February fourteenth dawned colder than a penguin’s kneecaps.
Mike Delaney smirked at the old family phrase and turned off the oven timer. If the cookies had retained their shapes, he’d be able to count this second batch as good. Glancing out the kitchen window, he nodded. It was after seven, which meant his lover would be awake soon, vacation or no vacation.
When the cookies were out, he studied them with an eye toward burned edges. Everything seemed to be in order. After they cooled, he’d write messages on the large surfaces.
The kitchen floor creaked behind him.
Mike turned, his gaze flicking left to the drawer where his mother had kept the sharpest knives since time out of mind. But then he registered who was in the room with him and relaxed.
“Easy. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Mike’s father approached slowly. Instead of raising his hands like a man surrendering, he touched Mike’s shoulder. “You’re up early. I thought Aidan didn’t have to go to school this week.”
“Don’t you have to be at work?” Mike pointed to the half-empty coffeepot before shuffling to the sink to start on the dishes he’d made. His father had already drunk his share. What was he doing here?
“There was a partial cave-in. Henry Vaughn is in the hospital.”
Henry Vaughn was his father’s foreman at the Marisburg coal mine. One of his father’s few remaining friends since Mike came out.
It’s not my coming out that’s frightened all my parents’ casual acquaintances and most of their friends away.
At least Aidan said it wasn’t. Most of the time, Aidan’s words made sense. In general, people didn’t give a shit what others did. Not beyond gossiping behind closed doors.
Which shouldn’t bother me. Aid’ keeps telling me so.
More than half the people in Marisburg had come down on the side of Rick Hanlon, the high school physics teacher who’d molested Mike almost two years ago.
“Ricky wouldn’t do that,
” Mrs. Callahan, one of the English teachers at Marisburg High School, had told Mike. “He was a sweet boy when I had him as a student. Not many people return to their small hometowns to help out anymore.
Ms. O’Carolyn, the high school guidance counselor, had voiced a similar opinion. “Just because you failed his class, that’s no reason to besmirch his name. I understand your need to feel out your oats now that you think you’re gay, but don’t drag down a good man.
Mike moved away from the sink, trying to put distance between himself and the past that haunted him less during his days but continued to pollute his dreams.
What had his father said? Something about a cave-in. And Henry Vaughn. “Can I help?”
“Only if you want to send him some of these heart-shaped cookies. I’ll be heading over there in a few minutes.”
“I’ll do you one better.” Mike opened the bread box and withdrew a plate covered in plastic wrap. “How’s this?”
His father took the presented chocolate chip cookies, smiling a little. “And why aren’t these
going to Aidan instead?”
Mike shrugged. “They’re not the right shape.”
“Ah.” He smiled a little. “You’re getting good at this baking thing.”
Mike felt a blush climb his cheeks like a fire devouring a dead tree. “Mom’s patient. So are Aid’s mother and grandmother.”
“It wouldn’t hurt Aidan
to learn some of this, you know.” The older Delaney set the cookies aside. “You’re not the female half of your relationship, Mike. Even if guy and girl roles were firmly set in my generation, that doesn’t mean you have to hold to them at all.”
Mike’s father raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“He also embroiders and washes dishes. Whatever the girl’s part is, I’m pretty sure I’m not taking it alone.” In his mind’s eye, he could see his boyfriend under him, moaning and begging for Mike to fuck him harder. Mike turned away, retreating to the sink once more.
“All right.” But his father stepped closer instead of leaving. “I had to ask because you’ve been different lately. Tense. Quieter than I can ever remember.” He touched Mike’s shoulder.
Knowing what was expected, Mike looked into the brown eyes that matched his own.
“I wish I’d realized what Rick Hanlon was doing to you. That sick son of a bitch.” The older Delaney’s eyes shone briefly with tears. “If I’d figured it out—”
“It’s not your fault, Dad. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Mike banished that thought. “Not anyone’s. Except Hanlon’s.” He’s sick, like Dad says.
“After I testify, everything will be fine.”
“I’m proud of you, son. And don’t you worry. All of us are right behind you.” His father smiled, but this one trembled for only a moment before falling away. “Aidan alone would be enough to scare the hell out of the sick son of a bitch.” He stepped back, letting his hand fall.
