Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Chapter Excerpt: 2nd Chance

 Notes: Hi darlins! Between the holiday, no daycare, and enormous revisions coming my way for a holiday romance due way too soon, I've got no blog story this week. What I've got instead is the original first chapter of the aforementioned story, which has been completely rewritten multiple times at this point and no longer bears any resemblance to this, but it still gives you a feel for the book that will be coming out. So...yes. Have half of a chapter of a new contemporary romance! FYI, Patreon followers get the whole thing ;) They get all the good stuff, join me there! https://www.patreon.com/Cari_Z

 

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It all started with a suit.

My first day as a newly-minted lawyer with Staller, Weisz and Coast, I wore the wrong suit to the office. I didn’t know it was the wrong suit at the time—I only ever wore one back in Edgewood, a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday for when I needed to dress up for my dad’s political events. By the time I finished law school, I had a few more, but possession didn’t do much to mitigate my ignorance.

I walked into the corporate office in a black suit and tie—not charcoal, not grey, not navy—black. Shiny black shoes and a white shirt with French cuffs rounded out my look. I thought I was dapper. The man who hired me, Marcus Staller, took one look at me as I walked into his office that morning and immediately shook his head, got up from his desk, and asked his secretary to hold all his phone calls while he “dealt with this abomination.”

“Max,” he said to me, looking me up and down with a frown on his face. “There’s only one time in a man’s life when it’s acceptable to wear a black suit in the daytime, and that’s at a funeral.”

I frowned. “The guy at D and G said it was fashionable.”

Marcus scoffed. “Dolce and Gabbana make most of their money selling to G-men. Do you want your corporate clients to think you’re representing the government’s best interests, or yours? No.” He took me into his closet—it made my eyebrows rise, having a closet in your office, but that was before I knew about the kind of hours lawyers kept—and loaned me a midnight blue, pinstriped Canali. It was slightly too big, but “better than what you have on, son. You don’t want the other associates poking fun at you all day.” No, I damn well did not.

The advice began with suits, but it didn’t end there. Marcus was one of the founding members of the firm, a lawyer with thirty years of experience operating out of Manhattan, and he helped me navigate the waters of everything from surviving the cutthroat associate’s pool, to the best restaurants a lawyer on a budget—ie, me—could afford to take a client to, to how to identify cases that looked too good to be true.

Mass torts and class action lawsuits are the devil’s workshop,” he opined over lunch one day after news broke that a competitor of ours had just filed for bankruptcy. “Most lawyers aren’t good enough businesspeople to handle the nuts and bolts that go into developing portfolios for that kind of work. They get lured in with promises of big money and get in over their heads once half their cases get thrown out for lack of a decent work-up. Stick with corporate law, Max. You’ll get wealthy without losing your shirt.”

I’d taken Marcus’s advice to heart, and dedicated all my time and energy to Staller, Weisz and Coast. After three years, it was beginning to pay off. I was taking the lead on cases, starting to court my own clients. I was also the second in command when it came to any of Marcus’s personal cases, including a big merger he was overseeing personally between two of our clients, each with a lot to gain if things went well and a lot to lose if they didn’t. Once this case was in the bag, I’d have a bonus big enough to put a down payment on an apartment. In New York City, this was saying a lot.

The black suit, my first suit, the one I’d bought with my signing bonus, went to the back of my closet where I kept my other fashion mistakes, like the football jersey I didn’t have the shoulders to pull off and the sparkly mesh top I’d never been bold enough to wear out clubbing. I forgot about it, had a dozen other suits with the Marcus Staller seal of approval, and that was all I needed. I’d found a mentor who respected me, who put energy into me, who wanted to see me succeed. The work was hard and the hours were insane, but I didn’t mind. The only people I wanted to see outside of work were my best friend Hal and his family, but they lived far enough away that I could plan for those visits well in advance. My life felt narrow, but I didn’t mind that.

Then, two weeks before Christmas, I came into the firm early one morning and found Marcus lying on the floor of his office. I ran over and checked him, called his name, but from the moment I saw him I knew he was gone—too still, too silent. Dead.

