There was nothing like waking up from a deep sleep to a warm, wet tongue licking your neck. Mmmm, that was one talented mouth. Ryder Daniels stretched in sleepy abandon, luxuriating under the cocoon of covers on his bed. Still in that half-asleep place where Ryder didn’t know if he was awake or dreaming, he moaned as that tongue continued its delicious torture. God, it had been so long since he’d shared his bed with anyone. His cock jerked and swelled.
As he struggled to pull himself up out of the depths of slumber, anxious to taste his lover’s tongue, lust spiked through him sharp and deep. He missed the smooth slide of a foot on his calf and the scrape of an early-morning beard on his back. It had been way too long since he’d held a hard body next to his. The friction of the sheets against his dick sent torturous desire rippling through him. Rolling onto his side, he reached to pull his man closer, desperate for the contact he remembered only his mouth could give.
A cold nose found its way to his ear.
“What the fuck?” Wide-awake now, he flipped over, squinted an eye open, and groaned. “Shit.”
Stretched out next to him was his recently rescued pit bull, Pearl. Tongue lolling out of her mouth, hopeful brown eyes shining and tail wagging furiously, she huffed out a growly bark.
Almost a year without sex would make anyone desperate and horny as fuck. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he drew in a shaky breath. Arousal still hummed through him thanks to the total mindfuck his body had played on him. Damn, he was in worse shape than he thought, if he’d become so turned on by his dog licking him. He groaned again, this time in pure frustration.
At least his dog truly loved him. “Come here, girl.” He patted the place next to him, and Pearl whined with happiness as she wriggled across the bed. Smoothing her short white fur, he crooned to her. “That’s my sweetheart. Let me get up, and I’ll take you for a walk.”
As if she understood, she yelped in response, jumping down to the floor, her nails scrabbling on the exposed floorboards. She raced out of the room, only to return a few moments later holding a leash in her wide mouth.
He laughed. “Okay, okay, let me brush my teeth and put on some clothes first.” Raking back the tangled hair from his face, he glanced down and took in the state of his aching cock. Though he knew he was better off alone than with his son-of-a-bitch ex-lover, neither his mind nor his body got that message. Both his heart and his dick still missed Matt.
He threw off the down comforter and placed his feet with care on the cold wood floor. Even though it was Thanksgiving Day, he still was unprepared for the chill on his bare feet. Shivering, he pulled on the jeans that lay crumpled next to the bed and found a clean sweatshirt on the pile of laundry he had yet to put away. Ryder shoved his feet into his sneakers and laced them up.
He quickly brushed his teeth, bundled up in his fleece and left the apartment, Pearl jumping around his feet. Outside his breath blew out in cold white puffs and neither he nor Pearl had any desire to remain outdoors any longer than necessary. In less than ten minutes, they were back inside the warm apartment and Ryder fed Pearl.
After he took a shower where a swift, mind-numbing jerk off brought a temporary physical release to his body, he re-dressed and had just finished lacing up his sneakers when the phone rang. He checked the number on the caller ID and his heart dropped, while hope flared in his chest.
Mom and Dad. He stared at the screen as the phone rang a second time.
What could they want? Maybe he’d have someplace to go for Thanksgiving after all. He snatched up the receiver, gulping down a nervous breath.
“Ryder, is that you?” A cautious bubble of joy rose in him at the measured, elegant sound of his mother’s voice. It had been three long months since they’d spoken. Perhaps his parents were at last coming around to welcoming him back home.
“Hello, Mom. Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Yes, well, about that.” Her voice grew strident and he winced, the cautious hope in his heart snuffed out with those few words. “Your father and I want you to join us tonight. This foolishness has gone on long enough. You need to give up this lifestyle experiment and take your place back in this family.”
And a happy fucking Thanksgiving to you, too. Was she serious? Any positive thoughts he might have had for this conversation flew straight to hell, where all good intentions ended up.
He fought to keep his voice cool and calm. “Mom, nothing’s different since the last time we spoke.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Her voice snapped at him, all pretense of a warm family chat gone.
Ahh, now that was the mother he remembered. God forbid you disagree with her or get in the way of her plans. She was a cement steamroller in the guise of a five-foot-tall ice-for-blood society matron.
