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Christmas Angel

By Sharon Maria Bidwell


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2017 Sharon Maria Bidwell

ISBN 9781634864671

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.

WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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This one is for those who love Dean and understand why Jay saw the good in him. To those who embraced the multi-layered anti-hero and accepted a good man doesn’t have to be perfect.

NOTE: To round off Dean’s journey, there was only one direction to follow. Even though this required much research and reading, I’ve only been able to use a fraction of what I waded through. Not everyone may agree with all the information I included to form part of Dean’s therapy, but like so often with research, there was a limit to what I could include, only so much that was suitable to, I hope, give Dean and Jay, and the readers the Happy Ever After they deserve.

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Christmas Angel

By Sharon Maria Bidwell

Prologue

The world spun on two pairs of lips, the central point of Jay’s axis. The struggle to tell whether he rotated around Dean or the man revolved around him, was real. Certainty struck home: choosing didn’t matter. He loved Dean. Dean loved him. A pity many others took more convincing. In the words of Hot Chocolate, it started with a kiss, but Jay didn’t for a minute sense an awakening.

He ran his tongue along his lower lip the action sparking his memory. Foremost, he and Dean had been friends. Funny how Jay took this long to understand how important their grounding was. Friendship remained their foundation, the infrastructure destined to hold them together in the coming years. They’d travelled far. Faced a long road. Their future appeared to fit the analogy, which suited Dean’s love of cars—potholes of their own making filled by time. When those obstacles appeared to dwindle, others placed bumps en route or tried. Jay had grown accustomed to his sister being one of those hindrances, her animosity born out of love if domineering, but he hadn’t expected his mother to speak or act out against the man he loved. His parents liked Dean but the day before, in a romantic getaway booked to celebrate his parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary, Eleanor Reid tried to throw a sexy Frenchman into his path. The motorway metaphor didn’t account for when people got driven over, their feelings splattered on the tarmac. Too easy to imagine his emotions sprayed wide, an ornate decoration of bruised sentiments. Red and purple. Bloodied and bruised.

Jay took in a deep breath, counted to twenty before releasing it. The fun of having shared a four-poster bed with Dean didn’t compensate for his family’s interference. Why go to so much trouble choosing a perfect suite for them to try to…not separate them, not that, but interfere for personal reasons? What was his mother’s motivation? A moment alone with her might supply the answer.

Saying goodbye to Jay’s parents took time. When Dean carried out their case and said he’d bring the car around, Eleanor and Jonathan Reid extended their farewell, until Jonathan told his wife to let their son get on the road. He hinted at a possible build-up of traffic if they allowed much more time to tick on then ambling off, a tactic well known to help cut her goodbyes shorter. Still, she hung back and walked with Jay out to the reception area. About to pass through the oval entryway, Jay hesitated.

Mum?”

She turned, and he spent a few seconds taking in her appearance. Elegant as always. Coiffed one might say.

François…” One of her impeccable eyebrows lifted. “He has a son?”

Yes. Adrien.” She spoke as if François having offspring meant nothing.

Apart from an amusing conversation—” he avoided mentioning eye candy “—was there a particular reason you felt we should talk?” His mother pursed her lips, the polished boards of the hotel fascinating. “You’re more direct than this with April. Well, in a roundabout way.”

Parents want the best for their children.”

Something heavy settled within his chest. How many times did he have to defend his relationship with Dean? She answered again before he protested. He thought things couldn’t get any worse. He was wrong.

I know you may feel my support extends only so far. To a degree that’s true. From what you know of your grandparents, it may not be apparent, but some didn’t approve of my father marrying my mother. She was a little…lower in class, shall we say, back in days when those things counted. I’m a little more…I guess the term April would use is prim and proper than most women are today. It might surprise April to know I envy her relaxed ways. I had elocution lessons and had to sit with my back straight.”

So you don’t approve.”

My feelings have nothing to do with you being homosexual. My…reservations have been quite selfish in their way. I wanted to see my children get married. I wanted grandchildren. Of course, that’s not out of the question. I don’t…dislike Dean. I simply cannot imagine him being a good parent, and I never heard him speak of having a family.”

But you once thought he might get together with April.”

True, but then the children would have a mother.”

Jay opened his mouth but hesitated, seeing no way to reply to that twisted way of thinking without starting an argument that would lead them off topic.

I never mentioned children.”

True.” The word whistled out between her teeth and her gaze went distant, introspective. “I just wanted you to be aware of…options. If you want a family. If Dean doesn’t happen to.”

Options? Like life without Dean? Like leaving him for another man? If that were to happen, it wouldn’t be owing to their disagreeing whether to have children. Other issues might come between them but on the subject of a family, he would be happy either way. No. Having, or not having, children didn’t bother him.

And that will be between us.” Jay leant in and kissed his mother’s cheek. “Happy Anniversary.” He walked off before she said another word, pushing any unease to the back of his mind, compartmentalising. No sense in rushing. Dean had much with which he needed to contend. Jay intended to give him every opportunity to come to terms with their relationship. To decide what promise the future held.

* * * *

Chapter 1

Jay’s mother paused while laying the table. She tilted her head to one side and stared at her daughter, April. “Please tell me we will make it through dinner this time and I have a good reason to set an extra space.”

Movement ceased throughout the dining room. Everyone stared at April. She gazed at her mother, lips pursed. As though the universe waited, time appeared to hang, suspended.

Depends.” The word forced its way out, April’s lips unmoving. “We might be third time lucky.”

Dean barely arrested his laugh, wanted to applaud her. When April said nothing more, her mother raised an eyebrow—expression full of amusement, merriment backed up by a twitch of her lips. April resumed her chore, busy polishing glassware. If she rubbed any harder, the fragile goblets might fracture.

The sharp green artificial plant twisted in Dean’s hands, tugging his attention back to his task; only his strong grip prevented the tree from toppling.

Dean and Jay set the Christmas tree on its stand and then confronted a fortification of boxes. While dinner cooked under their mother’s watchful attendance, April and Jay, along with Dean, were to decorate the tree’s synthetic branches with help from April’s current boyfriend. If he behaved, said boyfriend’s invite extended to dinner.