It felt like a window I hadn’t even know was in my head suddenly shattered, letting all the old, anxious thoughts I thought I’d exorcised mingle with the rest of my mind. Marcus was dead, and I knew that nothing at the firm would ever be the same for me again.

I wore my black Dolce and Gabbana suit to Marcus’s funeral, five days after his fatal heart attack. It was a morning service, all indoors thanks to the winter weather outside. I sat through the service led by his priest, the eulogies given by the other two named partners in the firm, listened to his children cry, and kissed his widow Clara on her pale, thin cheek after she lifted her black veil out of the way.

“I’m so sorry,” I told her, feeling useless just for saying it but not knowing how to say anything else. I’d learned a lot from Marcus over the years, but his off-the-cuff lectures on case law and haute couture and fine food hadn’t extended to how to grieve.

“Thank you, Max.” She dredged up a smile for me as she took my hand between her elegantly gloved ones. “Oh, Marcus was so fond of you. He always said you were the only one of the junior associates who didn’t make him want to tear his hair out.”

I smiled weakly. “High praise.” Marcus had been so proud of his full head of hair, barely graying at fifty-five.

“I was going to ask him to invite you to our place for Christmas this year. He said you never go home for Christmas, that you always spend it alone.”

That was true, but… “I’ve got friends here in the city I’ll stay with.” Kind of. If meeting a bunch of other single associates for racquetball on Christmas Eve morning could be considered “staying with.” It wasn’t even something I wanted to do, more of a “show up or shut up” kind of deal.

“That’s good.” She glanced over at Marcus’s coffin, lying just below the altar at the front of St. Thomas’s Church. It was a beautiful casket, sleek and shining but not ostentatious. He would have approved. If he wasn’t dead. Fuck. “I hope that your friends make you happy. I hope you—you get some happiness this holiday season, because you never—God, you never know when things will change.” Her eyes were wet, her expression haunted. “Remember to be with the people that you love, Max. Be with them before it’s too late.”

I nodded numbly, then stepped out of the receiving line and headed outside. I probably should have gone up for one last look, like so many of Marcus’s other friends, but I couldn’t. Seeing him dead once was bad enough—putting myself through it a second time was impossible.

I needed air. I needed some way to avoid the tsunami of pain that was about to wash over me. I stepped through the front door of the church into the bitter winter air and made it two steps before I doubled over, hands on my knees, and forced myself to breathe. This was the wrong place to be weak, but right now I didn’t care who saw me.

Marcus was gone. He was gone. No more late-night pizzas while we fought to find precedent, no more booming laugh and funny anecdotes about all the places in Manhattan where he’d met a client, no more tips and hints about how to put my best foot forward in the sea of blue-bloods I was now swimming with. Marcus was dead, and he’d left a loving wife and two teenage boys behind. I didn’t have any children, or a wife—I didn’t want a wife either, given how firmly planted I was on the gay end of the spectrum—but there were people I loved. People I hadn’t seen in person in way too long.

As soon as I caught my breath, I pulled out my phone and called Hal. Pick up, pick up… He did, on the third ring. “Max? Hey, it’s kinda early for you to call. What’s up?”

And suddenly I didn’t know what to say. How did I explain that I’d been forced into an epiphany by tragedy, that I only wanted to see him and the girls right now because I was having a panic attack over the possibility of dying alone and unloved? I couldn’t speak, just breathed for another minute, and Hal, God fucking bless him, let me. He knew my moods—he’d been putting up with me since middle school, after all. He made light conversation about his work, about his kids, and graciously didn’t mention his own personal tragedy lately, the impending divorce.

As soon as I found my voice, I choked out, “Can I come and stay with you for Christmas?”

“You…yeah, of course. Really?”

I couldn’t blame him for being surprised. I’d had him and his family out to visit me half a dozen times over the past decade, but I’d never, ever considered going back to Edgewood. Hal knew that, and he’d never pushed.

“Really. Please.”

“Max.” Hal used his gentle voice on me, the same one he pulled out when one of his girls had a problem. “You’re always welcome with us. We’d love to have you here for Christmas, Marnie and Steph have been bugging me for months about seeing you again.”

