“I want to move back to my apartment.”
Cris Sable fumbled the bowl he was putting into the dishwasher. It slipped from his fingers and cracked against another bowl he’d already lined up in the top rack. Instead of checking to see if he’d broken one of Chet’s dishes, he turned to look at the man who’d uttered the unexpected statement.
One of his boyfriends, Jake Bowden, watched him from the other side of the kitchen island, his brown eyes wide with a combination of apprehension and determination.
“You what?” Cris said, even though he’d heard Jake clearly the first time.
Jake chewed on his bottom lip, then took a breath. “I want to move back to Benny’s apartment. I mean, the whole reason Chet brought me here was so you guys could help me with my bipolar, and it’s been a month, so….” His determination bled away, leaving only fear. “Are you mad?”
“Of course not.” Cris wiped his hands on a towel, then circled the island to stand by Jake. He dwarfed the younger man by six inches and lots of muscle, but something about Jake’s big heart made Cris feel very small sometimes. “Chet never put a time limit on you living here.”
“I know, but I feel like I’m taking advantage by staying now that I’m making progress. Plus I…I need to know I can do this on my own.”
Cris had no counter-argument for that. He understood Jake’s need to be independent again, after leaning on Cris and Chet for the better part of five weeks. Jake’s bipolar disorder was being managed with medication and weekly therapy sessions. He’d gone back to work go-go dancing at a gay bar named Big Dick’s. And he was easing into the complications of being part of a three-man relationship.
All three of them were, both in and out of the bedroom. Jake was still dealing with the side effects of his medications, and he was extremely sensitive about his temporary erectile dysfunction, so physical affection between the three of them had remained limited to blow jobs and rubbing off.
Jake moving out of the house and back into his shared apartment was an empowering move for him. Intellectually, Cris understood that. His heart hated the idea of Jake being a fifteen minute drive away. “I think moving out is very brave,” Cris said. “Selfishly, I don’t want you to go, because I like waking up with you every morning, but I do understand why you want to do this.”
Jake visibly relaxed, then leaned into Cris’s broad chest. Cris looped both arms around Jake’s waist, absorbing the heat of his boyfriend’s lean body. “Thank you,” Jake said. “I like sleeping and waking up with you guys, too, but this is something I really need to do.”
“I know.” He rested his chin on the top of Jake’s head. “On the plus side, you’ll be close to work again.”
“Very true. I think I use your car more than you do.” Jake’s apartment was only a seven block walk to the club, versus Chet’s house in the suburbs, which required a car ride across the river to get back and forth. Jake had never owned a car, so he usually borrowed Cris’s.
Being a programmer meant Cris could work anywhere, as long as he had his laptop and earbuds. The car was simply a relic from his old life that he’d never managed to part with. He’d drive it until it died.
“Have you called Benny about moving back?” Cris asked.
“Not yet, but I paid him my share of the rent on the first, so the room’s still mine.”
“Do you know when you want to leave?”
Jake huffed. “I don’t want to leave, but I do think this is the right call. I’ve thought about it for a while, and I even talked to Dr. Englade about it, so this isn’t the same kind of impulsive, dumb decision I used to make.”
Cris loved that Jake had consulted his therapist and put thought into the matter, but he also couldn’t resist teasing him. “Impulsive, huh? Like pretending to steal my wallet after the first night we had sex, because you were so attracted to me it scared you into pushing me away?”
“You’re never letting me live that down, are you?”
“Honey, I will tell that story to our grandchildren.”
Jake stiffened in his arms; Cris realized what he’d said and how it probably sounded.
“Metaphorical grandchildren,” Cris amended.
Damage done. Jake wiggled out of his arms, uncertainty etched all over his face. “Do you want kids?”
Okay, this was not a conversation Cris was prepared to have on a Thursday morning. “I’m not against the idea of kids, but I’ve never sat down and dreamed of a life with them in it. Maybe a little bit when I first started dating Lily, but not since.”
Lily had been the first person he’d dated who’d completely accepted his bisexuality, and Cris had fallen in love quickly. Loving her had been the best six months of his life—until he confessed to his former side job filming gay porn. He hadn’t filmed a scene since they became exclusive, but she had still freaked, refused any explanation, and left him heartbroken. He’d dealt with his own bout of depression after that, quitting porn completely, shutting out everyone except his best friend Taro Ichikawa.
Taro had pulled him out of it, and Cris had returned to porn again for two more years, before officially resigning a few weeks ago. Cris never would have been able to date Chet while Chet was still his boss. They planned to film Cris’s official retirement video for the website this weekend.
“Besides,” Cris said, “there are still too many religious nutjobs who froth at the mouth over gay couples adopting kids. I can only imagine the epic freak-out of a threesome wanting to adopt.”
Cris didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He never should have made the dumb joke about grandkids, so he redirected to Jake’s announcement. “Have you told Chet about you leaving yet? Or did you use me as a sounding board?”
