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Rock and a Hard Place

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Chapter One

The woman walking by Sean was in heels so high she looked like a ballet dancer en pointe. From the way she lurched unsteadily, the champagne in her glass slopping side to side, she wouldn’t be performing a pirouette any time soon, though.

Sean rolled his eyes and glanced around the crowded bar. The Pendleton’s main ballroom, opening off the bar, was also packed with rich people looking to spend a little to improve their images. In Sean’s opinion, they’d have to do a lot more than donate a pittance to charity to achieve that aim. His cynicism wouldn’t help children born with HIV—but tonight’s auction would—and he told himself to behave.

For a potential junior partner of Carney Enterprises, good behavior was mandatory. He knew that, but sometimes, surrounded by this much wealth and privilege, he felt suffocated.

He took a sip from his champagne flute, nursed so long the fizz had gone and the champagne had warmed past the point of being drinkable. He smiled at no one in particular.

His smile faded abruptly when Andrew Carney—grandson of the founder of Carney Enterprises and son of the senior partner, Harris Carney—wandered into his line of sight. A stunning redhead clung to Andrew’s arm, her low-cut jade-green dress revealing two of the reasons Andrew had chosen her as his date.

Her matching shoes were lethally sexy, all straps and winking diamanté buckles, the heels slender spikes. She could at least walk in them. The arm-clinging was more a way of staking a claim. Andrew’s attention span was renowned for being short, and if another woman caught Andrew’s eye, Sean had no doubt Red would have to find her own way home.

Andrew was such a fucking jerk. Sean’s lip curled before he could remember he was supposed to be looking pleasant.

As an experiment, Sean tried watching the younger man as an impartial observer might. Andrew couldn’t have been more than thirty, and looked a few years younger with his fair skin and sharp hazel eyes. His hair, a light brown, was artfully arranged with gel that showed off the blond highlights at its tips. His height made him difficult to ignore under the best of circumstances.

Of course, Carney’s golden boy was usually surrounded by people who jumped to do his bidding, including a personal assistant who was rumored to tie his shoes for him. Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly pissed off and in no mood to be fair, Sean wondered if Andrew ever did any work or if Andrew just delegated it to others and then took the credit. He’d been tempted to ask a few pointed questions on the subject. But he’d refrained because Andrew seemed to be so well-loved that it would be career suicide to even hint he was nothing more than a spoiled brat.

Was Sean jealous? Well, yes, a bit. After all, he’d worked incredibly hard to rise as far up the company ranks as he had, while Andrew-damned-Carney had everything handed to him on a silver platter and hardly seemed to appreciate it. Red leaned in close to Andrew’s ear and said something. Andrew patted her hand and nodded. She put her glass on a passing waiter’s tray and disappeared into the crowd, no doubt headed for the ladies’ room, where she’d do things like “fix” her already perfect hair and add another layer of lipstick to her deep red lips.

Sean watched her go, not sure why. It wasn’t as if he had any personal interest in the subtle jiggle of her impressive breasts or the wiggle in her walk as she detoured around a group of men too busy talking shop to notice her until she was past them. Their heads turned in perfect unison, and Sean grinned, his good humor restored. Straight or gay, men were predictable, he guessed.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile, Darrow.”

Sean turned to find Andrew beside him. Andrew smelled indefinably expensive, and the tie around his neck had probably cost more than Sean’s first three suits. Sean earned enough these days to be able to afford custom-made suits himself, but he could never shake the feeling they were a sinful extravagance, even though at his level, they were more of a necessity.

They were a costume for him, a uniform. For Andrew, they were just clothes.

“It’s scaring me.” Andrew faked a shiver. “It’s not natural. Go back to glaring at me.”

Sean bit back a retort that would’ve verged on rude. Being labeled a grouch by a playboy wasn’t something to get worked up about. To Andrew, the world was probably full of boring people who insisted on taking life seriously and doing the job they were paid to do. He had to shrug it off. “Why would I want to do that?”

“I’m used to the glare. Besides, you aren’t fooling anyone; that’s not a real smile. I can tell.” Andrew sipped his champagne and scanned the room. It was irritating the way he looked so confident, like the world belonged to him and everyone in it was there just for him.

“What happened to your…date?” Sean knew it would be inaccurate to refer to her as a girlfriend, but maybe the hesitation would annoy Andrew.

“She went to freshen up.” Andrew smirked at him. “You’re here alone, I take it?”

God, he was so fucking dismissive. Sean wished he could get away with punching him right in his smug, rich-boy face. “This isn’t a social occasion,” Sean said coldly.

“If free alcohol’s involved, I’m pretty sure it is.” Andrew finished his drink and traded the empty glass for a full one. “Come on, drink up. You look like you need it.”

“I don’t have to take orders from you.” Sean placed his glass on the small table beside him, finding room for it between two plates with half-eaten canapés on them. Looked as if he wasn’t the only one who’d thought the crab puffs were too salty. “Not at work and not here.”

“Well, aren’t we touchy.” A spark of something—hostility? amusement?—glittered in Andrew’s eyes. “Is that a—”

“If you were planning to say ‘gay thing,’ I’d reconsider.” Sean smiled at Andrew for the benefit of anyone watching, as if the two of them were sharing a joke, but there was no warmth to his voice. “I’d hate to mess up that pretty face of yours and scare your escort before you get your money’s worth out of her.”

That last was a cheap shot, and he knew it. There was no reason to think Andrew had ever needed to pay for sex or arm candy, not with his looks, wealth, and connections, but Sean had the satisfaction of seeing Andrew blink.

Interesting.

“I’m sure she’d be worth any amount of money,” Andrew said finally. “And I’m sure she’d be the one messing up your face if she knew what you were accusing her of, so I’ll be nice and not pass that little tidbit on. This time.” Some of the tension in his jaw relaxed, and he smiled. “Besides, have you seen the way she fills out that dress?”

“Hard to miss,” Sean said, keeping his voice neutral this time. He’d let Andrew provoke him into overreacting, not for the first time. Everything about the man bugged the hell out of him—including the need to be at least superficially pleasant, given Andrew’s father placed a lot of emphasis on teamwork and cooperation among his top-flight employees.

In public at least. Generous bonuses and perks awarded to those hedge fund managers who brought in the most assets encouraged them to be as competitive as starving dogs thrown a scrap of meat.

“But not your thing, right?”

Sean met Andrew’s challenging stare. “Oh, I like my men to fill out their pants, so I guess we’re on the same page there.” He let his gaze drop below Andrew’s waist and pursed his lips as if considering what lay beneath the charcoal-gray trousers Andrew wore. He shrugged dismissively, though it was impossible to judge what was hidden behind the material. “I’m sure you’re never going to get any complaints—at least not to your face. Honesty makes for small tips.”

Andrew’s lips tightened. “Spoken like someone who comes to events by himself.” He lifted his champagne glass in a silent toast. “I guess it must be hard to find anyone who can put up with you for a few hours.”

You have no idea. Sean’s love life was currently stagnant, something that contributed to his bad mood. He didn’t consider himself ruled by his dick, but there was no denying he was more fun to be around when he was getting laid on a regular basis.

A brief attempt at a relationship three months ago had ended abruptly when Luke, who’d never really moved in, tossed his still-wet toothbrush into the trash after Sean told him from the shower he was going to be working late again. By the time Sean had gotten dry and dressed, still working out how to get the toothbrush back in its mug—metaphorically at least—Luke had slammed the apartment door with a nicely dramatic finality.

Sean could’ve gone back to club pickups or the short list of exes who were still speaking to him, but his workload had gotten crazy. Jerking off when he was awake enough to make it to the money shot was about all he’d managed recently.

Apologizing to Andrew Carney was never going to happen, though, even if Sean knew he’d been an asshole. He nodded at Andrew’s date, who was making her way toward them with a tiny frown puckering her forehead. “Yeah, I’m a handful. And here comes your double handful, so you don’t need to blow a brain cell thinking up another insult.”

“I thought you were lost,” Andrew told the redhead as she joined them.

“Just distracted,” she said, smiling widely so her brilliantly white teeth were visible. “There was a woman with the most amazing shoes, you wouldn’t believe.”

“Probably not,” Andrew agreed.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Elizabeth Montville.” She held her manicured hand out toward Sean, who took it carefully.

“Sean Darrow.”

“And do you work with Andrew? You look like an investment type.”

“What does an investment type look like?” Sean was genuinely curious to hear her answer.

“Hmm, well. Clean-cut, nice suit, conservative tie.” Elizabeth gestured at him, then smoothed her hand over Andrew’s lapel.

“What do you know, Darrow? Looks like we have something in common after all.” Andrew raised an eyebrow.

Elizabeth glanced around. “Are you by yourself, Mr. Darrow? Oh, was that your date freshening up with me? The one with the killer shoes?”

“I doubt it,” Andrew said with a chuckle. “There’s one thing at least Darrow and I don’t have in common.”

“You’re not as funny as you think, you know,” Sean told him.

Elizabeth sighed, managing to look both bewildered and charming. “I don’t get it?”

“I’m gay,” Sean said bluntly. He’d never denied it, not once he’d figured out what got him going. His father had brought him up to despise polite evasions or cowardice. He was what he was, and it was no one’s business but his. “And no, my date isn’t in the men’s room or at the bar. I’m here by myself.”

Elizabeth smiled at him again, and this time it was his lapel that got patted. “Well, you were, but you’re with us now. Isn’t that right, Andrew?”

Sean grinned. Carney’s jaw didn’t drop; he was too well trained in keeping his face smooth and impassive in front of clients for that. But for someone who could read the signs, he’d lost some of his composure. Andrew tugged at his shirt cuff and checked his watch. “Of course, but the auction’s about to begin, and I’m sure Sean would excuse us if we go to our seats.” He nodded at Sean. “Catch you later. Just make sure you don’t scratch your head at the wrong moment. The bids are going to be out of your league once they finish with the penny-ante stuff like gift certificates and fruit baskets.”

Deciding not to dignify that with a reply, Sean focused on Elizabeth and said, “It was nice to meet you.”

“You too.” She still seemed slightly bewildered as Andrew led her away.

The crowd was definitely thinning as more people moved into the ballroom where the charity auction was taking place. Sean was grateful these huge social events only happened a few times a year—at least the ones sponsored by Carney Enterprises—because he’d much rather have been almost anywhere else. Oh well. Only a couple of hours of this and he’d be off the hook until Monday morning. Tomorrow he’d sleep and sleep.

It wasn’t that Sean didn’t love his job—he did, on one level. And he was good at it. Better than that poser Andrew by a mile. But for him it was more about being successful than anything else.

The auction got off to a slow start. People from the company wanted to be seen to be spending big, and spa days and low-end electronic gadgets just weren’t splashy enough. Sean was planning to bid because he supported the charity, but like his fellow employees, he was cynically aware of the need to be seen to be doing good deeds.

Image was everything. He’d read through the list of items and earmarked a few he was interested in—definitely not a spa day—and he waited more or less patiently for the first of them to come up.

When it did, Sean joined the bidding halfway through, taking a mildly malicious pleasure in seeing Todd from accounting drop his program when he saw who he was competing with for a set of skydiving lessons. Todd was one of the people at Carney Enterprises who got skittish around Sean, as if they expected him to break into a show tune or pinch their asses.

Todd had nothing to worry about. Sean saved his singing for his car, and Todd’s ass wasn’t worth a look, let alone a touch.

The bidding continued, with the high bid rising well past the point at which Sean had decided he’d drop out. Todd gave up shortly after, with the winner of the lessons paying nearly double what they would have cost normally. If Sean had been interested, he would have paid that much, especially considering what a high winning bid did for one’s reputation. But he’d already taken more than one set of skydiving lessons, and when it came right down to it, he preferred to save his focus for something more unusual.

It hadn’t come as too much of a surprise when he’d discovered people in finance professions had a penchant for high-risk activities. Investment advisers, bond traders, and portfolio managers—they were drawn to extreme sports, from the more common surfing and snowboarding to the unusual. Sean had tried bungee jumping as a college student and been immediately hooked on the rush of adrenaline, the sheer heart-thudding terror followed by the glorious realization he’d live to jump another day.

The bidding had moved on to a wine-tasting weekend in Paris, so Sean relaxed and leaned back in his chair. It was an item that had garnered a lot of interest, but it wasn’t on his list due to the simple fact it was a weekend for two. He could have found someone to take, even just a friend, but it was one of those things that screamed romance, something his life was severely lacking just then. And would probably continue to lack until he found someone as caught up in his career as Sean was himself.

The high bid was at nearly ten thousand dollars—an absurd amount of money under any circumstances other than a charity auction—and only just beginning to show signs of slowing. A movement of bright color off to his right caught Sean’s eye, and he realized it was Andrew’s friend Elizabeth, her red hair vibrant against the sea of dark suits. She was holding her hands clasped together in front of her face, probably in shock anyone would pay so much money for a couple of days in Paris.

Actually, considering she was Andrew Carney’s date, maybe she was horrified the people bidding were so damned cheap.

He shifted his gaze to Andrew with much the same lack of logic as a child picking at a scab to see if the wound it protected had healed. It made no sense, but it was irresistible. If Andrew was around, somehow Sean ended up staring at him, his emotions a solid, curdled lump of dislike. Andrew smoothed back Elizabeth’s hair and got an annoyed frown from her before she schooled her expression to something less chiding. She’d probably spent a long time getting it to look that way, and Andrew’s caress had ruined the carefully brushed tumble of curls.

Andrew looked suitably penitent, but he was grinning at her a moment later, an easy, relaxed smile that faded when he turned his head and met Sean’s gaze.

Sean expected Andrew to look away, but Andrew’s eyes didn’t shift, his mouth a straight, firm line now. Fuck you, Andrew mouthed.

For a dizzying moment, Sean pictured that as reality, not an insult—himself bent over, waiting for a contemptuous thrust to fill him, make him groan with pleasure and need. He shook his head to clear it, sweat prickling across his back.

Jesus, when he left here, he was going to get laid if he had to do what he’d accused Andrew of and pay for it. Except that would be stupid and risky and when it came to sex, he took chances, but not like that.

When he glanced over at Andrew again, the man’s attention was on the auctioneer, a dapper, elderly man with an astonishingly loud voice and a spotted bow tie.

“And now it’s time for the grand prize, the moment when all you generous people get to show just how generous you can be. The prize is furnished by Gulliver’s Travels, where, big or little, your dreams can come true, and I think we should give them a round of applause…”

Sean tuned out the patter and the enthusiastic clapping. He knew what this prize was, and he wanted it. He had enough vacation time accrued that he was going to lose it if he didn’t take some soon, and this was just what he needed to relax.

“Good, yes, thank you.” The auctioneer adjusted his glasses and looked down at the podium and his notes. “Now, up for bid is a two-week extreme-sport vacation in the Maldives Islands. The trip is all-inclusive and covers airfare to Malé International Airport, and from there to the resort, accommodations, and full board in a luxury resort setting. Activities provided will cater to the winner’s interests, but they include bodyboarding, cliff jumping, kite and windsurfing, and both scuba and free diving.” He looked up at the crowd. “Please note that the winner will have significant input into the schedule.”

Sean could feel the buzz in the air, even though he suspected he’d have little competition during bidding—chances were there’d be half a dozen bidders as it started, but he didn’t think many of them would continue past twenty thousand dollars or so. It just wouldn’t be worth more than that to most people. For Sean, though, it was the ideal item to bid on, not only impressively expensive, but something he actually wanted.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, ladies and gentlemen. Please keep that in mind as I start the bidding at five thousand dollars.”

A man who looked familiar but whose name Sean couldn’t recall immediately signaled his bid, and they were off.

“Five thousand, do I have six? This trip, first-class all the way, is valued at twenty-five thousand dollars, and I know how much you all want to support this fine charity. Six, thank you.”

That hadn’t been Sean’s bid either; he was willing to keep quiet now at the beginning while he tried to get a feel for which bidders were most serious.

“Nine thousand,” a man’s voice said, and Sean realized the bidder was Andrew Carney.

“Ten!” Sean said quickly before he could think too much about what he was doing. As soon as he had, he knew it was a mistake. Andrew might well assume Sean was just bidding against him to be difficult, which meant he’d be all the more determined to win. Shit. What did the man want with an extreme sport trip anyway? He’d probably never had so much as a scraped knuckle in his life.

“Ten, thank you very much. Do I hear more?”

Even without glancing over at Andrew, Sean knew he was getting one of those amused, dismissive smiles directed at him. “Fifteen.”

The word, drawled out as if Andrew were talking about fifteen dollars, not a thousand times that amount, lit the fuse for Sean. Unlike his sex life, his bank account was healthy, thriving even. He spent carefully, with an eye to outward appearances, giving the impression of being comfortable—which he was—without wasting money the way some of his associates did.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like having nice things. It was just that deep down he couldn’t bring himself to spend thousands of dollars more flying business class when, as the saying went, both ends of the plane got there at the same time. When he was on business and the company was picking up the tab, yes, but if he flew home to Chicago to see his parents, he bought a seat in coach. Why not? And when he bought his casual clothes, the ones no one in the office saw, he sure as hell didn’t drop five hundred bucks on a T-shirt.

He could afford this vacation. “Twenty!” he called out, his voice crisp as an apple.

A ripple went through the crowd: excitement, curiosity maybe. It added to Sean’s determination. He didn’t like making a fool of himself in public, so he pasted yet another fake smile on his face. God, when he was in the Maldives, he swore he wouldn’t smile even once unless he wanted to. His face ached from the artificial grimaces.

“Do I hear more than twenty?” The auctioneer clearly knew he would. His head was already turning in Andrew’s direction.

“Twenty-two,” Andrew said.

“Twenty-four.” Sean kept his eyes fixed on the auctioneer, refusing to glance in Andrew’s direction. Apparently they were going to do this all on their own. Sean wondered how high this would go. Was there a point at which he’d stop? Or would he stubbornly continue for as long as Andrew did? He wasn’t sure he cared.

“Twenty-five.” There was an edge to Andrew’s voice as he topped Sean’s bid.

“Thirty.” This trip was Sean’s. It didn’t matter how much he had to pay; it was his, and no way was Andrew going to take it away from him. The jump in bidding would show Andrew he was serious and possibly end their battle.

Andrew stood up. “Forty thousand.”

A gasp went around the room, and there was a brief pause before the auctioneer said slowly, “We have a bid for forty thousand dollars. Do I hear more?”

The only time Sean could remember a bid having gone this high before was when an acclaimed fashion designer had offered a custom, one-of-a-kind wedding dress. Forty thousand for a two-week vacation was insane, and as he opened his mouth to continue the insanity, a hand gripped his arm from behind.

Sean turned his head and saw his boss, Harris Carney, leaning forward with an intense look on his face. “That’s enough.” Harris raised his voice and beckoned imperiously to his son. “Andrew? A word, please.”

A rustle of whispers followed them as they moved to the side of the stage, out of earshot of the crowd. The auctioneer stood watching them but had the sense not to interfere. They’d be talking about this for weeks, Sean thought with a sick anger burning in his gut. He felt like a schoolboy hauled off to the principal’s office for fighting—which wasn’t far from the truth.

“What the fuck is going on?” Harris asked them, his voice tight with anger, if discreetly lowered. “This is supposed to be a charitable event, not a public airing of whatever feud the two of you have going on.”

“Sir, I—” Sean didn’t get any further. Harris chopped his hand down sharply, a gesture that Sean was all too familiar with. Judging by his wince, so was Andrew. It signaled a loss of patience and an imminent explosion.

“I know what you make. Both of you. And I know you can afford this, but how far would you have let it go? Fifty thousand? Sixty?” He glared at Sean. “Bankrupt yourself if you like, but you’re making the company look foolish, and I won’t stand for it.”

Sean swallowed and nodded. That was it, then. He’d lost, and Andrew was going to come out on top. Shit, he’d never live it down.

“Fifty thousand,” Harris said, loudly but calmly, directing his attention to the auctioneer so there was no question whom he was addressing. It was clear to Sean he was supposed to keep his mouth shut, which he did even when the auctioneer asked if there were any more bids and then hurriedly declared Harris Carney the winner.

Andrew looked as irritated as Sean felt. “I don’t think Mom’s going to be too thrilled with you going scuba diving.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Harris said. “I bought the trip for you.” He looked at Sean sternly. “And I’m going to pay for you to go too, so don’t go getting all righteously angry.”

Shock and anger held Sean speechless for a moment, which gave him time to get both under control before he spoke. “Sir, I appreciate the offer, but—”

“It isn’t an offer,” Harris told him. “It’s a condition of continued employment. I think under the circumstances the best option is for the two of you to take this trip together. Give you some time to work out whatever it is that has you at each other’s throats. I can write the money off; don’t worry.”

Sean studiously avoided Andrew’s eye. This was worse than losing. Panic filled him, clawing at his throat as it tried to escape along with the angry words that were about to spill out. He could not, would not do this. If it cost him his job, he was going to refuse.

A hand touched his arm and he spun around, scowling. Andrew was pale, his eyes bright with as much annoyance as Sean had ever seen there, but he was smiling and his hand was out, waiting to be shaken.

“You don’t have a choice,” Andrew told him, the words barely audible, spoken through his teeth. “Now shake my hand and make nice, you stubborn bastard.”

Harris Carney gave an approving grunt, and Sean reached out, numb now, and shook Andrew’s hand, not even trying to make his grip painfully tight.

When he went to bed that night, he could still feel the answering pressure of Andrew’s hand as it clasped his briefly.

Chapter Two

“We’re going to be late,” Andrew said, waiting impatiently by the front door. “Maybe I should just go on my own, leave the car at the airport.”

“No, no!” His dad was on the phone and flipping through a sheaf of papers awkwardly balanced on his arm. “No, Brooks, not you. Yes, I know. Well, send it, then, and we’ll deal with the fallout if it happens. Okay, good. Right. Okay, bye.” Turning to Andrew’s mother, his dad handed her the armful of papers and kissed her cheek. “Okay, we’re going.”

His mother had already read him the riot act while he was waiting—he was to be in touch at least once every twenty-four hours, he shouldn’t take any risks—all right, unnecessary risks—and he was not, for God’s sake, to find himself compromised by any young women. “You never know, handsome young American, plenty of money… Girls like that…” She was an expert at saying a lot with very few words, and Andrew had heard her loud and clear.

In the car, his suitcases and new hybrid pack tucked neatly into the trunk, Andrew had to listen to a long and specific set of instructions from his father, who was able to drive and advise at the same time. “And you’re sure Denise has everything we might need while you’re gone? She’s efficient enough as an assistant with you around to watch over her, but she’s relatively new.”

“You gave her the list,” Andrew pointed out. “She’s got it. Besides, it’s not like I’m going for a year. It’s just two weeks.” Two weeks he was looking forward to with equal amounts of joy and dread—the result of the experience would be dependent, he was sure, on how successful he was at ignoring the constant downer that was Sean Darrow.

His father shook his head. “You know how long even a day can be in our business.”

“It’ll be fine. And if you get in a bind, you can call me.” Andrew sighed. “Do I need to remind you this was your idea in the first place?”

“You left me no choice.” His father’s lips tightened with exasperation. “You’re both intelligent young men and assets to the company, but it disturbs me to see you waste time needling Darrow the way you do.”

“It’s not something I do; it’s just me,” Andrew said ruefully. “Listen, Dad, when we’re out there, we don’t need to spend every moment together, do we? Because if we do, only one of us will come back, guaranteed.”

His father smiled at him, looking disturbingly like one of the barracudas Andrew hoped he wouldn’t get to see too close up. “Then make sure it’s you, son. Darrow’s a damn good fund manager, but he rubs me the wrong way. That chip on his shoulder…it’s irritating. Try to make him see there’s no need for him to feel that way. He could fit in just fine if he stopped trying to insist he doesn’t.”

Andrew stared out at the traffic. “Maybe it’s because he’s gay.” He didn’t believe that, but he wanted to see his father’s reaction. Darrow was good-looking, confident, and abrasive. Anyone less likely to have the inferiority complex his father was suggesting…

Harris snorted, clearly unimpressed by a suggestion that facile. “He doesn’t seem to find that a handicap, and in this day and age, why should he? He’s not the only gay employee in the company or at his level, and you know it.”

“There could be stuff going on behind the scenes you don’t know about.”

“Harassment?” Harris shook his head and glanced over his shoulder before changing lanes. “No. I don’t believe that.”

“You can’t be egotistical enough to think nothing goes on in your company you don’t know about.” This wasn’t the kind of conversation Andrew enjoyed having with his father, but the dangerous nature of it was kind of thrilling. He was self-aware enough to know his interest in things he’d enjoyed since childhood—starting with sledding down huge hills and ending, well, never—had something to do with his personality.

“That’s not the point. Of course there are. There are always things people don’t know, even about their family and close friends. But I’m confident Carney Enterprises is a working environment that’s free of the kind of discrimination you’re talking about. Unless you have firsthand evidence otherwise?”

“No. I’d have told you if something like that was going on.”

“There, see? And there are dozens of other people I trust to do the same.” His father frowned as he looked in the rearview mirror. “Look at this jerk tailgating us.”

“Some people are just jerks,” Andrew said. “It’s not my fault Sean Darrow is one of them.”

“I’m not blaming you for his abrasiveness. We both know he’s perfectly capable of turning on the charm when he needs to, so just see if you can figure out a way to get it directed at you.”

The thought of being on the receiving end of Darrow’s bluntly sensual flirting was disturbing enough to make Andrew glad his father’s attention was split between the car behind them and the traffic ahead. That wasn’t what his father had meant, of course, but though Andrew had seen Sean win over clients with a direct, straightforward approach, coupled with a surprisingly attractive smile—when he got his way—Andrew had also seen Sean with another man.

His eavesdropping had been unintentional. Andrew had been in his car, windows down, waiting in the underground parking lot for a client he was taking out for lunch at a club followed by a round of golf. Sean’s car was three or four spaces away, and he’d walked over to it, his hand on the guy’s ass, unaware of Andrew’s presence or not caring.

Both possibilities had pissed Andrew off equally at the time.

Sean had swung the guy around and pinned him against the driver’s door for a swift kiss, both of them laughing, then said something about not being able to make it for an art exhibition that had wiped the smile off his partner’s face.

Andrew had snorted softly, expecting the man to push Sean away angrily, but it hadn’t happened. Even in the low light, he’d seen the man’s expression melt to forgiveness with a few murmured words from Sean and another kiss, this one longer, their bodies tight against each other.

“Want to skip lunch and make it up to me?” The naked yearning under the playful tone had left Andrew uncomfortably aware his body was responding to the scene. Voyeurism wasn’t one of his kinks, but the fact he shouldn’t be listening to them, watching them touch and kiss, was definitely playing into his arousal.

Sean had hesitated, his broad shoulders tensing, the powerful body that still managed to look elegant in a suit conveying his rejection more clearly than words as he stepped back.

“I’d love to, Luke, but—”

“You’re busy. I get it,” Luke had snapped. “Too busy for me.”

“Oh the hell with it.” Sean had tugged out his keys and gestured to the passenger door. “Get in. I’ll find us a hotel room to fuck you in, and God help you if my stomach’s growling when I give my presentation later.”

Luke had smiled, looking indecently pleased with himself, but Andrew had swallowed, his throat dry. He’d had a feeling Luke wasn’t going to enjoy his nooner as much as he thought he was. Darrow didn’t like being manipulated.

“Andrew?” His father nudged his arm. “I asked if you wanted me to get Saunders to look over the Tennant Brothers file while you were away.”

“What? Oh…no, it can wait.” For the third time that hour, he said, “It’s only two weeks.”

Still, he spent the time waiting in line to get through security going over his files in his head, making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He loved surprises in real life but not at work, and only in part because he knew what his father’s reaction was to dropping the ball. One serious lecture had been all Andrew needed to straighten up and fly right—in a figurative sense, at least. He prided himself on being a quick study.

“Please put your valuables in the trays,” the security guard intoned, obviously bored. “If you’re wearing a belt, please remove it.”

Andrew had heard it all before and efficiently moved through the metal detector and picked his things up on the other side. He sat to put his hiking boots back on. It was easier to wear them than to pack them; plus he was trying to break them in before he’d need them for something more intense than the airport.

He looked up after tying the laces of one boot and saw Sean Darrow a few lines away, just coming through security. Hard to miss those wide shoulders and dark brown, short-cropped hair. Sean was frowning, irritated by something. Just looking at him made Andrew feel tense and irritated. It was a wonder perfect strangers didn’t go up to the guy and punch him in the face.

Darrow caught sight of him and visibly hesitated before nodding a greeting, as if he was seriously considering pretending he hadn’t seen Andrew. Jerk. Their seats weren’t necessarily together—Andrew hadn’t compared notes with Darrow, in fact hadn’t spoken to him about the vacation at all—but they were both in first-class, so ignoring each other would be impossible.

The length of the flight was daunting. New York to Heathrow was a flight Andrew did often enough that it was routine, but after a stopover of two hours—not long enough to do anything but long enough to be tedious—he’d have to get on another plane for a grueling ten-hour flight to Malé, with a layover in Dubai. His trip would begin at eight in the morning and finish at noon the following day, local time—no, longer than that. They had to take a small island hopper out to the resort. Shit. His body clock would be screwed, and he’d never had much success at sleeping on a plane.

Mindful of his father’s wishes, he forced himself to smile at Darrow and walked over to join him once his boots were secure.

“Looks like the flight’s on time. Want to grab a coffee while we wait? I don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night to get here, but Dad rushed me out of the house before I had more than one cup, and I’m starting to fall asleep again.”

“You still live with your parents?” Darrow made it sound laughable, even ridiculous.

“No.” Andrew resisted the urge to hit the guy and busied his hand adjusting the strap of his carry-on bag instead. “I’ve got a condo. On Fifth Avenue.”

Darrow sighed. “Yeah, of course you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Andrew was used to people being impressed by where he lived, not that he should have expected a typical reaction from Darrow.

“It’s a good address.” The last two words came with an air of being surrounded by quotation marks, though Darrow’s hands were too occupied holding on to his battered leather jacket and an equally well-worn bag to make the gesture. “So naturally it’s where you live. You’d probably break out in hives if you crossed the threshold of my place, and God help the hotel if it doesn’t meet your standards.”

“I know where you live, and we’re not talking slum area,” Andrew snapped, stung by the implication he was some kind of spoiled brat. He’d spent his summers as a kid roughing it at a camp in the Catskills. The hidden purpose had been future social networking, but he’d endured sleeping in rock-hard bunks, bathing in an icy lake, and eating raw or charred meat he’d cooked over a smoking open fire in the name of building character. “The condo’s been in my family for years, and I pay rent for it, not that it’s any of your business. Lose the attitude.”

“Why don’t I just lose you?” Darrow turned on his heel and strode off, heading, Andrew couldn’t help noticing, in the direction of Starbucks. Fuck. He really wanted that coffee, but he was damned if he was going to trail after Darrow like a puppy looking for a pat.

Taking a deep breath, Andrew wandered in the opposite direction and found another coffee shop—smaller, not a chain, and he was pretty sure he was supposed to be buying from small businesses anyway. Shove that up your ass, Darrow, he thought savagely and ordered the biggest coffee they had, along with a cranberry scone. He was able to snag one of the tiny two-person tables as a couple abandoned it, and sat to sip at his too-hot coffee. There was at least an hour until they’d be boarding the plane, so he had plenty of time to enjoy his breakfast.

He was checking his phone when a shadow loomed over him, and a male voice asked, “Do you think I could share your table?”

The voice was attached to a tall blond man with a cotton rucksack slung over his shoulder, sneakers that were top of the line but had seen much better days, and a wide, hopeful smile.

“If you aren’t waiting for anyone, I mean,” the guy said.

“No. Please, sit.”

Andrew never had a problem with talking to strangers. It described most of the people who thought they were his friends. Within a few minutes, he knew the man’s name—Kyle—where he lived—California—and that Kyle was gay. That hadn’t been said aloud, but there was too much interest in Kyle’s blue eyes for Andrew to doubt he was being flirted with.

It was flattering on one level, terrifying on another. Was he giving off some signal he wasn’t aware of? Kyle seemed to take it for granted that once given permission to share the table, he was also allowed to brush his fingers against Andrew’s as he stole the last piece of scone with an impish grin and to nudge Andrew’s foot with increasing frequency.

Kyle wasn’t on Andrew’s flight, and they were going to be passing out of each other’s lives forever in a short time, so it didn’t matter, any of it. Andrew told himself that and relaxed enough after half an hour to make Kyle’s face light up by doing some foot nudging of his own.

“Hey, want to take a walk? Maybe find somewhere quieter?” Kyle raised his eyebrows. “We’re not a mile high, but we could still have some fun, if you know what I mean.”

“Um…” Andrew thought quickly. On the one hand, it would be a sweet way to start his vacation, but on the other, it was possible Darrow might see them together and suspect something. Andrew was too deeply in the closet to risk it. He was pretty sure how his parents would react to that news; he didn’t need to experience it. “I would if I had more time. Rain check?”

It was a meaningless suggestion because of the circumstances, but Kyle nodded. He did look disappointed, which was gratifying. “Sure. Let me give you my number?”

Andrew passed his phone over so Kyle could key it in, and took advantage of the pause in conversation to finish off his coffee, which was barely warm at that point. He glanced at his phone when Kyle handed it back to him to check the time.

“Damn. I’d better go find my gate. We’re supposed to start boarding in about twenty minutes.” He stood up and collected his things. “Well, it was nice to meet you.”

“Thanks for sharing your table.” Kyle stood and shook his hand.

“Wish it could’ve been more,” Andrew said, surprising himself by the warmth in his voice. It was worth it to see the pleased smile on Kyle’s face, a smile that was still there when Kyle turned, just before he disappeared from Andrew’s view, and waved good-bye.

Andrew heaved a breath and hoped at some point he could shake Darrow for long enough to discreetly hook up with someone as friendly and uninhibited as Kyle. He didn’t want to spend his precious vacation pretending to flirt with women he’d have to disappoint at the end of the night.

“You make friends fast.”

Andrew didn’t jump, but his heart was beating faster than usual when he glanced around and saw Sean a few feet away.

“If you mean I’m polite to people who need to share a table with me in a busy coffee shop, yeah. I’m guessing your approach is to glare at them until they leave you to brood in peace?”

Sean’s lips twisted in what might barely have passed for a smile. “Not when they’re that cute and play for my team, no.” His gaze stayed on Andrew’s face, making him feel skewered, an impaled bug being studied. “Want to go and wash the gay cooties off your hand before we head over to the gate?”

“I think I’ll survive.” It was a relief Sean hadn’t seemed to notice there was any kind of a spark with Kyle—maybe Andrew felt more obvious than he really was. “What is it, twenty-five?”

“Yeah.” Sean glanced at his ticket, tucked into his passport.

As it turned out, their seats in first class were next to each other, though, unlike coach, that didn’t mean they’d be nudging shoulders every few minutes. The area assigned to each passenger was huge in comparison to even the business-class seats Andrew was used to, and the seat could be turned into a bed, though since the flight was a daytime one, that wasn’t important.

Sean’s assigned seat was by the window.

“Why don’t you take the window seat since your dad’s paying for the trip?” Sean said with bland courtesy. That made Andrew want to be polite in return, though it also made him suspicious.

“No, it’s okay. I don’t mind the aisle.”

They were blocking an elderly couple, who were probably eager to sit and start sipping complimentary champagne. Sean’s eyes hardened. “Take it,” he ordered, and even though Andrew’s instinct was to argue, he did as he’d been told and sat down beside the window.

“Good boy,” Sean said, reverting to form.

“It’s sweet you don’t feel the need to ass-kiss the boss’s son,” Andrew said acidly, “but I think you’re overcompensating.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Sean said and took out a battered paperback, focusing on it so intently that Andrew was left with nothing to do but stare out the small window at a nearby plane. With anyone else, he would’ve asked what the book was and let that start a conversation, but Sean would snap out the title or angle the book so Andrew could read it for himself, and that would’ve only used up, ooh, ten seconds at most of the flight.

Andrew had packed his e-reader, loaded with the books his assistant thought he should be reading and with a few he’d added that he actually wanted to read. It was in the overhead bin, though, placed there by him a moment earlier, and he couldn’t be bothered to retrieve it and risk Sean commenting on his lack of forethought.

Feeling put-upon, he began to read the in-flight magazine and found it was the same issue he’d read three weeks earlier on a flight to Toronto.

As soon as he could, he signaled the steward to bring him a drink. A double.

Chapter Three

“That doesn’t look good,” Sean said and winced because it had come out sounding a lot more anxious than he’d hoped.

Andrew turned, hair blowing in the wind, and looked at the dark clouds that seemed to have come from nowhere. “Happens all the time.”

“How do you know?” They’d landed safely on Hulhule Island, a flat piece of land that housed the Malé International Airport, a small hotel for overnight stays, and not much else, and were waiting to board the small seaplane that would take them to their resort. The strap of the knapsack Sean had slung over his shoulder was digging into his collarbone.

“Because I read some travel books.” Andrew gave him a curious look. “You’re nervous.”

“No, I’m not,” Sean said.

“Liar.”

Sean glared at him. “Stop being an asshole.” An annoying, spoiled, insightful asshole.

“Darrow!” Andrew blinked at him in mock horror. “Profanity! How unprofessional of you.”

“I’m on vacation,” Sean grumbled. “I don’t have to be professional. If I can take time off, so can you, so give the boss’s-son routine a rest and just be a regular person for once, would you?” He was so intent on the gathering storm he hardly knew what he was saying. Little as he wanted to admit it, flying set his teeth on edge. It didn’t make sense—he loved the rush of sky-diving but hated getting onto an airplane. Of course, sky-diving got him off the plane…

Maybe he’d love it more if he were the pilot. The thought soothed him, if only momentarily. He trusted his hands to guide that small, fragile machine through the air, but not those of a stranger. The pilot in question sauntered over to them, ignoring the way the warm wind was whipping at his brightly colored shirt and baggy shorts. He appeared to be in his late sixties, his hair silver, striking against his brown skin.

He looked too old to be flying. Sean told himself the word he was looking for was experienced, but it didn’t help.

“Gentlemen! Welcome to our beautiful islands. I’m Mohamed, and I’ll be flying you to paradise—or as close as you can get on this earth. The Hotel Paradiso, in fact.”

“With this storm, wouldn’t it be better to wait?” Sean knew he was exposing a weakness to Andrew, but tension and fatigue were combining to give him a killer headache. He wanted to get to his room, lie down on a soft bed with the A/C cooling the air around him and the rush of the waves loud in his ears, and sleep for hours.

That his goal could be achieved only after thirty minutes of flying into purple-rimmed black clouds and a rising wind was a problem.

The first raindrops splatted down around them, warm and wet, marking the wooden dock with dark splashes. Their luggage was already on board, and they were the only passengers taking this particular plane, it seemed. Or the others had sensibly checked in to the island’s hotel to wait out the storm.

“Storm?” Mohamed gave a shrug that dismissed the wind, the rain, and the low rumble of thunder in the distance as trivialities. “This is just a shower. By the time you land, the sky will be blue and the sun shining down on you. Inside! Let’s go!”

“It’ll be fine,” Andrew told him as they clambered into the seaplane. “It’s a short flight.”

Sean gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to tell Andrew to shut the fuck up. “Shouldn’t there be a copilot?”

“Not necessary,” Mohamed said. “As your friend says, it’s a short flight.”

Friend? That was a joke, and one Sean amused himself with for the next few minutes as they strapped into their seats and waited for Mohamed to do whatever preflight checks were needed. No way was Sean going to ask any more questions. The last thing he wanted to do was distract the pilot.

Well, technically the last thing he wanted to do was to take this disturbingly small plane across the Indian Ocean, but it was too late to decide that now.

“All right, gentlemen. Here we go.”

A stomach-lurching takeoff put them in the air and, within a short time, over water the flat silver-gray of pewter, reflecting the darkening sky. The plane had room for eight passengers, and Sean had taken a seat across from Andrew without being told, balancing out their weight. Their bags were stacked at the back of the plane in a haphazard way Sean hoped was, in fact, designed to keep them from shifting. He didn’t want to get smacked in the back of the head by one of Andrew’s expensive pieces of matching luggage when the plane banked for a landing.

“I suppose it’s because the plane’s so small that the turbulence feels worse.”

Sean slanted a glance over at Andrew. The bastard seemed perfectly calm and relaxed, where he was fighting to keep his hands from clenching into fists. His skin was clammy with sweat, his stomach roiling.

“Maybe it feels worse because we’re—God, what the hell was that?”

Mohamed turned around, sticking his head through the opening that led to the tiny cockpit. “That was me going lower to stop you throwing up in my nice plane.”

He was smiling. Sean hated him. The sudden dive and swoop of the plane had sent him flying forward, striking his head on the low roof. He was also not a fan of pilots who weren’t looking where they were fucking going.

“The island is quiet this time of the year,” Mohamed called back. “It’s the rainy season, you know.”

“I guess that’s why it was easy to get a second room,” Andrew said, sounding amused. “Of course, we could’ve shared. My room has a king-size bed—and a pull-out couch.”

“Very funny,” Sean said sourly. “The only person I plan to share with is the guy I pick up at the bar when you’re knee-deep in women trying to figure out how much money you have.”

“So you’ll get laid because you’re hot, and I’ll only get lucky because I’m rich? Yeah, not seeing that somehow.”

“Hundred bucks says I get some before you.” Sean knew he was being crude, but it was what Andrew expected from someone like him, so why not give it to him?

“Only a hundred? When did you get so cheap?” Andrew looked so goddamned smug, not to mention relaxed and totally uncaring about the way the winds were shifting the plane.

The small plane. The very, very small plane.

“Five hundred, then.” Sean was being manipulated, and he knew it.

“Better. You’re on.” Andrew leaned across the aisle and offered Sean his hand, and Sean didn’t let himself hesitate before shaking it. Andrew’s hand was strong and firm, not at all sweaty—unlike Sean’s own.

The plane shifted again, dipping away underneath them for a second before catching them, and Sean found himself clutching the edge of his seat. “Jesus,” he said shakily. “Quite a ride.”

“Small planes are at the mercy of the air currents,” Mohamed said. “But you are here for excitement, aren’t you?”

It’s not the same thing, Sean wanted to say.

“So let me start your excitement early.” Mohamed did something, and the plane banked sharply. Sean thought the tip of the wing on his side was close to brushing the waves beneath, but he closed his eyes in self-defense a moment later, so he couldn’t be sure. “We’re in no hurry, are we? I’m going to take us out of the storm and circle around. Enjoy the view!”

Longer on the plane? No. Just…no. Sean swallowed a protest before it emerged as a groan and opened his eyes. He had to get off this plane. Soon.

Rescue came from an unlikely quarter. “I don’t know about my…friend, but I’m exhausted, and I want to check in as soon as possible.” Andrew’s voice was filled with an authority Sean would’ve resented any other time. “Don’t take any risks, of course, but let’s save the scenic route for the ride back, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Mohamed said with an air of humoring the tourists. Rain smacked against the cockpit window, obscuring the view completely, drumming against the thin metal separating Sean from the elements. In the space of a breath, the rain went from a shower to a torrential downpour. Inside the plane, the noise of the rain was deafening. Sean exchanged a glance with Andrew and forced himself to smile and mouth, Having fun?

Andrew grinned back, his eyes bright, and Sean found himself distracted from his fears—which seemed less irrational with every wild lurch the light aircraft gave as the wind buffeted it—by the realization he wanted to kiss and bite at Andrew’s mouth until the clean shape of it was blurred. Wanted to taste all that confidence and arrogance and see if it was sweet or bitter.

Telling himself it was a primal response to impending death—adding fuck to the options of fight or flight—he looked away before he did something stupid like let any of his fantasies show on his face.

The plane pitched left so suddenly that Sean forgot how to breathe, and Mohamed cursed and fought the yoke. “The storm is strong. I’m going to have to skirt the edge of it. Stay calm.”

Funny how being told to stay calm made Sean feel exactly the opposite. He tightened his seat belt and gripped the arms of the seat until his knuckles hurt. Some of the bags behind them slid across the floor, one of them banging into his heel.

“We’re okay,” Mohamed said, his voice loud over the sounds of the storm.

“I really hope,” Andrew said, “that this is part of the official vacation.”

“Yeah. Me too.” Still hanging on to the arms of the seat, Sean looked out the window, where the horizon was diagonal and the waves far below them were churning, indigo frosted with white through the sheet of water that made up the sky. It was like looking at a movie screen, like nothing real. Sean told himself firmly that in an hour he’d be in his room at the resort, drink in hand and halfway asleep. This would just be one small story in the collection of the vacation memories.

“Ow, damn it.” Andrew shoved futilely at one of his suitcases that had banged into him.

“Please stay calm,” Mohamed said. “If we can just get around this storm…”

“We are calm, damn it,” Sean muttered, hoping saying it would make it so. He wasn’t lost enough in his panic to do something stupid, like yell at the pilot or demand assurances Mohamed couldn’t give him. Besides, there was no way, no fucking way, he was going to die looking at Andrew Carney’s amused grin as Andrew watched Sean lose it.

“You can buy me a drink when we land,” Andrew said. For the first time, there was a note of uncertainty in his voice. “A big one. Forget the pineapple and the paper umbrella; I just want a shot of alcohol.”

“I’m with you on that, but you can afford to buy your own drinks.” Fighting with Andrew was definitely soothing. It was normal, part of his daily routine, unlike getting tossed around the skies in a flimsy toy plane.

“So can you.”

“Not if I take on a toy boy.”

“Will you just act like a civilized—oh shit—”

Sean could never piece together what happened next, not that he tried. Living through it once was nightmare enough.

The plane tipped to the other side, and for a moment, he had Andrew sprawled across his knee, the lap belt failing to hold Andrew in place. He grabbed at Andrew’s arm, conscious of the startled appeal in Andrew’s hazel eyes and the pallor that allowed a few freckles across Andrew’s nose to stand out. He’d never noticed them before.

Then the plane flipped, corkscrewing wildly, and Mohamed yelled something that sounded like a prayer or a curse. Andrew was flung back into his seat, crying out as his arm hit the cabin wall.

The rain was still hammering to be let in, their belongings were sliding and bumping around, and they were going to crash.

For a moment, a heart-stopping, bright moment of hope, the plane steadied, its speed increasing as if the storm was carrying it, pushing it on. Sean’s sense of direction was good, and he knew instinctively that wherever they were headed, it wasn’t along their original course. He glanced out of the window and saw nothing but rain and, below them, glimpsed in a blinding flash of lightning, the ocean.

The next bolt of lightning struck the plane, and the lights went out.

Shit, shit, shit. The seat beneath him fell away, the lap belt cutting painfully into his thighs. His head ricocheted off something hard, something else smashed his wrist, the base of his spine took a bruising hit, and then everything stopped.

“Darrow!” Andrew said urgently. “Sean.”

His feet were wet, and it took him a few long seconds to figure out it wasn’t because something had spilled but because they were in the water. The plane was in the water. Was it going to sink?

“Are we sinking?” he asked. He tugged frantically at the buckle on his seat belt, but it wouldn’t release.

“There are life preservers under your seats!” Mohamed’s voice was surprisingly calm; Sean couldn’t see where he was. “Put them on and get out of the cabin. Now.”

Sean was still struggling to free himself from his seat. God, the buckle mechanism was jammed or something. “Shit. Fuck.”

“Easy,” Andrew said, appearing beside him. “Hang on, stop with—okay, there. Got it.”

Freedom felt like a cool breeze on a hot day. The ability to move, to do something was incalculably precious. He gave Andrew’s shoulder a clumsy pat, genuine gratitude filling him, then reached under the seat for the bright yellow life preserver.

He hoped it lived up to its name.

Putting it on with water rising around him and in a confined space proved next to impossible. He could see Andrew was in similar difficulties and reached across, batting Andrew’s hands away. “I do you, you do me,” he shouted over the rush of water, wind, and rain. The plane’s engines had cut out, but that didn’t seem to have lowered the volume. It was close to dark inside the plane, though it was midafternoon. The storm had blanked out the sun.

Once they had the life preservers more or less on, Sean turned to look for Mohamed. Everything was taking so long, but he knew not much time had passed since they’d landed. It just felt like an eternity.

“Out! Out!” Mohamed yelled from the cockpit. “We’re sinking, you know.”

“We got that!” Sean yelled back, no longer frightened. He wasn’t flying now. They’d landed. The cool head and ability to make quick, correct decisions that had gotten him where he was at work kicked in again. “Is there a boat or something, a raft? Distress beacon?”

Even as he said it, he knew he was asking too much. This was a tiny island-hopper, not a well-equipped passenger plane.

“Yes! The last compartment by the door has an inflatable raft. Throw it out and get in the water. Pull the cords to inflate it. I will join you in a moment. And hurry!

Sean moved fast, scrabbling over to the compartment and wrenching the door open. The water lapping at his legs was cool but not icy cold—at least they wouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia right away. He grabbed the inflatable raft from its storage space and shoved it toward Andrew, who was standing there looking confused.

“We need the raft!” Andrew said.

“This is the raft, you idiot. Haven’t you ever seen one before?” Sean had, several times, and he knew what to expect when it inflated too. “Don’t pull the cords at the ends, or it’ll inflate in here instead of out there. Move!”

Thankfully, Andrew knew how to obey orders under difficult circumstances. He dragged the raft after him, its plastic shell bumping into the cabin’s seats as he moved back to give Sean room to open the door. Water flooded in, filling the cabin faster than Sean had anticipated and making it hard to get out of the plane. Somehow they managed it, but being out in the open water with its tall waves, even with life preservers, wasn’t an improvement. The shock of being immersed in deep water numbed Sean’s brain for a few seconds before he shook it off.

“We’ve got to pull the cords!” Sean tried to gesture at Andrew to show him what he meant, and he must’ve gotten his meaning across, because Andrew did just that.

When the raft started to inflate, it happened fast, and it was all Sean could do to hang on to the side of it and wait. They’d already drifted away from the plane. Andrew hooked an arm over the edge of the raft and looked around wildly.

“Where’s Mohamed?”

“I don’t know! He said he’d be right behind us!” Sean kicked hard to get some height, hoping he’d spot the pilot, but all he could see was the top few feet of the plane as it sank. “Mohamed!”

