Mason trudged another few steps and looked around. There was nothing but red sand as far as the eye could see, and the rough path he trod didn’t inspire him with confidence. How often did people come out here? Was this even a real road, or were his eyes only showing him what he wanted to see? He didn’t know what time it was, nor how long he’d been out here. He thought it was only three days since they’d first made the long flight from England to Australia and arrived in Alice Springs. But who could tell?
It was Alan who’d insisted on the Northern Territory for their first destination. Mason would have been happy to spend the whole two weeks in Sydney, but his best friend had called him a bore. Why go all the way to Australia and only see the city? That had been Alan’s argument. Along with jibes about Mason’s love for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Was it not Mason’s favourite film? Did he not long to climb Ayres Rock in drag, or at the very least see the place where his idols once trod? It was his twenty-first birthday, after all, and he’d only be young once. Plus, with their university days not long ended, they deserved a break before the horror of jobs and mortgages beckoned.
Paul, the third of their trio, had agreed with the plan, so they saved up and booked the tickets, and Mason couldn’t deny the early days of their trip had been awesome. They’d spent the first night in a hostel in Alice Springs, where they signed up for a two-day trip to see the sights. Ayres Rock, their morning stop, was awe-inspiring, though he’d preferred the afternoon stroll around the Olgas. It was hard not to feel at one with nature with all the flies providing a constant buzzing in his ear. He’d soon mastered the famed “Australian wave” as he attempted to swat them away. Last night—he was pretty sure it was only last night—they’d camped beneath the stars, and today they were supposed to visit King’s Canyon before returning to town. But everything had gone wrong.
Thinking about it now, the alcohol they’d smuggled onto the coach in their backpacks had been a mistake. After consuming an entire bottle of Bourbon, one didn’t think straight. When Alan and Paul dared him to sneak out of the tent and spend the night deep in the scrub, he’d been too far gone to appreciate it was a dumb idea. He’d wandered, too wired to sleep, and by the time the effects of the alcohol wore off, he had no clue where he’d left the others. He’d eventually stumbled upon this maybe-road and, with no better option, decided to follow it in the hope it would lead him back to civilization. Yet, he’d walked and walked as the sun rose in the sky and so far all he’d seen was the occasional lizard scuttle across his path, disturbed from its sunbathing by his approach.
Mason paused again and licked his lips. They were dry, as was his throat, but, fool that he was, he’d taken nothing with him when he left the tent. By some stroke of luck, he was wearing his hiking boots; even if they were paired with pyjamas. Fuck. He was screwed. At first he’d thought they’d find him in no time. Surely Alan and Paul had raised the alarm and the group was out looking for him? It had to be hours since he’d left, though, and so far no one had come to the rescue.
He sank to the ground, wrapped his arms around his legs, and rested his head on his knees. He was going to die out here. It would probably make the papers back home: “Twenty-One-Year-Old Brit Found Dead in Australian Bush.” The tabloids would be sympathetic. They’d interview his friends and concentrate on the tragic loss of one so young. Perhaps they’d even find some scandalous Facebook photo to plaster on the front page. The less sleazy publications would take a harder line and talk of his stupidity and how he’d brought it on himself. They’d leave his friends alone and talk to his high school teachers, who would comment on his lack of discipline in class and how they’d always feared he’d come to a bad end. He supposed the only plus was that he’d resisted Alan’s attempts to fill his backpack with sequined dresses and high heels. The tabloids would have lapped that up. The other papers would have doubtless interviewed some psychiatrists alongside his teachers.
A moment later, the loud blast of a horn filled the air, cutting off all reveries on his upcoming infamous demise.
The desert road stretched ever onward, and Jackson Cooper gave a bored huff as he reached for his can of Coke. That was the only problem with this route: it was so goddamned dull. And dull was dangerous. Dull made you grow complacent and stop paying attention. Dull caused accidents.
He took a swig of drink, hoping the sugar hit would make him more alert, then settled into his seat. He’d been driving trucks in the outback for more than fifteen years now and it was a lifestyle with which he was happy. True, the hours could be long, but he was his own boss and made a decent living. Besides, he had no one to go home to, so who cared if he was gone for weeks at a time?
