I approached Willcott house with a somewhat apprehensive and totally incomprehensible flutter in my gut. The job would be a simple one – mostly repair work and replacing parts that had been worn through age and usage. No major challenge there; definitely nothing to get into a bother about. In fact that was how I had started out in my business. A few small jobs here and there through recommendations which gradually grew to bigger and more complex projects. Before I knew it I had a flourishing business going.
The Willcott house repair would take about two weeks, three tops. I had found two good men who were willing to sign up for the job. Using only one would be cheaper but two would be faster. I weighed the options. After some consideration I decided I would choose cost over speed and picked Andy, who had been with me for the past ten years. A steady and reliable worker who had a young family to feed. He wouldn’t mind being away from them if it meant he could secure a job for another couple of weeks. Well, maybe three since we would be one man short.
As I drove along the winding country road I didn’t think too hard about the last few weeks I had spent. I didn’t want to. I had gone through the motions of selling the business and finally signing on the dotted line without thinking too much about what it all meant. Was I afraid I might chicken out if I thought too deeply? Certainly! I had led such a closeted life for so long that the sudden freedom was overwhelming … and intoxicating at the same time. I felt suddenly rather bold, maybe even slightly reckless. I smiled – that was a term I would not normally use to describe myself. My life had become a bundle of ambivalence.
I realized also I didn’t have a routine to follow any more. It was slightly unsettling and I told myself I would need an adjustment period. I believe everyone liked some kind of structure they could hang on to and mine was gone. But the money I had made in the sale more than made up for ‘loss’ and with what I had saved over the years it hit me that I was a pretty free agent. There was no one I had to look after or stay back for in Ashley Downs. No contracts to chase, no deadlines to meet and no workers to worry over.I could do what I wanted and go where I wanted.
Heck! It felt good and I was quite READY for an adventure.
In the meantime, I looked forward to the two or three weeks in beautiful country, doing something I had once enjoyed very much. With just one experienced workman, I would need to physically get involved in the actual work. Just like the early days. And to that I was looking forward. I wanted to get my hands dirty, to feel the sweat pouring down my back, to experience the muscle ache after a day of physical exertion. Perhaps I was hoping that would jerk me out of the frozen void I was in.
I skidded slightly in the loose gravel as I braked and honked twice at the front yard of Willcott house. I got out of the car and leaned on the side, staring up at the handsome old house. When I was done, it would look even better. I was already seeing all the improvements in my mind’s eye.
I caught a movement and Aimes appeared from the side of the house. I watched him approach, conscious of how he moved, silent and sure-footed like an animal. I felt my mouth curl into a smile. Despite his occasional surliness and abrupt manners I didn’t mind him. He was a man of few words but you could tell he talked straight and that wasn’t a bad thing. He didn’t waste words and I preferred that to some smooth talking idiot sprouting nonsense.
“Hello Aimes,” I said as he came within hearing distance. “How are you doing?”
He came and stood in front of me, his presence filling my space. His eyes looked straight at me, bright, blue and piercing. “Hello Robert. Good to see you again.”
And I knew he meant it.
We shook hands stiffly. I tried not to show my surprise at his geniality. No bark this time, certainly no bite. He seemed to have accepted the forthcoming repairs, the inevitability of intrusion and my company.
“Is that all you got?” Aimes asked, peering into the car.
“Yeah, I brought some of the tools I’d need but the rest of the stuff will come in the truck later today.”
He nodded. “Okay then, let me help you get these into the house.”
We moved the various bags and tool boxes into the hallway. I then took my own personal stuff upstairs to the room I had used previously. The bed was all made up and ready and the room felt surprisingly welcoming. I stopped for a moment at the window, staring at the view and drinking in the fresh air. Strange that I should feel such a strong sense of belonging. This was only my second time here.
I hadn’t brought much, mostly jeans, t-shirts and work shirts and I unpacked quickly, whistling softly to myself. Once done, I went into the bathroom to wash my hands and face before I headed downstairs. Aimes was in the kitchen and he looked up from the kettle in his hand.
“Coffee or tea?” he asked.
“Coffee please.” I took a seat at the table and saw a pile of papers on it. “What’s this?” I asked, recognizing without difficulty my own handwriting on the earlier sketches and notes.
He looked at me without speaking, and handed me a steaming cup. His look made it clear he thought my question was superfluous. I reached for the papers and looked through them, buying a bit of time to try to digest the implication.
“Aimes, I know these are the notes we made on my earlier trip. But you don’t need to hang on to these. You’ve got a copy of my quote and the specifications are all there.” I knew Stewart had sent him a copy. “You don’t need these notes now, you know?”
“Yeah … I got the quote. But there’s more details in these here notes and they captured our ideas and contain what we discussed together and agreed upon. The quote does not mention everything here.”
I understood where he was coming from. As mildly as possible I replied, “Yes, that is true. But it covers all the essential work I would be doing. Some of which won’t be spelt out because it will be impossible to list every little thing, and that’s probably why you won’t see all the details listed. That’s standard practice but I assure you it will be as what we discussed. I don’t intend to take any short cuts or deliver something less than what we agreed.”
If he was reassured he didn’t show it. He shrugged and reached for the notes. I handed them over and watched him put them neatly into a plastic folder. I was a little piqued that my integrity had been called into question and I sipped my coffee slowly, trying to push the feeling away.
“I know Stewart trusts you,” Aimes said as he took a seat opposite me.
The words came without prompting. “I wish you would do the same.”
“Trust is something that must be earned.”
I peered at him and wondered what the hell had happened to make him so cautious and cynical. Deciding to rely on my age-old motto of the customer is always right, I nodded and said gently, “And I hope to do that.”
Fortunately the sound of a horn alerted us to the arrival of the truck and that removed any awkwardness of the situation. We went out and met Andy and I introduced him to Aimes. We worked fast and soon we had all the stuff unloaded and stacked neatly by the side of the house. I decided to get started immediately and we took Andy around the house, going over the details of the repairs and then we made up a tentative schedule on what would get done first and by when. As I had estimated we should be able to wrap up the project in just under three weeks.
By the time we were done the sun was low. Andy went to his room to unpack and freshen up and I was left in the kitchen with Aimes.
“Need any help with dinner?” I asked. Since we would be practically living together for the next few weeks I figured the sooner I stopped feeling like a guest the better it would be. “We can take turns fixing dinner if you prefer. Or work together, whichever you are comfortable with.”
Aimes seemed to consider it a moment before asking, “Can you take care of the salad tonight?”
“I can,” I replied with perfect confidence. Salads were right up my alley and anyway I was glad of his choice. I had had enough of cooking for myself and I preferred this too, preparing dinner together instead of taking turns.
I curled up in the big arm chair in the living room, watching tv with a slice of pizza in front of me. There was nothing remotely interesting on and I had been flipping channels and nibbling at the pizza with little enthusiasm. The day had not only been uneventful but dreadfully boring as well. I heard myself sigh loudly to the empty room.
I wish Robert was here.
I had been thinking more and more of him since my birthday. Who was I kidding? I had been thinking of him for a long while now, way before my birthday. I liked him the first time I saw him. He was such a gentleman, with lovely manners. He treated me with civility and respect and I appreciated that. In the world I am used to, not everyone had a kind word to say to me. I had encountered plenty of cold stares and snubs or even worse sly looks that left me in no doubt of their thoughts and desires.
Robert was never one of those.
He was so tall. I liked them tall and broad. I closed my eyes and imagined being held in his powerful arms. I wondered how it would feel to have his lips on mine. I shivered. Since I had escaped from Christian I had been celibate and I was randy like hell. Knowing that Marcus and Stewart had an exceptionally active sexual life did nothing to ease my bundle of nerves. I could hear those familiar sounds at night coming from behind their closed door when I went to use the bathroom. Sounds I had made, whether real or pretend. Sounds I was used to. Sounds that excited me.
I flipped off the tv in frustration and wondered what I could do to amuse myself. Stewart had left Friday morning for a weekend conference and Marcus had gone back to his hometown the next day to see his family. He did not elaborate but I pieced together the information that his mom was not well and he hadn’t visited in a while because of problems with his dad. In the end (and after much promptings from Stewart) Marcus had finally decided to go home for the weekend. Which left me all alone this woeful Saturday. I couldn’t even go over to Ben’s because he had the flu and was kept strictly in bed. I was not allowed to phone him either as Philip had forbidden all calls so he wouldn’t be disturbed. I had little computer skills and didn’t even have a Facebook account so no help there. I realized I had no friends apart from these people. And I was going stir crazy with boredom.
I threw the half-finished pizza away and toyed with the idea of going out, maybe for a walk, or to a bar or a club. It was already dark outside and the park would be deserted. Not very safe to wander around by myself. Dancing on the other hand sounded nice and I could certainly use a drink. How long had it been since I’d gone out for an evening and danced? Long enough I thought. I really needed to get my body moving again, to sway to the rhythm and feel the beat. The idea became more appealing with each passing minute. Finally I went to my room to look over my meager wardrobe. The final result was not stunning but it would have to do.
Mindful of Stewart’s instructions, I made sure all the doors and windows were locked before I ‘borrowed’ Marcus’ leather jacket and let myself out. The jacket was a bit big but if I let if hang open it didn’t look half bad. I headed towards the nearest bus stop – no way could I afford a taxi. A few couples strolled by, hand in hand. I watched them enviously. I wondered how the repair works was coming along at Willcott. It’s been a week since Robert had gone there to start on the project. A week since I hadn’t seen him. It had been nice waking up when he was around, knowing he was in the house, perhaps cooking breakfast.
I tore my thoughts away as a large shadow rounded the corner and came to a stop in front of me. As I boarded the bus, a number of heads turned and a few of the passengers openly stared at me. A heavy-set man at the back even raised his eyebrows and tried to make eye contact. I slid quickly into an empty seat and then looked down at myself, doing a quick check. Black plain t-shirt, jeans (which admittedly were rather tight), borrowed black leather jacket. Hair lightly jelled. No chains. No rings. Nothing too obviously flamboyant. What on earth were they staring at?
I ignored the looks and kept my gaze fixedly out the window. When the bus reached the stop I wanted, I skipped down the steps, hearing a wolf whistle behind me. Ignoring it I quickly walked away, without turning back. My pace slowed to a stroll once I reached my destination. It was a nice district in the older part of town – with decent bars, some classy restaurants and a couple of coffee places. Quite a number of these establishments had tables and chairs set up along the pavement, al fresco style. It made the street look gay and very pretty. I felt my spirits lift as I breathed in the air.
Music blared out of one of the joints as I walked past. A group of men stood near the entrance, smoking and drinking beer. They smiled at me as I passed them.
“Hey, can I buy you a drink?”
I shook my head and diverted my eyes even as I quickened my steps till I was clear of them. I had learnt never to establish any eye contact if I wanted to avoid interaction. Nothing could be more disastrous than to show any interest, however slight, if I didn’t intend to linger.
Moving along down the night spots, I observed the bars carefully. It wasn’t just the physical place I was checking out; I paid a lot of attention to the clientele as well. I didn’t want one favored by the young artsy-types or those which pulled the rough and tough crowd. My game was always to go for the older and more sedate group. They were more restrained, less trouble. I needed to be able to strike up a friendly conversation and get a couple of free drinks without complications or a bouncer getting suspicious. Finally I decided and slowly retraced my steps. It was an open bar and I could see clusters of men and women chatting amiably around it or at the small round tables which spilled into the pavement. In the back of the room there was a dance floor. No live band, only a DJ, but that was ok.
I inched my way inside, this time boldly looking at the customers and openly trying to make eye contact. I saw at least two who might be approachable. I smiled at them and then walked slowly to the back and watched the few people gyrating on the floor. Soon enough one of the two men made his way to the washroom, giving me a quick once-over as he passed by. I smiled at him and when he came out, he wandered casually up to me.
“Hey,” he murmured, close enough for me to assume he was addressing me, soft enough that no one heard. If I chose to ignore him he wouldn’t be too embarrassed.
‘Hey,” I replied.
Another inch closer. “Um, you waiting for someone?” he asked.
I shrugged and flashed him another smile. “No, not really.”
His smile broadened. “Nice music.”
“Yeah,” I agreed warmly, flirting with my eyes. I looked him over. Mid-thirties, about six feet, pale skin which probably meant he kept a desk job mostly. Not too shabbily dressed though underneath the well-cut suit I could detect a bit of a paunch and I strongly suspected I would feel flab too if I touched him. Oh well, one can’t be too choosy. It’s not like I would be touching him anywhere or any time soon. I just needed to socialize, not sleep with the man.
He jerked his chin towards the dance floor. “Wanna dance?”
“Sure,” I said, immediately moving onto the dance floor, suddenly impatient to get into the mood. My fingers were twitching with anticipation. The music consumed me and my body automatically started to sway to the swing and rhythm. I closed my eyes and let myself go.
“Hey. You’re a great dancer.”
I opened my eyes; I had forgotten about him. “Thanks,” I said. He did sound sincere.
He watched me with open admiration as I dance and I enjoyed that. It was food for my soul. We stayed on the dance floor for at least twenty minutes, me exerting much more energy than he did, and then he touched my arm lightly. “How about a drink? You look thirsty.”
I wanted to dance some more but I was also parched so I said, “OK.”
He guided me to a small table and signaled a waiter over. I learnt his name was Peter and he was a lawyer, working for his dad. I relaxed. These types were safe. He chatted about his work and hobbies and I listened with half an ear. After we’d finished one round of drinks, I asked him to dance again, but he declined. Instead he moved his chair closer. Our knees touched. He ordered another round and this time I went slow. He began to playfully touch my hands and knees, so I quickly got up.
“I am gonna dance for you, Peter” I told him with a suggestive smile. “You stay here and watch.”
He leaned back with an eager nod and watched me. I turned when I reached the dance floor and looked at him directly, like I was there only because of him. I swiveled and presented my back and swayed my hips. I caught a glimpse of him with his mouth hanging open and I chuckled. He was so easy to please. And then I just danced for myself.
I was breathing hard when I felt a pair of hands on my hips. Thinking it was Peter, I turned my head and was surprised to find a stranger leering at me. Pulling back, I danced away but he came unsteadily after me. I ignored him but he continued to keep pace with me, his hand still possessively on me.
“Excuse me,” I said coldly, brushing his hand away.
He was obviously quite drunk and smelled disgusting. “Hey, don’t be so unfriendly. Don’t you wanna dancing partner, baby.”
“Leave me alone please!” I said sharply. He was starting to create a scene.
“Aww. You don’t mean that … You’re so hot … c’mon, shake those sexy hips some more …”
“He’s with me, buddy.” Peter was suddenly in between us. “Why don’t you go away huh?”
The stranger opened his eyes at Peter. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I said he’s with me,” Peter said, trying to draw me towards him.
Shit! I so didn’t need this crap. All I wanted was a dance.
“Look guys, please don’t do this,” I begged. We were starting to draw attention to ourselves.
“Come on Oliver,” Peter said, reaching for my hand. “Let’s go.”
I felt a sudden flare of indignation at his possessiveness and presumption. How dared he? I had no desire to be led away like I belonged to him. My days of being owned were over. In a fit of independence and defiance, I announced firmly, “No. I am dancing!”
Peter looked confused for a moment and the stranger nudged in between us. “You hear what he said? He says he wants to dance with me!”
“Asshole!” Peter cursed. I wasn’t quite sure who he meant.
“Why don’t you fuck off, mister?” the stranger sneered. “Isn’t it obvious? Pretty boy here doesn’t want your company!”
“Fuck you. You stay out of this …” Peter was getting upset at an alarming rate. His eyes burned into mine with hurt and anger while the stranger laughed rudely and that was how it started. Suddenly the two men were shoving one another and throwing punches and because I hadn’t skipped away fast enough a random fist landed on the side of my head.
“Ow!” I screamed, clutching my head and covering my face. People were getting out of the way in a hurry and shouts rang out. Panicked, I tried to escape but Peter was grabbing for me while the stranger had caught hold of my arm.
“Let me go!” I shouted.
A large body suddenly moved next to me and easily pulled me free. I scramble away with relief. He yanked me from the two struggling men. Believing it was the establishment bouncer I leaned gratefully against him as he dragged me clear and pushed me into an empty chair.
“You ok?” the giant asked gently. Behind him the mêlée was dispersing and the music had resumed.
I nodded weakly and looked up. “Yeah, my head still hurts but I think I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
He looked vaguely familiar but my ears were still ringing and my head swam so I couldn’t be bothered to figure out where I had seen him before. Maybe in some pub another lifetime ago. Suddenly I saw Peter coming towards us and I tensed. He had an ugly scowl on his face. The giant put a hand on my shoulder reassuringly, watching Peter’s approach silently. I felt safe immediately.
“You bloody cock-teaser!” Peter spat at me as he passed, “don’t you ever come back here,” and then he marched away without breaking his stride. I let out a breath which I had been holding.
The big man gave me a wry look. “Set up some expectations, did you?”
I shook my head, in no mood to explain. I just wanted to go home. It was a bad idea to have come out, alone, looking for action. I didn’t know what it was with me but I always managed to attract all the more unsavory characters. Everyone wanted something from me and I never was smart enough to figure that out before trouble started. That was the bane of my life, landing myself in deeper and deeper. Perhaps it would be better if I became a hermit.
Another man, equally big as my protector, walked up to us. “Everything ok, Gene?”
“Yeah, Scott. No worries.”
Something clicked in my brain. I know those names and I did know these guys.
“I know you, don’t I?” I asked, rather stupidly.
The first giant grinned at me. “Yeah, we met before. At George’s and Curtis’ place. I’m Eugene. And this is my partner Scott.”
The work was going well. Andy had learnt a lot from me over the years and was totally in synch with me; together we made a good team. Aimes pitched in frequently, and that helped move things along too. Not that I was hurrying to get the job over. I was enjoying my stay at Willcott so much I didn’t want to think about leaving. Not so soon anyway.
We started with the roof repairs, which were the most major. Once we had traced the source of several leaks and determined the cause, we patched those up. Then we changed the decking and replaced the shingles. The house had been well built but it was old and had been exposed to air pollutants and wind damage over the years. I decided to replace some parts of the insulation while we were at it. That was not part of the job specs but I wanted it done. I could imagine how cold winter would be around there.
