SEAN SHIVERED against the morning cold. Only his warm pajamas, flannel sheets, and the down comforter kept away the cold emptiness of their bed. The sunny beaches near San Diego were so far away and so long ago, they seemed like nothing but a figment of his imagination. He was a California surfer guy, and Boston’s snow and bitter wind never quite agreed with him. It was still warm enough under his covers, but he knew as soon as he slipped into the chill of his and Asbjorn’s bedroom, he was on his own for temperature control.
Sean used to love to snuggle against his husband and soak in his overabundant body heat, but Asbjorn had other plans these days: his primary objective was graduating a year early. He wanted to get out of school along with Sean. Asbjorn’s heightened workload caused them to keep missing one another like ships in the night. Last night had been yet another night when midnight had rolled around—and once again, Asbjorn was sitting at the dining room table, his earphones on to block out distractions, analyzing data and putting together yet another lab report.
Sean’s howl of discontent broke the silence. He grabbed Asbjorn’s pillow and buried his nose in the soft flannel, inhaling what was left of Asbjorn’s scent. The pillow cover had been washed a whole week ago. During that time, it soaked up all kinds of scent particles and became redolent of Asbjorn: the musky smell of man, mingled with a hint of his shampoo and his aftershave. Sean inhaled, savoring the essence, hoping it would stave off the tendril of anxiety that irritated his subconscious like a cold undercurrent. He sat up and stuck his bare feet into the much colder air of the room. Suppressing a shiver, he piled the goose-down comforter around his shoulders and thought back at the way things used to be.
IT WAS a time to count his blessings and hope they outweighed whatever negative neuroses threatened to dominate his morning. Sean thought of Asbjorn’s fierce protectiveness first and foremost. Back when Sean had been attacked by Frank Pettel and had had the crazy stalker on his tail for almost three months, Asbjorn’s support had been indispensable. Being escorted, protected, and watched over had been annoying at the time—oppressive, even. Yet he couldn’t help but feel grateful for it, for he recognized the necessity to fight the acute threat to his life and limb. Sean never took those dark days and bright-lit nights for granted.
Asbjorn, leaving the reading light on when Sean’s nightmares made sleep almost impossible for both of them. Asbjorn, fixing a cup of chamomile tea. Asbjorn, teaching Sean a new lethal technique that was effective regardless how big and strong his attacker might be.
SEAN’S FEET got colder, and he touched them to the wooden bedroom floor. He searched his mind some more, niggling at old things the way he used to worry a sore tooth. The nightmares were less frequent now. That was good. It allowed Sean to feel more independent—and the thought of independence reminded him of how stuck he had felt back then.
Back when he’d had a target painted on his back.
When he was being stalked.
Back when his need for independence ran as strong as his struggle for survival. It sat along his need to resolve the situation by himself, to not change a single thing in his life as the very fabric of it crumbled down around him. And, of course, he had to change things—even the nightlight was a concession to fear. He saw it only now, and it bothered him.
There used to be a lurking danger in every shadow. Every slammed door, every dropped book, every sudden noise or movement had his adrenaline surging into overdrive back then, ready for a fight under the onslaught of the flashbacks of his assault. His aikido training had helped some, and Dr. Adrian Rios’s methods of controlling PTSD had helped a bit more—yet his life had changed forever. There were still things that went bump in the night, and he still woke up to the echo of splintering wood and shattered glass as his door had been kicked open in the middle of the night.
Sean was grateful for Adrian and his friendship. He liked Adrian’s husband, Don, well enough too, even though Don was more Asbjorn’s friend. And just like always, when Sean’s mind wandered to picturing Don and Adrian and Asbjorn, his heart rate picked up just a bit. He wiggled his hips into the mattress. There had been a time, long ago, when Asbjorn and Sean broke up. It was just for a short while, and the separation had been painful for both of them. While they were apart, Asbjorn spent a whole night ensconced between Don and Adrian.
