Okay, that was enough. He wasn't much for cursing. His father had always told him it was the sign of an uncreative mind, and now that Cal was an adult himself, he agreed. He sank onto the love seat next to the box of books he'd inadvertently walked his toes into and rubbed the tender digits, wincing. He didn't think he'd broken any of them.
His phone rang, and he made the conscious decision not to answer it. It was probably some magazine editor, and they could get in line like everyone else. He had a schedule so packed and complicated that he'd been wondering if maybe it was time to hire some kind of personal assistant to keep track of his responsibilities.
Which was the main reason why being told by his landlord the month before that the house he'd been renting had finally sold was such an inconvenience. Six months' notice would have been hard to handle. A month and a half was barely enough time in which to blink, let alone pack all his worldly goods and find a new place to live.
He hadn't accomplished either of those things. Sure, there were boxes around, some of them packed, but he didn't have anywhere to take them. He could have moved to any city in the continental United States without changing his day-to-day life all that much. He was traveling for work as often as he was home. The actual process of moving had been so daunting that he hadn't been able to even consider it unless he was going to stay within the city limits. He liked Clayton, and it made a good base.
After so many years in this rented house, he hadn't been able to bear the thought of an apartment with neighbors on all sides, kids running and laughing above him when he wanted to sleep, elderly people complaining when he played music after ten at night. No way was he going back to that. It was irritating because he could have had his pick of a dozen apartments in move-in condition within days, whereas finding someplace with more privacy was like a treasure hunt he wasn't equipped for.
The phone had stopped ringing at least. Cal sighed and limped over to retrieve whatever message had been left.
“Hey, Cal, it’s Derek. You’re screening your calls, aren’t you? Don’t try to deny it. I know you’re home. Anyway, Marianne and I are having a little thing Friday night, and she’s inviting someone she thinks you should meet. Eight o’clock. Be on time, no excuses. Have a good one.”
Cal couldn't help feeling a flicker of interest at the idea of meeting someone. Not with an eye to anything serious—not his style. It'd been awhile since he'd hooked up with anyone, and that wasn't like him either. He didn't break hearts and he didn't make promises, but since the men he dated had the same priorities, it usually worked out fine. The only problem would be if the guy Marianne had picked out for him wasn't his type or didn't understand the rules Cal played by.
The flicker was dying down to be replaced by pessimism. At twenty-five, Cal had been around long enough to know that a guy desperate enough to let someone fix him up with a date probably wasn't going to be all that attractive.
A moment later, it occurred to Cal that the nameless guy might be thinking the exact same thing about him, and he grinned. He'd be a pleasant surprise for whoever it was. Without vanity, he knew that he was good-looking, and he'd been told he was hot often enough for him to believe it. He rarely slept with the same man more than a handful of times, but he always made an effort to make the sex memorable. Why not? It made it better for him if his partner was satisfied, and Cal wasn't selfish by nature.
With a return to his initial positive reaction, he sent off a quick e-mail to Derek, accepting the invitation, and went back to the seemingly endless task of packing up his belongings. For a rolling stone, he'd accumulated a lot of moss.
Part of the problem with packing was that he was so easily distracted. He'd pick up a book intending to put it into a box. An envelope with some photos tucked inside would fall out of the book, and he'd be reminded of some friends he'd made when he was shooting pictures in the Yucatan or wherever. He'd go looking for the rest of the photos from that trip—he might be an excellent photographer with a degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to prove it, but organized he was not—and the next thing he knew, it was three hours later and he hadn't even managed to pack a single book, let alone a box. It was ridiculous, he knew. Friends had suggested signing up for some kind of class that would help him get stuff under control. He'd made the excuse of having no time. Deep down, though, he knew that he never would. Being disorganized was part of him.
His phone rang again, and he answered it without thinking. It turned out to be an old friend, Jason, whom he hadn't seen in months, and it didn't take much convincing for Cal to agree to meet him for drinks in a few hours.
Why waste his time packing when he didn't have anywhere to move his stuff to, anyway?
* * * * *
The club was busy, and the music loud. Cal let the atmosphere soak into him for a moment, enjoying the assault on his senses. Jason was easy to spot, in his
favorite place by the bar. He was taller than most men in the room, with shoulders to match. Cal's taste ran to big men, and since he wasn't exactly pint-size himself, that meant he often had to compromise. The world needed more tall guys, even if it stopped mattering as much once they were on their knees or their backs.
Cal raised his hand in a casual greeting that Jason returned and shook his head at a guy who looked barely legal and seemed to think Cal's wave had been directed at him. He threw in a smile to soften the rejection and got a shrug back. The message of your loss came over loud and clear, making Cal's smile broaden. He made his way over to the bar. Jason would have a drink waiting for him with another on the way.
Jason liked to party, with a capacity for alcohol that Cal couldn't match without spending the next day with a hangover. He didn't intend to try. Too much to drink meant that he wouldn't appreciate what would inevitably happen after the clubbing part of the evening ended.
As Cal joined Jason at the bar, he realized a man was perched on the stool next to Jason's, a man with a finger hooked into the waistband of Jason's beautifully fitted slacks.
“You made it,” Jason said.
“We got you a drink,” the other man added like a peace offering. He wasn't that much to look at, with shaggy hair and glasses that looked several years out of style. He did have nice laugh lines around his eyes.
“Thanks.” Cal smiled, directing it more at the stranger. He met Jason's eyes and raised his eyebrows. “So, Jase, you've been holding out on me. I didn't know you had a boyfriend.”
“I haven't seen you since February,” Jason pointed out. “George and I met at the beginning of March. We had our five-month anniversary last week.”
Cal snickered and shoved Jason's shoulder playfully. “Yeah, right. Five-month anniversary. Good one.”
Jason looked hurt. Reproach clear in his voice, he said, “I'm serious.”
He was serious, Cal realized, surprise leaving him tongue-tied for a moment, which was just as well since it gave him time to process the news. Jason in a serious relationship? Jason? He gathered his scattered thoughts. “Yeah, no, of course. I was just giving you a hard time. Sorry, my sense of humor's been kind of suspect lately. So...five months. That's great.”
Jason was still looking perturbed. “I should've said something on the phone, not sprung it on you like this. I thought you'd be happy for me.”
George was glancing between them, a faint frown replacing his polite look of welcome. “Am I missing something? Were you two...I thought you just saw each other now and then?”
“No,” Cal said quickly, trying to dig them out of what was rapidly becoming an awkward situation. “You've got it right. Jase and I hooked up from time to time, that's all. We were never exclusive. I guess I'm just used to thinking of him as—” He broke off, unable to think of a way to end his sentence that wouldn't get him punched in the face. “Uh, can we start over? I'm Cal, and I'm an old friend of Jason's who's very happy to meet you. Happy for you both,” he added and flashed them his most charming smile. “Did someone mention a drink?”
The awkwardness lingered through most of the first round of drinks. In the flurry of ordering the second, it finally seemed to fade away, much to Cal's relief. It wasn't that he considered settling down the worst thing in the world; it was more that he thought of it as something people did when they were forty, maybe fifty. Not when they were still young.
“And we've hardly been separated since,” Jason said happily, finishing the story of how he and George had met. Cal wrenched his brain back on track and gave them another smile.
“That's so great.”
“It's the story we'll be telling our kids in ten years.” George gave Jason a look of such sweetness that Cal literally felt his stomach flip over. Kids?
“Kids?” He did his best to keep his tone light. “Really?”
“Sure, why not? Don't most people want kids?” George asked.
Cal sure as hell didn't, and he couldn't imagine that changing no matter whom he met. “Right, yeah. So will you adopt or do the whole surrogacy thing...?” He'd heard the details of the complicated ways in which gay men had babies more times than he could count, and hoped he wasn't about to be treated to another such session.
Luckily, Jason smiled and leaned against the bar, saying, “We haven't figured that part out yet. We will, when it's time.”
Cal had been planning to spend a few hours at the club, maybe go on to a bar and make a night of it. The club scene in Clayton was lively, and he'd always taken full advantage of that fact when he wasn't off on a shoot. His favorite place to hang out was the Riverside Bar over on Deacon Street. The name was boring; the place was anything but. A large converted Victorian house over a century old, with a long garden behind it leading to the river that ran through Clayton. The garden was the place to be in the summer, with dozens of tables set out there and an outside bar dispensing icy beer and gaudy cocktails. The Riverside was owned by a gay couple who had renovated the mansion, which had been split up into some frankly seedy apartments. They'd knocked down interior walls, restored the exterior, and in the process created something for everyone: an intimate bar, a larger room much in demand for wedding receptions, and a restaurant.
Now all Cal wanted to do was make his excuses and head home. Jason settled down with a baby? Even to hear him discuss it as a possibility was too much for Cal to wrap his head around. He needed to get out of here in case maturity was catching.
“I hope it works out for you.” Cal winced inwardly at how stiff and polite he sounded. “Look, I should be going. I've got a ton of packing to do and not much time left to do it in.”
“That's okay,” Jason said. “I'm not all that into the bar scene these days. Not when what's waiting at home for me is so much better.” He patted George's hand, and Cal manfully managed not to gag in response.
Cal walked with the happy couple to the door, and they said their good-byes; he got as far as behind the wheel of his own car before he decided he couldn't go home in the mood he was in. He'd have to go out for a while until he recovered, and the Riverside would be as good a destination as any.
Dancing, a couple more drinks, and a casual good time were what the doctor would order, if the doctor knew Calvin Reece, and Cal wasn't the kind of guy who was averse to forging a prescription on occasion.
Especially on a night like this.
* * * * *
Derek and Marianne lived in a big executive home that should have looked cookie-cutter. It was saved, though, by the yard around it, which Marianne had coaxed into verdant lush brightness. It showcased a riot of flowering bushes at the front and in the backyard, spectacular rockeries, and a tiny, exquisitely neat knot garden of herbs, most of which Cal didn't recognize. Even in winter, something usually showed color, from evergreens to holly bushes. The amount of grass left for Derek to cut was about the size of a paperback book.
Cal shifted the bottle of white wine he was carrying from one hand to the other and rang the doorbell, already smiling in anticipation of being welcomed and fussed over. Marianne was convinced that his roving job meant he didn't eat enough, when what it actually meant was that he ate too much junk food. She always kept his plate filled over his protests that he was full, truly, really, honestly.
Cal was never sure what had taken Derek from being a client, with Cal providing the photographs for the launch of Derek's up-market bakery and attached café, to being a friend. Sometimes he thought that it was as simple as Marianne liking him. Keeping in touch with them was one more reason to stay in Clayton.
The door opened, and his smile widened as he saw Marianne, displaying her baby bump proudly.
“I brought you something you can't have,” Cal told her, gesturing with the wine.
“I think I'm allowed to touch the bottle.” Marianne reached out.
“No, no.” Lifting the wine above his head, Cal stepped into the house and curled his other arm around Marianne's shoulders, leaning in to kiss her temple. “And how is the adorable mother-to-be?”
“Other than as big as a house, you mean?” Marianne sounded rueful, though her hand caressed her stomach as she spoke. Cal knew she was thrilled to be pregnant. Even though neither of them had come right out and said it, they'd been trying for some time before Derek had succeeded in knocking Marianne up, which was the way they'd finally come out and made the announcement. “I'm good. And I promise not to subject you to ultrasound pictures.”
“She might promise that,” Derek said, coming around the corner from the kitchen to join them.
“You, on the other hand, make no such promises.” Cal handed the wine to Derek. “Here, take this. Don't let her have any.”
“Right, because she's such a lush.” Derek rolled his eyes and grinned. “Hey, guy, it's been too long. Thanks for coming.”
Cal lifted an eyebrow. “I didn't think you'd offered me a choice.”
“Have I shown you the latest ultrasound pictures?” Derek asked, feigning innocence, and Cal laughed and let himself be drawn farther into the house, where half a dozen people, only some of whom he recognized, already mingled.
By the time Derek had organized him a drink, a perfectly chilled pinot grigio, Cal had eaten two bite-size circles of flaky pastry topped with something that smelled heavenly and tasted better. Cal didn't cook and didn't even try to identify the topping beyond the obvious, that it was some sort of mushroom and some kind of cheese. Between bites, he'd smiled at those he knew and introduced himself to those he didn't, wondering who exactly he was meant to hook up with. So far, everyone seemed to be paired off as neatly as if Noah had helped with the guest list.
Derek left to answer the door again, and Cal wandered over to study Marianne's latest painting, hung in the formal dining room off the main hallway. She was self-taught and accepted compliments on her work with a skeptical twinkle in her eyes. Only one of her paintings was ever hung at a time. Cal wasn't sure what she did with the rest of them. Mercifully, she never gave them out as gifts.
“I know children in kindergarten who paint better than I do. I don't care. Painting keeps my fingers busy and clears my mind,” she'd told him once. “Everyone needs a hobby, and this is mine.”
Cal wondered what Derek would do when Marianne left to begin her maternity leave and he lost his business partner. Marianne didn't handle the day-to-day running of the bakery, focusing instead on developing new recipes for a planned expansion of the business into supplying local supermarkets with luxury cakes and desserts. As with the savories he'd been eating, Cal was hazy on the details, appreciative of the end result.
“Is that supposed to be an owl?”
Cal turned to see a man he didn't know staring at the painting on the wall. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a shock of untidy brown hair and gray eyes, the man looked around Cal's age. That was about all they had in common. He was wearing a truly appalling shirt and tie in two shades of mustard, clearly bought as a set, and a pair of faded jeans with a hole starting in one knee. Cal wanted to strip him naked, but not for the usual reasons.
“You'd have to ask Marianne,” he said cautiously. He'd once praised a kitten she'd painted and found out later that it was the next door neighbor's rabbit.
“The wing feathers are all wrong. I like the way it's looking at the mouse in the corner, though. Predatory.”
“I think that's a—” Cal broke off to peer at the brown splodge. “It might be a mouse, now that you mention it.”
“Or the end results after the mouse was consumed,” the frighteningly dressed man suggested.
“Which would explain why it doesn't seem to have a face,” Cal said. Inside, he was hoping this wasn't the guy Marianne had wanted him to meet. It was possible the man's clothing style—if it could be called that—was contagious. Like the plague.
The other man grinned. He did have a nice smile, Cal noted. “Or any other recognizable features. Hi, I'm Tom.”
Cal shook the proffered hand. “Calvin Reece. Cal. Um, are you...?”
“The latest in Marianne's attempts at your blind date? No.” Tom tilted his head as he considered the painting some more, squinting dubiously. “Which I only know because she already introduced me to mine. That blond guy over there. I don't think he's too impressed with me.” Until then Tom had sounded reasonably self- confident, but his forced-casual tone as he admitted that last bit revealed the truth.
“Why do you think that? You seem like a nice guy.” Most of the people Cal hung around with were pretty together, so he didn't find himself in the position of needing to bolster anyone's ego very often. He didn't mind doing it now. Tom did seem like a nice guy.
“Oh, I am.” Tom squinted at the painting and frowned. “Look at him. I mean, he probably spends forty hours a week at the gym.”
Cal couldn't help checking out the blond, who was talking to an extremely good-looking dark-haired man. “He's toned,” he admitted.
Tom laughed. “I think that's the understatement of the century. My roommate, well, previous roommate, teaches spinning classes full-time, and he makes her look like a couch potato. Oh, and get this—his name is Deuce.”
“Seriously?” Cal dismissed the blond in favor of the other introduced topic of conversation. “Previous roommate?”
“I live in this house that's too big for one, including the bills, so I rent out part of it to help with expenses. Bedroom, attached bathroom, small do-whatever-you- want-in-it room. It works out well,” Tom said with a vague wave of his hand. Cal could think of plenty of ways that it wouldn’t work out. He decided not to share them. “Sally was great; I loved sharing with her. She's been offered a job at this fitness place in Charlton, though, and the commute would be a killer, so she's decided to move over there. I'm going to miss her. She kept trying to get me to one of her classes and turn vegetarian, but apart from that, she was perfect.”
“Mmm,” Cal said, not listening anymore. The dark-haired man had noticed him and was giving him an amused appraising look that made Cal feel warm all over. Marianne would kill him if he left early with tall, dark, and sexy, which was something to consider. If the man lived up to his looks, it might be worth it. He grinned back at the man, who smoothly detached himself from the conversation he was having and moved away, giving Cal one final “come and get me” glance as he headed for the kitchen.
“You know, I'm starving,” Cal said, interrupting whatever Tim, no, Tom, was saying about the best steak he'd ever eaten. “I'm going to go and grab some of whatever Marianne's putting out in the kitchen. It's making my mouth water. Catch you later?”
“Uh, sure,” Tom said. “Nice to meet—”
“Likewise,” Cal said absently and walked away.
As it turned out, the sexy dark-haired man was who Marianne had wanted Cal to meet, and not only was Alexander as sexy as hell, he had a smooth, rich voice that Cal knew would have his toes curling in the bedroom.
“What do you say we get out of here?” Alexander murmured, one hand resting at Cal's waist.
“It's early.” It was only a halfhearted objection, though, and it fled when Alexander's lips found the pulse point beneath his ear and sucked at it gently. “Yeah, okay.”
They went back to Alexander's house, which was museum-like in its perfection, a far cry from Cal's messy, cluttered rooms. Before they'd gotten as far as the bedroom, Cal's shirt was on the floor, and Alexander was on his knees.
“You don't waste any time.” Cal gasped appreciatively as Alexander nuzzled at his jeans and actually undid the button with his teeth.
“Wouldn't want to waste any.” Alexander licked Cal's stomach as he tugged Cal's pants down around his ankles. “Mm, you're delicious.”
Cal was so hard he was leaking a damp spot on his boxers, and he groaned when Alexander sucked on the head of his dick through the thin cotton. “Yeah, like that. Suck me.”
Nothing hotter than looking at a gorgeous man who was about to suck him off. Cal could feel his balls tighten in anticipation of the orgasm he'd hopefully be having in the next few minutes, and he reached to caress Alexander's hair and the edge of his ear.
“Shit, you taste good.” Alexander had tugged down Cal's boxers now and was licking the tip of his dick wetly. “Beautiful cock. You gonna fuck me with it later?”
“Yeah, sure. Come on, stop stalling.” If a man didn't take Cal's erection in deep within the first half a minute, Cal tended to figure he didn't know how to suck cock, and he didn't want to waste a bunch of time on a substandard blowjob. “First I want to fuck your throat.”
“Handsome, you can fuck any part of me you want,” Alexander said, and thankfully set to work.
By the time Cal was shooting, his hands tight on Alexander's shoulders, the luscious wet sounds of Alexander's mouth as arousing as the flick of his tongue against Cal's dick, he'd forgotten every one of the mundane worries that had been weighing him down. A hectic schedule and finding a new place... They weren't insurmountable problems, after all. Hell, being busy was more of a positive. Cal liked being wanted.
Still, it was good to let all those chaotic thoughts slip away, leaving nothing but the pleasure of the moment. Alexander was still dressed, his expensive pants forgotten as he knelt at Cal's feet, his own arousal ignored as he took Cal higher. When Cal glanced down, he could see the trapped swell of Alexander's erection, untouched because both Alexander's hands were on Cal, cupping his ass or rolling his balls gently. He was going to have to be nice to Alex later to say thank you for the man's unselfishness. That version of nice never qualified as a problem.
Cal loved sex and the way that providing a release that was rooted in the physical and also smoothed the raw edges emotionally. He wasn't indiscriminate. If there wasn't anyone in the room who triggered his interest, he'd go home alone before he'd settle for second best, but when he saw someone special, someone like Alex...
“God, yeah,” he gasped, the words hard to form. He thrust forward blindly, his eyes closing, and luxuriated in the sensations that swept over him. So good. So very fucking good.
As he eased out of Alex's mouth, murmuring a compliment that Alex acknowledged with a nod, trying to catch his breath, Cal found himself wondering if that Tom guy had gotten as lucky with his blond.
Somehow, he doubted it.
“I thought...” Marianne sighed and ran her hand slowly over the swell of her stomach. The party was almost over, just a few guests left chatting by the fireplace, coffee in hand, and she'd taken over the long couch in the family room, with Tom perched on the footstool beside her. “You're so nice, Tom, and I'd love to see you with someone, the way I'm with Derek.”
Tom grinned at her. “Pregnant and barefoot?” he teased, tweaking her big toe. “I don't think it's me, somehow.”
“So you didn't hit it off with Deuce,” Marianne said, ignoring him. “That doesn't mean—”
“Marianne, I'm not—” Tom stopped, helpless to put the truth into words. “You're aiming too high. Men like Deuce and that other couple here tonight, Calvin and the guy he went off with, they're out of my league.”
Marianne sat up straight. “That is not true.”
“I'm being realistic, not wallowing in self-pity,” Tom said with as much patience as he could muster. It had stung being dismissed by not one but two men in the space of a few minutes. “Men like that... It's all about the image and the flirting. It's just not what I do. So next time you invite me over—if you ever do again—scratch set Tom up off your to-do list. Please?”
Marianne closed her eyes and moaned. “Oh God, I've turned into my mother. Shoot me now.”
“Honey?” Derek squatted beside the couch, a concerned look on his face. “Are you okay?” He glanced at Tom, raising his eyebrows in a silent question.
“I, uh, I should probably be heading off,” Tom began, standing.
Marianne's hand shot out and grabbed his. She opened her eyes and fixed him with a glare. “Not until you let me apologize.”
“For what?” Derek sounded confused, and Tom couldn't blame him.
“For setting me up and only telling me about it when I got here,” Tom said. “I don't want to meet someone like that.” He knew that he was blushing, and he hated that he hadn't outgrown that tendency. “I'm sorry if I upset you, Marianne.”
She squeezed his hand, then released it. “You didn't. I'm so glad you told me before I did it again.” Okay, that was a relief. Derek and Marianne employed him to tweak their Web site from time to time, so they were people Tom wanted to get along with from a business point of view. That aside, they were also people he liked. He'd been told before that when his shyness cracked under stress, he could be blunt, even rude trying to get his message across.
“Cal didn't seem to mind you matchmaking,” Derek said drily.
“Cal isn't looking for the same kind of thing Tom is.” Marianne smiled apologetically at Tom. “I think if I'm going to look into matchmaking as a serious hobby, I need to have people fill out forms first. You know, like an application.”
Tom considered suggesting that she stick to painting pictures. Before he could say that, it occurred to him that painting probably wasn't her forte either. “I'll pass, no offense. I'll meet someone on my own.” Or not, if his experience was any indication.
“Well, if you want to do that, you have to actually experience the world outside your house,” Derek pointed out.
“Is this my house?” Tom looked around, pretending he was confused and thought it might be.
“One Friday night is an exception, not a rule,” Derek said. “You have to get out more. Meet people!”
“Is this the part where I remind you that people don't actually like me all that much?” Tom asked.
“Tom! That's not true! You don't really think that, do you?” Marianne looked genuinely concerned, so Tom capitulated.
“No, of course not. I was trying to make a point.” He tried to think of how to reword it. “That it's hard for me to meet people that, you know, get me. And I don't want to waste my time with people who don't.” He didn't. The repeated rejection wasn't good for him. If he managed to avoid it, he was okay in his own skin. When he couldn't, it was too easy to start into the downward spiral that made his life miserable.
“It's got to be lonely now that Sally's gone,” Derek said. “Are you looking for someone else to share with?”
