Breathing in the cool night air, Chris Larabee viewed the sleeping town
Four Corners with satisfaction. Everything was quiet, and had been for
days. He and his friends were finally beginning to see the fruits of their
labor pay off: word had gotten out that the small town was protected by
seven men and trouble had begun to pass Four Corners by, looking for less
He and the others had done good work here. It was nice, knowing
efforts had paid off in a good way. His presence brought security, safety,
to the town. The people who lived here had grown used to him and his
friends and now greeted them as fellow townspeople, rather than shying away
when they met on the street.
He liked the change.
Chris frowned a little as he surveyed the town. He could see light
flickering through the shutters of the saloon, long after it should have
been closed for the night. Wondering who was helping themselves to an
after-hours drink, he walked down to the building. He didn't bother
knocking; no need to warn whoever was in there, now was there?
He took a few steps into the saloon and stopped, puzzled by what he
The place was empty save one man, but all the lamps had been lit. The
single person in the room stood behind the bar, pouring whiskey into a shot
glass. The man glanced up as Chris entered.
Ezra Standish. Chris's confusion deepened. The night was fast becoming
morning; even the night owl gambler should have been in bed by now. So why
was he serving drinks to no one in an empty bar? And why was he impeccably
dressed, including jacket and hat, at an hour when he should have been
"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra's smile widened. "A most unexpected
surprise. Please join me." He gestured grandly toward the bar stool in
front of the place where he stood.
Chris moved slowly toward the stool, head cocked to one side.
all right?" There was something off about the other man's smile: it was
too wide, and it didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Everything is more than all right," Ezra assured him, nodding approvingly
when he sat down. An almost bitter laugh escaped him. "It is perfect.
Now, it is perfect."
The gunslinger was even more confused, but he sat down. "What
are you doing
up? This is late, even for you."
Ezra ignored the question and busied himself behind the bar. He
set up a
second glass beside the first, and poured a measure of whiskey into it as
well. "Join me for a toast, Mr. Larabee. One can't have a proper toast
with only one person, after all."
Chris nodded. He had no idea what was going on, but he was willing
along for a while. Truth be told, something about Ezra had been off for
almost a week now. The gambler had acted like a man wrestling with a
decision; he had been given to long silences during which his attention was
clearly turned inwards, which was quite a change for the normally gregarious
gambler. Chris and the rest of the Seven had given him room, hoping that
he'd work out whatever was bothering him, giving him the privacy they would
have wanted. Now the gunslinger wondered if he was going to have to step in
Ezra placed the whiskey bottle down on the bar and raised one of the
glasses. He did so silently, a condition that was somewhat unnerving when
found in such a talkative man. Chris mirrored the action, raising his own
The gambler smiled distractedly at him, but he didn't actually seem
seeing Chris. It gave the gunslinger the eerie sensation of unreality, as
if he wasn't actually in the saloon.
"To opening one's eyes," Ezra said softly. "To facing the truth and
accepting it." The smile slipped off his face for a moment, and he looked
alone and sorrowful. Then he lifted the glass to his lips and swallowed the
liquid quickly. When he lowered the empty glass, he was smiling once more.
Wondering if he had really seen that lonely expression, Chris drank
whiskey also. Why not? While strange, it was a good thought, echoing how
the gunslinger lived his own life. Placing his glass on the bar carefully,
Chris caught Ezra's gaze. "Odd time for a toast, don't you think?"
Ezra shrugged, somehow making even that simple movement look elegant
red coat and lace cuffs. "As you yourself have observed, Mr. Larabee, I
rarely keep what are considered regular hours. Why should I do so in this?"
He cleared away the glasses and the bottle, putting them away.
He also didn't really answer the question.
Chris decided to let it go. Ezra was a grown man; he could take
himself. He looked around the bar, but everything was in order. He really
should get back to his patrol around town, look everything over once more
before turning in for the night.
When he glanced back at Ezra, the gambler was staring at him, a wistful,
rueful expression on his face. As soon as Chris met his gaze, the
green-eyed man blinked, his face swiftly changing into its usual genial
lines of good humor. "Good night, Mr. Larabee." More quietly, "Thank you."
"Good night, Ezra." Chris stood up and walked toward the door.
back once, and saw that Ezra was blowing out the lamps around the saloon,
plunging the bar into darkness. Having no reason to linger, the gunslinger
continued on his way out into the street.
As he did his final walk through Four Corners, Chris found that his
weren't on his actions; instead, they remained in the saloon, with the man
whose window had just gone dark.
He hadn't expected it when he first met Ezra, but he had come to like
gambler and think of him as a friend. He never would have guessed that
things would turn out like that; they had a less than auspicious beginning,
after all. But in the months that followed the fight at the Seminole
village, Ezra had proved himself time and again as trustworthy, a good man
to have at your side in a fight.
Ezra had been withdrawn lately, to the point where Chris had noticed
begun to worry. His brow creased a little. Why should he worry? Ezra was
a grown man, capable of taking care of himself. Chris was sure of this, so
why the worry? Shrugging it off, the gunslinger continued his walk through
town, now heading for his own room.
He hoped the toast had helped Ezra with whatever was troubling him.
hadn't realized until now how much it bothered him that the gambler was
upset. He had missed the other man's constant stream of observances and
comments. He usually made out that they irritated him, but he had come to
appreciate the dry humor and wit behind them. Hopefully, Ezra had figured
out his problem and his unnatural silence would end.
A little uneasy about how concerned he was for Ezra, Chris decided to turn
in. He was probably just edgy after the strangeness in the saloon. Things
would be better, clearer, in the morning.
Ezra leaned against the doorway leading into the saloon, projecting
of casual nonchalance. After all, perhaps if he looked the part, he'd begin
to feel it. It could happen, right?
Sensing the melancholy path his thoughts were about to take, Ezra forcibly
stopped himself from thinking. Instead, he breathed deeply, inhaling fresh
air and soaking up sunlight. This was what he was supposed to be doing:
getting back into the light, leaving behind the darkness he'd been wallowing
in for so long. Wasn't that what the toast last night had been about?
A bitter smile twisted his lips as he remembered Chris's unexpected
appearance in the saloon. He'd planned on performing the toast alone, a
private ceremony to symbolize his conscious choice to make a change in his
life. The gunslinger's arrival had added ironic perfection to the ceremony,
however, and Ezra had never been able to resist irony.
He'd always known his attraction toward Chris was futile. When
merely physical lust, he could ignore it. It was inconvenient at times, but
for the most part had little impact on his life. When he got to know Chris
better, as time revealed to him the honorable, steadfast spirit hidden in
the gunslinger's black clothing, that attraction had deepened into love.
It was with a certain amount of horror that Ezra recognized his changing
emotions. He was no stranger to unrequited lust; he was quite accustomed to
hiding his attraction to men. All that he required to deal with attraction
that wasn't returned was some time alone. He knew how to please himself,
and fantasies about his lust object just added to his pleasure.
Unrequited love, now, that was an entirely different matter. Lust
unfulfilled was irritating; love unfulfilled was a consuming, aching hole.
It ate away at him, leaving him empty and hopeless. Chris barely liked him;
love was out of the question.
Ezra was a realist; he was also fond of living in comfort. Both
traits rose up in him a week ago, forcing him to realize his love was
hopeless, useless, a source of pain that he did not need. He'd struggled to
come to a decision. He had to end the pain, but how? Should he leave? Try
to find someone else?
He couldn't leave. He'd made a commitment to the people of Four
and he wasn't going to walk out on that. More than that, he'd made a
commitment to the rest of the Seven. He was just beginning to earn their
respect, and he'd worked too hard for that to throw it all away.
