Welcome Birthday Guest Amy Lane!

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Cold Water—a Jackson and Ellery Story

By Amy Lane

*note—These events take place after Fish on a Bicycle and contain some spoilers.

Necessary Journey

“I don’t want to leave Billy Bob,” Jackson said mulishly.

“Cat’s fine.” Ellery labored to throw both their carry-ons in the trunk. He’d packed Jackson’s with cargo shorts, tees, and hooded sweatshirts and tennis shoes, because that was pretty much all he wore anyway.

“Aren’t I supposed to go back to work in three—”

Ellery got into the passenger seat of the Lexus and sent Jackson a deeply tired look. “Finish that sentence,” he said, the exhaustion hurting his bones. “I dare you.”

Jackson took a deep breath—a gratifyingly clear deep breath—and nodded.

“I’m sorry, Ellery,” he said dutifully.

Ellery let out a cracked laugh. “You got out of surgery a week ago. You’re doing fine. You just… just need to relax, and you’re not doing it at home. Can we…” He looked at Jackson in honest supplication. “We’re the bosses, and I say we take a vacation.”

Jackson nodded. “You’re planning to work during my mandatory naptime, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Ellery said without repentance. “But we have a rental by the ocean, so it will feel like a vacation.”

Jackson smiled faintly and yawned. “You just need to not worry about me for a week,” he said, and that new understanding he’d shown when his heart murmur had really started getting bad hadn’t gone away yet.

Ellery was grateful.

“Yes,” he said gently.

Jackson regarded him with narrow eyes. “Am I going to get sex? Finally? Because the doctor said I could go as soon as I felt up to it—”

“And when do you feel up to it?” Ellery closed the door and started the Lexus, drowning out Jackson’s automatic “Always!”

“I’m sorry,” Ellery said, holding his hand to his ear. “I didn’t hear that.”

“You did too, you big baby. How do you know it’s not true?”

Ellery took one more look at him before backing the car out. He’d gained a little weight back, and since the surgery clearing out the scar tissue from his aorta, his cheeks were a normal color again. But Ellery had almost lost him so many times, the idea that he could lose Jackson now, to Jackson’s stubbornness, still filled him with fear.

“It’s true when you’re not trying to prove something to me,” Ellery said, his face relaxing a little. The garage door was open, they were going to see free air. “I don’t just want you for the sex—and yes, it’s a perk. I really really need to know you’re okay.”

Jackson closed his eyes, the shadows under them indicating he’d about used up his awake time for the moment. The doctor said he’d sleep a lot in the first couple of weeks, but as long as he kept up a regimen of moderate exercise, and ate well instead of like a fifth grader running away from his parents, he would be back to five miles a day and a hundred miles an hour in no time at all.

Ellery needed him to sleep.

“You have said that before,” Jackson said softly.

“Which part?” Ellery backed out and hit the button for the garage door. Jade and her boyfriend Mike would be by to water Ellery’s plants that evening, and Henry would be by to take care of Billy Bob in the mornings. Between the two of them using the pool and taking advantage of the air conditioning and the privacy, the house should look well lived in for the next week. Ellery wasn’t worried about it.

Jackson on the other hand… Ellery would never not worry in that direction.

Never.

“That you don’t need sex from me.”

“I don’t! I—”

“No, no.” Jackson held up a languid hand. “I believe you, Counselor. I… I just need to remember I have to work at being better company.”

“You do not! That’s the point! You don’t have to work at being anything but yourself!”

Jackson let out what might be a laugh when he woke up. “I’ll parse that in a few hours. Are you sure you’re up for driving?”

“Monterey here we come.” Ellery had literally pulled it out of a hat. Jackson had loved the beach in San Diego, but they needed someplace cooler. Some place Jackson wouldn’t be tempted to surf, swim, or otherwise dive into the water.

Some place they could walk easily, not sweat too much, and eat clam chowder, and Ellery could remind him that his entire existence was more than his ability to solve mysteries or sex Ellery up.

Not, of course that the sex would be unwelcome—it was just that Jackson needed to remember that he was loved.

