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Living Promises [MultiFormat]
eBook by Amy Lane

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Six years ago, Jeff Beachum comforted a frightened teenager outside an HIV treatment clinic, and Collin Waters has remembered his kindness ever since. Now, after six years of crushing on the kind, brown-eyed sweetheart of his dreams, Collin is feeling adult and together enough to make his move. Too bad fate, which has never been kind to Jeff, has something else in mind. Jeff's life had fallen completely apart before that long-ago day, and it isn't much better now. Jeff has toughened up, become self-reliant, been the funny guy his friends turn to, the one who gives advice and comfort when needed. But every phantom from Jeff's past is about to come out to haunt him, and the family Jeff has staked his future on isn't in such great shape either. Collin is more than a starry-eyed kid, and it's a good thing, because Jeff's going to need all the help he can get. No one knows better than Jeff that life can be too short to turn your back on honest love, and that living happily is the best promise of all.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2011


41 Reader Ratings:
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Prologue

Collin: Beware of Reckless Driving

When Collin Waters was five years old, he was sitting in the backseat of his parents' Ford Taurus while his father drove, singing loudly to REM's "Losing My Religion." He was playing with his trucks, which he very much enjoyed, even though he would rather take them apart and put them back together than play "freeway." Dad had asked--very politely too--that Collin not take things apart in the back of the car. Since Dad was a big man with a deep voice who tried very hard not to yell, even when Collin dumped cereal over the floor and forgot to do his reading and let out his big sister's rat on complete accident and used his mom's favorite DVDs for rocket-launch pads and dressed the cat up in his engineer's outfit so he'd have someone to play with, well, Collin tried to do what he said.

Collin adored his dad.

Right now, that off-key rumble of "Losing My Religion" was comforting. If Dad was singing, he was in a good mood, and since today was snack day and Collin was very sure the cookies in his backpack would be a success, Collin could respect a good mood. Dad would sing, and then Collin would go to school and his mom's awesome cookies would make this a very good day.

Then Dad's singing was interrupted by Dad's voice, fractured and uncertain. "Oh... oh God...."

The car swerved, and then swerved again, and Collin was thrown against the door, and he began to cry.

"Daddy? Daddy? Daddy!"

But his dad was slumped over the steering wheel, his beefy shoulders canted sideways and his eyes closed, and the car was bumping, thumping over the dividers and over a sidewalk and wham! into a pole, and Collin's head hurt from smacking on the seat in front of him, and his shoulder hurt from the seatbelt, and his daddy wasn't answering, and his backpack was on the ground, and his cookies were all mashed and....

By the time the paramedics got there, he was swinging his feet against the bottom of his seat, screaming, "Daddy! Daddy, wake up! Daddy! Daddy, wake up!" with irritating regularity.

But as he figured out later, when he was older, Grayson Waters had just suffered a massive fatal coronary and would never, ever wake up.

Collin's mother did all right then. It was hard--Collin and his four older sisters never doubted, even once, that the love of Natalie Waters's life was her big, bluff mechanic husband with the receding blond buzz cut and blunt fingers and the off-key voice that could sing children's songs with a surprisingly comic lilt. But Natalie had started her own business, and everybody pitched in, waited tables, manned the grills, or helped clean up, and they always had enough to eat and they always had a place--the same place, the tiny-for-a-family-of-seven house in Levee Oaks--and they always knew they were loved.

But something in Collin seemed to have rattled out of his ears as the unmanned car had thumped across the road, jumped the curb, and smacked into the telephone pole. Some vital piece of human machinery that kept dangerous impulses in check and called strongly for self-preservation was decidedly missing. It was like Collin, even at five, had seen his father die and decided that, hell, if it was going to happen at random, it might as well be encouraged and even welcomed.

Or that was his mother's explanation for the next thirteen years.

It was what she said the day he was six and a half, and she arrived at home just in time to watch him jump from the roof of the house to the roof of the garage to the neighbor's hedge, because, he said, he saw a superhero do it in a movie. That earned him a trip to the hospital, a cast and a pair of crutches, and moratorium on superhero movies for the next three years. (His older sisters never forgave him for this.)

It did not, however, fix the problem.

Neither did wrecking his bike when using the garage door as a stunt-ramp (and getting thirteen stitches and an overnight stay for suspected internal damages) when he was ten.

Nor did wrecking his bike against the neighbor's garage when he was twelve because, in his words, "We were out of ice cream, and Joanna wouldn't get me any."

Nor did the several near-expulsions for fighting in junior high and high school.

Nor did having his car, earned with his allowance for waiting tables in his mom's diner, spray-painted with fucking fighting faggot in his junior year, after he came out by wearing a rainbow goalie's jersey on the soccer field. His coach was especially pissed--he was the best goalie the team had ever had, and no amount of homophobia in the town's history could make the guy kick Collin off the team.

No. Collin was not one to let experience get in the way of a good idea or terrifying fearlessness. His mother often, sometimes tearfully and sometimes at the top of her lungs, told him that she was going to bury him before he was twenty-five, and he would say, nonchalantly and with no apparent regret, "You know I love you. Give me a good sendoff."

But he was not so nonchalant the day his mother and sisters came home early from the movies and found him balls-deep in Tommy Kennedy's ass, as Tommy was bent over the dryer in the garage. He was, in fact, fairly mortified--and Tommy was downright hysterical, and not with laughter.

Tommy was the best fuckbuddy in Levee Oaks High School, though, and after Crick Francis had come out and graduated two years before, Collin had a nice little stable going to pick from too. Collin heard the garage door open and saw the halo glare of the white lights and kept pumping his hips while saying, "Just shut up, Tommy, and fucking come!" Being the gentleman that he was, he nailed Tommy's prostate and gave him a reach-around. Tommy squealed and came all over his hand, and Collin grunted and poured himself into Tommy.

The car's engine turned off, and Collin hugged Tommy to his chest for a moment. "Run inside, clean up, run out the front door," he murmured. "She's gonna be pissed at me, but she's not gonna go gunning for you."

Tommy ran off, all the better to live to tell the story about a zillion times in the coming months, and Collin turned to face his mother.

The girls had squeaked in disgust and run inside, missing Tommy by moments and leaving Natalie shaking her head in pained resignation.

"Aww Jesus...." Natalie sighed and kicked at the tire of the car.

Collin, for once feeling just a tad self-conscious, grabbed a towel out of the clean laundry and wrapped it around his waist.

"Aww, Jesus, Collin," Natalie said again. "Tell me you at least used a condom?"

Collin blinked. "A condom?"

"Dammit, you took health class! You know, a condom? Syphilis, Chlamydia, HIV?"

He had taken health class, it was true. He'd slept through it, cheated on the tests, and scoffed at the just-say-no culture of fear taught in American public schools. He had not, however, been caught naked by his mother, having a piece of the local fuckbuddy tail. Maybe it was being in front of his mother, and maybe it was because eighteen was half a month away and maturity was crawling into his brain like an ant in his ear, but for some reason, a missing piece of Collin's human machinery reasserted itself in the workings of his mind.

In that moment, he felt fear.

* * * *

Chapter One

Jeff: Caution: Broken Heart Ahead

"Is that good, baby?" Kevin purred in Jeff's ear, his thick, dusty dark brown fingers twisting savagely at Jeff's nipples.

Jeff Beachum screamed and collapsed forward onto the pillow. Oh. My. God

Jeff had never considered himself a size queen, but Kevin was hung like a bear on Viagra, as long as the guys in the stroke mags bragged about, thicker than a sixteen-ounce water bottle and--glory-God-mother-Mary-Jesus-crap-and-fuck--uncut, and he was ramming that monster up Jeff's ass and gimme-hallelujah did it feel so gooooooooood....

Kevin's chuckle was strained behind him, and Jeff screamed into the pillow again as Kev hit his prostate. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!

Jeff's cock (modestly sized, he was the first to admit) was leaking a steady stream of pre-come into the condom, and Jeff wished for the umpteenth time that he'd thought to get tested a year ago instead of six months ago. If his twelve-month window came up clear when Kevin's did, he'd consider going condom-free.

Kevin pulled back and slammed forward again, and Jeff whined, wriggling his ass and reaching to yank on his cock, because he wasn't shy in the least. Kevin had gotten tested about a week before he met Jeff, so Jeff figured they had a year before they could do it bareback, and at the moment, he didn't give a shit.

"You like that, club boy?" Kevin rasped, and Jeff whine-begged some more and wriggled his hot, tight little ass.

