Clay Kelly never expected to be starting life over in his forties. He got hitched young, but now his wife has divorced him and remarried, his kids are grown, and he’s left his rural Outback town. In a new career driving a tour bus on Australia’s East Coast, Clay reckons he’s happy enough. He enjoys his cricket, a few beers, and a quiet life. If he’s a bit lonely, it’s not the end of the world.
Clay befriends Ethan, hoping he can cheer up the sad-eyed young man, and a crush on an unattainable straight guy is exactly the safe distraction Ethan needs. Yet as the days pass and their connection grows, long-repressed desires surface in Clay, and they are shocked to discover romance sparking. Clay is the sexy, rugged man of Ethan’s dreams, and as the clock counts down on their time together, neither wants this honeymoon to end.
As Ethan walked through the resort on Fraser Island the next afternoon after a tour to gorgeous Lake McKenzie, he finally admitted to himself that he was looking for Clay.
Because he’s nice! He’s fun to talk to. Besides, my harmless crush is just that. Harmless. Why shouldn’t I enjoy it? Nothing’s going to happen. He’s apparently straight and I’m on the rebound. But we can be friendly. I like his accent, and he’s a nice guy.
Of course, Clay wasn’t just nice. He was sexy. His accent? Sexy. The Australian slang he used that made him sound like Crocodile Dundee sometimes? Sexy. His broad shoulders and solid build? Sexy. That he didn’t have chiseled abs and was a little soft around the middle? Sexy. Those blue eyes, and how the auburn in his hair gleamed in the sun, especially in his beard and the hair on his arms, and how he had freckles…
Sexy, sexy, sexy.
But the sexiest thing of all was how thoughtful he was. How he made such an effort to make sure Ethan could hear him when he spoke. How he’d told him the secret of the Mission Bay sunrise. How he’d copied the tour guide notes for him. Even back in Cairns, how he’d held Ethan’s backpack while Ethan was snorkeling and watched over him, then later took him to buy a hat.
Ethan was wearing the hat now, and it gave him a giddy little thrill.
Is he straight though?
The question had been niggling at him. Clay had been married to a woman for years and had kids, but of course that didn’t mean he was straight. He could be bi or pan. Although he’d mentioned the right woman coming along.
Still, when Ethan had touched his arm that morning on Mission Beach and looked into Clay’s eyes, he swore there had been a flicker between them. That unnamed frisson of knowing.
Wishful thinking. Don’t be an idiot.
There were four pools at the resort, and Ethan strolled around the first two. It was sunny, and through his polarized sunglasses, the water, surrounding palm trees, and forest beyond were vibrant. He waved hello to Shiv—who was reading on a lounger since there was nothing planned for the day after that morning’s trip to the lake in four-by-four jeeps—and continued on to a smaller, kidney-shaped pool that was more tucked away, and—
There he was, stretched out on a chaise lounge under the shade of an umbrella and surrounding trees on the deck at the far end of the pool. There were a few adults in the water paddling lazily, others on the more exposed side of the concrete deck sunbathing. Kids seemed to be in the bigger pools, their splashing and shrieks distant noises now.
Oh so casually, Ethan ambled around the pool, stealing glances at Clay from the corner of his eye. The chaises on either side of him were vacant. In fact, that whole shady side of the pool was empty and quiet. There was no music piped in, just the rustle of leaves in the breeze. It was perfect.
Clay wore his sexy-AF aviator sunglasses, navy bathing trunks, and nothing else but his gold-colored watch. It was kind of old-fashioned to wear a watch, and it was sexy. He’d apparently taken a dip, since his hair was wet and darker, and drops of water dried on his skin.
His long, muscular legs were crossed at the ankles. There was a newspaper folded over his stomach, his fingers laced on top of it. His nipples were pink amid the reddish hair on his chest, and as Ethan got closer, he imagined licking those nipples.
Heat roaring through him, he swallowed thickly. This was a bad idea, and he should turn back the way he came. But now he was close enough that if Clay saw him, it might seem rude, like Ethan had turned around and left because he was avoiding Clay. So he kept walking slowly around the curve of the shaded deep end, where one woman in a bikini swam a slow side stroke.
