LUKE HAD to choose. He could wear the white polo shirt he’d mistaken for his towel and was covered in blood from his nose. Walk in to meet Tom looking like a horror movie. Or he could wear the team scrimmage shirt that showed off his stomach.
Travis from sales had dived elbow-first at his head, the
ass, and Luke’s nose had finally stopped bleeding fifteen minutes ago. Luke gripped the white, now mostly red, polo and looked down at his flat stomach. He’d worked hard to finally get the abs he’d always envied in others. With any other guy he wouldn’t think twice about covering them up. But this was Tom.
With little effort Tom would pull him into his latest adventure or scheme. A smile and his slow drawl and Luke would happily embrace danger. He’d never been hurt, not physically. He never regretted. But he worried and craved.
Luke rolled his shoulders. The scrimmage shirt made him feel exposed.
Tom had said it was urgent, and a round trip home meant forty minutes and a waste of gas. Luke climbed out of his car and looked down the row at Tom’s battered ’85 Land Cruiser. Definitely not the magazine-pretty version of a Jeep some people drove, but it looked like Tom had gotten the plywood replaced with an actual door.
The coffee shop was close to a Gold’s Gym and the playing fields. The clerks wouldn’t be bothered by his exposed abs. He tugged at the shirt anyway and adjusted his cutoff sweats so they weren’t too low on his hips before he walked into the shop.
Luke felt the tension pinch at his neck and regret roll through his chest. A coffee shop was a cold welcome to give his friend.
The smell of coffee stuck to the walls, the sound of the grinder pulsed at the counter, and blinds held the light back at the large windows. It was Thursday afternoon, and there were a few kids from the nearest high school. Well, probably high school kids. It got harder to tell the older he got. Maybe they were college kids.
Luke decided he shouldn’t feel guilty. If Tom really wanted to catch up they could head back to Luke’s house. Hell, the guy might need a place to stay if the apartment he owned was being sublet. There was no boyfriend to be pissed if Luke’s hot college roommate bunked in for the two months before his summer job started—or whatever Tom had in mind for summer. Last year Tom had been a rafting guide down the Colorado or did survival hiking tours for a vacation company or something like that.
Luke placed his order and had reached into his pocket for his wallet when a warm hand touched briefly on his bare lower back. “I got it.”
Luke would have protested Tom paying, to be polite if nothing else, but the combination of that voice and the physical touch short-circuited his central nervous system. He could only turn to look at Tom, who smiled charmingly at the female clerk as he handed her a ten. He turned to meet Luke’s gaze and dropped his hand from his back. His smile faltered, and then he thanked the clerk, stuffing the change into the tip jar on the counter.
“Thanks for coming,” Tom said to Luke, all solemn like they were at a funeral.
It was a 100 percent tip, and Luke was reminded of Tom’s generosity and his impracticality. Luke nodded and took his Frappuccino.
“You didn’t need to pay.”
Tom talked over him. “How have you been?”
And when they paused and tried again, they both spoke at the same time. Tom put his hand over Luke’s mouth and manhandled him to a table like an obnoxious older brother.
He had not forgotten how physical Tom could be.
Luke stuck out his tongue to lick the hand covering his mouth. Tom playfully bodychecked him as he pulled his hand away.
“Gross. So how are you?”
Tom sat across the little table and lifted his cup with two tea tags flipping against the side. He looked good wearing carpenter pants and a button-down lightweight flannel with sleeves rolled back. It was untucked and unbuttoned enough to show chest hair. The hair on top of his head was ridiculously curly, and he was currently in growing-out mode, the hair reaching past his shoulders.
Instead of answering, Luke reached to brush the hair off Tom’s face, and Tom jerked back. Yeah, Tom was a hugger and a toucher, just not a touchee.
“Nice shiner.” Tom pointed to Luke’s eye.
“Wait for tomorrow. I just got it.”
“Rugby with the guys from work.”
