Saturday, December 19, 2015

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Granby Knitting by Amy Lane


The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
Summary:
Rance Crawford is an alpaca rancher, fiber mill owner, and self-proclaimed grumpy bastard. When sweet, charming tenderfoot Ben McCutcheon moves onto Crawford’s rural road, Rance is very aware that Ben makes it a grand total of two gay men in their tiny town, and even though he is instantly, painfully smitten, any move he makes could be simply chalked up to being hard up. Using his best weapon and favorite skill, Crawford launches an awkward, wordless effort to make sure Ben is kept warm during the cold Colorado winter, every last piece of him—especially his heart.

How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Summary:
Everything about Jeremy has always been a lie—including his last name. When one grift too many ends in tragedy, Jeremy goes straight. But life’s hard for an ex-con, and Jeremy is down to panhandling and hope when Rance Crawford offers him work at a tiny alpaca farm and fiber mill. Jeremy takes him up on the job, thinking this could be his last chance to be a good man, and meets Aiden, who is growing into a better one.

As Aiden comes of age, Jeremy finds himself desperate to grow up, too, because Aiden starts looking to him for things Jeremy doesn’t know how to give. Being honest is terrifying for a man who’s learned to rabbit at the first sign of conflict—more so when Aiden gives Jeremy a reason to stay that can’t be packed up and carried in a knapsack. When Jeremy’s past comes knocking at their door, can Jeremy trust enough in Aiden and his new home to answer bravely back?

Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3
Summary:
Stanley’s life took a left turn at a knitting shop and hit a dead end. The closest thing he’s had to a relationship breaks things off to date a “nice boy,” and none of the pretty young things in Boulder’s limited gay scene do it for Stanley. He needs to reevaluate whether working as a floor designer for a series of craft stores is really where he wants to be.

Then Stanley does a peculiar thing: he starts to live the life he fell into. Stitch by stitch, he knits his life into something meaningful. Just when he does, Johnny, the store’s new delivery boy, walks in.

Johnny is like no one Stanley has ever met: he doesn’t believe in quickies in the bathroom and has a soft spot for theater and opera. There has to be a catch. When Johnny’s dark past comes back to haunt them, Stanley realizes how much he loves his cushy life in the yarn store—but he’ll give it all up to keep the man who makes his ordinary life extraordinary.

Blackbird Knitting in a Bunny's Lair #4
Summary:
After three years of waiting for “rabbit” Jeremy to commit to a life in Granby—and a life together—Aiden Rhodes was appalled when Jeremy sustained a nearly fatal beating to keep a friend out of harm's way. How could Aiden’s bunny put himself in danger like that?

Aiden needs to get over himself, because Jeremy has a long road to recovery, and he's going to need Aiden's promise of love every step of the way. Jeremy has new scars on his face and body to deal with, and his heart can’t afford any more wounds.

When their friend’s baby needs some special care, the two men find common ground to firm up their shaky union. With Aiden’s support and his boss’s inspiration, Jeremy comes up with a plan to make sure Ariadne's little blackbird comes into this world with everything she needs. While Jeremy grows into his new role as protector, Aiden needs to ease back on his protectiveness over his once-timid lover. Aiden may be a wolf in student's clothing and Jeremy may be a rabbit of a man, but that doesn’t mean they can’t walk the wilds of Granby together.

The Granby Knitting Menagerie
Summary:
Welcome to Granby, Colorado, a small town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where it snows eight months out of the year and knitting is a mashup of art form, necessity, and religion. Here you will meet:

* Rance “Craw” Crawford, owner of the local alpaca farm and fiber mill, who courts tenderfoot Ben McCutcheon with awkwardness and the most lovingly handcrafted knitted garments known to man.

* Jeremy Stillson, ex-con and ex-grifter, who comes to work for Craw and learns the secrets to being honest are in both the yarn he learns to use and in Aiden Rhodes, his young co-worker, who has a very direct way of dealing with life and seducing Jeremy.

* Stanley Schulz, yarn buyer and Craw’s ex-lover, who discovers the joys of knitting alone—and then discovers the joys of knitting for Johnny, a delivery driver with a shady past. Join this menagerie of knitters as they craft to keep their toes toasty and their hearts warm.


The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
Chapter 1
Bald
Crawford watched the new resident of #15 Llama Lane move in with interest. It was early September in Granby, Colorado, and the snows were not that far off.

Granby, Colorado, part of Grand County, sat in a bowl of a valley which was, itself, set shallow in the midst of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. According to the computer, it was a mere thirty-four miles away from the more populous Fort Collins, but that thirty-four miles was over a road so treacherous and so winding that they had made it a state park. From June to August, people from all over the world traveled over Trail Ridge Road (otherwise known as Highway 34) in awe. For one thing, it made it to over 12,000 feet in elevation, making it the highest road in the country. For another, it still had six feet of snow on the sides even in July, and it spanned the continental divide. It also had (the non-locals were wont to complain) a distressing lack of guardrails, but that didn’t bother Crawford none. He had a large, comfy barn, a roomy garage next to the mill, and a giant meat freezer. He laid in hay and grain for the alpacas as well as firewood for himself all summer. He made one last big trip to Boulder on the other highway in December and just hunkered down with the alpacas until March. A few trips to the store in the 4x4 would do him then, unless he had to call the vets, but he could handle most of the animal husbandry problems himself.

Crawford was just fine.

But as he watched the young man move computers and electronics equipment into the small one-bedroom cottage in the middle of September, he could not say the same for his new neighbor.

Crawford was out checking the fences, something that was not as difficult with alpacas as it was with other critters. Alpacas didn’t mind being closed up none and didn’t stress a fence or test it in odd places—not like sheep. Crawford had sheep on the other pasture, sure, and a thick wooden fence over there, too, but here, bordering his new neighbor’s scant acre of land, it was not much more than pig fencing, and the alpacas didn’t give a hoot. They just hung out and ate the grass, like they did, and ignored the fence. The other side of the fence might as well have been the other side of the world to their amiable little hearts, and since old Mrs. Humphreys had passed away, it had been to Crawford too.

But this new guy wasn’t old Mrs. Humphreys.

He was young, for one thing. Midtwenties to Crawford’s late-thirties, and bright and shiny as a spit-polished shoe. His hair was cut fashionably long, and he had just enough scruff on his lip and chin to make Crawford think that maybe he kept that scruff full time. He wondered how long it would take for that scruff to grow to beard length, and thought that would be a crying shame, because the boy had a narrow face with a squarish little block of a chin and tip-tilted sea-green eyes. His mouth was wide and smiling, with full lips, and all in all, it would be a real waste to hide that pretty face behind what would probably be sandy-brown hair.

He was also quick to talk, quick to smile, and gregarious. He chatted with the movers and took notes of the good places to eat (there were really only two places where the locals ate, and Crawford listened shamelessly enough to know that the movers knew those places too) as well as where he could find a movie or help if he needed it.

“And if you need help,” one of the young men said (Robbie, Clarence and Angie’s boy, who used to be a hell-raiser in high school but who had settled down now with a wife and two kids), “Crawford here might help you. He’s queer, but don’t let that bother you none, he’s harmless.”

Crawford refused to flush under the boy’s sniping and stared at him until he blushed instead, mumbling something about checking the overhead and disappearing into the truck. The new kid moving in grinned brightly.

“Well since I am, too, that won’t be a problem,” he said with such sunshiney goodwill that Crawford found himself smiling back from his side of the fence.

The two movers took in this information with widened eyes and flushes, and the new kid just rolled his eyes and continued to chat, putting them both back at ease quicker than Crawford had ever been able to. In a few minutes, just that much, they drove off in a choking cloud of diesel exhaust, leaving the kid with his little city car and a thoughtful look on his face as he surveyed his house.

God, Crawford thought uncomfortably. There had been so much those two yahoos had not told him.

“You’re going to need more firewood!” he hollered shortly, and the kid looked at him in surprise.

“Really? There’s a gas heater and a whole stack against the side of the house—”

“The gas guy doesn’t always get out regular, and what’s against the house will only do you a week.”

Crawford was twisting lengths of wire over a hole, and he carefully wrapped that last end so it didn’t snag on the alpaca’s valuable fur, and then stood and pulled off his work glove.

“Rance Crawford,” he said shortly, shaking hands with the boy.

That thin face lit up, and Crawford’s work-roughened, lanolin-softened hand was suddenly grasped tightly in bony fingers as the boy pumped his hand with some enthusiasm.

“Hi! My Aunt Gretchen talked about you! I’m Ben, Ben McCutcheon. Gertie sort of left me her place.”

Rance nodded. “I’d wondered how that went. She had a whole passel of relatives out here right after she died. You weren’t one.”

Ben grimaced. “Yeah—she was really my great-aunt, and my mom was sort of the black sheep of the family. It was mostly just her and me, you know? We used to come out here once a year or so when I was little, and I sent her Christmas cards after Mom passed. I didn’t know it, but I was apparently the only member of her family who didn’t think she was batshit crazy or just want her little acre in Colorado.”

Crawford had to smile, because Gertie Humphries had been a tough old bitch who’d once threatened to shoot his best stud because she claimed he scared her best laying hen. Rance had cured her of that in a hot second—he’d knitted up some of Burlingame’s top-notch fleece into a hooded shawl that the old girl had worn even on her deathbed.

Yup, Gertie had liked him in the end, which was why he’d been sorry to see that swarm of kin around her house, likely counting chickens for their celebration dinner. He hadn’t seen what had broken them up and sent them scattering, but now that he’d met the boy, he heartily approved of Ben.

Although that could have been just because he was pretty enough to make Crawford do the pee-pee hard-on dance.

“So,” Crawford said, eyeing the weathered little cottage dubiously, “you’re going to settle in here during the fall?”

Ben grimaced. “It’s a little colder here in the fall than it was in Sacramento,” he admitted.

Crawford stood and straightened, picking up his lightweight denim jacket and putting it on again now that he wasn’t sweating in the thinning sun. “How cold was it in Sacramento when you left?” he asked judgingly, and Ben looked sheepish.

“Ninety-five degrees.”

Crawford knew his eyes had widened. It was laughable. Here in Grand County, near the end of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, it was around fifty degrees. “It may make sixty-five by the afternoon.”

Ben shrugged. “It’s been sort of a shitty long summer.”

Crawford just looked at him. “What’s winter like?”

Again, that shrug. Like living through snows was going to be no big deal. “Mild. Lots of rain—if we’re lucky.”

Crawford nodded and sighed. “You’re going to need a list,” he said on a grunt. “You going to keep the chickens?”

Ben nodded. “Aunt Gertie liked ’em.”

“The rabbits?”

“Why not?”

“She’s got an old sheep named Millicent and a yapping piece of coyote kibble—”

“Yeah, I’m keeping Millie, but my mom’s least favorite uncle took Biddy-Bye for his grandkids to play with.”

Crawford shook his head. Stupid fucker. “The little shit’s gonna eat herself some fingers.”

