Castle Roland

Forever 2 - Changes

by Jack Schaeffer

In Progress

Chapter 14

Published: 7 Jan 16

FOREVER 2 - Changes
By Jack Schaeffer
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." - Robert F. Kennedy, Senator and U.S. Attorney General

"How are you feeling, Jack?" asked Sam, slipping into the hot tub next to me.

"Mmmm...wonderful," I replied, sinking a little deeper into the warm, swirling waters.

"Your butt's not too sore?"

"Nope. I feel great." I put my right hand on his thigh under the water, sexually content - for the moment. He grinned, more than a little proud of himself.

"I don't want to wear you out on the first day, you know," he said, chuckling.

I closed my eyes and relaxed, giving my overworked muscles the rest they desperately needed, one or two inside my ass in particular. I felt no pain, only a kind of physical elation all throughout my body.

We had some time to rest before our guests arrived. Maggie was busy coordinating the food service with the caterer. Delicious aromas wafted from the kitchen as they performed final party preparations. Charles had come in from tending the lawn and flower beds and set up a bar in the main living room. A dozen bottles of champagne waited to chill in a large copper bucket of ice water on the floor. A nearby bookshelf served as the stage for an assortment of crystal glassware.

Sam wisely suggested we jump in the hot tub and stay out of Maggie's way. She wouldn't let me help with anything anyway, since it was my birthday party. She assigned Sam to keep me out of trouble.

"Did we eat all the pizza last night?" I asked. I was hungry.

"Yep. And the cookies, too."

"You ate all the cookies?"

"Well...I was busy last night. Had to keep up my strength," said Sam.

I laughed. "You were certainly busy - half the night and most of today."

"Too much?" he asked, looking at me with genuine concern.

"No way. It was perfect. The best birthday present ever."

Sam kissed the top of my head. "I love you, Jack."

"I know. And you're very good at it, Sam." He smiled and closed his eyes again. I leaned sideways and rested my head on his shoulder as we soaked away the fatigue of our earlier exertions.

"Can I ask you a question?" said Sam.

"You just did," I replied.

"Funny man. No, I'm serious. I need to ask you something," he said, sitting up straighter and looking at me.

"Ask away, Sam."

"I need to know if you would...what I mean is...would you be willing...shit." I sat up and looked at him. His pinched facial expression betrayed his frustration.

"Sam, what is it? Tell me."

He took a deep breath. "My mother called me while you were discussing the party with Maggie a little while ago." He stopped talking and looked deep into my eyes, looking for answers to unspoken questions. I waited. Instead of nodding, he looked down and went silent.

I leaned over until our foreheads touched. "You've given me everything I could possibly want, Sam. Ask me anything and it's yours, I promise. Please tell me what you need," I said softly.

He looked into my eyes again and took another deep breath. "Would you come with me to visit my family?" A simple question, but I knew how hard it was for him to ask. Jeremy Reynolds had strung him along for years, avoiding any familial connections. Family was extremely important to Sam. This was huge.

"I would be honored to visit your family whenever you want," I said. He closed his eyes and leaned against me again as the tension drifted away. I grabbed his hands under the water and squeezed them in solidarity.

"Thank you," he whispered.

After a few moments of silence, Sam slouched back against the edge of the hot tub. I shifted my head to his shoulder again. He visibly relaxed as we held hands under the water.

"Do they know about me?" I asked.

"My sister Kat does. Well...the fact of you. She sussed it out of me a few weeks ago. I only told her I met someone named Jack and it might be getting serious. I'm surprised she hasn't been hounding me for details. She doesn't know I'm here in Denver, though. My family still thinks I'm in Hawaii."

"Why haven't you told them?" I was pretty sure I knew why, but I thought it might help him to talk it out.

"I don't know, really. I guess...after everything with Jeremy...I needed to know this was real, and not just wishful thinking. I couldn't put them through all the broken promises again. It wouldn't be fair."

"To them...or to you?" I said gently. He sighed and squeezed my hand tighter.

"To all of us," he said.

"And now?"

"Now? Now I know you're real, Jack. This isn't some crazy dream, no matter how unlikely or fast it happened. I'm really here, with the man I love more than life itself, and I can't imagine not being with you forever."

"Hmmm...sounds serious, Sam. I guess I better meet the 'rents then, since you're goin' all 'forever' on me." I giggled. "You must really like me."

"Not even a little bit, you jerk," he grinned. I lifted my head and he kissed me softly as we stared into each other's eyes. Forever? Fuck yeah.

"I hope your family thinks I'm good enough for you," I said, settling back into the water.

"They will, Jack. You have nothing to worry about, I promise. They're gonna love you." Easier said than done, I thought.

"When do you want to go see them?" I asked.

"That's why my mom called. Apparently my whole family is getting together for the Fourth of July holiday on the Sound. It makes the most sense to go then, if we can get away."

"The sound? What's that?" I asked.

"Long Island Sound. It's the ocean between Long Island, New York and Connecticut, where my family lives."

"Oh. Is this a regular thing, getting together for the Fourth?"

"Kinda. I skipped it last year after the mess with Jeremy. I couldn't face them. Anyway, my mom said we're all invited to stay with the Bertrands at their house in Rhode Island, which is what we usually do. It's right on the beach. My parents have been friends with them for years. They're practically like family, too." I immediately saw a potential problem, and in an instant, all my old fears of being outed and rejected came flooding back.

Feeling my sudden trepidation, Sam asked, "What's wrong?"


"Yes there is. I can feel it. Talk to me," he said.

"I don't want to make trouble for anybody," I said quietly.

"Trouble? How?"

"Think about it, Sam. If we're staying at the Bertrand's, where will we sleep? They aren't going to let us room together, and I don't want to embarrass your family or make anyone uncomfortable. We agreed we'd never force ourselves or our relationship on other people."

"I've known the Bertrand family my whole life. They know I'm gay, and I don't think they've ever had a problem with it."

"There's a big difference between being gay and bringing your boyfriend home for the weekend."

"First of all, you're not my boyfriend, Jack. You're my partner. I'm not letting anyone separate us. If there's no room for us at the Bertrands we can find a motel somewhere nearby. I won't ask you to stay where we're not welcome, Jack. If people can't handle us being together, we won't stick around."

"But Sam, your family is important to you. I don't want to get in the way of your relationship with them. I can't be the guy who makes you choose...I can't." My muscles were tensing up, like I was spoiling for a fight. Sam felt it through the bubbling waters and turned to me, gently stroking my cheek.

"Shhh...relax, Jack. Everything will be fine, I promise. My family...they'll all love you, because I love you. You don't know them like I do. They're good people, and they've always loved me, no matter what. I promise I won't have to choose. But if I did...I'd still choose you. You're my family now, Jack. You and me." I grabbed his hand and held it to my cheek, fighting back the tears.

"You have no idea how much that means to me," I whispered, choking on the huge lump in my throat. He was offering me the chance to be a part of his immediate family - a family that loved and respected each other, supported each other and believed the best about each other. The kind of family I'd never known. Surely the potential reward was worth the risks. One more thing I needed to do afraid.

