by Abigail Roux
“You’re in early,” Noah said with a frown.
Wyatt’s first instinct was to be ashamed. He wondered if Ash had told Noah over the weekend about their little rendezvous. He shrugged.
Noah slipped into the office and closed the door behind him. “What’s up?”
Wyatt rubbed his hand over his face and closed his eyes. “I’m a complete bastard, you know?”
“Wow, news flash.” Noah swiped at some dust as he sat in the only empty chair in the room. Everything else was stacked high with books and frames Wyatt had never gotten around to putting back up after the office had been painted over the summer. The Thurston poster was the only thing he’d hung.
Noah furrowed his brow as he studied Wyatt. “Wanna talk about it?”
Wyatt stared at the poster over Noah’s shoulder and shook his head. He had liked Ash, really liked him. How trivial his reasons for leaving seemed now.
“Well. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
Wyatt thumped his head on the back of his chair. “Yeah, hiding from the trustees in the basement like all the rest of us.”
“That’s why I dropped by. They’re all here. They’re on the prowl this morning.”
“Oh, fuck me.” Wyatt stood and looked helplessly around the office. “I’ve got to come up with something or they’re going to have my head.”
“Wyatt, calm down. Look, why don’t you take a sick day, go home, spend some time relaxing. Maybe something will hit you when you’re not expecting it.”
“I’m not so sure that will help.”
“Neither is sitting in here brooding. What’s up with you, anyway?”
Wyatt shook his head stubbornly.
Noah huffed. “Fine, don’t talk to your best friend. Hey, I never asked you what happened with you and Ash. Did you hit it off?”
Wyatt stared at him. He would have to tell him or drown in the guilt. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we got along okay.”
“Think you’ll see him again?”
He swallowed against the tightening in his throat. The hell of it was that he really did like Ash. He’d just panicked over the oddity of what had happened—and ruined any chance of something more.
“I doubt it,” he said. Noah frowned and gave him a questioning look. “I mean, I liked him and all, but . . . Noah, he’s not really the type of guy I usually—”
“Wyatt, you don’t usually anyone. Give him a chance!”
Wyatt held up a hand. “Just drop it, all right?”
Noah stared at him for a stunned moment, and then nodded. “Sorry.”
They sat in awkward silence for another long moment. Finally, Noah stood and stepped toward the door. He was still looking at Wyatt when he put his hand on the doorknob.
“Think about some time off, huh? It’s not the end of the world if you can’t get this exhibition rolling. Even if they fire you, you can always turn to making porn.”
Wyatt laughed despite himself. He waited until Noah was almost out the door before calling to him. “Thanks,” he said when Noah turned back. “And I’m sorry for being a prick.”
“That’s okay. We’re all used to it by now.”
Wyatt realized as the door shut that he hadn’t even bothered to ask Noah what had happened between him and Caleb Biron.
He stood stock still in the middle of the office, frowning. He wasn’t used to being an asshole. He wasn’t used to feeling guilty. He wasn’t used to looking his friends in the eye and wondering if they’d found out what he’d done. He didn’t want to keep feeling like this.
He grabbed his jacket and slid into it as he made for the door.
“I’m heading out,” he told his assistant as he walked through the office. “Back soon,” he said over his shoulder before she could question him.
When he stepped through the door, he saw Edgar Reth stalking down the hallway, followed by Emelda Ramsay and Stuart Lincoln, another of the trustees who might as well have been on his knees for Reth at all hours of the day.
Reth jutted his chin out. “Dr. Case.”
Wyatt had to work hard not to groan. “Mr. Reth,” he said instead, making sure to drawl out the name in imitation of Reth’s nasal, condescending voice.
They stopped in front of him, and Wyatt reached out to take Emelda’s elbow as she leaned toward him and kissed him on the cheek. She knew it ruffled Reth’s feathers when she showed such unabashed favoritism toward him, and Wyatt loved her for it.
“Dr. Case, what progress have you made in your plans to boost attendance?”