Free of the weight, Mike resisted the urge to run. “Tell Mr. Vaughn we’re all pulling for him and that I’ll shovel his driveway or take care of anything else that needs doing.”
When he was finally alone again, Mike went for the icing he’d left on the counter to warm up. But before he’d gotten the top off, the doorbell rang. Hands shaking, he left the kitchen. He cursed under his breath. Couldn’t he have a few minutes to himself?
Before whoever stood on the porch could ring the bell again, Mike yanked the door open. “Yeah? Do you have any idea what time it is?” His mouth dropped open at the half-naked spectacle waiting outside the door.
Aidan Kelly laughed as though he could see Mike’s expression. He resettled the quiver of arrows on his bare back. “Mind if I come in?” he asked sotto voce. “It’s damn cold out here.” He pinched one of his hard nipples as if for emphasis.
Mike stepped back. “Yeah… Damn! Did you walk here like that? Without your white cane?” He tweaked Aidan’s other chill-hardened nipple. “Not to mention without a coat?”
Aidan stooped and caught up a small bag that had been hidden by a convenient pile of snow. A winter coat peeked out of the top.
Mike’s father—or Mike in recent years—always kept the porch snow-free whenever possible. Mike snorted. “Come in, you sneaky pain in the ass.”
Once Aidan was inside with the door closed behind him, Mike took the backpack and set it out of the way. He spotted Aidan’s white cane tucked into a loop on the bag’s side, and his smile grew. “Do you want a blanket, Cupid? You’re going to freeze your diaper off.” He tugged at the sheet tied around Aidan’s waist and up between his legs. It would have been a passable costume, especially with the authentic bow and the crepe-paper-tipped arrows…if the pseudodiaper hadn’t featured a well-known superhero.
“Are you inviting me upstairs?” Aidan asked.
“Not yet. My mom’s still asleep.”
Aidan sighed. “I guess a blanket and a cup of tea will have to do.”
They settled against the kitchen counter with two mugs a few minutes later, and Mike nestled against Aidan, resting his head against the taller guy’s chest. He snuggled in and closed his eyes, inhaling Aidan’s musky scent and luxuriating in the feel of soft hair against his cheek.
“Rough night?” Aidan asked.
Mike stiffened. “No. Do I need an excuse to hug you now?”
“Never.” Aidan reached backward, fumbling his mug onto the counter. He caressed Mike’s face with his warmed fingers. “I came here to share Valentine’s Day with you.” He inhaled deeply, his chest expanding under Mike’s cheek. “I smell cookies. Something for us?”
“When they’re—” Mike shut up. Even if Aidan gave him a free pass to pretend everything was fine, he didn’t have to take it. “Sorry I snapped at you.” He twisted away long enough to set his own mug on the counter. Then he resettled against his boyfriend, refusing to look up into the sightless blue eyes that nevertheless seemed to see exactly what he felt. “Yeah, I had another bad dream.” He relaxed slightly as Aidan’s lips brushed the top of his head. “Knowing I would see you this morning helped when I woke up. I’m fine.”
“It was about Hanlon siccing McCormick, Kennedy, and the other guys on us?”
“Yeah.” He twirled a curl of Aidan’s russet chest hair between his fingers.
Aidan moaned. Then he caught Mike’s hand. “What happened?”
“I didn’t stop McCormick.” You died.
But he didn’t need to add that part. Aidan knew how this particular nightmare ended. Mike had repeated it often enough.
Aidan turned Mike in his arms so they stood face-to-face. “Are you looking at me?”
“Yes.” Mike reached up with both hands and ran his fingers through his boyfriend’s shoulder-length red hair. As always, its coarseness made the skin on Mike’s fingers tingle.
“I go very few places without you. And—”
“And you’re a second-degree black belt.”
“Not what I was going to say.” Aidan leaned forward until their lips met.
But when Mike tried to deepen the kiss, Aidan drew back.
“And we’re both stronger now. More careful too. We can’t predict the future, but we’re protecting each other as much as possible.” Then he kissed Mike.
Groaning, Mike threw himself completely into passion, refusing to think beyond this: Aidan was here now, and Aidan was safe. What else mattered?