When to Hold Them (A Bluewater Bay Novel)
This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.
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Doran Callaghan doesn’t know when to fold ’em. His gambling has landed him in debt and in jail, and now it’s got him stuck in the sticks in a reintegration program. He wants to turn his life around, but old habits come knocking, and some creditors are harder to shake than others.
Xavier Wagner cares more about the National Park he works in than the people around it, until a stranger awakens desires he didn’t know he had. Doran’s natural submissiveness turns Xavier’s ideas of how to treat a lover upside down. But Doran doesn’t seem to know about boundaries—or even to have any—and Xavier’s not sure that Doran will say no if he needs to. Which means someone’s going to get hurt.
While Xavier struggles with his principles, Doran’s past comes calling. Trusting each other is suddenly a matter of life or death, but Doran has to decide whether counting on Xavier—or himself—is a gamble he’s willing to take.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Doran tried not to check the clock every few seconds. He had a website to finish and no time to go off daydreaming about a guy who didn’t even know he existed.
He was quite familiar with the content management system by now, but by no means a coder, and it was always hard not to get distracted with Jace’s phone chatter at the front counter, the ticking of the clock on the wall, the ads for bus tours and cruises playing on the TV screen above the waiting area. He struggled to tune it all out and concentrate on not screwing up the Bluewater Bay Tourist Information’s website.
His fingers itched to check completely unrelated stuff, like his DeviantArt account, or how the Rainiers did last night, or if the weather was going to warm up anytime soon. Well, at least the weather was something he needed for his job, so it wasn’t blocked on his computer.
Sometimes he was sure that the internet lock kicked him out of his groove worse than being able to check a piece of news, or his account, or the game. But then, of course, the lock wasn’t about those pages as much as about TexasHoldEm.com, or FreePoker.net, and others like them.
“Hey, Callaghan,” Jace called over after she’d hung up. “Wanna do lunch?”
Doran watched her log out and turn her desktop off. When she looked back up, he shook his head. “I’d rather finish this, before I lose my train of thought.” He tapped his finger against his temple. “Squirrel brain. But thanks.” Only half the truth. There was no way he was leaving now. For reasons. He couldn’t wait for her to go. Not that she wasn’t nice, but he wanted the next half hour to himself.
Jace shrugged into her jacket and wrapped her scarf around her neck. Which, since it was on the scale of a boa constrictor, took a while. “Don’t starve yourself.” She grabbed her car keys and purse. “Lock up behind me?”
He walked her to the door, exchanged the usual Bye-see-yous, and flipped the door sign to Closed. Outside, the sky hung low and gray over the roofs, a few flurries mixed in with the drizzle.
Only when Jace was out of sight did he dare a quick glance at the Gas’n’Sip across the road. Even though it was only noon.
The Tourist Information was still operating on winter hours, Saturdays and Sundays, ten to twelve only. Jace was handling the walk-ins and phone.
The director didn’t let him talk to customers, much less handle any cash. Not that he blamed her. He was grateful for the whole reintegration program, and that she, or the council or whoever, had agreed to be part of it and given him this job. And she was nice about it. She covered her back, but she didn’t make it awkward, and she hadn’t told Jace about him. She’d even offered him free rides on the bus tours. Doran preferred to explore the town on foot and by himself. Still, he’d lucked out on this one.
But if he wanted to keep the job, he had to show them he was worth the effort. And he really needed for them to keep him beyond the probation period. He was not going back to jail. So he was putting the new accommodation guide together, both for the print brochure and the new website.
He retreated back behind his desk, but moved his chair over to the corner, from where he had a better view of the gas station across the road. Ten past noon. Almost time.
As if on cue, the white Silverado with the green stripe along its side and the National Park Service’s arrowhead on the door pulled up in front of the pump. Doran watched the driver unfold himself from behind the wheel and, with a smile, tip his cap to ancient Mrs. Larson, who drove her behemoth of an antique to church and back at about five miles per hour every Sunday. Doran might be new, but everyone in Bluewater Bay knew Mrs. Larson.
Damn, that man’s smile. It had burned itself into Doran’s brain the first time he’d seen the ranger six weeks ago, just after New Year’s. His first week in town and on the job. He’d been idly watching the cars come and go at the pump when six feet something of relaxed confidence in a ranger uniform had gotten out of that truck, sending uncontrollable shivers up and down Doran’s spine.
Doran had stared. He hadn’t been able to help himself. The guy looked like Luther flipping West from Resident Evil. Or what West might have looked like if he wasn’t fighting zombies.
After that, he’d seen the man drive up to the pump every Sunday, just after noon, and watching him had become an obsession. The long legs that made even those stupid green pants hot, and that looked still better in jeans; those fantastic shoulders. About the only complaint Doran had was that he didn’t wear the Smokey-the-Bear hat with his uniform, but preferred a baseball cap or woolen hat with the NPS logo.
He was trying to screw up his courage enough to get a sandwich at the same time as the ranger paid for gas. Or a bag of M&M’s. Anything, really. He’d been trying for weeks. C’mon, Callaghan, you can do this.
He checked his cash: five bucks and change. Not exactly plump. He’d get his pocket money for the week tomorrow night, but he’d still need to eat and buy the bus fare today. Shouldn’t have bought those stupid lottery tickets. And a sandwich at the gas station wasn’t exactly cheap. Ah, hell, if any gamble was ever worth the risk, this was it. He grabbed his keys and let himself out, then, in his hurry to cross the road, almost ran in front of a car. Bonehead.
