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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.
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Great Restorations - 7. Chapter 7

THE contract was signed, the schedule set, and all Marc had to do was survive the last week of his current project without falling prey to the distraction that was Sawyer Calhoun. His energy went into wrapping up the Kennerdale renovation, which he did by Thursday, two days early—a miracle considering his pitiful attention span.

The team said goodbye to the Kennerdale family, then gathered that night at Reba‘s to celebrate. Reba‘s house, while nothing special architecturally, had what Marc‘s had always lacked: a sense of family. Losing her husband ten years ago had galvanized Reba into making a stable home for her sons. Every room reflected that goal. Pictures of the boys decorated the walls, their sports trophies cluttered every flat surface, and their report cards hung on the refrigerator. The love and affection the three shared was infectious. Reba excelled at the job she did for Marc, but motherhood was her true calling, one she relished. Marc, Karen, and Tim were her honorary adopted children. Rick she tolerated.

The morning after one of their end-of-project parties was never a pretty sight. Marc took one look at them, sprawled in every corner of Reba‘s living room, and declared a three-day weekend. “Be at Sawyer‘s by nine on Monday,” he said as he left. He preferred to recover from his hangover in the comfort of his own house.

Karen emerged from beneath her blanket. “Thought you told him eight.”

“I get the feeling he‘s not an early riser. Let‘s give it an extra hour the first day.”

“Marc, I love you,” Rick said from his nest on the floor, voice raspy from too many cigarettes.

“That‘s what you said last night too.” Marc leaned over him. “You also said I should keep your bonus check and buy something nice for myself.”

“The hell I did.”

“You did,” Reba confirmed. “I ain‘t gonna repeat what you suggested either. Pervert.”

“I can‘t be held responsible for my actions when Tim is mixing my drinks. I think he was trying to poison me.”

“Don‘t know where you got that idea,” Reba said. She clapped her hands together. “Who wants eggs?”

A collective groan followed Marc out of the room. He found Tim outside, sprawled across Reba‘s porch swing, hands folded behind his head. He greeted Marc with a lazy wave. “Did you hear?” Marc asked.

“Nine o‘clock Monday, chez Calhoun. Got it, boss.” Tim stretched and sat up. He pulled a leather tie from his pocket and tied his hair back. “You ready?”

“Ready?” Marc faltered on the top step. His clothes were stiff, and he ached from sleeping on Reba‘s floor. All he wanted at that moment was a shower and a bottle of Tylenol. What he didn‘t want were cryptic questions from a man who saw far more than Marc was comfortable with.

“Yeah.” Tim‘s easy smile did nothing to ease Marc‘s disquiet. “For the job with Sawyer.”

“I guess. Yeah.”

Tim smiled. “Cool.” He settled back and closed his eyes.

Unnerved, Marc staggered to his truck.

His answering machine coughed up two messages from Rachel and one from Aunt May, reminding him that tomorrow was Saturday, and “Please be prompt, because I want to get on the road no later than eight. The estate sale out on Route 78 is supposed to be huge.” He erased all three, burying his guilt. The situation with Rachel made his head hurt even when he wasn‘t hung over. He‘d expected her to push for something more by now. He didn‘t know what to make of the fact that she hadn‘t. Sighing, he headed for the shower, putting everything out of his head.

Except Sawyer. He refused to be banished. Marc was used to that by now.

Seventy-two hours until they saw each other. For days, Marc had been juggling anticipation and dread, fantasy and reality, unable to shake the feeling that his life was about to be turned upside down. And was that really a bad thing? He still wasn’t sure. Proof of how screwed up in the head he was. One thing was for certain: resisting what was now on offer would be close to impossible.

***

HE PULLED up in front of Sawyer‘s house at 8:55, pleased to see everyone else waiting. Reba offered him a large coffee. “Rachel‘s Diner” was scrawled across the Styrofoam in red curly print. Marc gnashed his teeth as he shook his head. He‘d dodged Rachel‘s calls all weekend.

Of course, Reba had to mention that fact in front of everyone. “Rachel said she couldn‘t get in touch with you. Everything okay?”

“Fine.” Sometimes Reba‘s mothering went a bit too far. Marc hefted his bucket of tools and pointed at the front door. “Let‘s go.”

They climbed the steps in a line, Rick and Tim in front, lugging a miter saw between them. “Ding dong! Anybody home?” Rick struck Sawyer‘s door with his hammer.

