“Is this some kind of joke? How much am I paying you to waste my time?”
Dave had a thick skin, so Rodney’s anger didn’t bother him. None of his clients were happy when he showed them the high-end, move-in-ready house that was way outside their budget. It was essential, though, both to get a better idea of the client’s wish list for their dream house, and also so they could see that renovating an older house was a more cost effective idea.
“We’re not wasting time,” Dave said patiently. “We’re getting an idea of the types of things you’re looking for in a house.”
“I could’ve given you a list.” Rodney had his arms crossed, and his mouth was twisted down on one side.
“True. But there were elements you wouldn’t have thought of, like the trough sink you liked in the master bathroom. Showing you this property was also important because you need to understand that in the location you want, at your price point, you’re not going to be able to afford anything this nice.”
“And I suppose that’s where you come in,” Rodney said, looking at Dave’s brother John.
Dave and John had been working together for the last ten years. Dave, as the real estate agent, helped clients secure a property. John, the contractor, did the renovations. They’d done some amazing work together over the years, properties that Dave was really proud of. Now if only he could get John into a suit for client meetings, instead of cargo pants and black tees.
John nodded. He was leaning against the kitchen island. “Anything you want, I can do it and make sure you stay on budget.”
Rodney didn’t look convinced, but then Dave’s clients rarely did. No-one wanted to get involved in a reno because they thought it would take too long, it would be too hard. Or maybe they’d had a bad experience with contractors in the past.
“You’d be amazed at what John can do,” Dave said. John rarely talked himself up. “He can get you the high-end look you want, on budget and on time.”
John wasn’t just a contractor, he was also a designer. He had an amazing way of looking at a room and reimagining it from framing to throw pillows. Once Rodney chose a couple of places, John would put together 3D digital version of each one showing what it would be like once the reno was complete. The hardest part for clients was envisioning how a dark, dingy room could be brought back to life, so the 3D renderings really helped sell the project.
“Well, it’s not like you’ve given me a choice,” Rodney grumbled. “So I guess we’ll go look at houses.”
“Just think how nice it’ll be to call all the shots on your new place,” Dave said encouragingly. “You’ll have a house that matches all your needs.”
“Yeah, yeah. You can skip the hard sell. Let’s get to it.”
Dave suspected Rodney was going to be one of his more difficult clients.
Dave looked over at John, hoping for some commiseration, but John actually looked amused.
After viewing several homes, Dave was starting to lose his empathy for Rodney. He knew the man’s situation: Rodney’s pregnant friend-with-benefits, Kathy, had suffered an aneurysm and been declared brain dead. Rodney was covering her medical bills until the baby was far enough along to be born via c-section, at which time the metaphorical plug would be pulled. But there was only so much negativity Dave could take, and he had yet to hear Rodney say anything positive about any of the places they’d viewed.
“Once all the floors come up, the smell will be gone,” John said. He was leaning in the doorway of the living room. “Take out this wall and that one, and you’ll have open concept. The space will be pretty big.”
“I suppose so,” Rodney said grudgingly.
“And I wanted to show you this bonus space.” Dave led the way to a little alcove off the living room. “This would be a great play area for Daisy. You’d be able to keep all her toys contained while still being able to keep an eye on her from both the living room and the kitchen.”
Rodney looked surprised. “Oh. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
Dave imagined that would be the case with a lot of the baby-related considerations in the reno. He knew Rodney hadn’t planned on being a dad, had offered his friend financial help while she did all the baby raising. And then she’d unexpectedly been taken out of the equation. Rodney could’ve made sure the baby found an adoptive family but had instead decided to try and do the dad thing after all. Dave, a father himself, couldn’t help but admire the man for stepping up.
Now if only he would pick a house.
“Too much work.”
“I can already see what a mess the electric is. Pass.”
“I’m no expert, but it looks like the whole roof needs replaced. I can’t afford that.”
“The street is too busy. That’s not going to be safe once Daisy starts walking.”
