None of Adam Ellery’s fantasies had ever involved a muscle-bound and cowboy-hat-wearing avenging angel, but they would now.
In hindsight, it had been a dumb idea to come to the laundromat this late on a Friday night. Assuming there would be less traffic than on Saturday morning, Adam had trekked out on a cool Colorado mountain evening to take advantage of what he’d thought would be the least populated time to wash his clothes. What had ended up happening instead was that Adam became the wash-cycle entertainment for a pack of drunk and high frat boys. They’d taken his blue briefs, his club shirt, and his Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Bug an Entomologist tee, and when Adam tried to steal one of them back, they stole his glasses too, right off his face, and added them to their giggling game of Keep Away.
Blushing and terrified, Adam stood in the center of their jeering semi-circle, his back to a table where the contents of his laundry basket had become part of the bullies’ game. He told himself he’d be fine so long as he didn’t panic. They were mostly trying to out-macho each other, stepping on Adam to prove they were bigger and badder than the rest. They weren’t hurting him, and they might not hurt him at all if he played his part in the game well. If he was lucky, he’d just lose a pair of underwear and a few of his favorite shirts.
He didn’t want to think about being unlucky.
“You wear this freaky blue shit for underwear, huh?” The frat boys snickered in unison as one of them bumped Adam’s shoulder. “What color you wearing right now?”
Adam shut his eyes and focused on his breathing. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of pushing him into a panic attack. He wouldn’t.
Another push. “We’re talking to you, fag.”
“Please.” Adam had been in this position before. It was time for him to beg. “Please give me my glasses back.”
“Show us your underwear first, freak.”
The nervous flutter in the pit of Adam’s stomach turned into sick fear. No, he couldn’t do this. No. No. His panic congealed and began to rise. “Please,” he whispered.
But his fear only fueled them now. “Strip, faggot.” Someone shoved at his shoulder again. Adam realized with a sick heart that he would very soon be stripping, or collapsing in a heap and either ending up in the hospital or lying here alone on the floor. Or worse. What would these jackals do to him if he had an attack?
Oh God, oh God, oh God oh God—
“What the fuck is going on?” someone bellowed.
Adam startled, but so did the frat boys. One of them swore, and all of them staggered back, parting from their circle around Adam’s table, and as his panic fell back to somewhat manageable levels, he was able to see the newcomer.
It was a cowboy.
Cowboy was cut. Not handsome. Not in the let-me-jack-to-you cowboy porn mag way, at any rate. He wasn’t ugly, but he didn’t have a marble jaw or anything, and he wasn’t magazine-slick, not even close. But muscles? Oh yeah. Normally Adam did not go for muscles, because muscles scared him. Muscles could hurt him. Muscles had hurt him on more than one occasion, leaving him still unable to enter most large public restrooms.
Right now, though, muscles were either going to save or bury his ass, and Adam should stop staring at them.
Cowboy looked pissed, but at the frat boys, not Adam. He took his time approaching them, covering the distance between the side door to the laundromat and Adam’s table with a slow, steady gait that made his hips roll enticingly in his beaten-up jeans and was punctuated by the clip-clop of his equally worn cowboy boots. The closer he got, the more he slowed down, giving the frat boys plenty of time to take him in.
“I asked you a question,” Cowboy said. “What. The fuck. Is going on?”
The frat boys murmured among themselves before one of them replied, “We’re just messing around, old man.”
Cowboy said nothing, only stared back at the boys. His gaze lingered on the one holding Adam’s glasses.
The one holding Adam’s glasses took a step back.
One of the drunk-high boys, though, tossed his hair back out of his eyes and fixed his adversary with an insolent leer. “Did we pick on your boyfriend, honey? We’re sorry.”
Adam felt something bounce against his hand, and when he looked down, he saw his glasses lying beside him on the table. Immediately he grabbed them and put them back on. When he lifted his gaze again, Cowboy was standing one beefy arm’s length away from the one who’d spoken. Cowboy’s expression up to that point had remained cool, but as Adam watched, the man’s face split into a nasty grin. The five others shrank back into the corner, whispering various panicked expletives under their breath. The frat boy tried to keep his cool, but even from the side, Adam could see it cracking.
The laundromat went silent as Cowboy ran a thick, gnarly finger down the frat boy’s chest.
“Don’t be jealous. You want my cock, little boy, all you gotta do is bend over.”
