Salvage Stories: Book Two
San Diego is a city of second chances for Jamie Carlson. His new career as a photographer is taking off, and with the support of a loving surrogate family, he’s finally putting his party years behind him. The Bailey family helped him solve his drinking problem, but there’s no easy solution to staying sober now that Belle Bailey’s dying. Her last wish is a challenge Jamie can't overcome without help.
Solving problems is Daniel Priest’s specialty. More than twenty years older than Jamie, he’s successful and experienced. He makes his living resolving corporate crises—but his personal life has been far from perfect. Now that his marriage is over, Daniel’s determined to make up for lost time. One night with Jamie isn’t nearly enough for him.
Daniel’s honest offer of help is more than Jamie expects from a one-time hookup. Even so, fulfilling Belle’s last wish is a tall order. Repairing her damaged family as she requests proves difficult when Jamie has to face his own past as well. Jamie could risk his hard-won recovery by admitting why he hit rock bottom in the first place. If he wants a future with Daniel, he'll have to address those reasons head-on.
JAMIE CARLSON wasn’t hiding. Not intentionally, anyhow. If the spot he’d found behind a row of tall plants shielded him from other partygoers, it was purely coincidental. His heart wasn’t hammering either, at least not quite as hard now as when his mentor, Alec, had left the rooftop bar so abruptly.
This glamorous party, held at a high-class hotel to mark the launch of Alec’s new lifestyle magazine, should be fun rather than anxiety inducing. Especially since the magazine showcased photographs Jamie was so proud to have taken. He should be celebrating his big break instead of taking cover like this.
Jamie rolled his shoulders and took a steadying breath.
He definitely wasn’t hiding, and all these Armani-wearing executives who enjoyed the free bar sure as hell didn’t intimidate him. He was regrouping, that was all, and foliage tickling the nape of his neck was a small price to pay for somewhere private to get his shit together.
Alec had sold the party to him as a golden opportunity. But the only golden thing Jamie had seen so far tonight was the late-evening view over San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
The light was incredible.
From this elevation, the city was gilded by a blazing sunset, and Jamie cataloged the range of colors. From the deep blush of a Napa Valley rosé to the honeyed tones of vintage champagne, he saw shades in the sky his editing software could enhance even further. As he thought through the process involved in turning a raw digital image into something sublime his heart rate decelerated.
Alec had been right.
Jamie could get through social occasions like this without him. And he could absolutely talk to people as if he were just as professional as them. They didn’t know that the last time he’d been here he’d blown some guy for free drinks or that he’d puked in one of these ornate planters. That had happened over a year ago, and if he could put it out of his mind, and focus on his work instead, he might make some useful contacts.
He could do this.
His hand shaking as he raised his glass to his lips suggested otherwise, as did the crystal-clear liquid that splashed onto the ledge of the waist-high wall that edged the hotel rooftop.
A cocktail napkin made little inroad, sodden and translucent in an instant. Liquid spilled over the edge. Jamie avoided its spread, his back brushing the luxuriant wall of greenery behind him. He was trapped between the remains of the drink he’d nursed for ages and the plants he’d used as a shield.
Who the hell was he kidding?
Maybe he shouldn’t have ignored the texts he’d received that afternoon and evening.
Perhaps one call would have quelled this urge to hide or escape.
Jamie checked his phone. There they were, message after message offering support and a shoulder, if only he would accept it. His own shoulders bowed as he cradled the phone before shoving it roughly into his pocket.
He’d left it too late.
Panic prickled at the base of his back and climbed his spine, its rise slow yet relentless. His next breath caught in his chest, midway between inhale and exhale, lodged inside his ribcage. It added to a compulsion he’d stifled since he got here.
The bar was real close behind him.
One shot would take the edge off.
Jamie closed his eyes, sure for a split second that the ledge he’d set his drink on was gone, and that he was about to tip forward and fall.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He almost dropped it as he fumbled before reading the new text.
TOM: I’m still here if you need me.
Jamie’s finger hovered over the screen, but instead of making a call, he switched off the phone and pocketed it, brushing his fingers against another too small napkin that he’d crumpled earlier as he did so. He used it to wipe some more of his spilled drink, his movements pissed off and jerky until he admitted defeat.
He couldn’t clean up this mess, just like he couldn’t get through a party without thinking of caving.
Anger slipped into surrender. Finally, he whispered words under his breath and imagined them caught by the breeze, spiraling up and away toward Coronado Island. Giving voice to his fears meant that he had to own them. That was what Tom, his AA sponsor, said, as had Alec before him.
“I don’t know how to do this sober.”
A mellow, low-pitched voice interrupted Jamie’s almost silent confession.
“Here. Looks like you could use more of these.”
Jamie took the handful of napkins a man offered and mopped up the rest of the drink. “Thanks.” He wadded them, taking his time while figuring out how to explain away being back here all alone.
