Excerpt from The Truth of Yesterday

We like to think of life as a story, complete with a nice, neat beginning, middle, and end. Real life is seldom that orderly. We often forget just how powerful the past can be. After all, it’s over and done with, so how can it affect the present? The truth is, while the past may be over, it is seldom done — especially in matters not properly dealt with. It has a way of twisting our perceptions, our feelings, and even our reality. Things we thought long behind us can suddenly be very much before us. 

Our past influences every waking minute. It defines who we are today, whether for good or for bad. It has the power to affect the future in ways we can’t begin to understand. Like echoes returning from a great distance or ripples in a pond, the past can come back to haunt us: torturing us with what might have been, taunting us with unrealized potential, terrorizing us with truths we tried to ignore, tormenting us with losses too great to absorb.  

We each, in our own ways, try to move on from the past. Some of us attempt to do so by closing our eyes in the ostrich approach: if I can’t see you, then you can’t see me. Others try to outrun it. Some of us manage to convince ourselves it never happened. There are as many methods of avoidance as there are pasts to avoid. In the end, however, if we live long enough, the past will catch up to us. If we aren’t careful, we may live just long enough for it to do so...and no longer.


Chapter 1 

 

I sat slumped in my chair, eyes on the clock, counting the seconds until I was free. While the professor droned in the background, I’d stopped listening half an hour earlier. Luckily for me, he wasn’t saying anything of real importance. This class was a waste of time. The professor had a love affair with the sound of his own voice, and we students were mere voyeurs. I could have simply read the book, showed up for the tests, and done just as well. Unfortunately, attendance counted as much as test scores for this professor, so I had to make an appearance.  

Finally, the class ended, and I was the first person out the door. I was supposed to meet Micah, my boyfriend, on the other side of town. He’d told me he had something he wanted us to talk about. I had no idea what he had in mind, but that phrase alone was enough to strike fear in my heart. 

Or maybe I was just overreacting. It didn’t have to be anything serious.  

I started my car and checked the dashboard clock. If I hurried, I could swing by my office, check my messages, and still have no problem meeting Micah on time, as long as the roads weren’t too congested. Despite being only a small city on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Salisbury did have its share of traffic woes.  

I made it to the office with no great delays. I parked my car in the small lot next to the building and I ran up the stairs to Novak Investigations. Shane Novak, the private investigator I worked for, was out on business for the afternoon. As his assistant, I mainly did a lot of paperwork, but I also got to help out on some of his cases. I’d even been assigned one of my own recently, which was why I’d wanted to stop by the office. 

I sat down at my desk and jiggled the mouse to wake up my computer. I left it on during the week in case Novak needed to look something up. The first thing I did was turn on some music. I hated being in the office when it was empty and silent as a tomb. 

“I didn’t think you were coming in this afternoon,” someone said behind me a few moments later. 

I jumped and spun around. “Oh, hey!” It was Novak. “I didn’t think you’d be here, either. I just wanted to check my messages.” 

“I finished up early, so I decided to get some work done while it was quiet.” He gave me a meaningful look. 

I made a face at him and turned off the music. “Don’t worry, I’m not staying long. I wouldn’t have even known you were in if you hadn’t snuck up on me.” 

Novak chuckled. “I didn’t sneak up on anybody, and you’re fine. I’m just giving you a hard time. Since you’re here, why don’t you give me a quick update on the Knox case?” 

My mentor was referring to my first official solo job. He was keeping close tabs on my progress, but I wasn’t complaining. I was a little nervous about being out on my own, even though it was a fairly run-of-the-mill, cheating-spouse case. A woman came into the office the week before and asked to speak to Novak. When I wanted to know what about, she replied, “I think my rat-bastard of a husband is cheating on me. If he is, I want proof so I can file for divorce and sue him for every damned penny he has.” 

You’d be surprised how often we hear variations of that statement. Or maybe you wouldn’t. 

“Well, I’ve been doing surveillance on Mr. Knox. As you know, his wife thinks that if he’s having an affair, then it’s happening either at work or when he goes away on business trips. I’ve been following him back and forth to work every day, and so far he’s been a good boy. He hasn’t taken any side trips, unless you count the grocery store one night and the liquor store another.” 

“What about when he’s at work? Or when you’re at school? How can you be sure he isn’t cheating then?” 

“I thought of that. I’m paying the receptionist to alert me if any women come to see him regularly or if he leaves unexpectedly.” 

Novak raised one eyebrow. “Nice thinking, but how do you know you can trust her? What if she’s the one having the affair with Knox?” 

“She didn’t seem to like Mr. Knox very much. That’s what gave me the idea of making the offer to her in the first place. I was asking questions about him, and I could tell she didn’t care for the guy. Every time I said his name, you’d have thought she smelled something bad. When I asked her what she thought of him, she told me he was smarmy and had a reputation for being a ladies’ man. I asked her if she’d like to make a little extra cash, and she jumped at the chance. Actually, she seemed sort of excited to help.” 

“So what’s the deal? She calls you if he does something suspect?” 

“Or texts me, whichever is easier. She might not always be able to call if there are people around.” 

Novak shook his head. “You young’uns and your texting.” He turned to go back into his office. “Keep up the good work, kid.” 

I glowed. His praise didn’t come often, so when it did, I tried to soak it in.  

I flipped open my phone to check the time and almost fell off my desk chair. If I didn’t hurry, I’d be late for my date with Micah. I’d check my messages tomorrow when I came in to work. They could wait. 

Fortune smiled upon me, and traffic was light on my way to the diner where I’d agreed to meet Micah. So light, in fact, that with my rushing I managed to arrive a few minutes early. I didn’t see Micah’s car in the parking lot, so I went in, got a booth, and ordered a soda while I waited. 

“Somebody joining ya, or you ready to order?” The waitress, a middle-aged woman with a chipped front tooth and greasy grayish-brown hair falling out of a half-hearted ponytail, stared at me with a blank expression. Maybe she’d had a rough day. Or a rough life. 

“I’m waiting for someone.” I gave her a small smile so she wouldn’t hurt me. She didn’t return the gesture as she stalked away without another word. She wouldn’t be winning any personality contests in the near future. 

I was just beginning to get a little concerned that Micah wasn’t going to show up when I saw his silver Civic pull into the lot. I watched him unfold himself from behind the steering wheel and turn to face the restaurant. He stood by the car for a minute, just staring into the windows, almost as if he was posing. I waved, but was pretty sure he didn’t see me.  

He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts and moved quickly across the parking lot, where I lost sight of him. He reappeared inside a few seconds later and quickly spotted me. 

“Hey, Killian,” he said, sliding into the booth across from me. He brushed his floppy brown hair out of his dark eyes and smiled. 

My heart skipped a beat. He was so gorgeous. “Hey, I was beginning to think you were standing me up.” I grinned to let him know I was only teasing. 

“Yeah, sorry about that,” he said distractedly. “I got hung up with the story I’m working on right now. I told you they finally gave me one with some real weight, right?” 

“Yeah. The town-council thing.” Micah was a reporter for the local newspaper. “It’s about time you got a real story, especially after all the attention you attracted with your piece about Amalie’s House.” 

He shrugged. Amalie’s House was a pre-Civil War mansion turned bed and breakfast, run by my surrogate father, Adam, and his partner, Steve. The place came complete with its very own ghost. When the inn had opened, Micah wrote an account of the haunting. The article received a huge response — almost all positive — leading Micah to start a weekly series on local haunted hot spots. As a result, he was also getting more respect around the paper. He’d told me the day before about being assigned his first big story, the possibility of major corruption and payoffs in the county council. He was as excited as I’d ever seen him about his work. 

Sitting across from me in the diner, though, he seemed withdrawn and preoccupied. I wondered if something had gone wrong. I hoped the newspaper hadn’t taken the assignment away already and given it to their star reporter, a jerk named Walters. “Is everything okay at work?” 

“Oh, yeah, things are going great. That’s why I was late. The council member who we think is up to his eyeballs in graft made the mistake of firing his secretary last week. She’s just dying to blow him out of the water. I was on the phone with her, and she was talking so fast I could barely write it down quickly enough. Of course, everything will have to be verified. I’ve really got my work cut out for me on this one, but it could be huge.” 

“That’s great.” So it wasn’t the story he was upset about. While I figured he’d tell me in his own time, I was not known for my patience. “What are you ordering?” 

“I think I’ll just get a burger.” He hadn’t even glanced at the menu. 

