Authors: Cheryl Dragon
Tags: #Male/Male Erotic Romance
“Did he hit you?” Avery asked.
“No. He told me the truth. He was disappointed and ashamed. I was ready for that. Then he told me I wasn’t good for anything. He said I’d end up a hooker or doing gay porn. I wasn’t smart or serious enough for a real job, so I’d better find some rich gay guy to take care of me. He always treated me like I was worthless. I think he knew I was gay all along and wrote me off after my first tap-dancing class. He put me down all the time. It’d gone on so long, I believed it,” Ken said.
“That’s crap.” Avery leaned in and kissed Ken’s neck.
“I thought so too. I turned eighteen and left with big dreams. I wanted to be rich and famous. Make my father eat his words. I had plans to buy my mother something nice, and he’d get nothing. Seems so childish, but I wanted to prove that I was better than he thought. Stripper really wasn’t much better, at least in their opinion.” Ken leaned on Avery’s shoulder.
“That’s why you couldn’t give up the dream?” Avery asked.
Ken shrugged. “Part of me still can’t. Managing a strip club, not stripping, I’m worried I’ll get depressed again. If I give up on the dream, and I’m alone, I’m a big nothing.”
“You’re not nothing, and you’re not alone. You have friends. Your family isn’t around. They don’t need to know what you’re doing. You have to be happy with your life. No one else’s opinion matters. Even mine.” Avery had to back away before he got sucked into his feelings for Ken. “You’re strong. Your confidence has convinced everyone else. You need to believe in yourself, not just fake it. People think you’re in love with yourself and no one is good enough for you. That’s what you project, anyway.”
“How can I be happy when I’ve screwed up everything that makes me happy?” Ken asked as he took Avery’s hand.
That was over the line, and Avery needed a pause in the debate. “I’m going to make breakfast. We need to eat for this level of discussion…if you’re sure you want to go here.”
Done with his bathroom time, Ken headed to the kitchen where the smell of bacon and eggs greeted him. He knew Avery was doing it on purpose to keep busy.
“People really think I’m that smug?” Ken asked a safer question.
“You put on a good front. And you love dancing so you haven’t screwed up everything you love.” Avery flipped the eggs.
Ken poured himself coffee and a mug for Avery. “I wasn’t talking about stripping. I stopped going to see my parents because my dad made it so awful. I lost my mom and my aunt because of him. And—”
“You can pick up the phone and fix that in one day. Call your aunt, and take her and your mom to dinner. Leave you dad out of it.” Avery nodded to the phone mounted on the wall.
“I know. That’s not the biggest screw up. You and Bev know better. You know I’m not perfect.” Ken poured them juice, as well.
“I know. But you made me feel like it was my fault—when you cheated after I’d wanted you to leave for the night. I’d wanted space not a night to screw around.”
“I know,” Ken said.
“I never cheated on you.” Avery dished out the eggs with extra force and sent a plate shattering on the floor. “Damn!”
“I’ll get it,” Ken said.
“No, you don’t need to pull something else.” Avery grabbed a dustpan and hand broom from under the sink and swept up the mess.
“I’m sorry. I know you never cheated on me. I regret that day more than anything else in my life.” Ken tried to help but was only getting in the way as Avery headed for the garbage can.
Avery shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now. That was years ago.”
“And in all those years, you never let me back in. I tried so many times.” Ken grabbed his bottle of pills and opened it on his own. He popped the pill, hoping it’d help if he got his heart broken again, and swallowed it with some juice.
“You tried to hookup again,” Avery said with disgust.
“No, not just sex. I know we sort of did that here, but I still know you have a wall up around your heart. Being friends with you is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I only managed it because I couldn’t think of my life without you. Leaving and starting over would kill me.” Ken hung his head.
“Bev would’ve kept you over me. You were a better stripper. You didn’t have to start over.” Avery went back to the cooking.
“Stop it.” Ken turned off the stove. “I didn’t want to leave you. I settled for the friendship because I couldn’t handle it if you really hated me. Bev said she always thought that we’d make up someday. You were too stubborn, and I was too scared to push.”
Avery turned to face Ken. “Quit talking about this. You’re worn out from the shoulder. You’re upset about getting older, and Bev’s offer has set you off on a weird reflection of your life. None of that changes anything. Don’t say something you’ll regret.”
