Isabella Bryne was very nearly the most stunning piece of physical female perfection that Sebastian Craig had ever laid eyes on. She was five feet, eleven inches of Norwegian perfection: hip length, satiny blond hair; eyes the color of the Atlantic Ocean on a summer day with naturally brown lashes and brows; high cheekbones; the faintest brushing of freckles on her faintly tanned skin; a plump, lush mouth; and a straight, small nose.
She was brilliant, competent, took shit from nobody, had a razor-edged sense of humor, and worked her ass off academically. In fact, given all her assets--and the fact that when she stood next to dark-haired, blue-eyed, gaminely beautiful Sebastian, they practically glowed like Olympian gods--only two things kept Sebastian from being head over heels in love with her.
The first thing was that she often had a temper that made a PMS-ing harpy going into nicotine withdrawal look like a chubby fuzzy bunny that burped daisies and shot rainbows out its ass.
The second thing was that Sebastian was so gay he made a parade in San Francisco look like a Bible Belt tent revival. Oh, he toned it down most of the time, unless he wanted to torment someone who did the wedgie dance out of a glass house and Sebastian felt like throwing stones, but oh yes--Sebastian could only look at Bella as the sister of his heart and not the wench he wanted in his bed.
They adored each other.
And gay or not, when he found out that her brother was willing to put them up over the summer so Sebastian could save his money for his second doctorate, he was about ready to have her babies.
"So tell me," he begged, "tell me your brother isn't some psychotic, gun-toting, homophobic Nazi, or, you know, like the Unabomber, locking himself in the linen closet and making homemade explosives using peanut butter and methamphetamine... because otherwise, Bella, I don't see a downside."
Bella had shrugged in her laconic way. "I haven't seen a lot of Asa since I went away to school," she said. "He... you know. He got his job, got his business, put the rest of us through school. Talks to Mom and Dad once a week. Mom talks his ear off--tells him who's doing what, what the nieces and nephews are doing, that sort of thing." She shrugged again. She was the youngest of five children, and Sebastian had met the other three. Classrooms full of sugar-hyped kindergartners talked less. He often wondered if Bella's surly disposition was to ward off the overwhelming press of family that could be generated from three such unapologetic extroverts--and their rambunctious, terminally charming children.
"So, does he do any talking, or is it all your mom?" Bella's mother, Brenda Bryne, adored Sebastian--and vice versa. She even adored the way he gave her shit about her name.
Bella's upper lip came up in what Sebastian thought of as a lazy-man's shrug. She'd shrug with her shoulders, but it was too much damned effort. "I think Asa and me are both like Dad." She looked thoughtful then, and Sebastian cocked an eyebrow at her.
"The thing is, Dad and me, we don't talk much, but we get hurt really easy. It's why I'm such a bitch--easier that way. I just...." And now she looked away. "You know, he just had a horrible divorce out east, and here he is, a single father and back home. It just occurred to me that maybe I should have been more worried. He was always really kind to me when I was a kid."
Sebastian straightened up from his insouciant lean over the counter at Barnes & Noble and looked at her more closely. They both worked there (Sebastian was a day manager and Bella kissed his long shapely toes, as she liked to say) and had been friends and fellow students at U.C. Davis for over four years, when Sebastian had gotten his first doctorate in pre-Renaissance Art History. He'd never seen this particular expression on Bella's face before--not even when she dumped a bewildered pre-med student for no other reason than that he liked Death Cab for Cutie--which was actually her favorite band.
"Omigod, Bella!" he exclaimed, a little horrified. "Is that remorse?"
The narrowing of her eyes should have warned him. She pulled a pen from the cup at his elbow (he was working the information kiosk in the store today) and started scribbling furiously on the pad of paper on the counter.
"Yes, Sebastian. Absolutely. Today, on May fifteenth, two-thousand-and-ten, Isabella Bryne felt remorse. Here. I've made a note of it." She ripped off the piece of paper, wadded it up into a ball, and shoved it into his hands. "Now here, just for you, take it into the bathroom, shove it up your ass, and jack off with it. I know you'll enjoy yourself."
And with that she stalked off, leaving a trail of red-tinged funk in her wake. Sebastian ignored her suggestion and unfurled the piece of a paper. While Bella would never be a famous artist, she was a decent caricaturist--in fact, she often doodled or cartooned to express her rather repressed emotions.
The piece of paper in Sebastian's hand had a picture of a lion cub on it, looking playful and befuddled and dear, and Sebastian looked at it thoughtfully before he folded it and put it in his pocket. His parents were living in Europe at the moment and God-knew-where-else at the long term, and Bella was the next best thing he had to a sister. They looked out for each other, and that little piece of paper was a clue to her grouchy, miserable heart.