In the end, he'd decided to just push his love for Chris away.
anyone else in town that he was interested in; being in love made other
people rather unattractive. Still, he was nothing if not creative. He
could find a way to distract himself until his heart relented in its
foolishness and gave up on Chris.
That was what his toast was for: a promise to himself that he
was going to
be honest with himself. Chris would never love him, so he had to move on,
open his eyes and accept the truth. The fact that Chris had joined him in
the toast, completely uncomprehending but willing to try to help, only
strengthened his determination. Chris was beginning to look upon him as a
friend; Ezra wasn't going to jeopardize that, no matter the ridiculous
longings of his heart.
Now all he needed was a distraction. That in mind, he stepped
out into the
street, feeling the sun's warmth soak through his clothing. Turning his
face up to feel the rays on his face, Ezra's smile became more natural. It
was hard to maintain gloom on such a bright day. The sound of his name
being called pulled his attention back to earth. He glanced over at the man
approaching. "Mr. Dunne, how may I be of service?" He felt his smile grow.
JD always did that to him, somehow. The younger man had grown up rapidly,
but he hadn't lost his enthusiasm for life, a trait that Ezra envied and
JD grinned at him. "This time I'm the one who's going to be of
teased. "I bet you haven't heard the news yet. We've got some new people
"Really?" Ezra couldn't resist urging JD on. "Who?"
"A group of real actors! One of the ladies got sick, so they're
stop here and wait for her to get better." JD stared across the street at
the hotel. "Real actors, here in Four Corners. Think they'll do a play?"
Ezra shrugged. "Perhaps we will be lucky, Mr. Dunne." He
kept his opinion
about the likely talent of the troupe to himself. There was no need to
crush the other man's enthusiasm. "Have they enlisted the services of Mr.
"He's at the hotel now. I hope she gets better. I'd like
to see some real
"Who cares if they can act?" asked Buck, joining them. He clapped
JD on the
back. "You know what actors in town mean?"
"I'm sure you'll tell us, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra's tone was dry,
caught the twinkle in Buck's eyes. Apparently the taller man was aware of
the poor quality of most wandering players, and was trying to buffer JD from
disappointment by distracting him with another aspect of the actors' visit.
He was willing to play along.
"Actresses, boys. Beautiful women, right here in Four Corners.
been traveling around and now they've got a chance to rest. No doubt
they'll be eager to meet some real cowboys who can tell them all about the
country they've been missing by moving around so much." With a wink, Buck
glanced at Ezra. "Don't you think so?"
"No doubt. I would be willing to wager that they'd be most interested
speaking to a real Western sheriff."
"You think so?" JD didn't seem entirely convinced.
"You can but wait and see." Ezra hoped between the two of them,
JD would be
content with whatever the actors did. He knew JD was an adult, but he still
had an urge to protect him. He just didn't want the younger man to ever
lose that energy that made him so appealing.
The actors were a bit of an adventure for JD, a break from the usual
of life in Four Corners. Ezra doubted they'd prove to be the distraction he
was looking for, but he was pleased for JD's sake.
"Yeah, I think I'll be heading over to the hotel later on," Buck said.
"Actresses, boy. Beautiful, cultured women, with fancy clothes and ways of
talking...." He laughed. "Sorta like Ezra in a dress!"
"Very droll, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra shook his head but grinned.
no way he could leave. He didn't want to lose these men, these friends.
A noise drew his attention to the hotel, and he watched with Buck and
some of the discussed troupe appeared at the front door, surveying the town
in which they had stopped. Ezra knew the other men's attention was focused
on the three women who were pointing out different things to each other.
They were certainly better dressed then the women of Four Corners, although
he wouldn't say that they were especially beautiful. Good looking, yes, but
not extraordinarily so.
His own attention was focused on one of the two men standing with them.
just a moment, he'd thought one of them was Chris. It was just a fleeting
impression, gone as soon as it had formed. The other man was slim, yes,
with blond hair and light eyes, dressed in dark colors, but he wasn't Chris.
He was a little shorter, his hair lighter, and his face was less angular,
less hard. The actor was handsome, and his smile as he turned his face up
to the sun was startlingly appealing.
The actor looked back down at the town, and his gaze met Ezra's.
gambler smiled and tipped his hat to him in a gesture of welcome. The
actor's smile widened, and he nodded toward Ezra. There was friendliness in
that smile and a hint of promise.
Maybe the actors would provide the distraction he needed, after all.
Chris pushed his way into the saloon, the noise and light a welcome
that he was back among people once more. He enjoyed patrolling outside of
town, but he'd grown used to conversation with friends, and a few days with
no response to his own words but the twitching of his horse's ears got old
fast. He was actually eager to return to town and hear a voice besides his
He spotted Vin leaning against the bar and headed over to him.
crossed the room, he glanced over to the table where Ezra usually held sway.
He felt a small frisson of surprise when the green eyes didn't meet his
gaze. He almost missed a step but caught himself and continued his path to
He hadn't realized it until it failed to happen: every time he entered
saloon, every time before, he would glance over at Ezra and meet the
gambler's gaze. Every time. He hadn't noticed doing it, hadn't realized it
was a part of his routine until it hadn't happened.
Vin looked at him, gaze slightly concerned. "You all right?"
Chris nodded. "Just glad to be back in town." He ordered
a drink, then
turned to survey the saloon. More truthfully, to survey Ezra. What held
the gambler's attention so strongly that it broke their unspoken routine?
Ezra was playing cards, of course. Member of the seven he might
gambling was still his calling, his profession. As always, Ezra was doing
more than just playing poker with his opponents; he was also entertaining
them, talking and laughing and joking with them. This time, most of his
attention was focused on one other player, rather than being evenly
Chris felt the small smile he'd worn as he'd entered the building fall
Ezra was being monopolized by the man sitting to his right. The stranger
had blond hair, blue eyes, and an easy grin. He was also totally focused on
Ezra. "Who's that?"
"You heard tell of the actors in town?"
"First thing people told me when I rode in." He took a drink and
sourly toward the blond. "That guy one of them?"
"Name of Tom Ireland. Most of the others stick close to the hotel.
figure they're a mite nervous of being in such a small town. Ireland's
plenty friendly, though."
Chris shot a sharp look at Vin, but the tracker was concentrating on
drink. How had Vin managed to speak Chris's thought? Ireland was friendly.
Too friendly. He was distracting Ezra. Hell, he was probably going to
end up making the gambler lose hands that he should easily win. The
gunslinger looked back over at Ezra, but still failed to meet the green
gaze. Ezra was laughing at something Ireland had said, probably completely
unaware of Chris's presence in the saloon.
Hell with it. Chris wasn't sure why he was so eager to catch the
man's eye. It was probably just he was used to it, was all. No other
At least, none that he wanted to think about.
He focused his attention on Vin, catching up on the events in town that
missed while out on patrol. Things were still quiet, and Chris hadn't
gotten used to that enough so that he'd complain about being bored. The
sound of his name being called distracted him, and he looked up to see Buck
pushing his way through the crowd at the bar to reach him, JD trailing in
"Chris! Get this damn nuisance away from me!" Buck ordered
a drink with a
disgruntled look on his face.
He wasn't so irritated with JD that he didn't order one for him as well,
Chris figured there really wasn't much to worry about. "What's the problem,
"Just tell him to leave me alone," Buck groused.
Vin grinned at their youngest member. "What did you do to him?