He cranked up the stereo and whistled along to the song as he glanced at his dashboard. His speed was steady, all systems looked A-okay, and the weather was clear. He should have a good clean run to Alice Springs. Once he’d delivered his load, he could kick back and relax for a bit as he didn’t have to leave for his next pickup until Monday. At first, he wrote off the flash of colour on the side of the road as a trick of the light. But as he drew closer, he swore, sounded his horn, and braked.
Given the speed he’d been doing, he didn’t come to a halt until he’d passed the huddled figure, but as soon as he could, he killed the engine, applied the handbrake, and climbed down from the cab. By that point, the person had started to run toward him, and Jackson realized it was a boy. A young man, he corrected as the stranger approached. A young man wearing… What the flaming hell was he wearing?
Jackson could see from the guy’s ashen complexion he’d been out in the heat for a while, and when he swayed, Jackson reached out and steadied him. “Streuth, kid. Ya okay?”
The guy gave a vehement shake of his head. “I lost my group. I thought I was a goner.”
“Well, come with me. I’ve water in the cab. Ya look like ya could use a drink. I’m headed to Alice. I’ll give ya a ride.”
He ushered the guy to the truck and got him strapped in the passenger seat. Then he climbed back up on the driver’s side. He opened an Esky and pulled out a bottle of water. When he handed it across, the kid gulped it down so fast he had to put a hand on his arm to stop him. “Take it slow. Little sips, okay? What’s ya name?”
“Mason. Mason Stubbs.”
Jackson started the engine, checked his mirrors, and pulled away from the verge. He focused on getting up to speed and waited until Mason had finished the water. “What’s the name of ya group? If ya know the number, ya can use the satellite phone to call in and let them know ya safe.”
“It was an Ayres Rock tour, but I can’t remember which company.”
Jackson repressed the sigh that tried to escape his throat. “Well, don’t fret. We’ll make Alice in about five hours and then we can get it straightened out. Why don’t ya tell me how ya ended up out here on ya own, wearing that get-up.”
Mason looked down at the glitter-lips sleepwear. “You’ll think me a fool.”
“What in Christ’s name were ya thinking?”
Jackson had tried to control his ire, but it had grown more and more difficult with every syllable Mason uttered, and by the time the boy was through with his story, he could hold it in no longer.
“I know it was silly, but—”
“Silly? Are ya outta ya fucking mind? Damned tourists are all the same. No one has an ounce of common sense. Ya come here to see the outback, but not one of ya has any respect for it. Ya wander off, ya don’t appreciate how treacherous it can be, and then us hardworking taxpayers have to foot the bill for the rescue efforts.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
There was an edge to Mason’s voice that made Jackson glance over at him and narrow his eyes. “That’s bloody well what they all say.”
“Stop the truck.”
“Stop the goddamned truck. I want to get out.”
“Don’t compound ya foolishness. It’s still a fucking five-hour drive to Alice. How are ya planning to get there? On foot? Ya’ll die of dehydration before ya make it halfway.”
“I’ll be fine. Now stop the truck.”
“This is kidnapping. I could…I could call the police.” He reached for the satellite phone that lay between them.
Jackson turned to swat his hand away and the truck veered to the left. He abandoned the phone, grabbed the wheel, and righted their course. He checked his mirrors, but the road behind him was clear of both wildlife and other traffic. What was he doing? If he carried on like this, he’d cause an accident. If the kid didn’t want his help, he should let him out to fend for himself. Someone else would come along and save him when he got stuck.
Except they wouldn’t.
He’d driven this route more times than he could count, and yet he could add up on one hand the occasions when he’d actually passed another vehicle on this particular stretch. If he left Mason behind, he was as good as killing him.
He swore under his breath and glanced to the side. Mason held the phone, but he showed no sign of using it. He was staring at his lap, a grimace creasing his brow. He was a handsome lad, Jackson decided. Or at least he would be if he were smiling and dressed in less ridiculous clothing. He cleared his throat.
“Look, I’m sorry for snapping. But ya could have died out there. Ya do know that, right?”
“Yeah.” Mason’s voice was little more than a whisper, but he did replace the phone.
“What say we forget the last few minutes and start afresh? We’ve still a long journey ahead and it’ll be pretty fucking miserable if we’re sitting here glaring at each other in silence the whole way.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the ghost of a smile on Mason’s lips. “Okay. Deal.”
“Good. Wanna listen to some music?”
“I dunno. Depends what you’ve got.”
Jackson laughed and nodded toward the glove box. “Take a look.” He was tempted to watch Mason’s reaction, but given their recent close call, he returned his attention to the road and waited.
