“I’ll be there in a minute.” Brett had forgotten his sunglasses on the console by the front entrance. Taking a step inside, he reached for them before finally closing the door.
“You guys could have sneaked in a little snow time this morning and left later in the day. We would have caught a taxi to the airport.” César handed Will the last of the luggage.
“It’s not a problem, sir. We need to get back and get squared away for classes tomorrow.” The cadet threw the duffle bag in the rental’s trunk and slammed the lid closed.
Ritch Peterson and his U.S. Air Force Academy roommate, William Bender, had rented a car on Friday of Presidents’ Day Weekend and driven from Colorado Springs to Vail. Brett and César had flown in from Washington, D.C. that same evening. They had spent two days on the slopes, playing in the snow. Monday morning, as the fathers readied for their flight to Los Angeles, the cadets insisted on dropping them off at the airport on their way out of town.
“I’m jealous of you, Mr. A.” Ritch leaned his back against the car and repeatedly tossed the key fob in the air. “Boarding yesterday and surfing tomorrow.”
Brett had finished locking the house and joined them by the vehicle. “You’re confused, Ritchie. He’s old school, so he skis. I’m the one who boards. And as for surfing, buying a stick’s on my to-do list for this week. I doubt César plans on hitting the waves with me, though.”
“And you’d be correct. If we have the time, I’ll be hitting the links instead. Isn’t being able to play golf the reason we left the clubs in California last month?”
“Surf, golf, eat, surf, sleep, repeat. All after chewing a cannabis gummy before each activity.”
“Fuck you, Captain. You know Bender and I can’t go near that stuff.”
“Jesus, Ritchie, I can’t believe the way you talk to your dads. Mine would kill me if I said that to him.”
Ritch whirled around to stare at his grinning roommate. “Listen to me, shithead. You better not call me anything but Ritch or Peterson when we get back. We don’t need the rest of the crowd hearing about what my family called me when I was a kid.”
Brett slapped his son on the back, realizing the boy was solid when he barely budged. “Dude, you’re sooo fucked. I may have to come hang during spring break and call you Ritchie all the time.”
Bender was still laughing when he settled into the back seat next to Brett.
“Speaking of spring break…” César slid into the front passenger seat. “Only four of you?”
“Yeah. Bender, myself, and two of our buddies,” Ritch replied. “Thanks for lending us the lodge, Cap, Mr. A.”
“I swear you get dumber every time I talk to you.” Brett tapped Bender’s thigh to let him know he was going to wind his son up. “It’s your place too, dickwad. What part of family retreat don’t you understand? You know the only time you can’t use it is if it’s rented out. Did you talk to the company?” When not in use by family or friends, Brett and César contracted with a real estate management company to rent their place out.
Ritch grinned, looking at Brett in the rearview mirror. “Family retreat? Fancy words, Cap. Did it last month. After you guys said the beach house wouldn’t be ready in time, I called them to put a hold on this place.”
“Maybe you should call them again and ask them to line up girls for you. When was the last time you got laid? Your stupidity may be due to lack of pussy.”
“JARHEAD!” César turned to look at Bender. “Ignore them, Will. Hey, I think we’re gonna do Christmas in Vail this year. Not sure how crowded it’s gonna be with all the family, and this is months away. But if you want to come meet the rest of the gang and do some skiing, you’re welcome to join us after the twenty-fifth. You can spend New Year’s Eve with us.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll talk to my parents about it.”
César returned his attention to Ritch. “Who are the other guys coming back for spring break?”
“They’re good guys. One’s from Miami. When he found out I grew up in South Florida, we started talking. The other one’s from Texas. They’re roommates and in our squadron. ”
“Sounds like an interesting group. Okay, don’t burn the place down.”
Brett was surprised there were no lectures or warnings of dire consequences if anything happened. He and César had always been somewhat more protective of and restrictive with their youngest son, and he was glad to see his husband relax. The kid was on his way to becoming an Air Force officer; it was time to let him spread his wings and fly.
“Welcome back!” Zion’s smile reflected his excitement at having Brett and César in Los Angeles again. His incessant fidgeting suggested he was nervous.