JD's smile was completely unrepentant. "I've just been asking
him to show
me which one of the actresses he's managed to charm. I mean, they've been
here for a few days now." His gaze shifted over to Buck. "You should have
gotten one of them by now, right, Buck? Between being a real live Western
man and your natural animal magnetism you must have gotten one, right?"
Buck glared at him, then looked appealingly over at Chris. "You
see what I
have to deal with?" He took a long drink. "Those women just don't know a
good thing when they see it. Besides, they never leave the damn hotel! I
can respect wanting to be with a sick friend, but they should take interest
in the town they're in, too."
Chris shared a wry glance with Vin. Buck never understood how
resist him. The big man always bounced back quickly, though. Chris
wouldn't be surprised to see him ensconced in a corner with one of the local
ladies before the night was through.
Vin leaned back against the bar, surveying the saloon again. The
laughter rose above the general noise, and the tracker grinned. "Looks like
Ezra's taken all your luck. At least he's managed to catch one of the
actors." He nodded over toward the poker table.
Buck and JD laughed, turning to watch Ezra and the actor joke around as they
continued to play cards.
Chris choked on his drink, feeling a nasty wrench in his gut as they
laughed. He knew it was just a joke, on Buck, on Ezra. It meant nothing;
Vin's sly sense of humor was asserting itself again.
Irritably, he ordered himself another drink. Why the hell should
he care if
Ezra was hanging around with one of the actors? Fresh drink in hand, he
turned around to watch the poker game. Ezra was smiling down at his cards
as he made his play. Chris knew that wasn't a slip of his poker face; Ezra
didn't have a poker face. He kept opponents from knowing his hand by
engaging them in conversation and seeming to concentrate on that rather than
his cards. No, that smile was a result of something the actor had said.
At least Ezra was smiling. The gambler had been too solemn for
the past few
weeks. Between the toast and the actor, his mood had definitely improved.
He should be pleased for Ezra, pleased that he'd pulled himself out of
whatever dark mood had taken him.
With a sigh, he took another drink. Vin's joke was just a joke, but he
still didn't like it. He'd never seen Ezra take to a stranger so fast.
Watching the two men laugh and joke their way through another round of play,
he scowled. There was something about Ireland he just didn't like.
Ezra leaned back in his chair and stretched. It had been a long
he didn't feel tired in the least. Instead, he felt energized, awake, more
alive than he had in a long time. He looked over at the bar and caught the
bartender's eyes. "Closing up for the night?"
The man behind the bar nodded. "You and Mr. Ireland are the only
Ezra. Finish locking up the place for me?"
"But of course. Have a good evening." As he watched the
he saw that his words had been true: he and the blond man were the only
ones left in the bar. He turned his attention back to his companion. "Up
for another round, Mr. Ireland?"
"I think I've given you all the money I can afford." The blond
at him. "And call me Tom, please."
"Then, Tom, it would appear our evening is coming to an end."
want it to end. He'd found the past evening more entertaining than any in
recent memory, and that was entirely due to Tom's presence. The other man
had a quick wit and an even quicker mind, making his conversation and
"It doesn't have to." Tom leaned forward and licked his lips.
other sorts of games we can play." His voice was husky, his gaze intense.
Ezra felt a flare of heat flash through him. He hesitated for
a moment then
said, "I could be interested in a different type of game." It had been a
while since he'd engaged in this sort of conversation with a man, and he was
unsure of what to do. He knew what he wanted, though. His gaze traveled
over the well-cut blond hair, the handsome planes of the other man's face,
the long-fingered hands resting on the table. Tom was a handsome man and,
after getting to know him, the attraction had only deepened.
Tom reached out and ghosted the tips of his fingers across the back
Ezra's hand. "A game for fun? For mutual pleasure?"
A shiver running through his frame, Ezra smiled. "Of course."
"Mr. Standish, I would be delighted to join you in a game." Tom's
became firmer. "Your room or mine?"
"Mine is just upstairs." Moving as one, they stood. "I have
"I'll get the lights." Working together they quickly extinguished
and locked doors.
Ezra led Tom up the stairs to his room, opening the door smoothly and
leading the other man inside. He turned to face him. "It has been a
while," he admitted quietly as he closed the door.
"We'll just have to make up for that then, won't we?" Tom stepped
and ran his hands up Ezra's arms, resting them on his shoulders before
pulling him close.
The feel of another body so close to his was devastating. Ezra
alone for too long. His arms slid around Tom, aligning their bodies
closely, perfectly. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against Tom's.
Warm and soft, they parted for him and an agile tongue invited his to come
out and play.
Ezra lost himself in the wet friction of their mouths, in the taste
in the delicious friction that fanned the low-burning flame inside him. He
groaned hungrily and held Tom tighter, needing to feel more of him.
Clever fingers burrowed inside his clothes, making their way beneath
vest and shirt. The feel of warm hands on his flesh provoked pleasant
shudders in him. The fingers fanned out over his flanks, their light touch
tickling just a bit. He wriggled a little at the teasing touch.
Tom pulled back and arched an eyebrow at him. "What was that?"
he asked, an
evil little grin on his lips.
"Nothing," Ezra said. "This," he said, pressing his erection against
other man, "this is something."
"It certainly is," Tom agreed. He stripped off his own shirt and
removed Ezra's clothing, leaving him bare-chested. They both removed their
shoes. When Ezra reached for his pants, Tom's hands covered his, helping
him slide them past his hips to the floor. Ezra tried to return the favor
but Tom gently fended off his hands. "No, not just yet."
Standing naked before his prospective lover, Ezra cocked his head to
side. "What on earth can you be waiting for?"
"I want to investigate that nothing." He stroked his hands down
in a teasing touch.
A startled giggle burst forth from Ezra even as he flinched away.
"I most certainly am not." Ezra began to back away.
Tom followed him, backing him up until his legs hit his bed. "You
I'll prove it." His hands darted out, ghosting over Ezra's stomach in a
move that pulled a yelp of laughter from the gambler. Ezra jerked backwards
and fell on the bed and Tom followed him, covering the giggling body with
Ezra tried to protect his vulnerable flanks, but Tom played dirty, using
kisses to distract Ezra before mercilessly tickling him. Soon, the gambler
was reduced to a giggling, panting heap and Tom wasn't much better, laughing
as he dragged the helpless sounds from Ezra again and again.
Finally, Ezra gasped out his surrender. "No more! Please,
no more." He
glared affectionately at the man lying on top of him. "That was most
"Yes," Tom agreed unrepentantly, wriggling out of his pants.
"You should make it up to me." Ezra's words ended in a pleased
murmur as he
felt his lover's naked body fully against his own.
"Yes," Tom's grin became anticipatory. He made his way down Ezra's
scraping his teeth across the smooth skin.
Ezra moaned, but reached down and pulled Tom up to face him. "I
want to be
able to kiss you," he explained, then demonstrated.
Tom groaned appreciatively even as he aligned himself on top of Ezra.
Together, they began a mutual rhythm of thrusting that pushed them closer
and closer to the edge. Gasping for breath, Ezra watched in fascination as
Tom's eyes became gray with passion. The blond sealed their mouths
together, and Ezra shouted his completion into Tom's mouth.
When he finally opened his eyes again, Tom was smiling down at him.
Ezra smiled bemusedly at him. "What?"
"Your eyes. The shadows aren't there anymore."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
Tom leaned forward and kissed him. "Sometimes when you're quiet,
I can see
shadows in your eyes, shadows of sorrow. They shouldn't be there, and I'm
glad they're gone."
Ezra chewed on his lower lip. What to say? "I'm just getting
Trying to forget, you know?"
Tom nodded. "Am I helping?"