Dean’s thoughts winged back to Christmases before, though, in truth the auspicious date remained four weeks away. The pre-celebratory tradition of hosting a semi-formal dinner a month before Christmas included festooning the tree and the rest of the house, inside and out.

Dust gatherers.” April toed one box out of her way after uttering the annual custom: her yearly complaint one Dean agreed with in spite of the Reids’ insisting decorations not up at least a month to be a detestable hassle. The job required days instead of mere hours, enthusiastic a moderate way to express Jay’s father’s enjoyment. Not Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation excess, but decorating the exterior became Jonathan Reid’s personal present, wrapped and packaged for his own pleasure under the guise of doing a good deed for others.

Dean’s lips twitched. No reason he should believe the way he did, but so used to keeping his feelings a secret, he struggled with how to clarify why he cherished the simple, somewhat childish delight of sharing this time with people he considered extended family. He liked that Jay’s relatives maintained this tradition, though the onus fell on the siblings to attend a month beforehand, not merely at Christmastime. If he wanted to act churlish, Dean might accuse his friends’ parents of being greedy, desirous of their children’s attention.

They were lucky though. Dean included. Now Jay and Dean were a couple, Dean helped. They were, every one, family.

No sign of the long ladders?” Eleanor Reid asked of no one in particular.

Jay checked outside the window. “He’s behaving himself.”

It’s for his own good.” Eleanor sniffed.

The declaration brought Dean an unexpected twinge. Both sets of parents grew older. Though window nets obscured the view, he recognised the unmistakable shape of Jay’s father working outside alone. The man’s annual declaration of wanting no interference was as mildly spoken as the current weather, as sharply meant as a snowstorm. They left him unattended, but for his safety, the family had at last overruled his using tall ladders. They insisted, this year, he only hung lights from the porch, not the roof.

It won’t make a difference.” Eleanor Reid said, tone wistful. As the ground level decorations were numerous, Dean agreed with her. Those who stopped by to slip a donation into the collection box for charity—the real reason the Reids’ took so much trouble—were unlikely to spot a lack of icicles twinkling from the eaves.

Eleanor disappeared into the kitchen, the swing of the door letting in many enticing aromas. Dean’s nostrils and stomach twitched in unison, a noise from his mid-section rumbling out.

You got a good couple of hours to wait.” Jay scanned the various labels on the boxes. “I thought Mum colour-coded these things.”

She did.” April held each glass up to the light, inspecting her handiwork. “But she didn’t note what codes she gave what, and now can’t remember. Get a move on and open them. I’ll help when I finish laying the table.”

Dean grabbed the nearest carton, relaxing his grip at the last for fear of crushing the cardboard as well as the contents. Gratitude aside, where to spend Christmas was one problem faced as a couple—a welcome, wonderful, and unexpected complication. A few people might say his feelings over what many considered being a predicament revealed much of his history—his prior lack of long lasting companionship; the flighty relationships; his views on sex.

Dean swallowed, overcome with a love only less powerful than his emotions for his own parents. Ridiculous reaction with no true reason. Such feelings might intoxicate due to the season. Whatever the cause, the sudden disabling sense of nostalgia shocked him. Christmas was never this large a concern. Although an only child, his parents chose less ceremonial festivities.

The array of decorations brought a lump to his throat, in part because of the extravagance, in part because his parents only bothered with a single decoration: the tree. They chose a lighter observance though their preference had nothing to do with a lack of love. They never pressured Dean to visit on Christmas Day, often itching to be away—a fact proven this year by his parents’ cruising plans.

Where Dean and Jay spent Christmas and Boxing Day this year remained open for discussion, although each time the issue reared its head, April’s glare spoke volumes: You two will not leave me here by my lonesome. The Reids’ loved each other, but Christmas arrived each year with the requisite compulsion to create the perfect celebration. Warmth seeped into his face at these notions. Too many firsts of late. Too many unsettling revelations. Every simple decision bore a meaningful, underlying repercussion.

He didn’t know how he wanted to celebrate this year. In spite of trying their hardest, the Reids’ never got their perfect Christmas. April shouldn’t be without a partner, but she hadn’t intended to be the last two Christmases either.

On cue, the doorbell rang. To judge by the rise and fall of her chest, April took a deep breath. Once, the movement would have interested him. These days, he did his best to ignore women’s breasts. With so much in his life changed, Dean spent more time admiring how she fought to suppress her obvious nervousness. This one must be important for April to feel anxious. He turned to welcome the newcomer.

Brian Clarke brought frosty air into the house along with the warmth of a smile that at once brought a silent plea to Dean’s lips. Whilst unimportant for Dean and Jay to get on with April’s love interest, it wouldn’t hurt to like him.

As Brian grinned at Jay, nodded at Dean, and took the effort of shaking hands without removing his coat or putting down the bags he carried first, Dean already liked him, unprepared for disappointment.

This one’s promising,” he whispered to Jay as he passed.

We remain hopeful,” Jay replied, a twinkle in his eyes. Despite the underlying hilarity at April’s expense, Jay didn’t fool him. Both men were hopeful for many reasons. April had more than her share of failed relationships. At least two had crashed and burned only a few feet over the starting line, owing to the men making fun of her brother.

As Dean at last found the box containing tinsel and the lights for the tree, he thought back to Christmas number one.

Jeffrey had lasted until he fetched the tree topper, saying, “No need for this. Not when we’ve got ourselves a real fairy.”

Dean had no chance to deck the bastard. The heat had seeped out of his anger as April growled. Used to being in a tight spot with her, Dean had believed she had been growling at him until she stalked toward her boyfriend to snatch the winged figure out of Jeffrey’s hand. She had snarled at Jeffrey while shoving him across the living room, outside, along the path, through the front gate. All the while, she threatened to stuff the delicate sprite somewhere and so deep Jeffrey would never find the figurine and experience trouble walking.

Second pre-Christmas get-together and Oliver lasted until they got the fairy on the tree’s pinnacle.

