One Step FurtherAlex Stern has it all; good looks, charm, a job he loves and everyone calls him a friend. He lives life to the fullest at a breakneck pace, in the city that never sleeps. But Alex is also a master pretender; not even his best friend sees the pain that Alex hides so well. Alex himself isn’t sure who he is or what he’s searching for, he only knows that he hasn’t found it yet.
As a veterinarian, Rafe Hazelton loves each animal that crosses his path; they don’t care if he stutters a bit or that he prefers men. Their love is unconditional, but his life is still empty; they can only give him so much. New friendships convince him it’s time to break the wall of loneliness he’s hidden behind since childhood and discover what he's been missing.
Alex and Rafe forge a friendship that turns physical, and they both swear that the relationship will last only as long as the fun does. But when old heartaches come to light and secrets hidden for years are revealed, Alex and Rafe discover if they accept what’s in their hearts and take it one step further, the greatest reward is waiting for them in the end.
The day dawned sharp and clear, the bright blue of the sky rivaling the ocean. Alex Stern stood out on the weathered deck and sipped his coffee, watching his friends, Micah and Josh taking turns tossing a Frisbee to their dog, Lucky. Her tail wagging like an out of control metronome, she splashed through the waves, sending up a watery, rainbow spray into the sunlight.
Life was good. His classes were finished, he had the love of his life sleeping inside the house and his mother, healthy once again, sat on the beach with Micah and Josh’s grandmothers enjoying the cool, salty air coming off the Atlantic Ocean. Under the shade of a huge umbrella the twins, Rebecca and Jacob, sat in their portable playpen, playing with their toys.
Alex turned from the beautiful ocean vista to a much more welcome vision; Rafe, clad only in his boxers, his hair tousled from sleep, leaned against the doorway. As always, the sight of him sent a rush of emotions through Alex he couldn’t explain if he tried; it was the ache of want, the joy of knowing someone loved him for who he was. Acceptance, home, peace.
Rafe gave him that and so much more.
“It’s perfect now that you’re awake and here with me.” Alex set his mug on the railing and joined Rafe, pulling him close to rest his lips in Rafe’s hair. Everything clicked into place when he held Rafe and after the dream he had last night, he needed grounding.
“You were up so early.” Rafe tipped his head back, his golden-brown eyes kindling with warmth and laughter. “I missed your usual morning wake up call.”
Alex slid his hands up Rafe’s back, loving the play of the sleek muscles and heated skin. Normally he was the first one awake and there was nothing he liked more than giving Rafe an early-morning blow job to start the day. Today was different and he only hoped he could recapture what had happened to him overnight.
“Come sit with me,” he said, taking Rafe by the hand and leading him to the chaise lounge chairs on the deck that overlooked the beach and ocean. “I had a dream I wanted to tell you about.”
Puzzled, Rafe complied and sat next to him, entwining their feet together. “Was it upsetting?”
Alex slipped his arm around Rafe, settling him against his chest and drawing him close. “Not at all. I don’t understand it though. Maybe you can tell me what it meant, since you have that special insight.”
Rafe smiled. “I don’t have any special insight, Alex.”
“Sure you do. You always know when I’m tired, or hungry or when I want sex.” He grinned. “My needs may be basic but you can always tell.”
Shaking his head, Rafe laughed out loud. “Alex. You ALWAYS want sex, you love to eat and school sucked the life out of you. It’s not too difficult.”
“Well, yeah, but you’re the one who takes care of it all.” He nudged Rafe. “Work with me, baby, I’m complimenting you.”
“All right, thank you.” Rafe kissed him, his lips curving in a smile. “Continue, then. Tell me.”
“I had a dream. About Seth.” His toes played with Rafe’s and he laced their fingers together, needing that connection. It had been years since he dreamed of Seth with such vivid clarity. Alex could swear he was awake and Seth sat next to him on his bed, like he did when they were young.
“Oh baby.” Rafe lay his head on Alex’s chest.
