Michael shoved his cell phone into his front pocket. Tucking the small brown package under his arm, he grabbed his keys off the table and headed for the door. Big red letters spelled out ‘FRAGILE’ on every side of the little box.
He glanced around, making sure he had everything he needed. Rushing out the front door, Michael suddenly collided into Ian standing in the hallway. The man’s hand was raised as if he was about to knock on the apartment door when Michael raced out. Michael’s large frame knocked Ian off balance, smacking him into the wall behind him.
“Ooomph!” Ian let out a gasp.
“Shit,” Michael shouted, as the package slipped from under his arm. With quick reflexes, he caught the box before it hit the floor. As he snatched it out of mid-air and clutched it safely to his chest, Michael let out a long drawn out sigh. “That was too close.” Anger flashed across Michael’s face as he straightened to his full height and tucked the package firmly under his arm again.
“Asher’s not home,” Michael grunted, before walking away without waiting for Ian’s reply.
“I didn’t come here to see Asher. I wanted to talk to you--”
“Nope, not happening!” Michael hurried down the steps two at a time. His stride was rushed, but his back was straight as he moved stiffly down the stairs.
“Come on Mike, let me buy you a cup of coffee so we can talk about this,” Ian tried again. His busted lip was purple and swollen and pulled at the corner of his mouth when he flashed Michael a fleeting smile.
Michael stopped on the narrow landing and glared at Ian. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Fine, then you can just listen while I talk.”
Michael rolled his eyes at Ian’s persistence. “Why the hell should I give you the time of day?” He turned and headed down the stairs, yet hollered over his shoulder at Ian as he went, “You have three-fucking-blocks to get whatever you have to say off your chest. I’ve got to make it to the post office before they close. Let’s see if your legs and your mouth can try to keep up.” Michael finished with a dry chuckle.
Ian dashed down the steps behind him. They exited the building one after the other, but with the vacant sidewalk, Ian was able to quickly match Michael’s pace and keep them side by side.
“Look, I know that you think I don’t like you…”
Michael snorted, but didn’t break his stride. His long legs moved fluidly, yet his posture was stiff and rigid, locking his emotions behind an unbendable wall.
“…but, I don’t even know you--”
“You’ve got that right,” Michael growled.
“Yeah, I know that I was wrong. I shouldn’t have judged you, but I do know Asher. I know him a hell of a lot better than you do, and I don’t want to see him get hurt, again.”
Michael suddenly stopped and pivoted on his heels. “Again? What do mean, again?”
Ian slowly nodded his head. “Has Asher ever told you about Paul?”
The muscles flexed in Michael’s jaw, making him look predatory. His nostrils flared as he stared at Ian. “He said they were just friends. I thought Paul had been engaged to his sister, Allison.”
“If Paul was in love with Allison, what does any of this have to do with Asher?” Michael’s words were clipped.
Ian ran his fingers through his short blond hair. His pale cheeks flushed red under Michael’s intense glare. “It started as a harmless crush. Paul is a straight arrow and Asher was always fine with that. He accepted it and simply admired Paul from a distance, knowing that it could never turn into anything more than friendship.”
Michael swallowed the lump in his throat while listening to Ian explain.
“Paul dated a lot of different girls in high school, but none of them were ever serious until he started seeing Allison. It was easy for Asher to hide his feelings when Paul was messing with random girls at school, but it devastated Asher when Paul fell in love with Allison right in front of him and then asked her to marry him.”
“I thought Asher and his sister were really close.”
“They were, and Allison was always supportive about Asher being gay, but she never knew about Asher’s feelings for Paul; nobody did, except me. All Asher ever wanted was for his little sister to be happy, so he suffered in silence while watching them plan a life together.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Michael demanded, inching closer to the smaller man, forcing Ian to step back.
Ian took a long deep breath before letting it out on a sigh. “I wanted you to know that Asher’s had his heart broken before, mainly because he always wants the kind of guy he can’t have. Asher has a habit of falling for overly masculine type guys, you know,” Ian cocked his head to the side and glanced from Michael’s shoes to his clothes, before stopping so they were face to face, “ones that don’t register on the rainbow spectrum. I don’t want to see him get hurt again.”
“Come on, Asher, push harder! Concentrate on the muscles in your arm. Feel the burn. Push, push, push just a little bit more,” Jackie cheered him on as she directed Asher’s workout. She clapped her hands when he picked up his pace. Her smile was radiant as she watched him work before grabbing her clipboard and writing down his achievement.
“You can do it.” Her tone remained upbeat while sweat beaded Asher’s forehead. The woman’s long black hair was pulled into a tight ponytail that bounced around her shoulders, while she excitedly watched Asher’s progress.
Asher grunted and bit his bottom lip. The machine’s resistance had his arm muscles shaking as he forced himself to finish the difficult set. Counting down each rotation, he let out a long whistle when he finally reached the end.
Jackie whooped and hollered. She danced around, joining in Asher’s celebration. “I knew you could do it. Just think, when you walked in here on that first day, did you ever think that you would be able to not only complete the entire set, but to do it in record time?”
The grin on Asher’s face wouldn’t disappear. He beamed from ear to ear with pride. Shaking his head, Asher playfully clucked his tongue. “Well, most of your patients aren’t much competition, since half of them once rode dinosaurs to school.”
The remark earned a mischievous swat from Mr. Prambleton’s cane from the workstation beside him. “I might have witnessed the invention of the wheel when I was a child, but I certainly did not ride a dinosaur to school; that was so last millennium, sonny.” The good natured seniors had taken Asher under their wing when he started physical therapy, and they had continued to encourage his recovery, every step of the way.
