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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Great Restorations - 6. Chapter 6

A brief chapter note:
Marc's town exists. It's in west-central Pennsylvania, not far from mine. And here is a picture of the mill there that became, in my mind, Great Restorations. If you have watched a recent murder mystery on Netflix, you might recognize it. ;) 
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SAWYER rolled over, wincing at the pull in his lower back, and stared at the curtained window above his head. Late morning sunlight crept through the cracks, throwing patterns onto the sloped ceiling. He lifted his fingers to the sunbeam and groaned when the twinge in his neck became a spasm. Obviously, reconnecting with his past wasn‘t worth sleeping night after night in a thirty-year-old twin bed.

One of his childhood obsessions had been Star Wars, and this room still bore the marks. Movie posters covered the walls, and models of the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon collected dust on the shelf. It could be there was truth to the theory about your surroundings dictating your behavior; he‘d certainly been acting like a child for the past week, pining for Marc.

Time for a change. Today he‘d buy a bed, a proper-sized one, and move into one of the rooms on the second floor. There were four, not counting his grandfather‘s, all large and airy. Why he‘d put it off this long was difficult to say, though he had entertained some juvenile fantasies about luring Marc up to his room. He curled his toes into the soft sheets and closed his eyes. Come on, Marc, let me show you the relics of my misspent youth.

Pathetic. Sawyer laced his hands over his stomach. It was definitely time to move rooms. He cracked an eyelid and squinted at the poster hanging on the closet door. Yep, Luke Skywalker still did it for him. The fact that his Marc shared more than a passing resemblance to Mark Hamill was funny—and just the slightest bit creepy.

“Moving today,” he mumbled, letting his eye fall closed.

Bed shopping. Too bad he wouldn‘t have Marc as company. Sawyer flopped onto his stomach, and the bed frame protested with a series of creaks and groans. Digging his hands under his pillow, he pressed his face into the cool cotton. Now there was a mission that would become torture inside of five minutes. Surrounded by a hundred soft, plush reasons to get Marc horizontal and not one of them morally acceptable.

He pushed his hips forward, nestling his body further into the dip in the old mattress. The sheets were a tangled mess around his waist, and he used one leg to scoop more of them between his thighs, then snuggled back in with a low groan.

“My horoscope said my eyes would be opened to new experiences today. I had no idea it meant I‘d get to watch you hump your mattress.”

Sawyer jumped, then sighed into his pillow. “Bruce.”

“Good morning, sunshine.”

“You‘re early.” Sawyer lifted his head and shook the hair out of his eyes. Bruce stood just inside the doorway, huge hands on his broad hips, thick legs encased in yards of denim, and feet shoehorned into a giant pair of—Sawyer blinked sleepily—hiking boots? “I think you get bigger every time I see you.”

“It‘s an optical illusion. This room is pint sized. And”—Bruce‘s eyes swept over the paraphernalia— “bringing back memories of my own childhood I have no desire to revisit.”

Sawyer snorted.

Bruce jerked his chin toward the door. “So can we take this somewhere else? If you‘re done making love to your pillow, that is?”

“Sure. Hang on.” Sawyer curled onto his side, winced, then swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

“Are you trying to cripple yourself?”

“Gonna move downstairs today. Just need to go buy a mattress and frame.” His joints protested with a series of sharp cracks when he struggled to his feet. Bruce chuckled, and Sawyer gave him the finger. “What‘s with the Paul Bunyan get-up?”

“You no like?” Bruce spread his arms and spun in a circle. His red checked shirt was tucked into a pair of faded jeans, which were stuffed into the massive boots. He lacked the beard, but his mass of wavy, black hair and pale green ball cap made up the difference.

Sawyer smirked. “It‘s like watching a childhood icon come to life. Where‘d you leave Babe?”

“Don‘t take your sexual frustration out on me, Calhoun. And judging by your decor, you have no room to talk.” Bruce smoothed his hands over his shirt and jerked his thumb toward the door. “Up and at ‘em.”

They started down the stairs, Sawyer padding softly on bare feet and Bruce clomping behind in his boots. On the second landing, Sawyer found a reasonably clean pair of jeans tossed over the banister. He pulled them on over his boxers. Three steps from the next landing, he scooped a blue T-shirt off the riser and yanked it over his head. He heard Bruce sigh behind him. “Some things never change.”

“You love me this way.”

“You‘re a slob. No one loves a slob.” But he reached forward and ruffled Sawyer‘s hair. Sawyer swatted at him.

Bruce avoided it easily; for a big man, he had the reflexes of a snake. “Listen,” he said as they descended, “I know that you‘re about as likely to see a person out here as say”—he paused— “a Bengal tiger. But you should really keep your door locked. I walked right in.”

