Gateway to Love

by Sarah Hadley Brook

Gateway to Love - Sarah Hadley Brook
Editions:ePub - First: $ 4.99 USD
ISBN: 13 978-1-64080-834-8
Pages: 98

Ten days to finally make the leap from friends to lovers….

Craig and Mitchell have been friends for years, but each of them reached a point where that camaraderie became… more. Mitchell’s kept his feelings close to his chest. So has Craig, but now that they’ve graduated from UMKC, he knows it’s his last chance to show Mitchell they’re meant to be before their careers take them to opposite sides of the country.

He insists they can’t leave Missouri behind without one last adventure. Mitchell agrees to a road trip to visit all the touristy spots and say goodbye to their home state.

As they spend their days and nights together, buried feelings rise to the surface and hope blossoms. When their journey ends with a dance beneath the Branson stars, will they find love and a future together at the end of the road?

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Excerpt:

Mitch

EPIC. THAT’S what Craig had said. Come on, it’ll be epic, Mitchell.

To be fair, his best friend had caught Mitch when his defenses were down. He’d broached the subject at the pool, the sunlight dancing across the water, momentarily blinding anyone nearby. Heat rose from the ground, shimmery waves hovering over the concrete, reminding him of why they’d come out to the pool in the first place.

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The air-conditioning in their antiquated apartment could barely keep up and the cool water had beckoned them on that lazy afternoon. The temperature had been unbearable for days and it wasn’t even technically summer yet. If you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes. Having grown up in Kansas City, Mitch had heard that all his life, and usually the expression rang true. Not this time. This heat wave had arrived strong and kicked everyone’s ass before it’d settled in for a nice long stay.

With college graduation firmly in the rearview mirror and a new job coming up, Mitch had been restless. He’d needed something to do for the next couple of weeks. He’d felt numb—almost lethargic—after spending weeks cramming for finals, interviewing for jobs, and preparing for graduation. With nothing demanding his attention, his mind had wandered where it shouldn’t—to a place he’d long abandoned. A place that made him want what he knew he couldn’t have. Still, no matter how many times he’d tried to censure himself, the what-ifs played havoc in his mind.

Tendrils of hope had already sprouted, slowly weaving through him. Mitch had fought it, truly he had. At night he’d lain in his bed, forcing himself to face away from the wall separating their bedrooms and pretend he wasn’t aware that his best friend was mere feet away. Mitch could hear every small sound, every step in the room, every shift on the mattress. He’d closed his mind to it—burying his head under his pillow and damning to hell the architects who had designed the paper-thin walls in their apartment building.

But it hadn’t worked. Nothing worked. The ache had only grown until it had morphed into a huge gaping need that threatened to follow Mitch all the way to his new life in West Virginia. For years, he had worked hard to keep those damn feelings at bay and yet, here he was, almost across the finish line and dangerously close to letting his secret out. Emotions were swallowing him up and he was losing control.

What he needed was something to fill the time—something to occupy his mind.

And of course that’s when it had happened. The moment he knew his life would change, for better or worse. They’d been the only two left at the pool when Craig first brought it up. And it had all boiled down to two words.

Mitch hadn’t even bothered with a beach towel that day. With the crazy heat, it hadn’t been necessary—he’d been practically dry in the short walk from the pool to the white metal lounge chair. Settling in, the old chair loudly protesting, Mitch reached for his phone and checked for any messages. His sister had promised to send him some information about an apartment building within his price range and fairly close to her place. But there was nothing, so he leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment, his face to the sun, wondering if he needed to reapply sunscreen.

“Mitchell!”

Why does he always have to call me that? Everyone else calls me Mitch. He ignored the flutter in his gut and opened one eye, his hand against his forehead shielding his eyes from the sun.

But he couldn’t protect himself from the bright smile on the face of the man walking toward him, nor the warmth spreading through his chest.

Traitorous heart. He was screaming it in his head, but as usual, his heart ignored him as he soaked in the beauty that was Craig. At least Mitch was practiced at appearing nonchalant. He’d certainly had years of practice.

“I’m right here. You don’t need to yell.” Mitch was fairly certain the tremor in his voice was too insignificant to notice. He’d opened his other eye to drink in the sight of his best friend walking toward him. Shirtless. The few water droplets that hadn’t evaporated yet falling from his short dirty-blond hair, rolling down his broad chest. Hair swirling over—

“Road trip!”

