Zach was furious, and it felt good.
He bent over the anvil, laser-focused, a vicious energy burning through his bloodstream. This was his molten world of metal and flame, where his anger was acceptable, even reasonable: here, it gave him strength. And so, at work, where no-one he loved could see, he became a god of war and rage. The hammer in his hand was an extension of his body, the sweat rolling down his spine was a scream of encouragement, and watching iron bend to his will was cool oxygen in this sweltering space.
He worked. He worked. He worked. Until his phone vibrated in his pocket, the alarm dragging him back to reality. It was time for a break. Time to face the real world for a while and become the safest version of himself: cool, cocky, calm. Mustn’t forget the calm.
Outside, the early spring sun was choked by dull, pale clouds. He took a gulp of sharp Ravenswood air, clean and crisp even here, on the small town’s tiny industrial estate. Then he pulled out his phone and fired off a text to his mother, the same one he sent three times a day.
Did you take your meds?
A few minutes later, her reply came through.
…I have now! Relax, darling. I always remember eventually. 🙂
More like she always checked her texts eventually. He rolled his eyes and flicked through his notifications. The online forum he’d been lurking in for months now continued to be active, especially his favourite thread: Demis for DC, a place for demisexual members to discuss all things DC related, for no particular reason other than a love of nerdery and camaraderie.
Zach had learned a lot about demisexuality since discovering this forum for ace and arospec people. Had felt a lot, too, reading about others’ experiences while he grappled with his own. Now he knew for sure that he was demisexual, a discussion about comic books was clearly the perfect place for him to slide in and make some… internet friends, or whatever they were called. Friends like him. Friends who got it.
But he was still too nervous.
Zach sighed and put his phone away. A breeze bit at his cheeks, ruffled his hair, made the sweat beneath his overshirt feel clammy and cold. He pulled off the shirt and swiped at his brow, wandering toward the low brick wall at the edge of the lot. He knew what he was waiting for, or rather, who: Rae. His morning ray of sunshine, full of smiles and fantastic stories.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of movement, a hint of colour. His mouth hooked up into a smile, though the expression didn’t come as easy as it used to. Ma’s illness was under control, and the depression that had swallowed him whole was under control, too, but Zach still felt distant sometimes—like a faint photocopy of himself. Still, for his friends, he tried.
But it turned out, the person walking toward him wasn’t exactly a friend. Not anymore. And it certainly wasn’t Rae.
Callista Michaelson was all graceful movement and bold contrasts: pink coat, blue eyes, hair like summer wheat, topped off by a genuine, beauty pageant smile. He hadn’t seen her in ages, but once—before Ma’s diagnosis had rearranged his life—she’d been someone he knew. He wasn’t sure he knew her anymore.
Still, he leaned lazily against the wall and gave her his usual grin. “Hey, Cal.”
“Hey, Zach.” She stopped and mirrored his posture, her arm coming to rest beside his. Familiar mischief lit her gaze, and she ran her fingers playfully over his wrist. His stomach tightened, and not in a good way. He’d slept with Callie three times, back when he didn’t understand himself. In the days before he’d vowed to stop hurting himself on other people’s lust. Before he’d abandoned his twisted attempts to seem ‘normal’.
For her part, Callista liked decent guys who gave decent orgasms, and there weren’t many to choose from in this town.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked, arching a brow toward the grim facade of the forge. “Is Daniel being a nightmare again?”
“He keeps to himself, these days,” Zach said dryly. “I think he’s on thin ice with daddy.” That was the trouble with men who had the world handed to them: someone could always take it away. Daniel Burne, town sweetheart and known human shit stain, was learning that the hard way.
“Then why are you out here in the cold wearing that?” Callie’s eyes slid over the thin, white vest plastered to Zach’s torso with sweat. She didn’t seem to mind the view.
He resisted the urge to put his overshirt back on. “Gets hot in the forge.”
“I bet.” Her fingers climbed higher and higher on his arm, gliding over the art inked into his skin. Her touch felt more like the slow creep of a spider. He tried not to flinch. It was funny: people used to call Zach a freak, a weirdo obsessed with comic books and cartoons. Now he wore his heroes on his biceps in greyscale, and women like Callie called him a hot nerd. Whatever the fuck that meant.
At least there was no confusion over what this meant: the look in her eyes, the tease in her touch, white teeth sinking into her plump lower lip. Shit. Rejecting a woman really wasn’t his idea of fun—but he’d made himself a promise, recently. One designed to break his habit of handing out Yeses he didn’t mean. Zach had sworn to himself that he wouldn’t sleep with a woman again unless he really, truly wanted her. No exceptions. “Cal,” he said, catching her hand. “I, uh…”
She smiled and pulled away. “No?”