“Semi-detached? Absolutely not. What if the neighbor I share a wall with leaves their stove on and my place goes up in flames?”
“What the hell is that noise? Is there a train in the backyard?”
“Not even you can fix this amount of ugly.”
“Did a family of deranged serial killers live here? Because that’s the vibe I’m getting.”
“Absolutely no swimming pool. I’m not keeping up with the maintenance on that.”
“The yard is too big. I’d have to pay someone to mow it.”
“Picture this space as a man cave. Oversized TV, plenty of storage for game consoles and games, a big sectional sofa so you can have friends over. I could even put a wet bar in the back.”
Rodney turned around in the dark, wood-paneled room. “That would be cool. But there’d still be room for an office? I do most of my work remotely.”
“There’d be room for an office, definitely.”
“Oh. But there should be a play area, right? For Daisy?”
“We have that in the living room,” Dave said. “That weirdly placed closet? John can knock that out, open that space up, and it would be a perfect play area.”
“Yard’s a good size, too,” John pointed out.
“It might work,” Rodney said hesitantly.
It wasn’t super positive, but Dave would take what he could get.
“I sold that house over on Mesa today,” Dave said. “That albatross is finally gone from around my neck.”
John saluted him with his bottle. “Good commission?”
“Honestly? I’d have taken no commission just to get rid of the damn thing.”
Some houses were easy to sell. It all depended on location, condition, interior finishes, and exterior spaces suitable for parties or families. Every client was looking for something different. Some wanted new construction, others wanted quirky historical homes. It was Dave’s job to match up his clients with their perfect house.
That house on Mesa, though, was one everyone loved but no-one wanted to buy. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it was built on an old cemetery and the bad vibes were keeping people away.
“So which house do you think Rodney will go for?” Dave asked. “He liked both presentations.”
John shrugged, his eyes on the TV behind the bar. “Depends on where his priorities fall out, really. One’s a better family house, one’s more of a bachelor pad.”
“You sure you’re gonna be able to work with him on the reno? He’s a real pain in the ass.”
Another shrug, but Dave was watching, and he saw John’s ears pinken up just a little. That had always been his tell when he was embarrassed or hiding something. Dave had seen the way John and Rodney interacted during the house tours. The things Dave found annoying had only seemed to amuse and entertain John. There was attraction there, at least on John’s side. Not that Dave would ever mention it. Sheppard men didn’t talk about their feelings.
“I figure he’ll either leave all the decision making up to you,” Dave went on. “Or he’ll micromanage. He seems like an all or nothing kind of guy.”
“He’s got a lot on his plate right now,” John said, and now he was staring at his beer bottle. “That would make anyone prickly.”
“Suppose so. What do you think about getting some takeout to bring home? Celebrate selling that damned house.”
John looked over at him and grinned. “When it comes back on the market, which it probably will, you’d better walk away.”
“Fool me twice, shame on me.” Dave clinked his bottle against John’s and downed what was left. “Come on. You can pick.”
Dave followed his brother out. He couldn’t wait to see how renovations went once John and Rodney started working together more closely.
“So, you’ve narrowed it down to the Hobo House and the Paneled Panic. Which one are you leaning towards?”
“Is it necessary to give them idiotic names?”
Dave sighed. “Yes.”
“Oh. Well, they both need a lot of work. The reno jobs are big.”
“They are,” Dave agreed. “But both of them come in just under your max budget. Let’s talk about the Hobo House. What did you like about it?”
“The play space for Daisy,” Rodney said after taking a moment to think about it. “And the master suite. I like not having to share a bathroom.”
“John can give you a great open concept in the living areas, and there would be lots of space for your family when they visit. He can have that completely done in seven weeks.”
“The smell would have to be obliterated.”
“That’s a given. What about the Paneled Panic?”
Rodney drummed his fingers on the table. “The game room, obviously. And the big kitchen. But there wasn’t much inside space for Daisy.”
“That one will be an eight week reno,” Dave reminded him. “I think what it’s going to come down to for you is space for your daughter and personal space for yourself.”