Brett figured it was because this was his first real job as an interior designer. He was glad they had given the young man the opportunity. “Good to be back, dude. Hope you did a good job. I’d hate to have to hurt you.”
“JARHEAD!” César stepped inside the house as soon as the door was unlocked. “Don’t listen to him, Zion. He’s been crotchety all day. I think he’s a little overwhelmed. Tonight will be the first time he sleeps in this place since he went away to college.”
A confused Brett scanned the main room looking for the artwork he expected to be there. “Yeah, whatever. Where’s the stuff we shipped from Washington?”
“It’s next door, sir.” Bryce had remained quiet and in the background until that moment. “Mr. Burnett came by while we were working and told us you’d sent a crate to his place. He suggested it stay in his garage until you returned.”
“Sir? What happened to Captain and Mr. A?” Brett was enjoying the squirming the two young men did whenever he said anything.
“I… I don’t know. Before, you were a friend’s parents, even though we know Chipper’s not your son. Now, you’re Zion’s clients. This is new to us, and we aren’t quite sure how to act.”
The uncertainty and doubts reached Brett. This was not the self-assured—even cocky—sexy guy portrayed in the Instagram feeds he and César had devoured after meeting him and his boyfriend. The outwardly tough but playful Marine was touched. The kid was CJ’s age and he was feeling paternal. “How about you still call me Cap or Captain?” Brett moved closer and slid an arm around the blond young man. “It’s not always easy when you do work for friends, Bryce. And trust me, Zion will be doing that a lot. Friends and their referrals will be the mainstay of his business for a while.
“You know we own a development company, and we generally don’t deal with remodeling jobs. The ones we’ve done have all been for friends and family. I always try to remember the personal relationship when making decisions. Just because we hired Zion, doesn’t mean we don’t want to hang with you. Hell, Chipper’s gonna be living here. The two of you’ll probably be around all the time when we visit.”
Zion’s smile was even bigger than Bryce’s. “Thank you for the advice, Captain. Speaking of Chipper, since he’s gonna be living in the guest house, we ran a couple of things by him.”
“He liked what I designed and said you would too. He reminded us you guys are young, active, and not stuffy. He said the relaxed style was right up your alley.”
“Did you show him the picture I sent you of the artwork?” César had ended up giving Zion a budget and a free hand in the design. He convinced Brett not to micromanage the guy. Better to have him interpret what he gleaned from their conversations as he saw fit. “Surprise us,” he had told the young man. The one stipulation was that the two David Hockney swimming pool paintings they owned be hung in the guest space.
“I did, and he loved them. He said he remembered them hanging in your son’s bedroom when they were younger.”
“That they did. But CJ left them behind when he and his husband moved to their place. Hey, come in the kitchen. I’m gonna start the coffeemaker and then we can check out your work.”
Brett’s impatience bubbled over. “Jesus Christ! Coffee? Can’t that wait? I wanna see what these two knuckleheads did.”
“Down, Jarhead. Ten more minutes won’t make a difference.”
Zion unshouldered his messenger bag, placed it on the island, and withdrew a folder from it. “I printed a summary of everything we spent money on with the exact amounts. The total agrees with what the lady at the law firm said she paid out.”
Before leaving Los Angeles the previous month, César had transferred the budgeted amount to Miles’ trust account. As instructed, the law firm paid every invoice submitted by Zion without question. The arrangement was part of César’s attempt to determine if the young men were trustworthy. He and Brett already knew the kid had come in a couple of thousand dollars under budget.
When César turned around after starting the coffeemaker, Zion slid the folder in his direction. “We came in under budget.”
“We knew that already. What’s that payment to a surf shop?” Brett had moved next to César and was reading over his shoulder.
“We knew you surfed, and Chipper told us your son in law does too. We installed a rack to store boards.” Zion appeared pleased with Brett’s grin. “He also told us you guys are gym rats, so I did something about it.”
“I don’t know about gym rats”—the doorbell interrupted César. “Wanna get that, Jarhead? We don’t live in the gym, Zion, but we do work out regularly.”
Bryce and Zion echoed César’s chuckle. “Guess we know who was at the door. Hey, Brock.” Their next-door neighbor had followed Brett into the kitchen.
