The tiny town of Sebastian's Bluff is a photojournalist's dream come true. But Ron Winters doesn't expect the moody, mysterious man next door to get under his skin and stay there.
When Drew LaSalle meets Ron, feelings he thought twenty years gone stir to life again. He wants what he could have with Ron. But does he want it enough to get past his own walls and grasp it?
Secrets, spirits and tragedy converge as Ron peels back the layers of Drew's past and Drew fights both Ron and his own ghosts on the haunted road to happily ever after.
Ron was lying in the lush green grass atop the bluff when Terrence broke up with him.
"I'm sorry," Terrence said in the slow New England drawl that had first turned Ron's head. "It's been great, but I just don't see this goin' anywhere. Do you?"
Ron had to agree. Terrence was good in bed and fun to be with, but there had never been anything of permanence in their relationship.
"No, not really." Ron rolled onto his side and smiled reassuringly at Terrence's guilty look. "It's cool. We had some fun, right? That's all either of us really wanted."
Terrence's face flooded with relief. "Oh, yeah. I'm so glad you're not upset, Ron. I like you a lot. I didn't want to hurt you."
"You didn't." Sitting up, Ron reached out and pulled Terrence to him for a kiss. "So, do you still want to stay here with me until tomorrow? You can, you know." He leaned back on his hands, shaking his hair out of his eyes. Their flight from Eugene back to JFK wasn't until tomorrow night, and Ron knew for a fact that NYU didn't pay its professors enough that changing flights at the last minute-or even booking a room at the single bed and breakfast in Sebastian's Bluff-wouldn't take an uncomfortably large bite out of Terrence's bank account.
"Thanks, but I think I'll just take the bus on over to Eugene today and find a hotel room for the night."
Ron squinted out over the sparkling water. A spit of jagged rock curved into the sea from the point a little ways to the south. It'd make a great spot for a photo shoot. "Go ahead and take the rental car. I think I'm gonna hang out here for a while."
Terrence's eyebrows shot up. "Are you sure? You won't have any way to get around without the car."
"It has to be turned in tomorrow anyway." The wind blew Ron's hair across his face again. He raked it back. "The town's only a mile or so away. I won't need a car." He laughed at Terrence's worried frown. "Don't worry about me, T, I'll be fine."
Terrence didn't look convinced. Ron flashed his most charming smile.
Eventually, Terrence shook his head and smiled. "All right." He stood, brushed the loose grass off of his clothes and slipped his sneakers back on. "You have to call me if you need anything, okay? Promise."
Ron wouldn't call and they both knew it, but he nodded anyway.
He stayed out on the cliff while Terrence packed. When Terrence emerged from the house again, Ron rose to meet him. They walked to the rented sedan in silence.
After Terrence tossed his bag into the back seat, Ron laid a hand on his arm. "Hey, T?"
"Yes?" Terrence turned to look at him.
Ron studied the face that had become so familiar over the last five months and felt nothing. No sadness, no pain for his departure. Still... "Why now?"
"I've known for a while that something was a little off between us." Terrence's lips quirked into a smile. "I guess it just took this trip for it to click that it wasn't workin' anymore."
"Yeah. I guess you're right." Taking Terrence's hand, Ron gave it a squeeze. "Take care of yourself, T."
Ron tilted his face up for Terrence's kiss. Their last one. It was strange, but at the same time kind of a relief. Terrence was right. Things hadn't been quite right for a while now.
When they drew apart, Terrence looked at him like he wanted to say something else. Really, though, there wasn't anything else to say. Terrence climbed into the car, cranked the engine and rolled down the circular gravel drive.
Ron watched the car until it disappeared around the curve in the road, then returned to the edge of the cliff and flopped onto his back in the cool grass. "Some romantic weekend," he told the azure sky, and laughed at himself for saying it.
He lay there until nearly noon, watching the occasional cloud drift by, and thinking. The only film the single grocery-slash-drug store in Sebastian's Bluff had was thirty-five millimeter. If Ron planned to stay here more than a couple of days, he'd need to order a whole shitload of four-by-five for landscape shots. Some high speed black and white too, in case he wanted to shoot at night. This place was flat-out gorgeous. The bluffs, the beaches, and the forest within spitting distance of Aunt Marjorie's house alone would use up what he had in no time. His aunt had already told him the house was free until mid-December.