“Your recovery has been difficult, but you’ve been a great patient. The range of motion and strength in your right hand have improved tremendously and are almost equal to your left hand. I will prepare a report for your doctor to update him of your progress.”
Asher smiled at the good news. “When do you think I can get my medical clearance to return to work?”
Jackie scanned her clipboard, reading his chart. “You will need to return to your doctor for a follow-up visit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they give you the approval to go back to work next week. Make one more appointment with me after you see Dr. Edwards, and I’ll gather a packet of exercises and instructions on how to continue strength training after you’re discharged.”
The waiter had just placed two drinks on the table when Michael walked into the restaurant. His dark eyes scanned the dim room. It was early evening and the late day sun was still bright in the sky, but the wooden slats covering the large windows blocked out most of the natural light in the Italian restaurant.
Asher watched Michael make his way towards the table. His slow saunter was stiff. There was no doubt that Michael was sore after their adventurous morning. Memories of Michael’s body had Asher’s groin tightening in his pants. He had experienced Michael’s amazing body like no other person on earth had. The thought made him shiver with anticipation.
The restaurant was crowded for a weeknight. Michael stopped in the narrow aisle when an elderly woman exited her chair. She fumbled with her shawl. Michael assisted her, helping wrap the silky fabric around her narrow shoulders.
“Aren’t you a darling,” The older woman purred at Michael, patting his arm. Her date quickly shot from his chair, rounded the table, and captured her hand in his weathered mitt. The small man glared at Michael and shooed him away with an angry scowl as he escorted his date towards the door.
Asher couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. If Michael had stopped to help a younger woman, he would be seething with jealously, yet rushing to the aid of a lady who was old enough to be his grandmother had Asher grinning like an idiot.
“You’re late, sleepy head,” Asher teased, “Did you at least wait five minutes after I left to fall back asleep or were you sailing off to dreamland as soon as I walked out the door?”
Michael gingerly settled into the chair across from Asher. He winced and frowned. It was the first sign that something was wrong, but when Michael’s sexy smile didn’t light up his handsome face, Asher knew there was something more going on.
“Is everything alright, Mike? Did you make it to the post office on time?” Asher nervously waited for an answer.
“Yeah, I made it there before they closed. Mom’s gift is now in the trusty hands of the United States Postal Service.” His smile appeared forced. Asher waited for Michael to continue, but he didn’t. His attention turned to the menu in front of him as his eyes glanced over the meal choices.
“I know you miss your family and Hovatter Hills is only a couple hours away, so why don’t we rent a car and drive up there to surprise your mom for her birthday?”
Michael’s gaze was fixed on his menu. He shook his head and scratched at the back of his neck. “It’s not that.”
Asher bit his lip. “If you want to go visit them alone, I’ll understand.”
The sob that escaped Michael was unexpected. When he looked up, his dark brown eyes were red and laced with unshed tears. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were madly in love with Paul Ryman?”
“I—I—I,” Asher stuttered. Panic crushed his chest. He struggled to breathe, caught off guard by Michael’s question.
Michael rolled his eyes and looked away. “Well, you’re not denying it.”
“And I’m not admitting it,” Asher hissed.
“Which is it? You told me that you guys were just friends.”
“We are just friends--”
“That’s not what Ian told me.” The muscles in Michael’s neck corded as he steadied his breath.
Asher leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “You know, Michael, you’re right! I should have told you that I had a humiliating, unrequited school-boy crush on my best friend when I was growing up. I’m sure Michael Waters has never experienced anything as degrading as rejection in his entire life. I bet every girl that you’ve ever batted your long brown eyelashes at or flashed those big-ass dimples their way, they just fell madly in love with you…or better yet, they fell into your bed!”
The sounds of the restaurant faded. The silence between them was deafening as they sat at the table glaring at each other.
A red flush peppered Michael’s cheeks. His tone softened when he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
Rubbing his fingers over his face, Asher shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t think it was important. It was embarrassing enough to live through it the first time. It’s not something I think about anymore. I’m not in love with Paul. I swear to you, we are just friends. Believe it or not, I was very happy when he and Allison announced their engagement. Friends sometimes drift apart, but a brother-in-law would be there forever.”
Michael reached out and covered Asher’s hand with his. “I’m sorry, Ash. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just…” Michael took several long breaths. “…it’s just…when Ian told me that you had feelings for Paul it made me so jealous.”
Asher shook his head, “Well, there he goes again, sticking his pointy, freckled nose where it doesn’t belong. When will he learn that he can’t meddle in everyone else’s business? That being friends doesn’t give him carte blanche to do or say whatever he wants.”
“I think somewhere deep inside, Ian has your best interest at heart, he just has a really fucked up way of showing it.”
Chuckling, Asher rolled his eyes and agreed. “Ian is a good guy, but too bad he’s also a pompous jackass most of the time. He might have been trying to help, but his ass is still in the doghouse. I’m not going to just forget about the crap he’s pulled, no matter how noble his intentions were.”
Michael cocked an eyebrow. “Well, just think, if Ian hadn’t been a giant dick then we would have probably stayed at their party and last night…and this morning, might never have happened.”
Heat flooded Asher’s face. His heart raced watching Michael sit across from him with a deliciously sexy little grin. “I guess if Ian’s intention was to prove how straight you are, his plan backfired, now, didn’t it?”
Michael’s smirk turned mischievous when he leaned across the table and whispered, “Can we get our food to go? I’m getting hard just thinking about all the things I want to do with you--”
“Waiter,” Asher croaked, “Check please!”
Shiny new chapter. I'm working hard to make this a great story. KC