Welcome to the world, Casper Grim. We’ve been waiting for you!

Tomorrow (October 2nd) is Casper Grim’s book birthday! In honor of it being officially Spooky Season I’m giving you a look at one of my favorite “spooky” chapters from Like Grim Death.

“Smnermalnipsh…” Hawk mumbled in his sleep before he rolled onto his back. The duvet slid off the bed and Casper’s head popped up. His brow arched and he silently pushed off the mattress, hoping to get a better look. Hawk scrubbed at the hairs in the center of his chest and shifted restlessly. He slept in his boxers but Casper couldn’t be caught looking as Hawk got ready for bed. You can look now…

He smirked and crawled off the mattress on his hands and his good knee, careful not to make a sound. He slowly made his way across the floor and listened for any change in Hawk’s breathing, aside from the occasional indiscernible mumble. Hawk’s bed was higher off the ground so Casper didn’t have to stay too low as he dragged his dying leg behind him. He carefully reached and pulled himself up with the nightstand so he could rise on his good knee and the breath caught in Casper’s throat.

There were names tattooed on Hawk’s wide, firmly muscled chest. Casper’s head tilted as he read them. There were a dozen and most of them had ranks. Two of them were women. Casper glanced at Hawk’s face but it was relaxed and his breath huffed softly. Casper’s eye clung to the salt-and-pepper scruff on Hawk’s jaw before it traveled down his chest and the tight ridges of his stomach. Casper’s mouth was dry as his gaze lingered on the front of Hawk’s boxers. Mother of God. Casper licked his lips but it didn’t help when he reached Hawk’s thighs. He wanted to bite them so desperately, it made him dizzy. He swayed forward but caught himself and touched the mattress so he wouldn’t bump it. Hawk’s hand streaked across the bed and pushed beneath the other pillow before he rolled and Casper found himself face-to-face with a SIG Sauer. There was a hard, loud click as Hawk’s other hand slid across the top of the SIG as he charged it, and Casper’s lips pulled into a wide grin.

“I need to empty my bladder but it’s nice to see that it’s still working.”

“Give me a second,” Hawk sighed as he released the slide and flicked the safety back then let his hand fall onto the pillow. He dropped the pistol and scrubbed his face before he sat up. Casper scooted out of the way as Hawk threw his legs over the side of the bed.

“Wait!” Casper screeched as he was unceremoniously scooped up and carried around the bed.

“What the…” Hawk said as he noticed the blood pattering onto the rug then swore at the puddle from the dripping IV line on the floor. “Why did you rip it out?” He complained loudly as he swung into the hall.

“I told you, I needed to pee.”

“What did you do with the urinal bottle?” Hawk asked.

“I threw it out the window. It was full.”

“You should have woken me up so I could empty it and take the line out.”

“I’m tired of being hooked up and I don’t want to pee in a bottle. Am I allowed a little dignity?” Casper grumbled but he got the light switch for Hawk as he leaned against the bathroom door. 

“Fine. But don’t be a fucking creep. Wake me up next time,” he scolded. Casper’s eye flicked upwards before he shook his head.

“I don’t like being carried like a fucking baby or a bride either,” he told Hawk and Casper’s lips pulled into a disgruntled scowl as he was lowered onto the toilet seat. Hawk pointed threateningly then ran from the bathroom and returned a moment later with gauze and tape for Casper’s hand.

“Can you manage from here?” Hawk asked and Casper held up his middle finger.

“I can manage to find my way around this fucking gown,” he said bitterly. Hawk pushed out a hard breath, as if he’d just finished counting to ten.

“I’ll be out here if you need anything,” he replied blandly then turned on his heel and left. Casper leaned so he could watch Hawk’s ass and it was almost as tempting as his thighs. He gave his head a shake and decided to go ahead and relieve himself while he was there. Casper used the wall and got himself to his feet and peed then leaned and hopped to the sink. Hawk came in as he was washing his hands and Casper reached behind him to close the back of the gown. “Ready?”

“No,” Casper said but he held up his arm so Hawk could lift him.

“I sent Blink a message and asked him to send over a set of crutches. I don’t think I can trust you to stay out of trouble but I know it’s hard for you to sit still,” Hawk said as he carried Casper back to the bedroom. He set Casper down on his good leg then gave the center of his chest a shove. Casper’s shocked gasp turned into a laugh as he fell onto the mattress and Hawk smirked as he went back to his bed. “I left something on your pillow for you until Blink can have something better sent over,” he added. Casper sat up and felt around his bed in the low light and found a pile of folded garments. He held them up and all the heat in his body dropped to his ass as he stared at a pair of Hawk’s boxers and one of his white v-neck t-shirts.

“Uhhhh…” He swallowed the knot in his throat and looked to Hawk. He held up a hand then ruffled his hair. Hawk showered before bed and his hair looked soft and fluffy and Casper could almost smell it.

“I know they’ll be big on you but that works in our favor, actually. It’ll be easy for you to get in and out of my boxers without bothering your leg too much,” he said quickly then squeezed his eyes shut. “Whatever. If it’s weird or you don’t like them because they’re not black…or whatever, just throw them back.”

“No.” Casper clutched them against his chest and shook his head. “I’ll wear them.” He bit down on his lips and hoped he wasn’t blushing. There was a slight warmth to his face and Casper wondered if he was even capable of blushing. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d do before Hawk.

