SHAN HEARD the door chime and nearly jumped out of his skin. Three months living in the relay station set deep in the Livre desert, and he still wasn’t used to some of the technology. Door chimes, for one. Another difference would be the sheer amount of space he lived in. In the church, he had privacy, time to search his thoughts. However, there he was always aware of Div shuffling somewhere in the house or softly praying, his Latin drifting through the air. Livre houses were generally small, built to stand up against the desert wind. Here, silence reigned. The early settlers had built the station before the inner worlds had largely abandoned Livre to survive—or die—on its own.
Shan walked through the storage room to one of the five living spaces. Through the thick window, he could see a shadowed form moving in the bright Livre sunshine. Maybe he’d been living alone too long, because his mind went to Ista and to all the men and women who had tried to kill him… to the wealthy and beloved landowner Ben, who had shown his true colors when he raped Temar. Shan could forgive the murder attempt more easily than Ben’s willingness to rape. But considering Ben, Ista, and most of their coconspirators were dead, fearing that they’d turn up here suggested that he had been alone a little too long.
Pushing aside irrational fears, Shan opened the door and smiled as he saw Temar standing in the light, his sand veil hanging around his neck.
“Temar!” Stepping forward, he caught Temar in a quick hug. “I thought you were off working your glass this week.” Temar often stopped by, running the long dunes to visit once or twice a week, but he’d already warned Shan that he wouldn’t be able to visit this week.
A flash of pain crossed Temar’s face, and he dropped his head so his shaggy blond hair hid his features.
“Temar?” Shan asked, his voice quieting.
Temar gave a shrug.
“Do you want to come in?” Shan took a step back to give Temar some room. He didn’t want to push him, not after what Ben had done. So even if Shan’s cock sometimes ached with need, and if he sometimes lay in bed stroking himself while thinking of Temar, Shan wouldn’t physically crowd the man. He’d give Temar space to heal on his own.
With a small nod, Temar came into the station, passing through the room with the metal and plastic chairs and tables with the perfect lines and symmetrical bolts that Shan still found a little alien. When he and Temar had left the door open to pursue Ben, not even the wind and sand of the desert storm had left a mark on the sterile room. Shan was used to the curves of windwood, the uneven gaps formed by the twisted branches, and the way a truly great craftsman could make a piece curve with the human body. Every craftsman had his own style. Roget Ally from Landing created chairs and tables with small branches that intertwined so perfectly that the pieces of wood appeared to wrap around each other, as though in love. In comparison, these perfectly uniform chairs brought down by the drop ships that first carried settlers to Livre had no life.
Temar headed through the storage room, into the computer control room, and then through a door into the one living space Shan actually used. He dropped down onto the couch and pulled his sand veil off, fingering the edges.
“What happened?” Shan asked, settling into a chair near enough that he could reach out to offer a comforting hand if needed.
For some time, Temar seemed to struggle with his feelings. Most times, Temar wasn’t an emotional man. The shyness clung to him, muffled his reactions, but right now, Shan could see the pain etched deep into his features. “Dee’eta hates me,” Temar finally confessed in a miserable voice.
Shan doubted Dee’eta Sun’s feelings were as simple as hate. “Why do you say that?”
Leaning back, Temar stared up at the perfectly flat metal ceiling. “She can barely look at me. Three weeks into my apprenticeship, and my glass-master can’t even look me in the eye when showing me how to use the paddles to shape the piece. It’s the most uncomfortable place I’ve ever been.” Temar tilted his head and looked Shan right in the eye. “Ever,” he repeated. Given that Temar had once been trapped in Ben’s bed, a victim of both rape and a criminal justice system that had failed him, that was saying something.
Shan had been on the council that had sentenced Temar to a term of slavery after his vandalism had caused more damage than he could ever repay. Of course, he’d been following his sister’s attempts to play detective when it had happened. It hadn’t been fair, but Cyla had gone to an owner who trained her to work and Temar had gone to Ben, who had raped him and blackmailed him into not reporting it to the council. At least Shan could hold on to the fact that he had argued against slavery. Vehemently argued. Dee’eta didn’t have that luxury. She had to look at Temar and know she’d played her part in sending him into that hell. “This can’t be easy for either of you,” Shan said, not entirely sure how to broach the subject of Dee’eta’s guilt when it had been Temar who had suffered the most.
