The Real Thing by Elizabeth Hollows

Chapter One

On paper, Chad Anderson had the perfect life. He had a promising career in the military. He got along well with his fellow soldiers and the officers at his base. He had good financial stability, which had allowed him to buy a nice home in the suburbs and he had a loving and supportive family and a best friend whom he’d known since high school. His friend even lived with him, looking after the house while he was training or traveling with the army.

Everything seemed ideal. The people who didn’t know him might joke that the only thing missing was a loving wife for him to come home to.

But that was the heart of his problem. He did have someone to come home to, only unlike Chad wished, his best friend was not his spouse.

Gareth Jenkins had been his friend for many years, and despite all Chad’s attempts to stop it, he had fallen thoroughly and completely for the man. He couldn’t even say he’d turned around one day and realized Gareth was everything he’d ever wanted. No, it had started on day one.

They’d never really shared the same social circles in high school. In fact, they could have gone without ever speaking two words to each other if Chad hadn’t been leaving late one afternoon and found the shorter, scrawny teenager being cornered by bullies.

Chad had immediately leaped into the fray to protect the smaller teen. He’d already been training to prepare for the army, and despite being outnumbered, the other boys had stood no chance. Once they’d fled, he’d turned to Gareth and offered a hand. Gareth had flashed a bright, grateful smile, and Chad’s stomach had twisted and developed butterflies.

He hadn’t known it at the time, but that had been it for him.

At seventeen, Chad had blamed his pounding heart on the fight. He’d mumbled about Gareth staying safe before leaving the scene. The next day, Gareth had been waiting out front of the school. He’d thanked Chad again and hung around talking to him.

Almost overnight, they’d become close.

Chad had started spending all his spare moments with Gareth, his crush growing until it was a constant warm feeling under his skin. But Chad had wanted to bury his head in the sand. He hadn’t wanted a crush, especially not on another guy. He’d struggled to accept it for a long time, but the tipping point had been Gareth confessing a crush on someone in his class.

Gareth had admitted it on the way home from school. He’d been nervous but trying not to show it as he came out about his sexuality and infatuation. Chad had felt his stomach drop and his heart crack. It had left him with the knowledge that Gareth liked guys, but didn’t like him.

Chad had gone home and taken to his punching bag with vigor, trying to work out his pain and anger. His mother had found him, and with a few careful words, had prompted him to spill his truth.

To this day, Chad still appreciated that. She had pulled him into a hug, uncaring of the sweat coating his body. She’d accepted him without a moment’s pause.

Six months later, he’d scrabbled together enough confidence to tell the rest of his family and Gareth. But by that point, Gareth was already dating his crush, and Chad had taken to burying his feelings. He’d focused all his attention on the military and sworn that to walk into his new career with all his focus, he’d have to do it without a boyfriend by his side.

Nine years later and recently turned twenty-six, Chad was still repeating the same thing. He used it like a mantra to try to forget what he felt and explain why he didn’t date anyone.

The handsome gay lawyer in the corner? He wasn’t interested because he didn’t have the time.

Gareth’s last boyfriend? Chad didn’t like him because he’d looked down his nose at Gareth’s hairdressing career.

Advertise for a roommate? Why would he do that when Gareth was struggling to find a place to stay, and they could just share?

But denial only went so far. After long years in and out of training, surrounded by men and women who had all accepted the grim truth about the uncertainty of war, he realized the only person being fooled was him.

He’d spent close to ten years falling in love with his best friend. It now left a continuous but familiar ache over his heart. Most of the time, he could cope with it. Even coming home to Gareth’s bright smile after long months away didn’t strain his control.

But for the first time since they’d started living together, Chad worried. Normally, returning home from training was the highlight. He was eager to see his best friend and return to the ease and relaxation of civilian living.

But he was going to be home for Valentine’s Day.

If that weren’t problematic enough, for the first time in years they were both single and would be spending the weekend together.

It could have been the perfect set-up. He’d only need to admit what he felt, and the life he wanted could be at his fingertips.

But you’ve had nine years plus of hesitation. Do you really think the risk is any better now?

Chad didn’t.