“Cool,” Hawk said and tossed his chin at Casper as he bent to fix his duvet. “Just yell if you need something. I don’t want to accidentally shoot you.”

“No?”

“No. If I’m going to go to jail for murdering you, it’s going to be because you gave yourself another infection or broke another bone,” Hawk replied and it turned into a yawn as he buried his face in his pillow. “Goodnight, Casper.”

“Goodnight,” Casper said softly. He retreated into the shadows and huddled against the wall with Hawk’s shirt and boxers. Casper stretched his neck to make sure Hawk couldn’t see him then raised the boxers to his face and inhaled. They were clean and smelled like fabric softener but he’d worn them and they were Casper’s now.

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Welcome to the world, Casper Grim. We’ve been waiting for you!

A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

This one’s a wild ride, my loves! I won’t waste time being indulgent since we’ve got a lot to cover and new characters to meet but I will warn you that See How They Run is just the beginning of a bigger mystery. Expect to see more Lake Cliff over the next few months, including Adjacent romances for Mr. Grim and Mr. Blink! Ready for the FIRST THREE CHAPTERS of See How They Run? Buckle up and hang on.

Chapter 1

“Let me try that again,” Ezra said as he grabbed Denver’s wrist and pulled it toward his mouth. 

Try your own.” Denver yanked his cone away as Ezra’s neck and tongue stretched and they laughed as they wrestled and danced into the alley. Denver checked to make sure they were alone before stealing a kiss. They often cut through the alley after visiting the market on the weekend or while walking home from dinner. The neighborhood was posh and popular with hipsters and older wealthy liberals so they could let their guard down and flirt and occasionally kiss, whenever they found a moment of privacy.

“I think I like yours better,” Ezra murmured and groaned as Denver’s lips covered his. Ice cream dripped over their fingers and onto the pavement as Denver licked Ezra’s lips and it was surreal, that a night could be so perfect. Ezra stepped into him and his free hand slid under Denver’s coat. Their breaths plumed around them as a busker’s guitar picked out “Stairway To Heaven” in the distance. He tasted like pistachio ice cream and Denver ached as he sucked on Ezra’s tongue but his senses prickled and his head snapped over his right shoulder as two men wandered into the alley. Ezra looked and Denver felt him tense. “Let’s go,” he said and gave Denver a shove. Denver nodded as he glanced behind Ezra and four men ambled into the alley and did their best to look casual as they made eye contact with the men behind Denver. He looked back and snarled as a van blocked the alley and the door was pulled open. “Oh, fuck…” Ezra whispered as he used his arm to shield Denver but he laughed.

“I’ve spent years hoping for another shot at this. Whatever happens, don’t let them take you. Call Reginald for help and get away,” he ordered under his breath and his eyes were hard as they pinned Ezra’s. “Don’t argue. Help me by getting away,” he urged and waited until Ezra gave him a quick nod but Denver knew he was panicking.

“I can’t let them take you!” Ezra whispered urgently but Denver smirked.

“It’s part of my plan. Trust me,” he said and pressed a quick kiss to Ezra’s lips. Ezra squeezed him tight then dropped his cone.

“Go!” One of the men called as Ezra pulled his phone from his pocket and Denver spun as they were surrounded.

“We’re in trouble!” Ezra yelled into his phone before it was slapped out of his hand and he was pushed against the wall. Two men grabbed each of Denver’s arms and he roared as he swung his torso and shoulders as hard as he could and shoved the man on his right into the bricks. He let go and Denver snatched the man on his left by his hair and drove his knee into his face before he heard the whine of a Taser.

“No!” Ezra screamed as he got loose. He dove at the men crowding around Denver and tackled the first one he could reach. There were muffled curses but Denver couldn’t get to Ezra as the shouts and grunts around them got louder and closer. Denver was elbowed in the ribs as his arm was twisted behind him and he swung and punched as hard as he could.

“Stay down, Ezra!” Denver ordered and jumped and kicked off the body in front of him, sending it flying and creating an opening so he could find Ezra. He was pinned to the ground and thrashing until the men holding him let go and quickly stepped back. Denver heard the Taser just before Ezra arched and howled. “You fucking…!” Denver growled before the back of his head exploded with sharp, bright pain. Denver’s legs buckled but he stayed conscious as his arms were caught and he was dragged away from Ezra, which was exactly what Denver needed. He gave his head a quick shake to clear it and willed Ezra to cooperate. 

“We’ve got him! Let’s go!” Someone yelled in French and there was a loud whistle just before Denver’s legs were picked up and he was rushed through the alley. Denver saw the open door of the van and he flashed the driver a promising grin as he was thrown inside. Bodies fell in, on top of him, and Denver waited for the door to slide shut and the sound of the tires peeling. He took a quick count—two in the front and six in the back—and Denver laughed as he reached for the closest man. He easily snapped his neck and pushed him into the man blocking the side door. Denver heard the Taser warming up and kicked the man holding it, sending him crashing into the back of the van as Denver was punched hard in the ribs. He heard a gun cock next to him and Denver rolled and grabbed the arm holding it and pointed it at the man with the Taser. Denver forced the finger around the trigger to squeeze then elbowed the man holding the gun in the face. The hand around the gun loosened and Denver slipped it from the man’s grasp and shot another man in the chest before he could fire his gun. Denver was tackled and pushed onto the floor but he rolled, so they couldn’t pin him. He hit the side of the van as it swerved and Denver grunted as a boot crushed his chest. He wound his arm around the ankle and jerked hard and blindly fired into the torso as it swung toward him.