“That’s not in the quote,” Aimes remarked flicking through some papers. There was no expression on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or displeased.
“I know,” I replied. “There was no way I could see this when we first scoped out the job, but now that I’ve seen it I am proposing to get it fixed.”
“Is it absolutely necessary?”
“Yes, my professional opinion is we need to get this done. In addition to lowering your energy costs, good insulation will trap heat inside and keep cold air in circulation. Trust me; this will make your house more comfortable all year round.”
Aimes scowled. “There’s no one here whole year round except during summer.”
“You live here the whole year round Aimes,” I pointed out. “Besides, I don’t like a job half-baked. I strongly recommend we do this.”
“How much more will it cost?” Aimes frowned.
“Nothing. It’ll be part of the original quite.” I hoped that would shut him up.
“That’s not right, and not how I do things around here,” Aimes grumbled. He wandered off and within half an hour I got a call from Stewart.
“What’s going on, Robert?” Stewart asked. “Aimes said you wanted to add to the original scope of job but won’t tell him how much more it’ll cost?”
I explained quickly to Stewart.
“I see,” he said with a sigh. “Well, Aimes is partly right; we can’t let you put in extras without charging us.”
“It’s not a bid deal,” I insisted, getting quite tired of this topic.
“We can’t leave it at that Robert,” Stewart said firmly over the phone. “So please give us an estimate and I will run it by Ben and Philip. And if it’s within our budget we’ll approve it and you can proceed. This is a business transaction Robert, and we need to approach this professionally. Please understand.”
I didn’t want to argue any more so I agreed. I made a few calls to a couple of suppliers and got a deal I was happy with, then worked out some numbers with Andy and finally knocked off fifty percent from the bottom line. I called Stewart back with the figure.
“Is that it?” Stewart sounded skeptical. “Are you sure?”
I tried to sound as offended as I could. “Would you like me to send over my costing details for you to check?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. And you know it.” His voice was both amused and exasperated. “I don’t think Ben and Philip will have any objections as the amount is well within our budget so you have my go ahead. I’ll let Aimes know its ok.”
Dinner that night was a quiet affair. Usually Andy and I chatted while Aimes occasionally put in a word or two. It was generally about how well the repairs were progressing and the plans for the following day; Aimes never talked about anything personal. That night however, he was more reticent than normal, keeping silent throughout most of the meal. Observing him closely, I thought I detected a crease on his forehead.
Leaving Andy alone to watch TV after dinner, I took my coffee out to the back porch where I knew I would find Aimes. It was a habit of his to sit there for an hour or so as the sun went down, and I went and sat down on the steps beside him. I just sipped my coffee slowly, enjoying the serenity of the untamed scene before us. I knew enough not to talk yet. A gentle breeze blew against our faces.
When I had finished my coffee, I laid the mug down and asked carefully. “Is something bothering you Aimes?”
He turned his head and not for the first time I thought about how deep and blue his eyes were. They pierced into mine.
“I don’t know what you want,” Aimes said in his quiet direct way. There was no accusation in his tone. It was a stillness borne of caution and suspicion and I felt a pang of sympathy. How did one live life like that, I thought.
I moistened my lips before replying. “I want to do a good job. I want to make sure you and Stewart and the rest of the owners of this place appreciate what I accomplish. I want to feel a sense of achievement.”
His expression remained unchanged.
“It’s not about making money out of this project, Aimes,” I continued. “I just sold my business for a sum beyond my expectations and the last thing on my mind is profit. This isn’t work to me. Plus …”
I paused and he just waited. No encouragement from him, no promptings, no indication if he was even interested to hear what I wanted to say. But I knew he was listening closely. I had learnt to read him well enough to know that.
“Plus …” I said, “I have come to love this place. I think I felt it the first time I visited and now I hate the idea of leaving. You are lucky to have all this to yourself.”
Aimes’ eyes were steady. It wasn’t easy but I held his gaze. Finally he gave a nod, which I took for approval. “If its appreciation you want, you have it. I appreciate what you’ve done so far.”
I tried not to show my surprise or to suck in my breath too loudly. I also managed not to blabber further. I knew someone like Aimes didn’t like blabbering idiots. Instead I nodded back and said as calmly as I could, “thank you.”
Work went on smoothly after that. Aimes began to spend more time with us and a third pair of hands hastened the job quite a bit. Not that that was one of my objectives. He was surprisingly good and showed an unexpected level of skill and knowledge about general house repairs. But then he should – how else could he have maintained this place so well for so long all by himself. The roof was done in just over a week and I decided to let Andy go back the following weekend so he could spend some time with his family.
Andy left Friday morning and I decided to ride in to Willcott village with Aimes to stock up on food and other necessities. Much as I loved the house and the country-side, I thought a change of scene would be nice. Aimes didn’t object and we set off soon after Andy left. The drive in was mostly silent (I had come to expect and accept these long periods of silence with Aimes and I no longer found them hostile or uncomfortable).
Aimes parked in front of the main grocery store and we went straight in and Aimes methodically picked out what he needed. He knew exactly what he wanted without having to refer to a list and he filled up his trolley in his usual efficient manner while I browsed a bit more. The range of goods was not too shabby. Looking into the trolley I could see Aimes had picked only the basics. Flour, sugar, coffee, potatoes, meat, sausages, cereal. I threw in some chocolates and a bag of cookies, and I selected a bottle of wine too. Aimes did not say anything.
After all the groceries had been bagged, we placed them in the truck.
“Hey, how about a drink before heading back?” I asked before Aimes could climb back into the truck.
He hesitated a moment, and then he gave a curt nod.
I smiled at him. ‘Where would you suggest? Where do you usually go for a cup of coffee in town?”
He looked rather sheepishly at me.
Sudden realization hit me. “You’ve never done that, have you?”
Aimes shrugged. “Nope.”
“Have you eaten in any one of the restaurants around here?” I asked, looking around. The town was small and there weren’t many eating outlets but I wouldn’t have minded taking a break from home cooking every once in a while in any one of them.
He shook his head. “Never needed to.”
“OK, how about coffee over there?” I pointed to a small shop with a couple of benches placed outside the shop window. “Looks like they have donuts too. Come on, my treat!”
I walked purposefully over and I sensed rather than saw Aimes following me. The shop wasn’t busy and the man behind the counter served us immediately. I ordered two cappuccinos and raised my eyebrows at Aimes after indicating the tray of colorful donuts. He frowned and shook his head.
“Come on,” I coaxed. “They look too good to resist and you can manage one I am sure.”
“Fresh from the oven this morning,” the shop owner informed us jovially. “They’ll all be gone by this afternoon so you best take your pick now,” he warned with a wink.
I laughed. “All right, we’ll have two of those please.” I pointed to the chocolate topped ones.
Picking up the tray, I walked outside and sat down at one of the benches. The sun was bright and warm. I sighed with pleasure as I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and lifted my face. What a glorious day, I thought. I had made the right choice to sell out. This feeling was worth a million bucks.
When I opened my eyes I found Aimes looking at me. Immediately self-conscious, I flushed. “What?” I asked with a nervous laugh.
His eyelids dropped, hiding his eyes. He shook his head as he picked up his cappuccino and sipped. “This is good,” he murmured. And then he looked around us, at the people sauntering past, at the street and the few cars and bicycles going up and down. And I thought I saw his shoulders relax a little.
We sat in easy silence as we ate the sweet donuts. I couldn’t tell if Aimes enjoyed his or not but he ate it all up and washed the last mouthful down with his coffee. I heard a small sigh and I guessed it was with satisfaction. I wanted to believe that anyway.
We didn’t do much that weekend. Whatever small jobs we could do around the house we took care of, leaving the heavier work till Monday when Andy came back. Without asking if he minded I helped Aimes with his household chores like laundry and vacuuming and he didn’t say anything. By the time we finished it was late afternoon. I thought we deserved a break and suggested a walk to the lake before it got too dark. He didn’t seem to know anything about breaks or relaxing. I told Aimes I was interested in exploring the area a bit if he thought it was ok.
He shrugged, hands hanging loosely from his jeans pocket. “Yes, but don’t tell the Brats or they’ll all want to do that too,” Aimes warned.
“Do what – exploring?”
“Brats?” I looked at him questioningly.
He paused, his face closing immediately. “Just a term Stewart and Philip use sometimes,” he said shortly. “They bring a lot of people up here over the summer and some of them are not used to country living. Could get dangerous wandering around on their own.”
“So would you consider me a Brat?” I asked teasingly. “I don’t live in a big city but I can’t say my hometown is wild country-side like this either. Would it be dangerous for me to wander on my own?”
His eyes flicked over me appraisingly and I found myself wanting to square my shoulders. “I would prefer you not to wander too far off alone,” he said gruffly.
I felt a warm tingle in my stomach at his words. Was that a sign of concern for my welfare? From the cold and hardened Aimes? Besides, grown men were supposed to take care of themselves. Especially grown men who were past the age of forty and who should not feel flustered with a simple show of concern for their safety and well-being. Brushing it off sternly, I asked nonchalantly, “So you coming along for that walk?”
Aimes didn’t bother to lock the doors when we left. I guess there was no need to around these parts. We took the same path we had taken the previous time but when we reached the lake, Aimes didn’t stop. Instead he continued walking around the water’s edge and then turned right heading away from it.
“Where are we going?” I asked curiously. The lake was still and mysterious and extremely inviting. I wanted to peel off my clothes and dive in.
“You wanted to explore,” he stated calmly.
I followed his steady footsteps, walking a pace behind as the path was narrow and we would have rubbed against one another if we walked two abreast. The grass grew taller and at some point it reached mid thigh. Aimes’ pace was not hurried so I had time to look around. I drank in the serenity and felt my heart soar with the wild beauty around us. Then there were more trees and I began to hear the lap of water again and suddenly the lake came back into view.
“You found this place?” I inquired in a soft tone though there was no one around for miles.
“This is amazing!” I could hear my own voice filled with awe. “Totally secluded. Who would have thought such a pretty place was hidden here.” Picturesque was the word I had in my mind.
Aimes grunted. He walked close to the water’s edge and from the easy way he sat down, I knew he came here often enough to know which was the most comfortable rock upon which to perch.
I looked around and found another rock nearby and sat down too. “Do you know what kind of lake this is?” I knew there were different types of lakes but damn if I knew how to tell the difference.
“I would guess this is a spring lake. The water probably comes from underground as I haven’t been able to find any inlets. But further up there’s a couple of streams flowing outwards. Too late to go today.”
So this was what this solitary man did when he was cooped up here all by himself. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the area and apparently did a lot of exploring on his own but it appeared to be a hell of a lonely existence. I felt a swell of sympathy fill my throat and I quickly turned and gazed out at the water surface. Here, the lake looked greener, darker and even more inviting. Keeping my voice casual I asked, “Has anyone ever swum here? Or is the water too cold even for summer?”
“Sometimes I do.” Aimes glanced at me. “But no one else comes here at all.”
My brows raised in surprise. “No one? Not even Stewart or Philip?”
“I doubt they know this place exists. This is totally off limits to the summer visitors.”
“So –“my voice trailed off.
A look crossed Aimes’ face – I wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or shyness. His mouth quickly settled into a firm line, as unbending as ever, immediately replacing the earlier softer expression. “Thought you might appreciate this. You seem to enjoy the wilderness more than the ordinary person.”
I was momentarily wordless. I did appreciate the beauty but even more did I appreciate his gesture. Finally I said, “thank you for showing me.”
I wrapped myself up in the big jacket which Stewart had loaned me and folded my arms tightly across my chest. Somehow that made me feel safer. I wish I could take a nap but the bus was cold even though it was sunny outside, and the seat I was in was not that comfortable. Oh well, no big deal. I’d been in worse places with much less. At least I had a thick jacket and some money in my pockets. And a destination.
Ever since the incident at the bar where I had been rescued by Gene and Scott, I had felt unhinged. It was strange for me to feel that way. I had always looked after myself; I had always survived. I should not be feeling lost in this way. Actually I was afraid I was getting soft.
Gene and Scott had been more than kind. They had called Stewart to let him know what had happened and they had brought me to their house instead of sending me home alone. How did they know there were demons chasing me and that I didn’t want to be alone that night but didn’t know how to ask for help? There was no way I could fit into any of their stuff – they were both so huge. In the end I slept in one of their old t-shirts which came to my knees and my underwear.
Stewart came to pick me up the day after - Sunday. I was afraid he would be mad, or perhaps yell at me for all the trouble I had caused. But he did not. To my surprise, he simply gave me a hug, thanked my rescuers and bundled me into his car and took me home. Technically speaking he hadn’t forbidden me to leave the house or to go out to a bar or anything. Technically speaking also he had no authority over me and I was not answerable to him and I didn’t have to obey him or anything. But deep inside me I wanted to. There was something so desperately hollow inside me which I had never felt before and it was driving me nuts. I had felt emptiness before but not this kind of longing. Living with Stewart and Marcus over the last few weeks had made me realize what I had missed all my life. I began to see how miserable my existence really had been. Even the thought of Simon did not cheer me up. Hell, hadn’t he left me too? I though with uncharacteristic chagrin. Abandoned me to fend for myself? If he had done a better job of taking care of me – like he promised he would – I wouldn’t have been in this predicament.
It was in this bitter mood that I had sat opposite Stewart in the study that afternoon and told him I wanted to leave.
“Where do you want to go, Oliver?” he asked.
“Oliver, I need to know where you are going before I let you go.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised. No one had really cared where I went before. “I don’t belong to you.”
“No, you don’t.”
I felt bad for being so rude. He didn’t deserve to be spoken to in that way, not after all his kindness. “I’m sorry Stewart. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“I know you didn’t, Oliver. Listen, I have no power to stop you if you really wanted to walk out of here today. But I would prefer you didn’t, unless you tell me where you are headed first.”
“What does it matter to you?” I mumbled, half to myself.
“Because,” Stewart said with a lot of kindness in his voice, “I think you don’t have anywhere to go, or anyone to go to.”
I was taken aback for a moment. That was true but why did he care? I wasn’t anyone special to him. In fact I had more than over-stayed my welcome and taken horrible advantage of their hospitality. It’s just that it had been so easy with them; they had made me feel as if they really welcomed me there. They even threw me a surprise birthday party. What kind of people does these things for people they don’t really know? I had meant to spend only a couple of nights with them and look what happened. I had ended up wishing …
“Oliver? What are you thinking, sweetie?” Stewart’s voice broke into my thoughts.
“I … can I … can I go to Robert?” I regretted it the minute I blurted it out. I watched Stewart digest that request for a long while and then slowly nodded his head.
“You want to go to Willcott?”
“Well … um, yes?”
He frowned. “You’re not sure?”
Of course I was not. “Yes, I am sure.” I mentally kicked myself.
“Is he expecting you then? Have you spoken to him about visiting?”
I dropped my head. “No, I haven’t,” I said, deeply embarrassed. What an idiot I was. Of course Robert was not expecting me – he had no fucking clue about my fantasies for him. “He doesn’t know I am asking this, and perhaps I shouldn’t be asking. I don’t know … what he … I mean, he has no idea … I don’t …”
“It’s ok, Oliver,” Stewart said, reaching over to pat my hand comfortingly. “You can tell me. Take your time.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, wondering how the hell I was supposed to tell Stewart what I didn’t know. I so did not want to appear desperate or a total fool. “Maybe it’s a bad idea,” I said quickly, trying to cover up.
“No. Let’s talk about it.”
“There’s nothing to talk about! I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Has Robert said anything to you, Oliver?” Stewart asked gently. “Has he given you any indication …?”
“Oh no!” I cried out, feeling the hot flush on my face. “No, he has not. It’s just that … well, I …” as I floundered I looked at Stewart with both trepidation and hope. Fear that he would be disgusted with what I had revealed; hope that he would save me.
“I see,” Stewart nodded his head again, and I believed he did. More importantly he wasn’t contemptuous or disdainful or outraged. He seemed genuinely interested in helping me work this out. “Give me some time to think about this, ok? Let me see what I can swing. Can you do that?”
And that was how I ended up on a bus two days later, headed north like how Marcus had once traveled two years ago. The night before I left, Marcus came into my room to help me pack and told me about his first bus ride to Willcott.
“I was scared shitless,” he said with an unrepentant grin. “I had never met Aimes before and when I arrived he was colder than an old graveyard. Gave me a look which made me feel like a un unwelcomed cockroach. If I could I would have turned back. But I couldn’t.”
I guess that trip hadn’t been easy for him either. He had run away to Willcott to escape, he said. Well, I was running away to Willcott too, only it was to find hope. I had seen the love between Stewart and Marcus. I had witnessed how Stewart always looked out for Marcus and kept Marcus safe. I wanted that.
The question was - would I find it with Robert?
I rolled out the sheets of paint charts on the kitchen table and watched Aimes as he glared down at them.
“Why can’t we just go with white?” he growled.
“We can,” I responded coolly. “I just thought you might want to know there are other options besides white. Some are quite pleasant. Just take a look.”
“The original is white; we should stay that way.”
I cast my eyes heavenwards at Aimes’ obstinacy. That man could be so pig-headed. I picked out the chart with the white boxes to show him. “Fine, but look at this chart for a minute; there’re so many shades of white. There’s a magnolia white, off-white, old lace white, pearl and ivory. There’s even one tone called eggshell and … look at this … ghost white. I wonder who named that one.”
Aimes grunted with impatience. “Stupid name. Isn’t there just a plain white?”
I grinned at him. “Yes, there it is – just white. Is that what you want?”
He looked at me with exasperation. “I suppose … can’t go wrong with white.”
I decided to tease him a little. “Are you sure you don’t want to try this seashell white instead? It’s very pretty and rather popular these days!”
He must have caught my smile because he suddenly narrowed his eyes at me and rapped his knuckles sharply on the wooden table. “Just white, thank you very much.”
I laughed openly at him. Since the time at the lake, I had noticed a softening in Aimes’ face whenever it was just the two of us alone. Sometimes he even smirked at what I said. I was beginning to believe that underneath that hard exterior, there lurked a beating heart and a very dry sense of humor.
