SETH FINISHED digging the shallow grave and stepped back, giving Peter room as he crouched down in the flower garden behind A Forever Home. Peter collected a small green urn from the warm grass beside him and placed it in the hole. Seth could hear his soft sniffles as Peter began smoothing the dirt over the urn, marking the last place his cat would ever lie.
Holding back his own sadness, Seth put a hand on Peter’s shoulder and gave him a slight squeeze through the man’s navy blue dress shirt. Seth felt underdressed for this funeral in his shorts and tee, but he’d been at work up until half an hour ago when Peter had arrived, ready to pick up the little urn that had come by delivery that afternoon from a much larger shelter in the city.
“I’m sorry, Peter,” Seth said, keeping his hand on Peter’s back. “Napoleon was a good cat.”
Peter sniffled and patted the dirt until it lay smoothly over Napoleon’s grave. Marius had purchased a little marker for a headstone, and Peter erected that above the grave as well as well. He got to his feet, and Seth moved his hand up Peter’s back to land on his upper arm. He should have removed his hand, but he didn’t. He wanted to stay right there, offering what little support he could. Napoleon had been a large part of Peter’s life for years, and Seth could imagine what his death must be doing to the other man.
“Do you have to get back to work?” Peter asked after a few quiet moments in which neither of them moved. A soft breeze drifted between them, ruffling Seth’s dark hair.
Seth shook his head, but checked his phone to see if Marius had sent him a text telling him he was needed. There was a message, but it was from Jeremy, Marius’s brother, and it looked like it was sent to the wrong person, because he was talking about stock for the bar. Why a werewolf as smart as Jeremy seemed to be was sending text messages to the wrong people was beyond him. But Marius made mistakes sometimes too, and he was just as much of a werewolf as his brother was.
Seth put his phone back into his pocket and looked up at Peter. “No. I’m off now. I was pretty much off when I called you about Napoleon being back.”
Peter’s face tightened, and the expression brought out his faint wrinkles. He was only in his early thirties, but the gesture made him look older. He put his hand over Seth’s and brought it down so that he could put Seth’s hand in his. Seth gave his fingers a light squeeze.
“I didn’t realize. Thank you for staying late.”
Shrugging, Seth gave him a little smile. “I wanted to be here with you. Napoleon meant a lot to you, and you’re a friend.”
Peter tilted his chin down in a brief nod. “I think of you as a friend as well, Seth.” He sniffled and roughly wiped at his eyes. “Do you think it’s silly to cry over a cat?”
“No. Not at all. If they meant something to you, it’s never wrong to care that someone is gone,” Seth replied automatically. He had lost a few pets as a child and still remembered that heartache. It was one of the reasons he fostered pets but never adopted any of them from the rescue.
“I guess I should be going,” Peter said, though he sounded reluctant as he briefly glanced away from the grave.
Seth lifted his gaze to Peter’s face and found it hard to look at him for long because Peter was the kind of humble beauty that Seth found himself having trouble looking at for long without making a fool out of himself.
“You don’t have to,” he said, looking away again. “You can stay as long as you want. There’s no rush, and you’re welcome back here whenever you want.”
Seth nodded and lifted his free hand to wave at Jack, who pulled into the driveway of the little house behind the rescue. Jack acknowledged him with a wave, then hurried into the house. Seth didn’t know what Jack’s issue was, but he tried not to press. He had enough of his own troubles that he didn’t need to pry into someone else’s life as well.
“Do you want a ride home?” Seth ventured, then quickly backtracked when he realized how that might have come out. “It’s just that you’re in no shape to drive, and I figured that you might like some company.” That sounded pretty lame, but Seth hadn’t been quite sure what he’d actually meant to say anyway.
Peter seemed to consider his offer for a long moment before he nodded. “Sure. I’ll get a ride back here tomorrow to get my car.”
With that figured out, Seth knew he should let go of Peter’s hand but wasn’t quite ready to as they made their way to Seth’s little red sports car. He didn’t usually let people ride with him, mostly because there wasn’t exactly room in the passenger seat for another, but he had long known that he would make an exception for Peter.