“I just…I want to make the right decision for both of us.” The look Rodney gave Dave was full of unexpected vulnerability. “I don’t want to screw things up for her.”
Okay, that was tugging at Dave’s heartstrings. Maybe Rodney wasn’t so bad after all.
“Just the fact that you’re putting all this thought in shows how much you care. Whichever house you choose, John will make it your perfect dream home. It’s a win-win situation for you.”
It was part of Dave’s job to put his clients at ease, and Rodney especially seemed to need reassuring that he was on the right track. Buying a home was a big deal in its own right but adding a reno on top of that took the whole process to another level. Hopefully he could help smooth things along.
“I think I’m going to pick the Hobo House,” Rodney said after a long moment. “That’s the best house for Daisy.”
Dave nodded his approval. “That’ll be a great house for both of you. I suggest we come in just under list price. It’s been sitting on the market for about a month, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
“Whatever you think. You’re the expert.”
“Fair enough. I’ll put together the paperwork and submit your offer and call you when I hear back. We’ll make sure the final sale is contingent on the results of the inspection.”
Two days later Dave was able to call Rodney with good news. “You got the house!”
“I brought my own gloves,” Rodney announced, shaking them at John.
“So I see.”
It was the first day of demo, John’s favorite day, and he gave Rodney points for being on time and dressed appropriately. The gloves were very obviously new, and the faded jeans and gray t-shirt accentuated all of Rodney’s best physical attributes. Not that John was looking, because that would be inappropriate.
“If there’s anything here we can donate or sell, instead of just smashing it like cavemen, I think we should do that,” Rodney said.
John nodded. That wasn’t an unusual request from homeowners, particularly the thrifty ones.
“No problem. Gotta tell you, though, there isn’t much of value in this place. You ready to tear down some walls?”
Rodney didn’t look very enthusiastic, but John outfitted him with safety goggles and a sledgehammer, and let him take the first couple of blows to the wall separating the kitchen and living room.
“Wow,” Rodney said, eyes wide behind the goggles. “That’s kind of fun, actually.”
“It’s a great way to work through stress,” John agreed with a grin. For him there was also the thrill of the unknown, because there was no telling what problems, or potential treasures, a house might be hiding inside the walls or under the floors.
Between the two of them, they made quick work of the wall. John smashed, pulled, and kicked the drywall off until they were left with the studs, and the sightline he’d envisioned for the larger space.
“See what a difference this makes?” he asked.
Rodney nodded. “It’s not bad. So what’s next?”
The majority of homeowners John worked with quickly lost interest in the demo because most of it was pretty tedious: pulling up carpets, pulling down cabinets, hauling trash to the dumpster. But Rodney was like a machine, moving methodically from one task to the next. He complained. A lot. But he never stopped working.
Unfortunately, John had to stop the work after he took a portion of the ceiling down in the kitchen.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Rodney asked, hand braced on the stepladder John was standing on.
“Big problem, unfortunately. There’s a junction in here, which is illegal to have hidden behind a wall. And they’ve joined up knob-and-tube with more modern wiring, which is against code and a huge safety hazard.”
It wasn’t uncommon to find knob-and-tube wiring in older homes like Rodney’s, but the initial inspection hadn’t turned it up because whoever had last updated the electrical had done a surface fix. That kind of thing infuriated John, because someone was knowingly taking risks with not just the house, but the people who lived there.
“That’s not a big problem,” Rodney said dismissively. “Should I start on the downstairs bathroom?”
John glared down at him. “This is a problem, for your safety and your daughter’s, not to mention the health of the budget. All of this needs to be ripped out. The whole house needs to be rewired.”
Rodney flapped at hand at him. “I know a guy who owes me a favor. He can do it for at least half price, if not more.”
John took a deep breath. Homeowners who ‘knew a guy’ could be a pain to deal with. There were regular trades that John worked with, licensed professionals he could count on to do the job correctly. He said as much to Rodney, who just rolled his eyes.
