Cover by: L.C. Chase
Eddie Rodrigues doesn’t stay in one place long enough to get attached. The only time he broke that rule, things went south fast. Now he’s on the road again, with barely enough cash in his pocket to hop a bus to Texas after his (sort-of-stolen) car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Midwest, USA.
He’s fine. He’ll manage. Until he watches that girl get hit by a car and left to die.
Local shop owner Grayson Croft isn’t in the habit of doing people any favors. But even a recluse can’t avoid everyone in a town as small as Clear Lake. And when the cop who played Juliet to your Romeo in the high school play asks you to put up her key witness for the night, you say yes.
Now Gray’s got a grouchy glass artist stomping around his big, empty house, and it turns out that he . . . maybe . . . kind of . . . likes the company.
But Eddie Rodrigues never sticks around.
Unless a Christmas shop owner who hates the season can show an orphan what it means to have family for the holidays.
Available from Riptide Publishing. http://riptidepublishing.com/titles/glass-tidings
EXCERPT: Chapter 1
This was an incredibly dumb idea.
Eddie huddled into his hoodie, head ducked against the knifing wind, wishing he’d tugged another long-sleeved T-shirt from his bag and put it on before leaving the shelter of the broken-down car back on the highway. He’d been in a hurry to get away from the car, though, and when he’d hit the road before the sun went down, it hadn’t felt that cold out.
Could be worse. Could be snowing.
The November freeze wasn’t exactly unexpected in Illinois, but Eddie was normally a thousand miles south by this time. The Renaissance faire circuit wrapped up each year with some late-autumn festivals in the deep South, where the weather stayed warm enough until Thanksgiving for strolling minstrels and washerwomen who ladled out insults by the bucketful. Most years, Eddie would have worked his way down to Texas by October, saying good-bye to the northern states until the next summer.
But this year, November was drawing to a close and he was way off schedule, having been dumb enough to trust a soft touch and an easy smile. If Eddie’d had any luck at all, he would have been halfway to Texas by the time the sun rose, jittery from caffeine and the many cigarettes he would have smoked on the highway to keep himself awake. That much nicotine at one time would thrum in his blood, his body unused to him indulging in his addiction like that. Instead, it was almost midnight on Thanksgiving, edging into the early hours of Black Friday as he walked.
Thinking about cigarettes made him want to fire one up right now, but that was a dumb-ass idea. No sense wasting smokes.
Not like you’re going to fall asleep walking.
He’d expected there to be a twenty-four-hour gas station just off the next exit, so he hadn’t minded the miles he’d had to hike on the highway shoulder.
Always the optimist, buddy.
His own snort of disbelief startled him as he trudged through the fogged puff of his breath. Optimist. Right. All he wanted to do was hunker down under a rock somewhere, but sure, he could call it optimism to assume he’d find a gas station at a highway exit.
Today, however, the universe hated Eddie Rodrigues, so there’d been no evidence of retail life as he’d strolled down the shoulder of the curving ramp. A green and white sign at the foot of the ramp offered Clear Lake to the left and Skeeterville to the right. A quick Google determined that only one town had a Greyhound bus stop, and he guessed he was glad it wasn’t in the town that sounded like bugs, even if it did mean extra miles of walking.
A couple of cars had passed him on the long country road, but none of them slowed, and Eddie wasn’t looking to hitch anyway. He was too tired and too frustrated to be polite about refusing a demand for head in trade for a ride, and experience gave him better than even odds of coming across an asshole who’d demand exactly that.
Anytime the yellow glow of headlights swung over him, he drifted off the edge of the shoulder and kept his head down. He’d get there on his own just fine. Besides, there probably wasn’t going to be a bus before dawn, so he might as well kill time walking. Google Maps gave him a shortcut through side streets that grew more crowded with houses, and he took it, happy to get off the country road where he felt so conspicuous.
He was halfway down another block of biggish homes, most of them with wraparound porches and turrets and fancy roof trim, when the girl ran across the road.
Eddie wasn’t even sure how he knew it was a girl, what with the bulky coat and hat pulled low. Something about the way she ran maybe, almost on tiptoe, arms straight at her sides as she crossed the empty road at the intersection ahead, just before the street humped up in a steep hill.
“Hey!” he called out, too soft to hear probably, but he didn’t want to wake up any nosy neighbors. He knew better than to start running at a girl in the middle of the night on a deserted street though. Maybe she was old enough to drive him to the bus station Google Maps had pinpointed in downtown Clear Lake, which was a synonym for Bumfuck, Egypt, for sure, because that was definitely where he was. Even with his most charming smile, the odds were slim, but he’d managed crazier stunts. At least some girl wasn’t gonna hit him up for a BJ. “Excuse me!”
