Isabel meets Derek at exactly the wrong time… or is it exactly right?
Can Isabel return this year for a refund? Because it sucks. Her editing business would be paying her bills just fine… if her ex-boyfriend wasn’t blackmailing her. Of course, if her conservative family wouldn’t disown her for being bisexual, her ex couldn’t blackmail her in the first place. Sadly, she hasn’t invented time travel to un-make the mistake that created this mess.
Derek has a good life. Mostly. He’s an out bisexual man with a successful business and a loving queer found family. But he’s almost forty, living alone is getting stale, and yet dating seems pointless since nobody’s ever found him exciting enough to build a life with. Given he’s now doing zero-creativity craft kits to pass the time, he suspects they’re right. Maybe he should get a dog.
Isabel isn’t holding auditions for a rescuer, and she wouldn’t have expected Derek, a gorgeous, gentle man with his own history of family rejection, to fill the role. But Derek’s “boring” life is the calm harbor Isabel needs, and her affection helps Derek see himself in a new light. Their tentative connection might become the happily ever after they both deserve—if they can hold onto it through the fallout from Isabel’s recent romantic disaster.
A high heat contemporary queer M/F romance novel with a guaranteed HEA.
This book begins with someone using an outing threat for blackmail purposes, and gaslighting the main character. It’s heavy. Please review the blurb, and the content warnings if necessary.
Isabel’s boyfriend had definitely not been kidnapped from Tufts Medical Center by pirates to provide medical services for an injured crew member. He had not been taken hostage by an injured FBI agent escaping custody to clear his name. A dimensional portal had not opened in the Boston metropolitan area, disgorging an army of necromancers and forcing everyone within twenty blocks to shelter in trendy coffee shops.
Those were plots from books Isabel had copyedited, not real life, so obviously there was some other reason he wasn’t answering her calls or texts.
She made herself wait to check her phone again until she’d gotten her suitcase off the baggage carousel, a tough task in the post-Thanksgiving crowds. Still nothing from John. Should she call again? She didn’t mind taking the T from Logan to Cambridge, but the entire day of unanswered calls and texts was starting to freak her out.
She found a quiet corner and called her father instead, before he called to make sure her nonstop from Houston had landed safely. Which he totally would.
“Belle, is that you?” Boone Christopher’s warm voice was, as always, an anchor.
“Hi Dad. I’m on the ground, got my bag already. I’m about to head out for the train.” She still sounded like Texas and Alabama from being around her family for so long. That would take a few days up here to wear off.
“John’s not picking you up?”
“I haven’t heard from him.”
Her father made a concerned noise. “Honey, this is weird. Did you try Nashaly? She might know if something’s keeping him at the hospital, right?”
“She’s probably here at the airport by now.” Isabel desperately wished her best friend’s flight to Puerto Rico was one day later or her own flight home had been one day earlier. Nashaly’s husband Marco was a hospital resident with John, but Isabel didn’t want to bother her with this.
John was most likely tied up at work. It would explain why John’s parents hadn’t answered their landline. If he hadn’t gone to their place, they’d have gone away to their weekend home. To be honest, Isabel hadn’t relished the prospect of talking to them anyway. She tried so hard, but they’d never warmed up to her—which was sad, given they were likely her future in-laws.
Isabel took a deep breath so she could sound confident. Feel confident. “I’m sure he’s fine. Remember last year when that stomach bug ran through the residents? He barely had time to eat, let alone make phone calls. Patient care comes first, and he knows I can get home.”
“Baby girl, are the two of you…” Her father sighed. “No, you know what? I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry. Sure you don’t want a cab? I’ll send you money for a cab.”
Isabel heard what her father wasn’t willing to say: Are you and John having another rough patch? She realized she was playing with her earring and let it go. She’d bought this set off Etsy; each earring was three silver chains on a French hook with a little stack of blue beads at the end of each chain, and she had no idea how to fix any of it if she broke it. “We’re fine now. Really.”
“Okay, honey. Are you sure the train’s safe at this hour? You’ll get on a different car if anyone looks suspicious, right?”
Isabel tried not to laugh. Her car-dependent suburban Houston family was convinced the Boston transit system was only a bit safer than a riot, even in the middle of the afternoon. Isabel herself had adored it since the day she’d moved here for college. No more swerving around Houston potholes that could swallow a small car. She didn’t even need a car here. “I promise I will be extra, extra, especially careful.”
“Hope your sleep settles back down once you’re home. Call your doctor again if it doesn’t, okay?”
She doubted she’d have to. Travel and her parents’ next-door neighbors’ combo of early-morning yardwork and late-night holiday parties had set off this spike of insomnia. Now that she was home, she’d be strict about her routine, take her medication even though her new one made her stomach hurt, and that should beat it back down to reasonable levels. Better than ending up in the ER again with neurological symptoms from sleep deprivation.
“I will. Love you. Say hi to Mom for me.”
“Will do. Love you too, Belle.”
Then Isabel had no choice but to pull her bag along and head for the bus that would take her to the train. It was fine. Driving to the airport was a nightmare anyway.
Isabel got to the Silver Line stop as a bus to South Station was pulling away. She used the wait for the next one to text Nashaly. With Nashaly’s sister on bed rest for preeclampsia, expecting twins who had big brothers of two and five years old waiting to meet them, there was no telling how often Isabel and Nashaly would get to talk once she landed.
Isabel: On the ground, headed home. Miss you already.
Nashaly: Welcome back cowgirl! Can’t believe I’m leaving without seeing you.
Isabel: I have told you fifty times everyone in Texas doesn’t live on a ranch. What terminal are you in? I’ll wave.
Nashaly: Terminal C. ps LIAR I’ve seen your red cowboy boots.
Isabel: Did you pack the baby present or do I need to break into your apt and mail it myself?
Nashaly: I have it! So nervous for her and babies but also excited to spend time at home. TOO MANY FEELINGS.
Isabel: LOVE YOU. Safe travels. Send me pix of everything.
