“Well, it’s too late, so it doesn’t matter. The website, the signs, the fliers, the three bus stop posters, the Yellow Pages, the newspaper ad, and Google ads are already bought and paid for.”
Derek knew there was a reason he shouldn’t have let Laura take control of this project. Knew perfectly well that her pushing him out in the guise of being helpful was just that—a ruse. Graphic designer with a dash of marketing by college diploma or not, he should have never, ever, ever left her alone with this.
Now, thanks to his bad choices, he found himself standing in front of the pristine wall of windows that was their shop front that displayed beautiful sample planks of hardwood flooring, giving an up close taste of what the showroom within held. It was perfect, really. The exception being, of course, the clear, bold, gently calligraphied brown-gold stenciled lettering on the glass:
“You asked for simple.” Laura chimed in.
He turned, settling her with a flat look, unswayed by her grin, though that was mainly because it was a grin of her not so subtly laughing at him. “And you gave me simply ludicrous.”
“Oh, come on. It’s perfect. This is what family businesses do.”
Honestly, he didn’t care what family businesses did. All he cared about was finally picking himself off the ground and getting his life moving in the semblance of a direction again. Preferably, that direction wouldn’t have included allusions to his dick. Then again, if he wasn’t present, then he didn’t have to worry about that. Derek just wanted to be his own boss, do some manual labor, work with the fine grains and colors of woods from Pine to Bamboo.
“Fine. You’re manning the shop.”
Laura laughed. “Oh no.”
“No?” He raised an eyebrow, a cold weight settling in the pit of his stomach.
“Pft. I’m not letting you hide in the back and only come out to do the labor. I mean, you’re the one everybody is going to recognize.”
A not so small part of Derek hoped he was currently in a coma experiencing an extremely vivid dream his brain had developed to keep him from going crazy or dying in his hospitalized state. “What did you do?”
“Just what’s best for business. Come on, who are all those men looking to get their floors done going to trust, the stunningly gorgeous sister, or the rugged, strong-silent type brother who looks like he could fell the trees for your flooring with his bare hands? And who are their wives going to be interested in coming to get advice on grains and tones and woods from?” With a shrug of her shoulders that seemed to imply that it was, really, out of her hands, she made a Vanna White gesture toward Derek.
“I hate you.”
Laura made a dismissing noise and rolled her eyes. “You couldn’t hate me if you tried. Now come on, you have some resumes to look at.”
The store front across the street had been an art gallery, which closed a month after Derek officially opened, and remained empty for the following two. Much like Hale’s Hardwood, it had a large glass front perfect for, up until recently, displaying the colorful yet bland (in his personal opinion) watercolor paintings that had been featured. It wasn’t a surprise that the owner ended up not being able to pay the rent.
Coming in on Monday morning, he was surprised to see a tall, almost lanky man with his palms pressed against the windows of the shop, framing his face, which, even from across the street, looked like it was mashed against the glass as well. In the past two months Derek had seen a few people hesitate by the empty space, none of whom looked to be even contemplating seriously purchasing it.
Most likely, this guy was the same.
Unlocking the front, Derek pushed his way in, moved around to the front desk to flip on the lights, and moved in to settle himself down for the next fifteen minutes until Erica showed up for the morning shift. He’d barely taken his blazer off when the bell above the door rang, crisp and loud in the stillness of a still relatively early morning, and he looked up to see the same tall, lanky figure from across the street now fifteen feet away and in his shop.
The man had a buzz that should have made him look military but instead just made him look youthful, though the shit-eating grin, Bazinga! t-shirt, and the constant shifting of someone who has trouble sitting still for too long added a lot to that as well. In fact, taking it all in, Derek was hard pressed to guess his age. Somewhere between twenty and thirty-five, for all he knew.
“Can I help you with something?” Was the automatic response to having someone come through the door, though he wished he’d held it back. From the looks of it, he’d say the guy wasn’t there for the flooring.
“Hale’s Hardwood, huh?” Bazinga asked, eyes sparkling with mirth that reminded Derek of Laura and the first day she’d presented the finished shop to him. His eyebrows danced as he chuckled and continued with, “I like it. It’s got a good push to it,” as he pushed the door shut behind him and meandered in. Not toward Derek and the counter, but instead into the body of the shop, looping around flooring and wood species displays with a lazy kind of haphazardness.
Without a doubt, if Derek ever saw this guy again, it would be too soon. “Are you looking for flooring?” he tried, not very hard, seeing as the answer was obvious. He didn’t even leave his post, just picked up his coffee and took a drink while never letting his eyes leave the stranger.
“You have a really nice place. It’s a good space. Not too small for all your displays, but not so big that I feel like I’m walking around one of those stupid lumber liquidator warehouse places that should really rent out golf carts or something to their customers.”
Color Derek surprised, maybe Bazinga was there for flooring after all.
A moment later he wandered out of the displays and back toward Derek, settling in to lean against the reception counter like it was something he did on a regular basis. Come and hang out at Hale’s Hardwood and lean on the counters as he had conversations. “No. I’m not looking for wood. Not at the moment, at least,” he finished, eyeing Derek pointedly and grinning.
It would have been uncomfortable if Derek hadn’t seen the jokes coming from miles off. Miles off being the first words out of Bazinga’s mouth.
“What was in that place before?” He started up again, quickly enough that Derek didn’t have to muster up the will power to inquire as to what he wanted. He raised a hand to gesture across the street at the empty shop front, not that Derek needed the indication, he’d seen Bazinga looking.
Bazinga looked through the windows and across the street, eyes narrowing slightly, as though he were trying to imagine it. “Huh,” followed a moment later by, “How’d that go over?”
Derek blinked slowly. Really, he was fighting off an eye roll that would just intensify the headache that was already starting to build. “It closed.”
A laugh. “Right. Good one. And how about you? How long have you and your hardwood been around here?”
If this was any indication of where the day was headed, Derek was seriously going to contemplate calling it quits and just heading home. “Three months.”
Bazinga nodded, still contemplative. “And your wood’s up? …selling well?” He tried to ask with a serious expression, but the corners of his lips were twisted up and his eyes were glinting with unbridled humor.