“Mohamed!” Andrew shouted the man’s name too, but they didn’t hear anything in reply.

“Get inside,” Sean said. “We need to stay clear until it’s gone under, but after that we can look for him.”

Andrew nodded and with Sean’s help clambered inside the small inflatable, bringing a lot of the ocean in with him. Sean treaded water, trying not to think about sharks, and took Andrew’s offered hands, letting the slap of a wave help him scramble into the raft. It rocked alarmingly, but they spread out to balance it, then turned to look back at the plane as the last visible portion sank beneath the water.

There was a loud sucking sound, like water gurgling out of a bath, and the ocean dipped down in that spot, though not much. The plane wasn’t big enough to cause much of a suction effect, Sean guessed.

They yelled themselves hoarse, using the two small paddles clipped inside the raft to steer in circles around the immediate area, but there was no sign of Mohamed.

“He’s gone,” Andrew said eventually. The storm, having done its worst, had become nothing more than rain and a brisk breeze, but the sky was still dark. “We need to do something. What direction—”

“There!” Sean said, pointing to a dark shape in the water. “Do you see it?”

For answer, Andrew began to paddle, and Sean plunged his oar into the ocean, his aching arms forgotten.

Within a few minutes, it was clear what they’d worked so hard to reach, battling a strong current, was one of their suitcases, not Mohamed.

“Shit,” Sean said tiredly. “It’s yours, I think. So do we bring it in, or is the weight going to sink us?”

“If we can salvage it without tipping over the raft, yes. There’s clothes and stuff in it; we might need them. And my sneakers. I kicked my boots off when we got in the water. Luckily, I’d undone the laces in the plane. They were new boots and rubbing my ankles raw.”

Sean hadn’t noticed until just then that Andrew only had socks on his feet. “If you plan to change for dinner, I think you should know I didn’t pack a suit.”

“Ha-ha,” Andrew said without inflection. “You’re hilarious. See if you can swing it around, and I’ll—” He leaned out alarmingly far and caught hold of the suitcase. Sean had to throw his weight in the opposite direction to keep the raft level. “Got it. Fuck, it’s heavy when it’s wet.”

“Water will do that.” Sean looked around again for Mohamed, but there was no sign of anything but waves now.

Andrew shoved the suitcase to one side of the raft and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grimacing. “We’ve got to try to get to land.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Carefully, Sean went from sitting to his knees, moving with the raft as it was tossed by the waves, trying to get enough height so he could see something, anything. “I don’t even know which way we were headed.”

“If we could see the sun, we’d at least be able to make a reasonable guess about which way to go.” Andrew’s hair was tousled, and he was pale. Sean hoped he wasn’t seriously hurt underneath his soaked clothes. “Okay, let’s think. We were supposed to be going, what, southwest from Malé. Which way did we turn around in the storm?”

“We did so much detouring, who knows?” Sean closed his eyes and let his sense of direction kick in, helped by the fact the clouds were unable to completely shield the sun. He could swear that, faced one way, he could feel its heat against his eyelids. Or maybe not.

Sighing, he opened his eyes. “I think we were supposed to be going that way,” he said, pointing, “but for all I know, I’m pointing at Australia.”

Andrew shrugged. “Water all around and not a drop to drink. That way it is.”

The turbulent ocean and the wind-driven rain made paddling an exercise in frustration, but they settled into a rhythm of sorts and made slow progress in their chosen direction.

“Your dad would like this,” Sean said, licking the rain from his lips. He was insanely thirsty for some reason, even though he’d dutifully drunk plenty of water on the flight. “Us working together. Can we call it quits after we land and go back to ignoring each other?”

“Nothing I’d like better,” Andrew said and dug his paddle into the water with a particularly savage thrust.

“Thought so.”

Andrew lapsed into silence again, and Sean sighed. He appreciated both of them were out of breath, soaked to the skin, and shivering, but he wanted Andrew to be his usual confident, aggressive self. Provoking him wasn’t working the way it usually did, and he felt helpless, out of options.

They paddled for what had to have been at least an hour before they had no choice but to rest. Sean could feel blisters coming up on his palms and fingers, and his shoulders were killing him. He was trying to focus on getting to land instead of letting himself think about how royally screwed they might be, but as he got more and more tired, he was finding it harder to stay positive.

“I think we’ve got to stay more to the right,” Andrew said, pausing. “The waves are pushing us that way.”

“I don’t know how you can tell.” Sean adjusted his grip on the paddle and looked at the horizon. “It all looks the same to me. I wish we had a compass.”

“Tell me about it. There was one in my pack, but it’s probably at the bottom of the ocean by now.” Andrew bit his lip and glanced at Sean. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Sean didn’t particularly want to think about that. “Let’s focus on finding land, okay?”

“If we hadn’t needed a ride to the hotel…”

“Hey!” Sean twisted around and glared at Andrew. “It was his choice to fly us into the fucking storm. He could’ve killed all of us, and let me tell you, my parents would not have been happy with me.”

Andrew stared at him. “I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, but that’s fucking cold. He didn’t mean to—”

“Yeah, well, right now, the only thing on my mind is getting to land. Preferably a beach with a bar and lots of hot men waiting to tell me how glad they are I survived so they can make the most of me.”

“You’re callous, crude, and an asshole.” Andrew’s voice was flat with disgust. “Fine. Paddle. God forbid we waste time mourning when you need to get your dick in the nearest warm body.”

“That’s you,” Sean pointed out.

“Fine. The nearest warm and willing body.”

“Guess that rules you out.” Sean faked a regretful sigh, glad to see a spark back in Andrew’s eyes. He didn’t like coming over as a shallow, self-centered son of a bitch, but for a few moments, he’d forgotten he was at sea in a flimsy boat with his chances of surviving dipping closer to zero with every passing moment. That was worth ruining what little good opinion Andrew had of him. Besides, he was pissed at Mohamed, though he sincerely regretted the man’s death. No way they should’ve taken off with the weather situation the way it’d been. “Paddle. Beach.”

After what felt like forever, Sean thought he saw something in the distance. He didn’t want to say anything at first—didn’t want to get up his hopes, let alone Andrew’s, though he had considered it as a possible lie for motivation purposes—but the thin, dark line at the horizon grew taller.

“Please tell me you see that,” Andrew gasped.

“Yeah.” Sean paddled just a bit harder, the strain in his arm and back muscles deepening in a way that felt good now he was fueled by hope. “To the right. Want to miss the rocks.”

A little farther and the waves were working for them, shoving them in uneven, choppy bursts toward the shore. The rocks loomed closer despite their best efforts to steer away from them. Andrew swore under his breath, and then the rough stone was catching at the bottom of the raft. Momentum carried them, and Sean found himself suddenly thrown forward with enough force to knock the wind out of him. He sputtered at the sea water in his eyes, then shoved himself upright and looked for Andrew.

Andrew was curled into a twist against the side of the raft, buffeted by the motion of the swell. He cringed away from Sean’s hand.

“Get up,” Sean snapped, impatient. “Get the suitcase; then help me drag this up onto the sand.”

The fucking raft weighed about a thousand pounds, and Sean slipped on the rocks, scraping his shins and one elbow as they dragged it through the shallow water and up onto the beach. At least the wind seemed to be dying, and the raft was so heavy there wasn’t much danger of it being blown away.

“Good,” he said. “Good enough. Let’s see if we can get out of this rain!”

Andrew nodded and followed him away from the water, both of them stumbling on tree roots tangled in the sand, until Sean spotted a dry bit of ground under some tall bushes. As they ducked beneath the leaves, Sean noticed for the first time that Andrew was holding his arm cradled against his chest.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Elbow’s dislocated,” Andrew said through clenched teeth. “You have to help me put it back.”

“I have to do what?” Even as he said it, Sean was moving closer to Andrew, concern flooding him. “When did it happen?”

“Does it fucking matter?

It did if he’d just made Andrew carry a heavy suitcase when he was in agony, but what was done was done. “No. Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, Andrew’s gaze met his, a resentful appeal in his eyes, as if he hated being forced to ask Sean for help. Sean could sympathize with that emotion more than with the injured elbow. He’d have hated it too. “You’ve got to straighten it out. Hold my wrist and turn the palm up. Fuck. Oh my God, that hurts.”

He was trembling.

“Now put your other hand on my elbow and bend my arm up toward—”

The bone under Sean’s hand shifted obscenely with an audible crunching sound, and Andrew choked back a scream.

“Okay, good. Good. Oh fuck, I’d almost forgotten how much that hurts. Thanks. Thank you.” Andrew looked up at him, tears glittering on his eyelashes.

“Not the first time, then?” Sean slowly let go of Andrew’s arm.

“Hardly. I think that makes five.” Carefully, Andrew straightened, cradling his arm. “After you’ve done it once, it’s easier for the tendons to slip or something. Put my hand out to brace myself when we hit the rocks, and it just popped.”

“Should we—I don’t know, wrap it up? Make a sling?” To Sean’s eyes, Andrew’s arm looked normal again, but it had to be hurting like hell.

Andrew shook his head. “I think it’ll be okay. The most important thing is getting it back in place fast. It’ll be sore, but I’m good.”

“Don’t be a hero,” Sean said. It came out sounding harsh, when for once that hadn’t been his intention. “The last thing we need is you with a damaged arm.”

Andrew gave him a grin, his eyes hazy with pain. “You mean you wouldn’t wait on me hand and foot? I’m shocked.”

Sean let that one go. It was getting dark now, and the rain was a desultory patter on the leaves that were providing a shelter of sorts. Too late to explore far, and Andrew probably wasn’t up to walking. Sean wasn’t sure he was either. His body ached, the shock of the crash and their current predicament an insidious thief, robbing him of his customary strength.

He’d always thought he could cope with anything, but today had smashed that conceit. Okay, he hadn’t panicked or lost his head completely, but there had to have been something he could’ve done better, some action he’d failed to think of that would’ve left them all alive and safe.

“You look like you want to punch someone. What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong is that I screwed up.” Sean settled back against the trunk of the tree and let out a frustrated sigh. “I can’t figure out where it all went wrong.”

“Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but even Sean Darrow doesn’t control the weather.” Andrew glanced around. “This doesn’t look like a private beach with a hotel nearby.”

“Could be a hotel a few miles away, and we’ll feel like idiots tomorrow, but I think we’d better stay put for now.”

“I think you’re right.” Andrew grinned at him uncertainly. “Bet you never thought you’d hear me say that.”

“Bet you never thought you’d say it.” Sean’s eyes fell on the suitcase that was getting rained on. “Anything in there you could use? Ibuprofen?”

Settling himself into a more comfortable position, Andrew shook his head. “I had a small pharmacy with me, but it was in the backpack. That’s mostly clothes.” He shivered. “I wish some of them were dry.”

“They might be.” Sean crawled out far enough to grab the handle of the case, then dragged it across the ground until it was partially under cover. He got the suitcase open and flipped through the neatly folded items inside. The ones on top were damp, but toward the middle there were some shirts that seemed almost dry. “Here,” he said, handing the thickest one to Andrew. “You need help putting it on?”

Andrew laughed. “Aren’t you usually undressing guys? No, it’s okay. I’m good.” He took his time putting this shirt on after stripping off the soaked one, though, and winced more than once. Watching him was painful, enough so that without meaning to, Sean reached out and tweaked at the collar, tugging it the last inch required for the shirt to settle into place.

Andrew gave him a quizzical look but didn’t comment.

“So,” Sean said, unwilling to let the silence build until he filled it with more than he wanted to say, “any idea what islands were around where we were headed? I took a look at the map, but that was a few weeks ago, and I can’t say I remember much.”

“There’re hundreds,” Andrew said. “Most of them are too small to count, and every now and then, one of the low-lying ones goes underwater.”

“Well, isn’t that a cheery thought.” Sean shook his head. “Don’t know how big this one is, but I saw the land rise up, so I think we can cross drowning on land off the list of things to worry about.” He grimaced. “All that rain and we didn’t collect any to drink.”

“The raft will hold some.”

“It had so much salt water in it I doubt it’d be much use.”

“I had a large plastic Ziploc in my suitcase,” Andrew said. “We could put it outside and see if we can collect some rainwater that way.”

“Why did you pack that?”

Andrew shrugged. “There’s always something wet or messy at the end of a vacation.”

“Whatever,” Sean muttered. He found the plastic bag and opened it up. The rain was still falling but not with any real force. They’d probably end up with a teaspoon at the bottom of the bag, but he put it on the ground between two rocks, pinning it open with some smaller pebbles, then retreated to the relative comfort of their shelter.

“Maybe there’s something on the raft. I think there was a compartment, like, for storage.”

“We don’t know when that raft was made. Anything on it—food, medicine, flares—is probably no good by now.”

“It might be fine. We can look in the morning, when we can see.” Andrew was right—it was getting darker rapidly, and pretty soon they wouldn’t be able to see their hands in front of their faces. “You should put one of those on too.”

“One of what?”

“My shirts. Don’t argue, okay?” Andrew sounded tired. “Just do it.”

“Fine. But only because I feel sorry for you.”

Andrew snorted. “Sorry for me?”

Sean managed to locate another mostly dry shirt in Andrew’s suitcase and changed into it. “There are a lot of reasons I feel sorry for you.”

“Yeah? Great. That’s just fantastic, Darrow.” Andrew’s voice was soft, accompanied by the sound of the raindrops all around them. “I’m sure you’re gonna tell me all about them. Just, save it till the morning, okay?”

“Yes, Scarlett,” Sean said and thought he heard Andrew give a tired chuckle.

Chapter Four

The dull throb in Andrew’s arm was more effective than his alarm clock in rousing him. Exhaustion and shock had turned fitful sleep into something closer to passing out. He opened his eyes with an effort, then let them slide closed again and shivered convulsively as he registered the clamminess of his damp jeans.

He hurt. He wasn’t even moving yet, but he knew that would hurt too. His elbow was on fire, every muscle ached, he was starving and thirsty and needed to take a leak, but somehow it was the misery of his clinging jeans that made him feel like wailing out a plaintive It isn’t fair to an indifferent world. That would be childish and weak. If he’d been twenty years younger, he’d have done it anyway.

He was lying against something warm, his head pillowed on a firm, flat surface, and he instinctively nestled into that warmth, still shaking off the last of his drowsiness, still unwilling to look around at his surroundings.

Part of him knew he was snuggled up to Sean Darrow, his head on Sean’s broad chest, but he shut that knowledge out. If he let it in, he’d have to do something to fix the situation—pull away, make a snide comment, freak out.

He didn’t want to do any of those things. Sean was warm.

Andrew deliberately kept his eyes closed and his breathing even. No way was he letting this huddle be any shorter than it had to be. He just wished they were somewhere comfortable, like an actual bed at the resort, where they could count on room service and hot coffee and—

Something tiny and loud buzzed in his ear, and Andrew twitched despite himself. Beneath his cheek, Sean stirred, and Andrew had to make a decision: pretend to still be asleep or admit he wasn’t.

“You okay?” Sean asked a second later, making a decision unnecessary.

“Yeah. You?” If Andrew tried to sit up now, it was going to hurt like hell. Fuck it—he was staying where he was.

“Yeah.” Sean hesitated, then cleared his throat. “Um, you’re using me as a pillow.”

“Sorry.”

“I don’t mind. Shared body heat, right? You probably kept me warm.” Andrew had never heard Sean sound so hesitant. It was amusing in a way.

“It’s not exactly freezing,” he pointed out. Dawn was approaching, lighting the sky with streaks of pink and gold, and the air was still. He suspected it was their damp clothing and lack of food that was making them feel as if it were cool.

“Going to be a hot day,” Sean agreed. He sat up, bringing Andrew with him, his arm around Andrew’s shoulders. The support of that arm was needed, but Andrew didn’t have it for long. Sean cleared his throat apologetically and gestured to the side. “Sorry. Need to piss. Make that really need to.”

“Me too.”

They helped each other up, moving, Andrew thought, like old men. They split up to christen separate trees before returning to their temporary refuge. The plastic bag they’d hoped would catch rain was fluttering in the breeze, only anchored at one point, any contents it’d held lost. So much for that plan.

“Just look at this place.”

Andrew turned his head, finally accepting the need to survey the terrain. The sun hitched itself above the horizon, and though colors were still muted and faraway objects indistinct, he could see all he needed to see to know that they were screwed. “It’s beautiful,” he said, surprising himself.

“Yeah. It is.”

The water was an indescribable shade of teal, clear and shimmering, and the greens of the leaves and grasses were weird, like they were in some fantasy land where the colorist hadn’t been sure which hue to use. “Photoshop,” he said.

Sean glanced at him. “Uh-huh. Doesn’t seem real.”

“I kind of wish it weren’t.” Andrew’s elbow ached like crazy, and despite what he’d said the night before, he knew he was going to have to wrap it. He hoped there was some kind of first aid kit on the raft. He’d settle for expired baby aspirin right then. He looked over at Sean, who had stubble on his chin and dried blood in a scrape on his forehead, and thought he’d never seen the other man looking so messed up. “I’m gonna check out the raft.”

“Good idea. Maybe we can paddle—make that, I can paddle—around the island and see how big it is and if there’s anyone on it.”

“Maybe.” Andrew couldn’t face the thought of getting back into the raft and battling the ocean again. The water was calm now, waves decorously rolling in, well behaved and gentle, but he couldn’t forget how quickly the storm had transformed the ocean into a maelstrom.

They walked over the white sand to where they’d left the raft. It looked lopsided, and Andrew’s heart sank, much like the raft would do if they tried to launch it.

“Shit,” Sean spat out, running across the sand and sending it spraying up behind him. “It’s torn here,” he reported a moment later. Andrew joined him, peering down at a ragged tear. The raft was still inflated on one side, so he supposed there was more than one buoyancy chamber, but unless there was a repair kit and a pump, that wouldn’t matter.

“I thought I felt it catch on something. Coral, maybe. That stuff’s like razors.”

“No kidding.” Sean slapped his hand against the raft, his face twisted with anger. “Okay, we’d better pray that behind the palm trees, there’s civilization. Or another island we can signal to.”

Andrew stared out at the ocean, empty of any signs of land, to his eyes at least. His stomach rumbled, and he adjusted his thinking from the distant hope of rescue to the more immediate need for food and water.

“Let’s see what’s inside here.”

It didn’t take long to search the raft and discover what it came equipped with was pitifully lacking.

The supplies might have been useful at one point, but that point had probably come and gone years ago. What had once been food and water was little more than slime created when torn packaging had allowed sea water to enter.

“Do you think this was ever edible?”

Grimacing, Andrew picked up the layers of slime-covered plastic and tossed them over onto the rocks, away from the ocean.

“Someone’s idea of edible.” Sean held up a small square, tilting it until it caught the light. “This must be for signaling.”

“Not sure how much good it would do.” Andrew picked up more plastic. “Was this supposed to hold something?”

“I think it’s for storing water,” Sean said. “Which means we’ll have to find some.”

“We can go a couple of days without water. Someone will find us by then.”

“I hope you’re right.” Sean looked grim as he stood up, holding a small packet.

“What’s that?”

“Fishing kit, I think. Some fishing line, couple of hooks. I don’t know if we’ll have much success with it, though. We can try.”

Andrew sighed. “No first aid kit at all. Who designs these things?”

“Idiots who never leave their offices,” Sean said with what Andrew had to admit was justified bitterness. “What’s this?” He drew out a small book, limp and dripping, and stared at it in silence for long enough that Andrew nudged him.

“What is it?”

“Before it became pulp, it was a selection of helpful passages from the Bible,” Sean said. “If it’d been dry, we could’ve used it for lighting a fire to cook the fish we haven’t caught, I guess.”

“They wasted space with that?” Andrew heard his voice crack with incredulity. “Water-purifying tablets. Medical supplies. Flares—anything would make more sense than a book that wasn’t even wrapped in plastic.”

“Tell me about it.” Sean drew back his arm to throw it away, then reconsidered. “If we can dry it out, it might come in handy. Beats leaves for wiping your ass with.”

“This feels like one of those computer games where you have to use objects to open dungeon doors.” Andrew sighed. “I want to cheat and find out how to make fishing hooks, wet paper, and shiny stuff into a teleporter.”

Sean groaned. “We’re the idiots. Cell phones. We could try calling someone.” He patted a pocket in his pants, then grimaced. “Mine’s gone; at the bottom of the ocean, I guess. What about yours?”

Andrew resisted the urge to smack him. “I checked yesterday—my phone was in my pocket when we hit the water, but it’s gone now. I guess it fell out when I was getting into the raft. You seriously forgot about your phone until now? Don’t get me wrong, I’d be stunned if it worked anyway, but I always thought you were, you know. At least a little bit smart.”

“Fuck you,” Sean said. “I was busy trying to make sure we didn’t drown out there. Feel free to thank me for that, by the way.”

“You aren’t the only one who can swim.” Andrew stood up, conscious of the need not to damage the plastic water container. “So don’t go painting some fantasy where you saved the day, and don’t imagine what kind of stuff my father might do for you to thank you for ‘rescuing’ me.” He made air quotes and winced when his elbow protested. The pain made him even angrier. “You’re such a fucking parasite. I should have left you buckled in on that plane.”

He felt bad as soon as the words left his mouth. He had a temper, but that didn’t mean he was a total asshole. But momentum carried him on, and he directed it down into his feet and walked away from Sean, up over the rocks and toward the suitcase. He was tired, and he ached, and he was already thirsty. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if no one found them. It was easier to think about how much he hated Sean-fucking-Darrow.

Not mad or stupid enough to walk far enough to get lost—although they might just be on a really big rock for all he knew—Andrew stopped when he found a fallen tree beside a still-standing one. It made a good enough chair; plus he could lean on the trunk and close his eyes for a few minutes.

Did anyone know they were missing?

He’d always had the impression destinations like this one—remote, catering to the wealthy—were run like tight ships because people who were willing to pay a lot expected to get their money’s worth. But he also knew things could be a lot more relaxed in some ways. Maybe they wouldn’t be missed until tomorrow.

Behind him, Andrew heard the sound of footsteps on the sandy ground. A pause.

“I’m going to check around,” Sean said. “You want to come?”

“No,” Andrew said, but he stood up. “Yeah, okay. Which way?”

“I don’t know,” Sean said with a sneer. “Whatever way you think best. I mean, I’ve always kissed your ass and flattered you in the past, so why stop now?”

“Don’t,” Andrew said, uncomfortably aware that if there was anyone in the office who’d never done that, it was Sean. The guy went out of his way to make it perfectly plain that, boss’s son or not, he thought Andrew was a spoiled, privileged brat. “Listen, I didn’t mean—”

Sean silenced him with a look. “I don’t give a fuck what you think of me. I just want to get the hell off this rock and into my hotel. When that’s been achieved, I plan to ignore you. I see you even looking at me and I’ll punch the smile right off your stupid face and enjoy doing it. Until then, we need to work together and stick together. I don’t like it any more than I like you, but it’s common sense, and I’m a practical man.” He pointed to the right. “I’m going that way. So are you.”

“Okay.” Andrew knew he’d have to keep his mouth shut as much as possible if he didn’t want further arguments, so he followed Sean on the closest thing to a path nature had created. It was a pretty shitty path, too narrow for them to walk side by side, and it wound between rough rocks jutting up. Technically, Andrew supposed some of the rocks were coral and counted himself lucky he hadn’t gotten scraped up by any of it yet. “Watch out for the coral,” he said without thinking.

“Sounds like the voice of experience,” Sean said.

Andrew was glad Sean hadn’t taken it the wrong way, so he explained. “I got pretty banged up on some once. I thought it would never heal.”

Sean stepped to one side and paused. “Great Barrier Reef?”

“No. Been there, though. Belize, actually. Skin diving.” Andrew couldn’t count on all his fingers and toes the amazing places he’d been, but he remembered each and every one in great detail.

“That sounds fun.” Sean’s voice was studiously neutral, as if he was regretting his hasty words as much as Andrew. “You’re an adrenaline junkie like me, huh? Got to say, it’s not how I saw you.”

It’d never occurred to Andrew to think of himself like that. He shrugged, wincing as his elbow protested the movement. “Like you said, it’s fun. I don’t do anything really risky. I like the thrill, but dicing with death, no. I just enjoy being in places most people don’t get to see.”

“Well, you got that wish granted.”

Andrew grinned as they set off again. “This looks deserted, but what do you bet we come across a rusty can or an empty pack of cigarettes? Ten bucks says it’s within the next half hour.”

“If we do, I’ll pick them up and kiss them.” Sean turned his head to glance back at Andrew. “We’ve got a couple of bets going. Be interesting to see who comes out on top.”

Remembering one of the bets involved who got laid first added to the double meaning of Sean’s last words and made Andrew’s thoughts turn to just what that would entail for Sean. How did he like it? What turned him on?

Somehow, he couldn’t see Sean answering questions on that subject. And it wasn’t like Andrew could blame him, since he wasn’t all that into sharing either. He’d learned from an early age that being part of his family meant meeting their expectations, and those expectations included getting married, having kids, and passing on the family name.

Being gay wasn’t one of them, of course.

Andrew knew how to do what was expected of him. Just because he didn’t want to fuck women didn’t mean he didn’t like them. He had plenty of female friends, and was perfectly happy to bring one of them to public gatherings as his date. If fitting in with his family and the parents he loved meant keeping his sexual partners behind closed doors, he’d do it.

He tried not to think about the long term. Eventually, he’d marry some girl his parents approved of. It’d be fine.

“I thought all these islands were small,” he said, focusing on the problem at hand. “We’ve been walking forever.”

“Well, we’re not walking in circles,” Sean said. “Or at least, yeah, we’re circling the island, but you know what I mean.” He chuckled, the sound as welcome as a cool drink in some ways. Andrew hated being around people who didn’t like him. He picked friends who smiled at him, accepting the face he showed and approving it. That they didn’t know him didn’t matter; what he let them see, they liked.

If Sean was prepared to lose the attitude, this would all go so much better.

“So far, all we’ve seen is palm trees.”

“Shh!”

Okay, so the attitude was still there. Well, fine. Andrew opened his mouth to rip Darrow a new one, then subsided when he saw the intent look on Sean’s face.

“Listen,” Sean said. “Do you hear water?”

“Water?” Andrew’s mouth was hangover-dry and tasted foul. He missed his toothbrush. “Where?”

Sean gestured to his right, and Andrew focused in that direction, blood pounding in his ears from his exertions. At first, that was all he could hear, that and the soft shush of the waves to their left, endlessly meeting the sand. Then, gradually, he separated the sound—a persistent gurgle and rush, water over rocks.

He found himself grinning at Sean as if they’d found something precious.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Sean warned him. “It could be brackish, or we’re both hallucinating.”

“Nope,” Andrew said cheerfully. “I refuse to believe that. We’re not far gone enough to be hallucinating, and they wouldn’t build all these resorts out here if there weren’t some kind of fresh water sources around.”

They made their way toward the sound, which was harder than Andrew had thought possible because of the thick underbrush. Even when they were just about standing on top of the spring, they couldn’t see it until they moved aside leaves and rocks. The ground was uncomfortable under Andrew’s knees, but he ignored it once he dipped his fingers into cool water and lifted them to his mouth.

“Fresh,” he said, and Sean worked more quickly to uncover more of the shallow stream.

“Lots of sand. If we scoop out a hollow and give it a minute, it will settle. Where’s that bag?”

Andrew untucked the water storage bag from the waistband of his pants. “You think it’ll still hold water?”

“How the hell would I know?” Sean snapped.

Andrew frowned at him. “Are you ever nice at all? Like, even a little bit?”

“I let you use me as a pillow last night, didn’t I?” Andrew decided not to point out Sean had been asleep at the time and therefore hadn’t given his consent. “And plenty of people think I’m charming.”

“If their names are Mom and Dad, it doesn’t count,” Andrew said. He knew Sean flew to Chicago to visit his parents now and then, so he felt safe mentioning them. Andrew had been in his father’s office when Sean had come in to explain he needed to take a few days’ leave because it was his parents’ thirtieth-anniversary party. Andrew’s father had been torn between his approval of strong family ties and his equal reluctance to lose Sean’s skills for even that long.

Why he’d ever agreed to let both of them go away for two weeks was a mystery to Andrew.

Sean gave a grin that transformed his face, making him look younger and, yes, charming. “They’d probably agree with you. Look, just ignore me, okay? My blood sugar drops and I make the world pay for it. Plus, I’ve got a killer headache from no coffee.”

Andrew’s head was throbbing for the same reason. He knew it would wear off in a day or two, but that was small comfort right then. “God, I know. And I want to brush my teeth and get out of these clothes.”

“Don’t let me stop you.” Sean raised his eyebrows when Andrew gaped at him. Sean couldn’t know he was gay. No one knew at the company. “What? It’s hot, and we’re in the shade. The islands aren’t supposed to have many bugs, so you shouldn’t get bitten. Take off your shirt if you want. I promise not to take it as an invitation to jump you. I’m not that desperate. In fact…” He shrugged out of his shirt and tied it around his neck, protecting his back but allowing the air to get to him.

Andrew knew he was staring, but he couldn’t stop. Sean’s chest was broad and muscular, a dusting of dark hair softening the outline of his pecs. His nipples were cinnamon-brown, peaked in a reaction to the cooler air playing over them. Andrew found himself wondering how they’d feel against his tongue and if he could make Sean moan by biting them.

Jesus, maybe Sean wasn’t desperate, but Andrew was starting to worry about his own libido.

Reality was, Andrew had an active, if discreet, sex life. No long-term boyfriends—that would have been too complicated, and he’d had to ditch more than a few guys who had wanted some kind of commitment—but plenty of partners. There were half a dozen guys he saw on a semiregular basis, sometimes starting the evening with drinks, but often just jumping directly into bed. He enjoyed their company, but he was careful not to spend too much time with anyone he felt an actual connection with.

There was no point in getting attached to someone, not when he knew sooner or later he’d have the whole American dream—traditional marriage, kids, house in the suburbs.

It wasn’t his dream, but he’d play the hand life had dealt him.

“It’s gonna be hot,” he said, taking off his shirt and holding it balled up in front of him to hide the fact he was getting hard from seeing Sean’s chest, like a horny teenager or something. “We’ll have to be careful not to get burned.”

“No sunscreen in your suitcase?” Sean asked.

“I don’t think so.” Sitting and getting comfortable, shirt in his lap, Andrew watched as the water at the bottom of the stream trickled into the hole they’d made. “One time, when I was a kid—I don’t know, maybe I was twelve—I put a bottle of shampoo in my suitcase with my clothes. We were going to Bermuda, and I was in that phase when I wanted to shower a couple of times a day. I was going through a lot of shampoo.” He offered Sean a smile. “Anyway, the shampoo leaked during the flight. We got to the hotel, and all my clothes were soaked with it. Never packed it in my suitcase again.”

“You’re not allowed to take liquids on the plane in your carry-on bag,” Sean reminded him. “Not big bottles, anyway.”

Andrew made a so what? face. That didn’t hurt the way shrugging did. “I planned to buy it when I got here. You’re not telling me a tropical paradise doesn’t sell sunscreen.”

“You take a lot on trust,” Sean said. It was an odd comment, and Andrew tucked it away to deal with later.

They sat in silence, waiting for the water to clear, then filling the small bag and taking turns to drink from it. The water, warm, gritty with sand, was too welcome for Andrew to be critical. He swallowed his first mouthful in a greedy gulp, then washed the second around his mouth before letting it slide down his throat.

“Okay, we have water. That’s something.”

“It’s a long way from where we landed, and there’s not much of it.”

Sean’s negativity bugged Andrew. “We don’t have to stay where we landed if we can find somewhere better.”

“The raft’s there. We can use it to make a shelter, and if nothing else, it’s a signal we made it this far for anyone searching for us.”

Too many decisions, too much to argue over. Andrew felt tired. At work, he thrived on being the one to make the difficult calls, but this was different. His life depended on it. No replays, no helping hand.

“Drink again; we’ll refill the bag, then keep on going. I want to know how big this place is,” Sean said.

“How far have we come?”

“About three miles, though we’ve circled around enough that we’re probably not that far from where we started. I’ve been counting my strides.”

“Jesus,” Andrew said. “You’re too much, you know that?”

“I aim to please,” Sean said lightly.

“Aim higher.” Andrew grinned to show he was mostly kidding. “I can’t believe my dad let us both leave the office at the same time. For two weeks. It’s unprecedented, if I can channel Dora.”

Sean smiled. Harris Carney’s administrative assistant, Dora, a stern woman in her sixties who ran the office with a no-nonsense attitude, loved the word unprecedented. “I don’t think that word means what she thinks it means.”

“I think she hopes no one else knows what it means.” Andrew found himself looking at Sean with a new sense of respect. “William Goldman fan?”

“Yeah. One of the few times the movie almost lived up to the book.”

“Thank God,” Andrew agreed. “I can imagine what a shitty version of The Princess Bride might have been like, and it would have been seriously ugly.”

Sean carefully dipped the water storage bag into the stream. “Hideous.”

They set off again, Andrew’s fatigue receding after the drink. It was incredible how some water could act like an espresso. It didn’t do much to help the hunger pangs, but he didn’t mention those. Sean was as hungry as he was. Complaining wouldn’t help.

He glanced up at the sky when the sun momentarily went behind a fluffy cloud, and found himself staring at a coconut tree. “Hey! Food!”

Sean joined him in staring up at the tree. The coconuts were far above their heads, well out of reach. Andrew looked around for a stone to throw up in the hope of dislodging breakfast and had just spotted a likely one when Sean grunted with satisfaction and picked up a coconut from the ground. “They fall when they’re ripe,” he said with a shrug. “Makes sense to look on the ground first.”

“This is one of those times when some kind of tool kit on the raft would have come in handy,” Andrew said. “I vote that once we’re rescued, we should lobby for better rafts.”

“Ones with survival books instead of Bibles.” Sean turned the green coconut in his hands, looking at it and frowning.

“I saw a video on the Internet,” Andrew said. “It was this guy opening a coconut without any tools. I think he basically just banged it on a rock.” He imitated bouncing an imaginary coconut like a basketball. “Like, on the edge of the rock.”

Sean looked around. “That would require rocks that have edges.”

“We can find one that does.” Andrew turned, surveying the rocks within sight, then walked over to one. “This one, maybe. If I can get it up.” The rock in question was half buried in the packed sand. He dug away the sand, careful to use only his good arm, and tried to lift it without success.

“Let me,” Sean said. He passed Andrew the coconut and knelt to pry the rock up. Once it was free, he examined it and set it so the sharpest edge was upright. “Won’t all the coconut milk leak out like this?”

“Some, maybe. I don’t remember seeing it do that, though—in the video, I mean. He just bounced it a few times until it kind of cracked open; then he peeled off all the outer stuff.”

“Let’s give it a whirl.” Sean took the coconut from Andrew and slammed it down against the rock, allowing it to bounce up again. He repeated it a few times, using more force, and finally the husk cracked.

“Now you just peel it. Kind of.”

“It’s coming off,” Sean said as if he hadn’t expected it to. Within a short time, they were down to the hard center, a few fibrous shreds hanging off it. “I can see some dots. The milk’s inside, right?”

“You push at the biggest one with your finger or a twig,” Andrew said, trying to remember. He’d watched way too many short videos online. They all blurred together.

Sean worked his finger against the hole, then yelped as coconut milk spurted out, soaking his hand. He licked at it and smiled. “Tastes okay. Here, try some.”

For a moment, Andrew thought he was being invited to lick Sean’s hand, but before he could make a fool of himself by reacting to that, the coconut was being pushed at him.

He drank, relishing the sweet taste, then passed it back.

“It’s kind of weird,” he said, licking his lips and trying not to pay too much attention to Sean as the other man swallowed. “Greasy.”

“Unsaturated fat,” Sean said. At Andrew’s look, he clarified, “The good kind. I mean, caloric, but healthy. Plus it’s not like we don’t need the calories right now.” He found a stick and used it to make a wider hole in the coconut, then got some leverage and pried the nut—or was it a fruit? Andrew wasn’t sure—open.

Andrew accepted the half coconut Sean pushed at him and gnawed some of the white flesh. “It’s like a toothbrush. Makes my teeth feel clean.”

“Don’t eat too much,” Sean cautioned.

“Why not? There’s plenty.” Andrew gestured at the trees, where he could see multiple coconuts now he knew to look for them.

“They’ve got a lot of fiber, and anything high in fat… Well, let’s just say it will do uncomfortable and unwanted things to your digestive system.” Sean looked embarrassed, which was how Andrew felt once he thought about it—not like they had bathrooms and plenty of toilet paper.

“At least we know we won’t starve to death.”

“True. Let’s keep walking.”

Andrew followed Sean the rest of the way around the island. They never saw any of the signs of human life Andrew had expected to find—but maybe they still would. They hadn’t ventured far inland, just stayed near the water until they finally came back to the inflatable raft.

“So,” Sean said flatly. “That’s it. We’re on an island about five miles around with some water, plenty of coconuts, and a complete lack of hotels, bars, and fun.”

“There might be something in the middle of the island.” Andrew didn’t think that, not for a moment, but he was trying to keep his spirits up.

“More trees, more rocks, more nothing.” Sean shook his head, his dark hair mussed and damp with sweat. Andrew was getting a kick out of seeing a disheveled, scruffy Sean, though a mirror wouldn’t show him looking much different. “We’re screwed.” He drew in a deep breath, held it, then exhaled as if he was expelling his pessimism along with the used air. “Oh well. This is where we leap into action and whip up a tree house with running water and possibly a radio, so when we’re rescued we don’t look like complete losers.” He kicked at the sand, scuffing it with his boot. “Only problem being I don’t have a clue how to do any of that.”

“Me neither,” Andrew admitted. “I’d kill for a knife or an ax. Something sharp.”

“And here I thought we were getting along better.”

Andrew snorted. “Was that a joke?”

That got him a wolfish grin. “Might have been. Did it make you smile?”

“Kind of. I don’t have any ideas about eating you, if that’s what you were getting at.”

“God, I hadn’t thought about that.” Sean shivered. “Let’s not go there, huh?”

“Works for me.”

Sean struck his hands together, a brisk, no-nonsense gesture. “So. We need to get some shelter for the night. It’s not cold, but it is the rainy season. And we need to do something to collect that rain. I’m damned if I’m going to make a trip to the spring every time we need a drink.”

“We can explore the interior tomorrow,” Andrew said. “There might be water closer, but yeah, sounds good.”

“And I could fish off the rocks. With no bait, it might be a waste of time, but I could dig on the beach for worms. And we could try to light a fire. Don’t know how, but we could try.”

There was a lot on the to-do list, and some of it was probably impossible, but Andrew didn’t mind. It beat the blank panic of helplessness when there didn’t seem to be anything they could do to improve their situation.

He smiled at Sean. “Sushi for supper?”

“You bet.”

Chapter Five

Sean sat next to the spot where Andrew had built a fire pit—okay, not so much a pit as a circle of sand surrounded by rocks. His feet hurt. His back hurt. Hell, he ached all over.

He didn’t ask Andrew, who was kneeling over the small pile of thin sticks, how it was going. That would have been cruel, considering Andrew had been trying to create a spark for at least two hours without success.

“Fuck this,” Andrew said finally, throwing the sticks into the sand. “Fuck it. No one can make fire rubbing sticks together. It’s impossible!”

“It’s got to be possible. You read the book.” Sean picked up the larger of the two sticks, which had a shoelace tied around it, then realized the second stick was still attached to the same string. “Is there something else you’re supposed to have? For it to work?”

“A lighter,” Andrew said. He flopped backward onto the sand, and his shirt rode up, baring a thin strip of his stomach.

Sean looked away before he was caught looking for too long. At least, he tried. “Sorry, we’re fresh out.”

Andrew rubbed his face, which raked his shirt up another inch. “Are you sure?”

Sean didn’t look. He was definitely not looking. “Pretty sure. Take a break for a while.”

“What about you? Any luck with fishing?” Andrew rested his forearm across his eyes, blocking his view of Sean. It gave Sean the opportunity to sneak a glance, and he took full advantage of it. Andrew’s skin was a healthy gold, and there were fine, light brown hairs in a line above his navel. Sean’s mind went from treasure trails to pirates to Johnny Depp, a lazy meander to distract himself from the tempting view. Sean still wasn’t sure he liked Andrew, but he wanted to fuck him, which kind of defined insanity. Lucky for Sean, he could blame it on sunstroke. Or dehydration. Or hunger. Make it all three.

“Got a nibble.” Bad choice of words. Really bad. Now he was thinking about taking a taste of that honey-gold skin, setting his teeth into it, not hard enough to hurt, just enough to leave a mark, for however brief a moment.

“Fuck, I’m so hungry,” Andrew said with a moan. “I’m fantasizing about oatmeal and mashed potatoes. Hell, I’d walk over hot coals for the most boring food imaginable. I’m way beyond wanting steak medium rare. I’ll settle for burned, week-old meatloaf.”

“Don’t,” Sean said with a groan of pure longing. He’d tossed out half a carrot-and-walnut muffin at the airport. At the time, given how much fat was in one, it’d seemed like a healthy decision—admirable, even. Now he was inclined to label it as criminal waste. “It’s getting to the point where I can’t think about much else.”

They’d lucked out and found a better spring close by their site. The trickle of water was constant and fast enough they could fill their water bag quickly. That was the extent of their luck. They’d seen a few birds in the trees, but catching them was as impossible as flying would be.

Andrew sighed, then yelped, bringing his feet toward him.

“What? Did something bite you?” Sean demanded before he saw it. A crab, scuttling sideways along the white sand. Any other time, he’d have been intrigued and mildly interested, but right then that small brown shape just looked like lunch.

He dived for it, capturing it in his hands and getting a fierce pinch from its claws for his pains. “Shit!” He dropped it out of reflex, then set his teeth and grabbed it again.

“Here.” Andrew appeared at his side, his shirt in his hand, still mostly buttoned as if he’d pulled it off over his head. Sean breathed in the warm, ripe smell of the man, involuntarily shifting closer. “Wrap it in this.”

“Your shirt’s gonna smell like crab,” Sean warned him. That was a good thing as far as he was concerned—a hell of a lot better than smelling like someone Sean would have liked to get to know more intimately.

Jesus, what was he thinking? This was Andrew Carney. He didn’t even like the man. It had to be the stress of the situation; that was the only explanation.

“I don’t care.” Andrew looked around, quickly examining the immediate area, though what for, Sean didn’t know. He picked up a stick and used it to flip over a rock. “Where there’s one, there’ve got to be more.”

“Can we eat raw crab? Without getting sick?”

“Of course. I wasn’t kidding about the sushi. I take it you haven’t before?”

“In sushi, sure. But that’s someone who knows what they’re doing, cleaning it and everything. I don’t know how to do that.” Sean felt like an idiot standing there with a wriggling crab wrapped in Andrew’s shirt.

“Got one!” There was a triumphant glee in Andrew’s voice that rekindled Sean’s long-held antipathy, particularly when he saw Andrew’s catch was twice the size of his. Silently, he held open Andrew’s shirt so the second crab could be dropped beside the first.

“Right,” Andrew said with a shade too much authority for Sean’s liking. “We need to kill them. Kindly, I guess.”

“They’re usually boiled alive,” Sean pointed out, though he agreed. He was starving, his belly empty and roiling from the diet of coconut and water, but he wasn’t so lost to hunger he could rip into the crab and eat it while it was still alive. The thought made him heave. “I don’t think they’re used to kindness.”

“I saw this program on the cooking channel where they said the quickest way to kill one is an ice pick through the head into the brain.”

Sean sighed. “Yeah, I’ve heard that too. And we’re back to having no knife.” He sat down on the sand, the shirt held out to the side with its wriggling passengers inside. “Maybe a sharp stick? Or a stone?”

“You wait here and I’ll find something.” Andrew picked up the sling he’d fashioned out of a shirt and put it on, then walked away, scanning the surroundings. He said his arm didn’t hurt whenever Sean scolded him about taking the sling off to do something, but Sean was skeptical. Nothing they could do about it, though, so he respected Andrew’s decision not to complain.

And he was back to liking Andrew—a little, at least. He found a large stone and used it to keep the improvised bag closed. Two crabs weren’t going to go far. A lot of the innards weren’t edible, and without the fiddly picks a restaurant would give them, it was going to be difficult to get at the good stuff. They needed more.

By the time Andrew returned with two long, sharp twigs and some reasonably pointed rocks, Sean had added three more crabs to the menu.

“I’m starving,” Andrew said, the longing in his voice dragging out the final word. “I’d almost eat them shell and all.”

“I think the shell would be bad for your stomach,” Sean said. “But yeah, I’m with you.”

“Hey, three more, that’s great.” Andrew untangled one of the crabs from his shirt and held it down against the sand. “Okay, here we go. Murder 101.”

Sean watched as Andrew thrust a stick into the crab’s head. It wriggled, and they waited for it to stop moving. It kept wriggling.

“Maybe that wasn’t its brain?” Andrew said doubtfully after a minute.

“Maybe it’s already dead and this is just, I don’t know, nerve movement or something?” The crab opened and closed its claws weakly.

Andrew shuddered convulsively. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“I can.” Sean took the stick from Andrew and quickly killed the crab, closing his mind to what his hand was doing.

“Poor thing.”

Sean glanced up at him. “These poor things are gonna keep us alive. But I don’t want them to suffer.” Andrew was studying him thoughtfully, as if he was surprised by what Sean had said or done. Charming. He showed he had a softer side, and Carney acted like it was the shock of the century. “What?”

“Nothing. Just—nothing. I was just thinking.” He gestured at Sean, a conciliatory smile replacing the stare. “Okay, if you’re going to do the killing, the least I can do is clean them.”

“I’ll get some palm leaves,” Sean offered. “We can use them as plates.”

Andrew grinned and punched him playfully on the arm. “You know, this is kind of fun in some ways.”

Sean shook his head. “Tell me that when your gut’s cramped from the food poisoning we’re going to get.”

Andrew frowned at him. Bad Sean sprinkling reality all over the place instead of sparkles and rainbows. “No, really. This is, like, I don’t know, some kind of extreme vacation. I know people who’d pay a fortune to get dumped on an island so they could, umm, how would the company spin it? Pit their wits against the wilderness maybe.”

“Then you know a lot of fucking idiots.” Sean took a quick breath, his emotions churning as much as his stomach. He was sure the crab was dead, but it was still fucking twitching, and he had more to kill. “I already did pay a fortune for this vacation and this sure as hell isn’t what I signed up for. No one with any sense would want to be hungry and lost and bored to death.”

“You paid?” Andrew said pointedly enough that Sean’s temper rose.

“Yeah, me. No way I was letting your dad do it. My last bid was thirty thousand. A check for that amount would’ve arrived on his desk the day we left.”

“He won’t like that.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t like him stepping in and tossing his cash around to solve your problems.”

Andrew got to his feet, his face flushed with anger. “He wasn’t! I didn’t ask him to do that, any of it. You know that. You were there.”

“I saw you jumping to do whatever he said. Fuck, calm down, would you? Why do you have to get so worked up about everything?” Sean tried to sound bored. He wasn’t in the mood for fighting right then, even if he’d been a participant in starting it.

“Maybe because you’re a fucking prick. I’m getting leaves.” Andrew stalked off, which seemed to be his modus operandi when he was mad.

Sean took advantage of the time Andrew was gone and killed the rest of the crabs. It got easier on him and the crabs. Then he started to pry one’s shell open. The inside of the crab was wet and it smelled pretty bad. He wasn’t sure he could tell the difference between the parts that were edible and the ones that weren’t. Maybe Andrew would know.

When Andrew came back clutching three broad, dark green leaves, his jaw was clenched. He sat down without saying anything and picked up one of the crabs to clean. For a few long moments, they worked quietly without speaking. Then Sean said, “Any idea which of these are the edible parts?” He’d been separating them into a few categories by color and texture.

“No. I don’t care; I’ll eat it all.”

“Not a good idea, and I’m the one who’ll be nursing you if you get sick, so snap out of the sulk and use your goddamned brain.”

“I’m not sulking,” Andrew said evenly. “I’m trying to remember we stand a better chance of making it off this island if we work together, and that means I can’t do what I want to and beat the shit out of you. Something tells me when I did, you’d be the one sulking. You’re not much use now; you’d be even less use then.”

Stung by the unfairness of the accusation—who’d been the one to catch the first crab and dispatch them? Not Andrew, that was for sure—Sean laughed scornfully. “You fighting me? Don’t make me laugh. I’d have you on the ground begging for mercy inside a minute. And you know damn well with your arm out of commission, I wouldn’t lay a finger on you, so stop pushing me, you asshole.”

“My arm is fine. I can prove it to you if you don’t want to take my word for it.” There were tight lines around Andrew’s mouth, either from discomfort or anger, and he certainly looked like a man who wanted to hit someone. Sean found him about as scary as a hissing, spitting kitten. “You’re the one accusing me of sulking and calling me an asshole, and I’m the one who’s pushing?”

“When you tell me you want to punch me and brag you could beat me, knowing you’re off-limits, yeah, that counts as pushing.”

Sean was close enough that he could have reached out and touched Andrew—or thrown a punch. Close enough to see the beads of sweat along Andrew’s hairline, the hint of sunburn on his face. Andrew looked exhausted.

Today, their second on the island, they’d rigged up a windbreak of sorts using the raft and some branches, but Sean had built a better den in the stand of trees behind his house as a child with his friends one summer. They’d crouched in it, pretending to be anything from soldiers to cavemen, drinking flat soda and eating the candy their pooled allowances had bought. He could still smell the fire they’d kindled and taste the burned, raw potatoes they’d tried to cook on it.

That den had been made from a piece of corrugated iron and a lot of plastic sheeting draped over branches and tied down with string. It was a palace compared to what they had now.

No string here, and no metal or plastic either. Just raw food and an enemy to share it with.

Andrew had lain beside him again last night and slept in snatches, twitching and mumbling to himself, the stress of the day released in his dreams. Sean had propped himself up on an elbow and watched him, the inky darkness of the night illuminated by a full moon. Eventually, tired out himself, he’d moved closer and drawn Andrew’s arm across his chest, giving Andrew an unspoken assurance he wasn’t alone.

By the time he’d awakened at dawn, Andrew had already gone off to fetch water.

