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Accidentally In Love

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Chapter One

“Fuck!” Calvin Reece hopped on one foot and grabbed on to the toes of the other before deciding that he should really let loose. After all, there was no one to hear him, and he certainly had plenty of reason to swear. “Fuck, shit, fuck, fucker!”

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.

Chapter Two

“I really appreciate it,” Tom told Marianne. “The thought, that is. You don't need to fix me up with anyone. I'm fine.”

“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.

* * * * *

It wasn't late when Tom drove home, but the roads were fairly empty, and he found himself sitting at a red light with no signs of life around him. He tried to imagine what it would be like to have someone like Cal as a roommate. A heck of a change from Sally, that was for sure. No more long hairs snagging up the vacuum cleaner, no more bras slung over the shower curtain rod.

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.

* * * * *

It wasn't until almost noon the next day that Tom managed to convince himself to actually pick up the phone. He told himself it was because Cal had surely stayed up late the night before. It would be incredibly awkward to call early and find out the man was still naked in bed with his blind date. He decided to call around eleven. Most people would be up by then, especially people whose jobs expected a lot from them. His decision made, he managed to put off calling for another forty-five minutes or so.

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.

* * * * *

When he opened the front door to admit Cal, it was considerably after the agreed upon time of three o'clock. Closer to four, actually.

“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.

Chapter Three

Cal frowned as he walked through his rented house making sure that he wasn't leaving anything behind. The truck he'd borrowed from a friend of Jason's was out front, packed with a tower of furniture held together by a few moving straps and an awful lot of good intentions. He'd be lucky if they could drive the five miles to Tom's without losing any of it, but he figured they'd take their time.

“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.”

Chapter Four

Tom finished folding his clean laundry, tucked the small pile of T-shirts into their drawer, and glanced at the clock again. Cal's flight was supposed to have landed almost two hours before, so he should be home anytime now.

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.

It didn't.

“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.

* * * * *

The next morning, Tom woke late after a restless night with every creaking floorboard jolting him awake. He wasn't sure he could handle another round if Cal and his friend were in the mood for dessert.

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.

Chapter Five

Cal sighed and lifted his chin when the bartender looked his way, indicating his need for a fresh drink. He had no intention of getting drunk and had been nursing the first drink for more than an hour, sending away any guy who had the temerity to approach him despite what he suspected was a dark cloud hanging over his head. That was right; he'd had one argument with his roommate, and it had turned him into Eeyore.

“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?”

“Darnell.”

“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...”

“Well, what?”

“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.

Chapter Six

“I don't know if this is a good idea,” Tom said, knowing doubt was written all over him.

“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.”

* * * * *

The restaurant was crowded, but they had to wait only a few minutes before they got a table. It had been more than a year since Tom had been there, and not much had changed. The atmosphere was pleasant, bustling, with a large fireplace in the center where flames from a small fire were crackling, even though the weather outside was so warm.

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.

Chapter Seven

“And then! We found out that we both have a weird fondness for salami,” Tom said, eyes wide and delighted. He'd been home from his first date with Joe for only five minutes, but he'd managed to describe the entire three hours.

“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.

* * * * *

“So,” Cal said awkwardly on Friday night. “You're going to be mad at me.”

“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.

* * * * *

The next day, Cal avoided Tom as much as possible, using the excuse of work to keep his door closed. It wasn't a lie, or not much of one anyway. He always had something to do, but the deadline job had been e-mailed off before breakfast. Not being able to sleep did have some benefits, and the night before he'd used work to distract him from what he'd done—and more importantly why he'd done 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.

Chapter Eight

“And I hate this font,” Derek said, pointing at the perfectly reasonable one Tom had chosen for the headers.

“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?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

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.

Hey Cal—

Derek wants to know if you can take photos for their new wedding cake sideline?

—Tom

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.

No, what?

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.

“Right.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“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.

Chapter Nine

“Derek? It's Cal here. Thought I'd touch base with you about the cake photos.” Cal walked around the kitchen, the phone against his ear, tidying up in a desultory fashion. One-handed, he couldn't accomplish much, and he wondered why he was even bothering. It looked okay to him, and he was sure Tom would agree.

“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.”

* * * * *

The sun was setting, but the hood of Tom's car was still warm underneath Cal's thighs. He'd been waiting for at least fifteen minutes for Tom to appear in the parking lot outside the bakery. When Tom finally did and spotted him, Cal experienced a moment of anxiety that maybe he wasn't doing the right thing.

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?”

“Okay.”

Cal hoped that whatever he could put together would live up to Tom's expectations.

* * * * *

“I can't believe I'm getting a pedicure,” Tom said. With his long legs bent, he looked even taller than usual. His feet were pale and not particularly attractive. Cal felt that way about most feet. They had too many toes to look anything but weird.

“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.

Chapter Ten

“This place is crowded.” Tom leaned toward Cal as they pushed their way into Riverside, the almost exclusively gay club that Tom had heard about for years but somehow managed to avoid until now. Which seemed like it had been a good idea as the second person in sixty seconds stepped on Tom's toes.

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?”

“Sure.”

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.

Was it?

“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.”

“Temporary pets.”

“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.

“Huh? Who—”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

Chapter Eleven

Tom pushed Cal onto the couch, and Cal, not ready for the touching to stop, grabbed at Tom and pulled him down with him. “Sit with me.”

“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.

“Tom?”

“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.”

“Cal...”

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.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

Tom woke with a headache he wished he could blame on a hangover. It felt more like stress and lack of sleep, though. It had taken him hours to fall asleep, and even then he'd woken every few hours thrashing around in search of the ideal position and failing to find it.

He'd replayed the events of the night before until they were worn thin and had lost any meaning. At this point, he'd come up with so many alternative versions of the conversation that the original was fuzzy in his head. The only certainty was that Cal had said he was interested in him, and Tom, handed just what he wanted, had refused it.

“Which means that I'm officially insane,” Tom muttered, pulling on shorts and then a robe, all that he normally wore in the morning before his shower. He felt naked in them today, but he wasn't going to change anything because of what had happened. Sooner or later, he was going to have to face Cal, and it would be awkward as hell but unavoidable.

In the mirror, he looked exhausted, his hair sticking up in tufts, defeating the deft scissor work of the hairdresser the day before. He patted at it doubtfully with a brush and sighed when it stubbornly defied his efforts.

He heard the creak of the steps as Cal came downstairs. It was a sound that threatened to keep him in his room all day, and that was ridiculous. He hadn't let romance turn him into an idiot yet, and he wasn't going to start today. Taking a deep breath, Tom went out to the kitchen.

Cal was wrestling with the plastic part of the coffeemaker that held the grounds; it had a reusable filter, but Cal insisted on using a paper filter inside that, claiming it was the only thing keeping him from making a horrible mess on the mornings he was the one who made the coffee. As Tom came into the room, Cal jerked the basket with a little too much force. The paper filter, full of damp grounds, popped out of the basket and hit the floor.

“Fuck,” Cal said, looking down at it.

“I'm not going to say I told you so.” Tom went to the recycling bin for some newspaper, then crouched next to Cal. “Sweep it onto here.”

Even with the help of the newspaper, Cal ended up with coffee grounds clinging to his hands. Tom turned the faucet on for him so he could rinse them clean. It didn't occur to Tom until too late that he should have stepped back away from the sink. Cal's hip bumped his, and moving away would have been rude.

“Thanks,” Cal said softly, and even first thing in the morning with a probable hangover, he smelled good. It was so unfair.

“You're welcome. How's your head?” Tom knew immediately that that had been another mistake right there, reminding Cal of the night before.

“I'm okay. I drank a couple of glasses of water before I went to sleep.” Cal dried his hands on a tea towel. “How about you?”

“I wasn't drunk,” Tom pointed out.

“No.” Cal started to measure fresh coffee into a new paper filter.

“Why do you keep doing that?” Tom asked, exasperated. “Why do you insist on doing the same thing when it doesn't work?”

Setting the paper sack of coffee down, Cal braced both hands on the edge of the counter. “I'm trying,” he said slowly, like he was trying not to lose his patience, “to change. Someone doesn't seem to think I'm capable of it.”

Bewildered, Tom gestured at the coffeemaker. “I don't get it. What has all this got to do with...with us?”

“Never mind,” Cal bit out. “It doesn't matter. Make the damn coffee any way you like.”

He turned away, but Tom grabbed his arm before he could walk by. Cal was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt over jeans, and Tom's fingers closed around warm skin. It jolted him out of his annoyance into a sharp, intense arousal, as if that single touch had taken him back to the couch, with Cal's mouth on his. Cal's kisses... Tom had thought he'd enjoyed being kissed by Joe, but the first kiss from Cal had made him realize he'd only felt a mild pleasure at best. Tom felt addicted to Cal's mouth, hungry for another taste, another chance to lose himself in sensation as Cal's tongue met his, their breath mingled.

“Don't go.”

Cal turned toward him and slid an arm around his waist, resting his temple against Tom's. Tom could feel Cal's whole body straining to press closer, and the effort it took for Cal not to give in. “I don't think I can do this.” Cal sounded desperate. “I don't know how to be near you and not touch you. I want you so much. I think...I think I love you, and I don't know how to do that either.”

“I guess we're both in the same boat when it comes to that,” Tom said, the truth of it sinking in. He'd assumed Cal had done everything and was confident and doubt-free. Tom had envied him that assurance. When it came to sex, that was probably true, though Tom couldn't see himself asking Cal for details. But love? Maybe not so much.

Equality of inexperience lent Tom some confidence of his own, coupled with a yearning that was impossible to deny. He wanted Cal, and if he ended up with a broken heart, it was still better than feeling this...this empty.

“Forget what I said last night,” he told Cal, breathless because his heart was pounding and he could feel the fine tremor running through Cal when he ran his hand down Cal's arm to capture his hand. “You... I need you, Cal. Need... Oh God, you're just so—” He broke off, the words he was trying to say crowding his throat, jammed there because there were so many of them, and really, it was so much simpler to just kiss Cal.

Sunlight was streaming in through the window, and on the counter, a butter-smeared knife was attracting the attention of a fly that had been buzzing around for a day or two, impossible to catch or swat, and they'd both tried. Everything was the same; everything had changed. Tom closed his eyes, sinking into the sensations of the kiss, the scrape of Cal's unshaven chin against his, the soft, wet lick of Cal's tongue. He whimpered a protest when Cal's mouth moved away for Cal to catch his breath.

“Wait.” Cal took Tom's face between his hands and looked into his eyes pleadingly. “Are you sure? Not that I won't stop when you want to stop. I'll always do that. I just can't keep playing this game where you pull me closer, then push me away again. I know you're not doing it on purpose, but it's killing me. So tell me you're sure.”

“I'm sure,” Tom said and kissed him again with everything he had in him. Cal tasted perfect. Tom leaned in against him until Cal took two steps backward and hit the countertop. Much better—now Tom could press close, and there was nowhere for Cal to go.

He knew he hadn't thought this through, but love and sex and all those emotional reactions weren't meant to be earnestly debated with neat lists of pros and cons to consider. He was twenty-five now, and he was damned if he was going to keep living vicariously, watching Cal's dates come and go, jerking off and telling himself it was just as good as being with someone else. It did feel good—it'd been the only way he could get to sleep the night before—but if kissing Cal felt like this, Tom was beginning to think sex would leave him as wiped out as a marathon.

“Tell me what to do.” Tom slipped his hand between them and fumbled for a grip on Cal's cock, hard but as frustratingly hidden behind jeans as it had been the night before. “Let me see you.”

Cal groaned. “Tom. Tom. This is—”

“What?” Tom asked, exasperated. It was like he couldn't win no matter what he did, and Cal, the prize, was left tantalizingly out of reach.

“I want to do this right with you. Not here in the kitchen. You deserve better.” Cal sounded more like he was saying something he thought he was supposed to than like he actually believed it, which was even more frustrating.

“Then where?”

“Your bedroom? Mine? Maybe yours.”

“Mine,” Tom said once he'd had a few seconds to think about it. Cal had probably had hundreds of men in his bed, and Tom didn't like the idea of sharing in that.

“That's fine with me.” Cal immediately headed for the door.

“Here would've been fine with me,” Tom muttered under his breath, following him. It wasn't that he didn't agree a bed was better, but he'd been so ready right there in the kitchen, and now he had to go upstairs—admittedly with Cal's very nice ass to look at—and start over.

It was also starting to worry him that Cal might expect them to do the kinds of things Cal was used to doing. Tom wasn't sure he was ready for a lot of what he'd seen in porn movies or read about. Not before breakfast. There was also the issue of safe sex. Tom got to the bedroom door and froze.

“What's wrong?” Cal asked, his arms out of his T-shirt as he prepared to pull it off over his head. “Tom?”

Tom tried to smile reassuringly, and Cal's face crumpled with dismay. “Oh God, I'm sorry.” He shrugged his T-shirt back on, smoothing it self-consciously. “Rushing. I've got to stop that. Better?”

“Yes. No. I didn't mind you with it off,” Tom said. He took a deep breath. “Are you, uh, I mean, you don't have any, uh, health issues do you?” he blurted out. “Not that I think you would, but I'm just wondering. Asking. I mean, you're supposed to, right? I don't. That I know of. I got tested for some life insurance thing about five months ago, and I haven't done anything since, nothing on the list, no needles, no sex, well, you know about that, but I'm fine and I just wondered...”

His voice trailed away to nothing, and he turned to bang his head against the door frame, groaning at the way he'd ruined the mood. “Okay. This? This is why I don't date,” he said without looking at Cal.

“Come here.” Cal walked toward him and took his hand. “And don't do that. Are you okay?” He rubbed Tom's head tenderly, then put both arms around him and just stood there. Tom wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it wasn't a hug. One of Cal's hands rubbed his shoulder reassuringly, the other at the back of his neck.

After twenty seconds or so, Tom sighed and relaxed into the warmth of the embrace. “I'm so stupid.”

“Don't do that either. You're not stupid.” Cal didn't pull away, just kept holding him. “You're smart. That's exactly the kind of question you should be asking a potential partner, and you should still be safe. Never trust what anyone tells you. Even me.”

Tom felt a rush of anxiety and pulled back so he could see Cal's face. “You're okay, right? You aren't sick or anything?”

“No, I'm fine. And I'm always careful. I'll be careful with you too. You don't have to worry about that. I'd never put you at risk, okay?” Cal smiled at him.

It was impossible not to believe him. Tom had been a looker-on most of his life, watching from the sidelines. That meant that he'd gotten good at reading people. There was nothing in Cal's eyes apart from sincerity and concern and Cal had never lied to him, even about the little stuff. As much as Tom had liked Sally, Cal's predecessor, she'd peppered her life with what she called fibs, not just the

polite lies to avoid hurt feelings that most people said, but lies to get herself out of trouble, no matter how small.

Tom had once stood a few feet back from the doorway of the kitchen and watched her break his favorite red mug. He'd faded away, going into the living room to avoid upsetting her, and waited for her to tell him what she'd done. She never had. Even when, annoyed, he'd asked her about it point-blank, she'd told him he was wrong, and she'd broken a red cereal bowl, one of a set she owned.

Cal, who washed up with a cheerful, take-no-prisoners approach, had broken more than a couple of items belonging to Tom. He'd told Tom about it with an apologetic smile immediately and produced a replacement soon after.

“I know you wouldn't.” Tom saw Cal's expression brighten and relax. “Look, I freaked out there. I'm going to do that again, probably. Just...just keep telling me it's going to be okay?”

Cal smiled again, this time with a warmth in his eyes that made Tom's jitters die away, replaced by the arousal that had made him willing to strip in the middle of his kitchen for Cal. “It's not going to be okay, Tom. It's going to be much better than that.”

Tom believed that too. Wanting to show Cal that he was totally on board now, he stepped back, took off his robe, letting it fall to the floor, and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his shorts.

Cal put out his hand and laid it over Tom's. “Let me take them off?” Cal said.

The shudder that went through Tom at that suggestion shook his whole body. Even his voice trembled. “Okay.”

Slowly, Cal lowered himself to his knees, and Tom went from half-hard to fully erect in less time than it took to blink. His skin tingled as Cal slipped fingers under his waistband and then, almost unbelievably, leaned in and pressed lips in a gentle kiss to Tom's hip. Cal looked up at him and smiled. “I'm going to take these off you now.”

“Promise?” Tom managed shakily. Part of him was afraid he might come just from the sight of Cal on his knees.

“Promise.” And Cal tugged Tom's shorts down, freeing his cock. It would have been so easy for Cal to lean forward a few inches and suck Tom's dick, and God, Tom wanted that so much that remaining standing seemed like a challenge. “Tell me,” Cal said, the words making air move across Tom's skin, “what you want. I'll do anything you want me to do.”

Being given the illusion of control—and at that instant, Cal owned Tom, and Tom didn't even try to deny it—should have steadied him. It didn't. He was a starving man at a feast, too bewildered by choice to actually make one. Stalling, Tom freed his feet from the shorts tangling them and stood naked in front of Cal.

“I want your mouth on me.” A flood of scarlet heat washed over him. Tom was blushing while Cal was smiling as if he'd been given a gift. “I don't know how long I'll last, but—”

“I'll make it good for you,” Cal assured him and gave Tom the gentlest of pushes, moving him a foot or so until his back was against the wall by the door. The flat, cool surface gave him something solid to move on, even if it wasn't really holding him up.

He expected Cal to swallow him whole, dazzle and destroy him in a few brief, crowded moments. Cal didn't even touch the bobbing, beckoning cock in front of him. His first kiss was to the hollow of Tom's hip, a warm, soft press of his lips that had Tom fighting to keep his eyes from closing. He didn't want to miss a second of this.

Cal took his time, scattering more of those lingering kisses across Tom's stomach and down into the crease of his thigh. Tom curled his fingers into tight fists and panted, arching forward, wordlessly begging for more.

“If you want more, tell me,” Cal said, just a trace of amusement showing.

Tom shook his head to clear it and took a deep breath. “That's good. That's really nice.”

“Mmm,” Cal said, a throaty purr of agreement that Tom felt down to his toes because Cal had his mouth on Tom's skin when he did it, a bare inch from the tip of Tom's cock.

“But you know you're teasing me,” Tom went on, striving to keep his voice light, as amused as Cal's. “I'm good at waiting. I've waited years for—” Cal swirled his tongue in a tight, wet circle over the place he'd kissed and blew on it. Tom cracked, reaching out to thrust his hands through Cal's hair to cradle his head and hold it still. “Oh God, suck me. Please. Jesus, Cal, I'm hurting here.”

“Shh. I've got you.” Cal settled his own hands on Tom's hips to steady him, then leaned in and licked a line up the length of Tom's cock, his tongue flat and wet. “Fuck my mouth,” he said, and whatever was left of Tom's self-control was shattered at the sound of those words and the knowledge of what they meant.

Cal's lips closed around the tip of Tom's erection, and Tom, eager beyond measure, let his hips thrust forward. Watching his cock disappear into Cal's mouth, Cal's lips pink and stretched tight, made Tom groan. Cal made an answering groan, and the vibration of it traveled into Tom's balls and the pit of his stomach. “God, Cal. Good.”

Pulling back, Cal licked at the head of Tom's cock, and even that seemed so much like teasing that Tom couldn't bear it. He used his grip on Cal's hair to tug his head forward, and Cal obeyed, parting his lips and letting Tom into his mouth again, damp suction that felt like it was begging for Tom to give up his orgasm.

Tom panted, trying to hold off. “Cal. Cal, I can't—” It felt so good, and he wanted to come so badly. Yet another part of him didn't want this to be over. He bit the inside of his cheek and tried to think of something boring, something decidedly unsexy, anything. Cal looked up at him and slid one of the hands on Tom's hip around to his ass, caressing the skin there, and did something Tom hadn't anticipated. He took Tom in all the way, the head of Tom's cock bumping the back of Cal's throat.

With a relieved cry, Tom came in strong pulses, head tilting back and his eyes closing as the sheer pleasure of it grabbed him and held on. It lasted a long time; twice, he thought it was over and then Cal swallowed around him and wrung another spasm from his exhausted flesh.

Nothing that good could last forever, though, and when Tom felt a twinge of discomfort from overly sensitized skin, his cock beginning to soften, shrinking away from the slow lap of Cal's tongue, he patted clumsily at Cal's shoulder. Cal pulled back at once, opening his mouth to let Tom's cock slide free, though he didn't rush it. The loss of the welcoming warmth of Cal's mouth and the knowledge that his first time was over tore a protesting whimper from Tom. Cal soothed him with a kiss where his first had been, in the hollow of Tom's hip, then stood and gathered Tom to him in a hug.

Tom let himself be held, aware that he was shaking as if he'd been standing under an ice-cold shower. He bit his lip to keep himself from saying something stupid, but he couldn't stop shaking.

“Come and lie down with me?” Cal said, his voice low, undemanding.

Tom nodded jerkily and let himself be led over to his bed. The comforter was pulled down, just as he'd left it when he'd gotten out of bed, and it was easy to slide back into bed and tug the comforter up.

“Do you mind if I take these jeans off?” Cal asked, his fingers plucking restlessly at the button holding his jeans closed. “You don't have to do anything to me. I mean that. No pressure, but right now they feel like they're two sizes too small.”

Tom swallowed. “Take everything off,” he said, his voice rasping in a dry throat. “And I want to do something to you. God, I want to do everything to you. I'm just not sure anything I do will make you feel the way I do now.”

“You can't go wrong,” Cal said unevenly. “I'm so hard that you could touch the end of my fucking nose and I'd probably come.”

Cal skinned out of his clothes without making it into a tease, still graceful, moving fast. He bent to pull back the comforter on his side of the bed.

“Wait.” Cal froze in place. “Let me look at you? Just for a second?”

Cal straightened, a faint smile appearing as he put his hands on his hips. “Look all you want.”

Cal's confidence was so appealing that Tom couldn't have looked away. He rolled onto his side and hitched himself up onto one elbow, letting his gaze move slowly across the expanse of Cal's bare body. Long legs—not as long as Tom's, because Cal was a couple of inches shorter. Not a lot of hair, and what there was looked soft. Flat stomach, muscled upper arms. And, erect and impossible to ignore, Cal's cock, flushed with desire.

“What do you think?” Cal asked with more vulnerability than Tom would have guessed.

“You're amazing. Seriously. I can't believe you're here...with me.”

“I can't believe I'm this lucky,” Cal said.

Tom shook his head. “I'm the lucky one. Now get yourself over here.” Obviously, he was still high, endorphins rushing through him making him bold in new and surprising ways.

Cal joined him in the bed, leaving a little bit of space between them like he didn't want to put pressure on Tom. As far as Tom was concerned, Cal's thoughtfulness gained him even more points, or would have if they'd been keeping score. He did lean in and kiss Tom, though. “Pinch me?”

“Really?” Tom did, and Cal yelped.

“Okay, good. At least now I know I'm awake.” Cal stroked a hand along Tom's side to his hip, and Tom felt his cock stir slightly. “Could we just kiss for a while? We don't have to do anything else. Unless you want to.”

“I want to.” Tom shifted closer until Cal's erection was pressed to him. “There, that's better.”

Cal answered him with a kiss, liquid soft, his mouth moving against Tom unhurriedly at first until Tom ran his hand down Cal's back to cup his ass.

Cal jerked his head back, his body taut. “Tom—”

“If you're trying to be a gentleman, you can stop,” Tom said. It probably wasn't physically possible for him to get hard again right away, but his cock was trying valiantly to prove him wrong. “I'm still turned on. I shouldn't be after what you just did, and you probably can't tell, but I'm so...” He exhaled sharply and bent his head, biting at Cal's shoulder, his hand moving over Cal's ass—his tight, muscular, sexy ass—in an attempt to show Cal what he couldn't articulate. “God, Cal, do something. Kiss me again, touch me... I don't know. I want you to come. I want to make you come. Tell me what you like, and I'll do it.”

He felt as frustrated as if he hadn't just climaxed. He'd come, yes, but Cal hadn't, and until Cal did with Tom involved in some way, this wasn't over.

“Can we just do this?” Cal rocked his hips forward, rubbing his cock against Tom. “Fuck, you feel so good. I knew it would be like this with you.” He shoved forward more aggressively and cradled the back of Tom's skull with one hand, kissing him harder. “Yeah, like this.”

Tom wished he could get hard again, because he was sure he'd never known anything that felt like having a naked, aroused Cal writhing against him. “Want to feel you come,” he muttered. “Come on, Cal. Come for me.”

Cal trembled and groaned into Tom's mouth. Like this, on the edge, he wasn't the confident man Tom had come to know. Instead, he was vulnerable, and Tom was aware of how easy it would be to hurt him. Somehow, that knowledge took the edge off his own need, and he was able to concentrate completely on Cal, every molecule of him focused on the sound of Cal's breathing and the way his pulse fluttered under Tom's fingertips.

“Please,” Cal whispered, shifting away, and Tom could hear what he was asking, reached down and closed his hand around Cal's erection, and Cal moaned. “Tom. Love—” He moaned again, and Tom felt Cal's cock surge and pulse in his grip, then the wet slick of fluid.

Cal pressed closer, trapping Tom's hand between them, his palm tight on the back of Tom's neck. Tom felt his breath quicken, as if he'd been the one climaxing with Cal. In this bed, a cock in his hand, his skin streaked and messy, felt only too familiar, yet Cal's presence beside him changed everything.

He kissed Cal's temple, the skin sweat-damp and warm, and tried to get even closer without moving his hand. He wanted to feel Cal against him, their bodies fitted together snugly. He couldn't get enough of this, though he was braced for Cal to pull away, jump out of bed, leave. “So good,” he murmured, echoing Cal's words. “God, Cal, I never thought it'd be like that.”

There was no reply for a long few moments; then Cal took Tom's face in his hands and kissed him. “Neither did I,” he said, sounding awed. “I just... God, I want...” He shook his head and kissed Tom again.

They lay there for a while, twisted around each other, until finally Cal sighed and pulled back, looking down along the length of their bodies.

“Got us all sticky,” he said ruefully.

“It's not like I minded,” Tom told him.

“Still. Sorry.” Cal gave him a glance that was almost shy. “We could take a shower together?”

Tom nodded. “We could. Why wouldn't I want to do that?”

“I don't know.” Cal shrugged. “Maybe it'd be a little too, um...personal?” He paused, then laughed. “I sound like an idiot, don't I?”

“Nah. Come on, let's go.” Patting Cal's hip, Tom got up, untangling himself from the covers.

The bed was going to need changing too. For once, even the thought of extra laundry couldn't dim Tom's good mood.

“I'm starving,” he said when they reached the bathroom. “After this, we could maybe go out for breakfast? My treat. I'm in a pancake mood.”

Cal reached into the shower and turned on the spray. “We could. Or we could stay here mostly naked, and make up for lost time. And don't worry about breakfast. I can't promise they'll be perfectly round, but I've been told I make a mean pancake.”

Tom scratched absently at his stomach until he realized just what was flaking off under his nails. “Are you saying I'm your love slave for the day, and you're paying me in batter and syrup?”

“Love slaves don't get paid, but other than that, you're definitely on the right track,” Cal said and stepped under the spray. “Get in here before we soak the floor. My landlord's fussy as hell about that.”

Tom took a moment to admire Cal naked and wet, the rivulets of water coursing over his chest, outlining each contour. Then he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. The small space was noisy and already filling with steam. Cal evidently liked his showers just short of scalding.

“Now this is what I've been missing,” Tom said, taking advantage of the fact that they were so close and touching Cal with as much of his body as he could. “Mm. Forget pancakes. I want to stay here all day.”

“You won't when the hot water runs out.” Cal turned him so he was under the water. “Close your eyes. I want to wash your hair.”

“There are other parts of me that need the washing more,” Tom said. Nevertheless, he obeyed. “God, it's close to boiling. Don't you burn your skin off?”

“No.” Cal reached around behind Tom and adjusted the temperature to something more reasonable. “Keep your eyes shut.”

“I've been washing my own hair since I was about ten,” Tom pointed out. He stopped complaining, though, when Cal started to massage shampoo into his scalp. It felt good, and he stayed just like that, doing nothing more than occasionally tilting his head in a helpful way.

“You're done,” Cal said from behind him when Tom was beginning to feel waterlogged despite being too content to protest. Cal's hands slid down Tom's chest, pausing for a fraction of a second before caressing lower, cupping Tom's balls gently. “Oh, wait. I missed a bit.”

“God.” The word escaped Tom before he'd known he was going to speak. “You. Are mean.”

