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Riley Walsh has spent a lifetime flying under the radar. One woman -- and a wild weekend -- is about to change everything.Preservation is a slow burning standalone romance that turns hot and steamy.Two lonely hearts.Just once, she'd like to be someone's first choice.She's strong-willed and spunky, but she's left picking up the pieces from her ex's lies and manipulations, and daydreaming about taking a scalpel to his scrotum.Flying under the radar is what he does best.He's laid-back and loyal, but he wants the most off-limits woman in his world, and nothing will ever make that a reality.An arrangement of mutual benefit.Two months, four dates.Five, if things go well.Five at the most.But possibly six.Definitely no more than six dates.Only the appearance of a romantic relationship is required, and they expect nothing more from their time together. There will be none of those benefits involved.One wild weekend.After waking up in bed together—very naked and even more hungover—the terms and conditions of their arrangement no longer apply. Now they're faced with something riskier than exposing their fake relationship: letting go of the past and zipping up the future.Some things have to fall apart before they can be put back together.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This digital copy is for your own enjoyment only. It may not be shared, augmented, or distributed in any form without the author’s express permission.
Copyright © 2017 by Kate Canterbary
Second edition, 2017.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any forms, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.
Trademarked names appear throughout this book. Rather than use a trademark symbol with every occurrence of a trademarked name, names are used in an editorial fashion, with no intention of infringement of the respective owner's trademark(s).
diting provided by Julia Ganis of JuliaEdits. www.juliaedits.com
Cover design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations. www.okaycreations.com
Proofreading provided by Marla Esposito of Proofing Style. www.proofingstyle.com
Created with Vellum
To second choices.
They wouldn't exist if the first had been meant to be.
Also by Kate Canterbary
"Riley, please," she begged, her legs hooked around my waist and her lips on my neck. "I needyou."
If there were more satisfying words to hear from my brother's wife while her bare body was beneath mine, I didn't know them.
"Anything," I whispered, the words muffled as I spoke straight to the glory that was her breasts. "Anything, I'll give it to you."
"I just want you," she said. Her hands fisted in my hair as I thrust into her, and the primitive, seed-spreading part of my brain kicked into gear. I wanted to fuck her until she was filled with proof of my possession, and then fuck her again for good measure.
This woman is mine. Mine.
That was the only thought in my head, the only word on my lips as I wrapped my arm around her lower back. I needed her closer, as close as possible until there was nothing we didn't share. I was holding on tight, my fingertips pressing into the tender skin at her hip without mercy. I wanted to leave her with a memory of me, a mark that would take days to fade, something to remind her that she belonged to me.
Mine, mine, mine.
This night knew neither masterful technique nor finesse. There'd been no seduction, no foreplay, nothing more than trembling need. Every touch was desperate, packed with the knowledge that our time was limited. But it was always like this—stolen moments, secret rendezvous, nights that no one else knew about.
And it was indefensibly wrong.
"Lauren," I groaned, that single word rolling up everything I wanted her to know right now. That I adored her, that I craved her, that I'd do anything for her. That I'd forgotten how to function without her at the center of my solar system.
But there was no time for words. Not tonight, not ever. We had right now, and it wasn't to be squandered. It had been this way for months—covert meet ups where the fire between us turned explosive—and there was no end in sight. I hated it. Fucking hated it. I loved it, too. She was mine, even if we were the only two who held that truth.
Lauren came with a shudder and a scream, and then whispered, "It should've been you. I should've chosen you. I love you more than—"
She didn't need to finish that sentence. I didn't let her, instead capturing her lips. Regardless of the lengths that making time together demanded, my brother wasn't far. It never escaped my consciousness that she slipped her wedding rings into her purse before shedding her clothes, or switched off her phone—and her husband's endless stream of text messages—around me. I required no reminder that her affections were divided between me and Matt, or that he was the one she'd fall asleep with tonight and tomorrow and all the nights after that unless something changed.
And what could possibly change? I couldn't force my siblings to choose sides and tear my family apart by stealing my brother's wife out from underneath him. I couldn't force Lauren to leave Matt and lose the friendships she'd formed with my sisters. I couldn't do anything but love her while I had her, and thank the stars that I got that much.
Unless there was some kind of accident.
"I know you love me," I said, angling her body to take me deeper.
Every time she opened herself to me like this, I wondered whether he gave her as much as I did.
Whether he knew how to make her purr and beg and shake.
Whether he could possibly love her as much as I did.
With both hands locked around her hips, I stared at the place where we were joined. She was beautiful, all dusky pink and bare, and the only thing better than burying myself inside her was licking her to another orgasm afterward. Her flesh clamped down around me, drawing me in and demanding more, and my cock was slick with her arousal.
"I love you m-m-more than anything," I said, the words stuttering out in a panting rush as the knots holding my orgasm in place unfurled. I hooked her knees over my shoulders and thrust with abandon, concerned only with drowning her in my release. I wanted to give her everything inside me, every last drop.
I wanted an accident all our own. It was really fucking wrong—all of this was wrong—but it was the only way I could find a path to right. That, or pushing my brother into oncoming traffic. I was a pond-scum-sucking bastard but I wasn't ready to do that.
"I have to get home. I can't stay," she whispered. Her fingers brushed over my temples and down the back of my neck, but she made no move to leave.
"A few more minutes," I murmured, nuzzling the crook of her shoulder. "You always smell so good here. Like birthday cakes."
"It's cocoa butter," she said, laughing.
I nodded and pressed a kiss to her birthday cake skin. "Promise me this isn't the last time," I said. I was growing tired, my body loose and eyelids too heavy to lift. "Please, Lauren."
She didn't respond. She never did. She never committed to more than these moments because we couldn't know what waited for us on the other side. But I always asked.
The weight of my exhaustion got the better of me, but before I drifted off a shiver rattled through my bones. I bolted up, and found myself drenched in an icy sweat and panting like I'd been running four-minute miles.
