The three men stood out in the driveway, crunching the gravel as they shifted their feet. Philip rested one foot on the lowest rung of the wooden fence while Stewart and Aimes leaned their back against the structure. Together they looked back at the white double-storey house. It still looked beautiful to them, as warm and inviting as the first time they had seen it years ago. A lot of work had gone into it over the passage of time, as each year brought an improvement of one kind or another. Aimes especially had contributed the most to its up keeping, but despite their best efforts, they had to admit it now needed some major repair works.
Stewart screened his eyes with one hand and nodded his head at what Aimes was saying. “This isn’t a job for one man, Aimes. You will need help.”
Aimes looked somber, his eyes hooded. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I could try to …”
Philip cut him off. “No Aimes. There’s no way you alone can fix this. Some parts of the roof structure are starting to decay and need to be replaced and it’s also time we treated the beams. See over there,” Philip pointed. “… I don’t like the look of that.”
All three men stared in silence.
“It’s a huge job. The expense …” Aimes groaned with frustration.
Stewart clapped a hand on Aimes’ back. “We’re good for that, my friend. In case you’ve forgotten we’ve got a very diligent and competent young man keeping our books, and he tells us we are financially sound and more than able to take care of this professionally.”
Philip grinned. “And he would know what he is talking about! He’s a hawk when it comes to such things.”
Aimes looked slightly relieved. “He sure is – no one knows his stuff better than Ben. Why isn’t he here anyway?”
Philip grinned. “Why else do you think? He’s got a mountain of work he says he needs to clear; he was extremely happy to get a weekend to himself! I would have had to spank him if I had insisted he came with us.”
Stewart and Aimes grinned back.
“So do you have someone in mind for the job?” Aimes asked. Now that he had reconciled himself to the fact that he alone could not carry out the necessary repairs, he was impatient to have the repairs under way. More than anyone else, Aimes had stayed there the most and Willcott was his home.
“We’ve got the perfect person in mind,” Stewart announced cheerfully. “An old family friend, Robert Williams. He is a builder by profession and has been running his own construction company in Ashley Downs for years.”
Aimes frowned. “Your hometown? Isn’t that a bit far?”
“You are right, but Robert is selling his business in Ashley Downs. Lock, stock and barrel. Major decision, but he’s made up his mind and wants a total change. He’ll be visiting us next week to close the deal and I am thinking of bringing him here for a look-see. Get his opinion on what needs to be done, on a consultation basis. He may or may not want to take the job but he’ll at least be able to advise us. He’s family, we can trust him.”
Stewart put the slightest of emphasis on the last part of his sentence and waited for Aimes’ reaction. He had also been careful to imply that the job was by no means sealed, and that Robert was just going to be consulted. Aimes was not a man who waited for things to happen but he also didn’t like being rushed into situations. Stewart wasn’t foolish enough to believe that anything could be done at Willcott without Aimes’ approval, no matter how tacit.
“That’s fine.” Aimes nodded his head in agreement after a moment’s pause. His distrust of strangers was notorious. The minute Stewart had mentioned that Robert was a family friend, the suggestion had gone down much better.
“Good then,” Stewart said easily. “I’ll call you to let you know when we’ll be up here again. I think you will find Robert to be a sensible man and more than trustworthy.”
Aimes’ powerful jaw worked for a moment before he said, “We don’t want some fancy contractor over projecting and over charging on every single little thing. I can do most of those. We just need someone to fix the major problems.”
Philip hooted with laughter. “Robert’s as down to earth as you get, Aimes! No airs about him. Don’t worry, not about Robert and not about the costs.”
“You’ve done more than enough over the years,” Stewart said with real warmth in his voice. “You’ve no idea how much you’ve saved us already with all the work you’ve put in. We know how rigorously you inspect every inch of the place. Your constant repairs and fixing things up have kept everything in top condition. This place would be in ruins by now if it weren’t for you!”
Philip agreed immediately. “True! The fact that you agreed to live here alone has been a huge benefit for The Fraternity. We would have had to close the place up for months if we didn’t have you. Instead this feels like home every time we come. A house needs to be lived in.”
Aimes’ face was gruff, displaying none of his true feelings at his friends’ gratitude. He was a hard man, toughened further by what life had dealt him. He turned away without answering to survey the hills in the distance and the other two men followed his gaze, appreciating the breath-taking sight.
“You know Aimes,” Stewart said, in a softer tone. “It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for you to come visit us every now and then.”
When it was apparent Aimes wasn’t going to respond, Philip threw Stewart a meaningful glance and said as casually as he could, “When was the last time you visited anyway?”
Aimes glared. “If you don’t remember, I sure as hell don’t either!” His piercing blue eyes darkened as he turned them on his companions. “We are not about to have this conversation again, are we?”
They did it almost every year.
“Well, why not?” Stewart persisted. “We do want you to visit.”
“You can’t live here all year round without any company Aimes. It’s just not right!” Philip added.
“Who says I can’t?” Aimes asked belligerently. “And just to get the record straight, I don’t live here all year round without company. I get plenty of that over the summer – more than is good for my health damnit. Whole bunch of you turning up and making enough mess and ruckus to tear the place apart.”
Stewart and Philip listened docilely as Aimes grunted out his grievances, which none of them believed for a moment. They continued to quietly admire the view and waited for the tirade to finish, before Stewart threw an arm affably over Aimes’ shoulders.
“Aimes, you know you are not fooling either of us, don’t you?” Stewart’s eyes crinkled with amusement.
“That’s right,” Philip said with a laugh. “Who makes sure the place is fit to house us before we arrive? Who stocks up food to feed the army, gets the rooms aired and makes up the beds?”
Aimes rolled his eyes.
“The truth is you look forward to summer as much as we do,” Stewart’s voice was half serious, half teasing.
“The hell I do!” Aimes’ tone was sharp but his eyes belied his words. He did a good job of scowling and demanded roughly, “Just make sure this Robert Williams of yours is as good as you say he is or you may not have a roof over your head this summer!”
Stewart’s face lit up when he saw Marcus’ car in the driveway. He quickly parked behind and reached for his overnight bag in the back seat. With a light step, he ran up the front porch and opened the door. Throwing his car keys into the bowl on a side table, he called out.
“Honey … I’m home …”
He stopped short as he turned into the living room and was confronted with a damp-haired young man standing next to the sofa, regarding him with an anxious look on his face.
“Hello?” Stewart advanced further into the room and raised his brows. “I’m Stewart.”
The young man blushed but his hand was steady as he held it out. “Hi, my name is Oliver. I’m … um, Marcus is … um …”
One look and Stewart knew this could not be a colleague from the office. For one thing he was way too young. Seeing Oliver’s discomfort, he continued in an easy voice. “Oh, Marcus’ friend? Nice to meet you. Did you just arrive?”
“Y-yes, we did.”
Stewart’s opened his eyes but refrained from further questioning. Something didn’t feel right but that conversation would have to be made somewhere else. “Where’s Marcus? Is he upstairs?”
“Yes. He’s in the shower I believe.” Oliver’s lashes fluttered as he felt Stewart’s scrutiny.
“Ah … right then.” Stewart smiled in a friendly way and gestured to the sofa. “Why don’t you make yourself at home, Oliver, while I go up and look for Marcus? I just got back myself from an overnight trip. Oh, can I get you a drink before I go?”
Oliver politely declined and Stewart headed up the stairs, going directly to the master bedroom. Closing the door quietly behind him, he could hear the sound of water running. He dropped his bag next to the bed and walked into the bathroom. The timing was perfect: the water was shut off and Marcus was just getting ready to come out of the shower stall. Stewart reached for the big fluffy towel and held it up, waiting silently.
The shower door opened and their eyes met. Stewart grinned as Marcus broke into a smile, the joy on his face immediate and spontaneous. Mixed into that was also a brief look of panic which disappeared almost immediately, but not quickly enough to escape Stewart.
Definitely something was up.
Without a word, Stewart wrapped Marcus in the towel and pulled him into his arms. He kissed him slowly, his tongue darting teasingly into Marcus’ mouth. “Hi honey,” Stewart murmured as his lips brushed over Marcus’ wet face.
Marcus leaned against his Top and sighed with contentment. Being wrapped up like a baby and held so possessively was incredibly comforting, especially after what he had been through. A huge wave of relief shot through Marcus. All of a sudden he felt the weight lifted from his shoulders and he struggled to free his arms from the towel so that he could throw them around Stewart’s neck. He needed to touch him badly, to return his embrace, and perhaps to believe that everything would be ok now that Stewart was here.
“I’ve missed you!” Marcus hissed, kissing Stewart back hungrily.
Stewart obligingly let the towel drop and ran his hands over Marcus’ back, pulling him even closer so that they could feel one another’s heartbeat. Marcus ground his pelvis into Stewart and felt the responding twitch. He smiled triumphantly and moved his hands down, beginning to unbuckle Stewart’s belt.
“Sweetheart,” Stewart took a breath as he stopped Marcus’ hands. “I would love to have this continue, but we do have a guest downstairs. Or have you forgotten?”
A shadow fell across Marcus’ face. “Oh.”
“Yes. Oh.” Stewart patted Marcus’ naked bum, and then bent and picked the towel off the floor and handed it to him. “We are definitely going to continue this later tonight baby, but for now why don’t you get dressed?”
Marcus made a face but trotted obediently over to the chest of drawers and pulled out a pair of boxers. Bending to slip them on, he looked sideways at Stewart. “I take it you’ve met Oliver?”
“Yes, I have.”
“You must be wondering who he is … huh?” Marcus said lamely, stalling for time. He still had no idea what he was going to tell Stewart, or more importantly how much. In a casual tone, he began. “Well. You’ll never believe it. Um … He’s an old friend, whom I happened to run into …. Oh hell!” Marcus flung his hands out in a gesture of defeat and let out a deep breath.
Pathetic! Five seconds – that was all I lasted. But I can’t do it. I can’t lie about this.
Stewart had stiffened but he said nothing. Instead, he lowered himself onto their bed and patted the space next to him. “Come.” He pulled Marcus down beside him.
Marcus turned and looked at Stewart, his eyes troubled. “I – I’ve got something to tell you.”
Stewart nodded his head and said softly, “its ok honey. Take your time.”
Marcus swallowed and stared at his toes, avoiding eye contact. Not really understanding why, he suddenly found it impossible to look Stewart in the eye.
It isn’t even my fault to begin with so why am I feeling so damn guilty? Jeez …“
Christian was there – at the resort.”
There! Said it. Blurted it out more like.
Marcus inwardly cringed at the sharpness in Stewart’s tone. He ventured a glance in Stewart’s direction and found Stewart steadfastly regarding him, eyes penetratingly intense. Marcus felt a shiver run through him.
“I didn’t plan it or anything! I had no idea he would be there!” Marcus said defensively.
Stewart shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts. His voice, when he spoke, was very much milder than before. “I’m sorry Marcus. You took me by surprise. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” He took a deep breath. “So Christian was there, at the same hotel? Christian Lowen?”
“Did he see you?”
Marcus found himself nodding, his voice temporarily lost. A huge abyss was gradually opening up right in front of him and he had absolutely no idea how he was going to get across it.
Yeah, he saw me. He not only saw me, but we talked. We not only talked but he invited me to his room. And guess what? - he not only invited me to his room but I WENT!!!
“Babe?” Stewart had noticed Marcus tense up. His own voice was tight when he asked, “What happened?”
Marcus opened his mouth and failed to produce any sound. Alarmed, Stewart grabbed Marcus’ hand and squeezed it gently. “What is it Marcus? Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
Marcus shook his head and gave a shaky laugh. “No?”
Stewart refused to let go of the hand he was holding. If anything, he held it tighter. He stared hard at Marcus, trying to read his expression. The shaky laugh, instead of relieving him had made him even more apprehensive. He said very firmly. “Tell me what happened, Marcus.”
That’s an order. No doubt about that.
With a shudder, Marcus began to relate what had happened. Stewart listened without interruption, his thumb gently massaging Marcus’ knuckles as he talked. It took quite a bit of will-power for Stewart to sit still. He forced himself not react or jump up and shake Marcus like he really wanted to do at one point.
Oblivious to Stewart’s emotions, Marcus rambled on. “I wasn’t thinking of going to meet him at first I swear. I wasn’t even sure what to do. I was so upset, you know, just seeing him there? But after thinking it through, I realized it was something I had to do, Stewart. On my own. I remembered what you told me.” He looked into Stewart’s eyes. “Remember, you told me there was nothing Christian could do to me if I stood up to him and that I had nothing to be afraid of. And you were right, darling.”
Stewart shook his head, momentarily lost for words.
Marcus batted his eyelashes, hoping he looked innocent and brave at the same time.
Stewart drew in another deep breath and released Marcus’ hand. “So let me get this straight. You actually went to Christian’s room, all by yourself?”
Of all the things I told him, he had to pick that up? And harp on that particular point?
“I had to Stewart!”
“For heaven’s sake, Marcus!”
“He would have created a scene!” Marcus’ voice was almost a whine.
“And did you really think he would have?” Unable to stay still a minute longer, Stewart got up and began to pace. “My God, Marcus, how could you put yourself into such danger?”
“I – I just didn’t want his shadow hanging over me any more.”
“And you did that by going to meet him? Alone in his hotel room? Marcus, are you out of your mind?” Stewart demanded.