It was worth keeping, but he wouldn't tell her that.
They made peace--they had to. They were moving their shit into Asa Bryne's house that day. Of course, most of Sebastian's stuff was in storage--not that he had much. He'd been pretty much traveling from degree to degree since he'd been turned loose on the world at eighteen. That September he'd turned twenty-seven, and the thought had made him sad.
"I don't know why you're doing this," he grumbled to Bella as they schlepped their sixth box of books into Asa's ginormous garage. The whole house was ginormous. It should be--it was situated on six acres of hillside in Ophir surrounded by oak trees, mowed grass, and cattle wire.
The house itself was stunning: stained raw wood, wraparound porch, a stand-alone garage that could probably hold six vehicles, a porch-side swimming pool that could actually give a passable workout. The yard was oddly shaped; it sort of capped the hillside, and although it looked as though there had been some serious landscaping to get the whole hilltop level, the lawn ran to a patchy, uneven edge before blending into the weeds.
They'd parked Bella's beat-to-shit blue Honda in front of the garage, and started moving Sebastian's boxes from the truck they'd borrowed from their friend Sammy. Bella's sudden cramp of bitchiness couldn't hold up to Sebastian's determined good will, and eventually she was talking to him again. But judging from the way she was narrowing those spectacular eyes, maybe not for long.
"Doing what?" she snapped.
"Planning to come with me to Spokane. You like it here. You have family, and not just any family--awesome family. Fun family. Family that has dinner every Sunday and celebrates everybody's birthdays and gives a shit. Who wouldn't love your family? I love them to death, they're wonderful; I want a gym membership changing my name to Bryne. Seriously, Bella-luv, if you had anything resembling a penis, I'd marry you just for a reason to stay."
Bella wrinkled her eyebrows at him. "You don't need a reason, Sebastian," she muttered, hefting his suitcases and walking toward the house. He grabbed his favorite box of books and struggled to keep up with her. After taking a look at the spacious--and well kept--garage, complete with work bench, meticulously organized tool rack and chests, and a lot of expensive man-machinery that Sebastian knew nothing about, he was itching to see what the inside of this suburban palace looked like.
It didn't disappoint.
"Oh God--are you sure we don't sleep with the servants?" he muttered as they walked into the front room from the entryway. Beyond the entryway was a sunken living room--wide, spacious, with a cluster of couches and armchairs in front of a plasma television to one side and another cluster in the center. On either side of the living room was a twin spiral staircase that curved along the wall to meet at a landing that overlooked the sitting area and led back into a hallway. It was a small-scale version of the stuff of Hollywood dreams, and for a moment, Sebastian and Isabella just gaped.
"Jesus, Asa," Bella muttered. "Be ostentatious, would ya?"
Except it wasn't ostentatious, Sebastian thought, his inner princess completely beguiled. It was dreamy. He just stood there and soaked up the awe for a minute while Bella disappeared. The couches were both fabric and leather, in dark, subdued colors--oxblood, dark canvas green, navy--and the arrangement made the living room seem both cozy and personal as well as spacious. The vaulted walls all had skylights near the top, and there was enough natural light to satisfy even Sebastian's artistic eye. The only thing missing was art on the walls, he thought, and he automatically began to sort through which artists he'd put up to make this whole room perfect.
He had a sudden vision of himself, sitting on those couches, surrounded by his beloved books, with his laptop on the coffee table, and swallowed a little lump in his throat. He wanted to belong here too.
Bella sauntered in from the kitchen--which was off to their right with a dining room attached--holding a piece of plain white scratch pad paper.
Bella--on a daytrip with Jordan. Back tonight. You and friend get two rooms on right side of upstairs hall. You must share a bathroom. Sorry. A'.
"He's sorry we have to share a bathroom?" Sebastian asked, disbelief in his voice. Considering that he, Bella, and Sammy had been sharing a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment for the last three years, this seemed like the height of luxury. Alas, Sammy had moved in with his partner, Chad, and Sebastian and Bella had been at loose ends on their bookstore salary before they moved to Washington for their next academic adventure.
And voila! Bella's brother moved back into town, and they had a rent-free luxury suite with a swimming pool. Sebastian looked at the note again, blocked out in precise engineer's printing. Sorry. A'. A' must be a helluva nice guy, to think he had to apologize for this.
Sebastian was even more impressed once he saw the rooms.
