To read about the first book in the series, click here. They are stand-alones and do not have to be read together.
Stephen has spent years being someone he isn’t, out of guilt and a desperate need for acceptance. Getting away from everything and everyone seems like the solution until he meets someone who makes him forget about his own problems. Gregory lives with burns and scars from a car accident, just like Stephen’s twin brother, and he hides away in the woods to protect himself. Stephen only wants to be his friend, but the more time they spend together, the more he longs to explore the feelings this damaged man inspires.
Stephen spotted Gregory walking through the woods and hurried to catch up with him. He hadn’t seen him at all the day before and wanted to invite him to dinner. He’d brought way more food than he would need, and he had two steaks thawing in the fridge.
“Hey, Gregory?” Stephen called.
Gregory looked up and paused. He waved and began walking over. “Hi,” he said. “Are you enjoying your stay?”
Stephen nodded. “Yeah. I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me. I’ve got a couple of steaks thawing. I’m here to get away from stuff, but I’m used to being around people and all. The quiet’s great, but…” He trailed off, pressing his lips together. “Rambling again.”
“No, you’re fine.” Gregory shifted his weight. “Sure. I’d love to. Can I bring anything?”
“Nah, just you. I’ll do some potatoes and green beans as well.”
“That sounds good.”
Stephen noticed that Gregory didn’t maintain eye contact long. “It’s nice out today. Seems odd snow was predicted. I saw a few flakes the day I got here, but it didn’t seem to stick at all.”
Gregory looked up at the clouds. “The sun’s warming everything up, but once it goes down, I think the temp will drop pretty rapidly.” He shrugged. “I love the cold. Always have.”
“It was nice and brisk this morning. The trees seem to keep the wind from biting too much.” We’re talking about the weather! This is ridiculous. You can do better than this. He cleared his throat. “You headin’ down to the pond?”
“Yeah. There was a fox cub there yesterday. It was hurt, but I couldn’t get it to come out of the log it had climbed into. If the mother didn’t come for it, I’m gonna call animal services.”
“Aw, poor thing. You want some help?”
Gregory’s eyebrows went up. “Would you mind? That’d be great.”
“Not at all.”
They walked down, and Gregory approached a big log. He looked inside, but then he shook his head. “It’s gone.” He scanned the area. “Hopefully it made it to safety.”
“Is there lots of wildlife roaming around in the winter? I saw a rabbit the day I got here.”
“Yeah, there are lots of rabbits. They don’t hibernate. The foxes don’t either. They all just stay close to home and try to conserve energy. When it snows excessively, I spread some feed a local vet recommended.”
“That’s nice,” Stephen said, smiling. “You’re such a sweet guy.”
Gregory stared a moment, and Stephen bit his lower lip. “I can explain why I said that.”
Gregory shook his head. “I’m not going to object to being called sweet.”
“No, it’s just, well, my brother … we’ve had our problems. He really sort of went to the dark side, so to speak, after his accident.”
“You were assuming I’d be more prickly?”
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Gregory shrugged. “I don’t blame you. I was a bit defensive when we met. I’m sensitive at times, but I don’t take it out on others. My dad did that. I promised myself I never would.”
“What did he do?” Then he realized what he’d asked. “Whoa, sorry. That’s so nosy. You don’t have to tell me.”
“It’s no big secret to me. He worked in construction, and he lost a leg. He’d dropped out of school real young, so he had nothing to fall back on. He became very bitter. Drank himself to death. He was good man, but he handled his problems poorly. Very poorly.”
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” Stephen moved closer. “Really I am.”
Gregory looked into his eyes a few seconds, and Stephen again noted how bright they were. “Thanks.” The side of his mouth lifted, just a little. “At least you don’t dump sad stories on people. Rambling’s better any day.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Gregory sat down on the log. “So, how old was your brother when all this happened?”
“We’d just turned seventeen. Senior year of high school. He finished up through some homeschool program. Had lots of surgeries. Then buried himself in first college and then work.” Stephen took a deep breath and sat down before letting it out slowly. Sound familiar? He tried to ignore the voice nagging him in his head. “Our mom died in the accident. It fucked us all up.”