It would only be decent that his obituary in the newspaper say: Derek Hale, died of aneurism during conversation with ill-humored idiot regarding the allusions and euphemisms of the name of his shop that his sister developed. Oh, he’d be dead, but Laura would feel like a right piece of shit and he wouldn’t have to listen to this idiot’s horrible jokes anymore.
Shoving away thoughts of death by bad joke, or possible suicide, Derek decided to just answer the question. “Business has been decent.”
Actually, business had been more than just decent, but if the man in front of him was seriously contemplating purchasing the space across the street, then Derek was going to undersell by a longshot. He could not, for the life of him, come in to work every day knowing he could be ambushed by this at any moment because it was just eighty feet and two lanes away from him. In the event that it did happen, closing and starting up new somewhere different would be a completely legitimate option.
Another thoughtful nod. With any luck, this one meant any and all thoughts of purchase of 9652 Aspen Drive were shriveling away to nothingness. “Alright then. I should probably let you get back to tending your wood then.” A not so sly grin and nod accompanied a polite, “Nice meeting you, Mr. Hale,” and then Bazinga was striding toward the door, opening it just in time to let Erica in, and then disappearing back out onto the still empty streets of Aspen Drive.
“Who was that?” Erica asked, eyebrows raised.
“Hopefully someone we never see again,” Derek muttered, picking up his coffee and letting it wash away the worst of the interaction.
A frown pulled at Erica’s painted red lips. “That’s too bad, he was kind of cute.”
Over his cup of coffee, Derek stared at her in sheer disbelief. Then again, if Bazinga hadn’t opened his mouth and let out the torrent of horrible wood jokes, put on a real shirt instead of the rust red cartoon bubble font Bazinga! monstrosity, and grew his hair out of that ridiculous buzz cut… Then Derek may be able to concede to some level of attractiveness.
Whittemore’s wife had insisted the first floor be finished first so progress on the kitchen could start immediately, and, considering the size of the couple’s dream-home-in-the-making and the phenomenal flooring they were putting down, Derek wasn’t at all surprised by the transformation of the kitchen he saw as he went in and out with Isaac and Boyd during the week.
It wasn’t until Friday, the last day of installation of the hardwood upstairs, with the installation of the kitchen’s backsplash, that it caught his eye enough to stop and actually take it in. The majority of the backsplash consisted of relatively plain, natural stone tiles, reminding him of old European churches.
It wasn't just the stone of the tiles though. What really caught his eye were the accent tiles. Made of the same stone as the rest of the backsplash, but etched with a delicate figure. An artist's personal take on a fleur de lys, simple, yet even from the distance he was at, incredibly ornate, and each one of the half dozen unique tiles was different. Individually hand crafted. They shouldn't have fit in the kitchen, with the house, but they did. Perfectly. Having seen them, Derek might dare say the house wouldn't be what it was without them.
Then again, that was a lot of pressure to put on six kitchen tiles. What was more likely was that this house was getting to him. Mr. Whittemore and his wife were just driving him insane. That was far more plausible.
“They're absolutely gorgeous, aren't they?”
Derek turned to find Ms. Martin in the vicinity next to him. The first time he'd met her he called her Mrs. Whittemore and nearly lost the job. Her response had been to purse her glossy lips in a way that told him he'd just asked for far more trouble than be wanted, and told him she did not believe in demeaning herself by contributing to society's archaic belief of a woman being valued by the worth of the male attached to her and had no intention of being addressed by her husband's name. It was the last time Derek made that mistake.
“They're impressive,” he agreed. Even if they were just tiles, which he reminded himself that was all they were. “Imported?”
Ms. Martin made a noise that said she found the implication preposterous. “An old friend of mine,” she supplied. Her eyes flitted from the tiles to him, as though she just then realized who she was talking to. “Shouldn't you be upstairs finishing my floors?”
With a nod he turned his back on the kitchen and made his way upstairs and back to what would hopefully be his final day in this house with the posh, upper crust, highly demanding clients.
It did indeed take them the rest of the day, but the job was finished to Derek’s high-set standard and he was more than happy to head home for the weekend. In fact, he was so relieved to be out from under Whittemore and Martin’s micromanaging, analytical, critical, soul crushing thumbs, come Monday morning he was down-right looking forward to just sitting in the shop all day.
Pulling up in front of the shop, Derek got out and paused, looking over his shoulder when motion across the street caught in his periphery. He wasn’t sure if he was surprised or not to see the tall, lanky, buzz-cut figure of Bazinga. What he was definitely surprised by was the fact that the shop across the street was no longer empty. Displays of ceramic and stone tiles filled the windows behind bold, blue lettering painted on the glass that spelled out:
About the same time he read it, Bazinga turned around from where he’d been unlocking the front door, as though sensing someone watching him, spotted Derek, and waved. “Morning Mr. Hale! How’s the wood?”
Of fucking course this was his life.
He was moving. He was going inside, getting on the phone, calling Laura, and telling her they were packing up and moving on. This was the last straw. Doubt it, it was the only straw so far, but that didn’t matter, there didn’t need to be any other straws, this was a perfectly appropriate first, last, and final straw.
Forcing himself to at least give a limp half-wave, he shut the door of the Camaro, turned his back on Bazinga and the ridiculousness of It’s Tiles—that alone would kill his business, who would or could possibly take Hale’s Harwood seriously when it was across the street from a place called It’s Tiles?—and retreated to his own shop with a sigh of relief.
Ten minutes later, after he’d settled behind the reception counter and started filing through his emails from over the weekend, the bell above the door let out a shrill ring and, with a steeling breath, he looked up to see Bazinga walking toward him, grinning. “Did you see the place? It’s pretty awesome, hm? I’m pretty proud of it.” Bazinga dove straight in, reclaiming the same spot he’d leaned against as last month, puffing up and preening in obvious pride. “Anyway, since we’re officially neighbors and whatnot, I thought I should come over and introduce myself.”
Reaching a hand over the counter to Derek, Bazinga said, “I’m Stiles.”
For a second Derek didn’t think he’d heard the man correctly. “Excuse me?”
“Stiles. My name is Stiles.” Brow furrowing, Stiles waved his hand around a bit to regain Derek’s attention. “Now you shake my hand and tell me your name, so I don’t have to go about calling you Hardwood Hale all the time.”
