<416-555-6464: Hello. Is this Rowan Watson's number? --Grant>
<Rowan: Holy crap, the mountain man texted me! Welcome to the 21st century. Yes, it's Rowan. Thanks for your number, I've saved it in my contacts (if that's okay with you). Also you don't need to sign your name!>
<Grant:Sorry, this is new to me. By all means save my number. I should have given it to you first. I... enjoyed seeing you last night.>
<Rowan: I enjoyed it too It was the most entertaining thing to happen at work since my boss Neil found a raccoon behind the audiobooks shelf.>
<Grant: A raccoon? You need to make a trap. Get a garbage can and place it in accessible location inside the building. Stand a cinder block against it and a second cinder block on its side at the bottom of the can.>
<Grant: If the library doesn't have cinder blocks I'll bring some over. Place bait on the second block. Raccoons are omnivores, they'll eat pretty much anything. A scrap of white bread or even an open can of pet food will do. Have it out overnight and check the trap the next morning. Do you want me to send these instructions to your superior?>
<Rowan: Dude, this happened a year ago. We took care of it.>
<Rowan: Your concern is very sweet, though.>
<Grant: I'm not used to being called sweet.>
<Grant: Hey, did I catch you at a bad time? I can "text message" you later. Is there a special etiquette for this kind of thing?>
<Rowan: Hey, sorry, you're fine, it's just that my roommate has a limitless supply of energy for arguing, as that 30 min silence probably conveyed. I'm free now!>
<Grant: Glad I live alone, I gotta say. What were you arguing about?>
<Rowan: She wants to throw a big party for me. Which would be pointless since all the guests would be *her* friends. I'd rather contract Ebola.>
<Grant: Don't contract Ebola.>
<Rowan: Wise words.>
<Grant: Why does she want to throw you a party?>
<Rowan: Oh, uh... for my birthday. I'm an October baby. It's this weekend.>
<Rowan: Yep. I'm a Libra. Please don't let that scare you off.>
<Grant: I have no idea what that means.>
<Rowan: Such a Taurus thing to say.>
<Grant: A what?>
<Rowan: Nothing. Anyway, I just wanted to spend my birthday by myself, I don't like making a big to-do of it, you know? I even booked that day off work so I can eat lemon bars and watch Netflix.>
<Grant: I get it. I'm not much of a party guy either.>
Grant set down his phone and rubbed the bristles of his jaw. The memory of last night lingered like a pleasant dream. A warm feeling clutched him and didn't let go, even in the cool air of his backyard patio. He'd stepped out for some fresh air - and to calm his nerves before his first plunge into the world of text messaging.
Visiting the library was unusually compulsive for him. But he had to. He was going crazy, spending all week untangling the complicated emotions Rowan stirred in him, things he'd never felt.
Grant had dated his share of guys before enlisting in the Navy but they were all one- or two-night stands. He'd never been in anything approaching a relationship before. It was all about the hookup, the quick satisfaction. And now, well, he'd been a monk since his discharge. Since his accident...
As he'd done so often before, he shoved the dark ugly past back into a box deep inside himself and returned to the present. Back to the real world.
Back to Rowan.
Grant didn't want him disappearing from his life after a night or two. He sensed the younger man wasn't interested in an arrangement like that, either. But anything beyond a two-night stand was uncharted territory. And with that came a heavy, intimidating rush of dread...
He didn't know what the hell he was doing. The only thing that calmed him was the thought that maybe, probably, possibly, Rowan didn't either.
Yeah, Grant liked keeping to himself. But he also enjoyed how Rowan changed the very air he breathed, how the tightness in his chest lifted when he was around. Trim and lean, and so damn sexy, especially the way he moaned and writhed as Grant devoured him in that kiss last night. He found every part of Rowan gorgeous, from his intelligent eyes to the nape of his neck to those perfect, full lips.
God, those lips. They reminded him of hot sex, heavy breathing, and slick, sweaty skin.
He almost wanted to laugh. Here he was entertaining the thought of sex and romance and dating when, just weeks ago, you couldn't have paid him a million dollars to feel a damn thing for anyone.
Though his discharge from the Navy was honorable ('When you are being separated because of a disability incurred in the line of duty' was the condition he met), the experience had broken him. He gave the military everything - his service, his courage, and by the end, his ability to hear. What was left of his support group did their best to ease him back into civilian life but he grew increasingly agitated with their optimism and platitudes. He wanted to be left alone, to drift away, to deal with his pain in his own time and on his own terms. What he really wanted, of course, was to ignore and deny.