“My guy is an electrical engineer and Master Electrician, and he has terrible luck for someone who spends most of his free time gambling on pigeon races. Which means he owes me.”
“There’s no-one better at electrical work, I can promise you that. I wouldn’t take chances with the house.”
Rodney sounded defensive, so John agreed to meet with his guy. If he could get a Master Electrician in to handle the electrical issues at a lesser cost, he certainly wasn’t going to turn the guy down.
He had a feeling knob-and-tube would be the least of their problems.
“You have a flooring guy, too?” John asked.
Rodney snorted. “I wish.”
That was a blow to the budget, but a necessary fix. John and his crew would pour concrete for new supports and fix the joists, which would give Rodney sturdy, level floors. It also meant John would have to make some changes to the reno budget to make up for the expense.
He also had to figure out what to do with Rodney, who seemed determined to stay on site for the duration of the reno. Normally the homeowners were in and out, still going about their normal routines and just checking in with John on his progress, but Rodney showed up first thing every morning and stayed until dinnertime.
“The team and I have this covered, you know,” John said when Rodney showed up for the fifth day in a row. “I’m sure you have other things to do.”
“I don’t, actually. Let’s screw down this subfloor.”
John was starting to suspect that Rodney was using the reno to distract himself from the impending changes in his personal life. Not that he could blame the guy. Losing his friend, becoming a dad…it was a lot, on top of buying and renovating a home.
And the truth was John didn’t mind having Rodney working alongside him. Even with all the hard work there was a lot of chatter. Rodney had an acerbic sense of humor, and it turned out he and John had quite a lot in common when it came to movies and video games. Plus, Rodney’s sweat equity was helping with the budget, and he was right on hand to deal with any decisions that had to be made.
“Now that the subfloors are in, you need to make a decision about how you want to go with the flooring.”
John pulled out several samples, since Rodney hadn’t really known what his options were. He had porcelain tile, engineered hardwood, vinyl tile, carpet tiles, and hardwood in a variety of colors and widths.
“Which would you pick?” Rodney asked, studying each sample closely.
“I like the engineered hardwood. It’s more durable while still looking really good. Do you like the narrow planks or the wider ones?”
John nodded. “That’ll look good, especially if you choose a nice, warm midtone.”
“How do you know how to do all this?” Rodney asked. “Not the build-y stuff, but the design stuff.”
John looked at him, surprised. None of his clients had ever asked him that before. “My mom was an interior designer. I used to help her on jobs when I was just a little kid. She taught me everything I know.”
“She must be pretty happy you’re following in her footsteps.”
John shrugged like it didn’t matter, when it very much did. Talking about his mother always gave him a vaguely achy feeling. “She died when I was fifteen.”
“Oh. Uh, sorry.” Rodney’s face was flushed. “Let’s do what you said. Midtones.”
“Great. I’ll put the order in.”
“I’ll just get back to work. Over there. Where I was working.” Rodney fled, and John couldn’t help huffing out a laugh.
“This is my sister, Jeannie. Who didn’t tell me she was coming to town because she thinks it’s fun to surprise people who are very busy.”
John grinned and shook Jeannie’s hand. She had a lot of curly blonde hair and big blue eyes the same color as her brother’s.
“I told him I was coming. He just forgot.”
Jeannie wanted to cruise through the house before they headed out, so John gave her a quickie tour. She was suitably impressed and heaped a lot of praise on Rodney for the work he’d done, which made him blush.
“So what are we doing today?” she asked.
“I figured while the plumber was fixing things here, we could do some shopping. How do you guys feel about picking out pieces for the nursery?”
Rodney immediately looked flustered, but Jeannie was definitely on board.
“I’m so glad I can be here for this! This is gonna be great!”
“I don’t know what babies need. Can’t you just do it?” Rodney asked John.
Jeannie smacked him on the arm. “Mer! You’re going to be a dad. You need to get in there, be part of choosing things for Daisy.”