The thread of anxiety spooled tight in my chest began to slowly unwind. “You’re sure I won’t be in the way? I can sleep on the couch in the living room, it’s—”

“You would kill your back the first night, not to mention ruin whatever fancy-pants pajamas you wear to bed with crumbs and icing and whatever else the thing’s stained with,” Hal said matter-of-factly. “It’s fine, you can take Christine’s room. She’s staying with her host family in Florence for the holidays.”

Oh, right. Hal’s little sister was doing a year abroad in Italy.

“And Nicky’s got his own place now, so no need to worry about him. Come, stay. We’d love to have you.”

I exhaled and ran a hand through my hair. It was stiff with product, the stuff I secretly hated but wore because slicking it back made me look more intimidating, apparently, and I needed all the help I could get with that in the courtroom. Too pretty to be a shark, I remember some of my classmates saying when they found out where I was interning. More like a goldfish. “Thank you, Hal.”

“You gonna come now, or wait until closer to Christmas?”

“I—” That was a good question. I had plenty of vacation time saved up—I hadn’t taken more than a day here and there in my three years with the firm, and all of Marcus’s cases were on hold over the holidays while the named partners figured out which senior associates to give them to. My skin suddenly itched with the need to get out of here, out of Manhattan, out of the city entirely. “I’ll be there by tonight.” Edgewood was only a four-hour drive. I could arrive before dinner.

“Sounds good, but be careful, okay? We’re supposed to get another few inches in the next couple of hours.”

“I’ll be fine.” I actually felt like I would be, now that I had a plan. I was going—not home for Christmas, not exactly, but as close as I wanted to get. We said goodbye and ended the call, and I practically ran back to my apartment and started throwing things into a bag.



Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Eight, Part Two

 Notes: Back to Johnny! Who has figured out another way to spend time with Charlie, not that he's deliberately trying, not at all...next time, we get some Charlie at school POV. Because it's time to get back to the kiddos.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Eight, Part Two

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Rivalries Chapter Eight, Part Two

 


 

 

It occurred to Johnny, once he was five minutes from Charlie’s apartment and taking another pull of coffee from his travel mug to wash the last lingering muffin crumbs out of his mouth, that he probably should have brought some coffee for Charlie. That would be the polite thing to do, wouldn’t it? He was picking the guy up at “too-early-in-the-morning” o’ clock, the least he could do was not be an asshole about it by drinking coffee in front of him. He could have brought him a muffin, too. Johnny had way too many, and seriously, Lora’s daughter needed to stop giving her zucchini, because even mixed with chocolate and baked into a delicious treat, it was starting to be excessive.

Johnny stared at his coffee mug. It was, oh, half full? And he had three minutes left on his arrival clock now? “You can get it down,” he told himself, and began to chug.

Bad idea, bad idea. The insulated mug kept the coffee so hot that trying to take anything other than a tiny sip resulted in burning the roof of his mouth, then his tongue. He swallowed to stop from spitting it all over the steering wheel, and regretted the decision as the liquid burned a path down his throat and into his belly. Johnny coughed and coughed, almost unable to watch the road because his eyes were blurring with tears. You are an IDIOT. He searched his mind for a knack that would help with idiocy, or conversely, physical discomfort, and came up empty. Great.

The burn had faded a bit by the time he got to Charlie’s apartment building. Which number was his again? It was going to be an awkward fucking morning if Johnny had to get out and start knocking on doors before the sun was up…but wait, no, there was Charlie, materializing from out of the shadows like some sort of wraith. There had been a kid at Stheno in their year who had a wraith knack—shadow melding, the closest thing to invisibility anyone knew about yet, and an ability that the army doctors would absolutely love for Johnny to be able to copy. He hadn’t managed it yet. Was it because he genuinely couldn’t, or because he knew subconsciously that, if he did, he’d never be a simple school counselor again?

