No.” I grimaced. “Yesterday was a bad day.”

She was quiet for a few seconds. “I thought you were supposed to be better now?”

As usual, that was all it took. Merely alluding to the big, forbidden D-word turned her worried tone into steel, and she went back to her regular, demanding self.

“I told you it’s not that easy.”

“It’s been over a year, Cory.”

I stiffened but didn’t bother to answer. We’ve had this conversation more times than I cared to count, but she never listened.

“And I don’t understand why you can’t tell us where you are.”

Drawing a ragged breath, I repeated for the millionth time. “I need to do this on my own, Mother.”

She would explode if she knew where I was. She’d detested everything about Asher; primarily that he came from a “middleclass family”—always said with a wrinkled nose like it was the most disgusting thing in the world.

Thinking back, I was surprised she hadn’t forbidden us to be friends.

“Why can’t you do whatever it is you’re doing here in New York? Where your home is?”

My control started to waver. I jammed my hand in my pocket to keep it from shaking. “Do we have to talk about this every fucking time?”

“Language, Cory!”

“I’m thirty-one years old, Mother. I say what the fuck I want.”

She inhaled sharply. I had no trouble imagining her thinning, white lips and her ramrod straight back. After all, I’d seen it a lot this last year, after I’d finally learned to say no to my parents, instead of bowing down to their every wish.

“This…time off…will not look good on your resume.”

Time off? She made it sound like I was on a fucking vacation.

“You know I don’t care about that.”

“But you need to think about your career. The Senator knows of a place in need of an HR Director. He said he’s going to call the CEO and set—”

“Mother!” I bit my tongue to keep from lashing out and yelling at her.

When had they talked to The Senator about me? Their first instinct had been to hide it from him, telling him I was on a sabbatical. God forbid I disappoint my grandfather, the venerable ex-senator of the United States of America.

My eye twitched in beat with my thumping heart, and my hands trembled. She knew exactly which buttons to push to rile me up.

“We only want what’s best for you.” She sighed, a suffering sound meant to guilt me into obeying her command.

Instead, it triggered Liza’s training. Just say no, Cory. You don’t have to obey them. You’re not a child anymore.

Just like that, the twitching in my eye stopped. I was going to have to send my therapist a big bouquet of flowers to show my gratitude.

“I know you do,” I said. “But you have to trust that I’m the only who knows what’s right for me. Can you do that?”

The silence coming from the other end of the line was deafening.

“Mother?”

“I’ll try.”

“Thank you.”

“Could you…could you call once more this week?”

We’d had a bitter disagreement after I’d told her to stop calling me several times a day, presumably to check in, but what she really wanted was to guilt me into getting back to work. I hadn’t been able to handle her incessant nagging when the depression had been at its worst, so I’d stopped taking her calls.

Until Liza had told me to stop hiding. We’d worked for weeks on how to tell my parents—mostly my mother—I needed space and independence. It hadn’t gone over well, and it had taken countless arguments before we’d finally settled on one phone call a week.

I didn’t want to agree with her request, but I wanted to argue with her even less, so I relented.

“Sure. I’ll call you Friday.”

“Good.”

“Sure. Gotta go.”

I ended the call and powered down the phone completely before cramming it back in my pocket. My fingers flew to my ear, and I pinched the lobe until I whimpered. I hated confrontations with a passion, and they added to my stress and made me extremely uncomfortable. No wonder I’d gone along with my parents’ wishes my entire life.

But not anymore.

As I’d spoken to my mother, I had walked without paying much attention to where I’d been going. Looking around, I recognized the street. I was just a couple blocks away from the hotel. Perfect. I could grab a shower and rinse away my mother’s disappointment before coming up with a new plan on when to see Asher.

I sped up and jogged the rest of the way.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Later the same evening, I was back outside the bar. I hovered on the sidewalk for a few minutes, trying to look casual—probably failing spectacularly—while talking myself into going in. I drew a deep breath and pinched my earlobe, and was half a second from running off, when a blond guy in a suit exited the door.

