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Part 17 – Help Wanted II

Ralph had never enjoyed telephones. He didn't own one. They were an irritation. Jack's telephone, for example, had a particularly annoying way of ringing at the worst of possible moments, leaving Ralph sitting alone on the couch feeling somewhat unsatisfied when Jack went to answer the call. The longer he sat there listening to the murmur of Jack's voice from the other room, the more severely he regretted what he'd said moments ago. You owe me. Ralph didn't know why he'd said such a thing. He hadn't thought about it. He meant it, but he hadn't meant to say it. And he knew that it was impossible to have misinterpreted his message.

"I have to go to work," Jack said as he entered the room again. He smoothed his hands through the short hair that Ralph hadn't had the opportunity to muss. He looked fine to Ralph, but Jack continued to smooth out his clothes, pacing anxiously.

"To your publishing house," Ralph asked, sitting still on the couch, watching Jack's apparent disarray.

"No," he said. He unbuttoned and re-buttoned the top of his shirt. "Back to the bookshop. We're still hiring, you know. I'm just going to get my shoes." He walked briskly down the hall into the front foyer.

Ralph was glad Jack hadn't brought up the job offer again. He stood and followed to find Jack at the door pulling black shoes onto his feet.

"I lost track of time," he said.

"Don't you own a big, successful company?" Ralph asked curiously, slightly off topic.

Jack glanced up briefly with a look of slight confusion. The one he'd had ever since he'd ended the telephone call. "Yes."

"Why do you manage that little bookstore then?"

Jack stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. "It's a good way to make sure my publishing house has a home for its authors. And anyways, I've got such good people working for me that they never need me there. Everything is top-notch. So I need something to do with my time, essentially." He scratched the back of his neck and licked his lips.

Ralph nodded, satisfied with the answer but incredibly annoyed by Jack's fidgeting. He was beginning to understand the cause for it though. "Jack… nobody can tell."

Jack froze briefly. He looked ready to deny something, but did not. Instead, he exhaled deeply and nodded. "I think I'm still a little spooked by what I subjected us to in that restaurant." He laughed lightly. "Thank goodness I don't plan on eating there much."

Ralph smiled.

"Maybe take-out," Jack added as an afterthought.

Ralph nodded. "You have to go now."

Jack nodded also. "Ok." He opened the door to a cloudy, but bright, afternoon. "Settle in wherever you like."

Ralph pushed himself. "Where's your room?" He would have been able to find it, but he first had to know that it was all right.

Jack, to Ralph's relief, did not hesitate to respond. "It's just across from the sitting room."

"All right."

Jack paused. "I'll be in late. So don't think you have to be polite and wait."

Ralph offered a friendly smile. "I won't."

Jack was gripping the door handle far too tightly. "Bye then."

"Ok." Ralph knew why they were still standing there, and so did Jack. It was useless waiting for the other to do anything about it, so Ralph peeked over Jack's shoulder, seeing that there were no visible pedestrians at the end of the laneway, before leaning in to kiss Jack. It wasn't something he was used to yet, and it seemed far too casual a gesture for something that was so difficult and exhilarating.

Their lips met only for a moment before Jack turned and walked briskly to his car with his head low. He didn't look back.

Ralph went inside feeling confused, excited and surreal.

By midnight, Ralph was still wondering whether or not to pretend to be asleep when Jack arrived… whenever that would be. He lay in Jack's bed alone, but comfortable, listening to the torrential rains that echoed loudly through the house even opposite closed windows and doors. Thunder was beginning to roll in from a distance, but it was low and soothing.

Ralph momentarily wondered if he'd left the windows open in his flat. Then he remembered that he didn't live there anymore because it no longer belonged to him. Instead, he found himself in Jack Merridew's beautiful home; the home he shared with is fiancée. There were, however, certainly no traces of feminine inhabitancy in Jack's bedroom. It put Ralph at ease because it assured him that the bed he was resting in was not likely the bed that Jack and his fiancée shared. Beside the fact that they made social appearances together and shared a home, it didn't seem that the couple were much involved with each other at all.

And sex, a voice in Ralph's head said. He got her pregnant. They must be intimate.

Ralph rolled onto his side and cleared his mind.

The hard rain drowned out the sound of Jack's car pulling up the driveway. But Ralph heard clearly when the front door opened and then shut again, quickly muting the sound of the storm again after the noise had drifted in through the open front door.

Ralph lay facing the far side of the bedroom, away from the door. He heard footsteps down the hall and waited, deciding that he would pretend to be asleep after all.

Nobody came into the bedroom.

After several minutes the whine of a kettle could be heard from the kitchen, followed by the gentle pang of a spoon against a cup.

