Chapter One

 

AFTER FORTY hours of straight time, twenty-two hours of time and a half, and thirteen hours of double time, Clayton Phillips’s paycheck was sweet. Just like it had been last week and the week before that. Oil drilling was booming in his little town of Dickinson, North Dakota, and he’d been lucky enough to get a job with EOR—Environmental Oil Refinery. He’d been working for them the past six years, riding the boom wave big-time, and cashing in on some serious bank. His six-figure income had his savings account bulging, and considering he was working seventy plus hours a week, he had little time to enjoy any of the money he made. When he got a day off, the only thing he wanted to do was sleep.

“When the hell are you going to join this century and get these online?” Elliott asked. He plucked the paycheck stub out of Clay’s hand, flopped down in the chair across the table from him, then shook the paper at Clay. “Do you know how many trees could be saved if you’d get an online statement?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re about to inform me.” Clay raised a brow when he noticed Elliott’s disheveled appearance. “Wait a minute. What the hell happened to you?”

Clay and Elliott Kildee had been together seven years, and when Elliott’s wheat-blond hair wasn’t hidden beneath his hard hat, it was pulled back into a tight and stylish bun. At the moment, his hair was loose, falling well past his shoulders, tussled and with pieces of debris scattered throughout the long strands.

“Little Man got stuck in the tree again,” Elliott said with a shrug. He nodded to the pile of mail in front of Clay. “Anything for me?”

Clay pushed the stack to Elliott. “Haven’t gone through it yet.” He sat back in his chair with a wide grin. “I tell you what, I’ll save some trees and go paperless with my paycheck when you and your silly cat stop abusing them.”

“Little Man does not abuse them, nor do I,” Elliott responded flippantly without looking up from the mail he was sorting. “We simply use them for fitness purposes.”

“Uh-huh.”

Little Man had showed up out of nowhere ten years ago, came barreling out of the bamboo, hissing and posturing like he owned the place. He’d been fifteen ounces of badass. Elliott had picked him up by the scruff of the neck and greeted the feline as “little man.” The name stuck. However, the thing should have been named Houdini. He’d been de-nutted when he was but a wee kitten, and they’d done their best to make him a house cat, but no matter what precautions they took, the little shit was constantly escaping and going on adventures, which usually ended with him stuck at the top of a tall tree. He had no problem climbing, but coming back down was another issue altogether. Elliott had to rescue the trapped feline on a weekly basis.

Clay slid to the next chair and picked a leaf out of Elliott’s hair and then a pine needle from his thick beard. He then noticed the small scrape on Elliott’s forehead and the smudge of pine tar on his cheek. “What the hell did you do?”

“I got him out of the big oak with no problem, but he thanked me by running through my feet and I ended up hugging a pine tree. I suppose that’s better than falling out of the tree and landing on my ass like the last time.” Elliott laughed, his bright green eyes shining with amusement.

“That cat is going to be the death of you.”

The big feline was a major pain in the ass. Escaping, getting stuck, leaving dead animals on the front porch and his hair on every surface in the house. He was also irritating as hell at night. Midnight was his prime time to play. He would bring every toy he owned to their bed, and when they ignored him—because they were sleeping, duh—he’d get Clay or Elliott’s attention by dropping his toys in their faces or biting their noses. Locking Little Man out of the room wasn’t an option since he’d simply sit by the door and howl until he was given access. Why Elliott loved him so fricken much, Clay didn’t have a clue. If it were up to Clay, he’d be eating him some wan-ton-kitty. Okay, he wouldn’t actually kill the damn cat, but he still threatened it on a regular basis. The dislike was mutual. Little Man hissed whenever Clay got too close to Elliott, and Clay swore the bastard purposely rolled on his clothes. His always had twice the amount of hair on them as Elliott’s did.

Letting go of his inner grumbling and whining about Little Man, Clay turned his attention to their evening plans. “So, anything exciting you want to do tonight? I was thinking we could kick back with pizza, beer, and watch some movies. I’m too fucking tired to go out.”

“No can do. Roger’s called in again, and one guess whose turn it is to cover for the asshole.”