He held it open for me. “Going in?”

“Sure. Thanks, man.” I smiled and hurried inside, not wanting to take up his time more than necessary and weirdly happy someone had taken the decision out of my hands.

The place was surprisingly crowded for a Tuesday. Several of the tables were occupied, and a few people hung by the bar, elbows on the shiny copper surface with frosty beer bottles in front of them.

It was a cool place, with bare brick walls, dark wood ceilings, and a row of big, naked light bulbs over the bar, casting a warm light throughout the interior.

“Nice,” I mumbled as I walked up to the end of the counter and signaled the bartender.

He finished up with his current customer before sauntering over to me with a wide, come-hither grin all over his face. “Welcome to the BB-Bar, handsome. What can I get you?” he asked and winked.

He was undeniably cute, in a clean-faced, twinky kind of way. I might have considered flirting back with him in my old life.

“Whatever IPA you have on tap.” I smiled back, but it was my polite, thanks-but-no-thanks expression.

He caught it and backed off immediately. “Sure, man.” He got to work, still smiling, but without the flirtiness.

I appreciated his sensitivity. I had no problem with flirty bartenders—everyone had to make a living—but the ones who wouldn’t take no for an answer annoyed the crap out of me.

A minute later, he put a frothing, frosty pint with an amber-colored beverage in front of me. My mouth watered. I hadn’t had a beer in so long, but figured a few sips wouldn’t hurt.

I paid for my drink, gave him a generous tip, and decided to go for broke. “Is, uh, Asher Cross in tonight?”

He raised a questioning eyebrow and seemed to look more closely at me. I tried not to fidget under his stare. “Sure, he is,” he finally answered. “But he’s…” He let out a little snort before continuing. “He’s kind of busy right now. I’ll let him know you’re looking for him as soon as he’s available, okay?”

“Thanks.” My mouth felt raspy, as if clad with sandpaper. I grabbed my glass and took a big gulp of the liquid to moisten my tongue. Crap. If this was my reaction just asking about Asher, how would I feel standing face to face with him?

After shooting me an amused look—what was that all about?—the Twinktender was off to help another customer. I took my glass and wandered over to a free table tucked away in the corner, where I climbed the high stool and took another sip.

I closed my eyes and focused on the feeling of the cool beverage flowing down my throat. Alcohol and depression were a terrible combination, and I hadn’t had the tiniest drink for a long time. I’m sure my therapist would glare at me and my IPA if she were here, but I ignored her imaginary stare. I wasn’t going to drink even half anyway.

As I sat there deep in thought, I became aware of music playing. A dark, raspy voice sang, accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. My eyes flew open.

How had I not noticed the music when I entered the bar? Had I been that anxious?

On a raised platform across from the floor-to-ceiling windows, the singer was perched on a high stool just like mine, playing a beat-up guitar almost completely covered in stickers.

He hunched over his instrument, with his head bent down, making the wild, coal-black hair fall over his forehead. Rocking from side to side, he seemed completely absorbed in his music.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Never before had I heard a voice like his. It rumbled in his chest, almost like it sent out sound waves that made every cell in my body vibrate along with it.

I didn’t recognize the song he played, but I liked it. It was slow and intense, and suited his voice perfectly. Even when he sang it softly, almost inaudibly, I still felt it acutely.

“Beautiful,” I murmured. My eyes fluttered shut, and I allowed myself to be caught up in the music.

God, I’d missed this.

When the song ended, I opened my eyes and clapped with the others. He didn’t look up or say anything, just started strumming another slow song on the strings. Judging by the cheers from the room, it was a popular one.

And then he lifted his head, opened his eyes, and started singing.

I gasped.

It was him. Asher.

My hands flew to my face and covered my mouth.

Sixteen years later, I still would have recognized him anywhere. The hair was as unruly as ever, and just as rock’n’roll as his voice. The jawline so sharp, he could probably cut glass with it. And the nose was still a little too big for his face.

