“GOD have mercy on his soul.”
God? There was no God, and there sure as hell wouldn’t be any mercy bestowed on Charles Robert Jones. Mason wiped angrily at the tears on his cheeks with his sleeve and glared at the priest who had come to say a last prayer for the dearly departed.
Neither the pastor nor the prayer had been Mason’s idea, nor would Charles have wanted it. No one seemed to care what he or Charles wanted. To the few family members who were in attendance—two sisters, an aunt, and a couple of cousins—Mason Howard didn’t exist. He wasn’t allowed to sit amongst them, relegated to stand at the back and away from the casket—wouldn’t want to upset the family with his presence. In fact, Charles’s older sister Maria had even gone as far as to call Mason and say, “We think it’d be best if you not attend.”
Mason hadn’t even dignified her with an answer, just hit the end button on his phone and threw it across the room. He responded to the request by not only showing up at the funeral home each day—he had been the first to arrive at the cemetery, which was another thing Charles wouldn’t have wanted. Mason shouldn’t be here; none of them should. Charles had made it perfectly clear that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered over the land he had lived on and loved with Mason and Gregory. Again, Mason hadn’t gotten a say in it and apparently neither had Charles; the black casket about to be lowered into the ground was proof.
Charles’s family had finally been able to contain him in a shiny box, the kind they could understand. The box, the setting, the words, none of it was who Charles Robert Jones was. Now some man—a messenger of a God long dead to Mason—was trying to redeem a soul condemned—possessed by sin.
Mason had tried to tell both Maria and Charles’s other sister Carol what Charles’s last wishes were, but they’d refused to listen to him. He’d fought as hard as he could for Charles, but he’d failed. He had no legal rights. He didn’t get any say in what happened to the man he knew better than all of them. It didn’t matter that he’d been the only person, present company included, who had shared the man’s life every single day for the last twelve years.
That wasn’t true. There had been one other person.
Mason tipped his head back, looking up at the changing sky with tear-filled eyes. His chest tightened so painfully it stole his breath. Oh God, Gregory, he cried silently. Look what they are doing to him.
In the distance a bolt of lightning cracked, splitting the horizon. The clouds churned, gray swirling billows overtaking the robin’s-egg blue of an otherwise peaceful summer sky. As if even the heavens were manifesting Mason’s anger, bearing witness to Gregory’s defeat, and reflecting the sorrow of Charles’s soul trapped in that pine box.
At least Gregory had been cremated as had been his wish. His ashes sat on the kitchen table of their seaside home, waiting to be set free. Mason choked on a sob as it hit him in the center of his very being. He was putting one lover in the cold hard ground alone and abandoning the other to the winds, when their earthly remains should have been intermingled forever.
The creaking of a winch pulled Mason from his musings just in time to hear the priest say, “Unite us together again in one family, to sing your praise forever and ever. Amen.”
The choked sound of sobbing from Charles’s family inflamed Mason as much as the priest’s hollow words did. These people with their bullshit of being together again in one family, the fake tears, caused rage to claw at Mason’s chest, bile to rise up in his throat, and he trembled with the power of it. He wanted to scream at the injustice of it, to howl, Me! I’m his family. Me, who loves him unconditionally for who and what he was. He’s mine! He belongs to me and Gregory. We’re his family.
Click. Click. Click.
Mason covered his ears, the agonized screaming in his head not enough to drown out the maddening sounds of the gears turning. Each click took Charles farther and farther away. Soon he’d be out of reach, gone forever.
Click. Click. Click.
Stop them. You fucking coward, stop them. Do it. Do it NOW!
Mason’s fingers curled in hair, setting off sparks of pain on each side of his skull, and he squeezed his eyes shut. His heart hammered in his chest, the adrenaline surged through his system, and he couldn’t breathe.
As the familiar signs of a panic attack coursed through him, Mason sank to the ground against his will, his knees giving out as he gasped for breath. The pain in his head, the screaming inside it, the shiny black casket, the click, click, click of the winch, Gregory, Charles, all of it pressed down on him, and his chest clenched, throat constricted, he couldn’t fucking breathe.