“Oh, really? This is mean?” Cal played with him, rolling his balls back and forth until Tom's cock started to fill. “So, I guess I should stop being mean, hm?”

Tom clamped his hand around Cal's wrist. “No. Keep being mean.” Pretty soon the water would get cold, but in that moment, he wished Cal would keep being mean to him for the next two hours at least.

“Yeah? You like this?” Cal's hand slid along his length teasingly.

“If I didn't, it's not like I could lie about it.” Tom was giving himself away with every added inch. He did this to himself in the shower a few times a week, and it always felt good. Now, leaning back against a warm body, not cool tiles, and feeling the clear evidence of another man's arousal thick and solid against his ass added a whole new dimension to the act.

“Not what I asked.” Cal bit gently at Tom's neck, just where it curved to become his shoulder. The flash of need that sent through him completed what Cal's touch had begun, and Tom reached back with his free hand, groping through the spray to find Cal.

“Yes, I like it,” he said between his teeth. He shouldn't have been able to tell when he was soaking wet anyway, but he was sweating. “I like everything you do to me.”

Cal nuzzled into his neck again, finding hot spots that Tom hadn't known existed. “Right back at you, babe.”

Tom frowned, the endearment sparking a memory of the night he'd listened to Cal and another man have sex. “Don't call me that.”

Cal's hand paused. “Uh, okay?”

Tom closed his eyes, mentally scolding himself for being so damned touchy. “No, it's okay. I just... I'm taller than you.”

That made Cal laugh. “So you are. I'll have to think of something else, then.”

“My name works just fine,” Tom said. He couldn't picture himself calling Cal by a pet name, though his mother scattered darling and sweetheart around all the time when she was talking to his father, so he supposed that it was something that people did.

“Guess I'll have to stick with that.” Cal stroked him again, so slowly that Tom found himself pushing into Cal's grip just to speed things up. “Always do that, okay? Tell me when I'm doing something you don't like, even if it's a little thing. I want to do this right.”

Tom shuddered, part of him surprised that he was so hard and ready to go again so soon. “No complaints here.”

“Maybe, but that's not what I mean.” Cal let go of him—Tom whimpered slightly at the loss of contact—and turned him around. “I mean everything. I want everything with you.”

“I know.” Tom hoped Cal could see from his face that he was taking this seriously. “You said. I think I want that too.” He kissed Cal because he could and that seemed like such an amazing thing, and Cal leaned into it, hands cradling Tom's ass.

“Do you want to fuck me?” Cal asked when their lips had parted.

Tom turned his face up into the spray, unable to meet Cal's eyes, his heart beating wildly. Fuck Cal? Drive into that beautiful, lithe body and feel Cal open for him, eager, welcoming? He'd lain in his bed some nights and fucked his own hand, imagining it, the rhythm there, waiting in his head, as if it were something he'd been born knowing how to do, which it probably was.

He shook his head, not in a no but just to clear the water from his face, and looked down at Cal, who was waiting for his reply with a patience that Tom appreciated.

“I want to, but—” Tom brought his hand up to trace the shape of Cal's mouth with his fingers. Cal smiled, changing the path Tom's fingers had to take, and darted his tongue out to lick the closest finger.

“What? You're worried about doing it wrong?”

Tom frowned at him. “How can I do it wrong?” Even as he said it, he answered his own question. “I could come too fast, I guess, or hurt you trying to get inside...” He'd experimented now and then, curious and just a little apprehensive, and discovered that a finger in his ass felt good, but the angle was awkward when he was lying down, and two fingers, jabbed in with too much enthusiasm, had left him sore. “Are you sure you trust me?”

Cal looked at him steadily. “I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't trust you. I haven't done it very often.” Cal's gaze flickered away for a second or two. “Been on the receiving end, I mean.”

“Then maybe it's not such a good idea.” Just the thought of it, though, had Tom reaching his hand to slide along Cal's cock and down beneath his balls, imagining it. “I don't want to hurt you.”

“It doesn't have to hurt, if you take your time.” Cal closed his eyes. “That feels good.”

“If you're usually the one, um, pitching”—Tom found himself struggling with the terminology, not because it was unfamiliar but because it sounded so stupid out loud—“maybe we should try it that way instead.”

“I don't know if that should... God, like that”—Cal's breathing hitched as Tom tugged gently at his balls—“be your first experience. Besides, I love your cock. I want to know what it feels like inside me. You want to, right?”

“Would rolling my eyes and saying Duh be rude?”

“Marginally,” Cal told him. He gave Tom's ass a slap that sounded loud with the water coursing over it, though it didn't even sting. “Bad Tom. I think you're going to have to make up for it by—”

“I know how to say I'm sorry.” Tom slid to his knees, the plastic base of the shower enclosure rough against his skin. He put his mouth against the tip of Cal's cock and felt his own cock jerk in response. “I'm sorry,” he said, between kisses, all on that one spot. “Very, very sorry.”

The water, starting to cool, had taken away Cal's scent, and even when Tom licked a circle around the head of Cal's cock, with a sharp memory of Cal doing that to him, he could taste only water.

It made doing this for the first time easier. Not that Tom hadn't tasted his own...stuff, just out of curiosity. He couldn't say he'd like the taste of it. It hadn't made him gag or anything, but it didn't taste like anything he'd choose to eat. Now, as he explored Cal's cock with his mouth, Tom appreciated the fact that the water running over their skin had left everything clean.

He liked how Cal's erection felt between his lips, the skin soft and the flesh beneath it hard, the flutter of Cal's pulse along the underside of it. He hadn't known he'd be able to gauge the beating of Cal's heart with nothing more than his lips and tongue; he hadn't known that there'd be a sense of power on this end of a blowjob, though of course he should have. It didn't matter that he was on his knees with Cal standing above him when he had the most sensitive part of Cal's anatomy at his mercy.

“Quick learner,” Cal murmured, tucking hair behind Tom's ear.

“Yeah, well...” Tom ran his tongue down to Cal's balls and licked at them, watched the skin there tighten and wrinkle. “I want to make sure you know how sorry I am.”

“If you keep that up, I'm gonna want you to apologize all the time.”

“You'll have to tell me anytime I piss you off.” Tom wasn't paying attention to what he was saying. Close-up and from this angle, the view was fascinating.

“I won't hold back,” Cal promised him. The water changed abruptly to cold, and they both yelped in shock, with Cal scrabbling to turn it off. Without the sound of the water pounding down, the enclosed space seemed very quiet. Tom didn't have time to do more than shiver reflexively before Cal swayed his hips forward, the head of his cock nudging against Tom's lips. “Please?”

Tom opened his mouth and took in as much as he could, hurriedly reassessing his limits when he found his throat muscles working convulsively to get rid of whatever it was brushing the back of his throat. Throwing up wasn't sexy and neither was choking on spit. Baby steps. Save deep throating him until tomorrow. Or maybe next week.

“You have no idea how you look right now,” Cal told him, and Tom glanced up to catch a glimpse of something amazing on Cal's face; it might have even been rapt wonder. “Beautiful.”

Not beautiful, Tom knew. Never that. He didn't let himself think about that right now, not when he had Cal's cock in his mouth. He tried to let his bottom lip catch on the ridge below the head, but there was too much water everywhere. Cal's dick gave a slow throb, and Tom got a taste of him, faint and sweet.

He was using the fingers of his right hand to toy with Cal's balls, and he let them move backward to the tight entrance to Cal's body. This was where he'd put his cock if he fucked Cal, the place he'd slide into, Cal's skin stretching around him.

“God,” Cal said softly, and Tom thought he heard an unspoken request in the word.

Very gently, he pressed his fingertip to Cal's hole, and after a moment felt Cal's body let him in. It was warm inside, soft, and Cal's cock throbbed again, giving Tom another hint of sweetness.

He worked his finger in and out, not going too deep, because without something to smooth the way that wouldn't feel comfortable for Cal, but just inside had felt good when he'd done it to himself. The rhythm of combining that with sucking Cal took a few moments to settle into, but it was worth the effort. Cal was making encouraging sounds that soon became guttural groans escaping with every other breath as Tom got adventurous. Lick and swirl, suck and slide... It wasn't difficult, though he'd caught Cal at least once with his teeth, getting nothing more than a protesting murmur in response. Cal wasn't Tom's idea of a saint, but he had the fabled patience of one.

His jaw was aching, and he could feel his lips turn numb. He was so focused on the way it felt to have his mouth filled and taken that he didn't care at first. When he'd gotten to the point of needing to take a break, he pulled off and wrapped his hand around the base.

“Don't stop,” Cal pleaded.

Tom rubbed the head of Cal's cock over his mouth, his lips closed to relieve the tension in his jaw, his fingers tight, moving up and down in short strokes. He'd seen someone do this in a movie once, and he had to admit that he was getting off over being so blatant about his enjoyment. He rubbed his cheek against the shaft, his eyes half closed, then mouthed at it, using his teeth deliberately this time.

“Jesus, that looks so... God, I want to—” Cal's fingers tangled in Tom's hair, the sharp tugs not painful enough to bother him. “Gonna come. Soon. Let me back in? Just not if you don't want to.”

Tom wasn't sure that he did, but it was the best place for his first time as any, on the floor of the shower where he could spit if he needed to without worrying about it getting on his clothes or the rug. As an answer, he took the head of Cal's cock into his mouth again and held it there, continuing with the quick movements of his hand along Cal's shaft.

He could feel Cal tensing, thigh muscles tight as he got closer to the edge. “Oh God, Tom,” Cal said quietly, his voice an echo on the walls. He went silent as his dick spurted in Tom's mouth.

Tom prided himself on being tougher than he looked. He didn't gag, and he didn't pull away. It did take a little more effort than he would have liked to swallow, but he did it quickly to get it over with. When he looked up at Cal's face, he knew that the whole thing was worth the effort. It would have been worth any effort to have been responsible for that expression of bliss.

He wondered if that had been the look on his face when Cal had finished blowing him. Close to it, anyway, because he knew firsthand now just how deeply satisfying it felt. He'd always assumed that coming using his hand would feel the same as coming deep in someone's ass or mouth. What led up to it would be different, of course, but the climax itself would be the same.

It wasn't.

He hadn't been able to conjure up a fantasy to spur him on during any of his time with Cal. He'd been too busy dealing with the flood of sensation and the need to reciprocate. All of his attention had been focused on Cal, and he hadn't needed more than the man kneeling at his feet or standing over him.

“This is going to take a lot of getting used to,” he said aloud and heard Cal chuckle.

“The sex or the taste?”

“Both.” Tom got to his feet and winced as the ache from his knees made itself known.

“If I tell you that you will get used to it—both of them—would you believe me?”

“No, but I... Oh.”

He hadn't forgotten that he was hard, but Cal's hand closing around his cock reminded him.

“You want to come?” Cal said, as casually as if he were asking how Tom took his coffee.

“I want—” But before Tom could finish, the phone on his bedside table in the other room sounded the ringtone that he'd assigned to his mother's cell, and he knew what that meant. “Shit. Hold that thought, okay?”

He left Cal standing in the bathroom and made a beeline for the phone. He knew why his mother was calling. She wanted to wish him a happy birthday, only one day late this year, and to apologize for not being able to see him, even though he didn't believe she'd actually be sorry about it. They hadn't managed to see him for his birthday more than once every couple of years since they'd left.

“Hi, Mom,” he said into the phone.

“Oh, there you are. I was wondering if you might be too busy to answer the phone.” This was his mom's way of hinting that she suspected he was bed-hopping his way across the city, an idea he'd never been able to dissuade her from believing. It was like as soon as he mentioned his love life, she went deaf.

“No, not too busy.” For once, this was a lie. He'd left a gorgeous man alone in his bathroom in favor of talking to his mother, even though he didn't want to. “How are you?”

“We're fine, dear. We were hoping you might be available for brunch?”

“Um...today?” Tom didn't see how that was a possibility, since they were a thousand miles away and unlikely to offer to pay for him to jump on a plane. He almost laughed at the idea.

His mother cleared her throat delicately. “Yes, of course today. We have a three-hour layover.”

“Layover?”

“On our way to the Bahamas. Tom, I know I've mentioned this to you.” His mom didn't give him time to answer. “The Greenbriar in half an hour?”

Tom sighed and moved toward his closet to find a shirt. “Okay, sure.” He hung up.

Cal appeared in the doorway, a towel wrapped around his waist, another in his hand. “You're dripping.”

“Huh?” Belatedly, Tom realized he'd just carried on a conversation with his mother with an erection and water trickling down his back from his soaked hair. “Oh, shit.” Cal tossed him the towel, bundled up into a ball that came apart as it flew through the air. Tom caught it awkwardly in one hand. “Thanks.”

“I'm guessing that was something that's going to change your immediate plans?”

“That was my mother,” Tom said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. Cal was still standing in the doorway, and Tom gestured to him. “Hey, come in. I know I said it was off-limits, but that was before.”

“It's still your room, your space.” Cal walked over to the bed and put his hand on Tom's arm, rubbing it consolingly. “Your mom? They don't live around here, so—”

“They can still get on planes and drop in for visits on their way to exotic places that they've always wanted to visit,” Tom said. “They're here. In town. She said they'd told me, and I don't know, maybe they did. Sometimes I just blank it out because I don't care where they are.”

He expected Cal to remonstrate with him, but Cal just raised one shoulder in a shrug. “So it's just a flying visit?”

“Yes, they—” It seemed to be the morning for delayed reactions, because it took the small twitch of Cal's lips to make the awful pun register. “You're not funny, you know.”

“Yes, I am,” Cal said smugly. “I made you grin, so I must be. Are they coming here?”

“Brunch at the Greenbriar in thirty minutes.” Tom raised the towel to his hair and scrubbed it dry. “I'm not going to make it. Shit, why do they do this to me? Every single fucking time, I'm left feeling like an idiot, spinning on the spot trying to be what they expect.”

“Okay,” Cal said and stood there, waiting.

Tom stopped and looked at him. “Come with me?” He steeled himself for it to be his turn to wait, but Cal responded immediately.

“Sure. Of course. What do you want me to wear?” Cal was already on his way back out the door, presumably headed for his own bedroom and his clothes.

“I don't care.” He'd never given as much thought to clothes as he had since Cal had moved in, but it was true that he didn't mind what Cal wore. The other man was bound to look more stylish than him anyway.

Chapter Thirteen

As they drove over to the Greenbriar and its famous brunch that Tom's father had always liked, Tom found himself getting nervous. Since he was the one driving, that wasn't the best way to be. At first, the thought of Cal accompanying him had been an incredible relief, but now he was starting to wish he hadn't asked. Cal meeting his parents, knowing what they were like, would only end in disaster.

“Relax,” Cal said, patting his knee. “It'll be okay.”

“You only think that because you haven't met them yet,” Tom said.

“Are you more worried about what I'll think of them, or what they'll think of me? Because I'm tough and I can take it. Either way.”

“They're just... I don't know. It's hard to describe.” Tom put on his turn signal and slowed the car, waiting for the traffic to ease so he could turn into the parking lot of the restaurant. He regretted having tried to paint a happy picture of his family for Cal when they'd first met.

“Well, don't worry. I'll be charming. They'll love me.”

“They don't know,” Tom said when he'd parked the car. He turned to face Cal, wondering why it was so hard to talk about this when Cal already knew all about it anyway. “They know that I'm gay, but they don't know that I've never been with anyone. They'd always ask, and I'd say that no, I wasn't seeing anyone right then, and they didn't want to know the details, so they never got that I wasn't seeing anyone ever.”

“I won't mention that to them,” Cal said, “though it's not likely to come up. If you want to tell them I'm just your roommate, we can do that too.”

“No,” Tom said. “It wouldn't be the truth.”

“No, it wouldn't,” Cal agreed. He touched Tom's cheek with the back of his knuckles, a fleeting touch, barely felt. “This is new to me too. I've never been introduced to someone's parents before. It's just... Well, you know why.”

“I guess not,” Tom said. “Well, the good news is that they'll have to leave for the airport again soon, so this won't take long.”

“I love how you look on the bright side,” Cal said drily.

They walked through the lobby to the arched entrance to the restaurant. Sunday brunch was deservedly popular, and there was a line of people hoping to get seated. Tom saw his parents sitting at a window table luckily big enough for four, and he led Cal past the line.

A discreetly dressed woman at a small desk turned her head to look at them, a sheaf of menus in her hand. “Sir? Do you have a reservation?”

Tom pointed at his parents. “We're joining that table over there. The Holdens.”

The woman smiled perfunctorily at him, her gaze flickering to Cal, who looked completely at ease in a way Tom envied. “Of course. They said that they'd be a party of...three?”

“Four,” Tom said.

“Four, of course. If you'll just follow me?”

The room was a large one, broken up by trellises supporting ivy and small white flowers. The plants were real and were replaced as needed. The restaurant was a re-creation of summer in an English garden, with a deliberately faded elegance designed to appeal to the diner who fancied himself in a stately home. Tom always felt like one of the servants and had to restrain himself from tugging at his forelock when a waiter spoke to him.

His father stood to greet Tom, a welcoming smile on his face. These visits always started well, but Tom was already counting silently in his head to the first ripple in the smooth facade.

“Here's the birthday boy.” His father reached out both hands to clasp Tom's right between his own. His grip was cool and impersonal, although Tom knew that anyone looking would see a loving father.

Cal stepped forward and offered his own hand before anyone could ask who he was or what he was doing there. “Calvin Reece. I'm Tom's roommate. I hope you don't mind that I tagged along.”

“Tom's friends are always welcome,” his mother said as Cal and his dad shook hands.

“Gregory and Emma Holden,” his father said. Tom prayed that Cal could tell by the tone of his father's voice that he wasn't under any circumstances to actually call them by their first names.

“It's nice to meet you,” Cal said. They all sat, some small part of the awkwardness smoothed out by the niceties, which, Tom supposed, was why they existed in the first place.

“So you're Tom's, uh, roommate?” His mother picked up her glass and sipped what looked like orange juice. Tom suspected it was spiked with something.

“Yup,” Cal said cheerfully. “Only for a few months now, but I think it's working out okay.”

That would have been the time for Tom to admit the truth, grateful as he was to Cal for covering for him. He was saved by a spectacularly beautiful young woman in a white blouse and dark slacks, the uniform for servers at the Greenbriar, who appeared tableside at that moment.

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “I'm Audrey. Can I start you two gentlemen with something to drink?”

“Just coffee for me, thank you,” Tom said. As much as a mimosa or anything else with alcohol in it would have helped, he thought he should avoid drinking in front of his parents. It was always better not to give them added ammunition.

“Coffee would be great.” Cal gave the redheaded Audrey a charming smile, and she actually blushed. Tom's mother, on the other hand, looked confused, as if she'd just been given information she hadn't expected.

“I'll be right back with that. Help yourselves to the buffet whenever you're ready.”

“Shall we?” Tom's father stood without waiting for a reply from anyone. Tom was used to that. The right time to do something was always whenever his father thought that it should be done, from mealtimes to cutting the grass to Tom's homework.

Tom trailed behind his parents to the lavish display of food, his stomach a tight knot. He helped himself to a bowl of fresh fruit to start, the usual melon, strawberries, and grapes only part of what lay nestled on ice in a huge crystal bowl.

“That looks very...juicy,” Cal said from behind him. “I've never seen raspberries that big.”

“It's good.” Tom tried to inject some enthusiasm into his voice. “All of it is. They really go to town here.” Not that his parents would take advantage of the range of food that was offered. His mother would nibble at some fruit and pick at a croissant until delicate flakes of pastry were scattered across the Wedgwood plate and declare herself full, and his father would ignore anything healthy and eat steak and eggs followed by a huge slice of the chocolate cake that was always available on the dessert table.

“Just don't get between me and the bacon.” Cal stole a glossy blackberry from Tom's bowl and popped it into his mouth. “I'm starving.”

“That makes one of us.”

Cal picked up a plate. “Look, this is going to be over soon, so there's no need to be all doom and gloom over it. At least your parents are here. They didn't have to be.”

“They don't want to be,” Tom said, aware that he sounded like a sulky brat. His parents were already back at the table, and he could see them shooting glances his way. “They just know that their friends will ask about me, and it'll look weird if they admit that they didn't visit me.”

“Maybe they're as nervous about this as you are?”

Tom met Cal's gaze squarely. “The bacon's over there. I'm going back to the table now. And...I appreciate you trying to be positive, but you only just met them. You don't know them.”

Cal sighed. “I'm sorry. The day started out so well, and I guess I wanted to keep it that way. No more optimism. This is me going in search of fried pig.”

“It's imported from Ireland,” Tom called after him. “From happy pigs.”

The grin Cal gave him meant that he went back to the table with a smile of his own, at least.

Before he'd even sat down, his mother was leaning toward him across the table. “Why did you have to bring that boy with you?” It never ceased to amaze Tom that she could hiss something so viciously and still maintain a polite, interested expression.

“He's not a boy, Mom. He's older than me.” Tom couldn't remember by how much, exactly, but it didn't matter to him. “We had plans, and it seemed rude to exclude him.” That was sort of true, anyway.

“And are you...?” His mother looked at her plate, which held some grapes, two strawberries, and a small glass bowl of yogurt. Probably—no, certainly—low-fat yogurt.

“Am I what, Mom? Still gay? Dating him?” There was more despair in Tom's voice than anger, but his father still reprimanded him.

“Don't speak to your mother that way. Show some respect.”

“Respect goes both ways.” Tom looked up to see Cal standing beside his chair. “Sorry to have to intrude on a private conversation, but it's true.”

Surprisingly, neither of his parents seemed to have anything to say to that. Cal sat, put his napkin in his lap, smiled at Tom, and ate a piece of bacon.

“So, Tom tells me you're just passing through. It was nice you were able to make time to visit him,” Cal said pleasantly a minute later, when Tom was starting to think he'd have to scream to break the silence.

His mother had just cut a grape in half with her fork and knife. She was probably horrified that Cal was eating the crispy bacon with his fingers. “We're on our way to the Bahamas,” she said. “It isn't the best time of year for it—”

Tom nodded at the predictability. Of course not, because otherwise what would she have to complain about?

“—but it's almost our anniversary, so we thought we could have a little getaway.” She favored her husband with a smile.

“How long have you been married, Mr. and Mrs. Holden?” Cal asked, sounding genuinely interested.

“This will be our twenty-seventh anniversary. I was very young when I got married, of course.”

Tom, who knew exactly how old his mother was, was too used to the polite fiction that she'd been a child bride to bother challenging it. He speared a piece of pineapple with his fork and concentrated on chewing it.

“I did a photo shoot in the Bahamas two years ago,” Cal offered, keeping the conversation alive, though Tom didn't know why he was bothering. “Nassau, mostly. God, the colors in that place! Everything is so bright and vibrant from the buildings to the beaches.”

“You take photographs?” Tom's father asked. “For a living?”

He made it sound frivolous beyond belief. Cal took a sip of coffee, then nodded. “I've always loved photography. You're telling a story at such a basic, accessible level, but beneath the simplicity of an image there's—”

“You'll have to excuse us, Mr. Reece,” Tom's mother said, breaking in on Cal with a smooth discourtesy that she covered with a distant smile. “I'm sure that's fascinating, but we haven't seen our son in quite a while, and I'd like to hear about his life, not yours.”

“Of course, I'm sorry,” Cal said. He managed to sound both apologetic and understanding, instead of shocked at Tom's mother's rudeness.

“It's not like you couldn't call me anytime,” Tom pointed out. “If you were so interested in my life.”

His mother sighed as if Tom were her greatest trial. “I never know when you might be available. To talk.”

“Mom, I'm always available. You make it sound like I'm out every night.”

“Well, as far as I know, you are.” His mother sniffed. “Isn't that what boys like you do?”

Tom could feel his face heating with humiliation. It was one thing for her to talk to him like this where strangers could overhear, but to do it in front of Cal turned his stomach. “Boys like me? Okay, for one thing, I'm twenty-five years old. And for another, you don't know what I'm like. Why do you all of a sudden want to talk about this now? You never have before.”

“You've never made it so impossible for us to overlook before,” his mother said with a pointed look at Cal.

“Now, Emma,” his father said with a chuckle, all cosmopolitan man of the world. “You can't blame the boy for wanting to show off his, uh, friend.”

“I'm not showing him off,” Tom said. “I just—”

“Thought that we'd like to meet him?” his father said, the lift of his bushy eyebrows conveying his incredulity at the very idea.

“I knew you wouldn't want to meet him.” Tom put his napkin on the table. “I'm sorry. I think we'd better go.”

“There's no need for that, son—” his father began, but by then Tom was already getting to his feet, jarring the table so that his barely touched coffee cup tilted and fell. Coffee poured across the table, the dark stream heading for his mother, who squeaked and thrust her chair back to avoid getting splattered. Her napkin fell to the floor, and a few drops landed on her coral pink skirt.

“Look what you've done!”

“I'm sorry,” Tom said numbly, flinching from the savage glare she gave him. His mother hated mess and prided herself on presenting a pristine appearance always. Boarding the flight in a stained skirt would probably ruin the start of the vacation for her. “I didn't mean to—”

“Clumsy—” His mother broke off to smile enchantingly up at the waitress who'd hurried over with a cloth. “Oh, you're so kind. Thank you. Such a silly boy, isn't he? No, we won't need to move to a different table; we were about to leave anyway. If you could just bring the bill? Thank you.”

Tom remained on his feet, frozen in place as his mother's inconsequential chatter deflected attention from her outburst. After another second or two, Cal stood and touched his elbow. “Do you want to go?”

“Yeah,” Tom said. His voice was soft, but he could tell from the glance Cal gave him that he'd been heard.

His father shot him a look that Tom couldn't be bothered to interpret, and his mother seemed to be pretending she was alone at the table with her husband. There wasn't anything to say, so Tom didn't try.

The walk across the room seemed to take forever, with the people at the first few tables they passed eying them curiously. However, as they moved closer to the exit, that died down. The room was too busy and noisy for one small spill and a few hissed words to have made much of a ripple.

Once they were out in the warm, fresh air, Tom took his first deep breath in what felt like a long time. “Okay, this is the part where I apologize, and you tell me it wasn't my fault, right? Except it was, because I knew they'd do that, and I still let you come with me for purely selfish reasons.”

“You're allowed to be selfish if that's what you knew you'd be walking into,” Cal said. “Don't apologize for them. I didn't mind.”

Tom looked at him in disbelief. “You didn't mind how rude they were to you? You must be crazy.” He immediately wished he hadn't added that last part. “Sorry. For everything.”

“Come on.” Cal took Tom's elbow, directing him away from the building. “Let's at least get in the car before they come outside.”

Letting himself be guided to the car and pushed into the passenger seat of his own car, which he normally wouldn't have gone along with, Tom slouched to limit the chances of his being seen when his parents came out into the parking lot. Of course, they must have taken a cab, so maybe they'd go to the other side of the building to get picked up in one.

“So they're always like that?” Cal asked.

“Except usually they focus on something other than my sex life,” Tom said. “Well, sometimes my mother hints at it, but just hints.” He scrunched himself a little lower in his seat.

“They knew I'm your boyfriend.” Cal sounded apologetic even though he'd done his best to make sure that hadn't happened.

“I guess they did.”

For some reason that made Cal smile, a small, pleased curve of his lips. “You know, making out in cars was never something I did as a teenager, but I can see the appeal.”

“What?” Tom turned his head in time to meet the warm, soft, press of Cal's lips against his. “Cal!”

“What?” Cal echoed, a mischievous twinkle in his hazel eyes, eyes that looked green right then. “I'm pretty sure boyfriends get to kiss. In fact, I'm sure of it, and right now, God, anytime I'm near you, it's what I want to do.”

His voice changed as he spoke, the teasing note deepening to a sincerity that left Tom forgetting his parents and thinking only about Cal. He caught his breath and leaned in closer so that he could feel each exhalation of Cal's breath against his face: shadow kisses.

“Really?” So hard to believe, even with everything that Cal had said and done.

Cal nodded and reached to curl his hand around the base of Tom's skull, fingers sliding through Tom's hair. “Really. I don't know why you wouldn't believe that.”

“Past experience?” Tom said, trying to joke about it.

“Then I'm lucky that everyone else is an idiot.” Cal sighed as Tom turned his head to check for his parents' presence. “You want me to tell you something?”

That question sounded like the kind of thing someone asked when they were trying to distract someone else. Right then, Tom didn't mind being distracted. “Sure.”

