The weather cooperated nicely with Mason’s plans to skip unpacking the few boxes he’d retrieved from storage and by noon, the sun had dried everything sufficiently for him to photograph the old table. Not that he needed more photos for the memory box. He grabbed the camera case and turned back toward the door, only to find Randy Porterhouse lurking by the steps, staring at him.
Mason’s heart stuttered a few surprised beats. “Jesus, Randy,” he sputtered. “You scared the daylights out of me!”
“Sorry. You were concentrating so hard, I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
Plausible, but for a second there, it had seemed that Randy had just been…watching him. Stealthily. Reminded him of his mother’s words on the subject. Randy was big. Not fat, just solid. Tall, and even more so in the work boots he wore. His tattooed biceps bulged rather alarmingly around the sleeves of his tight t-shirt. Mason suddenly understood how others found him intimidating. Because he was. “What’s up?”
“Had to get out of the house.” Randy scowled and cast a brief glance in the direction of his father’s place. “Old man’s in a bitchy goddamn mood today and I kept imagining strangling him. My hands were actually getting itchy wanting to do it. Even the one in the cast.” Randy strode over to the table and, father instantly forgotten, broke into a grin, his face lighting up enough to compete with the patch of sunlight he stood in. The golden highlights in his messy hair, freshly washed and curling into ringlets at the bottom, caught the sunshine and gleamed.
Huh. He’d never noticed before, but Randy, minus the grease and not viewed against the ugly backdrop of Target’s cheap merchandise, wasn’t bad looking. Not Mason’s type at all, he didn’t typically go for the big burly ones, but Randy probably turned a few heads—of both sexes. His clean jeans moulded tightly to the shape of his ass and the material strained against the thickness of his thighs.
Did Randy have a girlfriend? Kids somewhere? He’d never asked. Since he’d moved in with the Dickhead, he’d let his old friendships slip and he felt a little ashamed of that. Apparently his happy bubble of ignorance extended beyond childhood.
Mason considered it. It was starting to look like maybe he was a little self-centered.
Oblivious to his inner turmoil, Randy ducked past him, and flashed an even bigger grin. “I can’t believe you still have this old thing!”
“My mom never throws anything out.” The proof of that was up there in the attic. And the basement. And Mason’s old bedroom. “Besides, it was buried in vegetation in the back under the trees. I don’t think Nat even knew it was still around.”
“Hey!” Randy walked around the table, apparently lost in a few memories of his own. “There’s my name! Took me forever to carve that sucker. Your mom kept taking my jackknife so I couldn’t cut all my fingers off. And there’s Brandon—both of them! And those weird twins who moved away. God, I forgot about them.”
So, forgetting old friends was not just Mason’s problem.
Randy’s grin settled, but it hadn’t entirely left his eyes—eyes that had always seemed full of mischief to Mason, and still did. Maybe it was the incongruence. When they were children, Mason had always wondered how someone could be both blond and have such dark brown eyes. Guess it happened. “Want me to email you copies of the pictures?” After all, that table was almost as much a part of Randy’s life as his.
Blunt as ever. “Okay.”
“Send ‘em to my work email though. The one at Red Hot Rides.”
Huh. Randy still had his shop then. Nat had been right again. “If you still have your shop, what are you doing working at Target?”
“Oh, well, I just love my red polyester shirt that much.”
“Uh-huh.” Actually, Randy looked really good in red.
“I don’t make enough fixing cars to buy the new equipment I need, and if I don’t have the right equipment, I can’t take on more business. You know how it goes.” Randy shrugged. “Getting a job just seemed like the easiest way to solve that problem. I haven’t shut the shop down, but I only take my regulars now.” He scowled at his cast. “Well I did, until that fuckwit broke my arm. I got this kid helping me, but he’s…well, he’s just a kid. I mean he’s good—gonna be good, but I just started training him when the accident happened. Some sort of apprenticeship thing.”
Damn the luck. As far as Mason knew, Randy specialized in fixing muscle cars and antiques roadsters, and was, by reputation, very good at it. “You could probably sue for the lost revenue.”
Randy snorted. “Yeah, right. Like I’d ever win that. And if I did, it wouldn’t be enough to bother with the hassle.”
“Maybe you should see a lawyer. See what they say.”
Randy shook his head. “Nah, not interested.”
Mason let it go. Not his business.
“Anyway,” Randy continued, “wanna go for lunch or something?”
Randy wanted to be seen in public with him? Things must be really bad at home for him to be that desperate. But what the hell. Mason was desperate too, and as annoying as Randy had been, they had been friends as children, in fact right up until Mason had left for college. But still—some of those names had hurt once upon a time. “You sure want to be seen with me?”
“What?” Randy looked genuinely perplexed.
Mason sighed. Randy was going to make him say it. “I’m still gay.”
Randy’s dark blond brows knit together—an expression obviously worn often. The slight furrow there was beginning to take up permanent residence. “Duh.”
“Aren’t you afraid people will—”
“If anyone wants to say anything, I’d be happy to take ‘em out back and discuss it. Like I used to.”
“You have a broken arm!”
“I only need one.”
Mason eyed Randy’s good arm as he flexed it. Probably true. “That’s crazy! And what do you mean, like you used to?”
Randy opened his mouth, then shut it. “Never mind,” he huffed. “Do you wanna go get something to eat or not?”
Watching Randy clam up was a new experience. He’d always been a motor mouth. Blunt, for sure, and he always had something to say. “Yes, I want to go for lunch. But I want to know what you meant, because I know damn well you meant something.”
“Look Mase, it doesn’t matter.”
Which meant, actually that it did. “Yeah, it does matter.”