The waitress was once more approaching our table. “Ready to order?” Her tone suggested she was half hoping we’d change our minds and leave. 

“I’ll have a hamburger — lettuce, tomato, and ketchup, no pickle,” Micah said. 

Between the tension I was sensing from Micah and our waitress’s dour mood, I suddenly didn’t have much appetite. “I’ll just have a house salad.” 

“Drinks?” 

“Water is fine with me,” Micah said. 

I held up my still-full glass. “I’m good.” 

She made the proper notes on her little pad and moseyed off toward the kitchen. 

After she left, an awkward silence fell between us. Micah sat looking down at his hands twisting nervously in his lap. I found myself getting more and more worried since that sort of behavior was so out of character. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “So, what’s wrong? What did you want to talk about?” 

“Hmm? Oh, it’ll wait until the food gets here.” 

“Why? You afraid I’ll lose my appetite if you tell me now?” I tried to keep my voice light, but inside I was tensing up like crazy. 

“It’s not that.” He looked away, suddenly entranced by the giant fish tank near the door. 

“Micah, what’s going on? Are you breaking up with me?” 

He turned back to face me, his eyes wide. “No! At least...I hope not.” He sighed. “Killian, where are we going?” 

“Huh? What do you mean?” 

“Our relationship. Where is it going?” 

“I...I don’t understand what you’re asking.” 

“Killian, we’ve been dating now for several months, but I feel like we’re not getting anywhere. I’ve tried to be patient, but how much can a guy take?” 

“Is this about...sex?” I was eighteen and, for all intents and purposes, a virgin. I’d only had one other boyfriend, with whom I had never gone all the way. Micah had said from day one he didn’t want our relationship to be about sex, and, to his credit, he’d never pushed me. 

“No, this isn’t about sex.” He sighed. “You know it’s not about sex. And you know what this is really about. I need more from you than mere companionship, someone to go to dinner with or to the movies or out dancing. I want intimacy, and I’m not just talking about sexual intimacy. I feel like you’re constantly holding me at arms’ length. I want to be closer to you. No, I need to be closer to you. I need you to let me in.” 

“Micah... I... Wow!” 

“I told you it should have waited.” 

“No, I...” I paused and took a deep breath. “Look, Micah, I don’t know what to say. I thought we were doing fine.” 

“We are. We’re doing just fine. But that’s the problem. I don’t want to just do fine. I want to do great. I want to be completely satisfied in our relationship.” 

“And you’re not.” 

“No, I’m not. I feel like there’s a part of you — a big part — that I’ve never even seen. Although I’ve caught hints and brief glimpses, and those are what have kept me around, I rarely get to see the real Killian. I want to know you completely and totally, but you have to trust me and let me in.” 

“I thought I was...” 

“Did you?” 

Before I could answer, our charming waitress appeared at the table with my salad and Micah’s burger. “Enjoy.” She plopped the platters down in front of us unceremoniously and stomped away. 

I looked at the limp, dreary salad and realized I’d completely lost my appetite after all. Micah was apparently experiencing a similar predicament. I pushed the salad to one side. 

“Killian,” he started again, “I care about you. I really do. I even...I would even say I love you. I’ve never known anyone like you. You’re so smart and funny. I enjoy being with you, and God knows you’re never boring.” He worked up a weak smile. “And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that you’re one of the cutest guys I’ve ever met.” The smile slowly disappeared. “But I can’t live like this. I can’t keep going on in this limbo unless I know there’s a reason to hope for something more.” 

I stared down at the table. “I care about you too. I’ve loved spending time with you and getting to know you.” 

“But?” 

“There’s no but.” 

“So...what are you saying? You’ll let me in?” 

“I...I don’t know what you mean.” 

He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Sometimes—” 

“Sometimes what?” 

“Sometimes I feel there’s something coming between us still. Or someone.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“He’s still here, between us, almost like he’d never left.” 

“What? Who?” 

“Asher. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You can’t let go, can’t move on.” 

I blinked. “Asher? How’d he get into this?” Asher was my ex-boyfriend. We’d broken up months ago, and he’d moved away when school started. I didn’t understand why Micah would bring him up after all that time. 

“I think you still have feelings for him.” 

“That’s not...” I stopped with the word ‘true’ still on my tongue. Was he right? If I was honest with myself, I had to admit Asher was at least part of the reason I hadn’t been moving faster with Micah. I’d been hurt pretty badly after our breakup, and wasn’t at all eager to rush into another situation where I’d be that vulnerable again. Micah was right when he said Asher was coming between us, just not in the way he thought. “I’m sorry.” 

“Me too. Sorry won’t fix this, though.” 

“That’s not what I meant. Look, I don’t have feelings for Asher. Trust me. I’m definitely over him. The thing is...he hurt me. A lot. He was my first love, and he broke my heart when he dumped me for somebody else. I just—” 

“You’re afraid I’ll hurt you?” 

I nodded. 

“I can’t promise I won’t. I wish I could, but nobody can make a promise like that. All I can tell you is that hurting you is the last thing in the world I’d ever want to do.” 

“So...how do I fix this? How do we fix it?” 

“You have to move on, Killian. You have to be willing to take a risk with me.” 

“What do you mean by risk?” 

“Moving to the next level is going to require a certain amount of risk for both of us. We both risk getting hurt, risk losing what we have. All love involves risk. You have to decide if what we have, or what we could have, is worth that risk. Do the benefits outweigh the potential costs? I’ve decided that for me they do, but only if you’re willing to commit to this just as much as I am.” 

“I...” I stopped, at a loss for words. My brain was going a mile a minute trying to keep up, but I was starting to feel overwhelmed. What if I didn’t have an answer for him right that moment? Would he walk away and never look back?  

Luckily, Micah responded to my unspoken question before I could launch into a full-fledged panic. “You don’t have to tell me right now. That wouldn’t be fair. I don’t want to put you on the spot.” He pulled out his wallet, selected a twenty, and tossed it on the table. “Take your time and think about it. Be sure you know what you want, and then call me. I won’t call you. If I don’t hear from you in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll know you decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and I’ll try to understand.” He stood up and looked down at me sitting with what I’m sure must have been a stupefied expression. 

“Micah, wait...” 

“For what?” 

“What’s a reasonable amount of time?” 

He forced another smile. “I want you to have time to think about this, about what I’m asking of you. There’s no real timetable. I’m not giving you a deadline or anything. I hope I’ll be talking to you soon, but if not, no hard feelings. I’ll always love you.” He turned and walked out the door.  

I watched him through the plate-glass window as he crossed the lot once more, climbed into his car, and drove away without ever once looking back. I was still sitting there several minutes later when the waitress came back. 

“Can I getcha anything else?” she asked disinterestedly, as if our food wasn’t still sitting completely untouched on the table and my dinner partner hadn’t just walked out on me. 

“I, uh, think we’re done here.” I slid out from the booth. “Keep the change.” 

“Do you want a doggie bag?” she called after me. 

“No thanks,” I said. Whether she heard me or not I didn’t know and didn’t particularly care. 

 

I was sitting in my room that night with a school book open in front of me on my desk, ostensibly studying. In reality, I can’t begin to tell you the first thing about the chapter I was supposed to be reading. My conversation with Micah kept replaying over and over in my mind. I wondered what I could’ve said differently, and what I was going to do about what he’d said. 

I liked Micah. I really did. It wasn’t entirely out of the question that I could fall in love with him...if I let myself. And that was the problem. Micah was right. I had been holding a part of myself back from him. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if he was also right about the reason. Maybe I wasn’t as over Asher as I’d led Micah — and myself — to believe. I still missed him. If I was honest, I knew I did. It had been months since we were a couple, and we hadn’t been happy even before that. Still, he had been my first boyfriend, and I’d loved him. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I always thought we’d get back together. I had been thrown for a loop when he announced he was moving away. 

I wasn’t sure I was ready to do what Micah asked. Could I take the next step and put myself at risk? It hurt so much when Asher left, more even than when we’d broken up. I’d lost so many people in my life I guess in some ways it was only natural for me to eventually begin building up defenses to keep others away. It wasn’t entirely intentional either. I knew it wasn’t fair for me to expect Micah to keep coasting along uncertainly, but I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to open myself up the way he wanted. I was afraid to allow him in for fear I’d lose him; however, it looked like I was about to lose him anyway. 

I slammed the book shut and let my head drop onto the desk with a thud. “What am I going to do?” I moaned out loud. 