We had formed the habit of sitting outside on the steps after dinner every night. Andy left us alone, preferring to watch TV or IM with his wife in the living room. That suited me fine as I looked forward to my time alone with Aimes. I enjoyed his company even though he never said much. In the beginning we didn’t talk a lot but the ice slowly melted and I found I could elicit a reasonably warm response occasionally.
One night as we sat there together, a movement in the bushes startled me and I jerked against him, sloshing hot coffee on his pants.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I apologized, trying to dab the liquid off the well-worn jeans with my hanky. “Did I scald you?”
“Its fine,” he said stiffly, moving his leg away.
I realized I had actually been brushing my hand over his thigh. Thanking God for the cover of darkness and to hide my embarrassment, I quickly asked, “What on earth was that? A squirrel?”
“Yes,” he replied in a toneless voice, “plenty of those running around.”
“Well, it startled me. I hope I didn’t ruin your jeans.”
“No.” Aimes cleared his throat.
The silence suddenly grew heavy. I was cracking my head to think of something to say when Aimes spoke. “That was likely a ground squirrel. The tree squirrels don’t normally come so near to the house since their natural habitat is in the trees.”
I looked at Aimes with raised brows. “That’s … very interesting.”
He glanced at me and said dryly. “Yeah. I am sure it was.”
I laughed and that broke the awkward moment between us. When we finally got up to go inside, we brushed up against one another but this time it seemed natural and neither of us flinched or jerked away. We said good night and I was about to go upstairs to my room when my cell phone rang.
“It’s Stewart,” I said to Aimes, before I flicked my phone open. “Hi Stewart.” I was a bit surprised at the lateness of the call. Must be something important.
“Hi Robert, how’s the project progressing?”
“Good, we are on schedule,” I replied. “And you didn’t call me at this hour to check on the progress, I am sure.”
He laughed. “No, you are right. Listen, I just wanted to check with you if you could use another pair of hands up at Willcott?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Oliver. I am thinking of sending him up maybe tomorrow? And at the same time help out? Ben’s been sick and Marcus and I are both busy with work. I thought he might get better company with you.”
“Well,” I pondered. “He’s a sweet kid but I don’t quite see him as the type to be handy around hammers and tools. Has something happened?”
“No, no, he’s fine and I am not trying to get rid of him or anything. Just want to give him a change of scene. By the way, Philip and I plan to drive up next week-end. I know the roof’s done, but what about the ground repairs. We thought we might help with the painting if you are ready by then.”
“Yeah, that would be a good time to come. Andy will finish off that weekend and I thought we could do the painting ourselves. It’s a relatively easy job and we can save on labor charges. After all there’s no hurry is there? It might take us a week longer than I planned originally.”
“That’s fine,” Stewart said easily. “No rush. We do like working on the house ourselves. But that’s like ten days away and in the meantime I think Oliver would appreciate a break. He could lend a hand and make himself useful.”
I shrugged and opened my eyes at Aimes, who had been listening in on my one-sided conversation. “Sure, I’ll try to find something easy and not too dangerous for him to do. But if he nails his hands into the wall, I won’t be held responsible!”
Stewart chuckled. “No, we won’t hold you responsible for that, Robert. Hey, is Aimes there? I need to speak to him as well.”
“Sure.” I handed the phone over to Aimes and it was my turn to listen to his one-sided conversation. It consisted of a series of grunts and throat noises.
“Hmmm. Why? Hmmm … Yep. All right then. When?”
After he hung up, he passed the phone back to me and said with a frown. “Stewart says he’ll text us once he buys Oliver’s bus ticket.”
“All right,” I said, and since Aimes looked so cross I decided to put in a good word for Oliver. “He’s not a bad kid. I hear he’s had a hard life. You wouldn’t think it from the way his behaves – he’s polite and considerate and hardworking.”
“What’s the kid gonna do around here?” Aimes asked sourly.
I had no idea!
Aloud I said, “I can re-arrange a bit of the work schedule so Oliver has something to work on. Maybe he could sandpaper something … or,” I stopped as a bright idea struck me, “you could get him to cover your house chores and the yard work. You can then help me – and Andy - with the rest of the repairs. We love having you on the team.”
Aimes looked as if he didn’t hear my bright idea or my compliment. Instead he asked tersely, “You said you might have to pro-long the project for another week?”
I looked at him apologetically. “Yes, I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to spring that on you like that. It’s not like we’ve over-run the timeline or budget or anything. On the contrary – we could save some cost by extending our deadline. I was just thinking about it; nothing is set yet. I know I originally planned three weeks, but …”
Aimes waved a hand in the air, interrupting my disjointed speech. “I don’t have a problem with the extension. We can do the painting ourselves.” He hesitated and drew in a breath. “Another week is fine.”
Stewart had told me either Robert or Aimes would come meet me at the bus stop. I prayed hard it would be Robert. After Marcus’ description of the chilled greeting he got from Aimes, I wanted to steer clear of the man. Plus I couldn’t wait to see Robert. I promised myself I would act cool – perhaps even a little distanced, friendly but not too eager. Just enough to let him know I’d missed him.
I grabbed my bag as the bus stop came into view and without waiting for the bus to totally come to a stop I jumped off as it slowed. From across the street I caught sight of Robert and I waved with excitement. Robert’s jaw slackened and he turned white as I suddenly tripped and lurched forward. He came running over at once but I had righted myself by then and without thinking launched myself into his arms.
OK, so much for acting cool.
I felt the air rush out of his lungs as I pressed close. His arms were strong and he smelled so damn good. I could have stayed there forever.
“Are you all right, Oliver?” Robert asked anxiously as he pushed me away from his chest. “God! I thought you were going to fall right in front of the bus!”
I giggled, so happy to see him again that I couldn’t stop grinning. “Of course I’m fine.”
Couldn’t he see it in my face? I was more than fine. I was delirious with happiness.
He shook his head at me at a very territorial way and my planned greeting flew out the window. “But really it’s your fault. I was so excited to see you I missed the kerb.”
He tsk’ed with disapproval. “It’s my fault? Hmm... Seriously though Oliver, you ought to be more careful. I saw you jump off the bus before it stopped. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that is foolhardy and dangerous?”
I looked up in surprise. “No.”
“What?” He looked adorably confused and I thought it would be a good time to kiss him if we were in that way. Unfortunately all I could do was shrug.
“You asked if anyone told me. No one ever did,” I explained. Jumping off the bus was no big deal; I’d done it all the time. I jumped off busses, trains, whatever. It saved time.
Robert looked stumped. His brow creased and he took a moment to continue. “Well, even if no one ever told you, you should know. It’s only sensible … but since no one has told you before, I’m telling you now. Don’t you ever do that again!” His tone had turned decidedly stern.
“OK,” I replied meekly, suddenly crestfallen. I hadn’t expected our meeting to be so unhappy.
He must have seen my face fall because he looked sorry and said in a much gentler tone. “You scared the hell out of me!”
I felt my eyes grow big. “Really?” Somehow that made everything all right again. I felt ridiculously protected and safe.
“Yeah, well … Look, I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
I was melting fast. “Are you sorry now?”
He narrowed his eyes at me and smiled. “No, I am not sorry for wanting you to be safe.”
I decided to flap my eyelashes at him. “Aren’t you glad I came? You’ve done nothing but scold.” I matched my fluttering eyes with a cute pout and a sexy smile that I had cultivated over the years. The look says docile and saucy at the same time. Most men could not resist it, especially with a hip thrust thrown in.
Robert’s eyes traveled to the hip all right, and he grinned. “Get in the truck, you scamp!”
I swung those hips outrageously as I walked to the truck. I couldn’t resist teasing Robert. “You didn’t answer me.”
“What was your question again?” he asked innocently, climbing in next to me. When he turned to look at me, I wilted at the twinkle in his eyes. They were gorgeous!
“I asked if you were glad to see me.”
Robert smiled. “What a silly question to ask.”
“That’s not an answer,” I complained.
Robert turned the ignition and slowly pulled the truck off the side of the road. I thought I saw him hide a smirk.
“Am I being ignored?” I voiced out loud.
“I know exactly what you are doing, Oliver.”
“Oh, do you?” I was beginning to enjoy this. He was flirting back with me! “What am I doing?”
Robert took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at me. “You know, you really can be a handful sometimes.”
I laughed. “But I make you laugh! Admit it.”
We continued baiting one another all the way to the house. Robert seemed much more relaxed. He had always been polite but I thought he was now actually in high spirits. Perhaps with his business deal and sale behind him, he had loosened up. Surreptitiously I looked him over – even his dressing was different. He looked great in his faded jeans and work shirt with the rolled-up sleeves. His blue eyes were open and glowing and he was even sexier than I remembered. How strange that I should feel so totally at ease with him. Perhaps it was because during the short time apart I had gone beyond mere friendship by imagining all kinds of cozy scenes between us. Perhaps in my fantasies he and I were already …
“Here we are!” Robert announced.
I shook myself out of my reverie. I followed Robert into the house, clutching my small bag and Stewart’s big jacket. We didn’t see Aimes anywhere around. Good! I was in no hurry to meet him again.
“You’ve got the same room as before,” Robert said. “Can you find it?”
I looked at him. “Would you like to help me find it?”
He laughed and for a moment I thought he was going to swat me. I held my breath. Instead he pointed up the stairs and said, “go!”
I quickly went and put my bags down in the room. The bed was made up and the drawers were clean and empty. I methodically and neatly put my few things in and then sat down on the bed to think. This trip had a lot hanging on it. My life forward would be determined one way or another. I was twenty one already. I had wasted too much time and I had nothing to show. No money. No home. No lover. If this didn’t work out, I wasn’t sure what I would do. I suppressed the feeling of panic and brought out the image of Simon again. I saw his lined face and sometimes sad, sometimes whimsical smile. Like he wished he could take me with him but knew it was just a dream. I still missed him but not so desperately lately. Was I beginning to lose him too?
Before the panic could consume me, I got up and stalked out of the room with a jaunty air. I ran down the stairs and jumped the last few steps, then quickly looked around to see if Robert had seen me. Would he consider that foolhardy and dangerous too?
I saw him outside talking to Aimes and another man I did not recognize. I went out to them, feeling a little awkward. Suddenly I felt like an intruder.
“Oh there you are,” Robert said with a smile. He waved me over. “Come meet Andy. And you know Aimes already.”
We all said hello, Aimes with his usual grunt. His eyes pierced into me and I tried not to squirm. God! That man was impossible.
“W-what do you want me to do?” I asked timidly, all of a sudden daunted by the unfamiliar ground I was on. What did I know about house repairs, especially in a big rambling place like this? I lived either in back-room squalor or stylishly sophisticated condominiums.
“So you ready to start work?” Robert asked.
I eyed Andy and the heavy bag he had slung over his shoulder. He looked really professional. “I guess, but … you will need to show me …” I said haltingly.
“OK, here’s the plan,” Robert said, obviously in charge because of the way the other two men responded to him. “We need to prepare this part of the house and make it ready for painting by next weekend.” He was apparently addressing me, so I too paid attention. “We are going to scrape away the blistered paint and sand it to bare wood. The wood needs to be completely dry before we paint, that’s why we are doing this way ahead. Understand?”
“Yeah,” I tried to look interested.
“Good,” Robert said optimistically. He turned to Andy. “Did you order the latex paint, Andy? WHITE.” He said the last word with extra emphasis and a crooked smile. What was so funny about white paint, I thought to myself.
Andy nodded. “Yeah, I did. We can pick it up this weekend when we go into town for supplies. That will give us plenty of time to check and repair any loose or missing caulking around windows and doors. Do you want to consider providing siding ventilation?”
I stopped paying attention to the discussion at that point and concentrated on Robert instead. He spoke with ease and put a hand on Andy’s back and I wished he would do the same to me. I wondered when we were due to take a break. Would he take me for a walk if I asked, I wondered. And then I became aware of Aimes looking at me, grimly I thought. I knew all about his dislike of strangers but did he resent me there?
I heaved a sigh of relief when Aimes moved away and Andy began to show me how to scrape. I worked steadily, keeping a look out for Robert. I saw him every now and then but mostly it was only me and Andy around that part of the house. Aimes was totally missing.
I was so glad when Robert came over and said we were done for the day. He looked over my work and nodded his head. “OK, that’s fine. You’ll do better tomorrow, now that you’ve got the hang of it.”
“I’m doing the same thing tomorrow?” I asked with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
“Oh there’s more to do on the other side of the house. Are you OK with this? This is the easiest job I can find, Oliver. “Robert looked troubled.
“Yeah, I was just asking.” I didn’t want Robert to feel bad. Besides the job was more boring than difficult, but it was nice that he asked and sounded so concerned. “So um, since we’re done, would you want to go for a walk before dinner?” I blurted out.
Robert hesitated. “Well, I usually help Aimes out with dinner. And you ought to be tired today. Why don’t you go take a shower instead, and then come give us a hand in the kitchen. We’ll do the walk another day?”
I shrugged, trying not to show my disappointment. “All right.”
Andy and I took turns in the bathroom. The shower did refresh me and I found I was ravenous by the time we sat down at the kitchen table. I hadn’t been eating well and I had dropped a few pounds when I last stepped on Marcus’ bathroom scales. That worried me. My jeans would no longer be such a tight fit if I kept this up, and I couldn’t afford to buy any more clothes. I had to put back on those pounds.
Robert smiled at me when I piled my plate with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, skipping the peas. “Hungry?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “This smells great!”
“Aimes’ specialty,” Andy said. “First time I had it, I couldn’t get enough either. His southern fried chicken is even better than my wife’s!”
I looked over at Aimes, not at all surprised to see his wooden expression. Did nothing ever get to him – be it praise or criticism? He caught my eye before I could look away and nodded at my plate. “Put some peas on your plate as well.”
My jaw dropped. Had the great man just spoken? To me?
When I didn’t move, Robert began to spoon a generous amount of peas onto my plate. I looked down with dismay at the little green balls next to the crunchy chicken and fluffy potatoes. I hated peas! They tasted vile but no way was I going to protest or disobey Aimes, especially not at the dinner table and in front of people. From what I had gathered, Aimes had a whole set of rules by which he lived and they were all horridly strict – according to Marcus. Unfortunately those rules also extended to everyone staying at Willcott house. That included me now but luckily I knew all about house rules so I wasn’t too frazzled. I had grown up with rules, much harsher than any I’ve yet to see around these people. I had learnt this lesson well in order to survive. You don’t flaunt house rules; you stay within the limits you were given. You obeyed instantly and with a smile. You did all that uncomplainingly if you want a good life. You did all that in exchange for food and shelter and a warm bed and hopefully a little bit of affection. And you are always respectful to the person who has the power to throw you out. In this case that would be Aimes.
When we came to the end of the meal, all it took was one look from Aimes and I scooped all those little green balls left on my plate and swallowed them.
I checked over the bag of tools and removed the hammer, staple gun, hacksaw and chisels before handing it to Oliver. The rest looked safe enough. A couple of days ago he had hammered one of his fingers on a plank and the next day he had almost sawed off a slice of his hand. Luckily both incidents had not been serious but I thought that had been enough warning and quickly re-evaluated his job scope. He was relegated to mostly sweeping, fetching and stacking. Today he wanted something a little more challenging and so I issued him a new job.
“Go through the bag and sort it out. That’s a tool box and I want you organize the nails and screws and tiny bits and pieces in there – see them? - a lot of those were thrown in or just fell out of their compartments. I want you to sort them out and then put them back into the compartments they came from. Understand?”
He looked into the tool box thoughtfully. “That’s all I’m supposed to do?”
“Yes, that’s all I want you to do.”
“I can do more.”
“I know you can but I’d rather you don’t go anywhere near dangerous tools.”
“Huh?” he looked up at me uncertainly, flicking the hair out of his eyes. They were slightly longer than when I first met him and it made him look younger, more vulnerable.
“Oliver, you have to stop giving me heart attacks.” I reached out and impulsively ruffled his brown hair.
His eyes sparkled and before I knew it, he had flung himself at me. I reacted by quickly putting my arms around him, as much out of reflex as to steady both of us. Immediately his arms tightened around me and without a word he reached up and kissed me on my lips.
When I didn’t return the kiss, he dropped his hands and stood back. His head went down but he peeped up at me in a very mischievous way and I found myself laughing. “What was that for?”
The corners of his mouth curled into an impish smile. “Just my way of saying thanks.”
“For not wanting a heart attack?” I asked mockingly, in an effort to appear nonchalant. The kiss – right smack on the lips – had taken me aback.
“For looking out for me,” he replied simply. “For being so kind and patient.”
I was tongue-tied. Looking after Oliver’s welfare and safety had come naturally. I wasn’t sure how he perceived it but I would have done the same for any young man working under my supervision. Perhaps I was over-reacting. With the kind of past Oliver had, a kiss could be nothing more than a way of saying thanks.
“You’re welcome,” I said, rather lamely.
“I’ll have this done in an hour,” he promised, with another flashing smile. I had to admit he was extremely engaging and any man would find him hard to resist. Even in his overlarge shirt and grubby jeans he oozed sex appeal and his kiss had been … hmm, very sweet. Clearing my throat, I slapped him on the back, in a friendly but impersonal manner. “Take your time,” I murmured.
I left Oliver to his task, and went in search of Aimes. He was in the laundry room, putting a freshly washed batch of clothes into the dryer. “There you are,” I said. I had reached a rather comfortable level of understanding with him and when we were alone our conversation was easy and casual. “Can I help?”
He continued to pile the clothes into the dryer without pausing. “I am almost done.”
“Good! In that case would you be able to give me a hand this afternoon?
“What do you need?”
“Well, I was planning to go check the weather stripping around the windows and doors at the games room – see if any repairs are necessary.”
“That’s not in the quote.”
“I know Aimes,” I said with a sigh. “The quote was for the main house but I see no point doing a half-baked job when the games room is part of the property. I realize that structure is relatively new compared to the main house but we need to watch for any kind of damage around the home and the games room is included in that sense. Come on Aimes, don’t be such a stickler on this. You know how I work.” I walked over to him – close enough to make him stop and look at me. “I’m not petty about things like this and you are not going to make me.”
He glared at me for a moment and I stood my ground. Strange how he no longer intimidated me. Slowly he shook his head. His mouth relaxed. “So you intend to clean out every one of the damn drains and ditches around the grounds too, and you want me to help you with those as well I suppose?”
