Hello dear friends! How was your week-end? Mine was very relaxing… until I realized it was my turn to post on the blog. But no worries, I found something for you. You know that I wouldn’t leave you hanging with nothing. Not my style! LolWell, after thinking really hard (yes, I can think when I put my mind to it!), I decided to post the first chapter of each stories of the Road Trip Anthology. I hope you’ll like it!
You can find it at All Romance Ebooks
Cross Country ForeplayHank Edwards
"Brady? You awake?"The voice drilled into Brady's dream, chasing away the image of the nude, hot, hung guy Brady had been about to suck off. He rubbed his eyes, squinted against the bright white sun, and looked around. Yep, it was all as he left it before drifting off to sleep -- trapped in a van driving cross country with none other than Preston Brissett, otherwise known as Bald Spot Brissett, or BSB to the rest of the guys Brady worked with at Techmagine.
Brady yawned and sat up higher in the passenger seat. His mouth tasted like sand, which was hardly a surprise, seeing as how they were driving through the desert. He rubbed his eyes some more and then made himself turn his head toward the driver's side, trying to force the graphic images of his dream out of his mind.
Preston glanced over and grinned at him. The man's dark blond hair was kind of long for such a prominent bald spot in back, and he was a little heavier than he should be. A neatly trimmed goatee surrounded his mouth, and the sunlight through the windshield sparkled in his blue eyes.
"Welcome back to the land of the wakeful," Preston said. "Gas station up ahead. Need a pee break?"
Brady looked away and nodded. Preston was a cheerful driver, and Brady was still trying to wake up from his nap. "Yeah. A break would be good."
The gas station was the typical highway rest stop: an acre of concrete, rows of pumps huddling from the sun beneath an aluminum overhang, and tackily dressed tourists wandering bleary-eyed through the heat from the air conditioned interiors of their cars to the air conditioned interior of the building.
Preston eased the van up alongside a pump and flashed Brady a tentative smile. "I'll pay for the gas. Think you might want to drive for a while?"
Brady shrugged. "Sure. Where are we?"
"Just crossed the state line into Arizona." Preston held up his cell phone, the exact same model as Brady's. "I thought we'd take I-40 through Arizona and New Mexico, if that's okay with you? You were asleep and I just made the decision. Better to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, right?"
"Yeah, sure," Brady said, "whatever." He opened the door and the dry heat sucked the moisture from his mouth. It was like stepping into a blast furnace. Brady let out a gasp and hurried to the doors of the station.
After using the restroom, Brady opened a cooler door and grabbed a few Red Bulls for himself. He started for the register, but caught a glimpse of Preston cleaning the bugs off the windshield, a line of sweat staining the back of his shirt, and he stopped. It was still tough for Brady to realize that just two days ago he and Preston had been lured into the office of Cameron Rooke, founder and CEO of Techmagine. Cameron had talked to them about the importance of flexibility for start-up companies, especially tech companies, and how positive word of mouth was the fastest path to true growth.
Brady had nodded along, tried to look invested in the conversation, but his mind was darting around like a hummingbird on crack. He was in the CEO's office, having a conversation with Cameron Rooke himself! Brady managed to get his thoughts under control and zoned in on Cameron's words again. He didn't know what Cameron was leading up to, he just knew the CEO had selected him out of the entire, hungry office staff for a special project, and he was going to jump at it no matter how many late nights it took.
Then Cameron had dropped the bomb about the client in Boston, as in Massachusetts – as in across the fucking country – and their request for personal training on the Techmagine system.
It was a great opportunity, and he knew that Brady and Preston were the right team to get it done and get it done right. Because they would need to set up an entire classroom of equipment for training, they needed to drive a van loaded down with computers. It was going to take three days to drive there, a week to complete the training, and three more days to drive home.
All that time spent with Preston right at his side. Brady didn't know if he should be excited or annoyed at the opportunity. He had always thought Preston was sexy in his own way, a fact he would never tell any of the other coders he worked with, especially not Phillip Holt, who had coined the nickname BSB. It was a mean name, and Phillip was a mean person through and through, but Brady didn't want the guy to know his thoughts about Preston, good or bad. Truth was, Brady had never really considered Preston as a sexual person. The guy wore baggy khakis and button-down shirts to the office with a few ties that he changed up every now and then.
Brady turned back to the cooler and stood looking at the drink selection. Preston liked a specific flavor of Vitamin Water, but what was it? Brady let his gaze roam the bottles and colors, then finally remembered. He had been watching porn on his computer while he waited for Preston to show up, and when he had gotten in the van the name of the drink had made him think of the scene he'd just watched and he blushed: Vitamin Water XXX.
He grabbed three bottles of XXX out of the cooler, paid for the drinks, then crossed the blazing heat of the concrete lot to the van where Preston was just grabbing the gas receipt out of the pump.
"Grabbed you some drinks," Brady said, and reached in the bag to pull one out. "This the right flavor?"
Preston looked at him and, if Brady wasn't seeing things, he actually blushed.
"Oh, that was nice. Yeah... Yes, that's the flavor I like." Preston stood looking at him for a moment, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the gas station. "I'll just go in and use the restroom, then we can go. Gas is paid for."
"Yeah, okay, sounds good." Brady gestured. "I'll pull over here to free up the pump."
"Good idea," Preston said and nodded a few times before turning to hurry to the station.
