Lover of fine poetry and lousy choose-your-own-adventure novels, Professor Sebastian Swift was once the bad-boy darling of the literati. The only lines he does these days are Browning, Frost and Cummings. Even his relationship with the hot, handsome Wolfe Neck Police Chief Max Prescott is healthy.
When one of his most talented students comes to him bruised and begging for help, Swift hands over the keys to his Orson Island cabin—only to find out that the boy’s father is dead and the police are suspicious. In an instant, the stable life Swift has built for himself hangs on finding the boy and convincing him to give himself up before Max figures out Swift’s involvement in the case.
Max enjoys splitting an infinitive or two with his favorite nutty professor, but he’s not much for sonnets or Shakespeare. He likes being lied to even less. Yet his instincts—and his heart—tell him his lover is being played. Max can forgive lies and deception, but a dangerous enemy may not stop until Swift is heading up his own dead poet’s society.
The Surgeon General has determined that Josh Lanyon’s smart, sexy, sophisticated stories may prove hazardous to your heart.
It was like those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels.
You are primary unit commander of the Lazarian Galaxy Rapid Response Team—
Well, no. Not that adventure. This adventure started: You are a respectable college professor and the director of the prestigious Lighthouse MFA program of Casco Bay College in Southern Maine. You have had one hell of a day and you just want to go home and enjoy a glass of wine and a nice meal with your lover—sort-of lover—Police Chief Max Prescott. But as you approach your office in Chamberlain Hall, you spot a kid slumped in a chair outside the door. Even from this distance you can see that the kid is having a worse day than you. If you want to do the responsible, grown-up thing, keep walking. If you want to make life easy on yourself, turn around and leave before he notices you.
Once upon a time, it would have been no choice at all. But Swift was older now—against the odds—and he took a certain pride in the fact that he no longer ducked out on his responsibilities. Besides, he recognized that tall, dark and despondent figure. Tad Corelli was one of the most gifted students to take part in the Lighthouse residency program. He reminded Swift a little of himself at that age—minus the self-importance and mile-wide self-destructive streak.
Swift found his keys as he reached the door. He glanced at Tad. “Sorry. I was held up. Have you been waiting long?”
Tad lifted his head, and Swift dropped his keys. “What the hell happened to you?”
Tad wore a dark coat and a black knit cap. The cap framed a bruised and battered face. One eye was swollen shut, his bottom lip was split and puffy, there was a crust of blood beneath one nostril. He bent painfully and retrieved Swift’s keys.
Swift took them automatically, still staring.
“I’m okay,” Tad mumbled. He looked at the door, clearly waiting for Swift to open it, and Swift shoved the keys in the lock and pushed the door open.
His office was a comfortable clutter of books and plants and old posters. The desk was an antique. It had belonged to Carl Sandburg. The leather chair behind the desk had belonged to Swift’s own father, the poet and dramatist Norris Swift. The chair in front of the desk was a comfortable secondhand club chair. Swift put a hand on Tad’s shoulder and guided him to its beige plush depths.
Tad leaned forward, head in hands, and Swift closed the office door.
“Do you need—what do you need?” He was at a loss. Physical violence was not his area of expertise, though he’d had the s**t kicked out of him on occasion. But then he’d generally had it coming.
“Nothing.” Tad looked up, met Swift’s eyes and managed a gruesome smile. “You should see the other guy, Professor Swift.”
Tad put cautious fingers to his split lip. “Doesn’t matter. Look, I-I have to go away for a while. Please don’t drop me from class. Or the Lighthouse program.”
“Where are you going?”
Tad shook his head.
Swift sat on the edge of his desk, trying to read Tad’s face. “It can’t have been much of a fight. Your knuckles aren’t banged up.”
Tad said pleadingly, “I just have to get away for a little while. I’m not dropping out. I just need time to get myself together. Just a couple of weeks or so.”
Swift said slowly, “Okay.”
At Tad’s look of surprise, Swift said, “I’m not going to drop you, Tad. I want you in the program. But why don’t you tell me what’s going on? I might be able to help.”
“No one can help.” Tad closed his eyes, struggled with his emotions.
So much pain there. But then being young was a painful state.
“Is there anything you need? Do you have money? A place to stay?”
Tad’s head moved in negation.
Swift gave it some thought. Pay it forward. He was alive today because people who didn’t have to had taken a chance, had reached out to help him when he needed it most—not just once, but several times in his misspent youth. He leaned over his desk, pulled out the top drawer and fished around for the spare key to his bungalow.
He withdrew his wallet, rifled through it. He never carried a lot of cash. Not anymore. It was too dangerous. He’d got out of the habit—one of a number of habits he’d got out of. “I can give you twenty bucks and you can stay at my place on Orson Island while you figure out what you’re doing.”
Tad opened his eyes, his expression one of disbelief. “I don’t…know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I’ve been where you are. Just take the time you need, get your head straight and come back ready to get to work.”
Tad stared at him, unmoving, doubting.
“Okay?” Swift asked gently.