Tom shrugged. “Sure. I can get by for a few months solo, so I'm not going to rush into it. I have to get along with whoever it is, after all.”
“You've always rented to women,” Derek said.
“I'm gay,” Tom reminded them unnecessarily. “No threat if they're seeing someone and—”
“And no pressure on you,” Marianne said with a shrewdness that Tom admired more when it wasn't directed at him.
She had a point. Tom had entertained a few fantasies about the perfect man moving in and falling in love with him. Since the reality would be far less rosy, he'd kept them as dreams.
“What she's trying to say is that if he hadn't left so soon, I'd have told you to chat to Cal about moving in.”
“What?” Cal? For all his movie-star good looks, the man hadn't been able to focus on Tom for long enough to even say good-bye looking him in the face. Tom was damned if he was going to rent out part of his house to someone who clearly thought that he was a nonentity. “I don't think so.”
“He needs somewhere fast, and he prefers houses. He's not around much—”
Too busy bed-hopping, Tom thought sourly, not paying much attention to Derek's explanation about how Cal was a photographer, very much in demand and often traveling. He'd seen Cal nuzzling up to his blind date as if they were long-lost lovers, not complete strangers. It'd made him feel a twinge of contempt followed by a burst of envy and arousal. The two of them had looked good together, a perfectly matched pair.
“—and it's not like money's an issue. Wouldn't it work out for you to have someone who'd be gone half the time and paying the rent reliably?” Marianne sounded so reasonable that Tom found himself considering it.
“I don't know.” He didn't want to rush making a decision. “I guess it would be nice not to have to be on someone's back about the rent, and if I had the house to myself a lot of the time...”
“Give it some thought,” Marianne said. “Here, I'll write his number down for you before you go, okay?”
“Okay.” It wasn't like he'd have to do anything with the number. He could throw it away as soon as he got home, if he wanted to.
* * * * *
He chewed at his bottom lip, a bad habit of his, and pictured a night in, with a few beers, a good movie, a pizza to share. Simple, basic fun, and something he'd never really experienced except as the hanger-on at college, the quiet one in the corner, torn between hoping someone would notice him and praying no one would.
Cal wouldn't be interested in that kind of fun, anyway. He was one of the smoothly confident men Tom saw sauntering into clubs, bypassing the line, certain of a welcome. He'd be bringing men like that back to Tom's house. Lots of them, from a few snippets of conversation about him that Tom had overheard at the party.
Tom couldn't make up his mind. Reminding himself that Cal might not even be interested in sharing his house didn't help. Tom felt he had to decide one way or another, right now, if he was going to make the offer. It didn't matter what Cal said.
That part of the equation was out of Tom's hands. The offer, though, that was for him to make or not.
The light changed, and Tom pulled away with an uncharacteristic stab at the gas that sent him shooting forward.
He'd call Cal. Probably have to introduce himself all over again because Cal had forgotten him, but he'd do it.
* * * * *
He was aware of his palms sweating as he listened to the phone ringing on the other side of the line, trying not to picture the possibility that Calvin would be answering it in another man's bed. Not that he was interested in Cal, who was as far from his type as anyone he could imagine.
It rang three times before Cal picked it up. “Hello?” He sounded wary, like he was anticipating a call from a telemarketer or someone equally irritating. He didn't sound sleepy, thank God.
“Hi, Cal? Calvin Reece, right? Um, this is Tom Holden. We met at Marianne and Derek's party last night?” Jeez, make him the slightest bit uncomfortable and every part of his conversation turned into questions.
“Um. Right.” Cal probably didn't remember him at all and was maybe thinking that Tom was calling to ask him out, the thought of which made Tom cringe. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Tom abandoned small talk and blurted out the reason for his call. “So anyway, Marianne gave me your number. She said you were looking for a place to live, and I've been looking for a roommate, so I guess she thought...”
“Oh! Okay.” Now Cal sounded relieved, which was one more kick in the teeth for Tom's ego. “Tell me about your place.”
Tom licked his lips, which were unaccountably dry and chewed rough and chapped. He had to break himself of that habit. Cal probably smoothed on lip balm twice a day and used moisturizer. Maybe got his nails done regularly and had haircuts that cost as much as a meal out somewhere fancy.
Before he could babble out any of what he was thinking, Tom rushed into speech. “Well, I told you about it last night. I guess you weren't—”
“Listening?” Cal sounded amused, where Tom would have been tripping over his tongue apologizing. “Yeah, sorry. Alexander, well, you have to agree, he's distracting.”
“Uh, I guess.” Tom could remember Cal clearly. Alexander was labeled “dark- haired guy” in his memory, and he didn't see any reason to change that. “Well, you'd have your own bedroom, of course.”
“Good to know,” Cal said, still with that suggestion of a chuckle. “Not that you don't look cuddly.”
Tom rolled his eyes. God, did the man flirt with everyone? “Bathroom off it and I knocked a door in the connecting wall and turned another bedroom into a space you could use as an office, living room, whatever. You'd also be welcome to use the rest of the house, kitchen, library, TV room, and the yard, with the exception of my bedroom and office, which are off-limits, of course.”
“Of course.” Cal sounded too earnest to be entirely sincere.
“If you're interested, maybe you'd like to come and take a look.” Tom was uneasily aware of how stiff and disapproving he sounded. “I work from home a lot of the time, so I'm usually around.”
“Cool. Would it be okay with you that I might not be home a fair amount of the time? I mean, if you're looking for someone to, you know, hang out with...”
“No, that's fine,” Tom hastened to reassure him, because he couldn't imagine hanging around with Cal. He liked it when the people he talked to were actually paying attention to him, after all.
Cal was quiet for a few seconds that felt longer than they probably were. “Okay. What about this afternoon?”
“Yeah, I can do that. Around three?” After giving Cal the address and letting him know that the driveway kind of sneaked up on a visitor—the mailbox on the street had the house number on it, but the house itself was set deep in from the road and a little hidden by trees that had probably been growing for at least a hundred years—Tom hung up the phone.
He really hoped this wasn't a terrible idea.
* * * * *
“Hey,” Cal said and didn't apologize for the fact that he was almost an hour late. “How's it going?”
“Fine.” Tom stepped back and made a “come in” gesture. He decided not to mention the time thing either, because the truth was he could use someone else to help pay the bills, and chances were Cal wouldn't be sobbing on his shoulder late at night because the latest boyfriend had broken his heart. “Should I give you the tour?”
Cal grinned. “Let me guess. This is the mudroom?”
“I believe it's referred to as a foyer,” Tom said, slipping on a bad British accent and relaxing. It was weird the way that in person Cal seemed to have the ability to put him at ease. Continuing with the accent, he went on, “Would you care to see the kitchens, sir?”
“More than one?” Cal asked, his grin even wider.
“No, not really. Here, let me show you the rooms that would be yours first. That way if you think they suck, you won't have wasted too much time.”
“I'm sure they don't suck.” Cal followed him down the hallway past Tom's own bedroom and the office that was across from it, then up the back staircase and into the empty bedroom. The room smelled of paint. Tom had gotten around to painting it only the week before, and even though he'd left the windows open to air it out, the scent lingered.
“I've got some furniture in storage,” Tom said, “so if you don't have your own, I can get out the basics. Usually people want their own things, and that's fine with me. It's your space. I mean, if you decided to rent it, it would be. If you wanted to do something like put up shelves, I'd like you to check with me first, though I don't see it being a problem.”
“It's still your house.” Cal nodded as if he understood how Tom felt. “I've got my own furniture. Not much, but I'm used to it.” He walked over to the window and stared down at the yard. It was early June, and for now it was as green as Marianne's. Tom felt guilty that most of the green was weeds. He kept meaning to get out there and do something with it but rarely got around to more than cutting the grass. “This is a big place. How did you end up living here, if you don't mind me asking?”
“I grew up here.” Tom dragged his gaze away from Cal's ass without remembering when he'd started to stare at it. “It was my parents' house. They'd always wanted to retire early and move to California. My dad was in this high-level management job, and his company got bought out. His severance package was huge, more than enough for them to live on if they invested it right, and he's good at that. I didn't want to move out, so they set up this deal where I bought it off them cheaply. Kind of their way of sharing the good fortune, I guess.”
It was amazing how positive the story sounded when he chose his words carefully. Much better than: My parents are disappointed in me for being gay and shy and awkward and couldn’t wait to move thousands of miles away and forget they have a son, and the house was their way of dealing with the guilt. It wasn't that they didn't love him in a dutiful way; they just didn't feel comfortable around him.
Issues. He had them, and he knew it. He just preferred to keep them to himself.
“That's great. Still, a place this size...and the neighborhood is nice too.” Cal sounded like he was thinking about something else in his head, figuring something out. “The taxes must be killer.”
“Kind of,” Tom admitted. “Which is one of the reasons having a roommate comes in handy.”
Cal nodded and moved to check out the closet. “So what were you thinking for rent?”
“Well...” Tom didn't want to come right out and say that something was better than nothing, because if Cal knew that was the way he felt about it, he'd be likely to try to haggle. “Hm.”
“You can tell me,” Cal said, as if he'd read Tom's mind. “I don't do all that bargaining stuff. Life's too short, you know? Either I can pay it or I can't.”
“My last roommate was paying a thousand a month. That included all the utilities, like electric, gas, and cable. We both bought our own food, but we ended up sharing meals some of the time.”
“Personal trainer, right?” Cal gave him a shrewd look and caught what must have been an expression of surprise on Tom's face. “What? I was listening.”
“Right,” Tom said. “Okay. Sorry. Um, yeah, pretty much.”
“Didn't you say she was a vegetarian? Oh shit, please tell me you’re not a vegetarian, because I don't think I can give up meat.” In fact, Cal looked downright horrified at the idea.
Tom laughed. “No, not a vegetarian. I told you that. She isn't, either. Really, really into salads, though.”
“I'm not antivegetable,” Cal explained, shifting his weight to one side. “I just like meat.”
“So I noticed at the party,” Tom said, surprising himself. He had a sense of humor that worked for him. It was more of an internal commentary on the world around him. Actual jokes weren't something he told well. He either forgot the punch line or missed out an important element. He hadn't meant it as a dig, though, so he cringed, waiting for Cal to take offense, even walk out.
Tom didn't want that to happen. He'd been ambivalent about asking Cal to live with him initially. Cal had walked through the front door, though, and brought with him a stir and a bustle that made Tom feel exhilarated. He didn't want to lose that. Cal's approach to life was utterly alien to him, and Cal's presence might make him retreat further into his shell in self-defense. Despite that risk, Tom was willing to give it a try.
Cal eyed him suspiciously like he wasn't sure if Tom was being serious. His face broke into a smile. “I like you,” he announced. “When can I move in? Assuming you don't think I'm an asshole.”
“I think...” Tom hesitated, then shrugged inwardly. If Cal was going to be around, he was going to find out that Tom wasn't all that good at being tactful. “I think you're used to getting everything you want because of the way you look. I don't see how you could avoid being an asshole at times, but I don't get the feeling that you're mean with it.”
“I probably am, sometimes. If I am, you should tell me, and I'll stop, okay? I promise I'll pay the bills on time, and if you end up thinking I'm not who you wanted, you can tell me that too, and I'll move out.”
That sounded way too simple to be possible. But Tom had already made up his mind, and once he'd done that, he often found it hard to change it.
“Okay.” Tom held out his hand to Cal.
Cal's fingers were strong when they gripped his. “Okay,” Cal said, and they smiled at each other over their clasped hands.
“Just don't follow me, whatever you do,” Jason said as Cal joined him in the driveway. “The last thing you need is to have a bookcase land on your windshield.”
“We need one of those signs.” Cal shrugged when Jason gave him a questioning look. “You know, 'Don't follow closely' or whatever.”
“Right. Dude, I don't think you've been getting enough sleep.” Clapping Cal on the shoulder, Jason gestured toward the house. “We good?”
“Yeah, we're good. Let's get out of here.”
Cal had mixed feelings about moving in with Tom, and not just because he had doubts about Tom's expectations of him as a roommate. He hadn't been anyone’s roommate for years and would have willingly admitted that he enjoyed living alone. Well, to anyone apart from Tom, because he would have worried about hurting the guy's feelings. Tom seemed like such a nice person. Cal was troubled by the nagging feeling that this arrangement might end up screwing at least one if not both of them over.
As he drove his own car, following Jason in the borrowed truck—not too closely—he reminded himself that if this thing didn't work out, he and Tom could go their separate ways. The lease he'd signed, which Tom had printed off a site on the Internet, referred to their agreement as a month-to-month tenancy. It wasn't like he was stuck with the guy for a year or anything. It would be fine.
That feeling didn't go away when he arrived at his new home. Tom was there to greet them, smiling a little nervously but making a better impression on Jason than Cal had expected. Not that it mattered what Jason thought; it wasn't as if Tom were Cal's boyfriend, after all. Even so, it made Cal look at Tom a little differently, a hint of speculation in his gaze.
Tom definitely had the height thing going on, and unlike some tall men, he didn't stoop, rounding those broad shoulders. He didn't dress in a way that showed them off either. Today he was wearing baggy jeans—hole-free, at least—and a shapeless sweater in a shade of oatmeal that was frankly appalling. He was too pale to carry the color off, and the garment covered his ass.
Cal realized he'd been staring too long when Tom raised his hand uncertainly to his face and rubbed it across his mouth as if checking for a blob of ketchup or syrup. With an unaccustomed sensation of gaucheness, Cal turned away and went to the truck. He returned with a heavy suitcase in each hand, the handles cutting into his palms.
“Ah, we should get the big items in first?” Tom said diffidently before Cal could start up the stairs. “That way we won't be tripping over the small things.”
“A man with a plan,” Jason said. “And one who can see that after three trips up and down the stairs, I'll need a cold beer.”
“Beer?” Tom flushed. “I don't actually have any—”
“We do.” Jason produced a six-pack from the cooler he was carrying. “There's more in the truck, but this should keep the dust down.”
“I'll put these suitcases in the closet. We can put some of the smaller stuff on the grass until the furniture is in. Don't touch the stuff in my car. I'll get that myself.” It included his computer and his expensive digital cameras, and he wasn't going to take a chance on someone breaking them.
“You know, Tom,” Jason gasped half an hour later as the three of them tried to wrestle one of the only pieces of furniture Cal was actually attached to—an enormous thing with drawers and a closet/shelf section—up the front staircase. “You should think about giving roommates the downstairs rooms. Unless you're some kind of secret sadist.”
“In which case”—Tom gasped, knocking his shoulder into the wall and wincing—“it's a crappy secret.”
Calvin would have laughed, but he was too busy hissing as his knuckles scraped against the door frame, leaving what felt like a couple of inches of skin behind. “Almost there. Right...just a little...okay, down.”
He straightened up painfully, one hand on his lower back, which was protesting the activity.
“You're buying us dinner, right?” Jason asked.
“I'll buy you three dinners,” Cal told him gratefully. “I never could have done this without help. This was the worst of it, though. The desk unscrews into about six pieces, and I already put them in the office while you guys were bringing in the chair.”
The chair was in the corner of the bedroom, a large, upholstered chair with a strange pattern, as if paisley and abstract art had had a love child. Several people had commented on how ugly it was over the years. Cal ignored them. He liked it. It was comfortable, and he didn't care what it looked like when he was sitting in it. Plus he had a tendency to toss clothes over it, which hid the ugliness.
“Want me to put the desk together?” Tom offered.
“Are you saying you're good at screwing?” Jason asked, lifting an eyebrow. Cal was glad to see that Jason's almost-marriage to George hadn't dimmed his personality.
To his surprise, Tom didn't throw back a lighthearted remark, the way he had been all afternoon once he'd loosened up. Jason was clearly waiting for one, an expectant grin on his face. Tom just flushed pink and stood there, a troubled frown appearing as he visibly searched for words.
“I-I mean, well—”
The wait for Tom to finish his sentence grew awkward, and Cal, moved by a protective impulse he didn't examine too closely, slid his arm around Tom's wide shoulders and guided him away and over to the office. “Stop flirting with Tom,” he threw back over his shoulder. “He's got work to do.”
“I'm okay,” Tom said once they were in the office, his voice low. He shrugged away from Cal's arm. “I'm not good at that. Being all...”
“Friendly.” Cal felt bemused. “That's all. Having fun isn't something you have to work at.”
“Not for you, maybe,” Tom said with finality. He nodded at the disassembled desk. “What wall do you want it against?”
Cal decided they could come back to this conversation at a future time. “Hm. I guess here, unless it's too tall to fit under the window? Otherwise I'll get glare on the monitor when the sun's coming in.”
Already bending to lift one of the side supports, Tom nodded. “I think it'll fit okay. There's only the one outlet on this wall, though, so you'll probably need a power strip.”
“I've got one,” Cal said. “Somewhere.”
“Let me guess.” Tom straightened up and grinned. “In a box?”
“You're a genius!” Cal sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “You know, I hope this works out, because I am sick of moving.”
Tom gave him a thoughtful look. “Yeah, I can imagine.”
“What about you?”
“What about me, what?” Tom asked, frowning.
“Do you think this will work out? Us living together?” Cal wasn't sure why he wanted the confirmation.
“I don't know. I hope so. Not like I'm a big fan of painting.”
From the stairs, Jason called, “Come on, Cal. Get a move on! If you think I'm bringing the rest of these boxes up on my own, you're crazy!”
Cal smiled ruefully at Tom. “I guess I'm not going to get away with claiming I'm crazy, huh?”
“Probably not,” Tom told him.
“Coming!” he called to Jason and headed for the stairs.
Three hours later, in desperate need of a shower, Cal lifted a hand to Jason, who was driving away in his friend's truck. He turned and trudged back inside to the kitchen, where Tom was trying to fit a pizza box into the refrigerator. Tom was
kneeling on the kitchen floor with a collection of white Chinese food containers beside him, and looked up at Cal as he came into the room.
“I can't remember if these are the ones from the other day or the ones from last week,” Tom explained, gesturing at the cartons.
“Smell test,” Cal suggested.
Tom shook his head. “I'm too scared. Once I inhaled mold, and I didn't stop coughing for two weeks.”
“I'll do it.” Cal picked up one of the cartons, opened it, and looked inside. “Noodle something?” He sniffed cautiously.
“I always get noodle something,” Tom said. “I take it it's not green.”
“Nope. Smells okay.” Cal set the carton aside and tried the others, sorting them into edible and less so. “I think these are all for the trash. You should be good with the others.”
“Thanks.” Tom scraped the discarded food into a recycling bucket that he kept under the sink. Cal was all for recycling, but Tom seemed to take it seriously, unless it was a system set up by Sally. There were boxes for glass, plastic, cardboard, and plastic in the mudroom off the kitchen, and any food scraps got added to a composter on the side of the house. “Makes more room in there, anyway. Do you—would you like some?”
“I don't know how you want to handle the food situation,” Cal said. “I'm happy to help you eat the leftovers and make some more room in there. I don't want to sponge off you, though.”
“It's two-day-old noodles,” Tom said. “I think you're excused from sponging.”
“Even so.” Cal shrugged. “Well, let's see how it goes. Maybe when I know I'm going to be around for the week, we can go shopping and split the cost. We can take turns paying if we're feeling lazy and want pizza.”
“Sure,” Tom said without hesitation.
“You'd tell me if I was doing something that bugged you, right?” Cal asked. Tom seemed so diffident at times, and Cal could imagine him being taken advantage of. He knew he could be a little overwhelming at times, and he didn't want Tom to feel pressured into agreement on anything, no matter how trivial.
Tom smiled as if he could tell what Cal was thinking. “I'd tell you. I'd probably be way too blunt about it, just to warn you. But I'd tell you.”
“Good to know.” Cal privately thought that Tom's confidence wasn't high enough for him to be truly blunt. “Though you're showing a lot of restraint in not telling me that I need a shower.”
“That comes under the heading of 'personal,'” Tom said. “I don't go there. Your business. If I don't like the way you smell, I'll leave the room.” He gave Cal a sidelong glance. “I'd appreciate it if you did the same for me. Stay out of my personal life, I mean. I don't need advice, and I'm not a charity case.”
Cal let that sink in. “Okay, right. Is that... Do you get a lot of that?”
“People trying to set me up? Sometimes. You saw what it was like at Marianne and Derek's.” Tom seemed to reconsider and added, “Sorry, yeah, you did, because she was trying to set you up with someone too. Although, since you left with him, I guess she was more successful in your case.”
“Only because neither of us wanted anything from it,” Cal said slowly. He leaned against the countertop and tried to put it into words. “Which I don't think was on Marianne's mind. She assumes everyone wants to end up like her. Married, kids, house with the white picket fence, you know? Not that there's anything wrong with wanting those things.”
“Plenty of people seem to,” Tom agreed. He dumped the contents of one carton into a bowl, then placed the bowl in the microwave to reheat.
“So she looks at me, single, and she looks at Alexander, single, and thinks that all she has to do is introduce us to each other, and bingo, we'll be a happy couple too. It never occurs to her that we might not want anything more than some good sex and company in our bed.”
“And that's all you want?” Tom made a flicking gesture with his hand, and Cal took a step to the right, leaving the space the utensil drawer had to open into clear so that Tom could get a fork. “You don't want a boyfriend, partner, whichever word you prefer?”
“It's not that I don't want one, and yeah, either word is fine. It's more that I don't expect every guy I meet to possibly fill that role. I assume eventually I'll hook up with someone who'll, whatever...fit, I guess, and we'll end up together for a long time. I'm not analyzing every guy who crosses my path, though. Does that make sense?” Cal had the sudden feeling he'd been going on too long, rambling.
“Yeah, it does.” The microwave beeped, and Tom retrieved his bowl of noodles. “And I think Marianne is looking at the world through relationship-colored glasses.”
Cal stared at Tom, amazed he'd been able to put it into words that were so accurate. “Exactly! What about you?”
Tom stuck his fork into his noodles. “You need to take that shower.” The words were spoken so casually that it wasn't until he added, “You smell sweaty,” that Cal got it.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I crossed the line, huh?”
Tom hunched up his shoulder. He didn't seem too perturbed, but there was a distance present that hadn't been there before.
Cal sighed. “Save me some noodles. I won't be long.”
It was the second work trip Cal had taken since he'd moved into Tom's house a month ago. They'd been getting along well enough that Tom, much as he liked his privacy, had actually been looking forward to Cal getting back. He'd always been grateful for the quiet when Sally was gone for a long weekend, but somehow the past few days the house had seemed lonely.
He was working on a grocery list at the small table in the kitchen when he heard the closing of car doors in the driveway, followed by the sound of a car pulling away. Cal usually got a cab from the airport, claiming it was cheaper than leaving his car in the long-stay parking lot. Tom suspected that Cal just didn't want to stick to coffee on a long, dull flight. A minute later, there were voices—more than one— and the scrape of a key in the lock of the front door.
“What time is it, anyway?” he heard Calvin asking whoever he was with. “Come on, let's get upstairs to my room before—mm, yeah, do that again.”
Calvin and some other guy with blond hair—Cal did seem to have a type— stumbled around the corner, kissing and groping each other. It took a few seconds for them to notice Tom and stop what they were doing.
“Oh, hey,” Cal said, and Tom knew immediately that Cal was drunk. “This is... Sorry, what's your name again?”
