Willow Bend

 

Available in electronic formats. Print format is no longer available new, but you can probably find used ones at Amazon and other online vendors.

Willow Bend72webThe ties binding the heart to the past can be the hardest to cut.

More than a year after the car crash that killed his partner and nearly killed him, Paul Gordon thinks it may be time for a new place, new people, a fresh start. He arrives in Willow Bend, South Carolina, with a single bag in one hand and the deed to a house he’s never seen in the other, hoping this will be the perfect place to get on with his life, alone and anonymous.

Between working two jobs and caring for his ailing mother, Cory Saunders is just trying to survive. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, somehow managing to pay a caregiver, feed himself and keep the rickety house from falling down around them. Barely.

When Paul catches sight of Cory in the diner where Cory works, it’s lust at first sight. And for a while, their intense physical attraction is enough. But as it starts to blossom into something deeper, reality rears its head. Cory has no time for a relationship, and Paul’s not sure he’s ready to give his heart again.

Fate, however, has its own ideas about the best path to healing.

(Warning: Healthy servings of m/m lust, salty language, and a will-they-or-won’t-they romance.)

 

© Copyright 2006 Ally Blue

The next morning dawned bright and hot. Paul stood barefoot on the thin grass of the backyard, sipping coffee while he watched the sun rise over the trees in the distance. Only a few feet past the back porch, the oaks gave way to a field of yellow-green grass that rippled in the hot breeze. A thin strip of pines stood on the other side of the wide meadow. He could smell the faint salt tang of the nearby ocean.

Paul squinted in the harsh early morning light. He felt tired and wrung out from the long trip the day before and from another restless night. His left hip throbbed where the speeding sports car had smashed the driver’s side door into his body, splitting the upper part of his femur nearly in half. He rubbed absently at it for a moment, then turned and limped back into the house.

Half an hour later, he locked the house and headed out to the barn. It lay not far from the house, in a wide clearing down a narrow path between the oleanders. At first glance, it looked a little forbidding— a silent hulk of a building, red paint graying in the merciless sun. But closer inspection showed the place to be perfectly sound.

He wandered inside, gazing curiously around him. The cool dimness of the interior felt soothing, relaxing. Peaceful. Ignoring the old green pickup truck for a moment, he made his way up the ladder at the back of the barn. What he saw at the top brought a big grin to his face.

“Oh, fuck me,” Paul whispered. “This is it. It’s perfect.”

The empty loft was huge, the ceiling high enough to offer a sense of space but not so high that it would be difficult to heat in the winter. Old-fashioned double doors stood closed on the far end. Motes of dust floated lazily in the rays of sunlight that shone through the cracks in the wood. Even in the half-light, he could see the possibilities.

He paced the length and breadth of the sturdy wooden floor, already planning in his mind. This could work. Put a big window where those doors are. Maybe a skylight overhead. It’s a perfect place for my new art studio. He did his best to ignore the sharp pang that stabbed him at the thought. The past was gone. He had to concentrate on the future now.

He pushed the looming memories firmly to the back of his mind, then climbed back down the ladder and headed for the house. A quick search of his bag turned up the pen and small spiral notebook that he carried with him everywhere. He hurried back to the barn loft, where he spent nearly an hour building his studio in his mind and jotting down a list of things he would need.

He couldn’t help smiling as he tucked the list into his pocket and climbed back down the ladder. He hadn’t felt this excited about anything in a long time. Despite his assurances to his mother the night before, he’d been terrified of moving. He’d done it because he simply couldn’t stay in Spokane any longer, but he’d never been sure that moving would actually help. Now, it seemed as though the inner voice urging him to leave had been right. This place could be really good for him. Give him the chance he needed to start over.

The old truck’s engine roared to life as soon as he turned the key. He backed carefully out of the barn and rolled down the driveway. His stomach turned over at the thought of having to face the inevitable curiosity of the townspeople, but he had to do it at some point. Might as well get it over with.

After a couple of wrong turns, he found his way back to the main road into Willow Bend. The little town was unexpectedly charming, its streets shaded by the gnarled, ancient willows that gave it its name. Brick planters full of colorful flowers decorated each corner, and the sidewalks teemed with a surprising variety of people.