"Good." He pulled Ezra closer. "As a temporary citizen of
this town, I
really can't allow the second-most handsome man in town to look so sad.
I'll have to do my best to chase the shadows away."
"Well, I am in town." Tom silenced Ezra's outrage with a consuming kiss.
The gambler subsided, giving himself over to the sensations. As
himself to sleep with the other man in his arms, he murmured, "I'll have my
"I'll be looking forward to it."
As he slowly fell asleep, he was grateful for the man in his arms, but
final thoughts were of a different set of blue eyes.
The feeling of hands landing on his shoulders startled Chris out of
reverie. As soon as it fled, he had no idea what had been occupying his
attention so strongly. He tried to figure it out but it was gone.
Shrugging it off as unimportant, he looked up from his seat outside the
Buck grinned down at him. "Come on, Chris. You're playing
poker with me.
I need some good luck."
"What's that got to do with me?"
"I ain't been killed yet while I'm with you. That's a good enough
luck for me."
He had nothing better to do. He wasn't out on patrol, and the
was lasting longer than he'd ever thought possible. "Why the sudden need to
"I finally got one of those actress ladies to pay some attention to
Trouble is, she seems to think I should be taking her out to dinner and
such. I don't have the money for that."
"And you actually think you'll win some playing against Ezra?"
"A man's got to try." Buck's grin was wide.
Chris shook his head, but he stood up and walked with Buck over to the
saloon. He knew Buck didn't really think he could win any money. He was
just looking to have a good time and was dragging Chris along with him.
Chris was willing to be dragged. He'd found himself in a bleak mood for the
past two days, and he had no idea where it had come from. A few rounds of
poker might just be the thing to snap him out of it.
He was still grinning as he walked into the saloon, teasing Buck about
chances. The grin faltered as he took in the sight of the people seated at
the poker table: Ezra, one of the local ranchers, and that actor who'd been
there last night.
Shaking his head, he tried to rid himself of his unreasoning dislike.
heard nothing but good things about the acting troupe in general and Ireland
in particular. There was no reason not to like him; Ezra was a good judge
of character and he liked the man. He firmed up his smile and followed Buck
over to the table. "Afternoon, Ezra." He nodded toward the other men as he
took his seat across from the gambler.
"Mr. Larabee, what a pleasant surprise. Mr. Wilmington, it is
a pleasure to
see you as well." He shuffled the cards in his hands. "May I deal you in?"
"I am looking to take some of your ill-gotten gains," Buck announced.
me in and be prepared to lose."
Ezra shook his head and grinned at Buck from the corner of his eyes.
"Crushing hope is never a pleasant task, Mr. Wilmington. Why force me into
this?" Ignoring Buck's good-natured sputtering, he began to deal.
"Gentlemen, have you met Tom Ireland?"
"Haven't had the pleasure, though I've seen you around." Buck
hand, as did Chris. Ireland shook hands with them both and exchanged
The game progressed smoothly, guided expertly by Ezra's always entertaining
banter. Instead of enjoying himself as he usually did, Chris found his
attitude worsening. He slowly stopped responding to conversational forays,
growing quiet so he could watch and listen and try to figure out what was
Ireland won the next round. Ezra shot him a disbelieving glare.
bluffed. You bluffed and you fooled me."
The blond man shrugged as he raked in his winnings in front of him.
"Totally unfair of me." He grinned. "I'll make it up to you later."
"Of course you will. One winning hand doesn't win you the game, Tom."
Chris fought to keep a frown off his face. What was this?
The two of them
were smiling over what were apparently private jokes. Was Ezra flushed?
And since when did Ezra call people by their first names? Hell, he'd known
the man for months, and he didn't think he'd ever been called "Chris."
Watching the two of them laugh together, Chris abruptly realized that
couldn't take any more. He was already in a bad mood, and he could sense it
getting worse. He knew himself well enough to know that he had to leave, or
he'd just end up taking it out on his friends. He cashed out quickly,
refusing all pleas to stay. He was reaching the point where his temper was
going to affect the people around him, and he didn't want to hurt Ezra.
That last thought rattled him. Hurt Ezra? Since when did
he worry so much
about hurting Ezra? As he pushed back his chair, he saw the smile slip from
Ezra's face. Chris told himself the gambler was just upset about missing
out on the chance to win more of his money but couldn't quite make himself
He hurried out of the saloon, head bowed in thought. He had to
what was wrong with him. Things were good: no problems in town, all
members of the seven were getting along, everything was fine. There was no
reason for the discontent he was feeling, no reason for him to feel like
lashing out against the people around him.
He went back to his own room, closing the door firmly behind himself
laying down on his bed. He wasn't an especially introspective man, so he
wasn't up to doing much soul-searching even though he wanted to know the
cause behind his displeasure. All he could come up with was his dislike of
Ireland. Never mind that the man was charming, amusing, and personable.
Chris just couldn't get past his initial immediate dislike. There was just
something about him, about how close he was to Ezra, which roused Chris's
displeasure and distrust.
No less confusing to him were his thoughts about Ezra. He didn't
he was so concerned with the gambler and his happiness or when the concern
had grown so intense. In the end, all he could do was resolve to watch
himself so he didn't end up alienating his friends. Perhaps with some more
time he could figure out why he was acting like he was.
That decided, he undressed and went to bed. Perhaps a decent night's sleep
would help to clear things up.
Ezra sank his hands into Tom's hair, fingers tugging gently at the short
strands as he urged the other man's mouth closer to his own. They'd slipped
away to his room when the crowd in the saloon had thinned out. After
flirting subtly over the poker table all evening, Ezra could hardly wait to
get his hands on his new lover. Add in the hurt he'd felt over Chris's
dismissal, and he was nearly desperate for some distraction.
Tom acceded to his demand for a kiss, gifting Ezra with a generous caress
lips and tongue, hands wandering over the gambler's back. After a heated
exchange in which most of their clothing fell to the floor, Tom pulled his
head back and brushed a kiss over Ezra's cheek. He pulled him down onto the
bed. "Not that I want to stop this," he said as Ezra stretched out on top
of him, "but I have to ask you something."
"What?" Ezra asked, licking a lazy trail up Tom's jaw to his ear before
worrying the lobe gently with his teeth.
"Is Chris Larabee the one you're trying to get over?"
Ezra jerked up, staring down into Tom's gentle eyes. "What?"
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." The blond man
Ezra's hair back off his forehead in an affectionate gesture. "It's
just...the shadows came back into your eyes after he left the table."
Ezra sat up a little. "I'm sorry-"
"Don't be." Tom pulled him close. "You can't help what your
Don't make me recite soliloquies on love at you."
"Anything but that," Ezra said mock-fearfully. He sobered.
"It's not fair
to you. There was never anything between us...he's never even thought of me
like that. He never could."
"How isn't it fair? We both know this thing between us isn't about
You can't control what you feel. It's not your fault Chris is a fool, too
blind to see what he could have. It's my luck that I get to cheer you up."
Ezra knew this relationship had nothing to do with love; it was about
friendship and laughter. He was still in love with Chris, and so he felt
only friendship for Tom. Well, friendship with a healthy helping of lust.
He looked down into the blue eyes watching him and smiled slowly. "I
suppose you could still cheer me up."
Tom's eyes went gray and crinkled at the corners as he smiled.
what would cheer you up?"
Ezra made a show of thinking it over. "Hm. I think the thing
bring me the most joy is...vengeance!" He pinned Tom's arms to the bed with
his knees and began to tickle him.