The frat boy sputtered, swore, and swung.
Cowboy blocked the blow, grabbed Frat Boy’s nuts, and grinned. “Tell your fuck buddies to give the man his clothes back.”
Frat Boy swore, then yelped in pain as Cowboy’s grip tightened. “Fuck—do it,” he cried, and seconds later, Adam’s clothes came sailing over his shoulder to land on the tabletop.
Cowboy jerked his head in a curt nod of approval. “Good boy. Now all of you apologize.” Frat Boy made a muffled gurgle as Cowboy went on. “And just so it’s clear, you’re getting this one shot to do it without your pants in a long, hot cycle in the washer and your dipshit asses waiting outside until they’re done.”
Adam kept rigid, his head spinning as, one by one, the frat boys came up to him and murmured terrified apologies before speeding like bullets out the door. The one who had challenged Cowboy was last, making his apology on his knees, his hair held tight in Cowboy’s grip. Then he beat it out of there as well, leaving Adam, frozen in place with his mouth gaping open, alone with his rescuer.
Cowboy tipped his hat, turned around, and walked away.
Outside of a lingering flicker of irritation in his jaw, Cowboy gave no clue he’d routed six men and saved Adam’s pathetic little hide. He simply went to his dryer, pulled over an empty cart, and began folding his clothes. He made no eye contact with Adam, not until Adam got himself under control and was able to walk up to his rescuer, nervous hands tangling in front of his belly. As Adam shoved down the last of his panic, Cowboy stopped folding and waited for Adam to speak.
“Thank you,” Adam managed at last.
Cowboy acknowledged him with a jerk of his head. “Not a problem.”
He resumed folding his clothes.
Adam stood beside his cart, watching. The need to keep talking to the stranger burned inside him, but the man wasn’t making it easy. Yet Adam couldn’t walk away. When Cowboy stopped folding again and leveled that cool hazel gaze at him, Adam shoved his fear down hard and stuck out his hand. “I’m Adam Ellery.”
Cowboy nodded again and accepted Adam’s hand, closing it in his warm, rough grip. “Denver Rogers.”
Their hands lingered a moment, then fell apart. The touch had bolstered Adam, though, and instead of fighting for the ability to speak, he tried to sort out what he should say. All he could think of was how no one had ever rescued him before, but he didn’t want to seem pathetic. Asking personal questions felt too brash just yet. Offering to buy the man something to drink seemed appropriate, so he gestured toward the coffee shop. “Can I get you something? As a thank-you?”
Denver stopped folding and searched Adam’s face. Eventually he shook his head.
This time Adam was glad the man turned away, because he was blushing in mortification. Rescued and then rejected. Well, what do you expect? He rescued you out of pity, not as a come-on.
Adam murmured another thanks under his breath and wandered off in search of more of his laundry, gathering up the basket the frat boys had been messing with and adding it to his stash at his table by the door. On the way past his remaining washer, he saw it had finished, so his next move was to switch his laundry to a dryer.
Something perverse and obstinate made him use the one next to Denver’s. It also encouraged his mouth to flap again. “Do you live around here?”
It was easier to talk when he was busy with clothes, he found, and something about it seemed to make Denver answer easier as well. “Few streets over.”
“Me too.” Adam caught Denver’s gaze and smiled. “The Park Place apartments across the highway. I just moved in.” He gestured wryly to the laundromat. “This is my first time without facilities on site. Well, I have them, but they’re communal, and I found out today they’re never working and that when they do, they eat your clothes. So here I am.”
Denver nodded and went back to his clothes.
Adam kept talking, because he was nervous and starting to panic and it was either talk or go fetal at this point. “I’m a grad student at the university. Entomology. Bugs. I want to learn more about pollinators. I started with bees, but now I’m into moths. It’s fascinating stuff, really. You wouldn’t believe how much the world would change without them. No food, no flowers, and wow, I should really stop talking.”
He’d blushed scarlet by the end of his babble, and fetal was starting to sound really amazing, but Denver glanced up at the end and gave him a reassuring but slightly sly grin. “You’re fine.”
“Not as fine as you,” Adam said before he could stop himself. Then he melted into the wall, half-falling into his dryer and knocking his glasses sideways as he realized what he’d just done. “Oh God.” He held up a hand and shook his head even before Denver looked up at him in surprise. “I’m sorry. Really. I just—”
His voice died as Denver came around his dryer door and stood in front of Adam.