Jake crossed his arms and leaned against the island. “I wanted to tell you first. I kind of feel like Chet’s going to follow your lead, and you’re being super chill about this.”
“That’s because I love you, and I want you to be happy. If moving out for a while is what you need, I’ll support it. It’s what boyfriends do. As long as Benny doesn’t mind sleepovers once in a while.”
“I doubt he’ll care.” Jake’s dark eyes went wide. “Fuck, what if Chet wants to stay over? Wouldn’t that be weird? I mean, the only person who knows we’re all dating is Dell.”
Dell Greenwood was Chet’s nephew, as well as his director of photography for the porn studio in the basement. The only reason Dell was in on the secret was because he lived at the house, too, and he’d witnessed the entire complicated process of their threesome finding their way to each other.
“We’ll figure it all out,” Cris said. “But maybe we should figure it out with Chet, since he’s one third of this.”
“Figure what out with Chet?” Proving himself a man of impeccable timing, Chet Green strode into the kitchen from the foyer archway. He’d eaten breakfast with them in his pajamas, which was rare, so he’d gone upstairs to shower and dress, while Jake and Cris cleaned up from the meal.
Chet could make the dirtiest rags look sexy as fuck. Almost as tall as Cris, but with a leaner, swimmer’s body, Chet wore a blue polo and khakis like it was the finest three-piece suit. His silver-spackled hair was styled perfectly, and even though he’d turned forty-eight this past spring, you’d never guess he was older than thirty-nine.
Chet stopped an arm’s reach from Jake and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Cris said. “But this is something that involves all three of us, so I’m glad you’re here.”
Jake swallowed hard before facing Chet. “I want to move back to Benny’s apartment for a while, so I can prove I can function on my own and manage my meds, and that all of my progress isn’t going to go away if you guys aren’t here twenty-four-seven to prop me up.”
Chet’s frown softened into a fond smile. “I think that’s a very mature decision, Jake.”
“Very much so. In fact, I’ve been struggling with a way to bring this up myself.”
Jake edged backward a step. “You want me to leave?”
“Quite the opposite.” Chet invaded Jake’s personal space, trapping Jake between the island and his taller body. He hunched down to meet Jake’s eyes and planted both hands on the countertop behind Jake. “I love you here, in my house and in my bed. But I brought you here knowing it was temporary, and now that you’re managing your illness, you need to start managing your life again.”
“Yeah,” Jake said.
“So if you leave, I want you to leave knowing you will always be welcome back.”
“Thank you.” Jake’s lips curled into a sexy smirk. “Plus, us living in different places means we can go on, like, real dates. You and me don’t really do a lot, you know, just the two of us.”
“That’s true, and we can most certainly manage dates. I’d love to spend time with you outside of this house.”
“But what about other people knowing that all three of us are dating?” He squirmed enough that Chet stepped back, giving him space.
“What about it?” Chet asked. “Even if the three of us went out to a meal in a nice restaurant, no one would know we were together unless we began swapping kisses at the table.”
The mental image of the three of them dressed up and making out in a fancy restaurant made Cris’s dick twitch. He’d never do it, but goddamn, he wanted to publicly claim these two amazing, passionate men as his, and no one else’s.
“I guess.” Jake didn’t sound happy about the idea of their threesome being discovered, and that hurt a little bit.
“Are you embarrassed to be dating two men at once?” Cris asked.
“Not really. I mean, it isn’t that I’m embarrassed by you guys. It’s just that this is so…abnormal.”
“Shit, that’s the wrong word.” Jake pushed away from the counter and stalked to the kitchen table. Grabbed the back of a chair but didn’t turn around. “Chet explained polyamory to me and I get it. I do. But not everyone else will. Most people won’t.”
“That didn’t seem to be an issue when we started this weeks ago,” Cris said, confused by this new hesitation in Jake. And frustrated by talking to his back. “Will you look at us, please?”
Jake turned, arms crossed, a familiar look of defiance on his face.
“I think I understand,” Chet said. “Jake leaving moves this relationship outside of these four walls. It’s no longer protected. No longer hidden from outside scrutiny and criticism.”
“But that’s going to happen at some point,” Cris said. “We can’t hide forever, and we shouldn’t have to.” They’d already been hiding for weeks, and all Cris wanted to do was shout to the rooftops about how lucky he was.
“I know that, okay?” Jake snapped. “I just…I’m a go-go dancer, you know? People hear that and automatically assume I’m some kind of slut, so what will they think if they know I’m seeing two guys at once? Uber-slut dancer, aisle threesome?”
“You know you aren’t a slut, so why does it matter so much what other people think?”
