John McCann, a man who judges life by the tally of an accounts ledger, has a supreme goal in life: To achieve, live, and enjoy the rarified executive lifestyle. But he's encountered one problem:
The migraines are going to continue to get worse unless you make some major changes in your lifestyle. What you need is a 'sea change'… Perhaps buy a nice little business in the country, settle down, something easier to occupy your time…
While John knows the doctor is right, he just can't resign from the job he's fought so hard for. He decides the sacrifice of taking a year's leave of absence won't interfere too much with his plans, and so he finds himself running Margins, a cozy little bookstore, with the help of the former owner's son, Jamie. John expects to put in his year, get his stress under control, and then get back to business.
What John doesn't expect is how Margins and its denizens draw him in, particularly the quiet, disheveled man who takes refuge in the old leather chair in the second-hand book section. John's plans for an unattached year of simple business crumble when he meets David and is forced to reevaluate life, love and what he really wants from both. John and David are forced to come to terms with their pasts as they struggle to determine what possible future they might build together.
Read an Excerpt
The window of the tiny café had fogged up, making it difficult for John to see the bookstore across the street, but he kept staring anyway. His gaze was unfocused, not really taking in the old-fashioned wooden frames around the windows or the colorful display of recommended Australian authors. The waitress quietly refreshed his tea and smiled briefly when he looked up with the almost apologetic expression of those caught in a daydream.
He took a sip of the tea, sighed, and looked back toward the store. This time his eyes lighted on the small sign next to the door. He couldn't read it from this distance, but he knew the neat handwritten script read "Under New Management".
"Under new management," John mumbled with a disbelieving shake of his head. "My own fucking 'sea change'."
Rubbing a weary hand across his eyes, John remembered the words of his doctor: "The migraines are going to continue to get worse unless you make some major changes in your lifestyle. What you need is a 'sea change' ... in other words, give up the ongoing stress of your current job and get out of Melbourne. Perhaps buy a nice little business in the country or along the coast, settle down, something easier to occupy your time.... "
"Patronizing prick," John cursed quietly, but despite his opinions of the "smug" physician John had known he was right. He also knew he couldn't resign from his hard-fought-for job, but was willing to take a year's leave of absence, have his "sea change" without leaving the city, and then get straight back to business.
So here he was looking at the "nice little business" he'd just acquired. It wasn't in the country, but it mightas well be, situated as it was in a quiet back street full of specialty stores and quaint cafés, the sort that could be classed as bohemian without quite making it to trendy.
John drained his cup, paid the bill, and made his way across the small street. A bell jingled when he pushed the door open announcing his arrival to the woman sorting through some bookmarks at the front counter. She looked up. Her first impression was of a designer suit, handcrafted leather shoes, and equally immaculate short blond hair. The overall presentation was of someone expecting to impress. As he got closer Maggie couldn't help but wonder what this man needed from her little store. When he approached the counter she smiled at him and asked, "Mister McCann?"
John returned the smile. "John, please."
"Ah. Welcome, John. I'm Maggie. We spoke on the phone," she said as she made her way around the counter and ushered him to the small kitchen where she gestured for him to take a seat at the table. "Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?" she offered while waving a tin of homemade cookies in his direction. John politely declined both, pulled a folder of papers out of his briefcase, and spread them in an orderly line on the table. Maggie looked at them and her expression saddened. With a small sigh she sat in front of the papers and looked at John. "You know, giving this place up is a lot harder than I thought it would be."
John tried to give her his best "I understand" smile. He was aware that Margins had been a family business and it was only with the death of her husband that Maggie had decided to sell up and return to England to live with her sister.
"Still, at least Jamie will be here to keep an eye on the place for me." She gave a small laugh knowing full well that her son would rather be keeping an eye on the handsome new owner. John had met Jamie during an earlier meeting as Maggie preferred to stay out of the business side of things and knew he had an excellent understanding of the store. "I'm sure he'll be a great help in showing me the ropes and making sure I don't mess things up too badly."
Maggie smiled and patted John's hand. "I'm not so sure about that, but he likes it here and I couldn't convince him to go back to England with his old mum. Jamie was born here; my husband and I were some of the original 'ten quid tourists' in the early sixties. Have you been here long?" she asked, recognizing John's northern English accent.
"Quite a few years now," John replied noncommittally, making it very clear that his private life was not a topic of conversation. This was business.
Maggie looked at the pen John pushed across the table and sighed; she knew this had to be done and the small talk was simply putting off the inevitable. Picking up the pen, Maggie told herself for the umpteenth time that this was the right thing to do and signed the final paperwork.
"I'll finish moving my belongings out of the apartment over the next few days so it should be ready for you in about a week." Maggie smiled gently at the sudden change of expression in John's green eyes, "Don't look so worried, John. It really is all for the best. You'll see." She gathered the documents together in two stacks; one for her and one for John. "Right, then," she announced as she pushed back her chair and stood up. "I'm off now; please let Jamie know I'll be back by tea time."
She picked up her copies of the signed lease, patted John on the shoulder and, with one last look, made her way out the door. John heard the little bell tinkle and began feeling very sick.
He slumped in the chair and stared at his signature on the neatly stacked documents.
"Hey, man, don't look so worried," Jamie teased when he walked into the kitchen. John smiled at the good-looking young man and, though he decided he shouldn't go there, John wasn't totally impervious to the cheeky brown eyes and mess of dark curly hair.
"Your mother said that too," he groaned, then looked up at the figure in the doorway. "Come on. Show me how things work."