“I hear you’re saying no to everyone, these days.”
Which wasn’t like him, hence the gossip. There was a question in Callie’s eyes, one he’d seen a thousand times before. Briefly, he considered answering.
You see, a while back, I thought my mother was dying, so I had a come-to-Jesus moment and explored the sexuality I’ve always tried to ignore. I am now unapologetically demisexual, which means no more sleeping with women I don’t want just because it seems like I should.
Of course, she probably wouldn’t know what demisexual meant—he hadn’t, for a long time—and the thought of defining it made him want to take a three-year nap. So he kept his mouth shut.
After a moment, Callie let it go.
“Well,” she said brightly, “I’m glad I caught you, anyway.”
For a moment, he thought, Caught me? But she kept talking, so his mind moved on.
“I have a problem, Zach,” she said, shooting a glare behind her—where, around the corner, Ravenswood’s only mechanic had set up shop years ago. “I’ve been down here once a week for months, now. Months. And bloody Joe still can’t fix my car properly.”
Zach knew Callie well enough to realise she was exaggerating. Still, he nodded sympathetically. “What’s up?”
“Well, if only I knew!” She threw up her hands. “First, it’s a coolant issue, then it’s the head gasket, then, actually, no, it’s an electrical fault. Honestly, we need a new mechanic around here. You should’ve taken over. You were always so good at that stuff.”
Yeah, well, necessity was the mother of every skill Zach had. Growing up with a busy single parent, plus no money, plus his older brother disappearing, led him to learn a lot of practical things at a very young age. The hard way. And those skills had never been allowed to fade, because once someone identified you as useful, they’d always be around to… well, use you.
Callie was giving him this hopeful, lip-biting look that might’ve made him dizzy, if he was allosexual—if he experienced attraction without an emotional connection. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t. Gorgeous as she was, he didn’t feel a damn thing below the belt. What he did feel was a familiar tug in his chest, the pull he always experienced when faced with someone who needed something. It was an urgent whisper he couldn’t ignore: You’re the only one people can rely on. That makes it your duty to help.
“I’ll take a look at the car for you,” he said. He had a job, a sick mother, and a life, but sure, why the fuck not? Somehow, in the middle of all that, he’d fix Callie Michaelson’s car—even though he hadn’t seen her in a century.
The uncharitable thought, so unlike him, brought a slight frown to Zach’s face.
Callie didn’t seem to notice. She clasped her hands together and beamed, “Oh, I knew you would! You are such a sweetheart.” Then she flung her arms around his neck, which must have been uncomfortable, since there was a brick fucking wall separating their bodies. But she did it anyway.
She left pretty quick after that, which was, frankly, a relief. It took him a few deep, careful breaths to ease the prickling discomfort Callie had left behind, but he managed. He’d been managing more and more, lately. Once he was calm, he loitered for a few more minutes, knowing his break was over, hating that he was behind schedule, but oddly eager to see Rae. For some reason, after that high-pressure exchange, he was starving for another woman’s absent-minded smile. And eventually, his patience was rewarded. She came.
He heard her before he saw her: that slow clip of booted feet, accompanied by the gentle pad of heavy paws. Then they rounded a corner and came into view: Duke—a huge, fluffy beast who claimed to be a dog but was clearly part bear—and Duke’s human. Rae.
She wandered closer, more tugged along by Duke than actually walking, her dark eyes distant as she stared into space. She was dreaming up stories, as always, and this one must’ve been good, because she had a crooked little smile on her face. The left side of her mouth tilted up; the right side barely moved. He’d always assumed that had something to do with the three dark scars that swept across her temple, over her cheek, along her jaw.
And, speaking of cheeks—hers were reddened beneath the brown sugar of her skin, as was the tip of her nose. She wasn’t wearing a big, wool coat like Callie; just jeans and a jacket way too thin for this autumn morning. She was cold. He never did like to see Rae cold.
So he called, “Hey. Would it kill you to put on a scarf, or something?”
She blinked, focusing on him. Deep smile lines fanned from the corners of her tip-tilted eyes, and a corresponding warmth flared inside his chest. “Piss off, Davis,” she said cheerfully. “You’re practically naked, yourself.”
“Don’t act like you’re complaining.” He paused, just to enjoy the hell out of her derisive snort. “Anyway, I spent all morning in a forge. What’s your excuse?”
