Rough Canvas (Nature of Desire #6)

Rough Canvas (Nature of Desire #6) - Page 10/23

"Tomorrow's your day," Marcus had said on the way home. "Wherever, however you want to paint. Wherever you lead, I'll follow."

"Maybe hell will freeze over too," Thomas had responded with a snort.

They'd had pie and coffee at a late-night restaurant after they left the club, talked about other things. Art, New York... Hell, what they'd each been catching on television lately, but they'd stayed away from everything that happened at Detonation, both understanding that needed time to settle. When they got back to the cottage and Marcus finally went on to bed, with a mere reserved brush of lips and a steady, long look, Thomas had stayed in the living room, ostensibly to sketch.

In reality he was too wired.

He'd sat up a long time, thinking about everything that had happened. As he put together bits and pieces he'd barely been able to register while at the club, he'd come upon an unexpected revelation that turned him on his axis. Ironically, the twinge of hurt he'd felt at Marcus' reserve when they got home had been the key that opened the door. And what he'd seen in that new room had transformed the hurt into an altogether different reaction.

There at the end, Marcus hadn't been sure of himself. Of what was happening, where they were going. If he'd crossed the line, and he had, several times. It had taken Thomas back to the words of the first night, the ones he hadn't believed.

I love you. At one time he'd have given anything to hear those words from Marcus' mouth, when he'd been naive enough to believe them. When Marcus had said it that first day, he hadn't wanted to hear it, had really brushed it off with no consideration at all, because the idea was ludicrous. However, sitting on the couch into the early hours of morning, he had to accept that it was entirely possible the words might be true.

The conflict and apprehension that came with that idea made him reckless, restive.

He stayed awake, watching the sky start to light, and felt the desire build in him to sketch, create. Images crowded into his brain like rabid fans at a rock concert, vying for the lead singer's attention in a variety of provocative ways. He wanted to shout and rage and spin in circles, the way his mind was doing. He wanted to go. Needed to go and wanted to pull Marcus into flight right along with him. Have him beside him to tease and talk to, to share it all.

That was when he got up and made the coffee.

Someone was trying to wake him up, and it was barely light outside, a time no normal person would think of getting out of bed. Marcus cracked open an eye and saw the clock confirm the horrifying truth. "It's not even daytime yet."

"It's seven a.m." Thomas waved the coffee under his nose again, retracted it when Marcus narrowed his eyes to slits. "What, all that beauty will fall apart if you get less than twelve hours?"

"It might. My hair won't style right and my butt will drag the ground all day long."

"Your ass couldn't sag if you tied weights to it." Marcus closed his eyes again.

A gentle stroking started in his hair, a thumb passing along his temple. It was a soothing caress that perversely made him want to keep drifting, even as it brought him to a waking state. It was almost like the faraway memory of a mother's touch, where all was well and forgiven, even before the sin was committed. Safety and peace.

Since Thomas never came to bed, Marcus suspected he'd fallen asleep on the couch.

It wasn't what Marcus wanted, but he hadn't wanted to push. He knew he'd done way too much of that for one night. He still wasn't sure what had gotten into him.

Marcus opened his eyes once more to find ten minutes had passed during his half-doze, half-thought. Squatting by the edge of the bed, Thomas still held the coffee cup in one hand, keeping the aroma temptingly close while stroking Marcus' hair. When he saw Marcus' eyes open, Thomas gave it a tug. A smile grew on his face like lazy morning sunshine. "I almost wanted you to keep sleeping so I could keep looking at you."

"So what's the plan today?" Marcus asked, forcing himself to shift and sit up, take the coffee. Closing his eyes, he let the steam curl up toward his face to wake him in that gentle narcotic fashion that only coffee beans could accomplish.

"I'd like to drive around the hills some. Just wander, see what looks inspiring, set up somewhere. I've made up a lunch, some snacks, a cooler of beer and wine. Packed some of your books. Hid your briefcase and cell phone where it will take you much too long to find them."

"You know I run a very lucrative side career as a phone operator for Talk Dirty To Me. Someone might have an emergency."

"I can tip that cup and take your voice up a couple octaves. Permanently. Your career as a sex operator would be over."

Marcus smiled. "You sound in a different mood today."

