The builder's office shouldn't be dark at this time of day. True that the sun had set and it would have been dark in any event as the snow had begun to fall faster and was mounding up around the door. But Chet had made an appointment to deliver the plans for the Thornton's new house to the builder, and Danny had promised to keep the office open for him. Chet had almost put the transaction off, as the funeral had only been yesterday, but the Thorntons were anxious to get past this phase and neither Danny nor Chet had wanted to give them second thoughts about the contract. Phil had been the front man for the building firm, while Danny had been the behind-the-scene organizer and schedule keeper. With Phil gone now, it was likely that the firm's clients would be antsy about the business. Phil had been the outgoing one, the marketer, the glad-hander. There was no way that the clients would know that Danny had been the glue that held the business together, the engine that made it work. He was too young and reticent to make his mark while he stood, willingly, in the shadow of Phil.

Phil had been quite inconsiderate, Chet was thinking as he pushed the front door of the office and entered the empty, but still brightly lit reception room. A frosted white Christmas tree stood, a bit askew, on the top of the reception desk, a gold braided garland drooping down to the surface of the desk and its red balls reflecting light from the overheads back onto the glass front window. The tree lights were off; they'd been off since Friday - when it had happened. The tree lights were off just as starkly as the light of the firm was off.

Phil had been quite inconsiderate in Chet's opinion at the moment because he'd chosen not only to die abruptly, without warning, but to do so between Christmas and New Years - on a Friday night. Danny, of course, hadn't been any help. Chet and a few of the couple's other friends had to step in and make all of the arrangements. And this wasn't easy to do. Phil's religion dictated he be interred immediately. But there had been no prior arrangements. Phil had been robust and fully alive, even though he was past fifty. Dying was the last thing either he or Danny had considered possible. They had been together - and inseparable - for nearly five years, ever since Danny graduated from college and joined Phil's firm.

Chet felt a little put upon for all he had had to do over the past two days. But he had done it for Danny. He had wanted Danny from the day he had joined the firm. But Phil and Danny had made their connection even before that, and Chet had been forced to stand in the shadows, watching and wanting Danny, but not wanting to break into what Phil and Danny obviously had going for themselves.

Chet heard rustling from the back, where the private offices were, and he pushed open the door to the back corridor and moved, by instinct, past Danny's office to the large corner office at the back, the one that Phil had ruled the firm from. The door was ajar and the room was dimly lit by a single desk lamp on the large mahogany executive desk that commanded the room, nearly centered on the lush Oriental rug.

Danny was slouched in Phil's throne-like chair behind the desk, his arms hunched on the top of the desk and his forehead arced down. He had a sweater held up to his eyes and he was snuffling away. Chet recognized the sweater as one Phil liked to wear after the clients had departed and he was playing lord of the firm.

'Danny,' Chet said softly, wanting to warn his young friend of his presence, wanting to give Danny a moment to pull himself together. But Danny didn't pull himself together. He continued to cry softly and rub the cashmere softness of the sweater on his eyelids.

Chet took this as a good sign. Danny had been stoic through the visitation and the funeral ceremony itself. Not that many knew that Phil and Danny were lovers and were living together. Phil's family didn't know it, and Danny had done all he could to give his lover that deniability beyond the grave. Chet was pleased and comforted that Danny didn't keep up that pretense with him.

'Danny,' Chet repeated after he had sat down on the visitor's chair on the other side of the desk, a chair that Phil had had made shorter than normal to put his clients and other visitors in their place relative to him. 'Danny, I could come back later. But we'd arranged - '

'No, no,' Danny said in a small voice muffled by the sweater. 'Go ahead and put the plans on the desk. I'll have them delivered tomorrow. Madge and Tony are coming in. Madge had taken the holiday week off, but she volunteered to handle the phones. There have been a lot of calls . . . about Phil.'

'I'm sure there have been. It was a shock to us all. No one expected - '

'No, no one did,' Danny said. He put the sweater down, lovingly, almost reverently, on the desk, folding it as if he was going to put it back in the drawer. 'I'm such a mess - '

'No one who knew about you and Phil would expect you to be any other way, Danny. It's OK.'