I laughed. “Yes, why not?” I teased. “Plus the gardens and vegetable patch and whatever else that may be growing dangerously close to the house. So will you come with me?”
“I sent him to collect the paint. Stewart and the rest will be here this weekend; I want to make sure there’s no mistake and they’ve sent us … the right kind of white.”
Aimes’ mouth twisted into a wry smile. “What about Oliver? Can’t he help you?”
I raised my brows at his brisk tone.
“He’s busy doing something else.”
Aimes snapped the lid of the dryer down with a snap and turned to me. His eyes bored into mine. He had been quick to offer help in the past – I couldn’t quite understand his hesitation?
Changing my tone, I said softly, “Aimes, I am asking you to help.”
His brows drew together but he replied with a small nod, “Fine. Let’s go.”
I had never been inside the games room before and I looked around it with interest. It was not a big place but was very cozy and could easily accommodate half a dozen sleeping bags besides the few comfortable sofa beds placed around the room. Aimes explained that this place was opened only for the summer months. Stewart had mentioned earlier that the place was usually full during summer so I guess they rented the place out for the holidays and made some money with that. That would account for keeping Aimes there as caretaker. Not wanting to pry further, I refrained from asking any questions.
Aimes waited with his arms crossed over his chest while I checked all the window and door frames for rot or termites. Undeterred by him, I bent to inspect the locks and hinges as well, refusing to let him rush me. I didn’t realize he was standing right behind me and when I got up, we bumped into one another and I almost lost my balance. He put out a hand at once to stop me tripping and I spontaneously held onto his arm for support.
“I’m sorry …” I apologized, and then realized Aimes’ hand was still on my shoulder. It was warm and heavy and I liked the feel of it there. I looked at him and found him studying me, a slight flush on his cheeks.
“You ok?” he asked, as he slowly withdrew his hand.
“Um. Yeah. Did I step on you – or something?” I asked, all of a sudden feeling a little awkward.
“No,” Aimes replied, moving away already. I suddenly missed the nearness of the man. “Everything in order?” Ready to go?” he asked quizzically, one eyebrow raised.
“Yeah, this place is fine. You’ve done a good job maintaining it, as usual.” I said with a laugh. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s my job to check. Anyway, no surprises here. You know, I like this room.” I suddenly wished we could stay longer. I could still feel the imprint of Aimes’ hand on my arm. “This place is cozy.”
Did I sound like an idiot - trying to prolong the visit?
“Get’s cold in winter. We didn’t put in much insulation.”
“We could fix that, you know.”
Aimes grunted and came as close to rolling his eyes as he could. “Yeah, right.”
He went out and I regretfully followed him. I couldn’t resist baiting him as I watched him lock up the place again. “What? You’re afraid I’d have to stay longer? You can’t wait to get rid of me?”
Aimes shot me a look, part amusement, part severe. “Why would you want to stay here longer? Don’t you have someplace better to be?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. I’d just sold my business as you are aware and really I am at loose ends. I told Stewart I was ready to step out of my comfort zone and explore the world beyond my safe limits.” I glanced over at the harsh-lined face next to me. “What about you?
“What about me?” he shot back.
“Don’t you have someplace better to be, or are you content to be here?”
Aimes continued with his long swift stride up the path towards the main house. “Here is fine.”
“Hmm.” It was my turn to grunt. He could be so frustratingly uncommunicative sometimes. “Do you ever get out of here, like visit Stewart – or Philip? What about any family?”
I saw him shake his head.
“Not even for a short break, take a holiday? Just for a change of scene?”
“No reason to.”
All right, I got the picture. I couldn’t go beyond that; it would be snooping into affairs that had nothing to do with me. Aimes obviously did not want to share so I shut up and we walked the rest of the way silently. I glanced at him a few times and saw his face had closed.
When we reached the house we found Oliver and Andy unloading the last of the paint from the truck.
“Hey,” I called out. “All in order, Andy?”
“Yeah.” Andy waved at us. “All checked. That’s a heck of a lot of white paint!”
“Yes, I can see that.” I smiled at Aimes, who snorted under his breath and disappeared into the house without a word.
Chuckling to myself, I turned to Oliver, who had come up to me.
“I finished organizing the tool box,” Oliver announced. “So I helped Andy and I didn’t drop a single can.” He grinned mischievously at me. “No accidents today.”
“That’s good Oliver,” I grinned back at him. I resisted the impulse to ruffle his hair again. “So looks like we’re done for the day, boys?”
“Yes boss,” Andy said, stretching his back. “Tomorrow we do all the final touch-ups and you guys should be able to paint by this weekend. I’d say this project went very smoothly.”
Andy was leaving Saturday and I wanted to thank him for his help. “Couldn’t have done it without you Andy! Good job!”
“No problem, Robert. Any time you need a hand, just give me a call. It’s a shame you sold your business; we all enjoyed working in your unit.” He cleared his throat noisily and his voice was husky when he spoke again. “But me and the boys, we understand. Everyone needs to move on I guess. Um. I’ll go give the truck a wash – roads were damn dusty.”
He strode off towards the parked vehicle, leaving me alone with Oliver.
I waited till Andy had gone and then looked expectantly at Robert.
“What is it?” he asked suspiciously.
“You don’t have any excuses now for not taking that walk with me,” I said with a sweet smile.
He hooted with laughter. “Who says I need an excuse?” I caught him glancing into the house for a moment before saying cheerfully, “walk to the lake?”
“Yes, but doesn’t matter where really,” I replied, walking jauntily ahead. It really didn’t matter so long as I was with Robert.
I was pleased to see him chewing on that remark as he followed my lead. Good! I wanted to pass him that subtle message. The day was fast winding down and the weather had turned decidedly colder in the evenings than my last visit. We should have grabbed a jacket or we wouldn’t be able to stay out long.
As if reading my thoughts, Robert said, “We can’t go too far, you know. It gets dark quickly now and I know Aimes is hyped about people wandering around, especially after dark.”
I turned back with a challenging look in my eyes. “Is that important to you?”
“What? That we not be out wandering after dark? Yes, I don’t think that is wise. Neither of us are that familiar with these parts. Could be unsafe!”
I snorted. “No! Doing what Aimes wants.”
That was a good question. I wanted to know what Robert thought of Aimes. I had seen the two of them together. They seemed so comfortable with one another; I had wondered if there was anything going on, though frankly I couldn’t imagine Aimes having any sort of close relationship with anyone.
“Well,” Robert said lightly, “Aimes is our host in a way. We should respect his wishes and his rules even. And he is a very sensible man even though he doesn’t say much.”
“He is so unapproachable!” I complained. I slowed down so Robert could catch up. “Don’t you think so?”
A shadow fell over Robert’s face and his tone was careful. “He’s a hard man to know but I strongly believe that underneath that hard and perhaps cold exterior – to those who don’t know him - beats a warm heart.” He smiled at me brightly, and switched topics. “So how are you enjoying your stay here so far? Bored already?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t liked Robert’s reply and my mind was busy analyzing the response.
“So … let me guess,” he continued with a chuckle, “that shrug says you don’t mind it here, but you’re not that hot about the arrangement either. Am I close?”
“Yes, that is close. You’re very smart!” Robert’s eyes were on me and so I conjured up a smile. “I’ve actually learnt a lot from you the last few days. Your work quality is exceptional! But most of all, I like the way you treat me.”
“The way I treat you?” he echoed. “What do you mean?”
“You are patient and explain things carefully so that I understand. When something goes wrong, you don’t yell or curse or make me feel stupid. You are … so kind always. But most of all you treat me with respect.”
He stared at me, as if he didn’t understand. “You should always expect to be treated with respect. If anyone does not, you don’t have to stand for it.”
My head dropped. “Well …I …” I murmured softly. How would he even begin to understand?
“Hey,” he said, and I felt him touch my cheek and then his finger tilted my chin upwards so that I could look straight into his eyes. They were sad and smiling at the same time and my stomach lurched and I felt my toes and fingers tingle.
“Hey,” I said back to him and without thinking, I closed the gap between us and kissed him again. It was pure reflex and based on some primal need. Ever since the earlier kiss that afternoon, I had wanted to do it again. I had secretly savored his lips on mine all afternoon. He wasn’t shocked this time but when I stepped back, he didn’t stop me. “You didn’t like that?” I asked, trying not to show my disappointment.
He had a lop-sided smile on his face. “You’re a really good kisser,” he said. “But I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that! All your movements, everything about you is very eye-catching actually. I wonder if you knew how much.”
I hadn’t lived on the streets on my own for years without picking up vibes and nuances. I had heard a hundred pick-up lines and a hundred more rebuffs. Robert was such a gentleman; he couldn’t even come straight to the point for fear of hurting me. I knew where this was going.
“You have such grace when you move - it is difficult not to admire you.”
I stood still and waited. Dying a little inside.
I made myself look Robert in the eye and produce a smile which I had practiced often - light and teasing and seductive. It was one of my best defenses. “Careful Robert. You are on dangerous grounds. I may not be able to control myself if you say any more.”
He refused to take my bait and his tone remained serious. “You are an extremely attractive young man and by some great stroke of good fortune you seem to … like me. Is that close too?”
I swallowed hard, still holding the smile but I suspect it had lost a little of the brilliance. “Oh, I so love hearing praises of myself. Do continue.”
Robert fidgeted and then took a step forward to put both hands on my shoulder and I felt so trapped. Oh God! His fingers were burning me and I wished I could turn and run away.
“Listen Oliver … I don’t know …” he began in a soft whisper. That crushed me.
I twisted free. “Stop!”
“Please don’t say any more.” I faked a laugh. “Robert, did I come on too strong? God, it’s just for fun. You know? I hope you didn’t think it was anything serious? Oh my God! You really thought …”
Leaving my sentence hanging, I threw my head back and rolled my eyes. I must have succeeded in appearing apologetically horrified because Robert stepped back looking both troubled and sheepish.
“Oliver, please … I - I didn’t mean … what I am trying to say is ….”
I cut him off. “Can I be honest with you, Robert?”
“Well,” I batted my eyelashes at him. “Its been a long time … a really long time since I’d had … you know … and I thought you might be interested?”
Robert stared at me without a word.
Lowering my voice, I said with all the seduction I could muster. “For a man your age, you’re oozing sex appeal. It would be no hardship at all for me … if you know what I mean. I just thought we could enjoy ourselves a little? No strings attached whatsoever! So what say you?”
Robert looked upset. He was shaking his head and struggling for words and I felt fiercely glad that he was put on the spot, and at the same time devastated.
“No, this is not right. I … you shouldn’t …”
Quickly stepping into the gap, I shrugged and said with careless nonchalance. “Hey, it’s just a casual suggestion. Don’t make such a big deal out of it please! I’ve had a few rejections in the past … though I have to say most had been eager to jump at my offer.” I winked at him. “Extremely eager in fact!”
“Please don’t say that,” Robert cut in.
“Why not? It’s the truth!”
“It wouldn’t be a casual thing for me, Oliver,” Robert said in a thick voice. He was looking increasingly distressed.
My heart had settled somewhere in my gut, barely beating. “Well, I hope I didn’t lead you on …”
“No, no,” Robert mumbled. He threw his hands up in a helpless gesture. “Oliver, this is coming out all wrong. Look, you know I find you attractive too.”
“Do you? Great! Then let’s have sex!”
Robert looked ready to explode. “Oliver!”
“What? I’m just asking a question. Do you want to have sex or not? You won’t regret it I promise! I am considered quite …”
“For heaven’s sakes! Stop. You don’t go around offering yourself to people … “
“Why not?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with a quick fuck, especially between friends?”
“What has gotten into you?” he snapped at me. “Why are you behaving like this?”
“Like what? This is the real me, Robert,” I spat. “What? Did you think I am some chaste porcelain doll, all pure and white and virginal?” I laughed loudly.
He shook his head, looking bewildered. “No, this is not you. I know you and you’re not fooling me. I – I am sorry … if I hurt you in any way ...”
“Oh please!” I snorted loudly. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“I’m not.” He looked hurt and I felt sorry for a split second.
I shrugged, with no idea where to go. It wasn’t the first time I’d faced rejection but damn if this didn’t hurt the most. Inwardly I was cringing. “So I’m not your type. That’s ok. We don’t have to make this into prime-time drama you know.”
Robert’s lips folded into a tight line. “Are you quite done? Have you had enough?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I was sure I was pouting by then.
“I think you do.”
He was looking grim and I had never seen him cross much less grim. I quaked inside but since I had come so far, I thought I might as well finish the race.
“How the hell would I know what you mean? I don’t know you at all!” I could feel myself losing it, unable to control my voice. It was certainly quite loud and brash. I tried to produce another of those vulgar snorts but I think I failed miserably. It came out more like a sarcastic grimace.
“Calm down Oliver.”
“Robert, all I suggested is a casual fuck. Why are you making this into such a big deal? Hasn’t anyone ever propositioned you before? Haven’t you ever done it with some stranger just for kicks? And for Christsakes!” I shrieked, “I AM CALM!”
Robert blinked hard. “Look … this is going nowhere. OK, all right - if you need to get it out of your system – then just go right ahead and … and say whatever you need to say, and perhaps then we can talk … rationally?”
“There’s nothing to talk about!” I almost screamed at him. Thank God we were miles away and no one could hear us.
“Oliver, stop it!” he ordered, apparently losing it too. I never thought he could be so stern.
Part of me wanted to obey the command, find refuge in it and to let him take charge. Unfortunately another part, the stronger part at this juncture, wanted to rebel. “You don’t get to order me around. You don’t tell me to stop. You don’t tell me to do anything! I don’t belong to you!”
He tried to grab my hands but I brushed them off and turned and ran back to the house.
Dinner was a miserable affair. Oliver refused to look at me. He kept his eyes down and just shoveled the food into his mouth. I was afraid he would choke. I was on the verge of saying something when Aimes spoke up.
The boy’s eyes darted up and he stared at Aimes with bulging cheeks.
“There’s no race or time limit. Slow down and chew your food.”
Oliver did not look like he liked the reprimand or the interference. His eyes blazed with indignation.
“Or I will cut your food up for you and feed you – would you prefer that instead?”
A bright red spread over Oliver’s face and he gritted his teeth, but he shook his head mutely and made a point of chewing his food with his eyes fixed on his plate. It was painful to watch but I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to say something to him but was afraid any word or action from me would make things worse. After what I had witnessed that afternoon, I wouldn’t be surprised any meddling on my part would elicit an explosion from him.
Andy looked at all of us and silently finished his meal, then excused himself. “May as well start my packing,” he said coolly, and swiftly exited the kitchen with an apple.
Once he had cleared his plate, Oliver got up and put his plate in the sink and then ran up the stairs. Aimes looked grim but did not stop him. I watched him go, unsure if I should follow and perhaps try to make amends. I had no clue what I should say to him or how to get through to him, but I thought I could at least try. To some extent, this was my fault, or at least the result of something caused by me. I had mulled over it in my head over and over again – had I given Oliver the wrong signals? Had I somehow, unwittingly, misled him?
“Let him be by himself for a while,” Aimes said calmly as he began to clear the kitchen table.
I sucked in my breath. Not knowing how to answer Aimes, I mechanically began to wipe down the kitchen table and counter tops while Aimes tackled the washing. It was our usual routine and it helped to calm my nerves. Aimes put the kettle on when he was done and by the time I came back from putting the trash out, he had a cup of coffee ready for me.
With tacit agreement we walked out to the back porch and sat down on the steps. The light from the kitchen streamed out weakly, casting our faces in shadows. For the first time since meeting Aimes, he took the initiative to start the conversation. “He’ll be all right once he calms down.”
I didn’t even try to pretend not to understand. Relieved to have someone I could openly talk to, I turned to face Aimes. “Something happened this afternoon – when we were out walking.”
Aimes’ eyes were hooded; in the dim light I had no way of reading him or guessing what he was thinking. “I gathered that much,” he said dispassionately. His voice was calm and even though he did not pry, I suddenly felt the urge to unburden.
“He – propositioned me!” I blurted out.
I saw Aimes’s brows rose slightly. “Propositioned?”
“Yeah.” I paused, frowning at Aimes.
Did I need to explain further, go into details?
“Why does he need to proposition you?” He looked questioningly at me. “Don’t the two of you have some sort of understanding?”
I shook my head firmly. “No! We’re just friends.”
“Didn’t look like just friends to me this afternoon when he kissed you,” he said dryly.
Shit! So he saw.
“When … oh you mean earlier on the porch? Well, that wasn’t what it looked like … that took me by surprise. I didn’t know he was going to do that.”
I felt my cheeks flush. Suddenly it was important that Aimes did not misunderstand. I hastened to explain. “We were just talking and I was teasing him and he suddenly reached up and kissed me. It was totally unexpected. That was the first time so don’t go thinking it’s happened before or it happens all the time. It’s not like we’ve been having a relationship or anything. Like I said, we’re just friends. Nothing more.”
“You don’t believe me?” I asked, nettled by his tone.
“None of my business.”
“Well I’m telling you, whether or not it’s your business!” I said a little hotly. It bothered me that he was being so indifferent about this. “I don’t have a thing for him.”
Aimes drank his coffee before saying, “It’s pretty obvious he’s got a thing for you. Nothing wrong if there’s something more. Is there?”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking if there was something more or if I agreed with him. All I knew was that I needed to set him straight. “Aimes, he’s a kid. He just turned twenty-one. I’m more than twenty years older! I could be his dad! Really, I regard him like I would Marcus or Ben. Someone I would take care of because he needs someone to look over him, not because I had other intentions or ulterior motives.”
“The difference is he’s single.”
“He’s a baby.”
“He’s certainly no baby.”
“Well, he is to me. I’m no cradle snatcher!”
“He’s an adult, who has been around and he knows exactly what he wants and how to go about it. He came out here looking for you – in case you’re too dense to realize that.”
I bit my lip. “I suspected that as well.”
Aimes nodded. “No reason why you shouldn’t feel something for him.”
“Well I don’t.”
“He’s a looker; he knows how to flaunt it too.”
I grinned at Aimes. “So you noticed! Well, you are single as well.” I let the words hang in between us.
Aimes drained his coffee and put the mug down on the step between us. “Don’t be stupid,” he snapped softly.
