Chapter Seventeen

Preston waited until Walker and Jordan were out of earshot. He shook his head, having a pretty good idea of the topic they would be discussing. He smiled at Thad who was cleaning up as inconspicuously as possible and walked over to stand in front of Seth.

Looking up at the bigger man, Seth found himself tongue-tied.

“So, young man, you believe your expertise at poker is the answer to everything, right?” When the only response was a shrug, Preston quietly asked another question. “Is it true that you have been gambling in order to avoid doing your fair share of the work around here?” He bent slightly to lift the other man’s chin and hold it firmly between his fingers and thumb. Staring into the startled blue eyes, he clearly informed Seth he expected a proper answer.

Seth suddenly found his voice. “Yeah, I’ve been using my talents to get out of menial work. As long as it gets done, what’s it to you?” Seth stared back for a moment or two before jerking his face away from the big hand and looking down at the ground in front of him. Anywhere was better than into those warm brown eyes holding either concern or censure; Seth was not quite sure which.

Preston straddled the log Seth was sitting on. “Seth, we have been here for a good while now and you have spent the majority of that time being lazy and selfish. We’re a small group, young man, and you can’t afford to alienate any of us. You have too long a life ahead of you to be friendless and on your own.”

The words kicked Seth in the stomach. He grudgingly recognised the truth of what was being said and somewhere deep within him, he wanted badly to believe this man actually cared. But so afraid was he of trusting only to be abandoned once again, that he hardened his heart.

“I don’t need anyone. I like it on my own,” he lied. “As long as someone’s willing to gamble their time against my chores, then so be it.” He glared at Preston, daring the older man to do something about it.

Preston leaned back trying to read the expression on Seth’s face. ‘He’s got this ‘keeping his feelings hidden’ thing down to a fine art,’ Preston reluctantly admitted. ‘But just what or who is he hiding from?’

“Okay,” the older man pretended to relent. “We’ll do it your way.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Seth asked suspiciously.

“We’ll play poker! I trust you have your playing cards with you!” Preston announced. Turning to look over his shoulder and noticing signs that Walker and Jordan’s conversation was drawing to a close, he shouted, “hey, Walker, got any toothpicks?”

“Hold on a second and I’ll get them for you,” Walker answered. Turning back to Jordan, he suggested with a wink. “Seeing as we’ve reached an understanding, I guess it’s only fair to get cracking and help Thad out, right?”

“Right!” The men got busy just as Aiden, Larry and Spyke entered the tent.

“This lad has a job needs doing,” Aiden announced, giving Spyke’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze.

Stepping up to Seth, Spyke grudgingly offered his apology. “Sorry for throwing my plate at you, Seth.” He glanced up at Aiden, and seeing the stern expression on his face, sighed before continuing. “I guess I was a little out-of-sorts, or so my mama would have said.”

“Sure, kid!” Seth responded with a note of disbelief in his voice. Preston’s raised eyebrow had him adding, “Ah, no harm done. Nothing splattered on my suit,” he smirked.

“Good thing I was tired then, it must of put my aim off.” Spyke returned the crooked grin. He went to collect a rag and bucket, and upon his return set about cleaning up the mess he had made.

“Good lad, ’tis a grand job ye did there. Now it’s off to bed with ye!”

“But Thomas has a fire lit!” Spyke wailed, indignant at being put to bed like a naughty child.

“Aye, but ’twas being over-tired that caused your temper tantrum in the first place. Ye should be considering yerself fortunate that yer wee bottom escaped unscathed. Such will not be the case next time.” Aiden didn’t wait for Spyke’s rebuttal. He just tossed the smaller man over his shoulder, swatted the unprotected backside and strolled out with Larry following in his wake.

“Now there’s a man of few words,” Preston commented, referring to Aiden as he accepted the box of toothpicks from Walker.

