A loud clang, crash, crunch, and tinkle was not what Ted Lucas wanted to hear on a bright and sunny Monday morning. Not at all.
He rolled his chair back from the blueprints, grabbed his hard hat, and ducked as he jumped out of the trailer, skipping the stairs altogether. He ran around the corner of the huge cinderblock foundation and stopped in his tracks.
“Goddammitalltahell! What’s going on out here?” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Everyone stopped. Some looked confused, some looked amused, and some had that ‘deer-in-the-headlights-oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die’ look on their faces.
Nick Cooper stood with his foot on a length of pipe from the bundle that had crashed to the ground. He looked up at the bobbing White Hard Hat of Doom when it came tear-assing around the corner and raised an eyebrow.
“Morning, boss,” he greeted with a calm smirk, knowing the cheeky greeting wasn’t likely to smooth Lucas’s feathers any. He’d ceased trying to smooth the man’s feathers about a week after first meeting him. It was a bit more interesting to ruffle them every now and then.
Lucas practically growled, looking over the mess: a bundle of piping spilled off a cart, two sets of drywall sheets smashed, a window broken, and probably a fucking partridge in a pear tree shitting somewhere. He looked around at the workers milling about, lips compressing. “Boo!” he suddenly screeched – and most of the men jumped and scuttled off.
Sanders, the electrician who had received one too many shocks over the years, passed clean out from the scare.
“What the hell, man?” Cooper muttered as he watched his crew beat a hasty retreat. “I have to find a new job,” he grumbled, bending to heft a nearby rock and stick it under the pipes to keep them from rolling further.
Hands clenching into fists, Lucas walked over and started to shift the trolley so they could stack the pipe back onto it. “We’re already two weeks behind. I’ve got supply delays, a skittish electrician, a mudder who streaks, and now this,” he said under his breath. “I’m gonna get skinned.”
Cooper glanced behind him and frowned down at the unconscious electrician. “He’s like one of those goats that passes out when you clap. You think we should check his pulse?” he asked casually. “Man, that’d shoot the company insurance to shit, huh?” he asked a little evilly.
“Jesus Christ, Cooper, don’t tempt fate,” Lucas practically begged, pushing his hard hat back and rapping his forehead against the thick bar handle on the trolley.
“You know, maybe if you didn’t shout everything you said, half your crew would still have their hearing,” Cooper pointed out as he wiped his sleeve over his dirty cheek.
Lucas looked like he was chewing on something sour. “Hell. Half of ’em are deaf anyway from all the machinery,” he muttered, bending over again to help the other man pick up the heavy pipes.
“What’d you say?” Cooper shouted, barely keeping a straight face as he tilted his head and cupped his ear.
The foreman just rolled his eyes. Not too many people got away with prodding at him like Cooper did. It was probably because Cooper was damn good at what he did. It didn’t hurt that he was almost as tall as Lucas, although he didn’t carry the same muscle mass. It also didn’t hurt that Lucas thought about him at all hours….
Within several minutes they had the pipes and glass cleaned up, and some brave souls flitted in to start replacing the drywall. Sanders was dragged into the shade until he woke up.
“What happened, anyway?” Lucas asked. It was 9 a.m. on a Monday. He shouldn’t be tired already. It made him cranky.
“I don’t know, it wasn’t my day to babysit,” Cooper answered with a matter-of-fact shrug. “I just saw the pipes running away and threw myself in front of them. I deserve a bonus, I think,” he told his boss with a sad nod.
Lucas’s head snapped up, and he looked Cooper over carefully. “You don’t look hurt. Are you hurt?” He started walking to the side, looking the other man up and down. No blood. No bones sticking out. No gashes or tears in his clothes. Just the usual dirt and sweat.
“Mental anguish,” Cooper drawled, the smirk finally surfacing as he readjusted his heavy work gloves and glanced sideways as the boss man looked him over.
The foreman sighed and crossed his arms, trying to hide the intense relief that flooded him. “Anything else, Mr. Assistant Smartass Foreman?”
“No, sir, Mr. Hardass Foreman, sir.” Cooper snickered and sketched a mock salute and bow as he turned to go back to work.
Growling again under his breath, Lucas stalked back to the trailer. He’d better not stay or he’d catch himself ogling. That wouldn’t be good. To take his mind off his rather inappropriate thoughts, he reminded himself that he still had to find the discrepancy in those manifests, which reminded him that he hated paperwork. He’d much rather be out swinging a hammer or driving a frontloader or drawing blueprints from scratch.