"Keep fucking, GI Black-Man," Jeff panted, Kevin's pet name maybe the last thing he could remember.

Two months before, Jeff had been outside Gatsby's Nick, taking a smoke break and freeing himself from the sweaty crush on the dance floor. He'd been sticky, breathless, and almost giddy. Finals were over, which meant he had one year of UC Davis med school under his belt. As he was exhaling into the hot June night, a group of jack-booted jarheads thumped by, OD green T-shirts stretched wide over massive chests, heads absurdly square with their regulation buzz cuts, fatigues as crisply pressed as starched linen shirts.

Jeff had enough smoke and air left for a low whistle, and damn him and his mouth, off-limits or not, that was what he did.

He was not prepared for the biggest guy--a six-foot-five, Panzer-built black guy--to turn around and start advancing on him. Oh shit.

Jeff did what he did best: smiled ingratiatingly and cracked wise. "No offense, GI Black-Man," he said, trying his best to look innocuous-gay and not aggressive-gay. "I was just admiring the view. Doesn't mean I'm going to go galloping in and picking the daisies, right?"

The GI's shirt was stretched wide over his chest, tight enough that his nipples made little tents in the mild night air. Those dark-skinned hands grabbed hold of Jeff's best dance shirt, one of the new microfiber kind that would stretch out, and Jeff found his back up against the rough faux-brick of the club, wondering if he still remembered how to fight after all those skirmishes with his older brother. His cigarette fell from his fingers, and Kevin's combat boot crushed it into the cement.

"Look scared." Kevin's voice sank to a smoky murmur, and Jeff didn't have to fake anything--his eyes were wide, his heart was beating, and he wasn't sure this was really happening, even a little bit at all.

"I'm not looking for trouble," he said uncertainly, and Kevin's eyes, huge and brown and expressively rimmed with thick black lashes, raked him from his shoulders to his knees, with a special appreciation for Jeff's crotch in his tighter-than-breath, hip-dropping skinny jeans.

In a voice meant to be heard by his friends, who were standing nearby and watching the two of them with great amusement, Kevin barked, "Well, you found trouble, club boy!"

Jeff cringed, because Kevin's voice was deep, and he was holding Jeff practically off the ground, and if this situation wasn't what he was starting to think it was, he was still in a whole lot of trouble. "I meant no offense," Jeff said, holding his hands up placatingly. One hand accidentally brushed the Marine's stomach, and it wasn't Jeff's imagination: Kevin shuddered, and one side of a full, chocolate-pink mouth turned up appreciatively.

"None taken," Kev murmured, sotto voice, and Jeff's breath caught again. To Kev's friends, expecting to see fear, fear was exactly what it looked like. But Kev was close enough for Jeff to feel the brush of his hip against Jeff's cock as it tightened in his jeans, and their eyes caught and lingered in what could only be described as an instant eye-fuck.

In his "outside" voice, Kevin said, "You 'bout ready to go back inside, club boy?"

"Anything you want, GI Black-Man!" Jeff was playing the game too--his voice was scared, but his eyes were all come-hither-and-fuck-me-dammit, and Kev's mouth twitched appreciatively.

"That's what I thought!" he snapped in disgust and threw Jeff back against the wall again.

Jeff cracked his head and said, "Ou-uch!" in maybe his gayest voice, rubbing his head and glaring at this new dream pick-up in reproof.

Kev let his voice drop--still loud enough for his friends, but soft enough for Jeff to know he felt bad about that. "You'll live. Just don't let me see you here again."

Jeff's heart dropped, but then Kevin's voice dropped even lower, and he added, "In about two hours. Wait for me."

"Yes, sir!" Jeff couldn't stop the unrepentant grin then, but Kevin rolled his eyes, shook his head, and turned around to go off with his Marine buddies, accepting their slaps on the back and attaboys for "keeping the little faggot in his place" as though he hadn't just promised to take that "little faggot" home and fuck him silly.

Which he had proceeded to do for the next two months.

And now, one month before he shipped out on his next tour, Jeff was savoring (and screaming for) every stroke. Even though Kevin had promised forever and for always, and maybe especially because he had, Jeff wasn't taking a single touch for granted. Especially if it was Kevin's beautiful body, deep inside Jeff's own.

"C'mon, club boy!" Kevin panted now. "C'mon... scream for me, dammit!"

"Yes, sir!" Jeff gasped, and then he gave his cock a particularly hard yank just as Kevin drove himself forward, grabbed Jeff around the middle, and shouted "Boo-yah!" in his ear.

There was blinding white behind the blackness in Jeff's head, and his body shook with frozen fire, and he came hotly into his condom, the come scalding the end of his cock as it pooled.

They panted, Kevin nuzzling Jeff's ear and chuckling in that bass rumble he had. "You like that, club boy?" he murmured, and Jeff shuddered in aftershock.

"I always like that, GI Black-Man," Jeff told him truthfully. Even that first night, when Jeff had topped because, as Kevin said a little shyly, not everyone was ready for the full package that first night out, Jeff had loved sex with Kevin. His hands were strong and capable and absurdly gentle, and Kev's little club boy felt cherished and protected and treasured and all of those silly things that made being in bed, touching someone's skin, the best place in the world to be.

They shifted then, preparing to separate, and Jeff felt it--a trickle of wet, down from his asshole to his ass cheek and his lower thigh. He was still stunned, wondering what the hell that could be, when he heard Kevin's equally stunned voice behind him.

"Fuck."

Fuck? "Fuck what?"

"The fucking condom broke."

Kevin's body slid limply out of his, the remains of the rubber still wrapped tightly around the base with the shreds of the sheath stuck to the skin around it. The rest of the limpening, black-skinned length of him was still shiny from come.

Jeff turned slightly, sitting up on his knees, and he and Kevin Turner met one another's shocked and admittedly bemused eyes. Jeff, the eternal optimist, gave a crooked grin that hid the adrenaline rush in his chest. "Well, the damned things were getting in the way anyway."

Kevin's massive hand came up and pushed Jeff's head into that ginormous sweating chest. "Don't be scared, club boy. We'll be all right."

Jeff closed his eyes then, relaxed into his lover, and just once ceded control of the world to the gods.

* * * *

Six months later, Jeff still couldn't bring himself to regret that moment, not once. Not even when his test results came back positive, not when he felt compelled to quit med school, and especially not when Kevin was shipped home to Georgia in a pine box instead of home to Jeff's arms, in the flesh.

He and Kevin had been in love. Kevin had sent letters, and he re-read them until they were in tatters, and in spite of the danger of being read, in spite of the risk of losing everything he'd worked for in the military, he had signed them, "I love you, club boy" every time.

Jeff had enough experience with sex for sex to know the difference between Kevin's touch and other "club boys" out for a quick fuck. He'd had them, given them, enjoyed them--but wouldn't be willing to die for them.

He'd spent two months of his life wishing he could have died for Kevin, because it sure as shit couldn't hurt any worse than being alive without him did.

The thought consumed him one cold, loveless day in February as he waited in the CARES clinic in midtown for his consult with Herbert Schindler, MD. Herbert had been Jeff's advisor in med school and had probably saved Jeff's life. The day Jeff had gotten his HIV test results back--the white cell count so suddenly spiked that there was no doubt in his mind that his last month with Kevin, the month after the rubber broke, had been when he'd been exposed--he'd gone to Herbert, holding his angular jaw as stoic as he could make it, and told him he'd probably have to quit med school.

Herbert had seen the devastated young man and not the tough, bitter, aged one, and had canceled his next class and taken Jeff into his office for a sit-down.

When Jeff was done with their little chat, Herbert had steered him away from quitting entirely and along the path to be a physician's assistant.

"Less pointy shit," the big, bluff, balding doctor had harrumphed. "Less chance of cross-contamination, easier to get a job. Less time in medical school too."

Even the blunt-spoken Herbert Schindler trod delicately around pointing out that, new gains in drug therapy or no, time might not be a luxury Jeff could indulge in, so that would be a factor. He didn't have to. Jeff was a med student. He knew the facts.

The facts were that he didn't have the insurance or the cash to keep himself alive--the drug cocktail and the viral load testing and all of that shit was expensive. For a moment he actually wondered if he would die before he had a chance to regret falling in love with Kevin Turner.

And Herbert literally saved his life.

"Here, fill this out." He threw a chunk of paperwork across the desk at Jeff, and Jeff barely managed to reassemble the mess of it and put it neatly back in the battered manila folder.

