Four Years Ago
“I really appreciate you coming with me.” Landon glanced at Verity then turned his attention back to the road.
“It wasn’t ever a question,” Verity assured him.
Landon gripped the steering wheel with tight knuckles and slowed the car as they approached a red light. It had been three weeks since he’d received the call from an attorney letting him know his grandfather had passed away and that Landon would need to come to Los Angeles.
Landon’s grandfather had appointed his long-time attorney as his executor, and the main purpose of his call was to tell Landon he was a beneficiary. That was a revelation Landon had found shocking. He assumed he’d been written out years ago owing to the fact his grandfather blamed him for his parents’ death, but maybe he’d been put back in after the shock of their loss had worn off. Landon wasn’t sure because they hadn’t spoken that day, or any day since.
“What did the attorney say he left you again?” Verity asked, flicking invisible lint from the thigh of their pants.
“Property, I know. He has the keys for me. I didn’t ask about it to be honest. I said we could deal with it when I came out here.”
Landon assumed there would be money, but he hadn’t said as much. His family was rich. Or, his family had been rich, since with the passing of his grandfather there was no family left to speak of. Just him. But it was family money that sent him to New York for college and family money that was now apparently bringing him home. Not that he thought of Los Angeles as his home—it hadn’t been for years. He’d lived in New York for nearly a decade and he loved it there.
Landon met Verity their second year of college and they’d been friends and roommates ever since. Over time, their relationship had developed and, although they’d never had sex with each other, Verity was the most important person in Landon’s life. They hadn’t even blinked when Landon asked them to come to California with him for this.
“If you hit the jackpot, are you going to buy us a penthouse back home?” Verity laughed as Landon accelerated after the light turned green.
Landon laughed too. “I don’t even know how much money he had, to be honest.”
“At least enough to pay your way for four years.”
And that was true. Landon pulled the car into the parking lot of the attorney’s office and pulled the keys out of the ignition, dropping them into his lap. Verity reached across the console and massaged Landon’s shoulder while offering him a sympathetic smile.
“Has it really been six years since we were here?” they asked.
“Just about.” Landon scrunched his nose up and thought about the last time he’d been in Los Angeles. Verity had come with him then too. Though their relationship was only a few years old, Verity had sensed Landon wasn’t capable of making the trip alone and had forced their way along.
His parents’ funeral was exactly one week after he graduated. His mom and dad didn’t want to fly out for it, so they’d decided to make a road trip of it. He could still hear his mother over the phone, voice full of excitement and enthusiasm as she detailed all the stops they were going to make on their way to New York and back.
Diana and John Miller were hit head on by a truck driver who’d fallen asleep at the wheel when they were a few miles outside of Wichita, Kansas. The police promised Landon they’d died instantly, but he’d never been able to shake the guilt of their deaths from his shoulders. If he were being honest, Landon carried far more than his fair share of guilt around, and he spent far too many nights awake entertaining the “what ifs” of his life.
“Come on, then.” Verity squeezed Landon’s shoulder and popped the car door open, standing to stretch before leaning down to looked back in the window at Landon. “Let’s get it over with, yeah?”
Landon nodded and dragged himself out of the car, closing the door, locking it, and following Verity inside the office.
The receptionist noticeably startled when Verity walked in, and Landon muffled a laugh, so used to the way people reacted to them by now.
“Landon Miller,” Verity said, pointing behind them at Landon.
The woman’s lips parted slightly and her eyes widened. She tracked her eyes up the length of Verity’s legs to their slim waist and long, slender neck. Verity cocked their head to the side and smirked, running a hand through their hair and shaking it out.
Verity was unlike anyone Landon had ever met before, and you either appreciated them for that, or you didn’t. Thankfully, most people did.
Verity snapped their fingers and directed a stern look toward Landon, then turned back to the receptionist. “Landon has an appointment with Mr. Henchen.”
Landon wiped the smirk from his face and fell in line, just behind and to the left of Verity’s slender figure. He appreciated the dynamic of their relationship right now more than ever because, even though he and his grandfather weren’t close, Landon recognized the familiar sense of anxiety when he didn’t have control over a situation building in his gut. Verity must have seen the tension in his eyes and, as always, stepped up.
That had been the extent of his relationship with Verity. Each of them being what the other needed, when the other needed, as much as their own identities and preferences allowed. Never more and never less.
“Mr. Henchen is ready for you, Mr. Miller.” The receptionist flicked her eyes to Landon. “His office is the last door on the right.” She pointed down a hallway behind her.
Verity nudged Landon.
“Thank you,” Landon told her.