“Do you have any kids?” John asked Jeannie.
“A daughter, Madison. She just turned three.”
“Then you’ll be a big help. Let’s go.”
Rodney was initially overwhelmed when they got to the baby outlet, but then John challenged him to a stroller folding contest. Rodney was an engineer, so it didn’t take him long to figure out the mechanics involved, and then he really got into the swing of things. With Jeannie’s experience, John’s aesthetic, and Rodney’s eye for functionality, they quickly picked out some big-ticket items for Daisy’s nursery.
While Rodney was testing out pack-and-plays, Jeannie pulled John aside.
“Kaleb and I want to do something special for Mer and Daisy,” she said. “We arranged to have a friend of ours, who’s a professional photographer, take some pictures of Daisy and Kathy after the baby is born. He’s keeping Kathy on life support for another week so Daisy doesn’t have to share her birthday with the day her mother died.”
John found himself unexpectedly choked up at that. Rodney came across as socially clueless a lot of the time, but he really knew how to pick his moments of thoughtfulness.
“I think that’s going to be an amazing gift for Daisy,” he said.
“I’ll get the best pictures printed in a bunch of different sizes, and maybe you could incorporate them into the nursery design?”
“Of course. That won’t be a problem at all.”
“It’ll be our secret,” Jeannie said, holding out her pinky. John looked at her, amused, before hooking his own pinky with hers.
“Hey!” Rodney shouted from several feet away. “What do you think about this?”
He held up a giant stuffed giraffe.
“Too big!” Jeannie shouted back.
“I think we have everything we need. How about you take your brother to lunch, and I’ll head back to the house to check on the plumber?”
“Sounds good.” Jeannie got up on her toes and kissed John on the cheek. “Thank you, for everything you’re doing for my brother.”
“It’s my pleasure,” John said. He really meant it.
“We’re already set for the trough sink, but now we need to talk about tile.”
Rodney surprised John by pulling up some pictures on his phone, which he then handed over. “I did some research, and these are the ones I like.”
John swiped through the pictures, pleased at the selections. He was also happy to see Rodney taking more of an interest in the reno. There’d been a subtle change in the man since they went shopping for the nursery. It was like the house had stopped being a chore and was actually a project Rodney was excited about.
“Okay, these are all good. Which is your top pick for the shower?”
Rodney leaned over, pressing against John’s shoulder, and swiped back to a tile that was subtly textured and colored green-blue with little flecks of gold. Not what John thought Rodney would choose – he’d have put money on something more classic, more masculine – but he could already see in his mind’s eye how he could tie the colors into the rest of the bathroom.
It was hard to concentrate on tile when Rodney was standing so close.
“And maybe this for the floor? I mean, you’re the expert here, but it seemed a little different and I kind of like it.” Still leaning against John, Rodney swiped to a picture of a large hexagonal tile that picked up some of the gold in the shower tile. It was pretty blingy, but John liked it.
“Bold choice. I think it’ll look good.” John handed Rodney back the phone and forced himself to step away, put some space between them. “So, your vanity will be here, and this whole area will be your shower.”
John walked into the enclosure and Rodney followed him.
“Wow. I didn’t think it would be so big. We could both shower in here at the same time.”
Rodney’s face immediately flushed, and John felt his own face heat at the images that put in his head. In all the years he’d been working as a contractor and designer, John had never had such a strong reaction to a client. He’d be lying if he said it didn’t freak him out a little.
“Uh…I have to go. To lunch. With Jeannie.”
“Sure. Yeah. Of course.”
Rodney fled, with a promise to return the following day to help with priming and painting. Luckily, John was able to distract himself from his inconvenient feelings by taping and mudding the drywall.
“It’s coming along.”
John lived in Eileen and Dave’s basement, which had been turned into a guest suite. He worked long hours renovating other people’s homes and didn’t have the time or energy to work on one of his own. Luckily John got along really well with both of them, and his little niece Erin.
“Is Rodney still there every day?”
