Sunday, August 30, 2015

Discovering Me by AM Arthur

Unearthing Cole #1
Cole Alston swore he’d never return to his childhood home in rural North Carolina, but when his mother dies, he inherits her hoarded property. He hopes to sell everything and use the money to start over in Canada, far away from his abusive ex-boyfriend. It’s a daunting task, and Cole has no idea where to start. Luckily for him, the local antique store owner, Jeremy Collins, volunteers his services in sorting the hoard. Their professional relationship soon evolves into a personal one, but Cole must overcome his past and his anxiety before he can accept a new man in his life or the possibility of a happy future.

Understanding Jeremy #2
No one in Jeremy Collins's life ever stays. His parents, sister, and wife are all dead. Now he has taken Cole Alston into his home to help him recover from years of abuse at the hands of his ex. Jeremy hopes Cole, who he loves, will stick around, but after eight years of Cole not being allowed to make his own choices, Jeremy doesn't think he has the right to ask. As Jeremy keeps his concerns and desires to himself, his best friend Bethann calls on him for a huge favor--claim he's the father of her baby so she isn't ostracized in their small town for sleeping with a married man. However doing so would be tantamount to denying his relationship with Cole. Rumors fly before Jeremy can explain to Cole that he said no, and suddenly the whole town is in his business. Rather than reassure Cole, Jeremy's explanations have the opposite effect. Something is going on in Cole's mind that Jeremy doesn't know about, and in order to get Cole to talk, Jeremy will need to confront his own deepest fear.

Talk about an emotional read.  Cole's past breaks your heart and Jeremy's past isn't exactly a sunny walk in the park either. They may have survived separately but together they begin to heal and thrive, but that doesn't mean everything is free and clear the minute they find each other.  Unearthing Cole may be Cole's story and Understanding Jeremy may be told from Jeremy's side but you really need to read both books to have a complete story.  There is only a few secondary characters but each one serves a purpose, none of them are there to just "pad the pages".  So if you're looking for a sexy read that will tug at your heart, AM Arthur's Discovering Me duology is definitely for you, they burn up the pages and make your heart pound for multiple reasons, having a few tissues handy won't hurt either.


Unearthing Cole #1
Chapter One
NO ONE ever expects to spend their thirtieth birthday in a crematorium, writing a check for their last eight hundred dollars, so that the people who took your mother’s dead body will hand it back to you in a little cardboard box.

Happy birthday to me.

It wasn’t quite the last of my money that purchased my mother back. My account still had a paltry eighty-six dollars and twelve cents, plus the four hundred in cash tucked into the zippered pouch in my suitcase. The money should let me rent a room in town long enough to clean up my mother’s property. So to speak. I just wanted the house and surrounding sheds clean enough for a local realtor to be able to put the whole sorry parcel of land on the market.

There was no way, I’d been told over the phone yesterday, it could be sold in its present condition. I hadn’t asked the woman from Connor Realty to elaborate. I had my own memories of my mother’s house to go on, plus the immense deterioration of the last two years since I’d been here. Two years since Dad died of a heart attack. Epic didn’t have enough letters to carry the weight of the fight I had with my mother after his death.

I left, hadn’t spoken to her since, and then she was dead. Her final “fuck you, Cole” came in the form of her will—she gave me ownership of her house and the undeveloped farmland it sat on. It might have been the solution to my own financial woes, if I hadn’t already known the disaster I’d find. Dad had been a mechanic and a collector; my mother was a housewife and a hoarder. Their house, barn, garage, two sheds, and surrounding woodsy property was the result of thirty-four years of accumulation.

I hadn’t driven out to see it yet, and my stomach was already in knots.

The box of ashes went on the backseat of my car, between my two suitcases and a box of cleaning products. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to put my mother. She wasn’t going up front with me, and the trunk was out of the question. Besides the weirdness of it, the trunk was already full of heavy-duty trash bags, packing tape, cardboard packing boxes, a shovel, and a box of books.

Franklin hadn’t changed much as a town, I noted as I drove through it. Same homes and offices and small shops. Same churches and Christmas decorations as I remembered growing up. Same restaurants dotted with cars in that odd, less busy time between breakfast and lunch. An antique store had popped up in the bottom floor of someone’s house, and the hardware store was shut down. A handmade sign hung in the window with Damned Chain Stores scrawled in black paint.

It made me smile.

I turned west out of town, toward the hillier, woodsy area and winding road that eventually led to my old homestead. As a child, I’d loved being out in the woods, miles from town, able to have adventures far from the chaos of my house. As a teen, I’d hated having to ride my bike into town just to hang with the few friends I’d cobbled together. They hadn’t minded my secondhand clothes or my odd mother who wore big straw hats all year long, or that I never invited them back to my house. Friends I’d lost touch with when I went six states away to college, where I discovered acceptance for the first time as a gay man. Then, during my sophomore year, I met Martin and began an eight-year-long nightmare I’d only just surfaced from.