“Barney,” the guy said, apparently not offended by the fact that Cal had forgotten his name.
“Right, right. Like Neil Patrick Harris's character on that show!” Cal snapped his fingers. “I can't remember that either.”
“S'okay,” Barney said. “I forgot your name too.”
They laughed like that was hilarious and went back to kissing with a lot of tongue, their hands exploring each other's bodies with a complete lack of inhibition. Tom, watching, frozen with embarrassment, thought with a detached part of his mind that it was like a documentary on the sex life of the octopus. When Cal deftly unzipped Barney's jeans—complete with a designer label to underscore that they weren't just any jeans—and shoved his hand down the front of them, Tom snapped out of it.
“Could you take it upstairs?” he said, pitching his voice loud enough to get over the sound of the slurping.
Barney turned his head, the sunglasses he'd shoved up to rest on top of it miraculously still in place. “That depends, honey. Is the bed big enough for three?”
“What?” Tom was still holding on to the pencil he'd been writing with. He felt it against his palm—smooth, cylindrical—and became aware that he was gripping it tightly enough to hurt. He addressed Cal, not Barney. “I don't know. Why, did you pick up two men on the flight?”
“Why would he want to when he was sitting next to the hottest guy on it?” Barney said.
Tom shook his head. Never argue with someone who was drunk. That was something he'd learned the hard way at college. “Whatever. The stairs are that way, and I'm sure Cal remembers where his room is.”
“Yeah,” Cal said. “I think I can find it.” A look crossed his face that Tom couldn't have translated; then Cal led his new friend up the stairs. One of them stumbled and cursed—Tom was uncharitable enough to be annoyed that neither of them seemed to be hurt—then, thankfully, the bang of Cal's bedroom door closing.
Unfortunately, it turned out the closed door wasn't thick enough to contain the moans that followed nor the distinct, rhythmic squeak of Cal's bed frame once things got a little more heated. Embarrassed, Tom fled to his own room, hoping that the change of location might help muffle things more effectively.
“Yeah, like that, baby!” It wasn't Cal's voice, so it had to be Barney's. Baby? Seriously? If that was how the typical gay man talked while having sex, Tom was grateful he wasn't the typical gay man. “God, yeah. Fuck me!”
He could feel his cheeks heating and reached over to flip the button on his clock radio that would turn on his favorite local station. There, finally. He adjusted the volume up and lay back, looking at his toes instead of at the ceiling. The worst song in the world would have been preferable right then.
The faint squeaking of the bed continued for another ten minutes or so. There was a shout, and everything went quiet. Thank fuck for that.
Tom exhaled, long and slow. So. Sex took as long as the time between commercial breaks. Good to know.
He closed his eyes. He wasn't hard, not from listening to that frankly pathetic display of rut. He felt like jerking off anyway, just to beat that time. Ten minutes? He could spin it out for an hour sometimes, letting the feelings build, then taking his hand away, teasing himself mercilessly, the scenes behind his eyes unspooling in detailed, familiar fantasies that left him shaking, his cock rigid and slick between his fingers.
Sex with someone wouldn't be as good as that, couldn't be. He could climax with his body left weak and trembling from the force of it, pleasure so intense it made the world go away, just for a moment.
He didn't want to swap that for what Calvin so obviously enjoyed: a quick, graceless fumble and jerk with a stranger.
Of course, there could be something else, a connection formed, love in the equation, but at twenty-four, Tom had given up on that. For other people, sure; not for him. He'd never met anyone he'd had more than a passing crush on, and he'd certainly never had anyone come on to him. Why would they? He wasn't ugly, no; even worse, he was dull, the diametric opposite to cool, and being gay didn't help. Gay men had standards too.
He remembered one girl who'd asked him out, desperate to be with someone, anyone, at a high school dance. He'd told her he was gay, and she'd refused to believe him. With her face a humiliated, blotchy red, she'd told him that he couldn't be gay, because gay men knew how to dress and be charming, and he was a joke.
Of course he remembered her. He'd always remember her, from the pain in her eyes to the cruel tone of her voice. Her words had rung in his ears for weeks, and an echo of them persisted still, taunting him with the reality that he wasn't the kind of guy who would ever find a boyfriend, that any sexual encounter he managed would be a fluke.
It was such a depressing thought that it made him want to pull the covers over his head and never get up again. He was profoundly aware of how alone he was. It sucked.
* * * * *
Even after getting up later than usual, he was still downstairs before the other two. He started a pot of coffee and watched it fill, staring at the rising level without seeing it. He couldn't do this. He'd known that Cal would bring people back; that was a given. He just hadn't thought it would be shoved in his face like this. Cal had hooked up with at least one other man in the month he'd been living at Tom's. That time, he'd gone back to the guy's place, rolling in the next morning looking sleepy, sated, and with a hickey on his neck.
By the time the coffeemaker beeped to signal that it'd finished brewing, he'd made up his mind. He'd give Cal time to find another place, but he was ending their agreement.
He heard footsteps on the stairs and tensed, his hands curled around the mug he was holding, the heat seeping into his cold hands. Silly for them to be chilled when the temperature was rising into the red outside.
There was a murmur of voices, and he stood, leaving the mug on the table, and walked out into the hall. His hall. His house. He wasn't going to hide in the kitchen, too scared to venture out.
In daylight, Barney's glamour had diminished considerably. His hair was sticking up in places, and his face had a pallor even a tan couldn't hide. Tom noted the bags under his eyes with a grim satisfaction that he knew was petty.
“I hear the cab,” Barney said as Tom walked through the archway leading into the hall. “See you around, Tiger.”
Okay, that was worse than baby.
Cal yawned widely and scratched at his ass through a navy blue silk robe that hit him mid thigh. Somehow, he pulled it off, if only barely. “Sure thing,” he said, his voice clogged with sleep.
Barney glanced at Tom and frowned in what seemed to be genuine bewilderment. Great. He'd clearly forgotten Tom existed. A car horn sounded, and Barney shrugged and raised his hand in a casual wave. “Bye.”
The door slammed behind him, and Cal winced. “Too loud,” he murmured to the door.
“No kiss good-bye?” Tom inquired acidly.
The look Cal gave him was just as bewildered as the one Barney had, like he had no idea for the reasons behind Tom's tone. “No.”
Tom took a few steps forward, anger flaring at Cal's obliviousness. He'd been wondering if Cal would be contrite, maybe offer apologies. It seemed unlikely now. “Okay, how about his name? Or have you forgotten it again?”
“Why does it matter? Not like I'll ever see him again.” Cal adjusted the belt on his robe and rubbed a hand across his mouth. “Hey, is there coffee?”
“Is there coffee?” Tom repeated, incredulity making his normally deep voice rise higher. “Yeah, there is, you fucking asshole, and I'd pour it down the sink before I'd give you a cup.”
Cal seemed to wake up for the first time. He gaped at Tom, clearly shocked. “Wait, what? What...huh?”
“I'm sorry. Does flying drunk give you jet lag even when you don't cross a time zone?” Tom asked, striding up to Cal, close enough that he could smell him, sweat and musk and stale alcohol. It wasn't exactly appealing, but for all that, something was making his body react in a way that he didn't like. Cal had just crawled out of bed, and Tom couldn't help wondering what he'd done there, or look away from the generous amounts of skin Cal's skimpy robe was exposing. Annoyance made him even more sarcastic. “Or did you hit your head too many times against the headboard last night and get amnesia?”
“I don't have amnesia,” Cal said slowly. “Why are you so pissed off? What, you're mad that I didn't know that guy?”
Tom snorted. “As if I care! I saw your seduction technique at that party, remember? I knew you'd screw anything that moved. I just didn't think you liked an audience for it. I'd say next time you bring someone back here, wait to get behind a closed door to start taking off your clothes, but there won't be a next time. I want you to get the hell out of here as soon as you can find somewhere else. And find somewhere fast.”
“Huh? Are you serious? What, are you jealous or something? Because you never said anything before about me not bringing anyone back here, and if you had, I never would have agreed to this whole thing in the first place!” Cal was waking up and apparently getting more annoyed as he did so. “Are you telling me that your female roommates never had a boyfriend spend the night?”
“Barney was hardly a boyfriend,” Tom sneered.
“Look, I don't think that's the point. Let's talk about this,” Cal said reasonably.
“Let's talk about me being treated like a joke in my own house,” Tom said, his voice cold. “Let's talk about you and your friend rutting a few yards away from me and your boyfriend inviting me to join you. Not that he meant it; I know that. I still can't say I appreciated it. And no, being drunk doesn't buy you a pass. You both acted like inconsiderate assholes. I don't care about him. Knowing the way you work, you'll never see him again. You, though—I have to see you all the time, and right now, looking at you makes me want to throw up.”
“I'm sorry.” Cal looked it. God, he was beautiful, standing there in nothing more than a robe, and Tom hated himself for thinking it. “Tom, seriously. You're right, and I'm sorry. I didn't realize how it would seem from your point of view— which means I suck, because it was totally thoughtless of me not to consider your feelings. I really didn't mean for you to feel like a joke, and if you'll give me another chance, I promise it won't happen again.”
Tom opened his mouth to say something dismissive. Cal held up a hand to stop him.
“No, please. Whatever you're thinking, you're right. I don't disagree with you. And it's not that I don't want to have to move. I mean, I don't, obviously. I like you, Tom, and I hate that this happened. I'd take it back if I could, I swear. I'm sorry.” Cal's hazel eyes were soulful, and if Tom had ever heard a more genuine, thorough apology, he couldn't remember when.
He bit his lip, some of his outrage draining away, leaving a sick disappointment behind directed at both of them. Cal had behaved badly; that was definite. Cal's unstudied response was telling Tom he had overreacted, though, something that had happened in the past.
“You know, there're times I feel like an alien,” Tom said bitterly. “You're being nice now, but you're thinking...what...that I'm too innocent to live or prudish as hell, right?”
“Not at all,” Cal said. “I'm thinking that I was a jerk and that I owe you more than an apology to make up for it. Let me take you out to dinner tonight, anywhere you want.”
“I can't... I don't know.” Tom felt so pressured and conflicted that he was close to shoving past Cal and heading out the door. He wanted to run, not to keep fit or for the pleasure it gave him to drive his body to its limit to escape from the whole shitty situation.
“Okay,” Cal said. “That's fair. Just do me a favor, all right? Even though I totally don't deserve it? Don't make a decision about making me move out today; at least give me a chance to change your mind. Please.”
In the face of such earnest begging, it was hard for Tom to say no. He couldn't say yes either. Instead he gave a shrug and a slight nod, and Cal responded by sighing in what was probably relief.
“Thank you. I know you don't owe me anything, and I appreciate you thinking about it. I'm gonna clear out and give you some space, okay? I won't come home until tonight, and it will be alone. I promise.”
He turned and walked quickly up the stairs before Tom had a chance to answer him, the soft click of his bedroom door a moment later releasing Tom from his stasis.
He was beginning to see why Cal was so successful at getting dates.
“You're in a mood,” the bartender told him, coming over with another beer.
“Waiting to see if my roommate's gonna kick me out,” Cal said moodily. “Thanks.”
“It's not like you.” The bartender was someone Cal had talked to dozens of times, and yet, try as he might, Cal couldn't remember his name. God, he was so bad with names.
He wasn't just Eeyore. He was shallow Eeyore.
He'd spent most of the day wandering around, thinking about where he'd gone wrong. It wasn't that he hadn't had a good time the night before with that guy, the one with the same name as Neil Patrick Harris's character on that show he still couldn't remember the name of. He had had a good time. In the morning, he'd woken up feeling like something wasn't quite right, though. When he'd realized that Tom was furious with him, he'd felt like his feet had been knocked out from under him.
Cal blinked at the bartender. “Look, I suck, I know, but what's your name again?”
“Right. Thanks. I won't forget again.”
The man—Darnell—shrugged. “Occupational hazard,” he said lightly. “People come to bars to forget as much as they do to party.”
“Yeah, well, I want to forget, but I don't want to either, because if I do, I might do it again. The thing I did that I want to forget, I mean.”
Darnell quirked his eyebrows. “Profound. Or maybe I should ask for your keys.”
Cal grimaced. “I'm fine. Just reevaluating, you know.” He nodded at the end of the bar. “There's a woman down there looking thirsty.”
Darnell took the hint and moved away, leaving Cal to his thoughts—not that they were taking him anywhere.
His approach to life was designed not to leave hurt feelings. He went into every encounter making sure his partner knew the score, and he never two-timed anyone. Not that it would've been easy to do that, given that his love life was mostly one-night stands. But now and then he'd been in a relationship that'd gone on for longer—two months, once—and he'd been good. No reason for him not to be.
Meeting Tom hadn't changed anything—upsetting Tom had. Cal hated it when people were angry with him or disappointed, and Tom was both. Cal's memories of the night before were hazy. He did remember his date flirting with Tom. At the time, it hadn't registered, so it did seem weird for Tom to get this bent out of shape over it.
There was also the way they'd been groping each other, when, yeah, maybe they should've kept their pants zipped. But Tom wasn't a kid or an easily offended straight man. Anyone else would've told them with a grin to get a room, or hell, taken Barney, yeah, Barney, that was his name, up on his offer. Not that he'd been serious, because Tom wouldn't have been his style. Tom wasn't anyone's style by the look of it, which was a shame.
Cal sighed, long and loud. This was going nowhere. Tom was a strange, touchy, solitary man, and Cal was at a loss to know how to deal with him. Which was a first, because Cal was good with people, especially men. When he photographed someone, he got them to relax, to shine. When he photographed them nude or just barely covered, they were sensual, melt-the-page erotic. That kind of connection was impossible without empathy, or so he'd always thought.
“Guess I was wrong about that,” he muttered and finished his drink. Sitting here wasn't going to make things right, and Tom had been left alone all day, so he should've calmed down. Hopefully.
He left a nice tip for Darnell and headed for the door. Halfway there, a guy stepped backward into his path and they collided. Cal put out a hand to steady himself and the other guy. “Sorry,” he said automatically before realizing the man seemed familiar. “Hey, I know you. Rico?”
“Well, I hope so,” Rico said in return. “I'd feel bad if you didn't remember me, even if it was just one night.”
It had been a good night too, Cal thought. They'd gone back to his place—back when he'd had his own place, just before the party where he'd met Tom—and fucked three times before collapsing into sleep. Though, come to think of it, when he'd woken the next morning, Rico had been gone.
“You didn't say good-bye.” Not that Cal cared, but it was something to say.
“Um, yeah. Sorry about that,” Rico said. “I needed to get home.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the dim hallway where the bathrooms were. “So, how've you been? I'm sure I still have your number somewhere.”
Cal had no interest in hooking up with him again. It would have been rude to say so, though. “Yeah, you should give me a call sometime. Just, right now—”
“Hey, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?” asked a voice from behind Cal, and Rico blanched.
“Right, of course. This is Cal. Cal, this is my boyfriend Slater.”
Ah, well, that explained the worried glance, at least. Rico hadn't given Cal any indication that he had a boyfriend, but it made sense now. “Nice to meet you.” He offered his hand to Slater.
Slater didn't offer his in return. “Wish I could say the same. You gave Rico your number?”
“I didn't know he had a boyfriend.” Every instinct he had, told Cal this was the time to make tracks. “Now I know.”
“Yeah, you do.” Slater was solidly built, his tight T-shirt showcasing a muscular chest and arms. Slater was clearly a man who worked out; even so, there was very little about him that appealed to Cal. Possessiveness was one thing, but the hand Slater had clamped on Rico's shoulder was squeezing tightly enough to look painful. “I don't like the idea of that.”
“Well, I'm sure if Rico ever finds my number, he can toss it in the trash,” Cal said, striving for lightness. “Look, I'd love to stay and chat—”
“I know your type,” Slater said. “You think you can pick up anyone that takes your fancy, don't you?”
The honest answer was yes, but Cal had more sense than to voice it. “No, of course not.”
“Slutty little son of a bitch like you trying to take what's mine...” Slater's words were slurred. He'd obviously had too much to drink.
“It wasn't like that.” Cal couldn't help darting a glance at Rico, who was standing there not helping at all. Cal couldn't entirely blame him. He had the feeling Rico was going to be in for an unpleasant night explaining himself as it was. If Slater had known the full extent of Rico's walk on the wild side... ouch. “I think it's best if I go.”
He held Slater's gaze for a moment, refusing to grovel in front of the man, then turned and walked away, not moving any faster than he would normally have walked. He could feel Slater watch him go, his spine itching with a warning that was most definitely rooted in the primal.
Maybe that was why he wasn't surprised to hear footsteps behind him as he was walking back to his car. He swung around to face Slater, his mouth open to say something less reasonable and more pissed off, and was rocked backward by a punch that landed squarely on his nose.
The pain arrived a moment later, hot, sickening agony radiating out from his nose. Blood gushed out over his lips and down the back of his throat, making him choke.
He stumbled backward and felt his hip bump into the side of his car. Gravity and surprise worked against him, and he didn't manage to keep his feet. Instead, he slid sideways and landed hard on the pavement. Slater muttered a curse, then Cal felt a fresh bloom of agony as what he assumed was a boot toed sharply into his stomach. Cal gagged as he inhaled blood. It occurred to him that this could easily become more than an ass-kicking, and he decided flight was the only thing likely to get him out of this mess.
Barely able to stagger to standing, Cal moved away from Slater, squinting at the big man through watering eyes. He couldn't remember ever being in this much pain, but the fear was the hardest to bear. Cal wasn't scared of much, but Slater's pale eyes held no mercy, and his mouth twisted in a smile of pleasure when Cal brought his hand away from his nose dark with blood.
“Not so pretty now,” Slater said with satisfaction. “When I'm done with you, you won't take a chance on screwing around with anyone's boyfriend ever again, asshole.”
Cal took one step back, then another. His legs weren't holding him up the way they were supposed to, and running would just give Slater something to chase. He leaned over, his hands on his knees, and tried to take in some air, enough to give him the strength to land at least one good punch or maybe get into his car and lock the door.
From a few yards away, someone said something loudly. Cal didn't catch the words through the buzz in his ears. He looked up to see the impossible. Tom was standing there with a cell phone held slightly above head level and a stern look on his face, an improbable guardian angel. Cal blinked. It didn't change what he was seeing. Tom didn't disappear, and Slater was backing off, a frown replacing the sneer.
Rico put his hand timidly on Slater's arm. Cal could see that his eyes were sparkling, as if the little shit had gotten off on Slater's brutal assertion of ownership. Freak. Cal didn't care what people did if they kept it between themselves, but he was starting to wonder just how many men before him had discovered that sex with Rico came with a price. “Come on, honey. I don't want to have to bail you out tonight. Please? Let's go home. Let me make it up to you.”
Slater spat on the ground and wiped his knuckles over his shirt, then nodded. “Yeah, fine. Let's go.” They started to walk away.
Cal tried to straighten up as Tom came toward him, needing not to look completely helpless. He overbalanced and fell back against the car again. It was like all his adrenaline fled at once; he slid down the car and sat on the ground, grateful it was solid and supportive.
Tom didn't waste time asking what had happened. Cal supposed, with the small part of his brain still capable of rational thought, that it was fairly obvious it hadn't been a mugging but something more personal. He felt Tom's hand work its way into his jacket pocket, searching for the keys to the car.
“I need you to get up,” Tom said after unlocking the car and opening the back door. “Can you do that, or do you need me to pick you up?”
Cal shook his head, a welcome muzziness dulling some of the pain. He turned and let the blood and saliva in his mouth spill out onto the ground. It looked disgusting. He coughed up another mouthful. “Just give me a hand.”
With Tom doing most of the work, Cal rose to his feet and allowed himself to be eased into the back seat.
Tom leaned in and pressed something into Cal's hand, which confused Cal until he realized it was a wad of tissues.
“Hold this against your nose. It'll help. I think your nose is broken—maybe it's only bruised—and I saw him kick you in the stomach. Anything else I need to know about?”
Cal shook his head. Tom fastened the seat belt around him and patted Cal's hand. “I'll avoid as many potholes as I can.”
Smiling hurt, but Cal tried to make his lips curve up anyway.
The trip to the hospital seemed endless. Tom was driving with as much care as he'd promised, but the normal stops and starts of a journey became ordeals to be endured. Cal closed his eyes, hoped that his nose had stopped bleeding, and tried very hard not to throw up.
Amazingly, the emergency room wasn't crowded, and they were taken to a room right away. The nurse gave Cal an ice pack, adjusted the bed so he could sit upright comfortably, and told him, “Hold that there. The doctor will be with you in a minute.”
She left, and Cal said, even though it hurt, or maybe because it hurt and he wanted to distract himself from it, “Do you think that's an actual human minute or a doctor minute?”
“A doctor minute,” Tom said. “Should you be talking?”
“Probably not.” Cal leaned his head back against the top of the mattress. “You could, though. Talk.” It would be nice to have something to listen to other than the inevitable indistinct announcements coming over the loudspeakers.
“You want me to talk? I don't think I have anything to say. Anything that isn't a question, I mean. Like who the hell was that guy, and why was he beating you up, and why were you at that bar in the first place? You shouldn't answer any of those.”
“The boyfriend of a guy I slept with who didn't tell me he had a boyfriend, and because I was killing time.”
“You shouldn't talk,” Tom repeated.
“Yeah, well, I shouldn't have been at that bar either, it would seem.” Cal coughed on blood that was running down the back of his throat and shifted the ice pack he was holding to his face a little to the right, which was where it was hurting more. “What were you doing?”
“I'm wearing shorts and stink like sweat,” Tom said drily. “Do the math. No, don't bother. You don't look capable of handling two plus two. I'm a computer geek by day, a jogger by night. It keeps me fit and helps me sleep.”
Even suffering as he was, Cal couldn't stop himself from giving Tom's legs an appraising look. Nice. Really nice. Tom was wearing a baggy sweatshirt, not a T- shirt, and Cal gave up on his desultory attempt to guess what lay beneath it and tried to breathe.
He was lucky enough to get seen fairly quickly and was whisked away for an X-ray after the doctor had decided that he didn't have internal injuries. The prod of her fingers had been painful, but only in the way pushing against any bruise was, and when he'd peed into a bottle for her, there had been no sign of blood.
“Your nose isn't broken,” she told him, briskly enough to make him feel like apologizing for bothering her. “Very swollen, yes, and you'll have two nice black eyes, I'm sure. But it's not broken.”
“That's good.” It came out muffled, as if he were suffering from a cold, but she seemed to understand him.
“Don’t blow it, just clear it the old-fashioned way, with a basin full of boiling water and a towel. Steam it. And ice it tonight, as much as you can. I'll give you a prescription for some painkillers, and if your stomach hurts more than you think it should—any stabbing pains, any blood in your urine—you know what to do.” She hesitated. “Whoever did this to you...”
“They won't be doing it again,” Cal said, stretching the truth a little. “It was a...disagreement in a bar. I don't even know his name.”
“Well, all right. I'm glad you had a friend to bring you in, at least. I hate to think of you trying to drive for the next couple of days. In fact, I'd strongly recommend against it while you're on the painkillers, just to be on the safe side. You don't want to put someone else in a state like the one you're in now.” She gave him a stern look, and he agreed with her hastily.
“Sure, okay. Right. Thank you.”