“Fine,” Andrew said now, the weariness they were both feeling evident in his voice. “Whatever. If it makes you feel better for this to be my fault, blame me. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Sean blinked. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Never mind.” Setting down the mostly empty crab shell he’d been working on, Andrew reached for another. “Let’s not fight, okay? I don’t have the energy, and it doesn’t help. And I don’t want to. Do you?”

“Not particularly.” Sean sighed and wiped some greenish slime off his fingers onto a leaf.

“Why do we, do you think?”

There was genuine curiosity in Andrew’s voice, but Sean didn’t want to get all introspective on an empty stomach—and his was really empty. “What, get on each other’s nerves?” Sean shrugged. “Not enough in common; too much in common?”

Andrew reached for a lump of crab meat, one of the more translucent pieces even Sean was pretty sure was edible. “I’m going to try this. If I suddenly start foaming at the mouth or puking uncontrollably, you’ll know not to eat it.”

“Taking one for the team? Appreciate it. Don’t panic. I won’t assume that experimental spirit extends to having sex with me when we've been here for months and a knothole in a tree starts to look good.”

Andrew gave him a look that was too searching for Sean’s liking. “Why do you always bring everything around to sex?”

“Because I won’t apologize for what I am,” Sean retorted, very much on familiar ground now. He’d had this conversation in the past, with family, with friends—some of whom hadn’t been as friendly postchat—and with coworkers.

“If you mean gay, the only people who give a fuck are a long way from here. Meaning I’m not one of them.”

“Yeah.” Sean made sure his disbelief was front and center. “Andrew Carney. Tolerant ally of the poor, misguided gays. Sorry. Not starting another fight, but I don’t buy it. You’ve made plenty of digs at me.”

“Buy whatever you want,” Andrew said lightly. “It’s your money.” He popped the piece of crab into his mouth and chewed, then swallowed with a visible effort, his throat working. “It’s…not bad.”

Sean snorted. “Well, that was convincing.”

“When you’re this hungry, even raw crab is worth eating. Try some.” He held a piece out toward Sean with a challenge in his eyes, and after a few seconds Sean did something he shouldn’t—leaned in and took the bit of crab directly from Andrew’s fingers.

The temptation to linger more than was strictly necessary was strong, but Sean resisted it. Bad enough he wanted to lick and suck on Andrew’s fingertips—to do so was impossible, and would risk more than this minor line-crossing he was flirting with.

Andrew stared at him as the flavor of the uncooked crab flooded over Sean’s tongue. It was incredibly fresh, but the texture was off-putting. “What was that?” Andrew asked slowly.

Sean tried to sound nonchalant. “Nothing. Sorry, wasn’t thinking. I’m so hungry, you’re lucky I didn’t take a finger too.”

Andrew glanced away, staring out at the ocean as intently as if it were full of frolicking mermaids instead of endless waves empty of rescue boats.

Sean forced himself to eat more of the crab, avoiding a frankly disgusting messy bit that was mustard-colored. He hadn’t eaten crab often, and never raw, but when he had, the flesh had never been that color.

Telling himself survival involved sacrificing squeamishness, he took another bite, but the hunger paramount right then was a different kind.

He wanted Andrew, and he couldn’t hide from that truth any longer. Andrew, whose very existence irritated him like sand in his shoe, a hair in his food. Straight, son-of-the-boss Andrew.

Okay, time for some preventive measures before he made an awkward situation worse and landed himself with a lawsuit once they were rescued.

He didn’t let himself consider the possibility they wouldn’t be found. Not with his parents and the Carneys both looking, which they would be by now. The plane had crashed on Monday afternoon; now it was Wednesday. Forty-eight hours late to check-in, a pilot and plane missing… There had to be a huge rescue mission gearing up.

Which reminded him they should lay out a message on the beach using branches or stones. Something to signal to a plane flying over, since a signal fire was impossible.

First, though, he was finding a nice private patch of the island and jerking off.

Chapter Six

Andrew was collecting rocks, focusing on the darker-colored ones that would stand out more against the sand. He was using one of his older shirts to carry them, picking his way across the island in a meandering, random path. A lot of the rocks he was finding were the paler color of the coral, so it wasn’t as quick and easy a job as he’d expected it to be. Sean had set Andrew to work finding rocks, then disappeared, muttering something about finding more crabs in a different part of the beach, and Andrew was finding walking by himself to be surprisingly peaceful.

The sky was blue, and the sun was hot. He was already starting to get pretty burned, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. He paused to set down the shirt full of rocks, wanting to give his elbow a rest, and caught a glimpse of beige and red: Sean’s shirt, and a pale flash of skin. What was Sean—

Oh Christ. That was Sean’s thigh, bare, and Sean’s cock, swollen and gripped in his fist. Sean was jerking himself off, right there near the beach.

God, he looked good. Andrew knew he should give the man some privacy, but there was no way. Not when Andrew’s own dick was already hardening inside his briefs.

Sean’s head was thrown back, his eyes closed. His hand moved on his cock slowly in rhythmic strokes, from base to head and back again.

Andrew had never seen another man jerk off, not openly, anyway. At the summer camps, there’d been furtive rustlings after dark, heavy breathing, stifled moans… He’d lain in his narrow bed, aching for something he couldn’t frame with words, his hands in tight fists to keep himself from reaching for his erection, pride and shyness combining to keep him from joining in.

He’d seen his lovers touch themselves briefly, jacking themselves hard, but it’d always been brisk, businesslike. He’d assumed in private they took their time, like him, but never bothered to ask.

Andrew loved teasing himself for long, delicious minutes, his hands lingering, stroking lightly, before his grip tightened, merciless and strong as wild fantasies played out behind his closed eyelids. Sean’s approach seemed more direct, but he wasn’t rushing toward his climax.

Maybe the pleasure Sean was clearly experiencing allowed him to forget he was hungry and stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was sure as hell distracting Andrew.

He stayed where he was, frozen, afraid the slightest movement would attract Sean’s attention. Not that that was likely. Or maybe it was just what he was telling himself as an excuse to stare, to drink in every sight. He wished he were closer, close enough, if not to touch, to at least hear Sean’s gasps and smell the tang of his arousal.

Andrew’s own cock was fully hard now, aching as it pressed against the inside of his underwear. His need to stay still was the perfect reason to deny himself, so instead of dropping the heel of his hand down to ease his erection, he focused on Sean.

He did something he hadn’t done for years—a weird, inexplicable shift of perception that put him inside another person’s skin. God, he wanted that so badly just then, to be able to feel what Sean was feeling, the growing pleasure and knowledge the pinnacle was so close. The way the sensitive skin of his balls would crawl, the slick rub of his thumb over the hole at the end of his dick, the tension in his upper arm muscles as he worked his way toward release.

By the time Sean came, shooting onto the sand with a groan he couldn’t stifle, Andrew was trembling.

He fled before Sean could catch him, stumbling over a tree root and almost ending up facedown on the ground.

God, he was so fucked.

* * * * *

“And you’re a fucking asshole!” Andrew threw the baseball-sized chunk of rock he’d been holding into the ocean, where it didn’t make a splash nearly violent enough to satisfy him. Fucking waves, fucking island, fucking Sean Darrow.

“You’re the asshole,” Darrow spat back at him. “You’re so used to getting everything you want, you don’t have enough sense to think.”

“No, I just think you’re wrong! These people can’t even fly a plane without crashing it, and you think they’re going to know what SOS means?” Andrew considered picking up a second rock to throw, but he’d spent hours collecting them, and when he won this argument, he was going to need them.

“Do you hear yourself when you talk?” Darrow was mocking him. “‘These people’? You sound like a fucking bigot.”

“Fuck you!” Wishing he could think of something more eloquent, Andrew clenched his hands into fists. “I’m not a bigot; I’m being realistic. If you think everyone in the world knows SOS is a distress code, you’re living on another planet!”

“I’d rather live on any planet than the one you’re on, and there’s a reason it’s called the international distress code.”

“When I went skiing in Austria, all the slopes had signs saying the rescue code was a V, or an X if you were hurt,” Andrew said. “That’s international! Plus, it’s a damn sight easier to make. We need something simple and eye-catching.”

“It’s not a fucking logo! It’s a cry for help.” Sean shook his head. “It’s a big beach. You do what you want, and I’ll do it my way. We cover all the bases, and I can get something done without listening to you whine.”

“Fine. As long as you get your own rocks. These are mine.”

Sean turned and walked away up the beach, and Andrew rubbed a hand over his face. Jesus. Catching Sean masturbating had been a shock in more ways than one, but in the end, he’d just been angry the guy got off on arguing, not to mention frustrated as hell. He still hadn’t been able to shake any of those feelings, and it had him on edge and irritable.

He set about creating his symbol on the beach, swearing under his breath when his first attempt was too small to be seen from a few yards away, let alone the air. It was also lopsided, with one leg of the V much too short. When he began again, making the lines thicker and longer, much longer, his only consolation was that the curved shapes Sean was using would be twenty times as difficult to form.

His elbow ached, a dull, constant throb, and he wondered if he was damaging it permanently with all this exertion. Not that it would matter if they didn’t get rescued. They might not starve, but they’d sure as hell kill each other soon.

He brushed his hands together, sand packed painfully under the few fingernails he had left that weren’t broken off. At home, he had a manicure and a hair trim once a week, a small expense of time and money to keep him looking polished and gleaming.

Appearances mattered. Right now, he had to look like the caveman version of himself: sunburned, dirty, his clothes tattered. He ran his tongue over his teeth and shuddered at the rough coating of plaque. His breath was a lethal weapon.

He turned his gaze up to the empty sky. They hadn’t seen or heard any planes. It didn’t make sense. There should be a full-scale rescue operation going on. His father would see to that. Unless they assumed all three of them had died in the plane crash?

God, if they weren’t even looking

“How’s it going?”

Andrew turned to find Sean a short distance away, his expression guarded but not actively hostile. He was getting used to the way Sean’s temper flared, then died down to nothing but sparks.

“Not big enough. I don’t know if anyone would even be able to see it from up there.” He gestured at the sky. “Not that it matters.”

“It’s a good thing we’re doing both, now I come to think of it.” Sean’s hands were tucked into his pockets, but somehow Andrew suspected the casual posture was for show. Sean didn’t like backing down. “We don’t know who might fly by, and it’ll increase the chances of rescue the more signs of life we’ve got spread out on the sand.”

Andrew shook his head. “No one’s going to see it anyway.” He was worn out and suddenly didn’t know why they were bothering. “Have you seen a single plane?”

“That’s not the point—”

“Of course it’s the fucking point,” Andrew said, volume rising. “Have you?”

“No,” Sean said. He looked taken aback, something that fueled Andrew’s outburst. He needed Sean arrogant and sure of himself, a rock, not a rotten stick that would break under pressure.

“So why go to all this effort? Why are we bothering? No one’s going to find us. They probably aren’t even looking.”

“When my parents find out I’m missing, they’ll make so much fuss—”

“Yeah? Well, mine too! So where the hell are the planes, the boats, the choppers, and the goddamned reporters wanting our story? Why don’t we have our pick as to what we use to fly off this piece of rock?” Andrew was yelling now, and God, it felt good. “Why are we still here?

Sean rubbed the back of his neck. His blue eyes were startlingly bright against his tanned skin, and his brown hair, free of product, was tousled wildly, making him look younger and vaguely dangerous in some way Andrew couldn’t define. This wasn’t the Sean he knew, his workplace rival, professional, controlled, efficient. This was an unpredictable, moody-as-hell stranger.

“You need to take it down a notch. Unless your plan is to whine so loudly they can hear you from space, in which case, keep screaming like a girl.”

“Shut up!” Andrew shouted. “Just stop it with your superior attitude and your…your shitty, condescending tone. Screw your insults!” It was awesome yelling at Sean, so Andrew got right up close, crowding the other man, who refused to step back. “I wish I was stuck on this island with anyone but you!”

“You have no idea how much I want to hit you right now,” Sean growled, and Andrew poked him in the chest, hard enough to hurt his finger.

“So go ahead!”

Sean surged forward. Andrew found himself waiting with a sick exultation for the strike of the other man’s fist, a declaration of war, but instead Sean wrestled him toward the water and half shoved, half dropped him into the shallow, sandy sea fully clothed. Blinking salt water out of his eyes, Andrew stared up at Sean. He was so surprised he couldn’t find any words, just sat there, stunned. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again.

“Feeling better?” Sean asked finally.

Andrew swallowed. “Feeling wet.”

“Cooled you down.” It was a statement, not a question, and there was no sneer attached. Sean looked thoughtful, if anything, a frown furrowing his forehead.

“I guess.”

Sean was still staring at him as he lay sprawled out in the warm, clear water. Staring at him as if he couldn’t look away. Andrew made a puzzled sound deep in his throat, bewilderment and uncertainty keeping him from asking a direct question.

A wave washed over him, lifting his body a few inches off the sand, his legs spreading wide as he braced himself with his hands.

Sean gave a guttural groan, hungry, needy, and fell to his knees in front of Andrew, reaching for him eagerly, using the next wave to pull them together, his hands heavy on Andrew’s shoulders.

If Sean had asked permission for what came next, Andrew wasn’t sure what he would have done, but Sean didn’t ask. After a pause, long enough for Andrew to wriggle free if he’d wanted, Sean took his mouth in a kiss, a hard, rough bruise of a kiss that only gentled when Andrew brought his arms up to encircle Sean’s body.

Sean’s mouth was hot and his lips were dry, and Andrew felt like he’d been starving for him forever. He ran his hands over Sean’s back and shoulders, wishing he could feel bare skin instead of the thin layer of cloth. It was his shirt Sean was wearing, but that wasn’t enough. Andrew tilted his head when Sean kissed him again, cooperating.

“What the fuck are we doing?” Sean asked him, sounding as bewildered as Andrew felt.

Andrew couldn’t answer immediately because they were kissing again. God, he was so fucking hard. This was exactly what he shouldn’t be doing. He’d been so careful to make sure no one at work knew he was gay, and now the one person he definitely couldn’t trust was going to find out. Had found out.

On the other hand, maybe they’d be dead soon, and it wouldn’t matter.

“You started it,” he muttered and bit Sean’s lower lip.

Sean shifted position so his knee was between Andrew’s thighs, bringing them close and giving Andrew a hard thigh to rub his equally hard cock against if he wanted. “Yeah, because you got me so hot I couldn’t help it. What’s your excuse, straight guy?”

There was a new note to Sean’s gibes now, softening them to teasing, rubbing off the rough edges that had grated and made Andrew feel like snapping back. He sighed and surrendered more than his mouth.

“Not straight. Gay as you, just…not out. Guess that’s not true now.”

Sean grunted. “Gay. Okay. If you say so.”

“I’m gay.” It was easier to say the second time, but the irritation was creeping back. “You think I’m lying? Confused? What?”

“I think you’re good at hiding it, really good, but that’s your problem, not mine. Can we save the chitchat for later and get off? Preferably on dry land, unless you’re a From Here to Eternity fan.”

They struggled to their feet and moved up the beach, Andrew still clutching at Sean’s shirt. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d wanted—needed—another person so badly. “You want me to prove it?” he asked.

“Prove what?” They were walking, Sean directing their path and Andrew willingly being led.

He threaded his fingers through Sean’s salt-thick hair and kissed him, then mouthed at his jaw. “God, would you stop moving for a second? I mean, I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but this is a whole different ball game.”

Sean had gotten a hand under Andrew’s shirt and splayed it on his lower back. It felt solid there, reassuring, and Andrew realized he was past the point of caring if people found out he was gay. Tomorrow he might feel differently, but right then the thought of being free of the stress of hiding felt liberating beyond words.

“I’m trying to get us somewhere more comfortable,” Sean grumbled. “You still didn’t answer. Prove what? That you’re gay?”

Andrew laughed, exhilaration filling him. “If you want me to. I can.”

Sean studied him, a familiar frown on his face. “You want me to promise not to tell anyone when we get back? If we get back?”

“Would you?” Andrew countered. Did he trust Sean? He thought about it and decided yeah, he did. Sean had a reputation for being brutally incisive when it came to people he considered idiots, but Andrew had never heard him accused of lying or breaking his word.

“Not my call. I’m out, never been anything else, but that’s my choice. I don’t get why someone like you would need to hide, but it doesn’t mean I’d ever force your hand. Don’t like you much, but I’d like myself even less if I outed you.” Sean rolled his shoulders, clearly uncomfortable with the discussion. “Let’s agree to treat this place like Vegas, so what we do here, stays here, okay? Not seeing a downside. We get off, maybe we stop fighting as much… Win-win.”

He ran his hand up and down Andrew’s back slowly, scratching at it, the sensation painful and perfect against Andrew’s sunburned, damp, and salty skin. He'd itched all day, from sand and dried salt. That deliberate, knowing scrape of Sean’s short nails was maddeningly arousing.

He moaned and arched, inviting more, reaching for the buttons on Sean’s shirt to undo them with shaking hands.

Sean helped him, shrugging out of it and stripping Andrew’s shirt off him quickly but without jarring Andrew’s elbow. Andrew was definitely a believer in truces and agreements when the positive results of cooperation came this quickly.

“Let’s get to the shelter,” Sean said. “Out of the sun, off the sand.”

“That would be great if it was possible.” Andrew leaned in and kissed the slope of Sean’s shoulder, brought his hands up along Sean’s chest to tiny, peaked nipples. “There’s sand everywhere. In our hair, in our clothes…our underwear…”

Somehow, he managed to keep his hands above waist level so they could stumble to the shelter, but it took a while because they were both focused on kissing. By the time they got there and were able to give in to any temptation, Andrew’s lips already felt swollen.

He kissed Sean harder anyway, then struggled to unfasten Sean’s damp slacks. They were on their knees, and there was definitely a rock under Andrew’s right knee, but he ignored it as best he could. Right then, it was taking more of his brain power than it should have to undo Sean’s button and zipper.

“Let me,” Sean said, growling the words in a way that sent a shiver down Andrew’s back. He was about as far from shy and innocent as it got, but looking back at what he’d done in bed, it suddenly seemed limited and basic. He pictured Sean demanding more from him than he was prepared to give, wild, kinky, depraved things—and wasn’t sure if he was scared about the demand or that his answer might be yes.

Telling himself he had zero reason to assume Sean’s experience and tastes were different from his, he got out of the little he was still wearing and, like Sean, added it to the makeshift bed they’d been using. More layers between their bare bodies and the sand seemed like a good idea.

When he finished smoothing out his shirt, he turned his head to say something, though even as he opened his mouth, he wasn’t sure what, and found himself pushed to his back, Sean on top of him. Sean was supporting himself on his elbows, so Andrew wasn’t immobilized, but he still felt breathless as he stared up at Sean. Sean, without access to a razor, had dark stubble over his chin and a faint line of it over his upper lip, lending him a piratical look, rough, uncompromising.

Andrew knew what Sean’s cock looked like, and now he could feel it resting against his stomach, hard and warm. Sean reached between them and cupped Andrew’s balls in his hand, rolling them with a possessive, confident caress, then sliding his palm over Andrew’s erection as if to gauge its size.

At least he didn’t have to worry about falling short of expectations. He’d never been with another man who had a bigger cock than his, although he knew from the locker room at the gym and from occasional porn viewing that bigger ones definitely existed. He was fully hard and damp at the tip. “What do you like?” he asked, his voice rough.

“Right now your hand on me would be good,” Sean said.

“Yeah?” Andrew rolled so he could get an arm between them and wrapped his hand around Sean’s cock. “Like this?”

“Yeah. But tighter and just up at the top… Oh God, yeah.”

Andrew smiled, pleased he’d gotten that heartfelt groan of pleasure out of Sean with just a squeeze and a tug. Sean was so open and responsive, not hiding behind a mask of cool indifference like some of his lovers, too concerned with appearances to ever let go and enjoy themselves.

“Want to come like this?” he asked.

“Don’t think I’ve got much choice. Not going to take long. Too close already. Jesus, you’re driving me crazy.” Sean silenced himself by leaning down to kiss Andrew again, his tongue sliding inside Andrew’s mouth, insistent, forceful. Andrew knew he had to taste awful after this long without a toothbrush, but Sean didn’t seem to care, and their morning breath probably cancelled out.

Sean worked Andrew’s cock with deft, deceptively casual strokes that made Andrew gasp and shiver, arousal tingling over him like static electricity. This had all happened so fucking fast, a primal, basic need that had flared between them, engulfing them both in heat and need. Nothing mattered but coming, and he moved against Sean’s strong, big body shamelessly, taking what he needed just as Sean was doing.

He could feel the spark start somewhere around his ankles and crawl upward, nerves burning up his thighs and into his balls. Jesus, he was going to come, and he didn’t know whether to let it happen or fight to postpone it just a bit longer. Doing this with Sean felt so good he didn’t want it to end, but the knowledge it could feel so much better, if only for a brief space of time… It was a hard decision to make.

Then Sean bit the edge of his jaw, and the decision wasn’t his anymore. He was coming, in glorious, muscle-shuddering waves. It wasn’t until it was almost over that he felt Sean’s cock pulsing in his hand.

It was a sign things were still competitive between them—not a surprise but a sign—that Andrew’s first thought was Sean had held out longer than he had, and his first emotion was disappointment in himself. Luckily his second thought, whatever it might have been, got lost in the haze of postorgasm relief, and he let himself lean in with his mouth pressed to Sean’s bare shoulder, waiting for the frantic thumping of his heart to slow.

Sean exhaled, long and slow. “Yeah. Guess that takes care of the bet over who gets laid first. We both win.”

“Mmm.” Andrew didn’t want to talk. For the first time since he’d realized the plane was going down, he felt utterly relaxed. He knew it wouldn’t last, but he didn’t want to hurry its departure by starting a conversation. With Sean, they always seemed to end one way.

Of course, now their frequent squabbles might have a different coda…

Sean rolled to his side, still close enough to Andrew that their bodies touched, making no attempt to pull away, get dressed, leave.

Not that there were many places to go, but Andrew appreciated that Sean wasn’t just shrugging off what’d happened. He’d been with men who’d been out the door while he was still blissed-out from coming.

He closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment, then jerked upright when he felt something—Sean’s finger—run through the mess on his stomach. He gave Sean an incredulous stare, watching that wet finger slide between Sean’s lips.

“Mmm,” Sean said, echoing Andrew.

“Do you have any idea how gross that is?”

Sean grinned at him, a wicked, impish grin, then bent and licked at Andrew’s chest, cleaning up a streak that’d reached his nipple. “Tastes better than raw crab. Nutritious too.”

“Oh, well, if it’s healthy…”

Chapter Seven

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Andrew asked, not for the first time.

Sean turned and glared at him. “If you ask me that again, you’re going to regret it. What are you, eight?”

“No, I’m actually eight hundred, and my memory’s not what it used to be.” Andrew rolled his eyes. “Remind me of the answer again?”

“No.” Sean turned and fought his way through another tangle of tree branches. Of course this was a good idea—they hadn’t found anything useful on several circuits of the small island’s beaches, so it was time to focus on the interior in the hopes they’d come across something. Anything.

At least he could tell Andrew was still following him by the fact Andrew never shut up. “I don’t know what you think we’re going to find. Something bad, probably. Caves full of vampire bats. A giant polar bear?”

Sean paused to shove some branches, most of them dead by the way they crackled drily in his hands, out of his way. It wasn’t exactly a path they were walking on, but it was close enough. “I thought polar bears lived at the North Pole.”

“With Santa Claus?”

“Yeah, why not? Maybe they take the elves for rides.” Okay, he was getting punchy here. Not enough food.

Sean had always thought if he’d been a prehistoric man, no way would he have hunkered down in a cave living hand-to-mouth. He’d have invented stuff, built a cool house, diverted running water, built dams, carved a bow and arrows… It was an attitude he’d had since a history class in third grade had left him rolling his eyes at his distant ancestors, and now he was silently apologizing to every caveman who’d ever lived because working with nothing was hard.

They’d been on the island for four days now, and even with nothing to do—no meetings, no phone calls, no clients yammering, no commutes—they were accomplishing very little.

It wasn’t laziness. Neither of them was going to turn into a lotus eater; it just wasn’t in their natures. Their hands were bruised and scraped from hauling rocks and shelling crabs, their backs aching so much that when Andrew had given him a massage the night before, Sean had nearly wept with gratitude.

It was just that all their plans, from the simple to the wildly ambitious, foundered on the giant rock of hunger.

Feeding himself had once been a matter of making a call to a restaurant or walking into his well-stocked kitchen and whipping up one of the half-dozen dishes he could cook. Grilled cheese totally counted as a dish. Hunger was something he experienced deliberately when he worked through lunch, telling himself he needed to peel off a few pounds.

Now, everything revolved around the next meal, and the energy from that meal was burned off getting the next one. He’d caught some fish using scraps of crab as bait, but with no knife to gut them, eating them had been a messy, revolting experience. They’d found breadfruit trees, which added some variety to their diet, but Sean longed for something cooked, something hot. Cooked breadfruit was supposed to have a texture and taste like bread or potatoes, but raw it wasn’t all that palatable.

He pushed aside another branch and felt his hand strike something hard. “Ow.”

“Please tell me you didn’t punch a tree again.” Andrew came up close behind him.

“You should be more worried about me punching you.” It was close to an empty threat at that point, since Sean had discovered there were better things to do with Andrew, but he was distracted by something embedded in the tree trunk. Excitement filled him as he saw a glint of metal, wildly out of place in all this nature. “Oh my God. It’s some kind of tool.”

He felt as if he’d found treasure. Beside the tool itself, this was proof that other people had been here once and, since they hadn’t stumbled on any skeletons, presumably managed to leave.

“Like what?” Andrew shoved him aside and grabbed hold of the handle, tugging. “It’s some kind of ax.”

“Not a very big one,” Sean said, then ducked instinctively as the blade of the small ax came free of the trunk and almost hit him. “Fuck! Watch it.”

“Sorry.” Andrew sounded it. He inspected the blade, running his finger carefully over the pitted metal. “It’s pretty rusted, but I’ll bet we can sharpen it on a rock or something.”

“You bet!” Sean punched the air, giddy from more than hunger now. “We can chop down trees, sharpen branches, cut the heads off those freaky-looking fish I catch. Maybe even build a raft…”

“Slow down.” Andrew was laughing, but there was enough concern in his eyes to sober Sean. “It’s a rusty ax that’ll probably fall apart the first time we swing it at something. I mean, it’s great, it’s a real find, but don’t get carried away.”

Sean didn’t pout—he was a grown man—but he came close. “You take all the fun out of things.”

Andrew stepped up close, the ax at his side, out of the way, and planted a kiss on Sean’s mouth, too quick to do more than tantalize. “Oh yeah?”

Sean stopped Andrew’s retreat by grabbing a handful of the guy’s ass. “Maybe not everything. Do that again. With tongue. Then tell me you spotted a condom tree over to the right by the stream of lube.”

“Ha. Good one.” Andrew snorted, pushing Sean playfully. “Condom tree.” He picked up a rock, one of the uneven bits of coral scattered around to catch unwary bare toes, and scraped it across the blade of the ax experimentally. “I guess we should look around some more. If someone left an ax, they might have left something else useful too.”

They wandered around for another half hour or so without finding anything else that would do them any good—there were some old tin cans, rusted to the point where they were barely can-shaped anymore, but that was it.

“If we get out of here, I’m going to come back and put some kind of emergency kit on all these islands,” Andrew said as they trudged back to the beach.

“We’re going to get out of here,” Sean told him. “People have got to be looking for us by now. It’s only a matter of time. It’s not like they’re going to think we changed our minds about the world’s most expensive vacation and went somewhere else, right?”

“I don’t know. I could see my dad paying for something like this and then not bothering to go.” Andrew looked bleak as he sat down on the sand.

“But they know we got on the plane, and made our connecting flights,” Sean said. “Okay, you see if you can get that thing sharp, and I’ll rustle up some food.”

“Raw fish, raw crab, raw breadfruit, coconut. Yummy.”

“We’re not starving.” Sean shrugged as if he was content with their situation, though that wasn’t the case for either of them. They split up sometimes, wandering off without a word, needing a break. Returning from an aimless walk, Sean had spotted Andrew in the distance sitting on a rock, staring out at the waves, his shoulders slumped, every line of his body screaming his frustration and growing depression when he thought he was unseen. “We’re doing okay.”

“We can do better.” Andrew scooped up a handful of white sand and let it sift through his fingers. “Fire. We need fire. Yes, we’re lucky to have water and some food, but fire would let us cook and signal for help too.”

Sean didn’t disagree. The boost to their self-esteem would be huge. “Okay, while I’m fishing, gather up some scraps for tinder. Small stuff, bone-dry, thin twigs to start it off, some bigger ones for when it’s established. Let’s get prepared. If we do get a fire, we’re going to need to baby it, watch it all the time in case it goes out.”

“But we tried and didn’t get anywhere.”

Sean shrugged. “So we try again, and this time we don’t give up so easily.” He saw the cloud in Andrew’s eyes and added a conciliatory, “We were tired and hungry. It’s not surprising we got nowhere. We’ll do better this time.”

“Fire with a stick and friction? I don’t care what the books say; it’s impossible.”

“Hey, I got in your pants, didn’t I? Anything’s possible.”

He ducked the sand thrown at him by an indignant Andrew and, with a grin on his face, set off for his favorite fishing spot on a rock outcrop.

Teasing Andrew was way more fun when he knew just how to change a scowl into a look of sheer, naked desire. If the shock of discovering that Andrew was gay had worn off quickly, because Sean was too pragmatic to deny the obvious, the pleasure hadn't.

What felt like hours of fishing time eventually resulted in him catching only two small fish, and his mood was lower than it had been when he trooped back to find Andrew. His spirits lifted as he smelled something new—wood smoke!—and he increased his pace, the loose sand shifting under his feet as he broke into a jog.

“Fire!” Andrew said as Sean joined him. He smiled sheepishly. “I know, pretty obvious, but still.”

“Told you it would work if you put some effort into it,” Sean said with a grin of his own. “Good job.” Despite his hunger and the knowledge the fish wouldn’t do much to assuage it, seeing the small but carefully tended fire made him hopeful again.

“I started with new sticks. They were the driest ones I could find, like, really old. I thought maybe last time they were still a tiny bit damp or something, and it worked!” Andrew was obviously elated, his high spirits infectious enough that Sean began to see why Andrew had so many friends. When his charm was turned on full, it was irresistible. Andrew reached out and patted the back of Sean’s calf with what seemed suspiciously like affection. “How was fishing?”

“Not great,” Sean admitted and held up the fish for Andrew to see. “But at least we can eat them cooked this time around.”

“When we get back, I am never, ever eating anything raw again,” Andrew said with a shudder. “Not even an apple.”

“Yeah, you will. Just give it a decade or so. Start small with blueberries; work your way up to pineapple.”

“Shut up and gut the fish.” Andrew flourished the rusty ax. “I also put an edge on it. Not much of one, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to slice with it, but hey, it’s sharp.”

“You’re just full of nice surprises today.” Impulsively, Sean dropped the fish onto the nearest flat rock and squatted down beside Andrew. The wood smoke stung his eyes, but the smell stirred good memories of campfires and promised edible food, so he didn’t care. He didn’t rush the kiss he gave Andrew. He didn’t want to. He slid his hand along Andrew’s jaw, where the bristles had grown out enough to be soft against his palm, and rubbed his thumb across lips chapped by exposure.

Andrew had lost his polished, pampered glow, and Sean didn’t care about that either. He liked this Andrew better, though he would have given a month’s salary to get them a bath, shave, and access to a toothbrush. Throw in condoms, lube, and a mattress and he’d have doubled that.

Andrew smiled at him and nipped gently at Sean’s thumb. “You taste like fish,” he said.

It sounded like an invitation, not a complaint.

His body heated, a flush of arousal surprising him with its strength. Andrew’s mouth opened for him, his kiss returned, a slow dance of lips and tongue as the fire crackled beside them.

Andrew’s hand gripped his upper arm for a moment; then Andrew gave him a slow, solid shove, pushing Sean off-balance. Sean ended up on his ass in the sand, Andrew straddling his lap before Sean could do anything about it. Not that he would have complained, of course. Andrew was an amazing kisser, and his lips on Sean pretty much guaranteed that they’d both be distracted.

“Can’t let it go out,” Andrew muttered between kisses, one hand cupping the base of Sean’s skull.

Sean nodded into the next kiss and grabbed Andrew’s waistband to keep himself upright. The solid weight of Andrew in his lap would have been arousing enough on its own, but combined with the slick of mouths and warm breath, it was a heady combination. The fire would possibly go untended too long now they’d started, and yet Sean found it hard to care.

There was so much he wanted to do with Andrew, and it was frustrating that their situation was limiting them. He wanted to fuck Andrew, work Andrew open with his fingers, his tongue, his cock, or spread his legs and feel Andrew push into him, the sweet rasp and burn fading to pleasure after a few strokes.

No condoms. No lube.

He considered their options with the cool, practical part of his brain that never got lost in emotion. He usually insisted on a condom for oral, but he was willing to compromise on that. Andrew took too much care of himself to be a risk. Sean was sure of it.

“God, I want to fuck you,” he whispered against Andrew’s mouth, as much because it was true as because he craved Andrew’s reaction.

“Yeah? Wish you could.” Andrew held Sean’s face between his hands and kissed him with the skill of a man who considered it an art. “You ever think about it before this?”

It was clear to Sean “before this” meant before the crash. “Once,” he said. “Maybe twice.”

Andrew laughed; the movement of his body, ass cradled in Sean’s lap, was enticing. “Aw, come on. Admit it.” Strong hands slid up Sean’s back under his shirt. “You’ve always wanted to fuck me.”

Sean threaded his fingers into Andrew’s hair and jerked Andrew’s head back a few inches so he could meet his gaze. “You’re right,” he said, the thrill of arousal making him grin in the face of danger—and opening up to Andrew was risky. “And that might be the only time you hear me say that, so enjoy it while you can.”

A complicated tangle of emotions crossed Andrew’s face. Sean couldn’t guess what it might have meant, but Andrew quickly leaned in and kissed him again before he could even try.

“Want to fuck you too,” Andrew said. “Guess neither of us is going to get what we want until we get off this rock.”

“And when we do…” Sean didn’t finish his sentence. They both knew this wasn’t likely to continue after they were rescued, he guessed. Andrew was as into beards as Santa Claus, and Sean didn’t fuck coworkers, let alone the boss’s son. It got too complicated.

“Yeah.” Andrew sighed. “Maybe we could…just once?”

“Meet up in a hotel room, get the sheets good and dirty, and walk away?” Sean considered it, drawn to the idea in a way, the safe anonymity of it, the impersonal setting that would allow him to treat Andrew like a casual lay. Something about the scenario jarred, though. He shook his head. He wanted Andrew in his bed, with his sheets being the ones left rumpled and damp with sweat and spunk. On his turf, with Andrew challenging him to make good on every promise.

Dangerous thoughts to have, but those particular fantasies were as likely to come true as a lottery win.

“Let’s concentrate on the here and now,” he said and softened his words with a caress, running his hand down Andrew’s arm to clasp Andrew’s fingers briefly. “Wouldn’t mind a blowjob, giving or getting. You okay with that? You probably shouldn’t take anyone’s word for it, but I’m clean.”

“After nothing but saltwater baths with no soap?” Andrew smiled wryly. “We’re no one’s definition of clean, but if you mean what I think you mean, yeah, me too, to all of it.” He tugged at the collar of Sean’s shirt. “Want to get out of some of these clothes first?”

“Of course.” Sean missed the weight of Andrew in his lap as soon as the other man moved, but he liked Andrew undressing him, the movements of his hands quick and impatient. “What about you? Going to strip?”

“Later,” Andrew said, shoving Sean’s pants low enough to expose his erection. “Right now, I want this.”

Andrew’s mouth closed around the tip of Sean’s cock, the kiss dry at first but deliciously warm, and regardless of what kind of sexual experience Andrew had, he sure as hell knew how to suck cock. Sean groaned and closed his eyes, concentrating on the perfection of Andrew’s lips and tongue. “God.”

“Don’t believe in him,” Andrew murmured, breath hot at the base of Sean’s cock.

“No?”

“Uh-uh. Never have.”

“I—” Sean paused. Did he want to get into a conversation about religion right then? No, he didn’t. “Don’t care. Keep doing that.”

“Say please.”

“God, you are such a fucking tease.” And always had been, Sean realized in one of the epiphany moments that hit now and then. Andrew walking down the corridor toward him, a warm smile on his face, lithe, lean, gorgeous, stirring Sean’s emotions and libido—before they passed and Andrew’s smile turned out to be directed at the pretty woman by Sean’s side.

Andrew sharing an elevator with him, the expensive, erotic scent of him saturating every molecule of air, making Sean want to step closer—the cool, scornful twist of Andrew’s mouth warning him off.

Andrew, who’d been gay all along, hiding it so well, but still giving off enough hints that Sean had wanted him, had always wanted him. All his dislike and anger had been rooted in frustration because he couldn’t have Andrew, never could, never would, and now… Now Andrew was sucking his dick and making each breath he took inadequate until his chest was tight, his head spinning.

“Please,” he said, hating himself for caving, almost back to hating Andrew for making it impossible to do anything else. “God, please—”

Andrew took him in deeper, fondling his balls, and it felt so fucking good. But what tipped Sean over the edge was the moment when Andrew’s eyes lifted and met his, the sight of that glance—to show approval? Or to ask for it?—combined with the view of Andrew’s reddened lips stretched wide around his shaft. So good, and there was nothing Sean could do to hold back. Not that he wanted to. No, he wanted to come, like this, into Andrew’s willing mouth, spilling creamy-white spunk across those red lips, shaking, trembling, elated.

He was still shuddering when Andrew shifted to lie next to him, the fire crackling and hissing beside them. “You like this?” Andrew asked and kissed him, letting him taste himself in the other man’s mouth.

“I can’t believe you’ve been hiding this,” he said, pushing Andrew’s hair back from his face. Thick with salt as it was, it was curling slightly. Sean liked how it looked.

“What, my hair?” Andrew sounded amused.

“No, all of it. You. How do you do it?” Sean genuinely wanted to know, but Andrew’s face darkened, and he shook his head, turning away, moving away.

“I’m not doing this. Talking about it.” Andrew put more sticks onto the fire, then added a thicker log as Sean hastily fastened his pants.

He was more than willing to return the favor, but it looked as if the mood had changed. With a sense of loss that made no sense—he’d gotten to come, hadn’t he?—Sean reached for the fish.

He gouged his finger gutting them and burned his hand on the flat, hot rock he used as a substitute for a frying pan, but the look of bliss on Andrew’s face when he took the first mouthful of white, flaky, hot fish was worth it.

Sean didn’t like owing anyone anything.

* * * * *

“Andrew!” Sean slipped and crashed down onto the sand, which was forgiving and cushioned his fall. “Carney!”

He was damp from the light rain that had been pattering down all morning, and now he was coated in sand too. The fish in his arms was on its way out, only giving an occasional halfhearted flop. Catching it had been a total fluke; he’d been towing in a smaller fish when this bigger one had somehow managed to swallow it whole.

Sean got to his feet and trudged the rest of the way back to their fire, which, thank God, Andrew had kept going.

“Sorry,” Andrew said, stepping out from behind some bushes with an armful of potential firewood. “I didn’t—holy shit, what the hell is that?”

“Breakfast,” Sean said with satisfaction and dropped the fish onto the flat leaves they’d layered into a sort of work surface.

“It’s huge.” Andrew dropped to his knees and reached for it just as it gave another flop. “Ah! It’s still alive. What do you think it weighs?”

“Ten pounds? I don’t know. Enough, I guess.”

“No kidding.” Andrew’s awed look was aimed at the fish, but Sean still found himself preening. It really was one hell of a catch. “Okay, how do we put it out of its misery?”

Sean gave a shrug. “I hunted; you gather,” he said. “That includes killing it as well as cooking it. I’d like mine served with new potatoes and green peas, with a green salad, no dressing.”

“Way to make me drool, asshole.” The verging-on-affectionate look he got softened the insult into more of a pet name. “Pass me the ax, and I’ll take off its head.”

Sean found a flat rock and positioned the fish on it, without getting too squeamish over its fate the way he had with the crabs. He hadn’t grown up hunting and fishing—his dad wasn’t into the whole nature thing at all—but this was survival. Maybe it was tapping into his primal roots or something, but when Andrew dispatched the fish with a single blow, he felt nothing but a fierce triumph.

Half an hour later, his stomach stuffed for the first time since the crash, triumph had mellowed to a hazy contentment. He’d gotten off the day before, thanks to Andrew; he wasn’t hungry; and the sun was shining now.

He appreciated the warmth bathing his body and drying out his clothes. They were still damp in places, though, and the sand was definitely an issue, itching as it dried.

“We should swim,” he said to Andrew. “Take the day off from getting wood and killing crabs. Do something fun.”

He had some ideas for the last part, but he was going to play that by ear.

“You think?” Andrew sounded half asleep, but when Sean turned to look, his eyes were open. He stretched and yawned. “Shouldn’t we be doing something? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I can provide some wood if that’s what you need.” He grinned playfully and shoved Sean’s calf with his bare toes.

“Brat.” Sean shoved him back affectionately. “What would you do if you were home? And you weren’t at work.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. If I wasn’t working, I’d probably be sick. Sometimes I go to the movies with a friend of mine.”

“Boyfriend?”

Andrew shook his head and rolled onto his side, facing Sean. “No. There’ve been, well, a couple of guys I could have gotten serious about. But there was no point, you know? And it’s been years. It’s mostly women friends now. My movie friend is Liz, Elizabeth. I brought her to the auction. And to that work banquet a couple of years ago, the one at the Belmont?”

“The same one you were with at the auction? Elizabeth, uh, Montville?” Sean asked, dredging up the woman’s last name without too much difficulty. Remembering clients was part of his job. “The redhead?”

“Yeah, that’s her. We go to a lot of things together.”

“She seemed nice.” Sean didn’t mind admitting that, though his memories of that night weren’t among his most treasured. He nudged Andrew with his foot, enjoying the mild horseplay. “Too good for you. So does she know? That you’re gay, I mean?”

“Liz? Yeah.” Andrew propped his head up on his hand. “She knew right away. Before our first date was even over.”

“Saw right through you.” Sean hesitated before admitting, “More than I did.”

“Different situations,” Andrew said. “She was paying attention. In a could-I-fall-for-this-guy kind of way, I mean. Which, and correct me if I’m wrong—pretty sure you don’t have a problem doing that”—he poked Sean with his foot again—“I’m fairly confident you never did.”

“Only a little,” Sean said. “In the first couple of minutes we met. Then you opened your mouth and started annoying me.”

Andrew made a faux-shocked face and used his toes to fling sand at Sean’s feet. “This is how you talk to the boss’s son?”

“Only when I think I could get lucky.” Sean raised his eyebrows when Andrew snorted. “What? I’m being charming. Seductive. It isn’t working?”

“Well, you don’t have a lot of competition.” Andrew glanced at him, then looked away. “Speaking of boyfriends… I saw you with one of yours once.”

“Yeah?” Sean couldn’t recall being in the same restaurant as Andrew or anything like that, but he’d shown up at a few work events with a date. He’d gotten some stares when the penny had dropped that he’d brought a significant other, not a friend, but he’d learned to shrug them off. “When was that?”

Not that it mattered, since whoever it was didn’t feature in his life now, but it was nice to be talking, the sand hot beneath him, Andrew close enough to touch.

Andrew looked uneasy, which was weird. “Four or five months ago. I wasn’t spying on you. I was just in my car in the underground parking lot at work, you know, waiting for someone, and you came by with this man. Your boyfriend. He, uh, wanted you to… Well, I think you went off to a hotel in the end.”

Sean frowned, trying to match a date and a face to Andrew’s sketchy description. “I don’t—oh God, yes, I do! Luke. Yeah. He was pissed as hell because I couldn’t do something, go somewhere…”

“Did he stay that way?” Andrew sounded too studiously casual to be convincing.

“After I fucked him, you mean? No, but we broke up a week later. Sorry. No happy ending.” He hesitated, but what difference did it make? “That was four months ago, and there hasn’t been anyone since. One hell of a dry spell, but work’s been crazy.”

For a moment, he could almost pretend they were chatting over coffee at Starbucks or standing by the water cooler in the office. Jesus, he’d be asking Andrew about a file or a client next.

Even in paradise—or hell—the mundane world wasn’t far away.

“We’re kind of polar opposites,” Andrew mused. At Sean’s look, he explained, “I mean, if I go four days without sex, that’s a dry spell. When all you’re looking for is the chance to get off, it’s not hard to find someone to oblige.”

Sean considered the idea. “Someone shallow.” He was aware this could come across as criticism, but he didn’t mean it that way.

“Yeah, but if you’re shallow too…” Andrew rolled onto his back again, shading his eyes with an arm. “Wow, thanks for this scintillating conversation. Now I feel awesome.”

“How about me? Now I know why you blew me yesterday. Desperation. Or force of habit.”

“What?” Andrew jerked his head around, his eyes startled. “No! Shit, nothing like that. You’re not…you’re different. I know you.”

“Not seeing that it matters much.”

“Mostly, I use a fake name,” Andrew told him. “Not always—hell, sometimes they don’t even ask and neither do I. You know me. When we get back—if we get back—you could…”

Sean filled in the blanks. “Out you? You know I never would. We’ve had this conversation.”

“Yeah.” Andrew gave him a forced smile. “Besides, yesterday, you got off, not me. That’s a first as well.”

“I don’t mind bringing some rain into your life.” He didn’t mind at all.

“Cool, but not really the point. What is it about me? That pisses you off?” Andrew seemed genuinely curious.

“I went to school with you.” Sean waved his hand impatiently—or as impatient as he could get lolling on a tropical beach, the air around him heavy as syrup with heat. “No, not literally, just guys like you. Smug, secure… You knew everything I had to learn, were born knowing it, and I resented the hell out of how stupid it all was. When they found out I was gay—when I told them—they thought it was one more weapon, but I never let them use that against me. Ever. You—”

“They.” Andrew moved closer, rolling so their faces were inches apart. “Not me. Them.”

“You’d have been just like them.” Hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice—equally hard to let it linger with Andrew’s hazel eyes so full of sympathy.

“Maybe. Possibly. But underneath, I’d have been watching you and wishing I had your guts. Wishing I could find you alone in a classroom one day and maybe, just maybe, do this…”

The kiss was sweet enough to have been from a younger Andrew. Sean could picture him, hesitant, nervous, aroused; brave enough for that single kiss, no more.

It lit a spark in him, imagining a tentative, virgin Andrew. How amazing would it have been to be the first man to push inside him, breaching untouched territory? Andrew would have been so eager for it, gasping, maybe coming before he could even be properly fucked. Sean reached out and cupped present-day Andrew’s chin and kissed him again, the way he would have kissed someone who was new at this, still figuring out how to turn his head and part his lips.

“I would have wanted you,” Andrew whispered. He was squinting because the sun was bright, and the stubble on his face was glinting gold. “Not as much as I do now, though.”

Sean kissed him fiercely, pushing him back onto the sand and licking inside his mouth, tasting salt. Andrew pressed against him, arching, moaning.

“Want me?” Sean asked.

“You have no idea.” Andrew’s voice was shaky.

“I kind of do.” His cock was rigid, the swift rush and fill leaving him light-headed. “Can’t you tell?”

“Not just because I’m the only man available?” God, Andrew was hot with that uncertainty showing through the cracks. Vulnerability left Sean melted, gentled him—which was why he never dated anyone who wasn’t basically as selfish and cocky as he’d always assumed Andrew was.

“Not just because you can’t go more than a week without sex?” Sean countered, wondering if he could trust Andrew’s answer. Wondering if it mattered when Andrew’s erection was there as proof he wanted Sean.

Andrew shook his head, his gaze locked on to Sean’s face.

“Yeah, me neither.” Did that make sense? Andrew smiled up at him, so maybe it did.

“Good. Kiss me again.”

Sean didn’t need more prompting than that. Andrew was so easy to kiss, willing and warm in his arms. With their eyes closed, they could have been on the beach at any resort instead of where they were, isolated, alone. Right then, Sean liked that they were alone. If someone had told him even a week ago that he’d enjoy Andrew’s company, he would have laughed.

“I want to touch you,” Andrew said, rubbing Sean’s erection through his pants. “Without these. Just bare skin.”

“Yeah. Do it.” Sean groaned when Andrew’s hand closed around him. “Christ, sand.”

“I know. Sorry. It’s everywhere.”

They weren’t wearing much, so stripping down didn’t take long. Letting go of Andrew still wasn’t easy. They arranged their clothing to cover as much of the sand as possible, picking a spot a few yards away in the shade of a coconut tree. Shafts of sunlight pierced the gaps between the leaves high overhead, dappling Andrew’s tanned skin with darker gold.

“There’s no one here,” Andrew said in a whisper, as if he could still be overheard. “No one. I’ve never been somewhere so isolated. Even in the woods, you could always hear cars, other people… It’s just us.”

“Yeah.” Sean licked across Andrew’s nipple. More salt, hot skin. He licked again and again until all he could taste was wetness, and soft flesh had become tight and hard against his tongue. “You can make all the noise you like, babe. No one’s gonna knock on the wall and tell us to keep it down. Yell for me. Scream my name.”

He got a moan, soft, imploring. Not even close. He gave the nipple he’d been licking a reproving bite, catching it between his teeth and tugging at it. That got the moan upgraded to a yelp of protest.

Sean chuckled unrepentantly. “Too hard? Sorry.”

“You won’t get me to scream that way. Try lower.” Andrew put his hand on Sean’s shoulders, making the sunburned skin sting, not that Sean cared, and pushed him farther down. Sean went with it, dragging his mouth over Andrew’s stomach, feeling smooth skin give way to a soft fuzz of hair. He nuzzled into it, seeing grains of sand bright against the fair hair. It really was everywhere. “Don’t bite me,” Andrew warned him.

“Not even if I’m gentle?” He set his teeth into the shaft of Andrew’s cock as if it were sweet corn, a sideways bite with no force behind it.

“Oh. Well, maybe. If you do it like that.” Andrew ran his fingers through Sean’s hair, which was stiff with salt and probably sticking up all over the place. “Do you like it?”

“Your dick?” Sean grinned up at him.

“Sucking cock,” Andrew said, rolling his eyes. “Some guys don’t.”

