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by Rick R. Reed
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: After losing his partner Toby, Chase faces a long, painful road back to life and love. At first, he doesn't see how he can go on, but then Chase and Toby's old friend Mike cajoles him into returning to Chicago for the annual International Mr. Leather Competition. There Chase revisits a world of hot, casual sex that he had forgotten existed, meets a friend who cares more for him than he ever realized, and discovers the possibility that he might yet find his way home.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [146 KB]
Reading time: 91-128 min.
Everything was ready for the surprise party. Chase had decorated their Seattle condo with gold, purple, and white streamers and matching balloons, giving the place a Mardi Gras feel. A specially made banner hung above the dining room table with Toby's high school graduation photo and the words, "Over the Hill? Happy 40th, Toby!" emblazoned across its slick white surface.
Their condo, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, felt alive with the electricity of anticipation. Even what lay outside the windows, which overlooked the Space Needle and downtown Seattle, appeared to be lit up for a party this early spring evening.
Chase had gathered all of Toby's friends for the bash, swearing them to secrecy and getting them in on the weeks-long planning for his partner's milestone birthday. They were spread out now throughout the kitchen, dining, and living areas, clutching cocktails in their hands, chattering about Toby and how he looked too young to actually be forty, and how surprised he would be when he walked in the door. Chase himself relished the idea of Toby's handsome face wide-eyed in surprise and delight. No one appreciated a party like Toby. Chase saw his man in his mind's eye, even as he bustled around the condo, making sure the hors d'oeuvres were in place. The dining room table was laden with bowls of Pad Thai, pot stickers, chicken satay with peanut sauce, and prawns enveloped in wonton wrappers; Chase had dusted the tablecloth with purple glitter. He could just picture Toby's face--the short blond hair, the wide-set blue eyes, the finely chiseled features--alive with total shock and pleasure at everything Chase had assembled to celebrate his special day.
The food and the local friends weren't the only things Chase couldn't wait for Toby to see. Diagonal to the dining room table, Chase had a bar set up, sparing no expense to have it stocked with top shelf liquor, wine, beer, and mixers. And the bartender was yet another in a long line of surprises Chase had arranged. The guy was pure eye candy--Latino with olive skin, buzzed black hair, the darkest eyes Chase had ever seen, and ripped and bulging muscles that should have put him on the cover of a fitness magazine rather than behind a bar. These were visible because his outfit consisted only of tight black pants and red suspenders. Best part was that the guy seemed truly affable and friendly. His excitement at Toby's arrival did not seem in the least faked.
And the best surprise of all stood in the corner by the windows with the view they had bought the place for. Mike. Chase had been thrilled when Toby's old best friend from Chicago had agreed to fly out for the party. Mike and Toby went back years, to their college days at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. When Chase and Toby lived in the windy city, he had to admit to himself that he would be lying if he said he wasn't jealous of the two men's closeness, but Mike had always seemed genuinely happy that Toby had found Chase, after years of searching for the one in and out of leather bars all over Chicago's north side.
Although Toby had left the leather scene behind--and sold off his chaps, harness, and bar vest on Craigslist--Mike had never gotten away from it, which was evident even now. Mike was tall, verging on six-five, with buzzed salt and pepper hair, a matching beard, pale gray eyes, and a deep tan. In another life, Chase would have gone weak in the knees at the sight of this hunk. Now, he seemed more like a loving brother-in-law. But once he had arrived at their condo from Sea-Tac airport, earlier that day, in jeans and a Bears T-shirt, he had changed into full leather regalia for the party--tight black leather jeans, a clinging T-shirt that showed off his ripples and bulges to good advantage, leather vest, and combat boots. He looked like some sort of Tom of Finland fantasy.
Apparently, Chase was not the only one who thought so. Right now, Mike had a full entourage of new friends gathered around him, all Seattle men, dressed in their usual garb of sweat shirts, fleece, jeans, and, even in March, sandals (some with socks, but that was Seattle for you).
Chase hurried over to Mike and managed to pull him away from the crowd of fawning admirers that had gathered around him. The two men stood near the front door. Chase eyed Mike. "So are you excited?"
"Oh God, yes. It's been how long since we've all gotten together? Seems like forever." Mike asked.