I swallowed hard and said, "Okay. When do we leave?"

Sam grinned. "I'll call Kat tomorrow and let her know we're coming. She'll handle it from there." I had a million questions, but dropped them for now. Sam was happy I was coming with him, which was all that mattered. The rest would have to sort itself out.

We were both exhausted. I soon fell asleep leaning against Sam, and dreamed I was staring deep into his fiery eyes as he speared my ass again and again with his rock hard cock.

"Wake up!" shouted a big booming voice, scattering birds from the trees at the edge of the pool. Sam jerked up, throwing my head off his shoulder. In my sudden vertigo, I slipped off my seat and promptly went under water. Of course my mouth was open at the time. I came up on my knees, spitting and spewing, my nose burning from the chlorine.

"What the hell? Ben! You did that on purpose," I snarled as I rubbed my eyes clear of foamy bubbles. He was squatting next to the hot tub, his eyes laughing at my predicament.

"You guys were starting to look a little well done in there," said Ben, grinning.

"Oh crap! He's right. Come on, Jack. We need to get out," said Sam, as he stretched his long, muscular arms upward, then reached for our towels. "Thanks, Ben. I guess we were more tired than we thought," he said.

"Hmmm....I wonder why?" he said with a knowing smile.

I rolled my eyes, stood up slowly, and took Sam's hand for assistance out of the hot tub. We were wearing only our boxer briefs, now dripping wet. We weren't exactly naked, but the clinging fabric left nothing to the imagination. Ben raised an eyebrow.

"What are you looking at?" I said.

"Two guys who've spent the last twenty four hours screwin' their brains out, and then nearly drowned in the hot tub." He chuckled. "You guys need anything for the party tonight - besides pants?"

I hid my hot, blushing face behind a towel. "I think we're good, Ben," said Sam. "Thanks again for saving us from boiling to death. Come on, Jack. Let's get cleaned up. It's party time!" I sighed. Wrapping the towel around my waist, I picked up my discarded shorts and t-shirt. Sam was already through the basement door.

"Jack?" asked Ben. I spun around.


He smiled gently. "Was it a happy birthday?"

I couldn't help it - I smiled back. " was."

"Good. Have fun tonight."

"Thanks, Ben." I turned around and followed Sam to our bedroom.

We showered together. Standing under the hot water, I rested my wet head against his dripping chest, drawing on Sam's strength and confidence. I looked up and he smiled, then reached for the shampoo.

We dressed in party clothes - casual slacks, no jeans, and dress shirts, no ties. Sam suggested we wear our leather loafers with no socks. Worked for me. As I straightened my shirt in the mirror and checked my teeth, Sam put his arms around me and looked at my reflection, pressing his rigid cock into my ass.

"I love you, little man," he said.

"I know. I can feel it back there." It was his turn to blush. I grinned.

Sam growled against my neck. "Come on, before I lose what's left of my self-control and throw you on the bed again."

"Promises, promises," I replied.

"Oh...your ass is so mine, Schaeffer. Count on it," he said with a sexy leer. I turned and kissed him hard. It lasted a little while, and when we broke it off, his eyes were on fire.

"Oh, look at the time. Gotta go. Guests are arriving any minute," I said, slipping from his grasp and heading for the bedroom door.

"You little shit! You did it to me again. Ugh!" I grinned, watching him adjust his hard dick to a more comfortable position in his pants.

Back in the kitchen, Maggie slapped my hand when I reached for a barbequed chicken wing from a huge platter on the island. "Stop that," she said. "Those are for your guests."

"But I'm the birthday boy! Don't I get to eat? I'm hungry," I whined. Sam laughed.

Maggie rolled her eyes and sighed. ", take this and get out of my kitchen," she said, handing me a plate with two lonely chicken wings on it. I grabbed a fried crab cake ball and made a beeline for the living room. Sam followed me, laughing all the way.

I was eating to combat my nerves as much as my hunger. Parties were not my favorite scene. I didn't have the confidence or necessary social skills to be a successful host. Sam, on the other hand, was excited, pacing around the living room, adjusting lamps and shifting picture frames to bleed off energy.

"Oh my god! These are delicious," I said, savoring my crab cake bite.

"I certainly hope so," said a voice behind me from the kitchen doorway. I spun around to see a woman dressed in black pants, crisp white dress shirt, and a dazzling smile step down into the living room. Her long blond hair looked like spun gold under the ceiling lights. She held out her hand.

I swallowed and wiped my right hand on my pants. Classy. "Uh...hi. I'm Jack," I said, shaking her hand. "This is Sam." Sam smiled and shook her hand, too.

"I'm Peggy Reese. Nice to meet you both. I'm the caterer, so you liking my food is kind of a big deal," she said.

"Well, what I've tasted so far is wonderful," I said.

"Good, I'm glad. Can I get you something else?" she asked, looking at my plate of gnawed chicken bones. I was still hungry, but a lot of food on a nervous stomach was a recipe for disaster.

"I'd better wait until after the guests arrive," I replied. "Did you personally make all the food in the kitchen?"

"My staff and I. Maggie's been a huge help, of course. You have a great kitchen for entertaining. It's bigger than my whole apartment. Instead of passing trays, since there's plenty of room, we could stage the food on the island. Will that work for you?"

"Sure. Whatever you think is best," I replied.

"Have you been in the food business long?" asked Sam.

"Ten years. I started out as a part time waiter and eventually worked my way up to sous-chef for an upscale restaurant downtown. I put myself through culinary school and when I graduated, I decided I liked the variety of catering better, so a year ago I launched my own company."

"You must be doing well for yourself, then," I said.

"We're getting there. It's hard to be patient and put in the time, since it takes a few years to build up a reputation. And of course, it only takes one bad review from an influential client to destroy all your hard work. Word of mouth is everything."

"Did you know the Franklins?" I asked.


"The Franklins. They were the previous owners of this house. They catered several parties every year here."

"No, I'm sorry, I never met them. Maggie called my office last week and asked if we could squeeze her - and I guess that means you - into the schedule. We thankfully had an opening, so here we are."

"Hey, Schaeffer, you've got your own fun. Leave mine alone," said Ben, walking in from the hall. Fun? "I see you've met Peggy. Peg, these guys give you any hassle, let me know."

"I take it you two know each other," said Sam, grinning. "Perhaps you share an interest in baseball?" Oh...she was that fun.

"Among other things," said Ben, also grinning. He put his arm around Peggy's shoulders. She leaned into him, looking right at home.

"So...Peggy..." I said.

"Don't even start, Jack," said Ben.

"What? I was going to ask her if she needed any help during the party. Why? What did you think I was going to say?" I asked.

"She doesn't," said Ben.

Peggy laughed. "Thanks for the offer, Jack, but I have two assistants with me tonight. Besides, you're the guest of honor, aren't you?" I sighed and nodded.

Maggie poked her head around the kitchen doorway. "Peggy...sorry to interrupt, but I think the mini quiches are ready to come out of the oven."