“Why didn‘t you knock?”

They reached the bottom of the steps. Bruce‘s disapproving stare was ruined by his half-smile. “I did. Several times.”

Sawyer held up a hand. “I didn‘t hear you.”

“Well, you were having a private moment in the Star Wars room, so that‘s understandable.”

Sawyer opened his mouth to deny it, then shrugged. “Luke will always be my first love.” Which reminded him again of Marc, just as he‘d put the man out of his thoughts for the first time in a week. A shiver ran through him. “Anyway, nobody locks their doors out here,” he said, distracted.

Bruce paused in rolling up his shirt cuffs. “That‘s very….”

“Endearing?” Sawyer offered.

“Stupid.”

Sawyer‘s pithy comeback stalled somewhere between his brain and his mouth. “Need coffee.” He turned toward the kitchen and promptly tripped over a suitcase. Bruce caught his arm and held him upright while Sawyer nursed his toe and frowned at the mountain of luggage. Besides the small satchel, there was a large rolling suitcase, a garment bag, and a duffel. Sawyer pinched the bridge of his nose. “Packed light, as usual, I see.”

“Fuck you. You‘re lucky I‘m here at all. My job tried to swallow me.”

“Which is why you‘re eight hours early?”

“You‘re acting like that‘s a problem." To Sawyer‘s arched eyebrow, he said, “I promise I‘ll never say a word about your Chewbacca fetish. I just needed to get the hell out of the city.”

Sawyer had been in the same boat more times than he cared to remember. He tugged Bruce in the direction of the kitchen. “You‘re welcome anytime, you know that. I just wasn‘t expecting you this early.”

“No, really?”

“But I‘m glad you‘re here.”

Conversation lagged while the coffee brewed. Bruce wandered around the kitchen, mumbling under his breath at the ancient metal cabinets and cracked plaster. “Okay,” he said once Sawyer had handed him a mug. “Convince me again why moving out here is a good thing for you.”

“I wasn‘t aware it was you I had to convince.” The cuckoo clock on the wall chimed ten times and, stupidly, Sawyer wondered whether Marc was at work yet. He‘d said he had a busy week planned. It was that one fact that had stopped Sawyer more than once from picking up the phone and calling him. That and the sad truth that he had no real excuse to do so.

“Hellloooo?” Bruce waved a hand in front of his face. He stooped to stare at Sawyer, putting them nose to nose. “What‘s wrong with you?”

“Just waking up.”

Predictably, Bruce didn‘t buy his excuse. “Uh-huh.” He tested the ragtag collection of chairs one at a time until he found one that supported his bulk. He crossed his feet in front of him and balanced his coffee on his stomach. “When you left three weeks ago, you were coming out here to empty this place out. Sell the contents off.”

“Did that.”

“And list the property.”

Sawyer took three large swallows of coffee. “Didn‘t do that.”

“So I gathered.” He fell silent, but Sawyer didn‘t take the bait. Bruce rolled his eyes. “What changed?”

The view out the kitchen window caught Sawyer‘s attention. His grandfather‘s apple trees stood in three neat rows, almost too small a collection to call an orchard, but it had seemed massive to him as a boy. There had even been a picture of the orchard in the album Marc had given him, taken before the trees had passed their prime.

Marc again. Sawyer pressed the mug to his cheek. “I have a lot of good memories of this place,” he said, speaking mostly to himself. Then added, louder, “You know I‘ve been unhappy.”

“Oh, please.” Bruce raised his mug, and Sawyer obediently refilled it. “Spoiled brat. As if you have anything to be unhappy about. I know a hundred people who‘d sell their souls for a spoonful of your success.”

Sawyer smiled as he poured. That was when Bruce moved in for the kill. “Have you met someone?”

Sawyer‘s arm jerked, and coffee splashed over the counter. He fit the pot back onto the burner and cursed his unsteady hands. His hesitation wasn‘t lost on Bruce.

“You have!” Bruce thumped the table. “Details!”

“No.” The coffee turned bitter in Sawyer‘s mouth. “I mean, there are no details. I haven‘t met anyone. Not really. I thought—no. Not in the way you‘re thinking. I mean… Christ. Never mind.”

Bruce’s eyes sparkled. “Pretty special, is he?”

Yesterday‘s newspaper was the nearest non-breakable item. Sawyer lobbed it at Bruce‘s head. “Forget I said anything. It‘s not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Because of one giant obstacle.”

Bruce cringed. “Married?”

“No.” Sawyer flopped onto a stool. “Worse.”

“Straight?”

“Not that much worse.”

