Nathan Morris stretched in a useless effort to loosen his knotted back muscles. Hours of examining patients and filling out the mountains of paperwork mandatory to a fledgling medical practice had taken their toll. His partner in the practice, Amy Vaughn, did more than her share, but after watching her work three fourteen hour days in a row, Nathan finally insisted she take a couple of days off. He kidded her about her husband, Mike, forgetting what she looked like. In reality, though, he envied her the security of home and family. The closest he had come to marriage was seven years ago, during his last year of college just before medical school. His first mistake had been falling for a guy who wasn't strong enough to stand up to his parents about what clothes to wear, much less about his sexuality. His second mistake had been believing that his love would be enough to convince Rick to leave it all behind, if necessary, so the two of them could have a life together. All it took was the threat of loosing his hefty trust fund to send Rick crawling home to mommy and daddy.
Nathan shook himself out of the past and glanced at the clock. It was well after six and already dark. Autumn in Reed, Illinois was going to take some getting used to. Having been raised in the south, Nathan was still adjusting to the cooler temperatures and shorter days, but anything was better than the long hours spent watching premature infants fight to rid themselves of the addictions to crack and heroin so generously passed on to them by their mothers. Three years of residency in Atlanta Northern Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit had been almost more than Nate could take. When the opportunity to open a practice in Reed came up, he didn't even have to stop and think about it. The fact that Amy, his best friend since the third grade, had decided to move up here with him was just a bonus, as was Reed's reputation for being a "gay friendly" town. Since Nathan had only been in Reed a grand total of three months, he had yet to test that theory. The only people he saw on a regular basis were his patients, and he hardly thought "Hi, I'm Dr. Morris and I have a preference for penises" an appropriate way to start a conversation.
Nathan gathered up the last of the day's paperwork and headed toward the front of the converted Victorian cottage that he and Amy used as offices. He winced at the thought of going home, but he had little choice. His apartment wasn't exactly homey, but it was better than sleeping on one of the exam tables. He turned out all the lights and grabbed his keys. Before he went out the door, he set the alarm and punched his code into the keypad. Even though Reed was a small town, it was close enough to Chicago that someone might conceivably break-in hoping to find drugs or prescription pads. He fit his key into the deadbolt and was just about to turn it when he felt a blinding pain on the right side of his head.
"You're a dead man, faggot. Best you go back where you came from." The voice was little more than a harsh whisper, but to Nathan the words might as well have been screamed from the top of the Reed County Courthouse. From the corner of his eye, Nate saw his attacker raise whatever object he held, ready to strike again. Fighting waves of dizziness and nausea, and knowing he was too dazed by the blow to fight back, he used what strength he had left to open the still unlocked door and trip the alarm. The shrill beep caused his assailant to run just as Nathan fell to the ground. He was unconscious before he hit the porch.
* * *
His first thought when he woke up on one of his own exam tables was that he must have decided to sleep at the office, after all. His next thought was that he must have gotten drunk and picked up one hell of a hang over before he did so. He tried to move, but a set of soft yet strong hands stopped him.
"Oh no you don't, buster. I have not spent the past twenty minutes trying to wake you just to see you get up too soon and black out again. As it is, I'm still deciding whether or not to pack you into an ambulance and send you to Chicago for an MRI."
Nathan smiled in spite of himself. "I'm fine, Amy. You know my head is the hardest part of my body." He gave her a mock leer. "Most of the time, anyway."
Amy punched him playfully on the arm, her hazel eyes filling with relief. "If you can crack sex jokes, I know you're alright. Now tell me what in the hell happened to you." She swung her long brown hair over her shoulders and pursed her bow lips. Not for the first time did Nathan admire her beauty. She made quite a contrast to her husband Mike's white-blonde hair and clear blue eyes.
"You know, I should have married you back in the fifth grade when you first proposed to me."
Amy laughed at their old joke. "Sorry, sweetheart, but I don't think I have anything you'd be interested in."
