Underneath the glorious aroma of coffee, the unmistakable odor of bleach intruded, irritating Mason’s sinuses more than all the disturbed dust. He wrinkled his nose and limped down the stairs. Yesterday, after his shoulders and arms stiffened from too much lifting, he’d started sliding boxes around with his foot, and now that one thigh muscle burned as if on fire. A few more stairs and hopefully, his sore muscles would loosen up.
Or not. Since the break-up and the rushed exodus from his and Richard’s bed of sin, he’d barely gotten off the couch and now he was paying for it. Despite that myth women and bad sit-coms kept perpetuating, drowning your sorrows in wine and ice cream eaten straight from the carton didn’t help. It only gave you a fat ass. Except in his case. His ass was still skinny and he was more out of shape than ever.
Also, Jim Beam worked much better than wine.
But in the spirit of moving on, he’d sobered himself up and laid off the ice cream.
Nat, in her endless kindness, had left him a clean mug by the coffee pot. He drank his black if fresh, with cream if not. He filled his mug and promptly burned his tongue taking an impatient first sip. Just made. Perfect. They probably didn’t have any cream anyway.
Knowing his mother would be out on the porch with her coffee, he left the sparkling, over-bleached kitchen and hobbled outside. Another gorgeous day awaited. At least for him. Oblivious to the sunshine, Nat was lost in thought and not liking it there. “What’s wrong?” He stumbled the few steps to the chair and spilled coffee all over the table. “Is it the baby? Did something happen? He’s okay, right?”
“He’s fine. It’s not him.” She sighed heavily. “Realtor called. House sale fell through.”
“What do you mean, fell through? You’re kidding! How can that even happen?” It was practically a done deal. The sold sign out front said so.
“Realtor said the buyer—the husband—just lost his job. They closed the branch out of the blue and now they have to move back to Kentucky. I think it was Kentucky. Or Tennessee. Anyway. They’re going and not buying the place now.”
“But mom, they just can’t—”
She waved her hand in dismissively. “If they can’t buy it, they can’t.”
“But mom…” Yeah. Nat was ever practical. “Damn it.” But this was not the news she needed. “So what now? You gonna re-list it?”
After a few seconds staring out at the lawn, she turned her full attention on him. Her dark blue eyes—the same eyes she’d bequeathed to him—had a determined glint to them. They were lovely eyes. In Mason’s estimation, his mother had only grown more beautiful with age. Maybe one day someone would think the same of him? “I want you to stay here. In the house.”
“You love this place. That’s really become apparent to me these last few days, watching you pack up.”
He’d also come to that realization, but that was beside the point. “I can’t afford to buy this place from you, mom. Not now, not while I’m not working.”
“Hell, I can’t even afford to rent it.” Not that he was penniless, but until he found a new job and his and Richard’s place sold, or the cheating bastard bought him out, he was on a restricted budget.
“You don’t need to rent it. Just take care of it for me, pay the bills, keep up the yard and gardens, and next spring I’ll put it back on the market. If you’re not interested in buying it.”
“That’s practically a year! You can’t afford that. What will you do for money?”
Nat chuckled. “I’ll be fine.”
Right. She always said that—about everything, even when she wasn’t. Like that lump. He narrowed his eyes at her.
“I will. I did okay in the divorce.”
Uh-huh. That’s why she was driving a ten year old Ford and Stephen had a Mercedes. And a new wife with expensive tastes…and both boobs. Stephen knew what was important.
“Seriously. Quit worrying.” Then, surprisingly, she smirked. “I made him pay for each and every bimbo he cheated on me with.”
Mason startled in his chair. Nat normally didn’t talk about the nasty split with his dad. “And all the secretaries?”
“The neighbors too.”
“You must be fucking rich!”
She swatted his hand. “Quit cussing, young man.”
She laughed. “So I can wait for the house to sell, and until then, you could use a place to live.”
“I have a place.” Ugly as it was, even for a rental.
“It’s a hole.”
True. “But cheap.”
“Move here. Paint the place. Freshen it up, make it look good for when it goes back up for sale.” She raised her cup. “Your place with Richard was really nice. You’ve got a good eye.”
“Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I automatically possess the designer gene, you know.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. After you painted the last time, you told me that the color in the kitchen wasn’t grey, it was pewter.”
“That’s what the little paint sample thingy said.”
“It did!” This conversation was going nowhere, fast. “I still think you should put the place back on the market.”
She sighed. “I’m tired, Mase, and I haven’t even managed to sell this place once. Ginny needs me right now, the kids need me and I don’t want to be stuck here, when I could be useful there.”
And she needed to get the hell away from the house full of stale memories. That, he could understand.
Once again, she nailed him with those intense blue eyes. “I’m done here. I just want to go.”
“And you want to stay.”
He met her stare, and nodded again. It made no sense, but for some reason, he felt he could find himself here, and gather himself enough to move on. From everything.
“Then it’s settled.”
“I—” he exhaled sharply. “Are you sure?”
“It’s kind of a relief, actually. I had no idea what I was going to do with all that furniture. Ginny has no room for all this stuff and putting things in long-term storage just ruins them.”
Ah, there was the catch. He knew there had to be one. “But you’re taking the china, right?”
“Fine. But I’m leaving the cabinet. And the piano.”
“The piano? But why? Ginny played. Not me.”
“Right now, Ginny can’t even pee by herself. When’s she going to find time to play?”
“Put it in the bathroom.”
She poked him in the arm with a manicured nail. “Don’t be a smart ass.”
As a kid, he’d always replied with better than being a dumb ass, but he let it go this time. “Do you really mean it? That you want me to stay here?”
“Yes.” She rose, stiff and sore. “I think you need this. I don’t know everything that’s going on with you—you won’t talk to me about it or what happened between you and that cheating jerk, but I think maybe you need to be here in order to get past it.”
“I can do that anywhere.”
She raised a lone, dark brow. “Quit arguing with your mama, and come help me finish packing all that china. I know you slept poorly last night, I heard you up and down all night, but I think you can at least wrap some dishes.”
He had slept like shit, she was right about that. When he managed to forget Richard’s betrayal and all his cruel observations about his appearance and personality for five minutes and nod off, he dreamed, vividly, something he hadn’t done in years. The recurring dream kept waking him, and when he’d fall back asleep, the dream would pick right back up where it left off—with him playing in the backyard with a blond-haired kid with a really big smile and a faded, hand-me-down Scooby-Doo Where are You t-shirt.
He’d been happy in that dream.
But he still didn’t know who that kid was. He only knew that he really missed him.