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Blood and Dirt

Lloyd A. Meeker">Lloyd A. Meeker

Saturday

Chapter One

“Russ Morgan Investigations is nearly invisible,” Evan Landry said as he settled elegantly in front of my desk. It was an accusation, but I assumed he meant well and it was intended for my own good. “You don’t even have a website. You really should embrace the twenty-first century.”

By all accounts, Mr. Landry was a successful restaurateur, so I was sure he knew all about promotion through websites and social media. I’d also heard he was ruthless and domineering. I got the domineering part right away.

I nodded, unashamed. “It’s true, I probably should, although personal referrals seem to work best for my business. Isn’t that how you found me?”

“Yes.” He seemed oblivious to the implication. “I want you to find out who trashed my sister’s marijuana grow,” he said, as nonchalant as if he’d asked for more coffee. His aura, however, was a mess, swirling bright red with fury. He was very good at hiding what he felt.

“You’ll find out it was my non-biological sister,” he said, making disdainful air quotes around the word, “Marianne Ellis. But I want proof.”

Interesting. Here in Colorado a case involving marijuana was inevitable, I supposed, but this was my first.

He brushed something offensive and invisible off his slacks. “I’d like you to start today on-site at the ranch, which is just south of Grand Junction. I’ll pay whatever your rate, travel, and per diem are. I want the bitch nailed. Quickly.”

I smiled, hoping I didn’t look too amused by his unexamined sense of entitlement. “Assuming we come to an agreement, I’ll be glad to drive up Monday.”

He frowned. “I want you there today. It’s Saturday. Even with weekend traffic you can be there by four at the latest.”

It might have occurred to him that I had obligations preventing me from jumping into my car at that moment, but apparently he’d dismissed that possibility as unimportant.

He fixed me with a glare that was undoubtedly successful on sous-chefs. “You said on the phone that you were available to take a new assignment.”

“And I am. I’ll be glad to get there Monday. I have a commitment here in Denver tomorrow I need to honor.”

“You came highly recommended,” he said, changing tack. “I hope I haven’t been misled. You don’t strike me as being very responsive to a client’s interests.”

“Just the opposite,” I said, only mildly offended. “I take my commitments very seriously, including one to you, should I make it. That means you don’t have to worry about me jumping ship if someone comes by with a more attractive offer. I won’t do that for you, but I won’t do it to you, either.”

He pursed his lips. “Okay.” He sounded miffed. “Monday, then.”

“So can you give me a little background before I say yes?”

“Of course,” Landry said without missing a beat, all practicality. “My sister Sarah started growing marijuana when it became legal a few years ago. She found a couple of good strains and learned how to grow the stuff. She’s very good at it.

“The laws around cultivation are complex, and bank loans aren’t possible. I loaned her money to get started and helped her navigate becoming part owner of a dispensary that’s now a retail outlet as well. Last year she began to make real money at it and invested her profit in the systems that would take her operation to a much larger scale.”

He waved his hand in a vague, dismissive gesture. “Large, very expensive lights, a drip irrigation system, some kind of chemical regulation equipment for the hydroponics. From rooting a cutting to its harvest, marijuana runs on a four month cycle. She staggers those cycles to sustain a monthly yield from her new system. Last week, when she was nearly ready to harvest her current crop, someone broke into the barn, doused all the plants with gasoline, smashed half the lights with a baseball bat, and tore up the irrigation system.”

I shifted my vision to check on Landry’s aura. It was seething. “And you suspect your stepsister Marianne Ellis? Statistics show vandalism is usually the work of an angry male.”

“I’m certain of it.” Landry’s smile was grim. “And I wouldn’t put it past her to have hired a thug to do it for her. I’ll brief you on our toxic family constellation if you’re wondering about the different last names, but I’ll wait until you agree to investigate before I show you all our family’s filthy laundry. For the moment, I’ll just say that Marianne is a ruthless bitch with embarrassingly bloated social pretensions. Having a sibling growing marijuana in a conservative ranching community does not advance them.”

“What do the police have to say about it?”