“Why do you always have to make everything so hard?” a familiar voice asked from behind me. I snapped my head up and around so quickly I felt something crack in my neck. 

“Ow!” I yelped. “Damn it, Seth. You scared the crap out of me.”  

My deceased friend reclined on the bed, arms behind his head, and feet crossed at the ankles. He wore what I was beginning to think of as his uniform: faded jeans, heavy black shoes, and a clingy black shirt. His expression was one of benign amusement. 

Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for me to see dead people, especially Seth. I had been his friend before he was brutally murdered. Actually, I’d been his one and only friend. He was the only openly gay kid in our school at the time, a fact that made him terribly unpopular with the in-crowd. He was the one who started me on my own coming-out journey.  

After Seth’s death, when my biological father found out I was gay and kicked me out, Seth’s dad Adam, who was also gay, was the only person I’d known to turn to. He’d taken me in without a second thought and become more like a father to me than my real one ever had. Of course, Adam didn’t know his dead son had a bad habit of showing up in my bedroom unannounced. 

“What? No hello?” Seth grinned at me from his perch on my pillow. “No ‘Gee, Seth, it’s been a long time, how’ve you been?’” 

“You’re dead. I don’t have to ask how you’ve been. I wish you wouldn’t just appear like that. And what is it with people sneaking up on me today?” 

He sat up and pulled his long limbs into a cross-legged position. “Oh, quit being such a drama queen. I didn’t sneak up on you. I was just lying here. For God’s sake, you’re never happy unless you have some sort of crisis going on.” 

“That’s not true.” My protest came out whinier than I had intended. 

“Okay, so maybe it was a little harsh, but you do make mountains out of molehills. Shall I list examples?” 

“Please don’t.” 

He shrugged and grinned, satisfied he’d made his point. 

“So where have you been the last few months? I’d pretty much convinced myself you were just a stress-induced hallucination. When was the last time I saw you? At the barn?” 

“Yes, at the barn. I got in a little trouble over that, broke a few rules. I guess you could say I’m on probation.” 

“Probation? What rules?” 

“I’ve told you there are certain rules I have to obey if I’m to be allowed to come here.” 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I meant what rules did you break?” 

“Oh. Well, that’s another rule. I can’t tell you what the rules are, remember?” 

“You just like being mysterious.” 

He stuck his tongue out at me. “No, there really are rules. Although I have to admit, this whole mystical-entity thing does appeal to me. Look, we’re supposed to help out by dropping enigmatic hints, no direct advice. And we’re never allowed to interfere with the Pattern. When I gave you the strength you needed to escape from those ropes, I crossed the line.” 

“You gave me...what? The Pattern? What are you talking about?” 

“Pretend I didn’t mention that, okay? If I keep this up, you’ll never see me again. Anyway, I didn’t come here to enlighten you about how this all works.” 

“Why did you come?” 

“You need me.” 

“I do?” 

“Yes.” 

“Oh.” 

“I’m here to help you figure out what to do about Micah.” 

I rolled my eyes. “It’s like having my very own fairy godmother.” 

“Fairy something, anyway.” 

“Seth...” I said warningly. 

“Right, so as usual, you’ve gotten yourself into a quandary over something that should be simple.” 

“Simple for you, maybe.” 

“It should be simple for you. Do you like Micah?” 

“Yes. You know—” 

“Do you care about Micah?” 

“Yes, but—” 

“Do you love Micah?” 

That one stopped me cold. 

“Killian, do you love Micah?” 

“I...I don’t know.” 

“Yes, you do. Quit hiding and face the truth. If you don’t stop being an idiot you’re going to lose him forever.” 

Hearing his words so closely echo my thoughts from earlier caused my stomach to lurch. I didn’t want to lose Micah. 

“I do love him.” 

“Then tell him so, and then let him help you get past your fears and insecurities. He’ll work with you if he knows there’s something to work for. If you don’t give him anything, though, what reason does he have to stay?” 

I stood up and started pacing. “I don’t even know why he’d want to stay with me. I mean, I’m a freaking mess. I’m scared to let someone I care about love me, I’m hung up on my old boyfriend, and I’m sitting in my bedroom talking to a dead guy.” 

“Hey, leave the dead guy out of this. Micah wants to be with you because he loves you. Asher is a part of your past now. He’ll always be a part of you, but you have to let him go.” 

I stopped pacing and faced Seth. “What if I can’t?” 

“Can’t what? Let Asher go? You can.” 

“You sound so sure.” 

“That’s because I am sure. I know you, Killian. I know you can do this. Deep down you know you can too. You’re scared, and it’s okay to be scared. Just don’t let the fear control your life.” 

I sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, near Seth but not too close. He looked as if he’d be as solid as I was, yet I was always afraid if I touched him I’d go straight through him. “You’re right. I have to stop being an emotional cripple. It’s time to move on. I’ll call Micah now.” I jumped back up and reached for my cell phone. 

He grinned. “That’s the spirit. No wait, that’s me.” He cackled at his own awful pun. 

I groaned. “Are we finished here?” I flipped open my phone and hit Micah’s speed-dial button. 

“Almost. Just one more thing. Since you’re confronting your fears about Micah, don’t you think it’s also time you confronted your fears about your Gifts?” 

I froze with my finger on the Send button. “What?” 

“Your Gifts. You haven’t forgotten them, have you?” 

“No, despite the fact that I’ve been valiantly trying.” 

Gifts. That was what my friend Judy called my unwanted abilities to see spirits and sometimes catch glimpses of the past. I called them a curse. 

“Why are you so scared of them, Kill? You have them for a reason.” 

I snapped the phone shut and set it back on the desk. “Yeah, well, I didn’t ask for them.” 

“You didn’t ask to be blond either. Or have blue eyes. Or to be gay.” 

“This is different.” 

“No, it’s just another facet of who you are, and the sooner you deal with it, the better.” 

“I’m doing just fine without them, thanks.” 

“We’ll see.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

He stood up and stretched, his body twisting in an almost feline manner. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” 

“No, tell me!” 

“Sorry, I can’t.” 

“You can’t just say something like that and not explain.” 

“Sure I can. I’m enigmatic, remember?” He seemed to be taking entirely too much pleasure in my squirming. “Now, as much I’d love to, I can’t sit here and argue with you about your Gifts all night. I have to go.” 

“Seth...please.” I frowned. “There. I’m begging. Are you happy now?” 

Seth’s goofy grin faded. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m not just being a jerk. I can’t tell you what I meant, but you’ll find out soon enough. Just believe me when I say you’re going to need to deal with your Gifts sooner or later...and the sooner the better.” 

“You’re scaring me.” 

He broke into a smile again. “Don’t be scared. Just deal with them already. I’m going to leave now and let you call Micah.” 

“Wait! When will I see you again?” 

He shrugged. “Who knows? When you need me.” 

“Seth...wait...” 

“Can’t. Sorry.” He flashed me one more goofy smile, and then he was gone. 

It’s very disconcerting to have someone simply vanish right before your eyes. 

 

Chapter 2 

 

Micah wasn’t home when I called, so I left a message on his machine saying I wanted to talk to him. I thought about being somewhat more informative, then decided that news of the sort I had to share would be better delivered in person. 

Micah didn’t return my call until the next day. That morning, I’d tailed Mr. Knox, the allegedly unfaithful husband, to his job as a salesman for a seafood-distributing company, checked in with my friend at the receptionist desk, and finally gone to the office to finish a little paperwork before my first class at 11. Micah agreed to meet me at my house that evening so we could talk. 

The rest of the day went by in a blur. I barely paid attention in class, and I almost forgot to follow Mr. Knox back to his house. All I could think about was Micah. I was so excited to give him my decision I couldn’t focus on anything else. 

After I got home, I changed my clothes twice while waiting for him to show up. I finally settled on a dark-blue, form-fitting, long-sleeved shirt that I knew Micah loved because he said it brought out my eyes. I completed my outfit with a pair of jeans he always claimed made my butt look nice. 

“You’re acting like it’s your first date,” Kane commented from his place in front of the computer as I gave myself a last once-over in the mirror.  

My honorary little brother was quite the expert on dating. He’d had more girlfriends at sixteen than most people had in their entire lives. He’d recently broken up with the girl he’d gone out with all summer, saying he had to keep his options open now that school was back in session. Attracting girls was not a problem for him. He had bright green eyes and shaggy blond hair that he wore in a disheveled fashion, which seemed to drive the girls wild. 

“I’m as nervous as if it were,” I said. 