"I am." When he opened his eyes, Thomas was regarding him with an odd expression. For some reason, Marcus didn't want to pursue what was going on behind the dark eyes studying him.

"I'll get dressed," he said.

They put the top down on the Maserati. It handled well on the small winding roads that took them deeper into the Berkshires, where leaves danced as they passed and wildflowers on the road side nodded. Marcus found there was a soothing greenness to it all, like the clasp of something familiar, important in its vitality in a way that couldn't be described, that he found vaguely disturbing.

Thomas finally had him stop on a rise, where a sloped expanse of field provided a rolling panoramic glimpse of the forest backdrop, followed by a layering of blue-green hills. Marcus followed him over a fence with the basket, blanket and book. In short order he had the blanket spread out, the basket serving as a side table for his glass of wine. Putting a book in his lap and tree at his back, Marcus set his music player at his side to softly play the programmed selections he'd downloaded for this trip.

While Thomas had packed all those things for his comfort, he paid little attention to Marcus' use of them now, moving about fifty feet away into the field, dropping several sketch pads around him. There he stood now. Staring into space. Shifting.

It was like watching a bloodhound, Marcus reflected. Thomas turning, making slight, erratic shifts that couldn't necessarily be predicted, seeking something no one else could detect. Abruptly he settled, dropping to a cross-legged position in the long grass, opening the sketch pad and letting his pencil take him to whatever place he tangled with his muse.

Marcus had heard of family members of artists who felt excluded, isolated during these times. Maybe he felt differently because of his reverence for what happened in these moments. When the end result captivated someone on a gallery wall, he knew he'd been present for creation, a fly on the wall.

That applied to Josh and some of his other artists. But with Thomas, it was as if his lover's creative awareness expanded and cloaked Marcus the same way the greenness of the trees did. The cool comfort of it was a buffer against the world, as if it guarded something sacred, untouchable in this field. He was a part of this, not just an observer.

Pushing away that thought and the other unsettling thoughts it raised, Marcus focused on his book and wine, letting the breeze and the quiet of the place close in on his mind, fill the troubled spots for awhile. That quietness had substance, for while it was present it seemed to have no room for uneasy ruminations.

Three glasses of wine later, he stretched out on his back, ankles crossed, one arm behind his head as a pillow, holding the paperback up to read. Until it slowly descended and he dozed.

Wheat-colored grass, flowing, rippling like a lover's muscles. Green flowing into the gold like interlocking fingers. Every part different, but all part of the whole. Birds spiraling and speaking in musical tongues, warbling, chirping, trebling, the piercing shriek of a hawk. The occasional rasping calls of the crows, or the surprise of an owl's hoot as the sun rose, giving warmth, a dying god's gift, the promise of renewal as it moved inexorably toward the autumn cycle.

Marcus opened sleepy eyes to find his lover's face very, very close. Thomas was leaning over him, one hand braced on the other side of Marcus' hip, his dark chocolate brown eyes studying Marcus' face intently. Leaning in further, he kissed him.

Marcus raised his hand, intending to cup his head, feel the short hair layered over his knuckles, but Thomas' hand closed over his wrist, held it in the air, his fingers straightening to meet him palm to palm. Then, slowly, Thomas eased both their hands back to the blanket as he shifted and laid his body fully on Marcus'.

Marcus felt a stirring in his lower belly, a need to change their positions, but he was too drugged by sun and the tranquility of their surroundings. He could lie here, for just another moment. One more. And one more.

"Christ, you're going to kill me," he muttered.

As Thomas' lips coaxed his open, his tongue was seduced into erotic play that had his vitals coiling. When Thomas increased the pressure behind the kisses, the passion behind them, his hand dropped to Marcus' throat, squeezing. Marcus responded somewhere between a groan and a feral growl of warning. Even as he did his body was lifting up, back arching to bump Thomas' chest. When he would have freed his hand, Thomas' grip slid to his other wrist, just caressing the pulse.

"Let me," Thomas murmured. "Just let me."

Marcus wondered if it was only incidental that John Mayer's languorous Gravity was playing, the words and tone so appropriate.

Thomas' hand cupped the side of Marcus' head, fingers sliding into his thick hair, caressing his scalp, capturing strands and stroking, his body rubbing Marcus' in the slow blues rhythm of the song, chest to chest. Groin to groin, hard, urgent need grinding against the same.