She was beside him now, only the bricks between them. Her arms rested alongside his, just like Callie’s had, but she didn’t touch. “There’s nothing wrong with my outfit, you unrepentant nag. I’m supposed to be the old lady around here.”
“Old lady.” He rolled his eyes, indignant. “Shut up.”
Duke chose that moment to rise up on his hind legs and give Zach some love over the wall, his tongue lolling happily. His tiny, teddy bear eyes twinkled like dots of midnight. He might as well have said, I’m here too, you know.
“Morning, mate.” Zach sank his hands wrist-deep into thick, chestnut fur.
“Shameless,” Rae muttered. “He’s absolutely throwing himself at you. Where’s your pride, Duke?”
“Don’t ask, don’t get,” Zach said.
She gave a low, dry chuckle that was music to his ears. Rae never took him seriously. It was his favourite thing about her.
And his second favourite thing—the reason he’d hung about waiting for her and made himself late—was her mind. By which he meant, obviously, her stories. “You got anymore drama for me?” His tone was hopeful, almost wheedling, but he didn’t really care. It had been days since the last installment; he wanted to know what was going on in Rae’s fantasy world of witchcraft and betrayal.
But she shook her head, frowning slightly. “Nothing new today. Sorry.” She sighed, and the worry in her voice pricked something protective in him. “This book isn’t coming easy.”
He’d never heard her say that before. Of course, they weren’t exactly life-long friends: his brother’s girlfriend had introduced them last summer, which felt like forever ago, but wasn’t. Still, the idea of his daydreamer struggling with stories seemed… wrong.
He leaned closer, narrowing his eyes like clues might be written beneath her skin. He didn’t find anything, but for a moment, he caught her scent on the breeze: lemon and sugar pancakes. Zach breathed deeper. He loved pancakes. “Writer’s block?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t believe in writer’s block.”
For some reason—maybe the prim way she said it—he chuckled. She was so fucking cute, sometimes, and she didn’t even know it.
She tutted at his laughter, pointing a finger at him. “Positive words, positive mind! Or… something. My dad used to say that. Don’t call it writer’s block, is my point. You’ll jinx me.”
“Sure, yeah.” The words might be more convincing if he could stop laughing.
“Oh, shut up. Someone should get you a muzzle. I should get you a muzzle. What do you think, Duke?” She looked down at her mammoth dog, whose head was level with her waist. And Rae wasn’t a small woman.
“Duke would never muzzle me,” Zach said.
“Don’t be so sure,” she replied archly.
Duke gave Zach a beady stare that seemed to say, I am a loyal hound who will support his mistress in any endeavour.
Zach rolled his lips inwards and contented himself with a smile. “So, what are you gonna do about your not-writer’s-block?”
“I don’t know. Sacrifice a goat?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. My mind is anchored on dull, boring Earth, and I really don’t like it here.” She was smiling, but it wasn’t her usual quirk of amusement; there was something thin and worn about it. She turned her head and the wind teased her hair into a flag of bronze and brown ribbons, shot through with whispers of silver. If she were a painting, she’d be titled something artsy like Wistful or Wanting.
“If your mind’s anchored,” he said slowly, “then something must be weighing you down.”
Just like that, her faraway gaze was sharp as a scope and locked on him. For a second, she looked breathtakingly unhappy, so painfully vulnerable it shook him down to his bones. Then she blinked, flashed a one-sided smile, and the moment passed.
Maybe everyone on earth was hiding something massive inside them. He had the anger he didn’t want and could rarely release. And Rae, apparently, had sadness. So much fucking sadness.
He’d never noticed before now.
Clearly, she hadn’t wanted him to, and still didn’t. She avoided his gaze as she said, “I’m just nervous about something. Work stuff. It doesn’t matter. And I’m taking up your break, aren’t I?”
He wanted to say no, but that would be a lie, so he said nothing at all.
She gave him a wry smile. “Go on. Duke and I need to get home.”
But I don’t want you to go. Not until I figure out how to make you smile for real.
“If you ever want to talk about the… work stuff,” he said carefully, “you should call me.”
She rolled her eyes, all light-hearted amusement. “I’m sure. Let’s pour some wine and have a DIY therapy session.”
But she was already walking away, Duke trotting loyally beside her. Opportunity gone, then. For now.
“Wait,” he called. “Just—will I see you tonight?”
