He wasn’t sure how long he’d sat at his laptop, pounding away at the story that wouldn’t die. The fact that his stomach was rumbling angrily hinted at the fact it was much later than he thought. Stretching, he rose from his desk and wandered to the window. Sometime since he’d returned home, the predicted snow had started to fall. His entire yard was already covered, and more was coming every minute.
“Man, this is going to be a nasty one,” he muttered to the empty room. He was immediately grateful to the city of White Pine for forcing him out to get groceries when he did.
Travis switched on the radio before heading into the kitchen to feed his cranky stomach. He’d gotten together everything he needed for a quick grilled cheese when a knock sounded at his door. Again. One unannounced visitor was strange, two was outright bizarre.
“It’s like Grand Central Station here today,” he said. Dropping the butter beside the cheese on the counter, he shrugged to himself and checked out the blinds again. Detective McDowell. Things just went from bizarre to sexy.
“Afternoon, Detective,” Travis greeted, kicking his natural charm up a notch. He leaned against the doorframe and smiled at the enchanting officer. “Are you making sure this poor bachelor got his groceries like a good boy?”
The corner of his mouth quirked up in a crooked smile. “No, not exactly. I – my car’s dead, the piece of crap, it seems to like the snow about as much as I do. Also, my cell’s dead, although it’s not a piece of crap, it’s just overused.”
“And under charged, poor phone,” Travis joked. “Come on in, you can use my land line.”
“Thanks,” he said. Coming inside, he stamped the snow off his dress shoes before following his curly-haired host. “I wouldn’t have bothered you but your neighbors seem to be comprised of nothing but elderly women. And not a single one of them were all that trustful of me in the first place.”
“Does that mean I’m the only eligible man left on the block? Lucky me.” There he went, teasing the detective again. What was going on with him today? And was that a hint of a blush on the handsome man’s face?
Ethan cleared his throat, stalling for time, or so it seemed. “I’m not sure about that exactly, but I’m relatively certain you’re the only one that would let me in out of the snow long enough to make a phone call.”
“About that,” he reminded himself, handing the brunette his cordless phone. “Have at it. I can get you the number for the local tow truck, too.”
“Please?” Ethan dialed the station while he waited and informed them he wasn’t going to make it back anytime soon. When Travis returned with the tow company’s number, he dialed again.
Travis watched the detective’s face morph from hopeful to worried, to despondent. He hesitated only a moment after his houseguest hung up before pouncing. “What’s with the long face?”
Ethan crinkled his nose in frustration. “Said it’ll be morning before he can get here, and that’s only if the snow doesn’t bury the entire town in the meantime. The cold’s apparently claimed more than one automotive victim this afternoon, according to Paco the tow truck driver, and he’s backed up.”
“He’s also the only one in town,” Travis added, unhelpfully.
He deflated noticeably. “I was afraid you were going to say that. Is there anywhere I could hole up until this storm passes? If I can’t get back to town…”
“Even if we could get you jumped or otherwise mobile, I’m not sure it’d be safe to drive.” He took the phone from the cop and placed it on the charger. “Best bet is to stick around. There’s not anywhere I can send you that you’d manage on foot, not in this weather.”
Detective McDowell hesitated then sighed. Travis figured he was coming to grips with the idea he was going to have to spend a bit of unexpected time with his new friend. “I don’t think…”
“What?” Travis clapped him on the shoulder playfully. “That you don’t want to freeze to death in your car overnight? Or are you worried that I’m a serial killer? I can assure you, the only people I murder are on paper only. Although, there are occasions…”
“I’m not sure I want to know what you mean by that,” Ethan laughed, giving Travis a playfully worried look. “But seriously, this is all a bit unusual.”
Travis agreed. “True. But what choice do you have? None, really, unless you want me to give you a lift home so we can shack up at your place overnight? I do have four-wheel drive.” He cocked a dark eyebrow in mocking question. In all honesty, he’d shack up with this hot slice of heaven anywhere they happened to land.
“Yeah, maybe not?” A chuckle emerged from the stressed detective. He ran long fingers through hair the color of autumn leaves, brown and red and gold and gorgeous. “You sure you’re okay with this?”