Sean and Asbjorn reconciled just two days after that. Asbjorn had told him right away. No secrets, no deceptions. And no kiss and tell either. Asbjorn had never told Sean what exactly happened or why he had rope marks on his arms.
And there was the offer. Don and Adrian liked to bring in a playmate every so often—and they had done that with Asbjorn—but they also extended an open invitation to both of them. Fear warred with curiosity as, once again, Sean juggled the possibilities in the middle of the night. The could-have-beens. The what-ifs. Playing around was threatening—but so was drifting apart.
As he sat there, with his feet cold and his arms wrapped around Asbjorn’s pillow, Sean wondered what had changed between them. He missed Asbjorn as though a piece of him were torn out. Asbjorn loved him enough to kill for him. Sean now knew how Frank Pettel had died, whose hands were responsible.
Caring hands. Loving hands.
So if Asbjorn cared so fucking much, where the hell was he every day? Was it a mistake to marry so soon? While they were both in college? Was it, perhaps, a bit sudden to fall head-over-heels in love with his first boyfriend ever, even as both of them were navigating the treacherous shoals of their first serious relationship while dealing with a dangerous criminal?
Doubts niggled at Sean’s mind, and not for the first time. Perhaps the more world-wise Asbjorn had regrets—he was six years Sean’s senior. He had spent years of his life traveling the world with the Navy. He had experienced command, and he had felt the pressure of combat, and there were times—lonely, solitary moments shrouded by the veil of the night—when Sean thought he was not enough for the older man. Maybe Asbjorn asked these questions too, and that’s what was keeping him out of their bed. Maybe Asbjorn needed someone older, more mature. Like Don. Sean fought the desire to give it to him. It felt too much like letting Asbjorn go.
There was another thought Sean kept turning over in his head: since Asbjorn had made peace with his family, did he miss them? Did he miss his native Denmark? Would he ever want to return, whether or not Sean chose to accompany him? His head hurt at the thought, and a cold tendril of anxiety unfurled in his belly in the very place that used to burn with heat. The passion for the tall, blond man who no longer sat across from him at the kitchen table had somehow turned to insecurity.
Sean got up and shrugged the warm covers off his shoulders. The silence in the room weighed upon him. He coughed just to break it. As much as he missed Asbjorn, he was glad his husband wasn’t there when he was like this. His anxiety seemed to have solidified over the course of many weeks, but today the focus of it moved from their relationship onto the man himself. A course overload at MIT, in physics, was practically unheard of. The schedule was crazy, and the constant pressure remained intense. He pictured the deep circles that had taken up residence under Asbjorn’s ice-blue eyes. That, and his lack of appetite and his chronic lack of sleep.
He’s working too hard.
Something had to give.
SEAN’S SECOND alarm kicked in with the sound of the local NPR station newscast. He shrugged off the pile of blankets and hurried into the bathroom. He turned the shower on and pissed while the water was getting hot enough. His toothbrush and razorblade stood in his cup. He smiled. It had taken weeks before he and Asbjorn agreed on an acceptable brand of toothpaste and razorblade cartridges they could both use. The towels they had were mismatched, a multicolor collection of on-sale towels and the somber blue of Asbjorn’s practical bath sheets, which Sean loved to “borrow.”
He showered fast. They shared the same shampoo and the same shaving cream, and the scented steam hit Sean’s nostrils and sank into his heart. It wasn’t as good as having Asbjorn there—but it was close, and he’d settle for that just now.
Soon, Sean was dressed in his flannel-lined jeans and a blue Henley with a plaid shirt on top. He made the bed out of habit, knowing an unmade bed would irritate Asbjorn. Provided Asbjorn actually made it into their bedroom before Sean hit the sack.
The thought depressed him.
Feeling suddenly alone, he stepped into the bathroom again and opened the mirrored medicine cabinet. Sean didn’t use cologne or aftershave, but Asbjorn always put on a splash of Old Spice. He hesitated before he reached for Asbjorn’s bottle.
