Thank you for having me, Charlie!
Sometimes when I’m writing, I hear a song that—to me—fits my work in progress so well it becomes the unofficial anthem of it. The song in question becomes a driver for my muses, and if I feel like I’m off course or uninspired, I can listen to the song and find the characters’ voices. At least sometimes. I wish it was a balm for all my writing ailments lol.
Be Calm by Fun.
It seems to be the lyrics are the musician’s way of coping with change in his life—his feeling of being overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the path he took. Everyone gets overwhelmed and everyone hits bottom in some form, but humans pick themselves up and carry on.
In the first chapter Benji is unhappily saddled with a reporter, and by chapter three he’s risking his career for something resembling a relationship he attempts to shoehorn into something more stable and loving he hadn’t fully realized he craved. It’s that relationship that sets the stage for Benji to be taken by a stranger’s smile in an unsuspecting coffee shop and start down a path of major changes in his quiet life.
In Paid Leave, Neal is Benji’s rock in more than one storm. He’s the only reason Benji can even think about the possibility of coming out to his friends and department. Neal ignites Benji’s willingness to fight against a world that spent Benji’s entire life telling him that something is inherently wrong with him. And it’s because of Neal that Benji survives the onslaught of mental anguish from the shooting he couldn’t avoid, and the hard nights he faces as a police officer on a regular basis.
The song is also one of my favorites and a great one to sing along to after a bad day.
Paid Leave is Benji’s story. From the moment the reader meets the Albuquerque police officer, Benji is set on a path of change. And just like the lyrics in Be Calm, Benji struggles with the shift in his life—going back and forth between accepting and rejecting it.
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Albuquerque police officer Benji Miller made the choice to hide his sexuality and devote his life to his career. He guards his secret carefully, believing he is protecting his job and happiness. Then, during a routine traffic stop gone awry, he shoots a suspect to protect a young girl, and his life spins out of control. A department-mandated paid leave rips away the only distraction he had, and he has to deal with the unsympathetic media who criticize the police department’s every move.
One day, needing to get out of the house, Benji walks into a café, where he meets Neal McCoy—a gay man living without shame, unafraid to speak his mind or stand up against prejudice. Benji quickly falls for Neal but struggles to combine his new love interest and his career. With the media threatening the careful illusion he’s built around himself, Benji can’t stand the pressure.
Benji has to decide: sacrifice his happiness in the name of his career and an easy life, or find the courage to give up the lonely existence he knows and take a step into the unknown.
Lucky trotted beside them on the trail, pausing each time the cottonwood trees rustled in the evening breeze but never allowing either man to pass him. Neal had grabbed a sweatshirt and now zipped it up against the sudden chill.
“I thought the low was supposed to be seventy something.”
Benji had watched a lot of news, now that he was starring in it, but hadn’t bothered to listen to weather reports that mattered only to a shift he wasn’t working. “It might have been.”
Neal slowed their pace. “You know what I do, but I don’t know what you do.”
Benji looked up at the orange sky. The sun would be completely gone soon. “I’m on a vacation of sorts.”
“Does that mean unemployment?”
“No. Not exactly.”
Neal made a noise of confusion but didn’t ask further about the topic. “Where do you live?”
“Not far from you, actually. A little farther south.”
“Raised in Albuquerque?”
Benji chuckled at the assault of questions. “Am I being interviewed?”
“Maybe I’m interviewing you for a position,” Neal said with a laugh in his voice. “But I’m truly just trying for conversation.”
Benji knew men on the force who could talk for hours about nothing and never pause or fall into awkward and bored silences. Benji was not one of those men, but he could try. “I’m remodeling my house.”
“To what extent? I had an uncle that practically gutted his entire home for a remodel. My aunt was not a happy housewife. They lived in a construction zone for two years.”
“I’m replacing flooring and repainting. A few smaller items are being repaired, but it’s not a construction zone.”
Neal nodded and watched Lucky walk ahead for a moment. “I helped put in the tile floors in my townhome. Well, I wasn’t much of a help, but I watched. I’m too impatient to put in the spacers and wait and grout and wait. It nearly drove me crazy.”
Benji smiled at Neal. He was one of those men who could talk. “The wood floor took me longer.”
Neal stopped on the path to let Lucky sniff around a few weeds. “So is my charm winning you over yet?”
“What charm?” Benji meant it as a joke, but Neal didn’t laugh.
“I’m usually very good at reading men, but you’re sending me mixed signals. I understand if you can’t tell when a man flirts, but at least tell me I’m not making a fool of myself and giving you a funny story to tell your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Are we on the same team, Benji?” Neal changed his question into a more direct one Benji wasn’t comfortable answering.
“I have a convincing life of a straight bachelor I would like to maintain.” Benji couldn’t stop himself despite knowing he was ending chances before he even had a chance. “But that’s as far as it goes—a lie.”
“I see.” Neal nodded and watched Lucky chew a few dried twigs. “I’m proud of what I am, Benji. If I could shit rainbows, I would.” Neal tugged on Lucky’s leash to get his attention and started toward the parking lot. “I like you, but it isn’t my place to convince you to change what you are.”
Benji was lost in a sea of his own insecurities that had flooded in following the shooting. Things he’d never challenged before became the only questions he had. “What if I want to be normal?”
His words froze Neal in his retreat. He looked over his shoulder, and his brown eyes carried sadness Benji wouldn’t have believed he was capable of experiencing. “You are normal, Benji.”
“What if I want more than what I’m allowed to have?”
“You struggle through hell to have what you deserve.”
Benji shook his head. “What if I lose my career?”
“I can’t answer that one. I don’t even know what you do.” Neal returned to Benji’s side and touched his arm. “It sounds like you need a friend more than a date.”
“I have friends.”
“Yeah. But I have a hunch that you don’t have friends that understand what it’s like to be gay.” Neal slipped his arm into Benji’s and started forward on the trail. “Let’s get back to the date. I know you’re not a coffee connoisseur, so what’s your favorite drink?”
Benji forced himself to relax. The trail was empty, and the birds hardly cared if two men touched. “Coke, I guess. After water. Most guys drink beer. I pick a cola.”
“We can break that bad habit,” Neal said. His chuckle warned Benji he was teasing.
“Do you only drink coffee?”
“Of course not. I also like water. We have so much in common, Benji.”
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