Grady Nash eased his moving truck to a stop in front of a row of what appeared to be apartments. He checked the address again. His new home was a far cry from the Kansas ranch he’d left half a day earlier. “Is this the right place?”
Sidney Wilks, his partner, roused from sleep and sat up. He lifted his arms over his head and yawned while trying to stretch the kinks from his thin frame. “I can’t believe we’re here already.”
Already? Nash chuckled. He could point out that Sidney had slept damn near the whole trip, but the truth was, Sidney’s taste in music was shit, and Nash had enjoyed listening to talk radio most of the way.
“What d’you think?” Sidney didn’t wait for Nash to answer before he was sliding out of the truck.
Nash sighed and opened his door. He had to remember why he was making the move from the ranch to the city. Sure, Lake Forrest, Illinois, may not be downtown Chicago, but it was close enough to make him uneasy. He joined Sidney on the sidewalk and stared up at the two-story box that was smashed between other two-story boxes. Yes, the façade was attractive, but no matter how nice the place looked, it would never be the ranch. Hell, the front yard was the size of his old pickup.
“I thought you said you rented a house.” Nash glanced at the close proximity of the neighbors.
“It is. They call it a town house. I like the way the stone columns on the front porch make it seem warmer.” Sidney peered up at Nash, obviously waiting for Nash to say something.
Nash wasn’t sure the five by five pad of concrete could be considered a front porch, but he kept that to himself. “It’s nice.”
Sidney smiled up at him, and suddenly nothing else mattered to Nash. Yeah, that smile was the reason he’d pulled up stakes in Kansas to follow the man he loved.
Sidney turned back to the loaded truck. “This is supposed to be a safe neighborhood, but I think we should go ahead and unload while we have the light.”
Nodding, Nash walked to the back of the truck. “Why don’t you unlock the place and prop open the front door?”
Sidney dug around in his front pocket before producing a cheap-looking key ring. “Give me a second, and I’ll turn on the lights.”
Nash unlatched the cargo door before pushing it up. Although the truck wasn’t packed to capacity, it really was more than a two-person job. The ranch hands had helped him load the furniture, and he wasn’t at all certain Sidney was strong enough to lift the heavier pieces up the eight or so front steps. Thankfully, they’d decided to buy a new couch once they arrived in town, because there was no way in hell Sidney would be able to handle his end of the monstrosity that had been in the house at the ranch.
Nash began to transfer boxes to the sidewalk. Finally, he uncovered his beloved recliner. Sidney hated the black leather chair, but Nash had refused to leave it behind.
“You want me to start with these or help you with that?” Sidney asked as he stood among the sea of boxes.
“Start with those. I think I can get the chair by myself.” Nash remembered the day the local department store had delivered the recliner, and if he recalled correctly, the back was removable. It took some fiddling, but, eventually, he got the damn thing apart.
Already sweating after making three trips into the house, Sidney propped his hands on his hips when he saw Nash lifting the base of the chair off the back of the truck. “You shouldn’t lift that on your own.”
“I’m fine.” Nash nodded to the boxes. “Grab another load, and show me where you want this.”
Mumbling to himself, Sidney did as asked. “I can help, you know.”
“And I’ll need your help once we get to the bed, but I got this.” Nash followed Sidney up the stairs before maneuvering the chair into the house.
“I thought you could put that here.” Sidney gestured to an area free of boxes.
The first thing Nash noticed was the light beige carpeting that appeared to run throughout the living space. He couldn’t see the kitchen floor because of the half-wall that separated the rooms, but what he could see was enough to make him groan.
“How long do you think a man like me can live in a place with beige carpet without jeopardizing our security deposit?” Nash set the chair down.
“I thought I’d put that little bench that was Mom’s in the entry. That way people’ll have somewhere to sit when they take their shoes off.” Sidney grinned. “See, I’m not as oblivious as you think I am.”
Nash shook his head. He was being an asshole, and he knew it. He needed to get used to his new life, and it wouldn’t do either of them any good if he complained about everything that was different.
“I don’t think you’re oblivious. Just pointing it out.” Nash hooked his arm around Sidney’s waist and pulled him close. “I can take my boots off when I come in, but you might have to remind me until I get it through this thick skull of mine.”
Sidney ran his fingers through Nash’s thick, dark hair. “It’s a beautiful head, because it’s attached to the man I’ve loved since I was ten.”
And just like that, Nash knew he’d live anywhere as long as Sidney was with him.
* * * *
Sidney stared out of the window of the train as he ran his palm over the expensive leather messenger bag that Nash had given him for his first day at work. It had taken them the entire weekend to unpack, so he hoped Nash would take his advice and get out of the house for a while.
The moment the train entered the city, Sidney couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. Chicago was full of gorgeous buildings—both old and new. Part of him would’ve loved to find a small apartment downtown, but no way would Nash have felt comfortable among all the towering buildings and masses of people. At least he’d be able to spend his days amid the hustle and bustle.
By the time he reached the office, the beauty of the city was no longer enough to staunch his nerves. It was his first day as an official architect, something he’d worked toward and dreamed of since he was a boy.
He stared up at the expansive interior of the high-rise. When he’d made the trip to Chicago for the interview, he’d taken a tour of the three floors the company leased and they were okay, but the lobby had been the selling point for him. He wasn’t sure what other corporations occupied the building, but from the large blown-glass chandeliers and modern white leather furniture, Sidney guessed they were more prestigious than the architectural firm he’d be working for.
