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Marcus woke early, for him. Most of his work involved lunch meetings and nighttime gallery showings, networking parties that might not start until close to midnight. But as if his subconscious knew that every moment with Thomas was precious and not to be wasted, he stirred when the sun was still in the process of rising.
Not only that, he'd surfaced several times during the night. Once, he'd found Thomas' head on his chest. Marcus had his arm resting across his back while Thomas had his arm securely wrapped around Marcus' side and waist, his leg twined over one of Marcus'. Holding him in sleep as if Thomas was afraid he'd lose him.
"I missed you too, pet." Marcus had stroked his head, pressing down to increase the weight of that precious skull against his heart. Thinking of how Thomas pressed on the burning spot in his belly so often, he wondered if this gesture was the same thing. A way to assuage the pain.
Fuck, saying he'd missed Thomas didn't cover it. He thought he'd understood the full extent of it, but when Thomas had pulled into the driveway, it had landed on Marcus like an asteroid.
It pleased him how deeply his farm boy slept. He'd made sure to wear him out physically. Just thinking of it made him want him again, but for now, Marcus wanted Thomas to sleep like this, shed some of his emotional and physical exhaustion.
But holy God, he was a beautiful kid. Broken down, the individual features didn't seem like much. At a glance, his nose appeared small, precise. But when the light hit his profile, it was a sharp blade sharing the same angle with the jaw and cheekbone, perfectly aligned.
Dark eyes, large to balance that small nose. Thomas' ears were larger, but again, somehow it worked. He had heavy brows that Marcus at first thought should be trimmed, plucked down, but very quickly he'd realized they were the perfect accent for the dark eyes and all the emotions that moved behind them, like silken streaks of clouds over a stormy sky. One dropped lower over the eye than the other, giving Thomas' face further intensity.
Though it was starting to curl, Thomas' hair was soft and short under Marcus' stroking fingertips, a conservative cut appropriate for a man raised in a rural county all his life. Shaved short sideburns, the hairline sculpted up and over the ears and trimmed properly above the collar. Marcus could almost imagine Thomas sitting in his mother's kitchen getting the cut, his eyes closed, nearly asleep after a hard day as her hands, those working woman's hands, touched his man's neck, the nape.
As she did it, Marcus was sure Elaine would be remembering the vulnerable shape of it as a boy. Isolated, that part of the body never lost the ability to project innocence.
He knew she loved Thomas. He'd never doubted that. The love was in Thomas' eyes as well when he spoke of her, protected her. It didn't make any of it easier. If anything, it made it harder.
His mother wasn't completely wrong. Marcus was well aware Thomas would never be an urbanite. He was at heart what he'd been raised. Modest, quiet. Not flamboyant in the least. Shy even, at times. He had a bashful tendency to look away when he smiled, but the smile was sexy, black Irish. Except when painting or at ease with Marcus, he typically had nervous gestures while he was talking with strangers.
Thomas was the type of person to hold a door for a woman, no matter what. He'd avert his eyes, uncomfortable and yet a gentleman if a woman's breast was exposed when she leaned over in the grocery line, or if he saw one nursing a baby in public.
Then, just as Marcus would decide Thomas was too gentle and boyish, something would raise his ire. That brow would lower, the eyes sharpening, all those straight lines of his face hardening, such that you were looking at the face of a man who wouldn't back down, wouldn't think of it, no matter the odds.
A man as irresistible as a hearth fire in winter. His proximity was heat and comfort at once.
Marcus had drifted off to sleep again reluctantly, only because he knew he'd need rest to enjoy Thomas fully. Now he found himself alone with the rising sun. He made himself lie there, pushing down panic. Glancing toward the half-open door of the bathroom, he located Thomas' shaving kit, along with a hairbrush with bristles so thinned out it looked as if Thomas had possessed it since puberty. Marcus suppressed a smile.
Rising, he slid on a pair of sweatpants and followed intuition out to the main room.
Coffee was brewing. Thomas didn't drink it often, but he knew Marcus did. Getting a cup, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, he padded out to the back deck.
And there Thomas was, as welcome as the sunrise Marcus was rarely up to see.
Marcus leaned on the rail, looked down at the lower patio. Thomas had set up three easels with pads and there were two more sketchbooks on the ground, held open to the desired place with rocks he'd found from the surrounding natural area. He was doing a combination of pencil and charcoal renderings.
Thomas had always been fascinating to watch work, and Marcus knew he was one of the few who'd gotten the privilege. He compared it to the chance glimpse by a hiker of a rarely seen wild creature. Some part of his subconscious realized what a gift it was to be trusted to stand this close.
Knowing the creature might disappear any second made every moment it lingered that much more precious. Impossible to compare this to seeing its facsimile inside the manufactured environment of a zoo. Because of that, this was what Marcus wished Thomas' mother could see.
