From: Rowan <email@example.com> To: Neil <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Home Library Services driver assignment
I was wondering how HLS decides which driver gets what delivery route? And also how do you become a delivery driver? And also can drivers select their own routes?
P.S. A woman has been staring daggers at me for the past five minutes because I wont "let her" read Bridget Jones' Diary.
From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignment
Is this about the sexy lumberjack?
From: Rowan To: Neil Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignment
This is not about "the sexy lumberjack".
Please don't make me type things like "the sexy lumberjack".
Gah, you made me do it twice.
P.S. The woman is convinced that I'm lying about the last copy of Bridget being on loan and she's threatening to come to your office.
From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignment
If you haven't already submitted the sexy lumberjack's application, give it to me and I'll attach a request (read: a demand) that you get assigned his route. There's some insurance something-or-other you'll need to sign, but otherwise it's as good as yours.
P.S. PLEASE direct that lady to the shrine of Debbie Macomber that is our Print Fiction MAC-MCK aisle before she stomps (I'm imagining she stomps) her way over here.
From: Rowan To: Neil Subject: Re: Home Library Services driver assignment
You don't have to do that. But... if you want to do that... that would be really cool.
P.S. She refuses to read Debbie Macomber.
From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Vocabulary
"Really cool". There's that articulate young man I hired.
P.S. Keep her away from me. Don't even tell her that "Neil, the senior librarian" exists. I'm Tony Stark now, as evidenced by my new and legally binding email signature:
Tony Stark CEO of Stark Industries and leader of The Avengers and kisser of Gwyneth Paltrow and 100% not Neil Burroughs, M.L.I.S.
From: Rowan To: Neil Subject: Re: If you're Tony Stark then I'm Wonder Woman
Just because you have the same goatee as him doesn't mean you also have an arc reactor embedded in your chest.
From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: You'd look very good in the boots
I dare you to walk the twenty feet from your desk to my office and say that!
From: Rowan To: Neil Subject: Re: I'll wear them to my next shift
One moment, Mr. Stark, I'm sending Bridget Jones lady to say it for me.
From: Neil To: Rowan Subject: Re: Junior librarians are evil and I demand they all be fired
That's it. No sexy lumberjack delivery route for you.
"A blind date?"
"A blind date," Rowan's roommate Aarani confirmed.
"Punching me in the face in front of a group of strangers in public would achieve the same result and you wouldn't even need to buy me dinner."
"You're impossible," Aarani cried from their kitchen down the hall. "I never understood what it meant for someone to be impossible until this very moment."
"Love you too," Rowan replied absently. He shut his Macbook and massaged his eyes. Spending the entire afternoon watching American Sign Language tutorials on YouTube had the unhappy side effect of making the living room blurry and distorted.
"You have 'I'm not really listening to you' voice."
"I do not."
Aarani stuck her head into the hall, a great curtain of black hair cascading down her slim shoulders. "I've already showed this guy your picture. He's totally into you. He digs the sexy male librarian look."
Rowan grimaced. "So it would be a blind date where I'm the only one going in blind? And how exactly does a 'sexy male librarian' look?"
"No, I'm hungry. And I'm also the one making dinner, so be nice."
"You're a fantastic roommate."
"There's that voice again."
She appeared from the kitchen with two plates and an exaggerated sigh reserved only for her closest friend. As teenagers suffering through high school together, neither of them could have predicted they'd be roommates in their late 20s, but the intense bond of their friendship all but guaranteed it.
As they grew older, Aarani's social circle blossomed while Rowan's shrank. Though they remained attached at the hip, he couldn't help but feel like her pity friend at times - such as when she pitched him ideas like dating a man sight unseen.
Rowan stared at his plate, stomach grumbling, but his mind elsewhere. Aarani nudged him with the blunt end of her fork.
"Earth to bookworm. Not hungry?"
"Hungry." His hand formed a C-shape and brushed his chest in a downward swoop.
Aarani peered at him from her end of the couch. "What's that?"
"Sign language for hungry. I've been trying to teach myself."
"That's why you've been hunkered over your laptop all week? I was starting to worry you became one of those flat Earth truthers."