“Whatever it takes, Sunshine.”
Asbjorn’s words came to him and pushed him over the edge. Sean unscrewed the black cap and inhaled cautiously before he dabbed the smallest bit of aftershave on his neck. The warm scent rose to his nostrils immediately. Like a hug, a ghostly embrace of the man who left the house in the wee hours of the morning. The one who burned the candle from both ends and who was no longer there. Sean put the bottle away and sighed. Instead of making him feel better, the scent reminded him of what he wanted but could not have.
He slipped into his sneakers and jacket, grabbed his bag, and ran off to his classes. Breakfast would have to wait till lunch today.
SEAN’S DAY followed a pattern he had established months ago. He attended classes and studied hard during the day and came home from his part-time job in the lab by eight. By eleven thirty, his homework was under control, the kitchen was reasonably clean, and Asbjorn’s reheated food had become dry to the point of being inedible. They still had enough clean clothing to wear, and the pile of laundry that had accumulated in the corner of the closet would have to wait till the weekend. He didn’t get to eat dinner with his lawfully wedded husband—no, Asbjorn was still in the lab, babysitting one of his many experiments, and those mattered because those would comprise most of his grade for the independent study conducted under the demanding Dr. Behrend.
When Asbjorn sneaked to bed, not even turning the lights on, Sean draped his limbs over him, desperate to feel his body heat. That was all, though. Asbjorn gave him an exhausted good-night kiss just half a second before he fell asleep.
SIX AND a half hours later, the alarm clock turned on the too-loud radio, informing Sean of the snarled traffic patterns, the enduring cold snap, and the threat of snow. He hit the snooze button the way he always did, and this time he bounced out of bed first, stumbling into the shower. Hot water soothed his tight shoulders, the ones he earned hunched over books and circuit boards. His muscles had once been accustomed to the exertion of exercise and the relaxing effect of intimacy. Now he had neither. Aikido had become a weekly luxury. Sheila taught the other two classes these days. And as for sex—he remembered having some when the air still bore evidence of the tiring sun, and leaves were still in the trees in a riot of color, ready to fall, having already been touched by the paintbrush of nighttime frost.
The memory of Asbjorn’s hands on his body only exacerbated his morning wood. He relented and slid his hand down his chest along with sheets of hot water, tweaking his nipples along the way. His winter-rough fingertips found their way down his belly, just brushing his arousal.
Sean gasped and sighed and bit back the bitter taste of defeat. His deft and experienced hands made quick work of their task as his mind lingered on the man sleeping in the next room, the one who stayed up way too late again and who’d run on coffee and adrenaline for the rest of the day.
A KISS woke Asbjorn up. The cheek rubbing against his own scruffy growth was freshly shaved into enticing smoothness. He reached out in search of a warm embrace, only to have his arms pushed aside.
“Watch out! I brought your coffee. It’s hot and sweet, the way you like it.”
Bleary, tired eyes cracked open. “Hey, Sean.” It came out like a tortured groan.
“Good morning, Asbjorn.” Sean’s expression was pinched against the morning chill despite the turtleneck and the fisherman’s sweater he wore over it. Asbjorn didn’t have to check to see he was wearing his flannel-lined jeans. He wanted to hug him, warm him up, put a smile on his face. Sean used to smile a lot. These days, an unguarded expression free of worry was a rare treat.
“C’mere.” Asbjorn stretched his arms out again, inviting the man he loved into a warm embrace. Sean apparently needed it—and Asbjorn admitted to himself that he needed it too. The brave, scrappy man who would not budge an inch in their fight against Frank Pettel two years ago, the stubborn friend who took care of Asbjorn when he had a bad concussion, the calm fighter who refused to change his life and yield to a lifestyle of threat and fear—the very same Sean now looked pinched and tired.
