As Big As The Sky

an excerpt

Chapter One



The chicken was in his yard again. Ugly red wattle dangling beneath its beak like loose jowls, brown feathers puffed in an inflated sense of superiority. On any other day Sam normally wouldn't have cared so much about the mess it was making of his garden, but this was the third time in as many days, the magazine crew would be here within the hour, and he'd told Bo to fix his damn fence.

Sighing, Sam set his mug on the counter. He really hadn't had enough coffee yet to deal with this.

He walked out of the kitchen and down the hall to the front door, where he put on a pair of flip flops before exiting his house. Down the driveway, a left at the tiny gravel sidewalk, around the hedges in Bo's yard, up Bo's driveway. The early June sun pierced his eyes. He knocked on the front door and waited for Bo to answer.

Ever since Bo had taken over running Big Sky--the animal rehabilitation center next door to Sam's--four weeks ago from his sister, Laura, it had been one disaster after another. Damaged enclosures, a pygmy goat with diarrhea, equipment that didn't work, flooding in the cows' pen after a bad rainfall, a yappy pair of not-quite-housebroken puppies. And now? Broken fences and runaway chickens.

The door opened, revealing a rumpled Bo dressed in old jeans, hiking boots, and a T-shirt streaked with dirt. He was out of breath, as if he'd run to the front door. The pair of dirty work gloves in his hand told Sam he'd probably been working out back.

The unsure smile on Bo's face turned into a scowl when he saw who stood on his doorstep at nine in the morning. Sam ignored how cute Bo's frowny face was and drew himself up to his full six-foot-three height. Bo was not his type. Too short, too lean, eyes too brown, hair too blond. Too flaky, too temperamental, too feisty, too...too much.

Nope. Not Sam's type at all.

Bo's hands went to his hips. He looked like a knight defending his domain. A tiny, skinny one with a bad attitude.

"What now?" he snapped.

"You didn't fix the fence," Sam said.

"I--"

Sam held up a hand, cutting Bo off. "Look. I know you know what day it is. The crew's going to be here in less than an hour. The last thing I need is your chicken masquerading as a prison escapee messing up my garden." Bo's lips twitched at that, but Sam ignored how that made him feel and continued. "Fix your goddamn fence. And get your chicken out of my yard." Bo opened his mouth to speak but Sam didn't give him the chance. He turned and descended the porch steps. "Oh." He turned back to find Bo still frowning at him, lips pressed in a tight line. "And if your chickens keep escaping, maybe there's something wrong with the chicken coop?"

The slamming door at his back was surprisingly satisfactory.

****

Argh! Bo kicked his closed front door. That...that man. Every five frickin' minutes he was up in Bo's face about something.

I'm trying to work, Bo. Can you get the dogs to stop barking?

Why is the goat making weird noises?

How did your chicken get into my yard?

What's that smell?

Fix your side of the fence.

Bo had fixed his side of the fence, damn it, so it wasn't his fault the chicken was still getting into Sam's yard. If anything, it was Sam's side that needed to be fixed. But did Sam give him a chance to say his piece? Nooooo. Mr. I'm So Cool With My Muscles And Tallness And Swanky Haircut wouldn't get off his pedestal long enough for Bo to defend himself.

Not that Bo was envious of those muscles or that tallness or that swanky haircut that was on the redder side of strawberry blond. He was perfectly fine with his own five foot seven height and his messy ‘do. Tallness was overrated anyway. And he had his own muscles. Arm muscles, anyway. The little pudge on his belly left a lot to be desired. Stupid cookies.

But whatever. Arm muscles were all he needed to catch a guy's attention at the clubs and bars. By the time the guy realized Bo wasn't so muscly all over, they were already in each other's pants and that little detail no longer mattered.

Bring on the cookies.

Shaking his head at himself, he headed out back to the shed and grabbed a thicker pair of gloves and some chicken feed. He inspected his side of the fence--just in case he was mistaken. Which he wasn't, thank you very much. Grunting in satisfaction, he left his backyard via the gate and cut through the path in the hedges between his and Sam's front yards. After unlatching the gate to Sam's backyard, he followed the sounds of clucking chicken to a wildflower garden along the back fence. Along with some kind of leafy tree and a couple of shrubs, there were bursts of yellow, purple, and pink flowers in the garden that Bo couldn't name to save his life.