"Time to impress the new boss, is it?" Jamie grinned.
"Or at least put my mind at rest that this isn't the daftest thing I've ever done in my life." John shook his head and followed Jamie back into the store.
Although the initial impression was of a small cluttered store, it was actually quite large--allowing for even more clutter. Margins tended to be something of a rabbit warren with little alcoves devoted to different formats or genres giving the impression of stepping into separate rooms. Righting a fallen picture book, John knew his attraction to the store was due to its similarity to one he used to visit as a kid, though he could never afford to buy anything there.
"A fucking shoplifter's paradise," John grumbled to himself, shaking off the distraction of nostalgia. Jamie pretended not to hear the comment and guided him to the next section.
John ran his hand down the dark polished wood at the end of one of the tall shelves; they felt old and sturdy under his fingers. They made him feel calm and safe. But they're not practical. "These old shelves are a problem; we won't be able to move them easily."
Jamie frowned at John. "Come on, man. Give it a chance. We've managed this long without moving anything."
John understood he'd touched a nerve and softened his voice. "I can see you offer a good range of books...."
"People appreciate that we specialize in hard-to-find books and small local publishers," Jamie interrupted.
"Yes, but is that profitable?" John said in an annoyingly officious voice.
"You saw the accounts; we do better than break even most weeks. People come back to us."
John knew to let the subject drop for a while and lay his hand on Jamie's shoulder. "Come on, lad. What's next?"
Jamie led him to a section at the back of the store that was full of secondhand books, mainly fiction, but with a couple of nonfiction shelves. John frowned at the two old leather armchairs and made a mental note to get rid of them. He wanted customers to buy books and leave, not linger like it was a library.
"This area takes up a lot of space with little turnover," John muttered half to himself. "Could be a good spot for discount remainder stock."
John noticed Jamie's look of disgust, but let it go; he actually felt a wave of relief that his business acumen had kicked in and provided a more familiar focus.
"A thought for another day." John turned and headed back to the front of the store. "But for now I have a lunch meeting with a business associate. I'll be back in about an hour and you can fill me in on the ordering system."
Jamie slumped against the wall as he watched John walk out the door. He turned his face to the battered armchairs and sighed. "This is not going to be easy."
Lunch was spent in an expensive Docklands restaurant discussing the "temporary" handover of John's portfolio. It was familiar territory and reaffirmed John's desire to drag Margins into a higher profit bracket. He refused to let the lure of a childhood memory get in his way. He'd gotten this far from the back streets of Bradford and there was no way he was going back.
It was late afternoon when John pushed open the door and made his way to the bookstore's counter where Jamie was checking through the latest invoices. Jamie looked up at the clock and flashed a cheeky smile. "Must've had a lot of business to discuss."
John scowled, but for some reason found Jamie difficult to reprimand. Instead he took off his jacket and leaned over Jamie's shoulder, eyeing the invoice in hand. "Guess I need to start learning the ropes, huh?"
Jamie turned his face toward him and said with a sly grin, "I'm sure you'll find I'm a good teacher."
"Oh, I just bet you are." John laughed, not sure if Jamie was flirting or just playing up to the boss. "But how about we go through the ordering system first?"
Jamie attempted to look shocked, but failed miserably and giggled. "The order book is out back; I'll go get it."
"No, I'll go. I have to start finding my way around."
Jamie's expression quickly changed and he tried to say no, but John was already around the counter. As he neared the back of the store, John's eyes fell on a very disheveled-looking man sitting in one of the big leather armchairs engrossed in a secondhand novel. John's initial reaction was to look away, but he couldn't help staring at this man. His clothes were a filthy array of layers; his dirty feet were partially tucked under him and a pair of ratty elastic-sided boots sat on top of an overstuffed pack beside the chair. The shoulder-length hair could have been dark blond if it was clean, but hung in mangy brown matted lengths. The man looked up and then quickly dropped his eyes as soon as they made contact with John's.
Jamie had been watching John with a half-held breath and when he saw him take a step toward the chair called out quickly, "Um, John, I need you over here.... Um, there might be a problem with one of the orders."
John hesitated briefly, frowning at the man desperately trying to sink into the leather chair before turning to walk back to Jamie. "What sort of problem?" he muttered.
"Oh ... um ... no problem really," Jamie wasn't sure how to continue so he took a deep breath and said, "That's David."
John just folded his arms and waited.
"Okay.... Mum saw him looking at the books in the window a few times. She said he looked cold ... and sad." Jamie paused to gauge John's reaction, and when there was none he continued. "So she asked him if he wanted to come in. He smiled a bit, but walked away. The next day Mum saw him again. She's not one to give up, my mum; so she went outside and convinced him to come in. Actually she almost dragged him in. She told him it was okay to read the secondhand books and bought the battered old chairs the next day. So David comes in every day to read...."
John frowned at Jamie's babbling and mumbled, "Sounds to me like your mum is a 'soft touch,' Jamie."
Jamie knew that was true but couldn't stand the thought of telling David he wasn't welcome anymore.
"Look, John, I know this is your place now, but David is harmless. Smells a bit, but is quite nice when you can get him to talk."
John didn't look convinced and was more concerned that David might discourage paying customers. Jamie shifted anxiously from one foot to the other trying to figure out how to make John understand; finally he came to a decision, took another deep breath, and suggested he introduce him to David. John rolled his eyes and shook his head, but followed the young assistant to the rear of the store because it was obviously important to Jamie.