“Why be nervous? Anyone with half a brain can tell he’s crazy about you.” 

“Is that how you were able to tell?” 

Kane clutched his hands over his heart. “Oh, that hurt...right here.” 

Being the mature older brother I am, I stuck my tongue out at him and left to wait downstairs. 

Of course, Micah chose to arrive the moment I had to use the bathroom. The doorbell rang, and seconds later I heard Kane clattering down the stairs. 

“I’ll get it,” I yelled, knowing from experience that if Kane answered, it would only lead to embarrassment for all involved, but mostly for me. 

“From the bathroom? Don’t be stupid. I’ve got it.” 

I heard the door open and swore under my breath. 

“Hey, Micah,” Kane said. “Good thing you got here when you did or Killian would have tried on everything he owns.” 

“Argh!” I howled. I washed my hands and burst from the bathroom to find Micah standing on the front steps. He looked fantastic in a dark-gray, ribbed turtleneck sweater and black pants. 

“You could have at least invited him in,” I said. 

“Like you gave me time. Anyway, I’m going out. Tell Dad I’ll be home by ten o’clock.” 

“Okay, be careful.” For all our bickering, we were actually pretty close, and I often caught myself being protective of him. He threw me a look and loped off toward the old truck Adam had bought to use at the B&B. He let Kane drive it when they didn’t need it. 

I turned back to Micah, who was still standing just outside the door. 

“Um, come on in.” 

He stepped into the hall where we stood awkwardly for a few seconds, neither of us quite sure what to say. 

“Do you want to go to my room so we can talk?” I finally asked. 

“Sure.” 

He followed me upstairs and into the room Kane and I shared, where the uncomfortable silence returned. 

“I thought about...” I started at the same time Micah began, “You said you wanted...” 

I giggled, and Micah smiled. It was what we needed to break the tension.  

I started again. “I thought about what you said, and I realized you were right. I wasn’t giving you all of myself, partly because I wasn’t completely over Asher. And it was also because I was afraid of being hurt again. Then I remembered what you said about risk.” I took a deep breath. “Micah, I love you.” 

I watched his face intently for his reaction. I saw something flash in his eyes, but I couldn’t identify it before it was gone. 

“What does that mean?” he asked guardedly. 

“It means I’ve decided to take the risk and try to make this work. It means you’ll have to help me if you want to make it work too, but I’m willing to try.” 

“What about Asher?” 

“You mean, am I over him? Not completely. Not yet, anyway. Who knows? Maybe I never will be, but he’s a part of my past now. I have to move on, and I’d like to move on with you. I do love you. I realized that last night. I was scared to death at the thought of losing you.” 

“That scared you more than the possibility of getting hurt?” 

I nodded. “I was afraid to let you in because I was afraid I’d lose you and I’d just get hurt again. Then I realized I was going to lose you by not letting you in. That would have hurt just as much...because I was already in love with you.” 

“Are you really in love with me, Killian?” 

I paused barely long enough to see the vulnerability in his eyes. “Yes, I am.” 

He drew in a shaky breath and slowly released it. “Good, because yesterday when I said I could fall in love with you, that wasn’t exactly the truth. The truth is I already have.” 

I threw myself into his arms, and we tumbled backwards onto the bed. I kissed him firmly on the lips, and without hesitation he started kissing me back. He rolled us over so he was on top. After a few minutes, he gently pulled away and lifted himself up onto his elbows so he could look me in the face. 

“God, you’re so beautiful, Killian. I could just stare at you all night. You know, this is exactly the way I hoped it would happen, but I was too afraid to believe it actually would.” 

“Oh, ye of little faith,” I teased. 

“It’s not going to be an easy road, though. You know that, right?” 

“I never thought it would be. You’re going to have to be patient with me. I doubt I can drop all the walls at once. I might need your help.” 

“We’ll work on it together. You know you’re not the only one with walls though, right?” 

“You too?” 

He shifted his weight off me and onto the bed. I cuddled into his side, my head on his shoulder. His fingers played with my hair. I didn’t think he was going to answer at first, but finally he took a deep breath. “I think everybody has walls to some degree — if they’ve lived at all, anyway. Some are worse than others. From my experience, it seems gay guys have more walls than most. I guess we have to start building our defenses sooner than other people.” 

I twisted around so I could see his face better. “You’ve told me about being abused by your neighbor and how you reacted by having sex with a lot of people, but you’ve never mentioned falling in love. Am I the first person you’ve ever loved?” 

Micah softly stroked the side of my face. “No, I fell in love once before, when I lived in DC. We lived together for a while.” 

That was news to me. “Why’d you break up?” 

“I moved here, he stayed in DC. Neither of us wanted to do the long-distance thing. We made a mutual decision to just call it quits. We both agreed we’d run our course and there was no sense in waiting to break up until things got ugly. At least that way we could stay friends.” 

“Did you?” 

“For a while. Then the phone calls and emails got further and further apart. Eventually, we just stopped talking. About the same time I met you, actually.” 

“Do you still love him?” 

“I’ll always love him, but I’m not in love with him anymore.” 

“Are you over him?” 

He thought for a moment. “Yes. I don’t think I really was before I met you, but I know I am now. I never expected my relationship with him to be a forever thing.” 

“What about us? Are we a forever thing?” 

He stared into my eyes for several seconds before answering. “I don’t know. I guess that remains to be seen. Any other questions, sir?” 

“What? You know everything about my past. I’m just trying to learn more about yours.” 

“You know everything that’s important. You know I love you. You know I want to be with you. What more do you need?” 

“Um, how about a written guarantee? Completely satisfied or my money back.” 

He threw his head back and laughed. “I’ll satisfy you, you little brat.” He jumped up, straddled my waist, and began to tickle me. 

I laughed, wiggled, and writhed under him as I gasped for breath. “Stop!” I finally managed to shout. “Stop! I’m gonna pee!”  

He collapsed on top of me where we both panted and giggled. 

“If anyone walked in right now they’d never believe you were only tickling me.” 

“Um, we’re fully clothed. I realize you’re a little inexperienced, but you do know you start by getting naked, right?” 

I shoved him off and punched him in the arm. “Not funny.” 

He sat up and reached into his pocket. “I have something for you.” 

That caught my attention. “What is it?” 

He pulled out a small, gray jewelry box. 

“Oh, is that what I felt? You mean you weren’t just happy to be lying on top of me?” I didn’t take my eyes off the box. 

“Oh, I was quite happy to be there. I’m sure what you felt was the real thing. I bought this to give you no matter what you decided. If we broke up, it was something to remember me by. If we didn’t, then...well, here.” 

I took the box gingerly and held it in my lap, half afraid to open it. “Always prepared. You’d make a good boy scout.” 

“Except for the fact that I’m gay. Open it, please.” 

I looked down apprehensively at the box. What if it was a ring? I wasn’t ready for that. I tentatively pried open the lid and felt all my anxiety drain away. Nestled against the plush cream lining was a beautiful rainbow pendant on a delicate silver chain. The pendant was an inverted, stained-glass triangle framed in silver. 

“I went with silver because you don’t seem like the gold type,” Micah said softly. “It’s a pride necklace.” 

“It’s beautiful.” 

“I hope you like it. I’ve never seen you wear much jewelry, but I noticed it in the store and...” 

“I love it.” I leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. 

“Want me to put it on you?” 

“Please.” 

He took the box from my hands and freed the necklace. After fiddling with the clasp until it opened, he moved behind me on the bed and put the chain around my neck. The pendent lay perfectly in the hollow at the base of my throat. 

“Stand up so I can see,” he whispered in my ear. 

With a little shiver, I did as he asked. 

“You look incredible.” He gave me a seductive smile. 

I draped my arms around his shoulders. “So do you.” 

“It’s a shame to waste all this sexy. What do you think about hitting the Inferno?” 

The Inferno was a gay dance club located on a back road in the last place you’d expect to find a club of any sort, let alone a gay one. We’d been there a few times, and I’d been delighted to discover that I loved to dance and was actually pretty good. While I was technically underage, Micah knew the bouncer, a bulldog of a drag queen named Carmen, who allowed me entrance without a word.  

I jumped at the chance to go dancing. I left a note for Adam telling him where Kane and I were so he wouldn’t worry. 

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d never suspect the Inferno was anything other than a warehouse. From the outside, it was quite unremarkable: an unassuming, two-story, cinder-block building with no paint on the walls, no windows to speak of, and surrounded by a few straggly pine trees and acres of fields. A small, inconspicuous sign above the large black metal door was the only indication you’d arrived at the right place. Well, that and the gravel parking lot full of cars. It was a Friday night and the joint was jumping. 

