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Excerpt for More Than Ever (More Book 3) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Copyright

MORE THAN EVER (More Book 3)

Copyright (c) 2019 by Sloan Parker


ISBN: 978-1942517979


Cover design by Sloan Parker (c) 2019


All rights reserved. Other than excerpts for review purposes, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a public retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or incidents are coincidental. This work contains graphic language and explicit sexual content. Intended for adult audiences only.


Published by

Sloan Parker Press

www.sloanparker.com


E-book: 1.12.19.sw



More Than Ever (More Book 3)



Sloan Parker




Chapter One

Oh God. Just hang on. I’m coming to get you. Just hang on. Please, God.”

I awoke with a start, those words still echoing in my head, the feel of the harsh ground and sharp tree limbs still jutting into my back. It took a moment for the soft mattress and warm comforter of our bed to overpower the nightmare.

It was the same dream as the night before.

And the night before that.

I exhaled a long, shattered breath.

I didn’t want to think about that dream—or who was featured in it—for one more second. I lifted my head off the pillow to check the clock on the nightstand. 5:00 a.m. Too early for Luke or Richard to get up, but there was no way I was drifting off to sleep again.

Now for the hard part.

The best thing about being in a gay polyamorous relationship? Sleeping between two gorgeous men every night.

The worst thing? Sleeping between two men when I had to get up first. It was hell slipping out of bed without waking either of them.

With my hands propped on the mattress beside me, I shimmied my ass up the bed until I had my back against the headboard, then folded the blankets down as far as I dared. After I had my knees tucked to my chest, Luke shifted beside me.

I paused, waited, making sure he hadn’t woken. It took some awkward bending, but I managed to get my feet out from under the blankets one at a time without straining something.

When the three of us had first moved in together, I’d suggested we ditch the top sheet and each sleep under our own blanket so it would be easier for me to get up during the night without disturbing them. Richard had merely grunted out the word no, and that was the end of that discussion. He was all about the touching, and each of us under a different blanket would get in the way of that.

Not that I minded one damn bit.

Luke and Richard were the first men I’d met at the Haven who made me feel like I didn’t have to hold back, like I could kiss and touch and simply be close to them as much as I wanted without it seeming desperate or needy or clingy. From the very beginning, they’d both loved to stroke and kiss and caress every inch of me as often as they could as if they needed that contact—needed me—to survive.

If only they were awake now, distracting me from that dream with their touches, their kisses.

I squeezed my eyes shut and, with my elbows propped on my knees, covered my ears. Such a childish thing to do. As if that could make the words rushing through my head disappear, could make the sound of that voice fade from my memory.

My entire body trembled.

All this time and my reaction to his voice, to that day I’d nearly died, was still so visceral.

Or maybe I was just cold.

Maybe the fresh fruit I’d eaten at dinner hadn’t been so fresh.

Maybe… nothing.

I glanced down at Richard. With the bright moonlight seeping in through the bedroom windows, I could see him clearly. He lay on his back, the blankets folded down to just above his groin. One hand was propped on the hard cuts of muscle across his abs. Trixie lay curled up at his hip. His other hand was resting on her side as if he’d fallen asleep in the middle of petting her. His eyes were closed, lips slightly parted. Stubble covered his jawline, a hint of gray in the blond facial hair that hadn’t been there when I’d first met him. His eyebrows were lifted ever so slightly, as if being asleep allowed him to relax in a way that his waking hours didn’t offer.

I smiled at him. He was always so focused and meticulous, always in control. Except when he slept.

Leaning over him, I brushed the tip of my forefinger along one of those blond brows. Even after all this time, I couldn’t believe he was mine, that they both were.

I dropped a soft kiss on his forehead and then carefully turned toward Luke.

His brown hair was a disheveled mess, jutting out all over on the white pillowcase. He wore his hair longer now than when we’d first met. A lot of things about him were different now. He was less guarded and enjoyed life more. He also slept in longer, slept heavier, even without having sex beforehand.

He lay on his side facing me, one hand tucked under his chin, the other resting on my pillow beside the indent where my head had been. I bent over him and pressed my lips to his forehead in the same soft kiss I’d given to Richard, taking in the warmth of him, the masculine scent, wanting to crawl back under the covers and pull them in close until I was wrapped up in them, in their touches.

And their love.

But I didn’t want to wake them. Or scare them. If they got up right then, there’d be no hiding the flood of anxiety rushing through me.

That would just freak them out.

It was nothing to worry about.

Nothing.

Reluctantly I turned away from Luke, got on my hands and knees, and carefully crawled down the center of the bed. Trixie lifted her head to watch me, then got up and followed, stopping to lie beside me at the foot of the bed.

Since we’d gotten her several months earlier, she’d grown significantly, but she was still very much a puppy with long legs and giant paws. She had yet to find that balance of agility and speed that looked graceful on other dogs her size. The majority of her coloring pointed to the German shepherd side of her lineage, but her ears were as floppy as they’d been when we’d brought her home.

“Shh,” I whispered as I patted her on the head. “Go back to sleep, baby girl.” I gave her another stroke and a kiss on the top of her snout, then got moving for the bathroom.

Once I had the door shut behind me, I flipped on the low lights over the bathtub, hoping that wouldn’t clue either of my men in on the fact that I was awake this early. Leaning against the closed door, I dropped my head back to the surface behind me and drew in a deep breath. It was the third time that week that I’d had the dream. Nightmare. Memory. I wasn’t sure what to call it. I just knew I wanted to be done with it.

I’d tried so hard to move past that part of my life, to leave it all behind.

Yet here I was, engulfed by it once again.