“Yes! And one, I think, with his hands full,” Walker chuckled. “Come on, boys, let’s get our last chore of the day out of the way.” He steadily steered Thad and Jordan toward the kitchen area. “I know you’re tired, but with the three of us working together, we’ll be relaxing next to the campfire in no time at all.

“Alright, Seth,” Preston recaptured the man’s attention. “Approximately how many articles of clothing do you figure you own?”

“I don’t know,” Seth shrugged. “Do pairs of socks count as one or two?” Seeing the frown on the other man’s face, Seth wisely reined in his flippant attitude. “Fifty or sixty, I guess.” He watched as Preston counted toothpicks, dividing them into two piles and pushing one in his direction.

“Okay, there’s fifty for each of us. Yours are worth one piece of clothing each and mine are worth thirty minutes of chore time. You okay with five-card draw, nothing wild and no limit on raises?” Getting a nod, Preston ordered, “then cut the deck to see who deals first.”

The first hour passed quietly as each man concentrated on the game. Neither of them paid any attention to the long, black-haired, lone figure sitting off to the side as if patiently waiting for someone. Nor were they aware of Walker and his assistants, finishing-up and leaving the tent. They also failed to notice Brock enter the tent and help himself to the meal set aside for him, eat and clean up afterwards, and then leave with young Raythe trailing behind him.

Preston was impressed with Seth’s ability and even more so when young man made no attempt to cheat. ‘The boy’s good, I’ll give him that,’ Preston smiled, eyeing the growing pile of winnings in front of his opponent.

“Looks like I’m not going to be worrying about doing any manual labour for quite some time,” Seth gloated. He was becoming over-confident and cocky.

“The game’s not over yet,” Preston reminded him. ‘It’s time to make my move,” he thought. ‘He’s getting careless.’

Toothpicks moved back and forth across the playing area as hands were won and lost. Eventually most of the ante ended up in the middle as the game drew to a close.

“I’ll see your five and call,” Seth announced, dropping the last of his toothpicks onto the pot. He was almost bouncing as he laid his cards down. “Ha, gotcha! Four of a kind! You owe me!” the younger man crowed his delight.

“Not so fast, young fella. I’m pretty sure my straight flush takes those four sixes.” Preston felt no satisfaction at the parade of expressions crossing the other man’s face. Shock, disbelief, denial. The crushed look of defeat was almost Preston’s undoing. “It’s not that bad, Seth.”

“What do you know about it?” Seth glowered, fighting back the tears. “You’ve taken everything that I am,” he whispered despairingly. It had been a long time since he’d felt this vulnerable.   

“You are more than a wardrobe of fancy clothes, lad.” Preston tried to reassure him but quickly realised he’d failed to do so.

“He always said clothes made the man,” Seth murmured wretchedly as he shook his head, refusing to believe the older man’s words.

“Who said it, Seth?” Preston kindly asked.

“Snake. He’s the only true friend I’ve ever had. At least I thought he was, but the bastard left me high and dry just like all the others,” Seth muttered angrily as he blinked several times to hold back the tears. He felt his defences cracking but was too defeated to prevent it. He folded his arms on his raised knees and hid his face against them.

Giving the other man time to come to grips with the results of the game, Preston gathered up the toothpicks and returned them to the kitchen area. Next he placed the deck of cards in their box and blew out the lantern Walker had left burning. 

“Come with me, Seth.” Preston softly invited, pulling the shorter man to his feet and gently steering him out of the tent. No words were exchanged as Seth meekly allowed Preston to lead him a short distance from the compound to where some privacy would be assured.

“Can you tell me about Snake and the others? How did they abandon you? Who was the first to do it?” Preston gently prodded. He wanted to learn as much as he could about the enigmatic young man he unexpectedly realised he was beginning to care for.

Preston was ready to get up from the log they were sitting on and return to the campsite several minutes later when Seth had yet to answer him. Then he heard a soft choking sound of distress and reached over to pull the young man into his arms. He was surprised at the strength with which Seth clung to him.

