The Woodjin: Chapter 9 by Lbilover

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When Sean returned to consciousness, he thought he must still be asleep and dreaming, for the scents of pinesap and woodsmoke and dried grasses were teasing at his nose, and it seemed to him, impossibly, that he held Elijah in his arms. But the warmth of Elijah’s body pressed against his side, the intimate feel of his flannel-clad thigh thrown across Sean’s bare legs and the puffs of breath damp against his neck felt absolutely real. His eyes flew open, sight seeking to confirm what his other senses were telling him.

The pale winter sunlight streaming through the windows revealed that it was no dream, for this was Elijah’s room, and he was lying in Elijah’s bed—with Elijah. Stray wisps of soft hair were tickling Sean’s chin, and the sleek muscles of the young man’s back were satin-smooth and firm under his encircling arm, but there was something coarser, like twisted fabric, pressing uncomfortably into the tender skin on the inside of his elbow. Confused, Sean craned his neck to look down, and the moment he caught sight of the sling confining Elijah’s right arm, memory came flooding back in a rush, bringing with it a cascade of divergent emotions: joy, relief, and above all else, worry about the bullet wound.

Sean levered himself awkwardly up onto one elbow in the slippery pillows, the better to see his sleeping lover’s face. Lover. Sean was startled by how effortlessly the word had flowed into his mind, for it had always been a struggle to refer to Chris as his lover, despite their years together, as though some part of his brain, a wiser part as it now appeared, rejected the word in relation to her. But such was not the case with Elijah, whom he’d known for less than a week. And they hadn’t even made love—yet.

A now-familiar spark of heat kindled in the pit of his stomach at the promise implicit in that simple three-letter word, but yet was definitely not now, given the shape they were both in. Although if Elijah was to awaken and smile at him the way he had earlier, so drowsy and tempting, Sean suspected his own body would be more than up for the task.

But Elijah showed no signs of waking, so Sean ignored the stirrings of desire, and studied Elijah carefully. What he could see of his face was flushed, but not, to Sean’s critical eyes, with fever, only sleep. Very gently, he touched the young man’s forehead with the backs of his fingers. The skin felt warm but not febrile, and a coil of tension inside Sean unwound and relaxed. Dr. Holm had been right: the old ways were the best ways for the Woodjin. Still, he’d feel a lot happier when the doctor returned to change the bandage and was able to confirm that Elijah was doing as well as he seemed to be.

As he withdrew his fingers, Sean grimaced at the smears and streaks of dried blood on them; the blood was even lodged under his nails and crusted around the cuticles. His arms and chest weren’t much better, painted in graphic reminders of the events of the previous night. Then a wry smile quirked his lips; it was déjà vu all over again, apparently: for as on his first wakening in the Woodjin’s house, he was filthy, sore and, his full bladder reminded him, in need of a pee. He would have to get up soon, much as he would prefer to stay cocooned with Elijah in this temporary oasis of peace and tranquility, shut away from the rest of the world. For one thing, he had no desire for anyone to walk in on him and Elijah like this--although he had a suspicion that that would be rather like closing the barn door after the horse had escaped.

His critical faculties, no longer preoccupied with Elijah’s wellbeing, had started noticing certain things they hadn’t when he first awoke. Such as the hiss and crackle of burning wood in the fireplace: a fireplace that had been cold and dark when he climbed into the bed some hours earlier.

And then there were the bloodied clothes he’d left on the chair. Jeans, windbreaker and down jacket were now gone, vanished, and in their place was a large white plastic shopping bag. From his spot in the bed, Sean could easily make out the distinctive blue logo splashed across the front. Perhaps there really were elves in the Woodjin’s house, as he’d jokingly speculated, elves who didn’t conjure new clothes out of thin air or sit beneath toadstools and sew them out of cobwebs, but bought them at Wal-Mart.

But what was more likely, of course, was that someone, or even several someones, human someones, had been in the bedroom while he and Elijah were sleeping, had laid the fire and removed Sean’s clothes.

Had seen the two of them entwined beneath the blankets like the lovers they weren’t quite—yet.

It wasn’t a comfortable thought; in fact, it was a downright worrisome one. What did they feel about a virtual stranger being in bed with their Woodjin? Dr. Holm had said Sean would always have the gratitude of the pineys for saving Elijah’s life, but gratitude wasn’t the same thing as acceptance, and if he couldn’t even manage to win over a squirrel, how would he ever succeed with Elijah’s friends and family?

Sean could have used a dose of Maggie’s unquenchable optimism and support right then, but the calico cat was nowhere in evidence. Neither were Rocky or Fred, for that matter. Probably gone off to the kitchen for breakfast. No, he corrected himself, not breakfast, but lunch or an early dinner. His sense of time was a bit muddled at the moment, day and night turned upside down just as his life had been, but a quick glance at his scratched-up Rolex showed that it was quarter past three in the afternoon—Friday afternoon, if he was counting up the days correctly.

With a sinking sensation, he thought of Chris. Shit. She was going to be fit to be tied. He’d more or less promised he’d be back in the city today. He was going to have to call her soon; he owed her an explanation for why he was being delayed—although what the hell he was going to tell her was a very good question. What’s more, he’d left her holding the bag at Clicktwice, and knowing how the company grapevine worked, whatever story she’d invented to explain his sudden absence this week had undoubtedly grown in the telling. He’d have a lot of small fires to put out when he returned.

That world, those worries, seemed strangely remote, however, as if they belonged to a different Sean, the one who had existed before that moment he parked his Beemer on the sandy shoulder of a quiet back road to watch the sunset over the Pine Barrens and shut off the engine. He could visualize the company offices that took up an entire floor of Trump Tower, and picture his administrative assistant Liv frowning as she opened his mail, fielded his calls and did her very efficient best to cope with the backlog that must be piling up. She wouldn’t be the only one wondering about his uncharacteristic absence and silence, but instead of guilt Sean felt a childish and unworthy resentment, because if this really were a fairy tale, all the obstacles between him and Elijah would have disappeared, vanished in a puff of smoke, with their first kiss and the words I love you.

Damn it, I don’t want to leave, Sean thought, as he had that morning he watched Elijah make his way across the frozen yard in the gray light of dawn and believed he would never have more than that one brief glimpse of magic. Only now the wish was even more fervent, the idea of separation even more unbearable, because Elijah loved him. Unbelievably, Elijah loved him. His arm unconsciously tightened, binding them together. He turned his head and rested his cheek against the softness of Elijah’s sleep-mussed hair. Not yet. Not so soon. We’ve had so little time together.

Elijah burrowed closer as if he had been reading Sean’s mind.

“I’m sorry,” Sean whispered. “Elijah, I’m so sorry.”

But like it or not, he had no alternative but to return to New York, and by Sunday afternoon at the very latest. Monday morning was the all-important Board of Directors’ meeting for which he’d done far too little preparation, but for which he absolutely had to be present. Time was no friend to him and Elijah, and already their separation was looming like the late afternoon thunderheads that would mass on the mainland on summer evenings before scudding across the bay to lash the island with wind and torrential rain.

He studied Elijah’s sleeping face again, but with a different purpose now. He wanted to drink it in, absorb it, hoard every line, angle and curve of it to sustain him against the days they’d be apart, the way Rocky hoarded acorns for the winter.

Elijah’s closed eyelids appeared almost translucent, a thread-fine tracery of blue veins visible, and this, combined with the faint dark smudges beneath his eyes, gave him an overall impression of delicacy. But Sean knew now, better than anyone, that there was nothing delicate or weak about Elijah. From the very first he’d thought Elijah beautiful in spirit as well as body; and having witnessed firsthand his indomitable courage, his selflessness and his compassion, that beauty was increased a thousand-fold in his eyes.

His gaze dropped to Elijah’s mouth, lips slightly parted as if in invitation. Heat flared inside Sean again as he recalled their softness and the all-too-brief taste he’d had of them. Oh, but he was tempted, imagining how Elijah would stir to wakefulness, and open his mouth to Sean’s kiss… Then, with a loud crack, a log in the fireplace broke apart, and Sean started. Bad enough anyone should see them sleeping, he sure as hell didn’t want to be caught with his tongue down Elijah’s throat.

An incoherent murmur of protest came from Elijah when Sean eased his cramped arm out from beneath him and sat up. “I’m sorry,” Sean whispered a third time, bending to place an impulsive kiss on Elijah’s naked shoulder, and as much as Sean would’ve liked to witness the heart-stopping flash of blue as Elijah’s eyes fluttered open, he could only be glad when, with a tiny hitching sigh, the young man fell back asleep as quickly as a child. Healing sleep was what Elijah needed most right now, not lovemaking. He had a sneaking suspicion that Elijah wasn’t going to be a particularly cooperative (or patient) patient when he finally awoke, and keeping him quiet was likely to prove difficult indeed.

Sean slid gingerly out of the bed. His muscles, especially those of his lower back, strained from carrying Elijah for so long, protested loudly. He shrugged off the discomfort; being stiff and sore was a state he was fast coming to consider normal. He had just finished pulling the sheets and comforter up over Elijah and tucking them in when a soft mrrrow sounded from behind him. Maggie trotted into the room with her usual uncanny timing, and leapt up onto the bed. She crossed to Elijah’s side and curled up against his chest, purring quietly. She fixed her steady amber gaze on Sean and for once he had no trouble reading it: ‘You go on ahead,’ it said, ‘I’ll watch out for Elijah.’

“Thanks, Maggie,” Sean said softly, and then added, “I haven’t forgotten my promise, you know. Catnip and filet mignon, as much and as often as you want.”

Maggie’s ears swiveled forward at the words, like tiny satellite dishes catching a signal, and a smile tugged at Sean’s lips as he turned away from the bed.

He shuffled more than walked over to the chair and opened the white plastic Wal-Mart bag. Inside it he discovered two pairs of men’s Levis, blue and black, a package of white cotton Fruit of the Loom boxers and one of matching tee shirts, a package of white athletic socks, and three Hanes sweatshirts in navy blue, gray and forest green. Everything was exactly the correct size for him. On the floor beneath the chair he noticed a brand new pair of running shoes, also in his size.

