Chapter One

 

Jerry dropped his head into his hand and propped it on his knee. Well, damn.

The text on his phone winked up at him.

So sorry. Miss you so much. Got here and knew I had to stay. Probably best. Not meant to be. Will call but wanted you to know before the weekend. Have to go to retreat. Bill.

The screen went black. Just perfect. He pushed the phone back in the pocket of his jeans lying beside him on the bench and slammed his locker door with his foot.

He wanted to let me know before the weekend. The weekend when he and Bill were supposed to talk about moving in together. The weekend when they were going to the Firefighter’s Ball. But Bill had gotten that dumbass phone call from Berkeley. They wanted him back, and he said he had to go. It would only be polite. Just to talk, he said. But he’d been so damned excited.

Excited to leave… Jerry.

Shit. Jerry got up from the bench and pulled the towel tighter around his waist. Done, man. Just need to get home.

He walked into the showers, threw the towel over the first hook, leaned in and turned on the faucet, then stepped under the water. It poured over his head. He loved water. And fire. Jerry Wallender—surfer and firefighter. Funny how he’d picked those things in his life.

He hadn’t exactly picked Bill. Bill the brainiac had picked him. Oh, Jerry, you’re so beautiful. Oh, Jerry, you’re so funny. Yeah, but he never said Oh, Jerry, you’re so smart. That never happened.

He sloshed some soap across his body, rinsed, and turned off the water. Waves. He needed waves. Drown his sorrows. Maybe just drown. Wasn’t that what they did with animals that were too dumb to live? He ran a hand over his thick hair to wring out some water, then pulled open the door.

“Hey, Jeeerrrry. How you doin’, pretty boy? Got a hot date with your nerd fag?”

Shit. Not now. Mick Cassidy, delicious and obnoxious, was leaning on the wall next to Jerry’s towel. The platinum-blond redwood of a man was fully dressed in his uniform, so he wasn’t about to take a shower. He was just there to fulfill his personal job of making Jerry’s life fucking hell. “Just shove it, Mick. Didn’t Rodney teach you to keep your fucking mouth to yourself?”

The big man frowned for a flash, then smiled. “He should just try me when I’m not drunk.”

“You’re always drunk.” Jerry stepped forward fast, and Mick fell back. Jerry grabbed the towel from the hook and stalked to his locker. Damn the asshole. Usually he just ignored Mick, but today he’d like to punch him out, even if he was half again Jerry’s size. He pulled on his jeans and T-shirt, then glanced back. Mick was gone. Good.

He sat hard on the bench. I expect Mick to be an asshole, but Bill? No, that blindsided him. Of course, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, so a lot of things surprised him. Bill wasn’t even his type. He liked big hunks like Mick—his idea of heaven. But Bill had been so nice. He could never say enough nice shit about Jerry. Of course, that was before he got to know me.

He dropped his head in his hands. Why had he ever thought he could keep a guy like Bill?

 

 

Mick peeked around the corner of the firehouse locker room. Jerry’s beautiful. No wonder that little fag painter Rodney wanted to put Jerry on canvas all the time. Rodney was the same little homo who had beaten up Mick at the Festival of the Arts. Knocked him on his ass and banged some sense into him. Mick rubbed his chin. He’d done a job of it too. Got him off booze.

Mick pressed against the tile wall and stared at Jerry’s naked ass as he put on his jeans. Wow. Maybe if I keep working out at the gym, I’ll look a little like that someday. That ass was solid rock. Legs too. He remembered Jerry’s long hair when he’d first come to the station. Now it was short and thick and just a little long on the neck. Nice.

He breathed out slowly. Funny that Jerry had yelled at him. He didn’t usually yell when Mick teased him. He just laughed and showed off those dimples. Mick wasn’t great at figuring out why people did things, but maybe Jerry was having a bad day.

No matter what Mick’s father said, Jerry was one of the nicest guys at the station. No, the nicest guy. Everybody loved him. Why does he have to be a fag? Mick shivered.

He took another quick look around the corner. What the hell? Jerry had his head in his hands. Was he crying? Jerry didn’t cry. He was brave. Did I make Jerry cry? He stepped toward the locker room.

What could he do?

“Hey, Jer, you okay?” He walked over and sat next to Jerry. “I’m sorry. You know me. I just shoot my mouth off sometimes.”

Jerry looked up. Hell, his eyes were red, but he seemed surprised. “It’s okay, man. Not you. I just… got some bad news.”

Mick punched his arm. “Must be real bad. I’ve never seen you get upset, you know?”

Jerry stared at him. Those eyes were so blue they looked like some ocean in a cruise commercial. He shook his head. “No, not that bad really, I guess. Thanks for asking.”

“Sure. Sure.” He kind of wanted to stay sitting there, but he didn’t have a reason, and Jerry was staring at him like he should say something else. “Uh, are you coming to the Firefighter’s Ball?”

Jerry got a funny look, as if something hurt like hell. Then he shook his head, but he didn’t say anything.

“Uh, okay, then.” Mick got up and walked out of the locker room. He glanced back. Jerry just sat there. Would have been nice to stay with him.

