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Ache (Men of Hidden Creek Book 3) by Alison Hendricks (1)

1

Kyle

Kyle Harris stood outside of his new home holding a box that contained a good quarter of his worldly possessions.

Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration, but he’d rented the smallest truck the place had and still there’d been a ton of room for him to move around. There wasn’t any need to play moving day Tetris. The few pieces of furniture and the boxes full of his crap all played nicely together, and it wouldn’t take him long to unload everything at all. He could probably manage it before Brandon even showed up, but his brother had insisted on helping and Kyle relented.

He owed Brandon too much to do anything else.

The front door was already propped open, and Kyle took the medium-sized box inside. His shoes made a soft thud on the carpeted floor as he walked through the entryway, past the very empty space that was to be his living room, and to the even emptier space that was his new bedroom. Whoever had lived here last had taken the window coverings with them, so the bright Texas sun shone through the glass, casting rectangular shafts of light down on the floor. This room was going to bake in the summer afternoons, but the vents from the central AC would help.

He set the box down in the corner and withdrew his keys from his pocket, tearing through the packing tape in one sure swipe. The box was mostly filled with scrubs in various colors and patterns, along with two pairs of comfortable—and very stylish, in Kyle’s opinion—sneakers. A frame rested in the bottom, wrapped in newspaper and celebrating his graduation from nursing school. There was another framed picture there, too, of Kyle with his and Brandon’s dad on the day he’d graduated. His first ID badge and some other mementos rounded out the collection of items, the whole box describing a good portion of his life. The better portion of it, anyway. The portion that hadn’t led him to Hidden Creek.

Kyle looked out the bare window, at the patchy stretch of green grass and the large trees that were still slightly bent to one direction from the hurricane. There was another house just beyond the fence, and more houses past that. It was a quiet, quaint neighborhood where people hung flags from their porches and grew flowers in their front yards. Maybe Kyle would see about growing something outside of this window. Maybe Katie might like to help him plant some bulbs.

He made his way back out to the driveway. One of his neighbors across the street was out mowing his lawn, and the man waved. Kyle waved back, offering a smile. After he signed the lease, he’d been greeted by a young couple who’d brought him a fresh apple pie as a housewarming gift. It sat on the counter now, waiting to be eaten. This was nothing like the city he’d come from. He’d lived in Dallas for almost ten years, and he couldn’t have named any of his neighbors in the cramped apartment complex even if he’d been offered a million dollars to do so.

Things were different here, and Kyle desperately needed different.

As he ducked into the back of the truck, he heard tires on asphalt, the sound growing closer. When he stepped out to look, Brandon’s white Chevy pulled into the driveway.

His older brother stood only a few inches taller than Kyle’s five foot seven. His shaggy hair was a darker shade of blond, his trimmed goatee even darker. It was a face Kyle knew well, and at the same time, one he didn’t know at all. The last time he’d seen Brandon was at their father’s funeral, back when his brother had been a newlywed and his wife was four months pregnant.

“Hey,” Brandon said, in that short way that made people unfamiliar with him think he was in a bad mood. “Sorry I’m late. Had to get Katie from school.”

“It’s no problem at all, man,” Kyle said, “family comes first.”

An awkward pause hung in the air, and Kyle desperately wished he hadn’t said that. He and Brandon might have been half-brothers, but they were still brothers. They were still family. Even if Kyle hadn’t acted like it for a long time.

The passenger door closed, and Brandon’s daughter stepped around the front of the truck. She had platinum curls that would soon darken, if her father’s genes had any say in it, and she looked up at Kyle with a shy smile. Determined not to screw up two interactions in one day, Kyle smiled back.

“You must be Katie. I’m your uncle Kyle.” Could he claim that title as anything more than biology? “I’m… looking forward to getting to know you.”

Because that was exactly what a ten-year-old cared about. Getting to know a complete stranger.

Katie just beamed at him, though, her smile full of rainbows and sunshine. It was so contagious that Kyle’s gloomy mood lifted just a little. “Dad said I could help. If it’s okay with you?”

“Yeah, of course,” Kyle said, taken aback. She talked like she was sixteen, at least. And what ten-year-old wanted to help someone unpack? He looked up at his brother, and Brandon just shrugged. “Follow me.”

He led her over to the U-Haul trailer and walked behind her as she made her way up the ramp, just in case she stumbled. Why she would, Kyle didn’t know, but some weird, protective instinct kicked in and made him disregard the fact that Katie’s mom was an award-winning gymnast. He pointed out another light box that was mostly filled with clothes, and the ten-year-old picked it up without complaint and started carrying it toward the open door.

Kyle just stared after her in amazement.

“She’s a good kid,” Brandon said, stepping into the truck. “No thanks to me.”

“Somehow I doubt that.” Because Brandon’s ex traveled all the time, he had primary custody of Katie. At least, that was what Kyle remembered hearing.

Brandon just shrugged and looked around the half-empty trailer. “Did you sell a bunch of stuff before you left Dallas?”

Kyle let out a single note of dry laughter. “Rebecca.”