Does everyone get three wishes? I mean we got not one, not two, but three faireeeeeeeees—”

Dean never saw where April grabbed Oliver—too busy marching over to open the front door, grabbing Oliver’s coat on the way, preparing to stuff the garment into the man’s arms. The noise to issue from the bloke’s mouth made Dean’s eyes water as he recalled the increased pitch of desperation. How much pain did one need to inflict to cause someone to produce such a sound? The mere thought made Dean’s testicles want to crawl up somewhere safe and warm. Once, April would have treated Dean the same way, the unbidden thought making him reflect on the heated relationship he and April formerly shared over Jay. Whatever the outcome this day, he’d best remember never again to piss off April.

Amazing to think he and April could now speak in a convivial manner and joke. Sure, suspicion made her eyes appear flint-like at times, but the consideration behind her gaze didn’t escape him. Nowadays—such as escorting Oliver off the premises—they acted together almost by intuition.

The big question this year: how long might the latest candidate last?

Tinsel before the lights.” April’s remark brought him back to the present. The large open-branched tree always looked too bare if they started with the lights.

Who gets that wonderful job?” Dean asked, aware he would. April gave him a stare, her head tilted to one side. He narrowed his gaze at her, to which she grinned. Brian stared from April to Dean, brow wrinkling in a fashion too adorable to look right on a man.

Never mind them.” Jay plonked a glass into Brian’s hand. “Years of mutual disrespect. They communicate by telepathy these days.” He poured a generous measure of Scotch, ignoring Dean and April as both stared in his direction.

Faced with two choices—put the tinsel on with sleeves rolled and withstand the tree scratching him, or down to protect his skin—Dean rolled up his sleeves. He preferred protection, but the one time he tried, he discovered the tree liked to snag any fibres the fake needles encountered. He ended up hugging a tree—not a terrible thing for a nature lover and if the tree were not plastic. Much to everyone’s amusement, he’d required help to get free, so now put up with the scratches. A scotch might dull the annoyance.

Do I get one of those?” Dean nodded to the bottle.

You get whatever you want.” Jay lowered his voice as he poured, and then handed a drink over, with a wink.

Thoughts of forthcoming scratches, the tree, Christmas, or anyone in the room spun away; the man’s brown gaze consumed Dean, made his jaw and whole body ache. He anticipated kissing. More than kissing. The tormenting images were so many he couldn’t focus on one.

He also forgot his drink, until Jay took his hand, cupping it with his fingers. Heat sunk into Dean’s skin at the touch as Jay turned his hand up and placed the glass palm centre. The moment Jay released the glass, Dean lifted the crystal to his lips and took an appropriately stiff but small mouthful. He longed to toss back the lot and ask for another, but he was driving and needed to go light on the alcohol. The thought nor desire did nothing to mask his sudden disappointment of scotch diluted with soda.

No point complaining. He wouldn’t drink at all if several more hours didn’t need to pass before they departed in the evening. Damn his conscience, but his internal Jiminy Cricket saved him from April’s nagging…on the subject of drunk driving. Not from her scolding regarding her brother, though. No way. Never that.

Down boy.” Jay patted him right on the cock, shattering his composure. Dean choked on the meagre quantity of alcohol leaking its way into his stomach. He glanced at April and Brian. Good thing they were busy talking. The blood rushing through his ears, and other places, tuned out their conversation, but Dean experienced only relief from their failure to notice. Gaze dancing, unrepentant, Jay smirked.

Dean took another sip of the scant liquid that remained in his glass. Time to dig into a mass of feathery tinsel; glittering boas Priscilla, Queen of the Desert would be proud to wear. Dean grasped them with as much fervour for a different reason. While he stood with a bundle of shimmering stoles draping his groin, he took a moment to grasp, squeeze, and to relieve, a sudden and troublesome hard-on. More in control, he confronted the tree.

April and Brian disappeared into the kitchen, while, with Jay’s help, Dean wound tinsel amongst the branches. The chore gave them plenty of opportunities to share glances, both doing nothing to hide their endeavour to eavesdrop. They stopped to glance at each other as Eleanor Reid laughed—a long pealing spontaneous and unrestrained sound spilling out, seldom heard, not because Eleanor didn’t laugh, but because she often worried too much, too serious. Dean raised his eyebrows as Jay widened his eyes. The new relationship might be promising.

Brian wandered back in as Dean set the last string of lights in place. Dean and Jay exchanged frowns as Brian popped a morsel of food into his mouth.

Well, if that doesn’t…” Jay didn’t finish and didn’t need to. If either of them tried to snag as much as a single piece of crispy pastry, they gained nothing but rapped knuckles. Whatever made Eleanor Reid laugh so hard had won her approval.

Are we on to the baubles?” April set two empty boxes to one side and searched for the next. When she spied what she wanted, she started forward, only for Brian to beat her to it. She drew up short, eyes widening. No argument spilled from her lips, however; a new development. April seldom liked men offering her help and doing things for her. Whenever Dean tried, he received only vitriol.

Brian, oblivious to the soundless play of emotions knocked back and forth by the other occupants of the room, opened the container, filling the room with reflected silver light. The round sparkling objects matched the grey decor—a good excuse, Jay’s father insisted, not to repaint the living room because nothing would match at Christmas. So far, the ruse worked.

Brian’s a veterinarian.” This they knew, but April’s emphasis implied he had to be a good man because he worked with animals.

Plain old vet will do.” Brian’s frown belied the underlying smile. He caught the strange significance, too. He swung round to Jay. “You’re in I.T., right?”

Unfortunately.” Jay grinned as he spoke, revealing the joke. Everyone, with the possible exception of Brian, knew he’d always wanted to work with computers, but no job came without drawbacks.

April says you’re a consultant?”

Jay blinked. Following the simple explanation, people rarely asked more.

Technically, my title is Hospital I.T. Consultant, a dry and meaningless term.”

So the short answer, right?” Brian hung ornaments. “What do you actually do? I mean,” he gave a small shrug, “name a couple of examples.”

Well, my job typically comprises of three. Creating and installing new software, maintaining the existing software, and fixing crisis level items. I’m an anti-consultant consultant. The work I do is often what an employee would do if the person had the time and skill set.”

Hope you’re appreciated.”

He is,” Dean said.

