This is the first chapter from Vulnerable (Suncoast Society 29, MM, BDSM).
[Siren Sensations ManLove: Erotic Alternative Consensual BDSM Romance, M/M, spanking, paddling, sex toys, HEA]
Leo didn’t want a divorce, yet he can no longer ignore the fact that he’s gay—and kinky. He knows it’s going to break Eva’s heart, but he cannot be the husband she needs. He doesn’t want their daughter raised by two miserable parents.
Jesse is gun-shy after his former Master abused him and his trust. He admires Leo’s dedication to Eva and his patience despite her repeated attempts to delay and derail the divorce. And he absolutely adores Laurel, Leo’s young daughter.
But when tragedy strikes, Jesse is forced to forge an uncomfortable alliance with Eva for Laurel’s sake…and her safety. That’s when Jesse learns the dark secrets Leo has kept on Eva’s behalf for so long, and why. With the strong welder now clinging to life, Jesse must step up and man up to protect the cherished family of the Master he loves before their vulnerability rips everything they’ve struggled to build apart at the seams.
Sparks flew, making the three men gathered around watching wince and turn away while the welder worked on the boat trailer frame. Aluminum wasn’t Leo Cooke’s favorite metal to work with. Not by a long shot.
He was doing it more as a favor to Keith than for the money. Keith had been good to him over the years, steering a lot of work his way even when it didn’t make Keith any money personally. The least he could do was give it a shot when his friend called him to do an emergency job for him.
Well, for the marina, not for Keith personally.
Leo finally finished the first weld and pushed up the face shield on his helmet to examine his work. “I’m not going to promise this won’t break again,” he warned. “Even after I finish this, you’re going to want to drill some holes and bolt a plate over it for extra strength.”
“I know,” Keith said. “A couple of guys are getting that ready. If this wasn’t an emergency, and if the guide didn’t need his trailer today, I would have tried to find him a loaner or a rental trailer. But he’s fishing a tournament over in Ft. Lauderdale tomorrow and needs it.”
“Okay. As long as you understand.”
“Oh, I made it perfectly clear to the guy.”
Somehow, the guy had managed to not dump his boat and trailer when he’d been forced to swerve off the Interstate and onto the right-hand shoulder to avoid a truck that veered into his lane. But the sudden drop-off at highway speed had been too much for the old trailer to take, putting a dangerous crack in the frame that wouldn’t stand anything more than very slow towing over very smooth roads, even without the extra strain of a couple of thousand pounds of boat and outboard engines and a tank full of gas.
Leo stared at the trailer. “Honestly? He needs a new trailer.”
“He knows that, but he usually doesn’t trailer his boat. He stores it in one of our high-and-dry racks and we pull it for him. He was on his way home with it this morning in preparation for this weekend. He immediately turned around and limped back here with it.”
“Lucky for him. Let me build this up a little bit more and then we’ll see where we’re at.”
“I really appreciate this. If you need to charge an emergency rate or something, the guy understands. He just needs it safe for leaving today and getting it home Sunday night.”
“Make sure he understands to take it slow and easy. I wouldn’t take it on the Interstate. Just in case.”
“He’ll be careful.”
Leo sharply nodded his head and the face shield dropped back into place so he could start again. An hour later, he wasn’t exactly happy with the weld, considering it was a patch job, but he’d written a disclaimer on the work order that he couldn’t guarantee how well the patch would hold under stress, and that he would not warranty the work.
The customer had already signed off on that before Leo had even unloaded his equipment, so his ass was clear as far as he was concerned. When he started loading his gear into his work van, two guys from the marina were scrambling to get the two steel plates they’d already prepped positioned on either side of the frame rail so they could mark and drill holes to bolt them on.
Fortunately, the weld was near the front axle. Had it been located closer to the trailer’s tongue, he wouldn’t have even tried to make the repair due to the flexing and stresses it would have taken there.
Keith led Leo up to the office so they could cut him a check for the repair. The customer had already left to go run some errands.
“So…how you doing?” Keith asked.
Subcontext shot deep through Keith’s question like the Mississippi River running well over flood stage.