The road curled like an S, and I slowed to negotiate the two turns. A familiar, barn-shaped mailbox came into view a hundred feet farther down. I turned on my blinker, even though the road was clear, and made a left onto a crushed-shell driveway I’d treaded a thousand times, both on rubber and on foot.

A wild lawn sprung up on both sides of the driveway, more closely resembling a wheat field than a yard. Grass, weeds, and wild bushes dotted the landscape between skeletal, leafless trees. It was all at least hip-height and probably hadn’t been cut in years. The lawn jungle hid the worst of the house from the casual passerby. I got a good look at my childhood home when the grass finally parted. Angry, helpless tears sprang up and stung my eyes.

The house was a Craftsman bungalow, two stories, with lots of front windows and a brick fireplace. I used to think it was one of the nicest houses in Franklin, even nicer than some of the homes built in town—until the hoard spilled from the inside of the house to the outside and maintenance stopped occurring with any regularity.

The next thing I saw was a VW bus parked beside the house, without wheels and mounted on cinderblocks, its interior packed with junk. The front porch was listing and the roof collapsing. A blue tarp had been erected over the front door to protect it from leaks, and more boxes and plastic containers stood beneath that, sentries to the front door. All the windows were blocked, either with curtains or boxes. Beyond the house, scattered in piles, were parts and appliances and bicycles and things I just didn’t recognize for the rust and weeds.

It was both better and worse than I’d expected.

The structure seemed sound, but I hadn’t seen the interior of the house yet and I dreaded it. I pinched my nose and dispelled the tears, unwilling to cry over this mess anymore than I already had, and got out of the car. It was warm for December, but I zipped up my coat anyway—for mental protection as much as physical. I already had on a pair of boots, jeans tucked in, and three pairs of rubber gloves stuffed into my coat pockets. I snapped a pair on as I trudged up to the front door.

I had a key, but it wasn’t necessary. The police had broken the front door down to get at my mother’s body. The door leaned in its frame, barely held up by strips of police caution tape.

My mother hadn’t died of any particular illness or malady, beyond her own mental disease. She’d tripped one day, hit some boxes, and they fell over on her. Trapped both her legs, and being both sixty-two and overweight, she hadn’t been able to get up or get them off. She died of dehydration twenty-four hours before the mailman noticed she hadn’t collected in a few days and called the sheriff.

Her cause of death had been my worst nightmare come true. Even worse than discovering, at this critical time in my own personal life, that she’d willed her entire mess to me. And why everything I owned was in two suitcases in my car next to my mother’s ashes.

The smell hit me when I reached the tarp. Pungent, sweet, cloying—the odors of death and decay and of rotting things. My rational brain knew the stink had existed long before my mother died on the floor, but it didn’t stop a flicker show of images from assaulting my mind. Images of Debbie Alston, my mother, dead and bloated, lying in her own waste in the same sea of rot she’d lived in for more than three decades.

That wasn’t quite right. The rot didn’t really happen until I went away to college, escaping their hoarding problem by disappearing into something else—something that became much, much worse. Then the dishes stopped getting washed, the refrigerator stopped being cleaned out, and no one could be bothered to haul trash bags to the town dump. The first time I returned to visit during Christmas break at college, freshman year, I cleaned and hauled trash. Then again during spring break. Between freshman and sophomore year, I stayed in Michigan for the summer, working and taking classes, so I didn’t see them again until the following Christmas. It was the last visit before I met Martin.

After that I didn’t go back until Dad’s funeral two years ago. I just couldn’t stand the memories, even if I’d thought it was safe to come to a place Martin could track me to. Home was gone. A disaster had taken its place.

I couldn’t walk under the tarp. And I really didn’t want to go inside that house.

Tires crunched up the seashell driveway, and I spun around, heart pounding. I wasn’t expecting anyone. The only people who knew I was in town were Penny Connor, the realtor, and the very grumpy woman at the crematorium.

“Oh God,” I said to no one. Martin had found me—he’d been trying for six months. He knew where I grew up. If he’d seen the obituary somewhere, he’d put two and two together, and he’d know where I was. My guts clenched.

Over the sea of grass, I spotted a blue work van heading toward me, growing larger by the second. I dashed back to my car on shaky legs and grabbed the keys out of the ignition. The keychain had a small can of mace attached, and I tucked that end carefully into the palm of my hand. Instinct told me to hide. I had plenty of places to burrow into and disappear, but I couldn’t seem to move.