The blond man shouted with laughter and squirmed underneath him, stomach
trembling and flinching away from the teasing touches. Only when Tom begged
for mercy did he relent and free his arms.
Ezra grinned smugly down at him until Tom pulled him down and kissed
expression off his face. A bit breathless, Ezra apologized by placing
biting kisses down Tom's chest. He scraped his teeth over pale nipples,
laving them with tongue and lips until they became points of aching hardness
before continuing his journey downward, across the quivering stomach until
he reached Tom's erection. He slid his tongue down the hard length of flesh
then up again, lapping at the leaking tip.
"So good," Tom whispered, hands caressing Ezra's shoulder. "God,
Holding Tom's hips down firmly, Ezra intensified his efforts, lowering
mouth over the heated length. An evil set to his eyebrows, he glanced
upward at the ecstatic face of his lover before pulling out all the stops.
Soon, Tom was murmuring endearments and curses with equal fervor. Ezra
finally took pity on him and hummed, pushing his lover over the edge.
Swallowing rapidly, he accepted the proof of the other man's pleasure before
crawling back up the length of his body. Resting lightly on his chest, he
waited for Tom to recover.
Dazed blue eyes stared at him. "You killed me."
"You are a most talkative corpse." Ezra leaned down and kissed
"I am a most appreciative corpse," Tom responded, flipping them over.
began to mimic Ezra's actions with a few twists of his own. Ezra sank his
hands into Tom's hair and fought the urge to push him downward faster.
Finally, the hot mouth gave up its teasing and closed about his erection.
few moments more, and Ezra wasn't sure which deity he was crying out to, but
they took pity on him because Tom stopped teasing and let him come. He
didn't black out, but he came close. As Tom pulled him into his arms, Ezra
glared at him fondly. "Are you trying to turn this into some sort of
"You're just upset because you lost."
"Lost!" Ezra sat up in indignation. "Lost?" Before
he could continue, Tom
pulled him down into a kiss.
Soothing his lover with a long series of kisses, Tom wrapped his arms
him. "We'll call it a draw tonight. We can play again later."
"So eager to lose again?"
An anticipatory grin touched Tom's face. "We'll see about that tomorrow."
"Because I have a surprise planned for you tomorrow."
"What is it?" Ezra asked, even though he knew what the other man would say.
"And you claim not to be a cheat. If I tell you, it won't be a
longer, now will it?" He kissed Ezra, then relaxed back onto the bed and
closed his eyes. "Go to sleep, Ezra."
Ezra settled down in his lover's arms. As he listened to Tom's
breathing, he sighed. Chris wasn't a fool. He wasn't blind. He simply
wasn't interested. The gunslinger barely liked Ezra, barely respected him.
Hoping for anything more was just foolish on his part, and selfish as well.
He should be grateful for the friendship the other man had offered him.
Still, getting over Chris was proving to be more difficult than he'd thought
it would be. He was incredibly thankful to have met Tom; his friendship was
the only bright spot in his life right then.
With a sigh, Ezra resigned himself to a long wait before he found sleep.
Chris threw a look up the trail, but Four Corners wasn't quite in view
He didn't know why he was looking for the town; he didn't especially want to
be there. That was why, after a restless night, he'd woken Vin up and
persuaded the tracker to go out for a ride with him. He'd hoped that some
time outside might help to clear his head so maybe he could figure out what
was going on with him. So far that hope had been wasted.
He'd managed to establish one thing: his irritation and concern
centered on Ezra. He was worried about the other man, wanting him to be as
happy as Chris could remember he was in the first months of his stay in Four
Corners. Now that the gambler had become quieter, Chris worried about him.
His dislike of Ireland was based on the way the actor hung around Ezra
constantly. Shouldn't he be with the rest of the acting troupe, instead of
monopolizing Ezra's time?
Chris knew he was close to figuring out his problem. The answer
near...and for some reason, he didn't want to know what it was. His
thoughts shied away from it whenever it began to come clear. It was
His sigh drew Vin's attention. He steadfastly refused to look
over at the
tracker. He suspected that Vin had guessed what his problem was. Worse,
the amusement tinged glances the other man kept sending his way suggested
that Vin had figured out the answers he himself was avoiding. Keeping his
mouth shut and his eyes open, Vin saw more than anyone usually expected. Or
A sound of interest forced Chris to look fully at the other man. "What?"
"Fairly fresh tracks here. Looks like they came from town.
They head off
into the trees." He jerked his head over to indicate a clump of trees off
to the side of the trail.
Chris nudged his horse off the trail and headed for the trees.
It might be
nothing, but the people of Four Corners didn't often leave sight of the
town. Best just to check it out. If it was nothing, they'd wasted a few
minutes. If it was something, they could save a lot of effort and pain
later by heading it off now.
He pulled up his horse when they reached the trees. Just inside
shade began, two horses were tethered to a low-hanging branch. Chris
dismounted for a closer look. He reached out and stroked a hand over the
flank of the horse beside him. "What are you doing out here, Chaucer?"
The horse flicked its ears at him. Chris looked over at Vin.
"Did you know
Ezra was planning to leave town?"
"Was it my week to watch him?" the tracker asked with exaggerated surprise.
Chris shot him a sour look. "Come on. Let's see what he's
up to." Whose
horse was with Chaucer? Who was with Ezra?
Vin nodded and dismounted. "Might as well. Ezra's a big
boy, but better
safe than sorry."
Together they made their way through the trees, moving quietly.
probably nothing to worry about but caution was a habit neither was inclined
to get out of. Besides, there was some reason to be concerned. What was
Ezra doing out of town? The gambler was a confirmed town-dweller, and he
wasn't scheduled to be on patrol.
Coming upon a small clearing, Chris glanced through the trees before
entering. What he saw made him freeze, arresting his movement before he
could break cover. He must have made some noise because Vin was instantly
at his side. The tracker froze as well, rendered motionless by shock just
as Chris was.
Ezra was in the clearing, and he didn't look to be in any danger.
A man in
danger didn't look that happy. Sprawled beside what were clearly the
remains of a picnic, Ezra was reclining back on a spread blanket, head
thrown back and eyes screwed up in pleasure.
He was also completely naked.
Chris tried to remind himself to blink, but it was useless. His
wandered greedily over the expression of nearly agonized pleasure that
contorted Ezra's face, the way corded muscle stood out in his neck as he
gasped out broken words, the light sheen of sweat that covered the smooth
skin of his body. The gambler was incredibly attractive, the sight of so
much usually hidden flesh captivating.
It would have been perfect, an image to remember forever, except for
thing: the man on top of Ezra. Tom Ireland was sitting astride Ezra,
rocking in time with the green-eyed man's movements. Chris swallowed hard.
They were having sex, Ezra buried deep within the man on top of him,
thrusting up into the actor's body as he ran his hands over the blond's
The sound of Ireland's husky murmur snapped Chris out of the daze into
he'd fallen. Shock fell away, replaced with white-hot rage. He gathered
himself to take a step forward, in order to do what he didn't know. Only
Vin's iron grip on his arm stopped him. The tracker dragged him backwards,
away from the oblivious lovers.
Once they were out of the trees, Chris pulled free. "We have to
there. I have to stop that!"
Vin grabbed him by his shoulders and got in his face. "You have
to get on
your horse, Larabee. Now. We're going back to town."
Chris glared at him, shaking his head. "No." He jerked himself
Vin's grip and turned around. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but
he was going to stop the tryst right then. An unholy grin stretched his
lips as he figured that Ireland might just put up a fight. He certainly
hoped so - he wanted to teach the actor a lesson. Before he could enter the
trees again, he was struck from behind, driven to his knees by a body
colliding with his own.
