an excerpt

Chapter 1

June 2003

James struggled to get his case closed with everything he'd stuffed inside. He could have left some things behind--his aunt wouldn't have minded--but he wanted a clean break. Aunt Carrie had no other use for the room and had made it clear he could use it if ever he needed to. He noted she had said if rather than when; she didn't particularly want him to return any more than he did.

Carrie Lilley was his father's older sister, and she had taken him in after his parents died in a plane crash when James was ten. She took good care of him, but James had always felt it was more from a sense of duty than a deep feeling of familial love. She hadn't said so, but James felt his leaving for New York was viewed with as much of a sense of freedom by Aunt Carrie as by James himself.

The front door bell rang, and James wasn't surprised when Aunt Carrie shouted, "Benjamin is here!"

Benjamin was one of the few people who would be sorry to see James board the plane. He and Ben had hit it off the first day of kindergarten and had been best friends ever since. They'd stuck together through elementary, middle, and high schools, and then four years of college. Seventeen years.

Lord, has it been that long? James thought as he hurried down the stairs to greet his friend.

"All packed and ready to go?" Ben asked. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

"I will be once I can get my case shut," James said.

"James," Aunt Carrie chided, "if Benjamin is kind enough to drive you to the airport, the least you could do is to be ready and waiting."

"It's okay, Miss Carrie," Ben said, shooting a grin at James. "I got here early 'cause I knew he wouldn't be ready on time. Come on, Jay. I'll give you a hand." As James led the way to his bedroom, Ben added, "You really ready for this?"

They walked into James' room, and Ben shook his head at the sight of James' bulging suitcase. He sat on the lid, and James finally managed to close the locks.

"We talked about this, Ben. It's what I want. You're happy with small town life, but I want something more. Never thought when Aunt Carrie was always mad at me for being a ‘game-mad fifteen-year-old' that it would eventually lead to such a wonderful career opportunity. A way to really make something of myself, to get out of here and head for the bright lights of New York. I know you don't understand 'cause success just doesn't weigh with you."

"What you call success? No, it doesn't. But I don't see why you have to rush off to New York only a week after we graduated. God, Jay, your twenty-second birthday was only last month."

"I thought by now you understood. I want this. I worked my socks off all through college to gain the best grades possible so I could get out of this small town. I hardly dated at all because studying was more important to me than anything." He grinned. "I decided I could wait until I arrived in the big city to party.

"And it all worked out, Ben. I got an entry-level position as a games programmer offered to me if I achieved the right grades, and I aced it! I know it bugs you that I'm leaving, and for that, I'm sorry." He grabbed hold of Ben's biceps and stared intently into his friend's eyes. "The offer is still open, you know. You've got a good degree in business studies. You could find work. Come with me."

Ben shook his head. "You know it's your dream, not mine. I have no need to rush off and forge a new future for myself. My life is here, and I like it that way."

"I'm gonna miss you, too, you know. If it wasn't for your friendship"--he grinned--"and that of your two cute sisters, I'm not sure how I'd have coped." He leaned against the wall by his bedroom door. "Aunt Carrie did the best she could, but you know how it is." He shrugged. "The truth is, I adopted your family and, I'm grateful they didn't mind."

"Didn't mind at all, know how much they love you. We do need to keep an eye on Suzie, though. That sister of mine is just at the age to develop a crush, and I think she's picked you."

"Suzie? But she's just a kid."

"She's almost fourteen."

"I can remember the day she was born," James said softly. "I can hardly believe it's been fourteen years."

* * * *

"I know, or seventeen years since that fateful day when you tried to stick your square peg in my round hole." Ben fought to keep the smile from his face. That was exactly what had happened when the five-year-old James burst into his life, but the way he felt now, it carried so much double entendre it was ridiculous.

"Seems like that should've told us something about the different ways we view life, instead of making us band together against the world."

And now, they were going their separate ways. Ben sighed. "I can't say I truly understand your choice, but I do see it's what you want, and I'm happy you got your wish. As far as I'm concerned, you'll always be a part of my family, and you'll be welcome any time you want to come home for a visit."

Ben didn't say what he really wanted to. He didn't believe it would be appreciated just then. Ben hoped that one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, James would realize he'd made the wrong choice and move back home.

"That could be a while," James said. "I want to put down strong roots, and running back home for every holiday isn't the way to do that. Anyhow, you'll be too busy sorting out your own life, won't you? You thought any more on taking up that architecture course your dad recommended?"

"No. I looked at the syllabus mostly to please him, but the truth is, I've had enough with schools and teachers. I want to learn by doing. There's something about creating with one's own hands, you know? I want to build stuff, not just draw diagrams on paper for other folks to work with."

James shook his head. "For someone who gives the appearance of being so laid-back, you always seem to choose the hardest path."

"It's only the hardest path if it's not the one you want to take."

He didn't think James would ever understand the way he felt, but then he couldn't follow James' thinking either. Why would he want to put his future under someone else's control? It made more sense to Ben to be his own boss one day. Offer up bits of himself on his own terms--that way he could maintain control of his life.

James thought going to the big city and starting out being a small cog in someone else's wheel would eventually bring him what he wanted--money and success. However, to Ben's way of thinking, it would also tie that success to another person's wheel, without having any control over its ultimate direction. It was an old argument between the two of them, and Ben knew James would never understand his point of view because James couldn't see that, to Ben, power and money were the least valuable things. Ben saw value in the small things in life--small to some folks' thinking that was--family, home, trust, peace, and perhaps most important of all, knowing his place in the scheme of things. Contentment perhaps summed it up. There was only one thing missing, and Ben hoped it would come with time: the love of that one person who was the other half of his soul.

"It's not as hard as chasing a rainbow, James."

James scowled. "Not chasing a rainbow, setting out to live my dream. I have a skill I can use to get what I want from life, and I intend to make the best of it." James took the last item from the closet and slipped his coat on. "Time to go if I'm going to catch that plane."

Ben picked up the suitcase, grunting a little because it was so damned heavy, as James slung a backpack over his shoulder. James took a last look around, and Ben noted only relief in his expression. James stood in profile to Ben, and Ben couldn't help but admire how handsome James was. He was almost six feet tall with a slim, athletic build. His nose wasn't quite straight, as it had been broken playing football, yet somehow it added to his good looks rather than detracted. His eyes were hazel, and his hair, which James wore long enough that it curled on his collar, was a warm brown. Ben longed to run his fingers through it as he kissed James, a fantasy to which he often fell asleep.

"Will you write to me, Jay?"

"Why you can't join the twenty-first century and use email or cell phones is beyond me."

"I like the freedom of putting my thoughts on paper," Ben said with a shrug. "I dislike the feeling of being constantly available, even when I don't want to be. As far as I'm concerned, mobile phones are for emergencies only. And writing a letter by email is just plain nasty."

James laughed. "You'll never change, and I suppose that's one of the things I love about you."

Ben suppressed a sigh because James didn't mean the sentiment the way Ben wished he did.

"Anyhow, of course I'll write." James slapped him on the shoulder. "After all, I'll want to brag about how well things are going, though I still doubt my letters will be as long as yours to me."

"Tell me your troubles, too. That's something we've always shared, and I'll be here for you."

"Same goes for you, Ben. Come on; I need to get moving."

* * * *