Thirteen years ago
NO MATTER what it took, Theo was going to wipe that grim expression off Gideon’s face. Though maybe Theo should have picked a day when they all weren’t quite so hungover to put his plan in place.
As they came off the subway platform, he found himself squinting, even in the un-May-like chilly drizzle. Jax had been hiding behind dark sunglasses since they started out from 116th Street two hours ago. Gideon had been looking down his nose at Theo as if to say See, we would have been happier going over Niagara in a barrel.
It had taken so long to get out to Coney Island, they probably could have made it up to Canada by now.
Dane was the only one of them who didn’t look the worse for two bottles of postgraduation ouzo. Theo loved him, loved all of them more than his own family, but sometimes he wanted to throttle Dane. No matter how deep shit got, Dane came out smelling like a rose. Plus, there was the business of how Dane had broken Gideon’s heart. But that piece of information resided permanently in the land of Never to Be Spoken Of.
Dane walked backward to face Theo and blinked up at the sky. “You really think they’re going to run the roller coaster in the rain?”
It hadn’t been sunny when they’d left Manhattan, but it hadn’t been misting either. “It’s not raining.” Theo put all his conviction into that statement, because this was happening. They were getting on the Coney Island Cyclone. Gideon needed to lose the walking-into-Mordor expression, and only an insurance adjuster could look grim at an amusement park.
The tiny droplets prickling against their faces slowed, then stopped as they reached the boardwalk.
Jax dug at Theo with an elbow. “Way to go, Fairy Godmother. You wouldn’t want to wave that wand to get me something tall, dark, and sexy, would you?”
“You already had your chance at my wand.” Theo reached up to sling an arm around Jax’s neck and drag their foreheads together.
“And we rehashed it all last night, so could we just get this over with?” Gideon’s gaze traced the hills and curves of the wooden coaster.
“I’ll get the tickets,” Jax offered.
While the rest of them had been checking on the rides, Theo had been scanning the booth and the entrances for ride operators or ticket sellers, but the place was deserted. If they got up there and it was closed, everything would fall apart. “Hang on.” Theo jogged ahead. The weathered sign indicated they didn’t open until noon, which, to his Midwestern way of thinking, seemed late for an amusement park, but at least they would be open. As he stared past the fence, he saw signs of activity.
So, Plan B. They’d get something to eat first.
Gideon looked far too relieved by Theo’s news that they weren’t opening for another hour, but Dane came to the rescue. “Excellent. A greasy, carb-loaded boardwalk stand lunch is just what you guys need to soak up some more alcohol.” He thumped Jax and Gideon on their backs.
Searching for study fuel or a place to ride out a postperformance high, Theo had discovered that despite its Sinatra-lauded reputation, the City did in fact sleep quite a bit. And it slept even more the farther you got from Midtown and the Village. Here on the edge of the Atlantic, with calendar summer still a month away, it was practically in hibernation. They finally found a place everyone agreed on—one that served the grease-soaked, too-thin crusts that passed for pizza here. Dane insisted that large doses of caffeine and sugar delivered in carbonated form would help. There was a reason he was getting some kind of science degree; he was right. They ordered a pitcher, over Jax’s insistence on diet, and with the second glass, Theo felt his hangover subsiding.
Theo might wish they’d gone to the closer Nathan’s hot dog stand, but he’d take this company any day, even if it meant needing to blot the pizza with napkins and fold over the floppy crust. He knew that was what was really eating at Gideon.
The man honestly believed that after three years as friends, the four of them would never see each other again. Theo could reassure all he wanted, but Gideon wouldn’t believe it until it happened.
It would happen. Theo was not letting these men out of his life. Lovers could come and go, but Jax and Dane and Gideon were family.
Jax slipped off his pretentious sunglasses, blue eyes bright despite a bit of red still staining the whites. “I feel almost human. You’re a fucking genius, Dane.”
“Like he needs a bigger head,” Gideon snapped.