The rest of Monday passed without any other mishaps, and after reviewing the section reports, Lucas was feeling a bit better. Apparently Cooper had lit a fire under some of the men, because several of the crews had made up two to three days’ work today. Grabbing for his hard hat, Lucas realized he still had it on his head. Sighing, he left the trailer – for only the second time that day, he thought miserably – looking for his assistant.
At that moment, his assistant was up to his elbows, literally, in drying plaster mix. Cooper knelt in front of the bucket, lips pressed tightly together, praying to God that they would find the chisel before Lucas came out of his trailer. It was almost quitting time, and he’d be prowling out here any second.
Lucas looked around the building, checking the rooms, before heading out back. He saw Cooper from behind before he saw anything else, and he immediately quashed his first response – a decidedly physical one – to Cooper’s body. It was a response that he tried not to admit even to himself that he had (and had and had and had), and he moved on. “Hey, Cooper, you know, from behind it looks like you’re up to your… el… bows… what the hell?”
“You weren’t exactly supposed to see this,” Cooper responded grumpily as he glanced to the side, trying to turn and see the man without actually lifting the bucket full of plaster up to do so.
The foreman just stared. It was so hysterically funny that he couldn’t even laugh. He actually bit his lip. Hard. “Do I even want to know?”
“I did it before I could think about it, okay?” Cooper said defensively as the runner finally came jogging up with the chisel. “Be careful with that fucking thing, man, remember my fingers are down there,” Cooper growled. His usually amiable personality, especially compared to Lucas’s typical pissiness, did a lot toward making the men like and respect him. That meant that when he shouted or growled, well… the men quaked.
He turned back to glance at the boss as the trembling chisel was placed against the hardening plaster. “One of the guys dropped his damn wedding ring in it, and I reached in to grab it before it could dry up. Then when I couldn’t get my hand out, I reached in with the other to pull it out,” he admitted, hoping the flush of embarrassment was covered by his deep tan. The stupidity of the act was due mostly to the fact that he hadn’t gotten more than three hours of sleep last night, but he didn’t mention that. It was hard not to offer it as an excuse, though.
Lucas actually winced when he heard the first crack of the plaster. “That’s still going to hurt like hell,” he murmured, accompanied by a sideways glare from Cooper. “Once you’re free, come over to the trailer. I’ve got some solvent to get the shit off without pulling off all the skin.”
“Yeah, okay,” Cooper grumbled, flushing deeper as he turned back to watch the slow progress of the chipping. “Someone get a fucking knife over here and slice open this fucking bucket!” he shouted in uncharacteristic frustration.
Lucas backed away and caught himself looking at Cooper from behind again. Closing his eyes tightly, he made himself turn around and walk back to the trailer. He spent some time digging in the closet for the solvent, and even more time digging under the sink for the wide trough bucket. He’d just pulled it all out when he heard someone on the steps outside the trailer.
Outside, Cooper huffed and kicked at the door, unable to knock with his hands. God forbid he get plaster all over Lucas’s office door; the man would go apeshit.
Hurrying to the door, Lucas pushed it open and held it so Cooper could get up the stairs. He grimaced when he caught sight of the other man’s arms, still mostly coated with hardened and clinging plaster, a smattering of shallow cuts to go along with the damage. Once he let the door shut, he walked back into the bathroom, running warm water into the trough and then adding the solvent. “All right, thing about this shit is, it’s going to sting like hell once it gets down to your skin. But that’s how you’ll know you can start wiping the plaster off. It gets all soft like wallpaper paste,” he explained, carefully carrying the trough out to the small table.
“Great,” Cooper muttered, stepping up to the table and poking three fingers into the stuff distastefully. The many cuts, blisters, and cracks in his work-hardened fingertips began to flame, but he closed his eyes and simply dunked both arms into the stuff, all the way to his elbows.
Lucas went back to the bathroom and turned on the shower, near full hot. He knew Cooper would want to get that solvent off as soon as possible. It hurt like absolute hell, but it was still better than trying to pull the plaster bits off. That was excruciating. He headed back into the main room of the trailer – there were only three – and waited, trying not to think about how attractive the quiet stoicism was. Or about the shower the man would soon be stepping into….
Cooper didn’t wince, not once, as the solvent burned its way through the plaster and then started working on his skin. He calmly wiped at his forearms and hands, his face betraying nothing as he did so. He wanted to scream. Or at least kick something. Cry, maybe. Cry a lot.
