Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rabbit Wars by Whitley Gray


After two months in Dubai supervising a construction project, architect Jefferson Fontaine returns home to find his boyfriend boffing the dog walker. Reeling, Jeff grabs his dignity and departs. The arrival of a mysterious wicker box and a letter requesting Jeff’s presence for the reading of a local entrepreneur’s will sends Jeff to his hometown of Crooked Creek, Colorado. The last thing he expects is to encounter an old flame who disappeared fifteen years ago.

After high school, Ashton Eiker hoped to start a future with the boy he loved, but his world crashed when Jeff refused to bring Ash along with him to college. Ash ran from the rejection, but returned to Crooked Creek a year ago, bringing his confectionary talents and opening a chocolate shop. When the great uncle of a childhood friend names Ash in his will, he could hardly anticipate getting a helping of his past in the mix.

Jeff and Ash jointly inherit the historic Jeremiah Rabbit House, and are forced to work together to meet the terms of the will or neither will have the mansion. It’s a battle of opinions, shared personal history, and present attraction, but the true prize isn’t the Rabbit legacy. It's the chance at something better.

Towel wrapped around his hips, Jeff stretched out on the king-size bed, freshly showered, a vodka and tonic on the bedside table. The lofty comforter rose around him in a soft cloud. The rain had turned to snow, and icy flakes ticked against the windows. Another impersonal hotel room decorated in neutral shades--he could be in Dubai or Chile or Canada. Ironic that he got to spend his first night back in the States in a generic hotel.

A hell of a day. He’d had more emotional whiplash than he could take. Arriving home tired but happy. Catching Deak fucking the kid. Disappointment overwritten with duplicity about the job assignments. And through it all, Deak’s betrayal on every level. How much influence had Deak had on Jeff’s assigned duties? How many guys had Deak fucked while Jeff had languished overseas on a job, lonely and homesick?

Jeff shook his head. He’d been so stupid. Blind, really.

It was past midnight, and he hadn’t slept since leaving Dubai; he ought to be exhausted enough to sleep for days, but his mind wouldn’t slow down enough to let him relax. Thinking about sleep had him thinking about sex, which led to thinking about the whole disaster at home again.

He squeezed his eyes shut. He and Deak were history. Done. Strange, but Jeff didn’t feel heartbroken, just humiliated and stupid. If it had been love, shouldn’t he have been in agony? At least shed a few tears? Been willing to talk things out?

He pinched the bridge of his nose and sat up. The best idea would be to eat and then try to get some sleep. Tomorrow he could figure out where to go. After he’d gotten to the room, he’d called three airlines without success. Apparently the young and clueless were all on spring break, filling up flights and hotels everywhere Jeff had considered going. The only available tropical options required a bigger bank account than Jeff’s. Maybe something would open up. His gaze landed on the carry-on. Might as well see what the attorney in Crooked Creek needed this time.

He crossed to the table and found the envelope in the bag. Now that he checked it over, it seemed more like a wedding invitation, creamy paper hand-addressed to him. No one back home would ever invite Jeff to that kind of event. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d been back in the past fifteen years. He tore the envelope open and pulled out a piece of heavy card-stock stationery.

Dear Mr. Fontaine:

In accordance with his last wishes, Dalton Rabbit has instructed me to invite you to a reading of his last will and testament, to take place at a mutually convenient time between yourself and the others invited to the reading. Please contact me when you return to the country, and we can arrange the meeting.

Sincerely, Peter J. Corley, attorney-at-law

A phone number followed. Huh. Pete Corley had taken care of Jeff’s dad’s estate. This was pretty formal compared to those communications. The last-will-and-testament reference...what was that all about? Very odd, but then the Rabbits had been a weird bunch. He’d gone to school with Pete and with Raleigh Rabbit III. Raleigh had lived in the Jeremiah Rabbit house with his mom Kitty and great-uncle Dalton.

Jeremiah Rabbit had been a gold miner who struck it big and built a one-of-a-kind house from a crazy combination of stone, wood, and slate in a mix of several different styles. Designed and constructed in 1890, the old Victorian had been a jewel in her heyday. Unfortunately that heyday had been before Jeff had been born. Still, the place was the reason Jeff had become interested in architecture. As a kid, Jeff had hung out there with Raleigh, back when the Rabbits had maintained the boxwood maze and topiary, the pool, and the shabby but elegant carousel.

He tapped the card on the table and sat in the chair, wrapped in his towel. Was it for sale?

It would make a fabulous project. He could see it now: HISTORIC HOME RESTORED BY TOP ARCHITECT JEFFERSON FONTAINE. Most of the work could be done from a distance, if a contractor supervised locally. It would be a big advance for his career.

It would cost a fortune. Jeff might be comfortable, but he didn’t have that kind of money. And what were the chances the house was on the market? The Rabbits had closed the house up nearly sixteen years ago, but to the best of his knowledge, it had never been sold.

What exactly had old Dalton bequeathed to Jeff? Why did it have to be done in person? Jeff couldn’t just drop everything to attend the reading of the will. But that fit with the Rabbit family’s peculiar ways. And that house... Jeff had loved the place and considered Raleigh to have been a close friend.

Well, the call to Pete would have to wait until Jeff got his life in order. Someone knocked on the door, and Jeff jumped up, heart pounding. The last thing he needed was a confrontation with Deak. But Deak would have no idea where Jeff had gone. Still in his towel, he tiptoed over to the door and looked through the fish-eye. An acne-pocked waiter stood there with a room-service cart.

Jeff threw on a bathrobe and opened the door a crack. “Uh, hey.”