Landry’s face darkened. “I haven’t filed a complaint and won’t. There’s no point. It’s complicated. For one thing, it’s essentially a family matter because it happened on family land.”

An ambulance pulled up at the corner of Pearl and Colfax a block away, its siren howl dying as it stopped. Landry glanced out the front bay window at the sound before turning his attention back to me.

“The Sheriff’s Department is not thrilled with the arrival of marijuana cultivation in the county. All over the state, one hears of stories about ambivalence of law enforcement in protecting the interests of grow operators, so I’m not sure how much help they would actually be, even if I did report it. But the real reason is that the Ellis name still carries some prestige in regional society, and the Ellises want to keep this as quiet as possible.”

He looked up from examining his fingernails, and a genuinely soft, sad expression crossed his face. “It’s pathetic, really, that belief in the clout of a family name persists long after any actual significance is gone.” His face hardened. “This is the twenty-first century. Ranching fell on hard times a long time ago, and the once great Ellis Ranch is on the verge of bankruptcy. More of that story later, too.”

“But isn’t this pointless, then?” I asked. “If you don’t want to go to the police, or the sheriff, I guess, if you’re in unincorporated territory, what are you going to do when you find out for sure who did this? And if Marianne did it, what difference would that make? It strikes me that you’re merely set on getting even. Why would you need proof that it was Marianne? If you’re certain, why not just take your retribution now?”

“I may be an aggressive businessman,” he said with a sharp, cold light in his eye, “and make no mistake that is exactly what I am, but I like to have facts before I take—” He paused and gave me one of the most chilling smiles I’d ever seen, a predator licking his chops in anticipation of an easy kill, “—appropriate measures.”

“I imagine it takes a lot of guts and determination to succeed as a restaurateur,” I said, appalled at the venom in his aura but trying to be tactful. “From what I’ve heard, it’s a perilous profession.”

Landry chuckled, cold and humorless. “The world will carve you up and eat you raw if you aren’t ready to fight back, Russ.” He lifted one elegant, long-fingered hand. “And a chef is only as good as his knife skills. I have no intention of letting that happen to me. Ever.”

Landry uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, and put his forearms on the desk. The motion pushed up his sleeves, exposing a fancy square Tag Heuer watch on his wrist. “So. Do we have an agreement?”

I’d never been able to figure out why, but without trying I had become a specialist in dysfunctional families. Landry was obviously no saint, but then who is? Besides, a private investigator who worked only for saints would starve.

I couldn’t deny family intrigue was fascinating to me. Over the years, I’d encountered a long parade of bizarre relationships, toxic secrets, competition for affection or mere attention, and vendettas. However, I’d also seen reconciliations and witnessed the most beautiful demonstrations of compassion and forgiveness and understanding. I smiled at my own discovery. Maybe I had just figured out why I’d become a specialist in family complexities.

I stuck out my hand. “Yes, I’ll take your assignment. I’ve never had anything to do with marijuana cultivation, so this should be especially educational.”

“Good.” Landry gave my hand a perfunctory shake that said my answer was no surprise to him—he’d expected my agreement before he walked in. At the same moment, he slid his other hand into a jacket pocket and handed me a check. Already made out to me. “A retainer,” he said with cool nonchalance. “You don’t need to create an invoice until you’re done, then we can see what’s left to cover.”

Nodding, I tucked the check into my desk drawer and pulled out my simple one-page engagement letter.

“Now,” Landry said as we finished up the formalities, “you get all the dirty laundry.”

I got ready to take notes.

****

It was a convoluted story, with all the elements of a classic family melodrama, a perfect breeding ground for bad blood. Stanford Ellis, the current owner of the Ellis Ranch, was in his sixties. He’d married young, and sired three children: Stanford Jr., Marianne, and William, who everybody called Billy even though he was now in his late twenties.

When Billy was four, Mrs. Ellis decided the rancher’s life was no longer for her and disappeared, leaving her husband with three small children to raise and a ranch to run.

Stanford, being an old-school rancher, knew that a rancher needed a wife, so he got himself another one— Carolyn Landry, who already had two children of her own by a previous marriage.