“César, guys. I’m glad you two are here. You can help Ry carry over that damn crate from my garage. You said there’s artwork inside?”
“Yeah, three paintings. Two of them go in the guest quarters, so Zion will want to hang them. Can we hold off on getting it for a bit? Brett’s gonna throw one of his tantrums if he doesn’t get to see what Zion and Bryce did.”
After opening the door to the pool/guest house, Zion held a key chain aloft. “You can have them back, Cap.”
“Hang on to them for a bit longer. We each have a set. Those are for Chipper anyway. FUCK!”
César shoved Brett inside. “Outtadaway, Jarhead. I wanna see too.” The Marine had frozen while standing at the doorway.
“Damn! Can I hang out here? This would be so much easier than driving to my personal trainer’s studio.” Brock had joined them and appeared as impressed as the owners.
César nodded and his smile grew, as he scanned the space. “Go ahead, Zion, tell us all about it.”
“I didn’t think you’d join a gym out here, so I decided to give you a place to workout. The Body-Solid weight machine can exercise most body parts. There are fancier, more expensive models, but I thought this one would be enough. The bike’s for when running on the beach’s not an option because of weather.”
“I like it, dude. We belong to a gym a couple of blocks from home, but we just got a Peloton for the house. There are days I don’t want to leave the place.” Brett ran a hand over the bike’s seat and stared at the framed poster behind it. An aerial shot of Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium on a game day showed a parking lot full of cars and a stadium crammed with people. A wave of nostalgia washed over him again, as he remembered going to games with his dad and a couple of times his grandfather. “Tell me about the lockers.”
While the mood was light, Zion remained a bit tense. Brett assumed the earnest responses had been somewhat rehearsed in an attempt to please his clients. He liked the kid more the more they interacted. “Relax, Zion. So far I’m impressed.”
The smile was genuine. “Thanks, Cap. Anyway, Chipper had more influence down here than in his actual living space upstairs. He told us you and Mr. A have a game room in your house in Washington, and that it’s usually full of people. We have no idea how often you’ll be out here, or how many people you know in the area, but we figured if you entertain, it’ll be around the pool or on the beach.
“We found the lockers at a second hand shop. They supposedly came from a high school’s gym. We had them sanded and painted teal to evoke the water and the front door. You can get more units if you think you’ll need them. We didn’t get floor to ceiling ones so we could use the top to store clean beach towels.”
“Did you buy any?” César stared at the empty space above the metal units.
“A dozen. They’re in the storage room next to the bathroom in the box they came in. I thought about something else I’d like to do, but I wanted to run it by you first.”
“I think those will be enough, Zion. Brett and I don’t know that many people in L.A.”
“Bullshit! Brock, his son, and his girlfriend. Miles, Alanna, and their two boys. Meryl and the new husband we haven’t even met. And if we’re gonna be spending time out here, I may look up some old friends. Meryl’s sons and daughter amongst them. We used to spend a lot of time together. They’re a little older, so they may all have kids by now.”
César chuckled. “I stand corrected. Guess we know more people out here than I imagined. What’s this idea of yours, Zion?”
“We know Mrs. Davenport called this place La Casita. Since the house has such a great profile, I thought we could create a logo out of the outline with La Casita above it, and embroider it—”
“YES!” Brett’s swift reply took everyone by surprise. “Mom would have loved that. And so would have Dad. He used to have an architectural rendering of the house hanging in his study.” He looked at César with imploring, puppy eyes. “Can we? Maybe even do the same for all the towels in the house too?”
César remained quiet but nodded. “I like that. It has a nice vacation-home vibe. What colors were you thinking, Zion?”
“White with teal for the logo. Or we could reverse them and—”
Brett was ready to pull the trigger. “Order them. I think two dozen to start. And make sure they’re extra, extra large.”
“Are you guys accepting reservations, yet? I think I wanna stay here on my next vacation.” Brock was apparently enjoying himself.
“Sure thing. And no charge your first stay. Consider it payment for storing our stuff.” The large room had been bisected with a double row of seats facing in opposite directions. To one side sat the exercise equipment; the space closest to the bathroom held the lockers and nothing else. Brett planted himself in one of the chairs and patted the armrest. “Where’d you find these? And what’s with the empty space?”