Paul wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Weathered old men playing chess on the general store porch, probably. Those old men were there, along with their wives gossiping on the wooden benches. But there were children too, laughing as they ran down the sidewalks. Young couples strolled hand in hand, gazing in shop windows. Paul did a double take when he saw two middle-aged women holding hands at an outdoor table in front of a French-style cafe. As he watched, one leaned over and kissed the other lightly on the lips. Nobody seemed to take any notice, as if it were an everyday thing.

Maybe it is. He smiled as he pulled the truck into an empty parking space. Maybe he wouldn’t have to be as careful as he’d been afraid he might. He squelched that line of thought immediately. A gay-friendly community would be great, yes. But it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t going to be dating.

Never? the nagging voice in the back of his head prodded. What, you planning to spend the rest of your life alone? He wouldn’t have wanted that and you know it.

“Shut up,” Paul hissed. He closed his eyes, leaned his head against the back of the seat, and just breathed for a minute. When the knot in his guts loosened a little, he climbed out of the truck and set out to look for the things he would need to convert an old barn loft into an art studio.

 

*****

 

By noon, he had the bed of the truck loaded up with everything from an easel to an air conditioner. The rumble in his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten anything since the evening before. After a moment’s thought, he decided to go get some lunch before heading to the grocery store. He locked the camper top that covered the back of the pickup and set off down the street again.

A tip from the sweet-faced elderly woman at the hardware store counter led him to a restaurant on the edge of town. The sign out front read Uncle Charlie’s Porch. A wide, covered porch ran all the way around the large, rambling log building. The parking lot was packed, but the place was so big that Paul only had to wait a couple of minutes for a table. He lowered himself into the sturdy wooden chair with a sigh and gazed out the window at the creek winding its way through the marsh grass.

“Hi,” said a voice at his side. “I’m Cory, I’ll be your server today.”

Paul turned and looked up into the biggest, greenest eyes he’d ever seen. The eyes twinkled above a snub nose dusted with freckles and a wide, sensual mouth. Chestnut curls streaked with sun-bleached copper brushed the curve of the boy’s shoulder. Paul stared.

The young man smiled, showing deep dimples. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Uh.” Paul gazed up at the green eyes, feeling a little flustered. “Um, tea, please.”

“Hot or iced?”

Paul blinked. “What?”

Cory’s smile widened. Paul shocked himself by wondering if the boy’s slender body had the same golden tan as his face. “You can get tea either hot or on ice here. Sorry, I figured you’re from up north someplace. Some people from up north have never heard of iced tea. Sort of depends on where they’re from, I guess.”

“You’re partly right.” Paul grinned, relieved at having found his voice at last. “I’m from Washington, but I know all about iced tea.”

“Washington State, you mean?”

“Yeah. Spokane.”

“Wow. Long way to come for a vacation.”

Paul took a deep breath. “I’m not on vacation. I just moved here.”

Cory’s eyes locked with Paul’s, and Paul felt a thrill go through him. Something in that sharp gaze said that maybe, just maybe…

Paul shook himself. Even if Cory was interested, he wasn’t. Couldn’t be.

“Well, I sure hope you like it here,” Cory said. “So, what about that tea, huh?”

“Let me have the iced tea. Unsweetened.”

“Got it.” Cory gave Paul a look he couldn’t quite figure out. “Be right back.”

Cory turned and strolled off. Paul couldn’t help watching the graceful way his body moved, the muscles of his thighs and ass bunching in the tight black pants. Feelings he’d thought long dead stirred at the sight. It had been so long since he’d touched a man. So long since he’d been touched, or kissed. So long since the last time he and Jay had made love, the afternoon before that fateful night. Before that drunk driver had taken Jay’s life, and left Paul’s shattered.

“Here you go.”

Paul started at the sound of Cory’s voice. Cory grinned as he set down a tall glass full of iced tea. “Oh. Thanks,” Paul said. He gave Cory a shaky smile.

“Sure thing.” Cory pulled a pad out of his pocket. “You ready to order, or you need a minute?”

Paul glanced down at the menu he hadn’t even opened yet. “What would you recommend?”

Cory’s eyes narrowed in thought, plump lips pursing. Paul swallowed.

“The crab salad sandwich,” Cory said. “It’s the best you’ll find anyplace.”

Paul smiled. “Sounds great.”

“Yeah.” Cory held Paul’s gaze for an endless second, then turned and walked off.

 

*****

 

“Crab salad sandwich.” Cory tore the top sheet off his order pad and slapped it onto the counter. The chef waved at him without turning her attention from the sauce she was stirring.