“I do. Not always, but most of the time. Are you actually starting a conversation about this with my mouth in reach of your cock?” Sean licked along Andrew’s shaft slowly.

“Seems like the perfect time to me.”

“Well, I’m getting used to the fact that soap is a distant memory for both of us, and I like salt better than sugar, so, yeah, I’m enjoying this.” Sean paused and ran his finger along Andrew’s cock. It was straight and thick, nothing out of the ordinary length-wise maybe, but he’d know it was in his ass if Andrew ever fucked him. Oh yeah. He shivered pleasurably at the thought of it.

“Stop admiring it and get back to sucking it,” Andrew suggested.

“Happy to oblige.” Sean settled down and got comfortable, his hands on the junction between Andrew’s thighs and the hollow of his hip, where the skin was sensitive enough to respond to the slightest of touches. He intended to make this a blowjob to remember, spurred on by the competitiveness even his new liking for Andrew couldn’t entirely obliterate.

There was a fine line between teasing and driving someone crazy, and it could be hard to find. Andrew was easier to read than most—he didn’t hold anything back, didn’t stay still like he expected to be worshipped, and didn’t fuck Sean’s mouth like he didn’t care about anything but his pleasure. He shifted, sighed, caressed Sean’s hair and the back of his neck, murmured encouragement. When Sean found a particularly sensitive spot, he gasped. “Fuck, yeah. Right there, that’s—”

Sean moved his attention to Andrew’s balls, licking the crinkled skin and brown hair until Andrew was moaning. God, there wasn’t a lot Sean liked as much as having this kind of control over another man, and the thought this was Andrew Carney provided an extra thrill that would be hard to top.

Andrew whimpered when Sean took him in deep, the head of Andrew’s cock nudging the back of his throat. It felt so good, solid and warm, that Sean made a sound that echoed Andrew’s.

Sean wished he had a hand free to at least touch his dick, but he could always finish himself off afterward. The way his cock felt, as taut as a guitar string, Andrew would still be catching his breath from his climax by the time he blew. Maybe he could come on Andrew, on that flat, muscular stomach, or higher, painting white across that bitten-red nipple, or higher yet, across Andrew’s gasping, panting mouth, so Andrew was left tasting him. Maybe not. It was definitely one of his kinks, especially when there was an ocean right there to clean up in afterward, but it wasn’t something everyone was into. He had a feeling stopping to ask Andrew’s opinion right then would guarantee him a no.

He felt Andrew tense, the quiet before the storm; then a sound he’d been listening to without hearing it finally penetrated his consciousness. He jerked his head up and squinted at the sky.

“You—what the fuck?” Andrew sat up and grabbed his arm. “Why did you fucking stop—oh God, I’m coming—shit.”

Sean spared him one swift, regretful glance. Andrew was doubled over, his cock wet with more than Sean’s saliva, his climax defining anticlimactic rather than the planned mind-blowing Sean had been aiming for.

He pointed at the sky as he scrambled to his feet, buying forgiveness with a single word. “Plane!”

“Jesus.” Andrew stumbled upright, fumbling for his clothes.

“Don’t bother!” Sean ran without looking back to see if Andrew had obeyed or if he was following, sprinting along the beach toward the relatively clear, sandy area where they’d laid out their signals.

It was a small plane, and it was far away, not headed in their direction. There was no chance whoever was flying it could see them; they’d be little more than specks, fleas dancing on the bleached sand. They should have created a signal fire in the hopes they’d be able to light it in time. If only they’d had flares or a mirror.

He was screaming, waving his arms, jumping up and down. He was aware of Andrew doing the same behind him, of the sunshine, hot and bright, glinting off the metal of the plane’s body, and of the sand shifting beneath his feet. “Hey! Hey!

“We’re here!” Andrew shouted, then spoke to Sean directly. “Do you think they’re looking for us?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” It looked like the seaplane they’d been in, designed to shuttle tourists to their islands or take them sightseeing. Sean supposed a plane like that could’ve been drafted into whatever rescue operation had been mounted for them; it could fly low, for one thing, but there was something about the way it was flying that looked…routine.

Before they could scream themselves hoarse or exhaust themselves in futile, pointless arm-waving, it had become a bright speck against the blue. Then it was gone.

The whole event had taken about a minute.

Sean sank to the sand, disappointment sharp and sour in his mouth.

“It didn’t see us.” The blank dismay in Andrew’s voice verged on comical. “How could it miss us? We were right here! I was waving!

Yeah, guess you’re not the center of the universe after all. As soon as he’d thought it, Sean felt a stab of shame at his pettiness. He was glad he hadn’t said it aloud. Andrew hadn’t done anything to deserve it, after all. It was just residual antipathy toward the man he’d thought Andrew was—and sheer, fucking frustration.

He couldn’t even summon the energy to throw something.

Without a word, he stood and trudged through the sand to the ocean, walking in and letting the warm water take him, the waves buffet him, until he could blame the water and nothing else for the salt taste in his mouth and the wetness on his face.

Chapter Eight

Andrew brushed sand away from the last rock in the SOS message. Every day, they woke to find their painstakingly spelled-out cries for help had been partially obscured by blown sand, rendering them illegible.

They’d been on the island for over a week now, and it was starting to feel like reality, not a bad dream.

With the discovery of their ability to make fire, their situation had improved. True, it went out often, but the embers stayed hot enough to coax it back to life using a few shreds of dry grass. Breadfruit tasted better cooked, as crab, fish, and whatever else Sean caught.

They’d spent some time cutting down branches and improving their shelter too. Whoever had left the ax behind had earned their heartfelt gratitude, though it wasn’t likely they’d ever get to express it in person. It could’ve been there for decades.

Now they had three sides and a roof. Kind of. The raft worked well as a roof, but it had a tendency to billow in the wind and act more like a parachute. They’d had a brief spat about whether it would be better as a floor than a roof. Sean had won that one, and Andrew had gotten his way over keeping his suitcase in one piece because it was a good place to keep kindling dry.

It rained most days.

They were less hungry, but they were both still losing weight at an alarming rate. Andrew figured he’d lost at least ten pounds, though his pants continued to fit. Sean wore a belt, and since Andrew hadn’t been intimately familiar with him before they’d ended up here, it was hard to say for sure if he’d lost more or less. Not that it mattered. They burned so many calories hunting for food and getting it to a state other than raw, Andrew suspected it maybe evened out in the end.

He was starting back to feed the fire when he thought he heard something. He straightened and listened, the wind blowing his hair into his eyes so they stung. He was just about to shrug and continue his walk up the beach when he heard it again, a sound like the echo of his name being called.

Jesus, maybe he was cracking up.

No, there it was a third time. He found himself moving toward the sound—it had to be Sean calling him, obviously, unless his parents had mounted a rescue party and landed on the other side of the island. That thought, ridiculous as it was, had his feet moving faster, his mind filled with images of his mother’s relieved smile and his father’s gruff hug.

“Sean!” he shouted when he’d reached the rocks Sean preferred for fishing, and he didn’t see him.

“Here! Hurry up!”

“I’m not your personal assistant,” Andrew called back, stepping around an outcrop of taller rocks and finally catching sight of Sean out in the water up to his chest. “What the fuck are you doing out there? You got something good?” He could imagine a dozen things—one of their bags from the plane caught under the waves, a big fish, or a piece of trash that might come in handy. He waded through the water toward Sean, more rough coral under his destroyed sneakers than sand, then quickened his pace when he saw Sean’s face was white with panic.

“I’m stuck.”

“What?” Andrew waded closer, cursing the way the waves were knocking him back.

“Careful, the coral’s unstable. I walked out to see if I could catch anything bigger in deeper water. It shifted under my feet.” His eyes met Andrew’s. “My foot’s caught. The tide’s coming in.”

Under circumstances like this, it was important to stay calm. Calm. Andrew told himself that without feeling that it was sinking in. “Okay, easy. Relax. We’ll get you out of here. Just hang on.”

Without waiting for a response, Andrew ducked under the surface of the water. Sean’s bare leg—he was only wearing boxers; he must have left his pants on the shore—was solid in his grip as he slid his hand toward Sean’s ankle, which was surrounded by coral. Big, heavy chunks of coral.

Andrew surfaced to draw in some deep breaths. His first impulse was to yell at Sean for being so stupid, but he had enough sense to swallow the words. They were born of fear, nothing else: fear of losing Sean, fear of being left alone, fear of failure.

No time for that now. The tide rose fast here, covering the beach in a surprisingly short time. Andrew had lost a pair of socks to the encroaching water once. Sean didn’t have much of a window when it came to getting rescued.

He gave Sean a reassuring smile. “Piece of cake.”

Sean licked at lips white with dried salt and nodded jerkily. “Yeah.”

Andrew exhaled, inhaled, filling his lungs, then dived under again. The water stung his eyes, but he ignored the small discomfort and grabbed on to a piece of coral to anchor himself while he tried to free Sean. The coral was sharp as teeth, but he ignored that too, sparing a moment to hope the thin tendrils of blood from his torn palm wouldn’t attract an unwelcome visitor.

Sean at risk of drowning was bad enough; a shark or barracuda attack would just be too fucking much. They’d gone through enough already.

The coral wouldn’t move. Andrew cleared away some loose debris, but that just allowed him to see the problem more clearly without doing anything to solve it. Sean had gotten his foot wedged, and the falling coral had become jammed against another piece, Nature’s jigsaw proving to be a perfect fit.

He surfaced, gasping, his eyes streaming—and saw the water was lapping around Sean’s shoulders now.

“If I die like this, you’d better think up a good lie to tell my parents. Something heroic.”

“Shut the fuck up.” Andrew cradled Sean’s chin in his hand and gave it a shake. “I need the ax.”

“No time to get it.”

Andrew hesitated, but Sean was right. Without a word, he plunged back under the clear, warm water and attacked the coral with a blind, purposeful ferocity. He held his breath until he thought his lungs would explode, then surfaced and gasped for air.

“Andrew—”

“Shut up.”

He dove again, really looking this time, trying to picture how it had happened. Where Sean’s weight had been—not even that much weight with the water holding him up, though more than now because there’d been less water. He must have stepped there, and the rock on the right had slid down. Fuck, they were going at this all wrong.

Resurfacing, Andrew panted for air, driving as much into his lungs and bloodstream as he could. “Take a deep breath,” he gasped. “I need you to come under.”

“What?”

“It’s like one of those Chinese finger traps. We’re pulling in the wrong—look, don’t argue with me, just do what I tell you. Now.” Andrew tugged hard at Sean’s arm, and Sean nodded. They both ducked under the water. Ruthless, not thinking about whether or how much it was hurting Sean, Andrew pushed Sean’s ankle toward the sea floor, straining until he could feel it in his upper back muscles, and finally, finally, the coral shifted, and Sean was free.

They burst to the surface.

Sean’s eyes were wild, his hair plastered to his head, water darkening it. He’d bitten on his lip hard enough to make it bleed, and his nose was running. It had to be a weird response to imminent death, because Andrew had never wanted anyone more than in that moment.

Sean. His. He’d saved him.

Fuck, it felt good to win.

He threw his head back and shouted up at the empty blue sky, a primal cry that tore at his throat and made it ache, then grinned at Sean. “We did it,” he said and took a wave in the face that reminded him of where they were.

Sean was looking at him as if he thought Andrew had lost it, but then a matching grin spread across his face. He wiped his face with a wet hand, shook his soaked hair back, and gave a scream that was more of a defiant bellow before asking, “Okay, can we take the celebrations back onto dry land?”

“You’re welcome,” Andrew said pointedly.

Sean slid his arms around Andrew, holding him close as they treaded water. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m going to say thank you really nicely later.”

“You’re shivering,” Andrew told him, already planning a wish list. “Come on.”

They made their way to shore, the incoming tide helping for once, and sat down on the first patch of dry sand they came to. “Just to catch my breath,” Sean said, but his teeth were chattering.

“Okay.” Andrew wrapped Sean in a hug and held him, rubbing his upper arms and back. “Where’d you leave the rest of your clothes? No, don’t move, I’m just asking.”

“Over near those rocks.” Sean burrowed into his embrace. “I’m fine. This is just adrenaline or something.”

“I know adrenaline,” Andrew said. “This is more like shock. You’re okay. I’ve got you.” He felt stupid hearing the words he’d just spoken out loud, but they’d felt natural. “How’s your foot? Anything broken?”

Sean shook his head. “Don’t think so. Scraped up, for sure. But I can move it.” He wiggled his foot around in illustration and lifted his face to look at Andrew. His eyes were crazy-bright; Andrew found himself holding Sean’s face between his hands. Fuck, the man was beautiful, and the thought he could have been drowned was probably making Andrew’s own eyes more than a bit crazy too.

“I wanted to yell at you before,” Andrew said. “I still might.”

“D-didn’t do it on purpose.” Okay, definitely shock. Sean’s teeth were still chattering. “That time I changed the Balderson meeting to ten and didn’t tell you—that was on purpose.”

“I knew it was you.” It had pissed him off to the point he’d snarled at his assistant, guilt making him buy her a dozen roses to apologize, but now it seemed immeasurably distant and trivial. “Don’t care. Just don’t die on me. I need you.”

“For what?” Blue eyes met his, calmer now, something in Sean’s expression making Andrew’s body go still abruptly. He covered it with a smile.

“You’re the fisherman of the team, remember? Besides, I plan to make a checkerboard in the sand and challenge you to a game later. I figure by the time we’re found, I’ll have won a year’s salary off you at least.”

“Checkers? For real? Okay. Why not.” Sean got to his feet with Andrew scrambling up too, worried in case Sean was dizzy. “For what it’s worth, if it’d been you out there—”

“Yeah?”

Sean kissed him, one of the emphatic, bruising kisses he handed out now and then that still felt tender somehow. “I wouldn’t have left you either.”

Andrew leaned his head on Sean’s shoulder and clung to him for a moment, not caring what Sean thought. Alone here, the darkness at night alive with sounds he didn’t want to hear, empty of anything remotely human—he wasn’t sure he could have handled that for long, but that wasn’t what had scared him the most.

He didn’t want to lose Sean.

And the idea he might care about another man that much terrified him.

He wasn’t supposed to want this. He couldn’t want it. His future held a house and a wife and children, his parents sitting on the sofa on Christmas morning watching their grandchildren open presents. It wasn’t possible to consider anything else, because if he did, if he let himself, he’d be so fucking depressed he didn’t know what he’d do, so he couldn’t think about that either.

This was just temporary. They were stuck here for now, but pretty soon someone would find them, and life would go back to normal, he and Sean sniping at each other in the office and constantly trying to come out on top. He wouldn’t look at Sean and see a mouth he wanted to kiss, a body he wanted to undress, and an ass he yearned to fuck. He wouldn’t see a friend but a rival. What was between them currently was an anomaly destined to end the moment a helicopter or ship turned up.

Andrew had made a life out of refusing to think about things he couldn’t have; he was an expert at it, and at that moment, he had to make a decision—to let this time be what it was and throw caution to the wind, or to refuse to allow it.

“Hey,” Sean said, meeting his gaze. “You okay?”

Andrew nodded, decision made. If this wasn’t real life, he could do whatever he wanted. He’d worry about reality when it reared its ugly head. “Yeah. I’m fine.” Leaning in, he kissed Sean with all the confusing emotion he was feeling behind it.

“You feel fine.” Sean’s hands were on Andrew’s ass when he said it, his palms curved to match its shape, touching him with a casual confidence Andrew envied. Something told him Sean wouldn’t hesitate to put his hands there if they were at a club dancing or saying good night to each other by a parked car. Sean didn’t hide, didn’t compromise. It had to have cost him at times—lost friendships, promotions, hassle from family—but Sean seemed genuinely indifferent.

It baffled Andrew. They lived in the same world, worked for the same company, but he just couldn’t imagine making the same choices as Sean. His father wasn’t homophobic, but the rules were different for Andrew, always had been. He was meant to succeed and take the legacy of the family firm onward and upward and all that traditional shit he half believed in most of the time himself. It wasn’t a bad thing to want to build something enduring.

The bite his neck got and the growing, stiffening length of Sean’s cock pressed against him told Andrew that Sean was ready to celebrate being alive, bleeding foot and bruised ankle or not, but he couldn’t give in to the arousal Sean kindled in him so easily.

He pulled free and held up his injured hands, giving Sean an apologetic grimace. “First aid for both of us? And the fire—shit, it was almost out before I came to get you!”

Sean pulled a face but shrugged. “Yeah, let’s take care of business. Priorities come first, right?”

That was so obvious, Andrew didn’t even bother to nod. By the time they had the fire going well and their scrapes rinsed clean, he no longer felt free the way he had. Depression had settled over him. What was the point of trying to pretend it would be enough to have something for a few days? He’d just be left wanting. Might as well face facts. Sean Darrow couldn’t be more than a brief blip on his radar.

“Thanks,” he said as Sean handed him the thin cotton T-shirt they’d been using as a makeshift towel. It wasn’t wet, barely even damp, but he draped it carefully over the rim of the suitcase anyway so it could dry.

“I should be thanking you.” Sean poked another stick into the fire. “You saved my life.”

Andrew wasn’t in the right frame of mind just then to be serious about it. “In some cultures, you’d owe me. Follow me around, do my laundry, cook my meals.”

Sean raised an eyebrow. “You don’t already have people to do all those things?”

“Fuck you,” Andrew said without heat. “How spoiled do you think I am?”

“Not sure you want the answer to that question.”

“I’m sure.” A slow anger was starting to burn—a familiar anger, one Sean had made him feel a hundred times before.

Sean gave him a startled look. “Hey. Calm down. I didn’t mean—”

Calm down? The hell? “Yeah, you did. God, you make me sick sometimes. It’s like you’ve got this idea we’re poles apart, and damned if I’m seeing it. You didn’t grow up on the streets, fighting for scraps. You didn’t go to sleep hungry or go to school wearing hand-me-down clothes. I’ve seen your file, and your background’s not much different from mine. Well-off parents, good schools, everything easy.” He rose, his hands tight fists, the pain from his cuts welcome because it gave him something else to blame Sean for. “Where do you get off calling me spoiled?”

“Oh, how about all the times you’ve left work early to wine and dine a client—except because it’s you, they’re always the hot women looking for a pretty boy to flirt with. Or—”

“I’m gay, asshole! How much fun do you think I was having? Pawed over by women old enough to be my mother—hell, some of them knew her!—and I had to keep smiling because it was business, when I wanted to tell them to keep their hands off me.” He drew in a quick breath, alarmed at how shaky he felt. He’d thought Sean liked him now, that they’d turned a truce into more.

“Okay, look, if I was out of line—”

“Have you ever been anything else?” Andrew hadn’t realized how bitter he was, deep down, and now he’d skimmed the surface, it scared him. He had to pull back. “Never mind. Forget it.” He stood up, unsure where he was going, only that it had to be somewhere Sean wasn’t.

“Andrew—”

“I said forget it.” A drop of water hit his arm, and he glanced up to see a new set of storm clouds rolling in. In the distance, there was the rumble of thunder. “What is it with you? Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“Because I kind of got the impression you didn’t want me to?” Sean was keeping his temper under control for the first time since they’d met. It felt like a tactic to Andrew, Sean proving he had better control over himself or something equally devious.

“That was just sex. I’d planned to have plenty of it until I got stuck with you for the trip. I figured, what the hell, you were there, available…” He couldn’t go on with his rant. Not after he’d seen the hurt, puzzled expression on Sean’s face, gone a moment later but imprinted on his memory. Andrew faltered, his words drying up, and he gave Sean a beseeching look, silently begging the man to shut him up.

Sean stood and closed the gap between them, not touching Andrew, but leaving only an inch of air between them. The air was heavy, electric, the sky darkening rapidly, more raindrops falling. The fire was going to be toast. Shit. “Just sex? Maybe I’m doing something wrong, because from my side of things, it felt like more than that. Going to let me try again? See if I can show you how I’ve been feeling every time we stop arguing and get naked?”

There was absolutely nothing Andrew could say. He stood there, barely blinking, frozen. Inside, every part of him was yearning to reach for Sean, to pull the other man into his arms and not let go. But he couldn’t move.

He studied Sean’s eyes, took in the tiny flecks of a brown close to gold in among the blue. Above them, the sky crackled and rumbled, and the wind lifted strands of Sean’s still-damp hair. He looked at Sean’s mouth, lips as chapped as his, dark pink from hours in the sun. Then up again, at Sean’s eyes.

“Tell me if you want me to stop,” Sean said and slid a hand to the back of Andrew’s neck, pulling him closer. He paused when their mouths were nearly touching, but when Andrew said nothing, kissed him.

The touch of Sean’s lips broke something inside of Andrew, and he kissed Sean back with a ferocity that was shocking. He crushed Sean’s mouth with his, bit at his lips, held him with an arm around his waist. He was groaning, desperate, shaking, and through it all, Sean held him, kissed him, told him everything was okay.

It was a lie, but Andrew needed to hear it.

He needed more than that. He needed Sean inside him, just this once. They couldn’t do it, but God, he wanted to. He rarely bent over for a man. It felt good, unless the guy was impatient, and yeah, then it could hurt, but it felt like giving up control.

Today, with the wind wild around them, guilt and longing swirling inside him, he wanted to give up everything.

Just this once.

“Let me grab the suitcase,” Sean said, his voice raised to combat the rush of the storm through the trees and the slam of the waves against the beach. “We need to get to shelter.”

With his mouth tingling from Sean’s insistent, avid kisses, his cock hard and eager, Sean’s pragmatism was the last thing Andrew wanted. But Sean didn’t release him. They stumbled up the beach to the pitiful shack they called home, the suitcase banging against Sean’s leg as they ran. It had to hurt, and he could have avoided it if he’d let go of Andrew, but he didn’t. Andrew kept his arm around Sean’s waist and concentrated on staying upright, the wet sand treacherous because each footstep sent the dry sand underneath skidding away.

The storm had come out of nowhere, something Andrew couldn’t get used to. It was such a shock to see the blue skies boil up and over, a cauldron of wind, rain, and grumbling thunder tipped out over them.

Sean kicked the suitcase toward the back of the shelter with a shove of his foot. It caught at a branch they were using as a makeshift shelf. Clothing, and a small bottle of conditioner they’d found tucked inside the suitcase, left over from a hotel stay, fell to the sand. “Damn it,” Sean muttered, because clearly they’d have to pick the clothes up if they wanted them to stay relatively dry.

“Leave them,” Andrew said, falling to his knees and grabbing the bottle. He tugged Sean down onto the sand beside him and fumbled with Sean’s boxers. “Take these off.”

The rain was coming down in earnest now, the wind making the raft ceiling above them ripple. It took more effort than it should have to strip off their clothes—Andrew ripped a button off his shirt and didn’t even care—but finally they were naked, neither of them shivering despite the way the temperature had dropped. Andrew squeezed some conditioner out into his hand and reached behind his balls to apply it.

“What are you—”

“I want you to fuck me,” Andrew said, impatient with Sean’s question. The thick, slippery liquid was cool inside his body, the shallow thrust of his finger working his arousal higher. Felt good. Sean’s cock would feel better.

Sean’s expression showed that he was on board with that idea, but he shook his head reluctantly, the gleam fading from his eyes. “We don’t have any condoms.”

“I don’t care. No, I’m serious. Don’t argue with me.” Andrew stroked Sean’s cock with his conditioner-slick hand and smiled when Sean moaned for him, deep and guttural. “I want you in me. Want your cock in me so much.”

“I’m not arguing,” Sean muttered. “Just—I wouldn’t, you know? I swear.”

Sean could have been saying anything—could have promised Andrew the Brooklyn Bridge (not that he’d want it) or the moon and stars. Andrew couldn’t even hear it, every molecule of him focused on the throb of Sean’s cock in his loose grip, the feel of the wiry hair on Sean’s thigh against his desperate erection.

“Okay. I don’t care. Just fuck me, all right?” Andrew shuddered as Sean’s fingers brushed against his hole, testing how well lubed he was.

Behind him now, Sean put a hand between Andrew’s shoulder blades and pushed, bringing Andrew to his hands and knees, two fingers of Sean’s other hand working Andrew open. “You sure? Tell me you’re sure.”

It was said with more emphasis than Andrew would have expected, and the thought flashed through his brain that maybe Sean had an issue there. Then the thought was gone because he could feel the rounded tip of Sean’s cock rubbing against him right where he needed it. “I’m sure. I’m sure, God…”

He’d barely finished speaking when Sean’s cock took him, an invasion of hot, hard flesh that felt shockingly good. He was used to careful, timid pushes or brutally fast thrusts that hurt too much to enjoy. Sean found the middle ground without searching for it, sinking deep with a series of gradually deepening strokes, showing no hesitation. For once, Sean’s competence and confidence didn’t grate, because they served Andrew too well to resent. In a short time, he had just what he wanted: Sean’s thick cock inside him, filling him, taking away the emptiness.

“God, feels so different…” Sean stroked Andrew’s side like a rider gentling a skittish horse. “You okay?”

Andrew nodded, too lost in sensation to want to form words. Fucking bareback did feel strange. Andrew didn’t miss the slick latex at all, though a small part of him was screaming about the risks. He silenced it easily, impatiently. What did it matter? They weren’t going to get rescued or it would’ve happened by now. If they were stranded here, there was no way they’d get by without fucking, so it might as well happen now, with the rain pounding and the sky dark. Tempests and fury had formed the background to their relationship from day one, and it seemed fitting the first time they fucked would be with a tropical storm raging overhead.

He did wish that they had lube. He enjoyed having his balls fondled with a slippery hand, his cock gripped and played with as he was taken. He never had any trouble asking for what he wanted, but he didn’t bother to tell Sean what he liked.

He wanted to see if Sean would work it out or come up with something new and better.

Sean settled both hands at Andrew’s hips and eased out a few inches, then pushed forward again. The angle was good; his prostate was getting enough contact to feel great without it being too much. For all Andrew knew, this might be his last fuck ever. Maybe the storm would send trees crashing down to crush them both, their bodies unfound for years, until there was nothing left to discover but time-bleached bones.

“Go slow,” he said. He wanted this to last.

He could feel Sean’s lips against his back, Sean’s rough, unshaven jaw scraping his skin. Jesus, Sean’s dick was huge inside him, but Sean was doing a better job thrusting slowly than he probably would have been able to manage. His ass was stretched to the limit around the thick root of Sean’s cock, and he shivered when Sean’s right hand slid up along his side to find his nipple. “This okay?” Sean asked.

Above them, thunder crashed. Andrew wasn’t sure Sean would be able to hear his answer, so he answered with his body instead, shifting back to drive Sean’s cock deeper. His cock was straining for something to rub against.

Sean’s hand raked down Andrew’s chest and stomach, then slowed, his fingers brushing lightly against Andrew’s cock. Sweat broke out on his forehead and down his back, a prickle of it, as maddening as that teasing caress. He cried out, inarticulate, protesting, and lunged forward, willing to risk losing Sean’s cock if it meant he could get the firm, tight clasp of Sean’s fingers instead.

Except he wanted both, dammit.

Sean moved with him, as if he’d anticipated Andrew’s reaction, and Andrew could have sworn he heard a satisfied grunt. He didn’t care. Let Sean think he’d won something. He still had Sean’s dick deep inside him, and the tips of Sean’s fingers were exploring his cock and balls with a rough, intimate familiarity. He was the winner here. Sean fondled him, still teasing, still making Andrew rut and fuck against Sean’s hand to get the friction he craved. He’d never felt this desperate, this ready to beg.

“Love how much you want me,” Sean said into his ear, the whispered words bell-clear even through the ceaseless drumming of the rain. “Wish I had my mouth on you too. Maybe next time. I can be really fucking flexible. I could put you on your back, get inside you, bend over and lick your cock, feel it get harder for me.”

The image Sean created seared his mind even as a lightning bolt lit up their tent. Andrew moaned out something that didn’t try to be words, then grabbed Sean’s wrist, holding it still. He needed more. Had to have it. Sean’s hand closed in a fist, and he bit down on Andrew’s shoulder.

“No.”

Andrew whined and tried to move, but Sean had gravity on his side. “Please,” he gasped and clenched his ass around Sean’s cock.

Sean growled and bit Andrew’s shoulder harder, the pain a bright, hot arrow buried deep into flesh.

“Please.” Andrew was trembling, the pitch of his arousal so high he could hardly begin to imagine what it would feel like to come. He’d never wanted anything so much. His dick gave a heavy, agonizing jolt in Sean’s grip, and a cry escaped him. Maybe he didn’t need anything more than this to come; he was already so close to the edge. So close. He clenched his ass again, flexed his hips the little he could, then said it again.

“Want to hear you scream for me,” Sean said, his voice thick with lust, shaking the way Andrew was. He could taste how much Sean wanted him, rich and heavy in his mouth like spunk, and he licked his lips without thinking, getting only water and salt.

The whole island tasted of salt.

“Make me,” he managed to say, delirious with need. “You want it? Make me, Sean. Make me fucking scream for you.”

It was supposed to have been a challenge, as defiant as he could get with his balls drawn up tight and his ass pliant, yielding, wide open for Sean, for every slamming, perfect, thrust—if only Sean would move. It turned out to have an unspoken please tacked onto the end, the word echoing in Andrew’s head, then fading to quiet.

Sean growled at him, and the bite mark on Andrew’s shoulder throbbed as Sean’s teeth worried at it again before he licked across the sting.

Sean fucked him then, pulling out to the point where Andrew had to hold still in case he lost that final inch, then sliding home again, snapping his hips so Andrew had to take Sean’s cock in one smooth, forceful shove. Over and over, until he couldn’t remember how to breathe and sob out Sean’s name at the same time, his heart beating in his chest in a wild, painful thud. His throat was raw, and he felt alive, aware of every part of him.

Sean’s fist relaxed, forming a channel for Andrew’s aching cock to slide through, enough lotion left on his palm and fingers to make it work. Right then, Sean’s hand could have been sandpaper dry, and Andrew would still have used it.

Use it he did. He was furious—at Sean for taking control, at himself for wanting it, at his traitorous body for finding Sean so stupidly attractive. Fuck, he was pissed off at the universe for having put him on this island in the first place. Now he was trapped; either they were stuck here with nothing but each other, trying to stay alive, or they got rescued and he had to figure out a way to go back to his old life. It was a double-edged sword, and the reality of that and the fact he had no choice in the matter, had to accept he’d be cut either way, was as devastating as his release when it finally came.

To call the sound ripped from him a scream was generous. There wasn’t enough air in his lungs for that. It ended up a brief shout and a series of convulsive sobs that became almost silent, his throat dry despite the deluge coming down all around them.

Behind him, Sean took three more fast, rough lunges to come, the last one leaving his cock buried deep inside Andrew’s hole, pumping out spunk, a sensation too new to Andrew to be ignored. Heat, wetness, an openmouthed gasp and groan, and a moment later, a kiss on the back of his neck…

Sean was over him, shielding him, covering him. It was comforting, then abruptly unendurable. He couldn’t breathe

He felt Sean touch him, a light touch on his arm with a hand slippery with more than lotion, and let himself be rolled to his side, Sean still possessing him. He lay cradled in the curve of Sean’s arms and legs, held against the strength that had conquered him, and stared out at the side of the shelter, where the branches they’d laboriously buried in sand and stones were creaking and swaying.

He was so fucked.

Sean pulled out of him slowly, an agonizing retreat that left Andrew biting his lip as his body lost what had been placed inside it, fluid trickling out of his hole, messy, warm.

Sean wiped him down with something that had buttons on it. They pressed against tender skin, cool circles, small, perfect circles.

Andrew felt numb. He’d asked for it, he’d begged and mewled and cried out for it, and he’d loved it, but now it was over.

He said it aloud, needing to hear it spoken. “It’s over.”

“That’s what happens after you both come.” Sean was joking, happy, his voice a husky drawl, smoky with sex. Andrew’s stomach twisted in misery.

“I mean this. Between us, whatever it was. Was. Past tense.”

Sean lay back, one arm tucked under his head, and regarded Andrew thoughtfully, like he still thought this was a strange attempt at humor. “Where are you going with this?”

“Nowhere. Nowhere with you.” Andrew swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I can’t, okay? There’s no point in talking about it or whatever.” He couldn’t look at Sean’s face. “It’s over. It has to be.”

“No one gets to decide that except you and me.” Sean reached out and touched Andrew’s hand. “What do you want?”

Andrew found himself lifting Sean’s hand to his mouth, kissing Sean’s knuckles. “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“It doesn’t if we’re talking about magically finding a way off the island, or a huge plate of ribs appearing, but you, me, that you’ve got some say over.”

“I’m supposed to be the future of the company. The provider of grandchildren. The… I’m not supposed to be gay, okay? It’s fine for the rest of the world. Oh yeah, sure it is. We’re all so very fucking tolerant and nice in my family, but not for me. Don’t you get that? Not when it’s me.”

Sean didn’t say anything for the longest time. Long enough that Andrew began to hope the message had been received and understood, over and out.

He should’ve remembered Sean Darrow never made anything easy for him.

“Fine; when we get off this island, you can go back to being straight.” Sean paused and dragged the back of his hand over Andrew’s stomach. His muscles contracted sharply at the ripple of sensation, his limp, exhausted cock managing a flicker of interest. “Except, wait, no, you’ve never been that. Okay, you can go back to pretending because of whatever bullshit reason you’ve convinced yourself is the truth. Until we get rescued, though, your ass is mine, buddy, and you can try saying no all you want, but after what we just did, good luck persuading me you mean it. And for the record, I owe you a fuck, and feel free to collect anytime you want it. Now, unless the roof blows off, I’m going to sleep. Anything else you want to share I won’t listen to?”

Andrew shook his head, suddenly deflated. He was getting cold now. The warmth created by their exercise was wearing off, so he pulled on some clothes—not clean, but mostly dry. Sean followed his example, tugging on some pants and a T-shirt.

“Come here,” Sean said gently. He gestured for Andrew to lie down with him, and after a moment, Andrew did. Sean’s chest made a surprisingly comfortable pillow, and his arm came around Andrew’s shoulder and pulled him close.

“It’s not that I don’t want—” Andrew tried but had to give up explaining what, for Sean, probably made no sense at all.

“I know. Don’t worry about it right now. Just try to get some sleep.”

All around them, the storm raged, rain being driven by the wind. Droplets hitting the roof sounded like bullets, and Andrew clung to Sean, eyes closed. Part of him hoped they’d die during the night, and he’d never have to deal with any of this. If anything, that made him hold on to Sean even more tightly, one leg thrown over Sean’s.

He was still clutching Sean when he fell asleep.

Chapter Nine

The first thing Sean was aware of was someone nudging him, his dreams shredded to insubstantial fragments between one breath and the next as he woke.

“Sir! Wake up!”

Andrew was pretty unlikely to be calling him “sir,” and in any case, there was a shadow falling over him. What the fuck?

He opened his eyes grudgingly, confusion making him sluggish, and grunted in shock when he saw a stranger leaning over him. Andrew stirred and sat up beside him, his eyes bleary and his mouth slack with surprise. “Huh? Who the hell are you?”

“I am Zahir Onmar. We are looking for Mr. Sean Darrow and Mr. Andrew Carney. Is that you?” It was a man wearing a jacket that was like a uniform, big sunglasses, and a hopeful smile.

Sean blinked up at him, adjusting slowly to a strange voice, a new face. The man’s accent reminded him sharply of their pilot’s, and memories of the crash flooded his head, making his reply sharper than the man had probably expected.

“Who the fuck else would we be? And what took you so long?”

Zahir’s expression changed, a frown creasing his forehead. “Until yesterday, we thought you had died in the crash. We searched the immediate area, but…”

“What happened yesterday?” Andrew sounded totally composed, as if he hadn’t been found partly dressed, sleeping snuggled up to a man. Andrew smothered a yawn with his hand and then smiled apologetically. “Sorry, we’re just… It’s been a hell of an experience, you know?” Sean knew this Andrew: armored, polite, outwardly warm, though it was a thin layer of affability at best.

Zahir smiled, charmed as everyone was by Andrew. “Your pilot was found in a fishing hut, delirious but alive. He’d made his way to shore, clinging to a piece of flotsam, then passed out, suffering from dehydration and exposure. He’s recovering in the hospital, and he told us enough to get the search underway again.” He cleared his throat. “I understand your families were adamant it not be abandoned, but we have few resources. The plane was lost far out to sea in a severe storm… I’m sure you understand?”

“No, but you’re here now, and I’m sure the lawyers will deal with the details.” Sean knew he was behaving badly, but he hated being surprised, and his wake-up call definitely qualified as one.

“I speak for everyone when I say we are beyond grateful to have found you. Is either of you hurt? We would prefer, of course, to return you to your resort as quickly as possible.” Zahir gestured toward the sea. “We are radioing ahead to let them and your families know that you’ve been found.”

“Great,” Andrew said with a sarcastic inflection replacing the charm. “Sounds like you’ve got everything under control. Let’s get the hell off this rock.”

“Of course.” Zahir’s English was excellent, but it was clear he was puzzled by the discrepancy between Andrew’s words and his tone. “If there is anything you’d like to take…”

“No, thanks.” Andrew pulled pants on over his boxers and within a minute was headed down the beach, where Sean could see a helicopter waiting on the sand. He’d heard it in his dreams, he realized now, that deep, heavy thrum of engines and rotor blades alien enough to reach him even in his exhausted state. “Come on, Darrow,” Andrew called back. “Chop-chop.” He sounded like the asshole Sean remembered, strutting across coral and hard-packed sand like some barefoot, fairy-tale prince.

“Nothing at all?” Zahir asked.

Sean took a quick glance around and didn’t see anything he couldn’t live without. Holy shit, they were going to live! There’d be hot showers and hot meals and all the coffee he could drink, and suddenly he couldn’t wait to call his parents, hear their voices on the other end of the line. “Did I mention how good it is to see you gentlemen?” he asked brightly and patted Zahir’s shoulder.

“No,” Zahir said drily, “but I’ll take it as a given.” He gestured around at the shelter, which looked even more pathetic than usual after the storm, and smiled. “This island has few amenities. You will be eager to leave.”

It had Andrew. Sean didn’t let any trace of his regrets show on his face. The time they’d spent here—eight days, nine? He’d lost count—had certainly contained some high spots, but he had no desire to linger.

He was a few yards from the shelter when something occurred to him. With a gesture, he waved Zahir on, then walked back to the lopsided dwelling that the next storm would destroy.

The small bottle of conditioner was under a damp shirt, the lid off, but some of the contents still inside. He found the lid, screwed it on tightly, then sniffed his fingers. The conditioner was scented with lavender, the perfume out of place here, homely, quaint. He closed his eyes, remembering the tight clench of Andrew’s body around his cock, the sounds Andrew had made… Fuck. He tucked the bottle into the pocket of his pants and, unwilling to leave the place a mess, gathered the scattered clothing and put it inside Andrew’s battered suitcase, after tipping out the kindling.

He stopped on the beach long enough to sink the ax into a log they’d used as a seat, then climbed into the chopper. When the helicopter took off, he saw the sun glint off the ax; then sand stirred up by their take-off buried it.

Andrew was talking to the pilot, his back turned to Sean and the island. He was already slipping away from Sean, like none of this had ever happened. There’d be stories at the office for years, of course, in which Andrew painted himself a hero and everyone bowed at his feet. The thought of it turned Sean’s stomach, and he stayed silent for most of the flight.

They were met at the helicopter pad by a representative of the resort, who was waiting with other employees, including one who had a wheelchair at the ready.

“We were told you didn’t require this, but I wanted to be on the safe side.” The resort rep was an older woman with streaks of gray through her hair. “There is a doctor standing by to speak with you about your health.”

“I think we’re okay,” Andrew said, shaking her hand respectfully. “We’re tough. Give us twenty-four hours of sleep, some food, and a hot shower, and we’ll be as good as new.”

Before Sean had a chance to grasp what was happening, he found himself being whisked past reception and settled into what had to be one of the nicest suites in the resort, if the view was any indication. A tall young man delivered a tray with a selection of fruit, bread, and cheeses and placed it next to an ice bucket filled with an assortment of bottled water.

“And the room-service menu.” The menu was pressed into Sean’s hand.

“Thank you,” Sean said.

“There are some clothes in the wardrobe,” the resort rep told him. “Personal hygiene products in the bathroom, and whatever you need is just a phone call away. Please don’t hesitate. Ah, here is the doctor.”

“I don’t need—” Sean sighed impatiently, then pasted a smile on his face as the doctor entered. As a businessman, he could appreciate why the resort wanted a doctor—presumably one in their pay—to check them both over. If they did sue, it would all be relevant. Andrew’s elbow would definitely need attention. He’d refused to mention the injury after the first few days, but Sean had seen him wince and cradle it to his chest now and then when he’d done too much with it.

“Quite an adventure! I’m Doctor Ali.” Short, brisk, smiling—and impossible to get rid of, Sean guessed, for all the surface courtesy.

“Sean Darrow. I’m fine. Dirty, hungry, and I never want to eat coconut or raw fish again, but other than that…”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure.” Doctor Ali set a medical bag down on the table and drew out a blood-pressure cuff. “If you’ll allow me…”

Sean gave the bathroom a longing look. Hot water. He was starving, but it was the thought of a shower that called out to him most. With a scowl, he extended his arm and let himself be given a brief but thorough check-over.

“You’re in good shape, all things considered.”

“I know.”

“I’ll leave you some tablets for diarrhea. You might find your system reacting badly to too much food, so it’s as well to be prepared. Stick to bottled water—but you know that.”

“Thanks. Now, if you don’t mind…” Sean plucked at his filthy T-shirt. “I need to get cleaned up. Do they sell clothing here? They said there was some in the closet, but I lost everything. I’m going to need to replace it.”

“Oh my goodness, yes! Beautiful clothing. There are many fine stores in the resort and some right here in the hotel.”

It occurred to Sean he had no money. His wallet had been lost when he bailed out of the plane.

“Just charge it to your room until you arrange your finances,” the doctor said as if he guessed Sean’s thoughts, and finally stood and moved toward the door. “Now I must visit your friend.”

Sean smiled at him, a thin grimace of a smile. “Not a friend. Just a coworker. And don’t let him tell you he’s fine. He dislocated his elbow.”

The doctor bit his lip. “Ah. I wasn’t aware—”

“You should see him now,” Sean said and ushered the man out of the room, making sure to put up the Do Not Disturb sign.

The carpet felt soft and strange against his bare feet after so long walking on sand. He stood at the window looking out at the scenery—a slice of paradise, though after the island it seemed busy and crowded, people everywhere, small boats bobbing on the blue water. His room had a large balcony, but he didn’t venture out onto it. After staring down at the pool and the bodies sunning themselves around it, cool drinks never out of reach, he headed for the bathroom, shedding his clothing as he went.

It started out as the world’s hottest shower, and he had to shampoo his hair four times before it felt clean. In the long run, he had to eke the temperature control more and more toward cold. When he stepped out onto the bath mat and wrapped himself in towels, he was weak, almost light-headed. He lay down on the bed for a minute to get his bearings, then closed his eyes and fell promptly asleep.

Sean opened his eyes hours later and blinked at the ceiling, unable to remember where he was at first. It came flooding back slowly, helped by the steady, peaceful whir of the ceiling fan that told him he was back in civilization. He didn’t want to get up, but he did, the growling of his stomach leading him to the tray of food, where he scarfed down at least half a pound of cheese along with some fresh pineapple. It tasted amazing, and he was tempted to follow it with another nap, but the room seemed too quiet. He wanted to be around people.

He dressed in what had been left for him, wandered down to the lobby, aware people were watching him, and out to the beach. There was a small shack that supplied clean towels and took used ones, and a collection of beach chairs not too far from the water. There were a few children in the waves, splashing around, and some adults sitting on towels or chairs. Sean felt out of sorts, wanting people nearby but also not particularly wanting to talk to any of them. He sat on an empty chair and watched the waves roll in.

He should call home. His parents had been notified he’d been found—like Andrew’s, they’d been gearing up to fly out and deal firsthand with the authorities after discovering the search had been called off—but they’d want to hear from him. The hotel had Wi-Fi and a room where computers could be rented by the hour. He could Skype them, let them see for themselves he was fine… Then he needed to get his assistant, Lorna, to deal with the hassle of canceling and replacing his passport and all his cards: credit cards, driver’s license, memberships to clubs and gyms—all the clutter a man like him built up. She had the details on hand in case he lost his wallet on a business trip, so it wouldn’t take long.

He wondered idly if she’d grieved for him or not. They got along well enough and made an efficient team, but they didn't socialize much. He’d change that when he got back. Make her see that he appreciated her.

He’d also been warned that once word leaked out, they’d be besieged by reporters. Sean didn’t intend to talk to them unless he had to. If their pilot Mohamed wanted to capitalize on the crash, Sean didn’t care, but the story of his brush with death wasn’t for sale.

“Thought you would’ve had enough of the ocean.”

He looked up. The sun was behind Andrew, and his face was in shadow. He was clean, wearing a crisp, pale-blue shirt with short sleeves and navy Bermuda shorts, elegantly casual. The preppy look. His injured arm was in a neat sling Sean bet would be taken off as soon as Andrew was back in his room.

He gestured at the sling. “Going for the sympathy fuck?”

“Whatever gets me laid,” Andrew said. It wasn’t too different from things Sean had heard him say in more casual office meetings, and it was delivered with the same breezy, über-confident tone that had always driven Sean crazy. “What about you? Gonna take advantage of some poor guy who thinks you’re some kind of movie-star hero?”

Sean looked at him in disbelief. “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Just erase the past week or more like it never happened?”

Rolling his eyes, Andrew sighed. “Wouldn’t it be easier for both of us to pretend it didn’t?”

“Since when did either of us go for easy?” Sean asked, his voice flat. “Listen, I’ve still got whiplash from what we’ve gone through—glad we’re here, not there, sure, but it’s going to take a while to adjust to not taking a shit in the sand and needing to remember to put pants on in the morning.”

He didn’t lower his voice, which meant he got a weird look from a middle-aged woman a few yards away.

Andrew snorted, a grin replacing the world-weary expression. “Unless you want to get thrown out of the hotel, I’d figure both of those out fast.”

“Working on it.” Sean stood and met Andrew’s gaze. “We need to talk before we call home—or did you do that already?”

Andrew shook his head, his tongue slipping out to moisten his lower lip. “No. I was going to. I just—I needed to decompress.”

“Yeah, me too. So, your room or mine?”

Did he have ulterior motives? Hell, yes. His room had a king-size bed, wide enough to put all sorts of ideas into his head. The supplies in his bathroom had run more to soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and the like—the taste of mint had almost brought tears to his eyes—but he’d seen a pharmacy in the row of stores that formed part of the small shopping area of the hotel. He’d put money on them stocking just what he needed.

He wasn’t lying, though. They needed to present a united front. They could refuse to talk to the press, but their parents…not so much. And when Andrew’s dad was also Sean’s boss, well, it was even more important to get things lined up.

“Mine,” Andrew said with enough confidence Sean decided it was easier to go along with it. Besides, he was the one who’d asked.

“Lead the way.”

Andrew’s suite was similar to his but one floor above. That probably meant he rated higher on the importance scale. No surprise. Anyone could see it. Plus Andrew’s father had probably put up one hell of a fuss, throwing his weight around.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Andrew said, gesturing at the chair near the desk, where the phone was sitting.

“Thanks.” Sean sat and read the directions on how to make outgoing calls. Then he leaned back and swiveled the chair so he could look at Andrew, who had sat on the neatly made bed. “So…how do we want to play this? We ought to get our stories straight before people start asking questions.”

“I think we should just focus on the facts.” Andrew rubbed his face with his good hand; he looked exhausted now there was no one around to impress. “We used the life raft to get to the island, figured out how to fish and start a fire, and waited for someone to find us.”

“Fine as far as it goes, but what about the details? I don’t want to take away your moment in the sun as a hero, but my mom’s going to freak out if she hears about the whole foot stuck, tide coming in thing. I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t turn up here to make sure I’m okay.”

“So we don’t mention it.” To do him credit, Andrew didn’t seem overly bothered. “It wasn’t a big deal. You’d have done the same for me, and you were the one in danger, after all.”

“You didn’t give up on me,” Sean said, his throat tight as he remembered the panic he’d felt at being trapped, the utter despair that, as on the plane, he couldn’t move. “You got me out of the plane, and you got my foot free from the rock. That’s twice. Do it again and I’ll start thinking you’re my guardian angel or something.”

“As far from it as it gets, trust me.”

“Yeah, well.” Sean hesitated. He didn’t need to ask about whether they were keeping quiet about what had happened between them. Andrew looked like a man visibly rewriting history as far as that went. He was straight, always had been, always would be, and nothing whatever had happened on a beach, in a makeshift shelter, or by the edge of the water when they’d found themselves kissing, hands busy, their breath the loudest sound in the unbroken peace. “There’s the legal side of it.”

“Oh. That.” Andrew shrugged. “If we wanted to sue, we’d have a case, I guess. The pilot should’ve waited to take off with that storm coming in.”

“You don’t sound interested.”

“Are you?”

Sean considered it. He didn’t need the money, the hassle, or the publicity. He’d lost a few thousand dollars’ worth of clothing and such, and he’d need to replace it. Not a big deal.

“No. The hotel can comp the rest of our stay, and we’ll call it quits as far as I’m concerned. They’ll probably want us to sign something, though.”

“Well, we’re here through the company in a way; let our lawyers deal with that. They’ll want us to sue—more work for them—but if we’re in agreement…” Andrew yawned. “Sorry. Can’t keep my eyes open. Is that it?”

“One more thing.” Sean saw the flash of alarm in Andrew’s face. Oh yeah, he had a weapon to use if he wanted to. Not that he did. He fought fair. Usually. “We’re staying, right? There’s another four days left, and I’m damned if I’m leaving without doing some of what I paid for. Plus, it'll take them a few days to issue our new passports.”

Andrew grinned. “Dad’s going to rip you a new one over that check, you know. Yeah, sure, I’m staying. Easiest all around to just use the booked seats to fly home, and we’ve earned a break, even if it’s shorter than we’d planned.”

“Okay. Good.” Sean was relieved, because if Andrew had decided to leave, he would have been in a shitty position—either stay and risk having Harris Carney mad at him, or call it quits and be mad at himself. They were both bad options.

