Haven

by Carla Jane

Tom Andrews/Dish Boggett | Rated A | 2002 | 7,926 words

 

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Once upon a time, far away and long ago Wasn't that how stories were supposed to begin?

Tom used to live in an elegant townhouse. They had a garden filled with roses and a parlour filled with young ladies in pastel dresses. At that time a great many of the stories that he had read aloud to Mama and their visitors had begun exactly that way and ended with '...and they lived happily ever after'.

That life, however, was several bad decisions and most of the country removed from his present circumstances. Thomas Andrews' present circumstances involved cowering behind a rock while hoping that his latest set of companions were content to take his horse and gear and leave Tom alive to re-supply himself somehow.

After this many mishaps Tom couldn't believe he'd been so easily robbed, yet again. These boys had bided their time. They had been solid companions, until opportunity, desire, and alcohol had all coincided.

If it hadn't been for Justin shaking Tom awake from a sound sleep, quite likely Tom would be down there grovelling or bleeding in some way or another for the small gang's amusement. Hopefully Justin wasn't doing that duty right now in his stead. Tom grimaced in disgust and no small amount of jealousy. Quite likely his occasional lover had pacified Brian and the guys with that sweet mouth that Tom so loved to kiss. Underneath his oversized hat and dust-encrusted leather and cotton Justin was a astounding beauty that Tom could easily imagine looking like a young socialite - if he was painted, padded a bit and put into one of those pastel dresses that were currently drifting through Tom's memory.

Tom realized he had no right to be jealous. It wasn't as though they were a couple or anything... but Justin had proved he held some affection for Tom by daring the anger of the others. He had slipped away and whispered a warning in Tom's ear while the boys were scrapping and snarling over the contents of Tom's pack.

Voices were rising down below. Justin's tone was defensive, with a hint of fear, while the group's default leader, Brian, was shouting out his annoyance. The sound of a fist hitting flesh was clear.

Tom's body tensed. He wasn't sure if he should go back down there and attempt to defend Justin from the other boys... or try to run even further away, despite the fact he was in his stockinged feet. Tom was all to aware of Brian's vicious streak, and the idea that he might bear the brunt of it scared him cold. Tom had witnessed Brian amusing himself at a peddler's expense not so very long ago. Needless to say, the old man hadn't survived the game Brian had played with him. Surely Brian wouldn't turn on Justin that way, not in front of the guys. Everyone in the small band adored sweet Justin.

Concentrating on the threat forward and below, Tom was caught completely off guard by the hand that settled over his mouth.

"Hush, boy. Those jackals down there want blood... and yours will be the easiest to spill." The whisper tickled across Tom's ear as the man's body curved against his spine. "My guess is that you've about five minutes a'fore they come up here after you." The muffling palm over Tom's lips lifted away. "Yer as helpless as a newborn calf right now, boy... and me, I ain't up to fending off that whole wolf pack by myself. Come with me."

As suddenly as his possible saviour had appeared, the man began to withdraw.

Tom was well aware of his chances if Brian caught up to him while still drunk, so it wasn't a hard decision to make. Moving as quietly as possible, Tom padded after the dim figure. The boys' voices couldn't fade away fast enough for Tom's comfort. The stranger led the teenager further up the rise before setting them on a downward path once more. In the gully that appeared stood a heaped wagon with a pair of horses.

"Quickly boy." Tom's rescuer leaped up onto the bench seat. "I can't let them catch up t' me either. I can't afford to lose this load."

"TOM--MY!" A voice as enticing as the scent of Mama's roses drifted on the night air. "Tommy, come back. It's all settled out." Justin called, a siren's song, coaxing Tom to his ruin. "Tommy! It's okay. I fixed everything."

A few, lower, hoots of amusement faintly underscored the false promise.

"Hey Tommy-boy, c'mon back! We was just playing around. We didn't mean nothin' by it." Brian mimicked Justin's too-sweet tone badly, earning a hiss from someone. Leather scuffed against rock.

Tom scrambled up beside the stranger. "They'll kill us both if they catch us." His whisper was heavy with fear. Disappointment with Justin weighted Tom's heart.

Reins jingled softly. "Then I'd reckon it'd be best if we got outta here." The wagon lurched forward.

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Sunrise never failed to startle Tom. After spending the first fifteen years of his life out east, meeting the dawn through gauzy curtains, the speed of sunrise on the plains was a constant revelation. However, Tom had something new to concentrate on this morning. When the dazzling, golden light broke the horizon, Tom was staring at his silent companion.

"They can't hear us anymore," Tom whispered, even though he knew they were safe. The hush that lay over the two of them wouldn't allow for anything louder. Tom stared, waiting to be acknowledged. The man wasn't anything remarkable to gaze upon, but he had a pleasant enough face. His nose was straight, and the line of his jaw elegant enough, although Tom didn't think much of the thick moustache that drooped down either side of his chin. That's how it was out here, though. Shaving was mostly an eastern thing, thanks to the shortage of supplies. Tom's rescuer wasn't likely that much older than Tom either, but experience seemed to lie like a shadow on the man.