“I never told anyone how depressed I was in middle school. How scared I was that I’d never be happy. I struggled with it in high school, too.”
“If you tell me you tried to kill yourself, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Avery said softly.
Ken smiled. “No. I couldn’t do that. I’m a dreamer, remember. I had that hope deep down. I believed when I got out of that house I’d be on a yellow brick road. Maybe, I’d be an actor or a dancer. I wasn’t into books or business, but I liked to perform. School plays and dance classes. I had too much in life that I loved.”
“All that dreaming was good for something.” Avery nodded.
“I never dreamed a man of substance would want me. Love me. I always thought I’d end up with a sugar daddy or another shallow dancer like me.” Ken finally saw his life. He’d wasted a lot of years being afraid.
“Substance? Who was that? The kid in middle school?” Avery reached for the eggs.
Ken pushed Avery back against the fridge. “You. Damn it. I know I screwed up and I made you feel like it was your fault. But it was mine. My fault. I knew I’d never be smart enough to argue with you and win. You did well in school and read books. I was afraid you’d get bored with me. I got drunk and cheated. No excuses. I thought you’d find someone smarter, and I’d end up with someone after my body.”
Avery put a hand on Ken’s chest and eased him back. “You’re not just a pretty face and good body.”
“I know that now. Back then, I wanted to be talented and famous. I had hopes. Now, I’m talking about managing a strip club. Can we bury the hatchet of that old fight? Start over fresh? I did try to patch things up with you. Reach out. I thought you were punishing me at first and maybe I deserved it. If we can’t fix it, can we forget it? We’re both a hell of a lot older now. Maybe, I’m not mature, but I’m not young. If you don’t love me, maybe, we can be real friends instead of this crazy standoff.” Ken tossed the empty pill bottle in the trash then grabbed his coffee.
The silence sent a shiver up his spine. Avery quiet always made Ken worry. Ken had to say something else. “Drink your coffee before it gets cold.”
* * * *
Avery sipped his coffee. “I thought you were trying to rub it in. You always had other men. Showing them off. When you’d talk to me and try to reach out…I thought it was a set up or a slip. I figured you’d remember why we didn’t work.”
“We’re both fucked up.” Ken smiled. “I screwed up both of our lives. I’m sorry. You’re the only man I’ve ever loved, and I ruined it. Now, I’ve probably ruined the friendship.”
“What?” Avery couldn’t believe his ears.
“Don’t worry. We can both keep working. I’ll take the manager thing and keep my stripping to your off-nights so I won’t torment you with my body. I won’t come begging for you to take me back or do anything to embarrass or annoy you. We can be professionals, if not friends.” Ken looked around. “I’ll even treat for breakfast. Let’s go out for waffles. Peace offering for my excessive confessions and pity party.”
“Stop yammering. I’m the only man you’ve ever loved?” Avery asked.
Ken’s blue eyes glistened. “True.”
“But you won’t beg me to come back?” Avery asked.
“I don’t want to make a scene or make you uncomfortable at work.” Ken shrugged.
“What about now?” Avery folded his arms.
“Now? Now what?” Ken blushed.
“Do you love me
?” Avery stepped into Ken’s personal space.
“I never stopped loving you. No man since has measured up or even come close. They were like the pain pills, taking the edge off. My career wasn’t going where I wanted it to. I remember our fight was about the damn auditions I was always obsessing over. So stupid.” Ken leaned in. “But you deserved a better guy who wasn’t so damn needy.”
Avery shook his head. “You were depressed, and I didn’t see. Damn. Some boyfriend I was.”
“No. Not your fault. Mine. I was the drama queen who always needed attention. I need people to prove they loved me. I couldn’t trust. I needed a big display. A ton of energy for my ego. You’re right, I wasn’t happy with me. No one else stood a chance.”
“Do they now?” Avery asked.
“Don’t you tease me. I’m clearing the air. Maybe, we can be better friends. I don’t expect you to still love me. You’re functional and well-balanced. You can find some nice guy and get a dog.” Ken rubbed the back of his neck.
“My grandfather didn’t want me taking over his business because I was gay. I understand what you went through better than you think.” Avery pulled Ken close. “Stop dodging me. You said you’ve been trying to patch things up for years. Do it now.”
“Do what?” Ken looked down.
“Tell me what you want.” Avery had to hear it.
