Rowan took a seat on the living room sofa while Grant dried off his chest with a towel. Clearing his throat, Rowan became very interested in examining the stitches of the sofa cushions. He hadn't been around such casual partial nudity since his last gym visit. A year and a half ago.
"Coffee?" Grant asked.
"Oh, yeah, sure." He realized a moment too late that he'd hidden the movement of his lips. He corrected his posture and the position of his chin. "Yes, please. Thank you."
Grant draped the heavy towel around his shoulders but it couldn't conceal the power of his body. He didn't seem the type to exercise just for vanity; he was a honed machine, built for a boxing ring or fighting cage.
Yet here they were in the comfort of his home and there was too much wariness in his stance, too much danger. Why? Rowan didn't think of himself as intimidating by any definition of the word.
"Do you need any help?" he offered.
Grant shot off to the kitchen, that gruff expression never changing. As soon as he disappeared Rowan collapsed into the sofa, hands shielding his face. Ugh, it was awkward. No denying that. The situation was uncomfortable to begin with and now that he was dealing with an impossibly gorgeous lumberjack, well...
Rowan peeked through his finger tent and took in his pristine, spare surroundings. No television, no pictures or any personal objects of any kind. Just the sofa, a coffee table, and several half-empty bookshelves. Of everything in the room only the fireplace, with its blackened brick edges and deep smoky scent, seemed to get any use at all.
He was still hunched into his defeated little curl when Grant returned with a tray of coffee. The taller man made a noise - a grunt that was caught between surprise and confusion - which made Rowan sit straight up.
"I was just..." he started, but Grant settled onto the chair across from him and didn't seem that interested in an explanation. He was now in a tanktop and sweats.
"Spell your name for me."
"Your name," Grant said louder as he tapped a blank pad of paper on the table. "Spell it."
He did as he was told, feeling Grant's slate grey eyes all over him. When he finished, Rowan pushed the pad in his direction.
"That's my name, believe it or not. It's actually a dumb story. When my mom was in labor she read that the Rowan tree in England was believed to protect people from witches and that was the only thing that calmed her down before the epidural kicked in. In Gaelic it means someone who heals, and... I'm talking a lot about my name, aren't I?"
Grant pinned him with an expression as opaque as his eyes. He drank his entire coffee in one non-nonchalant gulp."Why are you here, again?"
Right, Rowan thought with a twinge of embarrassment.Stop wasting the man's time and get down to business.
They spent the next several minutes going over Grant's home delivery application, filling in gaps, correcting misinformation. The mystery of his phone number was solved: Grant had been using a phone relay service that he recently decided to disconnect.
"It was very annoying." He signedannoyingfor emphasis.
Thankfully, Grant also had a smartphone and agreed to update his record with the number. He then provided an email address but warned, "I don't like to check it."
"Well, you're going to have start liking it, Mr. Wolfe. Especially if you plan on using our services."
Rowan explained his job as a librarian and learned that the correct term for Grant wasdeafened, meaning he'd lost his hearing as an adult. It fell under the realm of eligibility for the program and the news seemed to be a genuine relief. Grant's shoulders, broad as a mountain rage, actually relaxed somewhat.
"What can the library deliver for me?"
"Books, magazines, and DVDs. You'll receive a monthly delivery. You can request specific titles yourself through the library website. Or if you prefer, you can give me a list of genres and formats you're interested in and the selecting can be done for you."
"Books," Grant signed. It looked exactly how Rowan thought it would: two palms opening side by side. "Onlybooks."
Rowan rather liked watching Grant sign as he talked, it lent his words a certain expressiveness that his face (handsome as it was) didn't quite allow. Even if he hadn't smiled once during their conversation, he still seemed engaged and interested.
"And what genres interest you?"
"Biographies. Literary fiction."
"So, anything that's won an award?" Rowan teased.
"I'm working my way through the complete list of Giller Prize winners."
"I'll have to make a note of that."
Grant scanned the pucker of Rowan's lips to the arch of his brows. "You're surprised."
"The way your eyebrows raised when you spoke. You looked surprised."
"It's just- I work in my branch's circulation department and if something hasn't been adapted into a movie or Netflix series, patrons aren't very interested in reading it." A pause. "And now I sound like a judgmental snob..."
"No, no." Grant shook his head and then signed, "You're fine."
"I really didn't mean to. The reason I'm a librarian is because I want to encourage anyone to read or access whatever information they want. I just can't help but notice certain trends, I guess."