Well, no more. I wasn’t letting anger or pain or anxiety run my life. Not today of all days. I had too much at stake.

My meeting later had to go well.

I stood taller. “You can do this.”

Wearing only my underwear, I went to stand at the bathroom sink. I cranked on the faucet and splashed my face with cool water, exhaling a long breath as I straightened. Droplets of water dripped from my hair and chin to the sink below. My dark wavy hair was longer than I normally wore it. That, along with the additional curls from the extra length, had me looking eighteen, not twenty-four. I needed to do something about that soon. I’d just been so swamped lately with my college classes and work and everything else.

I shifted back a step and examined myself in the mirror again, trying to imagine how I appeared to other people.

Young. Naive.

Inexperienced.

Maybe someone would see past all that and give me a break.

“Yeah, someone will. It’s just stupid hair.” I laughed at my reflection. “You got this. You can do this.”

But…

What if I fuck it all up?

Racing through everything that could go wrong, I bit at the edge of a thumbnail, then forced myself to stop the habit I’d had since I was a kid. I couldn’t ease the rapid breaths pouring out of my chest, though. If I didn’t knock it off, I’d be hyperventilating before long. I’d probably pass out right there in the bathroom. Richard would walk in later and find me with my ass in the air and my face pressed into the bath mat. Talk about freaking him out. That was all I needed. To scare the hell out of him, give him a heart attack or something.

I couldn’t stand that thought.

I returned to the sink and cranked on the water once more. I scrubbed my face and the back of my neck, then grabbed a hand towel and buried my face in it, trying to slow my erratic breaths.

“Hey.”

That deep voice immediately cut through the unease.

I lifted my head from the towel and there was Richard’s reflection in the mirror, concern evident in those bright green eyes gazing back at me.

When he got a good look at my face, he came forward without delay. Stepping up behind me, he laid his hands on my shoulders and studied me in the mirror. “It’s going to be okay, Matthew.”

I stared back at him, as in awe as I ever was. At forty years old and well over half a foot taller than I, he was one of the most unbelievably gorgeous men I’d ever met. All broad, hard, muscular flesh and focused strength, wearing only a pair of snug black boxer briefs.

He kept those compassionate eyes locked on mine as he circled both thumbs over my shoulder blades, working the knots from my stiff muscles. “You’re going to do great today.”

His words, his touch, they all brought to life a shiver.

I smiled at him in the mirror, then tossed the towel on the counter, spun around, and wrapped my arms around his middle, the side of my head connecting with his bare chest.

With a heavy sigh, as if he’d been dying for me to do that very thing, he enveloped me in those strong arms. “They’d be crazy not to want you.”

“You really think so?”

“I do.”

“Okay. I’ll try not to worry so much.” I wasn’t just referring to my appointment later that day. I was talking about the three of us. I think he got that.

After everything we’d been through together, he knew what I meant.

We continued with the quiet embrace, his warm hand caressing my back. I was so very aware of him. Of his touch. His scent. His heat. His heartbeat.

His hand stilled. “It might help if you talk about it.”

Before I could say anything, Luke staggered through the open bathroom doorway, his eyes half closed. I turned to face him as he squeezed between us and the vanity.

Richard pulled me backward to lean against his chest, and together we watched Luke make his way to the toilet. He didn’t say anything or even acknowledge us. He wrenched up the seat and did his business, all the while his head tipped backward, his eyes closed as if he was falling asleep standing right there with his dick out, pissing in the toilet. When he finished, he tucked himself back into his underwear, stumbled to the sink, and washed his hands.

Richard bent to whisper in my ear. “Do you think he even sees us?”

I laughed. “No.”

Luke lifted his head and squinted into the mirror as he dried his hands. “Very funny. I’m not unconscious.” He chucked the towel aside and spun to face us, resting his ass against the counter, his arms folded across his chest. “What the hell are we doing up so damn early? It’s the weekend.”

“We’re up,” Richard said, “and we’re staying up. I don’t think Matthew’s going to be getting any more sleep until this interview is over. He’s really nervous.”

I sighed and sank back against him. “I’m okay.”

Despite my words, Luke stepped forward, instantly awake. Holding my face, he lifted my head. “You’re gonna do great.” He searched my eyes, then ran his fingers through my hair, studying the movement of his hands as if getting to touch me like that was the most amazing experience of his life. “You have such a good heart, Matthew. Just be yourself, and they’ll be impressed.”

Richard tightened his arms across my chest and kissed the side of my head.

Luke stepped closer. I laid my head on his shoulder as he slid a warm hand tenderly across my upper back.

And just like that, the last of my unease slipped away as they held me. It was always that way with them.

“I really love what I’ve read about this place. It’s different than anything else I’ve applied for.” I lifted my head. “I know it’s only an internship, but I want this so much.”

Luke nodded. “I can see why. Seems like they do good work.”

“Yeah,” Richard said. “They sound right up your alley.”

I figured he also thought it would be dangerous, but he had yet to comment on that aspect of this particular job.

Instead he added, “You went above and beyond with all the studying this past week. You’re ready for this interview.” He turned me to face him. “But no matter what, you’ve accomplished a lot already. You should be proud of yourself.”

I shrugged. “It’s just one year of vet tech school.”

“Don’t belittle that. You worked your ass off, both at your classes and the kennel.” He swept the backs of his fingers over my cheek. “You’re doing an amazing job.”

Without thinking about my actions, I launched myself at him, standing on my toes and circling my arms around his neck in a fierce embrace. I needed him to know how much those words—and the physical contact they’d both offered—meant to me.

When we eventually parted, Richard dropped a quick kiss on my lips. I wanted more than one kiss, but I couldn’t get the words out. Or make a move that would clue him in.

