It was closing time. Finn shelved a few more books and made one last round through the aisles, though it had been a slow evening and he was almost certain the shop was empty. When Finn was sure he was alone, the slender, flaxen blond leaned against one of the bookshelves behind him and allowed himself a long, lamenting sigh.
He had been so certain Seth would drop in that night. It had been several months since the tall man had begun frequenting his shop, and Finn had been actively fantasizing about him ever since the first time he’d seen him. It was about all the blond could do—he was too self-conscious to actually pursue the handsome man.
Hugging a book to his chest and closing his eyes, Finn indulged in his favorite scenario and pictured Seth walking up behind him. The tall man, with his dark, cropped hair, would reach over him for a volume on one of the high shelves and ‘accidentally’ press up against his back. As Seth was glancing at his book, one of his arms would casually slip about the blond’s waist and hold him tight. Slowly, the hand on his waist would drift lower, creeping down Finn’s body until Seth cupped him intimately. And all the while, the dark-haired man would have his eyes turned to his book, acting as if he were unaware of what his body was doing to the other man. Finn would be held captive, trying not to moan as Seth toyed with him.
A large clock on the wall chimed, interrupting Finn’s daydreaming. The blond sighed. So much for fantasy.
Finn shut off the lights and grabbed his coat. It was Friday night and the shop would be opening late the next day. He’d bother with checking the register in the morning. Tonight he just wanted to get home and get into bed.
As he stepped outside, Finn tightened his scarf about his neck. Though spring had come, the nights were still chilly. Pulling out his keys, the man fidgeted with the stubborn lock on the front door and jumped when he heard an unexpected voice behind him.
“Oh, you’re already closed?”
The blond turned around to find Seth’s hazel eyes looking back at him.
Finn’s heart skipped a beat, but he recovered quickly. He smiled regretfully and gave the other man a nod. “Yes, but if you were coming for that compilation of Oscar Wilde, it hasn’t arrived yet anyways.”
“I see,” Seth replied, looking disappointed.
The blond couldn’t help but smile wider as he looked at the man. Seth’s strong features were softened by the unconscious pout of his lips and somehow he reminded Finn of a sulking puppy. The shopkeeper was always pleased that Seth seemed to share the same obsession for literature that he did, and he had never met another man so smitten with poetry. Seth waited as anxiously as a child for every volume Finn ordered for him—many of which were rare and rather difficult to find. Not that the blond minded. Seth’s demanding orders were what kept him coming back to Finn’s small store.
Finn reflected on how surprised he’d been when the darkly handsome man had first begun placing his requests for various classic poetry collections. Seth—with his tall, broad frame and natural good-looks—would easily be taken as someone more interested in sports than literature.
“I wish I’d gotten here in time to look around, but work ran late. I wanted to have something new to read this weekend,” the dark-haired man explained, looking a bit frustrated and worn.
“Work’s been hectic for you lately, it seems,” Finn noted.
Seth gave a chuckle. “Well, it’s that time of year.”
The blond nodded, but didn’t comment. He didn’t want to point out that Seth hadn’t actually told him what he did for a living and Finn had no idea what the man was referring to.
“Finn, have you eaten dinner yet? I’ve barely eaten all day. How about we get something together?”
For a moment, the blond blinked at him dumbly, then replied, “Y-yes. I mean, no I haven’t eaten. Dinner sounds good.”
“Great. There’s a place right near here I always go to. I think you’ll like it.”
Finn just nodded and hoped his reply hadn’t sounded as stupid to Seth as it had in his own ears. It was hard for him to believe the man had just asked him to dinner, although he’d done it in such a casual way that Finn had difficulty interpreting whether or not this actually constituted a date. The blond was fairly certain Seth preferred men, but that didn’t necessarily mean he viewed Finn romantically.
As they walked, the shopkeeper shook his worries from his brain. He always thought too much about everything. Tonight he would just try to enjoy himself.
* * *
“So, Whitman is your favorite?” Finn asked, as the men waited for the dessert to arrive. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” he said, smiling in a way that lit up his face.