Rowan smiled ruefully into his plate. He circled a shrimp in a puddle of sauce.
"Huh. Sign language," Aarani said through a mouthful, "Wouldn't French be more useful?"
"I'm learning so I can help out a patron."
"Which one? The sexy lumberjack?"
"Why is everyone calling him that?"
"Oh! My former manager Sharon, the one who left to take care of her twins? She's actually a certified interpreter. I could give you her number."
"Really? That would be great. I think I'd retain more information face-to-face. There's only so many times I can hear 'Remember to subscribe to my channel!' at the beginning of every damn video..."
There was a sparkle in Aarani's eyes that matched the cinnamon glow of her skin. "I'll give you her number if you let me set you up on that blind date."
"Please stop calling it a blind date."
"His name is Michiel."
"Tell him I said congratulations."
"He's from the Netherlands and he's not married."
"I'm sure one has nothing to do with the other."
"Look, I don't want Sharon's number if it comes with conditions, okay? I'll stick with the YouTubers - a declaration I never want to make again." He interrupted her before she could rebut. "My love life is not your responsibility."
Aarani let her face fall into her hands. "I'm just trying to be a friend."
"We've known each other 15 years," Rowan said, softer this time. "You've got that part handled pretty well."
"You know you're hot, right? That your self-admitted inability to connect with another man has nothing to do with your looks?"
Rowan set down his fork, suddenly not so hungry. "I guess we're in the blunt talk portion of the evening."
"I'm only saying these things because you need to hear them. Because I want you to figure things out and be happy."
"How do you know I'm not happy by myself?"
"Rowan..." She looked embarrassed and lowered her voice. "When I travel for work you practically have a panic attack."
"That's not-" He stopped himself. What could he say? That she was lying? Their creaky old duplex apartment felt haunted whenever he was by himself. He couldn't sleep those nights when Aarani was traveling or at her boyfriend's place. But admitting that out loud - as a nearly 28 year old man - was embarrassing in a way that stopped his breath.
"I worry," Aarani continued. "I can't help it. I know your last relationship was enough to put you off dating for a lifetime. But at some point, don't you think it would be healthier to... move on?"
Rowan broke off her glance. The tight concern in her eyes was too much to bear. The mood was darkening much too quickly now, like a blinking light bulb running out of power.
"Move on to an unmarried Dutchman named Michiel, you mean?" he asked with a wryness he hoped would brush the darkness aside.
"Fine. You can have Sharon's number without having to meet Michiel. Just promise me that you won't put off being happy?"
"I'm not putting it off. I promise."
They finished dinner and spent the rest of the evening Netflixing in amicable silence. Rowan was the first to call it a night. His first Home Library Service delivery was the next morning. Which meant seeing a certain man again...
Before entering his bedroom he saw the envelope - Grant's envelope - on his dresser drawer. He turned on his heel back to the living room.
Aarani's glance narrowed. "You have 'I need advice' face now."
"Say you had something that didn't belong to you, that should really be in the hands of its owner... but... returning it to them would probably hurt them. A lot. And holding onto it might only make things worse. What would you do?"
She thought for a long time. "I would return this exam booklet back to my ethics professor and ask for a different question."
Grant studied himself in the mirror. Seemed weird - and also very wrong - to be nervous on a Saturday morning.
Last time the librarian was in his home, Grant had been in his dirty sweats. Probably looked like a slob. He made an effort this time: a shower, a maroon Henley shirt, a pair of his nicer jeans. Was a Henley too casual? He shaved, too, for the first time in forever. He went from a beard to stubble, hoping it would look a little less scary.
It'd been a damn long time since he cared about not looking scary.
The doorbell notification light flashed. That was it. He was here.
Grant ran from the bathroom, down the hall, through the living room, into his foyer, heavy footsteps practically shaking the foundation of his house. He steadied himself for a beat before opening the front door.
Rowan stepped forward, smiling and fresh-faced, eyes glittering with warmth, a ray of sunlight in the shadow of his porch. "It's so nice to see you again."
Grant nodded, relieved he hadn't opened the door to some other library delivery driver, and humbled by someone so handsome being so effortlessly friendly to him.