“Pull over!” The man in the passenger seat yelled as he pointed his gun at the melee in the back. “He’s gonna kill us! I can’t get a clear shot!” He screamed and Denver grabbed the last conscious man. He locked his arm under his neck and used him as a shield and put a bullet between the eyes of the man in the passenger seat. Denver gave his shield a quick jerk, breaking his neck before he pushed him away, and launched himself at the driver. Denver slammed his fist into the driver’s face and wrapped himself around the seat and held on tight as he pulled the wheel hard. The van slammed into a parked delivery truck and Denver braced as the front crumpled and he was sprayed with bits of glass, metal and plastic as the driver’s airbag burst from the steering wheel. He swore as he was thrown forward and pain radiated from his right. Denver shook it off and made sure everyone else was down before he lurched at the sliding door and flung it open. He scrambled over bodies as they spilled out and hobbled over them. Denver squinted at the lights and the street signs and smiled. They didn’t get very far.

“Hey! Are you alright?” Someone called but Denver kept his head down as he dragged himself away from the wreck as fast as he could. He spotted Ezra as he came sprinting around the corner and waved with his good arm.

“Holy shit! You’re alive!” Ezra cried as he reached for Denver then swore.

“Is it that bad?” Denver chuckled but it was strained as he hugged his side and did his best to keep Ezra moving away from the van.

“You look like hell but what about…?” Ezra asked as he looked behind Denver. “Holy shit,” he whispered at the crushed, smoking wreck and the battered bodies. “We better go. Reginald said to get to Lake Cliff and that they’d be ready for us.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Denver said as they heard sirens and people began to gather on the sidewalks. “We’re definitely in trouble.”

Chapter 2

“This should cover the basics and we can get anything we’re missing here by tomorrow morning,” Wilder said and Toly snorted as he stepped back and made sure the screen was level.

“Unless Denver needs a transfemoral procedure, we should be fine.”

“I have to make sure we’re ready for anything. I can’t carry you into Lake Cliff’s clinic or an ER in Chicago. And you never know, mom might want to stay with us more,” Wilder argued as he arranged fresh boxes of gloves, gauze and pads on the counter. Toly hummed softly as he touched the switch on the side of the screen and frowned when it stayed dark.

“I am always happy when your mother visits but I believe she enjoys working in the garden and cooking with Sage. She might visit more if you stopped asking her to give me checkups and run my labs.”

“I know. But I worry about your blood sugar and cholesterol and who knows how much radiation you’ve exposed yourself to. I’m going to talk to Hawk, after he’s checked Denver out. He’d be cool,” Wilder said and Toly gave him an impatient look. He was hoping to make a good impression, when he met Dr. Hawkesworth. His resume and credentials were impressive and he was a decorated veteran. His experiences were featured in a bestselling novel about a Special Forces unit’s deployment to a particularly hostile province in Afghanistan.

“I don’t need a doctor,” Toly stated pointedly. “I’d like to pretend I’m normal and he’ll have his hands full with Denver. He insists he’s fine but Ezra said it’s very likely that he’s got a concussion, broken ribs, several deep lacerations and he is severely bruised.”

“He’s pretty tough,” Wilder argued and Toly blinked at him.

“Ezra said he has an open head wound and will need stitches in several places,” he informed him and Wilder’s eyes tightened as he stared over Toly’s shoulder before he held up a finger.

“Sutures!” He whispered as he went to the cabinet and began pulling out anything else Hawkesworth might need. “I know that you, Ezra and Sage won’t like hearing this, but Denver’s been through worse. He’d probably consider it a typical day in the field. I’ve seen his X-rays. He looks like a fucking appliance and all Denver cares about is whether he got the job done. He whooped their asses and Ezra’s safe. He’s not feeling any pain. Yet,” Wilder added with a wince. Toly pushed out a disgruntled breath and shook his head as he checked the cord then unplugged it. He grabbed the reader and checked the outlet.

“Odd,” he noted then raised a shoulder. “I need to check the fuse box,” he told Wilder and he nodded as he tossed a pack of sterilized tools next to the pads.

“Need help?”

“I think I can find the box and flip the proper switch,” Toly replied tartly and Wilder held up his hands apologetically.

“I know. I just like going with you,” he said and Toly groaned as he hurried across the breakfast nook/clinic.

“We might not have time later,” he whispered as he reached for Wilder’s eyes and he laughed as he captured Toly’s face and kissed him.

“I love you and Denver’s going to be fine,” he promised. Toly’s cheeks puffed out as he nodded.

“I believe you but I have a feeling we won’t have a moment like this again for a while,” he said then shut his eyes and rose on his toes. He stole a quick kiss and hurried off to check the fuse box. He whistled and wondered how far out Hawk was and squinted through the lenses of his glasses then rolled his eyes. They were off because he’d disconnected himself before working with the house’s electricity. But he checked Dr. Hawkesworth’s ETA just before he went dark. Hawk was on the northeast side of the city when Wilder called and based on his phone and car’s last location, Hawk was approximately seventeen minutes out. “I know that you and Denver won’t like hearing this, but you are not invincible and we will always be hurt when you are hurt. Poor Ezra,” Toly murmured as he passed through the garage. He grabbed the side door and paused when he heard a twig snap in the woods. He leaned and checked the trees but everything was quiet so he skipped down the steps. The fuse box was next to the door and Toly clicked his teeth when he checked the switch for the breakfast nook’s north wall. It was still on so he shut it off and went back in to check the outlet. Wilder was still doing his mental checklist and topping off the soap dispenser. Toly frowned as he recalled saying they didn’t need a breakfast nook that could convert into an operating room. The table’s legs collapsed and locked beneath the top and it was mounted against the wall to make room for a hospital bed and the chunky retro-style chandelier hid adjustable surgical lamps.