A fleeting image of Chris’s horrified expression when Sean turned up wearing Wal-Mart’s finest flashed through his mind. Well, she might not be caught dead, but Sean was beyond grateful to whoever had gone to so much trouble for him.

Sean gathered up the blue jeans, the forest green sweatshirt and some underwear and after one last look at the tousled dark head barely visible among the pillows, went to the doorway. There he halted, and peered cautiously into the hall, looking left and right before daring to set foot out the door. He’d make one hell of a great impression, walking around in nothing but a pair of maroon paisley silk boxers and a disturbing amount of Elijah’s blood. No one was in sight, thankfully, but as he tiptoed with exaggerated caution toward the bathroom, holding the clothes in front of him like a shield, he could hear voices rising and falling from the vicinity of the kitchen, though he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.

His behavior felt unpleasantly furtive, as if he was an unfaithful husband beating a hasty retreat after an illicit affair with a friend’s wife. But there was no reason to feel guilty; he hadn’t actually had sex with Elijah. The voice of his conscience piped up then: But you would have if you could, and you know it. So stop splitting hairs. None of this was supposed to happen until after you’d separated from Chris.

Having gained the safety of the bathroom unnoticed, Sean quickly shut and locked the door. When he turned around, he discovered Fred regarding him with his usual phlegmatic expression.

“Sometimes having a conscience really sucks, Fred,” Sean remarked as he set the new clothes down beside the stack of magazines on the low table next to the toilet.

Fred blinked his eyes.

“Yeah, I know. It won’t be forever.” Sean stripped off his boxers and let them puddle on the floor, wishing it were as easy to shed the numerous complications in his life. “But it’ll sure as hell feel like it.”

***

When Sean eventually emerged from the bathroom, he was clean, shaved and dressed, and the abrasions on his bare feet were covered in salve. He hesitated, wondering if he should return to the bedroom and check on Elijah. But Maggie could be trusted to find him if Elijah needed him, and a whiff of coffee wafting from the direction of the kitchen had his mouth watering. That herbal tea was great stuff, no doubt about it, but sometimes what a person really needed was a good strong cup of coffee—several strong cups, as a matter of fact. Not to mention some food. He hadn’t had anything solid to eat in nearly 24 hours, and he felt faintly queasy with hunger.

The same uncharacteristic nervousness that had plagued him while he waited by the front door for Dr. Holm returned as Sean made his way down to the kitchen. He had no idea what sort of reception would be awaiting him.

Although he’d heard at least two distinct voices coming from the kitchen earlier, when he walked into the room, only one person was present. It was a woman with long, silver-white hair braided and wound in a tidy coronet around her head. She was wearing faded jeans turned up at the cuffs to show the red plaid flannel lining, battered L.L. Bean boots half-laced, and a red polar fleece vest over a beige cable-knit sweater.

She was standing at the kitchen table, removing the aluminum foil from a large casserole dish, and looked up as Sean came in. Immediately a welcoming smile lit her face. It was as if a lantern had been kindled inside her, and lent her lined and somewhat careworn features a rare and special beauty. Sean’s apprehensions evaporated under its influence like morning mist in the sun.

“There you are,” she said. “We heard the shower going, and thought you must be up.”

“We?” Sean looked around, but other than Rocky perched in his favorite spot on top of the refrigerator, his cheeks bulging with food and his tiny paws deftly shelling a peanut, she appeared to be alone in the kitchen.

She chuckled. “I meant Martha Holm, not Rocky. She’s gone to sit with Elijah. I’m Katie Jenkins, by the way.”

“How do you do?” Sean walked purposefully forward with his hand outstretched. “I’m Sean Astin.”

But rather than a formal handshake, Katie Jenkins took Sean’s hand between both of hers. The joints of her fingers were swollen and distorted by the arthritis that Elijah had worried over when he and Sean met Bill Jenkins out by the Quaker Bridge, but her clasp was warm as she pressed his hand before letting it go. Tears sparkled in eyes the rich tea-brown of cedar water, and her voice trembled with emotion as she said, “I know right well who you are, Mr. Astin. Ian told Bill and me what you did for our Woodjin last night. How can we ever thank you enough? If it wasn’t for you, we might have lost him, and…” She bit her lip, obviously struggling for control.

“You don’t have to thank me,” he said quietly. “And please, call me Sean.”

“Then I hope you’ll return the favor and call me Katie.” Katie Jenkins drew a shaky breath, and summoned another smile. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually such a watering pot. But Elijah is… well, we think the sun rises and sets on him, and not just because he’s our Woodjin.”

“I can understand why.” Because I think it does, too.

But though he hadn’t spoken the words aloud, the look Katie Jenkins gave him then made it plain that he didn’t need to. “I see you found your clothes. I hope they’re all right,” she said with a hint of anxiety. “I sent Bill to the Wal-Mart with a list. I’d rather have gone myself—you can’t always trust a man with that kind of chore—but I didn’t like to leave Elijah.”

“They’re perfect, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to both of you.” Sean hesitated, thinking about the amount of money they must have spent, and then added, “If you let me know how much it cost, I can send you a check…”

Katie looked shocked. “A check? I wouldn’t hear of it. We take care of each other around here, Sean. Besides, you’re Elijah’s young man, and that makes you like family.”

Sean choked a little, turned it into a cough and raised his fist to his mouth to hide his involuntary smile. Elijah’s young man? Well, he supposed it was true, although that wasn’t exactly the way he’d have phrased it or, he suspected, the way Elijah would have phrased it either. But he couldn’t deny the idea of being Elijah’s young man, of Katie and hopefully the other pineys accepting him as such, was very, very appealing.

Apparently having decided that the issue of repayment had been settled, Katie went on, “But I haven’t asked how you’re feeling. Ian told me what happened to your poor feet.”

Her concerned gaze dropped to Sean’s bare feet, and he had to resist an impulse to hide them from view like a guilty child. “They’re fine, really. Dr. Holm said the abrasions are superficial, and I already know from experience how well this salve works.”

“Better than any of those store boughten brands,” Katie agreed. “But you best have Ian take another look at them when he gets here, just to be on the safe side.”

Sean nearly found himself replying, “Yes, ma’am,” for Katie’s speech patterns and expressions, like her husband’s, came from a quainter, more formal time, but instead he said, “I’ll do that, I promise. Do you know when he’ll be returning to check on Elijah?”

“Well, he stopped by about an hour and a half ago, but you and Elijah were still sleeping, and he didn’t like to wake you.” Katie spoke matter-of-factly, but Sean could feel his cheeks growing hot while he imagined Dr. Holm, his wife Martha, Katie plus who knew how many others, gathered around the bed while he and Elijah slept on, oblivious to their rapt audience. “He said he’d be back around 5 o’clock. That gives you plenty of time to eat before he arrives. Go have a sit down at the table, Sean, and I’ll fix you a plate. You must be starving.”

“I am pretty hungry,” Sean admitted, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “Katie, what is all this?” He gestured at the numerous Tupperware containers, crock pots, casserole dishes, pie plates and cake stands that covered one end of the kitchen table or stood on the counter. There was enough food assembled to feed a small army.

Katie smiled. “It’s for you.”

“For me?” Sean was flabbergasted. “But I don’t understand…”

“There’s not a piney hasn’t heard what you did for our Woodjin,” Katie explained. “How you stood up to the Devil for him, and carried him home, and folk have been coming by all day, bringing food and wanting to say ‘thank you’. It was like the Grand Central Station here for a while, but Martha and I didn’t want folk hanging around like a bunch of shacklins and disturbing you, so we sent them home.” She went unhesitatingly to the cupboard where the mugs were kept and took one out. Like Dr. Holm, she evidently knew her way around Elijah’s house. “How do you take your coffee?” she asked. “Or do you prefer tea?”

“Coffee, please,” Sean said fervently. Katie chuckled again as she removed the glass decanter from the Mr. Coffee machine and filled the mug. “And black is fine, thanks.”

Katie brought him his coffee, and said, “Now, what can I get you to eat?”

“I’d really like to try a little bit of everything,” Sean said as he took the mug from her. He felt ashamed now that he had doubted his welcome, even for a moment. “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out, not when they’ve gone to so much trouble.” He took a large swallow of the coffee, and closed his eyes in sheer bliss. He nearly groaned aloud as it burned a path down to his stomach and caffeinated warmth spread inside him.

“Trouble? Don’t you think it for a moment.” Katie returned to the stove, and began stirring a pot with a long-handled wooden spoon; the smell of whatever was simmering in that pot set Sean’s stomach rumbling impatiently. “We’ve enough experience of heroes behind the store to know a true one when we see him.”

There it was again, that word: hero. “I’m no hero, Katie,” Sean protested, and his cheeks grew hot.

But Katie only smiled and said, “If you thought you were a hero then you wouldn’t be one, now would you?”

Sean supposed that was an example of piney logic, and it made sense, in a strange sort of way.

Katie carried a soup bowl with tendrils of steam rising from it to the table and set in front of him. “You’re in for a real treat,” she said. “Marilyn Schmidt made you some of her pepper pot soup. It’s the best in the pines. You’ll want to put some of this cider vinegar in it,” she added, handing him a glass cruet half-filled with cloudy golden liquid.

Sean poured a small amount of vinegar into the soup, stirred it, and then spooned some up. It was delicious: spicy and stick-to-your-ribs thick with beef and potatoes. He was blowing his diet six ways from Sunday again, but after everything he’d been through in the past few days, what the hell, he’d earned a break.

Katie was back a few minutes later bearing a large Blue Willow dinner plate filled with cranberry potpie, sliced ham, green bean casserole, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, corn pone, and several different salads. At Sean’s expression, she chuckled again. “You asked for a little bit of everything, and this is everything except for dessert.”

“I didn’t realize how much everything there is,” Sean said, wondering how he was ever going to finish it all. “But I’ll feel strange eating by myself, Katie. Come and sit down, won’t you?”

Sean braced himself to be bombarded with questions when Katie was seated opposite him with her own coffee and a slice of orange-glazed Bundt cake, maybe even questioned about his intentions toward Elijah. But she only smilingly encouraged him to eat up, and otherwise seemed content to sit in silence.

“Have you lived in the pines your entire life?” Sean’s native curiosity got the better of him after the silence had stretched out for several minutes.

