Photojournalist Austin Edmunds is something of a loner, preferring his own company to all of the people his friends try to set him up with. A new assignment in the Smoky Mountains might just change all that, though, when Austin meets big, sexy hunk, Brack Edge. Austin has never experienced an attraction as immediate as the one he feels for Brack, and he loves the scenery and people he encounters in the Smokies. Despite all that, life isn't all fun and games for Austin and Brack. They take on helping out a local kid with his homophobic family, and Austin has a story to finish. The hardest part might just be how Brack and Austin will handle the fact that Austin is a Manhattan man to the core, and Brack is a mountain boy, through and through. Can they find a way to keep it together?
This work has been previously released.
"Yes! Yes! Oh yes! Uh...not! Hmm, maybe. Mmmhmm. Yes, that's it!"
"What in the hell's going on in here? It sounds like you might not be alone, but I know better than to hope for that," Cassie Baker said, sticking her head into Austin's office, with her hand over her eyes.
"Hey, come on in. Look. Isn't this the perfect shot for the layout on the strange animals? Have you ever seen such a cool pic? I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful. Wow, the light coming through the fan is just awesome. This just has to be the first image in the series. What do you think?" Austin Edmunds held up a stunning picture of an albino peacock that was truly amazing. It was part of a story he'd done on a rescue operation that specialized in unique and exotic animals.
These animals had been taken from illegal situations and often-abusive owners. The article would be powerful. He had some heart-wrenching photos of animals that were new to the home, and some of those would be in the article, but this peacock was such a success story that it deserved to be front and center. One of the sanctuary's staff members had told Austin that, when they'd gone to recover the special peacock, they'd been appalled at the shape he was in. Now he was magnificent. Austin was thrilled with the light and shadows and the purity of the overall picture. This one was probably going to end up on one of his walls, really large.
"Austin, you're right. This is beautiful. No wonder you were so...uh...vocal in your comments. It sounded like you had someone hot in here and you were getting off on...him." She snickered a little when she got the look she had obviously expected on his face.
"Cassie, don't start. You know I don't..."
"I know, I know. You don't talk about your lifestyle and you don't mix business with pleasure. And most of all you're..." She paused and they said the next line together.
"Not interested in meeting your brother!" They smiled, she with resignation and he with amused frustration. She'd been bugging the shit out of him about meeting her brother for the two years he'd worked here. As soon as she found out he was gay, she had started her campaign on her brother's behalf. Austin wondered if the guy couldn't get his own dates. He certainly wasn't interested.
"You gonna be alone forever? I've never seen you date or heard of you with anyone."
Austin knew she was really fond of him and worried that he had no one in his life.
He snorted. "And you won't. I told you, even if I did have a life, I wouldn't parade it in front of you. I might as well put it on the web as let you in on the info." He winked to lighten the dig.
"Oh, come on. I'm not that bad," she said, hands on hips.
"Face it, you're doomed to a life of wondering if I'm ever going to get a date...or a life worthy of your notice. I'm happy as I am. Alone." He said it with conviction.
"Bullshit." She responded with just as much conviction and hurried away from his lunge for her, laughing as she went.
After Cassie's hasty departure, Austin got back to choosing pictures for the article on the rescue sanctuary he'd visited a couple of weeks ago. He loved his job at the upscale men's magazine where he'd worked for the last two years. Getting this job had been his salvation, and he would do nothing to mess up his current good situation. He'd been to hell and back, and liked "back" a lot better.
He tried not to think of his life before: his problems, his fears, and his pain. He always tried. Tried not to let his mind go there, knowing that there was a place that left him freaked and stressed and nothing like the Austin his current peers knew. To them, he was well-spoken, sophisticated, and fashionable. He laughed to himself. Little did they know. He was a gutter rat who'd pulled himself up out of the quagmire his life had been and into the world of career success, money, and prestige.
He fit in so well at For Men To Know. He'd made a name for himself in the field of photography, and had been thrilled when his work had taken him into the realm of photojournalism. He had a way with words, and could put those words with photos in a way that touched places within people. He could make them see beauty, pain, hatred, fear, joy, poverty, and opulence with a few choice words and pictures that expressed them perfectly.
His boss knew what a find he was, and had increased his salary every time some other magazine tried to entice him away. He secretly liked being the center of the frequent tug of war. His portfolio improved every time.
Ha! Just the thought of him even having one, knowing what one was, was so far from his former life, it was laughable. Growing up, he'd been good at things, too. Good at stealing, lying, fighting, and hiding. Those were the things he did best back then.
His father had been quite a role model. Everyone in his particular ghetto knew Big John was good at what he did. He was an enforcer for the local mob boss. Austin had seen him kill two different people and threaten several more. Big John liked his work. He only had to threaten Austin, and Austin would comply with whatever was asked of him.
Austin hadn't been a big kid. He was thin and wiry. He had huge eyes, dark brown like the best chocolate, with lashes that he used to get teased about. His hair was brown, thick, and curly. He'd worn it long then. There was no love or tenderness in his home or the entire neighborhood. He didn't even know what it was like until he was in his teens and met Howie.