“Yeah, of course,” he assured him. “I’ve seen you around town and you’re a cop, so I’m relatively certain I can trust you for one night. And to qualify that earlier statement, I’m a writer. Mysteries and crime thrillers mostly, thus the killing of imaginary people. Anyway, enough about my strange habits, its cold out there, want something to warm your bones?”
Another crooked smile. “Sure. What do you have?”
“Depends. You off duty?” He was hopeful. Not that he had any plans involving a drunken cop and a pair of handcuffs. Nope, not him. His alter ego, maybe, but him? Never. He was a good boy who didn’t play bondage games. Usually.
“Absolutely.” Ethan focused those golden flecked green eyes on him, waiting.
Travis’ muse did a double backflip inside a dark corner of his mind at the positive response. Oh the trouble his fictional detective was going to get himself into in the next few chapters. “Then I have coffee, Irish whiskey, orange juice and tequila.”
“Just the essentials, I see.” Who knew the cop had a sense of humor. “How about coffee for now? Save the Jameson for when it really gets cold.” He wrapped his arms around himself and gave a pretend shiver for effect.
“Sure, coming right up,” he said, grinning. He was beginning to really like this guy. A thought nagged at him, however, dimming his cheerful mood. “Need to make any more calls while you still can? Gotta let the little woman know you’re safe or anything?” It was a cheap shot, but he had to know one way or the other. Better now than later, when he’d made a fool of himself, he reasoned.
“No,” he responded, sheepish. Travis detected a touch of pink coloring his overly pale cheeks again. “No one at home to put at ease, unless you count my hamster, but I doubt she can answer the phone.”
“Point, although rodents are sneaky creatures, you might be surprised.” You had to love a man secure enough to own a hamster and not worry about what it said about him.
“Agreed, little brat is descended directly from Houdini if her escapee habits are any indication. She’ll probably be holed up in the walls by the time I get home.” A fond smile crossed his face. He loved the little rodent, too, it seemed.
Travis chuckled, having had a hamster or two as a kid. “Come keep me company while I make a fresh pot of coffee. I was also planning on some food, you up for a grilled cheese?”
“Living the bachelor life, eh?” Ethan replied.
“Nah,” Travis retorted, “more like living the life of a single, broke as hell writer.” Before he could see the inevitable look of horror cross the detective’s face, he busied himself preparing two grilled cheese, and opening a bag of chips. Idle hands led to idle thoughts, neither of which he needed with a cop in his house.
“Nothing wrong with living simply,” Ethan agreed, taking a steaming cup of coffee from his host.
Travis opened the back door for Ethan as he stumbled inside with an armload of firewood. “Man, I told you I would help with that.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” Ethan assured him, dumping the timber in the designated box by the back door. “I am perfectly capable of hauling a little bit of wood through a hell of a lot of snow.”
“Yeah, but now you are covered in wood shavings and sap,” Travis said, swiping a hand down the front of the detective’s dress shirt. The shavings were sticking to the long sleeved button up, determined not to let go. “You want to borrow a shirt,” he suggested. “Maybe a pair of sweats?”
“No, I think I’m…” he looked down at himself and reconsidered. “Yeah, okay, sure. I’m going to need something to sleep in anyway.”
“Yeah, three piece tailored suits are not the most comfortable pajamas,” he kidded. “I’ll be right back.”
Ethan watched him walk away, appraising his smooth gait and long legs. For a writer, he made it a point to keep physically fit. He noticed, when Travis returned, that he looked almost as good coming as he did leaving. Broad chest, narrow waist, million watt smile, he was any boy’s dream.
“Here ya go,” Travis said, breaking him out of his mental drooling. “I think the pants will be a bit big, but there’s a drawstring so you should be okay.”
“Thank you for protecting my modesty.” Ethan looked around the living room. “Direct me to your restroom?”
“That way,” Travis pointed towards a hallway. “Second door. I set out a spare toothbrush for you and some clean towels, just in case.”
“Thanks, be right back.” Ethan disappeared into the restroom and closed the door behind him.
Leaning against the wall, he let out a long breath. He had been looking forward to unwinding at home, turning on the TV and falling asleep in his chair. But all of that was ruined now because his stupid car – the crappy, broken down thing that it was – had refused to start. Again. Now he was looking forward to a night of awkward silences and longing gazes with a man he hardly knew. Lovely.