“Oh, good. Listen.” Bruce kicked Sawyer‘s stool with one of his heavy boots, and Sawyer‘s coffee sloshed out onto his T-shirt. “Can we dispense with the twenty questions? It‘s starting to piss me off.”

Sawyer made a face. “Marc…He‘s hiding.”

“Ah.” Bruce pursed his lips. “Not sure I can blame him. Have you seen this town?”

Sawyer shot to his feet and began to pace. “Once or twice,” he said, voice tight. “You?” The last thing he wanted to hear was a justification for Marc‘s decision. Pettiness aside, Sawyer didn‘t approve.

Bruce ignored the temper tantrum. “Drove through it to get here. It‘s so fucking cute, I almost vomited. By the time I turned off Main Street, I was craving a three-bedroom mortgage, a wife, and a puppy. Can you believe that?”

It was impossible to stay angry at Bruce. “No,” Sawyer said. “You hate puppies.”

That earned him a small smile. “I don’t hate puppies. Nobody hates puppies. I hate that they piddle everywhere. As for Marc, why not give the guy a break? Not everyone is as brave as you are, Calhoun. I wouldn‘t hold it against him.”

“You’re my friend. Aren’t you supposed to be taking my side?”

“I am your friend. Haven’t I been one long enough to not have to stroke you off every time your opinion needs validating?”

Sawyer couldn‘t dredge up a retort, so he turned and rinsed his cup, then set it gently in the sink. He didn‘t need a pep talk, or a guilt trip, or whatever Bruce was heaping on him. He‘d made his decision about Marc. At least he thought he had.

Bruce lumbered to his feet. “Are you making me breakfast or what?”

“I hadn‘t planned to have to make you anything until dinner. I don‘t have much in the way of breakfast food.”

“I was hoping you‘d say that. Your omelets give me gas.” Bruce patted his stomach. “Let‘s go out.”

The refrigerator was as bare as Sawyer remembered. He let the door swing shut as he nodded. “I know just the place. I need to take a shower first, though.”

“Please do. Then you can spill the details about your new love interest on the way into town.” Bruce stood and stretched, wiggling his fingers at the burnished tin ceiling high above. “Cool. Is that real?” Without waiting for Sawyer to answer, he wandered off into the next room, poking and prodding as he went.

***

RACHEL‘S was as Sawyer remembered from his earlier visits. The morning crowd was thinning out by the time he and Bruce walked in the door, and there were several booths available. Pastel print mats and pale pink coffee mugs dotted the tables. The two waitresses on duty were sporting gingham aprons and matching ribbons around their high ponytails. The place smelled of yeast and bacon. Sawyer‘s stomach rumbled.

Bruce leaned over his shoulder. “So cute I want to—”

“Enough.” Sawyer jabbed him in the ribs, then nodded at the young dark-haired woman who approached them. Her wide smile revealed perfect white teeth, a sharp contrast to her black hair and brown eyes.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said in a husky voice. “Two for breakfast?”

Sawyer jerked a thumb behind him. “He eats enough for two, so the reality is probably closer to three.”

The woman gave a delighted laugh and squeezed Sawyer‘s arm. He found himself enjoying her open friendliness. “Big appetites don‘t scare me. How does a booth near the back sound? Plenty of room to spread out your plates.”

“I like how you think.” Bruce shooed Sawyer out of the way and looped his arm around the woman‘s elbow. “Lead on.”

“Keep that up, and you‘ll get free milkshakes.” She winked, and Sawyer watched Bruce lap it up like an eager puppy. The man did love to flirt. He had a keen eye for beauty and wasn‘t picky about the gender of his conquests.

The woman led them to the back of the diner, waving at people as they meandered between the tables. Bruce slid across the bench with a sigh while Sawyer seated himself opposite. The woman handed them each a laminated menu. “Would you like coffee?”

Bruce rubbed his stomach. “A whole pot, please.”

The woman smiled and scribbled something on her pad. “Sawyer?”

Sawyer blinked. Peripherally, he was aware of Bruce shooting him a curious glance. “Um.” He closed the menu and set it gingerly on the table. “Yes, thank you. Do we know each other?”

The woman reached to turn the two mugs over, then snagged a coffee pot from one of the passing waitresses. “I know you, sweetheart. Sawyer Calhoun, of the Steinbrick renovation.” She filled both mugs.

“Yeah. That‘s me.” His throat felt dry. “And I‘m sorry, but you are…?”

“I‘m Rachel Harper.” She stuck out her hand, and Sawyer took it. “Nice to finally meet you.”

“Rachel?” Bruce handed her his menu. “As in the owner of Rachel’s?”

Rachel tucked it under her arm and smirked at Bruce. “Nothing gets by you city boys.”