Nathan shook his head, an act he regretted the minute the pain returned. "Yeah, well, I didn't have anything Rick wanted either, so I guess you had something in common with him after all, huh?"
"If I wasn't just sure you had a slight concussion, I would shake you for even saying that. All the women in Reed- and some of the men too- are talking about the sexy new doctor in town. Since I was here for two full months while you were still in Atlanta working off your contract with Atlanta Northern, I think it's safe to say they aren't talking about me. Since you've been here, every woman in town has come in for one thing or another. I've had six different patients ask about your marital status in the last week alone." She leaned in closer. "Rick Landon was an idiot. Hell, he probably still is for all I know. You were too good for him, Nate, and that's the last time I'm going to say it." She straightened and said, "Now tell me what happened."
Nathan recalled everything he could, though most of it was fuzzy. Mike Vaughn came to stand by his wife just as Nathan got to the part where his attacker threatened him and called him a fag. Nathan watched as all the color drained from Amy's face and Mike started shaking with rage.
Mike took Amy's place at the head of the examining table. "You're sure that's what he said?"
Mike turned to his wife. "How soon can you find another pair of doctors to buy out your practice?"
Amy was right behind him. "Shouldn't take long. This is a new practice, so most anyone could step in."
Nathan sat up, grimacing as fresh waves of sickness washed over him. "Look, you two, we're not selling out just because some bigot took a shot at me. Even if I was scared enough to leave, which I'm not, you don't have to go, too. You just bought your first house, dammit."
Amy started to speak, but Mike cut her off. "Do you always have to be so damn logical? There is no way in hell you're leaving without us. Likewise, if you stay, we stay. You're family, man. That's the whole reason we all moved here from Atlanta together in the first place. If you want to stay, then we'll just have to find the bastard who did this."
Amy took her husband's hand and reached out to Nathan with the other one. "He's right, you know. We are a family. The sheriff is on his way, so let's wait until we talk to him before we decide what to do. In the meantime, let me check your vitals and reflexes again."
Mike went out into the lobby to wait for the cops while Amy examined Nate. As she worked, she talked about getting a call from the alarm company and coming to check it out, only to find him lying in a heap on the porch. Nathan could feel her fear and hated the jerk who hit him even more for scaring Amy. Still, he didn't exactly relish having to talk to the sheriff. He had seen enough of police responses to gay-bashing to know that he was just as likely to get some homophobic prick who could care less whether or not the world had one less fag in it. He suppressed a groan as he heard a large engine pull into the parking lot. The cavalry had arrived.
Amy insisted Nate stay put, so he was forced to wait while Mike spoke to the sheriff. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but Mike was clearly angry. The man was probably trying to deny that the whole incident even happened. When Amy finished her exam and opened the door to let the guy in, Nathan prepared himself for a sixty-year-old codger with a beer-gut and a bald spot. The 6'3" stud who walked in the door was not what he expected.
The man had the bluest eyes Nathan had ever seen. His hair was midnight black with not a hint of gray, the perfect foil for his left-over summer tan. Even through his kaki uniform shirt and tight jeans, Nathan could tell the man was built.
He stuck out a calloused hand, first to Amy, then to Nathan. "Sorry it took me so long to get here, folks. I was out on another call when my dispatcher told me what happened. I'm Sheriff Brandon Nash." His voice was rich and smooth. Nathan wanted him to keep talking just so he could hear it again. His next words made Nathan want to scream for him to shut-up.
"Your friend out there tells me you think you were the target of a gay-bashing, Dr. Morris. I have to tell you, I find that hard to believe."
Anger coursed through Nathan's blood, driving away all thoughts of pain. He moved to the side so that the swelling of his face and jaw was visible under the harsh fluorescent lights of the exam room. "Does it look like I did this to myself, Sheriff Nash?"
Nash didn't flinch. "No, sir. There's no question that you were attacked. I just wonder if maybe you were mistaken about the motive. This town is pretty tolerant towards gays and lesbians."
"The man who jumped me called me a faggot and told me I was dead if I didn't leave town. Doesn't exactly sound like the Reed County Welcoming Wagon, now does it?"