Brady watched him go, smirked at the sunlight that gleamed off the sheen of sweat coating his bald spot. BSB was a mean name, but it did fit. Had to give Phillip props for creativity. Then Brady's gaze automatically dropped to check out BSB's ass, surprised to find it a meaty, high, rounded swell beneath his jeans.Looked like BSB worked out, something Brady and the other young guys at the office never imagined for the guy since they couldn't tell it beneath his baggy khakis. Brady watched a moment longer, then got in the van, and pulled off to the side to wait for his passenger.
The vase was almost finished.
Sweat rolled down his back, soaking into the waistband of his jeans, as the coals in his kiln glowed red and the air rippled with heat. It was his pride and joy, but his oven was one of the older models that earned Bailey Fletcher some ribbing from his friends when he allowed them into his workshop. Its dark stone was rough around the outside, molded in the shape of an igloo with a wide chimneystack. The door sat on well-oiled hinges though he rarely closed it.
He glanced at the clock to the right of his oven, and then sighed. Ten pm. Bailey stretched his neck to one side, then the other, careful to keep his work level. Every muscle in his back ached from holding the rod steady while he turned the glass into the shape he wanted. Years of practice had steadied his hand, regardless of the distraction.
Another twist of his wrist and a short puff of air into his blowpipe had the base of his project ballooning to just where he wanted it. The burnt orange he'd chosen for the bottom of the vase blended perfectly with the swirls of sage and sunflower. It was earthy, masculine. Real.
His arms protested at the prolonged labor as he pulled the vase from the heat one last time. A small bobble of his hand widened his eyes and caught his breath. He would break down and cry if he dropped the thing now after hours of work and sweat.
The design of the vase had come to him during the night, while he'd tossed and turned, looking for sleep.
At the end of each day, his footsteps echoed alone on the stairs as he had climbed them, the loft too quiet when he entered. It ate at him. He hated the loneliness. More than that, he despised the need to make it tangible...touchable.
When he tried to talk his restlessness over with his family, his mother said he spent too much time alone. His dad said she needed to leave him be and let him live his life - that things would change when the time was right.
In the dark of night, he agreed with them both.
Bailey scored the bottom edge of the vase where it met his working handle, and then he placed it just over a table pad to pop it free. He couldn't hold it yet, couldn't run his fingers over the swirling yellow teardrop. But it took his breath away just seeing it there on his bench.
The colors melded, forming darker versions of them where they touched. Shadows cast their magic over the piece as the tear rippled along its surface. He allowed himself to stare a moment, then he slid the pad to the center of the table to rest.
Bailey assessed his workroom. Tools, glass rod and bins of frit were scattered everywhere. Organized chaos his mother called it but he knew it was just plain sloppy. He rubbed his eyes, sleep pulling at his tired mind as he wished he was already climbing the stairs from the studio to his loft.
Shutting down his kiln and sliding a simple mesh screen across the open front, Bailey tried to clear his mind of his worries. He wasn't normally so maudlin and the self-pity binge he was on lately freaked him out.
Shit, if he was meant to have a boyfriend, one would show up when the time was right. In the meantime, he had work to do. He flipped off the light on his way up to bed. It was going to be an early start in the morning if he wanted to be set up to catch the tailgaters at the stadium.
Rayne Chandler glared at more storm clouds coming in from the west.
The drive from Detroit to Boston had been uneventful - a first for him - if he didn't count the deluge of rain from the storm front he'd ridden on his drive to the coast. He usually got lost on long drives despite having both a map and a GPS system in his rental car.
It was one of the things his colleagues teased him about most. Whenever he came back to the office from vacation, they always gathered around to hear what disaster had befallen him while he'd been gone.
He glanced skyward again and sighed. Maybe the clouds would blow over. Or turn north. Maybe. He wasn't going to bank on it though. It looked like the weathermen had it right this time and the game was going to be played in the rain. He should have brought the damn umbrella.
Rayne could handle the cool air on his legs so his shorts weren't a problem, but his thin cotton Lion's shirt wouldn't give him much protection from the rain and wind. Any warmth he'd absorbed from the hotel evaporated into the cooler temperatures preceding the storm front. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to hopefully keep some part of his body warm.
Goosebumps raised on his exposed forearms as another gust of wind swept across the parking lot. All of the traveling for work was starting to get to him. He was only thirty, but he felt like he'd walked headfirst into being an old man.
He closed his eyes briefly. Who was he kidding?
His last dig, a tomb in Egypt, had ended in a pile of rubble. Trapped for six hours, he'd been saved by a statue of Anubis that had lodged just over his head, giving him a shelter from the crushing rock. Rayne hadn't fancied himself claustrophobic until then.
A ten-year-old boy danced by him, tugging his father along in his wake and chattering on about Tom Brady's last pass. Rayne smiled. People milled around everywhere. Some lounged on tailgates; others grabbed food at the concession stalls, or browsed the shops nearby. Rayne mulled over his choices.
Ahead was the ten-story lighthouse spiking out of the entrance at the north end zone of the Patriot's stadium. A small twist of homesickness pulled at his gut for his Lions' Ford Field.
He couldn't bring himself to go inside there just yet. He needed something else.
Before he'd left, a coworker had mentioned there was an obscure artist's open-air market somewhere in the area and he decided he wanted to hit there first. Digging up old artifacts for a living had given him an appreciation for the modern artists' work. He loved scouting local art galleries for unique pieces to add to his place back home.
The surging tide of people pushed and pulled at him, but he managed to weave his way through the cars and busses to reach the back of the parking lot. Large hand-drawn signs flapped in the breeze, pointing the way down a side street to a weekender's artist fair. Rayne grinned at the stroke of luck.
