The Orphan

Chapter One

 

“WE’RE HERE,” Donny said, keeping his voice as soft as possible, careful to wake only Jesse. He’d been watching out the window as Leo drove along Southern highways, waiting for the Welcome to Chattanooga sign for close to three hours while listening in on Mr. Macon and sneaking glances at Jesse as he slept… when Jesse actually slept. Donny had been too wound up to try for that whole R&R bit, what with Mr. Macon’s health on high alert. That and the camper jostling and jerking didn’t leave a whole lot of sanctuary for shut-eye. Not for normal people whose bodies hadn’t become accustomed to it. Donny wasn’t one of those people. He’d never been able to sleep in a moving vehicle, and that still hadn’t changed.

He looked away from the glass, back into the dark and quiet atmosphere of his home-for-now. Mr. Macon was still snoring the roof off from the bed in the back. He hadn’t done much more than grunt and moan and snore like a grizzly since they’d pulled out of Decatur. Which was good, actually, considering the doctors said he could very well die before he took his next breath. Scary stuff. And the hard-headed old man didn’t seem worried. Not in the slightest. He’d refused help, refused surgery, and checked himself out against medical advisement despite his son begging him not to.

Poor Jesse.

The thought of such loss and the misery Jesse would face in its wake pulled Donny’s attention to the makeshift bed and mass of worn plaid blankets making a minimountain right across from him. Soft snores came from somewhere beneath the pile. Jesse had finally calmed down enough to sleep little more than an hour ago, and Donny seriously hated to do this, but….

“We’re in Chattanooga, Jesse,” he whispered again, because he felt starved for conversation and starved for Jesse’s sleepy smiles. Oh, and there was that pesky promise to wake Jesse up as soon as they reached the fairgrounds.

Exhaling hard, Jesse popped up in his bed and kicked his long, lightly hairy legs over the edge. The blankets pooled around his waist, exposing plaid boxers and a long, lean frame. He scrubbed both hands over his scalp. His blond coif had been a mess before. Now it was an utter freakin’ disaster. And somehow he still managed to be the cutest damn thing Donny had ever seen.

Can I climb into bed with you?

“I can make some breakfast,” Donny quietly offered. “Some coffee and such. You hungry? You think Pops… I mean, Mr. Macon is—”

“It’s okay to call him Pops. Everyone does.”

“I didn’t wanna assume.”

“You’re not.” Jesse rose to his feet, standing to his full height, which wasn’t far from bumping his noggin on the top of the camper. He rubbed his hand over his bare chest. Tan skin stretched over his toned abs.

Damn, Donny didn’t want to stare.

Damn, he couldn’t help it.

Clearing his throat, Donny turned his gaze away from the boy he’d been lusting over for a few weeks now and back to the window he’d been staring out of all morning. He’d watched the sun come up over miles and miles of thick pines less than an hour ago. Part of him wished Jesse had been up to watch it with him, maybe sit close to him. Not necessarily touching, but being together. Alone… ish.

“You haven’t slept, have you?” Jesse asked.

No. Not at all.

“I wish he would’ve stayed and let them fix him,” Jesse said.

“Me too,” Donny said. “You know, you never told me how you knew what was going to happen.”

“Does that mean you believe me?”

“No,” Donny blurted. He meant it. He didn’t truly believe Jesse could see the future, not really. Even if Jesse’s special ability had led to a pretty freakin’ awesome kiss. “I mean, maybe if I knew how you did it….”

Jesse shrugged as he reached in the fridge for a bottle of Dr Pepper. His muscles curled and flexed as he bent down and extended his arm, then righted himself and lifted the drink to his lips. His body was immaculate, like never-leaves-the-gym perfect. Abs rippling, probably hard as stone. Arms thick but not grossly bulging. He could’ve been an underwear model, the way the waistband of his pants hung on his harsh hipbones and gave a teasing glimpse of the perfect V pointing down to his crotchital region.