“If I think about Joe touching you, it makes me want to track him down and hit him. I mean, I wouldn't, but I want to.”

That kind of possessiveness was entirely new to Tom. He supposed it wasn't something that he should encourage—he'd had every right to do whatever the hell he wanted to with Joe, after all—but the memory of his own distress when he'd listened to Cal and Barney was enough to bring understanding. He hadn't even known he wanted Cal back then, not really, and he'd felt that same instinctive reaction.

“Okay, it's on the caveman side, but I don't mind hearing that,” he admitted. “I should, but I don't. I'd tell you I felt the same, though with you it's more about all the men you'll want to be with in the future that bothers me more.” Cal made a soft, protesting sound and opened his mouth to follow it up with what Tom guessed would be more assurances. He put his fingers against Cal's lips for a moment to silence him. “No, don't look like that. I'm not doubting what you say, it's just... I don't see how I can be enough for you. You can't tell me that you won't get bored being with just one man, because we've been together about three minutes.”

“I make it five, maybe even six,” Cal said mildly.

“You know what I mean.”

“I know. And I know I can tell you that this is different about a million times, but the only thing that's really going to convince you is the actual passage of time. I can't speed that up. And I wouldn't want to, because I'd miss all this.” Cal's hand moved slowly over Tom's shoulder and down along his arm. “I'll try not to get impatient when I'm hard to trust.”

“It's not that,” Tom said. “It's so...new.”

“For me too,” Cal reminded him. “We're in this together, right?”

“Right.” That was a bigger relief than Tom would have guessed, the feeling that he had a partner in all of this.

“So should we get out of here?” Cal leaned in to kiss him, and Tom didn't do anything to stop it. Close in again, Cal murmured, “I'll take you anywhere you want to go.”

Back to bed. Please?

Tom almost said it out loud, but he couldn't quite ask for that so soon after the scene with his parents. He felt raw, his emotions unsettled. He didn't want to bring that much baggage with him when he got between the sheets. Cal deserved better. Hell, both of them did.

When he got this worked up, he ran, letting the sidewalk or the grass beneath his feet absorb all of his negativity, the air rushing past his heated face take away his frustration. It was his way of meditating as much as a form of exercise.

“Can we go back home,” he said, “and get out of these clothes?”

“Oh God, yes. Absolutely,” Cal said fervently. “I'll make it so good for you, I swear.”

Tom bit his lip. “Um, yeah, I maybe could've said that better. Not that I don't want to do that too, but first could we—I mean, just me if you don't want to, but could we go for a run?”

He couldn't blame Cal for the flash of disappointment that crossed his handsome face, though he had to give Cal credit for the quick recovery. “Yeah. Yes, of course. Anything you want.”

“Thanks.” Tom turned to look out the passenger side window as Cal started up the car. He didn't want to look for his parents—didn't want to see them and whatever expressions were on their faces. He found himself doing it anyway. There was no sign of them, though, and a minute later Cal was pulling the car onto the main road and any chance was gone. “I know this sucks. I'm sorry.”

“It doesn't suck.” Cal picked up Tom's hand and held it. It felt good, solid. Comforting. “I'm with you. I'm not sure any part of that could suck. I mean, for you, yeah, because family isn't easy.”

“Yours is.” Tom wished he hadn't said that as soon as the words had crossed his lips. Clearly Cal's relationship with his dad was anything but easy.

Cal didn't react badly, though. “Only because I don't give it any other choice. I don't let myself care.”

“I wish I could do that, but you saw them at their worst there,” Tom said. “Sometimes they're okay. Well, they're not like that, anyway. I guess actually seeing me with someone sent them over the edge.” He sighed, staring out of the window at familiar streets without taking in anything that he saw. “I can't cut them out of my life, but now and then I want them to just...”

“Forget you exist?” Cal said, filling in the gap when Tom broke off. “Yeah. Maybe we should introduce them to my dad, and he could give them some pointers on that.”

“The hell with the wallowing,” Tom said after the silence had gotten sticky enough to trap a dozen flies. “Let's pretend we're orphans for the day.”

“I'd prefer pirate captain and sweet young cabin boy, but orphans works for me,” Cal said.

The levity was forced, Tom could tell. Still, the grin Cal gave him when Tom said that he was allergic to parrots and got seasick just looking at boats so could they scrap that fantasy seemed real enough.

Chapter Fourteen

Cal shifted his position, sneakers scraping the driveway, and bent to stretch out his hamstrings again. It had been a while since the last time he'd gone running, and he was a little worried he wouldn't be able to keep up with Tom. Hell, he knew he wouldn't be able to keep up with Tom, who ran all the time and had longer legs to boot.

Boots. Tom wearing them would have been Cal's only chance. “Hey. You sure you want to do this?” Tom asked as he joined Cal. “What, you think I'm that out of shape?”

“I know you aren't.” Tom was wearing another of his too-big, shapeless T-shirts, and once again Cal found himself wanting to rip it off the man for reasons that had nothing to do with sex. He wanted to be left alone one day with Tom's wardrobe and a match.

“Well, come on. Let's do this.” Cal bounced up and down experimentally.

“How about we head for the river and circle back around Forest Road?” Tom suggested. “It's almost five miles, but we can cut out a corner here and there if you're feeling tired. I don't want you to be too stiff tomorrow.”

“That's not what my boyfriends usually—” Cal caught himself before he could complete the automatic riposte. “Sorry.”

Tom gave him a patient, mildly amused glance. “It's okay,” he said. “I left myself wide open for that one. How about I let you set the pace?”

Cal bounced on the spot a few more times, psyching himself up before he set off, Tom beside him.

“Not too fast,” Tom warned when they reached the first corner. He wasn't even sweating.

Cal sucked in a lungful of air and gratefully slowed his pace a little. “I don't want to hold you back.”

“I don't run to break records,” Tom said. “I do it because it makes me feel good. Slow is good too.”

Cal had never bothered to take his time in bed. Learning what someone liked when it wasn't likely that he'd ever have the chance to put that knowledge to use again seemed pointless. Taking things slowly with Tom, though, that had a definite appeal. He pictured himself easing into Tom, inch by torturous inch, making them both moan—and stumbled, his concentration broken.

“Are you okay?” Tom said, his hand shooting out to steady Cal.

“Yeah. Sorry.” They kept running but more slowly. “Guess this isn't one of my strong suits, but I think we knew that.”

“Well, try not to fall. You wouldn't be as much fun with a broken ankle.” Tom gave him a crooked grin.

Cal focused on putting one foot in front of the other. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest, and he was aware of the sweat making his shirt stick to his back and shoulders. “I might not be much fun if I pass out either. Can we slow down some more?”

“Sure. We can even stop.” Tom went from a jog to a walk, obligingly slackening his speed.

Cal shook his head. “Not that slow. Just slower.”

“It is better if we don't stop completely,” Tom allowed as they set off again. “Okay, we're taking all the shortcuts.”

“Thank God,” Cal said fervently. He'd never thought of himself as an athlete, but he'd assumed he was in reasonably decent shape. Discovering he couldn't jog for half a mile without coming close to passing out was humbling.

Talking used too much oxygen, so he left it at that. Gradually, he fell behind Tom, never far enough behind that Tom had to slow down to close the gap, just enough to allow him to find his own pace. He eyed Tom's ass for a few moments, or what he could see of it with that baggy T-shirt hanging down, but after a while, his surroundings blurred.

The thud of his sneakers became in sync with the pounding of his heart, a hypnotic beat that lulled him into a space where the sweat dripping down his face and the burn in his chest stopped bothering him. They were there, and he wasn't ignoring them, but they had receded into the background like the river and the grass around him, smudged, indistinct sensations, not sharp and clear like the gasp and pant of his breath.

He felt like he was on a moving walkway, with each step advancing him impossibly far, a man from a fairy tale wearing seven-league boots. This was easy; this was simple. He was going to do this every time that Tom did, the two of them running together, conquering the city mile by mile.

He was invincible, winged of foot and—

“Halfway there,” Tom called back over his shoulder, and reality hit Cal along with a cramp in his right calf as painful as a thrust from a blade.

“Ow, ow,” he muttered, and dropped to the curb with both hands clamped around his leg. “Tom!”

Tom stopped immediately and jogged back to him. “Cramp?”

“Yes, goddamn it.” Cal flexed his foot, toes toward the sky. It didn't help, and he was grateful when Tom knelt down and dug a thumb firmly into the taut muscle, even though it hurt like hell. It was like having someone else rip a Band-Aid off for him when he knew it had to be done. “Ow, God.”

“I know. Give it a few seconds. Take deep breaths,” Tom advised. Cal did his best to follow directions, but damn it, it hurt. He'd forgotten why he'd thought any of this was a good idea in the first place.

A few seconds later, the cramp eased, and he relaxed. “Whew.”

“I can go back and get the car,” Tom offered.

“No way.” Cal was much too stubborn for that. He'd have had to be bleeding at the very least. “I'll walk. Go on, you finish your run and I'll meet you back at the house.”

Tom snorted. “Yeah, that's going to happen.”

“If you just stop running, you might get a cramp too,” Cal pointed out.

“I already have stopped,” Tom said with inescapable logic. “If you think you're up for walking, let's go, and you can get into a hot bath. It'll help.”

“So will alcohol,” Cal said. “Applied internally, before you say anything.”

Tom hooked his hand under Cal's elbow and brought him up to his feet. “Cold beer, hot bath. Got it.”

Walking back to the house took longer than running away from it had, which made sense but still didn't seem fair. The cramp didn't return, but Cal felt tense, anticipating a return of the agony every time he took a step. The muscles in his calf felt as if they'd been ripped apart and glued back together wrong.

“I'm sorry,” Tom said when they were within sight of the house. “I shouldn't have made you do that. It hasn't been that long since you were hurt, after all.”

“That's not why I got a cramp,” Cal said. “They can happen to anyone, and even before I got beaten up by that jerk, I'd still have been a gasping, sweat-soaked wreck by the end of the first mile.” He reached out and patted Tom's shoulder reassuringly. “And I wanted to do it. For a few minutes there, I was enjoying it.”

Tom brightened. “Yeah? It feels great when you hit your stride, huh? Runner's high.”

A twinge from his calf made Cal wince. He nodded, ignoring the pain. “Felt good,” he agreed.

“That's why I like it so much. Well, that and it tires me out. It's easier to sleep when I'm tired.”

“Insomnia?” Cal asked. He slept too soundly to notice if Tom had a tendency to wander the house late at night.

“Sometimes.”

“You try counting sheep?” They turned onto their street and immediately had to step onto the sidewalk because of the huge old tree blocking their way. The trees that lined the length of the road must have been planted many years before and

grown larger than anticipated. Now they straddled the curb, pushing it upward in some places and destroying it completely in others.

“People don't really do that,” Tom said. “Careful, those roots.”

Cal stepped over them and felt his calves ache. “Sure they do.”

“Count sheep?” Tom frowned at him, definitely not the look Cal preferred. “Do you?”

It hadn't been a question Cal had considered having to answer himself. “Um...no. Not so much. Not actual sheep.”

“What do you do when you can't get to sleep?”

An elderly lady walking an equally elderly spaniel was in earshot, coming toward them at a slow pace that was still faster than Cal's. Cal waited until they'd passed by, the dog sniffing suspiciously at them both and its owner giving them an apologetic smile, before answering.

“I jerk off. Works like a charm.”

“Oh, I do that too,” Tom admitted without hesitation. “It doesn't make me sleepy, though. Just...relaxed, and that's not the same thing.”

“I guess not,” Cal said, caught up in a vision of Tom lying sated and sprawled out on his bed, his hand still resting on his cock, his stomach wet, that long, muscular body at ease. Definitely something he wanted to see for real. He flashed Tom a grin. “Maybe sex will work better. Feel free to ask for help anytime.”

Tom gave the little snort that seemed to be his version of a chuckle. “I'd say it's all you think about if it wasn't just about the only thing on my mind right now,” he said when they reached their house. “Which means the run worked, because any other time, I'd still be obsessing over my parents.”

“Yeah.” Cal stopped at the end of the driveway and reached out to stop Tom too. “Come here.”

“What?”

“Just come here.” He tugged Tom into a hug. “You don't care, do you? If people see?” He had to assume the answer was no, because Tom wasn't pulling away.

“No.” Tom sighed against Cal's neck and hugged him back. Cal wished they could just stay like that all day, even though he knew it wouldn't be long before his dick got ideas that involved less clothing and a less public forum. “Did you mean it? What you said before?”

Confused, Cal asked, “What did I say?”

“That you're my boyfriend?”

Cal pulled back so he could see Tom's face, gauge what he was asking. “I want to be, if that's what you want. If you don't...” That was a profoundly depressing thought.

Tom hastened to reassure him. “I do. That is what I want. Let's get you inside.”

Cal let Tom lead him inside and into the bathroom, pausing only long enough to take off their running shoes along the way.

“Sit.” Tom pointed at the toilet lid, and Cal sat. Tom started to run water into the tub. “I'm making it really hot. You should try to keep it that way, so only add as much cold as you absolutely need to.”

“You sound like an expert.”

“When I started running, I was in worse shape than you,” Tom said. “Carrying too much weight, no muscle tone. I'm still too big to be a runner in any competitive way. That's not what I'm interested in, so it doesn't matter. Anyway, the first few months, hell, every time I pushed myself too far, too fast, I suffered. Which is why I'm an idiot for not realizing that two miles for a beginner was a dumb idea.”

“Hey, I've got a mouth, even if someone stole my leg muscles when I wasn't noticing,” Cal protested. He got out of his sweat-soaked T-shirt and let it drop to the floor. “I could've turned back or told you it was more than I could manage.”

“No, you're too competitive to do that,” Tom said with a matter-of-fact acceptance of that facet of Cal's personality that Cal found interesting. He was competitive, very much so, for all his outward casual approach to life, and that bugged most men. “Okay, I'm going to stop apologizing for being selfish now.”

“You weren't—” Cal began, only to subside when Tom gave him a stern look. “Okay, okay, subject closed.” Steam was curling up from the water gushing into the tub, and Cal winced. “Jesus, I'm going to get out of there looking like a boiled lobster.”

“Don't say that.” Tom shuddered. “Freaks me out to think of how they cook them, and it's too much effort to get at the meat. Pick something I like to eat. How about, uh, a strawberry? Or a raspberry?”

“And that gets me eaten?” He knew he should lay off on the innuendo, but it was just too much fun to tease Tom.

Tom rolled his eyes, grinning. “Maybe. If you're not too exhausted. I bet when you get out of this bath, you'll be limp, not stiff, and then you won't be worth eating at all.”

“Ouch.” Cal lifted his ass just enough to tug down his shorts and the briefs he wore under them. “Hm. Looks edible to me.”

“It's not like you know that from personal experience,” Tom pointed out, turning off the water. His face was flushed, but that was probably from leaning over the hot water. “Unless you're way more flexible than I am.”

“Not even close.” Not that Cal had tried, but he felt like he knew either way. He was hard now—no way he could have avoided it when he was naked in Tom's presence. “Going to stay and keep me company?”

“Sure, if you want. Take it easy getting in there. It's nice and warm.”

That might have been the understatement of the day, Cal thought as he dipped his toes cautiously into water so hot that his first instinct was to snatch them back. “You just want to watch me squirm,” he said accusingly.

“Oh no,” Tom said without inflection. “You've discovered my insidious plan.”

“Jerk,” Cal muttered and gritted his teeth as he stepped into the tub. He knew Tom was right, that this was the best thing for his sore muscles. Still, the intensity of the heat was coming close to overwhelming, and even the blood in his cock was heading north in favor of cooler pastures.

“You can add some cold if you need to.” Tom leaned back against the sink.

“I don't.” There wasn't a way to gradually lower oneself to a sitting position, so Cal steeled himself and sat. “God.” He did feel like a lobster. Oddly, he was shivering, goose bumps breaking out on his arms as if he were immersing himself in cold water, not hot. He felt his skin prickle and tingle, his breathing as ragged as it had been when he was running.

“Okay?”

“I think my nerve endings must've been seared or something, because it's actually starting to feel good.” Cal moved cautiously, since each shift in position brought the water higher, lapping against relatively uncooked parts of his shoulders. He settled back and closed his eyes, drifting away on a sea of lava. The bath was big, roomy enough to feel luxuriously indulgent, and Cal was definitely a fan of that. “Mm. Yeah, my leg's definitely enjoying this.”

“Mm,” Tom echoed. “That's...” His voice trailed off and Cal opened his eyes.

Tom was staring at him, not in a furtive way, but frankly curious, his gaze sweeping slowly over Cal from head to toe. “You're hot.”

“What gave me away? The droplets of sweat?” His scalp itched, and he wanted to sink under the water. Caution told him to wait until it'd cooled a little.

“Hot as in...hot.” Tom reached out, his hand tentatively hovering over the surface of the water. “Can I, I mean would you mind if I—”

“All-access pass,” Cal assured him. “Touch me as much as you want, as long as you're prepared to deal with my reaction to it.”

“I like it when you get hard.” Tom trailed his fingers through the water, dipping in too shallowly to actually brush against skin. Cal shivered again and held very still. “It proves you're into me. At least, I think it does.”

“I couldn't even start to describe all the ways I'm into you.” Cal waited and watched as Tom's fingers broke the surface of the water again and then lifted away without touching him. It was the world's slowest tease; he couldn't look away.

Tom cleared his throat, but his voice was still husky. “You want me?”

“So much,” Cal whispered. “You have no idea.” He wanted to drop a hand into Tom's lap to see if he was getting hard too. The oversize T-shirt hid anything he might have seen.

Tom's index finger swirled a circle in the water. “You want to fuck me?” It sounded like an idle question, but Cal knew something important was behind it and that he needed to be completely honest.

“Yes.” He lifted his gaze to Tom's face, and Tom looked up at him at that same moment. “Yes, I want to fuck you. More than I've ever wanted anyone.” He couldn't let himself think about what it would be like. It was too much. He was already painfully hard just because of Tom's proximity. “What do you think?”

“I think I want to fuck you too.” Tom's hand plunged into the water, a smooth glide that barely rippled the surface, his fingertips finally touching Cal's skin in a slow caress across his stomach. It was like being touched by a lit match without the pain, a sizzle of heat that made the water Cal lay in feel tepid by comparison. “I know when you asked me in the shower I wasn't sure, but now I am.” Cal's momentary flicker of panic must've shown on his face, because Tom smiled, petting him through the water, muted pats of his hand, the water robbing them of speed and force. “You can go first,” Tom said. “Show me what to do. There's no rush for any of this, is there?”

That was another question with a measure of anxiety behind it, and Cal shook his head, willing his body not to arch up demandingly. “No rush at all. Any way you want it. I told you that. Fast, slow, you on top, or me. Whatever, it's all good, I swear—”

“You're babbling.” Tom took his hand lower, silencing Cal because he couldn't talk when his teeth were gritted. Tom was stroking his cock with fingertips that never quite stayed still long enough to register, the restless water adding to the sensation of being touched by a shadow. “God, I love making you look like this. I didn't think I could. I mean, you've done everything, and that's kind of intimidating.”

Cal couldn't look away from his cock and Tom's hand. He'd watched himself jerk off a thousand times and stared as his cock was sucked and licked or welcomed inside a tight, slicked-up hole, but this maddeningly elusive handjob under water was something else again.

“You're sure you've never done this before?” he managed to say, his body demanding that he move, thrust upward. “Got to tell you, you're driving me fucking crazy here.”

“You want me to stop?” Tom asked and actually took his hand out of the goddamn water.

Cal whined a protest, words escaping him for a moment because his hips had lifted involuntarily, and the head of his cock had broken the water. The kiss of cool air had felt shockingly good. Tom's hand back where it belonged would feel better.

“Tell me what you want me to do,” Tom murmured with a meek willingness to help that Cal didn't buy for a second. He was beginning to realize that being a virgin didn't stop someone from having some interesting fantasies. It felt as if he was starring in one of Tom's.

“I want you to do whatever you want, as long as both of us getting off is part of the plan. Should I get out of the water?” Cal was torn between offering what might be helpful and just letting Tom direct things.

Tom gave him a thoughtful, patient look, and Cal had to think it was unfair that the man was capable of patience at this moment. “No, stay where you are. Anything else would take too long.”

It was a little reassuring to hear that Tom didn't want to wait, and even more reassuring when his hand closed around Cal's dick again. “You gonna jerk me off?” Cal asked.

“Yeah, I think so.” Tom glanced at his face briefly, an assessing look. “I want to know that I can do this.”

“Do what?” Cal gasped as Tom's knuckle rubbed near the head of his cock. “I mean...” He wasn't sure he knew what he meant, because he was anxious for Tom to start moving his hand faster. “Without freaking out?”

“Why would I freak out?” Tom's hand was submerged to the wrist now as he tugged gently at Cal's balls, studying Cal almost like he was a science experiment. “No, I just want to know I can make you come. Like this, when it's not so spontaneous.”

“Jesus. You could probably make me come just by talking to me,” Cal said. “And no, that's not a request. Not right now, anyway. Just... Tom. Don't stop, okay?”

“Stopping isn't part of the plan,” Tom assured him kindly.

“There's a plan?” Cal inquired and heard his voice crack on the final word, because Tom, with more daring than Cal would've expected, slid a single, questing finger back. It didn't push inside Cal, but the light pressure sent a jolt of pleasure through him. That curious, tentative without being shy exploration was incredibly arousing, for some reason. Tom was a mix of confidence and hesitancy. Cal was finding it difficult to predict what he'd do or how far he'd go.

He liked that.

“There's a kind of plan,” Tom said.

Cal wasn't listening to Tom's words now, just the timbre of his voice. The low huskiness seemed to scratch pleasurably against him the way the stubble on Tom's chin did when they kissed. Tom was still doling out small, random touches as if he'd got a limited supply, and Cal appreciated each one keenly. The thin, sharp flash of arousal when the edge of Tom's fingernail ran slowly along the vein winding its way up the underside of Cal's cock made him gasp. The roar of sensation when Tom's thumb rubbed across the knot of nerve endings just under the head had his eyes closing for a moment. Hardest to bear without doing an Oliver impression and begging for more were the rare moments when Tom closed his hand, warm palm and long fingers, lightly around Cal's cock. Tom exerted no pressure, but it tormented Cal to the point of desperation because he needed to feel that circle of fingers tighten and squeeze.

“I really hope,” he managed to say, “that part of the plan is me coming. 'Cause I don't think I'm going to be able to avoid... God, Tom—” He was so close, so close.

“Oh, it is. That's what you want, right?” Tom teased at Cal's balls again, the skin there drawn so tight that Cal thought he might explode at any second.

“Yes.” Cal bit his lip as Tom stroked him just once before going back to light touches.

“Yes.” Tom shifted, knuckles bumping Cal's inner thigh, and Cal flashed on what it would feel like to have those knuckles rubbing their way inside him, and groaned, trembling.

“Come on,” Tom whispered. “Come for me.” And Cal did, watching himself as he spurted through Tom's fingers, gasping and jerking with relief.

When it was over, and the clouded water had cleared, he lay back, his heart pounding, and tried to remember the last time a climax had left him this wrung-out and blissed-out.

“You're evil,” he said in an exhausted whisper. “Pure evil and I loved every minute.”

“God, so did I,” Tom said. “Thanks for letting me do that.”

Cal choked on a laugh. “You're thanking me? Jesus, Tom, you just made me come so hard I nearly passed out. How does that qualify as me doing you a favor?”

“It just does.” Tom sat back on his heels, and Cal roused himself enough to peer over the side of the bath. Tom's hands were clenched into fists on his thighs, and he looked supremely uncomfortable. The hard-on pushing insistently against his shorts was probably to blame for that. “I should, uh, I'll be back in a minute.”

“Oh, no. Uh-uh,” Cal said with a lazy firmness. God, he was still feeling that climax, sweet aftershocks zinging through him as his body came down from its high. “You watched me. I wanna see what you do with that not-so-little problem you have there.”

Tom was flushed already, but the pink in his cheeks deepened, and Cal thought for a moment that he would make some excuse and leave. Concerned that he'd pushed too far, he opened his mouth to tell Tom not to worry about it. Before he could speak, Tom took a deep breath, a glint appearing in his eyes.

“Want to help me with it instead?”

“Anything,” Cal said, meaning it.

Tom stood and shoved his shorts, damp from sweat and splashed water, down and off. The hem of his long T-shirt was left draped over his erection, but he didn't shrug out of the T-shirt. After one glimpse of his rock-hard, wet-tipped cock, Cal could see why Tom didn't want to take those extra few seconds. The man looked ready to blow.

Shifting onto his knees, Cal winced as his softening cock made contact with the side of the tub, which wasn't nearly as cold as it would have been if it was empty. He didn't care about the hard surface. He was more interested in Tom's hard cock, and he braced a hand on the edge of the tub and leaned forward. He shoved Tom's T-shirt up with his other hand and put his mouth around the reddened tip, and before he could do anything else, Tom came.

Cal wasn't particularly surprised; he'd known it wouldn't take long. He steadied Tom with a hand on his hip and swallowed the salty fluid that shot into his mouth, massaging Tom's cock with lips and tongue to wring every bit of pleasure from him.

“Oh my God,” Tom said finally, panting, as Cal let his dick slip free. “I'm so sorry.”

“Don't be. You were amazing.” Cal kissed a freckle on Tom's thigh, then ran his tongue across the skin there slowly. Tom drew a shaky breath.

“I feel like we've spent most of the day wet.”

Cal chuckled and reached down, pulling the plug free to let the still-hot water drain away. “Yeah. Time to dry off.”

“And eat,” Tom added. “I'm starving.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Cal agreed.

By the time Cal had dried his hair and gotten dressed, Tom was already in the kitchen with something sizzling in a pan.

“Smells good.” Cal sniffed appreciatively.

“It's just onions and sliced potatoes,” Tom said. “I'm too hungry to do anything that takes a while, so I thought I'd make an omelet. They always end up a mess on the plate, but they taste good. Want to share it with me?”

“Sure,” Cal said, bracing himself to be polite if he was offered something charred and chewy. To his surprise, although the omelet slid onto his plate and promptly disintegrated into a colorful scramble, it tasted heavenly. Tom had added sliced green pepper and mushrooms, then the eggs, topping it with a generous helping of sliced cheese and tomatoes. Finished off under the broiler, the dish was bubbling hot and seasoned perfectly.

“I keep hoping one day it'll come out of the pan and flip in half the way it does on a cooking show. Instead it always sticks and falls apart,” Tom said around a mouthful of crusty bread.

“It's great,” Cal said. “I don't think I care what it looks like when it tastes like this. You can cook for me anytime.” Most of the meals they'd shared had been cooked by someone else, but now that he knew the truth, he was more than happy to encourage Tom.

“At least—” Tom started to say something, then stopped and shook his head, eyes trained on his plate.

“What?” Cal asked.

“I was going to say at least this meal isn't going to be spoiled by my parents.” Tom sighed. “Except for the part where bringing them up means that it is. I'm such an idiot.”

“You're not,” Cal said loyally. He was self-aware enough to recognize this was probably the stage in the relationship where he believed Tom was perfect. Even so, he couldn't imagine ever reaching a stage where he thought Tom was stupid. “Nothing could spoil this meal. It's just you and me.”

“Is it?” Tom looked up at him uncertainly, and Cal realized it was time to lay it all on the line. Tom deserved to feel as secure as Cal could make him.

“If you want it to be, it is. I don't want anyone other than you, okay? I'm not going to turn around tomorrow and bring some other guy home and go to bed with him. I'm serious about this. About you.”

Tom blinked. “You just went from talking about a meal to talking about our relationship. That's a big leap.”

“Well...”

“In fact, this whole steady-boyfriend situation is almost as big a deal for you as it is for me,” Tom continued, a frown creasing his forehead. “It's new for both of us, right? That's what you keep saying?”

“Well,” Cal said again and this time got to add, “I guess it is. So?”

Tom smiled at him. “I think it's sinking in that I'm not the only one who needs reassuring. Let me know when you need to hug it out or something once it hits you that you're stuck with me.”

“Not stuck,” Cal said firmly.

Tom sighed. “I've got to stop saying things that make you feel like you have to build me up or whatever. It's going to get old real quick.” He stood and walked over to the cupboard next to the sink. He rummaged inside it for a moment and then set a jar on the counter. “This gets a quarter every time you say something about how you're not going anywhere, and if I fill it, you've got my permission to—”

“You won't come close to filling it,” Cal said. “I'm done talking.” He got up from the table and went to Tom, stealing a kiss as soon as he was close enough. “Showing you is much more fun.”