Somewhere in his haze-filled brain, he knew what he had to do. He had to relax, breathe, and focus. It would pass, and if it didn’t, if he couldn’t relax enough to get air into his lungs, his body would shut down and override his fucked-up head. Waking up from a panic-induced sleep sucked; the screaming headache would leave him dazed for hours. He’d lived through hundreds, thousands of these attacks throughout his life; he just needed to focus, listen for the soothing sound of Gregory’s voice, the calming touch of Charles’s hands, because without them to pull him back from the edge….
Mason tried to open his eyes to stop the haunting images that blinked in his head, flashing like a strobe light. Twisted wreckage— Mangled bodies— Blood.
They would come for him. Gregory would talk him down. Charles would touch him and soothe him, and the three of them would snuggle together afterward. Mason couldn’t do it without them.
They wouldn’t leave him.
They had promised him when they put the collar around his neck. He would forever belong to them, and Gregory and Charles had vowed they wouldn’t ever leave him.
Open your eyes, boy. Focus right here. Open your eyes and look at me.
At the sound of Gregory’s authoritative voice, Mason’s eyes flew open, the edges of his vision dark. Mason blinked, trying to do as he was told, but everything was blurry and his eyes closed of their own accord. “Sir,” he managed to wheeze out. “Help—”
Mason’s entire body trembled, and his oxygen-deficient lungs caused an agonizing burn to spread through him, but he wouldn’t fail his master. Mason pushed the pain down into the pit of his churning gut, rose above the misery. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Gregory.
Mason’s eyes fluttered open, and before him stood a figure dressed all in black, its pale fingers curled into a fist. It all came rushing back in a flash, every agonizing detail—his pain, his loss, his new reality. Maria’s dark eyes bore into him accusingly as she opened her hand and let the dirt fall into the grave.
Darkness surrounded him like giant arms, welcoming him into its embrace, and Mason gave himself over to it. He felt himself floating away, the pain fading too. His last conscious thought: Please don’t let me wake this time.
RIG BECKWORTH was stretched out in his lounge chair, dark shades shielding his eyes, skin glistening with coconut oil. He was the study of a happy tourist. “Rest and relaxation,” he’d said. “Scantily dressed boys,” he’d said. “We’ll have fun,” he’d said. Bobby glared at him. “Does it look like I’m having fun?” Bobby grumbled under his breath.
“What was that?” Rig asked sleepily.
Bobby continued to grumble, cursing low as he adjusted the umbrella in a feeble attempt to shield his body from the Florida heat. “My popper is popped,” Bobby complained and then winced when sweat ran into his eye. “Goddammit!” He wiped at his burning eye and wet face with a damp hand towel.
“Your what has popped?” Rig chuckled and rolled on his side to look at him.
Rig cocked his head and lifted his shades, his expression confused.
“You know the little plastic thing they stick in a turkey?” Rig’s frown deepened, and Bobby waved him off and sighed heavily. “Never mind, I forgot I’m talking to the king of pizza and TV dinners.”
“Good thing I have you, then, huh,” Rig said with a smirk and lowered his shades.
“If I have to sit out here in this heat, you’re not going to have me much longer. I’m hot,” Bobby whined. “There is a reason Florida doesn’t have bears, Rig. It’s too hot and we have too much fur.”
“Aww, c’mon, baby, it’s not that bad,” Rig coddled. He lay back in the lounger, tilted his chin up toward the sun. A broad smile spread across his face, and Bobby suddenly had the urge to slap it off.
Bobby’s eyes narrowed, and he gritted his teeth. Over the last twenty-four years together, the only time Rig called him baby was when he was a) fucking with him, or b)…. Nope, only when he was fucking with him. Rig had never been overly romantic or one to use endearments.
“I’m here so you’re not the only bear sweatin’ it out,” Rig added. “And this bear loves it.”
“No. You’re a cub,” Bobby corrected.
Rig was far from smooth. He had a head full of thick, dark curls that brushed the top of his collar, and his sparse goatee and soul patch were dusted with silver. When Bobby had first met Rig all those years ago, he’d been tall, with lean well-defined muscles. Rig’s chest, stomach, and limbs had been lightly covered in dark hair. He hadn’t changed much, though the lean body was now softer. At forty-eight, he wore the number of years he’d lived on his face.