The van parked perpendicular to my car. A door opened and shut, and a man came around the front. It wasn’t Martin Palone. My entire body felt lighter, like someone had lifted a wet blanket off me and let me breathe again. But this man was still a stranger on my land, and I didn’t let my guard down. He was in the neighborhood of my age, a little taller than me, with a shock of dark-brown hair and wide, thickly lashed eyes. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but had a boyish charm to him, especially when he smiled. It released a pair of dimples that were incredibly appealing.

“You must be Cole Alston,” he said. His voice was lightly accented but not local to this part of North Carolina. It was more northern and hard to pinpoint on only five words.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“Jeremy Collins. I own Lost Treasures Antiques in town.”

I shook his outstretched hand, tempted to relax a bit under that beguiling smile. Tempted, but I didn’t. He seemed like someone perfectly at ease in his own skin, which made me all the more self-conscious of the mess in and around me. “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m sorry about your mother. She came into the store sometimes. She was… a nice lady.”

His hesitation made my lips twitch. “She was definitely interesting, and thank you for your condolences, but I’m sure you didn’t drive out here just to offer them.”

“No, you’re right. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be in town, and I wanted to talk to you.”


“This.” He waved his hand at the hoard, and his eyes lit up. He didn’t see the tragedy in it, or the horror.

“What about it?” I waited for the insults, for the inevitable slew of “how could you let this happen?” tirades I knew were waiting for me. I’ve heard variations on them my entire life.

“Like I said, I own an antique store, and I’ve come out here a few times trying to buy things from your mother.”

I burst into laughter, unable to help myself. Trying to buy something from my mother, whether it was a diamond tiara or a bag of rotten apples from the Big Bag grocery, was like trying to pan for gold in the Atlantic—pointless.

At least Jeremy seemed to see the humor in it, because he never stopped smiling. “Yeah, exactly. But folks in town still talk about your father and what a keen eye he had. There are treasures on this property, some things that could make you a decent pot of money, and I want to help you sell them. For a commission, of course.”

“I was just going to have a yard sale or something.”

“You could do that, but I’ve got connections to dealers in three states. Depending on what we find, you could get a lot more money for the antiques by going through me.” He cocked his head to the side like we were buds sharing a joke. “You can still yard sale the other stuff.”

I studied him; he seemed sincere in his loose jeans and cowboy boots and brown cotton coat. The solution to one of my biggest problems had just driven up in a big blue van. All I had to do was ask the Wizard for my courage and trust Jeremy not to screw with me.

Not an easy task, considering I’d spent eight years being screwed with on a daily basis by someone who was supposed to love me.

“What kind of money are we talking about?” I asked.

“I’ll show you.”

We walked through the weeds to a pile of machinery near the barn, twisted and rusted, and I didn’t see much to be saved. Jeremy tugged on a pair of work gloves, reached in, and spent a few minutes wrestling something out of the mess. He produced a bicycle frame, missing its seat and chain and tires, but otherwise intact.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked.

“Enlighten me.”

“It’s a Columbia from the 1950s. Intact, it would be worth a lot more, but some collectors will shine up parts and restore them. This frame alone could get you a hundred dollars.”

I stared at him. “For that?”

“For that. And this is only the first thing I saw. Who knows what else we could uncover in that barn, or those sheds?”

I saw the hunger in his eyes, the desire to go hunting for other treasures. It made him seem almost boyish, a kid on the verge of a trip to his very favorite amusement park. I just saw the dollar signs and an extra pair of hands getting me out from under this hoard.


He blinked. “Really?”

“Yes, okay. We’ll need to arrange some sort of contract, though. I don’t want any confusion over your commissions or labor or whatever.”

“That’s fair. Why don’t we hammer it out over dinner at the Sow’s Ear.”


This was my first dinner offer in years, and I had no clue how to take it. No one in this town knew I was gay. I hadn’t come out before I left for college, and I hadn’t told anyone on my occasional visits since. Not even my parents. Martin had been a “friend from school” and then “my roommate.” And Jeremy didn’t strike me as being particularly queer.

Then again, I’d spent the last decade perfecting the art of not looking, so my own personal gaydar was pretty damn inaccurate.

“You do eat dinner, don’t you?” Jeremy asked.

“When I can afford it” very nearly slipped out. Instead, I said, “Yes.”

“Good. It’ll give you time to decide what you need me for, and I can make some phone calls. I know a few guys in Ohio who’d love to come down and pick through—”

Panic set my heart fluttering. “Wait, no.”

His eyebrows arched. “What?”

“Look, I don’t… this is all, um—”



I couldn’t believe I’d just said that. Out loud. To a stranger.

Jeremy nodded, more thoughtful than anything else. At least he wasn’t blatantly judging me for my family’s awful secret. “You don’t want a lot of strangers poking into your personal life.”

I didn’t know if he was really that observant, or if he’d seen hoarding shows on television. All that mattered was he got it—even if he didn’t know the comment extended far beyond the hoard in front of us. “Right, I don’t.”