He felt an amazing wave of emotions when Tom leaned in and returned the kiss before turning it into another, longer one. Relief, gratitude, awe, and something else that he had to assume was love swept through him. Had to assume, because he'd never been in love before.

Cal remembered his mother, of course. Not specific memories so much as a general sense of protection and well-being, the knowledge that he had been loved and taken care of. He remembered the scent of her hair when she knelt to tie his shoe and the slightly waxy feel her lipstick left behind on his cheek.

He didn't remember what losing her had been like. It was as if all that had been blocked out, and he wasn't convinced that was a bad thing. He suspected he'd never let himself love anyone else since, maybe for fear of losing them too. Or maybe that was just an idea he'd pieced together after having seen too many episodes of Dr. Phil.

It was fucked up, Cal thought, kissing Tom again, that love and sex were so tangled up together. Less than half an hour since a powerful orgasm, getting hard and coming weren't really on his mind. He just wanted to kiss Tom, as if there were

some way that kissing him could convince him of Cal's overwhelming feelings for him.

“I love you,” he said between kisses, and Tom put both hands on his hips. “I mean it.”

“I almost didn't ask you to come live here.” It sounded unrelated, but Cal could see where Tom was going with it. “God, I nearly missed out on getting to know you, on all of this.” He brushed his lips over Cal's forehead and then his temple, gentle touches, but with an intensity of feeling behind them that made Cal's skin flush with warmth. “I'm so lucky. When did that happen?”

“We should go out and buy lottery tickets or something.” Cal knew they'd gotten ridiculously sappy. He refused to care. It felt like he had a decade of romance to catch up on. “Or fly to Vegas and hit the jackpot.”

“Already feels like I did.” Tom's hands stroked Cal's hips. He looked like a kid who'd just realized that every present under the tree was what he'd asked Santa for.

We did,” Cal corrected him. He wasn't going to let Tom get away with thinking he was the only one who'd gotten lucky—in every sense of the word.

Tom grimaced, wrinkling his nose and making it look cute, though Cal was willing to admit he was besotted and therefore biased. “Did that just cost me a quarter?”

“Yeah,” Cal said. Tough love. He could do that too.

From upstairs came the sound of Tom's phone ringing.

“Your parents?” Cal asked, trying not to let his inward wince show on his face. He didn't want to deal with more rudeness from those two that left Tom hurt. Tom shook his head.

“They get their own ring,” he said. “Unless they're calling from a different phone. I'm surprised I haven't heard from them yet, actually. They must be more pissed off than I thought.” He patted Cal's hip and started for the staircase. “We should do something. A movie?”

“Sure, if you want.” Cal felt easygoing and mellow and probably would have agreed to another cramp-inducing run if Tom had proposed one. He decided he might as well do some dishes first and was rinsing off their plates when Tom came back downstairs, still talking on the phone.

“Yeah, of course. Where are you going?” Tom looked worried. “Okay. Don't worry about it. Just concentrate on Marianne.” To Cal, he said, “Put your shoes on. Yeah, Derek. Go. We'll see you in a little while.”

“What's going on?” Cal asked, even as he moved to do as he'd been told.

Tom flipped his phone shut and put it into his pocket. “Marianne's blood pressure is up. She's at Saint Vincent's, and Derek ran out of the house so fast he thinks he left the stove on. We're going over to check.”

“Oh God.” Cal was clueless about the possible implications, but for Derek— calm, unflappable Derek—to be freaking out like this, it had to be serious. Or maybe babies just did that to people. “Is she going to be okay?”

Tom lifted his hands, palms up. “I don't have a clue,” he said helplessly. “I guess it's one of those things that being pregnant makes worse because they can't treat it, or maybe it affects the baby, or maybe it's nothing and they'll just check her out and send her home. I just don't know.”

Company in his ignorance helped. Cal still felt as if he were floundering, though, a sensation he wasn't used to. Pushing his unease aside, he fastened his shoes and grabbed his jacket. “Let's go.”

Chapter Fifteen

The drive over didn't take long, with Tom clearly concerned but not panicking the way that Derek obviously had. Cal couldn't help wondering what would happen when the baby actually arrived. He didn't know much about raising kids, but he could guess that the stress levels didn't go down much no matter how old they were.

It was early evening now, the summer night warm around them as they got out of the car. Tom walked up to the front door and pressed down on the latch. “Shit, it's locked,” he said blankly.

“He took the time to lock it?”

“I guess he was on automatic pilot.” Tom rattled the latch one more time before

giving up. “Or it was already locked and they went out through the garage.”

“I'm guessing you don't have a key?” Cal said, already knowing the answer.

“Why would I have a key?” Tom's voice rose. “I don't even know them that well! Why did he call us? Why not someone who does have a key?”

“Calm down,” Cal said absently, studying the windows. Closed. They'd probably left the air-conditioning on and the whole house shut up tightly. “He most likely just called the first person he thought of who lived nearby. We can try around the back. Maybe even if we can't get in, we can look at the stove through a window and see if there's a light on or something?”

“I am calm,” Tom said. “It's just that I told him I'd help, and now I can't. I hate that.”

“If we have to, I'll break a window,” Cal said with a soothing pat on Tom's shoulder. “I don't want them to come back and find the house has burned down or the oven is ruined.”

Tom set off around the back of the house at a quick walk, and Cal followed him, moving more slowly, breathing in the mingled scent of the flowers and still feeling a few twinges in his legs. The garden was looking a little neglected, running riot more than it was supposed to, but the colors were glorious.

The side door and the patio doors leading out into the garden were also locked. Cal wasn't surprised. The area was a good one, but in some ways that meant that it was a tempting target for opportunistic thieves. It didn't take long to steal a high-end bike left out on a driveway or slip inside an open door and grab a purse left out on a counter. Derek would have been as aware of the risks as anyone was.

“Shit.” Tom kicked one of Marianne's urns overflowing with a profusion of white, blue, and purple flowers that Cal couldn't have named if he tried. It wobbled and settled back down onto the patio with a thunk. “Okay, that hurt.”

“Don't break your toes,” Cal told him. He stood, hands on hips, and looked at the patio door. “Maybe if I jiggle it I can get the lock to give.”

“It wouldn't be much of a lock if you could do that,” Tom pointed out as Cal grabbed hold of the handle and jiggled.

An ear-piercingly loud alarm started to split the air. Cal stepped back away from the house as a reflex, bumped into Tom, then clapped his hands over his ears. “Shit!”

“You think?” Tom gave him an exasperated look. “We're screwed. How long do you think it will take for the police to get here?”

“Why, do you think we should make a run for it?” Cal asked sarcastically; that was the last thing they should do, unless they wanted to chance being arrested. Cal preferred to avoid it.

“No,” Tom said. “I've seen how fast you can run. We'd never make it.”

“You—” Exasperated and amused at the same time, Cal punched Tom's arm. “I'm going to train in secret and challenge you to a race, Mr. Hare.”

“Bring it on.” Tom took out his phone. “How about I call Derek and let him know he's going to need to vouch for us? It might take his mind off what's going on.”

“It might get us both fired,” Cal said with less optimism, “but sure. I think I hear sirens. Or is it the clang of the cell door?”

“We won't get arrested,” Tom said confidently. “We didn't do anything wrong.”

“Those two sentences aren't mutually...” Cal flapped his hand in the air, searching for the right words. “They're not necessarily both true. I mean, they don't follow.”

“I get you,” Tom said. “Honestly, I'm not worried.”

The sirens were wailing now. Cal was impressed by the response time, but he couldn't help hoping that the police got lost or were heading to somewhere else. He'd never been arrested, never even gotten a ticket. Somehow, that wasn't much comfort with the sirens getting closer.

Tom walked over to a bench set under some lilac bushes, all green now, their flowers long since faded. Cal listened to his conversation with Derek with one ear and tracked the approaching police car with the other.

It probably happened all the time that people set off their own alarms, he reasoned. Not that he'd chance pretending he was Derek, since they'd probably want to see ID, and the potential culprits were just standing around waiting for their arrival. In fact, the best thing to do might be to go out front. He wouldn't want Tom to think he was scared of how this was going to go down.

Cal walked to the end of the driveway and stood near the street, hands at his sides, as the police car pulled up and two officers got out. One was a guy, the other a woman.

“Hi,” Cal said before either of them could say anything. “We're really sorry about this.”

“What's going on?” the woman asked. Her partner was talking into a phone, telling the security company to override the alarm.

“My friend Derek Becker lives here. He had to take his wife—she's pregnant— to the hospital, and they ran out of here so fast that he was worried he left the oven on, so he asked me and my—um, boyfriend, to come over and check. And I guess I jiggled the door handle a little too hard.” He shrugged, trying to look small and unthreatening and honest.

“And where is he? Your boyfriend?”

Cal looked just as Tom came around the corner, cell phone still in hand. At the sight of the cops, Tom faltered, slowed, and held up his hand with the phone in it. “It's a cell phone,” he said clearly. “Not a gun or anything.”

“Just come over here, sir,” said the male cop, and the alarm chose that moment to go suddenly silent, thank God. The quiet was almost painfully loud in comparison.

Tom walked over to the cops, pausing a reasonable distance away. “I've got Derek on the phone,” he said. “He's kind of stressed out about his wife, just to warn you.”

The female cop took the phone from him with a roll of her eyes. “This is Officer Denton. Who am I speaking to?”

Cal didn't pay much attention to the conversation once the officer relaxed, a look of impatience, not suspicion, in her eyes. “Sir, is there anyone who has a key to the house? A family member, a neighbor...? It's where?”

The other officer sighed. “Let me guess. Under a fake stone.”

It turned out to be buried in the planter that Tom had kicked, something that did at least prove once and for all that Derek was who he said he was. Tom dug his hands into the potting soil, saving Cal from volunteering, and found it quickly, dirty and stained but usable. He passed it over to Officer Denton, who led the way back around to the front of the house. Cal was keenly aware of twitching curtains and curious eyes as Derek and Marianne's neighbors enjoyed the excitement. He felt a blush crawl up over his face. Shit, this day was going from good to bad to good and then to totally screwed. He couldn't keep up.

The front door swung open, and Cal sniffed at the air. No smoke, no smoke alarm, no problem. It wasn't as if he'd wanted the stove to be full of charred chicken or whatever Derek had been cooking, but it would at least have made all this worthwhile.

Officer Denton strode into the kitchen and pulled down the oven door. “There's a lasagna in here,” she reported, “but it's barely warm. Guess he did turn it off.”

“Of course he did,” Cal said with a groan. “We're so sorry about all this.”

“We understand,” the woman said. “Just don't let it happen again, okay?” The police officers waited in their car out front until Cal and Tom had relocked the front door before they left, and it wasn't until they had that Cal was able to relax.

“Okay, I think Derek and Marianne owe us big time for this one.” He leaned on the roof of Tom's car and sighed.

Tom was already getting behind the wheel, so Cal got into the car too. “Tell me about it,” Tom said.

“So where to?” Cal asked, hoping Tom would point the car in the direction of home.

“The hospital,” Tom said. “I want to make sure Derek doesn't need anything, and I'm sure it would be good for them to see a friendly face.”

Tom, Cal decided, was a much nicer person than he was. Without Tom, he might have been tempted to wallow in annoyance for the brief circus he'd just been treated to through no fault of his own. “You're so nice,” he said out loud. “How is it even possible?”

Giving him a funny look, Tom said, “I'm not that nice. You're just seeing what you want to see because of...lust, or whatever.”

“Right, because when I'm lusting after someone, that's exactly what I'm thinking about, where he'd fall on the niceness scale.” Cal rolled his eyes.

“What do you think about?” Tom asked, his curiosity evident.

No one but Tom would've asked that, or no one Cal knew would've, because the answer was depressingly obvious.

“How good they'll be in bed,” Cal said with a sigh at his shallowness. “What I can get them to do for me in bed. If they'll look as good naked as they do when they're dressed, and if their dick's going to be bigger than mine, and if I'll mind if it is or just enjoy it. It's lust, Tom. It's not that deep.”

Tom started the car and waited until he'd pulled out of the drive to say, “You thought all that about me?”

“Not really. We kind of skipped over that.” His conscience was clear there, at least. Sort of. “I liked you first, and I knew you. It made all the difference.”

“I thought about you naked,” Tom said with his customary frankness. “You're easily the hottest man I've ever met, and even when I was pissed at you for bringing that guy back, I still couldn't stop thinking about you. If you're shallow, I'm a puddle.”

“I'm kind of hoping I'm getting past shallow,” Cal said. “I think it's time.”

“Wait, what?” Tom gave him a concerned look. “Please tell me that's not what all this is about. You think it's time for you to, what, settle down, become half of a couple, and I just happened to be around when you came to this epiphany?”

Oh, jeez. “No,” Cal said quickly, putting a hand on Tom's thigh for emphasis. “No, it's not like that at all. It's the other way around, in fact. I met you, and I started having all these...feelings, like I wanted something other than a fast fuck and a half-decent orgasm. I was thinking with something other than my dick for once.” His brain, running in confused circles, came back to a different point. “I can't possibly be the hottest man you've ever met.”

“You are.”

“I can't be.” This wasn't protesting to be polite. Cal was serious. “I mean, sure, I'm slightly more than okay looking, but I don't have a six-pack or big biceps. I don't have a huge dick, and I'm not just being modest when I say no one has ever asked if I'd thought about modeling.”

Tom glanced over at him. “It doesn't have anything to do with any of that. It's about, I don't know, something undefinable. Indefinable? One of those. It's just that you're...well, confident. Or something.”

“And being confident makes me attractive?” At this point, Cal could see where Tom was taking this, and he understood, but he sort of wanted to hear Tom say it out loud again.

“It does to me. I knew guys like you at school, and it was like they had this magic about them. Sure, most of them had good looks, but it was more than that. It was something inside them that made them attractive, and yeah, some of them abused it and they were assholes, but not all of them. Some were just...golden. You're like that. When we met at that party, I still don't know how I got the nerve up to talk to you, and when you just walked away to pick up your date, it was high school all over again.”

“I'm sorry.” Cal winced at the memory. “I didn't know you then.”

“I haven't changed,” Tom said. “You cut my hair and got me some new clothes, but I'm just the same now as I was at that party, and you didn't see me then and now you do. The change is in you, not me.”

Cal wished he was the one driving so that he would have had an excuse for being quiet for a minute or two. As it was, there was no explanation for his silence as he struggled to find words. “You're right,” he said finally. “I feel like you think that's a bad thing.”

“That you've changed? Or that I haven't?” Tom shrugged. “It's not that I think either is a bad thing. I just think it's good to make sure it's out in the open. That we both recognize it as the truth.”

“You think I'm fooling myself?” Cal didn't like the idea of Tom believing none of this was real.

“No, it's not that either. I just want to make sure neither of us is...harboring any delusions.”

Cal laughed. “Harboring any delusions? Seriously?”

Tom gave him a look that might have been a little bit desperate. “Don't, okay? I don't want to argue about it.”

“I'm not arguing,” Cal said. “I promise. And I don't disagree with you. It's better for both of us to go into this with our eyes open. I just want to make sure what you're seeing is what's really there and not what you're afraid of, you know? You're fooling yourself if you think I'm some kind of...golden boy. Maybe, if I'd been the high school quarterback and straight. But that's not the way it was.”

“I can imagine you like that,” Tom said. “Making out with a cheerleader under the bleachers.”

“I don't even like football.” Cal wondered wildly how they'd even gotten to this topic of conversation. “And I've known I was gay forever. There's never been a cheerleader. Why are we even talking about this?”

“I don't know.” Tom sounded tired as he pulled the car into the entrance to Saint Vincent's. “I didn't mean to be. I was just trying to explain, so you'd understand.”

“I've never had to work so hard to make someone believe I liked them before,” Cal said helplessly.

The silence from Tom as he drove into the parking lot was worrying. Cal didn't like Tom being quiet and withdrawn, even if when he did say something, it often left Cal feeling like a sock in the dryer.

“Maybe that's what you like,” Tom offered finally, parking the car next to a minivan left at an angle, as if someone had been in a hurry. “Working hard, I mean. It's different. The only problem is, you've got me now. I'm not a challenge anymore. I'm...easy.”

“You're not,” Cal said with conviction. “You're a lot of things, Tom, but a pushover isn't one of them. And you're putting a quarter in that jar of yours when we get back.”

Tom tossed the keys he was holding up into the air and caught them, the muted jingle of metal loud in the enclosed space. He nodded without looking at Cal. “Okay. I can do that.”

“Hey,” Cal said gently. Tom didn't look at him. “Hey. Tom.”

Finally, Tom looked at him. It was the kind of look not meant to be more than a glance—

Cal could see that clearly—but once their eyes were locked it was as if Tom couldn't look away.

“I love you,” Cal said. “I don't know how it happened, but I know how lucky I am, and it doesn't have anything to do with you being a challenge, or not being a challenge.” Tom's uncertainty was starting to chip away at Cal's confidence, making him wonder if it was true that he actually wasn't capable of a real relationship. What if Tom was right? “Give me a break here, would you? Otherwise I might start believing I really am an asshole.”

“You need to get a jar too,” Tom said. “You're not an asshole. I couldn't like you this much if you were, and I do. More than that. I...I need you. I mean, I—” Tom closed his eyes, screwing them up tightly for a moment. “I want to say it, and I can't.”

It was easy to guess what was sticking in Tom's throat, and for all that Cal wanted to hear Tom say it, he knew it wasn't something that Tom would ever say lightly.

“I don't want to hear it until you're ready,” Cal said. “Look, just kiss me and let's go and see Derek. He's probably wearing a hole in the carpet and bugging the nurses to death.”

“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “We should do that.” He leaned in close. “All of it.”

Every time Tom kissed him, he got better at it, Cal decided when they'd broken apart and gotten out of the car. There was still a hint of tentativeness at the start, but it was fading fast, and Cal was left wondering what it would be like to be kissed by Tom when he was holding nothing back. Maybe tonight, in bed, with Tom naked beside him, he'd find out.

Anticipation had him hurrying toward the hospital doors. They'd see Derek, find out what was happening, go home, grab some food, and then he'd do all that he could to show Tom how he felt.

It took much too long to find out where Derek and Marianne were. Marianne had been admitted and taken to the sixth floor, and once they found the room, it was empty. A harried redheaded nurse, her hair tied back, told them that Marianne had been taken for tests and that they'd have to wait.

“I'm sorry,” she said, then turned her attention back to a file on the countertop.

“Maybe we should just leave them a note or something?” Cal suggested. Tom shook his head.

“No, I want to be able to tell Derek that everything at the house is okay. The last thing he needs is something else to worry about, you know?” Tom sighed; then his face brightened. “There he is.”

Cal looked down the hallway and saw Derek, who smiled at them as he hurried to join them. “Hey, what are you two doing here?”

“Checking on you and Marianne and the baby,” Tom said. “I wanted to make sure you knew everything at the house is fine, which it is. Sorry about the fiasco with the police and the security alarm and everything.”

“Don't worry about it. I should have realized you couldn't get in. I was just so distracted. They did some kind of stress test and the baby's fine. They're going to keep Marianne overnight, at least, try to get her blood pressure down. Her mom's with her now.” Derek gestured toward the room Tom and Cal had originally been sent to. “She wants me to grab her lip stuff. She says the air in here makes her lips dry out.”

“Is there anything we can do?” Tom asked.

Derek shook his head. “I don't think so. Y'know, it means a lot that you guys came over. I didn't tell Marianne about it—didn't want to worry her—but when she's better, she'll get a kick out of hearing about how you two nearly got driven away in a cop car.”

Cal felt a stab of annoyance. Sure, it was the kind of story he could spin at a dinner table and have people laughing until they cried, but right now he was too close to it to find it all that funny. Something of that must've shown on his face, because Tom stepped in, distracting Derek with another query about Marianne and allowing Cal to regain his good temper.

“If you're sure there's nothing we can do, we'll get out of here,” Tom said when Derek had finished telling them about the car drive to the hospital, with every light going red until his blood pressure had rivaled Marianne's. “Marianne will think you've forgotten what she sent you to get.”

A look of sheer panic crossed Derek's face, and Cal took pity on him. “Lip stuff,” he said kindly and watched relief replace panic.

“Right. Thanks.”

“Call later and let us know if you need anything,” Cal told him.

“I think we'll be okay. I can always send Cheryl—I don't think you've met her? Marianne's mom—to the house for stuff. Thanks. For everything.”

Tom hesitated, then stepped forward and hugged Derek, who looked in turn surprised and then relieved and hugged Tom back.

“Thanks,” Derek said softly.

Tom patted his shoulder and said, “No problem,” projecting so much genuine friendliness that it took Cal's breath away.

It took an effort, but Cal waited until they were in the parking lot before he said, “I seriously have no idea how you avoided having a boyfriend until now.”

“I seriously have no idea how I have a boyfriend now,” Tom said.

“You're such a nice person.”

“I think the next time you tell me what a nice guy I am, I'm going to scream.” Tom unlocked the car. “And maybe break things. I'm not kidding. Who the hell have you been hanging out with? Because I'm not some saint. I'm just a guy, your average, run-of-the-mill guy. I'm not nicer than half the people you'd meet on the street.” He genuinely seemed to believe this.

“You are.” Cal held up both hands. “No, don't scream. Just listen to me. You are nicer.”

“Then why do I want to punch you when you say it?” Tom asked. “Or go out and be rude to a sweet old lady to show you I can? I'm not nice; I just know what it's like to be on the receiving end. There's no way I'd ever put someone down or laugh at them when I know how it feels. Who would?”

“Plenty of people,” Cal said. “A lot of people who're bullied turn into bullies themselves.”

“Just because you read that in a magazine waiting to get your teeth cleaned doesn't make it true,” Tom snapped and got into the car, slamming his door harder than necessary.

Cal slid into the passenger seat, closing his door with less force. “Okay, that verged on testy. Congratulations?”

“Why do you push at me so much?” Tom demanded, pulling off with a stab at the gas pedal that made the car lurch forward. “I've lost my temper with you before, and I can do it again. Is that what you want? Me mad at you?”

“No,” Cal said, realizing that Tom was mad, which certainly hadn't been his intention. “No, that's not what I want. Why would I want that?”

“I don't know.” Tom pulled out onto the street. “Maybe you don't really want to be in a relationship at all, and if you piss me off I'll break up with you and you can tell yourself it wasn't your fault.”

“What?” Cal was honestly shocked. “Are you kidding me?”

Tom shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road. “Seems like a reasonable possibility.”

“Well, it's not. You're wrong. I'm not trying to push at you, or whatever you think I'm doing. I don't get why telling you how nice you are is a bad thing.”

“Maybe because you've never wanted anyone nice before, so maybe you don't really want me either.”

“Oh.” Cal sat quietly and thought about this, because he wanted to be able to say that he'd taken the idea seriously rather than just dismissed it out of hand. “No,” he said finally. “It's not that. It's more that I don't think I could possibly deserve you. However, I'll try to stop saying it if it's making you crazy.”

“It's just...you wonder why I've never had a boyfriend because I'm so nice? What planet are you from?” Tom sounded sincerely bewildered, the words lacking the sarcastic edge someone else would've given them—which just proved Cal's point, though he wasn't going to share that particular observation with Tom. “Men don't want nice. They want hot and confident, and they couldn't give a fuck if I'll never two-time them or never ever take them for granted because I know how lucky I am to have anyone give me a second look, let alone someone like you.”

“Oh my God, stop. Just stop it already, okay? I'm not some huge prize, and I'm not going to cheat on you or take you for granted just because I'm hot or whatever, so just shut up about how no one is going to appreciate you because all men want is confident assholes! I appreciate you for who you are, or at least I do when you aren't being an idiot.

Tom took one quick glance in the mirror and pulled over to the side of the road without indicating, going from forty to zero suddenly enough to make the car shudder and Cal yelp as he was flung forward, his seat belt cutting into his shoulder.

“So now I'm an idiot? Is that a step up from nice?” Tom put the car into park with a savage yank and rounded on Cal. His gray eyes were blazing, his mouth a thin line, and Cal wished they were having this argument back at home, because if ever someone needed the temper fucked out of him, Tom did.

“Sure, if you want it to be.” Cal wanted to grab Tom and shake him, wanted to shove him up against the nearest solid surface and kiss him. “You don't want to be nice?”

“No,” Tom growled. “But I'm sure as hell not an idiot.”

Cal reached out and curled a hand into the front of Tom's shirt. “Prove it.”

“How?”

“Stop fighting and kiss me.” Cal added deliberately, knowing what it would do to Tom's temper, “Be nice to me.”

Tom made a sound that reminded Cal of an infuriated kitten protesting the loss of a toy, an aggravated hiss followed by a growl deep in his throat. He made the mistake of grinning, and Tom kissed him, a hard smack of teeth and lips against his. He lost the smile, his body channeling all the major and minor frustrations of the day into arousal, plain and simple.

They were both hampered by seat belts, yet Cal managed to get his hands on skin easily enough, shoving up Tom's shirt and sliding his hands over Tom's stomach and chest, opening his mouth for Tom's tongue as he did it.

That didn't seem to mollify Tom at all, not that Cal cared. Tom bit down on Cal's lip and grabbed a handful of hair, using his grip to angle Cal's face to suit him. Cal told himself he was in control and was allowing Tom to work out his issues in a more productive way than conversations that just seemed to make matters worse, but he wasn't sure he believed it. When Tom let go of his inhibitions, he didn't hold back, and Cal was honest enough to admit that it was exhilarating being on the receiving end.

“Nice enough for you?” Tom muttered. He bit Cal's lip again, harder this time. Cal groaned into Tom's mouth and let himself be kissed however Tom wanted. The thought struck him that under other circumstances—not here in the car, because he could have bolted out the passenger door if needed—Tom could overpower him without much effort, and for some reason that thought made him groan again.

“I want to blow you,” Cal whispered, and it was Tom's turn to groan.

“Here? In the car?” He tightened his hand on the back of Cal's neck. “You would, wouldn't you. Right here where anyone could see.”

“I would, if you let me. Suck you until you come, make you feel so good...”

Tom kissed him again, cutting off whatever else Cal might have said. Not that he had any idea what it would have been, because thinking wasn't high on his list of priorities just at that moment, not with an eager erection shoved against the front of his slacks and an even more eager Tom kissing him.

A car went by, the dusk deep enough now that its headlights were on, splashing the interior of Tom's car with light like a dash of cold water, making them draw apart. The separation didn't last long. The car was parked under a tree, shadowed by it, and the street was a quiet one, large houses with long drives, homes full of families eating supper. For now, they were safe.

Cal undid his seat belt and shifted closer, his hand dropping to cover the bulge in Tom's jeans where his cock lay full and hard. His lips parted, remembering how it'd felt to have his mouth filled and fucked by Tom, who hadn't held back then either. “I would,” he repeated, the words rasping his dry throat. He knew what would ease it. “God, you don't know how much I want to feel you shoot down my throat and hear you say my name when you do it.”

“I wish you could.” Tom's thumb was restlessly stroking the skin below Cal's ear and sending shivers through him. “Earlier, in the bathroom, the way you opened up for me when I was so close, shit, you don't know how hard it was to wait until I was inside you. I nearly came just from the way you were looking at me, the way you'd let me touch you like that.” He nuzzled against Cal's throat, biting at it until the skin stung. Cal clutched at his arms, pressing closer still, silently encouraging Tom because he couldn't think of anything to say now that wasn't just yes or harder. “You don't make me feel like I'm new to all this.”

“You don't feel new to it, that's why,” Cal managed to say. “Jesus, Tom, we need to—”

“Get a room?” Tom said with a choked-off laugh that held an edge of desperation to it. “Yeah, we do.”

“We have one. We have a whole house.” Cal let his fingers trace over Tom's cock lightly, deliberately being gentle because it was time to get control of this situation so they could get home, preferably as soon as possible. “If I keep my hands to myself, you think you can drive us back there?”

Tom caught Cal's wrist and brought Cal's hand to his mouth, kissed the knuckles roughly. “Maybe. If you keep your hands to yourself.”

“I'll try,” Cal said. “It's not easy, though.”

“I know the feeling.” Tom steeled his jaw—making Cal wonder if it hurt his teeth to clench them that tightly—and put the car in drive again.