Tables covered by three-sided canopies lined up on either side of the tiny street; each decorated with handmade goods. Oil paintings, charcoal sketches, crystals, handmade glass pieces, and woodcarvings - the selection seemed endless.
The vendors were as varied as their items for sale. Some wore jeans and t-shirts, others wore dress clothes. And the customers attracted to the market were just as eclectic. Some were in Sunday best, browsing after church, and others were fans coming to the game. Patriots jerseys were everywhere.
The noise level held at a steady rumbling as customers bargained, laughed, and chatted with the vendors. Most were respectful but Rayne's attention followed three men moving from booth to booth at the other end of the alley. They laughed and heckled the artists on their way past each booth.
Rayne rolled his eyes and moved to the first artist on his right. A Lions fan in Pats territory had enough troubles without trying to stick his nose in an already crappy situation.
The drive into town wasn't fun. It never was on a game day, but in the middle of a storm was even worse. Everybody and their brother went to these games - not that he would have passed up the chance to see his Pats play if someone offered - and traffic into the stadium area sucked. When he finally pulled into the lot reserved for the vendors that weekend, he breathed a sigh of relief.
It was short work from there to unload his display table and boxes onto his folding cart, and then make his way to his assigned spot in the long line of artist booths.
Bailey kept a close eye on the sky and the dark clouds moving closer. He had hoped to have a good sale today and now the heavens were conspiring against him. Making quick work of sorting out his table, attaching the display cases to the top, he began unpacking the boxes of their prizes. Christmas ornaments and sun catchers hung to the left, one or two he even clipped to the booth frame. Plates and bottles belonged in the center of the table. Most people gravitated to the brightly colored items, imagining them on their own tables and desks.
His favorites, though, were the vases. He got the most joy from those, filling them with delicate glass roses and lilies.
He pulled out the last set of flowers just before a sharp breath of wind caught the edge of the box, flipping it to the back of his tent. Closing his eyes briefly, he thanked any god who was listening that it was empty. With slightly shaking hands, he slipped the blue and red roses into its holder, double-checked the others to ensure they wouldn't topple in the wind, and then tucked the remaining boxes into the far corner of the tent with their wayward counterpart.
Reassessing his handiwork, he smiled. They were secure. He would have no trouble staying as long as there were shoppers. On cue, a couple stopped to chat for a minute about how lovely his work looked, purchased a bowl for her china cabinet and moved on to the next table.
From there, the pace became steady. Bailey enjoyed the compliments and smiles as people came and went - some buying, some not.
"Bailes!" A pretty brunette across from him waved like she wasn't ten feet away.
He smiled and lifted his hand to wave back at Janie as a customer moved to her table of charcoal sketches. Bailey let his gaze roam over the man. He had a lanky frame, muscled but smooth under the khaki shorts hugging his ass, and brown hair that lay straight to his shoulders.
He moved with ease though he had to be a good head taller than the rest of the crowd.
And he was wearing blue and gray.
Bailey grinned. Well, everyone had a fault.
A Guy Like Grant
As soon as Casey climbed off his bike, he noticed. How could he not? It looked as though the man was a couple inches over six feet, carrying lots of meat on him. Not too bulky, which Casey appreciated, but not a scrawny man either. Oh far from it. This guy had some strength to him. His salt and pepper hair placed him in his forties at least, older than Casey normally sought out, but damn this guy deserved the time of day. He was gassing up a huge dually that had seen better days. A plain white enclosed trailer was hitched to the battered truck.
A closer look was called for. Casey finished topping off his bike's tank and glanced around. His buddies were still in the convenience store, probably hitting on the clerk if she was a D cup or larger. Good, a few minutes to spare. He replaced the nozzle, shoved the receipt in his front jeans pocket and strolled over to the dually on the far side of the pumps.
"My what a huge truck you got there, mister."
The man turned around and raised a questioning eyebrow to him.
He cringed to himself and thanked god his buddies weren't there to hear that come-on line. "I mean your actual truck." Not better. "The one you're gassing up." Getting worse. "You know what, have a good day and I'm sorry for bothering you." Casey turned to walk away.
"Should I say the better to pick you up with?"
That deep voice demanded that Casey stop mid-turn. He looked back at the stranger and they both laughed. His might've been a bit more high strung, but it was good.
"A cheesy retort like that should be followed by something in the way of...you can pick me up with that beast but can you handle me?"
The stranger chuckled again, lower this time. "My retorts match the lines they follow."
He stopped and appraised Casey up and down. Casey did his best not to puff out his chest or god forbid pose for the man. "So tell me, who am I following in this conversation?"
He offered his hand and his best genuine smile. "My name's Casey Bunker."
The older man's hand engulfed his, calloused and sprinkled with fine salt and pepper hair that matched the thick waves brushing his forehead. It was a hand that got Casey's interest popping, specifically in one area. He matched the strength the man was giving him in the shake but didn't try to one-up him. He had a feeling there were few areas in which he could one-up this guy.
Just like all good things, the touch ended sooner than he wanted.
"And who might be picking me up?"
"Well now, my birth name is Grant Faustito. My friends seem to prefer calling me Faus."
He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture when Casey opened his mouth to question him. "They use last names most of the time, and got tired of saying mine completely. Lazy bucks, if you ask me."
"Ah. Well, Grant, it's nice to meet you." He stood there and tried not to literally twirl his thumbs. When the seconds of silence seemed too long, he tried to fill them. "So those duallies use diesel fuel, right?" And flunked yet again.