“I think we’re ready,” Wilder said to himself then glanced at Toly. He laughed wryly under his breath as he lifted the monitor off its brackets and Wilder hurried to help him lift it.

“I don’t need your help!” Toly protested. It was a large screen but it wasn’t that heavy.

“Sorry. I’m right here, though,” Wilder said as he held his hands out and spotted Toly as he lowered the screen and rested it against the wall.

“Thank you,” Toly said and ducked his head. “I will let you know if I need assistance.” He pulled the screwdriver from his hoodie pocket and waved it at Wilder thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter, if you’re used to broken ribs and busted noses. Those are my ribs and that’s my nose now and you’ll take better care of them, because I need you. Same goes for Ezra, Sage and the rest of them,” Toly added and poked Wilder in the chest with the screwdriver’s handle. Wilder laughed softly as he pulled Toly close for another kiss.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’d do, if I was in Ezra’s shoes but it sounds like he held his own,” Wilder said and Toly made a dismissive sound as he went to check the wires in the outlet.

“Of course he did. Ezra’s not a soldier but he’s observed soldiers in war zones and I suspect protecting Denver was his only priority.” He shook his head again as he removed the outlet cover. “I would have died before I let them take you. They tased Ezra and he sounded so scared when he called us back and told us they had Denver.”

“I know!” Wilder said soothingly as he rubbed Toly’s shoulders. Toly held up a hand and gestured for him to move back. Wilder’s head cocked and he gave Toly an amused look. “We wired this house ourselves. If anything’s failed, it’s that junction box or the circuit breaker’s defective,” he guessed but Toly raised a shoulder.

“I don’t play with electricity. I’m an appliance,” he reminded Wilder as he slid the junction box out of the wall and let it hang. He touched the red, positive wire and his vision filled with bright, flaring light and heat exploded in his arm as he was thrown back, into the china hutch.

“Toly!” Wilder screamed and everything went dark.

Chapter 3

“You’re sure we can trust this Dr. Hawkesworth?” Reginald asked and Aiden exchanged a loaded look with Paul.

“We can trust him,” Paul said as he watched the windows. “Wilder said he’s seen him pull off miracles on the street and I’ve read his file.”

Sage chuckled wryly as he arrived with an armful of pillows and throw blankets. Ezra said Denver was in rough shape so everyone was settling in for a long night.

“Sometimes, Chicago’s as dangerous as Kabul and Hawk’s the kind of guy who lives for that. He hangs around emergency rooms looking for gunshot wounds but he just got his operating privileges revoked at half of Chicago’s hospitals for assaulting a chief of medicine,” Sage explained and Paul snorted.

“I looked into that. They wouldn’t let him operate over a billing issue and he lost a patient.”

“Sounds like he won’t give us any trouble over the odd unexplained gunshot wound or laceration…” Lavender observed as he strolled past the windows and checked behind the curtains. Sage gave him a hard look before shaking his head at Aiden.

“Let’s not make this a habit,” he said and Lavender bowed his head in agreement.

“Of course. I don’t know who Denver’s pissed off but we’re putting a stop to this right now,” he insisted and widened his eyes at Reginald. Aiden couldn’t tell if there was more to that look but he pushed out a hard breath as he dropped into an armchair.

“We just got back. It was so quiet at the cabin and Lane’s still got a little vacation time left. We were going to do S’mores with Robin and Rose, when they got back this weekend. I don’t melt my marshmallows or eat them with anything but I like Hershey’s bars now.” He crossed his arms over his chest and Reginald snorted as he lowered onto the sofa and opened his laptop.

“I was expecting trouble but I can’t see why Denver would be caught up in this,” he said as he interlocked his fingers and cracked them then reached into the front pocket of his sleeveless hoodie.

“That sounds like something you should share with the group,” Paul said. He checked the clock and his cheeks puffed out as he turned on his heel and went to do another lap down the hall. 

“I’m not sure if there’s anything to it, yet. And we have our hands full with Denver, now,” Reginald said as he found a small baggie of powder and frowned at the laptop’s screen. “What in the hell?” Reginald muttered to himself as he tapped powder onto the back of his hand, along his thumb, then swung toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender and Aiden looked and saw the last of a flash of light and glanced at each other then at Reginald. “He’s gone silent. That can’t be good,” Reginald said then sniffed loudly as he dragged his nose along his thumb. He raised his head and his brows pulled together. “Oh. No…” He swatted at his face as he rose and pitched toward Paul. “Wrong,” he said before his eyes rolled and all the color drained from his face. He tried to grab the arm of the sofa but went limp and spilled onto the floor.

“Fuck!” Paul gasped and bounded over an ottoman and tore down the hall, to the guest room.

“Reginald!” Lavender called as he rushed around the coffee table and Reginald’s shoulders twitched hard as his body convulsed. Foam trickled from his mouth and Lavender swore as he rolled Reginald onto his side and patted his cheek. “Stay with us!” He ordered. Aiden hurried around the sofa and kneeled next to Lavender. He recognized the symptoms of an overdose and Aiden quickly compiled a list of the drugs that would cause this type of immediate reaction and how to provide emergency care.

