Between Two Promises [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Shelter Somerset
eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Sequel to Between Two Worlds Daniel Schrock and Aiden Cermak have forged a life in the rural Montana foothills, but a shadow still lingers, made stronger when a letter arrives from Daniel's brother Mark inviting him to his Christmas wedding. Daniel fears returning home might force what he wants to avoid: telling his family about Aiden and facing the dreaded Amish shunning. Despite the uncertainties, Daniel and Aiden head to Illinois, where frustration will not only endanger Daniel's relationship with his family and the church community, but his bond with his boyfriend, who leaves Daniel with a choice: him or the Amish. Before Daniel can stop Aiden, he's gone? and threats from the past resurface, crystallizing Daniel's fears about a murderer still at large. As he desperately searches for Aiden and the identity of the suspected killer, Daniel will have to decide if love is important enough to risk losing everything he knows. Will Daniel choose to keep his commitment to the Amish church or will he stand by the promise he made to Aiden that first night they made love?
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2011
* * * *
5 Reader Ratings:
Daniel Schrock stepped out of his garage-converted woodshop and pulled the overhead door shut with a rusty screech. He adjusted his wide-brimmed straw hat to prevent the sun, hovering above the crowns of the hemlocks and cottonwoods, from scratching his eyes. Gravel crunched under his heavy boots as he made his way down the driveway. He caught the whiff of spaghetti and meatballs drifting from the rustic cabin he shared with his boyfriend. Supper would be ready by the time he returned from collecting the mail at the bottom of the lane.
Lofty trees leaned into the steep lane and allowed only a slim view of the Swan and Flathead Mountain Ranges. The first dusting of snow had already fallen on the higher elevations. Although hot and muggy in the Flathead River Valley, mid-August above ten thousand feet meant early winter. He headed down the steep lane carefully, mindful of the loose gravel. In winter, he figured trekking to the mailbox would be easier with the snow. He wondered how his brand new Chevy Suburban would handle the snowy terrain. A reliable horse pulling a buggy might have an easier time. He hadn't driven a buggy since he'd lived in Illinois. That was about two months ago. An entire lifetime seemed to have passed since.
Most of that Amish world he'd left behind, ever since he and his boyfriend, Aiden Cermak, had set up housekeeping together in northwestern Montana. They rented the cabin from a middle-aged Missoula couple who had used it as a vacation home. Aiden had wanted to be truly rugged, to live in the woods without any public utilities. But Daniel knew his modern-raised boyfriend would have a harsh time surviving the winters without at least gas heat. In some ways, the plucky Englisher embodied the plain life more than he.
He realized Aiden was frustrated Daniel had yet to--what was the term Aiden always used?--"come out" to his family and explain that they were a couple. Things were far too complicated in the Amish world to toss tradition aside, like oat sheaves into a threshing machine. Daniel's family knew he was living in Montana, but Daniel never mentioned to them anything about Aiden Cermak living with him.
Aiden's parents, visiting from Maryland for a week during the Fourth of July, had only stoked Aiden's desire for openness. Easier for him, having grown up in the modern East Coast suburbs. Aiden had been out to his parents since college. Daniel, unaccustomed to anyone knowing the intimate details of his life, had counted the days until Mr. and Mrs. Cermak's departure. If they had found their only son living with a man improper, they had done a wunderbar goot job concealing their uneasiness.
Daniel could never invite his own family for a visit. Not in a million years. Couldn't imagine any of them being accepting of his lifestyle. He did miss them though. His large family was on the verge of expanding, with his mother expecting her eighth child any day. Maybe there would be a letter informing him of the baby's entrance into the world. He picked up his pace to the mailbox in anticipation of good news.
But he slowed. Most likely someone would call him from the phone shack down the lane near the family farm. Such news warranted more than a sluggish post. Aiden had given him a much needed cell phone for his twenty-seventh birthday last week, and he'd made his first call to his parents' Mennonite neighbors, where he had left them instructions to give the family his new number. No one had yet called him. Perhaps they were troubled he was embracing so many of the modern ways.
No, impossible for him to tell his family he was gay and living with Aiden Cermak like any married couple.
Twelve mailboxes formed a haphazard row in a turnoff by the junction with the paved county road. They rarely ran into their neighbors. Their cabins were spread out, about one hundred yards apiece, yet sometimes a chance encounter by the mailboxes would force a simple, uncertain greeting. Most of the people living up in the hills, away from the expanding city of Kalispell, were loners, aiming for a life apart from others. Just as good. Daniel sought refuge away from the prying eyes of society too.
He found four pieces of mail. Two were from his Uncle Eldridge, with more orders for furniture, he speculated. Things were picking up from the lackluster past few years. He already had five pending orders for his handcrafted furniture he sold through a website set up and administered by his uncle's Englisher friend. Another was a water bill. He shook his head. Bills. No matter how semi-subsistent a person lived, few people could escape bills. The last piece of mail surprised him. There was no return address, but he recognized the sloppy handwriting. It was from his nineteen-year-old brother, Mark.
