This story idea grew out of a conversation with Rusty.  If she weren't so
funny it would never have turned into a story.  I'm going to miss you, babe!  ~H.

Writing with H. has turned out to be one of the best experiences since I started doing this.  You make me think and dig deeper, unpack thoughts and explore feelings; not to mention all of the basic English rules you’ve pounded in to my head. ;) I’m going to miss you too, so much! ~ Rusty


Faint of Heart
     by Hedeia and Rusty


Only new customers ever knocked.  The chimes on the front door jingled as an older woman wandered into the store.

"This is lovely work," she commented, looking around.

Clay smiled in greeting and tried, inwardly, to place her accent.  Midwest, maybe?  Tourist season was starting and he got a kick out of trying to figure out where everyone was from.

"Do you make all this yourself?" she asked.

Clay nodded proudly.  The store was his from start to finish: he molded the clay, fired the kiln, glazed the finished work and owned the historic building.  He watched with proprietary contentment as the woman ran a finger admiringly along the rim of a deep red pot.

"Beautiful," she said.  Her eye caught a framed document on the wall and she scanned the contents.  "You're famous!"

Clay grinned.  "Well...a friend of mine wrote that, actually; it was his first published piece.”

The woman smiled.  "And got you some free business, I suppose."  She was quiet for a few minutes, reading.  "He's a good writer.  And what a nice tribute."

“He is good.  I just received a copy of his very first novel this morning...as a matter of fact." Clay pointed to the book lying on the counter.  His attention wandered across the street to the familiar dark wood pub sign...this time of day, patrons would start wandering in, ready for a break from a morning of shopping or boating.  He licked his lips slightly, wondering what today’s fresh catch was.  Free fish -- it was one of the major perks of knowing the chef.

Knowing him VERY well.

"...thanked him."

"I'm sorry?"  Clay realized he'd missed most of what the woman had just said.

"I was saying I hope you thanked him.  ...Your friend, who wrote that nice article?"

Clay flushed to the roots of his hair.  "Um..."

The woman looked confused.  "I just meant..."

"Yeah.  I know."  Clay laughed nervously.  "There's kind of a story there..."

"A story?"  The woman looked intrigued.  "Can I hear it?"

"Oh, um...I don't think you really want to know," Clay stammered. "And it's, um, not really for the faint of heart..."

"Try me?"

"I just added some new mugs on the front shelves," he said, a bit more steadily.  "Why don't you...have a wander, see if anything catches your eye?"

The woman looked a little disappointed, but she returned to the shelves by the front counter, devoting most of her attention to a set of small, fat mugs.

Clay breathed a bit easier.  That was a close call.

He glanced up at the framed article on the wall, thinking.  Yes, a close call.  Almost TOO close, if you asked him...because, like he said, some stories are just NOT for the faint of heart... and there WERE some things you REALLY just didn’t want to know.

***********************
FIVE YEARS EARLIER

Clay stood back and surveyed the brand new sign that swung just above the doorway to the shop.  His very own shop.  The Clay Hut.  It was all his now, purchased with money left to him by his grandfather. The old man had always known what Clay’s dreams had been about, even when Clay himself didn’t.  Clay knew what the old man would say about the lovely historic building, the shop on the first floor and the apartment above, filled with enough sunlight to delight any artist.  And not only that, but Clay loved the building because it had been THE pottery shop in town, back in Revolutionary War days. The last tenant had modernized it, ruined it, in other words, so the very first thing Clay had done was to unmodernize it.

Clay wanted every corner, every inch of it, to be historically correct…well, with the exception of some tools of the modern age!  But it was the thought that counted.  He felt certain that in some way this building had helped the Rebels win. Clay was a rebel in his own time, so he felt a certain kinship to it.  Historians loved to come to town and Clay loved to pepper them with questions while they picked out mugs and bowls to bring back home.  He was sure one day he’d find out the role the pottery shop had played in gaining independence.  After all, independence was something that was VERY important to Clay.

He sent up a silent prayer of thanks to the man that had made this all possible.  His Grandda O’Shaunessy would understand this – he knew Clay had needed to follow his own drummer from the time he was small.  He would appreciate it, too – because   Clancy O’Shaunessy had been a rebel in his time too. Clay sighed and wished, not for the first time, that the man was here to share this moment with him. 

