Tyler Faulkner lived for his work, constructing Hollywood sets. His designs were perfect, and he expected equal perfection from his crew and himself. But, talented as he was, he felt trapped. A creative clash with a producer left him out of more than just a job, and Tyler decided that maybe a new beginning was exactly what he needed.
Seth Goodwin was reliable. So rock-steady that his father made him a partner in the family construction business over his older brothers. Seth’s job was simple—he took a highly skilled crew out on the road to build ridiculously expensive projects for rich clients. Their success prompted Seth and his dad to hire a new designer.
Seth wasn’t so steady around Tyler. Tyler didn’t simply draw art; he forced it into reality, elbowing his way into Seth’s work crew and life, whether he wanted him there or not. But Seth had a secret he’s been keeping for a long while, and Tyler, flamboyant and verbose, wasn’t someone who fit in a closet, unless he was looking for the perfect shoes to go with his outfit. Would Seth and Tyler be able to make it work? Or would everyone’s secrets catch up with them?
- 1 To Be Read list
Publisher: Independently Published
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 5
Ending: Click here to reveal
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Big Character / Little Character, Coming Home, Coming Out / Closeted, Coming Out Later in Life, Famous / Not Famous, Find Love and Come Out, First Time, Hurt / Comfort, Love Can Heal / Redemption, Office / Workplace Romance, Out for You, Passing as Straight, Slow Burning Love, True Love
Word Count: 67000
Setting: United States
Languages Available: English
My good shoes pinched my feet, making it impossible to get comfortable. Sitting would be nice, but all the chairs close to us were occupied. “Dad, this is a bad idea.” Choking back a sigh that would only get me elbowed, I snagged a piece of white cheese off the tray on the low table beside us. The candles stuck between the food burned low. “Mom really went out of her way for this New Year’s party,” I mumbled around my tangy-sharp mouthful. It was always a toss-up when Mom arranged these parties. Could be foot cheese from France. Could be Vermont cheddar goodness. I went in for another piece of cheese, trying to be careful to get the same kind so I knew it was safe.READ MORE
My brother Eddie—a redheaded scarecrow in his suit—called to me from across the large room, but there were so many people talking and Christmas carols blaring way too loud for me to hear him. What could he want? I waved, and that seemed to be enough because he turned back to his wife.
“You know how she is.” Dad straightened the sleeve of his suit jacket. He looked good tonight. Mom obviously dressed him, because the red shirt underneath wasn’t his style. He had combed his brown-and-gray hair to the side, and his pleasantly tanned face was filled out with winter weight—the plate of cheese he had cradled close was a good indicator of why.
Dad smiled, resigned but happy as he took in the chaos of the crowded room stuffed with holiday decorations, family, and most of the neighbors in a thirty-mile radius. Mom’s touch was everywhere, from the rustic wreathes on the natural wood walls, to the cinnamon wafting over everything from something baking in the kitchen.
My chest twisted up tight. This was what the holidays were about.
An old lady dressed in a blue beaded gown hobbled past with her walker, shoulders sticking out of the low-cut back like sharp white wings. A peacock-feather headband fluttered with her jerky movements, reminding me of old movies. “Hellooo, Simon!” she warbled, neck jangling.
I looked around, but she obviously had me confused with one of my brothers. I waved and smiled at her anyway.
“Having a good time, Francine?” Dad asked loudly in her direction, leaning toward her.
“Yes! Your wife’s gingerbread is to die for!” Her smile shivered as if she had a hard time pegging it into place. She scooted very determinedly toward an open spot on one of the leather couches near the fireplace, where a group of the neighbors had gathered.
Dad scratched his chin and muttered, “As long as it isn’t in the next five minutes.”
I held back a snort. “Don’t let Mom catch you saying that. If she does drop dead tonight, she’ll say you brought it on.”
Dad laughed, switching out his plate of cheese for a glittering glass from the nearby table. He knocked back a large drought of champagne, cheeks flushed. If I wanted to get any real work talk in, it was now or never.
