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Something Like Hope

By Kris T. Bethke


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2019 Kris T. Bethke

ISBN 9781634869218

* * * *

Cover Design: LC Chase

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.

* * * *

Something Like Hope

By Kris T. Bethke

Chapter 1

I was exhausted and relieved to be home. Shooting on location always took a lot out of me, but we’d finally wrapped filming on the last episode of the third season of the wildly popular police procedural Rourke and Geary. I played Deputy Riley Cates, a recurring character only brought in when the main characters needed backup. My character had actually featured heavily in the last few episodes. In fact, the deputy getting shot had played a large role in the season’s cliff hanger. None of the cast members knew what season four would bring—the scripts, by all accounts, hadn’t been written yet—but I figured we’d have a clue by the time hiatus was over.

Finally making it through the door to my crappy little apartment, I dropped my duffle bags with a satisfying thump. I kicked off my shoes, wiggling my toes. I’d decided to drive from where we shot the show in Seattle back home to LA so that I could detour to Montana and visit with my family for a while. It had not been one of my best ideas. Two weeks into hiatus, and I’d spent nearly half of that driving.

I started tugging off my shirt, intent on a shower, but stopped when my phone chirped out a Lady Gaga song. I knew it was Casper Jones, my agent. I stopped stripping to answer it.

“Aaron! My man!” Cas’s boisterous voice came over the line as soon as I answered. “How’s hiatus?”

I shook my head, even though he couldn’t see. I’d gotten lucky when Cas agreed to take me on. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy, a little blunt, but good at what he did. He kept me booked for enough jobs that I didn’t starve, and he’d gotten me the audition for Rourke and Geary eighteen months ago. And he really had a good heart underneath. Sadly, that wasn’t something found too often in this business.

“Casper,” I greeted him warmly. There was no point in answering his question. He cared about me as a client, not as a person. “What’s up?”

He was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, then he blew out a breath. “Listen, man. I just got a call from Marc Bergman.”

My agent had gotten a call from the producer from the show on which I was cast. And where my character had gotten shot and left bleeding in the street as the season ended. I groaned. “They’re killing off my character aren’t they?” Dammit. I liked working on that show. Everybody was great and got along. Well mostly. Lucas Logan was kind of asshole, but that came with the territory of being the hotshot lead character.

“No, actually, they aren’t,” Cas responded quickly. “In fact, they want to bring you on as a full-time cast member and give your character a bigger role.”

Right in that second, my heart leaped. It was a dream come true. I knew I’d never be a huge name in this business, but I loved acting and I really loved a steady paycheck. That was often hard to come by. “That’s great!”

“Yeah,” Cas said slowly. “There’s a catch though.”

Of course there was. I closed my eyes. “What?”

“Your character is going to become romantically involved with one of the leads.”

I couldn’t quite see how that was a catch. “Mary Alice?” She was the only one who made sense. Allison’s character was happily married with a baby on the way.

“Uh, no. Actually, Riley Cates will fall in love with Frank Geary.”

For a second, I couldn’t breathe. A gay relationship? On prime time network television? On one of the biggest grossing shows that wasn’t a comedy? It didn’t seem possible.

“Aaron?” Cas’s voice shocked me out of my thoughts.

“Yeah?”

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. I’m just…processing. I know times are changing, but I didn’t think the network was progressive enough to put one of the leads of one of their most popular shows in a gay relationship.” A thought occurred to me. “Wait. They are going to treat this right, aren’t they? It isn’t going to be some joke or just filled with hurt or—”

“According to Bergman,” Cas cut me off. “They are playing on the chemistry that you and Jacobs have on screen. He said it would be treated with respect, and that your character getting shot and nearly dying opens Geary’s eyes to his deeper feelings for you. I imagine there will be all sorts of drama surrounding him coming to terms with his sexuality. But yes, this isn’t going to be a joke.”

It was about fucking time. LGBTQ people need representation in all facets of the world, especially on television. I know that if I had seen a gay character on my favorite shows as a teenager, I wouldn’t have had such a hard time with my sexuality. To think that I could play a role in some unknown person’s life, that they could see acceptance by the role I portrayed on TV, filled my heart. This was what I was waiting for. I could do something I loved and make a difference while I was at it.