“Not singling you out for being gay, are they?” Tom said. He didn’t hesitate or lower his voice. He bristled in a defensive posture, chest expanding and forearms tightening as his hands curled into fists.
It was one of the reasons why they were still good friends. His straight friend supported him fully. Hell, it was beyond support. Tom fought for him.
Luke shook his head. “I’m good. How was—were you in California?”
“Naw. Park City, Utah. I ran the ski lifts. Mostly. And I taught a few snowboarding lessons. The season has been over for almost a month. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.”
Luke could see that Tom was waiting for him to deny avoiding him. “Hear it’s nice there.”
“The town is a bit conservative, but it was all new people, which is kind of fun.”
“Good.” Luke sipped his frap and waited. The silence was stiff, and Luke couldn’t decide if he was trying to make Tom work for it or if he wanted to go down the crazy path he was sure Tom had in mind. Tom had taken him skiing in Aspen, deep sea fishing, and three whole weeks in California hitting all the theme parks. But those had been group trips with all the college friends before their numbers dwindled. The guys had moved away or married or both. The last few trips had been just the two of them. Wherever Tom worked, Luke went there on vacation.
“This can easily be fixed,” Tom said.
What? Luke blinked, hoping that extra clarity would clue him in to whatever Tom had rattling around in his head.
Tom lowered his voice. “All you need to do is tell me what I did wrong.” He leaned forward, kept eye contact to show he was actually serious. “I fix it or stop doing it and then you can stop avoiding me. Simple as that.”
Luke’s throat closed with guilt, and he looked away first. “I’ve missed you. You’re my best friend.” Then with a hurried breath, Tom said, “I know it isn’t mutual.”
Ah, man, he’d nearly fucked this up. And in his determination to make sure he thought all the words out before he spoke, his silence made it worse. “Or is this… are we just drifting apart?” Tom sounded rather resentful. He had every right to be pissed.
Luke took Tom’s hand, squeezed it briefly, and let go. “Who else would let me get all teary eyed and not freak out? Who else would take me to my first date with a guy and do the shovel speech? Of course you’re my best friend. We’re brothers.” Tom had always wanted a little brother. He’d shared that secret before he took Luke condom shopping for the first time. What guy was cool enough and accepting enough to support that first nervous foray into gay sex? He smiled at Tom and tried to convey with his eyes that it was all good with them.
“Okay, I’m calling bullshit. Tell me why you’re avoiding me.”
“I’m not avoiding. I’m here.” As a true friend, Tom wouldn’t make him hash out his feelings. “Want to do dinner? Newest place is the Troubadour. Lots of eye candy for two unattached guys. My treat.”
“Did it not work out with Jacob? Was it the money thing?”
“Yeah, he didn’t like that I was younger but made more than him. If the reverse had been true, I wouldn’t care. But to be fair, envy wasn’t one-sided.” He shook his head and stirred his drink with his straw. He could taste the irish cream finally and felt most of the tension seep down his arms. He smiled at himself. Sometimes he was such an idiot. “For me it was that he had kids. I want some one day, you know? Right guy. Right time.”
Tom frowned and didn’t take the easy target to tease him. “Did you guys stay… friends?”
“Nay.” It had been long enough that he didn’t feel any ache thinking about Jacob. Relief and a few sexy memories was all the residual left from that relationship.
Tom cleared his throat, and Luke could see it coming. The dramatic call to action by the consummate carnival carnie. Hell, maybe Tom had even done that one summer. Luke wasn’t sure. But when he got going, he could convince you that the giant scary snake behind the circus tent wasn’t only the best show on earth but a must-see for all ages. Luke needed to support his friend without encouraging him down the wrong path.
“Luke, I need to ask you a favor.” Not his usual pomp and flare but okay. “It’s a great opportunity, an investment even.”
Luke laughed. “Time share? Though, okay, I got a trip to Vegas from a time share presentation. Property is a good investment, but all those fees….” Luke shook his head.