The ranger stood chatting with the guy behind the register when Doran strolled in and pretended to agonize over his sandwich choice. He threw a quick glance over. The name tag on the ranger’s uniform read Xavier Wagner. His gaze strayed higher and met an open, friendly smile, and warm brown eyes, crinkling at the corners in a way that made Doran’s knees turn to Jell-O. Oh god!
Doran looked down because, gah, awkward. He tried to disappear into his hoodie, blindly grabbed one of the little plastic boxes from the cooler display, and went over to the cash register.
In front of him Wagner dug his wallet out of his back pocket. And, shit, that ass was just as amazing as the rest of him. When he flipped his wallet open, Doran immediately zeroed in on the gift card. It was for Manscape Spa in Victoria, across the border. How could he possibly not notice something like that?
Which didn’t necessarily mean anything. It was a gift card. He might never use it. And even if he did, there was still a chance he was straight. But. Odds. They were short enough to send Doran’s mind into overdrive.
Long fingers slipped a credit card across the counter. Even that simple gesture was so together that Doran just wanted to shoot himself in the head and be done with it. Or sit in his lap. Stop it! Poker face, Callaghan. No, wrong thought. Don’t think about poker. Don’t ever think about poker again.
He almost missed his turn, and quickly shoved his five across. Wagner and the guy behind the counter obviously knew each other, easily chatting about the weather and the game. But as much as Doran wanted to catch every word, the details got lost in the way Wagner’s lips curved and how the muscles in his cheek moved.
Doran pocketed his change, grabbed his sandwich, and fled before he did something even stupider than just stare at the man like a dumbass. He was lucky he hadn’t gotten clocked.
Of course as soon as he sat at his desk again, he wanted to be back in the gas station. Just to get that smile again that melted his knees. Please, let him be gay. Please. Oh, who was he even kidding? It didn’t make a shred of difference whether he was or not. The man’s good looks and easy assurance were so far out of Doran’s league, it wasn’t even funny.
He looked back at the table of room rates he was putting together. Waste of time, of course. His eyes were magnetically drawn to the window and the pump beyond. Every time he checked his screen, he was starting from scratch because he couldn’t remember a thing.
Finally he gave up and just waited for Wagner to come out. That sweet ache of longing when he finally did. Sorting his card and receipt, sinking the wallet into his back pocket, checking for traffic. That unaware swagger as he walked around his truck, sweet Jesus!
Doran gripped the armrests of his chair hard, just to keep himself from jerking off in the middle of the office.
Tuesday evening, Doran ghosted down to the basement room of the New Apostolic Church. He was early as always. The bus from Bluewater Bay to Port Angeles only ran a few times per day, and he was between cars at the moment. So to speak. He’d have much preferred to miss the GA meeting altogether, but that wasn’t an option. At least this way he had his choice of chairs and could pick one as far on the outside of the semicircle as possible.
He drew his hood up as the room filled, trying to shrink into his chair and discourage any small talk. Times like this he really missed his phone. A little timewaster like Candy Crush would come in so handy right now.
Gamblers Anonymous wasn’t as bad as the Homosexuals Anonymous had been, back when he was a teenager, but it still sucked. He didn’t see how it would help anyone with an addiction.
When he’d first shown up here, they’d sat him down in a chair and swarmed him like locusts with their Twenty Questions, only to state the obvious from his answers. “You’re a compulsive gambler.” No shit, Sherlock.
It had been intimidating and a bit creepy, but nothing compared to his horror when he’d opened the little yellow booklet they gave him. He’d taken one look at the twelve points and known then and there that he’d have to fake it. The very language struck chords he thought he’d cut long ago. He was to admit that he was powerless, that he couldn’t change by himself. Not that that meant he wasn’t guilty. Oh, no. Only that he needed to trust in a higher power, humbly asking God to remove his shortcomings and praying for knowledge of His will. It had been like a kick in the face that sent him back six years into the past, into another church, where, with that same language, they’d tried to cure him of the other big “G.”
Meanwhile, the guy in the front started his introductory reading from the pamphlet. Roger? Richard? Doran hadn’t bothered to memorize any of their names. He wanted no part of these people.
With only twelve members it was one of the smaller meetings, or so he’d been told. Except for one middle-aged woman who seemed as uneasy as he was, they all knew each other. A good chunk of them had been coming here for years, some for decades, which, in Doran’s mind, didn’t exactly speak to the success of the program. He swallowed a laugh. Maybe next time he felt the seduction of a deck of cards, he should just think about how much longer it would keep him in the meeting. That should do it.
It had gone downhill from the introduction day onward. The more he tried to pull back, the more he was overrun with phone numbers and offers of spiritual fellowship, because what’s best for the Group is best for you. All in the name of spiritual healing, of course. They instructed him earnestly about the concepts of Group Conscience and Unity, always speaking in capitals. There were a lot of meaningful glances in his direction as they talked about disruptive members, and how a Trusted Servant would reevaluate him when he was ready.
All of it so crushingly familiar. The forced reliance, the shaming, the sly grinding down of self until there was nothing left . . . Been there, didn’t drink the Kool-Aid then, not drinking it now.
Back then it had been mainly his mother pressuring him to go. She’d been horrified when she found out he was gay. Furious when he’d decided he was quitting church and their flipping reparative therapy. If his aunt and uncle hadn’t offered him their couch when he’d gotten kicked into the street, he wouldn’t even have finished high school.
