"No, don't. Please, don't," Ethan begged. Ignoring his plea, the car died. "Son of a bitch. You lousy piece of..." He paused. Closing his eyes and scrunching up his face, he forced himself to shut up. "Okay, wait a minute. Deep breath. Let's not lose our heads here, yeah? You know you're my sweet little baby," Ethan apologized, rubbing his cold hands over the steering wheel. His breath clouded the frigid air in front of him and fogged the windshield.
"I know you want to run for me, baby. Just come on, start like a good girl and it's home to the garage. I'll even turn the heat on for you," Ethan promised. Closing his eyes he turned the key in the ignition. His only answer was rrr, rrr, rrr. "Damn it!"
Ethan resisted the urge to bang his head on the steering wheel. Instead, he leaned back and closed his eyes, waiting for his agitation to calm. When he could think straight, he quickly made a calculation in his head. It was about thirty blocks from home which meant an almost two mile walk. He shivered and considered calling a taxi but remembered he'd left his recharged cell phone on the kitchen counter. The walk to a payphone would take him quite a distance out of the way, not to mention he wasn't sure how long he'd have to wait for them to get there.
Don't be such a wimp, Ethan, you can do this. But why does it have to be so damn cold? Duh! It's December. December in Indiana, and Christmas just around the corner. I suppose I'm lucky there isn't a foot of snow on the ground.
With these and other thoughts prodding him, Ethan grabbed his laptop in its sturdy case from the passenger seat. Taking a quick, cautious look around the empty library parking lot, he got out, locked the car and started his walk. Having worked well past closing, Ethan had let himself out with his own key and reset the alarm system before heading for his car. Glancing at his watch before getting in the car, he'd been surprised to find it was nearly midnight.
The library was in the middle of town, the first part of his walk taking him through the small business district. He was grateful for the evenly spaced streetlights and the fact that he wouldn't be walking home in total darkness. This late night walk had enough of an eerie quality to it without having to navigate in the dark.
At this time of night there was very little traffic moving up and down the road, especially after the Main Street renovation project. The street had been cunningly curved and now resembled the sinuous s-shape of a traveling snake. The idea was to give Main a sort of artful look. At various points along the way wide, built up, modified speed bumps kept the traffic from moving too fast. By keeping the speed limit down it was supposed to give those driving through a better look at the stores along the way and hopefully lure in more shoppers.
Whether it worked, Ethan couldn't say for sure. It did seem to him that the two streets on either side of Main that ran parallel to it now appeared to have a lot more traffic on them. Looking left and right at every cross street, he saw more cars on those streets than he did on Main. Unconsciously, he shrugged. It was too bad really. He thought Main Street looked much nicer and there were some interesting stores there. He loved the bookstore and his favorite lunch café was right next door to it.
Huddling deeper into his coat he trudged on, his leather dress shoes creaking a little with the cold. Slowly, the business district gave way to suburban housing. At this point the next dozen or so blocks were mixed with houses, fast food places, a large chain-type drug store, a couple of car dealerships and a video store. Ethan was anticipating his arrival at the twenty-four hour mini-mart. His extremities were starting to go numb and his nose and ears were burning. He wanted to get in out of the cold and spend a few minutes with a cup of coffee or cocoa.
Cold as it was, it was still a beautiful night. The sky was clear and a full moon rode high above the increasingly large trees that lined the street. Ethan let his gaze linger on that beautiful orb until he tripped on a crack in the sidewalk.
Barely saving himself from a fall, he kept his eyes peeled for further hazards. The neighborhood he walked through was as familiar as the back of his hand. It was a nice place and while the homes were rather close to each other, they had individuality instead of being cookie-cutter images of each other. The further from town one got, the larger the houses became.
In the eighteen-hundreds, part of the street had been called Millionaire's Row. The houses were large and stately. A couple of them had since been converted to bed and breakfast inns. One housed a firm of lawyers and a few of the others were combination home and office for several doctors, one dentist and a podiatrist. Many of the homes at one point had had Victorian railings and flourishes, but much of that had given way to a less flamboyant style.