When he had taken as much as he could stand and the plaster was mostly goop once more, he stood abruptly and nodded at the shower he could hear running.
“Go on,” Lucas said hoarsely. He could see the strain around the other man’s eyes and the set of his jaw. He knew how much it hurt. “The hot water will finish dissolving the plaster and wash off the solvent.”
Cooper nodded wordlessly and headed for the shower, his eyes nearly watering now as he stepped into the hot water. He was lucky that he had been wearing a T-shirt today, he supposed, as opposed to his usual flannel. At least the short sleeves wouldn’t be ruined by the plaster. He didn’t care if it got wet, though. The hot water burned almost like the solvent had, and he gritted his teeth and washed the remnants off as his body began to shiver with the stinging pain, then he reached up and turned the shower to cold to soothe the burning. He wasn’t sure what hurt worse, his arms or his pride. He fucking knew better than to dive into something like that, much less something that would harden, for chrissake!
When he stepped out of the shower his entire front was soaked, and he shook like a dog and trudged out into the outer room, trying to hold his head high still. “Thanks, boss,” he murmured as he placed the gold ring that had been clutched in his hand on the table beside the trough. “Give that to fucking Nelson if you see him before I do,” he muttered as he headed for the door.
Lucas could tell Cooper was upset, probably more so with himself than anything, and his pride stinging to boot. “Hey, Cooper,” he said, trying to get him to stop. “Wait, this stuff will help,” he said, holding up a spray bottle. “Help with the burning, I mean.”
Cooper glanced down at the little bottle and back up at Lucas dubiously. “That’s okay,” he muttered. “Thanks,” he added as he turned to the door, eager to get away and go home to lick his wounds.
The foreman rolled his eyes. “You’re as goddamn stubborn as I am. Now c’mere. I know what that burn feels like, and believe me, not much will help it but this.” He held up the bottle and shook it between two fingers.
Cooper stopped and sighed heavily, turning back to face his boss and holding out his wet arms obediently as the window unit switched on and started blowing icy air onto his wet shirt. He shivered uncontrollably and felt the hair on his arms and neck stand on end. “If it gets much colder in this damn trailer my nipples are going to cut through my damn shirt,” he muttered to his boss.
Both Lucas’s eyebrows raised as he started spraying up and down Cooper’s arms. He really, really wanted to make a comment, and not a smartass one, so he literally bit his tongue and hoped Cooper didn’t notice. Spraying evenly, he made sure every bit of skin got wet with the neutralizer. He took a wrist and turned it so he could spray the solution around Cooper’s fingers, making sure any cuts or abrasions he saw were well soaked. Then Lucas switched to the other arm, trying not to overly enjoy the contact.
Cooper cleared his throat as he watched the strangely gentle motions of his hardass foreman, glancing up apologetically. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Long day.”
“Yeah,” Lucas agreed in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, hoping Cooper wouldn’t notice his face was flushed. “Here, you better take the bottle. I learned from experience that you might need it for a couple of days.” He swallowed and offered the green plastic container to him.
Cooper nodded once more and took the bottle, glancing up at Lucas one last time. “You okay, bossman?” he asked seriously.
The foreman’s eyes widened as Cooper looked right at him. Directly. “I, uh… I was just remembering when I learned about that stuff,” he said awkwardly, barely restraining himself from shuffling his feet. Shit, shit, shit. This was why he didn’t like to let the staff in the trailer. Because he didn’t want to let Cooper in the trailer. Because he didn’t want to talk to Cooper one-on-one. Because he didn’t want Cooper to figure out what a lovesick idiot he worked for. Because he didn’t want Cooper to know how attracted his boss was to him. Aw, hell. Because he was sure to make himself look like a fool, and he was equally sure Cooper would thrash him like a ninety-pound weakling after finding out.
“Dive in headfirst, too, did ya?” Cooper asked with a small smile, completely oblivious to Lucas’s mental ramble. “Well, we all have our Darwin moments,” he offered as consolation with a little laugh, taking a step back and toward the door. He had been aware of the foreman’s discomfort with him for quite a while, though he had never figured out the reason for it. It was partly why he’d put in for a transfer to another crew after this job was over. He didn’t like being where he wasn’t wanted. “I’ll leave you to it,” he said with a tap of the bottle of neutralizer to his hairline in a mock salute. “Thanks for the first aid.”
Lucas nodded. He almost opened his mouth to say something else – he wasn’t sure what – but swallowing hard, he figured it was better to stay quiet. “Night,” he managed.