Ben chuckled and sighed happily. “Yeah. I hope they’re his.”

Crawford turned to him with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, and Ben blushed. “They weren’t nice to my mom,” he mumbled, looking at the small house in the middle of the overgrown grasses. A shrill autumn wind sang through the valley, and the grasses rippled, but even through the ever-present shushing, Crawford heard him when he added, “They weren’t nice to me.”

Crawford nodded then and gathered his tools, rolling them in the leather holster and putting it in the saddlebag. He had a tractor and a motorcycle, but those things made the beasties skittish. A horse was still a good idea with fifty acres to tend.

“I’ll make you a list, then,” he said decisively. “Things you’ll need, shit to prepare for. Winter’s not a joke here. You’d best take it seriously.”

Ben looked at him and smiled, and it was a child’s smile, open and clear and trusting. His green eyes lit up, and he nodded, even as he shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I’d like that,” he said happily. “That would be really kind of you. I’ve got money—I just don’t know what to do with it to prepare.”

Crawford looked at him bouncing on his toes in his tennis shoes, shivering a little in his long-sleeved T-shirt. “Money’s a start. When’s it run out?”

“It doesn’t!” Ben smiled again, this time proudly. “I work from home. Independent game companies send me their code, and I clean it up for them. They call me the Bug Man—it’s sort of cool.”

Crawford thought his eyes might bug out of his head. He knew about the Internet, and they got it fine in Granby, but a hotbed of media development they were not. “And you thought you’d relocate here?” He had to ask it. He absolutely had to ask it.

Ben couldn’t look at him anymore. The ever-present wind had blown the clouds over the sun, and the temperature had dropped again. He tilted his head up to the sky anyway; it was vast and open, horizoned by the Rockies on all sides.

“Do you have any idea how high your heart can soar in a place like this?” he asked. His nostrils flared a little, like he was scenting the wind and the animals and even the snow that would probably visit in November.

Crawford’s pee-pee hard-on dance stilled for a moment, and he found himself looking hungrily at that young, pretty face. “You forget,” he said softly, not thinking about the sky at all. He’d gotten lost in the sky years ago—he was well aware he’d never find his way back.

Ben pulled his attention earthward, still shivering, but now looking peaceful and not lost in the sky. “It’s beautiful,” he said simply. “And I was really loved here. I sure would appreciate that list. Should I come over for it?”

Crawford’s brain shorted out. He didn’t want Ben coming over to his place. He was not ashamed of it—the mill, the connected store, the house next to that—he was proud of all of them. It was just that suddenly, these places were… personal. They were personal, and he only wanted Ben to see them if he was going to be personal too.

“I’ll bring it in the morning,” he said. “On my way to town. I’ll take you. There’s firewood for sale. You’re going to need it. I’ve got a truck.”

Maybe, with a little bit of revising, he might have made the whole speech a little more rock-bottom terse, but it was the best he could do on improv.

Ben didn’t seem to care, though. He nodded seriously, like a child taking orders. “What time?”

“Eight thirty.” Because he was up at six, the lumberyard with its supply of firewood opened at nine, and he had to be back at ten thirty to open the shop. He could do it, he was pretty sure. “I’ll have the list,” he added before swinging himself up on top of his patient horse. Everclear had sat docilely, eating grass and giving Sourmash, Edna, and Hankity the evil eye so they’d stay away from him, but as soon as he felt Crawford’s weight, damned if that gelding didn’t give a disgusted little snort and jerk his head toward Miss Gertie’s place instead of away from it. Crawford gave the reins a little jerk back and eyed the horse with suspicion. It didn’t pay to give the horses their head too much—they tended to think worse of you.

“I really appreciate the help,” Ben said, his gratitude as open and as transparent as the sky.

Of course he appreciated the help. He was like to freeze to death without it. Crawford grunted something, probably something socially inept and grim, and swung Everclear away and down toward the mill. God, he had shit to do.

How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Dishonest Work
JEREMY didn’t really know his last name. His father was a con man and his mother was history, and he went through so many different identities as a kid helping his dad on the grift, that all he knew of himself, really, was that he was a bad person. He had to be. His one skill set was relieving people of their money.

He was okay at it. When he was a kid, he simply sat by his father’s side and looked hungry (not hard to do) when his father was selling encyclopedias, bibles, or “free” ammo, depending on the area they were canvassing. As a blooming adolescent, he hit colleges and sold magazines, just like the legit kids doing the same thing. His specialty was selling to the chubby, lonely girls who looked like they had money but no attention. He paid attention to them, talked to them as they sat under the dappled leaves of a picturesque tree looking intellectual and dreamy, and walked away with checks ranging anywhere from ten to a hundred and ten dollars, without having to even give them a kiss. He stayed young looking well into his twenties, so that was pretty much his job, right up until he went to prison.

He and his father supplemented their income with the usual grifts—Three-Card-Monte, The Fiddle Game, The Good Samaritan, and The Embarrassing Check—and Jeremy was a decent student. When the other kids were graduating from high school, Jeremy and the old man were having “clear the apartment” drills—they could completely relocate their lives in less than five minutes. Once, when the cops were banging on the door and they were sneaking out the window of a walk-up in Chicago, they'd done it in two. Jeremy figured he and the old man could probably have continued to con the world as an unbeatable team pretty much forever, but two things happened.

The first was that the old man got shot when he conned the wrong guy. One minute, Jeremy had been waiting in the shadows of an old Vegas casino while Oscar had been signing over a phony deed to some property in Utah, and the next, the guy had pulled out a .45 and blown him away. Jeremy stood there, holding his breath, sinking into the curtains of the theater, and making sure nobody saw him. He stood there while Mario Carelli shot his father again in the head to stop him from twitching; he stood there while Mario had his goons haul away the body and wash the floor; he stood there while Mario started asking if anyone would actually miss some con man with shitty shoes and a cheap suit.

He stood there when Mario’s favorite goon, Gianni—who had gone down on Jeremy the night before, while Oscar and Mario had been hammering out the final deal—had shrugged and said, “I dunno, boss. He had muscle with him, but the guy was hired and not that bright. For all I know, he took a powder when he heard the shot.”

Gianni had known exactly where Jeremy had been standing, and he knew that Oscar was Jeremy’s father, and he knew that Jeremy was almost twenty-six years old and thinking about maybe going to college for real. Oscar had spent a long time building the pig-in-the-poke con, and Jeremy had a long time to spend with Gianni, telling him as much of the truth as he could, because you don’t tell a guy your old man is scamming his mob boss, even if you’re starting to feel a little bit bad about it. Jeremy had “sweetened the pot” with a lot of marks, both male and female, and Gianni’s mouth on his cock hadn’t been unexpected. The unexpected part was the sweetness of Gianni’s shy smile at the end, and the way he’d carefully done up Jeremy’s slacks and then kissed him passionately on the mouth. Jeremy had returned the kiss, a little bit frightened by how real it was, because until that exact moment, he’d thought sex was the biggest scam of all.

So Gianni took a big risk for Jeremy, and Jeremy repaid him by staying right in that exact spot—surrounded by stage curtains, trying really hard not to piss his pants—until his father’s brains were cleaned up off the floor and Mario Carelli had stalked off with his goons, chuckling about the look on the old man’s face. Even after they were gone, Jeremy stood there, swimming in his own sweat, feeling it drip from his calves to his ankles to the nylon socks inside his dress shoes.

He was thinking that his daddy had told him to hang back the night before because he had a grifter’s sense the con had gone bad. Oscar hadn’t been a Hallmark father, and Jeremy would eventually figure out that he’d been sort of screwed in the parenting department as a whole, but in this case, Oscar had done his son a solid and worried Jeremy might get hurt.

He was thinking that Gianni would be dead right now if Jeremy had breathed or whimpered or pissed his pants after that whopping lie Gianni told, but Gianni still told it, all because of a blow job and a kiss, two things Jeremy hadn’t thought much of at all.

He was thinking that for his whole life, he’d thought love might be the biggest con of all, and all of a sudden, it was the only real thing, and he was swimming in it, suffocated by it, just like he was suffocated by the wool curtains and swimming in his own sweat.


HE made it out of there eventually, but by the time he got to their shitty hotel room, it had been raided by Mario’s men, stripped of his and Oscar’s backup money, the mattress upended, and even his small cache of possessions trashed and stolen. He’d been out of hope when he went rooting in the dresser for their last-hope-stash tucked into a defiled bible, but he was suddenly rewarded.

There in the little cavern carved into the glued pages was not only the cash, but also his father’s wallet and ring—two things he knew had been in Oscar’s possession when Oscar had been shot.

He looked at them and swallowed. Gianni. Gianni had taken a hell of a risk for him, and there it was: his chance to walk away.

And he did, but walking away was harder than it sounded. Two months later, he was in Denver, trying to get a nice woman at a gas station to give him cash for a bad check. She’d been smiling at him tentatively, coyly, starting to blossom under his insistent charm, when he noticed the fading bruises around her mouth, and his heart sank. Yeah, the rich girls under the dreaming trees in the colleges used to look at him the same way; he’d known they were neglected, worried out of the confidence that would have kept them safe from a predator such as him. This woman hadn’t had her confidence neglected—she’d had it beaten out of her, and that didn’t really sit right with him. How was getting swindled out of fifty bucks going to make that situation any better? Then the child had walked in, a little boy, five at the most, saying, “Mommy, do we have to wait in the car?”

Jeremy's brain did some sort of horrible rise and dip then, like a roller coaster, only uglier, with more vertigo. His stomach heaved with a combination of hunger and self-revulsion. He shoved the cash back in her hand and hissed, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t ever give your cash to strangers.” Her eyes widened, and her mouth pinched narrowly, and he saw in that moment the ugliness that ugliness had made of her. Yeah, she’d known what he’d been selling, and she’d wanted it, desperately, needed to buy it, even for a moment, and he’d just ripped it out of her hands.

He turned around and walked out of the gas station and into the November cold, well aware that she was probably raising a ruckus behind him but not caring. His vision was dark and spotty, not just from the hunger, which was acute, but from the realization of what he was. He was a bad guy. A swindler, a con man, a thief, and a crook. The woman’s name had been Linda—how many Lindas had he taken money from over the years? How many Lindas had put their faith in his fast-talking pretty face and been betrayed and injured, yelled at or beaten, or simply just cheated, because he thought his right to eat was of more priority than theirs?

He was a bad guy. He was one step away from the guy who’d put a bullet in his father’s head and hosed his father's brains off the floor.

When the cops caught up to him, he was squatting in the dirty snow, dry heaving because he hadn’t eaten in three days.

His public defense attorney sucked. He should have gotten thirty days for fraud, maybe—but suddenly they were bringing in all the shit he’d done with his old man, even the stuff they couldn’t prove he’d done, and the woman (sporting fresh bruises from her husband) came in and said that Jeremy gave her a split lip to boot.

He ended up spending two years at Fort Lyon, a lovely place that let him out in the yard once a day and gave him many opportunities to take a dump in public.