They swung by the all-night pharmacy on the way home, and Tom helpfully went inside with Cal's insurance card and wallet. That was Tom—helpful. Cal felt guilty for taking advantage of the man's kindness, especially after having trampled all over his feelings the night before, but Cal was grateful for it all the same.
“Still conscious?” Tom asked as he got back behind the wheel.
“Sadly, yes.” Cal didn't turn his head. “Can I have some of those?”
“No,” Tom said. “You can only have one. That's what the prescription says.” He got a pill out and handed it to Cal along with a bottle of cool water he'd bought inside.
“Thank you,” Cal said, meaning it. “You're good at this. Taking care of people, I mean.”
“I am?” Tom sounded startled by that. “I'm not doing anything special. Just what needs to be done, I guess.”
“Even though you're pissed off at me.” Cal swallowed the pill and a mouthful of water, chugging more when it soothed his rasped throat.
“That's true, but it's separate. It doesn't come into this.”
“So you're still throwing me out?” Cal wasn't sure why he wanted to deal with that right now, but he did. It was possible he was running the risk of Tom seeing it as manipulative, the injured guy asking for some sympathy. He trusted Tom to read it better than that. It was an uncertainty that Cal needed cleared up one way or another. Even lost in the discomfort and shock of being beaten up—God, it could've been so much worse—he needed a decision.
“I hadn't decided. That was why I was running. It clears my head. It was a coincidence I was on the bike path running behind that parking lot tonight. Lucky for you.” Tom fell silent for a few minutes, and Cal let himself drift away, willing the painkiller to kick in. “The guy using you as a football... He wasn't going to stop, you know.”
“Yeah, I got that impression.”
“And the other man—the one you slept with? He was standing there letting him do it.” Tom paused, then said, “I should have called the cops.”
“That's what you threatened to do,” Cal said, realizing. “I was too out of it to wonder how you got their attention.”
“It shouldn't have been just a threat.” Tom sounded serious and possibly irritated with himself.
“I'm glad you didn't.” Cal drank a little more water to stretch time. “I don't want to have to deal with that. And it's not like he's going to come after me again.”
“I hope not. I don't know what the hell they were playing at.”
“Maybe that's what it is.” The pain reminded Cal of his previous flash of insight. “The way Rico copes with dating a possessive ape. He can handle it so long, and then he has to take a break with someone like me, just to prove to himself that it's his choice to go back to the psycho. It isn't; he can't admit that.”
“I don't know about that,” Tom said with the dry humor Cal was starting to like. “I saw you go down and get kicked with an asshole watching it happen. Analyzing their motivations wasn't top of my to-do list.”
“No, mine either. Jesus.” The enormity of what could have happened was starting to catch up with him, and he was silent until they pulled into the driveway. He probably would have fallen going up the front steps, but Tom was right there beside him and caught his elbow when he tripped, helping him get his balance. “Thanks.”
“Easy there.” Tom unlocked the door and guided Cal inside. “You should go to bed, I think.”
“Too far,” Cal said, heading for the couch. They'd cleaned him up some at the hospital, so he didn't think there was much danger of him bleeding on Tom's furniture, and right then he wanted to get off his feet. Standing was too much effort. Whatever energy had kept him going until now had fled, and he was trembling.
“Here, let me help.” Tom grabbed a couple of pillows and punched them down so Cal could lie back against them. He lay there, shaking, until Tom came back with a fresh ice pack and a blanket. The first was laid gently over his face, the second spread to cover the rest of him. After that, Tom sat on the coffee table, looking concerned.
“I'm okay,” Cal said. “Well...”
“I'd be better if I knew I didn't need to start looking for a place to live. Please? I know I suck, but give me one more chance.” He didn't feel guilty taking advantage of the fact that he must look like shit.
Tom sighed. “Okay.”
“Just like that?” Cal was startled by how easy it had been. “You mean it?”
“I feel sorry for you right now,” Tom said with devastating simplicity. “Unlike that guy outside the bar, I don't tend to kick people when they're down. You want to stay, you can, and you can bring people back, just...keep it down.”
“That's not going to be an issue for a while.” Cal gestured at what could be seen of his face. “I'm going to be scary-looking.”
Tom stood. “You're still pretty; don't worry,” he said with a small grin. “Under the blood, the swelling, and the black eyes, you're gorgeous.”
“If I had the energy, I'd throw something at you.”
“Well, I'm going to take a shower, so hold that thought,” Tom said. “Yell if you need anything.”
Cal waited until he'd heard the shower start running before he got up in search of the bottle of painkillers they'd gotten at the pharmacy and took a second one. He wasn't an idiot, and he didn't want to be unconscious for the next twenty- four hours. He also didn't want to be lying around in pain for the next few hours, because chances were all he'd be doing was thinking, and he'd done enough of that today.
He'd hurt Tom, and he didn't want to do that again. Tom was a nice guy, a deep-down nice guy, and he deserved better.
What Tom really deserved was a boyfriend who would appreciate him.
Cal decided he was going to be the one to help Tom find that boyfriend.
By the time Tom came back from his shower, hair still wet and dressed in flannel sleep pants that looked very soft and a worn T-shirt, Cal was well on his way to stoned. In fact, that was the first thing he said when he saw Tom. “I'm stoned.”
Tom hesitated, then smiled tentatively. “You are?”
“I took another pill when you went into the shower.” He was surprised to hear himself admitting it.
“Idiot,” Tom said. “There's a reason they give a dosage on that stuff, you know.”
“I didn't want to hurt.” Cal moved the ice pack off his face so he could see Tom clearly, and the movement kept going until the ice pack slipped from his hand and onto the floor. “Oops. Sorry.”
“It's okay. I've got it.” Tom bent and picked up the ice pack, and Cal reached out and caught at Tom's hand.
“No, I mean for this morning. And last night.”
“I get it,” Tom said. “It's okay. I know I'm kind of touchy about some things. If I think I'm being laughed at, I just...I don't like it.”
“No one does. I promise you...wasn't laughing.” Cal could feel his words slipping away from him even as he tried to say them. “Wouldn't laugh at you. Who laughs at you? Boyfriend? He's an idiot.”
“Just people.” Tom gave an indifferent shrug. “And, no, not a boyfriend. I've never had one of those.”
He made a boyfriend sound like an exotic food, something freaky like fried worms.
“Never?” Never couldn't mean not ever.
Tom sighed. “Don't look at me like I'm some kind of endangered species because I've never dated anyone.”
Cal blinked and frowned. “I'm not. You're not. I'm surprised because, well, there's nothing wrong with you. I mean, there isn't, is there?”
“I think we're getting dangerously close to too-personal territory,” Tom said, going cold like a switch had been thrown.
“Hey, no,” Cal said. “Don't do that. I can be your friend, you know. Friends aren't supposed to have TMI territory.”
“I have to be able to trust my friends.”
“You can trust me,” Cal told him. “I know it might not seem like it, considering, but you can. I—I want to be your friend.”
Tom shook his head. “It's not that simple. We're not in first grade. We don't declare that we're going to be friends and it happens like magic.”
“Why not?” Cal asked. “Why can't we?”
Tom held out his hands helplessly. “Because?”
“Look, don't act like no one's your friend,” Cal said. “Marianne and Derek wouldn't have invited you over if they thought you were boring or whatever label you've put on yourself.”
“They're nice,” Tom agreed. “They know me from work, and I'm good at what I do. I kind of doubt they'll invite me the next time they throw a party. I don't fit into their pattern.”
Cal was starting to drift away now, the room retreating. “I'm a friendly guy,” he said. “Don't go thinking you're something special. I'm friends with everyone. There's no escape.”
With sleep rushing in like the tide to claim him, he wasn't sure if Tom replied.
“Of course it is,” Cal told him. “It's a great idea, just like it was the first time I suggested it, and the hundred times since then that I've reassured you.”
Tom felt his face flush. “If you—”
“Look,” Cal said, turning to him and putting a hand on each of his shoulders, a touch that felt more intimate than Tom would have expected. “I'm doing this because I want to. We're going to have a good time. So take a deep breath and decide you're going to have fun. Okay? Fun. I know you know what fun is.”
Cal had come up with the idea that he was going to repay Tom for helping him the night he'd been beaten up by not only taking him out to dinner but for drinks and dancing at some club afterward. Tom hadn't been to a club since college, and he'd been a reluctant participant in the whole scene, accompanying his dorm mates because they'd needed a designated driver who wasn't likely to go off with someone and leave them stranded. They'd made it clear that a refusal would result in a lot of negative consequences, and he'd gone along with their plans to avoid being left behind yet again.
“I know what fun is,” he said now, grumpily. “I'm not sure this is my kind of it.”
“You can't be sure until you try.” Cal patted his shoulder. “Anyway, you should be the one reassuring me right now that I'm not going to scare everyone off. I'm still bruised up.” He touched his own cheekbone tentatively.
“You look better than me even with the bruises.” Tom studied Cal, trying to be objective. Cal's hazel eyes weren't bloodshot anymore, and the faint bruising around them created a shadowed look, as if he'd been up all night partying. His nose was still swollen, but even that wouldn't put people off. “You'll get people cooing over you, wanting to kiss it all better,” he said in an attempt to cheer Cal up. Cal had recovered physically from the beating, but his normal effervescence had gone a little flat. Tom didn't like that. Cal's breezy good humor was something he'd gotten used to, and he found that he missed it.
Cal laughed. “Yeah, well, if they do, I'm counting on you to defend me. I don't like being fussed over.”
“You want me to be your bodyguard?” Tom asked, amused by the idea. “I can do that, I guess.”
“You'd better.” Cal took a step back and looked at Tom thoughtfully, and Tom had the distinct impression that he was being judged.
“You don't like what I'm wearing? I thought we were going to that steakhouse. It's casual.” Tom knew he sounded defensive. How was he supposed to help it?
“What if you meet someone amazing at the club?” Cal shrugged like it didn't matter that much one way or the other, and that was what enabled Tom to nod when Cal suggested, “Come on. Let's see what else you've got in your closet.”
He followed Cal toward his own bedroom, stopping when Cal did. “Off limits,” Cal said, gesturing, and Tom understood.“Oh. Right. Yes, go ahead.”
“You must have some jeans that are...well, less baggy.” Cal rubbed his lower lip, head slightly tilted to one side. Being studied was discomforting at any time. Being studied by Cal was distracting. Tom found himself studying the other man in return, taking in Cal's model-like, almost beautiful features while he could.
“I have some old ones that probably don't fit,” he offered. “They shrank in the wash when I screwed up the settings and pretty much boiled them.”
Cal's eyes lit up. “Considering how you go for, uh, comfort fit, that might work.” He made flappy motions at Tom. “Go. Shoo. Model for me.”
Tom grinned and began opening drawers, looking for the shrunk jeans with only a vague idea of where he'd seen them last.
“I suppose you're going to want me to wear a different shirt too,” he said without turning his head. The blue and gray plaid one he was wearing was clean and hole-free, but even he could see it wasn't in the same league as Cal's dark gray khakis and silky-looking shirt.
The silence behind him was answer enough, and he rolled his eyes, safe in the knowledge that Cal couldn't see him. “You know, I'm pretty sure that show was called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” he said, finally locating the jeans. “I'm not straight. Not even a little bit.”
He stood and shook the jeans out. They were black denim, or at least they'd started out that way. The legs looked incredibly skinny compared to the ones he usually wore, and he remembered buying them in a rush at the store, flustered into grabbing them off the wrong pile by an over-attentive saleswoman. That wasn't a good memory. Maybe tonight would make up for it.
Assuming they even fit him.
Without giving Cal's presence a thought, Tom undid his jeans and kicked out of them, skinning out of his shirt a moment later. He reached for the old jeans and became aware that Cal was staring at him, really staring, taking him in from head to toe.
Tom felt heat rise in his face and waited for a comment along the lines of Cal being able to see why he covered himself up. He'd been overweight as a child, eating to comfort himself more than out of greed, and gym days had been a nightmare.
Jogging and better eating habits had changed that, but he still looked in the mirror and saw the child, not the man. “What?”
“You're so built,” Cal said in a transparent way, then shook himself slightly. “Sorry! I wasn't... I know, I know, crossing over into personal territory. You're just...pretty. Pretty hot, I mean.”
“We're in my bedroom,” Tom pointed out. Pretty? Hot? Really? It was hard to believe. He quickly tugged the time-faded jeans on and fastened the button and zipper. “Okay, what do you think?”
“Much better. And here. Try this.” Cal handed him a shirt that Tom was sure had been tucked way into the back of the closet, because, honestly, he couldn't remember ever having worn it. He obeyed and put it on. Looking at his reflection, he could see why he'd never worn it, and was surprised he'd even bought it. It was a deep red, dark enough to look black in some lights, with a sheen to the fabric.
He made a face at himself in the mirror. “You've got to be kidding me.”
“Okay, I'll admit, it might be a tiny bit dated, but it fits you, which is more than I can say about the stuff I usually see you wearing.”
“I just don't...don't want to...” Tom gestured at his body. “I don't like people looking at me. That's why I jog at night.”
Cal gave him a shrewd look. “You do know that you're this tall, buff guy, right? Because if you stopped dressing like you're auditioning for a role as a scarecrow and showed off that body and didn't give the world this attitude of 'don't look, I'm nothing and no one,' people would be staring for all the right reasons.”
Confusion and insult held Tom silent. His emotions must've shown on his face, because Cal sighed and moved next to him, his arm coming around Tom's shoulders. “I'm not going to apologize for being as direct and honest as you always are. You're hiding from everything out there. I'd say you were scared, but I saw you when I was getting kicked around, and I don't think it's in you.”
“Not scared.” Tom wasn't talking to the Cal who stood beside him, the real, warm Cal who was still holding him in a friendly one-armed hug, but to Cal's reflection. It was easier that way. “I'm too used to being the odd one out. The joke. You can dress me up like Cinderella, play fairy godmother all you want, but at midnight, I'm changing back again.”
“I don't believe it,” Cal said with a slight shake of his head. “That's not the real you. You don't need a fairy godmother, just a little nudge in the right direction.” He shifted his hips so that they bumped Tom's, which was probably meant as an illustration of his point. It took Tom's level of discomfort from slight into definite, so he took a step away.
“Maybe it's not the right direction for me,” he said.
“Maybe it is and you ought to give it a shot,” Cal countered. “Anyway, the point of tonight is for us to hang out and have a good time, okay? So stop looking at it like it's some kind of test. It's not.”
Tom sighed. “It kind of feels like it.”
“Well then, we're doing it wrong. Come on. Let's get out of here and get something to eat.”
* * * * *
Their table was actually a small, semicircular booth, more intimate than a table, though Tom wasn't sure what about the two of them said “couple.” He took a seat, keenly aware of how strange this felt. Not a date, no, but not a business meal or a family one either.
Their server, a young woman with cheerful smile and a mass of blonde curls gathered back into a ponytail, handed them each a menu, recited the specials, and took their drink order, then left them alone, her routine accomplished in a matter of moments. Tom flipped open the menu and read it, giving the task all his concentration.
“See anything you like?” Cal asked casually.
Tom jerked his head up. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tune you out.”
“You didn't,” Cal said. “I'm incredibly indecisive, and I like to discuss the menu and get help making up my mind.”
“Oh. Well, last time I was here, I had the scallops to start with.” Tom smiled. “The description sounds fancy, but they were good.”
Cal read aloud. "'Fennel pollen crust, grapefruit, and chardonnay beurre blanc.' I like fennel. I'm not sure that the pollen crust part sounds appetizing.”
“Well, there you are,” Tom pointed out. “One less option to consider.”
“Yes, but you said they were good.” Cal sighed sadly. “See? Indecisive.”
Tom could tell when he was being teased, but this kind of teasing was fun. They worked their way through the menu until they'd decided what to order, sipping at the pinot grigio Cal had chosen when Tom had told him that he didn't know a Shiraz from a chardonnay.
“The last time I came here, I was with my parents,” Tom offered after their food order had been taken. The wine was relaxing him, and he wanted to make conversation.
“Yeah? How did that go?” Cal's interest seemed forced, but Tom realized he'd never heard the other man talk about his own parents. Funny, since Cal seemed inclined to talk about anything and everything else.
“Fine. It's always fine. I mean, we don't fight or anything.”
“Let me guess.” Cal looked at Tom over the rim of his glass. “As long as you don't delve into anything too personal?”
The truth behind that hit Tom like a blow, and for a few brief moments, the world slowed to a stop, everything around him frozen. It started up again, and he heard himself saying, “Yeah. Good guess.”
“I thought it might have something to do with that.” Cal was a little too smug about it, and part of Tom wanted to knock him off the pedestal he seemed to accept as his due.
“What about you? Do you fight with your parents?”
Cal shook his head slowly. “My mother's dead.”
“Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't know.”
“How could you? I know I don't talk about them.” Shrugging, Cal finished the wine in his glass and poured more. “My dad's fine. We don't fight. Don't do anything, really. I hardly ever talk to him.”
“I talk to them,” Tom said slowly as he tried to put his relationship with his parents into words, “and they always remember my birthday, that kind of thing, but they don't get me. Yeah, I know I'm too old to say my parents don't understand me, but it's true. They're these lively, popular people, kind of like you, and I was this fat, moody little kid with no friends. I embarrassed them. When I told them I was gay, it was almost a relief for them to finally have a reason for the way I was. They hung every failure on that one hook.” He gulped what was left in his glass, the chilled, pale wine making his mouth tingle, and glanced at Cal. “Your dad—does he mind you being gay?”
“Probably. He's never said.” Cal's wrist rested on the edge of the table. His hands were strong-looking, solid and a little bit square. He lifted his eyes to meet Tom's, transparent in that moment. “I told him when I was—I don't know—twenty, twenty-one. I was home from school for Christmas. I'd been avoiding telling him. I think I was pretending it was just that he didn't need to know, but I could have used that as an excuse forever. We were loading the dishwasher, and I said it, blurted it out: ‘Dad, I’m gay.' He stopped moving for as long as it took to let out a breath, not any longer than that. Then he put another glass on the rack and said, 'Okay.' And that was the end of it.”
“That doesn't sound too bad.” Tom frowned at the heavy white tablecloth as if Cal's shared memory were laid out there, beside his napkin and cutlery. “I mean, it beats, ‘Get out and never darken my doors again.'”
“Indifference isn't acceptance,” Cal said.
“No, it isn't,” Tom agreed, the truth of it making him ache for Cal. From what he'd seen of the man, Cal thrived on being noticed and admired, and to have someone that close turn away from him had to have hurt. “Okay, it's going to start raining over our table if we bring up any more childhood memories. Tell me something about your job. I know you take photographs for a living, but if you could choose, what do you like shooting? People, places, kittens in flowerpots?”
“People, though more when I get to make the decisions about the shots. That might be one of my favorite parts, actually, and I don't always get to, because sometimes whoever's paying for the shoot has specific ideas about what they're looking for. And it doesn't make sense to argue or go off in my own direction. They're paying me for my time, you know?”
Cal's eyes lit up when he talked about his work, Tom realized.
“Places can be good too, depending. I've done some interior space stuff that was interesting. When you don't have a person's spirit to capture, it's like a totally different art. It becomes about composition and light and shadow in ways that really come to the forefront.”
“I never thought of it like that,” Tom said. “Like the room itself is a personality and the spaces between the walls and the furniture are important, not just emptiness that doesn't matter.”
“Exactly! Exactly.” Cal seemed delighted that Tom understood and went happily on explaining the use of shadow and assuring Tom he'd show him some images on his computer when they got back to the house. It was interesting, listening to him, and Tom was almost sorry when the waitress came back with their appetizers.
“Careful, now, these are hot,” she said as she set Cal's crab cakes in front of him. “Is there anything else I can get you right now? Another bottle of wine?” She put Tom's house salad on the table as well, the raspberry dressing in a small glass jar beside it.
Cal lifted an eyebrow at Tom, and Tom shrugged. “I'm okay.”
“Then no, I think we're good.” Cal and the waitress exchanged a smile, and she turned to the table next to theirs to take an order.
“Do you have copies of any of the magazines with your photographs in them?” Tom asked, spearing a slender stalk of asparagus nestled in a bed of lettuce leaves. The varicolored leaves had fancy names on the menu, but it all looked like lettuce to him. “I'd like to see some where they were meant to be seen, if that makes sense.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh, somewhere. The more recent ones, anyway. The older stuff is at my dad's house. He wanted to see what I'd done, and I figured I'd get them back, and then I just never did. You're right. There is something about seeing them on glossy paper.”
Tom nodded in agreement, and the conversation stayed light and easy for the rest of the meal, something that was as much a novelty to Tom as going out itself.
By the time Cal was paying the bill and waving away Tom's attempts to contribute with genuine determination, Tom's thoughts were going ahead to the club. He'd eaten enough to make the idea of dancing not as pleasant as sitting and watching other people do it, but he hadn't overeaten, so he knew it wouldn't be long before he felt less full. He wasn't sure that would change his mind about the relative merits of dancing and observing, though.
“This club you want to go to... I don't dance,” he informed Cal when they'd been ushered out of the restaurant door by a smiling server. The entrance was flanked by huge urns filled with purple and white flowers growing in well-tended profusion, and Tom could smell their scent faintly on the air. It was a beautiful summer night, the air warm without being humid, the cloudless sky above studded with stars, some of which were shining brightly enough to be visible even against the competition from the streetlights. If he hadn't been caught up in apprehension about what was coming next, he might have let himself appreciate his surroundings more. “You really don't want to see me try.”
“Let me guess,” Cal said teasingly, the understanding in his eyes robbing the words of any sting. “People laugh.”
“They do.” Tom gave a reminiscent shudder as they walked along the street. The club was only four or five blocks away from the restaurant. Tom could have jogged over in a very short time, but they were moving at a much more leisurely pace than that. “I went to a school dance once, and I liked whatever they were playing, so I danced by myself. I was enjoying it until I went to get a drink and these girls came up to me and told me that everyone had been laughing.”
“How old were you?” Cal asked.
“Eleven, twelve? Middle school, anyway.”
“Then it's time you let it go,” Cal said without an ounce of sympathy. “You're dancing. With me. And no one is going to laugh.”
Tom wasn't so sure about that. When they arrived at the club with nowhere to go but through the door, he did his best to tell himself that Cal was probably right.
“First, let's sit down so you can scope out the place.” Cal pointed him toward an empty table with a good view of the dance floor. “I'll be right back.” He was too, a few minutes later with a couple of beers and a hopeful smile. It would have been crass not to return that smile, so Tom did, even though he wasn't sure he was really feeling it.
Cal swung a chair around so he was sitting next to Tom and handed Tom one of the beer bottles.
“Okay,” he said. “The first thing I want you to do is remember that everyone looks kind of stupid when they dance, so you have to see past the physical movement to the emotion behind it.”
Tom sat back in his chair and looked around, feeling absurdly self-conscious. “That guy in the bright green shirt's emotions seem to be a little psychotic.”
Cal laughed and nudged Tom's knee with his own. “Don't judge. Just look. Um... There, that guy in the jeans with the dark gray T-shirt? With the boots?”
“Uh-huh.” Tom looked, and once he was looking, it was hard to stop. The man might not have been the best dancer on the floor, but he moved like he was having a good time. Somehow that seemed to make a huge difference. The guy wasn't thinking about how he looked or what anyone else thought of him. He was lost to the music, letting it channel through him, maybe, and it made him beautiful.
