Stars & Stripes (Cut & Run, #6) - Inventory Clearance Paperback!
Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett have managed the impossible: a few months of peace and quiet. After nearly a year of personal and professional turmoil, they're living together conflict-free, work is going smoothly, and they're both happy, healthy, and home every night before dark. But anyone who knows them knows that can’t possibly last.
When an emergency call from home upsets the balance of their carefully arranged world, Ty and Zane must juggle family drama with a perplexing crime to save a helpless victim before time runs out.
From the mountains of West Virginia to a remote Texas horse ranch harboring more than just livestock and childhood memories, Ty and Zane must face their fears—and their families—to overcome an unlikely enemy and bring peace back into their newly shared world.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
The waitress came up to their table in the middle of an argument. “Would you like some more iced tea?”
Zane Garrett looked from his ranting partner to the waitress and smiled. “Thanks.” He slid his glass across the small bar table so she could fill it from the pitcher she had in her hand.
“No problem, Zane. More wings?”
“Yeah, but just the medium ones this time. I’m not too hot on the honey barbecue kind.”
“Bad pun penalty,” Ty Grady muttered from across the table.
The waitress laughed. She set a pint down in front of Ty and he pointed at her with his celery stick.
“Designated Hitter or real baseball?”
“I’m cutting you off,” she answered before turning away.
“No!” Ty called out, and Zane laughed, the sound almost lost in the midst of the mid-week revelry. Ty turned a glare on him, dipped his celery into a plastic cup of ranch dressing, and then pointed at Zane with it, sending drops of dressing flying. “You know what we should do next weekend?” he asked without seeming to notice he’d sprayed Zane with ranch.
Zane grabbed a napkin and wiped up the splatter on his shirt. These weekly outings were the only time Ty drank around him, and he seemed to make up for lost beers at them. Zane didn’t mind. After a few months of regular Wednesday night baseball viewings at the local bar, he was used to Ty’s semi-drunken antics. He had to admit, he enjoyed Ty when he was drunk. And as long as Ty stuck to beer or wine, and Zane continued his AA meetings, he didn’t even fight cravings.
“Was that a rhetorical question?”
“No. We should go get me another tattoo.”
Zane loved to see Ty’s mind at work. At first blush, it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to it, but once he’d started paying attention, he could see the tracks Ty’s thoughts followed. Sometimes Ty jumped a track and surprised him, though. Like now. Ty had never mentioned getting another tattoo, had never been caught admiring anyone’s body art. The only reason Ty had gotten the bulldog on his arm was because it meant something dear to him.
Zane watched him for a long moment, entranced by his lover just as he always was. What did people see when they looked at the two of them sitting here in the bar? Two friends, watching the game, hanging out? Maybe they sat a little closer together than some guys would, maybe their shoulders brushed more than casual friends’ should. Maybe people saw two men in love. Zane hated living in fear of what other people might see, but until he or Ty retired, that was their life.
Zane looked at the bulldog on Ty’s arm and raised an eyebrow. “What would you get?”
Ty threw back what was left of his beer, then set the glass down hard, rattling the unstable bar table. He met Zane’s eyes. “Ballgame’s over. I’ve been cut off by Designated Daisy. Let’s go home and look for trouble.”
Zane swallowed hard as Ty’s purr hit a chord deep inside him that only Ty had ever been able to reach. He pulled out his wallet, picked through some cash, and tossed a few bills onto the table. “Ready when you are, Bulldog.”
Ty slid out of his seat, and when Zane came around the table, Ty’s arm snaked around his waist. Most likely it was to keep himself from weaving as they left the bar. Over the months, Ty had grown more comfortable being demonstrative in front of strangers, and it warmed Zane to his toes every time, but it still sent a shiver of nerves through him. Ty had always been the more careful of the two of them, and even he was growing more careless as time went on. What if they were seen by someone who knew them? What if they were found out? Everyone at work knew they were living together, though no one thought anything of it yet except that they were sharing the cost of the mortgage. But they were destined to be outed eventually. The real questions, the ones that haunted him, were, would it matter, and would he even care?
The summer heat hit them when they exited the bar, even though the sun had long ago set and a salty breeze was blowing in off the nearby harbor. Ty’s arm tightened on Zane’s waist, and Zane slid his hand around Ty’s shoulders as they headed for their row house on Ann Street. He was struck yet again by just how happy they were, despite the obstacles and worries hanging over their heads.
There were moments when it was all surreal. He’d never expected to live with another person again, never expected to fall head over heels for someone again. For over two months now, he’d been waking to Ty’s arms wrapped around him every morning, and sometimes he wondered if he deserved it.
Other times he pondered how many tranquilizers it would take to bring Ty down, and whether he could do it before Ty killed him, but those moments passed quickly.
Now Ty’s body was hard and warm against him, but his movements were loose and relaxed. He was humming under his breath, and Zane knew it would soon turn into a song. He couldn’t help but smile as he pulled his lover closer. It might just be the rose-tinted color of love’s glasses, but there wasn’t a thing about Ty he didn’t find fascinating, amusing, or smoking hot. He loved it when Ty sang because Ty had a beautiful voice, drunk or not.
“It’s funny, you know?” Ty said. “How much things have changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“A couple years ago, at this point in the night, I’d be back in that bar with someone in the supply closet.”
Zane snorted and shook his head. “And now you just have to go home with me.”
“No,” Ty said, serious as he stopped and turned to look at Zane. “I don’t have to go home with you.”
Zane raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.
“I can’t wait to get home with you. Even if it’s just to crawl in bed and watch that stupid-ass show you like so much, I don’t care. Whatever I do, I’m glad I’m with you.”
Zane knew he was grinning like a fool, but sometimes Ty still managed to surprise him with his romantic, sentimental gestures.
Ty took his arm and continued to walk. Zane watched him out of the corner of his eye, amused and warmed all over.
“I love you,” Ty said out of the blue, his voice almost sing-song.
Zane laughed. “You’re drunk.”
“I loved you before I was drunk.”
Zane stopped walking and pulled Ty around to face him. The evening was full of the noises of summer night revelry, but the sidewalk was empty. He smiled and leaned in to kiss Ty. “I can’t remember a time that I was happier than I am right now.”
Ty smiled against his lips, his eyes closed as he wrapped his arms around Zane’s neck. “I bet we can top it when we get home.”
Zane growled and squeezed Ty’s ass before releasing him. “Let’s go find out.”