“He not your type?” I asked softly.
“Well, what’s your type then?” I probed. I could make out a ghost of a smile on Aimes’ lips as he stared straight ahead. He looked suddenly different. I nudged him with my elbow. “Well?”
He looked at me with stern eyes but I was not fooled; he was secretly amused. “I don’t have a type,” he said shortly. And then he shot back at me. “What’s yours?”
Miraculously the conversation had turned and it was all about us. Oliver was forgotten for the moment. The awkwardness of my situation melted away, became suspended in time. Instead there was suddenly an invisible tension between Aimes and me – but in a good way. We seemed to be locked in a motionless dance, each testing the other’s strength.
I smiled and leaned back, with both my elbows resting on the step behind me. Our feet rested on the step below, and our knees were bent and almost touching.
“Well … let me think … “I peered at him. “I would say mature and independent. Guarded so that he didn’t give away too many secrets. I like that. Wouldn’t hurt if he were a trifle friendlier, but I can live with that once I get through the facade. It’s all a front.”
He snorted rudely.
Undeterred, I continued. “Warm. He would need to have a warm heart. That’s very important. I like a kind heart. It’s ok if it’s hidden. Just so long as I know its there.”
“What a load of crap!” Aimes murmured but he was smiling too.
“Hey, you asked!”
His smile broadened. I wish there was enough light so I could see him properly. I moved my knee so that it touched his. “Come on, your turn.”
To my surprise I felt the pressure as his knee pressed back against me.
“I have long given up looking,” he said, and his voice was tinged with sadness.
I felt my jaw clench at his tone. “You shouldn’t give up, Aimes.”
“You don’t know.”
“No, you’re right – I don’t. Tell me.”
He sighed and shifted so that our knees were no longer pressed together. His voice was hollow. “Why go back? There’s nothing there.”
I turned and faced him. “Ok. Then we don’t have to go there. Just go forward.”
His chest expanded and deflated. He looked undecided. Impulsively I reached out and touched him on the arm. “You don’t strike me as a man who is afraid of anything.”
“You don’t know me all that well.”
My grip tightened. “There’s always a starting point.” I looked into his eyes, searching for a sign. Finally I let out a shaky laugh. “I’ll come clean too. I am also afraid. This isn’t something I do all the time. This is pretty new for me.”
“Sure could have fooled me,” he said with a crooked smile.
I grinned back at him and felt myself leaning forward, as if propelled by a hidden force. Our eyes locked when our faces were inches apart. My heart was beating so hard I thought I was going deaf.
“Aimes,” I whispered his name.
Then deliberately he lifted one hand and put it on the back of my neck, pulling me towards him. My eyes closed as our lips touched. It was a gentle kiss, just lips on lips. We stayed that way for a moment, unmoving. The truth was it felt surreal to me. I could do the talking, and the reasoning and those parts were fine. But now that it was getting physical, I wondered if I had waded into waters too deep.
I waited for Aimes to make the next move.
He tilted his head slightly to the side and kissed me again. It felt different from this angle; our mouths fit better like that. Involuntarily my lips parted to meet Aimes’. The kiss deepened. We shifted so we could get closer, ignoring the mug which had been knocked over and was rolling away. His hand stayed on my neck, guiding me, pulling me inwards to him as if he was sucking me in. I groaned when we finally broke apart.
I breathed heavily. “Wow.”
He grinned. “It’s been a while for me too.”
Suddenly hungry for more, I leaned forward again and this time it was as natural as the rain. We came together and I found Aimes ready for me. At some point, his mouth left mine and he was kissing my eyes and cheek and my jaw line. I moaned as I threw my head back and Aimes moved smoothly down to nip at my throat.
We stayed on the back porch steps a long time that night, like two horny teenagers necking and smooching in between long conversations. I had no idea what we talked about. I did however find out how hard Aimes’ muscles were, and not just his arms. His chest was tight and his stomach incredibly flat and hard. And when I placed my hand on his thigh, I experienced a jolt of pleasure at the strength of his muscles. And the promise of more to come. By the time we decided we should go back into the house and catch a few hours of sleep, both our lips were chafed and swollen.
Aimes slept downstairs and we parted at his bedroom door.
“Good night,” he whispered into my ear and pulled me to him. I went easily, cleaving to his body, fitting well together. With our arms around one another we kissed as eagerly as before, comfortably open mouthed. Aimes’ tongue darted into my mouth and I welcomed it.
“OK, stop,” I panted. Reluctantly we pulled apart, breathing hard. This was getting dangerous. It was too convenient and too tempting. “I better go before I cannot,” I said with a teasing smile.
Aimes nodded his head. “Go and get some sleep or you’ll be useless tomorrow. We still have work to do.”
“I am already useless!” I groaned as loudly as I dared. In the stillness, sound traveled and Andy was a light sleeper. “Promise me we’ll get some time together tomorrow?”
“We’ll have to work something out.” Aimes chuckled.
I couldn’t resist planting another kiss on Aimes’ mouth before tearing myself away. “Good night.”
Resolutely I walked away and up the stairs, as Aimes watched me from his bedroom door.
“Where are you going?”
I jumped out of my skin. I spun around and found Aimes at the doorway, observing me.
“I … um …”
I had been throwing my things into my bag haphazardly, totally uncharacteristic of how I usually packed. But I didn’t care. After a night tossing and turning I had decided that I wanted to get away. How I was to do that I didn’t know. I thought perhaps I could walk to the town and from there take a bus.
“I asked you a question.”
Aimes advanced into the room and I involuntarily moved further back, putting as much distance between us as possible. He strolled over to the bed and peered into my open bag.
“I am still waiting for an answer.”
I said the first thing that came into my head. “I need to go … meet a friend.”
“And what do you think this is? A motel?”
“Sit down!” He ordered sharply and I found myself sitting where he pointed.
He glared down at me. Feeling intimidated, I peered up at him from under my lashes and was shocked to see the gentleness in his eyes. I blinked at him.
“First things first,” Aimes said, standing in front of me as if he was giving me a lecture. “You are not going anywhere. Stewart put you in my charge and until I get his ok, you stay put. Is that clear?”
I sputtered. “I don’t have to do what Stewart says! He’s not my guardian and besides I am twenty one already! I don’t need a …”
I pressed my lips together.
“Running away is not going to help, Oliver.”
I felt the burn at the back of my eyes.
“I don’t know what you are talking about?” I said sourly.
“I’ve had a string of young ‘uns like you come stay here under my charge and so far I’ve not lost a single one of them. That’s not gonna start with you.”
“I’m not one of your young ‘uns! I don’t belong here.”
We both turned at the knock on the door. “Can I interrupt?”
Robert was standing there, a look of concern on his face. How long had he been there, I wondered?
Aimes moved aside as Robert entered looking at me. I averted my eyes and hung my head. Two big men crowding my space and looming over me was not how I wanted to start my day. “Can I be alone please?” I asked, with no real hope of being obeyed.
I heard Robert murmur something to Aimes and then Aimes left the room, pulling the door close as he exited. My throat constricted in a moment of panic. I didn’t want to be alone with Robert in my room!
“Please leave,” I mumbled, eyes on my toes.
To my horror, Robert came and sat down beside me.
I shook my head, hating myself for being so stupid. For behaving like an idiot. This was not the way I handled things. I had had plenty of bad situations before but I always managed to stay above them. I could always think straight and I always followed the logical course. I couldn’t understand why this was different but I just couldn’t help it.
“Oliver, can you please look at me?”
I looked up and some of the anger melted. Robert was still Robert and I also couldn’t help the way I felt for him, perhaps would always feel for him. The truth of the matter was I knew and believed Robert was a decent man. He wouldn’t set out to hurt me intentionally; he just wasn’t interested in me.
“I’m sorry – for being such a prick,” I said.
“No,” Robert said with a sad smile. “I am the one who should be sorry.”
“Oliver, you came out here to look for me, didn’t you?”
I opened my mouth but no words came out. That was rather direct! Struggling to find a response, I finally settled with “um … I suppose.”
“Well, it did cross my mind. I wasn’t sure and perhaps I should have clarified. Or at least be more sensitive. See, the thing is …” he sighed deeply. “The thing is, it’s very flattering to have a hot, young man like you being interested in an older man like me.”
He was looking at me openly, his eyes clear and candid. I felt pulled into his charisma. “You aren’t that old.”
He smiled. “I could be your dad.”
“I don’t mind,” I assured him. How would he know I was into older men? Look at Simon! Simon could be his dad!
“Well, I do.” Robert reached out and patted my hand. “You have a whole life ahead of you.”
I looked down, disappointed. That was a cop out. I wish he would just say it straight.
Come on Robert, be a man. Say it!
“But even the age gap wouldn’t be a stopper if I felt differently about you Oliver.”
I had wanted him to say it straight but Goddamit! It hurt like hell hearing him utter those words.
“I know,” I muttered. “No big deal. I told you it was just a suggestion …. I just thought we could have a …”
Robert grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “Stop it! Stop it right now. I don’t want you doing this to yourself!”
My eyes filled.
What? I was only protecting myself. What was wrong with that?
I didn’t know what happened next. One minute Robert was shaking me and the next I was in his arms, with my head on his chest. I was sobbing like a baby and he was holding me so tight I thought he would never let go. I hadn’t cried like that since … actually I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried like that. I had shed plenty of tears in the past years but not cried like that. I only realized Robert was stroking my head when the tears finally stopped.
“Oh Oliver … it will be all right.” I heard him murmur.
“Will it?” I sniffled, feeling very small and fragile. “Nothing’s going right.”
“It will – give it time. I promise it will get better.”
“How can you know? What makes you so sure?”
“Have a little faith in me, ok?”
The only one I had faith in was myself. But I didn’t tell him that. He relaxed his arms and I reluctantly pulled away. “Thanks,” I said ruefully.
“For what?” There was that lop-sided smile on his face that made my heart beat faster.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Seemed the polite thing to say after crying all over you. I’ve messed up your shirt.” I looked at the wet patch on the front of his denim shirt.
“You are most welcome,” he said with a chuckle.
“Is it ok if I leave once Stewart gets here? Aimes said he wouldn’t let me go until Stewart comes.”
He immediately shook his head. “Not a good idea, Oliver.”
“You don’t even have any plans on where to go, do you?”
What’s his point?
“I’ll come up with something …”
“I have to agree with Aimes. You are staying put till we have a better plan!”
My brows creased. Why were all these people acting like I couldn’t survive on my own? I’d been doing that since I was fifteen! I said it out loud, with all the confidence I felt. “I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen, you know. I don’t need looking after and I definitely don’t need a plan.”
I could see Robert thinking fast. “Why don’t we wait till Stewart gets here tomorrow? Its just one more day. I will talk to him and we’ll see what’s the best thing to do.”
I bristled with exasperation. “Robert – I am no longer a minor. You can’t stop me from going and I am not your prisoner. And no one needs to decide what’s best for me! I can take care of myself. Been doing it all these years. Nothing’s changed. I can wait one more day if it’s that important to you and Aimes but I’m telling you – I’m going!”
Robert looked at me with frustration. “I think I am beginning to understand why Stewart and Marcus’ relationship works so well. Right at this moment, I could happily spank you!”
I flushed to the roots of my hair.
“I’m sorry,” Robert apologized at once. “I shouldn’t have said that. Our situation is not like theirs at all. It was inappropriate of me and I have no right to compare. But I really do think you need taking in hand, young man!”
I felt a tad dizzy. Being taken in hand by Robert wasn’t half bad, quite appealing actually. How I wished he would! I wanted what Marcus had with Stewart. I had seen the love, and the commitment. I had felt the security it provided. It was wonderful when you could depend on someone to stop you making all those horridly bad decisions. I wanted all that, if not the love part, at least the security.
But could it work if we weren’t lovers? Well, I wasn’t about to ask Robert!
“I’m not a child!” I said sullenly to hide my confusion.
“I know,” Robert said, standing up. He touched my shoulder. “Listen Oliver, whether you believe it or not, I do care about you and I want to make sure you’ll be all right. If I have to flex my muscles and pull authority over you to ensure your safety and wellbeing, I am more than willing to do that. Rights be damned! I know I have no rights, no legal hold over you and I cannot make you do anything against your wishes. But you cannot get to know a person and grow fond of him and then un-know him and un-grow your fondness. “
Oh God – he was gonna make me cry again!
"I am pretty sure Stewart and Marcus and Aimes feel the same and they will all stand by me. So you best get yourself accustomed to the idea that there’ll be a lot of us looking out for you from now on. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you’ve been through. I don’t care how well you’ve done it on your own in the past. You shouldn’t be left alone to figure things out. I … really want to help.”
My jaw was hanging open at the end of that halting speech. It hadn’t been smooth but it had come from his heart. That much I could see. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Is that all you ever say?” Robert’s eyes twinkled.
When I entered the kitchen, Andy was eating breakfast at the kitchen table and Aimes was standing at the stove.
“Good morning,” I said in general.
“Mornin’,” Andy responded brightly, his mouth busy.
I looked at Aimes, hoping to catch his eye. He barely turned. “Morning,” came the mumbled response.
Disappointed, I went over to stand next to him. “Hmm. Whatya cooking?”
We normally had something quick in the mornings like cereal, unless it was the weekend. Occasionally if Aimes felt in the mood he might put in a loaf of bread in the oven early and we would have freshly baked bread. But it looked like he was actually frying eggs this morning.
“Eggs and bacon,” Andy said happily. He swallowed his last mouthful and wiped his mouth. “Great breakfast Aimes. Thanks. I’m really gonna miss this place. The air is so great, makes you hungry all the time.”
I laughed at Andy. “I don’t think it’s the air Andy!” I joked.
Andy got up with a smirk. “You may be right there Robert. OK, I’m done. I’ll go finish up at the back and start preparing the stuff for tomorrow’s painting. We’ll probably need some scaffolding as well.” He took his plate to the sink and then Aimes and I were left alone.
Aimes began to spoon scrambled eggs and strips of bacon onto a plate. I made sure no one was around and placed one hand on Aimes’ hip. “Good morning,” I said again, in a much more personal voice.
Aimes glanced at me. “Feeling particularly good this morning?”
“Yep! Practically on top of the world. I … um, hope you are too?”
He didn’t respond to that, just handed me the plate.
“For me?” I asked. “Is this what I get every morning now instead of cold cereal?”
His lips curled slightly but he moved away from my hand. “Depends.”
It didn’t look like I was going to get much more out of him that morning. I hadn’t really known what to expect. Some awkwardness perhaps? Last night had been special to me and I wanted to catch the magic again, just to convince myself that it was real. But was it magic for Aimes too or was that just a bit of madness? I could see Aimes was being very cautious and distant. My heart sank a little. Maybe he needed some time to get used to what had happened. I didn’t want to think it was a one-time thing, a mistake that even now Aimes was having second thoughts about. That thought actually hurt!
Brooding slightly I went and poured coffee for us and then sat at the table and watched Aimes as he brought his own plate over. I caught Aimes’ eyes and was relieved when he smiled at me. It changed his whole demeanor, made his face softer. I relaxed and wanted to laugh at myself; I was a bundle of nerves as if I were a schoolboy who had just experienced his first kiss at the prom. His earlier reserve had quite unnerved me.
We started to eat.
“Sleep well?” Aimes asked in a low voice which I would soon get to know quite well. It turned my stomach to jelly that morning.
“Like a baby.” Unable to stop myself, I reached over and touched his hand. I craved the physical contact. “What about you?”
His fingers curled around mine for a brief moment and then he let go of my hand. “As usual. So how did it go with Oliver?”
I sighed. “He’s agreed to stay till Stewart gets here tomorrow. We’ll have to work something out. I … somehow feel responsible, you know? We can’t let him go like this. I suspect he has no one to go to. And I don’t like the idea of him going back to …”
“We’ll work something out – Stewart is good with that kind of thing.” Aimes went on calmly eating, his faith in Stewart rock-solid.
I pushed my eggs around my plate and finally asked, “Hey, what’s your plan for today?”
“I thought you ran the schedule around here?” Aimes said mockingly.
I looked back at him tauntingly. “That I do! Well, in that case I think you and I need to check out the games room one more time. I think we missed a few areas yesterday.”
“Oh, did we now?”
“Without a doubt we did.” I nodded my head firmly.
We broke eye contact and tried to look sober as Oliver sauntered into the kitchen. He looked a bit shy so I called out to him cheerily. “Oliver, come eat breakfast. We’re having eggs and bacon this morning.”
Oliver didn’t say much but he ate a hearty meal, probably to make up for his lack of appetite the night before. Aimes was his usual gruff self but he did get up and cracked a couple of eggs into the pan and did a fresh batch of bacon for Oliver. I chatted with Oliver over a variety of inane subjects and he made the effort to carry on a polite conversation with me this time. I had to hand it to the kid; he was handling the situation well. I began to get a glimpse of how tough he really was under the sweet and fragile exterior.
Leaving Aimes and Oliver to finish up in the kitchen, I went out to consult with Andy. I wouldn’t have Andy after today and I had to make sure everything was in place and that we could be ready to get on with the painting the next day. After we’d agreed on the list of things to do, Andy and I both started to clear up all the left over planks and wood and roofing material which we had put aside earlier. It was hot and heavy work and I didn’t want Oliver to get into it so when he came out, I assigned him the task of sweeping the side and back yards and to wash and scrub the kitchen porch.
Aimes pitched in without a word. I noticed he wasn’t wearing any gloves so I took an extra pair and handed it to him. “Here – put these on. You’ll need them for this kind of work Aimes,” I said.
He nodded his thanks without a smile as he pulled the gloves on. No one watching him would ever suspect he had a gentler side or that he could show passion. He hid all emotions under such a strict no-nonsense persona that I would not have believed it myself had I not witnessed it last night at first-hand. I had not only witnessed it, I had participated and reciprocated befittingly. That thought brought a secret smile to my face. I imagined the pressure of Aimes’ mouth on mine and the heat of his hard body seeping into me. With a suppressed groan, I forced my mind back to the job at hand. But throughout the morning, I kept stealing glances at Aimes and enjoyed watching his fluid movements and admiring his butt whenever he bent over. He was powerfully built but you tended to forget that when you saw his animal grace. He exuded raw sexuality to me and it was all I could do to keep my hands to myself.