Ready to defuse the surge of tension, Theo batted his eyelashes and simpered, “Well, I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh, it’s plenty big,” Dane purred, and Jax and Gideon threw their greasy napkins at him.
As they walked up the ramp to the roller coaster platform, Theo watched Gideon’s body go rigid. Jax blithered about how the steel coasters in California were three times as high as this one, rattling off statistics as if he’d studied them for a role. One more word about air time and g-forces and Gideon was going to bolt.
Theo knew if he could just get Gideon on the ride, he’d have a great time. Hell, Theo’s first quick fumble with another boy had been after an adrenaline-high, dick-tingling ride on a roller coaster during a church trip to Six Flags St. Louis. Not that he was looking for that from Gideon—but roller coasters were fun.
“I’ll hold your hand, Gideon,” Theo offered, only half teasing, and stepped forward.
Before he could slide into the corral next to Gideon, Dane was there with a wink. “I’ve got him.”
The operator sent the train off the platform, empty.
“Test run,” Jax said.
“Is it safe with all this weight in the front car?” Gideon asked.
“Never been a problem before.” The man shifted a chunk of tobacco in his jaw.
As the train came back and jerked to a stop in front of them, Theo said, “See, it’s only two minutes.”
“Fine. But if we die, I’m going to kill you.”
Theo laughed but sent focused brain waves at Dane. Don’t be a selfish prick for once.
Theo’s mind control didn’t let him down. Dane was full of charm as he nudged Gideon forward, murmuring to him.
There was some kind of bungee cord seat belt in addition to the lap bar, as if that was going to help with mechanical failure. Theo passed the end to Jax, who hooked it on the loop. They clicked the lap bar down and grinned at each other.
In front of them, Gideon must have really slammed down the lap bar because Dane gritted out, “Dude. I’d like to keep my nuts on the outside.”
As the brake released and the train rolled forward to the lift hill, Gideon started a steady refrain of, “Shitohshit.”
“God, I love this sound,” Jax yelled out as the click of the chain lift started.
It was perfect. Theo wanted to freeze it right there. He knew why Gideon worried. It wouldn’t be easy for the four of them to stay close, but it didn’t have to be so hard either. The movie-perfect metaphor of reaching the top of the hill together wasn’t wasted. “All downhill from here,” Theo said. “Hands up as we go over the top.”
“The fuck I will.” Gideon’s last word was torn away on a blur of wind and roar of the wheels on the track.
Theo and Jax laughed as they were thrown into each other on the curves, and Theo knew he could not be the only one enjoying the low-down tingle on the drops and when they popped out of their seats. Maybe he could talk them into riding again.
That level of desperation for something to tickle his balls was a clear sign that with finals over, Theo was in serious need of a steady boyfriend.
He forgot all about that when Gideon’s hands shot into the air to match the rest of them. A perfect bubble of joy popped in Theo’s chest.
They’d be fine. They’d make this work. Dane would get over himself and stop jerking Gideon’s chain, and Jax would find another sitcom where his cute but hammy acting choices fit right in, and Theo would write the next Wicked, and they were going to live these amazing lives.
But before then, Dane was going to keep right on jerking Gideon around. Sitting right behind them, it was impossible to miss the way Dane leaned in and laughed against Gideon’s neck, murmuring something that got lost in the clank of track as the train lurched back into the station.
They were barely past the exit before Gideon spun some lame excuse to disappear.
He grabbed his stomach, muttering, “Thanks, Theo, now I need to puke.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Dane offered with a sigh that sounded put-upon, both of them racewalking toward the squat brick public restroom.
Jax wrapped an arm around Theo’s shoulders. “Do they honestly think we don’t know?”
Theo leaned his head on Jax’s shoulder. “I have no idea. But they obviously need to pretend for some reason.”
“Dane is never going to stop fucking around. G knows that better than anyone.”