Had he given Thomas any room to think last night, Marcus was sure he would have started to worry. What if the muse didn't come? If she was truly dead? A worry Marcus had known to his marrow was completely without merit.
She'd obviously dragged Thomas out of bed sometime in the early hours before dawn. Marcus would have liked to have seen it, but he would enjoy this and not regret the missed moment.
Thomas would take the three or four concepts he was developing and bring them together into one layered image before he was done. Marcus knew he should be studying what Thomas was doing from a marketing standpoint. Start planning how he'd present it, reach the target buyer. But all he wanted to do was look at the artist. As incredible as Thomas' work was, it was nothing next to the work of art the artist himself was.
Marcus watched Thomas balance himself on his heels as he studied the work he'd done thus far. He had the unconscious grace of a dancer when he moved. It wasn't obvious, but with the dropped weight, it was even more enhanced.
His skin was brown from the Southern sun, the muscles on the rawboned physique nevertheless rolling beneath it like the powerful curve of a waterfall at the break point.
He ran a hand through his hair, back and forth, a gesture he made when he was thinking. It amazed Marcus, how he remembered every detail about him. It was as if he'd reviewed every gesture and feature in a photo album daily since he'd left, but he had no pictures of Thomas, except the painting he'd bought.
Now Marcus wondered why he hadn't gone after him sooner. But he'd always told Thomas when he wanted out, he wouldn't hold him, wouldn't make it uncomfortable.
That was the way it had always worked in his relationships. But he'd discovered he didn't want it to be that way with Thomas.
Maybe Thomas was thinking this week was all they had. To hell with that.
Quietly Marcus took the side stairs off the deck and leaned against one of the support posts. He wanted to be close enough to smell Thomas, to see the faint gleam of the sun on his shoulders, the slightly paler strip where the jeans he'd pulled on were a little loose.
God, he felt like a teenager. Even his heart pounded a little faster as he got closer.
Marcus couldn't help it. He didn't want to disturb Thomas' concentration, but he reached out anyway, caressed his nape. Thomas didn't start at all, telling him either he'd been aware of his presence all along or Marcus' touch was so integrated into what he was doing it didn't disrupt him.
It had been like that once between them. Marcus could let himself into Thomas' dingy warehouse space he rented as a combination studio and apartment and ten minutes later, Thomas would start talking to him as if they'd been conversing all along.
Sliding his arm around Thomas' waist from behind, Marcus let his hand drift up to a nipple and pinch. Putting his hips firmly against his denim-covered ass, he let Thomas feel how his cock was already semirigid.
"Insatiable bastard," Thomas murmured. Marcus smiled.
"Did I abuse you, pet? Leave you too sore?" Though he was darkly thrilled to know his lover's muscles might be sore, his ass tender from being taken so brutally and often.
In answer, Thomas turned and sought his mouth, urgent. His arousal pressed against Marcus' thigh. Marcus muttered a curse at his own lack of control and cupped the back of Thomas' neck, delving deep, tongue and teeth clashing in wet invitation.
God, Thomas had the most delectable tongue. He couldn't have it in his mouth without wanting it other places. As if Thomas was reading his mind, he moved to Marcus' throat, biting him sharply. He caught hold of the sides of Marcus' open shirt and yanked it down his arms, pushing forward so Marcus found himself shoved back against one of the deck pillars, his upper body under the provocative suggestion of restraint.
Thomas ducked his head and nipped at his chest, tasted his flesh while he licked, suckling his skin, kissing him as fire roared through Marcus' blood.
"So fucking hungry for you," Thomas muttered, and the words seared through Marcus' mind down to the root of his cock. "Want to eat you alive. So fucking perfect.
Marcus shattered, overwhelmed by Thomas' sudden surge of passion, the desperation of it so at odds with his almost shy submission last night. There was pain and longing under this urgency. The elephant was still in the room, the specters of anger and regret circling. Forgiveness couldn't be asked, because Thomas still held the knife that would likely stab Marcus again at the end of the week.
Marcus tightened his grip on Thomas and swept his legs, taking them both to the patio tile, managing to cushion somewhat the fall of both their weights. He pulled at Thomas' jeans with a grunt. He'd left the top button unfastened, the fricking tease, and there was no underwear beneath. Even with Thomas' struggles it wasn't so hard to get them off and end up back on top, Thomas flat on his back.
"No." Thomas tried to shove him off, but Marcus was solidly between his thighs, his stomach pressed against Thomas' hard cock. At the friction, Thomas groaned, his resistance turning into a slow rub of movement. Marcus lifted up enough to seize both of Thomas' thighs, raise them and make Thomas clasp his hips with his muscular limbs.