The three of us had the entire place straightened out by late afternoon. By that time we were all dripping with sweat and covered with dust and filth.
“I need a bath,” Andy announced, wiping his brow on the long sleeve of his shirt.
“I think we’re done!” I looked around appraisingly, satisfied with our progress. “How’s Oliver doing?”
“He finished the yard work so I sent him to do the ironing,” Aimes said. “He’s quick with that and so far he hasn’t burned himself with the iron.”
Andy chuckled softly but Aimes kept a straight face.
“Good,” I said. That should keep Oliver occupied. “Andy, why don’t you go clean up? Take a bath or something. Did you wanna go into town tonight?”
“Of course! That’s tradition! I thought we could have a drink at the pub or something?” Andy suggested. It was our practice to celebrate the end of any project with a drink and a bite to eat. And this being our last job together, I didn’t want to disappoint Andy.
“Yes, good idea! Why don’t we do that? Aimes, up to a nice dinner in town this evening? My treat, as the main contractor.” I looked at Aimes persuasively. I knew his dislike for socializing.
He began to shake his head and I forestalled him. “It’s customary! Part of my obligation as the boss of the unit. You don’t want me to break tradition, do you? Please oblige me?”
“Come on Aimes,” Andy chipped in, slapping Aimes on the arm. “Don’t be a spoil sport. We’ve worked so hard, we deserve a bit of fun. Call it my farewell drink as I’ll be leaving tomorrow you know.”
Between us, Aimes caved. He sourly nodded his head and after Andy had left for his shower, he turned to glare at me. “I am no good socializing and you know that! Why don’t you two go off without me? Take Oliver with you.”
“Ah – Aimes, you know I won’t go without you? Where’s the fun? You are definitely coming and I don’t want to hear any more about this. Now, how about that inspection at the games room? Did you bring the keys?” I wriggled my eyebrows at him and his glare deepened. I hooted with laughter when he held up the bunch of keys. He was obviously prepared.
I waited impatiently while Aimes unlocked the door. I’d been waiting all day for a chance to be alone with him. I looked back over my shoulder, wanting to be sure no one had followed us down here. The coast was clear!
Once we were inside and I heard Aimes turn the lock, I practically jumped him. Dirty and sweaty as we both were, I did not care. I pushed him back against the very door through which we had just come and my mouth was on his in a heartbeat. I heard his hiss of breath as I kissed him. My hands came up on either side of his face and I planted my palms flat on the door. With my body closing in, my face on his, he could not move. He was my prisoner and I enjoyed the conquest.
“Jesus!” I gasped, “I needed to kiss you so bad.” I pulled back slightly to look at him so that I could see his expression.
Aimes took immediate advantage of my reprieve. He jerked himself off the door where I had pinned him and I felt both his hands hold my waist. They were immensely powerful and I felt myself being maneuvered backwards. At the same time, his mouth claimed mine and between meeting his kiss and succumbing to my own emotions, I didn’t realize I was moving backwards till my legs knocked against the sofa back.
“Umph …” I groaned and reached out to grab him as I felt myself tilting backwards, falling against air.
“I got you.”
He held me easily enough, supporting my back and guiding me as I rather clumsily slid down onto the front of the sofa bed. Before I could grasp my bearings, I was lying stretched out on it and Aimes’ weight was on top of me, his face inches away. “Now I’ve got you all right,” he said with a sinister grin.
I could feel the heat rise between us. Our mouths locked again, hungrier than ever. I welcomed his heaviness on me. Our kisses were becoming longer and deeper. His hands moved slowly over my face, and then onto my chest and I stopped breathing altogether as his fingers slipped inside my shift and touched my bare chest.
“That’s not a good idea,” I breathed heavily.
“Why not?” he asked huskily.
“Unless you intend to take this through, I am not going to be able to walk back to the house in any semblance of respectability or dignity. And we do have people up at the house you know?”
Much as I wanted Aimes and to know what it would be like with him, I didn’t want to rush this. We were behaving like a pair of silly sex-crazed teenagers but beneath the fervor I believed we both wanted things to be right. I was glad and sorry when with a grunt Aimes lifted off me and settled back on the sofa. I pulled myself slowly up and we sat together, catching our breaths, bodies touching comfortably.
“So you got me here to taunt me?” Aimes said but I could hear the smile in his voice.
“No. I got you here so I could kiss you.” I turned to him and pulled him to me, kissing him again, hard this time. “And I just did - again. I love doing that.”
“Yeah?” He didn’t pull away, letting our foreheads touch so we could feel one another’s breaths on our faces. “Me too.” His soft admission made me grin like an idiot.
I started to move in again, but Aimes stopped me. I looked at him quizzically.
“Robert, have you thought at all about what this means?”
“Frankly … no, I haven’t.” I paused to think of the words I wanted to use. “I ... this is new to me too Aimes. I don’t go around kissing my clients. Know what I mean?”
He looked at me sardonically but held his tongue. I never knew anyone who had such a knack for staying perfectly still and saying nothing while you spilled your guts. Gesturing with my hands as if that helped me to be more articulate I continued slowly, struggling with each word. “All my life I had done the safe thing. Lived in the town I was born in, put up a front, behaved in the accepted mode even though … that … wasn’t me. There were times I even tried to deny what I was.”
His eyes were gentle as he gazed at me.
“I feel like I was a coward,” I said.
“We are all cowards at some point of our lives. I live here all year round ...” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“You know - when Stewart brought Marcus back for Christmas last year? I saw what I had missed, made me realize it was time to stop pretending. I’m not getting younger and there’s no point in waiting for happiness.”
”So this is an experiment? An adventure?”
I felt troubled by the way he put it. “I am not using you Aimes. I am not taking advantage of our situation.”
Aimes responded quietly. “Robert, I’ve got a whole shitload of baggage too, if that makes you feel any better. I am not accusing you of anything. Just trying to understand. In case you think this is familiar ground for me, I really have no idea … what is next.”
“I don’t either. I also don’t want either one of us to get hurt,” I blurted out. “This isn’t some frivolous game to me Aimes. I want you to know that.”
He just nodded.
“Is that what you are afraid of?” I asked.
“Yeah, I suppose that is part of it,” he admitted simply. “The other part is … harder to say. I don’t know if I can trust … it’s been so long, I don’t know how far I can go.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. “That makes two of us.” I smiled at him. “This actually makes me feel better. So listen … why don’t we don’t think about it so much and just enjoy ourselves? Take it real slow. And figure it out as we go along?”
His eyes smiled. “That will work for me.”
“So we’re good?”
Which left me with one last question.
“Just so I am clear … um, how far do you want to take this through?” I asked softly, firmly suppressing any embarrassment I might have felt. Better to get the cards all out and open on the table, I thought. This was one subject I did not want to play guessing games with.
Aimes’ eyes flicked over me, and despite myself I flushed.
“Hmm.” His sigh was heavy between us and I froze, but his fingers sought mine out and I felt immediately reassured. “I want you all right. But not like this. I’m filthy … and you … are not much better either.”
I laughed out loud. I loved the way his eyes crinkled up with amusement. I loved the lop-sided smile. All these I was beginning to experience for the first time and I thought what a shame it was that no one else sees them. Those were the missing pieces of the puzzle that made up Aimes the man. They made him whole, and so much more likeable.
“I guess we both could use a good hot shower,” I said reluctantly. “Ready to head back?”
Aimes got to his feet and held out a hand to me. I took it and allowed him to tug me up. Standing chest to chest, we again nuzzled one another. It was becoming so hard to not touch, to not kiss. I felt his tongue linger on mine and then his lips were bruising mine in a way that would make me feel him for the rest of the night.
“I don’t know how long I can wait,” I murmured. I didn’t know when we would next be alone together and what was worse was that the house would be even fuller the next day. Perhaps it was the anticipation of what awaited us that made it so impossibly alluring. Or the simple fact that I was starved for warmth and physical affection and I had suddenly found it. At an even more basic level, perhaps it was because I had not had sex with another man for a long long time and certainly never with a man like Aimes. He was totally different from all my previous encounters, not that I had had that many. The thought of making love to Aimes and being made love to by Aimes filled me with a hunger that I could not describe.
Aimes’ hands slid down my back and came to rest on my butt. Pulling me firmly towards him, he kissed the side of my face, and his voice was gruff in my ear. “Not long I hope.”
I felt a tremor go through me. The raw passion in his voice ignited yet another flame within me and all I could do was nod my head.
I was the first to see Stewart’s car drive up since I had been on the look-out for them. I had called Marcus earlier and he said they had left right after breakfast. They would go pick up Philip and Ben and would ride in together. I chewed on my lip when I heard that – their car would be full. Would they have room for me to go back I wondered. I had already made up my mind; once I got my ride back to the city I would leave altogether. I had lingered too long with them and there was nothing left for me really. I needed to go and find my own way. What exactly that was I had no idea. Yet. But I had survived on my own before and there was no reason why I could not do it again. Staying on was making me soft and I couldn’t have that.
Dancing for a living was always an option. I was confident I would be able to get a job easily enough. There were plenty of new dance clubs I could try out with. And if I bothered to look, I was sure there would be propositions as well. There always were if you knew where to look and I did. I had done the circuit, I knew how it worked. Except I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted now. I had always sought after a protector, someone to take care of me. In return I was willing to give what I had to give. That was a fair exchange to me. But the last few weeks had made me think differently. I didn’t realize until now how much I valued my freedom. There was something about how I lived now that made me suddenly dread the thought of being under someone’s control again.
That’s not to say life with these people was a holiday. I had to work hard too and there were all kinds of rules. You could get told off if you forgot to wear your shoes outside or didn’t finish your chores properly and you are not allowed to wander off by yourself, but no one shouted at you or made you feel insignificant. No one took their favors from you just because they provided a roof over your head and fed you. I was consulted about decisions affecting me and I was treated in a different way – and later realized it was called respect. I hadn’t even known this was how you were supposed to live. I had a choice in things that concerned me. That was a freedom I had never known.
I went out to the front yard as the car came to a stop. Stewart’s eyes rested on me as he got out of the car – warm, questioning, kind - and I had a sudden urge to run forward and bury myself in his arms.
“Hello Oliver.” Stewart smiled at me. “You are looking nice and brown. Been working out in the sun I see.”
“Nice tan!” Marcus remarked approvingly. “Don’t you think so, Ben?”
Ben, who was stretching his back, said wistfully, “Yes. I plan to get a tan like that.”
Philips ruffled his hair affectionately and I watched them, envious. “You can so long as you sit and rest. No painting for you, my boy,” Philip said.
I loved the way Philip called him ‘my boy’. When I was called ‘boy’ it usually meant a whole lot of different things.
“But I came to help!” Ben protested. “I want to paint too.”
“You can either read a book or work on your accounts. This will be one time I won’t stop you working so enjoy it while you can babe! I want you to stay away from the paints, ok? Your allergies will flare if you go mess around with it. Do you hear me, Benjamin?”
Ben allowed his shoulders to slouch. “Yeah, I do.” Ben made a face behind Philip’s back, which made me giggle. That was so funny. Ben was at least thirty but he obeyed Philip like a child and he and Philip were so easy with one another.
I felt an arm swing across my shoulders and I looked up into Stewart’s face. “Hey, so how are you doing?”
I knew immediately what he meant. There was something about Stewart that made people trust him and I did. I found I could tell him all sorts of things I normally wouldn’t reveal to others. “Fine,” I replied casually since there were the others about.
“Hmm. We’ll have a chat later ok?”
He understood. I felt a load off my shoulders. I wouldn’t need to pretend. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
Robert and Andy appeared. They had already gone round the house once, checklist in hand. This would be the formal handover of the project to the client. I watched them approach and thought how well Robert looked in his slacks and open-necked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing his strong tanned arms. Casual, tasteful and so sexy. Exactly the way I like my men. I sighed. Why was it so darn difficult for me to find someone I liked?
I didn’t follow the group as they went to get settled in. I wandered down to the laundry room alone and thought I might help with some ironing. That was a dull repetitive chore and it exactly suited my mood. I didn’t have to think when I ironed. I was surprised to see Aimes there, sorting out stuff in one of the cupboards which served as storage space. He looked surprised to see me as well.
“Um,” I said awkwardly. “I didn’t know you were here. Er, I thought I could help with some of the ironing?”
He nodded his head curtly at me. “You can finish that lot in the basket over there. Thank you.”
I watched out of the corner of my eye as Aimes picked out something and put that into a re-cycle bag. He was so quick about it I couldn’t really see what it was. With a brief glance at me, he disappeared up the stairs. I thought he looked rather secretive but he was always so quiet and reserved that he could be accused of being secretive all the time!
I was almost done with the ironing when I heard voices and then Andy called out, “Hey Oliver!”
“Down here Andy!” I replied.
“Well, there you are! Hiding here all by yourself. Why didn’t you come do the rounds with us? Anyway, I came to tell you I’m off,” he said cheerily, coming down the stairs. “We’ve passed the inspection and everything’s fine. Thanks for your help, Oliver.” He diplomatically refrained from mentioning all my ‘little accidents’.
“Bye Andy,” I said a little sadly. “Take care.” We shook hands and he even gave me a small hug, and then he was gone.
I stood motionless for a moment. I hadn’t known him that long and we hadn’t really been all that close with one another but he was a nice person and his leaving somehow left another hole in me. Everyone in my life eventually left me, in one way or another. Perhaps I was destined to be by myself for the rest of my days. Considering I was only twenty-one that was a long time to be alone!
Feeling more and more depressed, I sat down on the bench. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever but the thought of company and having to make polite conversation did not appeal to me at all. I couldn’t wait to get out of there fast enough and was beginning to regret I hadn’t asked Andy for a lift out when I heard footsteps.
“Hey Stewart,” I greeted him.
“Thought I might find you here.”
He came over and sat down on the bench next to me. His next words were unexpected and brought a lump to my throat. “There’re other options, you know?”
I bowed my head and clasped my hands together. “Why didn’t he want me?” I whispered.
I thought I heard Stewart sigh. Perhaps he too was getting tired of me. I had barged into his life, over-stayed at his home, even got him to send me to Willcott to chase after the man of my dreams. Who wouldn’t get sick of a troublesome person like that?
“I don’t know Oliver.”
My insecurities mounted. Was that another sign he was giving up on me? Quickest way out of a conversation is to say you don’t know.
Suddenly he put his arm around me and gave me a comforting squeeze. “Oliver, this was never a sure thing. You knew that coming here. Why are you taking it so hard? Did anything change while you were here?”
I looked up in surprise. That was as direct as it came. “Is it that obvious?”
“No,” Stewart said at once. “Only to me. I don’t think anyone else is aware, and I haven’t told anyone. Not even Marcus. This is between you and me.”
I nodded my head slowly. That was pretty decent of him and I found myself wanting to tell him more. “I guess … I liked him more than I thought.”
“Did he give you any signs or indication that he might be interested to advance your relationship?”
I had to shake my head. “No, well … he didn’t say anything if that is what you meant. He was very nice to me as always. And he really looked after me, like making sure the jobs I did were easy and all that. Even when I did things wrong, he never got mad. He … was very patient …caring …”
“Robert’s a gentleman,” Stewart said with his arm still around me. His hold was solid and reassuring. “He’s always had nice manners from as far back as I can remember. He treats people with a lot of respect and care. Its easy to misinterpret that if you already feel something for him.”
“I look like a fool, don’t I?”
Stewart removed his hand from my shoulders and tapped my thigh instead. “No, you are not a fool. I don’t want to hear you say that.”
“I still feel like one.” I said stubbornly. I wasn’t ready to give in. Actually I wanted to kick myself. Anything to make me feel better.
“Stop it! No one is a fool here. Not you and not Robert, as far as I can tell. He didn’t lead you on or give you false expectations and you were just following what you feel. How can that make you a fool? In fact you might be considered a fool if you didn’t give yourself this chance. So it didn’t work out. Big deal. Lots of relationships don’t work out, and people move on. Something more suitable will come along. So this definitely does not make you a fool!”
I looked skeptical.
“Oliver,” Stewart said gravely, “Listen to me. I think you are a very strong and very courageous young man. You have had to take care of yourself all this time and even though you’ve had some pretty hard knocks, I still see a lot of decency in you. It would have been all too easy to give up or turn hard and bitter. But that didn’t happen; you survived and it took tremendous strength and courage to keep yourself straight. I haven’t known you that long but what I do know is that you are a delightful young man and I want to be your friend.”
I swallowed hard. It meant so much to me to hear those words. My self-esteem was at an all time low; I desperately needed to feel good about myself.
“Can I go back with you when you leave?”
“Of course you can. We will work something out when we get home, ok?”
I blinked. Home?
“That’s your home Stewart, not mine. I’ve already stayed too long. There’s no need to work something out for me, really!”
“Says who?” Stewart demanded.
“I am intruding. “ I shook my head determinedly. I hated to be so indebted to anyone. I needed to find my own way again. “Thank you for everything Stewart, but I intend to leave …”
“Nonsense!” Stewart said firmly. “You are not going anywhere till we’ve worked this out. When you have a plan and when I think the plan is a workable one, then we can talk about you leaving.”
I felt distressed. Suddenly the walls were closing in on me – decisions were no longer mine again. First Robert, and now Stewart; both wanting to take control. The idea of staying back and letting Stewart carry some of my worry was actually quite appealing and yet I couldn’t accept his gesture because I had nothing to give in return. It just wasn’t fair.
“What is it Oliver?” Stewart looked at me closely. “What are you thinking?”
"Nothing. I just don’t think its right for me to continue staying with you and Marcus.”
“It’s not very fair, is it? I can’t keep cleaning your house to earn my keep.”
Stewart chuckled softly. “Oliver, I have no intention of asking you to clean my house indefinitely. I did that earlier so you could have some pocket money and fill your time while you worked things out. It wasn’t to make you earn your keep.”
“I know,” I said, beginning to fret. “I didn’t mean it that way. But I don’t like to owe you and Marcus!”
Stewart stood up and loomed over me. “Oliver, we are going to have a very long talk when we get home about friendship and why its important to help one another in times of need. We can’t do it here and now. I think we’re expected upstairs. I am surprised no one has come to look for us yet. Come on, up now.”