Grant finished with the nozzle and hung it back on its cradle. He turned his back to Casey slightly when he recapped his gas tank. "And here I thought your next question would be if I came here often."
"That question wouldn't do me any good considering I'm just driving through. I'm heading to Daytona Beach and Biketoberfest. Finally got my bike up and running and...um...yeah." Casey gestured to where he left his bike and blushed again. He couldn't remember the last time he had this much trouble talking to someone. Then again he couldn't remember the last time he wanted to talk to someone so bad.
"Biketoberfest, huh?" Grant chin nodded to Casey's motorcycle. "That's a Ninja, right?
What was wrong with it that you had to get it up and running?"
"Yeah, 2002 Ninja 250EX. Not a flashy type of bike to be going to Daytona with, but it's mine and, well, yeah. The clutch cable went out on it. I took it to the shop, just to be laughed at. Thank god the mechanic was an honest sort, he told me that I could just buy a cable and DIY the job myself and save a pretty penny."
Casey rubbed the back of his neck with his sweaty palm, not sure how to continue the conversation at this point.
"A mechanic that doesn't try to bleed you dry? Lucky you."
Casey looked at Grant's clear blue eyes and smiled again. "Getting luckier by the moment."
"You don't say?"
"Yo, Casey, whatcha doing over there? You ready to roll? We've been shut out by the clerk and her bouncy friend, already filled up on gasoline and caffeine. Time to ride, bro!"
Maybe Casey spoke to soon. He turned to see his buddies slapping each other and laughing as they headed toward him and Grant. It was too late to head them off, too. He saw the sparkle in Sean's eyes when he glimpsed Grant.
"Hey, who's the pops you made friends with?" Sean laughed as they reached him.
"Dude, Casey, you and me have gots to talk."
Casey glared at Frankie, the last man on the planet he would willingly talk to. The only reason Frankie was even with them this week was because Sean was dating his younger sister, Lita. "Yeah, I highly doubt that, Frankie."
He turned to Grant and prayed that his face conveyed his unhappiness for the interruption. Best to put feet between them now though, before these two made complete asses of themselves and him.
"It was really good talking shop with you, hope to see you around." In front of Frankie
and Sean and against his better judgment he leaned over and squeezed Grant's arm a quick goodbye. It might have been a stupid move that would definitely get him razzed on, but it was well worth it to feel the muscle there. Did he imagine it flex a little under his grip? If so, that was fine with him.
"Come on, guys." He said quickly and hurried back to his Ninja.
"Don't forget the roads are dangerous with Biketoberfest going on. Helmets are a smart idea."
Grant's concern for his safety, or safety in general, made him smile. But he didn't dare turn around and answer.
"Hey, old timer! This is fucking Florida, no helmet law! You worry about controlling that thing you're driving and we'll worry about what's between our legs." Frankie lowered his voice for just Sean and Casey as he added, "I hate it when four-wheel drivers feel the need to protect us bikers."
"Technically his truck has six wheels, Frankie."
"Fuck you, Sean." Casey heard both of them mucking it up and growled under his breath.He picked up his pace and was straddling his bike before he knew it. He looked over at Frankie, who was putting his sunglasses on, flicked him off and revved his throttle. He didn't even wait to see if the other two were ready. He peeled out of the gas station heading east.
Wind lashed his face and the driving rain stung his eyes, but Tristan kept moving. The murky creek water was over his knees, and he knew that the ground beneath his feet was shaky at best, but Marty Grenninger was only six years old and it would be waist deep on the kid. His feet slipped over the smooth stones of the creek bottom as he struggled to keep his balance while straining to catch a glimpse of the boy's red jacket.
The ground leached away under his feet and something heavy nudged Tristan sharply in the back of his knee. Choking back a cry, he flung out both arms to grab onto something. He was going down, and in these flood waters, that was not a good thing. "Brian!" He cried out. His lover was there somewhere nearby leading the search for the boy who had been swept overboard from his cousin's fishing boat.
The wind and rain seemed to capture his words and throw them into a void where no one heard them. None of the other men recognized the danger he was in. All of them were intently focused on that red jacket…
And Tristan couldn't catch himself on anything, couldn't force his body upright as the rushing water swept him downstream. He was dragged under, fighting to hold his breath until the force of the water's movement pushed him upward again, ignoring the knocks and scrapes as he was dashed against loosened rocks and floating branches.
When he surfaced again he was shocked to see how far downstream he'd traveled.
Gathering as much strength as he could, he screamed again, "Help! Brian!"
"Tristan!" His lover's voice calling his name in shock was the last thing he heard as the water pulled him down again and his head struck something unseen on the bottom of the creek bed.
The unmistakable sound of cowboy boots striking the hardwood floor brought the rustling of paper and casual chatter in Professor Wilkins' senior year botany class to an end. A striking man approached the front of the room. Everyone turned to watch him climb the steps to the teacher's podium.
Professor Cecil Simmons. Mickey Dodd's gaze followed the professor. A shudder rippled through his body and he smiled.
There was something extraordinary about the professor that had attracted Mickey since his freshman year at the University of Northern Texas, UNT. Professor Simmons had addressed a group of incoming freshmen about choosing a major, and Mickey had been hooked. Sure, there was a lot of eye candy on campus, but nobody caught Mickey's eye like Professor Simmons.