He found his anus with a finger. At the brief stimulation, Thomas writhed and threw a clumsy punch at Marcus' face. He ducked it as he slid the finger ruthlessly into a well-greased ass. An ass Thomas likely would continue to grease, knowing how demanding and spontaneous his Master could and would be.
At the next punch, Marcus seized both Thomas' hands and used his weight to pin him, holding his thighs up with the weight of his upper body and abdomen pressed hard against him. If Thomas put his whole heart into it, he could likely slip the connection, but the minute Marcus was at the right angle and slid his cock in deep, he knew the fight was over.
Thomas squeezed his eyes shut.
"No you don't." Marcus growled. "Look at me." He worked himself in, let go of Thomas' arms to pull his thighs up to a higher angle, forcing him to lock his legs around Marcus' back as he rocked, made Thomas feel the penetration as they lay nearly chest to chest, eye to eye. He had a mere two or three inches on Thomas in height, but it came in handy.
Thomas had dropped his hands out to the sides, his hands fisted, but when Marcus feathered a hand over the side of his face, he exploded, wrapping his arms and legs more tightly around Marcus. His fingers grasped Marcus' shoulders, face buried into his neck as Thomas raised his hips higher for deeper penetration. Marcus responded in kind, pistoning in and out, feeling Thomas' hunger and knowing as insatiable as he himself was, he might not be able to match the storm of need he felt quivering in Thomas' every muscle.
"I've missed you too, pet. So much." He whispered it hoarsely, repeating what he'd said to the darkness over Thomas' sleeping head. "That's it, love. It all belongs to me.
Not just that fine ass I'm fucking."
His stomach muscles rubbed hard against Thomas' turgid cock. With a sudden groan and convulsive buck that pressed it painfully like a rod of steel into Marcus' flesh, Thomas released, flooding the narrow area between their bodies with hot fluid. It jetted against Marcus' belly, his chest, the warmth of it as welcome as mother's milk.
Thomas' muscles squeezed on him and Marcus let himself go over, reaming Thomas hard, knowing he was abusing the privilege, but wanting Thomas to understand his need was just as desperate.
Only when they both shuddered to a halt did Marcus let his lover ease his legs back down, put his feet flat on the patio tile. Marcus kept his full weight resting on Thomas, enjoying the feel of Thomas' wet cock pressed between their bodies against Marcus' lower abdomen, the sac of testicles against his upper thigh.
Thomas' hands were still on his shoulders, but his fingers eased into more of a rhythmic stroke than a clutch. He started to look away, to avoid the intimacy of the close eye contact, but Marcus anticipated him. Cupping his jaw, he bent and kissed him.
Slow and thorough, teasing his mouth with lazy strokes of his tongue until he felt a faint quiver in his slave's muscles.
Always leave them wanting more. The only problem was that was a double-edged sword with Thomas.
When Marcus finally drew back, Thomas gave him a shaky half smile, one hand dropping back to the ground over his head, his other fingers still caressing Marcus' bare shoulder. "Well, that was a hell of a good morning."
"It was good coffee." Marcus kept his voice light, even as he passed his thumb over Thomas' lips once just to feel the moistness of his mouth, to see those dark eyes go darker. He wanted to roll off Thomas, but only to turn him in his arms, hold him close here on the unyielding patio tile, feel Thomas' head on his shoulder, his muscular body sprawled tangled with his, his thigh over Marcus' leg as his spent genitals pressed against his leg. Marcus wanted to lie here, knowing it was all his.
But it wasn't. He was determined to get Thomas to change his mind, come back to his life here, but he couldn't cut himself open fatally to do it. He flat out wouldn't survive if he failed.
However, before he could move, Thomas drew him down, circled his back with his strong arms and held, his face pressed into Marcus' neck, temple against his jaw.
"I've missed you, Master," he said against Marcus' throat, increasing the size of the jagged lump there. "I know it's fucking unfair of me to say that, but for what it's worth..."
Marcus nodded, his eyes closed. He pushed away, rose to his knees and surveyed the beauty of what lay before him. Thomas went up on his elbows, possibly to roll to his feet, but Marcus shook his head. "Stay just like that." Marcus sank back on his haunches, the same position Thomas had when surveying his paintings, only he studied Thomas. The splayed thighs, the cock lying in an inviting curve on his balls. Marcus moved his attention leisurely up the six-foot frame, over Thomas' pubic area, his flat stomach, then to his chest and shoulders, back to his face.
There was a yearning need there, and the Master in him couldn't help but respond to it. Reaching for the coffee mug he'd put down on a patio table, he took a sip. Still hot, but not scalding. He dropped back to one knee, pushed Thomas flat on his back again and tipped the mug over his chest, enough to splash a generous flow of the hot liquid over a sensitive nipple.