It was more than a crush, but how much more he wasn’t entirely sure. Relationships were weird and not often something he sought out, so even thinking like that was pretty dangerous territory for him most of the time. They held hands all the way to his car, and fortunately he didn’t have to break that bond to go back inside to get his things. He already had them in his backpack, which he’d thrown into the practically nonexistent backseat of his car while waiting for Peter to arrive. The only thing he hadn’t put back there, mostly because they’d been attached to his pants the whole day, were his keys. If he had locked his keys inside, it wouldn’t have been the first time he’d had to ask Marius to unlock his car for him—Marius had Seth’s spare keys—but locking himself out of his car in front of Peter would have been pretty embarrassing.
“What year is this?” Peter asked once they’d both slid into the car.
“Sixty-seven,” Seth replied as he started up the engine and let it warm up for a moment before asking it to go. It didn’t take long, though, and within a couple of minutes, he was pulling out onto the only main road in the little town.
Peter nodded but said nothing more.
“Do you like cars?” Seth pressed, trying to come up with something for them to talk about other than the recent loss of Peter’s cat or how Peter’s mom was. Not that he didn’t like Mrs. Davis, but he bumped into her at least once a week at the grocery store, and she tended to catch him up on everything happening with her… and all her neighbors.
Shaking his head, Peter gave him a little smile. “No more than as something to drive me so that I don’t have to walk when it’s cold. But I figured that you probably do, so I was trying to come up with something to say.”
Seth chuckled. “Yeah. Just a bit.”
The chocolate shop Peter owned and also lived above wasn’t much of a drive from the rescue, but then again driving to anything in the town didn’t take very long because of how small it was. Seth found a spot along the street out front and, as Peter started to get out, made the decision to go too instead of just dropping him off.
“You don’t have to come up,” Peter said as Seth joined him at the curb after locking up his car.
Shrugging, Seth tried to come up with a reasonable excuse, then, failing that, hoped a bright smile would work in his favor. “I know. But can I walk you up anyway?”
Peter gave him an odd little look but led the way up the outside staircase anyway. At the top of the stairs was a blue door, out of place in the tans and grays of the surrounding buildings, but it matched the sign of Peter’s chocolate shop, so Seth figured he must have done it himself.
“You’re lucky you live right above your shop,” Seth said as Peter let him into his apartment.
Peter gave him a weak smile. “It makes getting up and going to work, when I don’t really feel like it, a lot easier.”
Seth nodded, sure that it would. He’d been in Peter’s apartment before, when he’d done a home visit for Napoleon, and not much had changed. Peter had yellow walls, the kind of yellow like the buttercream in the candies he made, and all of his furniture looked like antiques. Seth figured they were probably from his mother, which he didn’t judge Peter for. Seth’s own mother wasn’t very supportive of him, or at least she hadn’t been the last time he’d spoken to her a few years before.
“Thanks for making sure I got home okay,” Peter said, going into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water.
Seth closed the door behind him and leaned against it. “Sure.” He hesitated. He had his hand on the doorknob and was ready to let himself out, even though he’d just closed it. “Hey, Peter, if you need anything at all, you can call the rescue. And here’s my number too. Just in case.” He saw a little notepad that was shaped like an apple on the counter and scribbled his number down. He didn’t expect Peter to use it. They weren’t that close, and he was sure Peter had better friends than him, but the offer was there just in case Peter decided to take him up on it.
“How is the shop going?” Seth asked, grasping at things to talk about since he wasn’t ready to go just yet. He’d brought Peter home from the rescue when Napoleon had died as well, but since he’d had to get right back to work, he hadn’t been able to come up. Now that he was in this man’s apartment, he hoped he could come up with some sort of nerve to be able to talk to him about something—anything—that would make them closer.
Peter finished off his glass of water. “Good. My mom is downstairs right now with the customers. I still make the chocolate, but she’s much better with them right now than I am.”
“That’s understandable.” A dull silence spread between them as Peter stared at a framed picture of Napoleon on the kitchen counter, and Seth wondered why he was still standing there.
“Well, I guess I should be going,” Seth said, his hand still on the doorknob.
Peter straightened up and started walking toward him. “Hey, Seth, thanks for bringing me home. It’s been a rough few days.”
Seth tried for a smile but failed miserably as Peter wrapped him up in a stiff hug. While they’d always been friendly, Peter had never hugged him before, and for a moment Seth had no idea what he was expected to do with the gesture. But then he came back to himself and made his arms work as he held Peter too and even managed to pat him awkwardly on his back.