It felt like forever before they pulled into their driveway, but Cal managed to keep from touching Tom until they reached the front porch, when Tom was unlocking the door. That was when his control snapped and he couldn't help himself anymore. He stepped up close behind Tom and wrapped both arms around Tom's waist. He slid one hand higher to Tom's chest while the other trailed down toward his cock.

Tom turned the key, slowly, so slowly that Cal could see the fine tremor in his hand as he completed the action, could feel that same shake in the body he held, as if Tom's control was seconds away from shattering.

“Inside.” Cal could barely hear the word through the pounding of blood in his ears. “God, please.”

They stumbled through the door, and Cal kicked it shut behind them. The noise it made as it slammed echoed in his head and was as quickly forgotten, because Tom turned in his arms and kissed him again. Their mouths struck, collided, all the heat of the kisses they'd exchanged in the car still there, the spice of the argument still present, though Cal didn't think that Tom was pissed with him now.

“Upstairs,” Tom said, his fingers digging into Cal's ass, his breath hot against Cal's face. “Be nice to me upstairs, Cal, and—I don't care if the fucking house burns down—don't stop. God, don't make me wait.”

There was no way Cal would fuck Tom like this, because he wasn't going to chance it going wrong, but he wouldn't say that now. He'd get Tom upstairs and do whatever else it took to get him off, hopefully more than once, and they'd worry about fucking another time. Hell, Tom could fuck him, maybe—and if Cal hadn't already been hard, that thought would have taken him there.

“Upstairs,” he agreed, and somehow they managed to make it there without either of them getting hurt. They stumbled into Tom's room, shedding clothes as they went.

Tom shoved Cal unceremoniously up against the wall and kissed him, grinding that impressive erection alongside Cal's. “Sorry,” Tom said.

Cal had no idea what he was apologizing for and didn't care. “Nope. Please tell me you've got lube somewhere and a condom?” He had both in his own room; he just didn't want to have to go that far to retrieve them.

“Yeah, somewhere.” Tom sounded hazy on the details. “Got them somewhere— Cal—”

Hearing Tom say his name like that, with so much longing, did things to Cal, shredding what was left of his doubts. Tom needed him as much as he needed Tom, and they'd make this work, getting past all their issues; he knew they would. Filled with a lust-fueled euphoria he hoped Tom shared, Cal couldn't imagine anything stopping them.

“Need them,” he said. “If we're going to do this, we need—”

“I know, I know.” Tom cupped Cal's face in his hands, staring down at him, his pupils dilated, his hair tousled wildly. “You want to do this, right? It's not just me?”

“Of course it's not just you.” Cal leaned forward and kissed Tom hard, lips bruised against teeth. “You have to be able to feel how much I want you.” He slid his hands around to Tom's ass and pulled Tom forward, rubbing against him. “There, feel that?”

Tom made a little whimpering sound and shoved his hips more firmly into Cal's. “God, I want you so much. Don't even care what we do. I just know I want to be naked with you, feel you...”

“Race you to the bed,” Cal said daringly and was surprised by how quickly Tom pulled back and stripped off his pants. “Hey, no fair!”

“How is this no fair?” Tom kicked his underwear away and leaped onto the bed. “What do I win?”

“Win?” Cal was still removing the rest of his own clothes, and he couldn't help but be distracted by the sight of Tom. “How about me?”

Tom rose to his knees, giving Cal even more to look at. He might have lost the race, but he got to see Tom unselfconsciously posing for him. It more than made up for coming in second. When they got the chance to catch their breath, he was going to capture Tom on film, getting closer to him in a way that was second nature to Cal. Through a lens, he saw people differently, each shot revealing more than motion could. He couldn't wait to discover what Tom photographed like. Maybe a series of shots with Tom bundled up in his baggy clothes, removing them item by item, revealing that lean, strong, utterly edible body...

“You make the best prize ever,” Tom said, jolting Cal out of his reverie. He crooked his finger, a teasing glint in his eyes. “Come here and let me admire you.”

Cal licked his lips and walked slowly over to the bed, running a hand down along his bare stomach as he did so. He could imagine the picture he presented and could see it reflected on Tom's face, the hunger in Tom's gaze clear. “I hope,” he said, climbing onto the mattress with one knee and then the other, “that your admiration is going to take the form of hands. And lips. Maybe tongue?”

Taking hold of his hips, Tom turned him and pressed him down onto the bed. “All of those,” he agreed. “And what about you?”

“Me? I was kind of hoping”—Cal kissed Tom's shoulder—“that maybe”—he kissed the curve of Tom's jaw, feeling the prickle of stubble on his sensitive mouth— “you'd be willing to fuck me.” He watched Tom's face while he said it, to gauge Tom's reaction, and was gratified to see Tom's eyes darken further with arousal.

“I thought we were going to do it the other way around.”

“I usually do,” Cal admitted. “But I don't want your first experience with penetration to be on the end where you could get hurt. It'd kill me to hurt you.”

“It's more likely to be you wanting to kill me.” Tom chewed at his lip indecisively, even though his hands were warm and sure on Cal, stroking his skin, petting him as if Tom couldn't bear not to be touching Cal when they were this close. “You're sure about this?”

“Honestly? Yes.”

“Okay, but you go on top,” Tom said unexpectedly. “Right now I'm so turned on, I might not be able to take it slow, and that way, you'll be the one controlling things.”

It was a sign of how inexperienced Tom was that he thought being on top meant you were automatically the one in control. However, it didn't seem like the time to point that out. It was the kind of thing he'd figure out sooner or later on his own, and Cal was more interested in touching every inch of Tom than lecturing him on the finer points of sex. “Okay, yes. Whatever you want. Where's your stuff? Lube?”

“I think it's under the mattress.” Tom dropped an arm down off the bed and squirmed briefly before coming up with a small bottle and a wrapped condom.

“You keep condoms under your mattress?” Cal asked, grinning.

Tom pinched Cal's left nipple. “I do now. What? I'm not allowed to hope?”

“Oh, you can hope, and if you tell me what you want, I'll try to make sure you get all of it. Everything.” Cal meant it. “I want to give you everything.”

“Right now, I just want to come,” Tom said with a groan. “God, I feel like I've been hard for hours. I'm aching. And that's just weird. I mean, we've done nothing but have sex all day. I should be exhausted and I'm—” His eyes widened. “Jesus, I'm insatiable. A sex addict. Shit.”

Cal bit his lip to stop himself laughing. He was never sure if Tom meant some of the things he said or if it was his own peculiar brand of humor. Either way, Tom made him smile. “I think we can hold off a few more days before we check you into rehab.”

“If you say so.” Yes, that was definitely his tongue tucked into his cheek.

“You're going to regret winding me up,” Cal told him with his best imitation of severity. A raging hard-on made it difficult to carry off. “I'm going to ride you like a pony, and when I'm done—”

“Rode hard and put away wet,” Tom murmured, not seeming to be at all apprehensive. “God, hurry.”

“You're the one holding the condom,” Cal pointed out.

“What? Oh!” With less fumbling than Cal had expected—though there was no reason why Tom couldn't have practiced, after all—Tom opened the packet and rolled the condom over his rigid cock.

“Now you need this. Or do I do it?” Tom asked, the bottle of lube in his hand. A small frown creased his forehead.

“Put some on you first.” Cal shifted to the side to give Tom room and took the bottle from him when he was done with it. “Now put some on me. It's okay if there's a lot. We might have to change the sheets afterward. It'll be worth it, trust me.”

“I do.” Tom drizzled more lube over two fingertips and brushed them over the skin behind Cal's balls and along the seam of Cal's ass, pausing to tease at his hole. Cal gasped and lifted his hips involuntarily, seeking more.

“Yeah, like that. Just get everything all wet, and—”

Tom was easing a fingertip inside him, just the tiniest amount, cautious about it, and it felt better than Cal remembered. It had been years since he'd been fucked, and he was more than a little bit anxious about it, which he knew wasn't going to help the experience. He needed to adjust his thinking, to look forward to the push and stretch of Tom's cock inside him. “Tell me if it's too much,” Tom said.

“No, it's good. Now just—” It didn't seem like Tom needed the direction Cal was trying to give him. The slick slide of his finger, deeper, and crooking to find Cal's prostate, made Cal close his eyes and pant for control. “God. What the hell have you been reading?”

Reading? Oh, I get it. Just, stuff, you know,” Tom said vaguely. “Online mostly. Porn movies. Though they tend to skip straight to the action. Still feel okay?”

Cal felt sweat break out along his forehead. “Yeah,” he said, his voice tight. “That's—” He lost the battle to stay cool and exhaled sharply. “That's so fucking good.”

“Ready for more?” How Tom managed to make a simple question out of something another man would've turned into an innuendo, Cal didn't know.

“More lube.”

The loss of Tom's finger, withdrawn at a glacial pace, gave Cal the chance to regroup and make a conscious effort to relax for what came next.

“Two fingers now?” Tom asked.

Cal shook his head. He seemed to remember two fingers hurting more than one cock. Maybe that was just him, though. “One's fine. Just get plenty of lube in me. I'm going to be tight as hell.”

“So will I when you fuck me,” Tom reminded him.

“Not helping,” Cal said, his cock jerking as he thought about easing into Tom and feeling the hot clench of flesh squeezing him.

“Okay, shh. Sorry.” Tom leaned to kiss him in what was probably meant to be an apology. It didn't take more than a few seconds before Cal was straining for Tom's mouth, wanting more.

It was a running thought in his head as Tom's finger breached him again, slick with so much lube that Cal felt his eyes widen. He stared up at the ceiling, unseeing, too busy focusing on the sensation of Tom inside him to worry about anything else. It was like he could feel Tom's fingerprints, each tiny ridge and whorl, leaving their mark on him in this secret spot.

No one would ever know but him and Tom.

“Please,” he said softly. “In me, now.”

“Are you sure?” Tom asked again, and Cal knew his answer was probably going to be the most honest one he ever gave.

“Yes,” he said. “I'm sure.”

Cal reached back to guide Tom's cock to where it needed to be. It wasn't going to be a smooth glide in, not even with this much lube. Tom helped him without fuss or comment, the two of them working together, which was as arousing as foreplay in its own way. The necessary mechanics of getting his dick in someone had never been more than a means to an end before, but with Tom staring up at him, his lip caught between his teeth, Cal paid attention to everything, wanting to share it through Tom's eyes.

God, Tom was looking at him with so much trust. Cal swallowed and sank down, letting the head of Tom's cock breach him and riding the sharp, not unwelcome burn that quickly faded.

Tom was rigid beneath him, straining not to thrust up, his hands clutching at the sheets now, when Cal wanted them back on him.

“Touch me,” Cal said and didn't care how desperate he sounded, because Tom had to know just how much Cal wanted him.

Tom reached for Cal, his hands running over Cal's chest and down to his hips, light touches, pausing whenever Cal made a small sound and repeating the caress. On his knees, Cal found his thighs already screaming a protest after the run earlier. Cal worked Tom's cock deeper, craving the moment when he'd be filled completely. His cock was so hard that the first brush of Tom's fingers over it made him cry out softly. Tom didn't take his hand away.

God, he was so close, but it was too soon when he wanted to make this last as long as he could. “Tell me something. Distract me.”

“What?” Clearly this was the most stupid thing Tom had ever heard; he settled his other hand on Cal's hip. “Distract you?”

“So I won't come. Not yet. Tell me about...about”—Cal was searching for anything—“about your kindergarten teacher.”

Tom laughed desperately. He was trembling with the effort of holding still and letting Cal do all the work. “You want me to tell you about the little old white-haired lady who taught me my ABCs while I'm fucking you?”

“Technically, I think I'm fucking myself on you,” Cal said. “I don't care what you tell me about, just talk.”

“I can't think of anything but you.” Tom groaned as Cal lifted himself and sank down again. “Do you know what it was like, living under the same roof with you and not being able to touch you? Made me crazy.”

Cal whimpered and gasped. “That's not...not really what I had in mind.”

“No? I shouldn't talk about how much I wanted to do this?” Tom rubbed the edge of his thumb over Cal's nipple and dragged his other hand up Cal's cock to the tip. His words were slow, measured, like he was getting a feel for their effect on Cal. “How much I wanted to put my mouth on you, bend you over the dining room table, and shove my cock in your ass?”

Incapable of responding to that with anything more than another whimper, Cal gave up all pretense of waiting and started to move. He rocked back to take Tom's dick as deep as he could and shuddered, moaning. “Move,” he begged. “Tom, fuck me.”

Tom clamped his hands around Cal's hips, his grip firm and strong. Without a word, he arched up just as Cal ground down, sending a shock of sensation blasting through Cal. His balls were drawn up high, full, and heavy.

“Fuck, yes,” he gasped. “More. Harder.”

Tom snarled out something unintelligible and bucked up into Cal, holding him still with a grip that was going to leave bruises shadowing Cal's skin, not that he cared right then. They found a way to make it work within a few thrusts, Cal lifting up just enough to give Tom space to move. His neglected cock bobbed up and down, and Cal grabbed it, unable to do more than wrap his hand around it but needing it to be surrounded by something. He put his other hand on

Tom's arm, bracing himself, the shift and swell of Tom's muscles turning him on, another layer of arousal, another stimulus driving him toward a climax that couldn't be denied for much longer.

He wouldn't have known what to say even if he'd had the voice to say it, which he didn't. In his head, Cal could hear an echo of the word yes, yes, yes as his body coiled tighter and tighter. The intense pressure of Tom's cock stretching and filling him, rubbing over his prostate, was driving him crazy. Just a little bit longer...

“Oh God,” Tom gasped. “I'm gonna—God—”

Cal couldn't keep from coming when he felt Tom shooting inside him; Tom's dick pulsed, and the ripples moved through Cal, shoving him violently over the edge. He gripped his own cock so tightly that it hurt and groaned loudly, shaking and throwing his head back.

“Yeah, that's it,” Tom said encouragingly as the last few shudders ran through him. “God, you're gorgeous like this.”

“I'm sweaty and there's semen in my chest hair,” Cal said. It was stupid, because he knew it was possible for a man to be gorgeous post-sex. He didn't know why he'd said it.

“Doesn't matter.” Tom rocked his hips, and Cal's cock gave a halfhearted throb, one last bead of fluid forming at the tip.

Cal wanted to collapse onto Tom, but that would make a bigger mess than they already were, and he didn't want to risk turning Tom off the experience. “How was it? Was it what you expected?”

“Ask me when my brain's not fried.” Tom stroked Cal's hip, the caress a welcome sign that Tom wasn't freaking, at least. “I don't know what to do now either. Is it okay if we split up?”

For one endless moment, his own brain sluggish from pleasure, Cal thought that Tom was breaking up with him. Common sense kicked in before he could make a fool of himself begging Tom to reconsider, and he nodded. “Sure. Let me just lift up, and you hold on to the condom.”

“This bit's messier than I expected,” Tom said thoughtfully a few seconds later, shrouding the soggy condom in a wad of tissue before tossing the whole thing at a bin in the corner, already overflowing with paper and empty chip packets. He put the tissue box on the bed. “Help yourself.”

“Sex isn't supposed to be neat,” Cal said. “Bodily fluids all over the place is the fun part. Kind of.”

“Kind of,” Tom echoed, dabbing at his stomach. “God, how does spunk get everywhere? It's insane the way it spreads.”

“I think that's the point,” Cal told him. He pulled out a few tissues and wiped his chest. The hairs, darkened with moisture, flattened to his skin and stuck. Really attractive. “I mean, it's supposed to spread out into the world in search of eggs.”

“Yuck.” Tom frowned and scrubbed at his stomach more vigorously. Cal wasn't sure if the comment was in response to the thought of procreation or just the mess they'd created together. “Have you thought about having kids?”

“God, no,” Cal said before he could think and realize that maybe Tom wanted them. “Um. I don't mean no, I don't want them. Necessarily. More that I think I'm too young to even consider it.” Getting older all the time, though. “You?”

Tom shrugged and patted Cal's thigh, a clear indication that it was time for him to move. Cal did, lowering himself beside Tom and tugging the pillow Tom wasn't using over so he could rest his head on it.

“Thought about it, sure. I was getting to the point where I thought I might never have a boyfriend, let alone a family.”

Cal reached out and ran his fingertips lightly along Tom's arm. “You'd be a good dad.”

“You think? I didn't exactly have a great role model.”

“That's why. You know what not to do.”

“Huh.” Tom mulled that over for a moment and shrugged. “Well, it's not making my to-do list anytime soon.”

Thank God seemed rude, so Cal settled for a noncommittal smile. Usually, he'd be trying to remember where he left his pants around now. For a change, even the thought of getting out of bed didn't appeal. He wanted to stay beside Tom, breathing in their mingled scents, musky and sweaty, yes, but they were both too well-scrubbed underneath it for that to be an issue.

“Kiss me?” he said, surprising himself.

Tom gave him a puzzled look. “You don't have to ask. If you kiss me, I'll kiss you back.”

“I know. I just wanted to make sure that you wanted to. Not everyone likes sticking around after sex for, uh, cuddling.” Explaining it made him sound like an idiot, but he stumbled through somehow.

“Do you?” Tom shook his head, a strand of hair falling down over his face. He blew it away with an impatient puff. “Forget that, of course you do, or you wouldn't have asked. Sure. Come here.”

Cal already was most of the way there, so he willingly snuggled closer, curious about how it'd feel after sex, not before, when his motivations had changed. Tom's skin was warm, damp from their exertions in places, tasting salty against Cal's lips when he kissed Tom's shoulder.

“You don't have anything you have to do today, do you?” he asked.

“Other than hang out with you? No.” Tom sighed happily and turned his head to press lips to Cal's forehead. “Okay, this is good. We should just do this. I don't know about you, but I think I could use a nap.”

“I'm not tired. Happy to stay here, though.”

Tom turned the small TV on—apparently he kept his remote control tucked under the mattress too—and flicked through the channels for a while until he found a movie Cal had seen half a dozen times, though never all the way through. “I think I saw this before,” Tom said. “It's got that guy.”

Cal knew exactly who he was referring to and didn't know the actor's name either. “Yeah. It's good.”

They watched TV for a while before Tom dozed off. Cal could tell by the even, slow breathing, and a wave of warmth came over him, leaving him with such a sense of well-being that he found himself drifting off to sleep too. He half slept for a while, woke, and snuggled up to Tom, half slept again. It didn't feel like he'd been sleeping very long, yet suddenly he was awake, the room dark except for the flickering of the TV.

“Hey,” Tom said, his voice a rumble in Cal's ear because Cal was lying with his head on Tom's chest. “I was wondering if you were going to just sleep through until the morning.”

“What time is it?” Cal was still drowsy. However, he was becoming aware of a few physical needs that were enough to stop him drifting off again. He needed to pee, and his stomach was complaining vociferously too.

“About nine thirty. Want to wake up?”

“I want to eat,” Cal said.

“Me too, so I ordered in pizza. It'll be arriving in about ten minutes, so one of us has to get dressed.”

“Both of us do.” Cal bit gently at Tom's nipple just because it was there. He didn't need to be hungry to think that it looked appetizing. “If you stay naked and drip sauce on you, I might lose control and pounce. I'm starving.”

“Well, we wouldn't want that.” Tom pushed Cal off him and onto the bed, depositing a quick kiss on Cal's nose as if to make up for the unceremonious dumping. “Save cannibalism for our second date.”

“Okay, what part of today was our first date?” Cal asked. “And what happened to my underwear? Oh, never mind. Here it is.” It was tangled together with his pants.

Tom was pulling another of his wrinkled, too-big T-shirts over his head. “I don't know. The whole thing?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Cal cautiously sniffed the shirt he'd been wearing earlier, shrugged, and put it on. “So is tomorrow our second date?”

“You mean the whole thing?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes? I mean, unless you have other plans.” Cal shook his head. “Nope.”

“Well, I guess we have plans together.” Tom blinked. “Wow. Okay, that's...”

“New,” Cal said.

New and improved.

Chapter Sixteen

Tom settled himself on the long couch in Cal's room and glanced over at Cal. He was still fiddling with a complex camera, all zoom lenses and buttons, in a serious matte black. A real camera. Tom owned one, a point-and-snap digital one, four years old and a bright lime green with flowers on it. The color hadn't been his choice. It'd been on sale, and he'd needed something to take a few photos for a project. It was in a cupboard somewhere, already out-of-date and pixel-challenged, not that he cared about that.

If it'd been a while since he'd taken a photograph, it was years since he'd been the subject of one. He supposed he was in the background of a few taken at parties, but the last formal one, focused solely on him, had been for the yearbook in high school, and he'd looked like he always looked, despite his mother's best efforts to tidy him up. He'd gone to school that day feeling like a ten-year-old, his hair ruthlessly brushed flat, his clothes chosen for him the night before.

It was a small consolation that by the time his photograph had been taken, his hair, longer back then, had reasserted itself and was a wild tangle.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he said. “I'm not photogenic. Not at all.” He fiddled with the top button on his shirt, the new one that Cal had given him for his birthday, and tried to look laid-back, casually relaxed, as if he had his photograph taken often. He'd practiced a few looks in the mirror when he was brushing his teeth and had ended up spraying the glass with toothpaste foam in an attempt to pull off a Zoolanderesque Blue Steel.

“Are you kidding me? You're totally photogenic.” Cal moved over to the windows and adjusted the shades so that more sunshine spread across the room. “There. That's better.”

He came closer and tilted his head to one side, looking at Tom thoughtfully.

“Maybe I should have given you a drink. Do you think that would help? Help you relax, I mean. The pictures will come out better if you're not tense and self-conscious.”

None of that did the slightest toward helping Tom relax, of course. Instead, it made him more tense knowing that his worry about this session was so obvious. “Um, sure. If you think it's a good idea. Just don't get me plastered.”

“One drink,” Cal promised. He went downstairs and came back in a minute with a glass of what looked like apple juice. Tom found out, upon sipping from it, that it was whisky.

“Whoa. Strong.”

“That's the point.”

Tom shifted on the couch, slouching a little bit as he drank more, the burn working its way down his esophagus.

“Oh! Like that,” Cal said, his voice intense. “Don't move. Stay just like that.” He picked up his camera and disappeared behind it, leaving Tom alone in the room again, his boyfriend gone and a stranger in his place.

It was so awkward, being the center of attention like this. Tom found he was grateful for the drink, not just for the mellow feeling it spread through him but also because it was a distraction to hold the glass, to sip from its edge. He did his best to look natural; it wasn't easy.

“Beautiful,” Cal said, sounding distant, professional now. “Take a deep breath and let it out all at once.”

Feeling idiotic, Tom inhaled, the scent of the whisky burning his nose, waking up his senses. He expelled the breath in a huff and heard the faint click of a button being pressed.

“Just relax,” Cal said for the twentieth time. “Don't look at me. Think about me, though, if you like. Think about what I did to you last night in the kitchen.”

Tom wasn't aware of his expression changing, but it must have. Cal gave a pleased grunt, and there were more of the faint clicks. He tried to control his wayward thoughts.

A blush wouldn't show—Cal had said that these photographs were going to be black-and-white—but he wanted to get past that stage. So Cal had stopped washing dishes after rinsing out three mugs, spun around, and kissed Tom into a daze of longing; it didn't mean that he had to blush about it, even if the kisses had moved from his mouth to his neck, the hard, sucking bites against his skin making him go weak at the knees. It'd been Cal who'd ended up kneeling on the floor, though, and it wasn't until Tom had come with a strangled cry of pleasure that he had realized he was still clutching a tea towel in one hand.

“That's beautiful,” Cal said softly. “You look so intense, yet unfocused too, as if you're looking at something only you can see. Mystery man.”

Tom spoiled the moment by grinning, amused at the idea. “I'm not.” Belatedly, he straightened his face, trying to recreate his expression. “Sorry.”

“Don't be.” Cal sounded smug. “I got that laugh and you're relaxed now. Why don't we try some with your shirt open?”

“Huh?” Tom had agreed to let Cal photograph him partially undressed— shyness, not modesty, holding him back—but the straightforward request still startled him. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. If you don't mind. The end goal here was to get some photos of you naked, right?”

Somehow, Tom had almost forgotten that. “Right.” He reached to unbutton his shirt.

“Slowly,” Cal told him. “Like you're seducing me.”

“It doesn't feel like you're even here,” Tom said. “I don't feel sexy about seducing the camera lens.”

Cal lowered the camera, his expression surprised. “I hadn't thought about it like that. Yeah, you're right. I guess you have to pretend you don't see the camera. Like there's nothing between you and me.”

Trying to follow Cal's instructions, Tom finished his drink and set the glass on the floor next to the sofa. Slowly, more slowly than felt natural, he started to unbutton his shirt while looking straight at Cal. There was no camera, just the two of them, and Tom wanted to show Cal that he could be sexy, seductive.

It was the easiest thing in the world, slipping a button free of the little slit meant to fit it so perfectly. Especially this shirt, which was so well made. Tom was aware that more of his skin could be seen as he undid the third button, glanced down at his chest and back up at Cal again just as the camera recorded another moment.

“Do you remember it?” Cal asked softly.

“Last night?” Tom nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

Cal licked his lips as Tom undid the next button. “Tell me what it was like for you.”

“How do you think it was?” Tom countered, digging his heels in just a little. “Regular sex has only been part of my life for twelve days, eight hours, and forty-two minutes. If you think I'm used to that fact yet, I'm not. You blew my mind along with my dick. How's that?”

“I'll accept the days. You're just guessing about the rest of it,” Cal said. “And you've lost that incredibly erotic look, so stop talking if it bothers you and go back to remembering or planning what you want to do to me later.”

“How about I think about you fucking me?” Tom undid the last button. “Because I am. Right now. Even if it hasn't happened yet, so I have to imagine the way I'll be moaning out your name and writhing around on the bed begging for more.”

Okay, that had come out with an edge to it, and Cal was giving him a look with more than a little hurt in it. Tom sighed. “Sorry. I didn't mean that what we're doing isn't great, because it is. God, it really is. It's just I feel as if I'm still in training wheels.”

“I've got friends who've never done anal ever and don't plan to,” Cal said. “It's not mandatory, like learning to parallel park before you get your license.”

“I know that. I might not like it either, but until I try it, I won't know.”

Cal shrugged. “I'll fuck you as soon as I've finished shooting, if you like. Right there on the couch. You'll be naked, which will save some time. It won't take long.”

“Now you're pissed at me,” Tom said glumly and huddled his unbuttoned shirt around him, feeling exposed.

“You spend way too much time thinking that I'm pissed at you.” Cal put the camera down and came to sit beside him. “I'll never be pissed at you, okay?”

“That's stupid.”

“You're the one being stupid.” Cal put an arm around him. “I'm not mad at you.”

“You're trying to protect me.” Tom sighed and let himself lean against Cal because it was comforting. “When are you going to believe that you don't have to?”

“Probably never.” Cal refused to let Tom pull away from him in response to that. “Hey, no, that's not what I meant. I just mean I'm not going to stop wanting to take care of you. You should enjoy it. It's not the kind of thing I do for other people.”

“Yeah, you just fuck them.” Tom stroked his hand hopefully along Cal's bare lower arm to his wrist. “You aren't seriously going to refuse me forever, are you?”

“No! Not forever.”

“And don't you want to? You do, I know you do.” There was no doubt in Tom's mind that Cal wanted to fuck him.

“Of course I do. I'd have to be insane not to want you like that.” Cal turned toward him and took Tom's face between his hands. “I don't want to screw this up, that's all.”

“How can giving me something I want screw things up? It's sex, Cal, it's not drugs or...” Tom tried to think of something else dangerous and life-threatening and could only think about the way that Cal was going to be taking pictures of him with an erection because he was hard already, just from being this close to Cal. “It's just sex. I've done it to you, and you liked it.”

“I loved it,” Cal said, his eyes closing momentarily as if he were back on Tom's bed, Tom's dick deep inside him, taking every inch and grinding down to get more. Tom heard himself whimper and coughed to cover it up.

“So...”

“So, I'll do it to you,” Cal murmured, leaning in to brush his mouth over Tom's. “Soon. I just don't want to rush you.”

“You're not.” Annoyance flared as it always did when Cal got too overprotective. “I don't need you to decide when I'm ready, Cal.”

“Okay, forget that. I just don't want to hurt you.” Cal's hands fell away. “Look, it's my issue, not yours. It can hurt; even if I'm careful, it'll hurt, and after you'll be sore and kind of raw and tender.”

“You survived it,” Tom said. “I'm not stupid, I know all that. You're going for a worst-case scenario.”