John felt strangely nervous as they approached the chairs. Despite the hair falling around his face and ratty beard, John could see that the man was around his age, but that was where the similarities seemed to end. John was at a loss to see what he could possibly talk to this man about.
Jamie sat in the chair next to David, who looked up from his book and smiled. "Hey, Davey. Whatcha reading?" Instead of answering David showed him the cover of the book while casting a wary glance at John. Jamie followed his look and said, "This is John. You remember I told you how Mum was selling this place? Well, John is the new owner." David didn't look reassured by this information, but quietly mumbled "Hi" without meeting John's eyes.
For some reason those eyes disconcerted John and he didn't hold the man's look. Perhaps he was a reminder of another path, a "there but for the grace of God" type of thing or.... John couldn't put his finger on why, but David was not someone he wanted near him. With a grunted a hello, John reminded Jamie that he still had to finish showing him last month's orders and walked back to the counter. As he turned his back to them he heard Jamie say in a very conspiratorial whisper, "He'll be okay, Dave. Just seems a bit grumpy 'cause he's not used to us yet."
John raised his eyebrows and his voice at the comment. "Jamie! Come on!"
Looking back to see if Jamie was following, John caught him leaning in to whisper something to David before giggling and jogging toward the counter.
"He is a good person, John. Please don't chase him out," Jamie pleaded when he caught up.
"Your mum's not the only one who's a soft touch," John responded, but at least he was smiling. He'd already decided to deal with the David issue another day.
The rest of the day was spent with John, sitting at the small table beside the counter going through the ordering system, ringing distributors, and introducing himself. He was comfortable with that and gradually began to believe that the next twelve months were at least doable. There'd been a steady trickle of customers throughout the day but he left them to Jamie. John smiled at Jamie's mix of ease and enthusiasm when dealing with people; it was obvious that they adored him, especially the older women. He was a definite asset to the business.
Just before closing, a quiet figure made his way past the counter. John looked up to see David, boots back on his feet and battered pack slung over his shoulder, head down, carefully avoiding John's eyes as he left the store. John frowned. I must do something about him.
As he looked away from the door he caught Jamie's worried eyes on him. John refused to acknowledge the look and simply said, "Well, Jamie, we survived our first day together. Time to lock up and head home, I think."
Jamie allowed the knot in his stomach to dissipate, let his breath out, and walked to the door to flip the Open sign over to Closed. He made a show of turning the lock on the door, looked at John, wiggled his eyebrows, and said, "Tomorrow we let you loose on the customers."
John shook his head and groaned. "Oh fuck."
Finding the off-street parking was easy enough, but getting out of the car took more courage than John could muster. He'd turned off the engine and removed his seat belt, but rather than exiting he sat silently in the driver's seat. John knew this was the first real day of his life as a storekeeper. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the headrest. A fucking storekeeper, he thought. All that fucking work to end up behind a counter. Only a year, Mac, only a year.
The key slid easily into the lock and with a simple turn the door opened. John stepped inside the still-dark store, flicked on the lights, and entered the alarm code. He took a breath and walked over to the counter. It all seemed so familiar, but not at the same time. The business side of things would be easy, he knew that. But the rest....
John ran his fingers over the antiquated cash register and soon they were lightly dancing over the keys; not enough to move them, just enough to feel them against his fingertips. He stopped and looked up through the store. It was quiet. There was a flutter of anxiety in the pit of his stomach and the usual dull pain behind his eyes. Without any real purpose, John strolled through the solid bookshelves, briefly touching the occasional volume before moving on.
It wasn't long before he found himself sitting in one of the leather chairs. He slouched down into worn leather and closed his eyes. The smell of dust and old books was strong. He smiled, feeling like a little boy sitting in the "big" chair at his granny's. She always surrounded herself with books and let John sit in his granddad's chair to read them. John felt his muscles relax. He felt safe.
"You look happier this morning."
John leaped out of the chair as if he'd been caught doing something wrong and glared at Jamie who was leaning, hands in pockets, against one of the shelves. It took a moment for the blood to stop rushing in his ears but he managed to growl, "If you plan on keeping your job, don't sneak up on your boss!"
John stalked past Jamie toward the counter, ignoring the barely concealed giggle of the young man bouncing along behind him.
The morning passed easily and generally without incident. The early customers tended to be relatively introspective and seemed to know what they were looking for without his help. Jamie informed him that "Customers usually fall into categories according to the time of day or day of the week. The morning is for those on a mission, by eleven a.m. the university students surface, and afternoon is for the browsers and mums with kids." As if on cue a young couple talking loudly breezed past them and headed for the secondhand book section.
Jamie gave John a triumphant look and stated, "Student types. It must be nearly eleven."
John chuckled at the smug look and couldn't resist needling Jamie by asking, "So what time is set aside for our resident transient?"
Jamie's grin faltered and with a quiet "I'll put the kettle on," he left the counter and walked into the kitchen.
A laugh alerted John to the fact that the "student types" were emerging from the secondhand alcove and heading toward him. John braced himself with a mental be polite and asked, "Find anything interesting?"
The boy threw a paperback in front of John and grunted, "Does the bookmark come with the book?"
John frowned and picked up the book, opening the page where a slightly tattered red leather bookmark rested. "Um, I guess so...."
Suddenly Jamie appeared from the back room and snatched the book out of his hands. He glanced first at John and then the students, saying in a very hesitant voice, "I'm sorry. This one isn't for sale."
"It was on the shelf!" The boy argued.
Jamie shot another look at John before stammering, "I ... I made a mistake. It was requested by someone who phoned earlier and I forgot to pull it off the shelf."