Mitch jolted, brought his gaze back to meet Craig’s eyes. He scrunched his brow as Craig took a seat at the end of his lounge chair, but Mitch shifted his legs, making room for him. His friend rested his warm hand lightly on Mitch’s calf and he bit back the urge to moan, trying to ignore the electricity coursing through his body. A light breeze carried the scent of Craig’s shampoo and he swallowed hard.

“What are you talking about?” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat.

Craig laughed, his sky-blue eyes glittering in the sunlight. “We need a final adventure, man. Just you and me. One final blowout before we turn into adults.”

Mitch shook his head. “We are adults, dork. I’m twenty-two and you’re a year older.”

Craig only gave him that lopsided grin and squeezed Mitch’s leg. “You know what I mean. We’re about to move across the country and start new jobs. It’s not going to be the same. We need a road trip.”

Across the country was right. While Mitch was moving to West Virginia, Craig was starting his newest chapter in sunny California. The very idea of being separated by that many miles made Mitch’s blood pressure spike, so he tried not to dwell on it.

“Where?” he asked tentatively. This is a bad idea. This is a bad idea. Say no. This is a bad idea. Just say no.

His best friend had jumped up, pacing as he spoke. Craig was a lot like the bunny that sold batteries—full of energy. Always animated when he talked, pacing around, constantly moving or talking. It drove a lot of their friends crazy, but Mitch found it charming.

“Since we’re both moving, how about we just travel through Missouri? I mean, we’ve lived here all our lives, but just think of all the touristy things we’ve never really done. It’s the Show-Me State, so why not let it show us the highlights?” Craig began ticking things off on his long fingers. “The Arch in St. Louis. Branson. Lake of the Ozarks.”

Mitch’s heart was already pushing him to say yes, even though his mind knew the danger. There were lines that shouldn’t be crossed and this trip would blur them. “I’ve been to the Arch. And Branson,” he pointed out.

“But it’s been years, right? Come on. It’ll be epic, Mitchell,” Craig cajoled.

Craig’s attention was on him, heating his skin, and Mitch couldn’t speak yet. He knew he should say no. He was supposed to say no. He glanced over at the water and tried to figure out how to form the word.

“Plus, we can finally check out Mark Twain’s home. You’ve always wanted to do that,” Craig added.

Mitch’s heart stuttered as he looked up and found Craig’s gaze still on him. His twinkling blue eyes were pleading with him and it wasn’t in Mitch to ever deny Craig. It just wasn’t possible. Toss in the chance to see where Mark Twain lived and that was his Achilles’ heel.

He said yes. Of course he did. Craig prattled on for a while, but all Mitch was able to do was watch him in awe. Craig had always been the kind of guy that reacted with his emotions. If he was happy, everyone knew it. Sad, they knew it too. But this was different. Pure joy radiated from the inside out. Mitch had the wild thought that if he peered hard enough at Craig’s eyes, he might even see rays of sunshine emerging. It was a fanciful thought, but he couldn’t shake it. There was such happiness in him.

God, if only Craig knew how much Mitch wanted to make him happy. He would’ve done anything to see that smile every day for the rest of his life.

“This is seriously going to be epic!”

There was that word again. Epic. Craig strode over to the deep end, muscles flexing as he moved, ready to dive back in. Maybe it would be okay. Maybe it really would be epic.

Craig stopped at the edge of the pool, turned back, and grinned. “Just imagine it. You. Me. Best friends hitting the road together.” He flashed him the thumbs-up before he dove in, slicing through the crystal water elegantly.

Mitch’s heart took a dive too. Best friends. That’s all they were. Shit. What had he gotten himself into?

THE NOISE level grew as customers ducked inside the small eatery, escaping the heat, eager to dine on the legendary barbecue. A family with three small children occupied the table next to them and the cherubic young girl with white-blonde curls faced him again, sitting on her knees and pointing backward in her chair. Her parents were too busy trying to clean up after the other two children. Mitch had already waved back three times, so he wasn’t sure what to do as she raised her hand in a wave again. He never felt comfortable around kids. Mitch gave her a tiny wave and she smiled, waving again. That could go on all day, so he flicked his gaze across the small table at Craig and tried to focus on what he was saying, rather than the annoying urge to smooth down his best friend’s hair. Craig’s was always a bit messy—he had that laid-back casual look that a lot of men tried to emulate.