Grant repeated theYou're fine sign. If he was offended, he didn't show it. "What else are you interested in reading, then?"
"Adventure. Maybe science fiction."
"Horror? Mystery? "
"I don't think so."
"What about... romance?"
Rowan kept his face neutral and tried to hush the confused voice in his head.But what aboutThe Time Traveler's Wife?
"Back to science fiction, were you interested in any particular subgenre? Like sci-fi fantasy, speculative sci-fi, first contact, military--"
"No." The word shot out hard and sudden. The hand holding his cup seized with a violent reflex, sloshing his arm with the warm liquid. "No military books. Nothing like that."
"Okay." Taken aback, Rowan handed him a napkin.
"Take science fiction off my list. Alright?"
"Alright. It's off."
Grant dried off and threw the crumpled napkin to the table. "Excuse me."
He was gone before Rowan could protest.
Grant slammed into the backyard and took in huge mouthfuls of air. He tried doing all those things his former therapist had told him: go outside if you can, count to ten, root yourself to the ground. He sat on the grass, feet planted and knees up. He slowed his breathing. He counted.
He knew Rowan had looked at him the same way everyone else did when he got this way. Doctor, teammate, family member, friend - like he had those anymore - the expression was always the same. Fear. Stretched tight across their eyes and mouths. That's why he had to get out of there. He hated that look. Hated knowing he was the reason for it.
Grant thought he'd been getting better at controlling himself. One year ago he removed himself from his triggers, moved all the way up from the States to Canada, found a nice little place by the woods. Yet he couldn't endure a visit from a damn librarian (!) without needing an escape plan after a few minutes.
The thought almost brought him out of the darkness, almost put a smile on his scruffy face. Of all the things to trip him up and throw him out of sorts... alibrarian? And not some stern old lady, either. Earlier in the yard when Grant realized he'd been approached by a slender young man with chocolate brown hair that fell messily over his wide, searching eyes, he thought...
Well, he didn't know what he thought. A neighbor? Some kid who'd been trailing the woods and got lost? This Rowan boy hadn't looked scared when their eyes first connected, though he had every reason to be. He was in the yard of a strange man holding an axe. But his approach had been friendly and curious, if not entirely confident.
Urgh. Somehow, that made flying off the handle in front of him all the worse.
A shadow crossed the lawn. He looked up to find Rowan waving as he approached.
"I don't mean to bother you, Mr. Wolfe."
"I'm sorry." He signedsorry, a fist closed over his chest that he rubbed in a circular motion.
Rowan shook his head. "You don't need to apologize. I just need to confirm a couple of things before I go."
Grant started to rise, thinking they should reconvene in the living room, but Rowan joined him on the grass instead. The glow of the low sun highlighted the shape of his face, his high cheekbones and full lips. His eyes flowed like clear tropical water, welcoming and calm.
The tightness in Grant's chest unfurled.
"What day of the week would you prefer for your delivery?"
"Saturdays are fine."
Rowan ticked off another box on his form. "Mornings or afternoons?"
"Great. Do you have any other questions before I go?"
Grant noticed the younger man's chest was rising and falling at a faster clip. He was nervous, but about what? Saying goodbye?
"Are you going to be my delivery person?"
A shade of rose blushed his guest's milky skin.
"Oh, I... I don't know. That's up to the department."
"Can I request you to be my delivery person?"
Rowan's chest fluttered again as he clearly tried to fight back the start of a grin. "I could try but I can't guarantee anything."
"I don't like to meet too many new people. Explaining myself over and over... I don't like that." He signedI don't like thatand let his mouth dip into a small frown. Back when he was still learning ASL, his instructors once got on his case for not making himself expressive enough when he signed. Grant then 'expressed' that if someone couldn't suss out the meaning of his signs that was their goddamn problem, not his. His instructors never mentioned it again. Mostly because he stopped going to their classes.
"I understand," Rowan's lips said slowly. "Can you teach me something? You don't have to, but I'm curious. How do you sign 'understand'?"
Grant raised his fist to the side of his forehead and flicked his forefinger upward. "Understand."
Rowan mirrored him, positioned his fist, flicked his forefinger. "Understand." He pointed to his chest and performed the sign again. "I understand. Was that right?"
"You don't have to point to yourself. Just sign it and nod."
Rowan did as he suggested. Grant made a thumbs up in approval.
"Aha, I did it!" He started to laugh. "I actually learned something useful. It only took me 27 years."