“Please?” Asbjorn whispered, and was gratified to see Sean set down the coffee cup, albeit with a sigh.
“I’ll be late for my morning class—but I will always spare a hug for you!”
“Then I’ll have to make sure it’s a good one, Sunshine.” Asbjorn wrapped his arms around Sean’s back and ran the palms of his hands over the sweater Sean’s Aunt Iveragh had knitted for him back in Ireland. He felt Sean melt into him, burying his nose under Asbjorn’s ear, running his hands up Asbjorn’s still-warm sides and wedging them between his back and the sheets.
“Yeah, it’s a good one,” he heard Sean whisper. “I’m sorry, but I really have to run. The number theory class is kicking my ass.”
Asbjorn sighed. Sean had trouble in two of his classes, largely because of his part-time job at the lab. He shouldn’t work so hard. He needed to go out, even if Asbjorn’s schedule didn’t allow it right now. A void gaped where there once was laughter and intimacy, and Asbjorn didn’t know what had gone wrong, let alone how to fix it.
SEAN SNUGGLED in Asbjorn’s greedy embrace. “I set out dinner,” he said. “It’s the leftovers from last week. They’re thawing. Your breakfast is on the table. I really must go.”
“Hey, Sunshine….” Generous lips nuzzled his hair, his ear. “I wish we could skip class for once.”
“Number theory? No way. I need to get my grade out of the C range, hon.”
The sapphire-blue eye grew somber. “Yeah, you do. Lemme know if I can help.”
“Thanks….” Sean shuddered at the thought. It was never easy to accept too much help from his husband. Asbjorn liked competence, and Sean did his best to project it, even though he did not always feel it. He would rather ask one of the classmates in his study group for help—hell, any stranger would do. Any stranger was welcome to see his ineptitude, but not the man he loved. Asbjorn’s worldliness and skill were always close to the surface of Sean’s mind, and he could not bear asking him for help. The humiliation felt too extreme.
“You think we can spend some time together tonight?” Sean asked.
“Karate night. My one workout a week.”
“You know, if some of our students didn’t do both karate and aikido, we could schedule our classes on the same night.” Sean sighed, soon rallying his energy to throw out another suggestion. “Okay. How about a date after karate?”
“I’ll be home. We can have a drink before I hit my papers again.”
Sean smiled. “Okay, then. It’s a date! Now I really have to go.” The words sounded like a broken record. He fingered the amber disc seated in the hollow of his throat, working hard to tear himself away from Asbjorn, from his body heat, from the secure glow of his presence. “I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you too, Sunshine.”
They kissed, the touch of their lips habitual, hurried, almost hard. Just as every other morning, Sean barely felt it. He couldn’t help but wonder whether Asbjorn barely felt it too.
WITHIN SECONDS, Asbjorn was alone again. He heard the lock of their front door click, letting some of the bitter, dry winter air inside. Asbjorn drank half of his coffee and dragged himself out of bed. His head still hurt—three hours of sleep wasn’t nearly enough—but he would persevere. Anything for Sean—anything to stand by his side on an equal footing. He did not want to be the one who held them back by staying in school for yet another year, and he’d work to catch up if it killed him.
He turned the shower on and stumbled in, the hot streams of water pounding on his aching head and tight shoulders. A sharp inhale brought a familiar scent to his nostrils.
He had long suspected his partner had been relieving himself much as he had. He was the one who was inadequate, playing catch-up and spending extra time on extra classes. Guilt over time not spent together washed over him. There had to be a better way. If they could at least shower together—he inhaled again, drawing in the familiar scent of shampoo and body wash and Sean. His hand stole down, taking care of his morning problem with way too much experience.
DRESSED IN his chinos and a flannel shirt, Asbjorn Lund did not feel the chill of the season as much as his husband did. He was the type of a guy who joined the Polar Bear Club in their ritual New Year’s Dip into the Charles River, and the “mind over body” act usually left him recharged for the rest of the year.