On one side of the door stood a tall, broad-shouldered, bald man who appeared to be looking for an excuse to bash in someone’s face. I’d never heard him utter a word in all the times I’d been to the club. On the other side, under an overhang, was a podium with a high barstool behind it. On the stool sat Carmen.  

No one who had ever met Carmen was likely to forget her. She was very large, for one thing, easily topping out at six-feet six without her heels — which must have added at least another three inches — and built like a tank. Her square face would never be described as pretty, or even attractive. She compensated for her lack of looks with an abundance of makeup and hair big enough to have its own zip code. That night, the wild wig she had chosen was approximately the same shade of pink as Pepto-Bismol. Her silver-sequined, ankle-length dress was a few sizes too small. Her trademark mirror-ball earrings dangled from her ears. Although I couldn’t see her shoes, I knew from previous visits that I could have used them as skis. The ensemble was pulled together by a pink feather boa draped around her broad shoulders. 

While the Eastern Shore wasn’t the most liberal part of the state — rednecks and country bumpkins abounded — no one ever feared any trouble with Carmen and her silent sidekick on duty. I’d heard she kept a large pistol somewhere on her person and she knew how to use it. I didn’t doubt the rumors for a second, not that she’d ever need the weapon with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Ugly on the scene. 

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my favorite boys,” she said, waving a large, red lollipop around. 

“You say that to all the boys,” Micah replied with a grin. 

“You know it, honey. So Micah, darling, are you still running around with this baby?” 

“He has a name, Carmen.” 

“I know your name, don’t I, Killian baby?” She waved the lollipop under my nose. I noticed it was shaped like a penis. 

“Hi, Carmen.” 

“The baby speaks. He’s a pretty one, Micah. I have to give you that. Just be sure you hide him if the big bad police ever happen to show up.” 

“I promise.” Micah held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.” He slipped his arm around my waist and pulled me into the Inferno, where the sound of Carmen’s laughter was quickly drowned out by the cacophony of sound. 

The club’s name was quite fitting. The noise may have been the first thing to hit you as you entered, but the heat was close behind. For some reason, it was always hot as Hades inside the building. I suspected it was meant to encourage guys to take their shirts off...as if they needed any encouragement. 

Once our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, a smorgasbord of sights and sounds awaited us. Multicolored strobes flashed, laser beams sliced through the haze like lightsabers, and fog machines created such a miasma we almost had to feel our way along the dance floor. A mass of male bodies was gyrating, bumping, and grinding to the heavy beat of the dance music blasting from every angle. Sweat and glitter sparkling on the dancers’ skin created a dizzying and mesmerizing effect. 

The décor was simple: an industrial look with lots of concrete and shiny black metal. Chimney-like columns spaced at regular intervals around the room spouted flames — not real ones, but a gauzy material illuminated with red and orange lights from below and blown upward by fans. Spiral staircases led to a wide, metal-grid catwalk that went around the whole room and overlooked the dance floor. Tiny pedestal tables sat near the walls, each with four stools bolted down around it. 

I was in awe of this place. It was so foreign to anything I’d ever seen before. Everywhere I looked there were guys kissing, touching, dancing, and laughing. It was euphoria. 

“Ready to dance?” Micah yelled into my ear, the only way I could possibly hear him over the din. 

“Hell, yeah!” 

A few hours later, we slipped out the door into the fresh, cool air. Although the party was still going strong inside, I was completely exhausted. Dancing is strenuous exercise. 

“With all that heavy breathing you two should at least be naked,” Carmen said lazily. 

“Don’t you ever want to be inside?” I think it was the first thing I’d ever said to her besides hello. 

“In there? Are you kidding?” She snorted. “Honey, I’m way too old for all that foolishness. I’d throw out a hip or something. No, I’m content to just sit here and breathe in the ambiance of youth and beauty.” 

“Oh, come on.” Micah scoffed. “We both know you could dance circles around most of those guys in there. You’re healthy as a horse.” 

“And just as big.” She produced a cigarette from her cleavage and lit up. “Now you boys run along. It must be past the baby’s bedtime.” 

“Yes, mother.” I shot her a grin and started for the car. 

“Sassy one, isn’t he?” Carmen yelled. “Keep an eye on him, Micah.” 

Micah chuckled as he trotted to catch up to me. “Did you sneak one of my drinks again tonight?” He was referring to the first time he’d brought me to the Inferno, when I’d been so nervous I’d fortified myself with his alcoholic beverage before hitting the dance floor. “I’ve never seen you so playful with Carmen.” 

“Nope, all I drank was the bottled water you got me. I just figured if she was going to dish it, she could take it. Hey, remember our first date when you promised me if I went out with you again you’d tell me who Carmen really was?” 

“I did?” 

“Yeah, you did.” 

“Well, I lied.” 

“No fair. You promised.” 

“You’re the detective. You figure it out.” 

“I hate it when people tell me that.” 

 

I was at the office again the next day, plugging away at the stack of paperwork that kept building up on my desk, when Judy swept in as only she could. Judy Davis was a slender, attractive woman with a deceptively ordinary appearance. She wore her straight, blonde hair cut off bluntly just above her shoulders and tucked behind her ears. She looked as if she’d come from working in her garden, which she probably had. She took a great deal of deserved pride in the tiny, but exquisite, flower gardens she had created in just the few short months she and her nephew Jake had been living in their small house. 

“Hi, Judy,” I said. “Novak is out on his case.” She and Novak, a widower, had been dating for a few months, and she occasionally dropped in unexpectedly to see him. 

“I know. Actually, I’m not here to see Shane. I’m here to see you.” 

“Me?” 

“Yes, you. I need to talk to you about Jake.” 

For a brief time, back before Asher and I had started dating, Jake and I had almost become boyfriends. I’d ended up choosing Asher, while Jake and I remained just friends. We were barely even that these days, though, so I couldn’t imagine why Judy was there to see me about him. After his entire family had been killed, he’d gone to live in California with Judy. They’d only recently moved back to Maryland. 

“What about Jake?” 

“Well...hang on.” She grabbed one of the chairs that sat against the wall and dragged it over to my desk. She settled into it and took a deep breath. “I’m worried about him. I think he may be doing drugs.” 

“Oh, well, I really wouldn’t know. We don’t talk that much anymore.” 

“I didn’t expect you to know. That’s why I’m here. I want you to find out.” 

“Huh?” 

“I want to hire you to find out what’s going on in Jake’s life.” 

“Hire me?” 

“He won’t talk to me. I’ve asked him, but he won’t say a word. I know things have been hard for him since Tom and Janice died, but we’ve always been able to talk — at least we could before we came back here. I’m beginning to think moving was a mistake.” 

Tom and Janice were Jake’s parents. Janice was Judy’s sister.  

“Wait a minute.” I was still confused. “What about Novak? Why don’t you just hire him?” 

“I think that would make things just a little too awkward. I mean, I’m seeing Shane, and there’s already enough tension between the two of them as it is. Shane thinks I let Jake get away with too much. He’s almost eighteen, though, so I can’t baby him anymore.” 

“But you can hire me to follow him around?” 

“Oh, don’t sound so judgmental, Killian. If he’d talk to me, I wouldn’t have to do this. He’s my responsibility now. I’m worried sick about him. I’ve been having...feelings...premonitions — whatever you want to call them — that he’s in danger. I don’t know what sort of danger and I need to find out. Please, will you do this for me? As a favor? Not that I won’t pay you.” 

Judy was the one who first insisted I had Gifts. She was a psychic of sorts. While she didn’t have a crystal ball or read tea leaves — at least as far as I knew — she did occasionally get “feelings” about things, and she was almost always right. She also had premonitions sometimes: little glimpses of the future — rarely enough to actually be helpful, but creepy nonetheless. While I had no problem with Judy’s Gifts, I would have appreciated her keeping them to herself. I had some serious doubts when it came to my own. 

I also had doubts about investigating Jake. “I don’t know...” 

“Please, Killian. It would mean a lot to me.” 

“I just don’t feel comfortable following my friend around. I mean, I’m not even that good at this. I’m still learning.” 

“Poppycock. Shane says you’re a natural, the best he’s ever seen even without training. I know you can do this, and I know you’ll do it well, because you care for Jake, too. If he’s involved with drugs or something else illegal, his life could be in danger. If you refused to help me and something happened to him, how would you feel?” 