“So, let’s get it over with,” he said. “Toss for who goes first?”

“You could always go back to your room to make your call. I don’t need a babysitter, and I don’t plan on being yours.”

The rebuff left Sean’s face hot with embarrassment. He’d never been accused of being the clinging sort, but he admitted after all that time spent with Andrew usually no more than a few yards away, he was reluctant to put space between them. It didn’t help there was a bed, a huge, clean, inviting, fucking bed right there, and that scrubbed clean, a few scrapes and bruises showing, Andrew was making him want to touch. More than touch.

Twelve hours ago, they’d been wrapped around each other, Sean’s arms tight around Andrew, his body warm and lax from coming hard enough to downgrade a dozen encounters he’d thought had been great sex to merely mediocre.

Now, he was getting a cool stare, a blankly unwelcoming mask. What was it they said in the army?

Situation normal, all fucked up.

Yeah. That just about covered it.

He stood and forced himself not to even glance at the bed. “Some people would say what we went through was life-changing—and no, I’m not talking about the sex. You, though… Nothing sticks; nothing dents you. You’re like a diamond, Carney. Cold, hard, and women love you. Pity you’ve got nothing to offer them but some cheap sparkle and flash with no heart.”

“Lucky you,” Andrew said. “You only have to deal with me at work. Think how much worse it could be if we were in a relationship.” It seemed like an odd place to end a conversation, but he’d already walked over to the door and was holding it open for Sean, so Sean stepped out into the hallway, careful not to so much as brush against Andrew on his way.

He walked back down the hallway to the elevator, wondering what had just happened. Maybe this was the real Andrew—maybe the Andrew he’d spent so much time with on that island had been on-the-edge Andrew, a man barely able to see his life passing before his eyes as he blinked.

Sean didn’t think that was the case, though. He just needed to figure out how to get to the real Andrew again.

First, though, he was going to call his parents.

His mother cried during their conversation, to the point where she had to give the phone to his father. “Hey, son,” his dad said. “Your mom’s okay. She’s just happy to hear your voice. You’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” Sean assured him. “A few scratches, a couple of bruises. Actually, most of the bruises are almost gone now.”

“We thought the worst, you know,” his dad said.

“I don’t blame you. We were missing a long time.”

The we seemed to remind his father that Sean hadn’t been alone. “And Andrew Carney’s all right too?”

“There were times I was tempted to punch him, but I resisted,” Sean said lightly. Andrew had been the topic of many conversations they’d had, so his dad was well aware there’d been bad blood between them.

“Good. You like your job too much to blow it,” his dad said.

“Sometimes, punching him and losing it felt like a good deal.”

“I know you better than that. I brought you up better than that. You let someone push you into losing your temper, and you’ve lost the fight already.”

And what life lessons Ricky Darrow had missed, his wife Diane had caught. Sean had never doubted he was loved or that he came of parents who’d made something of themselves, proving it could be done. He was still expected to do better than his dad. Ricky had parlayed a winning scratch card bought on his eighteenth birthday as a whim into a stake in his uncle’s car dealership.

“I was heading nowhere but down,” his dad had told Sean once, a glass of cognac in his hand, his feet propped up on the battered desk that looked so incongruous in the designer-decorated study of their large home. “Winning that fifty grand gave me a ladder. I could’ve used it to go deeper, blown it on a flashy car, a few wild months of partying, but I showed some sense for once. Never kick a ladder aside, Sean. And make sure you use it to go higher.”

He’d climbed too high at times and discovered family money made by selling cars from lots scattered across Chicago, didn’t count, according to his classmates in the private schools he was sent to. Oh, it spent the same way as old money, but it didn’t give Sean any standing.

Like he fucking cared. He’d hit back when they tried to bully him, thrown the fact he was gay in their faces as if it was a weapon for him to wield, not them, and by the time he was college age, he had friends and his self-respect was intact. He’d seen other kids adapt to fit what was expected of them, tailoring everything from their tastes in music to their accents to match what the movers and shakers liked.

Not him.

He’d kept that attitude when it came time to find a job, and it’d served him well so far, but he had picked up a small amount of discretion and tact over the years. That had to be from his mom’s side of the family.

“Dad…remember when I told you I was gay?”

He’d been twelve, and they hadn’t believed him until four years later when he dragged his boyfriend into the family room and kissed him in front of them, long and hard and wet. It’d cost him the boyfriend, who hadn’t appreciated being his show-and-tell, and the week that followed had been hell. His mom hadn’t been able to decide which of them she was angrier with: Ricky for not being supportive or Sean for the dramatic reveal.

“Sure. I remember all the times you acted like an asshole.” Ricky gave the cough that stood in for a chuckle, and Sean guessed his mom had just elbowed his dad in the ribs. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You didn’t like it.”

“No. Not then. Still sometimes wish…ah, the hell with it. You know we love you. I wouldn’t change you. Never. What’s this about, son? You’ve found someone, and he’s dumped you? Is that why you wanted this vacation? Getting over a broken heart? You should have told us. Well, told your mom, anyways. You know I don’t do good with the hearts and flowers. How come we never met him? We’re always telling you to visit, and any friend of yours is welcome.”

Sean closed his eyes until he was sure he wasn’t going to open them and find his vision blurry.

A week of hell after that public kiss; then his dad, drinking in a bar and pouring out his troubles to a golfing buddy, had been told he should toss Sean out in the street with the rest of the trash. The buddy had gotten punched, Sean had gotten a hug tight enough to make his ribs creak, and things had gone back to normal.

Something told him it wouldn’t be like that for Andrew.

“My heart’s not broken, and if I fall in love, Mom’s going to know before I do.”

“If you’re saying I pry into your life, Sean Darrow, I do no such thing.”

“Mom, if you lived closer, you’d go through my garbage. You call and ask what I had for breakfast.”

“You’re lucky. She asks me when I moved my bowels last.”

“Richard!”

Sean grinned, his world settling back down again after some roller-coaster-sized bumps. “Okay, I’m going so you can fight. Love you both. I’ll visit as soon as I can when I get back.”

He had a meal at one of the resort’s restaurants, soaking up the atmosphere. He’d never thought of himself as much of a people person, more a loner, but right now it was comforting to be surrounded by a crowd. The food was excellent, though he’d refused the waiter’s attempt to sell him on the catch of the day; he’d had enough fish to last him for months. He lingered too long over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, not keen on returning to his suite, but eventually he had to accept he couldn’t sit there forever.

A blonde wearing a blue dress was waiting for the elevator when Sean got there. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi.”

They waited.

“They’re always slow at this time of night,” she observed. “Too many people going to dinner.”

“You’re not,” Sean said.

“I am, actually—I just left something in my room. How long have you been here?” It was a standard opening question that Sean had already heard half a dozen times.

“Just since this morning. You?”

She grimaced. “Nine days. We’re going home tomorrow. It went so fast, I can’t believe it’s almost over. Are you here with friends?”

Sean hesitated. “Not really. Well. Yeah, I guess so.”

“That was convincing.” The blonde grinned. “Someone you’re hoping might be a girlfriend?”

There were so many things wrong with that question, Sean didn’t know where to begin answering it. Luckily, the elevator arrived just as a group of other resort guests did, and they all got on together, with some of the others between Sean and the blonde woman. The conversation did give him a jump-start, though, in thinking about Andrew—not that he hadn’t been doing that already.

Andrew was clearly not interested in coming out of the closet, and Sean had never dated anyone who wasn’t out. They didn’t need to wear the T-shirt or proclaim it to the world, but he refused to be introduced as a friend by someone who’d been sucking him off an hour earlier.

What complicated matters was that for all the cool gazes Andrew was giving him now, Sean knew Andrew was more than interested in him. What had happened between them on the island hadn’t been a one-off, a drunken, hasty fumble by a man flirting with expanding his sexuality. Andrew knew he was gay, had probably seen more action than Sean, even if it was all discreetly managed, and they’d hardly been there long enough to make getting off a physical necessity.

Andrew had wanted him. Needed him. Sean was self-aware enough to realize a lot of his dislike for the man had been caused by frustrated attraction, and he was willing to bet the same went for Andrew.

So. They both wanted each other, and the sex, even under less than ideal circumstances—that fucking sand getting everywhere—had been spectacular.

Sean couldn’t see any reason to pick up someone else to add spice to his vacation when he had Andrew right there. They could go back to fighting when they got home, but he wanted what they’d had on the island to continue until they stepped onto the plane, at least.

That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

It’s over. It has to be… It doesn’t matter what I want.

It mattered to Sean.

Okay, what he needed right then was to get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, he’d have coffee—coffee, God, he’d missed it so much—and breakfast and make up his mind how to deal with all this. There’d been some hints from the resort rep, who’d joined him at his table for a short chat, that a press conference was being arranged for tomorrow. It didn’t come as a surprise the press was interested in their story, but that didn’t mean Sean was particularly thrilled about it. One thing he’d learned in his job was that sometimes you had to do stuff you didn’t want to do.

He unlocked the door to his suite and realized he still hadn’t done anything about the clothes situation. Add that to the list of things he’d need to deal with tomorrow. He brushed his teeth and climbed naked between the sheets, then turned on the TV and zoned out. This was exactly what he needed: time to let his body recover, catch up on sleep, stretched out on a comfortable bed with the TV flickering across the room.

There was a knock at the door, and Sean realized he’d been dozing. Possibly even snoring. His limbs felt heavy as he got up and shuffled over, pulling on the heavy white robe that had come with the room. A glance through the peephole showed the last person he’d expected to see, and yet he wasn’t surprised.

He opened the door and looked at Andrew but said nothing.

“Um. Hey,” Andrew said. Without the door between them, Sean could smell liquor on his breath.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Sean asked. He’d meant sleeping, but realized that fucking some girl’s brains out applied just as well. He sighed. “You want to come in?”

“Uh. I wasn’t… I didn’t come here for—” Andrew took half a step back, and Sean resisted going after him. “Okay. Yes. Thank you.”

When the door was closed again, Sean stood near the wall, leaving space between them. “Can I get you anything? Water?” He immediately decided Andrew should have water—whether he thought he wanted it or not—and went to get a bottle. The ice had melted in the bucket, but that was okay.

“I’m fine,” Andrew protested.

“You’re drunk,” Sean said and handed him the bottle.

“Yeah. A little. I just wanted to see, you know, if you’re okay.” Andrew looked miserable and exhausted. “I know I was an asshole before. I’m sorry.”

“Forget about it.” Forgiving Andrew turned out to be easy when he was looking this vulnerable. Sean’s resentment at being brushed aside so easily melted, leaving him with the urge to kiss Andrew, not punch him.

He waited until Andrew had drunk half of the water—fresh, cool, clean water, as much of it as they wanted. How long would it take to get used to that? Sadly, not long at all, Sean guessed. Then he took the bottle from Andrew and set it down.

“You didn’t just come here to apologize, did you?”

Andrew’s eyes were hazy from exhaustion and alcohol, but his voice was steady. “I didn’t come for that.”

Sean eyed him. He wasn’t above pushing an advantage, but he wasn’t going to get Andrew into bed and have Andrew use being drunk as an excuse the next day.

Didn’t mean he couldn’t prove what he already knew, though—that Andrew Carney was his for a snap of the fingers when he was in a room thousands of miles away from his screwed-up parents with no one watching.

He walked behind Andrew and reached around to undo the first few buttons of Andrew’s shirt. No sling, he noted. Good.

“What…what’re you doing?”

Andrew’s voice was husky, shaking, but he didn’t move, didn’t turn around. Didn’t tell Sean to stop.

“Just looking, sweetheart.” Sean peeled Andrew’s shirt down and stared at the dark bite mark his teeth had left on Andrew’s shoulder. He’d never done that to anyone, but something about Andrew made Sean want to leave him branded. He just wished he’d done it where Andrew could see it every time he looked in a mirror. “Admiring my work.”

He blew across the mark, his mouth close enough that Andrew would be able to feel the moist warmth of his breath. But he didn’t touch the skin with his lips.

“I couldn’t leave it like that,” Andrew said in a low voice. “Between us.”

Sean touched the back of Andrew’s neck where his hairline grew into a point, then traced Andrew’s spine slowly. He knew Andrew had lost weight—as had he—but Andrew would need to lose twice as much for it to mar his perfection.

Andrew was trembling, just slightly. “How does…how does it look?”

“Beautiful,” Sean said. “Come here. I’ll show you.”

He led a willing Andrew into the bathroom and turned on the light, then positioned him so his back was to the mirror and pulled out the magnifying mirror, tilting it to find the right angle.

“There. See?”

“I wish it was here instead.” Andrew touched his chest just above his nipple. “So I could see it without the mirrors.” He looked up at Sean. “I am sorry, but you’re right. I didn’t come here to apologize.”

“Tell me,” Sean said in a voice that didn’t allow disobedience.

“I can’t sleep.” Andrew sounded wrecked, and up close Sean could see his eyes were bloodshot. “I can’t…I can’t do this. I don’t know what to do.”

“I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping alone, if that helps,” Sean admitted. “I’ve gotten used to you being beside me.”

“Really?”

God, when Andrew did vulnerable, Sean melted. Well, most of him did. His cock was contrary, finding it as big a turn-on as the way Andrew bit at his lip when Sean touched him low, dragging his fingers over the hollow at Andrew’s hip or tracing a pattern through the wiry hair surrounding Andrew’s cock.

Okay, not a good visual when he was being all chivalrous and shit.

“Yeah. So stay with me. Sleep with me. I won’t push for more than that, I promise. Not tonight.” He still didn’t have any condoms or lube, so it was a reasonably easy promise to make, though he’d have gone to his knees willingly to get Andrew’s cock between his lips. He’d gotten addicted to the taste of it after one blowjob.

Andrew patted a pocket of his pants. “Came prepared. Don’t know why, because we can’t ever do it again. Ever. Dared myself to buy them. Used cash so they won’t show up on the bill.”

“Where did you get cash? Never mind.”

That Andrew had thought of the consequences of condoms plus lube on an itemized bill that might, just possibly, be seen by his father made Sean’s gut clench with anger. He wasn’t sure what to make of Andrew’s situation. His interactions with Harris Carney had left him feeling reassured the guy wasn’t an asshole and did genuinely believe in all his employees being treated fairly, no matter what their sex, orientation, religion, race, what the hell ever. He didn’t think Harris liked him much, but that was a separate issue, not connected with Sean’s sexuality. He and Harris were too similar, two bulls in one field.

“We don’t need them.” Sean said. “Sleep with me. Just sleep.”

Andrew looked at him steadily, searchingly, then nodded.

“Good.”

He unbuttoned Andrew’s shirt the rest of the way and slipped it off, and only hesitated for a second before taking off his robe. “None of it fits,” Andrew said with a twist of his lips that was hard to translate. Maybe it meant something insulting about whoever had brought clothes for them; maybe it was self-deprecating.

“You look better without it,” Sean said.

“Yeah. You too.” Andrew touched Sean’s chest lightly. “Are you sure this is okay?”

“It’s a little late to be asking that when you’re almost naked in my hotel room,” Sean pointed out. “But yes. I wouldn’t have offered. And don’t think I’m just doing you a favor.” It might have been better for him in the long run if Andrew did think that, but it wouldn’t have been honest. “Come on. Let’s get you in bed before you fall asleep standing up.”

Andrew let himself be guided over to the bed, submissive in a way that didn’t arouse Sean because it was as if Andrew were sleepwalking, numb and lost, regret weighing him down so every step was slow, staggering.

“So tired…”

“You’ve got a full stomach for the first time in forever. We didn’t sleep well because we were hungry before.”

Apart from last night, when we fucked ourselves into oblivion and missed a goddamn chopper landing on top of us.

“Mmm.” The sigh Andrew gave as he slid between cool, clean sheets verged on orgasmic. “Feels so good. Flat. Soft. That beach had rocks all over it.”

Sean turned off the lights and crawled in beside Andrew with a sigh. “Yeah. Feels good. Come here.”

As he said it, he was the one to move, fitting his body to Andrew’s and groaning silently as his body responded instinctively, his cock hardening, his heartbeat speeding.

He turned to his back, letting the sheets be the only thing touching his erection, and Andrew curled up close, his head on Sean’s shoulder. Sean nuzzled a kiss into Andrew’s hair, clean now, with no smell of salt or fish clinging to it.

“Go to sleep,” he whispered. “I’ve got you.”

He wished it were the truth.

Chapter Ten

When Andrew opened his eyes, it was morning. He could tell because the sun was rising outside, shining golden-orange through the breezy, thin curtain that was all Sean had had pulled across the windows. Sean was still and heavy in his arms, breathing evenly despite the way Andrew was holding him tightly.

He could hardly remember the night before. He knew he’d spent at least an hour at the bar overlooking the swimming pool, downing drink after drink in an attempt to get up his courage so he could find Sean. He’d owed the man more than an apology, but Sean had seen right through him and gotten him to admit the apology wasn’t why he’d come. God, he’d been so drunk and tired, and Sean had invited him in, taken him to bed, and not asked for anything more.

Andrew kissed the back of Sean’s neck, overwhelmed with his feelings for this man he’d always thought he hated. His hand was on Sean’s chest, and he slid it lower, enjoying the way Sean sighed when Andrew’s fingertips brushed over his cock.

“Wake up,” Andrew murmured near Sean’s ear.

Sean stretched, arching his body back against Andrew’s sensuously. “Why?” he asked. “Am I gonna get lucky?”

When they were naked in bed together, the door locked, their phones at the bottom of the ocean, and a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, it was hard to come up with a reason why Sean shouldn’t.

Telling himself he owed Sean this one last time—even if it was the second time he’d attached that label to an encounter between them—Andrew bit Sean’s earlobe gently. “Definitely.”

“Oh, well, in that case—”

Andrew yelped in surprise as Sean moved, a surge of motion that had Sean twisting around and pinning Andrew on his back, a boisterous tackle of a hug. Andrew glared up at Sean indignantly, then felt his mouth soften to an indulgent grin. Sean was on his hands and knees over him, looking down at Andrew like a puppy who wanted to play.

“Good morning,” Sean said, his eyes gleaming with unmistakable arousal and wicked intent.

Okay, hopefully puppies never looked at their owners quite like that.

Andrew wanted to play, but he didn’t want to be the toy in the equation. He was a hair taller than Sean, maybe, and might weigh less, but he was young and fit and used to being the aggressor when it came to sex. He was used to being on top, used to being the one penetrating—no, they weren’t always one and the same—and he wasn’t comfortable with that changing, even though whatever was going on with Sean felt different.

On the other hand, his elbow was pretty messed up, and he didn’t have the advantage of gravity just then.

“You look like a man who knows how to start the day off right,” he said.

Sean grinned. “Yeah? Want to find out?”

“I already told you you’re getting lucky,” Andrew said.

“Uh-huh.” Sean leaned down and kissed him, and Andrew shivered with anticipation.

“You owe me,” Sean said a moment later, moving his kisses south to Andrew’s left nipple. Ticklish, but in a good way.

“I do?”

Sean was nibbling now, delicate, sharp bites that set up a connection between Andrew’s nipple and his groin, each bite making his cock harden still more.

“Yeah. Too early in the morning to want to fuck me? Seem to recall it’s your turn, and I’ve got to say I’m curious about what you’d feel like in my ass.” Sean palmed Andrew’s face, his touch light and warm, holding Andrew’s gaze. His forehead was sunburned, peeling in places. Andrew’s skin was equally wrecked. He’d have to book a spa treatment every day for a week to regain the polished, executive gloss he liked. He wondered if he’d bother. He was pretty sure Sean wouldn’t. “Let’s be clear. Me getting lucky only works if it includes you being happy with whatever we do. If you’re planning on walking away soon, I want it to be with good memories.”

That last statement twisted Andrew’s gut, and the fact Sean had the ability to make him feel that way was irritating. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, except right then he was turned on and naked, and Sean was right there. If he decided to be pissed off at him, he’d do it later, after they’d both come.

After he’d come, he corrected himself in his head.

“I like the idea of fucking you,” he said before he stayed quiet any longer. He shifted under Sean and slid his hands up Sean’s back. “I like how you look. Sit up? So I can look at you.”

Sean obliged him, straightening and resting his weight on Andrew’s upper thighs. God, he was gorgeous, even with sunburned skin. He was the hottest guy Andrew had ever been with, for sure, even though there’d been no shortage of hot guys. It wasn’t anything Andrew could identify, nothing specific, but Sean was confident and muscled and had a sense of adventure that was thrilling.

Overwhelmed with a sense of tenderness that was new to him, Andrew skimmed his hands along Sean’s thighs to his cock and touched it lightly, tracing the shaft to the head. “I want to suck you. Lie down for me?”

It was a gentle request, and Sean again obeyed him, lying supine on the bed, relaxed. Andrew slid down and took Sean’s erection into his mouth. He liked the way it felt, the skin soft and thin in some places and gathered together in others, and he liked the way Sean’s breath caught and trembled.

“You don’t mind me doing this?”

Sean seemed to know Andrew wasn’t talking about the blowjob but rather about Andrew taking control. He shook his head slowly, rolling it against the white pillow. “Why would I mind? Show me what you’ve got. Blow my mind. Make me scream.”

The drawled, half-mocking words and the grin that followed made it a challenge, but the edge that normally accompanied a dig from Sean was missing. Sean was offering Andrew a chance to play, not fight, and the prospect was intriguing and as exhilarating as the coffee Andrew was looking forward to later.

Andrew put his hands on Sean’s hips and bent so his mouth was tantalizingly close to Sean’s cock. “Don’t scream. I only just woke up. Whimper for me. Beg.”

Whimper? Oh, you wish.” Sean tried to arch up so the head of his cock could meet Andrew’s lips, but Andrew held him down, relishing the use of his strength against Sean, even though Sean wasn’t making it difficult for him.

The faintest throb from his elbow warned him not to continue, but when he eased back, Sean stayed put, obedient, if not exactly tamed, clearly aware of why Andrew couldn’t put much effort into restraining him.

It was as if they were carrying on an unspoken conversation, subtitles scrolling. Andrew didn’t recall being so in sync with a lover before. Hell, with anyone. And if it went both ways…

He glanced up, met Sean’s steady, calm gaze, friendly, encouraging, and bit his lip.

Sean groaned, his eyes closing for a second, his face contorting. “God, when you do that—don’t do that. Please. See, I’m begging.”

“You want to come in my mouth?” Andrew asked, brushing his lower lip against Sean’s shaft. “I might let you.”

“Yes. I mean, no, because I don’t want to come until you’re inside me, but yes.”

“You like being fucked?” Andrew licked his thumb and gripped Sean’s cock, rubbing the pad of his thumb against the head.

Sean gasped and lifted his hips. “With the right partner? Sure.”

“Tell me how you like it.” Starting a slow stroking of Sean’s dick, Andrew watched Sean’s face.

“Oh Jesus,” Sean choked. “You want… I can’t fucking talk when you’re doing that.”

“Oh, sorry. Should I stop?” Andrew stopped, and Sean whimpered—a genuine, unmistakable whimper.

“No, don’t stop!” Sean swallowed and blinked, making a visible attempt to gather his thoughts. “Uh. I like…slow and gentle at first. Not really into pain. But then, once we’re both into it, it’s fine for it to be rougher. Faster.”

Andrew wished his pants were at hand, because he was pretty sure he had some lube and condoms in them. He’d have loved to have slid a finger into Sean’s ass and made him squirm while sucking him off. Instead, he had to settle for rubbing a fingertip across the wet tip of Sean’s cock and then touching his hole gently.

Sean cleared his throat meaningfully. “Uh, you might want to look under the pillow. My pillow.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows, connecting the dots without difficulty. “You went through my pockets?”

Sean shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea to have them closer than all the way over there.”

“I thought you just wanted us to sleep together.”

“I did. We did. Now we’re awake.”

Andrew took his revenge by dipping his head and taking Sean in as deeply as he could while he fumbled under the pillow. Sean might have expected to get sucked, but instead Andrew set his teeth into vulnerable skin and deliberately kept his tongue out of the way, locking Sean’s cock in a hollow prison and making escape impossible.

“You… God, you—” Sean wisely held still, but the outraged hiss of breath as he subsided warned of reprisals.

With what he needed in his hand, Andrew gave Sean’s cock a lavishly wet lick and suck, then pulled back. “That’ll teach you to steal my stuff.” Sean gave him a mutinous glare, and Andrew dropped a warm kiss on the crown of Sean’s cock. “And that’s for thinking ahead.”

“Yeah, you always were good at sending mixed signals,” Sean muttered.

Andrew let that one go. His teeth had left a series of red indentations around the base of Sean’s cock, and though they were already fading, he supposed he’d earned the rebuke.

He found the lube and slicked his fingers, then teased at Sean’s hole until Sean was grunting through gritted teeth, desperate, pleading sounds escaping him. God, that sounded good, and watching Sean’s face made it easy to take his time. Sean was tight, and his dick was so hard Andrew couldn’t keep his other hand off it. There was something almost magnetic about Sean’s flushed, swollen erection. By the time Andrew eased a finger inside Sean, Sean was begging, just as Andrew had wanted.

“God, Andrew. Just fuck me already. Please? Jesus.” Sean lifted his hips as Andrew added a second finger and worked him open.

“You think I don’t want to? Do you know how you look?” He wanted to delay the inevitable because he was pretty sure he wouldn’t last long once he was inside Sean. Still, he found himself reaching for the condom. He’d need both hands to open the packet and put it on, though, and right then he was pushing his fingers deeper.

There. He would have known he’d found Sean’s prostate even without Sean’s reaction, but he liked the reaction. Sean moaned and grabbed his wrist, holding it where it was, goddamn fucking himself on Andrew’s fingers.

“Jesus.” It was as heartfelt as a prayer. Andrew let his hand be held, be used, for a space of breaths, his gaze traveling from Sean’s face—eyes closed, lips parted, skin as flushed as Sean’s cock—down to where Sean was riding his fingers.

“Want more? Want three?” God, he wasn’t sure he was going to ever get that condom on. His cock throbbed, a slow roil of lust curling in his gut. He barely waited for Sean’s nod before he eased a third finger in, then groaned in reply to Sean’s keen of pleasure.

Three felt crowded. Sean was tight. Not virginal—his muscles knew how to relax and give—but tight. No one had done this to Sean for a while. Andrew liked that idea.

Three fingers, all knuckles and bones, could be harder to take than a cock, no matter how thick, but Sean was writhing, driving himself down, craving more. Andrew had never fisted anyone, never wanted to, but the way Sean, eyes open now, glazed over with desire, was taking his fingers made him want to give him his hand.

Maybe one day flitted through his head, then smacked into the wall of Last time we do this.

The part of him that wanted to stretch this out as long as possible was at war with the part that was desperate to push his dick into Sean’s ass. He knew exactly how it would feel in there, slick and hot, and he knew how Sean would move under him. He could even imagine how it would feel when Sean came, his ass clenching tight.

He couldn’t wait anymore. Sliding his fingers free and silencing Sean’s whine of protest with a kiss, Andrew unwrapped the condom and fumbled it on. He lifted Sean’s leg by the underside of the knee and moved it outward, lined his cock up, and gasped when Sean took control even from beneath and moved so there was nothing to do but slide deep inside in one go.

“Think you’re in charge?” Andrew let gravity take him so his weight pinned Sean to the mattress, and he thrust strongly.

“I don’t think I care,” Sean said. “Just…don’t stop.”

“I don’t think I could if I wanted to.” And admitting that aloud to Sean was more difficult than pulling back, even if retreat meant a delicious drag against his cock and an equally pleasurable thrust forward.

Sean tried to set the rhythm, but Andrew had the advantage of being on top, with access to Sean’s dick. Braced on his hand—on his good side—even with Sean’s leg hooked over his shoulder, he could give the long, thick shaft some attention. It was gratifying to see how quickly Sean shut up when his ass was being taken hard and his cock was warm against Andrew’s palm.

“Good boy,” Andrew said, just to spice things up.

Sean growled at him, low and threatening, and clamped his hands around Andrew’s ass, fingers digging in. “Oh yeah. I’m really good at this. That was what you meant?”

“We both know it wasn’t.” Andrew slid in deep, angling his body until he saw the flash of half pain, half ecstasy in Sean’s eyes that told him he’d hit his mark. “God, I could fuck you all day.”

“Yeah…” Sean sounded wistful. “It’d be worth not being able to sit down the next day.”

“I’d be gentle with you,” Andrew promised, amusement peeking through.

“Yeah.” This time, Sean sounded frankly skeptical. He ran his hands over Andrew’s ass, exploring it, so Andrew was the one shuddering and squirming. Sean’s fingers stroked and pinched, slid inside the crease to tease at Andrew’s hole, then lower to brush over the back of his balls, making the skin shiver, goose bumps popping out. Andrew held still, his gaze held by Sean’s, the silence between them crammed full of unspoken, understood messages.

“Fuck me,” Sean said softly and worked the tip of his finger inside Andrew’s hole, the dry burn tearing a groan from him. “Don’t stop. Please. Please, Andrew.”

Sean said please like an order, but there was naked need on his face, and the strong body under Andrew’s was shaking as Sean fought to hold still.

Andrew drove into him, doing his best to focus on Sean’s reactions, because the second he thought about his, he’d lose control. Fucking Sean felt like winning, except Sean himself was the prize instead of the game. He knew how close he was to coming, but he’d waited long enough now that he knew he could wait even longer. The thought of feeling Sean coming around his cock…

“You want to come?”

“God, yes. But don’t stop.” Sean curled his spine, changing the angle yet again. His dick was like iron in Andrew’s hand. “I’m so fucking close.”

“I can tell.” Andrew shoved in deep, pulled back, pushed forward again. “You’re so hard. You’re gorgeous like this, with my cock up your ass.” He squeezed his fist more tightly around Sean’s erection. “Want to feel you when you shoot. Want to make you feel good.”

Sean seemed to have lost the ability to speak. His eyes were closed, and his head was thrown back, his lips parted. Andrew could feel him trembling, and he was rocking his hips to meet each of Andrew’s thrusts, lost in chasing the orgasm that was right around the corner. He inhaled sharply on the next thrust, and Andrew felt his cock jolt.

Spunk spilled from the tip, creamy, warm, painting Sean’s stomach and Andrew’s hand. Watching each spurt emerge and fall felt intimate, special. He didn’t stop fucking Sean—couldn’t have stopped—but he almost wished he could pause and watch every nuance of expression, listen to and remember every hoarse, gasping sound pouring out of Sean’s mouth.

The brutal clench of Sean’s ass around his cock was all he’d hoped it would be, bringing him into Sean’s moment, letting him share it as he pumped and shot, filling the latex when what he wanted was to be leaving his mark deep inside Sean, the way Sean had with him.

He chopped off another chorus of maybe one day.

He had this day. It had to be enough.

* * * * *

“You look good,” Sean said, and Andrew looked up from buttoning his new shirt.

“It’s a little small,” Andrew said. Sizes at the resort shop had been understandably limited, and he’d had to settle for a medium instead of the large he would have preferred.

“Maybe that’s why I like it.” Sean turned and adjusted the collar of his shirt in the mirror, then patted Andrew’s hip as he walked past. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

“We could go down to the beach and hide instead,” Andrew suggested. “Dark sunglasses. With beach hats, we’d be virtually unrecognizable.”

Sean grinned and rolled his eyes. “You’re such an idiot.”

“I know. It’s not like you’re looking forward to this. I mean, at least there’ll probably only be a couple of reporters instead of a whole roomful, but it’s one thing to be in front of a bunch of executives—it’s something else to know you’re going to be all over the TV.”

“I hate the idea.” Sean shrugged. “Our business, not theirs. But Harris”—he shot Andrew a wry look—“your father seemed to think it’d be a good PR deal, and who am I to argue with the man paying for my stay?”

Andrew winced. His father had set up a web conference that morning, both of them shaking off a just-fucked high. He was only grateful that by the time the calls to their rooms had come in, he’d already returned to his.

It had been challenging, sitting in a small room set aside for just this purpose, Sean close enough that their shoulders brushed, and dealing crisply with his father’s instructions. With Sean there, his father had shown none of the joy and relief that had filled his voice during the phone call the day before. Andrew was fine; business as usual now.

Harris had ended the conference by doing exactly what Andrew had predicted—tearing up Sean’s check and making it clear, in a few acid, well-chosen words, that while he appreciated Sean’s scruples, he didn’t appreciate Sean’s—how had he put it? Oh yeah—“Stubborn to the point of being confrontational independence.

Ouch.

Andrew had felt Sean stiffen, heard the deep, quick breath he’d taken—and, under cover of the desk, had reached over to grab Sean’s balls and give them a warning squeeze.

That had gotten Sean to stand down—hard to argue when his voice was a squeak—but Andrew’s wrist was still aching from the blow it’d received from the side of Sean’s hand, chopping down on it.

“Don’t ever do that again,” Sean had snarled when the call was over. “You, me—it doesn’t mix with work. According to you, it doesn’t even exist now, so what the hell gives?”

“I just… I couldn’t let you talk back to him. He’d have hated it, and he’d have made you pay. He respects strength but not dissension. It’s hard to describe.” Andrew had rubbed his hand over his face. “I know him. I was helping you.”

Sean’s face had softened. “Okay. Okay, I’m sorry. Jesus, did I hurt you?” He’d examined Andrew’s wrist, frowning, then looked at Andrew with enough abject apology in his eyes that Andrew had kissed him.

“Time to go,” Sean said. He didn’t kiss Andrew. This was company time now, for all that they were on vacation and in Andrew’s hotel room, away from any onlookers—but he gave him a look that promised enough to make Andrew’s face heat.

He couldn’t let himself think about that, though, because it was over between them, for real now. It was a depressing enough thought that it followed him through the resort, along the hallways, and into the meeting room that had been reserved for their interview. There were about ten people already in the room. A couple of them were wearing the recognizable resort uniform; three were holding cameras balanced on their shoulders. There was a woman in a nice blouse with a strand of pearls around her neck; she was holding a microphone, but even if she hadn’t been, Andrew would have known her as a reporter immediately. Reporters always had that impeccably groomed thing going on, just like the man talking to the rescue guy who’d woken them on the beach the day before.

That it had only been the day before blew Andrew’s mind, but he was too busy pasting a grateful, self-confident mask onto his face to consider it further.

“Here they are.” The resort rep, who, thank goodness, had a name tag pinned to her top, came over to greet them. “Gentlemen. How are you? Are your rooms comfortable? Is there anything you need?”

“To get this over with,” Sean murmured in Andrew’s ear, and Andrew shot him a grin over his shoulder.

“We’re fine, thank you,” Andrew said, shaking her hand and trying for a subtle read of her name tag. “Shaffa.”

“Yes—we have some seats for you both over here. Can we get you something to drink? Tea? Bottled water?”

“Nothing, thanks.” Beside him, Sean shook his head. The seats were behind a dark wood table, and there were bottles of water at each place, along with empty glasses. If they changed their minds about a drink, they wouldn’t dehydrate.

They sat, and the ripple of conversation died down, everyone in the room looking at them expectantly.

Andrew smiled, all friendly charm. “Hi. Sorry to drag you all out here to this tropical paradise.”

They laughed, relaxing with him as he’d intended. Sean gave a smothered snort but kept quiet.

“As you can imagine, we’re still recovering from over a week with no Internet…” Pause for laughter. “We’re happy to answer any questions, though we don’t have much to say besides thank you to the people who rescued us and to the hotel for taking such good care of us.” He let his voice become serious and lost the smile. “And thank God our pilot made it too. We hope to see him before we fly home. He saved our lives, and we thought it was at the cost of his own. We’re glad it wasn’t.”

Sean nodded. “Very glad. He’s a hero.” He spread his hands. “So. Ask away.”

The female reporter cleared her throat. “Mandy Roberts. Mr. Carney, you must have wondered if you were ever going to be rescued. What went through your mind as the days ticked by?”

Andrew answered her and then the other reporters, falling into an easy rhythm, saying all the right things and never rocking the boat. Sean fielded a few questions, but most of the attention was on Andrew. He’d expected that. He wasn’t the playboy type, but he’d dated models, actresses, some minor TV stars. He wasn’t unknown to the gossip columnists, and candid shots of him showed up in the tabloids now and then. He was more of a target than Sean.

“One last question,” he said and nodded at Mandy as she raised her hand. “Yes?”

“You’re well known for dating some beautiful women.”

“There are worse things I could be known for.”

That got another laugh. His face was aching from the fake smiles.

“So you must have been lonely?”

“Not at all. I had Sean for company.” It was hard to curl his lips into a convincing grin, but Andrew did his best. “I won't deny that it’s a relief to be back to civilization, though.”

“And what about you, Mr. Darrow?”

Andrew wasn’t at all surprised that the subject had come up, but he was surprised at Sean’s reply.

“I'm pretty sure everyone knows I’m gay,” Sean said with a thin smile. “But rest assured, Mr. Carney’s reputation is intact. Though if we’d had to spend another couple of weeks on that beach, I might have considered overlooking Mr. Carney’s unfortunate heterosexuality.”

“Mr. Darrow’s professionalism in extreme circumstances is one of the reasons he’s such an asset to our company,” Andrew broke in quickly before Sean said anything else. It was what his father would have expected him to say, and he delivered it with convincing warmth and a smile. The most important thing was the company’s image—everything else was secondary.

Everything.

When the meeting ended, Andrew stood, smiled, thanked everyone for their various parts in what had transpired, and shook hands all around. He ended the performance with a hearty shoulder-clasp and handshake for Sean, fulfilling the needed still-photo requirement.

Then, before anyone could come up with a reason to delay him, he strode from the room, fleeing Sean and the whole situation. He hoped it would get easier to live without someone he could never have, but right then it didn't seem likely.

Chapter Eleven

Sean looked across the glittering expanse of the pool and tried to blame his headache on what he was drinking. Since it was sparkling bottled water, he wasn’t very successful. After a day spent diving the reef, he should’ve been exhilarated by what he’d seen and pleasantly tired. It’d truly been spectacular down there. Instead, he was a tight mess of jealousy, and the reason was across the pool, flirting with two stunning women.

Andrew Carney in action, ladies and gentlemen. Safety in numbers, but people won’t see that. They’ll assume he’ll end up in bed with both of them, not by himself.

He sure as fuck won’t be welcome in mine.

Andrew had left the press conference and walked out of Sean’s life. Nicely dramatic, apart from the inconvenient fact they were staying at the same hotel, worked at the same company, and, oh yeah, were supposed to be friends.

Andrew hadn’t gone on the dive. He’d used his injured arm as an excuse, and Sean was fairly sure the same excuse would get Andrew out of any activity that required him to spend time near Sean.

It was so fucking pointless and stupid, all of it. Including Sean’s jealousy. Andrew wasn’t interested in the redhead or the blonde vying prettily for his attention, so there was no need for him to feel like walking over there, dragging Andrew off the lounger, and kissing the smile off his face.

If Andrew had been flirting with the handsome German guy at the poolside bar who’d been sending him inviting looks for the past hour, it would’ve been more reasonable for Sean to get worked up, but Andrew wouldn’t do that.

Sean might, if only to see Andrew’s reaction.

Except, why bother? He knew Andrew wanted him, not a random guy, and he knew why Andrew was desperately building up the image of a straight guy. He understood every move Andrew was making in this complicated, fucked-up game they were playing, but it didn’t help.

The redhead dropped a sliver of ice onto Andrew’s bare stomach and shrieked with laughter when Andrew swooped her up into his arms and held her out over the water, threatening to drop her in.

Oh yeah, that arm really looked damaged.

His gaze met Andrew’s across the clean, clear water, and for a moment, Andrew’s mask slipped, leaving his expression one of naked vulnerability.

Then he jumped into the pool, taking the redhead with him.

Sean sighed as they surfaced a moment later, laughing. This was nearly torture, but it had reached the point where it was self-inflicted. Anyone with sense would have booked an earlier flight home or gotten drunk and watched porn through the resulting haze. Or found the closest willing body and taken him to bed. A person with sense wouldn’t continue to watch the object of his affection—because to call it desire would have implied what he felt for Andrew was only physical, and he’d had to admit to himself that wasn’t the case.

He wasn’t sure he’d call it love, but he had to hold on to some sliver of denial. It was definitely lust, longing. A serious case of like. It was gratitude, admiration, affection, and—

Oh for fuck’s sake, now they were making out.

Sean stopped a waitress walking by with a lift of his hand, and she paused and smiled.

“Yes, sir? Can I get you a drink?” Her hair was dark and glossy, her lips stained a deep red. Sean wondered what it would feel like to find her attractive in anything but an aesthetic sense.

“Please. Jack and Coke?” If he was going to sit there and put himself through this, he could at least blunt the pain with booze. The Maldives were officially alcohol-free, but thank God that didn’t apply to the resorts. A pragmatic blind eye ensured that tourists didn’t have to vacation sober.

Across the pool, Andrew was tossing back his third shot in the past hour, then nuzzling the throat of the blonde as the redhead sipped at a frothy frozen drink with an umbrella stuck in it. The wind shifted, carrying the smell of grilling meat from the barbecue on the other end of the nearby beach, making Sean’s mouth water. He’d have to be careful not to drink too much on an empty stomach, or he’d feel worse instead of better.

This was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime. He accepted the drink from the waitress, ignoring her expectant look—sorry, babe, no cash, and you’re really not my type—and swallowed half of it, the warmth of the alcohol offsetting the frigid temperature of the drink. More like a quick visit to hell. Wasn’t it Tantalus who’d been doomed to see what he most wanted without being able to touch? How much worse was it to have been able to touch—and kiss and fuck and learn to like—only to have the object of your desire placed out of reach?

The blonde had her hands where his had been, the redhead had gotten kissed by the mouth that had found Sean’s and possessed it.

Sean finished his drink and stood, momentarily dizzy. Too much sun, too little food. Right. So he’d go inside, and he’d eat. Problem solved. All his problems solved. He made sure to send a final glare at Andrew, who was balancing the paper umbrella on the redhead’s nose. Jesus.

The restaurant required shirt and shoes, forcing Sean to make a trip to his room before he was allowed past the doors. It didn’t improve his mood, but he took a shower before dressing and had to admit it did him good. There was something so decadent about washing. He’d never realized it before.

Maybe he could just order room service. Fill his stomach, then jerk off, self-reliant, self-contained.

A knock at the door as he was reading the menu had his heart beating faster. Andrew. Penitent, apologetic. Sean opened the door and found himself staring into ice-blue eyes and a smile. The German man who’d been eyeing Andrew, a knowing grin on his face.

Sean’s first instinct was to slam the door in the guy’s face. He was too emotionally raw to be even minimally polite—especially to a man who’d been staring at Andrew as if he were edible. His second thought was that it wouldn’t hurt to find out what the man wanted. He didn’t smile, but he sounded reasonably polite when he said, “Yes? Something I can do for you?”

The grin didn’t fade. “I hope so. I’m Karl. Karl Lehmann.” His accent was there, but barely.

“I’m guessing you know who I am.”

“Oh yes. Everyone in the hotel has been talking about you and your friend. Miraculous escape from death, one-in-a-million chance of rescue…” Karl shrugged, the gesture subtly European. “All the clichés. I find them boring, but you two fascinating.”

“Especially my…friend,” Sean said drily.

Karl chuckled. “Ah, you saw me admiring him? Well, he’s very good-looking, but it seems I was mistaken when I thought he was my type. You, though…” Eyebrows were raised inquiringly. “Perhaps not so much mistaken?”

This was familiar enough territory that Sean relaxed. He’d been picked up before, in bars, in hotels, in clubs. The steps to the dance didn’t vary much. Without a word, he stepped back and let the heavy door slam closed when Karl had walked over the threshold.

The kiss was brief, a statement of intent, no more, Karl’s mouth hard, his lips closed. They stood, their arms locked around each other; then Karl’s hands moved down to Sean’s ass, kneading it roughly.

“You looked so lost out there by the pool,” Karl muttered into Sean’s ear before biting at it. The graze of his teeth jolted Sean into an awareness of the moment, as if everything had snapped into focus. “Like you were looking for someone. I think you’ve found what you want, yes?” Karl grabbed Sean’s hand and brought it between them, molding it to the shape of his erection.

The temptation to submerge himself in what was being offered was strong. Sean rubbed at the front of Karl’s trousers, beginning as he meant to go, without artifice, no pretence that it was any more than it was. He bit at Karl’s lower lip and rutted against the front of his thigh.

“I want you,” Karl said, steadying Sean’s face between his hands. “I want to go to bed with you.”

“Yeah.” Sean was so hard his head was spinning. Karl was solid, stocky, and had the kind of cock Sean had come to expect in men of his build—long and thick. “Bed’s over here.” He tugged Karl in the right direction and kissed him until the side of his knee bumped the mattress.

“Tell me what you like,” Karl ordered.

“Anything. Want to suck your cock, for one.” Sean was looking forward to how it would feel, lips stretched wide, tongue sliding on the shaft.

Karl groaned and undid the front of his trousers, letting gravity take them. “Yes. Your mouth. I would like to see you on your knees.”

Sean dropped to the floor, nuzzling up the inside of Karl’s hairy thigh, inhaling the scent of him through the cotton boxers he wore. Sean wondered what Karl’s cock would taste like, what sounds he would make when he came.

He got that far, then rocked back on his heels, wiping his hand across his mouth as if it were already wet with spunk. His head was full of the sounds Andrew made, those soft gasps and whimpers, the direct language he used when he wanted something from Sean.

More than that: the way he said Sean’s name, the shape his lips made forming the single long syllable, all of it so new, but something Sean couldn’t push into the past as nothing more than a memory. He couldn’t see himself becoming celibate forever if Andrew’s head never emerged from his goddamned ass, but there was no way he was wiping out what he’d had with Andrew this soon, this fast, with a total fucking stranger. Karl was sexy, a walking one-night stand, no strings, no depth, no hurt feelings for either of them. Any other night, Sean would’ve had fun with him. He liked the occasional rough, basic, no-frills fuck—it was hot in a sleazy kind of way—though it wasn’t an indulgence he allowed himself often. He had plenty of offers from plenty of men, but he set his standards high.

Andrew had redefined them.

The realization—for now at least—that no one but Andrew was good enough had him glancing up at Karl’s frowning face and shaking his head, half rejection, half apology.

“What?” Karl obviously had no idea what was going on in Sean’s head. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, but… I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” Sean turned away and got to his feet.

Karl was still standing there with his pants around his ankles. He looked foolish, but Sean felt sympathy for him. None of this was his fault. “What is it?”

“It’s not you, I promise. A week ago, I would have jumped at the chance.”

“So what happened in one week?” Karl bent and pulled up his trousers, refastening them. He had to be a pretty nice guy that he wasn’t furious. “Ah. Yes, of course. I should have realized. How unfortunate for all of us, for you to fall in love with someone who cannot return your affections.”

“It’s not that,” Sean started but remembered Andrew wouldn’t want to be outed. “I mean, yeah.”

Karl rubbed at his cock through his pants, a rueful grimace making him look younger. “This is not comfortable.”

Sean gestured at the bathroom. He couldn’t just toss the guy out into the hallway with a visible boner. “If you want to, uh, take care of it in there, be my guest.”

Karl gave him a pained look, and then, as if the absurdity of the situation had finally registered, he chuckled. Despite himself, Sean couldn’t help grinning back at the man. “I really am sorry.”

Karl nodded and turned toward the bathroom. “Have you eaten?” he called from behind the closed door a minute or two later.

Sean had retreated to the balcony to give Karl some privacy, far enough away that the most he’d heard was a muted groan. Any arousal he’d felt had dissipated, leaving him on edge and unsettled. What the fuck was wrong with him? Andrew Carney was a jerk. A cowardly jerk. A hypocritical, cowardly… Oh God, if he was fucking one of those women right now… No. That wouldn’t be happening. Unless Andrew was trying to convince himself he could live the life of a straight man with all the fucking trimmings. God, he missed the Andrew he’d gotten to know so well—or thought he had. It felt like that Andrew had been left behind on the island, stranded there alone. “What?”

The bathroom door opened, and over the rush of a flushing toilet, Karl repeated, “Have you eaten? I was planning to ask you to dinner first, if I needed to, so I have not. I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” Sean regarded him thoughtfully. “You want to get some room service?”

“Just as friends,” Karl said. Sean appreciated not being the one to have to say it. “Yes, I’d like that.”

“I’ll get you the menu.”

Karl made a quick decision about what he wanted to order, like a man who’d never had a moment of doubt in his life, and Sean phoned room service. “The view is beautiful,” Karl said. He was standing near the balcony and looking out at the horizon.

“Yeah. Although I can say I prefer looking at it from here to where I spent the last week.” It wasn’t true—at least not entirely—but Sean felt like it ought to be said. For no good reason at all. Fuck, he was a mess. He wanted to be knocking on the door to Andrew’s room, to be finding Andrew alone and pushing him against the wall and kissing him. He didn’t want to be here with this stranger. He’d have to suck it up now, though, or wind up looking like an asshole.

“I want to hear about that.”

“Why?” Sean shrugged and stepped out onto the balcony. “We weren’t there for long; we didn’t do anything exciting like become cannibals. No Lord of the Flies moments. Not seeing there’s all that much to tell.”

“You were stranded. You didn’t know when—or even if—help would be coming.” Karl shrugged. “You must have imagined all sorts of things.”

“I guess. I don’t want to talk about it.” Sean gestured at the table and chairs. “Let’s sit. Maybe you can tell me about you, instead?”

An hour later, his stomach full and a bottle of red wine—an Australian Shiraz—mostly empty, he contemplated a spectacular sunset, watching the colors blend and flare brightly. Karl was a good companion, willing to make small talk, and Sean found himself relaxing.

“This was nice,” he said. “Thank you.”

Karl raised his glass, an inch of wine remaining, and smiled. “A toast. To surviving.”

Sean raised his glass, empty as it was, and tapped it against Karl’s, making both glasses ring, a clear, plangent sound against the quiet of the room. “To surviving.”

Karl didn’t prolong the moment. After a gesture to his wallet that Sean halted with a shake of his head, he rose and walked to the door, Sean following.

“So what will you do with your second chance at life?”

Sean considered the question, but it was too big to answer in a sentence. He settled for a shrug and a noncommittal smile. “I’ll figure something out.”

