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The Conquered - Chapter 31: Trials (part 5)

***** Don *****

Mmmmmmm... bacon. I sniffed the air hungrily as I shifted in the bed. My back was stiff, my ass was sore, and my balls ached. Seb had already given me what I wanted last night; breakfast in bed was going overboard. Not to mention, Seb couldn't cook. Rolling over, I stretched, and my arm brushed against something warm and furry. I came full awake and looked to my left. Seb was on his back, mouth open, snoring softly because of his cold. If he's in bed, who's cooking bacon?

I rolled out of bed, grabbing my discarded jeans from where Seb had stripped me of them last night. Pushing the bedroom door more open, I peeked across the hall into the kitchen. In addition to the sound of sizzling pork, there was soft humming coming from the direction of the living room. I stepped out of the bedroom cautiously, not sure what was going on.

Angelina turned from picking up the glasses we'd left on the coffee table and squeaked in surprise as she saw me. "Dios mio! Donito, you are as silent as the grave."

"Angelina," I sighed, the tension wicking away from between my shoulder blades, "what are you doing here?" I scratched at my neck as she went past me and put the glasses in the sink.

"I am here to clean up this barn you live in." She waved her finger at me before tending to the bacon. "That is the problem with two husbands; there is no one in the relationship with a skill at cleaning."

I rubbed my face. "Angelina..."

She turned, pointing the fork she was turning the bacon with at me. "What have I told you?"

I sighed. I was a gay man, and women still ruled my life. It wasn't fair. "Mama."

Her smile lit that round, apple cheeked little brown face of hers. She was so cute. Seb definitely got his smile from her. "Gracias."

"You still haven't told me why you're here."

She shrugged. "Your mother sent me the final colors and fabrics for the wedding. We only have a little over a month. I promised to make certain you had everything ready, or at least on order." She frowned at me. "Men leave these things to the last minute."

I rolled my eyes as she finished flipping the bacon. "And how'd you get in?"

"Sebastian gave us a key to the apartment when he moved here."

That made sense. "Oh."

"I will have breakfast ready in fifteen minutes. Wake Sebastian."

I shuffled out of the kitchen, into the bedroom, and closed the door. I knelt down and nuzzled Seb's neck. He moaned, and his hands came up to my head as I kissed my way down to his chest. His sigh had me thickening in my jeans, and his hands began pushing me south. I kissed my way to his abs, and my cheek bumped into something long, hard and moistening by the moment. I licked around his head as he groaned. "Madre de Dios," he muttered, his fingers flexing in my hair. "You torture me so early."

I smiled, pulling off his shaft and sliding up him to kiss him awake. "Time to wake up."

His hand trailed down my back until he encountered my jeans. He blinked. "You're dressed?"

"Your mother is here."

Playful drowsiness fled as Seb came fully awake. "What?"

"She's making breakfast. We have about ten minutes."

"Oy." He fell back against the pillow and put a forearm across his eyes.

I grinned. "That's Jewish, not Spanish."

"It expresses the situation better."

I laughed. "Si... Oy!"

Seb looked at me as I stood up and held my hand to him. "She saw you like that?"

I frowned. Like I cared if his mother saw me shirtless? "Like what?"

He frowned back, eyeing my belly and chest.

I looked down. My fur was matted and crusty from my chest to below the waistband of my jeans. I'd completely forgotten that Seb had fucked two loads out of me last night. "Shit."

"We'd better get cleaned up."

"Yeah." Seb rolled out of bed and I grabbed the less than spotless bedding. "Pull the sheets too. You know she'll be in here trying to 'clean up this barn' the moment our backs are turned."

Seb shuddered, helping me ball up the sheets. "Don't say that."

I shrugged, walked into the bathroom and started the shower. "Tell me I'm wrong."

Seb muttered something insulting about how I was conceived in Spanish. I couldn't make it all out, but it made me grin. Even when he was frustrated, he was damn sexy when he spoke Spanish.

I got in as he got the soap and started scrubbing the remnants of last night from my fur. Just his touch, aching balls and sore ass or not, had me at full mast by the time he made it down to my balls. "I wish we had time to enjoy it."

Seb eyed my monster longingly, but shook his head. "Me too, but not with my mother in the house."

I put my hands on my hips, my dick throbbing at him indignantly. "What? I'm cut off until she leaves?"

