Puzzle Me This
Puzzle Me This by Eli Easton
Published by Dreamspinner Press, Oct 2, 2013
Luke Schumaker is a computer game designer who works from home in a small college town in Pennsylvania. When he starts finding secret messages in a Philadelphia paper’s crossword puzzles, he can hardly believe it. The messages are clearly meant for him, but who is the crossword puzzle author? The byline is a pseudonym, and the newspaper refuses to give their author away. Luke is intrigued and delighted. He sets out on a quest to learn the identity of his secret admirer.
Alex Shaw has been in a wheelchair since birth. That hasn’t stopped him from living independently and making a career as a crossword puzzle writer. He’s content enough until he starts noticing the gorgeous man with long blond hair who hikes past Alex’s apartment every morning. He learns from the complex manager that the hiker is Luke Schumaker, a game designer. Alex can’t resist the challenge of getting Luke’s attention. But even if he can charm Luke with the power of a good puzzle, could Luke love a man in a wheelchair?
Reviews and Blog Posts:
5 stars from R.J. Scott — “This story is a hundred kinds of awesome.”
“A List” on Gaylisted — “Fun, sweet, charming, funny and cute.”
4 stars Hearts On Fire — “I really enjoyed this short, the ending was sweet and romantic”
4.5 stars Live Your Life By The Book — “It is a sweet story with sexy moments, humor and a “hand me a tissue” ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
4 stars mmgoodbookreivews — “I recommend this to those who love relationships with their ups and downs, sweet loving, great characters, sorting through feelings and a really cute ending.”
My Fiction Nook — “It’s a cute, quick read, uplifting and sweet, and totally worth checking out. ”
Rainbow Book Reviews — “A gentle and lovely story that I can read again and again.”
4.5 stars from Long and Short Reviews — “Puzzle Me This is a sweet, sad, sexy and enjoyable read.”
5 stars from Blogger Girls — “I love that I can trust her to give me an amazingly sweet and happy ending no matter the length of her books. Even her smexy scenes are unique, and that’s saying something!”
Luke stood outside unit 21. It was the end unit in the complex. Apartment B was downstairs on the right and had a perfect view of the trail up Henneman Hill. Luke knew in his bones this was it. And he had a feeling he knew who lived here. He hesitated for a long moment, trying to work up his nerve and giving himself a silent lecture on how this was just a friendly thing and really, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all, damn it.
He knocked on the door.
The door opened, pulling back slowly. At the door was the guy in the wheelchair that Luke had seen from his window. He was… wow… still a librarian type close-up but so much cuter than he’d looked from afar. He appeared to be around Luke’s age, and his eyes were big, brown and intelligent behind the glasses.
Luke’s heart thudded over in his chest like Trevor collapsing after a tiring run. It felt suspiciously like offering up his belly in surrender.
He held out the paper cup. “Hi. I picked you up a two percent latte, unflavored. I figured it was the least likely to offend or cause a deadly allergic reaction.”
The man reached for the cup, then dropped his hand with a blush. “I’d better wheel myself inside before I take it. Would you like to come in?”
Gee, way to go Luke. First thing you do is offer a guy who needs both hands to wheel his chair a steaming hot beverage.
“Sure,” Luke said, feeling like an idiot.
“I’m Alex Shaw, by the way.” The man held out a hand and gave him a smile.
“Luke Schumaker. I, uh, guess you already knew that.”
Alex’s hand was a bit calloused. His grip was nice, firm but with soft skin. His palm was a little bit damp like Luke’s was. Luke didn’t let go at once, and neither did Alex. Alex’s eyes looked steadily into his. They were open and friendly but shy. Luke found himself getting warm.
“Come on in,” Alex repeated, dropping his hand.
“Thanks,” Luke said, thinking Dear Lord, I am way too worked up over this.
Alex wheeled himself into the living room and Luke followed. The room was neat and homey, with a canvas-covered couch, a navy plaid recliner and a large TV. A round knotty pine dining room table with four chairs and navy cushions sat in the dining nook. A desk loomed in front of a window, a window which overlooked the trail up Henneman Hill. Every inch of the walls were covered with bookcases.
Alex stopped near the couch. Luke handed him the coffee with a sheepish smile. Feeling ridiculously anxious, he went to look out the window by the desk.
“It’s all making sense to me now,” Luke teased.
“Yes, you’ve found me. Your stalker. I hope I didn’t freak you out too badly.”
Luke shrugged. “It’s been fun.”
“I noticed you walking your dog—well, obviously. I wasn’t sure how to….” Alex seemed flustered. “What’s his name? Your dog?”
“Ah. It looks fun, taking a hike in the mornings. Do you go all the way to the top?”
Yeah, I like to top, almost, horrifyingly, came out of Luke’s mouth. But Alex didn’t know his sense of humor yet, and that would be bad. Luke cleared his throat. “Yeah. It’s a nice view.”
“I’m sure. Three miles a day–that’s a decent workout.”
Luke wanted to ask if Alex ever hiked, but obviously not. And then he wanted to say something about working out, but that felt like a minefield, too. God, when had he ever been this tongue-tied?
Alex seemed to read his mind. “I hike sometimes. There’re handicapped accessible trails, and I have a fat-tire chair for rugged terrain. I like getting out.”
“That’s great,” Luke said, oh so brilliantly. Sheesh, he was going down in flames.
“I asked Mrs. Miller about you and she said you were a game designer and that you worked from home. So I thought the puzzles would be an… interesting way to introduce myself.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘interesting’,” Luke said.
“Oh?” Alex looked disappointed.
“Outrageous, maybe. Strange–in a good way. Insane. Clever. Cool. Classy. Scary, a bit. Possibly playful. Still thinking about that one.” Romantic, Luke added in his head. Hot.