“Stop that.” Reba plucked it from his hand and tossed it behind her at the five-gallon bucket she‘d carried onto the porch. Marc and Tim jumped out of the way, but her aim was perfect. The hammer landed handle down in the nest of tools. “You‘ll dent the door.”

“And then,” Rick drawled like Reba was a confused child, “we can replace it with a new one.” He rubbed his thumb and fingers together. “The guy can totally afford it.”

“You know there‘s a picture of you in the dictionary next to ‘morally impaired’?”

“‘Morally impaired’ is two words.”

“Ass is one word,” Marc volunteered.

“You‘re hurting me, boss.” Rick leaned over and waggled his butt. “But I do have a cute one, you have to admit.”

Reba slapped her hands over her face. “I‘m blind! Does that count as sexual harassment, Marc?”

“Only if his actions offend you.” Marc‘s tone carried his own opinion on that point.

Reba smacked her gum. “Shit, he offends me every day. You mean I could‘ve sued his ass and been rich by now?”

“It‘s always about my ass. Can‘t you guys obsess over something else for once?” Rick knocked again, using his knuckles this time. “Calhoun! Open up! The cavalry‘s arrived.”

The door swung open with a loud squeak, and Sawyer blinked at them through the screen. Marc smirked. “Morning, Sawyer.”

“It‘s eight already?” Sawyer asked.

Rick hooted with laughter. “It‘s nine, Sleeping Beauty.” He hefted the bucket in one hand and his tool belt in the other, then smashed his face against the screen. “Let us in.”

Reba whipped him with her work gloves. “Animal. You‘re scaring the poor boy.”

Sawyer answered with a blank stare, clutching his shirt closed. His hair stuck straight up on the right side and plastered flat on the left. “Nine?”

Marc took pity on him. “Why don‘t you go make some coffee while we get set up.”

“Good idea,” Rick said. “Coffee inspires me. And Sawyer?”

Sawyer stumbled back around at Rick‘s question. “Hmm?”

“Love the hair.”

“Ass,” Sawyer mumbled. He kicked the screen door open, then turned and ambled off in the direction of the kitchen.

Reba grabbed it before it swung closed. “Why, Rick. Your reputation precedes you.” She shot Marc a sidelong glance. “Go give Sawyer a hand before he hurts himself.”

Marc‘s protest got lost in the chaos of the team dragging their tools through the front door. Rick‘s playfulness disappeared in a heartbeat. He knew when to buckle down, or Marc would‘ve let him go long ago. “Set up here for now. Tim and I will scope out the best place for the saw and compressor. Reba, what lengths of wood are we talking?”

“Up to twelve feet.”

“We‘ll need a big room, then. Wet saw can go right on the porch.”

When nobody replied to Marc‘s “Sawyer is capable of brewing coffee by himself,” he stalked out of the foyer and up the hall to the kitchen. The smell of freshly ground beans greeted him at the door. He leaned against the jamb, smiling at the sight of Sawyer standing over the machine, fogged expression still in place. “Need help?”

His voice brought Sawyer to life. A slow grin spread over his face as he turned, rolling his hips along the counter. “Hey, you. Long time no see.”

Too long, Marc had to agree. Not since the previous weekend when they‘d signed the contract. Which brought to mind another subject. “How‘s Bruce?”

Sawyer snatched two mugs from the dishwasher, filled both with coffee, and handed one to Marc. “Pining for Edgewood. Which,” he paused to sip his coffee, “is weird.”

Marc wrapped his palms around the cup and leaned against the counter next to Sawyer. “Why?”

“Just… small towns aren’t usually his thing.” Sawyer shook his head and slid closer. Marc‘s hands tightened on his mug, but he didn‘t retreat. “I‘ve been looking forward to this since last Friday,” Sawyer said. He glanced at the door, then back to Marc. “Thought about calling you.”

“Why didn‘t you?”

“Did you want me to?”

Yes. No. “Uh.”

Sawyer dropped his eyes. “That‘s what I thought.”

In the foyer, Rick called a warning and the band saw roared to life. Marc edged away. “This isn‘t the best time to be discussing this.”

“I know.”