Seb raised an eyebrow at me. He might have been on his knees, but I wasn't going to be able to take advantage of it. He didn't like it any more than I did.

***** Andrew *****

"Ouch!" I grabbed my toe and rubbed it while trying to resist the urge to kick the offending bedpost. That wouldn't have done any good. Grumbling, I made my way to the shower and ignored the fact that the other side of the bed was empty. My eyes kept wandering to the reflection of the empty bed in the mirror as I shaved. "Damn," I swore, setting the razor down and dabbing the third nick I'd made on my face. When I broke a shoelace while tying on my sneakers, it was all I could do not to throw my other sneaker at the wall. This was a Saturday I should have just stayed in bed, my big, empty bed.

I don't need you. I flinched at the memory, growled under my breath, and went downstairs. As I crossed the living room to the kitchen, I avoided looking at the snoring lump on the couch. It hurt too much.

I reached for the coffee pot, poured myself something to wake me up, and took a sip. Scalding, piss yellow, burnt water greeted me. "Shit," I spit, looking at the pot. No one had put in a fresh pouch of coffee in last night. I shot a scornful glare towards the living room and poured out the useless water. I'd get something from 7-11.

"Ah fuck," I swore as I got to the truck. We'd had a good four to six inches of accumulation. Muttering to myself, I dug out the ice scraper and started clearing off the windshield. I didn't even think about what I was doing when I moved from the truck and started on Taylor's SUV. I caught myself after my second swipe at the snow. "He doesn't need me? He can scrape his own damn windshield." I threw my scraper into the center console and got on the road.

As I drove to work, I fumed silently. What else is he keeping from me? I pulled into the 7-11, got out, and jammed the gas nozzle into the tank. What isn't he telling me? I stomped the snow off my sneakers and trudged into the store to get my coffee and something for fuel for the morning. I nearly crushed the coffee cup when I tried to put on the lid. Was it all lies? I typed in my PIN three times before it took, slowing the line down. I just couldn't focus on what I was doing. If he lied about her, did he lie about his feelings for me?

I got into town and tried to make a left onto Pine, but a station wagon cut me off. I don't need you. I hit the auto-down for the window and yelled, "Asshole! Get off the fucking road!"

Lee looked up from the reception desk, folding his coat over his arm as he listened to the messages. "You've got a break this morning; your seven-thirty cancelled."

"Great," I muttered, "I think I'll do my own workout. When's my next?"

"Eight forty-five."

I tried to pump Taylor's words out of my head. An hour later, I was still pissed, but at least the burning desire to hit someone was gone. That was probably the only thing that saved my next client. I really didn't need a whiner today.

Between my third and fourth clients, I had time to grab some lunch. I grabbed some chicken teriyaki from the Chinese takeout across the street and ate at the desk while Lee worked with one of his clients. After a few mouthfuls, I grabbed the phone and dialed the first four digits of our phone number before I realized what I was doing. I don't need you. I slammed the phone down. My appetite was gone, so I tossed the rest of my lunch in the trash and drummed my fingers on the desk while I waited for my next client to arrive.

***** Taylor *****

Ugh! My mouth tasted like I had mold growing on my tongue, and my teeth felt like they were coated in fur. No hang over, thank God, but that was the only difference in the feeling of being drugged to sleep by painkillers and being knocked out by booze. Everything else was identical. I looked at my watch, which had long since stopped beeping, and groaned. Eleven in the morning.

The annoying sound that had plagued my sleep came again. I blinked awake enough to swing my leg off the couch and sit up. Another chime. This time I recognized it. It was a doorbell.

"Coming!" Who the hell was coming over this morning? I hobbled with a tingling, sleeping leg, over to the door and looked out. I was greeted by an unhappy looking guy in a brown uniform and a winter coat. UPS? I opened the door. "Hello?"

"I have a Saturday delivery for Andrew Jackson or Taylor Madison."

"I'm Taylor Madison." I pulled the door completely open, and he handed me a signature scanner.

"Sign here." I did, and he handed me a stuffed express delivery envelope. "Have a nice day."

"Thanks," I mumbled absently as I closed the door. I'd noticed Andrew's truck was gone, but that wasn't a surprise. He was booked all day at the gym.