Mark had never written him before. Only his mother and twenty-four-year-old sister, Elisabeth, a teacher back in Illinois, wrote him regularly, sometimes twice a week. Surely one of them would have written him about his new sibling's birth, not his brother. Curious, he opened the envelope with his thumb while he hiked back up the hill.
The heat rising from the hot white gravel of the sloping lane stung his eyes, but the letter's contents smarted more. Worry and anxiety wrenched in his throat. He slipped a bit on the gravel, collected himself. He reread Mark's letter twice more before stopping at the bottom of the driveway.
Tugging at his beard, he gazed at the log cabin, ironically built twenty years ago by the Amish from a nearby settlement. Made from the surrounding red cedar, the nine-hundred-square-foot cabin fit him and Aiden perfectly. Inside, Aiden was probably already setting the table, the spaghetti steaming on plates. Their lives were good. They had made a comfortable existence for themselves in the live-and-let-live culture, thirty miles south of Glacier National Park. No reason to invite any unnecessary trouble.
He refolded the letter, slipped it into the envelope, and shoved it deep into the front pocket of his broadfall pants. Best to keep the letter from Aiden. No point letting him know Mark had written at all. Yes, that was the proper decision. For everyone. He would dispose of Mark's letter next chance.
"Just in time," Aiden said when Daniel stepped inside the cabin. He hung his hat on the rack by the door and plopped down the mail on the end table by their secondhand sofa. Aiden stood in their no-frills kitchen shredding chilled lettuce into a bowl and adding diced tomatoes and cucumbers. "Getting the salad ready now," he said. "Spaghetti and drinks are already on the table."
Watching Daniel sit at the white pine table he had made for Aiden three weeks after they had moved into their cabin, Aiden suppressed a groan. Daniel's strapping build and striking looks never failed to seize him, especially in his Amish clothes, which he had refused to completely forgo. He wore them mostly around the cabin, and sometimes to the lumber yard in Kalispell. Aiden supposed his sturdy, plain dress had a practicality for their life in the rugged Montana hills.
A heavy sigh seemed to come from deep within Daniel's breast. Anxiety weighed on his strong, broad shoulders, Aiden judged. Many changes had come to his life the past few months, more than to Aiden. He had abandoned much of his world for Aiden--his way of life, his family, his friends, his community. Sometimes Aiden feared he'd wake in his old bedroom at his parents' mid-century rancher back in southern Maryland, and Daniel and the Rocky Mountains would be gone. Nothing but an illusion. Or worse, he'd come home from running errands down in the Valley to discover Daniel packing for Illinois, to return to his Amish roots--and leave him for good.
Aiden wished he didn't have to push Daniel to be more open, but they had to face the issue sooner or later. He and Daniel were a couple, for what he assumed would be the rest of their lives, and he considered it foolish, even destructive, not to open up about their love for one another. He had wanted to convince Daniel that it might be easier to live candidly than to hide in a hermetic closet. But of course, coming out meant facing the notorious Amish shunning.
Aiden knew Daniel was not ready for that.
Daniel hadn't officially left the church, and said he didn't plan to, at least not for now. A wobbly bridge connected him to the small local Amish community in Rose Crossing, about five miles west of Kalispell. He never attended their church gmays but had gone to a few of the community's social gatherings. Daniel hadn't asked Aiden to go with him. Aiden feared the day the Rose Crossing bishop would show at their front door and ask Daniel to partake more in the community.
Would Daniel oblige? If so, what would happen to Aiden?
The little things he'd learned about Daniel during their short time living together--shaving his upper lip in the chrome of the toaster, showering in lickety-split two minutes, always needing to do something with his hands--he found adorable. But his taciturn nature often left Aiden speculating about what thoughts churned inside his head.
Daniel was a gift. Placed in his lap by unseen hands. Their discovery of each other in Glacier National Park two months ago had restored an awe for the world Aiden had thought he'd lost. Things were good, but secrets still lurked between them. Sometimes getting Daniel to open up was like prying open a pesky pistachio nut.
What was he thinking? Did he worry he had made the wrong choice when he had left Illinois and settled down with Aiden?
Brushing aside his worries, Aiden carried the salad to the dining area on a breath of a smile. Once he sat, Daniel lowered his head and shut his eyes.
Silent prayer. Daniel insisted on it before each meal. Although raised Baptist, Aiden and his family had never been big on family prayers, except at holiday meals. Agnostic most of his adult life, lately Aiden had become more open to the possibility God existed. He often wondered how his life in the Montana backcountry with Daniel could have come about without God's helping hand. He still had a hard time believing how they had run into each other in the middle of Glacier National Park in June, six months after Aiden had fled Illinois. They could no longer deny their love for each other. Daniel had even said it was "God's will" that they should come together.
"I'm good and hungry," Daniel said once he lifted his head and opened his eyes. He reached for the parmesan cheese and sprinkled a healthy amount on top of his spaghetti.