Ty lay tangled in the sheets of the bed he shared with Zane, his head under his pillow. His entire body ached from the gymnastics of the night before. He had carpet burns on his knees. He could feel every place that Zane’s fingers had dug in to hold him down. He was fairly certain there were teeth marks on his shoulder. His insides were a mash of aching, lingering pleasure, and his head was full of cotton. They had to work today, but not for a few hours. He didn’t intend to move until something worthwhile compelled him.
A rough hand settled on the small of his back. Ty hummed and started to smile. That was compelling.
He raised his head, letting his pillow slide away as he turned to peer at his bedmate. Zane was still asleep, his handsome face relaxed in the shadows of the early morning. Ty took the opportunity to stare. He’d never expected to have the privilege of waking up every day to someone he loved so dearly. Now that he did, he tried to appreciate it when he could.
Zane’s hair had grown longer, almost unruly. He’d taken to slicking it back when he worked, and the ends would curl around his ears. Ty loved it. He loved even more that Zane had lost the lines of stress he’d carried for so long, and there were threads of silver hair growing in near his ears that Ty found incredibly sexy.
He reached out to slide his fingers over Zane’s lips. Zane scrunched up his nose and jerked his head away, grunting in his sleep. Ty bit his lip to keep from laughing and reached to do it again. Zane swatted at him this time, barely missing his hand, and then shifted and twitched his lips.
Ty waited a moment, then touched Zane’s lips again, letting the tip of his finger brush against them with the utmost care.
Zane snorted and swatted at him again, smacking himself in the nose and waking with a start and a grunt. Ty pressed his face into his pillow and tried not to let his laughter shake his shoulders.
He felt Zane move, and peeked over his pillow at him. Zane was watching him, his dark eyes like sleepy obsidian in the morning light.
“You’re an ass,” Zane muttered, closing his eyes and turning his head.
Ty laughed and scooted closer, resting his chin on Zane’s chest and wrapping around him. He dragged his foot along Zane’s calf and slid it against his toes, enjoying the intimate contact and soaking in Zane’s warmth and calm.
For all that they enjoyed their rough-and-tumble sex, they were both surprisingly good at cuddling.
The bed jostled at their feet.
“Oh God,” Zane whispered.
Ty shushed him, holding his breath to keep still. They’d been caught off guard, with no covers over their naked bodies. They were defenseless. Ty bent his leg until his knee was covering Zane’s groin, but that was all the movement he was willing to risk as the bed jostled again.
Smith and Wesson had awoken.
The two fluffy orange cats were Ty’s “temporary” wards, but much to Zane’s chagrin, they’d been here for months now. They were exceptionally large and ill-tempered, and though they seemed to have developed a certain loyalty and affection for Ty, Zane insisted they were trying to kill him. Ty had never witnessed them doing anything spectacularly evil, but he would admit they pounced and hissed at Zane with unusual frequency. And if it was time for their breakfast, they weren’t averse to biting the tip of Ty’s nose and sinking their sharp little teeth into other sensitive areas.
Ty had a special interest in keeping Zane’s tender spots unscathed, hence his knee over Zane’s fun parts.
“I thought you closed the door last night,” Zane whispered.
“Oh Jesus. Can they open doors now?”
Ty wouldn’t have put it past these cats.
Zane’s phone began to ring from the bedside table, but neither man dared to move.
Ty grunted as one of the cats began walking up his body, using his long claws to help him balance as he made his way to Ty’s hip and plopped his fluffy butt down as if he’d just staked a claim. Ty reached back and rubbed the cat’s head, letting his fingers twirl the hair under his ear that Ty called his muttonchops. He knew it was Wesson just from the tenor of his purr.
“Why do you encourage them?”
“They’re good kitties.”
“They’re your minions.”
“Everyone needs a minion or two.”
“You won’t be so pleased when you find me ground up in their food bowl one day.”
Ty chuckled, trying not to shake too much.
They waited a few minutes to see if either cat was going to attack, and when it seemed they were safe, Ty rested his hand on Zane’s chest again and closed his eyes. Zane turned his head with infinite care and kissed Ty’s forehead.
Wesson gave him a warning growl.
“Mine,” Zane told the cat.
Ty smiled and ran his fingers through the sparse hair on Zane’s chest. Wesson growled again.
“If you make him attack me, I swear to God . . .”
“I can’t mind-control the cats, Zane. Who called?”
Zane reached out with the utmost care to grab his phone. He was silent as he checked the display, and Ty watched his profile with all the devotion of a lover. It wasn’t hard to miss when Zane’s jaw clenched and his body tensed.
“What is it?”
“It’s my sister.”
Ty tried to get a better look at Zane’s eyes. He rarely spoke of his family, and Ty had always gotten the feeling it wasn’t just the strain of living far away that kept Zane from them. He’d never pushed, though, classing Zane’s family in the same category as his deceased wife or his addictions. If Zane wanted to talk about it, he’d bring it up.
“Good or bad?” Ty asked, rubbing his fingers over Zane’s chest to soothe him. Smith chose that moment to come out of hiding, pouncing on his moving fingers and landing on Zane’s chest. His claws sank in, turning the bed into a frenzy of cat fur, flying linens, and screaming FBI agents.
When the bloodshed was over, Zane had fled down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door to ward off any further attacks, leaving Ty to fend for himself. He laughed as he watched Smith and Wesson prowl down the hall, stalking Zane. They plopped down to stare at the bathroom door, tails twitching. It didn’t matter what Zane did for them, or how many times he fed them or threw Ty in their path, they still hated him.
Maybe they were trying to kill him.
Ty pulled on a pair of pants and headed downstairs, stepping over the cats without being molested, laughing again as he heard Zane come out of the bathroom and yowl in pain. After a few thumps and curses, Smith and Wesson thundered down the stairs to swarm Ty’s feet and wait for food.
“Good kitties,” Ty whispered to them. They were both purring so loudly it was impossible to hear Zane’s movements upstairs, but a few minutes later, Ty glanced up when Zane came stomping down the steps. He had his phone to his ear.
“Hey, Annie,” Zane said on the phone. He met Ty’s eyes and smirked as he swiped a piece of toast from one of the plates Ty was arranging. Ty swatted at him with a spatula, but missed. “No, no, it’s okay, I was up. What’s going on?”
Zane tensed as his sister spoke to him. Ty set the frying pan aside and watched his lover as an unsettling feeling started in his gut.
“Why the hell didn’t you call me earlier?” Zane blurted. “Do I need to come out there?”