Rig rolled once again and turned his head to Bobby. “You could shave—”
“Don’t even suggest it,” Bobby interrupted.
“I’m not saying shave it off, but maybe instead of trying to look like one of the front men for ZZ Top you could… trim it a little.” He snapped his fingers. “I know, you could be like their drummer.” Rig’s brow furrowed, and he considered Bobby for a moment. “You know, I bet that’s not his real name.”
Bobby ran his hand over his chin, pulled at the two-inch-long hair. “Mine’s not even close to that length,” he said irritably. “And what do you mean not his real name? Who?”
“Their drummer,” Rig said with a hint of exasperation. As if Bobby should have just known whom he was talking about. “I mean, seriously, the two front men have beards that go halfway down their torsos and the one guy in the group who doesn’t have one, his last name is Beard? I don’t buy it. Remind me to google that shit when we get back to the house.”
A bead of sweat rolled down Bobby’s forehead, but he wiped it away this time before it could burn his eyes. That’s it. He tossed the towel aside and sat up, sending the umbrella tumbling to the sand. “How about we go google it now? Because seriously, this weather sucks out loud.”
“C’mon, Bobby, we just got out here and the locals will be getting out of work soon. You don’t want to miss the pretty boy show, do you?”
Wakitta was a small southern Florida town, situated on the gulf. It had a couple of great restaurants, collectable shops, and a bakery, but without the commercialized tourist traps like many gulf-side towns. The fact that Wakitta hadn’t fallen to the big developers was part of its appeal for him and Rig—at least for Bobby it would be appealing in the fall and winter, but summers in southern Florida sucked.
It wasn’t only the town’s charm that appealed to them, Bobby thought with a wry grin, but also the fact that the obscure beach was a favorite among the local gay men. Still. He pulled his unruly curls back into a small ponytail and secured it with a band.
“You sit out here and bake,” Bobby said. He grabbed his towel, draped it around his neck, and heaved himself out of the lounge chair and winced when the hot sand burned the bottom of his feet. “Christ, I hate this shit,” he growled and stepped into his flip-flops. “Tell me again why I let you talk me into this ridiculous vacation?”
“Because you love me and knew I wanted to come.” Rig grinned and scooped up a bottle of suntan oil and poured a generous amount on his chest and stomach.
Bobby glared at him, but Rig ignored the irritated look as he slicked up his torso and hummed happily. Once again Bobby felt compelled to slap the damn smiling man, but he curled his hand into fists and stomped off without a word.
“You’re going to miss the show,” Rig reminded him again.
“And you’re turning into one of those pervy dirty old men, Rig,” he said pointedly.
“I’ve always been a pervy old man. What’s your point?”
Bobby cursed and shook his head at Rig’s boisterous laughter as he struggled in the soft, shifting sand. “I’m going to go explore.” In the shade. “I’ll be back,” he tossed over his shoulder and headed for the tree line.
The area just off the beach was really more bush and scruff than what he’d call a forest, but there were a few pines, palms, and some kind of weeping trees with long strands of moss hanging from them. A clearly defined pathway had been tromped down among the bush, the sand and dirt well packed, making it easier for him to walk. The temperature was still ungodly hot, but the shade did offer a slight measure of relief.
The farther Bobby made his way along the path, the more irritated he became. Discarded condom wrappers, empty beer cans, and other trash littered the ground, proof the area was a popular spot. He was all for a hookup, a random fuck in the woods, but Christ, did they have to be such pigs? He sat heavily on a fallen tree, huffed out a frustrated breath, and wiped at his face. He kicked angrily at an empty beer bottle and scowled at it as if it were the reason for his ill mood. It shattered against a rock. Everything seemed to be irritating him these days.