I was cold, breathless, and alone. Just as I'd been since falling asleep after watching the Red Sox clean some Los Angeles clocks at Dodger Stadium.
My loneliest days on this planet always followed those dreams. Or were they nightmares? I didn't know.
But those fleeting, diaphanous moments were nothing more than the collusion of my wants and needs and unconscious mind. I was allowed to touch and taste everything I'd been craving, only to wake up and discover none of it was real.
I flopped onto my back and blinked up at the same bricks-and-beams ceiling I'd been staring at for the past four years. Light was brightening the centuries-old bricks, and I turned my head in the direction of the dawn. Summer sunrises were always preferable to acknowledging guilt-ridden erections.
It wasn't like I could minister to my cock's needs, not when fucking my sister-in-law was this morning's reason to rise. Oh, I'd indulged in plenty of Lauren-inspired self-love sessions over the years. Plenty. But the trouble was that it only made this situation worse. It left me feeling empty and traitorous, and wondering whether love was an experience I was to admire from a short distance, and never, ever keep past sunrise. I couldn't deal with that kind of shambles this morning.
So I didn't jerk it, not even when my brain was crowded with thoughts of a woman who would never be mine. Instead, I counted the bricks on the ceiling—again—and thought about wood rot. Dry, destructive wood rot.
Not unlike me, that shit could cause some real problems.
The seven thirty Monday morning meeting was as much a part of Walsh Associates—my family's third-generation sustainable preservation architecture firm—as bricks and cobblestones. It was the one time when we crowded into one place and ran through our current and upcoming projects, and everything else worthy of discussion. Although we lived in the same town and shared a Beacon Hill office, we often moved past each other like ships in the night.
Despite the fact a very large portion of me wanted to challenge my brother to a duel for his wife's affections, my family was everything to me. These people were all that I had in this world, and I didn't know where I'd go or who I'd be without them.
Shannon had bailed me out of several regrettable situations over the years, and paved the way for me to attend Rhode Island School of Design instead of Cornell like my brothers.
Erin, the baby of the family and the only one who didn't work at the firm, had schooled me in the ways of not giving a fuck—while actually giving all the fucks—from an early age.
Sam had invited me to share the restored firehouse he called home after I'd finished grad school, and he'd trained me on how to drink and dress like a grown-ass adult. He thought he'd educated me on the ways of women, and though that couldn't be further from the truth, I let him keep on believing.
Patrick had taught me, in his grouchy, impatient way, that this work was about families, those before us and those yet to come, and it was always worth taking seriously.
And Matt, he was the best of them all. While I was fantasizing about Lauren, he was coaching me through my first years at the firm and making up for everything I should've learned in school. I was kind enough to repay him with a running mental montage of his wife in every perverted position I could imagine.
So I climbed the stone staircase to our office's attic conference room steeped in shame that I wanted someone who didn't belong to me and resentment that my world was all rocks and hard places.
"Oh my god," Shannon said, groaning when I set the foil-wrapped tacos beside her laptop. "Thank you."
She was pregnant with baby number two and liable to turn into a fire-breathing honey badger when hungry. It was still amusing that my older sister, the most notoriously picky eater in North America, could consume mass quantities of nameless food truck tacos but only while growing another human.
"No sweat," I said. It was easier to bring her breakfast than have mine ripped from my hands. I'd learned my lesson after she'd commandeered my burrito when she'd been pregnant with Abby.
I dropped into my seat, careful not to bump her chair or jostle her in the process. Jostling was a known instigator of her morning sickness, and her morning sickness was a known instigator of my sympathetic vomiting. Shannon and I had cleared this room on more than a few occasions. For everyone involved, caution was necessary.
It was cozy up here these days. I could still remember when adding a fifth chair—four years ago, after I'd finished school and joined the firm—required a major reorganization of the world according to Walsh Associates. But then Patrick took on Andy Asani as his apprentice. Another ripple, another chair. Now she was his fiancée. Tom, Shannon's deputy in all things finance and management, had found his way into the Monday morning meeting about a year ago. We were gradually outgrowing this attic conference room.
"It's quiet this morning," Matt said. "I didn't realize how much noise three summer interns generated."
He shook his iced coffee, and it annoyed the fuck right out of me. I wanted to knock the cup out of his hand. Just to take something—however insignificant—of his.
I considered it for a moment, and then hated myself for giving life to the thought. What kind of bastard did that?
Oh, yeah. This kind. I was that kind of bastard.
Patrick dropped his elbows on the table and rubbed his brows. "I never want to see another intern as long as I live," he said. "Children are not allowed in this office ever again."
"Okay, let me update the list," Andy murmured, flipping open her notebook. "Is it children in general, or only extensively vetted interns whom you consider children?"
A lot of people gave my oldest brother shit. He deserved it. But no one gave it with Andy's unflinching ease. It was beautiful.
"Asani," Patrick warned. "Not in the mood."
"It's worth noting that you did not have an intern with you this summer as you've been objecting to this venture for eleven months," she continued. She was right about that. Shannon was always scouting new talent, and had cooked up a plan to bring on interns for the summer. To say the experiment had met with mixed results would be too generous. "Your aggravation is tangential at best, Patrick."
"Enough with that bullshit. We're getting more interns, and you'll just need to deal," Shannon said as she unwrapped her tacos. She glanced at me. "Hot sauce?"
I dug in my messenger bag for the small bottle of sriracha I kept handy. "Here you go, boss," I said, passing it to her.
Her taste for spice was new with this pregnancy, but I wasn't complaining. As long as she wasn't eating yogurt next to me, I'd share all of my snacks with her. I fucking detested yogurt. I mean, what exactly was that shit?
"While I don't often agree with Patrick, I do think we should steer clear of undergrad interns in the future," Sam said. "It was a fascinating endeavor, although I would've appreciated someone a little less green."