Ty held his breath, straining his ears to hear. He couldn’t make out any of Annie’s words, but whatever she was saying was making Zane’s nostrils flare and his shoulders snap back. Classic signs that Zane was about to delve into Dark Mode.
Zane listened for a few more minutes, then bade his sister good-bye and hung up. He looked at Ty with wide eyes.
“You okay? What happened?”
Zane didn’t answer immediately. When he did speak, Ty knew he was whitewashing whatever he’d just learned. “Annie said they’re having trouble on the ranch. Trespassers. They think maybe it’s poachers or rival breeders after the horse stock.”
“Okay,” Ty said, confused about why that would warrant a call to Zane. As far as he knew, Zane had little contact with his family. Even his sister, who Zane got on well with, rarely called just to chat. “So, what, you need to go down there?”
“I don’t know. I mean no. No, they don’t need me.”
“Then why’d they call you?”
Zane waved his hand. “I don’t know, Ty. I can’t help, so there’s no point.”
“If you need to go, we can figure something out at work.”
Ty arched an eyebrow. “Wow.”
Zane shook his head, although he looked conflicted and more than a little annoyed that Ty hadn’t just let it go. “I’m sorry. If it’s still a problem when the weekend hits, I’ll head down there.”
“Yeah, can we drop it now?”
Ty nodded and watched with a frown as Zane headed back upstairs. He stopped halfway up, then turned and thumped back down.
“Forgot what I was doing,” he mumbled. He snatched another piece of toast before Ty could stop him.
“Shut up,” Zane said as he went back up the steps, taking them two at a time.
Ty watched him go, frown in place. Despite seeming to shrug it off, he knew Zane was worried. Whatever was going on in Texas, it was so much more than a few trespassers.
Ty jumped at the sound of a file folder hitting a box on the floor. He glanced up at Special Agent Scott Alston, who ignored the file when it skidded off the top of the stack to thump to the industrial-grade carpet. Alston leaned back in his chair as he loosened his tie, and then stuck his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
Their whole work group had been tasked with slogging through a load of files sent over from one of the other investigative teams, desperate to dredge up evidence on a case that was going colder by the day. There were literally hundreds of files, and the six of them were on their last hour before they could break for the weekend.
“Garrett, are you getting off on all this paperwork?” Alston asked.
“Zane went to the bathroom like five minutes ago, Scott,” Ty said. His words were marred by the yellow highlighter between his teeth. Both hands were full of papers, held aloft as he planted his elbows on his desk.
“Oh.” Alston said, running his fingers through his blond hair. Ty felt like Alston looked: exhausted, seeing double, and desperate to go home.
“Thank God it’s Friday,” Alston said on a deep sigh as he looked at the clock. Ty glanced at it too, out of habit. Close to quitting time.
His cell phone began to buzz at his hip, and he twisted to try to see the display. He had no free hands, and no free space on his desk to set one of the unorganized stacks down.
“Want me to get it?” Alston asked. He pushed out of his chair, and Ty nodded and stood as well, turning his hip toward Alston.
He spit the highlighter out. It clattered to the desk and rolled until it hit a stack of files too high to bounce over. Alston plucked the phone off his belt and hit the speaker button.
“Grady,” Ty said as Alston put the phone on the desk and took one of the stacks of papers from his hand. “Thanks,” Ty whispered.
“Hey, Ma,” Ty said, distracted as he and Alston tried to switch things around while still keeping the stacks in order.
“You’re not still at work, are you? I can call back.”
“No, I’m about done here.” Ty glanced up at Alston and waved a handful of files at the shredder nearby. Alston shook his head, and Ty nodded in response, managing to start an argument without a single word.
On the other side of the pod of desks, Michelle Clancy began to giggle.
“What’s going on?” Ty asked his mother as he sat down and leaned closer to the cell phone, struggling to finish up his last file and listen at the same time.
“Well, I need a favor. A few favors, actually. But they can wait ’til you get home and call me back.”
Ty rolled his eyes and shook his head. Alston chuckled as he leaned against Ty’s desk. “Ma, will you just get to the point, please?”
“Well, we’re aiming to fix the old tin roof on the storage shed this weekend ’cause it’s leaking.”
“Oh God,” Ty groaned. He lowered his head, files forgotten. Alston squeezed his shoulder, mockingly comforting him.
“We wouldn’t need your help normally, but this morning I cut your daddy’s finger off, and he says he can’t hold a hammer.”
Ty’s head shot up. “You what?”
“Cut his finger off,” Mara said again, as if she hadn’t realized the news would be shocking.
The others were drifting closer, trying to hear the conversation. Ty sat silent a moment longer, his mouth agape. “On . . . purpose?”
“Well, no, it was an accident.”
“Right, of course.” He glanced up at his teammates to see all four of them watching and laughing.
“But it’s not like he don’t have four more fingers to work with. And it was only part of the little finger, and they sewed it back on. He has two hands, one of ’em can hold a hammer just fine, but no, he says he can’t do it.”
“Is he okay?”
“Well, yeah. Like I said, they sewed it back on. So can you come home this weekend and help out with the roof tomorrow? Deacon said he would come too, but you know how he gets with tools.”
Ty shook his head, mouth still hanging open as he tried to process. Clancy leaned over to catch his eye, even waving a hand at him. “Hi, Mama Grady! Ty’s checking his calendar to see if he can get away.”
“Don’t you lie to me, honey. He’s sitting there with his mouth hanging open, ain’t he?”
“Ty, if you come tonight, I’ll get your daddy to tell you all about it. Your brother and Livi’ll be here. It’ll be fun!”
“Fun does not start with a story about how you cut Dad’s finger off!” Ty said, laughing despite himself.
“It does in my book. He deserved it.”
The others gave up on etiquette and laughed raucously. Ty shot them all a glare, and he finally dropped what he was doing and picked up his phone. He caught sight of Zane coming back down the hall. His partner had been sullen and distracted for the last day or two, and though he knew Zane was having issues over that call from Texas, he had his own problems to deal with now. He spun around in his chair to put his back to his coworkers, trying to turn the speaker off.
“Does it have to be this weekend?”
“Honey, if you can’t come help, that’s okay.”
Ty rolled his eyes and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Okay, Ma. I’ll leave after work and be there . . . I don’t know, a little before midnight.”
“Reverse psychology,” Fred Perrimore whispered.
“So that’s where Ty learned it,” Harry Lassiter said under his breath.