Donny sighed. Maybe working for the carnival would do the same for his physique. Maybe if he hung out long enough, he’d get to feel all that muscle against his palms.

“What?” Jesse asked before licking his mouth. A drop of soda trembled on the curve of his lips, and Donny couldn’t help wanting to stand up and kiss it away.

“Nothing,” Donny said after clearing his throat and shifting on the bed. Jesse’s body was starting to get a rise out of Donny’s. “Are you going to tell me how you see the future?” Great change of subject. “Or for that matter how Rand can read minds and Tate can bend wills?”

“Wait.” Jess frowned. “What?”

“Yeah….”

“How do you know that?”

“Well—” Donny stood. He crossed the cramped space from the bed-bench-couch-thing to the little area they called a kitchen. Talking about this stuff from halfway across the camper had the potential to end badly, especially with someone in the back who might or might not be awake to hear it. They needed to drop their voices to a whisper for sure. “Rand and me went outside at the hospital to get some air, and he told me things.”

“Like what?”

“Exactly what I told you. He can read minds, and Tate can bend wills.”

Jesse snorted.

“What?” Donny said. “He sorta proved it.”

“How?” Now Jesse had those muscled arms folded across his chest. He quirked his brow.

Donny swallowed hard. “Well…,” he drawled, thinking back on the last twenty-four hours. The conversation with Rand wasn’t as clear as it had been before they’d pulled out of Decatur. “I thought a question and he answered it.”

“What question?”

“I don’t remember,” Donny all but whined. “Look, I haven’t had any sleep and things are about as clear as mud right now. And besides, I ain’t sayin’ I believe any of that mess. I’m just sayin’ Rand….”

God, that conversation had been a weird one. Donny remembered it a little more clearly now. He’d wondered what superpower Rand had, and Rand had responded to the question as if Donny had actually verbalized it.

I read minds.

“Hey.” Jesse’s voice pulled Donny back from that weird place he’d gone in his head. It was one of the many compartments he’d used to hide in when he was a kid. It was a safe place, a place away from the bad stuff that happened to little boys with no mommy and daddy. “Where are you right now?” Jesse asked, tone soft and kind. He touched the side of Donny’s throat, leaning in so their lips were a few short inches apart. Jesse’s breath was sweet, like the Dr Pepper he’d been drinking, and Donny wanted to know if his lips tasted the same way.

He told himself to kiss Jesse, to give in to everything he felt and wanted and press his lips to Jesse’s mouth. It didn’t matter that they’d finally stopped and visitors would soon come. It didn’t matter that Jesse’s dad might or might not be awake in the back of the camper. Donny wanted a kiss. One single kiss to welcome them to a new town, to jump-start this thing they were doing. One single kiss.

“Sorry,” Donny whispered, taking a step back. “So are you gonna tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“How you know what happens? How you know we’re gonna be together and how you know Pops….” Donny couldn’t bring himself to rehash the assertion that Pops didn’t have a long and healthy future with them. Sure, the doctors had said it was likely Pops would die if he kept ignoring his condition, and anyone could take a guess at the old man’s short-lived future. But Jesse had proclaimed the fact like he’d already lived through the death and the grieving, and it was all a fact of life in the not-so-distant future.

There wasn’t an immediate response to what Donny had asked, and the fact that Jesse seemed to want to sit on that info really burned Donny up. It wasn’t fair. Jesse shouldn’t be allowed to be so sure of everything when Donny was so confused.

“Ya know I’ve never talked about this gift”—Jesse’s nose crinkled at the word—“with anyone. But for some weird reason, I can’t help wanting to tell you everything about it.”

“Yeah, you and half the guys in the south,” Donny muttered.

“What’s that mean?”

“Everyone seems to want to tell me what they can do or see, but no one wants to explain how or why. I have to stand there lookin’ like an idiot with egg on my face while people unload their bizarre and, by the way, completely freakin’ ridiculous life stories on me. It ain’t fair.”