Jake took three strides forward, hands balled at his sides, unexpected anger blazing in his eyes. “That’s easy for you to say. You’re this big, buff dude who can shut people up with a glare, and you’re comfortable with people looking at you. You did porn, for fuck’s sake. And maybe I dance half-naked for money, but that doesn’t mean I want people staring at my personal life and dissecting it. It’s too private for that.”
Cris frowned. “Just because I did porn doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with people getting up in my personal life either. Why the hell do you think I used a stage name? Yeah, I showed off my naked body, but Dane wasn’t me, Jake. Internet subscribers don’t get the real me. You guys do.”
“So if you don’t want people up in our business, either, why don’t you get what I’m saying?” Jake was coiled tight, one wrong word away from bursting into tears.
Cris had to fix this. “I do get what you’re saying. I guess I see our relationship differently. I don’t see it as this weird, bizarre thing that people are going to examine under a microscope like we’re a new strain of bacteria. I’m so goddamn proud to be with both of you, and I want to show it. I want people to know you guys are mine and that I love you. I can’t do that if we’re hiding in this house.”
A single tear slipped down Jake’s cheek, and the sight of it broke Cris’s heart a little bit. He swept Jake into his arms, grateful that Jake didn’t struggle or protest the hug. “I’m sorry,” Cris whispered. “I’m sorry that I can’t say the right thing, I’m sorry.”
“You said the right thing,” Jake said into his armpit. “I’m the emotional mess who gets weepy over the way you say ‘I love you’.”
“I don’t ever want to make you scared or uncomfortable to be around me in public.”
“I’m not.” Jake lifted his head, eyes still wet but clear. “Deciding to move out was such a big decision for me that I didn’t think about what that would mean for us, the three of us, in terms of seeing each other on the outside. We’ve been isolated since we started living together, and fucking around together, and I know that bubble can’t last, but I’m fucking terrified to expose myself.”
“It’s perfectly acceptable to be scared,” Chet said. He slung an arm around each of their necks, completing their triad of support. “Jake, your life has altered dramatically in the last few weeks. Learning to live with bipolar is no small thing. Managing one romantic relationship is difficult for anyone, but two at once? It’s a monumental undertaking. And this thing we’re doing now? Us talking about our fears and insecurities? It’s what will make this work, no matter what life throws at us.”
“I like the sound of us.” Jake rested his head on Chet’s shoulder. “But I also need to figure out me. Me living with bipolar. Me with you. Me with Cris. Me with other people. It’s just so much.”
“We’re both here for you, love. Whatever you need.”
“We are,” Cris said, heart swelling with emotion. He’d do whatever had to do, slay whatever dragons needed slaying, in order to protect these men.
“It’s so stupid,” Jake said. “Sometimes I don’t know if these freak-outs are legit, or if it’s because of the disease, and I’m heading for a hypomanic state again.”
“It isn’t stupid,” Chet replied. “You have a long way to go before you’ll be able to see the differences between mania and legitimate anxiety or excitement. But you’ll get there.”
“It’s easier to believe when you say it.”
Cris bit back a joke about himself being less trustworthy than Chet, because now wasn’t the time. “I know patience isn’t your strong suit,” Cris said to Jake, “but give yourself time to get used to your new normal, okay? I might want to show you off to the world, but I can be patient, too, and wait until you’re ready.”
“Thank you. You’re ready to run out into the big, wide world, but I still need baby steps. Maybe a hand to hold and verbal encouragement to keep me going once in a while.”
“Anytime.” Cris kissed his cheek. “Are we good?”
“Of course we are, you big dork.”
Using his very best nasal tone, Cris snapped back with, “I know you are, but what am I?”
Jake nearly fell over laughing. In some burst of evil genius, last weekend Chet had marathoned Pee-wee Herman movies, starting with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. After Jake got over the sheer ridiculousness of the film, he hooted his way through most of it. And he’d been the first to use the infamous line on Cris yesterday, when Cris called Jake a little dork.
Cris loved that they kind of had their own way of teasing each other.
“I’m going to regret ever showing you those movies, aren’t I?” Chet asked as Jake tried to pull himself together.
“Yes,” Cris said at the same time Jake managed, “Never.”
“Not to ruin the euphoria of the moment,” Chet said, “but when were you planning to move out, Jake?”
Jake wiped his streaming eyes on the back of his hand. “Um, I’m not sure. It’s not like I have a lot to move. My whole life fits into a duffel bag.”
Something flickered in Chet’s eyes, as it frequently did when Jake referenced money, even indirectly. Jake had ended up homeless at twenty and couch surfed for a while, until lucking into both a job and an apartment share. For the last three years, he’d pinched every penny and lived in a way that allowed him to pick up and go at a moment’s nice.
Chet, on the other hand, had cash coming out of his ears, thanks to his shares in a lucrative investment company in Los Angeles. He’d moved to Pennsylvania ten years ago, in order to start over, and that’s when he’d hatched the idea for his gay porn site, Mean Green Boys. The majority of the money went to his models, because Chet didn’t need it. He lived a modest lifestyle, too, and it was one of the things Cris loved most about him. Chet was generous with what he had, because he knew what it was like to have nothing.