Okay, now he'd done it. He'd thought of Howie. How many times over the years had he sworn he would forget him?
Nothing he promised himself ever worked. Howie was in his head and his heart forever. He might as well face it.
From Howie, he'd learned about honor, tenderness, respect, love, and what it meant to be gay. God, he still missed him...so much.
"Austin! Hey, come on, meeting in the conference room. Mandatory. What were you daydreaming about? Tell me you were thinking about a hot date you have planned for this weekend." Cassie had come by his office to prod him on. She giggled and dodged his swipe at her shoulder.
"Nah, brat. Want to come over for supper Saturday night? Or if you'd like, I'll even take you out...to the Reagan Star." He liked her, and they often spent off time together. He liked her best when she left him alone about his lifeâ€”or lack thereof.
"Sounds fun. But...the Reagan Star? Wow, that is like the hottest place to eat right now. I've never been. I'd love to go there, please."
"I offered, didn't I? One condition, though. You give me a break and don't hassle me about dates and men and life in general. Deal?" He knew she'd been dying to go there, so he felt sure he'd have a night off from her aggressive attempts on his behalf.
"To eat at the Star? Deal." She hooked arms with him and they went into the meeting, both smiling.
* * * *
Cassie turned her head and responded with her ever-ready smile. "Yes, sir?"
"You have made all the arrangements for the lodgings and a guide, right? Is there anything else we need to take care of before Austin sets out tomorrow?" asked Dan Whitson, the editor.
"I'll have it all ready for him, sir. Count on it. I'm familiar with this area and he should have no trouble. The guide is reliable and knowledgeable and there should be no problems. I've got it set up perfectly for him," she said, smiling mysteriously. It was her job to arrange this type of thing for the writers going on assignment. She was good at her job.
Austin had just a moment of wondering what that smile was all about, but forgot it as Dan spoke up.
"Austin, again, great piece on the animal sanctuary. Your work was excellent and we've had very positive responses. Good job. I expect no less from this next assignment. Are you sure you can handle being so far out in the sticks? This isn't your comfort zone, I don't believe. But I think there's a great story there and you should get some great shots, if what Cassie tells me is right on."
"I think I can handle it, Dan. As long as there's indoor plumbing and a fairly soft bed, I can get by." Little did they know he'd gotten by with far less for a while, once upon a time.
For Men To Know was a fairly new publication and had hit the market running. They had increased their readership tremendously. He knew there were other gay men working there. There was even a section of the magazine dedicated to the interests of the gay community. But Austin stayed separate from that just as he did most everything else. He'd found that separate was better.
Frankly, he was looking forward to this new assignment. He'd seen a little of the country in the last two years on various assignments. He wanted to see more. He was a poor inner city kid, grown up to be a rich urban businessman. He wasn't a snob. He wanted to see the mountains and the "sticks" Dan talked about. Cassie had told him she'd arranged it so he would see some beautiful scenery before he got to his destination. And this story had such potential if he could get it just right. He really wanted to do this justice.
Justice. This was going to be the story of Homer Jenkins and his family. Homer and his wife, Marveline, had nine children. They lived on a mountaintop in Tennessee, somewhere in the Great Smokey Mountains. They weren't near the touristy part of the area, by any means. They weren't really near anything, according to his information. The story would be about what had happened to all but one of their children. For they only had one remaining child. No one would even know about these facts, if not for how they'd lost the last three: one killed in Afghanistan four years ago, and two just recently killed in Iraq, together.
Austin was a loner. He preferred not to have people close to him, so he seldom felt the pain of loss like others did. But, somehow, this story hit him hard. The pictures on CNN and the other news stations of both of these young men, strong, healthy, attractive, and most of all, patriotic, lived in his brain.
They were part of a group of soldiers who had been captured, tortured, and killed. In Austin's mind, too much of it had been shown on TV and other forms of media. The images of those two brothers as they breathed their last were etched in his memory and probably that of everyone who had seen it. YouTube had shown the gruesome scene, and the number of hits the site had gotten for that video made Austin wonder about people and their need to see things like that. Though why it should, he didn't know. The media brought things a little too close these days, he felt. There'd even been a magazine picture of the brothers right before they died.
The brothers had been part of a line of seven men who'd been told to stand in a row, apart from each other. They were numbers five and six in the row. The men were shot one right after the other. These two defied their captors and faced each other, embraced, and put their foreheads together. Words were spoken between them, and they died that way. It was a powerful image, powerful, heartbreaking, and haunting.
The love and strength of those two young men deserved to be honored. That was part of Austin's assignment. The family, the loss, the home were the rest. Austin intended this to be a tribute without the invasive or maudlin trappings of some of the media.
He was excited about the opportunity to do this story justice. He wanted it to touch people. Funny how he was desperate for his work to touch people, but he never did. He wanted his pictures and his words to inspire feelings in others that he wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. He didn't do feelings. Not anymore. But he had such a talent for bringing things to life and making them reach people's hearts.