The moment stretched, tension playing out until Marc had to speak before he did something foolish. “Sawyer—”

“Later.” Sawyer refilled his mug, then set it aside while he buttoned his shirt. “Let me get cleaned up, okay? I‘ll get with everybody one at a time, in case they have questions. Then—” one side of his mouth curved upward— “I want to show you something. Relax.” He laughed at Marc‘s expression. “I think you‘re going to like it.” He slid by, and Marc choked on his coffee when Sawyer‘s fingers trailed over his stomach. “Be right back,” Sawyer said in his ear.

Marc hid in the kitchen for several minutes after Sawyer left, reviewing the most boring details of the renovation contract in his head. Materials, pricing, timetable…. When he‘d wrestled his body back under control, the obvious, which he‘d managed to ignore before now, hit him. If he reacted this way every time Sawyer came near him, he‘d never make it through the project without someone finding out. His stomach rolled. It would‘ve been better if they‘d held to Sawyer‘s rules about hiding and deception, but in the end, the ball was in Marc‘s court. He just had to pull his head out of his ass. Sawyer had made that clear enough. Foisting off his lack of control on Sawyer wasn‘t fair. He set his mug down too hard, sloshing it onto his fingers. “Fuck.”

“Yo, Marc.” Rick ducked his head through the kitchen door. “Got a sec?”

“Yeah.” He swiped a paper towel through the mess, rinsed his cup, and followed Rick into the hall. “Problem?”

“Not really. You okay?”

Marc‘s heart skipped a beat, then sped ahead twice as fast. “Yeah. Why?”

“Just wondering.” Rick slung his drill over his shoulder. “Is it bad to change the plan on the morning of the first day?”

“Depends on how much it costs.”

Rick grinned and gestured between the two of them. “See? Simpatico. Not a cent. Come on. Let me show you my brilliance.”

Admitting Rick‘s plan was brilliant was out of the question. Nobody would ever hear the end of it. But Marc did approve of the suggested changes, and everyone else agreed. Flexibility was the name of the game when it came to their craft.

Sawyer appeared thirty minutes later, looking damp and smelling like soap, and Marc escaped outside to unload the lumber from Rick‘s truck before someone caught him staring. His reprieve lasted ten minutes. “Hey, there you are.” Sawyer leaned over the truck bed and helped slide the next piece of wood onto the growing pile on the ground. “Ready for your big surprise?”

“I won the Powerball?”

“Better.”

Wary, Marc watched Sawyer circle the truck to stand beside him. “Better? Really?”

“Oh, come one. What would you do with yourself all day if you had millions of dollars? I bet you’d still be knee deep in sawdust.”

Marc supposed that was true enough.

“Come on.” Sawyer jerked his head toward the house. Left with no valid reason to refuse, not that he would‘ve, Marc grabbed his tool bucket and followed. Tim ignored them as they passed through the foyer and up the stairs, but Reba shot them a curious glance. They climbed to the second floor, then around the landing to the next set of steps. On the third floor, Sawyer stopped and pointed to the wainscoting that ran the length of the hall. Marc arched an eyebrow, and Sawyer rolled his eyes. He bent down and tapped one of the panels. “This one‘s hollow.” He bounced on his toes like a five-year-old. “Let‘s pry it open.”

“Easy,” Marc said. “You don‘t pry century-old cherry paneling.”

“No?”

Marc sighed and elbowed him to the side. The piece Sawyer had found was out of place. Enough so that he could be on to something. Marc chewed his lip while he pressed at the edges of the wood. Sawyer‘s breath tickled his ear. “Is there, like, a secret lever or something? Maybe a trap door?”

“Good thinking, Shaggy.” Marc ducked away from Sawyer‘s warmth. “Why don‘t you and Scooby go look for clues.”

He escaped Sawyer‘s huff of laughter by sliding a few feet down the hall and peering over the banister. Rick and Reba‘s voices drifted up from two floors below. Karen yelled for Tim. A power drill sprang to life.

“Relax. We‘re alone.”

Marc scowled over his shoulder. “We‘re hardly alone.”

“If we find the passageway”—Sawyer moved behind, closing Marc in with a hand on either side of the railing— “then we‘ll be alone.”

“Just you, me, and the mice. How could I resist?”

“My house doesn‘t have mice.”

Marc burst out laughing. “Okay. Whatever you say.”

“It doesn‘t.” Sawyer frowned when Marc turned in his arms. “Does it?”

“Probably not,” Marc conceded. “But if we do find something, I can guarantee it isn‘t going to qualify as a romantic getaway.”