“Make sure he still has a pulse!” Aiden ordered and Lavender nodded as he checked. It took a moment for him to find it as Reginald thrashed wildly. His eyes were rolled back into his head and he made gurgling, wheezing sounds. Reginald’s phone rattled on the table and Lavender swore.

“My phone’s ringing too,” he said as he pulled it out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. Wilder’s face and number flashed on Reginald’s phone but Lavender couldn’t help him. Aiden grabbed Reginald’s hand and it was clammy but it looked like he was fighting hard to hang on. His jaw was clenched as his neck stretched but his lips were turning blue.

“I’m here!” Paul said as he slid next to Lavender and Aiden fell back and scooted away. Paul checked his pulse then bit the cap off an injector pen before he stabbed Reginald in the thigh. “Hold on!” He begged as he found Reginald’s other hand and pulled it to his lips.

“Narcan?” Aiden asked and Paul nodded as he watched Reginald.

“I have an epi pen,” Sage said but Aiden shook his head.

“His heart hasn’t stopped yet and he’ll keep overdosing until the Narcan knocks out whatever this is,” he said as he gestured at Reginald. He suspected very high-grade heroin. Possibly cut with fentanyl or fentanyl cut with heroin.

“Can you see what Wilder needed?” Lavender asked tightly. Sage nodded as he pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Lavender looked furious and concerned as he held onto Reginald’s shoulder, as if he was willing him to shake it off and get back up. “I’m sure this was an accident,” he stated as his eyes flicked to Sage’s.

“I hope so,” Sage said quietly and Paul threw him a disgusted look.

“He said it was coke, so he’d be on his toes. He wouldn’t do anything that would take him out while Denver needed him.” He tugged on Reginald’s eyelid and swore under his breath.

“Yet you’ve got Narcan on hand,” Sage pointed out as he held the phone to his ear and Aiden shook his head.

“Reginald’s too controlling to enjoy heroin and he prefers uppers when he’s working,” he recalled and Lavender pointed.

“I told you, it was an accident,” he repeated and Sage winced then became alert.

“Hey, Wilder. Is everything ok? We’ve got a serious situation over here and…” He threw Lavender a startled look. “Oh, God. I’ll tell Jeremy and someone will be right over to help.” He was pale as the phone fell from his ear. “I don’t think it was an accident,” he said and swallowed hard as he looked at Reginald. “Toly’s hurt. He was getting everything ready for Hawk and Denver and shocked himself. Wilder said the fuse box must have been tampered with and Toly’s hurt pretty bad.”

“Jesus Christ!” Paul whispered as he looked over his shoulder, toward Toly and Wilder’s. Lavender’s nostrils flared and his eyes were hard with fury. Aiden swallowed hard and fought back a snarl as he put the pieces together. “We’re blind,” Paul realized.

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A Special Sneak Peek For A Very Special Book!

Our favorite duo is back and they’re in trouble. Of course.

I’ll cut to the chase. We’re all hanging on by a thread because the world is in chaos. And this is the thread that holds my sanity together. Nothing makes me happier than writing my Lake Cliff lunatics and sharing them with you. So, that’s what we’re doing for the rest of the year and into 2021! Kiss And Tell (Lake Cliff 10!) arrives on August 4th and is available for PREORDER NOW! It starts with a bang! Well. Almost a bang. Here’s the first chapter:

“Are you sure you can do this?” Lavender asked and searched Lane’s face to be sure he was sober enough to decide. Lane nodded and his fingers curled around Lavender’s as their hands rested on the table. Coltrane’s saxophone was soft and sensual amidst the low chatter and hum of the waning clientele and the bartender’s banter with the waitress. 

“Yeah. I can do this.” His lips tilted into a drowsy grin and he chuckled as the tip of his middle finger teased Lavender’s palm. “Can you? I know where my head’s at but what about yours?” He licked his lips and Lavender was distracted for a moment, as he watched Lane’s tongue.

“I know where my head is at,” he said then glanced over Lane’s shoulder to see if anyone was paying too much attention. No one seemed aware of them as more tables around the hotel’s bar cleared. “It’s getting late but we could use a little fresh air.” He raised his brows at Lane and swung his head toward the doors.

“I think that would be a good idea,” Lane replied in his laziest drawl before he slid from his bench. Lavender took one last look around before he followed. He watched and there was a slight drift as Lane walked so Lavender put his arm around his shoulders and pulled him against his side.

“How are you feeling?” He asked and Lane laughed softly as they stepped out, onto the sidewalk. It was Tuesday and almost midnight and the street was nearly deserted. Lane pulled away and turned so he could walk backwards. His eyes were heavy and full of mischief as he tangled his fingers with Lavender’s and gave him a tug. Lane was always charming in an easy, confident way that Lavender appreciated but he was dangerous as he smirked and shrugged.

“It’s been a hell of a day. I wouldn’t mind getting in a little trouble,” he murmured and Lavender hummed in agreement. He considered heading away from the hotel but he knew they’d be courting even more danger if they wandered into the shadows.

“Come here,” Lavender commanded as he reached for Lane’s lapel and pulled him under the streetlight. He fell against it and Lane growled as he danced into him. He braced his arm on the post, over Lavender’s head, and he was enthralling as their cheeks brushed. Lavender slid an arm around Lane’s neck and fisted his hand in his coat. “I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it.” He felt different than Sage. A little broader and more solid, where Sage was leaner and more lithe. It had been so long since Lavender felt another man’s body pressed against his. It was surreal but also alluring. Because it’s wrong?