“I don’t want to break up our work crews.” I started in with my main complaint, picking at the tight collar of my shirt. “There’s no way you can control two high-paced restoration and build teams at the same time. You can’t be in two places. Work will get bungled.” I warmed up to the protests I had itemized mentally all through dinner. “The safety of the workers will be put at risk. Customer satisfaction will drop—”
Dad snickered, his chin dipping toward his barrel chest, blue eyes glimmering with all of his “holiday cheer.” I eyed his empty glass. What number was that?
“Seth, I fully agree.”
“Oh… uh… well, good.” All of the tension glomped out of me. That was anticlimactic. Construct a solid argument, get results. Go me. I smiled at him and straightened up to watch the party swinging. My youngest sister, Laurel, danced with a boy I didn’t know. My brothers crowded around their well-dressed wives like something from the History Channel. Mating habits of the modern, twenty-first century man. Such prowess, such mystery… such idiots.
“The new crew. It’s yours. You’re el capitan number two.”
I tossed down the piece of cheese I was about to eat and could already feel my left eye fidgeting a twitch. My heart bumped harder, and I had trouble wrangling all those wonderful arguments I had earlier. “But Dillon and Lloyd are older!”
Dad shook his head, pointing to the clump of our family in the corner. Two of the wives were pregnant, but Caroline, Dillon’s wife, was really rounding out. Not that I was dumb enough to describe it that way to her face, but she could be smuggling a beach ball under her party dress and I’d never know the difference.
“They won’t want to travel soon. None of them. They’ll settle into the construction company here.”
The way he said it, I knew he hadn’t bothered asking anyone, had just decided, as usual.
“Dad, they won’t make as much money that way.” My neck ached as I strained to catch Dillon’s eye across the room, but every single one of my brothers was busy with the woman they were attached to. “I don’t want them hating my guts because of this. Complaining because I don’t need the money as much as they do.” Ha! Point for me.
Dad got a feisty glint in his eye that I didn’t like. “Loving someone means wanting to make them happy,” he said with a fond smile, gaze seeking out my mother in the crowd. He spent a while watching her as she stopped to talk to one of the neighbors, steel-blonde curls brushing her shoulders, laughing. As usual, her makeup was perfect, along with her outfit. When she caught his eye, she smiled and smoothed down the waist of her black dress, giving him a look I sort of wish I’d missed. Dad chuckled and smacked my arm. “Family is worth sacrifice. Besides, I’m going to keep them at the same salary. They’re used to the travel bump in their checks, so it wouldn’t be right to drop their salary because of a decision I made.”
I rubbed at my chest, heartburn kicking up hard and fast. It wasn’t smart to irritate Dad at a party, but hell. “The other guys will riot when they find out. And you know how everyone loves to talk and get riled up.”
He chuckled darkly into his champagne glass, a sound that sent work stress churning in my stomach. “There. That look.” He pointed one of the fingers wrapped around his glass my direction, and I shuffled back a step. “That’s why I want you in charge of the other half of the real moneymaker. Even if your brothers weren’t about to have new problems on the home front, you care more than they ever will.”
I gave my chest a couple of thumps, trying to coax my stomach into stopping its mutiny. “Dad, you can’t do that.”
His face flushed a stark red. “It’s my company. I can do what I want to keep my sons happy and well-off.”
I sighed. He really would have a bitchfest from the crew on his hands, but us kids were always his biggest blind spot. “When are you splitting us into two teams?” There was no ignoring the dread that slithered up to clench my shoulders. This wouldn’t end well. There wasn’t any way it could.
“As soon as the holidays are finished. I’ve already been looking at some new people.”
I shoved another chunk of cheese in my face to hide a frown. Ew. My taste buds recoiled. Swiss. I forced it down anyway. “Dibs on Emma,” I grumbled around my food.
“She’s going to design for both teams.”
I shook my head. “That’s too much work.”
Dad puffed up like a half drunk, angry rooster.
“She can’t be in two places any better than you can.”
Dad shrugged his wide shoulders and listed to the left. I used a finger to shove him back to center while he snorted a laugh into his empty champagne glass. His eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he leaned over to snag a new one from the table. “She’s just the designer. As long as we give her the client specs and a sense of the build, she’ll be able to draw plans anywhere.”
