M/M, Contemporary Romance, Friends-to-Lovers
[49 Pages / 12,700 Words]
Something Softer is no longer available for individual purchase, but can be found in the collection:
Hearts Right Here
Hal Preston isn't normally one to run from his problems, but a solitary mountain retreat might be exactly what he needs to stop obsessing over his dad's best friend.
There's no chance Wayne Merrick shares his fascination. The man is overprotective and sweet, a reliable constant through Hal's entire life. He's also sure to panic if he notices the crush Hal has harbored for years. There's a reason Hal's gone to great lengths to hide his intractable heart.
When unscheduled radio silence summons Wayne to Hal's cabin, Hal impulsively invites him to stay. And as they find a soft, strange new balance, Hal aches to show Wayne his heart after all.
"Here," Hal announces, as they break free from a thick cluster of trees and bushes, into an open space that ends in a steep drop-off. "This is my favorite view on the entire trail."
A tall, sturdy fence runs along the edge of stony outcropping, and a sign proclaims the site a scenic overlook. Wayne approaches warily, despite how new the wood of the fence looks at a glance. He's not scared of heights, but an excess of caution has never done him any harm.
Hal hurries quickly forward, leaving Wayne to move more slowly into the space beside him.
"Fuck," Wayne breathes as he takes in the full, sweeping scope of the mountainside dropping into the valley. He's not sure why this hits him so hard. It's not as though this is his first visit to Marcus and Laura Preston's isolated retreat. And yet the magnitude of the rolling forest, the rocky striations visible in sparser places, the patchwork of more colorful trees lower down the slopes where autumn has just barely begun to touch bright oranges and reds... The whole of it takes Wayne's breath away, even before his gaze catches on the impossibly tiny glimpse of the town far, far below.
"Told you," Hal says smugly.
Wayne huffs a wry laugh and leans his forearms on the fence, clasping his hands together as he lets himself relax into the grand, expansive quiet. In his peripheral vision, Hal pulls a water bottle from the small pack and takes a drink before offering it over.
"Thanks." Wayne accepts the handoff, realizing just how parched he is as he swallows the sun-warmed water.
He doesn't know what to make of the way Hal tracks his movements for several attentive moments, before jolting as if in surprise to stare down the mountain. Hal stands so close beside him that their shoulders brush when Wayne leans in to return the half-empty bottle of water. The bottle disappears back into the pack, but the unexpected silence lingers. Peaceful, but strange in new ways that Wayne isn't sure how to decipher.
It's Hal who finally speaks, though his contribution holds no hint of the awe they are sharing in their surroundings.
"I want to buy a vineyard."
A startled laugh bursts out of Wayne's chest, and he turns his head, throwing Hal an incredulous look. He finds Hal already watching him, mischievous smile softening the sharp lines of a narrow face.
Wayne shakes his head and makes himself look out across the horizon instead of directly into Hal's impish eyes. "You don't want to own a vineyard." He can't do a damn thing to banish the ridiculous smile from his own face, though, no matter how hard he tries to lean into familiar exasperation.
"Yes, I do."
"No. You don't. You just want to feel fancy."
"I've been doing research." Hal leans against Wayne's shoulder in a slouch that could be accidental, if it didn't feel so very deliberate. "It'll take me fifteen years to save up, and that's best-case scenario. Like. Assuming I keep seeing decent royalties and advances with my next couple contracts. But I could do it."
"You don't even like wine."
"Maybe I would, if I owned a vineyard."
Wayne snorts, and he can't help it—can't resist the magnetic pull dragging his attention right back to Hal's face. The smile is still there. It hasn't changed. But there's a different sort of affection in Hal's eyes now, and it catches Wayne behind the ribs. It wraps around his heart and squeezes, and the unexpected rush of warmth takes his breath away.
Hal's smile is beautiful. Hal is beautiful. And a jolt of understanding moves through Wayne with all the subtlety of an avalanche. Suddenly he is tumbling over an edge that has nothing to do with the sturdy mountain on which he stands, and the force of it leaves him shattered.
Concern shadows Hal's expression, and a heartbeat later his brow furrows. "You okay?"
"Yes," Wayne says, but the word comes out a defensive rasp. He jerks his gaze forward, suddenly agonizingly aware of the shared heat where Hal's arm presses against his own.
"Wayne, I'm not really going to buy a vineyard. I promise."
A voiceless laugh tumbles out of Wayne's chest, and he shakes his head, incredulous and winded. God, he couldn't care less about the vineyard. He is too busy spiraling, reexamining his stubborn old heart, trying to figure out how long it's been hiding this from him. Months? Years? Hal is a beautiful young man, but Wayne has never noticed before. Not like this.
He feels shaken and a little panicky—anxious with wondering how he will keep this secret, when Hal knows him so goddamn well.
Read the full story in Hearts Right Here
Cover design by Yolande Kleinn