KILMER CAME back to “present and accounted for” as the front door of Vance’s spacious farmhouse flew open. Kilmer was standing on the porch with little idea how he’d gotten there. Light bright enough to make him wince flared into his face. He lifted a hand to cover his eyes, and grimaced.
“Kil?” Vance’s deep voice rumbled through his gut. So familiar because it had once been his touchstone. But Vance sounded so different from Jacko. Had he really not noticed the cool tones in Jacko’s commands that he had learned to heed over the past four years? How had he never noticed the difference? Vance was so… so—not his anymore.
“What are you doin’ here?” Vance grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. “Where are your shoes?”
“I—” Kilmer glanced down at his bare feet. Maybe they were still in the car. He couldn’t remember.
“Jacko’s been callin’ every five minutes. What happened?”
“Vance?” Len’s voice this time, from where he stood on the stairs. “He’s on the phone again. What do I tell him?”
“He’s here. He’s safe. Tell him to fuck the hell off.”
“Um.” Len’s light steps pattered down a few more stairs. He held the phone out to Kilmer. “You want to talk to him?”
Kilmer took the phone and hit the End button. He handed the receiver to Vance.
“Okay, then,” Len said, voice small but comforting. “Come upstairs.”
They led him, Len in front, and Vance behind like he was afraid Kilmer would fall back down the stairs if he wasn’t there to catch him.
Kilmer felt unsteady and vacant. He wasn’t so sure Vance was wrong to stay where he could catch Kilmer if he stumbled. They made it all the way up, though, and Kilmer continued to follow Len as he led him into their bedroom.
Another bedroom? Now?
Kilmer faltered just inside the doorway.
“Okay.” Vance laid a hand at the small of his back and Kilmer flinched away, because he was covered in a stranger’s mess and even through the cotton shirt, Vance shouldn’t touch that. “Come on.” Vance powered him forward with that touch anyway, either not noticing or ignoring it all. “Sit.”
Kilmer was guided to the bed and he collapsed onto the edge of the mattress.
“Spill,” Vance demanded.
Kilmer shook his head. He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t…. He looked up into Vance’s face and saw concern. Worry. No little amount of anger. He turned away from the storm of emotion.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Kilmer said dully. “I knew what I was doin’. I just….”
“What were you doin’?” Vance asked.
Kilmer hefted his gaze up to meet Vance’s. “Endin’ it. In the worst way possible. I—” He’d taken Jacko’s trust and twisted it into barbed wire and insult. He’d hammered the last nail into the coffin of their relationship and let the tiny little bell toll the last gasp of it at Jacko’s feet.
“From the beginnin’,” Vance said, a hand coming to rest on the back of his neck. “Take your time, but tell me everythin’.”
And because in that moment he needed so very badly to have a rule, a lead, one small thing to believe could be real, he took it for a command and he told.
By the end he was sandwiched between them, Len on one side, arm wrapped snuggly around his waist, Vance on the other, hand still at the back of his neck, kneading gently. Both of them had their other hands on him, one on each of his forearms.
“So I left.” Kilmer looked at Vance. “I… don’t actually remember that part. Gettin’ in the car and leavin’.” Though he did have that vision of Jacko on the lawn, barefoot, bare-chested, the looming image of Rocky, broad and strong and waiting in the light of the front door.
“And drivin’?” Vance asked.
Kilmer shook his head. He’d driven the path between his bungalow and the Texas Ex ranch so many times he could do it in his sleep. This time, apparently, he had. It chilled him to realize he had no memory of the drive. Had he turned his headlights on? Had he taken that last turn, the hairpin around the foot of the moraine, wide? How close had he come to the guardrails along the ravine and up over the steep rise? He shuddered. So many ways to die on that stretch of country road.
“Okay,” Vance said, like he had a million times over the past hour as Kilmer haltingly told his story. “You need to shower. You want help?”
Help? Who was going to help him? He shook his head. “I can manage.” He met Vance’s eyes. “I’m okay. I know where everythin’ is. I’ll take the room up here, though. That okay?” Because he didn’t want to sleep in his usual accommodations in the room off the kitchen. It was plain and decent, but it was the help’s space. Barren, just like the spare room at… home.
