Chapter Five: Sleigh Bells Ring
Gabe pursed his lips in consternation. “Dayyum, girlfriend, tell me I should have kept that one for myself!” He held up the remains of the leather pants, fingered the destroyed zipper and then tossed it into the returns bin. Waggling his eyebrows, he said, “You are going to tell me all about it, aren’t you?”
The answer to Gabe’s questions? No and hell, no.
Skirting around why he’d managed to make such a damn mess of things, Jake muttered, “The tag’s still attached. Do you think I can get away with it?”
The designer pants ran close to six hundred bucks, leg warmer attachments included. No way was he able to pony up that kind of currency if the big boss should get wind of his indiscretion. He smoothed the soft cashmere of the turtleneck with the flat of his hand. He’d forgotten to ask Gabe to bring a shirt or substitute top so he was stuck wearing his ill-gotten goods for the time being. Fortunately, there wasn’t anything about the damn sweater to mark it as designer, other than the price, so he felt reasonably sure no one would know the difference.
The vest, the final fashion statement, had disappeared back into the bowels of the store, thanks to Gabe’s quick thinking. Jake decided don’t ask, don’t tell was a good enough policy to follow. He had assumed Gabe grabbed the outfit out of the damaged goods and discard piles. He had a strong suspicion he’d assumed wrong. And wrong was a whisker away from a shoplifting charge if the boss’ boyfriend decided to follow through on his threats that if he ever caught anyone with light fingers… Never mind they all did it at one time or another—rifling through the returns bin, borrowing and returning items that would either be shuffled back to the manufacturer or to a big box store to sell at ninety percent off.
The thought of shuffling, him in leg irons and a hideous orange jumpsuit, had Jake stuttering, “W-what if they f-f-find out?”
“Sweety, we work at a high end men’s clothing store in one of the most fashion conscious shopping districts in the known universe. Besides, we’re supposed to present just the right appearance of metrosexual chic, yes?” He preened and spun on his pointy-toed Italian knock-offs.
Gabe put the finishing touch on the argument with, “For fucking minimum wage. So, babe, it’s a benefit. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”
Jake didn’t think he’d be fine any time soon, especially not after the emotional rollercoaster he’d experienced back at Cole’s loft. The whole way in on the subway, he’d mulled over what the hell had happened to make it go from something so special he’d near died of happiness, to the usual this is a mistake brush-off.
And then Cole had asked him out. Again. Second date. For tonight. He’d had pity fucks before, but not pity second dates. That never happened to him. Rule of thumb, if the first one didn’t knock it out of the park, then the second date wasn’t going down … no way, no how. Losers got a once and done, if they were lucky. In the cold light of morning, Jake had thought maybe he’d hit the Power Ball until Cole O’Neil had given him that look.
If the man had run him through with a damn sword, he couldn’t have made it hurt any worse. But then… then he’d done that thing, that weird, magical thing of opening the door and inviting hope to slither in, just a ray of it, not the full deal, but enough it had made his guts churn and his heart stop.
Hope did that. Cole O’Neil did that. And so did the pain of a man walking away. It sucked that you couldn’t tell the difference, but this time, once and for all, Jake was determined to fight for hope, fight for the promise of something he had no words for. But he would. Eventually the words would come, and they’d be the right words.
Just once, he wanted it to be right…
Gabe gave him one of those looks, the one where Jake spilled his guts without meaning to, without saying a single damn word, just him and his pathetic face mirroring every thought, every feeling.
To distract Gabe from prying, Jake chirped, “Um, tell Paul thanks for the jeans. That was nice of him.” He pulled them on under Gabe’s intense scrutiny. They were the right waist size and four inches too long. Gabe crouched and rolled up the hems until they just edged the top of Jake’s worn Redwings.
Gabe sucked a forefinger, nodding his head and mumbled, “Not bad, not bad at all.” He twirled a finger. Jake spun around. “I’ve changed my mind, dearest.”
“That fuckall hideous infinity scarf?” He paused, waiting for Jake to get on board. “The pinkish-orange monstrosity.”
“Um, yeah, but…” The mention of “orange” recalled jumpsuits, iron bars and the slow descent into twink hell. Jake swallowed. “You mean the chenille one?” He cringed, along with Gabe.
He wasn’t a snob but a man had to draw the line somewhere. That line was located in aisle three, one counter down from Jake’s station. It was the last line of defense before tourists, paling at the three figure price tags, could secure a bargain for under fifty bucks and leave happy they’d scored something from the tony 5th Avenue shop without melting their Visa cards.
Gabe grabbed Jake’s hand. “Come on, it’s time we got out there before His Lordship notices.”
They stopped at the counter nearest the double door. Gabe pulled the questionable fashion accessory from a pile of similar train wrecks and made a huge fuss arranging it around Jake’s neck.
From behind Jake, a voice purred, “And exactly what are you two doing?” His belly churned. The last man he wanted to see at that moment was the floor supervisor, the boss’ squeeze and an all-around asshole.