My stomach felt like it had ants crawling in it as I got into the kitchen. No coffee. Andrew must have been in a rush this morning. Last night came back to me like the flavor of burnt eggs. "Shit." I sat down, dropping the express pack on the table. What had I done?

I pondered calling Andrew to make sure he'd gotten to work safely with all the new snow, but I just looked at the phone. What was I going to say? We hadn't resolved anything last night. No, that wasn't true, we'd resolved I was an asshole, but I already knew that. To keep myself from picking up the phone, I grabbed the mail pack and opened it. Inside was a neatly organized and marked stack of legal papers and a note. I picked up the note and read it.

Dear Andrew & Taylor,

I'm sorry this took so long to get to you, but I wanted one of our estate and life concerns specialists to review the paperwork. You'll find documents to sign granting power of attorney, your living wills, your normal wills, and some additional bits of legal stuff that can make things easier in the long run. You might also want to talk to your banker or investment advisor about setting up joint accounts.

Sign these papers and I'll get them from you at Grace and Buck's wedding next week.


I set down the note and stared at the stack of legal papers on the table. "What the hell am I going to do with all this?"

***** Andrew *****

By five-thirty, Frank was half-way through his routine. Leon had a cold and had stayed home, so I put all my concentration into Frank's workout. He wanted to be pushed; no problem. Frank did bench presses while I stood above his head, spotting for him.


I don't need you.


I don't need you.

Frank grunted as he pushed for the next rep. "Five."

I don't need you.

His arms shook as he pushed for it.


I don't need you.

Frank grunted, but the weights didn't come back up.

"Christ, Frank. My mother can bench more than you."

Frank growled, and forced out a seventh rep before dropping the bar on the supports. Sitting up, he wiped his brow. "What crawled up your ass?" He challenged me with his eyes. "With Taylor in his casts, I'm sure it isn't him."

I growled. "I'm fine. You're not giving me what you've got. Why am I bothering?" I snorted. "Give up on HITT if you want, but don't waste my time."

Frank stood and tossed his towel down. "Whatever your problem is, it isn't with me." He walked up to me and stood, practically nose-to-nose. "I need you to train me! I don't need you to berate me!"

I don't need you.

I almost decked the son of a bitch, but I didn't. I swallowed hard, and fought back the angry tears pricking my eyes. I walked away to the water cooler and filled a glass. I raised it to my lips and my hands shook. God damn it!

Frank put his hand on my shoulder. "Andrew. What's going on?"

I finished off the water, swallowing around the lump in my throat. "Nothing. I'm fine." I couldn't look at him. Frank wasn't the problem. I was. I wasn't enough. I shrugged off his hand and my self-recrimination. Bullshit! I was more than enough. If Taylor was keeping secrets, fine! If he didn't need me, I sure as hell didn't need him. Fuck him. I owned asses like Frank's. I could make any guy whimper for my cock. What did I need with a little shrimp of a guy? Nothing.

I swallowed my shit and turned, perfectly calm, to Frank. "Ready for legs?" That was as close as I was going to give to an apology. I didn't need Taylor. I sure as hell didn't need Frank or his concern. He was a client, and that was it.

Frank just shook his head with a look of disgust on his face. "No. I broke the rhythm of the workout anyway."

I watched as Frank grabbed his stuff and walked out. He brushed past Lee and said something that I couldn't hear. I was wiping down the benches when Lee came over.

"What's wrong with you today Andrew?"

I should have told Lee. He was the person I'd known the longest outside of my family. My gut clenched as Taylor's words repeated for the millionth time, I don't need you. I set my jaw. I didn't need Lee. "Nothing. Didn't sleep well last night."

Lee put his hand on my arm. I almost knocked it off. "Something's wrong, Andrew. What is it?"

The door chime went off. "Your client is here. Don't keep him waiting."

Lee sighed and turned towards the door. "Hello, Phillip. Ready to get started?"

I turned back to cleaning up the gym. Damn, Frank sweated a lot. He'd been pushing himself really hard. I felt a moment of regret, but I squashed it and went into the office and looked through some bills. I sat there, staring at the partially organized files, and realized how much I missed Sean. I picked up the phone to call him, just to hear his voice, but I looked at my watch. It was ten in Florida, and Saturday. He's probably out with friends. Maybe even getting some of that Carlos guy. I grinned. Horny little shit.