"What's this?"

"It's an application to the VA hospital to be an intern. Once you're working here, you get health insurance, regardless of prior conditions."

"But I'm only a first year med stu--"

"Which is long enough to be an intern if you're going to be a PA--and if you have a little help from your friends."

"So I'm connected?" Jeff asked, impressed with himself--and with Herbert, of course.

"My boy, consider me your benefactor," Herbert said expansively, and he had a little twinkle in his eye, so Jeff took a risk that maybe he could crack a joke.

"So, sort of like a godfather to a fairy?" He amplified his "gay," flopping his wrist and trilling, and Herbert laughed good-naturedly.

"No hitting on me," he said with a totally straight face. "My wife gets jealous."

Jeff had laughed then with complete relief. He'd enjoyed Herbert's class--had, in fact, been one of the few students to suspect that Dr. Schindler had a wicked sense of humor underneath his rather placid exterior, and it was wonderful to "play" a little with a friend. "Well, sugar, it's a good thing you told me that. You give me this much help, and my inner flirt is going to peek out."

Herbert raised an eyebrow, and Jeff flushed, and then Herbert grinned--out-and-out grinned--and said, "I think your inner flirt needs to stay in your pants where it belongs, young man. Those things tend to get into trouble when you let them off their leash. I should know. I have six kids."

Jeff had laughed for a minute, and then, just that suddenly, swallowed and looked his professor in the eye. "I don't know, Dr. Schindler. It looks like you sort of adopted me too."

Herbert Schindler's mouth turned ever so slightly. "I hope someone would do the same for one of my sons," he said softly, and Jeff had nodded with a lump in his throat. He hoped so, too, with all his heart. Anyone who did this much good in the world deserved to know his nearest and dearest were well taken care of.

He'd thought so even more two months after that, when Kevin's buddy, the only one who knew Kevin's big, gay secret, had called Jeff from a satellite phone to tell Jeff that Kevin was dead.

Jeff had shown up on Herbert's doorstep--literally, his home doorstep--at two in the morning and, after apologizing profusely, had sobbed his heart out for over an hour. He hadn't known whom else to turn to. All of his club friends had turned out to be just that--"club friends"--and as for his own family?

He'd shuddered when Herbert had suggested, delicately, that Jeff might want to have some family support. After that Herbert had simply sat on his couch as his wife brought him coffee and a pillow and cradled Jeff's head against his chest like the father he was while Jeff, funny Jeff, who was never without a smile and a quick story or a smart-assed remark, wished that AIDS happened quick, like a hand-grenade to the heart, because that would be a mercy killing. A mercy killing was, as Jeff tried miserably to joke, the only thing he could think of to live for.

Over the next couple months he learned to find other things. Small things, it was true, but they worked.

A week after Kevin's funeral, which Jeff didn't attend, since A. it was in Georgia, and Jeff couldn't afford to go and B. Kevin hadn't been out to his family, and Jeff wouldn't out him when he wasn't alive to make the decision himself, Herbert's wife had shown up with soup and a kitten.

Jeff hadn't eaten in about a week--something his current drug cocktail was making easy--but if he'd thought that exempted him from Mrs. Schindler's matzo ball soup, he was wrong.

Unlike the visit, which Herbert had warned him about, the kitten was a surprise.

The kitten was a Scottish Fold--the kind with the weird folded ears and bug-eyed faces--and it threatened to be the size of a Labrador retriever when it grew up. Mrs. Schindler had pulled the steel-gray fuzzball out of a cat carrier and sat it in Jeff's arms while she heated the soup.

Jeff had looked at the creature, which was both pitifully cute and adorably ugly, and the cat had blinked slowly back. "Mrs. Doc Herbert, I hope you don't mind if I ask you what in the hell this is?"

"It's a cat," she said, ruthlessly taking over his student efficiency apartment and setting his one pot up on the hotplate to heat up the soup. She was a squat, mid-sized woman who favored polyester pantsuits worn over wide hips and had short, dyed black hair. She also had really kind, expressive brown eyes. When Jeff had fallen asleep on her couch the night he'd found out about Kevin, he'd woken up covered in a blanket with a box of tissues and two ibuprofen on the coffee table, and a cat purring on his hip with enough force to vibrate the windows.

He liked cats. In fact, he liked this one, but, "They're not allowed in this dump," he had to tell her, a little wistfully. The kitten had taken up a determined purring on his chest, and he found that, although his heart still felt empty, the purring was warming the empty place.

Mrs. Doc Herbert had shrugged. "So find another place. Your internship is paid--you're no longer a starving student, and you are almost officially a grown-up. Get a house--"

"I hate yard work."

She shrugged. "Get a condo with a pool, then. Just make sure it takes pets."

Jeff looked at the purring thing on his chest again. It seemed like an awfully small deal for which to turn his life upside down. Then he looked around his apartment. Kevin had practically lived here those three months before he'd shipped out. Jeff had kept one of his long-sleeved dress shirts in his closet, and Kevin had slipped a couple of OD green T-shirts in his drawer the day he'd left. They'd taken pictures in that last week, stealing the camera from each other to get candid photos, and finally, one of the two of them, taken from the length of Kev's long arm as they'd lain in bed. Jeff had had the picture developed and framed before Kevin had shipped out and had given Kev a wallet-sized one. The picture--Kev grinning wickedly into the camera, Jeff peeking shyly (a surprise, for Jeff) out at the lens from Kevin's cheek--sat next to his bed.

He didn't want to leave this apartment. Kevin was here.

His eyes watered up then, and he wrapped his hands around the kitten in preparation to give it back, and then Mrs. Doc Herbert read his mind and wrapped her fingers around his.

"Baby, you have to find a reason to eat. A reason to wake up and take your meds, and throw up, and take them again. You have to find a reason to go to work, and then go to school, and then go home again. The reasons are out there--and you're tougher than you act, so I know you'll find them. But right now, this is your reason."

The kitten, feeling the possibility of having to leave, dug in its claws and meowed imperiously. Jeff swallowed and looked apologetically at the little fuzzball. "No offense," he told it, "but you're not much of a reason."

The kitten sniffed at him and shrugged, then dug in, as if to say, "Take it or leave it, asshole. You're the one contemplating annihilation by apathy." Or maybe that was just his conscience speaking. The gay man's trill was a little bit similar.

Jeff frowned at the creature again. "Please tell me it's a boy," he said.

Mrs. Schindler rolled her eyes. "Oh please, Jeff. Like I'd even try to get a girl in your bed."

Jeff choke-snorted, and the kitten grumbled--an honest-to-God grumble--and dug in a little deeper with his claws, and Mrs. Schindler served up the matzo ball soup. Before she left, Jeff got the recipe, because sometimes, when the drug "therapy" got too bad, it was the only thing he could keep down.

That was how he made it. Six months after diagnosis, there he was, waiting for a consult with Herbert as his favorite doc did his one day a week at the CARES clinic in midtown Sacramento, and wandering restively around the lobby. There was a big bay window looking out into a not hideous (but not bum-free either) neighborhood at midtown, but the day was gray and cheerless, and Jeff was experiencing a sudden case of the fidgets.

He'd been told to counsel some of his patients with hand or arm problems to take up knitting, and he'd taken it up himself, to see what muscle groups it affected. He found himself missing his knitting--he honestly thought he might become one of those obnoxious gay men who brought their knitting in public, just to keep him from the feeling that the clock was ticking at odd hours of the day with nothing to fill the time.

On his third pass around the room with a stop at the water cooler, he found he had company.

It was a kid--barely legal, but pretty. He had a strong jaw, a faintly crooked nose, probably from fights, and dark blond hair, combed smooth and long on either side of his face to that strong jaw. His eyes were mostly light brown, with gold flecks and surprisingly dark lashes.

He walked like an alpha dog, all shoulders, and Jeff thought that if he'd met this kid clubbing six or seven years ago, he probably would have gone out in back with him to take it against the wall, because Jesus, this kid was a stunner.

And he walked like he owned the world, and that had always turned Jeff's key. The rainbow bracelet around his bony, still-growing wrist was especially attractive.

Jeff shook off that moment of attraction, feeling like a dirty old perv, and looked a little deeper, because as much as he walked like he owned the world, the kid's eyes kept darting, in spite of his best intentions, and he must have swallowed about a thousand times since he'd stood up to keep pace with Jeff in their little trot around the room.