“Yup. I think he’s actually enjoying it now, though. It’s nice to see.”
Eileen hummed. “You like him.”
John looked at her, startled. “What?”
“Dave was right. You light up when you talk about him.”
John flushed and knocked back the rest of his wine. What he really wanted was a beer. And to talk about literally anything else.
“It’s been a long time since you were interested in anyone. I think it’s nice.”
“He’s a client,” John reminded her.
“He won’t always be.”
In lieu of beer, John poured himself another glass of wine. “His whole life is changing right now. He’s got enough on his plate.”
Eileen gave him a disapproving glare. “Stop doing that.”
“Making excuses. I love you, John, but you spend all your time helping other people realize their dreams. You need to do that for yourself, too.”
“It’s just not the right time,” he insisted. Eileen sighed, but she changed the subject.
John knew he was right. Rodney would have a new home, a new baby, a whole new lifestyle to get used to. Even if Rodney was interested, John didn’t see a place for himself in all that.
Just before John went to bed that night, he got a text from Rodney. Baby coming early. Won’t be at the house.
Trying not to feel disappointed, John texted back good wishes.
Rodney sat in the glider rocker, his newborn daughter in his arms. He couldn’t stop looking at her, though she was so swaddled he could only see her face. She had Kathy’s dark skin, and underneath the little knit cap she had some wispy brown curls. She had Rodney’s crooked mouth, and it looked like she might have his blue eyes, too.
Daisy, named for Kathy’s mother. Kathy had been so excited at the prospect of being a mother herself, of having a family because she was the last of her own. Rodney wouldn’t have dreamed of changing Daisy’s name. He did take the liberty of giving her Kathryn for a middle name. Filling out the birth certificate, and seeing Daisy Kathryn McKay, had been unexpectedly emotional for him.
Daisy yawned in her sleep and it was the sweetest thing Rodney had ever seen. He’d been worried he wouldn’t feel a connection to her, but the second they’d put Daisy in his arms it was like he melted and reformed into something new: Rodney McKay, father.
He was glad now that he’d bought the house, despite all the trouble and money it had cost him. He couldn’t imagine bringing Daisy home to the one-bedroom condo he’d been living in. Instead, in about a week he’d be bringing her to their new house, where she’d have her own room and plenty of space to play. Daisy would have the happy, carefree childhood that neither Rodney nor Kathy had.
“We doing okay?” Nurse Mary asked in hushed tones.
“If she starts to fuss let me know. We’ll make up a bottle for her.”
The hospital had been very accommodating, setting Rodney up with a room until he and Daisy went back to the long-term care facility with Kathy. They’d stay there for a few days so Daisy could spend some time with her mother before she was taken off life support.
“She loved you,” Rodney whispered. “From the moment she found out she was having you.”
Rodney wondered if he’d have come around if circumstances hadn’t changed. Would he have just sent a monthly check to Kathy and been fine with it? He felt guilty even thinking about it.
“I’ll do my best,” he murmured, and kissed Daisy’s tiny forehead. “I promise I will.”
He and Jeannie, with baby Daisy in her carrier, were standing in front of what had once been called the Hobo House. The big change to the exterior was the new siding, a light gray that had replaced some ugly green aluminum. The front door had been painted blue. The landscaping had been upgraded, too, which hadn’t been in the original scope of work. It looked a thousand times better.
“I’m so excited!” Jeannie reached over and gave his free hand a squeeze. “This is going to be such a great house for you!”
Rodney sure hoped so. He hadn’t been back since the drywall went up. He wasn’t ashamed to admit, if only to himself, that it wasn’t just the finished renovation he wanted to see. He’d worked side-by-side with John every day for just over four weeks, and Rodney had gotten used to him.
The front door opened, and Dave Sheppard stuck his head out. “You two just going to stand out there all day?”
“Nope!” Jeannie tugged Rodney up the porch steps and through the front door. “Oh, wow. Mer, look at this place!”