"Wait..." Thomas' whisper held Marcus where he was. When Thomas moved his hand, thumb tracing his ribs, then shifting between them to open Marcus' shirt, Marcus left his hand lying on the grass. Fingers half curled, but palm up, suggesting surrender.

He'd never let a lover make love to him like this, but this was Thomas, his pet. His slave. Thomas could do anything he wanted to him, because Thomas was his. And yet, Thomas had never been as bold, as confident as he was at this moment, taking the lead.

Thomas moved his mouth to go for the throat, the sweet pocket of Marcus' collarbone, loosening his hold on Marcus' other hand as he cupped his jaw to trace vulnerable arteries with his tongue. He caressed the smooth muscle of Marcus' chest.

The flat hard nipples, the silken hair that formed a thin line down the distinct aisle between the washboard abs.

He kissed, not down, but along Marcus' shoulder, teasing the line of bone and muscle there, rubbed his cheek along it. Raised his head enough to study it, trace it before he turned to stare into Marcus' eyes, peer there intently as he caressed that part of his anatomy. He moved his hips, a slow, dragging stroke, rubbing his turgid cock against Marcus'.

That was all Marcus could handle. His control broke. Seizing the back of Thomas' head, he rolled them, crushing his mouth to Thomas' as he reversed their positions.

Thomas' hands clamped down on his ass and squeezed with bruising force, fingers teasing the crease. Marcus pulled at Thomas' waistband, wanting to tear his clothes from him, right now, now, now. Goading him to a sexual frenzy with those sexy touches and slumberous eyes, touching him as if he owned him, as if...

When Marcus rose to his knees, Thomas reached for his pants, opening them and reaching in, his eyes now dark and dangerous. It was the unexpected version of Thomas, the one who knew what he wanted and could have it, who closed his hand on the heated steel of Marcus' cock. Marcus let his head fall back on his shoulders at that touch and then he caught the hand that was threatening to make him spew at any moment.

"Take off your jeans, pet," he managed hoarsely. "Down on your side on the blankets." He caressed Thomas' throat, squeezing it deliberately, making it clear who belonged to whom. "I want to see the marks I left on you."

"You could see them long before last night," Thomas responded.

"Off," Marcus growled. "Now."

Thomas stood up on his knees, unbuckled his belt, slid it free and opened the jeans, shoving them down his thighs. Keeping his gaze on Marcus' face, he went down on his side. Marcus wondered if the extent of his own need, the dangerous power of it, was in his expression.

"The shirt."

Thomas slid it from his shoulders, rising a bit. Reaching forward, Marcus caught the collar, damp with sweat from Thomas' nape, and pulled it all the way free. As he let it fall to the ground, the breeze folding it over, he traced the marks on Thomas' back and ass left from the flogger.

A still, heavy moment. As he touched him, Marcus wasn't sure of Thomas' thoughts about last night. But Thomas was looking up at the clouds shifting, his hand opening and closing on the grass next to him. "My back is sore this morning," he said, low. "I liked it. Liked knowing it was you who made it that way. It turned me on to remember it. And though you've been trying to keep your distance, you couldn't keep yourself from running your hands over them this morning, pressing down so I'd feel it. You liked it."

"I needed to mark you. Fuck you. Always feel like you're mine."

"I am. I've already told you that." Thomas curled his fingers around the belt he'd pulled loose, held it up to him, extending an arm whose the muscles were bunched with tension. "Mark me again."

God, Marcus didn't think he could get harder, but he did, just from those three words.

Thomas saw his reaction. He shrugged out of his clothes fully and then rolled to his stomach naked. Rising on all fours, he deliberately and provocatively adjusted his thighs open, raising his ass for whatever Marcus wanted to do to him.

Pure lean muscles, a farmer's tan, his head bent down, waiting for Marcus' bidding.

Lust could burn, Marcus knew that, but he'd never felt it threaten to incinerate every rational part of him, all the careful, civilized shields he had that made him a functioning member of society, leaving this savage, rutting Neanderthal. Whatever propelled his next actions, thought had been pushed away in favor of sheer response, reaction. He needed, wanted, couldn't hardly breathe with the power of it.