I couldn’t see his green eyes from here, but I remembered them vividly. The pale color of a leaf newly broken out of its bud in spring was such a stark contrast to his black eyelashes and olive complexion. They had always hypnotized me with their beauty.

When he started singing, his voice pulled me out of my initial shock.

Two best friends

Like no one had ever seen before

Always together

happy and troublesome and wild

Sharing scraped knees

and high flying dreams

Carefree as the clouds in the sky

The boy with laughing cinnamon eyes

And I

The words struck a chord inside me. They reminded me of us when we were kids, all the way down to the scraped knees. Had he written this song? Had our friendship inspired him?

Then one day

he shimmered with a different light

Just one look at him

made my heart ache, stutter and want

I felt the same

pouring from his soul

A longing for more between us

The boy with loving cinnamon eyes

And I

He sang with such emotion, and the pronouns he used didn’t escape me. Asher was singing to a man, and my stomach made a hopeful jump.

Our story

didn’t have a fairytale ending

He had to leave me

and all I could do was to cry

But with no choice

I had to let go

We hugged and were saying goodbye

The boy with grieving cinnamon eyes

And I

I swallowed. I didn’t understand. That sounded just like…I shut down that thought immediately. It couldn’t be.

It’s been years

and my life has never been the same

I’m often wond’ring

what could have been if he’d stayed

Maybe one day

I’ll see him again

In dreams we were never apart

My boy with the sweet cinnamon eyes

And I

My boy with loving cinnamon eyes

And I

After the last chord rang out, the bar was deadly silent for a heartbeat. Then everyone started cheering and clapping and whistling.

Everyone except me.

I folded my arms on the table in front of me and collapsed with my forehead on top of them, my face hidden in the dark space.

Had I heard what I thought I’d just heard?

Was that song…about us?

Had he had feelings for me, too, back then?

The thought made me shake, and I grabbed my elbows and squeezed to keep myself from flying apart. I took a deep breath and didn’t let it out until my lungs screamed and burned in protest. I repeated the process several times until my teeth had stopped chattering and my heart had slowed its furious pace.

I was still hiding when someone cleared their throat in my vicinity.

“Excuse me? Benji said you wanted to talk to me? Are, uh, are you all right?”

His voice was as deep when he spoke as when he sang, and it sent a shiver down my spine, completely different from the previous desperate shaking. I took a deep breath and raised my head. Forcing myself to face him.

At first, he didn’t seem to recognize me. He searched my face for clues, but it only took a few moments for the spark of realization to light up his eyes.

“Cory?” His voice was gravellier than ever. “Cory, is that you?”

Strands of hair were plastered to his face, and his forehead shone with sweat. His countenance was serious, and he remained completely still, as though he didn’t dare to breathe before he heard my answer.

“Yes,” I whispered.

That was all it took for him to explode in movement. With two quick steps, he was close enough to grab my hand. His strong fingers enveloped mine, and for a second, I reveled in the feeling of calloused fingertips against my palm. Then he pulled, careful not to make me topple over, but forceful enough for me to understand he wanted me to follow.

I jumped off my stool, and he nodded before he turned around and strode toward the bar. I scrambled after him, having a hard time keeping up with his long legs.

“Benji!” he yelled over the buzz.

The Twinktender looked up from the beer he was pouring. “Yes, boss?”

“I’ll double your pay if you close the bar for me tonight.”

Benji’s eyebrows shot up and disappeared into his blond hairline, but he didn’t ask any questions. “No problem,” he said, staring at us with his mouth hanging open as we rushed past him, toward a door behind the counter.

“Thanks, Benji,” Asher threw over his shoulder before he opened it. He tugged on my hand to signal he wanted me to follow and closed the door behind us.

Behind it was a steep stairwell, and we climbed it together. Asher didn’t have to pull me anymore. I followed him willingly up the stairs, taking two at the time. In seconds, we were upstairs in an airy apartment.

* * * *

Chapter 3

Asher slammed the door, silencing the muted noises from the bar. Our chests heaved with heavy, loud breaths, and his strong fingers still enveloped mine.