By some.” Jay gave Dean a nod, most likely acknowledging Dean respected both him and his capabilities. “The highest compliment from my clients is being told I’m not a consultant, I’m more an employee.”

Why’s that?”

Jay moved in a way Dean understood meant he was a little uneasy. “Not something I want any of my colleagues to hear but the typical consultant can be an arsehole, comes in, wastes everyone’s time with endless meetings to discover how the business works, hands out a pretty report that summarises things everyone knew, and not only charges but overcharges for the experience. The best thing I ever heard concerning consultants is a consultant is a guy with grey hair so he can appear distinguished and haemorrhoids so he can look concerned.”

Brian burst out laughing. Dean had heard this before but still, he couldn’t help grinning.

The stories you must both have to tell.” Brian shook his head. “I still can’t get over hearing how many shite places April has to sell. No need to play it down,” Brian added when she shook her head.

I’m not. No job is a hundred percent fun. Yours takes the greatest toll.”

Maybe, but it’s rewarding, too. Can’t see any of us are doing badly. Jay’s work keeps hospitals running. You help people find a home.”

Brian referred to April’s work as estate agent, but had she not mentioned her photography course? Dean fought the urge to stick up for her. Better not to say until he was sure. She might not want Brian to know for a reason he couldn’t imagine and, if he made a thing of the course, it might belittle her day-job. Better to ask her what she wanted Brian to hear, or not, before he said something he shouldn’t by accident.

Mechanic, right?”

Now under the spotlight, Dean had nothing to say. He gave a simple nod. Put that way, he sounded the least useful one here.

People need to get around.” Though true, the comment sounded a banal excuse for Dean getting up in the mornings. For a tense second, the silence became cumbersome.

Is that your MK in the driveway?”

Dean’s jaw almost dropped. He recovered, lips stretching wide, instead, head bobbing. Overcome and overheated with embarrassment, Dean tried to curb his own enthusiasm, though to do so was difficult. With the one sentence, the man soared in Dean’s estimation. Of the cars to undergo a regular service at the garage, the MK had always been Dean’s favourite. When the last owner had at long last mentioned selling because of its age, Dean had snapped up the car, was now the proud owner. Dean stumbled his way through the explanation.

Figured,” Brian said.

The pale blue colour of the vehicle matched Dean’s eyes, but although he parted his lips to say so, he snapped his mouth shut faster than he could drive. No need to sound so pathetic, but when talking cars, Dean lost sense. To his delight, Brian swept his foolishness aside, asking questions. True aficionados paid attention to the little details, including why another enthusiast loved a particular vehicle, which he and Brian did for several minutes, chatting around what made a great car while ignoring the expressions pulled by their loved ones.

The tree was a few trinkets short of bejewelled when Brian reached into the last box and extracted the fairy. Either three drew in a collective breath or Dean imagined the sound.

Not seen one like this for ages.” Brian rotated the object, gaze intent. “Bit…outdated, isn’t it?” He looked up, jolting back. His gaze darted between the three others.

Did Jay and April have the decency to have a sense of embarrassment because of their scrutiny as Dean did? They stared as if Brian had grown an extra appendage. No wonder the poor man looked so startled.

S-sorry if it’s a family heirloom.”

No. No, it’s not.” April grimaced. “It’s something mother bought and insists on having on the tree.” She gave the impression none of them agreed or liked the thing, which was true.

Right. Erm…” Brian eyed the green and now sparkling edifice before glancing at the nearby stepladder before handing the fairy to Dean. “Don’t suppose you’ll do the honours?”

Did a degree of innuendo exist? When Dean hesitated, Brian frowned, looking and likely feeling foolish, holding out the figurine dressed in tired lace adorned with fluffy wings.

You are the tallest.” Brian tried his best to hand over the winged-creature.

Dean took the fairy and placed the tired-looking sprite on top. Brian moved away to help tidy while Dean looked over to Jay. The other two helpers walked off as Jay moved closer.

Should I tell April you once suggested we didn’t need a fairy for the tree because you now had me?”

Ohhh crap. He’d forgotten. To think April had evicted two boyfriends because of a comment Dean got away with saying to Jay’s face. Heat rose from the base of his spine, flaring up into his cheeks with every characteristic of an inferno.

Jay strutted out of the room, chuckling.

* * * *

Too hot.” Brian joined Dean on the back step.

Dean nodded. Although unwise to stay outside for long without a coat in early December, with the oven on and pans steaming away—and acting as a spare part in the proceedings—he’d come out to sit on the steps for much-needed air. He swigged from the one and only bottle of lite beer he would drink.

Brian settled beside him, with what had to be a real beer in hand in a tall glass. Silence persisted for several seconds, stretching out into minutes. What to discuss? They’d exhausted the topic of the car. The garden, though kept well, appeared cut back and bedded for winter. Besides, Dean knew little of plants, struggled to tell a rose from an aspidistra. A few weeds persisted on battling through the patchy lawn and, as few of the shrubs were evergreen, bare branches stuck up out of the soil resembling broken bones.

So…you’re bisexual?”

Dean choked. Beer frothed and bubbled in his throat before he swallowed. None shot up the back of his nose, although the escape was narrow. Few people surprised him. Whatever he thought of April’s new beau, Dean hadn’t expected him to be so forthright. He shook his head, causing Brian to frown, so Dean shook his head again, no way clarifying. He intended neither headshake as an answer to Brian’s question. Why should he? His sexuality wasn’t anyone’s business.

Damn, but things had gone well. Now it appeared April’s latest conquest would end up being as big a dick as the others had. Ironic so many called Dean the same thing, not for reasons complementary. He might consider this a payback if April weren’t the one who always ended up with emotionally empty pockets.

Sorry.” Brian raised the glass to his lips and drank. “I must have my wires crossed. Just April…” He shrugged, small twitches of emotion erupting over his face.

What was the look? Embarrassment? Puzzlement? Hard to tell. Brian glanced over his shoulder back into the house, no doubt searching for April.

What did she say?” Intuition sparking, Dean asked the most logical question.