Mickey always had a taste for the older, more distinguished men. Crazily, he'd poured over every course directory and signed up for as many of Simmons' courses as he'd been permitted each semester, including one completely off the wall course in aquatic toxicology that had kept him on campus all summer last year. After the many classroom hours where Mickey had spent his time squirming in his chair, hiding his hard on and his fantasies, his desire for the handsome Professor Simmons only grew stronger. Even now, in front of all his classmates, his breath came a little faster as his flared nostrils picked up the faintest scent of outdoors wafted from the professor. It wasn't cologne…it wasn't anything man made, it was the scent of a man, who despite his time in the classroom, enjoyed life outdoors. And it made Mickey want.
"You all are probably wondering why Professor Wilkins was so kind to let me take up a moment of his lecture time to speak with you." Professor Simmons' husky voice grabbed Mickey right in the gut, stirring his cock.
A few heads nodded and students muttered acknowledgements. Mickey couldn't let the moment pass. His previous encounters with the professor he'd only ever managed a few tonguetied questions about subject matter. Never had a personal word crossed his lips. Now, he'd endured all he could handle. It was his last year in college and he wasn't about to let Professor Simmons come and go without getting himself noticed. He put his best smile on, and spoke loud enough to be heard by the professor. "You're always welcome here, Professor Simmons."
Memories flicked through his mind like an old reel-to-reel movie, recalling the special projects he had worked on in Professor Simmons' ecology class a couple of summers before.
Does he even remember me?
A few chuckles from the other students were brought to a halt by the Professor's response. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Mickey."
Mickey blushed. Simmons remembered him. Oh God. Simmons remembered him.
Professor Simmons waved his hand in Mickey's direction, but spoke to the class in general. "His grades are outstanding, top of the roster." He focused his dark brown eyes on Mickey again. "And don't think your assistance over the past few years has gone unnoticed. Come on up here and join me, Mickey."
A million butterflies took flight in Mickey's stomach. He pried himself from the hard plastic student's desk and ascended the carpeted steps to stand beside the other man. He kept his gaze on Simmons, forcing himself not to react to the snickers and wolf calls from his fellow students. Sometimes, like now, he wished that he'd packed himself away in the proverbial closet.
Almost. What is Professor Simmons up to?
Professor Wilkins cleared his throat and silence descended on the room. Mickey's skin prickled and a bead of sweat formed on his brow under the many stares of his colleagues. It was a sickly sweet moment he'd remember for a long time to come. The only thing preventing him from bolting off the stage was the sexy smile gracing Professor Simmons's lips. He'd do anything to keep that smile directed at him.
"I'm setting out on a personal mission this summer and find myself in need of an assistant. A botanist to be exact." Simmons slowly paced the platform from one end to the other, eyeing Mickey as he paused in front of him.
Shit. The potential for ridicule struck him and he dismissed it immediately. Simmons wasn't like that. Sure, he was a stickler for exact science, but he wasn't a dick. Mickey would have caught on to that. Could it be that he'd called Mickey up here to offer him the position? "I'd like to apply." Mickey extended a shaky hand toward the professor, knees threatening to buckle.
"Splendid. No need to be nervous, then." Simmons's baritone vibrated in Mickey's ears.
One large, calloused hand engulfed Mickey's, while the other gave Mickey's shoulder a firm squeeze. His eyes already held a familiar, distant look that told Mickey his mind was already on the road to their destination. As always, the familiar glance fired a response in Mickey—a desire to be the focus of that intensity…to be noticed by this man…to make an impression so strong that they couldn't stand two feet apart like this and the man's mind wander. Fuck. He had it bad.
"I'm not nervous, Professor Simmons. I'm thrilled! It'd be an honor to accompany you. But, I'll need details before I can fully commit. Itinerary, dates, expenses…" Mickey's stomach soured at his own words, but it was true. Mickey would kill for a chance to work side by side with his former professor, but he couldn't just make a decision like that at the drop of a hat, could he?
Professor Simmons's attention snapped back to Mickey, and he chuckled. "I've got all the information we need to work out the details together. Don't you fret none."
"I can go if he can't." A busty brunette in the front row sounded off and Mickey had to suppress the urge to tip her out of her chair. Screw it. Mickey was going. Daisy fucking Duke was not shoving her tits under his professor's nose, not while he had…all of three hundred dollars in his checking account to last until his financial aid came through in the fall. Oh well, maybe he'd get finished with the project in time to find a summer job. Maybe he could just swallow his pride and ask his grandpa for the money the old guy kept trying to give him.
Professor Simmons raised his hand as others chimed in to take his spot. "There are comprehensive brochures and a sign-up list on a table in the vestibule outside the doors in the back of the room for anybody interested. Only one student will go. I specifically chose Mickey here as my prime candidate because of his grades, attendance, and overall proven dedication to his botany studies. Any of you who feel you fit the bill, by all means, sign up. As Mickey here has so wisely stated, there are a few things you might want to consider tossing into your personal list of criteria."Unmistakable warmth spread through Mickey's cheeks. He never could accept a compliment or reward without fighting back a flood of emotions. No wonder he gravitated toward botany as a career field. The plants didn't trigger his emotional side like this. He had decided long ago to let his spirit guide him. If only he could muster up a little more courage in the personal department.
"Where the fuck are you?" The furious voice spat out.
Evan Malone stared at his cell phone in disgust. The rage he'd suppressed since his third quarter fuck–up surged to the surface. "You never fucking change, do you, Gil? Millions of people know exactly where I am, but you can't be bothered. I just lost a fucking playoff game in front of half the country. I'm in fucking Dallas. Where the fuck are you?" His eyes burned as acrid sweat dripped from his lashes. He toweled moisture from his brow and rubbed at his damp hair. It didn't do any good. The locker room stunk of sweat and defeat.