“Well, it does include a free trip to Canada,” Tom said with more of his mischievous spark.
“I can’t go to Canada.”
“Sure you can.”
“Well, sure, in a few months. Is that where you’re working this summer, or maybe a fishery in Alaska?”
Tom shuddered. “Uh, I hated that job. Long hours and lonely.”
Tom trusted Luke not to make fun of him. It acted as a reminder of just how much of a douche Luke had been to avoid him. Hell, Canada, here I come. His feelings were his problem, not Tom’s. Tom deserved a good friend.
Tom took a breath and started to peel at the cardboard holder around his cup. He had long fingers and a couple of jagged cuticles. When he’d touched Luke’s mouth, Luke had felt the rough, dry hands. Luke flushed with heat and lust and swallowed. He lowered his gaze to the safer view of the tabletop.
“I ever mention my Aunt Chelsea?”
In the fifteen years of knowing each other, it was a possibility, but not that Luke recalled. Tom had family but didn’t really talk about them much. His siblings were older. “Maybe.”
“Well, she left me some money.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“What? No, she’s been dead since I was a couple of months old.” He chuckled, and it sounded rueful.
“So the favor doesn’t involve property?”
“No, no, it totally does. Take a look.”
Tom pulled out his phone, and Luke was glad the guy was using it for more than a paperweight. He smirked, and Tom scooted his chair around to show him pictures. A waterfall. Tons of trees and a log cabin. They looked like they came from a travel magazine.
“Did you take these?”
“Yeah. Finally figured out the phone. Well, mostly. The distinctive ring won’t work. Everyone is Star Trek Tribbles, not just you.”
“That’s a bad thing?”
“Yeah, when I answer the phone, ‘’Bout time you called me back, fucker.’”
“I did. Luckily it was the friend I’m buying land from, and he didn’t even pause. I’m sputtering apologies, and he’s like, ‘Well, asshole, I promise to call more often.’”
Luke laughed, took the phone from his friend’s hand, and quickly defaulted all rings to the same sound, a Caribbean calypso with steel drums. Tom pressed into his shoulder to watch what he did, and Luke shoved him away, still laughing, feeling suddenly light and almost giddy. God, he’d missed Tom.
It was said so quietly he almost didn’t hear, and then he thought he might have spoken his own thoughts out loud. By the time he realized it was Tom, it was too late to comment. Tom took the phone from his boneless fingers and flipped back to the pictures. This one was a picture of Tom carrying a kid out of a raft, and then another with Tom’s arm around him as the kid sat in a wheelchair.
“Carlos. He was really athletic and active until a car accident paralyzed him, waist down. Still plays basketball but missed the other stuff. Horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing. And a lot of outfitters won’t take them. People who are differently able. I think the owners worry about liability.
“I want to run a resort. A place I can bring groups in, and not just disabled kids. It’s a nice enough place that we can charge plenty for the hunters and thrill seekers to pay for the nonprofit weeks. You could have a week of kids from the Northwest GSAs.”
“The Gay Straight Alliances?”
“Exactly. And Boy Scout groups and writing retreats and Buddhist monks.”
Tom was lit up like… bigger than Christmas. Like when they’d been in school and got the idea to blow up the trash cans at the sorority house. That, combined with the tearful joy of seeing each other after a full year apart.
And here Luke sat, letting his silence fuel this dream instead of advocating for caution. “My parents occasionally help a local rehabilitation riding group. Horses are awfully expensive to keep. Let alone feeding guests and paying a full staff. There’s a lot of details to manage. Are you going to use Aunt Chelsea’s money?”
Tom would overextend himself, or it would just all fall apart around his head and this raging joy would be crushed, broken. You had to have contingency plans for pipe dreams like that. Poor planning could burn the hope out of you and run you physically into the ground.
“Yeah, maybe. Hopefully.”