"Oh...good. Be right there. If you all will excuse me," said Peggy, taking the plate from my hand. She smiled at Ben, and he watched her backside very carefully as she stepped up and into the kitchen.

"So...Ben. I'm thinking more than the Rockies scored last night," said Sam, hugging me from behind.

Ben smiled. "I might have hit a homerun - or two." I started ticking off a count with my fingers. When I switched to the second hand, Ben rolled his eyes and snorted. "Seriously? It's a wonder you can stand up straight." I grinned and shrugged my shoulders.

"How long have you and Peggy been together?" asked Sam.

"Well, I don't know if you'd call us 'together'. We see each other from time to time. We're both married to our jobs. We have a good time when we can. No demands, no expectations. Keeps everything simple." He seemed content with this arrangement, but his attitude made me a little sad.

"Ben, don't you want to be in love?" I asked.

"You mean like you and Sam?"


"I don't know. I've never been in love - not like you guys, anyway. I've been in two serious relationships in my life, and let's just say neither one ended well. I really don't want to go through all that again."

"What happened?" asked Sam.

"What always happens, I guess. Or I should say, what doesn't happen. I love my work. It's my real passion, but it doesn't leave much room for anything else, which is one of the reasons I like it. It fits me and who I am on the inside."

"Sounds lonely," I said.

"Sure, for some guys. But I like being alone, and the job gives me a certain...emotional autonomy."

"Except when you want to do things you can't do alone," said Sam.

"Yeah...there's that," said Ben with a smile. "Look, I like sex as much as the next guy, but honestly, it usually comes with uncomfortable strings attached. Women expect the man they love to be home every night, and I'm never gonna be that guy."

"Does Peggy know this?" I asked.

"We've talked about it. I've tried to be upfront with who I am and what I can give to the relationship. I know what it looks like - I'm just in it for the sex, right? Sure, sex is a big part of it, but Peggy and I have been seeing each other for three years. I don't hook up with anybody else, and I don't think she does either. I don't see how she could - her schedule's tighter than mine. I care about her, and she cares about me. But neither one of us is looking to live together or even talk to each other every day. The pressure would tear us apart for sure. For now, this works for us."

"Friends with benefits?" asked Sam.

"Something like that. Maybe a little more, I don't know. I just know I don't want to screw up a good thing, and Peg is a good thing for me," said Ben. Sam nodded. I said nothing. If they were happy, who was I to judge?

"Right. Well, enough about my social life. I'm headed down to the gate to supervise the arrival of your guests. Enjoy the party."

"Thanks, Ben," I said.

"Later," he replied, then departed through the front door.

Just after six the doorbell rang, and Todd and Margie were the first to arrive. She looked radiant in her red party dress. So far pregnancy agreed with her. Todd looked like the cat who swallowed the canary.

"Jack! Happy birthday," said Margie, giving me a big hug. "It's so good to see you guys again. Sam, thanks for inviting us." She hugged Sam and then took a step backward and looked back and forth between Sam and me. "Oh my. Oh yes...I see."

"See what?" I asked.

"Never mind, Jack," said Sam, quickly changing the subject. "So Todd...I hear you're going to be a father. Way to go, stud." They high-fived. Todd was grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, no," said Margie. "I'm the one who has to lug this baby inside me everywhere I go, swell up so big I can't see my feet, and then scream my fool head off through the worst pain of my life in delivery, and Todd here stands around, passes out cigars, and gets all the glory? I think not...stud." We all burst out laughing. Todd shrugged his shoulders and kept smiling. I was still trying to figure out what Margie saw earlier. Did I have a piece of crab cake stuck in my teeth?

"Follow me and I'll show you where the food and drinks are," said Sam.

"Oh good. I'm starving," said Margie.

"Starving? You had dinner less than an hour ago?" said Todd.

"Hey...I'm eating for two now. Besides, I'll probably throw it all up tomorrow morning anyway. I gotta tell ya, Jack, morning sickness is a bitch," said Margie, grabbing my arm as we walked to the kitchen. I'd take her word for it.

The doorbell rang as Margie was piling up two plates of food. Todd was her designated food fetcher and plate holder for the evening, apparently. He looked happy to do it. I was glad he was paying attention to her at this special time.

Sam and I excused ourselves and went back to the front door. Sully was standing there with a bottle of wine in one hand and an incredibly handsome gentleman in the other.

"Sam! Jack! Good to see you again. Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to my partner, Mark Olsen. Mark, this is Jack Schaeffer and Sam Wainwright." Mark reached out and shook both our hands firmly. He had the greenest eyes I'd ever seen. Kind of like Ben's, and almost as beautiful as Sam's. The contrast with his gray hair was striking.

"It's so good to finally meet you. I owe you both a great debt," said Mark, seriously. "After his lunch with the two of you, and the unfortunate business with Mr. Turner, Sully's decided to throw open the closet doors and publicly declare our relationship. And I can't think of a better time to do it than tonight, with you. And happy birthday, Jack."

"Thank you. Very nice to finally meet you, too. Come in," I said, stepping back as Sam led them to the living room. I saw Sully hand the bottle of wine to Charles, who was manning the makeshift bar. He started mixing a couple of drinks and Sam excused himself to rejoin me in the foyer.

"Wow! Mark's hot, for an older guy. Sully sure can pick 'em," said Sam. I smiled. I was thinking how hot Sam would be in his sixties. I can pick 'em, too.

"I'm happy for Sully. He should be free to live his life and be who he is now. I hope they don't have any trouble," I said.

"I have a feeling Sully couldn't care less what people think about him anymore. And Mark is no shrinking violet. They'll be fine."

Our conversation was cut short by more guests arriving. Soon we had a house full. People were mingling and talking, eating and drinking, and having a great time.

Will Petersen arrived with a very pregnant young woman on his arm. He introduced Valerie Biddle as his friend - not his girlfriend, I noticed - and I figured there was a story there, but playing host kept me from spending much time with him to find out.

Mason came by himself, and thankfully seemed much happier and downright jovial than when I'd last seen him. He joined Simon, who had also come alone, near the bar. Danny brought a very beautiful young woman named Emily. I sensed this was a new relationship - not a first date, but they hadn't had many. He seemed somehow uncomfortable with her, which was odd, since he always exuded extreme confidence. After a few minutes of small talk, he took Emily's hand and led her to the kitchen for hors d'oeuvres.

Ron Albertson, my chief pilot, came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and smiled. "Hey, Ron. I didn't see you guys come in."

"Jack, I'd like to introduce you to my wife, Nancy. Nancy, this is my new boss, Jack Schaeffer." Nancy had to be approaching sixty, like Ron, but she looked no older than forty, with golden blond hair hanging past her shoulders and understated makeup. Her spring season dress was covered in red and orange flowers. She looked stunning.

"It's great to finally meet you, Jack. Ron's told me a little about your adventures. How are you liking Denver?"

"So far I'm loving it. Sam and I are settling in."

"This is such a beautiful home. Phillip and Amanda did an amazing job. It's hardly changed from the last time we were here, has it, Ron?" He shook his head.