"I'm where you should be, jack ass. Egocentric fucker. He needs you, and I'm a poor goddamn substitute. Come home."
The snarl raised hackles on the back of his neck. He bit his cheek to stem the flow of obscenities. Coach would fine him if the press overheard him. "I can't leave until tomorrow. Then I'm filming some credit card commercials in Aruba, taking a few days of break. I'll be home the third week of February, the same as always. Just make sure your ass isn't there when I arrive."
Silence. Then a deep sigh came over the line. "I never quite expect how low you'll sink. Even for you, this is unbelievable."
"I live to amaze you." The weak sarcasm was the best he could muster. His team had made the play-offs for the first time in the five years he'd played for them. Within five minutes of the first quarter, the slaughter had been inevitable. He'd watched from the sidelines as player after player had fumbled, faltered, and fucked up their chance at the Super Bowl. His heart pounded, the blood rushed in his ears, and he pleaded with an un-answering God, Let him put me in. He'd thought he could do better, even with the strange aches he'd been experiencing.
Then, he'd gotten his wish and fucked it up. Instead of saving the day as he'd imagined, he took their minimal chance of not being humiliated with a complete wipe out and blew it up.
The only thing that could have made losing today worse was if his twin, Ethan had accepted his offer to fly him out and seen him screw up in person.
As it was, "Did he watch the game?" He couldn't help asking. He knew the answer. Ethan wouldn't watch him play. He hated football.
"You know the answer to that. Fuck it, Evan. Have a nice time in Aruba." Gil's silence echoed in his ear and he slowly pushed the phone in his pocket. He hated when Gil called, the guilt and longing that warred in the aftermath of each conversation left him torn to shreds. At least this time he could pretend the ache in his gut was from the bitter words he swallowed when a reporter shoved a microphone in his face after the end of the game. Instead of telling the guy to fuck off, he'd spouted the usual stilted barely literate, team management approved lines. 'We played our best. We'll do better next year. It was an honor to play.' Fuck it. He wanted to scream and deride the fate that just kept screwing over every good thing in his life.
Even now, in a locker room full of long faces and dispirited teammates, each absorbed in his own role in the defeat of the century as the broadcasters were already calling it, his body responded to the voice of the man he loved. One of them anyway. He slammed his locker door shut with sudden violence. His cock thickened under the towel at his illicit thoughts.
Clutching the towel to his middle, guts churning with the agony of defeat, remorse for his misbegotten lust, jealousy for a relationship he could never have, and sheer loss, he stalked to the shower. Sharp pain lanced his heart and he shuddered. He was nearly running the last few steps to hide the trickle of tears in the spray of the shower. Fuck them both.
Neither Gil nor Ethan appreciated what it cost him to stay away. Neither knew that he'd gladly give up football and fame and even the fortune that went along with them to be able to stay, to spend his days and nights waking and sleeping with them. Their little love triangle was a Goddamn disaster of such epic proportions it made his team's loss on the field today look like Christmas.
He lifted his face into the hot spray, and the salty tears mingled with the heat of the water, purifying him. He let the emotions roll, face reddening, heating, body flushing with the steam of the water. Ethan and Gil were better together without him around to fuck things up for them. He couldn't even explain why to them, so he made a big show of how much he enjoyed the game, and the travel, the life style of a player.
He loathed it to the very core of his being. But he needed it like a junkie needed his next fix.
The game filled the gap left in his heart when he'd realized at graduation five years earlier that what Evan felt for Gil was real. He'd seen that love reflected back for Ethan in Gil's eyes as well. They were good together. They would be good together, if Ethan weren't so attached to Evan.
In all their lives, it was the first time that Ethan had been physically attracted to someone else. Someone attainable that is. The movie star posters and sports heroes, which he'd papered the walls of their childhood bedroom, hadn't really counted. He might have a crush on an actor, but he didn't stand a chance of hooking up with one. The one real person Ethan had wanted was Evan. He'd loved that. Ethan was the center of his world, and they'd done everything together. At first, they'd been messing around. Sharing a room had its risks and benefits. Innocent playing at twelve and thirteen had led to mutual jacking off that escalated to far more by the time they'd graduated high school. Moving into an apartment together miles from home to attend college changed things even further.
Still, though Ethan could be open about his preferences, Evan couldn't. He was on the team. He wanted a career in sports. A gay accountant was fine. A gay quarterback was not. So, their relationship continued, in secret, in the privacy of their own home.
Then Ethan brought Gil home. And Evan realized he only thought he knew what hell was. Gil was everything Evan wasn't. Academic, intelligent, handsome, openly gay, and more important, not Ethan's brother. And as the year passed, he got a front row seat to Ethan falling in love with Gil, and Gil falling in love with Ethan.
So he'd done it. He'd taken the first offer that would take him out of state, and he'd left Ethan to Gil, left Gil to Ethan. As he'd expected, without him standing between them, Gil and Ethan had moved forward.
He moved to Sungrove to play football, and Gil moved into his room to get his doctorate in Archeology. With Ethan studying for his MBA, the two had been roommates for two years, and then shocked the family by getting engaged.
Evan survived by limiting his contact. It was the only thing he could do for the men he loved. Of course, they didn't fucking get that.
He pounded his fist on the gritty tile. Fuckers. Pulling himself back together, he shut off the taps and slung his towel around his hips again. In the locker room he noticed that his weren't the only red-rimmed eyes.