“I always hated it when you got all stubborn, and still do. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“And I think I liked you better back when you never shut up.”
Randy rolled his eyes. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You wanna know, fine. It’s no big deal.” Randy took an annoyed breath and let it out slowly. “Back in high school, I used to…you know, stick up for you.”
“When those guys used to call you fag and make plans to gang up on you in the change room and beat the crap out of you for being gay. Shit like that.”
The bottom fell out of what was left of Mason’s world. Jesus. Here all this time he’d thought people were becoming more enlightened, when really it was just Randy getting lots of detentions and suspensions for fighting. Yeah, Mason suffered through his share of comments, slurs and shoves in the hallway, but nobody’d ever caught up with him in the washrooms. He just lived in mortal fear they would. “Why would you do that?”
Randy shrugged one shoulder. “You were my neighbor.”
“That a pretty damn shitty reason.”
“No it’s not. I spent so much time here, it was like my second home. My real home. No way was I gonna let those fucking losers lay a hand on you.” Randy grinned. “Or date your sister.”
“Fuck, Randy—you didn’t have to do that for me.”
“Well, it wasn’t just for you. I really like your mom.”
Okay. Got him there. Everyone liked Nat.
“And your dad’s a grade-A prick.”
“So who else was gonna stick up for you?”
None of this made any sense. Mason’s head was spinning with the endless revelations of the past few days. All his happy bubbles of ignorant bliss were popping one by one. “If that’s true, they why all the name calling, huh? Queer-bait, fairy, homo-erectus. All the other ones. If you were so concerned about saving me from the homophobes, why call me names?”
“To toughen you up.”
Randy sighed. “You’re always so sensitive. Fuck, Mason, you still are. Not like I was always gonna be around to save your ass. You had to learn to stand up for yourself.”
“I can stand up for myself just fine, thank you very much!”
“You can now.” Randy smirked. “See? It worked.”
“Oh, fuck you!”
“Besides, I haven’t called you those things in years.”
“That’s not true!”
“Oh, yeah? When was the last time, huh?”
Now that he had to come up with an answer, he couldn’t recall. But it hadn’t been years, of that he was damn sure. Or had it been? He gave Randy a sour look. “It’ll come to me.”
“Sure it will.” Randy shook his head. “Look. I’m starving, so are you coming with me or not?”
“Yeah, I’m coming. Just have to grab my wallet and lock up. Did you walk here? We can take my truck.”
“Yeah, I walked.” Randy patted his stomach. “I’m getting a gut, sitting around so much waiting for my arm to heal up.”
Mason eyed Randy’s midsection. There might be a little extra padding there, hard to say. All that muscle got in the way. “Meet me out front.”
Mason locked the back door, grabbed his wallet, phone and keys, went through the side door to the garage, but leaned heavily on the driver side door before getting in. If it wasn’t for the fact his stomach was gnawing a hole in itself and there was almost no food in the house, he wouldn’t go. His head was reeling.
How could he have been so wrong? About everything? It was like his whole life had been one big lie.
Having lunch with Randy was probably a bad idea. But the man couldn’t possibly have any more revelations to dump on him. What would the odds be? As soon as he pulled out of the garage, Randy hopped in the passenger side, and with more grace than Mason would have expected from such a big guy. He even managed to get his seat belt on one handed. Must have had a lot of practise after three breaks…
All those years of abuse he suffered alone, and Mason never had a clue…
He’d always found Randy a confusing mix of loud, rash, pushy, fun, rough-and-tumble and annoying. Now he felt like a piece of shit for some of his past comments and about ninety-nine percent of his thoughts. Because maybe, just maybe, he understood Randy better now. God, how he must have craved attention that didn’t come at the end of a fist…
Randy confessed to having a craving for fries, and had a favorite place in mind. Mason drove them there, mostly in silence. It wasn’t the kind of place Richard would have been caught dead in. Burgers and diners weren’t posh enough for him, although they suited Mason just fine. The Dickhead had always been a bit of snob. Actually, he was a lot like Mason’s father that way.
Cheated like him too.
Muttering to himself, Mason locked the doors with his key fob. How had he been so goddamned blind? Every man he’d ever been in any kind of relationship with was one shade of Stephen Novak or another. Faithless. In heart if not in body. Always looking for the next best thing—and that thing was never Mason Novak. “I need my fucking head examined,” he mumbled.
“What was that?” Randy asked.
“Nothing. Just giving myself some good advice I won’t take.”
As they looked at each other across the hood of the truck, something else Randy said popped into his head. Mason shrugged with unease. Might as well get this over with as well, so it couldn’t be a revelation to jump out and bite him later, or be a niggle in the back of his mind where there was so much clutter already, including the ghosts of long forgotten smiling blond kids. “So Randy…”
“You said something earlier. About Ginny.”
“I did?” He looked confused.
“You said you wouldn’t let any of those losers date her.”
Same old Randy. “Was that because you liked her yourself?”
Randy chuckled and headed toward the diner doors. Smiling, he glanced over his shoulder at Mason. There was a wicked gleam in his eye. Mason wasn’t sure he trusted that smile, or that sparkle in his eye, not one bit. It had always spelled trouble. “Well, I like your sister, that’s true, and I love her warped sense of humor. It’s almost as good as yours used to be. Too bad you lost it.”
Mason raised his brows. Ginny was funny as hell. Himself, not so much. “And she’s nice looking, right?”
“Yup. She’s very pretty,” Randy agreed with a smile.
There. Knew it.
Randy’s expression changed suddenly and the smile vanished. He looked Mason directly in the eye and how very disconcerting that was. After a few seconds of what could have been nervous indecision, he said, “But not nearly as pretty as you.”