“I guess we’ve always had some chemistry,” Lane mused. He sniffed deeply, filling his sinuses and goosebumps spread down Lavender’s neck. “You even smell perfect.”

“Thank you. It’s my own blend. Bergamot, pink pepper, jasmine, heliotrope…”

“Lavender,” Lane added. Lavender nodded slowly, letting Lane’s stubble scrape his jaw. He was warm and aroused, he smelled clean and there was a subtle whiff of rye whiskey and mint.

“Of course. The notes compliment my pheromones, my body’s natural chemistry. We have chemistry but it’s not the sort of thing that would last for more than a few nights. I’m too…”

“Fussy?” Lane offered. Lavender felt it against the corner of his lips and they curved.

“Come on, we both know you like it. You tease me about the suits and my fussiness because you like it. You want to mess all of this up,” he purred and Lane chuckled as he rocked against Lavender.

“Maybe a little, now and then. But, a little bit more at the moment,” he admitted and Lavender hummed.

“I can tell.” Lane was hard but Lavender was hard too. I am a man, after all.

“Chemistry is a hell of a thing,” Lane said as his hand pushed beneath Lavender’s coat and glided over his holster’s straps. “So, your room or mine?” He asked and Lavender’s heart slammed as his pulse raced.“We’d better make it mine.”

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Our favorite duo is back and they’re in trouble. Of course.

The most beautiful story you’ll ever read about a $20 bill.

Of all the animals we meet in Beautiful Animal, the story of Arlen Woods is one of my favorites but it was also the hardest to write and go back to. His chapter still haunts me. Especially when I open my wallet, but in a beautiful way. I thought I’d share Arlen’s chapter with you because he’s the kind of romantic hero we often forget about and just one of the many beautiful clients we meet as Darby follows Channing.

Chapter 11

Rendition

Featuring: “Thanks for the Memory” by Bob Hope

Channing didn’t throw himself into Arlen Woods’ arms as soon as he opened the door and there wasn’t the immediate, familiar intimacy —like a lover coming back to bed— that Darby was coming to expect with Channing and his clients. Arlen was a very small, elderly man and he was frail and bent and Darby didn’t hide his confusion when Channing introduced him to the older man. Darby’s eyes were wide and blinking and his brows shot up his forehead but Arlen didn’t seem to care or notice as he shuffled through the living room.

Channing drove them to a modest two-story colonial home almost an hour outside of the city. He parked in the driveway and he was absurdly out of place but he slid his hand in his pocket and whistled softly as he walked up the path and climbed the porch steps. An envelope was clothes pinned to the mailbox and Channing unclipped it and tucked it into his coat pocket before softly tapping on the door.

“Arlen?” He called as he pushed it open and leaned inside then nodded when the older man turned off the television and rose from his recliner. He needed a cane and Darby’s mouth opened and closed as he debated asking Channing and Arlen if they were completely sure this was appropriate. Then, he saw the hospital bed in the dining room and he raised his Leica as his feet carried him past the sofa. She was so, so tiny and her eyes were so far away. Her mouth was open and slack and there was a shiny spot of saliva at the corner as she dreamed. There was nothing to her, her body was jagged lumps beneath a faded quilt.

“That’s my Rosamund,” Arlen rasped and Darby turned to find him leaning on his cane and holding onto the door. The dining room table was pushed against the wall to make room for the bed and Arlen’s hand shook as he pointed at it. “She’s there,” he said and urged Darby to look at one of the framed pictures among the pill bottles on the table.

“This is her?” Darby asked. His voice wavered and he cleared his throat softly as he picked up one of the frames. Darby’s eyes stung and his nose burned as an energetic and dapper Arlen and his young bride posed on the porch of the house they were standing in. “Well, she’s stunning,” Darby said as he touched the glass. Rosamund was gorgeous with her victory rolls and polka-dot dress.

“She’s the only girl I’ve ever kissed,” Arlen said. He was wearing a wool cardigan over his pajamas and his hair was still wet from his bath. Darby hummed thoughtfully as he picked up another picture of Rosamund. She was seated on the edge of a stage and she was laughing.

“If you had to pick just one…” Darby said then whistled appreciatively.

“She was in the chorus and I played the piano and they almost fired me because I couldn’t keep my eyes on the music. I asked her out every day for a month but she kept telling me she didn’t date musicians. So, I finally broke down and swore I’d never touch a piano again if she’d let me take her to the movies and maybe hold her hand.”

“That’s some Excalibur level shit, Arlen,” Darby said in awe and he heard Channing’s rumbling chuckle as he hovered behind Arlen. “What did she say?”

“She said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard and that I could pick her up at 7:00 p.m.,” Arlen recalled and Darby gasped as he turned to the bed.

“You just knocked him clean off his feet, didn’t you?” He asked her. She didn’t blink or move but he could see her now. He saw the laughing girl on the stage and had to clench his jaw and breathed very carefully so Arlen wouldn’t catch on behind him. Darby waited until he could trust his voice then smiled as he turned. “Is it ok if I take some pictures in here? I won’t take any of her face or your pictures…”

“Take pictures of her. She loved to have her picture taken and I know she’s hoping you will,” Arlen told him, knocking Darby clean off his feet. He nodded jerkily as he turned and his hands were shaking and tears rolled down his cheeks as he wound the film.