Over the past few years he became the type of man his father was - a ghost. Most days he didn't look, didn't think, didn't feel.
And then he moved to Canada and met a librarian. Rowan had made him look. Made him think. Made him feel.
Grant went inside to start dinner and get the fireplace going. He thought about this coming Saturday. Thought about birthdays. About time spent alone.
When he wanted something he fought for it. Grant was a warrior, always had been. Ever since he was kicked out of his own house at sixteen, he'd looked ahead, determined to plot his own path. And it looked like his path was starting to change directions.
Maybe it would be okay, just this once, to let someone walk along at his side.
He tapped his phone to open the Messages app.
<Grant: Come over here for your birthday.>
<Grant: If you want to. I'll understand if you don't want to waste a day off on me.>
<Rowan: Of course I want to see you. I'd like that a lot. What time?>
<Grant: Noon, if that works.>
<Rowan: Noon your place sounds perfect. Man, I like when a Taurus takes action.>
Rowan could barely process Grant's invitation when a call came through on his phone. It wasn't from a number he recognized.
A woman's voice trilled from the other end, British, posh, a little husky. Vaguely, it reminded him of Emma Thompson. "Mr. Watson! This is Sharon Harkness, I believe we have one Aarani Rabendravarman in common?"
"Oh! Hello." He completely forgot that he left a voicemail with his roommate's ex-manager. "I wasn't expecting-"
"Is this a bad time? People your age, always so busy, always on the go. Smoking pot with Rihanna at Coachella one day and pretending to be a talking pony at a comic book convention the next. Ha! Anyway, is this?"
"A bad time, love."
"Um, no, now's fine. Thank you so much for returning my call. Aarani says you give lessons in American Sign Language?"
"Certainly I do! Have to keep busy. My twins drive me insane. If I didn't teach on the side I'd throttle them. And there's something rather poetic about teaching sign language when I'm trapped at home with two little people who can't even speak English yet. Do you have children?"
"Well, stay that way." A wild bark laughter from Sharon. "Childless, I mean. I don't know what I was thinking. Rotters, all of them. Where in the city do you live?"
"Hrm, I'm all the way down in the Beaches. You don't mind the slog? For your lessons, that is. I teach out of my very garish home."
"I don't mind."
"Wonderful. We can get started as soon as put it back in the toilet! In the TOILET! What did mummy tell you about throwing it on the floor?"
There was the sound of water splashing and children screaming followed by Sharon shouting.
"Sorry love," she trilled was if she was in the middle of brunch, "Manny and Meryl are being a bit of a pain today. And naturally the husband unit is in Germany all month for work. I told him, Vaughan, you can have all the bloody bratwurst you want in Toronto."
Rowan had a lot of experience dealing with eccentrics from the library. It was easy enough to throw them out if they got too loud or caused trouble. But being taught a new language by one of them? In their home? This was going to be an experience.
"So, Mrs. Harkness," he said in his bestLet's land the planevoice that Neil so often used, "When are you available?"
"We don't need to figure that out right this second dear, I just wanted to introduce myself. First impressions are Manny I swear if you don't put that back in the toilet right this second, I will slap. I will SLAP."
From: Aarani <email@example.com> To: Rowan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Hey weirdo. Wanted to wish you a happy bday but to my surprise your bedroom was VACANT when I rushed in with a cupcake and a sparkler. So, this email will have to do. You're 28! God you're old. How do I make a "You survived the 27 Club" joke that isn't in poor taste?
You said you wanted to spend the day by yourself so you being M.I.A. right now is kind of a mystery. Please don't tell me you're pulling a Gone Boy. (But do fill me in on the deets of whatever it is you're doing soon, k?)
Oh! Halloween is coming which means I'm throwing a party and you are REQUIRED to go. You owe me. You are also required to put more effort into your costume than last year when you wore a shirt that was a size too small and said you were Kevin fromWe Need to Talk About Kevin.
Talk soon. Luv ya.
P.S. Sharon called to let me know she loves your voice. Kind of an ironic thing to say about someone she's going to teach sign language to, right?
At noon sharp on his birthday, Rowan arrived at Grant's bungalow. He activated the doorbell and watched the notification flash from the living room window. He waited.