"There's always next year." He muttered to Austin James, who leaned dejectedly on the locker next to his.
"Not for me." Austin sighed. "I'm done. The doc says my knee has maybe another season before I have to have surgery, but I don't want that. Living surgery to surgery and dreading the next injury. I'm going home to Winterburn and take that job in the family bank my dad's been holding for me."
"Making an informed decision. I'm tired of hiding who I am from the world. One day, I'm going to fuck up and find it splashed all over the newspapers. Byron and I talked, and we're ready to settle down and do the picket fence thing."
Wincing, Evan forced his own ball of pain back inside. "Good for you. I'll miss you guys.
You're ditching me. I'll be alone here in a bastion of rampant heterosexuality." He forced a smile, wanting to be encouraging.
"He didn't come, did he?" Austin's sympathy lit the fuse of disappointment and anger again.
"No." He said shortly. "He hates football. I knew he wouldn't."
"You're his brother. It's the play-offs. He should have come just to support you. If I ever meet this guy I'm kicking his ass. What a sorry ass fucking excuse for a brother." Austin wrapped a comforting arm around Evan's shoulder in a brief hug. "Wanna come out with us to commiserate? We're getting drunk and driving home tomorrow."
"Ethan thinks he has reason. I can understand it, I guess."
"He's a selfish prick. Football took my brother. I will never watch it again." He mimicked a falsetto voice.
Ethan shoved him, laughing a little. "Cut it out. It's not exactly like that. Okay, I'll go.
You gonna turn around so I can put my pants on or you want a show?"
Chuckling, Austin turned away. His restless gaze traveled from player to player, in various poses of frustration, disappointment and sorrow. "You ever think about giving it all up?"
Evan pulled faded jeans on, fastening the button fly deftly. "No. I have nothing to live for except the game. You've got Byron. It's different for you."
He pulled the Oxford he'd worn to the game off the hook and shrugged into it. Shoving his feet into leather sandals, he fastened a few buttons. "Hustle. Let's get out of here and hit the bar." Finger-combing his damp hair, he shoved the rest of his stuff into a small duffle and slung it over his shoulder.
An agreeable Austin followed him in thoughtful silence through the labyrinth of corridors leading to a secure exit. The door opened into the parking lot, and he blinked in the bright afternoon sunlight.A hard grasp closed on his arm and he spun in shock. Goddamn reporters!
A Reminder Of His Shame
He was running, blinded by his tears. The other students watched him pass, some sympathetic, others clearly mocking. He vaguely heard someone calling his name, but he was too angry and hurt to pay attention. Only one thing mattered: going home to try to forget it ever happened.
His parents watched him in stunned silence as he stormed into the little house they were renting and slammed the door of his room behind him. He threw himself on his bed and cried for what seemed hours. When the tears finally dried up, he rose and paced around his room, going over the scene in his head. How could he have been so stupid? He was always rushing head down, never taking the time to think about the risks.
He stopped in front of the full-length mirror that stood in a corner of his room and lifted his shirt’s sleeve. Yep, it was still there, seeming to mock him. What on earth went through him to do something that insane? There was no coming back now, was there? He was stuck with it for his whole life, a reminder of his foolishness and his shame.
Four years later.
“Josh! Josh, wait! Dammit!”
Josh stopped in his track and turned around as much as he could on his skis, wondering who would call him. He was new to Colorado and he hadn’t had time to make any friends yet, but that was fine with him. He wasn’t a big fan of friendship. He was a loner, and had been for almost four years now.
The sun was high and the luminosity on the snow prevented him from seeing anything but a blurry form skiing to meet him. The slope was one of the hardest in the resort and whoever it was, he—yes, it was a man, that was all Josh was sure about—was pretty talented; not to mention the fact that he was a real hothead and taking unnecessary risks considering the instability of the snow. It was the first sunny day in a long time but it had snowed all week long.
Josh sighed. As a ski instructor, it was his duty to chastise the guy. That was one of the aspects of the job that he really didn’t enjoy.
As the skier approached, Josh was able to distinguish his features more clearly. The first thing he was able to make out was the other man’s hair golden curls that shone under the sun’s rays. It reminded him of someone, someone very special who had hurt him badly in the past.
Someone he was never able to totally erase from his mind, much to his despair. But it couldn’t be him. He wouldn’t want anything to do with Josh; he made that very clear the last time they’d seen each other. But the closer the skier came, the more he resembled the man he dreaded to see.
No, it can’t be! It all came back to him with a precision that left him breathless.
“Josh, you should wait a little more. I’m not sure about it,” Penelope said. “You have no proof that’s the truth.”
Josh looked at his best friend. He knew she was trying to protect him, but he was pretty sure of himself. He’d heard them talking in the shower after the last football game. He hadn’t been hiding, but they hadn’t seen him so he’d stayed where he was, listening to a conversation that was about to change his life. They’d said it; Aidan was gay; or at least he was bi. Josh had almost fainted when he’d heard it. He’d been in love with Aidan since they’d begun high school, almost four years ago. But he’d never approached the other boy because he was the captain of the football team and had dated every girl he could put his hands on.