Of course it was that chicken. The brown one with the lone white feather along its back. The instigator of the group. The one that riled up the other chickens and always seemed to find a way out of the chicken coop. The one who'd pecked Bo's hands raw the first time Bo tried to pick him up. That's where his new extra-thick gloves came in.

He slipped them on then scattered some chicken feed. Bait the chicken and then grab it from behind, the YouTube tutorial he'd watched a couple weeks ago had said. Bo had become somewhat of a chicken corralling expert in the past couple of weeks. A skill he never thought he'd need and didn't know how to add to his resume without sounding like a smart-ass.

The chicken went after the food just like always. Bo gave it a minute to eat most of it, then quietly snuck up behind it, cupped his hands around its sides, and lifted.

The angry squawk the chicken let out pierced Bo's eardrums and its legs worked as if trying to walk on air. Bo held on tighter as the bird struggled in his grip. He made tracks for the gate, where Sam was oh-so-helpfully holding it open. The sight of him standing there all tall and perfect jolted Bo and had him fumbling the chicken. A wing got loose and flapped in Bo's face.

Bo thought he heard a chuckle, but when he looked at Sam around the feathers in his face, the man was as stony as ever. Was that a hint of laughter in Sam's eyes? No. The man didn't know how to laugh. Drawing his shoulders back, head high, Bo stalked past him and--

"Don't forget to fix your fence," Sam said.

Before Bo even had a chance to reply, the gate slammed at his back. Muttering under his breath, he marched back to his own yard. After opening the door to the chicken coop, he deposited his load inside and slammed the door closed.

"And stay there!"

Damn chicken was going to be the death of him.

He checked his fence again; sure enough it was still Sam's side that needed to be fixed. Though how the chicken managed to slip through that tiny hole, Bo didn't know.

"‘Don't forget to fix your fence.'" Bo imitated Sam's deep voice. "Jerk."

Voices on the other side of the fence interrupted what would've been an epic sulk-fest.

"Oh, this is lovely," a female voice said.

"You did this yourself?" The male voice was low and rough, the voice of a smoker.

"I did, yes." That was Sam. It was the first time Bo heard him sound something other than smug and demanding. Instead he sounded humble and pleased. And nice. Like the guy Laura had described but Bo hadn't seen a peek of.

"This is perfect for the magazine, don't you think, Greg?"

"These are all native plants?"

"They are," Sam said. "I wanted to create a safe haven for native pollinators and birds--"

Bo tuned out. He already knew from Laura that Sam's hobby was gardening, and he knew from Sam that the people in Sam's yard right now were from a national gardening magazine. They were scoping out native gardens for a feature in next year's spring issue and Sam's had made the cut. Bo had to admit, Sam's garden was beautiful. Though anything was better than his own. Or rather, Laura's.

Laura's backyard was huge to allow for the various animal enclosures. The animals came here when the vets and neighboring wildlife centers were full, but the animals still needed some recuperating time. As a result, there was very little garden to speak of. The nice thing was that Laura lived on the edge of town, so beyond the enclosures was nothing but field and sky. Way more sky than he was used to seeing from his tiny apartment in downtown Ottawa. It was amazing. For the first time since he'd moved to Ottawa six years ago he could finally breathe.

He finished his morning clean-up while keeping half an ear on the conversation in Sam's yard. Sam's garden was just soooo special it would be perfect for next spring's native plants and pollinators feature! They just had to get the photographers out here right away to get pictures while everything was perfectly in bloom! What would Sam say to being interviewed for the feature?

Barf. Bo tuned out again and scooped poop out of the pig pen. He only had one pig right now, a tiny guy called PomPom. PomPom and his BFF, a pygmy goat named Schnee, had been mildly injured taking a tumble down a hill when their owner, a little girl from a farm further west, thought they could do things dogs could. Schnee had gone home yesterday, but PomPom still needed a few extra days of care. The poor pig had been despondent ever since his best friend left.

Bo could relate.

He finished cleaning the pen, then returned the shovel to the shed. By the time he took a seat on the wooden bench inside the pig pen, the voices from next door were gone.