The guy's best feature, those piercing blue eyes, turned Tom's way. "One of them sounded pretty cozy callin' you Tommy and all. That and you were comfortable enough to half undress around them." The man's head shook. His brown hair was long - hanging down below a tall black hat - and slick with sweat, but it looked as though it might curl given the right circumstances. "Fine friends ya got there, boy."

"Tom." The correction was softly spoken. "Tom Andrews." The name was offered partially as a distraction. Tom didn't want to talk about the guys, didn't want to think about Justin's part in the vicious game they had tried to play last night.

A slow nod was the response. "Folks call me Dish." The unshaven face turned away. "I'm heading north-west toward Bent Creek. You can ride with me that far then if yer willing I've work enough for you that you can pay off some boots, a coat and a gun." The sideways glance Dish turned on Tom was judging. "We've a sheriff, but I'm guessin' that yer not gonna bother t' set him on those boys you were riding with."

"It was a mistake." Tom's smile was grim. "It seems I've been making a lot of mistakes lately." His shoulders rolled slightly in embarrassment. "Thank you, Dish, for helping me out of that one."

Dish's returning smile was endearingly lopsided, lifting one half of his moustache, and much more sincere than Tom's.

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Dish had chased Tom into the back of the wagon when the younger man's yawns had begun to affect him. There wasn't much to look at as the long shadows enveloped almost all of the plain so Tom stared out at nothingness, bored and coming down from the burst of adrenaline that his fright had provoked.

Tom was dozing uneasily when the wagon came to halt.

"You might want to stretch yer legs while you've the chance, Tom." Wood creaked first, then Dish's spine cracked aloud as he stretched. "I've got to water the horses and let them rest a spell. We can move again come moon-rise but no sooner."

"Should I build a fire?" Tom squinted against the darkness.

"Nope. It'd ruin our night-sight and draw attention. There's some apples and a few oatcakes that should still be okay to eat, under the seat. Feel around." Dish's movement was barely visible.

Equipment rattled, and then later, water sloshed.

"How far is Bent Creek?"

"Too far considerin' those boys might take it into their heads to follow us. Not so far in the grander view of things." Dish spoke quietly. "Still, it's off the beaten track. I wanted somewhere away from where I was. Bent Creek is that. It's damned good farm country too."

"What's in the wagon? It's awfully uncomfortable." Tom's fingers wrapped around an apple, feeling for soft spots.

"Nails. Chain. Tools. All sorts of stuff. I run the hardware store. I just took it over a few months ago, and I've needed to haul in a lot of stock."

That explained why Tom hadn't been able to find a restful position in the pile.

The wagon sagged as Dish climbed back up. "Hand me an oatcake. We'd best finish them up this stop a'fore they go bad." Their hands brushed to ensure that the morsel wasn't dropped in the darkness. "I'm going to need to sleep some." Food garbled the last couple of words slightly. "You might as well too."

Tom frowned, not eager to lay down on the cool ground without a coat and hesitant to ask for a blanket.

"Com'ere. Bring the food sack." Dish crawled over the back of the seat and into the lumpy wagon. A few shoves at the tarp were followed by the snap of a blanket being shaken out. "Here." Dish caught Tom's arm near the wrist to guide him.

Tom half-toppled down into a surprisingly cosy hollow just behind the bench seat.

"I didn't plan on two bodies when I stacked the gear, but it'll work." Another tug and Tom ended up spine to chest almost on top of Dish. "Eat up then snug down and lay still. The moon won't be risin' fer a few hours." One of Dish's arms wrapped around Tom's waist and adjusted a blanket while the other hand rummaged after more food.

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Bent Creek was a small, grey town cloaked in what looked like an almost permanent dust haze. A few sombre people hailed them as they arrived, but the streets were mostly empty. The pair of them took care of the animals and emptied the contents of the wagon into the back room of a tall wooden store, after Dish opened the massive lock on the back door of the place with a heavy iron key.

Dish's home turned out to be a couple of rooms above that same boarded-up store. It was plain, tidy and uninteresting and looked as if no one lived there yet.

"I'm still setting up. I've been doing stock runs on and off for a coupla weeks now." Dish explained absently. His gaze swept the barren kitchen. "There's a pump out back buckets by the stair." A pantry door was pulled open. "Fetch enough water to cook and clean with. We'll fill up, get some rest then see t' work after that."

Tom caught up the indicated buckets and carefully descended. His feet hurt and his socks were nearly ruined, but luckily the pump wasn't far. The boots Dish had promised might be in the piles of crated stock or they might have to buy them, but Tom didn't dare ask for them. He'd wait until they were offered.

Dish was cursing the stove and sucking on one finger when Tom returned with the water. The metal door shut with a clang, containing the newly created fire. "The women did this stuff back at the house and there was usually a cook out on the trail." Dish shoved a pan greased with lard onto a burner.

