The Other Side of Winter
This title is #2 of the Santuario series.
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Not all wounds are visible.
Skanian investigator Bengt fell in love with fellow policeman Alex Rukow in a week. But that was a year ago, and they’ve been apart ever since. Then Alex escapes the corrupt and destitute island nation of Santuario and comes to live with Bengt. Happy ever after . . .?
Alex’s lifelong dream of leaving Santuario has come true at last. But he finds himself adrift in a society he doesn’t understand. Worse, past nightmares come back to haunt him, and after so many years of suspicion and self-reliance, it’s harder than he imagined to trust someone else.
Bengt just wants Alex to share his comfortable life. But the more he tries to give, the more Alex pulls away. Their physical connection couldn’t be better, but Bengt can’t seem to get through to his difficult, taciturn lover outside the bedroom. Meanwhile, he has his own demons to confront—not to mention a serial killer on the loose.
Bengt and Alex must dig deep for the courage to face their pasts, but it may be too late to save their relationship or their lives.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“You’re not eating.”
The sun poured across the breakfast table like honey. Bengt smiled at his mother, but raised his hands in a no-thanks gesture when she held out the basket with fresh buns for him. “I’m fine, Mamma.”
“But you’re not eating.”
“He’s nervous.” Svenja winked at Bengt. “I don’t think I’ve seen you quite this worked up over a guy before. You only knew him for a week.” When he scowled at her, she grew more serious. “You’re not sure your friend will be on that plane, are you? Have you heard from him?”
Bengt pushed his chair back and got up. “He will come.”
“I can hardly contain my joy,” Halden said from the other end of the table. “Sören predicts the city’ll be inundated with social aid applications. And that’s gonna come out of your tax pocket too, brother.”
“Your friend Sören is not all that well-informed, I’m afraid.” Bengt couldn’t stand the guy. He had no clue why Halden hung out with him. “The Þing is still hammering out the details, but whatever social aid the Santuarians apply for won’t be coming out of city coffers until full integration. Though, it will, of course, still be our tax money.” He leaned toward his brother across the table. “But what’s the alternative? Do you really want to leave things as they are? I don’t think I could live with that.”
Halden scoffed. “I doubt it’s all that bad.”
“Yeah, because I’m so likely to make things up.”
“Well, no, but you’re hardly objective in this.”
Bengt threw Halden a shut-up look, grabbed the newspage, and retreated to the swing on the deck to lick his wounds. He loved Familydays at his mother’s, but today his brother and even his aunt were getting on his nerves.
A gentle breeze rustled the first fallen leaves and dried the sweat on his skin. Everyone and their grandmother would be cooking outdoors this weekend to milk the last rays of sunshine from these hot, dry days that sometimes prolonged the end of summer but that could turn to first snow almost overnight.
Truth was, he was far less sure that Alex would be on that plane than he dared to admit. He’d put in two weeks of vacation to be with him and ease his transition into a new life. Wouldn’t he look stupid if he showed up at work on Monday. Though, if Alex didn’t come, that would be the least of his problems.
Almost a year now since they’d worked that case together on Santuario. A year since that heady night in the house by the ocean. A year since that promise the next morning that had sounded like a dismissal. And still Bengt woke up at night with the taste of Alex’s skin on his lips.
A squirrel ran up the steps, threw an accusing look at the empty bird feeder, and scurried away.
With Alex more or less on the run or in hiding, and the political situation on Santuario very much in flux, Mendez had been their only point of contact. Bengt hadn’t dared to write any letters. The political situation on Santuario was still far from stable, the opposition only able to operate from behind the walls of the Skanian embassy. How Mendez contrived to stay in touch with the resistance, Bengt had no idea. He’d sent a couple of novels to give Alex a chance to practice his Skanes, and Mendez had somehow managed to pass them on and had sent word back whenever he’d had news, so that Bengt at least knew that Alex was alive.
It had been a relief when Mendez wrote that Alex had applied for and been granted a visa, and Bengt had been on tenterhooks ever since.
He checked his watch. The hands didn’t seem to be moving at all. He tried to concentrate on his newspage, but caught himself staring at a sliver of sunlight on the railing, watching it creep closer to the post.
Alex had promised to be on the first plane out, but the way he’d said it had left ample room for doubt and had haunted Bengt’s nightmares for so long that he’d had time to analyze every nuance, every movement, every expression to the point where they’d lost all meaning. His gut feeling told him Alex would keep his promise, but then, gut reaction hadn’t been his strong point these past years.
Had Alex even bought a ticket for that flight? The only way to get the information from the airline would be to flash his badge, which would constitute exactly the kind of misuse of power he hated so much about the Santuarian system. Not that he wasn’t sorely tempted.
He checked his watch for the millionth time that morning and decided to drive to the airport. He’d fret as much there as here, but being early might at least get him decent parking.
By the time the first passengers trickled through the gate, he’d worn himself ragged with worry and longing. More and more memories flooded back as he searched the crowd that looked so exotic and so familiar at the same time. The deeply tanned faces, the foreign clothing, the men with their short hair—anticipation made his skin tingle.
Then his heart skipped a beat.
There, at the back of the crowd.
He’d recognize that lithe walk anywhere. Black boots, black pants, white shirt—his out-of-uniform uniform. A scuffed and faded olive kit bag slung over one shoulder. Alex. He’d come.
It finally hit Bengt how improbable that was, or maybe he could just now bear to acknowledge it. They’d known each other for little more than a week, had spent one night together. How likely was it that either of them would even remember, much less be obsessed with the other to the point of exclusion? Bengt’s sex life had been virtually nonexistent this past year. He just hadn’t been able to get interested in anyone else beyond the occasional one-night stand that was purely about blowing off steam. Had Alex?
He was leaner than Bengt remembered, his cheeks hollow, with that five-o’clock shadow Bengt could still feel rasping against the palm of his hand. He’d taken Bengt’s advice and grown his hair, now shoulder length, curling at the ends, begging to be grabbed. Bengt swallowed hard.
Alex walked carefully, trying not to bump into anyone, keeping his eyes low. Bengt watched him make his way through the crowd, willing him to look up. When he finally did, right into Bengt’s eyes, he stopped dead, eyes going wide, and the expression on his face went straight to Bengt’s cock.
Soul, he wanted to kiss those half-open lips, rip every thread of clothes off that body, and make sure once and for all he hadn’t just dreamed that night by the ocean.
Jostled from behind, Alex started out of his trance and hesitantly made his way through the barrier to where Bengt was waiting. He scanned the crowd milling about the arrival hall, then looked back at Bengt and held out his hand in a wooden welcome.
Bengt went to pull him in for a hug, but Alex’s stiff embarrassment forbade that kind of familiarity, so Bengt made do with the buddy greeting of holding Alex’s arm just below the elbow and giving his biceps a gentle squeeze with the other hand. Trying to breach the awkwardness of the moment, he leaned in to whisper, “We’re a little more greedy here. We grab the whole arm.”
Alex didn’t smile, just gave a brief nod and hitched his kit bag farther up his shoulder, eyes and face more noncommittal and shuttered than ever, and with Alex that was saying something.
Bengt pulled back, suddenly cold in the air-conditioned hall. Had Alex come for him, or just to escape? Or because he’d felt obliged? Bengt nodded toward the exit. “Let’s get out of here. Car’s parked in front.”
They didn’t speak as Alex stowed his meager luggage in the back, nor when Bengt navigated the big Forstmann off-roader out of airport traffic. Now and then, Bengt stole a glance at Alex’s profile, trying to gauge his mood, find a starting point, a connection, anything. But all that was abundantly clear was how wired Alex was, tension rolling off him in waves to the point where Bengt felt like a man standing on a tower made of china teacups. One wrong move and the whole thing would grind to dust beneath him.
He saw Alex glance at the radio and, glad for the opening, turned it on and indicated the tuning button. “No Son music here, I’m afraid, but feel free to hunt for a station you like.”
After a bit of fiddling, Alex, to Bengt’s surprise, settled for classical music, and turned up the volume a bit. He leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him, and some of the tension finally bled from his shoulders.
Bengt pressed his lips together to keep the questions from spilling out. Are you okay? What happened to you? Have you had enough to eat? Where did you live? Did you get the books? Do you love me?
What he finally asked, as neutrally as he could, was, “So, how’ve you been?”
“Well enough,” Alex said after a brief pause without opening his eyes. “Thanks for the books. They were a brilliant idea.”
His voice and that soft, lilting accent made Bengt’s knees weak. He had to clear his throat before he could say, “Thought you might like them.”
They fell silent again as Bengt left the bustle of Hentavik behind and turned onto the short stretch of country road that would bring them home. The trees threw long shadows now, and by the time Bengt parked the car, there was a chill in the air that had Alex rubbing his hands across his arms when he climbed out.