Tad nodded. He reached for the keys and the cash, shoving them automatically into his coat pocket. He put both hands on the edge of Swift’s desk and pushed to his feet.
“You sure you don’t need a doctor?” Or maybe an ambulance. The kid was moving like he was a hundred years old.
Tad shook his head.
“Let me know how you’re doing, okay?”
Tad jerked another nod. He shuffled toward the door. Hand on the knob, he stopped. “Thanks, Professor Swift,” he said without turning around.
The next moment he was gone, the door closing softly behind him.
Swift lived in an old deconsecrated church in the village of Stone Coast. Against expectation, it was a comfortable and practical living space, yet it still retained its original eccentric charm.
The original arched entrance doors, complete with stained-glass panels, were still intact. Gothic windows offered warm eastern light in the morning. The thick exposed wooden beams, floors, ceilings and even walls were all of dark, burnished wood. In place of the altar was a long marble-topped island within the raised, completely modern kitchen. Swift was a devout cook. For him, cooking went beyond therapy.
Speaking of religious experiences, the pews were also long gone—all but one which was positioned in the entryway. Swift had purchased a number of statues and carvings, large and small, from garden centers, estate sales and church auctions, and these now decorated the main living area. The stone fireplace and built-in bookcases were part of the renovation, as were the slate floors in the kitchen and entry hall. The upstairs loft with its giant master bedroom and bath was surrounded by ornate reclaimed 1940s’ cast-iron railing. Upstairs the stained-glass windows were nearly intact. A giant cast bronze statue of a winged woman gazed down at the living room with a benevolent smile.
Swift was not particularly religious, but he experienced good vibrations in this old house of worship. It was a peaceful place, and he had needed peace when he’d arrived in Stone Coast fresh out of rehab six years earlier.
Arriving home after the meeting with Tad, he poured himself a glass of wine, one—he was careful about that—and started dinner. He wasn’t sure if Max was dropping by that night or not. Max came and went as he pleased, which was how they both liked it, although Swift wouldn’t have minded more coming than going.
He blended lemon thyme and pistachio nuts in the food processor for the pesto, drizzled in the olive oil and added freshly ground black pepper. As he worked, he thought about Tad. A smart, talented kid, but he hadn’t been in any fight. He’d been beaten. Badly beaten. And he’d been scared.
But you couldn’t force help on someone who didn’t want it. No one knew that better than Swift. So you did what you could do. And maybe time and space was all Tad needed. Swift took a sip of wine, set the pesto aside and prepared the chicken.
Chicken with lemon thyme pesto and summer tomato salad. There would be plenty of food if Max dropped in. And if not, there would be plenty of leftovers.
Swift was reading Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love when he heard Max’s key in the front door just after nine that evening. His heart sped up as it always did, and he spared himself a wry smile. What was it T.S. Eliot had written about when the here and now cease to matter?
At one time he’d tried to convince himself that his feelings for Max were more about being one of the only two openly gay guys in a small town, but in the last year or so he’d come to accept that he cared for Max. More than Max cared for him. For Max it probably was mostly about the fact that they were the only two openly gay guys in a small town. And whatever Swift had once been, he was entirely respectable now. He was a good catch. Except, as Max occasionally pointed out, he wasn’t trying to catch anything. Max wasn’t into commitment.
“Something smells good,” Max said from the entryway.
Swift tossed the book aside and sat up. “Hungry?”
“Starving.” Max appeared in the arched doorway, and Swift rose to meet him. Max was six four and broad-shouldered. His wavy hair was brown with reddish glints, his eyes were hazel. He looked a lot like Tom Selleck except for the devilish white scar through his left eyebrow courtesy of a coked-up would-be carjacker who had tried to carve Max’s eye out.
Swift wrapped his arms around Max’s neck. Max pulled him closer, and as Swift’s mouth found his, he muttered, “But it’ll wait.”
His face was cold and he tasted like too many cups of coffee, but Swift didn’t mind. He loved the taste of Max. He kissed him more deeply, melting inside as Max responded hungrily. It probably had to do with the poetry book he’d been reading before Max showed up. He’d definitely been in the mood and getting ready to deal with it himself. But here was Max with his big, hard hands digging into Swift’s ass as he pulled him closer still, and Max’s tongue licking at Swift’s lips. Swift opened to that tentative probe, and Max’s hot slick tongue slipped inside.
Swift moaned low in his throat. He wanted this—he always wanted this—and the best part was Max seemed to always want this too.
They continued to kiss, then Max broke for air. “I don’t know if it’s you or the fact that I haven’t eaten since breakfast, but I’m getting lightheaded.”
Swift laughed too, let his fingers tangle briefly with Max’s as he led the way past a seven-foot-tall marble angel, its sword upraised, up the two steps to the kitchen. “You came to the right house, Chief. What d’you want to drink?”
“What’s on tap?”
“Casco Bay Riptide Red and Summer Ale.”
“I’ll have a Red.”
Max leaned against the doorframe and sipped his beer while Swift pulled the leftovers out of the fridge and heated the chicken.
