Luc Bryant watched Kel grow from the little kid whose football broke a pane in his greenhouse, into the sexy young man who sent heat racing through him. That was when Luc stopped watching and distanced himself, because he didn’t want to be that kind of a man. And that’s how things continued, until he saw to what depths the boy had sunk. Luc will be damned if he’ll let Kel kill himself. What Kel needs is a friend, and Luc’s shoulders are plenty big enough to bear his burdens.
Kel doesn’t need a friend. He needs a pair of strong arms to hold him, a broad chest to curl up against, someone to listen to him, someone who cares for him… and a whole lot more.
What he needs is a Daddy.
He just doesn’t know it yet.
The time for worrying about Kel had long past. Luc had to do something.
After the funeral, he’d kept his promise and checked in on the boy regularly, and at first it had looked like Kel was coming through this. At least, Luc assumed he was. He didn’t get to see Kel all that much, but their brief conversations over the property boundary were proof that Kel was alive and well, if looking a little thin.
Then the conversations dwindled, as did the phone calls. Kel politely refused Luc’s invitations to eat with him. He refused Luc’s offers of assistance. And lately there had been far too many occasions when Kel didn’t answer his phone. No reply to texts. When Luc had ventured across to knock at the door, there had been no answer. Of course, he could have been out, but somehow Luc doubted that. When April gave way to May, Luc’s disquiet increased.
There were signs of life at the house next door, however. Walmart trucks came and went, and more than once, Luc dashed out to catch Kel before he closed the front door, but he was never fast enough.
Almost as though the boy was avoiding him, which if it were true, would be extremely ironic.
The day arrived when Luc wasn’t content to sit back anymore and wait for something to happen. It was time for the last resort—and that meant Christine’s spare key, the one he’d never gotten around to giving back to Kel. Thank God.
Luc grabbed it from the hook in the kitchen where he kept his keys, and went out of the house. Kel’s car was in the driveway, and judging by the state of the ground beneath it, Kel hadn’t moved it for a while. That only added to Luc’s sense of foreboding.
He went around to the front door, not bothering to ring the bell. After weeks of his knocks going unanswered, there seemed little point. Luc inserted the key into the lock, praying there wasn’t a chain attached on the other side. Thankfully, the door opened, and Luc stepped quietly into the silent interior. He peered into the sitting room, then the dining room, but there was no sign of Kel. When he entered the kitchen, the sight was enough to stop him in his tracks.
Dishes were piled high on every countertop. The dishwasher door was open, and Luc peeked inside. It was full of dirty dishes. The sink was full too, and the trash looked like it hadn’t been taken out for weeks.
Luc noted the pizza boxes and take-out cartons. At least he’s eating something. It was only when he took a closer look at one corner of the kitchen that the full extent of the situation hit him.
Bottles. Lots and lots of empty bottles. And most of it was the hard stuff, Luc was dismayed to see. There were empty cans and bottles of hard cider, and bottles of wine too. It appeared as if Kel had drunk his way through the contents of a bar.
Dear God, what state is he in, if he’s drunk all that?
Luc checked the rest of the first floor, but there was still no sign. He paused at the foot of the stairs, his nostrils flaring. The smell of stale alcohol was very noticeable. Luc mounted the stairs, his heart pounding. This is not good. This is way worse than I thought.Already he was kicking himself for not charging in sooner.
When he reached the door to Kel’s room, Luc paused, steeling himself for whatever lay beyond it, and praying fervently that the boy hadn’t choked to death on his own vomit. He pushed open the door and heaved an internal sigh of relief at the sight that awaited him.
Kel was in his bed, only the top of his head visible above the comforter, but he was clearly breathing. The room was in semidarkness, and the reek of alcohol was at its strongest, accompanied by the smell of stale sweat. Luc crossed the floor, put his hand to the lump beneath the covers, and gave Kel a light shake.
Luc gave him a stronger shake, and Kel’s groggy voice shattered the quiet. “Wha?”
“Kel,” Luc said urgently. “It’s Luc.”
Like Luc was going to do that. “No, I’m not going anywhere. Remember?” He slowly drew back the comforter, only to have Kel seize it from him and pull it back over himself. Half-closed brown eyes regarded him with incredulity.
“How’d you get in here?”
“I have a key. You mom gave it to me. Remember, she asked me to check on the house?”
Kel propped himself up on his elbows, and the comforter slid lower, revealing…
Well, I certainly didn’t expect that.