Denver’s hard gaze made Adam want to run screaming and spread his legs at the same time. He was half in the dryer and trapped between Denver’s door, his own, and Denver himself. Three million pounds of hot, beefy cowboy bore down on him, not saying anything, not glaring, not really, just . . . looking. The world fell away until the only things left were Adam’s small body, Denver’s huge one, and the damp towels underneath his ass. Denver didn’t move, neither advancing nor retreating, just staring at Adam. Measuring? Waiting? Adam couldn’t tell. Something told Adam, though, that the next move was his.
Fear kicked up at the idea, but it was dual-headed: fear of rejection, either in anger or disinterest—and fear of waiting too long and missing out on bringing that big body closer.
He pushed his glasses back up onto his nose.
Quit acting like you’re afraid of the world all the damn time.
The worst part was, it was true. Adam was always afraid. Afraid of what might happen, Afraid of what had happened. Afraid of rules broken or bent sideways, of things being out of place, as if this might invite the world to fall in around his ears. Afraid of not having control. Afraid of what people knew about him just by looking at him. Afraid of what they might find out. Afraid of what they thought of him, what they might do to him—in general, Adam was afraid. Of the uncertainty that went with absolutely everything about Planet Earth.
He was still afraid of Cowboy. But for the first time in a long, long time, desire was keeping pace with fear. It wouldn’t take but a little shove to put it in the lead.
Remembering the way Cowboy had handled the frat boys, reminding himself how Cowboy hadn’t asked for anything for that service, realizing that Cowboy was waiting for Adam to give full permission, Adam drew in a slow, silent breath. Then he let it out, shifted against the edge of the dryer, and pushed his knees open.
Heat sparked in the back of Denver’s gaze, and his mouth lifted up at one corner into a slow, crooked smile.
When the cowboy’s big hand rested on Adam’s thigh, the touch went straight to his cock, and his lips parted on a gasp. His other knee lifted slightly, eager for the other hand as his mind spun erotic scenarios faster than the speed of light. But the hand never came. Instead Denver stepped back and examined Adam critically again.
“This you being grateful, or are you really wanting to play?”
“Yeah,” Adam whispered. Play. He didn’t need a guidebook to get the double entendre in Denver’s tone. Adam wanted every tendre, double and otherwise, that Denver put on the table. Or under it. Or over it.
Denver’s wicked half-smile faded a little. “You’re not doing this, are you, because you’re grateful I chased away the idiots?” When Adam frowned, he went on. “Don’t play because you’re afraid of them, or worse, of me. I don’t roll that way. I only want to play because it makes you hot and because I’m promising you I’ll make you come so hard you won’t be able to stand.”
Adam was pretty sure he couldn’t stand now. “Th-that last one. That’s why I’m playing.”
“Good.” Denver’s countenance was full of promise as he nodded to Adam’s dryer. “Finish loading your stuff. Then you’re going to see to mine.”
Adam couldn’t tell if there was innuendo in that last part or not, but he didn’t care. He was fairly certain even folding Denver’s underwear would be erotic.
The cowboy in the corner of the laundromat didn’t look interested in making trouble, but Adam wasn’t taking any chances. Keeping the man in his sights meant using the smaller table to sort out his socks and underwear and getting a lovely view of the choose-your-communicable-disease bathroom, but it made Adam feel better.
A little, anyway.
In hindsight it had been a dumb idea to come to the laundromat this late on a Friday night. All he’d thought about was that it would be horribly busy on Saturday morning, so out he’d trekked in below-freezing temperatures to take advantage of what had to be the least populated time to wash his clothes. He’d been right. Except he’d forgotten to factor in the part where a one hundred-fifty pound weakling of a grad student in geek glasses and why-yes-I’m-gay feminine mannerisms might as well hang a KICK ME sign around his neck as far as bored frat boys were concerned.
And big, buff, bend-you-over-the-dryer cowboys.
To be fair, the cowboy hadn’t so much as glanced at Adam twice. And Adam would know because he’d done a lot of glancing at the cowboy. He tried not to, because if the cowboy had been watching, Adam probably would have given off the wrong signals. “Scared to death” had to be telegraphed loud and clear, but “turned on unreasonably” had to be broadcast at a pretty intense frequency too. Because, fuck. Cowboy was cut.