Nashaly: Will do xoxoxoxoxoxo
The train ride was uneventful, which gave her time to worry. She’d told her father the truth, though; she and John were okay. He was now taking the home-cooked meals she packed up for him instead of muttering that he’d eat in the hospital cafeteria. They were back to lazy brunches together on John’s rare days off, him smiling over his tablet while he read research papers and she copyedited sci-fi romance or tapped out drafts of marketing material. He’d packed her a snack for the plane; apple and carrot slices to offset the airport junk food he knew Isabel thought was the fun part of flying. A far cry from where they’d been when he’d walked around the corner at that party and found her drunkenly kissing somebody else.
A woman, as it happened. Not that it should have mattered.
John had taken her arm and hustled her out of there, his face and shoulders all hard-set lines, and Isabel had known she’d hurt him. If it had been the other way around, she’d have been heartbroken. There was no excuse, either. She’d been completely strung out from her worst-ever insomnia episode, so it had been stupid to drink to feel better.
She would warn past Isabel against that choice if she could get her hands on a time machine. If she calibrated the settings wrong and arrived too late, she would at least tell Past Isabel this: if you have to grab for something, anything, to feel good after months of fraying, stick with the alcohol. Don’t get another person involved. You’ll hurt John.
She’d done everything she could to fix things since then. Isabel had been trustworthy, open, honest.
Maybe too honest. Maybe it would have been easier if she hadn’t admitted she was bi. She’d never intended to tell him. She’d never intended to tell anyone; what if her parents ever found out? Isabel could have used the alcohol as an excuse, yes, and John had certainly latched onto that when they got home. You’re really drunk. You didn’t know what you were doing. Let’s put this behind us.
Instead she’d come out.
March through May had been tough. John had first refused to believe it, then lapsed into grudging acceptance or at least run out of motivation to argue with her. The summer had been easier, though, and now it was more than half a year later and things were fine. Absolutely fine.
The morning’s snow had already been shoveled from in front of their upscale apartment building. Isabel had been skeptical about them moving someplace so expensive. She’d lived on her own income for years now because she was sensible about money. With John paying sixty percent of the rent, however, there hadn’t been a solid reason to say no. Isabel had to admit she liked the perks. She still felt fancy every time the clerk in the lobby gave her a nod when she passed. The elevator was clean, as was the fourth floor hallway. All was as it should be.
Except when she opened the door to their apartment, everything was gone.
Isabel stood frozen in the doorway. If she were at the wrong apartment, her key wouldn’t have worked. If a miniature black hole had opened up and sucked everything in, surely it would have broken the windows. She tried to convince herself that burglars routinely took furniture and coffee table magazines and small kitchen appliances.
When she heard voices behind her in the hallway, she stepped into the apartment, pulled her suitcase through the door, and shut it.
The letter was on the kitchen counter, a white piece of printer paper, tri-folded. She read it, then read it again before she understood how the pieces fit together and her heart started pounding. When she closed her eyes, trying to remember to breathe, she could still see the important phrases.
not working out
confident you’ll handle the rent
if you’re not well
could tell your parents for you how sick you were
Isabel had never wondered whether paper would go through the garbage disposal, but she found out it did.
She’d never wondered how blackmail would feel either. Maybe it wasn’t blackmail, exactly, but the connections between all the sentences now burned into her brain were terrifying.
He was leaving her.
She got the fancy apartment’s rent payment in the breakup.
If she couldn’t keep up because she got sick again, he’d tell her parents all about that party.
Isabel didn’t understand. She loved John. She loved his dry-cleaned dress shirts hung up in order by color, the way he frowned a little when he read, and how he would always hold an umbrella to cover her even if it meant water sluicing down onto his back. She loved his sharp mind and his full concentration on her whenever she spoke, even in the middle of an argument. She loved his body moving with hers in bed, the way he sounded, the way he felt.
It was all gone now. She loved him, and he was gone. For a day while she’d worried if something terrible had happened to him, if he was sick or hurt, he’d been boxing up their whole life together and taking it away.
She called his cell again.
This time he picked up. “Isabel.”
He’d known exactly when her plane landed. He’d waited to answer the phone until now. He’d taken everything, and he’d left her that letter. That threat. Isabel wiped tears out of her eyes and realized her hands had started shaking.
“Hi,” she said, trying to sound as if this was all normal, as if they could be rational about this. “I… uh, I don’t understand.”
How could he be gone? How could he have said goodbye to her just days ago, and now they were over? How could he act like telling her parents everything about the party would be a favor? He knew they were deeply conservative.
“Isabel,” John said gravely. “Did you read the letter? After some time apart to think, I didn’t see a way forward for us.”
Time apart. Isabel had been in Houston for ten days. It had only taken ten days for John to stop loving her?
Isabel wiped away more tears. She should never have let him talk her into this lease. She shouldn’t have agreed to give away her bits of secondhand furniture and her Target-bought dishes when they moved in together. But she’d owned so little aside from books because she’d always lived with roommates who had stuff. Plus, when you were starting a life with someone, you merged households and triaged, and honestly his stuff was nicer. She should have considered what would happen if they didn’t make it.
She’d always assumed they’d make it. She’d wanted them to make it. John hadn’t wanted to get married until he was done with his residency, but Isabel had been willing to wait. They wanted the same things. Marriage, home, children.
She wanted those things with him.
“What’s the problem, exactly?” Isabel hoped against hope he’d say anything other than the thing she’d believed he’d accept if she gave him time. Maybe it was something else, something fixable. Maybe she hadn’t worked hard enough to rebuild trust. She could do better.
“Hold on a minute,” John said, dropping his voice as though someone nearby might hear. She heard a rustling like he was pulling a curtain or stepping through one. “All right. Isabel, it just can’t work between us with you still stuck on that one night. One event doesn’t have to define you.”
One event. As if her feelings, her crushes, everything she’d told him about, weren’t valid. Everything he’d said in the days after the party… You’re confused. Your medication wasn’t working. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. We have a good life, Isabel. There’s no reason to complicate it.