Wyatt looked at him for a long moment as he tried to restrain himself from telling Reth the only progress he’d made was getting laid by a man with a tongue ring.
“Mr. Reth, I believe we’ve discussed, at length, the fact that Dr. Case is not solely responsible for this matter,” Emelda said with a stern glare. “If the board had taken his warnings more seriously when construction was being planned, we would not be here.”
“May we step into your office to discuss this?” Reth asked as he started toward Wyatt’s office door.
“No,” Wyatt said curtly. Reth turned to look at him as if he’d been slapped. Wyatt raised an eyebrow. “I’m busy.”
Lincoln stepped forward, a whole head shorter than Wyatt, and put one bony finger on Wyatt’s chest. “What could you possibly have to do that’s more important than speaking with us?”
Wyatt looked down at his finger, then up at him with a clenched jaw. “It’s more important to me to sweep the bathroom floors than it is to sit and listen to you recount your shortcomings.”
Lincoln responded with a series of rapid blinks. Wyatt picked up his finger and pushed it away from his chest.
Emelda stepped between them, holding her hands up in a graceful display of class and propriety. “Gentlemen.”
“You have some nerve, Case,” Reth said. “You’re only here because I haven’t moved to get rid of you yet.”
Wyatt met his eyes, valiantly resisting the urge to stab them with the ink pen in his pocket.
“Museums across the country are closing down due to lack of funds. Do you want us to be next?”
“If we are, your name will be emblazoned across the annals of history with the failure,” Wyatt said. “If you cared anything for history, that would terrify you more than losing that hefty stipend you get every year.”
Reth bristled, sputtering. “End of week!” he finally said through his teeth. “I’ll bring the matter of your termination to the board by end of week and be rid of you for good!”
He stormed past Wyatt and Emelda, Lincoln on his heels like a trained puppy.
“Oh, Wyatt,” Emelda said with a sigh.
“I’m sorry, Emelda, I just . . .”
Emelda clapped her hands together. “I’ve been hoping you’d do that for weeks now!” Wyatt wouldn’t have called her matronly; she was far too elegant and proper for that. Perhaps it was that cool propriety—her impeccable dress, her perfectly coifed silver hair, her expensive jewels and perfume—that made her approval so rewarding.
Wyatt grunted and huffed a laugh.
“I won’t be able to save you now, Wyatt, not unless we come out with something brilliant in the next day or so.” She looked off down the hall at the retreating backs of her colleagues. “But you will be emblazoned across the annals as the man who finally told that prick where to stick it.”
She patted his cheek and walked off. Wyatt watched her, mouth agape.
When he was finally able to shake off the surprise, he realized his fingers were trembling. He’d basically just gotten himself fired, because he knew inspiration wasn’t suddenly going to strike him in the next day.
He looked at his watch, indecisive now. It was barely nine o’clock in the morning. The odds of Ash being at Gravedigger’s at this time on a Monday were very small, and he should probably start packing up his belongings in preparation of being given the old penny loafer boot. But he set out for the bar anyway, knowing he needed to see
Ash more than he needed to sit in his office and feel sorry for himself.
The walk seemed somehow longer as he made it alone. His mind was heavy with the impending loss of his job, but that wasn’t what he lingered on. He paged through every possible permutation of what he might be able to say when he saw Ash. None of it sounded even remotely acceptable.
Far too soon, he was standing on the opposite corner from Gravedigger’s, staring at the unassuming establishment with dread. He shoved his hands in his pockets and told himself to just do it. Take his medicine and start down the road of no longer feeling like a prick. He crossed the street and shuffled up to the door, peering through a pane of glass at a hint of movement within. To his simultaneous relief and dismay, he could see Ash inside, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor with his back to the door. There was something large on the floor in front of him and he was hunched over it, fiddling with it.
Wyatt took a deep breath and tapped on the door.
“We’re closed,” Ash said without turning to look at the door, never ceasing his fiddling. “Come back at eleven.”
Wyatt pressed his lips into a thin line and tapped again.
