Chapter One

Voyagers

 

 

“I CAN’T believe it’s only three months away,” Donnelly said, his steady voice giving no sign of the pounding pace he was maintaining on the treadmill.

Next to him, Brandt kept stride. “What do you mean? We’ve been planning this wedding for approximately… eternity. Stars have extinguished while we sat picking out colors for tablecloths.”

“It hasn’t been so bad,” scolded Donnelly, cranking up the speed a little more. “Wendell has taken care of most of it, and Bryce has been handling the rest.”

“Yeah, about that. Did I mention I’d heard from one of the caterers Bryce ‘handled’? He’s not going to file a complaint, but….”

“I’ll talk to him. It’s not like it’s the first time. Remember when we asked him to pick up our car from the garage?”

Brandt chuckled at the memory. “But that one turned out okay. The mechanic was down for it, and we got free oil changes for a year. Bryce must wrestle above his weight class.”

Donnelly laughed so hard he nearly stumbled off the treadmill. “Look at you with your wrestling talk. Gearing up for the finals at the university?”

“Figured I should practice. I don’t want to embarrass Jonah and Casey by shouting the wrong things during their bouts.”

“Oh, did I mention Mal got back to me? He’s going to stay with us during the finals meet weekend.”

Brandt shot his partner a dagger-y look.

“In the guest room, of course.” Donnelly looked quite pleased to have incited a jealous reaction.

“Remind me to set up that trip wire in the hallway I’ve been thinking about.” Brandt smiled and cranked up the speed of his treadmill to meet, then exceed, Donnelly’s. “You know, after all the wedding planning, and the wrestling finals, it might be nice to take a little break.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I was kind of thinking we might take a week off and head down to one of those honeymoon spots Bryce has been going on about.”

“A whole week? In March?”

Brandt squinted at his partner. “Yes, at the end of March.”

Donnelly looked blankly at him. “What’s special about the end of March?”

“It’s only the one-year anniversary of your proposal, that’s all.” Brandt’s voice was casual, but he beamed; his track record of remembering significant relationship dates was so much worse than his partner’s. He was surprised when Donnelly stopped running and disappeared from his vision. Brandt hit the stop button on his treadmill and dropped off the back as the belt slowed suddenly. He stood next to Donnelly, whose face betrayed his astonishment.

“You remembered,” he said, his voice mystified.

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I love you.” Donnelly pulled Brandt into a tight embrace, right there in the gym. “You are amazing.”

“Does this mean you’re going to run away with me for a week?”

“I would go anywhere with you,” Donnelly said, smiling broadly. “Anywhere.”

“I’ll call and confirm the reservation.”

“You already made the arrangements?” Donnelly seemed unable to catch his breath.

“I did. I guess this is what they call sweeping you off your feet.”

Donnelly leaned close to whisper in Brandt’s ear. “My feet will be in the air all night.”

“Fuck,” breathed Brandt.

 

 

“DO YOU have everything, Teddy dear?” his mom called from the living room. “Your swim trunks and sunscreen?”

“Yes, Mom,” Ted called back.

“Clean underwear?”

“It’s not like I’m going to pack dirty underwear, Mom.” Exasperation was creeping into his voice.

“You’re going to be there for a whole week. You’ll need seven pairs of underwear, plus an extra.”

“I can count, Mom,” he shouted, losing the battle to keep his voice down.

“Do you have a hat?”

Ted slumped on the bed, exhausted from his mom’s hectoring. This was supposed to be a quick shot home to pick up clothes for a spring break that had suddenly turned into a whole week at the beach, thanks to Ted’s rich friend Howie. A week in the warm sun would be a welcome change from the layers of ice and snow that blanketed his university campus through the winter. But he was starting to think a day back home to pick up warm-weather clothes was too great a price to pay.

“I have a hat,” he called back wearily.

“And sunscreen?”

Ted flopped back on the bed, arms out, wishing for death to just take him already. This couldn’t get any worse.

“And condoms?” his dad called. “You got enough condoms?”

It just got worse.

 

 

“ALL RIGHT, bitches, let’s count up the score,” Bryce called, waving a square of cardstock at the others.

