Where the Heart Leads
M/M, Erotic Romance, Friends-to-Lovers
[33 Pages / 7,600 Words]
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Terry Linn has found a clever solution for an inconvenient crush: invite Elliot Kleiss into his bed without actually admitting he's already fallen hard. Elliot is a friend and mentor, practically family for all the ways he's tangled up in business with Terry's parents. Propositioning him could lead to disaster, but Terry's desperate enough to try.
Maybe a tryst with no strings attached will burn Elliot out of his system. More likely, rejection will be the kick in the pants Terry needs to get over his infatuation. Anything is better than this helpless, pining limbo. As long as Elliot never suspects how deep his feelings truly run, Terry can endure any outcome.
Heartbreak or not, at least he'll finally know where he stands.
"Come inside," Terry finally says. It's chilly outdoors, and he's got no interest in standing here in an open doorway, where the early spring wind can keep leeching the warmth from his skinny frame.
Elliot hangs back only a moment, but the hesitation is nearly as startling as the flustered air that bunches his broad shoulders around his ears and turns his expression tight. For a man so strong and stocky, it's amazing how small he looks as he finally steps across the threshold and into Terry's home.
Terry leads the way into the living room, a narrow and tortuous terrain that he's been slowly unpacking for days. Most of the bookshelves still stand empty, despite his efforts. He's been breaking everything down as he goes, but the space is filled with significantly more heavy boxes than stacks of collapsed cardboard. A few containers sit open in the center of the room, on and around the squat blue sofa, because Terry was trying to put his restless energy to more productive use. The jumbled stacks of books and movies aren't an improvement, though. He kneels on the floor just long enough to refill the boxes, then hoists everything down off the couch.
Not an especially effective strategy, but there's nowhere else to sit besides the floor. Eventually there will be more furniture—a matching love seat that hasn't been delivered yet, a small dining table and chairs to replace the one he let his old roommate keep, an actual coffee table as soon as he can borrow a truck to collect it—but for now it's either couch or floor, and Terry gestures for Elliot to make himself comfortable.
"You want anything to drink?" Terry asks, too much his mother's son to forget his manners as host, even in the shadow of inevitable crushing disappointment.
"No. Thanks." Elliot sounds brusque and strange, and Terry swallows hard as he takes his own place at the other end of the couch.
It's not a large piece of furniture. Only a couple feet separate them once they're both sitting. Terry tucks his legs up onto the cushions, settling into the corner with his heart in his throat and his eyes on Elliot. Elliot's feet stay planted firmly on the floor, his elbows resting on his knees, his face angled toward Terry just enough to allow a glimpse of the deep furrow at the center of his brow.
The silence is oppressive, but Terry finds himself helpless to break it.
Which makes it a relief when Elliot draws a measured breath and says, "I'm sorry I ran off instead of staying to talk this through."
This? Terry wants to ask, but his voice is stuck in his throat. He wants to know what this is supposed to be—what there is to talk about, when Elliot clearly does not want him. For fuck's sake, Elliot doesn't need to justify himself. He doesn't need to explain his rejection. There are vast and varied reasons he can't possibly want to be with Terry, and far fewer Terry can conjure for Elliot to give him a chance.
"Did you mean it?" Elliot asks when Terry's stillness persists. "All those things you said... I still can't entirely wrap my head around the idea that..."
Where other emotions failed to do the trick, affront is enough to unlock Terry's voice. "Of course I meant it. What the actual fuck, Elliot?" He stares, a tug of anger wrapping around his gut. Never mind the screwed—up notion that Terry would have humiliated himself like this, stuck his neck out like this, if the secret weren't killing him. "You seriously think I would mess with your head? You think I'd admit I've got a crush on you if it wasn't true?"
"No," Elliot answers with reassuring haste. "Of course you wouldn't."
"Then what the hell?" Terry is nowhere near mollified. "Why would you ask me that?"
Elliot is quiet for a very long time, watching Terry's face like he's searching for clues. He clasps his hands together, an uncertain and obvious tell. But he doesn't look away from the challenge in Terry's eyes, and his voice is honest gravel when he finally speaks.
"Because I can't work it through any other way. I try to imagine you wanting this from me, and it doesn't add up. Even if I didn't work for your father... Even if we weren't us... I'm a tired old businessman twice your age. I'm the last person on the planet you should want in your bed."
"You're a total bear and a silver fox," Terry retorts, spurred to candor by pure indignation. "And you don't get to tell me who I shouldn't want to sleep with. I get it. You're not interested. But no one gets to dictate my feelings. I'll be fucked up over you if I want."
Even if that's exactly the problem. Even if Terry doesn't want to be smitten with Elliot Kleiss. For fuck's sake, he hasn't gone on a single date in over a year. How is he supposed to keep living like this?
Terry's face flushes at having spoken so honestly about something that makes him feel too damn vulnerable. Saying all these things aloud—even more bluntly than his original confession—is not going to make it hurt any less when Elliot finally gets to the part where he gently but emphatically tells Terry to fuck off.
Elliot unfolds from his tight posture and tips back against the couch cushions. "You're right. But my point stands. I still can't work out why you would want me."
Terry's got a lifetime of possible answers to that. He doesn't know precisely when his youthful and wholly innocent fascination with Elliot Kleiss took a turn into something more complicated. It's been happening for years, though. Longer than he has any intention of admitting. A gradual and growing infatuation, inevitable as the ocean and just as deep. A thousand kindnesses, shared jokes, holiday traditions, games of chess. Baking the world's worst cookies last Christmas. Building a tree house together for Elliot's nieces, the summer after Terry finished college. Traveling to Barcelona under the pretext of a business conference, and then sneaking away every possible moment to do tourist things instead.
A lifetime of intimacies that have nothing to do with romance, and he doesn't dare voice any of them aloud. He won't make Elliot question the foundations of their friendship just because Terry has gotten in over his head.
"Guess you'll have to take my word for it, then," Terry says tightly. "And trust that I know my own mind better than you do."
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Cover design by Yolande Kleinn