Verity held out their hand, and Landon took it, following them down the hall. In front of the closed office door, Verity turned and gripped Landon by his shoulders.
“You’re okay,” Verity said softly.
“I’m okay,” Landon repeated; this routine, unfortunately, nothing new for them.
“I’ll be there with you.”
Landon nodded and chewed his lower lip between his teeth nervously. Verity reached up and tugged it free, then slid their arm around Landon’s shoulders and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” came the muffled reply from behind the door.
Verity looked at Landon and stepped out of the way. Landon twisted the knob and pushed the door open. He was instantly relieved to see no one besides someone whom he assumed to be Mr. Henchen in the room.
The attorney was an older man, large with an imposing figure. He stood behind his desk and extended his hand to Landon then to Verity, although with a more quizzical look on his face.
“This is my best friend, Verity Jones,” Landon explained as he took a seat.
“Ah.” Mr. Henchen scratched at his cheek. “Duly noted.”
Verity took the seat beside Landon and twined their fingers together in front of their chest, elbows resting on the arms of the chair.
“Well.” Mr. Henchen shuffled some papers around and adjusted his glasses. “Mr. Miller,” he started, but Landon cut him off.
“Just Landon, please.”
“Right. Landon. First off, let me offer my condolences regarding the loss of your grandfather, Mitchell Miller.”
Landon responded with a perfunctory nod, even though everyone in the room had to know his grandfather’s passing was no substantial loss to him.
“As you were the only living next of kin, the eldest Mr. Miller has allocated the fair majority of his estate to you directly.”
Landon coughed and choked, then beat his fist against his chest. “What?”
“Mr. Miller indicated he wished to donate one million dollars to charity, split equally four ways between three of his choosing and one of your own.”
Verity coughed out a surprised sound and glanced over at Landon as Mr. Henchen laid the top piece of paper face down on his desk before continuing.
“As I said on the phone, he leaves you his home in Pasadena, where he resided until his death. I have a file with the estimated property value and most recent appraisals. If you choose to sell, I can get you in touch with a trustworthy realtor.”
The attorney continued, “Mr. Mitchell held approximately five million in liquid assets and, as he neared his final days, he arranged to have most of his additional properties sold. The balance of his cash assets is just under ten million dollars.”
“Fuck me,” Landon muttered under his breath.
Mr. Henchen looked up at him sharply, and Verity chastised him silently.
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Henchen continued, “there was one property besides the main estate he was not able to sell. It’s still listed, but you can do with it as you wish now.” He slid a manila folder across the desk; Landon picked it up and flipped it open.
The property in question was obviously abandoned. Judging by the brick facade and arching stained glass, it looked to be an old church. Landon flipped to the second page in the folder. It was a printout of a map with the building location circled. Landon remembered enough to know the location from stories he’d been told as a child.
“Oh, it’s a lovely church, Landon. A beautiful place from another time, tucked just outside the city against the foothills. When your grandpa was very young, he proposed to MawMaw on the steps there, and she told him no.” Landon’s mother smiles mischievously.
"She said no?” Landon asks, six years-old and horrified. His grandfather scares him, and he couldn’t imagine anyone, especially MawMaw saying no to him.
“She told him no four times before she finally said yes. Right there on the stairs of the church. They got married there a year later.” Landon’s mother strokes her hand through his hair and smiles again.
Landon couldn’t imagine his grandfather as ever being the sentimental type, but maybe he was wrong. It was easy to make assumptions when you didn’t take the time to get to know people. He closed the folder and handed it over to Verity.
“There are quotes from contractors in the back of the folder that he had me procure before his passing,” Mr. Henchen said, gesturing toward the folder Verity was now paging though. “With the assets now in your possession, you can easily refurbish the building if you so choose. Or we can keep it on the market. No decision needs to be made today, of course. The will has already been filed with the court and there’s no one to contest, so we have time.” He laid another piece of paper face down on his desk.
“I remember my mom telling me stories about it growing up,” Landon whispered. His heart was tight in his chest and he was suddenly feeling regretful about the loss of a man he’d never really known. What if he’d taken the time to reach out after his parents had died? What if he had only recognized his grandfather was probably hurting too?
“Stop it,” Verity said sharply.
Landon’s attention snapped to his right and focused on Verity, casually sitting in the chair beside him, folder now closed on their lap.
“Don’t start that game of yours,” they warned.
Landon nodded and chewed his lip between his teeth again, looking back to the attorney in front of them.
“Go on,” Landon requested.
Mr. Henchen read through some more legal sounding information about the charity disbursement and how Landon could take possession of the home in Pasadena as well as the church. When he was finished, he handed Landon a copy of the documents he’d read. Landon mindlessly passed them to Verity, who tucked them into the folder about the church.