He’d come through the surgery with flying colors—and too many people worried about him. Once everybody had gone away, he’d been alone with the voices in his own head, and a body that wouldn’t let him outrun them. Ellery had learned all sorts of things about being in a relationship with this man over the past year, but as he drove out of Sacramento and down toward the Monterey Peninsula, he thought that maybe the biggest thing was that Jackson didn’t have a roadmap for how a normal life looked.

Ellery needed to give him some pointers—and he couldn’t do that in a place where every breath was measured against how he’d felt healthy and how he’d felt dying.

A week in Monterey sounded like the perfect getaway. And every time they’d gone out of town before now, they’d had a case. Ellery was really curious to see what they could manage without one.

Getting a room at the hotel in the center of downtown Monterey, overlooking the bay, was expensive and ostentatious and Ellery didn’t give a shit. He had princess diamond tiara status or whatever in the hotel chain, and he wanted Jackson to wake up ever morning and look out at the crystal waters of the bay.

He’d never really wanted to abuse his wealth until he’d loved someone who had grown up not having enough to eat.

Jackson had looked around with shy appreciation as they took the elevator to the top floor. “There’s a skyway across the street,” he said.

“Yeah—that’s sort of Monterey’s main street,” Ellery told him. “There’s shops, tourist kitsch, antiques, fudge.”

Jackson laughed softly. “We can walk to the aquarium,” he said. “It’s the one they had in Star Trek IV, but they called it something else.”

“You want to go?”

“Go see about the smart fish? Yeah, why not. I hear they have a mantis shrimp there—do you know those little bastards have twenty-five color cones in their eyes? They can practically see sound. The can power punch through six inches of fiberglass. It’s like a little karate death underwater butterfly. I want to see that.”

Ellery looked at him, appalled. “You want to go see a karate death underwater butterfly?”

“I hear they have otters too.” Jackson smiled sleepily, the combination of little kid wonder and snarky asshole almost irresistible.

“Tomorrow,” Ellery told him. “We can go tomorrow. And maybe drive up the coast some the day after. The shopping in Carmel is really wonderful.”

Jackson grunted. “Shopping?”

“We can get my mother’s Hanukah gift early.”

“Sure.” Jackson wrinkled his nose. “And yours, I guess. And your birthday gift while we’re at it. I sucked at your birthday gift.”

“You got me a very nice tie.” It had Siamese cats on it, like Billy Bob except with four legs. Ellery sort of treasured it, as tacky as it was, because Jackson had tried—hard—to reconcile their two different worlds.

Jackson’s laugh cracked. “I got a pass because last year was fucked way up. No more passes. I have to give better gifts.”

No. No you don’t.

“Then we have to go shopping together,” Ellery said, voice thick. “It’s a skill.”

Like resting.

“What are we going to do this evening?” He said it with bright interest, but his steps dragged. People don’t like to admit that traveling is exhausting—particularly people like Jackson who felt like they were cheating at life when sitting still.

“You’re going to go sleep some more, and then we can go walk around and find a restaurant.” And Ellery could research the three cases they’d gotten in the past week. He’d be super excited about how he and Jackson kept attracting media attention with their high profile cases, if it didn’t mean Jackson ended up in the hospital all the fucking time.

“Aw, come on Counselor. At least let me use my Google Fu and help you brain words.”

That was actually not a bad idea. Jackson’s instincts—whether he was up and around or not—were usually spot on.

“Fine—nap first.”

“Lay down with me?” And Ellery might have said no if Jackson had done that suggestively. But he didn’t. Instead, it was couched as a simple request, bare and particularly vulnerable.

Ellery couldn’t ignore those. Jackson so rarely made them.

“Sure.”

Jackson lay down dutifully as Ellery set up their luggage—Jackson’s battered duffel, his Samsonite roller board. Ellery put both their shaving kits in the bathroom and came back to the bed, kicking off his loafers and arranging himself neatly on the bed next to Jackson. Jackson had brought a blanket from home, something he’d owned before they’d gotten together that he’d picked up at a craft fair, and he was curled up underneath it, watching Ellery with hooded eyes. His hand on Ellery’s middle was warm and welcome, and Ellery closed his eyes, relaxing into the comfort he’d insisted upon.

“Going to nap with me?” Jackson asked. “The traffic was pretty awful on the way down.”