The other man now shook his head, gaze sliding away as if he’d prefer not to answer. To hell with that. There were ways to intimidate, several subtle, many not so. Often, all Dean needed to extract information was to use a particular expression. He put one on his face now, squaring his shoulders. Size had much to do with manipulation, even when he didn’t intend to follow through.

Nothing.” Despite the warmth projected into his voice, Brian shifted, knees swaying, upper body hunched. “Just April being silly.”

Dean said nothing, kept staring, although he took time and pleasure imagining April’s reaction if she heard Brian refer to her as silly. No point his allowing any of that to show in his expression. Best to keep his jaw set, fight the rising smile, keep his gaze hard, but the struggle was real. He didn’t want to make Brian feel awkward—the guy came across as an okay sort and, with luck, would stick around—but Dean required an answer not entirely born out of his egocentric nature.

What did April have to moan about now? If trouble brewed, he needed to find out, for Jay’s sake as much as his own. To uncover the truth, he’d stare Brian into the next century if need be. He might as well try prompting though.

She’s said plenty of things to my face. I wouldn’t worry. Whatever you tell me I’ve no doubt heard.”

Brian’s lips twisted, and another short time passed, before he said, “She seemed surprised over how long you’ve been together.”

The man fiddled with his glass, tipping it in one direction and then the other, so the amber liquid caught the light. Under Dean’s continued stare, the man’s behaviour became twitchy, erratic, as if he didn’t know how to behave, what to do with his whole body, let alone his hands. Dean tried to keep his tone level, but doing so meant his voice emerged from between teeth slightly parted, his jaw tight. He practically snarled, “It’s as good as three years.”

Officially, that was one Christmas over three years before, discounting a few months when no one knew. This was their fourth—the last three spent living together and the festivities celebrated with both sets of parents, alternating Christmas and Boxing Day if Dean’s parents were home. He and April…Well, things remained strained between them at times, but he had thought he’d put her doubts to rest.

Oh.” Brian blinked several times. “I didn’t realise.” He peeped over his shoulder before facing forward again. “Sorry. She meant nothing, I’m sure. I was…surprised…” He shook his head, glanced in Dean’s direction, as fast away. A garden ornament of a damaged and now three-legged tortoise stole Brian’s attention. He gestured to it. “Should I take it in for surgery, do you think?” The attempted grin fell away with another glance. “Never mind. I didn’t mean to stir.”

How long would it take before Dean could read this man? His expressions ran all over. Was he apologetic? Ill?

I thought little of it until I arrived. Now…” Again with a shrug. “I’m…more than surprised. From what I’ve seen, you and Jay are well matched. I’m guessing April’s worried about the…the bisexual aspect.”

Was Brian now quizzing him? That was a turn-up. Spying? For April? Could be, but if so, indirectly. If April wanted information, she wouldn’t send Brian. She wouldn’t send anyone. She would reach for the nearest sharp object and demand.

More likely, Brian tried to work through this. The man made excuses for April, maybe wanting to bring peace, apologise in a roundabout way for being nosey. As one often unable to apologise, Dean forgave him and relaxed.

Don’t worry. I’m used to April’s opinion of me. I won’t make trouble. Besides,” he gave a jerk of his head back to the house, “it’s coming up to Christmas. I won’t spoil things.”

Brian looked relieved. “Still sorry. I wasn’t aware you and April have problems. We’ve only been going out a few months.” He made the time sound both wondrous and no time at all.

A few months…and now Dean had given Brian something to figure out—the puzzling woman the man dated. Dean, at last, recognised a few of the man’s reactions because the moment Brian’s concern shifted to April’s motivations, it spelled itself out across his wrinkled brow, his pinched lips. Had Dean caused the couple trouble? His conscience prodded. He cleared his throat.

I don’t understand what I am. I dated women before Jay. Didn’t know…I felt that way.” Dean stared at the ground. Took a swig of beer. Not true—not the whole truth—but close. He waited for Brian to fidget, develop the ‘I would rather be anywhere but here’ expression. He didn’t.

She said you’ve been friends since you were kids?”

Dean nodded. “She was the girl next door. Puppy love on my part and not much of that.”

Fibber.

He gave Brian a small smile, making light of it, not mentioning the way his young heart had ached. When a flash of shock came over Brian’s face, Dean shook his head, fast. Christ. The man hadn’t known. How many more things could Dean say wrong in the span of one morning?

He took another swallow, emptying the bottle. Brian had drained his glass.

Was never going to happen. Never did.”

Well, that was awkward to say. His wanting to treat the situation as unimportant only drew attention. Funny thing, kids growing up so close. Dean could have almost been a third sibling if things had gone a different way. Might sound creepy to someone unaware of their shared history. School together. Homework together. Weekends. A few holidays. Jay’s parents had taken Dean on a camping trip once. Did Jay remember? Dean couldn’t recall much of the trip. Swimming—he remembered, along with walking, and climbing, and fishing. Pushing April over in the stream in a boyish tantrum akin to pulling the pigtails of a girl he liked: love portrayed by violence. He might have coloured April’s view of him from the beginning.

Dean spent a few moments considering before he noticed Brian grimacing into his glass. “What?”

Again, Brian shook his head.

You’ll tick me off if you have a penchant for going silent.”

Brian’s stare widened. His lips twitched and his expression broke, becoming gentle. “Fair enough. I never believed the ‘gay for you’ thing.”

The…?” What?

Gay for a particular someone. That’s saying a gay man can turn straight if he finds the right woman. Most people…there’s an inkling.”

There had been. Dean had always made light of it. If his past troubled April so much after this measure of time…he supposed he understood.

Well, I saw things. Never took part.”

What a thing to say. Why add that? Now, Dean felt embarrassed. He would not mention he had once written a gay series of detective novels—or rather a detective series where his main character was gay—because he didn’t do it now. He still wrote, but he wanted to venture into something more mainstream under his own name. With his first books, he’d made the character gay because it fitted the plot. Any other motives escaped his awareness, so no way to be sure. He assigned everything he read or watched to research.

He sat thinking and, while he did, Brian studied him, Dean trying not to squirm under the scrutiny.