“A-all we did was talk.” Marcus voice began to shake. “Honest! He asked me how I was and we chatted for a bit. It was all quite casual and civilized and … and nothing happened.” Marcus paused, ever honest. “Well at one point there was some commotion … but that was in the next room … and yeah, something did happen there and it will sound pretty bad to you … though that has nothing to do with me and does not mean ... well, anyway coming back to this, I went because I wanted to stand up to him. And also … um, to apologize for having run off without a word. Not that I owed him. I mean he was a bastard and all. But still, I thought that was the decent thing to do … and I did just that. That’s the only reason I went!” Marcus realized he was not only babbling but also giving away way too much unnecessary information and quickly added. “And then I left.”
“You are lucky nothing happened.” Stewart snapped. “I wouldn’t trust someone like that to behave in any decent way and …. God! The thought of him tracking you there … and inviting you to his room. What kind of maniac is he?”
“We don’t know that!” Marcus protested hotly. “He said he was there with some friends.”
“Sure. And you believed him?”
Marcus flushed hotly. He stood up as well and faced Stewart squarely. “Look Stewart, everything turned out well. I made it clear what my position was … is and he accepted it. It’s like a load off my chest. You have no idea! It felt so good. I’m never going to be afraid of seeing him or running into him again. That’s all that matters! So please can we let it go?”
Stewart looked grim. “No, that’s not all that matters and no, we are not letting it go because I am not finished. Let me ask you this. Why didn’t you call me to let me know what was happening? And why didn’t you say anything when I called you later that night?”
Marcus looked as affronted as he possibly could. “Well!”
"Well what?” Stewart tapped his foot. “I’m waiting Marcus.”
Marcus clenched his fists, resisting the urge to pound at Stewart’s chest. “Why can’t you let this go, Stewart?”
Stewart was like a rock – solid, unyielding and immovable. “Why did you not say anything when I called you?”
Marcus heaved a deep breath and lost it.
“Because I didn’t know what to say!” Marcus almost shouted in his frustration. “I knew you would get upset, just like now. Look at you! I didn’t want you to be upset and be unable to do anything about it. I had the situation under control. I had it covered. I am adult, and I handled it. I made a judgment call. You didn’t need to know anything at that time. OK?”
“No.” Stewart’s voice was like icy cold water over burning coals. “That is NOT ok, Marcus. And do not raise your voice at me please.”
Marcus dropped his eyes to the floor, desperately keeping the tears from starting. His eyes stung but he stubbornly refused to back down. “You are not being fair,” he whispered shakily.
“How am I not being fair?” Stewart demanded. “We have a rule which we both agreed on, a relatively simple rule. Let me remind you what it is. No lying. Easy and simple. It means you tell me the truth. All the time. It is not a selective rule. You don’t get to decide when you tell the truth and when you can hide information from me. Isn’t that what we agreed?”
Marcus sniffed. There was nothing he could say to that.
“Yes!” Marcus snapped. “Yes, we agreed. I agreed. I admit that.”
“But you resent it now.” It was a statement.
“Yes.” Marcus raised hot eyes to Stewart. “I resent it because I was only thinking of you. I thought about how horrible it would make you feel if I told you when you are not there and cannot help me. I was only trying to be considerate and thoughtful, not deceitful. But now you are twisting it out of all proportions!”
Stewart folded his arms across his chest and waited for Marcus to finish ranting. When Marcus finally stopped, he asked mildly, ‘Feeling better now?”
Undecided whether to continue to be angry or not, Marcus gave his Top a ferocious glare for good measure and turned away, his back to Stewart. That was a huge mistake and he immediately felt the sharp sting of a swat on his bottom before Stewart pulled him around to face him.
“Don’t you turn your back on me, young man,” Stewart reprimanded but there was not much sting in the tone. “Have you finished with your tantrum yet?”
“I am not throwing a tantrum!” Marcus grunted indignantly.
“Good! We can talk properly then. Sit down please!” Stewart pulled Marcus unceremoniously down onto the end of the bed and he himself settled down beside him, their shoulders touching.
Marcus sat rigidly, bent his head and stared at his feet, but the warmth from Stewart’s body was inviting and he soon found himself relaxing into Stewart. When Stewart spoke, his voice was surprisingly gentle. “I know you weren’t being deceitful intentionally.”
“And I also understand how you must have felt. I do appreciate your concern, and being thoughtful and all.”
“I definitely am not trying to twist things around or to hurt you.”
Marcus’ anger was rapidly receding and replaced by a quivering lip instead. He didn’t trust himself to speak.
“Look at me, babe,” Stewart said, holding Marcus’ chin and turning his face so they could look at one another. “I just … you scared the hell out of me for a moment. I thought something had happened …” Stewart let go of the chin and slowly folded Marcus into his arms. He hugged him tightly. “I couldn’t bear it if he had done anything to hurt you.”
Marcus buried his face into Stewart’s shoulder, his arms going around Stewart and holding on tight. “I know. It was a risk going alone. It was stupid, I know that now. In fact I knew that as soon as I went. I’m sorry for scaring you.”
“It’s ok darling.” Stewart rubbed Marcus’ back soothingly. “We make mistakes and we learn. I’m just relieved you didn’t get hurt. But you seriously need to think things through more carefully next time – you may not be this lucky all the time!”
Marcus nodded. He didn’t want to move away from Stewart. It felt so safe in his arms.
“Stewart, I am sorry for shouting at you too,” Marcus said in a small voice. “That was uncalled for.”
Stewart sighed. “Babe, the issue here is not about you making a bad decision by going to Christian’s room alone, but you not telling me about it. It’s about withholding vital information which you should have shared with me. You had every opportunity to do it and you didn’t. Even when I asked you that night if everything was all right, you didn’t say anything. You didn’t outright lie to me, but you weren’t exactly truthful as well. That makes the same grade as lying. Do you understand?”
It was hard to pout with your face in someone’s shirt but Marcus managed a pretty decent job of it. “Even if I have a darn good reason for it?” he asked.
“Even then,” Stewart said with a small smile.
“B-but there was nothing you could do!” There was that whine again but that was one of the advantages of being the Brat in this kind of relationship. You could let yourself go, be your own self and whine and your Top would understand and love you for it.
“That is not for you to decide, Marcus.” Stewart shrugged Marcus off his shoulder and turned to look at him. “You don’t seem to get it. You cannot decide what I should be told and when. Never mind if I was not there, or I could not do anything to help you. I still needed to be told.”
Marcus’s lashes dropped and covered his expression. “You would have stopped me from going.’
“Probably,” Stewart said succinctly.
“But it turned out all right and I did make the right decision,” Marcus pointed out.
“We are not disputing that point, darling. What I am discussing here with you instead is about you NOT telling me about your decision to go. Especially for something important like this.” Stewart drove his point home. “You could have been in a dangerous situation. What if something had happened in that room – did you think of the consequences? How would that help with me not knowing where you were? And just for the record, there are things I can do even from a distance. Minimally I could have called the resort, alerted the security, or get someone to check on you. There’s always something I can do and you need to let me have that choice and not take it away from me. Do you understand what I am saying, honey?”
He was reluctant to admit it but Marcus knew Stewart was right. He made perfect sense and Marcus had known all along. Not telling Stewart was a huge mistake and he suspected he would soon be paying a high price for it.
“Yes, I do.” Marcus decided to go for the meek and subdued approach. “You are right and I should have told you. I’m sorry. Again. So – we’ve had the talk, I understand what I did wrong, we’re all right now?”
Stewart looked at Marcus, one eyebrow raised. It was his trademark look. “What do you think, Marcus?”
Marcus’ eyes widened. “Oliver is downstairs. We – we shouldn’t keep him waiting too long?”
Stewart smirked. “No we shouldn’t. And don’t worry, I am not about to spank you with a stranger in the house. We’ll have to put this on hold for the time being. And speaking of Oliver, who is he and how exactly did you run into him?”
“Is everything all right?” Oliver whispered.
“Yes,” Marcus said nonchalantly. “Of course it is. I told Stewart you would be staying here a couple of nights, till you work something out. He’s fine with it.”
“I heard shouting just now.” Oliver’s eyes were troubled. “I should go. I honestly don’t want to create any problems for you and your partner.”
“You didn’t – it wasn’t about you,” Marcus was quick to reassure him. “And we weren’t really shouting. I just got a big excited about something and maybe raised my voice. Look, don’t worry about it ok?”
Oliver shrugged. “OK if you are sure.” He looked out the window as a car drove up. “So who are these people we are going out to dinner with?”
“Philip and Ben.” Marcus grinned, going to the door. “We see them all the time. You’ll like them.”
Marcus turned out to be right. Oliver took to Philip and Ben immediately, appreciating how warmly they greeted Marcus and how tactfully they refrained from asking any uncomfortable questions about Oliver’s presence. They chatted for a bit but didn’t stop long at the house. Stewart had a quick word with Philip in the kitchen, and then everyone piled into Philip’s SUV to go to dinner, with Stewart in the front and the three of them snugly at the back.
They ended up in one of their favorite places - a near-by Italian restaurant which served great thin crust pizzas that came with generous toppings. They chose a table outside as the night was fine and not too cold. In another couple of weeks, it would be impossible to do that. Ben and Marcus quickly chose their usual favorites and then vied to convince Oliver to select their recommendations. Oliver secretly appreciated their efforts to make him at ease. There was a lot of noise and good-humored teasing and Oliver lost himself in their friendly banter. For a moment he forgot his own troubles and his smile was genuine and his laughter spontaneous.
“So what is it you do, Oliver?” Ben asked conversationally as he bit into his slice of pizza.
Marcus froze but Oliver had been prepared for the inevitable question. “I am a dancer,” he replied easily.
Across the table, Stewart looked at Philip. He had had a quick word with Philip when he had first arrived at the house. There hadn’t been enough time to go through the details but Stewart had wanted to warn him about the situation and that Christian had suddenly emerged. They both paused, waiting to see how Oliver would react.
“Oh really? Professionally you mean?” Oblivious, Ben continued munching and questioning.
“Did you train, or like go to dancing school?”
“Not really. I just picked it up as I went along.” Oliver smiled at Ben’s face and felt mischievous. He decided to give him the shock therapy. “I ran away when I was fifteen; with no money, no friends and no plan whatsoever. I just packed a bag and walked out. I was lucky if I could get a decent meal and a place to stay those days. Dancing school was the last thing on my mind.”
Ben’s face registered shock. Being of a totally practical and sensible nature, he could not fathom how anyone could behave so recklessly.
“That couldn’t have been easy,” Philip said, with enough sympathy to touch Oliver but not to offend. “Have you thought of going back to your parents?”
“Don’t know who they are,” Oliver answered unemotionally. “I was raised in foster homes. They all sucked.”
Marcus and Ben stared at him in silence, neither quite knowing how to respond.
“So you’ve been on your own till now?” Stewart probed gently. He had more history than Philip and Ben since Marcus had filled him in but there was still a lot of missing pieces.
Oliver’s eyes met Marcus’. Not sure how much Stewart knew, and not wanting to lie, he replied as evasively as he could. “Well, I’ve moved around a bit. Picking up jobs where I could. Mostly dancing work.”
“Where did you dance?” Ben inquired, full of curiosity. He had never met anyone like Oliver before. Daring, impulsive and, in his opinion, definitely foolhardy. But also adventurous and exciting. All the things he would fantasize about but would never be.
Oliver named a couple of clubs. “You might not know of them,” he added with a crooked smile.
“No,” Ben mused. “But that’s probably because I don’t frequent dance clubs and bars and such.” There was no censure in his voice. Just keen interest. “How old are you Oliver?”
“Benjamin.” Philip murmured in a low voice.
“Oh sorry,” Ben apologized at once, flushing. “Didn’t mean to pry or be rude. Its just that …”
Oliver shrugged. “No worries.”
“By the way, Robert called earlier. He’ll be coming in on Wednesday.” Stewart smoothly steered the conversation away. What Oliver had revealed so far had worried him and he had every intention of having a talk with Oliver later, but that would have to be done in private.
Philip quickly swallowed and wiped his mouth. “That’s good. How long is he staying? Will you be taking him to Aimes this weekend? The sooner the better, I say. We must try to get the repairs done before winter if at all possible.”
“That’s what I am thinking as well. Let’s see what Robert says. A lot will depend on his estimation of the job – how much time is needed, and what it’ll cost.”
Ben immediately joined in the conversation. “I may propose a further injection of funds from members if you both think it won’t cause any problems. Nothing very significant but it will make our books healthier. Like Stewart says, a lot will depend on the estimate of the job. It shouldn’t be that much, should it?”
Stewart looked at Ben and would have liked to discuss further about their finances but it was impossible with Oliver there. He also noted that Oliver had not paid the slightest attention to their conversation or asked any questions. He seemed to distant himself but Stewart didn’t think it was disinterest; the young man was just being very diplomatic.
“Let’s wait and not cross the bridge yet, ok? So are you all done? Shall we go?”
When the bill came, Stewart and Philip checked it and pulled out their wallets. Philip put his share down after doing a quick calculation. Oliver looked uncomfortable as Stewart began to extract some bills. “I um, …”
“Don’t worry about it Oliver,” Stewart said casually. “My treat.”
Marcus nudged Oliver, ignoring the hot flush that rose in Oliver’s face. “Come on, let’s go. I want to show you both the game I told you about. Hey Ben, you guys got time to stop for a while?”