"I thought you'd have a wife and kids waiting on you," Tom said quietly. "Don't storekeepers normally have families to help with the work?" Green eyes drifted, taking in the unused state of the things once more.

"Well as you can see, I'm new at this." Dish cautiously opened the top of a sack sitting on the table. "Lorie didn't " A look of pain flashed across his features. "I'll git to it eventually I suppose."

"Cooking or marrying?" Tom edged closer to discover the contents of the sack.

Dish's face turned toward Tom and he stared at the teenager. His gaze was intense, as if attempting to make a judgement on some weighty issue. "One or the other." A couple of potatoes were extracted. "Here. Peel these."

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After a meal that sat heavily in Tom's stomach, Dish had heated enough water in a big kettle to allow both of them to rinse away the road grime. An undershirt that hung loosely on Tom's still developing frame was given over for use as a nightshirt.

Dish had grown progressively quieter as they had gone through the routine of eating and getting cleaned up. He stared almost continually at Tom. It was as if Dish was compensating for the time on the trail that he hadn't seemed to be paying attention to the younger man. Dish was especially serious looking when he'd had to step up and lift the bucket to help rinse the soap lather off of Tom's back.

"There's only one bed," Dish announced quietly as they finished in the warm kitchen. "If yer squeamish you can toss a blanket down on the floor where-ever you'd like." The two thin towels were hung carefully to dry, and the fire in the stove was banked.

It was a strange remark, Tom thought, considering that they had shared a hollow amid the tarped supplies the few times that Dish had actually slept on the way here. Shared it in a rather intimate fashion, for that matter. On the trail they'd touched quite often. Their shoulders had rubbed when they sat together. Dish had instructed in the care of the animals by guiding Tom's hands. Even when they ate, their fingers had often brushed together while passing food. Maybe the trappings of civilization were responsible for Dish's sudden formality. Maybe it was the fact they were in simple nightshirts rather than fully dressed.

"It's your home," Tom avoided making the choice. "I'll sleep whereever you want me to." The offer had come out in a far huskier tone than Tom had intended. Dish's penetrating gaze was getting the best of Tom. If it were Justin or Brian staring at him like this the conclusion would be easy to draw. Dish's eyes had gradually heated to a stormy, dark blue over the last couple of hours, but there was no verbal confirmation of what Tom suspected the continual staring meant. Tom tugged at the hem of his borrowed shirt, watching to see if the fidget provoked a reaction.

"Then you might as well lay down with me." Dish scraped his fingers back through newly washed hair. "It'll be warmer."

The bedroom was as austere as the kitchen. When Dish dropped down the bed creaked a protest. Tom padded around, peeled back the covers and settled carefully in beside Dish. The well-worn, under-stuffed mattress sagged in the middle, bringing their bodies together. The feel of it wasn't that different from the sheltering nook they'd nestled together in on the road. The clean bodies and sheets were a nice alteration, the way Dish deliberately attempted to avoid touching Tom was not.

When he was young, Tom had been a glutton for attention. He had curled up against his mother's back when he'd grown too big for her lap. Tom had loved being a petted, over-coddled only child. It seemed however that every year there was less and less comfort to be had from other people. The only time he had ever touched anyone over the last few years was either during a fight or when they were having sex. The last couple of days with Dish had been a pointed reminder of something Tom had lost.

Long moments passed and Tom realized that Dish's body hadn't relaxed into slumber, rather it was completely tensed up. Tom sighed and risked the possibility that he might be evicted from this temporary shelter if he was wrong, still without boots. A hand drifted cautiously to settle, fingers spread, on Dish's stomach. Tom turned towards the other and eased closer. If it was about sex, that was easy to remedy.

A deep breath gusted out of Dish but he didn't flinch away.

"Do you want me to?" Tom's hand smoothed a bit lower to caress just below Dish's belly button. Through the cotton barrier Tom was fairly certain that his hand was resting on tightly curled hair and hardening flesh was lifting to brush his forearm. This was something Tom understood perfectly and was more than willing to share with his charming saviour.

A nervous swallow emerged and Dish turned his face. "That ain't needful, Tom. I'm fine."

The pattern of Tom's stroke broadened to run from one sharp hipbone to the other. "It's all right. I want to do this, Dish." Tom squirmed even closer so he could press his mouth to Dish's shoulder. "You're a good man handsome too." Wiggling his toes caught the blanket, and drew it completely down the bed to rest at their feet. Tom's fingers traced lower to ease the other's nightshirt up so Dish's body was bared. "I like you a lot."

Dish's cock was hard, stiffened into a long, thick shaft already. The tip was just starting to poke out from the foreskin, glistening with pre-come. "I don't know " A nervous shiver ran through him. "I haven't done much of anything 'cept when I was paying for it." The admission was whispered.