“We found them at the same store as the lockers. The owner said they came from a demolished minor league baseball stadium. I thought of a game table or a video game console for the extra space but decided you guys should have input.”
Brett offered Zion a fist bump. “You done good, kid. I love the color those prints add to the walls.” Zion had framed the logos from the ten Los Angeles professional teams in the five major sports leagues. Hung as a collage, they livened up the space. “Let’s go check out the bedroom.”
After touring the upstairs, Brett and César insisted on taking Bryce and Zion to lunch. They opted for a nearby, casual restaurant offering light fare.
“Brett and I talked on the drive over, guys. We’re both extremely pleased with what you did, but we need to discuss your fee.”
“I’ll get a commission on the furnishings for the upstairs, Mr. A.”
“Not enough, Zion. Not for the amount of time you clearly invested. You pulled it off in a short period of time, and most of what you purchased wasn’t commissionable. We want you to submit an invoice for the balance of what we budgeted.”
“You don’t have to do that! I’m happy I had the opportunity to help. The before and after pictures will be a great addition to my slim portfolio.”
“I know we don’t have to do it, but we want to. In our business, we pride ourselves in paying our employees and contractors a fair wage. Don’t sell yourself short, son.”
“Bah, enough discussion. Just do as you’re told, Zion.” Brett was ready to move on to the next subject he and César had agreed to discuss.
The dark-haired young man smiled. “Yes, sir, Captain.”
“That’s more like it. Okay, we can tackle something else César and I discussed on our way here. Let’s talk about how you’re going to address furnishing the rest of the house.”
“No girlfriend today?” Brett sipped his beer while watching Ryker Burnett fiddle with the gas grill’s controls, waiting for it to pre-heat. His father, Brock, had invited their new neighbors for dinner.
“Ugh, I think I’m done with her.” Apparently satisfied with the contraption’s settings, Ryker slapped four large sirloins on the grate.
“And that means she lasted about the same as all the others. My son, the player.” Brock swapped Brett’s nearly empty bottle for a fresh one.
“It’s not like that, Dad. She’s just too… too clingy. I think I want to be single for a while.”
“Yeah, right. Until the next cheerleader comes along and spreads her legs for you.”
“DAAAD!” Ryker looked horrified; Brett and César’s laughter in all likelihood did not help his embarrassment.
“We were lucky in that respect. Both our kids had a significant other all through high school. We didn’t have to deal with teenage break-up angst until Ritch and his girlfriend split their senior year.”
“He’s at the Air Force Academy now, right? I’ve seen him in a lot of CJ’s posts.” Ryker remained standing by the grill, guarding their dinner.
“Yep. We spent the last couple of days with him, skiing in Colorado. He was upset we wouldn’t let him come out here for spring break since the place won’t be done.”
“Thanks for giving CJ my phone number, sir. We’ve texted a bunch.”
“No problem. Are you still touring colleges this summer?”
“Yes, sir. Dad’s taking me to see a couple of schools on the East Coast. But I’m also applying to SC here in town.”
César turned his attention to Brock. “Where are you staying in D.C.?”
“Haven’t even thought about it. Any suggestions?”
Brett jumped in at that point. “Yeah, you’re staying at our place. We have five empty rooms, and Georgetown’s main campus is at the end of the block from us.”
Early Tuesday morning, while César took the rental to pick up breakfast sandwiches, Brett accepted delivery of their new Jeep Wrangler plug-in hybrid. Back home in Washington, he had pestered César until the man agreed on the vehicle. Brett dealt with the dealer over the internet and phone, contracted to have a lift-kit installed, and arranged for home delivery.
“Of course we need a high-off-the-ground, four-wheel-drive. First, we may want to go off-roading in the desert around Palm Springs one of these days. Or take trips out to Joshua Tree. If you thought there were a lot of stars in Napa, wait ’til you’re in the middle of the desert on a clear night.” Brett had done his best to justify the purchase of a four-by-four. “And you have to remember there’s a canyon right above our place. If there’s wildfires or mudslides, we may not be able to use regular roads.”