The sheriff's handsome face never changed expression. "No sir, it doesn't. All I'm saying is, could it be possible that someone would want this to look like a gay-bashing? Do you have any enemies?"
Amy and Mike, who had been listening from the open doorway of the exam room, rushed to defend Nathan's character, but Brandon Nash's blue eyes never left Nate's face. It was almost like he was searching for something. Nathan found himself growing uncomfortable under the scrutiny. He decided to relieve the tension by lashing out.
"To answer your question, I don't have any enemies that I know of, other than my parents, who hate me because I'm gay, and my brother who avoids me because he's afraid my queerness might be contagious. None of them would touch me, though. They'd be too afraid they might catch something from the 'unclean homo'. I think you're overlooking the obvious. Maybe the good people of Reed don't want a faggot for a doctor. Did you ever think about that?"
For the first time since the interview started, Nash's eyes flashed with irritation. He put his notebook down on a nearby counter and looked Nathan straight in the face. Since Nate was still seated on the exam table, they were about level, even though Brandon was a good four inches taller standing up. He edged closer to the table until they were almost nose to nose. Nate could feel Brandon's breath on his face, could smell peppermint, coffee, and some kind of aftershave that made him want to nuzzle his face in the man's neck. To his horror, he felt himself getting hard. He could only hope the sheriff didn't notice. He needn't have worried; Nash's eyes never broke contact with his own.
"No, it never occurred to me that the people of Reed might not want a 'faggot' for a doctor. After all, they elected one sheriff."
The room fell into total silence. Amy and Mike may have been speechless, but Nathan was absolutely stunned. Nash was the only one who seemed to be enjoying himself.
"Now that we have established that I am probably the last person in the world to ignore a gay-bashing, let's get on with this so I can file a report."
Nathan answered the sheriff's questions, all the while wondering about the man asking them. He was sexy enough to make even a straight guy look twice, but that wasn't what drew Nathan to him. Brandon Nash had some quality that made Nate want to get to know him, to find out what he liked, what made him feel good. God, he wanted to get that man into his bed. For a guy who hadn't had sex with anyone other than his right hand, the feelings of lust that hit him came as quite a shock. It was probably all just wishful thinking, anyway. A man who looked like that was certain to have a boyfriend, maybe even a life-partner. He was so lost in thought, he didn't hear Nash's last question.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
For the first time since the interview started, Nash gave him a genuine smile. "I said, are you sure we shouldn't take you over to the hospital to have you checked out? Chicago's only about a thirty minute drive from here."
Nathan was about to decline when Amy spoke up. "I think you should go to the hospital. I'll feel a lot better if you do. My exam was pretty thorough, but I still think you should have an MRI."
Mike nodded. "I agree with Amy, dude. I'll drive you."
Mike reached for his keys, but Sheriff Nash stopped him. "My shift ended about half-an-hour ago. I can take him and get the doctor to sign a report on his injuries."
Nathan felt himself loosing control of the situation. He hated it when people talked about him like he wasn't even in the room. As desperately as he wanted to get to know Brandon, he wasn't ready to spend an hour alone with him, especially when he was half-addled from a blow to the head.
"Amy already checked me out. She can fill out your report."
Nathan's stomach turned over as Amy started shaking her head. "No. I really think you should have an MRI. I can write the orders and you can take them with you."
Nathan's jaw hardened. "Fine, then. Mike can drive me."
He turned around just in time to see Amy nudge Mike in the ribs. "Honey, don't you remember that proposal you have to have ready for your client tomorrow?"
"Huh?" Another nudge to the ribs, this one harder. "Oh, you mean the proposal I was working on when the alarm company called." He gave Nash an apologetic grin. "I've been offered a junior partnership at a firm in Chicago. Not a bad commute, and the pay is damn good for a guy who just passed the bar a year ago. Of course, if I don't turn in my work on time. . ."