I felt scared and reassured at the same time. Torn between these conflicting emotions, I obediently stood up and felt Stewart pull me into a crushing hug. “It is going to be all right Oliver,” he murmured as he held me. Then he pushed me away, holding my shoulders in his strong grasp. “I’ve got you and you won’t be alone to work things out. Understand?”
I was sorry that Aimes and I did not have our after dinner coffee on the back porch that night. Instead we took our coffees into the large living room, together with the dessert Philip had brought in. It turned out to be a cozy evening and my only regret was that I couldn’t sit next to Aimes or hold his hand while we chatted.
Most of the conversation was around the painting that would start the next day and I had drawn up some charts and divided the work out, plus a rough timetable of when we should be done. Stewart and the guys were planning on staying till mid-week and my schedule showed that I would stay through till the next weekend to get all the painting done with Aimes. I looked at Aimes when I shared the plan to see his reaction about that piece of news, but as usual he looked absolutely pokerfaced.
“Are you sure you can spare so much time, Robert?” Stewart asked. “Your contract does not include this extension of your time I know.”
“Yeah, it seems hardly right, Robert,” Philip said. “Though it definitely helps. We can’t expect Aimes to finish the job by himself and we can’t stay that long either.”
“I am glad to do it,” I said and I meant every word of it. “I actually love it here and I don’t mind staying longer. I guess being the first to seeing the entire project completed would be reward enough.” I must have been pretty convincing because they let the subject drop.
I offered to help Aimes clear away the dessert plates and coffee cups and we found a few minutes alone in the kitchen. To my surprise, he came close to me and said softly into my ear. “Don’t go to sleep when you go up afterwards. Can you come down to me at midnight? The others should be settled in by then.”
I opened my eyes in surprise. “What have you got in mind?”
“You’ll have to wait and see.”
“You don’t mean …” I was quite shocked at Aime’s suggestion. Did he plan on us both having a go at it in his room downstairs while the others slept upstairs? “Are you sure this is wise?” I hissed at him.
Aimes frowned at me. “Stop guessing. And keep your voice down. Just be downstairs at midnight and don’t wake anyone up!”
“OK,” I said feeling adventurous. And ridiculously excited.
I could hardly wait for the evening to pass. I kept glancing at the clock and Aimes glared at me a few times. Finally Philip got up and pulled Ben with him.
“I think I need to get my partner here to bed. Ben, you should have gone up half an hour ago. Your medication is making you sleepy.”
“But I am not – oh hell, I am!” Ben smiled sweetly at all of us. “Flu medicine really knocks you out. Good night everyone.”
“Bed for me too,” Stewart announced. “We started out early this morning. Oliver, Marcus, coming?”
“It’s not even eleven!” Marcus said. “And we’re not on flu medicine like Ben. Plus I napped while you were driving Stewart.”
“It’s one minute to eleven, Marcus,” Aimes pointed out helpfully.
“We’ve got a long day tomorrow so I think an early night is in order.” Stewart yawned, effectively setting off Marcus. He reached down and yanked Marcus to his feet. “Come! I want you in bed.”
In the end, everyone decided to retire. I gave Aimes a meaningful look, which he ignored, and then we all disappeared into our respective rooms. I sat down on my bed, listening to soft chatter and the sounds of doors opening and footsteps to and from the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if I should undress and change into my sleeping things, or what. Darn! Should have asked Aimes.
Feeling a little stupid just sitting and waiting on my bed, I got up and decided to get ready for bed. Whatever Aimes had planned, I still needed to sleep so I went through my normal routine and tried not to look at the clock too many times. Another check and it was 11.45pm - fifteen minutes to midnight. I linked my arms behind my head and leaned back against my pillows and tried to imagine what Aimes had in mind. The next few minutes passed in pleasurable anticipation. At the stroke of midnight, I stealthily opened my bedroom door. Making sure the corridor was deserted, I crept down the stairs, not unlike some teenager who had broken curfew.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I nearly jumped as I felt Aimes’ hand on my back; I hadn’t seen him waiting in the shadows “Jeez, you startled me Aimes.”
He looked me over rather critically.
“What?” I asked, suddenly a little self conscious. I was clad only in a pair of shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt.
“Shhh … lower your voice.” Aimes took my arm and led me into the kitchen. “Wait here,” he commanded.
I watched, bemused, as he disappeared. He came back a moment later with a light jacket in his hand.
“Put this on.”
“We’re going outside?” I asked, momentarily taken aback. I had thought we were going to snuggle up cozily in his room. I took a closer look at him and saw that he had on a loose t-shirt, a pair of sweats and shoes. “OK, where are we going?”
“You’ll see. Put your shoes on. I brought a jacket in case it gets cold.”
I was intrigued but refrained from asking again. He obviously did not want to divulge any details and I did not want to spoil his surprise. Once I had my shoes on, Aimes ushered me out through the kitchen door. He took my hand in his firm grasp and began to lead me away from the house. At first I thought we were going to the games room but he took a totally different route. The path we took wound downwards, towards the north and soon the house disappeared from view. The trail was uneven and narrow but Aimes seemed to know exactly where he was headed.
“Cold?” he asked after a while.
“No,” I replied. “Not really. I like the bite of a fresh wind. So how long are we going to be walking?”
He was still holding my hand and I felt liberated. I had never held another man’s hand before in public. Ok, so there’s no public right now to witness this but it was still out in the open and it was still liberating to me. Soon the path broadened and I could see a darker silhouette in the distance. It grew larger as we drew nearer and I realized it was a small cabin. Aimes brought me right up to the wooden structure and stopped outside the door.
“Take off your shoes,” he said.
I raised my brows at him but didn’t say anything. His eyes were bright and I could see he was excited about this. He pushed open the door slowly when we were both bare-footed and I felt his hand on the small of my back, guiding me inside. I stared around, my mouth hanging open. There was only one room in the cabin and a hurricane lamp which was hanging against one wall cast a soft yellow glow into the small space. On the floor – right in the centre of the room - was a futon. It dominated the entire room. I could see several cushions with rugs and blankets covering it and it looked extremely inviting. The floor was solid wood and it had been swept clean.
“You did this?” I finally found my voice.
“When?” I asked, walking further into the room. I noticed an ice bucket sitting on the floor with two wine glasses next to the futon. In the ice bucket was a bottle.
“Some last night, some today, the wine was just now.”
That meant he had taken two trips here within the hour. I shook my head at Aimes. How he found the time or opportunity to do this I didn’t know, but it sure took effort and determination.
“It’s amazing Aimes,” I said.
“You said you didn’t want to wait too long.”
I turned to face him, a laugh escaping from my lips. “What? You did this because of what I said?”
“I did this so we wouldn’t have to wait – and because I wanted to.” He went over to the futon and dropped down onto it. He patted the space next to him.
I walked over slowly, feeling my heart thump. I sat on the soft mattress, stretching out my legs a little stiffly. I wasn’t that used to sitting on the floor but Aimes seemed to have no problems. He reached over to the side easily and I saw a tray with two candles which I had missed earlier. He quickly lighted them.
“Candles too Aimes? Quite a romantic touch.”
“Can’t have any open fire without supervision so couldn’t light them earlier,” he explained. The two candles were flickering merrily, giving the room a deeper dimension. He pushed the tray and candles away carefully so we wouldn’t accidentally kick them over. “This cabin is newly built; the old one burned down.”
“Is this part of the property you guys own?”
“Yeah, but no one ever comes here.”
“Except you.” It was not really a question. I was starting to be able to draw a pretty accurate picture of my friend.
“I like it here. It’s simple.”
Next Aimes picked up the bottle in the ice bucket and began to twist the cap open. I held up the glasses as he poured. When I handed one glass to him, he leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips. We lingered for a while and even though my stomach ached with hunger, there was no haste this time. The night stretched ahead of us, we were snug in the little cabin. The candlelight shrouded us in mystery and the futon on the floor was as close to nature as we could get. Everything seemed right.
“This is magical,” I murmured against Aimes’ throat.
He didn’t reply, just tipped his head back and drained his wine. I copied his movement and felt the effects almost immediately; a warm fuzz filled my head.
“Wow,” I said with a shaky laugh.
Aimes grinned. “Wow,” he echoed teasingly.
I felt his hand on my chest and with a moan I fell back onto the cushions. Aimes leaned over me, his face inches away. “You ready to do this Robert?” His voice was low and husky.
I was more than ready. My arms went around his solid body and tugged it tighter to mine. “Yes, I am ready.”
We kissed deeply. Piece by piece we removed our clothing, never quite breaking our contact. Aimes threw back one of the rugs and we quickly slipped under it. It was getting a bit chilly and the lamp and candles provided no heat. I heard Aimes grunt and moan as my hands roamed over his body. He was taut in every part of his body and I marveled at his muscles as I ran my hand down his back. When I got to his butt he jerked, thrusting his pelvis against me. I felt his hardness on my thigh and quivered with urgency.
Just as I had been checking out Aimes’ body with my hands, he had been doing the same with his. His fingers found their way once again to my nipples and I cried out, unafraid this time. There was no one around to hear us.
“Oh God Aimes,” I breathed heavily.
He began to lick my nipples and when he gave them tiny painful nips with his sharp teeth, I arched my back with unbearable passion. I cried out again; even louder this time.
With a powerful heave, I got up on my elbows and twisted around so that I was facing Aimes. I pulled his face to mine, claiming his mouth impatiently. I pressed him down, backing him into the futon and settling my weight over him. He submitted and let me kiss him.
I was in no position to think clearly at that time but I would later realize that we would always wrestle for dominance in our coupling. It was in our nature to want to be on top and to be the one in charge, yet we found pleasure in submitting to the other and I for one found it totally satisfying.
I was a quivering mass of nerves by the time Aimes reached down and took hold of me. I lost all coherent thoughts as he skillfully brought me to a shuddering climax. I had forgotten how wonderful it was to come that way. I bit down on Aimes’ shoulder as my body spasmed. Without even waiting for my breath to still, I reached for Aimes. He eagerly gave his body to me and as I ran one hand downwards I covered his mouth with mine. He kissed me back with fervor and groaned into my mouth as my hand closed around his hard cock. I found myself getting excited again as I felt Aimes’ approaching climax. It was incredible. I rubbed my own hardening cock against Aimes’ thigh and then he almost bit my tongue off as he ejaculated into my hand.
We collapsed together, breathing heavily. I was still hard and twitching but I was content at the moment, more pleased that we had brought one another off. My eyes were closing slowly when I felt a movement and suddenly my entire body erupted into waves of pleasure as I felt Aimes’ mouth engulf me. I jolted up, supporting myself with my elbows and looked down my body at Aimes’ head over my crotch. It was such a sexually charged and mind-blowing sight. I panted loudly and unashamedly, thrusting my hips up to get deeper into the hot wet cavity.
“Aimes, oh God! I am gonna come. Oh God! Aimes!”
I wanted to give him fair warning, so he could pull out, so I wouldn’t come in his mouth. But he paid me no heed and went on sucking me and drawing the life out of me, until I could not longer hold it and I spurted all that I had into him.
I didn’t know how long I slept after that. I was totally happy and worn out. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up. Or Aimes woke me up. Or I him. It didn’t really matter. We made love again, and then again and we slept some more. When the candles had burned out and the first light was appearing in the horizon, Aimes shook me awake.
“We need to go back,” he said softly, as we lay in each other’s arms, deep in the covers.
“We do?” I murmured, reluctant to move.
I could see his smile in the darkness. I was beginning to love it.
“Leave everything,” Aimes said. “But put the jacket on, it will be cold when we go out.”
“Are we coming back here tonight?” I asked, half teasing, half serious. I shrugged the jacket on, grateful for the warmth.
“Any time you want,” Aimes responded. And he was all serious.
“OK,” I said, pleased. That made it easier to leave.
We put our shoes on and headed towards the track in the semi-lightness of dawn. There was no lock on the cabin door. I wondered what people would think if anyone came and looked in. That it was a hideaway for a pair of lovers? A secret love-nest? That was exactly what it was to me. I couldn’t wait to come back. I would always have a soft spot in my heart for this place.
The next day I found out I didn’t particularly like painting. It was hot, back-aching and smelly. Paint kept dripping down my hand and droplets fell on my hair till Robert re-assigned my job and gave me a rag and a bottle of thinner instead. I was supposed to clean up and touch up all the small, delicate areas, which meant removing the excess paint in hard to reach areas. That was an even worse job than the first but I didn’t want to complain since no one else was having a problem. I tried not to gag when the fumes got into my nostrils. I was sure my lungs were contaminated within ten minutes of inhaling the vile stuff.
I envied Ben, who had to remain on the porch looking cool and clean. He sat on a comfy chair with cushions propping his back, happily tapping away on his notebook. Occasionally he strolled over to watch us, only to be chased back to the porch or into the house to take a nap. I wouldn’t have minded a nap, but no one chased me back to take one! We had stopped for a quick lunch but returned to painting almost at once. Marcus complained a couple of times but one look from Aimes and he shut up. I looked at Stewart to see how he would react to someone telling off his partner but he seemed totally detached from it and simply ignored the whole thing.
The afternoon was even more grueling than the morning. Hotter. Sweatier. Smellier. I spilled the bottle of thinner and got the look from Aimes. Luckily Robert came over and told me it was ok. I couldn’t help but be grateful. At least he did not leave me to the lions like Stewart did with Marcus. I felt like sticking my tongue out at Aimes but managed to stop myself. Wouldn’t do to let Robert see how childish I could be. Marcus winked at me and I winked back. I didn’t feel so lonely after that.
Just as we were wrapping up for the day, Stewart’s cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket gingerly to avoid getting paint on it.
“Hi. Hello? Is that you Evan?”
Stewart frowned, obviously trying to catch the words over the phone. Perhaps he had a bad reception as he was straining to listen. His tone sharpened. “What is that? Hold it Evan … what did you say?”
Philip came over and stood next to Stewart, raising his eyebrows expressively. Stewart’s frown deepened as he listened.
“Evan, slow down, I can’t hear you clearly. Yes I am listening but the connection is bad. Tell me again what happened.”
By then Aimes and Marcus had also walked over to listen. Robert hung back a little but he was well within hearing distance. All eyes were on Stewart. After a moment, Stewart began to nod, apparently understanding Evan much better this time.
“All right Evan. Listen, I am at Willcott right now so I can’t come over. Don’t panic – this is not Mars! I can be back in a few hours. But first let me discuss this with Ben and I’ll call you back. OK? Where’s Jeremy?”
Stewart’s eyes flew open and he looked at Philip.
“What?” Philip asked, catching the look at once.
Stewart held up one finger, silencing Philip as he pressed the phone to his ear, concentrating hard. I inched closer, dying to know what was happening. Who Evan was I had no idea but it sounded intriguing and sure beat the hell out of painting. It was apparent this Evan was in some kind of trouble and he needed Stewart’s help. Desperately I would say. I loved drama when it wasn’t mine.
Just as it was getting interesting, Aimes tugged my arm. “Come on, back to the house. You too Marcus. Move!”
I glared at Aimes, refusing to move until I was sure what Marcus would too. If Marcus stayed put and did not obey the command I decided I wouldn’t either.
“Wait a minute! I want to know what’s happening,” Marcus said. He looked at Stewart as he spoke, hoping to get support. He even went as far as linking an arm around Stewart’s waist and trying to put his ear next to the phone.
Stewart shook his head firmly at Marcus and pushed him gently away. He made a gesture with his free hand, and made eye contact with Aimes. Immediately Aimes took charge of the situation. In a voice which made it difficult to ignore, he said, “Marcus, let’s go. Stewart needs to handle this alone. You too Oliver, come with me. Now!”
Robert wordlessly moved in and between the two of them, Marcus and I were swept back to the house, leaving Stewart alone with Philip. It was plain that a situation had arisen and Stewart only wanted Philip with him to handle it.
Marcus started to protest and when no one paid him any attention he whined loudly. For a smart and well-turned out guy he sure can sound whiny. “Why can’t I stay? He’s talking to Stewart and I’m going back!” As he tried to twist out of Aimes’ hold he earned himself a sharp swat on his butt.
I quickly looked away, and went docilely without another word. I didn’t want to be swatted in public!
Ben waved to us as we approached. “Done for the day?”
Marcus scowled. “Evan is talking to Stewart. And you’re wanted.”
“Evan? Why?” Ben looked totally surprised. “What happened?”
“Evan is in some kind of trouble and Stewart needs to consult with you about something … he said …”
Aimes came over and gave Marcus another swat. “Marcus, you will stop this!”
Marcus rubbed his backside and looked indignant. “What did I do wrong? Stewart said he would discuss it with Ben. I heard him. Didn’t you hear that too Oliver?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” I mumbled. I didn’t want to be caught in the cross-fire.
Ben began to put his shoes on. “In that case, I should go join them. Philip is with Stewart too? I wonder what’s going on. Let me find out and fill you guys in …”
Aimes growled in his throat and all eyes turned to him. Robert stepped forward and said calmly. “I think we should let Stewart and Philip handle whatever it is they need to handle – without any interference from any of us. If they need you Ben, I am sure they will come get you. Isn’t that right, Aimes?”
Aimes nodded his head, his sharp eyes sweeping over Marcus and Ben. Thank God I was spared. “Yes. No one leaves.”
“But I …” Ben began to say and then shut his mouth as he saw Aimes approach him. I saw Marcus back away as well. I was glad I was far enough away to be totally out of reach.
“All three of you stay put right here,” Aimes repeated. “I don’t want to hear any further discussion on this subject. If I find any of you stringing this out of proportion we are going to have a talk in the study. Is that clear?”
Marcus and Ben looked outraged.
“Is. That. Clear.?” Aimes asked again, enunciating each word carefully.
“Yes,” we three automatically chorused, sounding very much like chastised schoolboys. How the hell did Aimes do that?
Robert looked a bit bewildered too but he played along with Aimes. “Shall we get everyone cleaned up first before we start dinner Aimes?”
“Good idea,” Aimes said. “Marcus and Oliver, you two go use the bathroom upstairs. Robert, why don’t you take the downstairs bathroom first; I’ll go after you. Ben, you can start with the salad.”
And with that, we were all effectively dispatched.