Bengt retrieved Alex’s kit bag, way too light to be the luggage of a man traveling with everything he owned. He watched Alex study the house, then scan his surroundings, wary to the point of skittishness. He followed Bengt inside, turning this way and that to take in everything at once, looking as if he were ready to bolt.
Bengt set the bag down, trying to let Alex be, to give him space, but wanting so badly to touch him that he couldn’t breathe. “Alex,” he said softly.
Alex stood with his back to him, fists pressed to his thighs, neck muscles taut. “I . . . don’t know how . . .” His voice was rough with strain.
Bengt could have kicked himself. This wasn’t about Alex rejecting him. This was just Alex. Mr. Iron Control. The man who couldn’t let go if his life depended on it. Except that he could, spectacularly so, given the right incentive.
Tenderness welling up inside him, Bengt closed the distance and enfolded Alex in a loose embrace with a whispered, “Shhh . . .”
Alex stood as still as a deer in headlights, his back rigid against Bengt’s chest, his heart beating a rapid tattoo against Bengt’s wrist. Bengt placed a kiss on his neck, felt it jolt through Alex’s body, then Alex took a shuddering breath and turned in Bengt’s arms to face him, to crowd against him. His body was hard as glass. Everywhere.
Bengt cupped his face and tried another tender kiss, but found his lips crushed in a greedy response. Nothing tender about Alex’s kiss or the way he ground against Bengt’s body with the desperation of a man drowning. As if he knew only two ways to deal with strong emotions: fortress mode or no holds barred.
So Bengt did what he’d been wanting to do ever since he first saw Alex at the airport: rip his shirt off his body—fuck buttons—and bite those strong neck muscles, lick the salt off the dark skin, and bury his face in that silky black hair.
But before he could really get going, he felt Alex’s body buck against his, once, twice, and Alex came hard in his pants with a strangled sound, quickly muffled against Bengt’s shoulder.
Too stunned to do anything but hold him, Bengt stood and waited out the series of smaller shudders that raced through Alex’s body as it went limp. The comedy of their tongue-tied reunion, of the two of them standing locked in comedown in the hallway on a summer evening, and of the outraged consternation of his cock broke his tension, and he chuckled against the top of Alex’s head.
“That must have been the worst incident of blue balls in the history of mankind,” he murmured into Alex’s hair.
Weak laughter vibrated against his shoulder before Alex raised his head and looked at him, embarrassment coloring his cheeks. “You have no idea.”
“If I can move.”
He did manage to make his way up the stairs, even had an interested glance for the loft and especially the king-sized bed.
Bengt led him through to the en suite and gave him a stack of towels, then left him alone and gingerly sat on the edge of the bed, scratching his eyebrow. Trust a couple of guys to utterly mess up what should have been sheer joy.
He heard the shower start in the bathroom, then a yelp of pain that brought him to his feet. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Then, “The fucking water’s hot.”
Bengt recalled the tepid trickle of showers on Santuario and realized this was probably the first hot shower Alex had ever had in his life. “It won’t scald you,” he yelled back. “It’s not set that high. You need help in there, let me know,” he added, grinning.
That was all the invitation Bengt needed. He was out of his clothes in two seconds flat and opened the bathroom door to the spectacle of Alex’s lean, long body glistening under the spray of water.
He was greeted by a shy grin, and had to forcefully remind himself that hot water wasn’t the only thing new for Alex. But, soul, it was hard to remember to take things slowly when the guy looked good enough to eat.
He stepped into the shower, squeezed some gel into his hand, then turned Alex around and started to massage his shoulders and back, arms, chest. His cock twitched when Alex leaned against him, and his hands wandered south of their own volition, spreading the soap over Alex’s cock and balls. It didn’t take much to spark renewed interest there, and cause Alex to breathe more rapidly. Bengt rinsed him off and turned off the water, before holding out a towel for Alex to step into.
Alex blushed, but didn’t protest. He let Bengt dry him and followed him into the bedroom.
“I haven’t seen you in a year,” Bengt said. “I’ve got some reacquainting to do.”
Alex remained standing, visibly at a loss, when Bengt sat on the bed and just looked at him, couldn’t stop looking. At those long legs, the narrow hips, straight, hard cock, flat stomach. He frowned at the ridges of the lower ribs showing under the skin, hinting at the need for a few more calories. But there was nothing scrawny about that well-defined chest, the muscled shoulders and neck.
He noticed the flush that crept up Alex’s neck and relented, rolled over to the far side of the bed, and patted the mattress in invitation. With only the briefest hesitation, Alex came to lie beside him. Bengt let his hand wander across Alex’s skin. How hard his body was. He’d been fit enough a year ago, but nothing like this. “You’ve been working out,” he said.
Alex hesitated. “I was bored.”
“Bored. That’s what you’re going with?”
Something flickered across Alex’s face, like remembered pain, before it relaxed again into that studied unconcern. “Well, I couldn’t work anymore, with Andúja breathing down my neck.”
“Yeah, and I guess you didn’t have anything else to keep you busy, like, oh, I don’t know, staying alive?”
Alex shrugged. “Hiding is less adventurous than you might think. Sometimes working out is the highlight of the day.” He hadn’t moved, but Bengt could almost physically feel him withdraw. Not what he’d wanted at all.
“Well, I’m not complaining.” Bengt pulled him close, savoring the feeling of skin on skin. He wanted to hear about every minute of Alex’s life this past year, but they had time. Right now physical contact seemed like the easier connection between them. And about that Bengt wouldn’t complain either. He traced the bones of Alex’s face, the carved chin, first with his fingers, then his lips; worked his way down the throat, across the smooth chest, sucked a nipple between his teeth; and smiled at Alex’s gasp.
It was intoxicating as fuck to find the chinks in that armor, to chip away at the fortifications Alex was so good at raising and maintaining, and if touch was the only way to do that for now, Bengt would take it. He wanted to raze those defenses to the ground, to rediscover the naked soul of the man who had haunted his dreams for so long, wanted to see that spaced-out expression in his eyes with no room left for thoughts or regrets, wanted to hear his name called out simply because Alex couldn’t help it.
He took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down. He’d lost his head that first time, and the resulting no still stood. As much as he would have liked to fuck that narrow ass, he wouldn’t try it again until Alex asked him to. If he wanted Alex to relinquish control, Bengt had to earn his trust. And he could never let on how much it cost him to hold back. He briefly closed his eyes as he licked and kissed his way down Alex’s belly, along the hip bone and across the thigh, to the soft skin on the inside.
Alex silently followed his every move with his body, opened his legs for him, and finally gave Bengt the satisfaction of a low moan when Bengt cupped his balls and gently played them between his fingers. His body started to anticipate and demand Bengt’s touch, turning into Bengt’s hands. His eyes closed, his rapid breathing coming very close to a gasp every time Bengt’s fingers wandered close to his cock without actually touching it.
Bengt listened and watched, committing every sound, every nuance to memory, like learning to play an instrument. Where to touch how, to get what tune. He grinned when he caught Alex’s hand as he tried to stroke himself. On impulse he took the thumb in his mouth and sucked on it, which earned him an openmouthed groan. Holy shit. He couldn’t remember ever having made love to a guy who turned him on like that without even touching him.
He licked along the length of Alex’s cock, eliciting a suppressed growl and a full-body twitch. He knelt, closed his lips around Alex’s cock, wrapped one hand around the base and the other around his own cock. He sucked hard, matching the rhythm with both hands. That was all it took. Alex came with a jolt that almost jackknifed his body, and a surprised shout that drew Bengt’s balls up, made him shoot himself in the chin, and left him gasping for air.
For a long time Bengt just lay on his back, floating, Alex’s body heat against his skin, listening to Alex’s breathing slow down, thinking nothing at all while the light faded. Finally he drew the duvet up around them, made sure the towel covered the wet spot, and pulled Alex close into the curve of his body.
“Welcome home,” he whispered, but his only answer was a soft snore.
Alex slept around the clock, and Bengt let him, filling the day with domestic crap and a quick log-in to the bureau for some paperwork.
He ordered dinner, and was just closing the door behind the delivery guy when he heard the soft padding of bare feet. Turning around, he completely forgot about food.
Sleep-tousled hair like a halo around his face, chin covered by the usual dark shadow, Alex came down the stairs buck naked. “Couldn’t find my clothes.”
Bengt tried to say something, cleared his throat, tried again. “I threw them in the laundry. Thought you might want something clean,” he mumbled, then finally caught himself and held up the box. “Food?”
“I could eat a horse.” Alex rummaged in his kit bag. He came up with a pair of well-worn canvas pants, pulled them on, and closed the zipper.
Bengt tried not to stare at the open button. “You can hang your clothes in the closet upstairs,” he said. “Unless you’d prefer one of the guest rooms,” he added as an afterthought, and held his breath.
But Alex shook his head. “No dice. You got me in your bed; that’s where I’m staying.” The faint blush in his cheeks belied the boldness in his voice. “Food first, though. I’m starving.”