Now, though, he didn’t see a way out, only through. He quickly got up for his spiel. “My name is Doran. I’m a compulsive gambler. I’ve hurt my family and owe money to strangers.” It was the same three sentences he said every week, just so they’d lay off. After that he could tune out for the rest of the meeting, as one after the other got up to say their bit. Every one of them talked about gambling in one form or another, and if he listened, he just got antsy. They made his hands itch.
Before he could leave, though, he had to make it through the group hug, as he called it. The holding of hands and prayer in a circle. Maybe some of them actually got a sense of healing and acceptance out of this whole charade. They were welcome to it. All it gave Doran was the need for a shower.
He couldn’t get away fast enough, even though his bus wouldn’t leave for another half hour. Better sit in the cold and rain at the bus stop, than in here, where he couldn’t breathe, where his skin crawled.
It had stopped raining, though, and there were even a few stars visible in the sky. Like a promise of fresh beginnings after all the hokey, tawdry crap. He wished he was already out of the city and back in Bluewater Bay where he could breathe. Astounding Thoughts of a Boy from Tacoma, film at eleven. His amused huff made a small white cloud in the evening air. He’d be camping out in Olympic Park next.
Which, wrong thought. Park. Ranger. He didn’t want to think about Wagner, felt too rank after the past hour in that basement. Tainted somehow. Not that he’d be able to stop the thoughts now. At least not that way. He’d need a shower first.
He could think of how nice the guy had been, though. Of that easy smile he’d had for a stranger who’d been gaping at him like a total pinhead. Doran leaned against the upright of the bus shelter and allowed himself a few minutes of cheesy dreaming. And then a few minutes more until the bus pulled up.
Saturday he dropped the cover files for the brochure off at the print shop, then went over to the post office to mail his sort-of-weekly letter to his aunt and uncle. He wasn’t allowed a computer or a smartphone, so this was his way to stay in touch, to tell them not to worry, and that he was on track with his program. He owed them that. No, he owed them a lot more, but this was what he could do right now. And it was easier than answering a lot of well-meant questions on the phone.
Back outside he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up against the drizzle and headed across the parking lot. Only to stop dead in his tracks.
White Silverado with a green stripe.
No, wouldn’t be him. Would it? This flipping town was right next to a flipping national park. Must be a dozen of those around. Although, maybe not at the ass end of winter.
He walked toward the parked truck as if drawn by a magnet.
The hood ticked softly in the cool February air. Doran wiped the rain off the side window, and put his hands up against the glass to peer inside. Shades clipped to the visor, GPS and what looked like a portable two-way radio on the dash, a travel mug in one of the cup holders, and some granola bars in the holdall behind them. Neat. No trash. Two books on the passenger seat: 100 Classic Hikes in Washington and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Whoever that was. Really? Poems? Must be someone else’s truck after—
“Anything I can help you with?”
Jesus, shit. Doran whipped around.
Towering over him. Close. So close. How had he snuck up on him like that?
Doran’s brain screamed, Run, run, run, but his body refused to move. His eyes were glued to the strip of light-gray shirt visible under the jacket. Even standing up straight, he’d barely reach to the ranger’s nose. But far from standing straight, he could feel himself shrinking into his hoodie, and against the cool side of the truck, water seeping into the back of his shirt.
Finally his muscles got the message, and he ducked to one side.
Wham! Faster than a man that size should be able to move, a hand shot out and slammed against the pillar by his ear. Doran’s heart tried to climb out through his throat. And not in fear.
“Let’s try that again, shall we?” Wagner’s voice was level, nonthreatening, but taking no shit either. Its quiet rumble sent little shivers up Doran’s arms.
A hand brushed against the side of Doran’s hood, and Wagner stooped a little to look at his face. Warm fingers tilted his chin up. “You’re the kid from the gas station.”
Doran blinked to refocus, and searched those dark-brown eyes for more clues. He remembered that? How? Probably because Doran had made an ass of himself. He wasn’t that memorable, otherwise.
“Let’s go grab a coffee.” Wagner moved him aside by the shoulders just enough to be able to open the passenger door. The books were unceremoniously dumped on top of the granola bars. “Hop in.”
Nonono. “I wasn’t going to steal anything, I swear.” Shut up, Callaghan. Just shut up.
The look Wagner gave him was unreadable, but he said slowly, “No, I don’t think you were, actually.”
“Are . . . are you arresting me?” Shut. The flip. Up!
An amused twinkle crept into the eyes. “No. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Different kind of ranger. I’m asking.”
“Starting to get pretty wet out here. And I think you owe me an explanation, kiddo.”
No way. There was no explanation. I have no clue who you are, but I’ve developed this enormous crush on you didn’t really cut it, did it? He wasn’t even half-done kicking that around in his brain when he realized he was sitting in the car, with the door closed. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Wagner climbed in on the other side, and the truck dipped a little when he hoisted himself up. A ray of sunlight briefly cut through the clouds and reflected off the wet pavement as they turned into the road.
This time of year, parking wasn’t a problem anywhere. Wagner pulled up in front of the Stomping Grounds, Bluewater Bay’s incongruously hip coffee shop. He grabbed his mug and got out without a word.
Was Doran supposed to follow him? Or wait in the car until Wagner got back? No, staying in the truck was a really bad idea. Better to face him in a more public place than that. Shouldn’t have gotten into a stranger’s truck in the first place.