“You’ll shower here,” Vance decided, pointing to the en suite. “Len, can you find him somethin’ to put on?”
“Sure.” Len jumped up and hurried to the dresser. He found a T-shirt and sweats that had to be Vance’s because there was no way Len’s tiny frame would hold on to the clothes.
The phone rang and Vance picked up. He didn’t even say hello. “He made it here alive. Don’t call again.” He hung up.
Kilmer could have kissed him for that. And he could have crumpled to the floor to cry. He stood very still so he didn’t actually do either.
Len stepped forward and offered the clothing.
Kilmer accepted them and meekly headed into the bathroom. He really should just go across the hall. But both his friends seemed willing to keep him close, and maybe, for just tonight, that was okay. It was what he wanted.
To be okay.
He shucked his jeans, showered, and dried off. His own clothes had been magicked away, so he donned the clean clothes, then peered back out to the bedroom. Vance was sitting up in bed. Len was curled on his side, back to the bathroom, knees up tight, possibly asleep.
“I appreciate this,” Kilmer said, keeping his vice low. “Still want to sleep up here, though.” To Vance he could admit the weakness. Tonight he could be weak. Just this once because Vance knew him.
“Come here.” Vance peeled back the covers and patted the mattress between him and Len.
“Lie down,” Len said sleepily. “Get some rest.”
Kilmer’s throat closed, tight and aching. He nodded and climbed up from the foot of the bed, to lie on his back between them. Almost immediately Len rolled over and slung an arm across his chest.
“Night,” Len whispered.
Kilmer glanced at Vance, who shrugged, clicked out the bedside lamp, and shimmied down on Kilmer’s other side.
“You need care,” Vance said matter-of-factly. “Go to sleep.” He planted a kiss on Kilmer’s hair and laced his fingers with Len’s.
They weren’t touching, but Kilmer could feel Vance’s weight and presence, even his heat. Despite the sting behind his eyes, he managed to settle. It wasn’t a solution, but it was a hell of a lot closer to okay here, in the oddness of his friends’ bed, than it had been in the familiarity of his own Dom’s hands.
He didn’t think he would ever sleep, and then he was waking up to sunshine and the smell of coffee.
KILMER ROLLED onto his back and scrubbed a hand over his face. He was the only one still in bed. The sun was high enough to stream through the window, telling him it was well past his usual wake-up time. The door to the suite’s bathroom was closed, but he heard the shower running. Good. That gave him space to sneak out of the room and hopefully out the back door and into the barn, where he could find some work clothes, get a shovel, and pretend last night had not happened.
Except for the chasm of empty in his gut where all his trust in Jacko had been. Or… had Kilmer been the one to destroy that? He poked about in the shards of his broken relationship but found no real clues as to who had landed the final shattering hammerblow.
Quietly he got up, gathered up T-shirt and jeans from a pile of clean clothes tossed on the foot of the bed. No sign of his boots. He must have left those in the car. He pulled on the jeans, still warm from the dryer, and headed for the stairs, shirt in hand.
The jeans, he realized, weren’t his. They were too long and slipped down his hips, so they had to be Vance’s, but it didn’t matter. They’d cover his ass for the short jog from house to barn, where likely a pair of his own hung in the tack room. He’d return these later.
Halfway to the landing, he heard the clattering of dishes in the kitchen and Len’s sweet tenor humming away.
Shit. No escape through the back, then. Len would see him and Kilmer would have to talk. He scrambled down the last few steps and tried a dash for the front door instead. He could hightail it around the house to freedom.
A heavy thudding sounded just as he touched the handle, shaking the door with the weight of it. He knew—he just knew it was Jacko. Thankfully the curtain hid him from view.
Spinning, he dodged into the office and closed the door most of the way behind him. Footsteps from the kitchen heralded Len’s approach. The front door opened, and he faintly heard a greeting in a low rumbling voice that shook his already unsteady guts into gelatinous goo.