Being the only son of a long line of career Navy men -- spit and polished whites and all -- his grandfather on his mother's side had been the only one in his family to whom Clay had ever felt any real connection.  The fact that Clay had left Annapolis, gone up to Boston for college and majored in art, of all things, hadn't helped in mending the rifts between them.  The Sullivan men were all Navy men; it wasn't for naught they made their home close to the Academy.  Still, even if he hadn't entered those hallowed halls, some things couldn't escape Clay.  He loved his waterfront hometown as much as any other Sullivan.  Standing outside his shop now, half an eye on the sun disappearing into the dark water of the Bay on a summer's evening…he could almost comprehend his roots. 

But still, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, wasn't something a rebel like Clay understood.  He was who he was; anyone who didn't like it could kiss his ass.

He tugged on his ponytail; strands of his sandy brown hair blew in the wind. Hearing the sounds of hunger grumbling from his stomach, Clay looked across the street and into the window of Mulligan's restaurant.  Since he was going to be a shopkeeper on Prince George Street, he figured it was about time he introduced himself to the other shopkeepers.  He made his way across the street - narrow and shop-lined as it had been for centuries - and through the heavy wooden door of the restaurant.

The odor of fresh fish, heavy and fragrant, wafted toward him as he walked inside.  Clay’s stomach rumbled involuntarily.  He was a seaside boy and there was nothing like the smell of fresh catch to make his mouth water.  Inhaling deeply, he blinked a few times to adjust to the dim light of the pub. 

Whoa.

Maybe Clay had gone into the wrong career? It wouldn't be the first time he'd had a twinge of regret.  He might come from a navy family, but it wasn't the boats on the bay that made him wish he'd become a sailor…no, it was the midshipmen jogging through town, almost painfully fit in their cute little running shorts…or saluting the passersby in the summer months in those crisp white uniforms…

Wait, he was getting distracted.

That happened sometimes - Clay was an ARTIST.  Artists are very distractible!

And right now the most distracting thing in the room was wearing a white apron and a fisherman's cap over his head, large hands kneading a cut of fish in a way that made Clay's stomach tingle. 

The restaurant business had never looked so delicious.

The big man smiled across the bar at Clay, wiping his large fish stained hands on a rag. His broad shoulders rippled under the white chef’s coat. Yes, distracting.  What was it about Black Irish men that caused person’s knees to go weak?
  
“Welcome to Mulligan’s.  I’ve been watching the progress as you’ve been working on your shop. I was going to stop by after you were settled in.”

Clay smiled, taking a seat at the bar. “I should be open for business in just a few days.  The sign went up this morning.”

“I’m Cullum O'Kiefe.” Cull smiled. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve been in fish up to my elbows.”

“Clay Sullivan.” Clay smiled back.  “It’s nice to meet you.  And no worries about the handshake; I've been up to my elbows in," he broke off for a minute, embarrassed, "um…clay…all day." 

He waited for the inevitable pun about his name and when it didn't come - well, let's just say in the future Clay would look back and say THAT was the moment he realized Cullom O'Kiefe was a keeper.

“I know who you are.  Your Grandda came in here quite often to share a pint with mine.  They were good friends.”

“You knew my grandfather?”

“Yes, I was sorry to hear of his passing.  My Grandda’s been ill himself, or he would’ve made it to his wake.”  Cull spread his arms out to take in Mulligans.  “This is his place.  I worked here quite a bit when I was young.  Became a Chef because of it.  I took leave from a position in New York when he became ill and I’m here running the place until he’s back on his feet.”  

To his surprise, Clay felt a stab of disappointment at hearing that. “Then you’ll be moving back to New York?”

Cull laughed. “Well, the old man is crafty.  I think he’ll do what he can to get me to stay on.  To tell you the truth, I do miss it here; didn’t realize it until I came back.”

"I like it here too."  Clay had always liked it here, but this man, decked out as he was in white apron, fisherman's cap, and Eau de Crabmeat, suddenly made it all the more appealing.

Over the next few weeks a pattern was set…it wasn't organized or discussed; like the best-laid plans of mice and men, as they say, it just sort of…happened.  Clay started dropping  by Mulligan's every day for lunch and the two men fell into an easy friendship. 

Sometimes, late at night, when the hustle of tourists had quieted, Clay found himself looking across the old streets and into the window of Mulligan's, watching the silhouette of the big, handsome, white-aproned man.  