Thomas quivered, jerked, but otherwise stayed still, his eyes fastened on Marcus' face. His lips parted to handle the explosion of breath, his reaction to the stimulation of the pain. His cock started to harden again. With a curve of his lips, Marcus bent and sampled the good coffee, only now with a bite of that taut nub, a lick of the uneven texture of areola, and out to the muscular flesh.
"Arms to the ground, pet," he murmured, a second before Thomas' palm would have touched his hair.
The proximity hovered, a sense of air movement between two objects, but then Thomas' chest heaved under Marcus' mouth as he shifted, both arms falling back above his head, which arched his chest closer to Marcus' lips.
At length, Marcus sat back on his heels and resumed his enjoyment of the coffee from his cup. He lifted his gaze to survey the artwork arranged in a semicircle around them, acutely aware of the man who obeyed his Master's Will by lying open and accessible to his desires.
There was some roughness in what he suspected were Thomas' first two attempts of the morning, when Marcus assumed he'd still been struggling to reach his muse behind an army of doubts, insecurities. But as the dawn burgeoned, the pencil had moved more freely, because Thomas had a hands-down kick-ass muse. One that couldn't be denied except under the most extreme circumstances.
Which was perhaps why, of all the things he'd seen in North Carolina that concerned him, what had concerned Marcus most was Thomas' admission that he couldn't reach his muse.
Folds of bed covers. When Thomas painted it, he would turn the linens into the suggestion of water on canvas, sensual, undulating, like the movement of the bodies on the bed that had created the impressions in the fabric. The curve of buttock, tangle of leg.
He was doing it as a series. Another canvas showed a hand gripping the covers as if in the throes of some passion, stimulated by an unseen lover, seeking an anchor amid a storm. Then the third rendering. After the storm was over, that hand again, lying flat on the coverlet seeking the lingering body warmth of the lover who'd left.
Scribblings for free forms, expert pencil pressure and contour lines for shading.
Even with it in draft form, Marcus could visualize it finished, the way Thomas would create it, that oddly disjointed layered style of his that always hinted at meanings beneath meanings.
Because of his family's needs and a resulting shortage of cash, Thomas hadn't been able to complete his MFA. But Marcus had spent nearly his whole life ferreting out talent, not only from graduating classes and shows but places other gallery owners wouldn't look, and he knew Thomas would stand toe-to-toe with the best, with or without the degree.
Never overt or overly sentimental, but something that teased the senses as well as the emotions. Thomas' work could compel people visiting Marcus' gallery to walk back and study it five, six, even ten times in the same visit. They felt the pull of it even when they couldn't put their finger on the why.
It was much what Marcus had done in his mind countless times over the past eighteen months. Coming back again and again to what it was about a North Carolina farm boy that wouldn't let him go. The promise of something he wanted so deeply it was impossible to give a name to it, but it could be sensed like the instinctual need to survive. It didn't need to be nurtured - it simply was, a primitive fact of life.
In some ways, he carried a gallery in his mind, all paintings of Thomas that Marcus had created, looking at him in a hundred different ways. This moment was a new addition to that priceless gallery of mental images he would be no more willing to part with than any masterpiece in the Smithsonian.
His lover, now on his elbows again but still at his command. Naked, legs spread, upper body slightly red around the nipple area with the heat of the coffee, some dark drops caught in the crease of his stomach muscles. His nape damp with perspiration, beautiful eyes watching Marcus' face. His paintings waited in a half crescent behind him, a testament to the layers of meaning behind the man.
Marcus laid his hand on Thomas' inner thigh, his thumb passing over the damp ball sac. "A series of five?"
"I think so. That's what it feels like right now."
"Just remember it only counts as one, since it has to be sold as one. Joyner will want the whole group. I'll suggest he hang them together along a wall, but spotlight them individually."
"Mercenary." A slow grin eased its way over Thomas' face, even as his eyes lit with quiet pleasure at the implied praise.
"You forgot the bastard part." Marcus rose and tugged him to his feet. "It's still there, Thomas. Just waiting for you to tap into it. It never went anywhere. It's you who shut the door on it."
Before Thomas could react to that, Marcus let him go, turned away. "Let's get some breakfast. I'll let you get back to it after that."
"I don't really need - "
"You're eating," Marcus said bluntly. He picked up Thomas' jeans, tossed them at him. "You look like a scarecrow. I don't care for bony lovers." He saw with satisfaction the flash of temper, the abused ego. Gay men didn't like to have their appearance criticized. If it got food into Thomas' stomach, he didn't mind taking advantage of that fact. His lover was going to need a lot of energy.
* * * * *
Thomas helped him cut the tomatoes. They both liked to cook, but Marcus decided to keep it simple today, scrambled eggs and wheat toast, some chopped up fruit from the fridge he'd already prepared for himself.