Since his accident, Grant had no use for laughter. He couldn't hear it and didn't miss it - it served no purpose in his life. But seeing Rowan light up over learning one simple sign... a feeling stirred deep inside him. Something he'd buried a long time ago.
Something he had no idea how to handle.
"Well, I have all the information I need here." Rowan handed him a card. "Email me if something changes. I definitely recommend setting up your account on our website. That'll make it easier to track your holds."
"You're very... helpful. Thank you." He'd almost forgotten how to say it. Did the words come out too fast? Too slow? Though he couldn't hear himself, Grant only hoped he gave the words the conviction they deserved.
"I'm just doing my job, Mr. Wolfe."
As Rowan motioned to stand up, that unearthed feeling stirred again, making itself clearer and fuller. The chivalry he'd been taught growing up in Dallas pulsed into every limb and nerve ending he had. So Grant stood first, his brawny six-foot-five frame filling the air, as he extended a hand.
"Please," he said, "Allow me."
After a moment of hesitation, their hands met. Grant hadn't felt skin that soft in ages. It almost embarrassed him how rough and calloused his palm must have felt against those silky fingers. Rowan lifted to his feet without much effort at all as a shy smile emerged in the shadow that crossed his face.
A muscle spasmed in Grant's jaw.
The involuntary movement made Rowan's smile disappear. "Is everything okay?"
There were times when Grant was fine with speaking even though he couldn't hear his own voice. Speech therapists helped him pace his words and form the correct mouth shapes just as he could when he was a hearing man.
Then there were times like these, when a question likeIs everything okay?inspired such a confusing tidal wave of thoughts that Grant could no longer trust his ability to vocalize. In these circumstances the words wanted to come out faster than his brain could process. He feared what those words would sound like if he ever unleashed him. Would they be striking, loud, terrorizing? Or the same toneless drone that school kids used when they mimicked the deaf or disabled? No. He wouldn't let anyone hear him like that. So he turned every vein and muscle into steel and kept those thoughts inside where they were safe and couldn't hurt anyone.
That's enough, a strong voice chastised.There's someone standing in front of you. You're not lying in bed in a cold sweat anymore. Be present. Be the man who got through all three phases of BUD/S.
BUD/S. Remembering it was a startling explosion of red in the darkness.
Then the images and sensations cascaded: obstacle courses, long distance diving, kicking up sand as his calves screamed, weapons training, brutal three-hour night sleeps, demolitions, combat swimming in frigid waters, the ghostly echoes of shouts and screams and...
The memory of his Navy service was enough to wrench him back to reality, back to the grass under his feet, the trill of songbirds over his head, the early autumn breeze on his bare arms. Rowan's lips were moving. Though he had trouble focusing, he didn't need an interpreter to see how concerned the young librarian was.
"Yes," Grant settled. "I'm fine."
Rowan buckled his seat belt and readjusted the library van's rear view mirror off his face and onto the road. Grant escorted him back to the driveway to see him off.
There were a couple of moments when the man almost seemed to go blank, not to mention that strange interruption that saw him step outside, but otherwise Grant had been nothing but a gentleman. He kept a certain distance, sure, but they were strangers. Not everyone warmed up at the same speed.
He was intriguing. Rowan couldn't imagine losing his hearing and then voluntarily living on his own. That seemed scary. But Grant was a great deal more resourceful and resilient than the average man. Whatever led him to his life of solitude, that was his business.
And yet.... doesn't a part of him seem... you know... lonely?
Grant approached the driver's side door as the engine started. He was still ruggedly handsome, but up close Rowan could see how haunted his features were. Hollow, almost. The features of a man who'd seen - and perhaps did - more than he ever wanted to. And his eyes, intense and alert as they were, hid a profound sense of longing.
Stop it, Rowan snapped.You don't know this man. You have a master's degree in library science, not psychology.
Grant leaned one muscular arm against the van roof. "When is the first delivery?"
Rowan tried not to pay attention to the way that thin grey tanktop generously hugged the outline of his chest. But at least it was a distraction from the flex of his bare arms, which were a deep shade of sun-given bronze.
An ache of desire blossomed in his stomach. "It can start as early as next Saturday."
"So I'll see you next Saturday."
"But I still can't guarantee I'll be the driver."
Grant ran a couple of fingers back and forth across his beard.
"What sign is that?"
"No, it's just itchy."
"Ah. Right." A finger self-consciously tapped his smooth cheek. "Not being a beard owner myself, I didn't realize they could get itchy. But, duh. Of course they do."