My jaw didn’t drop because I was busy munching a cracker now—damn it. This was how I always ended up with a Christmas fifteen. I moved a few steps away from the table. Maybe if the food wasn’t within arm’s reach. “That’s not all she does and you know it. Don’t be insulting. My crew will need a designer.”
Dad upended his glass. He seemed very self-satisfied when he sat it down on the table. “It’ll be fine. You worry too much.” He patted my arm and swayed off toward my mother. When he snagged her around the waist, she leaned in to let him kiss her cheek while she continued to talk to one of her friends.
“Nope, nope, nope,” I muttered to myself as I set down my plate. I turned to head for the front door with a smile for the neighbors I managed to bump into on my way—I wasn’t a small man, and there were enough people in our house to give a fire marshal heart palpitations. My New Year’s enthusiasm fizzled away until all that was left was New Year’s resignation. I was closing the front door behind me, inhaling the crisp, pine-tinged air, when someone yanked the door hard from inside.
“Crap!” I stumbled forward.
My sister Della grinned around the door at me. Older by a year and nearly as tall as I was, she gave off the impression of being dainty. She grinned, and the reflection of the Christmas lights surrounding the door danced in her eyes and made her dark curls glint.
I grimaced at her. “What’s new, sprite?”
She hopped once and her curls bounced. “Dad tell you the good news?”
“Let me guess—he told everyone else first.”
She shivered in her skimpy black dress—like Mom’s, only a little more daring—but in spite of the sprinkle and spit of snow hitting us, I was fine. Her smile stretched wide, sharp just like Dad’s.
I turned away, disgusted with the plotting always going on around me, lovingly intended though it might be. “Happy New Year. I’m going to my apartment.” The party was over for me. Too much party food, too much work crap that was too connected to the family.
“Why!” She grabbed my elbow and I stopped for her. “What’s wrong?” She blinked at me, so serious, her red lips drawn back in a toothy scowl. “We thought you’d be happy.”
“This is a bad idea.”
She poked her bottom lip out. “You’re totally ready to take over the world!”
Her boyfriend, a cute guy with freckles and a baby-fat, boy-next-door face, peeked his head around the door. My gut jerked strangely as they pecked each other’s lips. My untouchable big sister was all grown up and partnered off too. Out of all of us, I was the only one left without someone.
I waved her off without an answer and stomped through the snow toward my truck. She called after me, but I ignored it. The fact of the matter was, I decided as I climbed into my truck, I was the only one not weighed down by a significant other. That was at the heart of my promotion. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and studied Mom and Dad’s mock Gingerbread Cabin. It was really a mini mansion framed by trees, the kind of thing I’d been known to think was overblown and pretentious when someone else did it. It was pretty, though, all lit up with red and white softly glowing Christmas lights strung on the eaves. Mom had even wound a strand around the mailbox, or more likely had one of my brothers do it.
God, their electric bill must be frightening.
I hissed out a shaky breath. Dad didn’t think I was more prepared than my brothers, just less likely to complain about always being on the road. “Well, there’s something to that,” I grumped as I started the truck and headed home to spend midnight precisely as I meant to go on in the coming year. Sleeping, so I’d be well rested to get up and work in the morning. Alone.
“I’m so boring,” I groaned out loud. But it wasn’t like there was anyone I was interested in taking home from the party.
I fought to get to sleep hours later, mulling over the mystery of what the hell was wrong with me. Shoving at my pillow only made it less comfortable. I never ran into any women I liked, no matter what part of the country I was in. And it wasn’t like I was blind. I’d had my eyes open.
“Guess Dad will always have a guy for the road.”
My voice was too loud in the quiet of the room. I turned onto my left side and stared at my fish tank for a while, the shiny rainbow guppies mesmerizing.
Sleep was a long time coming.
Sparkling New Cooking Show Set Build
“Not even that pioneer wench would like this hideux tacky rustic-themed mess,” I hissed out between my teeth as I surveyed the kitschy sketch the producers finally approved. I slapped my hand down on the work table, bouncing pencils, and then took a few moments to admire my perfect manicure.
Somewhere nearby in the wide sound studio, a power drill blasted.