I don’t know. I guess there were signs. I never wanted a man before him. Not in a clear way. I’m not sure I can say I’m gay, though.” Heat flooded Dean’s face. “Well…I must be. I mean I’m not sure what label to put on my feelings. Not given it much thought. We’re doing okay, so why bother?”

Brian stared out across the garden though, this time, he didn’t appear to focus on any one thing.

You say you don’t understand what you are?”

Where was Brian going with this? Why? “Yes.” Simplifying, though a good enough way to express his feelings.

But you love Jay?”

Yes.”

And you still find you’re attracted to women though you’ve done nothing about the attraction?”

Yes.”

I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot with you, or any of the family, but sounds bisexual to me.”

You got no idea what you’re saying. The thought flashed through Dean’s mind; the urge to argue winking out as fast. Accompanying anger—if it was what he felt—a momentary spark extinguished faster than it flared. Dean didn’t want to discuss this. Yet, he did. Brian was easy to talk with. He had a calm manner, a sparkling, dancing gaze, and a warm smile. A decided and refreshing lack of hostility left Dean open and receptive.

Dean’s emotions…He wouldn’t want April to know, but sometimes, his own thoughts still troubled him. He didn’t doubt his love for Jay, determined to stay faithful, but what others thought of him, and why, gave Dean reason enough to question his own vows, though he didn’t do so much anymore.

When Brian opened his mouth again, his words echoed Dean’s thoughts and gave him a real shiver.

I’m not saying April is right. I’m not saying let her upset you.”

Dean needed a moment to work out the awkward phrasing. There had to be a but coming. Sure enough.

But I can see where she may have a point. Where she’s coming from, at least. You’re known as a womaniser, right?”

Dean nodded, staring ahead. Shook his head. “I was.”

And you’ve never…been with another man? Other than Jay, I mean.”

This time the phrasing showed, for all his forthrightness, Brian appeared self-conscious. Good. Nevertheless, Dean answered. “No. I…saw a few things.”

I take it you don’t mean porn?”

How much of this would get back to April? Dean hesitated before he gave a terse nod. “No doubt April would say it had turned me gay, or this started with me acting out a fantasy with Jay.”

Brian snorted, which helped to warm Dean to him again.

I don’t believe in such things. You can’t ‘turn’ someone gay and the acting out of a fantasy doesn’t take over three years. But as to my point…”

The guy had one?

Even you can see how people might react. A well-known womaniser entering a gay relationship. From what April tells me, and what I heard today, you’re a little confused yourself. Nothing you’ve told me yet suggests otherwise.”

Confused? Yes, sometimes. Dean gave Brian another nod, this one slower, more accepting. Fine. He’d listen but that didn’t mean he had to join in or to agree.

Ever thought of talking to someone?”

Dean almost barked out a laugh. “I’m not going to any shrink.”

Not a psychiatrist. A counsellor.”

Same thing.”

Similar.

Semantics.”

Big word.”

The two men laughed.

Good to see you two getting along.” April emerged from the kitchen to stand in the back doorway. Despite sounding happy, April’s expression struck Dean as full of suspicion, though it might be his own reservations doing his judging for him.

Care to toddle to the dining room? We’ll serve dinner soon.”

Be right there, sweetheart.”

Smart arse,” came her reply as she headed back inside.

True love.” Brian grinned.

Possible. He showed every sign of being much in love. April might have a good one this time…even if Brian was somewhat forward. This, a first meeting and all. What was his motivation? Could be April hadn’t accepted Dean, pretended to do so. Something had to fuel Brian’s reaction. About what and how much had she complained?

Here.” Brian handed Dean his empty glass, freeing his hands to dig out his wallet. He extracted a business card, plain white, black curly writing with a touch of red. A name and the word therapist caught Dean’s eye.

Good thing Dean held a glass object in each hand. The only violence possible was to shatter one or both, cut up his hands. Despite the caution, his grip tightened. Brian slipped the card into Dean’s shirt pocket.

She’s a counsellor. A good one.”

Yours?” Dean curbed the acidic bite of venom the word brought to his tongue. He painted a curl on his lips.

Brian grinned at the question as he took back his glass, Dean letting go as if it grew hot. Maybe it did, owing to the heat of his boiling blood.

No. Our paths crossed, and it turns out she helped a relative of mine. And before you ask, we’re not friends. Anything you say to her would be confidential even if we were. I’ll tell her you might call.”

You on commission?” Dean couldn’t help it. He recognised the indicative signs of his emotions spinning into seriously pissed off. If Brian’s reaction was any way to judge, the man noticed. Brian froze, thoughts appearing to flit as winged mammals in the depths of his eyes.

Sorry. Again. Getting to be a habit. I only thought…” He shook his head. “You’re right. Not my business. Give it consideration…or don’t. Tear up the card. I…like you both. I know how April can be. I want her to be wrong.”

She is.”

I’m glad.” Brian gave him a smile that showed he believed him…but only ninety, maybe ninety-five percent.

By an unspoken decision, the two men rose and went into dinner, Brian leading. They made their way across the deck to the back door, Dean giving Brian’s back a dark stare.

* * * *

Chapter 2

The day, and the meal, had gone well. Full of excellent food and contented, Jay hadn’t given the time spent together as a sextet any thought until surrounded by the uncharacteristic hush of the homeward journey. They didn’t always talk in the car, but even in silence, Dean might put on the radio. Seldom did they spend quiet time together unless both were engrossed in a book. When they opted for no sound, the two men often shared glances, or a gentle knee squeeze.

Tonight…Dean paid attention to the tarmac as if he headed to a personal and dark destination.

For now, the best choice was to let him brood. No point trying to pry whatever annoyed the man out of him. Given time, Dean was more likely to open up.

With the decision made, Jay didn’t question when Dean marched straight to the bedroom, matching the speed to which traffic-free roads had allowed Dean to drive them home. Jay followed at a pace opposite to the rate in which Dean had placed his foot a fraction too hard on the accelerator.

By the time Jay ascended the stairs, Dean had moved on from the bedroom. He’d stripped, evidence provided by a single sock abandoned on the floor, overlooked or disregarded. The man’s trousers were huddled in a heap and thrown on the room’s only chair. Dean’s dressing gown, hanging on the back of the bedroom door, gave a sure sign of Dean having walked naked to the bathroom. As Jay changed out of his clothes, the shower turned on.

He slipped on his robe and glanced at the digital alarm clock beside the bed. A quarter to midnight; late, as he’d thought.

When he pushed the bathroom door open, a thick enveloping blanket of steam blotted out any sight of Dean. Jay went in without hesitating as heat and moisture often set off the smoke alarm. Entering was akin to walking into a tropical greenhouse.

Jay waved a hand, separating the fog. As the mist cleared, Dean stood revealed…tall, naked, hands bracketing the pipe that led to the spray control in the shower cubicle. His head hung. Water cascaded over his back, the temperature high enough to turn the room into a sauna. Dean’s skin took on a ruddy glow. The water caught the light and made him gleam, his muscles vibrantly defined.

The captivating sight held Jay’s interest, until Dean glanced across, giving Jay a look he couldn’t interpret. Straightening, the man reached for a squirt of shower gel.

The back view no more eased Jay’s instant arousal than the side view had. Nor did the movements of Dean’s hands spreading the soap, cleansing places only his, Jay’s fingers, and Jay’s tongue, ever explored.

Any other night Jay might step into the cubicle with him and, despite his smaller size, stretch around, and gather up a little of the gel. He’d help to spread the soap, work the lather into every crease and crevice until the only thing left to need a wash…Dean’s erection; hot and hard and ready for him to grasp…

Jay swallowed, slumped, bending his neck. Tonight, he didn’t think Dean would welcome his attention. A sense of wryness twisted Jay’s lips as he shook his head. Hard to recollect when he last dealt with disappointment.

Resisting the urge to rub his fingers against his temples, he moved to the sink and prepared his toothbrush, setting it aside. He needed to wait until Dean finished because the water had a tendency to flash icy if someone turned on a tap elsewhere in the house. Seconds ticked by, a minute, two. He eyed the tap. If Dean didn’t hurry so Jay could take his turn, he might give in to the temptation to switch the tap on full.

At last, the sound of running water ceased. Jay brushed as Dean stepped out, reaching for a towel. A patchy puzzle via the steamed-up bathroom mirror was the only glimpse of Dean. Maybe just as well. He didn’t want to see the man’s expression. Jay concentrated on rinsing his mouth, overly attentive to spitting. By then, Dean had left the room.

Jay moved to the shower, disrobed, and stepped in. The sharp scent of the wash Dean loved to use assaulted his nostrils. While he liked it well enough on Dean, tonight the man’s shower gel annoyed him. How much had Dean used? Jay’s preferred cleanser had a milder note, less of a citrus tone. Dean often said it made him think of warmth—a hot drink, a cosy fire, the right smile, and the things he wanted to find waiting for him at home. Once, he’d said the same of Jay’s apple-scented shampoo. These days, Jay used other products, but Dean said he liked those, too. When Jay crawled into bed, maybe the familiar fragrance might help to bring Dean back to him, to ‘bring him home’, for he felt far away from Jay this evening. Jay took no time lathering up and fewer seconds rinsing. He didn’t want to risk Dean going to sleep before they exchanged a few words.

Despite his haste, he feared he’d taken too long when the only light to shine in the bedroom came from the lamp on his side of the bed. Dean lay still, eyes closed, facing away.

Too still.

Jay relaxed. Dean only faked sleep. Jay shook his head as he hung up his dressing gown and then slipped into bed, glad they both slept naked. Without waiting, he curled up behind Dean, who tensed.

He must have imagined it, but no; Dean had tautened for a moment there and even though he appeared to loosen, the movement came across as fake as Dean’s pretence at sleeping. Dean hadn’t behaved this way in a long while. What had happened? No way to ask without sounding indelicate.

Dinner went well.”

Humpfffff.”

Jay rolled away, clasping his hands behind his head, elbows out to the sides. How to cope with this? How to handle a moody man? He glanced over and smirked. How did one handle a moody Dean, more like? His lover hadn’t acted this way in so long, something must have riled him.

Brian’s nice.”

Silence. No movement from Dean’s side of the bed.

I think April found a good one.”

Dean pulled the covers around, tucking in like a turtle, avoiding conversation. A fleeting but thorough rendition of emotions—amusement, concern, frustration, irritation, exasperation and a dose of incredulity—made Jay grit his teeth. With Dean, some things never changed, and when something bothered the big man, he too often opted for taciturnity.

You got on well with him. Hmm? Don’t you think?” Jay nudged him, elbow into Dean’s back.

Mmm.” Dean sounded sleepy. Faker.

Fucker…or so Jay wished.

You and Brian. You both got on well. The pair of you chatted a good while. What did you talk about?”

A grunt sounded from the other side of the bed before Dean grumbled, “Cars.”

Liar. Or evading by omission. Dean needed coaxing, prodding with something sharper than an elbow. Time to be blunt. “You know I’m not buying that.”

Go to sleep.”

You know I won’t let this drop.”

Sleeeep.”

Obviously, it’s something you don’t want to discuss.”

Stop talking then.”

Never gonna happen.” Dean came alive, spinning around in the bed, pushing aside the covers and climbing on top, straddling him. Knees aligned Jay’s sides, under his ribs. Hands braced either side of his head. Dean glowered, and then…sat. Arse crack and cock connected, Jay semi-erect.

Dean sat in the perfect position to ride him and the big man’s eyes went wide as realisation slid into his expression. Jay glanced between their bodies. As his own cock grew erect, Dean became hard right along with him. With a slight change of position, maybe the help of lube or, barring that, spit, Jay could slide in somewhere tight and hot. That didn’t happen often—Jay welcomed Dean in—but he’d been inside Dean enough times to remember the sensation. The recollection made him harder still.

Dean dropped over him, smothering him in his heat and his smell. “Not happening.”

Get off then.”

Get off, or get off.” Dean backed up the comment with a lick to Jay’s neck. Jay fought to swallow, choked by desire.

You get us both off.”

I might.” Dean licked him again, nibbled. “I might not.”

Only way to silence me.”

No need to say so; they both knew Jay would persist in talking, in pushing, taunting, if Dean didn’t distract him enough, but it never hurt to make things clear. Despite Dean’s willingness to use sex to sidetrack him from the discussion, Jay grinned. Fine. He’d let it go for this evening, but Dean wasn’t stupid; he knew Jay would ask again. Maybe when Dean got through kissing him…or licking…and the biting was good.

Not so enjoyable minutes later when, pinned beneath Dean’s weight, Jay struggled, undergoing what might be a long bout of torture. Dean took long, lazy licks, interspersed with bites, kisses, and teasing sucks. As seconds passed, Jay’s enthusiasm metamorphosed. His muscles tightened, skin crawled. He caught his breath. Mild, suppressed panic took over. Jay lay trapped, Dean having his wicked way with him because, although sexual, he did nothing more than teasing, his actions not designed to get either of them off, but to torment Jay.

To protest or not to protest? Objecting might make the situation worse. Now his muscles bunched. If he said nothing, no way to surmise how long Dean might continue the ordeal.

His body decided for him. Anxiety increased—mouth going dry, sweat breaking out. Crazy; he was in no danger, but the underlying panic, the sensations caused by his inability to escape, remained undeniable. He might freak out before Dean let go if the big man didn’t recognise Jay’s apprehension as genuine.

I need you to get off me, Dean.”

Hmmm…”

No. Seriously.”

Dean’s answer was to pull a small bit of skin into his mouth and concentrate on giving Jay a hickey.

Dean?”

The skin popped free of Dean’s lips and he pulled his head back enough to examine his handiwork. Apparently dissatisfied, he returned to working on the same spot.

Beneath him, Jay wriggled. Shit! He couldn’t move more than a fraction in any direction. “Dean, I’m serious.”

Dean licked the spot which was now slightly, deliciously sore. Pity the rest of Jay couldn’t get wholly in on the act although…how perverse to discover part of him enjoyed his underlying unease even as he hated it.

I think we need a safe word.”

That declaration made Dean stop and lift his head. Jay stared back.

Dean, please. I’m an inch from going crazy.”

Dean’s gaze narrowed. “You’re safe.”

I know. Just…” How to explain? “You’re heavy. I’m hot. You’re tormenting me to a point where all I want is your cock.”

That’s the idea.” Dean gave another lick, twisting his head in such a way that said he knew the exact spot to attack.

Jay twitched and giggled. “Nooooo! No, I’m serious. Oh…Hell.” Another suck and lick. The tickling made his head spin. “If you’re so intent on sucking something, I can make suggestions.”

Dean shook his head, shy of worrying Jay’s skin like an animal and making him gasp. Did he want to fight his way free? No. Yes. He could withstand a few minutes more. Still, Dean was heavy and everywhere they touched, skin against skin, turned slick. Maybe the problem was the heat they generated. Dean moved on, sucked Jay’s earlobe, drawing back with his teeth before letting go.

No sucking tonight. Just fucking.”

Having Dean whisper that into his ear while he lay trapped made it sound dirty, made him sizzle. The fight, and maybe the desire, to escape fled. Typical. The moment he made peace with the torment, Dean scooted back.

Turn over.”

Translated to mean Jay would get a cock any minute. His attempt to hurry failed, limbs unresponsive. He flopped over more than turned.

A hand brushed over his neck to his nape, lifting his hair to the opposite side of where he twisted his face. Then Dean’s lips were there in that space, kissing from the bone that jutted out at the top of his spine.

The harsh scrape of wood fractured the softer sounds—the noise of the bedside cabinet drawer opening as Dean reached for lube. The thought spiralled away as Dean’s kisses grew more heated; searing touches one side of Jay’s spine, back up on the other.

Not the first time Dean did this. Next, he focused on Jay’s vertebrae, kissing, licking, sucking his slow way down. The action resulted in Jay twitching and jumping, the sensations confusing. Jay fought a battle of love versus loathing. This time, Jay lay compliant, choosing to enjoy the attention.

By the time Dean reached his coccyx, Jay grew weighty, glued to the bed, helpless, languid. His cock, trapped between his stomach and mattress, so engorged, beat in time with his pulse.

The way Dean kissed him changed. The man skimmed his lips over Jay’s skin, interspersed the touch with light licks first over one arse cheek and then the other. A delicate connection made Jay’s buttocks twitch and tighten. His anus clenched. After a last hard bite near his crack, Dean sat back. The snap of the lube bottle sounded—Jay had as good as waited for it while he let his thoughts wander—the noise both clinical and sexy as hell. Only a few more seconds passed before the slip and slide of Dean’s erection rode the crease of his arse.

Jay groaned, performing a half-hearted attempt to push up, and back. Instead of struggling, he might as well ask for what he wanted. “Hurry.”

Slut.” Amusement laced Dean’s voice as the man kept up the slow back and forth, up and down.

Jay added a hopeful, “Please?”

All he received was Dean moving his cock to one side, and then a slick finger wriggling in…an improvement, at least. Not a tongue opening him but…

Oh.” Jay bit his bottom lip as he sucked it into his mouth. A second finger joined the first, but Dean kept the penetration shallow, experimenting with the right nerve-endings, those able to make Jay tremble. He bore it as long as he could while fighting to keep his breathing even. Too soon, he reached the point where he might lose the battle, might hyperventilate.

Dean?” Amazing how his lover’s name sounded like begging.

If you want me inside, how about you scramble back and do the honours?”

Why the egotistical sod! Sometimes even Jay wanted to accuse Dean of arrogance, but could Jay class Dean as overbearing if the man understood what saying those things did to him?

Jay planted his hands on the bed after two failed tries. Pushing back took real effort, Dean’s attention having made him boneless. As he went to his knees, presenting on all fours, Dean kept his fingers in play, sliding deeper, finding the right spot. At the brush over his prostate, Jay gasped, and though Dean didn’t ask if he were okay, his fingers grew still. Having learned by experience, this was Dean waiting to find out if all was well. Unable to find his voice, Jay rocked on Dean’s fingers as a way to convey he was fine—a pleasant enough sensation, short lived. Something larger pressed into Jay. Perhaps Jay’s own wantonness proved too much for Dean.


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