The boy didn't look convinced, but his girlfriend smiled and said, "Hey, that's okay. We all make mistakes."
Jamie smiled and silently thanked her for getting him off the hook with her boyfriend.
"Look, if I get another copy I'll make sure I put it under the counter for you, yeah?" Jamie said, holding on tightly to the paperback.
The girl realized there was obviously more to this so thanked him quietly before dragging her boyfriend out the door. Once they were gone Jamie just stood looking down at the book, his fingers worrying the corner of the bookmark, trying to avoid John's gaze. But he knew the question was inevitable.
"What was that all about?"
Jamie sighed. "The book is reserved, John. Sort of."
"Shouldn't it be behind the counter if it's reserved?" John asked with narrowed eyes, well aware that Jamie was trying to get out of answering him.
"Um ... yeah, my mistake. I'll put it away." Jamie avoided looking directly at John and reached down to put it under the counter, but John stopped him with a quiet "Now tell me what's really going on here, Jamie."
Jamie twitched a bit, realizing John wouldn't be diverted. "Mum gave that bookmark to David to let us know which book he's reading, you know, so we wouldn't sell it until he was finished."
David again! John inwardly growled, but looked at Jamie and said, "Okay. I can live with that, and of course you'll let me know if there's anything else I should be warned about."
Jamie's relief was palpable as he watched John walk back through the store to return the bookmarked novel to the shelf next to the chair. This isn't going to be easy, but we'll get there.... We have to. He released a breath and called, "I'm off to buy some lunch. Want me to get you something?"
"Anything's fine." John smiled as he walked back to the counter. "So long as it's none of your vegetarian muck!"
"Okay, sliced corpse on bread for you then?"
"Sounds perfect." John grinned and pulled out his wallet. "Here; take some money."
Jamie waved it away and chuckled as he dashed to the door. "That's cool, mate. I always grab it out of the cash register." Luckily Jamie was through the door before John let loose with a string of very colorful expletives.
John was still shuffling through the accounts when he heard the bell above the door. He was all set to tell Jamie to hurry with his delicious sliced corpse when he saw David come in. Both men avoided looking at each other; David kept his head down and John suddenly found an invoice fascinating. He didn't see Jamie enter the store until a brown paper bag was thrown on the counter in front of him. "Food for the carnivore."
Relieved with the distraction, John grabbed the bag and went into the kitchen. "You want a tea or coffee?"
Jamie continued walking to the back of the store and called over his shoulder, "Can I have two teas, please?"
John frowned as the water rushed into the kettle. "Two teas?" Then he realized with a groan: "David."
With two mugs in hand John walked through the store wondering who the hell was the boss in this place. He could already hear the two men talking when he rounded the shelf and saw Jamie crack up laughing and run his hand over David's hair. It was an innocent enough gesture, but John cringed at the sight. How can Jamie touch him in that state?
David stopped talking as soon as he saw John and took the mug with a quiet "Thank you." Jamie flashed John his best smile and said, "Ta, John. Here, sit down and have lunch with us. I'll grab the floor." Jamie started to stand, but John waved him back down and left them to share Jamie's lunch.
John was relieved that his first "real" day was over, although he had to admit it hadn't been as bad as expected. The register tallied, taking into account the lunch money snaffled by Jamie, and the day's takings seemed quite healthy.
Jamie was in the kitchen rinsing out their well-used mugs, leaving John to do the final walk-through of the store before locking up. John methodically straightened up any stray books and checked for discarded sweetie wrappers near the children's books. The last section he reached was the secondhand books and John realized he'd already started to think of this as David's spot. "All bloody Jamie's fault," John grumbled as he moved to pick up a piece of paper left on one of the chairs. "I would have flung him out day one without Jamie whining in my ear."
John looked down at the paper. It had obviously been torn out of one of the cheap water-damaged sketch books they kept near the counter, like the one he'd seen stuffed in the side of David's backpack. But it was the subject of the sketch that made him frown. He was looking at himself. It was a picture of John at the counter doing the accounts; his chin was resting on his hand and his eyes were unfocused, staring into space.
John was taken aback by the image. Is that what I look like to him? It certainly wasn't the face he saw in the mirror every morning. He was still scowling at the sketch when Jamie said, "That's beautiful."
John was startled by the sudden voice and growled, "Fucking hell, Jamie. I wish you would stop sneaking up on me!"
"What would be the fun in that?" Jamie grinned, his dark eyes dancing with mischief. "I like catching the boss perving at pictures of himself."
"Come on, you daft git. I'll drive you home." John chuckled and shoved Jamie past the counter toward the door, but not before slipping the picture carefully into his briefcase.
Jamie had fiddled with just about every accessory in the car, both standard and optional, before John had backed out of the car park. Finally he settled on shuffling through John's CDs. "Man, you have crap taste in music."
John just ignored him and indicated to turn into the main street. By the time they reached the third intersection Jamie's attention had definitely shifted to outside the car. John was just about to give in and ask him what he was looking for when Jamie whipped around in his seat. "Hey, pull over!" John instantly did as he was told and turned to Jamie. "What? What's wrong?" But Jamie was already halfway out the window and shouting, "Fuck off, you wankers!" The words were no sooner spoken when John saw a couple of teenagers bolt down the street.
He then saw David walking toward the car and Jamie eased back in the window. "Hey, Dave. You okay?"