Donny turned his head just in time to catch a shadow crossing the window over the place where he’d gotten absolutely no sleep. Not two seconds later, the door opened, and Leo stood haloed in sunlight, eyeing Jesse and Donny as if he knew what they’d been up to. Not that they’d been up to anything to speak of. Not this time.

“We’re in Chattanooga,” Leo said, eyes shifting back and forth between them like he knew Donny wanted to kiss Jesse. Donny could tell by the scrutinizing stare and the cocked brow. But the old guy wasn’t saying anything about the suspected indiscretion. “How’s Pops?”

“Still asleep,” Jesse said. “I was about to check on him.”

“You should do that.”

“I am. I just wanted to wake up a little. Jeez.”

“You look good and awake to me,” Leo pointedly said. “In fact, looks like ya both been awake for a while.”

Donny stood frozen, listening to the banter between them, watching the way they kept their eyes on each other. He hadn’t realized it before because Leo was always so warm and kind, but that old man had a way about him that made Donny feel like he needed to confess all his sins. It was crazy and something he hadn’t felt since the last foster home he’d been in.

Jesse didn’t argue with Leo. He made an about-face and hightailed it to the back of the camper, closing the curtain behind him, leaving Donny and Leo alone.

Leo immediately pinned Donny with his no-nonsense stare and said, “What are your intentions, son?”

Intentions? Donny intended not to squirm. He intended not to make a damn fool of himself. “Excuse me?” he asked, only after clearing his throat for like the fifteenth time since he’d woken up. These people were going to slowly drive him insane.

“With Jesse? With us?”

“Well, sir, my only plan was to come to the carnival and work as much as I could so I’d have something to live on, money to feed myself with—”

“And what about Jesse?”

“What about him?”

“Don’t play that game with me, kid. I’ve been at it a lot longer than you. I’ve seen you looking at him. I’ve seen him looking at you. He’s not out and obviously you aren’t either. Only two people know about him—me and Hoss, and Jesse wants to keep it that way. So you two better cool your jets before someone else sees what I’ve been seeing. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny immediately and dutifully responded.

Leo gave him a curt nod, then said, “Be ready to unload tents in a few hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

With that Leo left the camper, and Donny sank down on the edge of his bed. It sort of felt like all the air and life had been sucked out of him. He hadn’t realized how close he and Jesse had come to outing each other, and that was the last thing Donny wanted for either of them.

Now it looked like they needed to sit down and have a long, long talk.

“Everything’s….” Jesse’s trailing voice made Donny took toward the back. His new crush stood there frowning, confused. “Where’d Leo go?”

“Back outside,” Donny muttered, thumbing over his shoulder just in case Jesse forgot what “outside” meant.

Jesse followed the pointed thumb with his eyes. He was clearly looking for some sign of Leo, but the old man had vanished almost as soon as the door hit him where the good lord split him.

“Why do you look like you seen a ghost?” Jesse asked.

Donny opened his mouth, closed it again. Truth be told, he couldn’t say he had all his brain function at the moment. Between being exhausted, crushing on Jesse, Leo scaring the bejesus out of him, and too much blood in his caffeine-stream, he couldn’t really say what was going on upstairs.

“I think I need to sleep,” he mumbled, which was true but not the reason he had that whole absentminded, pale-faced thing rocking.

“You want some breakfast first?” Jesse asked.

Donny shook his head. He rose to his feet and said, “No, I’m just gonna sleep for a bit.”

When he reached for the door, Jesse stopped him. “Where do you plan on sleeping? Under a tree?”

“In the cab of the truck so y’all don’t have to tiptoe around me.”

“Hey—” Jesse grabbed his hand before Donny could make his big escape. “—you’re not gonna be comfortable in the cab. Sleep in my bed. I can always go out for breakfast.”

Climb into bed with me….

“Nah, I’m okay. I’ve slept in worse conditions.” Kiss me. Kiss me. Kiss me. Donny licked his lips, cleared his throat yet again, and said, “I’ll see ya in a bit. We gotta unload tents in a few hours.”