It had been surprisingly peaceful, stuffed in that cell with his monosyllabic cellmate and his rapidly burgeoning conscience. Nothing to do but read, write, and think. He was maybe one of the very few people in that place actually to take the child’s advice to sit in a corner and think about what he’d done.

He wasn’t thrilled by the experience, really. It was hard. He would have been wrong to say he relived every con and every score, because he was a petty con man, and he’d made his life off small potatoes. One small potato looks very much like another one, and after they’d been boiled and peeled, the only thing left to do was mash them—and that’s just what Jeremy did. He boiled his experiences in his head, peeled them and mashed them, and decided that what was left in his head was not what he wanted to be living with for the rest of his life.

He got his GED at Fort Lyon, and started taking college courses. He managed to work too, in the laundry, and when he was discharged after two years, he thought he was well on his way to becoming an honest citizen.

He was so wrong.

Nobody would hire an ex-con. Nobody. He was discharged, not paroled—he had no resources, and even if there had been any, he wouldn’t have asked. There had been no bonding for him in prison. No brotherhood. His first cellmate had been in there for manslaughter after a DWI—a lifetime con man and a detoxing banker? Their best quality as a couple was that they were good at leaving each other the fuck alone.

Jeremy was released in December. For a month, he managed to live on soup kitchens, washing dishes, and the Christmas kindness of strangers. Later, he would wonder why he hadn’t taken to giving blow jobs for food money, and it took him some time to realize that it was because he’d never considered himself a victim. He’d always been looking for a way, an avenue, an alternative—that kind of optimism gave you confidence. It kept you from being meat. It made your shoulders swing in such a way that nobody would dream of asking you if your ass was for sale, because if they did, you might have a comeback that would shrivel a dick forever, and who wanted that from a cheap piece of ass?

But in spite of his continued optimism, his trolling of the Goodwill for clothes that made him look like he could hold down a job, his haunting of the YMCA to keep clean and groomed, and his insistence of hauling around his own sheets so he didn’t get lice at the shelters, by January, he was more than a little bit desperate.

He started haunting one particular street corner in Boulder, where little old ladies frequented a family style gym and a yarn store. If he stood there between the time they got out of the gym and swarmed the yarn store, he could almost always win some food for breakfast or lunch from them, and while panhandling lacked dignity, it was at least honest. Life didn’t get much more honest than “Please give me money because I’m hungry,” or at least it hadn’t for Jeremy at that point.

Then, after about a week, he saw a big guy, not too burly, with curly red hair on his head and growing out in what was probably an unintentional beard, fighting his way through the flood of little old ladies like a bear swimming against a salmon tide.

One nice woman, a regular with short white hair, kindly eyes, and a velveteen pantsuit, who always liked to talk to him about his day, had just finished pressing five dollars in his hand. “Okay, dear—now, don’t get this wrong, but I hope not to see you next week. You say you’re looking for work; I’d like to see you find it!”

Jeremy had nodded and smiled, but inside, he was dying a little for lack of hope. He’d used the library computer to fill out applications for everywhere—dry cleaners, pet stores, lumber mills, coffee shops, everywhere. There were jobs to be had, but you had to know someone first. The only person Jeremy had ever really known was probably rotting in a shallow grave.

Suddenly, the big guy with the red hair was right there, glaring at both Jeremy and the little old lady.

“Helen,” he said—and his voice rumbled too—“is this guy bothering you?”

The woman smiled up at him and patted his arm like he was some sort of tame giant-frickin’ afghan dog. “No, Craw—he’s a good boy. Did you bring in new stock today? You know I love your stuff.”

The guy grunted. “Ariadne’s dyed up some Sweeps. You’d better hurry—there’s a swarm.”

The little woman looked up in honest alarm, and, without another word to Jeremy or the big-furry-bear man, darted into the store to go at it in some serious elbow-to-midriff competition for what appeared to be a big bucket of brightly colored yarn that didn’t seem to follow a rhyme or a reason in terms of color or size or anything.

Jeremy watched her do battle through the big plate glass window and then sighed. “Helen” had given him lunch money, and now he got to go search the want ads fruitlessly over some food at Denny’s. Well, some days it had just been over coffee, and some days, it had been a full-out meal. Some days he’d even been able to find work too—stacking pallets, loading shit onto a truck—but the fact was, although he wasn’t weak, he didn’t have a powerhouse physique. There were guys with more powerful bodies and harder hands who could do a better, faster job of it, and he was often passed over at the train yard when people were looking for spare hands.

And nobody gardened in January in Colorado.

So when he noticed the big guy was just watching him through narrowed eyes, Jeremy had a moment to think that he’d been getting off easy. He’d made it through two years of prison by trading cigarettes and helping to smuggle in luxuries, and thus had not had his pretty little body violated in any way he didn’t want it to be. (He hadn’t wanted it to be. Once you started having sex in prison, that sort of thing got around, and pretty soon, you were the prettiest girl at the prom. He’d kept his sexuality to himself, and people had left him alone.) For just a second, he thought he might have to actually whore himself out to do honest work.

Then the guy had wrinkled his nose and said, “Five bucks? You’re gonna get lunch for five bucks?”

Jeremy smiled greenly. “Denny’s—they serve cheap breakfast all day, unless you’re gonna hand me a ten!”

The guy laughed shortly. “It’s gonna take more than a ten to fix those shoes.”

Jeremy looked mournfully at his feet. They were the same shoes he’d worn into prison, and they’d started out pretty good quality, but now the leather was cracked and the sole was worn thin enough to let in the dirty, melted snow. “Yeah, there’s nothing like a good pair of shoes, you know? First thing I’m going to buy when I get back on my feet is a new pair of shoes.”

“Got any plans to get back on your feet?”

Now that Jeremy felt his person wasn’t in imminent danger, he could patter like the pro he had been. “I’m gonna get me a sales job, right? ’Cause I’m good with people. But first I’m gonna work under the table for a bar, right? ’Cause I’m good with people, and then I’m gonna get me some new threads. But before I find that bartender job, I need me some breakfast—and the bigger the breakfast, the better. So, can you spare a ten?”

The guy laughed and stuck out his hand. “I’m Crawford, and I’ll buy you some lunch, how’s that?”

Wow—lunch and a five in his pocket, and he didn’t even have to put out. (The guy was over six feet tall, and Jeremy didn’t even want to speculate on the hole Crawford would rip if he decided that wasn’t the case. Jeremy was just as happy not to have to break his record for not bending over to eat, thank you very much!)

It was lunchtime, but Jeremy ordered breakfast, because he loved eggs and toast, and he was ebullient over the first meal. He bolted it down in an all-fired hurry, because his stomach was doing all the talking in his body, and it needed some frickin’ chow. Of course, he could talk and eat, so he started spinning all sorts of pie in the sky, about being a salesman and owning his own store and then going to college and getting a law degree. “Because the way I see it, being a salesman is just a legit way of being a con man, right? So I’ve already got the groundwork, and I know how to talk, and I’m pretty sure I could sell water to a duck, right?” (That’s one of the key things the old man had taught him—people would do almost anything to avoid being rude.) “So I figured you’d—”

“You’d sell people shit they don’t need, and your only claim to honesty would be not ending up in prison?” Crawford asked, and Jeremy blushed and mopped up the eggs on his plate with toast, and then started using his finger for the last of the egg. A heavy silence might have fallen then, but Crawford signaled the waitress with two fingers and a point to Jeremy’s plate. Jeremy opened his mouth and then closed it, and Crawford took a swallow of coffee and then looked at him like he expected an answer.

“Well, how am I going to pay for the law degree?” he asked, but he was watching with wide eyes, realizing that all that beautiful food was going to be for him as the waitress walked back to the kitchen and called a double of his exact order. For no reason he could think of, his voice cracked as he said it, showing the cold winter sunshine peeking through his thin fictions, like the snow saw through the holes in his shoes.

He swallowed, and Crawford took another swallow of coffee. “You’d make a great lawyer,” he said meditatively. “Those fuckers’ll suck the life outta you with words too.”

Jeremy didn’t have a comeback for that. He was too filled with visions of food, real food, not just enough to keep him on his feet, but enough to gorge on, to make himself sick. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly watering like it hadn’t when they’d walked into the diner, and he felt like he had to work for his money. He had to talk, had to, because that was all he had to pay Crawford back for the second and third helpings of food coming his way.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing again. “Yeah, they’ll suck the life outta you, but you know, you get a good one, and good things’ll come your way, right? So, you wanna be that person, the person who can make the rain come. My daddy, he talked all the time about the rain comin’ down, and how that’s all a man can want is to make the rain come, and I figure a lawyer, he’ll be all about makin’ it happen, but only a good one, right? I wouldn’t want to be a bad one, because the bad ones, they get you put away for….” He swallowed again, and the waitress brought him the two servings of toast that went with Crawford’s order and he just looked at them, suddenly just touched beyond words. The first meal, that could have been a fluke, but this was… God, this was the rain coming down, wasn’t it?

“How long?” Craw asked, his voice gruff, and Jeremy didn’t even think to lie or evade.

“Two years,” he said, watching numbly as Craw picked up the little jar of jam he’d seen Jeremy use and started preparing the toast. Craw handed him the plate and Jeremy ate automatically.

“How old are you, son?” Craw asked softly, and Jeremy swallowed toast down so he could answer.

“I’ll be twenty-eight next month,” he said, and Craw nodded, like Jeremy had looked that old, which he hadn’t used to, and Jeremy’s pride flared. “Yeah, I know I look young, but I coulda picked your pocket a dozen times if I’d tried, and if I hadn’t been going straight, you’d be signing me your first born by now, so don’t worry about me being young. I can take care of myself, but thank you much for the breakfast just the same.”

“Kid, have you done an honest day’s work in your life?”

The waitress took that moment to drop off his first second breakfast, and Jeremy looked at it longingly. It was like suddenly he realized he’d been caught in a long con, and if he took a bite of those eggs, he wasn’t going to be able to wriggle his way out.

He really wanted those eggs.

“No,” he said simply, picking up his fork and shoveling them on a second piece of toast. “I don’t even know how. You’re the first honest man I’ve ever known in my life.”

“You think I’m honest?” Craw asked curiously, and Jeremy’s shoulders shook.

“I think if you weren’t such an ass sometimes, a decent con man would have screwed you six ways to Sunday,” Jeremy replied frankly, because Craw had been an ass—he’d broken every law of conversation Oscar had ever taught him. If Jeremy had been on the grift, he would have walked away from this one—guys like Craw would call you on your bullshit because they just didn’t give a fuck.

Craw nodded, a faint smile on his mouth under the unintentional beard. “Good. Then come work for me. I’ve got a full-time employee and a kid coming by after school, but it’s getting too big for us. I’ll teach you honesty.”

Jeremy blinked and ate another bit on automatic. “You’ll teach me honesty?” he said numbly. Oh God. Suddenly that sounded harder to learn than lawyer shit. “How’s that going to feed me?”