After they’d sat down at the restaurant (and Finn ordered a bottle of wine), the blond had managed to relax. The two men had fallen into easy conversation about their tastes in music and poetry.
“Oh, no? And why is that?” Seth challenged, a playful glimmer in his eye. He had been secretly thrilled when Finn accepted his invitation and he was immensely pleased that the evening was going so smoothly.
“I don’t know. Just something about you,” the other man replied shyly. As he spoke, Finn’s pale blond hair fell into his eyes.
Across from him, Seth reined in his urge to gently brush the hair back from the man’s face. Finn’s fine, flaxen locks never seemed to stay put when the man tucked them behind his ears. Seth wondered if perhaps the shopkeeper unconsciously used his hair as a curtain to veil his eyes, since the strands conveniently slipped out of place whenever he looked flushed or embarrassed. Ever since Seth had met him, he’d wanted to run his fingers through that hair.
The waiter stepped up with their dessert at that moment and the dark-haired man pulled himself from his musings.
“You know,” Seth said after a moment of silence, “I have to confess that when I first saw you, I thought you were just a part-timer at the store. You looked too young to be the owner.”
“I get that a lot,” Finn replied, a hint of exasperation in his voice, “but I’m not that young, I’m nearly 33.”
The blond man looked at least ten years younger, but his seeming youth wasn’t the only thing that had surprised Seth. Somehow, he’d (rather foolishly) envisioned the owner of the quaint, specialty bookstore to be an elderly woman—complete with bifocals and blue hair.
He recalled his first visit to the bookshop with vivid clarity. Seth had been in search of a rare edition of Byron for months, and eventually was directed to the small store by one of his clients.
When Seth saw the lithe blond man sitting at the front desk, he’d been immediately taken with him. Finn’s pale hair and thoughtful, blue-green eyes stirred him, but the man didn’t notice him, so engrossed was he in his reading. Seth waited in front of him for several minutes before the other man finally looked up.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Can I help you?”
With a smile that sweet, it was impossible for Seth to be annoyed. The dark-haired man inquired about the edition he was searching for and the shopkeeper assured him he’d track it down.
“Is this your first time here?” the blond asked, as he filled out the order form.
“I thought so. We’re so small that I usually get to know all the regulars.”
“Oh, I see,” Seth remarked, wondering how long the young man had been working there.
As if in answer to his silent musings, the blond told him, “I’m the owner here. My name’s Finn.” He held out his hand and the tall man shook it, looking a bit surprised.
Misinterpreting Seth’s look, the blond said, “Unusual name, I know. My family’s originally from Scandinavia.”
Finn. Somehow it fit him. The name sounded like a sprite or some other mythological figure and the blond’s ethereal beauty certainly matched the image. The man’s family origins explained the gorgeous pale hair and ivory skin.
If Seth hadn’t already been attracted to him, the knowledge that Finn actually owned and operated the establishment would certainly have sparked his interest. And the more he got to know the shopkeeper, the more intrigued he became.
“I’m still amazed that you have a successful business at your age,” said Seth.
“It’s just a bookstore,” the other man replied, scraping his empty plate.
Shaking his head, Seth replied, “It’s your bookstore. You had to start from scratch all on your own and you made it work. I envy that kind of courage.”
“Honestly, it’s nothing that impressive—or courageous,” Finn protested, feeling awkward and blushing at the other man’s praise.
Seth leaned his chin on his hand and his eyes drifted out the window. “I’ve always needed more structure in my work, in my life.”
“I think it’s just whatever works for you,” the blond said. “I worked in an office when I first got out of school and it drove me crazy. I should’ve known I’d have to go into business for myself. I always hated people trying to tell me what to do and didn’t have much respect for authority.” Eying the quiet man with a grin, Seth told him, “You don’t exactly seem like the rebellious type.”
Finn gave him a smirk and then smiled good-naturedly. “Maybe not, but I’m very stubborn.