Apparently I didn’t need to say anything. One look in my eyes, and he stepped closer. Cupping my face in his large hand, he kissed me again, more passionately, more deeply this time.

The mix of strength and tenderness in the press of his lips was exhilarating. I wanted more.

He understood. He always did.

He parted his lips and swept his tongue across my lower lip. I whimpered at the contact. In response, he deepened the kiss, tugging me closer, drawing me against his solid body with desperate urgency. His tongue brushed mine, and that was all I needed. I was instantly aroused, aching for him, wanting—needing—for us to take things further.

It hadn’t been like this between the three of us for weeks.

Who was I kidding?

Not since that night at my mom’s months earlier.

We’d had sex since then, but it was different. Strained. Restrained even.

Luke’s hands were at my hips, his strong body coming in close to mine again. The feel of both of them against me brought out the raw truth. It always did. The anxiety slammed into me once more. It battled with the desire.

Richard jerked back, his eyes scanning mine. “What do you need to feel better about the interview? You want to do some practice questions? Or forget about it for a while, maybe watch TV to take your mind off everything? Crawl back in the bed and talk?”

I tipped my head forward until I had my forehead pressed to his chest, right over the wide, grim scar from his college days. I blew out a huff of air. “I don’t know.”

He ran his hands up and down my arms. “Why don’t you hit the shower while Luke and I fix breakfast? We’ll indulge ourselves, make chocolate chip pancakes. After we eat, we’ll see how you feel, maybe go over the questions you have for them.”

“Okay.” I raised my head. “That sounds good.”

He gave me a last kiss and then went to turn on the shower while Luke got towels out of the cabinet and laid them on the vanity. When they had everything ready for me, they headed for the open doorway.

Luke ticked off items on his fingers. “You make the pancakes, cut the fruit, and start the coffee. I’ll set the table.”

Richard snorted sarcastically. “Yeah, that sounds fair.”

“You’re right. That’s not going to work.” Luke pointed at him. “You should set the table too. I’ll just watch that fine ass of yours move around the kitchen.” He smacked one of Richard’s underwear-clad ass cheeks and took off.

“Hey.” Richard hightailed it after him.

I laughed as I watched them go. How the hell did I get so lucky to be a part of them, to be a part of what we all had together?

I would never—ever—take that for granted.

I knew part of the reason for the distance between the three of us lately was how busy we’d all been, but the rest of it… I blamed myself for that. They said I shouldn’t, but something had changed that night Richard said I’d lied to him about what I wanted in bed, or more precisely, what I didn’t want.

I could still hear his wounded voice when he’d said, “How can I trust that everything I’ve done to you—every time I’ve touched you—that it was something you wanted, not something you were doing for me?”

I also knew neither of them could stop picturing that moment I’d flinched from his touch.

Chapter Two

Showered and dressed, I headed downstairs. One look in the kitchen and I came to a sudden stop in the doorway, the breath catching in my throat.

Even after all this time, seeing them together, spotting any physical contact or intimacy between the two of them, left me spellbound.

Luke stood at the stove, a spatula in hand as he inspected a pancake cooking on the griddle before him. Richard was directly behind him, his arms encircling Luke’s waist, his chin resting on Luke’s shoulder. He also had his focus on that pancake on the stovetop as if there was nowhere else he’d rather be.

I knew the truth. It wasn’t the pancake that captivated Richard.

Both men were still clad in only their underwear. The entire front half of Richard’s solid, muscular body was pressed against the back of Luke’s, his groin nestled against Luke’s ass. Luke had his free arm snaked around behind them, his hand splayed across one of Richard’s ass cheeks, holding him close.

Damn, they were beautiful together, obvious passion and devotion and love passing between them as they stood there doing something as mundane as cooking.

Those same emotions washed over me, had me feeling like a part of the moment—a part of them—even from across the room.

Richard turned his head and kissed the side of Luke’s neck. In return, Luke raised his arm and laid a hand across Richard’s nape. Then they were kissing over Luke’s shoulder. A wild, frantic kiss right from the start. Their mouths open, tongues brushing in greeting again and again, the rough, unshaven skin of their chins scraping as they kept the kiss going, Richard slowly, deliberately circling his hips, grinding his body against Luke’s ass.

This wasn’t their first kiss since they’d come downstairs.

Luke ditched the spatula on the stovetop and spun around, wrapping both arms around Richard’s broad shoulders. With that move, Luke’s hip hit the handle of the griddle pan, and the entire thing went sliding off the burner and along the front edge of the stovetop. They didn’t even notice. They just continued on with that electric kiss, Richard tightening his hold on Luke, pinning him in place against the edge of the stove.

I laughed and started forward.

After rescuing the pan so it didn’t fall to the floor or burn one of them, I picked up the spatula and flipped the pancake. It was ruined, the entire surface as black as charcoal. I moved the pan aside and reached around them to click off the burner.

Beside the stove sat two platters, each with a stack of pancakes. One pile looked edible. The other not so much. It was a sloppy mess of charred and uncooked batter that we’d have to throw out.

I laughed again.

Without a moment’s hesitation, or a break in their kiss, Richard reached out for me. Wrapping a hand around the back of my neck, he tugged me to him. Only then did he tear himself from Luke’s mouth. “Come here.”

He brought our mouths together. His lips were warm and wet from the kisses with Luke. He slid his hand around to the side of my neck, then up to cup my cheek, never breaking the contact of our lips as his thumb caressed my skin.

Luke gripped me by the hips and drew me sideways so I stood between them, just how we’d been in the bathroom earlier. Only this time, Luke leaned over my shoulder and ran his lips up the side of Richard’s neck, Richard moaning into the kiss. Luke clutched my hips tighter, and Richard tugged me even closer, both of them erotically, blatantly rubbing their bodies against mine, urgency building between us.

