Travis surprised Ben by nudging him awake before dawn.
Groggy, still half-asleep, Ben squinted up at him, disbelieving the sight of him fully dressed, even his goddamn Sherpa-lined coat on. In Ben’s mind, it had been mere minutes ago that they were naked and breathless and barely hanging onto the lingering euphoria of oral stimulation before drifting off to sleep. How was it the guy was now wide awake and pushing Ben to follow suit?
“Come on,” Travis urged. He rubbed Ben’s shoulder, caressed his arm. In response, Ben groaned, rolled over onto his back, pressed a pillow over his face. He refused to acknowledge that someone was actually trying to get him out of the bed. But Travis was persistent. “Ben,” he said more boldly. He removed the pillow from Ben’s hands and pulled the covers down, leaving his body exposed and shivering.
“What the fuck…?” Ben groaned. The bright light from the bathroom was harsh against his eyes; his pupils couldn’t adjust to the contrast. Clumsily, he reached down for the covers and brought the comforter back up, this time pulling it over his face. There is no fucking way I’m getting up.
The mattress sank an inch as Travis took a seat beside him. Soon, fingers were snaking up beneath the comforter to find Ben’s skin. “Wake up, babe,” he insisted. Leaning in close, he pulled the comforter back far enough to lightly scrape his goatee across Ben’s cheek, like a rough caress. “I want to take you somewhere…”
Ben didn’t respond right away. Kept his eyes closed and tried to ignore the request. Eventually, he said, “You’re nuts if you think I’m getting out of this bed right now.”
Travis slithered down to lay beside him, boots and all. He’d showered and shampooed and smelled goddamn good. Ben, on the other hand, had morning breath comprised of beer and lobster bisque and shrimp scampi smothered in extra butter and garlic. Self-conscious, he turned his face away from Travis’ watchful gaze and was forced into the bright illumination of the bathroom. Travis pushed fingers through Ben’s hair. Touched the nape of his neck, sending chills across his skin. “I know you’re tired,” he whispered. “I’m not real awake myself. But this thing requires us to be there before sunrise.”
“What the hell time is it?” Ben’s voice was dry, cracked, forced.
Which equated to three-and-a-half hours of sleep.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” Ben groaned. Kicked the comforter off to slide away and exit the bed. Slowly, he got to his feet and steadied himself. Mumbled, “This had better be fucking good,” before shuffling into the bathroom. Before he had a chance to finish shaking off the piss, he discovered Travis standing in the open doorway, twirling the baseball cap in his hands, waiting.
“Do I at least have time for a shower?” Ben flushed the toilet.
Travis nodded. “Sure. But preferably a quick one.”
Ben bathed as expeditiously as he could, bringing his toothbrush and razor into the shower with him to complete the hygienic tasks in the fog-free mirror of the stall. The hot water felt good on his tired face and body and helped to snap him awake a bit, but still only a fraction. When he’d finished washing, Travis was waiting for him on the other side of the glass enclosure with a towel. “You really do want me out the door,” Ben remarked. In a few quick moves, he ran the towel down his legs, over his chest, across his back. Shook the excess moisture from his hair and ran a comb through it, adding a dab of styling gel to keep it controlled. Back in the main room, he rummaged through his suitcase for clean boxers and something to wear, for wherever it was they were headed. Still a mystery.
“Dress warm,” Travis instructed.
Ben pulled on a pair of dark green cargo pants, an undershirt, and the black cashmere sweater he’d never had a chance to change into last night. After lacing up his hiking boots, he shoved his mobile phone, wallet and room key into his pockets and slid into his parka. Then, wrapping the wool scarf around his neck, he said, “Okay, I think I’m ready.”
Travis grinned at him.
“What?” Ben asked.
“You’re hella sexy when you get dressed, you know that?”
It was an unexpected comment, and Ben returned the grin, pleased that Travis viewed him that way. “I seem to keep missing that opportunity with you,” he pointed out. “Every morning I wake up, you’re already dressed.”
Travis pushed his Winter Park baseball cap on top of Ben’s head. Grabbed the Ray Bans from the counter and held them out. “Time to go incognito,” he said. “I’m parked a few blocks away.”
Ben slid the sunglasses on and followed Travis out the door. They passed by the room service table still parked in the hallway with remnants of their over-indulgent midnight feast piled on it. As they walked over to the elevators, Ben mumbled, “You could’ve at least made me a cup of coffee…”
“We’ll get some on the way.”
The lobby was empty. Only one agent stood behind the front desk, busily shuffling through a pile of papers. A bellhop pushing an empty luggage cart across the carpet greeted Travis and Ben with a friendly nod and a quiet “Good morning”, leaving it at that. Exiting through the front revolving door, both men were faced with a rush of brisk air. The sky was pitch black, the town quiet. The front doorman in his burgundy great coat and shiny-billed cap inquired if they needed him to retrieve a vehicle or summon a cab. A couple of taxis were already parked along the drive, waiting for prospective early passengers.