"You're not going back there," Vin hissed into his ear, pushing him
into the dirt.
"Get off me!" Chris tried to shake him off, but Vin refused to be moved.
"Think for a minute. You go charging back there and all you're
gonna do is
scare them and piss them off. You don't want to scare Ezra, do you? You
don't want him mad at you, do you?"
The tracker's words penetrated the haze of rage that had descended upon
Chris. He stopped fighting and lay still, panting heavily. "Fine," he
said. "I won't go back." Vin climbed off of him, and Chris stood up. He
still wanted to argue, but he knew Vin was right. "Back to town," he agreed
grudgingly. As he rode back to Four Corners, the fury inside him mounted
until he was almost shaking with it. As soon as he entered town, he
abandoned his horse to the man at the livery stable and stalked over to JD's
office, Vin on his heels the entire way.
He threw open the door, scaring JD and Buck who were inside. The
man sat up so quickly he knocked his chair over backwards. "Chris! What's
Vin started to close the door, but before he could, Josiah and Nathan
arrived. Josiah looked quickly over at Chris. "We were on our way over to
talk to JD and Buck when we saw you two arrive. Chris? You all right?"
Chris shook his head. "No, I'm not all right." He paced
around the small
room, too filled with nervous energy to stand still. Coming to a wall, he
slammed his fist into it, barely feeling the pain.
Vin moved to stand between him and the wall, staring into his eyes with
peculiar intensity. "Why are you so upset, Chris?"
"Did you see the same thing I saw?" Chris demanded, face flushed with fury.
"Yeah. No one was getting hurt. In fact, it looked like
both of them were
having a good time." Vin cocked his head to the side. "You got a problem
with them? With two men?"
"No!" Chris tried to look away, but Vin's gaze refused to release
"What two grown men get up to is their business."
"Then what's the problem? Why go back and ruin their afternoon?"
"It has to be stopped! I'm not going to just stand by while it
I don't know why you're trying to stop me!" Chris tried to force his way
out of the room, but Vin and Josiah resolutely blocked the doorway, refusing
to get out of his way. He stared at them, feeling his hands clench into
"Because I don't know why you're so angry!"
"Because Ezra is mine!" Chris didn't know what he was going to
the words left his mouth. For a moment, he was as shocked as everyone else
in the room. Then he realized what he said and several things came clear to
him: the reason why he'd been so concerned for Ezra; the reason for his
dislike of Ireland; the cause for his recent irritation.
He was in love with Ezra.
It felt so right once he admitted it. Ezra had proven himself
to be a good
partner and a better friend, for all that Chris tried to keep him at a
distance. He was always right where he was needed, grousing and complaining
all the way, sure, but he did what he had to in order to help. His sardonic
humor, his quick intelligence, and his handsome face had done the rest.
Against all expectation, Chris had fallen in love with him. Now he felt the
need to be with Ezra and understood that need was what had made him so jumpy
and irritable lately; not being with Ezra was making him more than a little
Vin nodded slowly, a barely perceptible smile in his eyes. "Finally."
stepped away from Chris and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his
chest and a satisfied look on his face.
"What the hell is going on?" asked Buck. "What did you two see?
are you talking about, Ezra is yours?"
Chris licked his lips. "We saw Ezra and that Ireland outside of
were...." he rounded on Vin. "You act like you knew!"
"Knew what? About Ezra and Ireland? They haven't been hiding
it all that
much. About you and Ezra? Hell, Chris, the only ones that didn't know are
you and Ezra." He glanced around the room. "And maybe JD."
The sheriff shook his head. "I knew." He looked indignant
at the surprised
glances shot his way. "What? I can't figure something like this out? I
may have Buck giving me bad advice-"
"-but that doesn't mean I'm blind or anything."
Chris shook his head. "You knew? How could you know? I didn't know!"
"You didn't want to know," Vin corrected.
Chris opened his mouth to retort but nothing came to him. Vin
He hadn't expected to fall in love again, and definitely not with a man.
He'd had encounters with men before; Buck could testify to that. He'd never
fallen in love with one before, though, never thought he could.
JD righted his chair and shoved it behind Chris. The gunslinger
into it. "So now what do I do?" He glared half-heartedly at his friends.
"Since you all know more about me than I do."
"First be sure of your heart," Nathan said quietly. "First thing
have to do. You sure you're in love with Ezra?"
"Yeah. I am." This was awful. He was in love with
Ezra, who'd taken up
with that damn actor. So what did his feelings matter? Ezra was with
Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder. "Then tell him that."
"What good will it do? He's got Ireland."
Nathan sighed. "More good than you think. The man's in love
with you." At
Chris's unbelieving stare, he raised his hands. "I used to keep a pretty
close watch on him, waiting for him to slip up and start lying and cheating
folks. I watched a long time, but I never caught him at anything except
looking at you. He was careful, but I saw the way he watched you, saw the
look in his eyes. He loves you."
Chris began to feel a certain measure of hope. Ezra loved him
return...but then what was he doing with Ireland? He shook his head.
"Maybe he did once, but-"
"But nothing," Vin interrupted. "The only people who couldn't
see what was
going were you and Ezra. He's just tired of waiting for you. Just don't
make him wait any more."
Chris looked around at the men surrounding him. "You all are all
this?" Then he answered himself. "No, of course you are. You knew about
it before I did. Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"Chris, we just couldn't believe you two never realized." Even
surprised by the exasperation in his own voice.
The gunslinger smiled at the laughter that arose from his friends.
didn't join in the laughter; the shock hadn't faded enough for that.
Neither had the anger; it was all he could do not to head back out of town
and drag Ezra away from Ireland. Still, he resigned himself to wait. Ezra
would come back to town and when he did, he'd finally have his chance.
Ezra rode back into town, his horse ambling beside Tom's. He glanced
at his lover. "I win," he said smugly.
Tom shifted in his saddle. "You most certainly did. Don't
though; I fully plan on a rematch that will end very differently."
The gambler grinned. "Is it so very awful to have lost?"
"Not at all. All losers should feel this good." He shot
Ezra a heated
glance. "I'll meet you in my room tonight? I do have to spend some time
with the rest of my troupe, or else they'll think I've gone native."
"I'll be there after the saloon closes." Ezra headed over to his
intending to gather clothing and head over to the bathhouse. Having sex
outside had been a fun surprise; Tom certainly earned points for creativity.
The only downside was the scattered dirt he could feel on his skin, which
absolutely would not do. A warm soak was just what he needed.
As he stepped up onto the boardwalk, he glanced to his left and saw
The gunslinger stared at him, gaze and expression intense. Ezra felt a
flush rise up in his face; he felt as though Chris knew exactly where he had
been and didn't approve. Ezra wasn't ashamed of his actions, but he hated
the feeling of not measuring up to Chris's expectations, of failing him
Gathering up his clothing inside his room, Ezra swore at himself for
a fool. A better afternoon than he'd had in ages, and every bit of pleasure
and serenity he'd managed to garner from the experience had fled with one
touch of Chris's eyes. The gunslinger didn't even have to say a word. Oh,
he was doing a fine job of getting over him. His entire mood was still
determined by the look on Chris's face. He stalked over to the bathhouse,
irritated and disappointed with himself. Instead of a leisurely soak, he
washed himself roughly, quickly.
After he was clean, he returned to the saloon and was soon ensconced
usual table. As he engaged various men in hands of poker, he was aware that
he was off his game. He was rattled for several reasons, of which the
irritation was just a minor one. He was also thrown off by the people
watching him: the rest of the seven drifted in and out of the saloon, as
they usually did, but none wandered over to talk to him. Instead, they
stayed at the fringes of the room, gazes returning to him again and again.