Although Carolyn had frequently asked Stanford to formally adopt her two children Evan and Sarah, he’d refused. Maybe it was some vestige of arrogance about the Ellis name and Ellis blood that prevented him from saying yes. Maybe it was something else, but while Stanford Sr. was perfectly decent to his second wife, the two children she had brought into the family remained Landrys.

According to Landry, Stanford Sr. might have been obstinate about that particular issue but was indecisive about everything else. After Carolyn’s death, his refusal to take a firm stand with his brood left the children to cope with each other without many boundaries except, strangely, at the dinner table. There, Stanford controlled everyone’s behavior with a dictator’s fist.

By middle school, an internecine rivalry had begun, with the Ellis children pitted not only against the Landrys, but against each other as well. Each child developed their own way of fighting or at least coping.

Sarah had become something of a Birkenstock hippie, spending more time with animals and plants than people. She did passably well at school and began working for the local rancher’s co-op after graduation.

When she could show that marijuana was a viable cash crop, she negotiated a very favorable lease with Stanford Sr. for space in an old barn the ranch no longer used, complete with water rights.

Evan had stayed under the radar of family conflict as much as possible until he came out in high school, then he defiantly took on all comers. He’d escaped as soon as he could, moving to Denver where being gay wasn’t such a big deal, got a grunt job in a restaurant and learned the business as he worked his way up to chef, managing partner, and, finally, owner.

Stanford Jr. had never really accomplished much of anything. He was smart but chronically unrealistic. He daydreamed, was undisciplined and grandiose, and drank far too much and too often. Marianne was the most social of the Ellis children and went off to study journalism after high school. She was now part of the TV news team at the Grand Junction station. She made sure she was part of all

the social circles on the western slope that counted, few as those were.

Billy wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but was kind and reliable. He and Ellis Senior did all the physical work on the ranch. Billy had gone through high school as a member of Future Farmers of America and 4-H. He’d raised prize-winning animals to show at the county fair. He was born to be a rancher.

Stanford Sr. had made the competition and distrust among the siblings worse by making vague promises and threats about who would inherit parts of the ranch land when he died, and the story changed all the time.

Maybe he thought that was the only club he had to maintain control, but whatever the reason, the lion’s share of blame for sibling animosity rested at the patriarch’s door, as far as Evan Landry was concerned.

“Even though our family dynamic puts a nest of vipers to shame,” Landry said, winding up his story, “Ellis insists that when we are on ranch property, we all eat dinner together.” He gave me a joyless smile. “And you’ll get to join us in that unique pleasure on Monday night.”

That didn’t sound particularly attractive to me.

Landry stood and shrugged his sport jacket into place. “Arrive at the ranch as soon as you can. I’ll introduce you to Stanford Sr. before dinner. He’s promised everyone’s full cooperation, and he’s the only person who can make that promise. So you’ll be operating under his aegis as well as mine.”

He laughed bitterly. “My aegis is not half as far- reaching as Stanford’s, so stay alert. The only reason I’m still tolerated on the property is because I’ve got money and because Sarah’s marijuana operation is now a more reliable income stream than the ranching operation.”

He shook his head. “The Ellises have the land, and the Landrys have the money. You’d think that would offer an easy solution, but family blood and pride seem thicker than poverty and envy. Or their cure.”

“How do I get to you on Monday?”

“Oh, right.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out another piece of paper. “I sketched this map. It’s easy. It’s on the west side of the Gunnison. South of Grand Junction to Whitewater on 51, then west on 141 a few miles. You’ll see the sign for Ellis Ranch, north side of the road. Get there no later than four o’clock. Call me if you get lost.”

We shook hands again, me agreeing to his instructions. He let himself out, and I watched him cross the street toward a high-end Mercedes sedan. Its lights blinked, ready and obedient, as he approached. Evan Landry was used to being the boss.

 

Sunday

Chapter Two

I worked hard to keep my breath rhythmic and steady, if only so I wouldn’t embarrass myself with ragged gasping. Men at different ages had different things to prove, I mused, focusing on my diaphragm to push used-up air out of my lungs.