Bengt carried the box into the kitchen and opened it. “You look like food wasn’t always easy to come by,” he ventured.
When Alex didn’t answer, he turned to look at him. “Did you get enough to eat?”
That shuttered face again. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
He made Bengt want to hit him and hug him at the same time. “Come on, Alex. Don’t attitude check me like that. I want to know how you’ve been doing. Is that really too much to ask?”
“What do you want me to do? Cry you a river?” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I mean it. I’m still alive. That’s all that matters.”
He didn’t look like he was going to volunteer anything else, but what he’d said was telling enough. Bengt sat down. “Let’s eat, then, before it gets cold.”
After dinner, Bengt showed him where to put his clothes. He’d cleared the space weeks ago, as soon as the date for the flight had been announced, and long before he knew whether Alex would be on it. As it was, he’d made way too much room for the three shirts, two pairs of pants, and the handful of socks and underwear Alex unpacked.
Alex shrugged. “The rest was uniforms.” The words seemed to gain weight, epitaph of his old life, shed and shredded, until Alex grinned and said, with a flush creeping up his neck, “Next time you’ll just have to make sure I strip first.”
Bengt laughed. “I will. But the fact remains, you need more clothes. Summer isn’t going to last forever.”
“I expect I’ll have to be a bit careful, moneywise. And before I can buy anything . . .” he dug out the novels that Bengt had sent him and pulled an envelope from one of them “. . . you’ll have to help me turn this into cash.”
It was a letter of credit. The sum was relatively substantial by Santuarian standards, but, Alex was right, it wouldn’t cover him for more than a few months here. “You sold the house?”
Alex nodded. “I’m not going back.”
Bengt wondered what his plan B had been if Bengt hadn’t been at the airport, but Alex had managed to evade Andúja for a year. He’d have survived in Hentavik on his own. “You need a grip.”
Bengt slapped the letter lightly into the palm of his hand. “Grip. Little gadget that does and holds just about anything. Phone, wallet, planner. ‘Get a Grip on your life?’ No, you wouldn’t have seen that one. Ancient ad. Anyway, you need one; we haven’t had cash for decades. We’ll get you one tomorrow, then I’ll take you shopping. But before that, we should stop at the bank and get you access to this.” He held up the letter of credit, wondering whether he’d be able to make Alex believe it was worth more than it was.
Bengt parked the Forstmann in the east end of the U-park from where they would have easy walking access to centertown. He led the way up, past the tunnel access to the mall, to street level. Might as well enjoy the sunshine and warm weather while it lasted.
Alex’s head swiveled this way and that, taking it all in. The way he moved . . . A few years back Bengt had nursed an injured bobcat back to health, as much because he felt sorry for it as to save his trash cans from being ripped apart. The cat had gotten used to him standing some ten, fifteen meters back while it fed, but it had never lost that hypervigilant muscle twitchiness that enabled it to suddenly disappear at the snap of a twig.
Alex moved that way. Alert, ready for anything. It gave Bengt a sudden, gut-punching insight into what his life must have been like this past year.
Bored, my ass.
He’d known it in his head, but this brought it home so viscerally that he had to make a fist in his pocket to keep himself from pulling Alex protectively close in the middle of the street. Considering how he’d reacted at the airport, that would probably not go over well.
He did get away with paying for the grip, calling it a welcome gift, and arguing that the Þing should really offer them free to the newcomers in the first place. He made a mental note to mention that to Sunne.
They picked a model that fit comfortably into Alex’s hand, and Bengt showed him how his thumb or index finger fitted on the print reader on each side. A frown of concentration appeared between Alex’s brows when he tried it.
There was a bit of confusion when the sales assistant realized they weren’t just buying a new grip, but the first one, and that there was no birth certificate or ID on file. But in the end he accepted the number on Alex’s paper passport and let Bengt vouch for him otherwise.
“We should get your ID stuff cleared before we hit the bank,” Bengt said back in the car. “I have a feeling they’ll put up the same or even more of a fuss there.”
“Mmm.” Alex was studying the manual for his new toy and pointed at a menu item. “Driver’s license?”
“What about it?”
“I need a license to drive a fucking car?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “You guys sure know how to make things complicated.”
“It’s not complicated if you grow up here. But, yeah, I guess there are a couple of things that could be made easier for new arrivals.”
“Well, it’s not like this opening-of-the-borders shit is an everyday occurrence for you either.” The sun hit Alex’s face as they emerged from the parking garage. He reached up as if to pull a nonexistent hat lower, then flipped the shade above the window down.
“I was thinking about dropping Sunne a line.” Bengt turned his attention back to the road. “Did you know she got elected þingwoman?”
“Huh. Funny how both our former bosses are now in politics.”
“Mendez is the one who took the real leap, though. Getting Svoboda organized as the official opposition was a stroke of genius.”
“It might look organized from here. It’s not quite that organized on the ground. Or that official.”
Before he could comment, Alex said, “This thing is amazing. And I thought your netpad was small.” He was back to checking his screen, going through stuff in the menu, minutely shaking his head now and then. When he became aware of Bengt watching him, he turned the screen off and looked up with a wry grin. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t bitch about the way you guys handle things. It’s not like the Santuarian way won any prizes.”
Bengt grinned. “Oh, bitch away. In fact, nothing will mark you as a native quite like bitching about the government.”
It took them the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to get Alex’s papers checked, verified, and transferred to an electronic ID. Bengt suggested he apply for a social insurance number as well, since he wouldn’t be able to work without one. Alex was content to follow Bengt’s lead and only asked a question when something completely eluded him.
His lack of a birth certificate caused some consternation. He was photographed, fingerprinted, and swabbed, getting ever more fidgety in the process, then asked to fill out an application. Bengt, staying close to help, bent over Alex’s shoulder when he had trouble with some of the legalese. He braced his arm on the table, chest touching shoulder, and wasn’t really surprised when Alex instantly turned to stone. Baby steps.
When they entered the bank, Bengt tried to be casual. “This is pretty much going to be more of the same. If you want to take a breather and get yourself a coffee in the lounge over there while I set things up, I don’t mind.” He so wasn’t good at subterfuge.
Alex threw him a look. “I’m fine,” was all he said, but during the next half hour he asked the clerk every question under the sun, until he was completely satisfied that he understood the system and the extent of his funds.
When they were back out on the street he said, “Nice try. But you’re a lousy liar.”
Bengt didn’t even try to feign innocence. “I’m sorry. I just . . .”
“I know. And I appreciate the thought. But I’m new, not brain-dead.”
“That was not . . . I didn’t . . .”
Alex laughed. “You’re absolved. Do we still have time to get a jacket or whatever I need when it gets colder?”
“Plenty. Most of the winter stuff won’t be out yet, but we can at least get you ready for autumn.” He longed to drag Alex through all the boutiques he liked, but the stubborn bastard would probably check every price tag twice. So Bengt took him to one of the better department stores instead.
Alex played along, tried on everything Bengt pulled out for him, and made everything he put on look twice as good as it had on the hanger. He gave Bengt decidedly lewd ideas about the use of the changing rooms. But in the end the only things he carried over to the cash register were a pair of hiking boots and a three-in-one jacket with fleece lining and a rainproof shell.
“You still have only three shirts and pants,” Bengt protested.
“They’ll do.” Alex turned his back, head bent over his grip, and Bengt found himself staring at the strong line of his neck where a strand of hair curled around to the pulse point under his jaw, his thoughts straying somewhere else entirely.
This was ridiculous. He wasn’t twelve anymore. To give himself something else to do, he returned to the pile of clothes in the changing room and started putting them back on their hangers, or folding them up. He almost broke one of the hangers before he realized that his frustration was resentment as much as held-back desire.
Why the ever-loving soul did Alex have such a hard time accepting the least bit of help? Well, not the least bit, maybe. He’d let Bengt navigate the paper jungle for him. But in light of how much Bengt wanted to spoil and pamper him and generally make up for the kind of life he’d led, that was a drop in the ocean.
Letting the fabric of a soft gray tee slide through his fingers and recalling how it had sculpted every muscle on Alex’s body, he suddenly couldn’t bear to put it back. He collected all the clothes he’d liked best on Alex in a separate pile and went to pay for them.
Alex, brows drawn together, bag in one hand, grip in the other, was busy again with the menu on his screen. “What in the world do they mean by—” he started, then, realizing what Bengt was paying for, interrupted himself. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Birthday present,” Bengt said.
“You had a birthday six weeks ago. Saw it on your form. Bet you didn’t celebrate.”
“Why would I want to, and what the fuck does that have to do with whatever stunt you’re pulling here?”
Bengt smiled his thank-you at the cashier and took the bag before he turned to Alex. “I don’t know what you guys do for birthdays, and I don’t really care. Here we throw a party for the birthday boy and give him presents.”
“Well, I do care, and you’re not going to— What party?”