"I have." Tom's tone was just as tentative. Admitting to just how much he had done would likely have frightened poor Dish. "Here. You know this." Catching Dish's hand, Tom drew it down so they were both cradling the blood-darkened erection. "Just let me." Kneeling up, an awkward movement on the sagging bed, Tom stripped off his borrowed nightshirt and tossed it away.

When Tom lowered back down to his hands and knees, it was towards the foot of the bed, with his face hovering over Dish's cock. Fingers released, and Dish started to pull his hand away.

"No," Tom murmured softly. "Keep your hand around it." With the uneasy surface, he might need both of his own hands to stop himself from falling over once they got going. Balancing carefully. Tom briefly dared to cover Dish's hand with his own, Tom squeezed, gently pulling towards the damp tip. Warm breath tickled over sensitive skin as Tom bent even lower. Using his lower lip to ease back the loose foreskin, the bit of moisture that had beaded up was delicately smeared over the head of Dish's cock.

Dish's breath hitched, and his fingers seemed to spasm - at the edge of drawing away but holding on as he'd been asked. Once more bracing himself, Tom dipped his head down lower. When Tom's lips parted enough to let the tip slide into his mouth, Dish's fingers retreated to base of his erection. The shaft swelled a little further as Tom sucked more of it in.

Tom suckled briefly before pulling off. "Feed it to me, Dish." A wide lick up the underside of Dish's cock was indulged in before Tom returned to sucking. The body under Tom shuddered then Dish's fingers began to move. He slowly began to stroke upwards, lifting his erection further into Tom's mouth.

Pumping his head, Tom concentrated on the sensation of his lips sliding up and down Dish's hard shaft. He tried to keep his lips tight, wary of snagging skin with his teeth. It took even more attention once Dish's hips eagerly started to lift. A few times Dish filled Tom's throat a bit too deeply, and he almost gagged, but the action wasn't so extreme that Dish noticed, or that Tom wanted to stop.

"Oh please. Please Tom. Oh God." The soft curse was voiced as Dish's left hand threaded down into silky black hair. The lifting of Dish's hips was accompanied by a slight drag at the back of Tom's head. "Ahh yes. God."

Tom allowed the coaxing pull, dropping down to his elbows so he could use his own hands just a little. The speed of Dish's movements increased, as did the volume of the desperate noises coming from the older man. At each withdrawal, Tom used his tongue to put extra pressure on the sensitive skin just below the head of Dish's cock. The trick made Dish moan and shudder at each pass.

Tom's right hand rested heavily on the flat part of Dish's stomach, just under his belly button, supporting himself. Tom's left twisted and dropped so he could caress Dish's tightening balls. Fingernails rubbed carefully at the sensitive skin right behind the fleshy sack.

"Tom oh lord I'm I'm gonna shoot." The hand in Tom's hair flexed awkwardly as if to allow escape. Dish's hips were shaking wildly and he rubbed furiously at his cock, pushing up uncontrollably. His head was thrashing, whipping backwards into the mattress.

A thick groan vibrated Tom's throat and he swallowed desperately to indicate that it was all right. There was no way he was lifting his mouth off the delicious treat. His own hands stilled, holding firm to the other man.

Fingers tightened once more, and Dish pulled at his lover's head until just the first couple of inches of his cock remained in Tom's mouth. "There. Please right there."

Sucking hard, Tom stimulated the spot with tongue and just a hint of teeth, making Dish shudder violently. A faint, almost broken noise fell from Dish's lips, and he arched his back. The shaft in Tom's mouth jerked and swelled before bitter, sticky come exploded out of Dish's cock. Hips still rocking, Dish held tight to Tom's thick black hair. Tom had to swallow before he choked. After a few gulps, Tom had control once more and, he dragged air in through his nose, as he lapped at the softening shaft.

"I'm sorry. I'm honest and truly sorry." Dish collapsed back down to the bed, escaping the contact on his overtly sensitive cock.

"Mmm " Tom's forehead shifted to rest on a wet hip. His chin was dripping. "S'okay. It's what I wanted."

A subtle pull suggested that Tom should come back up so their faces were aligned. Dragging his face a bit over the mattress to dry his chin, Tom moved up. Dish's amazing blue eyes were wide and seemed a bit unsure. Catching the side of Tom's face with a sticky hand, Dish pulled the other into a kiss.

Both of them flinched at first contact. Dish was likely startled by the taste of himself in Tom's mouth. Tom wrinkled his nose, unsure if he could deal with the heavy moustache Dish sported. An arm encircled Tom's waist and drew him tight, bringing Tom's unsatisfied cock into contact with warm skin. Hesitations melted away and their mouths locked tight.

Dish's finger's brushed, jerked away from, then returned to encircle Tom's erection as it was pressed between their stomachs.

A cry of hunger broke their kiss. Tom gasped and burrowed, pressing his face between Dish and the mattress. "I need you." Turning, hot breath gusted into Dish's sensitive ear.

"I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry, Tom." Dish's tone was cracking. "I don't think I can do what you did."