“Zeller,” Cas growled, cranky I’d gone quiet again. “What do you want me to tell the show?”

“I’m in,” I whispered. Then cleared my throat and tried again, with all the conviction I felt. “I am so in.”

* * * *

It felt different reporting to the set this time around. Who was I kidding? It was different. Before, I’d always shown up for a day or two, maybe a week, shot my scenes, and gone home again. This time I’d given up my apartment because I didn’t have a choice, found a new one in Seattle, and would be in nearly every episode of the season. The pay bump was nice, too.

The reclaimed warehouses that held the indoor sets was also home to the production offices. When the car pulled into the lot at eight-thirty, I thanked the driver and headed in through the side door that would take me to the offices. We were scheduled to start shooting later in the week, but first there would be meetings and rehearsals.

Daniel Jacobs, the actor who played Frank Geary, was waiting in the hall outside the producer’s office. He smiled when he saw me and gave me a firm handshake. He towered over me by a good four inches, but I’d never felt intimidated by him. Dan had a warm smile that lit up his dark brown eyes and lips to die for. Though kissing him on set wouldn’t exactly be private, I knew I wouldn’t mind it one bit.

The producers had chosen well when they’d decided to pair our characters off. Not only did we have great chemistry onscreen—Dan and I had always played our characters off one another, making the best use of the witty banter that had been written—but we also made a striking pair. I was smaller and leaner, my blond hair was kept cut close to my head for the show, and I was pale and gray eyed. Dan was bulkier, his shaggy dark hair and deep brown eyes giving him a swarthy look that made everyone swoon. Together we were a study in opposites, and that always made for a pretty picture.

“Hey, Aaron,” Dan greeted me warmly. “How’s it going?”

“Can’t complain,” I responded, trying for unaffected. I was an actor. I think I pulled it off. “How’re you?”

“Good, good.” He paused to lick his lips and I couldn’t help but track his tongue with my gaze. “You see the scripts yet?”

“Just the first one,” I admitted. “Looks pretty intense. Even if all I’ll be doing is lying in a hospital bed.” I was trying for funny, but Dan didn’t seem to be paying attention. His gaze darted nervously around the empty hallway, and then he placed a hand on my arm.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he asked, his voice low. I tried not to be suspicious as I nodded. The hand on my arm took hold of my elbow, and he guided me a few feet away to where there was a stretch of nothing but wall.

“When they asked me if I was up for this,” Dan began conspiratorially, “my first thought was it’s about fucking time, you know? But the thing is, I’m not gay.”

“Okay. And?” My voice sounded wary, but that couldn’t be helped. I braced myself for what he would say next, fully expecting it to be a line about how I shouldn’t read into anything we did on set or not to get any ideas.

Daniel’s gaze met mine, and all I could see was utter sincerity. “So I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.”

I blinked, a little surprised, but also relieved that he hadn’t gone where I thought he was. It wasn’t the gay that was his problem, but rather that he felt out of his element. That, I could work with.

“Well,” I said slowly. “I rather imagine it’s like kissing a girl.”

Dan quirked one of his perfectly shaped brows, and some of his regular humor bled through in his voice when he asked, “You imagine?”

I grinned. “Since I haven’t kissed a girl since high school, I’m only going by what I vaguely remember. Not that different. Kissing is kissing, you know?”

Dan laughed and gave me a playful punch to the arm. Then his expression turned serious, even though the smile never left his face. “Aaron, man, I know you don’t advertise but it’s not really a secret, right?” He paused and looked at me expectantly. I could only nod. I wasn’t in the habit of lying. Daniel looked relieved and continued, “So yeah. You’ll help me not fuck it up, right?”

“Yeah, Dan,” I assured him, grateful and pleased he was taking this seriously. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

His smile was big and beautiful, and I couldn’t help smiling back. This was why I was happy to work on this show. It was filled with people who actually cared. It didn’t happen as often as people thought. Being with the same people, day in and day out, for long stretches of time either created a tight knit group of friends or raging hostilities. I was very lucky this show fell into the former group.

“Thanks, Dan.”

He quirked one of those perfect eyebrows at me. “For what?”

“For, you know, treating this whole thing with respect.” I shrugged. “It’s going to make an impact. The show has a huge fan base. I want it to be important.”

