Coming here had been a bad idea. A really bad idea.
I shouldered my bag and crossed the street in a few long strides. My sister had promised to pick me up from the train station. Of course, she hadn’t. What was I thinking? Something had “come up.” Like it always did. And yet, here I was. In the freaking Netherlands. I rummaged for my cigarettes before zipping up my jacket to shield myself against the cold.
Grumbling, I stopped to light my cigarette and cupped my hand to protect the flame of my lighter against the wind. Taking a deep, calming inhale, I stuffed the pack back into my pocket. The orange bud flickered up at the tip, smoke invading my lungs. I checked my phone again. No message. She’d been the one who wanted me to come for this goddamn “family reunion,” and now she couldn’t even be on time.
Standing on the sidewalk at the sea, with the wind whipping my hair right into my face, I wondered if I should have gotten a haircut. I probably looked like a crazy homeless man. Unkempt from traveling. My long hair tangled and my beard bushy. Mumbling to myself surely didn’t help.
Well, too late to worry about that now. I glanced toward the water as I walked beside the beach, heading into the little village my sister called home. There was hardly anyone around. Rough waves crashed against the shore, white bubbles spreading across the sand. The wind blew right at me before changing direction. Again, I cupped my hand over the glowing tip of my cigarette and inhaled another lungful of smoke.
Sara was the only one I was still in touch with since the rest of my family didn’t exactly accept my lifestyle choices. A penniless writer in a tank full of money-craving sharks wasn’t gonna survive very long. But I’d known that when I opted to get fired from my job as a lawyer. I’d really done everything possible to receive that call. That Tony, give me one reason why I shouldn’t fire you right now call. Well, I couldn’t give them an answer. And I hadn’t regretted it for one single day. I’d spent seven years studying law. Wasted seven years of my life doing something my family pushed me to do.
I wanted to travel. And most of all, I wanted to see the world and tell stories. Of people. Of countries. Of life.
As my thoughts swirled and I inhaled more smoke, my phone buzzed.
Sry, 5 minutes & I’ll be there.
I groaned, adjusting the strap of my bag on my shoulder.
I’m at the beach, Pier 7.
It was cold, and I ached all over. This wasn’t supposed to be too far from her place. After something had “come up,” she’d asked me to meet her at the pier because otherwise I would get lost trying to find the right doorbell. Her words, not mine. I was actually really good at finding my way around.
The place in front of me looked like a fancy restaurant/bar/hotel. I really wished I could check in there right fucking now. I’d flown into Amsterdam from Phuket, and that had been a long-ass flight. I should have stayed there. Living in Thailand was much cheaper than in Europe or the US. It wasn’t as if anyone cared where I spent my days anyway. As far as my parents were concerned, I didn’t need to come back until I returned to my old life. My old, miserable life. So I’d decided to camp out in Phuket for a while, save up money and write some travel guides. Well, that was over now. Hopefully my readers were interested in the Netherlands.
I looked for a place to sit and spotted a bench a couple of yards away. I headed over, tapping the ashes from my cigarette. What I’d give for a bed right now…
It was only September, and Sara had assured me it wouldn’t be that cold. Bullshit. It was fucking freezing. My bag thumped onto the bench, and I settled down next to it, arms stretched along the top. I arched my back for a moment, letting my spine pop. Jesus, I was getting old.
I cracked my neck next, from left to right until I opened my eyes and they landed on him. Holy...had he been sitting there before? How could I have missed him?
A slender man rested on the bench next to mine. His long legs were stretched out, a knitted hat covering his ears, dark grey sweater wrapped around his torso. He looked Asian. Pale skin. Really pale. His eyes were closed as if he was soaking in the sun. But there was no sun. Just clouds and a grey sky. He’d inclined his head back, a smile on his face. A dimple on his cheek. I blinked and narrowed my eyes to zero in on any details. He sat still, arms crossed, fingers digging into the thick fabric of his sweater. A scarf was twined around his neck. That one looked knitted too. Shivers rippled over my skin, from the wind or the sight, I wasn’t sure. He was fucking beautiful. And completely out of place.
A strand of hair peeking out from under the hat brushed across his forehead. I watched it, watched him until my forgotten cigarette had burned down completely and was now grazing my fingers. I flicked it away, then glanced at him again. Strange stranger.
I wanted to take out my phone and snap a picture. Capture the moment. But I didn’t dare to move. I needed to savor every second until it was over. The dimple on his cheek deepened; he sighed, a soft, hushed sound.
My foot twitched when someone called my name, tearing me away.
I was like clockwork.
Each afternoon I took my lunch break down at the shore, and whoever was working with me that morning expressed concern. It was too cold. It was too hot. Was I sure I wanted to be out here? Like I was made of spun sugar and would melt if kept in anything less than the most ideal of conditions. Only if the weather was truly awful would I forego spending my free hour down here. They might not understand it, but I found it comforting and soothing. I liked the roar of the sea. Liked the salt scent hanging in the air. It grounded me. It was familiar.