"Oh, nice," he commented, running his hand along the dark wood of the bedframe. The bed--burgundy cotton sheets, matching cotton comforter, pillows and bolsters--had been made, and after setting Sebastian's stuff down, the two of them took a moment to bounce on the relatively new mattress. A queen-sized bed, complete with box springs. "It's gonna suck going back to the old student cot after this," Sebastian groaned, throwing himself backward, and Bella sighed in agreement next to him.
Sebastian turned on his side and propped himself up on his elbow. "So, baby, what's your room like?"
Bella blushed, and if Sebastian hadn't thought he'd get another piece of paper threatening his nether orifice, he would have marked this occasion on a calendar too.
"It's perfect," she mumbled, and Sebastian popped up off the bed and ran through the bathroom (the tub and shower were sinfully big, he noticed) and then threw open the adjoining door.
And stopped dead with his mouth hanging open. "Oh shit, Bella--if this guy wasn't your brother, I'd say he's trying to marry you!" The room was... well, it was a gallery for finely made prints, for one thing. All in frames on sanded wood walls, and all of them from Bella's specialty eras. Rococo, Renaissance, Impressionism--you name an era that was featured widely in women's historical romances, and Bella had written a paper on it in a Master's level class. There was at least one print from every era Bella loved in that room, in hand-beveled hardwood frames with specialty, non-glare glass.
The quilt on the bed was a pale cream color, with accents of dark gold and pale violet, and the curtains matched. Sebastian knew for a fact these were Bella's favorite colors--her favorite painting in the world had these colors in it, and her life seemed to be a search for the feelings that color scheme gave her.
The floor was the same golden wood as the walls, and there was a deep, plush area throw around the bed. Sebastian threw himself back on the bed and made a strangled sound of enchantment.
"A down pillow top on the mattress. Bella, are you shitting me? Jesus... Sammy's brother beats the shit out of him as a sign of affection. What did this guy do to you as a kid--run over your kitten? Behead your Barbies? I mean, Jesus, Bella--this is some serious penitence here!"
And it was a day for surprises, because Bella looked away, and Sebastian was struck absolutely silent. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and made a noise he'd never heard from her--not in four years of friendship.
"It was my fault," she muttered, making that sniffling sound again. "It was my fault. He didn't have to do this. Shit, Sebastian, I can't talk about this right now. I'm a bitch, he's a good guy, and I need to get our shit moved in so I can spend all summer avoiding him...."
Sebastian moved to hug her instinctively. He'd never really been a hugger until he met Bella, but being her absolutely bestest best friend in the entire world gave him certain privileges. Bella was the slyest, meanest, most sarcastic glitch-bitch a boy could have, and they'd been hugging each other like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods since Sebastian had his first breakup when they were roommates. They probably couldn't live without a hug a day from each other, and Sebastian gave a little bit of thanks for that. Best moments of his life.
But Bella wasn't talking--and she definitely wasn't hugging--and after moving his shit, then driving to Davis to get hers, Sebastian wasn't in the mood for anything more than dinner and a shower. Bella got a call on her cell about the time Sebastian had put on his basketball shorts and a T-shirt, enjoying what felt like a stellar air conditioning system as he did. Bella came into Sebastian's room, fresh from her own shower, and flopped on Sebastian's bed.
"That was my brother," she told him. "He and his kid are out on a fishing/star-gazing expedition, but he said he ordered pizza for us--all paid and everything. He told me it should be here in half an hour and to make ourselves at home."
Sebastian looked at her. Just looked at her. It was like the guy had read his mind.
"Jesus, Bella! I think I love the guy already. Please tell me he's gay. Please, pretty please, with someone else's cherry on top? Bi. Bi-curious. Watched a friend jerk off in junior high. Anything. I'm dying here. What is your brother like?"
Bella's mouth curved reluctantly into a smile. "He's hella tall," she said immediately. "And if he hasn't cut it yet, he's got long blond hair down to his waist. He keeps it neat and all, but he's sort of vain about it--and he's not vain about anything."
"No vanity? How is that even possible?" Sebastian was beautiful; he was aware of it. He didn't think it made him more or less than anyone else... but that didn't mean he didn't enjoy appreciative looks, male and female. He was vain about his academic work; he worked hard on it, he thought it was comparable to anyone else's in the country. He was even vain about his friendship with Bella, because he'd been raised an only child and the temptation to be a spoiled, self-centered diva-bitch could have been overwhelming. But Bella had once nursed him through the flu and then typed up his next paper from notes while he was still curled over the commode, just so he could make his publishing deadline. He wasn't sure where a girl learned that kind of loyalty, but he was going to clutch it to him with selfish, bony fingers.