“There are times I wish I had more structure, though, or someone else to shoulder the responsibilities,” Finn admitted. “There’s always something more to worry about with your own business. Taxes are a mess to deal with and—”
“Oh! Well I could help you there,” the hazel-eyed man said suddenly, beaming. “I’ve worked with small businesses before. I’m sure I could get you a good deal.” Seth stopped when he saw the other man eying him as if a light bulb had just turned on in his brain.
Then Finn gave a soft chuckle and smiled. “So that’s what you do! A CPA. I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time.”
“I never mentioned it?”
The blond shook his head.
“You don’t really fit the image of your profession then, either,” Finn teased gently. He sipped his wine and grinned.
“Indeed?” Seth replied, his good humor restored by the other man’s smile. “And what do I look like to you?”
“A prince,” Finn blurted out, before he could stop himself. The blond immediately put down his wine and silently cursed the alcohol running through his system. It was a shame that he was too embarrassed to meet Seth’s eyes. If he had, Finn would have seen the seductive light shining in the other man’s hazel depths.
“I see,” was all Seth replied, hiding his smile behind his wine glass as he enjoyed the deep scarlet blush that was creeping over the blond’s cheeks.
Finn was more subdued during the rest of the evening and, when they exited the restaurant, Seth decided it was too soon to ask the man to his apartment. It seemed a shame. The dark-haired man desperately wanted to take advantage of the shy blond as he stood in the glow of the streetlight—his cheeks still flushed from embarrassment and inebriation. However, he couldn’t keep himself from asking Finn out to dinner on two other occasions the following week.
For his part, Finn was at a loss. Seth had made no advances toward him and the blond couldn’t figure out if he wanted simple friendship or something more. Though he was hopeful that the man was interested in him, Finn had a tendency to fall for men that tumbled him into bed on the first date. It was both pleasing and frustrating to think that Seth might just be taking his time to get to know him before moving forward.
The following Saturday, Finn waited anxiously all day to see Seth, but the day grew old and the sun set without his appearance. Luckily, the store was unusually busy and it kept the blond man’s mind occupied. Then, just before closing, Seth walked through the door.
“Seth,” Finn said, beaming, “I’m glad you stopped by. Your order finally arrived.” The blond was unbelievably grateful to have an excuse for his irrepressible joy at the handsome man’s appearance.
In between attending to the last few patrons in the shop, Finn searched his desk for Seth’s order, but found it missing. When they were finally alone, the man apologized. “Sorry for making you wait, but… I think I must have forgotten the book at home,” Finn informed him with chagrin.
“I thought you had all the orders sent directly to the store?” the other man asked, sounding surprised, but not at all bothered by the news.
Looking a little like a schoolboy caught without his homework, Finn twisted one of his flaxen locks and explained, “Usually I do, but special orders come to my house.”
With a mischievous smile, Seth teased, “So, my orders are special, are they?”
Finn flushed pink at the insinuation in the man’s voice. “Well, they’re usually rare and so… yes, they’re special.”
The lithe blond looked undeniably attractive when he was so flustered and Seth took secret pleasure in knowing he could make him blush so easily. It was getting more and more difficult to hold himself back when he was with Finn. The blond’s quiet presence and shy eyes were extremely tempting.
“If you want,” Finn began slowly, “you could wait for me to close up and then pick up the book at my house. I don’t live very far.”
Finn surprised both himself and Seth with the offer. When the man accepted, Finn was at first relieved, then filled with dancing nerves at the thought of being alone with him.
An air of anticipation hung between them as Finn shut down the register and prepared to leave. Neither of them spoke. The expectant silence continued to surround them as they walked to the shopkeeper’s home.
When the two men stepped up to a large, wooden lodge, Seth wondered if they had the right house. Although it wasn’t huge, the house still seemed far too big for only one person.
“It’s just you here?” Seth asked, as Finn fumbled with the lock.
“Yes. It used to belong to my Aunt’s family, but they decided to move upstate and she let me buy the house pretty cheap.”