Karl hesitated, then moved close and kissed him, a firm peck on each of Sean’s cheeks. “I’m sure you will, my friend.”

“Bye.”

It was a relief to have the room to himself again—for about a minute. Then Sean’s thoughts moved inexorably to Andrew. Would he be in one of the resort’s restaurants, having dinner alone? More likely he was in some woman’s room, screwing her into the mattress. Imagining it had Sean lifting up the phone and calling Andrew’s room, either to confirm his suspicions or dismiss them.

He could always say he wanted to arrange a time to visit Mohamed before they flew home. It kind of sucked using the poor guy as an excuse for calling, but it beat admitting he was jealous and lonely.

The phone rang six times before someone on the other end picked up, and as soon as someone did, Sean could hear a raucous noise in the background, voices talking and laughing. “Um, hello?” It was a woman’s voice.

Oh God. Sean considered hanging up, and his silence continued long enough that she repeated her greeting. “Uh, yeah, hello. I was looking for Andrew Carney?”

“Hey, Katie, it’s for him. The guy! I know, it’s his room, duh.” She sounded young and silly. “Well, where is he?” A pause. “Hey, he’s outside I think? I mean, in the hallway, not the beach. Anyway, there’s like a hundred people here. And we’re drunk! You should come join us. Unless you’re calling long distance.” She wasn’t giving him a chance to respond. “In which case you probably shouldn’t come. ’Cause the party will probably be over by the time you get here.”

Andrew was going for safety in numbers, then: surround himself with women, get everyone too drunk to realize he wasn’t doing more than kiss them, and emerge with his reputation intact.

Unsure whether he was relieved or disgusted, Sean hung up.

As far as he was concerned, the party was already over.

Chapter Twelve

Andrew filled a paper cup with water at the cooler and raised it in a mock salute. “Here’s to Monday morning.”

Ben pulled his face, took a sip from his coffee cup, and grimaced again. He’d been told to cut back on his cholesterol, and he’d moved from the cream- and sugar-laden frothy messes he loved to black coffee, complaining loudly to anyone who’d listen. Andrew, like everyone else Ben worked with, had suffered along with him.

“Tastes like mud.” Ben took another sip, his face screwed up in distaste, then dropped the half-full cup into the trash. Coffee fountained up, some of it splashing against Andrew’s pants. They were charcoal wool, so it wouldn’t show once it dried, but he’d stink of coffee all day now. Great.

“Sorry,” Ben said with cheerful indifference, his round face placid. “Blame it on Monday. My aim’s way better midweek. So, can we talk about it, or is it going to stay the elephant in the room?”

“Talk about what?”

Ben rolled his eyes. “You, Darrow, and the Gilligan’s Island remake? Everyone cut you some slack on Friday with it being your first day back, but new week, fresh start. Dish the dirt. Is it true you gave the pilot a small fortune?”

“You’re such a fucking gossip,” Andrew said. “No. Well, maybe it was a lot to him, but not to us. It seemed like the least we could do. It was enough for him to retire on, anyway.” Ben gathered snippets of overheard conversation and made them into bullets. He wasn’t malicious exactly, but that didn’t mean he was harmless. Andrew was always careful what he said when Ben was around, but he wasn’t above using Ben as a quick way to disseminate the official line. What Ben knew at nine a.m., the office knew at ten minutes after.

“Yeah, you’re a saint. Which is boring. Tell me something juicy.” Ben yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth. His suits cost a small fortune, but on Ben they always looked creased and baggy. He was a financial whiz kid who’d never really grown up and, at forty, probably never would. Andrew had gone out with him a few times and been drunk under the table. Ben had also gone home with Andrew’s date once, which rankled. Ben was a slob who picked his teeth with his thumbnail and told the dirtiest jokes Andrew had ever heard. That he never had a problem getting a date was baffling.

“Nothing to tell,” Andrew assured him.

“Please, how stupid do you think I am?”

You really don’t want to know the answer to that.

“Not stupid, just out of luck.”

Ben fixed him with a knowing look. “Yeah, I don’t think so. You think you’re so sharp, but you’re transparent. You and Darrow don’t like each other. You play nice because you have to, but it’s not like it’s a secret. I’d be shocked if you spent a day on an island alone with him without a fight, let alone a week.”

This was getting awkward. Andrew threw Ben a bone. “I’m not going to try to convince you we didn’t argue, but it wasn’t that bad. We were more focused on things like finding enough to eat than on personality clashes. When you’re starving, that kind of becomes a priority.”

“There had to be something to eat.”

Sean’s cock, any time I wanted it…

“Newsflash, Ben: desert islands don’t come equipped with supermarkets, and they’re too far out for pizza delivery.”

“So, what did you eat?”

“Raw fish. Raw crab. Raw coconut.” His voice faltered. He’d said almost exactly those words to Sean on the island. He didn’t miss the place, but God, how he missed the freedom of being able to do and say anything he liked. He could’ve reached out and touched Sean 24-7, pulled him close for a kiss, closer still in the friendly darkness.

He’d swapped his seats on the planes home to avoid being close to Sean, treating him like a distant acquaintance during the long journey, giving him stiff smiles when their paths crossed in the terminal.

Stupid, but he’d needed to put some distance between them, or he’d have embarrassed them both by letting his naked need for Sean show on his face.

“Sounds like one of those fad diets.” Ben snorted, momentarily distracted. “I dated a girl once who tried a new one every month. Well, she told me she did, anyway. I only lasted a week. Never fuck a hungry woman. She nearly bit my ear off in bed.”

“That’s funny, Ben. Hilarious.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “So you didn’t get tempted to swap sushi for long pig and take a bite out of Darrow?”

Was there any reasonable response to such an unreasonable question? Andrew didn’t feel like being reasonable. He felt like punching Ben in the mouth, splitting his smug lip, and then following it up with a black eye. Maybe then the twisted knot in Andrew’s gut would ease. He shook his head. “Why, would you?”

“Me?” That seemed to have nudged Ben off balance. “I don’t know. You know what they say about guys in prison. I guess after a while, anyone would start to look good.”

“We’re not talking about prison. We’re talking about a week on an island. Which, if I need to point it out, is covered with sand.”

“Right,” Ben said thoughtfully. “Jeez, Andrew. I was hoping for a little more, you know? Don’t you feel any obligation to make my day more interesting?”

“I’d have thought your revolving door of girlfriends would do that,” Andrew said.

Ben grinned. “Sounds like someone’s jealous.”

“I do okay.” Andrew knew he had a reputation for doing much more than okay. “I just hadn’t realized you were counting on me for entertainment.”

“It’s Monday,” Ben said, as if that explained everything. He grinned over Andrew’s shoulder. “If it isn’t Darrow in the flesh. We were just talking about you.”

Andrew didn’t want to turn, but there was no way he was letting Ben’s sharp eyes read his expression. He twisted around, the paper cup cool and light in his hand, and found himself a foot away from Sean.

Sean was looking tired. Fine lines etched his eyes, but he was standing tall, his shoulders back. His dark hair was trimmed short, his shave flawlessly close. The impact of Sean in a tailored black suit and a crisp gray shirt was strong enough to make Andrew’s head swim. The faint whiff of Sean’s citrus-based cologne and, under it, the earthier scent of Sean only added to his instinctive response.

Sean got to him on a visceral level. Always had, but until the island, he’d misread lust for loathing.

And now it was even more complicated.

“Yeah?” Sean reached past Andrew, almost brushing him with his hand, and took a cup from the dispenser. “If it’s a compliment, it’s all true. If it’s an insult, you can’t believe a word he says.”

Andrew moved aside, allowing Sean access to the water. For a moment, he was back on the island, kneeling in the sandy dirt and waiting for the thin trickle of silt-filled water to yield a mouthful of lukewarm liquid.

“He said you didn’t taste all that good.”

Sean’s hand jerked as he straightened, water spilling from the cup, some of it wetting Andrew’s pants.

“Jesus, be careful,” Andrew snapped, more because it was how he would’ve responded a month before than from any real annoyance. “Ben’s already doused me with coffee.”

“It’s just water.” The lines around Sean’s mouth were deep and unhappy. “It’ll dry. Don’t be such a baby.”

“Fuck you.” Andrew had no idea how this was happening, but he was aware of Ben doing his best to fade into the background—which meant they were making a scene. He took a deep breath and tried not to lose his mind. It was hard when Sean was so close. “I didn’t mean that. Sorry.”

“I don’t need any apologies from you,” Sean said. He still sounded angry.

“Well. Maybe I need to give one, okay?” Andrew tried to find his office persona, something he normally had no trouble doing. He lowered his voice and touched Sean’s elbow with a hand that trembled. “I’m sorry.”

“I should be taping this for posterity. Andrew Carney groveling.”

When Andrew turned to glare at Ben, he felt every inch his father’s son. Harris Carney was friendly, but there was a line no employee crossed, and when it came to Ben-fucking-Johnson, Andrew was drawing one of his own.

“I think the coffee break’s over, Johnson—unless you’d like me to arrange for your life to be one long break while you look for another job.”

There was a pause, Ben blinking at him, clearly taken aback by the ice in his voice. “I didn’t mean—”

“I don’t give a fuck what you did or didn’t—”

Sean interrupted him, moving forward and partially shielding Andrew from Ben’s puzzled gaze. “Simpson Holdings just went belly-up. Weren’t they someone you were backing heavily?”

“They did what?” Ben cursed fluently and at length, then spun and stalked off, his phone clamped to his ear.

Andrew tried to smile at Sean when he turned back toward him. “He’s going to be pissed off when he finds out you were lying.”

“Who says I was?” Sean watched him intently, and Andrew could feel himself blushing under the scrutiny. “Take some deep breaths or something. This isn’t the place to fall apart.”

That was more understanding than Andrew could handle just then. “I’m not! I’m fine. You’re the one who came barging in—”

“It’s a water cooler for the whole office,” Sean said mildly. “Cliché, maybe, but don’t act like I threw open a stall door in the bathroom and exposed you.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you.” Andrew resisted the urge to straighten his tie and spoke in a low voice so no one could overhear. “Wouldn’t you like that? Out me, destroy my career? You wouldn’t have nearly as much competition on the corporate ladder if I was out of the picture.” He knew he was being unfair, but he couldn’t stop himself.

“I’m out, and the ladder feels pretty fucking firm under my feet.” Sean waved dismissively, an arrogant flick of his fingers. “The only people who’d care would be assholes and maybe the women you’ve dated, and you know it. You’re just hung up on your daddy issues. Well, get over it. Talk to him. Your dad’s intimidating as hell, and if he’d been on the island with us, he’d have moved it across the ocean until it hit land by sheer force of personality. But you’re his son. He’s not going to go all Old Testament on your ass.”

“He would over this! Jesus, let me know my own father!” Andrew inhaled, willing the oxygen to silence the panicked buzz in his head. “Don’t tell people. Please. I’m…I’m asking. I’m begging you here.”

Sean’s blue eyes widened. “God, you look like you expect me to twirl my moustache and chuckle evilly that you’re in my power or something. Is that what you think of me? That I’d do that to someone I… Even someone like you? Thanks for nothing.” He jabbed his finger into Andrew’s chest, hard enough to bruise, but Andrew could only feel the echo of Sean’s hurt. “I can climb past you without outing you. Hell, without breaking a sweat. Watch me. You like competitions? You like fighting? I’m gonna take you down, Carney.”

“Yeah?” Andrew sighed. “Okay. Fine. Whatever you need to do.” It wasn’t like he could blame Sean for being mad at him. He just wasn’t sure how things had gotten so fucked up, and he had no idea how to move them in a better direction again. Not that there was any point to it, since it wasn’t like he could be Sean’s friend. He couldn’t be Sean’s anything. In fact, the only chance he had of his life going back to anything close to normal would be to get rid of Sean entirely.

Oh.

“Wait a minute,” he said, because Sean had started to turn away. “You want a competition? Fine. You’ve heard the rumor about Abbot Wells?”

Sean nodded. “Not just a rumor, I take it?”

“Not just a rumor. So here’s the deal. Whichever one of us can land him as a client gets to stay here.” Andrew studied Sean’s face, waiting for the unsaid to sink in.

“And the loser has to leave?” Sean snorted. “You’re full of shit, and you know it. It’s your father’s company, asshole. You seriously expect me to believe you’ll walk away? Or that your father will let you?”

“I’ll put it in writing if you want me to.”

“I like it here.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re so sure you can beat me, that won’t be a problem, will it? Or maybe you’re not so sure you’ve got what it takes, hmm?” Fighting with Sean was easy. They’d never done anything else here. Easy to slip back into the posturing, the insulting, the confronting.

Not so easy to picture Sean gone, but he’d deal with that when it happened.

Because Sean would be the one leaving, and it had nothing to do with whose father ran the company. Andrew knew he was good at what he did. Knew he was better than Sean, apart from the rare moments of honesty when he admitted, if only to himself, they were as good as each other, just in different ways.

“You’re that eager to get rid of me? Wipe what happened out of your life and pretend it didn’t happen?”

Andrew couldn’t meet Sean’s eyes for a moment, but when he did, there was nothing but contempt and scorn to be seen, no hurt showing. Fine. Sean despised him. That made it all so simple.

“I erase mistakes. So, I’ll draw up an agreement, and we can both sign—”

The door to the men’s room was a yard away. Andrew found himself slammed against it, then pushed through it when Sean moved a hand from his grip on Andrew’s lapels to the handle.

Andrew staggered, held up by Sean’s hands, on his shoulders now, tight as clamps, Sean’s fingers digging in. “What the fuck?

The door snicked closed behind them. The room was empty, quiet, the doors to the three stalls standing open.

“Forget signing some bullshit piece of paper,” Sean said thinly, his face cold. “Why don’t we seal it with a kiss?”

Andrew’s back met the tiled wall with a slam, and an instant later, his head collided with it too. Pain sparked fury, but before he could push Sean far enough away that he could throw a punch, his wrists were captured and pinned against the wall at shoulder height.

He tried for a sneer and managed a reasonable facsimile of one. “Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me with the caveman act.”

His cock didn’t seem to be in on the joke, already stiffening traitorously. Shit, anyone could walk in, find them…

Something inside him snapped at that. Andrew lifted his knee sharply into Sean’s balls, pulling the movement at the last second so he wouldn’t cause any real damage. Sean still reacted the way men usually did whether contact was made or not. Andrew took advantage of the flinch and shoved Sean away from him. “Fine, if that’s what you want.”

He took Sean’s face between his hands gently because, if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right. Sean’s eyes were wary, but this close his mouth looked just like Andrew remembered. Leaning in, Andrew pressed his lips to Sean’s with careful intent and increasing intensity until Sean responded and kissed him back. As soon as he felt that response, though, he ended the contact and stepped aside.

“Game on,” Andrew said sweetly and strode from the bathroom without looking to see the expression on Sean’s face.

Chapter Thirteen

Jerking off at work wasn’t a vice Sean indulged in—but then, neither was slamming the boss’s son against a wall and coming close to doing something inappropriate, and he’d just done that. He put his hands flat against the cool tile and groaned. How had his life gotten so chaotic?

“I just wanted a vacation,” he muttered. “I didn’t run over a puppy. Jesus, cut me a break.”

It would have helped if he’d known who he was talking to.

Straightening, he walked over to the mirrors lining the wall above the sinks. What he saw was a bleak-eyed man with a boner. Great. Really impressive. He palmed the outline of his dick gingerly, wondering if Andrew had missed with his knee on purpose or not. Just the thought of how painful that contact would have been had his dick softening, which was something, at least. He couldn’t leave until it did. He had places to go, people to call.

Bets to win.

Sean didn’t, not for a single, solitary fucking second, think Andrew would leave if he lost. There’d be some excuse, some get-out-of-jail-free loophole. No one tossed aside a job like this, not even spoiled brats like Andrew.

Sean had been rethinking his opinion of Andrew, but the last ten minutes had shown him he’d been right the first time.

If Andrew was willing to see Sean lose his job sooner than face him every day, knowing what they’d had together, then he was selfish to the bone, a complete and utter waste of Sean’s time.

His lips were still warm from Andrew’s kiss.

Fuck.

* * * * *

“So what do you think I should wear tonight?” Melissa Stone flicked a shining strand of auburn hair back over her shoulder and wiggled her perfect ass an inch to the left, coming close to knocking over Sean’s coffee.

He scowled at her and moved it pointedly out of the way.

“Your birthday suit. A sack. What the fuck do I know about women’s clothes?”

“I know what to wear to impress Abbott Wells,” Melissa said. “I’ve just never eaten at the Simpson before.” She pulled a face. “Who eats in the hotel restaurant? It’s so”—she waved her hand—“tacky?”

“A room there costs five hundred and up a night. I don’t think their restaurant’s going to be serving burgers and fries.”

“Even so.” Melissa yawned. “You and Carney will make yourselves disappear when it’s obvious you don’t stand a chance of landing him, right? Not stick around and cramp a girl’s style?”

“Wells is all yours,” Sean told her. “Though I think he’s a little old for you.” Wells had to be fifty, and Melissa claimed to be twenty-nine. Sean was pretty sure that meant she was in her early thirties, though he hadn’t gone to any effort to find out for sure because he just didn’t care that much.

“He could be the same age as my grandfather for all I care.” Melissa made a face. “Okay, maybe not, but you know what I mean.”

Sean, concentrating on some paperwork, gave a grunt of agreement even though he had no idea what she meant. “Just don’t be late.” Shit, why had he said that when they were in competition for Wells’s business? Ah well, it didn’t matter. He and Andrew were far more qualified than Melissa, even if she had made some impressive decisions since she’d joined Carney Enterprises.

“I’m more worried about being able to stay late,” she said. “I figure if I can keep him entertained long enough, he’ll forget about his breakfast meeting with Ellis Brothers and decide not to bother with them.”

Harris Carney had a family friend working as a receptionist at the rival firm, and he rewarded her well at the holidays in exchange for tiny bits of information that would be useful to them. Sean wasn’t supposed to know about the arrangement, but he did, just like he knew about Wells’s niece’s upcoming wedding and the man’s obsession with Scotch.

“Well, don’t expect Carney to be as obliging as me. I hear he really wants the guy’s business.”

“He does? Really?” She pulled a face. “Damn. Guess I’m out of luck. Can’t go up against the boss’s son.”

“You know you can. Harris likes it that way. He doesn’t want his son to get special treatment.”

“So he says.” Melissa stood, smoothing a tailored skirt that managed to look professional and provocative. “You’re the only one who takes him at his word, though, and I don’t think he likes it. Harris, I mean.”

Sean shrugged, genuinely indifferent. “I’m interesting in getting ahead, but I have to pander to the clients, and that’s as far as I go. I’m not kissing ass here at work.”

Melissa tilted her head to the side, studying him thoughtfully. “You really mean that. Weird.”

“What is?”

“I always thought you were smart.” She gave him a dismissive, empty smile and turned away. “See you tonight, Darrow. You can watch me play Carney and the client.”

“Oh joy,” Sean muttered. When she left, he glanced down at the locked drawer in his desk. The rough wooden box inside didn’t look like much, but it held a bottle of expensive single malt, shipped from Edinburgh. Wells would appreciate it. It wouldn’t guarantee a win for him, not by a long way, but it wouldn’t hurt.

He’d decided being prepared for the meeting was more important than going home to change clothes, but there was a clean shirt and tie hanging on the back of his door. He knew Andrew had left the building an hour earlier, so he was able to go to the restroom and change without worrying about bumping into him again. Sean wasn’t nervous; he was ready for this. He was prepared to leave Andrew in the dust and worry about the consequences later.

The first thing he saw when he pulled into the parking lot outside the hotel was Andrew, standing next to his BMW and handing his keys to the valet. Damn it. Sean was fifteen minutes early, and there was Andrew beating him to the punch.

Thinking quickly, Sean zipped his car around to the left, where an SUV was pulling out of a prime spot. He slid neatly into the space, threw the car into park, and then reached for his briefcase and the box that held the bottle of Scotch. He wouldn’t beat Andrew into the dining room, but at least he’d be right on his heels.

He’d already looked at the floor plan of the hotel, so he knew he was headed in the right direction without glancing at the signs. Ha, there was Andrew ten yards ahead of him, pausing to adjust his tie. Andrew was holding a laptop case and a shiny, metallic gift bag Sean was sure he hadn’t picked out himself.

“Personal touch, Andrew, my man,” he murmured. “Gets them every time.”

He allowed himself a second or two to consider where he’d like to touch Andrew—goose him, maybe, and hear a startled yelp followed by the crash as that gift hit the floor—then shut down that line of thought. This was work.

He got to the table just in time to hear Wells say with the utmost politeness, “No, Irish whiskey isn’t the same as Scottish whisky. The Irish throw in an extra ‘e’ for one thing. Not that the Irish don’t make a fine drink, but I prefer—”

“A thirty-year-old single cask bottling from Talisker Distillery, maybe?” Sean set his gift—bribe was such an ugly word—on the table, wondering if the box was too touristy. “It was once described as an iron fist in a velvet glove.”

“And that made you think of me?” Wells raised his eyebrows. “I’m flattered. I think. And by virtue of the fact Mr. Carney has introduced himself and my third guest is a lady, I’m guessing you’re Sean Darrow?”

“Pleased to meet you.”

Abbot Wells looked good for his age. His hair was steel-gray, his dark eyes alive with some inner amusement as he shook Sean’s hand.

Probably gets off on us fighting for him, Sean thought sourly, eyeing the powerful physique of the man with an automatic flicker of attraction he took care to keep to himself. It was fleeting, anyway. Wells was too old for him and too smooth. Just another rich guy in a suit who’d never had to worry about much.

“And here comes the lady now, just on time.”

The three of them rose as Melissa joined them, walking across the carpeted floor with elegant grace, unhurried and focused on her host. She’d opted for a midnight-blue sheath that showcased her legs without being too revealing, accessorized with a barbaric, chunky necklace in silver wound through with copper that rescued the outfit from being too staid.

She carried a tiny purse and no gift. Point to her or not? Wells might be uncomfortable with a woman spending money on him—even though it would be the company footing the bill.

Interesting. Sean had thought this was a two-horse race, but he was starting to reconsider writing Melissa off.

“Abbot Wells,” Wells said, getting to his feet but not offering his hand until Melissa extended hers.

“Melissa Stone.” They shook hands, and she slipped into the seat beside Wells’s chair, flashing their prospect a blinding smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much for seeing us.”

“I’m doing you a huge favor,” Wells agreed with a chuckle. He sat back down. “Of course, I’m hoping you’ll do one for me in exchange. Not the same thing, since you’d be rewarded financially, but I think we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”

“We’re the best company in the city,” Andrew said. He had a way of leaning back in his chair and looking relaxed but formal at the same time. If it didn’t make Sean so crazy to look at him, he’d have studied him to figure out how to copy it.

“It’s a big city,” Wells countered. “I can go wherever I want.”

“But you’re sitting here with us,” Melissa said. She flashed her thousand-watt smile; Sean was sure she’d had her teeth whitened. “There’s a reason for that.”

“Your company’s reputation, yes. But in order to get me to trust one of you as an individual, you’re going to need to impress me as individuals.”

Wells glanced at each of them in turn, his gaze searching, even predatory. Sean didn’t mind meeting that look, but he felt a stab of irritation when it was turned on Andrew.

Andrew had called him a caveman during their last encounter, and Sean had to admit he missed the days when it would’ve been perfectly in order to have felled Wells with a club and grabbed Andrew with a growled mine.

The image was absurd enough to make him grin, hiding his smile behind his hand as he pretended to clear his throat. Yeah, that’d go down well here in this elegant room, the quiet murmur of conversation cloaked by the soft strains of classical music from a quartet in the corner.

He found Wells staring at him again, something in the man’s expression telling him Wells was aware of his amusement. Sean didn’t play the gay/straight guessing game, but for all that Wells had been married—twice now, with a third wife in the offing—he was picking up on a few hints that Wells didn’t limit himself to women.

Like the way Wells had eyed Andrew’s ass, not the approaching Melissa, a few moments ago when Andrew had stood and turned. She’d been worth a look, but then, Andrew’s ass was pretty spectacular too.

“Why don’t you each spend a few minutes telling me about some of your recent picks?” Wells suggested, and Sean and Andrew both deferred to Melissa. Though she was technically their equal, there was an understanding ladies still went first.

Sean let his gaze move over Andrew, who was dividing his attention between Melissa and Wells as she spoke. It was an interesting exercise to try to see Andrew as someone just meeting him would, to set aside what he knew.

Andrew was definitely easy on the eyes. He was handsome in a traditional sense, and also had a brightness about him that drew people’s attention. It wasn’t surprising women flocked to him or heads turned when he walked through a room. His lips were the perfect shape for kissing, soft and pliable at one moment and forceful the next, and his deceptively slender form was muscular, and—

“Isn’t that right, Sean?” Melissa asked brightly, and Sean jerked his attention back to the conversation. Shit, had it been obvious he was drifting?

Andrew opened his mouth as if he was about to speak, then closed it. Had he been about to provide a distraction to help Sean or just dig the hole deeper? Was changing his mind mercy or a realization that in a battle, helping the enemy wasn’t a good idea? Sean wanted to decipher what lay behind the facile, charming smile, but in some ways, knowing Andrew better had blinded him. He couldn’t be objective now, couldn’t stare into Andrew’s hazel eyes and seek a weakness when he remembered how they looked glazed with passion and heat.

He went for honesty and spread his hands wide. “If I say I wasn’t listening because I’m starving, do I get kicked out or fed?”

The silence that followed his frankness lasted what felt like a long time. Melissa glared at him, clearly annoyed he’d tuned her out, and Andrew rolled his eyes, the corners of his lips twitching as he held back a triumphant smile.

Wells broke the pause with another dry chuckle. “I like a man with a healthy appetite, and the waiter is looking anxious, poor man.” He raised his hand, bringing the hovering waiter to the table a moment later. “Thanks for giving us time to get to know each other,” Wells said with a smile as charming—and fake—as any Andrew could produce. “We’re ready to look at the menu now, I think.”

The waiter brought the menus and took their drink orders, then came back with the drinks so quickly Sean knew Wells’s reputation preceded him.

“Would you like to order now, sir?” the waiter asked.

“Ms. Stone?” Wells asked, and she nodded.

“I’d like the Caesar salad with shrimp, please.”

Andrew ordered the sirloin, and Sean went for the veal tenderloin. Wells asked for swordfish and another glass of rare Scotch. Sean wondered how much it would take for the man to become drunk enough that his decision-making ability would be impaired, then abandoned that line of thought because if that were an issue, he’d already have known about it.

“Now who goes next?” Wells asked, looking from Sean to Andrew once the waiter had gone again.

Sean gestured at Andrew. “Be my guest.” He wanted to be the last pitch Wells heard, the one that stuck in his mind.

So did Andrew, judging by the way his eyes narrowed. Rather than start a boring round of polite deferrals to each other, Andrew shrugged slightly and began to talk.

He was good; Sean had to admit it, but then he’d never had any problem giving Andrew his due. Andrew was appealing to Wells as a social peer in a subtle way, never doing anything as crass as name-dropping, but mixed in with Andrew’s businesslike recitation of his successes and the plans he had for Wells’s money were a few allusions to places they’d both visited, people they both knew.

Typical. Just fucking typical. Sean wouldn’t be able to compete in that area—wouldn’t even try. His dad wouldn’t be seen dead at any of the right places to be, and a restaurant like this…well, Ricky would be able to afford the bill for dinner, no problem there, but he’d consider it a waste of money.

Give his dad a good steak, cook it until it was brown, make sure the plate was a big one and it was full, and he’d be happy. Give him a menu filled with French words he didn’t understand, and he’d toss it aside and order whatever he felt like eating.

Sean loved his dad, but sometimes he felt a twinge of embarrassment when they were out in public together. Ricky Darrow was loud, always ready to strike up a conversation, always with a story to tell, a joke to share. He was overwhelming.

And yet, for all that sometimes Sean cringed inwardly when Ricky bellowed out someone’s name across a bar or kept a clearly bored waitress at his table while he found out if she was related to someone he’d gone to school with—“because you’ve got her eyes, Jesus, what a little cutie-pie she was!”—his loyalty to his father was absolute. No one said a bad word about Ricky to him. No one.

Andrew finished, and Wells nodded slowly, a warm appreciation in his eyes, his gaze lingering on Andrew’s animated, smiling face.

“You make a compelling argument, Andrew. I can call you that? I do detest formality when I’m breaking bread with someone.” Wells picked up a small roll from the bread basket, freshly baked, hot, and suited action to words, splitting it with his thumbs and tearing off a chunk, never looking away from Andrew as he pushed it into his mouth slowly.

“Of course.” Andrew sipped his drink and then lifted the glass toward Sean. “I’m sure Sean doesn’t want to be formal either. Do you?”

Sean shook his head. “Is that my cue?”

“Only if you’re still interested. I think it’s clear my approach makes more sense than anything you’ve come up with, so maybe you won’t want to waste your time.” Andrew managed to sound both friendly and dismissive—how did he do that? Sean didn’t believe Andrew’s financial skills were any better than his, but his people-handling skills were a different matter entirely.

“It won’t be a waste, regardless of what decision Mr. Wells makes.” Sean smiled at their prospect and felt the moment when the man’s attention focused on him. Despite his occasional claim this was the part of the job he didn’t like, there was always a jolt of excitement when he was in the spotlight.

He’d only gotten about halfway through his spiel when their meals arrived, which was an unwelcome interruption as far as he was concerned. He didn’t want to have to compete with platefuls of food. Thankfully, Wells seemed much more interested in Sean than in the swordfish he’d ordered, so Sean forged ahead, outlining how he was going to make the already wealthy Wells rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Like Wells needed more money. How much could one person spend, anyway, unless he got into silly stuff like only taking baths in designer water and walking on rose petals?

“I must congratulate you all on your presentations,” Wells said when Sean had finished. “And not a whiteboard or flowchart to be seen. Amazing. You’ve given me plenty to digest, if you’ll forgive the pun.”

Melissa gave a perfunctory smile. Without anything being said, she’d been subtly marginalized by Wells, and she seemed aware of that enough to be getting tight-lipped. Some men did prefer working with other men, mistakenly thinking they were getting a tougher ally, and that could be what was happening here, though Sean didn’t think so.

Wells just wasn’t responding to Melissa with anything but indifference. She wasn’t interesting him as a woman or from a business perspective.

Fair enough. One down, one to go.

Melissa refused a dessert with the same quiver of revulsion she’d have shown if offered drugs, and stood. “If you’ll excuse me…”

Sean rose a few inches from his chair with the other men, dropping his napkin onto the table. They didn’t stand, making the gesture even more meaningless, but it was what people did, so he did it.

Andrew watched Melissa walk away, and Wells watched Andrew.

“So now we can talk.”

Andrew’s attention came back to Wells. “Excuse me?”

Wells settle back in his chair, a glint of something predatory in his eyes. “She’s a pretty little thing, but the fight’s between you two, and I think we all know that.”

Asshole, Sean thought sourly, resenting Wells’s attitude toward his colleague. He respected Melissa’s abilities, even if he didn’t like her much.

“Now it’s just a matter of narrowing the field one last time.” Wells smiled. “So I’m going to be straightforward, and I hope you’ll both be the same.”

“Yeah, of course,” Andrew said. He was still working on his original drink, stretching it out as long as possible for some reason Sean couldn’t fathom.

“I know you’re both gay,” Wells said, and Sean saw Andrew’s mouth drop open.

Andrew swallowed and asked, “What makes you think that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Wells said with a wave. “Your reaction confirms it, not that I had any doubts. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I was hoping we might be able to continue our discussion this evening.”

“Upstairs.” Sean finished his drink, seriously considering another. “In your hotel room.”

“Yes.” Wells had the attitude of a man who always got everything he wanted and didn’t expect this time to be any different. “We’re all adults.”

Andrew was doing a nice bunny in the headlights impression, his throat working convulsively. Payback time for the trapped-foot rescue—and he’d damned if he was letting a dickhead like Wells put that trapped, horrified look on Andrew’s face.

Sean leaned across the table and got close to Wells, smelling the man’s cologne and hating it on principle. Lying to Wells didn’t bother him one bit. “It’s not all that mature to make a business decision based on which of us is desperate enough for your account to suck your dick. And for the record, the only one here who enjoys that particular activity is me. Carney’s so straight you could use him as a ruler. Don’t take that as a yes from me, though. I said I liked doing it, not that I wanted to do it with you.”

Wells flipped his hand dismissively without showing any resentment or embarrassment about Sean’s rejection. That was insulting, viewed one way, but Sean didn’t mind. “Fine. You’re not my type, anyway. Too rough around the edges, and I wouldn’t have much leverage with you since you’re so strident about being out.” His gaze dwelt on Andrew, and there was a self-satisfied smirk on his lips that turned Sean’s stomach. “Andrew’s got so much more incentive to be nice to me.” He put his hand lightly, possessively over Andrew’s for a moment. “Something tells me you’re going to be very nice, hmm? I’ll enjoy letting you prove—what was it you said? Oh yes. That my satisfaction with your performance was your number-one priority.”

Sean rolled his eyes. He wasn’t particularly shocked or offended by Wells’s offer—he knew a few men at the office, all straight, who’d have gone along with it to land a multibillion-dollar account—but he was seriously pissed about the way the man had put pressure on Andrew’s vulnerable spot. “Yeah, because he really meant that to cover getting naked with you.” He spotted Melissa heading back to the table and caught her eye, shaking his head slightly and jerking his chin at the door. She hesitated, her lips folded tightly in exasperation, then grudgingly nodded back and turned on her heel. He was going to have to dream up a good explanation to feed her tomorrow, but she had to have realized she was out of the picture.

Wells turned to watch her go, his eyebrows raised in a mild surprise that was patently fake. “I guess she didn’t want coffee.”

Sean snorted. “Like you care. We’re leaving too. If you’re serious about investing with either of us, we can still talk—at the office—but forget the seduction scene and hire a hooker. The guy at reception will know one who’s safe and discreet. They always do.”

He kicked Andrew’s ankle under the table. Time for Andrew to stop hyperventilating and start unleashing some icy courtesy that would get the message across that Wells was wasting his time with both of them.

Instead, Andrew was regarding Wells thoughtfully. “I do want your business.”

“I know you do,” Wells said.

“You’d be a hell of a catch.” Andrew tilted his head to one side.

“In more ways than one.”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Sean hissed, glaring at Andrew. “You aren’t seriously considering this.”

“I don’t know why you’d care.” Andrew shot him a cold glance.

The familiar desire to punch Andrew in the mouth was rising. “Well, because it’s unethical, for one.”

“We aren’t talking about ethics,” Andrew said. “What Mr. Wells does with his money and what he does in the privacy of his bedroom are completely unrelated, and you know it.” He made a show of looking at his watch. “Hmm, look at the time. Maybe we should be calling it a night.”

“An excellent suggestion. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. If either of you would like to join me for a nightcap—purely on a social level, of course—I’m in the penthouse.”

Of course he was. Sean remembered the saying about cream not being all that rose to the top and let his lip curl as he shook hands.

“Good night, then.” Wells stood and left carrying his gifts not bothering with something as mundane as waiting for the check, left with a smile and a lingering look at Andrew, who nodded slightly as if answering a question.

Fuck. No way would Andrew take Wells up on his offer. That would be insane. Sean shot Andrew a questioning, accusing glance, but Andrew avoided his eyes, a flush staining his cheeks, wiping out the pallor.

Andrew straightened his jacket with precise, finicky care, then walked out, weaving his way among the tables and chairs with that same care, like a man who’d drunk too much and was trying to cover it up.

“Can you believe that jerk?” Sean demanded when they reached the lobby. It was a vast expanse of space, the gray carpet flowing to the bank of elevators pristine and plush, the huge flower arrangements on tables and in wall niches scenting the air. “And you—what the hell was that all about? Just how far will you go to get rid of me? Because that sounded like you were thinking of taking him up on the nightcap, and I know you’re not that stupid. Nightcap? Yeah, right.”

“You wouldn’t want to let that expensive Scotch go to waste, would you?” Andrew wasn’t meeting Sean’s eyes.

“I’d rather pour it down the sink than let that asshole have a drop of it.” The thought of Andrew licking the taste of it from the inside of Wells’s mouth made Sean crazy.

“Sounds like you don’t want his business,” Andrew said.

Sean shook his head. “I don’t. Not like this. And you shouldn’t either. We don’t need it this badly.”

He doesn’t need our help,” Andrew countered. “He’s so loaded he could lose ninety-five percent of his money and still be loaded. It isn’t about need. I mean, if we’re being honest, almost none of our clients need us. That’s not the point.”

“Then tell me what the point is.” Sean didn’t care what Andrew said. He just wanted to keep him talking.

“Well, for one, you and I made an agreement. I know you didn’t forget.”

“Yeah, but having sex with a man you don’t like to get rid of a man you do—on alternate Tuesdays, anyway—seems like a fucking stupid idea. He can’t know you’re gay, but if you let him fuck you, he’s got something he can hold over you.”

Andrew made an exasperated sound. “He’s not a supervillain, Sean. He’s not going to blackmail me or threaten me. He just wants to screw me because he thinks it’d end the night well, and he’ll get a kick out of knowing I’m desperate for his account. I’ve known men like him all my life. The only thing that would keep me on his radar is saying no. I go along with this and the next time he sees me, I’m just the guy making him richer.” He bit his lip, something Sean was starting to classify as enemy action. “And this thing between us… It’s for the best to end it cleanly. We can’t take it anywhere, and the more we… It’s hell, okay? I want it over. I want you out of my sight.”

Hurt and anger were making Sean’s gut churn to the point where he wanted to throw up. “You’re as selfish as Wells. What about me? Or doesn’t what I want count for anything? And just in case I didn’t make it clear, I want the job I’ve worked my ass off for, and I want you. If I can only have you behind closed doors… I don’t like it, but I’d do it. That’s how much I want you, Andrew.”

He felt raw, as if every word had stripped skin from his body, but he’d have talked like this all night if it kept Andrew away from Wells.

“Too bad,” Andrew said, like it didn’t matter to him at all. It would have hurt worse if there hadn’t been a hesitation before he said it. “We can’t, so just stop. I’m going to win this guy over, and you’re going to go get a job somewhere else. You won’t have any trouble; you know that. It’s not like I’m forcing you into unemployment or something. You might even get a nice, fat raise out of the deal.”

“I don’t care about the money,” Sean said.

“Don’t deny it’ll be easier for you too,” Andrew said, really looking at him for the first time, and Sean shrugged helplessly. “Okay. Good. I’ll, um… The penthouse, right?” He wiped a hand over his mouth and glanced toward the elevators. “I’m gonna go. So I’ll see you tomorrow. At the office.”

Numb, all out of words, Sean watched Andrew walk away.

Chapter Fourteen

Andrew was only five minutes late to the office the next morning, which he thought was pretty good considering he hadn’t heard his alarm going off. When he’d gotten home last night after his visit to Wells’s penthouse, he’d been so exhausted he’d fallen into bed without even showering first, and he’d had to scramble to get himself presentable and to the office.

It wasn’t until almost ten that his door opened. Usually people were polite and knocked, so he knew even before he looked up it was either Sean or his father. “Right on the first guess,” he said, sighing.

“Wells keep you up all night?” Sean asked.

“No,” Andrew said. His heart was pounding, and it had nothing to do with Wells. “But I was pretty tired. Slept right through the alarm.”

“I hope you were careful.” Sean raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

Andrew closed the file he’d been working on and stood up. “Why would you hope that?”

“Just because we’re…not together,” Sean said, like he was trying to find the right words, “doesn’t mean I want anything bad to happen to you.”

That made Andrew feel guilty, in part because he’d been assuming it was just that Sean was jealous. He couldn’t look at Sean without wanting him, and he’d learned better than to set his sights on things he couldn’t have—so arranging for Sean to go to work somewhere else was the best solution. The only solution.

“Nothing bad happened. I told you he wasn’t like that. Opportunistic, maybe.”

“Oh yeah, that’s a nice, polite way of describing someone who blackmails a guy into having sex with him. What would you call a murderer? Someone with anger management issues?”

Andrew drew in a sharp breath, irritated by the way Sean was overreacting. “Drop it. It was between me and him, and I don’t kiss and tell.”

Sean grinned, a nasty sneer of a grin, in Andrew’s opinion, with no humor behind it. “I don’t care who you tell about us. Get juicy. Exaggerate the size of my dick. Go for it.”

Drop it,” Andrew said between his teeth. He couldn’t yell it the way he wanted to, but he put plenty of venom into it. “I don’t belong to you, and you don’t have a say in what I do and who I do it with.”

“Got it,” Sean snapped. “So about that stupid bet you dreamed up. Going to call it off?”

“Why would I?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you’re winning by cheating?

Andrew went around the desk and walked toward Sean. “I didn’t cheat. You have no idea what you’re talking about, so shut the fuck up, and while you’re at it, get the hell out of my office.”

“You might want to offer to suck me off first,” Sean said, sickly sweet. “Or let me fuck you, since that’s how you seem to be climbing the corporate ladder these days. You want something, Carney, you’d better pay up.”

“Fuck. You.” Andrew shoved Sean toward the doorway, and when Sean pushed back, Andrew growled and hit him.

It was one punch aimed at Sean’s mouth, but Sean must have seen it coming. He jerked his head to the left and Andrew’s blow hit his jaw instead. Jaws are a lot more solid than lips and teeth, and Andrew felt the jolt all the way up into his shoulder. Wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but Sean stumbled backward and almost fell.

“What the hell is going on out here?” Harris was standing there suddenly, arms crossed over his chest. He pointed. “You. You. In my office, now. And there’d better be a good explanation for this.”

With the feeling he was reliving the moment he’d finger painted over an expensive portrait as if it were a paint-by-numbers canvas and gotten caught middaub, Andrew trailed after his father, Sean matching him step for step. His arm ached dully, his elbow on fire. Shit, he’d screwed up on this one.

Once in his father’s office, waved to seats in front of Harris’s desk with that all too familiar slash of a hand, Andrew strove to calm down. This was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it could get.

Not yet.

If only Sean would keep his mouth shut…

Harris let the silence grow heavy, then broke it. “So. I spend a small fortune sending you two jokers off to get over your pointless, juvenile feud, and you manage not to kill each other when you could’ve gotten away with it with no witnesses. I’m happy. Encouraged. I see signs of maturity. Then I find you punching each other, and I realize I’ve got two more idiots working for me than I thought.”

“Dad—” Andrew began, but his father cut him off with a glare.

“Here, I’m your employer.”

“Yes, sir,” Andrew said meekly.

“It was just an argument, uh, sir,” Sean put in. “I’m not asking you to cut us some slack because of what we went through on the island, but…cut us some slack? It wasn’t easy for either of us.”

Harris gestured between them, his face impassive. In this mood, Harris was fucking intimidating. “This fight was about something that happened back there? Is that what you’re dancing around, Darrow?”

“No.” Sean grimaced and said nothing more.

“Andrew? I’m waiting.”

“We were having a disagreement about how to handle the Abbot Wells account,” Andrew said. “That’s all.”

“Melissa said it was clear he’s one of those people who prefers to work with men and not women,” Harris said. “And I know she left before either of you did—”

“Nothing happened,” Andrew told him, but he was looking at Sean as he said it, looking into Sean’s eyes, willing Sean to understand.

“It turns out,” Sean said slowly, obviously choosing his words carefully, “Wells likes to…have the occasional dalliance.” He shrugged. “With men. He came on to me, invited me back to his room for a drink that clearly wasn’t going to be just a drink. I wasn’t interested.”

“But—” Harris looked even more puzzled now. “Wells called this morning. Andrew’s got the account.”

The look on Sean’s face made Andrew’s stomach churn. “It can’t have anything to do with—” Sean started, and Harris interrupted him with a cold glare and a commanding gesture.

“Andrew.”

It wasn’t a question or a request, but Andrew knew exactly what his father meant, and suddenly he didn’t care. This was too hard, being someone he wasn’t, and he not only couldn’t do it anymore, he didn’t want to. If his father disowned him, fired him, he’d deal with it; at least he’d be dealing with reality.

“Yes,” he said. His voice cracked and his hands were shaking. “Yes, I went to his room.”

“Just to talk to him, persuade him to give you the account—” Sean’s voice was too strident, giving away what he was trying to conceal.

Harris leaned forward, his eyes wide, startled, a question in them for Andrew.

Andrew met that gaze and held it. Here I am. Look at me. See me.

“Darrow,” Harris said quietly. “I’d like to continue this discussion alone with Andrew.”

“Sir—” Sean hesitated, but Harris jerked his head at the door, and Sean stood, his reluctance plain. Before he left, he put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. Andrew barely registered the contact, though part of him was grateful for it. Sean seemed able to forgive him so much, so easily, but he didn’t fool himself that things between them were okay. Sean’s disgust with him the night before had been patent.

The click of the door closing sounded freakishly loud, and Andrew’s head felt like it was floating. Hyperventilation, he thought, and made an effort to breathe more slowly.

“Tell me,” Harris said. “Whatever it is…”

“Yes,” Andrew blurted again. “About everything you’re thinking, probably. I’m…” He didn’t know for sure he could say it. “I-I’m gay.”

“Is this a new development?” Harris asked, and Andrew laughed in disbelief. Was this conversation really happening?

“No. Um. Not new.”

“Okay.” Harris looked like he needed a drink, even glanced over at the bottle of brandy he kept for special clients. But it was before lunch. In the Carney world, only a true catastrophe allowed for liquor before noon, and it was a relief to realize this didn’t qualify. “But you’ve known for a long time.”

“Yes.”

There was a pause in which Andrew held his breath, waiting for what would come next. “All those girlfriends,” his father said slowly. “Were any of them real relationships?”

Andrew wasn’t sure how to answer that. “They were real. I liked them as friends. Just not romantically. Some of them knew—or guessed—but mostly we didn’t talk about it.”

“Have you ever—” Harris shook his head and covered his face with his hand for a second. “No, never mind. Of course I’m not asking that.” He hesitated, then said with difficulty, “Wells.”

“God, no!” Andrew was horrified by the implication. “I’m gay, I’m not easy. And no, never, not with a single client. That’s not something I’d ever do, I swear.”

Harris chopped at the air with his hand. He did that too often, as if he really thought that downward slash of his hand could cut off words or freeze actions. “If I thought for one moment Wells had pressured my son into sex against his wishes, my son, I’d ruin him. I’d bring him down. Tell me that wasn’t what happened.”

Andrew swallowed, taken aback by his father’s response. Harris’s voice was shaking with repressed anger, his face flushed darkly.

“No. I told you. I went up there and I—” He closed his eyes for a moment, ashamed now of the subterfuge he’d used. “I had a bet with Sean over who got the account. I told him I was going to do it. Sleep with Wells. He was…he wasn’t pleased, and he tried to stop me, but I knew if I could get to talk to Wells alone, I’d be able to persuade him to choose me. I wasn’t ever—ever—going to sleep with him. He’d said he knew I was gay, but the only way he could prove that was for me to agree to have sex with him, and I’m not that stupid.”

“About that, I’ll have to beg to differ.” There was a snap in Harris’s voice, but he’d calmed down. “So you went up there, and he not unnaturally supposed he’d hooked you?”

Andrew snorted. “For about thirty seconds, yes. Then I pointed out the world thought he was straight, and if he wanted to keep it that way, he needed to be more discreet. I said I wanted to work with him, but that was all, and I told him about the bet and how I’d tricked Sean.” He rubbed his hand across his face. “Sean had been pretty frank about what he thought of Wells, and Wells wasn’t happy about it.”

“That young man needs to know when to guard his tongue.”

“Well, he had just been asked for a threesome in public by a complete stranger old enough to be his father,” Andrew pointed out and had the satisfaction of rendering his father speechless for a full five seconds. “Anyway, Wells is no fool. He knew our company was the best, and he said he’d go with me in charge of his account partly to shut me up, partly to piss off Sean.” He shrugged. “I don’t mind working with him now that we all know where we stand.”

“Forget about him,” his father said and stood, walking around to take the seat Sean had used. He dragged it closer to Andrew, facing him. “Son, you should have told me this years ago. Your mother and I… We should have known.”

There was no accusation in his voice, just a bewildered hurt. Andrew had put that expression on Sean’s face the night before, and seeing it repeated in his father’s eyes came close to breaking him.

“I know.” Andrew exhaled shakily. “At first I thought maybe I’d—I don’t know—grow out of it. Then I thought I might be able to change my own mind by going out with women. But it didn’t work. I mean, I can see they’re beautiful, and I liked some of them as people. I just never… I never wanted them. Not like I was supposed to.”

“I don’t know what we did wrong,” Harris said, his tone making it clear it wasn’t an accusation. “What did we do to make you think we’d stop loving you? What did you think we’d say, for God’s sake?” He reached out and patted Andrew’s knee, and Andrew felt his tentative control crumple.

“I was too scared to find out,” Andrew whispered.

“Come here.” His father pulled him in for a rough hug accompanied by a couple of thumps on the shoulder blade, then pulled back, visibly fighting for composure. “Well. I hope you know this is going to kill your mother. Do you have any idea how much she enjoys setting you up with eligible young women?”

Andrew laughed uncertainly, still unable to fully process the way the monster under the bed had turned out to be a dust bunny. “Yeah, I do. Maybe she can shift her thinking a little, find some eligible men instead?”

“Prepare to have a date for Friday night.”

“Umm, I was joking. I can find my own dates, thanks.”

“You’re a Carney,” his father said with a hint of arrogance. “Straight or not, you’ll never have problems finding someone.” He frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Andrew shook his head, overwhelmed by it all. “You’re taking this a lot better than I’d imagined.”

“You surely didn’t think I’d disown you? When have I ever—”

“No. No, I know you’re not like that. It’s just…family means so much to you, and I’m your only son. I’m supposed to marry, have kids, continue the line…”

“I’d like that. I want that. It’s going to take some getting used to, the idea I won’t have it the usual way. But it’s not as if gay men can’t marry here, can’t have babies through surrogate mothers or adoption.”

Andrew stood, pacing around the office to calm the turbulent emotions he was adrift in. All those years hiding, lying, being a self-sacrificing idiot. Jesus. All for nothing.

Sean was going to be insufferable with his told you so’s.

“That’s all true, I guess.”