“According to GPS, once we’re on I-35 North, it’ll take about fifty minutes before we hit US-36 East and 110. Then only a few hours and we’re in Hannibal. We’ll have plenty of time to see everything if we leave first thing in the morning.”

Mitch took a bite of his sandwich, the smoky spices exploding on his tongue. There was nothing better than a barbecue beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s. His gaze swept the small space as he took another bite. One look at the compact, nondescript diner and most people were surprised to find it was the nationally famous barbecue joint, but those lucky enough to live in the Kansas City area sure knew. The place had a legendary reputation and celebrities had frequented the place over the years. Even former president Obama dined there on a stopover once. Mitch briefly wondered if he was sitting in the same chair. That would be something.

“Mitchell? Are you okay?”

He pulled his attention from the room and pasted a smile on his face. “Yeah. Sorry.” He grabbed his cup and sipped on the soda so he could have something to do, rather than just stare into Craig’s sky-blue eyes.

Craig grinned. “This is going to be awesome,” he proclaimed again. “More than a week to ourselves. No parents. No friends. No rules.”

Mitch swallowed and set his cup down. “Yeah. But don’t you think Adam—”

“No.” Craig cut him off, his voice harsh, slicing his hand through the air. “Just us. One last adventure before we start our adult lives. Just two best friends, nobody else.”

Best friends. Nothing more, Mitch reminded himself and sighed. Sure, he could do this. Trapped alone with Craig for days. He couldn’t think of a sweeter torture. He nodded and managed a smile for his friend before digging back into his sandwich. Anything to hide the neediness he felt rolling off him in waves.

The thing was, Mitch wanted to go on the trip. Of course he did. And yet, he didn’t. That much time alone with his best friend? Sharing an apartment—with separate bedrooms—was much different than sharing a motel room or sitting in the same car for hours. There would be nowhere to hide. Mitch had become an expert at concealing his feelings over the last few years, but together in the same space for long periods of time—it was a recipe for disaster.

The last time they’d spent the night in a motel, he’d nearly spilled his guts to Craig. It had been almost a year after they’d met when he and Craig joined some friends and headed to Columbia to see an MU football game. It was late when the game had ended and they’d all been drinking, so they grabbed a couple of rooms at a cheap motel. Of course he and Craig had roomed together. Being in such close proximity had nearly driven Mitch out of his mind. Tack on the alcohol’s effect and it took everything he had to keep from pouring out his heart. Still, he couldn’t find it in him to pull out of the trip. His heart was working overtime and it refused to let him pass up the opportunity.

“So how early are we talking?”

Craig grinned, dipping a french fry into the barbecue sauce on his plate. “Six?”

He’d grimaced but nodded his approval. “Sure. Let’s do it. Six it is.”

Craig shot his fist in the air and gave a quiet whoop as he shifted in his seat, leaning over the table. “We’re going to have the best time. We’ll do all the touristy things. See all the sights. We’re both leaving the state in less than two weeks; when will we have the chance to do something like this again?”

That was a sobering thought. Mitch didn’t like to focus on the fact they were moving to opposite sides of the country. It was very possible they would never see each other again. While it might be good for his heart, giving him the chance to get over Craig, the idea of being without him was overwhelming.

He pushed the thought away and nodded. “I’ll be ready at six.”

“Me too,” Craig assured him.

Mitch chuckled. Right. Craig was not a morning person, and Mitch was even less of one. There was no way in hell they would be leaving by six.

BOY HAD Mitch been wrong. When Craig banged on his door at 5:45 a.m., Mitch nearly jumped out of his skin. His eyes flew open, and he yelled at the door. “Go away!”

But of course Craig didn’t leave, instead opening the door and making himself comfortable on the bed next to Mitch. “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” he crowed with a little too much glee.

Mitch opened one eye and glared at him. “What the hell are you doing up so early?”

Craig reached over and slapped his leg lightly through the sheet but then didn’t remove his hand. “It’s road-trip time. Get up and get ready, Mitchell.”

He wanted to get up—he really did. Anything to get away from Craig’s touch. But Mitch couldn’t move as long as Craig’s hand was on his leg, burning his skin and sending tingles scurrying through him. He bit back a groan at the realization his friend’s hand was only inches away from his dick—harder than when he’d first awoke. He rolled away and pulled the pillow over his head.