"Sam and I have been so busy we haven't even thought about making changes. Besides, I like the idea of living in her house - Amanda's house. It's my only real connection, you know?"

"Of course. And aren't you the biggest surprise to come out of these parts in the last fifty years," she said, lightly touching my arm. Kindness radiated through her smile.

"Can I get you another one, Ron?" said a strange man walking up behind the pilot. Ron turned and his face lit up.

"Gary! Hey, come meet Jack. Jack, this is Gary Johnson, Justin's partner. Gary, this young man is the one who tells your Justin what to do."

"Ha! Good luck with that, Jack. I've been trying to get him to pick up his dirty underwear for years with no success. Nice to meet you," he said, shaking my hand. Sam walked up and joined us. I grabbed his hand.

"This handsome man is Sam Wainwright, my partner," I said. I made introductions and the conversation continued. Nancy wanted details on how Sam and I met, so we took turns telling the tale. She kept putting her hand over her heart, hanging on every word of our young burgeoning romance.

From the words he used, it was obvious Gary was highly intelligent, and the graying temples and fine lines around his eyes accentuated his wise demeanor. In his late thirties, he was a partner in a large criminal defense firm in Englewood, just south of the city. He and Sam started discussing law school, and Sam asked Gary a ton of questions about criminal law - what he liked, what he didn't - and what he could expect from his first year in school.

Justin Wilson, my co-pilot and Gary's partner, walked up between Sam and Gary and interrupted their conversation. " movin' in on my turf?" Sam laughed and pulled me to his side.

"Justin, he's all yours. I've got more than I can handle with this one," he laughed, kissing me on the cheek.

Gary sighed. "He's insufferable, guys. Justin likes to mark his territory, like some kind of animal. It's a wonder he doesn't pee on me before we leave the house," he said, amused more than irritated. Justin's eyes lit up as he leaned in to kiss Gary on the lips lightly.

"You weren't complaining earlier, Barrister," said Justin. He playfully humped Gary's leg once and we all burst out laughing. Justin pointed to Gary's cocktail. "Come on, drink up. I'm not flying tonight and you're not in court tomorrow. Tonight, we party!"

"Fine. But I want a real drink. Come on, fly boy. Let's have some fun." They all turned and moved toward the bar. Sam grabbed my hand as the doorbell rang, yet again. Playing host was hard work.

Billy stepped across the threshold, picked me up, swung me around, and kissed my cheek. "Happy birthday, Cute Stuff!" he said. I grinned. Billy always made me feel special. " me that," he said, reaching for the large wrapped package Sharon was holding.

"You guys. We said no presents," I whined.

Sharon pulled me into a hug, which was all I ever wanted from her anyway. "'s no big deal. Don't you worry about it. Open it later. Now...I want you to meet my other son. Jerome Jack Schaeffer."

Jerome was nothing like I had imagined. Billy was big - all muscle - with flowing long hair and a presence which oozed strength and power. Jerome was a stick. Rail thin, two inches shorter than Billy, with a buzz cut and freshly shaved face. Where Billy's skin was the color of glossy, ebony wood, Jerome's was much paler, suggesting a mixed racial heritage, not that it mattered. The grease under his fingernails was the only thing hinting at his auto mechanic vocation. So this was the man who owned Billy's magnificent ass. Lucky guy.

"Nice to finally meet you, Jack. Billy's are cute," he said, deep dimples lining his face as he smiled. I blushed for the millionth time.

"And this is Jack's partner, Sam," said Billy, practically pushing Sam up to meet Jerome. They fist bumped. Jerome looked at Sam like he was sizing him up, which was funny since Sam dwarfed him by fifty pounds and five inches.

"Billy tells me you're a good man, and you take real good care of Jack. I'm glad to meet you, Sam."

"Thank you, Jerome. Welcome to our home." We walked with the trio to the kitchen. Maggie saw Sharon out of the corner of her eye, practically dropped a tray of canap├ęs on the island, and ran across the kitchen to hug her. She made them each a cup of tea and Nancy joined them at the kitchen table to catch up. Sam followed Billy and Jerome to the bar in the living room.

I wandered around, watching my new friends and co-workers intermingle. Will and Mason were laughing about something. It was good to see Mason laugh. He'd been so moody lately. Danny and Simon stood next to each other, their backs against the fireplace wall, watching Valerie and Emily talk. The two girls seemed to have hit it off nicely. I don't know why, but I got the distinct impression Danny was relieved to not be entertaining Emily for the moment. Simon was still an enigma. I never knew what he was thinking. His face revealed nothing.

I was nearest to the front door when Larry Weiss arrived a short time later. "Larry! Wow. You're looking much better than the last time I saw you," I said. He'd been lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to who knows how many different machines, looking like death on a cracker. His recovery must have been going well. He shook my hand with a healthy grip as we shuffled inside.

"'s good to be up and around again, that's for sure. Now before I forget, Todd told me how you insisted I be a part of the S & A team. I'm touched, and I'll do whatever you think I can to help out, but from what he tells me, you're doing a pretty damned good job of running things," he said with a grin.

"Well...I'm learning as I go. Don't tell him I said this, but I know Todd really values your input, and he's much more relaxed and focused when you're around, or at least within his reach. If you don't mind, I would love it if you'd continue to be there for him, in whatever way he needs you. But only as much as you want to. Neither one of us wants to push you into straining your heart."

"Not to worry. My ticker is getting stronger by the day, and I'm learning how to deal with stress better. They've got me on a treadmill twice a day. It helps Arnold Turner is no longer in the picture. I never dreamed I was pulling you into such a dangerous situation, Jack. I'm glad nobody really got hurt. I hope you know how sorry I am about all of it."

"Forget about it. It's over now. I'm just glad you're still with us. You've been to the house before, I'm sure. Food's in the kitchen, drinks in the living room straight ahead." Larry smiled and ambled toward the kitchen. Before I could follow him, the doorbell rang again.

"Clyde! You made it. And this must be Shirley. Come in," I said, stepping back into the foyer. Clyde's wife wore a navy blue sheath dress that fit her perfectly, and although I really knew next to nothing about such things, I would have sworn her hair and makeup had been professionally done for the occasion.

"Jack, it's so nice to finally meet you," said Shirley, shaking my hand. "Thank you so much for inviting me to your party. When Clyde told me about Amanda's secret child, I couldn't believe it. How she kept it from me, I'll never know. Oh do look just like her," she said, her voice catching in her throat. She reached out to touch my face, haunted by the memories of her best friend, before she stopped her hand in mid-air. "Oh...forgive me, Jack.'s just...I miss her so much, you know?" Clyde put a comforting hand on her back.

"I understand, believe me," I said. "I never had the chance to meet her, but I feel like I know her in some small way through all of you. She changed everything for me, and I catch myself walking around her house, hoping to see her or hear her voice. I'm glad you could come tonight."

"I wouldn't have missed it. Clyde, dear, would you mind getting me a martini. I see Charles is at the bar, doing his thing."

"Of course. Jack, can I get you anything?"

"I'm fine, Clyde. Thanks." He nodded and stepped down into the living room and made his way through the growing crowd to the bar,

" case I don't get to say it later, thank you for what you said to Clyde."

"Uh...what did I say?" I asked.

"I don't know exactly, but after you had lunch together a few weeks ago, he came home with flowers from an actual florist, and ever since then he's been getting me little gifts. He even bought theatre tickets for a show I knew he wouldn't like, but he insisted he did. All of which is great, but I'm telling you, I nearly had a heart attack when he offered to take me shopping last week. And he didn't just drop me off at the door. He spent half the day with me, and carried all my bags, and he even bought me this pearl necklace." She ran her fingers lovingly over the strand around her neck. "It's the kind of thing Phillip would have done for Amanda," she said wistfully.

"Shirley, I'd love to take the credit, but honestly, I think it was all Clyde's idea. He told me about Phillip and Amanda's love for each other at lunch that day. Maybe remembering his friend gave him some new inspiration."

"Well, whatever caused it, I'll take it," she said, grinning, as Clyde walked over with her drink in hand.

"I'm sure you all know your way around. The food is set out in the kitchen. Please help yourself. Sharon and Maggie are in there, I believe," I said. Clyde took Shirley's arm, and she gave me a wink. I think she even giggled. Way to go, Clyde.

As I watched them move down the hallway, Sam suddenly hugged me from behind. I reached up and held on to his big strong arms. He kissed the back of my neck in my special spot, sending tiny shockwaves down my spine and straight into my dick. I moaned.

"Having a good time?" he whispered.

"I am now," I whispered back. Sam released me, grabbed my hand, and pulled me down the hallway and into the study. Once the door closed behind me, he kissed me. It was soft, sweet, and filled with love. And need. His hands casually wandered down my back and started gently squeezing my ass. Our now hard dicks ground against each other, fighting for escape from tight zippers barely containing them. The kissing intensified. Remembering we had guests in the other room, I pulled back and put my hands on his chest, catching my breath. My lips were starting to feel a little swollen. Sam had a wide smile plastered on his face.

"Sorry, Jack. I had to kiss you. I want you so bad. What time can we throw everybody out?" I don't know what it was - the lust in his eyes, the smile on his face, or the love I felt beating in his heart under my hands. Or maybe it was an overabundance of hormones and pheromones and who knows what all else pinging around the room. Whatever caused it, the "sense and reason" monitor in my mind suddenly went on the fritz, and I knew I had to have him inside me immediately.

"Sam...please fuck me. Right now," I begged, sliding around to the desk and unfastening my belt. At first he was shocked at my brazenness. Then his eyes slanted sideways and his own lust took over. He was behind me in a flash, my pants and underwear down around my ankles and his fingers, covered in spit, were probing, demanding entrance. I bent over, reached back to hold my cheeks apart, giving him better access, and willed my asshole to relax. He used his tongue to lubricate my hole as best he could, then he stood up and pressed his cock against it and started pushing. There was little resistance, which surprised both of us. He was all the way in almost before I knew it was happening, and as he pounded my hole, I could feel my rigid dick leaking on the desk beneath me as it scraped back and forth on the hard wooden surface.

For a second I thought about stained wood and furniture restoration services and how would I ever explain this to Maggie, but then I refocused on the sensations flowing from the hard cock sliding faster and faster in and out of my ass. The nerves in and around my hole were screaming for release from the relentless assault, pain and pleasure tripping over one another again and again, but my mind and dick wanted more, more, more.

"Come on, Sam. Fuck me," I whispered. "Yeah, that's it. Oh fuck. Fuck! Yes! Right there. Don't stop. Please don't stop." I pushed back on him, releasing my dick to drop in front of the desk. Sam reached down and started stroking me as he increased his pace. He was panting now, and I could tell he was struggling to maintain a steady rhythm as his orgasm approached.

"Oh fuck, Jack. Oh fuck. It's so good," Sam hissed. I squeezed my battered ass as tight as I could against his cock. "Fuck! Oh my...fuck, you're so tight. Here it comes, Jack. I'm gonna cum...I'm...Fuck!" As his dick started pulsing against my prostate, my own cum started shooting against the front of the desk, making a huge mess. I didn't care. We rode the pleasure wave in tandem, until Sam was laying on my back, pressing me down onto the desk. I squeezed my ass one more time, and he giggled.

"Wait here. I'll be right back," said Sam. He pulled up his pants, squeezed his still hard dick into his underwear sideways, and fastened his belt. With a big grin he slipped out into the hallway and was back in less than a minute with a warm, wet towel and a dry one. I cleaned myself up while he wiped down the desk. Thankfully it was none the worse for wear, which was more than I could say for my ass.

"I can't believe we did that," said Sam, grinning. "You are so fucking hot, Jack. That was fun." I took a step toward him and halted, wincing with a sharp pain in my ass. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"I'll be fine. It's just the first time without lube...I'm a little sore now."

"Shit! I'm so sorry, Jack."

"Don't be, please. I'm not. I wanted it. I'm the one who asked you to do it. And I'd do it again...well...maybe in a little while." I hugged him and he wrapped his arms around me and held me tight against his chest. Sam leaned back and lifted my chin to look me in the eyes.

"Never be afraid to say no, Jack. Promise me you won't hurt yourself to love me."

"I promise, Sam."

"Come on, let's get back to the party before somebody figures out we're gone and gets suspicious."

My internal "sense and reason" switch suddenly flipped back into the ON position. "Oh, crap. Hurry!" I said, as we snuck out of the office and back down the hallway toward the kitchen. I realized we'd left the towels under the desk, but hopefully no one would find them before I could sneak back later.

Peggy was refilling platters of food on the island from the oven, the smells making my mouth water. I was ravenous, so I filled a plate high with a variety of tasty creations, grabbed a cold water bottle from the fridge, then sat down and chatted with the ladies at the table. Maggie told a couple of funny stories about parties Phillip and Amanda had thrown in the past, and we all laughed. The more I learned about her, the more I loved her. When Maggie spoke about the last party Amanda had hosted before her death from cancer, I had to fight tears. At one point Sharon put her hand over mine and squeezed it. She understood.

I smiled and quietly excused myself, setting my empty plate on the growing pile in the kitchen sink. Peggy was consolidating platters of food and rearranging garnishes on several trays. I gave her two thumbs up and she grinned.

Back in the living room, Todd was hanging with Simon and Danny, discussing of all things, dirt bike racing. Apparently straight-laced, buttoned up Simon was quite adventurous in his earlier years, and had won a couple of regional races in his day. Mason and Will were chatting with Billy and Jerome about car engines and which was better, mid or rear placement. I didn't know a differential from a transmission, so I just listened. It was clear Billy and Mason were on one side of the argument, and Will and Jerome were united in their opposition. I remained neutral, since I didn't really care where the engine resided as long as there was one.