Remembering his new boss’s instructions, Sidney stepped up to the security desk.
“May I help you?” an older, beefy security guard asked.
“I’m Sidney Wilks. Harold Armstrong said he’d have a security badge waiting for me.”
“I’ll need to see some identification.”
“Sure.” Sidney dug out his wallet before handing over his driver’s license.
The security guard eyed Sidney for several moments before producing a laminated building pass. “That’ll get you into the elevators, but you’ll have to stop by the security office sometime today to have your picture taken for your permanent badge.”
“Right.” Sidney lifted the black lanyard over his head. He noticed the guard was still staring at him and wondered if he looked suspicious or something. “Is that all I need to do?”
The guard nodded.
Sidney readjusted his new messenger bag. “Okay, then, I guess I’ll see you later.”
When the older man said nothing more, Sidney walked toward the large group of people crowded around the bank of elevators as he made a mental note to take the earlier train in the morning. He hated to be rushed, and if he made it to the city early enough, he could stop by one of the cute coffee houses on the way and pick up something without being late.
Out of his peripheral vision, he noticed a woman staring at him. He was used to people’s reaction to him. The scar that ran from his ear to the corner of his mouth wasn’t pretty nor was the fact that one of his best friends had been paralyzed from the neck down in the car accident that had left Sidney looking the way he did. Given that he walked away with only superficial reminders of the wreck, he didn’t have it in him to let the woman’s reaction bother him. Instead of getting angry, he turned to face her and smiled. “Good morning.”
The woman broke eye contact and snapped her head toward the bank of elevators again.
Sidney tried not to let her rude behavior get to him. He tried to tell himself the woman was fascinated by his long black hair. In deference to the corporate atmosphere he’d be working in, he’d tied his hair back in a neat bun at the nape of his neck. Unfortunately, he knew her intense gaze had more to do with the long scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to his earlobe.
The elevator dinged and the doors to his right opened. Several people stepped off before three-quarters of the crowd surged inside. Sidney stared up at the descending numbers above the other five elevators and decided to wait for the next one. He tried to shake off the memories of the accident that had left him scarred and a close friend paralyzed. The last thing he’d needed was to have his confidence shaken before his first day on the job.
Eventually, Sidney managed to squeeze into an elevator and ask someone to press the button for the fifteenth floor. He held his messenger bag against his stomach in an attempt to take up as little room as physically possible and tried to focus on other things. He remembered how happy he’d been to discover the office building was within walking distance of the Metra station, because he’d heard horror stories of morning back-ups along the highways into the city. Stupidly, he’d assumed if he rode the train he wouldn’t have to worry about getting stressed out before work, but he hadn’t counted on the traffic jam of people once he’d arrived at the building.
Finally, after the longest elevator ride of his life, the doors opened. “Excuse me.” He gently nudged the man in front of him. When the man didn’t budge, he repeated himself in a firmer tone. “Excuse me. This is my floor.”
With an exaggerated sigh, the businessman moved to the side.
Sidney still had to squeeze himself through the narrow opening the man had created, but at last he was finally spit out of the elevator.
A striking woman at the front desk giggled as Sidney tried to compose himself. “It’s not as bad during the day, but mornings and six o’clock are brutal,” she said, getting to her feet. “You must be Sidney. I’m Susan.”
Sidney strode forward with his hand outstretched. “Nice to meet you, Susan.”
“Mr. Armstrong is out of the office today, but he’s left instructions for you. First, you have some paperwork you’ll need to fill out in the personnel office. After you’re finished there, I’ll give you directions to the job site. Mr. Armstrong would like you to jump right into the project, so he’s secured a work area for you in the construction manager’s trailer.”
Susan led Sidney down a wide hallway. “Break room on your right, as well as employee restrooms.” She indicated as they passed. “After today, you can go straight to the site in the morning unless you have a previously scheduled meeting.”
Sidney stopped. “You mean I won’t be working here?”
Susan slowed. “Until the library is complete, you’ll work on-site unless the weather interferes with construction.”
Sidney’s heart sank. Although the construction site was on the north side of Chicago, which meant it would be a shorter commute, he’d really looked forward to being downtown. “Oh, well, okay. Mr. Armstrong didn’t tell me that.”
Susan waved her hand. “Sorry. Don’t let that upset you. Mr. Armstrong has a lot of projects, and he tends to miss the finer details when explaining things.”
No shit. Sidney lifted his messenger bag. “Do I have a workspace here where I can stow this until I leave for the job site?”
Susan bit her lip before holding out her hands. “I’m not sure where they’ll put you once the library project is complete, but for now, I can put your bag behind the reception desk.” She pointed toward an open door. “That’s the personnel office. Just tell Janice your name, and she’ll get you everything you need to fill out.”
Sidney handed over his bag. “I appreciate your help.”
Susan smiled and waved her free hand. “No problem.”
Sidney tried to keep his enthusiasm up as he filled out paperwork, visited the security office for his permanent identification badge and retrieved his messenger bag from Susan, but something seemed to be missing. It wasn’t until he was in a cab on his way to the job site that he realized not one architect at the firm had approached to welcome him. Had he been naïve to think people would treat him any differently than they had in high school?
By the time he reached the site, his mood had taken a major nosedive, but he hoped his afternoon would go better than his morning.