The remainder of the morning echoed their previous visit. Meetings with Silvio Rivera and Summer Dunn took place once again to review their proposals and sign contracts. After lunch, they had a planning session with Bryce and Zion.
“Since Chipper’s moving into the guest house after we leave tomorrow, we want you to concentrate on the master suite to start.” Referring to his copious notes, César guided the discussion. “We want a place to sleep when we come back next month.”
Brett felt the need to take some pressure off Zion. “It doesn’t have to be finished that quickly, dude. We know some special order stuff can take a while. Remember we don’t want any cheap Chinese crap. Have the upstairs disinfected and painted and at least get us a mattress we can crash on.”
“King memory foam,” César added. “Don’t worry about the actual furniture too much. We can hit showrooms next month and make final decisions then.”
“But you still want seating out by the pool when you get back, right?” Zion talked while tapping away at his tablet, looking up to see his clients nodding. “I’ve heard of a guy out in Rancho Cucamonga who hand-makes outdoor furniture out of California bamboo. I’m going to call and check him out. If I find something I think will fit, I’ll send you the info. We can decide on fabrics later.”
“Works for me, dude. Just remember we prefer style over fashion and want quality stuff preferably made in the U.S. We can get some temporary plastic shit in the meantime if we have to. It’ll end up being donated afterwards.” Brett was more interested in discussing his dad’s old study. “Remember those Ansel Adams prints coming from CAMALA go in the study. And don’t plan on cluttering the shelves with knickknacks. We’ll send you family pictures to frame and place on some. The rest I want empty for now.”
“Yes, sir!” Zion had at last relaxed around the two older men and was once again emphasizing honorifics.
“Smart ass. Let’s finish this off. I want a dip in the pool and a nap before we have to meet someone for cocktails and dinner.”
“I tried, Brett. I really tried. You know this fucking world’s all about money. That asshole has a couple of mules backing him. They thwarted my attempt to get his ass fired.” Meryl sipped her martini and let out a sigh.
Brett was unsure if it was due to exasperation or despair. Following their return to Washington, César had convinced him not to pull his parents’ entire collection from CAMALA. They had Miles contact Fernando Llorosa and explain the proposed new arrangement. In his letter, the attorney had stressed Captain Davenport’s actions were a sign of goodwill, but he was still upset and refused to deal directly with the man. What Brett and César reclaimed left a gaping hole in the museum’s collection, but Meryl was thankful the institution would retain part of the Davenport artworks.
The continued generosity was contingent on issuance of a press release acknowledging differences between the art owners and the executive director. It also required Meryl be acknowledged and praised for negotiating a compromise, preventing the loss of even more priceless works.
“I never thought you’d be so vindictive, Brett. You’ve changed.” Meryl’s tone was more surprise than accusation.
“Damn right I’ve changed. War, marriage, and kids tend to do that. But I’m still impatient with assholes and asshole moves. That a fucking employment contract can save the job of an incompetent, pompous ass is a travesty.”
“Shut up, César.” The joint reprimand drew chuckles out of all three. Meryl had invited them to dinner, and they waited for their table sitting at the restaurant’s bar.
“I can sort of understand you wanting to hang the soup can at La Casita. Even the Pollock, although that one’s always been my favorite. Those colorful splatters are hypnotic. But it still baffles my mind you traded a Warhol Mao for a Shag cocktail party.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Aunt Meryl. It was our kid. CJ bought that thing at a charity auction for like a thousand bucks. He bought it because he and Owen liked the mid-century vibe. And he offered it to us as a gift ’cause he thought it would look good in a mid-century house.”
“You didn’t have to gift him back a Mao worth millions!” Her exasperation was obvious.
“But he liked it.” César’s tone and smile told them he thought that was a good enough reason to part with the Warhol painting. “Owen liked it too, and Liebe tried to grab the phone out of my hand when we showed them a picture. The kids thought it would look great hanging in their dining room.”
“You’re still not helping, César. By the way, why is this trip so short? I wanted to have you guys over for dinner with the whole family.”
“Sorry, Meryl, we have a black-tie thing at the Smithsonian this weekend. We’ll get together again next trip.” As part of their evolving plans for the family business, César and Brett had decided to spend a minimum of one week per month traveling. “At least one of us will be coming back monthly for the foreseeable future. We want to be involved in the furnishing of the house. I do want to meet your children. Brett’s told me about them being around all the time while he was growing up.”
