COOPER HOSKINS liked working construction. Didn’t love it, but the pay was good, the hours were regular, and it came with health and dental. All the things a growing boy needed—or a growing girl, for that matter.
And working for Brandon Grayson was a plus. Brandon was young, working his way through college, and trying hard to set the world on fire by sheer stinking force of will.
He was also openly gay, openly in love with his boyfriend, and openly protective of anyone he perceived as being the underdog.
For Cooper’s first two years at Sowers Construction Company, he would have to admit he qualified. He’d been barely eighteen when he started, fresh out of the foster care system and hungry. Stomach clinging to the backbone hungry. Brandon had seen that hunger—and fed him. Fed him small lawn-mowing jobs until his first paycheck, fed him lunch at every opportunity, and fed him as much information as he could possibly swallow to make him indispensable to Sowers Construction and therefore guarantee him a little bit of job security.
The upside of all that knowledge was that Cooper really did know everything about how to build a house or a commercial property using the tools Sowers regularly employed. The downside was he also knew he was screwed.
“Goddammit!” Brandon called frantically below him. “Cooper, get down from there!”
Cooper made the mistake of looking down from the height of the cherry picker, and he tried not to let panic turn him into a gibbering weenie in the corner of the cab. “Sure, boss!” he called back, returning his concentration to the air-conditioning unit balanced precariously on the roof.
Sowers Construction was not responsible for this mess.
This couple had called in a cousin’s friend or brother-in-law’s cousin and his startup heat and air business to replace their unit. Three days later, the unit still perched dangerously on the edge of the roof, and the couple—Wally Sowers’s niece, if Cooper understood correctly—had gone to her uncle in tears and begged for their help.
“What’s the problem up there?” Brandon demanded. Well, this was supposed to be a quick morning job, but Cooper had already commandeered the cherry picker and the oversized lift, although the lift hadn’t shown up yet. Cooper could see how he’d be upset. And there was a storm coming in from the mountains. Cooper was on the cherry picker, trying to secure packing materials around the unit—which didn’t belong on the top of the house. It was actually designed to install next to the house and attach to ducts that had already been installed. The plan was the lift could come out and hoist the damned thing up from underneath and place it on the dolly waiting below.
But the crate around the frickin’ unit was falling apart, and after all this work, Coop would just as soon it not tumble to the ground to become a really expensive slag heap.
“Problem is, the cardboard is disintegrating, and it’s off the pallet. Nothing some duct tape and some elbow grease can’t—”
At that moment a big gust of wind caught the cherry picker broadside, pushing him sideways as he wrapped his arms around the crate to wrap the duct tape. Brandon could have done this—Brandon was over six feet tall and probably 200 pounds of sheer muscle. But Cooper was barely five nine and scrawny to boot—he was having trouble getting his arms around the box.
And the wind was doing in about ten minutes what gravity hadn’t done in two days—move the damned box without help. The unit slid down toward the edge in a shower of roofing tiles, and Cooper, figuring he had to cut his losses, backed away from it so it didn’t take him with it when it went down. Another gust of wind pushed the cab up against the edge of the house, and the AC unit took that opportunity to slide out of the cardboard and crash into the cab of the cherry picker.
Cooper screamed as his shoulder was crushed by the metal contraption and then hollered, “Look out!” as the unit crashed down to the ground. His vision was black, and he didn’t even want to look at the swollen mass of his shoulder. What he didn’t see was that the unit had taken out part of the cab. He crumpled against what should have been a safe wall of metal and fiberglass, and the air before him gave way.
He didn’t even have time to scream before he tumbled out of the picker to the ground.
HE WOKE up in the hospital, looking around blearily. Everything in his body ached, and his head felt stuffed full of cotton.
“What in the hell….”
“Yeah,” Brandon said from right next to his bed. “That wasn’t real bright.”
“Which part?” For the life of him, Cooper couldn’t remember what he was doing.
“Well, trying to do that alone, for one. You should have called for a backup crew to help stabilize the unit when you got there. Why didn’t you?”
Cooper closed his eyes and grunted. He saw it all: the AC unit, the cherry picker—the big fall. “Did I fall?”
Brandon grabbed the side rail of Cooper’s hospital bed, and Cooper watched in detached fascination as his knuckles turned white. “Did you fall? Did you fall?”
“I guess that’s a yes.” He couldn’t move his shoulder, and his ribs seemed to be wrapped, and his hip didn’t feel great, and….
“There was a lift on the way!” Brandon snarled, voice thick.
Cooper peered up at him, and Brandon’s green eyes were red-lined. “I know,” he said calmly. “I called it. But the cherry picker was closer—”
“You should have waited.” The air seemed to go out of Brandon’s anger, and he sank wearily onto the chair by the hospital bed, running his hands through his red-brown hair.
“Wally said it was a rush job. Didn’t want to be a—”
“Bother?” Brandon asked sarcastically. There was a man next to him. Cooper squinted, trying to bring the stranger into focus.
“Yeah,” Coop murmured. “If you’re a bother, they get rid of you.” Was it work that did that? He couldn’t remember.