At twenty, few men needed to prove they could get an erection; at seventy, it might be different, setting aside magic pills. On the other hand, at twenty it was hard to prove excellence in your chosen field, if you even had a chosen field at that age. At seventy, you’d probably have made peace—or at least a truce—with your career. From my vantage point at fifty-three, I seemed obliged to prove most everything. I was about to draw some deep conclusion to my train of thought, but some scree gave way under my boot and derailed it. I nearly fell on my face.

Here on a steep Flatirons trail outside Boulder, Colin Stewart didn’t need to prove he was equal to the climb, whereas I felt obliged to keep up with him even though he was half my age. Pride can be a bigger bully than a drill sergeant.

Colin’s sturdy calves bunched and released as he clambered up the escarpment ahead of me, his hiking boots bouncing from one toehold to another. The trail wasn’t heart-stoppingly difficult, even for me, and following his firm shorts-clad backside at close range certainly made the tougher parts of the trail more rewarding. The Sunday morning sun, still fairly low behind us warmed our backs and turned the fine hair on his tanned legs to spun gold.

Lust for spun gold was another powerful inspiration to keep up.

As I pulled myself up around a boulder already May- morning warm, I admitted that hiking with a young man who, for some unfathomable reason, found me desirable was the standard stuff of midlife fantasies. Most gay men my age would be trembling with excitement, asked out on a date with an adorable young thing who made no secret he wanted more than just a date. But adorable and young as Colin was, he definitely wasn’t just a thing. He deserved much more than I could give him.

The trail’s incline eased, and I filled with more gratitude than I should have felt.

The way I saw it, the reality of a fifty-something-year- old man being pursued by someone as young, intelligent, and sweet as Colin Stewart posed a much more complex problem than any midlife fantasy. I had serious reservations. When I thought about a relationship with him, I immediately felt responsible for his happiness, and my sobriety had no room for such bald codependence. Worse, I was fighting a losing battle to suppress an old shame I didn’t want to face.

Sweat tickled down my spine in a steady little stream. With a mixture of relief and arousal, I stared at a moisture- darkened V forming on the back of Colin’s khaki shorts, starting just below his belt. Never mind he was carrying our lunch and all the water in his daypack. At least he was sweating, too. It seemed only fair.

He twisted to look down at me, his face damp, radiantly happy under the wide brim of his hat. “Let’s stop for water,” he said. “Even on a trail like this, it’s important to stay hydrated.”

“What do you mean, even on a trail like this?” I panted, trying not to feel embarrassed.

Colin laughed, pulling a big blue bandana from his hip pocket and tilting his hat back to wipe his forehead. “I didn’t mean it that way. Really. This is work for me, too.” He hitched his pack into place. “I meant a short outing. We’ll be back in Denver in a few hours.”

“Still plenty of time to see the rest of my life flash before my eyes, I guess.”

“You’re doing great,” he said, holding out his hand to me. I took it, and he pulled me up next to him. Close. He cocked a thumb at his backpack and turned away from me. “Dig us out some water.”

As I pulled out a bottle, I admitted he was right. I was in much better than average shape for my age. But I wasn’t twenty-five like Colin, and he certainly wasn’t fifty- something. And therein lay the root problem for us, as I saw it.

Us. I handed Colin the water and watched him tilt his head back to drink, watched his throat move as he swallowed. I wanted to feel that motion under my tongue. There couldn’t be any “us,” not in the long run.

He must have felt me staring, because he gave me a knowing smile and slowly licked his lips. “Like what you see, Russ?”

“You know I do.”

“Well, I like what I see, too.” He handed me the water bottle, staring me in the eye. “A lot.”

I couldn’t bring myself to accept what he said was true, but I knew he wasn’t lying. His aura showed no guile when he said it, not a flicker. I got vertigo when he talked like that. I took a long pull of water, not wanting to think about what the lust in my own aura might look like in that moment.

“Time for us to get back on the trail, don’t you think?” It was lame of me to change the subject like that, but I wasn’t feeling brave. Colin gazed at me for a moment, eyes cool, and shrugged.

Ashamed of my cowardice, I stuffed the water back in his pack and off we went again.

