Authors: Mia Downing
Tags: #erotic romance
“Okay.” Erik fluffed his pillow, then sat up in the bed, leaning against the headboard. “So today my parents are having a picnic thing at the beach. You gotta work?”
“No.” Gavin didn’t work Sundays.
“Then you should come. They love you. I think you need family time after yesterday. Clarke family time.”
It suddenly became hard to swallow. How Erik knew what he needed was freaky. He just was too chicken to ask for it. “Erik—”
“Not leaving you.” Erik swooped in and kissed him. “You’re my best friend first, and you need me more than ever right now. Think of it as…aftercare. I think I read something about that in the BDSM shit I researched. So I’m asserting my rights as best friend to demand that you come to the freaking picnic. You gotta protect me, man. My Aunt Gert will be there.”
It was an odd thought, one that strengthened the safe feeling.
Gavin rolled his eyes at the mention of Erik’s crazy great aunt. “Does she still pinch cheeks?”
“Yep. She swats my ass, too.”
“Fine. I’ll protect you.” But Gavin smiled. He needed this, to protect Erik, even if it was from ass slaps. The Clarke picnics were legendary fun—sun, volleyball on the beach, picnic food galore. They would expect Gavin to be there and wouldn’t think it funny if he looked a little sad. “I’ll eat your share of potato salad, too.”
“Going all out, are you?” Erik arched a brow. He hated potato salad, and Aunt Gert insisted he eat it.
“Anything for you, babe.” Gavin wanted to kiss Erik so badly, but figured he shouldn’t. Last night was over, and except for that fast peck, there should be no more kissing. So instead, he rose. “What time is this shindig?”
“It’s eight. Let’s find food and get going.”
Erik stopped him with a hand on his wrist. “I know the rules, Gavin. I know you can’t be more. Right now, I’m good with that.”
Gavin swallowed and nodded.
Fucking weak shit.
“It’s not because I’m ashamed of you.”
“I know.” Erik slid from the bed, semi-hard, his dark hair tousled, the green in his hazel eyes brighter, more intense. “Let’s go.”
Gavin hauled the huge cooler down to the beach from the parking lot, a step ahead of Erik, who carried Aunt Gert’s chair and umbrella. Aunt Gert chatted a zillion miles a minute, had already swatted both Erik and Gavin’s asses and bruised their cheeks multiple times, and they’d only been here ten minutes. Gavin glanced back, Erik rolled his eyes, and Gavin had to smile.
He’d missed this, his slice of normal in his fucked up world. Maybe that’s where life had gone wrong, when he’d lost his slice of normal late in high school. Who knew?
Erik went with Gert to find a spot for her chair, and Gavin dragged the cooler over to Erik’s mom. Judy Clarke was a pretty woman in her mid-fifties, her hair now short and shot with blonde, her frame a little fuller.
When he was a kid, he had dreamed she was his mom and had even called her that. Everyone had called her mom because she mothered the entire neighborhood the way a mom should. Scolding when needed, looking the other way when hands strayed into the cookie jar before dinner, a kiss on the forehead while ruffling their hair. It had embarrassed Erik to no end, but Gavin had eaten it up like a starving boy.
“Gavin, honey, put that here,” Judy said, pointing under the umbrella. “That’s the drink cooler, I hope.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gavin sat down on the cooler for a moment, taking a load off. Too hot, and the Sound wasn’t safe to swim in today due to the rough surf and rip current warning.
“Gavin, you used to call me mom. Ma’am is an insult,” she scolded softly. “I don’t even get ma’am from the liquor store clerk, and he’s younger than you are.”
“Yes,” he gulped and whispered the word he yearned to say. “Mom.”
She reached over and ruffled his hair, just like she used to. “I’m glad you’re here, honey. Erik’s missed you.”
“I’ve missed him.”
She finished smoothing out the blanket and glanced up at him, shading her eyes with her hand. “You’re doing okay? Erik was worried about yesterday. He said earlier you’ve had a low patch lately.”
He frowned. He hadn’t thought of what he felt as a low patch, but was it? Maybe. Maybe that’s why yesterday had been the hardest anniversary yet. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” She glanced at Gert. “You’re going to eat his potato salad, right? I can’t listen to
go off about that. God help me, the boy hates mayo. I can’t force him to eat her salad, no matter how many awards it’s won.”
“Yes, ma—Mom.” His parents would have shoved it down his throat.
She smiled and rifled through her bag, pulling out suntan lotion. “Good. You’re a good friend.”
Gavin frowned again. He was a shitty friend. “Erik’s a better friend than I am.”
“I’m sure you’ll miss him.”
She glanced up sharply but not with anger. Concern, maybe. “You don’t know?”
“Know what?” Oh, God. His stomach churned like it did when he was going home to his parents. This was not good.
“You’ll have to ask him. It’s not a big deal, honey. No need to look pale.”
He was pale? He gulped again.
“Maybe you can talk sense into him. He’s always listened to you.” She waved him off. “Go help Jim set up the net. I love that man, but he’s a failure when it comes to setting that stuff up. I’m sure you can be of use.”
“Thanks.” He rose from the cooler. Despite the creepy feeling he got about something in Erik’s life changing, he was afraid to turn away because the opportunity would be gone. He’d always sensed she would have gone to bat for him if he had asked. This wasn’t too much of a stretch for him. He could do this, and Erik would approve. “I…I need a mom right now.”
She smiled up at him, one filled with all the love a mother should have in her eyes when she looked at her son, even a substitute. “I know, honey. I’m here. I’ve always been here for you. I just didn’t know how to tell you. No matter where your relationship is with Erik, I’m here for you. Understand?”