Not handsome. Not in the let-me-jack-to-you cowboy porn mag way, at any rate. He wasn’t ugly, but he didn’t have a marble jaw or anything. He was pretty scruffy, to tell the truth. But muscles? Fuck. Yeah. Normally Adam did not go for muscles. He wasn’t really going for them now, either, because muscles scared him. Muscles could hurt him. Muscles had hurt him. Muscles stood good odds of hurting him again.
Cowboy’s guns were so big Adam wasn’t sure he could span them with his hands. But Cowboy himself looked pretty mellow. Aside from getting up to shift clothes from a washer to a dryer, he just read the papers other people had left strewn about the booths and tables. He’d adjusted himself once too.
Adam had to follow suit after seeing that, but otherwise Cowboy and his guns didn’t seem to give a damn whether Adam was there or not. So Adam relaxed as much as he could and hurried about his business of turning dirty laundry into clean, and nothing more eventful happened than he ran out of quarters and had to go next door to the coffee shop and get change. And a latte, even though the caffeine wouldn’t do anything to help his rabbit nerves. He used the toilet there too, because God knew he’d die before using the one at the laundromat.
When Adam returned, Cowboy was gone, and six frat boys occupied the laundromat in his stead.
They were none of them older than twenty-two, and that was probably pushing it. They acted twelve. Three of them were definitely drunk and two were possibly high as well. They weren’t as big as Cowboy, but they were bigger than Adam.
Unlike Cowboy, they noticed Adam right away, and they didn’t ignore him.
“You don’t have to be such a victim,” Brad would have complained. “If you act like a scared rabbit, they’ll treat you like one. Ignore them and act like you don’t give a damn about them. Better yet, don’t give a damn about them. If you keep painting a fucking target on yourself, looking like you expect to be harassed, you will be.”
Adam had tried, he really had. Many times. He wasn’t sure if he was just too old to learn, if the bullying had started when he was too young, or if he really was just stupid. Sometimes he thought it was because he truly was a rabbit. As if in the male evolutionary ladder he occupied that bottom rung where he had to survive by constant vigilance and the ability to hop the fuck out of there at a moment’s notice.
If he didn’t have a load of towels in a washer, he’d have put all his clothes, dry or crazy wet, into baskets and left. Because he knew from vast experience that it was better to run before anything happened, and everything about his situation right now screamed something would happen, no question.
In fact, it had already begun. They were leaning on the table where he’d left his basket of folded socks and underwear, and one of the drunk-high boys was giggling at Adam’s bright blue briefs which, like so much of him, screamed GAY. The boy looked up and made eye contact with Adam. Adam froze at the door of his dryer, trying not to look scared to death, which likely meant his terror was only amplified.
With an evil grin, the boy murmured something to the others. As his buddies turned their wicked, stoned-out gazes to Adam, the instigator pulled out the briefs and began tossing them in the air.
Adam would have crawled into the dryer with his damp clothes if he hadn’t thought they’d turn it on and barricade him inside.
They had his blue briefs, his club shirt, and his Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Bug an Entomologist tee. They spoke to Adam in theory, but Adam knew better than to answer. He knew they were actually trying to out-macho each other, stepping on Adam to prove they were bigger and badder than the rest. They weren’t hurting him, and they might not if he played his part in the game well. If he was lucky he’d just lose a pair of underwear and a few of his favorite shirts.
He didn’t want to think about being unlucky.
“You wear this freaky blue shit, huh?” They snickered un unison and one of them bumped Adam’s shoulder. “What color you wearing right now?”
Adam pushed his glasses higher up his nose and hunkered deeper over an ad circular.
“We’re talking to you, fag,” one of them said.
When Adam continued to ignore them, they took his glasses. Right off his face.
“Please.” Adam tried to take them back, then stopped himself, knowing that would only make it worse. It was time for him to beg. “Please give me my glasses back.”
“Show us your underwear first, freak.”
The nervous flutter in the pit of Adam’s stomach turned into sick fear. “Please,” he whispered.
But his fear was only fueling them now, and they were laughing, laughing, laughing. “Strip, faggot.” Someone shoved at his shoulder again. And Adam realized with a sick heart that he would very soon be stripping.
He only hoped that was where it ended.
“What the fuck is going on?”
Adam startled, but so did the frat boys. One of them swore, and all of them staggered back, parting from their circle around Adam’s table, allowing him to see the newcomer.
It was Cowboy.