Chase thought about it. The last time he and Toby had been back to Chicago must have been four years ago, when they returned to the city in August, in miserable heat, to visit Mike and go to the Halsted Market Days street festival. It had been a fun time, but both Toby and Chase were ready to return to Seattle's cool temps and summer sunshine by the end of that week, a sure sign that Seattle had usurped Chicago as 'home'. This trip was Mike's first to Seattle. He had planned on staying a week. Chase brought himself back to the present and answered Mike, "I'm thinking four, maybe even five years ago."
Mike shook his head. "That long, huh? We should never let that happen again." He pulled Chase close in a bear hug. "You guys mean too much to me to see you so infrequently."
Chase pulled away, a little breathless. The guy didn't know his own strength; he'd almost squeezed him to death. Not that Chase minded--in fact, the truth was he was a little turned on by Mike's closeness and brute force--but here he was, waiting for his lover to come home to the surprise party he had spent the last several weeks of his life planning. He looked over the room, which had gone a little hushed, with several people moving to the windows to peer outside.
He turned back to Mike, glancing down at his watch. It was a quarter 'til seven. "I don't know where that man is; he's usually home by six fifteen at the latest."
"He'll be here," Mike said, grinning. "Probably just got tied up at work." His eyes went a little faraway. "I can just picture it."
Chase punched his shoulder. "Cut it out! I know what you're picturing." Just then, he felt the vibration and then heard the ring tone he had set up just for Tony on his cell phone. He pulled the device out of his pocket, glancing at Mike and saying, "Speak of the devil."
He pressed accept. "Hey honey. Get held up at work?" Toby worked at Microsoft as a technical writer and the days could often get really long--especially when one figured in the commute from the campus in suburban Redmond.
"Yeah. I won't bore you with the details. Sorry I didn't call you sooner. I just wanted to get out of there and then I fell asleep on the bus. I guess I really am forty! No energy!"
"Well, we'll fix that when you get home."
"What's for dinner?"
"Leftovers. We still had chili left from Wednesday night."
"Sounds good. And Chase?"
"I'm glad you're respecting my wishes to not do anything special for my birthday. I really do just want a quiet evening at home with the man I love."
Chase thought he'd get that later, when they were asleep and everyone had gone home. He looked around at the throng, grateful they had all gone quiet when his cell phone rang. Someone had even been thoughtful enough to pause the playlist of eighties dance music that was going. He felt a little twinge, hoping Toby would truly be thrilled--and not disappointed or angry with him--for planning this shindig.
After all, how many times does a guy turn forty?
"You know I love you, honey." Chase looked at Mike, who had an expectant expression on his face. "So where are you? Close?"
"Better. I'm just stepping off the bus." Chase heard the punctuation of the hiss of the pneumatic doors closing and the bass of the bus's engine as it roared off. The drop off was just at the corner. Surprise party time was almost here!
Toby said, "I can stop and pick up some cornbread from that bakery on Olive if you want, it would go great with--"
Chase's blood went cold at the sudden ceasing of Toby's words. It wasn't just silence he heard, but a sharp intake of breath, screeching brakes, a blaring horn, a bit of static and then...
Chase felt as though his heart had stopped. What had just happened? Surely, Toby had simply dropped his phone or something. His cell would ring again in a minute and Toby would pick up where he'd left off.
But the cell phone didn't ring. And with a feeling like he was moving in slow motion, Chase began to move toward the window that overlooked their street. He had heard the screeching brakes and horn more than just through the phone, he thought with a nauseating sense of dread.
He barely heard Mike calling after him, "Chase? What's the matter? You just went white as a ghost."
Outside, he could hear the sirens in the distance. Outside, the traffic stopped in the street below them. Outside, a crumpled figure lay in the middle of the road, still. A woman stood nearby, her SUV door open, weeping.
That figure--the one lying twisted on the pavement--that wasn't Toby, was it?
It couldn't be. Chase peered through the darkness and knew that it was, but something inside him refused to believe it. No, that's not my Toby. It couldn't be. I've told him a dozen times, at least, to pay attention and look where he's going when he's outside on his cell.
Chase sat down suddenly, and hard, on the floor, staring numbly at the concerned faces of his friends as the sirens outside grew deafening.
* * * *
It was several minutes before Chase returned to reality. He looked up, dazed, at his and Toby's friends gathered around, all doing things like biting their lips, wringing their hands, turning to one another, thinking probably the person standing nearby had a better idea of what to say or do.
Those that weren't staring at Chase, jockeyed for position at the street-facing window. Chase shuddered at their frantic whispers. "Is it him? Is it Toby? Is he okay?"