Dan nodded, his eyes serious. “Yeah, I hear you.”

Just then someone called our names. I turned quickly to see Lisa, one of the PAs, gesturing to us. I took a deep breath and headed down the hall, Dan at my side. Time for the production meeting.

* * * *

Chapter 2

The scruff on my face was scratchy and irritating as hell. Since my character was hospitalized, they’d asked me not to shave to give realism to Riley’s situation. But I knew it would be a while before I was allowed to shave it off. Especially if we couldn’t get this fucking scene done.

My part was easy. All I had to do was lie there and breathe, with my eyes shut, and not react at all to what was going on around me. Sedated after surgery, Riley was supposed to be out of it. But the cannula in my nose was making it hard to breathe, and this was our twenty-seventh take. I wanted nothing more than to yank it out so I could breathe normally. I could have dealt with it if there was any end in sight. Maybe this time, we’d get it right.

When the director called cut, I couldn’t help the groan that escaped. Not again.

“Logan, you really need to get your shit together. What the fuck is your problem?”

“Sorry, Con.”

Constance O’Meara was one of five or six directors that rotated through. I always liked working with her. She’d been the one to direct the previous season’s finale, and I was glad she was directing the two-part season opener. I thought it made for nice consistency, and she made me feel comfortable.

“Don’t be sorry. Just get it together,” Connie snapped. She paused and then let out a sigh. “Let’s take a ten minute break. And when we get back, I expect us to get this done.”

I didn’t bother moving. When Connie said ten minutes, she meant exactly that, and woe betide anyone who wasn’t ready when she was. I wasn’t the only one who stuck close. Most people milled around close-by. But Lucas Logan stomped off set.

I couldn’t figure out what his issue was, but he’d been like this all day. Well, ever since we’d started shooting this scene three hours ago. And paranoid as I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of the fact that Frank Geary was holding Riley Cates’s hand. Murphy Rourke was supposed to overhear Geary telling Riley what he meant to him, and then come around the curtain and place a supportive hand on his friend’s shoulder. We got that far every time, but when Lucas was supposed to be silent as Frank told Riley to get better, that he’d be waiting, Lucas fucking Logan kept fucking it up. And I couldn’t help but think the prick was a homophobe.

“He’s better than this,” Dan mumbled from where he’d leaned back in his chair. I turned my head to look at him as he scrubbed his hands over his face. “Everyone has off days, but not him and not like this.”

“He’s being a jerk,” I said softly. Dan and Lucas were close friends and I didn’t want to say what I was really thinking. Dan snorted out a laugh that made me think maybe he knew anyway.

“I’ll talk to him after, see where his head is at.” Dan shook his head and sat up straight. “Here we go.”

Everyone was back within another minute, and as places were called, the set fell silent. I closed my eyes and did my best to even out my breathing and to make my face impassive. Connie told us where to start, and I was glad it was near the end of the scene. I couldn’t handle it if we’d have to do the whole thing all over again. Dan took my hand in his big, warm grip.

“Action.”

“You scared the hell out of me, kid.” Dan’s voice was low but strong. I knew the boom mike over our heads would have no trouble picking it up. “You have no idea what it did to me, seeing you take that bullet. I’ve let too much time go by, denying my feelings. And that’s going to change.”

A beat of silence and then the heavy clomp of boots on tile. I knew what was supposed to be taking place, and every second that went by without Connie calling cut made me breathe a little easier.

“Hey,” Dan said.

“Hey,” Lucas answered.

A beat and then a sigh. Dan’s voice was sure but full of emotion when he said, “Things are going to change, Rourke.”

“I can see that.”

So far so good. From what I could hear, this was the best take yet, but the next part was where it all went to hell. I had to remind myself not to hold my breath.

“Get better fast, Riley. I’ll be waiting for you. And then we’ll see where this leads, okay? No more pretending.”

Utter and complete silence. No one moved. No one said a word. The air was pregnant with expectation.

“Cut,” Connie said, and I nearly wept in relief because I could tell that this time, it wasn’t full of frustration. I opened my eyes and craned my neck to the side, where I could see Connie staring at the monitor in front of her. A few more seconds where no one dared to breathe, and finally Connie sighed. “That’ll do. Let’s call it a day, people.”