"I put a little red wine in the sauce this time," Aiden said. "Hope you like it."
"Looks for sure tasty. I smelled it near to the bottom of the lane."
"Did we get anything interesting in the mail?"
"Only the water bill," Daniel said, twirling the noodles with his fork the way Aiden had taught him. "And got more orders from Uncle Eldridge."
"You're really starting to get your hands full with work."
"Ya, I'm thinking of letting Mark do some of it back home. He probably needs the money. He's gotten pretty good with his hands since helping build those houses that got destroyed by the storms down in Texas."
"Oh, before I forget, the fridge doesn't seem to be keeping things cool again," Aiden said, setting down the salad bowl after serving himself. "You think you can tinker with it after supper?"
"Kitchen window's stuck too," Aiden said. "Can't get it to go down."
"Heat's likely expanding the wood," Daniel said. "I'll put some wax on the stiles; that should work."
Aiden valued having such a handyman around. He had a knack for understanding the anatomy of machines. Despite their eschewing modern conveniences, the Amish in general struck Aiden to be mechanical savants. During his parents' visit, Daniel had even made Aiden a homemade soda-making machine. Aiden assumed the time spent making it was Daniel's way to avoid his parents, but regardless, the contraption enthralled everyone. Daniel had fabricated the gadget from old plumbing pipes and plastic jugs. He'd bought CO2 cartridges from a home store in the Valley and even retrofitted bottles for the nozzle attachment. Aiden often added his favorite lemon-lime flavoring. The carbonated beverages tasted more refreshing than any of the store-bought brands.
"I guess we can expect a lot of fixing up around here," Daniel said. "That's what you get for wanting to live in a log cabin in the woods."
"I don't mind," Aiden said.
Daniel twirled his spaghetti. "Anything else needing a look at?"
"Just one other thing."
"Ya, what's that?"
"How about letting me look at that piece of mail you're hiding in your pants pocket."
A noodle Daniel had been slurping left a sauce trail on his dark beard. Swallowing hard, he gaped at Aiden. "What piece of mail?"
Aiden held back a chuckle. "You think you can fool me? I'm a journalist, remember? Eyes like a hawk. I saw you from the kitchen window, stuffing an envelope in your pants pocket before coming up the driveway."
Daniel shook his head. "It's nothing to concern you. Now go ahead and eat."
"Is it something so bad you don't want me to see? What is it, an eviction notice?"
"No." Daniel returned to his food. "Nothing like that."
Grunting, Daniel laid aside his fork, wiped his mouth with his paper napkin, and took the mail from his pocket.
"Are you sure?" Aiden raised his eyebrows.
"You won't stop pestering me until I show you," Daniel said. "Might as well let you read it and get it over with. Won't make much difference anyway."
With unsteady hands, Aiden took the piece of mail from Daniel. He did not recognize the sloppy script on the envelope, but clearly it contained a letter of some kind, sent by someone who had little worries for formalities. He opened the letter and held it up enough to conceal the lower half of his face. He raised his eyebrows when he recognized the Pennsylvania German. Must be from someone back in Daniel's hometown of Henry. He scanned down to the signoff. Scrunching his forehead, he pondered why Daniel would want to conceal a letter from his brother Mark.
Aiden understood sufficient textbook German to decipher most of the words and use common sense to fill in the gaps where he needed to.
* * * *
How are you in Montana? I picture you there living like Davy Crocket. The mountains are beautiful, yes? I wish I could be there too sometimes, especially with the craziness here. What craziness, you probably ask? Well, in addition to Mom about to bear a child any minute, I am to be married in December. Heidi and I decided it is about time. We have known each other a good year, and I am sure she is the one. We will both be baptized together in a few weeks. I know I am young, but I will be twenty by the time the wedding comes around. Mom is excited. She is already planning much of it. Remember how she fussed over your weddings with Esther and Tara?
Heidi's parents probably are learning of our marriage the same time as you. They will be coming up from Texas, along with dozens of other relatives, I am sure. I want you to be here too. I would like for you to sit next to me and be my best man. It will not be the same without you. Think about coming. Our wedding comes at a good time, near Christmas. There will be hardly any field work needing done, so we will be free. You can even stay on for the holiday with the family. Everyone will be happy you did.
One other thing, if you know the whereabouts of Aiden Cermak, please ask him to come too. I would be pleased to see him here. It would mean much to me and Heidi. I told her how he saved our family last year and how we would all be dead, if not for him. A person cannot forget something like that. She is eager to meet him. His cell number is no longer tacked to the phone shack. If you know where he is, please invite him for me and Heidi. Dad has given us his blessing.
Take care in Montana.
Your Brother, Mark
While Mark's rough script registered in Aiden's mind, he carefully refolded the letter in the envelope and placed it on the table beside his plate. "So that's why you didn't want me to read Mark's letter?" he said, looking Daniel in his coffee-brown eyes. "You didn't want me to know about him getting married?"
