When the buzzer rang that afternoon, Jesse was startled. He'd just arrived at Ray's apartment himself, and no one had ever come to the door when he was there alone.
He opened the door to see a stranger holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a vase of roses in the other. The man was at least 6'5" with broad shoulders and a big chest which stretched the polo shirt he was wearing. His khakis had a sharp crease, and his loafers glistened. His arms were covered with black hair, but there was no hint of the simian in his face. He appeared to be freshly shaven. His brown eyes sparkled with intelligence and, Jesse, guessed, good humor.
God! What a hunk!
The big guy smiled down at Jesse and said, "Hi. I must have the wrong place. I thought Ray Stonesifer lived here."
"He does, but he's not home yet. Can I help you?"
The stranger raised an eyebrow. "And you are . . . ?"
"I'm Ray's, um, friend."
"Has Ray gone and gotten himself a lover?"
"I don't really think that's any of your business."
Giving a slight nod, as if he'd just made a decision, the big man said, "I'm sorry. You're right. It isn't." He handed the startled Jesse the flowers and the wine. "Please give him these when he comes home. And tell him Spike says `hi.' Sorry I missed him."
"Does he know how to get in touch with you? Like, to thank you?"
"No." With that Spike turned and strode away, leaving a hint of sandalwood behind.
Jesse stood there watching until Spike got to the elevator and pressed the button. He closed the front door with his foot and then set the vase and the bottle on the coffee table.
When he went to the kitchen to get a coaster to put under the vase, he saw the box of rice and was reminded what he'd been doing before Spike came to the door. He'd been planning to make a casserole for their supper. He put the rice on to cook, cut up the broccoli and precooked it briefly in the microwave, diced the already cooked chicken breast, and set out a can of cream of mushroom soup and a package of shredded Monterey jack.
Then he flopped onto the sofa in the living room and finally allowed himself to think about the big man who'd come knocking on Jesse's lover's door..
Although Ray hadn't talked about them much, Jesse knew there had been other men in his life. Just as Ray knew there'd been other men – besides the absent and unlamented Harry – in Jesse's life. For gay men in their late twenties that was more or less a given.
Still, it had been a shock when one of them showed up on the doorstep, even if it was only a figurative doorstep, looking so fantastic. To make matters worse, Spike obviously still had some kind of feelings for Ray, hence the wine and roses.
Wine and roses! No points for originality. I wonder if anyone has ever done that for Ray before?
He was trying to analyze his feelings of possessiveness when he heard Ray outside the door. He stood as his lover entered. Perhaps the jealousy explained the edge to his voice when, instead of answering Ray's question about where the flowers and wine had come from, he responded with a question of his own: "Who the fuck is Spike?"
Looking startled for a moment, Ray then grinned and took Jesse in his arms.
"Nobody for you to worry about." He followed up his words with a kiss obviously meant to be reassuring. "Gotta pee, babe. And put away my weapon."
They'd joked often enough about Ray's "weapon," but this time Jesse wasn't in a joking mood, so he sat down again.
When Ray came out of the bedroom, he'd taken off his shoes. Instead of coming to the sofa, he padded into the kitchen.
"I'm ready for a drink. It's Friiiiidaaay. Want a beer?"
"There's some chardonnay in the fridge if you'd rather."
"Okay, chardonnay it is."
"Let me come help."
"No, you stay put. I'll bring it."
Jesse heard the vacuum stopper being pulled from the wine bottle, some gurgling. And then Ray was there, handing him a glass of wine. He sat beside Jesse, turned toward him, and said, "So tell me about Spike."
Jesse nodded his thanks when Ray handed him the wine, took a sip, swallowed, and said, "He was here just a little while ago. Of course I'd never seen him before, but he looked as if he'd just showered and shaved and was cleaned up for you. As if he was picking you up for a date or something."
"Really? So then what happened?"
"He asked for you. I told him you weren't here. He asked if I was your lover. I told him that was none of his business. After a moment he seemed to agree. Handed me the stuff and said to tell you Spike said `hello.' Or `hi,' actually. And that's it. Now, are you going to tell me about him?"
Ray closed his eyes and tilted his head back, as if trying to plan his response to Jesse's question. He opened his eyes and looked out the window. "I never thought I'd see him again."
Jesse waited for more.
Ray, looking directly at Jesse now, said, "Spike, Spike Evans, isn't his real name. I don't know his real name. He and I slept together twice. The first time was. . ."
Ray was blushing.
"I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it was back about February when I was still living with my folks. I met this sexy big dude at Nellie's. We sort of connected. And we wound up doing it in his truck." He gave Jesse a wry grin. "That was awkward. In fact, it was one of the things that helped me decide to find a place of my own."