“How’s Laurel handling things?”
“As well as can be expected. How’s Noel doing?”
From the way Keith’s eyebrow arched, Leo knew his friend had spotted his not-so-subtle attempt to turn the conversation away from his own life.
“Her morning sickness is finally starting to ease up,” Keith said. “She might be able to come back to work full-time in a few days.”
“Everything look okay with the baby?”
“So far, so good.” He patted Leo on the shoulder. “Things will get better. I promise. It might not seem like it now, but they will.”
“I hope so. I’d say they couldn’t get much worse, except I know how wrong that is.”
Keith snorted. “True. Don’t ever say that.”
With a check in hand, Leo headed back to his van. He’d known Keith for several years, ever since Leo had started doing work for the marina.
And he’d seen the changes for the better in Keith when he got involved with Noel and Scott. Keith was a no-nonsense kind of guy. No, he didn’t flaunt his poly lifestyle around in front of unsuspecting people, but he didn’t tolerate any shit from anyone who didn’t approve of it, either.
Poly wasn’t for Leo, though. He only wanted one partner. It was going on nearly six months since he’d moved out and filed for divorce, and their divorce wasn’t final yet. His soon-to-be ex didn’t want to be divorced.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t blame her for that, and he tried to be understanding when she flowed hot and cold emotionally throughout the process.
If only she wouldn’t try to screw him over with custody—again—and dangle Laurel like a piece of meat over a hungry tiger. He thought she’d finally calmed down and regained her composure, because her attorney had removed some fairly harsh custody demands from her counter-motions a few weeks ago.
Their joint sessions with a counselor had seemed to help Eva understand it wasn’t her fault he needed out.
When he could no longer ignore the fact that he was definitely gay, and he’d started bringing up the subject of divorce, that was when her pain and anger had gotten the better of her for quite a while. Understandably so, but if it weren’t for the fact they had a six-year-old daughter together who needed both her parents, he could have made a clean break and walked away without a look back.
Even knowing how much it would hurt Eva in the process. But it would hurt her far more in the long term to have a husband who was miserable on the inside and unable to be all she needed him to be for her. They were both still more than young enough to forge new starts, new lives.
The last lesson he wanted to impart to his daughter was that you had to stay in a bad situation just to keep someone else happy at the expense of your own mental and emotional well-being.
* * * *
After doing three more mobile jobs that afternoon, taking his work van back to his shop and parking it inside, and grabbing his personal car, Leo finally arrived home a few minutes before seven that night.
Well, what passed for a home now. It was a small two-bedroom apartment. Not the best place in the world, but at least it wasn’t in a high-crime area and the complex had a pool Laurel enjoyed during her visits with him. It wasn’t as nice as the pool at the house, but he could keep up with the swimming lessons he was giving her without having to do it under Eva’s watchful eye and making uncomfortable small talk with the woman.
He stood under the hot spray in the shower, washing off the sweat and grime from the day. It was late summer in Florida, meaning the second he stepped outside at six thirty every weekday morning to head for work, by the time he reached his car sweat was already beading on his forehead and rolling down his spine to coalesce in the small of his back.
His day wasn’t done, however. He needed to finish his shower, get dressed, and go pick up Laurel. This was his weekend with her. He’d have her until Monday morning, when he’d drop her off at Eva’s and then she would take Laurel to daycare.
In just a couple more weeks, Laurel would be starting first grade. Because Leo was self-employed, he’d become the primary parent to pick her up from school and take care of her until Eva finished work for the day.
Unfortunately, Eva’s schedule could fluctuate. She worked at a call center for an insurance company and she’d been there less than a year. They frequently shuffled her schedule around, including working some nights and weekends.
Meaning since Leo was self-employed and had two guys working for him, he at least had the flexibility to make last-minute schedule changes of his own.
When he reached Eva’s house—which had been his house with her—Laurel burst out the front door at a dead run. He emerged from his car just in time to pick her up and swing her around, getting a playful squeal from her that warmed his heart.
“How’s my kiddo?”
She threw her arms around his neck. “Daddy! We made necklaces today.”
“You did? Cool.”