Sawyer was thankful for Bruce‘s sudden burst of laughter. Wary, he wiped his damp palms on his jeans. “Rachel,” he said, almost to himself.

The woman patted his shoulder. Her next words gave him a chill. “Marc‘s Rachel,” she said. “And my God, sometimes I wonder which one of us is dating the guy. He talks about you constantly.”

A panicked voice rang out, “Hey, Rachel!” One of the waitresses beckoned from the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.

“Oops. Gotta go. Nice to finally meet you properly, Sawyer.” She smiled at Bruce. “And your friend. Marissa will be around to grab your order in just a sec, okay?”

“Okay,” Bruce answered when Sawyer didn‘t. “No problem. We‘re not in any rush.”

Rachel beat a path to the kitchen, and Bruce leaned back, slinging an arm over the top of the booth. He retrieved a toothpick from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. “Damn, Sawyer. This is straight outta As The World Turns. All we’re missing is a secret love child and a plot to assassinate the President.” The toothpick bobbed. “And maybe an alien.”

“Art imitates life,” Sawyer grumbled. He scowled and picked at the placemat.

“You’re such a drama queen. What did you expect?” Bruce leaned across the table. “You didn‘t think that Marc might have a girlfriend?”

No, and why hadn‘t he, come to think of it? It made perfect sense. Lies upon lies. The whole thing turned Sawyer‘s stomach. He cast about for the empathy Bruce claimed he should be feeling, but all he could picture was Rachel‘s pretty face. He held the steaming coffee under his nose; it helped push back his pulsing headache. “Whatever. More evidence that I made the right decision.”

“Oh yeah, that‘s convincing.” Bruce rolled his eyes.

“No.” Sawyer thumped his mug down. “It was crazy to play his games.”

Bruce cocked his head. “What games?”

“Like this test thing he did the other day—” Marissa‘s arrival cut his explanation short. Bruce ordered half the menu, and Sawyer asked for oatmeal and fruit. She poured them both more coffee, then left. “I should‘ve stopped it,” Sawyer said. No need to mention it got him wound tight enough to jerk off three times on Monday.

“So what you‘re saying is, you‘ve been leading him on. Flirting and saying ‘Let‘s be friends’.” Bruce waved off Sawyer‘s protests. “Face it. You have an M.O.”

“That‘s harsh. No.” Sawyer cut him off. “I would never purposefully mislead anyone like that.”

“Who said you were doing it on purpose? Grab a dose of self-honesty, Calhoun.”

“Don‘t feed me shit about the truth setting me free.”

“I was going to say the truth hurts,” Bruce replied blandly.

Sawyer scooted into the corner of the booth and sulked.

Bruce stole the neglected coffee. “Baby.”

“Jerk.”

“Sawyer?”

Sawyer snapped his head up to find Marc standing by their table. He was dressed for work in faded jeans and a dark blue T-shirt, and looked too clean to have done anything but shower that morning. The faint odor of soap and shaving cream wafted over Sawyer. He straightened, bumping the table and grazing Bruce‘s shin in the process. “Marc. Hi.” And that, apparently, was the extent of his conversational abilities.

“Hi,” Marc replied after an awkward moment. His eyes darted to Bruce, then back.

“Sawyer‘s so rude, isn‘t he? My mother doesn‘t even invite him to Sunday dinner anymore.” Bruce‘s booming voice carried across the room, and Sawyer winced. Bruce uncurled a hand from his coffee cup and held it out. “I‘m Bruce Banner.”

Marc paused in the process of shaking Bruce‘s hand. “Are you kidding?”

“I‘m afraid not. Don‘t make me angry,” Bruce quipped. Marc snickered and pumped his hand harder, and for a bit too long, in Sawyer‘s opinion.

“How was it growing up with that name?” Marc asked.

Bruce patted the vinyl seat, and after a short hesitation, Marc slid in next to him. Sawyer quietly seethed. “Not as hard as you might think,” Bruce said. “I was already this size by the time I was fifteen. Bruce Banner fit me to a T. Guess what my nickname was.”

“No idea.”

Bruce blinked, then howled with laughter. He clapped Marc on the back, then slid Sawyer‘s mug in front of him. “I like you already, Marc. Here, have Sawyer‘s coffee. He‘s too busy being a crybaby to drink it.”

“Oh? And why is that?” Marc picked up the mug and raised it to his lips, and, ridiculously, a bolt of heat shot through Sawyer.

Bruce grinned. “He was up very early.”

Sawyer infused his glare with a mixture of irritation and warning.

Bruce raised his mug in an answering toast. “And here I thought it was going to be a dull weekend.”