Rowan tugged the hem of his jacket. "I was in a bit of rush to get here on time. I hope I don't look like too much of a mess."
That seemed hard to believe. His soft, chocolate brown hair fell in perfectly rumpled waves - he must have run his fingers through it moments before activating the doorbell. Grant found himself resisting the urge to reach out and feel for himself.
"No. You look fine." He hadn't spoken aloud since last Saturday and the words took longer than usual to come out.Should've practiced more, you big dolt.You knew you'd be talking to a hearing person again.
Rowan's inquisitive eyes scanned him. "And you shaved! I can actually see your face now."
Grant's hand reflexively went to his jawline. Felt like sandpaper. A closer shave was one of the few things he missed about his military service. The barbers on base had been experts with a straight razor.
"Don't worry, Mr. Wolfe, that's not a bad thing."
Jesus. Get better at the small talk.
Rowan lifted the bright red tote bag by his side. The Toronto Public Library's logo was stitched into it. "So, I come bearing books. There's about ten paperbacks and five hardcovers in there. I'm supposed to warn you about how heavy the bag is but I think that only applies to our elderly or infirm patrons."
Grant accepted the tote bag and negotiated the weight in his hand. "Don't think this will give me too much trouble. I've carried sandbags heavier than this."
"Yes. It was part of my tr- truh-"
My training. The word stilled in his mouth. He remembered how to say it, how the mouth shape was formed. But he moved to Canada to get away from those words and memories, not to rush headlong back into them.
"Part of your? Training?" A knowing look crossed Rowan's boyish face. "Let me guess, baseball player. No, rugby player. Definitely rugby, right? You've got the build."
Grant's eyes darted to the ground and back up again. Cold pinpricks shuddered up his massive arms. "Rowan. Can I speak to you about something?"
"Of course. Did you want more books for next month's delivery? You can request up to fifty items."
"No, no. Do you think we can talk inside?"
Rowan's posture shifted, tightened. "Inside?"
"If you're comfortable."
"I am. I mean, okay. I mean, I'm notuncomfortable-" His lips started moving at a nervous speed. Grant's ability to read him dropped sharply.
"Wait. Please, slower. Remember?" He gestured the sign forslower, an echo from their first meeting.
Rowan's chest grew then shrank. "I'm sorry. I keep forgetting."
They stepped into the foyer, halving the distance between their bodies. Grant inhaled the scent of lavender shampoo off the younger man. An uncertain blush of desire roared through his body.
"Is something wrong?"
"I need to explain something to you." This sudden need surprised even him, but if they were going to see each other on a semi-regular basis, Grant thought it was important to divulge. "Last week, when we met. You may have noticed there were a couple of times when it looked liked I had... checked out."
"Well, let me apologize for that. I don't always enunciate as well I could."
"No, that's not what I meant. This isn't about me being deaf."
The librarian shifted again. He started to brush his bangs away - a nervous habit, it seemed - but for once they weren't in his face. "Okay, I'm listening."
"Sometimes, I..." Grant started, and hoped against hope that he would put the right words together, that he wouldn't come off as crazy or strange or someone that this incredibly gentle young man should fear. "I have these... I suppose they could be called episodes. I have these episodes. They make me confused. Make me think... that I'm somewhere else, in certain points of my past. I was in the military. Navy SEAL. Don't like thinking or talking about it too much. Every once in a while it just... it floods me."
Shame flared in his chest, hot and unwelcome. He didn't like admitting these things to anyone and yet a dam wall had broken wide open, forcing the words to surge forth.
"So if you're around me and I ever seem lost, or angry, or even scared, it's not because of you. I just need space and time to breathe. Then it's over after a few moments. I just want you know that it's... it's okay to be with me when I get like that. I won't hurt you." The next sentence was the hardest for him to get out. "I don't want you to be afraid of me."
"I'm not," Rowan said immediately. He'd been listening attentively, nodding, taking it in. Though his brow was knit with concern there was no trace of pity in his expression. "I really appreciate you telling me that, Mr. Wolfe." "Call me Grant. Don't really like the formal stuff, if that's alright."
"Of course. Grant, then," Rowan smiled.