“This is a lot of stuff for one person to haul out on their own.”

“Welcome to my world.” I jacked my thumb at the house and the countless hours of work waiting for me inside.

He slipped his hands into his rear jeans pockets and rocked back on his heels, head tilted to the sky. “How are you going to haul all of this to the dump on your own?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.” Truth—and something I didn’t know how to solve without more money in my pocket. Some of those bags would be filled with rotten food, and they weren’t going anywhere near my car.

“Then meet me for dinner at the Sow’s Ear, at six o’clock, and I’ll have a proposal for you.”


“If you don’t like my ideas, you won’t hurt my feelings. Promise. Just give me a chance to make this work for both of us.”

Something in his manner made me want to trust him. He seemed completely genuine, open, and reassuring. I didn’t trust him, but I wanted to. And it was just a proposal over a working dinner at the best barbecue place in town.

A little voice in the back of my mind said it was only fair to tell him his dinner companion wouldn’t be joining him in ogling the waitresses. I told that voice to shut the hell up, because it wasn’t really any of Jeremy’s business. “Okay, dinner at six.”

“Excellent.” He stood straighter, hands coming out of his pockets. “See you then.”

“Hey, wait,” I said as he turned to go. “Don’t forget your bike frame. If dinner doesn’t work out, it’s yours to keep.”

With a dimpled grin worthy of any movie star, he hefted the rusty frame and stowed it in his van. I stood by my car until he’d driven away. Even if Jeremy only found half a dozen valuables in that sea of junk, his help would be worth it. Worth it to help buy me out of the financial noose slowly tightening around my neck and get me far, far away from Martin Palone.

Understanding Jeremy #2
Chapter One
COLE HAD the nightmare again. Third one this week. I did the same thing as every other time: I grabbed his arms when he woke up thrashing and screaming. Held him tight to the bed until the shaking stopped and he fell back asleep. This time it was nearly 5:00 a.m., and those few, heart-pounding minutes it took to calm him left me wide awake, sleep running away fast like a thief in the night.

I watched his face in the murky light afforded to me by the half-closed drapes on the bedroom window, still surprised such a precious gift was curled up in my bed, mumbling incoherently as he chased after sleep once more. His golden-blond hair had grown out a bit in the two months since we’d met, and it curled around his ears and chin. He hadn’t shaved in a few days—the beard burn warming my ass served as a lovely reminder—and more honey-colored hair covered his neck and chin.

Beneath the cover of blankets, the same pretty color nested around the cock I worshiped as often as he’d let me, spackled the scrotum I so adored sucking on, and left a thin trail from his navel to his dick. He told me once his ex-asshole liked him clean-shaven all over.

I told him I adored his body hair and that he could grow a beard worthy of Duck Dynasty for all I cared if it made him happy. Cole rewarded that comment with a blow job that had my eyeballs rolling back in my head and a lot of nonsense spewing out of my mouth.

In the six-ish weeks since his mother’s hoarded property was sorted and sold at auction, Cole had nightmares maybe once a week. Nightmares, I was certain, of the eight years he’d spent living in fear of his ex, Martin Palone. Nightmares, I was also certain, that were exacerbated by Martin’s sudden appearance at the preauction viewing.

I could never properly explain the rage I’d felt that day at seeing the man who’d caused Cole so much pain for so many years. The man who’d put fear in his eyes and scars on his body. The man Cole had agreed to speak with in private, even though I’d rather cut my own balls off than allow Martin within twenty feet of Cole again. I’d waited outside the shell of Cole’s mother’s house while they talked, silently boiling in my own anger, resenting Martin’s very existence.

Cole never told me exactly what Martin said, only that he believed Martin was out of our lives for good. Only he wasn’t out, not really. He existed in Cole’s tainted memories, in the nightmares, and in the moments when Cole still flinched over a too-fast movement or a dropped dinner plate. Cole was far from healed. Maybe he never would fully heal, but we’d take it all one day at a time like we had so far.

He muttered something, nose scrunching. A hand skated out, seeking something. I slid my hand into range, and soon warm fingers clasped mine. Cole settled, and I smiled against my pillow. His breathing deepened. The lines around his eyes relaxed. Once he’d been asleep for a few minutes, I slipped smoothly out of bed.

The third-floor bedroom was toasty warm, as it usually stayed all year long—a blessing in the February cold, but less so at the height of summer. I put on a pair of flannel pajama pants and a sweatshirt before padding down to the second floor, careful to avoid the creakiest stairs. I had a pot of coffee brewing before I snuck down to the first-floor laundry room and out onto the back porch to snatch up the morning paper.