Ralph waited. The more he waited the more impatient he became. He was desperate for Jack's company without even knowing why. And Jack was in the kitchen past midnight. Why wasn't he coming to bed?

Ralph pushed back the covers with a sigh and rose from the mattress.

Jack looked up from his tea when Ralph came into the kitchen rubbing his eyes.

"I woke you," Jack said apologetically, pushing himself away from the counter where he'd been leaning. His hair was wet and his pants were spotted with rain. Jack stood naked from the waist up, looking very cold as he clutched his mug of steaming tea. His coat and shirts lay on the counter by the sink, soaked in rain.

"No," said Ralph. His eyes were sponging up the image of Jack's wet, toned body, but he tried not to make it look obvious that he was so distracted. There was nothing particularly unique or special about the way Jack looked, but Ralph was now fully aware that he had never before been so attracted to anyone. "I couldn't sleep because of the storm. You got caught in the rain?"

Jack held out his arms to the sides, displaying his sopping state. "Yes." He offered no explanation.

A snap of thunder broke the silence.

"Tea?" Jack offered as he lifted the teapot.

Ralph didn't want any but he felt he needed an excuse to be there, so he nodded. "Please."

Jack turned away from him and drew a cup from the cabinet. He filled it with the hot liquid.

"Milk and sugar," Ralph requested. He stared at Jack's slender, muscled back and watched his right shoulder blade shift as he added the ingredients stirred the tea. Then Jack stopped stirring, but he did not turn around. Ralph averted his gaze, wondering if Jack could sense it.

"I hit a cat," Jack said quietly. He turned, eyes down, and handed the tea to Ralph.

Ralph took the cup silently. "Oh…" he said, unsure of how to react. He felt foolish for it, but it took him a moment to realize that Jack meant he hit the cat with his car.

"That's why I'm back late."

Ralph nodded. "Did it die?" He wasn't sure if it was the right thing to ask.

"Yes," he said. "I had to tell the owner." Jack sipped his tea. "I'll send some flowers tomorrow."

Ralph nodded and drank.

"I know it's depressing news. I guess it was a little arrogant of me to think that you were wondering where I was, but there you have it anyways…"

"I really was wondering." It was true. 12:30 seemed a little later than working "late" had implied. He wished that Jack hadn't told him about the cat, even though it explained the odd detachment he was sensing. What owner would let his animal wander around outdoors in such a horrible rain storm anyways? Ralph was sad, and for a moment, angry that Jack had killed the animal. It was somebody's pet. It was innocent, and probably lost in the rain. But he knew it was nobody's fault.

"Did you go out?" Jack asked aimlessly.

Was he trying to make small-talk? Between midnight and dawn small-talk was not suitable, Ralph decided. Only long, philosophical conversations or remote silence seemed appropriate at such a time of night. Ralph wasn't sure which he would have preferred. He was too tired to converse, but he had things he wanted to say. He wasn't exactly sure what yet, but words were there.

"No," Ralph finally answered. He put the warm mug to his lips again but found he'd already drank it all. How long had they been standing there? He couldn't even remember what his response had been to. Ralph hoped he hadn't wandered off in some way. He sucked back a few last sugary drops at the base of the cup and turned to place it in the sink.

The lightest pressure suddenly grazed the back of Ralph's neck; fingers, making him stiffen. He turned on the tap and rinsed the mug, suddenly feeling unable to turn back around.

"Your hair is wet," Jack said, stepping closer up behind where Ralph stood at the sink. His fingers pressed into the damp hair above Ralph's neck. "That's why I asked."

"I just showered a little while ago," Ralph said, his voice weaker than he'd intended it. He'd showered twice since Jack had gone; not because he was particularly filthy (after the first shower), but because it was one of his favourite comforts. "I hope you don't mind." He knew that Jack wouldn't mind. Ralph simply had to try not to speak any longer because suddenly he was so focused on Jack's touch and proximity that he couldn't much think about anything else.

"Don't be stupid. Of course I don't mind." Jack's hand slid down across the fair, soft skin at Ralph's neck, drawing a light shiver out of the blonde. When the fingertips met the collar of Ralph's white pyjama shirt, they stopped, though Jack moved even closer still to Ralph until his chest made contact with the other's back.

Ralph was sure that his heart was beating so hard that Jack would feel it against his bare chest. Jack's body felt cold and solid against his back.

"You're so warm," Jack murmured, pressing his cheek into Ralph's hair. The hand at Ralph's neck slid down his arm where it formed a loose grip.