Dully, Chase turned, staring at the different feet all crushed up against the window, trying to see.
Is this what shock feels like, he wondered. It seemed he could not remember the preceding few minutes of his life. What had just happened? It was weird. There were moments he could remember, everyone talking at once, and for some reason all Chase could hear was white noise. He could see their mouths moving, but could not hear any individual noises, just that deafening static. And why was everyone gawking at him now, as though they had never seen him before, like he was some sort of animal who had gotten inside the condo and they were wondering how to handle it? Some looked sad. Some looked alarmed.
What was he doing on the floor?
Mike squatted beside him, holding a glass of water in one hand, his other hand perched on Chase's shoulder. His gray eyes were alive with concern, his gaze twitching from the window above them, back to Chase.
It all began to rush back in, the memory of the last few moments, starting with the phone call, when the buzzer from downstairs sounded. It made Chase jump, the metallic bark so sudden and loud. He tried to get to his feet to respond to its call. Mike pushed him back down to the floor. "Just stay put, buddy. Let someone else get it."
Chase did nothing, not thinking, not wanting to think, as Mike stood, pressing his face and one hand against the window's glass. Somebody, the redhead from Toby's fencing club, Chase thought, moved to the intercom on the wall. Chase did not want to understand the import of the short conversation that took place.
"Seattle Police Department. Can I come up, sir?"
The whole condo went silent. All of them were listening, Chase supposed, for the officer's footfalls on the staircase, for the hollow knock that would come. Chase felt bile splash at the back of his throat and tried once more to get up. This is not happening.
Once again, Mike tried to get him to sit back down, this time on the couch, but Chase could allow no one else to answer the door. When the knock sounded, Chase was fully on his feet, moving toward the door, a sick sense of inevitability sitting in his gut like a stone. But something caused him to pause in his tracks. He returned to the window, staring down at the street. The crowd had begun to disperse. The figure on the ground was gone and an EMT was just slamming the door to the back of the ambulance. Chase's heart stopped for a minute as he saw the lights atop the ambulance go off, watched and cringed when a second knock came. The ambulance sped away.
Its siren did not wail.
Stiffly, Chase moved to the door to answer the knock, which now came a third time. The crowd in the apartment, who just such a short time ago were laughing and chattering to one another, excited, had grown somber and still. No one said a word. They parted, making room for Chase as he headed toward the door.
Chase reminded himself to unbolt the deadlock, to place his hand on the doorknob and turn it. He looked at the Seattle police officer standing outside. He was so young! He couldn't possibly be old enough to be on the force--rosy cheeks, baby smooth skin, a blond buzz cut. He looked like he belonged in high school, on the tennis team or something.
Chase had a sudden urge to laugh at the sober expression that pulled the Cupid's bow of the officer's lips down. This boy/man trying to look serious was simply absurd. Baby Huey in law enforcement.
Chase blurted, "What do you want?"
"Sir, is this the home of Toby Grant?"
"Who wants to know?" Chase asked and he did begin to laugh, just a little.
"Sir, this is the address we have for Toby Grant."
"Yes, this is his home. What of it?" Chase snapped, not sure why he was acting this way. A giggle escaped his lips like a hiccup.
"What's your relationship to Mr. Grant, sir?"
"What's it to you?" Chase spat. And then his mind flickered to the Mary Tyler Moore Show and its Mr. Grant. He covered his mouth to stifle the laughter.
Mike moved up beside him. "Officer, this is Chase Fullerton, he's Mr. Grant's partner. They both live here."
The officer nodded and exchanged a look with Chase.
Chase could see the discomfort on the officer's face. The officer spoke quickly, almost as if he were reading from a prepared statement. His delivery could use some work, Chase thought.
"Sir, I'm sorry to have to inform you that Toby Grant was hit by a car outside." The officer looked down at the floor for a long moment, then his blue eyes met Chase's. "He did not survive the pedestrian vehicle collision."
"What?" Chase felt Mike's hand on his shoulder again and shrugged it away. "What are you trying to tell me?"
"Mr. Grant expired on the scene, sir."
Chase laughed then, loud, hard, laughed until his sides ached, until he gripped the doorframe for support. "Yeah, that's a good one!" He turned back to Mike, whose eyes were filling with tears. "Did you hear that, Mike? Officer Baby Huey here says that Toby 'expired' on the scene." Chase laughed some more, high-pitched, almost a titter. "That's a good one." He turned back to the officer. "A real knee-slapper. Tell me another."
