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When Sean Murphy meets Jeff Hayes in a park one day, he's charmed by the simple pleasure Jeff finds in walking his dog, and despite Jeff's guardian, Jesse, hovering over them, a friendship is born. Sean realizes there’s something different about Jeff, something that would explain his timid nature and fear of disappointing Jesse, and he suspects Jeff has been a victim of abuse.
Sean works hard to earn Jeff's trust, but there are so many challenges to meet: Jeff's unusual dependency upon Jesse, Sean's devil-may-care attitude toward the past, and old nightmares and disabilities that continue to haunt Jeff to this day. Their growing love might not be enough. Jeff will have to find courage from somewhere deep within to take control of his life and decide if he wants Sean to be a part of his future.
Sun dappled through the trees, lending late spring warmth to Lullwater Park. Midday found mostly men on business lunches, new moms with strollers, and birds looking for handouts. Within a month the park would be given over to children let out from school’s prison for the summer, but until then it was still a place for adults.
Sean Murphy liked the park. His demanding job kept him tied to a desk for long hours, and there was something about sitting outside in the sun that cleared his mind and helped him concentrate. It was his aim to meet his old friend Gabriel Romano for lunch here every other week, and when they were lucky, they met every week. The two had met while attending Emory University after they had drawn one another’s names in the dormitory lottery and had become fast friends, sticking by each other through four years of ups and downs. Sean hadn’t had a career path laid out, and it had been his goal to party as much as he could before earning his degree, while Gabriel’s lifelong ambition had always been medicine.
After graduation, Sean had parlayed his military history degree into a job consulting with the U.S. government. Gabriel suffered an ugly breakup when he opted to return to his native Rhode Island to complete medical school, leaving his boyfriend Mark in the dust of a hot Atlanta summer.
Now, ten years later, the two were comfortably settled. Sean’s keen knowledge of military strategy had set him on a career course that guaranteed success. Gabriel had returned from Rhode Island when his studies were complete and had set up his own practice. Their friendship remained intact.
The park was peaceful as Sean and Gabriel sat side by side on a bench, Gabriel’s half in the shade but Sean’s half fully in the sun. Gabriel picked chicken salad out of a plastic container, while Sean wolfed down the rest of a hamburger and flicked fries at the pigeons, smirking as they ran from the missiles and then cautiously came back to pick them up.
“So,” Sean drawled when the fries were gone, “when were you planning to tell me you hooked up with Mark again?” He tipped his head back toward the sun, eyes closed behind his dark glasses.
“Didn’t know I had to keep you posted with my life,” Gabriel said as he snapped the lid back on the container and picked up his bottle of green tea.
“You back in the sack?”
“For fuck’s sake, Sean,” Gabriel sputtered, “that’s a personal question. I contacted Mark, we revived the plans we’d long held, and we drew up a partnership. Peachtree Clinic was always meant to be a two-man show, and I know that I took on the practice with the hope that Mark would be my partner. Hell, it’s the reason I moved back here.”
Sean pushed himself up, straightened his necktie, and turned to face Gabriel. “Well, okay then, let me ask you this way. I know ten years is a long time, but I know what hell you two went through when you dumped him for greener pastures. You said he’s your partner, so I’m just asking, does the partnership extend beyond the clinic?”
Gabriel screwed the cap back on the bottle of tea and tucked it inside his lunch sack. “Since you have to know, Mr. Busybody,” he said with a hint of irritation, “Mark is my partner in the clinic only.” He sighed, his face clouding as he remembered the details of the breakup. Although Gabriel had promised to wait a year after graduation so that the two of them could start med school together, he had broken the promise and gone ahead on his own. When he closed his eyes he could still remember the silvery tracks of Mark’s tears the night he had broken the news to him. Gabriel cleared his throat before continuing, “Mark and I were able to sort out our differences, and if you must know, he’s seeing some guy named Todd now.”
“You okay with that?” Sean tipped his glasses down and fixed Gabriel with a steely look.
Sighing in frustration, Gabriel said, “I suffer these weekly lunches because you’re too much of a bastard for me to cut you out of my life completely. Yes, Dr. Phil, I’m okay with it. He’s moved on and doesn’t carry a grudge, and you know I always let bygones be bygones.”
Sean sat up and pulled the glasses off completely, a frown affixed to his brow.
“What?” Gabriel said. “You don’t believe me?”
“No, it’s not that….” Sean’s voice trailed off.
Realizing that Sean wasn’t giving him his full attention anymore, Gabriel turned and followed Sean’s gaze. Two men had entered the park not far from where they sat. The younger of the pair wore tattered jeans and an old stretched T-shirt advertising a local band. His dark hair was streaked with blond and fell well past his shoulders. He held the leash of a frisky puppy. The older man by his side walked with hands shoved into his pockets. Oil-stained jeans and tattoos up and down the arms, visible outside a sleeveless jean jacket, gave the impression he was a biker. As they got closer, Sean and Gabriel were able to overhear their conversation.
“Not so tight, Jeff, let him run a little,” said the older man in a gruff voice.
“I don’t want him to get away, though, Jesse,” said Jeff.
“He ain’t going to get away,” Jesse said. “Just wrap your hand around the leash.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Jeff muttered. “You know I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I never said you were,” Jesse said. “If that dog gets away, you won’t never catch him.”
Once they had walked past, Gabriel turned to resume his conversation with Sean but found that he was watching the two men and the dog with rapt attention. With a bemused look, Gabriel turned to watch them again, trying to see what had captured Sean’s interest.