“Oh yes, I’m a piney born and bred,” Katie replied readily and with evident pride. “I’m a Brower—that’s with an ‘o’, but we pronounce it ‘Brewer’. The first Browers settled here after the Revolution. They were Loyalists, and there weren’t many safe places outside the pines for a Tory to live, if he didn’t want to return to England or go up to Canada.”

Sean nodded, recalling what Elijah had told him out by the Quaker Bridge. “What about Bill?”

“His family came here even earlier, from Massachusetts, though they were from England originally. The Jenkins’ were smugglers, like a lot of folk back then, and made a right fine living at it, too. They smuggled sugar, molasses, tea, coffee—anything they could sail up river under the noses of the Royal Navy and sell for a profit. Jenkins is one of the oldest surviving towns in the pines, and it was settled by Bill’s ancestors.”

Katie enjoyed talking, that was clear, and with a little encouragement, was soon telling Sean all about the family cranberry business that was managed by her brother Jim, about Bill’s renown in the pines as a decoy carver, and about her two sons, Bill, Jr—a state trooper who lived in Cherry Hill with his wife and the youngest of his five children—and Peter, a recently-divorced pharmacist who lived outside D.C.

“Bill and I have four great-grandchildren now and another on the way, though we don’t see them as often as we’d like. We were hoping at least one of our grandchildren would settle in the pines; they seem to like it well enough whenever they visit. But it doesn’t look like it’ll ever happen,” she said sadly. “They’ve spread out around the country, found jobs in places like New York and Chicago.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, because I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to settle and raise a family.” Sean stared out the picture window. The sun was going down, and the sky appeared very much as it had when he’d pulled over on the shoulder five days earlier: the sunset colors so varied and intense that they were almost surreal.

Oddly, he didn’t feel apprehension at the gathering darkness, or the knowledge of what was out there, roaming the woods. Of course, if he were to encounter the Devil again, he’d still be scared shitless, but now that he’d actually seen him, looked him in the eyes and lived to tell the tale, he felt different somehow. The Devil, like the Woodjin, was part of the pines—that darker part of the fairy tale—but a part of it nonetheless.

“I can’t blame them, really,” Katie said thoughtfully. “The truth is, it’s not an easy place to carve out a life, and the old ways are dead or nearly so. Soc-i-ol-o-gists,” and the exaggerated manner in which she said the word held a fair measure of scorn, “say we had the last remaining hunter-gatherer culture in the United States. Every season had its different work, you see, and we lived in rhythm with the land, took only what it had to give and at the proper time. FoIk used to be able to make a decent living at mossin’ and beating berries and coaling—my dad was a collier by trade—but not anymore. Change is inevitable, I suppose, but there are those who’d be just as glad to see the pines in the hands of developers, and covered in condominiums and malls.”

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Sean murmured, the words from an old Joni Mitchell song coming into his mind. “What a tragedy that would be.”

Katie stretched her hand across the table and held Sean’s wrist in a warm grip for a moment before releasing it. “Bless you for saying that. But maybe you understand a little now why young people don’t come and settle here and those who are born in the pines mostly don’t stay. Elijah is an exception, of course, because he’s the Woodjin, but he’s spent too much time alone with no one for company except his animals. It’s been a real worry to us that he’s had so few people his own age to socialize with. Bill and I have done our best to stand as parents to him since Warren died and his own mother couldn’t see fit to—" She broke off, obviously not wanting to say anything negative about Debbie Wood to him, and added with forced lightness, “Although try as we might, we’ve never been able to take to that music he’s so crazy about.”

Sean had to smile at that, for he could well imagine that the Jenkins’ taste in music was light years apart from Elijah’s, but his smile faded before the sudden seriousness of her expression.

“Bill liked you right off, Sean,” she said, leaning forward with her hands cupped around her mug, “and he doesn’t often take to foreigners. And more important, he could see right away how much Elijah liked you. When Elijah told us last night at dinner that you wouldn’t be coming back, that you had a girlfriend and your own life in the city, I can’t tell you how disappointed me and Bill were—we had such high hopes, you’ve no idea. But I got this funny feeling as I was climbing into bed—it happens to me from time to time, although I don’t go in for all that psychic mumbo-jumbo—and I turned to Bill and I said, ‘You mark my words, he’ll be back.’”

It had been a night for funny feelings, Sean thought. But though he felt confident that Katie would understand if he told her about the connection between him and Elijah, he wasn’t ready to share that secret with anyone. And there was something more important he had to say, something he owed to this kind-hearted and generous woman who thought the sun rose and set on Elijah.

“Katie, I won’t lie to you: what Elijah told you is correct. There is a woman I’ve been living with for a number of years, and leaving her is going to be messy and some good people are going to be hurt by my actions.” Like Anna, who had always gotten on with Chris like a house on fire, and would be crushed when she heard the news.

“I expect they will, but then life can be messy and hurtful sometimes,” Katie replied with the practical acceptance of one who had seen and endured much in her life. Sean wondered exactly what she knew about that fucker Matt and his relationship with Elijah. Elijah would undoubtedly have tried to shield her and everyone else from the worst of it, but she had to be aware that it had ended badly. “The question you have to ask yourself is whether or not it’s worth it.”

“For Elijah?”

The unthinking vehemence of his reply made Katie’s eyes sparkle with delight. “I was afraid I might’ve scared you off with all my depressing talk.”

Mack had said to him on the phone the previous day: You used to see a problem and go right for the fix. Beyond a life with Elijah, beyond his goal of becoming a doctor, Sean felt the stirrings of excitement at the idea of being a part of this community, of discovering how best he could contribute and make a difference.

“No,” he said with a smile, “you most certainly haven’t scared me off.”

“I’m right glad to hear it.” Katie smiled back. “Well now, what about another cup of coffee and a piece of my huckleberry pie—if you’ve still got room, that is.”

Sean realized with surprise that while they’d been talking, he’d finished the soup and cleaned his plate. “I’ve definitely got room. I saw the way Elijah’s eyes lit up at the mention of your baking.”

Katie was blushing as she got up from the table.

The pie was warm, smothered in cream, and one bite had Sean’s own eyes lighting up. After topping off Sean’s coffee, and accepting his compliments with shy pleasure, Katie stepped out of the kitchen to bring Martha Holm a dish of tea—as he was already coming to think of it—and to check on Elijah.

Sean didn’t linger over his dessert, delicious as it was. He was anxious to get back to Elijah himself, but there was one thing he had to do first, and that was to call Chris. He didn’t want that difficult conversation hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles any longer. It was twenty minutes to five, which should leave just enough time to call her before Dr. Holm arrived.

The kitchen phone was mounted on the wall to the left of the mudroom door. Sean picked up the receiver and without hesitation, but with a heavy heart, dialed a toll-free number. Here was the first act of a deception that, while necessary to protect Elijah, was not going to be easy for Sean’s straightforward nature to perpetrate. When prompted, he entered a password, and then dialed Chris’s cell phone number. His call to her would now be untraceable, no electronic footprint left behind to lead anyone to Elijah.

“Hello?” Chris picked up on the second ring. ‘Unknown Caller’ was all that would be showing up on her phone’s LCD display, and she could have no idea who was on the other end.

“Chris, it’s Sean.” His lips felt stiff, the words difficult to push past them.

“Well gee, how thoughtful of you to find the time in your busy schedule to call me, Sean,” she said with exaggerated sweetness. “Let me guess: you’re calling to tell me that you’ve been delayed and won’t be home today after all.”

Her voice was an assault on his ears after the musical lilt of Katie’s pines accent. Sean gritted his teeth. This was going to be even worse than he’d anticipated. “As a matter of fact, yes, that is why I’m calling. I’m really sorry, Chris; I fully intended to drive back this morning, but something came up.” God, did that answer sound as lame to Chris as it did to him?

Apparently yes. “Came up?” Chris repeated in disgust. “I’ll bet it did. Tell me, are you being deliberately offensive or was that honestly a slip of the tongue?”

“What?” Sean said in confusion, thrown off-balance by the unexpected angle of her attack. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh please, don’t play the innocent with me. I’m talking about whatever woman you’re having an affair with,” she elaborated. “I admit it took me some time to figure out what’s been going on, because I honestly never imagined you’d do something like that. I only hope she’s not someone from our social circle, Sean. Liz Smith and Cindy Adams will have a field day in the Post if they get wind of it; you know that neither of those old biddies has ever liked me. Besides, now is the worst possible time for any bad publicity that could adversely affect the company’s financial stability.”

“Chris…” he tried to break in, but to no avail.

She swept on as if he hadn’t spoken. “I thought you were simply overreacting to what happened at New Year’s Eve, blowing things out of proportion the way you usually do. I figured a couple of days spent sulking down at the shore and you’d get over it. But it was all pretence, wasn’t it? You know, you missed your real calling, Sean. You should have been an actor. I actually bought into that ‘I need to get away and think about my future’ mid-life crisis shit.”

How could Chris be so right and yet so horribly, horribly wrong? The unjustness of her insinuation, that he’d lied about his reasons for leaving the city, caused an impotent anger to well up inside him, and he found himself holding the receiver so tightly that he was afraid he might shatter the plastic. He would have felt more guilt about the inadvertent truth in her accusation, had it not been abundantly plain that the only thing his supposed affair was hurting was Chris’s ego, and that its effect on Clicktwice was far more important to her than any effect it had on her personally.

It took an effort of will to relax his white-knuckled grip, but he managed it, and said with forced calm, “It wasn’t pretence, Chris. I’m not having an affair with another woman, and I left for precisely the reasons I told you.”

“Then I’d appreciate an explanation for exactly what ‘came up’, Sean, and it had better be a good one.”

He ran his hand through his hair and began pacing the length of the phone cord like a tethered tiger. “I was on my way to the shore—alone--when the Beemer broke down, right in the middle of the Pine Barrens. I left my cell phone at the apartment and I couldn’t call Triple A, so I decided to go and look for help. I stupidly managed to get myself lost in the woods,” I was lured into them by the Jersey Devil, actually, “but fortunately I was rescued by one of the locals.” A young man who just happens to be able to transform into a white stag.