Stiles grinned a grin that reminded Derek of Laura. He took the offered hand and shook it. “Derek.”
And just like that, Stiles’ grin was relaxed and happy and so painfully content it almost made Derek feel bad about hesitating to exchange his name and the handshake in the first place. “Well then, it’s nice to make official acquaintance with you and your wood, Derek.”
Derek contemplated banging his head against the counter. Instead he retracted his hand, glanced through the windows to the shop across the street, and then back to Stiles. “So, your store is It’s Tiles and your name is Stiles?”
“That’s your real name?”
With a put on sigh, Stiles rolled his eyes. “Well, no. It’s a nick name. My last name is Stilinski and my first name is an ungodly thing I inherited from my grandfather. I’ve gone by Stiles for so long my dad barely knows what’s on my birth certificate anymore.” He shrugged and chuckled casually, like this was a natural thing for him. Hanging out with Derek in the morning, leaning against his counter, talking about his name and his dad like they were old buddies.
“Anyway, I just wanted to come by and say hi. Also, give you this.” Pushing away from the counter, he reached up with his other hand and plopped down a medium sized silver gift bag with white tissue paper coming out the top.
Raising an eyebrow, Derek looked between the bag and Stiles, thoroughly confused. “Huh?” Not the most graceful of inquiries, but he really had absolutely no clue what this was. It was throwing him off a little.
“Just a little something to say welcome to me! You know, a reverse type of ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ gift. And you were nice enough to indulge me when I came through last time.” Off of Derek’s continued blatant bewilderment, he raised his hands defensively. “It’s not anything big. I’m not a crazy person who gets strangers presents. I just wanted to say thanks. So…” Trailing off, his hands dropped and he shrugged. “So, that’s that. Good luck selling your wood today!” He chirped, pushing himself away from the counter completely and retreating back to the door.
Halfway out the door, he paused and looked back, smirking. “And, you know, for the record, if I ever needed any, I would totally be all on yours.”
Derek watched him pause at the sidewalk, look both ways down the completely abandoned a.m. street before jogging across, and disappear into the depths of his own shop, before turning his attention to the bag in front of him on the counter. No matter what Stiles said, he was a crazy person who got strangers presents, as proven by the completely bizarre and unwarranted gift innocuously sitting in front of him.
A good five minutes passed with Derek just staring at the thing before he realized he was intimidated by it, maybe a little afraid to find out what was inside. Another three minutes passed before he came to the conclusion that he was being absolutely ridiculous and snatched the thing off the counter and proceed to tear the tissue out.
He pulled out a travel mug—brushed red metal, from Starbucks.
His eyes slid from the mug to the paper cup of Starbucks coffee sitting on the counter, steadily getting colder since Stiles walked in and Derek had forgotten about it, and frowned. There was no way the guy noticed that when he barged in last month. An entire month ago. And if he did not only notice, but remembered it, then he either had an impressive memory, or Derek was being stalked and was going to die some form of hardwood floor carpenter’s Misery death.
The next ten minutes were spent contemplating giving the mug to Isaac, whenever he finally showed up, an option he ultimately nixed, because it was a nice mug. Derek had been thinking of getting one for himself for awhile now and just couldn’t get himself to justify laying down twenty bucks on it, despite the fact that he’d use it every day. It was a nice thermos and Stiles had apparently noticed the paper Starbucks cup after one meeting, which meant he would definitely notice if, say, Isaac were to show up with a nice red thermos in the mornings while Derek still brought in paper cups.
When Isaac finally walked through the door the gift bag, tissue paper, and Starbucks cup were in the trash and Derek was enjoying his lukewarm coffee from his new travel mug.
“Did you see the place across the street?” Laura asked as she rolled in at one o’clock, strolling into the back room where Derek was enjoying lunch. Privately. Alone. Without her. A few weeks before It’s Tiles moved in, Laura had declared she was opening her own marketing and design studio. Despite the fact that he’d technically bought her out of Hale’s Hardwood and was now the sole owner of the place, he still considered it theirs. If he asked, he imagined Laura would say she didn’t.
“Yes. I’ve seen the place across the street.”
“It’s Tiles!” She said with all too much enthusiasm, and then, off Derek’s lack of response, “Hey. It’s cute, and so is the guy.”
“Stiles,” Derek supplied before he could stop himself.
Laura grinned, as though at some inside joke, which Derek was only too happy to not be a part of. “Yes. Stiles.” Pulling out a chair, she joined him at the table, leaning forward to prop her elbows up and settle her chin in her hands. “So, how’ve things been with the new neighbor? How long has he been there?”
“Three weeks. And it’s been fine.”
Actually, it really had been. Derek’s fears about It’s Tiles and Stiles were, fortunately, for the most part completely unfounded. He didn’t see Stiles get in in the mornings. In fact, he wasn’t sure when Stiles opened, but he assumed it was later than Hale’s Hardwood’s eight a.m., and it wasn’t like he was on the lookout for the man across the way.
The exception was Mondays, as though some silent agreement had been made between the two of them. Or, at least, pact on Stiles’ behalf. Every Monday, without fail, Stiles was opening shop at seven a.m. sharp, which was when Derek was driving up. He’d wave across, shout a hello and a pointed remark about Derek’s morning wood, and ten to fifteen minutes later he’d come strolling through the front doors for a short chat that lasted anywhere between five to fifteen minutes. This Monday he’d shown up with two butter croissants, one of which he offered to Derek who, despite not being all that hungry, went ahead and took it anyway.
Something was clearly wrong with him.
Rolling her eyes, Laura sighed. “Of course it’s been fine. I should have asked him if he’s doing alright with you across the street.”
It should not have been surprising that Laura had trekked across the street to meet the new neighbor. That was who she was. Nonetheless, Derek found himself feeling agitated at the thought of Stiles and Laura chatting it up. Not jealous. God no. Just, wary, maybe. Stiles had plenty of fodder for the fire with the hardwood jokes, the last thing Derek needed was his sister throwing on childhood horrors and embarrassments.
“I’m a perfectly pleasant neighbor.”