"Rub me off then. Please, Dish. Share this with me." Tom's body ground against the other man's. His hips trembled uncontrollably. More than once Tom had been pushed away at this point in an encounter, and he couldn't help but fear that this would be another such time.

Just when Tom was ready to draw away to avoid a confrontation, Dish surprised him. Heavily calloused fingers ran cautiously up the length of Tom's erection.

Tom moaned softly. He trusted Dish with the care of his sensitive cock and moved his own hands to savour the body before him. Dish's hair was soft and curling slightly at the ends now it had dried. The warm brown strands seemed to almost wrap around Tom's fingers in welcome.

"Like this?" Dish's tone was a hesitant whisper as he stroked Tom's shaft in a firm grip.

"Oh" Tom's eyes closed. " Yes. Exactly."

Dish's moustache scratched across Tom's cheek and kisses tickled Tom's jaw. "Yer so pretty." Lips brushed closed eyelids. "I didn't think I'd ever have anyone so pretty as Lorie again." Dish squeezed gently as he pumped his hand. "She wouldn't but you'll stay here with me? Say you'll stay with me."

The request made little impact on Tom. Things said in the heat of passion couldn't be taken seriously. The nonsense was silenced as they fell into another kiss anyway. Tom sucked at Dish's lips before opening his mouth to draw at the other man's tongue.

Tom's body was trembling. His hips thrust eagerly. Occasionally a tiny hitch of pain would salt the act but Tom was leaking enough to keep things fairly slick. A dizziness fogged Tom's mind as Dish pushed the kiss further, practically devouring him. With a stifled whimper, Tom's frame slipped into wracking spasms. He shuddered against Dish, holding tight.

As Tom panted, Dish continued to nibble, first at the corner of Tom's mouth and then moving to his jaw. One hand cradled over-sensitive flesh while the other drifted to stroke up and down Tom's heaving ribcage. "It's okay. Yer all right." Dish whispered between brushing kisses. "I didn't realize how beautiful you were." Breath puffed out, over-heated. "I thought on the trail that you was pretty but in the kitchen cleaning up. My God, yer so beautiful, Tom. I can't believe someone like you is here with me."

"Shush." Tom, eyes closed, rested his forehead against Dish's. "You don't have to say that." Reluctantly, Tom gathered himself to draw away as Dish's hand cautiously pulled back from his spent, sticky cock.

The mattress shifted, as did the material bunched up under Dish's armpits. Wiping his hand on the nightshirt, Dish eased it down. He caught first at the blanket, and then at Tom, as if to prevent the younger man from escaping.

"Lovely." The compliment was a breathless whisper from Dish as the pair of them straightened out. Tom was hugged close in an embrace that wouldn't be denied.

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Bracing a scythe carefully in place, Tom began to run a sharpening stone over the tool's blade. The front door of the store was blocked open to let in the fresh autumn breeze.

"Twenty-two-fifty, take away five, take away two, add forty dollars and twenty cents, then take away two-thirty more," Dish recited, his face crunched up with concentration.

"Twenty two dollars," Tom answered without breaking the rhythm that he had built up.

Dish laughed, shaking his head. The black cowboy hat hanging behind from a neck strap swung in place. "That's it. Yer doin' the accounts from now on. That's four different totals that I got wrong." The book closed with a thump. "Lordy, I love you, Tom." The increasingly frequent declaration came out for the first time outside the safety of their home. "Yer the best thing that's ever happened to me, baby."

The sound of a throat clearing at the doorway startled both the men into stillness.

"Oliver!" Dish pushed to his feet after missing only a brief beat. "Congratulations. I heard yer missus had another baby last week."

The distasteful glare the farmer had been shooting at Tom vanished as soon as Dish caught and shook Oliver's hand.

"Another boy. What's that? Four now? Yer a damned lucky man." Dish grinned.

Since Tom realized he was no longer the subject of the farmer's stare, he withdrew to the back room of the store to find something else to do until the interloper was gone.

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"I just want you to be able to protect yerself." Dish shoved his gun back into its holster and waited for Tom to do likewise.

"I'm hungry." The empty weapon slid into place while Tom eyed the box lunch over near where the horses were tied up.

"You can eat when you outdraw me," Dish bargained. "Yer fast. I know you can do this if you try."

"I'll suck you off." Tom's dark brows lifted in suggestion.

"Guns food fistfight lesson" Dish listed. "Then I'll suck YOU off, if you do good." He laughed at the way Tom's eyes blinked in surprise at the offer.

Dish had only ever preformed the act in the darkness of their bedroom. Admittedly, this stretch of countryside seemed deserted, but it was broad daylight and there was no locked door protecting them from discovery.

As soon as Dish's fingers twitched to suggest he was going for his gun, Tom snatched after his own pistol. It was up and pointed before Dish's cleared his belt. Tom paced over until the barrel rested against Dish's chest. "You, Dish Boggett, are everything I want in a partner. Have I thanked you yet today for saving my life?" Tom leaned in and stole a kiss.