Gabe did a tah-dah and stepped back. Jake imagined a hole opening underneath him. The floor walker grunted, “Hmmm.”
“Am I right, Adrian, am I? Does this not rock?” Gabe grabbed Jake’s hips and twisted until Jake was forced to face his boss’ toady and the man who held the keys to his immediate future.
Adrian squinted, his eyes raking Jake head-to-toe. “I’m not sure about the boots…”
Holding up two fingers, Gabe said, “Points of interest. One, no one’s going to see them unless our boy sashays from behind the counter.” Adrian nodded, but looked unconvinced. Gabe continued, “And two? Think longshoreman chic. Think … slumming?”
While Gabe and Adrian oohed and aahed over his new “look,” Jake fought back the urge to throw up. When they finished, Jake’s counter sported a new display with the chenille infinity scarves sporting a special sale price of seventy-nine ninety-five, and the wool blends had migrated to the last chance basket at the end of the counter.
It took exactly an hour and forty minutes for Jake to sell out, including the offending pinkish-orange bit of fluff that clashed with his ruddy complexion and auburn curls. That left him more than enough time to rearrange the displays and ruminate on what Cole had planned for their date.
The Plaza food court sat right across from Central Park. He could see Cole and him grabbing a quick bite, then maybe strolling through the park hand-in-hand. Jake tried to recall if they’d actually held hands like that, like boyfriends would. When they’d shaken hands out there on the street, it had been like slow motion torture feeling the ridges on their fingers doing bumper cars until their thumbs had nestled into the notches, and they’d gripped tight enough to notice, but not so much as to make it seem like a challenge.
That pause, that temptation to look him in the eye and take the measure of the man, was like the moment of suspension at the top of the slope on the roller coaster. That moment when anticipation and fear and the sheer insanity of letting go made his eyes roll up in his head, made him scream like a little girl. It had been that kind of thrill.
But then Cole had let go. Bam, just like that. So abruptly he acted like a snake had bitten him, and that had sent Jake plummeting in freefall down the first incline.
The second freefall was him coming so hard, he’d thought he was having a stroke. It hurt so much he could barely stand the pleasure, and nothing and no one had ever done that to him. But it hadn’t stopped there. O’Neil had done the unthinkable, he’d gathered Jake into his arms, wrapping him in warmth, flesh-to-flesh, muscle-to-muscle, and they’d shared heartbeats until Jake heard, felt, lived his impossible fantasy.
Two as one.
Cole had released the inhibitions Jake forever hid behind, inhibitions that had always saved him from caring, protecting him from the hope that always got derailed before he’d even begun to map its boundaries. With Cole, Jake sensed there were no boundaries. Cole was either all in, or not at all.
That made the mixed signals in the morning so damned confusing and so hurtful. They’d left Jake’s feelings in tatters, smashed his ability to handle the rapid changes of direction. He was used to hurt, but this…
This was something else entirely.
It was dangerous. Wonderful. Beautiful. It was going to beat him to an emotional pulp and leave him not just wounded but scarred for eternity.
Cole O’Neil was going to force Jake Richardson to do the one thing he’d avoided all his life…
Cole O’Neil was going to force Jake to live.
Jake wished the staff a good evening and locked up. In the employee lounge, he carefully folded the loaner sweat shirt and sweat pants and placed them in a shopping bag. He felt silly returning it to Cole on their second date, mostly because he’d spent the bulk of the afternoon and evening building up the pending meeting to monumental, make-or-break proportions. He hoped they would end up back at Cole’s loft for a repeat of the previous night, but there was no guarantee of that. Nor was there a guarantee that date number three was in the cards.
As much as Jake hated playing that numbers game, the sad fact was … he wasn’t in control. Not of Cole’s intentions, or his feelings. All he had was his own set of wishes and dreams, all of which threatened to careen into chaos.
If he left the bag behind, would that send the wrong message? Would it tell Cole he didn’t care enough about the man’s generosity to return his clothing, or did it imply he’d withheld them because he assumed there would be another time, another opportunity—a date or maybe a simple friends hanging out together or a hey, wanna grab a bite with me…?
Jake nearly jumped out of his skin when Adrian barked from the doorway, “What’s in the bag, Richardson?”
My future? The man of my dreams? My biggest fucking mistake ever?
Jerking out the sweatshirt, he held it up and stammered, “Workout clothes?”
The man wrinkled his nose and sneered, “Right.” Jake breathed a sigh of relief and tucked the garment back in the bag. The respite was short-lived when Adrian said, “I’ve got my eye on you, mister. Just remember that.”
Jake mumbled, “Yes, sir,” and choked back an expletive. The man had always hated him, and this wasn’t the first time he’d laid a veiled threat on him, but it was the first time Jake was guilty as charged. The sleek softness of the purloined turtleneck felt like it had grown a barbed wire lining.
Jake shrugged into his commuter coat, wrapped his fingers around the shopping bag handles and bolted for the rear door. He murmured, “Have a good evening,” and prepared to make a run for it.
