Scars On His Heart
After a disastrous five years away at college, Joe returns to his aunt's farm and finds his childhood sweetheart Cameron eager to rekindle their relationship. Joe has a hard time confessing that he didn't come home until now because he's only just managed to leave Andre, his controlling boyfriend, and has a harder time renewing his submissive role in his affair with Cam. Cam thinks he has to find a way to remind Joe how to be strong. But what Cam doesn't realize is that Joe is strong, strong enough to leave behind a life of shame—though he's terrified his past will catch up to him. Joe must confront his ex and take back his own life, on his own terms, before he's able to give Cam everything they both desire.
AWKWARD. THAT’S what this was. Awkward and silent and slightly terrifying. As Joe walked, he listened for the crunch of Cam’s boots behind him on the path. They progressed in silence toward the pond where they had swum together as teenagers and to the beach covered in flat, smooth river stones. Those stones were the goal. They had been sent to collect some for the centerpieces for the reception tables for his cousin Katie’s wedding. He suspected the task had been his aunt’s way of thrusting him and Cam together. Alone. To talk. As they hadn’t done since Joe had left the farm five years ago. So far, there had been no talking.READ MORE
Joe spent the walk from house to pond remembering what a spring breeze felt like on parts of him that had no business being bare to it. Old thoughts of wind and sun on his ass only made him wonder if today was going to be a replay of That Day. Not that he had been thinking it might be. Certainly every moment of That Day came back to his mind with sparkling clarity the instant Cam walked into Aunt Marie’s kitchen this morning and eyed Joe over the rim of his coffee mug.
Joe was home for his second-youngest cousin’s wedding. His aunt Marie had picked him up at the bus station and brought him back to the farm the night before. When they arrived, just after midnight, Cam had already gone up to bed and Joe had crashed out on the couch. He’d been grateful for the quiet homecoming. So much swam through his head, he’d felt he’d needed the time to himself before confronting Cam.
“You’re thinking again.” Cam’s voice cut through the cheerful nature sounds of the spring morning. He drew Joe to a stop long before they got to the clearing. “You’ve always been the thinker, huh?”
Joe shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “So?” He wanted to pull free of the gentle graze of Cam’s fingers in the crook of his elbow. He wanted to pull free because the grip wasn’t powerful enough, and if he couldn’t have it all, he’d rather have nothing. He remained still, a deer under Cam’s bright, knowing gaze.
“So stop thinking,” Cam teased. “Just tell me what’s on your mind or—”
“You remember Maggie’s wedding day?” Joe asked, failing to block the events from his own mind. Not the wedding. That had been incidental to what had happened after the wedding, in the clearing just around the next bend in the path.
Cam studied him, stoic expression giving him nothing. “I remember soggy grass.”
So not what Joe remembered. Cam’s gaze remained steady and impossible to read.
“Come on.” Cam let his hand fall back to his side as he turned to follow the path. “We’re going to be late and your aunt needs those rocks.”
Joe watched Cam’s back for a count of ten but the calming mantra had no effect.
“Soggy grass?” All of a sudden it mattered. He didn’t want to let it go, because for whatever reason he’d thought they had come out here together, Cam was obviously only headed down to the pond to get the stones as he’d said. Nothing more. Joe’s memory of That Day was of something Cam either didn’t remember or chose to forget.
A breeze blew up, picking strands of silky hair from Cam’s ponytail. That had tickled, Joe remembered, and stuck in his sweat when Cam pulled him closer, draping over his back. He shivered.
“If you’d just hurry the fuck up, you wouldn’t be so cold!” Cam called to him.
“I’m not cold.”
The clearing was in sight now, and it kind of surprised him to see it wasn’t much different from his recollection of it, even years later. The grass was as green as in his memory and as soggy as Cam apparently remembered. It squished underfoot as they crossed. Around the edges, bright green moss climbed the trunks of the poplars. The scent of new growth, peculiar to the new buds of the balm of Gilead that made up this glade, filled his senses. His uncle had planted the fast-growing trees all through the farm’s back acres, and the smell was home to Joe. He breathed it in.