He hadn’t accepted it. Accepted her. He’d simply stopped talking about it. Yet Isabel had the urge to apologize, though for what she didn’t know. For being herself? For not lying? Isabel swallowed it down. “Okay,” she said, because what else could she say? “Okay. I understand.”
She waited for him to ask her one more time to take it back, to give her some sign he still cared, that losing her was hurting him even a little.
“So you’ll get the rent in on time, and if the movers accidentally took anything of yours, let me know and I’ll drop it by.”
She couldn’t fix things between them. They had to talk about the apartment, however. “Surely we can—” Isabel paused, because her voice was taking on an edge and her chest was tightening. It was hard to keep the phone in her hand. “Surely we can try to sublet from January through June, or—”
“I asked the property management if they could find someone to take over our lease,” John said, his tone businesslike now, “and they weren’t willing to do that. Our family lawyer says if a subletter does anything wrong or bails on the rent, it’s on us. Neither of us wants to take a credit rating hit over this, right, or lose the damage deposit?”
“No,” Isabel said, “Of course not, but if we could—”
“Look, I can’t be paying rent on two apartments. My parents are… going through something right now, so they can’t help. This way you don’t have to come up with first, last, and a deposit on a new place right away. December’s already paid, we paid last month’s rent when we moved in, and you can keep the entire deposit at the end of the lease to help with the transition. I’ll cover one more month of your health insurance so you have time to change back to that association plan you were on, just don’t transfer money into my account for it, but that’s all I can do.”
Isabel’s hand went to her purse where her anti-insomnia meds were. She tried to remember how many pills she had left and how soon she could refill them. They’d gotten a Massachusetts domestic partnership because his policy through work was so much cheaper.
What could she do? The lawyer who’d helped finalize her client contracts wouldn’t know anything about tenant law, but maybe somebody in her father’s law firm—
No. She couldn’t ask her father anything. She couldn’t let him anywhere near this mess. She’d figure out the money somehow. John was right that having to move out with no notice would have been harder—though he could have given her some fucking notice and made decisions with her about who was going where. Marco had a couch he could have slept on in the meantime.
She’d never have expected this from him. She’d never seen it coming. Did she even know him at all?
“Thank you,” she said, as if it were a perfectly reasonable thing to thank someone for paying one month of your health insurance while more than doubling your rent. “Uh, the rest of your letter… I don’t see any need to bring my parents into this?”
Her father probably wouldn’t believe it at first. He wouldn’t want to. But her mother would say, Do you remember when I stopped her from spending so much time with that girl in ninth grade? They were too close, it wasn’t normal. She’d say, Do you remember her roommate freshman year? I knew she was going to be a bad influence.
Then Isabel’s father—who took her to get ice cream every year for her birthday, who sent her greeting cards with terrible puns, who’d sat beside her in church every Sunday morning until she left for college, listening to their minister talk about homosexuals and sin—her father would look at her and think, My daughter is one of them, and she would lose him.
John sighed. “They love you, Isabel. And I won’t be your emergency contact anymore; they should have the full picture of what happened. I mean, if you’re still struggling…”
She’d missed a few client deadlines and lost a couple of projects before she’d gotten her medication working. “I’m not. I’m fine.” He should know already. She worked from home. She told him about her work.
“Then we should both be able to handle this, right? Rent goes in on time, neither of us end up with a black mark on our credit. And I’d expect neither of us needs to make this a public thing.”
Complicated, messy breakup gossip got you noticed. The only thing John Mackenzie Buchanan hated more than Boston drivers was being noticed. He achieved in exactly the right way but not too much, wore the right clothes but nothing too flashy, drove the right car but last year’s model, and made sure to get along with everyone. He would have been happier reincarnated as one of those moths that blended in with tree bark.
Isabel had found him calming. Steady. He’d wished she had a normal office job not involving books about ray guns or elves or passionate love affairs, or sometimes all three, but he’d said she was kind, and smart, and beautiful, and he was grateful for how she took care of him. Which she’d enjoyed doing, not only because her Alabama-born mama and Texas daddy believed women did those things, but because she’d truly liked it.
But it was over. She had to shove all of it into a mental closet, nail it shut, breathe deeply, and hope John interpreted the silence as Isabel considering her options.
Of which she had exactly none. If Marco and Nashaly knew what was really happening, Isabel had to believe their opinion of John would change. Marco and John were friends; they worked together every day. Isabel couldn’t even tell Nashaly when she got back and ask her not to freeze John out. He’d notice. He’d know why. And after this, Isabel had no reason to trust John wouldn’t do something about it. She had no reason to trust him at all.
“You’re right,” Isabel said quietly. She was surprised by how normal she sounded. “This is between us.”
“Great,” John said. “Goodbye, Isabel. I wish you the best.”
After she hung up, all she could do was stand there while a surge of anger washed away the panic. She wanted to kick the cabinets. She wanted to throw her suitcase across the room. She wanted to break a window. As the minutes ticked by, however, the anger bled away. In its place was the moment of truth. What John was doing wasn’t right. It was selfish and destructive.
But he was succeeding only because Isabel was lying to her family.
Isabel rested her forehead on the cold kitchen counter until she could breathe properly again, then went to the bedroom to unpack. Her grandmother’s small vanity and its chair were still there. A brand new twin mattress and box spring sat on a frame, with an unopened package of sheets on top.
Her clothes from the departed dresser were neatly stacked in several cardboard boxes. The rest of her possessions that had been in the living room were stored similarly.
Isabel gave herself the length of a shower to alternate crying and trying desperately to figure out next steps. She wanted to call someone. But Nashaly was on a plane and even after she landed, she was too perceptive. Isabel had barely pulled off lying about why she’d kissed a woman. Weird, right? I was really drunk. Now she’d have to lie again. She’d also have to tell her parents that she and John broke up, but she couldn’t tell them why; she’d have to make something up. More lies.