No one paid any more attention to the settlement of the bill or Oliver’s attempt to explain his financial situation, for which Oliver was grateful. Oliver kept mostly silent during the drive home, half-listening to Marcus and Ben chat about some people they knew. Instead he stared out the window, preoccupied with his own thoughts. He hated being beholden to anyone but he had very little money on him at the moment which was his biggest worry and which left him with little choice but to accept Marcus’ and Stewart’s hospitality. Despite his circumstance, he had always paid his way – although not necessarily with cash – but he made sure he owed no one. But things were no longer the same. He couldn’t go back to what he had been. He would have to think of something quick or he would be in real dire circumstances.
Once back at the house, Marcus invited Ben and Oliver to the study to check out his latest download while Stewart and Philip retired to the living room.
“I know almost nothing - yet,” Stewart said in response to Philip’s questioning look. “I will have a talk with him tomorrow.”
“Be careful – I wouldn’t trust Christian Lowen one bit. For all we know, this could be part of his little plot. We don’t know what’s he’s thinking but he doesn’t look like someone who takes rejection well and we have turned down his application more than once. He could be using the boy to get back at us?”
Stewart pursed his lips. “Oliver seems straight enough but I will certainly keep my mind open. I am actually more concerned about Lowen’s sudden appearance at the resort. I don’t like that at all.”
Philip nodded with understanding. “Me neither. You better keep an eye on Marcus and have him report to you anything suspicious. He should be on alert.”
“Believe me, when I am done with him, he will be,” Stewart said dryly. “Imagine all that’s been going on and not a word from him. I was ready to throttle him when I found out.”
Philip’s smile was sympathetic. “I wonder sometimes what they are thinking of. Such a simple rule and still … they stumble over it again and again. So you haven’t settled it with him yet?”
“No chance, with Oliver here.”
“Yeah,” Philip said thoughtfully. “How long is the boy staying?”
“I have no idea. Marcus says a couple of days, but I am beginning to suspect we are about to open a can of worms.”
The entire team who had supported the project and who had gone for the off-site presentation was given a day off, and so Marcus slept in the following morning. He woke at eight – a full hour later than normal - and stretched languorously, smiling when his fingers touched Stewart.
“Hey gorgeous, did I wear you out last night?” Marcus teased.
Stewart opened one eye lazily and smiled. “You sure did, babe.”
“Aww. What a shame. I was hoping for a repeat performance this morning.”
The corner of Stewart’s mouth lifted. The muscles on his arms stood out as he reached out and pulled Marcus to him. Half an hour later, they both fell back against their pillows, panting and sweaty.
“Wow!” Marcus gasped. “Some repeat performance!”
Stewart grinned. “Give me a minute and we can start round three.”
Marcus laughed. “I wonder if Oliver heard us.”
Stewart threw the back of one hand to cover his eyes and groaned. “That reminds me – I must have a talk with him this morning. Has he told you what his plans are?”
“No,” Marcus replied. “He says he’s got friends he can go to but I doubt it. It’s hard to get any information out of him but I think he’s got nowhere to go and no one. He’s just too proud …”
Stewart leaned over and kissed Marcus on the lips. “Don’t look so forlorn, love. We’ll take care of it, like we always do. We won’t leave him in the ditch, will we?”
“You’re not mad I brought him home? It kinda puts us in an awkward position I know. I mean, we don’t know him and he was with Christian after all.”
Stewart’s answer did not surprise Marcus but he did need the reassurance. “No, of course I’m not mad,” Stewart said firmly. “We may want to be a bit wary, with his background and all but that does not mean we abandon him to his fate. Especially since he had been with Christian. That outcome has not so far proved to be positive. What’s our code Marcus? The Fraternity helps those in need, especially Brats who are in trouble!”
“He’s not a Brat!” Marcus chuckled. “He doesn’t even know what it is.”
“Not knowing the term does not necessarily mean he isn’t one. And from what I’ve seen of Oliver, he could very well be a Brat in hiding. He’s had to take care of himself all his adult life and so he builds a protective wall around himself. He is careful – doesn’t show who he really is. He’d rather push away friendship than get hurt.”
“I feel that too,” Marcus said, sounding sad.
“He’s very tough although he does not look it. But I would hazard a guess that underneath it all, he is a vulnerable boy who needs a strong man to hold him up and to stand by him. Give him a chance to be the person he is.”
“You see all that?”
“Yes I do. There are signs if you know what to look for and if you watch him closely enough.”
“Actually, I did think so too a few times. For instance, he can fly off the handle real quickly if he is thwarted. I actually saw that. I imagine you might call that a tantrum, huh?”
“Yes,” Stewart said with a shout of laughter. “What else?”
“Um … when he’s scared he won’t speak to me. He tries to hide it? You would call that withholding information and being stubborn?”
Stewart’s eyes were dancing with mirth. “Right on.”
“And he doesn’t always tell the truth - but we can’t fault him on that,” Marcus quickly added. “Depends on the circumstances. He probably has good reasons.”
Stewart patted Marcus’ thigh gently. “Very clever, but you’re not getting out of that spanking my boy. The circumstances for Oliver are totally different. For one, he doesn’t have a Top to answer to, not now anyway.”
“Are we going to find him a Top then?” Marcus sounded a bit excited.
Instead of answering the question, Stewart swung his long legs off the bed and stretched. “I am going to get a few things straightened out with Oliver right after breakfast. I just hope he will come clean or we can’t help him. I want to know what his relationship with Christian is, or was.”
“It’s quite obvious – he was living under Christian’s protection.” Marcus murmured rather uncomfortably.
“And he left abruptly. We need to know why.”
“Because he was about to offer him to his stupid friends, like a piece of meat!” Marcus growled. “Don’t you believe that’s what happened?”
“Hmm.” Stewart’s response was soothing and vague. “I’m going to shower first. I’ll get breakfast and then have that talk with Oliver. What plans do you have today?”
“Nothing much. Can’t I join in? Your talk I mean. I was there too!”
Stewart smiled at Marcus. “I think it will be better if it’s just one on one.”
Marcus pouted on reflex. “Fine!”
Stewart kissed Marcus firmly on the lips. “Stop pouting! You might get stuck with that face if the wind changes.”
The pout changed to a scowl and Stewart laughed heartily as he made his way into the en suite. By the time he went downstairs Oliver was already in the kitchen fiddling with the coffee maker when Stewart walked in.
“Good morning, Oliver. Need some help with that?”
Oliver spun around and smiled a little awkwardly. “I thought I would start the coffee … is that ok?”
“Sure,” Stewart said easily. “You seem to know your way around a kitchen. Do much cooking?”
A veil came down and masked Oliver’s face. “Some.”
Stewart nodded casually and busied himself with some eggs. “Eggs for breakfast? How do you like them?”
Within ten minutes, Oliver was chatting normally with Stewart, his earlier reserve quite lost. Stewart kept the conversation to such general topics like food and music and dancing. It seemed Oliver could talk for hours about dancing and Stewart let him ramble on while he cooked.
Marcus sauntered in a few minutes later, a pile of clothes in his arms. “Here,” he said to Oliver. “I have a couple of t-shirts and shorts that might suit you. You didn’t bring much in that small bag of yours.”
Oliver’s eyes flashed and he responded crisply. “It was supposed to be just a weekend trip you know?” But he held out his hands all the same and took the clothes from Marcus with a small ‘thanks’. He thought of his designer labels in Christian’s wardrobe and sighed.
As they were finishing breakfast, Stewart disappeared for a minute. He came back and handed a list to Marcus. “Honey, can you run to the market and get these items? Neither of us had a chance to shop last weekend.”
Marcus looked down at the list and made a face. “Oh all right.”
Oliver looked from one to the other, his eyes already alert. Stewart smiled at him and said, “While Marcus is gone, how about the two of us having a chat in the study, Oliver?”
Oliver immediately stood up and rubbed his palms on his jeans. “I’m sorry for intruding on you like this. I can get my things and go now. I told Marcus I was staying just one night. You don’t have to …”
“Hey. Slow down, Oliver,” Stewart said soothingly, one hand on Oliver’s shoulder. He gave him a gentle and reassuring squeeze. “No one is asking you to leave. You are here as our guest and you are not in the way or intruding or anything. We have guests all the time and its fine, really it is. I just want to talk to you. OK?”
Oliver bit his lower lip and his eyes dropped. He liked Stewart and he didn’t want to offend him but he felt trapped - convinced he was about to be interrogated. The last thing he wanted was to be asked a hundred questions about his personal life. That was his business and his alone.
Marcus looked troubled. “It’s OK Oliver,” he said quietly. “There’s no reason for you to be afraid. Stewart just wants to talk and understand how to help you.”
Oliver looked at Marcus, undecided. Oliver didn’t have anyone else to trust at that moment and he sorely needed a friend. Marcus had befriended him, saved him, and even invited him to his home, and so far Marcus hadn’t let him down. Having spent the last few hours together, Oliver could tell Stewart was the head in this household and was extremely protective of Marcus. It wasn’t surprising he would want to make sure the unexpected guest his partner had brought back was safe. Oliver understood that.
Marcus had come closer and was saying softly, “Go talk to him in the study. Nothing bad will happen. I promise.”
Oliver swallowed and then shrugged. “I guess that’s fair enough. I could be a raving lunatic for all you know.”
“Yeah. Or serial killer?” Marcus said with a lop-sided grin, relieved the unpleasant moment was over.
Oliver grinned back. “No, not that! Secret agent!”
“Alien with special powers?”
Stewart winked at Marcus, indicating his appreciation, and said, “Don’t forget the shopping bags please, Marcus.” He leaned over to kiss him, and then picked up his coffee mug. “Come Oliver.” He didn’t wait to see if Oliver followed him.
Without really knowing why, Oliver instantly obeyed that command. With a backward glance at Marcus which spoke volumes, Oliver obediently followed Stewart into the study.
Marcus let himself into the house as quietly as possible, his arms full with two bags of foodstuff and groceries. The list of things Stewart had asked him to buy had not only been very varied but had also taken him out to the farmer’s market several miles away.
To get me safely out of the way, no doubt!
One glance at the clock told him it was past noon – which explained why he was feeling so tired and hungry despite the hearty breakfast earlier. Leaving the bags in the kitchen, he tiptoed to the study and found the door slightly ajar.
“Stewart?” he called.
Stewart appeared at the doorway and smiled. “Back already?”
“Yeah.” Marcus tried to peer behind Stewart. “Is everything all right? Where’s Oliver?”
“He’s fine. We had a good chat. Then Philip came and took him out for lunch.”
Marcus looked surprised. “Philip? Lunch? What’s going on?”
“It’s normal for people to have lunch around noon darling. Have you put the groceries away? Thought not. Come along.” Stewart turned Marcus around smartly and marched him back to the kitchen, with both hands on his shoulders.
“But why did Philip come over?” Marcus inquired suspiciously as he emptied the bags and began to put thngs away.
“Why shouldn’t he?” Stewart countered, helping Marcus stow away the groceries. “Besides, we need some time alone, don’t we?”
Marcus’ hand paused in mid-air as he flushed. “What? Oh.” He resumed unpacking and stacking, and chewing on his lip. This was the part he hated the most. The knowing that he was about to be punished and having absolutely no power to stop it. He tried not to think about what was about to happen but his mind had frozen. Fixed exactly on the very image he was trying to avoid.
Stewart patiently took the box of cereal which Marcus had put into the fridge and put it into the pantry instead. Then he snapped the cupboard shut. Turning around, he held out a hand. “We’re done here. Come Marcus, upstairs.”
“Aren’t we going to have lunch as well, like normal people do?”
“You’re stalling Marcus. Wouldn’t you rather get this over and done with?”
Marcus sighed dejectedly. “So far I’ve not met anyone who goes eagerly forward to a spanking, Stewart.”
“And being sarcastic to your Top right before a spanking is not quite the wisest choice, darling,” Stewart said sweetly. Taking Marcus firmly by the hand, he cut off any further delaying tactics and led him into the hallway and up the staircase. He gently pushed Marcus into their bedroom and then closed the door behind them.
“Pants off please,” Stewart said briskly, going to sit on the end of the bed. He waited till Marcus had obeyed him and then continued, “Now bring me the hairbrush.”
Marcus opened his mouth and then closed it without uttering a sound. No point in wasting words, if he’d learnt nothing he’d at least learnt that! Instead, he walked to the dresser and hesitated over the two hairbrushes sitting on it.
Stewart’s voice was amused. “The paddle brush, Marcus.”
Marcus scowled. The paddle brush was made of solid wood, with a flat base approximately three inches wide. It had a stout handle to provide a good grip and packed a powerful punch when flicked properly – that he had unfortunately learnt from past experience. He picked it up gingerly and carried it over to Stewart.
Stewart took the hairbrush and placed it on the bed next to him. Then he drew Marcus closer and pulled him over his knee. “I don’t think we need to go over the reason why we are doing this, do we Marcus?”
“No,” Marcus mumbled in a small voice. His heart started to thump faster as he buried his face into the bed cover. He decided he hated this part even more than the earlier one. Just right before the hand or paddle or whatever implement your Top decides landed. Nothing could be more nerve-racking than this.