Try as he might, it was completely beyond Seth’s ability to hold back any longer. Twenty-some years’ worth of anguish, disillusionment and pain bubbled up, finally causing the dam to burst and his body to shake with unrestrained sobs.

When the outpouring of tears ended, Seth lay limp with exhaustion against Preston’s muscular chest. He couldn’t remember a time when he had felt so at peace, so safe and protected. He was in a place he didn’t want to leave and suddenly he had an overpowering desire to tell this man everything. ‘But why should this guy even be interested in knowing anything about me?’

“If you feel like talking, I’m ready to listen,” a quiet voice said above him.

“She left when I was five; just walked out one day in search of a better life. A life with no room for a kid, not even her own.”

“Who, Seth?” Preston already knew the answer but wanted to be sure.

“My mother. Guess she got tired being married to the town drunk. But she could have taken me with her!” Seth stated angrily. “What made her think I wanted to stay with him anymore than she did?” Seth sighed. “Anyway. it’s all in the past, nothing can change it now. But I was stuck living with that son of a bitch for the next ten years.”

He paused to calm himself and gather his thoughts. “There was a gang of young men, troublemakers actually, who asked if I wanted to join them. I figured it would be a good way to get away from my old man, so I took up with them. Thought we were gonna make it big. What a joke! Did we ever suck as petty thieves! I still don’t know how we got away with all the shit we pulled. For two years I hung around as their getaway provider and then one night, a stupid quirk of fate had them somehow striking it rich. They took off without me and I haven’t seen them since. A few months later, I met Snake.”

“Snake?” Preston softy inquired.

“Kyler ‘Snake’ Jackson. He was my best friend and the closest I’ve had to a big brother. I learned a lot from him, including gambling. He set up rules to keep me safe; then the stupid bastard broke the most important one and was called on it. Snake had fast hands when it came to cards, but the other guy was faster with a gun. He told me if he ever caught me cheating he’d take a belt to my bare butt; always said we could win just as much playing fair. After seven years of us travelling together, he was gone just like that.” Seth snapped his fingers.

‘And you were alone once again,’ Preston thought.

“Now there’s no one, not even me,” Seth woefully whispered.

Preston sensed Seth’s pain reaching an almost unbearable level. “You’re wrong, lad. There’s still you and now you have me, if you want me that is,” Preston murmured. He was relishing the feel of this young man’s body leaning into his own. The urge to protect and defend him was almost overwhelming.

“What’s the catch?” Distrust mingled with disbelief as Seth lifted his head to gaze into Preston’s face, but there was also a glimmer of hope in his blue eyes.

“Hmmm, the catch is you follow my lead. You answer to me until such time as you are making wiser decisions regarding your behaviour and your interaction with others. For instance, your chore-gambling days are over. In return, I’ll be there for you no matter what you do. I will provide you with guidance, support and protection.”

“Protection from what exactly or should I ask who?” Seth experienced a spark of interest in the offer. Curiosity in something, or anything for that matter, was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in very long time. He almost overlooked it.

“Mostly from yourself and your self-abased tendency to go out of your way to make people dislike you. I watched you on the ship and even then I instinctively understood what you were unconsciously doing,” Preston patiently explained. He had easily picked-up on Seth’s defence mechanism of maintaining an emotional distance from others by giving them cause to loath him.

“Are you willing to give a relationship built on such a premise a chance, Seth?”  The older man was mindful of the younger one’s ingrained fear of being ill-treated and forsaken once again, but fervently hoped Seth would be willing to take what would probably be the biggest gamble of his life.

Seth wanted desperately to accept this man’s proposal, but “I’m afraid!” He was unaware of having spoken the words out-loud.

Settling Seth on his lap, Preston solemnly vowed. “If you say yes, Seth, I promise I will do everything in my power to never see you abandoned again.” Brown eyes locked on blue ones and seeing the affirmation in Seth’s misty orbs, Preston slowly and passionately sealed the promise with a kiss.

Seth clung to Preston long after the kiss ended, silently taking in the scent of the man and not wanting this moment to end.