“How long are you in town for, Landon?”
“Our flight home is in three days.”
“If you have questions between now and then, you can reach me here or on my cell. The number is on one of the papers in the folder. We need to make decisions soon on the church at least, as there’s no point in keeping it on the market if you plan to retain ownership.”
“Right. Okay, then. Thank you.” Landon pushed up out of the chair and extended his hand over the desk. Mr. Henchen shook it, then angled a glance to Verity before he refocused on Landon.
“Here are the keys to the house and the church.” Mr. Henchen passed him an envelope. “You can stay in the house instead of a hotel if you like, obviously. It’s yours now. And I strongly suggest you go see the church before you make any decisions.”
“Right, thank you.” Landon repeated, walking past Verity in a daze.
He managed to make it to the parking lot and into the passenger seat of the rental car before his legs gave out. Verity came around the driver’s side and closed the door behind them. They punched something into their phone, then passed it to Landon.
He looked down at the screen and saw the familiar blue line of a map route. He blinked then glanced over at Verity, who was backing out of the parking lot.
“It’s like he was a person, with a heart,” Landon muttered, tossing the paperwork from the attorney onto the dash.
“People generally have those.” Verity laughed at him and followed the voice navigation from the phone.
They drove in silence until Verity pulled off the main road and directed the car down a bumpy dirt road toward the hillside.
“This place is secluded as fuck,” they observed, parking in a large dirt lot in front of the church.
“It’s been here forever,” Landon told them, “before the city was even here. Well, I mean, the city was here, but it was more of a town then I guess.”
Verity turned the car off and cracked their door open. “Come on. Ooh! Do you think I can start calling you Father Landon?” They laughed and got out of the car.
Landon followed, shaking his head. “That’s a little contrary to our relationship, isn’t it?”
“I said Father, not Daddy. Get your head out of the gutter. Jesus.”
Verity stopped at the bottom of the steps and Landon came alongside them, tucking his body against Verity’s slender ribs.
“Jesus is right. Did you want to go in?” Landon dropped the keys into Verity’s hand and stared at the imposing structure. “Did you see how much to get this place back in decent shape?”
Verity shoved the key into the lock and turned. The large wooden door pushed open with a creak and a groan that was only reserved for buildings that had seen as much history as this one had.
“Around half a mil.” They walked inside and looked up and all around. “It has gorgeous bones.”
“You’ve been watching too much HGTV.” Landon rolled his eyes.
They both moved deeper into the space, Landon dragging his fingertips across the top of dusty pews as they went in. The church had a second story, a sort of loft that wrapped the entire church. Landon assumed it had once been for a choir.
Verity climbed the steps at the other end of the sanctuary and swiped their hand across a grimy window that took up almost all of the wall.
“It’s a view of the mountains,” Landon told them, another memory from one of his mother’s stories. “I can’t imagine who would want to buy this place, though. What would someone do with it?”
No one, he thought. That’s who would want to buy it.
Verity turned their attention back to Landon, who’d stopped halfway down the aisle.
“You could put a bar here.” Verity had turned back to face the window and gesture in front of him.
“Stop it,” Landon warned.
“This place is huge, Landon.” Verity turned back to face him. “You could do private rooms if you wanted.” They gestured to the loft space with a twirl of their finger.
“I know we haven’t talked about it in years, but picture it.” They jumped down the steps and met Landon in the center of the church. Verity covered Landon’s eyes with their hands, and he reflexively relaxed against their chest. “Can you hear the music? All the other sounds?”
Landon closed his eyes under Verity’s palms and let himself imagine the future Verity was describing.
“The skin on skin. The pleas, the cries…the rapture.” Verity turned them both in a circle and then uncovered Landon’s eyes, dragging their palms down his sides. “It’s always been your favorite what-if game, Landon. What if you won the lottery? What if you had money? Well, you did win the lottery.”
Verity squeezed his hips and gestured to the space around them.
It wasn’t the craziest idea either of them had ever had, and it wasn’t like money was ever going to be a problem for him again. Half a million dollars was a drop in the hat compared to the money his grandfather had left him.
“We’re going home in three days,” Landon bit the words out. They tasted like bitter lies, and he already knew them to be false.
“What if we didn’t?”
“Isn’t that my game?” Landon huffed a laugh.
“You know I play both sides.”
“Verity,” Landon protested and they hushed him with a finger against his lips.
“We’ll go back to the hotel and sleep on it. It’s your money. It’s your decision. All I’m saying, Landon, is…what if you opened a dungeon?”