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“It’s Paul,” Christy announced breathlessly, shaking her head and scowling. “He’s booked a trip to Fiji for us for Christmas! Fiji, Derek!”
“Um,” Derek said, opening the door to let her in. “The bastard?”
Christy elbowed him as she stepped inside. She dumped her overflowing shoulder bag on the floor and headed through to the kitchen. “Your sarcasm isn’t helping!”
“Well, that’s not what sarcasm is for,” Derek said. He followed her through. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to Fiji for Christmas with the same man you were referring to only last week as Boyfriend McAwesome. Are you sure it’s help you need, not congratulations?”
Christie snorted. She took a glass from the dish rack and filled it from the tap. “God, this place is a mess!”
Derek looked around the kitchen. The breakfast table was piled high with Lane’s textbooks, and the bench was covered in last night’s takeaway containers, but it was hardly a pigsty. And Christy, who had an actual pigsty at her house, which doubled as an overflow for the animal shelter she ran, was in no position to judge.
“Oh shit,” he said. “The animals. Of course.”
“Of course,” Christy said. “Look, Rachel has agreed to move in and house-sit, since she’s done it before, but there’s a problem.”
“She’s done it before,” Christy said. She sighed. “So she’s refusing to take Mr. Zimmerman.”
Mr. Zimmerman was a macaw and was legendary throughout Christy’s neighborhood for the stream of foul-mouthed abuse that he could dish out on unsuspecting visitors. Like the mailman. Or the Girl Scouts. Or, once, the FBI.
“No,” Derek said.
“Please!” Christy actually clasped her hands together. “Mom’s going to stay with Aunt Greta, so she can’t take him, and I really, really, really want to go to Fiji with Paul!”
“Can’t you put him in the shelter while you’re gone?”
“Derek, people visit the shelter. It’s not like I can convince parents to take a puppy home for their kids if they’ve just been called filthy syphilitic whores, is it?” She widened her eyes. “I’ll buy you the best present!”
Derek sighed and shook his head, but he already knew he was beaten. “You’d better.”
Christy hugged him. “You are the best brother ever!”
Derek grunted and brought his arms slowly up to hug her back. “I know. But keep in mind I’m only saying yes because the bird’ll behave for Lane.”
It was true. While the macaw spent all day, every day repeating phrases he’d learned from his crotchety former owner and namesake, Mr. Z tended to tone it down when Lane was around. Just a couple of weeks ago, Derek had overheard him mutter to Lane, “You’re a good man, Corporal.” And Lane had thanked him.
But then, Lane had a way with animals even Christy envied.
“Exactly,” Christy said, stepping back. “And Lane likes him, right?”
“Lane doesn’t have it in him to hate an animal.” Or a person, for that matter. Though Derek could name a few people off the top of his head Lane ought to hate. And it wasn’t so much that Lane believed the best of everyone, but rather that he tended to believe the worst of himself. Derek still thought the only time Lane truly relaxed was when he was around Christy’s menagerie. Which was frustrating, since Derek liked to think he had at least as much to offer Lane as any one-eyed cat or split-eared dog.
But Derek kept reminding himself to be patient. He and Lane had only been together six months, and given all the shit that had gone down over the summer, Derek was impressed their relationship was going as well as it was.
Christy cocked her head. “What’s wrong?”
Derek shook his head and forced a smile. “When does our houseguest arrive?”
“Does Wednesday work for you? We’ll be back the twenty-seventh.”
“Whoa! You’re gonna be gone a whole month?”
“Three weeks.” She looked at him pleadingly. “Paul thinks I need a long break.”
Derek sighed. “Fine.”
“Thank you, Derek. Seriously.” Christy turned at a soft jingling down the hall. Andy padded into the foyer, head down, tail wagging, nails clicking on the linoleum. “Well, it took you long enough,” she said to the dog.
Andy stopped about a foot from her and stretched, spreading his front toes and yawning.
“Oh please,” Christy said. “You couldn’t make it another three steps?”
Derek grinned. “He’s become a total couch potato. I think Lane slips him too many table scraps.”
Christy crouched and scratched Andy’s ears. “Don’t you let him do that,” she cautioned. “Bad for their coats, bad for their behavior, and bad for their metabolism.”