“Cam.” He stopped in the center of the open space. “Is that really all you remember?”
Cam had made it across the clearing. He thought his friend might just keep walking, disappear down the winding path through the trees on the other side, and pretend he hadn’t heard.
But he didn’t. He stopped, free hand in his pocket and the other tightening and loosening on the handle of the pail he carried. The clench and release made a rhythmic sound of the pail’s squeaking handle, as steady and unchangeable as Cam himself. His golden eyes fixed on the path, gaze following it into the shade of the new leaves as though he wished he could too. Something held him back.
“What do you want, Joe?” he asked. “To know I remember exactly how soft your skin is? How tight you are? How fucking perfect we should have been?” He turned around. “You want to relive a five-year-old dream like it’s something you can keep locked away in your head for a rainy day, and you don’t even get that for me it doesn’t work that way.”
“Then how does it work for you?”
For a number of heartbeats, Cam said nothing at all.
“Do you know how pale you are in the sunshine, Joe?” Finally, he actually lifted his gaze enough to look Joe in the eye. “How very white and pasty your ass is—”
Cam grinned. “I remember. The difference between your hairy chest and your smooth back, and the noises you make. Oh yeah. I remember it. And, I remember the soggy grass because it left green smudges on your knees and a wiggly pattern of dents in your skin, and I always think….” He grinned wider. “Wouldn’t all those marks look better on your really pasty white ass.”
“God, you’re such a prick!”
But Cam only shook his head and sighed. “I’m honest, Joe. Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for you.”
When he turned this time, there was no looking back. No slowing. No questioning or waiting to see if Joe followed. He was just walking away.
AUNT MARIE was pleased with the collection of river stones they brought back and much to Cam’s dismay, had cheerfully enlisted them both to help her arrange the sixty-odd centerpieces for Katie’s reception tables.
“You know, Auntie,” Cam said, “just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I have any sense of style. I could make the ugliest centerpieces poor Katie-girl ever laid eyes on.”
She tsked at him. “You’ll do just fine, sweetheart. Here.” She indicated a finished example. “Just do that.”
“Just do that,” he muttered with an indulgent grin.
“You too, sugar. Snap, snap.” Aunt Marie literally snapped her fingers in Joe’s face. “Pay attention.”
Joe had been paying attention. To Cam. Cam knew because he could feel the heat of Joe’s gaze on him as he joked with Aunt Marie. And he’d been acutely aware that no matter what he told Joe about That Day and what he might or might not remember, the thing that stood out most in his mind, always, was that Joe had left. They’d done what they had done—and Cam had really thought it meant something—and then Joe had run off to school and never come back.
Now, Joe blinked at his aunt, and Cam watched him fumble a thin smile onto his delicate features. Five years might have passed since that ill-fated Day of Disaster, but he could still read Joe’s expressions. That much hadn’t changed. He knew his friend was wondering if Aunt Marie had noticed his fascination. Difficult to believe she could have missed it but all she did was start on the next decoration and begin to hum “YMCA.” Cam grinned.
Cam refused to read anything into the expression.
It took them hours to get the pieces done. Cam’s back ached and his fingers were pricked raw from the wires in the ribbons, but he was pleased to see that his clumsy attempts weren’t terribly different from Aunt Marie’s or Joe’s, with his nimble fingers and confidence in his ability to get the bows just right.
It was so unfair that he was right there and so far away just on the other side of the table. It was doubly unfair that Cam had to watch him work and be reminded once again of how perfect his hands were. How delicate his wrists and fingers were and how very fucking strong he was even though he didn’t look it. And ironic that the candleholders he arranged were clearly the best of the bunch. As if that didn’t give him away. But no. No one in his family even suspected who he really was.
Cam shook his head. That was just sad.
