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More Than This

Lissa Matthews

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Adam Sanchez makes good money, drives a vintage BMW, and is living up to the promise he made that he'd never be poor again. After two years without seeing his family for the holidays, he's taking time off to give them a dream Chri...
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Adam Sanchez makes good money, drives a vintage BMW, and is living up to the promise he made that he'd never be poor again. After two years without seeing his family for the holidays, he's taking time off to give them a dream Christmas. At least, that was the plan.

But after taking a wrong turn off the interstate in search of the Blue Ridge Parkway, he finds himself skidding on a patch of ice and crashing into a big red barn. He wakes up sore, grumpy, and immediately attracted to his less than pleasant host who happens to be the spitting image of a young Elvis Presley.

Army veteran Josh Atkins doesn't have time to babysit the idiot currently recovering on his family's Christmas tree farm, but is left with little choice. That the man stirs something deep and primal in Josh can't and doesn't matter. It's the busiest time of year and he's needed at home.

As the two men begin to talk and share their stories, Josh's hard-nosed stance softens. When he learns of Adam's need to get to Asheville before Christmas, Josh is torn between letting him go and asking him to stay.

Maybe Josh can help Adam see that there's more to happiness and freedom than a large bank account, and maybe Adam can teach Josh to see beyond the surface to the man beneath. Maybe, just maybe, they can show each other that there really is more than this.

Josh slammed out of the house and stomped across the yard to the path that separated the house from the commercial part of the property. The week before Christmas. He didn’t have time to deal with the asshole in his guest room. The same asshole who’d skid on a piece of ice and tore across the east side of the property, straight into the side of the barn. The man didn’t even know what day it was, nor did he seem to care about any of the damage he’d caused. All he wanted to do was get his toy car and leave. Well, that was just fine with Josh.

Oh yeah. Just fuckin’ fine.

The scent of apples and cinnamon hit him first. His mother’s recipe for homemade apple cider was a staple on the farm. They always had a batch of it on hand, kept warm in the cast-iron pot over an open flame.

Chocolate assaulted him next. It was his grandmother’s recipe and homemade as well. His family had never believed in an instant mix. Everything was from scratch. Everything was made with real ingredients. And of all the comforts of home he’d missed while being in Iraq, home cooking ranked right up there. The service did the best they could in a war zone, but no one and nothing could top his mother’s chicken and dumplings or his father’s biscuits and fresh sausage gravy.

He pulled up the collar of his wool-lined coat to cover his neck. He hadn’t fibbed to Adam when he’d told him there would be snow again. It had been snowing nearly every night since the week before Thanksgiving. Some of it stuck to the ground, to the rooftops, to the trees. Some of it melted immediately. There was slush, and there was ice. It was colder than hell, but Josh wouldn’t trade it for anything. He hadn’t wanted to run his family’s Christmas tree farm, but after some of the horrors he’d seen overseas, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There were worse things than selling trees and the idea of tradition to family and friends. The harder he worked, the more it kept the nightmares at bay. So he worked from the ass crack of dawn until the stars came out at night.

Okay, maybe not the last two days. He’d taken two shifts a day sitting with Adam and slept in the chair in the guest room, waking him up every few hours to make sure he still knew his name was Adam, what year it was, what his birthday was.

“How’s your patient this morning?”

Josh glanced at his younger brother, Todd, who was ladling some hot chocolate into a mug. “Fix me one of those too, will ya? The patient is fine, awake, arrogant as all get-out.”

Todd picked up another mug and filled it with the hot, milky liquid. “Maybe he’s just scared.”

“Scared is not what I’d call him. More like a jerk.”

“Being a little hard on him, aren’t you, Josh?”

Josh didn’t like the slight smirk on his brother’s face. “Not a bit. All he’s concerned with is his car and how bad it’s damaged. I don’t have time to worry about him anymore. I’ve wasted enough. It’s our busiest time of the year. Oh, and I did catch your comment. He’s not my anything.”

“If you say so.”

“What the hell?”

“It’s the season of goodness and cheer. You should try a little Santa instead of Grinch. It’ll make everything a little nicer around here.”

“Bah. Fuckin’. Humbug.” Josh said the words with a grin. Todd was right. Josh did believe in goodness and cheer. He believed in miracles and that people could change. He just didn’t believe the shallow, self-centered man he’d encountered this morning was one of them.