Marcus gritted his teeth when Stewart pulled his underwear down, exposing his butt entirely, and then position him more firmly on the bed. A warm hand came to his side and held him at the hip (rather comfortingly) while the other brushed lightly over his now naked bottom. That made Marcus shiver and under different circumstances he might even have giggled. And then the hand lifted and in one swift motion landed squarely back on his butt, the sound ringing sharply in the room. Marcus jumped more from the impact than the pain. Instinctively he squealed out ‘ow’. Another slap landed on the same cheek, on almost the same spot. That was more uncomfortable but still not unmanageable. Better prepared Marcus managed not to make any sound this time but he drew in a long quivering breath as he felt the hand move again. The wait was impossibly long but it was really only a second later that the hand landed on the other cheek. Same two quick swats on the same spot. OK - he was beginning to feel the heat now.
Stewart kept up a steady rhythm and alternated between cheeks and very soon Marcus was squirming over his Top’s lap. The low ‘ows’ had increased in both volume and urgency. What had once been cool and white firm flesh was now pink and warm. Stewart could see Marcus clenching his buttock muscles as he continued spanking. He increased his speed till his own hand was also smarting and he could tell Marcus was at the very edge of his control.
“Are we absolutely clear now about the consequences for withholding information?” Stewart paused to ask sternly.
Marcus gasped and then managed to reply very sincerely, “Yes!”
“And do you agree that it is not for you to decide what I need to be told or not be told?”
Marcus nodded. “Yes, yes I agree!”
“Very good then. Let’s get this done.”
Marcus lifted his head in trepidation as Stewart picked up the hairbrush and placed it on his now hot bottom. He wriggled and groaned in anticipation and then yelled loudly as the first swat of the hairbrush landed on his already tender backside.
GOD! That fucking hurts!
Each swat was a burning reminder of why he never wanted to be in this position. He continued yelling throughout the six swats that Stewart delivered. Three on each reddened cheek, with six loud and unrestrained howls accompanying them.
I HATE that paddle hairbrush!
“There,” Stewart announced brightly, dropping the hairbrush back on the bed. “All done now. All right, take it easy, lay still, deep breaths. That’s it.”
Take it easy? Is the man mad?
The tears were streaming down Marcus’ cheeks unchecked, solely from the horrible sting on his backside and nothing more. Whatever fear, objection or resentment he had harbored earlier was gone. He was just glad the punishment was over. He laid his head down and threw his hands back to grab his bum. “OW!” he protested weakly.
Pushing Marcus’ hands away, Stewart began to massage the recently punished flesh. “It’s ok honey, I’ve got you. Shh.”
Marcus closed his eyes as the terrible sting subsided. Stewart’s hands were incredibly gentle and he sighed in contentment. If someone had told him he would enjoy being punished he would have scoffed at the idea and called the person a lunatic. He was no pain slut and he hated physical pain. But the truth of the matter was he felt something more than love right after he had been disciplined by Stewart. Yeah, the comfort and cuddling that came after was good. The relief of the punishment being over was good. Even the crying was cathartic. But what was best was the filling of that void deep within him, as if his soul had been touched. This was as close as he would ever come to feeling complete.
Marcus ate his sandwich standing by the counter while Stewart read the newspaper at the kitchen table. Halfway through, the front door opened and Philip came in with Oliver.
“Hi,” Philip said and came over to give Marcus a quick hug. He lightly patted Marcus’ butt. “OK?”
“Hi,” Marcus mumbled, his cheeks reddening. “Where have you guys been?” he demanded to cover up his embarrassment.
“We had lunch and then went shopping.” Oliver held up two bags, one in each hand.
Marcus opened his eyes wide. “You went shopping? With Philip?”
Philip took a seat at the table opposite Stewart. “Yes, Oliver needed some basic stuff. He can’t keep wearing your t-shirts either.” Turning to Oliver Philip said. “Go put your things away Oliver.”
To Marcus’ surprise, Oliver nodded and immediately obeyed.
“What’s going on?” Marcus demanded when Oliver had disappeared. “I don’t know what you guys said to him but he’s definitely …” Marcus shrugged. “He seems different.”
“If you have finished with your sandwich, why don’t you go see if Oliver needs any help?” Stewart suggested.
“Or why don’t I get out of the way so you two can talk?” Marcus rolled his eyes. “You gotta do better than this, guys. This is getting old. And very juvenile!”
Stewart and Philip grinned.
Marcus knocked on Oliver’s half-open door and waited for the ‘come in’.
“So what you got there?” Marcus asked as he flopped down on the bed, then stood up in a hurry, grimacing.
“What’s wrong?” Oliver asked in surprise.
“Nothing,” Marcus replied, resisting the need to clutch his sore buttocks.
“Did you just get spanked?”
“What?” Marcus almost choked.
Oliver looked him over, a bit shyly. “I’m sorry, was that rude? I thought it was ok to ask that … since …”
“Since what?” Marcus asked carefully, eyeing Oliver with suspicion.
Oliver looked at him again and then averted his eyes. He began to shake out the t-shirt he was holding and turned to look for a hanger. “I am sorry,” he apologized again, avoiding eye contact. “I thought since you guys lived within this kind of boundaries, its ok to talk about it openly.”
Marcus groaned. “What boundaries? What exactly have they been telling you?”
Oliver turned around and peered at Marcus under his eyelashes. “Stewart told me he’s your Top. Just as Philip is Ben’s Top.” He sounded almost wistful.
“And what?” Oliver raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“Yes, exactly and what else did they tell you?” Marcus prompted, feeling slightly shocked.
“Um. Stewart didn’t go into too much detail really, except that in your kind of relationship there are certain rules and consequences. I am glad he told me. It started to make sense, especially when I think of what you said earlier before you brought me here. About Stewart being strict and all.”
Marcus chewed his lower lip, not quite believing his ears. “Stewart told you all that?”
“Yeah. We had a really long chat. Actually I talked more. He’s very good at getting information out of you, but I guess you already know that. I found myself telling him more than I ever intended to. But I didn’t mind. He …” Oliver shrugged. “He didn’t make me feel as if he was judging me.”
“No,” Marcus said with a smile. “He wouldn’t do that.”
Oliver hesitated before asking very softly, “Did you get into any trouble on account of me?”
Marcus sighed and lowered himself down on the bed, this time much more gingerly. “Well, it’s not you but what I did over the weekend. Or rather didn’t do. And yeah, I did get into trouble. Big time.” He grinned ruefully.
What the heck? Might as well get it out in the open.
Oliver smiled at Marcus sympathetically.
“You don’t seem shocked?” Marcus asked.
Oliver shook his head. “No, I’m not really. I’ve met so many kinds of people, seen so many types of relationships. Some more kinky than others, some more than bizarre. It’s cool with me. In fact, I may have come across this before, only I didn’t pay too much attention to it.”
“When you were with Christian?”
“No,” Oliver said slowly, his eyes clouding over. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Not with Christian. With Simon.”
There was a long pause before Marcus ventured to ask. “Who’s he? I’ve heard you mention him a few times.”
“He was my lover, my protector and my best friend. But he died.”
He sounded so sad Marcus quickly swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m sorry. How long ago was that?”
Oliver dropped the t-shirt and came and sat down next to Marcus. “Some months ago. Right before I hooked up with Christian.”
“So you moved from Simon to Christian when Simon died?” Marcus asked and was taken aback when Oliver turned to him, eyes flashing angrily.
“No! It’s nothing like that. I didn’t just skip from one man to another. My circumstances were totally different. Simon was a kind and decent man. Christian was trash, scum compared to Simon. But I had no choice.” Oliver’s shoulders slumped.
“Hey! I am not making any accusations! I am not judging either. Just asking. But if you don’t want to tell me, its fine.” Marcus touched Oliver’s arm gently.
Oliver sighed. “Might as well. I’ve already told Stewart and he is bound to tell you I am sure.”
Marcus held his tongue, not wanting to dispel that notion. “I am sure he will. But I’d prefer to hear it from you.”
“I met Simon during a private dance performance. He was … just wonderful. He took me in and became my teacher and my friend. My protector. I lived with him for two years. Those were the best years of my life. But he died suddenly, from a heart attack. It was totally unexpected.”
“You were there?”
“Yes. I was the one who found him but he had already died. I didn’t even get to say good bye. And then his people came. So many of them. All wanting things to be done their way and to their advantage. Simon was an icon; he was a very famous man you know? He knew all kinds of prominent and important people.” Oliver said proudly, and his eyes were shining. “We lived like kings; the best food, lovely clothes, grand hotels. Simon had several homes. They were all beautiful and he took me to all of them. He treated me so well, even though a lot of the time he couldn’t show me to the world. But he would always come to me when everything was over and he was so tired from all those vultures. He would tell me I was his world. That I was the only one that mattered to him.”
Oliver wiped a hand across his eyes.
“So what did you do after he died?”
“Nothing.” His voice was flat.
Marcus looked at him in silence.
Oliver smiled mirthlessly. “There was nothing I could do. I was nobody to the worthless people who surrounded themselves around Simon. Bunch of creeps and leechers. He hated most of them too – but he needed them around to run things. He was very rich and I guess they were scared I would rob them of their share.”
“Didn’t Simon have any family?”
Oliver shrugged. “There were a few of them. They came sometimes but they always end up arguing. Once Simon was gone, they just threw me out. I had nothing except what I had saved. Simon was very generous with gifts and affection but he never gave me any money because I didn’t need any when we were together. He gave me everything I needed. He took me wherever he could. I miss him!”
Oliver’s voice broke and Marcus sat there awkwardly for a moment. And then he put an arm around Oliver’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry Oliver.”
Oliver sniffed. “Thanks. Anyway, I used some of my savings to survive for a while. I was fast running out of money. I could have gone back to dancing but I didn’t want to any more. I remember the things I used to do before Simon and I knew I could never go back to that life. Simon taught me that. I told him how I used to live and he told me I had to respect myself, like he respected me. And so when I met Christian, and he offered an exclusive deal, I took it.”
Marcus blinked. “That’s respectable?”
“Yes, of course!” Oliver said matter-of-factly. “It’s perfectly OK to belong to one man, like a master. He provides me with shelter and protection and in exchange I serve him with my hands and my body and in whatever way I can please him. It’s not unlike a marriage only this is negotiated like a business deal. Simon taught me that! Both parties must agree and abide by certain rules, and it had to be exclusive, otherwise it would no longer be respectable.”
Marcus regarded Oliver silently, and then decided he didn’t know how to tell him what he thought. Instead he asked, “Did you know Christian? Did you find out what kind of man he is before you moved in with him?”
“I asked around and found he was powerful and rich. I observed him for a few days and honestly he looked good from afar. I got myself introduced to him and he was very charming. I thought he could protect me. Like Simon did.” Oliver snorted rudely. “It was supposed to be exclusive. The bastard lied!”
“Christian is a bad man.” Marcus said quietly. “While your Simon sounds like a knight in shining armor.”
“Oh yeah?” Oliver’s lips curled into a smile. “I like the sound of that. He was quite old actually, but he WAS my knight in shining armor. We used to laugh over our age gap – he was past sixty already and I was waiting to turn twenty-one.”
“You aren’t twenty one yet?”
“No. Just about.”
“Um, so when do you turn twenty-one?”
Oliver thought for a moment, and then looked up with surprise. “Hm. Actually that would be next Friday!”
“Next Friday huh?” A thought began to form in Marcus’ mind. “So what would Simon have planned for you if he were still here?”
Oliver’s smile made Marcus’s heart unexpectedly ache. “It would have been something spectacular.”
“Hello Robert,” Stewart greeted as he opened the door wider. “Come on in!”
Robert walked in, carrying the same black leather bag he always used in one hand. “I’m sorry to be troubling you yet again …”
“Not at all,” Stewart protested at once. “In fact, you would be doing us a favor.”
“You mean Willcott? Once I close the deal, I will be glad to lend a hand there. I’ll have all the time in the world then.”
Stewart led the way into the living room towards the tray of drinks. “Can I get you some wine? Not too early I hope. We should be eating around seven.”
“Sounds perfect!” Robert responded. “Is Marcus home yet?”
“He should be back any minute now. You timing is good. Today is a short day for me.” Stewart poured some of the amber liquid into a glass and handed it to his guest, with a twisted smile. “I’ve just been thinking. You’re selling your business to do something new, and here we are asking you to do exactly what you are trying to get away from. We’re not doing right by you, are we?”
Robert sipped the wine and laughed. “Don’t worry about it Stewart. This is different; it’s not work to me. I will consider it a hobby, a distraction, or a pleasant way to pass my time now that I am going to be semi-retired. God, doesn’t that sound old?”
Stewart grinned. “You’ll get used to it. And may I add that is very gracious of you. We appreciate it.”
They both looked up as the front door opened and Oliver appeared.
“Oh there you are Oliver,” Stewart immediately called out. “Come and meet Robert.”
Oliver advanced into the room and looked at the new arrival. He had been told about Robert’s coming and he had in fact helped to get the second guest room ready for him. “Hi Robert,” Oliver greeted, quickly looking the man over. His experienced eye told him he liked what he saw. Matured but not too old. Tall, broad shoulders. Quiet confidence. Smiling eyes.
“Hello Oliver.” Those smiling eyes were looking at him most disconcertingly. Were they blue? Hmm. Nice voice too, Oliver thought. Friendly but firm at the same time.
“Oliver? Why don’t you take Robert’s bag up to the guest room?” Stewart gently suggested, a sparkle in his eyes.