He scratched his nose, frowning. If he hung out that long, he'd have to order chemicals and set up a dark room too. It'd be worth it, though, if Excursion bought his photos like they usually did. He'd get a fortune for what he could shoot here. Add in some shots of the town, with its quaint shops and neat little Italianate-style cottages, and he'd be set for months. Maybe Aunt Marjorie would even let him sell some photos of her house. The view from the widow's walk was incredible.
After lunch, he called Aunt Marjorie to ask if he could stay in her house for a while longer. She agreed readily, like he'd figured she would.
"Of course you can stay, honey. It's a weight off my mind, actually, knowing that you'll be there for a while before my first renters show up. I've had some work done on it since I bought it this summer, but I'd love it if you'd let me know about any problems that crop up while you're there."
"Yeah, I'd be glad to." He plopped into one of the blue-checkered padded chairs at the kitchen table and studied the fruit bowl. Three apples and a pear. He needed to go grocery shopping if he was going to stay. "Thanks for letting me hang out here, Aunt Marjorie. I appreciate it."
"No trouble at all, dear." Her voice dropped low. "What about your young man? Terrence, was it? Will he be staying with you?"
Ron stifled a laugh. It amused him how Aunt Marjorie sounded faintly scandalized whenever she asked about his boyfriends, but she always asked. "We broke up. Just today. He's staying in Eugene tonight and flying back to New York tomorrow."
She let out a gasp. "Oh, no. Are you all right, sweetheart?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Oberon James Winters, you wouldn't lie to your old aunt, would you?"
"No. I'm really fine." Ron picked up an apple. "I liked him, but I didn't love him." Like you'd know, Mr. Never Get Too Serious. You've never been in love. "I'm actually kind of looking forward to spending some time here alone. It's a great place."
"Are you going to take pictures, dear?"
"Sure am. The town, the bluffs, the forest, everything. This place is gorgeous. I'm going to do a photo spread and see if I can sell it to Excursion. Oh, do you mind if I set up a darkroom in the basement?"
"Of course not, dear, do whatever you need to. How long were you thinking of staying?"
"Not sure." Ron took a bite of his apple. "I'll be out before your renters need it though, I promise."
"Oberon, that's not what I was getting at, and you know it. And don't talk with your mouth full."
Ron finished chewing and swallowed his bite of fruit. "Sorry. So what were you getting at, Oh Favorite Aunt O' Mine?"
She laughed. "The town has a wonderful, interesting history, maybe you could write a piece about it to go along with your photo spread. I believe the magazine would love it, and it would certainly drum up more tourism for the area, which is something they need. The tourists go to Florence and Yachats, but they tend to drive right past Sebastian's Bluff on the way. The place could use some help in that arena."
The idea was exciting enough that Ron bounced in place a little bit. "Aunt Marj, that is so brilliant, I'll even forgive you for calling me Oberon."
She clucked her tongue. "It's your name, dear. You should be proud of it."
Ron laughed. "Yeah, right. Wonder if Mom and Dad would've still named me that if they'd known I'd turn out queer?"
"Honey, please. You know why they chose that."
Ron bit into the apple again to keep from saying anything he'd regret later. His parents were, as his younger sister put it, â€˜Shakespeare geeks.' He still thanked whatever powers existed that most high school boys, even the ones in his Greenwich Village school, were not particularly familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was difficult enough being small, delicately pretty, and gay without everyone knowing he was named after the king of the faeries.
A glance at the kitchen clock told Ron he needed to go if he wanted to order the supplies he needed from the Photo Finish website under the wire for Tuesday delivery. God, but Labor Day was a pain sometimes. "I gotta go now. Thanks for letting me stay and giving me the head's up about the town. I'll definitely ask my editor at Excursion about doing a story to go with the photos."
"You're welcome, dear. Call me again, won't you? It's wonderful to hear your voice."
"I will. Love you."
"Love you too. Goodbye."
After he hung up, Ron pulled up the website on his phone and ordered dark room supplies and every kind of film he could imagine he might need in enough quantity to last at least two months. That done, he put on his sunglasses, picked up his partially-eaten apple and wandered back outside.
He walked to the edge of the cliff. It was a spectacularly beautiful afternoon. White puffs of cloud floated across a bright blue sky. Far below, the Pacific rolled long, white-capped waves against the foot of the bluff.
Standing there with the wind in his hair and the ocean at his feet, Ron felt a sense of unlimited possibility. He spread his arms wide, his apple still clutched in one hand.
"Whatever you've got, bring it on," he called into the warm breeze. "I'm ready."