“Do you think he's attractive?” Cal asked. Tom blinked. “Uh...”
“Scale of one to ten.”
“Seven? Seven and a half.”
With a decisive shake of his head, Cal dismissed the man. “Not good enough for you. Find someone who's at least a nine.”
“You're not that particular,” Tom said before he realized how it sounded. He shook his head. “Sorry, that came out all wrong. I meant that either you're walking around in a different universe than me, filled with hot men, or you're generous with your nines, because you seem to have no trouble choosing people to, uh, dance with. I'm seeing a sea of sixes and sevens.”
“Yeah? How about me?” Cal asked with a grin.
“You?” Tom gave Cal a puzzled look. “Why would I rate you?”
Cal frowned as if that wasn't the answer he'd expected, and Tom sighed inwardly. Right. He was supposed to say nine or go over the top and pick a number higher than ten to make Cal feel good or ridiculously low to show that he was joking. He knew that.
“Okay, I guess that makes sense, but—” Cal bit his lip, holding back a grin. “No, I need to know. I can take it. Rate me.”
Tom took a drink of beer and took his time swallowing. “No.” He felt a flicker of satisfaction at thwarting Cal, who got his own way entirely too much by being charming and persuasive. “Not until I've seen you dancing. It wouldn't be a fair comparison. You might be like the green-shirt guy or even worse. I'd have to knock off a point or two for that.”
“You're not going to care how someone dances when you're in bed with him,” Cal pointed out, reasonably enough.
“You're not going to bully me into it, so give up now.” Tom knocked his own knee into Cal's.
“Okay, fine.” Cal sighed and looked out at the dance floor again. “Don't rate anyone if you don't want to, just don't tell me there's nobody here you'd like to get to know better, because that would be too depressing for words.”
“I'm allowed to have high standards,” Tom said. He thought it would be only fair to make an attempt, though, since Cal was going to a lot of trouble with this. He decided he should set his sights on someone who might actually agree to go out with him. “Okay, how about that guy sitting on the other side? No, over there, near the blonde in the red dress. With the white shirt.”
Cal looked doubtful. “Him? With the sneakers?”
“He looks nice.” Tom wondered why he was defending a choice he was being cajoled into making. “Like he smiles a lot.”
“I don't know what happened to your high standards,” Cal grumbled. “Okay, I'll be right back.”
“What? No!” Panic, bright and sharp, flashed through Tom. He could see it all: the man's face lighting up when Cal approached, the way it would fall when Cal explained his mission. After that, the guy would look over at Tom, wrinkle his nose, shake his head, and Cal would try to persuade him to change his mind and maybe even manage to get the guy to come over for a pity dance...
It would be humiliating. Unbearable.
“Please don't.” It emerged as a strangled croak, inaudible over the heavy beat of the music. Cal was already walking away, all fluid, sexy grace, drawing appreciative sidelong looks from the people he passed.
Tom sank back in his chair, turned away to stare blindly at the dancers, and gripped his beer in a shaking hand. He couldn't watch, but in his head he was counting the moments until Cal would return with some plausible reason why the guy—a guy Tom didn't even care about—couldn't dance with him, like an ingrown toenail or something.
A hand tapped his shoulder, and he looked up automatically.
“Tom, meet a good friend of mine, Joe,” Cal drawled, his arm flung carelessly around Joe's shoulders. “He's in desperate need of someone to dance with.”
“What the man said,” Joe agreed with a smile.
He was even cuter close up, with blue eyes, short dark hair, and a dazzling smile. Tom was still panicking. He stood out of politeness and shook Joe's hand. Joe's eyes widened as he tilted his head back. “Ooh, you're so tall. I like that. Come and show me what you've got.”
“I can't dance,” Tom said helplessly.
Cal groaned and rolled his eyes. Joe just laughed and grabbed Tom's hand. “Then stand there and be the pole, honey, and let me do all the work.”
It would have been stupid to just stand there even though Joe had told him he could, but Tom felt like he was barely managing the slightest swaying movement. Joe knew how to dance, rocking his hips to the beat of the music and giving Tom sexy smiles of encouragement. When the song ended, Joe leaned toward him and said, “You hate this, don't you?”
“Kind of,” Tom admitted, and Joe touched his elbow.
“Let's go sit,” he said. “Talk. Okay?”
He felt guilty for spoiling Joe's fun, but the other man didn't seem disappointed as he led him back to the table they'd been sitting at. Cal was gone, and Tom glanced around surreptitiously until he spotted him over near the bar, talking to two men who seemed to be a couple.
“Your friend bailed,” Joe said as they sat. “Is he an ex?”
“Cal? No, he's just my roommate. Why would you think he was my ex?”
Joe shrugged. “Sometimes an ex feels, you know, guilty for leaving you on your own. I had one who tried to set me up with tons of guys just so he wouldn't feel bad.”
“Oh.” Tom was fairly sure that pity as much as gratitude had prompted Cal's actions. He didn't plan on sharing that with Joe. “No, it's not like that. We've only known each other a couple of months, and I guess he just wanted company tonight.”
“He's good-looking,” Joe said. “I've seen him around. Never spoken to him before, though. He looks like the kind of guy who knows everyone, just...not for long.”
It was a fair description of Cal, but Tom was starting to see glimpses of more beyond the surface Cal showed the world, so he just gave a noncommittal shrug.
“So if you don't want to dance...” Joe leaned in to kiss Tom, who was too startled to move away or react. The press of Joe's mouth on his was warm and brief enough not to be threatening. Tom still froze, gazing back at Joe with what he knew had to be a stunned look on his face.
“I...um...” Fuck, he sounded stupid, he even felt stupid. Joe reached out and took his hand, playing with his fingers.
“Do you not want to kiss either?” Joe asked gently. “It's okay, if you don't. You just have to say.”
“It's not that.” In that moment, their conversation felt intimate, private, which was ridiculous since they were in the middle of a crowded dance club with people all around them, and the beat of the song that was playing was loud enough that it couldn't rightly be referred to as background music.
“Then what? Tell me.” Joe's thumb trailed slowly along the edge of Tom's palm.
Tom wished he knew. “I don't know how to do this.”
“That's okay,” Joe said. “As long as you want to do it. Do you?”
Joe was being so kind and patient and understanding; Tom knew it had to be luck that they'd ended up sitting here together, and he knew he wasn't likely to be so lucky again. “Yes.” His voice was barely more than a whisper, though he knew by the way Joe smiled that it had been heard loud and clear.
“Cool. Come on outside with me—you know, just so we can hear ourselves think—and I'll put my number in your phone.”
Hesitantly, and with a glance in Cal's direction, Tom followed. They stood outside under the streetlights and exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses; it felt strangely like what Tom had always observed high school mating rituals to be, and here he was finally experiencing it in his twenties.
“Okay, I've got to go. I have to be up for work in the morning.” Joe sounded genuinely regretful, and he asked if he could kiss Tom again before he left. Tom nodded, and this kiss was longer but no less gentle than the first. He held a hand up in farewell as Joe walked away, and turned to find Cal leaning against the wall of the building watching him.
“Everything okay?” Cal asked.
“Depends on your definition of the word,” Tom said. “In some ways, I'm freaking out, which I guess isn't okay, but he, uh... We kissed, and that was...nice.” He touched his fingers to his lips and then flushed and let his hand fall to his side. “And now you must think I'm a complete idiot getting bent out of shape over a kiss. Or possibly a teenage girl.”
Cal shook his head slightly. “Nope. You're allowed to react however you react. The two of you looked good together, for what that's worth.” He sounded possibly a little bit regretful about the fact, and Tom wondered if he'd wanted Joe for himself. Well, too bad. Cal could get anyone. Joe was his.
Here, outside the club, Tom was aware of a sense of relief. Maybe it was evident on his face, because Cal suggested, “Want to call it a night?”
“Yes, please,” Tom said gratefully. “Not that it wasn't fun, but—”
“Not your kind of fun. It's good to stretch your boundaries, but it's good to know them too.” Cal nodded and patted his shoulder. “Let's get out of here.”
They walked in companionable silence back to where they'd left the car and drove home.
“I still want to see those photos,” Tom said as they went inside and shut the door.
“Sure. Come on up. I'll see if I can find some of the magazines.” Cal led the way upstairs, and Tom tried not to stare at his ass as they went. Cal did have a nice ass. “Sit,” Cal said, pointing at the ugly upholstered chair.
“I'm not a dog,” Tom protested.
Cal gave him an appraising look. “No, you're not. Sorry.”
“I'll still sit, though.” Tom collapsed into the chair. It was comfortable enough to explain why Cal kept it around, though not why he didn't change the cover. “I feel exhausted. Like I did a half marathon.”
“New can be tiring,” Cal said absently, wandering around the room and opening drawers at random before hauling a box out of the closet. “Fun, though. Here they are.”
He put the box on a small table close to where Tom sat. “Most of these are for architectural magazines, a few are for the ones that show you other people's spectacular houses, and the rest are for Sirius. Ever read it?”
Sirius was a gay-themed glossy magazine with a sprinkling of artistic seminudes among the articles, a mixture that seemed to work for its readers. Tom nodded. “A few times, yes. I don't buy it regularly. More when I was younger and I wanted something to, ah...”
Cal grinned at him knowingly. “Got it. Well, if it was that long ago, you wouldn't have been jerking off to anything I took. See what you think of them. They're not all nudes. There's a great spread in this first one about a house built on the ocean by a gay author, at the top of a cliff. The views were incredible. I was lucky enough to be there when a storm rolled in, and it was like being part of it. I won an award for one of the shots I took that day, and it helped my career take off. There was this moment with the sun coming out as a bolt of lightning cracked open the sky. Darkness everywhere and these two competing sources of light...” Cal shook his head. “Still gives me chills remembering that. A second either way and I'd have missed it. So lucky.”
“Or you have good instincts.” Tom reached into the box.
“Want a drink?” Cal said. “I can make coffee, or I've got some whisky if you feel like a nightcap.”
“I'm good, thanks,” Tom said, already turning pages.
It was easy to get lost in the photos and the stories they told. The places where Cal's work appeared were marked with slips of paper, and when Tom finally set the last magazine on the haphazard pile he'd created, he felt a sense of regret that it was over.
“There aren't any more?” he asked.
Cal, who'd gone into the next room and been clicking away at his computer, said, “On here. Come see.” Tom joined him, standing behind the computer chair. “Do you want to sit?”
“No, it's fine. Whoa, what are those?” He pointed to some tiny black-and-white images on the bottom corner of the screen, and Cal clicked on one of them. The photo that filled the screen was of a man's bare thigh and the underside of his balls, and now that Tom knew what it was, he felt himself flush slightly. “Oh.”
“Don't be embarrassed. It's cool.” Cal clicked on the arrow to bring up the next photo of a man's lower abdomen, the muscles clearly defined.
“Was this for a magazine?” Tom asked. It was strange how these photos seemed so much more personal than the ones he'd just been looking at.
“No, this was for me, I guess. It was a guy I hooked up with a few times, but there was something about him. He was really sensual. And gorgeous, obviously.” The next photo was of the man's erect cock, one hand cupping his balls and causing his erection to be thrust forward.
Tom had seen a reasonable amount of porn in his life. He had a computer, and like most people, he'd used it to satisfy his curiosity and scratch an itch from time to time. The flat eyes of the male models in the photographs and the by-the-numbers fucking in the movies had eventually bored him to the point that he'd more or less given up. What he could conjure in his own head, using what he'd seen as a starting point, was so much hotter. These photographs were different, stirring his body to an arousal profound enough to rob him of breath for a moment.
The difference was that these were intimate without being intrusive. The man posing for them had offered himself up to Cal's lens with a generosity and lack of inhibition that lent power to the images.
Cal gave him a quick glance, and Tom wondered what his face was saying, because Cal smiled and clicked on another, then another, never lingering, but not rushing, leading Tom through the gallery.
Tom felt his mouth go dry. Beautiful. The curve of a muscular ass, or a bent back, arms folded across a wide chest, a close-up of a nipple, hard and shining as if it'd been licked and sucked on a moment before. Tom flashed on Cal leaning over, his tongue swirling across the nipple, teasing it erect, then sitting back to capture it. Cal's presence was in the photographs, if not his image—though once or twice he'd angled himself so that his shadow fell over the man's body, an intangible, coaxing touch.
The series ended with the only photograph showing the man's face or part of it. A mouth, the lips curled in a smile, pure, sweet seduction captured in a black-and- white image.
They were both quiet, and slowly the silence went from comfortable to awkward. Tom was unhappily aware of his swollen cock in the jeans that were so much tighter than the ones he usually wore, and that if Cal turned around he'd see it. He was determined not to blurt out some excuse and leave. That would be just as awkward, and he didn't want to do anything that might damage the friendship that he and Cal were slowly creating.
“What do you think?” Cal asked finally, turning his head to look up at Tom over his shoulder.
“They're amazing,” Tom said. “Really.”
“Thanks. I think they're probably some of my best work, even though no one will ever see them. So it means a lot that you like them.” Cal was still looking at his face, studying him, and Tom felt a rush of something go through him as their eyes met again. He wasn't sure what it was. It was definitely something much more complicated than simple lust.
His hand was resting on the computer chair's headrest. Cal shifted, reaching toward Tom's hand, the two of them still looking at each other. Tom's skin tingled in anticipation of Cal's touch.
In Tom's pocket, his cell phone rang. He jerked, jolted out of the moment, heat rushing into his cheeks.
“Better answer it?” Cal made it a question as if he'd remembered Tom's reaction to being told to sit. “Could be important.”
Tom nodded and fumbled for his phone. “H-hello?”
“Hey. It's Joe.”
“Oh!” Tom bit his lip, the small pain grounding him. “Hi, Joe.”
Cal shifted in his seat, a small movement that Tom wasn't sure how to interpret. He stood and wandered over to pour himself a drink.
“I got home, and I couldn't stop thinking about you.” Joe's voice was warm without gushing. “I'd like to see you again, somewhere that we can talk, get to know each other. Are you interested?”
The smell of the whisky Cal had poured stung Tom's nose, aromatic, pungent. He stared at Cal, who was tilting his glass, studying the amber liquid as it spilled from one side of the glass and back.
“Yes,” Tom said, and felt as committed and yet unsure as a man skydiving for the first time, the ground rushing up at him, the safety of the plane left behind him. “That sounds good.”
He let Joe make the arrangements—time, place, date—and then he ended the call.
“So,” Cal said, his expression encouraging, if distant. “I guess it all went the way it was supposed to.”
That seemed like a strange way to put it. Tom hadn't gone out with the express intention of picking someone up—or being picked up—but it seemed that Cal's goal had been exactly that. With dawning suspicion, Tom wondered if Cal thought that his life would be easier if Tom were seeing someone and had manipulated events to get his wish.
“I guess it did,” Tom said. Lemonade from lemons. He had a date. It didn't matter how it'd happened, just that it had.
He couldn't help wondering what his answer would have been if Joe had called five minutes later, though.
“That is weird,” Cal said blandly. Tom didn't really seem to require any kind of response to his babbling, but it was only polite to contribute something once in a while.
“He wouldn't let me pay,” Tom went on. “Believe me, I tried.”
“Did you kiss him?” It was the kind of question Tom wouldn't appreciate—too personal—somehow, though, it slipped out before Cal could stop himself.
Tom stopped, and for a few seconds Cal thought that might be the end of their conversation. It was hard to filter through all his feelings on the matter to the actual truth. On the one hand, he wanted to know everything; on the other, not knowing might be easier.
Cal's feelings of regret for having instigated Tom's foray into the sometimes wonderful world of dating had been growing. Tom had been happy the way things were, hadn't he? Who was Cal to think he knew what was best for someone else when he could barely figure out what was right for himself? He'd become so confused about what he should be doing with his own life that he hadn't been out all week, even though he was between assignments. Instead, he'd been hanging out with Tom and going to bed early, only to spend hours staring at the ceiling, wishing for sleep.
“He kissed me,” Tom said finally and slowly.
“Didn't you want him to?”
“Of course I did! It's not like getting a shot.”
“True,” Cal agreed.
“It's just...” Tom waved his hands in the air, his fingers flexing as if he were trying to talk with them. “I never knew which way to tilt my head. Or what to do with my tongue. And when I swallowed, I kept thinking, okay, that's not just my spit, and it was gross.”
Cal shook his head. “You are deeply weird, you know that? Cute but strange.” Cal put his hands on Tom's shoulders and shook him gently. “You're thinking too much. Seriously. Relax and enjoy it. If you bump noses, so what? If it feels like a good time to go exploring his back teeth, do it. And spit happens. Sex is messy.”
“We're not having sex!”
“No, but you will be,” Cal said frankly and patted Tom's arm before stepping away. He covered up the twist in his gut at the thought of Tom getting naked with Joe by wiping away a fake tear. “I feel so proud. You've come such a long way.”
Tom snorted. “Yeah, right. Baby steps.”
“That's better than standing still,” Cal pointed out. “So what's next?”
“I invited him over to watch a movie.” Tom cleared his throat. “Friday night. Were you going out?”
“I guess I am now,” Cal said, pretending to be cheerful about the idea. “That's great. Good for you.” He hoped it sounded more convincing than it felt.
“You think? I kind of feel like I'm stumbling around in the dark here. And crashing into things. With my bare toes.” Tom looked surprisingly vulnerable, and Cal felt a surge of protectiveness. This Joe better not do anything to hurt Tom, or he'd have some explaining to do.
“You're doing fine. Don't be so hard on yourself.”
Tom glanced at the clock. “Hey, it's not even that late. You want to watch The Daily Show?”
“Of course.” It had become a bit of a routine for them, watching it before retiring to their respective rooms, and Cal found himself enjoying the rather domestic ritual more than he ever would have guessed. They'd curl up on the couch, usually with Tom's feet poking him in the thigh, and afterward say good night and go to bed.
Tonight, Cal half expected Tom to be less likely to want to sit close to him. It turned out that he opposite was true. Tom, whose couch it was, after all, decided to turn during a commercial break, and lie full length along it, draping his legs across Cal's knees.
“Do I look like a footstool?” Cal inquired.
Tom grimaced. “Sorry. My calves are cramping up and stretching out helps. I guess I overdid the jogging yesterday and today. I was worried about going out and then the date. Running calms me down.” He began to draw his feet back. “I'll grab a cushion and lie on the floor.”
“No,” Cal said, wondering at himself. “It's okay.” He patted one of Tom's shins. “They don't weigh that much, even with all those muscles.”
Tom started to reply and then groaned piteously, rubbing his calf. “God. Okay, that really hurts. Ow. It feels like the muscles are actually tearing in half.”
It wasn't a good idea, and Cal knew it, but he knocked Tom's hand out of the way and wrapped his own hand around the calf Tom had been rubbing. “Stop. Let me.”
Tom went quiet, his eyes wide. Cal could feel him attempting to relax, but even with that, his calf muscle was tight, almost in spasm.
“You shouldn't run so hard.” Cal massaged Tom's calf with a gentle touch. “You need to find something else to do when you're worrying if this is the result.” He dug his thumb into the muscle carefully, not using too much pressure. Tom moaned. “Tell me if that's too much.”
“No, it's good.” Cal flashed on an image of Tom saying the same thing during a far more intimate moment.
“Easy,” Cal murmured. “Relax.” The TV became background—he had no idea if the show they'd been watching had ended or if it was still playing—as he concentrated on easing the tension out of Tom's calves. He spent some time on the right calf, then moved to the left for a while before switching back again. “Is this helping?”
“Yeah.” Tom's voice was as tight as his muscles had been. Cal glanced up at him and saw the uncertainty in Tom's eyes. He'd started this with no thought of anything apart from easing Tom's pain—Cal knew firsthand how agonizing a cramp could be. With anyone else it, though, it would've been an excuse to touch, the massage quickly abandoned as his hands slid teasingly higher. He couldn't do that to Tom. Tom, thanks to Cal's own efforts, was interested in someone, happy with how his first date with Joe had gone.
Cal made an effort and looked away from Tom's face, continuing the massage for a few moments more as if he hadn't seen that confusion in Tom's eyes.
“You've loosened up,” he said and took his hands away from Tom's body. It felt like turning away from a fire when he was cold.
The world, his world, was full of available men, experienced, sexy, easy to get.
Tom wasn't one of them. Cal had to keep that firmly in mind, and they'd be fine.
* * * * *
“What? Why?” Tom was going through the refrigerator again, tossing a whole new collection of leftovers. Cal had tried suggesting that he not bother to save them at all, but Tom insisted that was wasteful. How it was more wasteful than saving them and then throwing them away, Cal had no idea. It was pointless to argue. He didn't like to argue with Tom, which was why he'd been putting off this conversation.
“Because I'm not going out tonight.” When Tom looked up at him, Cal went on quickly, “I have to work, and the laptop's not going to cut it. I need a new one, actually. I've been putting it off because I hate that whole process—transferring everything over and getting a decent browser on there, and my e-mail and everything. Anyway, Sirius moved my deadline, which was supposed to be next week, to tomorrow, and I've got to work. I promise I'll hole up upstairs. You won't even know I'm here. I won't even come down for a glass of water, I swear.”
Tom stood. He pushed the trash in the bin down, then shoved the bin back underneath the cupboard where it was kept. “Okay.”
Cal had been expecting irritation at the very least. “Okay?” he repeated.
Tom shrugged and rinsed his hands at the sink. “You live here, Cal. Even if you didn't have a deadline, I wouldn't have made you go out if you didn't want to.” He shook his hands, droplets of water flying. “It's not like I need the privacy, you know? We're gonna watch a movie.”
In a dark room, cuddled up on the couch, Cal added silently. He'd seen how fast Joe moved to get what he wanted. Not that Cal was any different; it was just that seeing it as an observer had been a revelation. Tom would be lucky if he got to watch anything of the movie past the opening credits.
“Well, I wanted you to know that I won't come wandering through and spoil the mood, that's all.”
Tom nodded and swiped his hands dry on his jeans. “Thanks.”
Cal opened his mouth, frustrated by Tom's nonchalance, which he wasn't sure he entirely believed in. He closed it without voicing his concerns. He'd be around if Tom needed him, and he had to stop fussing. Tom might have started out late, but once he did more than wiggle his toes in the water, he'd soon be splashing around happily.
Something occurred to him, and Cal blurted out, “You've got what you need in case things do get hot and heavy, right? Condoms, lube, handcuffs?”
Okay, now he'd back off and let Tom handle this solo.
Tom gave him an incredulous look. “Excuse me?”
Backtracking hastily, Cal said, “Okay, I was joking about the last one, but—”
“Cal, I'm a virgin, not an idiot.” Tom was frowning now. “I know what I need. I just... I didn't think... Well, I have the lube, of course. Condoms, though... They expire, you know.”
That had never been an issue for Cal. He went through a box quickly.
“Maybe I'd better get some more,” Tom said thoughtfully. “In case Joe's don't fit me.”
Christ. “Okay, well, I've got to get back to work,” Cal said and left quickly, fleeing up the stairs and shutting himself in his office where he tried, very hard, to work. Luckily, Photoshop was a fiddly enough program that it didn't take long before he'd forgotten about everything but the job at hand. He could spend hours making subtle adjustments to levels, and he often had.