"Yeah. They were just drunk kids, that's all," David said quietly as he bent down to the window. His expression rapidly became guarded when he saw the driver of the car. John felt a pang of guilt at the look without being able to pin down why he should feel that way.
David's eyes returned to Jamie as he asked, "It's cold tonight; do you have somewhere to go?"
"Heading to the shelter. It's early; there should still be beds."
Jamie looked at him, hoping that was true, and whispered, "Stay safe, man." David gave him a small smile, shrugged, and walked toward the door of the shelter.
Jamie slumped into the car seat. "I fucking worry about him...."
John didn't know how to respond so remained silent, only asking for the occasional direction. When he pulled on the handbrake outside the small apartment building, Jamie hesitated before opening the door. He turned and said with an almost sheepish expression, "Hey, thanks for driving me man. Um ... you wanna come up for a coffee?"
John considered what he assumed was an offer and was tempted, but wasn't really sure if he'd misinterpreted the invitation. Rather than making a fool of himself or embarrass Jamie, he said with a gentle smile, "Rain check, okay?"
Jamie returned the smile and added a wink as he got out of the car. John gave him a good-natured shake of the head and wave as he pulled away from the curb. Well, McCann, a gorgeous young man invited you up for coffee and you knocked him back. That may just have been the dumbest thing you have done for a while. By the time he reached the intersection near the shelter, John had decided to take Jamie up on the rain check. Perhaps dinner the next night?
While waiting for the traffic lights to change from red to green he couldn't help looking at the entrance of the shelter. The doors were now closed and it was only by chance that a movement caught his eye and he saw a couple of people huddled in a nearby doorway. His breath caught in his throat when he realized one of the men settling down on the folded cardboard was David.
John didn't notice the lights had changed until he was startled by the impatient drivers honking from behind. He took his foot off the brake and drove away.
By the time he'd reached his apartment John had a sick, heavy feeling deep in his chest. He nodded at the doorman and traveled up the elevator to his floor.
Rather than relaxing when he entered the familiarity of his apartment, John felt agitated and angry. He threw his keys on the table, poured himself a scotch, and flopped down on the couch. The thought of food turned his stomach so he just sat in the quiet room smoking a cigarette. The sense of satisfaction he'd felt earlier had completely evaporated and he rubbed his hand over his eyes, feeling vaguely sick. Shit! This was all supposed to help. John groaned at the familiar pressure behind his eyes. I'm just tired; bed and sleep's what I need.
John didn't switch on the heating in the room and undressed, ignoring the goose bumps on his flesh. He tried hard to convince himself that it wasn't really a cold night, but by the time he crawled under the warmth of the duck down quilt, he was miserable. His stomach was twisted in knots and his tense muscles were threatening to cramp. His mind kept replaying the scene in the doorway and Jamie's quiet plea: "Stay safe, man."
"Oh, fucking hell," John cursed and threw back the covers. He dressed quickly, grabbed his keys, and made his way back to the garage.
"What the fuck am I doing?" he muttered as he backed his car out of his spot. "David is not some fucking stray puppy."
John found a parking bay near the shelter and walked toward the store doorway, trying to figure out what he was going to say. How was he going to explain why he was there and what was he actually going to offer David?
When he finally turned into the doorway his heart missed a beat. It was empty. John stood in the bare alcove, unsure what to do, and looked around the small space as if he'd somehow missed evidence of where David had gone. He spotted a cop standing across the road watching him. John waved and jogged over to ask, "Excuse me, officer. Did you see a man sitting in that doorway a little while ago?"
The cop gave him a long curious look before answering, "Why? Did he take something?"
"No!" John responded quickly. "No, I'm, um ... I'm just looking for him, that's all."
"Moved 'em on. A filthy nuisance they are hanging around here and there's too much paperwork if I haul them in."
John's stomach churned at the cop's attitude, but he forced himself to stay civil. "Any idea where he might have gone?"
The cop looked directly at John and said, "Could be anywhere. Needle in a haystack. Best to leave it and head home."
John knew it was pointless to ask any more and made his way back to his car. He drove fruitlessly around the streets for another hour before the pounding in his head and his rapidly blurring vision forced him to give up and go home.
John had reorganized the books on the recommended fiction display twice within the space of as many hours when he found himself beginning to move the nearest title yet again. He quickly pulled his hand back and shoved it in his trouser pocket as if the rapid action could deny its original intent. He stood and stared at the neat display, then grimaced at his sudden and unfamiliar need to find pointless "busy work". This was not his way; yes, he could be methodical, but he always had goals, some sort of end product.
He couldn't settle, and what was worse, had no idea why he felt so restless.
As the day progressed John could feel the little ball of anxiety building in his stomach and Jamie had decided very quickly to give him a wide berth. It was nearly lunchtime when John looked up at the familiar tinkle of the doorbell.
John watched David carefully close the door and was surprised when the knot in his gut began unraveling, shocked that he was relieved to see David. It was then he realized that he was smiling and his hand was motioning a half-wave. Suddenly embarrassed, John dropped his hand, but David gave him a half-smile back before lowering his face and moving to his safe spot at the rear of the store.
Jamie poked his head out of the back room and asked, "Was that, Dave?"
John was flustered, caught off guard, but managed to grumble, "Yeah."
"Cool. Here's your tea, and can you take this one for David? I made him a coffee 'cause it was cold last night."
John hesitated. Damn it. He knew Jamie was doing this on purpose, trying to make it harder for John to throw David out. He wanted to say no, that he was busy, but Jamie's look almost dared him to do just that.