Smile fading, he tried the doorbell again. Still no answer. The strobing light was visible from the house so the device definitely wasn't broken. Had he gotten the time wrong? Was Grant asleep or still showering or not home at all?
He noticed the front door hanging ajar. Nudging it open revealed a mason jar on the foyer floor. A note stuck to the lid.
"This is weird," Rowan said aloud. He unfurled the note from the jar. "Follow."
He squinted. Follow what, exactly?
His gaze found the next mason jar sitting down the hall. He approached it cautiously, as if he were on a prank show and the camera crew would jump out at any second. Another note on the lid. An arrow pointing to the right.
Rowan followed the arrow and saw the backyard.
The trail of mason jars led him onto the patio and down the stone steps that bisected the yard into the forest. He thought maybe the trail was guiding him to the pond where Grant took him last week. But at the pond's junction he found a jar with a note that saidKeep going. Don't turn here.
Anticipation and mischief danced along the start of his grin. "You lumberjack weirdo," he whispered. "What is your endgame?"
The last mason jar took him to the end of a winding path that opened into the most beautiful meadow he'd ever seen. The October sun cast a golden glow across the vast field where, to his far right, a modest picnic sat under the shade of a drooping willow tree.
By the shade, Grant stood waiting. He looked unbelievably handsome in a crisp blue button-down shirt and dress pants. Though his body was relaxed, his rugged features betrayed his nerves.
Rowan approached the scene with a mix of wonder and trepidation. "What is all this?"
"Your birthday lunch."
"You did this for me?"
A gingham blanket covered the grass, supporting two baskets of sandwiches, salads, muffins, a thermos of coffee. The sight led him back to Grant, freshly showered and dressed for the occasion. Even his shoes were nice.
The sweatshirt and jeans Rowan wore suddenly felt very ill-fitting.
"Who else would I do this for?"
"I don't know, you might have some other librarian on the side."
"You're probably juggling three or four guys with glasses and cardigans and a deep knowledge of cataloging policies. I get it. I'm not special."
Grant frowned, realizing. "You're teasing me."
"Yes," Rowan laughed, "You'll learn to recognize the signs. The skies darken, animals run the other way..."
Grant pulled him close with a half-serious grunt. Their faces were inches apart.
"I don't let that many people get away with teasing me."
Rowan brought his hand to the man's chest and stroked gently. Pure muscle beneath his palm. "You gonna let me get away with it?"
He grunted again, eyes smoldering and serious. Rowan's crotch warmed under his jeans. Fuck, he was sexy.
They kissed, mouths hot and soft. Rowan squeezed the big man tight, grateful for his embrace. He never would have thought, based on their tense first meeting, that they'd ever become this affectionate. It was like finally earning the trust of a wild animal.
They sat on the gingham blanket to unwrap sandwiches and pour coffee. This wasn't at all how Rowan expected to spend his birthday, but now? He didn't want it any other way.
He wanted to find out everything he could about this strange man who charmed and excited him so effortlessly. There were clear boundaries to respect, of course, but showing up at the library and then this surprise lunch in the meadow... that had to mean something, right? That Grant was starting to let him in?
Grant seemed like he'd lived a life where nothing came easy - and that didn't just include his loss of hearing. He had the hard exterior of a man who was used to fighting for everything. This recent kindness, the romantic gestures... that couldn't have been easy.
But Grant was trying. For him.
Rowan positioned himself so the other man could clearly see his face and lips. "This all looks great."
Grant handed him a napkin and half a sandwich. "Happy birthday."
This situation was nearly identical to one of the ASL exercises he watched on YouTube. He signed, "Thank you. When isyourbirthday," exactly as he remembered it from the video.
Grant signed back the date and Rowan realized he hadn't actually gotten that far in the exercise. He made a mental note to ask Sharon to teach him months and numbers first. Noting his confusion, Grant spoke aloud, "Sorry. April 21st."
"Good to know. Where are you from?"
"Colorado. Little mining town outside of Boulder. Nothing special."
"What are your... hobbies?"
"Yeah, I'm sure that chopping wood isn't the only thing you do well. And you do itvery well, by the way."
Grant shrugged and drank from the thermos cup. "Don't really do hobbies. Reading, exercising, if that counts. That's it."
"I'll catch a hockey game if the Portland Knights are playing."
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. "That's the team with the openly gay captain, isn't it?"
"I guess so. I don't really pay attention to that stuff."