Bolstering his confidence, Ethan washed his hands and undressed slowly. Folding his clothes and placing them on the toilet tank, he had the horrible realization that his favorite dress shirt was history. He wasn’t ever going to get the tree sap out of it now. Frowning, he told himself to deal with it later and just get dressed.
Pulling the sweatpants on, he discovered Travis was right. Where his host was muscular and solid, he was thin and wiry. Cinching the drawstring as tight as he could get it, he prayed he wouldn’t lose his pants before the night was over. He tossed the shirt on over his head, inhaling Travis’ distinctive smell into his nostrils. He must’ve worn this and forgotten about it. Ethan was screwed, he was going to be horny all night now because every time he breathed, he smelled that delicious man on his skin.
“Well,” he mumbled to the shower curtain, “it could be worse. He could be a troll.”
“There you are,” Travis greeted him upon his arrival back in the living room. “I got a couple pillows and a blanket for you. They’re on the floor by the couch.”
“Thanks again,” he said. “And really, I appreciate you putting me up for the night like this.”
Travis waved a hand at him. “Don’t even worry about it. It’s always good to have a cop owe you, right? I’m kidding, kind of.”
Ethan closed his eyes and moved his head from side to side. “No you’re not, but I totally agree with you on this.”
“Glad to hear it.” He handed the detective the mug he’d been using earlier. “I also figured you could use a warmer upper. Although, I have to warn you, not just coffee this time.”
“Ahh, so you broke out the whiskey after all?” He took a tentative sip of the steaming concoction, testing its strength. “Mmm, just right. Although more than one cup of this will knock me out.”
“Note to self: only allow the good detective one cup of Irish coffee.” Travis grinned at him and added, “Lightweight.”
Ethan looked at him over the top of his coffee mug. “Maybe I’m a lightweight. But maybe I’m also half your size.”
“My little ninety-pound cousin could drink you under the table,” he bragged.
“Oh, really? And is she from your Irish side?” He sipped again, waiting and predicting the answer before it came.
“Yeah, actually she is. Guess that doesn’t count then, does it?”
“Not really,” Ethan agreed, sitting on the arm of the couch, “but I won’t hold it against you this time.”
“So happy to hear it,” he jested, sipping from his own mug of courage.
The snow continued to pile up outside and every time he looked out the window, the drifts had managed to grow taller and taller. It had been the right thing to do in letting the cop stay the night. He could work with awkward.
They had been sitting in the living room, gossiping about the residents of White Pine when the power went out. That had been almost an hour ago. Since it was nearing ten o’clock, Ethan had opted to hit the hay. Travis had let him, retreating to his office to get a little writing in while his laptop’s battery held out. He hadn’t made much progress, thoughts of the evening spent in front of the fire distracting him at every turn.
Ethan McDowell was an intriguing character. He’d not been in White Pine for long, saying he’d been transferred out of the big city for one reason or another. No matter how Travis had hinted or outright pressed, he refused to give up his reasons for leaving what had to have been a much better job than the one he was now working. His innate curiosity got the better of him, so he opened a new word processing document and made a list of possible reasons.
Caught sleeping with the captain’s daughter.
Running drugs for the mob. Or guns.
Blackmailing a city councilman.
Burned down the fire station.
“Okay, Murph, now you’re just being silly,” he muttered, re-reading his list of ideas. None of them seemed to fit with the detective’s personality, but they could more than apply to his fictional detective. “Just gotta change ‘sleeping with the captain’s daughter’ to ‘sleeping with the captain’s son’.”
He laughed at himself, knowing he was being ridiculous, but also knowing that mindless little games like this were what always boosted his creativity late in the game. Travis always called it brainstorming, but it was more like going on a treasure hunt in his brain.
“And now you know why you’re single, Murph. You spend entirely too much time with people who don’t exist and not nearly enough with those that really do.” He closed his list of possible scenarios and looked at the time. Quarter after eleven. While he normally didn’t even think about bed until somewhere in the neighborhood of two AM, he figured Ethan would be up bright and early – which meant he needed to be, too.