Brandon nodded. "Wouldn't want that to happen. I'll take Dr. Morris to the hospital. Don't worry about it." He gave Nate an apologetic smile. "Afraid you'll have to ride in the 'sheriff-mobile'. My car's off having some detail work done."
Before Nathan could protest any further, he found himself being hustled into a state-issue SUV with the sexiest man he'd seen in a long time. Not even a head injury could stop the feelings of longing when they hit.
* * *
Brandon hated evening calls. Reed was small enough that his deputy, Sam, and he could usually handle all the calls themselves without having to pull the junior deputies off their regular shifts. Unfortunately, no one told that to the eighteen wheeler that jackknifed off of Interstate Twelve just three miles outside of town. No one was hurt, thank God, but the truck had been carrying live poultry to the processing plant two towns over. Nothing like trying to dodge traffic and catch ninety angry chickens at the same time to set the tone for the night. Sam managed to stop traffic and enlist a handful of volunteers to help with the round-up, but the whole scene looked like a sketch from Saturday Night live. After being pecked for the fifth time by creatures he only wanted to see fried with gravy, Brandon had been grateful to field another call. He could still see Sam's face when he told him he had to leave. After twenty-five years as friends and a hellish six months at the F.B.I. academy together, he knew Sam well enough to know his buddy would get even at the earliest opportunity. He only hoped the poor guy didn't get mites from all those feathers.
Brandon stole a glance at the man slumped in the seat next to him. He had heard tales of how good looking the new doctor was, but the bits of gossip he'd heard didn't do the guy justice. He was shorter than Brandon, maybe five-eleven, but his body was well sculpted and muscled. His chocolate eyes were red-rimmed, but still beautiful, as was his fine-featured face. His hair was dark blonde and spiky, a look which suited him. Brandon felt a familiar pull in his groin just thinking about the sexy doctor.
He never would have figured Nathan Morris as gay. Certainly the female population of Reed didn't know he was. Of course, Brandon didn't exactly fit the gay stereotype, either. Then again, none of the gay men he knew did. There wasn't an effeminate one in the bunch.
The ride to Chicago was silent, but Brandon figured his passenger was in too much pain to talk, if the grimaces and grunts he was making were any indication. He wondered what the good doctor would sound like in bed. He forced himself to stop thinking about it when the bulge in his jeans started to rise.
He pulled the SUV into one of the spaces marked for police vehicles and cut the engine. He got out and was around to open Nathan's door before he could get out by himself. Brandon took Nate's elbow and helped him to the ground.
Nathan's voice, low and rough, made Brandon want to jump him right there in the parking lot. "Thanks, Sheriff, but I can go in by myself."
"Call me Brandon."
"O.K., Brandon. I can do this by myself. I did my residency in a hospital a lot like this one. I know the drill and most of it is hurry up and wait."
Brandon smiled and started walking him towards the emergency entrance, locking the doors of the SUV with the remote on his keys. "Normally, I would agree with you, but I just happen to know someone who works here. He actually owes me a favor, so I think he'll be able to get us in and out of here a little bit faster." While he was talking, he led Nathan past the emergency wing to a row of elevators inside the hospital proper.
"Where are we going?"
"Relax, Doc. We're going up to the third floor to neurology. The guy I told you about has an office up there."
Brandon pushed the button for the elevators. The one closest to them opened, allowing a woman and four half-grown children to get off. One of the larger boys bumped into Nathan, nearly knocking him off his feet in his already addled state. Brandon caught him to his chest, trying to ignore the arcs of electricity that went through his skin when he wrapped his arms around Nathan and pulled him to his chest. Both the woman and the boy apologized, but Brandon's only focus was the man he held in his arms.
"Doc, are you O.K., man?"
"My name is Nathan, or Nate. I figure if you're going to hold me in your arms like we're about to do the tango, the least you can do is call me by my name."
Brandon pulled back to see the grin on Nathan's face, the first smile he'd since the moment he walked into the doctor's office. "If you're joking around, you must be O.K."
"That's what Amy says. Do you want to let me go now?"
Brandon pulled him close again. "Do you really want me too?"