“Our tea should be just about ready,” Channing said softly and his hands hovered around Arlen protectively. He helped lead Arlen away and Darby set his hand on the bed and breathed through another tremor of sadness. Darby’s head fell to the side as he stepped closer to Rosamund and carefully brushed her hair away from her face. It was fine and white and fluttered softly with the mist from the humidifier on the bedside table. Darby curled it around her ear and used a tissue to wipe her lip then straightened the collar of her nightgown. The quilt was pulled up to her chest and he gave the edge a careful tug so there weren’t any wrinkles.

“There,” he whispered then held up the camera. “You look lovely, Rosamund.” The flash popped and he watched through the lens for any response but she was still. Darby watched her pupils and pressed the shutter button but there was nothing and it hurt in his chest. He almost touched the back of her hand but her skin was like crepe paper and he was afraid it would tear so he took a picture of the tiny wrinkles and the smudgy purple stains then the jagged lumps in the quilt. Darby focused on the roses on the other side of the bow window then looked at the pictures of Rosamund on the table and noted the roses. He had a feeling she was living in the dining room to make her care easier for Arlen and because of the roses. A single cut rose stood in a drinking glass on the bedside table and Darby smiled. “How about one for Arlen?” He asked as he tapped the water off the stem and broke it so he could slip the end behind her ear. He did his best to mimic a victory roll with her hair but it was too limp and thin so he settled for more of a swoop. He stepped back and considered then raised the camera and took the shot. “I won’t tell Arlen so it’ll be a surprise,” he said then turned when he heard a few soft notes from a piano. Darby followed it into the living room and around the stairs and past the kitchen. He found a small den and Arlen and Channing were at the piano with their tea cups.

“I thought you didn’t like Bob Hope,” Channing said and his fingers crawled over the keys and playfully hopped over Arlen’s so he could hit a higher key with his pinkie. Arlen shook his head as he gave him a teasing shove with his elbow.

“You know I hated George Burns. He stole a cab from me. He called me ‘kid’ and threw a nickel at me like I wanted to shine his shoes and then he stole my damn cab. I missed a job interview so I had to go into the Navy,” Arlen complained. Darby hung along the wall and moved in so he could get their tea cups and their hands on the keys. They talked and laughed in hushed tones and a bit of a song would drift from the piano every now and then. Channing was rapt as he sat next to Arlen and listened to his memories. He set his elbow on the piano and propped up his chin and Darby envied Arlen for a moment. He was the sole focus of Channing’s undivided attention and anyone would believe that he was utterly smitten and Arlen was the most fascinating man on the planet.

“I met Bob Hope when I was in the Navy,” Arlen said and Channing nodded.

“It was one of his USO tours and you got to meet him and he pissed you off,” he recalled. His eyes sparkled and his lips pulled at the corner as he watched Arlen. Channing gave every client his undivided attention, to the exclusion of everything else in the room, but he was a tamer, more soothing seductive with Arlen.

“They needed a piano player and I got volunteered and I was so damn excited and ready but he just ran his mouth and did his bit and he never even needed me. I was ready and praying that he’d tell me to play ‘Thanks for the Memory’ but I just sat there like a dummy for twenty minutes,” Arlen muttered. Channing shook his head and clicked his teeth.

“Absolutely unforgivable,” he said then tipped his head toward Arlen. “Would you play it for me?” He asked but Arlen shook his head.

“I don’t think my fingers or my voice are up to it,” he said.

“Then I’ll play for you,” Channing decided. Arlen clasped his hands together in delight then sat back so Channing could have the keyboard. The keys tinkled and Channing leaned toward Arlen. “Thanks for the memory of rainy afternoons, swingy Harlem tunes…”

“Motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes,” Arlen attempted but it was a faint rasp so Channing kissed him softly.

“How lovely it was,” Channing crooned smoothly then touched his forehead to Arlen’s. “Thanks for the memory.” He laughed softly and pecked at Arlen’s lips. Darby held onto the camera and held still because he didn’t want to interrupt them with the flash. He found it was hard to watch Channing go back in time with Arlen so he distracted himself by staring at the dust motes as they caught in the setting sun as it filtered in through the blinds and the pulled-out sofa bed. The bed was made and there were two pillows but the one by the end table with the pill bottles, Kleenex and another quietly whirring humidifier had a round divot in the middle while the other pillow was propped and waiting with a perfectly smooth pillowcase.

“I think I’d like to lay down for a bit,” Arlen told Channing, pulling Darby back to the piano. Channing laughed tenderly as he kissed his cheek.

“I think I would too.” He took a quick sip of his tea then swung his legs around the bench and stood. He gave the lapels of his coat a dashing tug then smoothed his sleeve before he offered Arlen his arm and helped him to his feet. Channing took Arlen’s tea cup then patiently strolled with him to the sofa bed. He helped him lower and sit then set Arlen’s cup on his end table. Channing dropped a kiss on Arlen’s forehead then shrugged out of his coat as he turned to Darby. “Not too many pictures of this, all right?” Channing said quietly as he draped his coat on the piano and Darby nodded as he backed away. Darby leaned against the wall by the door and braced himself as Channing eased off Arlen’s cardigan. He folded it and set it on the coffee table at the foot of the sofa bed then stood in front of Arlen as he slowly pulled off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt.