Bears. Bears everywhere. Not the kind I wanted to see. I pressed my lips together. The waxy glue of berry-flavored glitter gloss and the blue cheapass drugstore lipstick I’d slapped on this morning—it went with my shirt—tasted like chemical defeat. “At least it would make sense for her to have it.”
Mark nodded, his long brown bangs flopping in front of one eye before he tucked the hair under his hard hat. He picked up the sketch to hide his traitor smirk, but the laugh lines in the corners of his puppy-brown eyes grew deeper. “These tables should be easy to build at any rate.”
Picking at my fingernail polish, I fought the urge to grind my teeth. “A pox on those tables. I love rustic. I do, but not this over-the-top, straight out of a Bell’O’s catalogue, unimaginative tripe.” I growled, gasping in a large breath at the end to continue, but it was obvious I was the only one who cared, so I stopped.
Mark lowered the sketch. His mustache twitched to the left. I loved that 80s retro thing he had going on, the way the facial hair made his lips seem softer and more touchable, but right now I wanted to rip it off his face. Damn it, he better not laugh at this. My ire crackled in my chest, ready to explode out of me as some inappropriate, sarcastic comment.
I spun away to survey the thirty-by-thirty-foot area to be transformed into a “country kitchen” and wanted to spit acid. “We could do so much with this. Natural stone!” I walked out into the middle of the space, hips rolling in my heeled boots, but there was no one here who bothered to watch. The future set was nothing but wooden floors and bare walls—a wooden womb. For a few moments, I felt all weirdly maternal, or as close as I’d ever get, considering my equipment. This was mine, my baby, and we were about to make it live.
“I’m not piecing together a fucking Frankenstein’s monster here.” I tossed my hands in the air like I was in a church, not that I’d been in one recently. “We could go English cottage and give it flagstone floors.” I allowed my hands to slap down to my sides and spent a few seconds picking at my skin-tight black jeans. “What does this new network chef look like? Is she willowy and thin? Thick and comfortable? Do people want to fuck her or want her to be their mother? Can we offset her with heavy woods and stone?” I scowled, fighting away the first pangs of chest pains. “No more energy drinks for me today! She can damn well dye her hair to work with my design.”
Mark shook his head slowly in that way that drove me batshit crazy. For a man in a high-paced job, sometimes he acted too much like a second cousin to a tortoise. “Dude’s a him.”
Shouts echoed around the studio. The overhead lights popped on, the glare from Mark’s hard hat blinding me for a moment.
“This is all harder since they want the set to come apart easily so it can be moved in a few months.”
I waved a hand and strutted toward him, the hard heel of my boots cracking loudly. “That just means the design needs natural seams, but I absolutely would rather rip out every hair on my body one at a time with my fingernails than stencil fucking bears on cupboards.”
Mark gave up and guffawed outright as I grabbed my sketchbook out of my messenger bag, then slapped it on the worktable. I tapped the tip of my pencil to my cheek, wallowing in that odd eraser smell, not really considering anything consciously before I leaned over to sketch fast. When I was done, I had a masculine design—black sinks and white counters—varying shades of gray stone for accents on the front of the workspace and light blue walls. It screamed I have balls and will cook manly shit like buffalo!
“There. I would cook here,” I crowed triumphantly.
Mark scratched at the spot where his little pot belly stretched the buttons on his plaid work shirt. “They didn’t approve that,” he said hesitantly.
I sighed, wishing he was cute instead of irritating. I didn’t mind his body shape; it was more… everything around that. We’d been in a fuck-and-forget stasis for years, but it never went anywhere, and this was part of it. In all things, tell me no or be enthusiastic.
“We will not be embarrassing ourselves today.” I jabbed my pencil in his direction. “Build it.”
Mark curled one end of his mustache between two fingers. “Only if you can piece together the stone face for the counter. None of my boys are good with that.”
I glanced at my watch and twisted it this way and that to watch the fire opal insets sparkle while I thought, then did it a few more times because I’m a magpie. “Two hours. I have a freelance nursery appointment after that. Hollywood Hills parents,” I drawled with a smirk in his direction. “They’ll be atrocious if I’m late and the appointment runs into their chef-prepared gluten-free vegan detox smoothie time.”