Jeff sighed. He liked to think of himself as a selfish bastard, really, but given the kindness he'd gotten--not only from Dr. Schindler, but from the entire staff of the VA hospital, who had accepted him like he hadn't been a charity case of everybody's favorite doc--he sort of felt like he owed it to the world to change his approach to life a little.

Besides, he was discovering, as he worked his internship in physical therapy, that he liked helping people. He enjoyed it. He was still a selfish bastard, but he selfishly got off on helping people, and that carried over, even into the CARES lobby when you were waiting to see how your HIV drug therapy was working.

He got the kid a paper cup of water and said, "Kid, you wanna come outside? I know it's cold, but I'm falling asleep in here."

The kid's relief had color, taste, and smell. He looked up at the still-pretty, middle-aged woman sitting in the middle, reading a cooking magazine like it was homework, and said, "Mom, I'm gonna step outside, 'kay? It'll be another fifteen minutes, right?"

The woman pursed her lips. "Collin, we can't be late for this...."

The kid closed his eyes and nodded. "Five minutes, Mom. I swear. Just... just...." He swallowed again. "Just let me get some air, 'kay?"

The woman nodded. "That's fine, baby. Just don't run away." She said it like it was a real possibility.

Collin grimaced and walked back to her, kissing her on the cheek and showing honest affection. Jeff couldn't help it--he heard what the boy said. "I've put you through enough, Mom. I just want some air, I promise."

They got outside, and Jeff figured he'd take a couple of chances. This kid had five minutes to get his head together, and he obviously wanted Jeff's help.

"Are you as gay as you look?" the kid asked, and Jeff had to laugh. He thought he could be tactless.

"Is there any way to be not as gay as I look?" he asked, honestly curious, and the kid laughed a little himself. Jeff was wearing jeans--tight, tight jeans, because he didn't have any other kind, and if he had to do an hour of sit-ups a morning, he was going to keep fitting into those damned skinny jeans no matter what the drug cocktail did to his body. He was wearing a V-necked, faux-cashmere sweater in turquoise blue and bright, shiny leather loafers with pretty tassels, because he liked them, dammit, and he was gay, and gayness had its privileges.

The kid laughed and pulled out a pack of cigarettes as they got to the outside wall. Jeff almost pointed out that the no smoking ban extended around the perimeter of the building and then figured that it was, perhaps, the last thing the kid needed to hear. Besides, Jeff promised himself one a day, and it looked like he'd get his early this day.

"These are bad for you," he pointed out gently, taking the second to last one from the pack. Camel, unfiltered. He shook his head. Figured. This would have to be two days worth of smoke--he hoped the kid made this good.

Collin grunted, took the last one, and crumpled the empty pack in his hand. "I know. I told my mom I'd smoke one a day, you know? That way I could keep my will to live."

Collin held out a lighter, and Jeff puffed appreciatively and then stepped back and leaned against the wall. Collin lit his own and Jeff sighed again, exhaling smoke. Ah... unfiltered nicotine. It was like eating real chocolate mousse when you'd been eating the kind that was actually non-fat yogurt for a couple of months.

"I know what you mean," he said, enjoying the rush. "Sometimes, it's the little shit that gets you out of bed in the morning."

The kid nodded. "You know, last month, I had to tell everyone I'd ever slept with or kissed or given head to or gotten a blow-job from that I was positive and they needed to get tested. I ran away first."

Jeff caught his breath with the simplicity of that. Who wouldn't want to run away before he had to do that? "What made you come back?"

Collin took a deep drag of his cigarette, his cheeks hollowing and his high cheekbones standing out in relief. He looked suddenly old in that moment, old and hard and dangerous, and Jeff thought that if he'd never met Kevin, this kid would have rung his bell but good, dirty-old- man shame or no.

"My mom. All the shit I put her through? Man, if she could hug me and call me her boy after all of that...." He shook his head. "If she could do that, the least I could do is ball the fuck up, right?"

Jeff nodded. He liked this kid. Brave, responsible--but with that core of bad boy that had made Kevin's wicked eyes in that jarhead uniform oh-so-irresistible. But Jeff's raw and bleeding heartstrings weren't what was at issue here.

"How was it?" Jeff asked softly. That was really what the kid had wanted to talk about, wasn't it? Why else pick an obviously gay man to confide in?

"It sucked," Collin whispered, shaky on the exhale this time. "We were all so tight, yanno? All the queer kids, fucking each other silly because we could. It... we just felt invincible. Like, we were only fucking each other, so where were we going to get AIDS, right?"

Jeff didn't correct the fact that it was HIV in this stage and not AIDS. When you were what, seventeen? Eighteen? Whatever--you weren't going to appreciate the difference, and you sure as hell weren't going to appreciate the lecture.

"How bad?" Jeff asked softly.

Collin shrugged and looked away. "Well, none of them are talking to me now--you know. Like I was the only one fucking around, right? And only two of, like, ten got tested, and they're positive, and their parents just... just took them out of school before graduation, like they were plutonium or something. And no one mentioned a thing--not a single fucking thing. It's like it doesn't exist." Collin shook his head, clearly bewildered. "I mean, fuck. Some of those guys weren't out--they have girlfriends, and the girls are just walking around, not knowing that the guy giving it to them might be HIV because he felt like getting frisky in the bathroom or behind the gym after a dance or what-the-fuck-ever. And I just...."

Jeff turned his head, and Collin made eye contact. "I'm just so fucking lonely, you know? My dad died when I was a kid, and my mom... she busted her ass so we could have a good life, and I just pissed it all away, and I don't want to even talk to her about it... about any of it... because I already put her through enough...."

Ah, damn. The kid had thought he was tough, hadn't he? He had--and now he was fighting to be tough, not to cry, to keep his chin square, and Jeff thought if he was any more goddamned tough, he'd blow apart like a pane of damaged glass. Collin sucked hard on his butt one more time and then ground it out under his waffle-stomper in the weed-filled fine gravel on the side of the brick building.

He took a few more breaths and then said, apologetically, "That's the end of the smoke, right? Time's up?"

Jeff followed suit with his own cigarette, although it was only half gone. "C'mere, baby," he said softly, and opened his arms, and suddenly he had an armload of terrified teenager.

"You listen to me," he whispered fiercely. "You talk to your mom, because she wants to know. She won't be able to help, but you'll feel better, okay? Just fucking talk to her. She drove you to the goddamned clinic and is making you take this like a man--she'll get it." Collin's arms tightened convulsively around his shoulders, and Jeff could sense a strangled full-body sob. "You're one lucky kid, you know that? You got your mom. You got family. You be grateful to them, and you let them help you, you hear me?"

Collin nodded, and that pointy chin dug once into Jeff's shoulder, and then they could both hear his pocket buzz. His mom, Jeff thought, probably texting him because his appointment was up.

Collin backed away, and Jeff missed his warmth against the chill of the day almost immediately. "Thanks," he said, wiping his face with the back of his hand. "I mean, just some random stranger, dumping all over you...."

Jeff waved a hand. "No worries, baby. Go on in, your mom's gonna freak, 'kay?"

Collin nodded once, awkwardly, and backed up before hurrying away. Jeff watched him go, feeling his chest tighten and an absurd quiver to his chin. Oh, God. He wanted more than anything to call his mama and tell her everything.

But even if he did, it wouldn't solve a thing. He leaned his hands on his thighs and squatted heavily in the February fog, trying to get his bearings and shoulder the load he'd been given. He had a condo that he loved, with a gym and a pool, and a shit load of houseplants and a gi-fucking-normous cat named Constantine who insisted that if Jeff were not there to give him luvvies, the world would fall apart. He had a dinner a month with the Herbert Schindlers, and patients who had started leaving him thank-you cards, and a promising profession doing something it looked like he might love very-much-a-lot. He had a promising white cell count and a low-dose drug cocktail instead of a high-dose one, and if he had to do an extra zillion and a half sit-ups to keep his girlish figure, well, so-the-fuck-be-it.

He was doing fine, thank you.

But still, that didn't keep him from wishing with all his heart on days like this, and not for things like a cup of hot chocolate either. So he let himself wish, telling himself he was a fool, because wishes--especially his wishes--were the kind that wouldn't come true. The permission didn't help: as much as he wished he could go back in time and get a condom that wouldn't break, or warn Kevin about the ambush in the road, or even warn himself not to take a smoke break on a muggy June night, he couldn't help but add one more wish in the wishing star hat before he straightened up and swished like a man into the clinic for his consult.