Doubling the belt over in his hand, he brought it down on Thomas' tight muscular ass, the left buttock. It clenched further. He put his hand on the heat of the mark, the heat of the man beneath, and his own hand trembled. He strapped him again, both cheeks, several strikes on the upper back, layering the marks still sensitive from the flogging.

When Thomas drew in a breath through his teeth, it pierced straight to Marcus' heart. Bending down, he laid his lips on one of the marks as Thomas' shoulders flexed under the caress, his head turning to see him, to brush his forehead with his jaw.

Marcus threaded the belt under him and wound both ends over his knuckles. Bringing the strap in tight across the flat expanse of Thomas' lower abdomen, he trapped his cock against his belly and made Thomas groan from the punishing friction.

Then he wrenched a deeper groan from him when Marcus thrust in, using the hold on the belt to hold Thomas rigid as he rammed in hard and fast, pistoning, taking them both up.

Marcus needed it, needed it like air, needed some outlet for the emotion that clogged in his throat and made his heart want to explode every time he touched Thomas, kissed him, saw his smile and knew he would go. Leaving a growing emptiness that might dull in time but would kill Marcus in the end nonetheless, because one simply couldn't exist without the other half of one's own body.

Marcus let go of the belt and dropped, covering him and taking hold of Thomas' cock, gripping the pulsing weight of it. A second later Thomas was coming, falling to one elbow. Marcus followed him down, face pressed to his neck as he worked him, felt his seed make his own hand slick, his knuckles wet. Thomas' ass muscles clenched him like a fist as well, making Marcus wish he could stay hard forever, make Thomas come like this forever.

"Don't you hold back on me," Thomas rasped. "Let go." Marcus tightened his fist, his other hand on Thomas' hip, clutching as his hips slammed against his ass, making Thomas feel the full size of him, pushing against his thighs, driving him to both elbows now. Marcus rolled them to their sides on the blanket so he could keep pumping him, moving Thomas with the force of it, his hand dipping to grip his buttock and open him up further.

"God..." As Thomas gasped it, Marcus set his teeth into his shoulder, letting go, jetting into him.

Sometimes when it was like this, Marcus felt every sensation as if his senses were completely open. A space of total spiritual clarity, no shields against the detailed sensations of earth, air, fire and water moving around him. Of flesh, Thomas' thighs against his own, the quiver of his buttocks, the beautiful way his shoulders and chest lifted and expanded from his breath, reminding Marcus of a butterfly slowly opening and closing his wings. He could almost imagine the patterns and markings on Thomas' shoulders, the network of veins.

A man's soul was a fragile thing when this close to the surface, very much like a butterfly. Maybe that was why time seemed to stop in these moments, as if it was a protection. Once the winds of time resumed, that butterfly would be blown away, as if blasted by the backdraft of a semi. It had to have time to sink back behind the protective wall of flesh and mental shields.

Some of those walls were built thicker and tougher than others, which perhaps explained why it came so easily to the surface for Thomas, whose shields seemed almost dangerously transparent at times.

Marcus molded Thomas protectively into the curve of his body at the thought, holding him securely about the waist, still inside of him as they both got their breath back. Since he had his arm under Thomas' head, Thomas brushed his lips on the smooth inside skin of his forearm.

"Wow," he murmured. "That was something else."

Marcus rose on one elbow then, sliding from him and tugging him to his back to look into his face, needing to see his eyes. "Yeah." Thomas grinned. "Poets. Both of us." He cast a glance to the right. "What do you think?"

Marcus moved his attention to the series of sketch pads propped up in tented fashion so Thomas could show them to him, the pages anchored with clips against the breeze.

The one he'd been working on was this meadow, a bird's eye view. In the ripples of meadow grass there were the hints of sinuous bodies and limbs. The grasses followed the contours of muscles, as if the meadow held the memory and impression of past lovers.

As remarkable as that coincidence was, the next sketch cinched it. It was the curved back of a man as his male lover knelt in intimate posture behind him, the suggestion of a butterfly's markings upon his back even as one of the creatures fluttered into the picture with them. Just one...

