Benny Francismight have had a toddler of her own, but in this moment she was all bright eyes and excited child herself.
“You’re going to the autumn Renaissance Faire? Really? Ooooooohhh…. I loved the Ren Faire… the summer one in Fair Oaks!” She turned to Andrew, the young private that her brother Crick had met in Iraq. Andrew worked for her brother’s boyfriend, Deacon, on their Levee Oaks horse ranch now and was as much a part of the family as Benny or her daughter or any of the other folks who revolved around The Pulpit like planets around the sun. “Drew—you remember! You took me there in June?”
Andrew nodded soberly, only an act of will keeping his blinding white grin from erupting in his dark-skinned face. Obviously he remembered something funny about the incident that Benny wouldn’t think funny at all.
Shane nodded at Benny over his slice of chocolate cream pie and tried not to be weird. He wanted to say, Oh dost thou, Lady Faire, tell tales of knights in days of yore!, complete with a hokey British accent and everything, but he enjoyed his Sunday nights here at The Pulpit and really didn’t want Deacon or Crick or Benny or any of the people who gathered here for dinner once a week to look at him the way Brandon had looked at him that day in the locker room. He was sincerely trying to not be too much of a psychopath.
“Oh tell me, Lady Faire, do you swoon over knights on prancing steeds?”
The words—so close to the ones in Shane’s head—were uttered in an atrocious British accent, and Shane tried not to glare at Jeff, Crick’s best friend.
Jeff was so gay he made an Easter Parade look like a funeral for straight people—but he was also glib and witty and funny, and he could pull off the Lady-Faire schtick where with Shane it would merely be dumb or odd or socially backward. As badly as Shane yearned to belong here at this big, battered wooden table in this old ranch-style home, it was just not any goddamned fair at all.
Benny rolled her eyes at Jeff and said, “If I wanted a knight in shining armor, oh court jester thou, I’ve got Deacon or Jon or Shane here to fit the bill.”
Jeff was slender and almost comically graceful. He was the kind of guy who could mince when he stepped and trill when he talked and then get totally goddamned serious, and people would take him seriously. His hair was the same lustrous dark brown as Shane’s, and Shane suspected it had the same unruly curl, but Jeff’s had a sophisticated cut to it and some sort of amazing hair glue that made it sit down and behave.
Jeff could get any set of friends he wanted. It just seemed unfair that he should want the same set of friends that Shane wanted, because Shane didn’t have a whole lot of luck in the social department. Or the friend department. Or the family department.
But wait a second. “I’d be a knight in shining armor?” he asked Benny, and she grinned at him from around the fuzzy brown head of the toddler in her lap. The little girl was eating her mother’s pie with a single-minded glee that Shane admired. He’d never seen anyone suck whipped cream out of their own tangled hair before.
“Of course you would, Shane! Look at you—you drive a muscle car for a prancing steed, you perform good deeds as a matter of course, and not a soul on the planet could doubt your good intentions. Yup,” Benny finished happily, taking the second-to-last bite of pie on the plate from her daughter. “Definitely a knight in shining armor!”
“What does that make me?” Andrew asked, a little real hurt mixed in with the mock outrage. Even Shane could see that in spite of the age difference, Andrew wanted to be Benny’s knight in shining armor all by himself.
Benny’s grin at Andrew changed temperature and wattage, and Andrew’s hurt seemed to disappear. “You’re a squire—you’re like a knight in training. You’ll be knighted eventually.”
“Will you be my Lady Faire?” Andrew asked, and Benny went from charmed girl to age-old-temptress in a heartbeat.
“Maybe,” she teased and then turned to Shane before she could see Andrew put a hand to the imaginary shaft in his heart. “So, are you going to buy a costume?”
“A costume?” he said blankly, and she nodded—and Andrew rolled his eyes.
“Yeah—you know. Everyone’s in costume. The actual knight costumes are usually reserved for the guys on horseback, but there are some great peasant costumes and merchant costumes and….” She looked fondly at her little girl. “We bought the basic dresses, but there were wings and hats and stuff.”
She didn’t say anything else, but her eyes darted to where her brother, Crick, and his boyfriend were washing dishes. Deacon—the boyfriend—actually owned the horse ranch, and Shane knew the place was in trouble. Deacon had been outed in a spectacular fashion that involved being beaten by a local police officer and a rather dramatic court case. The fallout had resulted in a loss of a lot of the ranch’s local business. When Crick had returned from Iraq in May—injured and unable to go out and earn any extra income—keeping the ranch had been an iffy proposition at best.