Matt rapped his knuckles on the tabletop and pointed at Sam. "Precisely," he said. I was still a bastard, and as such, required great restraint to eat my breakfast burrito without glowering at my brother. "They all learned a lot, but they weren't ready for this level of practical application. For purely selfish reasons, I'd rather see a more advanced pool and I don't have an issue with spending more to acquire one."
Shannon plucked cilantro from her taco—not cured of the picky eating in full—and shot a glance at me. "You haven't weighed in," she said.
I laughed into my burrito. That I'd been gifted an intern for the past ten weeks was equal parts awesome and odd. Awesome because I had someone to organize everything in my office, unjam the printer, and run out for coffee whenever I needed a refill. And she baked cookies. Odd because I couldn't help thinking it was a mistake to give me an intern. Most days, I was certain that I didn't know enough about what I was doing to explain any of it to anyone else.
"Bergman was, uh," I started, shrugging. "She was fine. Asked good questions. Did some…useful stuff." I reached for the sriracha. I didn't want to criticize my intern for not knowing what was going on around her when I rarely knew what was going on. "Although Sam has valid points."
"Bergman left a DVD in the laptop we issued her," Tom said. "I wiped the devices on Saturday morning and came across it then."
"Why were you working Saturday morning?" Shannon asked him. "Balance. We've talked about it."
"Torsion," Matt added. If anyone else had registered his wonky engineering quip, it didn't show.
"I wasn't going to be able to enjoy the weekend until I got it done," he replied with a hint of defensiveness. "Not that it matters but it was porn. The DVD. In Bergman's laptop. She left porn in her laptop."
"Didn't expect that," Shannon said.
"All right. I'm done," Patrick said. He pointed at Andy. "Put that on your goddamn list. We're finished with interns. All of them."
"People still watch porn on DVD?" I asked. "Why? Why would you do that when the internet exists?"
"What kind?" Shannon asked. She wiggled her fingers at me for the sriracha. This baby really liked the heat. Pre-pregnancy, my sister was known to complain about gingersnaps being too spicy.
"There was planning involved," Sam murmured. "DVD porn is only necessary when it's a set piece. She was probably watching it with Edwards or Pierson. Or both. Maybe they had an intern threesome thing going on. With visual aids."
"You're the worst," Shannon said to him. "The actual worst."
"Let's not shame her," Patrick said. "We have enough issues in the water this morning, and we don't need her suing us for…whatever we're doing right now. She's probably going to die of embarrassment when she realizes it."
"Or not," Shannon replied. "Women don't have to be embarrassed by enjoying sex."
"She probably left it for you to find, RISD," Matt said, pointing that goddamn iced coffee at me. I took no issue with my alma mater nickname, but he couldn't breathe without drawing my ire this morning. "She had a thing for you."
"Erroneous," I said, sparing him a brief glance. I couldn't look at him without seeing his wife naked. Or, what I imagined her to look like without the constraints of clothing.
"Oh, come on," Matt continued. "You couldn't have missed it."
I shook my head, avoiding his gaze.
"We do have an agenda," Patrick said. "This discussion is not on it."
Shannon dropped her hand on Patrick's forearm. "Intern threesomes and porn isn't on our agenda, no," she said. "But that"—she gestured to something on his laptop screen—"is."
"Yes, but it's the seventh item on my list," he argued. "We can visit it after hitting one through six."
Shannon held up her hands and shook her head. "It's your meeting, Optimus."
"You make it sound like he needs the reminder," Sam muttered.
"First item on the agenda," Patrick started, "is current properties. Matt, let's talk about Mount Vernon and why the fuck it's exceeding cost projections."
Patrick loved his lists. Order, structure, precision. His desk looked like a whirling dervish lived there, but he held tight to his systems everywhere else. I didn't know whether it was a first-born thing or a CEO thing, but it was certainly a Patrick thing.
"I told you those projections were weak," Shannon said around a taco. "There's no way to marry twin brownstones and restore twenty thousand square feet without spending some money. If we do this right, we're going to make a fuck-ton more than we'll spend."
Patrick shifted in his seat to stare at her and his eyes cut to her screen pointedly. It was his not-so-subtle way of telling her to keep her dissent contained to their private chat. That they messaged throughout the meeting was the worst-kept secret at this table, especially now that we were packed in like the Red Line at rush hour. The only one who'd failed to notice was Sam, and I could forgive him that because he always sat directly opposite Shannon.
Under her breath, Shannon murmured, "You can suck my dick."
"Matt," Patrick said, still staring at Shannon, "talk to me about Mount Vernon."
I flipped open my notebook to the page with my most recent project notes. Bergman had been good for a few things, some of which being her oatmeal raisin cookies and notebook magic. She had this nifty trick where she marked the current page with a paper clip, and never had to shuffle through to figure out where she'd left off. It was amazing.
I was managing five properties right now, the most I'd ever had on the board at once. Berkeley, Commonwealth, Joy, Marlborough, Pinckney. It was a handful, and one I was sweating hard. I wanted to get this right, and I wanted to do it without anyone stepping in to lend a hand. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate their help—I'd really fucking needed it—but I also wanted to prove I could hold my own.
I hadn't always known—or embraced—my place in the family business, but now…now I got it. I understood how my style and vision could exist alongside those of my brothers. I didn't have to spend my days struggling to fill their molds, not when I could make my own.
But none of that knowledge erased the anxious tremors that took up residence in my chest when I knew I was due to present on my work. Even surrounded by my siblings, I had to plan everything I intended to say and listen to those words in my head twice before speaking. It was the only way to keep from stuttering or stumbling over my words.
It was easier to speak when it didn't seem like anyone was listening to what I had to say.
"Riley," Patrick said, his focus trained on his screen as he typed the last of his notes on Matt's properties. "What the hell is going on with Marlborough Street? It was supposed to be down to punch list items last week."