On my way past the door that led into the antiques shop on the first floor of my house, I reached out to test the knob. I remembered locking it soundly behind me the previous evening after close, but the test was a funny habit I’d picked up after forgetting to lock it one night about six months ago. Nothing had happened, no one had broken into either my house or the store, but it had rattled me because it was the first time I’d forgotten in the four years since I’d moved to Franklin. I’ve double-checked every night since.

I settled on the sofa with the paper and a mug of coffee. I read each section, stopping for more coffee whenever the brown mug bottomed out, keeping the comic page and crossword for last. I was halfway through the crossword when the alarm clock blared overhead. Seven on the dot.

I hadn’t turned it off when I left the bedroom because Cole had volunteered to get up early and join me on today’s pick. He’d never been on a farm pick before, he said last night over dinner, and he wanted to know more about my business. He still hadn’t settled on a career path for himself—starting over completely at twenty-eight was hard for anyone, but especially for someone like Cole, who’d been stifled for so long. He spent hours some evenings poring over different online universities, reading about degrees and job opportunities. Nothing ever captured his attention for longer than an hour.

He had time to figure it all out. I liked having him in my life, and he seemed content to stay—even if he had insisted on giving me rent money on January first, and again yesterday, when the calendar shifted us into February. The need for that kind of independence was in direct odds with the fact that we shared a room and a bed every night like lovers, not like roommates. And Cole only had a set amount of money from the auction, which was slowly supplemented by additional sales of his mother’s collection of items from both online and the shop.

Unfortunately, the original bid for the land fell through, and it had to go up through a realtor, which left Cole without the large windfall he’d been expecting. He had to wait until the land sold to get that money, which could be a day or a year from now, and I didn’t want to take more from him until he had a job.

So I accepted the envelopes of cash and tucked them into a drawer in my downstairs office. I’d get it back to him somehow.

The hundred-year-old floorboards creaked overhead, followed by the rush of water in the pipes. I smiled and went upstairs to join him, telling myself that all the coffee I’d imbibed needed releasing, and it did. The bathroom door was closed to keep in steam, but not locked. I didn’t have to rattle the knob to know that. Cole had spent two years taking five-minute showers behind locked doors. Freeing himself of Martin’s shadow had freed him of that fear.

I knocked loudly so he wouldn’t be startled—I was taking no chances after this morning’s nightmare—then let myself in. I took a minute to relieve myself of the coffee, and then stripped out of my clothes and climbed into the shower.

Cole paused in the middle of rinsing shampoo from his golden hair. He grinned, and the simple beauty of it hit me in the chest. He didn’t smile at very many people, and I treasured each one I received. Looked forward to the next one, too. But the smile didn’t erase the dark shadows beneath his eyes or the weary way he stood beneath the hot spray.

“Morning,” I said, scooting close enough to get a little water on my skin.

“Hey.” Cole finished rinsing his hair before leaning in for a kiss. “Mmm, coffee.”

“You taste like peppermint.”

“Brushed my teeth first. When I woke up, my mouth tasted like ass.”

The flirty way he said that reminded me exactly why his mouth tasted like that, and my dick pulsed with the memory. Last night was only the second time Cole had ever rimmed me, and it had been fantastic. Rimmed me open and then fucked me senseless.

God. I tried to get my rising cock to calm down.

Unlike me—who’d been up for hours and had ingested half a pot of coffee—Cole simply looked tired. He wasn’t very sexual first thing in the morning, and especially not after a night of bad dreams. We washed together, all elbows and arms and wet skin, a comfortable thing I truly enjoyed. My persistent erection hung around until the end, when Cole stepped out and grabbed a towel.

I palmed some shower gel and took hold of the problem, sliding my fingers around my hot skin, feeling pleasure buzz through my body. Sometimes Cole hung around while I beat off, but this morning the nightmares were really bothering him. I dragged back memories of last night, of the way he’d licked and fingered my opening until I was begging him to fill me with his cock. My hand jerked fast, faster, up and down my length. I slid my left hand around to my crease, down past the faint heat of beard burn to my entrance. Pressed a finger inside, and that was it. I groaned and shot against the tiles, steam rising around me while my orgasm rippled down my spine. Fast and fun, but nowhere near as mind-blowing as Cole coaxing an orgasm out of me.

Cole wasn’t in the bedroom when I finally got out. I dressed for the day in old jeans and a flannel shirt over a white undershirt. We’d be outside in the cold most of the day, so layers were a must.

I found him in the kitchen, mixing a bowl of pancake batter while a mug of coffee cooled on the counter nearby. He looked good there in front of the marble countertop, dressed in the same green sweater he’d worn the first day we met.

When I bought this house and set up the store, I ripped the guts out of the second floor. I decided if I was remodeling anyway, I’d give myself the living space I’d always wanted. That included an open floor plan and an enormous gourmet kitchen.