Kel had a tattoo, a pattern of black swirls and spikes that covered his right shoulder, his pec and came halfway down his upper arm. There was also a lot more body hair than Luc had been prepared for. Before Luc could utter another word, Kel set his jaw. “I want it back, then I want you to leave.”
Luc slowly shook his head. “No. You need help.”
Kel’s eyes blazed, and he sat bolt upright. “You. Need. To. Go. Now.”
“And let you keep doing this to yourself? Kel, you’re better than this.”
Kel’s jaw dropped, then he snapped it shut. “You need to go,” he repeated through gritted teeth. “I don’t want you seeing me like this. I’m a pathetic excuse for a human being. Helpme? You couldn’t help me. I’m a hopeless case. I’m worse than useless.”
Luc’s stomach turned over. What the fuck had happened? “I have no idea where all this is coming from,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice even. “I know you, Kel. You’re nothing like the person you just described.”
Kel stared up at him, a dazed look in his eyes, his mouth open. “Know me? You don’t know me! Even my parents didn’t know me!” His chest rose and fell rapidly, his breathing harsh and staccato. “If they did, they’d have shunned me for the abomination that I am.”
Abomination? “Kel, I—”
“I was not a good son!” Kel yelled, the cords of his neck standing out. “And if they’d seen into my heart, they’d have been horrified. I went against their teachings.” He brought his left hand down hard on his right pec, wincing. “This. This would have given them so much pain, and I stillhad it done, knowing that.” His eyes glistened. “And there was worse than this. So many things I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t, because they’d have been so damned disappointed in me. And now it’s too late. They’re never going to know what I’m really like. And I can’t bear that.” Tears spilled over his cheeks, his shoulders shook, and he sobbed.
Luc knew what he was seeing. In an instant, he sat on the bed, drew back the comforter, and pulled Kel into his lap, his arms around him. It was no surprise when the boy threw his arms around Luc’s neck and buried his face in Luc’s chest, his knees up to his chest, harsh sobs racking his body. “It’s okay,” Luc whispered. “Let it out. It’s all right to let it out, Kel.” Hot tears soaked into his shirt.
“I… can’t… stop… it from… hurting…” Kel choked out between sobs.
“It’s supposed to hurt.” Luc held onto him, one arm around his back, the other around his legs, cradling him, aware of the tremors that jolted through Kel’s frame. “This is grief. You’ve held on to your emotions so tightly, but now you have to let go.”
Kel’s sobs increased in volume and frequency, and Luc remained silent, gently rocking him in his arms, a weeping young man dressed only in his briefs, curled up against Luc’s chest and clinging to him. Luc’s arms were full to capacity: Kel might have been shorter than him, but he’d obviously been working out at some point. Little by little the tears subsided, and Kel’s breathing became less erratic. Luc brought his rocking to a halt, his nose buried in Kel’s hair. Finally, Kel moved gingerly, as though embarrassed by his position.
Luc let go, and Kel sat on the bed beside him. He sniffed, then wiped a hand across his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for. If you knew how long I’ve been waiting for you to show some emotion over their deaths….” Luc stroked Kel’s hair. “It’s perfectly normal. And nothing to be embarrassed about. Although….” Luc wrinkled his nose.
Kel swallowed. “I guess I smell a bit ripe, huh?”
“Just a little,” Luc lied. “Nothing a good shower wouldn’t put right. If you think you can stay upright for that long. You might be a little shaky on your legs.” He stood, and held out a hand to Kel, who took it and pulled himself to his feet. Luc watched him anxiously. “Well?”
Kel expelled a long shuddering breath. “I can manage a shower.”
Luc nodded in approval. “And while you’re doing that, I’ll go downstairs and make you something to eat.” He cocked his head to one side. “That’s assuming there’s food in your kitchen. Edible food.”
Kel bit his lip. “Yeah, about that…”
Luc rolled his eyes. “Get washed. I’ll go to my place and raid the refrigerator. Take as long as you like.”
For the first time since Luc had entered his room, there was a flash of the old Kel. “Is that Luc-speak for ‘you stink’?”
Luc laughed. “Shower, dirty boy. Then I’ll feed you. And then… we can talk.” He felt a good deal lighter. That had been a cathartic moment, and while Kel still had a way to go, the outlook was hopeful.
What puzzled him were a couple of things Kel had said. At this point Luc wasn’t sure if he was going to leave them for now, or bring them out into the open. Because sooner or later, they had to talk about them.