Seven Years’ Distance
QUINLAN GREGORY’S body hurt. All of it. Every molecule.
He hauled the last suitcase out of the Lyft and paid the guy, then started carting his luggage—and his trumpet case—gingerly across the driveway, avoiding clots of dirt and tufts of grass on the concrete as he went.
Jacob had told him during his last phone call that the dog had gotten out and brutalized the new sod, but Quinlan hadn’t believed what a massacre it was until now. Anybody else would have disowned the ginger-haired mutt—aptly nicknamed Hellhound by Belinda, one of their daughters—but not Jacob and Nica Robbins-Grayson.
Quinlan’s bosses had a knack for picking up people and animals and giving them a home and then thanking them for all their help.
He should know—he’d been their manny for nearly seven years.
Their youngest, St. Peter (or, well, Peter, but Jacob and Nica insisted on calling him St. Peter in the hopes that God would be appeased and might not create a holy miracle and bless them with a seventh child) was seven this year, and Quinlan was wondering when they were going to let him go.
This job had been sort of a dream for a musician who traveled during the summer and took classes and worked night gigs in jazz bars the other nine months out of the year—but Quinlan’s last college tour had ended four days ago in a miasma of pain and dysentery, and he was twenty-seven years old.
It was high time he grew up, became an adult, stopped living in Jacob and Nica’s garage apartment, and found something responsible to do.
But first he wanted his snug little rooms, with the paneling Jacob had put in before he moved in, and the hardwood floors, and the rug Quin had bought in Vancouver, and the bed he’d put on layaway until Nica had bought it for him as a surprise when he’d come home from his summer tour the first time.
His fish tank.
The fuzzy blanket the kids had gotten him for his third Christmas with the Robbins-Graysons.
The pictures of him and the kids and the whole family at birthdays, graduations, and three weddings, including Sammy’s.
God. His home. It was his home, and he felt like crap on a cracker, and he needed his home.
He hauled the luggage up the stairs, both bags with his trumpet case under his arm, and was going to use the key but the knob twisted under his hand. Uh-oh—somebody must have left it open when they were feeding the fish. Maybe Dustin.
Dustin had been in his apartment. For a moment that shocked him out of his misery, even though the kids had been in and out of his apartment since the beginning, but then his stomach cramped again.
Well, no worries. The couch and television seemed unmolested, although there was a dirty dish and a coffee cup in the sink.
Quinlan set his luggage down, relieved beyond words. He worked out and ran—normally he was pretty strong, but after the stomach bug kept him hugging the toilet for four days, well, he was about done.
So ordinarily he would have noticed that the air conditioner was on, and someone was watching something in the bedroom, and every light and ceiling fan in the apartment was running.
But he was busy stripping his sweat-soaked shirt over his head, so it didn’t really hit him that somebody else was in the house until he opened the bedroom door and saw….
“Quin?” Dustin’s voice would hit him later—gravelly and breathy from passion.
What hit him first was the sight of the tall, muscular young man lying naked in his bed, cock in his hand, as Quinlan opened the door.
“Holy God, I’m sorry!” Quinlan shouted, slamming the door behind him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dusty. I’m sorry.”
“Jesus, Quin, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“Got sick.” Quinlan leaned against the door, weak and shaky. “Came home early. I’m sorry—I didn’t—wait.” Oh hell, he was really losing his touch. “Dustin Matthew Robbins-Grayson, were you jerking off in my bed?”
“Shut up!” Dustin shouted hotly, and Quinlan fought a flashback to those charming teenage years when the man currently naked in his room had been a Class 5 adolescent prick. “Shut up! I thought you were gone for five more days! How was I supposed to know?”
Quin’s head was swimming. “You weren’t,” he said, feeling dizzy and off balance and… oh hell, aroused. Dustin was twenty-one—not a child anymore—and the vision of him on the bed, legs spread, erect, abandoned to his own touch, was going to haunt Quin for possibly the rest of his life. “You weren’t supposed to know I was home. But what are you doing here?”
“Forget it,” Dustin muttered. “Look, just move away from the door. I’m dressed now. Pretend this didn’t happen. And—oh Jesus, if you tell my parents, I’m jumping off a bridge.”
Tell his parents? As. If.
“Dusty!” Quin cajoled, trying to inject humor into what, well, should have been a humorous situation. “Dusty, please. Man, I feel like shit, and it’s hotter than ass outside. Just… just let me shower and lie down on the bed and get some rest, and you can couch and tell me what you were doing here later, okay?”
“Quin….” Dustin’s voice held a familiar note—but one almost forgotten. Quin, you don’t get it. You’ll never understand.
And Quin found himself panicking. They’d been okay when he’d left, right? Well, they’d been changing—but they’d been okay. Dustin’s texts, his persistent, grown-up, take-me-as-I-am texts had been more than okay. They’d even had Quin dreaming… hoping… because Dustin had grown up. Right?
Oh dear God yes, he’s grown up. His chest has grown and his nipples have grown and his cock has grown….