The only problem with planning my words was that Patrick's questions never followed the order I'd mentally constructed. "Uh, yeah, about that," I said. "During the last walk-through, the client requested we convert one of the garage basement closets to a half bath."
"Which was on your original design," he said. "Off the mudroom."
"Correct," I replied. "But they didn't want the expense of rerouting the plumbing."
"And now they do?" he asked.
"Evidently," I said.
"That shouldn't take long," he started. "You should be—"
"Down to punch list items later this week," I interrupted. "Yeah. That's why I'm staying in the city. To get it wrapped up."
That was mostly true.
"Is it not possible for us to agree on anything?" Shannon asked. "Is it really that difficult? We close down for two weeks over the holidays and two weeks in the summer. That shit is no secret. What is a mystery is why we can't seem to enforce vacations."
"Look," Patrick started, gesturing toward me. "That kind of work doesn't require a close eye."
"No," I conceded. "But while that's underway, I can work on the punch list. If I wrap it up early, I'll join you guys on the Cape." I nodded at Shannon.
That was mostly false.
The last thing I was going to do was crash the coupled-up summer getaway. No, I didn't need to spend two weeks with Patrick and Andy, Matt and Lauren, and Sam, his wife Tiel, and their infant son. Getting slapped in the face with coupledom's dick wasn't my idea of a good time.
"Or Montauk," Shannon added. "Will's business partner will be there. They tell all manner of Navy SEAL stories after a few drinks. That's always entertaining."
Patrick frowned. "You could always check in with your trades later this week, and take off next week. You need a break, Riley."
I nodded. "I'll keep that in mind and see how it goes," I said easily, hoping my tone turned down the volume on the no-vacation outrage.
They didn't know that it was a vacation, and one I needed more than they could ever understand. For me, a week at the beach with my siblings wasn't getting away from it all. Not when I'd spend the entire time clawing the scowl from my face as Matt and Lauren loved all over each other.
"Moving on," Patrick said.
Amen to that.
Talk of our summer break was abandoned as he dove into my other projects. He spoke quickly—typed faster—and kept one eye glued to the clock as he barked questions. Soon he was shifting gears to Sam and Andy's work, and then transitioned to Tom and Shannon's updates on properties they were considering for investment purposes.
"All right," Patrick said with a heavy exhale. "Shannon. Number seven."
She reached for her water, nodding. "RISD Weekend is coming up," she said, smiling at me. "I want you to go and find some interns."
"Oh my fucking god," Patrick murmured.
"I can't go to RISD Weekend," I replied automatically.
"Yes, you can," Shannon replied.
"Was I somehow unclear about my stance on interns?" Patrick asked.
"You're passing on a trip to Rhode Island?" Matt asked, shaking the ice in that motherfucking coffee cup again. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," I snapped. "But I can't go to RISD Weekend. Send someone else if you're determined to snare some interns."
The Rhode Island School of Design wasn't like most colleges and universities. Our mascot was a scrotum—no lie. Marijuana appreciation was a general education requirement—slight exaggeration. Slight. Rather than a traditional homecoming weekend loaded up with football and parties, we had a left-of-center iteration: part gallery opening, part art critique symposium, part street fair. It was weird and different to the point of distraction, but I loved everything about it.
I just couldn't go.
"Why the hell not?" Shannon asked.
"Is this about the cat?" Sam asked.
"A cat?" Andy asked.
"A woman," Sam explained. "But she's more of—uh—"
"An outdoor cat," I supplied.
As if I didn't have enough problems with dreaming about knocking up my sister-in-law, I had numerous stream-of-consciousness emails and texts from my college girlfriend. Even a few babbling brook voicemails. She was like that, always ejecting every single thought in her mind without concern for logic or structure. Somehow it worked for her.
"Oh," Patrick said with a knowing groan. "Her."
"Right," Sam said, adjusting his cuffs. "If she's going to be there, you're in trouble. You just don't know how to say no to her. You can't face that chick without protection." He brushed a hand down his tie. "And I don't mean condoms."
"It's not that I can't say no to her," I protested but there was no conviction behind it. I was capable of saying no. She wasn't capable of comprehending the word.
"How have I never heard about the outdoor cat woman?" Andy asked. She leaned forward to catch Tom's eye. "Do you know?"
He smirked. "I know all about Miss Kacie-call-me-Dorrance Strawbridge and her"—he cleared his throat—"antics."
Antics. That was the right term for it.
Dorrance's favorite expression was "on the prowl." She was always prowling for something. Parties—raves when we were in college. Mind-altering substances—it used to be Adderall and MDMA, but now her tastes ran to weed and Xanax. Inspiration—for art and life and food and literally everything. Podcasts. Sex. Frozen yogurt. Music. More sex. Prowl, prowl, prowl. All day, all night. That was how she came to be known as an outdoor cat. It wasn't my best work as it pertained to nicknames but it spread like ironic humor at art school—quickly.
"I thought she didn't go to RISD Weekend, or any of the alumni events," Shannon said.
I held up my hands. "She's going to this one," I said.
Dorrance called New York home now. She was living in a Tribeca loft and working at a studio space-slash-second home in Brooklyn. Both purchased by her parents. I knew that much from the email I'd opened and then promptly closed. I figured it was easy to play the part of the bohemian artist when your parents were willing to foot the bill.
She'd been a lot of fun in college, and we'd had a good time together. Some really good times. So good that I had a tramp stamp, permanently disfigured nipples, and a police record as souvenirs. Shannon had actually bailed me out of more than one Dorrance adventure gone bad. She'd forbidden me from seeing Dorrance again after my license had been suspended. I'd only been able to comply with that edict because Dorrance had graduated and moved to Manhattan a few weeks later. But that didn't stop Dorrance from prowling.
"Then don't go alone," Matt suggested.
"Is Miss Honey free that weekend?" I asked, the words out of my mouth before I could stop myself.