“Really? That’s awful.”
Stephen almost spilled his guts about how his mistakes had caused the accident, but he held his tongue. Dominic no longer blamed him, but he still blamed himself. He liked this guy a lot and didn’t want to air all of his dirty laundry just yet. He paused, mulling over his realization. It had been a really long time since he’d liked someone right off the bat, and he wondered for a moment. You’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about this guy’s eyes the last two days. He shook himself and said, “Yeah. But it was a long time ago.”
“My accident was four years ago. I woke up in the hospital, and the first thing I saw was a pile of suitcases. My boyfriend had dropped them off. We’d just moved in together, but he changed his mind once he saw me. So I moved back here. It’s easier to have me close anyway, so—”
“What a shit! He just kicked you out? Didn’t even break up with you? Or offer to help? He could’ve broken things off but still been a decent enough fucking person to try to help you through something like this.” He shook his head, fuming. “God damn it, I hate people. This is why I’m single and fucking alone and don’t do anything but work. Why try to be good with people? Hardly anyone’s worth it!”
Gregory touched his hand. “Hey, don’t say that. Lots of people are worth it.”
The warm hand rubbing his really got Stephen’s attention. He placed his other one on top of it. “That was so rude. I’m sorry.”
Gregory gave him a full smile this time. “Don’t be sorry. It was kind of…” He trailed off this time, pulling his hand away.
“Kind of what?”
Gregory looked down at the ground. “I was gonna say, uh … sexy.”
“Can’t say anyone has ever called one of my outbursts sexy.”
Gregory slowly turned his gaze back up. “I’m assuming you’re straight, though? I hate it when people assume, but…” He shrugged again.
Stephen opened his mouth, but then he closed it.
“Is the question hard?” Gregory blinked at him.
Laughing, Gregory asked, “Why do you need to think?”
Stephen swallowed. “Because you have really nice eyes, and I was disappointed I didn’t see you yesterday.”
“I stayed in yesterday. Felt like I’d been kind of rude to you.”
“You weren’t. I was staring, and I know how people can be.” He dug out his cell phone. “I know I was kind of awkward the day I got here, but really, here’s a picture of my brother Dominic.” He found the photo and showed it to Gregory.
Gregory took the phone and studied the picture of Dominic and Sophia. “The car exploded. Right?”
“Yeah. He was trying to save our mom.”
“You’re right. Our scars are really similar. The flames … they kind of blew right across my face as they exploded out.” He handed the phone back. “He’s still pretty hot, though, for an old guy.”
Stephen caught a light twinkle in Gregory’s eyes. He felt grateful the guy was trying to lighten the mood. “Old, huh? How old are you?”
Gregory linked his hands across his knees. “Thirty-four.”
“That’s nine years. It’s nothing.”
After a long pause, Gregory said, “You think my eyes are nice, huh?”
Stephen wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. “Yeah.”
“But now you’re getting freaked out because you told me that.”
“No, no, not at all.”
Gregory shook his head. “It’s okay. If you’re gonna be curious, you at least want to do it with a cute little twink.” He stood up. “I need to go check in with the office. But what time for dinner?”
Stephen felt lost. How could Gregory segue so casually? He didn’t know what to say or do. “About six, I guess.” He stood up as well. “I feel like I’ve offended you. I like you. A lot.”
“I like you, too.”
“But yeah, I’m not gay.”
Gregory studied him a moment and nodded. “I get it. Liking my eyes doesn’t make you gay any more than me thinking a girl is pretty makes me straight. Don’t worry about it.” He walked off, waving over his shoulder. “See ya at six.”
“Yeah. See ya.” Under his breath, he said, “Don’t worry about it? You don’t know me that well yet.” He sank back down to the log, feeling even more lost, especially since now he found himself thinking about that genuine smile Gregory had given him a few moments ago. Before he’d stuck his foot in his mouth yet again. It had made his eyes even more striking, and now Stephen really couldn’t stop thinking about them.