Great. There was a guilt trip too. Could her visit get any better? She was right, though. I knew if anything happened to Jake after I’d turned her down, I’d never forgive myself.  

I sighed. “Okay, I’ll do it.” 

“Thank you, Killian. But there’s one more thing.” 

“What’s that?” 

“I want you to keep this quiet.” 

“Of course.” 

“I mean, from Shane.” 

“You don’t want me to tell Novak?” 

“No. Not yet. Let’s see what’s going on first.” 

“It’s not good to keep things from the person you’re dating.” Or from your boss, I thought, but didn’t add. I didn’t like the idea of trying to hide an investigation from Novak. 

“Killian, darling, as much as I appreciate your concern, I don’t need relationship advice. I mean that in the kindest possible way. I know you don’t like keeping things from Shane, but you’ll have to trust me that it’s best for now.” 

“Fine.” At least I understood why’d she’d come in to talk to me while she knew Novak would be out. 

“Please don’t be upset with me. You’ll understand later.” 

“Whatever. How do you want me to start? Stalk him?” 

She sighed. “He gets out of school at two-thirty. I don’t know where he goes afterwards. He doesn’t come home some nights until eight or later. There’ve been a few nights he didn’t come home at all. When I ask him where he was, he just tells me not to worry about it. If I get angry, he tells me to mind my own business. I grounded him, but it didn’t faze him in the least.” 

“Can’t you take his car away from him?” 

“I could, but he’d just find another ride. At least this way I know he’s doing the driving. If he is into drugs, I have to say I’ve never seen him high or out of control when he gets home.” 

“So what makes you think drugs? You said earlier that it could be something else illegal. Like what?” 

“I don’t even know. I simply had a feeling it involves drugs. I have no real evidence besides his erratic behavior, which could, I guess, be nothing more than typical teenage rebellion.” 

“Then what makes you think it’s not just that? Is there anything besides coming home late?” 

“He’s been buying a lot of stuff recently and I have no idea where he’s getting the money from — certainly not from me.” 

“Stuff like what?” 

“Electronics. Clothes. I don’t know what else. That’s just what I’ve noticed.” 

“Is there anything more?” 

“Just the gut feelings I mentioned. You know, I’ve come to trust my Gifts, Killian. Speaking of which, how are you coming with yours?” 

“I’m not. Back to Jake…” 

“Killian, you know you really should learn more about your Gifts. I think they’re very strong.” 

“I’m not interested.” 

“But you have to be. They can be dangerous if left untrained, or they can be a marvelous tool if you know how to use them. You were given them for a reason, you know.” 

“You sound like Seth,” I said crossly. 

“Is he still coming to visit you?” 

“I hadn’t seen him for a few months, but he showed up the other night.” 

“Relationship problems?” 

“Actually, yeah. But he also said I should deal with my Gifts. As I told him, though, I’m doing just fine without them.” 

“Are you?” 

“Yes. I am. Now, is there anything else I need to know about Jake?” 

She signed but gave in. “You know what he drives, right?” 

“A dark-blue Jeep?” 

“Yes. That’s all I can think of right now.” She stood up and pushed the chair back to its original position. “You’ll let me know as soon as you have something?” 

I looked into her eyes and recognized the pain and fear that she was making an effort to hide. I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll keep you updated.” 

She bit her lip in a most un-Judy-like fashion. “Thank you.” 

 

Chapter 3

 

When I woke up the next morning, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of investigating Jake. I had slept fitfully, perhaps because my conscience wouldn’t allow me a peaceful night’s rest. I tumbled out of bed and sleepwalked through my morning routine of shower, dressing, and a quick breakfast. Arriving at Mr. Knox’s a little early, I parked across the street and a couple of doors past his house, then slumped down behind the wheel of my car to wait for him to leave. 

I was having a hard time holding my eyes open. I turned on the car radio, but even a high-energy dance song couldn’t keep me awake. At some point, I must have dozed off, because I was roused suddenly by the sound of a car door slamming. I jerked upright, blinking in the bright sunlight like a startled owl. For a moment I couldn’t remember where I was; then I recalled what I was doing. Knox started his Ford Ranger with a roar and backed out of his driveway. I waited a few seconds for him to put some distance between us before I pulled out after him. 

Although Novak had given me a few lessons in tailing someone, he said it was mostly common sense. You stayed far enough back that the average Joe would never realize you were following him, but not so far that you could easily lose him. He had also suggested I should trade in my brand-new, black Mustang for something a little more inconspicuous, like his beat up old Buick, Bessie. That was about as likely as my getting a sex-change operation, and let’s just say I’m a little too attached to a certain something for that to ever happen. 

Usually, Knox took the same route every day directly from his house to his office building. This time he surprised me by making an unexpected turn. In my sleep-deprived state, I almost drove past him. At the last second I swung widely onto the street behind him, going a bit too fast. I could only hope my reckless tactics hadn’t attracted his attention. I breathed a sigh of relief as he continued on at the same speed, seemingly unsuspecting. 

When he pulled into the parking lot for a small strip mall, I didn’t follow immediately but sped on by and turned around at a gas station farther up the street. I drove slowly back past the strip mall in time to see him entering one of the storefronts. I parked at the far end of the lot from where he left his car and flipped down the mirror on my sun visor so I could watch the door of what I now saw was a travel agency. Were Mr. and Mrs. Knox planning a trip? She hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort. 

Before long he came out carrying a large manila envelope. He climbed back into his car and drove right to his office building. I noticed that, unless he had stuck the envelope in his briefcase — which was of course very possible — he didn’t have it with him when he went inside. I parked and waited a few minutes before going in myself. 

I made a beeline for my receptionist-spy. “Sharla,” I said softly.  

She was sitting with her back to me, working on a computer. She swung around, and a bright smile lit up her face. Sharla was a young, black girl, not much older than I was. She wore her hair in a sort of shag cut with blonde tips and was liberal with her makeup application — though she still had a long way to go if she wanted to catch up with Carmen. She was dressed in a businesslike gray skirt and matching jacket. She’d added her own flair to the outfit by hiking the skirt up a few inches and not wearing a blouse under the jacket. The edges of her lacy black bra showed just a little. 

“Hey there, Mr. Detective Boy!” Sharla seemed to think of my investigation as a wonderfully fun game, which worked to my advantage most of the time, but occasionally grew a bit grating. 

“Shh. It’s our secret, remember?” I winked at her, making her giggle. 

“So what’s up? Is this a rendezvous? Do you have a new assignment for me?” Her eyes grew large and round. “You want to sneak into his office to look around?” 

I laughed. “No, nothing like that — at least, not yet. I have a question, though. Mr. Knox stopped at a travel agency on his way to work this morning. Do you know anything about it?” 

“Oh, yeah. He was probably just picking up his plane tickets.” 

“Plane tickets? To where? And is it business or pleasure?” 

“He’s flying to DC this weekend for a business trip, but knowing Mr. Knox, he’ll mix in a little pleasure too.” She giggled again. 

“What do you mean?” 

Sharla looked up and down the hall conspiratorially before leaning in and whispering to me, “I’ve heard he isn’t always alone on these trips, if you catch my meaning.” 

For the first time I began to think Mrs. Knox might perhaps have some basis for her fear. “What makes you say that? Have you seen anything to suggest he’s having an affair?” 

She shook her head, which set her oversized hoop earrings to swinging. “No, I’ve not been around long enough to see anything, really, but I’ve heard stuff from some of the other girls here in the office. Nothing direct, you know? Just little comments here and there.” 

“What about this DC trip? Do you know where he’s staying?” 

“Hang on.” Holding up one long finger capped by a curving nail painted fire-engine red, she began to riffle through a pile of folders. Finding the one she was looking for, she flipped through it, finally producing a sheet of paper triumphantly. “You should hire me.” She made it sound as if finding something she’d filed herself on her own desk was a major accomplishment. 

“Maybe we will.” I laughed, but it got me thinking what a good idea it would be to hire somebody as our secretary or receptionist, since it would free me up a lot.  

The phone rang just then. Before answering it, she handed me what turned out to be a fax from a hotel in Washington, DC, confirming Knox’s reservations for that Friday night through Sunday morning. I pulled out my notepad to jot down the pertinent information. 

Sharla hung up just as I finished. “Thanks,” I said, giving the fax back to her. “Now, if he leaves unexpectedly during the day or if you suspect something fishy, you remember what to do, right?” 