“Shit! You’ve got some cool stuff here.”
“Not what ya expected, huh?”
“No way. I pegged you for heavy metal or something.”
It was the reaction Jackson had anticipated, but he flinched all the same. “Hey! Not all truck drivers are overweight, brain-dead meth addicts. In fact, I don’t know any who fit the negative stereotype.”
“I wasn’t thinking that.”
“Yeah, ya were. But that’s okay. Folks often do.”
“No, I mean it. Come on, man, I can see you’re not overweight. You’re actually pretty buff.”
Jackson guffawed. “Been looking, have ya?” There was no response, and when Jackson turned, he saw Mason’s cheeks were aflame. “Aw, I’m only joking with ya. No need to get embarrassed. Why don’t ya pick out a CD and pop it in.”
Mason closed his eyes as Robert Plant sang “Going to California.” He held a half-empty bottle of water in his lap and there were four crunched-up crisp packets beside him. The last few hours had passed in a blur of music and conversation. Jackson had awesome taste in music, and discussion on the merits of different rock bands took up much of their time.
Now the focus had shifted from his stupidity to more general topics, he’d decided Jackson was an okay guy. The trucker certainly had a wicked sense of humour that matched his own, and Mason would miss his sarcastic comments and deep drawl when they reached Alice in a couple of hours and parted ways.
He cast a surreptitious glance at Jackson. It was not the first time Mason had watched him out of the corner of his eye during their drive. There was something about the man that kept drawing his gaze. Perhaps it was the light stubble that peppered his jaw. Or the dimples that appeared when he smiled. Maybe it was the sparkle in his eye when he laughed. Or could it be the way his T-shirt clung to his body, showing off well-defined muscles that Mason was itching to reach over and feel?
Mason jerked his eyes down to his lap. Not that it helped. He may no longer be ogling Jackson, but he was faced instead with the prominent tenting of his shorts. It was lucky Jackson was concentrating on the road, because there was no way for Mason to hide his unfortunate erection from view if the man turned to look at him. God! How had this happened? He should have stayed pissed at the guy. Then he wouldn’t be in this mess. As it was, his thoughts kept straying to the bed at the rear of the cab. His traitorous mind created elaborate fantasies of Jackson stopping the truck and having his way with him. In some, he seduced Mason; in others, he dominated him. But they all ended the same: with Mason bent over the bed as Jackson pounded into him.
Jackson glued his eyes to the track as if his life depended on it. In some ways it did—he didn’t want a repeat of his earlier lapse in concentration after all—but for the most part it was to avoid looking at Mason. Or rather, to stop himself from staring at the obvious bulge in the guy’s pants. He’d spotted it the last time he glanced over and now he could think of nothing else. Was it for him? Surely not. There had to be ten years between them. No way would a handsome lad like Mason want someone as ancient as him. He probably wasn’t even gay, despite that garish nightwear. What was that term that had been all the rage not long ago? Metrosexual? In all likelihood Mason was thinking of the girlfriend waiting for him in the UK, and absence had made the heart grow fonder. It had certainly made something grow.
He grit his teeth and tried to think about the road ahead. They were back on the main highway and he needed to concentrate given the increase in traffic. Yes, it was the traffic he would think about, not the fact that arrival in Alice would mean the moment had come to part from his unexpected passenger.
The clock on the dashboard refused to stop ticking despite the grimaces Mason threw at it. They were now only about an hour from their destination. Three hours ago he would have welcomed that knowledge; now the return to civilization was the last thing he wanted. His erection had finally subsided, but the only way he could avoid another was by running through his favourite song lyrics in his mind, flexing his fingers to form the guitar chords, and keeping his gaze fixed ahead and not the hot guy beside him. As he stared out, a billboard caught his attention.
“Say, Jackson? Can we pull in at the roadside services?”
Jackson studied the sign as they passed and then looked at the clock. “I’m still a good half hour ahead of schedule, so I guess we can make a quick pit stop if ya need to stretch ya legs.”
Ten minutes later Jackson turned into the service station and parked. Mason clambered down from the cab and yanked on the drawstrings to keep his trousers from slipping. Jackson had balked at letting him out in public in only his sleepwear and had loaned him the tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt. Both were on the large size, though, with the trousers threatening to slide off his slender hips.
