Happy Birthday, Amber!
I’m thrilled to be a part of the giant celebration, and I’ve got a wee birthday bit featuring the characters from a book I recently expanded and revised, Illusion of Life.
Tyler switched the tray of deviled eggs with the chips and dip, then straightened the stack of napkins. Again. The lasagnas for dinner were already in the oven, the salads were ready, and a big birthday cake sat in the fridge.
“Dude. You need to relax.” Tyler’s best friend, Craig, shoulder bumped him before stealing a deviled egg and shoving it in his mouth.
Tyler glared, then swiftly moved the remaining eggs to fill in the hole. Craig gave him a goofy grin, slightly distorted by how full his mouth was.
Craig swallowed. “Like hell you are. And you better calm down or Mandy’s going to do worse to push your buttons than steal a deviled egg.”
Tyler glanced at his sister, who was thankfully too involved in conversation with her husband and a couple of Tyler’s friends to notice his agitation. No surprise Craig called him out on his big fat lie, because he was nervous. Extremely.
“Breathe. This isn’t the first party you’ve ever hosted.”
“I know, but…”
“Max will love it. He loves you, he’ll love this.”
Tyler shrugged and fussed with napkins again. Craig was a great friend, and one of the few who knew Max’s true origin, but Tyler didn’t know how the love of his life would react to a surprise party.
Max had been a Depression-era painter who’d been cursed by a vengeful benefactor, and had spent the intervening decades trapped in a painting. Tyler had recently managed to break the curse and they fell in love. Max had been awake and aware the whole time and picked up a lot of information through television, but not everything.
Most of their friends thought Max had been born and raised in a low-tech commune, so they’d gotten used to his odd gaps of knowledge, but Tyler didn’t like putting Max in uncomfortable situations. It hadn’t occurred to him until just now that a surprise birthday party might qualify as one of those situations.
The rattle of keys in the lock made everyone freeze and turn their heads like meerkats toward the door.
The door swung open, and everyone yelled “Happy Birthday!”
Max froze in the door, eyes wide as he took in the balloons, the banner, the bevy of assorted friends. Tyler had considered asking him to grab some more eggs on his way home from work, but now he was glad he hadn’t – Max would have dropped them in his shock.
Tyler rushed to the door to coax him inside.
“What’s going on?” Max whispered.
“Birthday party. For you.” Tyler laughed nervously. “Uh… surprise?”
“Really?” Max spun around, this time appearing to actually recognize the guests Tyler had invited, including a few from the tattoo parlor Max where had recently started apprenticing. Max left his side to greet every one, and several people hugged him, even though Max was normally much of a hugger.
Tyler moved back near the food, unease tightening his belly. Something was a little weird about how Max had responded. Had he made a colossal mistake with this party?
“Everything okay?” Craig snagged another deviled egg and ate it, gaze expectantly on Tyler.
“I don’t know. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”
Craig shrugged. “What’s done is done. Besides, your heart was in the right place. He’s not going to be angry about it.”
Tyler bit his lip. No, Max wouldn’t be angry—he rarely got angry about anything—but Tyler didn’t want to make Max unhappy. Not since Max had made him the happiest he’d ever been.
Max’s presence broke the protective field Tyler had tried to build around the snacks, and guests crowded around the counter, picking through the offerings and refreshing their drinks.
Several minutes later, Tyler realized Max was missing. Although he might have just gone to the bathroom, Tyler couldn’t squelch that niggle of concern.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Craig nodded. “Yup, I’ll mingle.” Craig pushed away from the counter where he’d been leaning negligently. “Or eat a few more eggs.”
Tyler rolled his eyes, but his heart wasn’t in it. Honestly, the party shouldn’t even have been that much of a surprise. Tyler had been cooking a lot over the past few days.
Since there was almost no way Max could have snuck out without Tyler seeing him, he headed immediately to the large master bedroom he shared with Max.
Tyler stepped into the dim room and closed the door gently behind him. Max was slumped, head in hands, on one of the comfy reading chairs that sat under the window.
“Max, are you okay?”
When Max lifted his head, a sheen of moisture glinted in Max’s eyes. “Oh no. Max, I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m so sorry. I can send everyone home.”
“What?” Max launched out of the chair. “No. I’m not upset.”
“But… you’re crying.” Tyler grimaced. Maybe he shouldn’t have come out and said that.
Max strode to him and wrapped him in those arms that made Tyler feel so damn safe. “Okay, yes, I’m crying and I didn’t want everyone to see it. But it’s because I’m so happy. Thank you so much for the party. I can’t believe so many people came.”
Tyler relaxed for the first time that day, snuggling into Max’s muscular warmth. “And you’re not angry or anything?”
“Of course not. I was just a little overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t quite believe that this is my life, and that I get to spend it with a man I love.”
Of course, Max had spent many more years alone than Tyler had to endure, but he understood. Sometimes he didn’t quite believe this wasn’t a dream.
“Come on. We should get out there and be social.”
“You sure I can’t thank you right now? Here in the dark?” Max’s voice had deepened, breath ghosting past Tyler’s ear, making him shiver.
“Mmm. I’d love to, but if we’re gone too much longer, everyone will know why we disappeared. And if nothing else, my sister won’t be content to politely ignore it.”
Max straightened up suddenly, clearing his throat. “Right. Yes. We should get back out there.”
Laughter bubbled up in Tyler’s throat. His man was probably pink with embarrassment—he definitely hadn’t gotten used to how openly people discussed sex, and he knew Mandy well enough by now to know she’d tease them both mercilessly. But he’d make sure Max “thanked” him thoroughly and possibly more than once – after their guests left. First, though, Max needed to go enjoy his birthday party, the first he’d had in over eighty years.
Newly single Tyler Williams ought to be out partying every night, sampling the buffet of gay men Toronto has to offer. Carefree and casual has never been his style, even less so now that he was tenure track history professor approaching thirty, but he has a better chance of finding Mr. Right in a club than on an app.
Distraction from his dismal love life comes in the form of a housewarming gift – a life sized portrait of a gorgeous naked man, complete with a mystery.
Maxwell Friedland, a Depression-era artist, went missing shortly after posing for the portrait, presumably murdered by his lover. Finding out more about Maxwell and his disappearance plays right into Tyler’s love of both history and murder mysteries, but before long, Tyler finds himself obsessed with the man in the painting. It’s not long before he starts treating Max like a silent companion and sounding board. Max doesn’t judge or tell him he’s a failure at dating or cheat on him. Everything he learns about Max makes him yearn for a man long dead.
Trapped in the painting by a curse, Max has spent decades longing for oblivion. Until Tyler. Tyler is everything Max would have wanted for himself, and it doesn’t take many of Tyler’s one-sided conversations for Max to start caring more than he should. For all that Tyler has friends and family, there’s a deep-seated loneliness in him, one that Max wants to erase. But the thickness of canvas trapping him might as well be miles of stone for all that Max could be with Tyler for real.
Falling in love might be the worst curse of all.
NOTE: This is an expanded, revised version of a previously published work. The title and publisher have changed.
KC Burn has been writing for as long as she can remember and is a sucker for happy endings (of all kinds). After moving from Toronto to Florida for her husband to take a dream job, she discovered a love of gay romance and fulfilled a dream of her own — getting published. After a few years of editing web content by day, and neglecting her supportive, understanding hubby and needy cat at night to write stories about men loving men, she was uprooted yet again and now resides in California. Writing is always fun and rewarding, but writing about her guys is the most fun she’s had in a long time, and she hopes you’ll enjoy them as much as she does.
Leave a comment for a chance to win either an e-copy of Illusion of Life or an audio copy of Tartan Candy.