“Thanks for your faith in me,” Sawyer said. But his lips curled up in a smile. Bruce‘s good nature had a way of clearing away negativity. It was why Sawyer loved him.

“Join us for breakfast, Marc?” Bruce asked.

Except when the bastard felt like stirring up trouble. Sawyer waited for Marc‘s answer, unable to settle on which he most wanted to hear: yes or no.

“I‘m afraid I can‘t. I‘m just dropping in to pick up a friend, then we‘re off to work. But thanks for the offer. I would‘ve liked the chance to get to know you better.”

The innuendo was so subtle that Sawyer nearly missed it, though it didn‘t spark a rush of jealousy; Marc wasn‘t being coy. Still, the pitch of his voice was off. That was certain.

“Likewise.” Bruce‘s own moderated tone, also familiar, proved there was much being implied that wasn’t being said, a fact that made Sawyer nervous. But before he could interrupt, Bruce added, “In fact, we still can, right?”

Marc‘s quizzical smile matched Sawyer‘s.

“Sawyer was telling me about your office, and how unique it is. An old mill, right? It so happens….” Bruce paused for Marissa to fill their mugs from her bottomless coffee pot. She set a clean cup in front of Sawyer, and he felt like kissing her. “It so happens,” Bruce continued once she‘d moved on, “that I‘ve been on the lookout for that type of unique idea. I was wondering if we could stop by so I could take a look around.”

Marc nodded. “Of course. What kind of work do you do?”

“I‘m an architect.”

Sawyer raised a brow at his friend. He couldn‘t remember the last time Bruce had described himself as merely “an architect.” Only one of the most sought after in the city, he should have added, and often did.

Marc gave a low laugh. It made Sawyer‘s toes curl in his sneakers. “Well, with all due respect, Bruce, it‘s going to be close to impossible to replicate the ambiance of a century-old flour mill in a modern high rise.”

Sawyer choked on his coffee. Marc probably didn‘t realize he‘d just thrown down the professional gauntlet. Bruce had made the impossible happen before. More than once.

“Oh ye of little faith.” Bruce tapped his fingers on the table. “Give me a chance? And besides,” he added, “Sawyer said you might have a quote ready to show him.”

A heavy silence descended, lasting for several of Sawyer‘s frantic heartbeats. “I do,” Marc finally said. “It‘s ready.”

Marc‘s quiet voice shot the last of Sawyer‘s equilibrium to hell. “How about this afternoon?”

“Sure. This afternoon is fine.”

“Three o‘clock?” Bruce ventured. “I wouldn‘t want to risk anything earlier. We have to go buy a bed. Maybe two. Have ‘em delivered. Try ‘em out. You know the drill.”

The bottom dropped out of Sawyer‘s stomach. He shot Bruce a murderous look. So did Marc, interestingly enough.

“Three o‘clock will work.” Marc glanced up, and Sawyer followed his gaze to the diner‘s entrance. Another young man was standing there, tall and thin, long hair pulled back into a ponytail. His hands were slung into the front pockets of his jeans, but when he caught Marc looking, he waved.

Marc slid out of the booth. “I need to go. Thanks for the coffee. I‘ll see you later, Bruce. Sawyer.”

Bruce leaned forward to watch him make his way to the door. “I can hardly wait,” he said under his breath. Sawyer kicked him, but Bruce wasn‘t fazed. “Very nice. Your infatuation makes a little more sense now.”

Not what Sawyer wanted to hear. “Careful,” he growled.

Marissa arrived with their breakfast. Sawyer stabbed at his oatmeal. Bruce obviously knew when to quit, or maybe just when to eat, because the rest of the meal passed peaceably. Of course, with Bruce in tow, that wasn‘t likely to last.

***

“WAS I bad?”

Sawyer bit the inside of his cheek. Instead of answering, he flipped the turn signal, glanced over his shoulder, and shifted the Explorer into the left lane.

Bruce squinted at him. “You‘re ignoring me.”

“What makes you say that?” Swallowing a smirk, Sawyer took a sharp curve too fast, and Bruce hissed through his teeth.

“Okay, I get it. My comments to the salesman were inappropriate. I‘m sorry.” He batted his eyelashes. “But you did look fuckable in that oak sleigh bed.” Sawyer rode the next curve even more recklessly, and Bruce tightened his seatbelt. “Please don‘t splatter me all over the road. I just bought these clothes. I don‘t want blood on them.”

“I meant to say something about your new look. I hope you kept the receipts.” Bruce’s glare coaxed Sawyer‘s smirk to the surface.

“Are you calling my outfit unbecoming?”

“Something like that.”