“No thanks,” Travis replied, flipping his collar up. “Just out for a morning walk.”
As they stepped off the curb and made their way across the driveway to the sidewalk beyond, Ben noticed a camera lens pointed at them through the open driver’s-side window of a silver Lexus parked several yards away. It didn’t surprise him, but it pissed him off. Like vampires on the constant prowl for blood, every single fucking one of them… By then, it didn’t even matter if he and Travis split up and attempted to travel down separate paths; photos had already been taken. And Ben was all too aware that confronting the asshole was pointless. Such scuffles only led to more negative media exposure.
“Today, during the early hours of morning in the quiet ski town of Aspen, Colorado, Ben Mansfield, Oscar-winning star of the critically-claimed film ‘Roustabout’, assaulted a highly-respected newspaper journalist who was seated inside a car…”
Ben’s only consolation was knowing that, due to the darkness of the hour and the distance of the vehicle, the photos would turn out grainy, zoom lens or not.
“Don’t they ever sleep?” Travis commented once they’d turned a corner, out of range.
“That’s fucking nuts,” Travis commented.
“How do you stand it?”
Ben considered it for a moment. “I guess I’ve grown used to it.”
The truth was, he hadn’t. Not entirely. The disregard for privacy was always aggravating. And he never understood why the hell his life was so intriguing to anyone, anyway. Why did people give a shit about what car he drove, what clothing he wore, what flavor of latte he drank, which woman he was currently fucking? Paparazzi seemed to show up everywhere – at the gym, in grocery store parking lots, even at the dog park he frequented – so it really didn’t surprise him that they were also here in Aspen. Even so, it was particularly grating to him now, with Travis along, with knowing that Katy was the culprit for some, if not all, of the attention. Although photographers often hung out in Aspen/Snowmass to catch snippets of any celebrity they saw, that silver Lexus hound dog had specifically been given bait. First, the ranch. Now, the hotel.
“Katy’s big mouth doesn’t help any of this,” Ben grumbled. “Rather convenient of her to be at school yesterday when that jerk showed up at the ranch. I never had the chance to confront her about it. Now, I guess I’ll never get to.”
“We don’t know if she had anything to do with it,” Travis stated. They’d arrived at his truck. He pulled out his keys to unlock the cab. A parking ticket was secured beneath the driver’s side windshield wiper, and he cursed as he plucked it out and tossed it to the seat. “Not enough fucking quarters, apparently,” he mumbled. Slid in behind the wheel and starting the engine.
Ben pulled the seat belt over his chest and removed his sunglasses. Looked at Travis in disbelief. “Come on, you know damn well she did it,” he insisted. “Who else would have? Curtis? Unlikely. She’s the one who specifically threatened to out me.”
“I know,” Travis said. “You told me.” There was very little traffic, and he pulled out onto the road with ease. Headed west. “You can be sure that she and I will be having a nice, long conversation when I get back. There’s a whole bunch of shit I need to talk to her about. Her attitude with you is the tip of the iceberg.”
Nearing the edge of town, Travis pulled off at a gas station and parked. “Be right back,” he announced, then disappeared inside the convenience store. Five minutes later, he returned carrying two large coffees and a wax paper bag full of donuts. Before starting the engine, he dangled a metal keychain in front of Ben’s face that was shiny and engraved with mountains and the silhouette of an elk. “Souvenir for you,” he casually commented. Ben accepted the gift with a quiet “Thanks” and tucked the little treasure inside his coat pocket.
Heading west again, they reached a roundabout that led them in the direction of a darkened highway. Traveling across the ten-mile stretch, they sipped on scalding hot coffee and watched occasional headlights pass by. Ben was surprised to discover that Travis had added the perfect amount of sugar and creamer to his cup without even knowing what his preference was. Maybe they both liked their coffee sweetened in the same way. Comforting thought.
The horizon was beginning to reveal a hint of purple as the onset of dawn drew near. Ben noticed silhouettes of trees and the outline of high-elevation mountain ridges to the south. Pulling off the highway, Travis continued along an unpaved road and eventually circled around in a wide U-turn, tires crunching over dirt and snow until he came to a halt between a pocket of quaking aspens. Shutting off the engine, he announced, “We’re here.”
“Great,” Ben said. “Where’s here?”
“Sunrise.” Travis got out and rummaged around in the storage compartment beneath the backseat to retrieve a heavy wool blanket. “Come on,” he said. “Bring the coffee and donuts.”