"Considering we're in the middle of a hospital lobby waiting on an elevator and being watched by dozens of people, yeah. Thanks for catching me, though." He lowered his voice and cast his eyes down a bit. "It felt kind of nice to be held again."
Not certain how to respond, Brandon let him go, immediately missing the warm heat from his body. He stayed close enough to catch him again, if necessary, as they boarded the elevator. Other people crowded in, making conversation difficult. The silent ride gave Brandon a chance to tamp down some of the lust he was feeling.
The third floor of Chicago General wasn't as crowded as the lobby, so Brandon was able to lead him through the hall at a fair clip. When Nathan stumbled, he immediately apologized.
"Sorry, Doc. I forgot how fast I was going."
Nathan grinned again, making Brandon's own knees feel weak. "Normally I can keep up, but I think I'm just a little punch drunk."
"Maybe we should have called an ambulance. Are you even supposed to be walking around?"
"Amy checked me over before we left. This whole hospital thing and MRI is just a precaution. I do feel guilty that you have to spend your evening here with me, though. I feel like I'm messing up your plans."
Brandon stopped in front of a row of doors and said, "If by 'messing up my plans' you mean taking me away from the glamorous prospect of sharing a frozen pizza with my dog, then I can only invite you to mess up my plans more often."
"No family? No boyfriend?"
"I have plenty of family, but I don't live with them anymore. I figure thirty-two is a little old to be sharing a set of bunk beds with my kid brother. As for the boyfriend, I had one of those too, but he belongs to someone else now, thank God."
Nathan said, "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to bring up any painful memories."
Brandon shook his head. "You didn't. Jeff and I broke up four years ago. He subscribes to the theory that gay men are incapable of fidelity; I don't. Seems he had a fondness for twinks that I didn't share."
Brandon almost laughed at the shocked look on Nathan's face. "He had an affair?"
"Affairs, as in plural."
"That must have hurt."
"Maybe the first time I caught him in bed with another guy. By the third time, I was glad to be rid of him. I think the only reason I stayed as long as I did was because I felt like I had made a commitment. I guess he didn't see it that way."
"Damn. That's harsh."
Nathan shrugged. "It was a long time ago. Come on. Let's get you checked out." He knocked on the door they were standing in front of.
The door opened immediately and Brandon was engulfed in a bracing bear hug almost as fast. "Hey, squirt. What the hell are you doing in Chicago at 7:30 on a Tuesday night?"
"Damn, Keith. Put me down before you snap my spine, will ya? Are you and Maria so hard up for money that you have to drum up business by causing the injuries yourself?"
Seeing Nate's startled expression, Brandon said, "Nate, this is my brother, Keith. He's a neurologist here. Keith, this is Nathan Morris."
Keith put his brother down and moved closer to Nate. Using one finger, he gently tilted Nate's head so he could better see the right side. He turned back to Brandon. "I'm assuming you didn't do that to his head?"
"If I had, I damn sure wouldn't have brought him to the hospital. Nate thinks he was the subject of a gay-bashing."
Nate gave Brandon an icy glare. "No, he doesn't think he was the subject of a gay-bashing; he knows he was."
Keith and Brandon both fought back their grins. Keith said, "Yeah, I hate it when people talk about me like I'm not around, too. I guess you're here for an MRI, right."
Nate nodded. "Yes, but I don't want to bump anyone else off the schedule."
"I'll check with one of the techs, but I don't think there'll be a problem. Tuesday nights are kind of slow, even here in Chicago. Do you have a set of orders, or do you need me to write you some?"
Nate handed him the orders and watched as Keith's face changed. "Wait a minute. You're a doctor?" When he nodded, Keith said, "You aren't the same Nathan Morris who did his residency in the NICU at Atlanta General, are you?"
Brandon watched as Nathan nodded and then blushed a little bit. He turned to Keith. "You know him?"
Keith said, "Only by reputation. Dr. Morris here is a legend in the field of neurology. He pioneered a technique to help premature babies deal with the neurological symptoms of withdrawal from heroin and cocaine. Man, what are you doing all the way up here?"