“I made you one, too.”
“Awesome. Thank you, sweetheart. What else did you do today?”
Laurel eagerly told him as he headed up the front walk with her in his arms. Eva appeared in the front door, arms crossed over her chest, expression neutral. She’d drastically changed her hair two weeks ago and he was still trying to get used to it. It was a brassy, reddish color that didn’t look good on her, not like the reddish auburn she used to color it.
But that wasn’t his business and he wouldn’t say anything. She’d always tried to get him to dye the grey out of his hair, but that had never felt right to him. Yes, he was going prematurely grey, but there was still plenty of brown in his hair.
He remembered a time just a few months ago when there would have been a happy smile on Eva’s face as she watched them together.
Before he dropped the boom on her.
“She hasn’t had dinner yet,” Eva told him as he stepped onto the porch. “I gave her a light snack about an hour ago, some carrot sticks and apple slices, to tide her over.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” He set Laurel down and she ran into the house to get something. Friday nights were his “date” nights with Laurel. He would take her out to dinner, wherever she wanted, whatever she wanted, even on the one weekend a month she didn’t spend with him.
In the initial weeks after their separation, it wasn’t uncommon for him to arrive on Friday nights to find Laurel falling sleep from a full tummy because Eva passive-aggressively fed her a large dinner shortly before he arrived, depriving him of that experience with his daughter.
Eva’s excuse had been that Laurel was on a schedule and should eat on time, because it was cruel to make her wait and be hungry.
When the counselor asked Eva why she couldn’t give Laurel a small, healthy snack, that had finally switched on his ex-wife’s mental lightbulb. The counselor finally got through to Eva that all she was doing was setting herself up long-term to hurt her own relationship with her daughter, and keeping herself locked in a cycle of pain.
Eva had all of Laurel’s stuff ready to go and sitting inside the front door, a large rolling suitcase holding everything from clothes to Laurel’s favorite stuffed toy. Laurel had some clothes at his place, and he was slowly adding to her wardrobe there, but most of her stuff was still here.
He realized Eva wore a necklace of dried macaroni elbows strung on blue yarn. He smiled. “Nice fashion statement.”
Finally, the ghost of a smile. “Don’t laugh. All three of us match.”
Laurel ran back to them and, sure enough, she had another necklace in her hands and had put one on. He bent down so she could drape it around his neck.
“See, Daddy? We all match.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. I love it.”
“I know you can’t wear it to work because it would get messed up.”
“I certainly don’t want to mess it up.”
“Can we go have sushi tonight, Daddy?”
“Sure. I was hoping you’d say that. I’ve been in a mood for sushi all day.”
Eva wrinkled her nose. “Enjoy.”
Eva had always hated sushi. Leo suspected that was another source of resentment, that he had something special to do with their daughter that she couldn’t take part in.
The first time he’d taken Eva out for sushi when they were dating, she’d nearly puked on the table. But one night when Laurel was only three, she’d snarfed one of his rainbow roll pieces from a package of them he’d bought at Publix and brought home, and she’d been hooked ever since.
Five minutes later, Leo had her stuff loaded and Laurel was safely belted into her booster seat in the backseat and chattering away about everything she’d done that day, catching him up since their phone call the evening before just ahead of her bedtime.
No, life hadn’t turned out the way he’d thought it would, and yes, he would take full responsibility for his role in their divorce. He should have admitted to himself years earlier what was blatantly clear to him from a very young age.
He was gay, and he hadn’t done Eva any favors by trying to suppress that side of himself.
All it’d done was break Eva’s heart and destroy his family.
Once they were seated in a booth at their favorite sushi restaurant, Laurel grabbed her pencil and order pad and started checking things off. He watched, amused. She had her favorites, and she always ordered way too much. Which was okay, because he had some of hers, and the leftovers made good breakfast for Saturday morning when they sat on the couch and watched her favorite shows before starting their day together.
Tomorrow, after breakfast, he would take her to Mote Marine, one of her favorite places. So much so that he’d bit the bullet and purchased the annual family membership, which hit his budget, but saved him a lot of money in the long run. Laurel could spend hours looking at the exhibits and knew most of the sea turtles and other specimens by name. She was obsessed with the place.