“Weather being what it is, I’m thinking barbecue.” Bengt hid the smug grin he couldn’t suppress, by heading for the exit.
“No, I . . . Caray.” That last one sounded like it had been squeezed through clenched teeth. By now Alex was quite fluent in Skanes, curses and all, so that slip into his mother tongue hinted at some agitation.
Bengt decided against taking the elevator down to parking, and headed for the stairs instead, where Alex would be able to yell at him without an audience. When Alex caught up with him, Bengt said, “We’ll need a cake, and thirty candles. Do you blow out candles and make a wish?”
“Fuck, no! No presents. No party.”
Bengt stared pointedly at the bag in his hand. “Want me to donate these to charity?”
“I don’t give a shit what you do with them. I’m not going to wear them.”
Bengt just stood and looked at him, waiting for his temper to simmer down. Watched him trying to pace in the small space the landing provided.
Finally Alex stopped and threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine, I’ll wear them. Since you already paid for them. But I didn’t come here to be a drain on your pocket.”
Bengt wished Halden could hear that. But whatever was showing on his face made Alex shutter even further, so he hurried to reassure him. “I know that. That’s not what I—”
“And no party.”
“Think,” Bengt said. “You’ll have to meet everyone eventually, especially the family. Instead of awkward formal introductions, why not have a party, some music, some friends.” He was gently crowding Alex against the wall as he spoke, saw his eyes go dark when their bodies touched. “A bit of small talk,” he murmured, skimming a thumb across Alex’s lips. “Much easier to walk away from someone in a larger crowd if things threaten to get too much,” he added against Alex’s mouth, kissing him, gently at first, then, when Alex’s eyes closed and he responded, more insistently, until his own breath sounded harsh in his ears, and Alex groaned.
Reluctantly he pulled away. “Let’s get out of here. I want you naked and in my bed.”
Awareness slowly crept back into Alex’s eyes. He turned away, a fierce blush darkening his neck, and mumbled something that could have been a curse.
Bengt followed him downstairs, again curbing his instinct to simply pull him close. This wasn’t easy for either of them. He’d just have to keep his temper in check and think with his head instead of his gut. Or anything else. That last part would be the hardest. But Alex couldn’t be expected to shed his past life like a snake skin. He deserved the time and space to find his feet. Bengt only hoped he’d be able to give them to him.
The little orange light came on when Alex flipped the switch on the kettle. His scruffy old tea chest with its numerous drawers looked as out of place on the counter as he felt in this country where everything was ordered, clean, and documented, and where, from what he’d seen in town, people wouldn’t dream of not parking straight between the designated lines. He walked over to the open patio door and leaned against the frame. Arms crossed, he stared out to where the lake shimmered in the sun.
From the language to the cool weather to the fact that even the most useless things ran on electricity—his world was suddenly full of tiny gadgets—everything was different. Little changes that made his skin crawl with the threat of the unexpected, the not knowing the hiding places in this world, the difficulty of acting normal and running under the radar when the way he looked marked him as different.
The very house he now lived in had appeared alien from the moment he first saw it from a driveway that was long enough to be its own road through the woods.
The main door facing the turning circle sat in the windowless side of a two-story wooden house so dark it seemed black. The off-center gable allowed the roof to slope almost to the ground on the north side, where the house nestled against the trees. A much shorter solar-paneled roof overhung the south face with the patio and an indoor/outdoor pool at the edge of a large clearing that ended at the shore of the lake. The south wall was all glass, one gigantic window that made the most of the existing sunlight, letting it flood both floors, nearly unhindered by walls.
White paint and blond wood brightened the inside, where the architecture drew the gaze up to the rafters and out to the lake. The open second floor defied gravity by some construction mystery that made Alex dizzy; a glass railing hugged the airy stairs that curved upward like an afterthought. On Santuario, every house had been designed to keep the heat out. Here, every effort had been made to draw it in.
But the biggest difference, the one that consumed him, was waking up every morning next to the man who’d set all these changes in motion. Bengt. To have him around every day, to be able to touch him whenever he wanted, was seductive and terrifying.
Sex had never been a big part of Alex’s life. He had assumed that was just the way he was wired. Some guys were randy all the time, some weren’t. None of the few women in his life had swept him off his feet. He tried to remember if, in hindsight, there’d been a guy in his past he’d had a crush on or thought about more than others, and came up blank. If the academy and his years as a cop had taught him anything about gay sex, it was disgust.
And then Bengt had happened. Had muscled his way into Alex’s life with his wide blue eyes, his disarming honesty, and his unapologetic appreciation of male bodies in general and Alex’s in particular. Had thoroughly disabused Alex of the notion that he was just wired that way. And Alex had lost his head.
But Bengt had left, and Alex had been stuck where just looking at a man wrong could get him killed. Piece by grueling piece, and working his treacherous body to the point of exhaustion every day, he’d rebuilt his protective walls from the rubble Bengt had left, until he didn’t even have to think about having his mask in place anymore, until it was fused into his skin. Now the difficulty was not knowing how to be without it.
Bengt deserved more from him than a mask. Deserved to know how much Alex wanted what he was offering, the heady seduction as well as the safe bedrock. But how? When you were struggling in quicksand, you didn’t drag others in with you; you tried to float, and move as little and as slowly as possible.
He had no idea what to expect, how this—he didn’t even know what to call it—could work. He just knew that another year like the past one was not something he’d survive again. As much as he wanted to, he could never again risk losing himself as utterly as he had that first night with Bengt. He’d have to take it one day at a time, stay in control, watch, listen, and see where things led.
The kettle flicked off with an audible click, and the doorbell rang.
“Can you get that?” Bengt called from his desk where he was trying to capture what he called his stray thoughts on a recent case before the party later. The party Alex preferred not to think about because the thought of meeting everyone who meant something to Bengt, and failing expectations, made him sick.
He opened the door to a man with keen hazel eyes and an infectious smile, slightly shorter than himself, heavily muscled, with the kind of arched traps and thick neck that spoke of weight lifting.
“Hi, I’m Tomas. Bengt asked me to help with the food? You must be Alex. Happy birthday.” He grasped Alex’s arm and pulled him into a brief hug.
Alex tried to relax; he’d never get used to all the hugging going on in this country. Especially from a gender that had been rather precipitously catapulted onto his sexual radar a year ago. “Thanks. Nice to meet you,” he managed, and even remembered to touch Tomas’s shoulder in return. “I expect you know your way around?”
Tomas nodded. “I’ll install myself in the kitchen right away, if you don’t mind. And dump this in the fridge?” He pointed at the cooler he’d brought.
Alex shrugged. “Sure.” As if this was his house.
“Hi, Tom,” Bengt yelled from the back. “Kitchen’s all yours.”
Tomas winked at Alex. “Isn’t it always?”
Alex grinned. Bengt and cooking didn’t go together. He had a gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen whose secrets Alex hadn’t even begun to explore, and he habitually ate out or ordered in. But he hadn’t protested when Alex set his tea chest on the counter, and had invited him to use or ignore the kitchen as he pleased.
“Want a hand?” Alex asked Tomas, who’d unpacked some jars and small packages and a six-pack.
“Absolutely.” Tomas opened two bottles, gave one to Alex, and raised his. “Let’s get this party started.”
Alex took a small sip, then set the bottle aside. If this party thing was to go well, he needed to look like he was enjoying himself. And for that he needed every bit of focus he could muster. At least he had to think less and less about the language. He was even dreaming in Skanes.
Tomas set Alex to work with a knife and chopping board while he did some magic with meat, skewers, and the marinades and spices he’d brought, effortlessly taking command of the kitchen and Alex. A dangerous package of iron will and rapier wit, pleasantly wrapped in charm and easy banter. Good thing he was a friend.
“Here, try this.” Tomas was holding out a small bowl whose contents he’d just scraped onto the meat skewers.
Alex wiped his finger along its side and tried the reddish marinade. Heat and flavors exploded on his tongue, tangy and herbal with just a hint of sweet. “Mmm, this is really good.” He looked up, straight into Tomas’s eyes. A small electric current ran through his body. Fuck. Was he going to react to every passable stranger now like a cat in heat?
Tomas raised a single eyebrow. “I don’t poach.”
Feeling the blush creep up his neck, Alex fished around for a playful, dismissive rejoinder and drew a blank.
Tomas laughed and raised his hands, palms out. “Okay, okay, never mind. Here, hand me those.” Alex gave him the chopped vegetables, and Tomas quickly threw together a salad, all innuendo switched off. He chatted about how cooking provided him with an outlet for a stressful job—neurosurgeon, really? Whoa—and generally treated Alex like a mix between a brother and a personal assistant, until Alex felt like he’d known him all his life.
When the doorbell rang again, Bengt went to get it, and Alex heard the murmur of several women’s voices, one ringing out clearly above the others. “Move, bro. I’m dying to meet the mystery guy who rendered you useless for the rest of mankind by the sheer power of his memory.”