Not today, though. Today he felt like roaring against that awful, helpless feeling. He was being buffeted by the frigid winds of fate, stuck in his rut like a hamster on a wheel, and unable to effect any change to his daily pattern. He was about to put his boots on when a sharp, cutting pain in his gut assailed him. He was happy to be alone just then.
By now he knew it was easier to just double over and breathe his way through it. His release was long forgotten as he felt his neck muscles tighten. He fought the hot jabs down.
He was well familiar with the stabbing pain. It had begun as a mild discomfort but grew over time as the school year progressed. He willed it away with his meditation and breathing exercises at first, and that seemed to have helped, but then his schedule robbed him of the fifteen minutes necessary to sit still and just be, and Asbjorn suffered in silence.
He drank the coffee his brain required to function on too-little sleep. He ate his plain cereal with milk. Like a junkie who didn’t want his weakness to be revealed to the world and awash with gratitude for the relief to come, Asbjorn walked to their bedroom, sank to his knees, and reached for the gun safe in the bottom of their closet. He knew Sean would never touch his gun safe.
He entered the numerical code into the electronic lock. The black door popped open, revealing the gun he bought in place of his old service weapon, which was destroyed in the firebombing two years ago. There were a few spare magazines and several boxes of ammunition, gun cleaning supplies, and a turquoise plastic bottle.
Asbjorn pulled the bottle out. It was a cheap fix, but it would have to do until he could take care of the problem in a more organized way—hell, it’d been good enough for all these months, so it would have to be good enough for a bit longer. He unscrewed the cap and, not bothering with the enclosed measuring spoon, he raised the bottle to his lips. And there it was, the chalky, viscous fluid that hinted of artificial sweeteners and mint. Two glugs—no, he’d make it three today. He shuddered as he fought revulsion against the cloying taste and the chalky texture. He sighed in relief as, almost right away, the cutting pain in his stomach began to recede.
He capped the bottle, hid it back in his gun safe, and closed the little black door. Then he rearranged the shoes that were usually piled before the black, metal lock box.
It would never do for Sean to find out. He could never keep the evidence of his weakness and distress in the medicine cabinet. Sean would freak out, fuss, worry, and enforce unmanageable bedtimes and bland dietary regimens. If Asbjorn had learned anything about his better half over the length of their entire acquaintance, it was that Sean loved to nurture with perhaps too much zeal. Asbjorn had never been the kind of man who took to unnecessary pampering without putting up a fight.
He thought back. Had it really been over two years since Asbjorn had been so fed up with Sean’s regimen of nurturing meals and logistical support in the face of his concussion and broken ribs that he had asked him to leave? And Sean had left back then.
The love of his life went back to his room in the basement of an old Victorian house on campus, where he became a target of a serial sex offender. The assault took its toll on Sean, and Asbjorn had been wracked with guilt over it. Even now, he saw Sean’s old PTSD mount an occasional assault on his centered, levelheaded partner in life. There was nothing like the sound of breaking glass to make Sean jump and turn, making the panicked look in his eyes scream “Battle stations!” and setting his body to that determined state of balanced tension that spelled “imminent combat.”
Asbjorn was ready to go to any length to prevent upsetting Sean’s sense of comfort and balance. He would, therefore, conceal his own struggles and deal with them in private. Anything to ensure Sean would be kept from fussing over him, which in turn would keep Asbjorn from snarling at Sean, his husband.
If he drove Sean off into harm’s way again, he would never forgive himself. Their marriage vows said, “Love, honor, cherish, and respect.” In Asbjorn’s opinion, as a former military man, it should have also said “protect.” He knew now that he could not protect Sean from the perils of the world. His husband had his own sense of pride and would resent being sheltered. Asbjorn would, however, protect him from needless worry and from his own foul and incendiary temper. He would protect him from his own weakness. To do that, all he had to do was keep his antacid in the gun locker and his stress level under an even tighter lid.