Of course, Clay was also aware that his own figure could be seen just as easily from Cull's window; and that the big man had found just a much pleasure in the watching.

And Cull did take pleasure in it too.  Most evenings after closing up Mulligans, he'd walk across the street and stand by the window of The Clay Hut ....and watch a little closer. Usually Clay would be seated at his potter's wheel. Cull would stand just out of view, warm Bay breezes lapping at his face and hair, and drink in the sight of Clay, wrapped around his potter's wheel like a lover, delicate hands undulating, feet moving in perfect rhythm.  Cull loved watching how Clay's fingers molded the soft mud, gentle, yet firm, never forcing it, just guiding it until it took on shape of its own.  Cull looked down at his own hands, confident in his own ability to create; but awed by the beauty of this man and what he created at that potter's wheel.

It called to him somehow.

One evening that call seem to beckon him closer.  Cull found himself opening the door of the shop and standing inside.  Clay didn’t seem to hear him; he neither moved nor acknowledged the other man’s presence.

“You really need to lock your door at this time of night.” Cull broke the silence, his voice low, almost raspy.

“I know.”  Clay’s voice held a hint of a smile.  “But I know you stand outside my window and I was hoping you'd come in one night.”

And that was that.

Three months later the two were sharing the converted two-story apartment above the Clay Hut. Cull's crafty old Grandda had his wish granted, when upon his death, Cull took over the running of Mulligan's permanently.  Sometimes Cull felt the old man had died on purpose, just to make sure of it. Of course, it was something he silently thanked him for every day, even though he missed the old devil. 

The apartment over the pottery shop was filled with laughter and love; some mornings Cull drank his coffee by the big bay window and looked out over Prince George Street, down onto Mulligan's, and wondered if the two old men were up in Heaven together, sipping spiced coffees and chuckling over how it had all worked out so well.

Not that there weren't problems.  Two creative men, one a self-described rebel, and one a (Clay-described) conformist, couldn't live together without a certain amount of…challenges.

Clay learned all sorts of things about cooking that had never even entered his mind!  Like, if you’ve had a bad day and you slam the kitchen door, well…

Let’s hope it’s NOT the day your boyfriend is trying out a new, incredibly difficult recipe for goat cheese and truffle soufflé.

You have to make a living, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to exercise your own creativity too – you need to create what YOU want.  This was Cull’s take on life and before long Clay found himself adopting those values too.  It made sense, after all.  Clay loved spending hours at his pottery wheel, fingers deep in the wet clay, sometimes closing his eyes and just letting his hands take over to see what they might produce today.  And they had produced some wild things!  Not to mention the sculpture he liked to do without the benefit of a wheel.  In the beginning of his time at the shop, this drove Clay crazy.  He would be up all night experimenting with some new design, and in the morning the tourists and regulars would flock to the same old shelf by the counter, with the sleek, fat pitchers and bowls and mugs, and scoop them up for purchase.  Clay would grit his teeth, smile politely, and sell them the most boring of his works, wondering why no one seemed to appreciate creativity these days!

Cull did though.  He understood.  He’d been trained at CIA and loved to experiment in the kitchen.  He could make the most savory, succulent fish for dinner at the pub, flavor it exotically, prepare it exquisitely…and 90% of his customers would STILL order crabcakes.  Oh, Cull made delicious crabcakes…they melted in your mouth.  And Clay’s glazed pitchers and bowls were lovely too.  But both men knew they were capable of exciting things too…they just needed someone else to try them!

That was why in their shared apartment were lots of sculptures, some of a … rather … personal nature, all gifts from Clay to Cull. 

And that was why after fixing crabcakes much of the night down at Mulligan’s, Cull was happy to experiment in the sunny kitchen of their home, combining old ingredients in new ways and adding new spice to traditional recipes.  Oh, he loved his work at Mulligan’s – the sheer energy and joy involved in running his own restaurant and the look of happiness on patron’s faces when they took the first bite of the rich, flaky crabmeat.  Live and let live, that was ONE of Cull’s theories on life, so he was happy to prepare the old favorites at work…and then spend hours over a brand-new bouillabaisse recipe at home.  Clay loved fish, and he loved Cull, so it worked out well.  And Cull loved pottery, especially the ones Clay made JUST for him, and he certainly loved Clay. 

It’s not hard to be creative when you live with your inspiration.