Had he internalized Thomas' work in his dreams, during his doze? Logic told him he had, but something deeper, the thing that tumbled inside of his heart with such strength whenever he looked at Thomas, suggested something different. It was a feeling so strong it could be the essence of joy and fury. Perhaps the two together created passion because it was the struggle to give and take all at once. It told him he would never know if the idea had come from Thomas' mind or his own.

Maybe what Thomas painted was the melding of both of their desires, fears, dreams and fantasies. Maybe that was the real reason he'd never felt excluded when Thomas painted.

"What do you think?" Thomas' tone was studiedly neutral, almost making Marcus smile.

"I think the more free rein you give your talent, the more you're going to amaze the world." Marcus glanced down at him. "But if you want me to go on record, my official comment is I should be able to get a decent commission off them."

"Asshole." Thomas shoved at his chest and Marcus laughed, let himself be pushed away. He lay on his back quietly then, watching Thomas draw his jeans back on, zip them up. His farm boy negligently left the top button open as something in the sketch pads caught his attention. He hopped one-legged toward them, putting on his shoe, grabbing up his pencil. Marcus swiftly moved to retrieve his wineglass from the sure punt it would have experienced, since Thomas paid no attention to what was between him and his goal.

"Use me for sex and then you're done with me." He murmured it, though, not wanting to distract Thomas' concentration. He dressed, found Thomas' shirt, folded it and added it to the pack of their belongings.

When he turned to survey the scenery of the lower level of the field they were in, he found himself eye to eye with another occupant of the same meadow.

"Thomas."

Thomas glanced back, half irritably, and then did a double take. "Where did they come from?"

"I haven't the faintest idea. I think we were a bit distracted when they arrived." The large black and gray male goat, complete with curved horns and a shaggy long coat, considered Marcus with an interested eye, or rather his books. He began to nibble at the edge of one.

"Hey, quit that." When Marcus raised a hand to shove him away, Thomas made a quick warning noise.

"Not a good idea to push around a male goat. Just take it away, don't push at his face. He'll take that as an invitation to butt heads with you." Marcus heard the laughter in his lover's voice. "And as hard as your head is, I still suspect you'll lose."

"Oh, geez. What is that stench?"

"Him. Male goats piss on their own faces to make themselves more attractive to females."

"You made that up."

"Did not." Thomas came to his side and gazed down the slope past their tree where the rest of the herd, about twenty-five females and a few kids, late summer arrivals, were alternately grazing or studying the two men. Marcus was easing away from the male goat, giving him a baleful look as the goat continued to root at him. His lips captured a piece of shirt and Marcus pulled back.

"This shirt costs way more than they get for goat meat, you pushy bastard," he pointed out. The goat stepped forward, making a guttural noise followed by a snort.

"Thomas - "

"Is that panic I hear in the great Marcus Stanton's voice?" Thomas touched his back and burst out laughing when Marcus jumped as if jolted by electricity. "You didn't seem at all intimidated by Kate."

"She was a cow. I know cows. Pigs. Chickens. Goats are...not supposed to be this bloody big. His fricking head reaches my chest."

"It's all right. I'll protect you." With a droll look, Thomas dipped his hand and squeezed his buttock.

"I am so going to kick your ass in about ten seconds."

"If the goat doesn't scare you into scampering back to the car."

"What the hell are you doing in this field?"

When they both turned, Marcus noted that Thomas automatically took a step in front of him. Though to Marcus' way of thinking the goat posed more of a threat than the man, it still gave him an odd feeling to see Thomas do it so instinctively. Enough that he quelled the urge to shoulder him aside for the same reason.

They were quite obviously facing the farmer and caretaker of the goats, for a group of the herd began to move up the hill at the sound of his voice, their steps quickening as if expecting he would be bringing them something interesting to eat. The male goat pushed past Marcus as if he weren't there, making him jump again and leaving a malodorous wake that had his eyes watering.

The man was heavy set, in his fifties, wearing jeans stained with straw and dirt.

There was a once white undershirt under his open unbuttoned shirt. His eyes were suspicious.

"We're sorry, sir." Thomas turned and scooped up his sketch pads, drawing them under his arm and extending a hand. "I'm Thomas Wilder, and this is Marcus Stanton.

I'm an artist. We're visiting the area and I'd picked this spot out for sketch work because of the view. It's beautiful land."