Daniel remained silent.
"There's no point," Daniel said. "We won't be going."
"Why, because you worry your family will figure out we're living together? You'd miss your own brother's wedding because of that?"
"It's more than that. Too far. Too much trouble. I can send him a gift and a note from here. He'll understand."
"What if I said I didn't want to go? Would you change your mind and go then?"
Quiet sheathed the supper table. Only the sound of Daniel's dinnerware striking his plate filled the silence.
"None of that matters," he said, eyes fixed on his supper. "Neither one of us are going. And that's that. You read the letter like you wanted. Let's leave it alone and say nothing more about the matter."
* * * *
Sweat dribbled down the sides of their faces. Rain on the lower elevations the night before had left the air humid on the west side of the Swan Range. Their sturdy backpacks gave their heavy boots extra impact on the soggy trail. About four thousand feet up, they came to a clearing overlooking the Flathead Valley.
"Look." Aiden pointed to the northwest. "You can see part of the street where the cabin is. Looks like a shoelace from here."
Daniel followed Aiden's gaze. The hemlocks and cottonwoods swept down like a green patchwork quilt under the tent of blue sky toward the lower hills, where faint streets and houses were visible through small clearings. Farther beyond, Kalispell and most of its sprawl crept along the Flathead River.
Aiden slipped off his backpack and hiked down to a rock overlook. "I'm going to get a better view for some pictures," he said.
"Be careful," Daniel called to him.
A rascally schoolboy whenever in the woods, that's how Aiden acted, Daniel thought, watching him scudder down the slope about twenty yards. Sometimes he was so full of energy, Daniel could barely keep up. He'd leap among the trees like one of those mythical woodland creatures he'd once read about in school. Endowed with more confidence than coordination, Aiden worried Daniel to distraction.
He smiled despite himself. Out in the woods, away from life's urgencies, they had little interference from others. Daniel had wanted to escape the controversy of Mark's letter by getting them both out of the cabin. Two days of backpacking would make the perfect getaway. The day after he allowed Aiden to read the letter, he'd suggested they head out to the Swan Range. Aiden had raced to get ready. Daniel knew how much Aiden loved to backpack.
Backpacking brought out the best in them. They taught each other many skills in the backcountry. Aiden had more experience, but Daniel brought with him practical knowledge he'd learned growing up on a labor-intensive farm. The most spectacular hiking in the country lay right outside their back door, and they took advantage of it often.
They'd left their Suburban at the trailhead, about ten miles from the cabin. The trail, one they'd never hiked before, looped down through the Jewel Basin into Black Lake, where they would camp for two nights and afterward head back over the Range to their Chevy. Secluded and nestled among craggy, snow-covered peaks surrounding trout-laden lakes, the area was perfect for a weekend of exploring and fishing.
Daniel wiped the sweat from under his straw hat. "Let's get moving," he said. "We got a climb ahead of us yet, about halfway still to go."
"Hold on, I want to take our picture together." Aiden scurried up the slope and posed next to Daniel with his digital camera held out in front of their faces. Daniel thought he was silly, but when Aiden stood on his tiptoes and pressed his cheek against his, a chuckle fluttered from between his lips.
"Smile," Aiden said, and snapped their picture.
With Aiden's pack back on, they switchbacked to ridgeline. The moist earth relenting under his weight as he hiked up the mountain gave Daniel a sense of power he always savored. God frowned upon such haughtiness. But Daniel enjoyed the sensation nonetheless.
For Daniel, backpacking provided a good means to stoke his male ego, which, most times, he had to keep in a tightly sealed box. His strict pacifist upbringing dictated no overt violence of any kind. Daniel, always conscious of this tenet of his faith (ingrained in him as much as the need for prayer before meals), had never struck another human being in his life. Other than hard work, roughhouse games, and being the decision makers in their households, Amish males had few avenues to let loose their testosterone. Hiking high above the world infused him with a sense of masculinity he valued.
Three hours later, they crested one of the highest peaks in the Swan Range. Scattered snowdrifts dotted the nine-thousand-foot peak like dollops of marshmallow cream. Aiden snapped pictures of him and Daniel while they took turns standing in the snow. Aiden expressed amazement at standing in snow in August, when daytime temperatures on the peak hovered near seventy. His honey-brown eyes nearly popped from his head when Daniel told him some of the snow piles were leftovers from last winter.
Resting their burning back muscles, they stripped off their packs and explored the high-country flora. Aiden, always inquisitive, wondered how things had evolved, or why God had made a certain plant the way He had. He took the long stem of the moonwort fern into his hands, gazing at its sublimity. He insisted Daniel sniff the calypso orchids spreading along the trail. They caressed the velvety softness of the club moss, examined the oyster mushrooms growing on the south-facing trunks of a cluster of birch trees. "Nature's shelves," Aiden quipped.