Sawyer grinned, hooked a finger in Marc‘s belt, and pulled him close. “Don‘t need anything fancy.”

“Okay.” Marc drew a shaky breath. “I‘ll take your word for it.”

“You won‘t need to. If we find what we‘re looking for.”

Sawyer moved away, and Marc steadied himself on the newel post. The next few minutes passed in silence, Marc examining the length of wall they‘d identified and Sawyer hovering, obliterating every hope Marc had of concentrating. He found what he was searching for in the end, but chalked it up to dumb luck rather than experience. Especially as Sawyer‘s hands had begun to wander, sliding up and under his shirt.

“God.” Marc‘s head fell forward against the wall as Sawyers fingers roamed over his chest. “Stop. I found it.”

“Found what?” One hand fell to his waist. More light touches followed, teasing around the button of Marc‘s jeans.

“The room. Passageway. Whatever it is. I found it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, so stop for a minute so I can think.”

Sawyer‘s fingers fell away. “Can we get in?”

“Don‘t know.” Marc retrieved a small crowbar from his tool bucket. “That‘s going to depend on how long it‘s been closed up. I bet it swung open pretty easily at one time, but who the hell knows how long ago that was. I wonder if your grandfather even knew it was here.”

“If he did, he never said anything to me.”

“It‘s not exactly the kind of place you want kids snooping around.”

“I guess.” A boyish grin crept over Sawyer‘s face. “So can you open it?”

“I think so. Might take a little work.” He showed Sawyer the crowbar.

“I‘m sure you said not ten minutes ago that we weren‘t going to use unnecessary force.”

“It‘s not unnecessary. And I know how to be careful.”

Sawyer wrinkled his nose. “Oh, thanks.”

“Don‘t take it personally.”

Marc fit the edge of the bar under the raised molding and lifted, then slid it a few inches right and lifted a bit more. “You‘ve got to ease it open,” he said, talking mostly to himself.

“I‘ll keep that in mind.”

Marc‘s hand slipped. “Think we could lay off the innuendo for a few minutes?”

Sawyer leaned close enough to whisper in his ear. “What innuendo?”

Marc elbowed him away. “Back off. I‘m working.”

“I know, and I can‘t get enough of it.”

Marc tested the panel. It wiggled. “Meaning?”

“I like to watch you. You know, when you‘re all into your job.”

Marc met his playful smile. “You‘re very odd.”

“But sexy.”

Marc fit the bar back under the wood. “Don‘t forget modest.”

“Hey.” Marc looked up, and Sawyer shot forward and kissed him. It held all the intensity of their first, but none of the frustration, and for all its brevity, it still left Marc breathless and dizzy. Sawyer‘s hand fastened to the nape of his neck, securing him, but Marc nearly toppled over anyway when Sawyer‘s tongue darted out to trace his own. The crowbar slipped out of his hands and banged to the floor.

Sawyer scooped it up and handed it back to him. “You okay?”

Marc‘s reply was lost in the buzz of Rick‘s saw, but his sudden tension must have been obvious. Sawyer squeezed his hand. “Okay,” he said. “Let‘s open this thing.” It took several more minutes with Marc working the edges, but the panel gave perfectly without any damage.

Sawyer whistled. “I‘m impressed.”

“Wait until you see what‘s on the other side.” They each grabbed a side of the panel and lifted it away, resting it against the opposite wall. Marc pulled a flashlight out of his tool bucket, crouched down, and shined it in the dark space.

“Okay, so far I‘m unimpressed.” Sawyer laid his chin on Marc‘s shoulder. “Is there more?”

Marc ignored the question. He ducked lower and fit his shoulders through the small opening. A gentle, musty breeze rustled his hair. About two feet below was a small landing, no more than thirty-six inches in diameter. A set of rickety wood steps dropped off to the right and descended into the gloom. Marc pulled back out and grinned. “Ready for a little adventure?”

“Yeah.” Sawyer rubbed his palms together. “Bring it on.”

“Grab the lantern out of my bucket.”

“Nope. That‘s just one more thing to carry. You‘ve got a flashlight. Let‘s live on the edge.”

“That‘s what you‘ll be doing. I don‘t see a railing. Stay behind me.”

Sawyer steadied Marc’s shoulders as he got ready to crawl through. “I’ll refrain from my usual innuendo.”