Craw shrugged. “I can put you up in a tack room until you get enough to rent an apartment,” he said, obviously having thought this out. “I can feed you until then too.” Craw’s eyes swept the bustling streets of Boulder, full of human sheep and pigeons, all ready to be fleeced and plucked, if only Jeremy hadn’t sworn off fresh game. “The only catch is you’ll have to leave this shit behind. I live in Granby.”

Jeremy shivered, just hearing the name. It was the last stop before the Rocky Mountains—Jesus, he didn’t even know the road to Granby was open this time of year!

“This is the only jacket and shoes I got,” he said, his heart sinking.

“Will you work for me?” Craw asked.

“Yeah,” Jeremy said, not even bargaining for clothes and shoes. It was a job. It was a job, and a place to stay, and food. Jeremy hadn’t realized how desperate he was until he was offered all three of the things he wanted most, when he’d just gotten used to a full stomach in the warm diner.

“Then I’ll get you what you need,” Crawford told him, and Jeremy looked at him with gleaming eyes.

“Why?” he asked, wanting to hear something, anything, that would make sense.

All he got was a shrug. “Aiden needs your help.”

Jeremy took one more bite of the second plate of eggs and then started mopping up the yolk again. “Who in the hell is Aiden?”

And Crawford just laughed.

Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3
Watch, as the Innocent Crafter Chooses His Path
STANLEY missed Craw ever so.

It wasn’t like he’d been in love with the big goober—no. But he’d liked Craw’s visits, as terse as the guy had usually been. They broke up Stanley’s job somewhat, and that’s always nice, even if you love your job. And better yet, those visits meant Stanley got laid, and, as Stanley sat at the counter and peered moodily into the mid-November slush, it turned out Stanley hadn’t been doing a lot of that without Craw.

He couldn’t really put a finger on when it had happened, either.

Stanley Shulze had arrived in Boulder a little more than ten years before with a fresh-off-the-turnip-truck business degree, an art minor, and a job as a yarn buyer. God, hadn’t he been a deprived child in the bowels of fucking Nebransas, because Boulder had seemed like a bustling metropolis of gay. He’d gone to the clubs, gotten fucked by anything that cared, gone down on a few more that hadn’t, and had enjoyed the hell out of himself.

When had the novelty worn off?

He couldn’t put a finger on it. He certainly hadn’t started off exclusive when he’d bent over for Craw. He’d seen the guy—a big giant of a bear, covered in curly auburn hair—walking through the doorway of the yarn store and thought “Hello big daddy bear man! Now wouldn’t it be lovely if you were—” And then he’d seen Craw checking out his best ass. The tight, bouncy little bubble one, right on top of his thighs, and Stanley had been in….

Well, not love. But certainly in enough of a dither to grab a lubed condom out of his messenger bag, lock the door between rushes, and follow Craw to the bathroom to proposition him.

Craw had shrugged, said, “Well, if you’re fucking serious,” and a tradition had begun.

And five years later, Craw had met a nice boy and settled down, and it had ended. And Stanley was left wondering—when had bending over for Craw become the be-all and end-all of his love life?

He wasn’t sure. Sometime in there, it had gotten too bothersome to go out to clubs and find a hook-up that he’d maybe had before and then had to forget. Sometime in there, the music got too loud, the kids got too young, and the scorn for an aging fag got too hard to bear. All he knew was that the Friday night after Craw had called it quits, Stanley had gone to Wilde’s, his favorite meat market, and had met… well, twenty-one year old children, mostly.

They’d been pretty—ohmygod, was it possible they were getting prettier?—but their conversation?

Well, lacking.

“Dude!”

Stanley looked encouragingly at the young man and crinkled his eyes, which were blue with dark lashes and he’d spent hours looking in the mirror trying to make them alluring. “Yes, sweetie?” he asked, batting those dark lashes.

The young man—tall, with a heavy chest and heavy thighs, who looked like he could probably break Stanley in two if he felt like it—had smiled sweetly and said, “Dude,” while nodding his head up and down and taking in Stanley’s trim little (five feet seven) body. He seemed to have earned an expression of approval, and Stanley tried to make his smile extra special.

“So, would you like to buy me a drink?” he articulated.

The kid nodded, his jaw slack and loose. “Oh yeah. Dude.”

Stanley had taken a deep breath and realized that blowjobs were never free and a good primal pound in the ass was gonna cost him a fortune in self-respect. Oh well, he’d been living on credit that way for years.

“Awesome. I’ll have an Amaretto sour, if that’s okay.”

The kid blinked and wrinkled his nose. “Dude?”

“Don’t worry, sweetie. If you order one, Victor will make it.” Stanley looked over at the bartender, who was everything you wanted in a gay-bar-bartender: tattoos, bandana over his bald head, no shirt over his solid body, leather chaps, chains around the groin, and all!

Victor rolled his eyes at Jethro and slid Stanley his sour, and Stanley simpered up at his pretty, dumb friend and tried to seal the deal.

“So,” he said, trying for conversation. “Do you go to school around here?”

Jethro looked down a little and blushed. “Construction,” he mumbled, and Stanley saw it, and kicked himself for seeing it.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said sweetly, touching the back of the kid’s hand with his own. “We do what we’re good at, right sweetie?”

The kid looked at Stanley mournfully. “And what are you good at?” he asked, and Stanley almost gave him the easy answer only. But instead he said, “Selling yarn to little old ladies,” before he said, “and giving blowjobs.”

And of all things, that lit the kid’s face. “Do you knit?” he asked, enthralled. “Because my mom knits and that’s cool!”

Stanley blinked. “You’re not impressed by the blowjob even a little?”

The kid shrugged and looked around. “All these guys give blowjobs,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I’m hung like a donkey, so I get lots of ass. But you didn’t even answer the question. Do you knit?”

Stanley shrugged. “A little. You have to, if you’re going to help sell the yarn, right?”

The kid’s eyes got really big and moony. “Would you knit me a sweater?” he asked, and Stanley’s mouth fell open. He knit garter stitch. Plain garter stitch. Back and forth, repeat ad infinitum. And here he was, his first visit to a meat market in a year, and this kid wanted to know if he would knit?

“Oh Buttercup! No one is that good a fuck, okay?”

The kid considered and then jerked his chin in the general vicinity of the back privacy rooms, where what you did in there might not be seen overtly, but it was really not anything near private. “Well, I might be. Want to give a try?”

Stanley pursed his lips. “Yeah, sure. But don’t pull my hair—my hair plugs are just starting to look natural, okay?”

The kid patted the top of Stanley’s blond head—which he could do easily since he was well over six feet tall. “Yeah, okay.”

Stanley looked despairingly at the little darkened cubicles and realized the bathroom in the yarn store where he’d been doing Craw had at least been cleaned once a day and had air freshener and disinfectant and… young Jethro put his hand on Stanley’s shoulder.

“Kid,” Stanley shouted, because the music gave an extra loud throb at that moment, “what’s your name?”

The kid traced a line down the side of Stanley’s neck and nibbled his ear. “I’ve got a condom,” he said, close enough for Stanley to hear him. “It’s lubed. Do you care?”

“Well, if I’m gonna knit you a sweater, you’d better make me care,” Stanley grumbled.

A rather sweaty fifteen minutes later, Stanley leaned against the wall of the privacy cubicle and pulled out some wet wipes from a box provided for guest convenience. He wiped off his stomach and his hands, which were wet from come, and turned around to see the kid tying off the condom. Together they threw away their trash and Stanley looked at the kid and shrugged.

“You’re right, Junior; I don’t think names are necessary. But on the downside, I ain’t knitting you shit if I don’t know your name.”


THAT had been about three months before Thanksgiving. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Craw had brought his “nice boy” to visit while he made his delivery, which depressed the hell out of Stanley.

Ben really was a nice boy. He was funny, he was acerbic, he was fully aware that his catch and Stanley’s former steady lay was a walking communication dysfunction, and he looked at Craw with such yearning that even Stanley had to admit he would have felt bad if he’d gotten between them. Oh for fuck’s sake, didn’t his jealousy even function anymore?

The two of them took turns baiting Craw (apparently Ben had been in the dark about Stanley until Craw pulled the truck up to the curb—that was always good for a few chuckles) and then he’d turned that sunshine-poet’s face with its hipster’s stubble toward Stanley and said, “So, do you knit?”

Stanley had gaped. Seriously? He was getting this from Jethro and from the ex’s new squeeze? What in the fuck?

“Stanley doesn’t knit,” Craw grunted, walking by with a box neither Ben nor Stanley was bothering to help him with. Big dummy. Bringing the new squeeze to meet the old lay. How desperately tacky. Oh, yeah, sure, the guy called it being up front, but Stanley knew unintentional emotional punishment when it was flogging him on the tush. Stanley was so put out he didn’t even bother to contradict Craw about his knitting, although, by Craw’s standards, a little bit of garter stitch didn’t count.

“You don’t knit?” Ben said, surprised. “Even I’m starting to knit. I mean….” Ben gestured around the store, and Stanley rolled his eyes. It was a huge chunk of floor space, and he’d done it up right, with smooth black lacquered cabinets artfully overflowing with yarn sorted by brand, type, and color, plush couches set at feng shui angles, cream colored (stain resistant) carpeting, and mirrors on the available walls next to the windows to make the place seem even bigger than it already was.

Stanley looked again and saw the yarn this time and not the floor space. “Yeah,” he said, pulling up one corner of his upper lip. “I guess there is yarn.”

Ben shook his head. “Okay—I’ve known the guy for three months—I’m telling ya—the yarn is the only thing he sees. And I’m starting to get tunnel vision that way too.”

Stanley looked at Craw, coming back with another box, and then at Ben, who was just so sunshiny sugary sweet that Stanley wanted to eat him up with whipped cream and chocolate, and then saw the way Craw looked at Ben when Ben didn’t know he was looking.

“Yarn,” he said, looking around his place of business again. “Go figure.”

See, the thing is, Stanley had a business major with an art minor—he’d been going to buy and sell art. He’d just taken the job in Boulder as sort of a stop-gap bill-paying measure. Sort of an interim thing to put on his resume. Because those sorts of jobs are a dime a dozen when you’re sending your resume to everyone between Boulder and New York, right?

Yeah. That had been ten years ago. He was still here. He had his regulars, he had his club scene, he had his neighbors—and fuck him if he didn’t have two cats and a wild attack ficus.

Oh hells. Stanley had a life here, one it would sort of piss him off to leave. He hadn’t sent his resume anywhere in years, and quite frankly? He had no desire to. He liked Alice, his boss. Although he mostly worked in Ewe’ll Love This, the fact was, she owned four different craft boutiques around Boulder and Fort Collins. He got to buy for and design the floor space for all of them, and it was fun. It wasn’t acquiring art for a Vegas casino (’cause those people had cash) and it wasn’t designing for Cosmo, but it played into his strengths and, well….