Ethan's home, which he shared with his two brothers, was just beyond Millionaire's Row. Not as grand as those, it was still a stylish, old fashioned house built of oversized brick in shades of gray. The front had two long columns which supported a small second story balcony that was accessible from the upstairs hallway and two of the bedrooms. The house had been extensively remodeled on the inside which made it cozy and welcoming. There were three bedrooms upstairs, each with an adjoining bathroom. In addition to the living room, kitchen and utility room there had been a large dining room. Part of their renovations had been to turn the dining room into office space for himself and Nick.
Ethan brought his free hand up to his face, breathed on his fingers and thought about his brothers. Wouldn't you know that Nick and Dustin are both out of town just when I need them? Typical.
Ethan shook his head and silently scolded himself. It really wasn't their fault. After all, Dustin was at school and Nick was working. And he shouldn't need his brothers to get him out of a jam. He wasn't a kid anymore.
He shivered. I can't wait to get home and light a fire in the fireplace. The thought of being snug and warm on the sofa with a good book in front of the fire made him groan. He had the next day off and didn't have to worry about getting up early to go to work. Going home and going straight to bed wouldn't be necessary so he was free to indulge and looking forward to it.
Trading his laptop case to his warmer hand, he was just about to shove his other hand into his coat pocket when a movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned his head to look but the streetlights revealed nothing beyond the usual. Frowning slightly, Ethan kept walking but surreptitiously cast frequent glances across the street.
There it was again. His heart thumped. A flash of movement between the evenly spaced trees as though someone was rushing between them, then hiding behind them out of sight. Ethan swallowed hard, visions of muggers filling his mind. Two and a half blocks away, he could just make out the sign for the all night mini-mart. Forcing himself to stay calm, he increased his pace and kept watch.
The movement came again and this time he was ready for it. Ethan quickly turned his head and saw his stalker. It was a dog, a very large dog. At least he thought it was a dog. It resembled a German Shepherd but the hair was longer and thicker. He started when the thought struck him that what the dog really resembled most was a wolf. But that was impossible, wasn't it? Wolves didn't roam the streets of small towns in Indiana. Maybe it's a Husky.
Ethan shook his head. Whatever it was, the dog was acting strangely. Following him and slipping from tree to tree to stay hidden, what kind of dog did that? Was this some kind of prelude to an attack? The thought had Ethan again increasing his pace but he was afraid to just flat out run. What if that encouraged the dog to chase him? Weren't animals more likely to attack when you ran?
Biting his lip, Ethan kept walking, his entire body tense and braced for what might come. Luckily nothing happened. The dog merely kept pace with him. At some point it stopped trying to hide. It simply stayed parallel to his course as though it was escorting him. Finally he came even with the mini-mart, crossed the lot and ducked inside. Ethan stood at the window looking for the dog, but it had disappeared.
"Is something wrong, sir?"
Sheepishly turning to face the woman who stood behind the counter, he shook his head. "No, not really. It's just ... well, it was a dog."
"A dog?" The clerk's brow rose.
"It's not important. Um, I'm going to get some coffee."
She smiled. "Help yourself."
Ethan nodded and crossed to the far side of the store to where the big coffee and drinks dispensers were situated. Setting his laptop against the base of a nearby refrigerated case, he filled the largest Styrofoam cup available with steaming coffee. After adding a generous amount of sugar and cream, he cradled the warm cup in both hands, holding it close so the steam rose over his face. He groaned with pleasure as his nasal passages unthawed.
Determined to stay for a few minutes to enjoy the coffee and warmth, Ethan wandered slowly up one aisle, then the next. As he walked, he made a mental note to pick up a few things before starting the second half of his journey home. Buns, hotdogs, a bag of chips, a package of malted milk balls. He smiled to himself. Okay, so it wasn't health food. But hey, a guy had the right to indulge on his day off.
Half a cup of coffee later, he was nearly ready to give in and go when the front door opened and three teenage boys walked in. Ethan immediately tensed. Even though he'd once been one himself, teens made Ethan nervous. High school had been something of a trial for him. He'd been shy, quiet and studious which left him labeled a nerd. Not only that, his muscle development had lagged behind the growth spurts that brought him to his present height of five feet ten inches. He'd been thin and gawky to boot.