The stranger beat him to it. “Pretty, isn’t she?” He gestured at the view over the city. The next words he said were almost too quiet to catch. Thumping music, laughter, and the sound of shouted conversations made Jamie tilt his head to listen.
“San Diego, I mean. She’s much prettier than I remember.”
Jamie nodded. He wished he had his Nikon with him. Distant palm trees—almost in silhouette as the dusk deepened—and the graceful, curving arch of the Coronado Bridge beyond them looked otherworldly in this light.
He shifted sideways and eyed the man beside him. Much taller than Jamie’s five eight, and with thick black hair that glinted silver at the temples, he looked smoothly successful and somewhat familiar. Jamie frowned as he tried to place him. Had he met this guy earlier? Maybe he was a colleague Alec had pointed out when they’d arrived, or one of the advertisers he’d spent months wooing.
Jamie had been introduced to a whole lot of people before Alec took the call from his wife that made him rush home, but he clearly hadn’t paid enough attention. Instead of filing away the names of professionals who might hire him, Jamie had concentrated on his self-control, flexing it like a muscle as he declined mojitos. They’d looked so good he could almost taste the fresh kick of lime and mint, and he recalled the heat of rum so clearly that, at the start of the evening at least, he’d been consumed by want so strong it had left him speechless.
He turned as if admiring the view and answered the older guy’s original question.
“Pretty’s one word for her, I guess.”
The truth was Jamie thought San Diego was about the best place on the planet. It sure beat the small Minnesota town where he’d grown up. Maybe some of the love for his adopted hometown slipped into his voice. His next glance caught the man beside him smiling warmly. He was very good-looking, Jamie decided. Those faint lines feathering the edges of his eyes were particularly attractive. They deepened when Jamie shook the hand he offered.
“It’s Daniel,” the man said. He paused before adding, “Daniel Priest? Your father introduced us earlier. I was over there.” He twisted briefly, nodding in the direction of the bar where magazine executives still thronged for free drinks. “Is your dad still here?”
“My dad? That was Alec Bailey, and he isn’t my father.” Jamie had to smile at that mistake. Alec would find it funny too. His real son, Owen, significantly less so. “And no, he’s not here. He had to leave.”
“Ah. When I saw his arm around you for so long, I assumed.” He paused before asking, “So…. You weren’t here together?”
Even though the music was loud, the boom of the bass like another heartbeat, Jamie clearly heard Daniel’s subtle note of interest. That, and the way he stood just a little too close, asked a slightly different question. “I can promise you Alec’s not my dad.”
Jamie made air quotes when he next spoke. “And he’s not my ‘daddy’ either, if that’s what you’re asking.” He stifled a grin. Alec had roared with laughter the first time someone assumed they were lovers. Maybe a man close to sixty hanging out with someone younger than his grown-up kids was a little unusual, but their relationship was unique. He wasn’t about to dissect it for a stranger, even one like this—mature, built, and with such a warm smile—who ticked all of Jamie’s turn-on boxes.
“I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name earlier.” Jamie reached for his near-empty glass and took a quick sip, surprised, as he still was so often, when all he tasted was water. At least his hand was steadier this time. “I’m Jamie Carlson. Photographer. Some of my work is—”
“In the magazine. I know. I saw.” A small frown creased Daniel’s forehead. “That’s why I’ve been trying to find you. I wanted to tell you how much I liked your work.” He backtracked right away. “No, ‘like’ is the wrong word. I mean, I didn’t like the photos at all. They were awful.” He covered his mouth, almost muffling a still audible “Jesus.”
Jamie raised a single eyebrow, a trick he and his best friend Gabe had mastered as kids after marathoning James Bond movies. “Hey, now. Why don’t you tell me what you really think, Daniel? There’s no need to hold back.” He smiled, but he steeled himself regardless. His photos were confrontational. Rape was a taboo subject. At first glance, the results were uncompromising.
Daniel gulped his drink before replying, his glass empty now apart from sugary syrup tinged green with crushed mint. His next words were scented with rum. “I thought they were….” He hesitated. “Intense.” He shook his head. “They seemed real. Too real. Terrible.” He reached out as if about to touch Jamie before pulling his hand back. “And very beautiful. The ‘after’ photos, I mean. All that human spirit? How the hell did you know how to find it?” That small frown was back again. “They got to me. Made me think about—” He abruptly broke off. “I have to admit I was surprised when I heard your name earlier. I assumed you would be older.” He looked Jamie over, not even trying to hide it.
Twenty-five or not, Jamie had often been told he looked a whole lot younger.
“Why did you expect someone older?”
“Because you’re so good.”
Good wasn’t the first word Jamie would choose to describe himself. It wasn’t even close. Alec and his wife, Belle, said he had so much potential, but Jamie wasn’t convinced. Not after the stunts that had led up to their meeting. “Huh. I’m not so sure about that.” Alec was the good one—he made recovery look easy. Jamie glanced at his watch. If this was going the way he thought—if Daniel was coming on to him—they should cut to the chase. “Tell me, how come you’re here tonight?”