I was still smiling when my last client came in at seven thirty. Kevin Jasper was a new client. After only a week, I could tell his thirty-three year old body wasn't as hopeless as it'd looked at first inspection. He'd spent a few too many years taking the elevator instead of the stairs, and his hair was thinning on top, but he'd hit his home gym often enough to keep a solid core under that layer of coffee creamer and doughnuts. I also knew he wasn't all that happy at home, probably one of the reasons he'd put on his weight. Straight and married, or so the ring I made him take off to work out indicated.

When he got on the bench press, he spread his legs wide, giving me a solid view of his package. I stood at the head of the bench, practically straddling his face to as I helped him lower the weights. I watched the bulge in his shorts throb as he got a really good look up the right leg of my shorts. I felt a slight twitch of my own.

Kevin pulled up his sweatshirt to wipe his brow, showing a round but hinting at muscular mid-section. "Whew."

"Arms," I ordered, and he sat down immediately and started his concentration curls.

As I counted out his reps, I watched his arm as he curled his weights. Yeah, there was muscle under there. Solid, well used, muscle. Not scrawny or tight; big and challenging. When he finished his set, I pointed at the leg press. "Twelve," I barked, and again he hopped to my orders. Oh yeah, that's the way it's supposed to be.

He whimpered through fourteen reps, just because I wanted to see the strain on his face. I let him take a stretch and a breather. As he stood and stretched, reaching for his toes, my cock lurched. Full, round, meaty, and there was good gripping muscle under that ample ass. That ass was cherry. I put my hand on it, holding him in place while I pressed down between his shoulder blades, forcing his stretch deeper. His ass trembled under my palm, and I gripped it for a moment. I could barely hear his moan.

Straight my ass. He was as queer as a three dollar bill. I pressed him a bit harder, feeling him press his ass into my grip. His groan was a mixture of pain and excitement. He was looking to get that ass plucked. I pointed at the floor mats. "Fifty crunches."

Kevin blinked at me. "Fifty?"

I growled. "Did you cheat this week?" He made a face, and I knew I'd won. "Fifty."

He got on the mat and started.

I stood close and watched as Kevin grimaced through his first twenty. I could feel the heat from him, saw the sweat staining his shirt, and a whiff of his determination had my interest lengthening by the moment. Like being in a candy store and being intoxicated by the aromas, I was salivating.

Lee called out his goodnights to his last client, and I realized opportunity was knocking. I left Kevin on the mat and walked around front. I handed Lee his coat. "I'll lock up. Have a good night."

Lee stared at me. "I'm waiting for Tyrone."

I glanced out at the parking lot. "That's his car now." I grabbed Lee's arm, leading him to the door. "I'll see you Monday."

Lee jerked his arm from my grip and stared at me. "Andrew? I need my palm pilot."

I wanted him gone. I had a hungry ass waiting to be fed, and my `ladle' was filled. "It's Saturday night."


I needed him gone. "You've covered a lot for me lately."

Lee rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't have done it if I didn't want to."

Tyrone came into the gym and walked up to Lee. "Hey, Babe."

Tyrone nodded to me as he leaned down and brushed his lips against Lee's. The simple, sweet gesture made my blood boil. Lee melted under Tyrone's lips and brought his hand to Tyrone's arm. "Hi, Bull."

I walked them out. "You be safe," I said, looking at the sky, "it's snowing again."

Lee nodded, looking at me skeptically. "You sure everything's okay?"

I smiled. "Yeah, just didn't sleep well."

"Okay, have a good weekend Andrew."

I grinned as I turned back to the gym. "I plan on it."

Finally, they were gone. I locked the front door, and walked back to Kevin. He was finishing his fifty, gritting his teeth as he counted out the last few. I knelt down. "Feet together, knees apart." He looked at me funny, exhausted, but did as he was told. I gripped the inside of his thighs and pressed down. Kevin groaned and his cock twitched. "Wide, twisted crunches. Twenty five each side." My fingers firmly pressed his inner thighs as he crunched up to one side and then the other. By the time he collapsed back, groaning from the effort, he was half hard.

"Dead lifts."

He stood, a bit wobbly, and moved to the dead lift stand. I racked up ten more pounds than his last workout and he groaned as the weight settled on his shoulders.

"Give me ten." I stood close, real close, and held onto the bar to make sure he didn't hurt himself. His nose nearly brushed my cock with each pass down and up. He was breathing so hard that I could feel it through my shorts as he went by.