Clay’s chaise was partly reclined, and it was entirely possible he was napping and didn’t have any idea Ethan was even there. Ethan slowed even more so his flip-flops didn’t flap on the concrete.
Okay, if I walk by and he doesn’t notice me, that’s a sign. I’ll keep going and stop being ridiculous.
He was still at least ten feet away when Clay called, “Ethan!” and lifted a hand in a wave.
“Oh, hey!” Ethan replied too loudly. Calm the fuck down. He smiled as he approached. “You found a good shady spot.”
“Yep. Got skin cancer once when I was younger, so I reckoned me and the sun aren’t mates.”
Ethan gaped. “Oh my God. I’m sorry. You said before that you had to be careful, but I didn’t realize.”
“Nah, nah. Don’t be sorry.” He casually motioned to the chaise on his left in invitation. Ethan spread out his striped resort towel and settled in, his heart beating too fast as he took off his hat since they were in the shade. Clay added, “I shouldn’t be so dramatic—it wasn’t melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma. Quite common in Australia. It can’t spread, so it’s not dangerous like other cancers. Still, I had to have surgery to remove it, so it’s not nothing.”
“Wow. I’m glad it wasn’t melanoma. Obviously. Where was it?” he asked before realizing how intrusive that was. Even though Clay really felt like a friend now, Ethan had to remember it was probably mostly in his head. “I’m sorry, I’m being totally nosy! You don’t have to tell me.”
See? This was a bad idea. I’m going to make a fool of myself with this crush. Maybe it’s not so harmless after all.
“No worries. It was on the back of my left shoulder.” Clay leaned forward, angling so Ethan could see. He reached over that shoulder with his right hand, his fingers finding a pale circle of a scar. Just below it was a tattoo, a green sort of shield with a yellow sun rising over a green horizon and five stars dotting the shield. It was a few inches wide and several inches long.
“Cool tattoo.” Ethan had never been compelled to get one, but he enjoyed looking at other people’s. Before he could stop himself, he traced it with his fingertip. Clay’s back was freckled as well, and goddamn, why was that so sexy? The seconds ticked by as he touched Clay, neither of them saying anything.
Finally, Ethan asked, “Does it mean something?” He was still touching, and Clay shivered. Ethan dropped his hand, his mouth dry.
Clay cleared his throat as he sat back. “It’s part of the Cricket Australia logo. On their uniforms there’s a roo on the left and an emu on the right, and ‘Australia’ written underneath.” He laughed and muttered something Ethan missed.
“What was the last part? Sorry.”
“I thought having the full logo was overkill for a tattoo. Didn’t want it too big, but I like having a little something.”
“You really love cricket, huh?”
Clay laughed. “What gave me away?”
Ethan chuckled. “Oh, you were going to tell me about that thing. The…” He racked his brain for the right word. “Ashes?”
“Ah, yes.” Clay tipped his head forward and peered at Ethan over the rims of his aviators with his intensely blue eyes. A thrill of desire shot through Ethan’s veins. Clay asked, “Are you sure you really want to know? No need to humor me, mate.”
“No, I really do!” He laughed, and it came out shaky, so he faked a cough. “I always loved sports when I was younger, and I want to get back into them. Although the Mets were epically bad last season, so I wasn’t very inspired to hop back on the bandwagon.”
“What happened to make you lose your interest? I can’t imagine.”
“Oh. It was…” Ethan motioned to his ears. “I lost interest in basically everything. I was really depressed for, like, four years. But the last year’s been a lot better. I’ve come to terms with it, I guess. But I’m still not the way I was before.”
“Ah.” Clay nodded sympathetically. “I understand. Still finding your footing. It can take a while. When I first moved down to Sydney, it was quite a culture shock. My entire life was upended. Home, work—the whole bit.”
“Yeah.” Ethan hesitated, but the way Clay watched him so patiently and without judgement gave him the confidence to say, “And now, being single again, it’s just so…weird. Like, who am I if… If I’m not with Michael?” Saying his name aloud was painful, but felt good at the same time, to release some of the pressure inside him.