He was damned good at picking yarn, yarn that would be fashionable or yarn that would be trendy, yarn that would be practical and yarn that would wear well. If he was going to make his life like this, maybe he should get his hands dirty. (Of course, the allure of yarn in the first place was that you could get your hands dirty while keeping them reasonably clean.) And why not? He’d spent the last eleven years pushing fiber on little old ladies (and a surprising number of trendy young ones). Wasn’t it about time he became a user too? God, it beat the hell out of amyl nitrate—he’d had at least three regrettable encounters in college due to that little chemical nightmare. It’s not like yarn could be any worse!

And besides. Craw had left him for a man who wanted to learn to knit. The sweet boy at the club had thought his one interesting feature was that he sort of knew how to knit. Knitting was a sign of commitment; Stanley knew enough about the craft to know a project took some devotion and had some permanence.

Maybe, if Stanley learned how to knit, he’d figure out how to have some of that in his own life.

So, the day before Thanksgiving, he cashed out two skeins of yarn and some nice square-shank knitting needles to make himself a scarf.

Now, Stanley knew his own limitations. He assumed he’d be interested in knitting like he’d been (thus far) interested in men. He’d see something shiny, try it out, and then think he could probably do better in the next privacy booth. So he started out with big, thick yarn and big, thick, phallic needles (he liked the squareness in the shank—although that did make him do some online research to see if that was a trend in sex toys, because, hey, something he didn’t have would be nice! He did find a few plugs in that shape, which he ordered. Why not?)

And he made the yarn something… rich. Yummy. Decadent. A deep, flashy, lipstick red. Now Stanley himself usually looked good in cool colors: crisp navies, charcoal grays, ice greens. But that’s not what he wanted to wear. So he picked this deep, flashy, candy-apple, hot-car, full-lipped, I’m-a-superstar red, because he figured, if he was going to get his granny on, he was going to do it like the look-at-me attention whore he was.

He remembered his basics, and the night before Thanksgiving, while the curried lamb dish he was making for his boss’s pot luck the next day simmered, he sat down with the some previously DVR’d episodes of Top Chef and Project Runway, and cast on.

For the first episode, he cursed his own stupidity, struggled with the yarn, struggled with the needles, and felt like an idiot douchebag. He got up, tended to his food for a moment, poured himself a glass of wine (to go with his whine, he supposed), and picked the red in case he got really wasted and spilled the wine on the hand-wash-only merino/cashmere blend.

After the first glass of wine, the repetitive movement became soothing.

After his second glass of wine (and after he, thankfully, took the food off the stove and prepped it to take to the early dinner the next day), the zen of the color started to seep into his hands.

He never made it to his third glass of wine. He became totally enthralled, sitting there, knitting, watching the skank ho designing the dress try to possibly squeeze one last millimeter of non-boob out of the spider-monkey of a model. Van Gogh, his manic-depressive black cat, curled up in a little ball by his shoulder and Matisse, his big, surly orange tom, was spread out unapologetically on his lap, and their combined weight pretty much arc-welded his ass to the couch. But that was okay; in fact, it was perfect. It was like the permanence he’d been seeking had found him, just by gluing him to the couch and making his activity so soothing he didn’t want to go anywhere.

He finished the first skein of yarn that night, and when he woke up, he realized he hadn’t done half bad. He liked it so much he put it in his messenger bag, so he’d have something to do while Alice’s redneck son was monopolizing the television. It was so unfair. Everyone else there—Alice, her daughter Candace, her daughter-in-law Amanda—they all wanted to watch the Thin Man marathon, every year. But no—not Jed. Jed was going to by golly watch the fucking football games, and even trying to imagine those boys naked didn’t make that game any more fun for Stanley, who was not a fan of BDSM even when it was the fun stuff, with the leather. But Mandy was sort of a doormat, and Alice was trying to have peace with her children one day a year since their father got them for Christmas, yes, even into adulthood, and waging that sort of war in someone else’s house was just dΓ©classΓ©.

The curried lamb was a success—even more so because the curry had a chance to settle in and work up some kick. As a traditional Thanksgiving side dish, well, maybe it didn’t blend, but Alice and Candace both kissed him on the cheek and told him thank you, and everyone but Jed (who hated him), including Mandy, used it as an alternative to gravy on the mashed potatoes when they ran out of rice.

Jed, for his part, just sat at the end of the table and glared and muttered things under his breath about pansy food, and Stanley ignored him. The fact was, he hadn’t been welcome in his parents’ home for years—not even to attend their funeral. The story was so old by now—and Stanley was a big fan of the “It Gets Better” movement, because he was certainly glad to be free of that mausoleum—that he couldn’t bear repeating it, even for the sympathy. But sometimes, sometimes, he did miss the sound of his mother’s voice, with his sister in counterpoint, singing the doxology over their meal, which, as far as he knew was a tradition that was just the Shulzes’ with their good old Lutheran upbringing.

But Alice? She more than made up for it. Alice was one of those hard-nosed broads—with a core of solid chocolate. She cut her graying hair short and didn’t wear make-up and didn’t do battle with time so much as just turn her back on the bitch and go about her business. She wore jeans and a nice sweatshirt to prepare dinner and told Candace, her ultra-feminine daughter, that she looked lovely in a winter-white cashmere dress with red trimming. Candace did, too. She’d piled her fiery red (dyed) hair up on the top of her head and left tendrils down and painted her lips almost the exact pop-my-cherry color of Stanley’s scarf.

Stanley adored them both. When Stanley had first started working for Ewe’ll Love This, Alice would bring her children into the store while they consulted. Jed had been sixteen, surly, scornful, and obviously a carbon copy of his father, whom Stanley had met once and it had been more than enough. Candace, on the other hand, had been fourteen and shy. Beautiful—God, even through the pimples and the gangliness and the braces and the bad hair, you could still see the snub little nose and the bee-sting mouth and the heart shape to her freckled little face—but shy. Terribly, terribly shy.

Stanley had adored her. He’d ramped up his camp and called her honey and mooned over the boys in the fashion magazines to make her giggle. She reminded him of his own sisters, before he’d come out and they’d hated him like the rest of the family, except her mother had told her kids straight out that Stanley was gay and they could like it or they could keep their mouths shut about it. Candace had chosen to like it, and Stanley had chosen to love her with all his gay little heart.

Eleven years later, she was this amazing, fabulous woman who was studying art as an artist and not a buyer, way out in New York, which Stanley had wasted his youth thinking of as a metropolis just waiting to discover him. He very possibly could have been bitter that Boulder had been here all along, just waiting for Stanley to discover it, except Candace was his darling, and when she had gone off to college and begun to make a name for herself, he’d had a very hazy, wine-soaked conversation with God about giving her all the success he’d never achieved. He wanted her to have it. He wanted her to shine. He was content to sit at her mother’s table during the holidays and spice up her time with curried lamb.

But he wasn’t sure when she’d grown older than him. That hadn’t been part of the deal.

They’d lingered over wine after the dinner clean-up, and she’d smiled at him over her wineglass.

“Stanley,” she said, only a little buzzed, because she was a lady like her mother. “How is it you never bring anyone by for Thanksgiving? Or over Easter? Or for the summer barbecues? I am starting to worry about you!”

Stanley looked back at her, touched to his core and trying not to tear up because Jed would only call him a big flaming mo. “Darling, don’t worry about me. I’m learning to knit,” he said proudly, and Alice was suddenly at his elbow, with some leftover turkey and gravy (good, he needed some carbs and protein to sop this buzz!) and complete attention.

“Oh Stanley,” she said, sounding sober, “that’s wonderful!”

Candace grimaced. “Mom—it’s knitting. It’s no big….”

Stanley knew he had sort of a sappy smile on his face. “It’s all the secrets of the universe wrapped up in one Zen little ball of string,” he said happily. “Everything I thought was missing in my life is twisted up in fiber and the magic stitch.”

He was aware Candace and her mother were exchanging rather alarmed glances.

“Stanley,” Alice said, her voice getting as gentle as it possibly ever did, “I love the craft. I mean, it’s why I started the store, but do you really think you should be pinning the secrets of the universe on—”

“Stanley, you need a man.”

“Candace!” Alice was scandalized, but Stanley, he understood.

“No,” he said sadly. “Don’t you see? I don’t get a man. I’ve squandered my golden years being a one-night mantrap. I need to own up, Candy darling.” He patted her hand serenely. “You get to go out and be fabulous. I’ve got the cats, the ficus, and now I’ve got the knitting. These things will fill my time until I shuffle into the sunset. I am content.”

“You’re thirty-six!” Candace squawked, and Stanley held his hand to his chest, mortally wounded.

“Thirty-five!” he corrected. “But that’s not the point!”

“Oh, that’s exactly the point,” Alice muttered, taking a gulp of her daughter’s wine. “Stanley, honey, I’m glad you’ve embraced knitting, I really am. It’ll make you even better at your job, and, quite frankly, I was starting to think you had the morals of a con man. It’s good to know you don’t. But maybe don’t embrace celibacy just yet. Maybe, you know, just embrace a new you.”

Stanley looked dispiritedly at his wine. “It’s better than the old me, I guess.”

Alice was a chunky woman, but that’s what made the arm around his shoulder feel solid and real. She kissed his temple. “The only thing wrong with the old you is that you treated dating like finding a vibrator on legs. There’s more to finding a life mate than that, honey. I mean, Candace’s father fucked like a god—”

“Mom!”

“But he fucked everything liked that, and who wants that kind of competition? Certainly not someone worthwhile, Stanley. Maybe the knitting is a good thing. You can practice project monogamy and then move on to the human kind.”

“Oh Jesus.” Candace’s eyes were wide, and she stood up and started searching the counter for the other bottle of wine. Stanley didn’t have the heart to tell her he was pretty sure he’d killed it while he’d been helping her mother with dinner. “Mom…. God, maybe monogamy just isn’t Stanley’s way—”

“It could be,” Stanley said pathetically. His messenger bag was hanging over the back of his chair, and he found himself suddenly needing the comfort of his yarn very much. “It could be,” he repeated, getting out his scarf. He started working the row with dogged determination. The wine was starting to recede, and he was with his people now, his darling, beautiful Candace and her mother, who had been trying to fill in for his mother since he’d applied for the job. “I just… I just need to find the right project,” he said, thinking this scarf was too short and he was going to need another skein of yarn. That was good. The scarf could go on and on and on and on, and it could be the harlot-red banner of shame that wrapped him up and kept him warm when the nights grew lonely and cold.

Candace managed to find another bottle of wine—Chablis this time; it had been hiding in the fridge—and Alice continued to lean her head on his shoulder soothingly.

“Stanley, you know, I was pretty sure when I divorced their father that I was going to be alone my entire life and I’d never find another man. You know what I discovered?”

Stanley kissed the top of her silver-gray head. “That you’re a lesbian?” Jean hadn’t been able to make it for Thanksgiving—she had her own kids. The good news was that her kids were there for Christmas, so Stanley got to have family at both the major holidays. Who needed to bring home a boyfriend? It also helped that Jed didn’t have to see proof that his mother was everything he professed to hate; he got to pretend she was still his mommy and needed to wait on him, hand and foot, along with his wife. Stanley had never been puzzled by the idea that parents as straight and narrow as his had gone and thrown themselves a Stanley. Nice people like Alice were squirting out assholes like Jed every day.