The shame in his chest subsided and there was finally enough room in his lungs to take in a full breath. He stood nearly a foot over the average person, knew every type of chokehold and palmstrike, and could perform the quickest gun disarm of anyone in his former Spec Ops team - and yet it was a simple conversation that had him sweating bullets.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Grant offered after his heart rate came back to Earth.
"I'd love one," Rowan nodded, and together they headed to the kitchen.
Honesty seemed like an important thing to Grant.
That thought clutched Rowan like a vice as he took a seat at the kitchen table, fiddling with the zipper of his jacket. The note to Tatiana was neatly folded into the breast pocket. He was dead set on giving it back to Grant and he was really, truly serious this time.
Except, now? Doubt was creeping back in.
To admit to having spells of confusion, displacement, and even anger must have taken tremendous effort on Grant's part. He didn't seem like the type of guy who shared much of himself with anyone. Rowan didn't want to change the mood so drastically and so soon after his confession.
Perhaps he could put it off just a little while longer.
"Your jacket," Grant motioned to him. "You can take it off."
"Oh. Alright." He unzipped it awkwardly, all too aware of the thin t-shirt he wore underneath. He hoped it wouldn't get too drafty inside...
Truthfully, he didn't know how long he could stay, the library would want the delivery van back sooner than later. But he didn't want to be rude - and he especially didn't want to pass up the opportunity for them to spend more time with each other.
He watched his host prepare coffee. Grant had an intense, laser-like focus, as if nothing else existed except the kettle, the mugs, the tray. As the telltale whistle of the kettle shrieked, a device on the kitchen counter started to flash. Alerted, Grant lifted the kettle from the stove.
"It's sensitive to noise," Grant said, answering his silent question. "God knows I need it. I drink a lot of coffee."
"Me too. I'm an addict."
"Yes, please," Rowan signed in response.
Grant regarded him with surprise. "Did I teach you that?"
"I'm practicing. By myself. A little." His signing still wasn't perfect - it probably wouldn't ever be. But Rowan wanted to make an effort.
"How come?" Grant joined him at the table with their mugs.
The warmth of his nearness made Rowan sit up a little straighter. "It's good to know another language. And if I can help... you know, someone... or anyone with it, that's a nice bonus."
Grant nodded. They sipped coffee.
One of these days I'll get an expression out of him.
That wasn't to say that Rowan didn't like Grant's face. He liked it the moment they laid eyes on each other. It was a face carved by a hard, but loving hand.
Then there was the rest of him. God, where to start? When Grant opened the door and stood there in his dark red Henley, beard shorn down to a medium stubble, sleeves pulled up to reveal those tanned, hairy forearms... well, damn. Even his hair, so thick and tousled, had been combed off his face. Rowan had momentarily forgotten how to speak.
Concentrating was difficult even now. The buttons below Grant's collar were undone, revealing a swirl of dark chest hair. The shirt itself seemed a size too small - accentuating his ripped athlete's build instead of hiding it. Oh, he most certainly differed from the scrawny teens and hunchbacked seniors Rowan saw on daily basis.
And then he realized he was staring. Grant was staring back, lips slightly parted.
"Ah!" Rowan exclaimed, to shake himself out of his stupor more than anything, "I forgot to tell you. I can fingerspell my name now."
"Can you show me?"
He sucked in a small, nervous breath and began what he spent all night practicing. "My name is R-O-W-A..."
Shit. The 'N' always tripped him up. Going smoothly from the 'A' to 'N' hand shape was a little confusing since they were so similar. Where was he supposed to tuck his thumb in again? Between the pinky and ring finger or the ring and middle finger?
"Here." Grant reached over and guided his signing hand. "N. Like this."
Though his fingers were rough and callused, his touch was gentle, careful. As if he were handling a treasured object. Rowan's body thrummed with heat.
"So... the thumb... goes between... the ring and the middle finger." He wondered if Grant could also read the shakiness of his voice and hoped really, really hard that he couldn't. He tried again.
"My name is R-O-W-A... N."
"Good," Grant signed back. "Good job."
"Yes!" Rowan clapped his hands together and laughed. "I'll get better at this. Maybe. I hope."
"You're doing fine."
He gave the moment a chance to breathe before he replied. "You're very kind."