“Aren’t smoothies usually gluten-free?”
I snickered and rolled a lazy shoulder. “You do surprise me occasionally.”
“I’ve got your ass for two hours.”
A quick check for double entendre garnered a blank stare from Mark. My chest deflated like a balloon. Am I boring or is he? I glanced at the piles of materials being hauled in and moaned at the broken-up stone in a wheelbarrow nearby. “This is all we have on hand?”
He laughed, the bastard.
A solid glare got one of the apprentices traipsing by to drop the pile of wood he was carrying. A jerk of my hand had him moving stone to the center of the work area for me. “You! Gopher number two!” I called across the room. One guy stopped and looked at me, so I waved him over. He was young, muscly, and adorable as hell, with a whiter-than-white beach smile and sun-kissed hair. His work shirt stretched in all the right places. Probably moonlighted as an extra, hoping for a big break. Gotta love Hollywood. “You’re going to assist me.” He beamed, all helpful puppy, but I restrained myself from patting his head when I strolled over. “Don’t let the makeup fool you. I’m not the easy way out. We’re going balls to the wall.”
His perfectly symmetrical smile wilted, but he did what I wanted, which was help the other guy move the rock out of the wheelbarrow faster.
I was feeling rather smug when I was done with the counterfront in an hour twenty, even with training the newbies. By that time the walls were up and the sinks were in and functional. Two men were setting in the counter base while Mark stood around not doing much of anything.
“Appliances are on their way!” Mark yelled as I eyeballed the man sealing the counter to make sure he was doing it properly. My fingers itched to do it myself.
Two men slid the block top onto the counter I built, but it was all fucked. Crooked. I was about to take over when a large, familiar man stormed onto the set. His brash, white-blond hair was styled in a wavy fauxhawk, the sleeves of his white silk shirt rolled to the elbows. I wished I was gone already. His fleshy cheeks pushed out like they were trying to escape from the rest of him. My stomach twisted with anxiety. Even if I didn’t already know, the shine on his Brooks Brothers loafers gave away that he was the money man.
The two minions who set the countertop backed away from me slowly, but they barely registered on my radar. I braced myself.
“What the bloody fuck, Tyler?” His crisp British accent carried loudly, causing the men to stop working and gawk. I shooed at the few closest to me, and they went back to the painting they were doing on the walls. Charlie’s lip curled as he inspected my stellar stone bar face. I gasped when he kicked at it.
“Stop!” I squawked. A stone broke free, clonking to the floor. I balled my hands into fists to keep them from his throat. “Do you have any idea how long that normally takes? You’re destroying my best time!”
I stretched to my full height, which, unfortunately, didn’t intimidate anyone but toddlers and chinchillas, maybe, and glowered my best evil look, the one that said, You will certainly consider possibly regretting this one day!
Charlie usually strutted down here in his full suit to remind us we were the dirty, work-a-day peons—even though I was always glam. I reached out and flicked his rolled sleeve. Was he going to pretend to help us? Fury streaked to my toes and rebounded up to scramble any good reasons for why I didn’t follow the work orders.
“What did you do?”
I hated that I loved listening to him talk. I bit the inside of my lip, forcing my eyes to his milky-blue ones. “Bears? You wanted stenciled bears?” My voice careened into the flaming queen falsetto range I hadn’t used on purpose since I was a teenager, but I didn’t care. “Do you hate this new chef?”
“Change it to spec.”
I waved my watch his direction without looking away. “No time.”
He laughed, and it was a friendly, late-night sound that made me want to grin along with him. “You’re fired.”
I belted out a snort. “Charlie, I don’t know who you think you are. You’re not hot enough shit for that.” I held up the pointer fingers of both hands. “One producer.” I wiggled a finger at him slowly. “One show.” I wiggled the other finger at him, and his lips drew back, ugly. “I do design for the entire network.” I drew a circle in the air as I spoke. It was a narrow miss to keep from flipping him the bird, but I hid my hands behind my back, rocking on my heels.
His eyebrows shot up. “Do you know who owns this network?”