I waited till the three boys had disappeared before I turned to Aimes. Ben was in the kitchen so I kept my voice low. “What on earth is happening? Is this some secret? Are the boys not allowed to know?”
Aimes shook his head. “No, we just don’t want them getting excited and making wrong assumptions. They have a tendency to speculate and my guess is this young man Evan wouldn’t want his troubles repeated. Let Stewart handle this; he’s good with the young men.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I have seen how Oliver gravitates towards Stewart too. Seems to be a magnet for young, troubled youths and even some grown men. Wasn’t that how he met Marcus? I heard some part of that story but I don’t have the whole thing.”
Aimes snorted. “Yeah, Marcus was in Stewart’s class at one point. Cradle snatcher!” Aimes mouth curled into a smile and I saw one of his rare flashes of humor. I knew he was borrowing my term.
I peered into the kitchen to make sure Ben couldn’t see us. I was about to lean over and steal a kiss when we heard footsteps and Stewart and Philip appeared. I backed away and sighed; I hadn’t had any time alone with Aimes and I wanted some physical contact – yes, again! I was like a deep and bottomless well, constantly hungry and craving. I quickly turned my thoughts away from how we had spent the night at the cabin and composed myself. Aimes’ eyes were hot and smoldering as he looked at me. He gave me a half lop-sided grin. It was a totally private gesture and I felt connected, knowing he understood and probably felt the same.
Stewart had a frown on his face but he smiled at us as he came within talking distance. “Sorry guys, something came up.”
“You leaving?” Aimes asked.
“No, not right now if that is what you mean.” Stewart lowered himself to the porch steps. “No point traveling in the dark after such a long and tiring day. But looks like we will need to cut short this visit and go back tomorrow. Sorry about that.”
Aimes shrugged. “No worries.”
“What about the rest of the painting? Can you guys manage or shall we come back the next weekend, if we can?” Philip asked.
Aimes was looking at me so I replied. “No, I think we can handle it ourselves. We’ve got most of the scaffolding up.”
“Oliver is coming back with us as well, you know?” Stewart said. “So that leaves only the two of you. Are you sure you can manage?” Stewart looked concerned.
I nodded. “We won’t finish by mid-week as planned, but I am quite sure Aimes and I can complete the job by the end of the week.”
“Where are the rest?” Philip asked.
“Ben’s making a salad and I sent Marcus and Oliver upstairs to shower.” Aimes turned to me. “Why don’t you go ahead to shower Robert? Downstairs bathroom is free.”
I knew I had been dismissed. They apparently had private matters to discuss so I took my cue. “Yep. Sure.”
I passed Ben in the kitchen. He was busy slicing cabbage and there were several juicy carrots on the counter next to the salad bowl. “What is that for? Coleslaw?”
“Great! I’ll give you a hand once I’ve showered,” I told him.
“OK, thanks. Is Philip out there? I thought I heard his voice.”
“Yes he is.”
“Oh,” Ben looked up and wiped his hand on the dishcloth. “Did he ask for me?”
“Um, no, not really.”
Ben shrugged. “I’ll go out and see what they need anyway,” he announced brightly.
I watched as he disappeared out the back door. I was beginning to get an idea of what it meant to reel in this bunch. They were bright, highly active, sometimes impulsive and often very inquisitive. You would need to be on your toes if you wanted to control them.
I dwelled on this thought as I showered. I was not sure if ‘control’ was the right word, but it seemed the older guys did it. Somehow. Aimes for sure exhibits powers of keeping them in line and issuing orders which he fully expected to be obeyed. I had also seen Marcus and Ben react to their partners’ wishes without it being apparent. There were no fights or raised voices. Maybe a swat or two, but most of the time it was just a subtle look or a raised eyebrow. There were hidden lines of authority and submission in their relationships and all of them seemed to know their place and accept it. I knew some parts and I guessed the other parts. I wondered if they all had some kind of handbook explaining it all, or a set of guidelines when they first got together. I wasn’t sure if I would know how to maneuver around them.
My relationship with Aimes wouldn’t fit into that kind of dynamics. I could not imagine Aimes submitting to me in that way, certainly not at my will. He would only submit out of his own free will. Like he had done the night before. And it would be the same with me. We were both men, both equals, taking pleasure from each other and giving but never dictating or dominating. I would never dream of issuing an order to Aimes but I could see myself exerting authority over Oliver, for instance. In fact, I had a feeling I had done it once or twice already without fully being aware of it.
Still puzzled and perplexed over this entire topic, I toweled myself dry and put on clean clothes. The kitchen was quiet when I entered. Marcus and Oliver were already there, clean with slightly damp hair and helping out with various chores. Ben was nowhere to be seen although his salad bowl was piled high with shredded cabbage and carrots.
“What can I help with?” I asked Aimes.
“I’ve got meatballs on the stove. Just watch them and give them a stir every now and then. The pasta will be ready to go into the water once it boils. Can you handle that?”
“I sure can,” I replied, my hand going out and giving Aimes a nudge on the side of his hips. I couldn’t help myself. “Go, it’s your turn to get clean. You look tired, hot and bothered.” My voice had softened despite myself.
Aimes grinned and went out. I found Marcus looking thoughtfully at me and I hoped I didn’t blush.
“You are getting on well with Aimes, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied calmly. I walked purposefully over to the stove and gave the pot of meatballs a stir. “I thank God for that, otherwise we would never get this job finished on time.”
Marcus seemed to find that logical as he nodded his head in agreement. “Yeah, can’t agree more with you. If Aimes didn’t like you, you would have had a very difficult task. Frankly we were a little worried if he would be ok with you and Andy here. Too many strangers and Aimes tends to flip.”
“Where’s the others?” I asked, not wanting to discuss Aimes behind his back.
Marcus tipped his head in the general direction of the living area and study. “Philip’s in there I think, probably with Ben. Stewart’s gone up to shower. Oliver, are you done with the bread?”
“Just about.” Oliver went on slicing the baguette. He looked withdrawn and pre-occupied.
“Well, once you’re done, can you butter them and stick them in the oven?” Marcus asked, taking control of the kitchen. “I need to go set the table in the dining room. It’s too crammed to eat in here with so many of us.”
That left me and Oliver alone for a few minutes. I emptied the packet of pasta into the boiling water, adjusted the flame and went over to Oliver.
“Need some help?” I offered.
His shrug was as sensual as the way he flicked his hair back. A few dark brown locks had fallen over one eye and he flipped it back impatiently with one unconscious toss of his head. No matter how worldly-wise he was, he would be prime bait in any bar or club. His boyish looks, his proportions and size, his naturally sexy movements, everything about him screamed sensuality, innocence and vulnerability. A potent combination! I felt a protective surge towards him.
I began to butter the cut bread and placed them on a baking sheet. “So you know Stewart is planning to leave tomorrow instead of mid-week?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered in a small voice.
“And you are bent on following him back?”
“Yes!” he looked at me in surprise. “There’s no reason to change my mind, is there?”
I hedged the question, challenging as it was. “I was hoping for a bit more time to talk to you and Stewart about your … well, about what you will do when you leave.”
“I told you, I can take care of myself and my future is no concern of yours.”
“And I told you we are not going to let you do this on your own. You need a support group and you have it. Stewart agrees …”
What?” You talked to Stewart about me?” He glared at me hotly.
“Only because I am concerned about you welfare,” I explained patiently.
“I didn’t ask you to consult Stewart about my welfare. He does not own me!”
“I know Oliver,” I said as placatingly as I knew how. “No one owns you!”
“Then why is everyone so damn bloody anxious about me?” he exploded. “I don’t belong to any one of you.”
“This is not about ownership, ok?” I was starting to raise my voice too. “This is about friends who care about one another.”
“I don’t need anyone to …”
“What’s going on here?” Stewart asked, walking in and interrupting Oliver’s heated response. He looked at me and then at Oliver. “Everything all right?”
“Yes!” Oliver said through gritted teeth.
I went back to the stove and began to stir the pasta. “I told Oliver we discussed plans about his future and he flew into a fit.” I felt bad saying that but I felt we weren’t getting the message across to Oliver and we were running out of time. If he left with Stewart the next day, I only had a few hours to make him understand how much I wanted to help him.
Oliver threw an angry look at both Stewart and me. “I didn’t ask any of you to plan my future!” he said in a strained voice.
Stewart went over to him and ran a hand down Oliver’s stiff back. “Calm down, Oliver.” His voice was gentle and kind and I saw Oliver respond to it.
“I am calm,” he insisted but he looked grim.
“All right, that’s good,” Stewart said softly. He continued to run his hand down Oliver’s back, occasionally patting, or stroking. It seemed to have the desired effect. “I know this is a touchy subject but it’s important we come to an agreement. Now can we have a quiet, rational discussion?”
Oliver flushed and dropped his eyes. “Yes, sorry about just now.”
“That’s ok. We understand.” Stewart gave him a quick squeeze and then looked over at me, his eyes questioning. I knew what his unspoken question was; I nodded my head affirmatively. Stewart nodded back at me before he turned to speak to Oliver again.
“Oliver, I was going to wait to discuss this with you and Robert in the next few days but unfortunately we don’t have the time and we need to do it now. Let me ask you this Oliver – do you want to continue to dance?”
He looked suspiciously at both of us. “I guess. Why?”
Stewart continued smoothly. “I know you dance for a living and you enjoy that, right?”
Oliver nodded warily.
“But you also told us you’ve never had any kind of formal training. Never attended any dance classes before? No dance schools?”
“No, I didn’t … why is that important?” Oliver’s eyes were fixed on Stewart.
“Well, Robert and I discussed this and we both feel that it would be a good idea if you take up some kind of dance program. With a proper training from a good dance academy we believe it will open up more job options to you.” He paused. “What do you think?”
Oliver stared at Stewart, apparently tongue-tied.
I eagerly jumped in. “That’s right Oliver, there are plenty of programs you can enroll with and you can decide which type of dancing you want to focus on. You could even specialize. Most dance academies have summer and fall programs which will be just right for you. When you get back to the city, take a bit of time to go over what they offer, visit their studios even, and then decide which suits you. You don’t need to rush into a decision.”
Stewart and I paused to look at Oliver.
We had both come to the same consensus that the primary goal was to provide Oliver with a decent means to support himself. If he went back to doing what he knew, Oliver would probably end up in the same kind of shabby dance joints or sleezy bars. With just his wits and what he picked up from his past, he would be limited in his choices of employment. But with proper training and certification, he would have the opportunity to seek work from more decent establishments. He was a talented dancer but needed the keys to open new doors. Robert wanted to provide that for him. Unfortunately knowing how proud he was, we were afraid he would feel affronted or even insulted.
I looked at Oliver hopefully and my heart sank. He looked white and unhappy.
Stewart took hold of Oliver’s hands and made him look up at him. “Oliver, this is not a testament of your dancing skills or capabilities. I’ve seen you dance and I know you have a lot of potential. You are a natural! We all can see that. But with proper training, imagine how much further you can go!”
I admired Stewart’s persuasiveness. He had hit the heart of the matter without being overly long-winded. Oliver was starting to thaw. I could see his eyes flicker with uncertainty.
“All right, I will think about it,” Oliver said.
“I think you don’t understand Oliver,” Stewart said with a smile. “What Robert wants is to sponsor you for the dance classes.”
Oliver’s head whipped around and he stared at me. “What?”
I nodded at him. “That’s right Oliver. I want to do that.”
“Why?” he demanded tersely. Instead of the earlier paleness, his face became flushed. I could see his eyes harden.
I frowned at his question, bewildered. “I told you … I just want to help.”
He broke free from Stewart and his eyes flashed with anger. “Is this a bribe or compensation?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Something to make you feel better perhaps?” he sneered at me.
“Of course not!” I snapped. “How could you even say that?”
I was deeply hurt and it must have shown in my face because Oliver had the grace to blush and then he glanced away from me.
“Oliver,” Stewart said in a low but very firm voice. “That was totally uncalled for. I am ashamed you could even think such a thing, much less say it.”
Oliver flushed even more. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“Robert has the purest of intentions and I give him full credit for his thoughtfulness. I know he is acting out of a genuine concern for you. He does not deserve to be treated in this way Oliver.” Stewart’s displeasure was apparent and even I felt crushed by his reprimand.
“It’s ok Stewart,” I rushed to say. “I understand, it’s all right. I’m all right.”
Oliver brushed a hand across his eyes. He swallowed before saying, “I am sorry, I really didn’t mean it to come out that way. Oh fuck, well maybe I did, but it was wrong of me. I apologize!”
Stewart gave him a warning look but held his tongue.
“I don’t want your apology Oliver,” I replied at once. “Say instead you will accept my offer, as one friend helping another.”
“It’s not right,” he said, still resisting.
“Friends help one another in times of need, don’t they Stewart?” I asked.
“They sure do,” Stewart responded.
“Well Oliver,” I said. “The crux of the matter is whether you consider yourself my friend. Do you?”
I sat snugly in between Marcus and Ben in the back of Stewart’s car as we drove away from Willcott. It was still early and the sun was slowly creeping up in the horizon. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, tuning out the soft conversation in the car. In truth, I was simply exhausted. There were too many thoughts chasing themselves in my head which had made it impossible for me to sleep the night before.
The offer from Robert was too good to be true. I had never dreamed that I would ever get the opportunity to actually enroll in an academy and attend formal dancing classes. My heart soared at the prospect and yet I wished I knew how to reject it. I hated to be indebted to anyone and I wasn’t entirely sure if Robert had done this out of some form of guilt. So Robert had insisted it wasn’t, and Stewart had assured me it wasn’t. That still did not convince me one hundred percent.
Short of sounding ungrateful and churlish, I had in the end told Robert I would take up his offer. It would have been too ungracious to keep on resisting. My anger was gone and with that I just didn’t have the energy.
When we stopped for a short break along the highway, Stewart came over to me and ruffled my hair.
“You doing ok, kiddo?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling up at him. After a few short weeks with these folks, I was beginning to like this gesture of affection.
“That’s the spirit,” he said. “It will be fine Oliver. Trust me.”
I climbed back into the car, determined to make this work. I had learnt a long time ago that when the road ahead was too murky and life was too uncertain there was no point in planning and thinking too much. There would be no answers. The only thing you could do is take it one day at a time.
I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
We finally had the place to ourselves.
I helped Aimes wash up the breakfast dishes and then turned to look at him. “So what are our plans for the day?”
He looked straight back at me. “Are you asking me again? What kind of a contractor are you?”
I had already seen glimpses of his dry humor and I was now learning to enjoy his unexpected playfulness. He had on such a straight face anyone would have been forgiven for taking him seriously but I knew him well enough by then. I grinned at him and kissed him instead.
“Is this what you are planning on doing today, Robert?” Aimes asked, linking his hands behind my waist.
We were not really on a tight schedule but I had promised Stewart I should be able to get the painting completed by the end of the week with just Aimes and myself and I intended to keep my promise. So in spite of what I really wanted to do that day, we both ended up working.
“This your idea of fun?” Aimes asked dryly me as we kicked off our shoes outside the kitchen door after we called it a day.
“No, the fun part is coming up right about now.”
Because we knew we had the night ahead of us, and almost an entire week together, there was no urge to rush. I relished the anticipation. We cleaned up (separately!) then fixed a simple dinner which we ate on the back porch steps. We took our coffees outside, glad to resume our old routine and spent a relaxing and quiet evening simply chatting and watching the sun set. When we decided to turn in, I looked at Aimes, suddenly unsure. My room was upstairs with a double bed. Aimes slept downstairs, on a single bed. I knew he preferred sleeping on the ground floor and I didn’t want to ask him to break the habit. Yet it would be much more comfortable on a double bed for what I had in mind.
“Do we …” I started hesitatingly.
Aimes hesitated too. “Robert, let’s talk.”
“All right,” I said, a little anxious about the seriousness of his tone. Was there a problem?
We sat down at the kitchen table, facing one another. Suddenly it seemed we were on different sides negotiating a deal. Since Aimes initiated this discussion I waited for him to start.
“Robert, have you thought about what happens when the painting gets done?”
“I thought we agreed not to …”
Aimes cut me off. “I know. We agreed to go with the flow and not think about where we are going, but I don’t think either of us can ignore this totally. Can you? At some point we need to know where we are headed.”
I thought for a while. “Well, I know what I want for the rest of this week here.”
Aimes’ lips curled slightly. “And after that?”
“I could stay back. I don’t have anywhere to be.”
Aimes’ smile broadened but his voice was serious. “How long would you stay?”
“I don’t know!” I was getting frustrated. “Is that a problem for you?”
He slowly nodded his head. “I don’t want it to be a problem – for either of us. That’s why I think we need to talk about this.”
“So what are you saying, Aimes?” I asked. “Do you want me to go after this week? Is that what you are saying?”
I guess I must have sounded hurt because Aimes reached out and held my hand.
“No, I don’t want you to leave at the end of this week. But yes I am asking you to go after the painting is done.”
His grip on my hand tightened. “Let’s enjoy this week together. I am glad we are alone. I want to be with you; I want to make love to you. Every day, every chance I get. I want us to remember this week for a long long time.”
“And after this week?” My heart was beating painfully.
“After this week, you should go home and we need to have some time apart. To reflect and to take stock. We cannot make any promises or decide on anything when both our heads are not thinking straight. We are too caught up in this right now. I don’t want you to think you have an obligation to stay on just because of this week together. I want you to have the freedom to decide.”
“And you? What do you want for yourself? What’s your caveat?”
His eyes were pained. “Me? I want to be very sure this is what we want. You and me for the long haul. Its better to part as friends than angry lovers. I don’t want that to happen to us.”
I pulled my hand away, agitated. While I didn’t want to think of leaving Willcott and Aimes, I reluctantly saw the wisdom behind Aimes’ words.
“Robert, do you understand what I am asking?”
I nodded grudgingly. “Yes, much as I wish I didn’t understand, I actually do. And you are right. A break may be good; this has been really intense in a way.”
“But in a good way,” Aimes said with a twinkle in his eye.
I smiled at him. “Yes. In a very good way! This has been unreal for me at times. I cannot believe what is happening sometimes. But the thought of leaving …”
Aimes dropped his head, closing his eyes. “We have a week.”
I drew in a deep breath. “Well then, what the hell are you waiting for?”
to be continued ...