“We’ve given you ample opportunity to find yourself, experiment with your sexuality—whatever you want to call it. Now that you’ve had your little fling, you need to come home, join the firm, and find a nice woman to marry. I’ve already made some inquiries. Remember that sweet Olivia Martinson? She’s back in town after finishing a year at the Sorbonne and—”
“Mother.” The control he fought so hard to maintain whenever he spoke to her reached its limit and broke. She’d never tried to understand him, and she never would. It wasn’t in her makeup to bend to other people’s wills. They learned to bow to her or get out of the way. “I’m not experimenting with anything. I’m gay, goddamn it, and you need to accept it.”
She blithely carried on speaking as if he hadn’t interrupted her. “Now, tomorrow night at the Yale Club, there’s a get-together. Helen, Olivia’s mother, has assured me they will all be there. I told her you’d be there as well.”
Ryder couldn’t help but laugh. “Are you serious? Have you listened at all to what I’m saying now and have said for the past I don’t know how long? I’m not going to marry any woman. I love men. I kiss and have sex with men.” Stalking around the room, he gave the football that rested on the floor in his path a vicious kick. Pearl took off, chasing it down the hallway.
He didn’t give a damn anymore if he hurt or shocked his mother. He’d been cut off from his family as if he’d died for simply loving the wrong gender. “The sooner you understand and accept me, the sooner we can try to work out becoming a family again. I’m trying to keep it civil, but you’re making it impossible for me.” He fell back on the bed and closed his eyes against the hot prickle of unshed tears. Damn it, he wouldn’t let her get to him again.
He pictured her now, those red glossy lips pressed thin and tight, her pale blue eyes narrowed as she lectured him over the phone. “Why do you always have to be different? And you’re aware, it doesn’t only affect your father and me.” His stomach clenched, because he knew what was coming.
“What of Landon? He worships you and doesn’t understand why you haven’t seen him.”
An involuntary groan escaped at the thought of his younger brother, the brother he loved with all his heart but wasn’t allowed to see as long as Ryder refused to follow his parents’ wishes. “Mom,” he begged, hugging his pillow to his chest. “Please, don’t do this.” He swiped at the wetness falling down his cheeks, hurt by her refusal to love him unconditionally. His voice broke even as he struggled to maintain his composure. “Why can’t you accept who I am? For Christ’s sake, you’re my damn mother. You’re supposed to love me no matter what.” Pearl whined and jumped on the bed.
Shit. He couldn’t believe she’d reduced him to begging for her love, crying like a little kid, yet he couldn’t give up on trying to make her understand. “I miss you and Dad and Landon. I want to come home.”
“It’s time you stop trying to be different.” Her familiar exasperated tone cut through him sharper than any cold wind ever could. Since childhood, she’d never understood him, never tried. She had some preconceived notion of how her life should turn out, and having a gay son did not fit her plan. “Even as a child you were always rebellious, but now your actions don’t only impact your life, they affect all of us. Know your choices have consequences, though.”
“What kind of consequences? What does this have to do with Landon?” Ryder thought back to a month or so ago—the last time he’d seen his brother. Ten years younger than him and a high school junior, Landon was good-looking, popular, and definitely straight. “Landon knows I’m gay. It doesn’t matter to him in the least. He’s my brother and says he loves me no matter what.”
Like you’re supposed to.
“This has nothing to do with love. You’re our child; nothing can change that.” The obvious distaste in her voice lent credence to the fact that she wished she could change that fact and have him be anyone else’s child but hers. From his earliest memory their family’s social standing meant everything to her. He watched as her quest for perfection took precedence over everyone else’s needs, even if it meant him living a lie. She’d set an impossible standard for him to live up to and deviation from the norm—her version of normal—in any way was not accepted.
“Your decision to live an openly gay lifestyle affects everyone in the family. No matter how enlightened you think people are, your father would be horribly embarrassed at the firm having to explain not only to the partners that you’re gay but to his clients as well. You may think everyone is so accepting these days, but Daniels and Montague has some very important conservative clients that wouldn’t appreciate a homosexual attorney. They could take their business elsewhere.”
“I wanted to make it on my own, though. That’s why I chose a different route and decided not to work at the firm. Dad supported me; he told me so.”
“Your father is a foolish, weak man, but let me tell you something. It broke his heart when you joined West and Hamilton. How do you think he felt, having his son turn down a position in his firm? Daniels and Montague has passed down from father to son for almost one hundred years.” Ryder squeezed his eyes shut as he listened to his mother prattle on about how his behavior affected her and her social standing amongst her peers. In the life of Astrid Daniels, the sun and moon revolved around her; she sat at the center of her own private universe.