Laura laughed. “Oh, I’m sure you are. You probably just never speak to him and give him the cold shoulder every time he tries to wave to you.”
Derek opened his mouth to speak, and closed it. The last thing he needed to do was attempt to prove to Laura whether or not he was, in fact, a decent neighbor. Besides, if he was already concerned about Laura egging Stiles on unwittingly, telling her they spoke on a regular basis would be tantamount to inviting her to make his life a living hell. Something she would do with pleasure and ease, because that was just the big sister that she was.
“Well, he better still be around when I come by next.”
“In another month?” He countered, raising an eyebrow.
She frowned. “Hey now. That’s no fair. I have a business I’m putting together. You know, you could always—I don’t know, leave the shop to one of your perfectly fine employees and come visit me for lunch someday. Siblinghood is a two way street you know.”
“The last thing I’m doing is leaving the shop in the care of Thing One, Two, or Three.”
With a shrug that said she had at least tried, Laura pushed herself up. “Well, I was just stopping by.”
Derek looked up at her, eyes narrowed. “You just came to see It’s Tiles.” It wasn’t a question, because it didn’t need to be. Laura wasn’t the type to just stop by for ten minutes for no apparent reason. If she’d wanted to visit, she’d stay and visit. Not that she needed to visit, because they’d just been out to dinner three days ago.
Flipping her hair over her shoulder, she waved a dismissive hand. “Erica said he was cute and Isaac said he had a good sense of humor.”
“And Boyd said he liked the tiles,” she finished, with a glare of her own. Then, pointing a finger at him, she repeated, “Be nice. I better not hear about you getting your panties in a twist and driving him out of the neighborhood.”
“I am not mean to people, Laura. I am not going to drive him out.”
Letting out a dry laugh, she pushed her chair in. “Brunch on Sunday?” She turned to ask, hand on the door.
It was Thursday, which meant, when the bell over the door chimed fifteen minutes after Derek arrived, he more expected to find Erica with brain damage and arriving early than a wide eyed, grinning Stiles.
“Morning, Wood Master,” Stiles chirped, sauntering forward to claim his rightful place leaning against the end corner of the receptionist’s counter.
Enough encounters with Stiles had taught Derek a multitude of things. At the top of the list was that Stiles did not plan on letting up on the wood jokes any time soon, so Derek might as well stop agonizing over it. Not that it kept him from sighing and rolling his eyes every once in awhile to keep up pretense. “You’re in early today.”
Stiles quirked an eyebrow. “Hu?”
Feeling as though he’d given something away, like he wasn’t supposed to have noticed Stiles’ work schedule, Derek shrugged and muttered, “You only get in this early on Mondays,” before drowning himself in a deep pull of coffee from the one and the same mug Stiles had bought him two months ago.
“Oh.” Stiles laughed and shook his head. “No. I get in late on Mondays.”
Derek couldn’t quite help the way his eyes widened.
Stiles threw an arm up and sighed loudly. “Come on, it’s Monday. Everybody hates Monday, so I give myself a cheat day, let myself sleep in an hour.”
At that, Derek almost choked on his coffee. “You’re normally in at six?”
“Well, yeah. You’ve never noticed the lights on?” Somehow Stiles was looking at him like Derek was the strange one.
“I just noticed a dim glow. I thought they were always on.”
The noise Stiles made painted an unflattering picture of what he thought about Derek’s deduction skills. “No. Those are my shop lights. I leave the door between the store and the workshop open in case someone stops by on an emergency basis. I don’t know, someone running away from an axe murderer or something.” He shrugged, and not for the first time did Derek consider how uniquely strange Stiles was.
It wasn’t a bad thing. It was just Stiles.
Then his brain looped back around to what Stiles was saying that actually mattered. “Workshop?” The back half of Hale’s Hardwood was a miniature warehouse, fraction of the size of the one they have at the edge of town, and he’d just assumed It’s Tiles would be set up the same. Workshop, however, was a completely different thing. Suddenly he was acutely aware of the fact that he’d never actually been inside It’s Tiles, despite all of Stiles’ visits. Between all the wood jokes, Stiles actually had some pretty good observations and inquiries about the floor types and wood species Derek offered thanks to all the time he’d spent mindlessly wandering.
“Yeah. Anyway, I came over because I have a friend who’s getting married and he and his wife found the perfect place—blah, blah, blah—but, of course, they want to make some changes. Make it ‘theirs,’ or whatever, which means new flooring. I told them they should come over and check out your wood, in a totally professional way that is, I’m not pimping you out to just anybody, this is my best friend here, but I don’t actually know when you open, since I just wander in whenever you get here, which, if you’re anything like me, is not anywhere near when you actually unlock your door.”
Stiles beamed. “Perfect! It’ll be Scott and Allison. They’re basically a Disney movie romance, so try not to puke when you see them. I told Scott that you’re phenomenal with your hardwood, you know, in case he gets pissy and jealous in front of Allison, just so you know.”
Breathing out a long suffering sigh of, “Stiles,” Derek rubbed his temples.
“Just be nice to them. They’re good people.”
Letting his hands drop from his head, Derek looked up at Stiles who was, curiously enough, looking almost serious and maybe a shadow nervous. “I’ll show them my good wood,” he said, and stopped.
Stiles’ eyes were wide. All traces of sincerity faded from his faces as his lips curved into a wide, toothy smile before he burst out laughing, so loud and hard he bent forward, one hand wrapping around his stomach, the other clutching the counter to keep himself from falling over. “Oh my God,” he gasped out on hitched, laughing breaths. “Oh my God.” A laughing mantra.
Leaning back in his chair, Derek waited Stiles out, unable to see anything but a sliver of his back from over the counter, but hearing the laughter plenty well enough. Once it finally started dying down into hiccupped breaths and wheezy chuckles, Stiles dragged himself back to a semi-righted position, face flush with giddiness, eyes bright with tears not quite shed, smile wide, and he was struck by how good Stiles looked. He didn’t even mind that the laughing fit, which was hard enough to make a lesser man wet himself, was at his expense. Instead of irritation, he found himself feeling a warm tingle of fondness blossoming in his gut and wondering what it would be like to kiss Stiles’ smile.
