Always (Men of Hidden Creek Book 4)

Prologue

Mitch, ten years ago

Mitch’s gut clenched. The most beautiful boy he’d ever seen was getting ready to leave him, and even though Mitch had known this day was coming—had known that the perfect, secret thing that existed between them could never last—it still hurt in ways that he wasn’t even remotely prepared to deal with.

So he wouldn’t.

He’d concentrate on the kind of feelings that were easier. The way his lips felt swollen from having been stretched around Jonah’s cock… bruised from the almost desperate way they’d been kissing each other for the last few hours. He’d focus on the heavy warmth that filled him, the delicious afterglow of having come the way only Jonah had ever been able to make him—so hard that it almost felt like being turned inside out. The way his chest felt—filled to bursting as he’d stared into Jonah’s green eyes when they’d—

Mitch shut that down fast, since it was heading away from the good feelings and into the ones that—sometimes, alone in the privacy of his dark room at night—he’d honestly wondered if he’d be able to bear living without.

Jonah looked up and caught his eye as he tugged the hem of his shirt down, hiding the lightly defined planes of his chest for maybe the last time.

Don’t think it don’t think it don’t think it.

Mitch jerked his eyes away, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and stretching to avoid seeing Jonah finish dressing.

To avoid watching Jonah get ready to leave.

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Mitch said without meaning to, the truth spilling out of him as he tried and failed not to sound as upset about it as he felt. “Not yet, I mean,” he rushed to add when Jonah made a little sound of distress, because of course Jonah had to go. “We still have a little time left.”

“We do?” Jonah asked, his lip quirking up on one side in a sad imitation of the smile Mitch normally loved seeing. “Just a few minutes, Mitch,” Jonah added. “That’s…”

Not enough.

Jonah didn’t need to say it, and Mitch knew just as well as he did that it was pointless to try and buy more time. It was true, whether Jonah said the words or not: An extra few minutes wasn’t going to make a difference.

Jonah had to leave now.

Mitch had to leave tomorrow.

Neither of them wanted it, and none of it was fair… and neither of those facts changed a damn thing.

Jonah Riley was everything Mitch had ever wanted—he was sweet, smart, funny, and sexy as hell, all rolled into one—and even if Mitch’s father insisted that, as a Davis man, there was no way in hell Mitch was allowed to want those things—at least, not in a package that looked like Jonah—at eighteen, Mitch knew for sure that it was true.

That it would always be true… hell, it always had, ever since they’d met. Mitch and Jonah had been in the eighth grade when Mitch’s life had changed in a single, fundamental way. He’d realized it the moment he’d first laid eyes on Jonah, and even thought it had gotten his ass beat black and blue the one and only time he’d let it slip in front of his father, no amount of “persuasion,” threats, or lectures had been able to change it: Mitch was gay to the bone.

And Jonah Riley was it for him.

Not, of course, that he was dumb enough to think he got to do anything about either of those facts.

At least, not anything long-term.

Not anything out where anyone but Jonah would know about it.

And definitely not anything that would give Franklin Davis an excuse to raise his hand to Mitch again. Or follow through with his threats of looking into conversion therapy. Or—worse than either of those things—forbid Mitch to spend time with his “best friend.”

“Hey,” Jonah said softly, his touch on Mitch’s cheek jerking Mitch back to the present. Jonah smiled. “I mean, a few minutes is a few minutes, right?”

“Right,” Mitch said, getting to his feet and pulling Jonah close. “I want every one, okay?”

They’d spent nearly every day since they’d met together, usually hanging out in the big Victorian house across town where Jonah lived with his grandpa, since that was safer, but they’d managed quite a few happy hours here at Mitch’s place, too. Whenever his dad had been working, the two of them would spend the afternoon just like they had this one—together in Mitch’s bed, their only care in the world making each other feel good, as if they had all the time in the world.

Of course, they’d always made sure they were done and out of the house again before Mitch’s old man got home… the same in every way, since it was exactly what they needed to do now.