“Can we get a drink?” Mason asked as they crossed the car park. “I’ll pay you back when we get to Alice. For the stuff from your cab too.”
“No need for that. I’ll shout ya a drink. No worries.”
Mason ordered a chocolate milk and Jackson grabbed a can of Coke, and they settled at one of the tables by the window. From here they could see Jackson’s truck and Mason gazed at it as he tried to find the right words. It didn’t help that he didn’t know what he wanted. He’d been out for a few years, but so far he’d had only a few brief flings and flirtations; along with a couple of club hook-ups he’d regretted the next morning. He was attracted to Jackson, but what exactly did he expect would happen? Was this stop simply to prolong their journey together? Did he wish to form a friendship that would see him keep in touch with Jackson after they reached Alice? Or was he hoping for something more?
“So.” He took a long swallow of his drink. “Driving must keep you on the road a lot. How does your wife feel about being alone while you’re gone?” Mason had already noted Jackson wore no ring, but he’d wanted to ease into the conversation and that was the first question that had come to mind.
“I’m not married. Probably never will be. Not my thing, ya know?”
Mason wondered if that wasn’t the hint of a blush on Jackson’s cheeks. “Must make life easier. Girlfriends have to take it or leave it, I guess.” He paused to see if Jackson would take the bait, but rather than confirming one way or the other, Jackson twisted the statement back at him.
“Ya got a girl waiting at home? Handsome lad like you must be a hit with the Sheilas.”
Mason frowned. Should he tell the truth? If Jackson was gay, knowing Mason was too might make him more willing to open up about his preference. Then again, he might be straight and homophobic and Mason’s admission could result in an awkward end to their journey together—if Jackson didn’t up and dump him here and now. There were other people at the service station, though. Surely one of them would take him to Alice if he ended up stranded. He decided to risk it. Time was limited, so it would have to be all or nothing.
“Actually, I’m gay. I thought the pyjamas would have given it away.” He sucked hard at the straw and gulped down the chocolate milk as he waited for Jackson’s reaction.
There was no mistaking the flush in Jackson’s cheeks this time. “Well, I wondered, but I didn’t want to assume. I am too, so it’s, uh, okay, ya know.”
The knowledge made Mason’s heart race. He brushed his hair from his eyes in an effort to resist the urge to lean across the table and press his lips to Jackson’s. Then he downed the last of his drink and pushed the glass aside. “Should we hit the road again?”
“What?” Jackson blinked and coughed. “Oh. Yeah. Yeah, we’d better make tracks.”
Mason led the way to the truck. He could feel the weight of Jackson’s gaze on his back and swayed his hips a little. He was in no doubt now that Jackson was interested, and he hoped he had made it clear that he would welcome any advance. There was a certain thrill to the situation; Mason couldn’t deny that. He’d nearly died today, and Jackson had appeared and saved him. He was every bit the white knight, only his noble steed was a truck rather than a horse. Nonetheless, this was more than a mere case of gratitude. He’d gotten to know Jackson during the course of their drive and he liked him. There was physical attraction, yes, but he also enjoyed being with the guy. It might be sudden, but it felt right.
Jackson started the engine, let a couple of cars pass, then pulled out onto the highway. His throat was dry despite the drink he’d just consumed and there was a heavy weight in the pit of his stomach. He was almost certain Mason had been flirting with him at the service station. All those sudden questions about a wife and girlfriends. Then the way Mason had sashayed to the truck. If he was correct, then that meant Mason’s hard-on earlier likely had been for him.
That thought made his own cock twitch and he struggled to keep his mind on the road. They were less than an hour from Alice Springs. He only needed to hold it together until they reached the town and then… Then what? What did he want? To part with Mason and never see him again? Or to drop off his cargo and take the guy to his hotel room? No, the latter was out of the question. When he found him, Mason was badly dehydrated. Perhaps this was all a result of the heat. Mason might not want him when he reflected on it with a clear head.
Jackson started when a weight pressed on his thigh. He looked down to see Mason’s hand there.
Jackson glanced at Mason. “Now?”
He waited until it was safe; then he moved onto the hard shoulder and flicked on his hazard lights. The next thing he knew, Mason was unclipping his seatbelt. The moment he was free, he drew Jackson into the back of the cab.
Their first kiss was tentative. Jackson couldn’t help but worry about the truck. Suppose someone decided to stop and offer help and caught them in a compromising position? What if they called the police? Then there was his delivery that had to be there by two.