Richard kept kissing me, drawing out each swipe of his lips, each brush of his tongue against mine. It was exquisite, beautiful.

When he pulled back, I leaned forward, my body instinctively following his. He gave me several soft, sweet kisses. Then he went right from my lips back to Luke’s, kissing him in the same drawn-out, sensual way he’d been doing with me, still cupping and stroking my cheek as he loved on Luke.

He also ended the kiss in that same tender press of his lips, one chaste kiss after another, on Luke’s lower lip, then his upper, then his lower again. He held Luke’s gaze for a moment. Then he looked to me. “Thank you.”

Luke snorted out a laugh.

I asked, “For what?”

“Not giving up on me. I know I can be a controlling ass who worries too much.”

That brought out another sputter of laughter from Luke.

I shook my head. “You’re worrying too much about how much you’re worrying.”

“Oh my God!” Luke tipped his head back. “Are you two trying to kill me here?”

That had all of us laughing.

But I wasn’t done with this conversation. I waited until Richard met my stare again. “I’m serious. You don’t have to worry so much about doing the right thing or saying the right thing. Every moment doesn’t have to be perfect. We just have to talk about stuff when there’s an issue, and everything will be fine.”

“I know. I’m working on it.”

“I am too,” I said.

Leaning in, he rested his forehead against mine and let out a long breath. I heard the relief in that exhale. “I could still spend all day kissing you.”

“Uh-huh. I want more.”

“Me too. Tonight?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Tonight.”

We held the stare for a lengthy beat. I knew what specifically we’d be doing before the weekend was up. Or at least, I hoped that was what he’d been implying. It was definitely what I’d meant.

He straightened. “We better eat before the food gets cold. It took us forever to cook the pancakes. Luke kept burning them.”

Luke’s jaw dropped. “It was hardly my fault. You kept distracting me.”

“I certainly did not.”

“Well, then your hands and mouth did, whether you wanted them to or not.”

“Are you saying I have no control? Because I thought we’ve established I try to have too much control. You’re not making a lot of sense here, Luke.” Richard grinned at him. “But you’re right.” He grasped Luke around the waist and dragged him forward in one swift move, then ground his groin against Luke’s in a blatant lust-filled motion like he’d been doing when they’d kissed earlier, only this time they were facing each other.

Richard repeated the action once more, the taut muscles of his ass clenching as he rotated his hips. Then he held still, his body tight against Luke’s. “Since the day I met you two, I’ve had no self-control when it comes to wanting you.” He gave Luke a last smoldering kiss. Then he let go of him and reached for the stack of more appetizing pancakes. “Now let’s eat, and then we’ll go over Matthew’s questions for today.” He started for the table they’d set earlier, leaving Luke standing there, panting, the bulge under his underwear impossible to miss.

I threw a pointed look at the stretched fabric. “You shouldn’t tease him.”

“Yeah.” He gulped down a hard swallow. “When the fuck will I learn that?” Choking out a laugh, he shook his head, then went for the bowl of fruit and the syrup sitting beside the stove. Before heading to the table, he paused at my side. His blue eyes held a more serious note as he whispered, “Those were some unbelievable kisses.”

I ran the tips of two fingers over my lips. “Yeah.”

“It was different, like it used to be.”

“It was.”

“It seems like he’s really letting it go.”

“It does.” I drew in a frustrated breath but held back on saying more.

Luke turned toward me. “What?”

“Nothing. You’re right. It was great.”

“I told you. He just needed some time.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

He went to join Richard at the table.

It was hard to admit, even if only to myself, but despite what those kisses had been like, something was still wrong.

Something very wrong.

I just couldn’t get the words out, couldn’t make myself say it to Luke.

There’d been a noticeable difference in both of them since that day several months earlier when I hadn’t exactly been truthful about not wanting Richard to fist me in bed. Despite talking it over on several occasions, Richard admitted that moment still left him feeling uneasy when it came to intimate contact with me. He’d promised me that nothing had changed between us. That we just needed some time, that he needed time and distance from that moment.

The one good thing was that he hadn’t altogether stopped touching me. In fact, sometimes he seemed to go out of his way to reach out for me, offer a caress or a kiss. It was like he wouldn’t allow himself to put too much distance between us.

I appreciated that, but…

There was still one moment when everything about his touch—both of their touches—felt wrong: in bed.

I could see it in their eyes, feel it in the brush of their lips, the little hesitations, the clasp of their hands as if they were holding back. They were afraid they’d do something I didn’t want, afraid they’d hurt me.

I had done that to us. By letting them think I wanted something I didn’t, I’d broken a part of us that I’d come to rely on more than I realized.

Which left me aching for more of their touches, for them to grab hold of me and kiss me, touch me, fuck me with that same passionate intensity they’d had since the day I met them, like they couldn’t wait to get inside me and make us both feel so damn good.

I tried repeatedly to show them how much I wanted that—wanted them. I wasn’t sure what else I could do to fix things for us. But I knew there had to be a way, something I’d missed, something I hadn’t tried or said yet.

And I was going to find it.

Because everything was going to be okay between the three of us. More than okay. I wouldn’t accept anything else.

Chapter Three

“Here, put these gloves on. They might try to bite, even at this age.”

I took the padded gloves from Dr. Vega and slipped them on. “Where do you want me?”

“By the exam table. I’ll put the carrier right on top, and we’ll take them out one at a time and get a look at what we’ve got.”

“Okay.”

Dr. Vega set a towel-lined box on one end of the stainless-steel exam table and the carrier with his newest residents on the other side. He removed the first little guy from the crate.