“No, not really,” Temar said, his voice defeated. “I spent my entire childhood dreaming of an apprenticeship with her, and now that I have my dream, it’s not….” Temar sighed. “It’s not any good, Shan.”
“Is that why you left?”
“I screwed up. I cooled the punty too much, and when Dee’eta tried to transfer the glass, it slipped off and broke.”
“That happens with apprentices,” Shan reassured him. “When I apprenticed for Div, the very first sermon I gave I mixed up John and Paul and said something very stupid about the Book of Matthew. Luckily, I was so scared that I was preaching in a monotone that had put everyone to sleep by then.”
Temar looked at Shan seriously. “Did he yell at you?”
Shan smiled. “In a way, I suppose he did. With Div, yelling was done in this really soft, disappointed voice that made you want to crawl into a hole and pull the sand in over you.” He missed Div. Leaving the priesthood had been the right choice, no question. And when the councils had offered him a chance to finish his long-abandoned mechanics’ apprenticeship by studying the relay station systems and reading a hundred years’ worth of technical manuals, he’d jumped at the chance.
He still missed Div, though. He missed talking to him over breakfast and that odd look Div gave him when Shan had done something desperately foolish. That was how a father should act—not that Shan had a lot of experience with good fathering.
“Dee’eta didn’t yell,” Temar said in a defeated tone. “She gave me one glance, and then she started lecturing on how to recycle scraps.”
Shan was confused. “So you didn’t leave over that, did you?”
“I did.” Temar practically leaped out of his seat and started pacing. Shan was more than confused now, but he held his tongue and waited for Temar to explain. Both Shan’s brother Naite and Temar had suffered terrible abuse, but unlike Naite, Temar opened up if you gave him enough time and space to get the words together. But this time it took longer than normal. He stalked the room, his fingers running over the smooth, rolled metal edges of the tables and shelves. He was a tactile man, and sometimes touching a well-made piece of glass would soothe him enough to start talking. Shan gave him that space.
Temar stopped at one of the few pieces of furniture Shan had insisted on bringing out—a windwood chest with intertwining branches that Roget Ally had made for Shan’s mother before she died. It was the only part of his father’s farm he’d saved when the man’s land and house were sold to pay his debts. Temar crouched down and let his long fingers dance over the intricate work and smooth joints. “How can she teach me if she’s so afraid of me that she can’t even tell me when I’m wrong?” he asked in a tired voice.
“She’s feeling guilty,” Shan said.
Temar turned and gave him an incredulous look. “Do you think I don’t know that?”
“I know you know it,” Shan said, “but maybe you—” Shan put his hand over his heart. “You and Naite know the pain of being hurt, but you need to know there’s a pain and guilt to being not hurt.” The moment he said that, he knew it sounded incredibly rude. It sounded like he was dismissing Temar’s trauma, which wasn’t his intent.
Standing up, Temar crossed his arms over his chest. “I know that, but do you really think I’m so weak that I’m going to collapse in tears if you rip me a new asshole for ruining a beautiful piece of work?”
“Me? No. I know you’re stronger than that,” Shan said in all truthfulness. He’d seen Temar’s strength, and he knew it would take a lot more than a few words to bring the man down. Temar was worth waiting for, in part because of his strength.
Temar shook his head. “Naite is the only one who treats me normally.”
“Not surprising. After the council assigned him to three years of slavery with you, he’s going to go out of his way to make sure that he doesn’t change, because he won’t want to let himself act servile, even if he’s serving. He knows the danger of letting a slave-sentence get to you too much.”
“Not that he’s actually a slave,” Temar said in a disgusted voice. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.
Clearly something was wrong there, and that shocked Shan down to his core. Naite was a cantankerous, difficult man. Growing up, Shan had wanted to kill him more than once, but Naite had already been suffering their father’s abuse. Well, they’d both been abused, but Naite had been the one raped while Shan had suffered only the cold disinterest of a man who had neglected and ignored him while seeming to shower all his love on the older Naite. However, it was Naite who understood Temar better than anyone else on the planet. Shan would have expected Naite to support Temar, not make him feel worse.
“What’s going on?”
Temar pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes as though trying to block out some memory. “He ripped me open, left me about as raw as a sand-rat-chewed wound and stalked off.”
Shan’s breath left him. “He… what?”