His brother lifted his hands in the universal “say no more” gesture, and the two of them decided to bring in the couch first. They alternated with Katie, bringing in another piece of furniture while she carried in a box, and the whole truck was unpacked in less than an hour. After that, the three of them stood awkwardly in Kyle’s newly-furnished living room. There wasn’t much to look at. Just a couch, a newly-mounted flat screen, a shelving unit, and one end table he’d picked up at Goodwill before he left Dallas. The absence of anything homey made the silence feel like a gaping vacuum, and Kyle finally had to break it.

“I don’t know if you guys have time to stick around, but I was going to order a pizza or something.” He paused, realizing he hadn’t thought this through. “Um, there is a pizza place here that delivers, right?”

Brandon offered him a patient smile. “They have awesome pizza at Rocket. They should come out this far.” He turned to his daughter. “How do you feel about pizza with Uncle Kyle, Katydid?”

“Can we get pineapple?” she asked, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth.

Wars had been started over the issue of whether pineapple was an appropriate topping for pizza, and when Brandon’s gaze swung back his way, Kyle knew he was going to have to pick a side once and for all.

“How about it, Kyle? Are you a pineapple on your pizza kind of guy, or are you somebody who’s wrong?” Brandon asked with a smirk that made his daughter giggle.

“Pineapple’s fine with me. Maybe with some ham? Is that acceptable to the committee?”

Brandon looked at his daughter with a raised brow, and when she gave a thumbs up, he mirrored it. Laughing, Kyle pulled out his phone and made the order for a large Hawaiian pizza and a two-liter bottle of soda, since he suddenly realized he didn’t have a damn thing in his fridge and he wasn’t sure how the tap water tasted in Hidden Creek. Dallas’ tap water had always had a chemical aftertaste to it that made it undrinkable without a filter.

As they waited for the pizza, Kyle hooked up his Nintendo Switch for his niece, feeling awful that he had no source of entertainment. She was instantly enamored, though, and it gave him the chance to pull Brandon into the kitchen and say what he’d spent ten years trying to sort out.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been around for you. Or for her.” He swallowed, watching as his brother cut open the tape on a box and started putting appliances on the counter. “After Dad died…”

“Don’t worry about it, Ky.” Ky. He hadn’t been called that by anyone in ages. His heart clenched at the memory of weekends spent playing with his brother, wishing they had more time together. “You’re here now. That’s what matters.”

There was a tension in Brandon’s voice that offered more than his words alone did, and Kyle decided now definitely wasn’t the time to talk about the man whose genes they’d shared. He was prepared to change the subject, but Brandon beat him to the punch.

“So… what happened with Rebecca, exactly? Aunt Shirley said you were happy.”

Of course she had. Aunt Shirley was like a nexus in their family. Observations went in and gossip came out, spread far and wide over phone lines and internet cables. In this case, though, she’d been right.

“We were happy. Right up until the day before the wedding, when I caught her fucking my best friend.” The word tasted bitter in his mouth, and Kyle made a face before amending, “Ex best friend.”

Brandon winced, then offered a tentative hand on Kyle’s shoulder. When Kyle didn’t flinch or otherwise react negatively, he gave the man a squeeze. “Ouch. Here I thought my marriage had issues. At least Rebecca was never unfaithful. Not with a person, anyway. She just… loves her career more than me and Katie.”

The last was said the way someone might describe an unfortunate accident. Oops, I forgot to close the door to the fridge. Oops, my wife is halfway across the country and sees her daughter maybe three times a year, if that. At least according to Aunt Shirley.

“Hey, it’s not a contest,” Kyle told him. “And if it is, it’s a really terrible one.”

Brandon flashed him a grin and patted his shoulder one last time before withdrawing his hand. He leaned back against the counter, and Kyle did the same at almost the same moment on the opposite side of the kitchen.

“Hidden Creek’s a nice place. I think it’ll be a good change for you. And whenever you’re ready to start dating again, there’s lots of opportunities for that, too.”

He’d heard—again from Aunt Shirley—that there were way more single gay men in town than single women, which was just fine by Kyle. He wasn’t interested in dating any time soon. From the moment he met her, he’d thought Rebecca was it for him. He was done. He’d found the love of his life. But apparently he wasn’t hers, and that wasn’t something he could easily recover from.

“Change is exactly what I need. New home, new job, new life,” he mused. If he was going to have to reinvent himself after Rebecca, he was going to do it right.

“Then why don’t you come out with me tonight?” Kyle opened his mouth to protest—Brandon had already done too much for him—but his brother kept on. “My neighbor can watch Katie for a couple hours, and it’ll give us a chance to catch up.”

He’d never been much of a drinker, and there was the little problem of starting a twelve-hour shift first thing tomorrow morning. The last thing he needed to do was show up with a hangover. But he’d denied Brandon the chance to bond with him for long enough, and who knew? Maybe someone would catch his eye and he’d change that whole “no dating” policy. Hell, maybe he’d even go home with someone.

Change was the order of the day, and with change came risk. Kyle was ready for it all. So long as it took his mind off the mess that was his life, he’d throw himself at just about anything.

“You know what? A night out sounds perfect.”

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