Mara either couldn’t hear them over the speaker that wouldn’t shut off or ignored them. “I’ll have pork chops waiting! And honey, will you bring that big sharp knife of yours with you? Your daddy’s is awful dull, and the whetstone went missing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ty said with trepidation.
“I’ll see you tonight! Bye-bye!” Mara said, then ended the call without waiting for more.
Ty stared at the phone as the display lit up, and then he looked at the others, who were all trying to keep straight faces.
“Can we come?” Alston said, grinning widely.
“We’ll help!” Clancy said.
“Spoilsport,” Perrimore muttered, and they all drifted away to leave Ty to finish his paperwork.
Zane sat against the edge of Ty’s desk, in the same place Alston had occupied. He was frowning and seemed distracted, but that was nothing new. He was just close enough that Ty could have used his knee as an armrest, and though the thought hadn’t crossed his mind when Alston had been sitting there, he almost did it now without thinking. He stopped himself just in time, making it look like a frustrated flop of his hand.
This wasn’t the first time they’d come close to getting too friendly in front of their coworkers, and it was happening more frequently. He didn’t know how to address the problem, or if he even wanted to.
“What’s up?” Zane asked.
Ty stared at him for a moment, trying to decide how to answer that simple question. He was still distracted by Zane’s proximity, by the way he smelled, by how easy it was becoming to slip in front of coworkers who were trained to see mistakes.
He gave Zane the bare-bones version of his call from home, and after Zane had stopped laughing, Ty tapped him on the knee.
“You heard anything about Texas? You thinking about heading down there?”
Zane shrugged, though his expression clouded over and he looked down at the carpet rather than meet Ty’s eyes. “I haven’t had a call back. I don’t see any reason to bother.”
Ty sighed. He wanted to poke at that soft spot and see why it was there, and he added that to his list of shit to do. But he had some pretty pressing problems of his own to handle first. “Want to go to West Virginia and risk life and limb with me?”
Zane smirked and gave a single nod. “Sounds like fun.”
Ty shouldered his overnight bag and walked through muggy mountain air across the gravel and up the porch steps to his parents’ house, stopping when he realized the rocking chair was occupied.
“You’re an observant one, ain’t you, boy?” Chester Grady grumbled.
Ty smiled as he looked over his grandpa, sitting in his rocker, shovel in place over his lap. “Love you too.”
“Damn fool federal agent,” Chester mumbled as the screen door squeaked. “Where’s your damn fool partner?”
“He’s getting his damn fool bag out of the truck.” Ty slipped him a smuggled cigar as he bent to hug him. “What are you still doing up? I thought you old folks went down with the sun.”
Chester waved him off, grumbling and smirking. Headlights caught them as another car pulled up to the front of the house, and Chester’s eyes shone with mischief.
Ty turned to watch Deuce get out of the car, squinting past the headlights.
“Hey,” Deuce called back, sounding just as tired as Ty felt. He thumped up the steps, carrying a small overnight bag just like Ty’s. He greeted Chester with a hug, then turned to give Ty one as well. Ty hugged him tight. He nodded at the black Lexus in the driveway.
“Is that a new car?”
“Me either,” Deuce grunted with a curl of his lip. He turned toward the door.
Ty laughed as he followed. “Where’s Livi?”
“Morning sickness. We figured it was best for everyone if she stayed home.”
“Wearing his invisible suit,” Zane called from the driveway. His shoes crunched on the gravel, and soon he materialized out of the darkness, joining them on the front porch with his bag.
They left Chester sitting on the porch and headed inside. Ty hadn’t been home since he’d been attacked by the mountain lion last fall, and he was surprised when a jitter of nerves ran through him. He’d been sure someone would figure out that he and Zane were so much more than partners, that he was gay—a revelation he’d feared since he was seventeen. He still feared it, even though he’d started wishing he could tell his family the truth. He would have to soon, before they found out on their own. Zane was too important to him to hide anymore.
He hadn’t told his mother Zane was coming, and while he wasn’t surprised that Deuce had inquired about his partner’s whereabouts, it did strike him as odd that Chester had done the same. Maybe they were already starting to figure things out on their own.
He took a deep breath to calm himself.
They heard footsteps from the back of the house, and soon Ty’s mother came around the corner and smiled brilliantly. “Come here and give your mama a hug before I have to go back outside.”
Ty and Deuce moved toward her, hugging her obediently. She had to stand on her tiptoes to put her arms around their necks, and she squeezed them both tightly. Ty couldn’t help but smile.
“What are you doing outside this time of night?” Deuce asked when he let her go.
“Zane,” Mara demanded, ignoring Deuce’s question and holding her arms out for a hug from Zane as well. Zane smiled and moved to obey. “You look better than the last time I saw you!” She pulled away from him and held him by his shoulders, looking up at him with a critical eye. “Such a handsome boy,” she said as she patted his cheek. She turned her eye to Ty again. “You could use some work. Come on.” She turned and headed toward the back door.
Ty huffed and followed. “What are you doing outside so late?” he repeated.
“Helping your daddy,” Mara shot over her shoulder.
Zane held out a hand toward Ty. “Want me to take the bags upstairs?”
“No. Wait, what? Hey, Ma!” Ty trailed after his mother, bag still over his shoulder. “What is he doing?”
“Cutting up the four-by-fours we got for the roof.”
“Oh hell,” Zane said under his breath as he followed the crazy train out the back door, reaching for the strap of Ty’s bag. Ty shrugged it off with a glance back at Zane, but his attention was on his mother.
They thumped down the steps in the dark and followed Mara around the corner of the house, where a pole stood in the middle of the yard. In the pool of light at its base were several stacks of tin roofing, wooden planks, crates, and Earl Grady with a large electric saw.
“Earl, the boys are here,” Mara announced.
“Boys,” Earl greeted without looking up.
“Hello, sir,” Ty and Deuce responded at the same time.
“Dad?” Ty knelt down so he could look his father in the eye.
“It wasn’t the whole finger,” Earl said before Ty could even ask. He held up his hand and displayed the heavy wrapping that was keeping his reattached pinkie connected.
“It’s dirty!” Mara said. “That’s it. We’re going inside.”
“That was the deal! Inside. Now!” Mara shouted, pointing at the house.
“How did you cut off your finger?” Deuce asked.
“I didn’t cut off anything,” Earl answered with a look at his wife.
“He’ll tell you when he gets inside.”
“But Ma,” Ty said, sounding almost exactly like Earl had a moment earlier.