“We know about your little fling with that other attorney in the firm. Do you know how much money it cost us to pay off that man? I live in constant fear he’ll break his confidentiality agreement and spread some vile gossip about us. Could you imagine the scandal?”
At the mere mention of his failed relationship with Josh, Ryder trembled and bile rose in his throat. “What are you talking about?” White-knuckled, his grip on the cordless phone tightened until his fingers turned numb.
His mother chattered along, as if it were a story in a magazine she was gossiping about, not her son’s personal heartbreak. “No, you wouldn’t know, but that man—Joshua was his name, I believe, approached your father, claiming he needed money for his wedding, and if we didn’t want a story spread about your deviant behavior, we’d pay him before he left. A considerable sum I might add. So don’t say that we don’t care about you. We protected you from his blackmail attempt.”
Deviant behavior? That little piece of shit. Right after he started working at West & Hamilton, he’d met Josh, and they clicked. For six months they dated and Ryder thought he might be in love with the sweet, slightly geeky young man with the wicked sense of humor and an obsession for coffee. The night he told Josh he loved him, Josh laughed at first, but when Ryder, numb with hurt and shock, said nothing, Josh grabbed his coat, pulling it back on in a hurry. “You can’t be serious. Shit, man. It was all for fun and games, you know. I wanted to see what it would be like to have someone else besides my girlfriend suck my dick. Hell, you were great, but I’m getting married soon. No hard feelings, huh?”
And Ryder, brokenhearted and shaking, feeling as if his heart had been ripped out and stomped on, merely smiled. “No, no hard feelings.” He had no feelings at all as Josh shut the door behind him, walking out of his life as easily as he’d walked into it.
I can’t handle this shit anymore. Obviously his emotional stability, his life meant less to his family than the balance sheet for the law firm. Because everything always revolved around money for his father. If the firm’s clients’ conservative viewpoints didn’t match Ryder’s lifestyle, better to walk away from his son than a multi-million-dollar payday. Nothing could be permitted to interfere with the carefully cultivated existence Ryder’s mother crafted for herself, including her son’s happiness.
Inhaling deeply, he congratulated himself on remaining calm and controlled. “Look, this obviously isn’t going to work. I’m warning you, though. I won’t let you shut me out of Landon’s life. You and Dad may not want to see me anymore, but that’s your choice. I will see Landon and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Oh, and happy Thanksgiving.”
He cut the phone off and, as if trying to prove a point, immediately dialed Landon’s cell phone number. He and his brother had managed to keep in touch by texting and calling each other. A strange beeping occurred, then he heard the message: “Welcome to Verizon Wireless. The number you were trying to reach has calling restrictions that have prevented the completion of your call.” He tried texting and got the same message, citing restrictions on texting.
“Son of a bitch!” He threw the cordless phone on the bed. Even before they’d spoken she’d put her plan into action. She must have checked Landon’s cell phone logs and blocked him. The only way he’d managed to keep his sanity these past months was by speaking with his brother. Now she’d found the ultimate weapon to break his spirit and his heart. He grabbed his coat from the closet and tried to snap on Pearl’s leash but missed the clasp because of his shaking hands. Closing his eyes, he employed the yoga breathing techniques his friend Emily taught him to deal with stress.
Nope, not helping. He still wanted to punch a wall. After a moment he tried again, this time with moderate success.
He’d figure out another way to see and talk to Landon. First he had to take care of Pearl, then go to the soup kitchen over on the Bowery to serve dinner for the homeless. Thanksgiving dinner for him tonight would be a takeout meal shared with his dog.
After walking Pearl, he began the trek from his apartment in the Village to the Bowery mission. A half hour later—fingers and toes numb—he reached the shelter. Waving hello to Meredith, the director of the shelter, he took his place in line next to his best friend, Emily.
“Hey, baby, how are you?” He kissed her soft cheek. She smelled like clean soap and fruity shampoo. “Happy Thanksgiving. Where’s your lesser half?”
“Hey, bro, keep your lips to yourself.” Emily’s husband, Connor, pretend growled at him as they bumped fists and exchanged a hug. “Happy Thanksgiving.” His sharp green gaze raked over Ryder. “What’s up? You look like crap.”
As they put on their aprons and plastic gloves and began serving the turkey-and-all-the-trimmings dinner, Ryder briefly filled his friends in on the conversation with his mother. Their matching horrified expressions actually had him laughing.