“That’s… a lot of adjectives.”
“I’m generous that way. I buy adjectives in bulk from Amazon, so I can afford to be.”
Luke inwardly cheered that his brain had finally decided to show up for this conversation. “What would you have done if I didn’t like crossword puzzles?”
“Guess I’d resort to bumping into you in the parking lot. Not nearly as… classy though.”
Luke laughed. “I see we have a winner from the adjectives list.” Feeling a bit more comfortable, he walked to the sofa but hesitated.
Alex grimaced. “Geez. Sorry. I haven’t even asked you to sit down. Would you like to take off your coat?”
Luke did. He unzipped his jacket and pulled it off, leaning over to place it neatly at the end of the couch. Mrs. Schumaker hadn’t raised no hoodlums.
So far, Alex had acted casual, like it was all just a friendly thing. But there was no mistaking the hunger that Luke caught on Alex’s face as he straightened up. Luke’s body responded immediately with a warm, lazy roll in his lower abdomen. He smoothed down the sides of his flannel shirt, taking his time, making sure it was open enough to offer a decent view of his lean, Henley-clad torso and the worn, snug denim at his crotch. That denim was getting a little snugger even now. He took his time sitting down. By then, Alex was looking studiously down at the Diggits cup in his hand, a light pink flush on his cheeks. It gave Luke a chance to stare at him unobserved.
Alex had probably been quite the twink in his teens, but he looked to be in his late twenties now and he was a mature man. Though he was slim he had broad shoulders, very broad, and a long, solid torso. His upper body looked quite fit under his soft, red chamois shirt. Luke’s eyes glanced towards a set of free weights in the corner of the room. They weren’t dust-covered, like his own. Alex definitely worked out. He was wearing jeans over slim hips and had legs that were long and too thin compared to the rest of him. The cherry red of his shirt looked really good against his pale skin and his dark brown hair. He wore bangs, the rest of his hair falling to his shoulders. It was a young look, but his heart-shaped face was so boyishly cute that it worked on him. He had a shadow of stubble on his upper lip and the tip of his chin, but the rest was baby smooth. His lips were full and wide, the upper one with a sexy curve. But his best feature was behind those glasses, big brown eyes with long, thick lashes.
Luke had always been an eye man, and Alex’s eyes were the kind that did things to Luke’s nether regions when they looked straight at him, especially when they held the desire he’d seen in them a moment ago. As fleeting as that had been, it had still made Luke want things that were in no way platonic, or even possible without some rigging, Astroglide and an on-site physician.
“Is that what you do for a living? Design crossword puzzles?”
Alex nodded, smiling. “I do a daily for ten papers and a Sunday for three others. I also do puzzles for Dell—cryptograms and logic puzzles mostly. None of it pays much, really, but altogether I scrape by.”
“That’s epic,” Alex grinned. “I know lots of computer game designers, but I’ve never met a pencil puzzle type.”
Alex gave a forbearing sigh. “Yes, we Luddites are a dying breed. I think I’m the only crossword puzzle designer on the planet who’s under sixty. Who wants to do a cryptogram when you can shoot aliens with a joystick?”
“Me. Or I should say, I like them all. There’s a simplicity to a crossword, kind of like cozying up on a rainy day with Agatha Christie. Not the woman, of course. She’d be a bit skeletal by now. But one of her books.”
“Yeah,” Alex’s smile was wide and genuine. “I feel that way about text adventures – you know ‘Go north,’ ‘There’s a castle in front of you. The guard calls ‘Halt!’’ Now games have so many high-end graphics that it’s easy to lose sight of the core fun.”
“That’s true. Every once in a while I still like to play a text adventure. Honestly, I envy you. You design a puzzle and it’s out within days. It must be nice not having to work with a team of thirty people for two years just to get something published.”
“Does it really take two years?” Alex asked, curious. “I’d like to hear about it.”
So they talked shop. Luke talked about the process of game design and what it was like working with artists, voice-over actors, deadlines and producers. Alex talked about how many puzzles he had to crank out in a week just to keep up with bills, about how he’d gotten started and where he got his inspiration.
Luke made Alex laugh. Often. He looked really, really good when he laughed. The word that came to mind was pure, like a ray of joy or sunshine. Though where a thought that dorky and romantic had come from, Luke wasn’t sure.
When Alex stifled a yawn, Luke checked his phone and realized that it was after eleven.
He finished off the beer Alex had offered him and set it on the end table. “God, you greedy bastard,” he joked. “You kept me here for four hours. I should go so you can get some sleep.”
“I’m not tired,” Alex insisted with a shake of his head. But just as he finished saying it, he yawned again.
“Yeah, I can see that. Wiiiide awake.”
“Well, damn,” Alex grinned sleepily. “So much for my effort to disguise my pathetically boring lifestyle. You’ve caught me out. This is my usual bedtime.”
“Nothing inherently boring about bedtime,” Luke said with a raised eyebrow.
Alex blushed. He opened his mouth to say something, maybe (hopefully) to flirt back, but he seemed too shy to get anything of the sort out. Or anything out at all.
“Well, good-night.” Luke stood up and pulled out his phone. “Texting would probably be faster than sticking messages in a crossword puzzle. Though not as much fun. What’s your number?”
Alex gave it to him without hesitation. Luke punched it in and sent him a quick text. Across the room, a phone buzzed.
“There, now we’re practically engaged.”
“You’re very trusting with your stalker,” Alex said.
“Oh, but my stalker is clever. He’d have gotten it anyway.” Then Luke decided to take a chance. “Besides, he’s pretty cute.”
Alex’s smile fled, his face falling into a confused frown. “You… shouldn’t tease me, Luke.”
“I’m not,” Luke said softly. “Good-night, Alex.”
He let himself out.
Published by Dreamspinner Press, Oct 2 2013