Grumbling, Ty turned, and the procession tromped into the house. They headed for the living room, and Ty threw himself onto the couch. Zane sat next to him with a little more dignity, but Ty could tell he was tense. Zane and Earl hadn’t hit it off the first time they’d met.
Mara pointed for Earl to sit in the nearby recliner, and he did so without protest.
“I’ll get the disinfectant and the gauze,” she announced as she left the room.
Deuce sat on the table in front of Earl, and he and Ty both watched their father out of the corner of their eyes, either trying to judge his mood or waiting for him to speak.
“So, Dad,” Ty finally tried, drawing the words out as he turned his shoulders toward Earl.
“It was an accident.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
“Can’t help it, runs in the family. What happened?”
“Your mother cut my finger off with a set of garden shears. That’s what happened,” Earl answered, his tone neutral. Although, he did manage to make the word “mother” sound like a curse.
“Did you . . . deserve it?” Deuce asked shakily. Either he was afraid of asking the question, or he was trying not to laugh. Ty was inclined to think the latter.
“A little bit,” Earl said. “She was out there pruning that big ol’ gardenia bush, and I was trying to get the mulch under it just right as she did it.”
“So, you . . .”
“She told me to wait, that I was going to lose a finger.” Earl looked toward the kitchen and then back at Ty and Deuce. He snorted. “I asked her, did she think I was stupid? Then a couple snips later, whack. Off went the finger. And you know what that woman said to me? I said, ‘Mara, you cut my finger off.’ And your mother said to me, ‘Well, Earl, who’s stupid now?’”
Ty laughed out loud before he could stop himself. Deuce snorted and cleared his throat before giving up and grinning. Ty could picture the scene as if he had witnessed it himself, and he couldn’t seem to stop giggling.
“It’s not really all that funny,” Earl said, offended. Ty’s only response was to lower his head into both hands and laugh more. The more Earl protested, the harder Ty laughed. Soon he fell to his side against Zane’s arm and covered his face as he cackled.
“If it makes you feel better, Dad, we were worried,” Deuce said, though his voice wavered.
“Yeah, he looks it,” Earl said. He was watching Ty with what might have been affection, though.
“He does have personal experience with finger injuries.”
“That’s ’cause he’s a dumbass,” Earl said.
Ty howled as he pointed at his father. “That must run in the family too!”
Earl eased back into his chair and shook his head as Ty finally wound down and tried to catch his breath. “Good thing it wasn’t the whole hand. You’d ’a’ been in hysterics.”
That caused another peal of laughter. Deuce bit his lip and looked away so Earl wouldn’t see him grinning, and Ty could feel Zane chuckling against him.
Mara walked into the room carrying a basket of first aid gear and frowned at them. “He told you how it happened, huh?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Zane managed to say.
Ty cleared his throat and sat back up, fighting for a little decorum as he wiped at his eyes.
Mara sat down on the end of the couch near Earl and placed her basket on the floor, then gestured for Earl to give her his hand.
“Why don’t you let one of the boys do that?” Earl suggested as he held his hand away from her.
“You think I can’t doctor you after thirty-seven years of marriage?”
“You’re the one that cut it off in the first place!”
They were all still chuckling as they headed for the kitchen to eat the late dinner Mara had promised, leaving Mara and Earl to discuss things without an audience.
The building they were here to repair had served as storage for as long as Ty could remember. It had been built into a rocky outcropping on the property, using the side of the mountain as one of its walls. Because of that, it stayed cool almost year-round, but it also had a tendency toward being dark, damp, and full of creepy-crawlies. Ty mostly stayed away from it.
The other three walls were made of two-by-fours and sheet metal, with some scrap siding and cinder blocks to give it that tetanus feeling that kept strangers away from it and its contents.
Ty licked his lips as he examined the failing roof from the front of the building. The tin was rusted through in places, jagged and reddened and full of holes where rain and runoff from the hill had eaten through it. It was possible they could replace a few sheets of the corrugated tin, but more likely they’d need to do the whole thing. The earthen portion of the building had insinuated itself into the structure over the years, and it would be a real bitch to get the tin of the roof out of the soil. It appeared they would have to dig into it.
Of course, if they were going to do it right, that’s what they’d have to do. Mara and Earl had other ideas.
“I think if we just spread this tarp over it, it’ll last a few more years,” Mara said as she dropped the bundle of blue tarp she’d hauled out of the back of her old SUV.
“Tarp?” Deuce said with a frown.
“It’s not like we live in it,” Mara told him. “It’ll keep it dry.”
“Yeah, until the first snow,” Ty said. “Then you’ll be calling me and Deuce, all, ‘Honey, your daddy’s buried under ten feet of snow, can you bring your shovel?’”
“Yeah, I didn’t drive from Philly to help you lay out a tarp.”
“Oh hush, both of you,” Mara said with a wave of her hand.
Earl and Chester both chuckled.
“Really, Ma, you’ve got all the stuff, you’ve got us all here to help, why not just rebuild it now?” Deuce said.
“All right, all right. Earl and Zane stay on the ground. Ty and Deacon can handle the stuff up top.”
“Why does Zane get to stay on the ground?” Ty asked with an accusatory point at his able-bodied partner.
“Because he’s a guest, and we don’t ask guests to risk life and limb.” She thrust a hammer and a plastic container full of nails into Earl’s arms. Then she clapped her hands. “Get to it, boys. We’re burning daylight! And when we take a break later, I’ve got some furniture needs moving.”
Ty and Deuce both groaned as they headed for the rocky slope acting as one of the building’s walls. They’d used the hill to access the roof many times in their youth, when they weren’t supposed to be playing up there but had done so anyway. As Ty scrambled up the incline, it didn’t seem as high as he remembered from when he was ten, but the roof looked much more foreboding.
“Ah, for the fearlessness of youth,” Deuce muttered from the other side of the building. Ty snorted. They sat on the hill above the roof, fighting gravity and erosion as they tried to keep their weight off the perilous-looking tin.
“Just keep to the two-by-fours and you shouldn’t fall through,” Mara called up to them.
Ty and Deuce shared a look.
“Ma, we can’t see where the two-by-fours are from up here,” Ty shouted as he looked over the roof. They could see spots that were rusted through, and others where it looked as if a leaf landing on the metal would cause it to give in.
“They should be where the nails are,” Earl called back. “Just step on the nails.”
“They’ve got to be kidding,” Deuce said under his breath.