Darby took one picture. Arlen’s hands rested in his lap and his eyes were full and glowed as he stared up at Channing and watched him undress. Darby took a picture of Arlen as he went back in time and adored Channing with a younger man’s heart and eyes.

Channing took his time removing his shirt and trousers and set them next to the cardigan on the coffee table. It wasn’t a sultry strip-tease or particularly sensual. He was just a shockingly handsome man slowly undressing but the rise and fall of Arlen’s chest became more rapid as Channing stepped close. Arlen was old and frail again as Channing supported his arms so they could slide around his body and hold him. Then, Arlen shut his eyes and hummed drowsily and he was young as he rubbed his cheek against Channing’s stomach and breathed him in. Arlen kissed around his navel and nuzzled his semi-hard cock then sat back so Channing could help him to his pillow. Channing went around the bed and eased onto the quilt, facing Arlen, and scooted close, until their noses were touching. He took Arlen’s hand and guided it to his lips and kissed his fingers.

“You’d better not be thinking about the shoes,” Channing said and Arlen laughed as he cradled his face and kissed him. It was clearly an inside joke and Darby wanted to catch it with his camera but he knew it would be too intimate and hurt in the darkroom. He knew the whole roll would hurt but he made himself watch and suspend the moment with his eyes so it would hang in his head.

Channing guided Arlen’s hands to his erection and they murmured and teased each other until it was hard and straining. Channing waited until they were both restless and impatient then slid his hand into the front of Arlen’s pajama pants. Darby understood that this was how Arlen remembered sex with men. It was the hands in pants and hushed laughs and kisses of a close quarters rendezvous in a secluded corner of a battleship or the backseat of a car. It probably wasn’t as breathless and urgent as Arlen remembered but his breath turned into frantic hisses as he came and he gasped and giggled as Channing’s cum spilled over his fingers.

Then, Arlen was too tired to be young and he was heavier and drowsy as Channing discreetly cleaned the mess in his pajama pants then lovingly tucked the quilt around him. He took his time and sat on the edge of the bed as he dressed and Channing rambled quietly about baseball as Arlen drifted off to sleep. A nurse was coming in, just as they left.

“How’s your father feeling tonight?” She asked Channing and he grinned easily as he held the door for her.

“He’s sleeping in the den,” he said and she nodded and made small talk as she took off her coat and went to check on Rosamund. Channing wasn’t relaxed and he didn’t whistle as he walked to the car and Darby felt heavy as he lowered into the passenger seat.

“How?” Darby’s voice cracked and he had to turn his head away as the pressure built in his chest. He knew what the sob would sound like if he released it and Darby did his best to hold the door shut. He knew what he was afraid of and why it hurt but he mentally pressed both of his hands against the door and pushed back as hard as he could.

“His son found me,” Channing said and Darby’s head swung around.

“His son?” He wished he hadn’t asked and he knew Channing was struggling with his code and his grief as the muscle in his jaw twitched and his nostrils flared.

“Rosamund and Arlen made a pact,” he whispered and there was a pause as his chest shook. Channing checked the rear-view mirror and changed lanes and his cheeks puffed out before he continued. “I think most couples make a similar pact, in the event that something should happen to one of them. Rosamund knew it was taking her and she had a very honest talk with her son. He said…” Channing’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. “He said the only thing she was afraid of was leaving Arlen alone. She knew Arlen wouldn’t be able to hold up his end of the pact but she didn’t want him to be lonely. So, she told her son that if Arlen couldn’t date again, to do what he could to help him find some kind of comfort. Arlen’s son agreed but he didn’t bring it up or even think about it until he started to get scared. He saw Arlen slipping away from him too as his grief became steady and unrelenting. It’s all around him as he waits for the love of his life to die the slowest death imaginable.”

“But why did he pick you? Why a man?”

“He let Arlen pick. He gave him two numbers and told his father that it didn’t matter to him, as long as Arlen found something that helped.” His voice caught again and Darby nodded in agreement and used his sleeve to wipe his cheek.

“He chose a man because he didn’t want to replace Rosamund?” He guessed but Channing sighed.

“I think he chose me because he could connect to the young man who went into the Navy when he was nineteen, before he came back and lost his heart to Rosamund. He can keep her as the core of his emotional and sexual self and still find pleasure by connecting with his past and dwelling there for a bit. I think it helps him, feeling young again. He’s not the fading hopeless man I met, when I arrived for our first appointment,” he said and Darby nodded again. He didn’t take the pictures but his photographer’s eye catalogued the wet hair, the fresh pajamas, the crisp pillowcase and the tea cups that were definitely the “good china”. Arlen prepared for their date and it would have been the highlight of his week.

“What about Rosamund? Why didn’t they prepare for that?” Darby asked and Channing held up his hand.

“I don’t know and I’ve left it alone. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d cope with watching the man I love slowly die.” His hand remained in the air as he looked at Darby and their gazes clung for a moment before Channing looked back at the windshield. “I don’t know what the hell I’d do if I was in his shoes so I just do whatever I can to help. And I hope that she’s exactly where Arlen thinks she is, and that she’s young and waiting for him to join her,” he said then reached into his coat and pulled out the envelope then handed it to Darby. It was light and flat and Darby’s fingers were shaking as he looked inside.

“There’s only twenty dollars, Channing.”

“I know,” he whispered and Darby grabbed his hand and they cried for much of the drive back to the city.

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The most beautiful story you’ll ever read about a $20 bill.