If the situation weren’t so deadly serious, Sean might have found some grim amusement in imagining Chris’s reaction to the real story. “I got pretty scratched up while I was stumbling around the woods in the dark, and the guy who found me very kindly let me stay at his place until I felt well enough to leave. Then I headed straight to the shore—alone, Chris--which is where I was when I left you that message. I fully intended to return to the city this morning, but…”

“But what?” Chris demanded, although she was sounding somewhat mollified.

Sean selected his next words with the utmost care, for he wanted to stick as closely to the truth as possible, but without revealing anything specific about Elijah or giving any hint of his true feelings for him. “But I found out last night that the man who rescued me was injured in an accident. He lives alone, Chris, and after how kind he was to me, it seemed the least I could do to return the favor and help him out for a couple of days.”

“I see.”

No, I really don’t think you do, Chris. Sean could picture her clearly, tapping her flawlessly manicured nails with frustrated impatience, trying, and failing, to understand where Sean was coming from.

“Let me get this straight. We have a critical directors’ meeting on Monday—possibly the most critical in the history of the company— but you’ve decided it’s more important to play Good Samaritan to some stranger—a piney, for Christ’s sake.” She said the word with a derision that roused anger of an entirely different sort in Sean’s breast, as he recalled Elijah asking him to forgive the man who had shot him, and whose ungrateful life he had just saved. “You know, if it were anyone other than you,” she continued, “I wouldn’t believe it for a second. But you’ve always had a weird fascination with that place, god knows why, and it’s exactly the sort of ridiculously quixotic behavior I’d expect from you.”

“It might seem quixotic to you, but I happen to owe that piney my life,” Sean replied, and refused to hide his anger because to do so was to dishonor Elijah, and everything he stood for. “So yes, right now being here for him is more important.”

Chris let out a long-suffering sigh, the one she gave whenever she knew she’d pushed Sean to his limit. “Fine. Whatever. Do what you have to do. But swear to me you’ll make it back in time for the meeting.”

“I’ll be back by Sunday afternoon, I swear.”

“Thank you.”

There was an awkward pause, the sort that had punctuated so many of their recent conversations, moments when neither knew what to say to the other, as if they were strangers struggling to make polite conversation at a dinner party.

“Well, I’d better go,” she said finally. “I’m meeting some people for cocktails at 6:30 and then we’re having dinner at Jean Georges.” Her voice tightened. “I’d hoped you’d be able to join us.”

’Some people’ meaning prospective clients you’re wining and dining, Sean thought. Chris never stopped thinking about Clicktwice; it truly was her life. It simply wasn’t his anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time. “You’ll manage just fine without me, Chris. Please let’s not get into another argument.”

“All right; forget I said it.” Expecting her next words to be good-bye, Sean was surprised when instead she said, with unusual tentativeness, “Sean?”

“Yes?” He tensed, dreading what was coming next. He hated lying to Chris, even by omission, although he knew he had no other choice.

Her voice softened. “You mentioned that you got scratched up when you were lost in the woods. Are you okay?”

Oh Chris… Why is it always too little, too late?

“I’m fine.” Then, though he knew it was childish and unworthy of him, Sean added with a hint of bitterness, “So you don’t have to worry, Chris, I won’t embarrass you in front of our Board of Directors.”

Chris was silent. “I deserve that, I suppose,” she said quietly after a few moments. “But Sean, I have been worried about you.”

Not as worried as you are upset at the thought of me missing the fucking directors’ meeting. But this time he held back the words. What good would it do, after all?

Instead he said, “I know, and I’m sorry to have caused you worry.” Sean hesitated. He hadn’t intended to bring up the problems between them on the phone, but it was dishonest to act as if it would be life as usual when he returned. “Chris, I’ve done a lot of thinking this past week, and when I get back, we have to talk. We can’t go on pretending that everything is fine between us. You and I both know it’s not, and hasn’t been for some time.”

She didn’t bother to deny it. “Can it wait until after the meeting, Sean? I can’t concentrate on anything else until that’s over.”

“It can wait,” he conceded. What was the use of arguing? He knew where Chris’s priorities lay.

After a quick good-bye, Sean hung up the phone, emotionally drained in a way that only Chris could make him. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead wearily against the cool plaster of the wall. If this was a foretaste of what lay in store for him, the next few weeks were going to be hellish ones. But I’ll protect Elijah from the worst of it. That much at least I can do.

The very thought of Elijah gave him strength; he pushed away from the wall, and then started when a sudden weight landed on his right shoulder. He turned his head, expecting to see Dr. Holm or Katie, but instead found himself staring straight into a pair of beady dark eyes, barely an inch away. It was Rocky. The squirrel had abandoned his favored spot on top of the refrigerator and must have taken a flying leap from the end of the kitchen counter onto Sean’s shoulder.

“Hey, Rocky.” Sean swallowed hard past a sudden lump in his throat, and huffed a small laugh. “You sure picked a good time to decide you like a guy,” he said, absurdly touched by this unexpected development. He’d figured it would be years before Rocky stopped staring at him with suspicion much less sat on his shoulder wearing what looked like a sympathetic expression.

Rocky chattered something indecipherable and offered Sean a peanut. Fortunately it was still in its shell; Sean wasn’t sure he could’ve eaten one the squirrel had pulled out of his cheek pouch, and he definitely didn’t want to reject this peace offering.

“Thanks,” he said, taking it. “Funny, I was just thinking that I could really go for a peanut.” Rocky chattered again excitedly and flicked his bushy tail. “Hmm, maybe we better go find our interpreter. Hopefully he’s awake.” Because Jesus, I really, really need him.

But first Sean snapped open the peanut shell, popped one of the peanuts into his mouth, and gave the other to Rocky, who stuffed it into an already bulging cheek. It seemed only right to share it with him, seeing that they were now friends.


~*~

Elijah was awake, and from the way his eyes instantly met Sean’s as he entered the bedroom, it was obvious that he’d been watching for him. Sean was peripherally aware of Katie and another woman sitting in a pair of chairs next to the bed, but Elijah drew him to his side like a lodestone, and nothing else existed in the world right then except a young man with kitten-fur auburn hair and eyes bluer than a cloudless summer sky.

The smile that spread over Elijah’s face when he saw Rocky, perched on Sean’s shoulder with his front paws gripping the neckline of the green sweatshirt, could have lighted the entire east coast with its radiance.

“I feel like Sally Field,” Sean confessed as he sat on the edge of the bed, and couldn’t hold back a goofy, but very, very happy grin. “He likes me. He really likes me.”

Elijah laughed, and said, “I knew he’d come around. Pineys might be stubborn, but they’re not stupid.” Rocky started chattering again, leapt down from Sean’s shoulder and in a few quick bounds, had gained the safety of his nesting box, where he was undoubtedly adding to his stash.

Forgetting, or not caring, that they had an audience, Elijah held out his left hand and Sean took it. His touch flowed straight into Sean like an electrical current, setting his nerve endings tingling with awareness and warmth. “How are you doing?” Elijah asked, his eyes searching Sean’s face.

“Shouldn’t that be my question?” Sean replied, and the contrast between Elijah’s caring concern and Chris’s near-afterthought could not have been more striking. He felt both uplifted and depressed at the same time. So many years wasted. So fucking many years. “I’m doing great, but I’m not the one with a bullet hole in my shoulder.” He ran his thumb in a light caress over Elijah’s knuckles. “What about you?”

Elijah scowled. “I want to get up, but Martha and Katie—not to mention Maggie,” and he glared down at the cat draped insouciantly across his legs, “won’t hear of it until Dr. Ian’s examined me.” He addressed his next remark to the women sitting behind Sean. “You’re both tyrants,” he complained, and Katie’s chuckle mingled with the soft laughter of Martha Holm, and drew Sean’s attention to the fact that he’d not introduced himself to the doctor’s wife. She must think him totally lacking in manners.

Releasing Elijah’s hand, Sean stood up in a hurry. “I apologize for my rudeness,” he said, turning to Martha Holm, and barely managed not to gape. The mental image conjured by her rather old-fashioned first name was nothing remotely like the real woman who rose from her chair to greet him and laughingly replied, “Please don’t apologize; in your place I’d have done exactly the same.”

Taller than Sean by several inches, Dr. Holm’s wife was strikingly attractive, with strongly marked features, clear gray eyes and blonde hair that fell loosely around her shoulders. She wore her clothes—black jeans and black leather boots, a multi-colored woven vest and an oversized white blouse cinched at the waist by a wide leather belt with a silver and turquoise buckle—with a stylish elegance that Chris might have envied, but the hand she offered him was unadorned save for a simple gold wedding band, and her clasp was strong. She was at least twenty-five years younger than her husband, Sean judged, and his curiosity was piqued. They seemed an unlikely couple—although perhaps no unlikelier than he and Elijah, come to think of it.

But his curiosity had to go unsatisfied for the time being, because they had barely got past the handshake-and-hello stage when Dr. Holm appeared in the doorway, medical bag in hand. He looked considerably less rumpled than he had that morning: his thick white hair was combed and his sweater was on right side out. But his brusque manner was very much in evidence, and with no more than a curt nod to Sean in passing, a brief hello to Katie and a touch on his wife’s arm, he went to the bed and set down his bag.

“Well, Elijah, how are you feeling?” Dr. Holm asked, fixing him with that penetrating stare that said, ‘Don’t bother to lie, I’ll figure out the truth anyway’.

“Hungry,” Elijah complained. “And I want to take a shower, Dr. Ian. I feel like something the cat dragged in backwards—sorry, Maggie—and I hate for… well, for anyone to see me looking like this.” But he glanced toward Sean as he spoke, and it was obvious whom he meant.

As if you could look anything but beautiful in my eyes, thought Sean. He wished he could say the words aloud, but he was all too well aware of their audience. Katie was watching them with the dewy-eyed expression of one whose fondest dreams are coming true; Sean expected her to pull out a Kleenex and start dabbing at her eyes any moment, and if she did that, he’d probably start tearing up, too. And then there would probably be some sort of group hug and… oh, god.

Dr. Holm smiled faintly. “If you’ll just be patient a little longer, you can get cleaned up and have something to eat. In the meantime, maybe Katie will fetch you a dish of herb tea.” He glanced at Katie, who nodded and got up, though she clearly would rather have stayed.