Neither of us said anything for the longest time.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was even taller than I remembered, and every angle of his body was as sharp as his jawline. Narrow shoulders ended in a bony, ninety-degree corner. Prominent collarbones were visible in the wide neckline of his black T-shirt, together with tufts of black hair.

His hips were slender and his legs long, and everywhere I looked, he was straight and angular. Except for a slightly rounded belly. I wanted to reach out and put my hands on the soft-looking flesh, stick my hands under his T-shirt and find out if he had hair on his stomach, too.

“Cory.”

His voice rasped along my body, making me quiver all the way to my toes. I dragged my gaze upwards, knowing I stared shamelessly, but unable to stop.

“Cory,” he said again, took a step closer, and grabbed my chin between his fingers. Nudged it upward, forced me to look him in the eyes.

I tried to avert my gaze, afraid of my reaction if I looked directly at him.

“Cory,” he whispered a third time. “Look at me.”

My lips trembled, but I did as he asked.

Pale green eyes bored into me, peering all the way into my soul. I drew in a shuddering breath, and the confession spilled out of me. “I’ve missed you.”

The words hardly escaped my lips before I was wrapped up in his strong arms. Our bodies fit perfectly together, with my head right under his chin. I wound my arms around his waist. As I did, his shirt slid up, and my hands came in contact with naked skin.

Warmth rushed through my fingertips and heated up my body. My appetite had vanished as the depression set in, and I’d lost nearly thirty pounds over the last year, leaving me constantly cold. Here, in his embrace, was the first time I wasn’t freezing in a long time.

Asher’s grip loosened, and he took a step back. I had to bite my lip to keep myself from wailing in protest, but he didn’t go far. He grabbed my hand again and led me over to an enormous suede couch situated in the middle of the room, where he threw himself down. Without hesitation, I joined him.

I tried to keep some distance between us, but he wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me close. I sighed and leaned my head on his sharp shoulder.

He smelled just like I remembered. Like the air after a heavy spring rain. Fresh and comforting. Like home.

How was that possible after all these years?

“How’ve you been?” he finally asked.

I shrugged, not knowing how to answer the question. From everyone else’s perspective, my answer should probably be “excellent.”

But that was so far from reality, it wasn’t even funny.

What had looked good on the surface had been hollow and painful underneath. The job I hadn’t wanted in the first place had completely burned me out. I’d spiraled so deep into the depression, I’d feared I’d never find my way out again.

But I couldn’t tell him that, could I? After not seeing him for sixteen years, it shouldn’t be the first thing out of my mouth.

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

Reading me perfectly, as usual. I should’ve been surprised, but I wasn’t.

“I’ve missed you so much.” I repeated my earlier statement as my hand flew to my ear. I pinched it to keep the threatening tears at bay.

“I’ve missed you, too.”

His arm tightened around me, and I shivered as he burrowed his nose into my hair. He took a deep breath and held it, just like I had done moments before. Did I smell the same, too? He exhaled and hummed, the sound reverberating through my body.

“Do you still drink tea?” he asked.

“Mhm.”

“Want a cup?”

“Please.”

Asher let go of my neck and stood, but didn’t walk away. He looked down at me as I leaned against the back of the soft and comfy couch.

Furrowing his eyebrows, he bent down and, with the lightest touch, swept his thumbs over the black rings under my eyes and down my hollow cheeks.

“Are you okay? You look so tired.”

“I’m getting there.”

He bit his lip, but then he nodded and straightened.

My gaze followed every step he took as he rounded the couch. I turned to the side so I could continue watching him. His long legs ate up the distance to the kitchenette. With practiced movements, he poured water in the kettle, took down two mugs from the open shelf over the counter, and prepared our tea.

A few minutes later, he returned, sitting sideways just like me. Leaning the side of his head against the back, he reached out his hand. Without hesitation, I put my smaller hand in his.

“Tell me about it,” he said as he weaved our fingers together.

“It’s a long story.”

“I have all the time in the world.”