“Pffft… of course!” I answered smartly. I did, in theory. I’d seen his name on paper. “Terrance Armstrong.”
“Know who he is, ijit?”
“A guy with more money than us?” I grinned and tried to get a grip on myself. “The design was atrocious. Just god-awful. Please see reason.” I twisted away to jog over to Mark’s worktable, then brought back my sketch with the dimensions he’d scribbled all over.
Charlie rubbed at the bridge of his nose as he took in the work under way. “This is posh. Quality. But not what we need.”
“I can’t do it!” I threw my hands up and the sketch drifted to the floor. “That design was intended as a throwaway. It was a joke tossed in with real work!” Desperately I clasped my hands together and forced myself not to drop to my knees to beg. “I do two good ones and a crazy one for fun. No one ever picks the throwaway. Ever.”
“The chef liked it.”
“Ahh! No! I won’t!”
Charlie closed his eyes. After an endless eternity, he opened them again. “You’re done. Terrance is my great uncle. You’ll be out by the end of the day. I can’t handle this chef being all pissy with me. If it’s between the two of you, he’s worth more.”
A slightly hysterical laugh escaped me. Story of my life. I ducked down to pick up my sketch and held it in front of me like a shield. A power saw whirred to life somewhere behind me. Everyone seemed to be extra absorbed in their work when I glanced around. Mark was nowhere to be seen. Asshole.
I slouched and frowned at Charlie. “Then I’m done, because I refuse to rebuild,” I huffed. “I can’t eat the time today.”
He power-walked away, phone already out of his pocket before he stepped from the raised platform we were working on.
“What? You’re not going to help with the set?” I called after him. “Your personal touches would have really made it sing.”
The struggle was fucking real. Every designer has built something hideous for a client. We all did it once in a while to pay our bills, but this was beyond the pale. This wasn’t someone’s ugly guest room; it was a set. Millions of eyes could be offended. When people in the industry looked at it, they would shudder and say, Who built that tasteless garbage? And someone else would say, with great relish: Tyler Faulkner.
It took me a few minutes to center myself. Then I found Mark hiding out behind one of the walls fiddling with an electrical outlet. “Let’s finish this! I’ll cancel my appointment,” I yelled over the noise of work, bursting at the seams with energy. If this was my last day, I was at least going to put the finishing touches on the project myself.
“We can change it.”
“Fat fucking chance!”
He grimaced and I felt… something. Bad? Relieved in a strange way? We’d known each other for longer than some married couples, and we were in a rut. Ten years on the job together. Ten years tailoring my work to a corporate vision. I was feeling this determination to the core. His mustache twitched from side to side like he might be getting ready to argue with me, but I hustled away to help finish the work.
I was polishing the glass front of the oven when security arrived on the edges of the set, two cute cut dudes in well-fitting uniforms. Grinning, I waltzed toward them with my hands out in front of me. One was a blond, which had never been much of my thing, so I turned to the other one, a nice, strapping, some brand of Latino who definitely looked good in that studio cop getup. “Will you still use the cuffs if I come quietly?”
The blond snickered, and really that was all I was going for. The guy I picked to flirt with gave me a bland stare. I sighed. About summed things up lately.
I fought down the sense of my life spinning out of control as they escorted me to my mobile office—aka. golf cart—outside the squat old studio to collect my box of sketchbooks. Then I followed them into their own golf cart. My bravado faded when they deposited me in the parking lot next to my car and drove away without so much as a backward glance.
It was unseasonably scorching. The sun beat down on me. I dropped the box before stripping out of my work shirt. Sweat beaded on my skin. My fingers hurt from twisting my shirt.
What was I thinking? Panic pulsed through me. Blood rushed in my ears. Swaying, I put my hand out and used my car to keep myself upright. Was my pride worth losing this plush job I hustled so hard for?
“Too late now!” I opened the rear door on my Wrangler and shoved my box of work inside, then slammed the door. “At least I have professional integrity. Or something…,” I babbled to myself.
My phone rang and I groaned when I checked it. Totally forgot to cancel that appointment. Fuck. I could’ve used the money.COLLAPSE
I am currently looking for a narrator for this novel. Audition at ACX.