If Jake stayed here with Chet, he’d never want for anything, but Jake needed to prove his independence first. He’d taken care of himself for too long to become trapped in a relationship with no viable escape options. They all understood that, which made Jake moving out less painful than it otherwise might have been.
“I mean, I guess I could go anytime,” Jake said, uncertain again. “It’s not like I can’t dump my stuff and come back, or whatever.”
“You are free to come and go as you please,” Chet said. “The key I gave you is yours to keep.”
Jake’s surprise melted into gentle affection—a specific look he often directed at Chet. They were still defining the boundaries their personal relationship, but every time Jake looked at Chet like that—and Chet at Jake in return—Cris knew it wouldn’t be long before they took the next step in furthering their sexual relationship.
“Thank you,” Jake said. “I’ll probably still call or text first, to make sure someone’s home, but thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Chet’s eyebrows dipped, and he looked at Cris with a frown. “Are you returning to your apartment as well?”
Cris’s stomach bottomed out. He’d moved in the same day as Jake, with the same goal—get Jake well. And he’d done that. He’d also fallen in love with Chet, and he very much loved living with him. Sleeping with him. Eating and watching TV and snacking on popcorn with him. As much as he’d once enjoyed his solitary existence…Cris didn’t want his empty apartment anymore.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Cris said. “We were all so focused on Jake.”
Jake squeezed his wrist. “Please don’t think you have to leave because I am. I mean, unless Chet wants his house back. But I won’t be mad or jealous if you stay, I swear.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it would feel weird being here without you, but…” He glanced at Chet, who had his heart in his eyes. “I do love it here. You and Dell are family.”
“I feel the same way,” Chet said, a heavy rasp in his voice. “About you, Cristian, and you as well, Jake. You’re both family now.”
Anxiety rippled down Cris’s spine. This was a huge step, one he’d never imagined taking all those weeks ago, when living here had been a temporary solution. But he also couldn’t make himself say it first. “So what exactly do you mean when you say family?”
Chet smiled. “It means that if you wish to, I want you to move here. Permanently. Break your lease. Make this your home. If there are expenses, I’m happy to cover them. I want you here, Cristian, if this is where you want to be.”
“It is. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Cris didn’t anticipate Chet’s fierce hug, and it nearly knocked him over. He clung to Chet, laughing along with him at the huge step Cris was making in his personal life. He’d never lived with a romantic partner before, not even Lily, so this was going to be an interesting adjustment. But he wanted this to work more than he’d wanted anything in his life.
It also terrified him deep down, where he hid the worst of his past. The parts he’d fled Long Island to escape, along with his late sister Grace. The parts he’d had plastic surgery and changed his name to ensure could never find him again. He’d die if his past came back to hurt Chet or Jake.
Chet kissed Cris soundly, a firm press of lips and tongue, before taking a step back. His cheeks were flushed, his pale eyes glistening. “You’ve made me so incredibly happy today, you have no idea.”
“I’m happy too,” Cris replied. “Nervous, but happy.”
“I haven’t lived with another person since I was eighteen. Ten years is a long time to be a lone wolf.”
“Trust me, I understand. I’d lived alone for a very long time before Dell moved in. It took some adjusting on my part, and now I can’t imagine him not being in my life. The same goes for you, and when he’s ready to come back, Jake, too.”
Jake had inched away from them, probably giving them space to share their moment, but he was too far away. Cris slid an arm around his waist and tugged him closer, needing him there. “We’ll make this work. All three of us.”
“Of course we will,” Chet said. “There’s no choice but to make it work.”
“You two make it sound so easy,” Jake said.
“I have no illusions it will be easy, love. No relationship is easy. There will likely be disagreements, perhaps even fights. But I think the final results will be worth the temporary pain. And as we’ve all agreed, our best defense against this falling apart is communication. Between all three of us.” Chet pinned Cris with a firm look. “No more secrets.”
Cris’s belly wobbled. He knew Chet wasn’t referencing Cris’s past; Chet meant the kidney secret. Months ago, Dell had been living in kidney failure. Cris had shared the same rare blood type as Dell, so he anonymously donated a kidney in order to save Dell’s life. He hadn’t told anyone except Taro, and then Jake stumbled over the information by accident. When Chet discovered the secret a few weeks ago, he’d been incredibly hurt. Not by the donation, but because Cris hadn’t been honest with him at the start of their relationship.
He didn’t want to keep secrets anymore, but not even Taro knew the full truth of Cris’s past—not because he didn’t trust Taro. He did. No, Cris’s past was his past, and he’d nailed that door shut a long time ago.“No more secrets,” Cris lied. “Promise.”