They dipped down the hill and into a hollow. Rocks rose up on both sides of the car. In deference to his new vehicle, Sawyer eased off the accelerator, chuckling when Bruce relinquished his viselike grip on the dashboard. The car wound further into the ravine, through one switchback after another, losing more sunlight with every pass. Thick moss hung off the trees, and the air grew cooler. Bruce rolled his window all the way down and gave a satisfied sigh.

Sawyer smiled, but didn‘t dare take his eyes off the road for more than a second. “Like it?”

Bruce nodded. “Gorgeous.” He sniffed the air. “Fresh. Tastes almost metallic. What is that?”

“That,” Sawyer said as they rounded the last bend and burst into a patch of sunlight, “is the river.”

Marc‘s mill was perched on the right side of the road, at the edge of a spillway. A weathered-looking covered bridge spanned the river just below it, and the road continued on the other side for about twenty yards before disappearing into the trees. Both banks were thickly forested, but the water was wide enough to provide a ribbon of sunlight through the gorge. Upstream, the river was glasslike. The only evidence of its movement was the curtain of water breaching the spillway near the mill‘s giant wheel. Below the dam, it churned and bubbled around huge boulders, kicking up white froth. A low roar echoed through the air.

Sawyer swung the Explorer into a spot in front of Great Restorations. He‘d barely shifted into park when Bruce leapt from the passenger seat and jogged over to the wall that marked the edge of the river. Sawyer scrambled to follow, blanching when he saw his friend leapfrog the stone barrier and disappear from sight.

“Bruce!” He raced forward, heart pounding, only to find the other man picking his way over a jumble of boulders to the immobile water wheel. “I‘m not sure you should be doing that,” Sawyer called.

“Relax, you sissy!” Bruce threw over his shoulder.

“Let him go.”

Sawyer spun to find Marc at his elbow for the second time that day. He willed his pulse to stop racing, only to have it skip faster once Marc stepped forward, putting them shoulder to shoulder. He was more rumpled than earlier. His shirt was untucked, and a smudge of brown stain was smeared across his collarbone. The sun glinted off his hair. He flashed a smile, and just like that, all of Sawyer‘s lofty plans for keeping things platonic blew away.

Marc rested one hip against the wall while he tracked Bruce‘s progress. “I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the place. I thought the old guy who owned it was going to stroke out when I started climbing the wheel.”

The picture, though ridiculous, was so vivid that Sawyer‘s breath caught. “You loved it right away.”

“How could you not?” Marc asked, his puzzlement so genuine that Sawyer laughed. Marc joined in, then swiveled to lean against the wall. The move nearly erased the open space between them. Sawyer swallowed.

“Okay!” Bruce vaulted the low wall, large muscled frame moving as gracefully as a doe, and advanced on Marc, finger wagging. A flush had spread across his cheeks and down his neck. His eyes glittered. “How the hell did you do it? How is this place not a historical landmark or some shit like that?”

Marc grinned and rocked back on his heels. “I knew the guy who owned it. Mr. Delaney. He didn‘t have any family. Never married. No kids. My aunt always felt bad about that, and she invited him to dinner a lot when I was growing up.” Marc paused, pensive. “He told great stories, just like your grandfather, Sawyer.”

Sawyer smiled, awash in a rush of nostalgia.

“Anyway,” Marc continued, “the government did want it. In fact, the mill and the surrounding property were reclassified as a historical landmark about ten years ago. That way, if Mr. Delaney died before selling it, ownership reverted to the state.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “But?”

“He mentioned one night over dinner that he was thinking about selling it.” Marc shrugged. “I jumped at the chance. He brought me out here, gave me some oral history on the place, and we signed the papers the next day. I can‘t believe how easy it was, but he seemed happy to hand it over to me. Which is strange, because he had several long-standing offers.”

Not so strange, Sawyer thought, if Mr. Delaney had seen something of himself in Marc. He couldn‘t be sure, of course, but it made sense.

“He took my money and went on a month-long cruise to the Mediterranean. His last hoorah, he called it.” Marc guided Bruce and Sawyer toward the door of the building. “And it‘s not as though I razed the place. In fact, I restored it to its former glory, down to every last detail. As for the property being a historical landmark, it‘s still open for the public to enjoy.”

“And while they‘re sightseeing, you can talk restoration and renovation,” Bruce added.

Marc winked. “Exactly.”

They stepped out of the sunlight and into the chill shade of the mill. Bruce studied Marc intently. “Very clever. I think I might be a little bit in love with you.” To Sawyer‘s sudden scowl, he added, “Relax. I‘m kidding.” He extracted a compact, leather-bound notebook from his shirt pocket. “Kind of,” he added under his breath as he wandered off.