Ty slid down the hill closer to the edge of the roof, dampness from the ground seeping into the seat of his jeans. He tapped the toe of his work boot on the nearest line of nails, testing it. “Look at it this way,” he told his brother. “It’s only like an eight foot drop. And any of Dad’s tools that are sharp enough to impale you are in the other shed.”
“You’re a ray of sunshine and optimism, you know that?”
Deuce mimicked Ty’s actions, testing the roof with one foot. They made their way out onto the tin, taking great care to stay on the line of nails that indicated the supporting beams below. “Speaking of optimism, how are things going with you and Zane?”
“Too good to be true,” Ty said as he edged along the narrow line of safety.
“Did you bring him with you for a reason?”
“Stop psychoanalyzing me,” Ty said, sing-song, as he glanced up and then back down at the roof.
“That’s a yes,” Deuce replied in the same tone.
“Maybe it is, but as soon as I stepped through the door, I changed my mind.” Ty continued toward the edge of the building, being less careful than he should have been. “Dad was right, I’m a coward.”
“Bullshit, Ty. You’ll get there.”
Ty glanced at his brother and nodded.
When he reached the edge, he knelt down and smiled crookedly at Zane, giving him a quick wink. Zane returned his smile. Ty almost got lost in it, but he was distracted by his father giving them orders.
“We’re gonna tear the whole thing up and replace anything that’s rotted,” Earl said as he handed Ty a crowbar.
Ty and Deuce both groaned, but they followed with a matching, “Yes, sir.” And then they got to work, yanking up the old tin roof and tossing the pieces down to the ground.
The faster they finished this disaster waiting to happen, the faster Ty could get down there to Zane and work himself up into confessing the truth to his family.
It wasn’t until they were washing up for dinner that Zane was able to get Ty alone, cornering him in the tiny bathroom upstairs. The first thing Zane did was pull Ty to him and kiss him, long and hard, letting Ty’s scent and the feel of him wipe away all the tension he’d built up in the past few days. He pulled Ty close, appreciating every ounce of him, letting himself be turned on by the smell of sweat and damp earth clinging to Ty’s body.
When they parted, Zane’s heart was pounding and Ty was trying to catch his breath.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ty said as he pressed his nose to Zane’s cheek.
“Not your strong suit.”
“Oh, look who’s funny,” Ty said, though he was smiling against Zane’s skin. He pulled back a step to meet Zane’s eyes. “I’m serious. What would you think of telling my parents about us?”
Zane’s heart leapt into his throat. “You want to come out to your mom and dad?”
Ty licked his lips and nodded. “I want you to be part of the family. You deserve that. We deserve it.”
Zane began to smile.
“I just . . . I don’t know how. I don’t know if I have the guts to do it.”
“Baby, I think deciding you want to is a pretty big step. We’ll figure it out.” He kissed Ty languidly, breathless and distracted by the heat growing between them that wouldn’t be addressed soon enough. “Thank you.”
“I know what a big deal that is. I know what you’ve been through. Thank you for thinking I’m worth it.”
Ty stared at him for a long moment, then kissed him again, harder. They lingered over it, taking their time, letting themselves enjoy the brief moment.
“You better get cleaned up,” Zane finally said as he pushed Ty away and headed for the door. He didn’t look back. If he did, he and Ty would end up screwing in the shower, and that would be so very hard to explain.
He headed for the landing, meeting Deuce at the top of the stairs with a knowing grin and following him down to the kitchen. Ty wasn’t far behind them. It was a glimpse into what it might have been like to grow up here, to have a family that was so close, a mother who hugged at every opportunity, a brother who was more like an accomplice than a sibling. It made Zane’s stomach cramp to think of all the ways life could have been different.
Ty sat next to him at the table and held his hand as they all bowed their heads to offer thanks for the meal. Zane squeezed his fingers, wanting nothing more than to be able to hold Ty’s hand whenever they wanted. The fact that Ty had broached the subject of telling his family had warmed Zane’s soul in ways he hadn’t known he’d needed. It might take time, but maybe they would get there sooner rather than later.
Zane dug into the delicious dinner, surrounded by warmth and laughter, feeling remarkably at home.
It was a good while later, with dessert on the table, that Mara cleared her throat and reached out to put her hand on Ty’s forearm. “By the way, I told the minister and choirmaster you boys would be at the service in the morning.”
Deuce and Ty groaned in unison.
“Hey, I’d get to hear you sing,” Zane said, perking up. “Something besides the national anthem and the Battle Hymn.”
Ty growled at him, then looked at his mother. “They have a perfectly good choir. I’m sure they don’t need us.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Deuce asked with a jerk of his thumb at Earl. “He doesn’t sing with his fingers.”
Mara narrowed her eyes at them both.
“Okay, okay,” Ty conceded, holding up both hands. “We’ll sing.”
Deuce grumbled but didn’t argue. The brothers locked eyes and seemed to communicate silently, devising a way out of it. Mara was too pleased to notice.
“As long as Dad sings with us,” Ty added with a shit-eating grin at his father.
Earl rolled his eyes.
“Whatever it takes,” Mara said. She stood and went to the refrigerator. “All of you shitheads need Jesus so far as I’m concerned.”
Zane almost choked on his tea.
“That includes you,” Mara told him. She sat back down with a dish of whipped cream, and Zane waved a hand in acknowledgment as he tried to clear his throat.
Ty was laughing beside him. He patted Zane’s knee under the table and squeezed, resting his hand there. Zane’s eyes were watering, and his cheeks were warm with a shade of embarrassment, but it was okay. Par for the course with the Gradys.
After dinner, everyone gathered in the living room for coffee. Zane sat on one end of the couch, his long legs stretched out in front of him. The weather had turned drizzly toward the end of the afternoon and dropped the temperature a little low, even for late June in the mountains. The windows were open, letting in the breeze and the scent of rain.
It was a pretty scene, homey and comfortable. For all that the Gradys had bickered over the construction of the new roof and made fun during dinner, they seemed to enjoy the verbal battles, and there was no tension or malice in the air. Zane could feel weariness encroaching as the breeze and familiar scents seeped into him.
He sat slouched with one arm outstretched off the end of the couch, his fingertip brushing a little cut-glass figurine on the table. It reflected the light as he nudged it, watching it sparkle.
Ty sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch and looking exhausted. Deuce lounged on the other end of the sofa, his feet up on a stool in front of him. Earl and Mara sat on the loveseat across the room. They cuddled together, Mara curled in the crook of Earl’s arm draped over the back of the loveseat. For a couple who’d been together so long and seemed to lack any sentimentality about their marriage, it was an oddly sweet thing. Zane had never seen his parents cuddling.