Oh, who was he kidding? Short of murder, there wasn’t a lot the ranger could do to him that Doran wouldn’t want him to do. And, hello, he really needed to think of something else here.
He scrambled out of the truck and ducked into the coffee shop. The kid behind the counter—Doran couldn’t decide if boy or girl—sported a punk purple hairdo and took Wagner’s order seemingly unaffected by that smile. Go figure. The smell of coffee and toasted bread made Doran’s stomach growl. He could do lunch. If it didn’t get stuck in his throat.
He checked his meager supply of cash and decided on regular coffee and a wrap. He always put ten bucks into his payback envelope as soon as he got his money for the week, and he always ran short toward the weekend. Which, he supposed, was the point. The program paid his rent, but they didn’t want him to have a lot of cash. Well, duh.
Doran threw a quick glance at Wagner as he flipped through the newspapers on a table. They didn’t talk while they waited for their coffees.
Wagner set his triple shot topped with steamed milk, thank you down on a table in the corner, and Doran followed him, mainly because he didn’t know what else to do.
Wagner rested his chin on his thumb, index along his cheekbone, and rubbed his middle finger across an upper lip curved like the wings of a seagull. The well-groomed five-day shadow there continued along his jaw and around his mouth that still held the ghost of a smile.
Doran looked away. He was so doomed. He should have just walked past the flipping truck.
Not that he didn’t crave the company, well, at least in his dreams. In real life, it would’ve been nicer if he could stop babbling in his head. But even if he’d wanted no part of the man, in a town the size of Bluewater Bay, you couldn’t evade anyone who was set on talking to you. Not in the long run, anyway. Oh. God.
When he’d seen the hooded figure in the parking lot, peering through the car windows, Xavier had thought the kid was checking whether the truck or anything in it was worth stealing. Stupid with a marked car, but kids often were. Then he’d recognized the guy from the gas station. He could still have been casing the truck, of course. He looked so ridiculously young, though. More like he needed help.
“I guess you know more about me than I know about you,” Xavier said, indicating his uniform and name tag. It was hard to see the boy’s face under the hood. When he didn’t answer, Xavier tried again. “That was your cue to introduce yourself, kid.” On second thought, inviting him for a coffee had probably been a bad idea.
“Stop calling me that. I’m twenty-two.” He flipped the hood down to the back of his neck. To, what? Prove it? Okay, he was definitely older than Xavier had first thought. And pretty. Xavier could feel his eyebrows going up.
The boy rummaged in his backpack and slapped a driver’s license on the table. “Doran,” he added. “Callaghan. I work at the Tourist Information.” He vaguely indicated the direction with fluttering fingers.
Xavier tried not to smile. He doubted it would’ve been taken well. “Nice to finally have a name.” He took a sip from his coffee, studying the face sans hood. So earnest and fragile. Eyes the color of blue noble fir. Full, sensual lower lip caught between teeth. Whoa, there. Slow down, Hoss. A second ago you thought he was a teenager. Only he wasn’t.
Which was utterly beside the point.
“So, Doran, what’s the deal with you checking out my truck?”
“I wasn’t. I mean, I was, but not— I just wanted to— What I mean is, it wasn’t for the truck.”
Xavier laughed. “Easy, kid. Sorry—Doran.” He set his cup down and leaned across the table. “If it wasn’t for the truck, what were you checking out?”
Huge, open eyes one minute, a desperately-trying-to-be-fierce scowl the next.
“I— From where I work, I can see the gas station. Man, I wasn’t even sure it was your truck. I swear, I just— Hell, I don’t even know, if you’re g—” He bit his lip.
If he was what? Gay? Was the kid coming on to him? And why would that be the first thing that came to his mind?
Doran took a big swallow of his coffee, and then sputtered half of it back into the cup and in his lap, likely because he’d scalded himself.
“Whoa. Easy, kiddo. Breathe.” Xavier took the cup out of his hand and set it back on the table so it wouldn’t end up in his lap as well.
The boy’s face shut down so hard that he gave Xavier whiplash. Xavier threw up both hands in retreat and leaned back in his chair.
“I saw you. At the gas station,” Doran said.
“Yes, I know. You were standing next to me at the counter.”
A questioning look came into those smoke-blue eyes, then the kid—Doran—studied his hands. “Anyway. I work across the road. Huge shop window. Goes out to the street. So, I see you.” He started fidgeting in his seat. “Every Sunday.” He stalled, then restarted, “When I saw the truck, I just wanted to see if it was you.”
Xavier rested his chin on his hand. He was starting to get an idea about what was going on here.
Doran looked away.
“And what inside the car would tell you it was mine?”
“I don’t know, man.” Doran threw up his hands, then stuck his chin out. “Look, it was stupid, I get that.”
Nothing slight or fragile about that chin. That was all stubborn sass and cornered challenge.
Xavier knew that special blend of vulnerable dignity firsthand, though it had been a while. A severe case of puppy crush. The kindest thing to do with that was to gently nip it in the bud.
He finished his coffee and slowly wiped his mug with the napkin. “Fair enough,” he said, getting up.
A tiny frown appeared between Doran’s eyebrows. One that just begged to be smoothed—or kissed—away. Christ, where had that come from?
“Do you want a lift back to your car?” Xavier asked, just to say something. He breathed a sigh of relief when Doran shook his head.
“See you around, then.” He left so fast that he still had the crumpled napkin in his hand when he reached for his car keys.