“Try to actually go home tonight, hmm?” Cooper teased as he opened the door and stepped out onto the top step. “Night, boss.”
This is it, Lucas told himself. This is it, and you’re missing it. He’s walking away, and you’re letting him. For the second time, you’re letting someone you love walk away without saying anything to him about it. Despite his inner voice screaming, Lucas was convinced he wasn’t going to say anything, because all the want and fear balled up inside him to clog his throat. But….
Cooper stopped short and turned, holding the flimsy trailer door open with his shoulder. “Sir?” he asked in surprise, shocked to hear his first name from the man. He thought it might have been the first time.
Lucas wondered if he looked as surprised as Cooper sounded. “Ah… wanna get a beer?” he asked.
Cooper blinked at his boss stupidly. Lucas never went out with the rest of them. They considered themselves favorites if Lucas remembered anything personal about them – like their names, for instance. Cooper had always assumed it was a chain of command kind of thing, leaving it to him to keep up with the crew’s birthdays, divorces, children, deaths… it had never bothered him, it was just the way things were. He wondered if something was wrong.
“Uhh… yeah, sure,” he stuttered in answer. “I, uh… I’ll need to change,” he pointed out with a little smile and a gesture to his wet clothes.
The foreman nodded several times, looking down at his own jeans, work boots and paint-splattered work shirt. “Yeah, umm, meet you in the lot in ten minutes?” Lucas asked tentatively.
Cooper gave a half smile and a nod. “Yeah,” he responded simply, hoping his confusion and surprise weren’t all too obvious. After lingering for a brief moment, he turned to go, thumping down the steps gracelessly and making his way across the site with long, sure strides.
Eyes wide, Lucas stared for a moment, then hurried to the door to watch Cooper cross toward the other trailers set aside for lockers and washrooms. He gasped for air, realized he’d been holding his breath, and sagged against the door. “Aw, hell,” he whispered. What had he gotten himself into now? What did he think he was going to do?
He’d been in this situation before, and it hadn’t turned out well. Actually, it hadn’t turned out at all. Lucas had fallen in love with Randy Baker, a man who was his lover, but stupid him, he’d never breathed a word about how he felt. Who’d want to love him, a big, boorish construction worker? Lucas had been scared of scaring Randy away. Instead, time and career did the job for him, and Lucas had let his lover transfer across the country without a word. They’d parted amicably with a fond kiss goodbye on Lucas’s doorstep as Randy headed off to a new exciting chapter in his life, unknowingly leaving a broken heart behind.
Then Lucas moved here to Birmingham, and he swore he’d never let it happen again, that he’d at least say something, anything, should he happen to lose his heart again. But to his continual frustration, Lucas just couldn’t make himself spit it out. He’d known the first time he set eyes on the unattainable Nick Cooper that he was in love, and he’d also known it was impossible.
By the time Lucas got a handle on his panic, five minutes had passed – sending him running about the trailer like an elephant on stampede. He yanked clean jeans and a black T-shirt out of a duffel while hopping on one foot, trying to get his work boots off, and managed to fall right over onto the floor like a felled tree, still struggling with his laces.
Cooper bypassed the crew trailers and headed for his truck. He always kept a spare set of clothing in there. Not exactly for just such an occasion, seeing as how plaster baths were normally frowned upon, but close enough. He tugged his shirt over his head and tossed it into the bed of the truck as he opened up the back door of the crew cab. He knew he had clean clothes in here somewhere.
He finally found the shirt he was looking for; a soft, faded flannel that was likely to be rags soon enough, and he slung it over the side of the truck as a few of the crew began to wander out, on their way home. They called out to him with affectionate greetings and waved their hardhats through the air at him teasingly, asking him if he was going out drinking tonight or if he planned to run home to his girlfriend who none of them were allowed to meet.
“It’s a boys’ night,” Cooper laughed in return as he pulled off his boots and set them carefully aside. He looked around the lot to make certain no one from outside the crew was around, and then unbuttoned his jeans and slid them down, tossing them in the back as well as he stood there in his briefs and reached into his truck for another pair.
Across the site, Lucas flew out of the trailer still pulling his T-shirt over his head, skipping all three steps and yanking himself around the corner as he tried to run and tuck his shirt in at the same time. Dragging a hand through his hair, not noticing the dark blond curls springing up all over after being under the hard hat most of the day, he slid to a halt in the sand, barely stopping from slamming into the low concrete wall that separated the parking lot from the construction site. He glanced at his watch. Twelve minutes. Shit. He jogged into the lot, looking around for Cooper’s truck.