“I’m sick of herb tea; I’d rather have a beer,” Elijah grumbled, as Katie left the room.

“I’m sure you would, but alcohol will only inflame the wound and delay healing,” the doctor said, prepping a digital thermometer. “And you do want to get better, don’t you?”

“Of course, but…”

Dr. Holm obviously had long experience of dealing with Elijah, and silenced his complaints by the simple expedient of placing the thermometer in his mouth. “Keep that under your tongue, and no talking,” he warned.

Sean bit back a smile at the disgruntled look on Elijah’s face. As he’d suspected, Elijah was anything but a patient patient. Of course, there were other ways of getting around Elijah’s ill humor, and Sean’s gaze was inexorably drawn to the marble pure pallor of Elijah’s chest and the rosy pink nipple that was beaded in the cool air. Sean’s eyes moved up to Elijah’s mouth, pursed around the thermometer, and the mental image that flashed into his brain then would’ve probably caused Katie to faint if she could have seen it. Good thing she couldn’t read his mind, and know exactly what he was picturing those lips wrapped around.

“Now that we have some peace and quiet…” Dr. Holm said dryly, ignoring Elijah’s scowl, and his fingers went to the sling and deftly untied it. He handed it to Martha, who had taken up a position at her husband’s side as if she was well used to assisting him. Given how distracted his mind was at that moment, Sean was content to remain where he was, with Elijah out of temptation’s reach. The irony was exquisite, really. For so many years he’d thought he was somehow lacking in that department, but now making love with Elijah was practically all he could think about, even at the most inopportune times.

But it was only practically all Sean could think about. As Dr. Holm carefully uncovered the bullet wound and discarded the soiled bandages, concern drove away every other emotion, intensified by the sudden intake of breath and soft, sympathetic, “Oh Elijah!” that escaped Martha as the full reality of what had happened hit home for her. She appeared on the verge of tears, and no wonder, for the livid bruising on Elijah’s shoulder and upper arm—a panoply of bright purples, greens and blues—outrivaled a Pine Barrens sunset in its intensity, and the bullet hole itself was raw and ugly.

“Prhf dorf wrhf Mrth,” Elijah mumbled anxiously around the thermometer. “Ahm fahn.” Although his words were mostly unintelligible, the meaning was clear: Please don’t worry, Martha. I’m fine.

Somehow it didn’t surprise Sean that Elijah would be the one offering comfort. But the wound did, at least to Sean’s less than expert eye, appear less angry-looking than it had been that morning, and no discharge was apparent from the site. Surely that was a hopeful sign.

The person who would know for certain, of course, was Dr. Holm, but he only muttered another of his seemingly endless supply of maddening ‘Hmms’ as he examined the bullet hole with his penlight. Sean had no idea if it was a good ‘hmm’ or a bad ‘hmm’. The doctor had just shut the light off when the thermometer suddenly started emitting a series of rapid beeps. He removed it from Elijah’s mouth and consulted the digital display. “100.3º. Good,” he said.

“Good? Isn’t that pretty high?” Sean questioned uneasily. Hey, 98.6, it’s good to have you back again. The silly song lyrics ran through his mind.

“Elijah’s resting body temperature is a couple of degrees higher than an average person,” Dr. Holm explained, removing the covering from the tip of the thermometer. “100.3º is perfectly normal for him.”

Sean was fascinated by this new revelation about Elijah. “Then in that case, what would constitute a fever for him?” he asked.

“Anything over-," the doctor began, but he was abruptly cut off by a tense, almost angry-sound voice. Elijah’s voice.

“Will you both please stop discussing me as if—as if I’m dumb, and can’t speak for myself? I’m not the stag now—I’m me, Elijah.” Splotches of scarlet had blossomed on his cheeks, neck and chest, and his voice was literally shaking with the force of his emotion.

A shocked silence fell in the wake of his outburst. Elijah looked at Sean, and with a sickening sensation, Sean understood that this was the heartfelt distress of a young man who had been badly wounded by that cruelest weapon of all: words. You’re a freak. No one normal will want anything to do with you.

“My resting body temperature is higher than other people,” he said, speaking now to Sean and only Sean, “and for me a fever is anything over 101.5º. My blood is a type that has no match, so Dr. Ian has to collect and store it, in case I ever need a transfusion. I can’t eat meat or take simple medicines like antibiotics and aspirin because they make me sick.” He held Sean’s gaze bravely, but there was a flicker of apprehension in his eyes as he added, “It’s not just the pedicles. There’s so much about me that’s different, Sean.”

It was obvious that the effect of Matt’s words would not be easily erased—they had burned into Elijah’s soul like acid. Time and a lot more reassurance were going to be necessary to convince Elijah that Matt-the-Fucker (as Sean now thought of him) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Dr. Holm’s expression was impassive, but his eyes were intent, flicking back and forth between Sean and Elijah as if he was a spectator at a tennis match.

“Elijah, we’re all different to one degree or another,” Sean said quietly. “Plenty of people can’t take penicillin or tolerate aspirin. Did you know that I’m allergic to monkfish? It makes me break out in hives—not a pretty sight, let me tell you. The thing is if you really love someone, those differences don’t matter.” He tried to put into his smile then as much love and reassurance as he possibly could. “They certainly don’t matter to me. In fact, they only convince me that you’re even more special than I already knew you were.”

Elijah’s eyes had never looked more intensely blue, rimmed in pink and shining with unshed tears. “Sean, I’m…” he faltered, but his apology died unspoken before the decisive shake of Sean’s head.

“You’re going to let Dr. Holm finish what he needs to do, and then you’re going to have a shower, something to eat, and more rest,” Sean said with the calm authority of one who helmed a multi-billion dollar corporation. “Okay?”

Elijah nodded. “Okay,” he whispered.

***

Sean left Katie and Dr. Holm to assist Elijah with showering and changing, while he and Martha went to the kitchen to get some dinner together for Elijah and the doctor. It was the most sensible division of labor, if not exactly Sean’s first choice. But to put him and Elijah together in the bathroom alone (well, except for Fred, whose imperturbability was, Sean thought, one of his most endearing character traits) was unwise. He doubted he could help Elijah undress and wash without succumbing to the temptation to do more. For someone who had always prided himself on his self-control, this was a humbling realization.

They exchanged a lingering and regretful look before Sean left Elijah to finish his herb tea, while Dr. Holm affixed a temporary water-repellent bandage to the wound and Katie hovered nearby like an agitated mother hen with her only chick.

A small television on a stand in one corner of the kitchen was tuned softly to the evening news while Sean and Martha worked in companionable silence. They heated up casseroles and dished food onto plates for Elijah and Dr. Holm, who, Martha informed him ruefully, almost never slowed down long enough to take a lunch break.

There had been an almost palpable shift in the atmosphere in the bedroom after Elijah’s whispered ‘Okay’. The closing of a circle was the best way Sean could put it to himself, as if on some deeper, more intrinsic level, he’d been accepted by the Holms as part of Elijah’s life and world.

“Ian was right about you,” Martha commented suddenly as she added some of the cranberry potpie to her husband’s plate. “He said you’d be good for Elijah, and you are. You found exactly the right words to say to him.” She gave him a sidelong glance, her mouth quirking up at one corner. “Although I imagine you would have preferred to do so without the audience.”

Sean was startled into laughter by the unexpectedly blunt observation, and thought how refreshingly honest she was—no surprise in the wife of Ian Holm. “I didn’t mind, Martha, but I’d prefer that the audience not make a habit of appearing in our bedroom while we’re sleeping.”

“If it’s any consolation to you,” Martha replied, a twinkle remarkably like her husband’s lurking in her clear grays eyes, “the only ones who saw you were Ian, Katie and me.”

“Oh, it definitely is. When Katie said it was like the Grand Central Station here, I had visions of a line snaking through the bedroom and someone collecting tickets at the door.”

It was Martha’s turn to laugh. “No, it was nothing like that, though we had quite a job keeping people out. To say that they’re all anxious to meet you is a vast understatement.” She gave him another of those sidelong looks. “I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but you have no idea how difficult it was not to run home and get my camera. The two of you looked so beautiful together. In fact, I’d love to photograph you and Elijah some time.” She smiled at the taken aback expression on his face. “I didn’t mean like that, although if I thought you’d agree…” She left the sentence dangling invitingly.

“You’re really serious.” He wondered what Elijah would think of the idea.

“Oh absolutely,” Martha assured him. She picked up a bread knife and started slicing a loaf of homemade bread—real homemade bread that had been kneaded by hand, not the kind that came from a bread machine. “Elijah’s one of my favorite subjects, you know. I’ll have to show you the photos I’ve taken of him. They’re some of the best work I’ve ever done. Of course, he’s any photographer’s dream to shoot. The camera simply adores his face, and he has those extraordinary eyes.” Her voice turned thoughtful; her hands momentarily stilled. “But it’s more than that. Most people have some degree of self-consciousness when they know they’re being photographed. It’s only natural to worry about how you’ll appear and what the camera might reveal. But Elijah never thinks about it—he’s simply himself, every movement, every pose is completely artless.”

A mental slideshow of images flashed through his mind: Elijah tugging an ugly gray hat over his hair… hugging Paco… cradling a baby squirrel in his hands… laughingly detangling Rocky’s paws from his hair… sinking to the carpet in the family room with unconscious grace… He knew exactly what she meant. “I’d really love to see those photos,” he said.

“Then you shall,” Martha promised. “Perhaps I should explain that I’m a photojournalist by profession—a semi-retired photojournalist since I married Ian and moved to the pines seven years ago.” She held out a couple of slices of the bread, and Sean took them and set them along the edge of Elijah’s nearly full plate.

“Then you didn’t grow up here?” he asked, helping himself to a slice and biting into it. He still felt hungry, and the enticing aroma of the yeasty warm bread was too much to resist.

“No, I’m a native Californian, although I’ve lived all over—wherever my work took me. This is the longest I’ve ever spent in one spot since I graduated from college.” Martha went to the refrigerator and opened the door.