Marc pushed his feet into the dark hole. He slithered inside, then stood up, keeping one hand on the wall. Cobwebs brushed his face, and he swung his arm in a wide arc to clear the way. “Be careful.”

“I will if you will.” Sawyer crawled through after him, Marc guided him to stand, and they crowded together on the tiny landing. Sawyer‘s hand caught the edge of his sleeve. “Seriously, Marc,” he said, all humor gone.

They were alone, and it was dark, so Marc curled his fingers over Sawyer‘s and squeezed. “Don‘t worry.”

“Famous last words,” Sawyer mumbled.

On the third floor, the opening between the walls was narrow, but dry. Marc filed that fact away for later and set his foot on the next riser, then smiled when it held his weight without bending. No rot whatsoever. “So far so good.” More warm air danced over his face and something crawled up the side of his neck. He reacted without thinking, whipped his hand out to brush it away, and realized his mistake too late to save himself. Careening off balance, he scrambled for a handhold. The flashlight slipped from his fingers, its spinning descent illuminating just how far it was to the ground, but it was too late. He was falling.

“Marc!”

Marc reached blindly, connecting with Sawyer‘s hand just as his feet slipped off the step. He went weightless for a moment, then jerked to a stop. Sawyer gave a grunt of pain. “Hang on!” An inch at a time, Sawyer pulled until Marc was able to swing his foot onto the steps.

“Got it,” Marc grunted. He clawed his way back onto the landing and collapsed in a messy sprawl, panting. Above, Sawyer cursed under his breath. He held Marc‘s hand tight.

“Okay, I‘ve seen enough,” he said. “Let‘s get out of here.”

Marc‘s laugh devolved into a hacking cough. “Where‘s your sense of adventure?”

“At the bottom of this fucking hole, with your fancy flashlight.” His grip turned painful. “Jesus, Marc.”

“I‘m fine.” There was a tremble in Sawyer‘s voice that cut through Marc‘s residual panic. He scooted to the edge and looked over.

Sawyer hissed and grabbed his shirt. “What are you doing?”

“Relax. I just wanted to see the flashlight.” Marc peered into the dark. “It looks like the shaft goes all the way to the basement.”

Sawyer poked his face over Marc‘s shoulder. “It sure looks a lot deeper than thirty feet.” His breath tickled Marc‘s ear. “Do you think these stairs go all the way down?”

“Only one way to find out.” He reached out, and his hand found Sawyer‘s stomach. Unable to resist, he snuck underneath his shirt and scratched his fingers across warm skin. “You up for it?”

“Now that‘s just reckless.” Even in the dark, Sawyer‘s frown was obvious.

Marc scrabbled around until his feet were underneath him, then crept up the steps, straddling Sawyer‘s legs. “I‘ll make it worth your while.”

“You‘re not the good boy you pretend to be, are you?” Sawyer asked, voice gruff. He grabbed hold of Marc‘s waist. “There, wouldn‘t want you to fall again.”

“That‘d be no fun.” Marc slid higher. Sawyer gave a couple of helpful tugs on his jeans, and in a minute they were face to face. Cozy, but not ideal. “Not the place to be distracted,” Marc said.

“No shit.”

Rather than move past, Marc stretched out, coaxing a growl of approval from Sawyer‘s throat. Suddenly the air was too thin. His shoulder ached from the fall, and the rough wood dug into his elbows, but Sawyer‘s body fit beneath him perfectly. “Fuck,” he whispered, rolling his hips.

Sawyer‘s head clunked backward onto the step above. “Okay,” he said, trying to twist away. “Enough.”

Marc slithered down until he was free of the jumble of Sawyer‘s legs. “So, what‘s the verdict?” he asked, staring up into the dark. “Keep going?”

“Are you going to fall again?”

“No.”

Unease filled Sawyer‘s voice. “I‘d feel better if we had a light.”

Marc thought for a moment. “Okay. Hang on. I‘ll be right back.”

“Do you want me to move?”

“Just stay put for a second.”

Marc crawled up and over Sawyer, ignoring the other man‘s huff of surprise, then reached through the opening to snatch the LED lantern from his bucket. He sacrificed his belt to rig a sling, then hung the light over the drop, beam pointed downward. The stairs continued down and out of sight. Marc counted three additional landings and one possible side passage close to the bottom.

Sawyer whistled. “Much better. Should’ve done that the first time.”