“I thought watching an entire day of college wrestling would have been excitement enough for you,” Brandt observed.

“Of course I appreciate the efforts of those sweaty, muscular lovelies as much as the next man,” Bryce sniffed. “But this adds an extra measure of fun, don’t you think?”

Mal leaned close to Donnelly. “Is he always…?”

“Oh, yes,” Donnelly replied. “Inexhaustibly.”

“All right, then. I got a bingo during the first round. Here’s what I marked off: visible jockstrap, semiboner, finger-in-cleft, wedgie tug, and the bonus middle square—teabag. Is that what everyone got?” Bryce looked around the group, smiling brightly.

“You missed singlet malfunction,” Donnelly noted, looking at his card.

“Which kind?” Bryce asked, pencil at the ready.

Donnelly checked his card. “Round one was… buttock.” He looked up. “Round three was the ball slip.”

“I can’t do this,” Brandt muttered, heading for the tub full of beers on the dining table, shaking his head and chuckling. “Can I get anyone another?”

“That would be great, thanks,” Mal called, holding his empty beer bottle aloft. “Oh, and I also got cut versus uncut.”

Donnelly turned to him with his mouth open. “How did you see that?”

Mal held up the binoculars still hanging around his neck.

“So, that’s round one,” Bryce announced, taking careful notes on his master scorecard—the one with pink glitter around the edges.

“It was nice to see Jonah and Casey doing so well,” Brandt said, returning with a beer for Mal and one for himself. “They seem to really be fitting in at the university.”

“I’ll say,” Mal replied, taking the bottle from Brandt. “They pretty much delivered the championship today.”

“I’m just glad to see their team so supportive of them and their relationship,” Donnelly added. “They deserve that, after all they went through in fucking Woodley.” He took a drink, then his eyes went wide and he swallowed quickly. “Oh, sorry, Mal, I forget you still kind of have to live there.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Mal said. “I’ve been thinking for a while about getting the hell out of there. You know the café we went to yesterday, after the early rounds of wrestling? The one on the south end of Alta Avenue?”

“Nice place,” Brandt said. “I think it’s the best coffee on the avenue.”

“Well, I had a chat with the owner yesterday, and he’s getting ready to retire. He’s kept the place up really well, but there are some things I would do differently. Like, he’s got a full kitchen but doesn’t serve lunch, and he brings in all of his baked goods on a truck the night before rather than making them fresh. Seems like I could make a pretty good go of it.”

“So you’d sell the place in Woodley?” Donnelly asked. Mal’s café was the only thing that had kept him going when they were in Woodley last year helping out with Jonah’s case.

“Actually, I already have an offer on the table for it. There’s a developer who wants to tear down half the block to put up some horrible chain restaurant. Which I figure is pretty much all Woodley deserves, so I’m inclined to sell out. It’s a great offer, and it will give me enough to buy the place on the avenue, plus some to make improvements.”

“It would be awesome to have you here,” Brandt said, genuinely happy for Mal. Anyone who escaped Woodley should be congratulated.

“Thanks,” Mal said. He took another drink of his beer. “So what’s this I hear about an exciting spring-break trip for you two?”

“Well, it’s not exactly a spring-break trip,” Brandt said. “We’re just going to get away for a week and have some quiet time together.”

“Good for you,” Mal replied. “Though from what Jonah and Casey were saying, the entire university is decamping for the beach that week. You’ll probably have some company.”

“I don’t think the college crowd is going to be descending upon the Villa Hermes,” Donnelly said. “It’s this little boutique B&B up on the bluffs above the beach. It’d be pretty hard not to notice it’s a gay-focused business when the photos on their website look like an Andrew Christian commercial.”

“Sounds… hot,” Mal said, eyebrows up.

“We’ve never really gone in for the gaycation,” Brandt said. “But after all of this political crap we’ve been dealing with on marriage equality, I would just like to be someplace where I can kiss my fiancé by the pool and not feel like people are staring at us.”

“People gonna be staring,” Nestor said liltingly.

Brandt blushed.

“As long as they are staring because they want a better view of my stud in a Speedo, I’m okay with that,” Donnelly said with a laugh.