Of course, while both men were artists, their particular brands of art were quite different.  Why, Cullom had done more math for culinary school than Clay had in four years of college!  When Clay cooked – which was rarely – he tossed ingredients together, sniffed the mixture, poked it a few times, and if it looked reasonable, or even interesting, he stuck it in the oven until it seemed, you know, ready-ish.

Naturally, this was NOT how Cull worked.  He divided fractions.  He leveled cups.  He crouched down to make sure the meniscus was completely visible in his liquid measures.  Cooking was a science and Cull’s kitchen was a well-equipped laboratory.  Cull was a man who liked precision and detail.  He was highly-organized and liked it that way.  It was HIS belief that being so…well…Clay would say RIGID…just gave him more room to fly.  If you were precise about what you did, then the real opportunity for creativity came. 

That wasn’t quite how Clay worked.

Okay, let’s be honest – that wasn’t how Clay worked at all.  He loved immersing his hands deep into wet clay, closing his eyes, inhaling the pungent odor and letting his fingers work while his mind wandered.  If he threw a strange pot one day, well, he would glaze it a strange color and put it on the shelves with everything else!  He considered his weirdness part of his art, after all.  And art, at least for Clay, wasn’t about measuring and dividing and folding.  It was about throwing himself into every piece of clay he worked, taking chances, and seeing what happened.

And so two artists in one apartment could be a wonderful thing…they always ate well, and they always ate off beautiful hand-made crockery…but the different styles of the two men could potentially create problems….

One such problem came in the form of a magazine article, written by one Adam Ryder, Clay’s college roommate.  Well, it wasn’t the article itself, exactly…

Cull and Clay had been living together a few months when Adam wrote a short story about college life, his very first story to be published in a national magazine.  Clay’s name was mentioned in the story, as well as the name and location of the Clay Hut.  Adam, who had moved out west a few years back, sent Clay a copy of the magazine.  The article was wonderful, witty and held tremendous promise for the future of the young writer.  And the free advertisement for the Clay Hut hadn’t been so bad either.  Clay had been excited about the article and thrilled about the publicity it gave his shop. 

Cull had been just as excited for him.  He cut the article out and sent it out to be matted and framed, as a surprise for Clay. He thought it was something special, something very much worth keeping and would look wonderful hanging in his shop.

After picking up the newly mounted article at the framers, Cull, unable to wait until evening to show it to Clay, made his way to the Clay Hut. 

“Hey, I have a surprise for you!”  Cull called as he opened the door to the shop, spotting Clay behind the counter.

Clay’s eyes lit up.  “I love surprises. What is it?”

Cull handed him the brown paper-wrapped package. “Open it and see.”

Clay placed the package on top of the counter and ripped open the wrapping.  Spotting the framed article, his eyes lit up again. 

“Thank you.  What a great idea!”  Clay picked up the frame and held it out.  “I know just where to hang it too.  Right over there, by the mugs and pitchers.  That’s where most of my customers head first.” 

Cull went to the back room and found a hammer and tape measure.  With the precision of the anally challenged, he measured and marked, just so, until the hanger was exactly in the middle of the wall and he did this with a very grateful Clay hanging on to his waist. 

Clay kissed his neck from behind. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome” Cull leaned back and kissed Clay’s nose, asking matter-of-factly, “You sent Adam a thank-you, right?”

Clay stood back, admiring the beautifully framed article, and answered just as matter-of-factly.  “No, I didn't, slipped my mind, but I loved the article, so who cares?"

Cull turned around, a frown creasing his brow.  “Well, how would he know that you loved it unless you told him so?”

"Well, it was good enough to be put in a magazine, so he must know it’s good.  He doesn't need me to tell him that.”  Clay shrugged his shoulders. “Besides, he gets lots of 'feedback' from his editors and colleagues.”

Clay looked up at Cull, noticing the frown and the crease for the first time. “And anyway, he's not writing for a response, he's writing for him.”

The crease in Cull’s forehead seemed to get deeper.  "Aside from the fact that he gave your business free advertisement, aside from the fact that a writer only knows something he's written is appreciated if someone TELLS them it’s appreciated, writing a thank-you note is just good manners.”

Clay stifled a sigh; Cull could be so anal sometimes.  "A writer's thank you note is the money he receives from the people that buy his stuff.”

“This wasn’t a book Clay; it was a magazine article that was sent to you.  You didn't buy it."