"She's my Miss Honey," he replied, laughing. And that was the only response. He passed it off as a joke. A little more of that Riley's trying to steal my wife and isn't that hilarioushumor.
Yeah. It was so fucking funny.
"Lauren just hired a new second grade teacher," Matt continued. In addition to being the star of my subconscious and the most perfect woman on the planet, Lauren was the principal of an elementary school. "Audrey with the gluten-free cupcake blog. She's from around here, and moving back home after living down south for a couple of years. I think she's about your age. Recently divorced."
A grin tugged at my lips for the first time this morning. "Did Lauren hire her because she's a decent teacher, or for the cupcakes?" I asked him. Lauren had quite the sweet tooth.
He held out his hands. "A little more of one and some of the other," he said, laughing. "Can't be sure how the ratios shook out." He pointed to his mobile phone. "You want me to set something up? I'm sure she'd love to introduce you."
"No," I said, snatching the sriracha back from Shannon. "That won't be necessary."
"Magnolia would go with you," Sam added, referring to my favorite landscape architect. "I've seen her chase away raccoons and actual feral cats. She can handle Dorrance."
"Yes," Shannon said, slapping her palm on the table for emphasis. "Do that. She'll keep you in line."
"She does have a life and business," I said. "Accompanying me to Providence might not be on her list of priorities, you know."
"That's fair. But we do have some time until RISD Weekend," Shannon said. She drummed her fingertips on the tabletop. "Enough for you to convince Magnolia or Audrey to go with you." She shrugged and pointed her pen to the side. "Or Tom."
He glanced at me. "Would we be sharing a bed?"
"Without a doubt, sugar." I studied him for a beat. "But you look like a cover hog."
"I am," he replied, a teasing smirk on his lips. "Among other things."
I shook my head. "Another time, Mr. Esbeck," I said, winking.
"Then Magnolia or Audrey," Shannon said, waving away the flirty banter. "I'll reserve two rooms for you, and you'll come back with some interesting résumés. Deal?"
I doused the last chunk of my burrito in sauce and bobbed my head. "Sure," I said, still holding tight to the sriracha bottle. "What's the worst thing that could happen?"
"Are we speaking statistically?" Matt asked. "If so, there's obviously—"
"Shut the fuck up about your fucking statistics, Matthew." I pointed the bottle in his direction, this close to squeezing hard enough to paint his starched white dress shirt in puréed pepper.
"Right," Patrick said, running a hand over his jaw. "And this is where we adjourn."
It was a great day for baseball and beer. But then again, my threshold for greatness was low. I didn't require much from the teams or the beverages, and the weather was never a major factor. All I needed was a game on the field and a drink in my hand, and it was good.
But today was one of the best days. It was sunny without being sweltering, the Red Sox were in top form, the majority of my family had vacated the city, and I was balancing four frigid beers as I trundled down the ballpark steps. We were seated behind home plate, in season ticket seats Magnolia's aunt had held for more than forty years before passing them to her niece and nephews. One of the best perks of hanging out with Magnolia Santillian—aside from her being a legitimately good friend—was reliable access to local sporting events.
"Take one," I ordered when I reached our row, the diamond of plastic cups pinched between my fingers.
Certain things could only be enjoyed to their fullest in certain situations: sandwiches on the beach, popcorn at the movies, and beer at the ballpark. For this moment, everything was right in my world. Life was easy. Or it would be easy until I had to ask my friend whether she was willing to spend a weekend babysitting me in Rhode Island. Maybe scare off a hyper hipster trust fund baby, too.
She relieved me of two cups but shot an arched eyebrow at my shorts. "Are you open for business or pleasure?" she asked.
I glanced down and found my fly unzipped. That damn thing. It was always getting away from me.
"For you, baby," I started, "I can pull off both." Setting the remaining beers on the ground, I handled my business with an apologetic wink to the family behind us.
Magnolia—I called her Gigi, a perversion of her nickname around the Walsh Associates offices, Roof Garden Girl, or RGG—snorted out a laugh. "That would require you seeing me as a woman, don't you think?"
With my drinks in hand, I wedged in beside her and surveyed the field. There was a sticky situation brewing on third base, but it was only the bottom of the second. There'd be time to recover before this game was finished, presuming the shortstop found some speed. I dropped my arm to the back of her seat and squeezed her shoulder.
"I know you're a woman," I said, sipping my beer. "You're a woman just like my sisters are women."
"Yep, and you're a man, just like my brothers are men," she said, laughing. "It's funny how I have no desire to fuck any of you."
"Hilarious," I said, giving her another squeeze.
Nope, there was nothing there. We were close, me and Gigi. She worked on the majority of my properties, adding roof gardens and other sustainable landscape features, and she had a good brain for wrangling architectural snags, too. And we were intimate in the sense that I always celebrated the Feast of St. Anthony with her family, and I'd kicked the snot out of her shit-stain of an ex-boyfriend when he stole her dog, and we'd cried real tears of joy together when the Patriots pulled another Super Bowl victory out of the fire.
But that was where it ended. There was nothing amorous, no sexual tension, no sparks. With almost three years of working and playing together under our belts, we were living proof that men and women could be friends without getting naked.
"Hey," I said, tapping my cup against hers in an overdue toast. Better late than never was my philosophy. "Want to come to Providence with me for a weekend in October?"
"All right," she called, clapping as the catcher tagged out that problem from third base. She glanced at me. "What are we doing in Providence?"
"What aren't we doing?" I asked, holding open my arms. "There are now two artisan donut shops, a restaurant dedicated entirely to sausage, and the PawSox. What more could you want?"
She shook her head, laughing. "You know I'm no fan of minor league ball," she said, gesturing to the field. "It's fun and all, but why would I choose that when I could have this?" She shook her head again. "And I gave up donuts for Lent."
I shot her an unimpressed frown. "Easter was almost five months ago," I said. "You're relieved of your sacrificial bonds."