Oliver realized with a start that he had been staring. “Um. Oh! Sure!” he said hurriedly, trying to cover up his embarrassment. He bent to pick up the bag and conscious of Robert’s eyes on him he couldn’t help but swagger just that little bit as he made his exit and headed up the stairs.
Robert turned back to Stewart after having enjoyed a very good view of a pair of swinging hips in tight jeans. “House guest?”
“Yes, sort of,” Stewart responded with a suppressed grin. He had noticed the tight jeans and swinging butt too. “Friend of Marcus’. He’s in between jobs – so he’s staying for a while. But he’s helping out with chores and housework around here as well as Philip’s. I believe he just got back from their place. Keeps him occupied, out of trouble and at the same time earns him some pocket money.”
Robert was too well-mannered to pry further. “So tell me more about this property you’ve got,” he said instead. “How far up north?”
Stewart launched eagerly into the details, and by the time Oliver came downstairs the two men were seated side by side on the sofa deep in conversation. Oliver lingered at the doorway for a moment, his eyes settling on Robert. He looked as good seated as upright.
“Ahem!” Oliver cleared his throat.
Stewart looked up, distracted. “Yes Oliver?”
“Shall I go prepare dinner?” Oliver’s eyes darted between the two men.
Stewart nodded. “That would be great Oliver. I’ve got some steaks which I put in the chiller, I bought enough for five; Philip and Ben are coming over as well.”
“I know.” Oliver flashed a smile at them. “Philip mentioned it when I was there. They’ll be here soon, just waiting for Ben to get home from the office. They were at it the whole afternoon, Philip and Ben. Ben had promised to come back early from the office and Philip kept calling him to get him moving … you know …” he suddenly realized both pairs of eyes were looking at him steadily. “Oh sorry – didn’t mean to interrupt. Well, I’d better go see to dinner then. I’ll make a salad too?”
“Yes, salad too. Marcus should be home to help out soon.” Philip said with a smile before turning back to Robert. They had hardly spoken a few more sentences when Oliver popped his head around the doorway again.
“Um, would you both like a cup of tea or something?”
Stewart looked pointedly at their wine glasses on the coffee table and then at Oliver. Nevertheless he glanced at Robert, waiting for him to answer.
“No, not for me, thanks,” Robert replied politely with a brief smile. “This wine will do just fine till dinner.”
Oliver’s head disappeared again, and the two men resumed their conversation.
“So my plan is to drive up to Willcott this weekend - with you if you can settle all our affairs by then,” Stewart said.
“I am quite confident everything will be settled by the end of this week. Today’s only Tuesday.” Robert began to do some mental calculations. “We are scheduled to sign the agreement on Friday, which gives me ample time to meet with my lawyers tomorrow and Thursday if necessary. Just to make sure I’ve covered everything. So many little details, so many people to think of. But yes, I think it should all be wrapped up by Friday.”
“Sure you will go through with it?” Stewart asked gently. He had noticed a certain glint in Robert’s eyes.
Robert’s face creased into a smile. “Nothing is for certain in this life, is it Stewart? I’m beginning to feel a different kind of energy lately, like I want to be doing something new, be daring, take the leap. I guess age is catching up and I don’t want to miss out any more. Perhaps …”
Stewart raised is eyebrows, waiting for Robert to finish.
“Perhaps … it’s also about time I start looking around for someone in my life?” Robert looked squarely into Stewart’s eyes. “Abby told you about my sexual orientation, didn’t she?”
Stewart paused. They had been friends for a long time but only recently had he found out Robert was gay. “Yes, she did,” he said simply. “I am assuming it was with your blessing.”
“Of course; she is such a dear friend. She would never do anything to hurt me.” Robert settled himself back against the cushions and said in a frank and open manner. “I love Ashley Downs and it has been my home all my life. Unfortunately it was not the kind of place to go publishing such knowledge, especially not during my time when I was a young man. Its different now I know. People are more accepting, or at least they pretend to be. But it’s too late for me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable now … coming out … to the people there. Not after having lived a lie for so many years.”
“I understand, Robert.” Stewart said quietly.
“So, that is perhaps one of the reasons why I am here, ready to sell my business and make a new start on life. If I don’t take the plunge now, I fear I never will.”
Stewart nodded and decided what Robert needed was to talk, not to trade stories or listen to advice. The older man seemed to want to get things off his chest.
“I gotta admit seeing you and Philip last Christmas, together with your partners … well, that sort of gave me what I needed to take this step. To be honest, I felt rather forlorn after you all left. As if something was missing.” Robert laughed rather self-consciously. “Abby has been at me forever to get out of my comfort zone, to explore new things, to find out who Robert Williams really is.”
“Yep – that sounds like my sister.” Stewart said dryly. “Bossy as always and always planning your life for you. But she does mean well and I know she cares for you - a hell of a lot. Much as I hate to admit it, she is also quite often right. Just don’t tell her that!”
“She is a remarkable woman. If only I were straight …”
Both men laughed and then Stewart delicately said, “I hope I am not being presumptuous saying this Robert, so don’t take it the wrong way. For all of Abby’s good intentions don’t let her or anyone else push you into anything you are not ready for.”
“Mid-life crisis?” Robert quirked one eyebrow. “I did think about that too, to be honest. But no, no one is pushing me and I don’t think I am being rash and I don’t think buying a sports car will make me feel any better. This is something I want, I’ve wanted for a long time but never dared confront. I’ve been a bloody coward, and that’s about as straight as I can say it. I resisted Abby’s suggestions and promptings for years but I guess I finally am ready!”
Stewart smiled warmly at the man whom he had liked and respected growing up, and still did. In fact, even more so now that he had gotten to know him so well. He said brightly, “In that case, a good plan will be for us to introduce you around.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Robert raised his glass with a crooked grin on his face.
“We have a large circle of gay friends, some are single and looking, just like you. Though I gotta warn you a couple could be a bit of a handful at times.” He carefully avoided any mention of The Fraternity.
“Bring them on,” Robert said cheerfully.
Oliver appeared in the doorway with a plate of snacks in his hand.
“So - what do you think?” Marcus murmured under his breath as he rinsed the plates in the sink.
“About what?” Ben asked innocently. He was waiting for Marcus to hand him a plate to wipe dry.
“About those two!” Marcus hissed at him, nudging his shoulder towards the living room.
“Who? Robert and Oliver?”
Marcus rolled his eyes in an exaggerated fashion. “Who else, you dumbass? Yes, Robert and Oliver. What do you think of them?”
“Oh, they are nice enough. I like them both. Oh … you mean …” He swiveled around to try to peer into the living room. “Are you saying …?”
Marcus rolled his eyes again. “Yes, isn’t it obvious?”
Ben looked thoughtfully at Marcus for a while before responding. “Well, not really ... I mean I didn’t notice anything obvious. Robert is his usual self. I didn’t see anything unusual at all. He’s polite like always and is so easy to talk to.”
“OK, what about Oliver then?”
“Oliver …? Well, he was a bit awkward I admit. I just thought he was nervous around someone new? He was nervous around us too, remember? When we went for pizza the first time you brought him home, he was all quiet and uptight.”
“So you don’t think anything is happening between them?” Marcus demanded.
Ben shook his head. “Nope, I don’t. Do you?”
“Hrmph. I guess no, not really,” Marcus reluctantly agreed.
“They don’t look very compatible either,” Ben commented.
“Why do you say that?”
“First of all, Oliver is very young isn’t he? You were saying he’s not even twenty one yet?”
Marcus looked behind him quickly before answering. “That’s right. That will be next Friday and don’t you go blurting out to him our surprise party.”
“I won’t, of course. But he sure looks and behaves much older than his real age huh?”
Marcus looked thoughtful as he passed a clean plate to Ben. “He’s been through some tough times; I guess life toughens you up that way. You need to have your wits around you when you live on the streets or you get seriously burnt. He’s been with quite a few men already … oh shit! I shouldn’t have said that to you!”
“Don’t worry, its safe with me,” Ben assured him. “Does Stewart know all this?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Marcus’ tone was dry. “I bet he knows even more than I do, not that he’s about to share that knowledge with me. They already had that talk remember? If he weren’t comfortable with Oliver, he would have sent him packing by now. I guess he must think Oliver is worth ‘saving’.”
The two young men grinned at one another.
“So what’s the plan for Oliver?” Ben asked as he carefully put the dry plates back in the cupboard.
“For now, he is trying to save up a bit of money by doing chores for us and at your place too. I hear Stewart may arrange for him a few other odd jobs maybe. I am not really sure. Of course if he and Robert hit it off, that would be another story.”
“Not likely,” Ben said with a quick chuckle. “They didn’t even talk all that much!”
“I guess you are right. In fact, I actually thought Robert was a trifle distant and cold.”
Ben blinked in surprise. “Was he?”
“I am just saying he didn’t really respond to Oliver’s gestures. And that boy was throwing them out by the buckets! Talk about tact!”
Ben grinned. “What did he do? I didn’t notice a thing.”
“Hell yes! Shhh, here he comes!” Marcus nudged Ben warningly in the ribs. “Hey Oliver.”
Oliver came over to the sink. “Are you guys done? Thanks for washing up.”
“Yep, just about,” Marcus said. “How’s it going in there?”
“They’re talking.” He looked and sounded bored. “Actually they want coffee with dessert and they need Ben so I am here to take over.”
Ben quickly wiped his hands on the dishcloth. “Perfect timing, I’m done! Err … we actually do have some business to discuss, so here you go.” He handed the cloth to Oliver with a friendly smile. “All yours.”
“How come you don’t need to be in the discussion?” Oliver asked Marcus when Ben had disappeared.
“Um … Ben is the accountant and he’s the one who is managing the financial affairs of the property they are discussing. I know nothing of it.”
“This place called Willcott?”
“Yep.” Marcus began to spoon coffee powder into the filter. “We’re all going up this weekend. You’ll love the place. I loved it when I first went there too.”
“Who owns it?” Oliver asked.
“Stewart, Philip and a few other friends.” Marcus replied evasively. Quickly turning the subject, Marcus said, “It’s gonna be a bit chilly up there so make sure you pack a jacket as well. You can borrow one of mine. Or Ben can lend you one as his may fit you better. Don’t forget to ask him before he leaves.”
“OK, thanks. Um, is Robert going up with us this weekend?” Oliver looked innocently at Marcus.
“That’s the whole purpose of the trip as he’s going to help make recommendations about what repairs need to be done. The place needs a bit of fix-me-up. Its very old but still very beautiful.” Marcus couldn’t keep the pride out of his voice.
Oliver took out a tray and began to place coffee cups and saucers in it. He asked without looking up. “How long have you known Robert?”
“Not long. I met him last Christmas at Stewart’s home in the country.”
Oliver digested that. “You went to Stewart’s place for Christmas? You met his folks? Wow that is so cool.”
“Ben too. First time for all of us. He met Philip’s family and then we all got together. Robert’s a family friend so we saw a bit of him over the holidays. Actually we kinda thought he might have a go at Stewart’s big sister Abby. They’ve been friends forever. She’s not married either.” Marcus watched Oliver closely to see what impact his words would have on him.
Oliver’s eyes widened. “Isn’t Robert …?”
“Isn’t Robert what? Gay?” Marcus decided to tease Oliver a bit.
“I thought …” his voice trailed off uncertainly.
“You thought he’s gay?” Marcus sounded suitably shocked.
Oliver blushed. “Shhh …. keep it down ok? My mistake. I don’t know why … I just assumed …” he shrugged.
Marcus laughed loudly, enjoying himself.
Shut up!” Oliver glared at Marcus.
“OK, ok,” Marcus said, still laughing but quieter now. “Oliver, you are not developing a ‘thing’ for Robert, are you?” he asked slyly.
Oliver blushed even more. “No! I am not,” he snapped crossly.
“Are you sure?” Marcus’ tone was baiting.
“Yes, I am very sure, and are you done with the coffee? Where’s the dessert?”
“Don’t change the subject sweetheart,” Marcus said with a wicked grin. “Cake’s in the fridge. I’ll bring the coffee, you get the cake. It’s chocolate cheese - Robert’s favorite.”
They left Saturday morning, heading north in two separate cars.
Stewart drove with Robert in the front passenger seat, leaving Marcus and Oliver in the back. Philip and Ben followed behind in their own car. As they drove into the small town of Willcott, Marcus looked about him with interest. He hadn’t really explored this little town despite having spent a whole summer in the area. How different this was from the first time he came up by bus. He had been scared and hungry and intimidated. This time he felt as if he was coming home.
“We made good time,” Stewart stated as they approached the front of the one and only grocery store in town, with Philip and Ben pulling up beside them. “A quick stop to grab some lunch and we can be on our way.”
“Hm, Nice little town,” Robert looked around him appraisingly.
Oliver looked too and shook his head. He didn’t say anything though and just silently followed the group. They made a quick stop at the deli next to the groceries and put in their orders for different variations of roast beef on rye, a favorite specialty with the town folks and something both Stewart and Philip highly recommended.
“Here you go babe, extra mustard and coleslaw on the side for us and one for Aimes too,” Stewart said as he handed Marcus a stuffed paper bag.
Marcus reached for the bag eagerly, already licking his lips and tasting the fat and juicy sandwich.
“That’s ours. Sliced tomato with smoked bacon,” Philip held out his hand for his and Ben’s lunch. “What did you order?” he asked Oliver and Robert.