Did the bait and hook count when you bit knowingly? “What’s the holdup?”
“Well, the trust fund says I have to be thirty-five.”
When was his birthday again? “Last week.”
Tom grinned like a happy puppy. “Yeah, and the other stipulation is that I be married.” He stared at Luke like he was waiting for the ultimate rejection.
“So you’re getting married? Congratulations. Can I be best man?” Do I get to kiss the groom? He had always known Tom wasn’t interested. He’d resolved, almost immediately, that that was okay. Yet his friend was sexy hot, and he felt no guilt for the occasional lust-filled thought. He was human.
Tom shoved at him. “Best friend, so, yeah.”
He looked down at the table, and his hair fell into his face. Luke brushed it back, and Tom pulled away.
“So, she’s Canadian?”
“No, no she. See, there is a bit of a time crunch. I need to get married today.”
“So…. Vegas showgirl?”
“No, Canada, because they don’t require residency, medical tests, or have a waiting period.”
“Still sounds like Vegas would work.”
“Well, you see, I can’t marry you in Vegas.” Tom grinned like a loon.
Luke grabbed his tea and removed the lid to take a whiff. Not laced with whiskey.
“Luke, I’m serious,” he said but laughed at Luke’s stunned expression. “This property is a hot commodity. I need a marriage certificate in hand by Monday so I can access the funds a week from tomorrow, Friday.”
“What about a bank loan? Or, I’ve got some tucked away.”
“Fourteen point five million?”
Holy shit, what was his friend getting mixed up with? “You’re going to spend your whole trust on a—”
“Some of my trust. I tried the bank angle, and let’s face it, my work history doesn’t look reliable. Despite having a good credit score and never missing payments.”
“I can’t go to Canada. I don’t have a passport.” As the words came out of his mouth he realized he’d just stepped up to the ticket booth, just taken the red pill, just bit into Alice’s mushroom.
“All right, then, we’ll go to New Hampshire. Farther away but same marriage requirements.”
He shook his head. “Tom, wait.”
“I’ll pay you. Last e-mail said you were looking at buying a house. You can up your budget or put 20 percent down. I’ll pay you $750,000. For a month and a half of being married to me.”
That would seriously replace the amount Luke had lost on his 401k during the recession and pay for any of the houses he’d been looking at. I’ll do it. He swallowed the words and took a breath. Caution. “When would we leave?”
“We can be in New England by 8:00 a.m. and married by noon. We can fax the paperwork back here to my lawyer, and he can file the trust by the end of the day. That means taking the Boise to Phoenix flight at 8:00 p.m., a four-hour layover and crack of dawn flight to Boston.”
Luke blinked and tried to process the idea that Tom had it all planned out just in case Canada hadn’t worked. He could see from the light in his friend’s eyes and the set of his shoulders how important this was to him. All the more reason to be sure.
“Have you had the place appraised? What if it is a total money pit? Can you trust these people?”
“You’re being foolish.” Or I’m being foolish. “Taking this sudden windfall and leaping without planning ahead.”
“You’ve got to figure out the inheritance tax and start building—”
“I’m so glad you have faith in me. Forget it. I’ll ask the coffee shop girl.”
He stood up, and Luke stood too, stepped in his way. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I just don’t want people taking advantage of your generous nature.”
He reached up to push the hair out of Tom’s face, and once again Tom moved out of reach.
“I trust you enough to ask you to marry me. Trust me enough to know what I’m doing.”
They’d drawn attention, and Luke took a moment to scowl at the gawking teens before he softly said, “I’ll do it under two conditions.”
“I’ll pay you like I said.”
“I don’t want the money.”
Tom raised his eyebrows.
“Okay, I’ll take the money.” Luke stared at Tom’s mouth. He felt heat build in his gut, and he swallowed down a groan. He should have said three conditions or left it open. He rolled his lips together and swallowed. “I want to look over the contracts and help you set up the nonprofit and scholarships for the camp.”