“No,” Cal said bleakly. “It could get a lot worse than that. Let's not go there. Yes, I'd be careful, but I don't want to do anything to you ever that hurts.”

“Pity,” Tom said. “I had this whole „tie me up and spank me' fantasy planned for next Tuesday. Guess I'll have to substitute a nice wholesome Disney movie, and hey, let's go wild and have a light beer with our popcorn.”

“Don't.” Cal pulled away from him, and Tom realized Cal was really upset. “I'm trying to do the right thing here, and I think I might be an asshole, because it's a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

“No, you're just wrong about it being the right thing. That's not something you get to decide on your own. We're in this together, remember? Cal.” Tom waited until Cal looked at him. “Don't beat yourself up over this; it isn't worth it. Stop denying us something that we both want, and listen to me when I tell you I'm not going to let up about it.”

Cal searched his eyes. “I'm listening.”

“I want this, okay? If we have to keep having this discussion, I'm going to start thinking my honesty's in question.”

“It's not that,” Cal began, and Tom shook his head.

“Then stop. I know what I'm doing. Believe me.”

Cal drew a shaky breath and reached for Tom's hand. “Okay. Okay. Sorry. I guess I'm still feeling out this whole decent-human-being thing.”

“No.” Tom put as much conviction into the word as he could. “That you've got down, trust me. You're just too hung up on being my guardian angel, and I don't need one. Just a boyfriend who thinks I'm perfect and can't keep his hands off me. Someone I can talk to, share stuff with. Now before this gets any more Hallmark, can I get naked for you and your camera?”

With another shaky breath, Cal nodded and kissed him. He stood. “Yes. Please. That would be great.” He went to pick up his camera again and turned, looking at Tom. “You really are beautiful, you know.”

“Yeah, keep telling me that,” Tom said. “Should I get rid of the shirt?” He was already confident of what the answer would be, so he shrugged it off and tossed it in Cal's direction.

“Hey!” Cal dodged and grinned. “Okay, huh. Um, can you sort of slouch down, like—yeah, like that. Now undo the button on your jeans and leave your hand there?”

“Like this?” Tom unfastened the button and slid his thumb under the waistband of his boxers.

“Perfect.”

Tom relaxed into what he was doing, his earlier awkwardness melting away in the heat of Cal's evident approval. Cal was back behind the camera again, and the connection between them wasn't lost, because Cal kept talking to him, his voice a low murmur most of the time, intimate, unhurried.

Tom moved from one pose to the next, falling into natural positions that Cal's suggestions subtly tweaked into something that Tom assumed worked better visually. It was more tiring than Tom had expected. Holding his arms above his head in a stretch, his body arched up off the couch, his jeans unzipped, riding low on his hips. That last pose was comfortable for thirty seconds, a strain after that—and Cal loved that position and had him holding it for a while.

“I want the jeans off now,” Cal said eventually. “Is that okay? And tell me if it isn't. I'm used to working with professional models who don't have any hang-ups about stripping down. That doesn't mean that you have to do it.”

“I don't mind.” Tom felt warm all over, as if Cal had been touching him lightly, whispering into his ear, not standing across the room. It wasn't as if anyone besides the two of them would ever see the photographs, after all, and Cal had seen him naked already, at close range. “I'm wearing boxers with bright yellow smiley faces on, though. Do you want me to leave them on or lose them?”

Cal smiled at him fondly. “How about we keep them on for a few shots? They'll be cute.”

“I'm not sure how I feel about cute. Aren't we a little too old for cute?” Tom lifted his ass so he could slip the jeans free of his hips and kicked until they were completely off. Okay, that had ended up being more awkward than he'd expected, and now that he wasn't wearing anything save his boxers, it was obvious that he had a huge erection.

“I like cute,” Cal said, snapping a photo. “Sometimes. I can keep from saying it if it weirds you out.”

“It might. Yeah, I'm taking these off. Sorry.” Tom could tell that Cal was taking more photos as he shed his boxers and stood beside the couch. “Should I sit? Or stand?”

“Sit, I think. With one hand on your thigh, to sort of emphasize—”

“That I've got a raging hard-on?” Tom asked ruefully.

“Well, yes, if you want to put it that way. You're gorgeous like this, you know.”

“Don't make me look like a porn star,” Tom begged him. “I really can't carry that off by about three inches.”

Cal snorted. “Trust me, big isn't always better. I once got talking to this guy in a bar—just talking, we didn't hook up—”

“It's okay,” Tom said. “I don't mind if you did.” It wasn't entirely true, but it was true enough. Denying the fact that Cal had a lot of notches on the bedpost would be silly.

“Well, we didn't, but we had a few drinks and he told me that he could hit close to ten inches when he was hard, and that most of the time, it was a—”

“Pain in the ass?” Tom said with a grin he couldn't suppress.

Cal laughed. “Yeah, exactly. He intimidated people or freaked them out, and he ended up on the bottom most of the time, and that wasn't his thing.”

“Well, the last time I measured mine, I was fourteen,” Tom said, dropping his hand to his erection, glad of the excuse to touch himself and ease the ache a little. “...years old, that is.”

“You have nothing to worry about,” Cal said with conviction. He winked. “You're perfect. Big enough to make me howl at the moon.”

“What's with sex and animal imagery, anyway?” Tom didn't care about the conversation that much. It was just nice to have something distracting him from how on display he was.

“I think it's because it's supposed to be a base need.” Stepping to his right, Cal took a few more photos. “You know, the way we're still the same as animals. Can you slide your hand down a little farther, please?”

Tom did. “Like this? Do you seriously believe that?”

“It's not what I believe; it's about biology or whatever. Good. Now put one hand on your dick and the other kind of cupping your balls...” Cal sounded like he'd slipped into professional mode again, like he was talking about Tom's elbow instead of his cock.

“If I come, are you going to keep taking photographs?” Tom couldn't resist asking.

“Yes, but they'll be of your face, and I can guarantee you won't notice. I've seen you come. You throw yourself into it.”

“It feels good,” Tom said defensively, adjusting his grip and feeling a surge of arousal.

“No arguments here,” Cal assured him. “God, yes, I love it with your fingers curled like that...”

Tom gave up trying to distract Cal. In photographer mode, the man was one-track, and part of Tom could admire that single-mindedness. When Cal suggested that he stroke his hand on his dick, Tom didn't even try to argue. Besides, it felt good, so why not? He never lost the knowledge that he was being photographed, so it was easy to keep his level of arousal from ratcheting too high. He moved his hand slowly, giving Cal plenty of opportunities to get different shots. It wasn't until a bead of fluid formed at the tip that Cal groaned.

“Jesus, you're turning me on. I can't wait to put this down and get my hands on you.”

“Yeah?” Tom gave him a hopeful look. “So do it.”

“But you're so gorgeous like this. I don't want to miss anything.” Cal dropped down to one knee and took more pictures. Tom was pretty sure the focus was on his cock at this point.

“We can do this again. Tomorrow, if you want.”

“Tomorrow I have to get on a plane,” Cal reminded him. “God, I'll miss you.”

Even though Tom wasn't looking forward to their enforced separation, it was nice to hear he'd be missed. “Then when you get home. Would you just put the camera down?”

Cal did, and a moment later they were kissing, Tom's bare erection rubbing against Cal's slacks. It felt obscenely good. Weird, to be totally naked with his partner fully dressed, but good too. “Lie down,” Cal said urgently. “I want to suck you.”

Tom closed his eyes. He'd fantasized about this, an attractive man begging to go down on him, mouth eager. Hell, a few times, he'd pictured two guys on their knees servicing him. It'd gotten him aroused, it'd made him come with a grunt of pleasure and a smile, but he'd never had a personal experience to use as a comparison. Cal took breaks during a blowjob to catch his breath or peel a hair off his tongue. Cal's lips and chin ended up glossed over with spit, and sometimes, afterward, Tom's dick felt tender to the touch if the blowjob had gone on for a long time. None of that happened in a fantasy.

He'd jerked off a few times since starting his relationship with Cal, and he still used the same fantasies, and they were still good. Still, he wouldn't have swapped the flawed reality for the artificial perfection of his imaginary lovers. Not now.

Cal rubbed his cheek against Tom's dick like a cat, the scrape of his stubble making Tom groan and put his hands onto Cal's head to hold him still so that the deliciously scratchy sensation continued. “God, that feels good.”

“Well, it's not supposed to feel bad,” Cal murmured, looking up at him with an expression of such affection and heat that Tom inhaled sharply. “You like it, hm? Just a little bit of discomfort?”

Tom had never given it much thought. “I guess.”

Licking a line up his shaft teasingly, Cal brought a hand up and tugged at Tom's balls. “What about that?”

“Yeah, that's...that's nice.” Tom closed his eyes so he could concentrate on what it felt like when Cal's lips took him in, so warm and wet, the suction almost unbearably delicious. It was different from fucking Cal, strangely more intimate to be inside his mouth. Tom wanted to stay there forever, so he groaned in protest when Cal pulled away.

“No, just move,” Cal said, directing him. “Like this.”

Tom was nudged into the position Cal wanted him in, sitting with his legs spread wide and Cal kneeling between them. Cal's hands were warm on his thighs.

“I just want to do this.” Cal leaned in and licked a wide, wet swath over Tom's asshole.

The shock of it held Tom silent for long enough that Cal had time to do it again, a slow, deliberate drag of his tongue before he lifted his head, a question in his eyes. Tom stared down at him, his heart pounding, his body alive with sensation in a way it had never been before. The effect was out of proportion to the action—

Cal had just licked him twice, for God's sake—and he couldn't do anything but hold Cal's gaze and nod.

Cal smiled, a knowing glint in his eyes, tempered by something that might have been sympathy for Tom's loss of composure. Without a word, he bent his head again, and Tom found that he even if he couldn't speak, he could keen out something that was at least trying to be Cal's name.

The wet flicker of Cal's tongue, the blunt push of his thumbs as he held Tom open, allowing him to work his tongue deeper, all blended into an experience so carnal, so sensual, that Tom couldn't quite believe it was happening. This felt decadent, something to be done in a huge bed, candles casting wavering light and shadows against the walls, not on Cal's couch in the middle of the afternoon, sunlight pouring through the window.

Part of him wanted to suggest that they move to somewhere they'd both be more comfortable, because the wood floor had to be hell on Cal's knees, but the slick, bold glide of Cal's tongue held Tom's nervous system captive just in that instant, and he'd forgotten how to speak. He couldn't do anything more than whimper and moan wordlessly, occasionally reached to caress Cal's hair with a blissful sense of gratitude. It felt like his entire body was singing, flickers of pleasure shooting through him and making his already hard dick even harder.

It couldn't last forever even if he wanted it to, the climax that was usually the goal seeming more like an ending that arrived too soon. Cal's tongue circled, dipped inside once more, and his hand slid up to grasp Tom's dick. Tom tilted his chin up, a drawn-out, open-mouthed groan escaping him, despairing, ecstatic. He could feel every tiny shift of Cal's fingers, but it wasn't enough to send him over when so much of him wanted to stay here, bathed in this sensual glow.

Cal's finger slid into him, a smooth, sure thrust, even as he kissed Tom's thigh, his mouth hot and wet. It was too much to take, and Tom came, the pleasure accompanying the tremors racking his body for once blending seamlessly with what had gone before. It felt as if he'd been coming from the first soft kiss.

Tom shuddered and didn't do anything to stifle the series of cries that forced their way out of his chest, falling from his lips as his semen slicked Cal's knuckles. He opened his eyes in time to see Cal kneel up and lick the head of his dick. Tom's hips jerked, and another strong ripple of sensation pulsed through him.

“God,” he said finally. Cal was still licking him, cleaning his cock and belly with long, slow strokes of his tongue. “That was...”

“Good? I'm glad. I wanted it to be good.” Cal's finger slipped free of his ass, and Tom groaned in protest. He'd never felt anything so perfect, and it just confirmed that having Cal fuck him for the first time was going to be incredible.

“It was awesome. Let's do it again.” Tom grinned, aware the expression on his face was probably kind of dopey. “Well, maybe in half an hour.”

“If you can do that again in half an hour, you're a better man than I.” Cal sounded impressed.

Tom shook his head and grabbed Cal's upper arm to tug him up for a kiss. The inside of Cal's mouth tasted sour, and Tom didn't care in the slightest. “Definitely not. You're the best. You're amazing.”

“So are you. God, I really do want to fuck you, I do.”

“Do it the night you get back from your trip,” Tom said. “Please? You won't be too tired after a three-hour flight, and it'll be something to look forward to.”

It would also be a definite, arranged, agreed-on time, and even if the idea of booking a fuck with Cal was kind of weird, Tom decided he'd take it over vague assurances.

“I could do it now,” Cal suggested.

It was tempting, but Tom reluctantly shook his head. “I want to, but I feel so good right now that I'm not sure I could take any more. God, that felt incredible. Is that something you like doing? Do you want me to do it to you?”

“Not right now.” Cal grinned. “I do have this little problem you could help me take care of, though...” He took Tom's hand and held it to the front of his slacks, letting Tom feel the erection underneath the fabric. “So what do you say? Think you can give me a hand?”

“Of course,” Tom said and set about doing just that.

Chapter Seventeen

The voice over the plane's loudspeaker said that people could turn on their electronic devices, phrasing that made Cal smile because it was so predictable and without inflection that it might as well have been a recording. He was happy enough to turn on his laptop, though. He'd loaded the photos he'd taken of Tom the day before but hadn't had a chance to look at them properly yet. He was really looking forward to it.

He'd been upgraded to first class because of some mix-up at the gate. He'd flown so many times that the occasional upgrade was inevitable, but it hadn't happened often. The seat beside his was empty, so he was feeling particularly spoiled.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” the perky blonde flight attendant asked.

“No, I'm fine, thanks.”

“Is your in-flight entertainment screen working correctly?”

Cal glanced at the small screen currently showing a map with a tiny picture of a plane inching its way along a dotted line, along with a lot of data about wind speed and destination times. The movies on offer were a generic mix, and he'd either already seen them or didn't want to. “Seems to be,” he said. “Thanks.”

“If there's anything I can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please just press this button here,” she said, resting her finger lightly on a black button set into the arm of his chair. The movement brought a whiff of her scent to him: no perfume, just clean skin and hair. She was pretty, and she was probably not flirting as much as she seemed to be—he'd heard her say the exact same thing to the elderly lady in the row in front of him—but it felt as if he was getting an especially warm smile.

He settled for a polite, distracted nod and stared at his laptop until she moved away.

Tom's image filled the laptop screen, and Cal breathed in sharply, a throb of longing making him wish the plane was going the other way. This assignment for Sirius photographing a movie star who'd recently come out was one he'd been happy to get—lucrative and high-profile—but he was missing Tom already. The actor he was going to meet was better-looking than Tom even without the makeup and airbrushing. Cal didn't care.

That realization was still novel enough to be surprising. A month ago, he'd have been flying out intending to flirt with the star and probably get off with someone in his entourage if it could be managed discreetly. Cal took his job too seriously to ever sleep with a client, but that didn't mean everyone around the client was off-limits. Now, he was focused on doing a good job and already planning the staging to make the most of Sanderson's red hair and bright green eyes. And with all that, Tom still occupied most of his thoughts.

He paged slowly through the photos of Tom, his head tilted to the side, sometimes letting his eyes drift out of focus slightly so he could see the work from a different perspective. Half of the pictures were shit, of course. That was normal. The other half, though, were good, and a handful were very good. One that caught his attention in particular was a close-up that focused on Tom's stomach, the light and shadow creating definition. It was beautiful.

No, it showed how beautiful Tom was.

God, this was going to be the longest business trip of his life.

* * * * *

Cal lay down on the bed in his hotel room after a long bath and allowed himself to relax. A vodka tonic, heavy on the vodka, was helping with that too; he'd earned it. The day's shoot had gone well, and he was looking forward to tomorrow, when he was going to tour the small town where Sanderson had grown up, twenty miles south of LA. Getting the photographs that would complement the written story was always interesting, a collaboration that often took place without his ever meeting the writer in person. In this case, though, the writer was a friend of sorts, Cor Jenner.

Cor—he suspected it was short for Corinne, in which case he could see why she'd changed it, because it didn't suit her—was a leggy brunette who took a while to warm up to people. Her girlfriend, Lisa, was the only one who could count on a smile from Cor. Cal counted it as a small victory that, a year and a half after he'd met the women, Cor remembered his name—nine times out of ten. That she'd requested him to be the photographer for her article had definitely done a lot for Cal's standing at the magazine.

He took another sip of his drink. The lemon bobbing in it was beaded with tiny bubbles, a perfect semicircle. When he realized he was staring at it and wondering how to light it to best effect, he shook his head and downed the drink in one long swig. A shoot always left him wired, like an espresso binge.

Of course, usually he had someone in bed next to him to distract him, and tonight he was going to be alone, dining at a table set for one, drinking at the bar without bothering to check out the crowd, finally coming back to his room to sprawl out in a king-size bed big enough for an orgy.

If Tom had been with him... The thought had Cal reaching for his phone. He wanted to hear Tom's voice, hesitant at first, then warming when Cal spoke. Wanted to know that Tom missed him.

“Hey there, you,” Tom said, answering before the second ring was over and ruining the illusion Cal had been creating.

“Hi, how are you?”

“Okay. The house seems quiet with you gone, though. How are you? How did it go today?”

Cal rested his cold glass, empty now except for the lemon slice, on his stomach. “Good. Really good, actually, but right now I'm feeling kind of homesick. I want to pretend I'm there with you instead of here in this hotel. Or, if you were here, that would be okay too.”

“What's the room like?” Tom asked.

“Oh, you know. Typical. Nice big bed, though. Wish you were here to share it with me.” Cal was feeling more morose as the conversation went on.

“What's on the walls?”

Cal blinked. “What?”

“Artwise. Landscapes?”

“I don't know.” Cal sat up, reaching to set his glass on the table beside the bed. “Um, more like abstracts. They're ugly, actually.” Being more interested in photographs, he rarely paid any attention to the artwork hung on hotel walls. It always seemed to be paintings, and they were usually dull.

“I think someone should write a book,” Tom said, and Cal gave up any hope of ever predicting what might come out of Tom's mouth. “Like, a coffee-table book about the artwork in hotel rooms. Where do you think it comes from?”

“I can honestly say I've never given it a second's thought,” Cal said. “Maybe one of those starving artists' sales?”

“Maybe. And, you know, who buys it? Because it's got to be someone's job. Does the person who does the buying for the Hilton chain get everything all at once? So the art on the walls in a Los Angeles Hilton is the same as a New York City Hilton?”

Cal laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “You need a hobby.”

“Remind me to show you my stamp collection when you get back. I've got this cool triangular one from Papua New Guinea.”

“Oh. That's, uh... Stamps?”

“Did you know that the earliest stamp was issued by the Romans? They used melted wax and signet rings.”

“Cool,” Cal said without conviction, trying to inject some interest into his voice. If Tom liked stamps, Cal was prepared to get licking.

“Isn't it? Do you like them too?”

It struck Cal that he didn't know if Tom was serious or not. Tom had geek written all over him, and it didn't matter that Cal found it endearing. It was still more than possible that—

A stifled choke of laughter clued him in. “I'm so going to pay you back for that,” Cal said pleasantly. “I can think of many devious and evil ways.”

“The Romans?” Tom asked, still laughing. “I can't believe you bought that.”

“I can't remember the last time I bought a stamp either,” Cal said. “Let me see... I can tie you up and tickle you mercilessly. Cover you in peanut butter edible body oil and decide I'm allergic to nuts. Take you to a karaoke bar and serenade you, or—”

“Mercy,” Tom said. “You can't see me, but I've gone pale, and I'm shaking in my socks.”

Cal seriously doubted it. “Are you on the couch?”

“Okay, that's a little uncanny.” Tom paused, then asked, “What am I wearing?”

“If you're at home, in your socks, sweatpants,” Cal said. “The underwear could go either way. And your T-shirt is too big.”

“It's like you're psychic.” Tom's voice was low and full of awe, but this time it only took Cal a fraction of a second to realize that it was a form of teasing. “And no, I'm not wearing any underwear.”

“News at eleven,” Cal intoned. “I am. In case you wanted to know. Wearing underwear.” He wasn't in the habit of hanging around hotel rooms naked unless he had a partner with him. He never knew when some idiot might set off the fire alarm, and comfortable as he was with his body, he didn't care to show it off to complete strangers in a stairwell.

The background noise behind Tom, which Cal hadn't even realized had been there, shut off. “So are you dressed? Or are you just hanging out in your briefs?”

“Dressed,” Cal said. “I was thinking about ordering room service, and picking up the delivery guy isn't really my style. A little too porn flick for my tastes.”

An awkward silence.

“Okay, consider that payback paid back,” Tom said finally. “Just thinking about you with someone else—”

“Not going to happen,” Cal said urgently, his palms slippery with sweat. God, he had to learn to think before he opened his stupid mouth—and, yes, Tom had to stop being so touchy. Tom had every reason to still be fixated on the idea of him as a guy who fucked and walked away. Still, at some point, Tom had to start trusting him.

Soon. Please?

“I know that,” Tom said. The constraint in his voice contradicted his words. “If he's hot, you can look—hell, jerk off thinking about him if you want to. I'm not trying to stop you from being you. I get that, I do.” Cal heard Tom take a deep breath. “In fact, I saw this guy in the coffee shop this morning, and he winked at me. I've seen him in there before, and he's always just looked through me. It's like I've got a label on me now saying NOT A VIRGIN or something.”

Cal closed his eyes for a moment, holding back a groan. Yeah, Tom was probably giving off all kinds of different signals now that he had some confidence to shore up what nature had given him. Nothing like getting some regularly to give someone that glow, and there were plenty of moths out there.

“So make a sign that says TAKEN next time you go in there,” he said. “Because you are, and so am I. Spoken for. Committed. Totally obsessed with my roomie and missing him like hell.”

“Not as much as I miss you.” Tom sounded like he meant it, which was gratifying.

“More. I was looking at the pictures I took of you on the plane, and you have no idea how much I wanted you there with me. Not just to touch—though I definitely want that, all the time—but to talk to. We'll have to figure out how to get you on one of these trips with me.” It would be challenging to have to work knowing that Tom was close by. Still, Cal was convinced he was up for it.

“That would be great.” Tom sighed. “God, just hearing your voice makes me hard.”

“Yeah?” That was promising. “Are you hard right now, Tom?”

“Getting there. I've always, well, I've always felt like I had at least an average sex drive, if not above average. These days, though, it's like I can't stop thinking about it. Sex. You.” Tom's voice lowered. “Your cock.”

“And how much you want it inside you?” Cal closed his eyes and imagined Tom with a hand down his sweatpants, touching himself.

“Fuck, yes,” Tom said. “When you get back, right? Even if your flight's delayed and they run out of complimentary pretzels so you're tired and starving. I'll make it up to you, but God, if you don't do me within five minutes of walking through the door, I'll burst into tears.”

“No pressure, right?” Cal said with a grin. “Did I ever tell you that I love how up-front you are about wanting me?”

“And here I thought I was being subtle and playing hard to get.”

“Don't ever even try. Not your style.” Cal wet his lips. “Uh, are you really hard? Touching yourself for me right now? Feel free to lie.”

“I'm blushing now,” Tom said. “That's not a lie. It's a hint that yeah, I'm a little distracted right now.” He was smiling; Cal could hear it in his voice. “Does this qualify as phone sex, or do we both have to be figuring out how to keep our phone from sliding out from between our ear and shoulder?”

“Speakerphone,” Cal told him. “Solves all your problems. It's like it was made for moments like this.” He actually kind of hated how people sounded when his cell was on speakerphone, but he'd make an exception about using it considering it was Tom.

He could hear Tom doing something followed by a weird click on the line. “Okay. I think. Say something?”

“Something like 'I wish you were here right now so I could suck you off'?” Tom groaned. “There's some sucking going on here. That's for sure.”

It took Cal a few seconds to figure out that that was a complaint about his teasing. “Don't fight it,” he advised. “Just go with it. Don't give yourself time to get embarrassed, because there's nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“Speak for yourself,” Tom said. “Am I flying solo here, or do you have your hand somewhere I'd like mine to be too?”

“Right now I'm focusing on you,” Cal told him. Which didn't mean he wasn't getting hard—because he most definitely was. “Unless you think you'll be lonely...”

“It'd be fun to do it together.” Tom sounded intrigued and less like he was about to hang up because he was freaking out. “Race you?”

Cal snickered. “Circle jerks? I like to take my time, thanks.”

“Yeah, me too, except I don't think I'm going to last long tonight,” Tom said, his words spaced irregularly as if something was distracting him momentarily. Cal could guess what it was. “I'm—uhn—getting off on knowing that you're listening to me. It's weird but it's turning me on too. I'm not thinking about anything or anyone but you on that hotel bed, half naked, hard for me...”

“Okay, fine, you win.” Cal's cock was protesting being pressed against the inside of his zipper, and he hastily undid the front of his pants and shoved his hand down inside. “Uh, not the race. Just...yeah.”

“You're so easy,” Tom said. “God. Tell me you're doing it too.”

“I am. Jerking myself off. Not as good as your hand. I like your hand better. I love your hand. But it's still good. Feels—” Cal tightened his grip and moved his hand up near the head of his cock, stimulating himself in the way that would bring him to the edge most quickly.

“I know how it feels,” Tom told him. “I feel it too.”

Cal closed his eyes, seeing Tom, all flushed, warm skin and bitten lips, his hand, that large, capable hand, moving slowly on his dick. The image struck home with an intensity he hadn't expected from something that had started out as no more than playful joking, neither of them serious.

He wanted that hand on him, coaxing him higher, Tom's touch gentle and sure. Tom wasn't talking now, but Cal could hear the quick gasps he was giving, and it was easy enough to pretend that the shushed sound of his palm on his erection was from Tom's hand on Tom's rigid, wet-tipped dick.

He closed his eyes and worked himself with a ruthless, reckless speed, not holding back any of the soft, helpless moans that rose to his lips, because he knew that Tom would want to hear them.

“Cal!” Tom's cry, beseeching, triumphant, rang in his ears, and he opened his eyes, looking down to see the first jolt of spunk shoot out, drawn from him by nothing more than Tom calling out his name as he climaxed.

“You're so fucking hot,” he said when he'd managed to catch his breath. “You make me crazy.”

When Tom answered, he sounded relaxed, sated. “Where I come from, that's not exactly a compliment.”

“Well, I mean it as one. It's so weird. Feeling like this.” It wasn't easy to put it into words, what he felt for Tom. Maybe that was why people had come up with the term love in the first place; it was a complicated emotion. “I end up all confused. Good...don't get me wrong...but it seems weird to feel good like this. God, I sound stupid.”

“No, I get it,” Tom said. “I feel like pinching myself sometimes, this is all going so well. And then I hate myself for acting like I don't deserve someone like you.”

“You deserve the best,” Cal said. “If you think I qualify, I'm flattered. Dubious but flattered.”

“You definitely qualify, and we've got to both relax and enjoy being together, I guess. And we just proved that we can enjoy it even when we're not together.”

Cal chuckled. “I suppose we did.”

“And now I'm going to disappear and clean up after myself,” Tom said. “Before I drip on the couch. What about you? Any plans?”

Cal shrugged even though Tom couldn't see him. “Clean up, get food, maybe have a drink in a sports bar and watch baseball.”

That was one interest he and Tom didn't share. Tom, as far as Cal had been able to tell, wasn't into sports at all.

“Cool. Call me tomorrow?” They'd already agreed that Cal would the one calling, since his work schedule on business trips could be unpredictable and it made more sense to talk when he wasn't distracted by something else.

“Will do, big guy.” Cal looked down at the hem of his shirt ruefully. He'd need to change it before he left. “Sleep well.”

He washed up in a haphazard fashion and put on a clean shirt before heading down to the hotel's front desk.

“Hi,” he said to the clerk, a sharp-featured man with the most perfectly knotted tie Cal had even seen.

“Hi. What can I help you with?” The man had a name tag that said Jeremy and an appreciative smile.

“Can you tell me where I can go to get a few drinks and maybe an appetizer? Somewhere I can see the game?”

“You don't even have to leave the hotel,” Jeremy said. “Well, not technically. There's a sports bar attached to the building, on the other side of the conference space. You just go down this hallway here and turn left when you get to the end. Archie's. You can't miss it; there's a big sign over the doorway.”

“Great. Thanks.” Cal deliberately ignored the hopeful looks Jeremy was giving him and followed the given directions.