Holy shit. What had that been all about? He needed to get laid. That would stop him from crushing on kids so much younger than him. Well, five years, anyway. Seemed more like ten. Although Doran had taken great pains to assure him it wasn’t. Not the fucking point, Wagner.
“I’m here, Ma,” Xavier yelled through the house the next morning. They’d insisted he keep his key because, according to his father, It doesn’t stop being your home, boy, just because you move out. But he’d often thought there’d be much less yelling going on if he simply rang the bell. Not that she’d be able to get the door, of course.
His mother appeared at the top of the stairs holding up her index finger: One minute. They’d developed a sort of sign language since her stroke almost two years ago. He sometimes wished she’d at least given it a try when the doctors had told her she had a good chance of getting some of her speech back with therapy. But she’d listened to the garbled syllables coming out of her mouth for a few days, gotten quieter and quieter, and finally decided she was done talking.
Xavier strolled through the kitchen and stuck his head in the half-open door leading to the garage. “Papa? Are you in here?”
His father, towhead liberally covered in wood dust from sanding, peeked around the corner of a shelf. “Xav! Come on down, boy.” He wore his usual Henley and bib overalls. Still a big man at sixty, he’d taught Xavier all about patience and control in a world that only reached to their shoulders.
Xavier took the three steps down to the concrete floor. The garage had never been used to park a car, but had been his father’s shop since the day they’d finished building it. Business had picked up considerably with the movie people coming into town, and the prices they were willing to pay for handmade furniture bordered on the fantastic. Especially when it was quality work like that of Karl Wagner, who took pride in double dovetail joints and perfect lacquer finishes.
He still used a lot of the same tools he’d left Germany with as a teen, though he didn’t sell out of his garage anymore. These days The Cabinet was a small store on Main and Eighth, where Debbie fielded walk-ins from custom orders and made sure Karl charged proper prices for his work.
“Still working on that cherry vanity?”
“Debbie picked that up on Thursday. I’m putting the last coat on the sink cabinet, and started on a dining set. Look at that flitch of maple Ron brought over on Friday. Isn’t it a beauty?”
Usually Karl would drive down to the sawmill himself to hunt for unfinished planks with that certain je ne sais quoi that spoke to him. But sometimes, when Ron thought he had something special, he’d run it over right away. It was like a game between them of who could find the most striking piece.
This one had beautiful markings. Xavier ran his thumb along the bark, smooth enough to leave on for a rustic edge. “It’ll make a stunning tabletop.”
Karl winked at him. “Are you sure you don’t want to work with me?”
Xavier laughed. “You know I’m much happier outside. I might need to add a new bookcase soon, though. I have to measure some spaces, then I’ll come over to see what you have for me.” He smoothed his hand lightly across the still-rough top of the plank. “You should take an apprentice again.”
“If you bring me someone willing to invest the three years in a proper apprenticeship, I might. Otherwise don’t bother. I’m not compromising on some snotty little I-can-learn-this-in-one-summer shit.”
“There’s gotta be—” He interrupted himself when he heard the hum of the stairlift through the open door. “Sounds like Ma’s ready. Have a good week, Papa. And don’t sell that table before I’ve seen it finished.” A brief hug that left Xavier brushing the wood dust off his clothes, and he ducked through the kitchen to help his mother into the truck.
Xavier was one of the few people she suffered to carry her, but he knew she hated it, so he merely gave her a hand up and handed her the seat belt. Ignoring the way she struggled with the smallest everyday tasks was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to learn. And it didn’t get any easier with practice, either.
When he’d pulled up in front of the church, he hurried out of his seat and around the truck to open her door because she’d never wait for him. He had the perpetual horror vision of her slipping and falling the one day he wasn’t fast enough to be there to catch her.
When he handed her the cane, she laid her hand on his cheek and gave him the long look that was her silent thank you for driving her, as well as Good-bye, no need to walk me in. And also an apology. For her needing to be here, when he couldn’t be. Not anymore.
He’d known he was gay since seventh grade, but it wasn’t something he’d flaunted in the small-town streets. Not that there’d been anyone to flaunt it with. That had changed when he went to college, though. Suddenly there was a truckload of gorgeous and available guys around him, and he’d reveled in the new opportunities and freedom, not bothering to hide.
Neither Lower Columbia nor UW had been far enough away for word not to travel back here. No one had actually said anything to his face when he came back for a Sunday service, but their squirming and whispers were enough to make him bristle. Bluewater Bay might have changed with the arrival of Hollywood, but some of its natives hadn’t gotten the memo.
Well, his faith needed neither the building nor the community. The solitude of the park was enough, and at least there he could breathe. So he played the chauffeur every Sunday, and stayed outside.
He caught her hand against his face and placed a quick kiss on her head. “I’ll be here to pick you up after. Don’t run away, okay?”
The quip earned him the lopsided smile that was reward and curse at the same time. Like trying to draw breath against the wind. He let her go, and climbed back into the truck, assuring himself in the rearview mirror that she made it safely inside.
He’d planned to do the week’s shopping at the Safeway in Port Angeles, but a new sign over the general store had him pulling over. It had been Williams’s General Store for generations, but old Mrs. Williams had put the place up for sale after her son had refused to take over, and it had stood empty all winter. Your Daley Bread, the new sign read. Someone had taped a Now Open sign in the window, and We will honor your old points cards.