“We are being very daring and adventurous, aren’t we Oliver?” Robert said with a cheery grin at Oliver. “Red pepper basil for Oliver, and zesty garlic herb for me.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows and gave a bark of laughter. “Wow, that’s daring all right! You will have to tell us how good it is, or is not.”
“Red pepper basil, Oliver?” Ben asked in awe. “Are you sure?”
Oliver shrugged, looking rather uncertainly at Robert. He would have been happy with something basic like tomato and lettuce but Robert had wanted to try something different and he had decided to be daring too.
“Don’t let them scare you. I’m sure our choices are good,” Robert said in a confident whisper to Oliver, loud enough for everyone to hear. “They’ll be begging for a bite of our sandwich when they see how good it is.”
They all laughed and began to make their way back to where their cars were parked.
“You hungry?” Robert asked Oliver as they walked side by side. It was a semi-private remark, or so Oliver thought.
“Yes, starving,” Oliver replied with a smile. He looked at Ben, who was tailing Philip closely, and Stewart and Marcus ahead and he wondered if he and Robert also looked like a couple. Glancing covertly at Robert he couldn’t help admiring what he saw. They had lived in the same house for the last few days and with each day Robert grew in Oliver’s esteem. The man was always pleasant and well-mannered. He was also diplomatic, kind and unobtrusive - qualities which were important to Oliver who did not like to talk too much about his past.
Twenty minutes later they were driving up the rough track that led to Willcott house. Robert peered out the window and studied the old house silently. The midday sun was streaking across the white paint while the trees and shrubs around the house cast cool shadows on the grounds. The front door opened just as the vehicles came to a stop and Aimes came slowly down the steps, looking more withdrawn and stern than normal. He nodded at Stewart unsmilingly and his sharp blue eyes swept across the group, resting momentarily on Robert and Oliver.
“Aimes!” Stewart flung an arm around Aimes’ shoulder and pushed him closer to the group of men. “Come meet Robert and Oliver.”
Aimes walked stiffly forward and thrust out his hand and grasped Robert’s. “Hello, you must be the contractor.”
Robert smiled despite Aimes’ curtness, his eyes crinkling at the sides. He had been subtly warned by Stewart (and not so subtly by Marcus) that Aimes tended to be reserved when meeting strangers for the first time. He chuckled to himself that their respective descriptions had been so apt. Aimes, with his greying temples and bluntness, did not intimidate him in the least. In fact, Robert found him rather interesting.
“Yes, old family friend actually and my name is Robert. Nice to meet you Aimes. And this is Oliver, as you would have guessed by now.” Robert gestured to the young man standing next to him, rather closer than normal probably due to Aimes’ daunting presence.
Aimes gave a terse nod and Oliver muttered a weak ‘hi’. Neither attempted to shake hands with the other.
“We got you lunch, roast beef on rye!” Stewart told Aimes brightly. “And the stuff you requested. Give me a hand guys.” Stewart was already opening his boot and retrieving several packages and their overnight bags.
Soon the men had their cars emptied; bags were deposited in the hall, Aimes’ packages on the kitchen counters and everyone sat in the large breezy kitchen munching hungrily on their mouth-watering sandwiches. Aimes had prepared a jug of iced lemonade and without being told Marcus brought out glasses and handed them out. The conversation over lunch was mostly between Stewart, Philip, Ben and Robert. Marcus went to the packages when he finished eating and busied himself stacking things away, falling into an old routine without almost subconsciously. Remembering Aime’s orderliness and system, he made sure he put everything away as required. Aimes did not say a word but he looked at Marcus and gave a nod of thanks.
“Well, that was some lunch! I think we should go put our things in our rooms first, before we show Robert around,” Stewart said, standing up and stretching. “Who goes where, Aimes?”
Aimes directed them to their assigned rooms. Stewart and Marcus got the same big room they had used the previous summer, while Philip and Ben were assigned the room across the landing. Robert took the single room Marcus had used when he first came to Willcott and Oliver the room next to his. They assembled back at the kitchen half an hour later, with Philip and Ben coming in last and both looking a little flushed and dishevelled.
“Enjoyed your quickie?” Marcus moved next to Ben and whispered in his ear.
“Shut up!” Ben hissed, reddening and looking around guiltily. He saw Oliver nearby grinning at them.
“It is pretty obvious!” Oliver said with a knowing smile.
“No! Is it?” Ben groaned.
“Oh yeah,” Oliver teased. “Your eyes are glazed.”
Ben looked horrified. He blinked quickly a few times and opened his eyes as wide as they could go. “Better?”
Oliver shook his head. “Nope. Still glazed.”
“Relax! He’s teasing you!” Marcus laughingly informed Ben. “It was a wild guess and you fell for it!”
Ben looked cross for a minute and then decided it was too funny to be angry. “Idiots!” He gave both Marcus and Oliver a punch in the arm. “You asses! Don’t you dare do that again!”
Giggling and jostling one another, the three young men followed the older and more sedate group as they went out the kitchen door. Stewart and Philip led the way, pointing things out to Robert while Aimes fell back slightly. Apart from an occasional nod or grunt, he remained mostly silent. They walked slowly around the perimeter of the building, stopping many times along the way to ponder over areas which they thought might pose a problem. Robert had a notepad with him, and he took his time to ask questions before jotting down what was being discussed. It was slow going and after a while, the three younger men got bored.
“This is so tedious! Why don’t we show you around the property instead of following them around the house,” Marcus said to Oliver. “There’s nothing to see here, well nothing that would interest us anyway. But there’s a lake just a bit down from the path over there. Wanna see it?”
“A lake? Sure.” Oliver shrugged. He didn’t particularly care for lakes either, but that certainly sounded better than dry rot and shingles and damaged windows.
“Wait Ben!” Marcus pulled Ben’s sleeve so he could fall behind too.
Marcus kept his hand on Ben’s arm till the group ahead had turned a corner and was out of their sight. “We’re going down to the lake.”
“We are? Well, shouldn’t we tell them f …” Ben began, looking at the corner where the men had disappeared.
Marcus shook his head firmly. “No need to! They will be too absorbed to notice that we’re gone and anyway we should be back well before they start to ask questions.”
“We’re not supposed to go there by ourselves, remember?” Ben tried again, pointedly looking at Marcus.
“Why can’t we go to the lake?” Oliver asked in some surprise. For someone who had wandered alone in a large city, this seemed superfluous.
“Because it’s not safe,” Ben explained. He didn’t want to mention rules in front of Oliver.
“It’s not? How come?”
Marcus sighed. “There’s woodlands beyond and it’s pretty wild. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but the guys are afraid we might wander off and get lost or worse get eaten by a wild animal! As if there’s any!”
“There’re snakes!” Ben said earnestly.
“I hate snakes!” Oliver shuddered. “Maybe we shouldn’t go after all.”
Marcus scoffed. “Snakes indeed! They slither away when you approach. So as long as we keep to the used tracks, its fine. I’m telling you. Stewart walks there with me all the time!”
“Yes, that’s exactly the point!” Ben jumped in. “Your Top has to be there.”
Marcus scowled. “Well, it’s also exactly the point that he’s not here to accompany us, is he? So are you guys coming or not? It’s just a walk, for Christ sake!”
Ben chewed his lip for a few seconds. “I guess if we just go have a quick look and come back immediately, there’s no real danger or harm. Just don’t either of you wander off the track, ok? I’m the oldest one here and the longest in The Fra … um, I mean been here the most. Philip will kill me if he finds out.”
Marcus was already turning and moving in the opposite direction. “Ben, if you continue stalling and talking he IS going to find out. Now hurry up will you or we won’t have enough time. Come on!”
Oliver shrugged and Ben threw his hands up in the air in a gesture of resignation.
Both followed Marcus.
“Well, as far as I can see, you probably won’t need any major structural repairs. No weakened walls, joists, or carrying beams that we should be worried about.” Robert pronounced as they came back to the kitchen.
“What about the roof?” Aimes asked with a hint of anxiety – the most emotion he had displayed since Robert’s arrival. “That is my major concern for now. Anything else I think I probably can handle.”
Robert nodded at once. “True – a good roof is essential. We don’t want to allow any water infiltration or there’ll be hell to pay. I’ll have to check the vent - that runs along the ridge of the roof to expel trapped vapour and heat, so that the roofing does not buckle and deteriorate over time.”
“Timing’s great. We’re lucky it’s so dry now.” Stewart noted.
Everyone automatically turned and looked out the window at the clear, cloudless sky and the green hills beyond. The blue was startling against the green horizon and the shimmer of the heat.
“You’re right, Stewart,” Robert agreed. “Roofing work is tricky in that sense. Any partially installed areas must be perfectly dry before any covering layers are installed. The trick is to have a large enough team who can knock out work phases before the weather turns.”
“Sounds like you would need a whole team of people here, Robert,” Stewart remarked thoughtfully. “How are you going to manage that? Haven’t you let go of your people by now?”
“Not to mention the cost,” Philip added, which immediately placed a worried frown on Aimes’ face.
“How much is this whole thing gonna cost? I haven’t seen any projections or numbers yet!” Aimes grunted, his voice almost a growl. It was apparent he hated the idea of having people crawling all over the place and even more to fork out money as professional fees. He had done almost all the repairs on the property since he came to Willcott and it tore at him to have to let strangers – professional or otherwise – come in now.
Robert’s forehead creased as he thought about the various questions and the motivations behind them. In his usual mild tone, he tackled the most needling one first. “Let’s not worry about the cost for now, OK? I am not going to charge the normal rates of course. I don’t even intend to make a profit – it will just be a personal project for me, one I hope I will enjoy doing now that I am retired.”
Aimes looked slightly mollified and Philip and Stewart exchanged a brief smile.
“Aimes,” Stewart said gently, “Robert is a family friend. A very old family friend. He is not going to rip us off, that’s for sure. I trust him to do a good job at a fair price.”
Robert didn’t wait for Aimes to respond; instead he smoothly picked up the thread to prevent any awkward pauses. “I don’t think I would need more than a couple of workmen with me pitching in. Like I said, it would be a personal project and I will enjoy the work. It’s not that major a job, though it may sound a bit daunting right now. If Aimes here can help out, I think we can get by with just one extra pair of experienced hands. And that I can easily arrange.”
Since the question had been directed at Aimes he looked Robert squarely in the face. “I don’t sit around here all day. I can do what is required.”
Philip hid a smile and went to the kettle. “Tea anyone?”
Robert looked up. “Yes please. That would be great.” Turning to face Aimes, Robert continued easily. “To be honest, I find no hardship working in this beautiful environment. I look forward to the morning air – it must be invigorating.”
“You’ll find out first-hand tomorrow Robert,” Stewart said. “Winter is a trifle bleak here though but this is a nice time to be at Willcott.”
“And you live here, throughout the year?” Robert asked Aimes, without any curiosity.
Aimes shifted uncomfortably as all three pairs of eyes were fixed on him.
“You must know each of the seasons then,” Robert said, as if he hadn’t asked a question. “I myself find there’s always some joy in each; be it winter or summer there’s bound to be something special in them. I can see some attraction of spending winter here actually, so long as the house is properly insulated.”
Aimes ignored the remarks, ignoring the obvious invitation to contribute or participate. But he sat and listened intently to the three men talk and quietly sipped the tea which Philip put in front of him. Robert laid out his notes so they could all study them together. A list was made with projected timelines, and when they came to the financial side of the plan, they all looked up.
“Where’s Ben?” Philip asked, looking around. “Come to think of it, all three are missing. They’ve been pretty quiet too.”
Stewart stood and stretched. “I saw them slip off when we went round the back. They’re probably in the games room.”
“No – I keep that place locked up when not in use,” Aimes said.
“Maybe they’re upstairs then. Let me go take a look.” Philip got up and took the stairs two at a time. He came back soon enough. “Nope, no one’s there.”
Just then they heard soft laughter and approaching footsteps and then complete silence. Stewart raised one eyebrow and went to the kitchen door.
“What are you three standing there for?” Stewart asked. “Come on in. We’re just having tea.” He held the door open while the three young men sauntered in, looking around guardedly.
Philip beckoned Ben over. “Where have you been honey?”
“Um …” Ben faltered. “We went … for a walk?”
The tell-tale flush on Ben’s face made Philip narrow his eyes. “Where to?” he asked, looking between Ben and Marcus. When no one answered, Philip’s voice deepened. “Well?”
Ben began to look flustered. He absolutely hated it when Philip used that tone on him.
Marcus encountered Stewart’s eyes and cleared his throat. “Oh, um, it was such a fine day, so we thought we would go to the lake,” he said casually, in an attempt to appear sangfroid.
It didn’t work. Instead that got the three Tops to stop and look at them – the silence dragging out into long seconds.
“We kept to the path, I swear,” Marcus hurriedly explained. “We just wanted to show Oliver the lake. We didn’t walk around it or anything. Just up to the small clearing where we … sometimes … sit …’ his voice trailed off.
Aimes stood up and suddenly the kitchen felt much smaller. “Have you forgotten our house rules – no one goes beyond the fenced grounds alone or without permission?” He rested his fists on his hips and faced Marcus and Ben. “You two have spent enough time here to know that.”
Marcus and Ben flushed up to the roots of their hair. Being reprimanded like that in front of Robert and Oliver was mortifying. Aimes’ tone was not loud or harsh but they still felt the sting in his words. They dropped their eyes to the ground and stood silently with heads bent.