And it was peaceful.
Unless people decided to talk to me.
Mostly it was people who knew me from the café. But occasionally a tourist asked a question and expressed surprise when they heard my unplaceable accent—mostly English with a hint of Korean. Sometimes people tried to hit on me. They also stared. It was a small town, and everyone knew everyone. So only the tourists cast second glances at me. And when they did, I felt their gaze. Like today. The faint unease of being watched hung in the air. I didn’t acknowledge them, and they left me alone. Easy as pie.
The door dinged as I headed back into the café. It embraced me in its warmth instantly. Like coming home. I knew every inch of this place by heart. I’d been working there for three years, and nothing ever changed. Sure, we occasionally had to replace broken chairs and wobbly tables, but Jan replaced them with identical pieces in the same spot. Nothing changed and that was part of the reason why I liked it so much.
“Did you have a nice lunch?” Jan asked. He spoke English with an accent, and sometimes when he got too excited, I had a hard time deciphering the words because he spoke so fast. But it was better than my Dutch. Hell, pretty much everyone in this town spoke amazing English while my Dutch was broken and childlike.
“It was nice,” I told him, elbowing open the door to the kitchen. I let my sweater fall from my shoulders and hung it up before grabbing my apron and tying it around my waist. “It’s not as cold as you made it seem.”
He scoffed and came over to the window that connected the kitchen to the counter area of the café. “You’re going to get sick if you keep going out in weather like that.”
“Maybe.” I shrugged.
“Dima.” He sighed but let it drop. He didn’t want me to get sick because then he’d have no one to bake for his display case.
As annoying as it was to be treated like a child, it also flattered me. Jan was more a friend than a boss. I’d been working for him for three years, baking and occasionally helping with whatever else he needed. I’d started out part-time, working in between my photography classes, but when I couldn’t finish the course two years ago, he’d moved me to full-time. Hadn’t even hesitated. He cared for me, and without him, I didn’t know what I would have done. My mother lived back in the UK with her new family, and my father was back in Korea. I didn’t talk to either of them very often, and without the people I met here, I would have been entirely alone. Just me. And this town.
Jan bustled around behind the counter as I mixed up the batter for my cupcakes. They were my favorite to make. Jan gave me carte blanche to do whatever weird things I wanted, and they usually turned out pretty tasty. Usually.
It was hard to tell from the back, but the bell wasn’t ringing, which meant it wasn’t very busy today. I didn’t mind peaceful days, but they tended to make the boss a bit anxious.
Popping the cupcakes into the oven, I set my timer and wiped my hands on the apron. I walked over to the large window that served as a connection to the front of the café and the back. The building had once been a restaurant, and they’d used the opening to hand the food from the kitchen, but now, it served as a portal to baked goodness. “Excited for your brother-in-law to visit?” I asked. Small talk was better than sitting around and waiting for my cupcakes to bake. I’d clean the counter in a minute and get started on the chocolate cake I needed to finish. Either way, worrying about cupcakes guaranteed they would take twice as long to bake. That was like the law of baking.
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him, and Sara doesn’t talk about him too much. I didn’t want to prod. And you know he’s not my brother-in-law.” From the way he said it, he was rolling his eyes.
“He’ll be eventually. You’ve pretty much adopted Leslie too at this point.” I wanted to gossip, but Jan lived a rather mellow life and wasn’t as fun to talk to as Zoe, my favorite coworker. “Where’s he coming from again?”
“He was in Thailand, I think. It’s hard to keep up.” The smell of cleaner hit my nose. Jan was a nervous cleaner. He might try and play cool, but as far as I knew, this was the first time he was meeting any of his girlfriend’s family members. It might have been her brother, but the pressure to be accepted had to weigh on him.
“That’s super far away,” I hummed. “How long is he going to be here for?”
“Not sure. Sara says he sort of wanders. I don’t know if she really expected him to come. They aren’t exactly close.”
I flattened my hands on the sill and leaned onto my toes so he could see me better. I wanted to be reassuring, although I was pretty sure I looked more like a puppet show. “You know he’s going to love you, right?” I murmured. Jan took good care of Sara and her daughter, Leslie. He was a good man. Anyone would be a fool not to like him. “He’d be stupid not to.”
Jan laughed and then sighed. “Thank you, Dima.”
There it was.
The sound that made my knees buckle.
He purred, neck stretched, eyes half-lidded.
With those cat ears, in his hair.
And the tail, that he flicked.
A ray of sun in the drizzling rain. I’d been a traveler, floating adrift, while he’d stayed in one place. How was I supposed to know he’d become my anchor? My light. My everything. But would I ever become his?
***As a standalone romance, “Black” features detailed adult m/m content, a hurt/comfort relationship as well as "kitty play."