Brandon could see how uncomfortable Nate seemed. Before Keith could pump him for more information, Brandon said, "Don't you think he should at least be sitting down somewhere? I mean, you are the doctor and all, but still…"
"Shit. I'm sorry, man. I'm actually a pretty good doctor when my dumbass kid-brother isn't distracting me. Let's get you to radiology."
Keith led them down the hall to the radiology lab. While the techs took Nate into the other room and prepared him for the MRI, Keith seized the opportunity to pump him for information. Brandon told him all about the gay-bashing and his doubts about the motive. Keith ignored all that and cut straight to the reason why gay-bashing would even be a possibility in the first place.
"So, Dr. Morris is gay, huh?"
"Don't even think about it, Keith. Jeez, you're almost as bad as Mom."
Keith did his best to look hurt, but Brandon knew him too well to be fooled. "All I did was make a casual observation, Bran."
"Yeah, right. Just like you made a casual observation that one of the doctors on your surgical rotation was gay and had a thing for guys in uniform? Just like the casual observation you made about how great Pastor Oakley's son was, or how nice Mrs. Jensen's brother-in-law seemed? The answer is no. Stop trying to fix me up."
The tech came back into the room and started adjusting the settings for the MRI machine. Keith stepped back enough so that the guy couldn't hear him. "You need to have that conversation with your hormones, bud. I saw the way you were looking at him."
"No reason I can't look, is there? But looking is all I'm going to do. For all I know, he could have a boyfriend."
Keith shook his head. "Not the way he was looking back at you. I'd almost be willing to put money on it. Besides, if he has a man, why wasn't he the one who brought him in? No way in hell would I let some other guy take Maria to the hospital if she was hurt."
Before Brandon could respond, the tech turned to Keith. "Dr. Nash, the patient's heart-rate and breathing are both elevated. I think he's having a reaction to being inside the machine."
Keith swore. "The poor guy must be claustrophobic. None of the open MRIs were free?"
Keith thought for a moment, them pulled Brandon towards the desk. "Here, talk to him."
Keith pointed to the mike mounted on the desk. "Talk into the mike and he'll be able to hear you. It might calm him down and take his mind off being inside the machine. Hell, you're the one with a degree in forensic psychology. Don't you think it's worth a shot?"
Brandon knew enough about claustrophobia to know that panic at being inside a tight, closed space could escalate in a matter of seconds to a full blown anxiety attack. Brandon put his mouth to the mike.
"Nate, can you hear me?"
A shallow breath came through the speaker of the control panel. "Brandon?"
"Yeah, buddy, it's me. You O.K.?"
Another shallow breath. "I'm alright. I just hate tight spaces. God, I am such a sissy. No wonder I'm a fag."
Brandon smiled at the shocked look on the young tech's face. "I don't think being gay caused your claustrophobia, Nate. If you don't calm down, though, you're going to hyperventilate."
"I'm trying, man. It's not that easy. Remind me never to give another one of my patients the 'fear is only in your mind' lecture. That is so much bullshit."
Keith and the tech both coughed to cover up their laughter. Brandon glared at his brother before going back to the mike. "Let's try this. Close your eyes, can you do that?"
"Okay. I'm going to tell you some jokes. Just try not to laugh too much or you'll move your head out of position."
Keith said, "I've heard your jokes, brother. I don't think we have that to worry about."
Nate must have heard him because he chuckled just a little bit. Taking that as a good sign, Brandon said, "I'm going to ignore that and get right to the first joke. A man and his wife check into a spacious lakeside resort on their honeymoon. Night after night the clerk notices that the man goes out at three o'clock in the morning to go fishing. Every day he stays gone well into the afternoon and evening. Finally, on the fourth day, the clerk works up enough nerve to question the guy. He says, 'Excuse me, sir, but aren't you on your honeymoon?' The man nods his head and says, 'I sure am.' The clerk says, 'Well, if you don't mind me asking, why are you going fishing everyday instead of spending time with your wife?' 'That's easy,' says the husband. 'My wife has hepatitis, whooping cough, and typhoid. She's under quarantine. I can hardly go near her.'