Sam was outside on the deck with Sully, Mark, Ron, Justin and Gary, so I couldn't hear their conversation. It looked like Sully had them in stitches about something. Larry, Clyde and Charles were standing by the bar, reminiscing about Phillip and other friends they'd lost over the years, while Emily and Valerie, looking for all the world like new best friends, were sitting on a couch, chatting about some romantic comedy TV show they both liked, which I had never seen. Margie was standing by herself next to the fireplace, nibbling some food, so I decided to keep her company. She smiled as I approached.

"So, Jack...has Sam gotten you pregnant yet?" she asked.

" Margie!" I said, frantically looking around, hoping no one overheard her. "How can you say things like that?"

"Relax, Jack. You should see your face, it's priceless," she grinned, touching my forearm. "It's all good, honey. Girls see things, notice things. That's all."

"Like...what things?" I said, taking a sip from my water bottle.

"Like how you have this I-just-got-fucked glow all over you." I inhaled sharply and starting choking. I managed to quickly regain my composure, but I'm sure I still looked horrified. She just stood there smiling at me.

"Jack, relax...and breathe. Hey, I'm happy for you. You and Sam should be having fun together."

"Does it really show?" I whispered.

"So you admit you've been doing the nasty?" she teased. I blushed all the way to my toes, but I did nod slightly.

"Good for you. And no, Jack, it's not like you have a flashing sign on your forehead. I didn't mean to embarrass you. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. I'm getting more comfortable with people knowing we have sex. It's just...I don't want it be a thing, you know?"

"Hey, it's nobody's business what you and Sam do together. If you want to fuck like bunnies morning, noon, and night, I say go for it." This time I spewed water all over the brick fireplace wall. Oh my god! The woman had no filter. None.

I wiped my mouth, totally embarrassed. Margie ignored my expulsion and continued. "You see Danny and the girl he brought - what's her name? Emily? Nothing happening there. I can tell. There is zero chemistry. They haven't looked at each other most of the evening, and they're in the same room. And Will and Valerie? I don't know who she is, but she is definitely not with him. They are just friends, for sure."

"How do you know?"

"I don't know, I just...know. I'm usually right, though. Just watch." I studied the room for a moment, following my guest's eyes. I caught Todd looking across at us several times. He was clearly keeping an eye on Margie. Sam looked at me through the bay windows from the deck, winking and grinning when he caught me watching him. Danny never looked at Emily, and Will didn't look at Valerie. Interesting.

"I was surprised Will came with someone. And even more surprised it was a girl," I said, without thinking.

"Why? Did you think Will was gay?" I shrugged. "Is that your gaydar or something?"

"Hardly. I don't think I have one. I don't know. It was just a sense, from some of our conversations."

"Well, I can tell you he is definitely not gay," she said with finality.

"How do you know?" I asked, now thoroughly intrigued by her gifted observations.

"Because he's spent the whole evening with his eyes glued to the caterer's ass. He follows her every move. And I've seen him adjust his crotch after she leaves the room, too. You know what that means," she said nonchalantly.

"Are you for real? You notice stuff like that?" I asked, feeling even more self-conscious.

"Please! Guys are so obvious. We girls start noticing male behavior in middle school. How else would we know if a guy's interested in us? It's not like you know how to speak." I chuckled.

We continued to watch the room together, observing people's conversations. At one point Valerie leaned in to whisper in Emily's ear, and the two of them stood up and left the room.

"Where do you think they're going?" I asked quietly.

"Where do two women usually go when they leave a social gathering together?" I looked at her, clueless. "To the ladies room, of course. Valerie's at the stage where her bladder is being flattened like a pancake. She probably can't be more than ten minutes away from a toilet. Not looking forward to that."

"You are excited about the baby though, right?"

"Of course. I know Todd's not happy about the timing, what with everything happening with your company and all. But let's be real - there's always going to be work to do, right?"

"I agree. I told him he had to make every doctor's appointment and birthing class or he was fired." She laughed.

"Thank you, Jack. I appreciate it. I thought it was odd when he texted me out of the blue yesterday and said he was meeting me at the clinic."

"He wants to be there, Margie. I know he does. But he gets his identity and energy from his work, so we're gonna have to help him balance work and family better." She looked at me sideways.

"My turn to ask - are you for real? You'd put my family ahead of your business needs?"

"What do you mean 'your family'? You and Todd are my family, too. And yes, family comes first. Besides, like I told Todd, there's no way to stop him from doing what he does best. And would you really want to?"

"No. I've seen him get so excited when a deal works, or when he solves a particularly thorny problem. Hell, even making travel plans for you and Sam gets his motor going."

"Yeah, well, that's going to have to change. He has too much on his plate. I need to find an assistant who can take care of me and my personal stuff and free him to do what he really needs to do - run my company. We need an office manager, too. Hopefully someone who knows HR as well."

"Damn! If I wasn't pregnant I'd throw my hat in the ring for the job," she said with a sigh.

"What? Why?"

"That's what I do. My degree is in human resources management and organizational behavior. I'm the office manager for a public relations firm in Aurora. For all practical purposes I keep the company running while the principals sell their services and design PR campaigns. But once I have the baby, I won't be able to keep working regular office hours."

"Couldn't you work from home?"

"I wish. We talked about it a year ago, when a few local companies made the news by launching telecommuting initiatives. We even did a PR campaign for one company on a quest to be ranked as one of the best places to work in Denver. They tried telecommuting, but it totally bombed. They found out the hard way productivity tanked when their consultants didn't have someone keeping an eye on them. It really takes self-motivated, disciplined people to work from home."

My mind switched into high gear. Margie working for us was a perfect solution to several problems - if we could find a way to work around her pregnancy and future child care. "How big is your office now?" I asked.

"Twelve principals, five assistants, and three clerks. Oh, and one practically useless receptionist."

"What happens if you have a sick day or vacation day?"

"Are you kidding? There's no such thing. If I'm sick enough to not come into the office, then, and only then, I get to work from home. I still have to do payroll, review campaigns, track projects, coordinate with accounting, run staff meetings, and referee the odd office squabble. I could do most of it from my laptop computer and a cell phone, but I do agree there are some things you can't do very well remotely. Why?"

"Okay, hear me out. Let's say you come work for S & A. You'd be the office manager, and you'd have those same responsibilities. I'm more than willing to work around the pregnancy, doctor's appointments, the birth, maternity leave, whatever. After the baby is a few months old, and you want to, come back and work with us, some from home, some from the office, whatever works for you. In fact, we should have day care services in the building. You could help me set it up. As the owner of the building, it would be a great service to offer our tenants. And you and Todd could see your kid anytime you wanted. Look, I know there's a ton of details to work out, but what do you say?"

"Are you serious?"

"Yes. Very."

"I'd have to talk with Todd about it first. When do you need to know?"

"We're meeting Monday to put a hiring plan in place. An office manager is at the top of the list."

"Wow, you move fast. Okay, I'm not gonna lie, I'm interested. But I don't know if Todd will be cool working with me all the time. I have to think about my marriage, too, you know. I don't know if we'll work well together."

"Sure, I get it. Talk it over with Todd, and let me know."