Sawyer took a deep breath. The mill had a pleasant underlying smell of earth mixed with fresh paint. “How long have you owned it?”

“Let‘s see.” Marc‘s tongue darted out to wet his lips, and Sawyer felt an answering pull in his gut. “Four years.”

Sawyer did the math. “You were only twenty-three when you bought it?”

“Yep.”

“I doubt it was cheap.”

“No,” Marc replied, laughing.

“Where did you get the capital? Loan?”

“No,” Marc said again. “I paid cash. Well,” he added, “and took a small loan. But that was mostly to fund the renovations and get the space ready for the business.”

Now Sawyer was intrigued. “Don‘t feel the need to answer, but I have to ask. Where‘d you get so much cash?”

“It‘s okay.” Marc began to meander across the floor, and Sawyer fell into step beside him. “I‘d saved it. I was working up to buy my house from Aunt May.”

“Now I‘m confused. The one you‘re living in now? You don‘t own that?”

“Uh, no.” Marc looked, of all things, embarrassed. “It belongs to my aunt. She wanted to give it to me, but I wouldn‘t let her. She put herself out there, financially, to buy it, and even though that was twenty-five years ago, and she‘s not struggling now, I‘m going to make sure I give her what it‘s worth.”

That was… a shock. Not many people turned their noses up at a free ride like that. There had to be more to the story. Sawyer hated to pry, but his curiosity got the better of him. “Why did she need the house in the first place?”

Marc‘s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. His hands curled into fists, and as though he wanted hide his agitation, he shoved them deep into his pockets. “It was for my parents. So they had a place to settle down.”

The night that Sawyer had followed Marc to his house after their argument at the pizza parlor, Marc had made a throwaway comment about “taking” the house. It finally made a little sense. “But they didn‘t settle down, did they?” Sawyer asked quietly.

“No.” Marc took off across the floor again. Trying to escape old demons, was Sawyer‘s bet, based on the conversation. He stopped at one of the large windows that looked over the spillway and waited for Sawyer to join him. “And that‘s the story of the mill and the house. It‘s taken a while, but business has been good the last couple of years. I‘m almost ready to make her an offer she can‘t refuse.” He winked, and Sawyer laughed.

“And that would be?”

“A roundtrip ticket to the Antiques Roadshow in Des Moines next year, and a very large certified check to fund her passion.”

Sawyer slapped him on the back. “Perfect.” He didn‘t say what he was thinking—that he was impressed, and more than a little charmed. Marc hadn‘t been fishing for compliments.

“So”—Marc crossed his arms— “how was your shopping excursion?”

The defensive posture made Sawyer swallow his glib response. That tone was back, the guarded one from earlier. Sawyer squeezed Marc‘s shoulder. “Bruce is just a friend.”

Marc twitched, but he didn‘t shake Sawyer off. “Oh?”

“Yes. And to answer your question”—because he couldn‘t resist— “the shopping excursion was a success. I have a brand new king-sized bed for my room and one for the guest room, where Bruce is staying.”

“A king?” The corner of Marc‘s mouth lifted. “You like to spread out when you sleep.”

“And when I do other things.”

Marc tensed. He stepped around Sawyer to watch Bruce meander toward the staircase that led down to the millstone. Sawyer shadowed him. The railing ended in a V that hung out over the floor below, and Marc followed it until he was nestled at the junction of the beams. There was nowhere else for him to go, and something primal inside of Sawyer howled at having cornered his prey.

In an eerie repeat of their last rendezvous at the mill, Sawyer sidled close enough to link their fingers. Marc didn‘t stop him, but they were more or less alone; Bruce had jogged down the stairs to investigate the stone and piston. A cool river draft carried his appreciative whistle to their ears, and both Marc and Sawyer watched as he explored the machinery, touching it now and again with a quiet reverence. Standing half-behind Marc gave Sawyer a modicum of privacy, and after waffling for a few seconds, he exploited it. Slowly, he lifted his hand and laid it gently on Marc‘s back, fingertips first, but when Marc‘s only reaction was a subdued gasp, he spread his palm flat.

Marc could have been a statue. He barely breathed.

Sawyer checked on Bruce once more before leaning to whisper in Marc‘s ear. “Tell me to stop.” His voice sounded harsh and broken to his ears. There was no chance his tone could be mistaken for playful. Intent, he tightened his grip on Marc‘s shirt and brushed his nose across the shell of his ear. “Tell me to back off.”

Marc said nothing, but his sharp exhale and the minute tremble of his body emboldened Sawyer. He took one more step and pressed his chest against Marc‘s side. “Last chance, I swear to fucking God, Marc. Tell me to stop. That’s all you need to say.”

“God, Sawyer.”