“Go away,” he said again, his voice muffled.

Craig only laughed. “Ready to go in twenty, Mitchell! That’s an order.”

Mitch trembled. God, every time he heard his name like that from Craig, it drove him crazy. “It’s Mitch,” he grumbled as he sat up, only to glare at Craig’s back as he left.

“Twenty minutes,” Craig called back.

Mitch clambered out of bed, hurrying to get ready. With barely a minute to spare, Mitch tossed his suitcase in back and slid into the passenger side of Craig’s black Nissan Altima. The cloth seats were worn but comfortable, and once he was buckled in, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Drive,” he ordered Craig, who only laughed as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Lulled by the gentle motion of the car, Mitch was fast asleep in seconds.

THE SOUND of a horn jolted Mitch from a sound sleep, and he blinked his eyes for a moment, staring out the window at the busy highway.

“Sorry. Some idiot guy almost hit us. I had to lay on the horn,” Craig explained.

Mitch straightened himself in his seat and rubbed his eyes. “No worries. Sorry I fell asleep.”

Craig grinned at him. “You should be. I’ve had to listen to your snoring for almost two hours.”

“Hey, I don’t snore. You do, but I don’t,” Mitch said emphatically.

Craig snorted. “Whatever. I can hear you through the wall at night.”

“I don’t snore,” Mitch reiterated, and frowned when Craig chuckled. Then he started feeling bad about sleeping so long. “Want me to take a turn at the wheel?”

“Nah. Maybe when we stop for lunch? Although, we’ll probably be in Hannibal before then. We’ve only got about an hour and forty-five minutes left, give or take.”

Mitch nodded and checked his phone, but he couldn’t help watching his best friend out of the corner of his eye. Even after knowing him for four years, Mitch was still blown away by the reaction he felt whenever he looked at Craig. He’d certainly never forgotten the first day they met. It was imprinted on his brain forever.

That first day at Longview Community College had been brutal. He’d had to spend two hours in the admissions office because when he’d shown up for his first class, the professor didn’t have him listed. By the time his schedule was corrected, he’d missed two classes and was nearly late to his third.

He’d slid into an empty seat near the door just as the teacher turned around from the whiteboard. Someone next to him giggled and he glanced over to see the cutest boy he’d ever laid eyes on. Mitch had felt dumbstruck as his cheeks heated in reaction.

“Close call,” the kid had whispered with a nod toward the teacher. “I heard she doesn’t put up with latecomers.”

Mitch pulled himself together and smiled.

It wasn’t until class was over that they were able to talk.

“I’m Mitchell Moon,” he’d offered, as the guy rose from his desk. “Everyone calls me Mitch, though.”

Craig had beamed at him, his blue eyes sparkling a little as he leaned down until their faces were only inches apart. “Hi, Mitchell,” he said with a wink. “My name’s Craig Pruitt.”

And that was that—they became instant friends, bonding over video games, movies, and their love of Star Trek. It was the kind of friendship only found once in a lifetime. Mitch had come out to Craig within the first week of meeting him and his friend hadn’t even blinked.

There was only one problem with their friendship—Mitch had never been able to shake the attraction he felt for Craig. And over the years, as they earned their associate’s degrees from Longview and moved on to UMKC, their bond grew and his feelings for Craig only strengthened.

When Craig had confided in him that he thought he was bisexual their sophomore year, Mitch’s hopes had been raised, but by that time he was firmly planted in the friend zone. So he did what a best friend should—he supported Craig as he came to terms with things and accepted who he was. He’d admitted that he’d had a crush on a guy in high school, but it ran its course and he never acted on it. As far as Mitch knew, Craig had only dated two guys since then, nothing panning out toward a full-time relationship, though. But he’d had his share of casual hookups with men. Craig had gone a little wild when he’d first come out as bisexual, but had calmed down over the years. In fact, Mitch couldn’t remember him even going on a date during their senior year.

He’d seen the types of men Craig seemed to be attracted to, and they were nothing like Mitch, so he’d tucked his feelings away again and told himself not to go there anymore. It was an ongoing internal battle, but most of the time, he had a handle on it.

This last year of college, they’d found a cheap two-bedroom apartment near campus and moved in that summer. Sharing a small space with the man of his dreams had been hard. Especially when Craig often walked around their place wearing only a pair of boxers.