Gavin nodded, because he couldn’t speak.
She gestured down the beach, her smile softer. “Now go have fun.”
Erik grinned from his spot in the sand as Gavin trudged toward him with two sodas, looking sexier than ever. Erik was glad for reinforcements, because his dad was driving him bat shit crazy.
But it was hard to hold that grin as Gavin neared. He’d looked shell-shocked all day, vulnerable and lost, but now his tanned skin looked…pale. He didn’t remember Gavin having this hard of a time the day after, but last night had been emotional. It made him doubly glad he’d forced him to come.
Erik took the soda and made sure his voice would come out as a stage whisper instead of the strangled gulp he felt in his throat. “My dad’s screwing this up, and he won’t listen. You think we can take him? Bury him in the sand? Keep him from making a tangled web?”
Erik’s dad stopped swearing, looked in their direction and snorted.
“Your dad weighs a buck-fifty more than I do.” Gavin’s brows furrowed, and something dark lit his eyes as he stared at Erik’s dad. Obviously, taking down his dad wasn’t something he contemplated in his world. Damn. As Erik studied Gavin, he realized the clues to his shitty life had been there all along. If Erik had only noticed, had asked…
Erik fought to keep the mood light. “But there are two of us. That’s only seventy-five pounds more than each.” His dad really was making a mess of the net and swearing like a trucker. If Erik’s niece, Jillian, learned those words there would be hell to pay. His sister would go on the war path. Scalps would be taken. “I get the feet. You get his head.”
“Boys, you want to take me down? Go for it,” Erik’s dad said, dumping the net on the ground. But he had a huge smile on his face as he said it.
The good light returned in Gavin’s deep brown eyes, and he laughed. “Hell, no.” He glanced at Erik. “He’s got meaty arms.”
“You took harder hits in football. You can’t take tickling?”
“No.” Gavin gulped.
“Not even from me?” Erik asked softly in Gavin’s ear. Then he said louder, to his father, “Dad. Mom needs you.”
“She doesn’t,” Gavin whispered. Again the furrowed brow.
Erik whispered back, “Yeah, but she’ll come to the rescue. She knows, trust me.”
In a moment, they had Erik’s dad trudging and swearing up the beach, the net in their safe hands. They untangled, assembled, and within fifteen minutes, they had teams sorted for a game.
Erik held the ball and gestured with his thumb. “Gavin and me against Tony, Scott, and Dad.”
“Christ, Erik. You suck, sticking us with Dad,” Scott, his brother younger by two years, grumped. Tony was Scott’s best friend, home on leave from the military. Both were dark haired and blue eyed. Erik was the only one who had gotten hazel eyes in his family.
“Dad will last two sets and then go find a soda. Trust me.”
And that’s what happened. Two sets and his dad called uncle, tossing his hands in surrender and retreating to help Jillian, Erik’s niece, build a castle.
They were down two points. Gavin had been stiff throughout the game, still not into the flow, looking shell-shocked as he half-heartedly popped the ball over the net.
Gavin looked hot, too, the sun glinting off his tanned skin, that sheen of sweat glistening along his shoulders. Erik’s dick would have a field day if he allowed. But hot wouldn’t win them bragging rights. Erik frowned, because this wasn’t Gavin. His Gavin lived for volleyball, lived for the beach. He’d have to go for blood.
“Okay, Dad’s gone, so we’re not going easy on you,” Erik warned, shaking his finger at his brother. He took a swig of soda then handed it off to Gavin, who also drank. He shoved aside the thought of them swapping spit in a different way. “Losers buy pizza and something to drink next Saturday. I hope you don’t have to count change, Scott.”
No way Gavin could resist the challenge.
Scott snorted. “Fuck you. I have a job. A real job where I actually work instead of play video games all night.” Scott envied Erik’s job. It was sweet being a geek, that’s for sure. “You’ll buy us pizza and a six-pack, delivered Friday night in your boxers and fuzzy slippers,” Scott taunted. “I’m not losing to you shits.”
“I’m working Saturday,” Gavin piped up, finally. “So you’ll deliver the pizza and beer to my house, at eight sharp, wearing nothing but flip flops and a smile. Meatball, nothing else. You show up with anchovies, and I’ll kick both your naked asses down Martin Lane back to Gino’s for fresh pie.” Gavin probably could kick Scott’s ass. Tony, not so likely. “And none of that horse piss you babies drink. Bring the good stuff for Erik. I want an iced coffee from the café on Main, cream and two sugars.”
“Cocky bastard,” Tony said with a laugh.
“You don’t know the half of it.” But his eyes gleamed in a way Erik hadn’t seen in months, with confidence. The voice reminded him of bedroom Gavin, in control, a force to be reckoned with. He turned to Erik with a nod. “You ready?”
Gavin served, every muscle in his shoulders and arm flexing, rippling. Erik faced forward and put his game face on, the one that didn’t allow thoughts of naked Gavin into play. That was hard, because Gavin was beautiful in motion. Fluid and deadly accurate, so sexy Erik had to just watch the ball and pray not to spike something in his shorts.
Erik had forgotten how good they were as a team. Erik was taller and spiked well. Gavin was good for getting the low shots, putting his all into diving, coming up looking like a browned cookie dusted with sugar. Gavin laughed and brushed himself off, sharing a glance with Erik that had been so natural for them.
The sun beat down, and the points racked up in their favor. Soon they were back to that secret language they seemed to speak, where a glance was all that was needed to set up the play.