The man studied the extended hand, didn't take it. "Well, you're trespassing. Get off my land the way you came. If I come back here in ten minutes and find you, I'll call the police." His gaze moved deliberately to the mussed blanket, the picnic basket.

"What you do in Boston or whatever big city you came from is your business, but I don't want it happening on my property."

"Well, you didn't have a rest area available for us to molest teenage boys," Marcus said, his jaw tightening.

"Marcus," Thomas hissed, taking his arm. Thomas knew that fired-up look, knew this was entirely the wrong place. "I'm sorry sir," he said quickly. 'We should have asked permission before coming onto your land."

The farmer nodded, a muscle in his jaw twitching in an ironic mirror of Marcus' expression as he turned around and strode away, his herd ambling after him. Some of them returned to their grazing, savvy enough to know it wasn't dinnertime.

"Why didn't you just apologize for breathing his fucking air while you were at it?" Marcus snapped, turning to the blanket and picking it up. He shoved the basket away before the male goat could start investigating the contents or nibble on the wicker on the outside.

"We're on his land. We weren't invited. It was my fault. I'm used to home where I know all the farmers and they know me."

"It's your fault for being gay?"

Thomas set his teeth. "This isn't about that. Not everything is about that. He's just tired of tourists trespassing."

"It isn't, hmm?" Marcus rolled the blanket into a ball, stuffed it into the duffel, shouldering it and gathering the picnic basket. "What do you think he would have done if we were Joe and Suzie Q sitting here, doing exactly what we were doing?"

"He still would have asked us to leave the property," Thomas said stubbornly.

"Maybe. But I'll lay you odds if he did, he'd have chatted them up a bit. Or as he headed back up that hill, he'd get a nostalgic feeling, thinking about him and the missus and their younger days. Sowing wild oats and all that."

"Getting in his face doesn't work. You don't change people by living up to what they think you are."

Marcus lifted a brow. "Have you tried that line on yourself?"

"What do you want, Marcus?" Thomas snatched the basket from him, slammed it to the ground. "Not everyone accepts people who... like..." Marcus rounded on him. "You searching for a word, pet? Maybe you should be listening more closely to your brother. Homosexuals, gay, fags, rump riders, fudge packers, whatever makes it into something nasty and obscene." The male goat had retreated to his herd. Despite the fact he applauded the goat's wisdom, Thomas held firm, his brows drawing down over dark eyes that he wasn't even aware were snapping with their own fire. "This isn't about some farmer's veiled insult. The way you're acting - that's about you and me."

"Really? You fucking think so? Artists are such brain surgeons, aren't they? Two seconds ago, I was inside you and you were inside me. Two seconds later you're bowing and scraping and asking for forgiveness for being here, for fucking being who you are. Just like you are with your family. As if it's something to be ashamed of."

"It's not that. You know my mother, her faith - "

"Don't." Marcus' voice was low and vicious, and it brought Thomas up short.

"When I've come inside you, lain on you, felt you tremble, felt that silence between us that has everything...you don't think God is there? If there is a God, I've felt It then, and I know you have too."

"Marcus - "

Marcus snarled at him, hefted the blanket and turned on his heel, striding across the field, his back stiff and straight. He went right through the herd. If Thomas hadn't been so angry himself, he would have been amused by how the goats parted before him like Moses.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered, following. But Thomas kept his distance as Marcus went up the opposite slope, letting him work off his mad. And maybe because he couldn't bear for the conversation to continue. They had been...everything had been perfect, just as Marcus said. Was he right? When he'd heard the farmer, all Thomas could think about during his stumbling apology was that the farmer had seen him fondling another man, and how that would color his perception.

But Marcus didn't understand. He lived in New York City, where prejudice was simply swallowed in the sheer volume of multinationalism and multicultures, where it could squeak and irritate but rarely roar and destroy. Where ridicule might come from one person, but not become a wall of reaction from the whole community that could impact his family.

Maybe coming out into the country hadn't been a good idea. He'd sought the familiar, but it was the familiar when he was playing the role of the hardware owner's son, in a community where he'd grown up and they knew him. Where his sexual preference might be suspected because of his looks and absence of a steady girlfriend, but never openly stated.