Seeing that Robert was also looking uncomfortable with the confrontation, Stewart nodded at Aimes. “OK, we’ll talk about this later. Do you need help with any chores Aimes? Marcus and Ben will be glad to help out or do you want them to get dinner started.”
Aimes’ eyes bored into the two young men for a minute longer, and then he shifted position and gestured to the back storeroom. “Get started on the potatoes and onions. After that, go water the vegetable patch, and check the chicken coop.”
Oliver looked a little lost as Ben and Marcus disappeared into the back room. Although no one had taken him to task for going to the lake, he felt equally bad. He did not wish to be scolded but he felt left out all the same. Looking over at Stewart, he asked softly, “Is it ok if I help out too?”
“Sure,” Stewart said with a smile. “But you don’t have to. You’re not in any trouble. You didn’t know about the house rule but Marcus and Ben sure did. They had no business leading you there.”
Oliver bit his lip and shook his head. “No, I did know. They told me and I went willingly.” He ducked his head and sighed. “I’ll go peel some potatoes too I guess,” he muttered before he followed the other two Brats.
Philip watched him leave and then grinned at Stewart. “That’s a first … offering to share in a punishment.”
“He’s a good kid,” Stewart said simply, with a quick glance at Robert.
“What’s this lake the boys mentioned?” Robert asked. “Is it really that unsafe?”
“Ha! No, not really,” Stewart said, lowering his voice. “The lake itself is harmless enough, though I suspect its pretty deep in certain places. We just don’t want to take any chances with the boys going swimming on their own.”
Philip pointed out the window. “Also beyond the lake is the woods, and there’s a lot of unchartered territory there. It’s wild enough to house all kinds of animals.” He shook his head. “We haven’t really seen anything dangerous but just want to avoid any untoward incidents or nasty accidents.”
“I can understand that. Young men can be rash sometimes.” Robert said with a chuckle. He hesitated before continuing. “Would the house rules apply to me as well?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye, “since I am neither young nor rash? I would like to take a look at the lake if I could.”
“Absolutely!” Stewart said. “I can show you the way, but I need to take care of something first. Can you give me a few minutes?”
“Yeah, I do need to talk to Ben as well,” Philip said, casting a knowing glance at Aimes. “We can go with you if you ...”
Robert held up a hand. “No one needs to accompany me, please, since I am not grounded like the young men. Just point me in the right direction. I daresay I would be able to find the lake without any trouble.”
“I will take him,” Aimes suddenly spoke up. Stewart and Philip turned and stared at him. He looked back at them solemnly. “You take care of your Brats and make sure they get the chores done.”
Robert stood up and pushed his chair neatly back in place. “I appreciate the offer Aimes. I am hoping you can also tell me more about this place.”
“Not much to tell …” Aimes replied crisply as he led the way out.
“I’ve always been an outdoor kinda guy. I love nature, I enjoy all the seasons – what are they like here …?”
“Cold winters, some hot summers …”
“I suppose fall is glorious. Look at these trees … I can just see the colors, smell the earth, feel the wind.”
“How much rain do you get …?”
The voices faded out and Stewart and Philip burst into laughter.
“I’d like to see how long Robert can keep it up,” Philip said.
“You’d be surprised. That man has the patience of a monk. And the temperament of a saint.”
“That’s a pretty scary combination, Stewart. By the way, how much does he know about The Fraternity?” Philip frowned. “He didn’t say anything or look surprised when Aimes read our Brats the riot act or when he mentioned house rules. You haven’t told him, have you?”
“Of course not! I wouldn’t without letting you know. Not to mention George and Curtis. As far as Robert is concerned he thinks this is a property co-owned by some friends which needs repairs. Nothing more.”
“I wonder what he’ll say if he found out. Do you think he’d make a Top?” Philip pursed his lips at his own question. “I think of him as cool headed and mild-tempered. Also sensible. Good qualities for a Top. Don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry. Have you?”
“No,” Stewart pondered. “Can’t say I have. Which leads me to say he is a saint. Don’t forget how long he’s been friends with Abby – she drives everyone up the wall. Definitely a saint! Well, what do you say we get our Brats?”
Philip sighed. “Yeah, but let’s synchronize. I am thinking a half dozen swats?”
“Aimes would be disgusted but yeah, I agree. Bare though.”
“Oh yes, that was a deliberate flouting of house rules. Both of them knew better. Bare.” Stewart gave a decisive nod.
“OK, bare it is.” Philip sighed again. “But standing up or even over the table is fine. We don’t need to stretch this out.”
“Agreed. Let’s make this quick.”
“Ben is usually so good with rules. I don’t know what possessed him … oh well, he’s a Brat after all. What am I saying?”
Stewart rolled his eyes and walked to the storeroom. “Marcus, Ben, come to the kitchen for a minute please. Oliver, can you finish up with those potatoes – that should be enough for tonight. Please take the skins and the other peelings out to the compost bin? It’s just over there; look for the green bin with a lid.”
Oliver looked surprised but nodded. Stewart ruffled his hair affectionately and then swept Marcus and Ben with him into the kitchen. Both young men were looking apprehensive, fully conscious of what was to come next.
Philip leaned against the counter, with arms folded. “All right then,” he started without preamble. “Now that we don’t have an audience with us, would you two care to tell us what made you decide to go to the lake on your own when you know it is explicitly forbidden? Why did you disobey the most basic house rule here?”
Ben looked pleadingly at Philip once and then dropped his eyes when he saw the sternness there. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I should have known better.”
“You should have,” Philip said sternly.
“Marcus?” Stewart’s tone was crisp. “Whose idea was it?”
Marcus groaned inwardly.
“I guess it was … mine?”
“You guess?” this time Stewart’s tone made Marcus flush. “Was it yours?”
“Yes,” Marcus admitted. “I suggested it. And just to clarify, Ben wanted to ask for permission first.”
Ben threw him a grateful look but Philip’s next words wiped the smile off his face. “Wanted to is not the same as actually doing it, sweetheart. Just having the intent unfortunately earns you no favors.” He looked severely at Ben. “Come here Ben.”
With a start Ben’s legs automatically moved forward. He glanced nervously at Stewart and Marcus and his cheeks flamed. He had never been spanked in front of anyone before and he had no wish to make it the first time. “I’m sorry Philip, please …” he whispered as he got nearer. Surely Philip would not subject him to this humiliation.
Philip pulled him close when he was within reach and gave him a brief hug. “I know, but you earned this! Turn around, put your hands on the counter.” Philip moved aside and pushed Ben forward so that he had to quickly put his hands out to balance himself.
Ben protested weakly as Philip reached around his waist and began to unbuckle his belt and unzip his pants. “Philip … don’t!” he whined.
Ignoring the plea Philip swiftly yanked down both pants and underwear, exposing creamy white cheeks. He heard Ben gasp as he put a hand on Ben’s back to steady him. Without another word, he landed six sharp swats squarely on the white bottom.
Ben gasped again, much louder this time. By the time the sting became unbearable and he seriously thought of yelling out loud, he heard Philip say, “OK, we’re done.”
Ben’s shoulders relaxed. Thank God that wasn’t so bad. The minute he realized the spanking was over, he grabbed his pants and pulled them up. And then clutched his backside to rub the sting out.
Marcus had watched Ben’s slow progress towards Philip with round eyes. His stomach rolled as he realized Ben was about to get spanked.
In front of them.
Did that mean he would be too?
He turned, white-faced, to Stewart.
“Yes, you too babe. Here!’ Stewart ordered, pointing to the spot in front of him.
Marcus only managed to catch a glimpse of Ben being told to put his hands on the counter and then he spared no more thought on him; his attention was fully claimed by Stewart. Turning him so that Marcus could not see Ben, Stewart bent him over the kitchen table. Stewart’s presence was both comforting and menacing at the same time.
Marcus kept his head bent and bit his lower lip as Stewart methodically took his jeans down. He squirmed when his boxers were drawn down as well, and he prayed hard that no one would come in and catch them in this horribly embarrassing position. He could hear Ben gasping behind him and he almost wanted to tell Stewart to hurry it up.
It was almost with relief when he felt the first swat, but a second later realized it was much too painful to be in any way thankful. Stewart had used a wooden spatula instead of just his hands, and God it stung! Marcus jerked and yelped while Stewart counted out the six swats.
“Ow, ow,” Marcus let out a noisy moan of relief when Stewart finally put the spatula down.
“That is for instigating this entire episode,” Stewart said with enough firmness to let Marcus know he was definitely displeased. “Put your jeans back on.”
With a sniff and some difficulty, Marcus pulled both boxers and jeans up. He quickly zipped himself up and glanced over at Ben, who was looking quite miserable.
“Are we going to flout house rules again, hm?” Stewart asked the two miscreants.
“No.” Marcus and Ben both shook their heads.
“Good, because next time it may be Aimes who will be dishing it out. Understand?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus saw Ben looking at him.
“I’m sorry,” Marcus mouthed.
Ben’s eyelashes fluttered but one corner of his lips lifted in a half smile.
“I know,” he mouthed back.
Robert stood on the back porch, both arms resting on the wooden railing. In the semi-darkness, he inhaled the crisp morning air with delight. He had on only a t-shirt and sweat pants, and the morning chill was sharp but he enjoyed it. The first sliver of light could be seen in the horizon. Robert gazed at it, patiently waiting. Another half an hour and the yard would be bathed in the first streaks of the morning sun. For now, he felt strangely sheltered and safe.
He turned when he heard the soft click of the kitchen door.
“Hey, good morning,” Robert said quietly, as if reluctant to mar the morning stillness.
Aimes came out and stood next to him. “You’re an early riser.” It was a flat statement.
“Who needs to sleep when you can have this kind of morning,” Robert replied, turning back to gaze at the scenery.
Aimes did not respond and a moment later Robert heard Aimes go back to the house. Robert sighed to himself, quite content not to have to make conversation or share the morning with anyone. As the first rays began to seep into the yard, the door opened again. Robert half-turned and straightened up. Aimes was holding a mug in each hand.
“It can get cold around here in the mornings.” Aimes held one hand out.
“Thanks,” Robert said, eyebrows slightly raised. He accepted the steaming mug of coffee with a warm smile. “Exactly what I need.” He sipped the scalding liquid gratefully. “Are you usually up so early?” he asked.
“This view gets to you too? I don’t think I can ever get too much of it.”
Aimes glanced at him, his eyes softening. There was no surer way to win his approval and he obviously decided Robert wasn’t being flippant or insincere. He said in a gruff voice, “I know what you mean.”
Robert smiled to himself. He was beginning to get used to Aimes’ brusque and gruff responses. Not much of a conversationalist, he thought wryly to himself.
“Good coffee,” Robert remarked.
OK, so no praises.
Robert took another route. “The others up yet?”
“This fresh air is making me ravenous.”
“Breakfast will be ready in a bit,” Aimes said shortly.
“Ah. Well then, can I help with breakfast?” Robert politely asked.
Aimes drank from his mug before answering. “Don’t need to.”
“I know. But I would like to.”
Aimes shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Without another word, he turned and went back to the kitchen.
Robert followed him in, saying cheerfully, “so - what’ll it be? I am reputed to make a mean omelette; Stewart and Philip will testify to that. Do we have enough eggs? What about grated cheese and tomatoes and perhaps a bit of thyme or basil?”
Aimes paused, his face expressionless.
“I know my way around the kitchen, Aimes. I’ve lived alone almost all my adult life. I promise I won’t mess up your neat and immaculate kitchen.” Robert’s voice was lightly amused. He looked closely at Aimes, not quite sure how he would react to his gentle teasing.
With a grunt, Aimes gestured to the pantry. “Search in there. Use anything you can find. If its not there, we don’t have it.”
Robert grinned. He moved easily from pantry to table as he got his ingredients together. From the corner of his eye he watched Aimes put a loaf into the oven.
“Is that home-made cornbread?” Robert asked cheerily. He went on grating cheese into a bowl, not really expecting any response from Aimes. “Haven’t had one of those in a long while. I can’t wait to taste it.”
If he felt he was mostly talking to himself, Robert didn’t show it. He finished with the cheese and brushed his hands carefully over the sink. Then he started on the tomatoes.
“Hey Aimes, how about a top up of that fabulous coffee?”
Aimes did not acknowledge the request but he stopped what he was doing and went and poured more coffee into Robert’s mug.
“Thanks.” Robert wiped his hands on the dish cloth and picked up his mug. His eyes met Aimes’ over the cup as he slowly sipped. They were about the same height so their eye level was on par – one pair slightly frowning, the other smiling.
The sound of footsteps broke the eye contact and made them both turn.
Oliver came in, his arms wound tightly around himself and teeth chattering slightly. “How cold does it get in winter?” he asked.
“Good morning, Oliver,” Robert greeted him with a smile. His eyes took in the tousled hair and sleepy eyes with appreciation and not for the first time he thought what a great looker Oliver was. “Had a good night’s sleep?”
“Good morning Robert, hi Aimes,” Oliver smiled back, and went to stand next to Robert. “Yeah, I slept well. Are you cooking breakfast?”
“I sure am, cheese and tomato omelette. You want some?”
Oliver nodded his head while he danced lightly on the cold tiles. Aimes looked down at his bare feet. “Why aren’t you wearing any shoes?”
“I ... don’t like to wear shoes in the morning.” Oliver replied, a little startled to be questioned by Aimes.