Brandt looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “Speedo?”

Donnelly ran a playful finger down Brandt’s chest from his collar to his belt buckle. “For me?”

Brandt put his arm around Donnelly and kissed him on the cheek. “Anything for you.”

“Oh!” Bryce called. “Nestor, get your phone. You know how I like photos of our troopers being cute.”

“The phone say it full,” Nestor said, holding it up and shaking his head. “Too much cute already.”

“So when do you leave for your week in paradise?” Mal asked, once he had finished goggling at Bryce and Nestor.

“We fly out Friday after work,” Donnelly replied. “That gives us a few days to find the right color Speedo for you.” He nudged Brandt in the ribs. “Of course, they said on their site the pool is in a courtyard, so it’s clothing-optional.”

Brandt turned a stunned face to Donnelly. “You aren’t seriously considering…?”

“Who knows? An allover tan might just be the thing to lift the winter doldrums, don’t you think?”

“Who are you, you manslut?” Brandt cried in a voice full of mock outrage. “And you might want to look into getting that jaw rehinged, Mal.” He burst out laughing at Mal’s surprise in being called out on his reaction.

“I like this Malcolm person,” Bryce said to Nestor. “He has good instincts.”

 

 

“TAXI’S HERE, motherfuckers,” boomed a commanding voice from downstairs. “Finish packing your panties and get the fuck down here.”

Ted threw a last few things into his backpack: laptop and cables, the novel he was supposed to have finished for his Irish literature class last week, a baseball cap. He grabbed his suitcase and bolted into the hallway, where he collided with Thor, his roommate across the hall.

“Sorry,” Thor said, as was his habit. “When Paul cranks up that bullhorn voice of his, it kind of makes me crazy.”

“Let’s just get down there before he really turns up the volume,” Ted suggested, and they headed down the creaky old stairs together.

“Ted, Thor, nice of you to join us,” Paul said in a growl. “Did you happen to see the others up there?”

“Chad was in the bathroom, probably trying to figure out which hair product goes best with humidity,” Ted replied.

“Howie came downstairs a while ago,” Thor said. “I haven’t seen him come back up, so he must be down here somewhere. Did you check the kitchen?”

“No, I’ve been trying to convince the taxi driver not to leave us here because we can’t get our shit together,” grumbled Paul. “Can one of you ladies go check the kitchen?”

“I’ll go,” Ted volunteered.

“And see if you can rustle up Bark while you’re back there,” Paul called after him. He stepped out into the late-night gloom to be sure the taxi hadn’t pulled away.

Ted walked through the sparsely furnished living room and into the kitchen beyond. “Howie, it’s time to go. Paul’s going to kill one of us if we don’t get moving.” Ted looked around the corner, where the downstairs toilet and the back door were hidden. “Bark? You in there?”

“He’s not back there,” Howie replied, rinsing the last of his mac and cheese out of the cracked bowl he’d been using.

“Know where he is?”

“Left about twenty minutes ago. Said he needed a last run before being cooped up on a plane all night.”

“He’s out running? Shit, Howie, the taxi’s here right now.”

Howie shrugged and walked past Ted, brushing his shoulder on the way out.

Ted followed him back into the living room. Chad had finally emerged from the bathroom, so now their group numbered five, including the glaring Paul, who had returned from the curb with a new string of expletive-laced invective to motivate his roommates.

“Where the fuck is Bark?” he demanded.

“He went out for a run,” Ted said, knowing the abuse he was letting Bark in for.

“It’s ten fucking degrees outside, and that cocksucker goes for a little jog? At exactly the time he knew we have to leave? What the fuck was he thinking?”

“I was thinking I didn’t want to get all fat and grumpy on the plane,” Bark said, having appeared in the doorway behind Paul while he was ranting. He poked the big man in the belly and walked around him. He was wearing a black compression suit for cold-weather running.

“Can we get the hell out of here, please?” Paul shouted at him. “And for the record, this is not what fat looks like.” Paul lifted his flannel shirt and showed the six ingots of hard muscle arrayed on his hairy torso. “So fuck you.”