“You like him.”

Josh’s grin dropped away. “What?”

“We all see it.”

“Then you’ve all lost your minds. I don’t care one way or the other about him. The sooner he’s gone, the better. Now, we gonna stand around jawin’ all day, or we gonna get to work?”

“You know, it took me a while to come to grips with you being gay and likin’ dudes, but when you went off to war, I knew something like that mattered so little in the grand scheme of things. I just wanted you to come home, alive and uninjured.”

“No small thing over there.” Too many of his friends didn’t come back uninjured. Too many of his friends didn’t come back at all, dead or alive. And the number of men who’d died… Josh mentally shook himself away from the past and back into the present.

“No, but you did, you came back, and it don’t matter who you love or want to love. It don’t matter if it’s a man or a woman, so don’t think you have to protect me or Ma and Pop or anyone around here from it.”

“I don’t try to protect anyone from it.” But he did. Evidently his brother knew he did too. He hadn’t dated anyone in almost five years. He hadn’t even been attracted to anyone. He’d met the man he loved. He’d met him, and he’d lost him. End of story. At least that’s what he’d tried to tell himself.

“I think you do. Ma thinks you do too. Heck, Josh, we all just want you to be happy.”

“I don’t need a man to make me happy.”

Todd laughed. “Do you know how many times I’ve heard Kelly say those exact same words to me?”

“Well, I guess she’s been wrong all this time since the two of you are married.”

“Eh. She swears up and down that she don’t need me but that it’s the other way around. I have to say, she’s prolly right. She could get along fine without me. I don’t think I could get along at all without her.”

Josh smiled. Yeah, it had been love at first fight between Todd and Kelly when they met in the third grade. Everywhere she went, Todd followed like a puppy. Josh had often wondered what that felt like. To love and to be loved in such a way. He’d had it, at least a version of it. Maybe it didn’t seem as deep and abiding because it could only be pursued in secret. He and Brent had had to lie and put up fronts, sneak around and hide everything. Brent even dated women every now and again to keep the questions at bay from their fellow soldiers. Josh hadn’t even minded. He’d played it off that he understood they had to keep up the ruse, but maybe there was more to it than he’d wanted to examine up close.

Then why are you examining it now? It was a damn good question too. Only he didn’t have an answer.

Yes, you do. Okay, so perhaps he did have an answer. “Maybe I do like him,” he admitted to Todd. “He’s not my type, though, and from our conversation this morning, I’m definitely not his type.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, the most obvious answer is that he may not even be gay.” Which was true, but Adam was gay. While Josh had been out of the dating game for a long time, his gaydar was still in strong working order. Adam was as gay as Josh. He didn’t know how it worked or why it worked the way it did, but he’d never gotten turned on by straight men. He had found them attractive and kind and all. A gay man, though? His dick never let him down. Josh could spot a gay man easily, even those in the closet. However, his gaydar couldn’t tell him who was and who wasn’t hiding from it.

For all Josh knew, it was entirely possible Adam hadn’t come out or even acknowledged he was in a closet. Then again, Adam could be out and proud. He didn’t look to be the flamboyant type, though he did have a bit of a diva attitude. Josh understood the man needing his car fixed and having a schedule to keep. Who didn’t have things to do or people to see these days? Being demanding and unappreciative certainly wasn’t the way Josh would have gone about it.

“What if he is gay?”

Todd’s question drew Josh back to the moment at hand, and he shrugged. He was ready for the conversation to be over. He didn’t want to think about Adam anymore than necessary. The man was a distraction, physically, at least, and Josh wanted him gone. “What if he is?”

“That’d be good, right? You two could see if you liked each other.”

“Really?” Josh couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

“I don’t know, man. I don’t know how it works for guys.”

“It works in much the same way, I would assume, as it works for guys and girls together.”

“It’s actually pretty damn hard with women.”

“Then you do know how it works.”

Todd laughed. “When put that way, yeah, I guess I do. He still callin’ you Elvis?”

“Was the first thing out of his mouth when he could speak.” Josh shook his head, a self-deprecating smile crossing his lips. “Not sure why he keeps calling me that.”

“Same reason we’ve been calling you that all your life. You look just like him.”

“I don’t look anything like him.”