Something had happened to give them some time. Shane knew it had something to do with Crick’s decision not to go to college after his return (a thing that hurt Deacon deeply but didn’t seem to bother Crick at all) but whatever had happened didn’t change the fact that finances were still touch-and-go. Once a month the family—and that included Shane now, much to his honor—had a meeting where Deacon showed them how much money they had lost and how much they still had in capital and what sort of spread that could afford them in another part of the state or even the country. They all knew it would kill him to give up The Pulpit. His father had started the ranch from scratch, and Deacon loved it only slightly less than he loved Crick. But Deacon was adamant—the family came first. Benny and little Parry Angel would have the best education and the best circumstances money could buy, and if that meant moving the ranch before they lost it, that’s what it meant.
That didn’t mean everybody’s heart didn’t stop during the monthly family meetings while they waited to see if they had just a few more months for the ranch to start making money again. It didn’t mean that Deacon wasn’t thin and transparent from stress—his best friend Jon had instituted a “Deacon weigh-in” during the family meetings so the family could keep an eye on Deacon’s health. Shane looked unhappily to where Deacon stood, his six-foot frame made to look short by Crick’s extra four inches. At the last weigh-in, he’d been one-sixty. It was better than when Shane had gotten there—called out because Crick and Benny’s crazy-assed family had decided it was time to share the crazy and take the baby from her young mother—but it was still not enough to make him look strong and healthy, and Shane needed him to be strong and healthy.
Shane was working for the local police force these days. He should have been the enemy after what Deacon had been through, but they’d invited him into their family as a friend. His entire life, Shane had never had a family with that much warmth. He needed the ranch to be here in Levee Oaks. He needed this family to be all right.
Shane looked thoughtfully to where Deacon was shooing Crick off from resting a pointed chin in his shoulder to try and get him to eat a slice of pie. He was six feet of scrawny, determined alpha male hidden behind a shy smile and a blush. Deacon himself wouldn’t have denied Benny or Parry Angel anything. If Benny had held off on a Renaissance Faire shopping spree, she had probably not spent the money voluntarily, to do her part toward keeping The Pulpit right where it was.
Shane looked back at Benny. Her hair was bright orange this month, and her eyes—a pretty blue but still the same shape as Crick’s—were wistful and dreamy. Benny could be the closest thing to a damsel in distress that Shane ever got to rescue.
“What did you want to get?” he asked, inviting conversation. He set his detective’s brain on “record” then, and it was a good thing too. It turned out a sixteen-year-old girl with a beloved baby on her arm could dream a whole lot of princess after one trip to the Faire.
A few minutes later, Benny carted the baby off to her bath—which turned out to be a community event, since Deacon’s friends, Jon and Amy, were there, and they decided that four-month-old Lila Lisa needed a little bathwater on her bottom as well. When the community baby-bathing event had sucked half the people out of the room, Deacon asked who wanted to bring the table scraps out to the potbellied pigs. Shane practically knocked his chair over in an effort to volunteer.
The pigpen was in the dark behind the stable, but Shane didn’t mind the walk. The early October night was still warm enough for cargo shorts and a T-shirt, and the breeze that blew off the delta and through the valley was crisp enough to suggest November was coming. It was a pleasant night to be out, and that was good, because he had something to do while he was there under the stars.
He rounded the corner to the barn on the way back, found the stack of hay bales under the soda light suspended from the barn, pulled his little notepad and pen out of his pocket, and started writing. He was so intent on his task that after he got all of Benny’s fanciful wishes from the Renaissance Faire down on paper, he was surprised to see Jeff had come out on the porch of the house and was standing there smoking a cigarette.
Shane put the paper and pen in his pocket, grabbed the empty plastic bowl that had held the scraps, and tried to walk back into the house like he hadn’t been doing anything that needed talking about.
Jeff wouldn’t let it slide.
“Did you remember the scent of the hand lotion she wanted?” he asked as Shane came up the steps.
Shane flushed. “Chamomile-lavender, with a little bit of vanilla,” he said quietly, and Jeff raised his eyebrows on the inhale. “Those are bad for you,” he said, trying to just go past that other thing.
“Which is why I only get one a day,” Jeff said primly, blowing smoke. “The military might have paid for Andrew’s new, spiffy race-specific prosthetic eventually.”
Shane tried for innocence. “Why would you think they didn’t?” Don’t blush don’t blush don’t blush don’t blush.