John took hold of both mugs and shot Jamie a withering look back. He stormed up to the back of the store, spilling more than the odd drop. He really didn't want to do this, but couldn't pinpoint what it was about the man that made him feel so uncomfortable.
David had already removed his boots and was settling cross-legged with a book in his hand. John's attention had drifted to the red bookmark when David lifted his head and gave him a questioning look. Indicating the mug with a nod of his head, John announced, "Jamie made you coffee."
David took the drink quietly and wrapped his fingers around the warm mug. With that job done John started to move away but, for some reason that he couldn't quite fathom, he changed his mind and sat in the spare leather chair.
"Can I ask what was going on last night when we pulled up?" John queried.
David just looked at him for a long while. So long that John started to think there wasn't going to be an answer and was prepared to leave when David replied so quietly that John had to strain to make out all the words. "They were just a couple of kids who'd drunk too much, that's all."
John noticed David's reluctance but continued anyway. "Were they giving you a hard time?"
"It happens." David shrugged.
John narrowed his eyes at what he considered a glib answer and almost pushed for more, but changed tact and said instead, "Jamie's a good kid; he was just about hanging out the car window looking for you last night."
David smiled a little sadly. "Maggie and Jamie have been good to me; I'll miss her."
That was the first time during their conversation that David had made direct eye contact. John was so taken aback by the intensity of the pale gray eyes that he couldn't hold it and looked down at his fingers clenched tightly around his own mug of tea. "Yeah," he mumbled. "You told Jamie you were going to the shelter last night, but I saw you later on."
David's gaze hardened, wondering what exactly it was that John was trying to say. "I did go, but there are very few beds free in winter and there was no room."
John shifted uncomfortably in his seat. This was going into an area he didn't like. It was easier to deal with David when he was simply a smelly derelict who took up store space. He knew those eyes were still on him. Despite his reluctance to hear the answer, John asked in a gentle voice, "So what happens when it's full?"
"Depends on the weather, I guess. Sometimes the park is okay but store doorways are a good option in winter. Cuts the wind and keeps you dry."
"But they don't let you stay there...."
David cocked his head slightly and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. Why is this man listening to me?
"Is that what happened last night?" John looked away from his hands and glanced down the store to where Jamie was pretending not to hover.
David just shrugged as if dismissing it and stated, "Obstruction of a public footpath."
Feeling totally out of his depth, John just shook his head slowly and sipped his tea. He was aware that David was looking at him with some curiosity, but knew his gaze would drop as soon as John met it.
John heard the phone ring and a moment later Jamie called for him. As he stood up, he smiled at David and felt unexpectedly warmed when the smile was returned.
The rest of the afternoon passed with surprising ease although John couldn't fail to notice that Jamie seemed to take great delight in introducing John to the "regular" customers. Some were civil and polite while others wanted to know every detail about his life, both past and present. He lost track of how many people assumed that John must be related to Maggie because they were both English. "It is a very small country, after all." John even survived a quizzing from the local aged pensioners book group.
He was surprised that people didn't seem too worried by David's presence in the secondhand book section; although it was obvious that many customers ignored or avoided him. David just took it all and kept his head buried in his book or his well-used sketch pad. With a wave of guilt, John had to face the fact that he was one of the people who would look away and pretend that the dirty man in tatty clothes wasn't really there.
It was wrong that David was invisible to these people, had been to him.
When the last customer walked out the door John clasped his hands behind his neck at the wispy edges of his fair hair and stretched his tired muscles. He was weary, but had to admit that he felt good. He grinned broadly at Jamie and said, "I think I'm getting the hang of this."
Jamie gave him an amused look. "Definitely improving, McCann, but a long way to go 'til you reach my standard."
"Cheeky bugger!" John laughed as he swiped at Jamie who easily jumped out of his reach. "Hey, want to join me for dinner?"
"This the 'rain check,' huh?" Jamie teased.
"Could be. Any idea where to eat around here?"
"Oh yeah, I know just the place," Jamie enthused, almost bouncing on the spot.
John was laughing at Jamie's seemingly boundless energy at the end of a long day when he saw David walk past and nod good night. Jamie instantly turned his attention to David and said, "Night, Dave. The weather report says it's gonna be mild tonight, so that's good, yeah?"
David paused and smiled at Jamie. "Yeah, that's good."
"Um, listen," John said, looking from Jamie to David. "I'm shouting Jamie dinner. Want to join us?"
Jamie was visibly stunned by John's offer, but not when David quietly thanked him, refused the offer, and walked out the door.
"What's his problem?" John grumbled, angered by the refusal. "I thought he was okay with me now. I mean, he.... Shite. I don't know."
Jamie stood and looked at John for a long moment, trying to get his wording clear in his head. Finally he said in a subdued voice, "I guess he's embarrassed, John."
"Embarrassed? How do you mean?"
"David's not dumb. He knows most places won't let him in. Fuck, even the fast-food joints move them on."
John felt a tinge of shame over his insensitivity. "I didn't think, Jamie. I'm sorry."
Jamie nodded slightly but said, "Hey, at least you're trying. Now, come on, boss. You owe me dinner!"
John laughed when he saw Jamie's perfect spot. "I can't believe you found an English pub!"
"You better believe it. My dad used to drag us here for the match of the week." Jamie grinned over his shoulder. "They even serve that fuck awful black pudding from your end of the world."
"Don't knock the puddin', mate." John chuckled as they pushed the door open and walked into the noisy bar. "Fuck! Ale on tap and football on the telly.... I've died and gone to heaven."