“I beg to differ, Bro. You do.”

Josh turned. Adam was standing, or rather barely standing behind him. The barn door frame was holding him up. Thankfully Todd had all his wits about him and moved quickly to help Adam sit on a barrel they normally used for decorative purposes. Adam sitting on it was, in and of itself, kinda decorative. He was dark-skinned, Latino, with black hair and nearly black eyes. His features were classic, handsome. Josh had never been so physically attracted to a man, not even Brent, and it surprised him. He couldn’t put his finger on why either, nor did he know what he was supposed to do about it.

Josh finally spoke. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

“Tell the truth, it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure where the little path led. Then again, halfway across the porch, I wasn’t sure the path was even real.”

“You black out?”

“No. Least I don’t think so. More dizzy than anything. I waited for it to pass, then tried walking slower. It worked, and here I am.” Adam’s smile after his explanation seemed a little forced, strained.

Josh nodded. “You get ahold of Jimmy?” He grabbed another mug and filled it with some of the hot chocolate, then walked it over to Adam. When he reached for the mug, Josh noticed Adam’s hands were shaking. “You should be in bed. You don’t have the strength to be walking around yet.”

“I-I’m figuring that out.” Adam lifted the blue tin camping mug to his lips and took a sip, followed by a second and third. “Mmm. This is really good,” he said with his lips pressed against the side of the cup. He took one last sip, then handed the cup back to Josh. “I’m not sure I can hold it without spilling it.”

“It’s a family recipe,” Todd offered. He was still standing beside Adam and looked ready to catch him if he fell over.

“You should sell it,” Adam said tiredly.

“Our mother would kill us.”

Adam laughed, but it was a short-lived sound. He quickly grabbed his midsection and almost bent double. “Then you shouldn’t sell it,” he wheezed. “God, this fuckin’ hurts.”

“I know, buddy,” Josh whispered. He’d done what he could to help enough of his service brothers through harder and more painful injuries, many fatal, that he could help Adam through his discomfort and weakness. Adam’s pain would heal relatively quickly, and he wouldn’t have nightmares. He wouldn’t have PTSD. He wouldn’t have flashbacks and phantom feelings for limbs that were no longer physically part of his body the way some men Josh knew did. No, Adam would recover and be good as new, but for the time he was at Josh’s place, Josh would give him the same kind of care and consideration as he’d given those he’d served with.

That he was attracted to Adam? Well, that just couldn’t figure into it.

“I need to get you back up to the house and back into bed.”

“I don’t think I can make it. Just let me sit here for a while.”

“Adam…” Weariness and warning fought for supremacy in Josh’s utterance of that one word.

“Please,” he said with his eyes closed. “I’ll stay right here, out of the way.”

“But you should be laying down, resting. Not sitting on a barrel in a barn out here in the cold.”

“I’m not used to being cooped up, so unless you’re going to pick me up and carry me up to the house, which would be interesting to see, I’m going to stay put for now.”

Josh ground his teeth together. Adam was right, and something about that pissed Josh off. He couldn’t carry the man, especially through the snow, especially with Adam hurting, but damn… Josh would sure love to put the arrogant, good-looking ass in his place. “Fine. If you start feeling worse than what you do right now, let me know. I won’t go far.”

“How much of that hot chocolate can I have?”

Todd, who Josh had nearly forgotten was standing there, laughed. “You can have as much as you want. There’s always a batch being made during the season.”

“I don’t normally like hot chocolate. I’m a coffee man, but that chocolate is amazing.”

“I bet you take your coffee black,” Josh interjected from a few feet away where he was topping off Adam’s cup.

“Black and strong. Imported from South America each week.”

Todd whistled his surprise. “That’s gotta cost a fortune.”

“The best things in life generally do,” Adam confirmed. “But it’s worth it.”

Josh shoved the cup at Adam, doing his best not to spill it. “Money doesn’t always buy the best things in life.”

“It buys many of them.”

“It doesn’t and can’t buy the most important things.”

“Depends on your definition.”

Josh bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood. “Yeah. I guess it does.” He stalked off for the second time that morning. “Holler if you need me.” When he was out of sight of his brother and Adam, Josh stopped and took a deep breath. So, Adam really was all about the money. God. That sucked.