Deuce groaned. “Ma, what sort of pie was that?” He was rubbing his stomach.
“Bitter cherry. Lucy Hopewell had one at the potluck a week back, and I thought I might try it. It wasn’t good?”
“It was good, Ma,” Ty said, voice flat.
“Where do you get bitter cherries?” Deuce asked.
“Disgruntled trees,” Ty said. He looked over his shoulder with a smirk.
Earl barked a laugh and Mara gave a surprised giggle. Zane studiously kept his eyes on the figurine, biting his lip as laughter shook through him.
Deuce glared at Ty, but Ty returned the look with wide-eyed innocence. “Maybe they need a shrink.”
“I hate you.”
Chester cackled and shook his head. He rocked in his chair, facing the couch from the other side of the fireplace, drinking from a mason jar of clear liquid that Ty had implied was some incredible moonshine. He watched the glass figurine as Zane played with it.
“I gave that to my wife on our fiftieth Christmas together,” he announced, looking at the little angel with a melancholy fondness.
Zane let his head fall to the side as he watched the light play off the glass. “I bet she loved it.”
“She did love a shiny thing, my Evie,” Chester said with a smile.
Earl and Mara both laughed.
“We made it sixty-three years.” Chester raised one gnarled finger and pointed at Zane. “Takes a whole lot of shiny things.”
Zane raised an eyebrow, but smiled, and his eyes strayed to the compass pendant around Ty’s neck. “Keeping anything worthwhile generally does,” he agreed, looking back at the figurine, his eyes skimming over Ty along the way.
Ty wasn’t looking at him, though. He was sitting with his arms around his knees to keep his balance as he rocked from side to side, staring at the rug in the middle of the floor. It was possible he’d already zoned out and wasn’t listening, but Zane doubted that very much.
“Got to find the right fit,” Chester continued. He waved a hand at Mara and Earl, who were watching him in bemusement. Then he looked back at Zane and pointed at him, waving his hand toward Ty to include him. “It’s good you got the right fit.”
Zane wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to mean, but he figured he should just be glad that he wasn’t at the top of the shovel list anymore.
“Well, somebody’s got to watch his back,” Zane said, glancing at his partner.
“That too,” Chester said as he began rocking again, hands folded in his lap.
“What are you talking about, Dad?” Earl asked Chester with a laugh.
“All’s I’m saying is love’s a blessing, no matter all the same.”
Ty’s head shot up, and he stared at his grandfather for a moment before looking over his shoulder at Deuce. Deuce shook his head and mouthed something to him, assuring him he’d never told anyone.
Zane forced himself not to move, not even to twitch as he blinked at Chester. It was an implication the old man couldn’t possibly mean. Nerves started cramping his stomach.
Earl and Mara both stared at Chester, looking confused. But then, Chester probably got that look a lot. Chester rocked on for several tense moments before looking around at them all in surprise. “What?” he asked. “Y’all didn’t know they was sweethearts?”
Zane was so shocked he knew it had to show as he stared at the smile on Chester’s lined face. Distantly he thought he ought to be preparing something to say, but he’d gone blank. His eyes searched out Ty’s.
Ty wore much the same expression as he stared at Chester. He opened his mouth to speak and looked over to the loveseat, where Earl was looking at Chester intently.
“Do what, now?” Earl asked.
“Dad,” Ty said as he struggled to his feet.
Earl stood to face him, shaking off Mara’s hand as she tried to tug him back down. Zane sat up straight, though he stayed on the couch. Every warning instinct in him was firing.
“Is that true?” Earl demanded, voice low and deceptively calm.
Ty put up a hand and stepped toward him. “Let’s sit back down and—”
“Is it true?” Earl ground out again, not budging. Mara stood and took a tiny step closer, still looking thunderstruck.
Ty stared at his father, his lips parted. The hand at his side was trembling. Zane curled his fists in the couch cushions as he made himself sit still. He wanted desperately to go to Ty for support, to stand beside him in this moment. It tore him up to know he had to try to stay out of it.
Ty didn’t look away from Earl; he swallowed hard and raised his chin. “Yes.”
Zane felt Deuce shift on the sofa next to him, but no one else moved or made a sound. Mara finally raised her hand to her mouth, her eyes riveted on Ty.
Earl continued to stare at him. “How long?” he asked in the same dangerous tone. It seemed like an odd question to follow up the first with. Ty shook his head, apparently thinking the same thing and not certain how to answer. “How long have you known you were gay?” Earl shouted.
Ty flinched, but he didn’t back away. He opened his mouth to answer, but couldn’t.
Zane’s heart ached for him. He’d never seen that look in Ty’s eyes. He wanted to reach out and give Ty a hand, help him get the words out, stand between them to shield Ty from something he knew his lover had dreaded for half his life.
Ty swallowed hard and tried again. He sounded remarkably steady as he said, “Senior year.”
He’d barely gotten the words out when Earl backhanded him. Zane leapt to his feet as Mara screamed, but Deuce stepped over to stop him with one arm across his chest. Mara grabbed Earl’s arm to keep him from swinging it again, but Earl didn’t make another move toward Ty. He actually looked surprised that he’d taken a swing at his son.
“Leave them to it,” Deuce whispered as he held Zane back. He was watching them like a hawk, though, clearly ready to move in himself if things got uglier.
Ty had his head bowed to the side and his eyes closed, motionless after the slap. Then he touched the side of his thumb to the corner of his mouth and looked back at his father as he wiped at his lip.
“That’s for running,” Earl said, his words unsteady.
Ty stared at him, his fingers trembling. Earl had put the whole story together with remarkable speed: That Ty had joined the Marines out of high school to leave home, to run from his family and the truth. That this was the secret that had taken his son from him.
Ty let out a measured breath, nodding as he did so. His eyes never left his father’s. “Yes, sir.”
It was killing Zane to stand aside and watch the tension in Ty. Deuce patted his shoulder but didn’t let go; he knew how Zane reacted to threats to Ty. He wasn’t taking any chances on an all-out family brawl.
Earl moved again and pulled Ty into a hug, squeezing. Ty tensed, but after a second he put his chin down on his father’s shoulder and closed his eyes in relief, returning the fierce embrace.
“I’m sorry, boy,” Earl whispered, just loud enough for the rest of them to hear. He patted the back of Ty’s head with his bandaged hand.