"You needed a place to take your pickups?" Jesse smiled to show he wasn't trying to be bitchy.
"I needed my privacy, let's say. And then it was a while later, after I'd got this place but before you and I were together that I ran into him again at Nellie's. So we came back here and had reunion sex. He left after that and I've never seen him again."
"You make him sound a little mysterious."
Ray put down his wine glass. Turned to face Jesse. Scratched his foot. "I found out that what little he'd told me about himself was all lies."
"Well, don't leave me hanging. Explain."
Again, Ray stared out the window for a moment.
"I'm under orders not to. Can we leave it that Spike or whatever his name is and I got it on twice? He seemed to be a nice guy. I'm surprised he's back. Don't know why he's here. But I don't want to get involved with him. And I wouldn't want to even if you and I weren't together."
"That won't do, Raymond. What do you mean, you're under orders not to explain?"
Ray reached for his wine, picked it up, took a swallow, and grinned at Jesse. "If I explained that, I'd not be following orders, would I?"
Jesse raised an eyebrow. "You're shitting me, aren't you? You just don't want to tell me the truth about this mysterious stranger, a real hunk if you like bears, who just shows up on the doorstep with romantic gifts for you."
"Maybe he realizes he done me wrong and wants to make it up to me."
"How did he `do you wrong'?"
Ray chuckled ruefully. "Like I said, everything he told me about himself was a bunch of lies. And then he left. That was months ago, and I haven't heard from him until now. So I've assumed he was using me for a convenient lay."
"You've never seemed to be pining for an ex lover since I've known you."
"I haven't been pining. He is, as you say, a hunk. And he seemed like a nice guy."
"He still seems like a nice guy. But then you learned something about him?"
"And now you claim you can't tell me any more about him."
"Jesus, Crofts. You're relentless. You should be an interrogator."
"Well, dude, you must admit that story about being under orders not to talk about him sounds pretty fishy. And convenient if you're trying to keep me in the dark about the mysterious and very impressive . . . Mr. Evans."
Ray held up three fingers. "Scout's honor. Captain Marlowe gave me some intel about the guy and said I was to discuss it with no one, not even Havers."
"Oh. So you're not just shitting me."
"What would I have to do to convince you?"
"I'll think of something. Now, let me go put the casserole together."
Ray stood. "I'll help. And we can have another glass of wine while it bakes."
Later, after casserole and apple crisp, the two had cleaned up the kitchen and were back in the living room.
"It's tough being a cop's . . . partner."
"Uh huh. Cops can't discuss their cases with their friends or families. Even their wives."
Jesse gave him a soft punch on the shoulder. "Is that how you think of me? As your wife?"
Ray chuckled. "Not really. Well, there are times, but we'd better not go there. I should have said `significant other,' okay?"
"Okay. Go on."
"All I wanted to say was that I'm a cop. And there'll be other times when I can't tell you things about my work."
"I get that. I'm just trying to figure out how your big friend was related to your work."
Ray took a deep breath, let it out, and said, "I was just about to explain. I mean, there will be times when I absolutely can't discuss stuff I'm doing. And you have to know that I really was ordered by Captain Marlowe not to discuss Spike."
"Look, baby, you got in trouble with Marlowe over Harry. I really don't want you to get on his shit list. So maybe you'd better not tell me . . . much as I'm dying to know."
Ray grinned. "I'm gonna tell you, but if you tell anyone else, I'll have to kill you, okay?"
Jesse grinned back. "Do I get to choose the method of execution?"
"Okay. I promise."
"The guy's FBI. He was in this area doing something undercover last spring. The Captain never said what he was looking into, but I think it may have had something to do with arms being smuggled into the country through the port of Toledo. I heard a rumor at work that Customs and the ATF were concentrating on this area at that time."
"Sounds like a TV series."
"Well, there really are guys like that, you know."
"Anyway, Marlowe saw me coming out of Nellie's with Spike the second time the two of us were together. He called me in to warn me. Told me the guy was a Feeb and not to get involved with him."
"At least Spike had a reason for not telling you. It isn't as if he had any ulterior motives."
"Probably not. I have to admit I really liked him. But to him I was just a convenient fuck. Twice."
"What was his cover story?"
"Said he was working temporarily at a UPS warehouse and staying with friends. Then the second time he was honest, to a point. Said he was moving on. Didn't like Ohio."
"Okay. I can see why you feel used. But the thing is, he's back. And he wasn't dressed like somebody who works in a warehouse. He was wearing casual clothes, but he looked spiffed up. Like he wanted to make a good impression. To make amends, maybe."