Harris returned to his seat, settling into it with a sigh that sounded relieved. “And we can discuss it another time. It’s enough that there aren’t any secrets between us now, son.”

“That was the big one.” Okay, he was evading the question, but there was no way he was sharing everything about his sex life with his father.

“So you won the bet with Darrow.” His father nodded, looking pleased by more than the change of subject. “Good job. How much did you win? Enough to take your old man out to lunch?”

Awkward. “It wasn’t for money,” Andrew said reluctantly. “The loser had to give notice.”

His father’s eyes widened. “Excuse me? Since when do you make bets that mean, win or lose, I’m out a talented manager?”

Might as well get it over with. His dad had been remarkably cool with finding out his only son was gay, so this probably wouldn’t register.

“On the island we, uh, we…um. Dad, we got involved, okay? Physically. And became…friends. Sean wanted the relationship to continue when we got back, and it couldn’t the way things were, so I thought up the bet to get rid of him.”

And didn’t he sound callous when it was spelled out like that? He was uneasily aware he was leaving his father with the impression that the attraction was all on Sean’s side, which wasn’t the case at all.

“You and Darrow would never work,” Harris said dismissively. “You need to make that clear to him. I respect the man, but as your, uh, boyfriend? I don’t think so. Too arrogant, and his family isn’t… Well, never mind that. He’s a bright man and an exemplary manager, which, by the way, means I expect you to abandon the idea of him leaving Carney Enterprises for another company.”

“I know,” Andrew said, refusing to be disheartened over that cool rejection of Sean because it was so unwarranted. “It was a stupid bet. I’ll talk to him. But, Dad, if you think those things about him—you don't really know him. And I don’t care about his family being the new rich or whatever it is you don’t like about them. Look, I’ve got to go. I'll talk to you later.”

He had the rest of the week off. That ought to be enough time to get things straightened out with Sean. Little as he was looking forward to it, he was having outpatient surgery to fix his elbow the next day and had taken tomorrow and Friday off to recover. By Monday he should be back to normal, and the weekend would give him the time to work out a solution to the bet with Sean.

Hopefully.

* * * * *

“Okay, Andrew, I’m going to inject the anesthetic now. You should start feeling it pretty quickly.”

Lying on the hospital bed, Andrew closed his eyes and imagined he could feel the stuff sliding through his veins. He wanted to get this over with since it was clear he didn’t have much of a choice. Not only had his doctor insisted on the surgery, but once his mother had heard about the recommendation, she’d declared her intention to drive him home and take care of him. The first part of that was fine, but he really didn't want her fussing over him.

“Now count backward from one hundred,” the doctor said, and Andrew closed his eyes.

“One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight…ninety…seven.”

Sean was there in the room, sitting in a chair near the window. Andrew knew he wasn’t awake, that this was the effect of the anesthesia. But he didn’t want to know that. He wanted this to be real, so he clung to it. He pressed his face to Sean’s rough, salt-stiffened shirt and held on. His grip made his elbow hurt like crazy, and he whimpered and loosened his hold.

“Andrew. Come on, open your eyes. You’re in recovery, everything’s fine.” It was a woman’s voice, but Andrew couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough to focus on her face.

He had a vague, hazy memory of sitting up, of putting on his clothes. The nurse helped with his shirt because his arm was bandaged, and she must have been the one who called his mother, because Andrew definitely would have remembered the effort it would have taken to dial a phone. The car ride was another haze of shifting colors, his mother's voice rising and falling in waves. The way she was focusing on his surgery instead of on the fact that he’d come out of the closest was probably her way of dealing, and he was grateful her attention was on his recovery. He couldn’t have handled listening to her talk about anything else right then.

Home, he managed to fend off her hovering by pretending to be even more out of it than he was. He took two of the pain pills he’d been prescribed, probably too high a dosage, but it wouldn’t kill him. Then he was too exhausted to contemplate walking all the way to the bedroom. He lay down on the couch instead, the decorative pillow scratchy against his cheek, and was instantly gone.

Chapter Fifteen

Sean rapped on the door of Andrew’s Fifth Avenue condo and swore if Andrew didn’t answer in the next ten seconds, he’d kick it in. It looked fairly easy on all the cop shows, and he could afford a new door, even if the lawyer he’d need to get him out of jail would be pricey.

He’d been knocking for a good five minutes, and he knew Andrew was inside because…where else would he be after having surgery?

Sean’s breath hissed through his gritted teeth. He was surprised steam wasn’t coming out along with it. He’d expected Andrew to come to him after the talk with his dad, looking for a shoulder to cry on or a more R-rated way to vent. He’d even let himself hope Harris had taken the news well and Andrew would have no reason to stay away.

After a day spent at his desk with none of his e-mails or phone calls returned, he’d stormed into Andrew’s office and discovered Andrew had gone out for a late lunch with his father—promising—and gone home early after it had ended. He’d leaned on Andrew’s assistant for more details, gotten nowhere, and sent Lorna out to gather gossip, something she did as assiduously as a squirrel looking for nuts.

“Mr. Carney, senior and junior, both looked fine when they left, smiling and joking, and Denise told me Andrew was going to have dinner with his parents at their house. Why? What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Thanks for doing that, Lorna.”

“You’re welcome.”

She’d hovered, clearly hoping for more information, but Sean had waved her back to her desk without giving any, knowing he’d pay for his reticence with lukewarm coffee until she forgave him. It was worth it to know Harris hadn’t been angry, and Sean understood Andrew would need to talk to his mom.

He got it.

Wanting their first meeting to be somewhere with a bed—he preferred to think of that as practical forward thinking, not wild optimism—he worked from home the next day, waiting for Andrew to knock on the door. In the late afternoon, by chance during a teleconference, he’d found out about Andrew’s surgery and realized why Andrew wasn’t around.

Fine. He’d give him more time to come knocking and space to recover from his surgery.

But the knock never came, and now apparently Andrew wasn’t answering other people’s knocks either. Sean didn’t blame the man for needing some time, but this was getting ridiculous, and to the point where Sean needed to see for himself that Andrew was all right.

He heard a mumbled curse from the other side of the door, then a scrape and a crash that sounded like glass. Shuffling feet, and the door opened. Andrew blinked at him sleepily, then smiled. “Hi! Come in.”

“What the hell kind of greeting is that?” Sean asked and pushed past Andrew. “What did you break?”

“Huh? Oh, just a glass. Don’t worry about it.”

“Sit down,” Sean barked. “No, right here.” There was a chair near the door; he pushed Andrew down into it, probably not gently enough. “Where’s a dustpan and brush?”

“I don’t know,” Andrew said plaintively. He didn’t sound at all like himself. “I have a cleaning lady. Maybe she brings it?”

“Jesus, you’re so fucking spoiled. It’s probably in a closet or something.” Sean went toward the kitchen and found a pantry closet where, sure enough, there was a dustpan and brush set hanging on a hook. “For Christ’s sake, stay there, or you’re going to get glass in your feet, you idiot.”

Andrew stayed where he was while Sean hastily swept up the broken glass and disposed of it. When Sean went back to retrieve him, Andrew was slumped over, half asleep.

“Come on. Get up.” Sean urged Andrew to his feet. “Were you in bed? What are you on?”

“I don’t know. Some pain pills.” Andrew swayed, and Sean steadied him. “It hurts, so I take one, and then it doesn’t stop hurting, so I take another one.”

“And it never occurred to you to talk to someone about it, maybe get a different painkiller that did work? Jesus.”

Sean glanced around. Andrew was heavy, the sofa was close, and he wasn’t sure where the main bedroom was. Okay, the sofa worked for him. It was a long piece, modern and angular, made of bright scarlet leather, but it was deep enough to be comfortable, and the cushions had some give in them. He propped Andrew up in a corner and plunked himself down beside him.

Andrew’s fair hair needed shampooing. It was limp and messy, framing a washed-out face. Andrew was in track pants and a short-sleeved T-shirt, his feet bare. He looked a mess, as far from the polished executive in a six-thousand-dollar suit as it was possible to get, and Sean felt a wave of tenderness rise up to choke him. He knew this Andrew. This was the man who’d gutted fish, built a shelter, and made a fire with hands raw, blistered, and chafed. The man he’d slept beside, kissed, fucked.

The man he’d fallen in love with.

The sick, sullen resentment that lingered over Andrew’s decision to sleep with Wells couldn’t kill that love. Sean was pissed, yes, but he’d get over it. It’d help if Andrew stopped fucking around and agreed they worked together as a couple—that they just clicked, in bed and out.

When they weren’t fighting, anyway.

“Are you really here?” Andrew looked confused, younger than his years.

“Yeah,” Sean said gruffly. “Listen, can you concentrate for a minute?”

“Sure.” Andrew smiled at him again, the same open, blissful smile he’d shared when he’d seen Sean at his door.

“How many pills have you taken today?”

Andrew thought for longer than he should have needed to. “Um. I think four. I got up at ten, and took two then. And then another one around four, and two more a while ago.”

“That’s five,” Sean pointed out. He didn’t want to drag Andrew to the emergency room for nothing, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell just from conversation if Andrew was in danger. “Look, I’m trying to figure out whether I should be calling an ambulance to get your stomach pumped.”

“Nah. I’m good.” Andrew shifted, winced, and abruptly lay down, using Sean’s lap as a pillow. “You’re not really here.”

“You’re so wrong about that.” Sean stroked Andrew’s hair. Even lank and tangled as it was, he wanted to touch it, slow, gentle touches as if he were petting a cat. Now he thought about it, Andrew was like a stray cat, flinching away from a touch but so in need of food and affection that gradually he’d creep closer, learn to trust…

“Not wrong. Never wrong.”

“Want to bet?” Sean traced the curve of Andrew’s ear with his finger. “How about not telling me you were having surgery done, huh? I had to find out during a teleconference, for God’s sake.”

“Didn’t think you’d want to know. Why did you want to know?” Andrew giggled. “Want to give me a bed bath?”

“It’s my favorite jerk-off fantasy,” Sean assured him. “I use ice-cold water, and you’re tied down.”

“No.” Andrew shook his head, rubbing his cheek across Sean’s thigh. It felt disturbingly good, and Sean held his breath, willing his cock to behave. Andrew was too spaced-out to talk to, let alone sleep with. Sean knew that, but his body was yammering with pleasure at being close to Andrew again, reveling in it. Stupid body. “You wouldn’t do that. You’re nice to me. Too nice. Ice and nice don’t go together.”

“You still have so much to learn,” Sean told him.

“Teach me?” Andrew asked, turning his head so the solid mass of his skull pressed enticingly against Sean’s cock.

“Yeah, not today.” Sean grinned and stroked Andrew’s hair. “You’re high as a kite.”

“I’m not. I’m just melloooow. You know, relaxed.” Andrew shifted and rubbed his jaw along the length of Sean’s cock, then turned and mouthed at it through the fabric of Sean’s trousers.

Fuck.

“Maybe we should get some food into you,” Sean said, easing himself out from under Andrew’s gorgeous, willing body.

“M’not hungry,” Andrew whined. He made come-here motions with his hands, but Sean knew if he didn’t put some space between them, he was going to be persuaded to do something he’d feel guilty about. No way was he risking that.

Sean started to make himself familiar with Andrew’s small, sleek kitchen. “When was the last time you ate?”

“I dunno. Yesterday?” Andrew sounded closer.

“Stupid,” Sean muttered under his breath. It made him feel better. “Idiotic, stubborn, spoiled. Jesus!” Andrew had just appeared in the doorway like a ghost. “You should be lying down!”

“I was lonely,” Andrew said, blinking.

“Try being me the last few weeks,” Sean muttered. He’d spent way too long going over every significant conversation he’d had with Andrew since the plane crash, rewriting his lines so Andrew was dazzled by his impeccable logic, overwhelmed with lust, and lost to love.

“What? You’re lonely too?” Andrew pouted adorably. “Poor Sean. Poor, poor, poor, poor—”

“Yeah, I get it. I’m poor. Compared to your family, who isn’t?”

Andrew waved his hand dismissively and whacked himself on the nose. “Ow! It’s money. Money’s just numbers. Only the zeroes count, and they’re nothing, so they don’t count. Forget about the money. Kiss me. You never kiss me now. Miss it.”

“Oh God.” He wanted to. He could almost feel Andrew’s mouth, soft and sweet against his, the warmth of Andrew’s breath, the wicked, teasing flicks of his tongue. “Andrew, I can’t. You’re not—”

Andrew’s mouth drooped. “You’re still mad at me because of Wells.”

“Shouldn’t I be?”

“No.” Andrew came closer and slipped an arm around Sean’s waist, nuzzling at his neck. Christ, there was no way Sean was getting out of this. “I didn’t do anything with him. I swear. Didn’t want him.”

“He’s too old for you,” Sean agreed, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the conversation despite the distraction of Andrew’s hand at his waistband.

“No, he’s not. I mean, it wasn’t…” Andrew kissed the underside of Sean’s jaw, and Sean couldn’t push him away, not when all he wanted was to hold him closer. “I only want you. I wish…I wish we were still on that island, so I could have you any time I wanted. All the time.” He turned, and Sean could feel the eager push of his erection.

Sean groaned helplessly. “Andrew.”

“Yeah,” Andrew whispered. “Say my name.” His lips were soft against Sean’s throat.

“Better things to do with my mouth.” He cupped Andrew’s jaw and pushed upward, slowly, carefully, watching for the slightest resistance. Andrew’s chin rose with the same inevitability as the sun each morning, and then his mouth was there, and Sean could end a dozen never-finished dreams the way he wanted to and kiss Andrew.

Sweet, warm, hungry… The kiss was perfect, even with Andrew clinging to him, unsteady through drugs and lack of food. Sean gave himself that one kiss as a reward for all sorts of things he’d done or refrained from doing, and made it last, dragging his mouth across Andrew’s again and again until his lips were hot and tender, slick from being licked, rough from being bitten.

Maybe it counted as more than one kiss, but he didn’t plan to be too hard on himself later.

“Take me to bed,” Andrew begged. “Sean, please.”

“I want to. God, I do.” Sean wanted to peel off Andrew’s clothes and taste every inch of him. “But we can’t. I won’t. Not now. You’ve got to sleep this off. Then we’ll talk, okay?”

Andrew nodded but stayed where he was, pressed up against Sean, warm and pliable.

“Let’s see if we can get you comfortable. You’ll feel better once the pills wear off.” Sean led Andrew to the hallway, then paused. “Um, where’s your bedroom?”

“That way. Right.” Andrew managed to keep his feet under him until they got close to the bed. “I don’t want to.”

“What, sleep?”

“By myself,” Andrew said, not letting go of Sean’s shirt.

“Okay. I’ll lie down with you.”

Luckily for Sean’s lack of willpower, Andrew seemed content to climb between the sheets and capable of moving without hurting his arm. Sean made a mental note to find out the details of the surgery and what Andrew shouldn’t be doing. He let Andrew arrange himself as necessary and then carefully eased closer.

“You okay? Is this good?” he asked anxiously.

“Mm. It’s good.”

It wasn’t long before Sean had his arm around Andrew, his face against Andrew’s hair. He had zero willpower around the guy. It was pitiful. Sean closed his eyes and tried to think of anything but how good it would feel if they were both naked and Andrew wasn’t dopey from his meds. His French teacher had once made the class learn the value of pi to a hundred places as an alternative to her dreaded weekly spelling test. Only three people had managed it, even though she’d let them do it in English. Those three had gained exemption from the test for the last month of the semester. Sean had been one of them and could still remember the first twenty or so numbers, but now he was stuck at 3.142, distracted by the soft sound of Andrew’s breathing and the contented murmurs.

“My dad was okay with me being gay,” Andrew said drowsily. He giggled. “Everything rhymes today. Gay, okay, today, nice, ice…”

He’d hoped for that, but hearing it confirmed made his heartbeat quicken. No reason for them to be careful and discreet, no need for Andrew to keep his distance. God. He realized he was holding Andrew too tightly and relaxed his grip. “Okay, go to sleep, Dr. Seuss. And yeah, that’s great.”

“I don’t want to sleep.” This was clearly a lie because Andrew seemed half asleep already. “Want to stay awake with you. If I sleep, I’ll wake up.”

“Uh-huh.” It was hard not to be amused. “And that’s bad why?”

“Because you won’t be here.” Andrew frowned. “I like it when you’re here. When I wake up, you won’t be here, and I’ll want to call you. But I can’t.”

“You can call me any time.” Sean stroked his fingertips along Andrew’s cheekbone, drinking him in by ridges and lines.

“I can’t. I’m not allowed to have you.” Andrew sighed and closed his eyes. “I have to do that other stuff instead.”

“Other stuff?”

“You know,” Andrew said. “Wife, kids.”

Just the thought of it made Sean angry. “You don’t have to do any of that, remember? Your dad knows. That’s not your life anymore.”

“Oh. Right.”

“You’ve been thinking it so long it’ll take a while to believe things are different now.” Sean leaned in and kissed Andrew’s soft, relaxed lips. “Nothing happened with Wells?” he asked, knowing it was ridiculous he needed affirmation but not needing it any less for that knowledge.

Andrew shook his head and looked directly into his eyes; Sean could see the truth there like a gift. “Nothing. Not a single thing. I swear. Tricked him so I could beat you. Sorry. Sorry, Sean.” He reached to squeeze Sean’s arm and winced. “Ow. This really hurts. I thought it would be better by now.”

“What I don’t get is why you were here on your own,” Sean said. “Your parents…?”

“I’m not ten,” Andrew said. “I don’t need them to take care of me.”

“Everyone needs someone when they’ve just had surgery. You’re not eating, you’re taking too many meds… I’m going to stick around, get some food into you when you’ve slept off the meds.”

“Don’t tell Dad.”

“I wasn’t planning on it, but I guess I should let the office know I’m here—”

“No!” Andrew struggled up on his good elbow. “They’ll tell Dad, and he doesn’t want you with me.”

Sean felt puzzled more than anything. Maybe there was a company rule about dating coworkers, but he knew a few couples openly breaking it if so. It’d certainly been one of his personal rules, but he’d jettison it in a heartbeat for Andrew. Or would it be awkward because of who Andrew was? Sean shrugged mentally. No way Harris would do him any favors because he was dating Harris’s son, and he didn’t intend to lose any of his competitive edge when it came to proving to Andrew who was the better. He thought they could both keep their work and personal lives separate without much difficulty. Of course, there was that stupid bet on the table, but Andrew wouldn’t care about that now. “Why?”

“He doesn’t want me to…date you or whatever.” Andrew wrinkled his nose and confided, “I think he’s okay with the idea of me seeing men, but some guy he already knows… That’s a little too real. You know?”

“Yeah.” Sean felt cold now, despite the fact he was snuggled up against a nice, warm body. “It is.” He eased Andrew back down to the bed and let himself have one more kiss, right against the corner of Andrew’s sleepy, half-smiling mouth. “Go to sleep, golden boy.”

Andrew sighed, and gradually Sean felt him relax into sleep. Once he was sure Andrew was down deep, Sean slid out of bed and crept from the room. He had a plan, and it didn’t include pretending to Harris Carney he didn’t exist.

“Darrow?” That was how Harris answered the phone. Sean was used to it.

“Yes. Look—there’s no way to say this to lessen the blow or whatever, but I wanted you to know I’m at Andrew’s place.”

There was a long pause. “I’d prefer it if you weren’t.”

“Yeah, Andrew made that pretty clear through the haze of painkillers he’s been taking.” Sean was mad, but he had to keep a handle on things. This was his boss he was talking to. “Have you checked in on him at all?”

“Of course,” Harris said dismissively. “My wife has been keeping track of him. He’ll be back in the office on Monday, so perhaps it’s best if you—”

“No,” Sean said. “He’s barely coherent, he’s so high on whatever pills he’s been popping. Someone needs to be here making sure he gets a decent meal, doesn’t step on broken glass, or let a complete stranger in to do God knows what to him.”

“You’re inventing catastrophes.” Harris wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, Sean could tell. “Stop being so dramatic. He isn’t a child, and he doesn’t need someone taking care of him.”

That was close enough to what Andrew had said that it told Sean clearly how he’d come up with it. “He’s a grown man,” Sean agreed, “but he’s recovering from surgery, and it would be nice if someone gave a shit enough to hang out with him for a couple of days.”

“I don’t need you to tell me how to take care of my own son.”

“Yeah, you’re doing just great.” Sean threw in a sir at the end, making sure it sounded nicely sarcastic. “And let me tell you I’m volunteering for the job if it’s up for grabs, and it looks like it is. So don’t expect to see me in for the rest of the day, because I’m not leaving him alone.”

There was a pause long enough for Sean to start chewing on his lip—not from nerves but because the inaction was killing him.

“Andrew’s mother will be there shortly. There’s no need for you to wait.”

“I’m waiting.” Sean sighed. “He’s got this idea you don’t want us in a relationship.”

“That’s correct.”

“Jesus, why not? I’m single, well-off, healthy, and I… He means a lot to me. If it’s about all the fighting we did, I’m pretty sure most of that was repressed sh…uh, stuff. We got along fine once we knew where we stood.”

“That isn’t the point,” Harris said.

“Then what is?”

“You’re not the right…person. For him. I’m sure there’s someone out there for you. Just not my son.”

“I hate to be the one to have to tell you this,” Sean said slowly, “but that’s not your decision to make. It’s Andrew’s.”

“I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but as long as I’m your employer, it is my decision,” Harris said.

There was a way to remedy that, and Sean didn’t hesitate. “Then consider this my official notice. I quit.”

Harris snorted. “How dramatic. I’ll do you a small kindness and pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“Don’t bother. Listen, whether you’re my employer or not, you still don’t have the right to tell either of us who we can date. If we were dating clients, maybe, but we’re not. Andrew’s put his life on hold for you with this screwed-up idea he’s founding a dynasty of Carneys—”

“I’ve made it clear Andrew being gay doesn’t change my regard for him. He can still give his mother and me grandchildren. I’d just prefer they come from good stock and they’re brought up by Andrew and a suitable partner. One who belongs in his world.”

“So I’m good enough to make you money, but you don’t want to be calling me son any time soon.” Sean shook his head. “You’re unbelievable.”

“I know your background. Your parents define nouveau riche. The upper-class veneer is paper-thin at best.”

“If I thought it was even that thick, I’d exfoliate,” Sean snapped and ended the call.

Still seething, Sean made a second call, this one to the office of the doctor who’d written Andrew’s prescription. He insisted he’d wait for the doctor to come to the phone, explained the painkiller Andrew was taking wasn’t working, and gave the number of the pharmacy that had filled the previous prescription to the doctor.

“But I’d call to make sure the new prescription went through before going over there,” the doctor cautioned, and Sean thanked him and hung up.

His heart stuttered as he turned and found Andrew two feet away. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”

Andrew seemed confused but let himself be docilely led back to his room. “I thought you weren’t here.”

“I am. I’m right here. I just had to make a phone call.”

“Just don’t leave while I’m asleep. Okay? I’m scared I might think I hallucinated this whole thing. Or dreamed it, I guess.”

“I’m real enough.” Sean pushed Andrew gently down onto the bed. “Shh, no, come on. It’s okay.”

“I don’t want you to leave.” Andrew hugged him awkwardly, pressing against him as if seeking warmth. “God, I love you so much. The thought of…of being away from you, it makes me crazy.”

Hearing it spoken, even if Andrew was so out of it he barely knew his own name, made Sean want an audience. Harris, Andrew’s mom, his parents, Wells, hell, anyone who wanted to listen, just so they’d know he wasn’t crazy when he said he thought Andrew and he had a chance.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said and meant every word.

It was the middle of the day, but somehow, after a while lying beside Andrew, now fast asleep, Sean managed to drift off too. He was woken by a gasp from the doorway and raised his head, instinctively shielding Andrew from view.

“Get out of my son’s bed, please.”

It was said quietly, but there was no mistaking the distaste in Katherine Carney’s voice, and it was all directed at Sean.

“Mom? What are you doing here?” Andrew’s words came out slowly.

“I wanted to see how you were. I brought you a salad.”

“You brought salad.”

“Yes. I didn’t want to knock, in case you were sleeping, so I used my key.”

“That worked out well,” Andrew said. “Could you give us a minute, do you think?”

“I… Yes. Of course.” She left, closing the bedroom door politely.

“That was…interesting.” Sean turned to look at Andrew, who had somehow managed to have an entire conversation with his mother as if Sean wasn’t in the same room.

“She’ll be okay. She’s an expert at denial.” Andrew smiled uncertainly. “No, really. Both. It’s nothing new, believe me, but she’s a good person underneath it. She just can’t deal.” He sighed and flipped back the covers.

Sean would’ve said something about Andrew needing to rest, but Andrew also needed to eat.

Maybe something more substantial than a fucking salad, though.

When they emerged from the bedroom, the salad was on a plate, a cloth napkin beside it, a knife and fork arranged just so. Sean gave Katherine props; it looked delicious, and he could see chunks of chicken and slices of fresh peaches as well as the usual lettuce and such, everything in a creamy dressing.

“Love this salad.”

“Denny made it specially for you.”

“Denny’s their cook,” Andrew explained. “He used to make me this when I was a kid with a sore throat because the peaches were slippery.”

“I had canned tomato soup.” Sean knew he was being petty, but hey, it was true. He’d liked canned soup. Still did. He also wanted to see if speaking would get Katherine to look at him.

The answer to that was no.

“Sean came by to see how I was. Rescued me from broken glass on the floor.”

“That was very kind of him, but there’s no need for him to stay now I’m here.”

“I want him to stay.” Andrew wasn’t as out of it now. He sounded normal, even if he was still pale. “Don’t tell me who I can’t have here, Mom.”

She spread her hands. “I’m not, darling. It’s just that it’s a workday and, well, I’m here.”

“Are you going to stick around?” Sean asked her.

That got him noticed. Katherine gave him a cool, dismissive glance from eyes the same shade as her son’s. Her hair was pale blonde, highlighted with warmer streaks of gold. She was elegant, slim, expensively dressed in tailored tan slacks and a white silk blouse, and she made Sean feel as if the A/C needed to be turned down.

“Yes, of course. I have bridge with the girls at four and—” She bit her lip, Andrew’s gesture, making Sean look away for a moment, and then shook her head. “I’ll cancel, of course.”

“He’s got new meds that’ll need to be picked up.”

Andrew looked confused, his forehead wrinkling. “I do?”

“Yes,” Sean said. “Since the other ones weren’t working unless you took too many, which isn’t an option, I arranged for some new ones.”

Andrew studied him for what seemed like a long time, then seemed to come to a decision. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Thanks for coming by. I appreciate it. But I don’t think you should miss your bridge game. You’d be disappointing the girls, and I’m just going to be sleeping anyway.” Andrew threw a grin in Sean’s direction. “I think Sean will keep an eye on me.”

“But—”

“Mom. I’m an adult now, remember? I can make my own decisions.” Andrew’s voice gentled. “Even when you don’t like them. They’re mine to make.”

Somehow, Andrew managed to keep a smile pasted onto his face as he convinced his mother to leave. Sean assumed he’d had a lot of practice at pretending. By the time Andrew closed the door behind his mother, though, he seemed relieved to turn to Sean and curl into his willing embrace.

“You’re exhausted,” Sean observed, and Andrew nodded against his neck.

“Feels like everything is a dream. One of those dreams when you’re sure it isn’t one, then you wake up—except that’s part of the dream too, and then—”

“And then I pinch you, and you realize it’s all real. I’m here, and there’s nothing to worry about.”

He felt Andrew relax against him. “So pinch me.”

“Sure. Where? Here?” He gave the gentlest of pinches to Andrew’s arm. “Or maybe here.” The second one was delivered to Andrew’s ass, still gentle, but he couldn’t resist sliding his hand over the place he’d pinched, just to soothe it. Okay, it came close to sneaking in a grope, but from the way Andrew murmured approvingly, snuggling closer, he didn’t object at all.

“Come to bed with me and prove it,” Andrew said. He lifted his face and looked at Sean steadily. “I don’t want more pills or different pills. Not right now. I don’t want to chance not feeling this. I just want you. I want you to fuck me.”

“I want to,” Sean admitted, desire fighting guilt. “Are you—”

Andrew pressed his fingers to Sean’s lips, quieting him. “Don’t ask if I’m sure. I am. So stop arguing for once.”

Sean took Andrew’s hand, linking their fingers and bringing them back to his mouth to brush a kiss over them. He ended up kissing his knuckles too, but it was the thought that counted. “No arguing. Just…if I hurt your arm, tell me.”

“I’m not an idiot. I’ll prod you or just scream.”

“Oh, you’ll scream,” Sean said with certainty and enough of a grin to let Andrew know he was joking. “I’m just that good.”

“Words, words, words…” Andrew led them back into his room, to the bed Sean had been ordered out of so recently. “Less talking, more getting naked. You’re wearing too much.”

“New York isn’t the island. People would stare if I wandered around in rags with bare feet.”

“Sadly, probably not so much.”

“True.” Sean undressed as they chatted, shedding clothes in a hurry, no shyness holding him back. He knew his body looked good, muscular, trim, and the approving warmth in Andrew’s glance was confirmation. Maybe that was vanity, but Sean preferred to think of it as a clear self-image.

Andrew hadn’t made a move to undress yet, and as Sean let the last of his clothes drop to the floor, Andrew stepped closer. He looked better than he had earlier, more focused around the eyes. “I saw you once.” His voice was low, hoarse, and the sound of it made every molecule of Sean quiver.

“Yeah?”

“On the island.” Andrew moved closer still, the soft fabric of his pants brushing against Sean’s leg, tickling the hair so Sean’s skin prickled with goose bumps. He crept around behind Sean. One hand slid up Sean’s bare thigh and stopped just south of his balls. “Saw you jerking off.”

Sean swallowed, his mind racing. No way he could quiet it, not with Andrew’s thumb tracing the seam between his balls, teasing at flesh so soft and sensitive it almost drove a whimper from Sean. “I ate crab from your fingers,” he remembered. “You asked me what I was doing, and I realized—all at once—how much I wanted you. Came up with some excuse and got out of there, but the first thing I did once I was on my own was jack off.”

“I was watching you,” Andrew whispered. “Wishing I could get down on my knees so you could fuck my mouth instead of your fist.”

God. Sean’s dick was wishing for the same thing now, but he couldn’t move or speak. Andrew had hypnotized him.

“But now I want you to fuck my ass.” Andrew’s hand closed around Sean’s cock and squeezed, wringing a delicious shudder from Sean. “I want you to take your big, stiff cock and slide it up inside me and fuck me.”

“Oh God.” He’d said he wanted to make Andrew scream, but it was Sean who was close to whimpering, Andrew’s blunt, forceful words slamming into him in exactly the same way he wanted to take Andrew.

“I can take it.” Andrew’s hand worked Sean’s cock, a tight, ruthless grasp, just the right side of too much. “I can take anything you hand out, Sean. I can take you.”

“Jesus,” Sean choked out. He knocked Andrew’s hand away and slid one arm around Andrew’s shoulders, cradling him close for a kiss as hard and passionate as he could make it. He took a fistful of Andrew’s loose T-shirt. “You can keep this,” he said, his voice hoarse to his ears. “I don’t want to wait while you take it off. In fact, you can keep the pants too, just for now.”

“Going to fuck me through them?”

Sean palmed his erection, groaning at how good it felt, giving Andrew something to look at. “Feel hard enough to drill through concrete, but no.” He let go of his cock and pushed Andrew backward. “On the bed. On your stomach.”

“Might be easier for my elbow if I’m on my back.”

“Brownie point for telling me, but I’m way ahead of you. On your front? Please?”

Andrew bit his lip, the gesture that never failed to send a stab of lust and tenderness through Sean. He didn’t think he growled aloud, but maybe his expression was as eloquent as his mouth, because Andrew’s eyes widened, and a moment later, he was flat on his stomach.

“Lube. Condoms, all that shit. Which side?” Sean demanded. He was about to push his fingers and cock into Andrew’s ass, but he didn’t want to rummage around in the guy’s nightstands. That was funny, looked at one way.

Andrew waved at the right-hand side. “Top drawer.”

“Of course it is.”

God, Andrew’s drawers were incredibly tidy. He really had to spring clean his at some point. When he had what he needed, condom on, lube beside him, Sean knelt between Andrew’s legs and stared down at Andrew, the elegant sweep of his shoulders, the inverted triangle of his back. With a sigh of anticipation, he eased Andrew’s sweat pants down, so they were around midthigh, then pushed up Andrew’s T-shirt so Andrew’s ass was bared.

“You have no idea how hot you look like this.” Sean picked up the lube, flipped the cap, and turned it upside down over Andrew’s ass, watching the clear liquid drizzle down over the deep, enticing cleft and trickle to coat Andrew’s balls.

“Yeah?” Andrew wriggled, and Sean traced the same path the lube had taken with one fingertip, loving the flex of Andrew’s muscles.

“Scorching,” Sean agreed. “Incendiary.” He slicked his finger through the lube and teased at Andrew’s hole, feeling weak with desire when Andrew whimpered.

“Don’t be mean.” Andrew trembled. “Not tonight. Another time, but not tonight.”

The acknowledgment there would be another time was as heady an aphrodisiac as any. Sean leaned in and bit the spot on Andrew’s lower back where back became ass. He watched Andrew’s skin flush, then sank one finger into the clinging heat of Andrew’s body.

Andrew cried out, the sound soft, almost bewildered, as if that slow thrust had surprised him. But he spread his legs as widely as his sweatpants would allow, wordlessly begging for more, shameless in his need. His fingers flexed against the sheets, gathering them, then releasing them over and over, the gesture seeming reflexive, not deliberate.

“Love seeing you like this. Wanting me the way I want you.” It was an admission, a confession, but Sean didn’t care how much of himself he revealed to Andrew. With other lovers, he’d kept a lot back, giving them all he could, but it’d turned out not to be much.

Andrew got everything.

Not seeing Andrew’s face became unbearable. The view of Andrew’s bared ass, framed by clothing, was erotic as hell, and Sean wanted to look his fill, play with that ass, biting, kissing, licking until Andrew went from stirring against the sheets with pleasure to writhing, pleading with him to stop in one breath and not to in the next—but he needed to see him.

“You were right,” he said. “Turn over. I want to look at you.”

Sean withdrew and helped Andrew get flipped onto his back; the sweatpants were tugged down past Andrew’s balls, waistband pushing them up and highlighting the erection he was sporting. He looked amazing, his lower lip plump and reddened, his hair tousled.

“You want to fuck me like this?” Andrew asked quietly. “Watch my face when you push your cock into me?”

There was something incredibly arousing about the way Andrew was talking. It didn’t seem like him; Sean suspected there was still enough of the painkillers he’d been taking in his system to lower his inhibitions, but maybe Andrew would surprise him. He’d hidden the fact he was gay for years, after all. “Yeah, I want to see your face.”

“You don’t want me to hide from you.”

Sean nodded, accepting the way Andrew seemed able to get inside his head and look out of his eyes. They knew each other. As enemies. As lovers. It didn’t matter.

“No more hiding. Either of us. No need.”

He cupped Andrew’s balls, slick with lube, rolling them in his hand, then sliding his hand up, rubbing his thumb over the slit at the head of Andrew’s cock. “You feel so ready to come.”

There was a flash of the challenge Sean was used to seeing in Andrew’s eyes. “Not until you do.”

Sean smiled slowly, jacking Andrew’s cock, the lube smeared over his hand making each stroke smooth and fast. “You think so?”

Andrew narrowed his eyes and licked across the lip Sean’s kisses had left swollen. “Win-win either way.”

“Oh God, yes. But I want to see you come with my cock deep inside you. Want to fuck you when you’re lying under me covered in your own spunk, so I can smell it, see your face twist, and hear you pant and moan…”

He wasn’t comfortable with talking up his arousal usually, but it was as if a switch had been flipped. The words spilled out, his voice husky, confident, and Andrew squeezed his eyes closed as if he was in pain.

“In me. Please, Sean. Please.”

“Right now,” Sean agreed. He took one moment to squeeze another drizzle of lube out to coat the condom sheathing his cock, then moved higher up the bed.

Andrew shifted position, making it simple, spreading himself open, his hands hooked under his knees, offering himself with a completeness that took Sean’s breath away. He’d never felt gratitude toward a lover—it was a mutual striving for satisfaction, after all—but he wanted to thank Andrew, though he was damned if he knew what for.

Sean pressed the head of his cock to Andrew’s opening. He could feel the promise of heat inside, the soft cling of flesh drawing him forward. “Don’t want to go too fast,” he panted.

“No, go fast.” Andrew lifted his ass, begging with his body, and Sean clamped his hands on Andrew’s hips.

“Stop.”

“This is sex,” Andrew said. “There has to be moving involved, or else it’s just…”

“Me with my dick in your ass?” Christ, even saying it made Sean want to come. If he moved, it would be over before it started.

“Okay, you’re right.” Andrew whined and clenched his body around Sean’s cock. “It’s still sex if you’re not moving. But move, okay? I’m dying here.”

“No, that would be me. Just give me a second. Shh.”

Andrew laughed. “Talking makes you want to come?”

“Being inside you makes me want to come. Do you have any idea how crazy I am about you?” Sean leaned down and kissed him, licking into his mouth.

“Prove it,” Andrew whispered. “Fuck me.”

Their gazes met, and Andrew deliberately bit down on his lower lip, white teeth digging into soft red, the innocence of the gesture at odds with every other inch of Andrew’s body.

Things got blurry for Sean around then.

He remembered kissing that mocking, teasing mouth, his tongue finding the hardness of teeth as well lush softness.

Remembered the way the curve of Andrew’s kneecap fitted snugly into the palm of his hand as he forced it back, opening Andrew up more.

He didn’t remember how many hard, ramming thrusts it took to make Andrew’s face go slack with pleasure.

It didn’t matter.

When Andrew came, cock pulsing in Sean’s grip, body shuddering under and around him, Sean shouted with the pleasure of it. He wouldn’t have been able to say for sure if Andrew came before he did—the electric thrill was all-encompassing, surrounding both of them, moving through them and tangling them up together.

Gradually, Sean became aware of something beyond their gasps for air. Andrew’s leg was caught in the curve of his elbow, his mouth on Andrew’s shoulder. “You okay?” he asked, because it seemed like the polite thing to do.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “That was…intense.”

“That’s one word for it.” Sean turned his head and kissed Andrew’s throat.

“I’d give you some more, but my brain’s fried.”

Sean laughed, filled with an uncomplicated happiness. “Screw the roses. I’ll buy you a thesaurus.”

Chapter Sixteen

Andrew looked up at the knock on his door and felt a stab of anxiety when he saw Sean standing there. They’d made an agreement to avoid each other at the office as much as possible; just for now, Andrew had assured him, until there had been time for his father to get used to the idea of them dating. Plus he wasn’t ready to come out to all their coworkers, though he assumed in a few months he’d be okay with it. Walking around the office was like a dream about going to school naked. He felt exposed, vulnerable, and that wasn’t a good feeling.

He held a finger up toward Sean, wishing the phone call he was on was scheduled to last another hour instead of already at the point of being over. “Great, yeah. Okay, I’ll get back to you on that within the next couple of hours. Thanks.”

As he hung up the phone, he motioned at Sean to come in. Word had gotten around that his dad had told them to make peace however necessary, so they were getting some funny looks but no actual questions. Well, no one had questioned Andrew. For all he knew, Sean was getting the third degree every time he wasn’t looking.

“Hi,” Sean said, shutting the door to give them some privacy. Not real privacy because the front wall of Andrew’s office was all glass and he rarely closed the blinds, but at least they could talk without being overheard.

“Hi. Sorry I’ve been so busy. How are you?” Andrew knew he was being an asshole but hoped maybe Sean hadn’t figured it out yet. Being busy was an excuse.

“Good.” The frown on Sean’s face contradicted his words, but then he smiled, warm and friendly, a smile Andrew still wasn’t used to seeing directed at him. It left him wanting to kiss Sean to see if it made Sean’s lips taste sweet—and okay, if he was going to get that mushy, he needed to do something about it.

Like a nooner with Sean to burn off some of his building arousal, but that just wasn’t in the cards. Damn. It’d been a week since Sean had left him buzzed and wrung out, and he’d quickly discovered how addictive Sean was.

“Arm better? You went for a checkup this morning, didn’t you?”

“What? Oh yeah. No gym for a while, but I’ve got all the range of movement back. She was pleased with how well it’d healed.” He smiled at Sean, touched Sean had remembered the appointment. “Didn’t tell her it was all the TLC I’d gotten from my hot boyfriend.”

The banter felt forced, though his gratitude was real, but Sean just nodded.

“So…I dropped by to see if you’re free tonight. First official date and all that. Something classic like a movie and dinner, or pizza at my place and we can watch the game, maybe. Don’t ask me what game. I’m sure there’s something on; there always is.” His gaze was steady, making it impossible for Andrew to look away, impossible to miss the hope in Sean’s eyes. He hated how vulnerable Sean was behind the defenses he’d built. It made Sean so easy to hurt, and Andrew never wanted that to happen. “If you wanted to sleep over, I’ve got a spare toothbrush.”

“I wish I could,” Andrew said, and it wasn’t a lie. Left to his own devices, he’d have chosen to spend the night with Sean every time.

Sadly, his father had been right about his mother refocusing her efforts on setting him up on blind dates.

“I have a date,” he admitted. He’d have to tell Sean sooner or later, didn’t want him to hear it as office gossip. “But before you freak out, it was my mother’s idea, not mine. I’ve never even met the guy.”

“You have a date.” Sean repeated the words slowly, like he was trying them on for size.

“I had to promise my parents I wouldn’t jump into anything serious too soon.” Andrew was almost positive that the serious and too soon only applied to Sean, but he figured if he played along with his parents for a few weeks—six months at the most—they’d relax, and he could be with Sean.

“Kind of got the impression you already did. We already did.” The barriers were up again, Sean’s voice cool, his arms folded across his chest. “Or was I dreaming the part where we fucked last week, and you were telling me how much you wanted me to stay?”

“No. No, of course not. I did. I do. I just—” Andrew spread his hands helplessly. “They’ve taken this so well, I don’t want to upset them by saying no to something this trivial.”

“You on a date with another man is not trivial.” Sean compressed his lips. “I can’t believe this. They set you up on a blind date like you’re some geeky teenager who can’t get laid? With someone who, sorry if I’m feeling sorry for the poor sap, might be as desperate as your parents seem to think you are and believes this could be his lucky day, and he’s got a chance at something good?”

He walked closer, running a hand through his hair now, rumpling it impatiently. “Jesus, I can just see it. You being charming, flirting with him, smiling, all of it as fake as every single fucking date you’ve ever been on. Nothing changes, does it, Andrew? You come out, you take that giant step, and nothing’s fucking changed. Fake dates, parent-approved. Did they pick the restaurant? Choose your outfit? How old are you again? Grow a fucking pair, and tell them where to shove it.”

“I can’t,” Andrew said and knew he sounded every bit as young as Sean had accused him of acting.

“You can.” Sean looked at him like he was an alien, some utterly foreign creature he’d never understand. His eyes were cold and unforgiving. “You just don’t want to.”

It was impossible not to get angry in the face of Sean’s distaste. “Fuck you,” Andrew snapped. “You don’t know what it’s like, growing up with them. You think it’s so easy?”

“I never said it was easy. I was just stupid enough to think maybe it would be worth it.” Sean ran a hand through his hair again, an exasperated scowl on his face. “I guess I was fooling myself.”

“You’re an asshole,” Andrew told him. He didn’t care if he was wrong. He only cared that Sean was pissing him off. “You want me to go from zero to a hundred in eight seconds. Cut me some fucking slack, will you?”

“I’ve been cutting you slack since I met you.” Sean’s voice was getting louder; Andrew was aware of people in the main office paying attention to them, not that anyone would be surprised Sean Darrow and the boss’s son were arguing.

“Keep your voice down.”

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do!” Sean said. “I might answer to your father, but I don’t answer to you. I thought—” He clenched his hand into a fist. “You know, it doesn’t matter what I thought. You can’t do this, fine.” Sean turned away, then whirled back and threw something to the floor at Andrew’s feet, a plastic bottle that bounced and clattered under the desk. “I don’t need any more reminders. Save it for your next conquest. I’m done.” With a last glance of disgust, Sean strode from his office, shoving the door open and leaving it ajar.

Andrew watched him go, unable to follow. His gaze moved to the bottle on the floor, and he recognized it as the conditioner they’d used on the island, makeshift lube during some of the best sex of his life. He picked up the bottle, turned it over in his hand. He felt so numb that its small weight barely registered, though its significance was less easy to overlook.

He slipped the bottle into his pocket, unable to toss it in the trash, and went back to work, using it as a refuge, an excuse not to have to think about what he’d just done and said.

* * * * *

“So, do you want to talk about the big adventure, or are you sick and tired of questions?”

Andrew smothered a sigh and summoned a smile. He’d done that a lot, and Nick—he bet his parents still called him Nicky—had only been with him at the bar for twenty minutes. Twenty endless, interminable minutes.

Nick was a nice boy trying to be edgy. Spiked-up dark hair that only needed a wash and a comb to be restored to conventional, glasses to add an intellectual gloss. “He’s the artistic type. Sculptures made out of garbage. You know,” Andrew’s mother had said vaguely. “They sell, I hear, though I can’t imagine who to.” He was tall, six-four at least, his shoulders hunched slightly as if to minimize it, skinny enough to seem breakable, and had made the mistake of trying to grow a soul patch.

Andrew was drinking beer. Nick had asked for tequila, then sipped gingerly at his shot as if it were medicine.

“What do you want to know?” Andrew asked, trying not to sound too reluctant. It would give them something to talk about for another ten minutes, maybe, and he didn’t feel right about bailing yet. If he did, it would definitely get back to his parents one way or another, and he had to make it look like he was giving this a shot.

He did his best to make conversation; it wasn’t too hard because he’d already answered most of the same questions half a dozen times over the past weeks. In his head, he was thinking about Sean, feeling guilty for having agreed to this date in the first place and sort of wishing he just hadn’t mentioned it. Why couldn’t he have just said he was catching up on his reading, or he had a mandatory family obligation? Hell, the last one would have been true, pretty much.

He hadn’t thought this through. He didn’t know how to do this, have a relationship. He’d waited too long to try, and now he was too old to learn how to do it right. All he could do was fumble around like an idiot, hurting his…whatever Sean was to him. Boyfriend? Love of his life? Andrew wasn’t prone to romantic notions, but if he closed his eyes, he could see Sean’s face.

“And then we—hey. Are you okay?” Nick sounded worried, and Andrew opened his eyes hastily.

“Yeah. Sorry. Long day.”

“Tell me about it.” For the first time, Nick sounded natural. He took off the glasses Andrew suspected he didn’t need and rubbed his eyes. “I’ve got an exhibition in two days, and there’s this one piece… But you don’t want to hear about that.”

“Why not? You’ve just listened to me telling you about wiping my ass on leaves and eating crab that still had some wiggle going on.”

Nick pulled a face and grinned, looking too young in Andrew’s eyes to even seriously consider as a date, though he was only three years younger than Andrew, so that wasn’t the case. “Gross, all of it, but…hmm. You’ve just given me an idea for something with shells of edible things. Could be interesting.” He got a faraway look, wheels turning so visibly that Andrew half wanted to drip some oil on him.

“Where’s the exhibition?”

“What?” Nick focused on him again, blinking as if he’d woken up. “Oh, Easton Gallery, but don’t worry, you don’t have to come.”

“I probably won’t,” Andrew said honestly. “This date… I don’t know if I’m in the market for, uh, well…anything serious.”

“No worries, no pressure. I thought we could drink, eat, then go back to your place—mine’s a dump—and fuck,” Nick said, suddenly at ease as if Andrew’s words had relieved him rather than disappointed him. So much for breaking his heart. Nick put his glasses back on and pushed them higher up the bridge of his nose. “Sex is about the only thing that calms me down before a show. That’s why I agreed to this date. So I could get laid.”

Andrew had rarely felt so disposable. “Excuse me? We only just met!”

Nick shrugged. “I figured if you had your mom setting you up now you’re out, you didn’t know your way around the scene. Don’t be shy. I don’t mind showing you the ropes, maybe introducing you to some friends.” He gave Andrew an unexpectedly charming smile, even more of his affectations lost as he relaxed. “Been where you are, bro, and it sucks.”

Andrew blinked and rubbed the back of his neck, realization hitting him. “You know what? It doesn’t.”

“Doesn’t suck? How do you figure?”

“Because I don’t need you to show me the ropes. I was in the closet, but it was crowded in there, if you get what I mean. And I don’t think I want to meet your friends, no offense.”

Nick looked kind of offended anyway, and Andrew hastened to reassure him. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure your friends are awesome. You seem awesome. It’s just… I already met someone, and he’s pretty much perfect. I think it’s possible that I might be in love with him.” Andrew found himself beaming in wonder.

“Might be?” Nick shook his head. “If you aren’t sure, it’s not love. Trust me on that one.”

But Andrew was already standing up, an echo of things he’d said when he was half out of his mind in a postsurgery fog ringing between his ears. “So I have to go. It was nice meeting you. Maybe we can do this again. I mean, not as a date…”

“And not for sex, obviously,” Nick said, smirking.

“No. Obviously. Believe me, this is as big a surprise to me as it is to you. Bigger. I’m really sorry.” Andrew dug for his wallet and flung too much money on the bar, then turned to go. He whirled back and reached for Nick’s hand, shaking it. “Thank you.”

Heart in his throat but determined not to care what anyone thought, Andrew went to get his car.

* * * * *

Forty minutes later, his euphoria had died down. He’d found Sean’s place without any problem other than the city traffic, a hazard he was too familiar with to notice. Parking wasn’t easy, but he’d been lucky enough to grab a space just as someone pulled out, leaving him with only a short walk to Sean’s house.

It was one of six brownstones, all renovated but retaining their charm. Sean’s front door was dark green, and a forlorn planter of flowers in need of water stood on the top step.

Sean wasn’t there. Andrew had knocked, a polite rap, then a louder one, before spotting the bell. He’d leaned on it and heard the bell echo inside the house, but there were no footsteps hurrying to open the door, and the house felt empty. There was a light showing, but that meant nothing. Most people left a light on when they went out.

It occurred to Andrew that Sean might have decided to go out on a date himself. Might even now be with someone else, not because he wanted to be but just to prove to himself he didn’t need Andrew.