Rodney was pretty sure his mouth was hanging open. The house looked so different, nothing at all like that first day he’d done a walk through. Every surface was clean and new. From watching John work, and working alongside him, Rodney knew that everything inside the walls and under the floors was also in the best possible shape. It was more important for the house to be safe than pretty, but this house was both.
“Welcome home,” Dave said.
Home. It felt like a home. Like his home. Everything looked warm and comfortable, from the light gray walls to the wood floors. The furniture – some of which he’d helped John pick out – was sturdy without being bulky, ready to stand up to the demands of an active little girl. Once that little girl started walking.
“She’s beautiful.” John peeked into the carrier, where Daisy was sleeping. She was wearing a daisy-patterned dress and a little pink cap on her head.
Rodney flushed. “Thanks.”
John looked good. He was wearing his usual uniform of cargo pants and a black tee, but it suited him. He was down-to-earth, honest. Ridiculously handsome. Rodney had missed him more than he thought he would. Maybe it was like that thing when patients fell for their caregivers. John had given him a beautiful home, had put up with all his complaining and inexperience. It meant a lot.
“Look at this, Mer!” Jeannie dragged him into the kitchen. “This backsplash is gorgeous!”
Rodney didn’t do much cooking, but the kitchen had been fully outfitted in case that ever changed. Which, now that he was a dad, probably would.
“That’s textured subway tile,” John explained to Jeannie. “It gives the kitchen a nice pop of color.”
The backsplash tile was navy blue, and really popped alongside the quartz countertops and shaker cabinets, which were white. The only other spot of color was in the island, which had navy-colored cabinets.
“This looks like something out of a magazine.” Jeannie touched everything, running a hand over every surface and pulling open drawers and doors. “I’m so jealous of this kitchen.”
“More importantly,” Dave said. “You have sightlines from here into the living room, the dining room, and Daisy’s play area.”
Daisy’s space was perfect. There were shelves with lots of storage baskets, a tiny table and chairs, a pint-sized art easel, and one wall had a mural of the solar system. (It was painted with more flair than accuracy, but Rodney was willing to let that slide.)
“There’s a built-in safety gate you can use if you need to keep Daisy contained,” John said, showing Rodney how it worked. “It looks good open or closed.”
“This is wonderful!” Jeannie gushed.
And then everyone was looking at Rodney, who hadn’t said a single word since coming inside the house. He looked at John.
“It’s everything I wanted,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
John grinned, looking relieved, and Dave led them on through the rest of the house. The bathrooms were functional and attractive, the master bedroom was suitably masculine, and the guest rooms were well appointed. They saved the nursery for last, and all the emotions Rodney had been holding in check nearly got the best of him.
Daisy’s room was a study in pink and lavender, with more of the warm gray from the rest of the house mixed in. The crib would eventually convert into a toddler bed and then a full-sized bed, so it was versatile as well as pretty, and the oversized stuffed giraffe Jeannie had vetoed in the baby store was standing up in the corner.
But the pictures. The pictures almost did him in.
“When?” he asked, his voice choked.
Jeannie wrapped her arms around him. “When you were finalizing the paperwork at Long View.”
Rodney had thought it strange when the nurses fixed up Kathy’s hair, but figured they did it for his benefit. Turned out it had been for Daisy’s. Whoever had taken the photos had done a lovely job, capturing Daisy and Kathy on the bed together, the wires and tubes that Kathy was hooked up to cleverly hidden or disguised for the most part. They looked like they were cuddled up and sleeping together.
There was even a picture of Rodney holding Daisy, the two of them looking at each other with equally solemn expressions on their faces. How had he missed being photographed?
“Your family wanted to do that for you, and for Daisy,” Dave said softly. “And your friend Katie donated all the updated landscaping outside. You have a really good support system.”
Katie was more like an ex-almost-girlfriend, who also owned an extensive plant nursery. Rodney couldn’t believe she’d done that. Or that Jeannie had made sure Daisy had pictures with her mother.
Rodney hugged his sister, and surreptitiously wiped at his eyes. Fatherhood was already making him soft.