When she’d stopped sobbing, she couldn’t justify hiding in the shower anymore. She got out, dried off, got dressed, and turned the heat down, then started answering client emails as best she could. She couldn’t spin flax into any form of legal tender, and her supposed prince had decamped. There wasn’t going to be a crack in the basement’s concrete floor with a previously undiscovered precious mineral that would revolutionize the tech industry and make her fabulously wealthy. If something valuable was lurking under the laundry room, it wouldn’t belong to her anyway.
All Isabel had was herself.
She would just have to be enough.
Three Months Later
If Derek Rallison had five dollars for every time their Chicago client’s IT guy had insisted he could do everything on his own, Derek would have enough to buy… well, nothing he couldn’t afford anyway. Twenty-five bucks would have bought him a new craft kit to keep himself busy, though. Not another one with glitter; he wasn’t making that mistake twice.
The client’s IT guy had made his mistake more than twice, so he was out the door now. Derek was sending his company’s senior tech, Guang, to Chicago on Monday to fix the myriad problems the man had created. Sixty-three real estate agents had been promised easier scheduling, lead management, and customer follow-up once Derek’s company’s software was rolled out. If it had been done properly, they’d have it already. Thank goodness Guang had agreed to fly out there.
“Any other details we need to cover right now?” Guang asked everyone on the conference call. He glanced over at Derek silently, and Derek shook his head. The guy was amazing, he’d get this under control.
“I think we’re good,” the new IT lead for their client said, her voice tinny through the speaker. “We appreciate the quick response time, and we’ll start backing out the install so you can start fresh.”
“I’ll see you Monday,” Guang said. “We’ll get it working for you.”
Derek didn’t stay much past the flurry of hang-up noises. Just a quick thank-you handshake with Guang for traveling during possibly the worst month of the year for it. Hopefully late February wouldn’t decide to dump enough snow to ground flights either here in Boston or at the other end.
He expected a few tense moments whenever he was negotiating to buy a new property, but the software part of his real estate business wasn’t supposed to be this high drama. Chicago wasn’t even the first thing; it had been non-stop crises all day. He’d only just managed to close his office door behind him and flop into one of the upholstered armchairs by the window, however, when his assistant knocked and poked her head inside.
“Mr. Mayes is here, but you have the call about Kansas City in half an hour.”
Harrison was here? It wasn’t unknown for Derek’s best friend to stop by the building during the day, if he had a court case or client meeting downtown, but usually he texted first. Derek hauled himself back to his feet. “Thanks, send him in.”
She gave him a cheery nod and withdrew.
Harrison’s face lit up as he stepped in after her. He practically tackled Derek in a hug. Derek hugged back before letting go so he could scan Harrison’s face for danger signs, but the diminutive sandy-haired lawyer seemed more relaxed than Derek had seen him in a couple of years. His vacation must have worked.
“Derek,” Harrison purred, “you sexy fucker, who told me it was okay to spend two weeks away from your beautiful face?”
Harrison laughed. “Well yeah. Hawaii was amazing, by the way. You have to go. Like, tomorrow. Rick and I can find you a hot young thing and you can lie on the beach together away from this shitty weather.”
“The number of hot young things my life needs is zero, thanks.” He had a company to run.
Harrison groaned and flopped dramatically into the chair Derek had vacated. “I’m not talking about a relationship. I’m talking about lounging and enthusiastic sex. In Hawaii. Come on, Derek, you’re a handsome man in the prime of your life. There’s no reason we can’t find you someone pretty who wants to fly first class with you to paradise.”
A fourteen-plus hour flight with a stranger? He could only imagine how the conversation would sputter along and die. No one was that interested in development, sales, and support of software for real estate related businesses, and owning a growing number of light industrial and multi-family residential properties wasn’t a conversation starter. Nobody wanted to see fifty-four bad cell phone pictures from a high school kid’s most recent play, either, even if the kid was Derek’s godson, Harrison’s son Bryan, who was clearly amazing and wonderful.
In the worst case scenario, Derek would panic and explain how he bought a pre-boxed craft kit every other week for something to do in his condo when he’d run out of excuses to keep working, whatever the shop had new on the shelf. So far, he’d made two yarn-wrapped elephants, six tile refrigerator magnets, two stamped greeting cards he should probably send to his sister, four tubes of lip balm, and eight of these things called diamond paintings. (There were no diamonds or painting involved. You just punched colored rhinestones into pre-drilled holes to add texture to a picture on a canvas.)
Derek was used to being dull, but he was taking it to a whole new level with this hobby. Something creative like knitting might have been cool. Completing “a semi-finished product with detailed instructions and perfect color match” per the back of his latest diamond painting kit was not.
“I’m not going to Hawaii with anybody,” Derek said, “and I doubt you came by to talk about my love life. What couldn’t wait?”
Harrison let out a gusty sigh and made a sour face. “Rick needs surgery part two. They want to do it soon.”
Harrison’s husband Rick had possibly the flimsiest left shoulder in the history of human anatomy. “When?”
“Don’t know yet, but it will undoubtedly conflict with one of Bryan’s college visits like this last drama club trip conflicted with taking my gorgeous husband to an island paradise, and you probably heard what happened. My ex-wife certainly has the right to hate me, but I wish she’d stop taking it out on Bryan every time he gives her another chance.”
Derek winced and nodded. He’d gotten furious volleys of texts from Bryan during his conservative mother’s chaperoning, mostly about how he was never speaking to her again. Bryan coming out as pan at twelve hadn’t made their strained relationship any easier. Derek was glad Bryan had his dads. Derek hadn’t had anyone; he hadn’t even gotten to come out by his own choice.
Harrison sighed loudly and scrubbed his hands through his wavy hair. “Anyway, moving on! Would you be interested in Rick-sitting for the surgery? It’s fun. He starts talking once he wakes up but he can’t remember what he’s already said for more than a minute.”
The thought of Harrison walking around a college campus with Bryan while knowing Rick was going under the knife was not great. “Or I could take Bryan on the college trip. Is it D.C. next, Georgetown?”
Harrison’s eyes narrowed. “You’re trying to be our child’s favorite again, aren’t you?”
“I’m already the favorite. I’ve never grounded him from social media. Send me the dates and we’ll take the train down, unless he wants to fly.”