How could a man who could build this house with his bare hands--and have it decorated with a bare heart, apparently--not have any damned vanity?
"I didn't say he didn't have pride," she said softly, and then flopped down on the bed next to him, rolling into his arms for an easy, sexless hug. "I just said he doesn't really flaunt the shit he does well. And"--she sounded uncomfortable here, as though she was repeating gossip--"I think his pride has taken some hits lately. If you listen to Mom, his ex-wife really fucked him over."
Sebastian pulled back and looked at her, truly curious. "Care to explain?" he asked impatiently when she didn't go into details.
Bella rolled over to her stomach and rested her chin in her hands, tracing her finger moodily on the burgundy comforter.
"I don't know, Sebastian. I'm pretty sure she wasn't faithful, but beyond that?" She shook her head. "All I know is that Asa got full custody of Jordan, and whether she gave it to him or the courts did, that's full-blown fucked-up bitch in my book."
Sebastian nodded. She didn't show it often, but Bella had the same values as the rest of her close-knit family. The children were important--and treasured.
"So he's here, doing the single father bit--and you get free room and board for helping?"
For the first time in the past two days, Bella's lush mouth curved upwards. "Yeah--Jordan was just a little squish on the carpet last time I saw him. I can't wait to meet him."
But it didn't seem as though it would be that night. They ate pizza on the back deck by the pool, watching the sunrise over Lincoln (or thereabouts--not always easy to tell in the foothills), and split a six-pack of microbrew beer between them in celebration of free room and board in such a spiffy place.
Afterward, they went up to Sebastian's room and watched television on the little set they'd brought with them from their old apartment. Bella fell asleep on the bed next to him in the middle of an NCIS rerun, and Sebastian wasn't far behind.
He wasn't sure what woke him up a few hours later, but he was starving for leftovers.
Bella had gone back to her bed; she insisted he snored and he insisted she was full of it, and the lure of a room to herself must have been irresistible. In the quiet dark of the vast, strange house, his stomach rumbled, and he thought rather greedily that there was more pizza left for him. He kept his sleep shorts and his T-shirt on and padded rather diffidently through the vast house. When he was on top of the landing, he paused and looked out into that magnificent living room, violet in the starlight, and wondered what sort of vision it would take to dream that sort of art up in three dimensions. Then he quit his moment of open hero-worship and padded down the curved staircase in search of pizza.
And pudding. And a glass of milk. And some fruit. Ah, gods, this guy had the best stocked refrigerator in the state! Sebastian was still young enough to have an amazing metabolism, and he'd spent two days moving shit from Davis to Ophir--he was ready for round two.
He had just gathered it all into his arms--stacked up on the pizza box with the carton of milk in his other hand--when a terrible beast wielding a baseball bat came roaring out of the night and scared him shitless.
"Auuurrrrggghhhhh!" screamed the naked giant with the baseball bat, and "Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!" shrieked Sebastian, dropping his midnight snack on the floor, and then Sebastian got a good look at the terrifying man swinging the Louisville slugger like a drumstick and said, "Asa?" and Asa stayed in his crouch, trapping Sebastian against the refrigerator, and said, "Who the fuck are you?"
"The guy who almost shit his pants," Sebastian sputtered, trying not to sit down on the refrigerator shelf from sheer relief. For one thing, he didn't think it would hold him. "Good God--you really are Bella's brother, aren't you?"
Asa Bryne straightened up to his full six and a half feet, pushed back a wet, tangled mass of yellow-brown hair that looked like it might actually go to his waist, and blew out a breath.
"You're Bella's friend from school. Shit. Jesus fucking Humphrey bastard Christmas. I'm fucking sorry--I was changing out at the pool and I saw the light and had a fucking panic attack." Asa eyed the scattered pieces of midnight snack at his feet and suddenly dropped to his knees and started to pick it up, shoving it into Sebastian's bemused hands. "Here. Here--you put this on the table, and I'll go get some fucking towels for the fucking milk."
Asa stalked off, leaving Sebastian to finish picking up the remains of his snack and set it up on the table--which he did promptly, when he was done gazing at Asa's fine, muscular, pale ass as he disappeared in the direction of the washroom.
Stop drooling at the straight man, Sebastian. You don't want to fuck up a perfectly good situation here. But it was no good--Asa returned, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and Sebastian's brain went on slide-show freeze frame, with the best parts of Bella's brother highlighted in softly glowing moonlight. Brown-blond hair--wet now, but falling from a jagged part at the top of his head and framing his face like that was where it went when he normally let it. Ocean blue eyes--Bella's blue eyes, faintly crossed over a bold, Roman nose, with a high, expressive brow and a lantern jaw. He was probably in his late thirties, and he had just enough lines around his eyes and mouth to make him interesting and not just... just... mmmmmm damn!