It was one stare in particular that was making Ezra nervous, pulling
concentration away from the cards on the table and in people's hands and
causing him to loose track of the conversation flowing around him. Chris
leaned back against the bar, blue eyes tracking his every move throughout
the course of the evening. Unused to such blatant regard, not sure of why
it was directed toward him, Ezra found himself jittery, nervous.
The evening seemed to crawl by, minutes lasting longer than they should
have, hours refusing to pass away. Practice and skill allowed him to
continue to win at least semi-regularly, so he didn't lose any money. At
the same time, he wasn't winning nearly as much as he should have from the
men with whom he was playing.
Finally, the crowd began to thin out. Ezra resisted the urge to
in relief. Soon, he'd be able to make his escape and try to forget the
unsettling evening in Tom's arms. He watched the people gradually clear out
of the saloon and head for home eagerly. As a rule, he was the last one to
leave before the bartender, so if he wanted to be discreet about his
activities he had to continue the pattern.
When it was only he and the man behind the bar, Ezra scooped up his
and stood. A quick trip upstairs and he could be on his way. He stepped
around the table, intent on his goal. The clearing of a throat startled him
into stillness. Glancing around the room once more, he spotted Chris
sitting in a tucked away corner.
Chris stood up and looked over at the bartender. "You go ahead
I'll take care of locking up."
The man behind the bar nodded and left, casting a curious glance back
Ezra shared that curiosity. While it was not uncommon for him
to close down
the rest of the seven rarely did so. Oh, Buck and Josiah had both done it,
but he couldn't remember Chris ever having done so. Still, this was a
mystery he didn't have to solve that night. He nodded toward the
gunslinger. "Good night, Mr. Larabee." He'd have to go down the outside
stairs on the way to the hotel.
"Ezra, wait." Chris stepped out of the shadows and approached him.
Ezra felt weariness rise up in him. He didn't need this, not when
feeling low and all he wanted was to be in the arms of someone who did care,
even if it was friendship rather than love. "I have quite a few things to
attend to before I retire, sir. Can this wait?"
"Not anymore." There was something new in Chris's voice, a sound
desperate hope. Ezra turned around to face him, to better read his
expression. "I know what you have to attend to. You're going to meet
Ireland, but you're not. Not tonight, not anymore."
Ezra licked his lips. He hadn't taken any special precautions
being discovered with Tom; it was a short-term affair and he hadn't thought
there was much risk. Foolish arrogance was now coming back to haunt him.
Still, he wasn't ashamed of his actions, and he wasn't going to deny them.
"Mr. Larabee, I cannot possibly see how my activities are any of your
A strained smile crossed Chris's face. "I know it shouldn't be,
but it is.
Ezra, you can't go see him."
Ezra took a step forward, feeling his chin come up defiantly.
while I may accept your leadership where the protection of this town and its
citizens are concerned, do not presume that you have the same sort of
authority in my private life. You are my colleague, not my conscience. I
do not require your approval."
"This isn't about moral, or right and wrong. What you're doing
isn't wrong. He's just the wrong person for you."
"I don't believe this. If you're not objecting on moral grounds,
on earth is your objection to Tom?"
"My objection doesn't have anything to do with morals! It's got
to do with love." Chris's gaze met his, blue eyes boring into his soul. "I
love you, Ezra."
The gambler stared at him for a moment. A short burst of unbelieving
laughter escaped him. This wasn't happening. It was ludicrous. He had to
leave, escape the madness or whatever it was in the room making Chris say
things he couldn't possibly mean. He moved to step around Chris and go
directly to the hotel. He needed to hide away from this day even more than
Strong hands closed on his upper arms, stopping him and forcing him
Chris. The gunslinger looked nervous as hell but his gaze was sincere. "I
know this is coming out of nowhere for you, Ezra, but it's true. I love
you. I want you to be mine, to never go near Tom again. I want you to be
with me for the rest of tonight, for the rest of our lives if you can stand
me for that long."
Ezra tried to pull free but the hands on his arms were like iron.
understand this. What are you talking about?" The words were ones he'd
dreamed of hearing, never believing he really would. Was Chris ill? Was
he? Had he fallen asleep at the table and was dreaming even now?
"I'm no good with words, Ezra. That's one of your strengths, not
Chris kept his gaze on Ezra's, refusing to allow either of them to look
away. "I knew that I cared about you more than before - I'd gotten to know
you, could call you friend, even if I didn't let you know that. But it went
deeper than that, beyond friendship. I didn't know it was happening until
it was already done. I'm in love with you. That's why your happiness
matters to me so much, why I've been so worried about you for the past few
weeks when you obviously weren't happy. It's why I count on seeing you so
much, why a smile from you can change my whole mood. It's why I haven't
been able to stop hating Ireland since I first saw him. He was getting
those smiles, Ezra, the ones I need. The ones I want." Chris shook his
head. "It wasn't until I was losing you that I knew how much I needed you,
how much I love you."
The man was serious. Ezra could read it in his eyes, the tense
lines of his
body. "Have you talked about this with anyone?" He was serious, but
confused. Maybe a long talk with Vin or Josiah would help to make him a
little more rational. Ezra held to this thought, ruthlessly smothering the
flickering hope that was trying to ignite within him.
"Yeah, I have. The others know how I feel, Ezra. Hell, they
knew how I
felt before I did. I never thought I was going to fall in love again, but I
have." He pulled Ezra inexorably toward him, gaze burning with hope and
Captivated by those blue eyes, Ezra allowed himself to be pulled forward.
Then warm lips were covering his, moving over his mouth with hesitant
curiosity and reverence. Ezra gasped just a little, finally where he had
wanted to be for so long. That gasp acted as a spark, ignited the fire
between them. Chris's tongue swept past his parted lips to explore his
mouth with greedy intensity. Driven by the same rising flames, Ezra
imitated the action, unable to get enough of the wet heat, the taste of the
man in his arms. He began to lose himself in the kiss.
It was Chris's rough groan that startled him out of the sensual haze
enveloped him. He tore away from the gunslinger's grasp, barely able to
hide the trembling of his hands. "No games," he said, shaking his head. "I
can't do this." He pulled his clothing straight, marshaling dignity as best
he could. "You're overreacting to Tom's presence. That's all. As soon as
he moves on, you'll fall out of love with me as quickly as you fell in." He
had to believe that, couldn't allow himself to hope. He was never going to
move on, never going to get on with his life, if he allowed that hope.
"That will never happen," Chris said vehemently, moving to stand right
front of him once more. "Never. I love you and nothing will change that.
Tom might have been the thing that opened my eyes, but that's all. My love
isn't going to change, Ezra, and it's never going away. I will love you
long after he is gone." He pressed his lips to Ezra's once more.
Ezra was caught up in the kiss before he quite realized what was happening.
As he pulled Chris closer to him, marveling at how very right they felt in
each other's arms, he thought he could taste the other man's emotions in the
kiss: love and hope and desperation and truth and want and need, all
burning through him.
Shaking as the kiss came to an end, Ezra looked up into Chris's eyes.
"Don't play with my emotions, Mr. Larabee. Not with my heart."
"Never, Ezra. This is real." He brushed his lips across
Ezra's. "This is
In a voice that just barely qualified for a whisper, Ezra spoke the
he'd been hiding for so long. "I love you. Chris."
Blue eyes darkened, taking on a green tone as the heat behind them grew.
The gambler straightened, pulling out of Chris's arms. "I have
to go tell
Tom I won't be joining him tonight."