Relief flooded Harrison’s face. “You mean it?”
Derek thought he should be mildly offended. “Have I ever let you guys down? I just hope it’s not while Bill and Sophie are here.” Derek’s college roommate and his new wife’s honeymoon flight from Australia couldn’t be changed at this late date. Harrison would be seriously upset if he missed Bill on this trip; the guy barely made it back to the U.S. anymore.
“Yeah, me too. But thanks, seriously. Any chance you want to meet him at Comicopia tonight and make sure he doesn’t bankrupt me? He’s threatening to ride in with one of his friends.”
Visiting a comic shop with geeky teenagers sounded like a much better evening than Derek had planned, but he’d promised Gabriela a favor.
“Sorry, I’m working late and I’m busy afterwards. Tell him I’ll grab whatever’s in his subscription file and bring it next time I come out to the house.”
Harrison gave Derek a slow, dangerous smile. “Busy on a Friday night? With whom?”
That glint in Harrison’s eye was trouble. “You remember Gabi? I’ve been helping her renegotiate the lease on her club, and she wants me to come pick up the paperwork there so we can have a celebratory drink.” Derek was not looking forward to the noise or the crowd, especially because he knew from experience Gabi was likely to be late. She was a sweetheart, but she was stretched thin running multiple businesses.
Harrison made a face. “At a club on a Friday night? We’re too old for that. Oh wait, is she luring you there for a night of sensual dancing?”
“She’s monogamously and happily married.”
“Too bad, but that means you’re free tomorrow afternoon for coffee with Connor’s new commander? Firefighter, Derek. Fire-fight-er. You know Rick’s brother wouldn’t rec the guy if he was a tool.”
Oh for pity’s sake. Derek gestured at the door. “Goodbye.”
“Oh hell no, you are not ducking me on this. You have to get out and do something. See other humans.”
“I do plenty,” Derek said, which wasn’t quite true, but damn, he wanted this talk over without agreeing to a date. “I see my family multiple times per week.”
Harrison visibly softened. Derek’s only remaining biological family member who spoke to him was his youngest sister who lived in California. Harrison, Rick, and Bryan, however, were here.
When Harrison spoke again, he’d downshifted to quiet and kind. “We love you too, but we both know that’s not the entirety of what you want. You told me yourself after Craig left that you still want a partner. I know you needed time after that horrible one-two punch, but to be honest I think you’re stalling now. It doesn’t have to be the firefighter but come on, can’t we set you up? Rick and I know so many amazing people. We’d use a different pool for this than for the Hawaii thing, I swear.”
He meant well. Derek knew he did. And yeah, Derek had needed a hell of a lot of time to get over his on-again off-again boyfriend of eight years making the off part permanent, and his sister Marjorie’s murder three months later. He’d still been reeling from Craig’s final departure when his little sister Joy had called, crying so hard Derek could barely understand what she was telling him.
Craig had flown back from Switzerland for a week to attend the funeral with him. Derek had stayed at Harrison and Rick’s for a month afterwards, Joy with him for half of it. Then he’d done the therapy and the grief support groups and the sheer exhausted waiting you had to do before anything had color and texture again.
That richness of life had come back a while ago. Probably around two years after Marjorie died, and now it had been more than three. So yeah, maybe he was stalling.
However, Harrison and Rick knowing so many fascinating people was the problem. They knew people who ran marathons, started community gardens, led voter registration drives, or organized art exhibits. Derek simply wasn’t that interesting. On the upside, being uninteresting could easily mean a few first dates wouldn’t go anywhere and then Harrison might let it go.
But Derek was also thirty-eight years old and all his chances at a future with somebody special had slipped through his fingers so far. Was he willing to give up on finding a relationship for good, when it was something he’d always wanted?
No. Not yet.
However, he needed time to get ready for the idea of dating before he jumped in. “Give me a couple of weeks to get this Chicago client settled first.”
Harrison’s face lit up like it was Christmas or he was about to file a patent lawsuit. He even did a fist pump, which looked more than a little ridiculous from a guy in his early fifties in a lawyer-expensive three-piece suit. “We’re going to find you someone who won’t take a job in Switzerland after eight years together without asking you.”
Derek narrowed his eyes. This had not been an invitation to trash talk his ex, who was now a close friend, and Harrison should know better.
“Sorry,” Harrison said. “You know I adore Craig as a person. And that photographer was great, but you keep dating these people who don’t want what you want. We have to break the pattern, my friend. We need to make a list.”
That was one way of putting this off. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Harrison raised his eyebrows. “No, Mr. Procrastinating about this, make a list right now, with a witness. You’ve got to treat this like you treat your business. You wouldn’t invest in a property without evaluating it against some set of criteria, right? So why invest your time without a plan?”
As a lawyer, Harrison billed his time in six minute increments, so he was more sensitive to wasting it than the average person. Derek would appreciate that sensibility kicking in and hastening the end of the conversation so he could have time to let this decision sink in and figure out what he was looking for. Or maybe he could think of a few things now. Keep it simple.
“Someone who’s financially capable,” Derek said, hoping he didn’t sound like a jackass. Harrison got out his phone to take notes. “I don’t mind someone having limited resources or having screwed up once or twice, but I don’t want to throw cash down a black hole for someone who’s continually making bad decisions.”
Derek fished for another easy one. “Boston area. I don’t want to move.”
“And you want kids.”
That gave him a moment’s pause. Craig had said no to adopting, even an older kid, one of the many ways he and Derek hadn’t ever really fit no matter how much they’d loved each other. Craig was the chemistry Ph.D. who’d gotten his dream job in the perfume industry. He had self-designed tattoos inspired by molecules and looked fantastic in a disheveled suit and an untied tie, plus some killer shoes, after partying all weekend. Derek was the guy who did something with computers or was a real estate agent or something, who had never even pierced his ear, and who’d hoped to spend his Saturdays in a T-shirt and shorts playing catch with a little kid in the backyard.