“Well, now you’re injured!” Brandon exclaimed, and next to him, a dry voice said, “Brandon, just calm down. He didn’t do it to hurt your feelings, okay?”
Cooper heard Brandon’s deep intake of breath and tried hard to concentrate. “Was anyone else hurt?”
“No,” Brandon grunted. “Just the idiot in the cherry picker.”
“It was in the area,” Cooper defended again. For some reason that felt important as he was trying to remember his reasoning through the painkillers. “And the lift was on the way. I was trying—”
“To secure the thing before it fell,” Brandon muttered, his irritation deflating completely. “I’m not arguing with your logic, Coop. I’m upset because you’re hurt, and workman’s comp only pays so much, and I know you need the money.”
Cooper thought muzzily about his little apartment, the dying car he could barely afford, and Felicity—oh crap! “What time is it?” he asked. “Brandon, I need to make a phone call—”
“Here, I’ve got it.” Not Brandon. Cooper finally focused his eyes and saw an insanely hot guy with an eye patch and a Snake Plissken glare pressing the phone into his hand.
“Who’re you?” he asked muzzily.
“Taylor Cochran,” the guy said, nodding. “Pleased to meet you. Brandon has told me a lot about you.”
Cooper’s embarrassment started at his toes and swept up his body, throbbing in his injured shoulder for emphasis. “You’re Brandon’s boyfriend?” he asked, feeling stupid.
Taylor’s open expression closed, and Cooper couldn’t let that happen. “Surprised?”
“You’re really hot,” Cooper mumbled. “He said you were hot, but… you’re really hot!”
“And oh my God, you’re gay,” Brandon said accusingly.
“So’re you!” Cooper defended. Then he remembered. Brandon didn’t know. Nobody knew. Oh God. How could he have—?
“I know I am, but you’ve never said anything. Not once. Cooper, you had someone you could talk to, and you never once talked to me! I thought we were friends!”
Cooper closed his eyes, and like the thing with the cherry picker and why it had seemed to be a good idea at the time, he tried to remember his reasons for not confiding in his supervisor, the one guy to give him a break since he left the foster care system and tried to make it as an adult.
Oh. Oh yeah. Felicity.
“Lots of secrets,” he mumbled, his shoulder throbbing again. “I need to get home—”
Taylor was back in his line of vision again, taking the phone from him. “What’s at home?” he asked quietly, shooting a hard look at Brandon. “We’ve got a big fat cat who eats too much and then yacks hairballs everywhere. You got one of those?”
“Felicity doesn’t eat too much,” Cooper said, then closed his eyes. “Shit. Nobody’s supposed to know about Felicity.”
“You’re gay but you’ve got a girl in your closet?” Brandon asked uncertainly.
“She’s not in my closet. She’s on my couch!” Well, the living room was her room. He’d gotten rid of the trash bags and bought a dresser for her first thing, but stuff. So much stuff. Used books, hair clips, clothes she was almost grown out of. Hard to hide a girl on your couch.
“You’re twenty-one years old, Coop—what are you doing with a girl on your couch?”
Cooper stared at Brandon miserably. “She followed me from foster care,” he whispered. “You can’t tell anyone. They’ll make her go back.”
Brandon closed his eyes like he was going to have to give Cooper bad news, but Taylor spoke up. “We won’t tell a soul. Text her, though. Me and Brand’ll go get her. We’ve got some people she can stay with until you’re back on your feet.”
Taylor leveled a flat gaze at a man even Cooper could see he was crazy about. “Kid has responsibilities. We’ll make sure he takes care of them.”
Brandon shrugged and looked resigned. “Okay. He’s right. You may not have trusted me to know before, Cooper, but you’ve got to trust me now. You’re not getting out of here for another week. If you’re taking care of someone, you need to let us help.”
Cooper closed his eyes tight. “She’s eleven,” he said, feeling like he was betraying her. “She’ll need to talk to me. See me. She… she’s not big on trust.”
Brandon nodded and pulled out his own cell phone. “Okay. I’m going to take a picture with you and Taylor. Then one of me and you.” He took both pictures and sent them to Coop. Coop felt his cell phone buzz. “Now you send them to her, and tell her we’ll meet at your apartment after school, okay?”
Cooper fumbled with the phone, feeling tears start at the corners of his eyes. “She needs clothes,” he confessed. “We were going to go shopping. But she’s a girl. I don’t know girls.” He grimaced. “Someday she’ll need feminine protection.” The shudder racked him before he could reprimand himself about sucking it up and dealing. “Man, that’s fucking scary.”
“I can deal with girl parts,” Taylor said dryly. “My best friend has five—”
“Six,” Brandon grunted.
“Oh dear God. Yes, she’s on her sixth kid.”
Brandon grunted. “She’s married to my cousin—I told him we’re naming this one ‘Combo Pack’ when it’s born, because it’s the result of two different failed birth controls.”
Cooper’s brain officially blew up. “Please tell me I’ll never meet these people?”