The set burst into activity as everyone started moving about, packing up, going on with their business. I was relieved to pull the plastic tubing out of my nose and reminded myself that if I threw it across the room, someone else would have to find it. I dropped it on the bed instead and then hopped over the side. I didn’t look back as I headed for my dressing room.

The hospital gown I wore wasn’t exactly warm, and I would be relieved to actually put on real clothes again. I pushed open the door and then looked around. I actually had a permanent room now that I was a full-time cast member, even if I shared it with Court Scully, who played the chief of police. He was a kind, older man, with hundreds of credits to his name. I liked him and we got along. Which was more than I could ever say for Lucas Logan.

God that man! What was his damage? Over the past couple of years, I’d shot numerous scenes with him and I’d never seen him fuck up so much. I thought he was a professional. Standoffish and a bit cold with me, in a way that Dan, Mary Alice, Allison, Court and the others had never been. But I just figured that was his personality, or maybe he’d let the fame of being the star of the show go to his head. Either way, he’d always done his job and done it well. But today he’d been a jerk, missing cues and messing up. Because why? For no good reason that I could see. What an asshole.

If he had a problem with the storyline, it was up to him to take it up with the producers. He didn’t need to be such an ass. I was sure he didn’t want to leave behind the show and the fame it provided in protest, but if he kept fucking up like this, he’d be out anyway. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. I’m sure his contract was ironclad. Maybe this was his way of protesting. It was irritating as all hell, and if it was a portent of the way the entire shooting season would go, we’d all be in for a rough time.

I carefully hung up my costume on the rack where it was supposed to go, then quickly changed into my street clothes. I was done for the day, and I wanted nothing more than to go home and relax, let the stress of this day wash away, and forget it even happened. I wasn’t scheduled to be on set tomorrow—they were shooting on location—and I intended to sleep late and go through my lines again. I only had a few, but they were important, and I wanted to be sure I got them right. Waking up and seeing the man that I’d been apparently pining for sitting right there was sure to be a pivotal moment.

I’d worry about Lucas fucking Logan another day.

* * * *

It was a coincidence that I was on set when the last scene for the episode went into the can. I’d been called back to shoot some additional footage with the second unit, while Connie, Dan, Mary Alice, Court, and Logan were shooting on the other soundstage. We’d finished up only moments before and were standing around chatting when the announcement went out and a cheer rose up.

I grinned, the infectious feeling of the cast and crew seeping into me. I’d never been on the set when they finished shooting an episode, and I liked that there was a feeling of accomplishment shared with everyone.

Pleased that the episode was done, I was still smiling as I headed toward my dressing room. I needed to wash off the makeup and get changed.

“Aaron! Hey, wait up!”

I turned to find Dan jogging down the hall toward me, his big smile a welcome sight. I stopped and waited for him to catch up. He slung an arm around my shoulders, and gave me a little squeeze.

“Cast and crew are meeting at DeLorio’s at ten.”

“Okay?” I had no idea what he was talking about. Was that an invite?

He shot me a sidelong glance. “Tradition, man. When we finish an entire episode, everyone heads to DeLorio’s to celebrate.” He spoke slowly, like it should have been obvious. But up until last week, I’d only been a guest star on the show. I had no idea it was a thing.

“Oh,” I said. Then winced internally. “Good. Great. Sounds like fun.”

Dan gave a chuckle. “I thought maybe you didn’t know. I don’t remember seeing you there before. Okay, so show up. We always get one of the private rooms in the back. Tell them you’re there for the Rosenberg party. It’s kind of the code word.” He waggled his eyebrows.

I laughed. “Really?”

“Yeah, man.” He was still smiling, but he blew out a breath. “Some of the more…exuberant fans sometimes try to get in. The staff knows us pretty well, but you might be a new face.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder and then started to veer off toward his own dressing room. “See you later!”

A happy feeling warmed the pit of my stomach. Being a part of this cast was awesome, and I loved how friendly everyone was. Even Lucas had warmed a little. Or at least, we’d had no more problems like the one from earlier in the week. I still didn’t know what his issue was, but though he’d been quiet, he’d done his job. That was all I could ask for.