“Well, yeah, that,” Alice conceded. “But you know how I discovered that?”

Candace choked on her Chablis. “If you say ‘masturbation’, I am never coming home again, ever.”

Stanley grinned at her, thrilled at how quick she’d gone from sophisticated glamour girl to horrified teenager. “Oh baby, you know she lives to make you spit-take. Let mummy finish her story and we can have a lovely game of hand-n-foot over pie.”

Candace rolled her eyes and glared at him indulgently. “You know, Stanley, you’re still the best father I’ve ever had.” Jed gave a cheer from the living room and pumped his fist. The three of them looked over to where Amanda was sitting next to him, looking longingly at the table. Amanda was tiny and mousy, with dark hair and sloe eyes, and Stanley thought if Jed ever actually laid a hand on her, he would possibly throw a punch for the first time in his life. “And older brother,” Candace added with a sympathetic glance at Amanda, “rolled into one. But that doesn’t mean you can tell me not to be freaked out by my mother’s sex life.”

Stanley started to giggle. “You’re just lucky your mother has a sex life. My parents spawned us in the mud puddle behind the house. I was the egg that got stepped on and that’s why I’m gay.” He turned to Alice again. “Finish your story, darling. You were trying to give me hope about my love life, and I need some.”

“You weren’t the egg that got stepped on,” Alice muttered. “You were the egg that had the good sense to move out from under the fucking horse.” She finished grouching and sat up, suddenly looking as sober as Stanley would have to be before he drove home in the snow. “Anyway, no. There was masturbation because I was alone, but that’s not what I discovered. What I discovered was that I liked myself. I was alone, and it sucked, but I wasn’t a bad person to be with. You’re not a bad person to be with, Stanley. You can keep sex in your toy drawer for a while, until you find someone you wouldn’t mind meeting us for Thanksgiving.”

There was another cheer from the living room, and Alice grimaced. “Or lunch. Tell you what. You name a non-holiday time, and I’ll fly Candace out and we can meet Mr. Hasn’t Walked Through The Door, okay? That way, we won’t let Jed scare him off.”

Well, why not? Stanley laughed a little and made his next stitch. Some of the wine was wearing off, and he was starting to crave pie. “Why not,” he said grandly, thinking the odds of that happening were as thin as the odds of him actually becoming a knitter for life. “Darling, if that happens, I’ll fly Candace out.”

“As if,” Alice grunted. “I know what you make, Stanley, and it ain’t that impressive.”

Stanley shrugged. “After you give me a raise.”

And then there was pie!

Blackbird Knitting in a Bunny's Lair #4
Prologue
JEREMY KNEW two things in the moment before he almost died.

The first was that he’d had this coming.

Five years ago, when he was still on the grift in Las Vegas, he and Gianni Cabrisi shared a moment—a kiss, a blowjob, eye contact, each knowing exactly who the other was, and that it was all okay. The next day, on the weight of that moment alone, Gianni lied to his crazy mob boss about knowing where Jeremy was when Jeremy was huddled in a theater curtain not five yards away, wetting himself with fear after hearing his father die. That sort of dedication on the basis of a kiss needed to be repaid. So sure, Jeremy had left that moment determined to go straight—and for the past three years, he’d been working like an honest man and doing just that—but he’d known that wasn’t all. He’d known he had to put paid to all the wrong he’d done as a con man. He’d known he had lots to pay for.

And now he was paying for it.

Gianni had gone straight too, had become Johnny—and now Johnny’s boyfriend cowered, terrified and innocent, in the little room in the barn where Jeremy was about to meet his maker. Stanley Schulz was a little guy, a yarn store designer who’d only wanted to settle down, and Johnny thought Stanley was his reward for going straight himself. Jeremy thought Stanley was Johnny’s reward for hiding his punk con-man’s ass back in Vegas, so Jeremy was going to hide Stanley with that much dedication.

It wasn’t hard, really—Mikey Carelli, the mobster who was currently breaking Jeremy’s teeth and most of the bones in his body, was too fucking crazy to listen, even if Jeremy had broken to spill the beans.

But Jeremy wouldn’t break. He had this coming. He’d had three good years working with good people, honest people, and falling in love with Aiden, and he owed for that. He’d pay up with a smile, because he’d had Aiden, and the one thing he knew was that this pain was all worth it.

The other thing he knew was that Aiden would never forgive him. Aiden, Jeremy’s beautiful, golden boy, the boy who had grown up while Jeremy watched, and then walked right up and claimed Jeremy as his own. Aiden had been the north on Jeremy’s compass from pretty much the minute Jeremy set foot in Granby, and had, in fact, been the one person responsible for Jeremy staying. Not that Jeremy had dreamed in a million years that Aiden would love him back—Jeremy was just happy that he’d gotten to work with Aiden in the fiber mill for the past three years. Honest work with the boy he loved—in a million years, he hadn’t dreamed that would be his lot, even for a little while. But Aiden had claimed him, which had been amazing, and they had become lovers, which still blew his mind, and now Jeremy was about to do the unforgivable.

He was about to leave.

He gazed up into the eyes of Mikey the mobster and saw nothing. His internal vision was already focused on Aiden and how upset he’d be that Jeremy had left after all.

The shotgun blast that ended Michael Carelli’s life shattered Jeremy’s good-bye right then, and Jeremy didn’t have to leave Aiden after all.

At the beginning, though, it seemed like it might have been easier if he had.


Shattered Bones and Broken Strength
JEREMY STILLSON spent more time in the hospital after he stopped living a life of crime than he had before he’d quit. Given that his second hospital stay ever lasted over two months, he could safely say he was over the experience by the time he left for home.

If Craw hadn’t thrown a fit and begged and pleaded so that Jeremy could share a room with Ariadne, he never would have made it.


HIS FIRST week was hazy, just a confused mess of pain and voices and Aiden—Aiden—holding his hand a lot, his voice choked and messy. Jeremy had a lot of surgeries in those first days, which was a blessing, because he didn’t really have to make any decisions. Aiden and Craw made all of those decisions for him.

Sometime toward the end of the first week, he woke up abruptly, breaking out of a bleary dream of being locked in a box of pain.

“Boy! Boy! Aiden!” he called, because his one constant in the past three years had been his boy. At first his boy had been sarcastic and frustrated because Jeremy couldn’t seem to learn the ways of living an honest life, but that had changed, hadn’t it? Aiden had gone from frustrated to friendly, and then, in these past months, from friendly to more than friendly.

Why wasn’t Aiden next to him?

“Boy?” he asked the cold and alien darkness. Some of his teeth were missing, his mouth hurt like the blazes, and it was hard to talk. “If you’re gone for water, I could use some.” Because his mouth was dry and his entire body… it felt achy and creaky and everything, everything hurt, but that dry mouth, that was the thing that was making him craziest.

“Jeremy—”

“Boy?” It was a woman’s voice, and Jeremy couldn’t figure out why a woman would be in his bedroom, his sweet little bedroom in his and Aiden’s tiny apartment. Jeremy loved that little apartment; it was safe, like a den or a warren, and you could fight the urge to run when you were safe.

“Honey, it’s me, Ariadne. We’re in the hospital, remember?”

Oh. Ariadne. Craw’s assistant and best friend. Spider-thin woman who liked to dye her hair bright red and who could knit lovely things like lace while yelling at “her boys” not to track sheep shit all over the store.

What was she doing here?

Oh yeah.

“Hey, Ariadne,” he said, feeling loopy. “How’s the baby coming?”

“Hanging in there,” she said weakly. She had pregnancy diabetes as well as high blood pressure. She was one of the most active people he knew, and she’d been on bed rest since Thanksgiving, which was….

When was Thanksgiving?

“Ariadne?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“What day is it?”

“December 20. You’ve been here around five days.”

Jeremy whimpered. “I don’t like hospitals,” he said nakedly, and he heard a noise. He tried to move his head, but his face was swathed in bandages and his body just hurt so bad. In a moment there was a rustling, and the sound of something being dragged, and then something else.

In another moment there was a softness near his cheek and the smell of the special soap Ariadne liked to buy from a crafter in Grand.

And then there was a pressure on his blessedly undamaged hand.

“I’m right here,” she said, and he moved his eyes just enough to see her wan and pale face in the light creeping in from the hallway.

“I don’t mean to be a bother,” he said, keeping his voice low in the hospital echo. The words were almost a cruel repeat of his first months spent at Craw’s farm and yarn mill, when he’d had one foot out the door and all of his earthly possessions packed and ready to bolt. The words “I don’t mean to be a bother,” had been code then, for “Don’t get attached to me, I’m not staying.”

“Well, it’s nice to have company,” Ariadne said quietly. “Keeps me from worrying so much about my little one here.”

Jeremy felt weak tears sliding down the sides of his face. “You shouldn’t have to worry,” he said sincerely. “You of all people should have a healthy, happy baby. You’re gonna stick around for it. That’s important.”

“I’ll be here for you too, okay, Jeremy?”

Jeremy nodded and tried not to be afraid. Bad things came out of the dark—fists and gunshots and the butt ends of pistols. Sharp needles and scalpels and that horrible, nauseating, free-floating feeling of anesthetic.

“I appreciate it,” he said, feeling dumb and helpless. “Just until my boy gets here.”

Oh no. He’d just called Aiden “his boy” when Ariadne and Craw weren’t entirely comfortable with the two of them yet. “Don’t tell Craw,” he mumbled. “But I really love that boy.”

“Craw’s fine with it,” Ariadne soothed, rubbing the back of his hand. “Craw and Aiden saved your life.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy said, remembering that terrifying moment when he’d heard the gunshot and thought it was the one that killed him. And then Aiden sobbing over him, yelling at him for going to defend their friend alone. “He cried for me. My boy shouldn’t ever cry for me.”

“We all cried, Jer,” Ariadne murmured into the darkness. “You’re going to have to take better care of yourself now that you’re meaning to stay.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jeremy was tired now, and the fact that he could smell his friend, feel her touch on his hand, that meant the world. “You… you’re not leaving anywhere tonight, are you?”

“No, baby. Right here.”

“Well, as long as you’re comfortable,” Jeremy said, and then he fell asleep.


SOMETHING HAPPENED. Something bad. Another surgery, maybe? Pain, confusion, more anesthesia—God, that shit made his stomach feel just raunchy. But it was over, and he was back in the bed, and he knew Ariadne was with him in the same room. He thought numbly that someone must have brought her bed over to his, because when he tried to turn and then stopped because it felt like a steel spike was lodged through his stomach, she was close enough to touch his shoulder as she soothed him.

“Aiden, hon, he’s awake. He was asking for you.”

“Jer?”

“Boy.” The sound was a drawn-out syllable of relief. “Boy, you’re here.”