“We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow and as much as I’d loved to prolong this time together, I think we better hit the hay,” Preston softly suggested, kissing the auburn hair beneath his chin. He set the slightly smaller man on his feet and stood up. Taking Seth’s hand in his, Preston started leading him back to the campsite.

“Ahh, am I gonna get hauled before the council, Preston?” Seth asked in a small voice, the question that once again pushed itself to the foremost part of his mind.

“Not this time, Seth. They’ve let me handle it and even if I do say so myself, I think I’ve done a fairly decent job of it.” Preston grinned when he felt a fist jab him in the side.

“What about my clothes, Preston? What are you going to do with them?”

“First, I am going to get rid of all that fancy stuff, keeping only the practical pants and shirts. I’ll also keep aside one outfit for special occasions.” Preston glanced down at the man walking beside him. “Got any thoughts concerning what I should do with the non-keepers?”

“It’s kinda a shame to just burn them or something.” Seth was surprised to discover he was not as bothered by the thought of losing his clothing as he felt he should be. ‘Must be resignation on my part,’ he mused. “Maybe Nathan can use the more serviceable material to make garments for the others who don’t have very much.” Seth grinned shyly up at the older man. “Of course, if you tell anyone it was my idea, I’ll flat out deny it.”

“It’ll be our secret, my little shyster!” Preston laughed and hugged his companion.

It was late and Wes was still up. He watched Nathan as the older man conversed with Samuel on the other side of the fire. He sure liked the way Nathan looked and moved. The man always appeared neat and trim and was always soft-spoken.

“Stop drooling,” Wayne said lazily as he leaned back against a log.

Wes flushed. “I was not!”

“Sure looked like it from where I’m sitting,” his brother teased.

“Mind your own friggin’ business!” Wes retorted.

Wayne smirked at his twin. “He seems to fancy you some.”

“For crying out loud, we’ve only just met! Although it may feel like it, in reality we’ve not been all that long on this goddamn island!”

“What’s that got to do with anything? You’re surely not suddenly turning shy, are you?”

“Be quiet!” Wes spat.

“Why, I’ve known you to take up with someone in much less time,” Wayne deliberately prodded. “And some who didn’t look half as good either!”

“Shut up!” Wes growled.

“And with much less fuss than …” Wayne continued determinedly.

“I’m gonna make you shut up if you don’t stop talking,” Wes threatened.

Their voices had become louder and louder causing Nathan and Samuel to quickly walk over.

“What’s going on?” Samuel asked, clearly unhappy when he saw the combative looks on the twins’ faces.

“Nothin!” both of them chorused at once, reacting automatically.

Samuel looked unconvinced.

Nathan decided a short separation would be beneficial and held out a hand. “Come, Wes, walk with me a bit. I going to check out the perimeter and I’d enjoy your company.”

Wayne smirked once again as Wes quickly scrambled to his feet. His smirk died down fast enough as he felt Samuel frown at him.

Nathan drew Wes’ hand into his and steadily moved them away from the campfire and out of hearing range before murmuring, “Having another go at it, huh?” It was a rhetorical question.

Wes felt a thrill run down his spine at Nathan’s touch. It was true what Wayne had said. He’d had numerous encounters back home. He had flirted outrageously with anyone and everyone, and he’d had no qualms at being more than friendly with them when an opportunity presented itself.

All that seemed a lifetime ago. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to be happy or carefree, and it had been ages since he had even thought about sex or any kind of release.

Suddenly, Wes realised his steps were light and his senses tingling. He looked over at his silent companion, finding the profile extremely attractive. He began to feel a stirring in his loins.

Nathan glanced down at the young man beside him. ‘Delightful imp,’ he thought. ‘He’s cheeky, charming, sensuous, absolutely beautiful, and definitely in need of some guidance. I have to be careful not to give my emotions free reign too soon. I might frighten him off and I’d really like to know him so much better.’