A thought struck me, and I stopped dead in my tracks. What if it wasn’t the gay storyline that Lucas had a problem with? What if it was me? I’d gotten a cold sort of indifference from him from the moment I started on the show, and that hadn’t changed in all the scenes we shot together. He’d never really even spoken to me other than on set. Perhaps his problem was solely with me.

It was a hard pill to swallow. I was genuinely liked by just about everyone I knew. I tried to be a kind person. I worked hard. I was nice. I didn’t know what I could have done to piss off Lucas.

Whatever. It wasn’t something I could change, and I probably shouldn’t worry about it. Some people just didn’t get along, and for all that it was an unconventional work place, it was still a job. There was always a coworker who didn’t like you or whom you didn’t like. This was no different. At least, that’s what I told myself.

Of course, Lucas would be at the restaurant tonight and that might make things awkward. Even though Daniel said cast and crew—which meant there’d be a pretty large crowd—it still might put a damper on things. Maybe I shouldn’t go. I was still the new kid, despite the fact that I’d guest starred on the last two seasons, and I didn’t want to cause waves.

“Aaron!”

I turned toward the voice to see Mary Alice hanging out of her dressing room door wearing nothing but a bra, pants, and a scarf. I didn’t want to know.

“What’s up, MA?” I asked. She was put together perfectly, and even though I didn’t want to touch, that didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate her beauty. I gave her a grin and a pointed once-over. She just rolled her eyes. She was a friend, though maybe not a particularly close one, and I enjoyed her.

“You’re coming to the shindig tonight, right? Danny said he’d make sure you knew when and where.”

There was something hopeful in her pretty blue eyes. Dammit. There went my hope of bowing out. I didn’t want to disappoint her. Maybe I could leave early though, before things got weird.

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” I answered and was rewarded with a huge grin.

“Good,” she said decisively. “You should be there. You’re one of us now, and we’re happy to have you.”

With that proclamation, she ducked back inside. I shook my head.

“Not all of you,” I mumbled, continuing my trek.

Mary Alice’s brown bob reappeared. “What was that?”

“Nothing.” I waved her off. She squinted at me, assessing, then shrugged her delicate shoulders and disappeared again.

This was stupid. I was all worked up and worried about one man and trying to avoid something I’d enjoy because he would be there. I needed to let it go and just do what I wanted. So what if Lucas Logan didn’t like me? He might be the star of the show, but he was just a person. And there were a lot of people who did like me and wanted me to be there.

Mind made up and feeling better about it, I went to get changed and figure out how I was going to kill the next three hours before I showed up for the party.

* * * *

Chapter 3

I was feeling loose and happy. The room was filled with laughter and voices, and I was sitting back and enjoying it while nursing my third beer. Or was it my fourth?

“It’s your fifth,” a voice said in my ear.

“Really?” I said, contemplating the bottle in my hand. It was half gone. I didn’t remember the ones between number two and this one.

“Yeah, really,” the deep voice responded. “Which is maybe why you’re talking out loud?”

“Probably,” I agreed with a grin. “But it’s late, and I should go home.”

I stood and wobbled, grateful for the hand that caught my elbow and kept me from pitching face-first into the table. Once I got my feet under me again, I turned to thank the man who had helped. But the words dried up when I found myself looking at Lucas.

“Gotta go,” I mumbled, reaching into my pocket.

His hand shot out and clamped down on my wrist, keeping me from pulling out my hand. His deep blue eyes narrowed accusingly, and he leaned forward to harshly whisper, “You cannot drive like this.”

I jerked out of his hold and nearly fell over, jostling the table as my hip bumped against it. I scowled at him, then pointedly drew my phone out of my pocket. I shook it at him. “I was going to call a cab.”

“Oh.” His voice was low and he looked sheepish for just a moment, before he raised his gaze to meet mine. “I can take you home.”

I just stared at him. Why was he being nice? He’d been cold since we met and a jerk since I’d come back this season. Didn’t he hate me? Why would he offer me a lift home?

“I don’t hate you,” he said quietly, leaning in closer. “And I’m offering because I’m one of the few who haven’t had anything to drink, and I want to make sure you get home safely.”

“I don’t understand.” The words were out before I could check them. I clapped my hand over my mouth. Alcohol did that to me, made the words in my head pop right out my mouth without any thought. I knew better than to have more than three.