“You wish,” Brandon muttered. “Because some part of her family is gonna be helping you and Felicity—”
Cooper willed his body to move. “I’ll get up.”
Taylor put a sizable hand in the center of his chest. “Cooper? I know we haven’t met until right now. Here’s the thing. I like you—I do. But I don’t give a ripe shit if you like me. So I’m going to tell you the hard truth. You almost knocked the brains out of your head, boy. You almost fucking died. And as a card-carrying member of the same club, I am telling you that getting up in the next week is not only not in your best interest, it’s not in the best interest of anybody who gives a damn about you. That’s Felicity—who we’re going to take care of. And Brandon, whom I love more than life itself. My boy is upset. He’s freaking the hell out. If you try to get out of this bed one more time, he might cry. I cannot allow that to happen. Do you understand me?”
Cooper stared up at him, not sure if what he felt was attraction, irritation, or hero worship. “He’s hot,” he mumbled to Brandon, “but sort of a dick.”
Taylor laughed and patted his cheek gently. “Now you understand. Now, have you talked about Brandon to your little sister?”
“Felicity? Yeah, but we’re not, you know, related by blood—”
Taylor shrugged. “Incidental. She’s heard his name, at the very least. Good. I’m going to send him over there, and you and me are going to sit here and listen to you on painkillers. I only know this from the other end, and I’ve got to tell you, I’m enjoying the shit out of seeing it from this side of the bed. Are we clear?”
Cooper yawned. “Sure.” He couldn’t see any other choice, really. “Don’t freak Felicity out. She’s… we, uh, don’t like authority.”
“I’m so surprised. I might have a heart attack and die from that surprise.” Taylor. Dick. But Cooper sort of laughed anyway.
“You could always fall down,” Brandon said sourly. “From the top of a house onto a badly damaged AC unit and your head.”
Taylor rubbed his good eye with the palm of his hand. “Baby…,” he said, voice pained.
“I’m not even going to apologize for that.” Brandon stood, and Cooper didn’t miss the blatant possession of his arm around Taylor’s waist or the ease of his kiss on the shoulder. “I’ll go get Felicity. You sit here and make sure Cooper knows someone gives a shit, okay?”
Taylor shrugged—but he leaned into the kiss. “Whatever. I’m the manny. It’s a job you never outgrow.”
Then Brandon peered over the hospital bed, looking stern. “You have my permission to breathe. Eat if the doctor tells you. Relieve yourself if you’re not already dialed in to something that’ll do it for you. But no leaving. No trying to leave. I’ll text you later so you know where Felicity ends up.” He squeezed Cooper’s forearm—about the only part of him that wasn’t bruised, broken, or beaten—and left.
Taylor turned around and pulled his chair a little closer to the bed. “So,” he said conversationally, “how good are the pain meds working?”
Cooper tried to think about it and almost fell asleep. “Fantastic,” he admitted.
“Excellent. Then I need you to tell me the story of your life.”
“Aw, man!” So much stupid, sad shit in the story of Cooper Hoskins. “Can we maybe concentrate on someone else’s life?”
“Nope,” Taylor said, looking up from his phone idly. “All about Cooper Hoskins today. It’s your special ‘I’m drugged and loopy and these people need to know who I am to help me’ day. Fire away.”
“No one special,” Cooper mumbled. “Dad split, Mom couldn’t deal. Went into the system at six.” He sighed, trying not to remember hoping for his mother. Her absentminded, stressed-out love had still been better than nothing.
“That’s fascinating,” Taylor said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “Now tell me something real.”
Cooper sighed. “You know, when you get out of the system, a lot of times you don’t have anywhere to go, right?”
“Yeah,” Taylor said, the sarcasm gone. “I knew that.”
“So, I knew it was coming, and I just… I wanted a job. I wanted some control. I saw guys building something near my foster family’s place, thought I didn’t have the greatest grades in the world, but that looked like I couldn’t fuck it up.”
Taylor caught his eyes and nodded. “That’s real, kid. And smart. Keep talking. I’m on the edge of my seat.”
It must have been the morphine. Or the pain under the morphine. Or the Oh thank you Jesus, I’m finally getting a chance to spill my guts relief.
Because Cooper’s entire life story poured out of him with little prompting from Taylor, slowing to a trickle before he even got to Felicity and how he ended up with a girl living on his couch for the past two years. He only quit when he was close to asleep, and then Taylor reached over and patted the back of his hand.
“’Sallright, Spooky Cooper,” Taylor said kindly, using the nickname the guys on the construction unit had given him. “You go to sleep, and someone will be here when you wake up.”
Cooper frowned. “How’d you know that name?”
“Brandon worries about you a lot. Guess he was right about that.”
“’M fine.” He was so falling asleep. “But is nice, not being alone.”
“We’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Taylor said quietly. “So don’t worry. You won’t be alone again for a while.”
“Always.” This was a true thing. “Always alone.”
Work-roughened hand on his brow—that was unexpected. “Not anymore.”
He couldn’t argue again. Mouth wouldn’t work. He’d comfort himself with that nice dream.