Chapter Four: The Morning After
Cole wasn’t used to après sex snuggling, so when Jake drifted back to sleep after they had both carved yet another notch on the imaginary bedpost, he eased off the mattress, happy for once he had a reason to regret getting out of bed at the asscrack of dawn. But he had to feed his charges and make sure the stable hands got stalls cleaned and laid fresh bedding down. It was the weekend and they always had visitors, mostly nosy tourists without a clue, but it was a good idea to present the best possible appearance to a public on high alert after the mayor threatened to shut down the city’s carriage trade.
Though he relied mostly on moral authority to back up his because I say so management style, the fact was … the people in the facility below had voluntarily accepted him into their inner circle and relied on him to see that everything ran smoothly while the media and protestors from every political spectrum hashed out the future of a Big Apple tradition.
Uncertainty about their futures—the drivers’ livelihoods, the fate of the horses—all that weighed heavily on his mind. He’d been cooking an idea for a long time, and it had taken a tsunami of events to finally prod him into going proactive. All he needed to do was iron out some details, pack his bag and head north to set in motion what he’d hoped was the start to the rest of his life.
It was funny how the earth’s axis could shift when you least expected it. The notion of curve balls, being in the right place at the wrong time, finding the wrong person at the right time… hell, finding anyone at all … none of that had mattered twenty-four hours ago. And maybe funny wasn’t quite the term he was going for. Annoying, stupid, damned inconvenient seemed a better fit.
Why now? Why me?
Cole used his hip to move the stocky Belgian cross out of the way. The big gelding huffed a complaint, then stepped aside, allowing Cole access to the water bucket. He hefted the half-full five gallon container and sneered, “How do you do it, you stinker, huh?” The gelding was a dunker, taking a mouthful of hay, depositing it in the water and then leaving it to marinate. Sometimes there was more than just hay in there. Cole wrinkled his nose. This was one of those days.
Exiting the stall, Cole took care to give the horse a wide berth. Toby was a sweetheart but he was also clueless about his edges and where he put his size four, studded horseshoes. After a lifetime with horses, he knew enough to wear steel-toed boots, but that didn’t mean a sixteen-hundred-pound gentle giant couldn’t do damage just by accidentally taking a step in the wrong direction.
After scrubbing the bucket and refilling it with fresh water, he returned to the stall. A now familiar figure shuffled nervously at the far end of the aisle, the door braced open as if, just in case, he needed a quick escape.
Cole thought, my lover’s here, and grinned, he couldn’t help it. Every time he looked at Jake, every time he’d touched him, inhaled his scent, felt his heart beating double time, sucking in air and tensing when he convulsed in ecstasy… all that had peeled away another layer of Cole’s resistance, leaving him exposed and greedy for more.
At some point during the night and into the early morning hours, they’d given up frantic for slow and easy, traded hot for tender, turned taking into sharing, and morphed raw sensation into exquisite sensuality. Now, when he drank in the sight of the curly-haired ragamuffin in sweats three sizes too big waiting for him, all he could do was thank his lucky stars for giving him a taste of the kind of intimacy he’d always craved but never managed to experience except in his fertile imagination.
The problem with that kind of a taste, it so easily turned from simple temptation into a craving. Eventually it would become an addiction, a glorious, all-consuming answer to his prayers.
Your timing sucks, O’Neil.
Cole held up the bucket and said, “Let me put this in the stall. Be right with you.” When he finished, he secured the latch, grabbed a lead robe off the hook and nearly galloped down the aisle to reach Jake. When he came close enough to get a really good look at him, Cole nearly exploded with laughter.
The loaner clothes hung like burlap sacks on the ginger’s lean frame. Jake had rolled the pants’ legs up enough he wouldn’t trip over them, but there wasn’t much he could do to keep the waistband from slipping down his slim hips and pooling on the floor. To solve that problem, he’d tried tucking the lot under a sweatshirt, making him look like a miniature version of the Michelin Man.
Using the lead rope as a belt, Cole made quick work of securing the garments, then stepped back and said, “There, that should work.” Jake had come down without his coat so Cole took his off and slipped the jacket around the boy’s shoulders.
