[These events take place after THIRDS book ten, Tried & True, but contain no book spoilers]
What a day. What a week. No, what a fucking month. With a low growl, Ash stormed into his office, placed it in Privacy Mode then let it rip. He threw every curse word he knew at the damned wall. When he’d exhausted his colorful vocabulary, he marched over to his chair and dropped into it with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t like him to hold back, but these days he had an example to set, so his explosive temper had to be reined in. He hadn’t been this pissed off since the early days when Dex had first joined the THIRDS.
Another heavy sigh escaped him, and he leaned back in his chair. Fuck, he missed those assholes. Not that he would ever admit he missed Dexter J. Daley. He’d take that to his grave. But fuck, he missed the guy’s stupid antics. More than that, he missed Sloane. For the last three months, they’d only seen the two during the holidays, then they were off who the hell knew where for more training.
Ash ran a hand through his hair and caught his reflection on his desk.
He had another gray hair.
The fuckers were popping out at an alarming rate thanks to his new position. A knock on his door snapped him out it, and with a grumble he tapped away at his desk interface, removing Privacy Mode.
“What?” he snapped.
Letty popped her head in and narrowed her eyes at him.
With an expression he couldn’t read, she walked over to the chair in front of his desk, and not so gracefully plopped herself into it.
“So,” she said, arching an eyebrow at him.
“So,” he grumbled, scowling at her.
“You need something? Or you just came to breathe my air?”
She motioned at him in general. “This. Whatever this fire-breathing, terrify-everyone-within-a-ten-mile-radiance thing is that you’re doing, has to stop.”
“Bullshit. It’s not that bad.”
A knock sounded and they both turned to the door in time to see a small white flag thrust in and start waving. Bunch of fucking comedians. He glanced over at Letty who was clearly trying to hold back her laughter. She made her eyes huge and motioned to the door.
“I see nothing but an oversized dork who clearly has nothing better to do than annoy me. What do you want, Hobbs?”
Hobbs poked his head, that dopey grin splitting his face. He made an eating motion and rubbed his belly.
“No, I’m fine,” Ash grumbled.
“What he meant to say,” Letty said sweetly, “was get him a Therian-sized Philly Cheesesteak with a side of fries and a chocolate macadamia nut cookie.”
“I don’t want the goddamn cookie,” Ash snapped, straightening in his chair.
“He wants the cookie,” Letty insisted, her eyes never leaving Hobbs. “I’ll have the turkey BLT with some chips, and the same cookie. Thank you.”
Hobbs nodded and took off like the wind. When Letty turned her gaze back on Ash, he glowered at her.
“I don’t want the fucking cookie.”
“Yes, you do, because you haven’t seen that cookie in months, and you’re missing the damn cookie.”
“I’m not missing the stupid, annoying, motherfucking cookie.”
Letty nodded. “Right. And you’re not missing the cookie’s husband either.”
Ash peered at her. “This just took a weird turn.”
Her laugh was loud, and something inside him eased a little.
“You’re such an ass.” Her smile fell away, and the heaviness of it all settled into his bones again. “It sucks right now. I know that. We’re all feeling it, but it’ll get better. You can’t do this to yourself, Ash.”
He opened his mouth to tell her what she could do with her good intentions when sadness came into her big brown eyes.
“You can’t do this to Cael.”
At the mention of his boyfriend’s name, he deflated, and the anger left his body in a rush like it always did whenever Cael was involved.
“What are you talking about?”
Letty’s sigh squeezed his heart, which was funny considering how many of his coworkers believed he didn’t have one.
“You’re turning into him.”
“Into the Ash you were before Cael, before Dex, Sloane, all of it.”
Ash swallowed hard and tried to get more comfortable in his chair. “I’m not doing that.” Was he? Sure he was grumpier than usual, if that was possible, but he wasn’t reverting back to the asshole he’d been years ago. He lifted his gaze to Letty, immediately regretting it. “Shit.”
“Ash, you’ve been working yourself to the bone, sleeping at work, taking your anger and frustration out on everyone else. You’ve been so lost in yourself, in your grief, that you aren’t even aware of how it’s affecting those you care about.”
“I’m not grieving.” It was stupid. It’s not as if his best friend was dead. He was just somewhere out there with his husband trying to save the goddamn world from destroying itself.
“You are, and the worst part…” She stood and walked around the desk to sit on the edge of it near him. “You haven’t noticed how much Cael is suffering without you.”