“I was going to hire you as the business manager, so done. The second condition is a week for GSA, right?”
He wasn’t ready to commit to quitting his job without knowing the details. But they could work out a part-time agreement to start with, whatever it took to make sure Tom didn’t get swindled by con artists. That way Luke would be on hand to pick the pieces up and put his friend back together when the business failed. Tom put his hand on Luke’s forearm. Brief. A nonverbal yes, a touch to show he agreed, that he was listening, that he was engaged in their conversation. Too bad Luke’s body saw it as so much more.
“I want you to tell me why you can touch me, all buddy, but I’m not allowed to touch you.”
Luke was sure it was an unconscious thing. Tom would deny it at first or at least be surprised that he did it. Instead he grimaced and dropped his head.
Tom sat down and waited until Luke sat back down as well. Then he looked directly into Luke’s eyes. When they had first met he thought that was some sign Tom was interested. But he quickly realized that Tom did it with everyone. To show he was listening. Direct eye contact meant he was being honest and that he cared. Like all the touching, it was just an extension of the way Tom talked.
“You don’t try to touch me. You—”
“Now wait a minute. I just—”
“You try to touch my hair.”
What the hell?
Tom blushed and lowered his voice. “It’s embarrassing.” Luke leaned forward, and Tom sighed and said, “Hair is my kink.”
“I find it really hot to have my hair played with. Really. Hot.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple rolling the length of his throat. “And having my hair pulled is an instant hard-on.”
He was bright red; even the tips of his ears and neck had flushed with color. A rush of heat piled into Luke’s crotch, and he could feel his body twitch in response. Tom kept his head down and looked up at Luke through his long hair. Hair that seemed all the more erotic with this sudden new knowledge.
“Is that why you grow it out?” A better grip for your lover.
“Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to have a hairdresser… with me packing wood…?” He shook his head. “Can’t do it. So I grow it out twelve inches and shave it off and donate it to Locks of Love.”
That didn’t surprise Luke at all. Tom would of course donate his hair to kids with cancer.
“So… even a stranger?”
“Yeah. Though when it’s someone I like….” Tom shivered and started to shred the cardboard holder of his cup again.
“Someone?” Luke asked.
There must have been something in his voice, because Tom looked perplexed, eyebrows all pinched forward as he searched Luke’s face. Probably a mirror of his own expression. How often had his best friend’s references been non-gender-specific? Luke had thought he did it to include Luke in the conversation. Snippets played a loop in his head, and he saw so many things from a different light. Tom had dated Kelly seven years ago, and if that prissy cheerleader hadn’t been born a guy, Luke would hand in his gym membership. He’d kept his jealous suspicion to himself. Everyone deserved a chance at love. And when they’d split, Luke figured that Tom had realized the truth. Maybe Tom had known the whole time. What if it was what Tom had said? That she didn’t want to be exclusive and it was important to him.
He didn’t doubt that his friend could openly accept others. But to date someone based solely on who they were as a person and not what body parts they did or did not have, that was a different level of amazing. And at the top of his thoughts, swirling in with his confusion and sudden rush of hope, was desire.
Luke couldn’t catch his breath. He imagined Tom on his knees, Luke buried to the hilt in his moist, expressive mouth. Luke would fist his hair as Tom moaned in pleasure. He’d tangle the curls around his knuckles, tightening his hold as they both got closer to the edge. Could Luke make him come from playing with his hair?
Tom pulled back and started to remove the expression on his face, tucking his emotions away to hide his hurt. Luke touched Tom’s arm to pause the full retreat and tried to work his mouth, tried to form words.
He couldn’t marry Tom. It was way too dangerous. Unless. Unless Tom was bi, or queer or hell, pansexual or whatever the hell it was called. Unless they could really act on this deeper connection. Then it would be worth any risk.
Luke said, “We’ll have to be at the airport by six thirty.”