"I'm getting a jumpstart on next year," she said, but then her eyes narrowed and the shits-and-giggles portion of this conversation was winding down. "Really. What's happening in Providence?"
I tipped back my beer and drank for a few moments before replying. "It's RISD's form of homecoming weekend," I said. "I've been tasked with scouting a new crop of interns."
Gigi snorted again. "You guys like the beatings, don't you?" she asked. She'd met all our summer interns. She knew we'd had a rough run of it.
"Something like that," I murmured. "So. Come with?"
She pulled at the frayed hem of her jean shorts. "Why do you need an accomplice for this crime? Aren't you the king of Rhode Island? Don't you have royal subjects awaiting your return?"
I offered a vague grunt of disagreement. I'd been known to wax ecstatic about the Ocean State, but that was merely a product of living there for eight years and enjoying the fuck out of it. I'd taken the long way through college, and for a period of time seriously considered dumping it all for a career in bartending. And why not? Bartending was awesome. The hours were good, the people were amusing, and the work was fun.
But then, after ducking out of a year of grad school to pour drinks, I found that I was bored. I missed being in the business that was as much a part of my family as yelling unnecessarily, struggling to articulate emotions without sprinkling on some insults, and solving problems with whiskey. And I missed the art.
Most people didn't see architecture as art, not in the way that painting and sculpture and symphonies were art. But that was what it was for me. I didn't see it as precise systems or structures the way my brothers did. The discipline and mathematics of it all were secondary to me because architecture was art that you lived in, and I fucking loved it in my wonky way.
I studied the field for several minutes, watching some weak pitches and antsy runners on base while I sipped my beer. "Are we betting on this game?" I asked.
"Sure," she replied. "Loser buys afternoon coffee all week?"
"Deal," I said. "I'm taking the Sox by four runs."
"Oh, so you came with your balls today," she scoffed, tipping her chin toward the scoreboard. The home team was trailing by two runs. "I don't see them putting this one in the win column, but I won't turn down free coffee delivery."
I held out my hand to her to settle the agreement. I could count on Gigi for several things, and good-spirited wagers was one of them. I'd wound up wearing a kilt to Sam's wedding when the Sox didn't make it to the World Series a couple of seasons ago, and then cutting my so-called hipster hair and beard when the Bruins lost the Stanley Cup this past spring.
"Now start from the beginning with your Providence situation," Gigi said. "And give me the real story. Not the one you've sent through the spin cycle."
I drained one beer and moved onto the next. "My crazy ex-girlfriend is going to be at RISD Weekend," I said. "I'm trying to avoid her."
"Come on, man," she said with a groan. "The crazy ex-girlfriend shit is ridiculous. Don't be that guy."
"What guy?" I snapped, immediately annoyed. She knew I wasn't that guy.
"The guy who acts like it's a problem when a woman wants a relationship," she said as if it was painted across the Green Monster and I was too dim to see it for myself. "The guy who calls a woman's advances clingy and needy and annoying, but has no problem fucking her as often as he can. The one who calls an ex-girlfriend crazy because she didn't see it coming when he broke it off, and she took it hard."
Ah. I got it now. For the middle triplet flanked by two brothers, her experiences with men were alarmingly bad. It was like she just couldn't see the red flags.
"That's not the situation here, Gigi," I said evenly. "Remember when I told you about this scar?" I tapped the faded line running the length of my palm. "She's the one who insisted on blood oaths."
"Ah ha," she said. "That one." She sipped her beer, nodding as if my request suddenly made sense. "Right. Okay. Sorry about the sermon."
I waved her off. "It's all good," I said, and I meant it. There was no reason to stay pissed at Gigi. "What d'you say? There's a bakery on Smith Street that has some of the best zeppoles."
"That's just another form of donut, Walsh," she yelled. "My ass doesn't need donuts."
"All right, so I'll eat the donuts and you'll watch," I said. The words weren't out and she was socking me in the shoulder.
"Bastard," she murmured.
Before I could reply, she was shooting out of her seat and shouting at the umpire to get the dirt out of his eyes and make a decent call for once in his life. She peppered it with enough profanity to make the first baseman turn and stare at her, open-mouthed.
"Well done, bro," I said as she sat down.
"So listen," she started, gesturing toward me with her cup. "I'd love nothing more than a tour of Providence guided by the king himself, but I don't think that's a good idea. For us. Right now."
"Would it be a good idea at a different time?" I asked, confused. "Or was 'for us' the operative clause?"
She fidgeted—tugging at her ball cap, twisting her ponytail, shifting in her seat, crossing and then uncrossing her legs, passing her drink from hand to hand, chewing a fingernail—and waited a short, awkward eternity to respond.
Finally, after the better part of an inning had passed, she said, "I'm seeing someone."
I lifted an eyebrow. "Who?" I demanded. "Since when? From where?"
I hated to say it, but Gigi would've benefitted from an arranged marriage. Or the convent. Anything to keep her from finding the biggest scumbag in every room and falling ass-over-tea kettle in love with him. Again.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. "I don't want to get into it."
"I swear to god and John Malkovich, Gigi," I said, jabbing a finger in her direction. "If it's that jackass who took Gronk the Dog, we're going to have words. You and me, we'll have words and they won't be good ones."
"No, it's not him," she said.
Thank you, Peter, Paul, and Mary. I didn't intend to be a paternalistic son of a bitch, but really. With Magnolia, it was necessary. Someone had to do it, and her fucking brothers had this bizarre minding-their-own-business thing going on that I couldn't begin to comprehend. And she'd gone back to that dog-snatching dickhead too many times and ignored all offers of common sense when it came to bad news boys.
"But I don't think it's a good idea for me to go away for a weekend with you. Obviously"—she waved between us as a grimace crossed her face—"nothing's happening here. But things are still new with Peter, and I don't want to make him uncomfortable."