****

“I love the climb, but I love the view from the top even more.” Colin made a slow three-sixty, turning first to the mountains and foothills to the north, then the flatland stretching out to the east under its Front Range brown cloud, and finally, endless mountains to the south and west.

“It’s magnificent,” I agreed, pulling in lungfuls of air so fresh the ozone stung my nostrils.

“That’s what I wanted to do to you, too,” he said, not breaking his gaze from the higher hills behind us. “First time I saw you, I wanted to climb you so bad.”

“Climb the mountain just because it was there?”

“Not at all,” he said, turning to scowl at me. “And it’s not just physical. When you told me about how you read auras and what it felt like, that was it. I wanted to move in with you right then.” He laughed. “And climb your mountain.” He gave me his evil grin, the one that scared the crap out of me because it cut straight through my rational defenses to fire me up. “I’ll bet the view from your peak is fabulous. Bet I’d see shooting stars from it.”

I laughed in spite of myself but kept staring at the snow-covered peaks to the west. I could feel Colin’s eyes on me as he waited for me to say something. I filled my lungs with air and let it out slowly, grateful I was no longer panting.

He deserved my honesty, if nothing else, even if I wasn’t proud of what I had to say. I turned to face him. “We should talk.”

Colin grinned and shook his head in mock amazement. “I was beginning to think you’d never say that.” He pointed to a flat rock at the edge of the lookout and shrugged out of his backpack. “Let’s eat while we do.” It was a little intimidating to see how patient and together Colin was. How mature. I followed him to the ledge, feeling like I was the one who needed extra care.

“So,” I said as he spread out the sandwiches. “I should start by saying that I’m really flattered by your interest in me.”

“But,” Colin said quietly.

“No but. Full stop. I can’t describe how good it feels to be desired by someone as young, smart, and beautiful as you.” I stared into his elfin green eyes, fascinated at their almond shape and hypnotic depth. I felt naked—and not in a good way. I looked away. “It’s also terrifying. I need to tell you a little story.”

I put down my sandwich, knowing I couldn’t eat until I got this out. “Almost fifteen years ago, shortly after I got sober, I met a beautiful young man. I was pushing forty, he was in his twenties. We liked each other. A lot. We dated. We had great sex, we shared a lot of interests in spite of our age difference. I fell hard.”

The memory hurt so much I had to close my eyes. “Fell so damn hard.” My voice cracked, so I took a drink of water and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I felt Colin watching me, but I couldn’t look at him.

“One day, a few weeks into our affair…” My throat stopped working. In a moment, I tried again. “He’d stayed over, we were having breakfast. I pushed a set of keys to my house across the table to him, and asked him to move in with me. He put down his coffee cup, looked at me, and said, ‘I’ve thought about that, and realized that in twenty years I don’t want to wake up next to a sixty-year-old man.’ Then he got up from the table, kissed the top of my head, gathered up his things and left. We never spoke again.” As painful as it was, it felt good to have said it aloud.

“Jesus, Russ.”

“I felt so incredibly ashamed. I might have been able to change my behavior, or my work, or any number of other things to keep us together, but I could do absolutely nothing about my age. My ‘best used by’ date had long passed, apparently, even though I was so sure it hadn’t.” I laughed because I didn’t want to cry. “And now it’s over a dozen years past that.”

I shifted to face him square on. “It sounds melodramatic, but it nearly killed me. I came within a cat’s whisker of picking up a drink again, and for me to drink is to die. I can’t risk getting drunk again, I don’t think I’m strong enough to survive it.”

I stared at him, cherishing the way the sun lit the sheen of sweat on his ruddy cheeks. “I wish to hell it weren’t so, but I’m just too old for you, Colin. A relationship with you would be wonderful, I’m certain. But I’m not resilient enough to survive another breakup like that, just because I’m too old.”

“But I—”
“No, let me finish. You’re twenty-five—” “Twenty-six.”

“Twenty-six. You’ve got your whole life in front of you. I’ve lived most of mine. As wonderful as our life together might be, a moment would come when you looked at me with disgust. You’d ask yourself what the hell you were thinking when you took up with me.” I hoped my smile didn’t show my pain at saying good-bye to something precious. “I’m sorry. But thank you just the same. Your interest makes me feel young, even if I’m not.”