Sebastian had always thought of himself as pretty, but this man--this man was beautiful. He had a face that should have been carved into stone, one that could be memorialized in marble as a general or a king or an emperor.
Or just as a wood-erecting panty-wetter with a mouth that could peel the paint off a steel girder. Sebastian wouldn't forget that impressive oath he'd muttered when he realized there wasn't an intruder in the house. Ohmigod--the guy really was Bella's brother.
By the time he realized he'd been gaping at Asa as he got on his hands and knees and cleaned up the spilled milk, Sebastian had an erection he couldn't hide and a burning need to babble like a complete moron.
"I'm sorry to scare you like that," he muttered, getting a sponge from the sink and wiping off the pudding containers and the table. "Bella and I just really enjoyed the pizza, you know, and I was starving and I didn't know anyone was home and... omigod! Do you think we woke your kid? Bella was really looking forward to seeing Jordan. I hope we didn't just totally freak him out because that would suck, and she'd never forgive me. Have you ever heard your sister when she's angry? It's like being dragged naked over sandpaper and dipped in battery acid--deranged harpies have sweeter voices, you know?"
"Yeah," Asa grunted, and Sebastian was surprised enough to drop the jar of canned fruit he'd pulled out of the refrigerator. It didn't break or spill, but it did thunk loudly enough to make Asa look up.
"You talk!" Sebastian stammered.
"You shut up!" Asa rolled his eyes and went back to the milk. He was going to need another towel--nearly two quarts of it had hit the tiled floor before Asa had righted the gallon. Sebastian hurried off and grabbed another kitchen towel from the back, then came back and got on his hands and knees to help. He was relieved as hell to find that his hard-on had gone to half-mast, because otherwise this situation would have gotten really awkward.
"Thanks," Asa grunted as he finished mopping up his milk.
"Sorry I freaked you out," Sebastian muttered. "I didn't realize you'd gotten home yet."
Asa shrugged. "Wasn't ready to sleep yet. Here--gimme." He held his hands out for towels.
Okay--Sebastian took it back. Asa was like Bella squared. Forget minimalist poetry--this guy was like a three-word handbook on how to be taciturn.
And he was still half-naked.
Asa came back and sprayed some cleaner on the floor, and Sebastian moved to the table and sighed. Apparently, he was some sort of domestic god to boot. Asa looked up at his sigh and raised his eyebrows. "Problem?"
"You're a guest. Eat. Feel full."
Sebastian sat bemusedly and did. "You wan thom pizza?" he garbled through a full mouth, and Asa stood, putting Sebastian eye-level at his equipment. Sebastian swallowed--hard. Twice. Tried not to cough and failed like an asshole. Asa went to the sink and got him a glass of water, setting it down on the table and waiting solicitously until he drank some and sounded like he was going to live.
"You okay?" Asa asked, and Sebastian frowned up at him with watering eyes.
"I wasn't expecting to be eye-level," he sputtered, and then he felt like an idiot. Asa looked down to where Sebastian had been looking, and the heat of his blush filled the room.
"Shit," he mumbled. "Didn't mean to distract you."
"Dis...." Sebastian sputtered, indignant. "Distract me? You'd be distracted, too, if something that big threatened to stare at you with its one big eye... distracted!"
"One big eye?" Asa squeaked, and then he let out a sound between a choke and a snort, and then he took a deep breath. It was loud enough to sound unforgivably intimate in the dark.
"I'm sorry," Sebastian mumbled, mortified. "Sometimes my mouth just does that."
"You may want to find other uses for it," Asa muttered, and an appalling silence descended between them.
"You didn't mean that the way it sounded," Sebastian interposed, and Asa shook his head.
"Not even a little bit," he muttered. "I'll go to bed now, before I just blow it a...."
Sebastian burst into giggles.
"...gain," Asa finished with a resigned sigh. Sebastian couldn't even look at him anymore. He did hear the embarrassed sigh, and felt Asa stand up next to him. Then there was a gentle, wide-palmed, blunt-fingered hand in his hair.
"You're adorable," Asa said. "As long as I don't open my mouth more than necessary, you and Bella should have a good summer here."
Sebastian choked on his own giggles, and then Asa was gone. Sebastian pulled himself together and was left in the quiet, darkened kitchen, chowing pizza out of sheer embarrassment.