“For one thing, Benny only spent a day on the phone trying to clear up the insurance—we all know that’s a children’s fairy tale in itself, don’t we?”
“What makes you think it was anything else?” Shane kept his face as neutral as possible.
Jeff looked sadly at the end of his cigarette and stubbed it out on the bottom of his shoe. “Mmmm… I don’t know. Maybe the office buzz about the ‘big hulking cop’ who came in and paid for Andrew’s new, spiffy black-skinned leg and asked billing to keep it hush-hush? That’s always a big hint something else happened, you think? I work in the VA hospital, Shane—did you think it was going to be a secret?”
Shane grew extremely uncomfortable, and, yes, the dreaded blush swamped his fair skin. “Please don’t tell them,” he begged at last. “People have their pride, you know?”
“I’m not going to ask you why you’re doing it,” Jeff said after a moment, “because we both know it would take months the other way, and I’d probably do it too—but I don’t have the money.”
Shane looked down, and the silence stretched long enough for Jeff to trot down the stairs and throw the butt-end away in one of the trash cans at the end of the house. He came back, squirting alcohol on his hand from a bottle he kept in his pocket.
“You ready to tell me yet?” he asked, rubbing his hands crisply together, and Shane shrugged. “Look, big guy, I’ll keep your secret, but only if I know you’re not out on the streets turning tricks for the green, okay?”
Shane actually managed a chuckle on that. “Funny.”
Jeff shrugged. “Yeah, I’ve got a mouth.”
“Not your mouth—the idea that anybody would want me. They’d probably be afraid of weirdness, like some sort of STD.”
Jeff pulled in a breath and peered at him in the dark. “This family loves you, Shane. In fact, I think they worry about you. If you’re weird it’s because you’re too much in your own head, and you only have to look at Deacon to see how that can hurt a guy. Now are you going to tell me where you’re getting the cash, or am I going to have to blab about your Secret Santa routine?”
Ouch. Shane glared at Jeff. “You don’t even like me.” It was true—Jeff had been the master of the catty epithet since he’d arrived. “Big guy” was an improvement over “Yeti,” “Sasquatch,” and (after he’d outed himself at the dinner table) “Shane the hairy Hoover.”
“That’s not true,” Jeff protested without even flinching. “I like you fine. I was jealous of you, but I think you’re an okay sort.”
“Jealous.” Blink. “Of me?”
Jeff shrugged. “You walk in to answer a call, and they invite you to dinner? Hell—I had to work Crick’s arm like Christ himself with the healing touch to get that invite!”
“Jon invited me,” Shane mumbled. “He was kind of a dick to me when he got here. He felt bad.”
“Really?” Jeff perked right up. “So it was a pity thing? Excellent. No hard feelings, right big guy?”
Why would there be? Jeff was the one who had offered the olive branch. Shane shrugged. “Nope.”
“Good, then tell me where you got the money, I can tell Deacon to stop worrying, and it can be our little secret.”
Shane scowled, feeling like shit. “Deacon put you up to this?”
Jeff waved his hand. “No—he was going to do it himself. The thought of the two of you out here not talking was enough to give even the baby a case of the squirmies. So spill or this goes public to the family. They are our family, right?”
Shit. Yeah. “L.A.P.D. let me walk into an ambush. When I didn’t get my queer ass blown to hell, they gave me some cash to take away the sting.”
Jeff opened his eyes large and pushed theatrically on his swinging jaw. “Are you shitting me?”
Shane rubbed at his chest, where he could still feel his scars from the surgeries under his shirt. “Naw. You know, when your ribs puncture your lungs through your vest and they have to take out your spleen and shit, I guess a little joke’s gone too far.”
He was unprepared for Jeff’s slug to his jaw—both for the connect and for it to hurt so much. He landed on his ass and looked up at Jeff with absolute amazement in his eyes.
“What in the fuck…?” He was just that befuddled.
“You still work that job!” Jeff said, upset. He was shaking out his hand—and he should have been, dammit; that hurt.
“So….” Shane blinked hard. “Can I repeat? What in the fuck?”
“You asshole!”Jeff growled, and Deacon came out just then and took stock.
“What in the fuck?” Deacon stretched his hand out with the question, and Shane took it, still looking puzzled.
“Deacon, he hit me!”
And Jeff was furious at him. “Deacon—you want to know where his money comes from?”
“You promised not to tell!” There was something about this conversation that sounded… unfamiliar and familiar at once. Shane couldn’t put his finger on it, but it made the moment even more surreal.