Obviously he’d suffered brain damage sometime between this moment and the last time he saw Stiles on Monday, during which he had completely normal thoughts. Thoughts revolving around how much of an idiot Stiles was and how stupid his jokes were and that his life would really be so much better without those jokes.
“Your good wood,” Stiles part wheezed, part chuckled, part gasped, rousing Derek from his tailspin of inner turmoil in time to see him bury his face in the crook of his arm on the counter and let out a few more laughs accompanied by whimpered pants of, “Ow. Ow. My stomach. Ow. Seriously. Ow.” More giggles. “Your good wood. … Ow.”
Slowly, but surely, any and all thoughts of wanting to do ridiculous things like kiss Stiles’ smile, faded. Thank God.
“Alright. Alright.” Taking slow, steady breaths, Stiles pushed himself up. He wasn’t laughing any more, but it was a near thing. “Scott and Allison,” he said, grin nearly splitting his face in half as he considered his next words carefully, and swallowed them back. “Be nice to them.”
Derek raised an eyebrow. “Like you are to me?”
The shit-eating grin lighting Stiles’ face faded a fraction. “Oh, hey now. You have to be nice to your customers, Derek. Especially when you’re selling something like your wood. Your…” he snickered, “good hardwood,” and shoved his knuckles between his teeth as he staggered away from the counter and toward the door, the hand in his mouth doing little to nothing to help choke down the laughter.
Derek couldn’t decide if it was sickening or scary that he was more pleased about having Stiles’ laughter whispering through the shop than irritated and frustrated about being, once again, the butt of Stiles’ jokes.
…The butt of the Stiles’ wood jokes.
With a groan, he threw himself back in his chair and smashed his eyes shut, willing his brain to turn off and erase the last ten minutes of his morning.
Stiles had been on the nose all the way around. Despite whatever preconceived notions Derek had developed toward Scott and Allison upon the meager knowledge of them being Stiles’ friends, they were, in fact, good people. They were also every bit the Disney romance Stiles promised and more, and it was, perhaps, the slightest bit unnerving.
Scott was even jealous.
Or, at least, that’s what Derek assumed it was. Those narrowed eyed glances he caught the man shooting his way and the initial handshake, which had been reciprocated hesitantly were clear signs of some kind of animosity. Either way, he ended up getting the job, so it didn’t much matter in the end.
Then again, there had been a long and fervently whispered discussion between the couple prior Allison asking when he could start, during which her husband stood a few paces back, arms crossed over his chest, looking rather unpleased with the situation. While he could have turned the job down, because husbands looking at carpenters who would no doubt end up alone in their homes with their wives at some point, because construction was construction, he’d gone for it.
If anyone pressed, he would say it was for the money. They were interested in some nice woods and while the full-home jobs did take up a decent amount of time, they were a great paycheck. He definitely wouldn’t say anything about how he’d had a momentary flash of the look on Stiles’ face when he would inevitably find out Derek hadn’t accepted the job, and how he really didn’t want to see it.
The fact that his stomach went warm and his chest squeezed when Stiles burst in the next morning grinning like a loon and ranting about how amazing Derek was going to make his friends’ house was something he was still working on denying into nonexistence, and would take to the grave.
In a nutshell, that was how Derek found himself, three weeks later, with Isaac and Boyd in the McCall house. Or, more precisely, found himself standing in the doorway of the upstairs master bathroom staring in at the large glass encased shower and the large pieces of rectangular stone tiles that made up the corner shower, running from ceiling to floor, melting perfectly into the flooring of the shower.
The stone itself was beautiful. A rich, dark, natural gray that reminded him of rushing rivers, cut in large rectangles nearly a foot tall and two feet wide. The coup de gras, though, were the carvings. Rustic yet beautiful individual paisley leaves scattered sparingly, ranging from the size of a fist to a full spayed hand, and even at a distance he could see hints of the stunning details that made the carvings a work of art in themselves.
It reminded him of the Whittemore-Martin kitchen. In fact, it more than reminded him. He would have bet money they were products of the same mind.
“Derek, come on, we’re not your pack mules,” Boyd’s gruff call sounded from down the hall, jolting Derek from his thoughts and sending him back peddling out of the bathroom and back toward the others. Obviously having Stiles and It’s Tiles across the street had started taking its toll on him. He’d never been a tile person before, could care less about it, unless he was determining aesthetics of pre-existing tile to fit with new hardwood flooring.
His foot was landing on the first floor when the front door flew open and none other than Kate-fucking-Argent strode in, blond hair swirling around her flawless face, suitcase wheeled behind her, like Queen of the castle. She was distracted, momentarily, by removing her key from the lock, during which time Derek froze, considered turning tail and fleeing, and found himself too shocked to do anything but literally let the other foot fall.
At the soft thud of his step, her head snapped up, sharp eyes narrow and wicked, a suddenly alert tension singing through her body. Then her gaze landed on him and her plush pink lips curved into a warm smile that did nothing to hide the hard sting in her eyes. “Derek Hale, what a surprise.”
Between them were Boyd and Isaac, having been headed toward the door and caught up short when it started opening, now trapped, from the wary looks flickering between Derek and Kate. He was, however, only too happy to have the buffer of additional bodies between him and the woman in the doorway.
Piercing eyes grazed him from head to foot with such intensity he could all but feel them clawing over every inch of his body with prickling invasiveness. “Back to the basics I see. How is carpentry treating you these days?”
Jaw clenched, Derek barely managed to grind out, “Fine,” without breaking his teeth. Then again, what he really wanted to do was break her face. The fact that he hadn’t so far was something he was considering a big plus. After all, the woman had been the sole demise of Hale Studios Architecture and his career as an architect.
“Well,” she purred, dragging her suitcase through the door, “I’m here to visit my niece for the next two weeks, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to catch up.”
If he and Kate were both still alive at the end of two weeks, he was going to nominate himself for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Come Monday, Derek wasn’t sure how he was going to survive the last week of the McCall floor install. The house smelled like Kate, like the perfume he’d gotten her for their first, last, and only anniversary, which he was positive she threw out along with him. Kate was most definitely the type of woman to go out and vindictively spend ninety dollars on perfume for the sole purpose of spraying it around an ex-boyfriend to drive him insane.