“No regrets?” The question slipped out, and Sean immediately caught himself. “I’m sorry, Martha. That was rude. It’s none of my business.” But he couldn’t deny he was curious, for here was someone who had made a life choice very similar to the one he was making.

Martha removed the butter dish from a shelf and closed the door. “I don’t mind. Under the circumstances, I think you have a right to know. Possibly more than you realize.” Sean wondered what she meant. “I came here for the first time eight years ago, on assignment from National Geographic to take photos for an article on Pine Barrens history and culture. I arrived, like most people, with a boatload of misconceptions and preconceived notions about this place. They didn’t last long, and now I honestly can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“I subscribe to National Geographic,” Sean commented, “but I don’t remember ever seeing that article.”

“You wouldn’t have, because it never got published,” Martha replied with a wry expression. “I had an accident the day I arrived. I was photographing one of the old bog iron mines, and fell and fractured my ankle. My own stupidity, of course, as Ian never fails to remind me—I should have hired a local guide. But it did lead to our meeting, as I never fail to remind him.”

She gave Sean a look then that he couldn’t interpret. “Of course, I could have finished the assignment at a later date, but by then I had decided it would be better not to bring any more publicity to the pines.”

“Why?” Sean asked curiously.

“Because Ian wasn’t the person who found me; it was Elijah.”

There was a silence while the implication of her words sank in, and Sean, with a thrill of understanding, put two and two together. “Dear god,” he breathed. “You’ve met the white stag.”

“Yes,” Martha said softly, “I’ve met the white stag: a creature straight from the pages of a fairy tale, more beautiful than dreams.” She half-chanted the words, in unconscious echo of Sean’s own thoughts that never-to-be-forgotten night. In her clear gray eyes Sean saw reflected the same child-like sense of wonder in the presence of true magic that he had experienced, and he could tell that for her, the memory of that encounter was as vivid now as it had been eight years earlier.

“But unlike you,” she went on, “I didn’t discover the truth right away. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d known Ian for nearly a year that I was told. I sometimes wonder if he ever would have told me, the habit of silence about the Woodjin is so deeply ingrained in him and everyone else here. It was Elijah himself who finally spilled the beans, not surprisingly.” Then Martha laughed. “You don’t know from stubborn until you’ve lived among pineys for a while, but there are no kinder-hearted, more generous people anywhere. So, to answer your question, Sean: I have absolutely no regrets. One of these days when we have more time, I’ll tell you the entire story of my encounter with the white stag. But right now,” she said more prosaically, setting her husband’s dinner plate on a tray, “there’s a hungry Woodjin and his doctor waiting to eat.”

***

Sean helped Katie into her coat. “If you need us for any reason, you just give a holler, Sean,” she abjured him as she put one arm in the sleeve. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the night, me and Bill will come right over.”

“I’ll do that, I promise,” Sean replied, lifting the heavy red wool up and over her shoulders. “Although I hope it won’t be necessary.” And he meant that in more ways than one.

Over Katie’s coronet of white hair, his eyes met Martha’s, and the special bond they now shared arced between them. She smiled sympathetically, and Sean was fairly certain that she had caught the underlying meaning in his words.

Dr. Holm tugged on his brown leather gloves and gave Sean a considering look from under lowered eyebrows. “I doubt it will be necessary. Elijah’s doing remarkably well. But of course, if there’s any question at all, you should call me. Otherwise, I’ll see you in the morning, Sean. Seven o’clock sharp, mind you.”

By the faint emphasis the doctor placed on the word ‘sharp’ and the sudden twinkle in those observant blue eyes, Sean was absolutely certain that Dr. Holm had caught the underlying meaning, but he managed (with some difficulty) to maintain a bland expression as he replied, “Thank you, Dr. Holm. Of course I’ll call you if there’s any question about Elijah’s condition.”

“Good,” Dr. Holm said, and then added irritably, “But if you call, for god’s sake, use my given name, young man. You make me feel about 130 years old.”

First Rocky, now Dr. Holm, Sean thought irrepressibly. Take that, Sally Field.

As they said their good-byes, Sean felt immeasurably relieved to know that these three good people were there for Elijah, and for him, if necessary. But please god, it wouldn’t be necessary, and this time he was thinking only of Elijah’s safety and wellbeing.

“Goodness, I almost forgot,” Katie said, stopping halfway down the front steps and turning back. “I have something for you.” She fumbled awkwardly in the pocket of her vest with her mittened hand. “I found this in your windbreaker, and I thought you’d want it.”

He took a small object from her outstretched hand. It was the cat’s eye shell that he’d picked up on the beach and thought that Elijah might like. Funny, he thought as his fingers closed around the shell’s smooth convex surface, but that seemed a lifetime ago now.

“Katie, thank you.” He was touched that she would have gone to the trouble to rescue something that to many people would seem of little value or importance.

“It was a gift from the sea,” she replied, “and we can’t treat those lightly, now can we?”

“No, we can’t,” agreed Sean. In the world from which he came, such a sentiment would be thought mad indeed, but not here. This is where I truly belong. He felt it more strongly than ever.

Not until he was satisfied that both cars had started in the bitter cold, and the red taillights were receding down the snow-covered drive, did Sean finally move.

***

When Sean rejoined Elijah, he was propped up in bed by a mound of pillows with Maggie sprawled along the length of his left leg, and an issue of the NME open on his lap. He was wearing a blue-striped flannel pajama top that concealed his freshly bandaged right shoulder, and it was hard to believe that not quite twenty-four hours had passed since Elijah had been shot. His strength and resilience were truly remarkable.

Once again, Elijah had been watching for him, and once again their eyes instantly met as Sean came through the door. The world stuttered to a halt, and Sean’s stomach plummeted as if he’d plunged straight off the edge of the earth and was freefalling through space.

He went to the bed and sat down in the same spot that he had occupied earlier when he brought Elijah his dinner. Then, as now, Elijah smelled enticingly of bayberry and mint toothpaste and the pines, and his shining auburn hair clearly had not a drop of off-putting gel in it, but instead was thick, plush and inviting his touch.

“Anything interesting in the magazine?” he asked, while their eyes held an entirely different, wordless conversation.

“Reviews of about ten new CDs I’d love to buy,” Elijah said, closing the magazine and setting it aside without taking his eyes from Sean.

“Put them on your Amazon wish list,” Sean advised.

“How did you know I had one?”

“Anyone as crazy into music as you are has to have an Amazon wish list,” he teased. He would have to find out Elijah’s user name, he thought, and he also needed to know when Elijah’s birthday was so he’d have an excuse to buy him everything on his wish list. He’d learned enough about the stubbornness of pineys to be certain Elijah would put up a fight otherwise. “Now, tell me how you’re feeling.”

“I’m feeling fine,” Elijah said, “and I’d love to get up for a while. I think I’m growing roots into this mattress.” He wriggled a little as if to prove the point, but Sean refused to be distracted.

“Nice try,” he retorted, “but it’d be worth my life if I let you get up. Ian gave me very specific instructions before he left: If you have to sit on Elijah to keep him in that bed, do it.

Maggie gave an affirmative meow, and placed one orange paw on Elijah’s leg as a reminder that he needed to stay right where he was.

“Another conspiracy,” Elijah complained, but good-naturedly, as if he’d known it was a long shot. “Although if you were to sit on me,” he added, with a definitely flirtatious glance at Sean, “I don’t suppose I’d mind it too much.”

Sean grinned, and dug the cat’s eye shell out of the front pocket of his jeans. “Here, I have something for you. I found this on the beach day before yesterday. I thought you might like it, although I didn’t know then if I’d ever have the chance to give it to you.” He held out the shell with its delicately whorled center and bands of black and gold. Elijah took it in his good hand.

It felt intrinsically right that the first present he should give to Elijah be not something bought with his millions at a trendy shop in Trump Tower or even from an Amazon wish list, but a gift from the sea, as Katie had called it. Elijah’s reaction was exactly what he would have expected, too.

“It’s beautiful, Sean,” Elijah exclaimed, examining the shell closely. “I’ve never seen such a perfect cat’s eye. What do you think, Maggie?”

Maggie’s ululating response was impossible to decipher.

“What did she say?” Sean asked.

“That it doesn’t look anything like a cat’s eye,” Elijah laughed. “She can be very literal sometimes.” He held it to his nose and sniffed. A delighted smile curved his lips. “It smells like the ocean.” He flicked his pink tongue out and touched it to the shell, leaving a tiny damp spot behind. “And tastes like it, too.”

Elijah’s transparent enjoyment in such a simple gift delighted Sean, while his sensuous exploration of the shell had an entirely different effect—all the more so because the eroticism of his actions was so completely unintentional. A shiver of anticipation raced through him as he imagined Elijah exploring him with the same thoroughness, smelling and touching and tasting him.

Elijah next put the opening of the shell to his ear; eyes half-closed, he listened intently.

“Can you hear the ocean?” Sean asked quietly, and the question was tinged with sorrow for all the oceans, lakes and rivers that Elijah would never see in person.

“The waves are more of a sigh and murmur than a crash,” Elijah said, and then leaned forward and placed the shell to Sean’s ear. “But you can hear them. Listen.”

Sean’s hand instinctively rose to cover Elijah’s and hold the shell in place. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on what the shell was saying, not on how perfectly Elijah’s cupped hand fit inside his own, as if they were a pair of Russian nesting dolls. Elijah’s hearing must be unusually keen, he realized, for what he heard was not a sigh or a murmur, but only a faint whisper.

He opened his eyes, and caught Elijah watching him, much as he had that day out by the cedar swamp. Only this time, Elijah didn’t look away, didn’t blush, but instead held Sean’s gaze, making no attempt to hide the love shining in his eyes. And why should he? A small voice inside said. You’re his now, and he’s yours, and everything between you is good and right.

Better than good and right, Sean decided a moment later, as a warm arm slid around his neck, and Elijah hugged him. “Thank you,” he said into Sean’s neck.

Careful not to jar the injured shoulder, Sean wrapped his arms around Elijah’s waist, reveling in the touch of that lean but firmly muscled body against his own. How had it taken him so long to understand that this, this was what he craved? Or maybe it was only Elijah whom he craved, Elijah and no one else.