“Cam, honey, be a dear and start on the flower arrangements,” Marie said. “I’ll get Joe to help with loading these into the boxes, and then I’ll be back to help you.”
There it was again. Joe was straight, so he got to do the easy shit. Cam was gay, so he had to figure out how the hell to make roses and daisies look right together in the same vase. Fan-fucking-tastic.
“You do know I’m a stableboy, right?” he asked her.
She smiled at him. “You know you’re much more than that, honey. Now”—she waved at the flowers and vases—“arrange.”
She left him to it and began directing the loading of the candle arrangements into the boxes for the short ride over to the tables set up in the barn.
She was back before long, though, and they worked together in silence.
“You’re not as bad at this as you seem to think you are.” She examined his first attempt, shifted a single bloom, and nodded approval. “Katie will be pleased.”
Cam gave a small nod and a smaller smile. “That’s all that matters.”
“What’s wrong, honey?” She came around the table, wiping her hands on her tan walking shorts. “You’ve had that long face on all day. What is it?”
“It’s nothing, Auntie. Not yours to worry about.” He smiled down at her, and it struck him that her eyes were the same changeable greeny-brown as Joe’s. Right now, they were clear and light—filled with happiness. Almost green to match the moss-colored golf shirt she had on. He envied Joe, suddenly, to have that family resemblance in common with her. With anyone, really. There was no one in the world whom Cam could look at and say, there, that’s where my gold eyes come from. Or his thick, ringlet-tight tan curls or his height or oddly crooked pinkie fingers and big toes.
She tsked again and slapped his arm. “You might not be blood, young man, but you’ve been mine to worry about for a long time.”
“Since the very first shovelful of horse shit I ever tossed out of your barn,” he agreed.
“Since before then, Cameron. Your daddy made sure of that. Now out with it.”
“Honestly. It’s nothing.” He hated the dark aura that clouded her gaze whenever anyone mentioned Cam’s vanished father. The man had left Cam, five years old, alone on the farm after working there for a season. Only a note, pleading with Aunt Marie and Uncle Albert to look after him, and the few clothes Cam had owned were left with him. No one had ever heard from him again. Uncle Albert tried for years to find out what happened to him, or who Cam’s mother might have been, but never had any success. Eventually, they’d stopped trying, and when legally allowed to, they had adopted Cam. They were his family now. He, one of their many strays.
“Don’t you lie to me, boy,” Marie admonished gently. “I know nothing, and this isn’t it. Talk.”
She never could let sleeping dogs alone. He offered her a pale smile, then sighed. “You don’t think he’s acting strange?” Cam asked, his gaze shifting from flowers to Joe’s back as he hefted a box onto the wagon.
“How did you expect him to act? Gone for years like he has been”—she shook her head, a quick motion of perplexed annoyance—“he’s no more strange now than he was when he came home for Albert’s funeral.”
But Cam wasn’t convinced. Joe had always been the quiet one. He brooded. Still, he wasn’t as happy to be home for his cousin’s perfect day as he should be. This was a wedding, not a funeral, and he was acting like something in his world had ended.
“He just seems so… sad. You think it’s just me?” Maybe it was. Maybe he was projecting what he was feeling onto Joe because he’d wanted his old friend, his almost ex-lover, to be more enthused about this reunion. He watched, frustrated and silent, as Joe loaded the last box and waved the hand on the tractor off toward the barn. Joe turned without a word and disappeared into the house.
“It’s the wedding,” Marie decided, letting the dark shadow pass. “You’ll get yours soon enough. You just have to find the right boy.”
That made him smile. The right boy. What would she say if she knew? “I suppose so.”
“I know so. Now, here come the girls. You go inside, get yourself a sandwich, and get yourself back to work.”
“Always more shit to shovel.” He kissed her cheek and took the opportunity to flee. He loved Joe’s family like he imagined he might love his own if he had one. The endless stream of female cousins had always been a reliable source of entertainment, hugs, and food. They’d also been shameless in their flirting, even knowing he was gay. He’d never made a secret of it, and it didn’t faze them in the least. Today, with thoughts of Joe so prevalent, hell, with Joe so very there, he was not in the mood to fend them all off.