"Jack...thank you. Even if I don't take you up on it. Wow! This is big." And just like that she started tearing up. I looked for some Kleenex as she wiped at her eyes. Todd saw her out of the corner of his eye and came straight over to us.

"Honey, what's wrong?" he asked, concerned.

"Nothing's wrong. I'm pregnant, dammit!" She was smiling and crying at the same time. Women.

I left Todd and Margie alone to work it out and went looking for Sam. He was no longer out on the deck with the other guys. Then the doorbell rang. Odd. Everybody we'd invited was already at the party. Sam appeared in the hallway and beat me to the door by a few seconds. When he pulled it open, my mouth dropped open.

"Andy? Mike?" I said. The doctors from the free clinic in Texas were standing on my front porch. "What are you doing here?"

"Uh...can we come in?" asked Mike.

"Oh...yeah, yeah. Come in. Sorry...I'm just...I had no idea you were coming. Sam, you wanna tell me what's going on?" I asked. He was grinning at me.

"I hope you don't mind, Jack. But I thought it would be cool to get these guys up here for the party, so...I asked Ron and Justin to fly down this morning and bring them up on the plane after their clinic hours were over."

My answer was to kiss him. "I don't mind. Thank you," I said.

"Sorry we're late, Jack," said Andy. "We were at my folks for dinner." Mike grabbed Andy's hand and kissed him on the cheek.

"Let me guess," I said. "Your dad and mom were totally cool with Mike."

"Yeah. You were right. It was...amazing. My dad...what he did for me..." Andy choked up, and Mike put his arm around his lover's shoulder.

"Mr. Munroe welcomed me into the family with open arms. He even told me to call him 'Dad'. Can you believe it?" said Mike.

" do we ever repay you guys for what you did?" asked Andy, after regaining some emotional control.

Sam spoke up. "Easy. By doing what you already do - serving and helping the people in your community. There's nobody better for the job, and it's obviously a huge need."

"Thanks. But not everyone thinks the way you do," said Mike with a frown. Andy squeezed his bicep.

"Should we tell them?" asked Andy.

"Why not? What could it hurt? The whole world will know by the end of the month."

"Uh oh. Sounds like you guys have a story to tell. Come on. Let's get a bite to eat and something to drink and find a comfortable spot to talk," said Sam. They both declined food, but did accept mixed drinks poured by Charles.

"Nice to meet you guys," said Charles. "Jack and Sam had quite the adventure down your way, eh?"

"You could say that," said Andy with a smile. Sam and I sat down on one couch while Andy and Mike sat next to each other on the couch across from us. Our other guests, aware in one way or another about our connection to the doctors, started gathering around, and we did another round of introductions. Half way through, the ladies arrived from the kitchen, Valerie and Emily reappeared, and Sully and Mark came in from the back deck after looking over the grounds. Everyone was all ears to hear the story Andy and Mike had to tell.

"I don't know where to start," said Andy.

"Tell everyone what you do," said Sam. "Then take it from there."

Mike and Andy took turns telling their story, how they became doctors, how they met and fell in love, and how they kept their love a secret as they tried to run a free clinic together in the most destitute of places. They spoke of the challenges and rewards of their work, and shared a few success stories of lives literally saved through their clinic. Then they told how Sam, Todd and I had come down to try and warn them about Arnold Turner and his unsuccessful attempt to kill Andy and me.

"After you guys left, the townspeople rallied around us," said Mike. "They really don't care about our relationship. It's a non-issue. Most of them are so grateful we're there at all. But then we started hearing rumblings. Apparently there are one or two community leaders who aren't too keen on a couple of gay doctors caring for their neighbors and friends. One of them called the Salus Society, the mission which provides all of our funding. Long story short - they've pulled the plug. No more support. We've been instructed to cease operations at the end of the month."

At first there were general grumblings and whispered disdain in response to this news. Then Danny erupted. "Of all the asinine...bone headed...what were they thinking? Don't they know they've just ended medical care for most of the people in the town?"

"I think they believe once we're gone, the mission will bring in different doctors to replace us, which they might. We don't know anything, because they won't speak to us," said Mike.

"Who won't speak to you?" asked Sam.

"The people at the Salus Society. After we received the registered letter notifying us of the defunding, we tried to call several times. As soon as we say who we are, whoever is on the phone says they are sorry, but no one is available to speak to us."

"Where are they located?" I asked.

"Oklahoma City," replied Andy.

I stood up and pointed to Simon. I didn't have to say anything. He stepped away, opened his smart phone, and started searching for information. I pointed to Mason. "Everything you can find on the Salus Society. Financials, education, affiliations, whatever. Danny, on Monday I'm gonna need an understanding of the tax issues surrounding non-profit businesses and how best to fund them. Will, we'll need to get into the legal structure of the mission and their decision to shut down the clinic's operations. Something doesn't sound right." I looked at Todd and he nodded to me. I guess he was cool with what I was doing so far. Sharon smiled and Billy winked at me. I turned my attention to the doctors.

"Okay, guys, question time. Who controls the building, the drugs and the equipment? All the stuff you use at the clinic? And are you employees of the Salus Society, or self-employed?"

Andy looked like he was in shock, hanging on Mike's left arm with both hands as I issued marching orders to my team. Mike looked at me for a few seconds, confused at first, before answering. "Self-employed, I guess. We have our own company. I mean, we pay ourselves, out of whatever is left over of the budgeted income at the end of the month, so it varies. We don't get a paycheck from the mission, if that's what you're asking. They do, however, provide ninety-five percent of our income. It goes directly into our business account, I think quarterly. You'd have to ask our accountant. She's in El Paso." I nodded to Danny, and he put the name Mike gave him into his phone. I knew he'd be talking with her first thing Monday morning.

Larry spoke up. "Jack, if I may?" I nodded. "If I'm understanding correctly, it sounds like this clinic is legally operated by the doctors' company, which means it's not being run by Salus. If that's true, then they don't have any legal authority to shut the clinic down. All they can do is turn off the money spigot."

"I'm assuming you lease the building from which you operate your clinic?" Clyde asked. Mike nodded. "Do you remember when you signed the lease, did you use your company's name, or did the Salus Society establish the lease for you?"

"We used our company. The Salus Society gave us guidance on what we needed to do, but we did all the leg work. When we started this venture, Andy and I first met with the accountant and she helped us establish the company. Then we had to find the location, lease it, get all the necessary county permits and licenses, and find help in fixing up the building so it could function as a clinic. Once Mariana was on board, she helped us find people who could do all the little things here and there to make it what it is today. To be honest, the townspeople are the ones who built the clinic, not us. Which is why it's so infuriating that people who've never stepped foot in the clinic to even see what we do, can shut us down now."

"I think the point is, they can't," said Sam. "What Jack's team is going to do is determine what the Salus Society can and can't do legally to interfere with your clinic. But from the sound of it, it's looking like all they can do is not give you any money."

"But...without the money from Salus, how will we function? Our patients have nothing," said Andy.