Exhausted, and his expression slightly glassy eyed, I pointed him at the pull up station. "Three sets of ten."

Kevin groaned, and followed me to the pull up bars. He couldn't do it all, not without help, but that was fine. I held his hips; his trembling ass not inches from me as he did his last set. He dropped down, his arms weak and his breath ragged, and I walked him over to the treadmill and set it for him.

"Cool down."

I watched him jog as I cleaned up. That ass bounced nicely, like two ripe melons. I started getting seriously hard. This was the Andrew who didn't need anyone. I remembered the confidence and the strength of it all. This was the real me, and I was hungry for more.

***** Sean *****

I blinked again in the smoke filled dimness of the bar totally overwhelmed. None of us could drink, so why were we at the club? Okay, that wasn't true. Carlos was twenty-one. What was I doing here?

Katie waved her hand in front of my face. "Earth to Sean."

I jerked my attention away from the nearly naked bartender. "Sorry."

She grinned. "Culture shock?"

"You could say that," I mumbled, which she couldn't hear over the beat of the club music. I raised my voice. "Yeah, a little!"

"The best part of P-House are the bartenders and shot boys," Katie told me as she pulled me into moving again. "Though I think you've already figured that out."

I nodded, watching a g-string clad "shot boy" brush past us. Oh my God, he's cute. I snapped out of that thought as I felt something dry and a bit rough press against my chest. I looked at the napkin Katie had smacked against me. "What?"

"Wipe away the drool," she said sarcastically before laughing and giving me a fake pout. "You're supposed to be my date for tonight. I keep you from going home with some stranger and you keep the dykes off me."

"Yeah, yeah. I remember." I wasn't going home with any strangers. That was a sure thing. I looked about. "Where's Carlos?"

Katie smiled. "Probably on the dance floor. Ms. Thang loves to shake her bad self."


"You really are clueless, aren't you?" Katie pulled me into the next room, nodding at the bumping and grinding bodies moving to something clubbed-up by Madonna. Her eyes scanned the crowd, and she pointed to the far corner of the floor. "There's our girl."

Carlos was dancing away, shirt open and practically falling off his shoulders... his jeans were so low that the only things holding them up were his bubble butt and Hispanic-hose. His body glittered a bit from something other than sweat. Damn. He looked incredible. I stopped, looking at all the metro-chic dancers. I felt like a frump. Most of my clothes had come from Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Ross. They looked okay, but I knew they were mostly secondhand.

Katie pulled me forward again. "Come on, Sean. Watching won't burn off the calories."

Carlos turned and saw us as we got to his side of the floor. "Hey, ladies! Where have you been?" He stopped his far-too-distracting hip gyrations and gave Katie and me full mouth kisses. "I thought you'd KFC'd on me!"

"We did," Katie bantered back, striking a pose. "We're all legs that aren't chicken either!"

Carlos laughed.

I could still taste him. Okay, maybe what I tasted was the alcohol on his breath. Still, it made my dick lurch. I flinched out of my kiss-induced haze as Carlos tweaked my nipples through the cut-off, too-tight, tee I was wearing.

"You've got the look tonight, gringo." Circling me, Carlos gave me the once over. "Oh yeah. Hot young meat ready for a ride." He ran his index finger around the cut off hem of my shirt and down my abs, flicking at my new piercing. "You're going to have someone wanting to play with your knocker. I told you you'd look hot with that."

Fuck. Was it hot in here, or was it just me? I swallowed. "Well, the only ride I'm going on tonight is with Katie back to the house. Grandma wants me home by two."

"Well, then this is just a preview for the hungry boys." He smiled, his thumb brushing my nipple again. It sent shocks through me. "Up and perk, ripped and on display, with legs that can spread for miles. You're just missing one thing." Before I could respond, he pulled out a little tube of something, squeezed it out into his hand and rubbed my abs.

"Hey!" I flinched back from the cool sensation and looked at my stomach. My abs shimmered with a soft, pearlescent sparkle.

"Fairie dust!" Carlos laughed. "If you're not going to flame, you've at least got to shine."

"Bastard," I mumbled, but I rotated my hips to see the effect of the sparkles on my abs.

Kate pouted. "What about me?"

"Like you're going to score," Carlos teased, making to put away the tube.