The litter of red fox kits had been brought to Windtree Wildlife Rehabilitation Center a few minutes earlier by a park ranger who’d live-trapped the animals. Windtree was a nonprofit center that cared for injured and orphaned wildlife from the surrounding area, including Majestic Falls State Park, one of the largest state parks in the Midwestern US.

Located southwest of the park, the wildlife center took in over three thousand animals per year, releasing more than seventy percent back into the wilderness. The thirty percent that couldn’t be returned to their homes in the wild due to an injury or the incapacity to care for themselves became education ambassadors, helping the center’s volunteers teach the public about the importance of wildlife and conservation efforts.

With spring well underway and the local wildlife population more active after the long winter months, Windtree was currently in their busy season.

Dr. Vega—or Alex, as he’d asked me to call him—had been telling me about the center’s setup and its volunteer program when the park ranger shuffled in with the dog carrier full of mewling, squirming fox kits.

“Perfect timing,” Alex had said to me. “I like seeing anyone I’m interviewing work with the animals. That okay with you?”

“Definitely.”

“You did some hands-on workshops during your wildlife course at the school, right?”

“Yeah.”

“They had you get a rabies vaccine?”

“Yep. I’m all set there.”

“All right.” He stood. “Let’s go check out some foxes.”

With that sentence and a smile of encouragement from Alex, I couldn’t have been more excited by the chance to show him that I could handle the job. I’d spent the past couple of weeks studying as much as I could about the native animals the center typically took in, as well as basic wildlife emergency procedures. I was ready for this.

Alex flipped the first fox kit onto its back. “This one’s a female.” He righted her and inspected her legs by feeling down the length of each. “She doesn’t appear to have any swelling or broken bones. No signs of trauma. Here. Feel the belly.” He handed her to me. “What do you think?”

“She’s too thin.”

“Right. And feel along her spine. She’s not been eating enough lately.” He reached over and pinched the skin on her back. It stuck together for a second or two before slowly lowering to her body.

“She’s dehydrated,” I said.

“Yeah. They’ve definitely been on their own for too long. It’s possible that fox the ranger said he found dead along the road the other day was their mother.”

“She was hit by a car?”

“He thought so. It was clear she’d been nursing, so he went back today to see if he could spot the den or maybe hear these little guys.”

“Any sign of the father? Sometimes they’ll care for the kits if the mother dies.”

“That’s right.” He sounded impressed. “If they’re far enough along on solid foods. I’m guessing his instincts told him these guys weren’t, though.” He had me turn the kit his way. He checked her face and ears. “She appears to be five or six weeks old. You know how I can tell that?”

He hadn’t examined the kit’s teeth yet, so I said, “Well, her eyes and ears are open, and the muzzle is beginning to lengthen. And the fur color is starting to change.”

“Right. Anything else?”

“The eye color.”

“Exactly. They start out blue and turn golden-brown as they age.” He retrieved the kit from me and took a look inside her mouth. “You can also tell by the eruption of her teeth.” He nodded. “Yeah, I’m guessing about five weeks, maybe slightly older.” He set the kit into the box and pulled another one out of the carrier. This one was squirming more as he started the exam. “We’ve got another female.”

He passed her to me. She was snorting and growling, trying to bite my thumb, but the gloves were specially lined. Her teeth couldn’t puncture them. “She sure is a feisty little thing.”

He laughed. “Yeah. She looks as thin as the other, but she’s got some serious fight left in her. That’s a good sign.”

“Will they be okay?”

“Should be. They don’t seem too bad off. They’re bright and alert and responsive. No sign of a respiratory infection. I think we got them soon enough. We’ll give them subcutaneous fluids today and start bottle-feeding them, then see how far along they are in eating solids. They should bounce back pretty quickly.”

“Will you be able to release them at some point?”

“That’ll be the plan. We’ll keep them until they’re older and have been on solid food for quite a while. It’s good that there’s several of them. Makes it less likely that they’ll imprint on us. We’ll limit human contact as much as we can as they grow. Then after they’re big enough, and we’ve made certain they can catch their own food, we’ll release them back into the wild. Do you know how we can tell a red fox from a coyote or a gray fox? They all look pretty similar before the adult color of the coat starts coming in.”

“The tail,” I said. “Red foxes have the white tip.”

Alex nodded, looking pleased.

Before he moved to put her in the box with the other kit, I patted the top of her head. “It’ll be okay, little one.”

“Yeah, she’ll be fine.” Alex smiled at me. Every time he did that, his eyes lit up with genuine delight. He had a thoughtful gentleness to him that seemed to have many of the animals at Windtree at ease around him.

When we finished the intake exam on the kits, Alex got them situated with a volunteer who started them on fluids, and we moved on to another room lined with plastic crates and covered clothes hampers. “This is our recovery room for birds and owls.” He introduced me to the various feathered residents at the center and asked me to help him do some physical therapy on one of his patients.

We worked together for another half hour. Then he finished giving me a full tour of the place, including the outdoor pens and enclosures where they kept the larger animals and the ones closer to release. Windtree currently housed two older foxes, several opossums, squirrels, minks, ducks, a red-tailed hawk, a pair of mourning doves, and even a bald eagle, among many others.

When another volunteer arrived for their shift, Alex suggested I get a better look around on my own while he discussed a case with the volunteer.

After walking through the treatment rooms, surgical area, and the interior kennels, I exited into the front offices. We’d been talking there at his desk before the ranger arrived. Similar to many of the other areas inside the facility, the walls were lined with stacked cages that housed all types of injured and recovering wildlife. As Alex had mentioned earlier, the center was in desperate need of an expansion, as well as updated office equipment.

It was clear from the way Alex had talked that the center didn’t have the necessary money to do the expansion or to purchase the upgraded computers. He said the majority of their funds were spent on medical equipment and related supplies for animal care, as well as the salaries for the staff who were responsible for running the clinic.

He and one other staff member were currently the only full-time employees at the center. There were also four part-time support workers, but the rest of the people who helped out were volunteers, including Alex’s wife and son. Alex had asked me to come in for an interview on a Sunday because he had more volunteer help on the weekends and could take the time to talk with me.

I returned to wait near his desk in the corner of the room. Four cages were situated beside the desk, each housing an injured squirrel. Stacked on the surface of his desk were research texts, medical supplies still in their boxes, various equipment used for capturing wildlife, and an open map of the park marked with hand-drawn gridlines. A nameplate sat on top of the books. It read: Alejandro Vega, DVM, Wildlife Veterinarian.

Beside the books were several framed pictures of what appeared to be his family. On the wall behind the desk hung photos of various animals at the clinic, as well as outdoor shots of wildlife in the park.

One of the pictures featured a white-tailed deer. A substantial buck drinking from the edge of a river. The setting sun was ablaze behind the deer, casting swaths of golden light across the wide expanse of hemlock trees along the river. The sunlight turned the ripples of the water a brilliant shade of orange. Several yards from the deer sat a dock lined with wooden posts. It looked like the exact spot where I had stood years earlier.

I’d been thirteen the last time I was at Majestic Falls State Park, and I hadn’t been back since. Until today.

I stepped closer to get a better view of the photo. It was the same dock. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I did.

I squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out the picture before me—and the memories it brought back. I didn’t want to think about that day. Or the horribleness that followed.

“My dad took those,” came a young voice from behind me.

I turned toward the kid. He was about twelve. He carried a gray-and-white pet rabbit in his arms.

I gestured toward the picture. “He’s a great photographer.”

The boy nodded. “He loves taking pictures of the park and all the wildlife. Are you the new intern?”

“Not sure yet. I’m here for an interview today.”

The kid gave another nod.

“Is Alex your dad?”

“Yeah.”

“Your name’s Tomas, right?”

The kid took a step forward. “Dad talked about me?”

“Sure. He said you’re a big help around here, and this year when you head back to school in the fall, he’s really going to need someone to fill in for you.”

Tomas’s face brightened for a moment. Then he focused on the rabbit in his arms. “We live next door. Usually my mom comes to help too, but she’s gonna have a baby in a few weeks. She’s gotta rest.” He petted the bunny along its side.

“Is that your rabbit?”

“Uh-huh. Dad promised to help trim her toenails today. They grow super fast.”

“What’s her name?”

“Maggie.”

I moved in closer and raised my hand. “Can I?”

“Sure. She’s a real sweetheart.”

I stroked the rabbit’s fur. “Wow. That’s the softest animal I’ve ever petted.”

“I know, right?” He regarded me with curiosity. “You’ve never pet a rabbit before?”

“Nah. I volunteer at a humane society, but they mostly take in dogs and cats. How long have you had her?”

“Three years. My dad found her in the park. He says people from the city are always coming to Majestic Falls and dropping off animals they don’t want anymore. They leave them along the river, thinking they’ll be okay because there’s fresh water there and lots of plants and other animals. But Dad said a pet rabbit would never survive long out there on its own. They’re different than wild rabbits.”

“So he gave her to you?”

“He asked me if I’d take care of her. He says that when you take in a sick or homeless animal, you’re responsible for them for the rest of their lives and you have to take that responsibility as seriously as you would your own life.”

“He’s pretty smart.”

Tomas’s face lit up again. “He is.”

The front door of the center opened, and a very pregnant woman entered. She had long dark hair pulled back in a high ponytail. She stood an inch or two shorter than her son and was petite in every way, except for the large, round belly. She stepped up to Tomas. “You forgot her toenail clippers.” She gave them to him.

“Thanks.” He showed me the clippers. “These work best on her nails.”

His mom smiled at me. “Are you here about the intern position?”

“Yeah, I’m Matthew Stewart.”

“Natalie Vega.”

Tomas pointed at her. “This is my mom.”

We shook hands. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too.” She rested a hand on top of her belly and slid her other arm around her son’s shoulders. “I hope Tomas isn’t keeping you from something. When he gets to talking about his animals, he tends to go on and on.” She shot a look his way. “And on and on. Just like his father.”

“Not at all,” I said. “He was nice enough to introduce me to Maggie.”

She gave the rabbit a scratch between her flattened ears. “One of his many critters.”

“You have more?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’ve got a dog, a turtle, a hamster, a guinea pig, and a goat. Oh, and a potbellied pig.”

“Wow. That must be a lot of work.”

He shrugged. “It’s not bad. It’s totally worth it.”

“It is,” his mom said as she ran her fingers through Tomas’s hair above his ear. “Listen, hon, I’ve got to get back before your dad catches me walking around and gives me another lecture about staying off my feet.”

“Yeah. Sorry I forgot the clippers.”

“It’s okay. Despite what your dad says, I do need the exercise.” She looked to me. “It was nice to meet you, Matthew. I hope it works out if you want the job.”

“Thank you.”

She left, and Tomas laughed as soon as the door was shut behind her. “Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Put stuff like that off on my dad. Like he’s the only one who’s worried.”

Before I could think of anything to say, the door to the back rooms opened and Alex entered the office area. “All done.” He stopped beside his son. “Sorry, Tomas. We’re not quite finished with our interview. Why don’t you take Maggie back to one of the exam rooms to wait? I’ll wrap up here and then we can work on her nails after that.”

“Okay.” Tomas headed for the hall door.

I called after him, “It was nice to meet you. And Maggie.”

He smiled back at me. “Yeah, you too.”

After he left, Alex stared off at the closed door separating the office area from the rest of the rehab center.

“He’s a great kid,” I said.

“He is.” Alex turned to me. “You have kids?”

“No.” But that reminded me of what I hadn’t told him yet, what I’d made myself say to every person who’d already interviewed me for the other internships where I’d applied.

Alex considered me as if he knew I had something important to tell him. Maybe he got that I needed a minute to bring it up. He gestured to the chair opposite his desk. “Why don’t we pick up where we left off before the ranger got here?”

“All right.” I had a seat, and he did the same across from me.

He asked me a few more standard interview-style questions. Then he sat back in his chair. “Thanks again for the help with the fox kits and the physical therapy. We’re pretty busy here. You can see why we need to hire someone.”

“It doesn’t seem like it’ll be boring, that’s for sure.”

“I’m glad you see it that way. I deal with a new challenge practically every day. As I mentioned before, the intern position will include some paperwork, answering phone calls, but I guarantee you’ll get to work with all kinds of animals, and you’ll get to assist me with surgeries, so it should be some great experience. Definitely more diverse than what you’d get at a regular animal clinic in the city.” He drummed a closed fist on the desk as if nervous to ask me the next question. “So what do you think?”

“I really like the work you’re doing here. I’d love to be a part of it.”

“Good.” He smiled, that genuine delight lighting up his face again. Then he grew quiet, examining me as if he was thinking something over. “You’re done with school for this semester?”

“Yeah. Classes finished a week ago.”

“You could start anytime?”

“Whenever you’d need me.”

“All right.” He leaned forward, elbows propped on the desk. “Not making any promises here, but the center is on the short list for a grant that will allow us to add another full-time staff member. If you did get the internship, and you liked working here, it could turn into a regular position after your schooling ends. Would that be something that might interest you?”

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, yeah, I really think so.”

“Good deal.” He looked over my résumé once more. “So you had that one class on wildlife care. Anything else?”

“Not yet. I’d liked to take the more advanced one next year. Neither class is a requirement for my program, but I thought they sounded fascinating.”

“That’s a good sign. If you were to work here after you graduate, would you be willing to go to some additional training specifically on wildlife rehab? The cost would be covered by the grant.”

“Definitely. I’d love that.”

“Okay. Are there any other questions you have for me? Or is there anything else you’d like me to know about you?”

I drew in a deep breath. “Yeah, actually.” I had said the same thing at each of the other interviews I’d gone on, but somehow it wasn’t getting any easier to tell someone. Not with a job this amazing on the line.

“It’s something very personal, but I’d like you to know before you consider me for the job. In case there’s any reason it would be an issue for you or your staff. I want to work in an environment where I can feel comfortable being myself, where I don’t have to monitor my words when I talk about my life.”

Alex sat back and folded his hands over his stomach. He smiled and tipped his head my way. “Okay. I like what you’re saying so far. Go on.”

He was the only one who’d reacted that way. Every other person had stiffened and gaped at me with trepidation like they were watching me come unhinged. Alex just kept the grin going.

I chewed on my lower lip and then made myself stop the nervous habit. “I’m in a relationship with two people. Two men. We all live together. They’re both my partners, and they are the same with each other. All three of us are in the relationship together.” I stopped and kept my focus on him. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was proud of the three of us, and I didn’t want to work for a boss who wouldn’t, at the very least, respect that my private life was my own business, and definitely not for someone who’d think less of me for it and then treat me that way.

He pointed at one of the cages beside us that held a single squirrel. “See him? A hiker found him in the middle of the road five days ago. He had a broken leg, a severe cut along his back. The park is loaded with eastern gray squirrels like him. Some people would say that it wasn’t worth the time or money to help him, that he’s vermin and I should’ve put him out of his misery and been done with it.” He watched me for a moment. “What do you think about that?”

From inside the cage, the squirrel stared back at me, eyes wide as he gnawed on a walnut shell that he held between his two front feet. “I think if he could communicate with us, he’d say he just wants a chance to survive. It’s what any living creature would want. No matter how many of his kind there are.”

Alex smiled again. “That’s the kind of answer I care about. Seems to me a person who can love two people the way you described, without jealousy or resentment, might have exactly the right kind of compassion to do this job well.”

I swallowed down the flood of emotion, trying to keep it from seeping into my voice as I said, “Thank you.”

He nodded. “Besides, what you do in your personal life is no one’s business but your own. If you end up working for me, and any of the staff or volunteers here at the center don’t get that, or they don’t treat you with the respect and courtesy you deserve, then they won’t be working here much longer.” He looked to one of the framed pictures on his desk. I couldn’t see who was featured in the photo. “And just so you know, I’m a big supporter of gay rights, and not only because I’m fairly sure my son is gay.” His eyes lit up again as he kept his focus on the picture. Then he looked my way. “But because I strongly believe in equality. For everyone.”

I smiled back at him.

He stood. “Now that we have that settled, we have a release scheduled for today. If you don’t mind hanging around while I help Tomas with his rabbit, you could come along and give me a hand with the release afterward.”

“I’d love that.” I got up as well. He towered over me, but I didn’t feel small next to him.

Three hours later, I couldn’t contain my excitement as I drove Richard’s car along one of the main roads through Majestic Falls State Park, captivated by the beauty that surrounded me. The lush, green, forest-covered hills, golden rock formations, cliffs, gorges, and waterfalls. The rushing water of Windtree River and all its tributaries. It was one of the most amazing places I’d ever been, and I wanted to work at Windtree Rehab Center more than any of the other facilities where I’d applied.

Alex had said there were a few more applicants he had to interview before a final decision was made, but I had a really good feeling about this one.

As I drove toward the northern exit of the park, I spotted Windtree River again where it ran along the road. A flock of mallard ducks dotted the surface, the iconic brilliant green heads of the males glowing in the sunlight. The classic piercing quacks of the females echoed in the air. I was transfixed by the sights and sounds.

Then the memories I’d been trying to keep at bay all day slammed into me without warning. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and did my best to stay focused on the road ahead.

It would be weird to work there, at least at first. I knew that from the moment I’d seen the position listed on my school’s website as a possible internship.

But I wasn’t about to let anything ruin this experience for me. Especially not him.

He’d already done enough damage.

He still was in some ways.

He was part of the reason Luke and Richard and I were struggling.

He was part of the reason I was afraid to show them something I’d hidden from them in our house.

Because what I hadn’t wanted to see before now was that deep down, in a place I tried to ignore most of the time, I was afraid of losing them. Terrified.

Which meant… I had to find a way to let this go. Or else I’d spend the rest of my life living with that fear.

Chapter Four

The house sat still and quiet as I stepped inside. Before I got the door shut, Trixie was barreling down the hall toward me. She skidded to a stop in front of me.

“Hey, baby girl. Did you have a good day?”

As usual, her tail wagged with such vigor I thought she might topple over at any second. I crouched down and gave her some love behind her ears. In response, she flopped onto her back so I could rub her belly.

“You here all by yourself? Where’s Luke?”

She immediately scrambled to her feet and thumped up the stairs, her long limbs flailing as she made her way. She was the sweetest and smartest dog I’d ever met, but she was also the most uncoordinated. I laughed as I trailed up after her.

The hall was as dark and silent as the downstairs had been. Sometimes when I headed up alone like that, with the house quiet all around me, I was right back to the night Richard had given us a tour of the place when we’d first moved in with him. Following him up those stairs, I’d been both excited and scared.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him or Luke—although I probably shouldn’t have since I barely knew either of them, and what I did know from previous experience was how hurt I could get trusting the wrong man—but with Richard and Luke, the anxiety hadn’t come from being afraid of them or what they might do to me. It was about being scared I’d say or do something that would put an end to whatever was building between us.

I’d known from that first night at the Haven that they were different, that we were different together. They’d always been the only people in my life I’d ever felt completely comfortable being myself around. I relied on that now even more.

I found Trixie waiting in the open doorway of Luke’s office. Luke sat at his desk, working, his complete concentration on the computer screen before him. He hadn’t shaved, and the dark stubble, ripped jeans, and tight black T-shirt he wore gave him a rugged bad-boy look. Like he belonged on a Harley instead of in front of a laptop. Incredibly enticing. And sexy as hell.

He’d been assigned a new high-profile programming project at the IT consulting firm where he worked, and it had been kicking his ass lately, as he described it. There were a number of new twentysomething employees in his department, and I got the impression that, at thirty-five, he was starting to feel old and outdated. He’d even signed up for some online training to get up to speed on a new programming language.

I hated that he felt inadequate in any way.

He was so focused on his laptop, he didn’t hear me approach. I laid both hands on his shoulders and began working my fingers and thumbs over his muscles. He groaned in pleasure and tilted his head back, his eyes closing. “God, that feels good.” He opened his eyes and beamed up at me. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

He held my stare for several beats, his expression full of hunger and longing. There’d always been an intensity to the way he looked at Richard and me, the way those blue eyes took in the sight of us as if we were the only two people in the world and that single moment between us was all that mattered to him.

He sighed. “Damn, you have the right touch.” His eyelids fell shut once more as I continued the massage, digging my fingers in deeper. His muscles were incredibly tight and stiff.

“You’re working too hard. You need to take some time off soon.”

He grunted, and I wasn’t sure if that was in agreement or not.

“Richard still at his meeting?” I asked.

“Yeah. Said he wouldn’t be too long.”

Richard had been putting in as many extra hours as Luke lately. He’d cut back on his investment business months ago and instead he’d been focusing nearly all his time on the renovations to a famous estate he’d purchased. The remodeling project had resulted in the Griff Harrison Community Center, which had officially opened a few weeks ago, but there were still a lot of details Richard wanted to make certain were handled correctly.

I dipped my head and kissed the spot where Luke’s neck met his shoulder, brushing my lips along his flesh to aid in easing his tension. “You never told me,” I said as I switched to his other side, offering another kiss. Then another. “How did things go with the new guy last week?”

He groaned again, this time the sound containing far more frustration. “He’s such a total dick. He thinks he’s the only one who knows anything about object-oriented programming.”

I straightened and kept my fingers moving over him. “I bet he’s just really nervous. I mean, this is his first job out of college, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a senior programmer. He might be trying to impress you, show you that he’s not as green as you think.”

Luke opened his eyes and tilted his head back to study me. “How do you always do that?”

“Do what?”

“See the good in people. See things from their perspective.”

“You don’t think it’s naive?”

“I guess it can be. But it seems way healthier than the alternative. I hadn’t thought about him being nervous. He just comes across as an arrogant jerk.”

I laughed. “I might not be right about him. I’m just saying give him a chance. He might actually be intimidated by you and even look up to you and that makes him overcompensate.”

“Maybe. I’ll keep that in mind.” He considered me again. His voice warmed as he said, “The world would be a hell of a lot better place if everyone thought the way you do, if everyone saw things the way you do.”

That meant a lot coming from him. He could be cynical sometimes, sarcastic about stuff like this. “Thanks.”


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