Bark smiled at him and started to pull the compression shirt off over his head. Ted watched with alarm, afraid of his reaction to Bark’s body but knowing that looking away would be as conspicuous as watching his every move. Shit.

Bark threw the shirt over to the sofa and then kicked off his running shoes. He stuck his thumbs in the waistband of the compression pants, and Ted’s heart skipped another beat. Maybe three, based on the sudden pounding in his head. Down and off went the tight black leggings, leaving Bark standing completely naked in the middle of the living room.

“Do you lie awake at night figuring out ways to get naked in front of other people?” Chad asked. “I mean, come on, dude.”

“What, it’s only appropriate when you’re being paid for it?” Bark jeered good-naturedly. “Like you?”

“You wish you got paid for it,” Chad retorted, somewhat lamely.

“If I played lacrosse like this, you know attendance would go up at our games,” Bark replied. “That would be payment enough for me.” He reached casually to a neat stack of clothes on the couch and within thirty seconds was dressed in low-slung cords and a thermal Henley—but, Ted noted, no underwear. He slipped on his boots, cinched them up, and stood upright. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

“Let’s move, bitches,” Paul said, his voice calm for the first time since the taxi arrived. He held the door open, and the group trundled with their luggage down the snow-covered steps of the old house.

On the way to the airport, Chad turned to Howie. “What kind of place is it?”

Howie shook his head. “All I know is that it’s on the bluff above the beach. The whole city was pretty much sold out, but my dad’s travel agent got us in as a kind of apology for messing up his last vacation.”

“What happened on your dad’s vacation?” Ted asked.

Howie grunted. “It was a mess. Dad told him to book the biggest suite at the hotel, and then we get there and find there’s a bigger one he didn’t even tell us about. Dad tore him a new one about that. So he made these arrangements for us as a kind of peace offering.”

“I think it’s really awesome you’re treating us to a spring break someplace warm,” Thor opined from the last row of seats. “I just hope it’s not one of those places where the tourist area is fancy and nice and the locals live in poverty. That would be a bummer.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be organizing community protests by the end of the week,” Howie said with a roll of his eyes.

“Not all of us come from money,” Thor replied without rancor in his voice, as if just stating a fact.

“How long are the flights?” Chad asked.

“We gotta take some little propeller thing to O’Hare, and that takes like an hour. Then we have a two-hour layover, and then it’s another four hours down there. So basically all fuckin’ night.”

Ted looked at the snoozing form to his left. Of all the people he knew, Barclay Burnett was the only one who could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and wake up instantly when he needed to. It was like his body was a precision machine that responded to his every whim. And that body was a machine like no other.

Ted recalled the first time he saw it—the moment he found out he would be rooming with the man who possessed it. It was during freshman orientation, more than three years ago, and he was desperately trying not to get lost while looking like he was not the kind of person who had to worry about getting lost. He arrived at what would be his dorm room and found someone already there, unpacking. It was late August, and a heatwave that was merely uncomfortable elsewhere was simply unbearable in the unventilated freshman dorm. So it shouldn’t really have surprised Ted that his new roommate would have taken off his shirt as he went about the work of unpacking and arranging his stuff. But Ted wasn’t ready for it, not by a long shot. He opened the door and saw the broad, muscled back of his roomie, and he struggled to draw his next breath. Ted had never played a sport in high school, so his locker-room experience was limited. That was fine with him, because a sight like the one he was now looking at would have resulted in a distinctly awkward reaction.

And then the guy turned around. If his back was breathtaking, his front was exquisite. He was built like some exotic jungle cat, packed with muscle but capable of a fluidity that was mesmerizing. Ted had seen many men with such a physique, but only late at night on the Internet when he trolled Tumblr, hoping his parents wouldn’t see the blue glow under his bedroom door and burst in while he surfed one-handed. But he had always assumed the men with builds like this were lit by professionals and smoothed in Photoshop—surely no one could be that perfect. And yet, here he was, a ginger vision. Ted couldn’t think of a thing to say to this perfect creature, which was unfortunate given that Bark had asked him his name.