Pulling back when the contact threatened to heat even further, Dish grinned. "Food. Beat me in a fair fight then we make love."

"I want you to fuck me, Dish. Right now. Right here." The request had a desperate quality to it. This kind of happiness needed to be savoured. It was all too rare in the world and Tom didn't want to waste a drop of it.

"Tom." Dish sighed. "Make love." The correction was firm. "You're not just some I care about you. I thought you cared for me."

The man was adorable, Tom realized, even with that ridiculous moustache. "I do." Tom holstered his gun while staring straight into the most astoundingly blue eyes he'd ever seen. "You're special. What we've found is special. I know that, but I can't help but wonder" Lashes lowered. "when you're going to decide that a farm girl and a half-dozen freckle-faced kids sounds a damned sight more appealing than me?"

"Jeez, Tom." Dish caught and pulled the other close. "You're only the second person I've ever loved like this. I'm not going to change my mind. I'm not that kind of man. I still love Lorie. The only reason I'm not married to her is because she wouldn't have me. Now I'm with you. The only person that can ever break us up is you. I love you." Dish didn't bother to wait on a response. He knew Tom wasn't ready to echo the sentiment back but it didn't seem to matter. Kissing Tom's cheek, Dish repeated himself. "I'll always love you. No matter what."

"I" Part of him wanted to blurt out what he knew Dish wanted to hear but the words stuck in his throat.. "Thank you." He grimaced and backed up a step. "We should eat." The worst part had to be the brief twinge of disappointment on Dish's face. The man tried to hide the reaction but he wasn't the type who could lie with his eyes or his mouth. "Dish" Tom wavered in place.

The pause lengthened impossibly. Tom expected Dish to start fidgeting or ask for an explanation but the older man just stood patiently, happily gazing at Tom as if it were the only thing in the world he wanted to do.

"I don't know why." Tom finally forced a small sentence out. He was well aware that it made little sense but that was the best his tongue could do.

Dish closed the gap that Tom's retreat had created. A rough-skinned thumb traced Tom's face, over his eyebrow and down a prominent cheekbone. "I love you because yer clever, sweet-tempered and beautiful. I love you because even though yer quite likely better bred and raised than anyone else in this whole town, me included, you don't put on airs about it." The touch drifted to Tom's mouth. "I love what you do to me in bed." Dish blushed but he kept talking. "I love how I feel inside when we're jest sitting together. I love that when you look at me yer pretty green eyes sparkle. How's a man 'spected to resist that?" Tom's inky hair was tousled, making it fall forward. "No one, absolutely no one has ever lit up like you do not on my account. I've seen it done fer other men. Gus and Jake could make women do it. I saw Newt spark up like that fer a coupla girls."

"But Dish, there's so many things." A sigh huffed out. "The people in town." Tom reluctantly pulled away. "It bothers them. I bother them. When I'm alone in the store because you're on a delivery or some such thing, they don't come in." Tom lifted a hand to stall off Dish. "And when they do see me, they're all cold enough to freeze water."

"THEY don't matter," Dish stated. "You matter. Do you want to go somewhere else, Tom. I'll move. We'll move. I don't need this store or this town near half so much as I need you. Y've gotta believe me; I love you."

"Loving someone isn't always enough." Tom's counter came out harsher than he'd intended.

Dish frowned, studying his lover. "I'd happily kill whoever made you think that way, baby."

Tom retreated even further, shocked that Dish could read so much from a single declaration. A pained laugh bubbled up. "It was long ago and far away." Tess, no, Tom's mind corrected him, 'Mrs Kendrick' was safely beyond reproach. She was tucked away in powerful Mr Kendrick's hilltop manor-house.

Strong arms wrapped around Tom from behind and Dish pressed a kiss on the bit of skin that Tom's sloppy shirt revealed at his shoulder. "Yer gettin' cold, baby. Hell, it's nearly harvest festival. The snow's not that far off. Put on yer coat, baby. We'll go home. I don't want you catchin' a chill." Dish squeezed tighter. "Please, Tom. Anythin' you need, you jest tell me. I can sell the store. I'll take you back east, if that's what ya need. Take you somewhere civilized. Anything." The whisper was right into the shell of Tom's ear. "Please, baby."

"No one moves about too much during the winter." Tom surrendered to his body's demands, leaning into the embrace. "We can stay in together. Will you build me a chessboard, Dish? I'll teach you how to play." It wasn't likely the former cowboy knew the game. "We'll go to bed early every night. I've things to teach you there too."

"Anythin', Tom," Dish vowed. "I'll learn any game you want."

"I'm still hungry." Tom didn't attempt to shrug off Dish's hold, but he did turn his head. Tom hadn't meant to cause the worried frown he saw on his lover's face. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You need food to grow." Dish seemed to purposefully misunderstand. A smile broke out, quirking his moustache. "Y've still not hit yer full growth, though damned if you ain't already more th'n tall enough." The hug released cautiously. "How much taller than me do you need t' be, baby? It's shameful. I'll jest have t' keep you sittin' or layin' down so's I can reach up t' you." Dish strode over to the horses. "And put a coat on, or I ain't lettin' you have any of Mrs Trent's rhubarb jam."