In the woods, the world always seemed new to them, as if they were the first human beings, like Adam and Eve, to experience it. Blood pumped into their brains, eyes, and noses. Everything was fresh and new, created for their sole discovery.
Aiden slipped on some scree but laughed it off. Daniel's heart somersaulted. "Be careful," he said. "You have to watch your footing."
"I'm a klutz," Aiden said. "But don't worry so much. I can handle it."
"You'd save me a lot of fret if you'd watch where you're going. Now let's get our packs back on and start moving."
They strapped on their packs and continued hiking upslope. A short distance along, Aiden stopped in his tracks.
"Wow! Take a look at that."
He squatted to examine bear tracks that crossed the muddy trail upslope into a patch of forest. He compared one paw print to his hand. "Sure is big. Look, makes my hand look like a baby's. I'm pretty sure it's a grizzly."
"How do you know?" Daniel tried to rein back the concern in his voice.
"You can see the claw marks. Black bears don't usually leave claw marks. And look how the toes are straight across, not curved like a black bear's." Aiden shuffled along several of the tracks. "How big do you think it is? Maybe a three hundred, four hundred pounder?"
"With a stride that wide, probably more," Daniel said. "Now don't go too far. You don't know where that bear is. Tracks look fresh."
"I've never seen a grizzly in the wild before, not even from a distance," Aiden said. He wondered aloud how big the bear might be, if it were male or female, and if it was gorging before winter hibernation. "You think it's close? Do you think we'll see it?"
Daniel chuckled at Aiden's enthusiasm. "Let's hope not," he said, shaking his head. "Now, we best get moving. I want to set up camp and maybe get some fishing in before dark."
They left the bear tracks and continued to switchback up the western slope to Black Lake. Their first semi-clear view of the glacier lakes that dotted the Jewel Basin appeared to the east. The high valley, speckled with pointy emerald peaks, covered several hundred square miles between the Swan Range to the west and the Hungry Horse Reservoir to the east. The trail leveled off through a dense grove of hemlocks. Daniel told Aiden he needed to stop and tie his boot laces.
"Don't go too far ahead," he called. Once done, he went to catch up with Aiden, but he had disappeared.
The thin ribbon of trail stretched a good fifty yards before taking a sharp bend. Aiden, despite being spry and quick, could not have hiked any farther ahead while Daniel had spent only a minute tying his boots. He followed along Aiden's boot prints, which turned into the forest--next to a set of bear tracks. Moisture sapped from Daniel's mouth.
Inspecting the bear tracks more closely, he decided they'd been left by the same bear that had left tracks in the meadow. Distinct claw marks, straight across, punctured the soil. He judged the grizzly had wandered through the forest, cut across the trail, turned, and headed back into the woods. Along the same path as Aiden's tracks.
He hollered for Aiden again. No answer. Growing dizzy with worry, he peered around the massive tree trunks. Sunrays sliced through the lofty trees and cast a haze that made focusing difficult. Fatigued from the strenuous six-thousand-foot ascent, Daniel battled his weakening eyes. His legs wobbled. Suddenly the conifers of the forest turned ugly and sinister, like ogres.
He and Aiden had spent hundreds of hours on the backcountry trails near their cabin and had yet to encounter a bear or cougar. Only a matter of time before they did. Most predators sought surprise attacks. That's what alarmed him. He recalled what a local old-timer had once told them: "For every mile you hike in Montana, at least one bear will be spying you without you knowing it."
A rustling sound rooted his boots to the trail. He slowly rotated his shoulders. A red squirrel, foraging in the duff on the ground, chirped and snapped pine needles. Angry at the little pest, Daniel kicked dirt at it from the trail. The rodent scurried a few yards, began nibbling again under the duff. He was about to tramp through the grove of trees, unconcerned about cuts and scrapes or territorial beasts, shouting out Aiden's name, when something much larger crunched through the trees from his right. Panicked, he twisted to look.
"Hi," Aiden said, grinning.
Daniel, his heart thumping like a jaybird caught in a net, fumed. "Where you been?"
"You shoulda told me. I had no idea where you went."
"You were tying your boots," Aiden said. "I only went down that slope a bit. I was gone only a minute."
"You were gone longer than that. Why didn't you answer me when I hollered for you?"
"You can't hear much in this dense forest."
"I thought something happened to you. I thought maybe that bear got you."
Aiden snickered. "Don't be silly."
"Look." Daniel pointed to the bear tracks next to Aiden's. "That bear was near on your tail."
"Wow." Aiden gazed down at the tracks. "He must've been right on top of me without me even knowing. I wish I'd seen him."
"Next time, stay closer," Daniel said.
"You worry too much."
"Come on." Daniel grabbed Aiden's hand and hauled him down the trail.
* * * *
Within an hour, they caught their first view of Black Lake, glistening under the afternoon sun like a jewel. No wonder the pioneers named the area Jewel Basin, Aiden mused as he and Daniel descended the tree-lined trail toward the lake. Difficult to believe such beauty graced their backyard.