He’s not a boy, he’s a man, a damned attractive one. What’s he doing with a lug like you O’Neil? He deserves better…
Jake watched him closely, saw that moment of hesitation and asked, “What?” There was no smirk, no teasing tone, no insult thrown back tit-for-tat. Just the “what” and an acknowledgement in the man’s eyes that there was more than a superficial exchange happening between them.
Again, it circled round to intimacy, to latching onto the subtext, the real meaning behind the words and the get-to-know-you two-step, the dance that never came with instructions or a coach, the one where you either tripped over your two left feet or you moved together like it was choreographed by a celestial host.
To Cole, it seemed they’d spent a lifetime practicing and were settling into steps that came as natural as breathing. And that scared the shit out of him. It made it as unnatural as you could get.
Except, except, except…
When he met a horse for the first time, he looked it in the eye and knew, he just fucking knew if it was right, if they’d be a team. He looked for a kind eye or how the animal moved, how it carried itself. Was it with power and easy grace, or ponderous and rough? Was he timid, needing Cole’s reassurance, or did he command that look of eagles—dominant and assertive—acquiescing to Cole simply because it pleased them both, not because Cole demanded it?
But people weren’t horses—they weren’t that honest, that transparent, that trusting. Sometimes a horse disappointed, or you asked the wrong questions and got the wrong answers in return, or it simply needed more time for the bond to develop, to flourish. With people, it simply didn’t work that way. You could ask all the right questions and never once receive an honest or direct answer.
Last night, he and Jake had done more than just grapple and couple in their sweat and lust. They’d connected somehow, beyond the physical, though Cole had nothing to point to, no signs, no specific words or shared secrets that counted as hard evidence. All he had was a gut-level feeling, and a hope he was wrong, because being right had the unfortunate consequence of turning everything upside down.
Jake sighed and ran a hand through his unruly mop of auburn hair. His eyes darted around the dimly lit space, then finally settled on a spot over Cole’s shoulder. Muttering, “Awkward,” he turned and pushed the door open, disappearing into the storage area. Cole waited a heartbeat or two, wondering if it was best to just let him go, let him disappear into the bowels of the city, never to be seen again.
Slapping his fist into the wall, he growled, “Fuck,” as if the expletive could release him from the responsibility of the good manners his mom and his aunt had pounded into his thick skull when he was growing up. At the very least, he owed Jake Richardson a goodbye, though he wouldn’t insult him with a thank you because that made him needy, and he’d be damned if he’d admit to that.
So much for truth in advertising, boyo.
Frustrated at his own stupidity, Cole took the steps two at a time. He burst through the door and nearly tripped over Jake’s crouching form. Thinking he might have stopped to tie a boot lace, Cole detoured around him and continued toward his living quarters. He had his hand on the door when his synapses fired, alerting him to the sensation that something wasn’t right. Jake wasn’t right.
There was no tell—no sound of distress, no rubbing his eyes to brush away tears—but the set to Jake’s shoulders, the way he’d folded in half, making himself small and insignificant, was all Cole needed to know.
Jake pushed off, using his fists as leverage. Approaching with his head down, he avoided looking Cole in the eyes, his focus turned completely inward. Cole knew that posture well, and he didn’t need to see Jake’s face to interpret what was going through his head. Hell, he’d been there often enough himself when all he had left was a pocket of pride he kept on reserve for when the hurt threatened to overwhelm him.
The voice echoed in his head, the one keeping him on the straight and narrow, the one protecting him from entanglements like this—entanglements with sea-green eyes and freckles on his nose, with cheeks so baby-smooth it was all Cole could do to keep from stroking and kissing and licking up the salty sweetness. Jake’s skin was soft, completely different from his own cratered texture, from the scarring and weathering, the deep lines and rough beard that made him look older than his years.
Jake was a boy in looks and demeanor. But he was also a man, with a man’s lust and passion and an ability to take Cole places he’d never been, to experience such pleasure even now his body still vibrated with the memory of what they’d done last night.
The strain of wanting, of not wanting, of being afraid and cautious and headstrong was a tether drawing them so close, Cole could taste Jake, his nostrils filling with the burst of cum and musk and testosterone, and overlaid with fear and disappointment.
What Cole tasted was how right they could be…
When Jake finally tilted his head up, his eyes were filled with such sadness it nearly broke Cole. Jake said, “I’m sorry. I’ll go…” but Cole barred the way, shaking his head, the words forming thick and raspy on his tongue.