Yes, it had been. And, well, Jackson needed a roadmap—it was up to Ellery to provide. He slid lower on the bed so their heads were even on the pillows.

“You’re good at that,” he murmured.

“What?”

“Taking care of me when I’m trying to take care of you.”

Jackson smiled faintly, allowing his eyes to close all the way. “I do my best,” he said. “You’re just difficult.”

Ellery chuckled and as he drifted into a truly necessary nap, he realized that it had been a while since he’d laughed.

Appreciating the Scenery

Jackson regarded the giant cephalopod with wonder. “Look,” he whispered, not wanting to disturb the guy—he was, after all, just sort of chilling. “The sign says he’s super smart. He changes colors when his favorite people are nearby.” He could swear the thing was regarding him with a friendly eye.

“Is that favorite as in friends or favorite as in foods?” Ellery asked, and while he tried to sound persnickety, Jackson had the feeling he was charmed too.

“As in friends.” Jackson scowled at him, but mischief was in his eyes. “They’re really gentle creatures, you know. A little shy, and they don’t like light or loud noise—hey!”

That last part was aimed at a kid—maybe eleven—who had elbowed his way in between Jackson and Ellery to take a picture with his phone. Without compunction, Jackson stuck his hand over the flash.

“Hey!” the kid yelled, and Jackson shushed him.

“Buddy—as I was just saying, this thing is sensitive. When you flash him like that it hurts his eyes—and yelling is just as bad. It’s like throwing a rock concert with a baby in the house. It’s rude.”

The kid sneered, a blond, blue-eyed master of the universe in the making. “You’re rude!” and he set up to take another picture.

Jackson took the phone from him.

“Hey!”

“You want it back?” Jackson asked, eyes flat.

“Yeah, man—gimme my fuckin’ phone!”

“Go get your parents and bring them to this spot—but do it quietly or I might lose the phone before you get here.”

“My dad’s a cop—he’ll kick your ass if you don’t give me my damned phone.”

Jackson’s turn to sneer. “And I look forward to that,” he said with sincerity. “Now scoot. We’ll be here when you get back.”

The kid took off through the aquarium, screaming, “Dad!” at the top of his lungs, and one of the docents, a young man with ebony skin and gentle eyes, stepped forward in relief.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “I hate it when kids do that—the giant squid is really shy. If someone flashes him, he disappears for days. And he cries.”

Jackson raised an eyebrow. “No, seriously.”

“Okay—we can’t tell if they’re shedding tears from their one big eye, but he turns… just gray. And sad. And it’s just nice to see someone speaking up for him.” The young man turned toward a group of seven or eight year-olds getting ready to tap on the glass. “Please don’t do that,” he said. “It really hurts their ears.”

The kids backed up and nodded, eyes big. “Sorry,” one of them whispered.

“I know you want to get its attention,” the docent told them. “And it’s great that you want to know more—but these creatures are out of their element here. We try to make them comfortable, but when they have to people too much, it stresses them out.”

“My little brother is like that,” a little girl said. “We’ll be nice. We promise.”

They gathered closer, talking in low voices, and Jackson grinned at the docent, who smiled back. It was good they got a reminder that not all kids were little assholes, because as soon as they had that moment, that kid came back with his father in tow.

Dad was ginormous—six-five, three-hundred pounds of ball-playing muscle with bristly black hair from pale skin, and he did not look happy.

“Did you take my kid’s phone?”

Jackson gave his best party smile and hoped he didn’t look like he wanted this guy to eat a sea urchin in the shell. “Did you ask your son what he was doing with it before I did?”

Dad’s eyebrows went up, and he turned toward his son, who suddenly looked sullen. “I was just taking a picture.”

Jackson pointed at the sign in the cephalopod area that read, “NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY”

The docent took a deep breath and addressed the situation. “We are actually authorized to ask anybody hurting our animals to leave,” he said with a swallow. “Please—the flash hurts them, and that’s no fun for anybody.”

“Trevor, we paid eighty bucks a piece for these goddamned tickets. If you get us kicked out because you can’t keep your phone in your pocket, I’m making you pay that back with your allowance!”

“But Dad—”

“I’ll take the phone, sir,” his father said, extending his hand.

Jackson met his eyes solidly, and Dad looked at his kid again.