"He WANTED to send it! I didn't ask him to!" Clay was beginning to get a tad aggravated.  WHAT was the big deal?

Cull crossed his arms and leaned a hip against the counter. “You send a thank-you note out of appreciation for something someone does for you -- not only if it's something you specifically requested! According to YOUR theory then, you should send a thank-you note to LL Bean but NOT to your own grandmother at Christmas!"

“Okay! Okay! Don’t get your boxers in a twist over it.”  Clay blew out a breath. 

“My boxers aren’t in a twist over it.”  Cull cocked a brow. “It’s the polite thing to do.”

“Okay, Miss Manners, I’ll try and remember to write him a note.” 

“Don’t try. Just do.” 

“What?  Are you doing Yoda now?” Clay laughed. “From the sound of it, I thought you only did Miss Manners exclusively.”

“Yes, and you do a pretty good James Dean imitation yourself.”  Cull pushed himself away from the counter.  “But your Rebel Without a Cause act won’t fly with me.  Just write the note.”

Clay crossed his arms; a slight mutiny etched his face.  “What will you do if I don’t?”

“You don’t want to know.”  Cull swatted Clay’s butt, a little too hard to be considered playful, as he passed by on his way out the door. 

Clay’s eyes widened at that swat. He followed Cull to the door.  “I DO want to know!”

“No you don’t. It’s really not for the faint of heart.”  Cull kissed Clay on the nose before pushing open the door. “Write the note.  I have to get back to the restaurant.  I’ll be home early tonight.”

Clay watched as Cull crossed the street to Mulligan’s.  Even in a huff Clay couldn’t help admiring the view. Cull did a great John Wayne imitation, although instead of a six-shooter, he’d have a stainless steel KitchenAid strapped to his side.

He rubbed his backside, still a little wary.  He DID so want to know!

.........
Clay ignored the ringing phone as he pulled on his running pants and slipped on his sneakers.  The Christmas tourist season was at its peak and if the first six months of his business was anything to go by, The Clay Hut was going to be a success.  He loved the two-story apartment above the shop, enjoyed the friends he was making among the
eclectic group of shopkeepers that surrounded it; he loved looking out his window and seeing the boats on the Bay.  And for the very first time in his life, he felt as if he belonged.

Of course, he knew that feeling was brought on in large part because of the man waiting for him downstairs, and if had learned anything about Cull in the last six months it was that the man thought running was....FUN. Even in the winter!  Clay smiled as he grabbed a sweatshirt out of his drawer and hurried down the stairs.  Well, he had to admit he was starting to enjoy running himself.  He liked to follow behind Cull, just a little.  He was an artist, after all, and some things were just....ART! 

The phone was still ringing as he hit the landing and he groaned a bit when Cull picked up the phone on the stand by the stairs.  He had been hoping there wouldn’t be any interruptions this evening.  Giving Cull a signal that he was ready to go running, Clay sat down on the couch and pulled his sweatshirt over his head.

"Oh, hi, Adam." 

Clay's face lit up when he realized whom Cull was talking to...a minute before his stomach sank...when he remembered whom ADAM was talking to. 

"We loved the article," Cull was saying.  "Thanks so much for sending
it…yes, of course we got it, didn't Clay......Oh...I see." 

Clay pretended to be very interested in his shoelace.  His face was suddenly very warm.  Maybe he should open a window or something.

"I'm sure you'll be hearing from him soon," Cull said, leaning against the banister to raise his eyebrows at Clay.

Clay shrank a little lower on his chair, wondering it if was possible to disappear into the upholstered seat like so much smushed-up clay. 

He had meant to write the thank-you!  He really had. Okay, so maybe in the back of his mind he HAD wondered what Cull would do if he didn’t.  But...he HAD meant to write it.

After Cull said goodbye to Adam, he stood leaning back against the banister.

Clay looked at the ceiling and then out the window.  “Are you ready to go jogging now?”

Cull crossed his arms and waited.

Clay was getting the feeling that Cull HAD been right.  He really DIDN’T want to know.

“I meant to write it!  I DID!”

"I didn't tell you to MEAN to write it, I told you to write it," Cull said, arms folded.  "Which part of that was unclear?"

Clay squirmed a little.

"It was your idea, why don't YOU write it?" Clay asked recklessly, regretting it the minute he saw a shadow pass over Cull's face.