He’d run his fair share of scenarios about him and Gareth. He’d lie awake in bed at the base, thinking about his best friend’s smile and trying to imagine how the man would take his open-hearted confession. Chad had rarely finished the scenarios to the end. It always took a turn for the worst. He wasn’t interested in spending his downtime crafting new ways to break his heart.

But he didn’t want Gareth dragging him to a club on the most romantic day of the year, either. Gareth often messaged him while he was away, regaling him on the nightlife and dating disasters he’d gone through in Chad’s absence.

Gareth wasn’t a party animal, but he easily attracted people into his orbit. People wanted him at their gatherings. He would always have a funny story to tell and never minded being the butt of the joke. Chad believed Gareth could make the sun shine on a rainy day just by smiling at the clouds.

It was something Chad could appreciate after the strict, intense environment he’d come from. Gareth made the first twenty-four hours easier, and his friend always tried to have the day off to spend it with him.

This time, he was arriving in the afternoon. Chad had taken a taxi from the airport, having persuaded Gareth that he didn’t need a lift. He felt certain that if he became swept up in the emotion of an airport greeting, he’d do something foolish like kiss Gareth. A taxi ride was safer. It gave him time to calm his thoughts.

When he arrived outside the house, he paid the driver and grabbed his bag. He stood on the pavement admiring his two-story home. The lawn had been recently mowed and there wasn’t a fleck of scratched paint or a curtain out of place. Gareth often joked he was the perfect househusband. Chad had never remarked on the subject. Just because he agreed, it didn’t mean he wanted to imagine Gareth maintaining a home for anyone else.

Walking up the path to the front door, he smiled at the sight of the open garage door. He could see their cars as if they were waiting for him to return. Gareth’s was a simple red Subaru while his was a silver Toyota pickup.

He reached the front door and could already hear the excited barking from Gareth’s rescue dog. Gareth had been volunteering at a local animal shelter when he’d fallen in love with her. He’d sent Chad a picture of them both looking up at the camera with puppy-dog eyes. He’d agreed within moments of reading the text about her needing a good home.

Grinning at the familiar, joyful sounds, he dropped his bag, braced his legs and opened the unlocked door. Helga was on him in a moment. He laughed as the two-year-old German Shepherd’s weight hit him full force. She was up on her hind legs, her front ones on his chest as she tried to lick his face.

“Hey, girl,” he greeted fondly. “I’ve missed you, too.”

He heard footsteps over her excited yipping.

“I’ve heard it’s nice to come home to a good woman,” Gareth teased.

Chad didn’t stop running his hands over her head, but he flicked his gaze up to find Gareth leaning against the doorframe. He was in low-slung blue jeans, barefoot, wearing a faded green shirt. His brunet hair was artfully blow-dried and brushed back from his face. He had in his familiar nose ring rather than the diamond stud he sometimes wore.

He looked gorgeous. The perfect sight to come home to.

“I’d rather it be a good man,” Chad replied, “especially one who makes dinner.”

Gareth laughed. “Luckily, I have been well taught by my fabulous grandmother. Lasagna is already in the oven.”

Chad smiled. He gave Helga one more firm pat before gently pushing her off him. She complied but looked unhappy about it. Chad walked around her to greet his friend. Gareth pushed off the doorframe, and Chad wrapped an arm around him, pulling him into a hug. Chad closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment that truly meant home to him. He breathed in Gareth’s floral hair products and felt Gareth hug him back tightly.

His fellow soldiers pulled him into hearty backslaps and friendly embraces, but Gareth hugged with his entire being. He leaned completely against Chad and seemed unwilling to let him go. It often felt as if Gareth missed him just as much.

But since he was the only one hopelessly in love, he knew it was only wishful thinking.

All too soon, the hug broke, due to Helga’s persistent whining and the snout she tried to shove between their bodies. She also scratched his leg with her paw. Chad pulled away but kept one arm around his friend. He looked down at the enthusiastic German Shepherd. She was jet black all along her spine, the top of her head and her ears. Her chest and legs were a light brown, like sand. She was a beautiful dog, and he still couldn’t believe someone had so callously abandoned her. After he held out his hand, she bumped it with her nose, and he ruffled the top of her head.

Gareth sighed, and Chad glanced over. He was sending Helga a mock glower.