"Peter," I repeated, and my back was all the way up now. She'd obviously been seeing him for a bit, and it wasn't like she made a habit of keeping her dating activities to herself. She'd chosen to withhold that information. "And where did we meet Peter?"
She sighed and stared into her beer. "On my penthouse project," she said.
"Okay, so he's a general contractor? Trades? Designer?" I asked. She offered no response, and squinted at the field. "Architect? Are you dating my competition, Magnolia?"
"Not an architect," she said, laughing.
That only left one other possibility. "Client?"
Gigi lifted a shoulder and I let out a low whistle. The last thing Gigi needed was to hook up with a goddamn client. Sure, it wasn't scandalous or particularly unethical, but it wasn't a wise idea. If there was one life lesson I'd learned from bartending, it was that it wasn't smart to mix sex with the exchange of goods and services. It always got weird, and never in the let's drink all the tequila and get weirdway.
And I still didn't want to be a paternalistic son of a bitch. I truly didn't. But I'd stood by while this woman wandered into the forest with wolves who didn't even bother with the sheep's clothing. Getting involved with a client—one paying major money for a penthouse roof garden—was no different.
"Before you lecture me, just know that I declined about ninety-three invitations before I accepted one," she said. "My work on his project is almost finished, too."
"Great, so he doesn't know how to take no for answer," I said under my breath. I yanked my hat off and ran my fingers through my hair. "Fantastic."
"No, no, no," she argued. "You're reading it all wrong. He's funny and sweet, and he understood when I said I didn't date clients." She shrugged. "Okay, maybe he didn't understand but he backed off. Then he asked one last time, and…and I like him, Walsh. We've been out a couple of times, and I like this one. He's different. Or, different than what I'm used to."
I rubbed my forehead. "All right, Gigi," I said. "All right. But I expect to hear about it if things go sideways. No, don't wait for sideways. Tell me if things get a little strange. Even if it seems like nothing, I want to hear about it. I expect to hear in a timely manner, too. None of these we've been out a couple of times but that seemed like superfluous information until you asked me to go away for a weekendshenanigans."
"About that," she said, pointing to home plate as two runners blew past it, one after another. Sox were down by four. "I'll update you when you deliver my coffee. You remember how I like it, right?"
"Just wait," I said, draining the rest of my second beer. "The air's changing. This game isn't over yet."
The trouble with early afternoon games and day drinking was that I was thirty fucking years old and my body wasn't capable of sustaining twelve hours of drunkenness anymore. Yeah, I could technically achieve that feat but it would require two days of recuperation. I didn't have that kind of time on my hands. It wasn't like I was resentful of this universal midlife truth either. I'd partied my ass off in college, and my oats were long since sown.
But now it was five o'clock, the Sox had lost, and I was one or two beers past the point of strictly sober. I could've hit up the pubs to watch another game or the Lawn on D for some playground-for-adults fun, but I wasn't in the mood. With Gigi off meeting Penthouse Peter, I wasn't about to be the lonely, broody guy at the bar.
Lonely and broody pulled down far too much of the wrong kind of attention. Women could smell lonely and broody from fifteen miles away, and their vaginas always held the secret remedy. It was like they'd all beckon me closer and say, "Here. Here's the magical pussy elixir. It will chase off all those bad feelings right quick. Have a taste."
Believe me, I'd tried to fuck away that which ailed me. I'd taken every short, curvy blonde in Boston to bed with the halfhearted hope it would purge the Lauren lust from my system. It succeeded only in honing my skills with the "it's not you, it's me" conversation.
That, and dodging an assortment of flying objects. Shoes, purses, phones, open-handed slaps, glasses of water.
Instead of parking myself on a barstool and turning up my leave me the fuck alone glare, I went to work. My Pinckney Street project required some tedious masonry restoration in the cellar, and I could manage that task with the remnants of my beer buzz. No problem.
This project was the tits. It was old as fuck (built in the 1790s), tiny (nine hundred and ninety-one square feet), and in my favorite neighborhood (on the corner of Joy Street, behind the State House). As if that wasn't good enough, the Federal-style property was remarkably well-preserved. It needed only light strokes to bring it into this century and restore some of the original features.
One of those features was the old stone wall on the eastern side of the basement. It was in better condition than most of the stone walls I encountered, but needed a bit of mortar around the joints and some replacement rocks to compensate for the ones that'd gone missing over the years.
With my ear buds in place and A Tribe Called Quest streaming on my phone, I sat down with a bucket of mortar and sculpting tools. Most people would've used their fingers or trowels to apply the mortar, but I wanted it to look like it'd been there for centuries.
This method took longer, but what else was I going to do tonight? Listen to the greatest hits of Sarah McLachlan while cocooned in my nephew's baby blanket? Eat cereal in my underwear? Watch the latest from the LPGA tour? Concoct another plan to steal my brother's wife?
Okay, I'd probably do most of that. Those lady golfers had legs worth admiring.
Once I'd worked my way through ATCQ's latest album three times and had the patchwork completed, I took stock of the missing stones. I really didn't know how a goddamn rock got up and wandered off, or how someone could look at an element of the foundation and say, "Yeah, throw those out the window. We'll be fine without them."
That left me on the path of cannibalism. I poked around the dark edges of the cellar until I spotted a few rocks butting up against the ceiling at the top corner. The joists had been cut to accommodate them, even though they weren't serving any structural purpose up there. That was the way of old homes. They weren't built to precise, manufactured specifications, but the natural contours of the readily available materials.
With an awl and mallet in hand, I climbed a ladder and started chipping away at the mortar holding the stone in place. My back was flat against the ceiling as I balanced as best I could with tools in both hands, but that position fucked me right in the ass.
I yelped and cried out as a nail punctured the skin on my lower back, invoking the names of god and Jay-Z and everyone else who deserved to be called out over this disaster, but I didn't move for a second. Moving required getting off the spike of Satan.