Lucas gave me a chuckle and smile. He really was fucking pretty. His hair was a rich, dark brown and artfully arranged to look like soft waves. Coupled with his stunning eyes, his strong jaw, generous mouth, and perfect nose, he was gorgeous. I supposed he had to be, in order to be a success. He had talent, that was for sure, but his looks went a long way to making him famous. Too bad he was such an ass.

It was a good thing my hand was currently blocking my mouth or I would have really embarrassed myself with that diatribe. I had to wonder though, because of the way the man was staring at me, whether I had actually said that out loud anyway. My alcohol fuzzy brain couldn’t figure out what that look on his face meant. Then he shook his head, his face clearing, and reached out to pull my hand away. I imagined that he held it for a minute, his thumb stroking across my wrist, before he let it go. Damn beer.

“Come on.” Lucas’s voice was soft and low, like he was trying not to spook me. “Let me take you home.”

I was nodding before I realized it. Something lit in his ocean blue eyes before he turned away and started walking. I followed, dazed, confused, and not exactly steady. When I caught up to him at the door, he placed a hand on the small of my back and led me out. He took a left down the short hallway instead of walking into the restaurant proper. I’d come through the main dining room when I’d arrived, but Lucas pushed open a door and we were suddenly outside in the back parking lot. He steered me toward the far row.

Halfway there, I stumbled and he grasped my arm to steady me. I stared at the offensive pavement, trying to see what I’d tripped over. Had to be that crack there. Must have caught my toe in it or something. Only explanation.

“Or you’re a little bit drunk,” Lucas said softly, a chuckle in his voice.

I turned my glare to him. His face lit with his laughter, transforming him into something utterly delectable. I squinted even harder.

“Who are you?” I asked incredulously. “Lucas isn’t this nice to me.”

He was silent for a moment, before he got us moving again. He didn’t answer my question, and I wanted to poke at him and find out what was going on. But I couldn’t make my tongue work, which I really didn’t understand. My mouth said whatever I was thinking when alcohol dissolved my filter.

The Camaro was new and canary yellow. The click of the key fob unlocked the car and made the headlights blink. I trailed my fingers along the hood as Lucas led me to the passenger side. Of course it made sense. Pretty man would have a pretty car.

Lucas courteously settled me into the seat and then did up the seat belt before shutting the door with a snap. When he climbed into the driver’s seat, he put the key in the ignition but turned to me before starting the car.

“Where am I going?”

It took me a second to figure out what he was asking, but I gave him directions to my apartment. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a one bedroom not far from the soundstage. It wasn’t a long drive from the restaurant, but apparently the Camaro had super abilities because I blinked and then we were there. I didn’t know why Lucas was gently shaking me though.

I smacked my lips and blinked blearily. “What? Stop.”

Lucas’s laugh was low. “Is this it?”

I glanced around and nodded. Yep. This was my complex. It took me a second to find the door handle and then another long moment to work out that I had to take the seat belt off before I could exit the car. Tomorrow, I’d be embarrassed about that. But right this second it was funny, and I couldn’t stop the chortles.

“I’ll walk you in,” Lucas said, his voice right by my ear. I turned, swaying, and stared at him. Had his lips always looked like that? Like they were made for kissing? I shook my head to clear it.

“Yes, come on,” he said, taking hold of my arm again and leading me toward the front door. I found it hard to get my keys out of my pocket. The jeans were too tight and I had trouble. Eventually I worked them free and held them up in triumph.

“God, you’re adorable,” Lucas murmured under his breath. I took offense at that and opened my mouth to protest, but a burp escaped instead. And that set me off on another giggling fit. I made a mental note to abstain from alcohol for the foreseeable future while I tried to get myself under control.

Lucas plucked the keys from my hand and unerringly found the big one that opened the front door to the building. He nudged me through and made sure it shut tightly behind us before he led me through the foyer with the mailboxes and into the hall. Then he quirked an eyebrow at me in question. I wanted to lick him.

“Where’s your apartment, Aaron?”

Good question. I squinted, looked around, and then said decisively, “Upstairs.”

He nodded, and we climbed the one flight of stairs quickly. I had to lean on the wall, but my feet worked just fine. Once we made it to the second floor hallway, he waited again for me to give direction. I started walking, squinting at the numbers on the doors until I got to 2G. I tried to take the keys from him, but he waved me off, and fit the other one on the ring into the deadbolt. It turned easily, and he pushed the door open.