"Oh. Yeah. I suppose the gifts were to apologize. You didn't invite him in or anything?"
"I suppose I should have. But he took me by surprise. Here was this big stud at the door with the flowers and the bottle. And then when he asked me if I was your lover, I didn't give him a very welcoming answer. So he just said to say "hi" and left. Do you think he'll come back?"
"I don't have any idea. I don't really know the man, Jess. But I can tell you what I'll tell him."
"And that would be . . . ?"
"That I'm taken. I'll accept his apology if he offers one, thank him for the gifts. But I'll tell him that I'm no longer available."
Jesse grinned. "I suppose that wouldn't leave room for a three-way?"
"You can't be serious!"
"Of course not."
Later, lying spooned together spent and happy, Jesse whispered in Ray's ear, "Still, that three-way might be fun."
Ray rammed his elbow back into Jesse's ribs.
"Bite your tongue."
"Ouch! I almost did, dammit."
The next afternoon was CSU's first home football game of the season. The Cougars had managed to beat Ohio University in Athens the previous week by a lopsided score, so Colby fans were optimistic that their team could beat the Golden Flashes of Kent State, with whom they had an intense and long-standing rivalry.
Jesse was looking forward to the game. He'd never been to a collegiate football game. Manhattanites just didn't do that sort of thing. What were they going to watch? Columbia? Fordham? He usually rooted for UConn and Rutgers, of late both contenders for the Big East championship, and watched their games on television when he could. So he was looking forward to the pageantry that went along with the game, the sort of thing that didn't get on the television broadcasts. Ray was amused that Jesse wanted to get there in time to see the pregame activities. He'd even gone to the bookstore and bought a black sweatshirt with the gold Cougar-head logo on the front. He'd offered to buy one for Ray, who had adamantly refused, reminding Jesse that he'd graduated from the nearby University of Toledo.
"You aren't going to root for Kent State, are you?" Jesse had asked him.
"No, I wouldn't do that," Ray answered, grinning, "but I'm a Rocket fan at heart."
Ray told him that Brody and Dave were getting tickets for the four of them and that they'd meet at Gate B of the stadium.
"You know," Jesse said, "I haven't done anything to thank Brody for his part in getting rid of Harry. Why don't the four of us go to dinner after the game, my treat?"
"All the restaurants in town will be packed after a home game, Jess."
"Okay, why don't we invite them back here? I can come up with something."
"Do I have the right pots and pans and stuff?"
"Yeah, but I'm not sure there are four matching plates."
So they had gone to Target and bought a set of dishes. "It's not my mom's bone china," Ray had remarked, "but at least it all matches."
It turned out to be too warm for the Cougar sweatshirt, so Jesse wore jeans and a black tee. Ray surprised him by duplicating the outfit, so they felt they were suitably clad to show their support for the home team.
"You'll have plenty of chances to wear your sweat top," Ray reminded him.
As they were watching the band go through its pre-game show, Ray point to a couple coming up the steps toward them and said, "Hey, there's Blake and Adam."
Jesse had met the pair at the CQ gathering a few weeks earlier, so he joined Ray in waving at them. As it turned out, they weren't alone. Following them were a couple of shortish men who appeared to be in their early thirties. One of them had auburn hair and a pale complexion, the other hair of chestnut brown and a ruddy face. The one with the auburn hair had a studious look, Jesse thought, but the other one reminded him of an athlete. The four of them took seats three rows in front of where Jesse, Ray, Brody, and Dave were sitting.
"Who are the guys with your buddy and the professor?" Jesse asked Ray.
"Haven't a clue." He raised an eyebrow. "Let's catch them at halftime and get introduced."
Brody chuckled. "Perving on the prof's friends, Stonesifer?"
"Well, they're cute, for older guys."
"I beg your pardon!" Dave said, trying not to grin.
The first half of the game was a low-scoring affair, with Kent State leading 7-6, the Cougars' offense having managed to eke out two field goals.
When the fans were on their feet during the halftime period, the four friends made their way to where Blake and his group were sitting. Blake made introductions all around. It turned out that the two strangers were from Kent. The studious looking one was, in fact, an English professor at Kent State. The athletic-looking one was a minister of some kind. And the two were obviously partners. The connection, Adam explained, was that he and Tim, the other prof, had known each other for years. They were both specialists in the same field, had first met at a professional conference. Since he'd moved to Ohio, Adam and the two guys from Kent were able to get together from time to time.
Ray remembered that Adam had been in a auto accident on the Turnpike just under a year ago. He thought he'd heard that Adam had been on his way back to Colby from somewhere in the eastern part of the state. But he decided it would be pushy to ask.