Except different, because they weren’t in school anymore.

This was the last time.

Now that they had graduated, they both had actual adult responsibilities coming that would take them each away from Hidden Creek.

Away from each other.

Mitch closed his eyes and kissed Jonah, blocking the thought out. Tasting him again. Memorizing all of it and praying like mad that the memory would be enough to last him after it was gone.

“I don’t wanna go,” Jonah said when he finally pulled away.

He still didn’t have his pants on, and for once, the fact didn't have Mitch instantly hard. Instead, it almost made him feel hopeless.

Mitch made a small sound of agreement in response to Jonah’s comment, but over Jonah’s shoulder, the glaring red digits on his bedside clock mocked him with the truth: Jonah had to go.

Mitch dropped his arms and Jonah sighed, turning away and then bending over to pick up his pants and giving Mitch one last look at the ass he was probably never going to see again.

“Maybe if you ask nicely, your drill sergeant will let you skip basic training to spend a few more weeks with me,” Jonah joked as he pulled up his pants. His heavy sigh gave him away, though. It was an impossible dream, and they both knew it.

And even if Mitch had the guts to go AWOL before showing up for basic, there was also Jonah’s dream to consider. The one Mitch didn’t fit in, either.

“It’s not like you can say thanks but no thanks now that you’ve been accepted to design school in New York, either,” Mitch said, forcing a probably-fake-looking smile onto his face. “It’s your dream, babe. I’m… I’m so happy for you.”

And it was true. Jonah had always wanted it, and it was great that one of them was getting what they wanted.

“I just wish you joining the Marines was actually your dream,” Jonah said, frowning.

Mitch shook his head, holding up his hand. No point going there. He was a Davis man, and even if he didn't quite match his father’s idea of what that meant, it was still a given that he had to live up to the name.

“Serving our country is what my family does,” he reminded Jonah. “My dad would disown me if I tried to get out of it.”

Not to mention—and Mitch wasn’t going to mention it—that the fact that enlisting was about the only way Mitch had been able to convince his dad that he wasn’t gay.

Because no gays had ever served in the Marines, right?

But hey, if that was what Franklin Davis had to tell himself to sleep at night, Mitch wasn’t going to spoil it for him. And if it would keep him off Mitch’s back—hell, maybe even make him proud of Mitch for a change? Yeah, that was a win as far as Mitch was concerned.

Except for the part where he had to lose Jonah in the process.

“I know,” Jonah said, sinking down onto the edge of the bed with a look on his face that just about killed Mitch. “And I know it’s gonna be hard for both of us, being so far away, but it’s not just this—” somehow, he managed to make the gesture between them encompass everything physical they’d ever done, “—it’s… it’s… Mitch, I feel like I’m losing my best friend, not just my boyf—”

“No,” Mitch interrupted quickly. They weren’t boyfriends. Mitch couldn’t have a boyfriend. Ever. Sure, he loved Jonah, but they were best friends and that’s all they were ever going to be able to be.

Best friends who just… messed around together, too.

Or had.

He clenched his jaw, willing away the sting in his eyes.

“We’re not losing each other, Jonah,” he said, sitting down next to his… best friend. “We’ll call. We’ll write. You’ll give me your new number as soon as you’re settled in New York. And then maybe on holidays or something…”

His voice trailed off as the first tears started to roll down Jonah’s cheeks, and something inside Mitch died a little. No matter how he tried to spin it, they both knew the truth. They might call. They might write. But this wasn’t going to be like the time Mitch’s dad had sent him to church camp for two weeks up in Oklahoma after he’d beat—after he’d found out, suspected, that Mitch was gay. Being away from Jonah for that long had been torture, and Mitch had made sure that he’d done whatever he’d had to after that to ensure that he wouldn’t give his dad cause to separate them like that again.

It had worked, too. He’d toed the line, and he and Jonah had never spent that much time apart again in the years since. But now? This was permanent. This was real.

This was goodbye.