As they ate at a bistro set on the deck, Marcus also tried to keep the conversation light. He knew he'd taken a low shot with his barbed remark about Thomas shutting the door on his muse. He also knew the emotional intensity of what they'd done before that still had Thomas' mind reeling. He felt a little raw from it himself.
"I have a friend with a pet elephant."
Thomas forked up a small piece of egg, chewed carefully and paused before he swallowed. "In New York? That must be some house."
"No, he lives on a private island. But it makes it easy to make old jokes. You know the one about the elephant in the room?"
"If I recall, that's not really a joke." Thomas glanced toward him.
"I want this to be a good week for you," Marcus said casually, gauging Thomas' wary look. "So let's just deal with it. You left me and your art because you felt your family needed you more, and you've been raised that your first duty is to your family.
You're the first son, and now considered the head of the family. I accept that they needed you. All right?" When Thomas nodded, Marcus reached out briefly, squeezed his hand.
Okay. That seemed to go passably well. Thomas appeared to be more relaxed.
Enough that he fell into an old habit, which pulled at Marcus' gut even as it provoked a familiar amused frustration.
When Marcus sat back, picked up his fork and reached for the salt, Thomas slid it out of reach with barely a pause in his own eating. "What was your last blood pressure reading?"
"So low they thought I was dead."
"You already salted the eggs when you cooked them. That's plenty. And you're such a liar." Thomas nudged it further behind his elbow, where Marcus would have to stand up to grab it. He took a swallow of his juice. "I can always tell when you're lying."
"Oh, yeah?" Marcus made a feint for the salt and Thomas sent it over his shoulder in one economical move that took it off the deck. The fortunately plastic shaker bounced off the patio, rolling under one of the easels. Thomas didn't even glance back, as if hurling condiments fifty feet through the air was a routine breakfast practice for him.
Marcus sat back, lips twitching. "I'm pretty sure you're supposed to throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder for good luck, not the whole fucking thing. How can you tell I'm lying?"
"If I tell you that, you'll stop doing it."
"A little salt isn't going to kill me. Asshole." Marcus picked up his coffee as Thomas made a noncommittal grunt. Marcus shifted his attention to studying the strands of Thomas' hair in front, which were just long enough to be ruffling over his forehead with the morning breeze. Reaching out, Marcus threaded his fingers over Thomas' ear.
"I bet your Mom thinks you need a haircut."
"Yeah, I do. Anyone around here?"
"I'm sure we can find a barber to hack it off with a buzz saw in the best rural South fashion." When Thomas had stayed in the city, Marcus had talked him into growing it out long enough that soft dark curls tangled along the top and over his forehead, the natural curl making itself known with the length, giving Marcus a lot more to tug on.
"How is Rory? Is he in that chair for good?"
Thomas put down the juice. Swallowed again. "Why are you asking?"
"Why do you think I'm asking?"
Thomas tried to quell the surge of annoyance. Damn it, Marcus had just fucked his brains out, made him lie beneath him spread like a woman and stare up into his face, feel his lips on his mouth, those eyes so close and overpowering...he'd made him vulnerable, and then fired off a question like that. It couldn't not be strategy. Thomas wasn't going to be dicked around.
As he searched for a response, Marcus' jaw tightened. "You may be able to tell I'm lying, but for some reason you don't seem to know when I'm asking a simple question," he said in a deceptively mild tone. "Which suggests a problem with trust. So I repeat, why do you think I'm asking?"
"You want to know what leverage you have," Thomas said bluntly. "When you want something to happen a certain way, you break down defenses. Then you gather pieces of information, assemble them into a plan and execute it when someone is off balance. Like 'Item One, his brother might get better, so I can use that to - '" Marcus rose so abruptly his knee hit the table, jarring the glassware. Fortunately, nothing toppled, but the clink of glass and silver was enough to stop Thomas mid-sentence.
Marcus had fixed a hard, cold gaze upon him. When he said nothing for several moments, Thomas felt like squirming. If Marcus was silent now, it was because his temper had been simmering and suddenly had gone to open boil. The passive-aggressive energy that had been moving between them - the elephant in the room -
was about to stampede. But goddammit, he wasn't wrong. He knew Marcus. He'd seen him do it before. Not in personal shit so much, but somehow Thomas figured there was a line they'd crossed where all was fair in love and war. Or had he imagined it?
"You walked out on a gallery showing we spent months planning and promoting," Marcus said at last, in a flat, deadly tone. "You called me from an airport hundreds of miles away to tell me that your father'd had a heart attack and died before you could even make the connecting flight. You told me you didn't need me - "
"I didn't - "
Thomas clenched his teeth, but he shut up.