Shallow snowfields layered the meadows abutting the forest that bordered the lake. Shielded from the sun by the surrounding higher elevations and towering trees, the snowfields left indelible imprints of unpredictable weather patterns common to mountains. An August snowstorm might arise more quickly than the bend of bear grass in the wind. Aiden shrugged off his backpack and built a stocky snowman from one of the snowfields. In a much better humor after Aiden promised never to wander off again, Daniel snapped a few pictures while Aiden posed next to his snowy creation.
"An August snowman," Aiden said, his cheeks stretching to what felt like his ears.
"Almost as out of place as we are in most of the world," Daniel said. Aiden detected the regret in Daniel's ebony eyes the moment he'd uttered those somber words. Rolling his eyes, Daniel smiled softly and reached for Aiden's hand.
Fingers woven together, they hiked through the thick foliage and into a small clearing, where they spied the shores of Black Lake. After finding their designated campsite, they set up their two-man tent and made their way down to the lake to fill their water canisters. Aiden watched the muscles in Daniel's forearms flex as Daniel, squatting low, worked the pump of their portable filter.
Aiden set down his canister and crouched next to him, draping an arm across his strapping back. Daniel did not flinch from Aiden's touch or shrug him off. In the woods, away from the judgmental glare of civilization, he always showed more comfort with open affection. Resting his arms a moment, Daniel looked from under his wide-brimmed hat into Aiden's eyes. Daniel's thick, dark bangs curled and lay damp against his forehead. He pushed the brim of his straw hat higher on his head with the back of his hand and kissed Aiden on the nose.
"I wish you were as comfortable with me everywhere else as you are in the woods," Aiden said. With his free hand, he let his fingertips break the surface of the lake. The water was refreshingly cool. He placed a droplet on Daniel's nose and pecked it off.
"Come on." Daniel picked up the water canisters and headed back to camp.
Aiden followed behind, his eyes stuck on his boyfriend's stalwart form. Only the massive hemlocks detracted from his muscular bulk. There must be some way to get him to loosen up outside of the rustic backcountry.
Back at the campsite, the air grew chilly as the sun disappeared behind a band of fluffy clouds. Aiden hugged himself and watched Daniel rig a urethane cord between two hemlock branches. He would use it to suspend their backpacks away from opportunistic animals. Even in his gawky boots, his six-foot-four frame seemed to hover over the ground, easily gliding from spot to spot. With each move, Aiden watched his sinewy muscles flex under his hiking clothes. Daniel stopped and sniffed the air, perhaps checking the weather.
Daniel would always be Amish, Aiden mulled, watching him use his farm-honed instincts to inspect his environment. No matter how far they lived from Henry, Illinois, his Amish ancestry would follow them.
"Well," Daniel said, continuing with his toil. The veins on his neck were thick with blood. "Are you going to do nothing but stare at me?"
"I was thinking about when we ran into each other in Glacier Park that first time," Aiden said. "Sometimes I still can't believe it."
"God has unique ways about Him." Daniel went back to tying a sturdy knot on the cord.
Aiden studied him a moment more. "I think we should talk," he said. "I mean really talk. It will make us both feel better."
Daniel stopped and looked at him. "You mean it will make you feel better. Sometimes you get up on that soapbox and don't ever come down."
"Aren't you satisfied with what you got? The cabin? The woods? Me?"
"I am, Daniel, I am. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me." Aiden eased off. Perhaps he should furnish Daniel more time. They had only been boyfriends for barely three months. Give him time. Time to acclimate. Don't push him. Or he really might leave.
Dejected and tired, Aiden slumped to his haunches and poked at the pine-needle-covered ground with a twig. A few minutes later, Daniel's strong hand pressed on his shoulder.
"Don't just sit there and sulk," Daniel said, his tone genial. "Make yourself useful and help me collect some firewood."
Night brought chilly breezes off the mountain peaks into the basin, so they put extra effort into searching for the highest quality wood for burning. They gathered several bushels of white pine and formed a fire teepee in the fire pit. After a supper of day-old pot roast baked in half-moon pies, a technique Aiden had learned by watching Daniel's mother prepare lunch with leftovers, they lit the kindling, and soon a crackling fire illuminated the small parcel of woods next to their tent.
Staring into the flames while they sat on a fallen log, Aiden confronted a strange gloominess. The woods sometimes brought out pestering anxieties, even when he was with Daniel. Why did Daniel refuse to take him back home to Illinois? They couldn't possibly spend their entire lives together dodging family... dodging the entire world. When would they stop? Yet Aiden harbored worries of his own. Many uncertainties lurked in Illinois. Some that might keep Daniel from wanting to return to Montana. From wanting to return to him.
He had always suspected Daniel had been tempted to stay in Henry during his latest trip home, soon after their chance meeting in Glacier National Park. Once he acknowledged that he and Aiden were meant to be together, Daniel had returned to break off his engagement to his fiancee, Tara Hostetler. Daniel had proposed to Tara when Aiden still lived in Henry, to screen his true feelings. While Daniel was gone, Aiden, holed up at an extended-stay motel in Whitefish, had spent his days fearing Daniel might never return.