He could see Chris didn't like it, but the blond man nodded. "I
Just hurry back?"
It was Ezra's turn to bestow a small kiss. "Wait in my room."
He left, the
sound of Chris blowing out the saloon's lights behind him. As he crossed
the street, he could scarcely believe what was happening. His hopeless
fantasies about the gunslinger were all coming true. It scarcely seemed
real, but he'd seen the truth of it in Chris's eyes, felt it in his touch,
tasted it in his kiss. For once, Ezra wasn't going to let his doubts and
fears ruin his chances for finally finding happiness. He was going to trust
in Chris, trust in what he felt and wanted and hoped.
He spotted movement in front of the hotel; Tom was standing outside,
up at the sky. Ezra slowed his approach. "Tom?"
The actor turned, a wide grin stretching his features. "Ezra!"
narrowed in speculation as he looked Ezra over. "Chris finally come to his
Ezra stared. "What? How?"
Tom laughed out loud. "An eye for detail, my lucky friend.
well kissed recently, and I know my lips haven't been anywhere near you for
hours now. But mostly it's your eyes." He hugged Ezra and spoke into his
ear. "The shadows are gone as if they were never there. Only one thing
could put that much light in your eyes." He pressed a light kiss to Ezra's
cheek. "Congratulations, Ezra."
"Tom...." For once, Ezra was at a loss for words. "Thank you."
"My pleasure." Tom pulled Ezra into a tight embrace, holding him
a moment. "My pleasure, Ezra, especially to see you happy."
Ezra returned the hug, then stepped out of Tom's arms. With a
grateful smile, he turned and walked back over toward the saloon. Something
made him turn around; the desire to take one last look at the man who'd
filled his days with so much laughter, perhaps. He watched, a pleased grin
growing larger, as he saw Vin and Buck approach Tom in front of the hotel.
They spoke for a few moments, and Ezra was able to overhear the low
conversation: Vin and Buck inviting Tom to join them for a drink and Tom's
acceptance. The guardians of Four Corners led the actor back toward JD's
office, and the breeze carried back the sounds of good-natured bickering
between Tom and Buck over who was the best-looking man in town.
They deserved each other, Ezra decided, continuing his journey back
room. He had to force himself not to run.
Chris paced back and forth in Ezra's room, resisting the urge to head
to the hotel. He was acutely aware of the possibility that Ireland could
choose to try to make a play for Ezra, try to convince the gambler to stay
with him and not believe Chris. Of course Ireland would do that; in order
to hold onto Ezra, he believed a man might try anything.
"What is that noise?"
Ezra's voice had him whirling around, staring at the man who'd managed
sneak up on him. "Ezra!"
"Was that you?" One of Ezra's eyebrows was raised interrogatively.
Probably. A little embarrassed, Chris ignored the question and
embrace Ezra, reveling in the feeling of the other's heat in his arms. He
maneuvered them over to the bed without breaking the embrace, not willing to
be separated from Ezra for even a moment. Thinking of Ireland had
intensified the possessiveness in his nature. Growling was probably going
to be the least of his problems.
Ezra's skilled hands made quick work of their clothing, stripping them
with an eagerness Chris more than shared. He returned again and again to
the gambler's mouth, unable to get his fill of tasting him, feeling the
agile tongue wind around his own, seducing him over and over again.
Chris moved to lie on top of Ezra, wanting to look at his lover, finally
all that skin that he'd only glimpsed earlier. He looked down and froze.
After a moment, he became aware that he was growling once more.
Scattered down Ezra's throat and across his shoulder were a series of
bruises: passion marks left by Ireland's mouth. Another man's mark on his
lover. The growling got louder.
"Chris?" Ezra asked, concern beginning to creep into his expression.
glanced down at himself and raised a hand to one of the marks on his throat.
"Oh. Tom got rather carried away this afternoon." A smug expression
crossed his face. "I still won."
Chris lunged forward and kissed him desperately. "I love you,"
staring into green eyes. "I love you." His voice got rougher until he was
growling once more. "You're mine." He lowered his mouth over one of the
offending marks on Ezra's throat and sucked hard. Beneath him, Ezra cried
out and bucked up against him, hands tightening on Chris's waist. Chris
kept the suction up for a few moments more. When he pulled back, he stared
down at Ezra's throat, watching as his own larger mark completely hid
Ireland's. "Mine," he said with satisfaction.
He glanced back up into Ezra's eyes and watched in fascination as they
darkened, green becoming black as desire overwhelmed everything else he
could read in them. "Yours?" There was the slightest hint of challenge in
"Mine," Chris growled, before lowering his mouth to cover another of
marks. Another. Another. Not stopping until he had obliterated them all,
clearly staking his claim on the body of his lover, on his heart, on his
Ezra thrust up against him raggedly, erratically, hands stroking over
skin, leaving trails of fire in their wake. Those bewitching hands moved
over his back, over his flanks, slid down to trace the curves of his
buttocks, then crept in between them to dance over his erection. Every
movement was intoxicating, arousing Chris until he could wait no longer. He
needed to come, had to come and claim his lover.
Chris licked his way down Ezra's jaw, then circled his tongue around
shell of one ear. "Please, Ezra. I want to be inside you, want to feel you
around me, please."
Ezra bucked beneath him, eyes nearly black. "The bottle on the
said, glancing over to the table beside his bed. "There's oil inside."
Hands shaking with need, Chris prepared himself and his lover.
Ezra's attempt to roll onto his stomach, wanting to see Ezra's face and
watch him as he came and know that he was the one who put that expression of
ecstasy on his face. He pressed inside his lover, feeling as though he were
coming home at last.
Beneath him, Ezra shuddered and pulled him closer. Limbs entwined,
buried deep within him, it was difficult to tell where one man begun and the
With Ezra's erection trapped between them, Chris began to thrust harder,
faster, needing to see Ezra's face when he came, needing to know that they
belonged to each other now and forever. The heat between them rose until
Ezra cried out, eyes brilliant with love and completion as he came. The
sight was enough to propel Chris over the precipice and he came with Ezra's
name a triumphant shout on his lips.
They lay in each other's arms, slowly recovering from the power of their
joining. Chris returned once more to Ezra's mouth, feeding off the love and
welcome and heat he found there. In between kisses, they exchanged promises
of love and forever, swearing eternity to each other.
As his breathing returned to normal, his gaze wandered over Ezra's body.
felt a small surge of guilt as he took in the bruises scattered across his
skin, bruises Chris had placed there with his mouth. "I didn't hurt you,
"Hm?" Ezra's eyes were sleepy, and it took him a moment to understand.
"No, you didn't hurt me." A slight flush rose in his cheeks. "I find it
rather gratifying that you want me so much that your need pushes you to the
edge of your control," he admitted.
Chris began to grin; then he noticed the way Ezra was eyeing him
speculatively, even as his green eyes darkened. "What?"
"You have proved your claim on me with an overabundance of marks," Ezra
answered, rolling on top of Chris. "And yet, you don't wear any of mine.
That hardly seems fair, now, does it?"
Chris licked his lips. "No, it really doesn't. It doesn't
seem fair at
Ezra grinned. "I love you," he murmured, before fastening his
lips over the
pulse-point on Chris's throat.
Chris arched up into the pain-pleasure. "God, Ezra. I love you.
you!" As Ezra's lips traveled over his skin, Chris vowed never to lose this
man, never to let anything come between them. He'd found love again and he
wasn't going to lose it. He was going to make sure Ezra never regretted
trusting him. They were finally together and that was the way it was going
to stay. Forever.