'No,' Danny said. 'It's that I'm being so . . . Goddam irrational and selfish.'

'Irrational? Selfish? I don't follow,' Chet murmured. 'It's natural - '

'It's natural, with Phil being dead, to wonder where my Christmas present is?' Danny asked. The vehemence in his voice showcased the depth of his despair and self-loathing.'

'What? Come again?' Chet asked. He was completely nonplused. Danny didn't have a selfish bone in his body. He had done everything for Phil. The cooking, the washing, the shopping. All Phil had to do was the fucking.

For a moment Danny was speechless. What he had blurted out had certainly rendered Chet speechless. Danny began to wheeze, which prompted him to reach into his pocket, take out a small pill box, and struggle with it for a moment.

'Shit. Can't get it open. Piece of crap. Been that way for weeks.' But then he did manage to get it open, with such force that pills spilled out over the desk top. Danny selected two, popped them in his mouth, and took a swig of water from a half-full glass. Then he cleared his throat and made another attempt to speak.

'I shouldn't care, of course. It's just the unfinished business of it all.' He stopped, gathering his thoughts.

'Go on,' Chet prompted in a low voice.

'You know that Phil's been home sick for the last couple of weeks. We should have known something was coming on. He'd never felt that weak and wiped out before.'

'Yes,' Chet said. 'But the present - '

'Even though he'd been sick, he'd managed to get a birthday present for me after Thanksgiving. And then he got weaker, and I asked him if he needed any shopping done. And he said no and that he'd gotten me something special but I couldn't see it until Christmas.'

Chet didn't say anything, still perplexed.

'But, but . . .,' Danny was having trouble continuing. 'But Christmas came and went, and he was in a high fever Christmas day and the ambulance came for him that night. Needless to say we didn't have Christmas at all.'

'And no present?' Chet asked?

'Right. Oh, God. It's not that I have to have a Christmas present,' Danny blustered, already close to tears again. 'But it's knowing he had something for me. A last present. Some of it is that, wanting that last present to hold onto. But mostly it's knowing that it's around somewhere. Unfinished business. And, God, the worst part - maybe finding it three months from now when I've somehow managed to adjust to him . . . being . . . gone.'

Danny was crying again. The tears were flowing down his cheeks. Chet was crushed. He couldn't stand to see Danny in this condition. Danny was the sensitive one. Chet knew this would tear him apart.

'Come here, Danny,' Chet said. But he said it with a frog in his throat, in a low, guttural voice that Danny wouldn't have been able to decipher even if he hadn't been crying. Chet pushed his chair back from the table and beckoned. Urging Danny to come to him for comfort. Reacting by instinct.

'What?' Danny murmured.

'Come over here to me, Danny. Or I'll come over there. You needn't be alone. You aren't alone.'

Danny meekly rose from his chair and moved around the desk. Chet was being strong. Chet was being dominant. This was a role Danny was familiar and comfortable with. He also was responding instinctively. The submissive to the strong father figure.

'Here, on my lap,' Chet said. He wasn't intentionally trying to push Phil aside already. But he knew Phil and Danny. He had wanted to be Phil for so long. He knew what would calm Danny.

Danny sank onto Chet's lap, sitting sideways, his right leg over the arm of the chair and his left across Chet's knees, his calf descending along Chet's shin and his toe resting on the plush carpet.

'Put your arm around my neck, Danny.' Danny complied.

'Now put your head under my chin. Go ahead and do that. And go ahead and cry it out.'

Danny sank against Chet's chest. He could feel Chet's heart racing, and it gave him great comfort. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel he was with Phil. Chet was strong and heavily muscled, just as Phil had been. And he was older. Not as old as Phil. But only enough. Danny felt safe in his arms. He was drawn to the musky smell of the other man. Like Phil. He was comfortable being told what to do.