Yet the both of them going back to Illinois might be the milestone their relationship needed. Unfinished issues demanded resolving. For their relationship to evolve, both he and Daniel needed to cauterize those loose ends. But mostly, he wanted to see the Schrocks again. He always did think of them as his second family. He was touched that Mark had taken special care to invite him to his wedding.
Aiden watched Daniel stoke the fire with a stick. Sparks sputtered and scattered through the conifer branches before disappearing into the black sky. He leaned into Daniel. Warmth from Daniel's body, from the campfire, and from the fire that burned within him mocked the mountain chill. He rested his hand on Daniel's knee. Almost subconsciously, he reached for Daniel through his hiking pants and held on. Daniel did not stir from his intimate touch or try to remove his hand. Instead, he held Aiden closer and tighter. Out in the woods, that was his way.
Slowly, Aiden began to massage Daniel with his fingertips, over the nylon fabric, until he sensed they were both lulled into an almost trance-like calm.
"That's nice," Daniel whispered.
Aiden's heart began to beat erratically and burn inside his chest. His breathing came in short gasps.
Daniel's soft smile faded. He gripped Aiden's shoulders and stared at him. Flames reflected in his dark eyes. His beard tightened as the shadows deepened around his mouth.
"Let's go into the tent," he said.
A tingle shot through Aiden's body. "Yeah," he said. "Okay."
Daniel was rather inexperienced with making love to a man, but discovering what he preferred had not taken long. Aiden always submitted to his touch, his tongue, his kisses exploring parts of Aiden's body even Aiden had no idea could feel so good when tapped.
Their sexual positions had been tacitly decided their first time making love in Aiden's tent, after they had met at Glacier in June. They rarely switched. Aiden enjoyed being close to such a powerful man, a man used to hard labor. Daniel's moustacheless beard rubbed his skin raw sometimes. But Aiden did not mind.
Their lovemaking never entailed anything rough, but occasionally Daniel, when in an extra playful mood, teased him with spankings until Aiden would beg for him to stop. Aiden's struggles would send Daniel into fits of passion. Almost helpless, out of control, he and Aiden would form into oneness, enraptured with each other's corporeal certainty. Inhibitions tossed aside, far flung, their lovemaking natural and wild, like the Montana backcountry.
Daniel, innocently masculine, often acted like a man-boy, needing to be led with gentle force, as if the consequences of his desires were out of his hands. Once taken where there was no turning back, he'd be seized with the strength of his manliness, his cravings and needs propelling him like a raptor after its prey. Aiden always detected the passion in his ebony eyes, which would blaze like lignite whenever they made love. The way he would become, not a different man, but more of the man that already breathed inside him. Powerful. Vital.
Lying in the sticky aftermath of their lovemaking, Aiden snuggled closer to Daniel inside their zero-degree bags, which they had zipped together. Aiden rested his head against Daniel's warm chest, rising and falling rhythmically.
"Promise me you'll never let me go," Aiden whispered.
"I promise," Daniel said, his voice grainy with slumber.
* * * *
Sunlight, casting a green glow inside their tent, woke Daniel. He unzipped the tent flap and sighed contentedly at the new day. The sun nudged above the eastern peaks, and the landscape sparkled from a freezing drizzle that had fallen during the morning twilight. Osprey yapped in the powder-blue sky. Euphoria lifted him as he slipped on his camp clothes and crawled out of the tent into the morning crispness.
Lowering their backpacks from the tree, he had no doubt life was good. They had the entire two days together to do whatever they pleased, without scrutiny or harm from the outside world. Steam rose off the duff on the forest floor. Dreamlike haze enwrapped him. He carried the water filter to the lake, where a mule deer and her yearling lapped from the shore. Dragonflies skimmed across the water's surface. With his canister full, he headed back to camp.
Aiden climbed out of the tent as Daniel was heating a pot of water over the butane stove. He stretched, his fingers reaching toward the crowns of the hemlocks. "What's for breakfast?" he asked.
"Whatever you make," Daniel said.
"Oatmeal, granola bars, and green tea, then," Aiden said, chortling.
"Ach, I can see we'll need some fish to fill up on."
A posse of mule deer followed them down the trail to the lake, where they were going to spend the day fishing. Daniel fashioned homemade rods from sturdy sticks he found. He wrapped the fishing lines around the sticks, cut off about a foot with his Swiss knife at the end of the thinner parts of the sticks, tied tight knots with the lines, and pulled off about six feet, enough for the fish to have some give. This way, he'd explained to Aiden many times, if the line breaks, an ample length will remain on the stick. It was the same kind of rod he'd used as a boy.