The wide-eyed surprise on Cole’s face the first time he saw the kitchen was among my favorite nonsexual memories of him.

“I thought we’d need a robust breakfast before a long day of picking,” he said.

“Good call.”

I took the two-sided griddle out of the drawer beneath the broiler and put it flat side up over two burners on the gas range. We went through the motions of making breakfast with the ease of a couple who’d done it for years, when it had barely been months. We ate at the counter, side by side on matching stools.

Our first few weeks together, Cole had torn through his food at every meal as though he expected someone to snatch it away at any moment. And after spending two years on the run, terrified his ex-asshole would find him, never sure when he’d be able to stop, the habit made perfect sense. He always finished before I’d get halfway. Lately, though, he’d slowed his pace, taking the time to really taste and enjoy the meals we prepared together or separately. My habit of chewing each bite a careful fifteen times set my own eating pace far behind the average person—a habit burned into me when I was eight years old.

Watching your childhood best friend choke to death on improperly chewed food would put the fear of asphyxiation into anyone.

Cole drank his coffee while I polished off my final pancake. “How early were you up?” he asked.

“Around five.”

“Because of me again?”

I took extra time chewing a mouthful of pancake and syrup, hating that he’d asked and I wouldn’t lie. He always told me he didn’t remember the nightmares themselves, only the fear and dread left over from them. He knew he’d had bad dreams. “Yes, but it’s fine, babe. You know that.”

He put his mug down and scrubbed both hands over his face hard enough to redden the skin. I almost grabbed his wrists, but he stopped and heaved a weary sigh. “I’m sorry I’m still such a mess.”

“Hey, stop it.” We’d had versions of this conversation biweekly since the auction, and I didn’t know how many more times we could have it before my calm disappeared. I dropped my fork and spun my stool to face him, but he’d already slipped off the other side.

He put the island between us, gaze stuck on the marble surface. I froze, unsure if I should chase him or give him the space he’d taken for himself. Despite the huge strides he’d made toward healing in these last two months or so, he still had a long way to go. I knew that. I’d accepted that. But my patience only stretched so far.

“Cole, it was a nightmare.” Obvious, yes, but at least he was looking at me with his wide blue eyes. “You’ve had them before, and you’ll have more. I don’t care. Losing a few hours of sleep once in a while isn’t a big deal for me.”

“It’s a big deal for me.” He didn’t sound upset. Resigned maybe, and tired. “You shouldn’t have to deal with my shit, let it interrupt your life.”

“Nothing about you being here interrupts my life. Hell, I barely had a life before I met you. You being here makes me happy, Cole. You make me happy. Nightmares are simply your mind’s way of getting out all the bad stuff up there. It’ll take time to work through it all.” Words I’d said before. Words he still needed to hear.

Unless something else was bothering him beyond the nightmare and my two-hour loss of sleep. A chill snaked down my spine. “Are you not happy here?” I asked, dreading the answer once my brain had acknowledged the question. We hadn’t known each other very long, and neither of us had ever used the L-word, but things were good.

Weren’t they?

Cole blinked hard several times. “Of course I’m happy here. I love being here. You make me happy too, Jeremy. I promise.”

“Good.” I didn’t know what I’d have done if he’d said anything else. I didn’t want to know that, ever. “Please, no more apologizing for your nightmares. I’d rather have you screaming yourself awake every night than holding all that shit in, letting it eat you alive. You’re too precious for that to happen, hear me?”

He nodded, his angular face softening with the brightness of his smile. He circled back to me, and I stood so I could sweep him into a hug. My arms cinched tight around his waist and he pressed his face into the crook of my neck, leaning in. I took his weight gladly. I’d always been strong enough to stand for us both.

Cole turned his head. “I hear you, I swear, every time you say I’m precious and you’re happy. I do.”

“Sometimes it just bears repeating.”

“Yeah. Hope you don’t get too sick of repeating yourself.”

I pressed a kiss to the side of his head. “Not sick of it yet.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Anything, babe.”

WE HIT the road a little after eight. Tisdale’s farm was a good ninety-minute drive north from Franklin, almost on North Carolina’s border with Virginia. Arthur Tisdale had called me up a few days ago, looking for folks interested in buying off his land. I’d wanted to get into his various barns and outbuildings for over two years now, and I’d been denied access every time I’d asked. The excitement of Arthur’s call had been tempered by the reason for it—he’d been handed a “six months, maybe less” diagnosis from his oncologist after his third battle with lung cancer. He needed to start selling so his children didn’t get stuck with sixty years of collecting.

Cole knew all of this, and he still insisted on going with me to the farm.