Tonight, he was so involved that when he finally closed the program to give his eyes a break for a while, he discovered it was two hours later and he could hear a movie playing downstairs in the living room.
He went to the door and opened it carefully, making no noise. He didn't recognize the movie, from what he could hear, though at least one actor's voice sounded familiar. There were no other sounds. Either Tom and Joe were absorbed in watching the movie or they weren't, in which case the TV was turned up loud enough that it was covering the sounds of whatever they were doing. Kissing, for instance, maybe with shirts off and hands stroking over bare skin.
Unable to stop himself, Cal crept down the hallway to the top of the stairs. He leaned against the wall, his body still, every other part of him—senses, consciousness, more—straining to know what was happening on the couch.
Of course, it might be happening in Tom's bed. Tom and Joe might have started kissing on the couch, then moved to Tom's room, leaving the movie playing. It was the kind of thing Tom would do, covering up, protecting himself from potential embarrassment. It was also the kind of thing that made Cal a little bit crazy if he let himself think about it for more than a few seconds; he hated it, that Tom felt like he had to do that.
There was a brief moment of quiet, some moment in the movie without sound, and in that silence Cal heard—or thought he heard—a soft whimper. In his head, it echoed, became the whimper Tom made when Joe's mouth slid, warm and wet along the tip of Tom's dick.
Cal's hand, of its own accord, undid the front of his jeans and slid inside. He wasn't wearing boxers because he was so far behind on laundry it was laughable, so his fingers found his erection immediately.
This was wrong. If Tom freaked out over personal questions, Cal wasn't sure what he'd say about this. Tom wouldn't know, though. Tom was lying back, his hands clutching at air...the back of the couch...anything to stop himself from grabbing Joe's short, dark hair with a too-tight grip.
The images Cal was conjuring, a castle built from a single grain of sand, filled his head as completely as his cock filled the curve of his hand. As his hand began to work himself harder he replaced Joe with himself, so that it was his mouth on Tom, giving him everything that Tom had been missing out on all these years. Sex was always good for Cal, but he could remember his first times—first kiss, first hand on his cock, first blowjob, first fuck—and even when those moments had been awkward, the sensations had been fresh, shot through with an intensity that Cal had never quite recaptured.
Tom would climax quickly, his gray eyes shocked wide with pleasure, words, incoherent, ecstatic, spilling out of his mouth. Cal wanted to hear them—hell, he wanted to cause them—but he was lost in the illusion, blood rushing in his ears, drowning out any sounds from downstairs.
His hand knew what it was doing, how to squeeze, when to loosen, the perfect moment to flick and swirl his thumb through the gathering slickness at the tip of his cock and spread it around. Tom wouldn't know the way Cal liked to be jerked off, but the act itself, at least, Cal was sure Tom had experienced. He pictured Tom's hand on him and moaned through his gritted teeth as the movement of his hand slowed, altering to become tentative, experimental, the way he thought that Tom would touch him.
Tom would be so interested in everything that was happening, that cute frown on his face, his teeth digging into his lip as he concentrated.
Cal panted, the sound harsh, desperate. The fantasies in his head were chaotic as a dream, changing swiftly until he wasn't sure what was turning him on most, just that he was aroused to the point where even Tom appearing at the top of the stairs wouldn't have stopped him from coming.
He knew what Tom's face would look like, coming, contorted with pleasure, but he couldn't picture Tom's expression watching him come. He could hear Tom's voice, though, whispering, “Come on, Cal.” And imagining that was all it took. Cal shuddered as he shot, lips clamped firmly together to keep any noise from escaping him.
As soon as the most intense part of it was over, he flushed with shame. What the hell was he doing? Silently, he fastened his pants, stripped his T-shirt off, and used it to wipe the wall and floor clean. After that, he retreated to his room and shut the door—again, as quietly as he could—and got into a hot shower, where he scrubbed his skin clean with a washcloth.
He couldn't, no matter how fiercely he berated himself, scrub away the sense of disgust he felt. Cal didn't know what was happening to him, but he knew he didn't like it.
* * * * *
Tom was important to him. Cal could acknowledge that without hesitation. He'd saved Cal from a nasty situation when he could've walked away, and his clear-eyed appraisal and disapproval of Cal's behavior had taken guts to voice. Cal admired courage, but that didn't explain why he wanted to protect Tom when Tom had shown quite plainly that he could take care of himself.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, explained why the thought of Tom sharing kisses and more with another man had turned Cal into a voyeur, consumed by what looked like possessiveness, now that his head was cooler and his dick under control. Jesus, what had gotten into him? Tom wasn't his. He'd repaid Tom by finding him a date, and it was working out great. Job done, debt paid, and time for him to follow Tom's example and try seeing someone for more than a single date.
Filled with good intentions, he went downstairs to the kitchen to make a late lunch. Tom was sitting at the table spooning up soup with a pensive look on his face and an unmistakable hickey on his neck.
Shit. Cal closed his eyes for a moment and fought back his affront that Joe had messed up Tom's skin like that, bruising it, reddening it, marking it. Cal had left bruises and scratches on lovers himself from time to time, and walked away with his own skin bitten and scored by sharp nails, marks made in the heat of a passionate moment, soon forgotten, unimportant.
Telling himself Tom had probably enjoyed it—hell, it might've been what made him whimper, if that small, throat-caught sound had been real, Cal walked over to the fridge.
“You look like crap,” Tom said by way of greeting. “Did you stay up all night on that project or something?”
To tell the truth would have been impossible, so Cal went with the easy lie. “Yeah. Just got it sent off. Finally.” He opened the fridge and looked into it. “What about you? Good night?” He kept his gaze trained at the shelves, not wanting to see whatever might be on Tom's face.
“The movie was fun,” Tom said. “One of those complicated plots that you don't care about because things keep blowing up and the hero's shirt gets ripped open every ten minutes or so.”
Cal grabbed a tomato and a piece of cheese wrapped in plastic. Simple sounded good right then, though he usually enjoyed building up a complex, layered sandwich full of crunch and flavor.
“Sounds like the perfect date-night movie,” he said, forcing his voice to stay casual. He closed the fridge door and set his supplies on the counter. “One you don't have to pay much attention to.”
Tom didn't pretend not to know what Cal was asking, which was a relief. “Yeah, maybe it wasn't so much that the plot was complicated and more that I missed a few key scenes fending Joe off.”
Cal turned the tomato over so that it was resting firmly on the chopping board that was supposed to be put away in a cupboard when it wasn't being used. It was a rule Tom broke all the time. Cal never followed it either. It was a huge, solid hunk of wood, and it was so much easier to leave it out. He focused his attention on the deep red of the tomato, wondering if a series of photographs of one ripening before decaying would be interesting or hackneyed.
His focus slipped, and like the night before, he found himself picturing Tom on the couch, the whimper one of protest this time. Common sense reasserted itself. Tom wouldn't whimper faintly if Joe was doing something that he didn't like. The idea was ridiculous enough that he chuckled aloud.
“It wasn't funny,” Tom said, a touch of indignation audible. “It was fucking awkward.”
Tom didn't swear often, so that brought Cal's head around. “Why?”
“Kissing, fine. I liked that.” Tom frowned at his bowl of soup as if he'd spotted a fly in it. “And I didn't mind his hands wandering all over me, because I was doing that to him too. I wasn't ready for—” His spoon clattered onto the table, and he looked up, meeting Cal's eyes. “He wanted to blow me,” Tom said flatly. “Right there on the couch. Jesus, I hardly know him!”
Cal knew he should feel sorry for Tom, but he didn't. Instead, he felt something that might have been relief, bizarre though that was. “It matters to you that you get to know him first?”
“Yes,” Tom said with admirable succinctness.
“I can see why you're still a virgin.” Cal held up his hands and tried to look placating. “Hey, no. I didn't mean it like that. It's fine—however you are, Tom, it's fine. As long as it's okay with you.”
“It's not.” Tom was clearly moping over the way his date had gone. “I want to have a boyfriend. And have sex. God, I want to have sex. Just not with some stranger.”
“Instant boyfriend, just add water,” Cal observed, and Tom sighed.
“Yeah. It's ridiculous, isn't it. This part—it's too hard for me. I don't think I was cut out for it. Maybe I'm not meant to have a boyfriend.”
Abandoning his sandwich-making for the moment, Cal went over to the table and sat across from his roommate. “I've been thinking the same thing.”
“No, you haven't. You're great at this.” The look Tom gave him was one of frank disbelief.
“I'm great at having sex with people I barely know.” Cal put his own issues out of his mind, because it wasn't always about him. “If Joe's the wrong guy for you—”
“It's not that I think he is,” Tom protested. “I don't know. And I need more time to figure it out, and I can't do that when he's being Mr. Octopus Grabby- hands.”
“Grabby-hands Tentacle-sucker,” Cal said helpfully, and Tom gave him an astonished look and then burst out laughing. “Sorry.”
“No, don't. Don't be sorry.” Tom gasped and laughed more. “You're horrible. Tentacle-sucker. Jesus.”
“Just tell him,” Cal said. “Tell him you're not ready for anything more than making out. If he's a good guy, he'll give you time. If not, we'll find you someone who is.” Secretly, Cal found himself hoping that Joe would bail in the face of Tom's hesitant nature, since he was beginning to believe that Joe wasn't good enough for Tom. That wasn't based on anything concrete, but he wasn't examining his gut reaction too closely, so he didn't care.
Tom sobered. “This doesn't have to be a new hobby for you,” he said. “Finding me a date, I mean. If it doesn't work out with Joe, I can go back to the club, or another one, put myself out there a bit more.”
Cal kept the dismay off his face with an effort. It would be like staking out a kitten in the lion compound. Tom would look like the tastiest nibble out there to some men. Young, naive, unaware of how good-looking he was... Innocence didn't appeal to everyone, but for some, taking it away was a kick, and they wouldn't all be happy to accept no as an answer.
“Promise me that you won't go clubbing without me or Joe.”
“Why?” Tom looked puzzled, not offended. “That place we went to seemed okay. It wasn't a dive or sleazy.”
“It's always good to have a backup along.” Cal hoped Tom would take his word for it. “Just in case. Sitting there by yourself sends the wrong message.”
“Well, okay.” Tom gave a shrug that said he didn't get it but didn't care enough to argue. “Don't feel that you're responsible for me, because you're not. And I can take care of myself.”
“I know. I remember.” In Cal's mind, there was a world of difference between shouting at a man who was kicking your roommate and physically stopping someone you'd been kissing who wanted to take things further than you did. The thought of Tom being in that position was a little crazy-making.
In fact, Cal was beginning to think that everything about Tom was crazy- making, and not in a bad way.
“What do you hate about it?” Over the years, Tom had learned that it was easier to ask what someone didn't like than to spend forty-five minutes offering alternatives.
“It's boring,” Derek said. “Can't we have something more—I don't know— swirly?”
Tom gave him a look. “Swirly?”
“You know.” Derek gestured with his fingers, waving them in the air. “Fancy.”
“It's not boring; it's practical,” Tom told him. “You want something that's easy to read. Trust me, no one wants to go to a Web site for fancy and swirly. They want to be able to read what's on the page and get the information they're looking for.”
Derek seemed disappointed. “I don't know. It's kind of dull.”
“What if I changed the color behind the text?” Tom asked, making the change as he spoke. “There, see? Is that better?”
“Yeah, much!” Derek brightened, and Tom went back to work on the rest of the page.
“So how's Marianne? Getting big?” He'd been doing this long enough that he could hold a casual conversation while he typed.
“Huge.” Derek sketched out a shape that Tom caught out of the corner of his eye. If Marianne's stomach was really that big, she had to be carrying triplets. Jesus, he hoped not. Maybe Derek's jitters were down to worry over his wife now that her due date was approaching. “She can't sleep. Can't get comfortable,” Derek continued. “That means I don't get much sleep either.”
Ah. Tom turned his head and gave Derek a sympathetic smile. “Good practice for when the baby arrives,” he said.
Derek made a sound that was close to a piteous moan. “Don't tell me that! Our baby's going to sleep through the night. Marianne's been researching all these methods that really work. Lighting. Background music. Things.”
What Tom knew about babies would fit nicely on a single screen in a large font. He'd worked in offices for long enough, listening to baby stories, to bet a week's paycheck that the baby would do what all newborns did and make its parents' lives hell.
Derek wandered away, and Tom finished up what he was doing. Getting him in to redesign the company's Web site was a waste of the business's money in some ways. Tom's hourly rate was high. The Beckers preferred to work with people they knew, though. Tom had a list of tasks that Derek wanted him to clear and was expecting to be in the office for the rest of the week. For one thing, the bakery was adding wedding cakes to the services it provided. To that end, Derek and Marianne had hired two new bakers who specialized in building and decorating wedding cakes. All in all, it meant several new pages added to the Web site, at the least.
“You're going to need new photos,” Tom called to Derek.
“I'll get Cal to take them,” Derek said. “He took the others.”
Right. Tom had somehow forgotten about that. Once reminded, he knew he'd seen Cal's name in type. “Want me to e-mail him and ask?”
Tom opened his e-mail program, ignoring the electronic ding that told him he'd received incoming mail. Most of it was bound to be spam. Fingers moving quickly, he typed a message to Cal.
Derek wants to know if you can take photos for their new wedding cake sideline?
He messed around with the new main wedding cake page, creating links to the new page that listed the flavors of cake and buttercream icings and another that shared feedback customers had given praising the talents of the new bakers. He was just starting a page for photos when his e-mail went ding again, and this time he checked it.
Tom—Sure. Tell Derek I’ll call him to set it up. How’s it going? —Calvin ReeceCalvin Reece Photography
“Cal says sure. He'll call you to figure out when to do it,” Tom said to Derek in the test kitchen next door, raising his voice so it would carry over the sound of the mixer that was beating batter of some kind. “Something smells good!” It did, like vanilla and maybe cinnamon.
A moment later, Derek stuck his head back into the small office space. “Muffins,” he said. “Want one?” He was holding it in anticipation of Tom's answer.
“Of course.” He held out his hand. The paper cup cradling the muffin was still warm and slightly greasy, and when Tom took his first bite, it was like heaven. “So good.”
“That's what we like to hear,” Derek said. Someone called his name from the kitchen, and he gave Tom an apologetic smile and disappeared to deal with whatever crisis had arisen. Marianne usually kept things running smoothly. With her resting in the final weeks of her pregnancy, her ankles swollen, and her blood pressure high, Derek was on his own.
Tom didn't envy him the additional workload and the stress, though he supposed it would all be worth it when the baby arrived. He liked babies in a vague way. They were uncomplicated and honest. If they were unhappy, they screamed. If they were content, they blew spit bubbles and gurgled.
Deciding that the muffin was a signal for him to take a break, he topped up his cup from the coffeemaker in the corner, filled with a fragrant and powerful brew, and sat to read the rest of his e-mail. He dealt with whatever spam his filters had missed, taking bites of the muffin every time he saw one that offered to increase the size of his dick and sips of coffee when he saw a hopeful attempt to get him to pass over his credit card details in return for untold millions.
There was one from his parents. After scanning it quickly, he left that to answer later at home. They were fine and wanted to know that he was, no more than that. But if he sent back a single sentence saying that, his mom would call him. Fending off a phone call with a longer e-mail was a good use of his time, as far as Tom was concerned. The phone conversations with his parents tended to end badly and leave him worked up and irritable.
His cell phone, which was sitting next to his laptop on the table, chose that moment to vibrate. He hated hearing other people's cell phones go off—it always seemed to happen at inconvenient times, and it always irritated him—so he kept his own on vibrate most of the time.
A quick glance at the phone showed that it wasn't a call but a text message from Joe.
Hey, handsome, it said. Hope you’re having a good day. Looking forward to Thursday night.
Tom had mixed feelings about Joe. On the one hand, he seemed like a really nice guy, and he was certainly good-looking. On the other, he couldn't wait to get in Tom's pants, which, while flattering, Tom suspected might get old before he was ready to actually get naked with the man. Which meant this was all going to be a waste of time from Joe's point of view, and it wasn't nice to lead someone on, even if you didn't mean to.
Me too, he texted back. Joe had offered to cook him dinner, which could be an excuse to get him alone. When it came right down to it, Tom enjoyed Joe's company, and it would have been awkward to suggest that they meet somewhere in public instead.
Another text came in a moment later, which left Tom rolling his eyes. They'd said everything they needed to say, and he wanted to get back to work. Of course, it might not be Joe. He picked up his phone and glanced at the screen.
Did I mention what I plan for desert?
Tom noticed the typo immediately. It was part of his job to spot them, and it was amazing how many companies wrote copy for their pages that included some absurd errors. He decided not to point out to Joe that he needed another s to accompany the first. He wanted the conversation to end, but he didn't want it to end with Joe mad at him.
You plus some chocolate sauce. How does that sound?
Tom put the phone down and picked up the muffin liner. He folded it smaller, pleating the slick paper. How it sounded was gross and unimaginative, but Joe was flirting and that was part of a relationship, after all. He tried to come up with something light and casual to text back. Before he could do it, Joe texted him again.
I’ve been thinking about you naked a lot.
I’m at work. Tom hit Send. That seemed abrupt, so he sent another text. Sorry.
Is that your way of telling me you’re not naked like me?
I’m at work. No, not naked. He hoped that would be the end of the discussion for now. It wasn't that he didn't think he'd ever be into sexually suggestive texting. Sometime, sure. Maybe. It seemed like the kind of thing you'd do to spice things up a few years into a relationship, not before you'd even seen each other naked.
Because he felt like he ought to, Tom imagined Joe naked. He liked what he saw in his mind, but he didn't feel a particular desire to feel Joe's bare skin against his own or to touch Joe's erection.
A wave of confusion and near terror swept over Tom. Was it possible that he wasn't actually gay?
No, he reminded himself. He'd always fantasized about men, never women.
Sorry, Joe's text came back. You’re not into this, are you?
Biting his lip, Tom tried to decide how to respond. I’m just busy. Some other time, maybe. He hesitated before sending it, then hit the button.
Joe responded with a smiley face, so presumably he wasn't too disappointed in Tom's apparent lack of an adventurous spirit.
“Hi. Tom, right?”
Tom turned his head and saw a pretty little brown-haired woman in the doorway. She couldn't have been more than five feet tall.
“I'm Heidi, the new baker. Derek said you wanted to ask me something?”
“Oh, yeah. I wanted to add you to the bios page on the Web site, so I was hoping maybe you could write up something? Just a paragraph or two. No big deal. Or if you weren't comfortable doing it, I could help.”
Heidi leaned against the doorway. “It's fine. I can do it. You want stuff like where I went to school?”
“Sure, and whatever else you think people might want to know about you. It can be serious or quirky.”
“I think quirky's more my style.” Heidi pulled the collar of her shirt down to reveal a complicated, colorful tattoo.
“Oh, cool.” Without thinking about it, Tom stood and moved closer. “Wow, that's amazing. How far does it go?”
To his surprise, she stepped back, her hands coming up in front of her to ward him off. “I'm seeing someone.”
Tom blinked at her. “Uh... Good?”
Heidi frowned at him. “That wasn't a come-on?”
“From me? No.” Tom gestured at her neck. “Your ink's interesting and there's obviously more of it, so I was just asking. I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable.”
Heidi relaxed. “No, my bad. It's just...some guys are jerks, you know? They think if I don't mind getting needles stuck in me, I'm fond of pricks, if you get what I mean.”
Tom couldn't help grinning. “I'm fond of them too,” he said demurely.
It was Heidi's turn to look confused, but only for a moment. “Huh? Oh! You're gay?”
Tom didn't share his current doubts with her. He knew that they were based in insecurity rather than a genuine concern about his orientation. “Yeah. No tattoos, though. I'm too much of a wimp.”
“It's an acquired taste.”
“Unlike your muffins,” Tom told her. “If you're the one who baked the cinnamon ones, that is.”
“That's me.” She grinned widely, relaxed again. “I was following Derek's recipe, though. I've been moving around every couple of years. I went to school, and then I worked at a bakery for a year and a half. After that I was baking cakes out of my house. Now I'm here. I take it you aren't, usually?”
“I'm updating the Web site,” Tom explained. “I didn't design it originally, but I did a major overhaul on it a couple of years ago, and now I check in a couple of times a year, do a little tweaking here and there.”
“Can I have a picture?” Heidi asked.
“On the Web site? Sure. My roommate can take one of you, if you want.”
“He's a photographer? Cool. I'll bet you guys make quite a team.” Heidi didn't seem to mean anything by it. It was just a casual thing to say. From the kitchen, Derek called her name, and she turned her head. “Oops! Gotta run. Talk to you later!”
Tom watched her disappear, and he settled back to what he'd been doing. The bakery was a pleasant place to work. Everyone seemed to get along peacefully, a radio was set on a station that played music Tom knew was current, even though most of it wasn't familiar to him, and it smelled great. Every once in a while, someone would come in with a cookie or a pastry for Tom to try, and at lunchtime
Derek included him in the order they placed with the sandwich shop two blocks away.
Tom was trying to pay Derek for his chicken-and-roasted-peppers sandwich over Derek's protests that it was included in his wages, when Joe appeared in the doorway.
“Uh, they said it was okay if I came back here?” Joe's gaze went straight to Tom, a warm smile on his face. Joe was dressed casually in jeans and a green shirt. Like Cal, he seemed able to make it look good. Tom felt conscious of his own rumpled T-shirt and baggy jeans. If he'd known that he'd be seeing Joe, he might've made more of an effort that morning. Derek didn't care what Tom wore, so he'd pulled on the nearest clean clothes.
Joe glanced at Derek, the smile still in place. “Hi, I'm Joe. I'm a friend of Tom's.”
Derek's inquiring look became a welcoming one. “Nice to meet you. I'm Derek Becker.”
“I'm here to ask Tom out for lunch,” Joe went on. “It looks like I'm too late.”
“One of the disadvantages of running a bakery is that you get up early,” Derek said, “which means that you eat lunch early too.”
“We could, um, go for a walk,” Tom suggested. The last thing he wanted was to be on display here at the bakery, painfully aware that he and Joe were a topic of discussion.
Joe blinked in surprise. “Okay. If you want to.”
“Do you not want to?” Tom asked. Oh God, he was being an idiot. An indecisive, dithering idiot. He took a deep breath and made his voice firm and confident. “Yeah, come on. Let's go. I can eat and walk.”
There was a small park a few blocks from the bakery. It was a nice day, so there were already lots of people there, most of them eating lunch.
“You don't have anything to eat,” Tom realized. “Here, have half my sandwich.” He ignored Joe's protest that he could get something later and handed it over. They sat on the edge of a fountain that had only a couple of inches of green, slimy water at the bottom of it.
“I hope this was okay,” Joe said. “I really wanted to see you.”
“Yeah, no. It's great. It's good for me to get away from the computer for a little while. There's some rule about how long you should go before you take a break, so you don't damage your eyes. Or something.” Tom took a bite of his sandwich and tried not to feel self-conscious.
“I thought that was sitting too close to the TV,” Joe said. “Or, well, maybe it's the same thing. Hey, this is good.” Which was funny, because he complimented the sandwich before actually trying it.
“They make good sandwiches,” Tom agreed. It was a shame his appetite had disappeared. “Look, about earlier—”
Joe held up his hand. “No, let me. It was out of line. I get that. You're at work, and it's not like you can flirt with me and do your job at the same time.”