"I wont sign something without saying it in front of you first. I'll make that a rule now."
"You seem very confident that you'll see me again, Mr. Wolfe."
"If the library sends someone else I can't guarantee I'll be as nice to them."
Rowan laughed. "Something tells me you aren't kidding."
"Then I'll be sure to warn the department head." He brought the van's stick shift out of park and into reverse. "Goodbye for now?"
Grant patted the roof and eased away from the vehicle. "Until next time."
"If I see you again, you better teach me some new signs!"
"Okay," Grant signed in response.
He recognized the gestures: the hand making anO, and then the forefinger, middle finger and thumb forming theK. Rowan waved goodbye as the van peeled off the driveway and into the street.
It wasn't until he'd driven halfway back to library that he remembered the envelope sitting on the passenger seat. And the paper folded inside it, with those troubling words to a woman named Tatiana...
"Shit," Rowan hit a hand against the steering wheel. The note had completely slipped his mind. It was the entire reason he came!
Returning it seemed more awkward than ever. He didn't want to be responsible for the damn thing. It really was like hanging on to someone else's bad dream.
But then he thought of the way Grant asked to see him again, how he curtly insisted that he be the one to make the deliveries. Oh, Rowan hoped he hadn't made too much of an ass of himself. When Grant's large hand slipped over his it was like the air had escaped his lungs. No... not just his lungs. It was like the air had escaped theatmosphere. To think that a man - any man - could pin him down with such a warm, strong gaze - and then ask, no,demand, that they see each other again, well...
Yes, Rowan's head was in the clouds. Yes, he was nursing a bit of a crush. (Just a bit.) He could admit it. He could almost admit that it likely meant nothing. Men like Grant Wolfe were never interested in men like Rowan Watson. The lumberjack and the librarian wasn't exactly a popular pairing. It wasn't an observation rooted in bitterness, but reality. He knew where he stood in the dating pool, and it was certainly nowhere near anyone who looked like they could rip a tree out of the ground with their bare hands.
But he could compartmentalize as needed. A crush, while fun, can be put aside. And Rowan knew he would have to, especially if it meant helping out someone who needed it. That made the possibility of returning to the cozy little bungalow off Crothers Woods more than just a silly but pleasant daydream.
Grant padded down to the basement he'd converted into a personal gym. His head had been swimming all damn day and he needed a good rush of endorphins to tide him over until dinner. With the casual ease of a man who'd spent his entire life getting fit, Grant gripped the pull-up bar built into the basement ceiling and started his routine.
One... two... three... his breaths escaped him in small, practiced grunts.
It was his way of coming back to normal. Well, his version of normal. His days usually consisted of exercise, reading, cooking, doing chores around the house, working on his paintings. Long, involved conversations with a hearing person were rare. Well, non-existent, really. He'd forgotten how much work being around the hearing was. Speechreading, something he still hadn't fully mastered, required a profound level of concentration on a good day.
...four... five... six...
Rarer still was being around a hearing person he actuallywantedto speechread. Thankfully, Rowan was expressive enough and made an actual effort to speak slowly and clearly. Grant only had trouble understanding him when he stumbled over his words. As polite as he was, the younger man seemed to struggle with his confidence.
And dealing with Grant's moods couldn't have been easy, either.
...seven, eight, nine...
Grant finished his tenth pull-up and dropped into a set of push-ups. His mind was on autopilot now, drifting toward that night's meal, reminding himself to check the weather forecast, to prepare the fireplace if need be.
By the time he started on dips, the faint memory of helping Rowan get to his feet resurfaced. Grant thought of the way that tight runner's body went taut as he stood, how the wind slapped against them in that moment and made him shiver slightly. He'd fought the urge to pull the younger man closer, to warm him against his chest.
Grant had to stop mid-dip. His focus was eroding. Tiny streams of electricity danced up his right hand and forearm - the same one Rowan allowed him the pleasure of touching. He wiped at his sweating brow. Where the hell did all this come from? He ran from things like this - ran and never dared to look back. But one simple, unannounced visit had untethered him from the world he worked so hard to build and now he was spinning out of orbit.
The weirdest part? He was kind of... intrigued... to see where it would take him.
He hoped that this strange creature - thislibrarian- would show up on his doorstep next Saturday with that same timid smile.
Grant strapped on his weight lifting gloves and took a seat on the padded bench. He scratched at his beard again and wondered if he should shave for next time.
Huh. Next time. He wanted there to be a next time.
How strange it was to look forward to something again.