Ralph's body warmed even more at the attention as he struggled to bring himself to turn off the water that was still running. When he did, he could not, for a long while, loosen his grip on the water taps. He wanted to, but he was afraid of what he might do with his hands. But then he felt Jack's left arm slip around his waist, pulling him back so that the full lengths of the their bodies were pressed together for the first time. Ralph didn't even notice when his hands drifted back to rest at Jack's thighs. The pants were wet and cold. They needed to come off soon.

The soft lips and warm, slow breaths against his ear weakened Ralph to the point that he had no choice but to close his eyes and let his head fall back against the shoulder behind him. He felt clean and desirable in ways that he could never recall feeling in his past. It occurred to Ralph briefly that he should perhaps feel guilty, but he simply did not. He felt only pure and wanted.

Jack slid his palm up to press it to Ralph's chest where he held it for a long time. Ralph, meanwhile, lay against him, standing with his legs parted further than he realized, his head back, and his arms behind him. Their embrace was unusual, but absurdly comfortable. Neither of them felt the desire to move at first. Then lips at Ralph's ear turned their gentle, inadvertent touches into tender kisses that dipped down and down Ralph's neck. Heat blossomed beneath Ralph's skin at every touch of the other man's lips, and he arched back as far as he could while Jack was nearly crawling over his shoulder to bring his mouth to Ralph's throat.

Turn. Face him. Ralph was becoming less afraid, but not necessarily courageous. He gently gripped the hand at his chest and tore it away slowly so that he could move to face the other. Jack seemed reluctant to let their lips meet, pressing firmer kisses against Ralph's neck and tightening his grip. Ralph persisted and turned himself around to face Jack, who never took his mouth away, and he was becoming more insistent.

Jack's tongue darted out to taste Ralph's skin. He was pushing his body more firmly against Ralph's until both of their pants became damp with the cold rain clinging to Jack's clothes. As Jack pressed the length of his body up even more firmly the counter was digging into Ralph's lower back, but Ralph hardly noticed. All that he could feel Jack's warm mouth moving lower down his throat, and he began to helplessly lean further back over the counter, undoing his body in utter acceptance of what was happening.

When Jack wrapped his arms around Ralph's back, moving his lips again to his neck, every touch was amplified by Ralph's emergent lust. He was hungry for Jack, and he felt Jack's same hunger in surreal clarity with every nudge of his hips and with each warm, smooth movement of the lips and tongue at his tender throat and neck.

As all this happened, Ralph could only remain motionless until he felt a hand snake around his front and down to the crotch of his pants. Long fingers grabbed at him through the fabric of his pants and something suddenly snapped inside Ralph's brain like a reflex. He impulsively pushed Jack away. It had gone too far. It was happening too quickly.

Eye contact. Confusion.

Ralph felt humiliated.

"I thought you wanted it," Jack said breathlessly. He looked like he wanted to advance on Ralph again but he didn't. He stood stark still, winded and red-faced.

Ralph couldn't ignore the heat surging through his veins or the severe pleasure he felt in the ways that Jack touched him and held him. "What we're doing… feels…" He wondered what he was going to say. It felt good. It felt incredible. It felt like liberation. He'd never in his life been so physically intimate with anyone and it was almost overwhelming. In fact, it was overwhelming… because it was all with Jack. And then he realized that he had been physically intimate before, though it was not in any sense romantic or sexual. "It feels wrong," he said. The words came out heavy.

Jack took a step back. He looked completely bewildered. Then, very suddenly, he advanced on Ralph again until they were nose to nose, and he slipped his hand down between them to where it had been when Ralph pushed him away.

"But you like it," he said wryly.

Ralph felt blood rushing to his cheeks and elsewhere as Jack's hand rubbed him through his pants. Ralph tried to grab his wrists, to move him away, but Jack was stronger and was pressed up against him too tightly. Their eyes were still locked. Ralph could see his own eyes reflected in Jack's, even in the dim light.

"You like it, Ralph, I can feel that you like it." Jack took his hand away and slowly laced his fingers between Ralph's. His moves his hips foreword again, pushing himself up against Ralph even more closely. "And what about what you said before… that I owe you. I do. And I want to give you everything…" He leaned in to kiss Ralph's jaw. "Everything you want." He moved to kiss the other side of Ralph's face. "You're helping me… and I just want to help you back."

Ralph swallowed hard, knowing that Jack could feel his throat contract as he did so. A hot chill raced across his flesh that begged him to remove some articles of his clothing. "But I don't want it." He was fully aware that, as he spoke those words, his hips were pushing back rhythmically against Jack's. He could feel that Jack's body was willing, as was his own, but in his head a little red light was going off that said, stop, stop, stop, with each thrust of his hips. "Stop, Jack," Ralph commanded breathily. "You have to stop it… because I don't think I can."

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