Mitch pushed his own feelings aside from long practice—they didn’t serve him, weren’t anything he was allowed to do anything about—and reached up to gently swipe his thumb across Jonah’s cheek. He hated seeing Jonah upset, and he hated even more that he was part of the reason for the tears that were still streaming down Jonah’s beautiful face.

Knowing the way things stood, maybe it would be better if they didn’t even try to stay in touch… not when it hurt this badly to say goodbye.

“I hope we do get to see each other again soon,” Jonah said, his voice barely above a whisper but his words stabbing Mitch in the heart. “I will call and write and do all of those things, but I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like living somewhere without you being just a few minutes away. I already miss you.”

Mitch felt the hot prick of tears welling up behind his own eyes, but he couldn’t let himself cry yet. He wanted to be strong for Jonah. He wanted to make sure Jonah was okay.

And that probably meant letting this—all of this—fade away once they were apart.

Mitch’s throat closed up so tight that for a moment, he actually thought he was choking. But then he got a handle on it. His own tears could come later, when he was alone, just like any other time he’d needed to cry. Right now, what mattered was Jonah.

“You don’t have to miss me yet,” Mitch said, forcing a smile as he pulled Jonah close and buried his face in Jonah’s sweet-smelling hair.

He inhaled deeply.

If he had to give Jonah up, he was going to remember everything.

Jonah sniffled and melted against him for a moment, then pulled away, his lip trembling as he tried to smile through the tears. “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t helping. I just… I should probably go. We’ve used up those few minutes, haven’t we?”

Mitch’s eyes darted to the clock.

Yep, they had.

“You don’t need to go yet,” Mitch said instead, his heart rebelling hard for a moment. “We’ve still got some time before my dad gets home.”

Barely.

Jonah shook his head. “Staying longer is only going to make it harder.”

Losing you is going to break my heart.

Mitch clamped his lips down tightly, keeping the pointless words locked inside as Jonah stood up. But when Jonah took a step toward the door, Mitch was right there with him without even having realized he’d moved. He took Jonah into his arms again, heart pounding even as it made good on its promise and started to break apart.

He might not be able to slow down time and he knew he couldn’t hold on forever, but Mitch was going to take that last few seconds no matter what it cost him.

“Kiss me,” Mitch said, feeling suddenly desperate. “Please, before you go… just kiss me.”

Jonah wrapped his arms around Mitch without any hesitation, leaning into his kiss with just as much desperation. He opened his mouth to Mitch and made a needy little whimper as their tongues met, clinging to him.

Mitch kissed Jonah back hard.

Hungrily.

Greedily.

Crushing his lips against Jonah’s one last time before they had to say goodbye, and—just like every other time their lips met—it was heaven.

Perfect.

It was sweet and delicious and better than anything else Mitch had ever had or knew he could ever hope to have again.

And then it was over.

Jonah pulled away, cheeks streaked with tears again as his eyes darted to the clock. He reached for the door. “I need to go, but promise me you’ll get in touch when you get to basic training.”

“I promise,” Mitch said, his voice sounding too low, too full of emotion even to his own ears. “I promise I will.”

And he would. At least that. He could at least have that, right? Even if he let it go afterward.

Let Jonah go.

Let Jonah’s New York City dreams unfold and sweep him away into something better… and pour himself into becoming the kind of man his father expected—in becoming a Marine—to shield himself from the loss.

Jonah nodded, a sweet, sad smile playing across his lips, as if he knew they wouldn’t—couldn’t—last, either. “Goodbye, Mitch. I lov—um, I mean, I won’t forget you.”

Mitch nodded, clasping his hands behind his back and forcing another smile. “You’d better not. I’ll be thinking of you while they’re kicking my ass in basic.”

Jonah stared at him hard for a minute, then turned away. “I’ll be thinking of you always,” he said, his voice cracking. “Goodbye, Mitch.”

“Bye, Jonah,” Mitch whispered.

But Jonah was already gone, which meant there was no one to hear Mitch say the rest of it. So he didn’t bother… even though it was true: I’ll be thinking of you, too.

Always.