"Hey, PomPom." PomPom wandered over to him and regarded him with sad eyes. "I know you miss your friend." Bo scratched the black patch between the pig's ears. "But you'll be together again soon. You just need that cut on your leg to heal. I'm sure Schnee misses you, too."

Unlike Bo's own friends, who had promised to stay in touch while he spent the summer in Oakville, a suburb west of Toronto, running Laura's animal rehab center while she took a wildlife rehabilitation course in BC from May to August. Friends who barely called, who rarely responded to his texts, who'd cancelled plans to come visit him over the Victoria Day long weekend last month, who'd already cancelled plans to visit over the Canada Day weekend next month. He'd essentially been dropped like a hot potato. Bo had never felt more alone in his life. The only real conversations he had these days were with S.P. McAuley, who was the author of his favorite web comic, and PomPom the pig.

"You know, I was really looking forward to coming here," he told PomPom. He'd loved visiting Laura in the last four years she'd taken over running Big Sky from the previous owners. The animals, the open air, quiet town life, the big sky as a backdrop. When Laura had asked him to cover the center for her he thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to get his shit together after quitting yet another post-grad certification program. He never thought he'd be so lonely.

"I thought I'd have one friend here at least, you know?" he told PomPom. "Laura just talked and talked and talked about how nice her neighbor is. How helpful he is if she needs help. How he'd be around if I had any questions. I was really looking forward to being his friend." Couldn't wait to be his friend, actually. His chest felt tight and the weight of loneliness pressed down on his shoulders. For the life of him he couldn't remember what had happened on his first day to make Sam mad at him, to make him not want to be his friend. Whatever it was must've been pretty bad for Sam to be such a jerk all the time. Bo wasn't even sure the man new how to smile.

"She said he's into comics so I brought some of mine I thought he might like, in case he wanted to borrow them." PomPom snorted and poked him in the leg with his nose. "But I've got you, right?" The pig turned and headed for the water pail. Bo sighed. "Guess not."

****

On the other side of the fence, Sam squeezed his eyes shut, but it did nothing to stop him from hearing Bo's sad words. In his defense, he had a lot on his plate right now. Still, that was no excuse for being an asshole to Bo.

Feeling like a class A jerk, he grabbed a gardening pot on his way out of the yard. He waved to Greg and Mary from City Gardens magazine as they backed out of his driveway before once again rounding Bo's hedges for the second time that morning. Instead of knocking on Bo's front door however, he unlatched the gate to Bo's backyard and walked in without an invitation.

The man himself sat on the bottom stair leading up to the deck, eyes on the horizon. Sam often saw him sitting in that exact spot when he looked out of his office window on the second floor of his house. He followed Bo's gaze. What was Bo looking at? All Sam could see of interest were fields and a few fluffy clouds in the sky.

Bo's shoulders were hunched, his blond hair sticking to his forehead, likely from having worked up a sweat while working in the warm air this morning. His T-shirt clung to him as he took a deep breath and plucked a piece of grass out of the ground.

He looked pensive as he threaded the grass through his fingers. To Sam he seemed alone and dejected. Sam had always seen him with his head held high and a fiery spark in his eyes. He couldn't even reconcile this version of Bo with the one he was used to seeing.

Even though he wasn't at all Sam's type, Sam had to admit Bo was really cute.

Sam opened his mouth to speak, but Bo's phone rang before he could say anything. Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" if Sam wasn't mistaken. Bo took a look at the caller ID and his shoulders slumped further before he drew them back and answered the call.

"Laura, hey!" Bo's enthusiasm sounded a bit forced to Sam, but what did he know? "Oh yeah, everything's great. It's just me and your chickens right now, and PomPom. Schnee went home yesterday." He listened for a minute, then said, "I spoke with them yesterday. They're going to be sending me a pigeon later this week, maybe two. It's actually pretty quiet right now. May was busier."

Sam turned to leave, not wanting to intrude, but the sound of his name stopped him.

"Sam's been great, yeah." That definitely sounded forced. "Yeah, he helped me fix the lawn mower, just like you said."