"Or died and gone to Bradford. I knew that posh accent was put on."
"You have no idea how much work it took to leave the 'lad' in Bradford."
Jamie was about to reply but spotted a table being vacated near the fireplace. "Yes! Come on," he shouted excitedly and dragged John through the crush of bodies until they reached the table. "Great spot this; warm fire and good view of the match."
The dinner was a near perfect attempt at English fish and chips and they settled comfortably to watch the football match. However, it wasn't even halftime when Jamie turned to John and asked, "So, do you have a girlfriend ... or boyfriend?"
John nearly choked on his beer as he managed to gasp, "Shit! You don't bandy your words, do you?"
Jamie just laughed and drained his glass. "Well, you never find stuff out if you don't ask. So, do you?"
John shook his head and let the smile slip from his face. "I have a girlfriend, of sorts."
"What does that mean ... of sorts?" Jamie queried.
John sighed. "Marian and I have been 'going out' for a few years, but I suppose it's just convenient for both of us. We're useful to each other."
"Useful? That sounds fucked, John," Jamie said with obvious distaste.
"Well, I never said it was true love," John said with a grimace before emptying his glass. "I also never said we were exclusive."
Jamie stared at him for a moment before breaking into laughter. "Come on then; the match is boring anyway." Jamie jumped to his feet, grabbed his coat, and headed for the door.
John happily acknowledged the pleasant buzz of the alcohol as they left the warmth of the pub and they huddled together against the biting cold of the night outside that was nowhere near as mild as originally forecast.
"Fuck, it's bloody freezing tonight," Jamie cursed as he broke away from John and ran to the car. "Come on, man. Let me in the car before me bits drop off!"
John pressed the button on his key ring and laughed at Jamie's inelegant dive into the passenger seat. As usual, he rifled through the CDs until he found one vaguely acceptable and slid it into the player. By the time John was out of the parking spot Jamie had settled against the headrest with his eyes closed and was singing at the top of his lungs.
He was still singing along to the CD when John pulled on the handbrake outside Jamie's apartment. John gave a quiet laugh as Jamie finished the song and turned his head to give him a cheeky grin.
John matched his pose and asked, "Am I invited in tonight?"
Jamie's grin widened and he waggled his eyebrows before cracking up and laughing, "Oh shit. I can't pull off sexy looks when I'm drunk."
John was about to argue but found himself running his fingers down Jamie's neck instead. He leaned in until his tongue followed the path of his fingertips. Unfortunately John had only just begun in his "grand" seduction when Jamie erupted into a round of drunken giggles.
"Sorry ... sorry," Jamie said, trying desperately to suppress his mirth as he buried his face in the crook of John's neck. John was slightly bewildered by Jamie's reaction, but grinned into his hair and said, "Time to get you upstairs, I think."
The journey up the stairs took slightly longer than anticipated. Jamie managed to locate his key and open the door, but as soon as they were inside the foyer he rounded on John, pushed him up against the small bank of mailboxes, and leaned full-length against him. John twined his fingers through Jamie's dark hair and asked with an amused smirk, "Got something in mind? Or am I just a convenient resting place before you tackle the stairs?"
Jamie pushed his hips invitingly against John, wishing they weren't cocooned in such thick overcoats, and giggled more than a little breathlessly. "I have a lot on my mind; if I can just figure out how to get up the bloody stairs."
John cupped his hands on either side of Jamie's face and shook his head before laughing and turning him around to face the way up to his apartment. "Lead on, James."
With a lot of laughter and drunken false starts they managed to navigate both the stairs and the front door. Once inside the apartment Jamie fumbled with the buttons on John's overcoat. "Fuck, my fingers won't work," he laughed when he couldn't get a grip on one of the buttons.
John quickly rid himself of his coat and dragged Jamie's off his shoulders, throwing it on a nearby chair. He slid his arm firmly around Jamie's waist and growled, "Coats are gone now."
Jamie grinned and resumed his full-length press against John. "Much better." Reveling in the shared warmth, he moaned lightly and pushed his hand inside John's shirt.
Even though Jamie had earlier argued with himself over the merits and pitfalls of sleeping with the new boss, there was a sadness to John that no amount of bravado could hide. There was something about him that said he needed this tonight.
Besides, Jamie reasoned, a few drinks and those sexy green eyes....
A low hum escaped John's lips when Jamie's fingers worked their way up his chest to drag his nails lightly across John's nipple. "Fuck, lad. I think you better show me your bedroom."
Jamie backed off just enough to pull John through the front room and into his bedroom; however, the dynamics quickly changed as soon as they were across the threshold. John's hands encircled Jamie's arms and spun him around until he was pinned against the now-closed door. Jamie barely had time to catch his breath before John had hauled his shirt over his head and removed his own with the same urgency.
Jamie's head fell back against the wooden door as John bit lightly at the side of his neck. He could feel hands working on his fly, his own fingers blindly grasping at John's hair. Despite being trapped between John and the door, Jamie was able to move his hips and legs enough to allow his pants to fall to the floor, all the while trying to pull John in for a kiss. But John was having none of that and quickly pushed him back against the hardwood of the door using his free hand to extricate himself from the last of his own clothes.
"Shit," Jamie moaned, pulling John's hair to make him back off a little. "I'm getting fucking splinters in my arse here."
John chuckled, stepped out of his fallen clothes, and ran his hands all the way down the silken skin of Jamie's sides, stopping only when they reached the gentle crease at the top of his thighs. John hauled one leg up and wrapped it over his hip, steadying himself before he was able to lift the other leg. Jamie moaned and crossed his legs behind John, squirming until he was safely cradled in John's strong hands so he could turn them toward the bed.