He rested his head on the office doorframe and tried to breathe through the sticky mess.
“What are you doing here?” Len asked coldly.
“Where is he?” Jacko’s bass voice filled the entire front room.
“I need to see him.”
“You fucked up.” Len’s voice was flat, dead of emotion, like a concrete barrier between Jacko and anything the fiery little redhead cared about.
“Not your business, boy,” Jacko rumbled.
Len made a furious noise. The sound of footsteps hurrying down the stairs followed. Kilmer peered out the crack between the office door and its frame as Vance passed, headed for the front door. His friend was dressed in a pair of faded jeans too tight for the button to fasten. His chest still glistened with water.
“Watch how you address my partner,” Vance growled. He placed a hand on Len’s shoulder and stood at his back, a head and more taller than his lover but not towering over him. Just there.
“Always been your problem, Vance,” Jacko said. “You give them too much leeway. You ruined Kilmer. Look at him now. Can’t get the boy to behave no matter what I do.”
“Jacko,” Vance said in warning.
There was a long silence. Feet shuffled, and finally Jacko spoke. “I handled him badly.”
“You think?” Len responded with venom and Vance’s fingers on his shoulder tightened. “I mean,” Len said, subduing his tone though the anger in his expression remained, “maybe instead of handling him, you should have listened to him.”
Kilmer sighed. Maybe Len was right, but that was not Jacko’s way. He dictated. Jacko needed a boy who liked that about him, not one who wanted to second-guess him, who wanted to speak his mind—to defy the very thing Jacko based his dominance on every chance he got. There was a line between intelligently thinking through your Master’s decisions and flagrantly defying the ones you didn’t like. Kilmer had crossed that line some time ago and hadn’t really noticed until it was too late. Perhaps he had defied the spirit of their initial contract, but Jacko had steadfastly refused to renegotiate. Kilmer had an obligation to them both to be true to himself and keep trying.
“Len,” Vance said softly. “Jacko and Kilmer have a different kind of dynamic than we do.”
“Jacko does, maybe,” Len said. “Kil doesn’t, and you”—Len pointed a finger at Jacko—“need to get that before you lose him.”
To Kilmer’s surprise, Jacko nodded. “I do get it.”
“I’m not sure you do.” Vance sounded skeptical.
“He’s special,” Jacko said. “I know that. And I’ve not allowed him to express it.”
Fuck. He couldn’t hide here and listen to them discussing him like he was an interesting problem to solve. He was a human being and Jacko had fucked up. Kilmer had fucked up. The whole fucking thing was fucked the hell up.
“It’s all right,” he said, emerging from hiding.
“You sure?” Vance asked.
Kilmer nodded. “You mind?” He pointed back to the office and Vance dipped his chin in assent.
“You need anything, just call. We’ll be in the kitchen.”
Kilmer gave him the best big-boy smile he could muster and motioned Jacko past him into the room. “Thanks. I’ll be fine.”
How many times had he told Vance that? Every night for how long now, as he climbed into his car and headed for home, he’d said some version of it. How often had he lied to his best friend? He offered an apologetic shrug as Vance turned to give him one last out.
“I gotta do this.” That at least was true.
Inside the room, with the door closed, he turned to face Jacko, braced for his Dom’s disapproval.
“You scared the ever-loving crap out of me last night, boy,” Jacko rumbled. And that had to be true because it was the closest Kilmer had ever heard Jacko come to swearing.
“What happened? Everything was fine, and then you were losing it—”
“You really think everythin’ is fine?” Kilmer asked.
“It was when you were on your knees. You live for that—”
“For you, Si—Jacko.” He pulled in a deep breath at the stiffening of Jacko’s posture. He didn’t like when Kilmer used his name. It wasn’t supposed to be how they worked. But they were broken, and if Jacko didn’t realize how badly, this might be the only way to show him. As much as it killed to call him anything other than “Sir,” Kilmer could no longer give him that much.
“What?” Jacko stared at him, more intent than angry, and that was actually more unsettling than if he’d lost his temper.
