“Sixty-two… sixty-three… sixty-four…. keep going, Sam! You’re so close, man! You can do this!”
My phone beeps the two-minute mark, and I fall back on the mat, defeated. “Damn it!”
My abs are on fire and my thighs are cramping like a bitch. As I stare up at the ceiling lights high overhead, I rub my left leg, which aches bone deep. I guess I shouldn’t complain, though. I managed sixty-four sit-ups in two minutes. Not bad. But unfortunately, not good enough.
“You were so close!” Craig says, patting me on my leg as he sits down beside me. He hands me a towel to wipe the sweat from my face. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re making great progress.”
I frown. “I failed.”
“Oh, come on! I don’t know anyone who can do eighty sit-ups in two minutes. That’s insane.”
“I do. And I can’t go back to work unless I can too, not to mention eighty push-ups in two minutes, fifteen pull-ups, and run a mile-and-a-half in under ten minutes.” I blow out a heavy breath and brush back some hair that escaped my topknot. “I’ve still got a way to go.”
Craig frowns at me. “You don’t have to go back there, you know,” he says, lowering his voice.
This isn’t the first time he’s hinted at me staying in Dayton permanently. But no matter how angry I am at Cooper, I can’t just give up on him. I honestly can’t see myself with anyone else. It’s Cooper for me. But, damn it, he needs to meet me halfway. He needs to at least try. I know we grew up in very different eras—he grew up in a time when you just didn’t come out. A lot of guys hid their true identities behind marriages of convenience. But times have changed, and he needs to change with them. Or at least make an effort. I’m not asking for a lot. Just a little.
It’s late, and the fitness center is already closed for the night. The customers are long gone, and most of the employees have gone home. I’m pretty sure it’s just the two of us here now, and that’s probably not a good idea. I don’t want to give Craig the wrong idea.
“You have a job here if you want it,” he says. “I’d hire you in a heartbeat. You’d make an awesome personal trainer.”
I glance at my training coach and frown. God, he’s beautiful. Blond hair, blue eyes, a body like Adonis. He’s smart, he’s funny, and best of all, he’s comfortable in his own skin.
Craig lays his hand against bearded cheek. “Just think about it, okay?”
Craig shoots to his feet, cutting me off before I can shoot down his proposal—again—and offers me a hand up. “Don’t say anything right now. Just think about it.”
I reach for his hand, and he hauls me to my feet. When he releases me, I test my balance to make sure I’m not going to fall on my ass. My left leg aches, but it’s holding up. I got the cast off six weeks ago, and I’ve been out of the walking brace for two weeks. I’m definitely on the mend. Now, I just have to get back to fighting strength so I can go back to work. And as far as Cooper goes…well, I’ll deal with him when the time comes. Cause right now, I got nothin’. We’re trapped—or at least I’m trapped—in limbo. I can’t go on being his closet boyfriend forever—his dirty little secret. But what will happen to us if he won’t at least try? I can’t live with the status quo. To be honest, though, I also can’t lose him.
I guess leaving him back in December—shortly after my accident—was my way of forcing the issue. I should have gotten a T-shirt that says: I got hit by a car, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt, a fractured skull, and a broken leg. But I don’t think they make shirts like that.
Craig smiles at me, forcing my thoughts back to him and the present. “Hey, you hungry?” he says. “Do you wanna grab a late-night dinner?”
I frown as I get a whiff of myself. “It’s late, and I need to shower. I stink to high heaven.”
Craig laughs. “Okay, so go shower. Then how about some dinner? I’ll take you to your favorite burger joint, my treat. How about it? I’ll even buy you a beer.”
As he makes the offer, he reaches out and touches my arm. It’s just a casual touch, nothing overtly sexual, but the invitation is there in his eyes. I figure it’s not a good idea to mix the way I’m feeling right now—decidedly lonely—with alcohol and a hot guy. The hopeful expression on his face tells me it’s definitely a bad idea.
I scrub my hand across my face, thinking I need to trim my beard. Damn it! Why is this happening to me now? The guy I’ve always dreamed of is standing right here in front of me, practically offering himself to me on a silver platter. He’s everything I’ve always wanted. And he’s out—he’s so out. I swallow hard. “It’s getting late, Craig. I should just shower and head home.”