Ash froze, and for a moment he thought he was going to be sick. For months he’d turned to work, overhauling entire management systems, putting together new policies and procedures, having one on one meetings with all the members of the teams he was taking under his wing, telling himself the late hours were necessary. He always called Cael to let him know, told him he loved him. Not once did it occur to him that his sweet boyfriend was putting on a brave front.
When was the last time they had dinner together that wasn’t at the damned office? Fucking hell, when was the last time they slept in the same damned bed that wasn’t in the sleeper bay? After the wedding, they’d moved in together, and they’d been so happy. Less than two weeks in and neither of them were sleeping at home at the same time, and it was his fault.
“I fucked up,” Ash said, sounding breathless.
“Also,” Letty said with a cringe. “Not that I want to make things worse, but today is Valentine’s Day.”
“Fuck my life ten ways from Sunday. Motherfuck!” Ash jumped to his feet. “I hate to break it to ya, Letty, but that did make things worse. Fuck! Where is Cael? Have you seen him?”
Letty stared at him.
“Ash, it’s 10:30 PM. Cael went home five hours ago.”
Dropping into his chair, Ash dropped his head onto his desk, his voice coming out muffled when he spoke. “I’m the worst boyfriend ever.”
“Thanks. I appreciate you letting me know how much I suck.”
Letty chuckled softly and ran a hand over his hair. It was nice.
“I’m sorry we haven’t hung out,” he grumbled.
“We miss you.”
Ash couldn’t remember the last time he hung out with his friends. He missed them too. Even Rosa busting his balls. He stood and kissed Letty’s cheek.
“Where are you going?”
“To fix this. Cael’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I won’t fuck this up.”
“Saturday night at Dekatria?”
“We’ll be there,” he promised, grabbing his coat from the rack. Hurrying to the elevator, he put on his gloves and hat, preparing himself for the bitter cold that was New York City in February. Hobbs came running, a bag from one of their favorite sandwich places in his hand. He thrust it out to Ash who took it, shaking his head in amusement at the dopey smile on Hobbs’s face and the way he put his two thumbs up.
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks, man.”
With a wink, Hobbs ran off, and Ash stepped into the elevator. He made a quick stop on the way home, not caring who he was bothering at that time of night. He’d been dragging his feet on the matter, and it stopped now.
It seemed to take forever to get home, but it was still Valentine’s Day. He hadn’t run out of time yet. When he stepped out of the elevator of the floor to their apartment, he stilled. The hall smelled like a bakery.
Quickly, he unlocked the door, the apartment warm and smelling of mouthwatering treats. Hanging up his coat, gloves, hat, and scarf, he then walked to the kitchen. He stood stunned. Every available counter surface was occupied by cakes, cupcakes, cookies, scones, bread, an entire bakery of goods. Cael, however, was nowhere to be found. At least not downstairs.
Cursing under his breath, he headed upstairs to the bedroom. Cael wasn’t there, but the bathroom door was open, and he heard the shower running. He removed his clothes, draping them over the ottoman at the end of the bed before he slipped into the bathroom. It was like someone had taken a melon baller to his heart and just scooped it out. His heart lurched at the sight of his sweet boyfriend standing in the shower, head lowered and pressed to the tiled wall. The tension was rolling off of him in waves, the muscles of his arms and back tight.
Over the last few months, Cael had been putting in a lot of training and it showed. He’d bulked up some, but not enough to take away that leanness he had. As a cheetah Therian, his metabolism kept him slender, but his body was tight, beautiful. He stole Ash’s breath away, and he could kick himself for letting all that other shit consume him to the point that he’d pushed away his very heart, because Cael was his heart.
Clearing his throat so he wouldn’t startle his boyfriend too much, he approached the door as Cael turned. His eyes were red-rimmed, and it was like a punch to the gut. Without hesitating, Ash stepped inside and pulled Cael into his arms.
“I’m so sorry, baby.” Ash held him close as Cael buried his face against Ash’s chest, his arms tight around Ash. “I’m sorry for being so selfish, for not realizing you were hurting as much as I was. I know you miss your brother. I miss them too.”
Cael pulled back, his plump lips pulled into a frown. “You think I’m upset because I miss my brother?”
“Of course. You’ve also been anxiety-baking again.”
Cael’s frown deepened, and he shook his head. He pressed his lips into a thin line, tears filling his eyes.