Deuce loosened his hold on Zane, and Zane closed his eyes for a moment. Ty had wanted to tell them the truth, but Zane doubted this was how he’d imagined it going.
When he looked up again, Earl had released Ty and was patting him on the cheek, talking to him quietly. Ty was nodding in a quick, jerky motion, his lips pressed into a thin line like they always were when he was trying to restrain emotion.
Earl had one more word for him and then stepped back. “Okay, son, now take your shot,” he invited as he opened his arms.
“Earl,” Mara warned.
“I got mine, Mara; now he gets his. Take your shot, Beaumont.”
Before Mara could protest again, Ty reared back and hit his father with a wicked right hook that knocked Earl off his feet. Earl struck the floor hard enough to make the plate of cookies on the table rattle, and Ty immediately doubled over, holding his hand and cussing.
“Nice hook, Tyler!” Chester cried triumphantly. “Woo!”
“Jesus Christ, boy!” Earl shouted as he clutched at his nose and wallowed on the floor.
“What is your face made of, Dad, steel?” Ty cried as he held his hand. “Oh my God!”
He turned and stumbled into the kitchen.
“Should have seen that coming,” Deuce muttered.
Zane cursed and followed his partner, unwilling to stay away any longer. What he really wanted was his own shot at Earl.
Ty was rummaging through the freezer, a bag of frozen peas already on his hand as he pulled out another bag. He let the freezer door swing shut as he stepped away and looked at Zane, his hazel eyes wide with the remnants of stark terror. He was shaking from head to toe.
“Baby,” Zane said as he took a few steps toward Ty. All of his possessive and protective instincts were in overdrive, but he held himself back, reaching out to check Ty’s hand instead of wrapping him up in his arms and holding him until he stopped trembling. When Ty was upset, the last thing he wanted was to be restrained in any way.
“That wasn’t exactly how I saw that going,” Ty said. He reached out and pulled Zane closer, wrapping his arms around his neck and holding onto him.
Zane returned the fierce hug, his heart aching for Ty. Fear of what’d just happened had been the driving force behind many of Ty’s decisions and life choices. To have faced it in a moment not of his own choosing must’ve been terrifying. Zane held him, letting Ty hang onto him, cheek pressed to Ty’s while a long minute passed.
“Well,” Mara said from the doorway.
Ty pulled away and glanced sheepishly at her. She stood behind Zane, arms crossed over her chest.
“How’s Dad’s face?” Ty asked.
“Better than yours is going to be if I find out you been keeping any more secrets,” she threatened, putting her hands on her hips. She looked from him to Zane and back. “Is it serious, the two of you?”
It took Ty a moment to answer, but when he found his voice, he said, “Very.”
Mara narrowed her eyes.
“I love him,” Ty said, voice firm.
Mara just nodded, looking between them again. Her expression softened and she made a disgruntled noise, then she walked up to Zane and pulled him by his shoulders into a tight hug. Though he was surprised, he let her do what she wanted. She patted his back and kissed his cheek. “Welcome to the family, Zane,” she said, and the sincerity in her voice made his throat tighten. “I wish I’d known earlier, but if wishes was dollars, I’d be the Queen of Sheba.”
Zane straightened and glanced at Ty, who was staring at Mara, his hazel eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.
“Thank you,” Zane said. “And I’m sorry.”
“No need for that.” She nodded and turned to Ty, hugging him in the same manner. “You should’ve told us way back then,” she said, her voice harsh with upset. “You didn’t have to leave.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ty whispered as he hugged her.
She stepped back, taking his chin in her hand and turning his head to the side. “Is that hand broke?” she asked after she’d assured herself his face was okay.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, serves you both right.” She took a bag of frozen broccoli from Ty and turned to leave. “Mule-headed, the both of you.”
Zane sighed and lifted the bag off Ty’s hand to examine his knuckles. “Doesn’t look too good,” he said, lowering the bag back into place over the injury. He touched Ty’s cheek, checking it for signs of redness, and tried to look at his eyes to make sure the fear was subsiding.
Ty was still shaken, but considering how terribly it could have gone, that wasn’t surprising. His parents were angrier about the fact that Ty had never told them why he’d chosen to leave home right after high school, rather than the fact that he was gay. That was a promising step. A big one.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” Ty groaned, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. Then he met Zane’s eyes and appeared to calm. After another moment, he seemed almost back to normal. “They’re right, you know. I should have done that fifteen years ago.” He took Zane’s hand in his. “Thank you for . . . letting it play out.”
“Thank Deuce.” Zane glanced over his shoulder. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea I go back in there with Earl right now. I don’t think you hit him hard enough.”
Ty turned his face into Zane’s and nodded. “Come on. We have to, sooner or later.” He didn’t let go of Zane’s hand as he pulled him toward the living room. Zane let the mild surprise buoy him.
Chester was still rocking merrily, either pleased with himself for the commotion or oblivious to the fact that he’d caused it. Deuce was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands. Earl was still on the floor as Mara perched on the loveseat and pressed the frozen broccoli to the side of his face.
“That is one hell of a hook, son,” Earl said to Ty as soon as they appeared.
“Thank you, sir.” Ty held up their linked hands as everyone in the room watched them. “Is this a problem for anyone?”
Deuce smiled, a hint of pride in his expression as he looked over at them. Mara shook her head, though her eyes seemed to be misting over. She was upset and probably would be for a while, but Zane was confident that it had nothing to do with their relationship and everything to do with the secrets Ty had been keeping and the years they’d lost because of it.
Earl took the broccoli from her and struggled to his feet, wavering. He waited a moment, and then walked over to them. He looked from Ty to Zane and shook his head. “Don’t matter who you love, son,” he said. “As long as you do it well.” Then he held his hand out to Zane.
Zane looked at it, wondering if he could just not take it. But when Ty’s hand loosened in his and let go, he reached out and shook Earl’s, meeting the older man’s eyes, letting his expression say what he couldn’t. Earl nodded in acknowledgment of the uneasy peace. Then he moved away again, pressing the peas to his face and mumbling more about Ty’s impressive right hook.
In the rocking chair, Chester began to hum. It wasn’t a song yet, merely a cadence with a certain familiar ring to it. It was one of the songs Ty whistled and sometimes made up his own words to: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
Chester began to laugh, rocking by the fireside with his shovel in his lap.
Ty bit his lip and glanced at Zane, trying not to smile. Zane rolled his eyes. “Galloping crazies.”
Ty squeezed his hand. “Well, you said you liked horses.”