Tomas guffawed, and Alex felt the color rise up his neck. He mentally braced himself and was wiping his hands on a towel when a young woman appeared in the doorway. No need to ask who she was. The spitting image of her brother, the same frank blue eyes, the same sandy hair. Freya was only a couple of centimeters shorter than Bengt, athletic and vibrant. Head cocked, she gave Alex the once-over, then nodded. “I have to admit, I get it.”
Bengt, a step behind her, winked at Alex over her shoulder.
Waving Alex’s outstretched hand aside, she hugged him hard and whispered in his ear, “He looks happy. Thank you,” leaving him with a warm glow in his stomach.
Bengt introduced Alex to his mother, who grasped both his forearms in a more formal greeting. Alex could feel her reservations almost physically. He didn’t blame her. She only reflected his own apprehension.
“I’m honored to meet you . . . señora,” he said when he couldn’t come up with a fitting address in Skanes.
Neither of the siblings took after her, rawboned and freckled, with graying hair that once might have been strawberry blonde, a resolute chin and quick movements. She looked like a woman who’d fought hard all her life and refused to let it wear her down. But a smile softened her face when she said, “My name is Astrid. Welcome.”
Alex met her searching gaze, willing to let her see whatever she was looking for. Knowing how much it meant to Bengt, he wanted to win her over, but that would take more than a first hello.
The last of the newcomers stood eye-level with Alex and held out both arms with a big smile.
“Svenja, right?” Alex greeted Bengt’s aunt with an answering smile—impossible not to—and let himself be drawn into a warm hug. “Bengt talks about you all the time.”
She looked a lot younger than her sister, the same angular bone structure, but not pared down by life, her short hair a rich chestnut color. “He’d better say good things only,” she laughed, throwing Bengt a mock-warning look. Her voice was a surprise, deep and resonant. It made Alex want to hear her sing.
“Only the best,” he said.
The women had brought cake and pies. Astrid and Svenja took over part of the kitchen, as the doorbell rang again, and again. Eventually Bengt just left the door open as people kept arriving with drinks, chairs and tables, meat for the grill, extra umbrellas for shade. They milled about, chatting and setting things up, and Alex tried his best not to mind letting complete strangers have the run of the place. He could only trust that Bengt knew what he was doing.
Music and the smell of charcoal filled the air, and, almost unnoticed, the party got underway. Bengt introduced friends and colleagues until Alex didn’t have a chance in hell of remembering all those unfamiliar names, much less matching them up with faces.
It was an eye-opener to watch Bengt among friends, relaxed and laughing, not turning over every word thrice before opening his mouth—something Alex knew he’d be mulling over for a while. He looked confident and, Freya was right, happy. Alex felt a sudden urge to kick everyone out and drag him upstairs. God, he wanted this, all of it: Bengt, the carefree ease with which everyone was having fun. But all he could do was to clamp down hard on the urge to herd everyone inside and tell them to be quiet.
He tried to melt into the background using every trick he knew to deflect attention, but, of course, it didn’t work out. Everyone wanted to meet him, talk to him, and stare at him. It was enough to make anyone twitchy. He was glad he’d opted for his old canvas pants and well-worn shirt, flatly refusing the molded black leather pants and fitted gray T-shirt Bengt had bought for him. He felt conspicuous enough as it was, and very aware of all the male bodies in the crowd. Whenever the attention got too much, he fled to the kitchen and Tomas’s friendly despotism.
The first portions were rolling off the barbecue when Alex heard Bengt say, “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
The man he was talking to looked enough like him to be family. The younger brother? They were the same height, but the other was less massive than Bengt and starting to thicken around the middle.
“Don’t be an ass,” Halden, if it was him, replied. “We might have different views about Santuario, but I’m not enough of a dick to cut the man you love.”
Bengt embraced him, caught Alex’s eyes over his brother’s shoulder, and waved him over. Alex braced himself and joined them. Bengt introduced Halden and Sören Holgerson, a slightly older man with thinning hair who turned out to be a colleague of Halden’s, and who seemed unable to take his eyes off Alex.
Halden was polite, but distant and wary, as if he expected Alex to sprout horns any second. Unlike his friend Sören, who held Alex’s arm for far too long during introductions, and who stood too close. Alex stepped aside to regain some personal space, and Sören gave him a knowing smile. What the fuck? The guy was starting to creep him out.
Someone tapped Alex on the shoulder. He spun around, barely stopped himself from a fighting crouch, when a guy whose name he’d already forgotten merely handed him a fresh beer. Covering his embarrassment with a smile, he nodded his thanks and raised the bottle in a silent toast, hoping the man would take his overreaction as a joke. It earned him a laugh, and he relaxed a little.
He’d better eat something soon. But when he turned around, there was Sören again, standing close enough to put his chin on Alex’s shoulder. Really? He had no clue what qualified as off-key in a country where he was expected to hug everyone and their grandmother. Where was the line beyond which he could push back, and what would be considered an over-the-top reaction or downright rude? He decided on evasive action, which had served him well enough up to now, and was turning to leave, when Sören said, “Nice place.”
Damn. That required an answer, didn’t it? “Sure is.”
“Not what you’re used to, I take it.”
Alex tensed. All the signals he got told him this guy was a nasty piece of work, and that whatever he was working himself up to wasn’t good.
“No, the weather requires quite different architecture on Santuario.” Keep it neutral.
Again he got that knowing smile, but Sören was prevented from saying anything more by Bengt, who walked over from the barbecue with a plate full of meat and fish skewers, a cob of corn, and some salad.
“You haven’t eaten anything yet.” He pushed the plate against Alex’s chest. “And Tom has outdone himself with that marinade. You really have to try it.” He put an arm around Alex’s shoulders, kissed him on the temple, and steered him back toward the patio. Alex, stiff between wanting to lean in and needing to keep up appearances, concentrated on walking.
“If that asshole gives you any trouble,” Bengt whispered, “just say the word, and I’ll tell Halden to take him for a hike and not bring him back.”
Alex shook his head, wishing Bengt’s public display of affection didn’t make him feel like he had to look over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching, when all he wanted to do was lean into him. It was fine. Nobody here gave a shit.
“Don’t worry.” The last thing he needed was to raise a fuss, and he could fight his own battles. At least Bengt had answered his question of whether he was the only one who found that guy to be off.
Bengt was called away by his mother, and Alex caught himself scanning the tree line for uniforms. Of course, there was nothing. He was perfectly safe here. What the fuck was wrong with him? Get with the program already.
He willed his shoulders to relax and leaned against a tree on the edge of the patio. He was trying to enjoy his dinner and his solitude when Svenja walked up to him.
“Feeling a bit overwhelmed?”
Alex grinned ruefully at her. “That obvious, huh? I just wish this place had come with a manual and some study time before the big test.” He indicated the crowd with a nod.
“It must be a huge change. I can’t even imagine.”
“Funny thing is, I was prepared for having to deal with some big changes. But I find it’s the little things that trip me up. Like, why do some people come with last names and some don’t?”
“We all have— Oh.” Her puzzled frown dissolved into a smile. “Well, last names are parents’ names. So Halden’s is Bengtson, son of Bengt. And Freya’s is Astriddottir, daughter of Astrid. However, traditionally the firstborn son gets his father’s given name anyway, and the firstborn daughter her mother’s. It makes a last name redundant, which is why it’s dropped out of usage over the centuries. Whenever you meet someone who doesn’t use a last name, you can assume that it would be the same as their given name.”
Alex’s eyes easily found Bengt, who, even here, stood taller than anyone else. “So Bengt is Bengt Bengtson?”
“Technically, yes. But you won’t hear anyone say that.” She winked at him. “Except maybe his mother when she’s mad at him.”
He grinned in wry amusement, eyes still on the group of people milling about the patio. Tall, mostly blond, light-skinned. And everyone constantly touching. Like the cast of a strangely detailed dream. “You must think me quite weird.”
“Naaaw, just be yourself. You’re doing fine. Everyone likes you.” A wink took the sting out of her next words. “They’re surprised how ‘normal’ you are.”
Alex tried to laugh, but nearly choked on it. “Soul, I hate being the odd one out.”
Yelps and banter echoed over from the lake where a handful of guys had decided to dive off the wooden dock.
Svenja watched them for a moment before turning back to Alex. “I don’t know if this helps you right now, but I think you might be just what Bengt needs.”
“I . . . Thanks.” That had come a bit out of left field, but it felt good. Like having found an ally. “It does actually.”
Svenja smiled that wide smile of hers and pointed a thumb over her shoulder to where Bengt was deep in conversation with his mother. “Talking of which, I’d better go rescue the kid. Don’t overthink it, enjoy the day,” she added, already walking away. Easy to see why Bengt was so close to her.