"You didn't want me to come, even though I could hear your voice breaking over the phone. I told you I would do whatever you needed, be whatever, wherever you needed me to be, when all I wanted to do was go to you, stand by you, while you faced one of the hardest moments of your life. You came back, thinking you could pick up some of the pieces, but I should have known then it hadn't been resolved. Your brother got hurt and you left again. In the middle of the night, because you couldn't handle saying goodbye."
Marcus leaned down, bracing his knuckles on the table and stared hard into Thomas' eyes. "I wanted to know how your brother was because he's your brother.
Because I haven't been able to find out from you how you're doing or how your family is doing. It matters to me, because they matter to you.
"How many times have you told me stories about you and Rory as kids? How he tagged along after you, wore overalls without a shirt? How you fished him out of a creek when he was eight so he wouldn't drown? The way you watched over him when your dad and mom had to keep a farm and a business running while you all were growing up?
"I asked," he continued in that low tone that was striping Thomas' insides,
"Because I love you so fucking much, and I wish I could change everything that's happened to you. But because I can't, I can at least ask how things are going, so maybe I can figure out a way you'll let me help you."
Thomas started shaking his head. Marcus had never said he loved him. He was using it now like a weapon of mass destruction, trying to wipe away all his defenses, use it to...
"Fuck you," Marcus snarled abruptly, upending the table, sending it crashing against the railing. Crockery spun and shattered, juice and eggs splattering them both.
"For your information, you selfish prick, I can read everything in your face. I've never lied to you about anything. Ever. The only one lying to himself here is you. You tell me
'one week'. That's it, that's all you'll give us. Well, since I'm on a roll, let me continue to be perfectly honest with you."
Marcus leaned forward again, his face hard. "That has nothing to do with your family. You've accepted a man can want to fuck another man, but you can't accept they can love each other. That's what's eating a hole in your gut. Your dad dying when he did was just an excuse. You were getting too scared of where we were going. And it wasn't just the way you feel about me. You're not only gay, you're a fucking sexual submissive. Wouldn't that just send your mother over the deep end?"
"My mom's been through a lot. You don't understand."
"No, I don't," Marcus shouted. "I don't understand what it's like to lose someone when I'm not expecting it. Have my heart torn from me and be told it's something I just have to accept."
He straightened abruptly, stepped back, his eyes like emerald fire, heat blasting off him. "At least she knows what she wants is dead. What I want just refuses to be with me. Maybe I should compare notes with her on what's worse, for I swear to God sometimes I think if you were dead this would hurt less."
"Fuck you." Thomas leaped up and backed away from the upended table, moving toward the stairs. "I won't listen to this bullshit. You're just trying to confuse me."
"You do that well enough on your goddamned own," Marcus shot back. "Run. Run from it all you want. Go home to your little farm and pretend there are all these noble reasons to be there rather than the truth, which is you're a coward. Afraid to face who you are and what you want."
Thomas spun on his heel, an angry retort on his lips, but Marcus was already turning away with a disgusted look. He went back into the house, slamming the sliding door with enough force to make the entire rear wall of the house quake, shuddering through the pilings below, matching the quiver of rage that went through Thomas' own limbs.
Son of a bitch. Bastard. Asshole. Fucking shithead. Thomas stomped down the deck stairs. But even as he thought it, something was shaken deep inside of him. He'd never seen Marcus have an outburst like that, the sarcasm and intellectual scorn abandoned for raw, pure feeling.
Halfway down, Thomas became aware of a sharp pain in his foot. His pulse was racing so hard in reaction to Marcus' words he hadn't noticed it at first. He hobbled to the bottom of the stairs, sat down and looked at the three bloody spots where shards of broken glass had lodged in his bare heel.
I love you. Marcus had never said the words, but Thomas had felt something from him sometimes in a quiet moment, an urgent need, a sudden powerful stillness as if there were such words there, just waiting to be said. Thomas had never said them himself, believing it was just his own desire to hear Marcus say them resonating, reflecting the desire of one heart, not two.
Marcus didn't love him. He couldn't.
I've never lied to you.
Thomas looked across the patio at his mounted sketchpads. Always a comfort, but now they mocked him, particularly the one in the middle. Just that splayed hand, the fingers inviting touch even as they gave the impression of looking for something that wasn't within reach. Was it Marcus' hand, or his soul? Thomas rose, went to it. Putting his hand over it, he saw there was a splatter of egg at the top corner, fallen from the upper deck.
It hit then. Sometimes the pain in his lower abdomen grew to such proportions it compressed his chest, and then he couldn't breathe through the pain of it. Couldn't breathe...
I love you... Coward... Father was just an excuse...
Thomas dropped to one knee as if shoved. Holding onto his chest, he tried to suck in air that wasn't there. Perspiration, cold along his skin. God, don't do this here.