“Come on. Like you’ve never given your zoo your leftovers.”
Christy twisted her mouth. “I’m just saying, he’s definitely put on some weight.” She patted Andy’s stomach and pursed her lips as Andy licked her face. “Unlike Lane. So maybe Lane ought to be eating that food himself instead of feeding it to the dog.”
“I know. But you try reasoning with him.”
Christy stood. “Lane’s so hard to reason with.”
Derek snorted. “Impossible, right?”
“No respect for anyone else.”
“Refuses to follow orders.”
Derek narrowed his eyes at her.
Christy snickered. “Sorry, I wasn’t even thinking about it like that.”
There were moments Derek regretted coming out about his BDSM interests to his mother and sister. It had been fun to have Christy commiserate back when Derek’s love life had consisted of a string of one-night stands courtesy of boundlove.com. But now Derek was in a long-term relationship with someone he loved, and he was more than a little embarrassed to think about what his family might assume he did with--and to--Lane.
“You want some breakfast?” Derek asked.
Christy shook her head. “I gotta get going.”
“So you just stopped by to beg me to take your parrot for three weeks.”
“Basically, yes. I have to work today.”
Derek raised an eyebrow. “Thought this was your day off?”
“Nothing gets done when I’m not there.”
Derek rolled his eyes. “Thank God you’re going on vacation. Please tell me you won’t have an international cell phone. I can just see you calling the shelter twenty times a day...”
“Oh stop. No, I won’t have a phone. I might e-mail them occasionally.”
Derek snorted. The staff at the shelter probably needed Christy’s holiday as desperately as she did. “Do yourself a favor and don’t go near a computer.”
Christy gave him a dubious look, then smiled. “Maybe. So thanks, and I’ll catch you later, okay?”
“Okay.” Derek stifled a yawn. Who knocked on someone else’s door at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning? The worst sister in the world, that was who. “Don’t work too hard.”
“I won’t!” She sailed out the front door.
Derek closed it after her and enjoyed the quiet for a moment. It was broken by nothing but the soft jingling of Andy’s tags as he headed back for the bedroom.
“Breakfast,” Derek told him instead, and the dog’s yellow ears pricked up. Derek fixed Andy his breakfast, then left the back door ajar so he could head out into the yard. He left Andy crunching away at his food, scrubbed his hands through his hair, and went back into the bedroom.
Lane was still asleep, lying curled on his side. He was frowning, his right hand gripping the sheet tightly. As Derek watched, he shook his head and said in a faint but forceful voice, “No!”
Typical of Lane, even his nightmares were quiet. They’d been becoming less frequent in the past few months, but stress sometimes triggered a spate of them, and Lane had an exam this week. Not that he should have worried. He studied hard.
Derek lay down beside him, shifting close so that Lane’s bare back was pressed up against his chest. He rubbed Lane’s arm until Lane released the sheet, sighed, and rolled over so that he was cuddled against Derek. Derek breathed in the scent of his hair.
Six months ago he’d been complaining to Christy that he was single, that he was drinking too much and trying to pretend that he didn’t notice when he talked to himself just so the house didn’t seem so empty. And now he had a boyfriend and a dog. The whole domestic package. Or, as his friend Brin had called it, the gays’ answer to the nuclear family. Derek had pointed out that was an outdated stereotype, and that these days gays could have marriages and kids and an actual nuclear family. The debate had ended when Brin had announced that he was an outdated stereotype too, thank you very much, and Ferg, Brin’s partner, had laughed so much that wine came out his nose. Derek had laughed as well, until he’d realized he’d just said the M-word, not to mention the K-word, in front of his new boyfriend. His very young, barely old-enough-to-drink-legally new boyfriend. But Lane hadn’t looked too spooked.
Derek smiled at the memory and lifted his hand to stroke Lane’s hair. Lane snuffled in his sleep.
Six months ago, Derek had lost his savings to what the media was calling the Magic Moredock investment scam. Laura and Stephen Moredock had ripped away what little financial security he’d built, and he was never going to see that money again. But he’d gotten Lane.