The bar food on offer turned out to be a heart attack waiting to happen. Still, for once Cal indulged himself, ordering a basket of fries and a dozen chicken wings, suicide-hot, with a tall, frosty glass of beer to wash it down. His lips were burning by the time he was down to picked bones. His team was up in the fifth inning, and that was worth destroying a few taste buds.

“I've been watching you eat those wings and wondering if steam was going to start coming out of your ears.”

Cal turned his head as a man slid onto the bar stool next to him, a bottle of beer in his hand. Tall, blond, good-looking, and for all that he was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he looked expensive. Cal could spot designer labels without even trying, and the man's watch cost more than the bar would probably make all week.

“The beer's doing a good job of putting out the fire,” he said with a grin.

“So? Are you going to order another? Or let me buy it for you? I can tell from your reactions that we support the same team, and I think that makes us in the minority in here, don't you? I'm Simon, by the way.”

Oh, clever. Cal smiled his appreciation for a pickup line that could be read on two levels. He shook his head. “Yeah, I guess we are on the same team, but I'm ah...” He hesitated. Taking things further would've been easy—slowing them to a dead halt wasn't something he'd had a lot of practice at with a guy this attractive. “I'm with someone,” he finished.

“Really?” Simon made a show of looking around the bar. “Invisible or shy?”

“At home,” Cal explained. “This is business for me. I just wanted to unwind a little bit before bed.”

“Mmm. Or you could unwind in bed.” Simon had leaned in close and was keeping his voice low. Cal could tell he was the kind of guy Tom had been talking about before, the kind Tom thought that Cal was. Confident, self-assured, used to having his advances accepted the vast majority of the time.

Cal felt tipped off-balance and decided to go the denial route. “I think you're assuming something that isn't true.” He knew it was stupid as soon as the words left his mouth.

Simon smiled knowingly, the kind of smile Cal would have loved to have seen six months ago. “I think you're trying to be a good boy and that it goes against your instincts.” Boldly, he dropped his hand so that his fingertips brushed Cal's forearm. “What's your name?”

“Cal, and that's all you're going to find out about me, so you might as well give it up now. No offense.” Cal lifted his glass to his lips and tilted it without swallowing any beer. As long as he still had an inch of it in the glass, he didn't need another drink.

Of course, he could just get up and leave...but somehow he couldn't quite bring himself to do that.

“None taken,” Simon said pleasantly in a way that meant he wasn't convinced. “At least let me buy you another drink. No strings attached.” He held up both hands, indicating innocence.

“Okay. Sure.” It was just a drink, Cal reasoned.

With a fresh beer in his hand, he and Simon exchanged small talk and watched the game. Occasionally, Simon's knee bumped his; that didn't have to mean anything. It wasn't until Cal's second beer was gone and a pleasant buzz was thrumming through him that Simon turned and put a hand on Cal's thigh.

“Come up to my room.” Simon looked like a man who wouldn't take no for an answer.

Cal had always been a man who wouldn't say no.

Chapter Eighteen

Tom did let Cal get through the door and even waited to kiss him until Cal had dropped his small suitcase on the floor and deposited the bag with his camera on a hallway chair with a little more care. Once Cal's hands were empty, though, Tom stopped being patient.

“Missed you,” he said against Cal's mouth, barely drawing back enough to allow his lips to shape the words. “Glad you're back.”

Any worry that he might have had that he was coming on too strong, being too needy, left him at Cal's answering groan and the fierce press of Cal's lips.

“Next time, you're coming with me,” Cal said, and there didn't seem to be much point in talking after that.

Tom would've agreed to Cal eating, showering, having a beer, whatever to wind down before they got naked—he was aware that promises made when they were both horny didn't count—but from Cal's enthusiastic response, it looked as if being considerate wasn't required. Cal's hands tugged at Tom's shirt, pulling it free of the waistband of his jeans. A moment later, Tom felt those hands slide up over his back. Cal dug his nails in on the way back down, not enough to hurt, just enough to make Tom go from half-hard to rigid fast enough to leave him dizzy. There was so much implied in that rough, perfect caress, an assurance that Tom was going to get what he wanted, confirmation, if any were needed, that Cal was as hungry for it as Tom.

“Still want me to fuck you?” Cal said into Tom's ear, biting the lobe, worrying at it with his teeth and tongue until Tom felt his focus narrow to that single place, that hot, wet piece of flesh.

“Upstairs,” Tom said hoarsely, his fingers helplessly tracing the line of Cal's jaw, then stroking the silky hair that always smelled expensive, though given Cal's brand of shampoo, that wasn't surprising. Unlike Tom, Cal didn't buy a huge bottle of whatever was on sale. He couldn't seem to take his hands off Cal. “I got out what we'll need. It's all ready.”

He was too. He was scrubbed clean to the point where his skin felt raw. Or maybe that was just the effect Cal had on him—Cal, who made Tom feel more vulnerable than anyone ever had and at the same time made him feel safe, protected. He was learning to trust Cal and finding it an easier lesson than he'd expected.

They stumbled up the stairs, exchanging kisses a few steps from the top and finding their way into Tom's room. “I want to undress you,” Cal said. “Okay? Let me do it?”

“Yes. Yes.” Tom might have agreed to anything just then, and he groaned when Cal's hands pushed up the fabric of his shirt and touched his bare sides. “Just hurry.”

“I'm not going to go slow,” Cal assured him. “I've been wanting you since I woke up this morning.”

“Only since then?” Tom tried to sound offended and failed spectacularly. He was already pushing Cal's shirt free of his waistband, gasping with the sheer desperation of needing to feel Cal's skin.

“Since yesterday,” Cal said. “Since I left. Maybe forever.” He claimed Tom's mouth in a kiss so eager and heated that Tom forgot what he'd been trying to do, unable to think of anything beyond the taste of Cal's lips.

By the time the last of Tom's clothing dropped to the floor, followed by Cal's pants, belt thudding against the carpet, they'd stopped talking completely. Tom's mouth was chafed from kissing, his body taut with need. He drew his palm up from Cal's balls to the tip of his cock. It was going to be inside him soon, and just the thought of that had his heart hammering wildly with anticipation.

He got onto the bed, releasing Cal only when he had to, letting Cal position him on his hands and knees.

“I'll stop,” Cal said, breaking the silence between them. He nipped gently at Tom's shoulder, the heat of his body covering Tom, close enough that Tom didn't feel exposed or ridiculous. “One word from you that sounds like no and I'll stop. You don't need to worry.”

“Please.” Tom let the single word say everything that he was feeling and didn't have time to put into words. “Now?” he added, finding enough breath from somewhere to speak.

It felt like hours while Cal crinkled the condom wrapper and wrestled with the lube, and Tom was definitely projecting, because there was no way Cal was having a hard time. Cal knew exactly what he was doing. Cal would do this right.

Tom couldn't deny his tension when the touch of Cal's slick fingers made him twitch.

“Shh,” Cal said. “I've got you. Deep breath.”

Letting his head hang down, Tom closed his eyes and concentrated on the sensation of Cal's wet fingertips teasing him, playing with the sensitive skin around the entrance to his body. God, he wanted this so much that he almost opened his mouth to beg Cal to stop messing around, to stop prolonging the inevitable and just fuck him already.

He knew it would hurt. That didn't stop him from wanting it. “Please,” he panted as Cal's finger slid deeply into him, and his cock shuddered with need. “Cal, please.”

“I've got you,” Cal said again. That finger, the feel of it inside Tom drawing helpless whimpers from his throat, slid out and in again, a slow, steady pressure building.

Tom wanted to come, and he wasn't sure he cared all that much if Cal brought him off before fucking him. Maybe it would be a relief. “Cal, I can't.”

Cal, thank God, seemed to understand that Tom was asking for more and not less. “Okay. Try to stay relaxed. God, you look amazing like this. You have no idea. So fucking hot.”

There was a brief, bleak moment of emptiness, and then Tom felt the blunt, wet tip of Cal's cock pressed to him. It was as welcome as warmth on chilled skin, and he gave a sob of relief and pushed back, needing to feel Cal inside him, that deep connection he'd experienced when he'd been where Cal was.

There was a burn, discomfort that closed his throat as his body fought to adjust. Cal was being so patient, even if Tom could feel from the grip of his hands how much Cal wanted to surge forward, the tremor in his voice as he murmured encouraging words.

“Relax,” Cal said again.

It wasn't easy, but with every gentle rock of Cal's hips, he was working his way in deeper. Tom had always imagined being fucked with a strong, sure thrust, hard and forceful, to get his partner's cock into him. Even so, the thought of what that would feel like made him shudder. This was better. Gentle, like waves lapping against the sand, gaining ground inexorably, inch by inch...

By the time that Cal was fully inside him, Tom was floating on those waves, his eyes shut, his hands flexing against the sheets, a mindless action in time with Cal's strokes that Tom didn't remember starting and couldn't seem to stop.

“This feels—” Cal's voice broke off, and he leaned over to kiss Tom's back. “Love you, Tom. Love you.”

His voice rose on the final word and he pulled back, almost all the way out, then slid back in, a long, uninterrupted glide that drew a moan from Tom, his body warm and limber now. Arousal was overriding any remaining twinges, combined with the generous amount of lube coating Cal's dick and the tight channel it was fucking.

“God. God.” Tom wanted to find other words, something that would convey how amazing this was, but he had no idea where the connection between his brain and his mouth had gone. It had short-circuited, or maybe all his nerves were busy elsewhere. He tried to stay still so Cal could move how he wanted without interruption, but found himself rocking back to meet each thrust.

“Don't know how long I can do this,” Cal panted.

“A little longer,” Tom begged, because it felt so good he couldn't bear the thought of it ever ending.

“Yeah. A little.” Cal thrust again.

Tom could feel his arms trembling with the effort of supporting himself, and he cautiously lowered his weight down onto his elbows. Cal's next thrust was at a different angle, more intense and with more contact with Tom's prostate. He gave a startled cry as the head of Cal's cock went deep.

“That good?” Cal muttered and did it again. “Jesus, Tom. Love you so fucking much.”

That still felt as if Cal should be saying it to someone else, but it never failed to send a jolt of happiness through Tom when he heard it.

“Love you too,” he said, the words coming easily now, separated by gasps as he felt his balls tighten, his cock so hard that the skin covering it felt paper-thin. He was too unsure of his balance to risk reaching for it, but he ached for Cal's hand on him, even knowing that one rough, fumbled touch would be enough to send him over, let alone the deft glide of Cal's fingers. “Harder, Cal... Need you.”

“You want more?”

Tom cried out as Cal's teeth nipped sharply at his shoulder, the bright sting of pain the perfect contrast to the sweet, slick thrusts from Cal's cock.

“Going to give you everything, Tom. My Tom. Shit, yes. You're mine. Say it. Say it, please.”

“Oh God.” Tom sucked in air, his chest tight, sweat cool on his body as he met the pounding rhythm Cal had set. “Yes. Yours. I'm yours. God, yes—”

Cal's hands on Tom's hips tightened, and he gave one last, deep thrust and started to come. Tom could feel it in his ass, the swell of Cal's dick inside him in rhythmic waves, the rest of Cal frozen, including his breath. It was frustrating, wanting to move, wanting those strong thrusts to continue. Within a few heartbeats Cal was moving again, his hand sliding around to find Tom's dick. Tom groaned and came. He could feel his ass clenching around Cal's dick, and every time it happened, he whimpered slightly. It was so powerful, so overwhelming, that his arms gave out and left him with his face in his pillow.

“Ow,” he said, muffled.

Cal's cock pulling out of him made him whimper again, but Cal's hands were urging him down into a more comfortable position on the bed. “Are you okay?” Cal asked, sounding worried.

Tom snorted. “Am I all right? God, yes. Never been better.” His ass ached, a fantastic ache. If he thought he could have managed it, he might have shoved a couple of his own fingers up there and jerked himself to a second climax just for the sheer, ridiculous pleasure of it.

No way that was happening anytime soon, though.

Cal seemed to accept that he was sincere and settled down beside him, his arm resting on Tom's chest with a comfortable sense of familiarity. “Feels good to be back,” Cal said with a yawn. “It's only eight, and I'm dead. If I fall asleep, kick me. If you want to do that again, kick me hard.”

Tom grinned, enjoying the kisses Cal was scattering over his chest as much as the hug. He tightened his arm, holding Cal close. “I think I can restrain myself for a few hours at least before jumping you again.”

“Good to know,” Cal said.

They lay in a peaceful silence for a while, exchanging slow, sweet kisses that felt like a continuation of what had gone before, the same melody in a different key. Tom couldn't remember ever feeling so uncomplicatedly happy. The idyll was interrupted by a growl from Cal's stomach.

“Sorry. No food on the plane, and I'm starving.”

“I should've let you eat first,” Tom said with a smidgen of remorse. “Let me grab a quick shower, and I'll dish up supper. I made chili, and it's only going to take as long as the garlic bread does. Everything else is ready.”

“Did I mention that I love you? Because I do.”

Tom snickered and slapped Cal's stomach. “Cupboard love.” He got out of bed, moving with a little more care than usual, and walked across to the door. Halfway there, his foot got tangled in Cal's pants, and he kicked it free, sending the contents of the pants pockets over the carpet. “Crap. Sorry.”

Cal, who had barely realized anything had happened, rolled over and looked at him. “What? Oh, it's okay. Leave it. I'll get it later.”

“No, I've got it.” Tom slipped Cal's wallet back into the pocket it had come from and shuffled the loose bits of paper that had scattered into a small pile. Much later, he'd wish his gaze hadn't focused on the business card that ended up on top, the one that was upside down and had Thanks for last night. If you’re ever in town again, call me scrawled on it. “What's this?”

Having swung his feet to the floor and sat up, Cal held out a hand. “I don't know. Let me see it.”

Tom had already flipped the card over. “Simon Broucek?”

A look of regret crossed Cal's face. Tom was sure he saw guilt there as well. “Just a guy I met at the hotel.”

"‘Thanks for last night'?” Tom read out loud. “Sounds like he had a good time.”

“I don't know why,” Cal said. “I wasn't the kind of company he was looking for. All we did was talk at the bar.”

“Did you buy him a drink?” Tom knew he sounded angry, but he couldn't help it. One weekend, the first weekend Cal had been away since they'd been together, and Cal hadn't even managed to stay faithful that long? Imagining it made Tom's stomach churn.

“No,” Cal said angrily, and Tom was sure it was because Cal felt guilty. “I didn't. I—”

“Stop.” Tom threw the handful of papers onto the bed, but there wasn't enough weight to them, and they just scattered into a mess. “I don't want to hear excuses. I should have known better.”

“You don't know anything.” Cal stood up, face flushed. “You think you know what happened? You're wrong.” He fumbled with the papers until he found the business card again, thrust it into Tom's hand. “Call him. Go ahead. Call him. Ask him whatever you want.”

“No, you talk to him,” Tom said, beyond thinking past the next sentence, his mind chaotic, his heart thudding painfully, beating so hard he could hear it in his ears, a wild rush of blood. He shivered convulsively and walked to where his robe hung on the back of the door, needing not to be naked right then, with Cal's gaze on him. “You talk to him and let me hear it,” he repeated. “He'll lie to me.”

“The way I'm lying?” Cal demanded. “Shit, I knew that you were insecure, Tom. I thought we'd gotten past that. For the last time, he came up to me at the bar, tried to pick me up, I told him I was with someone—that'd be you before you get any more fucked-up ideas about what I did while I was away—and he pushed a few times, then let it go. He ended up with the guy at the reception desk. I saw them heading off together when I went back to my room.”

“So how do you explain the card?” Tom said, a dull, sick hurt blunting the edge of his anger without giving him any relief from the pain.

Cal frowned, his face showing a good deal of confusion. Tom didn't buy it. “He must've slipped it into my jacket pocket. It was hanging over the back of the chair I was sitting at, one of those high bar stools with a back—”

“I don't care if you were sitting on a fucking flagpole,” Tom said, anger flaring again. “It wasn't in your jacket, asshole. It was in your pants. Like his hands were, I guess. Did you take him back to your room? Or find a men's room with a door that locked?”

“You're pissing me off.” Cal's expression was stony now. “I picked up a dozen cards from people I met down there. You saw them. Contacts, friends... They get passed out by the handful. I must've shuffled his in among them without realizing what it was.” His face softened. “Tom, please. I know how this looks. I swear to you, I'm telling you the truth, all of it. I got a kick out of it when he came over, yes, but you want to know why?” He didn't wait for Tom to say that he didn't care why, the words tumbling out of him, his handsome face flushed. “Because I got to tell him I was with you. I was spoken for.” He ran his hand through his hair. “God, it felt amazing. I got this stupid fucking smile on my face that wouldn't go away, and I wanted you so much I almost called you again just to hear your voice.”

“I wish you had.” Tom was torn between anger and a bleak emptiness.

“Fine,” Cal said, reacting to his tone. “I'll call him if that's the only thing that will make you happy.”

Maybe they—Cal and Simon—had already talked about this eventuality, and Simon would be ready to lie, Tom thought. He took the phone from Cal's hand and dialed the cell number listed on the card, then pushed the button on the phone so it was on speaker.

It rang several times before Simon picked up. “Hello?” The voice was rich with confidence. If Tom hadn't already hated the guy, hearing that one word would have made him.

“Um, hey.” Tom did his best to approximate Cal's breezy way of speaking. “It's Cal. From the other night?”

“Hey, yourself.” The background noise told Tom Simon was somewhere public. “Hang on a second—let me—okay, that's better. Sorry. You know what these places are like.”

Yeah, full of guys who wanted to get fucked and didn't care who they hurt. “So how's it going?” Tom didn't want to say too much and risk tipping Simon off that he wasn't actually Cal. Sitting on the bed a few feet away, Cal, still naked and beautiful, was watching him silently.

“Great. Especially now that you called. I have to admit I didn't think I'd hear from you.”

“Really?”

“Well, you weren't exactly receptive.” Simon cleared his throat. “Changed your mind, huh?”

“About what?” Tom said.

“About us hooking up, which I'm definitely still interested in even if you were on the chilly side with me. I'm sure you can make that up to me, though.” There was a world of meaning in the man's voice. It made Tom shudder with a loathing that he knew intellectually Simon didn't deserve. “So how come you're still in town? I thought you were rushing back to that boyfriend you were pining for. Change of plans?”

Cal took the phone from Tom's slack hand and walked away with it to the window, his body framed by the long sweep of the dark green curtains. Tom could still hear what Cal said, the terse words of explanation, Simon's indignant response, the abrupt silence when Cal ended the call, cutting off Simon's expostulations, but it was all coming from a long way off, echoes in the emptiness.

Flipping the phone shut, Cal half turned and let the phone fall to the floor. It clattered and jumped sideways, then slid under the bed. Cal didn't move to pick it up, and he didn't say anything. He just stood there.

It was a long time before Tom could raise his eyes to meet Cal's.

More than anything else, Cal looked tired. Of course he would be, after his long flight and hurrying to get home to Tom, who'd proceeded to jump to conclusions and accuse him of something he hadn't done. No wonder he looked tired in addition to sad and angry. “No apology?” Cal said finally.

“I—” Tom couldn't get past that single, useless word for what felt like a long time. “I thought...that card...”

“Yeah,” Cal said. “I get it, Tom. I really do. I can see why it freaked you out and why you thought I'd cheated on you.” His voice was too flat to be reassuring.

“What I don't get is why you didn't accept what I had to say. Why my word wasn't enough for you.”

“I'm sorry,” Tom said. It came out sounding despairing, which was as it should be. “I just remembered how you were, the way you used to be, and—”

“I'm not like that now,” Cal said sharply. “I've changed. Because of you. How I felt about you. And I was never a liar, and I never two-timed anyone.”

“Because of me,” Tom repeated, trying to focus on the way Cal had said felt not feel. “Cal, I'm just not—”

“Not hot enough, not interesting enough, not good enough for a stellar catch like me,” Cal interrupted. “I've heard it, okay? Too many times. It's bullshit, and I'm getting fucking sick and tired of you not listening to me when I tell you that.”

Tom opened his mouth to say something. He didn't know what to say to make things better between them—if the words even existed—so he closed it again. Cal was right, and he was wrong; he'd just fucked up so royally that Cal had every right to be through with him, and what else was there to say? “Sorry,” he said and started blindly grabbing some clothes that he could pull on. The sense that he'd destroyed whatever they'd been building, not maliciously or on purpose, just the way a small child might knock into a tower of blocks to see what would happen, rose and crested over his head, leaving him drowning.

He stumbled downstairs and got dressed standing near the front door. He picked up his running shoes and shoved his feet into them. Tom started running as soon as he got to the sidewalk, not caring that his shoes were untied or that his ass hurt because he'd just let the only man who'd ever cared about him fuck him.

Tom knew if he could run far enough or fast enough, he'd reach a place that felt better than this.

He fell twice by the river, his breath coming in sobbing pants, his untied shoes less of a hindrance than the fact that he wasn't looking where he was going, his eyes blurred with tears. It was getting dark, but it was still light enough for people to see him clearly, their reactions telling him how terrible he looked, his knees bleeding, his hands grazed, and blood streaking his face where he'd wiped at the sweat trickling down his face. He had no water, no money, no phone.

No Cal to go home to.

His body demanded that he stop eventually, and he leaned against a tree, his hands stinging when he put them against the rough bark to brace himself. The run hadn't helped at all. He couldn't think past what he'd done and why he'd done it. So fucking insecure. Years of seeing himself as less, as different, couldn't be wiped away by a few months knowing Cal, warmly appreciative, loving. Or if they could, if they had, it had been all too easy to fall back into old habits.

He hurt for himself, but the memory of the anguish in Cal's eyes pierced him like steel. Cal had been so proud of himself for changing, and Tom had spoiled it all.

If he'd been wrong to say Cal was more than he deserved before, that wasn't true now. Cal did deserve better, someone who believed in him, trusted him.

Someone with the insight to look past the way that Cal had been and see the truth of how he was now.

He thought about asking to borrow a passerby's phone to call a friend, maybe Derek. However, he couldn't imagine trying to explain what had happened, let alone what it would be like to approach a stranger looking the way he did. Instead, he sat on the grass long enough to pull his socks into position and tie his shoes. Then he began the long walk home.

It was more because he had no idea what else to do than because he actually wanted to be home. He didn't want to go back into the house where he'd lived for years, a place he'd always loved and considered home. He didn't know if Cal would there—he certainly would understand if Cal had chosen to leave, and he didn't think he'd blame Cal for never wanting to see him again—and whether Cal was there or not, Tom didn't want to be.

But where else was he supposed to go?

He could feel a blister forming along the side of his right foot near his little toe, and his knees burned and stung. It was cold. He wrapped his arms around himself and walked on, head bowed, so miserable that it was all he could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other instead of giving up, lying down, and waiting for something to end his pain.

The front door to his house was closed but unlocked. It was quiet inside as he shut the door behind him and kicked off his shoes. “Cal?”

There was no answer. The quality of the silence spoke of emptiness, a cold, blankness instead of the small, homey sounds that Tom had grown accustomed to with Cal around. Cal had music going while he worked. He ran down the stairs, never walked, his feet thudding. Cal filled the house with life, and Tom hadn't realized until Cal was gone just how much he'd loved that.

The note on the fridge that he found an hour later, after a hot shower that washed him clean and didn't do anything for the chill inside, was straightforward enough, even in Tom's dazed state.

Tom

I’m going to stay with friends for a while, the ones who helped me move in. Their number’s on my desk if you need it.

I’m sorry if I had any part in what happened. I don’t know if I can do this if you won’t trust me. I understand that you have concerns based on my past, and I don’t know how to explain that things are different now so you’ll believe me. I don’t want anyone but you, so it wouldn’t matter how hard someone threw himself at me. He’d just be bouncing off.

I think it’d be good to give you some space for a while, so you can think about what you want to do. Don’t say you want to keep trying unless you mean it. Neither of us needs a repeat of this, and I know I don’t want to be part of one of those couples who breaks up and gets back together and breaks up again but nothing ever changes.

I never wanted to be part of a couple at all until you. If we’re going to do this, we should do it right.

So take some time. Think it over. We can talk in a few weeks. Don’t call me until then. I want to know you mean it, whatever you decide.

The note was signed with Cal's signature, which never looked like anything but a scrawl. There was a stain on the paper, like something had spilled and the attempt to wipe it off had resulted in a smear. Tom put the note back mechanically, using a fridge magnet advertising a local restaurant. He'd never eaten there, despite having read an enthusiastic review of their new menu in the local paper. He'd planned to take Cal for a meal there sometime soon.

The urge to call Cal right away, to beg, grovel, make any promises that Cal needed to hear, was strong. Every time he looked at the note, though—and he couldn't seem to walk away—the phrase that stuck out was Don’t call me.

Tom opened the fridge door, Cal's note fluttering. He got a beer. The shower hadn't warmed him, and the beer gave him a nagging headache, but sipping it gave him something to do as he sat in front of the TV, staring at happy people whose problems always got wrapped up by the time the credits rolled.

When the bottle was empty and he'd picked the label off, the paper falling in shreds to the floor, he went to bed. He'd do as Cal asked and think about it all, just not tonight.

He was halfway up the stairs when he realized he was crying.

Chapter Nineteen

“Jason, shut up already,” Cal said, rubbing his temples.

Jason glared at him over the dinner table. “Excuse me?”

Cal shook his head and sighed. “Sorry. It's this headache; I can't seem to get rid of it.”

“Did you take some ibuprofen?” George asked, eating another bite of the beautifully cooked chicken dish he'd been responsible for making.

“Yeah. And I drank more water and had caffeine and tried lying down for half an hour as well.” Cal had been sleeping on the couch in Jason and George's office for more than a week and had to admit, if only to himself, that it was getting old. The mattress on the couch bed was too thin to be comfortable for anyone who weighed more than eighty pounds, so he'd been sleeping on the folded couch instead. He suspected nine nights of sleeping in strange positions was pushing his spine out of alignment.

“You could try a heating pad on the back of your neck and an ice pack on your forehead,” George suggested. He looked at Jason. “Or is it the other way around? I can never remember.”

“I think it is the other way around. Sorry, hon.” Jason patted George's hand and gave Cal a sympathetic look. “Why don't you call him?”

“Because I want to make sure he had time to decide what he wants,” Cal said morosely. It had seemed like a great idea when he'd been writing Tom that note. Now he wondered what the hell he'd been thinking.

“Or time to miss you?” Jason said, with a flash of insight that brought no comfort because if Tom had missed Cal, wouldn't he have called by now?

“I just want him back,” Cal said. “God, why is this so difficult?” He massaged his temples with his fingers. It didn't help. “I've changed. The way I was before—it wasn't wrong. I mean, I didn't break any hearts. It wasn't enough, though. I see that now. Hell, I saw it when I fell for Tom. Why can't he accept that I've changed? Why is it so easy for him to think I've gone back to the way I was when the way I am now makes me happier? I'd have to be insane!”

“You're ranting,” Jason said kindly. “Eat some more chicken.”

“I can't.” Cal looked at George. “Sorry, it's great. I'm just—”

“Lovesick,” George said. “And kind of adorable too, not that that's any consolation right now. Go lie down for a while with the lights out. I'll bring you some water and an Excedrin.”

“Thanks.” Cal shuffled to the office and collapsed onto the couch, allowing himself the luxury of a small groan. His head hurt, he was exhausted, and he missed Tom like hell. He was so miserable that he'd cancelled his next job outright and postponed the one after that. It wasn't the kind of move that would be a benefit to his career. Of course, neither would showing up for work half out of his mind with longing.

George was right. He was lovesick, and there might not be a cure.

For the millionth time in the past few days, he considered calling Tom. It was incredibly unfair to ask the man not to call and yet be irritated with him for respecting that request. Regardless, Cal couldn't help it.

George returned, a glass of water in his hand, a painkiller in the other. He nudged Cal's knee. “Here, sit up long enough to take this. It'll help.”

Cal obeyed, then drank all the water before handing the glass back. “Thanks. I know I'm not the easiest person to deal with right now.”

“Who is, under this kind of circumstance? Hell, I don't think I got out of bed for a month the last time I had a bad breakup.”

“Yeah?” For once, Cal was interested in one of George's long and sometimes hard-to-believe stories.

“Fact. Okay, I crawled to the bathroom once in a while, but I just pulled the covers over my head and cried my pretty eyes red.” George sighed theatrically. “I broke up with him, you see, and that was fine. Afterward I found out that all the time we'd been together, he'd been screwing every twink that walked past, and that changed everything.”