When he’d been a child, Williams’s had meant trading cards after a visit to the dentist. And later, loose change in sweaty palms for those magazines, which, he’d soon realized, were the wrong gender and a waste of his money. Mrs. Williams would push them across the counter in a fold of packing paper with the same fixed-above-your-shoulder stare a soldier might employ when faced with an officer whose decision he didn’t agree with. She’d grown smaller as Xavier grew up, but he could always tell by her stare when one of her customers bought a copy of Hustler or Penthouse or Playboy.
He braced himself for finding the place unrecognizable as he pushed the door open. It had indeed changed, but not that much. The new owners had kept the counter and the floor-to-ceiling shelves behind them with the old-fashioned moldings. All painted white now, which allowed the black and white floor tiles to shine, and made the store seem twice as big.
The ancient till was still there, as was the lidded glass jar with the lollipops. The faded postcards had made way for cards hand-painted by local artists. Some of the brands had changed, and the shelf to the right of the door, which had held assorted hardware, now sported locally made organic soaps, honeys, mustards, and whatnot.
A tiny brunette roughly his own age came in through the door behind the counter, gave the grandmother of all starts when she saw him, and ducked right back out.
“Jackson,” he heard her call with a Deep South drawl, “there’s a customer.”
Xavier gritted his teeth and waited for Jackson, and for an explanation that wouldn’t involve skin color.
The man was short, but extremely well put-together. Midthirties, black hair just touching the collar of his white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a pair of jeans that put the lie to the suspenders attached to them.
He held his hand out to Xavier. “Jack Daley. Sorry about that. Margaret’s a shy one. We really need to put that bell back up above the door, but the paint wasn’t dry yet. I hope you haven’t been waiting long?”
Southern accent, but not as pronounced as the woman’s, and a rueful smile in the hazel eyes that did a lot to smooth Xavier’s hackles back down.
He slowly took the offered hand and shook it. “Just a few minutes. Gave me a chance to look around.”
“Hope you like it. Still needs a few touches here and there. We just opened up this morning. I thought a Sunday might be less busy, give us a chance to ‘ease in.’” He air-quoted the last two words. And, yep, that was definitely a wink.
Xavier laughed. The guy was a bit theatrical maybe, but nice enough. Xavier had taken the two for a couple at first glance, but his gaydar was pinging loud and clear now.
“So.” Daley glanced at his name tag and braced himself on the edge of the counter with both hands. “What can I do for you, Mr. Wagner?”
“Xavier is fine, or I’ll feel like I’m back in class.” He fished his shopping list out of his wallet and handed it over.
“Xavier it is.” Jack scanned the list. “We don’t have the beer yet. Still waiting for the license. Want me to pack the rest up for you? Paper bag okay? White flour or whole wheat?”
“Huh. If whole wheat’s an option, I’ll try that. No bag. I have a box in the car. I’ll get it.”
Local, organic, and paper bags. Definitely an improvement. Though Xavier suspected it would put a dent in his wallet.
It turned out not to be quite as bad as he’d feared. The difference was no more than he would’ve paid for gas to Port Angeles and back. Worth having the general store in business again, anyway. And Jack Daley was quite a character. Xavier stayed and chatted for a bit, then went to pick up his mother at the church. He took her to her friend’s house for their standing lunch date, and drove over to the gas station.
Someone brushed hard against him on his way out. But since Xavier was a hard man to budge, it was the stranger who took an involuntary step to the side. Not without a glare.
Roy looked up from his Sunday crossword when he walked in. “Hey, X. Pump number one?”
Xavier nodded and hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the door. “Who’s the asshole?”
“Some bigwig from the studio. He’s fucking important, and everyone else is gum under his shoe. I’m sorely tempted to refuse his sorry white ass service the next time he waltzes in here. You need anything else?”
“I’ll grab a couple of six packs. Did you know the general store’s open again?” He checked the fridge and tried to decide whether the Heineken or Stella was the lesser evil. Hopefully Jack Daley would go local with his beers as well.
“I heard it got bought, but didn’t know they were open.” Roy rang his two packs of Stella Artois up with the gas. “They don’t have beer, huh?”
“Not yet, anyway. When are you going to stop stocking this crap, Roy?”
Roy shrugged. “People buy what they know. Or they ask a lot of stupid question. Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Xavier grinned and nodded at the crossword puzzle on the counter. “You being so overworked and all.”
Another customer came in, and Xavier made room and stashed his receipt.
It reminded him of the kid—Doran—standing there staring at him. I see you. Every Sunday.
He looked up at the Tourist Information across the road, but the reflections in the window didn’t let him see anything inside.
Oh, get a grip, Xavier. The boy obviously had a truckload of issues, even if he was legal. Who needed that?
Unfortunately a lonely lunch didn’t help in the slightest to shut up his intransigent brain. For some reason that stupid kid pushed his buttons.
Xavier didn’t have the foggiest idea where the guy’s crush had come from. Most people crossed to the other side of the street when they encountered him in the dark. He should have gotten used to that by now, but it never failed to irk him. To some extent the uniform offset the threat people seemed to perceive in him, but the last thing he’d expected was a skinny white boy with a preppy haircut carrying a torch for him. A pretty white boy, with dreamy eyes and a stubborn chin.
Eat your lunch, Xavier. He grinned at himself and checked his watch. Still time. Ma wouldn’t mind staying for a little chat if he was a few minutes late.
Well, if Doran had some hidden strength, all the better for him. Now, think of something else.