The sea and sky showed no signs of changing his life on the spot, but he didn't mind. Whatever the coming weeks brought, it would be an adventure of one sort or another. That was enough for him.
* * * *
Ron woke with a start deep in the night. He sat up and stared into the blackness of the room he and Terrence had chosen mostly for its huge four-poster bed. The crescent moon outside his window illuminated nothing, but he sensed no movement in the gloom. Only the hum of the heater broke the quiet.
He frowned, wondering what had woken him. Kicking the covers off, he felt his way to the door and stuck his head out into the hall. He held his breath and listened. Nothing. Then the heat kicked off, and he heard it-low, broken sobs, drifting from the third floor tower room overhead.
As unlikely as it seemed, someone-a man, from the sound of it-was up there on the top floor, crying as if his heart might shatter.
A chill ran up Ron's spine. How the hell had anyone gotten in without him hearing? The front door had two deadbolts that would still be latched after a nuclear blast. The back door lock could be picked by an enterprising thief, but it squealed like a pig at slaughter when opened. The noise would have woken him instantly, as would any attempt at breaking windows. For that matter, anyone climbing a staircase in this house should have woken him. Every step squeaked somewhere. There was no way an intruder could get all the way to the third floor without creating a veritable symphony of creaking wood.
And who would break into a house just to go up to the top floor and have a good cry?
Ron shuffled to the dresser, groped for his phone and thumbed it on. Whoever was up there, he wasn't there for any good reason. Ron didn't much want to wait around and find out what it was.
"Nine-one-one," the operator answered an endless second after Ron keyed in the numbers. "What is your emergency?"
"There's someone in my house," Ron whispered. "He's up on the third floor crying."
"Crying? Oh, are you at the old house on the bluff? Some lady from New York bought it this summer."
"Yeah, my aunt, Marjorie Winters. That's where I'm staying, yes." Ron raked a hand through his hair. "Look, just hurry and send someone, okay? I don't know who it is upstairs or how he got in here, but he must be psycho or something."
To Ron's horror, the woman on the other end of the phone laughed. "Oh, honey, that's just the ghost."
Ron's mouth fell open. "What? No! Someone broke into my house, and he's upstairs right now, crying."
"Yep. That's the ghost, all right."
"Did you hear anyone break in?"
"Well, no. But someone is definitely up there. Please, just send someone out here, will you?"
The operator chuckled. "All right, calm down. I'm sending Joe around to check things out and ease your mind. He'll be there in a few."
Ron sat on the bed and tried not to think of how he'd have a cop at his door within two minutes if he was back in his apartment. This wasn't New York City. "Thank you. I appreciate it."
Ron cut off the call, even though he knew he wasn't supposed to. Maybe it would get Joe the Cop here faster. Scrolling over to his phone's flashlight app, Ron turned it on and went to get his sleep pants out of the small bag he'd packed for the weekend. He didn't think the policeman would appreciate being greeted at the door by a naked man.
* * * *
When the knock sounded on the front door eight and a half minutes later, the crying upstairs abruptly stopped. Joe the Cop found the tower room and the widow's walk circling the outside empty. All the second floor rooms were empty as well. Ron didn't ask Joe to check the first floor, but did it himself after the officer left. He found no crying man, or any sign of recent crying-stranger activity.
Oh, honey, that's just the ghost.
Ron laughed. Ghost. Right. He'd spent enough time in enough old houses to know they made really strange noises sometimes. Granted, he'd never heard one cry before, but there was a first time for everything. Now that he knew about this one, he could take steps to keep his imagination from running away with him again.
In the meantime, the photographer in him was restless, drawn to the tower room.
On his way back to the third floor, Ron stopped to grab his ear buds and tripod and change the film in his camera to twelve hundred ISO. Maybe the photos would come out and maybe they wouldn't, but he was by God going to try.
Up in the tower room, he plugged the ear buds into his phone, scrolled through his music file to Sigur RÃ³s and set it to shuffle all songs, and then stuck the phone in the back pocket of his sleep pants and wandered out onto the widow's walk. He was irretrievably awake now, and the white sliver of the moon's reflection wavered like a restless spirit on the water. Might as well capture its image on film. He could take a few shots of the widow's walk and the tower room while he was at it. The night lent both of them a mysterious feel bordering on the sinister, and he wanted to try to preserve that ephemeral quality in pictures before daylight destroyed it.
Who knew, maybe he'd even catch one of a ghost.
Snickering to himself, he unfolded the tripod and went to work.