"Give me that you bitch," Kate snapped, grabbing away the tube and spreading some across her shoulders and the top of her breasts. "There."

"Well aren't you the diva," Carlos replied, taking back and capping his sparkle stuff.

"Don't be a bitch, Carlos. We're just here to have fun."

"Then get out here and grind, girls. We're here to party, not pout." Carlos smooth-stepped backwards onto the floor and did a twirl. He moved like water. I would never be that graceful.

Katie followed, doing her own "white girl" jig. Okay, so there was something she couldn't do well. Katie couldn't dance. Still, Carlos made her look good. I stood just off the dance floor and watched. I couldn't dance. Not like them. I'd be too embarrassed.

"Come on, Sean." Katie came over and grabbed my wrist. "I want to see the fairie dust fly."

I held off. "I can't dance."

She laughed. "Like I can? I look like a drunken camel on the dance floor. This isn't about looking good; it's about having a good time."

I fingered my cut-off shirt nervously. "Then why was it so important for me to dress like a call-boy?"

"Part of the fun, dummy," Katie replied, tugging at my arm. "Dressing for the club is part of the fantasy. This place isn't about finding Mr. Right. It's about 'Right-Now', and right now I want to see an uptight gay boy loosen up a little."

"Come on, ab-master. Work that body," Carlos called, grinding his hips for emphasis. "We'll get you into the rhythm."

I had no idea how she got me on the floor, but I lost track of how long we bumped and ground to the music. It had to have been at least an hour. I found myself between the two of them, my hips grinding against Katie's ass and Carlos behind me grinding against mine, his hands wandering from my hips to my chest as he flexed against me from behind. My mouth was dry, though my body was drenched.

Carlos whispered into my ear as his hands kept my hips moving with his. "And you said you can't dance."


Carlos jerked to a stop, letting go of my hips. It was so sudden that I practically fell backwards. I grabbed onto Katie, and we stumbled for a moment. I looked up to see a tall guy in his mid-twenties coming over to us with a drink in his hand. He was big. Not as big as Andrew, but big enough to be a presence on the dance floor. With his free hand, he cupped behind Carlos's neck and pulled him into a kiss that looked more painful than passionate. Okay, maybe it was painfully passionate. It was definitely possessive.

"Having fun?"

Carlos nodded, breathlessly. "Bart, you know Katie." Bart nodded to Katie, who nodded back. "And this is Sean."

"Oh!" He looked me over, a more comfortable smile smoothing out his face. "Carlos said you just moved here."

I nodded. Something about him made me itch, but not in a good way. "Yeah."

"You having fun?"

I nodded, feeling the dehydration kicking in. "Yeah. It's a lot easier to come to a place like this with friends." Without friends, I'd never enter a place like P-House.

"Well, you're going to have to struggle with one fewer chaperone. I'm taking this one home." His hand slid behind Carlos's back and gripped his ass possessively. "Now that he's all warmed up, I'm going to work him out."

"I thought we were going to the drag show..." Carlos's complaint fell flat as Bart frowned at him. "Home sounds good."

I cringed. "Okay..."

Bart flashed Katie and me a predatory smile. "Have fun."

Carlos gave us an apologetic look, but followed. After a few uncomfortable moments, Katie and I wandered off the floor.

"That's Carlos's boyfriend?" Bart was built, and obviously secure with himself, but something about him I didn't like. Probably it's that Carlos is with him and not me.

"Yeah. He took Carlos in after he came up from Miami. Carlos is going to school on Bart's dime."

We got a couple of waters, and I cracked mine open and swigged down about half. "Why'd Carlos leave Miami?"

"Being gay isn't all that accepted in the Latin culture, Sean. Maybe in California it's different, but here in the South, Latin men are supposed to be macho and masculine." She shrugged, sipping her water. "I don't know all of it, but I do know he left so he wouldn't dishonor his family. I don't think they know where he is, or that he's gay."

Were all gay guys orphans of some sort? The thought made my gut clench. I didn't want to be alone. "I'm going to get some air."

Katie nodded. "Yeah, I'm going to get a smoke."

I grimaced. "Why do you do that?"

She pulled out her clove cigarettes. "Calms my nerves."

I shrugged as we got outside. "I suppose it doesn't matter. There's enough second hand smoke in there to kill us anyway."