Cory poured himself a glass of ice water and drank the whole thing in one breath. He felt a little off-kilter. Uncle Charlie’s Porch was the most popular restaurant for miles around. Everybody ate there, and he’d waited on some pretty hot guys before without getting all worked up about it. But this one… Damn. This one was something else. Tall and slim. Smooth, olive-toned skin. Jet black hair falling carelessly around a thin, serious face softened by thoroughly kissable lips. Eyes so pale blue they were almost white, fringed with lashes like black lace. Something in those eyes tugged at Cory’s heart and captured his mind like nothing else had in a long time.

“Hey, Cory!” Alicia Trask bounced up, giving him a big grin as she set her order on the counter. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. Just taking a little breather.” He grinned back at her.

She widened her clear brown eyes at him. “Oh, please. Who is he?”

“Who’s who?”

“Whoever’s got you all hot and bothered.” Alicia nodded toward Cory’s section, brown pigtails bobbing. “That him, the one with the black hair?”

Cory started to deny it, then decided, what the hell. Alicia would figure it out anyhow. “Yeah, that’s him.”

“Pretty.”

“Tell me about it.” Cory stared at the man’s profile, admiring his sculpted, almost classical beauty. “Think he’d go out with me?”

Alicia chuckled as she filled glasses and set them on a large round tray. “You know anybody who wouldn’t?”

“C’mon, I’m serious. You think he would?”

“I’m serious too, stupid. Every straight girl and gay guy in town wants to get with you. Hell, I’d go out with you if you didn’t have that thing between your legs.”

Cory laughed. “Dyke.”

“Better believe it, boy. Give me the fairer sex any day.”

Cory stared thoughtfully at the side of the man’s face. “Doesn’t matter anyhow. He’s probably straight.”

“Why don’t you find out?” Alicia raised her eyebrows at him as she headed out to serve drinks.

“Maybe I will,” Cory called after her. He filled a plastic pitcher with water, and another with iced tea, to make the rounds of his tables and refill the glasses. “Yeah. Maybe I will.”

 

*****

 

A group of twelve tourists came in not ten minutes later, and since Cory was the only one with two tables free to put together, he got them. After that, he had his hands full keeping the iced tea and root beer flowing while keeping up with all his other tables as well. Not that he minded so much. He liked waiting on the kids in particular. They were excited to be eating out and easy to please.

At one point, while helping a little boy in a Batman T-shirt decide what he wanted for dessert, Cory looked up and saw the black-haired stranger watching him. The man’s eyes burned with a tangible longing. Those pale eyes quickly shifted back to the half-eaten sandwich in front of him, but not fast enough to hide his obvious attraction. Cory’s pulse sped up.

Cory kept one eye on the black-haired man while he worked. Finally, the man popped the last bite of crab salad into his mouth and sat back with a sigh. Cory ran a hand through his unruly curls and approached the table with his most dazzling smile in place.

“How was everything?” he asked, topping off the man’s glass.

“Wonderful.” The blue eyes beamed up at him. “You were right, that crab salad is the best I’ve ever tasted. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. You want some dessert? Our key lime pie is out of this world.”

“Sounds great, but I’m stuffed. Maybe another time.”

“I hope so.” Cory set the bill face down on the table. “I’ll take that whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m ready now.” He reached into the back pocket of his shorts, pulled out his wallet, and handed Cory a twenty. “Keep the change.”

Cory stared. That came out to about a forty percent tip. “Wow. Thanks.”

“Sure.” The man stood, grimacing a little and favoring his left hip. “Pleasure meeting you, Cory.”

“Yeah, you too.” Cory watched as the man started to move away. He felt like he was missing something. Suddenly it struck him, and he hurried to catch up. “Hey, wait.”

The stranger stopped and gave him a curious look. “Yes?”

Cory looked at the floor, shy suddenly. “Um. It’s just, I don’t know your name.”

“Paul. I’m Paul Gordon.”

Cory glanced back up and was mildly surprised to see Paul smiling at him. “Cory Saunders. Pleased to meet you, Paul.” He stuck out his hand and they shook.

“Same here,” Paul answered.

Cory grinned. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?”

Paul pinned Cory with a look that made him feel hot all over. “I hope so.”

Then he was gone, striding out the door with a hint of a limp. Cory stared after him for a while before shaking himself out of his lust-induced stupor to check on his remaining customers.

 

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