It wasn't wrong to wish for one more glimpse of that absurdly beautiful, heartbroken kid who walked like he owned the world, was it?

* * * *

Chapter Two

Jeff: My Baby Sent Me a Letter

Five years later, Jeff still didn't regret falling in love with Kevin Turner--but he still hadn't told his mother about him, either. He'd told her about the HIV, but he wasn't even sure if his father knew.

He called his mother every Monday, 8 a.m., like clockwork, and he had since his father had kicked him out of the house shortly after he'd started college and come out to his parents. (Herbert had once asked him how much of a shock could it have been to Jeff's father, and Jeff had shrugged, his expressive, angular body making the move dramatic. He wasn't sure either, but a surprise it apparently had been.)

The problem with his mother went beyond the fact that Jeff hadn't lived at home for ten years and beyond the fact that he was gay. It even went beyond the fact that Jeff had to actually bribe his mother's nurse to let him speak to her, since his father had told the nursing home not to accept his calls.

The problem went directly to why she was in a nursing home at age sixty-two to begin with, and it had started not long after Jeff went to school.

"Jeffy?" His mother always sounded so breezy and confident, much like she had when he'd been a kid and she'd been the most popular soccer mom in Coloma, with the best goodies and the house full of neighbor kids because their house was the best, that's why.

"Hey, Mom!" Jeff made his voice match hers and waited to see where mom was on the space/time continuum this week.

"How are the kitties?" Lillian Beachum asked, and Jeff blew out a sigh of relief. She was apparently pretty close to current. Sometimes she wasn't always in the right year, and he would have to remind her that he was no longer in med school, and that his career goals had changed, and sometimes, he would even have to remind her that he was gay, and he wasn't going to be looking for a nice girl to settle down with. Lillian would always laugh then (as Archie, her husband, had not) and say, "You know, Jeffy, you think your father and I would have figured that out, right?"

But not today. Today, she asked him how he was feeling and if the doctors were sure he was going to be okay, and then she asked him about Constantine, the big sloth, and today, she even remembered Katherine the Great, the Maine Coon cat that his friend Shane had given him for his birthday this year, only about a month late because Shane had been recovering from broken ribs (big dumbfuck ex-cop) and hadn't been able to get Jeff what he'd had in mind all along. Jeff had tried to protest that he didn't need another cat-mountain in his condo, but Shane knew his cats. This one was large, even as a kitten, drooled a lot, and went completely limp as soon as you picked it up. It was even calico, and all that long calico hair was just so pretty, and Jeff had been charmed immediately.

"Katy and Con are fine, Mama," Jeff told her now. "Katy still hasn't stopped drooling when she sleeps--it's just so sad! She lays there with her head sideways and her tongue lolling out! I mean, if I'd wanted a cat who did that, I would have bought a boxer, right?"

Mama laughed, and Jeff counted that as a score for his side. Anytime Lillian Beachum laughed, that was one for the angels.

And then the angels wept.

"So, Jeff, when are you going to visit me? I don't see anyone anymore! Your father was here this weekend, but Barry's always so busy with his job, and I haven't seen you since... well, I can't remember when!"

Jeff took a careful breath in and out of his nose. "I'll try to make some time next week, Mama," he lied. He would--if his father wasn't standing guard over her like a pit bull, afraid he was going to spread the gay. Like gay was any worse than Alzheimer's, right?

"Are you still worried about your father?" she asked innocuously. "Oh, honey, he'll get over it. You can't be as proud as he was of you and think a little thing like who you kiss is going to get in the way!"

Except he had. Jeff's father had let a little thing like that get in the way. And then he'd gotten in the way of Jeff and his entire family. Jeff's older brother, his mother, aunts, uncles, cousins--he'd been part of a collective in Coloma, dammit! He'd been surrounded by Beachums and Porters and Martels and Beauforts, and then, the summer before his freshman year in school, before his free ride thanks to a swim-team scholarship and top-notch grades, Jeff thought he'd tell his family, the closest, inner core of his family, who he really was.

And he'd lost all of them, inner family, outer family, just plain family, forever. His mother's phone calls had started getting vague about six months after that. Not long into Jeff's junior year in college, he'd had to do some quick talking around nurses who had been coming to take care of her. One of them had taken pity on him and arranged the talks he had now.

And some days Mom remembered that her youngest wasn't invited home, and some days she didn't.

"Well, Mom, as long as you know that I wish I was kissing you on the cheek right now, okay? Now give the phone to Becky--I want to get a picture of you."

He did this every so often--and he sent Becky one of himself. Sometimes his mother was stunned at how old he looked. Sometimes she remembered that he was in his thirties. Either way, he made prints of the pictures he got back and kept a progression of his mother, almost as if he'd been allowed to visit her for the last eleven, twelve years.

"Bye, sweetheart," his mother's voice quavered over the phone. "I love you."

"Bye, Mama," he said back, locking that steel cage around his heart so it wouldn't break. "I love you too."

His mother looked like she always did in her picture: her needlepoint in her hands, her hair--black once, like his, but all gray now--brushed back into a ponytail, and her face, lined and serene, beaming into the camera. Leave it to his mother to go old and crazy in the sweet, saintly grandmother way. If she'd gone crazy in the raving-old-bat way, Jeff might have had an easier time pretending that he had no family, none at all.

It hurt, but it was an old pain, and the rest of his day was promising, so he dislodged Katherine the Great-Big-Fat-Drooling-Shedding-Fur-Monkey from his chest and then Constantine-the-Comatose from his lap, where one of his legs had gone a bit numb. Con flopped over to his side, one gray paw curled against his massive chest and the other stretched out, almost above his head, and glared balefully at Jeff. Kat glomped on top of Con, and the two began a contest to see who could groom the other one best. Jeff sighed and then smiled at them, because they were absolute darlings, and he adored them both. Then he stood, brushing the stray cat hairs from his red satin dressing gown, and padded down the hall in his fleece-lined leather clogs to get dressed.

He paused at his room and pumped some man-sturizer/hand-sanitizer onto his hands from a bottle on the dresser, then pulled his pressed white coat with the three-quarter sleeves out of the closet along with his natty black slacks with the slick, shiny leather shoes. He put on something dressy underneath--a crisp poly/wool button-up shirt with a mandarin collar and pink-and-black vertical stripes--and took out his lined belted leather jacket to keep him warm in the November chill. He considered the outfit and then smiled softly and went to the rack of scarves he'd brought out in late October.

He liked scarves--he had silk/cashmere blends, angora, sturdy wool--but he picked one from his "scarf of honor" peg. All three scarves on the peg were hand-knitted. The first one was in a simple garter stitch, in handsome eggplant, that went on forever. Jeff's best friend, Crick, had a sister who liked to knit; she'd made that for him last autumn, and it was one of his prized possessions. Shane had a scarf from Benny as well, but Shane, the big furry traitor, had given his scarf to his snotty little boyfriend Mikhail. If Jeff hadn't adored Mikhail almost as much as he adored Katy and Con, he wouldn't have let Shane live that down, but since Mikhail had worn the thing damned near into June that summer, Jeff figured he'd let it slide.

The other scarf on his rack had been knitted by Crick himself. Crick had taken up knitting on Jeff's advice for physical therapy on his hand and arm, injured in battle when Crick was serving in Iraq. Crick's knitting was painful, stitch-by-fucking-stitch knitting, and while Deacon had gotten his first effort, Jeff had gotten his second, in forest green, and he wouldn't trade it for the world.

The last one, Jeff had knitted. He usually knit for charity or for friends or the people at work, but this one, he'd knitted for himself.

Jeff was really good at it. This was a complicated braid cable, in a handsome space-dyed wool/silk blend of subtle navy and charcoal with a hint of green every so often in the mix. He fingered the wool, liking the texture under his skin, and then sighed. So pretty--but it didn't go with his shirt.

He picked the eggplant one that Benny had knit him instead, even though she wouldn't be there to see it. God, he missed Benny--everyone at The Pulpit, Deacon and Crick's home, did. But Benny was down in SoCal, getting her education, and Deacon and Crick were here, being family to the rest of their odd assortment of people, and Jeff would have to settle for an evening after work, knitting with Benny's family, instead.

He was looking forward to it. Hell, he was dressing up for it. That would have to be enough.

Work was fun--some of his favorite patients were on the roster for that day, and he loved a good, chatting patient with fun stories to tell.