Not to mention the clothes. The bras and underwear in the guest bathroom, the one Scott and Allison had said was fine for Derek, Boyd, and Isaac to use when they were working. They weren’t the everyday under things, but the ones women wear when they’re expecting to show off. The kind she’d worn for him.
He knew how much she hated him. He just hadn’t realized she was clinically insane, even after espionaging his family’s company into the ground. The idea of another week of it, even if it was only one more week, seemed like unnecessary self-inflicted torture. He was ready to tell Boyd and Isaac to finish up the job themselves, but he didn’t, because he wasn’t stupid and he trusted them, but not that much.
Which was how he found himself trudging to the McCall’s on Monday morning, wincing so badly during the drive he had a headache by the time he arrived, shouldering open the front door and shuffling into the house that was, oddly, not so silent.
“Oh my God, Scott, I swear I will puke, just wrap it all up in a tortilla.”
“Why?” Scott asked, something in the tone of the question clearly displaying an amused sort of distress. Someone long since desensitized to Stiles’ particular Stiles-ness.
A long suffering sigh wooshed through the house that Derek had walked around enough in the past week to know the two were back in the kitchen. If the mention of tortillas hadn’t been clue enough. “Because I cannot stomach the idea of seeing what I am ingesting right now. Just wrap it up. Please.”
“Remember that night you made me drink out of a dog bowl?” Just plain amused now, maybe a hint of threat.
“Oh please, you are going to always hold that against me. You were trashed and it was hilarious,” Stiles groaned, and Derek had such a clear image of Stiles, splayed over the granite breakfast bar, face laying against the cool stone, he nearly dropped his tool belt.
“It’s amazing I’m still friends with you.”
Stiles grunted. “I am amazing. You will never leave me.”
A soft sigh of defeat. “Fine.”
There was a momentary lapse as silence filled the space previously occupied by conversation. Just as it become comfortable and still, more similar to the soft morning shuffle of pre-work prep that Derek was used to walking in on, Stiles continued. “You realize Kate’s the devil, right? She’s weird and creepy and threatening, and I am never again being your fourth when the third is her.”
“Okay. Okay. I get it. I’m sorry. I’m already making you a breakfast burrito, what else do you want?”
Derek, who had slowly been making his way into the house, caught his foot on a loose floorboard, which lifted an inch with his foot and snapped down with a loud crack.
“Oh my God, my head.”
He started forward just as Kate’s voice broke through in the kitchen. “Did I hear someone mention me a little bit ago? I was getting changed.”
Having already been caught, there was no point in hanging back, and reluctantly he continued forward, entering the kitchen in time to see Scott doing his best to use his eyebrows to give Stiles a subtle (it wasn’t) message of, ‘Do not say anything,’ which Stiles looked content with ignoring as he stared Kate down. Despite looking like microwaved lukewarm hung-over death, he did a good job of coming off as determined.
“Actually, I was just commenting on how creepy threatening you are, and how I’m pretty sure you’re the devil and it’s difficult for me to see how you and Allison are related. Though, really, for Allison to be so good, all that…” he waved his hand in Kate’s general direction, “other stuff had to go somewhere, right?”
Stiles was the kind of person who could, if he chose to, say something like that in such a way that the person he was talking to laughed, unquestioningly taking it as a joke. He did not chose to do so at that particular time, and Kate most definitely did not laugh. For the first time that he had known her, in fact, Derek was there to witness the woman find herself short of words.
“So,” Stiles continued, turning to Scott, “now that I’ve ruined my relationship with Allison’s aunt and thus will never have to see her again, I’m going to crawl home and die.” With a wince and pained groan of effort, he reached forward to pluck the breakfast burrito clutched limply in Scott’s fist, pushed himself off the bar stool he’d been puddled precariously on top of, and slid to his feet.
As Stiles passed him, Derek reached out, wrapping his fingers around his wrist.
Coming up short, Stiles’ eyes slid up to meet Derek, features somewhere between lax inquiry and loose happiness. “Oh right. Hey Derek.”
“Go out with me?”
A wide grin pulled across Stiles’ face as he chuckled with surprised delight and nodded. “Sure,” he answered, before twisting his wrist out of Derek’s grasp and continuing out the kitchen, leaving Derek facing a thoroughly shocked and confused employer and a none too pleased ex-girlfriend.
The day, it seemed, was looking up.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Stiles leaning against the door of Hale’s Hardwood on Friday morning. He might have been more surprised if Stiles hadn’t found out they’d finished the McCall job early and he was going to be at the office.
Nursing a coffee in one hand and a pastry in the other, he grinned at Derek, barely waiting for him to open the door of his car before he called out, “If I had known trash talking women would get you to ask me out, I would have treated Erica a whole lot more like shit.”
Hip-checking the door of the Camero shut behind him, Derek rolled his eyes, unable to muster much bite behind the motion.
“Really though,” Stiles continued, shuffling just out of the way enough for him to maneuver around and unlock the shop door, “it was surprising. To the extent that I’m pretty proud of myself for responding.”
“Kate was an ex,” Derek offered in way of explanation as he pushed open the door and moved off toward the front desk to disarm the alarm and turn on the lights.
Behind him, Stiles made a noise that was caught somewhere between impressed and pained. “So… did you really ask me out? Or were you just trying to piss her off? Because I didn’t stick around to see the fallout, but I’m pretty sure I left her with her panties in a twist, and you asking me out after that would have made her pretty little eyes glow red. Which, I can understand if that’s the case, but I’m a little embarrassed about admitting how stupid happy I was about it—the you asking me out.”
Flicking on the lights, Derek looked up to find Stiles hovering just inside the doorway, nursing his coffee and looking generally relaxed and smooth. However, the fact that he was over by the door and not leaning against the counter cast a nervous light on his apparently calm demeanor. “Let’s say dinner at my place. Tomorrow at eight.”
Stiles’ smile brightened, eyes shimmering in unveiled excitement as he nodded. It was a simple reaction, but instantly lay waste to any lingering hesitating doubts Derek had about giving into the cravings that had been steadily gnawing at him whenever he saw Stiles, and starting the dating process.
Really, his hesitations should have fizzled out just by looking across the street and seeing those large letters: It’s Tiles, but apparently it had needed a direct comparison between Stiles and Kate to do the trick.