Xavier let the field glasses sink and rubbed his eyes. He’d found footprints of M137 around a killed mountain beaver last week, but had hoped to catch sight of the big fisher for a visual assessment. They were as elusive as their marten cousins, despite being twice the size.
That was the only reason he’d gotten up before dawn on a Monday morning, and headed out when the moon was still a pale disk against the lightening sky. It had nothing to do with waking up repeatedly, short of breath, and with the evanescent dream-taste of supple lips against his own.
He slowly stretched first one leg, then the other. Clouds had started to drift in a couple of hours ago; the sky had descended and now hung as a gray vapor among the trees. It wasn’t raining, precisely. Something between a fine spray and a thick mist that left tiny beads of moisture everywhere it touched.
His rain slicker was big enough to cover his backpack and knees, which had kept the tree stump he was sitting on dry so far, but even though he was used to remaining still for long stretches of time, his ass was starting to cramp, and he gave himself another half hour before the first shivers would run through his body and tell him it was time to move.
He eased the thermos out of his pocket and poured the last of the coffee. Only warm now rather than hot, but it might buy him another ten minutes.
He was screwing the cup back onto the thermos when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and froze. Ever so slowly, he stashed the thermos and got his field glasses back out, training them at the foot of the tree where he thought he’d seen something. Yep, there, the dark fur stood out against a small patch of old snow in the shadows.
Definitely M137. He’d lost one of his ears in a fight against a coyote who’d tried to steal his dinner. The coyote had been taught the error of its ways. Don’t mess with a fisher, especially not one as big as M137.
He looked healthy, winter fur thick and glossy. No injuries Xavier could see as he watched the fisher wander across the forest floor, sticking his nose under roots and leaf litter in his quest for a snack beyond the picked-over bones of the beaver.
Only when the animal was out of sight did Xavier stash his field glasses and add the sighting in his log. Then he carefully stood up. He could almost hear his joints creak, he’d been sitting for so long. He flipped the little notebook shut, dislodging the folded leaflet about the preseason meeting at the Wilderness Information Center that night. He had half a mind not to go, save himself the drive into Port Angeles. On the other hand, he liked the people, and he should probably make an effort to stay in touch with colleagues and volunteers, and not turn into a complete hermit. The temptation was too great.
Between his father teaching him the scruples and responsibilities of men their size, his mother insisting on his caution and control in a racist world, and that world being scared stiff of who he might fuck, he’d grown up feeling like a bull in a china shop. The only way not to destroy anything was not to move.
Unfortunately he wasn’t graced with a temperament that suffered arbitrary restrictions gladly, so he’d gotten the hell out of the china shop. He liked it out here. Even in the cold.
He stretched both arms above his head to get the kinks out of his back, before picking his way down off the ridge and to the next camera station. He’d just patrol those today; it was a raw day, good incentive to keep walking. Plus, he had some tension to work out of his system.
Maybe he’d hit Seattle or Victoria for a night on the town next weekend. He didn’t do it very often, no point in crowds and meaningless hookups, but it would take his mind off its stupid obsession with Doran Callaghan’s lips. Or so he hoped.
He couldn’t remember being quite so preoccupied with anyone he didn’t even really know since his school days. Not since Mr. Thompson, the new English teacher, had walked into his seventh-grade classroom with his poetry eyes and slender, sophisticated hands. Next to him even the senior boys had seemed callow and obscene. Xavier had been too shy, and not quite stupid enough, to do anything about his major platonic crush, other than to write painfully romantic poems long since burned. He’d been more comfortable hanging out with the girls, so he hadn’t gone to his graduation unkissed. But, things being what they were, it hadn’t led to anything.
He’d made up lost ground in college, but none of it had ever been very involved or exclusive. A sort-of-steady, on-and-off thing at university hadn’t survived what his boyfriend had called Xavier’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Xavier hadn’t been particularly crushed. He certainly wasn’t going to contort himself to fit expectations. Then or now. Staying by himself was easiest. That way nobody’s heart got broken.
Which was why he’d walked out of that coffee shop. But whatever it was that woke him up at night was neither platonic nor uninvolved, and he had no idea what to do about it. Especially since nothing had actually happened.
Despite the morning fog turning to rain, he kept moving until the light started to fade, and actually managed to work some of the fidgets out of his system. He couldn’t wait to get out of his rain gear and hit the shower. He stank. He didn’t mind roughing it. He could be out in the park for days doing whatever needed to be done without noticing a lack of soap or change of clothes. But the closer he got to his shower, the more he itched. And every couple of weeks or so he granted himself a spa day. There was a simple, clean joy about a steam bath and massage, and having your whole head shaved by a pro. Yeah, that was definitely a better idea than a visit to the Tourist Information.
Doran kicked an empty pop can along the sidewalk to the bus stop. It hadn’t really been a bad day. He’d managed not to buy any lottery tickets last week, so, unlike most Mondays, he’d had enough money left over for lunch and dinner and the bus fare. But Mondays came before Tuesdays, and Tuesdays meant GA meetings. Which meant Mondays were always kind of shitty. Not as shitty as Tuesdays, but shitty enough.
The day-long drizzle turned more and more into a light rain. It wasn’t even five and already dark. He gave the can one last kick, then jogged the rest of the way to the stop. The hoodie was crap in the rain. He could apply for a voucher for a coat, of course. But it meant filling out forms, and handing in the receipt. Mostly, though, it meant that he’d have to explain what had happened to his old coat. Which he’d lost in a bet. So explaining that wasn’t really an option. Maybe, if he went another week without giving in to temptation, he’d have enough for one of those cheap plastic rain covers that went over your coat. Those couldn’t be more than five or ten bucks, could they? Of course they looked stupid as hell. But he’d be dry. That was worth some stupid.