 

 

“Oh God, darling, I’m so terribly sorry.” Jerry looked up as Rod leaned over the island from his kitchen and waved an oven mitt. “I love Bill, but I’ll take him out for you if you want.”

Jerry had to smile. At five foot six and about 145 pounds, Rodney Mansfield was to Jerry what Jerry was to Mick Cassidy—a pip-squeak. But he was one devil of a fighter. Black belt in karate and defender of his lover, Hunter, which was funny since Hunter was Jerry’s size and an ex-firefighter. But Rod was way tough.

Hunter walked in from the kitchen and pushed a sweating beer bottle at Jerry, then sat next to him on the couch and wrapped a muscled arm around his shoulders. God, that felt good. Jerry leaned his head against Hunter’s chest.

Hunter’s soft, deep voice rumbled in Jerry’s ear. “I can’t believe Bill broke up with you by text message. He’s always been so kind. Why would he do that?”

Jerry sighed. “I don’t think he meant to. He needed to tell me before the weekend, and he couldn’t call because they pulled him into some kind of retreat thing for professors. I’m sure he wanted to tell me enough so I’d get it. It just came off pretty harsh, man.” He shook his head.

Rod came over and sat on the floor on the other side of the coffee table. This place was so comforting. A small house with big art. All the walls sported Rodney’s huge paintings of nude men. One was even of Jerry. The furniture felt cushy, and the men were good friends.

Funny, he’d sort of thought he loved Hunter once too. BB. Before Bill. But even though he and Hunter had dated for a while, Hunter and Rodney were made for each other. Yeah, they were such a perfect match—all smart and educated and full of poetry and shit. He hadn’t even been too sad when Hunter picked Rod. Hell, Bill was even more educated than Hunter, but Jerry hadn’t been as intimidated by Bill. Maybe he should have been.

He sat up and scooted over, and Hunter followed to make room on his other side. Rod got up beside his love, and Hunter snuggled him close, keeping his other arm around Jerry.

Jerry hummed a little. Nice to be with his buddies. “Hey, speaking of weird shit, man, I’ve got one for you.”

Rod leaned forward and looked at him. “What?”

“Guess who was nice to me today?”

“It sure wasn’t Bill Abraham.”

He shook his head. “Nope. It was Mick Fucking Cassidy.”

Hunter’s eyes widened. “The Mick? My Mick?”

Rodney grinned. “Don’t you mean my Mick, darling?”

Jerry nodded. “Yeah. I even shoved the fact that you beat him up in his face, and he was still nice to me.”

Hunter frowned. No love lost there. “So how did this miracle occur?”

“I was bummed about Bill’s message, and I was in the shower and Mick starts his usual antihomo crap, and I just wasn’t in the mood so I told him to fuck off. A few minutes later, he comes over and is like consoling me because I looked sad, I guess. He was actually nice. It was diseased, man.”

Hunter shrugged. “I think he nearly got fired for his insults to me and my family. Maybe he’s trying to make up for it.”

“But this was in private, man. Nobody to show off for, you know?”

Rodney leaned over Hunter and clinked his beer bottle with Jerry’s. “Darling, you have charms to tame the savage homophobe.”

Jerry shrugged. “Maybe.” That had to be one of Rod’s book quotes. He and Hunter were always doing that.

“And you must admit, over that nasty interior lives the body of a total hunk.” Rod laughed.

Hunter stared at Rod, then looked at Jerry. “You’re kidding me. You think that Neanderthal is good-looking?”

Jerry nudged his lean ribs. “Hey, aren’t you guys always telling me that Neanderthals were smart and civilized? Maybe they were hunks too.”

Rod sat on the edge of the seat and looked at Hunter and Jerry. “Consider the facts. He’s what? Six foot four? Five? I’ve seen him at the station once or twice lately, and he seems to have slimmed in all the right places.”

Jerry nodded. “Yeah, I think you beating him got him back to the gym and off the sauce.”

“Well, it does look good on him. And hell, he’s even blonder than you, darling. Some great Aryan sex god, I think.”

Hunter scowled. “And meaner than piss.”

Rod laughed. “Well, there is that. But if he feels even a hint of compassion for our boy here, he can’t be all bad.”

Hunter nudged him. “Wanna bet?”

Rod leaped up in his usual hyper way and ran into the open kitchen. A couple of seconds later, he bounded back with a plate of cheese and some crackers. He offered a napkin to Hunter, then one to Jerry. “So tell me, darling, don’t I remember that you’re supposed to be going to some ball or other this weekend?”

Shit. Why did that keep coming up? “I was, but I’m not going now.”

“Why?”

“No date.” Those two words felt like some kind of surfboard got shoved down his throat.

Rod clapped his hands. “It’s only Monday. We can have a fine date lined up by Saturday.”

Hunter hugged Rod and nuzzled his neck. “Aren’t you tired of trying to fix Jerry up yet? Your last attempt practically kept you and me apart.”

Rod looked down at his long-fingered painter’s hands. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Then he grinned and looked up at Jerry. “But if I find the perfect guy before Friday, I’m setting him up.”

“Thanks, man. But I think I should stand down for a while. Bill kind of messed me up.”

Rod waved a hand. “Got to get back on the horse, darling.” He flashed those straight teeth. “Especially if I can find someone who’s hung like one.”