“Don’t worry—he won’t get it back.”

“But you said it was so I didn’t get lost—”

“Well you’re not leaving my side now are you? Mom’s got the little kids, and you and me, buddy, we’re like glue. It looks like you need to learn how to read again, doesn’t it?”

The kid’s eyes got huge, and his face got red, and Jackson turned the phone over, feeling reassured.

“Thanks,” he said soberly. “I don’t like it when people hurt the defenseless.”

The guy nodded. “I’m a cop. It’s my job to protect, so I get what you mean.”

Jackson stared at him as he retreated, his kid complaining bitterly with ever step. It looked like Dad was holding firm though, and Jackson let out a deep breath.

“A cop,” Ellery said, his first words in some time.

“Yeah, I know. Surprised me too.”

Ellery was looking at him like he did sometimes, his eyes wide and a little glossy, his face open and full of wonder. Jackson didn’t understand that expression—he didn’t know what he’d done to warrant it.

“Surprised the hell out of me,” the docent muttered, and Jackson grinned at him.

“Well, may we all meet more cops like that,” he said, thinking that his own attitude may be a teeny bit biased against law enforcement, given what he’d been through in his life.

“May there be more cops like that,” the docent said. “I’ve got to go—but thanks so much for the assist.” He smiled fondly at his friend the giant squid. “Buddy here is grateful too—he just doesn’t talk the much.”

Jackson chuckled, and was surprised by Ellery’s grip on his hand.

“What?” he asked, turning to him again.

“Nothing,” Ellery said, eyes bright. “You just… you just do things like that. It will never cease to amaze me.”

Jackson was about to shrug him off, make light of that way he was looking, pretend he hadn’t done anything.

But the thing he’d just done—trying to fix something small, teaching someone something valuable about the world—it was apparently one of the reasons Ellery stuck with him through fifty-dozen trips to the hospital and the unpacking of copious stacks of emotional baggage.

He swallowed, and disregarding any curious onlookers, he linked his fingers with Ellery’s as the two of them wandered through the darkened environs of the rest of the cephalopods.

“What?” Ellery said softly, and Jackson squeezed his hand. Maybe a younger, friskier, Jackson would have pulled him into a corner and kissed him—and maybe an older, healthier Jackson would do just that. But this Jackson, in this moment, was just so happy to know he’d done something real, something that made Ellery look at him like that.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “That’s kind.”

Ellery paused in a dark corner and tugged on his hand until he kissed him softly. Jackson regarded him in the black light of the aquarium and smiled slightly.

“What was that for.”

“I am so in love with you.”

And Jackson didn’t flinch or shrug or get embarrassed. “I love you back, Counselor. I’m so glad I’m good enough for you to love.”

Another kiss, and then they separated, mindful of the bustling families and excitable children around them. They kept their hands linked, though, as they wandered the aquarium, open to the experience of wonder.

That night they ate practically downstairs from the hotel, consuming big bread bowls of the best clam chowder in the world. They took their bowls to a concrete wall that overlooked the beach below, watching children as they ran in and out of the waves. The ocean was too cold to go swimming—even Jackson knew that now. He’d been hurt too badly, plunging his feverish body into brutally cold water, to ever take his heart for granted again.

For the moment, he would welcome the man beside him, and the sun sparkling off the sea, and this moment in the sun.

That night as they walked into the hotel room, he tugged on Ellery’s hand and took him to the window.

“What?” Ellery asked, his voice as wondering as a child.

“The view’s nice. I… you know. Wanted to share it with you.”

“Jackson?”

“Yeah?”

“Can we make love tonight?”

Jackson kissed him gently, like it was their first time. As Ellery opened his mouth and gave underneath his hands, his heart beat loudly in his ears and he was grateful for how strong it sounded. How alive.

Their clothes disappeared, and they laid on the bed, skin to skin. Their hands were reverent and every touch sang. Ellery, thick and hard in his hand was as important to the moment as Ellery’s touch on his own cock. Jackson’s stroke grew harder, faster, and Ellery sighed. Jackson kept it up, bending to catch Ellery’s spend in his mouth.

Ellery arched and came, and the joy of it was enough to send Jackson over into Ellery’s fist.

Jackson rested, his head on Ellery’s stomach, and Ellery stroked his hair.