Ash flopped his hands in exasperation, and Wyatt saw a screwdriver in one of them as Ash twisted to glance back at him. The look on his face told Wyatt this might not go well, not that he had expected it to. Ash seemed surprised to see Wyatt standing there, but then his jaw tightened and his warm eyes hardened. He twisted back around and shook his head, then rolled his shoulders before pushing to his feet.
He walked to the door and rested his forearm against the doorjamb, leaning close to the glass as he looked Wyatt over. Ash was wearing charcoal gray trousers and a sleeveless undershirt. Burgundy suspenders highlighted the outfit. Again, it was a quirky ensemble, even without the kohl around his eyes this morning. But it suited him. Wyatt admired him through the glass door, feeling that same heat kindle in his chest.
“We’re closed,” Ash said.
Wyatt nodded, but he pointed at the deadbolt. “Can we talk?”
Ash chewed on the inside of his cheek and scowled, and for a moment Wyatt thought he would refuse. But finally he reached out and flipped the deadbolt, then stepped back so Wyatt could open the door. By the time Wyatt pushed through the doorway, Ash had already turned and was walking away.
“I owe you an apology,” Wyatt said as he let the door fall shut behind him.
“I know you do.” Ash turned around and took a step toward Wyatt. “You know what flushing a condom can do to your pipes?” He was still holding the screwdriver, and Wyatt’s eyes were drawn to it for a moment before he looked back up at Ash.
“What? That’s not why I—”
“Well, it should be. You know how much a plumber costs?”
“You had to call a plumber?”
“No, but if I do in the future, it’ll be your fault.” Ash placed the tip of his screwdriver at his temple and tapped. Wyatt watched him, dumbstruck.
“I . . . okay,” he managed.
“Fuck you, Wyatt,” Ash grumbled. He turned around and dropped gracefully to the floor. “It’s no fun to bitch at you if you don’t argue back.” He resumed his position and began loosening the screws on the back of what Wyatt now recognized as a window air conditioning unit.
“I . . . I came to—”
“I know why you’re here,” Ash said without turning his head.
“I’m here to apologize.” Wyatt walked around to stand in front of Ash again. It was hard to talk to someone who was sitting on the floor. He felt stupid for standing, but he couldn’t just drop to the floor alongside him.
“You’re here for seconds,” Ash said.
“What? No! I—”
“You’re not here because you feel guilty, you’re here because you liked it.”
“That’s not true. I mean, it is, I did, but . . . that’s not why I’m here. I shouldn’t have walked out. I panicked and . . . I just needed you to know I’m sorry.”
“I know you are.”
Wyatt sighed in exasperation and knelt down to meet Ash’s eyes. “Look, I came here to make it up to you.”
Ash glanced up at him and then away. “I didn’t tell Noah you skipped out on me, if that’s what you’re here to find out.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Sure it is. If you’re not here for seconds, then it’s guilt. You were probably talking to Noah right before you came here and you were wondering if he knew and what he thought of you. Am I right?”
Wyatt blinked and nodded as his mouth went dry. How did he know that?
Ash shrugged and held out a hand as if to say, See?
“I was also thinking about you,” Wyatt said, voice hoarse.
That gave Ash a moment’s pause. He stared at Wyatt for a long time and then shook his head and looked away.
Ash glanced back at him and raised an eyebrow. The look in his eyes cut Wyatt off. “You’re not the first one-nighter I’ve had bail on me, okay?” Ash sighed as he rested his hands on the unit. “You’re the first to try and carpet bomb my plumbing, but whatever. It stings for a day or two, I get over it, I move on. Let’s just call it a great screw and leave it at that, okay? Not ruin it with all this.” He waved the screwdriver between them.
“But . . .” Wyatt sighed and looked the man over. Here in the light of day, Ash was almost better looking than Wyatt remembered, if that was possible. The sleeveless undershirt suited his lithe frame, showing off the definition of his wiry muscles, and for some reason the suspenders were growing on Wyatt. The only thing that marred the picture was a bruise on Ash’s shoulder, just at his collarbone and neck.