Sawyer squeezed his eyes shut, hating Marc‘s anguished tone. He wrenched away, but Marc‘s fingers clamped around his wrist before he could take a full step. “Don‘t stop,” he whispered. “Don‘t.”

Well, all right. That was the sort of command Sawyer appreciated. He pried his fingers off Marc‘s shirt and coiled them around his upper arm. “Didn‘t you have a quote to show me?”

“Up in my office.”

“I was hoping you‘d say that.” Sawyer ignored Marc‘s shaky laugh and steered him round to the stairs. His gentle push was all the impetus Marc needed, because he immediately took the lead, dragging Sawyer behind him by his belt buckle.

“Oh, Romeo?”

Sawyer pulled up short, jerking Marc to a stop as well. He growled and angled his head over the railing until he could see Bruce‘s upturned face. “What?” he snapped.

Far from put off, Bruce grinned. “Oh, nothing. Just wanted to let you know you were about to have company.”

“There‘s no room for you.”

“I wasn‘t talking about me, princess. Although….” He shook himself. “Never mind. Someone just pulled up.”

Beside him, Marc froze. Outside, a car door slammed, and Sawyer slapped his palm against the wood railing. “Damn it!” He risked a quick touch; he cupped Marc‘s cheek in his hand. “This isn‘t over.”

Wide-eyed, hands fisted at his sides, Marc nodded.

The front door was kicked ajar by one strappy crimson sandal, and Karen breezed in, arms loaded with reams of fabric. “Marc?” she called.

“Hello, fine lady.” Bruce appeared out of thin air and dipped into a low bow. “May I assist?” He gestured at the pile of material in her arms.

Sawyer made the most of her distraction and slipped into the shadows to collect himself. Marc might have a chance of flying under Karen‘s radar, but Sawyer doubted he‘d be so lucky. The bulge in his Dockers wasn‘t exactly subtle. He peeked around a wooden beam to find Karen giving Bruce a thorough once-over. “Sure, handsome,” she said, and dumped the entire stack into his arms. “I do love a gentleman.”

“And I adore a woman who can delegate,” came Bruce‘s muffled reply. “Where do you want them?”

“Table along the far wall,” Karen said. She waited for Bruce to stumble away before turning to greet Marc. “Is Mr. Bunyan interested in our business?” she asked in a low voice.

Sawyer muffled a laugh.

“His name is Bruce, and he‘s a friend of Sawyer‘s,” Marc answered.

“Oh!” Karen smoothed her skirt. “Is Sawyer here?”

Reprieve over. Sawyer took a steadying breath and stepped forward. “Right here.”

“Just the person I wanted to see.” The clack of her pointy heels threw echoes around the room as she walked forward and took his arm. “I‘ve been flooded with ideas since we spoke last week. Think you can make some time for me?”

And be throttled by either Marc or Bruce. Or both. What fun. “I suppose,” he hedged. “Though I haven‘t even seen the quote yet. How about one day next week?”

Her nails sank into his arm. “Wonderful! Over dinner?”

“Uh….” He snuck a look over her shoulder. Marc‘s eyes flared with enmity. It was a miracle Karen hadn‘t dropped dead on the spot.

“During the day is better,” Sawyer said. “Why don‘t you call me when you‘re going to be in the office?”

“Whatever works for you.” She withdrew her hand, and Sawyer released the breath he‘d been holding. She turned to the others, suddenly all business. “Why don‘t we go over the quote now? Between Marc and myself, we should be able to answer any questions you and your friend might have.”

Bruce clapped his hands together. “I think that‘s a great idea. How much fun is this going to be?” He winked at Sawyer, then offered Karen his arm. “Can we make popcorn?”

Karen shed her suit jacket before taking his elbow. “Whatever you want, Paul.”

“Bruce.”

“Just Bruce?”

Bruce swept her past Marc and Sawyer and onto the staircase. “Bruce Banner.”

“Get out of town.”

“Swear to God.”

Their voices faded as they climbed. Sawyer caught Marc’s arm as he passed, keeping his voice soft. The words were anything but. “I meant what I said. I’m done fighting this. Very fucking done.” He bent to catch Marc’s gaze. “You good with that?”

After a long, searching look, Marc nodded. He swallowed hard. Sawyer did as well, then turned and climbed the steps to Marc’s office.


 

Copyright © 2022 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. 
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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On 2/22/2023 at 10:13 PM, gdaniel said:

There are those who write stories, and there are authors. I belong in the first group, while you, dear lady, definitely belong in the second. What separates us, I think, is imagination. Mine is limited, and I don't mind admitting, whereas yours is freaking awesome!

You are far too kind. Thank you for the compliment. :) 

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