She was halfway across the broad street, not having noticed him yet, when a yellow glow built suddenly behind the crest of the hill. Eddie’s brain processed the reason for the brightening light faster than he could get the words out of his mouth.
If the car that barreled into sight hadn’t been flying at high speed . . .
If he’d managed to shout a warning more quickly . . .
The car swerved at the last second, but not enough.
The front passenger-side bumper of the car picked the girl up at the knees and flung her in the air. It was like watching a silent film, no sound registering except the sudden rush of wind or blood or adrenaline in his ears. Her arms flung wide. A cartwheel in midair.
Time jumped, and Eddie was at the corner, running into the middle of the street, feet slapping against the pavement. He’d shrugged off his massive duffel bag somewhere behind him.
His brain stuttered. Struggling to process the sensory input of his eyes, his ears, his nose.
He was close enough to smell the copper-penny brightness of blood. He wondered who’d left the irons in the fire too long at the smithy.
Someone had left a crumpled pile of coat and boots and blue jeans at the edge of the road.
Snakes of blond hair with black roots spilled over the frosted tips of grass blades that crowded the curb.
The car never stopped. It fishtailed after striking the girl and then straightened out again, punching down the road until Eddie jumped back as it sped by him. The white face in the side window was drawn with cartoonish lines of shock and horror, turning suddenly away as if to hide from him.
Gravel bit into his palms and his knees burned. He’d fallen in front of the girl, whose roots weren’t dark with anything except the spreading soak of blood.
God, so much blood.
You weren’t supposed to move someone who’d been injured like this. He knew that. Knew her back could be broken and maybe moving her would fuck her up even more. But he was pretty sure she had to be dead already, and her face was pressed into the gutter, eyes and lips and nose smooshed into the dead leaves gathered there. So he rolled her, just a bit. Until her head rested on his thighs, her shoulders on his knees, the limp weight of her a terrible thing. Her eyes were closed, her face smeared with dark stuff like camo paint on a soldier. The tiny gap between her lips filled with a wetness that rose as he watched, and gathered in the corners of her mouth before trickling onto her cheeks.
A bubble formed in the blood between her lips. Formed, stretched, then popped and disappeared.
He was shouting, had been shouting for a long time already, shouting for help and about fires, because nobody came for help but everyone liked a good fire. He tasted blood, maybe hers in the air, coating everything, even him, but his throat ached hard, and an unused corner of his brain wondered if he’d torn something from screaming.
Lights were coming on in the houses lining the silent street. Flicking on in second-story windows, but slowly. Too slowly. Like dominoes planted in honey.
He had a phone. He’d had a phone, at least, before he started running.
A hundred years ago, before he started running.
Before he shouted, Look out, too slowly to save a girl.
He was colder than ever now, with the dying girl—because surely she must be dying—draped limply across his thighs. The blood leaking from her mouth, from everywhere on her battered body, was soaking into his jeans, making them stick wetly to his skin.
Her eyelids fluttered once, barely lifting, as if she were waking up. He petted her hair, hardly daring to touch her, afraid of causing her more pain.
“You’re gonna be okay. I got you.” Which was fucking awful, because if you were probably dying and needing someone to make you feel safe, a drifter telling you, Don’t worry, I got you, wasn’t gonna cut it on the reassurance end of the scale. But there wasn’t anyone else around, so he kept repeating himself and waiting for far-off sirens to draw closer. “You’re gonna be okay. It’s okay.”
Everything faded out of focus, all his attention spiraling down to the slight rise and fall of the girl’s chest in her bloody winter coat as Eddie repeated the words softly, over and over again, telling her everything was all right, still shouting too because he couldn’t stop.
Nothing was all right. Nothing at all.
When lights and voices arrived, he stopped shouting. He was afraid to look up and see their faces. The girl was still breathing. He was still telling her it was going to be okay.
He didn’t want to read on anyone’s face that his words were a lie.
“Move aside, son. We’ve got her now.”
Hands slid between the girl’s skull and his thighs, big knuckles scraping against him. As soon as the ambulance guys shifted her, Eddie crab-walked backward through the gutter to get away. He couldn’t stop staring at his jeans, the spreading dark splotches that stained them from his knees to the hem of his hoodie.