The stunned clerk says, "Well, then why on earth did you marry her?' The husband says, 'That's easy. She's also got worms and I do love to fish."
Keith and the tech both groaned, but Brandon was almost certain he heard Nathan laugh. The tech pointed towards the monitor. He mouthed, "Keep going. It's working."
"Ok. Here comes another one. A guy is going for a drive one afternoon when he passes the county retirement home and sees three little old ladies lying naked out on the front lawn. Immediately concerned, he goes inside and speaks to the administrator. 'Did you know that there are three old, naked women lying out in the grass?' The administrator says, 'You mean they're still out there? Well, you have to admire their determination.' Seeing the young man's confusion, the director rushes to explain. 'Those women are all retired prostitutes. They're having a yard sale.'"
This time there was no mistaking the laughter coming through the speaker. Brandon breathed a silent sigh of relief as he watched Nathan's vital signs return to normal. He kept up a steady stream of jokes and one liners until the tech pronounced the test done. Brandon smiled as he watched Nate come rolling out of the machine. He moved into the room where the machine was and smiled again as Nate looked up at him.
"Thanks for saving me in there, man."
Brandon moved back so the tech could unhook the strap around Nate's head. "Anytime, buddy. It's not often that I have a captive audience for my jokes. Sometimes I try them out on the guys in lock-up down at the jail, but they just don't seem to appreciate them like you did."
The tech moved to help Nate up off the platform, but Brandon got there first. He extended his hand and was flooded with warmth the minute Nate's fingers wrapped around his own. For a moment, they stood still, hands together and eyes locked. Brandon pulled him to his feet but made no move to drop his hand.
Keith and the tech exchanged knowing smiles, but neither commented on the tension between the other two. Keith said, "Why don't you wait in my office while I read these scans? I would offer to let you read them yourself, Dr. Morris, but you look a little worse for the wear."
Brandon pulled Nate to his side as he swayed unsteadily. "Come on. Let's get you to a chair before you collapse." He felt a lump rise in his throat at the feelings of rightness having Nate pressed to his side evoked.
Brandon led him back to Keith's office, wincing along with him as he groaned in pain. "Do you need to lie down, baby?" He winced again as he realized he'd let the endearment slip. It had been on the tip of his tongue ever since he'd held Nate in his arms after the mishap at the elevators.
Nate shook his head, either not noticing or choosing not to comment on the slip. "I'm O.K. I don't think it's my head that's making me so shaky. I skipped lunch today and missed dinner. I think my blood sugar probably just dropped down to the low side."
No sooner were the words out of Nathan's mouth and Brandon was on his way to the snack machines. He came back with two cokes, a couple of sandwiches, and a pocketful of candy bars. He handed one of the sandwiches and cokes to Nate.
"Thanks, man." Nate reached for his wallet, but Brandon waved him away.
"I was glad to do it. It's not exactly four star cuisine, but it'll bring your blood sugar back up."
Nate nodded. "You and Keith look a lot alike. Same hair and eyes. So, what's the favor he owes you?"
"On the way up here, you said you knew a guy who owed you a favor. So, what does Keith owe you?"
"His life. I let him make it to adulthood without killing his sorry ass." Nate laughed, but Bran noticed he wasn't eating much. "If you eat all that, I'll give you a treat."
Nate's smile was enough to make Brandon pop a boner right there in his brother's office. "If I had a dirty mind, my imagination could go hog wild with an opening like that."
Brandon colored and took the chair next to Nate's hoping to hide the evidence of his arousal. He couldn't remember being this perpetually horny since he was a teenager. Hoping to steer the conversation into less dangerous territory, he said, "Actually, I meant that I have a candy bar in pocket."
Nate's evil grin returned. "Oh, is that what that is?"