Temar made a little huffing noise that was either frustration or amusement—Shan couldn’t tell. “He told me I had a right to sell the balance of his contract, but I didn’t have a right to ignore him after asking him to manage Ben’s farm.”
“Your farm,” Shan corrected him.
“Well, apparently, I’m letting Cyla treat it like her farm, and Naite informed me that if I didn’t get my head out of my ass and make my idiot sister stop acting like a sandcat, I wasn’t going to have anyone to work the crops but him.”
That did sound like Naite. When people weren’t living up to his expectations, he could be a sandstorm, blowing in and destroying entire villages without slowing.
Temar sighed. “And the worst part is, he’s right.”
Shan leaned back in the chair and studied Temar. His shoulders were pulled in, and his whole body looked as tight as a person could get without having a heart attack. It bothered Shan that he’d driven out in this mood, because the sand dunes were unforgiving if you made a mistake, and Temar wasn’t all that experienced on a bike.
“So,” he said carefully, not wanting to make things worse, “you’re upset that Dee’eta can’t treat you normally, and you’re upset that Naite is treating you normally?”
Temar had a self-deprecating half grin on his face as he shrugged. “I didn’t say I was feeling logical. I can be annoyed with both of them and you all at the same time.”
“With me?” Shan sat up straight, not sure when his faults had come into the conversation.
“With you,” Temar echoed. “Are you attracted to me or not?”
Shan’s mouth fell open, and he had to consciously close it and gather his thoughts before he could answer. Even before he’d blurted out his whole stupid infatuation while drunk, he’d been less than subtle. Apparently. Shan always thought he’d hidden his interest well—he’d certainly lived in denial. However, since leaving the priesthood, more than one person had clapped him on the back and congratulated him for finally having the strength to openly court Temar. Shan had to assume he’d been a little more obvious than he’d thought. “You know I am,” he said as calmly as he could.
“So, you haven’t changed your mind now that you’re not a priest and you can sleep with anyone you want?”
“No.” Shan studied Temar more carefully, sure the man had some hidden agenda for this question. “Have I ever shown any interest in anyone else?”
Temar crossed the room slowly. Since leaving the priesthood, Shan hadn’t taken anyone to his bed. He hadn’t wanted anyone in his bed, no one except Temar, and he’d been very open about both his interest and his willingness to wait, so he met Temar’s uncertain gaze. Temar had such beautiful eyes—blue eyes that reflected more emotions than Shan could ever hope to understand.
Temar settled on the end of the couch. “Why don’t you ever touch me?”
“I hugged you! When you came, I hugged you, so I know I touch you,” Shan snapped. He had enough flaws of his own without Temar inventing reasons to be upset with him.
Moving slowly, Temar rested his hand on Shan’s knee. “Why don’t you ever really touch me?” he asked again. The warmth of Temar’s hand soaked through the fabric.
“I do,” Shan said, only this time his voice wavered. This was the sort of touch he generally did avoid.
“No, you don’t. Shan, I know that you liked me before, but you were a priest, so it was safe for you to like me without thinking anything would happen. If you aren’t interested—”
“I am.” Shan cut him off, bringing his own hand up to rest on Temar’s. Temar had long fingers and small hands, and Shan’s big, scarred paw just about covered it. They were the hands of a mechanic, not a priest.
“Then why don’t you touch me?”
For a second, Shan chewed on his lower lip and tried to control the growing hardness in his pants. He did want Temar. Too much. “I don’t want to push things too far too fast.”
“Shan, I need a little more pushing. Actually, I can do the pushing myself, but I need a sign that you’re okay with me pushing.”
Shan looked at Temar, but he didn’t see any doubt or fear in his expression. He’d expected Temar to want to move slowly, to heal from his time in Ben’s custody. Hell, Naite had been clear that it had taken years for him to get his own balance back after being abused, and Shan couldn’t expect more of Temar.
After that uncomfortable conversation, Shan had firmly counseled himself about patience and the dangers of lust. That had been more than ironic. Naite wasn’t exactly celibate, and he’d lectured Shan about not having sex. God could have a sharp sense of humor. Shan had even considered asking Temar to marry him before taking him to bed, wondering if the commitment would ease the fears. It would ease Div’s mind to know that Shan was still taking the church’s teachings so seriously. But now that he was looking into Temar’s eyes, fear didn’t live there; frustration did. “I take it I’ve been moving too slow?” he guessed.