“Yeah,” Derek said, and he didn’t much like how vulnerable it sounded. “Yeah, I do want kids. Ideally.”
“I know,” Harrison replied, “and you’d be a great dad.”
Derek tried to smile.
“Moving on,” Harrison said, “What about religion, diet, education, age? Asexual folks are welcome, right? Or aros if they’re interested in dating? Are you open to polyamory?”
All those were easier except the age range. “Ummm, twenty-eight to fifty-five-ish? I’m not choosy about the rest of it except I’d probably lean towards monogamy.” Something else occurred to him. “Harrison, I am dead serious about this. They have to be okay with me being bi. I’m not going to sit there listening to a woman ask if I would give her AIDS or a guy saying I haven’t been fucked well enough to know who I am.”
Derek waited for Harrison’s reaction. He and Rick often acted mystified when Derek got static from gay guys about his orientation, as if since they didn’t have a problem with him, it was unthinkable that other gay men did. Derek loved his friends, but he did wonder when they’d stop reacting as if this was a new phenomenon.
“On my honor,” Harrison vowed, a hand over his heart. “Only the bi-friendliest of souls. Two dates a week until we run out of candidates or you find someone worth dating further.”
“One date per week.” There was only so much rejection he could take.
Harrison started to argue, but Derek’s desk phone rang, so Harrison made the I’m zipping my lips gesture and gave him a quick hug goodbye before letting himself out.
Luckily, it was the sales director with some pre-updates for the Kansas City call, so Derek had something to think about other than what he’d just agreed to. He put on his reading glasses and opened the report she’d sent.
After the call ended, however, he realized he needed to fix his attitude. Harrison wasn’t asking him to approach random strangers in Boston Common. It would be either coffee or a meal with someone new, and they’d have friends or at least acquaintances in common. One date, then decide on whether a second date seemed worthwhile.
That wasn’t so complicated. And hey, maybe he’d find a good new restaurant along the way.
Derek: Doors open in 5, I’m here.
Derek: Should I go around to a staff entrance?
Derek: I paid cover. They checked my ID. I’m almost 40.
Derek: It’s 10:30.
Gabi: I’m so sorry! I got stuck at the restaurant. On my way as quick as I can.
Derek: Your restaurant is in Brookline and it’s Friday night.
Gabi: I can text somebody to comp your drinks.
Derek: Don’t worry about it. I’ll wait at the upstairs bar.
Gabi: YOU ARE ONE OF MY FAVE GUYS. Leaving here in two minutes I swear.
By eleven Derek had finished his soda and cranberry juice mix and was ready to go home and sleep. For one thing, it was as dark, loud, and crowded as he’d feared, and a lot of people had clearly pre-gamed and were sloppy drunk. He was older than anyone else at the upstairs bar by at least ten years, and the looks he was getting drove it home. He should have at least changed clothes; Craig had helped him pick out some appropriate club wear via a video call last year, “just in case.” Sadly, he’d ordered dinner in at the office so he could catch up with his California sales rep at the end of her day, and come straight here in his suit and tie. He was completely out of place.
The second thing seriously tempting him to bail was the presence of the gorgeous white woman at the bar. The universe was clearly laughing at him for resisting Harrison by putting a tall blonde in his path. She’d even tried to catch his eye a couple of times. But Derek was only here to meet Gabi.
Even so, damned if he could stop glancing the blonde’s way occasionally. She was tall, elegant, with a long fall of thick straight hair, and she kept playing with her left earring, this dangly thing made of silver chains and blue beads. Her icy blue dress punched his sexy office wear buttons in all the right ways—his kink only worked for him outside of an office setting, thank goodness. He could almost picture her dress rumpled and half-unzipped, except she was a stranger, so Derek would keep a lid on those thoughts. Those high heels, though…
Okay, apparently he still had a thing about shoes. Time to think about something else. He should have sent a courier for the paperwork and seen Gabi socially another time. Helping a friend didn’t have to mean hours getting your eardrums thumped to pieces.
Derek expected the blonde to head off to dance at some point, but by eleven thirty there was no sign of Gabi yet and the woman was still at the bar. By eleven forty-five Derek was starting to suspect, with a sinking feeling, that she was downing too many drinks too fast. In the hour Derek had been sitting here, she’d moved up and down the bar scoring those drinks from the mild, lonely type of guy, flattered by attention from a woman he could usually only fantasize about, society’s fucked-up attractiveness hierarchy being what it was. She wasn’t sticking to any of them for very long, but none of them seemed upset about it.
Hopefully that trend would continue, because he hadn’t seen anyone with her who seemed to be looking out for her. Also, something in the way she paid attention to those guys made Derek suspect she wasn’t only in it for the free liquor. The little touches, the way she stood. She craved the reciprocated attention as badly as the buzz. Could get dangerous, especially once all the alcohol slammed into her. He’d seen it before with his sister.
Derek texted Gabi one more time. He’d give her five minutes to respond before he headed home.
When he glanced back up, however, the blonde was heading right for him.
She was almost falling over in those shoes, her gait loose. Definitely drunk. Derek stood involuntarily as she got closer. She almost knocked into a girl holding a martini glass, but missed, and then she was right there.
“Hey,” she called over the music, leaning in so he could hear her. “Hi. Suit guy. What’s your name?”
“Derek. What’s yours?”
“Isabel,” she yelled back.
She sounded a little Southern, maybe, or Texan. Derek’s arm had slipped loosely around her back by reflex when she’d leaned in. Her hip was against his. He tried not to notice.
“Let me get you a cab, okay? You’ve probably had enough.”
Isabel shook her head firmly. “I haven’t.”
She was pretty up close, too. Her glossy hair fell down her back like a pale curtain. There were freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks.
Isabel’s arms went around his neck. “You’re really nice to look at. Buy me a drink?”
He hadn’t seen her act this forward with anyone else. She’d probably cringe in the morning remembering this. However, if he didn’t want her running into trouble and she wouldn’t go home yet, playing along would keep her safe for a while.
Yeah, Rallison, totally altruistic on your part.