“He spoke to me and told me now that I’m at peace, he could rest easier. That knowing I had you with me, made his ultimate journey one of beauty and love.” Alex blinked against the sting of his tears. “Seth told me you were the one for me and he was glad that going forward, love would always be present in our lives. That no matter where we went, people would recognize our love.”
“That’s beautiful, Alex.” Rafe’s warm breath whispered over Alex’s skin. “One of my biggest regrets in life is that I was never lucky enough to meet Seth. But to know he lives on in your heart is enough for me.”
“Both of you reside there, baby. Remember your ring’s inscription? The other half of my heart. You own the whole thing, but when you’re away from me, that ring is a symbol of the part of me that goes with you.” He played with Rafe’s hair, sliding his fingers through the silky strands. “And part of Seth is with you too, watching over you.”
Ever the emotional one, Alex felt the wetness of Rafe’s tears against his skin. “Oh Alex that’s beautiful. And I’m honored that Seth is with me. I like to think we would’ve been friends.”
Alex’s heart squeezed in his chest. While he could never stop missing his twin brother, loving Rafe had eased the pain of his loss. Having his mother back in his life and her unwavering love for both him and Rafe almost made him whole again. All that remained was for him and Rafe to get married and start the family they both so desperately wanted.
The squeals of the twins from below brought him out of his musing. Still holding hands, he and Rafe stood and peered over the deck to see a wet Lucky shaking herself off next to the playpen, sending a shower of water over the babies. Their giggles and Lucky’s barking broke his and Rafe’s introspective mood and they waved at Micah and Josh.
“Come down,” called Josh. “We’ve got the radio on down here. The Court’s decision on marriage equality is coming down any minute.”
Immediately, Alex recalled Seth’s voice last night, as clear and strong as if he was issuing a decision himself.
“No matter where you go, people will recognize your love, Alex.”
Rafe called back. “We’ll be down in a minute as soon as we get dressed.”
Alex put his arms around Rafe and yelled back down, “Make that two minutes, at least.”
He could hear Micah laughing as Rafe groaned and kissed his cheek. “Incorrigble.”
* * * *
Granted, it was closer to forty five minutes before he and Alex joined the rest of their family down at the beach, but Rafe wasn’t complaining about being late. How could he when he had Alex inside him, crying out how much he loved Rafe?
Lucky bounced around them for a minute only to race down the beach, barking her head off, chasing after the seagulls. Even an animal has to be lucky, Rafe thought. And no animal was more cherished than Lucky for sure.
The night Josh found Lucky and brought to the clinic had so many far-reaching ramifications they could never have forseen at the time—he met Josh and thus Alex; Josh realized how much he wanted Micah and Micah began a journey of self discovery that broke through his cold exterior, allowing him to love Josh. Each of them recognized how special Lucky was to them, and spoiled her no differently than one of the twins.
“What took you so long, Alex?” Micah’s smile flashed white in his deeply tanned face as he teased his friend and Rafe’s heart warmed to the sight of the two best friends laughing with each other.
Micah and Josh had bought this house in Quogue last year and loved coming out for the summers with their grandmothers. The ladies loved the beach and now that they had the twins with them, their family was complete.
Rafe wanted that. He twisted the ring on his finger that Alex gave him when he proposed. He couldn’t wait to get married and start a family. He knew Alex’s mother loved coming here; she enjoyed spending time with Ruth and Ethel and was already like a third grandmother to the babies.
And much as he loved Micah and Josh’s twins, he longed for children of his own. Rafe ached to hold his child and give him or her all the love he never received growing up. His only wish was one that could never come to fruition—that his parents could have lived to see him grown, happy and in love. But Rafe firmly believed in his heart they would have loved him no matter that he was gay, and therefore would have loved Alex and any children they would have together.
That’s why this court decision was so important to them all. To know that he and Alex could travel anywhere in their own country and not be thought of as second class citizens, as separate but equal, was what he and the countless others worked so hard to achieve.
All his life Rafe had put up with the taunts and teasing that he was too emotional for a real man, that real men don’t cry. But Rafe had lived a hundred lives since then, and he knew that was proven wrong. And labels of any kind were cruel; there was always an inherent negativity attached to them.