The officer gave him a lost look, shrugged, and turned to go down the stairs. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said over his shoulder.
Mike gripped him, turning him back towards the apartment. He called his thanks out to the descending officer's back and closed the door.
Chase couldn't stop laughing. "You know what's going on here, don't you?"
Mike led him to the couch and pressed him gently into its leather cushions. Chase continued, between bursts of breathless laughter. "Toby's just getting back at me. He knew I'd do something like this party and this is all one big joke." Chase collapsed into the couch, laughing until he could barely catch his breath, until tears poured down his cheeks.
Then he stopped.
"Oh my God," he whispered. He looked up at Mike, who had sat down next to him, one arm protectively wrapped around him. "My Toby's gone." The words came out as a strangled, hoarse cry.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the tears and the sobs came, choking, nearly suffocating. Mike sat next to him and wrapped his arms around Chase, holding him tight, one hand stroking his back. Chase gripped him, fingers digging into Mike's flesh so hard it had to hurt, but Mike didn't complain and what else could Chase do? It hurt so bad. It hurt so bad! He buried his face in Mike's T-shirt, trying to quell the hiccupping breath, the snot and the tears that all seemed ceaseless now that it had sunk in.
Toby was gone.
How could this have happened? Chase wondered. He managed to pull away, eyes burning, sniffling. The condo was still set up for the party--all the balloons and streamers, the bar, the buffet.
A new round of sobs escaped him as he watched their friends scurrying to grab coats from off the bed and to depart, mumbling and whispering shocked words of condolence, some saying nothing. The bartender was shrugging into a shirt and gathering up his things to go as well.
In minutes the place was empty, and he was alone with Mike. He managed to stop sobbing after a while, and was even able to sit up, separate from Mike. There was a dull ache behind his eyes and the tears flowed now of their own accord. Chase barely noticed them.
"What do I do now? Do we need to go somewhere, identify the body? What do people do?"
Mike brushed a hand across his face, pressed his thumbs into the area below Chase's eyes to stem the flow of tears. "We do whatever we need to. I'll be there to help and support you every step of the way." Mike bit his lower lip; Chase could see he was trying not to cry himself.
"Wait!" Chase cried. "Wait! You never got to see him. You came all this way and spent all that money." He sucked in a strangled breath. "And you never got to see your friend."
Mike drew him closer. "It's okay."
"But I know how much Toby would have loved seeing you. He talked about you all the time. Now, he won't get the chance." Chase grabbed a throw pillow and hugged it to himself, rocking and regarding Mike out of the corner of his eye. "It isn't fair."
The two men sat in silence for a long time. Water dripped from the faucet in the kitchen sink. The Friday night roar of traffic, mufflers, horns honking, sounded outside. There was the thump of footsteps upstairs, a snatch of unintelligible conversation, laughter.
How could the world just go on? Didn't they know? How could they pretend everything was normal?
After a while, Chase turned to Mike. "I have to see him. I have to see him. Do you get it?"
"Of course, I do. We'll go down to the hospital; we'll take a look."
Chase stood suddenly. "I have to see him now." He began pacing. "Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn't dead."
"Chase...." Mike stood beside him.
"It happened so fast. Maybe he came to in the ambulance. Maybe he just had one of those 'near death' experiences and they sent him back because it wasn't his time." Chase gnawed on a hangnail, pondering. "It couldn't be over just like that. Not just like that. Not so, so...fast." He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and summoned up a smile for Mike. "He's not dead. He can't be. There has to be more. A person doesn't just step off a bus and...." Chase's words trailed off into silence.
Finally, Chase said, "Let's go see him. I need to see him."
"I'll get our coats. Why don't you go splash some water on your face? Take a minute. I'll call and see where they've taken him."
Chase started toward the little powder room adjacent to the living area. He froze and turned back to Mike. "What am I going to do with his gift? I spent two week's pay on a new watch for him. It was beautiful, a Movado with a diamond, the nicest thing I ever gave him." Chase looked at Mike, helpless.
Mike came to him, wrapped his arms around him once more and held him close, whispering, his lips inches away from Chase's ear. "We'll give it to him. He can still have it. Now go get yourself together."
"And let's go see Toby." Chase disappeared into the bathroom and Mike went to gather up their coats.