Clay nodded again. “I was half of Mr. and Mrs. Kelly for so long. It hurt to lose that, no mistake.” He smiled sadly. “Hell, I still feel like I’m finding my footing. Thought I should have figured it all out by now, but that’s life for ya, I reckon.”
Warmth filled Ethan’s chest, affection and understanding flowing. “Always full of surprises, right?” And some that were actually good surprises. Like meeting a sexy older man who somehow likes me. Somehow gets me.
“Indeed.” Clay looked at him for a moment. Then he said, “You know, it’s nice to chat about it with someone on the same page. Haven’t really made many mates since I moved, and aside from Facebook, I don’t see the blokes from the Curry. Not that we’d talk much about this sort of thing.”
It made Ethan feel so damn good to be in Clay’s confidence. He had to stop himself from grinning delightedly. Instead, he joked, “Strong silent types in the outback, huh?”
Clay chuckled. “Something like that.” He sipped from a bottle of water. “Glad to have met you.” Then he jolted and looked horrified. “Not saying I’m glad at the trauma you’ve had. It’s awful that your wedding was called off.” He grimaced. “Maybe it’s best for me not to talk about all this after all.”
“No, no. It’s okay. I know what you meant. No offense taken.” He smiled genuinely, relieved when Clay visibly relaxed. But maybe it was time to lighten the subject. Sitting back on his chaise, Ethan said, “All right, tell me all about the mysterious Ashes. Maybe cricket can be my new sport.” And since it was something important to Clay, he really did want to know about it.
Clay grinned. “If you insist.” He sat back and re-crossed his ankles. “What do you know about cricket?”
“Um…nothing? It’s kind of like baseball and takes forever to play?”
Throwing his head back, Clay laughed, exposing his neck. Ethan watched his Adam’s apple. Clay said, “I’ll start at the beginning.”
Ethan nodded and uh-huhed as Clay outlined the basics. Stumps, bats, a wicket, a pitch, creases, bowling—Ethan wasn’t sure he really understood all the info, but he kept nodding, loving the rumble of Clay’s voice.
“Is this making sense?” Clay asked.
“Yes! I mean, it’s a lot to try and take in, but I think I get it.”
“We should watch a match. It’s really the best way to learn.”
Belly somersaulting, Ethan tried to keep his voice casual. “That would be cool, yeah. So what’s the thing about ashes?”
“The Ashes is a test series between England and Australia. Test matches can go five days, as opposed to an ODI—” He cut off. “You’re going to be bored shitless if I go into the overs and innings and all that. In a nutshell, England and Australia play a series every year or so of five matches. It’s very competitive. Lots of patriotic pride tied up in it. The name comes from the late 1800s, when we beat England for the first time over there. Being beaten by the colonies on English soil was quite a shock for the poor pommies, bless their hearts. Our bowler went fourteen wickets for ninety.”
“I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good?” Ethan laughed. Clay laughed as well, and God, he was so hot.
“It was very good. So one of the London papers published a mock obit for English cricket after we won. At the end it said, ‘The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.’ The Brits were determined to get the ashes back, and over the years, mumble mumble.”
A chattering couple walking by made the last part impossible to hear, but Ethan guessed, “Over the years that became the name of the tournament?”
Clay frowned after the couple, who thankfully kept walking. “You’ve got it. Legend goes that when England came back to Australia to play, a lady gave the captain an urn with the ashes of a burnt cricket ball inside. That urn’s in a museum at the MCC in England, but now the winning team gets a crystal version of it to keep until the next series.”
“Are you serious?”
“Mate, I never joke about cricket. Ever.”
Ethan grinned. “I love that the trophy is an urn. That’s awesome. Thanks for explaining all that.”
“I’d give you an ear-bashing all day about cricket if you let me.”
I’d let you do so many things to me.
Before Ethan’s mind could veer too far down the path of wondering what Clay’s beard would feel like against his face if they kissed, Clay said, “Tell me about baseball. Your Mets aren’t doing so well?”