All cares vanished a moment later, though, when Mason kissed him again and tugged him down onto the bed. Instinct and desire took over and Jackson responded to the kiss with a hunger that surprised him. Clothing was grappled with and discarded. Breaths became pants. Sighs turned to moans and cries of pleasure. And when Jackson made his delivery half an hour late, he accepted the reduction in payment with a smile.
Three days later, Jackson stood outside the youth hostel. He shoved his hands into his pockets to stop them from shaking and tried to whistle a tune under his breath. When they’d arrived in Alice after their roadside delay, they’d found Mason’s tour group and had the search for him called off. Jackson had watched from the sidelines as Mason reunited with his friends and then he’d turned to go. But Mason had come after him before he’d made it more than three paces, and they’d spent the last two days together.
Those forty-eight hours had seemed like a dream. The sex was amazing, but more than that, he’d come to care deeply for Mason. They shared many interests and had plenty to talk about. Despite the youthful stupidity that had led to their meeting, Mason was mature for his age—intelligent and quick-witted. And funny. Jackson couldn’t recall the last time he’d laughed so loud and so long. Never before had he clicked with someone this quickly or completely. Though his rational mind told him it was happening too fast, he found himself unable to imagine his life now without Mason in it.
Today was Jackson’s final day in Alice and he was waiting for important news. Unable to stand still any longer, he started to pace. What would he do if the answer was no? He honestly didn’t know. He didn’t even want to think about it.
“Jackson!” Mason barrelled into his arms, nearly knocking him over. “I’m staying.”
“Ya staying. For real?”
Mason grinned. “I cancelled my flight home and my current visa is valid for three months. Well, minus the week I’ve already been here. After that, we’ll have to see with visas and such.”
“After that? Ya don’t think ya’ll be sick of me in three months? Ya might meet someone younger.”
“No way! Unless you think you’ll have had enough of me?”
“God, no. Finding ya on the side of that road was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Ah. So you’re glad I’m a bit of an idiot?”
“This time, yeah. But don’t make a habit of it.”
Jackson looked around. “What about those friends of yours? Where are they?”
“They left for the airport this morning. They’re going to Sydney now.”
“They don’t mind that ya ditched them?”
Mason shrugged. “They understand. Besides, I am the birthday boy.”
“That ya are. So what does the birthday boy want to do before we head out?”
Mason crept close and stood on tiptoes to whisper in Jackson’s ear. Heat rushed from the rest of Jackson’s body to his groin, and when Mason stepped back, Jackson picked up his bag, grabbed his arm, and hurried him along the street to the hotel.
They stayed in Jackson’s room until checkout the following morning. Then the two set off to pick up Jackson’s next cargo before hitting the open road. As they headed toward Queensland, they passed a yellow triangular sign. It read: Kangaroos Next 200km.
Fire Up My Heart (MM Sci-Fi Novella)
London bartender Fane thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he finds a rare and expensive service Bot discarded in a dumpster, and he takes it home to get it working again. The Jo-E brings some much-needed companionship to Fane’s lonely life, but there’s something different about this Bot, as indicated by its odd behavior. Fane’s developing feelings toward Jo-E trouble him, and things go from bad to worse when a robotics engineer arrives on Fane’s doorstep, demanding the return of his property. Fane is forced to choose between a hefty reward and following his heart. Giving in to his forbidden desires might get him killed—or change his life forever.
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01F9A00QY
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01F9A00QY
Wish You Were Here (MM Contemporary/Paranormal Novella)
The death of Oakley’s sister has left his family broken and buried beneath their grief. In an attempt to get out from underneath their pain, they rent an isolated cottage in the Cotswolds. For Oakley, it’s an exercise in futility. He doesn’t see much hope for things to get back to the way they used to be, and he’s bored and restless as he waits out the time until he can return to the city and university. All of that changes when he meets local boy Bobby, and the connection between them is instant. Within a few days, Oakley is ready to walk away from everything to stay with Bobby. However, Bobby has problems of his own, and they might be more than the budding romance can survive. But they might also give Oakley a new perspective on his own situation.
Nicki J. Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between mainstream and MM works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her books span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theater, cinema, photography, crochet and cross stitch, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing. She is never found too far from her much-loved library/music room.
Visit Nicki's Linktree for links to her blog and all her other social media pages.