“Jesse,” Jeff said as they paused beside the next bench, “can I please just walk with him by myself a little?”
Jesse sighed and eased down on the bench. “Just be careful, Jeff. You know this park is filled with assholes.”
Jeff flinched, and he hunched in on himself. “I’ll be careful. Besides, you’re here watching me.” He walked away toward the towering oak tree in the center of the park, and when he was halfway there, the dog slipped out of his leash and frolicked after one of the pigeons. In a split second, Sean was off the bench before Jesse could react. Gabriel sat dumbfounded as he watched Sean sprint after the dog, catch him, and, heedless of his business suit, carry him back to where Jeff had sunk to his knees in terror.
Gabriel stood when Jesse stood and went to lay a hand on his shoulder before he could start toward Jeff.
Flinching at the sudden contact, Jesse turned. “Get lost,” he growled.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “No need to worry,” he said. “Sean’s impetuous, but he doesn’t mean your friend any harm.” He smiled and extended his hand. “Gabriel Romano, Peachtree Clinic.”
“Listen, Peachtree Clinic,” Jesse said, his hands clenching into fists, “I don’t know you or that asshole from a hole in the ground.”
A muscle tensed in Gabriel’s jaw. “Sean Murphy’s the top consultant with Koehler Industries, and he’s got high-level security clearance. He’s not your everyday run-of-the-mill stranger; it’s just in his nature to help out when he can.”
Although he made a move to follow after Jeff and Sean, Jesse muttered under his breath, “I got my eye on him.”
“Fair enough,” Gabriel responded. He waited until Jesse moved back to sit on the bench before he turned and sat on his own bench. As he watched, he wondered what Sean had gotten himself into this time.
After catching the puppy, Sean carried him over to where Jeff knelt on the ground.
“Easy, boy,” Sean crooned as he gentled the puppy.
“His name’s Dakotah,” Jeff said breathlessly.
“That’s a nice name,” Sean said, and he slipped the collar over the dog’s head and tightened it up a notch. “There you go, Kotah, good as new.”
“That’s what I call him too!” Jeff said.
“What?” Sean said as he turned toward Jeff, “Kotah?”
“Yeah, ’cause it’s easier to say sometimes,” Jeff said, soft color covering his cheeks, and he dipped his head and mumbled, “Thanks, mister, for catching him and all.”
“My name’s Sean, and it was no trouble.”
“You’re going to get your pants all dirty,” Jeff said, his head still bent, his hands gripping the leash. “I got him now.”
“Eh,” Sean said, “pants can be cleaned.” He tipped his head to the side. “I know the dog’s name, but not yours.”
“It’s Jeff.” He cast a look over his shoulder. “Look, I better get back over to Jesse.”
“Okay, I’ll walk you over.” Sean stood and dusted off his knees.
As Jeff stood, something dropped out of his pocket. Sean bent down, picked it up, and saw it was a toy plastic soldier. He grinned and said, “This yours?”
His face scarlet now, Jeff reached over and snatched the soldier from Sean’s hand. “No, I mean”—he looked up, his face filled with uncertainty—“I found it on the ground, and I was going to throw it away.”
“That’s a ground combat soldier,” Sean said. “You can tell because of the pack he’s got on his back. That’s where he keeps his supplies, rations, maybe a radio. I wouldn’t throw it away if I were you.”
“How do you know?” Jeff asked as he ran his thumb over the soldier.
“It’s my job,” Sean said, “designing gear for the army, helping with strategies.” He smiled. “And it’s my hobby, collecting model soldiers. I have a whole army of them back at my house.”
Dakotah pranced ahead of them as they walked back toward where Gabriel and Jesse sat on the benches. Jeff still held the toy soldier in his hand.
“Put your toys away, Jeff,” Jesse said as he reached for the end of the leash. “Time to go home.”
“It’s not a toy,” Sean said firmly. “It’s a model.”
“Thanks… Sean.” Jeff looked up shyly.
“Maybe I’ll see you here again sometime. You bring more of those models, and I’ll tell you all about them,” Sean said with a smile that was clearly only for Jeff.
“Thanks for your help, Murphy,” Jesse said shortly, “but you won’t be seeing him here again.”
“I think that’s up to him,” Sean said, and he turned and winked at Jeff. He grinned as Jeff attempted to return the wink but closed both eyes.
Jesse grabbed the leash from Jeff’s hand, nodded curtly at Sean and Gabriel, and as he turned away, they heard him say, “Come on, Jeff, let’s get this dog home and have us some lunch. And put that toy away before I take it away.”
After they walked away, Gabriel began to pick up the remains of his and Sean’s lunch. “What was that all about?”
“Something ain’t right there,” Sean said as he wadded up his bags.
“Maybe so,” Gabriel said, “but it’s none of your business.”
“Now see,” Sean said as he put his glasses back on and clapped an arm around Gabriel’s shoulder, “if everyone in the world stayed out of everyone’s business, all kinds of shit would go down. That kid needs a savior.”
“Here we go again,” Gabriel said as he shrugged out of Sean’s arm. “Hate to burst your bubble, Sean, but you can’t be everyone’s savior, and chances are you won’t ever see him again.”
“Maybe,” Sean said with a laugh, “maybe not. You know the old saying—‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ Besides,” he said with a shrug, “you know me, just trying to make the world a better place, one asshole at a time.”
Gabriel smirked. “Since when?”
“Since I realized the world is filled with them.”