But not completely selfish either. Right? He didn’t want to buy her a drink, so he needed a counter-offer. “Dance with me?”
Isabel leaned into him, laughing. “Or we could stay here.”
“One dance?” he asked, knowing asking a second time was the limit. Or maybe past it. He wasn’t trying to argue with her. “It’s been a while since I danced with anybody.”
Her arms still rested on his shoulders. She studied him for a second or two. “A dance,” she agreed. “Because you’re so adorable in that suit.”
Derek wanted to laugh — no one had ever called him adorable — but Isabel was backing away now and trailing her fingers down his lapels, smiling.
No one had looked at him like that in a long time either.
He motioned for her to precede him and she wound through the milling crowd between the bar and the dance floor. It had gotten crowded, so Derek stayed close and kept an eye on her balance. Isabel led him to a slightly clear spot of floor among the grooving and jostling twenty-somethings, then turned and waited.
Derek stepped close. He put an arm around her waist and she moved even closer, swaying to the anonymous techno. She was almost his height in those sexy blue heels he was trying not to notice.
One of Isabel’s hands slipped down to his chest, over his heart. She shifted so one of his legs was pushing between hers, to the limit of what her skirt would accommodate. He felt her lips against his neck, her breath, as if she was about to kiss him right over his pulse.
He wanted to keep her attention until he could pour her into a cab, and he was attracted to her, but it was too much. Derek shifted back, drew her arm up around his neck and held her like they were at a school dance. Like he was fifteen again with Eddie Fisch in his arms behind the gym at Homecoming, hearing INXS through the cracked-open windows and hoping no one would see them. He hoped his current plan worked out better than that one did.
He moved them to the fast song as if it was slow, but gave it a little slink. Isabel smiled more, either confused, charmed, or both. She let him lead, both of them swaying. When her head dropped down to rest on his shoulder, something in his chest went warm. A place he hadn’t felt anything for so long, either good or bad.
Something had healed up since the last time he’d had any reason to check.
He knew it wasn’t real. He wouldn’t find what he wanted in this club any more than Isabel would, but the music-fueled, touch-sparked imitation was… nice. Holding someone again, feeling their body shift in his arms, taking some of their weight. Derek imagined they were probably getting a few strange looks, but he didn’t much care. What he was doing felt too right.
Isabel gave him not just one, but four and a half songs before she finally pulled away. She kept his hand and laced her fingers through his. It was almost painfully good, that small, simple affection, but she was more unsteady now. Derek wondered how many she’d had.
“Let’s get a drink now,” she yelled over the noise.
Not happening. “I’ll put you in a cab, my treat.”
For a split second, Derek believed she’d say yes. She went still, then maybe sad, but then it was gone.
“Thanks for the dance!” With a little wave, Isabel weaved off into the crowd.
Nothing else to be done. Gabi hadn’t texted back; she must have gotten stuck somewhere. Derek could head home and crash. Maybe he’d scan Craig’s latest email first. Derek didn’t know the Geneva real estate market, but if having Derek look over Craig’s apartment options was reassuring, he was happy to help. They were overdue for a catch-up video call anyway. Maybe tomorrow.
Home, then. After a visit to the men’s room, which he mostly regretted when he saw the condition it was in. He knew Gabi tried, but there was only so much you could do.
Between him and the coat check, however, there was Isabel. A tall, wiry white guy in a dark beanie had one hand clamped tight around her upper arm, coaxing her along with him. Isabel was pulling away, but she was stumbling and the guy wasn’t letting go or slowing down much as he towed her towards the door.
Derek hadn’t thrown a punch since he and Craig had made out a little too passionately on the wrong park bench in Chicago after dusk. He hoped he didn’t break his hand if push came to shove now. Probably all he had to do was make noise and Gabi’s staff would intervene. Surely the punk would bolt if things got complicated.
Derek hadn’t played high school football for nothing. He dodged several people and ended in front of Beanie Guy, blocking the man’s path. “Let her go,” he yelled over the music, loud enough so a few bystanders looked around.
The sneer he got back wasn’t promising. The guy jerked Isabel’s arm and tried to step around Derek. Derek stepped to cut him off again.
“Get out of my way, man!” Beanie Guy protested. “She had too much to drink, I need to get her home.” He gave Isabel’s arm another tug, but now she was struggling harder, chest heaving, and they were getting an audience, including a couple of East Asian women who were moving closer with looks of concern.
Exactly what Derek wanted. Isabel was wide-eyed, breathing fast. “Do you want to go with him?” Derek projected over the thumping bass.
Isabel shook her head no and pulled again. This time the asshole let go. She staggered sideways and the aspiring kidnapper bolted for the entrance. Derek didn’t bother going after him. One of the women got an arm around Isabel, trying to comfort her, but Isabel shook it off, still breathing as if she couldn’t get enough air, trying to gulp it down.
Derek stepped closer. “What do you need?”
Isabel gestured towards the door.
“Walk with us?” Derek asked the woman who’d tried to help. She nodded and said something to her friend before following. Derek closed Isabel’s hand over his arm, steadied her, and led her past the interior doors into the brighter vestibule. She staggered over to a bare bit of wall and put her back against it, closed her eyes, still holding onto him.
It was quieter here. Isabel’s harsh gasps sounded painful and she was breaking out in a sweat. It looked a hell of a lot like a panic attack. Derek had seen Harrison go through a few. One of the women who’d followed had her phone out. She caught Derek’s eye and raised her eyebrows, asking for direction.
He had no idea what to tell her. “Are you okay? Isabel?”
She squeezed her eyes tighter shut and shook her head. “Can’t— breathe—”
“Do you have asthma?” As if she could put enough words together to tell him, and as if Derek had any medical training anyway. What the fuck was he doing? She needed a qualified professional. “I think you’re having a panic attack, but let’s call an ambulance to be safe.”
Her eyes flew open. They were blue, he could see now. “No. Please!”
She sounded terrified. Derek hesitated and looked to the woman.
“Can you step aside for a minute? Over there?” she asked Derek. Then to Isabel, she said, “What’s your name?”