Temar nodded. “I was starting to think you were trying to find nice ways to let me down easy. I thought maybe, like Dee’eta, you were too afraid to hurt me.”
Shan tightened his hold on Temar’s hand. “I don’t want to hurt you, ever. But I want you. I want you more than I should.”
“Then why aren’t you showing any interest in having a relationship?” Temar asked. Shan’s gaze drifted down to his own pants, where his hard cock pressed up against the seam. Temar chuckled. “Okay, so you’re showing some interest,” he added with some amusement, “but in my defense, that’s the first time I’ve seen that.”
Suddenly Temar pulled his hand away from Shan. “Wait. Is this about you not wanting to show me a hard cock? Do you think that I’ll confuse what Ben did with sex?”
Shan’s sexual frustration was interfering with his ability to form coherent thought at this point. “You don’t have a lot of experience….”
Temar gave a rough bark of laughter that didn’t really match his normal shy manner. “Unless you have a few lovers Naite doesn’t know about, I have more than you. He insists you’re a big coward who doesn’t want to admit that you’re clueless.”
“You talked to my brother about my sex life?” Shan demanded, hot anger rising up to vie with the sexual heat that was already making his skin warm. His anger couldn’t maintain itself, though. In three months, he hadn’t done more than offer a quick hug, so Temar had some cause to get a little insecure. “Of course you did. That sounds exactly like Naite, only without the profanity that he would have thrown in.”
“He did have a couple of choice words. But without Naite, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do this. I would have sat home and given you time to move on because you clearly didn’t want me.” Temar set his jaw and glared at Shan, clearly not willing to apologize for going to Naite. “I love you, but I’m starting to doubt whether this is right for us. For you.”
“It is,” Shan insisted. Leaning forward, he captured Temar’s hands and held them between his palms, their warmth mingling. “I admit that I haven’t had many lovers. I took my vows seriously, and before the priesthood….” Shan thought back to himself as a young man, gawky and awkward and fumbling in the dark with a boy named Nuesis, and with two different women. Both of them kept warning him not to put his cock in them because pregnancy was serious and a man who got a woman pregnant had his life tied to her until the child was grown—neither of them liked him enough for that. “I don’t have a lot of experience. But the main problem is that I would rather wait until you’re ready than risk ruining the friendship we share.”
“I’m ready,” Temar said gently. “I’m more than ready.”
Shan grimaced. “I should also mention that I’m not exactly good with relationships.”
With a smile, Temar ducked his head. “Naite mentioned that.”
“If we’re going to do this, could we not mention my brother anymore?” Shan begged. There were certain topics guaranteed to send his cock into full retreat. Ben was one, and Naite was another.
The smile remained as Temar brought his hand up to rest against Shan’s cheek. “Deal. But no more waiting. It’s giving me a neurosis.”
The heat was gathering in Shan’s body, making his throat dry and tight, so he simply nodded. Temar slowly smiled, shifting forward on the couch so that he perched on the edge. It had been a long time since he’d done this, but Shan’s body remembered. He remembered the slide of skin against skin, the aching need to touch, the hunger. Reaching out, he slid his hand under Temar’s shirt so he could feel the hot skin hidden underneath.
Temar’s hand came up to stroke Shan’s arms, his fingers reaching up under the loose sleeve. “I’m not sure what you want,” Temar murmured before he ran his fingernails down Shan’s arm hard enough to make three tiny trails of white on Shan’s olive skin.
“I’m open to anything,” Shan said, and he meant it. He was nervous about it because his experience with men was limited to some touching and sucking, but this was Temar.
“Funny enough, me too,” Temar said with a smile that Shan couldn’t resist. He leaned forward and caught Temar behind the neck and pulled him close. Temar came off the couch and put his knee on the edge of the chair, leaning close so Shan could press his lips to Temar’s. He smelled of sand and salt and soap, and Shan groaned.
Temar pulled back a few inches. “Problem?” he teased.
“Yeah,” Shan said. “And I’m too old to do anything about it in a chair.”
Temar laughed. “You’re not that old.”
“I’m old enough not to give up a good bed for a small chair,” Shan countered. Temar must have agreed, because with a smile he stood. Shan didn’t realize Temar had caught hold of his shirt until the fabric pulled tight.
“Then the bed it is,” Temar said, tugging on the shirt to urge Shan up. Shan’s cock was painfully hard as he pushed himself up and followed.