There was broken glass on the tile, one of the saucers that had been propelled off by Marcus' violent reaction. Despite the pain in his foot, it wasn't enough. Thomas grabbed one of the shards, gripped it hard enough it pierced his palm, competing with the pain in his gut, but it was too far gone. The cut of the glass was just a feather brush compared to the sick green fire there.
He managed to get to the edge of the patio before he threw up the breakfast he'd eaten. The labored wheezing was his own, mixed with a peculiar sobbing noise in his throat. He was choking on his own failure, his inability to get any of it right. Can't breathe...
"Hey. Hey!" The snapped command made him realize Marcus was there, kneeling with him, hand on the side of his jaw and throat, dragging his attention up to meet his stern gaze. "Thomas. Breathe. Slow, pet. Breathe. It's all right. I'm here." That strong hand on the back of his neck, the other over his abdomen, steadying him, giving him back the rhythm of his heartbeat, slowing it down. "Ssshh, sshh..."
"I'm...sorry. Should just go. Not...fair to you - "
"Thomas." Marcus' voice sharpened, silencing him. "Stop thinking about it. It's okay." His grip tightened and Thomas brought his face back up again. Marcus' green eyes. So green. Peaceful, turbulent, beautiful. Everything was in that green. "It's going to be all right, okay? No matter what, it's going to be all right. We're just fighting, pet.
Couples do it all the time. Come here."
Down to the cool tile of the patio, his shoulders hauled across Marcus' thighs as Marcus held him, legs stretched out while he stroked Thomas' hair, his other hand still on his belly. Marcus rocked him, murmured to him. Helped him breathe, breaking the clasp of the panic attack. Everything would be all right. He could hear Marcus' heartbeat beneath his ear, pressed against his firm abdomen. Steady, thudding through Thomas' body. He gripped Marcus' calf under one hand, an anchor.
"Oh, Jesus." He closed his eyes. Mortified, as reason returned. He would have tried to sit up, reclaim a little dignity, but he wasn't sure he wouldn't pass out just yet.
"Guess I won that argument, didn't I?"
"Just as every swooning Victorian heroine does." But despite the smartass comment, Marcus didn't smile or look remotely amused. He shifted his grip, tilting Thomas' head up, his thumb on his jugular so Thomas could feel his own pulse, as if Marcus had the right to decide if he lived or died, as if he were his slave in truth.
Perhaps he was. Perhaps he'd rather die at Marcus' hand, if it would save him from hurting Marcus or his family in any way anymore.
"How long has this been happening? And don't you even think of lying to me." Thomas wasn't a good liar on his best day. Under the undeniably intimidating stare, he wasn't going to try today. Much. "I get them every once in a while. I usually know the signs, so you're the first person who's ever been treated to the pathetic sight of one." The joke fell flat. He closed his eyes. "Marcus, I should go home. This was a mistake, you know it as well as I do. I'll paint what I can there. You're right, I want to get back to it, and there's no reason I can't - "
"I don't give a damn if you don't paint anything this week other than a paint-by-numbers rendition of a Cape Cod lighthouse. Hell, you can give me a crayon drawing of the Shoney's kids' menu. I don't give a fuck about the painting. Can you pull your head out of your ass long enough to get that one thing through your stubborn head?" Thomas swallowed. He was one of the few people who knew what Marcus was like when he was genuinely pissed off. Normally, he'd prefer to have some distance physically from it, because it came off him like an explosion from a volcano, but the anger in Marcus' eyes was only matched by the tenacity of his grip on Thomas' upper body, sprawled ignominiously over his knees.
"This is serious, pet." Marcus increased the pressure of his hand on Thomas' stomach and Thomas couldn't help the wincing. "You're twenty-seven years old and you're having weekly panic attacks, and you have an ulcer."
"Weekly? How did you - "
"Because I'm a lot smarter than you, and despite your inability to lie to me, you have a tendency to try to fudge the truth." Marcus cupped his jaw. "Are you listening to me? You promised your Master a week, and that's what you're giving him. We've both said what we needed to say to get it off our chests for the time being. Let's leave that right there, okay?"
"I didn't mean it." Thomas had to say it, make Marcus understand that one thing. "I just - "
"I'm the only person you can strike out at that you trust to handle it." Marcus adjusted his grip, the hand on Thomas' throat now firm enough to be a collar, silencing him and riveting his attention. He kneaded against Thomas' vulnerable windpipe.
Despite the moment, it drew Thomas' attention to Marcus' mouth, which made some of his energy drain to his lap. From the flick of Marcus' eyes, Thomas knew he registered the reaction. He struggled to focus.
"Even so, I shouldn't have - "
"It's over now." Marcus squeezed, silencing him. "Go get your swimsuit and a towel. I'm going to pack up a few things. Today, we're going to drive to Cape Cod and go to the beach. It's warm enough. Then, this evening, I intend to take you to a new place I've heard some good things about."