Though things got less awkward between the two of them during that year, they never approached normal, at least not for Ted; he never found out what it was like to have a normal pulse when in Bark’s presence. But they were happy enough in the blending of their personalities that they roomed together again sophomore year, and then in their junior year, they had found the old house for rent. The other guys had jumped at the chance to get off campus and keep the dorm group together. It was a good move for Ted, as he gained his own room and no longer had to suppress his reaction when Bark was naked. And naked he tended to be, whenever a chance—or even half of one—presented itself.

The six of them had, in a lot of ways, grown up together, but this would be their last spring break as students. A few months from now, they would graduate and go their separate ways, a prospect that made Ted far too sad to contemplate.

Ted closed his eyes and tried to think tropical thoughts.

“IT’S BEAUTIFUL here,” Donnelly said as the taxi took them through the still-warm evening toward their vacation destination.

“Anything’s got to be better than what we left at home,” Brandt replied. “Can you believe we got snow this week—the last week in March?”

“Ah, just look at that ocean,” Donnelly said, pointing out the window. “Enough to make you forget there’s anything like snow in the world.”

Brandt sat back and contemplated his partner for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this excited. If I’d known this is how you’d react to a vacation on the beach, I would have done it sooner.”

“It’s kind of like a pre-honeymoon,” Donnelly said, beaming. “Try it out. See if we might want to come back after the wedding.”

“Anywhere in the world will be fine with me once I’m your husband,” Brandt replied, taking Donnelly’s hand.

The taxi ride from the airport was a good half hour, but the time flew by for the troopers, so happy to be on vacation.

“Villa Hermes,” announced the driver as he pulled into the semicircular driveway at the front of the inn.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the finest of the area’s white-sand beaches, the Villa Hermes was a classic Greek cliff house, brilliant white among its pink stucco neighbors. Lit by a hundred beams emanating from the shrubbery, its bright blue doors and window shutters were a Santorini postcard rendered in the tropics. Brandt and Donnelly stepped out of the taxi while the driver pitched their bags onto the stone drive. Donnelly paid him while Brandt stacked and counted their luggage.

“Enjoy your stay… gentlemen,” the driver muttered as he got back into the car.

“I don’t think I like the way he said that,” Donnelly remarked. “Did that seem—”

“It seemed like something a taxi driver would say,” Brandt said soothingly.

Donnelly shook it off. “You’re right. Sorry. I’m just really sensitive to what people are saying when they pause like that. It’s like I’m hearing things, and all those things are homophobic.”

“Good thing we’re getting away from the job for a week, then, isn’t it?”

Donnelly nodded and picked up his suitcase. “Let’s get this R&R on the road, shall we?”

“Oh, you’re here, you’re here,” called a lilting voice from the front door of the hotel. “Please, come in, come in!”

They carried their bags through an open iron gate into a small courtyard where a fountain splashed with an elegant trickling sound, to be greeted by a tall, slightly built man in his early sixties who smiled broadly as he approached them with extended hands.

“You must be the Misters Brandt and Donnelly,” he exclaimed, shaking their hands in turn. “Welcome to the Villa Hermes. I am the proprietor, Winston Eubanks, but please, call me Winnie.”

“It’s a beautiful place you have here,” Brandt remarked, looking about the small courtyard.

“Why, thank you, sir,” Winnie said as he led the men into the small office off the courtyard. “It’s a labor of love; it really is. We’ve only been open a year, but Vic and I began working on it nearly five years ago. It’s like my little Greek paradise in this wasteland.”

“I’ve only been here for an hour,” Donnelly remarked, “but the area seems very pretty.”

“Oh, it is, it is,” Winnie replied. “I spoke only in terms of culture, or the lack thereof. But there is so much natural beauty, which is only enhanced during spring-break season when even more natural beauties fly in to take a week off from studying and fill the entire town with skimpy bathing suits and hormones. It can be quite intoxicating.” He looked up at the men, who seemed perhaps not as enchanted with this vision of hordes of horny college students. “But we don’t get that kind of clientele here, of course. Our little villa is a respite from all of that, though if you wish to see what all of that looks like, I can direct you to a vista point on our balcony from which you can observe the mating rituals on the beach below.” He looked from Brandt to Donnelly and back again. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”

“What I’m into,” Brandt said, looking at Donnelly, “is spending some quiet time with my fiancé and relaxing by the pool.”