Ben carefully cradled everything in his arms and followed him out. Travis pulled down the tailgate and hopped up onto the bed, and Ben joined him, setting the thermal cups and bag down in order to hoist himself up. Travis took a seat on the bed liner and leaned his back up against the aluminum saddle toolbox, draping the blanket around his shoulders and spreading his legs. “Come here,” he coaxed, motioning to the spot between his thighs. Ben brought the food and beverages with him and sat down, Scooted back to lean against Travis’ chest. The blanket was wrapped tightly around him as Travis drew him in close. Instant generation of body heat.
The sky began to soften with color, lifting the umbra off the landscape like the removal of a foggy veil. Majestic twin mountain ranges, at least 14,000 feet in height, with jagged, treeless snowy peaks, displayed the first rays of pink-orange sunlight. At the base, a muted mirror-image reflection cast across the frozen surface of a sizeable lake, flanked by river birch, blue spruce, and more aspen trees.
“Welcome to the Bells,” Travis whispered.
“Wow…” was all Ben could muster.
Reaching out from the blanket, Travis retrieved the coffee and donuts and proceeded to pull out a chocolate-iced cruller from the bag. After taking a bite, he offered it to Ben, but Ben declined. The thought of consuming something so sweet at such an early hour wasn’t appealing; he was still digesting the heavy meal from a few hours prior. The coffee, on the other hand, was vital. And appreciated.
As the sun continued its upward journey, luminescence bounced off of surrounding snow patches, casting rays of light across the glacial valley and ricocheting against the icy lake in brilliant shards of color. From surrounding trees, the first chirps of waking birds. And inside Ben’s mind: tranquility. “Incredible,” he whispered.
“Worth losing sleep over?” Travis asked.
Setting his coffee aside, Travis pulled Ben in closer and nuzzled his face against his ear. His breath felt warm against the chill of the morning air. “I wanted to send you off with a bang,” he whispered. “Make sure you don’t forget.”
“I couldn’t possibly forget.” Ben said. “You damn well know that.”
Their night together had been filled with conversation, room service food, and explosive blow jobs. But, like everything else, the hours had passed too quickly, and now here they were again – in the same quandary as yesterday, having to say goodbye to each other in a short amount of time. Ben didn’t suppose it would be any easier today than it had been yesterday, when they’d stood on the sidewalk, forced into silence, captured inside the tiny frames of persistent camera lenses.
A small Cessna 120 appeared in the sky, flying low, headed for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport just a few miles away. The interruption to the serenity of the morning was sobering – a reminder to them both that another flight would soon be departing from the same airfield. They each lifted their gaze to watch the light aircraft pass overhead, and when it had gone, Travis pressed his face back into the crook of Ben’s neck, in the spot just below his ear. Without speaking, without moving, he remained nestled there, breathing. A few minutes later, Ben felt a few drops of moisture hit his skin and thought: Those aren’t tears… are they? It didn’t seem possible. He sat perfectly still, perfectly quiet, trying not to disturb the moment – trying not to focus on the fact that the cowboy was actually crying in his ear.
So much for not letting emotions into the mix.
Reaching a hand up, Ben snaked his fingers into Travis’ hair, letting the curls wrap around each digit like soft tentacles tugging at him. “Cooper,” he spoke softly.
“I’m gonna stay.”
“For a few more days…” Ben continued. “Until Chicago.”
Ben shifted his position. Maneuvered around so that he could face Travis and lift his chin and look directly into his red-rimmed, sea-green eyes. “Okay?” he prodded, cupping his palm against Travis’ rough jaw. “I’m not leaving yet. I’ll extend my stay at the hotel, and you can come back when you’re ready. Or not. It’s up to you.”
There was writhing behind Travis’ eyes, inner struggles playing tug-of-war between his heart and head, opposing sides battling for victory over the direction of his happiness. In the end, it appeared that the heart won. Travis nodded his approval to Ben. Attempted to shake off the evidence of his fragile, vulnerable side by sitting up straight and inhaling a deep breath; the oxygen filled his lungs through a long quiver. He was someone who relied on resilience to keep himself upright, and Ben could tell that the weakness he was showing was painful to him. “Okay,” he eventually whispered. Slid a hand up to cover the hand holding firm against his jaw. “But not here in Aspen. If you stay, you’re coming home with me.”
* * * *
Melanie’s voice was laced with disbelief and anger. “Wait, what exactly is happening, Ben? What are you saying? You’re not coming home today?”
Annoyed with her peppering of questions, Ben mirrored her anger with his own. “Fuck, just do this for me.”
An exasperated sigh reverberated on the other end of the line, followed by fingernails rapidly clicking against computer keys. After a minute, Melanie said, “Looks like I can get you on a nonstop flight out of Denver Thursday morning. But it’s gonna be at the crack of dawn in order for you to land at O’Hare and get to the studio on time. I’ll arrange for a town car to pick you up.”
Ben’s anxiety dissipated. “Thank you,” he told her.
“You can not be late for show prep,” she instructed, still typing away on her end. “This appearance has been scheduled for weeks.”