Speaking of… He stalked back to Adam. “You never answered about Jimmy. Did you get ahold of him? He coming to get you and your car?”

“He said he couldn’t get here until probably tomorrow afternoon. He’s been helping with a couple of accidents on the interstates, and he’d gotten a call about one on the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

Josh wanted to pump his fist in the air that Mr. Moneyman wouldn’t be able to buy his way to Boone. He kept his features schooled and his hands stuffed firmly into his back pockets because the other side of that particular coin was that Adam would be staying put on Josh’s farm for a few more days. “Ah. Well… Happens, I guess. You’ll have a little while left to start feeling better before you need to make that trip.”

“He said I’d need to make some calls to some of the garages to make sure they’re not only there but that they’ll have people enough to fix my car.”

“Good point.”

“I’ll just have him take me to the BMW dealership. They’ll be able to take care of it for me.”

“Is there a BMW dealership in Boone?” Todd asked, looking to Josh. “I mean, there could be one out by the shopping centers. I’ve only been over there for tree deliveries around the college and bed-and-breakfasts.”

“I don’t know of one,” Josh answered after a few seconds of thought.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Adam exclaimed. “There’s not a dealership in Boone? Where’s the nearest one?” His little tirade had him coughing and wheezing. Todd took the mug from him, and Josh rushed forward to help steady him. After a few minutes, Adam was a little more stable. Todd handed the mug back. “Sorry,” he whispered, taking a long sip. When he spoke again, his voice had returned to normal. “Where’s the nearest dealership?”

“For BMW?” Josh just smiled. “Probably Asheville.” At his answer, Josh could see the frustration etched on Adam’s face. He could probably ease up on the man, should ease up on the man, but at the same time, he was content as could be watching the wheels turn in that handsome head as Adam tried to figure things out.

“This is just so screwed up. All because of a little patch of ice.”

Josh’s smile didn’t disappear, only became more strained. He could see Todd out of the corner of his eye, watching the exchange. Josh didn’t appreciate the scene they were making, and it needed to come to an end soon. “More like all because you weren’t paying attention to where you were going.”

“I was paying attention.”

“So that’s why you were accelerating, rather than driving cautiously?”

Adam flushed, and the ruddiness wasn’t from the cold. “I may have been checking for a signal on my GPS, but I only looked away from the road for a split second.”

“You can remember that but not how long you’ve been here?”

“What the hell do you want from me?”

“I want you to admit you screwed up. I want you to get your head out of your wallet’s ass for a minute and realize you could have hurt other people, that you’ve damaged property, that you’ve hurt more than just your goddamn car.” Josh took a deep breath. He hadn’t meant to go off like that. At least not right now. It could have waited, but damn if the man didn’t keep pushing every one of Josh’s buttons with the talk of how inconvenient things were.

“Jeez, Josh,” Todd said. “Calm down.”

“Look,” Adam offered. “I can appreciate that you’ve sustained some damage, and I can admit I did screw up. I’m trying to get out of your hair so you can get on with whatever you do out here in the middle of fucking nowhere.” With each passing word, Adam’s voice started to get louder. He stopped himself before the full-on yelling started, and Josh was glad of that. He didn’t want to feel bad for the man.

“That’s just it. You know what? Forget it. I’ve got work to do.”

“I’ve said I’ll pay to fix your barn and replace your trees. There’s nothing more I can do than that to make it right.”

“You don’t get it. I can fix the barn myself, and I can plant new trees when the ground thaws.”

“Then what? What do you want from me?”

Josh didn’t know how to answer that. What he wanted from Adam, he had no right to want and had no way to get it. “Nothin’. I want nothin’ from you.”

Josh had never thought himself a liar, but in that moment, that’s exactly what he was. Adam was so far outside Josh’s league, and it drove Josh nuts to want the man, as a man, so badly. He was nothing but a country hick, and with Adam being a city boy, the two kinds rarely mingled.

“Josh?”

He looked over at Todd. “You get it, right? He was hoping to buy his way to Boone, buy his way through the trees. It’s all about the money and what it can buy. You heard him.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant,” Todd tried but stopped when Josh shook his head.

Josh turned away. He started walking back toward the batch of trees he needed to load into the cart for Todd to take to the front lot. “Holler if you need me,” he tossed over his shoulder.

Copyright © Lissa Matthews

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