Most people still thought Landon Moredock was as guilty as his parents. The people who didn’t know him. But Derek knew Lane now. There had been moments, in the beginning, when he’d wondered. Of course he’d wondered. There had been moments as well when he’d resented Landon Moredock for walking around Belleview like he was innocent. Like he didn’t have other people’s money stashed away somewhere. A part of him had really hated the kid.
And then he’d met him.
Derek breathed in Lane’s scent and closed his eyes.
And now there were lazy Saturday mornings and takeaway containers and bedhead and feeding the dog. Which was as close to perfect as anything.
Against him, Lane stirred. “Morning.”
“Morning,” Derek murmured.
Lane snuggled closer. “Where’s Andy?”
Lane drew back, smiling. His eyes were still glazed with sleep. “Good.”
Derek watched him expectantly. Good because Lane didn’t want Andy to go hungry? Or good because there was nothing more off-putting than having the dog stare at them when they fucked?
The second one.
Lane pushed Derek so that he rolled onto his back, and straddled his hips. He yawned, stretching, and smiled down at Derek. Rubbed himself against Derek’s hardening cock. “Want to have a shower with me?”
Derek gripped Lane’s hips. “Not right now.”
Lane leaned down. “I have morning breath.”
“I don’t care.” Derek tilted his head up, and Lane kissed him gently. Chastely. Then he sat up again, smiling. Derek narrowed his eyes. “Don’t tease.”
Lane’s smile broadened. “Me? Never!”
Derek felt guilty sometimes for thinking of Lane as a kid. But Lane was a lot younger, and it satisfied something deep in Derek to care for him. To feel older, responsible, needed. All right, sometimes he hated feeling older. Feeling old. But he trusted himself with Lane. Trusted himself to love Lane, not just Lane’s youth or beauty.
Derek wrapped an arm around Lane’s back and pulled him down onto his chest. Lane laughed against Derek’s throat, and Derek patted his ass briskly. “Christy says stop giving Andy table scraps.”
“Derek.” Lane’s voice was muffled.
Lane raised his head. “Andy likes them.”
Derek grinned. “I’m just telling you what Christy said.”
“He likes nice things. He hasn’t had them before.”
Derek dug his fingers into Lane’s ribs, then slid one hand between their bodies to stroke Lane’s cock through his track pants. Lane bit his lip, clutching fistfuls of Derek’s T-shirt. With his free hand, Derek patted Lane’s ass again, letting Lane know he was up for adding a little spice to their morning fuck if Lane was. But Lane didn’t push his ass up or nod silently the way he sometimes did to let Derek know he wanted a spanking. Just tugged at the waistband of Derek’s sweats.
Derek moaned as Lane’s hand brushed his cock. “We’re also taking care of the bird,” he said. “For the next three weeks.”
“Mr. Zimmerman?” Lane’s hand stilled. Derek immediately wished he hadn’t brought this up now. Shit was getting a little too domestic if they were going to try carrying on a conversation about pet-sitting while they were fucking.
“He’ll be good company.”
“Are we thinking of the same Mr. Zimmerman?”
Lane laughed and lowered his head onto Derek’s chest once more. “I like him.” Lane lay there, legs splayed, and his breathing deepened. Was he falling asleep?
He worked too much. School, plus clinical practice at the veterinary hospital on the west side of Belleview, plus his job at Taco Hub. And the nightmare, which had probably hurt his sleep. Poor kid.
Derek rubbed Lane’s back until Lane was snoring softly on top of him, then rolled him onto the bed and curled around him. Lane didn’t wake again until Andy returned to the room, tags jingling, and leaped up onto the bed, wedging himself into the nonexistent space between Lane and Derek.
“Go away,” Derek hissed. Andy looked at him. “You have a dog bed.”
“Andy,” Lane murmured, rolling over and slinging an arm around the dog. Andy licked his face, his short gold fur tickling Derek’s nose until Derek had to turn away.
It was out of some goddamn made-for-TV movie, the way shy, damaged Lane had bonded with skittish, aloof Andy. Derek had never been inclined to own a dog before, but there’d been no question of adopting Andy after what the dog and Lane had done for each other.
From forever alone to instant, gay nuclear family in only six months. Not bad. Derek smiled.
Lane dozed off again with his hand on Andy’s side. Derek placed his hand on top of Lane’s, and the three of them slept.
Copyright © J.A. Rock & Lisa Henry