Perry woke after a deep and dreamless sleep.
It took him a moment to orient himself. He was not in his own bed. And he was not in Marcel’s bed, either. It all came rushing back. Every morning for the past nine months his first waking thought had been of Marcel. But now, instead of the usual bloom of anticipation, a chill depression settled on him like snowfall weighing down a tree branch. He could feel his composure cracking beneath that weight; it didn’t help at all to remind himself that he was grieving for a dream, for something that had never existed except in his imagination. And for someone who had never existed at all.
He wiped the corners of his eyes. It was quiet in the apartment. He listened to the drip, drip, drip of rain from the eaves. Nick Reno was already up; Perry could hear him moving quietly around the kitchen, and he could smell coffee percolating and bacon frying: two of the best aromas in the world.
His stomach growled. He fought his way out of the cocoon of blankets and dragged on his jeans. He had a crick in his neck. He needed a shower and a shave. He needed to brush his teeth.
He needed to go back to his apartment.
The realization filled him with dismay. Even in daylight the thought of going back there, of facing the silence, the emptiness — the memory of the corpse in the bathtub…
He headed for the kitchen, pulling on a T-shirt. Nick sat at the table drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He glanced up, his eyes dark blue in his bronze face.
“Morning,” he said laconically. “Help yourself to coffee.”
There was an old-fashioned stainless steel coffeepot sitting on the range. Perry moved to the stove. A clean mug sat on the counter, which seemed a friendly gesture. He poured coffee: strong, plain coffee. None of that fancy, flavored java for Nick.
“There’s milk in the fridge,” Nick told him without looking up from the paper.
Pouring a lot of milk and a couple of spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee, Perry sat down across from Nick. He watched Nick swallow black coffee. Nick finished the story he was reading and neatly folded up his paper. Catching Perry’s eye, he nodded curtly.
That seemed to cover the small talk. Nick pushed back his chair, went to the fridge, and took out a carton of eggs. He moved efficiently around the kitchen; he drained the bacon and cracked the eggs.
“Your eggs. Fried okay?”
“Sure,” Perry said. “Thanks.” He was happy all out of proportion to be invited to breakfast, to delay going back to his own rooms. “Thanks for letting me crash here last night,” he said rather shyly.
Nick flipped butter over the eggs, not answering.
He wore Levi’s and a blue plaid flannel shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned, hanging open to reveal a stomach as brown and hard as a ship’s figurehead. His chest muscles rippled as he tilted the heavy iron pan. Perry warned himself not to stare.
Nick possessed a great profile too, maybe not typically handsome, but strong and symmetrical. There was both character and toughness in his face. Perry wanted to sketch him.
He could imagine what Reno would say to that idea.
“How long were you in the SEALs?” he inquired, breaking the silence.
“Ten years. Fourteen years in the navy altogether.”
“That’s a long time.”
Nick shot him a wry look. “More than half your lifetime.”
“Did you like it?”
“Why? Thinking of enlisting?”
The sarcasm caught Perry off guard, and he hid himself in his coffee cup.
Maybe Nick thought that was ruder than called for. He said, “What do you do with all those paintings in your apartment?”
“I try to sell them.”
“To anyone. Why, want to buy one?”
Nick gave him a level look and then grinned. The smile was very white in his olive face and unexpectedly youthful. It transformed him, just like smiles in books were supposed to do.
“Maybe,” he said. “You’re not bad.”
At this unexpected praise, Perry felt himself flushing. Nick seemed like someone whose idea of art would be girly calendars or plastic-framed posters of hot cars. But that wasn’t fair, because there was that moody seascape hanging over his fireplace.
Perry volunteered, “A couple of gift shops carry my work. I’m trying to get one of the galleries to consider me. So far, no luck.” He shrugged.
“Did you go to art school or something?”
Perry’s stared down at the patterns in the grain of the tabletop. “No. I wanted to go to art school, but it…fell through.”
“Yeah?” Nick didn’t sound too interested. He set a plate in front of Perry heaped with fried eggs, bacon, and hash-browned potatoes. A lot of food.
Perry faltered, “I usually don’t eat breakfast.” He was pretty sure Nick would not consider the delicious offerings from Kellogg’s a proper kick-off.
“Big mistake. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Nick said it deadpan; clearly daily nutritional requirement was not something he took lightly.
Perry tried the eggs. They were good. Why wouldn’t they be, coated in a heart attack’s worth of butter? He picked up a slice of bacon, wondering what Nick’s cholesterol level must be.
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