She grinned broadly. This was her favorite part. “Sure do. I send you a text saying he’s left.” She made a face. “I still wish you’d let me be a little more creative. Can’t I say something like, ‘The chicken has flown the coop’?” 

I laughed again. “You watch too much TV, Sharla. If you really want to say ‘the chicken has flown the coop’, go ahead. I’ll know what you mean.” She clapped excitedly. 

I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and slid it across the counter.  

Sharla slid it right back at me. “Keep it this time. I’m having too much fun to get paid. I feel like I’m one of Charlie’s Angels.” 

“Except you’re cuter than any of them.” 

She beamed. “And it’s about damn time they had a black one.”  

I was leaving my last class of the day later that afternoon when I remembered that I needed a particular program for one of the courses I was taking. Knowing I didn’t have it on my computer at home, I made a side trip to look for it at the campus bookstore, where it would be much cheaper with my student discount.  

I found the disc and went to the checkout area, choosing the shorter of the two lines. When I noticed my clerk, I was doubly glad for my selection. He was cute in a slightly awkward sort of way. He had full, red lips and short, light-brown hair. Behind his small, wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes were an indeterminate color. I studied them while he waited on the person in front of me, trying to figure out what color they were exactly. I had just decided they were hazel when I realized he was staring back and had said something I’d missed. 

“Huh?” I tried not to blush. 

“I said, ‘Can I help you?’” He seemed to be fighting back a smile. 

I handed him the disc and gave in to the blush. 

As he rang me up, I noticed his gaze kept straying to the rainbow pendant around my throat. “Nice necklace,” he said after giving me my total. 

“Thanks. It was a gift.” I started to add that it was from my boyfriend, but for some reason the words wouldn’t come out. 

“Have you heard of Haven?” 

“Um, not really.” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. 

“It’s the gay/straight alliance here on campus. We meet on Thursday nights. You should come sometime.” 

I felt my blush deepen and wondered why. I wasn’t ashamed of being gay. I’d been out for several years and had actually helped Asher start a GSA at our high school. Maybe I just wasn’t used to being so easily identified as gay by a complete stranger. 

“Um, thanks.” 

The guy smiled. “My name’s Noah. I’m the vice-president. The meetings start around eight in the student lounge in Wicomico Hall. It’s really informal. We usually have between twenty and thirty people show up. We’d love to have you come.” 

“Thanks, maybe I will.” My inexplicable awkwardness was fading, and I found myself a little intrigued. With nobody waiting behind me, I decided to ask him more about the group. “So what does Haven do?” 

“Well, we’re partly a support group, but we also sponsor a lot of educational and awareness stuff on campus. We put on events a couple of times a year — during Gay and Lesbian History Month and for National Coming Out Day in October.” 

“That was last week, right? I really didn’t pay much attention, because I had some other stuff going on.” 

“Yeah, that’s over for this year.” Someone came up behind me, and Noah greeted the customer before turning back to me. “Hey, I’d like to talk to you more about this if you’re interested.” He grabbed a piece of scrap paper, scribbled something on it, and handed it to me. “This is my dorm room and cell phone number. Call me sometime.” 

I took the slip with a promise to give him a ring and started walking away. 

“Oh, hey,” he called. I turned around to find him holding out the disc I’d just bought. “You forgot this.” 

I grinned sheepishly and took it from him. “Thanks.” 

“Oh, and what’s your name?” 

“Killian.” 

He smiled and focused on his next customer.  

“You’re with Micah,” I told myself firmly. I chanted it like a mantra all the way back to my car. 

I was cutting things close getting to Jake’s high school before it let out for the day, but I arrived just in time. I parked in a visitors’ space at an angle with a good view of the student lot. While Jake and I were the same age, he’d taken so much time off from school to recover from injuries — both mental and physical — received when his family died, he’d fallen behind and had to be held back a year. He was a senior, which put him one grade ahead of Kane.  

I was once again trying to justify following someone who was supposed to be my friend when I spotted his Jeep leaving the lot. Quickly pulling out a few cars behind him, I made sure to keep at least one vehicle between us at all times. Unlike Knox, Jake did know what I drove, so it was even more important than usual to make sure I was discreet. 

I tailed Jake to a mall on the far side of town. Maybe he was just doing a little shopping. I followed him inside, making up an excuse as I went, in case he spotted me. That was another lesson from Novak: always have a cover story prepared. Unless they are pathological liars, most people have trouble coming up with a convincingly innocuous explanation on the spur of the moment. If Jake did see me, I’d tell him I was looking for a new jacket now that it was starting to get cooler. 

I shadowed him around for about an hour, somehow managing to avoid being noticed. The only things I learned were that he had an affinity for tight clothing, shopped for lotion at Bath & Body, and knew practically every kid in the mall. 

I was just about ready to give up when I noticed a sudden shift. He began to behave in a very suspicious manner, throwing quick glances over his shoulder and generally acting extremely guilty. Although I was able to stay hidden by ducking into stores and jumping behind racks of clothes, my spy tactics were drawing attention and making it rather hard to keep a good eye on my quarry. At first, I thought maybe he had sensed me following him, but quickly realized he was up to something. 

I slipped behind one of the large potted palms in the middle of the mall and watched him through the fronds as he took one final glance around, then turned suddenly down the hall leading to the restrooms. I cursed under my breath. There was no way I could follow him in there without his seeing me. I watched from my tropical hiding place while several other guys came and went, all different ages and types, until Jake finally reappeared after about fifteen minutes. My curiosity raging, I trailed him as he made directly for the exit. Part of me wanted to take a look around the men’s room, but I knew that was probably useless. Following Jake made more sense. 

Back out on the road, I soon realized he was heading for home. I glanced at the clock and remembered I had to get over to Knox’s building soon so I could trail him home as well. What an exciting job I had, following people around while they shopped and drove home. I tailed Jake until he turned into his driveway. As I went by, I hoped and prayed he wouldn’t glance up at his rearview mirror and see me pass, or if he did, that he wouldn’t recognize my car. 

I almost missed Knox. A few seconds longer and he would have been gone. He was leaving a little early, but I arrived just in time to fall in behind him. Traffic was light, letting us make good time back to his house. I parked and watched him walk up to the side door.  

Since he was going to DC that weekend, I would be as well. I’d have to call Mrs. Knox the next day to see what she knew of the business trip, then speak to Novak about making the arrangements. He would have to approve any trips. I wished I could talk to him about Jake, but I had made that promise to Judy. With a sigh, I started the car and drove home. 

 

“I think you should go,” Adam was saying as he washed and rinsed the dinner dishes while I dried and put them away. 

We were discussing the GSA on campus. “I won’t even know anyone there,” I said, still not completely over my adolescent shyness. 

He handed me a plate. “You’ll know that guy Noah.” 

“No, I met him once in the bookstore. That does not equate to knowing someone.” 

“You said he seemed nice.” 

“He was nice.” 

“Cute?” 

“What does that have to do with anything? I’m dating Micah.” 

“Doesn’t mean you’re blind. It was just a question, Kill. From your response I take it he was cute though, huh?” 

I sighed. “Yes, he definitely was. Why do you think I should go? I mean, what’s the point?” 

“Well, first off, it never hurts to have more friends. Secondly, you probably have something to offer. Some of these kids may be struggling with issues you’ve already dealt with, like figuring out whether they’re gay and coming out. Plus, you know how I like to support these sorts of things. If Haven is involved with education on campus and in the community, it’s a great cause.” 

I had to admit he was right. I had been interested when Noah was telling me about it. I just needed a little nudging. I knew I’d probably call Noah later that night or the next day. 

I glanced over at Adam and wondered if he missed his partner on nights when Steve was at the B&B. It had to be hard living in two different places. If they had guests, one of them always stayed at Amalie’s House while the other stayed with me and Kane. Technically, we were old enough to take care of ourselves, but Adam liked to keep the family together as much as possible.  

Business was still a little slow, so some nights, we were all together at the beach house. Kane occasionally stayed over at the inn. I had only spent the night there once and didn’t plan to do so ever again. During renovations, we’d discovered the house was haunted. Although we’d thought the problem was settled, we were apparently wrong. There had been a few incidents since the grand opening. 

Adam and I were just finishing up when someone rang the doorbell. Kane came thundering down the stairs, sounding more like a herd of stampeding wildebeests than a teenage boy.  

Adam chuckled and shook his head. 

A few minutes later, Judy appeared in the kitchen door. 