Jeremy felt a hot presence next to his shoulder, rough with razor stubble and tearful breath.

“Jeremy,” Aiden breathed.

Jeremy smiled a little. “Got used to you,” he mumbled. “You and me, we lived together. I loved that. It’s hard when you’re gone.”

“We still live together,” Aiden said, and the words relaxed Jeremy’s shoulders, helped the pain flow over him and drip away, just like the bag of fluid attached to his arm.

“We do? I don’t live here?”

“No, Jer. I moved into your apartment, remember? Except we’re gonna move.”

“Why do you have to move?” No! Oh no. Aiden couldn’t move out—not when Jeremy was thinking about starting a bank account and taking everything out of the safe. Including the mittens.

“Not me, Jeremy, us. You and me are going to move out. Ben is letting us buy his house now that he’s in with Craw.”

“Craw’s mad,” Jeremy said disconsolately.

The week after Thanksgiving, Aiden had told their boss at the fiber mill that they were together. Jeremy had been in the barn, feeding the animals and making sure everybody’s heater worked, and Aiden had come up behind him, wrapping those great brawny arms around Jeremy’s waist and kissing softly at the nape of his neck.

“Bad?” Jeremy asked. He’d heard the voices from outside the barn and the slam of the door as Craw stomped inside the house. Aiden had promised him—promised—his voice soft and insistent, that Jeremy would not be put on the spot because their three-year friendship had finally matured.

“He’s a stubborn bastard,” Aiden said into his ear. “Nothing new. He still thinks I’m his little brother.”

Jeremy’s shoulders drooped. “You were my little brother,” he said softly, stroking the rabbit in front of him. “Maybe I should just—”

Aiden’s arms tightened. “If you say it, Jer, you’ll break my heart.”

Jeremy closed his eyes then. “Anything,” he muttered. “Anything but that, boy. You understand? Not breaking your heart—that’s like my number-one priority.”

Aiden’s warmth at his back comforted him like a bale of straw, throwing his own body heat back at him with interest. Behind his closed eyes, Craw’s anger, the displeasure of the first man who had ever known him and shown kindness, dissipated, and there was only Aiden.

Aiden hadn’t been kind, not at first, but when the boy had grown, he’d become even better than kind. He’d become a gruff bastion of safety. Nothing would ever hurt Jeremy while Aiden stood guard. Jeremy trusted that.

But that didn’t change what happened next.


“SH,” AIDEN whispered now.

Jeremy must have lost time.

“Craw’s not mad?” Jeremy muttered. He heard Craw being mad. He was outside the hospital room somewhere.

“Oh, he’s mad, all right.” Ariadne’s dry voice soothed like a balm. “But not at you. Honey, Craw couldn’t stay mad at you. Certainly not after what you did.”

“What’d I do again?” That was what he thought, anyway. All his words were what he thought. But what they sounded like was worse, like he was talking through marbles.

“You… dammit, Jer, you—”

“Don’t be mad!” Jeremy couldn’t stand it if Aiden, his safety, his wolf, suddenly turned all his fierceness on Jeremy.

And then, to his horror, something worse happened.

He heard the noise first, the rasping of voice in Aiden’s throat, the choked sound of breath that wasn’t cut free soon enough. He moved his head slowly to his left and Aiden’s face had blotched deep purple, and his chin was folded like fabric.

“Boy,” he said helplessly, and Aiden shook his head and buried his face next to Jeremy’s on the pillow.

His shoulders shook like mountains as the earth crumbled beneath them. Jeremy reached up with the arm he knew had not been broken, and scrunched his hand in that dark-gold hair.

“I’m sorry,” Aiden sobbed. “I’m sorry, Jeremy, but I’m so damned mad.”

Jeremy moaned in his throat. “But I didn’t talk,” he protested, feeling weak. “I didn’t let them get Stanley!” The little yarn seller Gianni had fallen in love with. Jeremy owed Gianni—dammit, Johnny—and Stanley was his lover. Jeremy had done Gi—Johnny a solid, that was all.

“I didn’t talk,” he mumbled again, hoping to reassure, hoping to make Aiden feel better. “You can’t be mad if I didn’t talk.”

“Oh Jeremy,” Aiden groaned, looking up from the pillow, so close Jeremy could count the sleepless crimson branches in his eyes. “Why didn’t you run? Three years, you had one foot out the door. The mob comes, all set to kill you, and you couldn’t rabbit away?”

Jeremy ran his tongue around his mouth, trying to find where his teeth were and where they weren’t, so he could talk better. “You deserve better than a man who’d run,” he said, hoping that wasn’t too garbled.

Aiden’s face crumpled again, folded, and he shook his head. “I deserve you,” he mumbled. “I’ve wanted you for so long—and now, I’m so worried.”

“Don’t be worried,” Jeremy told him, thinking his voice sounded more like his voice now that he’d gotten his teeth figured out. “I’m not the guy who’d run.”

There was more to it than that, he thought as his eyes closed. His face hurt—he thought he might have bandages on it, because in front of his eyes were layers of things that infringed upon his vision. His pretty, pretty face, the thing his daddy had always said was his moneymaker, and now it was damaged, probably beyond repair.

“You’d better not run,” Aiden choked next to him. “You’d better not run. We’re subletting that house, Jeremy. We’re putting your name on a paper. We’re opening a bank account, and you’re meeting my parents.”

Jeremy woke up enough for that. “Not when I’m not pretty,” he complained.

Aiden’s voice grew flinty, like it used to do when Jeremy tried to shirk his chores. “Fuck pretty,” he snarled. “Fuck pretty, fuck it to hell. You’re mine, and I love you, and we don’t care about pretty. You understand?”

“Yeah, fine,” Jeremy sulked. “You be pretty for both of us. I’m already too old for you. Now I’m not pretty anymore. That’s fine.”

At that point something in his body gave a big fat throb, and his head clanged timpani with it, and he moaned from pain, because just that suddenly, it was drowning out all the other voices.

“Here, Jeremy,” Ariadne said, fumbling with the little red button near his hand. “Don’t mind him. He’s worried, and he feels bad ’bout not being there.”

“Don’t let him do that,” Jeremy mumbled. “My bad. So many things in life I had to make right. Don’t you see that, boy?”

But the morphine was potent and quick, and Jeremy’s mind and body were soon sliding around consciousness in the liquidy viscousness of pain and drugs and the firm belief that he’d had this coming all along.


JEREMY DIDN’T even know his real last name. He thought it might have been the one his father had died with, but even that was sort of a crapshoot. Oscar had been telling lies a lot longer than Jeremy had—even his “original” name might have been a lie.

As far as he knew, Jeremy had come into the world conning people. He was reasonably sure his parents had grifted their way out of the hospital bill when he was born. His mother was a hazy memory of bangly earrings and the smell of scotch, and his father had been more impressed with Jeremy’s benefits as a partner in crime than as a son.

Jeremy had hurt a lot of people before he’d just up and decided to be honest. He’d cheated women and children, hardworking men, college students alone in the world. And as hard as he’d worked at Craw’s fiber mill, as much effort as he’d put into being an honest man, he’d always felt like it wasn’t enough.

Nothing would ever be enough to make up for the man he’d been before Craw had found him, an ex-convict panhandling on the streets of Colorado.

Nothing would ever be enough to earn the love of the beautiful boy he’d been smitten with from the very beginning, when it probably wasn’t right that Jeremy had even noticed his beauty at all.

So when Aiden had invaded his space, invaded his home, made Jeremy notice the three years of friendship and attraction between them, Jeremy had accepted it, because he had no choice. Aiden was his boy—as long as Jeremy could stand not to run, he was helpless to do anything but to fall into his orbit.

It had been a tenuous gravitational shift, at first. Jeremy had always circled around Aiden; from the first moment he’d seen the boy working in Craw’s mill, Jeremy had wanted to be nearer to him. But Jeremy was older, and dumber, and he was sure his soul had shriveled, a withered flower with roots in an oil spill, twisted almost since birth.

He was a bad man. Bad men did not deserve to orbit near the bright and shining sun that was his boy. It wasn’t until Aiden proved he had interesting shadows, dark spots in the sun, was a wolf and not a lapdog, that Jeremy even dared to dream.

They’d had a month, almost two, during which Aiden spent most nights in Jeremy’s little apartment. The past few weeks, he’d been there full-time, all of his clothes in boxes, new towels from his mother in the bathroom, his favorite cereal in the cupboards. Just a breath, just a taste of having Aiden there in his home, as his home, and then….

Well, Jeremy had debts to pay. When one of them called him up in a panic, Jeremy had to pony up.


JEREMY WOKE up the next day actually feeling like a person. How did that happen? One minute you were free floating, a specter in a hospital bed, hearing people talk about you, drifting to escape the pain, and the next time you opened your eyes, it was you, in your body, anchored to the sheets by stuff that your body did.

“Aiden?” he murmured. Aitbhen. That was what it sounded like. “Jebuth thfuckin’ krith—when bo I ge’ my fhfuckin’ teef?”

Craw had a deep, growly bear voice, and his unmistakable laughter echoed over Jeremy’s head. “Today, actually,” he said. “You get fitted for them, anyway. You didn’t have any dental records, Jeremy. We had to wait until the swelling in your jaw went down to make a model.”

Jeremy remembered that. In fact, he realized that some of the difficulty he’d had talking actually had to do with his jaw still being wired shut.

“Whab bay ith ib?” Oh man, the more conscious he was, the worse he sounded. He felt like he could finally hear what he was actually saying instead of what he thought he was saying.

“You’ve been here for a week,” Craw said. “We’re going to take some plasters for your teeth and unwire your jaw. They’ll be changing the bandages on your face today and seeing if you need cosmetic surgery.”

“Aiden?” He had to work hard, but it sounded right.

“I made him go home today, Jer. He was dead on his feet.”

Jeremy closed his eyes in relief. “Good. He won’ thee me.”

Craw made a hurt sound. “Don’t worry about Aiden seeing you, okay? He’s always seen you.”

“When I wath preddy.”

Craw growled. “All the crap I gave that boy about you two being together and you’re telling me you’re going to take it back because of a little blood?”

Jeremy had been beaten, talking the whole time, so that guy beating him wouldn’t find Stanley. Suddenly meeting Craw’s eyes was not quite as hard as he’d thought it would be, that not-so-long-ago day when he’d listened to Craw and Aiden argue.

“We bode know ith more.”

And Craw, who didn’t know how to bullshit, shifted his green-brown eyes away. “Have faith,” he said gruffly. “Ben found me, Stanley found Johnny, Aiden found you. Have faith.”

If Jeremy could have talked more, he would have spun sunshine and rabbit crap about how sure, a man had to have faith, and maybe, under a sunny sky, he’d have enough faith for them all. He would have said that faith is a wonderful thing, but it was better to have faith when you had a plan of escape, and that once you had a way out, you could have all the faith you wanted.