“Not last season. But there was one year when I was a kid? We didn’t make the World Series, but it was still amazing. You know, when everything seems to go right during the season, and the players are all awesome guys and you feel like you know them, and you’re rooting so hard for them. And when they win, it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
Clay grinned. “Nothing like it, mate.” Then he laughed, his shoulders shaking.
“What?” Ethan laughed too. “You get it, right?”
“Absolutely.” Clay looked like he was trying to stop laughing but couldn’t manage it.
“What?” Ethan nudged Clay’s bare arm with his fist, resisting the urge to flatten his palm over the firm, hair-dusted muscles. He groaned as he thought back over what he’d said. “Oh, I see. ‘Rooting so hard.’ You know I didn’t mean it like that. ‘Root’ doesn’t mean sex in the US.” He giggled, because he and Clay were apparently twelve.
As they laughed together over the silly joke, Ethan’s hearing aid battery beeped in his left ear. That meant the right likely would go soon too. Grimacing at the loud beep, he said, “Sorry, I need to go change my hearing aid batteries. They beep to let me know.”
“No worries. I’ll try to compose myself. Of course now my mind’s full of stupid jokes.”
Ethan grinned. “Tell me one before I go.”
“Well, did you know Australian’s don’t have sex?”
Hearing the word “sex” come out of Clay’s mouth had Ethan’s balls tingling and his head going light. His voice sounded too high as he said, “No? What do they do?”
Ethan burst out laughing, and Clay joined in. Sure, it was childish. But he didn’t give a shit. It was fun. Michael would have rolled his eyes because he was always too snobby for puns. And wow, Ethan realized he and Michael hadn’t had goofy fun in a long, long time.
He’d missed feeling so relaxed. Like, he didn’t have to worry about what Clay would think if he made a dumb joke or announced, “that’s what she said” after a double entendre. Because Clay would laugh along with him.
Because Clay was awesome.
Having lost out of the boy of his dreams, Ethan’s set on not missing his honeymoon trip to Australia. It was a promise he’d made to his dying mother to visit the land down under, and though he’s heartbroken and miserable, Ethan takes it. There he meet’s Clay, the big and burly bluey (redhead) from the outback. Clay is in his mid-40s and recently divorced. He has two adult children, and is constantly being pestered by his ex-wife and daughter to find a new woman to share his life. Clay isn’t really interested in dating, but he can’t stop noticing Ethan. And not only because he’s young, fit and single. Clay has a huge protective streak in him, and he’s called into action to help Ethan nearly from the beginning. Learning Ethan’s tale of woe, and knowing how hard he’s found it to cope with becoming hard of hearing, keeps Clay on guard to pitch in.
They spend extra time together, and Ethan revels in it. Unfortunately, Clay’s worldview takes a big shift when he discovers a level of attraction he’d never anticipated. He’s never even thought about being with a man–it wasn’t done in his small outback town. His only experience with gays has been slurs and hate crimes he’d overheard. The very idea of being with Ethan…that way…is terrifying, but he’s also terrified of Ethan walking away and taking the only spark of attraction Clay’s had in years back the States.
I really liked the emotional balance in this one. It starts out pretty melancholy, what with the betrayal and Ethan coming to terms with yet another abandonment situation. He’s trying to make the best of things but he hadn’t really traveled much since he got the hearing aids, and there are so many new situations it’s hard for him to cope. Every thing, every experience, seems colored or filtered through a lens of what Michael would have done, or wanted, and it takes Ethan some time to bust free of those negative sentiments. Clay is a tantalizing bit of eye-candy, but the more intimate they become the more they recognized how unfulfilled they were in their relationships. It’s a wild ride for straight-Clay, who is likely somewhere in the demisexual spectrum. He doesn’t want to come out, but he doesn’t want to let go of Ethan. He has some intense internalized homophobia that he’s able to work through with patience, and listening, from Ethan. While this initially had vacation fling written in bold letters and red ink, this new connection is too good to let languish. Ethan’s still ready for a new beginning, and Clay is poised for starting over. With their lack of ties, it makes a global move possible, one that ties an HEA onto this story. It was kinda cool how that all worked out, without seeming obnoxious, or contrived.