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Nancy Coates was seriously getting on Tom's nerves. The sheriff's twelve-year-old daughter had no reason whatsoever to be lingering at the hardware store. She'd come in, trailing after her Uncle Pete and had stayed long after the farmer was gone. Dish didn't seem to mind the unexpected company. He'd grinned at Tom as if to say 'look, not everyone is cold' then gone back to carving his third chess piece and talking about some horse who had disappeared from Cracker John's farm.

Nancy murmured an occasional "Uh huh." And dedicated herself to staring at Tom. Her skirt, which should have been brushing the floor, had gradually inched up to just below her knees.

When the girl's mother finally barrelled in the door, Nancy was licking her lips and batting her unimpressive lashes Tom's way. The woman dug curled fingers into Nancy's shoulder and tossed the kid in the direction of the door. "You go cut a whip and take it to your father!" Mrs Coates roared.

Dish set aside his project and stepped so he could speak quietly to the sheriff's furious wife. "Go easy on the girl, Missus Coates. Fluffing Tom's way won't do no harm. He doesn't much like girls." The confidence was offered up in a whisper.

Tom winced even before the woman began to screech. Mrs Coates turned beet red and gasped, then caught her breath. "The whole town is WELL aware of that boy's tendencies. It's disgusting, Mr Boggett, and if you ever EVER mention them to me again I will slap your face. Are we clear, Mr Boggett?"

"Yes'm." Dish retreated instantly, allowing the woman space to whirl about and flounce out of the store.

"Oh Dish." Tom's head fell forward, and he scraped at his hair to keep it falling into his eyes. "They don't oh Dish."

Regret pulled Dish's expressive face into a vision of misery. "I'm sorry, baby. I was jest tryin' to save young Nancy from a bloody back. The sheriff's a hard man, and she's jest a kid." He frowned intently. "Do ya, Tom?"

Peering up, Tom shook his head. "Pardon?"

Dish shuffled his feet slightly. "Do you like girls too, Tom? I mean, y'know LIKE girls."

"I did. I do." Tom responded wearily. "Occasionally. Some girls," he qualified. "But that's not the problem here. They know." Tom rushed on. "They let it slide because they like you so much, Dish, but we can't you shouldn't"

"I'm not ashamed of you, Tom." Dish shook his head. "And if you say I should be, well then, yer wrong. I wasn't ashamed of Lorie, and I'm never gonna be ashamed of you."

"Most people would accept a prostitute as your wife, Dish. Hell, a good quarter of the wives in Texas used to be whores according to some, but" Tom sighed. "What we do together is another matter entirely."

"What we do together is wonderful." Dish's grin was crooked. "I like it jest fine." Brown eyebrows lifted in a suggestive leer. "I'd like a bit right now. How 'bout we lock up and go upstairs?"

"Dish"

"I want you t' do me tonight. I want t' know what it feels like. You get off on it panting and all shiny with sweat. Yer a picture when I'm pokin' you. Jest gorgeous. I want to feel it from that end."

"God Dish." Tom swallowed. His face heated, and he looked nervously at the door.

"We can do it that way, can't we? I mean yer behind ain't no different than mine is. Well, it's prettier, but, they all work the same. Right?"

"Yeah." Green eyes hazed over with arousal. "Yeah, they do." Tom's breath deserted him, taking the discussion with it. "Lock the door tight."

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Four different women had been presented to Dish over the course of the evening, and one townsman or another had pointed out several other young girls. Much to the frustration of almost everyone involved, Dish smiled obliviously and carried on as if whichever female indicated was nothing more than just another neighbour. Dish would shake hands and start talking crops or commenting on the generosity of everyone who had contributed to the harvest party. Tom was also pointed out to almost every one of the ladies and introduced by Dish.

By the time night fell, the fiddler had stepped down, and the leftovers had been packed away, Tom had a stomach ache the size of Bent Creek. The town's sheriff capped it all off. While a couple of the men cornered Dish to ask him to spin the tale of some cattle drive, the sheriff caught Tom by the bicep and pulled him aside.

"Is there"

"Just be quiet and listen to me, boy." Hugh Coates let go of Tom, wiping his hand on his pants. "We all like Dish. He's a good man."

"I know that."

"I said shut up." Sheriff Coates snapped. "You should move on, boy, before we forget that we like Dish. The man runs a store. He needs the goodwill of the town." His upper lip curled. "You, you're a drifter. For all I know there could be a warrant out on you. You might be a murderer or something. You understanding me, boy?"