“Wouldn‘t have been as much fun.”

“Right,” Sawyer drawled.

Marc contemplated crawling back over Sawyer to take the lead. The idea was far more attractive than it was safe. “You first this time,” he said. “Slow and careful. Stay low. Test each riser before you put your weight on it.”

“Got it.”

They traveled down and around the twisting staircase. Another two turns brought them to a second landing. “Another way in?” Sawyer asked.

“Good chance.” But where the hell were they? Marc pulled up a mental map of the house and counted the turns they‘d taken. “Best guess is the small bedroom on the second floor.”

Silence for a moment, then, “The one with that cherry armoire?” Sawyer asked.

“Think so.”

They continued down. At the next landing, Sawyer stopped, then motioned Marc closer. Marc slithered down next to him. “Hey,” Sawyer breathed, nuzzling his neck.

Goose bumps broke out over Marc‘s skin. “Did you need something?”

“Loaded question. Check it out.” Sawyer pointed straight down.

Marc squinted into the gloom and realized he could see the bottom. Diffused light from above gave the impression of a large open space, maybe fifteen feet below where they sat. The little boy in him started jumping and clapping.

“My house is the coolest,” Sawyer said, awed, and Marc burst into laughter. Sawyer reached out, finding Marc‘s arm in the dark. “Shh. Listen.”

Marc strained his ears, then jumped when Rick‘s voice boomed through the space. He was right on the other side of the wall. Marc racked his brain. What room did Rick say he‘d be working in? “We‘re behind the dining room,” he whispered in Sawyer‘s ear.

“Hey, Reba,” Rick said, his words echoing through the shaft. “What‘s up with Marc?”

Marc tensed at his name, and one of Sawyer‘s arms slid around his back.

“What do you mean?” Reba replied.

“Haven‘t you noticed how weird he‘s acting?”

“No,” came Reba‘s clipped reply.

“Well, I have. Especially around—”

“Okay, listen. I‘m not into talking about people behind their back.”

Rick hooted. “Since when?”

There was a small crash. Rick‘s yelp of pain made Marc smile. “You deserved that,” Reba said. “Now mind your own business and do your job. Is that too much to ask?”

“Slave driver. Where is Marc, anyway?” The voices moved off.

“Time to go back?” Sawyer asked.

“Yeah.”

The return trip took half as long as the descent. Marc lifted himself shoulders first through the opening and onto the floor, then collapsed on his back. Sawyer tumbled after him, laughing when he landed on Marc‘s chest. “Oops. Sorry.”

“Yeah right,” Marc grumbled, eyes still closed against the bright light.

“You okay, boss?” a voice asked.

Marc‘s eyes shot open. Tim sat at the top of the stairs, one leg bent, the other stretched out across the top riser, mouth turned up in the beginnings of a smile. The familiar panic rose in Marc‘s chest. Sawyer saved him. He rolled off of Marc and into a sitting position. “Tim, your boss is reckless and doesn‘t always think straight.”

Tim‘s lips twitched. “That, I do know.”

Whatever awkward conversation was about to follow, the ring of Marc‘s cell phone stifled it. Sawyer cleared his throat, stood, and brushed the dust and cobwebs from his jeans. Tim smirked at the both of them. Marc‘s good-natured reprimand died on his lips when he checked the caller ID. Sawyer was the first to notice his expression. “Everything okay?”

Marc shot him a look before answering the call. “Hello?”

“Marc? Is that you?”

“Who‘s this?” The sudden din of the saw drowned out the caller‘s response. Marc moved into the nearest bedroom, shutting the door behind him. “Sorry, I didn‘t hear you.”

“It‘s Hank, May‘s neighbor. Hank Cutler.”

“Mr. Cutler.” Marc pressed a hand to his stomach. “What—? Is something wrong?”

In the background, he heard Aunt May, the timbre of her voice leaving no question as to her mood. “Quiet, May,” Hank grumbled. “Well, Marc, your aunt says no, but I think you might want to come on over and judge that for yourself.”

Marc barely heard May‘s angry response. He was already moving, out the door, past a concerned Sawyer and down the stairs. “What happened? Is she all right?”

“Found her lying on the drive out by the mailbox.”

“I was just enjoying the sun!” Aunt May screamed from the background. “Stop alarming the boy.”

Hank sniffed. “She was having trouble breathing and was confused when I first got to her.”