When the halftime show was over and the teams were back on the field, they all went back to their seats.
"Adam's friends seem like good guys. And that Max is a hunk. Imagine him being a priest."
"Oh. Should I be jealous?"
"No, Jess. But at least I can admire, can't I?"
"I wonder if Tom and Adrian would invite Tim and Max to the next CQ gathering?"
"Well, if you and Blake and Adam asked them to, I'll bet they would."
"Let's do it!"
Since a lot of the undergraduates would be stopping at The Cougar after the game to mourn their team's 21-13 loss, Jesse, Ray, and friends went to Nellie's, where they had a couple of beers each before going back to Ray's apartment.
Jesse had made a huge pot of stew that morning, so all they had to do was reheat it, warm the bread, and toss a salad.
"Guys would anyone like a beer? Or I opened some red to breathe before the game."
"I'd like another beer, please, Jesse," Brody said.
"If you're having wine, I will too," Dave said.
"Well, I think I'll keep Brody company and have a beer. Here, let me help." Ray got the beer from the fridge while Jesse was pouring the wine.
Conversation went well. Jesse found himself feeling as if Brody and Dave were old friends. He also found himself physically attracted to both of them. Dark Dave and Blond Brody were both total hunks. But they were both obviously into each other. And all he had to do was look at the redhead across the table from him to realize that he had no reason to wander. Even if wandering in the direction of his guests had been possible.
That afternoon they did the senior Stonesifers' yard. When they were finished, Ray took Jesse inside to meet his parents.
Ray's mother, who asked Jesse to call her Shirley, was about 5'6" tall. It was obviously from her that Ray had gotten his red hair, though it appeared that hers was regularly touched up at the beauty parlor.
Fred, Ray's father, was a couple of inches taller than Ray, with the same broad shoulders and narrow hips, though, unlike his son, he had a bit of a gut. Not bad, though, Jesse thought, for a man in his mid-fifties. His hair, which was blond but graying at the temples, was receding in front.
"So you're Jesse," Shirley exclaimed. She looked him over, took in his leaf and twig covered clothing, and held out her hand. Jesse suspected she'd have offered to hug him if he'd been cleaned up.
"I don't know why Ray hasn't brought you around sooner. He's mentioned you a couple of times."
"Well, Shirley, it's nice to meet you finally."
Fred seemed quiet, but his grip was strong when they shook hands, and his smile reminded Jesse of Ray's.
"Thanks, boys, for doing the yard. I could have done it, but my arthritis thanks you as well. My joints will be grateful that I didn't have to be outside this afternoon. Now, how about a beer?"
Ray glanced at Jesse and said, "Sure, Pop. But maybe we'd better do it in the kitchen. We're pretty grungy."
So the men sat at the kitchen table and chit chatted over their beer. Shirley, who had been rolling out a pie crust, went back to work, making occasional comments.
When the beers were consumed, Ray stood, so Jesse followed suit.
"Why don't you boys come for dinner tomorrow?" Shirley gave Jesse what might have been an accusing look. Then she turned to Ray. "You used to come every Sunday, but you haven't been here for ages."
"Now, Mother," Fred said, "Ray has his own life in Colby now." He glanced at Jesse. "I'm sure he has better things to do than trek out here."
"How long does it take? It's not like we're asking for the whole day. And at least I know he's getting one good meal a week that way."
Ray chuckled. "Mother, I survived four years of college."
Shirley's smile was a nervous one. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry I'm sounding like a mother. But I'm doing a roast of beef. And there'll be apple pie made from local apples."
"From that stand out south of town?"
"That's the place."
Ray looked at Jesse. "How about it, Jess? What did we have on tomorrow's menu?"
"Nothing as good as your mother's roast and pie, I'm sure."
Shirley raised an eyebrow. "You boys are living together? You can tell me all about that tomorrow. Be here by 1:00, please."
On the way back to Colby, where Jesse had planned to spend the rest of the weekend, he turned to Ray and said, "You've never told them about us?"
Ray sighed. "I've told them that I had a new friend. And we're not exactly living together, are we?"
The rest of the ride home was quiet.
He had been surprised that Ray hadn't told his parents about their close relationship. Perhaps even a little hurt. Was Ray ashamed of him?
He decided to reserve judgment until he'd had a chance to study Ray and his parents together.
Which he was able to do the next day.
Where Fred Stonesifer was bland, his wife was nervous. Shirley reminded Jesse of a little bird with a red topknot. He gathered that both parents loved Ray and that Ray loved them. But even Fred seemed embarrassed by Shirley's . . . smothering of Ray. And that's what it was. She kept up a running line of questions. Was he getting enough sleep? Was he eating right? Were they treating him right at work? And, by implication though never stated, was he sure he wanted to be involved with Jesse?