The waiter cocked his head. “Fontaine?”

“Yeah.” The rich scent of grilled fish, warm bread, and coffee rose from the cart, and his stomach growled. God, it smelled wonderful. Jeff opened the door all the way. “Um, go ahead and bring it in.”

Giving Jeff a wary look, the man wheeled the cart to the middle of the room.

“Hang on.” Jeff retrieved his wallet, but the server bolted before Jeff could hand over a few dollars. Strange guy.

Jeff pulled lids off the food: red snapper with mango-lime sauce, grilled asparagus, and wild rice. The first honest-to-God American cuisine he’d seen in months, and the meal looked fabulous.

The first bite of fish tasted like heaven, and he demolished his dinner in fifteen minutes. It might be better for the room-service guy to find the cart in the hall. Jeff wheeled it out the door, parked it against the wall, and shut himself in his room. Now what? TV? Sleep would be the thing to do. He was running on empty.

On the desk, the package had slipped partway out. The mystery box. He picked it up and checked the label. It was addressed to him in unfamiliar curlicue handwriting. When he jiggled it, something shifted inside. He sat on the bed and retrieved his penknife from inside his suitcase. After slitting the tape on one end, he carefully opened the flaps and pulled out the contents.

Huh. An interesting basket that looked like a wicker cigar box: oblong with a hinged top. The lid had an illustration of a winking, bowing white rabbit in parti-color hose and colorful red, green, and blue paisley smock. The picture looked vaguely familiar. He released the catch and hesitated. What if it was something bad? Everything else today had been one insult after another. He locked gazes with the rabbit.

“You have something bad planned, Mr. Hare?”

The rabbit seemed to wink at him. He dropped the box, and it landed on the bed with a soft plop. Holy shit. He’d started to hallucinate. After rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, he checked again. The rabbit didn’t move for the count of ten. Okay. Rolling his shoulders, Jeff flipped open the lid.

On top was a card hand-addressed with his name. He lifted it out, checked the back. Blank. Beneath the card was a trio of foil-wrapped chocolate rabbits nestled in spring-green velvet. The design on the foil made the chocolate rabbits’ outfits resemble that of the one on the top of the box. Judging by the “fur” colors, Jeff had received one each of white, dark, and milk chocolate.

Clothed rabbits... A shiver went down his spine, and he swallowed. These weren’t just any chocolate rabbits. These were White Rabbit Chocolate Company rabbits, made in his hometown of Crooked Creek, Colorado.

Or formerly made. The factory had closed over a decade ago. Had Pete sent these?

Jeff closed his eyes and inhaled. This was definitely fresh chocolate, and the expensive kind. A complex aroma, with cocoa and spices combined with fruit and nuts, as if an artist had taken unlikely ingredients and assembled them into something fabulous and unexpected.

The White Rabbit chocolates Jeff remembered from childhood had been excellent, but not anything like this, not smelling of heaven and exotic locations. Had someone reopened the factory?

Licking his lips, he selected the white-chocolate rabbit. Taking care not to rip the foil, he unwrapped it, held it under his nose like a good cigar, and took a sniff. Satiny white chocolate with hints of honey, hazelnut, and...ginger? He took a bite and let it melt on his tongue.

Definitely ginger--a subtle kick that made him warm all over. Visions of Crooked Creek filled his mind: the festive look of the old brick storefronts downtown lit up by dozens of tiny lights, the pleasure of lounging around the pool with Raleigh, the joy of hiking through the woods.

Funny how the chocolate triggered those thoughts; Jeff hadn’t thought about Raleigh in a long time. He took another nibble, and the sweet, low note of hazelnut came through. He and Raleigh had had some good times. And Ash. Lying on the grass with Ash on a summer night, gazing up at a million stars...

“Tell me something no one else knows about you,” Ash whispered.

Jeff stared up at the October night sky. The stars were scattered like backlit diamonds on dark velvet. “Like what?”

“Your deepest, darkest secret.” Ash cuddled a little closer, and Jeff pulled the blanket up around them.

There was no way Jeff could reveal the worst secret, not even to Ash. Jeff couldn’t wrap his mind around the fear, let alone confess it. Instead he tilted his head and kissed Ash full on the mouth. As usual, Ash tasted like peppermint gum and dark chocolate. “You,” Jeff whispered. “You’re my secret.”

Ash broke the kiss with a snort. “Raleigh knows.”

“Not everything.”

“He can guess.”

Jeff claimed Ash’s mouth and shifted half on top of him, silencing him.

There had never been anyone else like Ash.

That was ancient history. Regret curled in Jeff’s stomach. He didn’t want to think about Ash. In two bites Jeff finished the chocolate. The honey-and-gingered chocolate tickled his tongue.

He could go to Crooked Creek. He hadn’t been there for eighteen months, hadn’t shown up when he should have, thanks to work. After he’d missed the funeral three months ago, it hadn’t seemed urgent. But now...if Pete could round up the others for the reading, this would be a good time for Jeff to get his dad’s estate in order as long as he was in town. Scoring plane tickets for Denver would be easier than wangling short-notice passage for somewhere tropical.

A sense of calm settled over him. This felt right. He’d call Pete and arrange the meeting as soon as possible. Gazing at the wicker box, he ran his thumb over the fancy-dressed rabbit. Maybe he would go hiking by the old factory. Or camping or fishing. Hell, he could pan for gold if he wanted to. He could spend his entire vacation in Crooked Creek.

Jeff had plenty else to do there too. His dad’s death had left work in its wake.

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