Alex walked over to a group of wooden deck chairs that had been pushed together helter-skelter at the edge of the patio, pulled one out, and settled into it with his beer to watch the divers. While it was nice to hear that he was what Bengt needed, he didn’t see it. All he had to offer was floundering turmoil. How did anyone need that? He should have asked Svenja what she’d meant.
“This sure is the good life, right?” Sören again.
Loath to relinquish his precarious peace, Alex tried to ignore him, but Sören pulled out a chair for himself and sat with an exaggerated sigh, stretching both legs out in front of him. “Bit far away in the boonies, of course,” he continued. “I live in the city myself. Nice penthouse apartment overlooking the harbor. Large terrace, pool, and the use of a sailboat during the summer months.” He sounded like a real estate broker.
When Alex didn’t answer, Sören turned to him with a look that was more than just expectant; it was predatory.
“Enjoy,” Alex said as deadpan as he could.
A slender arm appeared from behind the backrest of another chair, followed by a second one and an audible yawn. Freya unfolded herself from her curled-up position and came over to sit on the arm of Alex’s chair. “Don’t be so dense, love.” She draped one arm along the backrest and looked mock encouragingly at Sören. “Our friend here is trying to make you an offer.” There was enough of an edge to her voice to warn Alex, but he was still unprepared for what came next.
“None of your business,” Sören said, before turning back to Alex. “She’s right though. I admire people who know which side their bread is buttered on.” His gaze swept Alex’s body from head to foot. “Not that that is all I admire.”
What the . . .?
“You wouldn’t have to do any more than you do here, just enjoy life and be around to fuck. I’ll even throw in a generous allowance.”
Before he could catapult himself out of his seat, Freya’s strong grip pushed down on his shoulder. Her amused laughter surprised him enough to heed her pressure. Don’t make a scene. He didn’t mean it like it sounded.
“You’re quite the asswipe, aren’t you, Sören?” she said conversationally. “And utterly clueless into the bargain. Does Halden have any idea what you’re up to?”
Sören’s leer faltered. He threw her a look designed to incinerate her on the spot, but she didn’t seem to give a shit.
She held her sunny smile until Sören got up and stormed off. Only the continued pressure on his shoulder told Alex how worked up she was herself. Then she took a deep breath and let him go. “What a jerk.” She turned to look at him. “You okay?”
Alex didn’t trust himself to speak. Freya’s reaction said very clearly that it had been exactly what it had sounded like. A hooker. He’d been propositioned like a . . . a . . . chapero. It was more than just anger that made him feel like he needed to throw up.
He did live here after all, rent-free, ate Bengt’s food, let him buy clothes, and in return? Just enjoy life and be around to fuck. His teeth hurt. He tried to relax, tried to keep any of it from showing in his face, but Freya must have seen something.
She hunkered down in front of him and put her hands on his knees. “Promise me that you won’t let that creep spoil your day. That is not how anyone sees you, least of all Bengt.” She was insistent and sincere enough that he finally managed to get a grip on himself.
“I guess,” he said. “So, drowning him in the lake is out of the question?”
That made her laugh. “I doubt he’ll stick around.” She stood up and brushed some dirt from her knees, then nodded toward the divers. “Talking of the lake, fancy a swim?”
“Sure.” A workout might be just what he needed right now. So he did what he did best, and buried what was troubling him so deep he could forget it was ever there. Or try to, anyway.
It was way past midnight by the time they’d helped Tomas pack up his stuff. Bengt had carried it to the car with him while Alex had gone around the patio with a compost bag, picking up paper plates, skewers, and corn husks.
“Too bad I missed the diving competition,” Bengt said behind him. His hands were warm on Alex’s neck and along his shoulders.
For a heartbeat Alex gave in and relaxed against him, leaned into the warmth of his body. So very tempting to just let go. And so very impossible.
He threw a, “Race you,” over his shoulder and took off toward the lake, hopping out of his pants as he went. They’d felt awkward in the water earlier; he wasn’t used to swimming in his clothes, but no way had he been going to risk a public hard-on. Even though, or maybe exactly because, some of the other guys had gone skinny.
He dove off the dock, prepared for the shock of cold water against his skin, but still coming up gasping. The lake was different from the ocean, calm and sweet, but water had always been his friend. For as long as he could think back, it had hidden him, sheltered him, carried him, allowed him to work out until he was tired, and ultimately washed away his anger and frustration.
With a mighty splash, Bengt dove in beside him and made a grasp for his arm, but Alex easily evaded him. He started swimming toward the middle in a bright lane of moonlight, exulting in the feel of the element against his skin. Bengt was a good enough swimmer, but nobody could hope to catch Alex in the water. He laughed with the sheer exuberance of it, the sound echoing across the surface. He changed direction to swim circles around Bengt, who soon gave up the chase and just turned to watch him, a big appreciative grin on his face.
“Just wait until you get out,” Bengt said.
“Oh yeah? What if I stay in the lake forever?” But he had to get out soon; the nights were quite chilly, and the water didn’t hold the memory of the sun for long. He could feel the cold seep under his skin. Everything good had a line beyond which it became lethal. Lazily he swam toward Bengt and let himself be caught in the circle of those well-muscled arms and a kiss that pulled both of them under water until they broke apart and came up gasping and laughing.
Alex backstroked to shore and heaved himself up on the dock. He was pushing the water out of his hair when Bengt reached the dock.
“You’re too slow, old man,” he mocked to get rid of the sudden lump in his throat.
With a roar Bengt surged up, grabbed Alex’s ass, and threw himself backward, pulling Alex back in on top of him. Tussling and sputtering, they made it into waist-deep water. Suddenly Alex wasn’t cold at all anymore. He stood pinned with his shoulders against the side of the dock, hands trapped behind his back, Bengt’s naked body warm and slick against his skin. Against his cock.
Biting down on a groan, Alex let his head fall back, felt Bengt’s lips and teeth on his throat, on his nipples, his stomach. Then his hands were free, and Bengt slid under water. The shock of sudden heat around his cock, of tongue against the sensitive skin. Madonna!
Sputtering, Bengt came back up, sliding along Alex’s body, again trapping him against the wood. “I want you,” he gasped, “to fuck me.” He made an effort to catch his breath, then added, “Please.”
No! Yes! Alex felt as breathless as Bengt sounded. Wanted him closer than just skin on skin. But did he want that? Yes!
Bengt braced himself against the dock, his back muscles tense and glistening in the moonlight. Alex swallowed hard, felt his brain cells shut down one by one. “How?” he got out.
“Just do it,” Bengt hissed. “You won’t hurt me.”
Alex turned and slid his hands under water along Bengt’s hips, pulled himself close against his ass, his cock a perfect fit along the crack. Just that small movement arced like electricity across his nerve endings. He felt Bengt shift to widen his stance. Bengt’s whispered, “Please”—simultaneous invitation and demand—turned into a long hiss when Alex slid his thumb across Bengt’s ass cheek and past the ring of muscle, feeling his way. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Bengt’s back, trying to concentrate on gently guiding himself in, when his whole body screamed at him to just slam forward. This was much tighter than he’d imagined. How could this not hurt?
With an impatient moan, Bengt rocked back, nearly knocking Alex on his ass with both the motion and the sudden tight heat. Alex’s brain shut down for good, as his body started moving of its own volition. The muscles in Bengt’s back and legs worked in tandem as Bengt picked up his rhythm.
Every nerve ended in his cock, the friction along its full length sending wave after wave of raw energy through his body. He bit his lip trying to hold back, but with Bengt anything but passive, he didn’t stand a chance. He barely managed to swallow a shout when he came. Fighting for control, he collapsed against Bengt’s back and, finally allowing his legs to fold, slid to his knees in the water. “Holy shit.”
Bengt turned around a little stiffly. “Not what you expected?”
Alex shook his head. He held out his hand, and Bengt pulled him up against his body, still as hard as Alex felt limp.
“Bed.” Bengt climbed out of the water and pulled Alex along in his arms. Alex was happy to just lean on him and be led. He felt as if every bone in his body had been liquefied, and if Bengt had slung him over his shoulder, he wouldn’t even have protested. His body tried to hang on to the sensations, but his brain already started jabbering again. Why had Bengt asked for this? It couldn’t possibly not have hurt. Had he just wanted to do Alex a favor? But there’d been that Please.
Back inside the house, Bengt disappeared for a quick shower. Alex burrowed under the duvet to keep the shivers at bay. He lay staring at the ceiling for a while, reflecting on all the firsts in this new life until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore, and his muscles relaxed one by one. By the time Bengt joined him, he was three-quarters asleep. He leaned his back against the warmth of the body spooning him, the don’t dull enough for once to ignore. Bengt’s lips on his hair and a warm hand on his chest.
There was something he’d wanted to ask.
When he opened his eyes, the sun was streaming in through the window, painting bright patterns on the covers.