Chet was rocking Danny back and forth and humming softly to him, just as he would do to a small child. He had his arms locked around Danny, and he was rubbing the younger man's back softly, soothingly. His hand, almost without him realizing it - almost - went up under Danny's shirt tail in back, and he was now running his hand lightly around on Danny's back, under the fabric. Danny was making a low humming sound now.

But he was still crying softly.

'Don't cry, Danny. I'll help you look. I'll take care of you,' Chet said. He was switching to automatic pilot now. He had dreamed of this for months. He was kissing the top of Danny's head. Danny made no move to disengage. Chet tilted up Danny's chin and gently kissed the younger man's cheeks, trapping his salty tears. It was only a short step from there to tentatively, gently possessing Danny's lips with his own. Danny was yielding and his kiss was sweet.

Chet pulled the rest of Danny's shirt tail out of his pants and he ran a hand up Danny's chest and to his nipples. Danny sighed.

Chet brought his hand slowly down Danny's sternum and belly and undid his belt and ran his hand down under the fabric of Danny's pants. He ran his hand down along Danny's cock and held him close there. Danny moaned and arched his back, presenting his nipples to Chet's lips.

There was no doubt that Danny could feel Chet's need pushing at his buttocks as they continued to rock back and forth.

'Feet on floor and chest on desk,' Chet commanded in a low, husky voice.

As Danny dutifully positioned himself, Chet pulled the younger man's pants and shoes off.

This is what Chet had wanted to see for the longest time. He loved the plump curve of Danny's butt cheeks. He sat there on the edge of the chair behind Danny and leaned down, pulled the cheeks apart gently, almost worshipfully, with the palm of his hands and blew on the puckered hole now revealed. Danny twitched and moaned.

Chet leaned forward and kissed and tongued along the crack. Danny swayed against him. He was whispering quietly to himself and moaning softly, but Chet couldn't hear what he was saying.

Chet unzipped himself and began stroking his own cock to full staff as his tongue circled ever closer and then ever deeper and Danny gently swayed his hips to the attention he was receiving.

'Now, back onto me,' Chet commanded in a husky voice. Danny stood and then just sank slowly backward, into Chet's lap, impaling himself on Chet's waiting cock.

They began a motion again, but more of a rocking forward and backward. Chet lifted Danny's legs and spread them over the arms of the chair, He was holding Danny with one palm on his left breast and the other fanned out on his belly.

They fucked quietly and in slow motion, their moans and groans rising and falling in concert, Danny still murmuring to himself in words that Chet couldn't catch.

Chet's instincts to possess fully, to control completely took over and, on a command and without losing connection, Chet stood and gently lowered Danny with him to the plush carpet. They lay on their sides, Chet touching Danny full length along his back. Chet lifted Danny's left leg, and buried his cock deeper inside the younger man and started a strong, steady stroking that had Danny gasping and writhing and groaning and moaning. Chet was stroking Danny's cock with one hand in the crescendoing rhythm of the fuck. Danny's muttering was gaining intensity and clarity, and as Chet exploded in orgasm, setting Danny's own ejaculation off, Danny could clearly be heard crying out Phil's name.

Chet said nothing. But he knew that Phil would always remain a specter between him and Danny. But maybe there was something he could do to at least assuage that a bit.

He nuzzled the hollow of Danny's neck with his lips. Danny was still crying softly.

'Now we go home,' Chet said, quietly but forcefully. 'To my home. To my bed.'

'Yes, Chet,' Danny murmured.

Linda heard the taxi pull up outside the store. Mr. H. always came in by taxi when it was snowing. He'd never learned to cope with that. Just one of the things Mr. H. made clear he wasn't going to try to cope with. The whole world could adjust to Mr. H., it could. She could see just by looking out the window that the snow hadn't made the ride any more pleasant for Mr. H., although it didn't take much to make Mr. H. unpleasant. He had slammed the taxi door and caused a nice-looking gentleman in an expensive-looking coat to slide hard against a light pole. But without saying a word, Mr. H. turned and just barreled into the store. As Christina helped Mr. H. with his coat and mumbled those mothering sounds of hers, Linda went back to the window to see about the gentleman. He had gotten back upright and slid more than walked over to the store's show window. Linda ducked to the side so that he wouldn't be staring into her face and wouldn't bring her into what had just happened. But she didn't retreat far from the window. She wanted to observe him, to be sure he hadn't broken anything.