“I lived for you to be that guy,” Kilmer said. “My… touchstone. My rock. Whatever. I did everything you asked when it was you and me. I let you do things no one else has ever been allowed to do because I trusted you to take care of me.”
“And I do.”
“No.” Kilmer’s voice shook. “Not lately. Lately you’ve taken care of your own hurt feelings or embarrassment or whatever the hell you want to call it when I do things like stand up for a friend, instead of fawning at your feet and agreeing with you when you’re wrong.”
“You know your place, boy,” Jacko said, taking a step toward him.
“I thought I did, yes.” Kilmer ached to move closer, to agree with Jacko, to give the older man what he wanted. Give in and have the comfort of his man in his bed again, strong hands to hold him down and give him a place when he was so far from the home he’d grown up in.
But he couldn’t. He could never give in to that temptation again, because Jacko had shown him last night something he’d tried hard for a very long time to ignore. Jacko was Kilmer’s Dom. Not his lover. Not his partner. Barely even his friend. And Kilmer couldn’t live with that kind of relationship any more than he could have lived with Vance’s version of dominance.
“I guess that’s the problem, isn’t it?” Jacko asked. “You always need to think these days. Analyze what we’re doing, instead of just doing it.”
Kilmer stared at him. “Yes.” It was a pretty simple statement in the end. Kilmer had a brain and he used it. Jacko wanted blind obedience.
“Why?” The plea in Jacko’s voice caught Kilmer off guard. “Why now? You never did before. You followed my lead. You let me make the decisions. You did as you were told.”
“Because….” Kilmer faltered. Had he been that pliable? He’d never been so with Vance. Well. Maybe that wasn’t true either.
When he’d been a young man living in Texas, being gay was a trial. He and Vance had bonded over it, and when Vance fled the state and eventually the country to follow his rising musical star, Kilmer followed.
Vance had used the copious amounts of money he made as a country singer to buy this spread in rural Ontario. He’d asked Kilmer to come run it for him when he was on the road, and Kilmer jumped at the chance.
He loved his tight-knit family back in Texas. He did not love how he had to hide so much of himself for them to love him back.
Besides, he and Vance had made a good team. Back home they had been compatible friends and lovers, off and on, for a long time. Then Vance left on his quest for fame. Kilmer saw the tabloid gossip as Vance tumbled downhill fast, drinking too much and screwing indiscriminately. He needed a home and someone to keep it for him. He needed stability. Kilmer could save the domineering singer from himself and make that home. So he packed up and moved to Ontario and into Vance’s life. They picked up their affair where it had dropped off, and Kilmer loved that somewhere along the way, Vance had learned to control his dominance. Kilmer was happy to let the control seep over into their sex life.
Vance wanted a partner in the business and a submissive lover in bed. He wanted a thinking, rational, capable man to run his land and his life when he was busy touring with his music. As long as Vance wasn’t on the scene, Kilmer had delivered, but he’d been unable to subordinate himself to Vance in bed and still maintain his autonomy out of it when Vance came home. It was his own weakness, and he knew it.
The moment Vance came home, Kilmer fell into a pattern of needy uselessness neither of them liked. Their friendship thankfully turned out to be stronger than their love affair, and they let the latter go to preserve the former. They were good friends now, and made a strong, successful business team.
Len and Vance worked because Len wasn’t running the ranch or any other part of Vance’s life. He was his submissive, his lover, and his friend, and he had a life of his own in the music world, was a rock star in his own right. They worked because the personal power dynamic didn’t touch their professional lives.
With his success running the ranch, Kilmer had been so sure he was strong enough to take another Dom and not fall into the same trap. He met Jacko at the bar in town when he’d been playing bass for a house band. They clicked. Kilmer felt sure here was a man strong enough to understand the side of Kilmer that could run a ranch. They had music in common, and Jacko could put Kilmer on his knees with a word and a hand placed just right. That didn’t mean Kilmer would fall under the spell like he had last time. He was still his own man. Jacko would not run his life. He’d been so confident.
Had he failed so utterly?
Jacko’s stern voice shook him, and he shrugged both shoulders to throw off the yoke before it could settle.