"Why the fuck was that necessary?" I yelled at the cool, empty room. "I thought we were motherfucking friends. I was restoring your foundation, not selling you off for salvage, and this is how you repay me? Stabbing me in the fucking spine?" With a hand braced in front of me, I eased away while skin tore and tears burned in my eyes. "Just for that, I'm gonna paint your front door hot pink, you fucker. You take your pound of flesh, and I take mine."
I set the stone down—I wasn't dropping that thing after it cost me my spleen—and covered the bucket of mortar before touching my fingers to the wound.
"Sarah McLachlan and lady golfers," I said, shuddering at the sight of blood on my hand. "They never would've done this to me."
There was only one place to go when blood was gushing out of my back and it felt like my internal organs were shutting down: Nick and Erin's place in Cambridge.
Come on. Why would I bother with a busy emergency room when my brother-in-law was a surgeon?
I would not. Also, I fucking hated hospitals. Avoided them the way most people avoided venomous snakes and clowns. I'd sooner die of gangrene from a centuries-old rusty nail than drag my ass to a hospital. And my sister and her husband still owed me a few favors for keeping the lid on that secret marriage of theirs.
The uphill trek from the Pinckney property to the Walsh Associates office—where my SUV was parked—was short, but walking there in a blood-soaked shirt certainly raised some eyebrows. There were a few "Sir, are you all right?" and "Hey man, I think you're bleeding" moments but I tipped my hat to those Good Samaritans and kept moving.
A long-forgotten beach towel saved me from staining the leather seat, but it was teeth-clenching will that saved me from screaming in pain as every bump on the Harvard Bridge rattled my body. That wasn't even the most efficient route to their house, but fuck me if I could manage driving around the TD Garden or Museum of Science without mowing down some pedestrians in the process.
I didn't bother knocking when I reached their front door. Nope, no time for that shit. I barreled—or stumbled, same difference—right in with the towel wrapped around my torso and the shredded remains of my t-shirt in hand.
"Nicholas," I yelled down the hallway. "I require your services."
Erin came around the corner, wiping her hands on a checkered blue dishtowel. "What in the hell happened to you, kid?" Keeping an eye on me, she pivoted and called, "You might want to come out here, Nick."
"I've got my hands in carne asada, darlin'," he yelled back. "What do you need?"
I gestured to the floor. "Should I stay here and bleed, or can I go into the kitchen?" I asked. "I'm woozy, Erin. Can't you let a man sit down before he drops dead?"
She waved me forward. "I don't understand your life at all," she murmured.
I followed her into the bright, open kitchen at the back of the house. I'd designed this space and the adjoining dining room, and always felt a pulse of satisfaction when seeing it used as I'd intended. I wasn't one to dictate how people lived, but it made my brain itchy when their interactions with the room missed the entire point of the design. That pulse was quickly followed by lightheadedness, and I steadied myself with a bloodstained hand on Erin's shoulder.
Nick looked up from the butcher block and his easy smile immediately fell into a serious line. He nudged the faucet on with his forearms and started washing his hands as he tipped his chin toward me. "What's the situation here?"
I looked around, taking in the plates and utensils stacked on the farmhouse table, and mason jars filled with flowers. "You're making carne asada? Is that rice on the stove? Are you guys having people over? Am I crashing?" I asked.
"Buddy, you've left a trail of blood from the front door and have yet to offer an explanation," Erin said. "Let's talk about dinner later. What the hell happened?"
She propelled me toward a seat at the island and immediately unwrapped the towel. I reached into my pocket while she hissed at the carnage.
"This fucker is to blame," I said, slapping the blacksmith-forged nail on the countertop. If I hadn't been so pissed about this, I would've admired the craftsmanship. "It stabbed me because I was trying to take a stone."
Nick nodded toward Erin. "Would you grab the kit out of my car?"
She murmured in agreement and marched out of the kitchen. Nick came around the island with that stoic, professional expression in place. I felt his fingers on my back and flank, and gave into the desire to put my head down on the cool marble. I needed a minute. Just a minute before I turned to complete shambles.
There weren't too many things that I truly hated but blood was on that list. Specifically, large volumes of blood spilling out of bodies. No psychoanalysis was needed to find the origins, either. It was a straight shot back to my childhood. The one vivid memory I had of my mother was from the day she bled to death.
And where else could you find large volumes of blood spilling out of bodies? Hospitals.
"I was gonna patch it up with some duct tape but it wouldn't stop fucking bleeding," I said, my words muffled. "Do you have some doctor grade of duct tape? Or medical super glue?"
"Duct tape really isn't one of our options. Here's what we're going to do," Nick said after a thorough inspection. "You need thirty or so sutures and a tetanus shot. I'll take you over to the—"
"Nope," I interrupted, sitting up quickly. Too quickly. Everything was fuzzy, even my ears. "Don't say it. You stitched up Patrick after that thing with the nail gun."
"That was two sutures, and they were in his finger," Nick argued. He dropped his hand to the back of my head and guided me to the countertop. "And that gun wasn't shooting eight centimeter nails from"—he picked up the square black spike—"1920?"
"1790, son," I corrected.
"Holy shit," he said. His gaze zipped to the nail. "That's like American Revolution era." He shifted to study the wound again, and then blew out a long breath. "Listen. I'll patch this up, but I'd rather do it in the ER. I don't have the best tools here."
"It's good to want, Nicholas," I grumbled. "You've accomplished more in worse settings than this."
That much was true. Nick had spent months in Africa and Central America on tours with Doctors Without Borders. He could handle a kitchen stitch-up, even if I was half convinced that I was meeting my death any minute now.
"Yeah, you know that medicine isn't a parlor trick, right?" he asked. "Just because I can perform a craniotomy in a tent doesn't mean it's my go-to approach."
A door shut on the other side of the house, and I heard footsteps approaching. In my sideways vision, I saw Erin carrying a red backpack.
"Are we going to get the real story about this injury?" she asked. "Or is this going down with the rest of Batman's secrets?"
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