Dried leaves stuck to his hands, crumbling under his palms.
Someone asked him what had happened, and he managed to get out a shaky, “Hit and run. A car. Threw her.”
Organized chaos erupted in front of him. Two EMTs worked as one to brace the girl’s neck with a foam collar, lift her onto a lowered gurney, and then hustle her to the open back doors of the ambulance that had slewed into the curb. A cop stood at the edge of the EMTs’ whirlwind, growling into a radio.
Nobody paid any attention to Eddie, his butt aching on the cold concrete of the curb, but that wasn’t going to last. Jesus. He raised his hands to scrub his face with his palms, then jerked and inhaled sharply at the blood inking his fingers.
Holy shit. He was in so much trouble. A stranger in town on a dark street with a dead girl, covered in her blood. What if they asked him where he’d come from?
Don’t be a fucking moron. Of course they’re going to ask you where you came from.
He had to get out of here.
Sooner or later someone was going to report the Nissan Sentra abandoned on the side of the highway on I-88. Bertie might not come down from his high long enough to notice his car was missing until midday. If Eddie was lucky, Bertie would assume it had been booted and towed and would spend another couple of hours dealing with the drones who answered the twenty-four-hour hotline for the city. But eventually he’d figure out that his car was gone. Gone just like Eddie was gone, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the connection.
Eddie had told himself he wasn’t stealing the car. Not exactly. He was just . . . borrowing it. Bertie had always told him to treat the car like it was his own, although he’d never actually meant it, of course. But Bertie had said it a hundred times, which meant Eddie wasn’t technically stealing the car. You couldn’t steal something that belonged to you. And anyway, he hadn’t planned on using it to get much past Champaign, figuring that was the farthest he could push it without getting into real trouble. Sure, Bertie would be pissed when Eddie texted him with wherever he ended up leaving the Sentra, but then he’d figured Bertie would call one of his trustafarian friends to pick him up and drive him downstate to retrieve the car.
Eddie’s ex never had enough money to keep the electricity and the gas on simultaneously, and eventually Bertie was going to give up and go crawling back to his rich parents for help. Sooner rather than later, no doubt. But in the meantime, his friends had enough money to keep him wasted twenty-four seven with the dregs of their drug orders. So the odds of that road trip happening without several bowls of pot were slim, and Eddie felt a pang of guilt at knowing another wasted driver was going to be on the road because of what he’d done.
He wasn’t far enough away from the city yet to tell Bertie where his car was. He’d only been on the road for six hours before the car broke down and the snarled city traffic meant he hadn’t gone more than a couple hundred miles. He needed to make sure he was good and gone from Illinois before texting Bertie. Even a pothead might get mad enough to call the cops if he thought Eddie was still in reach.
The car doesn’t fucking matter. That girl . . .
But it did fucking matter. Because all he wanted was to get out of this state and away from the cold and back to people who didn’t need to know where he came from or who he was or any damn thing about him at all. And getting tangled up in a police investigation was going to throw a wrench into his plans. Eddie started levering himself to his feet. He could feel terrible about that poor girl without wanting to spend a minute more than he had to in—
“Sir, please stay put until I can talk to you,” the cop barked at him, but in a way that felt more cop-in-a-hurry than like Eddie was in trouble.
Eddie sat back down on the curb.
No point. Not like they won’t see me walking down the street.
Might as well stay put and try not to get himself in any more trouble.
The ambulance peeled away from the curb with lights flashing, and two seconds later the cop was back on Eddie’s ass, demanding his name, address, home and work phone numbers, her brown lace-up boots practically nudging at Eddie’s shoes as she loomed over him.
“Rodrigues with an s, not a z. Portuguese, not Spanish. I don’t have an address. I’m traveling. Yes, I have a cell phone. No, I’m not employed at the moment.” Eddie knew every word out of his mouth was dragging him higher and higher on the cop’s #1 Suspect list, but his brain was slow.
“Okay, tell me what happened here. What did you see?”
Eddie didn’t want to think about what had happened. Didn’t want to tell it like a fucking fairy tale or a recap of an episode of Law & Order, but that girl . . .
That girl was probably dead by now, and he would remember the sight of her pinwheeling through the air for the rest of his life. Would remember that he hadn’t shouted in time to save her.
He wasn’t going to tell the cop about that part. He couldn’t. They’d lock him up for sure. Failure to Be a Good Samaritan or Stupid Fucking Dumbassness or some charge like that.