“Hank, you interfering old coot” Your next batch of brownies is getting Miralax in it. The extra-strength stuff.”

“‘Course,” Hank continued, deadpan, “she seems all back to normal now.”

“I‘m on my way. Ten minutes.” Marc stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The pain in his stomach had grown. His pulse pounded in his ears.

“Marc?” Sawyer put a hand on his back. “Everything okay?”

“I‘ve got to go check on my aunt.”

“What‘s wrong?” Reba filed into the foyer, Rick on her heels.

Marc took a deep breath. “Nothing. Everything‘s fine.” He waved them off. “I‘m going to run over to Aunt May‘s for a sec. Be right back.”

Rick‘s eyes narrowed. “She okay?” he asked, voice uncharacteristically gentle.

“It doesn’t sound serious. Uh.” Marc struggled to focus. The bed of his truck was full of lumber and tools. “Rick, you want to help me unload—”

“No.”

Everyone swiveled to look at Sawyer. “I‘ll drive you over. That way you‘re not wasting time fussing with the truck or taking anything these guys need.”

“Are you sure?”

“He‘s sure.” Reba shooed them forward. “Go on. Call and let us know everything‘s okay.”

“We will,” Sawyer said, taking charge. He gave Marc a firm but gentle push out the door.

“Give me your keys,” Marc said as they jogged down the front steps.

Sawyer shook his head. “No way. You‘re shaking like a leaf.”

Dismayed, Marc realized it was true. He pressed his lips together. “Fine. Don‘t drive like an old lady, okay?”

Sawyer let Marc‘s irritation soar over his head. He slammed the Explorer into gear and kicked up a cloud of dust as he accelerated out of the driveway. He drove too fast, just shy of the recklessness he‘d accused Marc of, and soon they were pulling into May‘s wide gravel drive. Hank was waiting on the porch. “Mr. Cutler.” Marc ran forward, but stopped at the bottom of the steps. “Is she okay?”

“Okay?” Mr. Cutler‘s bushy eyebrows drew together, and he raised one wrinkled hand to point at the door. “She threw me out!”

Behind Marc, Sawyer burst into laughter. Even Marc smiled. He shuffled up the steps to the front door. “Sorry about that. Thanks for calling.”

Mr. Cutler grabbed his cane. “You‘re welcome,” he said as he walked away. He mumbled something else that Marc didn‘t hear, but could guess at. One more victim of Aunt May‘s legendary temper. Her only saving grace was her skill in the kitchen.

He wasn‘t surprised to find the door locked. Knocking would be useless. He pulled out his keys and let himself in. “Aunt May?”

She appeared at the end of the hall, crisp white apron tied around her waist. “Go back to work! I‘m fine. Damn meddling people.”

“Aunt May.” Marc threw his keys on the foyer table, his temper getting the better of his fear. “Mr. Cutler said he found you lying on the driveway! You‘re not okay! Did you pass out? What the hell happened?”

Sawyer‘s hand on his arm stemmed the tirade. Without answering, May turned on her heel and retreated into the kitchen. When Marc tried to follow, Sawyer held him back. “Go easy, Marc. She‘s obviously upset.”

“She‘s not the only one!”

Sawyer shook his arm. “And she‘s embarrassed. You need to stay calm if you‘re going to get her to tell you anything.”

Marc made a serious effort to cap his anger. “Okay.”

“Okay.” Sawyer searched his face before letting him go.

Marc steeled himself with two deep breaths, then followed his aunt into the kitchen. Pots bubbled away on the stove—one water, the other something thicker. May stirred rhythmically, ignoring Marc‘s presence. The room smelled of ripe strawberries. Without speaking, Marc washed his hands, then ducked into the pantry for a bag of sugar. When he placed it on the counter, she nodded. “Thank you.”

“I love your strawberry jam,” he said, then placed his hand over hers.

She sighed. “I‘m fine, dear.”

“Really.”

“Yes.”

Marc measured sugar into a mixing bowl. “Is this the first time something like this has happened?”

“Don‘t know. Can‘t remember.” She doubled over with a cackle, but Marc didn‘t crack a smile. “Kids these days,” she said with a sniff as she returned to her stirring. “No sense of humor.”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“Suggest it again, and I‘ll poison you.” She scooped some of the simmering berry mixture into a food mill and began to crank. Marc took over after two turns.