“Jackson?”

“You love me,” Jackson said, confident of it as he never had been.

“For quite some time,” Ellery said, his voice thin. “And you love me.”

“But I think I finally believe it. Believe there’s a reason you’d love me.”

Ellery let out a strained and broken laugh. “There’s several. God you’re dumb.”

“Yeah. I am. I’ll try not to be so dumb in the future. I don’t want to miss any moments like this.”

Ellery’s breath quickened and Jackson looked up in time to see him wipe under his eyes.

“What?”

“You could have. You could have. So many times.” His voice shattered, and Jackson moved to pull his face against Jackson’s neck.

“I can’t do that anymore,” he said. Oh Ellery. You deserved so much better. The least Jackson could do was give this man the healthiest, most real person he could be.

“No,” Ellery whispered. “Please, baby. We have so many more moments like this. Don’t end them before you have to, okay?”

“Not if I can help it.” Jackson kissed his temple, and the darkness protected them like it had protected the giant squid. Sometimes you needed the dark, because the light hurt too much, and sometimes you needed it so you could see the light in your lover’s heart.

And sometimes it was both.

Welcome Birthday Guest Arden Steele!

First off, I’d like to say a big thank you to Amber for including me in her birthday bash! I wish her a very Happy Birthday filled with love, laughter, and many dancing plot bunnies!

Funny enough, I think my favorite birthday memory was my last one.

See, I married young, right out of high school, and was a mom of two by the time I was 21. My husband was in the military and we lived paycheck to paycheck for many, many moons.

Neither of us had any family close who could babysit. The teenager next door was okay for the rare date-night while my boys were growing up, but certainly not for an extended, overnight trip.This year, however, my kids are 18 and 16, and my husband felt they were old enough to manage on their own for a couple of days (with our neighbor on hand should anything go awry).

So, he surprised me with a trip to Seattle for my birthday. I had been wanting to visit Seattle for years, but the stars just never aligned until now. It was also the first time in 18 years that my husband and I had been anywhere without the kids for more than a couple of hours. I loved being able to reconnect with him as a couple, and while the trip didn’t go exactly as planned, it has still been my favorite one to date.

In the spirit of celebration, I’m giving away a copy of my upcoming release, One Good Thing, which hits Amazon in December!

Just leave a comment telling me one good thing that has happened to you this year.

In the meantime, if you love a feel-good, contemporary romance with a few good laughs, check out Flirt, the first book of my Friction series.

BLURB

No one who has ever met Cameron Stone would describe him as exciting or adventurous. His routine is simple, safe, and he firmly rejects spontaneity in all its various forms. He has a job he loves, a family who supports him, and friends who never try to push him past his comfort zone.

Life is good. In fact, his life is perfect—until one chance encounter turns his meticulously organized world upside down.

Asher Dare is everything Cameron isn’t. He’s gorgeous, charming, outspoken, and not afraid to take what he wants. He’s also an arrogant, pushy, serial playboy with commitment issues and a revolving door to his bedroom. In other words, exactly the type of temptation Cameron doesn’t need.

Still, nothing says he can’t flirt. It’s just drinks, one dance, a kiss or two. What could possibly go wrong?

Available at Amazon

ABOUT ARDEN

Arden is a firm believer that words have power, the pen is mightier than the sword, and happily-ever-afters aren’t just for princesses in fairytales. A true romantic at heart, she’s drawn to the tragically beautiful and the beautifully broken, those flawed men and the stories that made them heroes.

In love with the written word from an early age, Arden has been writing since she was old enough to hold a crayon and a juice box. She has now moved on to more sophisticated mediums to share her ideas and has traded in her juice boxes for copious amounts of strong coffee.

The feeling she gets when she finishes a story, however, hasn’t changed.

Email: authorardensteele@gmail.com
Website: www.ardensteele.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorArdenSteele
BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/arden-steele
Newsletter: http://www.ardensteele.com/subscribe.html

Last contest!

If I put all my candles on the cake today I think the poor thing would be a ball of fire. To enter to win a $25.00 amazon GC share at what age you stopped putting all the candles on your cake. I think I was in my twenties when it started and we switched to those snazzy number ones. Now we just put one to blow out. LOL.