“We’ll leave you to get settled in,” Dave said. “Congratulations!”
Wait. What? They were leaving? But Rodney hadn’t even had a chance to properly thank John for all the work he’d done. He handed Jeannie the baby carrier and caught the Sheppard brothers at the front door.
“I’ll be outside,” Dave said.
For a long moment Rodney and John stood there just staring at each other.
“So, uh. I wanted to thank you. The house is really…it’s good. And I appreciate all the work you put into it. So, you know. Thanks.”
“You deserve it,” John said. “You and Daisy.”
Rodney wasn’t great at reading people, but he got the sense that there was more John wanted to say. The way he was looking at Rodney, the expression on his face…
“You could come over sometime,” Rodney blurted out. “You know. If you want. I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”
A grin flashed across John’s face, there and gone so fast Rodney almost missed it. “You have a lot going on right now. New house, new baby. New priorities.”
That sounded a whole lot like a no. Rodney swallowed down his disappointment.
“Right. Of course.”
The awkwardness continued until Daisy started to cry, and Rodney cowardly felt relief. Saved by the bell.
“Good luck, Rodney,” John said. And then he was gone.
Rodney fluffed pillows and shifted knick-knacks and kept twitching the curtains aside to check the street. There was a casserole in the oven, and wine breathing on counter, and he’d never felt more like a fraud in his whole life. What was he thinking?
He went to check on Daisy probably five times, forgetting each time that she was with Jeannie. It was the first time she’d been away from him since he brought her to their new home just over a month ago, and he was struggling a little.
Maybe he should put on some music?
When the knock on the front door finally came, Rodney nearly came out of his skin. But he smoothed out the wrinkles in his shirt and took a deep breath before he answered the door.
“Hey. Hi.” Rodney held the door open and waved John inside. “Come on in.”
John looked good. He had his toolbelt slung over one shoulder and a toolbox in his hand. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too mad to have been called over under false pretenses.
“Hey, Rodney. You said there was a problem?”
“I may have overstated the problem.”
“There’s no problem. Wine?” Rodney hurried off to the kitchen while John carefully set his tools down in the front entryway.
“What’s going on, Rodney?”
“Okay, look.” Rodney took a fortifying swallow of wine. “The thing is, I have all these new priorities. Like you said. But I’m also exceptional at multi-tasking, so you’d be pretty surprised how well I can manage things. Here.”
Rodney handed John a glass of wine, trying to get a read off the other man as he did so. But John looked guarded.
“Where’s Daisy?” John asked. If he was trying for a distraction it wasn’t going to work.
“Daisy is spending time with my sister. I wanted…I wanted it to be just the two us. So we could talk.”
“Working on this house was really good for me. It helped me through a tough time. You helped me. And maybe I’m reading the situation wrong, which wouldn’t be the first time, but I felt like maybe we had a couple moments, a couple times when it seemed like maybe you liked me too.” Rodney poured himself another glass and wished he’d gone for beer instead, because the wine was going to give him a headache.
John was ominously silent, but when Rodney looked up he’d moved closer, less than an arm’s length away, and the expression on his face was softening.
“You didn’t read it wrong,” he said, right before he leaned in and kissed Rodney.
Forget the alcohol; kissing John was the most intoxicating thing Rodney could possibly do. It had been a long time since he’d been physical with a man and it was shocking how much he’d missed being pressed against a firm, flat chest and wrapped up in strong, masculine arms. He’d forgotten the scrape and burn of another man’s stubble against his face.
Rodney never wanted to forget it again.
“Stay for dinner?” he murmured against John’s lips. Dinner was the least of what he wanted.
“Yeah.” John kissed him again. “Dinner would be good.”
John stayed for dinner. And he came back the next day, and the day after that, and eventually proved Rodney right about them both comfortably fitting in the master suite shower. Six months later John moved out of Dave’s basement and into Rodney’s house.
It wasn’t just the house that had been brought back to life with the renovation.