Peter was a bit bigger than him, and Seth liked the little belly he could feel on the other man as their stomachs pressed together. He’d been trying to gain weight, but it was hard for him. Maybe if he could eat all the chocolate he ever wanted, like Peter could, he wouldn’t have that trouble. And Peter smelled like the most delicious hazelnut cream, probably from something he’d made that morning, if Seth had to guess.
Seth was too busy sniffing Peter’s shirt and getting distracted by how much he wanted to go downstairs and blow what little cash he had in his pocket on a handful of chocolates to notice that Peter had moved his head. When Seth looked up, Peter’s nose was against his cheek and then his mouth was pressing against the corner of Seth’s, and it was all Seth could do to hold still and let the kiss come because really he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
The hug ended, and Peter had Seth’s face between his hands as Seth scrambled for a hold on the other man, finally curling his hands in Peter’s soft shirt. He rarely saw Peter so dressed down, and the look was nice on him, making him appear more comfortable and casual in a way Peter had rarely seemed before.
Peter tasted like chocolate, which was expected, but the saltiness wasn’t, and Seth wondered what Peter had been eating before he’d come to the rescue. Peter deepened the kiss, pushing Seth’s mouth open and easing his tongue between Seth’s lips.
Peter’s light stubble tickled his face, but it wasn’t anything Seth minded as Peter took one hand off his face and placed it on his chest, pushing him even farther back against the door. The hand on his chest didn’t stop there, and Seth’s heart raced as Peter slid his hand down Seth’s ribs and to his stomach.
Releasing Seth’s mouth, Peter moved his lips to Seth’s neck, and Seth closed his eyes as Peter gently sucked on his skin. It was wonderful, intoxicating, and all too much at the same time. He gasped in thick gulps of air, and his hands curled into fists in Peter’s shirt.
Peter moved his hand under Seth’s shirt, and at the first touch of the other man’s hand on his stomach, Seth shivered. “Stop,” he whispered, his voice coming out as a barely audible cry that Peter probably couldn’t hear, because his hand moved lower until Seth straightened out his arms, pushing Peter away. “No. No more,” he said, his voice thankfully stronger this time as he looked up at Peter.
“What’s wrong?” Peter asked, trying to come closer.
Seth shook his head. “I’ve got to… I have to go. Take care.” With his heart beating wildly, he pulled the door open and sprinted down the steps, sometimes taking two at a time, until he was back at his car. He glanced up at Peter’s door and was surprised to see Peter standing there watching him too, still looking confused.
Too bad Seth didn’t have any answers for him that would have made sense to another person. He got in his car, slammed the door behind him, and gunned the engine as he took off down the street.
To get his mind off of Peter, Seth tried to focus on something else. The rescue didn’t distract him, and neither did what groceries he needed. Jeremy was a distraction, but Marius’s broody older brother was never the kind of person Seth wanted to be focused on. He was too much all of the time, and Seth didn’t even see him that often.
Nothing really stuck in his mind for a distraction until Seth thought of Jack. Thinking about him was safe at least, so he went with it. He’d been surprised to realize he and Jack shared a building. That was until Jack had moved in with Marius, Seth’s boss and one of the two owners of A Forever Home. Living near Jack shouldn’t have surprised him, though, since he hadn’t known his neighbors. He saw them occasionally, said hi when he did, but mostly didn’t even stay that much in the apartment himself. It was a place to crash and nothing more. He worked, he went out, he had his weekly therapy appointments, and all in all didn’t see a whole lot of point to being at the apartment.
“Hey, Seth,” the woman across the hall called to him as they passed each other on the stairs.
“Your face is really red. Did you go for a run?” she pressed him.
Seth touched his hand to his face, then shrugged it off, causing his backpack to slip down a little. “Must be the wind. See you later.”
He got into his apartment and closed the door tightly behind him before any of his other neighbors came out and caught sight of him. He tossed his backpack onto his couch, then headed to his desk, intent on working on the homework he’d blown off the night before. Some of his classes were online, thankfully, but one of them he actually had to go to the campus for, which was a pain since it was about an hour away. Thankfully that was only on Saturdays.