My apartment is flooded.
The woman above me
left her eight year old
unattended in the bath.
Sounds like an adventure
for the kid, but ouch.
Your wood get all wet?
Wait. That sounds wrong.
Children and wood jokes
don’t belong in the same
Derek sighed, rolled his eyes, and wondered why he was surprised.
What says I even have
hardwood flooring in my
You’re telling me you have
all that amazing wood and you
don’t enjoy it in the privacy
of your own home?
Pft. Yeah. Right.
For a minute Derek fiddled with his phone, debating whether or not he should rise to the bait in a wholly unsuspecting way. Then again, if he was going to voluntarily buy into the wood jokes, he wanted to be there to see the reaction he would get.
Nope. My place at seven! I’ll
even still let you cook.
Standing outside the door of Stiles’ small bungalow of a house, Derek found himself second guessing his life choices of the past two hours, which mainly included what he was wearing (jeans, a rolled-to-the-elbows button up, and casual jacket), how he was smelling (like himself, he’d opted for no cologne), and what he was carrying (a small Edible Arrangement, groceries, and six pack of Anchor Steam).
The door flew open before he could work himself up into too much of a mess, and then it didn’t matter, because Stiles was standing in front of him grinning like he’d won the big teddy bear at the fair—which was something Stiles would, no doubt, grin at—wearing skinny jeans and a plaid-striped button-up-vest combo that made Derek equal parts aware of how hipster Stiles could be and how utterly attractive he was.
Stiles opened his mouth to say something, probably a greeting, and Derek clearly saw the moment he caught sight of the arrangement, when whatever words were at the tip of his tongue spiraled out in another direction. “Oh my God. Did you get me an Edible Arrangement?” Gaze dragging from the arrangement to Derek, Stiles looked, if possible, more.
More excited. More pleased. More happy. Simply more.
Intimidated, Derek shrugged, desperately trying to downplay the gesture which, now, seemed a little too much. “You said you’d always wanted one,” and he’d originally been considering flowers, a clear sign a screw or ten were loose in his head, but then he remembered how dejected Stiles had been when he’d talked about all the Edible Arrangements he’d seen given away to people over the years, while never getting one himself.
It was ridiculous.
“You might be the best person ever. Come on in.” He stepped back to give Derek room to step through the door, reaching out to relieve him of the monstrosity of arrangement of pineapples, melon, and strawberries that weighed at least five pounds. “And you brought dinner!”
“You said I was cooking.”
“Well, you are.” Stiles paused. “Wait. You were planning on cooking the whole time, right? I just assumed. Dinner at home and all.”
Derek nodded, said, “Yes, Stiles. I was always planning on cooking,” and smiled as he watched him relax again. It was like watching the ocean, the way Stiles could work himself up and then decompress so quickly, just to start all over. Idly, he wondered if Stiles was ever in a single state of being for longer than fifteen minutes, and found himself thinking that he would miss the ups and downs. He liked the constant ocean-esque motion.
Through the small foyer, Stiles directed them to the right and into his kitchen.
In retrospect, Derek would wonder at himself for not having expected it, but at the moment, the phenomena that was Stiles’ picturesque tile kitchen took him by surprise. Tile floors to counters to backsplash, all of which came together in perfect harmony that made the space beautiful—enhancing each tile individually while simultaneously managing to somehow not overwhelm.
The crowning achievement, though, was the floor. Not a bland outlay of square stone pieces fitting into a grid, but a complicated working of uniquely cut pieces that fit together to create a flowing mosaic that reminded Derek of deep caverns and the Utah red-rock landscape at once. Natural, almost living stone, a stasis that captured a millennia of building and movement.
Despite the dissimilarity between the flooring and the precise, detailed carvings from the Whittemore-Martin and McCall homes, he wouldn’t doubt the same artist had their hand in the crafting of Stiles’ kitchen floor.
Derek looked up to see a wide grin of self-satisfaction spread across Stiles’ face. He managed a nod. “Who-?” He started, then backtracked. “I saw similar work in your friends’ house and another home I work on awhile back.”
“Impressive, isn’t it?”
“It’s more like art than anything else,” he agreed. “Who does it?” He’d been entranced by the floor again and looked up in time to see a quizzical furrow of Stiles’ brow relax into a loose grin that looked a lot like he did when he was sharing a private joke with himself. Derek raised an eyebrow of his own in response.
“He’s stopping by my shop Monday morning. You can stop by and meeting him and see some of his other work. Now, what about dinner? I’m kind of famished.”
Sunday brunch with Laura was equal parts a blessing and a curse. On the one had it was something to do, a few hours of distraction and time-killing so Derek didn’t spend his whole day in the mountains hiking or mountain-biking, alone and stewing in the memory of his satisfyingly successful first date with Stiles and, more so, the kiss they’d shared before Derek left. The sweetly short press of warm lips that tasted the slightest bit of chocolate and pineapple and melon—leftover sugary delights from dessert and a portion of Stiles’ Edible Arrangement.
On the other hand, he was still thinking about those things, he just wasn’t alone, and Laura was anything but dense, which meant that, within thirty seconds of showing up at Brea’s café and walking back to the table his sister was already seated at, he was assaulted by: “Holy crap, you went on a date.” All of seconds of scrutiny, and then, “And it went well. Oh, this has got to be good. Sit down and tell me everything.”
He complied in sitting, but said a cold, “No,” as he did so.
Words like, ‘no,’ didn’t mean much to Laura, and somehow, despite living his whole life with her, he often forgot that fact. “You went out with that… Stiles character. It’s Tiles. Stiles? Right?”
Frowning, he asked, “What makes you say that?”
She rolled her eyes. “Erica said he comes over almost every morning to talk to you.”
“Not every morning,” he countered.
A flat stare of sharp, penetrating eyes was the response.
“Just on Mondays.”
No matter what Laura thought, he could see where this was going. He shrugged. “Multiple Mondays.”
“Every Monday,” she repeated. This time not a question. Obviously it was time to fire Erica. “Derek, the only people who opt to spend time with you in what, for you, counts as a conversation, are people who are ridiculously into you. I just didn’t expect it to take so long. Also, I wasn’t sure how well it would go once, you know, you actually went on a date. So, what did you do?”