Mitch was honest enough to admit he’d fantasized about Craig too many times to count and would probably continue to do so long after he’d moved. Maybe that’s how it always was with a first love or major crush.

In his heart, he knew being apart would be good for them. Well, at least it would be for Mitch. Maybe he could finally go out with someone without constantly comparing him to Craig. But in the meantime, he continued to fight the attraction. The desire. The love. Because that’s what it had turned into. Love. Over the years, the longing, the emotional connection he felt with Craig, it had all turned to love. He wasn’t even sure when it had happened, but there was no denying Mitch was in love with his best friend.

And just when he was close to being free, there they were. One last hurrah before moving out of state. One last adventure with Craig.

What was he going to do without him? He turned to stare out the window, his eyes blind to the passing scenery. All he could see was a future without Craig, and it was shrouded in gray. Mitch was so tired of fighting his feelings. He chuckled to himself. He was the stereotypical guy in love with his best friend. He knew it was useless, but if Craig had asked him to go to California with him, Mitch would have dropped everything and followed him out west. He knew how pathetic that sounded, but when it came to Craig, Mitch didn’t care what others might think.

About an hour later, Craig pulled over to a gas station to fuel up and grab some snacks. Mitch used the disgusting bathroom, holding his breath as he did his business, quickly washed up, and made his way into the convenience store.

Craig was at the counter paying and held up a bag of items.

“I’m just going to get a drink,” Mitch told him as he walked past Craig. His friend grabbed his arm, wrapping his fingers around his wrist.

“I already got you your Dr Pepper,” he told Mitch with a smile. “And your Kit Kat.”

Mitch wanted to respond. Wanted to say thank you. But all he could do was revel in the sensation of Craig’s touch. Electricity prickled his skin, skittering through him.

“Mitchell?” Craig’s voice was low. He sounded worried.

“Sorry. Just… forgot what I was going to say,” he lied, knowing he sounded lame. He noticed Craig hadn’t let go of his wrist and raised his eyes to meet his friend’s gaze. Mitch was surprised at the intensity. The large black pupils. The flushed cheeks. “I-I’m… fine. Thanks for grabbing some things for me.”

Craig studied him, looking like he wanted to say something, but finally let Mitch go and they walked back out to the car and settled in.

“Less than an hour left,” Craig announced.

Mitch tried to tamp down his excitement, but it was difficult. He’d always wanted to visit Hannibal. He’d read all of Mark Twain’s stories, and knowing he was from Missouri had encouraged him when he’d dreamed about becoming a writer.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English had put him closer to that dream. Being hired to work on a grassroots website devoted to getting people registered to vote had been exciting and he was looking forward to starting next month. He was less excited about the magazine internship. West Virginia tourism was definitely not something he remotely cared about. He’d only taken it because his sister, Samantha, lived in West Virginia, where the magazine was headquartered, and she had helped him get the interview. Plus he could stay with her until he got a feel for the area. Samantha was also providing him with apartment information, so he would have several to check out when he moved.

The magazine hadn’t been in his original plans. He’d wanted to stay in Kansas City after graduation and work on his writing. His dream was to become a published author. Mitch lived to write, creating fantasy worlds and bringing characters to life. Over the years, he’d managed to put some money away, through his work at the coffee shop. Add what he’d been given as graduation gifts from his mother, his sister, and various relatives, and he was confident he could afford to give the writing thing a try for a while—as long as he had a roommate and a part-time job.

When Craig announced he’d taken a job in California, working for a nonprofit that helped homeless teens, Mitch’s plans took a nosedive. While he’d been proud of Craig, the idea of staying in Kansas City without him was depressing. If he was going to start a new chapter in his life and really get over Craig, staying where he’d be constantly reminded of their times together was out of the question. Writing would have to take a back seat to making a living. Mitch was trying to be an adult and make responsible choices—decisions that would help him move forward.

Maybe a new start in a new city would help him finally find a man that he could be in a real relationship with.

He just had to survive this trip without telling his best friend the truth he’d hidden for years.

COLLAPSE

About the Author

Sarah Hadley Brook reserves her evenings for her hobby-turned-passion of writing, letting the characters she conjures up in her mind take the lead and show her where the story will go. She dreams of traveling to Scotland some day and visiting the places her ancestors lived. Sarah believes in “Happily Ever After” and strives to ensure her characters find their own happiness in love and life.


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