“Sam.” He reaches for my hand, his long fingers intertwining with mine. “Please. I’ll get down on my knees right now and beg if that’ll make a difference.”
I laugh, just as he intended me to. Craig knows the score—I’ve been up front with him from the beginning. He knows how I feel about Cooper. And damn, Cooper’s ruined me for other men. He can reduce me to mush with just one look. With just one word!
“Thanks, but I’d better not.” I smile at Craig, hoping to soften the rejection.
He smiles back, but it’s a sad smile. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow then. You can let yourself out?”
I watch Craig head for the exit and wonder, just for a second, what it would be like to say yes to him. To be with a guy who doesn’t feel he needs to hide me from the world—hide us. To be with a guy who’s open about his sexuality. But wondering is useless because I know I won’t act on it. As fantastic as Craig is, I just can’t bring myself to give up on Cooper, no matter how badly I’m hurting right now.
I head for the men’s locker room and grab a clean towel and my shampoo and soap. I’ve got the place to myself, so I take my time and zone out beneath the spray of hot water, close my eyes, and let my mind wander and my body relax.
Now that the pain in my left leg has subsided, my body’s coming back online... along with a lot of pent-up physical need. I’ve been dreaming a lot about Cooper lately and waking up in the middle of the night with a raging hard-on. My body aches for release. The stupid thing is… I haven’t done anything about it.
I could do something about it. I could jerk off right here in the shower and no one would know. I could close my eyes and pretend it’s Cooper getting me off, pretend it’s his hand gripping my erection. Or, hell, all I have to do is say the word and Craig would be on his knees sucking me off like there’s no tomorrow. I know this because he’s offered on more than one occasion.
Instead, I wrap up my shower in record time and put my street clothes back on, which isn’t easy when you’re packing an erection that just won’t quit.
It’s late when I make it to my pick-up truck—a loaner from my mom. I open the driver’s door and climb inside, then lean back in the seat and close my eyes. I’m lonely and I’m horny, and it’s my own damn fault. If I hadn’t left Chicago—left Cooper—I’d be home in bed with him right now.
Before I’m even tempted to do something stupid, like call Craig, I start the engine and peel out of the parking lot. It’s time to head home to my empty bed.
* * *
When I arrive at my mom’s house—a modest, white Cape on a quiet tree-lined street—I see she left a light on for me in the kitchen. I’m sure she’s in bed already. She works first shift as a nurse, and she’s up and gone by six. She left a note for me on the kitchen table. Sam—leftovers in the fridge, sweetie. Love you, Mom.
I nuke the pot roast and veggies and eat standing at the kitchen counter, chasing the food down with a cold beer.
I made good progress today. Sixty-four sit-ups. I should reach my goal of eighty in a couple more weeks. But I still have to tackle the push-ups, pull-ups, and the mile-and-a-half run before I can even think about going home. I won’t go back if I’m not fit to work.
The house is dark and quiet, so I go upstairs to my old bedroom to watch a movie in bed until I’m ready to sleep. In the morning, I’ll eat breakfast, and then head back to the gym to keep conditioning. That’s all I do these days, eat, work out, sleep, rinse and repeat.
I glance around a bedroom that hasn’t changed since I left home right after high school to join the Army. I had my heart set on becoming an Army Ranger—just like my Uncle Matt—and I worked my ass off until I qualified. And once I was in, I loved every grueling minute of it… until the day my chute failed to open on a routine training jump. I broke nearly every bone in my body, and that ended my military career.
This time, all it took was one compound fracture to knock me off my feet. But this time it’s different. This time I’m going back.
I surf YouTube for a while, catching up on some of my favorite channels. There’s this gay couple I watch religiously, and right now they’re planning their wedding. I envy them so much, for having each other, for being so open about their relationship with their family and friends. Watching them gives me hope that one day I can have a relationship like that.
For the millionth time, I wonder if I’m asking too much of Cooper. I can’t even get him to hold my hand in public, let alone think about marriage. Illinois recognizes same-sex marriage, but it’s not doing me any good.
It still hurts to think back to Shane and Beth’s wedding reception. I’d worked so hard to get out of my wheelchair and hobble across the great room on my crutches to ask Cooper to dance. Instead of being proud of me for getting on my feet ahead of schedule, he scolded me in front of a room full of people and told me, “Sit your ass back down before you fall down.”