The man looked into the window display briefly and then turned and started to gingerly walk off. After he had moved a few paces away from the show window, though, he stopped dead in his tracks and then, after a short pause, squared his shoulders and shuffled back to the store.

Linda briefly panicked, thinking he meant to come in looking for whoever had knocked him down, but when she looked into his eyes, she didn't see anger there. Instead, he had sad eyes. Linda could see defeat in his eyes, which was quite a shock to see on such a nicely clothed gentleman. Linda's first thought was that he knew who the man was who had knocked him down - that he owned this jewelry store - and that he was going to smash the glass and try to run off with some of the display jewelry.

But he just stood there for the longest minute, frozen in place. And so did Linda. Both waiting for the next scene to start.

At length, Linda saw Chet square his shoulders and enter the store, which set off that bell Linda always found so annoying, and walked right up to the counter in front of Linda.

'Yes, sir, welcome to Hudson's, fine jewelers,' Linda said in her practiced for-the-customers voice. 'Can I help you with anything? We have some nice jeweled pins. Just the thing for wife or girlfriend - or mother.' She couldn't gauge him. He was a handsome devil, well and solidly built. And obviously successful. A touch of gray, but she was sure he wasn't out of his forties.

'Um, no, I'm not looking for anything to buy. I was just wondering - '

He suddenly seemed at a loss for words and seemed only half as brave and determined as he had been when he walked in. Linda didn't help. She was still trying to gauge whether he was married or not; she couldn't read this one. So far she didn't have a clue what he had come in to get, and, although she prided herself in figuring customers out down to how much they were willing to part with, Mr. H. always said not to assume too fast that the customer is looking for something cheaper than you might otherwise convince them they can't live without.

'Is this Mr. Hudson's shop? Mr. Mortimer Hudson?'

'Yes, it is.' Oh, Lord, Linda thought, maybe the man wants to make trouble with Mr. H. for knocking him down after all. 'Did you want to talk with him?' Linda asked, willing the man to say that wasn't necessary. 'I think he might be in back, but he's working on a setting right now, and we don't like to disturb him when he's doing that.'

All of a sudden the man looked about ten years older and defeated.

'But if it's important,' Linda rushed on, 'I can go get him.'

'No, it's OK,' Chet said. 'Maybe you can help me. I'm told that a colleague of mine used to shop here. And I think he knew Mr. Hudson.' There was a pause, as Chet absentmindedly played in a tray of cheap stickpins on top of the counter. 'Do you - ?' He cleared his throat and looked up at one of the dim corners of the ceiling. 'Do you perhaps keep any records of things ordered but never picked up?'

'I'm sorry, I don't follow. What to you mean?' Linda responded.

And then it all came out in a rush. 'Well, I think this colleague may have bought something in here sometime before Christmas and then not picked it up. I'm just checking on whether that could have happened. And, and, of course, I'd take it now and pay for it.'

'Well, I don't know. That's possible, of course. What did he order?'

'I don't know.'

'You don't know? How then do you - ?'

'I'm sorry. I'll have to explain a bit. The colleague's name is Phil Shelton. He died right after Christmas and he had this fiancée, Danielle - he called her Danny - who he told he had a special Christmas present for. And now she's all upset and doesn't thinks she can get closure on his death without knowing what he got her, and my friends and I were thinking that maybe he ordered something from one of the stores he used and just got too sick to pick it up. I'm sorry if this sounds disjointed, but - '

'Oh,' Linda said. 'This is getting a little complicated. I think I'd better go get Mr. Hudson. You said his name was Phil . . .'