“Judy, hello,” Adam said warmly. He dried his hands and gave her a hug.  

“Hello, Adam, Killian. I think Kane was a little disappointed to find me on the doorstep. Was he expecting one of his girlfriends, perhaps?” 

“Kane’s always expecting a girlfriend,” I said dryly. 

“You want something to drink?” Adam offered. “We just finished dinner, but if you’re hungry, we can whip up the leftovers. Nothing fancy...” 

“No, no. I’m fine. I had an early dinner with Shane. Actually, I came by to talk to you about Amalie.” 

“The house or the woman?” Adam asked. 

“Well, both, since they seem to be inextricably intertwined.” 

“True.” 

“I’ll be upstairs,” I said, anxious to leave before I got suckered into the conversation. 

Judy fixed me with a meaningful stare. “Actually, I’d like you to stay.”  

Damn, I wasn’t quick enough. “Why?” I said before I could stop myself. 

She gave me an appraising look. “Because I think you have something to offer...or you would if you’d just quit fighting it.” 

“Maybe I don’t want to.” I knew I sounded like a petulant preschooler, but I couldn’t help myself. 

“That much is obvious. Like it or not, you’re involved. You’re one of the threads of this tapestry. Amalie has shown in the past, for reasons of her own, that she’s drawn to you. I think if we’re going to get to the bottom of this, it’ll take all of us working together.” 

“The bottom of what? She’s dead. And either she hasn’t figured it out yet or she just doesn’t give a damn. She seems quite content to keep on haunting the place forever.” 

“I suspect you’re wrong. I believe she’s very aware that she’s dead. She’s still upset about something. Originally, we conjectured her discontent had to do with the baby, but now I think that was only a marginal issue, or at least only part of a much larger whole.” 

“Killian,” Adam said, “what can it hurt to just sit down and talk with us? As exciting as Steve found all this at first, the thrill has long since worn off and reality has set in. You know how slow things have been. He’s awfully stressed right now with the possibility that the business could go south very quickly and leave him pretty much penniless. He has an awful lot invested in this house. Amalie is not helping things.” 

“I thought a friendly ghost was a draw.” 

“Most avid ghost hunters have never seen a real ghost and wouldn’t know what to do with one if it bit them on the nose. Besides, even people who are interested in ghosts don’t necessarily want to spend the night with one. Amalie hasn’t chased anyone off, yet, but then there’s hardly been anyone to chase off. Just to be on the safe side, so far we’ve kept the guests on the second floor, since she seems to favor the third. Eventually, though, if all goes well, we’ll have to put people on the top floor and then there’s no telling what could happen. Please, Killian. What could it hurt to sit down and talk with us about this?” 

“Why can’t you all just accept that I don’t want to do this? I don’t care if I have Gifts or not. If they’re a gift, then I get to decide what to do with them, right? If you give me a butt-ugly sweater, I can choose not to wear it. Well, I choose not to use these so-called Gifts. I’ll be up in my room. Don’t call if you need me.” 

I spun around and stormed off. 

Kane was in the bedroom when I slammed through the door. He looked up from the computer screen long enough to gauge my mood. 

“I take it Judy asked you to help out with Amalie again,” he said idly. 

“You knew about that?” 

“Yeah, she and Dad have been plotting the best way to ask you.” 

“You mean they planned that? I can’t believe this.” 

“Well, you have to admit, you’ve not exactly been open to the idea.” 

“I don’t see you jumping at the chance to go over there.” 

“I’m not the one with the Gifts.” 

I let out a wordless roar that made Kane wince. “I’m so sick and tired of hearing about these damned Gifts,” I said. “I didn’t ask for them, and I don’t want them. That’s my choice, and I wish everyone would just leave me the hell alone!” 

“Jeez, Kill. You don’t have to bite my head off. I didn’t mean anything by it. If you’re going to be all bitchy, I’m going downstairs to watch TV.” He signed off the Internet and pushed away from the desk. 

“I’m sorry, Kane.” I dropped onto my bed with a sigh. 

“Whatever.” 

I watched him leave, a hurt expression on his face. I hadn’t taken the time to look at Judy and Adam when I’d left in my little huff, but I imagine they hadn’t been all that happy, either. Damn it, why couldn’t everyone just leave me alone about this? And why was I so scared of it all? Not being in the mood for deep self-examination, I grabbed my backpack and pulled out my books. I lost myself in studying for a while and eventually drifted into another night of restless sleep. 

I called Mrs. Knox the next day between classes and learned that she knew all about the business trip. She wanted me to follow him. An all-expense-paid trip to DC sounded great to me, especially since it was only a three-hour drive. I wondered why Mr. Knox was taking the commuter plane, but I guess if your company is willing to spring for the tickets, it’s better than driving. 

After school was over for the day, I went to the office to talk to Novak. I found him at his desk typing away on a report. He stopped when I stuck my head in. 

“What’s up, kiddo?” Novak was a retired police detective, and he looked the part. You could tell at a glance that he used to be in law enforcement or the military. He wore his iron-gray hair in a buzz cut and kept his body fit and lean, but it was more than that. There was something in the way he carried himself. Although his age was hard to guess, I knew he had to at least be in his late fifties, and it wasn’t impossible that he was even older. When his wife died soon after he retired, it hadn’t taken him long to realize he wasn’t cut out for sitting around the house. That was the beginning of Novak Investigations. 

“There’s a new development in the Knox case,” I said, still in the doorway. 

“Sit down and fill me in.” He swiveled his executive desk chair around to face me. Novak’s office was a comfortably eclectic space. The first things you couldn’t help noticing were the bookcases, which took up one whole wall. Made in all different heights and woods, they were filled to overflowing with books. There were law books, phone books, atlases, maps, and a set of encyclopedias that was easily older than I was. One case was reserved for his collection of hardcover detective novels, many of which were signed and/or first editions. 

In the center of the room sat his desk, a huge expanse of scarred golden oak. I always figured the office must have been built around it, since there was no way that mother could have fit through the door. Its top was usually completely clear, unless he’s working on a case. Then it was apt to be quite cluttered with files, papers, photos, and more. Behind the oak behemoth stood a daunting procession of battleship-gray filing cabinets, each one meticulously labeled and locked. Two large leather armchairs faced his desk. 

For the most part, I liked the room. There was one exception, however: the odd, ugly, humpbacked sofa he kept on the wall opposite the bookcases and under the room’s lone window. I know furniture is incapable of harboring ill will, but I’d swear that sofa is evil. It seemed to crouch malevolently off to one side, its carved claw feet gripping the floor for traction, waiting for some poor, unsuspecting soul to make the fatal mistake of sitting on it. Then, moving with a swiftness that belied its ungainly size, it would devour the hapless victim whole, before perhaps spitting out a shoe. 

I moved quickly toward an armchair while carefully avoiding looking at the sofa. Luckily, I reached my chair unmolested. 

I quickly filled Novak in on what little progress I’d made with the Knox case thus far. I ended by mentioning the proposed DC trip. 

“Will it interfere with your school work?” 

“No, Knox isn’t checking in until late afternoon, and his flight leaves him just enough time to get there. I only have morning classes on Fridays, so I should have no trouble driving up there before he arrives.” 

“Have you been to DC much?” 

“Not really.” 

“Damn. I’d go with you if my case weren’t so close to busting wide open. I can’t afford to leave. Do you know anyone who’s familiar with the city?” 

“Micah used to live there.” 

“Do you think he’d be willing to go along with you? We can hire him as a consultant if we need to.” 

I smiled. “I bet he’ll be willing to go without the monetary incentive.” 

Novak chuckled. “I’d imagine you’re right, there. Ask him, and let me know what he says. If he can’t go, I don’t want you going. You don’t know the city well enough to be running around on your own.” 

As much as I liked the idea of having Micah along, I felt I had to defend myself. “I don’t need a babysitter.” 

“I didn’t say you did. I just believe you should have a guide who’s familiar with the city. That is, if you think you can work with your boyfriend along and not get too, ahem, shall we say...distracted?” 

I blushed. Novak didn’t have any problems with my being gay — in fact, he’d told me that his grandson was gay — but it still seemed odd to hear him make comments like that. “I think I’m professional enough to not get distracted.” 

Novak let out a guffaw. “Kid, there’s never been a man born yet who was professional enough to not get distracted by sex. Tell you what, though, you do your job well enough, and maybe we’ll work something out so you have some free time. Deal?” 

“Deal,” I said, my face burning. 

 

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