The way Gideon’s face softened sometimes when he thought no one could see him looking at Dane had always made Theo want to slap the smugness out of Dane’s green eyes.
“Yeah, he does,” Theo agreed. Unfortunately, Gideon knew it better than any of them.
As if their pathetic acting jobs hadn’t been clue enough, the bottom half of Gideon’s T-shirt was obviously wet when he and Dane rejoined them on the boardwalk.
Dane had on his smuggest face. Gideon looked… not relaxed but at least less grim than he had the past week. Theo was taking some credit for that with the ride on the roller coaster.
“Feel better?” Theo asked.
“Yeah.” Gideon put his hand behind Theo’s neck and drew him close. “It was fun. Good plan, Theo.” He brushed a kiss across Theo’s cheek.
“Good. Because I have another one.” It was perfect, really.
“If it’s that Ferris wheel, you can fucking forget it,” Gideon said, shoving Theo away.
“’Fraid of heights, G?” Jax laughed.
“What was your first clue?” Gideon punched him in the shoulder.
“Ow.” Jax rubbed the spot and looked genuinely wounded.
“No Ferris wheel,” Theo began. “Today is the third Sunday in May. What if, every year, we meet here on the same Sunday? Ride the Cyclone, catch up. That way it’s a promise instead of just saying that we’ll keep in touch.” He gave them a wry smile. “You all can be assholes sometimes, but I’d really miss the hell out of you guys if we never saw each other again.”
“Gee, thanks,” Jax said.
“Yes.” Gideon’s instant agreement surprised Theo. He might be the one who came up with the plans, but without Gideon’s backing, they’d never happen. “Let’s do it.”
With a sidelong look at Gideon, Dane shrugged. “I’m in.”
Jax shrugged too. “It’s a quick plane trip from LA. Especially in first class.”
“Promise?” Theo urged. Maybe he’d caught a little of Gideon’s fatalism, his chest tight with a sudden fear that this would be the last time he saw these guys.
“I might love dick, but I’m nowhere near gay enough to pinky swear, Theo.” Dane waggled his curled pinky.
Theo snagged Dane’s finger and made a crooked link anyway. “Close enough.”
KIERAN’S PHONE buzzed incessantly in his pocket, and he glared at his khakis as if he could see through to the caller. What part of ‘away from my desk’ is confusing to you people?
It was his own fault for violating his core principle: Success invariably leads to diminished returns. He’d done one job well because it was interesting, and now everyone in the building wanted the Korean IT Guy With the Hair to be the one who showed up when they yelled for help.
He sank down against the wall until he sat folded, head on his knees. He’d hide out in the server room, at least until the afternoon sleepies hit around two and they all started playing their Facebook games. In fact, as long as they could get online to Facebook, probably no one would notice if everything else on the servers went dark.
This room had a consistently cool temperature, perfect humidity control, and top-of-the-line filters. His nose and eyes never itched when he was in here. The constant rush of the fans blotted out any outside noise.
The phone buzzed again, a steady rhythm. He should have put it on silent.
Just audible over the white noise of the fans, keys jangled outside, then scraped against the door. Not a lot of people had keys to the server room, but most of the ones who did could fire him. He rolled onto his knees and slid across the floor, pulled out a screwdriver, and prepared to look busy.
A voice came to him now—Shanara, the office manager. As bosses went, she wasn’t a bad one, but Kieran still figured hiding and ignoring his phone would probably get him reported to the head of IT, who was a total dick.
“Someone said they saw him headed this way.”
“Thank you for all your help, Shanara.”
Kieran dropped the screwdriver. What the hell was Theo doing here, thirty blocks away from where Kieran thought he was? His brain raced through multiple possibilities. Theo had met Kieran’s family, but why would Theo have been the one to come if something had happened to one of them?
“My pleasure, Mr. Medina.”
The door opened. Kieran straightened from picking up his screwdriver and caught Theo’s wink square in the chest.