At the sudden shift in Marcus' gaze, something else tightened in his raw lower belly, just as searing but a lot more pleasurable. "What kind of place?" Moving his hand off Thomas' stomach, Marcus captured his wrist, raising it to study the cut hand. Ignored the question. "If you want pain, Thomas, you'll ask your Master for it. Not cause it to yourself. You understand me?" He brought the palm to his lip, sucked the blood off, licked Thomas like an animal.
Thomas curled his fingers, touching Marcus' face, suddenly needing more of him.
But he stayed still, a hard quiver going through him at the stimulation of Marcus' mouth.
Shrewd green eyes shifted to Thomas, demanding an answer.
Thomas managed to nod.
"Good. We're going someplace tonight where I can remind you what trust between a slave and his Master truly means. You're overdue for the lesson, and I think I've let you have a little too much slack. My mistake, and I'm going to fix it." The sensual intent in his eyes and the emotional impact of it made Thomas unable to respond. They'd visited some clubs, but their play there had been soft, easy, with few exceptions. But the look in Marcus' expression suggested tonight would be anything but. Despite the apprehension that flitted through Thomas' mind, the warning of the emotional cost, his body reacted to the idea eagerly.
There was a smear of his blood on Marcus' lips. Thomas found himself reaching up to it. His arm was trembling, and Marcus put his hand against it, steadying him as he ran the pads of his fingers there. Marcus bit one finger and held it, sending a current of fire through Thomas' veins. Jesus, weak as a baby and still he had a hard-on.
"But until tonight," Marcus continued, "we're going to give your body a rest and have some fun. Something else I think you've forgotten about. Got it?"
Thomas pulled off another nod, his mind too scrambled to come up with anything more coherent.
Marcus saw Thomas mulling it over. He knew he'd planted the seeds, and it would rapidly grow into a multibranched tree of possibilities in Thomas' mind the closer they drew to the evening. But it was the kind of stirred-up he wanted Thomas to be experiencing. It would help crowd out the rest.
He helped Thomas to his feet, sent him on his way up the stairs, not giving him an opportunity to protest. They needed to get out of here, get some breathing space from the intensity of that argument, let it air out so it didn't soak in and poison them.
Once Thomas went in, Marcus got the hose and washed the breakfast Thomas had thrown up off into the more distant grasses. His hand tightened on the rubber tubing.
Thomas had only eaten eggs, no tomatoes, but there were insidious red veins running through the yellow, undigested mess.
There were places in the world that trafficked in human slavery, for despicable reasons. If he could have teleported them to such a place, where Thomas could have no freedom save what his Master permitted him, Marcus would have happily transplanted them there right now.
While he knew the thought was based on his frustration, Marcus did know that willing submission in a D/s relationship could bring the submissive a freedom he often lacked in his real life. Where slavery became the chance to stretch one's wings without being afraid of whom they would let down, what expectations would be failed.
The place he planned to take Thomas tonight might help them exorcise some of Thomas' demons...and provide a safe environment where Marcus could beat the living shit out of him to exorcise his own.
His lips twisted, but the wry amusement died as he remembered how he'd sensed it in Thomas the first time he'd met him. Strong, creative souls often had a submissive nature. It helped them balance the chaotic impulses barraging their minds at all times.
They felt things more deeply, saw nuances of things many didn't. Most people had mental insulation against the stark, painful realities of human nature. The best artists didn't, which was why most of the ones he'd encountered seemed beset with all sorts of neuroses and addictions.
A Master could take control, give them an oasis of quiet amid all that. The first time he'd told Thomas to get on his knees, making it a command, a deliberate requirement that his lover obey him consciously rather than a request or a physical shove that could be passed off as mere passion, Thomas' cock had leaped against Marcus' hand. Those dark eyes had flashed with a response, something Thomas didn't even know he wanted until the plate was offered.
A true submissive wasn't forced to submit. He was simply shown the right room in his soul. Sometimes when he stepped into it, he wrapped his way around his Master's heart and tugged him in right after him.
That not-so-long-ago night, Thomas had barely breathed, almost seeming in a trance as Marcus pressed on his shoulder, took him down to his knees. Fire had roared in Marcus' own blood, a contrast to the gentle touch. Marcus had plenty of experience in being a Dom, enjoyed it, was fond of the men he'd exercised it upon. But it was the first time in his life he couldn't look away or think beyond the moment as Thomas bent his head and brushed his lips over Marcus' knuckles, a non-choreographed compulsion, pure obeisance.
Marcus put away the hose and stood staring at the side of the house, struggling to find his own center for balance. Thomas' mother thought she was fighting for her son's soul. Thinking of the eggs, Marcus wondered if the real battle was for her son's life.