Derek tried to step away, but Isabel was still holding his arm and she didn’t let go. She also wasn’t answering. Maybe couldn’t. “Her name’s Isabel, I don’t know her last name. We just met earlier. I tried to get her a cab.” This whole thing had happened in, what, an hour? Derek felt totally disoriented.
“Isabel,” the woman said softly, “I need to talk to you privately for a minute. Please?”
Isabel let go. Derek stepped away to wait for the outcome of their hushed conversation. Which turned out to be the woman beckoning him back over, and Isabel fumbling for his hand again when he got there.
“Driver’s license,” the woman directed, “I’m taking a picture. I know it might seem creepy but I’m not leaving her here with you without it.” Derek used his free hand to fumble his wallet out, let her snap it with her phone. “Thanks. Isabel, I have your number, so I’m going to check on you in the morning, okay?” She turned her attention to Derek. “She says she’s comfortable staying here with you. Don’t make me regret this.”
Derek nodded to her, she nodded back, and she went back into the club with a lingering look over her shoulder.
When she was gone, Isabel dragged a deep breath in and shuddered. “No ambulance. Had one before. You c’n go. Be fine.”
She was still holding his hand. “I don’t have anywhere to be. Do you want me to give you some space?”
Her eyes opened for a second. “No.”
So he held on. Stroked the back of her hand and listened to her breathing stutter and catch as she struggled to slow it down. Said whatever reassuring nonsense came to mind and blocked the curious stares of people entering the front doors. Isabel didn’t seem to notice them. It took maybe ten minutes before she started to sag against the wall as her breathing slowed. Derek shifted to where he could catch her if she fell.
Isabel opened her eyes again. She didn’t look good, but she was more in control even with her hands still shaking. He didn’t want to guess where she’d be if he hadn’t seen the guy trying to hustle her out the door. “I’m glad I saw you.”
She squeezed his hand, trying to stand and doing a bad job of it. “Thanks. Need to get my coat, catch the train. Have to work inna morning. Bye.”
That was her second attempt to get rid of him, and this time she was letting go of his hand. Could he let her stroll off towards the T in this state? He doubted she’d make it through the line at coat check, and he was pretty sure the trains had stopped running by now anyway.
“Let me get you a cab, my treat, and make sure you get in it okay. Is there someone home, a roommate? Or can you call someone to meet you there?”
She broke eye contact and stared across the lobby. “There’s… No.”
He sighed. She’d stay awake in the cab, right? The driver wouldn’t try anything? She’d be able to unlock her door?
“I’m fine,” Isabel said, then stepped away from the wall and immediately pitched forward into his arms.
Derek took her weight while she tried to find her feet again. Hell, no way was she making it home on her own. “It’s okay. Can you stay here while I get your coat? Where’s your ticket?”
She fumbled it out of the little purse looped around her wrist and Derek ducked back inside. He cut to the front of the line without a shred of guilt. Isabel was still against the wall when he got back. He was relieved, though he wasn’t sure if he’d expected her to be collapsed or gone.
It was bitingly cold outside, so he tucked Isabel’s coat around her shoulders. Derek regretted not bringing his own, but he hadn’t anticipated being outside long and he hadn’t wanted club smell in the wool. The gal on doors helped him flag down a cab, and Derek got Isabel in without banging her head. He helped her with her seat belt before getting himself settled. The driver eyes them suspiciously the whole time, probably worried about someone throwing up. When was the last time Derek had an evening where he had to worry about drunk vomiting?
Isabel’s head fell back as the cab pulled away from the curb. Her eyes squeezed shut. A minute later, Derek saw a tear roll down her face.
Dammit. Crying. He was terrible with crying. Crying meant someone was hurting, and the only thing he could think about was fix it, but often it couldn’t be fixed. Whatever was going on with Isabel probably fell into that category. He brushed his hand against hers anyway, an offer.
She took it like a lifeline. “So tired,” she whispered, ragged and desperate.
At the next red light, Derek asked if he could move to the middle. Isabel nodded. By the time he had his seat belt buckled, she was leaning against him, her head trying to find its way to his shoulder again.
He shifted to get his arm around her as best he could given the seat belts. She relaxed into him, sighing. She clearly needed comfort, and he could provide it, at least during a cab ride from Tremont Street to the Cambridge address he’d given the driver off her license. That place in his chest was feeling again as they rode through the cold night, and he didn’t know if it would make going on pointless dates easier or harder. Right now he just had to get Isabel home safe.
He didn’t usually talk to Marjorie, because he didn’t have a clue whether she could hear him. Any faith he might have had as a child disappeared long ago. He shot a quick thought skyward, however, just in case.
Doing my best. Help me out here if you can.
I’ve tried to make these as spoiler-free as possible, but to me it’s more important to give full content information to those who need it.
On-page or extensive discussion:
- Surprise breakup, gaslighting
- Blackmail of closeted character
- Biphobia (from secondary characters, and some internalized by main character)
- Parental rejection due to sexual orientation, some with religious overtones
- Secondary character accidentally outs someone (to a sympathetic person)
- Economic hardship and loss of health insurance, forgoing prescriptions
- Severe insomnia
- Panic attack
- Inebriation (several characters and instances)
- Attempted abduction from nightclub
- Minor non-sexual assault by a customer at workplace
- Apartment fire (character is not in danger, does not see flames)
- Accidental injury to face, emergency medical services, stitches
- Brief concern that a secondary character may harm themself
- Sex (explicit, Chapters 23 and 36)
In characters’ backstories, significant discussion:
- Youth homelessness
- Cheating (kisses only) by main character
- Murder of an adult sibling
- Closeted gay character in heterosexual marriage that led to divorce and hostility, abandonment of child by one parent with the other
Off-page or brief mention:
- Past death of secondary character’s cousin from breast cancer
- Off-page character with pre-eclampsia (positive outcome)
- Light alcohol consumption at dinner party
- Drug use by an adult sibling
- Estranged parent suggests conversion therapy of teenager
- Sudden mention of witnessing an act of violence