But simply holding Elijah wasn’t enough to satisfy his craving, not when soft flannel covered skin that was even softer; yielding to temptation, Sean slid his hands beneath the hem of the loosely buttoned pajama top and skimmed them up and across the narrow wings of Elijah’s shoulder blades and then down again to the tender hollow at the base of his spine, claiming every square inch of bare satin skin in between for his own.

Elijah drew in his breath sharply, and let it out on a muffled gasp.

“Are my hands too cold?” Sean asked in concern. He lifted them slightly; heat radiated from Elijah’s skin, warming his palms as if he held them at a wood stove.

“No,” Elijah whispered, “just please… don’t stop.”

So Sean didn’t. He let his hands wander where they would, exploring the swell of firm muscle and the hard edge of bone, and then playing lightly over each rise and dip in Elijah’s spine, like a musician fingering the frets on the neck of a violin, drawing wordless hums of pleasure from Elijah as if he was indeed an instrument tuned to Sean’s touch.

“That feels so good,” Elijah said in a dreamy voice, rubbing his cheek against Sean’s sweatshirt and pressing closer. “You feel so good.”

There was a silence then broken only by the hiss and pop of pine resin from the logs burning in the fireplace and the soft, quick inhale and exhale of Elijah’s breath as Sean’s fingers teased along the elastic waistband of his pajama bottom.

Then softly Elijah said, “I’m sorry for behaving like such an idiot before, Sean. I wish I could promise that it won’t happen again, but Dr. Ian can tell you what a terrible patient I am. You’re going to have to put up with me for the next few days, I’m afraid.”

Instinctively, Sean stiffened; his hands stilled. At the tensing of his body, Elijah lifted his head and drew back. “What is it? What’s wrong?” His worried eyes searched Sean’s face.

Sean sighed and moved his hands to Elijah’s hips, lightly resting them there. He should have known it was too good to last. “Elijah,” he broke the news as gently as he could, “I have to return to New York on Sunday morning.”

“But that’s the day after tomorrow.” Elijah couldn’t hide the depth of his dismay. “Do you really have to leave so soon?” His happiness dimmed, as if a cloud had passed over the sun.

“I’m afraid so,” Sean said, wishing there was any way to soften the blow. “The Board of Directors of Clicktwice is meeting on Monday. If it was any other time, I’d find a way to get out of it, but I simply can’t, not now. It’s too vitally important that I be there.”

Without a second thought, Elijah set aside his own disappointment. “That sounds pretty serious,” he said quietly. “Can you tell me about it?”

The spell had been broken, shattered by the realities that existed outside the pines. Reluctantly, Sean dropped his hands and linked them loosely on his thigh. His shoulders bowed under the double yoke of duty and responsibility that were going to separate him from Elijah, and far too soon. As he’d said to Fred in the bathroom earlier, it really sucked sometimes having a conscience.

“Well, to make a long and pretty boring story short, last fall we were approached by a company interested in buying Clicktwice,” he began, and recalled Chris’s reaction: an instantaneous and almost fanatic opposition to the very idea of selling the company. When Sean had suggested mildly that they at least talk to the company’s representatives rather than reject the proposal out of hand, she had gone ballistic. It had led to the worst fight they had ever had, and, inevitably, to Sean’s capitulation.

“It was Google, wasn’t it?” Elijah said unexpectedly, and then looked self-conscious and slightly embarrassed as Sean stared at him in surprise. “I did an Internet search on your name,” he confessed, “There was an article that mentioned it.”

“You looked me up on the Internet? I’m flattered,” Sean said lightly, hoping to ease Elijah’s embarrassment, but humor quickly died. “If you read the article, then you know we turned down a pretty substantial offer.”

“$1 billion, it said. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around an amount like that.”

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it,” Sean replied ruefully. “But Google hasn’t given up, they know our software can improve the advertising they have on their site-make it less intrusive and more useful to their users-but they aren’t the only player in the game now. Microsoft has started putting out feelers, too. If we were in the market to sell the company, there couldn’t be a better scenario then to have those two involved in a bidding war. But despite the fact we aren’t in the market, there’s still a very real possibility that one of them could end up acquiring Clicktwice, whether we like it or not.”

“But it’s your company,” Elijah said, puzzled. “How can they make you sell it if you don’t want to?”

“It’s not ‘my’ company anymore, Elijah; Clicktwice went public a few years ago. Its fate is in the hands of the shareholders and Board of Directors. Right now, given the amount of money involved—considerably more than the original $1 billion Google offered—there’s a great deal of incentive for us to sell, and increasing pressure from within and without to do so.”

“I don’t understand how they could do that to you, when you’re the one who started the company.” Elijah set the cat’s eye shell down on the bed and placed his hand over Sean’s. “That’s not right,” he said indignantly.

Sean stared down at that hand: small, scarred and callused. He would never forget how it had soothed him out of a nightmare and into dreamless sleep, before he even knew to whom it belonged. It had been a lifeline then, and it was now, and he believed with all his heart that it always would be.

“It’s not a question of right or wrong, Elijah,” he replied. “It’s a business decision, and sentiment isn’t going to hold much sway when billions of dollars are involved.” Sean laced his fingers through Elijah’s. “But please don’t feel too badly on my account. It’s my employees who will be most affected by a takeover. They’re the ones I’m worried about, not me. They could stand to lose their jobs under new management. It happens all the time—the ‘new broom sweeping clean’ phenomenon. I don’t want to see a lot of good people, people who have devoted years of their lives to Clicktwice, kicked in the teeth like that.” He held Elijah’s gaze, asking for his understanding. “That’s why I have to go back. For them. I couldn’t live with myself if I just stepped aside and let the worst happen without a fight, and Monday’s meeting could get contentious, no doubt about it.”

“Of course you can’t just step aside,” Elijah said without hesitation, “and besides, the threat of the company being taken over against your will has to be difficult for you, too. After all you’ve devoted more years to it than anyone.”

Though he was deeply touched by Elijah’s concern, Sean wasn’t going to pretend anymore. He’d played that game for far too long.

“I’m more than ready to let Clicktwice go. I should have sold the company years ago when I’d made enough money to pay off my dad’s medical bills, and ensure that my mom and Mack would never lack for anything for the rest of their lives. I didn’t, because until I met you, there was nothing else in my life worth leaving it for, and the company matters so passionately to Chris.” He shrugged. “It was easier simply to… drift, I guess you could say, keep working and piling up money I don’t need or know what to do with. I’ve never aspired to own yachts or mansions or belong to an exclusive country club and play golf every weekend.”

“Sean…” Elijah began, stopped, began again, hesitantly, “I know it’s not really any of my business, but exactly how—how rich are you?”

Sean rubbed his thumb along the back of Elijah’s hand, trying to soothe away the tension that had gathered there. “Before I answer your question, there’s something we need to settle, Elijah. Everything about me is your business now, and I don’t have any secrets from you. So please don’t ever think you can’t ask me questions. Okay?”

Elijah nodded slowly. “Only the same thing has to go for you, Sean, because it hurt to keep the truth from you. It hurt a lot. I don’t want you to think I’m a secretive person.” That hurt, and the hurt that came from a lifetime of guarding his secret, was reflected in his eyes. Elijah paid a painful price for protecting his identity as the stag, when his nature was to be open, honest and giving.

“I could never think that, Elijah, and you don’t have to worry that I’ll hesitate to ask you questions,” Sean stated calmly. “In fact, I guarantee that pretty soon you’ll be wishing I’d just shut up and stop making you answer so many.” That caused a reluctant grin to tug at Elijah’s lips. “But to answer your question, my net worth right now is about $250 million.”

“250 million dollars?” Elijah repeated, his grin vanishing to be replaced by an appalled expression.

Sean had to laugh. “That’s not the usual reaction I get, Elijah.”

“It’s just—well, it’s so much money.” Elijah sounded troubled, and a frown line had appeared between his brows.

“Yes, it is, although compared to the Bill Gates of the world, I’m small peanuts,” Sean replied. “But it’s an absurd amount of money for one person to have, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that it most definitely can’t buy you happiness. In fact, after you’ve been burned a few times, you start to question whether anyone cares about you for yourself or if all the flattery is just meaningless bullshit designed to get something out of you.”

Elijah bit his lip, clearly struggling against an outburst of some sort. “I hate to think of anyone treating you like that,” he finally said in a small voice, and his fingers clenched around Sean’s almost painfully. “I hate it. Can’t you, I don’t know, give all the money away or something?”

“I’ve thought about giving it all away, believe me,” Sean said. “You have no idea how many times I’ve thought about it. But it’s not that simple, and I’d be lying if I said that being wealthy doesn’t have some advantages. For one thing, it’s enabled me to set up a cancer research foundation in memory of my dad. I’ve poured millions into that. I sit on the boards of numerous charitable organizations, too, as I think told you. I try to give when and where I can, and there’s definitely satisfaction in being able to help those who are in need. But what I said to you once before is true: anyone can write a check. Helping others the way you and Ian do—hands-on, lifelong work—is where the greatest fulfillment lies. I never meant to spend my life running a corporation.”

“Have you given any thought to what I said to you before you left?” Elijah asked. “About going back to school to become a doctor, I mean. I just know you’d be a fantastic doctor, Sean, and Dr. Ian has said a hundred times at least that he’d love to have a partner in his practice. I’m sure he’d happy to have you.”

A vision sprang up before Sean’s eyes then, of him living a busy, useful life as a doctor here in the pines with Elijah. An almost giddy sensation swept over him, but he said, a little slyly, anticipating Elijah’s reaction, “You’re getting ahead of yourself, Elijah. I’ve only just requested catalogs for post-baccalaureate programs. It’s going to be a while before I’ll actually have my medical degree.”

“Oh Sean.” Tears were suddenly standing in Elijah’s eyes. “You mean you’re going to do it?”

“I am. I really am. I’m going to be a doctor.” It felt so incredible to say the words aloud to the person who was responsible for giving him back his dream.

They came together in an embrace of pure, undiluted joy. “I’m so proud of you,” Elijah said, and in his voice Sean heard an echo of his father, the only other person who had ever truly believed in him.

