He didn't try to stop me when I knelt down again and pressed the cloth gently to the raw wound. He kept perfectly still and silent while I washed the dirt and blood off. After I'd rinsed out the washcloth twice, the wound finally looked clean. It was still pulsing blood though, so I fished around in my bathroom cabinet until I found some gauze pads and medical tape, and put a bandage on it.
Eric reached up and touched the gauze gingerly. “That's gonna be ugly tomorrow.”
“It's already ugly.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I guess it probably is.”
I grinned at him, then went back into the bathroom, grabbed a clean cloth and towel, filled a plastic basin with warm water, and brought the whole business back into the bedroom. Eric gazed at me with apprehension in his eyes as I set the bucket on the floor and spread out the towel.
“What are you doing now?”
I glanced up at him and had a feeling he wasn't going to like this much. “I'm gonna wash your feet.”
“What?” He sat up, went deathly pale and had to lean forward to keep from passing out again. “Why?”
I sighed. This, I thought, is getting old. “They're filthy. I'm cleaning them before you go to bed, that's all.”
He opened his mouth to argue, saw the determined look in my eyes, and closed it again. He nodded silently.
“Finally, a little cooperation,” I teased. He glared at me but didn't say anything.
I reached out to roll up the bottoms of his jeans. He let me, but he obviously wasn't very happy about it. When I guided his feet into the warm water, he let out a sigh of pleasure.
“Damn, that does feel good.” He leaned back on his hands and wiggled his toes.
“Those are gonna have to soak for a little while. You want something to eat?”
He grimaced. “Not right now. Been too long, I think it'd just make me sick.”
“How about a soda?”
“Oh, man, that would be great, thanks!”
I got up and went to get a can of cola out of the fridge. He drank half of it in one gulp.
“Fuck, that's the best thing I ever tasted,” he gasped when he finally had to come up for air. He smiled at me and my stomach did flip-flops. Damn, he was hot. “Thanks, Ben. I mean it. I know I can be a pain in the ass, but I really do appreciate your taking care of me like this. I'll find a way to pay you back once I get on my feet again.”
I shook my head. “Don't worry about it.”
His gaze flicked down my body and I felt a surge of desire go through me. I couldn't keep what I was feeling out of my eyes, so I looked at the floor instead.
“Okay, well, uh, I think, I think you've soaked enough, I'm gonna wash ?em now.” My voice sounded shaky and breathless and I hated it. If he noticed, he didn't let on.
Kneeling, I lifted one foot out of the water, picked up the washcloth, and started scrubbing the dirt away. He didn't make a sound, but judging by the tension in his leg, it made him uncomfortable. I tried to think of some way to distract him, and finally decided to just give in to my natural curiosity and see what I could find out about him.
“You said you were from Alabama, right?” He nodded. “So how'd you end up in North Carolina?”
He shrugged. “I needed to get away. Heard Asheville was the place to go if you're gay.”
I glanced up at him. “You're gay?”
“Yeah, is that a problem?”
His voice was calm, but I could hear the defensiveness. I understood that. Hell, I'd had my back against the wall a few times myself, and I was born and raised here. Asheville's a haven for gays, but sometimes the bastards get to you, even here.
“Nope, I'm gay too. And you heard right, this is the place to be.”
His face broke into a smile so beautiful that I had to stop myself from jumping up and shoving my tongue down his throat. It was the most relaxed I'd seen him look, and for a second I wondered if his whole problem was simply fear of gay-bashing. Then I remembered the terror in his eyes when Malcolm had grabbed his arm. His near panic at any unwanted contact, and I knew there had to be more to it than that. Someone, somewhere had damaged him badly. I wanted to know who, and how, and why. And I wanted to take the fear out of his eyes for good.
“Ben?” His voice was wary again, and I realized I'd stopped washing his foot and was simply sitting there on my knees staring at him hard enough to burn holes in him. I shook myself.
“Sorry, just zoned out there for a second. I don't mean to be nosy, but how the hell did you end up barefoot? Your feet are pretty cut up.”
They were, too. Small cuts and bruises in various stages of healing covered both feet and ankles, and the soles were ragged.
“I had to leave town in kind of a hurry. Didn't have time to do anything but run out the door.”
Now I was dying to know what the hell that was all about. But I figured I'd pushed him enough for one night. He wasn't likely to tell me anything else just yet, and if I kept bugging him, he'd never trust me. And I realized with a shock that I wanted him to.
A few minutes later his feet were clean and glowed pink from the scrubbing. After drying them off with the towel, I stood and stretched.
“Okay, all done.” I grinned at him. “You're a good patient.”
“And you're a good nurse.” He laughed. “I feel a thousand times better now. Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” It was true, even his feet were sexy.
Something went through his eyes. A heavy sort of look. My pulse sped up and I could feel myself getting hard. I bit my lip and fought it. Suddenly he let out a huge yawn and the moment passed.
“You must be beat. Go on and get some sleep. You can take the bed; I'll sleep on the floor.”
He looked horrified. “I can't do that.”
“Yeah, you can.” I grabbed a pillow off the bed and a blanket off the shelf. “And you will. Get out of those dirty clothes, too; you can borrow something of mine if you want.”
“Naw, it's okay.”
He pulled his T-shirt over his head and tossed it on the floor, then stood on shaky legs and slid out of his jeans. I stared like an idiot. His body was lean and slender and drop dead gorgeous in nothing but a pair of black boxer-briefs. By the time my lust-addled brain noticed the scars, he'd slipped under the covers and his eyes were drifting closed.
“Thanks, Ben,” he murmured drowsily. “'Night.”
“'Night.” I turned off the light, stripped off my clothes and pulled on a pair of cutoff sweatpants. By the time I finished brushing my teeth, Eric was fast asleep.
I walked over and stood looking down at him. Light from the street lamps outside bathed his face in a soft white glow. His full lips were parted just a little and his long lashes cast feathery shadows on his cheeks. He had a quiet, otherworldly sort of beauty, the sort that gets under your skin before you notice what's happening. My insides did a funny little twist. I'd only known him for an hour or so, but I already wanted to hold him in my arms and protect him from the world.
I traced a finger down his cheek. His skin was smooth and silky, softer than anything I'd ever felt. His mouth looked so sweet and ripe. The urge to bend down and kiss those lips was nearly irresistible.