Watching Cole clean his parents’ hoarded property back in December had been an exercise in patience with a dash of heartache on the side. The job had been too big for one man, and I’d been selfishly glad when he’d agreed to my business proposal: I’d dig out the treasures and sell them for a fee. We’d both made money, he’d gotten the property clear, and here we were, living together in Franklin over my shop. Cole hadn’t come back intending to stay, though, and sometimes I saw the wanderlust in his eyes—times when he didn’t think I was watching.

I didn’t know what I’d do if he decided he wanted to move on.

The closer we got to Tisdale’s, the tenser Cole got. I saw it in the way he sat up straighter, how he balled his hands in his lap. He still got nervous meeting new people, and I had no idea how he’d react to a farm as full of junk as his parents’ had been. I turned off the highway, and soon we were winding along a dirt road into a deeply wooded area. The only sign I was going the right way was a faded blue mailbox with “Tisdale” printed on it in peeling paint.

“Must be the place,” I said, even though it obviously was. From the moment we cleared the line of trees past the mailbox turnoff, the landscape was dotted with machinery—rusted-out cars, trucks missing doors, parts of farm equipment, bike and motorcycle frames. More metal than I could identify, twisted through with weeds and saplings.

“Holy cow,” Cole said. He leaned forward in his seat, peering out the van’s windshield. He seemed more amazed than horrified, and I took that as a good sign.

The dirt track that served as a driveway wound through the weedy, woody terrain, past two rusting sheds and into a circular parking area in front of a farmhouse that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. The two-story structure looked one nor’easter away from collapsing, as did the barn a few hundred yards away.

I parked the van behind an ancient Ford pickup, leaving the keys in the ignition, because who was going to steal it way out here? Cole unbuckled his seatbelt, and I did the same, taking my cues from him. I tried to see this collected property from his point of view—as a scary, hoarded mess—but all I saw out there was potential profit.

“You okay?” I asked.

He nodded and flashed me a smile I knew he didn’t feel, because it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yeah, I’m good. Let’s go meet Mr. Tisdale.”

Positive he wasn’t ready for this and that bringing him had been a bad idea, I climbed out of the van. The air seemed warmer this deep in the woods, but still had a chill that made me hike up the zipper on my coat. Our van doors slamming shut echoed off the porch. I aimed for the front door.

“Here, you!”

The deep voice boomed behind us and Cole jumped a mile. I squeezed his wrist lightly and then let go. Arthur Tisdale limped toward us from the direction of the barn, leaning heavily on a thick, twisted cane that looked like he’d taken it out of the woods and polished it himself. He was average height and thin as a rail, with bushy white hair and eyebrows.

“You Collins?” he asked when he hobbled nearer.

“Yes, sir, Jeremy Collins,” I replied. “This is Cole Alston.”

We all traded handshakes, and I was impressed with Tisdale’s grip.

“Thank you for allowing us to come up and take a look around your property,” Cole said before I could.

“It’s time, son, it’s time,” Tisdale said. “I ain’t lookin’ to gouge you, but I ain’t givin’ it away either.”

“I’m sure we can work things out to both of our advantages,” I said. “Is there any particular area that’s off-limits for picking?”

“Nope. Y’can even look through the house if ya want. Got lotsa stuff in the attic and cellar too.”

“Can we start there?”

“Sure can.”

The best items were often kept close to the owner, so I wanted to get a look at the attic and his home while I had the most money in my pocket. Cole hesitated at the front door for only a moment, and then he followed us inside the old farmhouse.

BY MIDDAY, I’d rooted through the attic, root cellar, two unused bedrooms, and a messy place downstairs that might have been a den at one time. I’d collected a decent pile of items and spent less money that I expected. Tisdale was incredibly reasonable with pricing his antiques. Cole mostly watched and listened, sometimes asking questions about why I wanted a particular piece. He did, however, find my favorite pick of the day so far, which was an 1862 US Bridesburg musket. The nipple and ramrod were missing, but the musket itself was in fantastic shape for its age. I’d had a collector friend on the hook for one of those for years, and he’d be extremely excited to get a photo of this find e-mailed to him.

Tisdale disappeared into his kitchen while Cole and I loaded the van from the house pick. My stomach was grumbling, those pancakes long gone. We’d packed sandwiches in a cooler, and I was about to suggest we eat before hitting the exterior buildings. Tisdale surprised me by poking his head out the front door and yelling, “Got lunch on. You boys get in here and eat.”

A stockpot of something spicy was bubbling on the old gas range in the kitchen. We helped ourselves to bowls of chili and oyster crackers. Tisdale poured us sweet tea in Mason jars.

“Is there meat in here?” Cole asked.

“You one of those veggie-terrians?” Tisdale replied, and I wasn’t sure if he was exaggerating the word on purpose or not.

“No, sir, I just don’t recognize the flavor.”

“Venison, son. Neighbor brings me meat every autumn. I freeze some, make chili with some. Keeps real well all winter.”

“I’ve never had venison. It’s very good.”