“I’m not gossiping about my date with you.”
From the way her lips pursed, Derek felt himself tensing for the battle to come, just to be pleasantly surprised when Laura shrugged her shoulders and relaxed back into her chair with a sigh. “C'est la vie.”
“Really? That’s it?”
“Come on Derek. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to talk about it. Besides, I’ve met Stiles before, he’s a pleasant person and a fine conversationalist. I’m sure he’ll be more than pleased to exchange the epic of your date for some stories of your childhood.”
One would have thought that some two-plus decades with Laura would have meant Derek was more prepared for these methodically plotted, not-so-veiled threatening, counter plans. If he’d thought giving in now would mean putting an end to the future conversation between his sister and Stiles, he would have.
“So, when are you seeing him next?”
The look she settled him with nullified the need to an eye-rolling.
“I’m going over to his shop in the morning so he can introduce me to a tile artist. I’ve noticed some intricate work in a few of the homes I’ve worked in, and in Stiles’ kitchen-” her eyes widened at that and he kept going, moving quickly over any interruptions she could weasel in, “and he offered to introduce me to the artist.”
A moment passed and her eyebrows fell and then furrowed, her eyes narrowing in thought and then a soft accusation. “You never went to his shop, did you?”
“Even after I told you to.”
“It just never worked out.”
She snorted none-too-softly and shook her head, muttering, “No wonder it took so long.”
Derek was taking a breath to ask what she meant by that exactly when their waitress sidled up to the table, pad out, to rattle out to the specials and take their orders.
It was a strange and somewhat unnerving sensation to drive up to the shop on Monday morning at seven a.m. and not see Stiles unlocking his doors on the other side of the street, or propped in the doorway of Hale’s Hardwood. Derek did, however, notice a faint glow of light coming from the back of It’s Tiles, just to recall Stiles’ explanation that Mondays were his sleep-in days and the light came from his workshop in the back.
Locking the Camero up, Derek walked across the street, morning coffee in hand, to the large windows of It’s Tiles. A few feet from the sidewalk he could make out the tiles on display in the windows, some regular stone tiles, but a few were rectangle and square pieces of stone decorated with careful carvings or meticulous painted brushstrokes. Eyes locked onto the tiles, he tried the front door.
Just as well. If Stiles were in the back it would be foolish to leave the front unattended and unlocked. He knocked heartily and waited.
Half-distracted by the beautifully designed display tiles, he slid out his phone and dialed Stiles’ cell. On the fourth ring it picked up.
“Morning Derek. You okay?” Something mechanic whirred in the background. There was a faint click and the whirring quickly slowed, dying away.
“Hm? Yeah. I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. It’s a little early, I guess. What’s up?”
“It’s seven. You weren’t outside.” As soon as he said it, he wanted to take it back. It sounded so preposterous and silly. “I saw your shop light on,” he tacked on, hoping to make himself sound less petulant about not having Stiles waiting for him.
“Really?” Something scrapped against a hard floor, probably a chair. “Holy crap, you’re right. Wow. Got lost in the zone there. Wait, are you outside?”
Derek looked around the empty street, glanced over his shoulder to his shop, estimated the likelihood that he could get across the street in the time it would take Stiles to just look out the back door from the shop, and didn’t like the odds. Then again, what was so bad about waiting outside Stiles’ place? He hadn’t been in before, and while he would be hard pressed to admit it to her, since his conversation with Laura on Sunday, he’d been giving a lot more thought to that fact than he ever had before.
Sunday afternoon and evening had consisted of a gross amount of pondering over the amount of times Stiles had hung out, lurked, and generally waited around Hale’s Hardwood just to participate in some bad conversation. It was high time the tables evened out a bit.
After a far too long pause, he offered a cautious, “Yes.”
A loud rapping knocked Derek out of his thoughts, his muscles twitching in surprise, and he looked up to see Stiles on the other side of the door, grinning manically, laughing at Derek’s start. “Look at that,” he voiced over the phone, his tone awed and delighted. Dropping the phone into his hand, he cut the connection and reached forward to pull the door open. “Good morning.”
“I thought I could take a look at your place.”
“Want to fawn over the work of your beloved Tile Artist, hm?” Stiles’ teased, eyebrows dancing.
Rolling his eyes, Derek moved forward, stepping past Stiles into the open shop that, in some ways, reminded him of his own space. There were a variety of spaces and displays that showed off tile varieties, stones, and suggestions for different rooms in the home, but the displays weren’t as high as the ones in Hale’s Hardwood, lending to a more open feel, and customers that could easily be seen at all times. No doubt, it allowed for more natural light to enter through the front windows as well, even with the displays in them.
“This is just the everyday stuff. Let me show you the workshop, that’s the exciting part,” Stiles prodded, reaching out to trail his fingers over Derek’s bare wrist and get his attention before turning around and heading toward the back of the shop and the half-closed door where the glow of light came from.
“The place is a tile shop, obviously. I do all the regular stuff, because that’s what’s expected of me, meaning that I sell it and we do installation, but I don’t do it personally, I have another couple of guys who do that. Greenburg and Finstock. My forte, though, is specialty tiles.”
Derek was only half paying attention, because they’d entered through the back door into the workshop which, yes, off to the left was a warehouse of stock, but to the right was an honest to God workshop with a variety of saws and tables and projects, the most pertinent being a set of small, three inch granite stones that were being individually carved with a labyrinth of swirls. Reaching out, Derek laid his hand across the back of Stiles’ neck, fingers curving slightly, steadying himself as he slowly pulled his eyes from the work tables to Stiles’ waxing smile. “You.”
A nod. “Me.”
“You make art.”
Stiles shrugged, a soft, slight motion. “I don’t know if I’d call it art, but it is pretty nice looking.”
Not sure what else to do, Derek stepped forward as he pulled Stiles in, who made a soft chirp of surprise, and pressed his lips to Stiles’ warm, soft, slightly chapped grin. As he pulled back he held Stiles’ gaze and repeated, “Beautiful art,” with certainty.
Still grinning, Stiles shrugged again and conceded. “Alright.”