“I’m holding you to that.”
“This is sick! I can’t believe you’re letting me stay at your place and letting me drive your new car.” Chipper had checked out of the extended stay hotel and waited for Brett and César at the curb. He was driving them to the airport, and it was his first glimpse at the JEEP.
“Payment for your services, buddy.” César sat in the passenger seat tapping on his phone while Brett relinquished the wheel to their young friend. “I just texted you your alarm code. Bryce and Zion have their own.”
“Guess I’ll be seeing a lot of them in the next couple of months.”
César wagged a finger at Chipper. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Ritch about the Vail house: Don’t burn the place down.”
“Try and not let things get out of control, okay? I don’t think I want my parents’ house raided due to drug-fueled orgies.” Brett did not want a repeat of the events taking place at the house while Nalbo owned it.
“Not a chance, Cap.” Chipper made no move to restart the engine; instead, he stared at the two older men. “You know, you guys are amazing. You took a chance on Zion, and you should see the changes in him. I’m not sure he’s going to be partying as much in the near future. He’s like a thousand percent focused on doing a good job for you. When you asked him to do the rest of the house, he called and offered me a cut of what you’re paying him.”
“Really?” Brett was surprised. “Why?”
“Because I introduced him to you. And because I answered the sixty-four million questions he asked me about you guys. He wanted you to like that damn pool house so much…”
“Well, he did a good job, and that’s why we hired him again. Brett and I like him. And we like to give young, gay men a helping hand when we can.”
“Yep, you guys are fucking amazing.” Chipper at last hit the ignition and slipped the JEEP in gear. “So you went to the cemetery this morning?”
“Yep. Had to check up on Mom and Dad. They’re still behaving, not going out partying, and their graves haven’t been robbed.”
“You’re a trip, Cap. No burials for me. When I die, I wanna be cremated. It’ll be my last chance for a smoking hot body.”
“What are you all smiley about?” Brett put up the tray and reclined his seat. He sipped the last of the dinner wine, waiting for a reply.
César took his time. Chipper had dropped them off at the airport, their flight was on time, and they were now a couple of hours away from Washington. “I was thinking about last night. It’s been a while since we had a pool to skinny dip in at midnight.”
“I think last time was that weekend we spent in St. Lucia. We should go back sometime.”
“Yeah… I’d like that. It’s a beautiful island and the people are as friendly as they come.” César looked worried for a minute. “You think Brock heard us last night?”
“If he didn’t, he’s deaf. You were moaning like a two bit whore when I was fucking you.”
“Hey! I was in my happy place. And the gummies helped. What’s got you so chirpy?”
Brett waited a heartbeat or two before replying. “Oh, I don’t know. I think all this California time’s been good for me. For the longest time, I dealt with my parents’ death not by running from it, but allowing it to sit out there ignored. Last month, the bouts of nostalgia for the happy times were unexpected and intrusive.” When the flight attendant stopped by their seat to offer them refills, He raised his glass. “After the giddy time in L.A., I started remembering the sadder parts. Dad being away all the time. Mom drinking every afternoon. Their complaints about my surfing, getting high, and having sex with strangers.
“Remember that time I couldn’t sleep the week after we returned home? When you found me on the couch the next morning? I spent most of the night thinking. I realized I wasn’t an easy teenager to have around. What fourteen-year-old comes out and then brings back surfing buddies to fuck in the house while the parents are away? I still don’t know how they found out.” Brett chuckled recalling how his father would threaten to send him away to a military academy. “Our fights were as much my fault as theirs.
“So, the conclusion I came to was to try and accept the past as what it is: the past. Sometimes memories will bring joy, and other times sadness. We just got to deal with it. Mom, Dad, and Grandpa were my family. But they’re gone. I’m a better person for having had them in my life, and it does no good to keep shoveling memories around.
“But now you are it, and I need to concentrate on what’s up ahead. You, and CJ, and Ritch, and Ozzie, and Liebe are my family. And I’m a better man with all of you in my life.”