“Then you have come to the right place. Let’s get you registered, and I’ll show you to your room. You have the finest accommodation we offer, the honeymoon suite. Privacy, luxury, and a view of the ocean. Come, let’s get you settled in.”

A short time later, they stood on the terrace off their bedroom, looking at the stars twinkling over the ocean. A hundred feet below them, the surf lapped gently at a beach that glowed white even in the pale moonlight. They could also see the pool, illuminated by torches where the infinity edge dropped off toward the sea.

“This is perfect,” Donnelly said as he wrapped his arms around Brandt and nuzzled his neck from behind.

“It is,” Brandt agreed. “Seems like we’re the only people here, doesn’t it?”

“Winnie mentioned they were fully booked, so more people will probably be getting here tomorrow.”

“So what you’re saying,” Brandt said, pulling Donnelly close so he could growl in his ear, “is that if I want to do something outrageously inappropriate to you on this balcony, I should do it right now, when there’s no one to hear you?”

“No one to hear me… what?” Donnelly murmured.

“Beg me for more,” Brandt whispered into his ear.

“Oh, fuck.” Donnelly took a couple of quick breaths. “Go ahead and assume that’s what I want, even if I don’t say it.”

“Then hold on tight,” Brandt said, slipping out from Donnelly’s embrace and circling around behind him.

Donnelly grasped the top of the solid, whitewashed half wall of the balcony with both hands while Brandt dropped to his knees behind him. He unbuckled Donnelly’s belt, unbuttoned and unzipped his pants, and slid them down to his feet. Then he ran his hands up the strong, smooth legs until his hands slipped into the leg openings of Donnelly’s boxer shorts. Donnelly took in a surprised breath as Brandt’s hands converged where his legs met.

“Hello, boys,” Brandt growled. He let go of Donnelly’s dangly bits to take hold of the cuffs of his boxers and yank them down to join the khakis pooled at Donnelly’s feet. He lifted each foot in turn and then tossed the pants and drawers behind him.

Donnelly now stood in the moonlight naked from the waist down. Brandt sidled up close, still on his knees, and pushed Donnelly’s knees apart.

“My, that sea breeze reaches places that don’t normally blow in the wind,” Donnelly said as he leaned forward and thrust his smooth and muscled ass back.

Brandt ran his fingers down the small of Donnelly’s back, fanning them out across the tight, powerful globes of his buttocks. He was delighted to see goose bumps flash into being in response to his tickling touch. Placing his hands around Donnelly’s hips, he closed his eyes and insinuated himself into the cleft, seeking that hot center he knew so well. Donnelly leaned forward a little more, opened himself to Brandt’s seeking lips. As soon as he made contact with that tight ring of muscle, Brandt darted out his tongue, teasing it with his hot, wet touch. Donnelly groaned, and the knot untied itself slightly, then puckered up tightly once more. Brandt pushed forward, his tongue slipping inside the hot center of the man whose legs were beginning to quiver with the exertion of remaining upright under Brandt’s assault.

Brandt laid the most delicate of kisses on Donnelly’s twitchy anus and then stood behind him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube of slippery stuff he had stashed there on the off chance a suitably inappropriate opportunity might present itself. With an adept flip of the cap and a precisely aimed squeeze, he slicked up the erection caused by his tonguing of Donnelly’s ass and aimed it at the opening he had moments before been teasing.

“Wha…?” Donnelly wondered aloud at the intrusion. But surprise quickly gave way, and he moaned his assent.

Both men were startled by voices coming from the pool area below them. “Well, I don’t know,” a voice Brandt recognized as Winnie’s said. “The travel agent called and asked if we had room for six, and I said we only have four rooms and one of them is taken, so if they don’t mind doubling up, it should be fine.”

“Is it some kind of group thing?” a much deeper voice asked. “We wouldn’t want a bunch of spring breakers showing up thinking this is party central.”

“I don’t know who they are. But the agent knows what kind of place we’re running, so….”

Brandt, having frozen at the sound of voices, pushed forward once the voices died