Marjorie Bell was one of those. She was a big woman, far bigger than was healthy, with a face that refused to line, even in middle age. She had short, blonde-gray hair and a wide freckled face, and a neck that hadn't recovered from a car accident about five years before.

She taught high school, now that her husband had retired from the Navy, and her stories about her students made Jeff laugh until he needed to pee. He always scheduled an extra fifteen minutes to her sessions just to talk with her, and she always used it. Today was no different.

"Okay," she was saying this day, as Jeff applied his magic heated sonic wand of love to the tissue at the base of her skull, "so we've just covered Lord Byron, and how the guy slept with anyone and everyone, male and female, and was driven out of England for totally boinking his half-sister, Augusta. That's out of the way, we've got fifteen minutes to go, so I decide to launch into my 'Don't get knocked up during Winter Ball' spiel, right? I mean, it happens every year. You see these kids with the six-month baby-bump walking the stage at graduation, and you're like, 'Really? Winter Ball? You couldn't have fit a couple of rubbers in your teeny-tiny little handbag with your cell phone or something?'. So in the middle of this, a girl comes in from the office--she just got to school and doesn't know what we're talking about--and she says, 'Okay, so what're we doing?'."

Margie let out a low moan of relief at that moment, because Jeff took the heat massager to just--that--spot on her neck, and Jeff kept it there for a minute until her whole body shuddered with tension relief and she could continue her story.

"So what did you say?" Jeff prompted, and she laughed a little and arched into the sonic vibrator for another knot in her painfully twisted neck.

"I told her we were talking about how not to get knocked up during Winter Ball, and she says, 'Don't worry about me! I'm going with my cousin!'."

Jeff couldn't help it. He had to pull the sonic wand away so he could laugh. "Ohmigod! That's hilarious! What happened?"

Margie stretched, the motions graceful and svelte, almost like Constantine's stretching, and at odds a little with her size. "Well, the whole class totally broke up, and then this one guy, who was lost on the whole Byron thing anyway, suddenly breaks out with, 'Man, and make sure your condom's fresh! Those things go bad after a year!', and there was only five minutes of class after that--like I was going to get that class back!"

Jeff snorted softly, still laughing. "Oh, honey, that's priceless!"

Margie laughed with him and then swiveled around on her little "victim's stool," as she called it, and rolled her eyes. "Yeah--let's see if I can keep my job after that gets to the parents, though!"

Jeff frowned and took the little K-Y covered baggie off the end of the wand, then wiped the rest of the glide gel off of Margie's neck. "How do you mean?"

Margie's shrug was resigned. "People get awfully het up when you talk about sex, you know?"

Jeff rolled his eyes back. "Well, they get pretty homoed up about it when you talk about gay sex, so I guess that's about right!"

It was Margie's turn to laugh, and she did so with gratifying heartiness. God, he loved to make someone bust up. He collected stories in his head all day, witticisms, catty remarks, anything he could think about. It was like his drug, the one thing he could do that would make himself feel better, and he indulged in his emotional crack as much as possible. He thanked the gods for folks like Margie, who just handed it out for free by the truckload. They pretty much kept him sane.

Margie grabbed her 4X T-shirt and threw it over her head, over her lunchroom-lady bra, and turned comfortably around to Jeff, who was making notations on her chart.

"You're doing about the same, Margie," he said, trying not to nag, "but you know what would really make this whole PT thing take off?"

Margie rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, Doctor Jeff. If I lost the extra human hanging around my neck--I figured."

Jeff smiled at her softly. Weight problems sucked. He knew it. It was one thing for him to spend hours at the gym or to measure his calories with a scale and a calculator--he had the time. But Margie? Margie still had three kids in school. Her time after work was a maddening whirlwind of soccer fields, dance studios, and Aca-Deca meetings. Margie was lucky if she could order McDonald's and remember not to get the extra-large fries.

"Well, darling, you know I worry. Who else is going to keep me apprised on the doings of the depraved youth of America, right?"

Margie grinned and waggled her blonde eyebrows wickedly, then turned away and started to pack up her purse with a rather studied air. "Um, that reminds me, Dr. Jeff--I won't be making my appointment for next week. I'll be back the week after."

"Yeah?" Jeff cocked his head. "What's doin'?"

Margie shrugged and kept her back turned. She mumbled something that sounded like "ohw paedgent mercury." Jeff blinked and asked her to repeat it, and on the fourth try, he was able to make out the words "outpatient surgery."

Jeff stared at her blankly. "For what?"

Margie still wouldn't look at him. The sides of the walls--which he'd decorated with seascapes and kittens, and the floor and the ceiling--those she looked at. Finally she looked at him, her shoulders hunched defensively, and her chin quivering alarmingly.

"C'mon, honey--what's doin'?" he asked, as gently as he could.

"No big deal," Margie said, trying to keep her jaw stoic. "Just, you know, a Lap-band. The stomach-stapling thing, right?"

Jeff blinked, not sure where the verklempt woman came in with the everyday procedure. "Isn't that a good thing, sweetheart?"

Margie shrugged again and looked away. "You know, doll, it's just embarrassing. You want to lose it all by yourself. It's... it's humiliating to find yourself in this... this emotional vortex, and you can't pull your way out of it, you know?" She shook her head and shrugged and tried to wave away the tears, and Jeff had a sudden memory of Crick's voice on the phone.

He'd been slouched on the couch with Constantine on his lap, and wondering--without framing the thought, mind you--if maybe Constantine wouldn't be happier with the Mr. and Mrs. Doc Herberts forever. His favorite show, CSI, had just gone to reruns, and, dammit, his last cigarette had made him throw up, and so had his last cookie and his last hamburger and his last anything-the-fuck-else that made life worth living and his little personal pharmaceutical/biology experiment worth the potential outcome.

And to make matters worse, a group of teenage boys had practically run over him on skateboards as he'd left the supermarket that day, calling him an "old faggot" as they did.

Now the "faggot" part he could have lived with--but the "old?" That was just too fucking much.

And then the phone rang, and he didn't recognize the number, and then when he picked it up....

"So, hey. This is Crick, the poor bastard you tortured the other day, you remember?"

Holy shit. The gangly kid with the motor mouth and the horrific injuries and the smoking hot boyfriend and not a trace of self-pity. The one he'd talked to for the whole session, and whom he had thought about--not even in a sexual way--for the next two days. The kid had been fun. He'd been funny. He'd been one of the best things about Jeff's week.

"Yeah, sweetcakes, how could I forget?"

"So, um, Deacon's busy, I'm still a walking liability, and, um... hey. Do you want to go shopping or something? God, Deacon can't shop for shit, and I feel so damned slow when it's Benny and the baby. You think?"

Jeff had almost cried. "Oh babydoll, I think you're gonna regret that. Do you know how many malls I can haul your gimpy ass around? What did you want to look for?"

Yeah. Jeff knew about emotional vortices, didn't he?

Jeff didn't care if Margie weighed at least twice as much as he did--she was a sweetie, and every week, she made him laugh. He opened his arms and waggled his fingers, and she stepped awkwardly into his best fairy-Jeff-father hug.

"We all need help sometimes," he said softly, and was gratified when her hug went from awkward to earnest.

"Yeah, well, I guess if you're twice the woman, you need twice the help," she muttered, and he hugged her tighter before he let her go.

"I'll make your appointment for two weeks from now. I expect miracles, Margie--don't disappoint me!"

Margie grimaced. "You are a miracle, my darling boy. Let's just hope I don't have some bizarrely shaped, anti-band stomach or that my fat hasn't developed intelligence and a will to take over the world."

Jeff laughed some more, because he couldn't help it. "If it does take over the world, could it make it so diet dessert doesn't taste like shit? I'm dying for chocolate mousse something, and it is not my week to indulge!"

Now it was Margie's turn to look at him softly. "Well, you let me know when it's your week, and I'll have a bite of that, right?"

A flush stole over Jeff's features. Margie was smart--he'd seen her eyeing the double-glove layer he used when treating patients, and she knew him well enough to inquire after his health when his "vitamin" doses got too hard to hold down. He may not have told her his big HIV secret, but she had probably guessed.

"It's a deal," he said quietly, and she smiled warmly back. She left then, in a flurry of receipts and pens and lotion samplers from her gigantic purse, but their conversation seemed to echo in Jeff's head for the rest of the workday.

He was just finishing his charting when the phone in his little office rang, and his words to Margie about needing help practically exploded in his head.

"Is this Jeff Beachum?"

