Growing up in foster care has left Kerry Grey with little self-esteem or hope for his future. A college dropout, Kerry scrapes by on a part-time job at a garden nursery. His friendship with his boss and working with the plants are the only high points in Kerry’s life. He’s been dating the man who bullied him at school, but when his boyfriend abandons him at a party, Kerry wanders down the beach to drown his sorrows in a bottle of scotch.
Malcolm Holmes and Charlie Stone have been together for fifteen years. Despite Charlie's willingness to accept Malcolm's unspoken domination in bed,something is missing from their relationship. Early one morning, they rescue a passed out Kerry from being washed away by the tide and Charlie immediately senses a kindred spirit in the lost younger man. When Kerry’s roommate kicks him out, Malcolm and Charlie invite him into their home. As Charlie and Kerry bond over Charlie’s garden, Malcolm sees Kerry may be just who they have been looking for to complete their lives. All they have to do is show Kerry, and each other, that Kerry's submissive tendencies will fit their dynamic.
But someone is sabotaging Kerry at every turn. As he struggles to discover the culprit, he fears for the safety of his new friends. If Malcolm and Charlie cannot help, their lifelong search for their perfect third may not end with the happily ever after they imagined.
SO I crashed his celebration. It wasn’t like he didn’t want me there. Well. Okay, maybe he didn’t want me there there. On that night. At exactly that time. But he would have wanted me after. At the hotel. Or my place. Or hell, up against a convenient wall.
“Fucking bullshit, Kerry. You’re a jerk. A stupid, idiot jerk,” I said all under my breath to myself but got no argument. Because it was true. I was an idiot. How stupid could I be to come out here now, walk the beach, and talk to myself? Alone. Target practice for some punk to come and hit me over the head for fun.READ MORE
That I’d ever decided the asshole in the party would admit anything about me and him in front of anyone, let alone the entire football team, was insanity. What idiot voice in my head had convinced me that just because he liked his dick up my ass meant he liked anything else about me? Two years of high school bullying should have been enough to get through even my thick-ass skull that a biology geek was utterly beneath him. And me actually being beneath him while he was unloading into a condom had nothing to do with anything, least of all me.
I’d made it to the boardwalk, but even here, couples who had snuck out of the party were so busy being romantic in the moonlight it made my teeth hurt. Veering to the left of the long wooden path as it meandered up the lighted slope, I headed for the darkness and the scent of the sea. Wrapped up in velvety black and the soft shushing of waves, I could pretend this was where I’d been headed all along. Eventually, the sounds of music and laughter faded. The soft slide of calm ocean over smooth sand filtered in to take their place.
The boardwalk rose in a series of steps and ramps to follow the edge of the bluff above my head as I skirted the base along the narrow strip of sand between ocean and rock. I knew it turned inland to join a network of paths through the park adjoining the golf club, and then, eventually, to the quiet streets of the expensive neighborhood along the bluff. Down here, though, it was just sand, surf, and quiet darkness.
“Stupid kid,” I muttered at the sand underfoot, unsure if I meant him, a year or three younger than me, or myself. I wasn’t really a kid anymore, but tonight, I felt like one. I lifted the mickey of Jack I was carrying to my lips and tipped my head back to drain the last drops from it. Sand shifted and almost spilled me on my ass for the effort. The bottle was dry. So what? Dropping it, I fished in my suit-jacket pocket for the second one I’d brought. One each was going to be enough to give us both a little buzz. But since he clearly didn’t want to share, now it was more than enough to obliterate the fact he’d not even bothered kicking me out of his party. He’d just ignored me.
Dress shoes on beach sand didn’t make for firm footing. The plastic shrink-wrap sealing the mickey of scotch hated me and my bitten-to-the-quick nails that couldn’t get under it to rip it away. Andrew Shelton-Bishop was a spoiled, rich, football jock prom king, and so gorgeous it hurt to look at him straight on. And he’d picked me to be his first gay fuck.
Four years ago, Andrew, a ninth-grade nothing from my not-so-illustrious childhood neighborhood suddenly reappeared out of nowhere at my high school, tried out for and landed a first-string spot in our high school football team. After I’d moved to a new foster home when we were kids, he and I had lost touch. I didn’t know until I saw him again in high school that his mother had remarried rich. Thanks to stepdad’s football uniform donation and his own precious right arm, Andrew flew straight to the top of the social heap. By some cruel twinkle in a god’s eye somewhere, he set his mocking sights on me. I spent two years ducking his attentions, his taunts, and his friend’s elbows and fists, mostly unsuccessfully. Then, just when I thought I might escape by hiding out in the biology lab, my senior year turned to shit the day I turned eighteen. For the first time in my life, I’d landed in a decent foster home, and suddenly, I was too old to stay.
Really, I should have known, the moment Andrew stepped onto that field, that I was doomed. It had been the perfect cap to a miserable high school career.
Then, with perfect timing, just when I got my college legs under me after freshman year, got my life together and myself on my own two feet, he showed up again. He’d won a scholarship to the same college I attended and appeared one day in the library, begging for a campus tour. He appealed to our long-lost childhood friendship, assured me all the high school crap was over and done, and we should stick together. Because we knew one another. Andrew had been scouted as soon as he made the age cut and was now halfway across the country from everything he knew. He was scared. Or so he said.