“Is this the first time?” he repeated. Things he hadn‘t noticed before cinched the knot in his stomach tighter. The rip in the elbow of her blouse. The long run in her hose, and the smear of dried blood on her knee.

“Marc.” She took the mill from him and dumped the pulp and seeds into the trash. “You‘re making a mountain out of a molehill. Now please go back to work.” She glanced over his shoulder. “Sawyer?” Marc started at the name. For a moment he‘d forgotten they weren‘t alone in the room.

“Yes, ma’am?” Sawyer came forward.

“That‘s your cue.”

Marc shot his aunt a dirty look, and Sawyer shook his head. “Sorry. I‘m with Marc on this one. I think you should go get checked out. Just to be safe.”

She threw her spoon, and it landed with a splat on the counter. “Oh, you two.” She took Marc‘s face in her hands. “I‘m fine. I promise. Don‘t worry yourself over me.” She patted his cheeks. “Now off you go. I‘ve got loads to do, and you‘re putting me behind.” Humming, she turned back to her strawberries.

Subject closed. Just like she‘d been doing to him since he was a kid. For the first time, Marc resented his aunt‘s bullheadedness. Pale and silent, he trudged to the car and slouched in his seat while Sawyer steered the Explorer back down the driveway. “She‘s going to be fine.”

Marc shook his head. “You don‘t know her. She won‘t go to the doctor. She hates them.”

“I know the type.” Sawyer pulled off the road, under the drooping limbs of a huge maple.

“What are you doing?”

“Just giving you a minute.”

“I‘m fine.”

“Okay.” But he didn‘t start the car again, and Marc didn‘t push it. He laid his forehead against the glass. A moment later, Sawyer‘s hand settled on his knee. Marc latched onto it.

“Is there someone you can call? You know, to help convince her she should get checked?”

Marc shook his head. “There’s only me. Me and her.”

“What about your parents?”

“My—?” Marc‘s anxiety bled out in a harsh laugh. “Not likely. I‘m sure it wouldn‘t fit into their itinerary. I’m not even sure where they are, let alone how to get a hold of them anyway.”

Sawyer gave his knee a gentle squeeze, then pulled on their joined hands until Marc curled toward him and sank into the offered embrace. There was nothing of their previous encounters in the closeness. Only comfort and support. Eventually, Marc straightened and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Okay, let‘s get back to work.”

“You sure?”

Marc chewed his bottom lip. “Yeah.”

“She‘s fine, Marc.” Sawyer started the car. “Try not to worry.”

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 2/23/2023 at 3:45 AM, jtpawlik said:

I hope that this story has many, many, many chapters before it is done. I am absolutely loving it so far. 

Thank you!

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On 3/1/2023 at 8:29 PM, weinerdog said:

I hope ,I hope,I hope I'm wrong but I think Aunt May would have to have a more serious accident before she'll go to the Doctor.

You can argue Marc has a little Aunt May in him after almost falling from the stairs they continued on the secret passage

Clumsiness is hereditary. True Facts. 🤣

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So beautifully written!  I do agree with all the comments about Aunt May and Reba and Tim.  And now, on to the next chapter!

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Who puts in a staircase, even a hidden one, without a railing? Given it's a relatively narrow space, it'd be easier to make the stairs fill the space.

Aunt May reminds me of one of my aunts. I can still hear her 'I'm just fine' in my head.

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I have to agree with my fellow readers who have commented that both Reba and Tim are on to Marc and Sawyer. Reba is already running cover for them. Tim has been a dark horse to date; methinks he might be an equal opportunity lover like Bruce. 

The secret staircase would stay a secret if it were up to me to explore it. No amount of curiosity would make me overcome the claustrophobic confines of the staircase. 

Aunt May is being very foolish, but at her age (I am guessing she is  in her 70's) she has the right to be if she so chooses. Hank found her passed out near the letterbox on her back and confused. I suspect she either is having attacks of vertigo (hideous believe me) or she had a mild stroke. If the latter, it could be a warning of further strokes to come, one of which could be fatal. I have to wonder if she may know more about her health than she is revealing too. 

@Libby DrewI felt somewhat claustrophobic when reading of Marc and Sawyer's descent into the lower floors of the house. The tension was palpable for me, even the jesting between Marc and Sawyer was not enough to ease the tension. Fortunately they came out alive, without having encountered any were creatures or vampires (perhaps that is a plot line for a later chapter).

 

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