Born Robert Alcott, Bobby had been a headstrong kid, a leader. Hell, he’d taken charge of his kindergarten class. Throughout his life, he’d always been in control. He thrived on being in charge, was good at ruling others, knowing what they needed, and providing it. Being a Dom was so ingrained in his genetic makeup that without purpose, someone to control, care for, love, he would go insane. Now Folsom was gone. The club he’d opened decades ago, passed on to younger, more innovative minds and in the very reliable hands of Blake and Ty. Bobby’s whole life had revolved around the place. It’s where he met Rig, and he did love the man without question, but Rig, being an aggressive Dom himself, didn’t need Bobby like a submissive did. Bobby needed purpose, dammit! This life of vacations, retirement, boring days…. He was only fifty, for fuck sakes, not eighty.
Bobby closed his eyes and took deep calming breaths. He listened to the lulling sound of the gulf waves in the distance, the gull’s cry, but his gut still churned, pulse a little too quick from his troubled thoughts continued. He couldn’t keep hanging out at Folsom, at least not in the capacity he had been. What he needed, what both he and Rig needed, was a sub. Not just a boy to play with for the night, one who might be entertaining—because those were a dime a dozen. No, what he needed to focus on was finding the third that would make him and Rig complete.
As the truth of it settled down on him, Bobby opened his eyes and stared at the foliage overhead as it swayed gently, the lush green highlighted by the pale-blue sky. In the distance, he could see the darker blue of the water. A serene feeling washed over him as he looked out over the beautiful landscape. He knew what he had to do. As soon as they returned to New York, he and Rig would step up their search for the perfect man to complete them.
After carefully picking up the pieces of glass and wrapping them in his towel, Bobby continued to follow the path. As he stepped past a high wall of brush, the landscape opened up, and to his left, a set of white, wooden stairs led up a hill to a small white bungalow with bright blue shutters. Anyone standing behind the large picture window would have a stunning view of the gulf.
Movement near a small orange tree grabbed Bobby’s attention. A man on his knees, dressed in a white tank top and blue shorts, examined the orange he held in his hand briefly before placing it in a basket and reaching for another. Squinting from the glare of the bright sun, Bobby reluctantly left the shade of the trees and tromped up the steps. Might as well do the neighborly thing and say hello.
Closer now, Bobby got a good look at the younger man. Even in a kneeling position, Bobby could tell he was slight, but the muscles of his thighs and arms, while lean, were well defined. He appeared to be in his early twenties. His hair was a dark chestnut brown, cut short, his jaw clean-shaven, and his skin was a deep olive tone. Bobby couldn’t quite make out the color of his eyes, but they were dark, possibly brown, although it was hard to tell with the dark circles beneath them. In profile he had a long, narrow nose, and his lips were full, kissable. He was absolutely gorgeous. A warm spark of attraction and longing warmed Bobby’s groin. He pushed down his desire and did his best to keep it in check, despite the ripple of envy that settled in his gut, as he took the last couple of steps towards the man. Some lucky son of a bitch had already claimed this beautiful boy, as evidenced by the thin leather collar around his neck.
“Hi,” Bobby said cheerfully and raised his hand to wave. “I’m staying—”
“Oh,” the man yelped when he noticed Bobby. His brown eyes—he had been right, melted chocolate brown, in fact—went wide with shock as he fell back on his hands and scrambled away, knocking over his basket and sending the oranges scattering.
There was more than fear in those brown orbs. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said regretfully and reached out to help the man to his feet.
The stranger ignored Bobby’s offered hand, rolled to his feet, and took off in a dead run to the house, slamming the door behind him.
Bobby stood there stunned long after the man had disappeared inside. “What the fuck?” he muttered. His first instinct was to follow the man, to beat on the door and demand to know what the hell was going on. There was something about the situation that nagged him, there was way too much sadness in him for someone so young—and the irrational fear. Bobby wondered if the man’s Dom was possibly abusing him. Yet, he hadn’t seen a single bruise, and Bobby was the trespasser.
He continued to stare at the house, debating what he should do. After a long drawn-out moment, Bobby sighed, resigned. He gathered up the oranges, placing them back into the basket, and set it next to the front door. He had the sneaking suspicion that he was being watched, but when he looked toward the window, no one was there.
He and Rig would be in town for another week. He’d make a point to stop by, keep his eyes open, and then decide what, if anything, he should do about the sad brown-eyed man.