It wasn't familiar territory when he was with Marcus. He looked at the stiff lines of Marcus' shoulders and knew, as he'd known from the beginning, that this was a mistake. It would always be this way. But he had three more days before he had to walk away and God help him, Marcus was right about his lack of pride. When it came to Marcus, Thomas would take the remaining days because he couldn't have any more after that. This was borrowed time as it was.

He'd accepted that, would let it tear him apart. But for the first time, after his revelation of last night, he thought about it from Marcus' viewpoint. If Marcus was right, if Marcus did...love him, should Thomas be so selfish to take these three days?

Could Marcus be as vulnerable as he seemed to be at times, ways Thomas had never perceived him to be before? If he took the full week, what would that do to Marcus when he walked away?

Geez, he was losing his mind. Marcus had a life that normal, average people who stood in grocery store lines, staring at the glitzy covers of magazines, would envy.

A bleat distracted him. A straggler. Then Thomas heard another note to it, a note of distress, and came to a stop.

"Marcus."

Marcus thought about ignoring the call. Actually contemplated driving away, leaving Thomas here, or at least making him think so. He'd drive just over the hill, around the curve. But knowing Thomas, the Southern redneck streak would kick in and he'd probably pick up a rock and destroy the Maserati's paint job.

No, that was more his style, not his gentle Thomas. Thomas would stand there and look like an abandoned puppy, making Marcus feel like shit.

He stopped, expelling a frustrated blast of air and turned to find Thomas waving to him from a copse of trees, an urgency to his gesture that obviously had nothing to do with their argument.

Marcus jogged back down the slope and was halfway back over the field when he figured out Thomas had gone to one knee by an animal lying on his or her side on the ground. It was a goat. A goat whose stomach was distended far above her head, obviously in labor. She paid no attention to Marcus, bleating piteously.

Thomas' hands moved over her belly and between her back legs, his brow furrowed. "Something's wrong. She's dry as a bone and worn out, but she's dilated. We have some of that lubricant in the basket?"

Marcus pulled it out and Thomas poured jelly over his hand and up to the elbow, greasing his fingers up. "Easy girl. I know, Mama. I'm trying to help. Easy there." Before Marcus could blink, Thomas had eased his hand into her.

She heaved, cried out and tried to get up, but Thomas held her down with one arm.

Marcus dropped to one knee and put a tentatively calming hand on her head.

"Just one baby, feels like...and alive, which is good," Thomas said, his eyes distant, intent on what he was feeling. "Go get the farmer. Tell him we've got a kid trying to come out feet first with the head thrown back. She's been in labor awhile. If he doesn't have a vet who can get here on the double, tell him to bring his gun and something sharp enough to cut her open."

Marcus was on his feet at the first command, but at the second instruction, he turned, his brow raised.

"If we can't get the baby around, the mother's suffering," Thomas explained impatiently. "She's really tired. She's been at this awhile. We'll have to take the baby out and end the mother's pain. Hurry. Fast as you can get to him."

"Where?" Marcus had no idea which direction the farmer had taken.

"Over the side of the hill we were on. There was a gate. Should lead to his barn and a driveway. Follow the goats. Oh...did you bring any nylon cord?" Marcus blinked, then wordlessly reached into the basket and pulled out several pieces from the bottom. Thomas gave him an absent wry smile, pulled out a pocket knife and began to cut a length he apparently needed. "Hurry." Marcus complied and took off.

It was one of the most difficult abnormal presentations for a kid, Thomas knew. He reached back in, grunting to hold the mother down with the other arm again as he relocated the baby's body, followed the neck until he reached the head. He was in up to the elbow, and the mother was making guttural, heartbreaking noises.

"Okay, Mama, I know. Hang in there." Thomas made himself tune out everything, just like he did when he found the flow of what he wanted to create on canvas.

He'd brought a lot of calves and kids into the world when he was younger, when the farm had raised both in greater numbers. His father had him helping with difficult birthings when he was as young as ten because his dad had quickly learned Thomas had an intuitive sense in his fingers, coupled with his lack of fear about going in. It had led his parents to the mistaken belief Thomas might consider vet college.

Even then, Thomas had been amazed by that canal, meant to bring forth life. He was awed to reach into the chamber where the baby had grown and now wanted to burst free, sucking his or her first gasp of air, taking the first breath as an individual.

