Happy Birthday to Amber!
Thank you for inviting me to take part in your November Birthday Bash. I hope your month is full of happy surprises.
In honor of the festivities I’ve written a little snippet about Will Brandt and Taylor MacAllister of the Dangerous Ground series. Their new book, Kick Start, was supposed to be out this week, but I got flu! So the book is postponed to the end of November. But I’m offering up a sweet little slice of story that takes place just before Kick Start begins.
Readers, comment below and I’ll enter four lucky people in a drawing for a free audio book – your choice of any of my audio titles. The drawing will be held at the end of the month.
* * * * *
The stars light the road
That’s bringing me back home
Lifehouse. Usually Lifehouse when Taylor was driving. Not that Will had anything against Lifehouse. They were okay. He preferred them to The Fray or Switchfoot, or worst of all — much worse — Nickleback.
He sighed inwardly, glanced from the blur of nightscape flying by, to Taylor. “Did you just remember you didn’t pay the electric bill or something?”
“Hm?” Taylor sounded distracted. It was hard to interpret his expression, with only the wan light from the dashboard to go by. He was watching his side mirror and edging the Acura MDX through the crowded lanes of traffic on the 101 Freeway.
“You’re driving like…” Will swallowed the rest of it in a yawn. He was too tired to think of an appropriate simile. Analogy. Simile? Was that the word? Who the hell cared? Taylor was driving too fast, and they couldn’t afford a speeding ticket. For a lot of reasons.
He didn’t say it though. He knew he was just feeling out of sorts. He was beat. They both were. They’d put in another twelve hour day on this godawful Dragomirov protection detail. And they had to be back on the clock by six the next morning.
Belatedly Will realized they were getting off the freeway. Getting off at Kanan Road, of all places. Were they out of gas? He leaned over to check. No. Was there a problem with the car? No. The green dashboard lights all glowed benignly. “What’s up?”
“I don’t want to lose this reservation. They won’t hold it if we’re late.”
“What reservation?” Will stared at the shadow that was Taylor. “Are we stopping somewhere?”
“We’re having dinner.”
He was starving, no question. But he needed sleep more than he needed food. They both did. Plus, they had agreed during their last argu — discussion — that there would be no more frivolous expenditures for the foreseeable future. Not until they got the bills under control again. Starting a business in this economy was like cutting a vein and watching the hemorrhage of dollars.
Not that he was going to say a word. Not after Paris. If Taylor had decided he wanted dinner out, then by God they’d have dinner out.
Taylor glanced briefly at his GPS and turned left onto Troutdale. He threw a look at Will. “Something wrong?”
As dark as it was, he saw the gleam of Taylor’s grin. “You don’t remember, do you? You don’t have a clue.”
Taylor laughed and shook his head.
Were they meeting someone? Clients? Taylor’s sister or brother? Will fervently hoped not. He was too tired to make conversation.
Taylor made another left, this time onto Mulholland Highway. The SUV whipped through the moonlit Agoura Hills.
“Where the hell are we going?” Will asked, and he couldn’t help the note of irritation that crept into his voice. They were in the middle of nowhere speeding along an empty road for miles on end. Maybe he was dreaming. If so, it was turning into a nightmare. Didn’t Taylor remember what time they had to get up in the morning?
“The Old Place.”
“What old place?”
“This old place. Here we are.” Taylor slowed and pulled up in front of what looked like the movie set for an old fashioned western saloon, right down to the covered wooden porch and elk antlers hanging from the weathered facade.
A handmade blackboard sign confirmed that this was, indeed, the Old Place. Rusty letters proclaimed STEAM CLAMS WINE STEAK.
“Eight twenty-six,” Taylor said with satisfaction.
“Hey,” said Will slowly. “Is this that place we used to drive past –”
“Yep.” Taylor shrugged into his leather jacket and opened his door. The autumn night air smelled of woodfire, pine trees, horses, and good food cooking nearby.
Will followed suit, all at once feeling more energized. As they walked up the brick steps, he said, “What made you pick this place? I can’t believe you even remembered it.”
Taylor jammed his shoulder into Will’s. “I can’t believe you forgot it’s your birthday!”
Will nearly missed the next step. Taylor laughed at his expression.
“I did forget!”
“I know you did.”
They were both laughing as they pushed open the front door. Inside it was warm and noisy and rustic and very small. The décor was all vintage western, plank wood floors and low open beam ceiling. They were led to a tall booth in the back, past pigeon-holed walls with faded notes and vintage photos. The booth had high sides and built-in benches, so they had a sense of privacy although every seat in the place was filled.
Funny, how ten minutes earlier he’d been so tired he couldn’t think straight, and now he was grinning over the wine list. All the same he felt obliged to say, “You shouldn’t have done this, MacAllister. We agreed. No extraneous expenses until we’re financially on our feet.”
“Hey.” Taylor’s eyes were very green in the warm lamplight. “Taking time to celebrate the important things is not an extraneous expense.”
“And my birthday is one of the important things?”
“Hell yeah, it is.” Taylor’s gaze was so serious and affectionate, Will felt his face warm. There was something pretty damned heartwarming about knowing you came first for someone. Especially if that someone came first for you.
“Okay. Well.” Will cleared his throat and looked at his menu. “What are you having?”
“The oak grilled sirloin with the mixed green salad and baked potato.”
“I thought you were practicing to become a vegetarian this week.”
“I’ll practice next week. They’re famous for the steak here.”
“Maybe I’ll try the venison.”
“You are feeling homesick,” Taylor commented.
He was, yeah. His brother Grant would be home on leave in a couple of days, and there was nothing Will wanted more than to head north to Oregon to see Grant and his dad. But they had committed to this Dragomirov caper and that was that.
Will studied the wine list again.
“You want to get an appetizer?” Taylor asked.
“Nah.” It really was a drag having to count their pennies. It was a long, long time since money had been an issue for either of them. They were too old for this bullshit. As of today, he was officially too old for pinching pennies. But…it was worth it because they were together again. Really together. With no fear of a foreign posting separating them for years, no further need to hide their relationship from Uncle Sam…and together had to be the best birthday gift ever.
“Dessert though,” Taylor said, watching Will. His expression was serious.
The seriousness made Will smile. Such gravity over lava cake with hand-whipped cream or homemade fruit cobbler? But no. That wasn’t the reason for the grave and attentive look. And the recognition warmed him all over again.
“I’m not home sick,” he said.
“I’d like to see my dad, my brother, yeah. I’d like to take a trip to Oregon. But home is here.”
Taylor’s lashes fell. He joked, “Here? I hate to tell you, they close at midnight.”
But Will wasn’t letting him brush it aside. Taylor was right. They needed to hang onto these moments, mark the milestones. He said softly, “Home is wherever you are.”