Quinlan whimpered, because his head hurt and his heart was starting to hurt. Dustin was an adult now, and he made plenty of money working for his father at Jacob’s garage chain. He had resources. He really could flit out of Quinlan’s life like a butterfly.
“Dustin,” he begged, on about his last nerve, “please, man. Don’t rocket out of here like this. Just… just let me cool off and drink some water and we can talk. We were there, right? We were… we were doing okay, right? Don’t… don’t tell me we have to start from scratch again.”
“Would you?” Dustin asked suspiciously. “Start from scratch?”
“Well, yeah!” Quinlan said, exasperated. “Dustin, I’ve been part of your life for seven years. Do you think I want you to just take off and cut me out? Because I walked in on you… uh….” Masturbating in my bed? He made a sound then—a weak, sad one—and Dustin spoke, sounding like he’d made a decision.
“We’ll talk about what I was doing later.”
The doorknob turned, and Quinlan moved away so Dustin could open it.
For a moment they were face-to-face, Dustin with his straight brown hair parted on the side and swept over his forehead. He had hazel eyes—an odd combination of brown and gray—and a bold nose with a short jaw and strong chin. He’d been cute as a kid, but Quinlan had noticed in the past couple of years that he’d grown into a stunningly handsome man.
“You look like death, Q,” Dustin said, letting go of the defensiveness of being caught pants down, so to speak. And then… then he rocked Quinlan’s world. He reached out and grazed Quinlan’s cheek with the back of his knuckles. “I’m sorry I yelled. Go shower. I’ll get you an ice water, okay?”
Quinlan nodded weakly. “That’s sweet. Thanks—”
Dustin stopped him with—oh God—a finger across his lips. Unbidden, another moment flashed behind Quin’s eyes, of Dusty’s touch on his lips. “Not sweet,” Dustin whispered. “You know me better than anybody else in the world. You know what I’m not?”
Dustin had been rambunctious, hostile, precocious, and irritating. But according to the people who loved him best, he’d never been “sweet.”
Maybe. Quinlan had seen—in the last seven years, he’d seen the other parts of him, parts that even his parents might not have seen.
“I don’t buy the bad press,” Quin said, smiling slightly and pretending Dustin’s work-roughened finger on his chapped, tender lips wasn’t trying to light fires on a sweat-sodden peat bog. “Here—” He moved sideways and stayed leaning against the door. “I… I really have to clean up.” He’d thrown up on the plane. Twice. His muscles were already trembling from hauling his luggage up to the door.
Dustin stepped out of the room, wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts, and looked him over critically. “All right,” he said, turning to take Quinlan’s elbow. “Let me run a bath. Let’s get you in some cool water, I’ll get you some Gatorade and some salt tablets, and let me call Mom.” He pulled Quinlan to the bathroom beyond the bedroom and sat him on the toilet before he ran the water.
Quin leaned back against the back of the commode and tried to ignore the cramping in his gut, now that the excitement was over.
“Yeah,” Dustin was saying as he ran the bath. “I, uh, actually had permission to be here—Mom and Dad thought you were going to be gone for another few days, and my apartment was getting recarpeted. I, uh—I mean, not that I didn’t like sleeping in your bed and all—”
He peeked up at Quinlan over his shoulder, looking coy and boyish—two words Quin had never associated with him. Ever. It took a moment to put together what he was actually saying.
Quinlan frowned. “You were… uh… thinking of… uh….” Oh God. No. Not now.
He slid off the seat and landed on his knees and lifted up the lid. As the cramps shook him and he heaved, he was aware of Dustin’s cool hand on his brow, of his strong arms and chest keeping Quinlan grounded.
“Jesus, Q, you’re in bad shape,” Dustin muttered. “Of all the shitty times…. Here.”
Quinlan wasn’t sure how it happened. He stopped heaving fluid, and as he was panting and recovering, Dustin, the kid he’d helped raise from puberty on, hefted him up, stripped him down, and set him in a lukewarm bath.
Not cold enough to make him shiver. Not hot enough to make him sweat.
He lay back against the tub and caught his breath, closing his eyes. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Dustin muttered. “I’ll be right back with water and salt and some carbs—and my mom.”
“Oh Jesus. Your mom’s gonna see me naked?” Quinlan whined. He respected the holy hell out of Dustin’s mom. He sort of wanted to die just thinking about it.
“I’ll call Dad, then,” Dustin snapped. “Whatever. You look like shit, and I’m worried. And if you say I’m sweet, it’s my turn to puke.”
“But you are,” Quinlan murmured to Dustin’s retreating back. “I remember. You think I don’t remember how sweet you are?”
“Fuck off, Quin.”
But Quinlan’s eyes were closed, and he was drifting in the tepid water. Back, back, back, seven years ago, at the park wedding of Taylor Cochran and Brandon Grayson. Back to a warm, bright September day seven years ago, when the red dust of the foothills seemed to stain the very air, and Quinlan’s friend—Dustin’s cousin, Sammy Lowell—was looking happy, if not healthy, and very much in love.
And Quinlan was fighting off a terrible case of woe-is-me.