“Why?”

George shrugged. “I guess I wasn't as over him as I thought I was. I lost it. Destroyed everything of his that was still at my place, left him abusive messages. Oh, I was a mess.”

“You still wanted him after all that?” Cal couldn't help the incredulity, but he tried to look supportive,

“Until I came to my senses, yes.” George held up his hands. “What can I say? As darling Willow said, ‘Love makes you do the wacky.'”

“Who's Willow?” The conversation was getting away from Cal.

George sucked in a shocked breath. “Willow! From Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Cal shook his head. “Don't tell me you've never watched it! That is so wrong. I have every season on DVD; we can have a marathon tomorrow. There's this one episode when Xander turns into a hyena—but no, we should start at the beginning.”

“Sure,” Cal said weakly. “Sounds great.”

He'd give Tom until noon to call, and if the phone stayed silent, Cal was prepared to crack and make the first move. He wanted to go home.

After another half hour of feeling sorry for himself, Cal was interrupted— probably a good thing—by Jason pausing in the doorway. “Hey, how you doing?”

“Okay,” Cal said. “You guys going to bed?”

“Yeah. George has an early meeting, so we're calling it a night. Don't stay up too late.”

“I won't.”

Cal was debating whether he should get himself something to eat or maybe watch some TV when his cell phone, resting on the desk, started to vibrate. He'd forgotten he'd turned the ringer off, and as he watched, the phone vibrated itself right off the edge of the desk and onto the floor. He leaned over and grabbed it, hoping he'd see Tom's number on the screen.

No.

Sighing, he answered anyway.

“Cal? It's a girl!”

It took his brain a few seconds to translate this into something that made sense. “Derek? Congratulations! How's Marianne?”

“She's great. She's kind of crazy, actually. I don't know if it's post-birth hormones or what, but she's kind of hyper, and she's dying to get as many people in here to see the baby as possible. Do you think you could swing by? Just for a little while? I know it's late, but she'd love to see you.” Behind Derek, in the background, Cal could hear other voices. They sounded happy, and being surrounded by happy people seemed like exactly what Cal needed.

“Of course,” he said. “I'll be there soon.” He scribbled the details of how to find them and went in search of his shoes.

Within forty minutes, Cal was on the elevator riding up to the maternity floor. He'd stopped at the gift shop and bought flowers, an obnoxiously pink balloon, and a handful of parenting magazines with shiny covers. He didn't have any trouble finding the room, and with his hands full, he couldn't knock. So it was a good thing that the door was open. “Hey, hi,” he called going in. He stopped when he saw Tom standing at the head of the bed near Marianne.

I should have known that he'd be here, Cal thought. Marianne and Derek had brought them together once—maybe twice—and it looked as if the third time was the charm, because now that they were in the same room again, Cal wasn't going to let Tom just walk away.

“Hi,” he said to Tom, who gave him a sidelong glance and muttered something that Cal couldn't catch. Cal left him for the moment and turned to Marianne. “Hello, beautiful.”

“I look like crap,” Marianne told him, her beaming smile making it a lie even though her hair was limp with sweat and there were shadows under her eyes. “It doesn't matter, though.”

Cal walked over to the bed, depositing his gifts on the table at the foot of it so that he could give Marianne a gentle hug. “I don't suppose anything matters but the baby.” The star of the show lay in a see-through cradle on wheels a few feet away from the bed. She was covered in a white blanket, her tiny face screwed up and red. Cal peeked at her cautiously and lowered his voice. “She's cute. Adorable.” He dredged up a question to ask. “How much does she weigh?”

He was acutely conscious of Tom on the other side of the bed, fiddling with a flower drooping over the side of a clear glass vase. If Marianne looked drained though deeply content, Tom just looked exhausted.

“She's eight pounds two ounces,” Marianne said proudly. “The labor took from nine this morning, and they thought I'd have to have a C-section for a while, but the little darling moved and dived down just the way she was supposed to. That's when my water finally broke.”

“Spare him the gory details,” Derek said from the doorway. “She's perfect,” he added, coming over to shake Cal's hand with a heartiness that left his fingers feeling crushed. Derek was bubbling over with barely concealed pride and delight. “Have you seen her fingers? Tiny! It's incredible.”

“You're all incredible,” Cal said. “Proof of the miracle of life.” Or something. He hardly knew what he was saying, because Tom in the same room was the biggest distraction in the world.

“Well, this miracle of life needs to get some sleep.” Marianne gave a stretch and a yawn. “Why don't you and Tom go get a coffee or something?”

“I can show you where the cafeteria is—” Derek started to say. Marianne whipped out a hand and smacked him. “Ow!”

“I'm sure they can find it on their own.” Marianne put a lot of emphasis on the last word, glaring at her husband.

Cal rolled his eyes. “Wow, you two are subtle.”

“You promised not to do this to me again,” Tom told Marianne. He didn't sound mad, though. That was something.

“This doesn't count,” Marianne said.

“No,” Tom said. “You're wrong. It counts.” He touched her shoulder, then looked directly at Cal for the first time. “What do you say? Coffee?”

“Coffee sounds great.”

Once they were out in the hallway, Cal cleared his throat. “You don't have to do this if you're not ready to talk. Marianne will never know.”

“Don't underestimate her. She's probably got a nurse tailing us to report back,” Tom said. “When I turned up without you and she found out why, I almost didn't get invited to look at the baby.”

“In disgrace, huh?”

“She says I'm an idiot.” Tom shrugged one shoulder. “I couldn't disagree. I am.”

Cal hated seeing Tom so disconsolate, his recent confidence gone. “Hey, you had your reasons to be...”

“Suspicious? Mistrustful? Paranoid?”

“Unsure of me,” Cal said, correcting him.

They'd reached the stairs leading down to the cafeteria. Tom paused and turned to face Cal instead of walking down them. “No. I had no right to be unsure of you. There's never been a time when you've been anything but honest with me, and you never lied or pretended with any of the men you were with before me. You didn't deserve what I did to you, and you shouldn't have to put up with my fucking uncertainty about myself day in and day out. It's not fair. I should just walk away and let you find someone—”

“If the next word out of your mouth is better—”

“Different,” Tom finished. “Someone different. How's that?”

“Terrible,” Cal said. “It sounds terrible.” He was hopeless at this, and he knew it. He didn't want to spend the next half hour cautiously working his way around the issue at hand and trying to figure out how Tom felt. He wanted to know now, even if it was bad news. “I don't want to be with anyone else.”

“I still don't get that,” Tom said. “I don't see what I've got that's worth the hassle I put you through.” He looked completely baffled, but with his hair tousled and his eyes shadowed, Cal was conscious only of the need to hug him. Debates, arguments, discussions... He supposed those things had to happen. At that moment, though, he wanted to get Tom close and hug the sadness out of him.

The hallway wasn't empty, and the top of the stairs was the worst place for them to have stopped. Cal glanced around and saw an exit sign not far away. “We can't talk here,” Cal said. ”Come with me.” He grabbed Tom's hand, relieved when Tom's fingers curled around his and held on. Cal led an unresisting Tom to the door and through it onto a small balcony, with stairs leading down to the parking lot and up to the next level.

The door closed behind them, and Cal took a deep breath of fresh air untainted by the hospital odors that always made him feel queasy.

“Cal?” Tom reached out hesitantly and ran his finger across Cal's cheekbone. “You look tired.”

He closed his eyes at the touch of Tom's hand, the tension that had been building inside him, all of it—sorrow, despair, anger—draining away. “I am,” he heard himself say. “God, Tom, I'm so tired.” Opening his eyes again, he looked at Tom. He never wanted to look at anyone else. “Can I—”

“Yes,” Tom said. “Anything.”

Cal gathered Tom close, one arm around his waist and the other curled around his upper arm. He pressed his face to Tom's bare neck. The skin was warm there, and Tom smelled so good that Cal wanted to lick him. “I missed you so much.”

Tom groaned, and Cal thought he felt a kiss against his hair, the touch too light for him to be certain. There was nothing tentative about the way Tom was returning his hug, though, and Cal let himself melt against Tom, resenting any space between them, no matter how small.

“You have no idea how much I've missed you,” Tom told him, his voice unsteady. “I've picked up the phone so many times and then remembered that I wasn't supposed to call. I've written e-mails and deleted them. I've driven around town hoping I'd see you. Cal, I'm sorry, okay? For all of it. I'm so fucking sorry.”

“Don't,” Cal said. “It doesn't matter.”

“You're sure?” Tom asked, the question deceptively simple when it meant so much more.

Sure about being with me. Sure we can make this work. Sure you forgive me.

“Yes. I've been sure for weeks. The real question is, are you sure?”

Tom nodded, his jaw brushing Cal's ear. “Yeah. I'm sure. I just want to be with you. I promise it'll be different this time.”

Pulling back so he could see Tom's face, Cal said, “I want it to be the same. Without the fight, though. That was the only part I didn't like.”

“I didn't like it either. It was stupid of me to be jealous like that.” Tom leaned in and kissed him, just a faint whisper of lips. “It won't happen again, I promise.”

“Then let's put this behind us.”

“If we're doing that, I want to take you home,” Tom said. “You really do look exhausted. Haven't you been sleeping?”

“Not enough. Jason and George's couch isn't actually all that comfortable. You know any good chiropractors?” Cal was only half kidding as he and Tom, holding hands, started down the metal staircase.

“If you need one, yes. If you just need a back rub from someone who can't wait to get his hands on you again, I'm volunteering my services.”

A dim room, a wide, comfortable bed, and Tom's hands firm and gentle on his body, stroking away the tension of the last week and replacing it with something so much better... Cal forced himself not to hurry on the narrow stairs. He wanted to run, not just to his car, but toward a future that held Tom in it.

The drive back to Tom's house felt like it took forever. Tom led the way, as if there was any chance in a million years that Cal would have forgotten how to get there. Once he was standing in the driveway, the awkwardness Cal had felt in Marianne's hospital room returned.

“Come on.” When Cal still hesitated, Tom put an arm around his shoulders. “Come on. You need to get some sleep.”

“This feels weird,” he admitted as they went inside. It didn't feel like coming home, even though he had a key to the front door in his pocket.

“It doesn't have to be. Everything's where you left it. Do you want to check?” Tom was standing there in the entranceway, looking big and handsome and worried, and Cal found himself smiling.

“No, I don't need to check. Let's just go upstairs and get comfortable.” Cal didn't care if it was in his bed or Tom's; he just wanted to lie down beside Tom and close his eyes.

“I can do that,” Tom said with a sigh of relief. “God, I want to do that. So much.”

They ended up in Tom's bed because it was the first room they came to. Cal suspected they'd end up making it their room over time, though if they did, he was going to suggest they swap Tom's bed for his. Tom's room might be bigger, but his bed was a double, not a queen-size.

Not that Cal minded the enforced closeness of two men sharing a bed barely big enough for one right then... Hell, ever.

Naked, exhausted, they got into bed and moved into each other's arms, their lips meeting in a kiss that rejuvenated Cal without, for once, arousing him.

“This is nice,” Tom murmured. “Don't go again, Cal. Please.”

“If we argue again—and we probably will—I won't even leave the room,” Cal said sleepily. “God, I want to keep kissing you, and I'm falling asleep instead. Sorry.”

“Make it up to me tomorrow.” Tom yawned.

“I will,” Cal said, with an idea prickling at the back of his mind. He was too tired to think more about it, though. He'd have to try in the morning.

He'd make it up to Tom in the morning.

Chapter Twenty

Tom woke up feeling like he'd slept for at least twelve hours. He could vaguely remember having woken at least eight or nine times during the night, the warm and comforting press of Cal's body against his sending him almost immediately back to dreamland. Now he shifted his knee outward and didn't bump into Cal, so he opened his eyes and found himself alone in bed.

That Cal had let him sleep in made Tom smile, and he stretched luxuriously. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept so well. He could only hope Cal had experienced the same.

Yawning, Tom put on his bathrobe and paused in the hallway to listen for Cal. The house was quiet. “Cal?” He made his way down the stairs slowly; no sign of Cal there either. Where the hell had he gone? Oh God, had Cal changed his mind and left, this time for good?

Tom's pulse finally stopped racing when he went into the kitchen and found a note on the countertop. Cal's handwriting, saying he'd gone to pick up breakfast and would be back soon.

With the note still in his hand, Tom heard the front door open and the sound of footsteps. “I'm up,” he called so Cal wouldn't have heart failure when he came around the corner and saw him.

“Oh, good.” Cal came into the kitchen juggling two cups of coffee and a large cardboard box, with a paper bag tucked under his arm. “You looked so cute sleeping, I didn't have the heart to wake you. Here, I brought you a present.” He set the cardboard box—white with a brown design on it—on the kitchen table and stepped back.

“Don't shake it!” Cal warned him when Tom reached for the box. “In fact, maybe just open the top.”

“Is it a fancy pastry from Derek's place?” Tom guessed.

“Nope, but I got us some chocolate croissants to go with the coffee.” Cal put the bag and the coffee cups down. “Open it?”

With a puzzled, pleased smile on his face, Tom lifted the flaps and peered inside.

A kitten, ink black, a curled-up ball of silky fuzz, lay nestled in a scrap of blanket fast asleep, its whiskers, impossibly long for such a little creature, twitching now and then. Tom touched the tip of his finger to the rounded head, its fur incredibly soft. The kitten stirred, gave a protesting murmur, and settled back to sleep.

Speechless with delight, Tom glanced up at Cal. Cal's smile held so much hope that Tom would be pleased that the box could've been empty and Tom would still have smiled back.

“You said you wanted one.” Cal fidgeted with the edge of the bag holding the croissants, crumpling it between his fingers, smoothed it out. “He's eight weeks old. His mom died a month after giving birth, and the kittens were found in a shed, half starved, poor things. Do you like him?”

“He's the second cutest person in the room,” Tom said, finding his voice at last. He walked around the table and hugged Cal with an exuberance he didn't even try to tone down. “You—I can't believe you did this for me.”

“Hey, I want a share in him too,” Cal said, nuzzling Tom's cheek and kissing him. He smelled of fresh air and sunshine. “I can see us fighting over whose lap he sits in. Maybe after breakfast, we should go back to the shelter, and you can adopt one for me.”

“What if they don't like each other?” Tom was surprised to find he was already feeling protective of the new kitten. “Hey, what's his name?”

“At the shelter it was Sammy, but they said he doesn't know it yet, so we can change it to whatever you want.”

The kitten was sitting up now, blinking sleepily and peering over the edge of the box. Its eyes were green.

“He was friendly at the shelter,” Cal said. “You know, purring and stuff.”

“He's adorable.” Tom gave in to the urge to scoop the kitten up in his hands to cuddle him. “God, he's so little.” The kitten investigated a loose thread on the front of Tom's robe, sniffing at it curiously and batting at it with his paw, tiny white claws extended. The vibration of his purrs could be felt even though the thick material. “Sammy?” Tom tried the name and tickled the kitten under the chin. “Is that your name?” The kitten ignored him with a lofty disdain and swarmed up Tom's front to find a perch on his shoulder. Tom gasped at the sensation of dozens of spikes being driven into his skin and clutched frantically at the small, squirming body. “God, he's fast! Cal, grab him quick, before he falls off or something.”

Laughing, Cal unhooked the miniature claws from Tom's robe and transferred the kitten to his chest, his hand curving protectively around it. “Maybe he's hungry. There's some food in the car and a litter box and stuff. I bought it all at the shelter. I figured we didn't want to leave him alone the first day, and we should get him trained from the start.”

“Right,” Tom said with a nod. “That's great. I'm just—a kitten. You got me a kitten.” He moved close enough to kiss Cal, leaving enough space for the kitten, who had settled down in the crook of Cal's arm. “You're perfect, you know that? I love you.”

“I'm nowhere near perfect,” Cal said. “But I love you too.”

Tom took another kiss just because he could, then backed away in search of his coffee. “I need this,” he said, uncapping it so that he could take a gulp at it, the first swallow pure bliss. “Okay, now I'm all the way awake.”

“Good, because we need to call people,” Cal pointed out. “Friends who're wondering if we're still fighting or tucked up in bed having wild makeup sex.”

Tom grinned. “We're not doing either of those, but if I get to vote, guess where I'm putting my X?”

“Is that what the cool kids are calling it these days?” Cal said with a wink, playing along. He tickled the kitten's ears, which it took as a challenge, sinking his teeth into Cal's finger, its tail flying high. It seemed perfectly capable of biting and purring at the same time. “I'll happily get naked once we've fed this little vampire draining me of blood. Ow, his teeth are sharp. But I still think we should call people.”

Tom surrendered. “Fine. Pass me Sam, and I'll make the calls while you're bringing everything in.”

Cal grinned, unhooked the kitten, and deposited him in Tom's arms. “All yours.”

Sam decided the floor looked far more interesting than Tom's face and squirmed enough that Tom, after checking that Cal had closed the kitchen door securely, let him down. He kept a watchful eye on the kitten while he retrieved his phone from his jacket, left slung over a chair the night before.

Derek's cell phone number was in his incoming calls list. Knowing hospitals, Tom figured that Derek and Marianne had been up for hours. He hit the buttons and waited, listening to the ringing on the other end until Derek picked up.

“Hi! Tom!” Derek said. “Please, please tell me that you and Cal are back together, because as far as Marianne is concerned, that would make this the perfect week.”

“It's perfect,” Tom assured him. “How's the baby?”

“Amazing. I don't know if it's because of the exhaustion of being born, but she slept for like two hours straight and only woke up when they came in to stick her with pins or whatever.”

“Pins?” Tom was horrified.

“Not really,” Derek said, and in the background Tom could hear Marianne saying something. “To check her blood sugar.”

“Okay.” That didn't make much more sense to Tom than pins. “Did you settle on a name?”

“Juliana,” Derek said proudly.

“Love it. We've decided to call ours Sammy.” Tom managed to sound casual about it, even as the kitten climbed his leg.

The stunned silence was enough to make Tom smile through the pain of being used as a tree. Could claws be trimmed like fingernails? Or would the scratches he'd get trying it make it not worth the effort?

Getting his revenge on Derek was sweet, even if he wasn't really mad at the two of them for matchmaking—considering the result.

“You, uh, you adopted? I thought that took months. Oh, you're kidding, right? You have to be.”

Tom laughed, amusement and happiness bubbling up. He pried Sammy off his leg, getting an indignant squeak in response, and put the kitten back in his box, moving it to the floor to be safe. “Relax. It's a kitten. Cal surprised me with it this morning. He's adorable.”

“Cal or the kitten?”

“Both,” Tom said. “Look, I'll let you go now, but we'll both be over to see the new baby very soon. And Cal says to tell you that he's bringing his camera when you're ready, if that's okay. He wants to take a photo of you all as his baby present. Maybe even a whole series during the first year, if you like the idea.”

“I like it better than the idea Marianne's friend had about me filming the birth.” Tom grinned, picturing the revolted expression on Derek's face. “Much better. Tell him thank you very much.”

“Let us know when you're ready for visitors.”

“Knowing Marianne, it'll be ten minutes after we're home. And knowing her family, you'll have to fight off half a dozen people for a chance to hold the baby.” Derek sounded so happy that Tom knew this wasn't a real complaint. “Take care, you two.”

“And you three,” Tom said and hung up as Sammy tried to leap from his box and succeeded in tipping it over onto its side. The kitten thought the box needed punishment for being so uncooperative and promptly jumped onto it before sliding off the other side onto the floor. He looked confused, and Tom laughed.

“What's so funny?” Cal asked, coming in with an armload of things and putting them onto the counter. He stuck his still-bleeding finger into his mouth. “I need a Band-Aid,” he said, not very clearly.

“There's a first-aid kit under the sink.” It had been there since the kitchen had belonged to Tom's grandmother, and though the supplies inside were new, the kit itself was decades old and looked it. “No, Sammy.” As soon as he opened the cabinet, the kitten ran in, and he had to grab it with both hands and toss it out again.

“I think he might be bad,” Cal said.

“I think he's possessed,” Tom said with conviction. “A demonic fuzzball.” Sammy chose that moment to roll to his back and try to catch his tail between his paws, a look of intense concentration on his face for about three seconds before he lost interest and began to wash his face. “Oh my God. Did you see that? I think I'm going to melt into a puddle from the cuteness.”

“Maybe it's a survival whatchamacallit,” Cal suggested, eying Sammy with a look as goofy as the one Tom suspected was on his face. “When he destroys the couch and shreds the curtains, he'll pull out the tail-catching trick, and we'll forget to yell at him.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Tom said, even though he could sort of imagine it. “Come here, you.” He applied antibiotic cream and a Band-Aid to Cal's scratch, then kissed the bandaged skin gently. “All better.”

“Thanks,” Cal said gruffly, and when Tom looked up into his eyes, Cal stepped in close, crowding Tom into the countertop behind him and kissed him. It was a long, slow, intense kiss, and Tom's cock immediately perked up in response to it. “I want to take you back to bed.”

Tom nodded and caught Cal's hand, guiding it down to where his robe, gaping open, was failing to cover anything. “I don't think there's any part of me that thinks that's a bad idea.”

Cal's breath hissed out as his fingers caressed Tom's erection with an eagerness that Tom could almost taste. The light, trembling touch became more confident. Tom groaned as Cal's fingertips coaxed him harder, leaning in to rest his head on Cal's shoulder when Cal cupped and rolled his balls.

“God, I've missed you so much,” Cal whispered. “So much. Tom.”

“Bed.” Tom could feel the hard, solid shape of Cal's cock pressing insistently against his thigh, and he wanted to feel it against his skin, in him, taste it. He wanted to do everything with Cal, and he was filled with a burning impatience to begin. “Now. Please.”

They stumbled upstairs to the bedroom, Cal tugging Tom's robe off him and Tom pulling Cal's T-shirt over his head. They laughed when the kiss that followed resulted in their noses bumping together.

Ow,” Cal said.

“I'll kiss that better too,” Tom assured him, and he did.

Cal was already stripped off his pants, standing gloriously naked beside the bed, one hand around his cock. “What about this?”

Dropping to his knees, Tom pressed gentle, reverent lips to the tip of Cal's dick, which twitched in response. “And this.”

“Jesus, Tom.” Cal's voice was husky. “I want to fuck you so bad.”

Tom licked a wet stripe along the underside of Cal's cock, taking his time, feeling the changes in texture as he went from the loose skin at the base to the taut skin on the shaft. “You can,” he said. “You can do anything to me.”

Cal shuddered, his hands warm on Tom's shoulders as he drew him up. “You have no idea how much I have planned for you,” he said. “I'm going to put you on our bed and open you up for me, get you so fucking slippery that I won't need to be gentle, won't need to be slow.”

Tom felt his breath catch at the thought of Cal's cock driving into him like that, giving him what he needed without making him beg for it. Not that he minded begging Cal. It didn't feel like surrender when Cal was always so ready to give him everything he wanted.

“I'm going to make you come hard,” Cal said, pushing Tom down onto the bed and straddling him, his eyes glittering. “Then I'm going to do it all again, slowly, over and over until we're both too exhausted to crawl out of bed.”

Tom reached for the lube, left on top of the bedside table from the last time he'd jerked off. He threw it at Cal, followed by a condom from the drawer, and reached down to run his hand over his dick, taunting Cal, teasing him. He felt close to coming just from the way Cal's eyes narrowed, dark with lust. “Do it. Do me. Get inside me before I put you on your back and do it myself.”

Slicking his fingers with lube, Cal splayed his other hand across Tom's belly and held him down. “First, I'm gonna fuck you with my fingers.”

“Yes,” Tom said, trembling as Cal's wet fingertips brushed his asshole. “God, yes.”

“That's what you want, isn't it. You want to feel my fingers pushing up inside you.” Cal didn't wait for Tom's reply, which ended up being little more than a nod because his throat was dry. Slowly he slid a finger into Tom's ass. Tom choked out a groan and lifted his hips, trying to get Cal's knuckle to rub more firmly against that perfect spot.

“I love how much you want this from me.” There was so much wonder in Cal's eyes that Tom couldn't look away. “Tom—” He bent over to kiss Tom, and that made his fingers shift, a jolt of pleasure shocking Tom into a groan.

“Want you,” he said against Cal's mouth and heard how his voice shook from the strength of his emotions. “Just want you, Cal.”

Cal's tongue licked the corner of Tom's mouth, a warm flicker that distracted Tom enough from the relentless thrust and retreat of Cal's finger to allow him to gather his thoughts.

“Please. Enough...please.

Cal drew back, every muscle defined, his body taut and rigid as his cock, jutting out sharply. “Yeah,” he said. “I can't wait either.”

He reached for the condom and knocked it to the floor in his eagerness. “Shit.” Leaning down resulted in a shriek that had Tom scrambling upright and Cal lifting a hand that had a kitten clinging to it, teeth dug in at his wrist. “Ow! Ow!

“Okay, careful. Don't hurt him.” Tom pried Sammy's jaw open gently and held him at arm's length, not wanting to risk any of his own anatomy.

“You'd better be talking to the kitten,” Cal said darkly, shaking his hand.

“Right, of course I am.” Still keeping as much distance as possible, Tom walked to the bedroom door, slid the kitten out, and closed the door in its face when it tried to run back in. “Sorry.” The kitten meowed pitifully. “Sorry!”

Cal seemed to have forgotten about the interruption by the time Tom returned to the bed. He rolled the condom on, then reached for Tom with eager hands. “Come here.”

“I'm here,” Tom assured him with a kiss. “Is your hand okay?”

“I don't know. You tell me.” Cal stroked Tom's erection. It hadn't subsided at all despite the distraction. “Feel okay to you?”

“Feels great,” Tom said, his voice unsteady. “Perfect working order.”

Sammy was scratching at the door now, managing to make a lot of noise for something small enough to fit into a cereal bowl. His meows had turned indignant, and Tom couldn't help grinning, making Cal give him a look that Sammy would've approved of.

“Sorry,” he said, trying to quell his amusement and get back to being aroused and eager—which he was. He was just...distracted. “It's just that we're in here getting all hot and heavy, and he's so mad at us. It's sweet.”

“That is not adorable like the tail chasing,” Cal said severely. “Ruining the mood when we're about to make love, though... That's just wrong. I'm taking away his catnip mouse.”

“Now you’re being cute,” Tom said fondly.

“God, no. Uh, unless me being cute gets you hot, in which case I'm adorable.” Cal pushed Tom down onto the mattress and loomed over him. “Stop thinking about the cat. You've got me right here.”

Tom thought he could see more than a flicker of self-doubt in Cal's eyes close up like this, and it wasn't a look he ever wanted to encourage. “Cat?” he murmured, and lifted himself to Cal's mouth for a slow kiss. “What cat?”

With Cal naked against him, the weight of Cal's body holding him down, it was easy to forget everything but Cal. “Gonna fuck you now,” Cal whispered, his lips brushing Tom's.

He could feel Cal's cock, wrapped in its condom and slick with lube, pressed to his hole, then slipping inside. After the first inch, his body tightened, protesting, and he had to stop Cal's inward push with a hand on Cal's hip. “Wait.” Tom panted. It was almost impossible to force himself to relax. “Wait, just—”

“It's okay,” Cal said softly. “I can wait.”

Tom had to give him credit for that, because he knew how difficult it was to wait when everything in you was straining to move. It felt like forever until his body relaxed, and when it did, it was all at once. He knew Cal felt it too, because Cal's hips shifted, cock pulling free of Tom's ass briefly. Tom moaned in protest, and Cal drove forward, the solid jut of his cock driving the air from Tom's lungs in a soundless gasp.

His whole body felt like it was on fire, his skin too tight and hands clenched on the sheets. Unable to speak, he lifted his hips to meet Cal's thrusts. Together, they found a rhythm that worked, fast enough to keep shoving Tom by tiny increments toward the release he knew couldn't be far off.

The kitten was still mewling, still scratching. Outside, traffic went by, a steady hum of engine noise, like the buzz of a giant fly, but Tom wasn't listening to anything apart from the quick, gasping breaths they were making, the sound of his name escaping Cal's lips over and over, as if he were answering a question in Tom's eyes.

They would come soon, collapse, sweaty and sated, their arms around each other, to kiss and talk. It didn't matter. What they had wouldn't end with the climax.

What they had, like the life of Marianne and Derek's new baby, was just beginning.

Tom smiled up at Cal. “Love you,” he said and watched Cal's face soften, just for a moment, before his eyes closed and he began to come, taking Tom with him.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~