Jeff recognized the voice, even if the name was unfamiliar--he pronounced it "Bow-shaam," and this guy pronounced it "Beech-ump." Jeff had only heard one other person call him that, in that same hesitant, crisp, military way, and that had been on pretty much the worst day of his life.

"Lieutenant Lucas Blaine," Jeff said, his mouth drying up, turning to sand, and then exhaling powder. "I remember you."

"Yeah, uhm...." There was a pause, and Jeff imagined some jarhead fidgeting with a cell phone, wearing fatigues and a grimly bashful look. Lucas had called Jeff to tell him about Kevin, and even then, Jeff couldn't have picked him out of a crowd. They hadn't spoken since.

"See, the thing is," Lucas continued after about a quarter of a century, "Kevin sent you a letter. You know... a 'coming home' letter? The kind we're supposed to have sent home if we're coming home in a box?"

Jeff actually felt his head swim--like the backstroke and everything. He'd hoped for a letter, after Lucas's call, but he hadn't expected one. Kevin had made it more than clear that his parents would rather he died a Marine than live a faggot.

Jeff had told him at the time that he'd rather have him live, period, and Kevin had laughed like it was a given.

"I didn't know that," Jeff said now, from way under the water in the crazy pool where Lucas had just dumped him. "What happened to it?"

Lucas sighed. "It got sent home in a packet with his letter to his parents--I was supposed to get to it, but I forgot about it that day. I was...." He sounded impatient with himself. "I'm sorry, Mr. Beech-ump, but I was wounded that day too."

Twenty-five-year-old Jeff might not have given a fuck. Thirty-one-year-old Jeff found that he did. "I'm sorry about that, Lucas. I didn't know."

"It's my fault," Lucas muttered again. "I'm sorry. It's my goddamned fault. I didn't mean to let Kevin down. And...." His sigh was so gusty that it actually echoed in the earpiece. "Kevin trusted me. He trusted me with who he was, and he trusted me with you, and I really let him down, and I didn't mean to, and now shit is just way fucked up...."

This big, tough jarhead sounded like he was going to fall apart, and after five years as PA Jeff Beachum, Jeff found he couldn't let that happen. "Now come on, babydoll--it can't be that bad. You and me, we're still breathing, so nothing's happened that we can't take back, has it?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you. Something has happened, and it's awful, and I can't fix it."

Jeff tried to pull his head out of the crazy end of the what-the-fuck pool and ask a question that would help him figure out what was going on. "Lucas, what in the fuck are you talking about?"

Another one of those feedback-inducing sighs. "Kevin's got a little brother----"

"The youngest one? Martin? He's, what? Fifteen now?"

"Fourteen. And curious. And he wanted to see his brother's letter, because I guess it freaked his parents the fuck out. So he goes searching for Mom's scrapbook, which she shoved up in the attic, and he found not one letter, but two. And the other had your address on the inside. I don't know if you still live there, Mr. Beech-ump, but he grabbed all his lawn-mowing money and hopped on a fucking bus. He's on his way to see you."

Little black dots started swimming in front of Jeff's eyes.

"Mr. Beech-ump? Mr. Beech-ump?"

Jeff sucked in a great lungful of air, and the spots swam faster. Spots swimming in the crazy pool, right? Swimming crazy spots, doing the backstroke in what-the-fuck-inated water....

"Mr. Beech-ump? Mr. Beech-ump? Are you there?"

Another lungful of air, and the crazy spots stopped doing the backstroke and started to fade from his vision.

"Honey doll," he said, wondering how strong his voice could actually be, "all things considered, I think it's best that you call me Jeff."

* * * *

Deacon and Crick listened to the whole story that night, while Jeff practically sat in their laps and poured it out.

He was supposed to be going over to knit with Crick and Amy, (one of Deacon's closest friends from high school) watch some television, and play with Parry Angel, who was missing her mama now that Benny had gone away to school and needed her fairy-Jeff-father to make up the slack. That last was a guess on Jeff's part, but since Crick's family at The Pulpit had managed to replace the Beachums and Beauforts and Masons and Porters and what-all that Jeff hadn't had since his dad had kicked him out of the family, Jeff was going to take his every chance to be a fairy-Jeff-father. God, he missed playing with kids--they were the world's best source of laughter, and Parry Angel would sit and giggle at the faces he made at her until his chest filled and he felt like he ruled the world.

Anyway, Jeff was supposed to go over for a quiet evening with friends, but he'd taken one look at Deacon, Crick's husband, and found that his chin started to quiver and his face started to crumple, and the next thing he knew, he was coming unglued in Deacon's rock-steady arms. Suddenly Amy had Parry and her own daughter, Lila, in Crick and Deacon's bedroom, watching a Disney movie on their television, and Jeff was doing a reprise from his time on the couch with Mr. Doc Herbert five years ago.

Except this time, he had Deacon (who looked just as befuddled as Doc Herbert to have a grown man falling apart on him) on one side, and Crick on the other, patting his back awkwardly with all the heart in the world.

He did not cry all night. In fact, when he looked at the clock, he'd hardly cried for ten minutes, and yes, he did linger for a moment on Deacon's hard chest.

Then he sat up abruptly and frowned. "You've lost weight again, haven't you?"

Deacon sat back and glowered--and then, characteristically, blushed. "I swear to Christ, Jeff, if you had that whole fucking meltdown just to feel me up, I'll beat the shit out of you."

Jeff sniffled and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. "As if!" Behind him, he could almost feel Deacon and Crick exchange some disgruntled glances, and then Deacon stretched out his arm and Jeff leaned on his hard--and too lean--chest again.

"I've never seen you come unglued," Deacon mused, and Jeff gave a little purr.

"We're even," he said, and then corrected himself. "Okay. You're up one. Now, you have officially seen me come unglued."

"It wasn't pretty."

Jeff sniffed with a little bit of disdain. "I hate you, you know."

"If you really hated him, you'd stop groping him!" Crick had clearly had enough, but Jeff wasn't frightened off. For one thing, as far as Deacon was concerned, Jeff had as much sexuality as Benny. For another, well... he hadn't snuggled into another man's chest for a long time. Even if it was completely platonic (and nothing was stirring all points south, so Jeff was reassured), it was really, really wonderful.

"What are you going to do?" Deacon asked, and Jeff snuck a peek at him from under dark lashes. God, Crick's man was gorgeous. Oval face, square hairline, small nose, firm, not-quite-pointed chin, and the most amazing green eyes--if it weren't for the fact that Deacon couldn't even see the sun when Crick smiled, Jeff liked to think he might have stood a chance.

But then Jeff couldn't have leaned on the two of them when his world was falling apart. He'd learned a long time ago that lovers were the first to go.

"I have no idea," Jeff mumbled now, soaking in the comfort. "As far as I know, Lucas Blaine is coming out to meet the kid. They know each other--Lucas was Kevin's best friend growing up. Then I told Lucas to call me and we'd meet somewhere." Jeff shuddered, feeling that horrible, oily nausea that came from knowing someone who should love him was going to rip up his insides like Con liked to rip up couch pillows.

"Do you want to meet here?" Deacon asked, and Amy's voice popped over the couch, along with a beee-yooo-tiful eighteen-month-old baby.

"That would be a horrible idea. Uncle Jeff, give Lila a hug and a kiss, because she's going down in the porta-crib right now before she makes us all batshit, okay?"

Jeff swung the baby over his head and into his lap, and Deacon used that opportunity to disentangle himself. The move was none-too-soon: as soon as he was done, two and a half years of sturdy toddler tumbled into Deacon's lap and started making demands.

"Sing!" Parry Angel demanded. Amy had done her hair after her bath, and it perched in a curly brown ponytail that bobbed when she shook her head. "Sing!"

Deacon bounced her on his knee, making her giggle, and tried to be stern. "C'mon, Angel, you know you've got to ask nice for that!"

Two big blue eyes with a fringe of lashes almost as thick and dark as Jeff's own batted up at Deacon, and they all had to laugh. "Pweeeeaaazzzee?" she asked winsomely, and Deacon Parish Winters was, as always, helpless before his namesake.

"Yeah, Angel. C'mon." He pulled the little girl up to his waist, and then Lila gave Jeff a sloppy kiss on the mouth and scrambled up after her favorite playmate, not to be left behind. Deacon laughingly scooped them both up, blowing bubbles on their necks and negotiating the narrow hallway easily as he took them to Parry's room, the better to lay them down and sing them to sleep. Jeff sort of wished he could go in there and listen himself--Deacon's singing voice was wonderful, but unless he was putting Parry Angel down, no one got to hear it.