“Right,” Tom said. “Plus...even if I'd been at home, I just—I don't know what to say back. What you wanted me to say.” He tried a smile. “I mean, it sounds fun, texting back and forth and getting each other wound up, but where does it go?”
“Usually, it ends when we've both come,” Joe said bluntly. “Is that something you've never done either?”
Tom folded the paper back around what was left of his sandwich, a lone slice of red pepper sticking out from the homemade bread looking like an impudent tongue. “I think I told you I haven't done much of anything.”
“Yeah, but, I never—” Joe broke off and whistled, low and clear. “Jesus, Tom, with that much of a head of steam built up, how come now that you've got someone, you're not jumping on me right now?”
Because I don’t want you that much. Tom was shocked to realize it was true. He couldn't come right out and say that, obviously. That would be cruel, and Joe was a nice person who didn't deserve to have his feelings hurt any more than was absolutely necessary. “Um,” he hedged instead. “I guess I'm not ready.”
Joe turned toward him, set what was left of his half of the sandwich on top of Tom's, and took Tom's hand. It felt awkward. Tom made an effort and didn't pull away. “Listen, okay?” Joe said earnestly. “I know it must be weird, all of this, when you haven't done it before. That doesn't mean you can keep avoiding it. It isn't healthy. You're an adult, and you need to act like one.”
“There's more to being an adult than having sex.” Tom could hear the defensive note in his voice. “I'll be twenty-five soon. I've voted. I own a house, a car. I have a job. I've gotten drunk. I'm not living in a bubble, and I'm not some helpless innocent. I just haven't had sex with someone because until Cal set me up with you, no one's ever wanted me, and I didn't care enough—no, I cared, I just didn't know how to change that.”
Joe looked taken aback. “Why wouldn't anyone want you?”
“I used to be this fat kid with zits and an attitude problem,” Tom explained wearily. “Shove a kid at the end of the line often enough when the other kids are picking teams and it...it rubs a hole in them. Mine never really healed over, not even when I lost weight and my skin cleared up. I guess I'm still projecting this ‘go away' vibe, and mostly people do just that. And, yes, I know you're different, and I appreciate that you gave me a go, but that's not enough.”
“Not enough for what?” Joe slipped his hand free. “For you to relax around me?”
“For me to get naked with you,” Tom said, matching Joe's bluntness because that, at least, was easy. “That's not going to happen, not right away, not just to get it over with or see what it's like. You think I'm straining at the leash to get laid. I'm not. I can wait. I'm not sure that you can or want to, and I get that.”
Joe's expression was hard to read, probably because Tom didn't really know him. “Of course I don't want to wait. I'd be willing to, though, for a while. As long as I knew it wasn't going to be forever.”
“I can't see the future.” Tom shrugged and sighed. “I don't know how long it would be. Maybe a lot longer than you want to wait, so I don't think either of us is invested enough in this to make it worth it.” He knew he wasn't. Joe was nice, sure, but that wasn't enough to base a relationship on, and neither was a mutual love of salami. The first rush of liking for Joe hadn't died away; it was all there was going to be, he realized. A nice guy, but there was no spark between them.
“So, what? You don't want to see me anymore?” Joe sounded more annoyed than anything else.
“I don't want to date you anymore,” Tom clarified, hoping he wasn't making a mistake ending this. “It's not like I want you to move to another city. I don't mind seeing you.”
Joe stood up. “You mean you think we should just be friends? No. I wanted to be with you, Tom. I don't need more friends.”
“That's it? Fine. Have a nice life, Tom. I'm sure you'll get a lot out of being all alone.” Without another word, Joe, seeming a lot less like the nice guy Tom had believed him to be, turned and walked away without looking back.
“Oh, Tom mentioned that, did he?”
Cal frowned. “Yeah. What's the matter? You sound kinda down. Did you change your mind? I know I did them last time, but if you want to use someone else, I get it.”
“No! No way. You did a great job, and there's no one I want more. It's not that.” Derek took a breath that Cal could hear over the phone. “You and Tom... You're getting along?”
“We had a few wobbles at the start, but yeah, we're friends now. Or at least I'd like to think we are.” Telling himself that Tom wouldn't get Derek to pass on a message if that had changed—and Cal's conscience was clear—he cleared his throat. “Uh, Tom's okay, isn't he?”
Derek didn't answer, and Cal's mild, unfocused worry sharpened into genuine anxiety.
“Shit, he hasn't been in an accident, has he?”
“No, nothing like that. He's in the office working on whatever he does. It's just...well, this guy came around at lunch. Joe?”
“Joe, yeah... He's, well...they've been on a few dates. Nothing serious.” If saying it made it true, Cal was happy to say it as often as he needed to make it come true. Selfish of him, totally, but that was how he felt.
In the background, Cal heard a woman's voice say something, followed by Derek's muttered curse. “Well, that explains it,” Derek said. “Apparently, they broke up.”
“Apparently according to who?” Cal asked, a complex mix of emotions welling up inside him. He discovered he could be glad Joe had broken it off with Tom and furious with him for hurting Tom at one and the same time. Or had it been Tom who'd called it quits? Shit, he really hoped Tom wouldn't clam up about this and refuse to talk it through.
“Heidi. She's one of the new bakers, who, by the way, is hoping you'll take a few photos of her for the Web site. Anyway, sorry to bug you about the Tom thing. I didn't know that he and Joe had called it quits. Now that I do...”
“Is he okay?”
“Not particularly, I don't think. I mean, he's working; he just doesn't seem happy to be here. He'll get over it, I'm sure. I feel better now that I know it's boyfriend troubles and not anything going on between you and him.”
Cal sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Trust me,” he said. “There is nothing going on between me and Tom. Thanks for calling. I'll see what I can do to cheer him up tonight.”
* * * * *
Tom smiled tiredly at him. “Boy, am I glad to see you.”
All worry fled in the face of that smile. “Right back at ya, big guy. I had kind of a cruddy day, and I was hoping maybe we could go grab a burger or something?”
“You too, huh? Must be something in the water. Or maybe we both got out of bed on the wrong side.”
Cal had woken up next to many men, but generally done no more than smile sleepily at them and slide gracefully out of bed. The right side of the bed had been the one nearest the door. If he and Tom ever—
He shut that line of thought down firmly. The idea of waking and staying where he was, only moving closer for a kiss with the sure knowledge that this was just one of many mornings that would start that way was simultaneously appealing and terrifying.
“You can tell me all about it when we're eating, but only if you let me go first,” Cal said, shamelessly appealing to Tom's innate willingness to help to get around his equally strong resistance to sharing his troubles. “I hope you're hungry, because I more or less worked through lunch.”
“Yeah, I didn't really have much of an appetite myself.” Tom glanced around the parking lot. “Where's your car?”
“I walked,” Cal said. “I took the path along the river, and it was really nice. I think I got bitten by something, and I know I got mud all over my shoes, but it was kinda primal. Back to nature.”
Tom snorted. “I run that path,” he reminded Cal. “It's not exactly pristine wilderness. There's a bench every few hundred yards.”
“Hey, I exercised,” Cal said indignantly. “Sweat may have been involved. I deserve a thick, juicy burger, a mountain of fries and a, hmm...a chocolate shake, the kind you have to suck so hard at that you go light-headed.”
“We can go to the diner a few blocks over and get all of that, if you want to,” Tom said.
“I don't know if I can walk that far,” Cal said. He laughed when Tom looked horrified. “No, I'm kidding. Sure, the diner sounds great.”
He waited while Tom locked his laptop in his car and then set off beside him. They walked along companionably on the sidewalk to the diner. It was crowded, but they found space at the counter. It was the kind of place where a customer didn't feel on display even when he was surrounded by people, and the general vibe was one of good-natured patience. Cal hoped Tom would feel relaxed here, because he looked worn out.
“You really did have a bad day,” he said once they had ordered their burgers.
“You have no idea.”
“So tell me.”
“Won't change anything,” Tom said bleakly. Still, he offered Cal a strained smile. “What about you?”
Cal manufactured some minor difficulties that he could complain about until their food had arrived. Tom didn't seem inclined to share his own news without encouragement. Cal dipped a fry in ketchup and tried to figure out how to tell Tom that he already knew. He wanted to get Tom to open up and start seeing him as someone he could get personal with. Before Cal could come up with a solution, Tom put his burger back on his plate and sighed.
“I don't think I can eat.” He gave Cal a doubtful look. “I broke it off with Joe today.”
“Things weren't working out?” Thank God it'd been that way around.
“I told him that I wanted to be friends,” Tom said. “Someone should have warned me that it's code for ‘tell me I suck and walk away.' At least, that's what Joe did.”
“He did what?” Cal stabbed another fry into a pool of ketchup and bit it in half. It gave his mouth something to do other than talk, because he was so pissed off at Joe right then that he wasn't sure he could speak calmly.
“Not those exact words,” Tom clarified. “Just the general idea.”
“I thought that you two were doing okay.” Cal picked up the paper napkin by his plate and wiped his fingers clean before he picked up another fry anyway, just for something to do with his hands. “Was it—”
“The sex thing. Yeah.” Tom glanced around, but they were both speaking quietly, and the fifties background music provided plenty of cover. “I told him that it wouldn't be happening for a long time, and he wasn't prepared to wait. To be fair, I also said...well, I kind of implied...”
“What?” Cal felt a small amount of sympathy for Joe, who'd probably expected to sweep Tom off his feet and onto his back by the second date and would have been left doubting his own appeal. The sympathy faded quickly, though. Joe was the kind
of man who was too secure not to rebound from a single rejection. He'd probably be back at the club and scoring in no time.
“I told him that I wasn't invested in him, and it's true,” Tom said in a rush. “I want what he was offering. I'm not some kind of freak—”
“Hey,” Cal said as Tom's voice rose. He put his hand over Tom's and squeezed it reassuringly. “No, you're not. You have a really strong idea of what you want in a man and you won't settle for second best. That makes you a perfectionist, not a freak.”
Tom turned his head to meet Cal's gaze. The gray of his eyes looked darker today, or maybe Cal hadn't been this close to him before. “I hurt his feelings.”
“I don't give a fuck,” Cal said and meant it.
“You should,” Tom said. “It probably means I'm not a very nice person.”
“Are you kidding? You're the nicest person I've ever met.” Cal meant that too. “You didn't hurt his feelings on purpose, did you?”
“No.” Tom picked up his fork, stabbed it into the pile of fries on his plate, and lifted the ones he'd speared, looking at them as if he'd never seen fries before. “I don't know if that matters. It doesn't make him any less hurt, that it was an accident.”
“Maybe not, but he wasn't a prince to you in return, was he? He's not perfect, and neither are you. You can't tell me you're actually surprised about that.”
Tom shook his head. “I know I'm not perfect.”
Of course, hearing Tom say that made Cal want to reassure him that he was perfect, or as close to it as anyone Cal had ever known. “You're okay,” he said, keeping his tone casual. “So Joe wasn't the guy for you. No big deal. We'll find you someone else. Someone better.” When he looked up, Tom was studying him. “What? We will.”
“I'm not so sure,” Tom said. “Look, let's give it a rest, okay? Can we talk about something else?”
“Sure. Hey, isn't your birthday coming up? What do you want us to do?”
“You want to hang out with me on my birthday?” Tom asked, sounding surprised. “You don't have to just because you're living with me, you know.”
“Tom, if you haven't seen by now that I don't do anything that I don't want to, then you haven't been looking. It's your birthday on...Friday, right?” Tom nodded. “So we do something special. Whatever you want.”
“You always go out on Fridays with your friends,” Tom objected.
“You make me sound so boring and predictable,” Cal complained and stole a fry off Tom's plate, even though he had plenty left on his own. “It's your birthday. We'll do whatever you want. If that's staying in, well...”
“You'll persuade me to do something else.”
“See?” Cal said and smiled brightly at him. “You do know me!”
Tom turned to face Cal, who mirrored him, so that their knees touched. “I want...I want to try one of your birthdays,” he said slowly. “Mine are boring. I either stay in, or if my parents are in town, they take me out to some restaurant, and we try to talk to each other between courses and usually end up fighting. I bet you have fun, don't you?”
“On my birthday? Absolutely. I celebrate it for the whole twenty-four hours. It's a nonstop party of Cal-pampering.”
The grin Tom gave him was an uncertain one. “You get hot guys to feed you peeled grapes, don't you?”
“I wish.” Actually, on his last birthday, Cal was pretty sure he'd licked whipped cream off a guy he'd never seen before that day, so as far as guesses went, it was a little too close for comfort, and definitely not the kind of thing Tom would want to hear. “Is that what you want? Because I can probably arrange it.”
Tom grinned, his depression seemingly gone, and shook his head. “I want to go out and have a good time. A few drinks, lots of people around. Do you think we could do that?”
Cal nodded. “Clear your calendar for the day, okay?”
Cal hoped that whatever he could put together would live up to Tom's expectations.
* * * * *
“Well, you never have to get another one if you hate it,” Cal told him.
“No, it's not that. I don't hate it. It's just new. You know, something I never thought I'd do.”
Cal had felt that way about it once, but now he liked it. There was something cathartic about sitting with your feet soaking, as if any lingering negativity was disintegrating, leeching out into the water.
“Sometimes it's good to do something totally outside your comfort zone.”
“I'm not sure getting a spa treatment is up there with white-water rafting,” Tom said drily. “This kind of defines being inside the comfort zone, if the faces those women over there are making are any indication.”
Cal had closed his eyes, relaxing into the huge leather massage chair that was gently pummeling his back, but he opened them a crack to squint at the women across from him. Clearly friends from the way they'd been chattering, they were at the same stage in their pedicures, with lotion being smoothed into their feet and calves. Cal knew how good that felt: long, firm strokes from strong hands, his skin tingling deliciously.
“Promise me you won't moan that loudly, even if it is your birthday.”
“It is my birthday, and I'll moan if I want to,” Tom said loftily. “Or scream. Some of those tools on the towel look scary. Are you sure they're just planning to trim my nails?”
Cal grinned as the two men assigned to them walked over, their faces animated as they talked. “It depends who you get. I hear Jake once got carried away with the cuticle remover and the customer needed a stitch or two, but I've always been happy with Hyo's work.”
“Bastard.” Tom was blushing a little bit, just a hint of pink in his cheeks, as Jake knelt at his feet.
“Now, Jake, be gentle with him,” Cal said, unable to resist the opportunity to tease Tom more. “Tom here is a pedicure virgin.”
“For real?” Jake wasn't Cal's type—he was small and blond and didn't look a day over eighteen, even though Cal knew he was in his mid-twenties—but he was cute as hell and had a tendency to flirt shamelessly. “Oh, honey, don't be shy. You think you're the first virgin I've ever done? I've deflowered plenty of men.” He was so slender that he couldn't have intimidated a fly, and even Tom managed to rally and flirt back, cautiously, as Jake went to work with the lotion.
Hyo's hands were stronger than they looked, and Cal felt his eyelids closing as his feet were massaged too firmly for it to tickle. He loved the feeling of being pampered. There was definitely a sensual element to this, though the experience was too impersonal to be truly arousing. He liked Hyo; he just didn't know him beyond the casual conversation they'd exchanged over the months that Cal had been coming to the small spa. Cal needed more than that these days.
From beside him, he heard Tom moan. Cal grinned.
“That feels incredible,” Tom said.
“You have good skin tone,” Jake said, “but, sweetie, these cuticles are killing me. Now hold still...”
Hyo chuckled as Tom yelped. “Your friend isn't sure if he likes this or not, hmm?”
Cal opened his eyes. “It's his birthday, and I started his day with a mimosa, light on the juice. He likes it, trust me.”
“Oh, it's your birthday?” Jake patted Tom's foot. “You should have said something sooner and I might not have been so mean about your cuticles.”
“It's okay,” Tom said. “I'm getting the full Calvin Reece treatment today. If Cal can take it, so can I.”
“You're a better man than I,” Jake quipped.
Cal let himself drift in a haze that had more than a bit to do with the fact that he hadn't been sleeping all that well. Part of it was probably because the closest he'd come to having sex had been jerking off, and he was used to getting off with a partner at least a couple times a week. For years, he'd been dimly surprised at his yearly physical to learn that he still hadn't contracted any STDs. Not that he wasn't careful, because he was always careful, but the odds had to be against him.
The other reason was because his brain wouldn't slow down these days. He spent hours lying in bed counting sheep, but his thoughts kept returning to what he was doing with his life. Not that he didn't enjoy his job. He loved taking photos, even when he wasn't the creative director, and he didn't mind traveling. He got a kick out of visiting new countries and meeting new people. Somehow, the fact that he'd never had anyone to share it with him made him feel empty now. He was changing. It wasn't a pain-free process.
“There you go,” Hyo said, interrupting Cal's daydream and setting his foot down on the neatly folded towel. “I think your friend here ended up liking it even more than you did.” Indeed, Tom was half asleep in the next chair.
“Tom, if you don't wake up, they'll paint your nails lime green,” Cal said.
“What?” Tom's head jerked up. “Hey, no. No painting!”
Jake chuckled. “Ignore your friend. Though if you wanted to try it...” He pursed his lips. “No,” he decided. “It's just not you.”
Cal couldn't argue with that. They moved over to small tables for the manicure, too far apart to chat, though Tom and Jake seemed to be getting along well from what Cal could see when he glanced over at them. With no nail polish to apply, the manicure didn't take long, and Cal was soon looking in approval at neatly trimmed nails and smooth cuticles.
He took care of the bill for both of them, leaving a generous tip, and ushered Tom out.
“So what's next?” Tom asked, his eyes sparkling. Cal had never seen Tom this relaxed.
“I was thinking a haircut, if that doesn't sound too taxing.” Cal paused on the sidewalk, hesitated, and then reached out to run his fingers through the hair at Tom's temple. It was harder than he'd thought it might be to stop after that one gentle touch. There was something so intimate about playing with someone's hair, though a hairdresser might not agree. “What do you say?”
Tom swallowed. “Okay.”
He was surprised by the way Cal had touched him. Cal could see that, but he didn't think it had been unwelcome. Still... “Sorry,” he said. “I mean, was that okay? Not, um...too personal?”
“No,” Tom said. “Not too personal.”
If Tom had been anyone else, Cal would have kissed him. He wanted to, more than he'd wanted anything in a long time, actually, but he and Tom were worlds apart. Tom didn't want a player, someone who could have been in a hundred relationships but had rarely been with anyone more than a handful of nights. Tom wanted someone serious, someone who deserved him.
Cal most decidedly did not. So he plastered a smile on his face and tugged briefly at Tom's sleeve instead of taking Tom's hand, and said, “Come on. Let's see if we can't get this mop of yours tamed into something a little less wild. You wouldn't want to give the wrong impression.”
“And what impression would that be?”
“That you turn into a bear every full moon? Or maybe an Old English sheepdog. You know, the cute ones with all the shaggy bangs hanging down.”
“Did you just call me cute?” Tom demanded, coming to a dead halt and scowling at Cal. “Take it back or I'll bite you somewhere painful and you'll spend the next few weeks looking up how to make silver bullets.”
Cal's smile turned genuine as he choked with laughter. “God, you're totally nuts, you know that? I love it.”
If there was a slight hesitation before his last word, he didn't think that Tom noticed.
He managed to make it through Tom's haircut without any inappropriate touching and followed that up with a trip to a nice menswear store where he'd bought some of his favorite clothes. “I was going to buy you some stuff and wrap it up, but I thought it made more sense to make it into a field trip kind of thing.”
“On safari with Cal Reece,” Tom intoned. “The famous photographer is now stalking the wily shaggy-haired sheepdog in its native habitat.”
“That's some sheepdog, if it lives in here.” Cal gave some beautiful and therefore very expensive shirts thoughtful consideration. “What do you think of this? I think maybe in gray, or this light blue.”
Tom took the shirt and held it up. “Large? I usually get extra large at least.”
“That's because you're wearing stuff that doesn't fit you,” Cal said. “Trust me, you'll look a lot better in the proper size.”
“Jesus.” Tom sounded horrified. For a few seconds, Cal thought they were going to argue about the sizing issue, an argument that he was determined to win. Tom was looking at the price tag, though. “A hundred dollars for a shirt? Cal, that's obscene.”
“It's a nice shirt,” Cal countered. “And it will stay looking good for years if you take care of it. It's worth the price, trust me.”
“I feel sick just thinking about it.” Despite that, Tom let himself be propelled to the fitting room. A minute later, he came out wearing the shirt and an impressed expression. “Okay, you might be right. It does look really good.”
“You look really good.” Cal stepped up behind him so they were both seeing Tom in the full-length mirror. It was all he could do not to put his hands on the man. With a shirt that was the right size and of good quality, Tom was the equal of any man they'd see tonight at Riverside, and Cal knew he'd have a hard time keeping other guys away.
Tom's gaze shifted, and Cal realized that Tom was staring at him in the mirror.
“We...we both look...” Tom's voice trailed away, a thoughtful frown creasing his forehead.
“What?” Cal asked, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his pants to keep from reaching out. He wanted to slide his hands up Tom's arms, lock his hands behind Tom's neck, and pull him down for a kiss that would wipe away the memory of any that Joe had given.
Tom shook his head. “Nothing. Let's look at jeans to go with the shirt. I'll let you pick them out. I'll be your own personal Ken doll if that's what you want, but I'm paying for them. You've given me more than enough.”
I could give you more. So much more. God, I wish I hadn’t blown it from the start...
“Sure, let's look at jeans,” he said instead. He didn't want to argue about who was going to pay for them. He didn't want to argue with Tom at all. What he wanted to do with Tom was take the clothes off him rather than be putting them on.
Too bad that wouldn't be possible.
“What? ” Cal said.
“Crowded!” Tom repeated loudly, and Cal nodded.
It was fine, Tom told himself. It wasn't like he and Cal couldn't talk at home. This was his birthday, and Cal wanted him to have a good time. Obviously a good time wasn't going to include much in the way of conversation.
They pushed their way to the bar, somehow managed to order a couple of beers through a complicated sign language that included Cal indicating a woman's waist and hips in midair, and then sidled their way toward the dance floor.
“Do you want to dance?” Cal spoke directly into Tom's ear, which meant that Tom heard him, though it was on the painful side.
Tom held up his beer. “Let's drink these first,” he said, mouthing the words to get his message over.
Cal nodded and took a sip of his beer, only to be jostled by someone keen to get to the dance floor. The guy looked back and gave Cal an apologetic wave of his hand. Cal was still left brushing the front of his shirt, spattered with the beer that had foamed up from the neck of the bottle.
“You know what, let's try outside,” Cal said. He tucked his arm under Tom's elbow, tugging him gently.
Tom wasn't sure what was outside, but he trusted Cal not to lead him out into a squalid alleyway. When they emerged onto a patio set out with tables, with the river flowing nearby, his trust was rewarded.
“I didn't know it had all this space behind it.” The music was still present but muted, so talking was simple, not a throat-searing effort. “Do you want to grab a table by the river?”
They moved toward the railing that overlooked the river, passing a couple of women who were kissing avidly. Tom waited until they were farther away before saying, “I thought it would be all guys.”