"You don't pay attention to guys?" Rowan pulled up a picture of the hockey captain on his phone. It was that rather infamous snapshot of him in bed with another man - some artist who worked for Marvel? - that leaked on Twitter.It had set off a media firestorm and inspired countless articles, memes, and most amusingly, fanfiction."Don't tell me you haven't seen this picture before. It was all over the news last year."
Grant squinted at the screen. He shrugged, took a bite of sandwich.
"Come on, you at least have to admit he's hot."
"I don't like his beard."
"Well, your beard is better."
"You're teasing again?"
"I promise I'm not," Rowan squeezed his thigh. He very much liked that he couldn't fit his hand all the way around it.
Grant fought back the start of a smile. "What's with all the questions?"
"I don't actually know a whole lot about you. If a man's gonna grope me in the library he should at least tell me his birthday and sports team preferences."
"So, was that... okay? Me coming to see you like that?"
"I liked it a lot." Shyly, Rowan looked at his sandwich. "No one's ever kissed me at work before."
"It was a first for me, too."
Their hands found each other. Grant's touch was hesitant at first but he soon relaxed into the valley of his palm.
"This is new for both of us, looks like." He massaged the rough, calloused knuckles of the man gazing at him.
"Yeah. I guess it is." Grant touched Rowan's face, so smooth and narrow, so unlike his.
The librarian's heart picked up speed. Really, this shouldn't have worked. They came from two different worlds, barely knew a thing about each other. Although attraction burned like a bright flame between them, they both had walls up.
And yet here they were, letting their guards down bit by bit...
Shame filled him suddenly. Rowan had let himself be lonely for so long he'd forgotten what it felt like to find warmth and safety in the company of another man. All because of one man from his past. All because of what he let Luke do to him...
Grant's grip on him tightened. "Hey. What's wrong?"
He shook himself out of it. Although he dealt with the baggage of it every day, he hadn't directly thought about Luke in a long time. No. He couldn't retread the terror and fear his former lover used to instill in him. He couldn't let the darkness thundering between his lungs ruin today the way it ruined so many other days.
Grant didn't look convinced. He was trained to read not only lips but body language, expressions, all the little 'tells' that people didn't realize they had.
Rowan silently chastised himself. The deep black smear that was his last relationship would need to be kept closer to the chest.
"You're... sad." Grant negotiated the timbre of his own voice. Not being able to hear himself was making him self-conscious. "I didn't... mean to make you sad."
"No, it's not your fault. I think it's just the birthday blues. They creep up, you know?"
"You should be happy. You deserve that."
With his powerful arms, Grant reached over and pulled Rowan onto his lap. His thighs made for a rather comfortable seat.
"I'm happy," Rowan whispered close to his face. He leaned in until their chests touched. "I'm happy," he repeated, and wondered if Grant could use the vibration of his voice to interpret the words.
Grant stroked the back of the younger man's neck and softly kissed his hair. "Keep talking to me."
"I'm happy when I'm with you," Rowan murmured into his chest. The way Grant's hands dipped from his neck and down his long, slender back told him that he could, indeed, understand what Rowan was trying to say... or at the very least, he felt the intent. The emotion.
Rowan lifted his chin. The lumberjack was gazing down at him with an intensity that stole his breath.
The connection of their eyes was all Grant needed. He took Rowan's mouth in a deep, hard kiss, swallowing the librarian's soft moan as their tongues melted together. Grant was now rock hard and the subtle grinding on his lap wasn't helping to keep his thoughts under control. The need to devour Rowan, to make the librarianhisand only his, was stronger than anything he'd ever felt.
Grant took him down onto the gingham blanket in one quick move, snaking an arm around Rowan's waist, hand cupping the back of his head. That was a Navy SEAL for you - always ready. Rowan laughed, both at the eagerness of the move and the lustful grin that creased the man's beard.
Rowan drew his fingers along Grant's solid jaw. The feeling of facial hair under his fingertips was delicious, intoxicating.
Grant guided the fingers toward his mouth and kissed them. "Thank you for spending your birthday with me."
Before Rowan could even reply, Grant bent down and licked the vulnerable nape of his neck. His entire body shuddered and surrendered to the man on top of him, fingers raking through Grant's thick brown hair.
He decided right then and there that if he was going to let his guard down, this was the perfect man to do it with.
Rowan's lower back arched as Grant's bearded mouth continued to explore his neck.