She paused, shooting a look over her shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You should come.” To the pub, he meant, for their group’s unofficial Friday night drink. “When you don’t, I’m surrounded by couples.”
“Poor baby,” she snorted, and left.
Rae had heard on the small-town grapevine that once upon a time, not so long ago, Zach Davis had been… well. Sexually prolific. She’d never seen him in action as the town sex god—apparently, he was now retired—but she’d bet he’d been fucking magnificent. He could certainly seduce her with the crook of a finger. She’d pay good money just to run her tongue over the fine map of raised veins on his thick forearms.
Then again, Rae was horribly sex-deprived, so perhaps that didn’t mean much.
By the time she and Duke got home, she was still overheated by the memory of the man’s smile. Zach Davis, barely clothed, was an atomic weapon. He looked like something out of a book: twelve years younger than her and ten times hotter, all broad shoulders and rough hands and subtle, effortless flirtation. Since he was practically a fictional character, he was safe to salivate over. The lust she felt towards him barely counted: they were friends, and he was the epitome of delicious impossibility.
He was also, unexpectedly, a complete sweetheart.
Thank God she hadn’t buckled under the force of his quiet concern, back there, and spilled her guts. What would she have said—that her debut novel had been nominated for a prestigious award, and it was making her miserable? That she’d agreed to sign at an amazing fantasy convention, and the thought filled her with dread? That she was so anxious she couldn’t write a word, all because she was about to spend a weekend working and sleeping in the same hotel as her ex-husband?
“No, no, no,” she murmured to Duke, leading him into the kitchen. “Because that would be pathetic. And Ravenswood Rae is not pathetic.”
But that was the problem: at the Burning Quill convention, with Kevin and his new wife swanning about, she wouldn’t be Ravenswood Rae. She’d be Kevin’s Rae. Abandoned Rae. Sad, pitied Rae. And the thought made her want to vomit.
It was time to think of other things.
She filled her baby’s massive water bowl, set it down before him, and asked, “You felt Zach’s chest, right? Is it heavenly? Is it like a big, sexy slab of concrete?”
Duke gave her a look that said, You’re sick, and lapped up his water.
She stepped out of the splash zone, chuckled to herself, and sat down at the kitchen table. But when her phone dinged with a new text message, her smile collapsed like a deflated soufflé. It was her mother. Oh, joy.
Marilyn: If you’d put as much effort into your marriage as you put into whining, you wouldn’t have lost Kevin in the first place. Please grow up, darling. I worry for you.
In the space of ten seconds, Rae’s stomach turned to lead.
She squeezed her phone tight—so tight that her fingers paled and the touchscreen display took on a strange, rainbow cast. Her pulse pounded in her ears and her blood seemed to prickle in her veins.
This was all feelings ever got her. From the sour, murdered love between she and Kevin to the toxic, twisted thing between she and her mother, Rae should know by now that seeking comfort came with a price. She’d woken up especially anxious that morning and messaged Marilyn about the convention during a moment of weakness. What had she expected—maternal advice, reassurance, support?
“Idiot,” Rae muttered through bloodless lips. “Absolute idiot.” She loosened her grip on the phone and pushed her tongue against the scar on the inside of her cheek, her private talisman. After a few deep breaths, she typed out a response.
I didn’t lose him, I left him.
No. It sounded defensive, and Marilyn thought Rae was weak for leaving, anyway, and… She tried again.
I’m not whining, I just
I put plenty of effort
Delete. That would only cause an argument. In fact, any response that wasn’t obsequious and self-flagellating would cause an argument, and Rae’s stomach was already churning at the thought of her mother’s call. She could almost hear the quiet, razor-sharp words couched as straight-talking concern, draped in affection like sheep’s clothing. Ugh. She didn’t have time for this.
Something heavy and warm landed in her lap. She looked down to discover that Duke had abandoned his sloppy rehydration-fest to come and see her. Rae set her phone aside and slid from the chair to the cold kitchen floor, wrapping her arms around her monster of a dog. His nose snuffled, wet and supportive, against her neck.
“I know what you’re going to say,” she murmured. “If we didn’t talk to Mother at all, she couldn’t bother us.” Easier said than done, though. Easier said than done. Forty long years, and part of Rae was still waiting hopefully for her mother to change.
Sometimes, she hated that part of herself. And sometimes she needed it.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself together and muttered, “You know what I feel like? Wine.”
Duke huffed disapprovingly.
“Yes, I realise it’s early. Don’t judge me.”
Today was just one of those days.
That Kind of Guy is out on May 2nd! Pre-order now: