Toby Rafferty was sitting on his ass in a closet of his condo. Just outside the yellow outline of the door, he could clearly make out the sounds of his twenty-fifth birthday party rolling like film destined for the can.
He was peeling the label off his Bud. He paused and took a sip, thinking maybe it was good to feel nothing. Not pain, not despair. The man he felt locked tight inside him, like a butterfly caught in barbed wire.
The door creaked and he squinted up into the light, knowing who would be there before he saw the leather sandals, the muscled chest, and abdomen. The man had a dragon tat snaking across flesh he knew about as intimately as he did the flesh of any of Jared Asche’s lovers. Well, they were lovers: lovers on the for-cable gay soap called Mission Bay, set in San Diego.
“Toby.” The gentle voice and a hand ruffled his hair, and then Jared shoved some of Toby’s winter coats aside so he could slouch on the opposite side of the closet.
Jared had dark hair falling over his forehead, warm brown eyes, a strange tan color that was sometimes soft as toffee, sometimes hot and sizzling like butter in the pan, depending on the scene, the mood Jared channeled. Now he was his typical Zen self, giving off Buddha vibes as he sat unshaven, his shirt open, wearing purple shorts with surfers displayed. His beach bum look suited him since he lived in a floating house tied to a wharf a mile from Toby’s condo.
Toby shoved his blond mussed hair out of his eyes, shrugging. “A fucking lot of people, you know?” All her friends, friends of his girlfriend Anita’s since Toby didn’t really have any friends, except for Jared and maybe Ellen the makeup artist. She was always showing him her tag sale finds. It made him feel worse, somehow, all these people here who were really Allison’s, and it was his birthday.
“I do know.” Jared reached out and cupped Toby’s head, leaning so his forehead brushed Toby’s. Jesus! No wonder their fans were sure they were lovers for real, Toby reflected, and not for the first time. He stifled a sad laugh.
As if he’d ever have the courage to—
He cut off the thought before he could finish it.
But he was comfortable with Jared, never mind Jared was gay and Toby was straight. That had been a bone of contention with his stepfather when he’d stuck with quiet stubbornness to this friendship. They had been best friends since their excruciatingly embarrassing first love scene on the show for the episode called “Awakening.”
Toby took another pull of his beer, thinking again not for the first time that the title of that ep had been meaningful, though he hadn’t seen it at the time.
“Want to go to my place?” He arched a dark brow, giving Toby a mild look. Jared had the perfect hook, hanging easy in the water, resting just at the surface so that Toby couldn’t help but bite. It was almost like Jared had set out to tune into a wavelength just for Toby.
“I really shouldn’t. You know Anita went to a lot of trouble….” Toby’s voice drifted off. He wanted to go. They both knew it.
“For her friends, yeah.” With a wicked curl to the lips and for the first time that night, Toby laughed. It felt good, almost alien, and then familiar sadness took away the moment like breath took the light from a candle.
“Toby True Heart,” Jared teased. Jared was thirty, assured, and a mandolin musician when he had time away from shooting. Toby admired him. He was so comfortable with himself, even remaining calm when Toby’s homophobic stepfather tried to bait him. “What am I going to do with you, dude?”
For some reason that made heat rise in Toby’s cheeks, and he remembered how often when he came over to Jared’s place his co-star’s bed was rumpled and one of his “dates” was lying around, watching TV or eating cereal. Jared was nothing like Toby, who had only ever been with one person his whole life—his high school sweetheart, Anita.
But lately he caught himself looking at those boyfriends of Jared’s, at their relaxed, smiling faces, at the way Jared liked to spoil them, cooking for them, lightly running a hand over their arms, teasing them, and he wondered what it would be like to be one of them. To stay over with Jared.
“You’re so adorable.”
“Fuck you.” Toby pulled his knees up, finding one of his legs had lost circulation; somehow he wobbled to his feet, but when he nearly took a spill, Jared made a rough sound and gave the offending leg a brisk rub, always taking care in that way he had about him, as if Toby somehow belonged to him and he had to look out for him.
Looking at the lean, deft brown hands, one of his wrists ringed by a turquoise hoop, Toby experienced that strange tight feeling in his gut. It happened more and more often. Weird. Maybe it was a by-product of playing a gay character. Well, his stepfather had warned him that it might rub off, the whole gay thing. In fact, he went so far as to say Toby must have a secret if he took a role on the soap.
Alas, Toby had no secrets. He was safe and boring, but he ached inside. He wished he could just figure out what for; it was like he’d spent his whole life on the verge of becoming… what? He swallowed thickly. “I want to get a little baked, okay?” He could let it go with Jared. Jared would keep him safe, and with Jared, the ache went away, smoothed out.
Jared’s eyes were sober as he studied Toby. “Yeah, okay. Come on.”
Jared watched as Toby kissed his blond, tanned Barbie doll of a girlfriend, Anita, snuggling her from behind. She had sleek, shapely arms and perfect skin that set off her green eyes.
He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Man, he had to keep a lid on his feelings, because he was in danger of behaving like the stereotypical fag in love with his best friend, resentful of the proof he was straight. But he didn’t think that she was good for Toby, not at all, stamping all over Toby’s puppy feelings with stiletto ruthlessness.
He also acknowledged that he was somewhat biased, because he was in love with Toby.
He had been from the first moment they’d met, sipping sodas while they outlined their debut erotic scene with input from the director and the writers. He had seen right away Toby was innocent, that he had very little clue about anything but the most vanilla sex in general, never mind sex with another man. His blue eyes, sun-streaked hair, and silky muscled form rang Jared’s bell, but Toby also aroused protective feelings. So Jared had shoved the sexual heat aside as much as he could and acted an older brother to Toby.
An older brother who had to maintain a handle on his feelings to keep himself from giving Toby more than he’d ever ask for, such as a burning kiss on the mouth.
Jared inhaled, concentrating on his breathing as he did in daily meditation. It didn’t take away the feeling, but it did keep him centered.
A wisp of thought crossed his mind, not for the first time as he watched Toby with his girlfriend. Why had Toby taken the role on Mission Bay in the first place? It seemed a strange choice for a shy, straight boy-next-door type.
And why did Jared’s instincts always whisper there was more to him?
“But will you stay there overnight like last time?” Anita prodded.
Yes, bitch, in my bed. Your boyfriend spread out, open, taking my cock, grabbing my ass as I—
But then Anita continued, and Jared couldn’t quite hate her.
“I mean, Toby….” Her gaze flashed to Jared and she lowered her voice. “Just make sure your stepdad doesn’t find out, okay? I know you guys are only friends but… awkward! And I don’t want to referee again.”
Jared took another deep breath, closing out the fantasy that had run through his head as he held Anita’s aware green eyes. She knew that Jared was in love with her boyfriend. Didn’t she think Jared was any kind of threat?
He swallowed the burning feeling in his throat, wanting to hate her just for that.
When Toby kissed her, Jared had to turn away from seeing Toby pleading with those soft lips to be allowed off the leash for one night.
Jesus! There was only so much he could take. He wanted to be the one Toby looked to for approval, for permission. And the lover in him wanted to master innocent Toby, to conquer him in bed and leave him sweaty and smiling.
Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen. The most he could have was to be Toby’s loyal best friend.
Toby climbed into Jared’s baby blue vintage DeSoto after running a hand over the fins in a friendly way. He smiled at Jared, noticing some faint tension around his friend’s mouth. Maybe it was Anita. She was carefully neutral about Jared for some reason, but Toby had refused against all odds to give up his friendship, so she stayed out of it when he’d argued with his family about his choice of friend.
Jared was nurturing. There was something about him, sure of himself, protective, so that Toby felt better after spending some time around him. It wasn’t that he made Toby feel uncertain, like he needed to lean, the way he reluctantly had to admit he’d fallen into the habit of doing sometimes with Anita while navigating their familiar mine field. Instead, Toby conversely felt stronger around Jared, more himself.
It popped into his head not for the first time that Jared must be an amazing lover. Giving, in control, completely focused on whoever was in his bed.
Toby rubbed his forehead, thinking it was late; he was depressed and a little needy. But he hoped that they could spend some time alone, that none of Jared’s lovers were around.
He wanted him all to himself.
At the wharf, Jared swung the car into his parking space and looked over at a sleepy Toby. Fuck, he looked adorable, hair combed by the wind, trusting gaze on Jared. It was all he could do not to lean close and kiss those lips. He did it on the show all the time, of course, so he knew how Toby tasted, but he wanted Toby for real.
Grimacing over the sudden tightness in his shorts, he opened the door and waited for Toby to follow him, putting an arm with casual possessiveness around his friend’s shoulders as they headed for his houseboat. He didn’t imagine the way Toby leaned against him, almost like they were more than friends; it made his heart pick up.
Mixed signals. Shit.
“Will Tom be there, do you think?” Toby asked, big blue eyes exploring Jared’s face.
“Huh, don’t think so. He went on a fishing trip.” Jared shrugged. He couldn’t think of anyone else when he was with Toby, but he wondered why Toby had asked about the other man. In his fantasy world, it was a sign of Toby’s jealousy.
“Right.” Toby’s warmth ghosted against Jared’s skin, making Jared want to pull him closer. He struggled with his dominant side, the part that latched onto Toby’s receptiveness. He didn’t want to think about Toby’s sex life with Anita, but if he was her, he’d tie the other man to a bed and then….
Whoa. Jared’s eyes widened. Now he was imagining himself in her place just so he could touch the man he loved? Clearly he needed to get away for a while again and regain his perspective.
“What about Malcolm?”
Jared blinked. “I think he’s in Florida right now,” he said, letting his arm fall as they reached the glass and deck structure of his boathouse, rocking minutely in moorage. It had two levels with a flat roof up top for barbeques and a place to grow herbs. Jared kept it ruthlessly organized since the space was so tight. If he bought something new, something old had to go, but that was okay since he recycled religiously. “Why do you want to know what the guys are up to?” He cocked a brow at Toby.
Toby shrugged, innocent blue eyes holding Jared’s. “Don’t want to intrude.”
“I invited you. I want you here.” Jared gave Toby a level glance as he unlocked his front door. It had herons etched over the glass—easily breakable for a burglar, but the inset was something special he was reluctant to replace, despite the cautious lectures of his friend Sahara Blue Drummond, who was an ex Navy SEAL and now worked part time at a local security company. Jared didn’t have much of value anyway, other than his mandolins and some of his finer hand-made toys.
“Yeah, but—” Toby looked a little embarrassed. This was intriguing. What was going through his mind?
“But what? We’ll smoke a little grass, watch an action movie. Perfect for your birthday, right?” Jared checked the contents in his fridge, pulling out the brand of beer he kept just for Toby. Shit, he had it bad, if he was supplying favorite beverages.
Toby had settled on Jared’s green velvet couch, wrapping the thin Kelim rug Jared had picked up on a trip to Turkey around himself as usual, as if he were cold or lost. It never failed to touch Jared, so he wanted to stand and stare at Toby’s giving pink lips and tanned healthy skin, skin which was silky to the touch of his callused musician’s fingers. Jared wanted to reach out and smooth away whatever the unhappiness was he sensed in Toby.
“I just thought you might want to be with someone,” Toby said.
“I am.” Jared said, handing him his beer. “With someone.”
“You know what I mean. Someone you spend time with.”
“Someone I fuck.” Jared took a deep pull from his own bottle. Just saying that word aloud to Toby made all kinds of images rise like resurrected ghosts.
“Yeah, that wouldn’t be me.” Toby took another swallow and kept his gaze on his feet.
Oh man. He couldn’t say anything, since if he did, it would be the truth: that Jared wanted to start on Toby’s feet, kissing, licking the sensitive spaces between his toes. He could have Toby hard and begging—
He turned away, reminding himself that however attractive he found Toby, however much the submissive signals caught his attention like a pale fish flashing in the murk of the ocean when he snorkeled, Toby was not gay. Not unless he said so and made it damn obvious, anyway.
Jared snorted to himself, searching through a campy tiki chest for some of his supply. “Chuck Norris tonight?” he asked, thinking maybe Chuck would get his mind off his unrequited passion.
“Huh. Something early, like seventies?”
“Lusty chest hair Chuck. Right.” Jared located his stash and slumped on his couch next to the delicious and unobtainable Toby. Toby still looked worried, no doubt anxious he’d somehow offended Jared, so Jared smiled at him, quirking a brow. “Dude, will you relax? I’ll make cupcakes and put a candle on one of them if you need the Hallmark moment.”
“Ha ha, okay.” Toby dropped his head forward, shoulders hunched.
Jared stopped rolling their treat for a second and rubbed one of Toby’s shoulders in absent comfort, not thinking anything of it until Toby caught his breath.
He looked up sharply. Something was off. Something different?
Toby colored and winced when Jared repeated the motion.
“Dude?” Jared asked.
“I pulled a muscle or something,” Toby mumbled.
Off, definitely something off. Jared opened his mouth, but Toby leaned forward and kissed him.
What the fuck!
“What did you do that for?” Jared growled, shaken hard.
“I—” Toby rubbed his faint beard shadow. “Just telling you I appreciate how you look out for me. It seemed natural.”
“No, it’s not, Toby.”
“I’m sorry.” Toby had a hand over his face, looking miserably embarrassed.
Jared ached for him, but this was his line in the sand. Casual touching, okay, they both seemed to do that, had done that from the beginning, hands all over each other. Jared seemed to be the only one who saw the subtext there, but casual “friendly” kissing? Fuck being polite, he couldn’t take that. He’d shove his tongue in Toby’s mouth and scare him, fuck up their friendship.
“We do it all the time on the show,” Toby said.
“That’s not real.” And that kiss, the brush of Toby’s warm silky lips against his own, so that he sung with sensory memory—that was all too real to Jared. As real as the boner he crossed a leg to conceal. “I can’t kiss you as a friend, all right?”
“Of course, I don’t know what I was thinking! Jesus, it’s not like I kiss my other guy friends.” Toby shook his head.
“Thanks, I think.” Jared shook his head, completely exasperated. Did Toby not take him seriously as a man? He was just a familiar piece of comfy furniture? Fuck! “But I’m a gay man, so something like that could qualify as teasing,” he admitted, his eyes not meeting Toby’s.
Toby gave a ragged sigh. “Shit! I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re my good thing, Jared. I’m sorry I overstepped.”
How to handle this? Toby was his, no matter the fantasies he set off with every unconscious movement. But if he couldn’t have him in his bed, under him, he wanted to take care of Toby the only way he could, as his protective older friend.
“You idiot. You get a free pass since it’s your birthday but just don’t kiss me again.” Jared swallowed a healthy amount of his beer as he dug out the DVD of the movie they’d watch. What he wanted to add but didn’t was, don’t kiss me unless you mean it.