“I won’t be late. I promise.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re doing. You could at least tell me what you’re doing…”
“Another time,” Ben promised. “Thanks for taking care of this for me.”
“Sure. Because, after all, I’m not just your agent at this point, I’m also your personal secretary. Right? Why wouldn’t I drop everything and play travel planner for you?” Her words were biting, and Ben couldn’t blame her for the sarcasm. Over the past year, Melanie’s role had somehow naturally evolved from casting agent to personal manager without much acknowledgment of the transition from Ben. He’d been remiss about taking advantage of her, and he couldn’t criticize her now for bringing it up.
“I do appreciate you, Mel,” he said. “You’ve done a lot for me. I promise to be less demanding in the future. In fact, let’s rework your contract when I get back.”
“I don’t need a contract rework, Ben. I just need you to keep me in the loop. It’s not a lot to ask.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’ll be better.”
“I’ll email you the details of your new flight,” she said. “I suppose you’ll need a hotel room booked for Wednesday night in Denver? Something close to the airport?”
“Don’t worry about that part,” he replied.”Thanks again for doing this. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“You’re welcome. Stay out of mischief… And keep me in the loop.”
During their conversation, Ben had wandered away towards the lake, seeking privacy. Now, he stopped to glance back at the Dodge and found Travis leaning against the front grill, working on the same cigarette he’d been working on for the past ten minutes while Ben had stepped aside to make his phone calls. First, it had been Audra, angry and mystified at his decision to cancel his flight home. Now, it was Melanie, also angry and mystified but at least capitulating to his requests. Next up was Austin, who’d probably have a similar reaction but would hopefully be willing to keep an eye on Beau and Sasha a little longer.
“Can’t do it, bud,” was Austin’s sleepy response after hearing Ben’s request. “I’ve gotta be in New York this afternoon for an Audi shoot. Why the fuck are you calling me so early in the morning, anyway? It’s not even six-o-fucking-clock yet, dude.”
“Shit, sorry,” Ben said. He hadn’t considered the time difference between the two states, and now he felt even shittier for having badgered Melanie. In her haste to always help him, she hadn’t complained about, or even mentioned, the earliness of the hour. Had she been asleep, too, when he’d called? Insensitive jerk.
“Ask Christine to do it,” Austin prompted. “They’re her fucking dogs, too.”
“No, they’re not her fucking dogs,” Ben snapped. “She only helped me find the breeder.”
Ben could hear the rustling of sheets in the background. A soft whisper. A female voice. Possibly two. “I hope you’re in the guest room and not having sloppy sex in my bed,” Ben stated. Envisioned himself sliding between crusty silk sheets of dried bodily fluids when he got home.
Austin chuckled. Said, “Don’t worry about it, bud, I’ll pull off all the bedding before I go. Sorry I can’t help you out with the pups,” he continued. “Still think you should call Christine on this one. She’d do it. Why are you staying in bum-fuck Colorado, anyway?”
Ben glanced over at Travis again, who now stood up in the truck bed, carefully folding the wool blanket into perfect squares, corner to corner. “I’ve just got some things to do here,” Ben replied.
“Vague, but whatever. I’ll catch ya on the flip side.”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “See ya.”
He disconnected and followed his footprints back across the snowy ground toward the Dodge. As he approached, Travis jumped down from the bed and slammed the tailgate shut and looked over at him with concern. “Everything all right?” he asked.
“Yeah. And no. Can we head back to the hotel now? I need to catch Audra before she leaves and beg a favor of her. Better if I do it face-to-face…”
“Sure.” Travis tossed the blanket onto the backseat and slid behind the steering wheel. “But then I’ve got to get to Glenwood to pick up my horse.”
Ben slid in beside him and buckled his seatbelt. “I’ll come with you,” he volunteered. “No sense in you circling back through Aspen to pick me up after.”
In mid-reverse, Travis slammed his boot against the brake. Jerked the truck to a stop. When he looked over at Ben, there was a strange, contorted expression covering his face which was indecipherable. It lasted only a second before he forced his facial muscles to relax. Producing a small smile, he said, “Sure. Yes. Good idea… But it’d be best if you wait in the truck when we get there. This guy can be a real dick sometimes.”
“Sure. I mean, it’s best that I keep a low profile anyway, right?”
Travis nodded. “Right.” His eyes remained locked with Ben’s for another five seconds before he finally lifted his foot off the brake. In Ben’s mind, the gesture represented a deeper sense of release, as though Travis was letting go of something. Maybe the walls of stubbornness and emotional discordance he’d been so accustomed to hiding behind were starting to dismantle. Maybe Ben’s own were, for that matter.
After reversing out of the pocket of aspen trees they’d been nestled in, Travis returned to the unpaved portion of road which led back to the highway. Before them lay the morning – wide open and waiting.