The miracle of birth was the miracle of destiny, of divinity, of change and continued growth. As an artist, Thomas was drawn to it as much as to his blank canvas.

He could draw the baby's head forward to the legs, but as he feared the little creature was too weak to keep it there. Its head flopped back before he could get a good grasp on the legs to help pull it free.

He pulled out, relubricated both of his arms and made a noose out of one of the nylon pieces. "I know, sweet girl, I know," he crooned. "No, we won't be cutting you open today. But he's a big city boy and he was panicking. Had to give him something to do. Yeah, I'm lying a little bit, but you're going to be okay." He went back in. The trick was to get the head lying forward on the legs, the way the baby was meant to come out. Thomas took the noose in with him this time and felt around to try to get it over the kid's head. He closed his eyes, using only his sense of what was going on at the tips of his fingers, vaguely registering the mother's sounds of exhaustion, the snug fit of the birth canal, the smells of birthing and struggle.

"Come on, you little bastard. Get over there." There. He had it. He brought the head forward again and positioned it on the front legs. He tightened up the loop and kept tension on the pull, then caught the feet with his other hand, pulling on both the rope and the feet at once.

"There you are. It's okay, Mama. Here he comes." The mother heaved again, as if sensing the shift in the tide. The mother's contraction squeezed his forearm painfully against the wall, and then he was out, helping pull the little body free, giving the exhausted mother additional strength. One more heave and the baby landed in his lap.

"Ah, look at you..." Stripping the shirt he'd put back on during his argument with Marcus, he cleaned out the nostrils, wiped the doe-like face. Mama was already struggling up, trying to reach him. "Easy girl. Easy."

It seemed to have gone quickly, but Thomas saw he was soaking wet from his own sweat. The waistband of his jeans and the front placket were stained with fluid from him and the mother.

And thank God, Marcus and the farmer were there, the farmer with a kit of supplies and a bucket of water to which he was adding a dollop of Karo syrup for the mother.

"There, Phyllis, good girl. A hard one this time, but you did all right." They'd been coming up the hill when the baby had landed in Thomas' lap. As Marcus saw Thomas phase back in, the clouds clearing from his gaze, Marcus recognized it as the same expression he had when he emerged from painting.

He was covered in goop and even now didn't seem cognizant of it as he worked in tandem with the farmer to do all the postoperative things that were apparently needed for a new kid and the mother. Thomas was using newspaper to clean off the kid's body while the farmer tended to Phyllis. And within ten minutes, miraculously, the weak kid was trying to get to his feet. Thomas steadied the little one, though he didn't let go.

Apparently the birth had been too difficult. It was going to take this one a little longer to get his land legs.

Marcus looked at those slimy hands, the long fingers against the body of the new baby, new life. He'd never really given thought to what the essence of a farmer was. As he looked at Thomas, he saw a man close to the earth, who in his ironic simplicity understood the complexity of life and all its cycles. Who needed to be close to those cycles in order to be the artist he was. It was reflected in his work, as well as in the way he did everything, even loving Marcus, or protecting and supporting his family.

Thomas and the farmer were exchanging stories of past birthings, all the farmer's earlier hostility just evaporated as if it had never been.

When he touched Marcus, Thomas made him feel things he'd never thought he'd trust anyone enough to feel. This just made him more blown away by the truth of that, and more afraid than he'd ever been that Thomas' mother was right. That the worst possible thing for someone like Thomas in the long run would be someone like Marcus.

"We'll help you get them back to the barn," Thomas was saying. He was turning the kid, now wrapped in a towel, over to the farmer. Bending despite the farmer's protests, he used his younger back and muscles to lift the mother goat in his arms. As he straightened, he shot Marcus a tired grin, twisting something inside of him.

Feeling at loose ends, Marcus gathered up the farmer's kit and their own belongings.

The farmer nodded. "Once we make sure this one's had his first meal, my wife was just about ready to have me sit down with her for lunch," he said. "I'd like for you to join us, you and your friend. You'd be welcome." He gave Marcus a glance that told him the invitation wasn't necessarily so steady as far as he was concerned, but manners were manners.

"We'd love to," Thomas accepted.

Oh hell, Marcus thought.