“I know what you mean about high rents,” Zack said, voice deceptively casual. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to live off base until my senior chief came to me with this rehab deal where I’m helping him with a rental house.”
“How can I get a deal like that?” Pike leaned forward on the counter. “Seriously. That’s exactly what I need, as long as I can bring the cats.”
“There’s more than one bedroom in your place, isn’t there?” Josiah inserted himself back into the conversation.
Zack stuffed a handful of chips into his mouth, undoubtedly to avoid answering. “Holy mother of God, what are these?” The wounded, confused look he shot Pike made Pike’s chest swell—as if he trusted Pike to not hurt his mouth.
And hell if Pike didn’t want that trust and responsibility. Man, you are so fucked up over this guy. He grabbed a soda from the counter, popped it open and passed it to Zack. “Here. Drink.”
“Thanks.” Zack took a long swig of soda. He turned to Josiah. “I do not need a roommate. Don’t even go there.”
“I’m not.” Pike held up his hands, even though for cheap or no rent he’d go all sorts of places.
The doorbell rang before Josiah could make things worse. “Oops. Better get that,” he said, leaving Pike and Zack alone in the kitchen. Okay. Forget that assessment. This was worse, all long pause and nervous glances, the memory of that night looming large.
“I can ask around, see if there’s another place that might work for you, but even if you were one of those guys from HGTV come to bail me out, I like living alone. Sorry.” Zack took another drink of his soda, still not meeting Pike’s eyes.
“Asking around” wasn’t going to get Pike a place quick enough, but a glimmer of idea took hold, made him lean back against the counter. “That what you need? A renovation expert? Because if so, I’m your guy.”
“You’re my guy?” Good Lord, the doubt and fear dripping from Zack’s voice was almost enough to make Pike want to kiss him senseless until Zack had no choice but to agree. This is such a terrible idea. Yeah, it really was, but Pike was just this side of crazy. He could make it work.
“My mom is renovation nuts. She buys a fixer-upper, does a bunch of stuff to it, then sells it and moves on to another property. It’s how she put me through college. You need carpet ripped, floors refinished, walls knocked down? I can do it all except electrical.”
“My dad’s an insurance salesman,” Zack said. “He probably owns some tools, but they’ve lived in the same subdivision my whole life. Something needed fixing, he just hired it done. Your mom sounds like...a character.”
“She’s amazing,” Pike said sharply.
“I meant cool. She sounds really cool.” Zack gave him a rueful grin. “Wish I had that kind of experience. This is going to be...challenging. I mean, I can do it, but—”
“You really going to give yourself a crash course in DIY in addition to your training?” Pike wasn’t so sure. And that hardly sounded safe either if Zack let himself be distracted or go without sleep to get this job done. “Man, just let me help. Won’t kill you to have another pair of hands. And you’ll barely notice I’m there, I promise.”
“Ha.” Zack snorted. “Like you’re quiet.”
“Hey, I can be.” Pike held up his hands. “And the cats are no trouble at all, really. But if I don’t find a place quick, I might have to rehome them—”
Zack gasped and Pike knew he had him, bless his animal lover’s soul. “You can’t do that. The big one’s so unusual and the littler one, it’s too shy. Rehoming them would be terrible.”
“I know. But I’ve got less than two weeks to find a place. I’m running out of time.”
Zack’s eyes narrowed and his built shoulders drew back. Good. He was slipping into Mr. navy SEAL “I can fix this” mode. God, Pike loved that mode. “You can really do the renovation thing? You’re not just shitting me?”
“Nope. I can do it, promise.”
“And uh...no...uh...” Zack was turning several shades of pink, big-shot SEAL slipping a bit.
“No flirting? You’ve got it.” Pike put him out of his misery. He couldn’t explain it even to himself, but his urge to carelessly flirt with Zack the way he did with the rest of his friends seemed to have fled anyway. Too much tension to relax into his usual self. And ordinarily, that tension would be a reason for him to run from this arrangement. But any port in a storm and all that. Better Zack, who wasn’t sure whether he trusted him or not, than being stuck with some random person who might turn out to be crazy pants. “We’re just a pair of buds, helping each other out.”
Pike tried to tell Zack with his eyes that he wouldn’t be bringing up the memory of that night, wouldn’t be reminding him about how well they danced together, wouldn’t be angling to take him to San Diego’s gay bars...
Yup. Terrible idea. This plan is doomed. Even knowing that didn’t stop him from celebrating when Zack sighed and said, “Let me make a call.”
* * *
Zack was going to regret this six ways to Sunday. Hell, he was already double-guessing himself. But after the toilet fiasco it had been one disaster after another, and holy hell, there was a crap ton of work that needed doing, most of which he had no clue how to start. Not that he doubted his ability to get the job done, but he was looking at an awful lot of trial and error and late nights with tutorials. And money he didn’t have, replacing stuff when he messed up and didn’t want to admit it.
And then here was Pike, like some redheaded knight, charging in to save the day. And he needed a place for those cats...