“It's mostly guys.” Cal pulled a chair out, stepped around the table, and sat. Tom blinked as he realized Cal had just pulled a chair out for him, like this was a date. It wasn't a date. It really, definitely wasn't a date.
“It's pretty,” he offered, because he felt like he had to say something.
“Moon's almost full,” Cal said. He gestured at it. It wasn't a clear enough night that the constellations were visible, but as Tom watched a cloud ghost across the surface of the moon, Cal added, “You aren't going to turn into that sheepdog, are you?”
Tom laughed and drank from his beer. This didn't seem real, and part of him felt like he was dreaming. “I hope not.”
“Yeah, me too,” Cal said. “I'm not fluent in woofing, and I'd have to resist the urge to tickle you behind the ears and rub your belly.”
Cal's hands on him, stroking, exploring... The idea of it, even when Cal was obviously joking, sent a flash of heat through Tom, as if he'd swallowed a mouthful of brandy, not beer.
“Did you ever have a pet?” Tom asked, turning the conversation to stanch a blush rising to his face. “I didn't,” he said before Cal could reply, glumly aware that he was babbling nervously. “My mom was allergic to cats and dogs, and I used to think I'd always get a cat when I found a place of my own, but I never did.”
“Not when I was little,” Cal said. “After my mom died, my brother and I used to 'find' cats and dogs and bring them home, and my dad never did more than roll his eyes. Since we'd kidnapped them from the neighborhood, they always ended up getting out and going back where they belonged again.”
“You could get one now, though. I wouldn't mind.” Cal sounded serious enough.
“I guess. I don't know why I haven't done it.” Maybe it had seemed a little too desperate, a little too gay-guy-turns-crazy-cat-lady. Not that he would have gotten more than one cat; he liked dogs but considered himself a cat person, so it definitely would have been a cat. Now, though... He wasn't completely sure, but he thought things were different. “Maybe I should.”
“There are always people giving away kittens,” Cal said. “One time we took a whole box of them. I forget how many—four or five, I think. We let them play in the backyard, and they all wandered off.”
“They did?” Tom grimaced, imagining a much younger Cal's reaction. “I'm sorry. Did you ever find out what happened to them?”
“Two of them, no, but the others turned up at other people's houses. I guess we just weren't meant to have pets back then.”
“Maybe I'll get you one for your birthday,” Tom said, half-serious. “When is it?”
“You just missed it,” Cal said. “It was a few weeks before I moved in. Never mind; I can wait until the next one.”
Cal's casual assumption that he'd still be around in a year was reassuring, even if Tom couldn't quite let himself believe it. Cal's whole life seemed to be built around words like temporary, one-off, and casual.
They finished their beer, and Tom stood. “Let me go and get us a refill.”
“No need.” Cal raised his hand, getting the attention of a passing waiter balancing a tray of glasses and bottles. “Hey, Ian. How's it going? Could we get two more beers over here? Anything cold will do.”
“You got it,” the man called back.
“You know everyone,” Tom commented. “If I tried that, I'd be sitting here waving my hand for hours with no one noticing.”
“I don't think so,” Cal said. “Trust me, you'd get noticed.” He sounded totally serious, and he was looking at Tom like no one else was nearby. It was a little bit disconcerting, and Tom was grateful when Ian came back with the requested beers.
“Thanks,” Tom said as Cal paid.
Cal set his wallet on the table and told Ian, “It's his birthday.”
“We need to get a crown,” Ian said, which didn't make a lot of sense at first. “You know, for birthday boys. That way everyone would get the attention they deserve on their special day.”
“As long as you don't get one of those songs,” Cal said. “Those things suck.” That, Tom thought, was almost a swear. Cal didn't swear often. Maybe the
beer loosened him up. To be fair, those birthday songs did suck.
“So how old are you?” Ian asked.
Cal swatted playfully at his leg. “Stop flirting with my roommate. Go away until we need more beer.”
Ian did what might have qualified as a curtsy. “Yes, sir!” he said and left.
“He wasn't really flirting,” Tom said.
Cal raised his eyebrows and didn't comment.
“He wasn't!” Tom insisted. Shit, he was blushing again. “I know you've got me looking...different tonight, but I'm not the eye candy you are.”
“I'm hot, yeah,” Cal said with a breathtaking frankness. “I don't often get turned down, and I'm a cocky son of a bitch at times because of that. But I don't know that anyone would want me around for more than a night or two. You, though...you're a keeper. Joe, yeah, I know he's a sore point, but you're the one who kicked him to the curb, not the other way around.”
“And he's the first guy who's shown any interest in me, ever,” Tom pointed out, wondering how they'd gotten into a reverse pissing contest over which of them sucked more.
“No, he's not.” His words were spoken so quietly that Tom came close to missing them.
“You know what? I want to dance with the birthday boy.” Cal got to his feet. He raised his beer to his lips and swallowed it in a series of long, slow gulps. “Come on. It's too crowded for anyone to stare, and if they do, it'll be for all the right reasons, trust me.”
Tom let Cal lead him back into the club and onto the dance floor. The music wasn't too insanely loud, or maybe Tom had just gotten used to it; either way, it seemed right. It had a deep, throbbing beat to it, and Tom found himself moving to it even though he was still convinced he was a terrible dancer. Cal started out leaving some space between them, but the floor was crowded, and within a minute the people around them had managed to nudge them closer together. It wasn't possible to dance without touching anyone, and Tom felt more comfortable bumping into Cal occasionally than bumping into complete strangers.
He was supposed to be finding someone new to date, he guessed. He should be checking out the men around him, cataloging the features he found most attractive and considering which men would be at the top of his list. It was his birthday, though, damn it, and he didn't want to do any of those things.
What Tom wanted to do was exactly what he was doing right then: dancing with Cal, even if he was aware of his shortcomings as he shuffled awkwardly to one side and then the other. He wasn't stupid—he could imitate what other people were doing—and he wasn't uncoordinated, but he was convinced that, deep down, there was some tiny way in which he was different from other people.
It wasn't a difference that Cal seemed to be noticing, though. That made Tom feel better.
“You aren't having fun.” Cal leaned in so that Tom could hear him. Cal smelled good.
Tom shrugged helplessly. He wasn't not having fun; it just wasn't fun for the right reasons. He had a feeling they were supposed to be all about the physical release of moving to the beat and expressing himself, and that just wasn't happening. Not that it was easy to strut his funky anything when he couldn't actually lift his arms without groping or punching someone. The fun for him involved the moments when he collided with Cal and got to push back off him with an apologetic smile, or when he had Cal's hands reach out to steady him.
Cal put his mouth so close to Tom's ear for his next words that despite the heat of the room—his new shirt was clinging to him—Tom shivered. It wasn't quite a kiss, but with every other syllable Cal's lips brushed his ear, and that was enough to make Tom stand very still.
“I need a drink.”
Right then Tom needed a few moments alone to get his reaction to Cal crowding in close under control. But he nodded, staring ahead of him, because if he turned his head and Cal didn't pull back, they would be kissing. For as long as it took for Cal to jerk back, his eyes stunned, at least.
Cal was being really nice to him today, but Tom didn't fool himself that the mixture of pity and gratitude behind the kindness went that far. A haircut, perfect cuticles, and new clothes didn't change him into a man Cal would look twice at as anything but a friend.
Besides, look how much the man had to drink just to get through an evening with him. A glance at the bar revealed that Cal was downing two shots in quick succession before heading back to Tom, a bottle in each hand, hips shifting to the beat of the music.
The guy was beautiful; no doubt about that. Beautiful wasn't a word that Tom would normally have attributed to another man—it was more a girl thing, in his mind, at least—but in this case it fit. Part of him thought he should be running as far away from Calvin Reece as possible, because the only way out of this path they were walking would be with Tom getting his heart broken, spending every day with a man he could never have.
The other part of him, the hopelessly smitten one, just wanted to soak up as much of Cal as he could.
“Thanks,” he mouthed more than said as Cal handed him a bottle of beer. He'd rather press the cool bottle to his throat than drink from it. The club was hot as hell, and the smell of perspiration and cologne was creating a weird cloud of confusion that made Tom's head spin. Thank goodness he wasn't drunk or it would have been unbearable.
Cal finished his own bottle of beer, head tipped back, throat working as he swallowed. Tom wanted to lean in and lick Cal's neck. The thought of it brought a rush of blood to his cock, leaving him dizzy. This was terrible. “I think we should go!” he said, closing his eyes so he wouldn't have to see Cal as he leaned in to be heard.
“Go!” Tom jerked his thumb toward the entrance. “Can we?”
“Oh!” Cal stopped dancing, now-empty beer bottle still in his hand. “Yeah, of course! If you want to.”
“It's been great,” Tom said when they got outside into air that by comparison seemed refreshingly cool, even if that impression soon wore off. His clothes were sticking to him, his hair damp against his neck and forehead. He had to look a mess, which meant that life as he knew it was back to normal. “I'm just not used to this much fun.”
“I wanted you to have a good time,” Cal said. “Least I could do.”
Tom really didn't want to be reminded that Cal was still repaying a debt that, as far as Tom was concerned, didn't exist. What he'd done for Cal, he'd have done for anyone, after all. Walking by a man getting beaten up, averting his eyes in case he was the next victim, might have been prudent, but it wasn't a course of action he could have lived with afterward.
“I did.” Tom put his arm around Cal for a brief moment as they walked along the sidewalk. Cal fit against him so well, his head tilting to rest against Tom's shoulder, his arm curving around Tom without hesitation. “Thanks. I mean it.”
Cal's arm tightened, then slipped away slowly, almost reluctantly. “Think we're up to walking home?”
“We could,” Tom said, “but there should be some cabs around.”
Even as he spoke, one went by empty, its driver scanning the sidewalk for a fare. Tom raised his arm to hail it. The timing was as perfect as the day had been, and somehow that seemed right, even if it was close to midnight and everything would return to normal soon.
“See?” Cal said. “Told you that you could stop traffic.”
He sounded so smugly pleased with himself that Tom was still chuckling as he got into the cab. Behind him, Cal slammed the door with just a little too much force.
Cal's breath, close up like this, had the sharp tang of alcohol to it as he gave the cab driver their address.
“I got you a cake,” Cal said. The back seat of the cab was wide enough that they didn't need to touch, but they were touching anyway, thighs pressed together.
“You didn't have to do that,” Tom told him.
“I wanted to,” Cal said. “I like doing things for you.” He was studying Tom's face with an intensity that made Tom uncomfortable, even though it should have been flattering.
The cab turned a corner, and Cal tilted toward Tom, leaning against him.
“You're drunk,” Tom said fondly.
“Yeah, kind of. I didn't mean to be.” It was dark in the cab, but there were streetlights outside that lit Cal's face as they went by. “You're not mad?”
Tom shook his head. “I'm not mad. You'd better have some water when we get home, or you'll feel like shit in the morning.”
“Water and cake,” Cal said. “Maybe we should skip the candles, though. Or there might be a fire.”
“We wouldn't want that,” Tom agreed.
It felt so good to have Cal leaning against him that Tom was sorry when they pulled up in front of their house. He took advantage of Cal's state shamelessly and kept an arm around him as they walked up to the front door and went inside. “I'll get your cake,” Cal said. “It's in the fridge. It's just from the supermarket, nothing fancy. We used to have them when I was a kid. They're good.”
“I'm not sure you should be carrying anything that's covered with frosting right now,” Tom said. “Here, sit.”
“Okay, okay.” Tom sounded amused. That was good.
Cal didn't feel as drunk as he was acting, but being drunk was like that sometimes. “The room's all spinny.” He curled up with his head in Tom's lap, and felt Tom tense up, then slowly relax again.
“You are so drunk.” Hesitantly, Tom's hand stroked Cal's hair, and Cal sighed happily and closed his eyes.
“Mm, that's nice.”
It was more than that. The room was dimly lit, a single lamp left burning in the corner, lending an intimacy to the situation even before Cal had taken sharing the couch to a new level. The alcohol he'd had in a relatively short space of time was affecting him, but he was exaggerating the effects just a little to get closer to Tom. It was probably something he should be ashamed of, but he wasn't. Tom needed the excuse as much as he did. Cal wasn't blind, and he knew when someone was attracted to him. Tonight, Tom had moved inside Cal's personal space without realizing he was doing it and made himself at home there. The natural, unselfconscious way that Tom touched him, smiled at him... It made Cal's heart ache with something that went beyond lust or liking.
The tentative touch of Tom's fingers should have been soothing, lulling Cal into a doze, but even as he closed his eyes with a contented sigh to give the illusion that he was drifting off, he was hyperaware of everything around him. The denim his cheek was resting against, warm from Tom's body, was damp from his breath, redolent with Tom's scent, indefinable, familiar now, but still arousing. Cal rubbed his face against Tom's thigh, a small, involuntary caress, and was rewarded by a hitch in Tom's breathing.
The next touch of Tom's fingers was still light, as if Tom couldn't believe that he was able to do this without Cal protesting. Each sweep of Tom's fingers through Cal's hair grew more confident. Cal found himself holding his breath, waiting for Tom's hand to return at the end of each stroke, praying that Tom wouldn't stop.
He was hard, an arousal so profound it left him shaken. Tom wasn't doing anything but stroking his hair, lifting the strands away from Cal's head and letting them fall, or dragging his fingertips through them, yet it was enough.
This meant something to Tom. That knowledge made Cal feel humbled and desperately afraid of fucking this up, hurting Tom. Even so, he couldn't turn away. Not now.
“Don't stop,” he said softly, and even that was enough to make Tom hesitate again. Cal was afraid to open his eyes, so he stayed perfectly still. After a few, very long seconds, Tom's fingers began to stroke through his hair again.
Cal could feel his cock pressed hard against the front of his jeans, and he knew beyond a doubt that if he were to shift his head, he'd be able to feel that Tom was erect too. He couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to turn and undo Tom's jeans, take out his cock and make him come. He could hear Tom's startled cry at the first touch of his lips, taste Tom's skin on his tongue.
“Hm?” Tom's fingertips slid through his hair again.
Taking a chance, Cal opened his eyes and turned his head. “I really like you.” He held his breath, waiting for Tom's reply.
“I know that.” Tom sounded startled. “Look at everything you've done for me today.”
“No,” Cal said. “A friend would've done that too. I mean, I mean that I like you.”
The doubt in Tom's voice wasn't strong enough to drown out the hope. Cal trusted his instincts and turned so that he was lying on his back, his head still propped on Tom's knees.
“I'm not going to do anything you're not ready for,” he said, staring up at Tom, “but if you wanted a birthday like mine usually are, they all end with me getting kissed.”
An unexpected glint of amusement appeared in Tom's eyes, eyes that widened fractionally as he glanced at the unmistakable shape of Cal's erection. “I'm pretty sure they end with more than a kiss for you,” he said, his voice hoarse now. “Are you saying that's what you had planned next for me? A kiss?”
“I am,” Cal said. “If it's what you want.” His control broke, and he twisted, putting his mouth against the tempting shape of Tom's cock hidden beneath a layer of denim, nuzzling it, kissing it fervently. “God, Tom, please.” He pulled back and stared blindly up at Tom's face. “I want you so fucking much right now. Please.”
“Jesus. Cal. What the fuck are we doing?” Tom sounded shocked, enough that Cal pulled away and sat up.
The look on Tom's face made him sick—like, literally sick—and he heard himself apologizing desperately. “Oh my God, Tom. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I won't—I'll never touch you again, I swear.” The idea of never touching Tom again was horrifying, but he'd figure out a way to do it. Even if he could never, ever have Tom the way he wanted to, he couldn't possibly not have Tom in his life.
“Stop.” Tom held up a hand, then slowly reached out and took hold of Cal's hand, which was so reassuring Cal thought he might cry. “I don't want you not to touch me. I really, really want you to touch me. I just—this is too fast. You can't tell me that you want me one minute and suck me off the next. I don't work that way.”
Cal nodded. He would have agreed to anything in that moment. “I know. You're right. I'm sorry.”
“Stop that too.” Tom gave him a severe look. “No more apologizing.”
“Okay.” Cal bit his lip.
“Stop doing that too,” Tom said with a groan.
“What? Whatever it is, I will. I mean I won't—” Cal ran out of words and gave Tom a helpless look.
“Stop looking so goddamned cute,” Tom said. “I can barely cope with you being all kinds of hot, but if you throw in adorably appealing too, I'm toast.”
“I'm going to kiss you,” Cal warned him after working that through and deciding he'd just been handed a green light. “On the mouth, hands behaving themselves, no tongue.”
“Do those rules apply to me too?” Tom said, and okay, that was blatant flirting and deserved to be rewarded in every way Tom would allow.
Cal shifted closer, his gaze on Tom's lips. He looked up into Tom's eyes, and Tom was gorgeous and hopeful and so fucking sexy that a soft groan escaped Cal as their mouths finally met. He did his best to keep the kiss brief, but it ended up being at least twice as long as he meant it to be because it was just so hard to abandon Tom's lips.
“Was that okay?” he asked.
Tom swallowed and nodded, his eyes wide. God, he was amazing. “Yeah,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Yeah, that was... Can we try that again?”
Like Cal would ever consider saying no. They were soon kissing again, slowly, taking their time. As much as he wanted to touch Tom, to run his hands over Tom's chest and pull him closer, he kept his hands on his own knees. “This is killing me,” Cal said. “I want to touch you so badly.”
“I want you to.” It was difficult to tell if that was permission or just something to say. “Can I...can I touch you too?”
“Yes. God, yes. Please.” Cal waited until Tom's hand settled on his thigh before moving his own hand to grip Tom's upper arm and shift him into a better position for the kind of kissing he had in mind.
Slow, sweet, slow... It was a kiss like a dance, an old-fashioned one, with a couple twirling gracefully across the floor, perfectly in time, their steps effortlessly performed. Tom might be new to kissing and being kissed, but he caught on quickly. It was his tongue that flicked at Cal's first, his teeth that dug into Cal's lip, a teasing bite that Cal encouraged, his hand sliding up to the back of Tom's neck where the skin was sensitive.
He let Tom lead, never initiating, holding back and finding that he liked it that way. There was something so intoxicating about being there when Tom discovered he could make Cal shudder and press closer just by licking the corner of Cal's mouth or get Cal swearing breathlessly by moving his hand a few inches higher to the top of Cal's thigh.
“This is crazy,” he gasped, convinced he'd never been so hard in his life nor so thoroughly teased. It wasn't easy to remember that this was as far as they were going, and that Tom didn't mean to tease. “You're driving me crazy. Jesus, I want to—and it's okay, I know we won't, but I can't not say it, I can’t—I want to strip you bare and lick every inch of you.”
Tom groaned and tightened his hand at Cal's waist. “Don't. You make me want to let you.”
“It's okay,” Cal told him, meaning it. “It's okay for you to change your mind. And it's okay for you not to. I'm serious. I want whatever you're ready to give me. I just don't want you to feel pressured.” He was sure that pressure was the big reason why things hadn't worked out between Tom and Joe, and the last thing he wanted was a repeat of that situation. It might kill him to wait until Tom was ready for more, but he'd wait.
He licked the edge of Tom's ear and breathed warmly into it, fingers sliding under the edge of Tom's shirt sleeve. Tom shivered, skin prickly with goose bumps.
“Does that feel good? Or is it too ticklish?”
“Only if we've started defining ticklish differently,” Tom said. “How can you doing that affect all of me? It's like some erotic form of acupuncture.”
Cal snorted with laughter. “If you say so.” Focusing on Tom's ear again, this time he bit gently at the soft lobe, tugging at it with his teeth before moving down to kiss and lick at Tom's throat.
Tom made a noise that was close to a whimper, his eyes screwing tightly shut. “Yeah...that. Keep doing that.”
“Do it to me?” Cal said, making it a suggestion. He smiled invitingly, encouragingly. “Do anything you like. I'll respect your limits. I don't have any, or at least none that you're likely to cross. If you want to try something on me, do it. If it gets too much, I'll go and jerk off or something, I swear. I won't push you.” Tom hesitated, and Cal raised his eyebrows. “You've got ideas, Tom. You have to have wondered about this, what you'd do if you were with someone.”
“Well, yeah, but they're fantasies. You're real.” Tom shook his head. “You're drunk too. I can't stand the thought of you waking up tomorrow and regretting this.”
“I won't. I promise.” Cal considered whether or not to add the rest, then decided he'd chance it. “I've been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now. About you and me. And I know you think you're the one jumping into the deep end for the first time, but this... It's new to me too. Not the sex part, just...feeling about you, the way I do. I didn't know I could.”
“Could what?” Tom had to know what Cal was talking about, but he looked confused.
“Could... Jesus, I don't even know how to say it!” Overwhelmed, Cal stood abruptly and, because pacing seemed beyond his abilities just then, sat again. He took a deep breath and tried to find the right words. “I didn't know I could feel like this. I never did before. It was always so simple: a guy was my type, and I went to bed with him.”
“Wham, bam, thank you, man,” Tom said drily, and Cal hastened to explain further.
“I never cared about any of them, not as more than a casual friend.” He took Tom's hand in his and turned it over, interlacing their fingers. “I never wanted anything more than that.”
Tom didn't look convinced. “And now you do?”
“With you?” Cal wasn't sure he could say it, but he nodded. “I don't just want to go to bed with you. You're different. Better. I want more with you.”
“Hearts and flowers and a wedding night with me in white?” Tom said, still with that dry twist to his voice. “Look, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but all I'm getting is that you're bored with easy sex, and I'm a novelty. I don't want to be the virginal freak anymore, Cal. I want to have sex, and I guess you can see that from just looking at me. I'm one more ear nibble away from coming in my pants—but it's going to be with someone I care about. I... Yeah, I've been falling for you. I won't deny it, and God, I want to sleep with you, but when I do, I'll be just like everyone else, and you'll dump me.”
Tom stood before Cal could come up with an answer to that. He was honest enough to admit that looking at it all from Tom's perspective, it was a reasonable conclusion to reach, no matter how much it hurt to hear that disillusioned tone in Tom's voice.
“Thank you for today and tonight. It meant a lot to me,” Tom said with an oddly touching formality. “Now I'm going to bed.” He glanced at his crotch, sighed, and shook his head ruefully. “I guess I talked myself down off the edge,” he murmured.
“I wish you hadn't,” Cal said, standing too. “I wish I could say something to convince you that you aren't just some—I don't know—some kind of sex version of Mount Everest or whatever. You're a lot more than that to me.”
“I want to believe that,” Tom said. “I just can't get over the feeling that if I get what I thought I wanted, I lose you. That's so screwed up, I can't even go there. Not now. It's late, I've had too much to drink to be making decisions, and...and it's my birthday.”
Cal, aching and wanting, forced himself to put his hands into his pockets so he wouldn't touch Tom. He shrugged and offered a half smile. “Happy birthday?”
“It has been,” Tom assured him. “Really, it has.” He glanced at Cal's hands, safely tucked away, and then back up at Cal, his expression conflicted.
“It's okay,” Cal told him, guessing that Tom was expecting him to storm out as Joe had done. “I'm not going anywhere.” He yawned, faking it at first, then discovering that he really was tired. “Except to bed.”
Alone, as Tom would be, just like on all his previous birthdays. Cal had wanted to change that ending for Tom, but he'd underestimated the scale of the task. Telling himself that at least he knew now that Tom wanted something to happen between them, he went to bed, not entirely unhappy.