“I ... didn’t bring any?”
Aimes’ eyes bored into him. “There’s an old pair of slippers in the closet. Go get it and put it on. And get a robe from the bathroom.”
Oliver scuttled. He had met and even lived with all kinds of people in the past and had had no problem blending in with strangers but he had never encountered the likes of Aimes.
When Oliver had gone, Robert looked at Aimes with interest. The Aimes he had just witnessed was so different from the stiff and distant figure he had been moments ago. The brusque manners and snappy behaviour was still there but there was something else underneath the curtness. Robert couldn’t quite place it.
By the time Oliver came back, with a pair of old slippers on his feet and a loose robe hanging on his shoulders, sounds of doors opening and voices could be heard from upstairs. Marcus and Stewart came in, sniffing the air appreciatively.
“Do I smell eggs?” Stewart asked. “Your special omelette, Robert?”
“I don’t know about special, but I am making omelette!” Robert said with a laugh. He began to dish the chunky pancake into a large dish and cut it into wedges.
Aimes placed the piping hot cornbread in the centre of the table and they all sat down, surrounded by the delicious aroma of freshly cooked eggs, cornbread and strong coffee. Everyone looked hungry and happy.
“Where’s Philip and Ben? Aren’t they down yet?” Marcus asked. Oliver and Marcus sniggered at one another. “I’ll go get them,” Marcus offered.
Stewart’s hand prevented him from getting up from the table. “There is no need Marcus. Sit back down and eat your breakfast.”
“But the food will get cold!” Marcus protested, winking at Oliver. “Maybe they overslept?”
Oliver gave a tiny gurgle of laughter.
Stewart looked at the two suspiciously. “So let them. We are not on any kind of schedule are we? They’ll be here soon enough.” He put eggs and bread into Marcus’ plate and gestured to Oliver to do the same. “Eat.”
Two minutes later Philip came in with Ben. “Sorry guys ... we’ll wash up since we didn’t help with breakfast.”
Stewart shook his head. “Neither did we, Robert and Aimes did all the work.”
Marcus peered at Ben. “Let me see your eyes Ben. Are they glazed?”
Ben turned red immediately and Marcus and Oliver burst into laughter.
“What?” Philip asked, bringing two plates to the table. Stewart frowned at the two giggling young men.
“Private joke,” Marcus said quickly, making way for Ben to sit down. As the conversation resumed, Marcus leaned over and whispered softly into Ben’s ear. “Had a good one?”
Ben glared at him, trying to kick him under the table.
“Hey,” Stewart scolded, feeling Marcus jerk against him. “Stop it or you can all explain what the private joke is. Hmm?”
Marcus grinned, quite unrepentant while Oliver focused on his plate, having no wish to be under Stewart’s censure. Ben shrugged weakly at Philip and drank his coffee slowly, hoping the mug would hide his face till the flush had receded.
Robert watched the exchange in silence, keeping his thoughts well hidden. Spending so much time with Stewart and Philip and their partners lately had formed some ideas of their kind of relationship in his mind. In some ways it was appealing, especially in how their partners responded to them. Robert didn’t know the words to use and he was unable to put a definition on them but he could feel it all the same. He could see how it allowed one partner to be strong, to take charge and to protect. It also allowed the other partner to be open about their need to be accountable to someone, to be controlled and/or mastered. Things he suddenly realized he wanted too, now that he had decided to be honest with himself.
“Robert, when do you think you will be able to get a quote over to us?” Philip asked, breaking into his train of thoughts.
“Huh? Um, no more than a couple of days.” Robert’s mind switched back to the table. “I leave tomorrow, back to Ashley and I will start to work on the numbers. I should be able to send you the quote by the end of Wednesday probably – is that soon enough?”
“And workmen?” Philip asked.
“I’ll take care of that too. I am pretty sure I can find one or two good men who wouldn’t mind this job. Especially after I tell them about this place. They’ll think its a paid vacation.”
“So you are planning to put the team here for a couple of weeks?” Stewart inquired.
“That seems the most practical. Unless we hire some locals from here and you guys had already decided against that.”
Stewart and Philip exchanged a quick glance and saw Aimes nod his confirmation. The three of them had had a private discussion and had decided not to engage anyone from around the area so that they could maintain their privacy as before. The advantage of bringing in outside workmen meant once the job finished they would leave. Taking in local workmen might encourage more talk and gossip in town and that they wanted to avoid at all cost. So much as Aimes disliked the idea of having more strangers roaming around the property, he had acquiesced to the plan.
Stewart nodded his head. “Yes, we would prefer you to get your own team here. We hardly know anyone from around here.”
If Robert thought it strange that Aimes had lived there for years and still had no friends, he did not say. “That’s settled then. Cost estimate by Wednesday, and I will confirm all other details by the end of the week, and order whatever supplies we need. Does that work?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Stewart said. He turned to Aimes. “Once it’s finalized, we plan to have the repair works start the following week. Is that OK with you Aimes?”
Aimes eyes wandered from Stewart’s face to Philip’s, and finally settled on Robert. They rested on Robert for a while - as if sizing him up.
“I’ve got the cake, it’s in the fridge, so don’t let him go near that when he gets back!” Marcus nudged Ben.
It was Friday evening, and Marcus had come back early from work to prepare the surprise birthday party for Oliver. Ben had managed to take a couple of hours off as well and they were both in Marcus’ house while Oliver was cleaning at Ben’s house.
“I’ve told Philip not to bring Oliver back till I text him. What else needs to be done?” Ben asked gleefully. He had never planned a surprise party before.
Marcus held up one hand to count his fingers. “Cake’s in the fridge. Table all set. Stewart is picking up the food. We just need to hang up these streamers and balloons and I think we’re done. Plus Robert should be here any time now too. I think that would be the best surprise for Oliver, don’t you think? What?” Marcus found Ben staring at him.
Ben shrugged. “Just wondering why you are doing all this. It’s a lot of trouble and ....”
“Well, it is his twenty first birthday!”
“I know, but still ... it’s like you want this to be so special. We could have gone out for dinner somewhere, save all the trouble.” Ben’s forehead was creased in a frown. “This seems so much more ... personal.”
Marcus paused and said carefully. “He said if Simon were alive it would have been something spectacular.”
“Simon’s the old guy he lived with?” Ben asked. He had heard some part of the tale from Marcus but not all the details.
“Yeah, that’s right. And I believe him. I think Simon did love him - a lot – but he never got the chance to make it right. I mean Oliver ended up being chased out and all. Oliver obviously thinks the world of Simon, but apart from that one time, he has never ever mentioned Simon, do you realize that?”
“He’s never mentioned it to me,” Ben said.
“Exactly! I think that must take a lot of strength and courage. Oliver has never complained about how he got treated. A lot of people would be whining about all that they had lost but Oliver ... well, he just gets on with his life.”
Ben looked away. “Where do you want to hang the balloons?”
They were almost done and were admiring their handiwork when the doorbell rang.
“Must be Robert,” Marcus said, moving towards the front door. “Hey, come on in Robert. Did you park in the garage? I left it open for you.”
Robert had his usual black leather bag in one hand and a small brightly wrapped box in another. “Yes, and closed it as instructed. Am I late?”
“No, just in time,” Marcus replied. “Come to the dining room. We’ve just finished the decorations, what do you think?”
Robert looked around the dining room where six places had been set. “Very nice and festive. I like it.”
“Good. Here’s the plan. Once Stewart is home, we’ll ask Philip to bring him back here. He will normally head towards the kitchen for a drink or whatever. When he passes here, we’ll spring the surprise on him. OK?” Marcus’ head was so full of schedules and bits of details that he was almost hyperventilating.
Ben and Robert both agreed. As Marcus shooed Robert to go put his stuff away in the guest room he suddenly groaned. “Oh shit! The wine! I forgot to chill the wine.”
“Relax – I’ll do it,” Ben said soothingly. “Didn’t you make a list?”
Marcus snorted. Ben and his never ending lists!
Stewart arrived home a few minutes later, honking loudly. The boys went out to help with the food bags. Then Marcus told Ben to tell Philip he could bring Oliver back. They had just got all the food plattered and placed in the long dining table when Philip’s car drove up.
“Perfect, here they come,” Marcus hissed, peeping from the window. “Everyone take your places, keep out of sight. Ben, he can see you from there! Move closer to me. Shhh!”
Oliver had his own key and Philip let Oliver precede him as they came into the house.
“Where’s everyone?” they heard Oliver say. “Stewart’s car in the drive; he must be home.”
Philip replied vaguely, “I am sure he is around somewhere.”
Ben wanted to giggle but caught Marcus’ eye and clamped his mouth shut.
As Marcus had predicted, Oliver sauntered along the hallway towards the kitchen. “Do you want a drink?” he asked Philip. He was swinging a cloth bag in his hands, and he screamed and dropped the bag as several bodies jumped out of the dining room just as he passed.
Oliver fell back, clutching his chest. His eyes were round and big as he gasped. He saw Philip standing behind him, laughing. And then he broke into a wide smile as he realized what was happening.
“Oh no!” Oliver cried out, his eyes taking in the decorations. “For me? You did all this for me?”
“Of course it’s for you!” Marcus laughed happily. “Happy twenty-first Birthday Oliver!”
Everyone chimed in with their wishes and back-slaps and hugs.
“I can’t believe it ...” Oliver looked around, smiling broadly. “This is so unexpected, it’s wonderful. I thought ... well, no one said anything this morning.... I am so ...” Oliver stammered, sounding a little choked.
“Marcus organized the whole thing,” Ben said generously. “He wanted it to be a surprise, so we weren’t allowed to wish you this morning.”
Oliver looked at Marcus, eyes shining. “Thanks! I can’t believe ... and Robert? You are here too? For my birthday?”
“I wouldn’t have missed it.” Robert came forward and gave Oliver a quick hug.
Two pairs of interested eyes looked on, trying to decide if there was anything more in the gesture than the usual warmth and affability Robert exuded in general.
Marcus pursed his lips and Ben shook his head.
“Sorry – but I don’t think so,” Ben whispered to Marcus as they ushered everyone to the dining table.
Marcus sighed as everyone took their places. He leaned close to Ben. “Are you sure? He brought a present ...”
Ben sat down and sniggered. “So did we. That’s just good manners.”
After making sure everyone was seated, Marcus slid into the seat next to Ben. “He didn’t have to!”
“Stop trying to read a meaning into everything!”
Marcus growled softly under his breath. “See how happy he is though....”
Robert looked over at them and Stewart and Philip raised their eyebrows simultaneously. That was quite enough as a silent warning. Stop all the whispering or else...
Ben hurriedly cleared his throat and gave Marcus a little kick under the table, this time aiming properly.
Hiding behind a cough, Marcus got up to say, “Let’s drink a toast to Oliver, shall we? I’ve got a nice bottle in the fridge. Let me go get it.”
Marcus disappeared into the kitchen and retrieved one of the bottles of wine which had been left there by Ben earlier. When he turned around he found Stewart standing in front of him and looking at him.
“Oh Jeez Stewart, you startled me! I could have dropped the bottle you know!” Marcus grumbled.
“OK, what’s going on?” Stewart asked, pinning him with a stern eye.
“What? Nothing ... um ....”
Stewart’s eyes narrowed - a sign Marcus had learnt to recognise with foreboding.
“Marcus, spit it out before our guests start to wonder what we are doing in here!”
Marcus shrugged in resignation. “Oh well .... Ben and I were just discussing ...”
Marcus screwed up his face. “We just wondered if there was something going on between Robert and Oliver. Do you think there is?”
Stewart reached out to take the bottle from Marcus’ hand. “Sweetheart, I honestly do not know, and I do not want to even speculate on this. It is none of our business. Neither do I want you to be such a busy-body. Now if you don’t mind, can we let this subject drop and let’s go enjoy the wonderful party you’ve planned?”
Marcus smiled. “You think Oliver is pleased?”
Stewart leaned forward and kissed Marcus on the cheek. “He definitely is, and you did a wonderful job darling. I am proud of you.” He pushed Marcus forward and landed a sharp swat on his jean-covered behind.
“Hey!” Marcus turned to protest. “What is that for?”
Stewart grinned wickedly. “That is for having such a cute spankable butt,” he said with a wink. “Now move unless you want another one.”
It was a good party. Oliver couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. When Marcus brought out the cake, topped with twenty one candles, Oliver swallowed hard. He stared at the cake and the brightly burning candles and didn’t say a word.
“Don’t forget - you need to make a wish before you blow out the candles,” Marcus said, handing a knife to Oliver. “Go on, make a wish!”
Everyone was gazing at Oliver, smiling and expectantly waiting for his next movement. Oliver was silent for a moment and then his eyes lifted and rested on Robert. It was a very quick glance, a flicker of the eyelid, no more than that, before he looked back down at the cake. He reached for the knife with one hand and raised it, and then with a big and bright smile, he drew in a long breath and blew hard.
Everyone clapped as the candles were all extinguished.
It was just past midnight and the house was silent.
Philip and Ben had left an hour ago, armed with two slices of cake in a plastic container.
Robert had retired to his room after helping to clean up the kitchen and bidding everyone good night.
Stewart snapped off the bedside lights and pulled Marcus to him. They started kissing and fondling one another, getting ready to have sex.
Across the hall, Oliver sat on his bed, hugged his knees and sighed.
... to be continued ...