“What happened?” Wyatt asked as he reached out and brushed Ash’s shoulder.
Ash swatted his hand away and scowled at him. He turned his head and peered down at his shoulder with difficulty, pushing aside his shirt and suspenders to see. When the material moved, Wyatt could plainly see four thin marks on the front of Ash’s shoulder.
“Looks like a hand print,” Ash answered grudgingly.
Wyatt’s stomach gave an unsettling twist. “I did that.” He remembered grabbing Ash’s shoulder just there and holding him in place from behind. “Did I hurt you?” he asked with a wince. “I mean, are there more bruises or . . .”
“I didn’t even know about that one. Don’t worry about it.” Ash gave a lopsided shrug as he readjusted his shirt. “That’s not a first either. Lets you know you had fun when you can’t remember what happened.”
Wyatt frowned, wondering how often that particular scenario happened.
Ash went back to dismantling the A/C unit. When he concentrated hard on something, his tongue seemed to find its way out and curl around the corner of his mouth. It was endearing. Even with the tongue ring sticking through it.
Wyatt noticed with a slight stirring in his gut that it was a different stud than the one Ash had been wearing before. He’d been intimately acquainted with the previous one.
“Different tongue ring, huh?” he asked before thinking better of it.
“It’s left over from Saturday.”
Ash huffed at Wyatt’s look of consternation, then cupped his hands around his mouth and nose, opening his mouth so Wyatt could see the stud in shadow. It glowed a very faint purple. “I change them out. We entertain as we mix. People get a kick out of it.”
Wyatt nodded, but said under his breath, “I liked the other one better.”
Ash gave a derogatory snort. “I bet you did.”
Wyatt squatted there for another moment, trying to think of anything to say that could convey his regret. No words came, though, and he admitted to himself that Ash was done with the conversation and he should be as well.
He stood with a sigh. “I am sorry.”
Ash pursed his lips and nodded without looking up.
“Take care, huh?” Wyatt said as he trudged to the door. It sounded so weak that he instan
tly regretted saying it.
“Hey, Wyatt,” Ash said as soon as Wyatt reached for the doorknob. Wyatt turned around. Ash was still sitting with his back to the door. “You know what I always do in the morning with someone who’s slept over?”
Wyatt’s stomach flip-flopped. “What?”
“I fuck them again.”
Wyatt closed his eyes as a jolt of lust shot through him. He reached for the knob and lowered his head. “Wish I’d stuck around to see that.”
“Yeah,” Ash said. “So do I.”
Wyatt exited the bar before he could subject himself to any more abuse, no matter how much he deserved it. He stood outside and peered up into the crisp blue sky for a long time, trying to reconcile that he’d probably screwed up what could have been a good thing. When he looked down again, his eyes landed on the chalk sign that was chained to the front of the building. He frowned. The specials had been erased, but the bottom still advertised the ghost tours.
Wyatt’s body lurched as an idea hit him like a truckload of Acme anvils. He turned back to the door in time to see Ash stand and viciously kick the A/C unit. He banged on the glass. “Hey!”
Ash jumped and turned around. He frowned when he saw Wyatt standing there, then he tossed the screwdriver aside and stalked over to the door.
“What the hell, man?” he said through the glass.
“Those ghost tours, do they start from here every night?” Wyatt asked as he pointed at the sign.
“What?” Ash frowned.
“The ghost tours!”
“Yeah. Monday through Saturday. They start around eight this time of year. When it’s good and dark.”
“Are they popular?”
“Yeah. They bring in about twenty percent of our business.” Ash crossed his arms over his chest, obviously confused by Wyatt’s sudden change of interest. “Why?”
“What sort of things do they show you?”
“I don’t know, man, ghost stories and shit. I’ve never been on one. Are you done?”
“No! I need to know what sort of stories they tell!”
Ash flopped his hands in exasperation. “Why?”
“The October exhibition!” Wyatt shouted back, pointing in the direction of the museum. “Ghost stories! A history of ghost stories! That could save my job!”