“That was before I found out you were attempting suicide-by-cop!” Jeff snarled, and Shane let go of Deacon’s hand and sat down hard on the porch again.
“You get shot in L.A. because you’re a big stupid queer-ass bastard, and then you come here where even the civilians get beaten for it! And you don’t tell anybody here…. You just show up to Sunday dinner like you’re going to be around for a while and not a soul here knows you’re a walking fucking target!”
“I’m not a walking target,” Shane said, coming heavily to his knees and once again taking Deacon’s patiently offered hand. “And I only wish I was fucking. Something. At all.”
Deacon Winters had an extraordinarily pretty face, shaped like a squarish oval with a square jaw and chin and an angel’s mouth and lovely, dark-fringed green eyes. At the moment, those pretty eyes were looking at both of them like Shane had seen him look at Crick and Benny when they argued, and that’s when it hit him.
He and Jeff were arguing like brothers. He looked at Jeff again. The guy was examining the manicure on the hand that had bruised Shane’s jaw as though it was something precious. Okay—they’d been arguing like a brother and sister. Whatever. Siblings.
Shane flushed and spoke the truth because he owed the guy that. “It’s nice of you to worry,” he said quietly, and Deacon arched an eyebrow at him, as though he had more to say. “Seriously?” Shane asked Deacon, responding to the unvoiced question, and Deacon nodded.
Shane blew out a breath. “Okay. Fine. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all there might be a problem that way. I just didn’t think it was worth your time, okay?”
“No,” Deacon said judiciously. “Jeff, how bout you go inside and have Benny or Crick look at your hand. Shane and I need to have a talk out here.”
“Yeah,” Jeff muttered.
“Jeff?” Man, Deacon had that note of command in his voice. Shane would give his left nut to sound like that.
Shane was thirty-one, Jeff was his age or older, and Deacon was younger than both of them. Jeff turned to Deacon like a little boy would turn to his father. “Yes, Deacon?” he asked sweetly, batting the dark fringe of his brown eyes at the man.
Deacon looked blandly back. “I do believe Shane apologized.”
“Fi-ine.” He said it complete with rolled eyes too. “Fine. I’m sorry I hit you, you big stupid cop. Please try not to get your dumb fat ass shot off before next Sunday, okay?”
“I promise,” Shane said sincerely, looking at the man in surprise. He took an awkward step in, and Jeff sneered at him. It was Shane’s turn to roll his eyes. “Thanks, Jeff, for giving a shit.”
“Yeah, what-the-fuck-ever.” Jeff snorted and walked back in to the house, leaving Shane alone with Deacon.
He was unaccountably nervous.
Deacon looked at him for a second and touched his jaw with soft fingers, then grunted. He walked to the door and shouted, “Crick, get me some fucking ice!”
“Stop swearing in front of the baby, asshole!” came the reply through the door, but Shane had no doubt that Crick was doing what Deacon had asked.
Deacon walked to the porch rail and leaned his weight on it, just like Jeff had been doing earlier. “You got shot?” he asked mildly, and Shane shrugged.
“I… I was sent into a dangerous situation without backup,” he said carefully. “The Kevlar, you know… doesn’t protect you from the impact.”
“No. No, it doesn’t. Was Jeff right? Were you out to your department?”
Shane turned a deeper red, if that was even possible. “Not on purpose,” he mumbled, and Deacon turned to him with eyebrows raised to his hairline.
“Do I want to know?”
Oh God. Anything but tell this story to Deacon. Shane honestly thought he’d rather tell his father, were the fucker still alive, than Deacon, who actually sort of liked and respected him.
“Do I have to tell you?”
Deacon looked at him gently. “Look, Shane, I can’t make you. But….” The man looked embarrassed, but since he often looked embarrassed, it suited him. “Look. You go ahead and keep that locked in your chest, that’s fine. But I’m the poster child for repression, and I gotta tell you, you need to tell someone. What we’re worried about right now is exactly what Jeff said. Does this department know about you, and are you in danger? Because if you’ve got other backup out there, you haven’t told us about it. And if we’re it, we need to know, right?”
Shane swallowed. “I’m going to be gone next weekend. Would you feed my animals on Saturday?”
Deacon didn’t even look surprised at the abrupt change of subject. “So we know to go get them if anything happens to you, right?”
“Yeah—Angel Marie eats a lot.”
Deacon raised his eyebrows. “Angel Marie?”
