Pax Harmon is a Hollywood screenwriter living on the fast track. His private life is nonexistent, but that’s fine with him because he’s surrounded by some annoying people. His nearest neighbor, Sam, is so old he should have retired decades ago, but the lure of fame and fortune still has him in its grip. Then there is Cade Westmore, an actor boasting soap opera fame and twink-y good looks.
But appearances can be deceiving. Everything goes wrong a week before Christmas. The things he thought about everything in his life, he realizes, are skewed. Cade has cancer, a very rare form of it and is fighting hard to make it. Then there’s Sam. Oh, Sam. Unable to save him, Pax hopes his newly discovered feelings for Cade are reciprocated. He needs sweetness. And incense and peppermints. But Cade brings so much more to his life, and Pax soon realizes love might just save him as well.
Pax let himself out for a run at 6:45 that cold December morning. One week from Christmas, and he still hadn’t committed to either of his friends’ holiday dinner celebrations. Ugh. The holiday spirit seemed to have bypassed him in spite of the pleasant chill in the morning air. People didn’t think Los Angeles experienced winter, but it did. The thin layer of crunchy ice under his running shoes indicated that temperatures had dropped overnight.
If only it would snow here, I’d believe in Santa Claus. Or maybe I should rent myself a little ho ho ho.
He stopped at the corner of Hillgrave Avenue, stunned that the big day still hadn’t come, but the street already looked like a graveyard for discarded Christmas trees. He frowned when he realized a new one had been added to the pile outside his building. It still had its tinsel and a couple of ornate silver bells dangling from its bedraggled branches.
Who in the world would have tossed a tree out with stuff still on it? He took a closer look. Eww! The trees were all swarming with tiny black beetles. He recalled his neighbors had all pooled for a U-Haul and gone to a corner lot to purchase trees the day after Thanksgiving. Hmm. And they all called me a spoilsport because I didn’t want to buy one.
He stared and recognized the antique decorations. They belonged to his elderly neighbor, Sam Dalton. Pax sighed. Sam had left town for a trip back home to England the previous evening. He’d obviously noticed the bugs and tossed the tree before he left. A good thing, too. Two years ago, Sam had purchased an antique writing desk, unaware that it was riddled with termites. The infestation had been so bad some of the termites flew around his condo unit but he hadn’t noticed. Weeks later, everybody had termites, and they’d had to tent the building and vacate the premises for two whole days.
Wait. The tree wasn’t out here last night.
He knew he had to check on the old guy. Sam had once left town with his CD player on repeat and Pax had been forced to listen to the album Aliens Ate My Buick for ten agonizing days.
Should I go check on him or keep running? Ugh. I need a run, but I don’t need to listen to his crappy music for the next two weeks. I can’t just ignore this. What if something’s happened?
He stomped back inside and followed the path of pine needles from the front door, up two sets of stairs from street level to the courtyard. He then took another set of stairs to his upper-floor unit. The trail grew thicker and led straight to Sam’s front door. Uh-huh. What a surprise. How did I not notice this when I came out a minute ago?
Pax knew something was wrong the moment he saw Sam’s front door standing ajar. Sam often left it open for reasons known only to him, but with Sam supposedly on his way to London, his door shouldn’t have been open at all.
I saw him at the mailbox yesterday, leaving a note for the mail carrier. Did he forget to close the door before he left?
Pax was embarrassed. He hadn’t seen it left open when he came home late last night. He’d been thinking about his lousy dinner date and today’s crazy work schedule. Sam had been the last thing on his mind. Now he fretted, mentally slapping himself.
Had the door been left open?
Oh, God. Did somebody break in last night?
No. He didn’t think so. For a condo building in the heart of North Hollywood, theirs was a safe haven. The lights inside Sam’s unit didn’t appear to be turned on. It was hard to tell since all the upper units featured a twenty-five step staircase leading from the front door to the main floor. Was the lack of light a good or bad sign? There’d definitely been no lights on last night in Sam’s unit. He would have noticed it.
Burglars don’t turn on lights, stupid.
He’d talked to Sam in the morning, gone to work, then headed straight out for drinks. He stopped home to shower and change for his dinner date. He’d noticed Sam tossing postal junk into the trash, and they’d talked. He’d even filled out Sam’s Hold Mail request form and gently chided him for leaving it so late.
Then Pax had gone out for the evening and hadn’t even glanced at Sam’s door when he returned around eleven o’clock. The four condo units grouped together in their eastbound corner should have meant that the residents all knew each other’s business a little too well. The truth was, Sam was the only neighbor that Pax knew. The other two units, 111 and 112, were dark since they had only one level and were smaller than the bright, spacious upper units.
Sam never complained about all the stairs in his units, but Pax knew that one day he himself would tire of lugging groceries up and down the steps in his place.
He gulped, realizing the people in 111 and 112 would probably be rubbing their hands in glee for an opportunity to move on up in the building.
He didn’t know his other neighbors all that well, but he’d become close to Sam and knew all his business, and that was because the old guy frequently asked him for help.
Pax moved to Sam’s entryway, rang the bell, and peered up the stairs that led from the door to the first floor of Sam’s unit. Nothing. He pushed the door open a little farther.
“Sam?” Pax took the carpeted stairs slowly, listening for sounds of distress. Sam’s suitcases stood at the top of the stairs. Oh, man I was right. Something’s wrong. He wouldn’t have gone anywhere without those. But how weird. I saw him with them down at the mailboxes.