And I had been dumb enough to believe him. That night, he screwed me silly, and every time after that, when he called and told me I was the only one he could really be with, I bent over. More fool me. My preoccupation with the high school jock who had made my high-school career a living torment drove my grades into the toilet and flunked me out of my future.
Then tonight, he’d looked at me across the dance floor, smirked, and walked off with Jenny fucking Schlaz… Schlazinhoff—whatever. Fucking prom queen from hell. He hadn’t left any of his all-American privilege behind. Not even his pretty, blonde, fake girlfriend who had tossed me a frightening, triumphant grin over Andrew’s shoulder as he led her off. The college threw him a party for winning the game, and there she was, his beard, smirking at me, mean-eyed and spiteful. Nothing had changed.
Deftly enabled by the smooth underside of my dance shoes against the sand, I took an abrupt seat in the soft grit. The bottle dropped from my fingers—well, flew, really, since the sitting didn’t happen particularly gracefully and my arms pinwheeled just before I smacked down. I watched the bottle disappear into the night sky. A moment later, somewhere off to my right, the tinkle of broken glass reached me. So much for oblivion. I was stuck, halfway to nowhere. Again. I flopped onto my back, defeated.
Damp seaweed stink soaked into my suit pants. Probably served me right, having a soggy ass. Considering what lengths I’d gone to get it pounded the first time. Considering the idiocy of thinking, as it kept happening, that the situation had anything at all to do with me—that it might be a real, live relationship—I guess I deserved the seaweed soaking.
“My life sucks!” I shouted it up into the darkness after the bottle. The complaint fell back down around me in the same sprinkling of glittering shards. I covered my face with an arm, but it didn’t help. Virtual laceration was still bloody, even if I was the only one who knew I was bleeding out, alone in the dark, as I sank into alcohol-aided sleep.
FUCKING HELL, it was freaking cold. Matthew had been in my room again. He must have, the bastard. He liked coming in and opening all the fucking windows to “air the place out.” He’d even open the one right over my bed when he figured I was hungover or aching from a nighttime visit from Andrew. It must have rained all night this time, because I was soaked. “Worst. Fucking. Roommate. Ever. Goddamn hotshot grad student can fucking well buy me a new fucking mattress now.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone swear that much.”
“You think we should wake him?”
“What the fuck!” I jolted upright. Grit scraped against my palms. Light speared my eyeballs, and I shuffled back toward the cold wall. Only there was nothing there, and I tumbled onto my back again. Chill seeped up around my shoulders to swallow me.
“Careful, now.” A hand reached for me, inserting itself into my narrow view of the too-bright world. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I fucking well am not! Who?” I finally pried my eyelids open and glared around. “Where the fuck am I?”
Two blurry men in shorts and sneakers and a lot of bare skin stood over me. They both had the right outline against the clear, torturous blue of the sky to be buff. Shirts trailed from the waistbands of their shorts. They both reached down big, tanned hands to within my nearsighted circle to steady me.
“These yours?” one of them asked, holding up a dark, squiggling blur.
“Gimme my fucking glasses.”
White split across both fuzzy faces.
“You have a special pair just for fucking?” One man tilted his head slightly. “That’s kind of kinky, isn’t it?”
“Charlie.” The other of the men glanced in the speaker’s direction. His voice was slightly admonishing, but not without humor. I just wasn’t sure if the amusement was being directed at me or not.
“Give me my fuc—” I let out a huff. “Can I please have my glasses?” I held up a hand, fully expecting it to get slapped aside and laughter to follow.
I knew how these things went. As soon as they realized I could see fuck all without the lenses, they’d keep them just out of reach to see how desperate I’d get to have them back. It was a common tactic, and a lot of experience with being on the wrong end of it reminded me that just sitting there being polite was the quickest way to get them too bored to continue the torment. Eventually they’d toss the glasses off somewhere and leave me alone.
Instead, a warm, strong hand gripped mine, and an even stronger tug encouraged me to scramble to my feet before I got my arm yanked out of my socket. As it was, my foot slipped again and I landed, face-first against a broad, sweaty, slightly hairy chest. I was not handed my glasses. They were gently set in place on my face, and once I had blinked the world back into focus, I found myself confronted by two very good-looking men, probably close to ten years older than me, arms crossed, faces almost stern as they studied me in turn.
“Missed the bus to the hotel, did you?” the one not named Charles asked.
I blinked at him again.
“The party last night, kid,” he said, indicating with a wave the golf course clubhouse down the beach. “You miss your ride home? Because I gotta tell you, sleeping on the beach, not such a stellar plan. Your suit’s toast, for one thing.” He gently straightened one of my lapels and pulled the drooping flower I’d stolen from a bouquet free of the pocket. He tossed it with a flick into the waves.
I looked down at myself and the three inches of water lapping around my feet.
“Tide’s coming in,” he went on. “I mean seriously. We’ve caught couples still necking on the boardwalk this early in the morning, but waiting to get washed out to sea? It was just a dance. Even if your girl left you on the dance floor, it can’t be that bad.”
“What the hell would you know about it?” I muttered.
They glanced at each other, then back at me as I patted my pockets for my keys and phone.
“You okay, kid?”
“I’m fine,” I muttered, going a little frantic when I found nothing but empty pockets. “Sorry I slept on your precious beach. Later.” I turned to go back the way I’d come the night before, hoping I’d find my missing life somewhere in the sand, but the way was impassable. The tide had devoured the beach right up to the stony cliff face that jutted out toward the sea about fifty feet off. It had claimed another inch of my pants as I stood there. My back was caked in saltwater and sand from lying on the ground, and my feet felt like ice inside my shoes.
“You’ll have to come up through the garden,” not-Charles said. “You can’t get back to the club along the beach now, and in another fifteen minutes, this section will be about six feet under water.” He turned to slosh through the ankle-deep water to a set of steps leading up through a carved-out section of the cliff. “Coming? Because you can stand there all day, but”—he tilted his head—“I don’t like your chances. You’ll be under the waterline.” He pointed to the evidence on the cliff face.
“I’m not short,” I protested.
They both smirked, but facts were facts. Six feet of water was about eight inches more water than I could comfortably stand flat-footed in and still be able to breathe, and since swimming in a suit was beyond stupid, I followed them up the steps.
Their lawn was a good six feet above the high-tide mark, and it was, indeed, a garden and not just a yard with flowers. They led me down a stone path bracketed on either side by a fresh spring emerging from well-tended evergreen shrubs. In about ten feet, the trail opened up onto a wide lawn. The grass had begun to turn from the yellow of winter to the new, bright spears of green poking through the thatch. Canvas and burlap still covered plants apparently a bit too tender for the local winter climate, but at their feet, daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips provided a riot of color against the rest of the early spring drab.
“Wow.” I couldn’t help it. Azaleas and lilacs perfumed the yard, showing off with bright-pink and soft-purple flowers. It smelled like growth and promise.
Both men grinned, one at the yard, the other at his friend.
“Charles is fond of his little project.”
“Fond of my little project.” Charles smacked the other man on the arm. “And Malcolm is an ass.”
“It’s a beautiful garden,” I said, because it was, and because I could appreciate the amount of work that went into it. If I was even remotely more financially stable, I’d still be deeply ensconced in the local college’s excellent botany program. As it was, I worked part-time at the local nursery, shared a tiny room in a house with a self-centered ass who had taken me in to reduce his rent, not because we had anything in common or because we got along. I dreamed of one day maybe having a yard I could experiment in, but the more time that passed, the farther off that reality seemed to get.
“Oh great. You too?” Malcolm groaned and turned toward the house. “Lord help me, he found another one.”
“Another one what?” I asked, pushing my glasses up my nose as I turned in place to take in the view.
“You really do like it,” Charles said.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I would kill to have a setup like this. Man!” I wandered to the edge of the grass and crouched. “These are romance daffs.” I cupped a delicate white-and-pink bloom between my fingers.
Charles crouched next to me. “Malcolm buys me a few bulbs every fall.” He touched the bloom with one finger.
“So….” I glanced over. “He doesn’t actually hate your garden or anything.”
Charles shrugged. “He indulges my joy.”
Glancing at the ring on his finger and then at him, I nodded. “Sounds sweet.”
Charles rose. “Almost as romantic as passing out drunk on a stranger’s beach after your first freshman party.”
“Fuck off.” I stood and stomped toward the house.
“I’m sorry!” he called, laughing as he spoke. “That was low.” He caught up to me and put a hand on my arm. “Really. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” I shrugged him off. “When you’re right, you’re right.”
“So your girl go home with some other guy?”
Stopping on the threshold of their tidy-looking bungalow, I shrugged. “Sure. Something like that.” I was reluctant to drag my sandy, salt-encrusted self through their home. “I should go around.”
“Don’t be silly.” Malcolm reappeared carrying a tracksuit and towels. “There’s an outdoor shower over by the gazebo. It’ll be cold. We haven’t hooked up the solar”—he glanced at Charles—“gizmos yet, but you can wash the salt off and change, at least.” He handed me the clothing. “You can’t go traipsing around the city in that.” He indicated my soaked, ruined, only suit.
“Look, it’s fine.” I pushed the offered items back at him. “I was jackass enough to pass out on the beach. My problem. Not yours.”
“We’re only wanting to help,” Charles said softly. I wasn’t prepared for him ruffling my hair or the sand that tumbled down into my face.
I sputtered and stepped back. “It’s fine.” I flailed at his hand as he pulled it away.
“Are you being stubborn on purpose, or is this just a natural trait you have?” Malcolm asked, good nature glossing over the slight irritation in his tone.
Charles lifted both eyebrows.
“Being stubborn on purpose,” I finished lamely.
“Good.” Malcolm thrust the clothing and towels at me again. “Because believe it or not, everyone on the planet isn’t going to leave you standing alone on a dance floor. Go get cleaned up.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
They both flashed smiles my way, and I headed for the gazebo as they reentered the house.COLLAPSE