Clay threw up his hands. “Oh, come on! We haven’t had a day off together in weeks. I was looking forward to getting to share a bed because it’s been just as long getting off there as well.” Elliott also worked for EOR, but they were on opposite shifts, and it sucked.

“I’m sorry, babe. I was looking forward to it too, but what can I do? I can’t ask Donald again. He covered for me the last time Martin called in.”

“I don’t understand how the guy still has a job,” Clay grumbled. He had a good mind to storm over to Martin’s and pop him right in his selfish head. Give him a good reason to miss another day of work. Son of a bitch was always screwing up his screwing.

“He knows how to play the FMLA card,” Elliott responded with a shrug, then sat back in his chair.

“He’s going to need family and medical leave for real if I get my hands on him. Last time he called off, I heard he was spotted on the golf course. I don’t get people like that. He’s playing the system and fucking the rest of us royally.”

Elliott reached out and laid his palm against Clay’s jaw, rubbing his thumb against Clay’s beard. “I know, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I have a couple of hours before I have to leave. How about you take me to bed, and I’ll try to make up for missing date night.”

Clay pushed into Elliott’s touch. It took him a few ticks of the clock to let go of his anger. This wasn’t Elliott’s fault; no doubt, he wasn’t happy about it either. Clay wasn’t about to add to the shitstorm that slammed down on Elliott by heaping a pile of guilt on top. He turned his head and kissed Elliott’s palm. “Okay, but just so you know, I bought the entire Resident Evil series to watch tonight, so you’d have a lot to make up for.” They’d seen the series years ago but loved the classic zombie movies.

The corner of Elliott’s mouth turned up into a sly smile, and a look of mischief crossed his handsome face. “I think I’m up for the challenge.” He grabbed Clay’s wrist, pulled him to his feet, and held him close. “In fact, I’m really, really up for it.” He rubbed his erection against Clay’s groin to emphasize his meaning.

Not that Clay needed the extra clarification, but he certainly appreciated it. He flicked his tongue out and licked Elliott’s lip before taking his mouth in a soft kiss. It wasn’t the evening he’d hoped for, but he had this moment with Elliott, and he’d be damned if he’d waste it on complaining about something he couldn’t change. He ended the kiss, took Elliott’s hand, and led him to the bedroom.

 

 

ELLIOTT LAY in bed, tucked against Clay’s side, resting his head on Clay’s chest and listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. Elliott should’ve been sleeping. He had a sixteen-hour shift to pull, but his mind was racing and he couldn’t find the Off button. He was so damn tired. Tired in his head, in his heart, in his very soul. He wasn’t sure how much longer he and Clay could keep going like they were. They had big plans for the future, and each paycheck put them one step closer, but for Christ sake, if they couldn’t spend more than a few minutes together now, how in the hell were they going to make it to that coveted goal? He’d seen the disappointment in Clay’s eyes when, once again, Elliott had to tell him their plans were changed and they wouldn’t be spending the evening together. The same look he’d seen too many times. A look Clay no doubt had seen numerous times in Elliott’s eyes.

Something had to give.

They couldn’t keep working like dogs. Elliott was beyond thankful to have a good job; honestly he was. He knew he was fortunate to have a roof over his head and food in his belly when so many others went without. However, he’d trade his well-paying job for minimum wage and a one-room shack in the woods if it meant he could spend more time with Clay.

That wasn’t going to happen today. Today reality was kicking his ass, and it was time to go bend over again. He pressed a gentle kiss to Clay’s chest, then reluctantly slid from the bed. Clay grumbled, then rolled over, hugging the pillow to his chest. Elliott spent a few minutes watching him sleep: his dark auburn hair hiding most of his tanned face, his full lips slightly parted, his beard neatly trimmed on his strong jaw. He looked so good, so peaceful, and Elliott wanted more than anything to rejoin him in bed and spend the entire evening in Clay’s arms, but thanks to Martin, he couldn’t. Once again Clay would be spending his day off alone. Somehow, they had to figure this out. Something had to break before it ended up being their relationship.

Elliott headed to take a shower. He was going to talk to the boss tonight. EOR would either put him on the same shift as Clay or…. Well, Elliott wasn’t exactly sure yet. He didn’t have a plan B. They simply had to move him to another shift or else.