There it was again. That funny jolt that Kieran was sure his sister, the epidemiologist, could explain resulted through neurotransmitters, conditioned responses, and hormone dumps. But since Siobhan had been in Sierra Leone for the past eight months working to contain the latest Ebola outbreak, she was a little busy for stupid questions about why Kieran’s heart jumped when his boyfriend looked at him like that.
As cheerful as Theo usually was, Kieran was pretty sure Theo wouldn’t wink if something bad had happened. It didn’t explain why he was suddenly next to Shanara in the door to the server room.
Hi seemed like a safer bet than What the fuck are you doing here? so he went with that.
“Hey, I wanted to take you to lunch.” Theo’s smile didn’t affect Kieran’s nervous system like that look could, but it was definitely an autonomous response that made Kieran smile back. “I planned to do it tomorrow, but it’s the understudy’s first matinee and I need to be there.”
“You’re so lucky, Kieran.” Shanara had a smile a bit brighter than her usual professional one. Theo had the same effect on other people. “My boyfriend probably won’t even remember.”
Kieran was already in the same boat with Shanara’s boyfriend. Then he saw the rose Theo produced from behind his back, and Kieran’s brain latched on to the significance. Valentine’s Day was this weekend.
Theo turned and offered the rose to Shanara. “If you can spare him.”
She held the paper-wrapped stem in the space between them. “I thought this was for Kieran.”
Theo sighed. “He’s allergic to flowers. And romance. But I’m working on him.”
Kieran shoved his glasses up on his nose and glared, only to get smacked with another Theo wink, which induced a helpless shake of his head.
“It might take some time….” Theo trailed off and glanced at Shanara.
Her smile was broad, sharpening her cheeks. “You have personal leave banked, right, Kieran?” Barely pausing for his agreement, she said, “I’ll write you as out for the afternoon, let Todd know.”
Kieran nodded. The less he had to deal with the asshole director of IT, the better. Especially now that Kieran was in high demand.
“Thank you so much, Shanara.” Theo handed her a business card. “Just present that at the Will Call window any time and they’ll take care of you.”
“Thank you, Theo. Be sure to lock up the server room, Kieran.”
Shanara shut the door, which had an auto lock, so Kieran was puzzling over her order when Theo put his hands behind Kieran’s neck and kissed him.
A typical Theo kiss, warm, open, inviting Kieran to decide if it was going deeper.
Kieran put his hands on Theo’s back, under his coat, touched the velvety fleece, and breathed in the rich leather scent from his shoulder. The heavy wool coat Theo had been wearing when they met vanished immediately when Kieran confessed his allergy to it.
When Kieran drew back, Theo released him with a leer. “Cozy in your little den, here.”
Kieran shook his head. “The servers are sensitive to humidity. I’m pretty sure that includes jizz.”
“I’m insulted. I never spill a drop.”
Theo said it mockingly, but the reminder of how incredible Theo was at sucking dick stirred a tingle in Kieran’s balls.
“Yeah.” Theo leaned to brush his forehead against Kieran’s. “You’re thinking about it now.”
He was right. Because Theo was damned good at reading Kieran. The first person ever who bothered to pay enough attention to figure out—and offer—what Kieran wanted.
A nooner sounded interesting, but they certainly weren’t doing it in the server room.
“Thought you said we were going to lunch?”
“I did. Are you hungry?”
Kieran shrugged. He could eat, but he didn’t want Theo to think Kieran expected a lobster dinner just because he was peckish. Theo liked making people happy. He wasn’t a pushover or anything. Kieran had heard him get pissed enough to snap at people on the phone. Once when he met Theo at the theater, Kieran had heard him go off in a rage about a delivery of light bulbs. So scratch that. Theo was nice to most people, but he liked trying to make Kieran happy. And that didn’t suck at all.
The look in Theo’s eyes did that thing to Kieran’s circulatory system again as Theo tugged him toward the door. “Come on, then.”