Bengt lay on his stomach, hugging his pillow, one knee drawn up, the muscles in his back just barely moving with the even rhythm of his breathing. Alex gently pulled the blanket off his legs, content for a while to admire that powerful body at rest. Reveling in the fact that he could. That, though it still felt forbidden, he didn’t have to lock it away anymore.
He started to trace the line of a thigh, ran his hand over Bengt’s ass, the memory of last night sending his blood south. He brushed the hair away from Bengt’s shoulders and skimmed his lips across the soft fuzz at the nape of his neck. The resulting sharp intake of breath made him smile. “Busted.”
Bengt turned in his arms, blue eyes still clouded with sleep, the lazy overhead stretch of his arm bringing every chest muscle into sudden sharp definition.
“You get me all worked up,” Alex said.
“You didn’t say that when I came to bed last night.”
Alex felt himself blush. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I can always take my revenge now.”
Faster than seemed possible with Bengt barely awake, Alex found himself on his back, hands pinned against the pillow, straddled by a hundred and seventy-five kilos of Skanian muscle. When he struggled to free his hands, Bengt let go, but leaned in for a kiss, letting Alex know that he wasn’t the least bit sleepy anymore. Well, he wasn’t the only one.
That kiss curled Alex’s toes and set his skin on fire. Bengt’s weight across his middle only added fuel. Alex buried his hands in Bengt’s hair, not wanting the kiss to end, but at the same time feeling himself unraveling. Fighting for purchase, wanting more. He tried to arch into Bengt, jockeying for more friction, until Bengt said, half-laughing, half-breathless, “What’s with all the squirming?”
“It . . . I . . . It’s not enough,” Alex gasped, trying to sort through the sensations. Trying to shut down the alarm that had gone off in his brain.
Bengt’s gaze grew more intent. “You want a repeat of last night?”
Did he? As worked up as he already was, he wouldn’t be able to hold it together. And he needed to. But maybe . . . “What does it feel like?”
“What does what feel like?” Bengt asked, still with that same focus, but wary now.
Alex hesitated, trying to clear his head. Wanting to let go, screw control. Needing desperately to hold on to it.
“Having a cock up your ass?”
“Well, you know what fingers feel like.”
He was bloody unlikely to ever forget, and cursed that strangled feeling in his throat.
“And?” Bengt brushed his thumb across Alex’s mouth, then gently pulled Alex’s lower lip between his teeth, making it difficult to form coherent thoughts. He turned the mock bite into a slow, messy kiss that tingled in Alex’s thighs and ass. “Do you like it?” he whispered.
Fuck, yes, Alex wanted to say, but it came out as a low moan against Bengt’s lips.
Bengt moved lower. “Extrapolate,” he murmured.
Alex’s imagination went into overdrive. Bengt’s teeth on his nipples didn’t help at all. Every time his cock brushed against Bengt’s stomach he tried to arch up, but he was pinned. He knew he was squirming again, but couldn’t stop. “Please.” Had he said that out loud?
Bengt rolled off him and hitched himself up on one elbow, watching him intently. “Please what?” he whispered. “What do you want?”
He didn’t know what he wanted. That was the problem. Or rather he did, but didn’t dare.
He turned onto his stomach. “I want . . .” he started, but his voice just died. He heard Bengt’s harsh intake of breath, felt his hand skim his buttock. Sweet Mother of God.
“Alex.” Bengt’s voice sounded as if he had a cold. “I’m scared I’ll screw this up. Please, I need you to say it.”
Bengt was scared? What about him? He was losing it. What Bengt was doing to him now was already eroding his defenses. How not to want more? Stop thinking. No, don’t!
He needed some kind of anchor. It had to hurt, right? He needed it to hurt. That would ground him, keep him tethered. Pain was familiar. Not a friend, but he knew it, inside out. It couldn’t do anything to him it hadn’t already done. No surprises.
He took a deep breath and charged ahead with the words Bengt had used earlier. “I want your cock up my ass.”
Bengt’s groan ghosted across his skin. He buried his face in Alex’s hair. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said, his voice muffled. “It’s for a good cause, after all.” He laughed, but it sounded hoarse.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just relax. The more relaxed you are, the better this is going to be.” Alex heard him rummage in his bedside drawer, then felt something oily drip on his back. Bengt spread out whatever it was with his hands and started to knead Alex’s muscles.
Nonono, he didn’t want to relax. His body was strumming with need and trepidation. Madonna, that was good, though. Smelled good too.
Bengt didn’t stop at his back. He massaged Alex’s arms and hands down to every individual finger, and how could that feel so incredible? Then he switched to the feet and moved his way up. By the time he’d made it to his thighs, Alex’s muscles had all but turned to jelly, but the sheet felt rough against his cock.
Bengt knelt between his legs, kneading the inside of his thighs. The slickness of the massage oil on his ass cheeks, in the crack, and on his balls. Alex’s moan came from somewhere deep down, where he hadn’t even known he had a voice. He spread his legs wider, felt a finger slide in, and pushed back against it, wanting more, wanting it to go . . . Madre de Dios. More fingers, but not enough, not deep enough. He pulled his knees up. The fingers disappeared. “No, don’t stop.”
“Shhhh, patience.” Hands kneading his buttocks, spreading him wide. Bengt shifting his weight, then Bengt’s cock against his ass. Slick, insistent, but not pressing hard enough. Please. Finally Bengt pushed, and, yes, there was the burning and discomfort he’d expected, but also . . . He concentrated on the burn, and when the hunger for more threatened to drown him regardless, he rocked back hard, welcomed the sudden lance of pain, felt Bengt’s balls slap his ass, and heard Bengt’s breathless, “Hold it. I can’t . . . Gimme a second.”
Alex trembled with the effort to stay still, felt the needy moan rise up his throat before it left his lips. Damn it.
Then Bengt started to move again, slow and even. Alex caught his rhythm, bracing himself against the mattress. Bengt shifted his angle, and sweet pleasure flickered across Alex’s nerve endings like live flames racing down his thighs. And again. He grasped the sheets in both fists, trying to hold on to the pain alongside the arousal, but now he couldn’t tell them apart. Another slight shift, and his body was on fire, exquisite, agonizing, inescapable. He wasn’t quite there yet, but close, so close. Bengt held Alex’s hip with one hand, slid the other around him, and closed his fist around Alex’s cock.
The touch annihilated him. His shout swallowed by the mattress, shudders running through his body. And then he didn’t know if it was his body racked by orgasm, or Bengt’s, or both.
He lay there for a long time, oblivious of anything but Bengt’s reassuring weight against his back. Bengt’s heaving chest against his shoulders matching his own rasping breath.
“Fuck,” Bengt gasped.
Alex didn’t have enough air left for an answer.
Though summer had held on to the days with a rare tenacity, the leaves were falling now, and the nights carried a hint of frost. Bengt could see his breath in the air as he quietly closed the door and walked to the car.
He’d set his grip’s pager to silent when he’d gone back to work after his vacation, and slept with it between sheet and mattress so Alex wouldn’t wake up when he was called. Or not too much, anyway. He smiled, remembering how Alex had stretched out full length on top of him, still half-asleep, spreading his body as flat as possible for maximum skin contact. A childlike need for touch that made Bengt’s throat tight and that he wanted to meet. He wasn’t sure of all it entailed or whether Alex was even aware of it, just that it seemed to exist despite the emotional barriers Alex put up.
He shook the image off, trying to concentrate on the info that dispatch had given him, and entered the location in his GPS. Eidsund. A tiny fishing community tucked behind the Skerries, and well away from Hentavik. Bengt frowned at the line on his map. A couple of kilometers farther and the body would have been outside his jurisdiction. With a sigh, he resigned himself to the longish drive.
The heat came on as soon as he started the engine. Rags of fog hovered just above the road, reflecting his headlights and forcing him to slow almost to a crawl until he hit the ring road around the city.
He reached Eidsund with the first rays of the morning sun reflecting in his rearview mirror and painting the houses ahead a faint rose. A thin carpet of mist hovered over the water, and a group of fluffed up seagulls lined a railing at the ferry jetty. Bengt parked his car with the huddle of police cruisers at the marina entrance and fished his vest from the backseat. He slipped it on over his coat as he got out to stretch in the cool, damp morning air, the tang of the sea an expected scent in his nose. Radio babble spilled from a car when the official on duty opened the door and heaved himself out of his seat.
“Good morning.” Bengt walked over to him.
“Morning. May I?” The cop scanned the ID tag on Bengt’s vest, nodded at his screen, then pointed along the floating dock. “Berth number nine.” He indicated a wooden shack nearby. “The harbor master’s sharing her tea.”
“Thanks, I could use some of that.” Bengt crossed to the half-open door and knocked on the frame before ducking under the lintel and introducing himself. The harbor master turned out to be a freckled sparrow of a woman with a thick honey-blonde braid spilling down the back of her neon-yellow vest.