To the point that Laurel had actually started researching stuff on the iPad he’d given her, looking up the things she saw, and facts about Mote Marine. And they’d gone there so often they even knew some of the regular staff and volunteers by name.
Even cooler, the staff and volunteers were remembering Laurel’s name, answering her questions, and sparking a fire for knowledge in his daughter that he hoped would never go out.
Laurel finally handed the order pad to him. “There you go, Daddy.”
He smiled. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“I really like it when we get sushi.”
“I do, too.”
“Mommy’s new boyfriend likes sushi, too.”
He froze, his hand hovering over the order pad. Yes, he was gay.
But he was a father. And Eva hadn’t mentioned anything lately about her dating someone. The last guy Eva had dated, Leo hated the asshole on sight but kept his mouth shut. Fortunately, that relationship had only lasted a few weeks before she broke up with the guy.
Any guy Eva dated, who’d be hanging around Laurel, he wanted to know about.
The converse wasn’t an issue because Leo hadn’t dated. There’d been two one-time encounters he regretted up at a resort in St. Pete—regretted because there was no emotional connection whatsoever—but dating hadn’t happened yet.
The point being, if he was dating, he would make Eva aware of that fact. It was something they’d unofficially agreed to during their sessions with the counselor, not part of their actual divorce settlement.
“He does, does he?” Leo commented.
“He brought it with him once. Mommy won’t go out for it. She won’t buy it for me, either.”
“Okay.” He tried to keep his tone noncommittal and forced himself not to quiz Laurel about the guy.
Fortunately for Leo, six-year-olds could rarely keep things close to the vest. “She met him at work. He’s okay. He’s come over for dinner a couple of times. And one time he took us out to eat at a fish place.” Her nose wrinkled. “But they didn’t have sushi.”
He fought the urge to laugh out loud. He could imagine how that conversation went. Laurel wasn’t a spoiled brat, but she was opinionated and didn’t hesitate to express those opinions.
Something she inherited from him, he was glad to see.
“His name’s Mark,” she added. “He’s divorced. He’s got a daughter older than me but she lives with her mom in New York.” She cocked her head at him. “You won’t move, will you, Daddy?”
“Not that far away, no, sweetheart. Never.”
Laurel, so far, had handled the divorce well. Maybe because she’d sensed the growing tension between him and her mom that led up to the actual final fight where’d he’d admitted to Eva he was gay. They’d never fought in front of her, and for the most part had kept any animosity away from her, putting on a good front for her benefit.
The counselor assured them Laurel’s reaction was one of many “normal” and healthy possibilities. That at some future point she might rebel or act out, but she was likely enjoying the new peace between the two adults.
And it wasn’t like he didn’t talk to Laurel every day, and see her several times a week, nearly daily.
He even still had a key for the house, so that when Eva had to work night shifts, he could stay there with Laurel, rather than moving her to his apartment and then messing up her morning schedule.
Yes, Eva had a key to his apartment, in case of emergencies.
Laurel stared at the order pad. “Are you going to order some sushi, Daddy?”
He realized that, for all this time, he’d been sitting there frozen in thought. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m going to order some.”
* * * *
Once Laurel was tucked in for the night, Leo went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer. He wasn’t a heavy drinker but tonight he needed one. He didn’t want to approach Eva out of the blue and ask about the new man in her life, but he also didn’t want her to start engaging in a pattern of dating without adhering to their agreement.
Something else had started to seep in. What if Eva wanted to move one day? In their divorce agreement, he’d had it added that if one parent moved more than twenty miles away, the other parent would become the primary custodial parent, to prevent Laurel from being upended from her school and friends.
Eva had readily agreed to it, even though Ed Payne, Leo’s attorney, had privately warned him that she could always challenge that stipulation later if she wanted to.
I’ll have to deal with that if or when it ever becomes an issue.
For now, he had plenty of legitimate issues to worry about without inventing any out of thin air.
Like why had Eva been dating this guy for several weeks, including spending time with him with Laurel around, and not bothered to mention anything about him?