“You know, when I adopted her, I didn’t realize I’d become second place to my best friend.”

Chad chuckled. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Gareth snorted. “Bullshit. I could leave for a week, and she’d barely notice I’d returned unless I had dog bones.”

Shaking his head, Chad removed his arm from Gareth. He snatched up his rucksack, and when he straightened, Gareth had stepped inside, giving him a clear path into the house. Helga followed so close that she almost pressed against his leg. The living room was immaculate, just as Chad had expected. They were both fussy with presentation. Chad had developed the discipline almost instinctively as a part of his training and Gareth was just naturally tidy.

“Here… Pass me that,” Gareth said, holding out his arm. “I can start a load of washing.”

“Thanks,” Chad said, handing his pack over.

It was almost routine at this point. Gareth would head to the laundry, leaving him to spend a few minutes reacquainting himself with the quiet and familiarity of home. Chad wandered through the living room, noticing a few new books that Gareth had bought. He picked one up, unsurprised to find it was a romance novel. There were a few new chew toys for Helga. Otherwise, apart from a few small rearrangements of items, nothing had changed.

The kitchen was off the living room with the laundry farther down the way, along with a bathroom. Upstairs had another bathroom and three bedrooms. Gareth’s room was to the left of the stairs, his was to the right while the middle rooms were the bathroom and one filled with gym equipment for him to keep up with his training.

Breathing in the scent of cooking lasagna, Chad closed his eyes and enjoyed all the sounds that spoke of home—the birdsong, the occasional sound of a passing car and the low hum of the TV from whatever Gareth had been watching before he’d arrived.

Yet, despite feeling grateful for the reprieve, Chad didn’t feel like spending time without Gareth. He opened his eyes and followed the path Gareth had taken to the laundry. Helga was at his heels the entire time. When he reached the door, he found Gareth muttering under his breath as he pulled out clothing and sorted it into two piles.

One was for his civilian clothes and his simpler pieces, like his tan shirts. The rest needed a separate wash and a more thorough checking of pockets and removal of Velcro. The latter always took a lot longer, and he’d tried to insist he could do it, but Gareth had always taken on the job since moving in.

It was one more way Gareth acted like that joked-about ‘househusband’. The sight always had Chad’s heart flaring with warmth. It was above and beyond what Gareth needed to do as a friend, but Chad wouldn’t stop him when it felt so nice.

When Gareth gave one of the shirts a cautious sniff, it was the perfect opportunity to announce his presence.

“I do wash my clothing while I’m gone,” Chad remarked.

Gareth looked over his shoulder, seeming surprised by his presence, before smiling.

“You mean it’s not just a bunch of sweat-slicked army men wrestling on the ground half naked?”

“Sorry to spoil your fantasies,” Chad drawled.

Gareth sighed loudly. “And the romance novels made it seem so realistic.”

Chad shook his head. He also crouched down to help Gareth with the sorting. There was an immediate problem when Helga tried to shove her nose in the way. Gareth laughed and ended up batting away Chad’s hands.

“I can handle a bit of sorting. You make sure Helga doesn’t rip something in her enthusiasm.”

Lowering to the floor, he put his back to the wall and spread out his legs. Helga immediately dropped between them. Her paw went over his thigh, along with her head. He patted her soothingly while keeping his gaze on Gareth.

The man was always a sight to behold, even while doing something so mundane as filling the washing machine. Chad itched to touch his friend. He wanted to slide a hand over his back, cup his neck and gently duck in to steal his lips for a kiss.

He wanted the soft sweetness of greeting his lover with a tender embrace.

Many of his fellow soldiers had joked or bragged about their plans to return home to their wives or girlfriends and make up for lost time. They had been without sex for too long and wanted to get their spouses on the first available surface.

Chad wanted Gareth. He couldn’t deny it. He’d spent lonely nights guiltily fantasizing about his friend. Chad had also woken up from too many dreams where he’d taken his aching cock in hand. He’d closed his eyes and muffled his groans with his pillow, desperate to keep from moaning his friend’s name.

But for all that he wanted to strip Gareth bare and take his time learning Gareth’s body and making him moan, it was the softer moments he craved when he came home from training. A bright smile, a tender kiss…

It was what would make Valentine’s Day all the harder to get through. It was the day of lovers, secret admirers and showing exactly how much you loved someone. Gareth might read ridiculous romance novels, but Chad was the one who wanted to buy his partner flowers and hold the door for him when they went out to dinner.