With a grunted effort, John managed to get his knees onto the bed where he safely lowered Jamie to the mattress. He lay still for a moment, both to catch his breath and to give him a chance to think and gain some semblance of control. The latter was difficult with Jamie's mouth on his throat and hips rolling rhythmically against his cock. "Oh God. Jamie, if you keep doing that this is going to be over before it begins."
Jamie knew full well the effect he was having on John, enjoying the small amount of momentary power it gave him, but after one more cheeky thrust he unlaced his legs and reached over to the bedside drawer to pull out a condom and lubricant. He tore open the packet and reached down to stroke John's already aching cock.
"No, you don't," John muttered, clamping his hand over Jamie's to still its action. "Turn over."
Without argument, Jamie slid over onto his belly, silently enjoying the delicious friction of the heavy quilt stitching against his already dripping cock. He attempted another languid rub over the fabric but John's arm encircled his waist and roughly hauled his hips off the bed. Jamie arched back into John's touch and the cool fingers that slid between his cheeks.
John paused, taking in the beautiful man pushing back against his hand. This is not a good idea. But the desperate ache in his body quickly negated any doubts. He teased two fingers slowly around Jamie's opening before exerting enough pressure to thrust them in.
"Fuck," Jamie grunted, trying to rise farther off the bed, meeting the probing fingers. John's tongue flicked slowly over his bottom lip as he watched Jamie's hips undulate in time with his fingers. He knew he couldn't wait. He quickly removed his fingers and rolled on the condom, cursing as both lube and haste made it slippery.
Jamie braced his head on his forearms when John gripped his hips. The breach was hard and without hesitation, but Jamie remained still. He wasn't usually this passive, but he knew it was what John wanted, needed.
It was so difficult to breathe buried deep in Jamie. The heat gripped him and John fought his way back from the edge, exhaling a long shaky breath.
His fingers tightened their grip around Jamie's hip bones and with a near desperate growl John pulled back just enough to allow him to snap his hips hard into his compliant partner. "Oh, fuck." Jamie gasped against the sweaty skin of his forearms but pushed back, urging John on as he matched the initial thrust with a second and a third.
The room faded from John's vision as all his concentration focused on the smooth skin in front of him ... male skin ... something he'd denied himself for too long.
Above his own labored breathing Jamie could hear John's almost pained grunts and he knew neither of them was going to last at that rate. With a little effort Jamie managed to squeeze one of his hands beneath them and took hold of his own need. Each movement brought on a gasped moan as Jamie pumped his cock in time with John's increasingly erratic rhythm.
"Oh God. Almost there ... almost." John panted breathlessly.
Jamie wanted to answer, but was too near his own completion to formulate words; he barely managed a mantra of incoherent noises as the tension built in his body. He rocked back, vaguely conscious of John's sweat wet between his thighs and the steady echoed slap of their damp skin. His hand gave one last twist as his orgasm hit, leaving him only barely aware of John's strangled cry and shudder before he slumped forward onto Jamie's back.
"Fucking hell, Jamie, I think you killed me," John gasped into Jamie's ear.
"Well, you're squishing me, John." Jamie chuckled breathlessly.
John carefully eased out and sat back on his heels to peel off the condom. "Sorry. Um, where can I put this?"
"Bin next to the bed." Jamie pointed as he rolled over to watch John.
"So tell me, Jamie, do you always fuck your boss?" John grinned as he leaned back against the headboard and lit a cigarette.
Jamie sat up and twisted around until he was cross-legged facing John. "Eew.... Think about what you just said, John!" he exclaimed and pulled a face of disgust.
John looked blankly at Jamie for a moment before it dawned on him who Jamie had previously worked for. "Oh fuck. I'm sorry," he blurted out, embarrassed by his mistake, but Jamie simply grinned and shrugged.
"It's okay. So when does your girlfriend get back?" he asked and reached over to take the cigarette.
"Not sure. Soon, I think," John said quietly, not particularly keen on the idea of discussing Marian while he was still in Jamie's bed. "She is not going to like my new apartment though. Speaking of which, it's time I headed home."
With that, John got off the bed and started to dress. Jamie raised his eyebrows at John's haste, but made no move to follow and lay back propped against the pillows to watch him. He took a long draw of the cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray. "You know, you shouldn't stay with someone you don't love, John."
John stopped buttoning his shirt and looked at Jamie. "Meaning?"
"Just that, John," Jamie said quietly.
"What makes you think I don't love her?"
"Well, the fact you just fucked me through the mattress is a bit of a giveaway."
John gave a short laugh and finished dressing without answering.
Driving home, he did give some thought to Jamie's words; he knew he wasn't in love with Marian and she didn't love him. They were both okay with that because neither had time for the distraction of a "real" relationship.
Even though thoughts of Marian and work had occupied him most of the drive, by the time he was nearly home John realized he'd been subconsciously scanning the street looking for David, and had been since leaving Jamie's.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You cannot read this book and not be moved by the struggles of John and Dave to find their HEA. The author handles the treatment of mental illness and homelessness with great sensitivity. Beautifully written and a great story.
where is the ebook for this book! come on BN!
An excellent story of 2 men who come from very similar backgrounds: one who worked too hard and lost himself and one who worked too hard and was saved before it was too late. My heart ached for both characters. Theirs was not an easy path, but I'm glad they were successful in the end. Highly recommended.