“But you do,” he muttered to himself. “Shit, where the hell are you?”

He couldn’t remember a single romantic movie where the hero rushed over to declare his love only to find his soul mate had gone out.

Andrew sat on the top step and called Sean’s cell. It rang four times and went to voice mail. “Hey, it’s me,” he told the phone. “Listen… I couldn’t go through with it. The date, I mean. I went and met the guy, and he was nice, but… I don’t know, he wasn’t you. I don’t…I don’t care what my parents think or what they want. Call me when you get this. I don’t care how late it is. Just call me.”

He was at a loss after that and headed home, cell phone on the passenger seat next to him so he could grab it fast if Sean called back. His condo seemed depressing without Sean in it. He texted Sean, took a shower, let a call from his mother go to voice mail, texted Sean again, had a sandwich, and eventually went to bed. The possibility Sean might be out with someone, in bed with someone, left him staring at the ceiling for hours. When his alarm woke him in the morning, the only thing that got him out of bed was the knowledge that Sean might be avoiding him but wouldn’t avoid work.

Andrew was useless at the office, barely able to concentrate, making excuses to go to the supply room so he could glance in at Sean's office and check if Sean was in yet. The door was always closed and there were no lights on. He wasn't sure where Lorna, Sean’s assistant, was, but on the way to the men’s room, he heard someone say she’d called in sick.

He decided to go down to Starbucks and get a coffee. Maybe the fresh air would clear his head. The elevator doors were closing when someone called, “Hang on,” and he put his hand out to pause it.

Melissa flashed him a smile. “Thanks. I’ve got to get down to the drugstore and replace my hose before my noon meeting.” She lifted her skirt two inches above her knee to show him the run in her pantyhose. “What about you? Where are you off to?”

“Starbucks,” Andrew said. “Sometimes the only way I can face the day is with caffeine, you know?” He knew he should ask her about her portfolio, but honestly right then he couldn’t remember what companies she was following.

“Yeah. Too bad about Sean’s father, hmm? I was still in the office last night when he got the call.”

Andrew’s heart started racing. “Wait, what?”

“Oh, didn’t you hear?” Melissa looked guilty, even though she usually delighted in spreading the office gossip. Andrew should have known to go to her first. “His dad’s in the hospital. I don’t know… I think he had a heart attack. Anyway, Sean flew out there last night. Just dropped everything and went.”

For one shameful moment, Andrew felt a purely selfish relief that Sean hadn't been with someone else the night before. It didn’t last long. Guilt and concern replaced it. He knew Sean adored his parents. There had been less time for long conversations on the island than someone might’ve thought. They’d been too preoccupied with finding food and keeping the fire going, and at night they’d been exhausted. Even so, they’d talked, and Sean’s parents had come alive for Andrew, his brash, exuberant father in particular. He’d sounded fun to Andrew, indulgent without being foolish, demonstrative, impulsive. Loving, like Sean.

“That’s awful,” he said automatically. “I hope he’s okay.”

Melissa gave him a curious look. “You’re not looking too good yourself. Coming down with something? I hear stomach flu’s going around.”

“I’m fine.”

The elevator came to a halt in the lobby, and Melissa got out. “You’re not coming?”

Andrew shook his head as the doors began to close. “Just remembered something.”

It was a half-truth, harmless but also pointless. He could’ve just told her no, he wasn’t fine, and Sean was his boyfriend. That they’d argued, that he was worried about Sean’s dad, that if Sean didn’t answer his phone, Andrew was going to get on the next flight out to Chicago to be with him. That he was furious with his father for not telling him what had happened. Instead, he’d gone for the easy way out again.

As he rode the elevator back up, cursing its slowness, impatient to be on his way to Sean, he decided when this current crisis was over, there’d be no more of that. He wasn’t going to tell people their haircut made them look ridiculous or their new baby was ugly; social lying had its place, but when it came to himself, if he shared any information, he was going to tell the truth.

Knowing he couldn’t follow Sean's example and just hop on a plane without a word to anyone, he went to tell his dad that he’d need to take a few days’ leave—and to leave no doubt between them about where Sean stood in his life.

He was supposed to knock at his dad’s door, but today he just walked past Dora’s desk and straight in, ignoring her startled look.

His father raised his eyebrows as Andrew slammed the door behind him, but didn’t comment on the breach of etiquette. Andrew guessed he looked too worked up for there to be any question this was an emergency. “Did you know Sean had gone?” he demanded.

His father gave him an impatient look. “I’m too busy to keep tabs on my employees, Andrew. You know that. If that’s all, close the door on your way out.”

Andrew stood his ground. “You know where everyone is and what they’re doing from the senior partners down to the cleaning staff. It’s part of your job to know, or at least that’s what you always told me.” Maybe a small exaggeration, but when it came to the top-level employees, and Sean and he were part of that group, then, yes, Harris knew.

His father sighed. “Yes, I knew he'd flown out to be with his parents. I assumed you’d find out soon enough, and I was right. So?”

“I had a right to know!”

“Darrow would have called you if he wanted you to know. What does that tell you?”

“Nothing! He didn't call because he knew I was out on that stupid, embarrassing, pointless date, and he was angry. He had every right to be.”

His father's gaze shifted, but his voice was firm. “He’s not right for you.”

I’m the only one who gets to decide that. Me. And don’t trot out more snobbish crap about how he’s beneath me. We both know that’s not true. He’s well-educated, intelligent, rich, and on the island, I found out he doesn’t crack under pressure. What more could you want?”

Harris picked up a pen and turned it in his hand. “Nothing, I guess,” he admitted. “It’s just… Son, I’ve seen you two fight for years. That antagonism got pretty damn vicious at times. He saw you as some spoiled rich brat, judged you without knowing you.” His lips thinned. “If you think I like hearing my son called a pampered playboy who only got his job because of me, well, I don’t.”

“That’s why you don’t like him?” Andrew wasn’t even sure how to respond to that.

“It doesn’t help.” Harris sighed. “As for that date last night, you do realize I had to listen to your mother create an entire future for you and that boy over breakfast? Hardly how I prefer to spend my mornings. You weren't the only one who thought it was a bad idea.”

No, his father preferred silence until he’d had his second cup of coffee. “I’m not interested in him. I'm not interested in anyone but Sean, damn it, and thanks to my habit of doing everything your way, I might have lost him.” Just saying the words made his throat close as panic rose to choke him.

“Andrew,” his father said hesitantly.

“What?”

“He might not be planning to come back.”

That made no sense. “What are you talking about?”

“Last week, he told me he was giving his notice. I told him not to be ridiculous, that I refused to accept it. I hate to think he might have meant it.”

Sean had already been planning to leave? Andrew’s stomach lurched, shock filling him, a whirl of worst-case scenarios spinning in his head. Sean had once said he’d like to work on the West Coast. Suppose he decided to make a clean break and head for California or somewhere equally distant? He could get a job out there with a snap of his fingers or maybe go freelance. God, he could end up anywhere in the world if he did that.

“This is my entire fault. That stupid bet, that date… No.” Andrew shook his head hard enough to dislodge the doubts. “He knew I didn’t mean it. We were over that once I came out. There’s no way he’d quit. Sean doesn’t walk away from a fight. He wades in, fists flying.”

“I know. I’ve seen him,” his father said wryly. “He is fond of grand gestures, though. That auction… The way he bid against you was insane. Maybe it’s a bluff to force your hand?”

“I don’t know what it is, but I do know he’s got no reason to leave and that who he dates isn’t anyone’s business here, and the same goes for me.” He met his father’s eyes, a challenge in his own. “Well?

Harris spread his hands, for once capitulating. “I agree. I don’t have any choice, do I?”

“Okay. Okay.” Andrew rubbed the back of his neck and tried to think what was on his schedule for the next few days. “I'm flying out there,” he said, realizing that he hadn't made that plain. “He needs me with him. I’m not coming back without him either.”

The smile his father gave him was grimly amused. “He has my sympathy if he really did want to quit. I know what you’re like when your heart’s set on something. You’re like your mother, and she scares the hell out of me. Well, travel safely, son.”

Sean was still unreachable by phone. That sounded to Andrew as if he was inside the hospital, in an area where cell phones were forbidden.

Okay, time to buckle down and find out what he needed to know.

It took half an hour on the computer to find the information he needed and another hour to make arrangements for a flight and rental car. Andrew did a fair amount of traveling, and even their recent misadventure hadn’t made flying scary for him. It was good to have something concrete to focus on, not to mention a huge relief. Sean might still be mad at him, but they’d deal with that.

The first thing Andrew had to do was get to him.

Chapter Seventeen

Sean’s head bobbed down toward his chest, and he jerked awake. He’d been dozing in the uncomfortable hospital chair for the past few hours. God, he was so tired, and he’d been home for only twenty-four hours.

He’d been working past market close the night before when his mother had called, frantic and reporting that his father was being rushed to the hospital, that they thought he was having a heart attack. He hadn’t waited, had gone straight to the airport and gotten on the first flight he could without anything but the clothes on his back, and then had gone immediately to the hospital from there. His mom was a mess, so happy to see him and then weeping all over him.

An entire day of various medical tests had followed, with reports coming back cautiously optimistic. Some damage to the heart, but they weren’t sure about the results of one test and were waiting on some kind of specialist for a second opinion before surgery.

It had all started to blur for Sean, though he’d tried to take in as much information as possible to pass on to his mom. She’d been close to passing out from exhaustion and worry, and he’d made her go home to rest for a few hours, accompanied by her sister. His Aunt Sophy was inquisitive and garrulous, irritating Sean profoundly at times, but a family crisis like this brought the best out in her. The fussy energy quieted and became focused, and it’d been Sophy, not Sean, who’d finally persuaded Diane to go home.

“Just for a few hours, Diane. Ricky’s asleep. He won’t know, and when he wakes up, if he sees you white as the sheets he’s lying on, well, you know how he frets over you. You’ll eat, rest, put on some damned blusher, and be smiling for him, you hear me?”

The rest of Sean’s family, large on both sides, had been asked not to visit by his mother. He was glad he’d been told to turn off his phone, or he’d have been inundated by calls. He could probably turn it back on now, but the effort involved seemed too much.

God, he was tired.

A nurse came in, smiling at him as she checked on his father. Ricky seemed so far away, his large frame diminished by the narrow bed, which made no sense.

“He’ll be out for a while. Why not get some fresh air?”

“I can’t leave him.”

She tutted at him. “You can take a break. He’s not in a coma, with you needing to talk to him, and you’re getting a crick in your neck, I can tell. Go outside.”

Sean glanced out the window. It was late evening, and the sky was a deep blue, hazy scraps of white cloud drifting slowly across it. The air outside would be fragrant with flowers from the garden some kind soul had planted on the grounds, and the breeze warm. The hospital air, stale, antiseptic, seemed to choke him. With a defeated sigh, he rose and headed for the door. Just a quick walk to clear his head, maybe grab a snack at the coffee shop in the lobby…

He stepped out into the hallway and almost ran full tilt into someone. “Oh, sorry,” he started to say and looked up into Andrew’s familiar, worried eyes.

“Hi,” Andrew said.

Sean stared at him, trying to comprehend his presence. “Hi.”

“I know you weren’t expecting me,” Andrew said. “Um, obviously. Sorry. I’ve been on a plane for two hours; you’d think in all that time I’d have been able to come up with something to say when I saw you.”

“How did you know where I was?” Sean knew there were messages from Andrew waiting for him on his phone. He just hadn’t been able to summon up the energy to deal with them.

“Melissa. She told me about your dad. How is he?”

Sean glanced automatically back into the room. “I don’t know. Okay for now, I guess. They’re talking about more surgery, but they’re waiting on a second opinion from some hotshot surgeon or something.” He hadn’t been thinking about Andrew’s date—had it only been last night?—and now his previous anger was blunted by exhaustion.

“Have you slept at all?” Andrew asked.

“Not since whatever night was the one before last night.”

“You look like hell.”

Sean managed a smile. Trust Andrew not to hold back. “Thanks. Yeah. Probably.” His attention sharpened, and he took in the shadows smudging the skin under Andrew’s eyes. “You don’t look too good yourself.”

“Me? I’m okay. Listen, I didn’t come here to put any pressure on you or make things difficult. I just… You were in trouble. I couldn’t stay away.”

“I’m not exactly alone,” Sean pointed out, knowing he was being ungracious. He was glad to see Andrew, but shit, he was so fucking tired of the red light/green light crap Andrew kept pulling. He was too wary of being rejected again to put himself out there the way Andrew probably thought he would. “I’m related to most of Chicago. Feels like it at holidays and birthdays, anyway.” He yawned. “Sorry. All out of snappy dialogue.”

“I’m booked into a hotel just five minutes away. You could use my room if you wanted to sleep.”

“Not in the mood for sex with my dad close to dying.” He hated himself for saying it even before he saw the hurt flare bright in Andrew’s eyes. “Shit, I’m sorry. I’m being an asshole.”

Andrew shrugged, his gaze downcast. “Yeah, kind of, but you get a pass today. No sex. Nothing like that. Just a bed somewhere close. That’s all. I can give you the key and wait here, call you if there’s any change.”

“You’re not family,” Sean said flatly. “You’re taking a lot on yourself.”

“I want to help. You’re allowed to be mad at me. I get that, I do. I screwed up. I’ve been sending all these mixed signals, and you’ve got to be ready to tell me to fuck off. I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to see me again.” He met Sean’s eyes earnestly. “We can talk later, okay? When you’re ready. Not now.”

It wasn’t the right place to yell at Andrew, and even if it had been, Sean didn’t have the energy. “Buy me a cup of coffee?” he asked, and Andrew’s face lit up like he’d offered him the moon instead of a small conciliatory gesture.

The coffee shop was nearly empty, and the woman who brought their drinks and the cheese Danish Andrew ordered seemed as weary as Sean himself. He usually took his coffee black, but he added sugar in the hopes it would help him shake off the cloud of depression that had settled around him. He kept looking at Andrew, half wondering if he was dreaming and expecting any moment his head would jerk up and he’d be back at his father’s bedside.

“I can’t stay long,” he heard himself say. “I promised my mother I’d wait until she came back.”

“Okay.” Andrew cut the Danish in two and pushed the plate toward Sean. “Eat. Please? This coffee will burn out your stomach lining if you don’t put something else in there for it to work on.”

It was easier to accept the food than reject it, and right then easy was Sean’s best option. He chewed his half of the Danish, choking it down, and smiled. “The raw crab’s starting to look good in retrospect.”

Andrew nodded, his mouth too full to talk. He swallowed and grimaced. “It’s hard and gluey. Nice combo.”

“Takes skill,” Sean agreed. He rubbed at his face, trying to work some life back into himself. “I need to sleep,” he admitted. “Not until Mom gets back, though.”

“Is she at your home?”

“Yeah. My aunt took her there so she could rest and freshen up. She was dead on her feet. Dad’s her whole life. Without him, she’d just collapse.” Sean thought about it and added, “They both would. They used to joke they’d like to go in a plane crash together, but after what happened to us, I don’t think they’ll ever say that again.”

“Hey, your dad’s tough. He’ll make it.”

“You don’t know him.” Sean was too sad, too tired to get angry. “You wouldn’t want to. He’s not your kind of people.”

“He’s your father. How could I not like him?” Andrew reached across the table and put his hand on top of Sean’s, sending a jolt through him, a warm thrill. “Now’s not the time—I get that—but I’m here for you. Not just now, but for as long as you want me.”

Sean shook his head. “Don’t. You’re all hyper from making the big gesture and flying out here, and I’m shattered. Don’t make any heat-of-the-moment promises. I don’t think I could stand losing you again.” He grimaced. “I’m not sure I’ve ever had you. Not really. Just held you for a split second and felt you slip away, over and over.”

“I’m so sorry,” Andrew said, and he looked it. “I tried to find you last night, after I bailed on that date, and imagined you being out with someone, letting him touch you.” His voice was low, the conversation pitched for their ears alone. “Made me crazy. So, I think I get it.”

“I don’t think you do.” Sean tried to sound understanding, but he was losing patience. “Can we not do this right now? I’m not in the right frame of mind.”

“Yeah, right. Of course.”

Sean was relieved to get back to his father’s room and tired enough that sinking into a chair and leaning his head against the wall was the most he could manage. Andrew perched himself on the windowsill on the other side of the room. Sean thought about telling him he should go to his hotel and get some sleep, but couldn’t summon the energy to stand and cross the room, and he didn’t want to disturb his father, who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. He closed his eyes instead. He’d just rest them for a minute.

The next thing he knew, he was bolting upright, aware of someone having spoken his name. A warm hand was on his arm.

“Shh, everything’s fine,” Andrew murmured. “Come on, there’s a better chair here for you. It reclines. Just lie down.”

Confused, Sean let himself be shuffled to and pushed down onto a chair that had been brought into the room. A blanket was draped over him; a gentle hand stroked his hair.

“Sleep. I’ll be here.”

He must have obeyed, because when he opened his eyes again, it was morning, sunshine streaming into the room. A doctor was talking to his mother and father, who was pale but awake and seemed to be taking in the doctor’s words. Andrew was sitting in the same chair Sean had occupied last night.

“So everything looks good.” The doctor, a short, solid man with glasses, patted Rick’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you on some medication, check your levels, and you ought to be able to go home tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” his mother said. “Thank you so much.”

“What’s happened?” Sean said as the doctor left with the air of someone who was too busy to stand still for long. He struggled up, dazed and sluggish. Morning? It’d been early evening. He felt as if a chunk of his life had been chopped out.

His mother turned to him, her brown eyes shining. “He’s going to be okay, Sean. Your dad’s going to be okay.”

He stumbled across the room, his legs stiff, and hugged her—or maybe he was the one getting hugged.

From the bed, his father said gruffly, “I nearly died, and your mom gets all the hugs? Figures.”

“Dad—” Sean went to the bed and knelt beside it so his father could look at him without craning his neck. “You’re too mean for the devil and too—”

“Good for God,” his father finished.

Andrew chuckled politely, and Sean spared him a glance. “Old family saying.”

“It’s true,” Ricky said complacently. He looked better than everyone else in the room, which didn’t seem fair. “I’ll outlive all of you.”

“Sure you will.” Sean stood and kissed his father’s cheek, feeling the bristles with a sense of wrongness. Ricky shaved twice a day, keeping his face smooth because Diane said kissing him with stubble chafed her lips.

“So,” Ricky said and raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “You finally brought your boyfriend to visit? For this, I need to knock at death’s door?”

“I’m not his boyfriend,” Andrew protested in a tone that told Sean this conversation had already happened while he was sleeping and was being repeated for his benefit. Andrew looked at Sean and waited until Sean met his gaze before speaking again. “I’d like to be.” He cleared his throat. “Um, right. So I’m going to go get some coffee for those of us not on the hospital diet. I’ll be back in a few.”

When Andrew had left the room, Diane took Sean’s hand and squeezed it. “He’s giving us some time on our own. Isn’t that nice of him?”

“Yeah,” Sean said, feeling blank. “He’s a nice guy.”

“Of course he is. And he must care about you, coming all this way.” Diane approved, obviously.

“Even the nurses like him.” Rick reached for the little plastic cup on his side table and took a sip of water.

“Why am I not surprised you’ve been gossiping with the nurses already?” Sean asked.

“He sweet-talked one of them into having someone bring that chair for you,” Rick said. “You should have seen the blush on her face when she told me about it. You sure he’s gay?”

“Pretty sure.”

This was beyond awkward. Sean cleared his throat and broke it to them gently.

“He mentioned he’s Andrew Carney? My boss’s son? The one I was on the island with? The one I…” His voice trailed off as the pitying glances registered.

“Son, most people introduce themselves with their full names, and we’re not stupid.”

“You talked about him so much,” Diane added, a small smile curving her lips—bright with lipstick, Sean noted. She’d obviously been bullied into obeying every one of her sister’s instructions. “If you don’t like someone, you just pretend they don’t exist. When it came to Andrew, you never stopped complaining.”

“But we’ve only just—it was only since the island,” Sean protested and got back identical shrugs.

He gave up. “You two… And we’re not dating. We tried it, and it didn’t work. He can’t commit.”

“But we can try again,” Andrew said from the doorway. “Can’t we? Please?”

“Andrew,” Diane said thoughtfully. “Do you think you could do me a favor?”

Andrew frowned but nodded. “Sure. What do you need?” He came into the room and set one of the three coffee cups he was carrying onto the table near Diane’s elbow, then handed a second to Sean.

“Could you please get our son out of here for a while? He needs a hot meal and a change of clothes.”

“What do you say?” Andrew asked, looking at Sean.

“Yeah, okay. If you don’t mind.” He had to admit it would be good to get out of the hospital for a few hours.

“Of course he doesn’t mind,” Diane said, and Rick warned, “Diane, this isn’t the time to play matchmaker.”

“Rick, it’s my right as a mother. There are so few once they’ve grown up, you have to let me enjoy them when I can.”

The walk to the parking garage was awkward and felt long, though that could have been because Sean’s feet hurt.

“Crap,” Andrew said, pausing just outside the elevator. “I don’t know where I parked.”

“Use the key thingy.” Sean gestured, and a moment later, a blue SUV’s lights flashed.

“Whew. I was thinking we’d have to walk all over this place. Plus I couldn’t remember what color it was.” Andrew unlocked the car so Sean could get in, then went around and started the engine. He began to drive, taking the narrow turns cautiously, and got them out onto the highway. “Okay, where to? My hotel’s close but maybe not much closer than your parents’ house.”

“It is if it’s only five minutes away, but…” Sean hesitated. “Come back to my parents’ place so I can change clothes. I got on the plane without anything, not even a toothbrush, and I keep some stuff there so when I visit, I don’t need to pack much. Mom likes knowing my room isn’t empty too. It’s not a shrine to my teenage years or anything, but she never lets anyone use it but me.”

“Wow, that’s…nice. When I moved out, my mom turned my room into a spare room, totally redecorated, threw out all the furniture…” Andrew shrugged. “I mean, it wasn’t like I didn’t still have a place to sleep if I stopped over, but it wasn’t my room anymore, you know?”

“Turn right and get onto that road there,” Sean said, pointing.

“Okay.”

After that their conversation was limited to directions and Sean noting the occasional landmark. It was always strange going home; he expected everything to look the same, and it never did, whether it was the new doughnut shop or the fact the elementary school had been renovated into condos. The neighborhood was how he remembered it, though. House had a fresh coat of paint, but it was the same color, and the inside smelled the same, like the lavender furniture polish his mother favored and the coffee that had gone cold in the pot. Sean realized he’d been standing there looking at it for much too long.

“You okay?” Andrew asked gently.

He nodded. “Kind of out of it, but yeah.”

“Can I do anything?” Andrew looked around the kitchen. “I could make you something to eat.”

Sean knew he should eat, but he wasn’t hungry. He was more aware of how badly he needed a shower after the flight and the hospital; he was still wearing the same clothes he’d had on at the office the other night, for God’s sake. “I’ve got to take a shower,” he said.

The kitchen was flooded with sunlight dappling the cream-colored tile floor his mother had been so excited about until she’d found out how hard it was to keep clean. Andrew was scruffy, his hair mussed, faint purple circles under his eyes.

“Come upstairs with me,” Sean said. He wasn’t sure what he meant by it. “I’ll show you around.”

He wondered what Andrew made of the place. His relatives on both sides—some of whom still lived in tiny houses in the rundown areas of Chicago where his parents had grown up—thought it was a palace, oohing and ahhing over it, sometimes with a bit of envy but mostly with pride that young Ricky had done so well for himself. To Andrew, though, it was probably all too lush, too extravagant, too new and shining.

Comfortable, though. The couches were made to be lain on, snuggled into, with sturdy tables scattered around in the perfect position to put a drink or a plate on. And few people were in the house for long without Ricky offering them a drink or Diane making them a snack. The TVs were many and huge, never the latest model because Ricky didn’t throw his money around, but always top of the line at the time they were purchased. The artwork was on the generic side, chosen to match the décor. But though it wasn’t all entirely to Sean’s taste, it was home and always would be.

And the man cave in the basement was cheesy as hell, but Sean always got a kick out of it. He loved seeing his dad behind the small, amply stocked bar, Ricky’s face beaming as he made drinks for his pals, there to knock around a few balls on the pool table or try their hand at the dartboard.

He didn’t take Andrew into his parents’ room, just closed the door as they walked by. He showed him Diane’s craft room, wondering what hobby she was working on now. It changed. Rapidly and often. It turned out to be stained glass, which explained the nicks on her fingers. He didn’t give it long. Ricky wouldn’t approve of something that potentially dangerous.

Andrew picked up a triangular piece of glass tinted a deep, soft emerald. “Pretty.” He gestured vaguely at the littered table. “Looks like she’s making a butterfly?”

“Looks like,” Sean agreed. “Might turn out to be a flower, though. You never know with Mom. She gets bored halfway through and gets inventive. It doesn’t always end up well. There was this one birthday she kept adding things to my cake. Peanut butter, strawberries, caramel fudge… Looked great, tasted surprisingly okay—then the barfing started.”

“Gross.” Andrew put the piece of glass back. “Did it make you anti-cake?”

“Because I puked it up, you mean?” Sean shook his head. “Nah. I’m easy. I’ll eat anything. Besides, it’s not as if I’m likely to come across another cake that reminds me of that one.” He led Andrew farther down the hallway and opened the door to his room. “And here’s me.”

The room was masculine, the comforter a rich chocolate brown with a subtle golden design that carried over to the curtains. Sean liked it, but the decorating had been all his mother, and that was fine with him. She’d never been weird about the fact he was gay, never assumed he’d suddenly like Barbra Streisand or whatever it was a stereotypical gay man might do.

“Nice.” Andrew wandered over to the window and looked down at the yard while Sean checked the drawers of his dresser for reasonable clean clothes.

“Dad likes to garden, but it’s too big for just him to take care of, so he has a service in to do the heavy stuff, and he just takes care of a few special areas. If you compliment him on it, though, he’ll smile and act like he cuts every blade of grass by hand.”

“He’s not retired?”

“God no! He’s only fifty-two. I mean, he could retire. He could afford to, but he’d hate it. He likes going to all the dealerships and watching everyone jump and scurry around, panicking. He shouts and makes a scene if things aren’t going well, but he works with them to fix it. He doesn’t just fire people. He’s a good boss.”

“I suppose he wanted you to take over or work with him?”

“Like your dad, you mean?” From Andrew’s wince, that’d struck home. Without meaning to, responding to Andrew’s discomfort, Sean stepped closer and put his hand on Andrew’s arm, rubbing it. “Hey. There’s nothing wrong with staying in the family business. Dad would’ve loved it if I’d shown any interest, but it just wasn’t enough for me. You’re great at what you do, and you enjoy doing it.”

Andrew nodded but didn’t look convinced. “I think it’s going to take me a while to figure out what parts of my life I like and which ones I don’t.” He glanced down, then up again. “I spent so much time trying to do what I’m supposed to that I never thought about what I wanted.”

“What about this?” Sean asked. He wasn’t sure whether to gesture at himself or the room or what. He wasn’t even sure what he was asking. “Is this what you want?”

Lifting his hand, Andrew caught at Sean’s and held on to it. Jesus, he was beautiful, even worried and tired and uncertain. “I want you. That might be the only thing I know for sure. It’s why I’m here. It’s why I…God, got on a plane and flew out here to find you…because I had to see you. I had to tell you how sorry I am for hurting you. I didn’t want to. And I can’t say it will never happen again. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, but…I promise, no matter how much I screw up, I’ll learn from my mistakes. I won’t leave you like that again.” He raised Sean’s hand to his mouth and pressed his lips to the inside of Sean’s wrist.

It felt good. It felt amazing, but part of Sean, a stubborn part, a scared part, much though he hated to admit it even to himself, held back. Sometimes Andrew reminded him of the kids at school who’d been nice to his face to get him to share whatever he had they wanted, then turned around and snickered about him with their friends, mocking him.

He knew labeling Andrew like that was an instinctive reaction to Andrew’s popularity and wealth, and he was being unfair, as quick to judge as the people who’d found out where he came from and dismissed him accordingly. He knew why Andrew had presented such a false, slippery facade to the world, after all, and he’d broken through it.

He’d fallen in love with the man he’d found behind it, deeply, helplessly in love. That wasn’t going away, but enough mistrust and resentment lingered to make him hesitate to commit himself fully the way Andrew wanted.

“I wish I could get you to believe me,” Andrew said, a desperate edge to his voice. “I can’t believe we were almost there, then I screwed up and lost you just because I was trying to keep my parents happy.”

It was killing him to see Andrew beat himself up like this. Sean put his arms around Andrew, drawing him in for a hug. The solid press of Andrew’s body against his felt too good to lose. He stood there, breathing in the clean scent of Andrew’s hair, longing to give in, accept what was being offered to him.

He just needed a nudge, but he was stuck in place.

“I love you,” Andrew murmured. “When I thought you’d left the company for good—”

“Thought I’d what?” Sean raised his head. He’d left messages saying where he was going. At least he’d thought he did. “Huh?”

“You weren’t there,” Andrew said, as if that explained everything. “Not at your house, not in the office. You weren’t answering your phone. Dad said you’d talked about handing in your notice, and I just lost it and gave him hell.”

“You did?” Something snapped inside Sean then, that small, final bond holding him back. No one gave Harris Carney hell, not in his office, not even his son. He grinned at Andrew, bringing his hand up to cup Andrew’s face, a gesture that felt so familiar, so right, he couldn’t imagine ever doing it to someone else. “God, tell me you recorded it.”

“I wish. I might be able to recreate it for you.” Andrew closed his eyes, leaning into Sean’s touch. “Please tell me you’ll be able to forgive me. Not now, maybe. I get that. But eventually? I don’t know what I’ll do if you can’t.”

“If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have said it would take a while. Now?” Sean caressed Andrew’s lips with his thumb, loving the way they pursed in a kiss, wishing he didn’t need to talk when he could be kissing Andrew properly, but knowing Andrew deserved an answer. “I can’t imagine how it would feel to be angry with you. I love you, remember? That’s always going to get you forgiven. And yeah, angry’s going to happen again. This is us we’re talking about, and we fight as hot as we fuck. But right now? I’m just glad you’re here and wishing I wasn’t so ripe you probably don’t want to be even this close to me.”

Andrew moved in closer and hugged him so tightly with his good arm that Sean almost lost contact with the ground. “Hey,” he said roughly. “Don’t say anything bad about that Sean Darrow guy. I’m in love with him.”

Sean returned the hug just as tightly. “Are you sure? I heard he can be kind of an asshole.”

“Well, so can I, though right now I’m thinking of being very, very nice. Like, dragging-him-into-the-shower-and-washing-every-inch-of-his-body nice.” Andrew leaned back and looked at his face. “How does that sound?”

“Good,” Sean said, swallowing down his emotion to answer. “That sounds good.”

Andrew led him into the bathroom and started the water running in the shower, then turned to Sean and kissed him—not on the mouth but on the tender edge of his ear, making Sean shiver. “Let me do this, okay?” Andrew said, and Sean nodded. Andrew undressed him slowly, taking his time and kissing spots of skin as they were bared. Steam was starting to fill the room by the time Sean was naked, which was followed by Andrew flinging off his clothes and pushing Sean in under the water.

“After this, you’re going to get some sleep.”

Sean smiled at him and took a moment to appreciate the view. It was mouthwatering. Andrew was half-hard but no more, his cock hanging down but thick, swollen, as if Andrew was waiting for a signal. Sean felt desire build, an ache in his balls. He wanted Andrew, needed to seal this truce of theirs by making love with him. He let his arousal show in his face, though truthfully right then he wasn’t sure he could stay awake long enough to get inventive. “Masterful. Or do I mean bossy?”

“You mean caring,” Andrew corrected him severely, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He was standing so that the water from the shower wasn’t falling directly onto his healing elbow, being careful of it. Sean approved. “God, wet suits you. I bet soap bubbles do too.”

The shower was huge, designed for two, like the one in the master bathroom, though Sean didn’t want to think about his parents in there together. There was a seat running along one wall, showerheads on opposite walls, and a bewildering array of gels, shampoos, and sponges. Andrew closed the door and reached up to the shelf, something small in his hand. Sean blinked away the water pouring down into his eyes and gasped as a soap-slick hand ran down his chest.

“You went for grapefruit, huh?” he said, knowing it wasn’t going to be long before he lost the ability to say anything meaningful.

Andrew squeezed another dollop of gel into his palm and tossed the bottle aside. “Grabbed the first one I saw. You don’t like it?”

“As long as it’s not coconut, I’m…uhn.” Having his balls cupped and massaged with a handful of gel had to be the weirdest, sexiest feeling ever. Andrew’s fingers pressed and slid, foam frothing, and Sean couldn’t go another second without kissing him.

“Had a little too much coconut, hmm?” Andrew asked between kisses one and two. “How fast could you come like this, I wonder?”

There was nothing like a slick, wet fist that knew what it was doing to take Sean to the edge. “Fast,” he gasped and bit down on Andrew’s shoulder.

Andrew made a startled but happy sound and tightened his grip. “I want you to come like this.” His fingers were delicious ridges for Sean to rut against. “I want you to come on me. That way, I can suck you for however long it takes to get you hard again, and then you can fuck me for a long, long time.” He bit at Sean’s lips and cupped the globe of an ass cheek. “Think you can do that?”

“I can sure as hell try.” An image of his bed floated just out of reach. An hour ago, it would’ve had just him in it, sleeping like a contented cat. Now it was occupied by the two of them, naked, moving together in a rhythm as ancient as the ocean—slow, insistent, inexorable. Sean wanted that. “Want you. Love you.”

“Show me.” Andrew’s hand was wrapped tightly around his cock, but Sean could still fuck that curve of palm and fingers, driving himself into it with his climax surging over him like a storm.

He glanced down and saw the first pale ribbon of spunk emerge from the head of his cock, watched it strike Andrew’s stomach, a fleeting mark the beating water soon washed away. He clung to Andrew’s shoulders, staring into his eyes now, seeing a heat that matched his.

God, it felt so good to come it was a wonder Sean didn’t jerk off all day every day. It was better with a partner, and right then it felt like the best orgasm of his life. He held on to Andrew and groaned as the last spasm pulsed through him.

“Feels good,” Andrew said, dragging his fingers through Sean’s fluid on his belly and then sucking on them. “Mm, tastes good too. It’s not enough, though. I want to suck you.”

“Let’s go to bed.” Sean rested his palm on Andrew’s chest. “Want you in my bed, laid out naked, like this.”

“Yeah. I have something for you, first. Remember this?” Andrew reached up and retrieved the small bottle he’d put on the shelf. Now Sean looked at it, he recognized it immediately. It was the bottle of conditioner he’d carried around for the past week, the one he’d thrown to the floor at Andrew’s office.

“You brought it with you?” he asked dumbfounded.

“Lucky it’s less than the allowed three ounces,” Andrew said. “Why did you carry it around for so long?”

“Because I’m a sentimental idiot?” Sean suggested, and Andrew smiled.

“I guess that means I am too. Let’s take it to the bedroom. I think we should use it like we did before. I want you to fuck me with it.”

Sean took the bottle from Andrew and weighed it in his hand, awed at how far it had traveled. The label had rubbed half off, the top was scratched, but he couldn’t see himself throwing it away even when it was empty. He’d never been sentimental about many possessions, but this bottle stood for so much; if he treasured anything, it would be that.

“I’ll use it, but I’m using lube too if it’s not enough.” He kissed Andrew. “Not going to hurt you. Ever.”

“You keep lube here?”

“I was a teenage boy in this bedroom. Of course there’s lube. And condoms. Though neither dates back to then, so don’t worry.” Sean grinned. “Unless Mom found it, there’s a stack of porn under a board in my closet too.”

“Now that I want to see. All mine was aimed at straight guys in case it got found. Three, maybe four naked guys in them if I was lucky.” Andrew rolled his eyes, then winked at Sean. “You can point out your favorites.”

“They won’t measure up to you.” Andrew glanced down and smirked, earning himself a smack on the ass that he returned, prompting a quick, thoroughly enjoyable tussle under the steady stream of water.

“Enough,” Sean said, though with Andrew plastered up against him, wet and bare, that wasn’t easy to say. “Before we break our necks.”

A few minutes with hastily applied towels and they were sliding between the sheets, shivering and clinging to each other. Andrew’s erection rubbed against Sean’s hip, solid and eager for attention.

“What do you want me to do with this?” Sean asked, letting his fingers tease at Andrew’s cock, his thumb circling the smooth head. With them both still damp, his hand dragged over the sensitive skin, stretched thin and taut, making the touch rougher than he’d intended. Andrew didn’t seem to care. His lips parted on a groan, and he hooked his leg over Sean’s, opening himself up and bringing them closer.

“Anything you like. Just make me wait until you’re in me. Don’t let me come until then.”

“But you might start begging me,” Sean said, enjoying the way Andrew could go from demanding to submissive without missing a beat. It made for interesting times, that was sure. He slid his hand up and down the thick, hard shaft, then moved it to Andrew’s ass. A single finger drawn along the cleft, pressing deeper with each pass, had Andrew’s breath quickening. “I can’t resist you when you do that.”

“Then I won’t beg.” Andrew sucked at the side of Sean’s neck, warming the skin there, his tongue lapping at it slowly.

“Sure about that?” Sean murmured and found Andrew’s hole with his fingertip, enough water clinging to the skin to let it slip in, if only barely. It didn’t matter. That was where it felt the best anyway, right there at the opening, all those nerve endings sparking brightly.

Andrew whimpered. “Lube.”

That was close enough to begging that it made Sean smile. He picked up the bottle of conditioner from the bedside table and squeezed some out onto his fingers, then went back to teasing the sensitive whorl until Andrew was biting his lip and holding tight to the pillow. Sean’s finger sank inside to the second knuckle, Andrew’s body caressing him with the promise of more to come.

“I want you too much,” Andrew muttered.

“Didn’t think there was any such thing,” Sean told him. “Should I stop?”

“For a minute. Don’t want to come yet.” Andrew sighed when Sean withdrew his hand. “Besides, I thought we agreed I could do this.” His hot mouth closed around the tip of Sean’s cock, and Sean groaned.

“You do remember I’m exhausted, right?”

“Don’t feel tired down here.”

“That part never did have any sense,” Sean muttered, but he was caressing Andrew’s damp hair as he said it, gently urging Andrew to take him deeper.

He hadn’t had any lingering doubts about Andrew’s skills, but if he had, the way Andrew sucked cock would have dismissed them. Within a minute, Andrew had him fully hard again, toes curling as arousal crept along his nerves.

“Yeah, like that. Jesus fuck, you’re good.” Sean closed his eyes and felt the prickle of cool air tighten his nipples. A small part of him wanted to pull the covers up over both of them, but the rest of him was too focused on Andrew’s mouth to manage it.

“Want you to fuck me.” Andrew mouthed at Sean’s balls and inner thighs.

“That’s never going to be something I say no to.”

“So do it.” Andrew sat up, back on his heels, his knees spread, his cock stiff, his body flushed pink in places from the heat of the shower, though it was the palest hint of pink. Sean remembered Andrew red from sunburn, skin peeling off his nose. Scruffy, smart, or bare, Andrew was always the hottest guy on the planet as far as Sean was concerned. He let his hand chase his gaze, stroking his fingertips over the hollow at Andrew’s throat, down to circle each nipple in turn, pinching one harder, then along the swell of a bicep, the angular point of an elbow.

Andrew caught his breath and bit on his lip, this time without design, as far as Sean could tell, though the effect on him was the same as always.

He tumbled Andrew to his back, pinning him to the bed in a kick and tangle of legs. The hell with looking. He needed to do more than that.

“Want you.”

Andrew lay beneath him, not struggling to escape Sean’s weight, but his hands were eager, restless, as he scored his nails lightly down Sean’s back, deepening the scratch when he reached Sean’s ass. Sean made an inarticulate sound, arching his back, taking his weight on his arms as those nails dug deeper into his ass, clawing him, marking him. God, that felt good. Painful but arousing as fuck. “So have me.”

“Oh, believe me, I intend to.” Sean shifted and Andrew shifted, writhing against each other, and suddenly the blunt head of Sean’s cock was pressed to Andrew’s hole.

He wasn’t inside, not yet. He didn’t have a condom on, and they’d need more lube, but in that moment, the conditioner was enough, promising the slick heat of Andrew’s body.

“Do it,” Andrew whispered.

God. Sean’s arms trembled as he fought not to. “Condom,” he managed to gasp.

“I don’t care.” Andrew lifted his hips.

Sean groaned in frustration and pushed himself back onto his heels, kneeling between Andrew’s thighs. Their cocks touched. “You should care,” he said. He sounded angry, which was confusing because he didn’t feel it. More gently, he added, “You have to care. You’re mine, and no one’s going to hurt you.”

Andrew swallowed, meeting his gaze. “You wouldn’t. I know that.” He smiled tightly. “Now would you just get the fucking condom already?”

The stash in the nightstand was old, but not old enough that Sean wasted time checking sell-by dates. He rolled one on with hands shaking from impatience and need, then moved back to Andrew, who was touching himself, light, soft touches to all the places Sean’s fingers had passed over.

The scent of the conditioner hung between them, evoking so many memories. “No sand,” Sean said, pushing into Andrew with as much care as his arousal would allow.

“Not something I miss,” Andrew said, grimacing as Sean sank deeper, the lines smoothing out a moment later. Sean could feel Andrew’s body welcoming him, accepting the stretch and finding pleasure. “Feels good. Thought I’d never have this again with you.”

“Sometimes—but don’t tell anyone else—we’re fucking idiots.”

“Are we…seriously having this conversation…now?” Andrew arched under him, asking for more as clearly as a body could.

“Better than fighting.” Sean jerked his hips forward, and Andrew cried out.

“Do that again,” he ordered breathlessly, and Sean did. He thrust deep, driving Andrew across the sheets an inch or two, then scrabbled to get better purchase so he could find a rhythm. Being inside Andrew felt so amazing, Sean couldn’t think of what was next until he was already doing it, changing the angle of his strokes to bring Andrew to the point where he was incoherent and almost sobbing.

Concentrating on every detail so he could make this perfect for Andrew, he ignored his steadily building climax. If he didn’t pay attention to the way his balls were drawn up tight, the delicious, barely there friction of velvet-soft skin glove-tight around his cock, he could make this last even longer.

It was a lost cause from the moment Andrew’s hands clamped on to his ass, urging him to move faster, fuck Andrew deeper.

Sean tried not to close his eyes, but that turned out to be impossible too. Panting harshly, his mouth open on a cry half despair, half ecstasy, he came, aware of Andrew’s answering cry and the sharp, salt scent of spunk spilled between them.

They were both quiet for long minutes as their heart rates and breathing returned to normal. Sean could feel the solid bulk of Andrew’s pelvic bone against his thigh; it wasn’t entirely comfortable, but he didn’t care enough to move. It was so good to have Andrew beneath him, right there, not going anywhere.

“Okay, sorry to spoil the moment, but you’ve got to move,” Andrew said finally, easing him to one side. “God. That’s better.”

“Just don’t get any ideas,” Sean murmured. He wrapped an arm around Andrew’s waist and held on.

“I think an idea would require a few more brain cells than I have access to right now.” Turning his head, Andrew kissed Sean’s temple. “Thanks to you. God, you’re good. How are you so fucking good?”

“You inspire me.” It was the truth, and he didn’t have a problem saying it now, though six months ago, it would’ve taken something like sodium pentothal to get him to admit it. “When we used to fight—that led to some of my best work. I wanted to beat you, and I pushed myself so hard to do it. I don’t want to go back to being that hostile with you, at work, in bed, ever, but I love the way you make me…make me more.”

“Yeah?” Andrew seemed pleased but not entirely convinced. “You’re pretty inspiring, yourself. I don’t know if I would have needed to prove myself so much if it weren’t for you.”

“I don’t know; your dad can be a hard taskmaster.” Sean quickly added, “In a good way. God, am I going to have to watch what I say? The guy could be my father-in-law in a couple of years.”

Andrew looked alarmed, and then he exhaled all at once, bringing his forehead down to rest on Sean’s shoulder briefly. “Thank you,” he said, lifting his face again. “For… I don’t know, for saying that. For thinking it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect an engagement ring in six months, and I’m not planning our wedding. But…”

“But?”

“I guess…” Andrew shrugged. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one who sees a future where we’re together. I’m kind of hanging on to the idea, like a life jacket, you know? Like, maybe I can figure everything else out if I just have that. Have you.”

It was Sean’s turn to exhale, letting his breath take away the last, lingering doubt he had.

“You’ve got me,” he said and yawned wide and long. “I’m going to be asleep about five seconds after I ditch this condom, but you’ve got me.”

Andrew chuckled, and a moment later, Sean, his eyes already closing, felt the condom being taken off him and a soft tissue rubbed against his lax cock, cleaning him up.

It wasn’t going to make it onto a list of most people’s romantic gestures, but it worked for him.

Chapter Eighteen

“Of course we’ll be there for Christmas,” Sean said into the phone, rolling his eyes at Andrew. “We made a deal. Thanksgiving here, Christmas there. Mom, I’ve got to go. I have a meeting in ten minutes. No, tell him I’ll call tonight and… Hi, Dad.” Sean sounded resigned now and took advantage of the pause during which his father was the one doing the talking to take a bite of his sandwich.

Andrew was sitting in the chair that had materialized in Sean’s office a few weeks after they’d gotten together. Before that, he’d had to perch on the desk if they wanted to talk for more than five minutes. Sean hadn’t said anything about the chair, but one day Andrew had walked in, and there it was, dark gray fabric on a metal frame, looking like it belonged.

“Yeah, I know. I know, Dad.” Sean grinned. “I will. Okay, take care. Love you. Bye.” He hung up. “Thank God. I thought that was going to eat up our whole lunch hour.”

Despite his words, Andrew knew Sean was completely devoted to his family. It was one of the core values they shared. Andrew’s relationship with his parents had been through some growing pains lately, but he had confidence that in the long run it would be okay. “Eat,” he said, pointing to Sean’s sandwich. “You’ve got meetings all afternoon. If you don’t have something now, you’ll be pissy as hell tonight.”

He could tell Sean was already irritable by the glare shot in his direction. “Excuse me? Since when am I the pissy one? Yesterday you thought I’d left the top off the toothpaste, and you threw my toothbrush across the bathroom and into the bath. Real mature.”

“I didn’t think you left the top off. You did leave the top off.”

“No, I put it on loosely, and it fell off. There’s a difference.” Sean got up and walked around his desk. He put his hands on the back of Andrew’s chair and leaned in so his face was inches away from Andrew’s. “FYI, Mr. Pedantic, I did my best, and gravity foiled me.”

“If a big, strong hunk like you can’t handle an itty-bitty toothpaste top,” Andrew said, deliberately putting the most annoying smirk possible on his face, “then how are you going to handle me?”

Sean grinned, a thin, savage smile. “Oh, I’ll show you just how I plan to—”

“Get a room,” Melissa said from the doorway. “Not this one. A different one.”

“Keep out of it,” Andrew snapped, pointing at her. Melissa, knowing what they were like when they were in one of these moods, held up a palm in surrender and retreated quickly.

“Don’t tell her what to do,” Sean said. He backed up toward the door and gestured to the hallway outside. “And while we’re at it, don’t tell me what to do. I’ll skip lunch if I want to, and I’ll leave the toothpaste top on loosely if I want to.”

“You’re such an asshole.” Andrew shoved past him, the solid thunk of contact providing a thrill he couldn’t have identified.

Sean’s hand shot out and closed on Andrew’s arm just above the elbow. “I’m not done talking,” Sean said through his teeth.

“Well, I’m done listening.” Andrew let the words drip from his lips, sweet as honey, and he twisted out of Sean’s grip.

Sean couldn’t do much to him, not here, and so far they’d limited their office fights to shouting, so Andrew was shocked when he felt Sean’s hand connect with his ass as he turned away.

He whirled, furious and as aroused as he ever was when Sean touched him. “Keep your fucking hands off me, caveman.

The insult shifted the fight from genuine to foreplay, and Andrew was confident they both knew it. Sean’s breath quickened; Andrew remembered the first time he’d called Sean that, when Sean had pinned him against the men’s room wall and kissed him. Good times—but these were better, with their lives woven together inextricably.

Sean sighed. “I’ll eat the damn sandwich.”

“You’d better,” Andrew told him. “Or you’ll regret it.”

“Will I?” Sean was thinking about smiling; Andrew could see it in his eyes.

“I had plans for tonight. Nice plans. Yeah, you’ll regret it.”

“Now I’m intrigued,” Sean drawled, and yes, he was smiling now, his eyes warm with love. Andrew saw that look a lot, but he’d never gotten used to it, and he hoped he never would. Sean brushed Andrew’s cheek with the back of his hand. “Sorry. For the snapping and the slap.” He cleared his throat. “Your turn.”

“For what?”

“To apologize.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Not the way I remember it.”

“You want me to apologize for caring about your health? Don’t you think that’s a little hypocritical?” If Andrew had a nickel for every time Sean had told him not to lift anything heavy or overdo it while his elbow was healing, he’d have a mountain of nickels.

Sean lifted an eyebrow. “You had surgery. We were talking about the possibility of me missing one meal. Totally different animals.”

“Okay, fine.” Andrew realized if he cut this short now, Sean would at least have time to eat a few bites of his food. “You want an apology? I’m sorry.”

“Well, that was the most convincing apology I’ve ever heard. Definitely Oscar material.”

Andrew grinned suddenly, stepping in close so he could say something no one else would be able to overhear. “You want a convincing apology? I’ll give you one tonight.”

“Yeah?” Sean sounded interested, and Andrew took advantage of the empty office behind them and gave him a quick grope on the ass.

“Best apology of your life,” he said breezily.

“That would involve you naked and on your knees.” Sean raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. Maybe I’ll apologize again too, and we can both get naked.”

“You have the best ideas, you know that?” Andrew got in one quick, forbidden kiss before he left with a grin still on his face.

Something told him neither of them would be working late tonight, which was fine with him. His career mattered, the market and his portfolios mattered, but what he had with Sean was what counted. He’d finally figured out what he wanted deep down, and more importantly, he had it.

He had Sean.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~