The lawn mower. The one Laura had texted him about a couple days ago, letting him know Bo was going to be coming around for help with it. But Bo never had, probably because on Bo's first day, when he'd come over to Sam's to introduce himself, Sam had snapped at him for stepping on his poor seedlings in his front garden.

"Jesus, watch where you're going! These won't grow if you trample them. Don't you pay attention to what's around you?" That about summed up what Sam had said to interrupt Bo's friendly, "Hi, I'm Bo!"

Sam had watched Bo's face fall before he drew himself up--exactly like he had before answering Laura's call--fisted his hands on his hips and said, "Well, excuuuuuse me. But who plants flowers right on the edge of the sidewalk? What if a kid on a bicycle accidentally ends up riding over them? You gonna yell at them, too?"

It had been a fair question. One Sam hadn't had an answer to. Not that he expected kids to be biking along on the small gravel sidewalk. Burnhamthorpe Road was a fairly busy street with an eighty-kilometer an hour speed limit. Yet instead of saying so to Bo, he'd rethought his strategy and moved his seedlings up closer to his porch. Just in case.

The question now was, why was Bo lying to Laura? The fact that he was making Sam out to be some helpful, generous neighbor only served to make him feel like a bigger heel for the way he'd treated Bo the past few weeks.

I was really looking forward to being his friend. A fist squeezed his lungs at the thought that he'd so disappointed Bo. Truth was Sam had been looking forward to meeting Bo too, ever since Laura told him Bo was coming to take over running Big Sky for the summer. But then the shit had hit the fan and he'd taken out his frustrations on poor Bo. Who'd only wanted to be his friend.

Bo finally finished his phone call. Setting his phone on the stair behind him, he let out a long breath and went back to staring at the horizon. Sam walked toward him and cleared his throat to get his attention.

When Bo spotted him, his expression went from brooding to annoyed in less than a second. He rolled those big brown eyes and stood.

"Are you freakin' kidding me? I fixed my damn fence," he growled.

"Yeah, I--"

"You might want to check your side because I'm pretty sure that's where the problem is."

"I--" know, he tried to say, but Bo interrupted him again.

"Or did you come here to complain about something else? Is PomPom snorting too loudly? Did the water from his pail accidentally get onto your side of the yard? Is there some stench that's bugging your delicate sense of smell?"

Sam knew he deserved that. He'd done nothing but harp on Bo since he arrived.

"Was my sitting here too loud for you?" Bo kept going. "Is Your Tall Perfectness bothered by the sound of almost non-existent wind in the trees?"

Your Tall--what? Thrown for a moment, it took Sam a second to respond. "I came to apologize."

That shut Bo up. His eyes narrowed. "Huh?"

"I, uh..." Sam cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I've been a jerk the past few weeks. I've just been stressed about...stuff." He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. No excuse. You didn't deserve that and I'm sorry."

The furrow that appeared between Bo's brows when he was confused was really damn cute.

"And you're right," Sam continued. "It is my side of the fence that needs to be fixed. I didn't, uh..." He winced. "Notice before."

Bo blinked at him. "So you came to kill me?"

"What?" Sam took a step back at the words.

"Carrots." Bo nodded at something in Sam's hands. "I'm allergic to them."

Sam looked down at the gardening pot he'd forgotten he was holding, the one he'd used to grow a small batch of carrots as an experiment. A test to see if he could nurture them properly. He'd never grown carrots before and had wanted to try growing a few in a pot in case he failed epically.

He'd brought them for Bo as an apology since he didn't have any flowers lying around to bring in their stead.

"You're allergic to...carrots."

Bo's lips twitched.

"Are you pulling my leg?"

Bo shook his head and bit his lip, but Sam saw the corners of his mouth kick up. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Got an EpiPen in the house."

Sam walked backward until his back hit the fence. "I'm just going to..." He turned to head back to his own yard with his killer carrots.

"Looking at them isn't going to kill me," Bo said. There was a smile in his voice and when Sam turned back to him, he saw there was one on his face as well. Sam ignored how that smile made his chest feel funny.

Not your type, remember?

"I was just about to head in for a mid-morning snack," Bo told him. "Or an early lunch depending on what time it is. Want to join me?"

Sam acknowledged the olive branch for what it was and followed Bo inside.