Excerpt: Sharing a Pond

He hurt.

Badly. Every muscle ached. Every inch of skin burned. His lower back was the pinpoint and it radiated outward. Randy’s hand just kept coming. He groaned and tried to twist away, but he couldn’t. He never could in these dreams. But this time he was trapped in something. And there was water?

“Wake up!”

The hands that held his shoulders didn’t hurt. Why didn’t they hurt? His entire body hurt, but not because of those hands.

“Wake up!”

Water. He was sitting in water. Lying in it, more like. And that wasn’t Randy’s voice. Brent forced his eyes open to the blinding light, the man’s face, the bathroom backdrop. Bathroom. Water. Tub. It all came together, but explained nothing. “What?”

“You’re in our house,” the man explained. “We found you by the side of the road, and you needed thawing out.”

He remembered now. The last guy he’d hitched with had dropped him by the highway, not willing to risk the back roads with the snow thickly falling. He hadn’t cared what happened to Brent in that snow. But that was the risk of hitching. Brent shivered, focused on the face in front of him. The pale skin, the soft expression, the dark brown eyes. The soft flutter of his heart in reaction. “Sh-Shane?”

“Um, yes. I’m sorry, do I know you?”

Brent’s cheeks flushed. He’d come all this way to see Shane and Corey, and now the words stuck in his throat. There was so much risk. What if the pounding in his chest was his imagination? His adoptive parents had always talked about the call of the mate bond, but what if only he felt it? What if he’d just clung to the only men he’d known who were gay? “You probably don’t remember me.” He took a deep breath. “Last time we met, you knew me as Brenda.”

“Brenda?” Shane stared down at Brent’s obviously male body. Oh hey, he was naked except for his tighty-whities. He shifted, unsure if he should cover himself while Shane repeated, “Brenda?” and then gasped. “Brenda Dandridge.”

Yes, that was him. He nodded. Shane’s eyes widened, but he didn’t look disgusted, just surprised. “Oh.”

He waited for Shane to do something besides stare. He waited in vain. “Can I have a towel?”

“Oh. Yes.” Shane stirred awake, grabbed the fluffy green towel off of the closed toilet, and handed it over. “Here. Are you sure you’re up for it? Do you need any help?”

“Um.” Brent flushed and clenched the folded material to his chest. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“All right.” Shane stood. “I’ll be just outside the door if you need me.”

His feet were unsteady when he stood, but they held. He let the tighty-whities drop, then he toweled off, his actions slow. Every muscle ached with each movement. While walking, he’d dropped to the snowy ground exhausted and must have fallen asleep—or unconscious—there. That would explain the pain, if his body was still trying to thaw. Stepping out of the tub was harder than it should have been. All he wanted was to slip back into the warm water and not move, but he got out and finished drying off.

He’d just wrapped the towel around his waist when there was a knock. He shuffled a few steps to the door and cracked it open. Shane was there, holding out his folded clothes. Corey—who didn’t seem to have changed at all in the years since Brent had last seen him—lurked just over his shoulder. Brent’s heart pounded and his cheeks warmed. Corey smiled.

It was Shane who shut the door, closing Brent back in the bathroom with his clothes—and a new pair of boxers. Well, new to him. Only feeling a little foolish, he pressed his nose to the clothes in his hands, but the boxers, like everything else he held, just smelled of detergent. With a sigh, he set the clothes on the sink, grabbed the boxers, and pulled them on. They were tight—he was broader than Shane or Corey—but he was used to close-fitting underwear anyway. He’d never really ventured far from the panties he’d grown up in. The rest of the clothes followed the boxers; the threadbare jeans didn’t look any better after having been washed.

He combed his fingers through his jaw-length hair to keep it from becoming a rat’s nest, then tucked it behind his ear. The fiddling spared him a few more minutes before he had to face Shane and Corey. He inhaled and opened the door. “Shane?”

“All dressed?” He was greeted with a smile. “Then we can head into the kitchen; I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“I’m twenty; I think being hungry is a requirement.”

Shane laughed, like Brent had hoped he would. It was just as throaty as he remembered and still made him shiver with desire. Well, now it made him shiver with desire. Eight years ago, he’d been a little girl enchanted by the two men who worked with her daddy. Now he was a grown man enchanted by a couple.

A committed couple. Which was why he shouldn’t have come, but he couldn’t help it. Ever since the change and his life’s turn for the worst, he’d only been able to think of them. Knowing that the two men would probably help him get on his feet hadn’t hurt either. But even if they’d been as broke as he was—and he wasn’t sure there were many people as broke as he was—he still would have headed to them.

“Come on, then,” Shane said. “Corey has some stew heated in the kitchen. You eat meat, right?”

“I love meat.” He probably shouldn’t have emphasized that. Thankfully Shane was walking in front of him and couldn’t see his face, which was surely glowing by now.

In the kitchen, Corey was pouring soup in a bowl and setting it at the table beside a plate with crusty buttered bread. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Brent sat and stared into the bowl for a minute. Chunks of beef, carrot, and potato floated in front of his eyes before he practically inhaled the food. Nothing was said while he ate. He supposed if they wanted to talk, he wouldn’t be able to answer them with half a loaf in his mouth anyway. He should have been embarrassed about his manners, but he was too hungry. Just this side of starving. And the food was delicious. He made sure to compliment it when he took a breath between gulps.

After the last mouthful slid down his gullet, he cleared his throat. “I guess you have a few questions.”

“A few,” Shane said. He shared a look with Corey, then they each pulled up a seat at the table. “Obviously a lot has happened since we last saw you. What do you feel comfortable talking about?”

If he had a choice, not much. But they’d taken care of him, and he didn’t think that they’d toss him out on his ass now, when they already knew about his biggest surprise. So he trusted they’d listen and not judge. “I’m a shifter.” That was the easy part. They’d know that already. Like recognized like. He took a deep breath. “A frog shifter. A Common Reed Frog.”

Shane nodded. “That explains the Brenda to Brent thing. I’m guessing you changed after you went through your first shift?”

They weren’t angry. He could breathe. “Yes. I thought I was ready for it. I mean, Mom and Dad had prepared me for the shift. But none of us knew what I’d be. And none of us expected… this.” He gestured to himself.

“No, I imagine not. I don’t think it’s too common among frog shifters either, but some varieties do. Corey and I are frog shifters, too,” Shane offered, “although we’re both Northern Leopards. Go on.”

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