Without letting go, he stretched out his free arm, grabbed the tea, and handed it to me. The scent found its way into my nostrils. Green peppermint. My favorite.

“You remembered,” I said and blew on it in an attempt to cool down the steaming beverage.

“Yes.” He grabbed the other one, and we drank in silence. When our mugs were empty, he put them back on the coffee table and turned his attention back to me.

“Are you gay?” I blurted out.

“Yes.”

“So am I.”

“Oh, Cory. I know.”

I nodded. Of course, he did. “Was…” I cleared my throat, and closed my eyes, not daring to look at him as I asked the next question. “Was that song, uh, about me? Us?”

When he didn’t reply, I glanced at him under my eyelashes. The answer was easy to read in the intense look in his eyes. In the tense lines around his mouth. In the slight wobble of his chin.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” I whispered.

“I was waiting for you to talk to me.”

“How did you know?”

“You looked at me like I’d hung the moon. And also like you wanted to eat me.”

I snorted. “You noticed that, huh?”

“It was really hard to miss.” The smile spreading across his face chased the tension lines away, and I wanted to touch him. To reach out and see if the stubble was as scratchy as it looked. To follow along the sharp edge of his jawline.

Instead, I fisted my hand. “Do you live here?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“Where do you live, Cory?”

“New York. Still.”

“Are you happy there?”

I shook my head. My hatred of the city had started the minute I’d set foot in it. I’d blamed it for taking me away from Asher, never really giving it a chance. The loss of my best friend had been worse than losing a limb to my teenage self and had made it hard for me to make new friends.

Eventually, I learned to hate the city on its own merits. The swarming streets. The sharp elbows. The overpowering, soul-killing stress.

“So why don’t you leave?”

“I have nowhere to go.”

He squeezed my hand, eyes filled with sadness. “How long are you here for?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t made any plans since I hadn’t known how long it would take me to work up the courage to talk to him. And it wasn’t like I had something waiting for me at home. I’d quit my job a long time ago, much to my parents’ aggravation.

But I didn’t want to think about them now.

“I loved the song,” I said.

“Thank you.”

“When did you learn how to play?”

“After you moved away. I needed something to do. I walked past the old pawn shop down on Main, you know?”

I nodded.

“The guitar was hanging in the window. I bought it and taught myself how to play.”

“You’re great.”

“Nah,” he said. “I’m good enough. I do it just for fun.”

“I love your voice.”

“I sound like I’ve downed a gazillion bottles of whiskey.”

“No. It has character.”

He laughed. A dark, scratchy sound, just like I imagined his stubble would feel against my skin.

“When did you write the song?”

“A couple years back.”

“Why?”

Asher sighed and looked away, lifted his free hand to his mouth and gnawed on the knuckle of his index finger.

“You don’t have to tell me.” I caught his hand and pulled the finger away from his teeth. Rubbing the abused flesh with my thumb, I leaned forward and blew on it. Just like my mother always used to do when I’d hurt myself as a kid, before she’d turned distant. “No biting,” I added.

His attention was focused on what I was doing. A final sweep of my thumb, and then I put his hand back on his thigh.

“You did that when we were kids, too,” he whispered.

“What?”

“Blew on my boo-boos.”

“I did?”

He nodded.

“I hadn’t realized.” Heat crept up my neck, and I turned my head away.

“Please, don’t hide from me.”

I looked at him, neither strong enough nor willing to resist his plea.

“I wrote the song after my boyfriend broke up with me. He said I was emotionally unavailable. I thought about it a lot.” He raked his free hand through his untamed hair. It had the slightest curl in the ends and surrounded his head like a black halo. I, too, wanted to run my fingers through it. “He was right. He gave his love so freely, but I never gave mine back.”

He opened his mouth to continue when his phone blared to life.

“Shit,” he muttered and pulled it out of his back pocket. Glaring at the screen, he silenced the ring, pushed a few buttons, and then threw it down on the couch between us. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.”