He couldn’t tell the cop about how he could’ve prevented the accident, but Eddie could point the law in the direction of the driver who’d fucking run a girl down with his car and then just kept going.
Hell, maybe I didn’t save her, but I didn’t fucking kill her. And I didn’t leave her. I stayed.
“There was a car. It didn’t stop.” He could get that much out before choking.
“A hit and run?”
He glanced up. The cop was writing things down in a tiny notebook as she fired more questions at him about how long ago it happened, in which direction the car drove off, had it swerved at all . . .
“What kind of car? Did you get a plate number?”
“No. I . . . It happened so fast. It was a regular car. I mean, a . . . what do you call them?” Words were fading in his mouth faster than he could say them, a gray cloud hovering over his tongue. “A sedan. Four doors. I think. A dark color. I think.”
He was waiting to be asked what he was doing here, who had given him permission to walk the streets of this nice, normal town.
Nice, normal town where people run you down and kill you.
“Did you get the plate number?” the cop repeated.
Guilt swamped him. Useless. He was so fucking useless. Eddie shook his head. “No. It happened too fast.”
He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off that flying body. Even the driver’s face had just been a streaky blur of pale skin and a dark slash of eyebrows.
Shivers wracked his body. He turned his face away, looking for something, anything else to distract him long enough for the images to fade.
A man was walking across the lawn of a big house three doors down. With broad shoulders, his head hunched down into the collar of his jacket, the man strode with a rolling gait Eddie imagined sea captains of old deployed on their ship decks. His hair was short and dark, with gray patches at the temples, and the strong line of his jaw blurred into the night with a way-beyond-five-o’clock shadow.
The man nodded as he came to a halt at the edge of whatever circle of politeness kept people from standing on each other’s toes. His eyes skimmed over Eddie, pausing on his face for a long moment that made Eddie’s breath catch.
Surreal, being clocked by another gay man in a situation like this.
Eddie turned back to the cop in time to catch her return nod to the man.
“Christine. Need anything?”
“Permission to shoot and a stiff drink?” she answered sourly, frowning down at Eddie.
He was pretty sure he wasn’t the one she wanted to shoot.
One hundred percent sure would’ve been fine and fucking dandy though.
The man named Grayson barked out a laugh.
“Mr. Rodrigues—” she began again.
The radio on the cop’s hip crackled with static and then a distorted voice.
“Shit.” The cop tilted her head while she listened, eyebrows scrunched up, then put her hand on her belt radio. “I’ve got a helluva mess here, John. Can you handle it?”
When only half the conversation was intelligible and you were covered in blood, tuning out was easy. Eddie’s brain was most of the way shut down, his attention focused on the shivers still quaking his body. The man who looked like a sea captain squatted down next to him.
A soft jacket dropped onto his shoulders. Eddie shrugged it off reflexively. The man caught it before it hit the ground.
“I’ve got . . .” Eddie waved at his pants. Blood.
“You’re cold.” The man’s voice was firm as he lifted Eddie’s left arm and slid it into the sleeve of the navy-blue fleece, dressing him like a child. “It’ll wash.”
“Jesus Christ.” The cop was back. Her shiny boots planted themselves in front of Eddie’s feet. “I’ve got to get over to the Walmart out on County Line Road before John has to shoot someone.”
This wasn’t the kind of town where a lot of shit went down in the middle of the night, Eddie bet.
“Black Friday tomorrow. Tonight.” The cop’s voice curled with disgust.
“They’re fighting over TVs?”
“I wish. We got a family feud breaking out in the parking lot. They normally keep their distance, but everybody’s been in the parking lot since sunset, waiting for the doors to open. Now they’re rioting. Goddamn. Frigging Romeo and Juliet with tire irons.”
“Montagues and Capulets.”
The cop snorted. “You would remember that high school crap.”
“Hey, I’m not the one who threw up on stage, Juliet,” the man crouched next to Eddie shot back. Before the cop could open her mouth, though, the Grayson guy must have thought better of arguing. “Sorry.”
“Listen, sir. Mr. Rodrigues.” The cop’s attention was firmly back on Eddie. He looked up. “Are you staying around here?”
“No, ma’am.” He knew better than to speak to police without bowing his head, even metaphorically. “I’m on my way to Texas. I was just headed for the bus station. I had a lift drop me off nearby.” Which sounded like he’d been hitchhiking, in a state that strongly frowned upon that activity, but that was better than admitting he’d abandoned a sort-of stolen car on the highway.