Ken smiled and stared Avery in the eye. “You’re the hottest man I’ve ever dated.”
“Not even close.” Avery laughed.
“It’s a start. Listen!” Ken ditched his sling and put his arms around Avery’s neck. “I’ve never loved anyone but you. I didn’t think I was good enough or smart enough to keep you. I always knew my looks would go, and I’m not going under the knife. I kept dreaming because I wanted my dad to be wrong, but he was wrong. I taught guys to dance, to act and to carry themselves in a business that isn’t easy. I’ve managed the business when Bev was out of town. Maybe, I wanted to be spoiled and pampered like a starlet, but you’re the only one who ever saw what I was capable of.”
“Well, Bev did too,” Avery said.
“Really? I’m getting it right, and you’re going to correct me?” Ken asked.
Avery smiled. “Sorry but a lot of people at the club know how talented and smart you are. You don’t see it. You hide your depression well, and I never had a clue that’s what you were battling.”
“Dreamers don’t let it keep them down for long.” Ken hugged Avery. “I swear, if you give this another chance, I’ll never screw up like that again. I’ll never cheat and never spend a night without you—no matter what you say. Even that night, I knew I shouldn’t have left.”
“I was mad. You did the right thing, but you should’ve stayed at Bev’s.” Avery nodded.
“Sleeping on the couch is as far away from you as I’ll ever get again—if I’m sick or we have a fight. I may not be an expert in myself, objectively. But I know you. I’ve loved you so long that I can’t go back. No one else can fill that void in my heart. I love you now. Tell me I can stay.” Ken kissed Avery’s shoulder.
Avery pulled Ken into a kiss. He meant to keep it brief, but it seemed like an oath. It felt like a seal fixed on their relationship. When he came up for air, he pressed his forehead to Ken’s. “You’re moving in here. We’re packing up that crap apartment and bringing your stuff here tomorrow.”
“Not today?” Ken asked.
Avery smiled. “Today, you’re not getting out of bed once we eat and I drag you back there.”
“You love me? Forgive me? Fresh start?” Ken asked.
Avery grinned. “Yes to all. I love you. No secrets, no tiptoeing around to spare each other’s feelings, and no out. This is it forever. Agreed?”
“Yes.” Ken kissed him. “Yes to all of it. Come on. Let’s get dressed.”
“Dressed?” Avery wanted him naked and in bed all day.
Ken smiled. “I want to be seen with my smart, hot boyfriend going out to breakfast. We’ll burn off the waffles. Don’t worry.”
“Out in public and carbs? Ken, you’re scaring me a little.” Avery took Ken’s hand.
“Please, for the first time in my life, I have exactly what I want. I’ll call Bev later and take the job. I have a guy who knows the real me, all the good and bad, and still loves me. I don’t have anything to be afraid of.” Ken pulled Avery toward the bedroom.
“What about your dad?” Avery asked. He wanted to ignore the issue, but he needed the air cleared totally.
Ken grinned. “He didn’t like having a gay son. How do you think he’ll feel about my bringing home a black boyfriend?”
“See, we could’ve been having great sex and making your father nuts at holidays for years. So much time to make up for.” Avery liked Ken’s new positive spin. If his guy grew depressed again, Avery knew he could handle it.
* * * *
After waffles and a long walk holding hands, Avery pinched himself as they walked back into the house.
“You’re supposed to pinch my ass, not your arm.” Ken winked at Avery.
“I can’t believe it’s real.” Avery shook his head.
Ken kissed Avery. “It’s real. It’s not going to change. I’ve been mulling our stupidity since you took me to the ER. Our lives are linked, and they should be. We were young, stubborn and stupid. We’re not any of those now. Well, maybe stubborn.”
Hugging Ken tight, Avery inhaled the smell and took in the form. He’d dreamed of it so many times that it felt surreal. “Screwing around with you this last week was like a weird dream.”
“That’s better than a nightmare.” Ken grinned.
Avery checked the time. “We have to go to work later. You can talk to Bev in person. You better get naked and in bed. I’m not going to work without having my way with you.”
The men rushed to the bedroom, undressing frantically as they did. Ken fell back, naked, on the bed and hooked his arms under his knees. “Don’t you try to move me.”
“Your arm is a lot better if you can hold that for more than a minute.” Avery grabbed the lube and protection.