'Phil Shelton. And if it's something engraved, it might be for a Danny, spelled with a 'Y.''

Mr. Hudson seemed none too happy to be interrupted when Linda came into the workroom.

'Whadcha want? Can't you see I'm finishing up Ruth's anniversary present?'

Linda looked at what Mr. Hudson was working on. It was an exquisite pill box, done in silver, with a diamond pavé top, centered by a blue sapphire.

'It's gorgeous, Mr. H. She'll love it,' Linda said, although she wasn't too sure about the last comment. Just the other day Mr. Hudson's Ruth had told her that she bet Mr. H. would give her another of precious stone baubles she couldn't actually use without fear of losing it or having it stolen. She'd said she'd much prefer something simple and not so flashy. And what she'd really like is for Mr. H. to not be such a tight-fisted grouch - just once, that whatever he did give seemed to be begrudged.

'This other one's very nice too,' Linda said, picking up a simpler gold pill box with filigreeing and that nearly finished, but without stones. 'Who are you making this for, Mr. H.?' she asked. 'I don't remember an order for one of these. Such an interesting design.'

'Don't know myself,' he grumped back at her. 'I just had this urge to make that one. Something just kept nagging at me that I could find a use for that. The filigree work just kept cropping up in my head. So I went ahead and started making it. Now skeddadle so I can finish this box before I forget the I design I was working with the wires.'

'I came to tell you there's a gentleman out front to see you, Mr. H.,' Linda said, suddenly remembering her mission. 'He says something about a Phil Shelton having had something made here and that it's on layaway, but he doesn't know what it is. I thought you might know what he's talking about.'

'In a minute, in a minute,' Mr. Hudson said, and then he paused and looked up. 'Did you say Phil Shelton? The builder? The man who died at Christmas?'

'That must be the man,' Linda said. 'This gentleman said the man had died at Christmas.' She then went on to tell Hudson about what the gentleman out in the store was looking for.

The curtains to the back swept aside and Mr. Hudson entered the room, his eyes alert and focusing on Chet, who was rocking back and forth on his feet, appearing to be about ready to retreat from the store. Neither Hudson nor Chet seemed to make a connection with the nasty fall Hudson had caused Chet to take out on the snowy curb.

'You were a friend of Phil Shelton's, the builder who died a couple of days ago?' Mr. Hudson asked as he approached Chet.

'Yes, a colleague, actually,' Chet answered. 'I was the architect for the firm. And I've been helping with the necessary arrangements after his death.'

'Sorry to hear about his death,' Mr. Hudson said. 'A good man, Phil Shelton. When we had the hurricane go through here three years ago, he sent over those sheets of plywood to cover our windows. He did that for all of the shops on this block. And he supplied scrap wood for free from my grandchildren to build a tree house. And when the Nelson's house got wiped out by that fire, he was right there, building them a new on at cost.'

'Yes, a real saint,' Chet murmured. This wasn't the time or place to note that Danny, not Phil, had been responsible for providing that material. It had been mostly show with Phil, something he was willing to go along with as long as Danny did all of the work and Phil got all of the credit. He wasn't able to look beyond his dick.

'And you he may have had a Christmas gift for his fiancée, Denise?'

'Danny. Short for Danielle,' Chet responded. 'And with a 'Y.' Danny says she knows Phil had planned something for her. It isn't the gift so much, although he'd told her it was something special. It's mostly that she doesn't want to find it someday down the road and reopen the wounds of his loss. She gave me a list of the stores where she thought he did most of his shopping. I've already been to every one listed down here on Whitmore Avenue. If he didn't order anything in here, there's just one left to check out at Merrick's Mall and then I'll have to go back and tell Danny I couldn't solve the mystery.'

'And you've been in other shops on this street and asked them this question?' Hudson asked.

'Yes, I'm sorry. It's sort of embarrassing--going in and asking to check with so little information to go on. But Phil was a good friend to me, and I just want to do what I can for Danny. She's just been so depressed, and this has been eating away at her. I think it will help if I can just tell her that I checked and there's no present coming.'