“Are you zoning out on me?” Gareth questioned.

Chad jerked from his thoughts to find Gareth watching him with amusement.

“Do you need a nap before we eat?”

“I’m fine,” Chad denied. “Thinking.”

“Uh-huh,” Gareth said, throwing the last of Chad’s civilian clothes in the wash. “Well, since we’re looking at things to wash.”

He sent Chad a pointed look. Chad glanced down at his clothes. They weren’t that dirty, but Chad knew it for the routine it was. Normally, he had a shower and changed out of anything relating to the army. It allowed him to relax entirely, as if he were washing away his training.

He hoped it would help him get his head back into the game. Weeks away from Gareth always made him maudlin and prone to wishing for things he didn’t have. He couldn’t afford to stay in the same headspace. There couldn’t be anymore fantasies about Gareth naked—or about cuddling and kissing him the way a partner would.

He had to return to best-friend mode. The shower was the best way to start.

“Good idea,” he said.

He had to shake his leg and push Helga gently away. Chad ignored her betrayed look and stood. He stretched, feeling his muscles pull pleasantly. When he lowered his arms, he looked down at his friend. Gareth was still kneeling on the floor. Chad couldn’t ignore the connotations of their positions, and he swallowed. He wanted to cup Gareth’s cheek and thumb at his perfect lips. Maybe draw him close so Gareth’s hands could rest on his thighs before unbuttoning his pants.

Chad turned away forcibly.

“Back in ten,” he said, keeping his voice level.

He left the laundry with measured steps. He still felt rattled. It wasn’t what normally happened on returning home. It was always hard, and he never stopped wanting Gareth, but he felt more on edge than usual.

It’s Valentine’s Day soon. It’s never a good time. You always spend it thinking about Gareth.

Climbing the stairs with heavy limbs. Chad knew better than to deny the truth. He’d spent too much of his youth burying what he felt for Gareth. But he’d admitted it long ago. He was in love, and the most romantic day of the year was going to hit him hard.

You’ve survived nine years. Don’t blow your cover, soldier.

Stiffening his shoulders, Chad reached the landing and turned down the hall to his room. He opened the door to find nothing was out of place. The window was open but there wasn’t any dust. He knew Gareth routinely gave his room a cleaning while he was gone. It was why he never left out anything incriminating about his feelings.

Opening his chest of drawers, he pulled out some of his most comfortable house clothes. As he did, heavy paws hit the stairs. Whatever Gareth had done to keep Helga at bay had failed. She pushed into his room, her tail wagging. He grinned and gave her another pat.

She trailed after him easily as he went toward the bathroom. He paused by the door, blocking the path.

“Sorry, girl,” he apologized.

You’re not the one I’d be inviting in here…if I could.

Shutting the door quickly, but carefully, he locked her out. She immediately scratched at the wood. When it didn’t illicit the right response, she gave a mournful whine. Chad put his clothes on the basin, chuckling at the assortment of haircare products taking up most of the space. He knew Gareth’s many accessories and devices would fill the drawers.

By comparison, he had a toothbrush, shaving cream, a razor and deodorant. Despite the avalanche of objects, Chad wouldn’t have it any other way. He opened one cream and took a small sniff. It was like pressing against Gareth’s hair.

Once, at his first posting, Chad had almost stolen one of Gareth’s jars of haircare products, wanting something to remind him of home. It had been a ridiculous flight of fancy, and he was glad he’d never done it, but he couldn’t help checking the products every now and again. They always brought a smile to his lips and sent a wave of fondness through him.

Putting the tub back where he’d found it, Chad turned on the shower’s hot water and stripped from his clothes. Helga continued to huff and whine at the bathroom door. Chad knew she’d either leave or Gareth would drag her downstairs.

The familiarity and sense of family was everything he’d tried not to miss while away on training, but now that he was back, he could let it seep into his bones. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t perfect and that Gareth would never be his life partner. If this was as close as he ever got, Chad would be happy.

Because despite the imperfections, this was still home, and he was glad to be back.