She nodded. "Yeah, and the nasty shit too. At least I do the flavored stuff."

I snorted. "I'm going to walk my head clear. My ears are ringing."

"Okay, you want to meet me in the courtyard?"

"Sure." I left her there and walked out front. I was feeling anxious. Was it how Bart treated Carlos? Was it all the sexual tension that had built up and then been shut off? Was it the disappointment? I'd never even asked if Carlos had a boyfriend. No one had mentioned him. I sighed as I walked to the truck. Maybe he was just being friendly. He kissed and flirted with Katie as much as with me. He definitely wasn't into Katie, but I'd assumed he was interested in me. That was stupid. I needed to learn how to read this shit right.

I opened the cab and pulled out my phone. It was thirty-five after eleven. That'd be eight-thirty-five out West. Andrew was probably closing up the gym, or maybe even on the ride home. I pressed the speed dial and leaned against the bumper. One ring. Nada. Two rings. Still nothing. Three rings. I chewed on my lower lip. Four rings. I sighed as the voice mail came on.

"You've reached Andrew Jackson of Goals and Dreams. I'm probably helping someone achieve their goals, so please leave your name and number, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

After the beep, I took a breath. Why was my gut aching? "Hey Andrew. I don't really have a reason for this call. I guess I just needed to chat with my big-brother. We didn't have time last night. I hope dinner went well. Everything's okay. I miss you guys. I'll talk to you soon. Give my love to Taylor. Sean." I hung up. The nagging feeling in my gut didn't go away as I tossed the phone on the seat and locked the truck. It was just nerves. It had to be.

***** Taylor *****

I looked out at the snow falling through the floodlights. Andrew's last client was at seven-thirty. It was nearly ten-thirty. He should have been home by now. I looked at the silent, useless, daunting phone again.

"You could call," Claire suggested in her ever-reasonable tone. "It wouldn't make you weak."

"If there was a problem, he'd call. He's just had a late night, probably had to close down the gym, and is taking it slow because of the snow."

"Of course," she said, sipping her coffee. "That's why you've looked out the window every five minutes since ten."

I grumbled to myself and sat back down at the table. "You're really annoying, you know that?"

She shrugged. "You're the one talking to a figment of your imagination, Taylor. I'm what you make me."

I looked at the empty chair and picked up my own coffee. It was ironic that my "inner counselor" was fashioned after Aunt C. Freud would have had a field day with that. "Where were we?"

"You were trying to explain, for the tenth time, all the reasonable, rational reasons you had not to tell Andrew about Trish's calls." She sipped her coffee again. "I didn't buy it the first nine, but it's your time, so please, try again."

I grumbled, swallowing my own coffee. "You know, you don't have to be so conceited about it."

"How should I be? You spend your time arguing with me in your head. I'm just you. If you actually wanted to win an argument, you should have called the real thing."

That was a joke. I could never win an argument with the real Aunt C either. I sighed, trying to avoid the central issue yet again. "What was I supposed to do?"

"You tell me."

I set my coffee cup down. "I was supposed to be weak, huh? Cry on Andrew's shoulder and bemoan how badly I'd been hurt?"

"Were you?"

"No. Yes, but I'm over it."

"You're over it."

"That's what I said."

"I heard you, I just don't believe you."

I flinched. "That wasn't fair."

"What wasn't fair?"

"Using his words against me."

I felt her cover my hand with hers, and she smiled sadly. "You know what they say: all's fair..."

"... in love and war," I finished for her. I stared into my coffee cup. "I didn't mean it the way it came out."

"Didn't mean what?"

"What I said."

"What did you say?"

"You know what I said."

"Tell me anyway."

"I didn't mean that I didn't need him."

"Didn't you?"



I sat and stared at the half empty coffee cup. Did I need him? I'd never needed anyone. I'd proven over and over that I could make it on my own, by my own resources and strengths.

"It hurts, doesn't it?"

I looked up at Claire as she raised an eyebrow at me. "What hurts?"

"That you actually need someone." She gestured at me. "Not just the leg and arm; those are only physical aspects to the problem, but I think they brought the issue to the surface."

"What issue?"

"That you're scared."

I snorted. "Yeah, right."

"You aren't scared?"

"No, I'm just protecting myself."

"From whom?"

I paused. Who was I protecting myself from? Not Andrew. That was ridiculous.