Seth nodded and stepped inside behind the blond man. He was excited to see inside the shopkeeper’s home and glad that Finn felt comfortable enough to have him over.
When Finn flicked on the lights, Seth looked about the place and smiled—a knowing lopsided grin. The high walls were covered with shelves of knotty pine that matched the rest of the home, and every shelf was neatly lined with row after row of books.
“Are you sure we’re not still in your store?” he quipped in a friendly tone.
Finn shrugged and tried not to blush—he was doing that far too often lately. “That’s sort of how the shop started: it just grew from my own collection,” he explained. “Would you like some tea?” he asked, after hanging up their coats.
“Sure, thanks,” Seth replied, taking in his surroundings.
The house was arranged in a way that was warm, yet spacious. The foyer faced a high wall of bookshelves that rose through a wide opening in the second floor to continue to the ceiling. Stairs near the door led up to the open loft above. Finn went to the left, into the kitchen. Seth went the other direction to explore and found himself in a sitting room lined with windows that looked out over a small stream in the backyard. Everything was cozy and comfortable, and the dark-haired man felt it was the most inviting home he’d ever been in.
When Finn brought in the tray of tea, he found Seth glancing around the shelves. The sight filled him with a pleasant glow. He knew most people would find it quite silly, but having Seth look through his books felt like a very intimate act.
Finn happened to believe that what one chose to read revealed a lot about that person. It was one of the reasons he was so glad to order all of Seth’s books. With each request, the blond felt he glimpsed a little more of the handsome man’s inner world.
A small smile crept over his lips as Seth plucked one of the volumes from a low shelf and lovingly caressed the binding. The dark-haired man’s fingers were long and slender. Finn imagined those elegant hands gliding over his body with equal tenderness and shivered.
“I can see why you keep some of these editions for yourself,” said Seth, “It’s quite a collection.”
Turning his eyes to the shopkeeper, Seth wondered why the man’s reply sounded so soft and so shy. Opening the book in his hands, Seth read aloud:
“Even such is Time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
And from which earth, and grave, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
“Your taste seems to run darker than I’d expect. What secrets are you hiding behind that angelic exterior of yours?” Seth asked teasingly, cocking an eyebrow at the other man.
Finn laughed softly and shrugged. “The best poems always seem to be about death or love, but somehow they’re both handled with equal beauty.” The blond stepped closer to glance at the page. “You can’t really blame Sir Walter Raleigh for being morbid here, though. Supposedly he wrote the poem on the night before his execution.”
As they stood together, the two men’s eyes met and a breathless moment passed between them. Seth almost tilted his head down to capture the man’s lips, but Finn retreated to the small wicker seat beneath the windows before he had the chance.
The blond poured their tea and prayed the trembling in his hands wasn’t outwardly obvious. Seth made his way over and joined him. Breaking the awkward silence, the dark-haired man asked, “So, you haven’t told me yet: out of all your books and poems, do you have a favorite? One you couldn’t live without?”
Seth’s easy manner relaxed the other man and the tension eased from his frame.
“You’ll laugh,” Finn said, sipping at his tea.
“I can assure you, I won’t—and now you’ve made me even more curious. Tell me.”
“Well, I probably have a tendency toward more morbid poetry because the first poem I really loved was ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’… and it’s still my favorite.”
Again, Finn had that boyish look on his face. His head tilted forward and his hair cascaded over his eyes. This time, Seth gave in and, reaching out, gently smoothed the strands back into place.
“I’m not laughing, am I?”
Finn blinked at him, eyes wide as the man’s hand lingered against his cheek. An unexpected crack of thunder tore through the night sky. As if it had been the sound of Seth’s restraint breaking, the man suddenly bent down and smothered Finn’s lips. The blond gasped. Torrents of rain began to pelt the windows and the men’s desire was unleashed with equal fury. In the back of Finn’s mind, he had the vague sensation that perhaps he was drowning, but the delirium pulling him under was far too seductive to deny…