What made him any less of a man because of whom he loved?
“Raphael, sweetheart, come here for a moment.” Josh’s grandmother pointed to the space on the blanket next to her chair. A table had been set up where a radio sat, tuned to the news waiting for the moment when the decision would be announced. A pitcher of iced water sat, beads of moisture condensing on the outside and rolling down the cool glass sides.
Rafe dropped down on the blanket in between Ruth, who smiled and Ethel who cocked her head and peered at him through her glasses.
“We haven’t had a chance to talk. How are you and dear Alex doing? I can’t tell you enough how happy we are that you two have found each other. I always said, love will find a way.”
Josh joined him, holding his daughter who immediately began to squirm and reach her chubby arms out for Rafe. “Do you mind?”
Was he kidding? “I’d be thrilled; I love babies.” He took Rebecca in his lap where she sighed contentedly and cuddled into his arms. If ever the word melted applied, it was now. Rafe was nothing but a big melty pile of goo, holding this little girl.
“Well that’s obvious since you’re marrying an overgrown child.” That was from Micah who handed Ruth a glass of cold water. “Ouch.” He turned to glare at Alex, who had smacked him on the back of his head. The two of them broke out in laughter and began to fake wrestle in the sand.
“Now now, children,” teased Josh. He turned his attention back to Rafe. “Do you find it hard to keep them under control?”
“It’s always the oldest ones who are the hardest to control, I’ve discovered.”
Alex joined him on the blanket, while Micah sat next to Josh. Alex’s mother, Dolores picked up baby Jacob and brought him over so they were all sitting on the blanket together. Other than his co-worker, Jenny who was with her husband and own child, this was Rafe’s world, his nucleus. Everyone he loved was right here with him.
Rafe’s heart overflowed with happiness; the little sandpipers were beautiful, the endless stretch of water infinite and mysterious. Even the seagulls with their raucous screeches played their part. Lucky raced back to join them, bored of chasing the waves and the birds to flop down, and lie panting on the sand. Josh poured her a fresh bowl of water which she slurped down noisily.
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special report from Washington D.C. the Supreme Court has just handed down its decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges.”
No one spoke; for once even the babies and Lucky were quiet. Rafe’s heart pounded and Alex took his hand and squeezed it tight, then laced their fingers together.
“The Supreme Court has struck down state bans on gay marriage and has ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that same sex marriage is a constitutional right.”
Further down the beach, Rafe could hear the faint cheers of the other people who must have also heard the news.
“It’s over, thank God.” Dolores spoke, her voice wavering. “The fight is over. Now you can always love freely.”
Sweet and naive, Rafe thought.
Alex kissed his head and gave his mother a sad smile. “No, Mom. This is just the beginning. We have won the battle but the war for acceptance is far from over. Until we are free to love unequivocally and without fear of losing our jobs, our homes and our children, we have to continue to fight.”
“Well no fighting now,” said Ethel, raising her glass. “I’m all about the loving.”
Rafe kissed the now sleeping Rebecca’s head and handed her to Micah. The little angel had slept through the most momentous occurrence in her parent’s lifetime, and hopefully would grow up in a world more tolerant of her parents’ love.
“Alex. Let’s get married right away. What are we waiting for?” He nudged Alex’s tanned thigh next to his on the blanket. “We already have the license.”
And what he also loved the most was this man, who filled his heart with music and love and more life and hope than he thought possible.
“I’m one step ahead of you, baby. While you were in the shower this morning I called up my friend whose father is a judge. They own the house down he beach and this evening he’s coming over to marry us.”
Growing up, Rafe didn’t think he deserved happiness and hid behind his stutter and shyness. Meeting Alex, falling in love and getting drawn into his joyful presence opened Rafe’s eyes to all life had to offer and how he deserved not only to grab the brass ring but to catch it and hold it tight.
“I love you, Alex.”
Family, born of blood or born of choice. He’d never be alone again with Alex at his side.
All you need is love.
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