Shit. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
Cael closed his eyes, inhaled a deep breath through his nose then let it out slowly through his mouth. “Yes, Ash, I miss my brother, but he calls me whenever he can. He’s out there with his husband doing what they need to do. Sloane is with him and has his back. I worry, you know I do, but it’s not missing Dex that’s killing me.”
“It’s not?” He really had no clue.
“Seriously?” Cael was practically vibrating he was so angry. “It’s you, Ash! I miss you!”
Ash swallowed hard. All this time he’d mistaken Cael’s heartbreak for him missing his brother when it had been because of Ash. Cael turned to leave when Ash took hold of his arm, cutting off Cael’s protest by kissing him like it was the only way to keep Ash alive. Cael melted against him, and Ash deepened their kiss, his tongue tangling with Cael’s after he gave himself over to Ash. Cael’s fingers flexed on Ash’s chest, his soft moan going straight to Ash’s dick. Cael shook his head and tore himself away, his cheeks flushed, and fire in his silver eyes.
“No. I’m pissed off at you.”
Ash cupped his face, his thumb stroking Cael’s bottom lip. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. You are everything to me. Everything. I’m so sorry I fucked up.” Cael didn’t reply, so Ash took a step closer. He brushed the back of his fingers down Cael’s cheek, the trim beard he’d let grow sending a shiver through Ash. “I love you, Cael. More than anything.”
Cael lifted his gaze, his bright silver eyes searching Ash’s for something. “I love you too. So much. I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t. I promise.” Ash brought him into his arms again, unable to help himself. He kissed the top of Cael’s head. “It’s me and you. I won’t let it happen again. If I feel myself slipping, I’ll turn to you. Always.”
Cael pulled back and smiled at him then, and it lit Ash up like nothing ever could. He was so fucking beautiful, and not just on the outside. Ash had never met anyone as sweet, kind, and fierce as his little cheetah Therian. That smile had the power to bring Ash to his knees, and it did. He lowered himself onto his knees, leaving a trail of kisses in his wake, while he slid his hands over all that soft, smooth skin. Cael moaned, and Ash was already rock hard. He wasn’t going to last long, but this wasn’t about him. It was about Cael.
Cael slipped his fingers into Ash’s hair. It was going to need a cut soon, but Cael loved it when it was a little longer on top. He liked to grab fistfuls of it during sex. Fuck, it felt like forever since they’d had sex. What the hell was wrong with him? Swallowing Cael down to the root, he relished the sounds Cael made, the way he cursed softly under his breath and held onto Ash’s hair. He gently rocked his hips, his skin flushed as Ash reminded Cael how much he needed him, loved him, desired him.
“Oh my gosh… Ash…”
Ash sucked, licked, and laved. He slipped a finger over Cael’s hole and rubbed at the sensitive area, loving the way Cael bucked his hips. As Ash hollowed his cheeks and quickened his pace, he slipped a finger inside Cael, his dick dribbling with precome at Cael’s hoarse shout. Cael pulled at his hair, and Ash popped off.
“I need you inside me, in our bed.”
Ash nodded. They took the quickest shower they’d ever had, turned off the water, and patted themselves dry before Ash lifted Cael off his feet. Cael’s laugh squeezed his heart, and he hated that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard it. Yeah, he’d messed up. Big time. Cael had tried. At work, he searched Ash out often, asked him if he wanted to have lunch or dinner together, but Ash had turned him down time after time, too busy with work. That wasn’t going to happen again.
Ash lay Cael on their bed then grabbed the lube from the nightstand. He climbed onto the bed, carefully laying in between Cael’s spread legs. He brushed his lips over Cael’s.
“From tomorrow going forward, we’re going to have breakfast together and at least one other meal, whether it’s lunch or dinner. I’ll delegate to Letty and Rosa like I should have been doing, and the crazy hours will stop. Unless it’s an emergency, I will be with you in our bed every night.” Since they were on the same team, they worked the same shifts. Ash worked longer hours at times because of his position, but he’d wasn’t going to let his job come between him and the man who taught him to accept himself, to love who he wanted to love.
“No more shutting me out,” Cael said, his voice sounding breathless.
Ash nodded. “I promise.” And he meant it. He kissed Cael, intent on keeping his word. He wasn’t one to throw promises around. If he said he’d do something, he did it. Cael kissed him until Ash could think of nothing but Cael.