Teenagers were not kind to those they perceived as different. Ethan had endured some teasing with a few of his tormentors, even going so far as to call him queer or fag. The fact that it was true hadn't helped. He was gay and had known it from the time he was twelve. But no one else knew and he'd made damned sure no one found out. Not even his brothers. It was only Nick and Dustin's presence that kept him from having to endure anything more than the occasional smart remark. His brothers had taken after their dad and were both well developed, athletic and outgoing. They also protected their brother.
Nick was the oldest and had been two years ahead of Ethan. When he'd graduated, Dustin arrived at high school and took over Nick's duty as protector. While grateful for Dustin's presence, it was humiliating to know that it was his little brother who kept him from being physically abused. Ethan's body had been saved, but his self-esteem during those years had taken a beating he was still recovering from.
Warily he kept an eye on the boys. They wandered around, examining the merchandise while making crude remarks and laughing raucously. One look at the clerk's face and Ethan knew she was no more enamored with their presence than he was. When they headed to the back of the store toward the drinks dispensers his eyes widened in panic. My laptop!
He arrived just in time to see one of them pick it up. "Hey, look what I found."
Before either of his friends could say anything Ethan stepped forward and blurted out, "That's mine."
Three pairs of unfriendly eyes turned his way and Ethan felt a chill run down his spine.
"Fuck off. I don't see anybody's name on it." The boy holding his laptop looked to be about seventeen with shaggy brown hair and disdainful blue eyes. He also appeared to be their leader.
"Ask the clerk. She saw me come in with it."
"I wouldn't take her word for jack shit. She don't like me and my buddies too much. She'd side with you just to fuck us over."
"Imagine that," Ethan muttered. "If you want to see a name on it, it's on the inside. Ethan Parks."
The kid took a couple of steps, bringing him face to face with Ethan. "You know what, Ethan? You got a smart mouth. An' I been noticin' somethin' else too. It's a real pretty mouth. I'll make a deal with you. You suck me and my buddies off and I'll give you this bag as a reward." He leaned in and whispered, "And if you're real nice I'll fuck you."
Ethan blanched, totally appalled at the suggestion. Memories of high school clouded his mind. This kid wasn't the first one to make a remark about his mouth. Goddamn it! Why did the fact that his lips weren't thin make them less manly? It's not like they were girlie just because the bottom one was rather full. He took a step back. A wire rack holding snack cakes snagged his sleeve, throwing him off balance. He stumbled back and nearly fell.
The boy's laughter cut off when a pair of strong arms caught and steadied him. "Careful there," a deep voice rumbled.
Ethan half turned and came face to face with a slightly bristled, chiseled chin. A pair of unmistakably masculine lips smiled at him. Tilting his head, he gazed into two of the most beautiful, golden brown eyes he'd ever seen. He swallowed heavily while a finger of lust tickled his balls.
"You all right?" the man asked.
"Fine," Ethan managed without a squeak even though his throat had gone tight.
"Good." He took his eyes from Ethan and looked at the boys. "Now give the man his case back."
Ethan looked back at the boys. They were studying the man with a speculative eye. Their leader conceded defeat. He held the case out to Ethan who gingerly accepted it. "We were just having some fun."
"You have a strange idea of fun. Everybody involved is supposed to have a good time. Were you having a good time?" the man asked Ethan, lightly touching his shoulder.
With his eyes still on the boys, Ethan shook his head. "No."
"You see? He wasn't having fun. Making somebody else feel bad doesn't make you any better or stronger. It's cheap and it makes you look like a dumb punk. You want respect from your buddies? Start acting like a man."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "Sure, sure. Whatever you say, man. Come on."
He signaled his friends and the three of them walked out but not before their leader looked back once more. Ethan could almost see him thinking. The stranger's words had hit a nerve. He watched until the door closed behind them then turned to face his rescuer.
In addition to being taller than Ethan by four or five inches, he was also broader. His heavy red and black letterman-style jacket hugged his wide shoulders and tapered down to his waist. Form fitting jeans clung lovingly to trim hips and long legs. There was more than just a hint of muscle visible in his thick thighs and calves. Worn white athletic shoes completed the look. Once more Ethan's gaze met that pair of golden brown eyes and he frowned. There was something familiar about the man. He could almost swear he'd seen this blond-haired Adonis somewhere.
The man smiled. "Hello, Ethan."
Ethan's eyes widened and he flushed from the roots of his hair to his curling toes. "Crewe Jackson?"