Brandon had just taken a sip of his Coke when Nate said that. He sprayed soda all over Keith's desk just as the door opened and his brother entered the room. Keith took one look at the cola dripping from Brandon's chin and the smile on the other man's face and shook his head.
"I don't know what you just said to my brother, but I haven't seen his face that red since the day Megan peed all over him in church."
"Our baby sister."
Nate looked at Brandon. "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
"Mom and Dad had eight kids, counting me." He pointed to Keith. "That idiot over there is the oldest."
"Where do you rank on the list?"
"Third from the top."
Keith took a seat behind his desk. "Do you have siblings, Nate?"
Brandon watched the shadows fall across Nathan's face. "Just one, my brother, Seth. He's twenty-two, six years younger than me."
Keith was about to ask another question when Brandon shook his head. "What the verdict on Nate's MRI?"
Taking the hint, Keith said, "Well, the MRI shows no signs of injury, but I do think you probably have a slight concussion, Nate. Do you have someone who can stay with you tonight? I really wouldn't advise you to stay by yourself. Of course, I'm sure you already know all this."
Nate nodded. "I can stay with my friend Amy and her husband."
Brandon watched as Keith's curiosity kicked in. "You live alone then? No partner?"
Again Nate's expression darkened. "No."
Before Nate could answer, Brandon said, "Jesus Christ, Keith, I thought I was the only cop in the family. Leave the guy alone, will ya?"
"Sorry. Anyway, as I said, I think you should stay with your friend tonight. I can write you a script for pain killers, if you want."
"That's alright. I can manage with aspirin, thanks. May I use your phone to call Amy and let her know what's going on?"
Keith pointed to the phone on the desk, but Brandon had already pulled out his cell. "Here. You can use mine."
"Thanks." Nathan dialed Amy's number and waited in silence as it rang. After about the sixth ring, he closed the phone and said, "I got the machine. Let me call the clinic and see if she's still there."
Another call and again no answer. "Not there, either."
Keith said, "Does she have a cell?"
"Yeah, but she only carries it when she's on call. She's off for the next three days." He thought for a minute. "Let me check the service we use for after hours calls and see if she left a message with them." He dialed another number and waited.
"Hi, Cindy, it's Dr. Morris."
Pause. "Boy, news travels fast in Reed, huh?"
Pause. "No, I'm O.K., just a solid bump to the head. Listen, have you heard from Amy?"
Pause. "She did? When?" He covered the mouthpiece and turned to Brandon. "Mike's aunt down in Atlanta has been taken to the hospital. Cindy thinks she fell or something. It must be pretty bad because he and Amy just hopped on the first plane out." He uncovered the phone and said, "Who's handling our calls?" Another pause. "No, he's a good doctor, but be sure he knows only to accept the serious calls. The drive from Chicago to Reed is too far for a case of the sniffles. Alright, Cindy, thanks. If you hear from Amy, please tell her to call me at my apartment."
Before he could hang up, Brandon took the phone. "Hey, Cindy? It's Brandon Nash." Brandon rolled his eyes, "No, I didn't realize your cousin was gay. And single, too, huh? Imagine that. Listen Cindy, tell Amy to call my place for Nate instead." His left leg twitched while he listened to the conversation on the other end. "No, you can't ask why. O.K., Cindy, see you at church."
The minute he turned off the phone, Nate said, "What was that all about?"
Keith almost laughed out loud at the look of innocence on Brandon's face, but he wisely sat behind the desk and kept his mouth shut. Bran said, "Oh, that. Well, Cindy and I go to the same church. Went to the same high-school, too, but I'm a couple of years ahead of her."
Nate looked like he was about ready to start cussing. Bran hid a smile behind his hand when Nate said, "That's not what I meant and you know it. What was all that business about Amy calling your place for me?"
Bran leaned over to better see his face. "Oh, that. Well, it's real simple, actually. Amy's out of town, and you live alone. You need someone to stay the night with you, but the only people in town you really know are catching the red-eye to Atlanta even as we speak. That leaves you with one option. Plainly stated, baby, you're coming home with me."