“I missed you so much,” Cael said through a gasp.
“I missed you too, baby. Never again.” Ash readied Cael. It was quick, but he was careful. Fuck, how had he gone so long without having Cael under him? He was such an idiot. Ash’s brow beaded with sweat as he lined himself up then slowly started to push inside that tight heat. Cael’s low moan sent a shiver through Ash and he pushed in deeper, one hand on Cael’s thigh, the other grabbing hold of Cael’s hand. He laced their fingers together and Ash moved his hips a little quicker, loving the sounds Cael made, the way his fair skin flushed, his plump lips parted.
His name tumbled from Cael’s lips like a prayer and Ash needed to hold him, to kiss him. He brought their lips together, his fingers in Cael’s hair as they grabbed onto each other, their panting breaths, moans, and gasps filling the room along with the sound of their bodies moving together.
“I love you so much,” Ash said against Cael’s lips, sounding breathless. Cael held on tight, exposing his neck to Ash.
“I love you too.”
Ash sucked on the soft skin of Cael’s neck, nibbled on it, and licked up to Cael’s jaw then nipped at it. His inner lion stirred, and Ash told him to go back to sleep. It was happening more and more these days. He’d never imagined that he could feel so deeply for someone what he felt for Cael, and his lion was starting to make demands it had no right making. If Cael wanted Ash to bond with him, he’d ask. Pushing that thought aside, he realized he’d started thrusting harder, deeper.
“You okay, sweetheart?”
Cael nodded. “Yes. God, it feels so good. You feel so good. Please, Ash. I’m not going to last.”
Ash pounded into Cael, one hand squeezed in between them as he stroked Cael, his mouth trying to devour Cael’s. Sweat dripped down the side of his brow, his muscles tight as his orgasm barreled through him. He changed his angle and snapped his hips.
“Oh fuck! Ash!” Cael trembled beneath him as he came, and the sight of that beautiful face as he let himself go, the love in those big silver eyes, the affection, sent Ash over the edge and he cried out as he spilled himself inside Cael. He moved until he was too sore and with a hiss he pulled out, dropping onto the mattress beside Cael who immediately rolled half on him. Ash held him close as their skin cooled. He smiled at the tender kisses Cael peppered on his skin across his shoulder, a hand on Ash’s chest.
“We should get cleaned up,” Cael murmured. He made a move to get up, but Ash stopped him.
“I’ve got this.” He got up and walked to the bathroom, bringing back a warm washcloth that he handed to Cael. Heart pounding, he didn’t get into bed. Instead, he walked to his work pants and pulled out his phone. He joined Cael under the covers and turned to face him. “I’m sorry I forgot about Valentine’s Day.”
“That’s okay.” Cael winced. “I kind of forgot too.”
Ash cupped his cheek and brushed his lips over Cael’s before pulling back to meet his eyes. “Cael, you’re all the gift I need.”
Cael leaned into his touch, a soft sigh escaping him. “You’re amazing, you know that?”
He didn’t, but if Cael thought so it was all that mattered. “I did get you something though.”
Cael blinked at him, a slow smile spreading across his boyish face. “You did?”
“Yep.” He tapped away at his phone then turned the screen to show Cael, chuckling at Cael’s puzzled look. He cocked his head to one side.
“Um, what is it?”
“That one on the left,” Ash said pointing to the photo of two documents. “Is the deed to the apartment. And that one on the right is my will. Your name is on both.” Ash wasn’t rich by any means, but he’d done well for himself. His apartment was two floors in the middle of Manhattan and was worth a mint. He had life insurance and a tidy savings account. If anything happened to Ash, Cael would be taken care of.
Cael’s eyes went huge as he stared at the screen before he moved them up to meet Ash’s gaze.
“You added me to the deed of the apartment and your will?”
Ash nodded. “You’re it for me, sweetheart. I never believed in all that happy ever after bullshit, or the whole soul mates, one person for the rest of your life thing. Hell, before you, I never thought I’d find someone other than Sloane who could tolerate my ass, much less love me. You are everything I never thought I’d have. You’re my family. My other half.”
Cael’s eyes got watery and he threw his arms around Ash, hugging him tight and kissing the breath out of him. When he pulled back, he wiped at his eyes. “You didn’t need to do that, Ash.”