It was extremely good. I’d had venison steaks before, but never in chili. The slightly gamey flavor went well with the beans and spices in the sauce, and I was disappointed when I got too full to eat more.

“You boys go on out to the barn,” Tisdale said. “Gonna wash up and rest awhile. I’ll join ya in a bit.”

We thanked him for our very tasty, very filling lunch and then headed outside. In the bright afternoon sunshine, I finally noticed the strained way Cole walked, like he was forcing himself to take each step. His eyes were pinched, his face a little pale even after eating all that hot chili.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked.

He stopped walking and shook his head. “It’s too soon. You haven’t picked outside yet.”

That hadn’t answered my question. He’d gotten very close to his fill of being around junk-piled rooms and layers of dirt. The barn wasn’t going to be pleasant, and we both had heavy-duty work gloves, but not even hard rubber and work boots could protect his eyes or mind. He’d grown up around this kind of collecting (or hoarding, in his mother’s case), and he’d gotten out, left it behind. Today was his attempt at facing those memories, but he could only stand it for so long.

“You tell me if you need a break, hear me?” I said.


The kitchen was on the other side of the house, so I leaned in and kissed him. A gentle, supportive kiss I didn’t dare deepen if I’d wanted to. The last thing I wanted to risk was Tisdale running us off his land with a shotgun if he rabidly disliked the fact that we were a couple.

Except for my best friend Bethann, no one in Franklin knew I was bisexual or that Cole was anything other than a rent-paying roommate. Folks knew I was a widower, that I’d moved to town not long after my wife died of anaphylactic shock, and that I didn’t date. So far, no one seemed to have figured out Cole was gay, and he didn’t advertise the fact. Until Cole, I hadn’t been attracted to a man in a long, long time. He brought out a side of me I’d forgotten, a side I embraced when I was with him. But this thing between us was still so fragile, so uncertain. Not yet permanent.

I wouldn’t out either of us without a long conversation. Living in a small town was safer in the metaphorical closet—at least for now.

The kiss put a little color into Cole’s cheeks, and he smiled.

Our initial investigation into the barn didn’t yield much. Holes in the roof had leaked years’ worth of rain and snow into the rotting structure, destroying anything made of paper, leather, or wood. The metal was rusted. Most of it would be better off at a scrap yard. By the time I dug some bicycle frames out of a somewhat protected stall, Tisdale had joined us again. I bought the frames for a steal.

Cole surprised me by asking for a price on a wooden chair with only three legs. Tisdale looked at me like he was crazy, and I had to admit, I was curious what Cole wanted with a three-legged chair. Tisdale said he could take it for free. Cole pressed some money into his hand, and I saw a flash of Lincoln’s face.

After Cole and I lugged the chair and frames to the van, he grabbed my elbow, his eyes pinched. I knew before he said anything. “You mind if I sit here for a while?”

“You want to leave?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want to interrupt this. It’s your business. I just….” He shook his head, frowning like he’d failed an easy test and couldn’t quite believe it. “I can’t handle more today. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m proud of you for all this.”

“The barn’s just too”—his eyes flashed with some dark memory—“smells too much like my parents’ house, you know? The rot.”

“I get it.” Behind the shield the van provided from the barn, I pulled him into a hug. His heart was pounding rapidly, and I held him a minute until it calmed. I didn’t want to let go because he fit in my arms perfectly, but we were burning daylight and it was a long drive home.

“Find something that’ll make you rich,” he said as I headed back to the barn.

I gave a thumbs-up.

No such luck on the first floor of the barn. Tisdale had a handful of outbuildings to inspect, plus all of the things strewn around the land, but I wanted a peek into his hayloft first. He said he’d put a few old railroad lanterns up there a decade or two ago, and those were always collectible, especially with the glass intact.

The ladder up to the loft was broken in several places, the wood soft in others. I scrambled up fast and the boards groaned beneath my weight. My heart jumped. I shone my flashlight into the gloom, sure this was a bad idea. A lump of moldy cardboard boxes sat a few yards away, across a floor littered with straw and old feed sacks. I picked my way to it, sliding my feet, testing for strength like I was crossing a frozen lake in March.

“You okay up there?” Tisdale yelled somewhere down below.

“Sure thing.”

I inched closer. Wood snapped. I froze, listening.

Snap. Pop.


I started backing up, and then the whole hayloft floor gave out, and I fell.

Author Bio:
No stranger to the writing world, A.M. Arthur has been creating stories in her head since she was a child and scribbling them down nearly as long. She credits an early fascination with male friendships and "bromance" (and "The Young Riders") with her later discovery of and subsequent affair with m/m romance stories. When not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, pretending she's an amateur chef and trying to not poison herself or others with her cuisine experiments.


Unearthing Cole #1

Understanding Jeremy #2

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