“I’ve got a long, tough road ahead of me,” Sean reminded him, but he was smiling, because it was a road he was anxious to set out upon, and in his mind’s eye he could see his dad and the proud expression on his face. “Remember, I haven’t been in school for a lot of years, and I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten most of the science I ever learned.”

“I can help you with your studying, and I’m sure Dr. Ian will help you, too, and you can accompany him on his rounds and get an idea of what it’s like,” Elijah’s voice was animated, his eyes bright as stars, and he was chattering nearly as excitedly as Rocky. “We can talk to him tomorrow morning when he comes to see me, and maybe next weekend you can go with him.”

At Elijah’s words, Sean came crashing back to earth with a sickening jolt. Shit. He still hadn’t told Elijah everything he’d decided. It seemed beyond cruel to ruin Elijah’s joy in this moment, but he had no choice.

Elijah was staring at him. The excitement slowly drained away and his face fell. “You’re about to tell me something else I don’t want to hear, aren’t you?” he said, with a valiant attempt at humor.

Sean ran a frustrated hand through his hair, dropped it, and sighed. “Elijah, until this is resolved-not only what is happening with the company, but my separation from Chris-I’m not going to be able to come back to the pines or see you. In fact, no one in my life except my brother Mack, who already knows about you, will even be aware that you exist.”

There was silence while Elijah absorbed the news. A shadow passed over his face, leaving a troubled expression in its wake. “I don’t understand, Sean. Why is that necessary?”

“Because, ridiculous as it might seem, when the news gets out that Chris and I are separating, the media, especially the local media, are going to jump on the story. There’s going to be a lot of speculation and gossip, and I don’t want reporters coming here, harassing you and your friends and family.” Sean thought of the Post’s gossip columnists, with their long-standing grudge against Chris. He imagined what a field day they’d have if they discovered not only that had Sean left her, but that he’d left her for a gay man who lived in the Pine Barrens. God. Just imagining what they might write made him sick. But beyond that, he was haunted by his conversation with Ian Holm about the dangers to Elijah if his identity as the white stag was uncovered. “I could never forgive myself if through me your secret was discovered.”

“I don’t care,” Elijah said, his jaw set in a stubborn line. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

“But I’m not willing for you to take it,” Sean said bluntly. “Elijah, you have no idea the lengths to which some of these reporters will go for a story. I could tell you tales that would curdle your blood. It will make our separation so much easier to endure if you’re safe out of the mess until it’s over. Please try to understand that I only want to protect you.”

When Elijah said nothing, Sean continued, “Even if I had never met you, I would have left Chris, and sooner rather than later. The reason I was on my way to the shore in the dead of winter was because I needed a quiet place to think about my future with her, to decide once and for all to end our relationship. So you see, this would have happened anyway, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to be involved.”

“Except for how much I’ll miss you, Sean.”

The simple statement bruised Sean’s heart. “We can still talk on the phone.” It was small consolation, but the best he could offer. “I’m going to set up a private number just for your use. You won’t be able to call me at work unless it’s an emergency, but we can talk every night. No, we will talk every night, I promise you.”

Elijah’s head was bent, hiding his expression, but Sean could see the bob of his Adam’s apple when he swallowed, as if there was a constriction in his throat. “How long will it be before you can come home?” he asked in a low voice, agreement, however unwilling, implicit in the question.

Home. There was a constriction in Sean’s own throat. This was indeed his home now: the home of his heart. “I’m not sure. A lot will depend on Chris, and how difficult she decides to make things. We never married, which legally creates some gray areas, but fortunately we do have a written property and financial agreement.” He smiled wryly. “Chris was the one who insisted we have it, and that we update it regularly, and it’s a damn good thing she did. Not that that doesn’t mean there won’t be lawyers involved, of course, but I don’t intend to fight her over anything.”

The smile morphed into a laugh devoid of amusement. “Although all we’ve done for months is fight, or so it seems,” Sean said. “It’s ironic as hell, you know. The same personality traits that made us so compatible in the workplace are the ones that drove each other crazy when we started living together. We never should have tried to be more than colleagues and friends. The fact is that Chris will be more upset by my leaving the company than she will by my leaving her.”

“Like I said to you before, Chris is an idiot.” There was a fierceness in Elijah’s voice that stunned Sean, an almost feral intensity that spoke to something inside him that he had never before known existed.

The pines scent around Elijah intensified, as if his stag nature, the protector, had come to the fore. It was intensely arousing, and in an instant, the atmosphere inside the room changed, turned electric. The pupils of Elijah’s eyes expanded, until only a thin rim of purest blue was left, burning around the edges like the sun during a total eclipse.

“We studied a poem in school once,” Elijah said, “I can’t remember the name of the author or title, but there’s one line that stuck in my memory. But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.”

“’To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell,” Sean supplied, and understood exactly what Elijah meant, what he wanted. Their entwined fingers were suddenly slippery with sweat; a heated flush crept over his body and a drumbeat began to pound in his veins. “Are you trying to say that I’m coy?”

“No, I’m saying that I don’t want to waste anymore time. I want to make love with you, Sean.” Elijah disentangled his fingers, and cupped his hand possessively at the back of Sean’s neck. He stroked his thumb against the short hairs at the nape, raising goosebumps along Sean’s skin. “Now.”

There was a muffled thump as Maggie jumped off the bed; neither noticed.

“You know, the only line of that poem I can remember is this...” Raising his hands to frame either side of Elijah’s face and looking deeply into his eyes, Sean quoted softly, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.

“I like that line better,” Elijah whispered, as he pulled Sean toward him. “Let’s make him run like the Devil’s at his heels.”

“You’re sure you feel up to this?” Sean had to ask.

“Sean?”

“Yeah?”

“Will you shut up and kiss me?”

This kiss was as different from the sweet and simple one they’d exchanged that morning as a kitten was from a full-grown tiger; as if they could indeed hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, their mouths opened desperately to each other, and neither wasted time but immediately deepened the kiss, slanting their mouths first one way then the other, accidentally bumping noses and laughing breathlessly, then diving in again.

Sean could not get enough of the taste of Elijah, a taste smoother and richer than the finest single-malt Scotch whisky, and even more potent. It went straight to his head; instinctively, with barely a thought for Elijah’s injured shoulder, he pushed the younger man down into the pillows then planted one knee on the bed and swung his other leg over so that he straddled Elijah’s blanket-covered thighs. His jeans pulled uncomfortably tight across his growing erection, but Sean ignored the discomfort and with impatient, shaking fingers fumbled open the buttons of Elijah’s pajama top and pushed the sides apart. Then, like a starving man at a banquet with too many glorious dishes to choose from, Sean simply stared.

Elijah looked… he looked… For once, words failed him. Sean wished he were an Andrew Marvell, a poet who could do justice to the sight before him: Elijah, watching him with heavy-lidded eyes, the pupils so dilated now that they appeared almost completely black. His cheeks were flushed and damp with perspiration, his lips were swollen and red, and his chest rose and fell rapidly.

“Sean…” Elijah held out his good arm, and the smile that curled the corners of his lips would have made the Mona Lisa envious. Mysterious, seductive, and knowing, it challenged and invited him to continue what had been started.

Bracing on his left arm, Sean leaned in, and buried his hot face in Elijah’s neck. He inhaled the intoxicating scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses, and then found the pulse beating furiously at the base of Elijah’s throat. He soothed it with lips and tongue, and then moved on, planting wet, open-mouthed kisses on Elijah’s exposed neck, and soft, brushing kisses along the silken smoothness of his left shoulder. He searched blindly for a tight-budded nipple, found it, and then rolled it between thumb and forefinger. Elijah gave a wordless cry and arched his back, fingers fisting helplessly in green cotton.

“Elijah,” Sean breathed the name against his skin like a prayer. “Elijah.” He shifted downward to take the nipple in his mouth and suckle it, while he reached for the hem of his sweatshirt, desperate now to remove it and feel that supple, satin skin against his own.

“Elijah.”

For a moment, Sean thought it was his own voice speaking, until the voice called out, in very feminine tones that cut through the erotic haze like a knife, “Elijah, we’re here. I brought you the Shiner Bock you wanted, but you’ll have to get it out of the car. My arms are full.”

“Oh gollykeeper!” Elijah exclaimed, sitting up so fast that Sean was knocked off-balance and toppled onto his back with a startled exclamation. “It’s Hannah! I totally forgot that she and Jordan were coming to visit this weekend.”

Gollykeeper?” A hysterical sort of half-laugh, half-moan of dismay escaped Sean, induced entirely by panic at the thought of being found in bed with Elijah again, but this time by his sister and in the middle of having sex. He righted himself and scrambled off the bed like a man demented-which was more or less how he felt. He had never been so aroused in his entire life, and he thought he might literally explode with frustration.

“It’s a pines cuss word,” Elijah explained, erupting into helpless giggles at the sight of Sean frantically and futilely trying to tug his sweatshirt down to cover his blatant arousal. “Here.” He grabbed the NME and thrust it at Sean. “Take this.”

It was no use, Sean thought, as he held the opened magazine with forced casualness in front of his crotch. They were doomed. Even if Hannah couldn’t see his erection, the atmosphere in the room fairly shouted ‘hey, we’re having sex’. He kept his eyes averted from the sight of Elijah, with his tousled hair, kiss-roughened lips and pajama top hanging wantonly from one elbow, and desperately willed his body to behave.

Moments later, a diminutive whirlwind blew into the room, a whirlwind with short platinum blonde hair, an adorable brown-haired, brown-eyed toddler balanced on her hip and a quilted diaper bag slung over her shoulder. Even had Sean not known who she was, he would have guessed, for Hannah bore a startling resemblance to her older brother.

“Elijah, you could at least have…” Hannah began, and then her eyes, large and expressive blue eyes a few shades paler than Elijah’s, fell on Sean. They moved questioningly from him to Elijah, and Sean could see the exact moment she noticed the white bandage and sling, no longer hidden from view by the pajama top. He would rather she have noticed his hard-on, he decided, as her face went chalk white with shock.

The child on her hip was holding out his arms toward Elijah, burbling happily, “Lijah! Lijah!” But if Jordan was happy, his mother was anything but.

“Oh my god,” Hannah exclaimed in horror, and her accusing stare fell squarely on Sean. “Oh my god. What have you done to my brother?