“No, I didn’t, but I wanted to.” He knew Cael didn’t care about the apartment or the money. What had tears in his eyes was knowing that Ash saw him as his forever, his mate, even if they weren’t bonded. Cael was his and he was Cael’s. Always.
Ash put his phone on his nightstand then lay down, bringing Cael in close, smiling at the soft sigh Cael released. He ran his fingers through Cael’s hair and promised himself he would never take this for granted again.
“I do miss them, you know.”
“I know you do,” Ash said quietly. Cael and Dex might not be related by blood, but they were as close as any two brothers could be. They were protective of each other, drove each other nuts, and loved each other, just like Ash and Sloane. “I’m surprised your brother hasn’t shown up to kick my ass.” Ash had promised Dex he’d take good care of Cael while he was off with Sloane doing their thing.
“What makes you think he hasn’t?”
Ash pulled back to look down at Cael. “What?”
“A couple of weeks ago. It was our day off and I was in the park.”
Ash frowned. “I don’t remember.”
“Because you weren’t there,” Cael murmured, his eyes on his fingers as he brushed them absently over Ash’s chest. “You decided to work that day.”
Shit. The worst part was, he had no idea which day off that was since he’d worked through several days off.
“Anyway, I was at the park, and he just appeared out of nowhere. It’s really freaky that he can do that now. I almost punched him. Stupid Dex and his stupid ninja spy skills.”
Ash chuckled, but his smile slipped away, and his heart hurt at the thought of how many days off Cael had spent without him because Ash had his head shoved up his ass.
“We talked. Hung out for a bit. He didn’t have a lot of time, but it was so good to see him. I don’t know how he knew what was going on, but then I shouldn’t be surprised really. It’s Dex. He was so mad at you. Said he was going to kick your ass. I said he wasn’t. I told him he wasn’t allowed to use his super-spy stuff on you either. The last thing either of us needed was his meddling. I swear he’s worse than Dad sometimes.” Cael lifted his face and narrowed his eyes at Ash. “Just know he’s out there somewhere.”
Ash shivered, and Cael burst into laughter. He rolled onto his back, laughing so hard he was almost in tears. Little shit. Adorable little shit. Ash pounced on him, grabbing him and tickling his ribs.
“Oh my God, no! Stop.”
“You planning on unleashing your dorky brother on me?”
“Hey, he’s a super-spy now.”
“So was Mr. Bean.”
Cael let out a bark of laughter. “You did not just go there.”
Ash snickered as he fell onto his back. “C’mere.”
Cael didn’t hesitate. He snuggled up close. “By the way, in the morning you’re helping me box everything up and then loading it into your truck.”
“What are you talking about?”
“All the stuff I baked.”
Ash snorted. “You mean all the stuff I’m going to eat? Is that the stuff you’re talking about?”
“You can’t eat all that.”
“I’m going to have to disagree with you there, sweetheart.”
“It’s called sharing,” Cael teased, poking his side.
“It’s called my boyfriend baked a bunch of deliciousness and it’s mine. All of it. I’m going to eat all of it.”
Cael threw his head back and laughed, making Ash smile. He never wanted that sound to go away or that gorgeous smile.
“What? You think I’m kidding.”
“Stop.” Cael snickered then kissed his jaw. “It’ll be your way of apologizing for being such a grumpy lion at the office.”
Ash grunted. “Fine. But the raspberry lemon cake stays.”
“And the strawberry shortcake.”
Cael chuckled. “Yes, baby.”
“And the Tres Leches cake.”
“Aw, but Taylor loves the Tres Leches cake.”
“Then Angel can make him his own damned Tres Leches.”
“I feel like maybe I’m going to need to call Rosa tomorrow morning so she can negotiate the hostage takeover I feel that’s going to take place.”
“Hell no. She’s going to demand one of my cakes as payment.”
Cael chuckled and propped up on his elbow to kiss him. “I love your grumpy ass.”
“And I love your sweet ass.”
Cael let out a mock gasp. “Are you saying you only love me for my ass? Sweet as it may be?”
Ash growled and Cael laughed again before kissing him. Maybe this Valentine’s Day hadn’t been filled with candles and flowers, but what mattered most was the happiness of the man in his arms. Ash couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be than right here with Cael, the best gift of all. As he lay over Cael kissing him, he couldn’t wait to see what the future held for them, but he had a few ideas. The paperwork he’d had changed was only the start. He smiled against Cael’s lips. Their adventure was just beginning.