Cooper had just shrugged into his shirt and was buttoning it up slowly after digging out his scuffed cowboy boots and sliding into them. He glanced up to see Lucas jog into the lot, and smiled slightly. The man looked almost nervous. A sudden dropping feeling hit Cooper, and he wondered again if it was bad news. Lucas had been talking about problems. Oh, God, what if they were looking at layoffs? He’d be expected to break it to the boys.…
Again sliding to a stop, eyes frozen on the bared chest being slowly covered, the foreman cleared his throat and stuck a hand in his jeans pocket, trying to act casual when he had no clue how to go about it as he paced the rest of the way to Cooper’s truck. “Uh. Sorry. Took a little longer than I expected,” he murmured, suddenly realizing he was staring. He dropped his eyes and shuffled a little.
“That’s okay, took me a while to find my clothes,” Cooper responded with a smile. “I usually hang around until everyone’s gone anyway, just in case. Y’know. Did you want to go out with the boys or… somewhere… just us?” he asked, trying not to sound like he was dreading what his boss had to say.
“Uh. I’m sure the guys wouldn’t want me around after hours of putting up with me,” Lucas said honestly, not thinking of the fact that he’d been in the trailer all day. “How about Petey’s?” he asked, naming a sports bar where many of the crew ate lunch.
Cooper nodded and smiled gamely, licking his lips and stepping away from his truck to shut the back door. “Want to ride with me or…?”
Lucas’s eyes got wide. That was Cooper’s tongue. Cooper’s tongue licking Cooper’s lips. He gawked for a long moment before shaking himself. “Ah, yeah, sure. At least I know I’ll fit in your truck,” he tried to joke, still a little shaken and nervy about what he’d gotten himself into. Christ. He hoped he didn’t do something to really piss Cooper off. It would totally suck if he quit and left. Christ. Don’t think about anything sucking.…
Cooper watched the man for a moment and ducked his head forward finally. “You all right?” he asked worriedly. God, it had to be some shit news if Lucas was this distracted.
Blinking hard, the foreman shook his head to clear it, then nodded, then shook it again as he was still thinking of… fuck. Get it together. “Yeah, yeah, I’m good,” he muttered, stuffing his other hand into its jeans pocket, looking for all the world like he expected to be scolded. “I’ll just… yeah,” he said, starting around to the passenger side.
Cooper watched him worriedly and then opened the driver side door, sliding into the huge F-250 with practiced ease and pulling the door shut with a loud thunk. The lot was now empty, and Cooper guided the truck out of the gravel and through the gates. He stopped there, glancing over at Lucas and smiling as he hopped back out again. “Gate,” he muttered before jogging back to the fence behind them and dragging it shut.
Lucas watched him go like he couldn’t tear his eyes away, but then he managed it and covered his face with his hands for a long moment. “Get a hold of yourself, you ass,” he muttered to himself. “You can do this. It’s a beer. Or three. But it’s fine. It’s fine.”
Behind the truck, Cooper wrapped the chain and used the key strung around his neck to lock it. He headed back to the truck and hopped in, glancing at his boss. “You doing dinner, too? Or just a beer?” he asked, trying to make small talk to cover the awkward fact that they knew so little about each other outside of those gates.
“Beer. And more beer. Hooraaaaaaaay beer,” Lucas answered right away. Then he sighed. “But I better eat, too. No lunch today.” He leaned back with an annoyed grunt, finally managing to distract himself from Cooper’s hands on the steering wheel by thinking about food. Only a temporary save, he knew, but he’d take what he could get.
Cooper laughed softly. “That kind of Monday, was it? I hear that,” he murmured as he flexed his sore fingers and gripped the wheel tighter. He made his way to the little bar Lucas had mentioned, pleased to find that none of his boys had headed there. A moment later he was sliding out of the truck and reaching back in for his wallet.
Lucas got out of the truck and walked around the front. “Yeah. Goddamn paperwork will be the death of me. Gimme concrete. Gimme duct work. Hell, give me septic tanks. They’re all better than fuckin’ paperwork,” he complained as they walked to the door.
“You know, some people hire others to do their paperwork,” Cooper advised, immediately regretting the words as he remembered that maybe there was layoff trouble brewing. He held the door for the other man, gesturing him in ahead of him with a weak smile.
The foreman screwed his face up in distaste. “I hate paper pushers, Cooper. That’s why I torture myself with it. The last guy I had…” he paused to point out an open booth.&&