“Of course you were,” the officer said, then shook her head as if realizing how her frustration sounded. “Sorry. I don’t mean anything by that.”
“No problem.” Always be polite to cops.
“Double shit.” The cop rubbed her forehead like it hurt. “Gray, I need to ask a favor. Can you put Mr. Rodrigues up for the night?”
“What?” Mr. Have-My-Coat stood up in a hurry.
“I need to get his statement, but I gotta get out to the Walmart before somebody caves in a skull. You’ve got plenty of room in that monstrosity of yours, right? The town’ll reimburse you for the equivalent of a motel room.”
The big man grunted, clearly unhappy.
Yay. Just what Eddie needed. To be left like a kid in need of a babysitter with a man who’d been strong-armed into putting him up for the night.
“Can’t he go to a motel?”
“You want to drive him? Mr. Rodrigues here is apparently on foot. And fork out the cash for the room? Be my guest. Just let me know where you drop him and get a receipt.”
Eddie could see the emotions rolling across the man’s face like the tide. Hope, frustration, resignation. Probably not a ton of nearby motels in a town this size. A long drive after midnight clearly didn’t appeal.
“Fine. I’ll put him up.” The man scrubbed at his face with both hands. “Jesus.”
He stomped off down the block in the direction Eddie had come from.
“Hey, don’t do me any favors,” Eddie snapped, scrambling to his feet.
“Relax,” the cop said with a tired smile. “Mr. Croft doesn’t bite. He’s just a hermit who doesn’t like being forced to interact with the human race.”
That his bark held no bite was something Eddie was going to have to take on faith, apparently. He tugged the zipper of his borrowed jacket up. The casual kindness of the loan made him want to trust these two strangers enough to take the man up on his offer of a bed for the night, but that was a damn stupid idea.
Maybe it wasn’t even up to him whether or not he stayed, though.
“Do I have to stay? Am I under arrest or something?” he asked, stomach churning as he pushed out the words.
“No, son. You’re not under arrest. But I don’t know if Lily Rose is gonna make it through the night, so it’s important, what you saw.” The cop looked him in the eyes, none of that authority intimidation bullshit shining out of her. Just plain old asking for help. “You understand me. I can’t make you stay, but I sure would appreciate it.”
Eddie dropped his eyes, staring hard at the pavement between their feet. His battered running shoes looking all kinds of fucked up next to the shine of that polish.
The sticky wetness of his jeans lay cold against his thighs. He couldn’t leave town with that girl’s blood all over him. Not and wake up in the morning without loathing himself.
“Just sack out and I’ll be by in the morning to get the rest of your statement.” She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
Eddie concentrated on not flinching or pulling away. After what felt like seventeen years of her staring him in the face as if trying to read his mind, she sighed and dropped her hand.
“Can I count on you?”
Eddie snorted. Most people didn’t bother to ask that question. Took one look at him and just assumed the answer was no.
“No problem.” Yes, problem. Fucking blood and dead girls and sea captain’s coats and being left in the dark with very big strangers.
The cop’s mind-reading skills were clearly for shit.
A thump at Eddie’s feet turned out to be his duffel bag, which the man had apparently retrieved from the end of the block. A softer thump accompanied the drop of his cell phone on top of the bag. Eddie pocketed it without a word. He’d totally forgotten about dropping his phone in the snow when he’d started running toward the girl. That the man had spotted it was . . . nice.
“Thanks, Gray,” the cop called out, jogging over to her waiting cruiser.
The big man shrugged uncomfortably and waved as she pulled away from the curb. Then he turned to Eddie, brows lowered over his dark eyes. The wind pressed the fabric of the man’s shirt against his body, making him shiver.
“C’mon. Guess you’re with me.”
The man—Grayson Croft, the cop had said—pivoted and walked off down the block, heading for a house that looked like a shadowed castle with turrets and a dungeon, probably.
Eddie swiped a hand under his runny nose, and hauled his bag to his shoulder. The last thing he wanted was to be on some cop’s radar as the guy who left town without making a statement. Especially since she had his info, and Eddie was only off the grid some of the time.
Plus, he was so cold, his bones ached.
Down the block, the man strode across the lawn and up the front steps of the house, leaving the golden rectangle of an open door behind him after heading inside.
About Amy Jo Cousins
Amy Jo Cousins writes contemporary romance and erotica about smart people finding their own best kind of smexy. She lives in Chicago with her son, where she tweets too much, sometimes runs really far, and waits for the Cubs to win the World Series.
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