"Give me a few days, but I think I can safely say my team will be able to re-establish your funding by the end of the month," I said, looking at Todd, who nodded with a huge smile.

"And I would like to look over the paperwork establishing your business entity, make sure you aren't missing anything from a legal perspective," said Clyde. Shirley looked at him, beaming with pride.

"And I'll speak with your accountant on Monday and see if we can offer any assistance to her, as well," said Danny. Simon looked up from his phone.

"Excuse me, but...who owns the building where the clinic is located?" he asked.

"Myron Davidson. He owns half the real estate in Hudspeth County. I guess it helps he's the County Clerk, as well," said Mike.

"Do you know who it was who tipped off the Salus Society about the two of you?"

"Not exactly, but Mariana thinks it was either Myron or his brother, Aaron. He owns the other half of the county."

"I see. When does your lease end?" asked Simon.

"Um...I don't know. I'm pretty sure it started in June. I remember because it was insanely hot, and we joked we were nuts to set up shop in the desert. Mariana called us a couple of light weight gringos," said Mike. Andy smiled weakly.

"Do you have to renew it every year?"

" sort of just carries over, I think. Unless our accountant does it. She has the authority to sign papers for the company, too."

"So we could have a problem," said Simon.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If this Myron Davidson was the person who outed Mike and Andy, he might pull the lease at the end of the month if he thinks they aren't going to leave on their own. It would be good to have some options, just in case."

"Options? What are you saying?" asked Mike.

"He's saying we need to be prepared to somehow convince Mr. Davidson to leave the two of you alone and let you continue to operate your clinic in his building," I replied.

"That shouldn't be too hard," came a thin voice from somewhere behind Billy. Sharon turned sideways and pulled Jerome forward.

"Speak up, baby," she said. Jerome looked like he would rather drink motor oil than speak up, but he swallowed and continued.

"Well...I said he was the...what was it? The county clerk?" Mike and Andy both nodded.

"Isn't that an elected position?" asked Jerome. More nodding all around the room. " just remind him that a large number of his constituents make use of the clinic, and how it would be a shame if in the next election his opponents found themselves flush with a large campaign war chest and hundreds of human interest stories about all the good the clinic has done for the community. You know...the one he single-handedly shut down." Billy squeezed him hard from behind and Jerome laughed. Sharon kissed his cheek.

"That'll work," said Margie. "Believe me, the one thing politicians hate is negative press. And I'm pretty sure I know a few of the reporters in the El Paso market. A well placed word here and there could generate some interest in local county politics. Who knows what they could discover if they looked hard enough." Margie was back to playing hard ball. I so wanted her on my team.

"Jack...could I say something?" asked Sully. I nodded. "I've known Andrew since he was in middle school. I've watched him become a fine young man, a gifted doctor, and together with Michael they're trying to make a difference in this world. I'm sure I speak for all of us in this room that there isn't anything any of us wouldn't do to help in their cause." Heads nodded and murmurs of assent echoed around the room.

"Now, I've been in business for more years than most of you have been alive. And I know a thing or two about running a business and handling finances. I'm proposing Larry, Clyde, Mark and I form a board of advisors for your medical practice. We can help you manage the business side of things while you tend to the real work - saving lives. And Andy, I think your father might want to play a part as well." Andy looked at Mike, then stood up and walked over to Sully and threw his arms around the old man. Sully wiped away a tear as he held Andy tightly. I knew he thought of Andy as the son he'd never had.

As we all absorbed this tender moment, more than a few eyes glistened with tears, my own included. It was heartening to see everyone rally around the doctors and offer to help, but the whole scene killed the party atmosphere. Maggie, standing next to Charles near the bar, whispered something to him and he nodded. She stepped over behind Sam sitting next to me and whispered something in his ear, causing him to smile and look at me with a twinkle in his eye. She turned and headed to the kitchen. Ben smiled at me from the kitchen doorway as Peggy left his side to join Maggie.

Sam stood up from the couch. "Everyone, can I have your attention," he said. The murmuring conversations around the room ceased. "First, thank you all for supporting Andy and Mike and the important work they're doing. I'm sure they will appreciate all the help they can get." Mike and Andy nodded, relieved of carrying the burden alone.

"But right now, we have something else we need to do. Jack, would you please stand?" My stomach lurched. What was he doing? I stood slowly, feeling every eye in the room land on me. Sam grabbed my left hand and squeezed it tightly to reassure me. Charles started handing out glasses of chilled champagne. I noticed the two pregnant women declined. Sam took one and handed another to me. I looked down into the glass, my trembling hand causing small ripples in the pale golden liquid.

"We are all here tonight because of one man. In totally unexpected fashion, he has intersected our lives and made each of us better for the experience. I think it's true of all of us when I say we will never be the same again."

"Here, here," came a chorus of voices around the room.

"When I first met Jack..." Sam's voice cracked and he stopped for a second, then swallowed hard and continued. "When I first met Jack, just a few short weeks ago, I was lost and in pain. I didn't think I could ever feel love again. But his kindness, encouragement and friendship restored my hope, and I couldn't help it - I fell in love with the guy." I sighed and buried my face into his shoulder for a few seconds.

"I know Jack cares deeply for every one of you. We both think of you as family, not just our friends and colleagues, and I know there is nothing Jack wouldn't do for any of you.'s only fitting that tonight, we celebrate the man who has already changed our lives for the better." He raised his champagne flute, and everyone else did the same.

"To Jack Schaeffer...the man with the biggest heart I've ever known, and an even bigger vision to change the world."

"To Jack!" yelled Billy, and everyone laughed, clinking glasses and sipping champagne. Sam touched his glass to mine, looked into my eyes, and the tears I had been valiantly holding back burst over the dam. He tenderly wiped them away with his fingers, his sparkling blue eyes locked on mine. For a few seconds, everyone and everything else disappeared and it was only the two of us standing there. It was a moment I would never forget.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned to face Sharon. She said nothing, the tears on her face conveying all. She pulled me into a hug, her mother's love flooding my heart. Billy came over and handed us both some Kleenex, then he picked me up and literally carried me into the kitchen, everyone following us, laughing at my useless protests.

On the island rested a large sheet cake covered in white icing, with blue piping almost the color of Sam's eyes spelling out my name, declaring this was indeed my birthday cake. Twenty-five white candles blazed, scattered across the top in no discernible pattern. Billy set me down on my feet again, gave me one last squeeze, then stepped back to allow Sam to take my side. Somebody started singing "Happy Birthday" and all the other voices joined in, most of them way off key, but there was no mistaking their enthusiasm and joy in the celebration.

It was an odd moment for me. Staring into the candle flames, I realized these people filling my kitchen were diverse in so many ways, yet each one had contributed in some way over the past couple of months to my transformation. A transformation from a frightened young man devoid of any self-confidence or sense of value, to the new me - a semi-confident man with his lover's arm around his shoulders and a renewed hope I could make a difference in the world. I actually mattered to these people. They were celebrating me, and while my mind didn't fully comprehend why they would, there was no denying it felt good. Maybe birthday parties weren't so bad after all.

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