Shrug. “If I’d known Parry Angel when I named him, I would have found another name. Anyway, I’m afraid if I don’t get to him in a day or two, he’ll eat a cat.” Oh Christ. That came out weird. He knew it did, but he couldn’t help it. Angel Marie wouldn’t eat Orlando Bloom or the others on purpose, but the ginormous doofus wasn’t exactly discriminating in his taste, and he weighed over a hundred and fifty pounds himself. So far, Shane counted himself lucky that the Great Dane cross hadn’t eaten Shane for breakfast.
But Deacon didn’t bat an eyelash at that, either. Shane felt a sudden surge of out and out love for the guy. It had nothing to do with how pretty he was or that he fed Shane once a week and invited him in on the family meetings. It had to do with the fact that he never ever made Shane feel weird.
“Okay, so you show us where you live and how to feed your animals, and in return, you promise us that if things go hinky, you’ll give us a call. If you think you’re going somewhere without backup, we’ll give Jon a call and show up, simple as that.”
“Deacon, you guys aren’t cops!”
“Nope. But this is a small town. We know most of the local troublemakers, same as you. Shane, Parry Angel in there calls you her ‘Unca Shaney’—you’re not going anywhere without backup!”
Shane made his face as stern as he could. “Citizen,” he said meaningfully, “you do not put yourself in danger—”
“Shove it, Perkins. We’re all licensed to carry—”
“Vigilante-ism is a crime.”
“So is discrimination. I want your word on this, Shane.”
How had this spiraled out of his control like this? Shane had been in charge of his own destiny since… since… since he’d seen a bad guy taken down when he was a small child!
“Deacon! Look, this isn’t safe. You have got to know the many, many things wrong with—”
“With sending a brother into danger?” Deacon looked at him with measured eyes, and Shane had to concede. There was something in Deacon Winters—some measure of fineness, of self-possession—that made it impossible to go up against him when he was like this.
Shane grunted. Great. He finally had a family, and his big brother thought he couldn’t take care of himself. “Does Crick ever win an argument?” he asked bitterly and knew the sound of Deacon’s laugh before he made it.
“All the goddamned time. Irritating asshole.”
“Who just brought you ice!” Crick protested, shouldering his tall, broad-chested frame through the screen door. Shane wondered how long he’d been listening before he took his cue line, and then he dropped the ice pack in his hand with an oath and Shane stopped wondering.
“Did you get some for yourself?” Deacon asked, picking the pack up off the ground and taking Crick’s hand in his own. Crick had come back from a two-year tour of the Gulf with souvenirs that made Shane’s surgery scars look like skinned knees from childhood. The boy—he was twenty-three, maybe—rarely complained.
“It’s numb enough,” Crick muttered. “Don’t mind me, Deacon. Ice his jaw before it swells.”
Deacon raised Crick’s twisted, scarred hand to his lips in a brief, tender show of affection that brought a lump to Shane’s throat. It was like anything, any amount of happiness, was possible in a world where that gesture could happen.
Shane stood still as Deacon applied the ice gingerly to his jaw. He knew both lovers had been EMTs at one time, and Deacon had the professional touch to prove it.
“So where are you going?” Deacon asked quietly. “When we watch your animals, where will you be?”
“Gilroy,” Shane told him. He didn’t mention the Renaissance Faire—if Deacon didn’t know he was going, he couldn’t offer money to buy Benny the stuff that Shane had planned to buy.
Deacon looked up with a wrinkled nose and a shrug, inviting more input. Gilroy was sort of a big ol’ nowhere—lots of farmland, lots of ranches, a few suburbs.
“My sister’s going to be there,” Shane told him.
“You have a sister?” Crick asked, plopping his ass down on the garden seat that rested against the wall. “Wow, you think you know a guy.”
Shane raised a sardonic eyebrow. Fact was, he spoke less than Deacon—they all knew it. “Haven’t seen her in years,” he said quietly. Not since their father’s funeral, actually, but they’d kept in touch once or twice a year since. She’d sent him flowers when he’d been in the hospital, along with a letter. Dammit, Shaney—find another job or learn to duck. I’m way too self-involved to get all tangled up in this grief bullshit, so you’re just going to have to live. He’d gotten cards and the occasional calls since then, and he’d called back. She’d wanted him to come see her perform for the last year, and he had some time off. He figured it was time.
“What’s she doing in Gilroy?” Deacon asked. Gilroy was a good three-hour drive into, literally, the middle of Bumfuck Nowhere and Left Ass Cheek of Yemen.
Shane had to smile though, because the answer was so unlikely. “Would you believe dancing?”
He couldn’t wait to see her in action—she’d always been beautiful when she danced.