'Well, the order book is over here on the counter,' Hudson said. 'We'll just check to see if - '

'I checked through the book while you were talking, Mr. H.,' Linda said quietly. 'I couldn't find - '

'We'll just take another good look,' Hudson overrode her. 'Hmm. I'm not sure. Maybe yes, maybe no. Ah, yes, I see. Maybe,' Hudson said, his nose buried in the order book. 'Just a minute. You stay right there. There's an order form here that suggests there might be something in the back room.'

'Ah, yes, I found it,' Hudson said after having been gone what seemed like an eternity. 'The young lady was right. Phil Shelton did order her gift from here. If I'd been the one who took the order, I'm sure I would have remembered it. He always came here for his special gifts. His firm has been very good to the community. He was a good man. Uh, I guess I said that before.'

Chet's eyes got big when he saw what Hudson had brought out. It was perfect.

'Yes, a really good man and always a great customer, that Phil Shelton,' Hudson said gruffly. 'Most customers don't put more than 10 percent down when they order something special like this. But this order form says he paid the full amount when he ordered it. Don't find as good a customer as that anymore. I think his fiancée will like that. He ordered the design especially for her, you know. See that little engraving there on the back? Aren't those their names, Phil and Danny?'

Linda had remained completely speechless from the moment Hudson had reappeared with the pill box. When the delighted Chet had left with the gift in one of the best boxes and with the fanciest wrapping the other shop attendant, Christina, could find, Linda finally managed to stammer a questioning, 'Mr. H - ?'

But Hudson cut her off. 'Well, I said I knew I'd find a use for that other pill box, didn't I? Don't fuss. Get back to work, both of you. There are customers to serve.'

Linda's eyes rotated around the room and then I stared out onto the snowy street. There wasn't a customer in sight. 'Mr. H.,' she said a bit more loudly than necessary. 'You said you were making the gold filigree pill box for an unknown occasion. That I understand, and you did a wonderful thing here today - and to be honest I don't understand that too well. But you didn't give the man the filigree pill box. You gave him the diamond pavé pill box you made for Ruth. And it was engraved with those names.'

'I know, I don't understand that myself. Not the engraving part, of course. I pride myself in my quick engraving work. But I don't know why I gave him the fancy pill box, either. It's just that I got back there and saw those pill boxes together and thought of what I would want to do for a fiancée who had unexpectedly lost her man at Christmas, and then I just couldn't give the second-best pill. What I said was the truth. Phil Shelton's firm has always been a good to me and the other shop owners here. So, call it a whim. But now I'm in a bind. I just don't know what I'm going to tell Ruth. You won't tell her she's getting second best, will you?'

'No, you will, Mr. H.,' Linda answered, knowing from Ruth that Hudson was normally as much the skinflint grouch at home as here and also thinking of what Ruth had told her about what she'd like to receive as a gift. 'Christina and I will close up tonight. You go on home. Stop at the florists and get Ruth some flowers, take her out to a nice dinner, give her that gold filigree pill box, and tell her what happened here today with the Phil Shelton's friend. And I mean tell her everything. Trust me, it will be the anniversary present she always wanted from you. I think you've just been slapped with a large dose of the Christmas spirit.'

Late that night, in the big king-sized bed in Chet's house, he and Danny were making languid love. Danny was laying spread-eagled on his belly on the bed, and Chet was stretched out on top of him, legs closely encasing legs, arms extended along arms, the older man holding the younger's wrists, Danny's hips rising and falling in slow rhythm in harmony with the undulation of Chet's pelvis as he fucked slowly down into his new lover, opening and stretching and mining deep.

Both men were sighing in contentment as they fucked, Chet pleased with a day's work well done and a start of a new relationship, Danny melting at the proof of Phil's love for him, the gem-studded pill box sitting on the night stand within his intense gaze and reflecting the light of the night lamp off its diamond facets, as well as his building love for the man who had found the gift for him, the man who was his new, considerate, deep-plowing daddy.




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