Colin didn’t say anything, just stared out at the prairie as he chewed on his sandwich. I tucked into mine, grateful to have something nonverbal to do. Halfway through my sandwich, I saw him put his down.

“I know how old you are, Russ. I like how old you are. Maybe you think there’s something wrong with me for wanting you, some psychological kink that makes me a freak.” He took a deep breath, sighed it out, and shrugged. “It sure would be more convenient if I could find partnership material in younger men. Believe me, I’ve tried, and I never have.”

He smiled at me, looking sad. “I have a story for you, too. About two men in Ireland. I want you to listen with an open mind. Really open.” He patted the back of my hand like a patient teacher encouraging a struggling child.

“Their names are Patrick Scott and Eric Pearce. Eric was twenty when he met Patrick. Patrick was fifty-six. They were partners for thirty-seven years. Do you know the statistics for any couple staying together that long, regardless of age? They did pretty well. When they got married in October of 2013, Patrick was ninety-three, and Eric was fifty-seven. Patrick died in February of last year. Maybe they knew that was coming, or maybe they just decided to get married because they finally could. Whatever the reason, they did. They had a long and wonderful life together.”

He looked at me, as if checking my face for a sign of agreement, or at least comprehension. “So, don’t tell me it’s impossible. Sure, it’s rare, and maybe we don’t go the distance like they did. All I’m saying is, don’t rule me out just because of our age difference. I’m sorry someone else hit you over the head with that, but I can promise you I will never say what he said to you.”

He gave me his devilish grin again. His teeth were a little crooked, and to me, they made him even more adorable. Mischievous. He patted my bare knee this time, and his warm hand was an angel’s touch.

“There are plenty of other reasons out there for parting ways, that’s for sure. If we break up, it will be for one of them.” He threw his head back and laughed, wild and free. “Here we are talking about breaking up, and we haven’t even started yet. How crazy is that?”

I nodded, forced to agree. “It’s crazy, all right.” His logic was impeccable, even if it didn’t do much to change the knot in my guts. That was the trouble with logic. It can peel away the most rational arguments and still never touch the heart. Below the neck, logic is the flimsiest form of persuasion.

Unpersuaded, my heart was walking along a precipice without so much as a path to follow. One sudden gust of wind, one misplaced foot, and I could be dead. I hated that the beauty of the view from this deadly cliff was so exhilarating.

“I’ll have to go slow,” I said, feeling strangely liberated at giving in. “I can’t… In spite of your story, I’m still scared. I’ll need all your patience. Lots of it.”

His smile was glorious as a sunrise and every bit as triumphant. Without another word, he took out his phone and took a selfie of us sitting side by side on that rocky ledge above a chasm. Our first photo, I thought, as if we were starting a scrapbook. Don’t say that, I scolded myself. That’s way too fast.

****

By the time we got back to Denver, it was late afternoon. We were happily tired, dusty, sweaty, and hungry.

“Thank you for today,” Colin said as soon as we were inside my apartment. “For everything.”

He stepped into my space and wrapped his arms around me, tentative and warm. Our first hug, I thought as my arms hauled him in. He lifted his face to me, asking silently for a kiss. Our first kiss. Sweet and fresh as a tree-ripe peach.

“Let me take a shower here, and I’ll make you dinner out of whatever you have in your fridge.” He wriggled in my arms. “Or maybe take a shower with me?”

I shook my head. “Too soon” was all I could croak out, even though I knew he could feel my erection through our clothes.

“Can I shower here, though? I have fresh clothes in my pack.”

“Sure,” I said, feeling cornered. “I’ll get you a towel.”

While Colin showered, I rummaged around in the kitchen for what we could eat, finding enough for a decent omelet and salad. I was arranging things on the counter when I heard the floorboards creak behind me. I turned and stopped breathing.

He stood wrapped in my towel and nothing else—wide- eyed, vulnerable, lips parted, his blond hair spiked damp and wild, his creamy lean body graceful and glowing. Without taking my eyes from his, I let my loaf of bread land somewhere on the counter behind me.