That morning Jesse had asked Ray not to tell his folks that he, Jesse, had been a model. Ray had promised he wouldn't. But under Shirley's relentless questioning, Jesse had said he was raised in Connecticut and had lived in Manhattan before coming to Colby. When she asked why he was just now going to college and why in Ohio, Jesse said something vague about having other responsibilities and wanting to live away from the East Coast. Shirley accepted that, but seemed unsatisfied.
Jesse had been reluctant to talk about his life as a model since he came to Colby, and he sensed that Shirley would somehow think it was unsavory. Although he understood that she loved Ray, he could understand why Ray didn't want to live in his parents' pockets. He wondered, in fact, how Ray had managed to live with them so long after he graduated from Toledo.
And then he remembered how much of his life he'd allowed his own mother to control.
The rolled rump, with mashed potatoes, gravy, zucchini, and yeast rolls were wonderful. At least, Jesse thought, Ray's mother can cook. Pity the skill didn't rub off.
The pie was the best Jesse had ever tasted. But then home made pie of any kind had been a rarity in his life.
A few nights later Jesse was studying with the stereo playing low in the background when Ray came home. As usual, Ray kicked off his shoes, grabbed the mail from the table next to the front door, and collapsed onto the couch while Jesse went to the kitchen to get Ray a beer and himself a glass of cabernet.
"Bill. Bill. Trash. What's this?"
Returned to the living room, Jesse said, "Like I look at your mail?"
"I guess I was talking to myself." He held up a white envelope. "This is from Cincinnati, but there's no return address. Guess I'll just chuck it. Couldn't be important."
"Does it have a machine stamp on it?"
"No, it has a first class stamp with a sunflower."
"You might want to open it. Could be something personal."
Ray ripped off the end of the envelope, blew into it, and extracted a folded sheet of standard copy/computer paper.
He was quiet as he read what was printed on it.
Then he grinned and handed the letter to Jesse. "Here, you should read this."
It was printed in Times New Roman which, Jesse knew, was the default font for most word processors.
I don't know what the beautiful man who lives with you told you about my recent visit. I assume he explained about the roses and the wine. I can only imagine what he thought about me.
So let me say that I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dropped by your place without calling first.
I had felt for a long time that I treated you shabbily and wanted to apologize.
You are not only a very sexy man, you're a good man. And I really like and respect you. I wish we could have spent more time getting to know each other.
But I wasn't honest with you when we were together. Nearly everything I told you about myself was untrue.
I was in fact in your area doing under cover work for my job. I'm in the FBI, based for the moment in Cincinnati. What I was doing was and remains secret, so I can't say any more about it.
Since the operation is concluded, however, I can at least tell you that much.
I was in Toledo on "business" and thought I could stop by and offer my explanations and apologies in person. I hope my appearance at the door didn't create any difficulties between you and your friend.
I hope he won't mind that I said he's beautiful. But that's the word which came to mind when I saw him. If he's as good as he looks, you're a lucky man.
Jesse put the letter on the coffee table, took a sip of cabernet, swallowed, and said, "Damn! I wish I'd invited him in!"
Ray grinned. "So you could get him to fuck you before I got home?"
"No, asshole. Because he sounds like somebody who'd make a good friend."
Ray looked like the cat who'd swallowed the canary.
"Okay, come on. What is it?"
"Oh, just that he's an amazing top."
Jesse stood and went to the kitchen where he poured the rest of his wine down the drain. He rinsed the glass and put it in the drainer. Then he began making supper.
"Oh, come on, Jess! So Spike fucks good and is a nice guy."
"Sounds pretty perfect to me. I saw him, after all."
Ray smirked. "And you've been fantasizing about him?"
Jesse didn't want to acknowledge how accurate Ray's comment was, so he busied himself with peeling potatoes.
Ray came up behind him and put his arms around his waist. "You need to remember something, Crofts."
"Yeah." Ray kissed his ear and then began nuzzling his neck. "I don't love Spike, or whatever his name really is."
His breath made Jesse's body tingle all over. "Do you love anybody, Stonesifer?"
"Well, let me think. There's Mom and Dad."
"Anyone else?" Jesse hated himself for pressing the question.
"Can't think of anyone else." Ray paused. "Except for you, of course."
Jesse managed to mutter "idiot!" before Ray turned him around and silenced him with kisses.
To Be Continued
Emails encouraged at firstname.lastname@example.org Please put the title of the story in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim