He turned the key in the lock. "No--not again," Maddoc groaned to himself as he looked at the stems sitting next to his front door. Bending down, he picked them up. Being careful of the thorns, he gingerly dumped the headless flowers in the trash, the note that came along with them slipping between the porch floorboards. "Why does this keep happening?" Maddoc looked around but saw no one in the early morning darkness. He never did, but the damn stems kept showing up anyway. Turning around, he walked down the steps, stumbling on the last one as his knee nearly gave out under him. "What did I ever do?"
Still shaking, he made it to his car without falling on his face. After looking at each of the tires, he opened the car door and got inside. Starting the engine, he put the vehicle in gear and inched forward before hitting the brakes. Everything seemed to work. Turning on his headlights, he sped in the direction of his office, but he couldn't help looking back to check his house before turning the corner.
The office was bright with plenty of people around, and Maddoc allowed himself to relax as he got to work, a day like any other day, at least for him lately. People said good morning, and Maddoc felt the tension begin to slip away. This was his routine, and while it was often hectic, it was known and comforting.
His work day went normally enough, and by late afternoon Maddoc was shutting down his computer. He looked down at the bag near his desk. "I really should do this." Picking up the bag, he carried it with him to his car and drove the half mile or so to a large, bright fitness center. Entering nervously, he approached the desk.
"Um, I got a two-week pass from work." He couldn't meet the receptionist's gaze and found himself talking more to the counter than to her. "I thought I'd give it a try." He fished out the pass and set it on the counter.
"We're glad you did," she responded in a high, perky voice, and Maddoc raised his gaze to see her huge, genuine smile. "Take a seat at the first desk, and Mark will be right with you." Maddoc did as he was asked, and a big man in a tight shirt sat down across from him and went through his sales pitch.
Maddoc listened, fidgeting nervously. "I'd really just like to see how I like it first."
"No problem." Mark smiled. "I'll give you a quick tour. I see you brought work out gear. Excellent! Bring it with you, and I'll show you around."
Relief flooded through Maddoc as he got up from the chair. He hated disappointing people, but he needed to know he was going to like this. "I've never worked out before," he confessed as they started the tour.
"You're not alone. A lot of people who come in are just trying to get in shape. That's why we have all kinds of equipment. Machines are great for starting out." He pointed to the rows of what looked like new equipment. "Free weights are also available." Mark pointed to the back of the gym where huge guys were lifting and grunting loudly.
Bang! A sharp sound echoed through the building. Maddoc jumped and looked around for cover.
"Sorry. When they're working with the heavy weights, they drop them to prevent getting hurt," Mark explained as he continued the tour, thankfully ignoring Maddoc's jitters. "You get used to it. A lot of gyms don't allow it, but we have a number of high-powered lifters...."
Maddoc looked at the men getting up from the bench. "I wouldn't want to tell them no, either."
Mark laughed, "Actually, they're great guys." He led the way toward the back of the building. "Here's the men's locker room. There's a sauna near the showers and the entrance to the pool and whirlpool area." Maddoc slowly nodded and thanked him for the tour before finding a locker and pulling off his shirt.
"Maddoc?" a vaguely familiar voice said from behind him. Turning around, he saw one of the guys from his office. "I thought that was you." The man smiled brightly and stepped around the bench, extending his hand.
"Hey, Dan." Maddoc returned the smile and shook the offered hand.
"I haven't seen you here before, are you a member?" Dan inquired as he started looking for an empty locker.
"Not yet. I got a pass at the office and thought I'd give it a try." Maddoc hung up his polo shirt and pulled a T-shirt out of his bag, slipping it over his head. "I'm a real newbie." He lowered his pants and hung them in the locker before pulling on a pair of shorts.
"You're welcome to join us." Dan opened his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders. Maddoc found himself staring and had to turn his eyes away. He knew Dan was about his age, but he'd never have guessed, and he found himself stealing looks at the man's flat stomach, wide shoulders, and pierced nipple. Maddoc turned away suddenly, afraid he'd pop wood right there in the locker room... in front of a coworker no less.
"H-have you been working out long?" He needed to get himself together, but he couldn't help asking. Maybe there was hope that he could get strong like that.
"Years. But you'll be surprised how much you can change once you work out regularly." Dan dropped his pants, and Maddoc forcibly turned his attention to putting his things in his locker. "Join us," he repeated, as he pulled on a pair of tight shorts and a tank top.
"If it's okay." Maddoc didn't want to impose, but he needed some help and wasn't really sure who he should ask.
"Of course." Dan closed the door and locked his locker. "Do you have a water bottle?" Maddoc shook his head, closing his own locker. Turning around, Maddoc saw Dan open his locker again, handing him a plastic water bottle before relocking it. "You'll need it." Maddoc thanked Dan and took the bottle before following him like a puppy out of the locker room.
"Big Pimpin', you ready?" a guy called as he slapped Dan on the butt. "I haven't seen your other half yet, is he joining us?"
"Probably not. He's on a competition regime, so it's just us." Dan turned to him and said, "This is Maddoc. We work together, and he's thinking about joining."
The man immediately extended his hand. "I'm Lonnie. You gonna join us?" The man seemed genuine, and Maddoc found himself nodding. "Don't worry, we'll take it easy on you." Lonnie turned and began striding toward the equipment before turning around. "You homos coming?" Maddoc looked to Dan, shocked, not sure how to react. "No offense," the loud man added automatically.
"That's just Lonnie," Dan explained. "He's got the biggest mouth of anyone I've ever met." Dan began trailing behind Lonnie. "You really are an ass sometimes--you know that, Rosen?" Not sure what to do, Maddoc found himself following slowly. "Don't let him bother you. The man's a complete pig," Dan continued to explain. "He's living proof that there is such a thing as Jewish pork." Maddoc couldn't help laughing. "Just give it back to him. Comments about his big ass are surefire winners, particularly if they're original."
Maddoc found himself relaxing as Dan led the way to a flat bench. Lonnie was already doing his set, and Maddoc watched. When Lonnie was done, Dan took his turn and then stripped off the weights and indicated for Maddoc to go. Dan explained the exercise and helped him perform it right, even standing behind him to help in case he needed it. When Maddoc was done, Dan put the bar in the rack. "That was really good."
"I could probably do more," Maddoc said, pleased with himself, even though Dan had said it was only ninety pounds.
"Don't push it right away or you'll be really sore tomorrow. Let your body get used to it."
Maddoc nodded and watched as they each took their turns, doing the exercise three more times before switching to an incline bench. "Who's that?" Maddoc saw a huge man approach, his chest and shoulders bulging out of a string tank.
"That's Gene, Dan's partner." Maddoc looked at Lonnie in disbelief. "He's training for Mr. Olympia." Lonnie gave him a surprised look. "Don't you guys work together?"
"We work in the same office, and we've worked on projects together and stuff," Maddoc stammered, unsure why Dan had invited him to work out with them in the first place. Hell, he hadn't even known the man was gay.
"Come on, you two. Play hide the sausage later." Maddoc saw Gene glare at Lonnie for a second before the man actually gave Dan a kiss right there in the gym. "Geez, you two." Lonnie started making gagging sounds, and Maddoc didn't know how to react, but Dan and Gene began to laugh, and he figured this was normal for them. The two hunky men separated, and Dan rejoined them, watching Gene walk across the gym. "Can we get back to work?" Lonnie groused good-naturedly.
"Look who's talking," Dan retorted. "The man who turned gabbing into an Olympic sport."
Maddoc laughed and added tentatively, "You mean he'd be as big as Gene if talking counted as exercise?"
"Exactly," Dan responded with a grin.
"If you're done Lonnie-bashing, can we get jacked already?" Lonnie walked over to a large, gray machine and began putting weights on it as Dan explained it was a decline press machine. They took their turns, the talk diminishing as they got to work again.
"Hey, Lonnie." A man approached as Maddoc was finishing what he hoped was the last set. He let the arms fall back against the stops, then got up and watched as the guys all talked.
"You joining us for dinner?" The man didn't answer right away. "Don't be a pussy all your life and come eat with us."
"Okay," the man answered. "Since you asked so nicely. What time?"
Maddoc listened to the exchange as details were finalized, watching the man really closely. He had to be about Maddoc's age, with close-cropped graying hair and broad shoulders. Maddoc couldn't tell anything else from the baggy clothes he was wearing, but his imagination quickly took over.
"You gonna join us, too, Docky?" Lonnie's question pulled him out of his daydream, and he nodded. Docky? "Good." Lonnie finished up his last set, clanking the arms against the stops. They finished the routine, and Maddoc thought he'd need someone to carry him into the locker room, but somehow he made it under his own power.
Pulling off his sweaty clothes, Maddoc found himself naked just as the man who'd been talking to Lonnie entered the locker room. Maddoc felt himself color as he reached for his bathing suit, pulling it on quickly and grabbing a towel, figuring he'd try to find the whirlpool. He'd never gotten used to being naked in public, and he felt especially shy around all these super-hot men. The whirlpool was easy to find, and Maddoc lowered himself into the hot, swirling water, thankful he was alone. Relaxing his head back, Maddoc felt his muscles turn to JELL-O, and didn't look up when he heard someone else enter the tub.
Maddoc looked up toward the voice coming from next to him. "Hi." He saw the man from earlier settling into the water next to him. Maddoc wished he'd been paying attention, because what he could see above the water looked... really nice. He even liked the graying hair... sexy.
"I'm Ivan." The man lifted a hand out of the water.
"Maddoc." He shook the offered hand and found that Ivan held it a little longer than necessary. He didn't know what to say and resettled in the water, watching the man through half-closed eyes. God, he was handsome. He had to keep his imagination in check or he'd completely embarrass himself. Maddoc kept watching until he began to feel slightly cooked, and then got out of the water, doing his best not to turn for one last look before he left. But it happened anyway--he just couldn't help it.
In the shower area, Maddoc saw Dan and Gene coming out of the sauna as he headed to the showers to clean up. Turning on the water, he washed quickly, feeling self-conscious the entire time. Turning off the water, he sneaked his hand outside the curtain, snatching his towel inside with him. Drying off, he wrapped the towel around his waist and pushed the curtain aside. In his hurry to step out, he bumped into a naked and very hot Ivan, hand brushing against his.... "S-s-sorry," Maddoc gulped and stammered before grabbing his bathing suit and rushing into the locker area. Maddoc figured he'd get changed as fast as he could and leave, when he saw Dan come in wearing only a towel.
"See you at dinner?"
Maddoc felt like a trapped rat. How could he go to dinner with Ivan when he'd just had his hand against the man's balls? But Dan and his friends had been so nice, Maddoc couldn't let him down or embarrass him. "Yes," he answered against his better judgment, and turned toward his locker and began dressing. Maddoc had never been so mortified in his life. Not only had he felt the man up, but he'd liked it. God, he'd practically molested the man right there in the showers. After pulling on his underwear and pants, he slipped on his shirt before sitting down to put on his shoes.
Looking up, he saw Ivan walk in with only a towel around his waist, sitting low on the hips. The man looked like some sort of god: tall, fit, with wide shoulders tapering to a small waist. How in hell could a man his age have a waist that small? And those abs! There was no mere six-pack--the man had at least a ten-pack glistening above that low-slung towel. "See you at dinner?"
Maddoc blushed as his eyes took in the sight before him, hoping he wasn't too obvious. "Sure, I'll see you there." Maddoc lowered his eyes again and finished dressing. Packing his bag, he fled the locker room with a small sigh of relief. He needed to get himself under control. Heading to his car, he nearly tripped over an uneven spot in the pavement but kept his balance. Unlocking the car, he climbed in and shut the door.
Sitting in the driver's seat, he felt himself heaving for breath. It didn't matter what Ivan looked like or how stunning he was. Maddoc would never be able to talk to him anyway. Getting himself under control, he started the car and backed up, immediately stepping on the brake. Putting the car in park, he got out and walked around to the back. There was a rose stem affixed to the base of the back window. Maddoc looked around and found himself shaking again. Was no place safe? Throwing it away, he did his best to try to convince himself that it was there from that morning and that he wasn't being followed, but he wasn't so sure. Getting back into the car, he locked the door, his hands shaking.
It took him a few minutes of deep breathing, but he got himself together and began pulling out. A horn stopped him, and he let the other car pass before finishing backing out of the parking space and driving the short distance to the restaurant.
Maddoc parked near the entrance and got out, looking around to see if he was being watched, but saw no one. Finding himself still shaking a little, he walked into the restaurant and looked around. He didn't see anyone he knew, so he grabbed a handful of peanuts from the barrel and took a seat in the log-lined waiting area, tossing the peanut shells on the floor with the rest, and waited.
The guys began to arrive a few minutes later, and Maddoc followed them to the table. Taking a seat, he was relieved when Dan and Gene sat next to him. The others arrived, and to Maddoc's nervous excitement, Ivan sat right across from him. Lonnie arrived a few minutes later, and the stories began. Between drink and dinner orders, Lonnie regaled the table with story upon story of lurid conquests, which Maddoc thought strange since Lonnie's fiancee Cory was seated at the table, but no one else seemed to think anything of it.
"I've never seen you at the gym before." Ivan seemed to be talking to him.
"Today was my first day."
"Did you like it?"
"Dan and Lonnie let me join their workout." He found himself rubbing his shoulder a little without thinking about it. "It was more fun than I thought it would be."
"So you're going to join?" Ivan asked with a smile.
"I think so."
"That's good. You'll be surprised at the changes you'll see in yourself." That got Maddoc's attention, and he waited for Ivan to continue. "You'll look younger, feel better, and have more energy." Ivan seemed to wink at him, and Maddoc felt his cheeks heat a little.
"I just don't want to feel weak anymore." Maddoc looked down at the table.
"Working out will make you stronger and feel better about yourself, but strength has to come from inside." There was that wink again, and thankfully their drinks arrived to give Maddoc something to do with his hands.
Maddoc wasn't sure, but Ivan seemed sincere and really smart. "I just want to be able to defend myself."
"From what?" Ivan's tone became serious.
Maddoc made light of his fears, not really wanting to discuss them. "Just in general." The arrival of their dinners interrupted the conversation, and Maddoc began eating. The conversation continued, most of it driven by Lonnie.
After they'd eaten, the server took the dishes, and after the group talked awhile, the check arrived. Maddoc pulled out his wallet, but Lonnie grabbed the check and paid the bill, insisting that it was his treat and he wouldn't hear any argument. Then they all got up and headed toward the exit. Maddoc walked to his car and looked it over. No flowers or anything attached. Unlocking the door, Maddoc got in and turned the key. The starter ground for a second, and then the car was silent.
A tap on his window had Maddoc jumping out of his skin. Clutching his chest dramatically, he looked and saw Ivan looking back at him. Catching his breath, he pushed the button to lower the window, but nothing happened, so he opened the door. "Do you know anything about cars?"
Ivan shrugged. "A little. Pop the hood." Maddoc pulled the lever and Ivan lifted the hood, peering inside. "I think the battery's shot." Maddoc looked to where he was pointing and saw all kinds of corrosion and stuff around it. Stepping back, he let Ivan close the hood. "We could try giving it a jump. You might make it home."
He didn't like the sound of that. The last thing he needed was to be stuck on the side of the highway. "I'll call a cab or something." He began reaching into his pocket for his phone.
"You don't need to do that. I'll drive you home." Maddoc looked up and saw Ivan's deep brown eyes looking at him so intently that he forgot what he was going to say and merely nodded before remembering his manners.
"Thank you." For a second his fear kicked in again, but Ivan's eyes told him he wouldn't hurt him. After locking his car, Maddoc followed Ivan to a little sports car and climbed into the passenger seat, buckling himself in. "I appreciate this." He told Ivan where he lived.
"It's not a problem." Ivan started the car and pulled out of the lot, zipping down the road.
"Have you known Lonnie long?" Maddoc needed something to talk about, and after that dinner, he figured Lonnie was a safe topic.
"Don't let him get to you. Lonnie's just one of those loud guys, but I've known him for years, and he'll help anybody." Ivan drove up the freeway on-ramp. "There was a guy like him in my unit when I was in the Corps. Bigger mouth than Lon. He was also the guy I most wanted watching my back. Lonnie's sort of like that. Big, filthy mouth, needs to be the center of attention, but loyal and a great friend when you need one."
"Seems like a weird combination."
"Are you a Marine?" Maddoc asked quietly.
"Yeah." Ivan turned to him, squinting slightly.
"My dad was in the Corps, and he always said, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,'" Maddoc explained. "His biggest disappointment was that I didn't enlist too. But by the time I was seventeen, I'd had enough of his version of military discipline." He turned away and looked out the window. "Dad was a good guy and a good father, but being a Marine was the most important thing in his life." He turned back to Ivan. "Besides, I knew I was gay and just didn't want to lead the kind of double life I'd have to. Not that I ever told him that." Why he was telling Ivan all of this, he had no idea. Maybe it was because, although he'd never gotten along with or understood his dad, he always knew he could trust him. He'd like to think he was talking because he just wanted to fill the empty space in the car, but the Marine thing had thrown him just a bit, and he found that he kind of trusted Ivan. "Dad used to tell me stories about the guys who got drummed out for being 'queer', and I decided I didn't want that to happen to me. So I went to college instead. To his eternal disappointment." Maddoc turned back to the window and stopped talking. Ivan didn't need to hear all about his troubles. "Did you like the Marines?"
"Loved it. I never had much of a family growing up, so the guys in my unit became a sort of substitute family. The only member of my real family who's still around is my mom." Ivan's voice remained strong, but Maddoc could hear a slight longing anyway.
"Don't ask, don't tell.... I told." Maddoc found himself nodding. "I couldn't live a lie any more. I stayed away from anyone I was attracted to for years. I didn't date and didn't socialize. I just wanted to be the best soldier and Marine I could."
"But something changed," Maddoc supplied softly. He knew this was difficult for the strong Marine, and he was surprised Ivan was even telling him any of this. Maybe the Marine family thing ran both ways.
"I met Gerald. He was bright and smiled at the slightest provocation. I didn't want to admit it, but I fell for him and fell hard." Ivan's voice remained level. "After Gerald was killed in action, I decided it was time to go."
"I'm sorry," Maddoc said sincerely.
"That was some time ago." Ivan took the freeway exit and turned onto the main street. Maddoc provided directions to his house.
"It's the one on the left," Maddoc supplied, and Ivan pulled up in front, stopping the car. Maddoc got out and walked toward the front door, seeing a bunch of what looked like flowers leaning against the front door. "Not again." He stopped and felt his legs start to shake again. For a few hours he'd been able to forget this crap, but here it was again.
"What is it?" He jumped slightly when the car door closed behind him but relaxed a bit when he remembered it was Ivan's voice.
"Someone keeps sending me flowers." He took a few steps toward the house. "At first they were nice bouquets with sweet, secret admirer type notes. But lately the notes have gotten disturbing. For the last few mornings the flowers have been wilted and then dead." Maddoc looked at the flowers, or what was left of them. There were only stems. "Damn it." This was really starting to scare him. "I'm sorry." He began to fumble for his keys and unlocked the door, then picked up the mess gingerly and threw it under the thick shrubbery, the card falling to the porch floor. He scooped it into his hand and crumpled it, getting ready to throw it with the stems.
"Can I look at it?" Ivan asked, and Maddoc handed it to him, pushing the door open and stepping inside, letting Ivan follow him.
"This is twisted." Ivan read the note. "There's nothing here directly threatening, but the tone seems menacing."
"I know." Maddoc shuddered as he stood in his living room, shaking like he usually did when these appeared. "I've been frightened to go out of the house."
"Have you called the police?"
"Yeah, but they didn't do much and just thought it was my imagination. Maybe it is." He slumped into a chair, pulling his feet under him, doing his best to curl into a ball.
"Is there anything I can do?" Ivan stepped closer, and Maddoc found himself curling further into the chair.
"No. I'll be all right." He forced his feet out from under him. He had to get a grip on himself. "Thank you," he added with more conviction than he felt.
"Oh." Ivan looked skeptical, but to Maddoc's relief didn't push it. "Here's my card with all my numbers on it. Please use it if anything happens."
Maddoc took the card, wondering if this was for real or not. "Marine to the rescue?"
"A friend, if you need help." Ivan turned, and Maddoc heard the front door close.
"Wow." His eyes followed Ivan's exit. He knew the guy was only being nice, but there was something inside that told him Ivan could be trusted to help him. Getting up from the chair, he locked the door and went through the house turning on lights, spending the evening before going to bed jumping at every noise in the house. Whoever this was might or might not be out to hurt him, but they already had him scared of his own shadow. "This has to stop somehow," Maddoc told himself.