The lights of a car swept the bus shelter with their glare, then passed. But instead of continuing on its way, the car stopped, then backed up. Shit. Creepy.
Doran stepped out into the rain, so he wouldn’t be trapped in the shelter if he needed to run. The car, a truck, stopped right in front of him, the single streetlight above not enough to illuminate the driver. Wait. Was that a dark line running the length of the light-colored truck? That was a totally different kind of Shit.
The passenger-side window rolled down at the same time as the interior light came on.
“I’m going into Port Angeles. Want a ride?” Wagner said.
Sitting next to Wagner in a nice, warm car rather than next to some stranger on a smelly bus? Hell, yeah. Plus, he wouldn’t have to hoof it from the stop to the probation counselor’s office. He was already reaching out to open the door when he realized, damn, he’d have to tell Wagner where to let him off. Right. Not going to happen.
He froze mid-reach, then quickly turned the movement into a no thanks wave. “I’m good.” A mumble that sounded anything but.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure.” At least that came out a bit more solid.
“Suit yourself.” The window hummed back up, and the truck moved forward. Doran watched it make a right about a hundred yards up the road. Which was weird, because there was no road there. Just the lot of a used car dealership that was closed now. Maybe Wagner was picking someone else up? Who? None of your business, Callaghan.
He turned back in the direction the bus would be coming from and leaned against the inside of the shelter, hands in his pockets, the damp seeping through to his sweater and T-shirt where his shoulders touched the glass, the rain a steady patter on the roof now.
How was he supposed to get Wagner out of his head if he ran into the man at every corner? And, whoa, Sunday.
He’d watched the gas station, of course, as he always did. This time he’d even had a voice to go with his fantasy. A quiet rumble that made little pebbles under his skin. He’d just been able to see Wagner through the windows of both buildings, where he stood at the counter, paying for his gas and whatever else he’d picked up. Beer? And then the ranger had turned his head and looked straight at him. One heartbeat. Two.
It was like being caught with your dick in your hand and your heart in your throat. Even when Wagner had looked away again, it had been several more heartbeats before Doran had been able to move again. He shivered at the memory, laid his head back against the glass, and looked straight into Wagner’s eyes.
What? He was hallucinating now, and he hadn’t even smoked anything.
“Merely wanted to double-check you’re really okay.” Wagner studied him intently, and Doran was sure he’d read his face like a book. “If you don’t want a ride, that’s fine, of course. But you . . . You sounded a bit off.”
Well, duh. Wild ideas of denying where he was headed ran through Doran’s head. He didn’t want Wagner to be offended. Especially not since he’d apparently gone to the trouble of parking his car and walking back here to check on him. But since only one bus stopped here, and that bus ran between Bluewater Bay and Port Angeles, that would not help to make him sound any more sane.
“I’m really okay.” He didn’t want that to be it, though, because then Wagner would just nod and leave. But he couldn’t blurt out his fantasies either, because then Wagner would leave even faster. “I really wasn’t checking out your truck,” he added, just to keep talking. And it was only half a lie. He’d wanted to see what kind of person Wagner was, whether there’d be any clues to that in the truck. And he’d found a tidy reader of poetry. Who’d’a thunk it.
“Yeah, I know.” Wagner braced himself against the glass, his arm so close to Doran’s cheek that the sleeve would brush his face if he turned his head. That intent look was back in Wagner’s eyes, and Doran forgot to breathe. This wasn’t real. He watched a few raindrops run down Wagner’s face and reached out to brush them away with his fingertips.
Then, maybe because being cocooned in here with the rain falling all around them felt so much like one of his fantasies, he stood on his toes and kissed Wagner’s lips. Warm under the slightly cool raindrops, soft at first, opening with a surprised inhale. Then firm, pressing back, stubble against Doran’s chin, Wagner’s elbow touching the glass by his ear, his hand on top of the hood. The other hand running down the front of the hoodie to rest on his hip.
Doran slid both hands into the open jacket and around that big body that was so much warmer than his own. He wanted to wrap himself up in it, wanted . . . he didn’t even know what exactly. All of it. Everything.
Those lips on his, tongue and teeth licking and nipping, sent shivers of goose bumps all the way to his toes. A warm hand against his face, in his hair, thumb brushing his temple. Tongue dipping, teeth drawing his lower lip in.
The kiss grew more insistent, somewhere between gentle and demanding. The hand cupped the back of his neck. The shelter, the rain, everything fell away, leaving only the hard muscles under his hands, the taste and warm smell of the man, the moan rising in his throat.
Doran’s knees gave out. But a strong hand on his buttocks held him up and pulled him against a distinct hard-on.
A bright light swept across his closed eyelids, and suddenly all that was left brushing against his lips was cold air.
When to Hold Them is a well written, compelling addition to the Bluewater Bay universe.
[B]eautifully romantic. The characters are complex and well drawn. . . . I will definitely be adding G B Gordon to my favourite authors pile.
The setting is phenomenal and made for great climactic scenes that I absolutely adored.
[S]weet yet extremely sexy. . . . When To Hold Them was a very good story.
Exquisitely detailed characterization is the hallmark of this deceptively deep, thought-provoking psychological study of trust, addiction, and building relationships.