"Why is that ridiculous?"

"He'd never hurt me."

"He has before."

"That was an accident."

"This changes the facts how? Most injuries are caused by accidents." She eyed my wrist as she sipped her coffee.

"I'm not scared of Andrew."

"Then what?"

I frowned. The answer was just under my heart, making my gut twist. "I'm scared of needing him."


"What if he isn't strong enough, or doesn't love me enough?"

"That's life, Taylor. No one ever said life was fair."

Damn it. I hated when she did that. If I tried to argue, I'd just be lying and I knew it. I sighed, and sipped my coffee without answering.

"Honey, you already made your decision. If this is going to work, you're going to have to step off that cliff on faith and faith alone. There are no guarantees."

"Yeah," I sighed, looking at the stack of papers I'd spent the day going over and over again. "Will he even look at them?"

She nodded at the window as headlight beams crossed the wall. "You'll find out soon enough."

I looked up at the clock. Ten-fifty.

Andrew came in, stamping his feet in the mudroom. No "Hi honey, I'm home", not that I expected it. No smile as he unzipped his coat. I took a breath and hoped I could swallow enough pride.

"I'm sorry."

Andrew looked at me. "For what?"

"Everything?" Okay, that was a cop-out.

Andrew sighed, and hung his coat on the hook. "I'm not in the mood, Taylor."

"Oh." I let him get past me and nearly to the dining room before I could open my mouth again. "I didn't mean it."

Andrew stopped, and I could see him set his shoulders. He turned around and looked at me. "What didn't you mean?"

He knew damn well what I was saying. The bastard was just being obtuse. I swallowed down my initial response. "I didn't mean that I didn't need you."

He took a deep breath, and asked, "Do you?"

We just looked at each other. Why was this so fucking hard? I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I managed a nod.

Andrew sighed and closed his eyes. "I need to hear it."

I needed him to hold me, but that wasn't happening either. I stamped down that petulant response. "I need you."

Andrew opened his eyes and looked at me. He looked so hollow. "Can we have this talk tomorrow?"

My heart sank. "Yeah, sure."

Andrew stood there for a moment before turning and walking to the stairs. He stopped, and looked back at me. "Do you want help up?"

"I have to turn off the coffee pot."

He stood there and shrugged. "I'll wait."

I shut off the pot, poured out the carafe, refilled the tank, and put in another pack of grounds for the morning. When I got to the stairs, Andrew fumbled for a moment before picking me up like he wasn't sure he wanted to touch me or not. I didn't snuggle in. He set me down at the top of the landing, and I followed him into the room.

"I'm going to grab a shower," he said as he kicked his shoes at the closet.


I got out of the shirt of his I'd put on after I got up. It was stupid, but at least I could imagine the smell of him all day. I stopped before I undid my sweats. Where was I sleeping tonight? I waited until Andrew came out, a towel wrapped about him, and all I wanted was to lose myself in him. Not sexually, though I'd have gone there if he wanted, but just to feel his warmth and believe everything would be okay. I pushed that aside and did the only responsible thing I could under the circumstances. "What do you want to do about the bed?"

Andrew blinked, and he looked at the bed for a minute without saying anything. I swore he was going to say he wanted me with him. That's what I wanted. "I could take the guest bed. You were stuck on the couch last night."

I sighed, and shook my head. "This is your bed, Andrew. I'll take the guest room."

He didn't look any happier about my response than I was. "You sure?"

Was I sure? No, I wasn't sure. I wanted to kiss him, hold him, have sex, anything, but all that'd do would make me desperate. Hell, I'd probably cry. I wasn't ready to cry. "Yeah." I hobbled into the bathroom to get my toothbrush. He looked as lost as I felt as I came out and hobbled for the door. I stopped, and looked at him. He wasn't going to ask me to stay, and I wasn't going to ask either. I took a breath. "We'll talk in the morning?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I just need some time." He gave me a weak smile. "We say things we don't mean when we're in pain."

My heart was in my throat, and I had to swallow around it. One of us had to say it. "I love you."

He nodded. "I know. I love you too. That's why we're going to talk. I just don't want to say something I don't mean."

I closed my eyes and wished I could take it all back. One stupid argument. One stupid lie. How could it cause so much pain? "Good night, Andrew."

"Good night, Taylor."

I hobbled down the hall and shut the door.