I know Cooper’s not comfortable out of the closet. Still, these were our closest friends that day. Every single one of them would have applauded us for dancing. There had been absolutely nothing to fear, and still, he wouldn’t stand up with me. He couldn’t do the one thing I needed from him—to stand up in front of God and witnesses and say, “Sam’s mine.”
That had been the last straw. I hopped a plane out of Chicago the next morning and came home to Dayton to hide out in my mother’s house while I continued to recuperate.
“Fuck my life,” I say, blinking back tears. “And fuck you, too, Cooper.”
I watch a few more minutes of YouTube, but it just makes me miss my BFF, Beth—we usually watch this channel together—so I turn it off and lie there in the dark.
I toy with the idea of making a quick call to Beth, just to hear her voice, but it’s midnight here, which means it’s eleven in Chicago. She’s probably asleep by now. If I wake her up, Shane will have my balls in a sling. Beth says he’s unbearable now that she’s pregnant… that if anyone even looks at her wrong, he’s all over them. When she says that, I can hear the smile in her voice. She’s not fooling anyone. She loves it when he gets all bossy and overprotective.
I shift in my bed, trying to get comfortable. My erection is tenting the sheet, and my poor, neglected balls ache. I shove the bedding aside and wrap my fingers around the base of my cock, gripping it firmly. God, it feels good. As I lie there, staring at the flushed head, Cooper’s voice rings in my head. “That’s my cock, Sam. You need an orgasm, you come to me.”
When he uses that tone of voice with me, I melt.
And yeah, Cooper’s the boss of me, at least in bed. I accepted that a long time ago. Maybe that’s why I can’t move on. It’s too late for that—he owns me.
* * *
The next day, I’m right back at it, this time doing push-ups on the mat. Craig is beside me, being all supportive and sweet—everything Cooper’s not—when I hear the door open.
As Craig looks up to see who it is, his eyes widen in appreciation as color sweeps across his cheeks. “Can I help you, sir?” he says, his tone uncharacteristically deferential.
“Thanks, but no. I found what I’m looking for.”
Oh, shit. I know that deep, slightly-gruff voice. I close my eyes and continue with my push-ups, mentally counting for myself now that Craig has clammed up. Forty-seven, forty-eight… oh, who am I kidding? To hell with it!
When I open my eyes, I see a pair of polished black loafers not three feet from my head. Giving up, I roll to a sitting position and drape my arms over my bent knees and crane my head up to gaze into a pair of electric blue eyes.
“Hello, Sam,” Shane says, crossing his arms over his chest as he stares down at me. He’s wearing a dark gray suit with a white shirt and black tie—he must have come straight from the office.
I swallow hard, trying not to feel like I’ve been called to the principal’s office. “Hey, Shane.”
Craig jumps to his feet and faces off with Shane, which I find rather funny. They’re about the same height, but I know Shane could wipe the floor with Craig before Craig even knew what hit him.
“Excuse me,” Craig says, getting in Shane’s face. “Can I help you?”
Shane looks at Craig for a second, then his gaze drifts back down to me. “You know why I’m here,” he says, his voice clipped. He’s definitely not in a good mood, probably because he had to fly down here when he’d rather be back in Chicago with his pregnant wife.
“Yeah, I do. But Shane, I’m not back to full strength yet.”
He shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. It’s been long enough, and Beth wants you home. So, are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?”
I sigh, knowing it’s useless to argue with him. “The easy way.”
He gives me a tight smile. “Good. Make whatever arrangements you need to make and say your good-byes. Our flight leaves at seven sharp. Will you be at your mother’s house?”
“Yeah. I want to say good-bye to her and to Rachel.”
Shane nods. “Fine. I’ll pick you up at six. Be ready.”
Shane leaves as quietly as he arrived. No fuss, no fanfare. He’s just here to keep a promise he made to his wife.
“Who the hell was that guy?” Craig says, sounding a bit flummoxed.
I can’t blame him. Shane has that effect on people. “That was my boss.”
“What the fuck? He can’t just come in here and order you around like that.”
I laugh. “Yes, he can.” I climb awkwardly to my feet, cursing my weak leg as I limp toward the locker room to change. It looks like I’m heading back to Chicago—and to Cooper—sooner than I expected.