Rowan laughed. "Well, you are to me."
It was sweet, but he had to wonder. Was Grant really so terse with other people that these little niceties were considered rare? He had no idea what the man was like when he interacted with anyone other than him.
Rowan took another sip and cleared his throat. "You said you were new to the city. How do you like the neighborhood so far?"
"Are your neighbors nice?"
His great shoulders shrugged. "This one couple introduced themselves to me. They kept trying to come over with casseroles, pies. Got annoying. Told them to stop."
"I'm sure they were just trying to be neighborly..."
"They thought I was a charity case. Weekly invites to their church group and all that."
"What about your friends? Do they live nearby?"
The corner of Grant's mouth hooked into a humorless half-smirk. A smirk that said without saying, I know what you're trying to do.
Well, there's that expression you've been trying so hard to get out of him...
"I keep to myself."
"What do you do for fun, then?" Rowan softly tapped the edge of his mug. He really didn't know anything about Grant, now that he thought about it. Where he was from, if he worked, if he had a girlfriend...
"Yeah. What does Grant Wolfe do on a beautiful Saturday morning like this?"
"I normally take a walk around the woods before lunch."
"I take my coffee and a book to the pond there sometimes."
"A pond? This city has ponds? I haven't seen one since I went camping in grade eight."
"Would you like to see it?"
"If you have time."
Rowan tamped down the instinct to check his phone screen. This seemed a little more important than keeping to some dumb schedule. "Sure, a walk sounds great."
Moments later they were outside in the brisk morning air. Crothers Woods was accessible through Grant's backyard and they followed a beautiful, sun-dappled dirt path through the sea of trees. Autumn had brushed the leaves with magnificent strokes of gold and red. Rowan couldn't ever recall seeing Toronto like this. Even the air was different - cool with a trace of earthiness.
Rowan hugged his arms to his chest, lips curving into a soft smile as Grant led him off the path to an opening through the trees. Ahead of him, Grant walked with a long, confident stride, his shoulders wide and square.
He was a Navy SEAL, after all. Learning that made a lot of sense to Rowan. The man's physicality, his stoic and powerful presence... even the sense of danger in his gaze. It all pointed to the steely confidence of a man who had served his country. (Well, his country, not mine, Rowan reminded himself.)
They walked until they reached a wide clearing. Further ahead was the pond, flat and still as a mirror. As they approached the waterline Grant bent down and skimmed a rock across it, sending waves of perfect ripples across the surface.
Neither of them had said a word since they left his house. That was quite alright. Their silence matched their surroundings. Trees cast shadows across the shoreline like the soft quilt Rowan hid under as a child. It was comforting. He always did feel safer unseen.
Grant skipped another rock, fleece jacket ruffling in the sudden wind. He looked like a model in one of those outdoor gear catalogs.
Rowan tapped his arm to get his attention. "How do you sign 'beautiful'?"
After being shown, Rowan mimicked the sign. A sweeping motion across his face. "This place... beautiful."
"Good job," Grant signed back.
"Am I an expert signer yet?"
Grant's half-smirk returned. It actually had a hint of humor to it. "Not yet."
The wind howled again, colder this time. Clouds were encroaching on the sun, making Grant frown. "Looks like a storm's coming."
Rowan followed his gaze until he spotted a tree, old and low, hovering over the far edge of the pond. Something about the dry white bark and the random coil of branches struck him with a vivid familiarity.
"Oh my god. It's my castle."
Grant stared at him, probably thinking he misread his lips.
"That's what I used to call this tree in my backyard when I was a kid. It looked exactly like the one on the far side of the pond. I mean, it's uncanny."
He ran to it. Childlike excitement fueled every step. Up close, the resemblance was even more striking. He swooped his fingers along the crevices that veined the bark.
"I used to climb that tree every day after school," he said as Grant caught up with him. "Sometimes I didn't even want to come down, not even for dinner. My mom would get so mad. Sounds silly, I know. But I loved being in my castle."
"It made me feel safe."
His hands continued to roam the tree's old, weathered skin. Its long, thick limbs sagged heavily to the ground. Rowan felt one foot lift, then the other, and before he knew it he had taken point on the lowest branch.