Maybe a little bit of both. Either way, he needed to pick up his shadowy passenger. Johnny pulled the car in by the curb, reached over, and unlocked the door. Charlie got in and settled down with a sigh, placing his briefcase between his feet. He had two travel mugs of coffee, one balanced on top of the other, in his right hand. “You look like you’re probably good, but just in case,” he said, and set one of them in the free cupholder space before taking a long sip from his own.

He sounded…tired. “Rough night?” Johnny asked as he pulled back onto the road. The traffic was still pretty light—they’d make it to Euryale with plenty of time to spare. And then he could make his excuses to Principal Cochrane and head for the courthouse. Awesome.

“No rougher than usual.”

Johnny scoffed. “Dude, please. You were in a car accident yesterday, that has to have made whatever your normal sleep is like worse.”

“You don’t know what my normal sleep is like.”

I wouldn’t mind finding out. Johnny said a quick prayer of thanks for the fact that Charlie didn’t have a mental knack, then refocused. “Is it the kind that can be improved by blunt force trauma and whiplash?”

Charlie laughed tiredly. “No, actually.”

“There you go.”

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and Johnny wondered if that was going to be it for the whole ride when Charlie said, “Too much stuff whirling around in my head for me to sleep. I mean, the concussion doesn’t help, but I get nights like this sometimes, when my brain is stuck in a loop and I can’t seem to get out of it.”

“That sucks.” Johnny had experienced something like that a few times, but he’d always been able to “jerk” himself out of it, so to speak. Generally, and thankfully, he slept pretty well. “What were you thinking about?”

“Shit, what wasn’t I thinking about?” Charlie laid his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. Johnny took advantage of the moment to look at him. Even as haggard as he seemed right now, with the bruises and dark circles and the fucking stitches, he was still unfairly handsome. “I was thinking about the inconvenience I was going to put you through in the mornings, thinking about how I’m going to have to save up for a car or try to get a loan—and I have a shit credit rating, thanks to being overseas for so long and never having to buy anything—thinking about what the fuck I’m going to do about PT and getting home in time to talk to Ari and his mom…that sort of thing.”

That was…a lot. Johnny hadn’t even considered extracurriculars or things like that, for either of them, when he came up with his brilliant rideshare scheme, but he should have. Not that Johnny had any regular entertainments or appointments, but he had plenty of irregular ones come up. This morning being a case in point.

Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe you should just make it a one-day thing. Or one week. But Johnny already knew he couldn’t do that. This was his fault, and besides that, it seemed like what Charlie needed even more than a ride was someone to spend time with who wasn’t a student or physical therapist or…whoever Ari and his mom were. “I can take you,” his mouth said without his express permission.

Charlie almost jolted upright—damn, had he been about to fall asleep? Johnny should have kept his mouth shut. “What? No, that’s—that’s too much, you’re doing too much already.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re going to need PT now more than ever—” maybe a little less hyperbole, all things considered, genius “—and it wouldn’t inconvenience me.”

“Oh yeah?” Charlie challenged. “Sitting around in a waiting room for an hour three days a week won’t inconvenience you?”

Johnny shrugged. “I can use the time to make phone calls and do paperwork. I’d be doing the same exact thing at home, except surrounded by muffins. Waaay too many muffins.”

Charlie’s eyes narrowed. “I can’t tell if you’re trying to be funny or just being weird.”

“The muffins are a real thing, and also a funny thing, and weird…” Johnny shrugged. “I am who I am, I guess. Weird is definitely a part of that. If you really don’t want the help, I won’t force it on you, but I’m offering. My hours can get really fucking weird sometimes, though,” he warned. “So it’s going to be you waiting on me in all likelihood at least half the time.”

“I can handle that.” Charlie sounded almost surprised, like it was a confession that had just slipped out. “Um. Are you sure?”

As sure as I can be without hitting myself with the ol’ Willpower knack. “Yeah. I’m sure.” Johnny reached down and took a sip of his coffee. It was comfortably warm now, he’d be done with it by the time they got to school.

And he had his second cup already waiting for him.

“Thanks.”

Johnny smiled, just a little bit. Funny how a potentially huge disruption in his schedule could feel like winning something. “You’re welcome.”