“Another one come to raid my teapot?” She winked at him. “Just made it fresh. Mugs on the drainboard.”
“You found the body?” Bengt asked over his shoulder as he fixed his tea.
Her eyes lost the smile. “Sure did. Poor little thing. Just a child.”
He turned and leaned against the counter, mug in hand. “Did you recognize her?”
“No. Never seen her before. I would never’ve even known she was there, if it hadn’t been for the call.”
Bengt blew on his tea and nodded for her to go on.
“A Mayday relay came in at four in the morning. It reported the Nordstjernen in distress, which was weird, because I knew she hadn’t been out of her berth for a few weeks. And, indeed, the long/lats given were ours, right here. She’s been berthed here since she was first built over ten years ago. So I went to check on her. The anchor light was lit, and the main hatch unsecured. I called out Olaf’s name—he’s the owner—then thought someone might’ve looked for some shelter for the night. It happens, when it starts to get colder. Just wanted to make sure everything was okay.” She pressed her lips together so hard they became a bloodless line in her face.
“Did you see anyone in the marina during your shift? Any cars parked?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I came on at midnight, and it’s been quiet as a grave until that call came in. This time of year most boat owners have already called it a season and are just waiting for the autumn haul-out.”
“You said the call was a Mayday relay. Which ship did it come from?”
She frowned. “That was another weird thing. The caller identified as the Hlín out of Norberg, but I checked later, and no ship is registered under that name.”
“Did you recognize the voice?”
“No, it didn’t sound familiar. Only thing I’m sure of is that it was a man’s voice. No accent, I think, but there was a bit of static.”
“Do we have a copy of the call?” Since the teks were already at work, someone would have started a repository file.
“One of your colleagues has it—Liv? I also gave her the owner’s address, but she said not to call him yet.”
“No, we’ll want to go over the boat first.” He drained his tea and rinsed the mug. “Thanks. Will you be here when I get back?”
“My shift ends at eight, but I can stay around.”
Bengt smiled. “We won’t make you do that. Do we know where to reach you, in case we have any further questions?”
She nodded and Bengt squared his shoulders. Better get on with it, then.
The dock swayed almost imperceptibly under his feet. The water made soft slapping sounds against the pontoons, in rhythm with the clanging of stays against masts. Bengt picked his way between the rows of cleats and neat, flat coils of mooring lines. The marina was at capacity with the usual mix of pleasure crafts, from comfortable little yachts to simple rowboats.
The Nordstjernen was a stunning sloop, a Seawhip, fifteen meters of fiberglass perfection. Her sails were furled and snugly secured inside their covers, her deck spotless, except for the marks the crime scene guys had left behind. Bengt stepped on board and did a cursory tour of the deck, more to get a feel for the scene than because he thought his colleagues had overlooked anything. No gear seemed out of place or missing. He pulled on disposable gloves, but only visually checked the engine panel and lockers, which had already been dusted for prints.
He ducked into the cabin, nodding his head to the two kriminalteks doing their job, and checked the radio setting and navigation gear. The Nordstjernen was equipped with a yeoman plotter, but all charts were neatly rolled up and stored away. Nothing contradicted the harbor master’s statement that she hadn’t been out for weeks. He turned from the chart table when the forward door opened and Liv stuck her face in.
“Hei, Boss. Coroner’s waiting for our okay in here. Thought you might want to have a look before he takes the body.”
Bengt nodded, both a greeting and an affirmative. He’d given up trying to disabuse Liv of the idea that he was her boss. He’d been offered Sunne’s job when she left, but turned it down. Considering her replacement, he sometimes regretted that decision, but he didn’t feel confident that the department head’s chair was for him. His team had decidedly different opinions. He’d not only failed to convince Liv that he wasn’t her boss, but now Erik, the kid who’d joined them last autumn, had fallen into the same habit.
Bengt silently passed her into the stateroom. Liv let him be. They all had their ways of dealing with death. Its presence turned Bengt taciturn, Liv even more matter-of-fact than usual, Erik flippant.
The master stateroom, decorated in calm beige and blues, contained V-berths, and was as neat as the rest of the boat. The coroner stood chatting with Erik, but the kid left to make room when Bengt entered.
“I haven’t moved her yet,” the coroner said, and when he stepped aside, it was immediately clear why they’d wanted him to see the body in situ. The little girl was lying on the bed as if sleeping. Maybe ten or eleven, left hand resting in a riot of blonde curls that smelled of shampoo when he bent over her, right arm holding a doll on top of a carefully pulled-up duvet. Her perfect skin so pale it seemed to glow, blue shadows under her lashes, her mouth a pink bow. Her yellow nightshirt was printed with daisies and seemed brand-new. Her hands and nails were clean, and there were no immediately visible marks on her.
Bengt stepped back to get the whole image of the perfect little-princess-sleeping scene, then nodded his go-ahead to the coroner. He watched in silence as the man removed the duvet, and listened to his running commentary as he checked the body. “She’s been dead at least twenty-four hours, and the body’s been moved postmortem. I can’t give you a cause of death yet. I’ll have to run the full kit on her. But if I had to take a wild guess . . .” He indicated a small red dot on the inside of her elbow.
“Injection?” Bengt suggested.
The coroner nodded. “That does look like a puncture mark.” He stood abruptly. “I’ll let you know.”
Bengt joined Erik and Liv on deck. “Do you guys want Norberg marina or the Nordstjernen’s owner?”
“We’ll take Norberg,” Liv said.
“All info’s in the repo?” Bengt asked her.
Liv tapped her grip and nodded. “The folder is ‘Nordstjernen,’ until we have a name for her.” She indicated the cabin and the body inside with her chin.
“See you later at the office, then.”
Olaf, the owner of the Nordstjernen, claimed not to have been on his boat since the beginning of the month, which matched the harbor master’s statement. He didn’t recognize the girl in the picture Bengt showed him, but was understandably disturbed at her death, and the fact that she’d been found on his boat. Last night he’d been at home, which was corroborated by his wife. Bengt thought it unlikely, in any case, that he would kill someone, store her on his own boat, and then call it in. Plus, the harbor master would probably have recognized his voice. He mentally moved both Olaf and his wife off the immediate suspect list. If anything came up that changed things, he’d know where to find them.
Back at the office, Asger, the fourth in their team, sat at his desk in a deep funk. He was in his fifties, getting a bit thick around the middle, and usually opted for office duty with jolly equanimity. Bengt raised a questioning eyebrow, which Asger answered with a roll of his eyes and a nod toward the “fishbowl,” the department head’s office. It was made up of large windows for a full view of the bull pen, but Fritjof had lowered all the blinds, as usual. Bengt didn’t ask if anything had happened. He’d just get another rendition of If you’d only accepted the position.
“Bad morning,” he said instead. “A little girl.”
Asger’s brows drew together, wrinkling his forehead in real concern now. “Any clues?”
“Don’t know yet. Do me a favor? Run the girl’s fingerprints and check against missing persons. And also run whatever prints the kriminalteks upload when they’re done. I’ve added three sets to be excluded for now, the boat owner and his wife and the harbor master. I’ll head for lunch.”
He wouldn’t be able to eat anything, but the air in the office was choking him. Kids always got to him, to all of them, more than anything else.
The fog had disappeared and given way to an unseasonably warm day of sun and clouds. Coat open, Bengt strolled along the storefronts, trying not to think anything, when he was stopped in his tracks by a pair of snowshoes in one of the windows. Alex still did his laps in the lake on the warmer days, but he’d also started to explore the woods. Always moving, never still for long unless he was exhausted. His hikes would be severely hampered by deep snow soon, and these seemed like a perfect way to give him something he’d enjoy.
But would he accept them? He never seemed to want anything. Even the smallest gifts made him squirm uncomfortably, and Bengt couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. It wasn’t as if money was an issue. Alex couldn’t work until he got his social insurance number, but Bengt earned enough to keep them both comfortable. He briefly considered asking Freya for her snowshoes and buying these new ones for her. They could pretend she didn’t want her old ones anymore. Maybe that would be more acceptable to Alex. But Bengt hated that kind of subterfuge, and he wasn’t good at it. And why the hell shouldn’t he give Alex stuff if he wanted to?
He went in before he could change his mind, and, stowing the package in his car, tried to imagine that Alex would be happy about the gift.
Bengt and Alex were the imperfect-perfect couple; complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses realistically— not a fairy tale.
I can only hope G. B. Gordon takes us more into this beautifully written world.
The writing was immersive and this was one of those stories where life is put on hold, reading late into the night and first thing in the morning to discover what is going to happen next.
I don’t have enough words to describe just how much I love this book.
It’s one of those books that will drive you crazy while you read it, but you’ll be so glad you did by the end.
This is one of the most beautifully worded stories that I've had the pleasure to read. The characters are incredibly strong. The way the writer reflects and contrast different backgrounds, political situations, personalities and needs is absolutely amazing.