"Excuse me?" Cull asked politely. A little too politely. 

"Well, if ...you...wanted..." Clay sputtered, finding himself in a position he NEVER
liked...at a loss for words.

"I think your attitude needs some adjusting, mister," Cull said grimly.

What was he talking about?  Clay's attitude was just fine!  It was Cull's attitude that needed adjusting.  He wasn't some Victorian maiden who sat down with a quill and wrote loooong letters on parchment JUST to thank people!

He made the mistake of sharing these sentiments with Cull.

Cull rubbed his square jaw with one of his big hands and nodded his head.  He slowly walked over to the desk that stood at the far right corner of the big open room.  Opening the drawer he pulled out ...what would have been called parchment a hundred years ago and a good old Bic pen, which didn’t have nearly the flare a quill would have had. 

Cull looked over at Clay, who hadn’t taken his eyes off him for one second. He pointed at the drawer.  “This is where we keep our parchment and quills; you’ll even find stamps and the address book.  You’ll need to remember that for future reference, I’m sure.”

“I.... know where they’re kept.”  Clay stuttered, looking a bit pale.  He should have just written that damned thank-you! His eyes grew wider as he watched Cull slowly walking towards him; he was doing his John Wayne imitation again.  Okay, Pilgrim, you wanted to know what would happen; now you’re about to find out.

He really DIDN’T want to know.

Cull sat down on the couch beside Clay, paper and pen at his left side.  “We’re going to write that thank-you right now.”

“CUULLL!”  Clay was sputtering, as he found himself pulled up and over the big man’s lap, the pen and paper inches from his noise. 

Cull’s huge hand connected with the seat of Clay’s running pants with one hard swat.

Clay eyes went wide when the swat landed.  “WHAT are you doing?”

“Don’t you know what a spanking is, Clay?”  Cull landed another stinging swat.  “I’ll show you.”

“I KNOW what a....span...I know WHAT it is!” Clay spat out, completely indignant.  “I meant WHY are you doing it?”

“You were the one who wanted to know what I’d do if you didn’t write that thank you,” Cull said, as his large hand bounced off the seat of Clay’s running pants.  “I told you, it really isn’t for the faint of heart.”

“STOP!” Clay yelped when that big hand landed another, firmer swat to his backside.  The worn cotton was providing very little protection from the sting of those smacks.  “Let me up!  I’ll write the note, Damnit! Cull!!”

“You’ve had plenty of time to write it.”  Cull’s hand landed yet again. “Pick up the quill, Clay, you can just write it...from right where you are.”

“LET...ME...UP!”  Clay yelped again; he tried to scoot forward in an effort to get away, but with Cull’s big hand at the small of his back, he couldn’t budge.  “CULL!”

“Are you going to start writing?” Cull’s hand hovered over Clay’s behind.

“NO! Let me...OW!”  Clay yelled when that hand hit its target once more. He started squirming in earnest when he felt Cull’s fingers slide inside the waistband of his running pants. “NOW what are you doing??” he yelped anxiously.

“Apparently, I’m not getting my point across through your running pants.”  Cull pulled the pants and briefs down exposing Clay’s slightly pink cheeks.  His hand connected again.  “Are you going to start writing now?”

“Ye..OW! YES!”  Clay grabbed the Bic and the piece of stationery in his slightly trembling hands.  “Um…what am I supposed to say?”

Cull swatted him again and he yelped.  “You’re supposed to thank him!” Cull boomed.  “In fact, you were SUPPOSED to thank him weeks ago.”

Clay gulped.  “Okay…”  The pen hovered over the paper as Clay tried to remember the proper form for a thank-you note.  He remembered how to do a business letter.  That would be Dear Adam: like that, with a colon.  Only in business, you probably wouldn’t call him “Adam.”  It’d have to be something like “Dear Mr. Ryder:”.  But that was too weird. Adam was his old friend!  Hmm. He knew how to write a love note.  He’d written plenty of those to Cull!  But starting a thank-you to Adam with “My love, my heart” pretty much ensured that would be the LAST gift he’d get from his old college roommate.  So those two salutations were out.  WHAT was he going to say? This was much too.....

“OW!”  Clay howled as Cull’s hand smacked down on his bare backside a few more times, interrupting his train of thought.  Suddenly he missed the little protection that good old jersey cotton offered.  This stung even more!