Aidan was Josh’s dream and every parent’s idea of the perfect son-in-law. Tall, well built, with curly golden hair, shining blue eyes, and an unfailing self confidence. The opposite of Josh, who was African American, somewhat sickly, very shy, and openly gay. The revelation of Aidan’s sexual inclination had been a shock to Josh, but also the sign he’d been waiting for so long. In a crazy moment, he’d even gone to a tattoo parlor after he’d pleaded with his parents for almost three hours and had a small stylized “A” tattooed inside his left wrist. It was totally insane and the kind of thing he’d never thought he was capable of doing. And to be honest, he regretted it now, but it was done and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Josh,” Penelope pressed him, “think of what you’re about to do. Aidan never showed any inclination for men. He could be pissed if you just go and tell him you love him. Look at him… and look at you. I’m not saying that to hurt you, but if he decides to hit you, you’re dead meat.”
“Don’t worry, Pen,” said Josh with an indulgent smile. “You weren’t there. I was. I heard them. I know what I heard. Nothing will happen to me. Besides, tomorrow is the last day of school. We’ll all be in college next year. This could be my last chance to talk to him. I don’t want to just do nothing and wonder ‘what if’ all my life. I’ll talk to him tomorrow. I made up my mind, and there’s nothing you can say to change it.” He leaned over and kissed her tenderly on the cheek.
The skier stopped close to Josh, sending him a lot of snow in his face. Josh was so deep in his memories that he forgot where he was and tried to step back. He remembered at the last moment that he was wearing his skis but still fell miserably on his butt. In a matter of seconds, he once again became the clumsy and unsure boy he was after the ‘Aidan incident’, instead of the savvy ski instructor he’d grown into. Blinded by the snow that sprayed in his eyes, he couldn’t see the other man, but the laughter he heard made him shudder. He knew that laughter. He’d heard it in his nightmares for a long time. He rubbed his eyes to remove the snow and looked up at the shape that was leaning over him, only to close them immediately when he recognized the man who still haunted most of his nights.
“It’s you. It’s really you,” said the voice he’d come to love and hate at the same time. “I wasn’t sure at first, because… well, look at you. You changed. Where did you get these muscles? Look how big you are now! Hey, Josh, do you hear me? Are you alright?”
Josh opened his eyes again and just stared at him, unable to say a word. Why? Why is this happening to me? He asked himself in despair. He’d moved here after college, wanting a new life, a new start. He’d found the job of his dreams: ski instructor. His life seemed rather beautiful if you forgot his loneliness, but he was used to it now and he kind of liked it. If he didn’t get close to anybody, he wouldn’t get hurt. That was his motto since he’d left high school. And now, seeing Aidan, here of all places… He thought he had finally forgotten about him. But it was a lie, wasn’t it? Jesus, the boy had always been gorgeous, but now the man was stunning. And if the expression on his face was any indication, Aidan was beginning to really freak out.
“Josh? Can you hear me? Did you hurt yourself? Come on, man, answer me!” Aidan said in an almost pleading voice.
Josh came out of his stupor and repressed a wry chuckle. Of course! He’d never had any luck in his life, why would he have some now?
“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Don’t just stand there, help me get up. It seems that I’ve lost my strength,” he added sarcastically.
Aidan was aware of Josh’s anger. He knew he deserved it, but he had hoped that somehow Josh would have forgotten everything that happened four years ago. He wasn’t proud of himself.
He never could really forgive himself for what he’d done to the other man.
He leaned over and took Josh’s hand. The grip was firm and strong, nothing like the boy he remembered from high school. In fact, nothing at all was like he remembered from high school.
Josh was now taller than him, with broader shoulders and a mouth that didn’t seem to smile as often as it once had. Aidan felt his chest tighten at the knowledge that he might have had something to do with the sadness and the distrust he could see in Josh's eyes.
Aidan pulled Josh’s hand and they found themselves face to face, almost nose to mouth as Josh was a few inches taller and a little too close for Aidan’s comfort. He had a lot to say to Josh, but he realized now that it wasn’t going to be easy. He’d been looking for Josh for some time now.
Josh was one of his biggest regrets, and he wanted to make amends. He’d realized that if he didn’t find the man and apologize for his past actions, he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror without remembering Josh’s face on that particular day. He needed to apologize for his actions like someone in AA. While in that program, a person had to go to see all the people they’d hurt in the past and tell them they were sorry. Josh was his salvation. He had waited until college was over and then went to Josh’s home. He’d found Josh’s mother there and she’d told him where he could find Josh. So here he was, a little uncomfortable about what he had to do.
Why in hell does he look at me like that? Josh was puzzled by Aidan’s attitude. He looked uncomfortable, which was incomprehensible. If anyone should feel uncomfortable, it should be Josh. He was the one who’d made a fool out of himself four years ago, after all. Hell, he was the one who made a fool out of himself four minutes ago too…
Josh looked at Aidan without saying a word, waiting for the other ma to give him a clue about his presence here. After what seemed an eternity, Aidan sighed and looked away.
“Is there a place where we could talk?” Aidan murmured. “I really need to talk to you.”
Josh didn’t want to talk to Aidan at all, but he realized it was childish to say no.
“Can’t we talk here?” he said with hope in his voice.
“I’d rather go some place where we could be alone. And comfortable.”
Comfortable? What did Aidan mean by it? Josh knew that anywhere with Aidan would be uncomfortable for him. There was no way he could relax in the other man’s presence. He blinked and looked around him. What was wrong with here and now? It wasn’t like there were a lot of people on the slope.
“Please?” Aidan begged.
Josh sighed heavily and nodded.
“Okay. I know a cabin not far from here. There’s a porch where we can sit and talk, if
that’s what you want.”
Aidan seemed relieved, which made Josh more uncomfortable than before.
“Follow me, then,” he said as he darted down the slope.