Neither of us had the chance to say anything else before his phone buzzed again. The sound was off, but it vibrated resolutely between us and displayed the image of a dark-haired guy named Mike.

He declined the call. “Sorry. Can’t turn it off in case something happens downstairs.”

I nodded. “Boyfriend?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t have a boyfriend. He’s not even a friend with benefits. I guess he’s just…benefits…these days.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. “I should probably go. I’m sorry if I’m interrupt—”

“No.” He leaned forward and grabbed my other hand. “No, you’re not interrupting. Mike and I don’t have plans. He just calls when he’s got an itch. He doesn’t matter.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes.”

Mike called again.

“He seems really…itchy,” I said.

Asher burst out laughing. The joyful sound boomed in the apartment, filling every nook and cranny, and I wished I could record it and keep it for later.

“He always is,” he said after he’d calmed down. Mike chose that moment to call a fourth time. “What the fuck?” He pulled his hands out of mine and grabbed the phone. With his jaw set in an annoyed line, he poked the screen so hard, I was afraid he’d break it.

When the phone buzzed again, I fidgeted. I was starting to feel like an intruder.

“Sorry, I gotta take this,” he said and put a warm hand on my thigh. “What, Benji?”

I grimaced at his irritation. Even if it wasn’t directed at me, I was sensitive to anger. It had a way of penetrating my body to my very core, and it had only gotten worse with the depression. I shivered and moved backward on the couch, out of his reach.

His gaze zeroed in on me and what I was doing. “Yeah, okay. I’ll be down in a sec. Hold the fort.” He shoved the phone back in his pocket and rubbed both his hands through his hair.

“I’m sorry, Cory. I forgot.”

“What?” I whispered.

“That you get upset when someone’s pissed.” He followed me on the couch. “Can I touch you?” When I nodded, he reached out and put his palm back on my thigh. “I need to go down to the bar. Mike is here, and he’s loud and obnoxious. Benji didn’t know what to do.”

“Okay.”

“It will only take a minute. Will you stay?”

“Are you sure you want me to? I’d understand if you want to spend time with your friend.”

He started shaking his head before I even had time to finish. “I’m certain.”

His pale green eyes shone with honesty and vulnerability, and I believed him.

“I’ll stay.”

His shoulders slumped, and his entire body relaxed, as if someone had opened a valve and let out all his anxiousness. He squeezed my leg and stood. “Don’t go anywhere.” He was deadly serious.

“I won’t.” So was I.

Nodding, he bent down and pressed soft lips against my forehead. Then he turned and stalked across the floor, ripped open the door, and thundered down the stairs.

* * * *

Chapter 4

Grabbing the used tea mugs, I carried them to the kitchen, where I washed them and left them in the dish drainer to dry. When I was done, I leaned back against the counter and let my gaze sweep over the apartment, taking in Asher’s home.

It was an open floor plan with no walls except for the outer ones of the building. The ceiling was high as a cathedral with chunky pillars holding it up, and I realized that what looked like two stories from the outside, was only one. With the exception of a loft above the kitchen area.

The walls were the same bare red brick as downstairs, and the entire apartment gave off an industrial, yet homey, vibe. Asher’s apartment wouldn’t have been out of place back in New York.

It was sparsely decorated with the couch, a couple armchairs, and the coffee table. And across from the sofa—where the TV normally would be—was Asher’s stereo. Two enormous speakers and a turntable, prominently displayed and surrounded by mood lighting.

And the pièce de résistance: an entire wall of shelves filled with vinyl records.

Unable to resist their calling—they pulled at me like a siren song—I walked over to them. They were stored in classic Ikea units with square shelving, perfect for vinyls. Every square was filled. I did a quick calculation. If each of them held fifty, Asher had something like four thousand records here.

Walking along the units, I dragged my hand gently over the backs of the records until I came to the last row. As I turned around, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite albums and gasped.

The Smiths. Strangeways, Here We Come.

I’d recognize the cover with that beige, blurry face anywhere. I pulled it out and sank to the floor, carefully cradling it in my hands.


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