Adrian barked, “Be sure you’re on time Tuesday, asshole. It’s your turn to open.”
Jake stumbled on the slick iron steps leading to the alley behind the store.
“Um, that’s my birthday. I’ve got the day off. Remember?” Somehow he’d made it to the macadam without breaking his neck. He turned and looked up at the featureless man backlit by the weak overhead floodlight.
“Nine sharp, buttercup.” Adrian flashed an evil grin. “Or don’t come in at all.” With that he slammed the door. Jake heard the locks click into place and shuddered.
He knows, I know he knows. Fuck, fuck, fuck…
With guilt weighing him down, Jake turned left and power-walked toward the end of the block. If he was lucky, he’d catch the subway home in time to run into the deli and have Mario make up a pastrami hero. He hadn’t eaten all day, his nerves about the date…
Oh shit, oh fucking hell…
He’d told Cole quitting time was nine o’clock, but the job of locking up had been dumped on him out of the blue. Then he’d wasted more precious time dithering about the sweats—the sweats in the bag that Adrian was sure contained half the inventory from the store. And finally the interrogation, and the final blow leaving him reeling from the disappointment of having his day off taken away just because the asshat could.
Jake checked his cell phone. It was nine forty-five. Cole would guess, rightly, that he’d been stood up. He’d be long gone and date number two would vanish into the mist. Cole O’Neil would be a pleasant memory, and Jake could go back to same old, same old … but with a difference.
He’d been booted from his supporting role, and he didn’t have enough money for tuition at NYU, on the course-a-semester plan. So same old, same old had narrowed down to why the fuck am I bothering to stay here?
Bad answer… He had nowhere else to go.
The deli closed at ten. The Plaza was open until midnight or later on the weekend. First order of survival, eat. He wondered if Cole would get the reference. He suspected he would. Too bad he’d never see the guy to ask.
Jake turned and trotted through the night, the bag slapping his knee as he wound his way around the merry shoppers. Central Park loomed behind him as he joined the mob flowing through the doors. The odors from a dozen vendors selling everything from Pad Thai to grilled vegan burgers assaulted his nostrils and made his mouth water, despite the fact he doubted he’d be able to choke down a bite of anything. He waded through the crowd, knocking against tables and chairs, murmuring, “Sorry, sorry, excuse me,” into the surrounding din. No one looked his way. No one cared enough to notice the man with the bag of lost dreams dog-paddling as if his life depended on it.
The weight of disappointment was a heavy burden to bear. Had he deliberately set himself up for this? Had he unconsciously created the opportunity for failure? It wouldn’t be the first time, but somehow he’d never considered the possibility of it happening again.
How stupid could he be?
With his chest aching and his eyes watering, Jake grasped the bag with Cole O’Neil’s clothing, with his scent and his memory doing a tap dance in his head. He let the crowds flow around him as he stared at the ceiling, lost to his misery, lost to Cole, lost to himself.
Jake’s body quaked as arms wrapped around him. A warm tongue darted in and out of his ear as the chuckle of the man who shouldn’t be there caressed his heart with a lifeline.
Cole whispered, “I was getting worried.” The grip tightened. Jake leaned into it, uncertain if it was real or if he was hallucinating. A voice saturated with sin said, “You taste so fucking good,” and followed that with a long, slow, torturous exploration of Jake’s neck and chin, ending with a nip at his bottom lip.
The din, the crowds, all of it evaporated, leaving him and Cole in a private bubble of lust that had Jake’s knees go weak and his insides flutter.
When Cole released him, the deep chuckle returned as Jake wavered, unsteady on his feet. Cole reached down and grabbed a bag, waved it in front of Jake, and asked, “Pastrami okay?”
Jake murmured, “Perfect,” and scanned the area for a place to sit.
Cole took his left hand and said, “Nuh-unh, I have somewhere special for us. Come on, I think you’re gonna like this.”
Jake already did. He liked holding the big man’s hand; he liked having his neck and chin and lip mauled, right there in front of everyone. Jake liked the way Cole draped himself around his body, like he and only he had the right to do that. He liked how Cole knew what Jake preferred without even asking. He liked that Cole had waited when he didn’t have to, that Cole knew he’d be there. He liked Cole’s hand on his back, guiding him through the crowds, opening the door and then putting an arm around his shoulder as they took the steps two-by-two.
But mostly what he liked was how hope sat a little more easily inside his chest. With Cole, he felt lighter, protected, and desired.
As they waited at the curb to cross the avenue, Jake held up his own shopping bag. “I’ve got your sweats.”
“Huh, that’s disappointing.” Jake’s stomach clenched, but Cole smirked and said, “I thought maybe you were late ’cause you stopped to buy condoms.”
Jake responded with, “Shit,” and twisted his hips. At Cole’s questioning stare, he sighed, “Jeans are too fucking tight.”
“Are they now? Well, I’m pretty sure I can help you out with that. But first things first.”
Curious about the secrecy, Jake asked, “Where are we going?”
“To meet a very good friend of mine…”