“My god, you’re… so beautiful.” It was all I could say. I could hear the awe in my voice, but I wasn’t embarrassed by it. It was the truth.

He walked to where I stood paralyzed, put his arms around my neck. His towel fell, bunching around his feet.

My hands found his waist, and the smooth small of his back. Then some dam inside me crumbled, and the crashing flood from behind it seized me. My mouth was on his neck, on his forehead, lips, eyelids. My hands caressed everything they could touch, frantic to discover. He began pulling my shirt out of my cargo shorts.

“I should shower first,” I muttered.

“Don’t you dare,” he said, breathing hard. “I want you just the way you are. Let’s go upstairs.”

****

Significantly delayed, the omelets and salad turned out pretty well. We made them together, navigating in my tiny kitchen with only minor collisions. We laughed at where I’d decided to put spices, staples, and utensils in my kitchen, bantered about how illogical my choices had been.

Dinner itself was quiet, comfortable. It was clear neither of us wanted to be anywhere else. Eventually, we agreed to do the dishes.

“I have to be at work early tomorrow,” Colin said as he stretched plastic wrap over the leftover salad. “Is it okay if I stay here tonight? You’re a lot closer to downtown than I am.”

“Ah,” I joked. “A relationship of convenience. Now it all comes clear.”

He stuck his tongue out at me. “Sure. It’s taken me months of dogged pursuit to run you to ground, just so I wouldn’t have to go home tonight. That was my evil plan all along.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Well, I have to go to work tomorrow, too, for a new client over on the Western slope. I’ll have to be out of here by nine and gone for four or five days. Strange business. I probably shouldn’t say more.” His face hardened, and I hurried to head off any misunderstanding. “I’m not holding out on you. I just… I feel protective of you. I didn’t think you really wanted to be burdened with the details of my work, which are seldom pretty.”

I watched his face and aura soften again. He smiled. “I know. It’s sweet of you, really, but eventually you’ll realize I’m not made of glass. Anyway, I’ll be long gone by the time you leave. I have to be at work by seven. Big trial coming up, and all us paralegals will be going through discovery documents for at least a week.”

A fear niggled at me. “Do you think I was a jerk for not talking about my assignment?”

Colin shrugged. “I hope we get to share parts of our work life, too. I want that, whenever you’re ready to do it.”

So the answer was yes, or at least probably. Was my reticence mere habit or real discretion? It wasn’t really a virtue to keep secrets just because I’d had no one to talk to for so long. I’d have to relearn how and what to share.

When we’d finished tidying, I fired up the dishwasher. “Do you want to watch a movie? I have Netflix on my TV. Or the Rockies game is playing on Altitude tonight, I think.”

“We’d have to sit on the bed to watch, right? Is that your only TV?”

I could feel my neck and face heat up. From guilt, mostly, because although I was looking forward to cuddling, I hadn’t tried to arrange it. “Yup, that’s the only one.”

“Good,” he said, running his tongue along his upper lip. “No place I’d rather be right now.”

We locked up, pulled the blinds, turned out the lights, and climbed the stairs. Doing those things with him felt… comfortable, familiar. Was that prophetic? Wishful thinking? I had no idea.

After the third inning, Colin stood up and shucked his clothes, folding them on an armchair. “I can’t stay awake any longer,” he said, yawning. He looked over his shoulder at me, caught me staring at his sweet tan lines, and twerked his perfect little ass at me. “No more of that tonight. Hope you don’t mind. Gotta save my energy for tomorrow.”

In a swirl of lust and relief, I tried to decide if I minded. I didn’t.

“So do I,” I said, feeling stupidly happy. I got up and found a new toothbrush for him.

After I turned out the light, Colin curled himself into my side. I don’t think I’d ever held anything so angelic. I kissed the soft-spiky top of his head, feeling my solitary life ready to scatter into chaos.

Maybe it was a mistake to have him in my bed. What if it was? I wanted him there anyway. I watched over him until his breathing shifted into the languid waves of sleep.

 

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