But it was all a big, fat, painful, throbbing lie. Aiden would never forgive him for not calling for help, and Jeremy had no hope that he ever could. Jeremy could lie like a champion with his words, but his eyes—well, as a con man he’d had to squint a lot, because his eyes had been touch and go. He’d had to believe his bullshit to lie with his eyes.

And now he couldn’t use his words, and his eyes were all he had. He looked at Craw mutely, no con between them, just the painful, painful truth.

Craw nodded, and for a moment his lower lip trembled. “I’ll have faith,” he whispered. “That boy has always known his own mind and been strong about getting his way. He wanted you, I guess, and I admit, when I saw that it was real and not just you two bickering like you were married, I had second thoughts. But….” Oh no. Craw’s voice was wobbling. “Jeremy, we’ve been worried. They say you’ll probably be okay, but the lot of us, we’ve been worried. You’re our family, boy.” He swallowed. “I’ll have faith for the two of you.”

Jeremy closed his eyes then, tight, because they were burning. “’Kay,” he mumbled through a mouth full of missing teeth. “I’ll bind tum ob my own.”

“Good man,” Craw told him. Then the doctor came in, and unpleasant things happened with his mouth and dental tools, and in his head he was in Craw’s field with a piece of clover in his mouth, sitting on a rock in the sunshine, warm under the golden sky, teased by the breeze, watching Aiden herd the sheep.


TWO DAYS later his bandages came off again. The whole world crowded into Jeremy and Ariadne’s room, and they all, Aiden included, took a deep, fortifying breath when the last bandage came off. Jeremy didn’t need to look in a mirror. He would have turned away, but they’d propped his neck so he couldn’t rub his cheek on the sheets. Aiden held his hand the whole time, though, as the doctor probed and prodded, pulled at skin, removed some stitches, made some others.

Jeremy closed his eyes and answered questions with one syllable until finally Aiden squeezed his hand hard enough to make him gasp.

“Don’t be an asshole, Jer. The guy just asked you if you wanted cosmetic surgery, and you said no.”

“Money.” Now that was a word he could say, even if his teeth hadn’t gotten there yet. “Da dafe only had do much.”

“Fuck money,” Aiden snarled, and Craw, standing right behind him, said the same thing at the same time.

“Tereo,” Jeremy said, and he made sure his lips quirked enough for a smile.

“I’m serious,” Aiden growled. “And forget about the fucking safe. We’re not bringing the fucking safe to our new home. The safe means you can pick up and leave, and I’m not having it.”

“I like de dafe. ’Th modprood.”

Aiden’s green eyes bulged. “Mothproof my ass. You just want to be able to pick up that thing and run. No.” Aiden shifted his gaze to above Jeremy—Jeremy had almost forgotten the doctor. “He wants the cosmetic surgery.”

“We’ll find a way to pay,” Craw said, but his voice sounded stretched thin. Jeremy knew enough about small businesses to know that this would be a doozy of a blow.

“No,” he mumbled, not wanting to pay them back this way.

“Shut up,” Aiden said, and he wasn’t growling anymore. In fact, he sounded about growled out.

“Check my dafe.”

“I will throw the safe off a fucking mountain and into a river,” Aiden said, sounding stubborn.

“Dake de midden’ ou’!” All the mittens, gloves, cuffs, and fingerless mitts Aiden had knitted him over three years of friendship. Jeremy didn’t have much money—the mittens were the whole reason for the damned safe.

“I will not!” Aiden snapped. “I’ll throw them all away and the cash too, and you will have to stay and wait for me to knit them all again. And by that time, you’ll have come to your senses.”

The thought of all that beautiful knitting sinking to the bottom of the Colorado River made Jeremy’s eyes more than burn—they spilled over. “Craw! Don’ ’ed him!”

“Then stop talking bullshit,” Craw snapped.

Jeremy glared at both of them. “Abbholed,” he said, feeling the word deep in his stomach, and he was not surprised when Aiden smiled, predatory and proud.

“I made your life miserable for years, Jeremy. No reason to change that now. Now you don’t worry about the money—you go ahead and tell that nice man yes, you’ll take another surgery, thank you.”

Jeremy looked at the doctor and rolled his eyes, and the doc made a notation in his chart. Then the doc looked meaningfully at Craw, and Jeremy knew that the money was something to worry about, but that he was helpless and flat on his back and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do.

He closed his eyes then and remembered his little apartment, sleeping in sweats because the heater wasn’t fantastic, but having Aiden’s young heat at his back like a furnace. Aiden, warm and protective—had Jeremy ever felt that safe? In his whole life?

Aiden’s hand engulfed his, squeezed, and Jeremy grunted and squeezed back. He had nowhere to go but in his head, and Aiden was there too.

He must have dozed because when he woke up, his bandages were back on and Aiden and Craw were gone. Ariadne was right next to him, on her side, looking at him anxiously.

He could hear Aiden and Craw, their voices far away down a corridor, yelling. But not, from the sound of things, at each other.

“How you doin’, Mid Ari?” He stopped—Ariadne was a mouthful during the best of times.

Her sober hazel eyes grew shiny too, and he wanted to take back the question.

“Pregnancy diabetes sucks ass,” she said softly, and he was relieved—so relieved—to be able to fixate on someone else’s ills.

“I’m do dorry.” He meant it too. That baby—they had all been worried about that baby.

“They think the baby’s got a cleft palate,” she said softly.

Jeremy, his face under the new bandages, couldn’t even wrinkle his nose. “Bub dill okay,” he said, because he knew what that was. It was when the lip was split after the baby came out. Didn’t stop kids from being cute, he thought. Didn’t stop them from being loved.

“Yeah,” she said, and he heard a certain amount of relief in her voice. “Lots of operations and stuff, and ear tubes, and—”

“Bub dill okay,” he insisted. Oh, damn the words he once threw like dandelions to the wind. Now when he needed them, they were buried under bandages and broken teeth.

And Ariadne was crying. “You get that,” she said, her voice thick. “How come you can get that for my baby, but you can’t get it for you?”

“Baby gon’ be lubbed.” It was one of the few things he knew for sure in life.

“So are you.”

Craw and Aiden’s voices cut off abruptly, and even down the hall, Jeremy could hear the voice of the man whose life he’d saved. There was murmuring then, a voice he didn’t know, and peace.

“Baby gon’ be boodibul,” he murmured, and Ariadne’s hand felt sweet, pulling his hair back from his bandages. Family was exhausting, oh yes they were, but sometimes, when there was no escaping them, they did make a rabbit hutch out of a lump in the straw.


HE DOZED some more, and then Stanley came in a few minutes later, smiling tentatively. The little shop manager had visited a couple of times, and Jeremy had mostly been out of it, too wrecked to talk. Today he came with a basket of yarn for Ariadne and something she could eat that was probably nutritious and tasty, because he did like to bake.

Aiden came hard on Stanley’s heels and threw himself on his vacated chair. He glared at Stanley without heat and stroked Jeremy’s good hand while Stanley talked about the sweater he’d made for Johnny and how he would bring in Christmas dinner and how the doctor told them that Jeremy would be getting teeth tomorrow, so he’d have new teeth for Christmas.

Jeremy said “Thank you,” as best he could, and Aiden nodded thanks too.

Stanley shrugged them off. “Oh, now don’t thank me. Apparently Johnny is pulling big strings at WITSEC, which is nice of him.” Stanley had a ruddy face under white-blonde hair, and little hands he waved around when he talked. He put the a in “flame” and “gay.” Jeremy had always wondered how his own bright beacon of gayness had managed to stay so covered for so long. Then he’d met Stanley and realized that Stanley just burned bright enough for all of them. “Johnny’ll take care of you,” Stanley said soberly. “He’s really grateful.”

Jeremy nodded. Well, yeah, Johnny had saved his life once upon a time. Jeremy would concede that he was nice. “Mud lub oo.” God, he wanted his teeth.

Stanley smiled, and his entire volume went from eleven to three. It was refreshing—almost like watching a five-hundred-watt light go from “kill the eyeballs” to “read a book.” “He does,” Stanley said with quiet pride. “Imagine my surprise.”

Aiden squeezed his hand, and Jeremy rolled his eyes.

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me,” Aiden argued. “You keep acting like it’s all going to go away. I told you, we’re moving into Ben’s house, you’re getting rid of the floor safe—”

“Keepin’ de door dade!”

“Bullshit. Getting rid of the floor safe, keeping the mittens, and taking care of Ben’s rabbits—”

“Rabbid?” Oh, rabbits. Skittish critters, but if you gave them time, fed them carrots, loved on them a little—Jeremy could live with some damned rabbits.

“Yeah, rabbits. And a dog. We’re gonna get us a big watchdog, something with a head the size of a football.”

“A woov!”

“A wolf? Yeah, sure. A wolf and a Newfoundland or something—”

“Bigger’n’me!”

“You betcha. That fucker’ll guard the house. Ain’t nothing’ getting past it—”

“Care de rabbid!” That wouldn’t be fair!

“Yeah, well, you stopped being scared by me, the rabbits will learn to live with a dog.”

Jeremy glared at him, abruptly tired. “You’re eg-haud-ig.”

“I’m exhausting? Am I making you tired, Jeremy?” Aiden never let go of Jeremy’s hand, but he did drag his other hand through his dark-blond curls. “I’m making you tired. You are in the hospital. I wake up tired. So you suck it up and let me plan for the damned future, okay?”

Jeremy’s eyes were closing, but dammit, he still wanted a say. “’Maller dog.” He narrowed his eyes mutinously. He didn’t want no bigass dog that was going to scare the bunnies.

“We’ll see,” Aiden conceded with absolutely no grace whatsoever.

“Boy—”

“No. You get better. You get better, you get home, then you’ll have a say in the dog and the rabbits.”

“’Mnod helpledd!” Aw, dammit. He was. He was so damned helpless, and Aiden knew it. Aiden knew it all.

But he didn’t do that to his Jeremy, and Jeremy would always be grateful to his boy. Instead, Aiden took Jeremy’s knuckles to his lips and kissed them. “No, Jer. You’re not. I think you proved that already.”

“Saved my gay ass!” Stanley piped up, and Jeremy met his eyes and realized he was worried. About Jeremy, who was a common laborer as far as Stanley knew. Stanley was right to be grateful, but he didn’t have to be worried.

“Id a goo’ add,” he reassured, and Aiden’s laugh at his side let him know that of all things, that was not what Stanley had been worried about.

“Nice of you to say so,” Stanley said, smiling sweetly, and Jeremy closed his eyes so he’d have enough energy to let his lips quirk up. His ribs ached, and his shoulder, and he was pretty sure there was more slicing and dicing in his future, but right now, his friends and his boyfriend were being really nice to him, and he knew enough about life not to take that for granted.

Of course, it didn’t stop him from falling immediately asleep, either.

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.


Amy Lane
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The Winter Courtship Rituals of Fur-Bearing Critters #1
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How to Raise an Honest Rabbit #2
Knitter in His Natural Habitat #3

Blackbird Knitting in a Bunny's Lair #4
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The Granby Knitting Menagerie


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