Heart of Clay
A Contemporary M/M Romance
with a ghostly touch
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The ghost at the heart of the problem…
Clayton Merk, accomplished, yet arrogant, businessman, has a reputation for one-night stands and being steadfastly anti-relationship. When he decides to return home—to the root of all his problems—he brings a co-worker with him as a buffer against the past. Even though he’s ready to lay old ghosts to rest, he certainly didn’t expect a literal ghost to lend a hand.
Brad Jorgensen, Clay’s former best friend, has also clung to the past in an unhealthy way. He resents Clay for a lot of things, not the least of which is his cousin’s death decades earlier. At one time they’d been closer than brothers, but blame and anger are powerful weapons of destruction, and they’ve left Brad in a wasteland of self-doubt, hatred, and loneliness.
The ghost at the heart of the problem has had enough. Bobby isn’t pleased with his cousin or his ex. Their refusal to let go of the past has kept him on a plane where he doesn’t belong and isn’t at home. He’s expended all his energy trying to get through to Brad, without success, but Clay’s return finally gives him a foot in the door…or out the door.
If he could just get the two stubborn men together.
Heart of Clay
The garden was overgrown now.
The screen door rattled shut, cutting off the sounds of Nan and Pip chatting over iced tea on the enclosed back porch with a hapless Augie Cruthers. Faint strains of clarinets and snatches of sulky vocals followed Clay down the much worn wood steps.
When he was very small, and his parents had brought him here for summer breaks, he'd tripped on the lowest step and split his lip. His tongue flicked over the tiny scar at the memory. Since then they'd talked dozens of times about replacing the narrow steps, but apparently now, just like in his childhood, it was a task for another day.
Clay left the path and wandered over cropped grass, in a lawn that seemed a lot smaller than it had been, until he reached an area where it was clearly not maintained any longer. He couldn’t hear Nan, Pip, or Augie from here, but if he turned, he could see their forms, dark shadows behind the blurring screens of the porch.
Last Friday his young coworker had been undisguisedly dumbfounded by the invitation to visit Clay's patriarchal home, but after exchanging alarmed glances with his gape-jawed secretary and blushing profusely, he'd accepted gamely. No doubt he thought he was next on his notorious superior's never-ending list of conquests, but the fact was that Clay wasn't interested. Augie was sweet, and cute enough, but sweet bored Clay. He preferred striking to cute, and fleeting to long-lasting when it came to bed partners.
All of which made fucking a man from his office a bad plan, especially someone like Augie who had happily-ever-after written all over his sparkling green eyes, softly styled five o'clock shadow, and barely tamed auburn curls. No, it wasn't sex that Clay had on his mind, it was distraction.
Clayton J. Merk could have told the man that he'd be serving more as a shield, a barrier to memories and emotions that Clay didn't want to experience again, but he figured that would become evident soon enough, when they retired to their own beds at night.
Some small part of him might have been trying to shock Nan and Pip, to maybe rub his gayness in their conservative family values a little, but that part had been made to feel small and insignificant when Nan's faded blue eyes had brightened with delight to see that Clay had brought a guest. In fact, his grandparents had been so warm and welcoming, not even blinking twice at Augie's gentle lisp and painted nails that at first Clay had thought they'd both gone blind.
Then they'd been escorted to two very separate rooms and firmly informed that the floorboards creaked, which Clay well remembered, and instructed to show up for dinner in thirty minutes.
Over dinner, Augie proved his value as a distraction by displaying a very unlikely but undeniably thorough knowledge of big band music, and Clay was able to just sit and eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes as though his doctor hadn't just told him that he could stand to lose twenty pounds.
Surveying the chaos of his grandparents' farm, Clay tried to stifle his dismay. It had been years, closer to decades, really since he'd been here, but it should have at least felt familiar, shouldn’t it? Instead, it was as though the wilderness that his ancestors had carved a farm out of hundreds of years ago was slowly taking back what it had ceded.
It was at once both more and less than memory had painted it.
It was greener, lusher, more primal. Adam and Eve or a court of elves might have cavorted here as it was now.
Less manicured, tidy, or functional. It was difficult to imagine the precisely laid out kitchen garden that his grandmother used to plant here every year, row upon row of tomato vines and pepper plants, hills of sweet, flowery cantaloupe, juicy watermelon, and prickly cucumbers interspersed with plots of herbs and six foot corn stalks with their razor sharp leaves.
The fields that used to line the drive on the way in were no longer planted with crops, just acres of rolling green grasses, up hills and down into tree-dense hollows, hollers as the locals called them. It was beautiful, but when the grass came up to your knees, as it did outside the magic circle of manicured lawn surrounding the sixteen room colonial farmstead, that beauty was overshadowed with the unknown.
It was amazing how something like tall grass could turn a place he'd thought he knew like the back of his hand into some jungle of uncertainty that made him question all the things he thought he'd decided upon before he even left the city.
Somewhere at the bottom of the garden was a bench. Raising a hand to shade his eyes, Clay squinted into the shadows of the setting sun. Of course, with the garden overgrown now, it was impossible to find.
Crickets chirped and fireflies signaled frantically in the growing darkness. He dragged in a deep breath, redolent with the heavy scent of dogwood and rain. The fresh, gasoline-enhanced odor of cut grass announced that someone had cut the lawn just that day. His feet ignored the frantic voice in his head that ordered him to stay put, or to go back to the house, at the very least.
Chiggers, and ticks, and the lightning quick stings of any of a dozen other belligerent plants and animals assaulted his bared ankles, but his treacherous, sandal-clad feet forged forward, and he couldn't break his gaze away from that northwest corner.
He knew where it should be, there in the darkest spot, deep in the shadows, where the north boundary fence met the west boundary fence, under the branches of a gnarled old peach tree, which had stood sentinel over both farmsteads for so long that it had grown up and around and surrounded the barbed wire fence.
The tree marked the border and was marked by it. Somewhere down there, in that dark recess, was the bench. Crafted and carved by hand generations ago by a tender-hearted lover whose bride had a fondness for sunsets. Carved of local limestone, smooth and white, once it had gleamed eerily, catching the moonlight and spinning his boyish imagination into fantasies unbound.
Back when Pip and Nan had been, as Nan put it, full of vim and vigor, and maintained the property to the nines, that was.
Now? When they scarce seemed to care about the house itself and relied on some local boy to mow the simple acre of grass on which the house sat, the rest of the hundred acres was left to go wild, much as he had every summer as a boy.
And his feet were moving faster, tumbling him pell-mell down that hill with a speed that left him breathless and clutching at his side, soothing the physical ache because the one in his heart was so damned old and familiar that he could almost ignore it.
Except that…there it was.
In tall grass, dingy with dirt and pollen, bird excrement and murky leaves, sloping down so one end wasn't even visible, was the bench.
Clay sank down on the limestone and buried his head in his hands, shaking with the effort not to feel. Dragging in a deep breath, he consciously stiffened his spine and forced his hands down. He clenched the filthy seat in one hand and pushed back his hair with the other.
The field on the other side of the fence was everything his grandparents' place wasn't. Furrows of brown earth promised a future harvest, promised life.
As hard as he strained his eyes, that was all he could see.
"You've got a damned nerve, coming down here. I couldn't believe it when they said you were coming." The angry words rumbled over him, stabbing him with their hate and scorn. "You could at least have had the decency to stay up at the house instead of coming down here and flaunting your presence."
Clay stretched, feigning a casual attitude though icy sweat dampened the back of his polo shirt. "Brad? It's been a long time."
"Not fucking long enough, Merk."
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