“Write!” Cull ordered.

“I don’t know how to start!” Clay shrieked.

He could almost hear Cull smiling above him.  “Why don’t you try ‘Dear Adam,’” he suggested.

OH!  Cull was so good at this sort of thing.

“ ‘Dear…Adam…’” Clay read aloud as he wrote the words down, sniffling a little. 

He paused, confused.  Now what?

Cull’s big, warm hand was resting on the heated skin of Clay’s backside.  “ ‘Thank you…’” Cull prompted.

Right.

“ ‘Thank…you…’”  He paused, waiting for Cull to help him out again.  “Well?”

Cull’s only response was a flurry of hard smacks.

“Hey!” he yelped.  “You’re supposed to be helping me – OW!”

“I’m not SUPPOSED to be helping you,” Cull said grimly, smacking his rear a few more times.  “YOU’RE supposed to be writing this.  Now go!”

Cull sounded VERY serious.

And maybe this was how Adam became a writer too because with Cull’s hand hovering right over Clay’s already sore bottom he suddenly found himself VERY inspired to write.  Before he knew it he’d written a lovely thank-you note.  He made a mental note to ask Adam what HIS most effective writing…’position’…was…

Clay underlined his name with a flourish.

“Done,” he said in a very small voice.  Cull gave him a final pat a little too firm to be friendly, then loosened his arm around his waist.

Clay jumped off his lap as soon as he was released.  He stood in front of Cull, rubbing his behind, a look of complete disbelief at what had just happened plain on his face.

“I can NOT believe you did that!”

“You wanted to know.”  Cull pushed himself up from the couch and kissed Clay on the nose.  “Are you ready to go jogging now?”

“Jogging?”  Clay sputtered. “How could I possibly go jogging after....what you just DID to me?”

“We have to find a mailbox for your note.” Cull’s smile was a wry one.  “You want to argue about it?”

Clay might have been a bit of a rebel, but he wasn’t a stupid one.  It only took him a second to answer.  “No!”

“Well, I’d pull up your pants first.” Cull headed for the door.  “The good folks of Annapolis might take issue with you jogging about like that.”

****************************
“Are you going to tell me the story about that article before I leave?”  The Midwestern woman asked Clay as she waited for him to ring up her purchases.  She loved the mugs and pitcher she’d picked out.  She’d be certain to tell her friends about this shop.

Clay smiled in relief when the door of the shop opened and Cull walked in, holding a tray. 

“Lunch is here.  I brought you the catch of the day.”  Cull said, smiling at the woman standing in front of the counter.  “Excuse me, I’m just bringing Clay his lunch.  It’s hard for him to get away during the busy season.”

Clay had finished packing the pottery safely in a box and held it out to the woman.  “This is Cull; he owns Mulligan’s restaurant.  If you haven’t had lunch yet, it’s the best place to eat on Prince George Street.”

The woman eyed Cull appreciatively.  “As soon as I can track down my husband, that’s just what we’ll do.  Thank you so much for everything.”

“Thank you.”  Clay smiled. “I appreciate your stopping by.  Come back again.”

“I will and I plan on telling my friends about this place.”  The woman headed towards the door with a wave.

“Good morning for business?” Cull asked, leaning against the counter.

“It’s been a great morning.”  Clay leaned over the counter and kissed Cull in a proper greeting. “Even better since lunch is here. How did you get away during the lunch hour?”

“Pete’s filling in for a few minutes.”  Cull spied the book at the edge of the counter. “What’s this?”

Clay sat down on the stool behind the counter, picking up the fork from the tray.  “That’s Adam’s new book. Hot off the presses, not even in the stores yet. It came special delivery this morning.”

“That’s wonderful.” Cull picked up the book and smiled. He scanned the inside cover and added matter-of-factly, “Be sure to send him out a thank you.”

“Already done.”  Clay grinned, looking up from his lunch; he gazed at the beautifully framed article that hung in the center of the wall, beside the mugs and pitchers.  “You really didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”

Cull looked up from the book and shared a smile with Clay at the long ago memory.  “No, I didn’t think you’d forget.  You really are pretty faint of heart.”

“Well, that’s the truth.”  Clay squirmed on his stool.  “I figure if I do forget some things, anyway, you’ll always be around to remind me.”

Cull’s smile widened; his blue eyes sparkled.  “Always.”