Grant moved closer to him. Stood up straighter. "Careful."
"I've been climbing trees all my life, dude. I'll be fine." He reached the next highest branch. The thrill of escape that exhilarated him as a child came racing back into his veins.
"You don't know how sturdy those branches are. It's an old tree."
"Grant, really," he almost laughed, ignoring the creakiness he felt beneath his shoes, "I'll be okay." He climbed onto the next highest branch. Then the next.
Grant was tense now, tenser than he really needed to be, in Rowan's opinion. The view from this height was terrific, though the sight of heavy clouds rolling across the horizon was slightly worrying.
"Hey, do you think it's going to rai-"
A loud SNAP that only Rowan heard filled the air. His footing disappeared and all he saw as he tumbled down was the blur of the surrounding forest. Then he saw Grant, suddenly there like a big dark wall, arms extended, reaching, catching...
They slammed into the grass. The larger man covered most of him, one of his hands tucking Rowan's head protectively into his chest. His other arm was around Rowan's waist.
Not how I thought this would happen. All he could hear was the ringing in his ears and the heart thundering in his ribcage. And he thought, maybe, Grant's lips were pressed against his hair. Or was it his imagination?
Grant's weight lifted and his hands searched him, gentle but purposeful. Looking for injuries. Of the two of them, he seemed way more concerned. Rowan was simply trying to quiet the storm beneath his chest.
Eventually, Grant's voice started to penetrate the roar of adrenaline.
"Don't move. Are you hurt?"
Rowan tried to push a 'No' through his stampede of breaths, but when it didn't come, he signed it instead. It was one of the first signs he memorized, and one of the easiest - the forefinger, middle finger, and thumb clamping together.
Grant exhaled. It sounded like relief. "Told you not to climb it."
"I'm not. Usually."
"Don't try anything like that again." His admonishment was sharp.
"So much for my professional tree climbing career, huh?"
"You could've broken your arm. You could've..."
Grant trailed off and a distance fogged the intense grey of his eyes.
A fragile silence. The kind that tingled.
Rowan dared to break it. "Hey. I really am sorry."
Grant frowned, shook his head, and snapped back to the present. "Come on, stand up."
Then Rowan realized things hurt. His shoulder, his hip. Pain shot through his right ankle.
Grant's ruddy face crinkled with concern. "You're hurt."
"No, I-" Rowan didn't want him to worry but lying was pointless. "A little."
Grant's strong hands helped him to his feet. Rowan put a little pressure on his ankle. Not broken but definitely too tender to walk on.
"Here." Grant's arm hooked around his waist. "We'll go slow. Lean into me."
Rowan did as he was told. He fit perfectly into the muscular crevasse between Grant's arm and chest. Since they weren't facing each other, he signed as he spoke. "Thank you for helping me."
"You're welcome," Grant signed with his free hand.
Slow and steady, they started down the path back into the woods. It wasn't particularly graceful, with Rowan awkwardly relying on his left foot for forward movement, but Grant remained patient and careful.
At one point, Rowan stole a glance in his direction and saw the taller man was concentrating entirely on him. His big dark brows had bunched together and his mouth was a hard, straight line, as if balancing a priceless antique with one hand.
"I'm okay," Rowan signed with a chuckle. "I wont break."
Grant looked away. "I shouldn't have brought you here. It was my fault you got hurt."
"Hey." Rowan tapped his shoulder, drawing their eyes back together. "I got hurt because I wasn't listening. I was being dumb. I'm glad you brought me here, I liked seeing the woods with you."
"Yeah. It's a whole other world. Trees and secret paths and a pond. Plus you're a really nice guy."
"No I'm not."
"Oh, come on! A mean guy wouldn't let me lean on him."
"I don't always feel like a nice guy."
"What do you feel right now?" Rowan held his breath after the words left his lips. He knew he was upping the ante.
"I suppose I feel... useful. Right now."
"Do you feel anything else?"
The heavy clouds that had been gathering all morning finally fulfilled their promise and unleashed a spectacular boom of thunder.
Grant pointed skyward. He looked relieved. "That. I feel that."
They continued on toward the woods as the first drop of rain hit the curve of Rowan's goosebump-pebbled neck.