Accepting Auntie’s offered escape, he made his run for the kitchen.
NOW THAT his gaggle of female cousins had gone outside, the house was very quiet, and Joe liked it that way. In his memory, the place was a hub of activity and chaos, but at the moment, with the women all out in the yard, gathered around the picnic tables to arrange flowers, inside, it was cool, quiet, and serene. He’d missed both sides of this place.
Closing his eyes, he ran his palm along the banister as he mounted the steps. Three on the right, two on the left, the sixth in the middle and skip the last. Only way to sneak up the stairs without making them creak. Many misadventures of his youth had taught him how to get from the door to his bedroom without making a sound. He could still literally do it with his eyes closed.
At the top he turned sharply right and followed the galley hallway to the end, keeping close to the railing until he got to the blue-painted door of his old room. For a second, he hesitated. The last time he’d been in there….
“You okay?” Cam pushed the door open and entered, closing it behind him.
“Funerals suck.” Joe kept his back to the room and his eyes on the pastures.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, man.”
Joe shrugged. “Why?” He wrapped his arms around himself. “You didn’t do anything.”
“I’m just sorry you’re hurting.”
He shouldn’t have allowed it, but when Cam circled his bulky arms around him, he didn’t move away. He didn’t protest. Every cousin and aunt had given him hugs, full ones, perfumed ones, soft, or bony ones. His uncles had patted his shoulder or done that weird guy handshake and half hug, pounding him on the back and mumbling something appropriately sympathetic.
Cam’s arms went around his waist, his chin rested on his shoulder, and good God, but it felt nice to have the strength there to hold him up if he felt like collapsing into it. He didn’t, but it was nice just the same.
The very best thing was that he didn’t say any of the kindly meant platitudes. No speech about how his uncle was better off after his long sickness, or how everyone could get on with things now, or how much he would be missed. Yes, all those things were true. It didn’t change the fact that now both his parents were dead, his sister too, and now Uncle Albert. No matter how many aunts and uncles, how many cousins, he was alone in the world. His blood family was gone, and he was all that was left. All there might ever be.
Joe about jumped out of his skin. Cam’s voice leapt out of his head to fill the room. He almost turned, but resisted. Because he didn’t want to look at Cam? Or because he wished with all his being for that same feeling of safety and belonging he’d felt with Cam’s heavily muscled arms holding almost too tight around his ribs?
Joe marveled at how the man could fill all the empty space around him by just standing there.
He crossed his arms over his chest, thought better of the motion because it was a poor substitute, and pushed his hands into his pockets. “Maybe.” Immediately, the pull of tender skin on his back eased.
Honestly? He wasn’t sure, so he didn’t say anything. Behind him, the door latch snicked softly.
“What are you doing?” The way Joe’s heart pounded wasn’t right. The sweat suddenly dampening his palms and stinging his back brought a regretful lump to his throat.
A soft chuckle rolled through the room on the back of Cam’s sweet hay-and-horse barn scent. “Honestly?” The word sent a shiver up Joe’s spine. “I think I’m stalking you.”
“That’s awesome.” And in an unsettling sort of way, it was. Because it was Cam, and because he wanted it to mean something.
“You only have yourself to blame, you know. You’re the one who brought up That Day, and now I can’t get that image of you out of my head.”
“So….” Joe turned away from the window to look at his old friend. “I mentioned sex we had years ago and that means… what to you, exactly?”
“You want….” Cam lifted a shoulder and let it fall, sidling a little closer.
“No, I don’t.”
Cam snickered. “Right. Because you’re not gay. I forgot. Sometime when you were kneeling in the grass with your pants around your ankles and your ass in the air, I forgot the line about you being straight.”
“Who’s mad now?” Joe asked, edging toward the door.