Outraged, Emily placed her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, sweetie. Your mother sounds like the biggest bitch.” Her clear blue eyes shone with sympathy. “What are you doing after we finish here? Please come home with us for dinner, right, Con?” She nudged her husband.
“Yeah, definitely. We’ll put the game on, eat pie, and get drunk.” A smile flirted on Connor’s lips. “Emily promised I could if you came over.” He blinked, pouting at his wife, who rolled her eyes at him.
“Idiot,” she muttered, her eyes softening. But she kissed his mouth and whispered something in his ear and Connor’s eyes glazed over for a moment.
Ryder wished he could find a relationship like they had, built on unshakable trust, friendship and love. Emily and Connor supported each other and were the living example of true soulmates.
“I don’t know, you guys.” Ryder placed some turkey on a toothless old man’s plate and gave him an extra helping of mashed sweet potatoes. “You don’t need me moping around being a third wheel.”
Emily poked him with a spatula. “Don’t be a jerk. You can’t be alone on Thanksgiving.” She smiled at a young woman holding the hand of a little boy. She gave them both extra meat and the kid some extra marshmallow topping on his sweet potatoes. She was such a softy. “It’s, like, against the law or something.”
Chuckling, he continued to serve the long line of people who had no other place to go for the holiday meal. He should be grateful for what he had: a roof over his head and enough money to pursue his passion. Guilty from his pity party, Ryder vowed to stop thinking about himself so much and volunteer here more often. These people had real problems with no solutions in sight.
He felt a squeeze at his elbow. “Don’t let her do this to you, sweetie. Come over tonight. Bring Pearl, and tomorrow night we’ll go out dancing at that new club, Tops and Bottoms.” Emily’s smile lit up her pretty face. “You know we love going to the clubs with you. Maybe you’ll finally find a nice guy.”
“Not likely at a club. If I want a quick blowjob in the bathroom, well, that’s a different story.”
“Blowjobs? Did I hear someone mention blowjobs?” Connor waggled his brows.
“Oh, you’re such an idiot.” She glared at her husband.
Ryder pulled Emily into his arms. “But he’s your idiot.”
She giggled into his chest. “Yeah. I think I’ll keep him. He’s good for…stuff.”
God, he loved these two. He’d met Emily after he left West and Hamilton, and introduced her to his best friend, Connor. They’d married not long after that. Unwilling to stay at his firm after the humiliation of Josh, and needing a fresh start, he decided to work full-time at Rescue Me, the pit bull rescue organization she and Connor had started. He and Connor handled all the legal work the business required, and went out on rescues, but Emily was the heart and soul of the place. Nobody loved those misunderstood dogs as much as she did. Woe be to anyone who took her petite frame, sweet face, and pale blonde looks for weakness. She held a black belt in karate and never went anywhere without her two muscular pit bulls, Laurel and Hardy. No one could get near Emily as long as her faithful bodyguards were with her.
Connor, a legal aid attorney who worked in downtown Brooklyn, specialized in helping LGBT teens and young adults discriminated against in housing and/or the workplace. His casual joking manner hid a rapier-sharp intelligence and lightning-quick wit. With his ever-present grin, perfect smile, and cascade of dark curls, men and women alike fell for his charm. His shrewd yet mischievous green eyes never failed to see through anyone’s bullshit, including Ryder’s. They’d met the first day of law school and had become study partners and best friends.
Connor and Emily were passionate about dogs, gay rights, food, and each other. They were the best friends he’d ever had, and he loved them to death. He had a standing invitation for Sunday brunch every weekend. They got him drunk when his parents rejected him, and told him what a piece of shit his lover had been to dump him. Emily even went so far as to tell him that the next time a man broke his heart, he’d have to deal with Laurel and Hardy.
“You haven’t hooked up with anyone in forever, my man. Tomorrow night we’re gonna take you out and get you laid.” Connor hooked his arms around Emily’s waist and, humming Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” danced her around the tables holding the food trays.
Emily swatted her husband. “Stop it. Ryder doesn’t need that. He needs to find someone who’ll love him and care about him.” She laid her head on her husband’s chest. “I know the right man is out there for you, sweetie.”
Ryder smiled and shook his head as he watched them dance. “Em’s right. You really are an idiot. But as for the other, I’m not interested.”
He was the real idiot to think he’d ever fall in love again. Love for a gay man or at least for him, brought nothing but heartache. All he needed were his dog and his friends. Once he found a way to get his brother back in his life, he’d find some quick anonymous fuck somewhere. But until then, he had no intention of risking his heart and falling in love.