Acknowledgement of the threat emerged reluctantly, a strangled croak. "Yes sir." The look he was getting from Coates was painfully familiar. Mr Kendrick had worn that expression the day he'd caught his pretty, young wife with her legs spread and thirteen-year-old TomRight at the start you said that Tom had lived for fifteen years with the sun coming through gauzy curtains I think that either that reference needs to be changed to 13, or this one to 15 to stay consistent. under her skirt with his face buried in Tess' folds. The ruin of Tom's life had been complete within a matter of three days after seeing that look on Mr Kendrick's face. Mama was dead, the house was burned to the ground, and their investments had all disappeared. God, didn't Tom know that expression.

Arguing would be a waste of time. Tom wanted to rage, but he had to settle for a strained whisper. "Winter is quiet. No one would much notice me, if I was careful." He couldn't believe what had come out of his mouth. Tom was bargaining for just a bit more time when he should just get the hell out of here for the sake of his own skin - well, that or punch this ass in the mouth.v

"I don't think that'd be wise, boy. I think I saw a face I could easily mistake for yours on one of my wanted posters." The sheriff looked about so he could judge where Dish was. "I'm liable to find it tomorrow morning while I'm cleaning up my desk."

One night. Tom nearly choked on the fury he had to swallow at that moment. The gun that Dish had given him felt like it weighed a ton as it hung off his belt. He'd never wanted to use it so badly as he did right now. Tom was comfortable here. He liked the store and the work Dish gave him. He liked Dish even more. Tom was growing fonder of Dish every day. It was so easy to love someone who treated him as sweetly as Dish did.

Love? Oh God, he was in love! He'd fallen in love with Dish without even thinking about it. The astonishing realization finally struck him, at the worst possible time.

"Tomorrow morning, boy," Coates snapped. "Or I WILL discover you're wanted by the US Marshals dead or alive and kill you by noon." The sheriff paced off without giving Tom a chance to dispute the threat.

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The blankets were a sweat-soaked pile at the foot of the bed. Both their nightshirts had long been tossed away. Dish was almost incoherent. Tom had dragged two orgasms out of him already but even now another was threatening to shatter Dish. Their bodies were locked together. Dish's cock was buried to the hilt in Tom's ass. Both of them were on their knees. Tom's one hand braced them up by pushing at the headboard. The other arm was lifted and curled so he could reach back and clutch at Dish's hair. Tom had never been so careless of noise before, even inside the security of their room. He moaned and babbled with every jolting shove, willing to give it all up as part of his penance for what was coming.

"No matter what" Tom's eyes teared helplessly, and he bucked into the movement. "I love you, Dish. I should have told you sooner.

The long awaited words made Dish groan and clutch at his partner's body. "Oh God, Tom. Baby." Dish kissed at Tom's ear. "Thank you, Tom. I love you too. Thank you. You're perfect. My sweet baby." The endearments were almost breathless.

"I'm sorry." Tom quaked, his fingers pulling hair as he began to come. "Ah! I do I love you. Oh Christ! I'm sorry." His groan was almost painful as it tore out of the bottom of his throat.

"No! There's nothing nothing to be sorry over oh, Tom love. You're just you're perfect." Dish gasped desperately between each word, his own completion dragged out of him by the force of the shudders wracking Tom. They sagged quickly, pulled down by their combined weight. Absent sucking kisses were pressed to Tom's shoulder and neck. "You've killed me." Dish murmured softly as they separated. "Lordy, Tom. You're a wonder."

"Sleep." Turning over carefully, Tom allowed himself one more searching kiss. "I've got to clean up and tend to something. I'll see to the lamp. Sleep, Dish."

"Daniel." The correction was barely audible. "My mama called me Daniel. You should too, Tom."

Why now? Tom's heart ached. "I love you, Daniel." It was incredibly unfair, brutally painful. "Close your eyes."

Dish was asleep before Tom straightened out the blankets and draped them over his lover. Moving quietly Tom dressed and gathered up his one change of clothes. He left the drawer of the dresser open to show that it was now empty.

Taking the lamp into the kitchen, Tom dared to pack a few supplies into a saddlebag with shaking hands. He'd agonized over the decision, but the only practical solution was that he would have to take one of his lover's horses from the livery. Stealing someone else's horse would get him hunted down and hung, but Tom couldn't walk, not if he was going to get away clean. It had to be a clean getaway. Tom would lose it, if he had to look Dish in the eyes ever again. He'd break down and stay if his lover asked him to, even knowing what it would cost them both.

If the situation allowed it, Tom would try to either return the animal eventually by way of someone he could trust or send some money.

Guilt and sorrow warred inside Tom as he strapped on a gunbelt and shrugged into a warm coat. He hoped it didn't look like he'd taken advantage of Dish and run, but then again maybe it would be best if that was how it appeared.

Settling the bags over his shoulder, Tom took one last look around. He'd lost a nicer home than this before but never a more sincerely appreciated one.

Maybe southwest. Tom descended the stairs slowly into the blackness. Justin had mentioned a town the lot of them frequented. They did, after all, owe him a horse and all but one change of clothes. Maybe it was time to try and collect on that debt from Brian and his boys.

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That's it. Milk and cookies time.

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