“Don’t know why you think I shouldn’t be. You let me fuck you, then you ran away.”
“I went to school. Different thing.”
“Yes. Right. Went to college and in five years, only came home when someone died.”
Joe flinched because hearing truth, especially couched in nastiness, didn’t make it any less true. Just made its already sharp edges jagged as Cam pulled it out and plunged it in again with more barbs.
“And you spent all that time dating girls and what? Pretending what we did was an experiment?”
“For your information I happen to like dating girls.”
“But fucking boys.”
“You keep saying that but I don’t think you really mean it.” Cam stalked closer to him, and somehow without his noticing, he’d been backed up until the window frame dug against his thighs.
“What are you doing?” he asked again, enunciating, because he still needed an answer and he was pretty sure Cam was being dense on purpose. He intended to shove Cam off, but Cam kiboshed that plan, grabbing him by the wrist and advancing that last step that left Joe’s shoulder blades pressed against the window. Cool glass countered the sharp sting of pain, and he managed not to flinch, but barely. “What are you doing?” His breath came faster now, and he arched to keep the tops of his shoulders against the glass and spare the rest of his back.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
Joe should say something. Stop what was going on. Do something. But Cam lifted his arm, his knuckles impacted the window, and once again, the contrast of cold glass against the warmth of Cam’s grip distracted him for that critical heartbeat in which no would have been possible.
“Caveman,” Joe muttered, staring up into the intense, glittering gold of Cam’s eyes, unable to look anywhere else.
Cam grunted and pressed forward.
Joe’s head told him he should stop this, but a lot of the rest of him wanted to give in. “Cam.”
Cam smiled, a slow sort of expression that left the hairs on the back of Joe’s neck on end.
“What are you doing?” He put his free hand on Cam’s chest with some vague notion of pushing him away. And still, his friend said nothing.
Experimentally, he did push. He wasn’t sure what he expected to happen or if he was surprised when that hand joined the other against the glass. Not being surprised was maybe not the same as wanting it to continue. And yet he didn’t stop it.
And Cam didn’t say anything. He just stared, big, not-quite-brown eyes clear, focused, and demanding.
“What do you want?” A different question might get him an answer.
Cam smiled, but didn’t speak.
There went every little hair on Joe’s body, standing on end, making his skin tingle, keeping his focus on Cam completely.
“You know”—Joe had to swallow before he could continue—“when a person asks a question, it’s generally because they want an answer.”
“What am I doing? I’m getting you where I want you. What do I want?” He leaned so close Joe could smell turkey and mustard on his breath. “I should think that’s pretty obvious.”
It wasn’t as though the kiss could be a surprise at this point. Still, Joe gasped, and that parting of lips gave Cam the opening to push his tongue into Joe’s mouth. The pressure of Cam’s taking forced Joe’s head back against the window. He felt like a bug, pinned there, wrists, head, back cold against the glass, thighs aching with a pleasant throb where the lip of the windowsill dug in. His skin complained at the stretch over ribs and the bunching of muscles under its still raw surface. Cam trapped him where he wanted him and Joe did nothing. He let him, and despite the discomfort, he liked it.
It wasn’t as though Cam was taking what Joe didn’t want to give. Only that he was taking what he wanted. Nothing short of an outright refusal to go to this place would stop him, and maybe Cam knew it, but Joe wasn’t ready to make anything that final.
Some part of him knew anyone passing through the yard or pasture could easily look up and see him like this. The thought should have spurred him to push Cam away. It only made him groan because getting caught would be… final. A relief, maybe. A way to get out of the impossible situation. Out of his life.
Cam’s free hand that had been resting on one of Joe’s hips slid up until calloused fingers traveled along his throat, calling him back to the immediate sensations of his body, coaxing out another moan. Thick thighs pressed against Joe’s. Surely he’d have indelible marks on the backs of his legs where they were clamped to the windowsill. The pain was just enough to make his brain melt. Not so much he wanted it to stop.