Class was boring, his homework was worse, and two hours into reading about different theories, he was cursing his choice in switching to a psychology major. He’d been a semester away from graduating when he’d switched majors, which, yes, was a very stupid decision. But a lot had happened recently and he thought the change in thinking would help him out.
Now he was pretty sure he should have chosen anything but that. Sure, there wasn’t much math, which was very yay, but there was still plenty to memorize, and he wasn’t all that good at stuff like that. There had to be an easier major out there for him somewhere. Something he could have actually enjoyed reading about. The only reason he’d picked psychology at all was because it seemed like something he could do, after being in therapy for so many years. He was starting to think that the only thing he was really good at was working at the rescue—which, actually, wasn’t such a bad thing.
His phone rang, and he was glad for the distraction when he saw that it was Marius. “Hey,” he said, answering his boss’s call.
“Hey. How’d things go with Peter?” Marius asked. Seth heard the TV on in the background and wondered if there was anything good on.
Seth tried to keep his answer nonchalant. There was no reason his boss needed to know about the kisses he’d shared with Peter. “It went okay. Lots of tears.”
“Peter get home okay? I thought I saw his car in the lot when Jack and I were out walking Missy.”
Seth nodded and closed his textbook. That was enough learning for the night. “Yeah, he did. I gave him a ride.” There, that was plenty of information for Marius. It was time to change the topic. “How are things with you two?”
He heard the change in Marius’s voice instantly. When he was talking about Jack, he was softer, his voice going darker. It was a nice change, and Seth was glad to hear it from his boss, since he was pretty sure it meant Marius was falling for Jack—though he’d kept his nose out of their relationship.
“It’s good. Hey, are you still going to therapy?”
It was an odd question, and though they’d never talked about what he was doing in therapy, Seth had told Marius about his appointments so he could set the work schedule accordingly. “Um. Yeah,” Seth replied, sitting up and wondering where this was going.
“You like them, right? I mean, they’re good to you? The person you see and talk to and stuff?” Marius continued.
Seth tensed up. He liked Marius a lot, but this was a bit personal, and he wasn’t sure he was okay with this topic. “Yeah,” he said, hoping that answer, vague as it was, would satisfy his boss’s curiosity for the moment.
Marius spoke to someone too softly for Seth to hear, though he did pick up Jack’s voice a moment later. “Great. Can I get their number from you?”
Frowning, Seth shook his head. “You can’t call them to ask about me. That’s not okay, Marius,” he said, bristling and wondering what was wrong with Marius that he would even think that.
“Whoa. Seth, no. That’s not what I’m doing at all. I need to find a therapist, and since you like yours, I thought I’d give them a chance. I’m not going to ask about you. Not at all. That’s a big line. I wouldn’t cross that. No way.” Marius spoke quickly, and Seth felt a bit bad about jumping to that clearly wrong conclusion.
“Sorry,” Seth said. “Just caught me off guard.”
Seth pulled his therapist’s card out from its hiding place in the innermost slot of his wallet and flipped the appointment reminder over so that he could see the front of it where she put her information. It wasn’t as if he needed the reminder, since his appointment times never changed, but she had insisted on giving him one after each session for the past year or so.
“Ready for the info?” he asked Marius.
Seth read out the number, address, the name of the group, and even his own therapist’s name for Marius, though he wasn’t sure if she would be who Marius would go to see since it wasn’t as if she treated everything under the sun.
“She’s not too expensive, but she’s usually kind of busy. And she takes insurance,” he added not sure what he should be telling someone in a referral for a therapist.
“Thanks for this. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. See you in the morning. Bye.” Seth hung up first and wondered why Marius would need a therapist. Maybe he was having an issue with his werewolf side, but Seth doubted that was it. Marius was the most put together person he knew. There was nothing wrong with Marius at all.
But then again people could hide their pain well. Seth had figured that out when he’d broken down. He was pretty good at keeping himself together, but sometimes he had issues with it. His therapist had him patched up fairly quickly, but he still went to the group meetings and the private sessions each week. Group was really cheap, and the private sessions weren’t much more than that. He didn’t spend his money on much, so he had a bit put away for something he saw as a requirement for his well-being. Giving up on homework for the night, he got up and went to his couch, intent on getting lost in a movie for a few hours to keep his mind off Peter.