He finally spit out, “I’m not.” Jake squinted, not understanding. Cole had his attention, if only for an instant, so he decided to ask a question. “What are you doing after work?”
A dozen possibilities floated across Jake’s face—an infinite number of what’s it to you, none of your business, fuck off, asshole… Instead, he said, “Are you asking me on a date?”
Cole grimaced. This was hard, people were hard. His heart and head both agreed, Tell him fuckwad, tell him you can’t get involved. Tell him he’s a great guy, it’s not him, it’s you. Tell him.
The lie that wasn’t a lie, just a non-admission of the truth, cut lazy patterns across his tongue. It was wrong, he knew it was, but he said it anyway, “I already did.”
He waited while Jake processed and debated and decided how to respond, his face so expressive that nothing was hidden. Every thought, every emotion was right there for Cole to see. The eyes, silvery in the dim light, bared with startling transparency who Jake Richardson was. And how much he cared.
His voice thin and reedy, Jake whispered, “I get off at eight?” the admission ending on an uptick, revealing his uncertainty.
Cole knew where Jake worked so he said, “Meet me at the Plaza, okay?” It was the closest food court, but Cole’s plan wasn’t tied to an elaborate meal. He had other thoughts on how to spend their time together, and as selfish as that was, as unfair as it was to both of them, there was no way Cole could stop wanting to caress the ginger curls or chew on Jake’s lower lip or whisper things in his lover’s ear—private things, dirty things, pure things.
Jake nodded and mumbled, “Yeah, sure.”
“What time do you have to be at work?”
“Shit, what time is it?”
Cole moved into the apartment and looked up at the clock on the wall. “Nearly ten thirty.” At Jake’s groan, he asked, “Why, are you late?”
“I will be, dammit.” Jake tugged at the lead rope, releasing it to fall to the floor. The sweatpants promised to follow suit. Jake yanked the garment back into place and chuckled, but the mirth didn’t reach his eyes. He explained, “I didn’t plan on coming here. I need to get to my place, change and then be at work by noon.” On Saturday, ten days before Christmas, mid-town awash with tourists and last minute gift shoppers, the odds of making that trip in the time available were zero to none.
Although he could guess the answer, Cole still asked, “What happens if you’re not on time?” Jake made a slicing motion across his throat. Cole grimaced. “Um, how about what you were wearing last night?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Unconsciously, Jake cupped his package and moaned. “Busted the zipper, swelling. Any of that ringing a bell?”
Cole nearly went ballistic. Blood rushed to his cock and he barely suppressed the urge to field strip Jake in the kitchen, sit his gorgeous butt on the counter, and suck his cock until his lover came so hard he passed out.
With a wide-eyed look, Jake said, “Down, boy. I’ll call Gabe and ask him to raid his roommate’s closet. We’re about the same size. It’ll be fine.” He tugged at the sweats and shuffled off to find his cell phone.
When he returned, Jake said, “Gabe’s gonna bring a pair of jeans. So long as I have the cashmere turtleneck and vest, I think I can get away with it. It’s not like anybody looks at me anyway.”
The way Jake said that, with such a note of sadness and resignation, tore at Cole’s heart. He wanted, more than anything, to reassure Jake, but about what he wasn’t quite clear. So much for being soul mates and dance partners and all the hopeless romantic drivel he’d embraced over the last few hours, building up a one-night-stand into an event of epic proportions.
Jake Robertson wasn’t the only one being fooled. Cole had done a damn good job of fooling himself, donning the blinders that hid all the ugly realities, masked all the harsh facts, and sugar-coated the inevitability of him spending his life alone. In a world filled with conflict and mixed messages, that single fact was becoming abundantly clear.
Before Cole could take it all back, cancel his plans for the evening, and bid a final farewell to the man who had captured both his heart and soul in the space of a single twenty-four-hour period, Jake stood on tiptoes and gently brushed his lips against the base of Cole’s throat.
Cole silently watched the man who would forever be his lover gather his things. At the door Jake paused, his hand on the handle, head down and shoulders hunched under the weight of the worn wool coat. He looked so young and so lost, but his voice rang clear and strong.
It wasn’t a question.