I grinned, proud of myself. I’d gotten it right.

I fumbled for the switch on the wall and, after two tries, the light snapped on, flooding the tiny entryway with light. I groaned as I squinted against it, the stab to my eyeballs painful. There was a thump and then a hiss, and Lucas went still beside me.

“What was that?”

I leaned against the wall so I could toe off my sneakers. “Optimus.” I couldn’t get my shoes off. Who had tied them so tightly? I should have worn slip-ons. I slid down the wall so I could sit on the floor and get them untied.

“Optimus?”

I blinked up at Lucas, confused. “What about him?”

Lucas saw what I was doing and knelt down to help. Oh, that was nice. Maybe the laces would behave for him. “Who or what is an Optimus?”

“Him.” I pointed. Lucas slowly turned his head, then sort of cringed back against me.

“Aaron,” Lucas said, his voice low. “Your cat is fucking huge. And mean looking.”

I chuckled, which built into an all-out laugh. I had to hold my sides so that my ribs wouldn’t explode out of my chest wall. Mean? My kitty? No way in hell. Optimus was, in fact, a huge Maine Coon, but he was the biggest lovebug ever to walk the face of the earth. As if to prove my point, he started nuzzling and rubbing against anything he could reach, which was mostly Lucas’s arm and my legs. His motor of a purr was loud in the tiny space. God, I fucking adored that cat.

When Optimus started rubbing against my socked feet, I realized that my shoes had magically disappeared and that was the best news ever. I gave the cat a nudge so I wouldn’t step on him and tried to stand. I fell over onto my hands and knees, started laughing again, and figured it was just as easy to crawl to the bedroom. I’d only moved a couple of inches before Lucas was there, helping me to stand up.

I blinked at him. “Seriously. Who are you?”

“You need to sleep,” Lucas said instead of answering me. I let him guide me toward my room, and the moment I saw my big, fluffy bed, I breathed a sigh of relief. Oh, lying down would be so awesome right now. I pulled away from Lucas, stumbled the two steps to the foot of the bed, and collapsed on the mattress, my feet hanging off the end. It took me a couple of moments to get my limbs coordinated enough to crawl up its length, but as soon as my head was near the pillow, I turned over onto my back and sighed contentedly.

I couldn’t sleep in my jeans, because they were already pulling uncomfortably at my balls. I had trouble with the button and zipper, but I managed to get them open and started sliding them off. It was hard work, and I was panting by the time I got them to my thighs. Lucas made a choked sound.

I scowled. “I’m wearing underwear. You aren’t going to be scarred by seeing my junk flopping around.”

“Yeah, I…” Lucas made that noise again. What was wrong with him? I didn’t care. I just wanted my pants off. Finally managing it, I threw them with a flourish to the side. Much better.

“Get under the covers,” Lucas commanded, his voice rough. I glanced at him, but he wasn’t looking in my direction. Whatever. The big jerk. If my bare legs made him angry then he was a bigger fucker than I thought. Even still, the blankets sounded like a good idea, so I worked until I could get the sheet out from under me and flopped it over my body.

Lucas walked out of the room, and I felt the familiar weight of Optimus jumping up on to the bed and snuggling his body along my side. His presence and heat started to lull me to sleep immediately, and I almost missed it when Lucas came back.

“Drink some water. You need to hydrate.”

The command in his tone made me cooperate, sitting up just enough so that I could chug from the glass that he brought me. He disappeared again only to return again a moment later with another full glass. This one he set on my bedside table.

“What’s with the slippers?”

My eyes snapped open again. “What?”

“You have, like, twenty pairs.” Lucas gestured behind him toward the closet. The door was open, and the floor was clearly visible.

“Eighteen,” I murmured. I cracked one eye open and I know I sounded defensive when I added, “My feet get cold. I like slippers.”

In fact, it was sort of a thing I collected. I had all sorts—moccasins and slip-ons. Cartoon characters and thick socks with rubber grips on the bottom. I really liked slippers. My dad always got me a pair for my birthday and Christmas, and I couldn’t resist the impulse to buy them if I saw a pair I liked.


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