“Tough day at the office?” Swift asked when the silence had stretched. Max appeared to be a million miles away.
He looked up, smiled faintly. “Yeah. You could say that. We don’t get a lot of homicides. Maine’s got the third lowest violent crime rate in the nation, and we’ve got one of the lowest rates in Maine. We’re proud of that.”
“You have a homicide case?”
Max nodded. “A local restaurant owner by the name of Mario Corelli was found shot to death on the beach at Wolfe Neck.”
Swift’s finger froze on the microwave start button. “What?”
“If you owned a TV, you’d have heard all about it. Mario Corelli. Corelli’s Ristorante. We’ve eaten there a couple of times.”
“I remember. The manicotti was incredible. Ricotta, mozzarella, pine nuts, herbs and a marinara sauce I’d kill to have the recipe for.” Swift was answering automatically, giving himself time to think.
“Maybe that was the motive. Should I ask if you have an alibi?”
“You don’t have a suspect?”
“We’ve got a couple of suspects. Corelli fired one of his waiters last night and the guy is missing. Also missing is Corelli’s son Tad.”
“Is Tad a suspect?”
“The kid and Corelli fought like cats and dogs. We definitely want to have a talk with him. The fact that he’s disappeared is suspicious.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know about his father.”
“Maybe.” Max sounded skeptical.
“He could be missing for other reasons, right?”
“Sure.” Max leveled a direct look from beneath his brows. “But his disappearance is news to everyone who knows him. The kid’s been in trouble before. Substance-abuse problems, that kind of thing.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Swift could feel his resistance building. “People can change.”
“So the bleeding hearts tell us.” As though he realized how harsh that sounded, Max added, “You’re one of the rare ones, Swift.”
Swift pressed the button and watched the microwave vibrate. He stared at his reflection in the microwave door. His face was a pale blank. There was just the shine of his eyes, the gleam of his earring, the dark frame of his long hair.
“It sounds like you already have your mind made up.”
“I have a hunch,” Max said, and the assurance, the certainty, in his voice raised Swift’s hackles. It wasn’t logical, it probably wasn’t reasonable, but that judgmental streak was one of the things that bothered him about Max. It was one of the ways in which they didn’t mesh. Not at all.
He folded his lips against the unwise words. Watched the chicken spinning slowly on its plate in the microwave.
Max said, “Come to think of it, Corelli’s in your residency writing program, isn’t he? What can you tell me about him?”
If he was going to speak up, now was the moment. Max might be a little jaded, a little cynical, but he was a good cop. An experienced cop. And he thought Tad was guilty.
And Swift disagreed. Swift had hunches about people too, and they were usually right on the money. He knew Tad Corelli. Max didn’t. Tad Corelli hadn’t acted like someone who’d just killed his father. He had seemed afraid, but he had not acted guilty or like someone on the run. He’d been battered, bloody, emotionally exhausted…but none of that indicated he’d committed murder.
And Swift felt a bond with Tad. He had from the beginning, from the day Tad had begged to be enrolled in the Lighthouse program. The kid wasn’t working on his master’s, he hadn’t even graduated yet, but he’d pleaded to take part in the ten-day residency that took place each semester, and though space was as limited as the program was competitive, Swift had responded to that passion. He’d pulled strings.
Tad deserved a break. He deserved a chance to tell his side of the story, and it would look better if he came in on his own. That much Swift knew just from listening to Max talk shop on long winter evenings.
Swift turned to face him. He was thinking quickly. He could go out to the island tomorrow and talk to Tad, explain to him what was going on—Tad probably didn’t know his father was dead yet, and that terrible news would come better from a friend. Swift remembered only too clearly the pain of his own father’s death. And the relapse into cocaine use that had followed.
He said slowly, “He’s…gifted.”
“They all are in that program, right?”
Swift nodded. “More gifted than usual. He’s the youngest student we’ve ever had enrolled in Lighthouse. Although, technically, he’s not in the program yet.”
“That’s right. I remember now. You let him take part in the conferences even though he’s an undergraduate.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s excelling. He’s an exceptional kid. Just the fact that he wanted into the program so badly before he was even eligible is…inspiring to me. As his instructor.”
Max’s expression was polite. He wasn’t much for touchy-feely. “What about friends?”
“He hangs out with a couple of jocks. Hodge Williams and Denny Jensen.”
That raised some interest. “The Jensen that quarterbacks for the Brown Bears?”
“Does he?” Swift shrugged, and Max’s mouth quirked in response.
“Unless there are two Denny Jensens at CBC, yeah. The kid’s attracted some big league interest according to the local papers. He’s captain of the sailing team too.”
Swift didn’t follow the local paper any more than he followed college sports. “I think they all played football in high school together.”
“What about a girlfriend?” Max asked.
“Nah. I’m satisfied with you for now.”
Max looked up in surprise.
Swift raised an eyebrow. “Are you interrogating me, Chief?”
The microwave pinged.
Max offered his slow, devilish grin. “Saved by the bell, Teach.”