They had used the makeshift rods a few times before with moderate success. Their store-bought rods were better at catching the lake's hefty cutthroat trout, but they had elected to leave those behind. They baited the hooks with bread balls they'd saved from last night's half-moon pie crust and tossed the lines into the water. Ripples radiated toward the shore.
The mule deer stayed close by, nibbling at lichen around the alder bushes, while Daniel and Aiden sat on the sandy shore with their rods dangling over the water. Snow-dappled mountains surrounded them. Butterflies sunned on the sand. The Basin was quiet, except for the three or four golden eagles squawking overhead. Sparkling sun splashes on the other side of the lake caught Daniel's attention.
"Looks like some more campers," he said. "They're taking a morning bath."
Setting his rod on the shore, Aiden stood. "I think I'll go for a swim too," he said.
He stripped naked and jumped in.
"Oh man, it's cold!" He shivered and laughed, hunkering down to his neck. "It feels great though. Come on in, Daniel."
Daniel looked at Aiden through squinty eyes. He set his rod beside Aiden's. "Might as well," he said. "Not having much luck with the fish."
Tossing off his straw hat, Daniel stripped naked and joined Aiden in the water. They kicked and splashed, wrestled, sun rays reflecting off their sleek shoulders, until Aiden fell into Daniel's arms. Aiden's wet upper body glistened. He was glossy and tanned from working shirtless all summer in their small vegetable and herb garden behind the cabin. His wet hair formed sleek black curls around his oval face. The water buoyed him closer. Daniel's beard dripped onto his chest.
For what seemed quite a while, Aiden stared at him with his amber eyes. Daniel gazed back, their squinting eyes searching each other's thoughts.
"You really don't want to go to Mark's wedding?" Aiden said.
"I don't think it's a good idea," Daniel said, wiping the water from Aiden's forehead and cheeks, his wet skin smooth like silk. He had guessed right. Aiden still stewed over going back to Illinois. "I said that many times already."
"But I hate thinking I'm keeping you from your family, from seeing Mark get married."
"You're not. Don't worry over it."
"Are you afraid your family might figure us out?"
"That's only part of it."
"What's the other part? Is it because of your father? I don't think you need to worry about him. After all, he said it was okay I could come. Maybe it's his way of apologizing for what he did last year."
Sighing, Daniel conceded to himself that Aiden had brought up one good point. Mark had written that their father had permitted him to invite Aiden to the wedding. Yet only last autumn had his father, point-blank, told Aiden he was no longer welcomed in their community.
Why his father had cast him out nearly a year ago was still unclear. Aiden, visiting Henry to do research for an article, had saved their lives once. Daniel and his family had been on their way to church when Aiden had swerved his small car into the path of an oncoming drunk driver. If not for Aiden's quick thinking, they would all most certainly have been killed. Samuel had shown his indebtedness by inviting Aiden to stay at the family's oat farm. That's when Daniel's world had turned upside down. The Englisher had stolen his heart. His father must have had a good reason to turn on his own words a mere six months later.
He had always feared his father might have suspected that he harbored strong feelings for the Englisher. Everyone knew they had become friends. A weekend wouldn't go by when Daniel hadn't driven his buggy to Aiden's bungalow to spend time with him, watching television or chatting. But each occasion his father had confronted him about Daniel's friendship with Aiden, the conversation had always centered on his father's fears that Daniel might leave the church. Never that Daniel might be... in love with Aiden.
Was his father's allowing Aiden to the wedding some kind of trap? What for? He had no inkling they were living together as boyfriends. Daniel was certain on that. Before leaving Illinois, after breaking up with Tara, Daniel had told everyone he was moving to Montana to fulfill his dream of living alone in the woods. Long after Aiden had been booted from the community. How could anyone suspect they were together? Unlikely his father believed they were living as a couple and would invite Aiden back. Maybe Aiden was right. Maybe his father did want to apologize for his hasty dismissal of him last year.
"Daniel, I think we should go," Aiden said, resting his hands on Daniel's shoulders. "Just for a week. It's not that long. We'll both regret it if we don't. Mark wants you to sit next to him, to be his best man, his newehocker. How can you refuse him?"
Daniel blew a spray of water from his mouth, away from Aiden. He looked to the blue sky for da Hah's helping hand. "There are many others in the community who can be Mark's newehocker."
"It's because you're embarrassed about me," Aiden said. "Be honest."
Daniel remained quiet. He did not wish to discuss returning to Henry. But like with Mark's letter, Aiden would never let the issue rest until he caved.
"Ach, I give up," he said.
Aiden leaned in closer, his arms tightening around Daniel's neck. "You mean it?"
"We'll go. We'll go."
"Really? Both of us?"
"Ya, both of us. I know I'll regret it. But we'll go. Both of us."
Shuddering with a grin, Aiden sank down closer into Daniel. "It'll be fine," he said, laying his cheek on Daniel's shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll see, everything'll be fine. We'll have a great trip. It'll be what we need. You'll see."
"Ya, we'll see," Daniel said as a breeze driving across the lake sent a chill down his nape.