Wes allowed Nathan to lead the way, stopping obligingly when Nathan leaned against a rock and looked up at the sky.

“Lovely night, isn’t it?” Nathan casually intoned, returning his gaze to the younger man.

Wes moved closer and let his hand brush casually against Nathan’s hip.

Nathan didn’t make a move. He patiently waited to see what Wes was up to.

Suddenly the passion in Wes flared and he wanted the man. He boldly moved in and seeing the invitation in Nathan’s eyes, planted a kiss firmly on his lips.

As the younger man went to step back, Nathan pulled him into his embrace and returned the kiss. He used his lips to gently tease and gain entrance into the sweet recesses of Wes’ mouth. His hands roamed over the other man’s back as he held him closer.

Wes was breathless by the time Nathan released him.

‘Jeez,’ Wes thought giddily, ‘who would have thought the man had such a strong grip.’ He ran his hand over Nathan’s body and was pleasantly surprised to find hard muscles under the soft muslin shirt. Muscles that were well hidden by perfectly tailored clothes, but muscles nonetheless. Wes shivered at the thought of the power and strength beneath that well-cultured exterior.

“Do you want to go further, Wes? This decision is yours, but once made and if it is in the affirmative, I will be taking the lead,” Nathan murmured, while planting tender kisses on the younger man’s face and nibbling on his lips. He raised his head and gazed into hungry brown eyes. “Maybe you need a few minutes to think it over.” He deliberately turned on his heels to walk away.

Wes hesitated for only half a second before he ran after Nathan and fell into step beside him. Nathan smiled over at him.

“What did you mean by ‘going further’?” Wes asked.

“I find myself very much drawn to you, both emotionally and sexually,” Nathan softly replied. “I’d be interested in knowing what feelings, if any, you had for me. Or are you playing a dangerous game, Minx?” Nathan’s speech was satin-smooth but held a note of warning.

Wes almost swooned at the silky sensuality in Nathan’s voice. “I find you attractive too. I think you are … sexually exciting.”

“You’ve experimented some, have you?” Nathan calmly continued to probe.

“Yes, I admit I’ve tried a few things. You’ll find me readily game for anything. But I am usually the one on top.” Wes said smugly, looking up at Nathan through his eyelashes.

Nathan inwardly smiled at the flirtatious implication. “Is that a fact? Well, it’s going to change if we are to take this further. I will top you, be sure of that!” Nathan’s voice was implacably unruffled.

Wes’ legs grew weak at the complete mastery of the man. The passion flared in his stomach and worked its way down to his groin. He had to struggle to keep his hands to himself. “And if I refuse?” he whispered, though in his mind he already knew his answer.

“As I said earlier, the first decision is yours to make.”

Wes gulped. He nodded his willingness to continue and allowed Nathan to again pull him into a warm embrace. He felt a large warm hand pry the buttons off his pants and slide inside. It enveloped his already hardening shaft and he groaned in agony as it stroked him. In a few minutes, he began to buck against the solid body in front of him and finally, with a strangled wail that got trapped in his throat, he found his release.

Nathan leaned back against a rock and held the other man up until Wes regained his senses. Then he took a large white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hand before cleaning Wes and tucking him back in his pants. “Enjoyed that, did you?” he quipped.

“Oh hell, yes! That was damn good!” Wes replied weakly. He leaned hard against Nathan, trying to steady his breath. “I can think of only one other thing that might be better.”

“And what would that be?”

Wes cocked a mischievous eyebrow at the man. “Your turn?”

“Not at this time, Minx. For one thing, I have to get back to my watch. We’ve been gone long enough,” Nathan explained. Seeing the beginnings of a pout, he leaned in close and whispered in Wes’ ear. “And for another, I will choose the time and when I do, I will decide whose turn it is. I promise, my little minx, you will find it well worth the wait!” He took the younger man’s hand in his and started back towards the campfire.

Wes followed, a little dazed at how it had turned out. Then he grinned to himself, his disappointment mingling with deep anticipation.


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