If he twisted and squirmed, the pain would become real. The hold would become real. Or it would be let go. Either way was a step toward solid ground of one sort or another. Joe hung by Cam’s grip, suspended over the swampy mess of his own emotional wasteland and reveled in the fact he felt anything at all.
Cam glided his thumb along under Joe’s chin, fingers up under his hair, tightening, holding his head where he couldn’t get out of the kiss.
Not that he tried, but now Cam had him immobile, exposed, and helpless, and something about being that much under another’s control freed him. He gave. Everything Cam wanted in that moment, Joe gave. As in the grass That Day, everywhere Cam had led, Joe followed. Nothing between them had changed.
Joe squirmed. Cam’s grip tightened, the kiss deepened. He thrust his tongue farther past Joe’s teeth, and the squirming to get away turned to rubbing and grinding and then stillness as the silky power of Cam’s tongue in his mouth and the rough pressure of his hands on Joe’s skin overtook everything else, and all he knew was that Cam owned him.
He had no idea how that happened. But it was done, and just when he’d decided it was good, Cam moved away.
“The question isn’t really what I want at all, is it, Joe?” Cam asked. And he walked out, closing the door behind him.
Joe slumped, resting his ass on the windowsill, trying to find his brain cells that seemed to have flowed south, along with every ounce of blood in his body, straight to his traitorous dick. He palmed it once, twice, cursed, then popped open the top button of his jeans. Just for some relief.
Yeah, right. Relief came only when he slipped his hand inside, yanked his cock out, and began to stroke. He pushed his jeans down far enough for what he needed, and his ass contacting the window was a reminder of the contrast, cold to hot, Joe’s reluctance to Cam’s insistence. He didn’t need fantasies or have to close his eyes to call up images. All he needed was the knowledge that Cam could take away his autonomy with a kiss and a grip like iron, and Joe would let him.
Part of the arousal was in the terror of that thought, and he groaned, pushed his entire back against the window, just to feel the reminders of why it was a bad idea. Still, Cam’s possession sizzled through his memory, and the pain in his back faded to unimportant. Or, at least it was less important than even the memory of Cam. He jacked off in record time.
He found tissues to clean himself up, and when he passed the window again on the way out, Cam waved up at him from where he was leaning on the pasture fence facing the house. One of the yearlings nibbled at his hair, and he patted the horse, turning his back on Joe.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Joe muttered, moving out of Cam’s line of sight. He rolled his shoulders and felt his T-shirt resist, sticking to his skin, then popping free. “Shit.” He reached around to feel the spot and felt dampness. “Goddammit.” He peeled the shirt off over his head and examined the fabric. A streak of red dots adorned it in a slanting line.
“Joe?” A sharp knock on the door accompanied the soft female voice saying his name. It made him jump, and he hastily balled the shirt up and crammed it into the trash bin.
“Be right out, Aunt Marie.”
“I need a few things in town, Joe. Do you think you can make a run?”
“Of course! Yes. I’ll be right down.”
The doorknob rattled, and for an unhinged moment, Joe was sure his aunt was about to walk in on him in the ultimate adolescent nightmare. And he was well past adolescence.
“It’s for dinner, Joe, so I’ll need you to hurry.” Her footsteps padded away toward the stairs, and he breathed out a sigh of relief. It really was as if he was back in that summer between high school and college. Because being eighteen apparently hadn’t been brutal enough the first time.
Gritting his teeth, he grabbed a new shirt, pulled it on, and hurried across the hall to the bathroom where he could examine the damage. The cuts weren’t that bad, but a day and a half was not enough for them to heal, and he’d aggravated the scabbing-over process so that they were bleeding again. Not profusely, but enough that if he didn’t cover them, he’d ruin another shirt. He went back to his room, retrieved the bloodied shirt and put it on under the good one, and hurried out to his truck. He could go to the clinic in town and have them bandaged.
If he wore a flannel overshirt, no one would notice the bulges. No one would ask him to explain.COLLAPSE