Amy, tiny, vital Amy, had, in the meantime, scrambled over the couch and practically into Jeff's lap.

"Hey!" Jeff protested, but Amy just giggled, wiggled her little bottom between him and Crick and said, with much the same imperiousness as her daughter, if truth be known, "Hug. Need hug now!"

So Jeff got to hold her, and something shuddered out of his body that he hadn't been able to let go of when he'd been sobbing on Deacon, and he thought that Deacon's ex-girlfriend (and best friend's wife) was a very, very wise woman.

"Hello, Precious," Jeff muttered. God, he missed Benny. Parry Angel's equally tiny mother would have done this for him too--and probably sooner, because she had no sense of propriety either.

"Hello, Jeffy. You gonna live?"

Jeff whimpered. He wasn't proud. "Reluctantly."

Amy didn't laugh. Instead, she went straight to the heart of the matter, her voice coming from between the hollow of Jeff's arms and chest. "You change that to 'with enthusiasm' immediately, you understand?" She pulled back and glared at him and met eyes with Crick. Jeff's own expression was amused, but to his surprise, Crick's was not.

Crick's brown eyes, his best feature in what was really an angular, barely pretty face, were intent on Jeff, and Jeff shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, sugar--I do everything enthusiastically, right? Even fall apart like a big gay baby!"

He tried a giggle on the two of them, and they didn't seem to be buying it.

"This is gonna suck worse than a vacuum cleaner to the balls," Crick said, his customary tact, diplomacy, and word-smithing fully apparent. "Amy's right--it shouldn't be here. If this kid's family is as freaked out about the gay thing as you say they are, this will be like, enemy camp to him or something. Meet him somewhere close, because the family is going to want to be close by, but make it public. Make him feel safe, okay?"

At that moment Andrew came in, looking at the couch with long-suffering eyes. Andrew was Deacon's hired man and another member of the family. Crick had saved his life, if not his leg, when they'd been overseas, and Andrew had found himself on Deacon's door after his discharge. At this point, the family wouldn't let him go if he tried to leave.

"I'm sleeping on the Barcalounger again tonight, aren't I?" he asked, trying to seem put-upon, and Jeff grinned at him tiredly.

"Well, since I can't convert you, big guy, and you're not big on the group snuggle, I'm thinking you should at least settle there for the short term."

Andrew's big, dark hand came out and ruffled Jeff's hair, in spite of the careful layering of hair-care products that Jeff used to keep it from cowlicking like a herd of heifers with dry-mouth. "Okay, but since the girls are in bed, can we watch something grown-up?"

Jeff perked up. "How about Sense and Sensibility?"

"Yes!" Amy crowed, practically bouncing in his lap with excitement. She picked up the remote on the coffee table and started scrolling through the Netflix queue on the television screen. "Jon hates it, I could never convert Benny to Jane Austen, and I'm dying to see it again."

Crick stood up so fast the couch almost tilted. "I'm going to go listen to Deacon sing," he muttered.

"For two hours?" Jeff managed to twinkle at him, and Crick rolled his eyes.

"At least until the hot guy courting Kate Winslet shows up," Crick replied dryly, and Amy tittered.

"I take it you've tried to convert Crick," Jeff said dryly, and Amy snuggled back in his arms. Her husband, Jon, was planning to pick her and the baby up in about an hour, but Jeff supposed that one of the plusses of having a gay ex-boyfriend--and a whole lot of gay friends period--was that a girl was never short a snuggle buddy. Jeff could live with that tonight, even if it meant no knitting was going to get done, period, the end.

* * * *

Fifteen minutes later, Deacon and Crick came out of the girls' bedroom. Deacon heaved a mighty sigh and then settled down on one of the stuffed chairs to watch. Crick huffed, Deacon rolled his eyes and came to the couch to sit with him, and Jeff had to smile. Deacon would re-set the stars in their course for Crick. Changing his seat was not such a big deal. They all continued to watch, Jeff and Amy in complete absorption, until Deacon sighed again, made Crick give him the remote, and then paused the movie.

"The diner," Deacon said into the silence.

"The one next to the gas station?" Jeff wasn't surprised--Deacon and Crick ate breakfast there on occasion. It was a pretty decent place for a small-town greasy spoon.

"Yeah. It's near The Pulpit, you can take a few people but not too many, and it's public. You and this kid sit down, have a civilized meal, and see what he wants. All you gotta do is decide who you want."

Jeff gnawed at his lower lip and thought. "Crick," he said, because the guy was his GBFF, "and Kimmy."

"Hey!" Amy protested, and Jeff looked at her and shrugged.

"Kimmy and Shane are going through that whole how-to-be-a-counselor program, sugar. I'd ask Shane, but I think that's one too many big, white, gay men at the table."

"White?" Andrew asked. Although nearby Natomas was fairly diverse, in Levee Oaks, any skin color beyond a deep tan was very much in the minority.

"Yeah," Jeff said absently, wishing he could turn on the movie and disappear. "Kevin was black... what?" He looked up at all of them, Andrew included, because they were looking a little big-eyed. "I'm the white theatre kid--I'm supposed to be gay. Kevin was definitely a surprise."

"I should say so!" Andrew muttered, nodding. And then, as though everyone was looking at him with judiciously pursed lips, he grimaced and rolled his eyes. "Where'd you say this kid's from?"

"Georgia," Jeff said, wondering why he'd asked.

Andrew shook his head. "Oh my God... someday, you're going to have to let me know how you managed to seduce a Georgia boy--that's just not done!" And then, before Jeff could shake his head and say that Kevin pretty much had him at "Come fuck me!" Andrew went on. "And I really should be there, Jeff. This is a whole new thing here--something I don't know if you're ready to deal with. Race in California is not easy. Race in the South is a whole new world for California boys, you hear me?"

Jeff nodded his head, vaguely aware that he didn't understand at all. "So you'll be there?" he asked, grateful for the support anyway.

Suddenly Andrew sucked air in through his teeth. "When?"

"Two o'clock, day after tomorrow. Lucas's going to meet him at the bus station and bring him."

Now Deacon was making that sound too. "Go ahead," Deacon murmured. "I'll be fine."

"I can't," Andrew snapped back. "That stallion's a monster! I'm not leaving you alone, not...." Andrew trailed off, and Jeff wondered briefly why, before Deacon started talking again.

"No, I'll be fine!"

"Forget about it, Deacon!" Crick and Drew both snapped, and Deacon flushed.

"I take it someone's got to get laid instead?" Jeff asked, hoping his acid humor could even out some of the rough emotion he heard staticking up the room.

"Yeah," Deacon told him, and Jeff didn't miss the look he was shooting Crick. "Lucy Star. There's an outfit from down south that really wants one of her last babies, but their stallion isn't dummy trained."

Jeff huffed and looked mournfully at the frozen screen. "Could we clarify for those of us who think horses are only pretty if they've got half-naked men on them?"

Deacon's gentle chuckle was enough to soothe Jeff's ruffled feathers. "Usually, stallions are trained to fuck a pretend horse--a dummy horse. He comes into a jar, we ship the jar off to someone, and some mare gets lucky without getting the shit beat out of her during hot horse sex. This one isn't--and if we're not there to manage him, Lucy could get seriously hurt."

Jeff blinked at him. "Haven't horses been having sex without our help for thousands of years?"

"Yeah, but it hasn't been a lot of fun for the mares. Lucy's a friend--Ambush doesn't have to buy her dinner, but I want to make sure that fucker doesn't hurt her, either."

"It's a two-man job," Andrew said, and this time Jeff understood. Crick was a good man with horses, and his injuries were becoming less and less of a liability, but with something like this, Andrew's prosthetic leg would be less of a problem than Crick's crippled hand and arm.

"Well then, you have to do it!" Jeff said, inwardly wishing he wasn't such a nice guy.

"I'll be okay by myself," Deacon said, and Crick said, "Deacon...." with a sort of threatening undertone, and Jeff pulled himself out of his own misery long enough to realize that there was something going on between them that only they were privy to. He looked at Amy, but she shrugged, and together they listened to Andrew and Crick do some sort of subtle emotional blackmail to get Deacon to accept that Andrew couldn't help Jeff this time, he had to stay on the ranch and help Deacon.

So it was resolved then, Jeff thought, feeling a little better about it all. He had Deacon press play on the remote and got to watch his comfort movie in peace.


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