“I wasn’t exactly on the original guest list,” Daniel admitted. “Only someone messed up the outdoor promo.” He gestured to the left where a nearby building was covered in a rooftop-to-sidewalk ad for the new magazine. “Fixing problems on short notice isn’t hard when you’ve been in the business as long as I have. I usually work out of LA, but the money was right so I stepped in to make this happen.”
The advertisement changed as Jamie watched, breaking apart into the stars that formed the magazine logo. They sparkled, and Jamie realized they were being projected onto a blank canvas.
“That’s very cool.”
“It’s easy enough when you know how.” Daniel sounded proud as he pointed out a group of men on a neighboring building’s rooftop. “Those guys make the magic happen. I just make sure they’re in the right place at the right time. I don’t get out of the office too much these days, but when the call came in I thought I might as well come along. It’s the first time I’ve visited San Diego in years.” He braced a hand on the ledge where their glasses sat in twin rings of condensation that reflected the last rays of the sun. A ring on his left hand caught the light too. “Decided to make a weekend of it. I booked a suite here until Sunday.”
The press of Daniel’s body, closer now than before, made his interest obvious. Still, Jamie drew in a slow breath.
Alec had said he’d be back as soon as he could. He’d told Jamie to be strong, to trust in himself, and to have fun meeting some useful people. He’d also reminded Jamie over and over, all year long, to keep in mind the man he wanted to be rather than the kid Alec first met who somehow had gotten so lost. Such a nice way to describe the fucked-up brat Jamie had been when they’d first met outside an AA meeting.
Alec might be right about acting like a professional—faking it until he could make it—and Jamie had done his best, but the party was in full swing now, and this guy was very attractive. Hooking up could count as networking, couldn’t it?
A year ago, taking the time to think wouldn’t have been on Jamie’s agenda. His pants would already have been round his ankles in a nearby men’s room. He wet his lips, lost in a moment of wondering just how many times he’d gotten off at parties around here. He really couldn’t recall.
Daniel cleared his throat. “The view from here is good, but the one from my suite is quite impressive too. I’d love to show it to you.”
Jamie crossed his arms and waged an internal battle. The light glinting on Daniel’s wedding ring helped him grudgingly come to a decision. Hot or not, fooling around with someone who was married made Jamie consider Belle’s opinion.
She would be so disappointed.
“I’m sorry.” Jamie really was. The man was everything he liked in a hookup—handsome, assertive, and clearly unavailable long-term.
Perhaps disappointment made Daniel look down. He absently twisted the ring he wore. “Oh.” He tugged it off and slipped the band of gold into the breast pocket of his suit jacket. “I don’t know why I still wear it. Habit?” He shrugged, and his expression clouded. “I’ve been separated for years, but I only recently got divorced.” When he looked up, his gaze was soulful. “I’m kinda new at all this.”
This time, both Jamie’s eyebrows shot up. Did this guy think he was completely naïve? He folded his arms even tighter. Now, this was the crap Belle had warned him to stay clear of, just like his best friend Gabe had over six years ago when they’d arrived here for college. Gabe always said Jamie attracted liars as if he were a lodestone. Without booze clouding his vision Jamie could finally see what he’d meant.
Daniel picked up his glass and gusted out a huge breath when he saw it was empty. “Crap. I’m sorry. You’re probably not even into—”
“Men? Oh, I definitely am.” That was one thing Jamie never had a problem admitting. “And I’m completely into your type. I just don’t do this with guys who are married.”
“I’m not married,” Daniel insisted. “I am single. And I can tell I’m messing this up.” He put his glass down with a clatter, then shoved a hand through his hair. “I guess I don’t exactly know how to do this.”
“Ask someone out on a date.” He stood a little closer. “I’d like it if I could see you while I’m in town.”
Jamie was about to say that hooking up was the extent of his interest, not some weekend romance, when Daniel blurted some more.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t hide what I was, who I was, once the divorce was final. I’ve been discreet for years—the whole time I was separated from my wife—so this seems like too good an opportunity to pass up.”
“An opportunity to do what?”
“To go out in public, for once. To be out in public.”
“You want to take me out?”
“Yes. Show you off a little.”
Jamie glanced down at what he was wearing. Belle had found a suit she’d bought for her son and had insisted Jamie should wear it tonight. It had looked good on Owen, emphasizing that dark-eyed, moody look he’d perfected. Apparently it suited Jamie’s much fairer coloring as well. He fingered the smooth silk of his borrowed tie. He must look okay even if, without booze for camo, he’d felt like an imposter all night.
“Or you could just come with me for a while? Go where we can actually hear each other?” Daniel asked. “You don’t have to miss the party. I’ll have you back here before it’s all over.” His breath coasted over Jamie’s face, proximity making the rum scent so strong Jamie was dizzied by it. He parted his lips as if to take a sip, and Daniel kissed him quickly before leaning back. “I’m sorry,” he said, his gaze following Jamie’s tongue tip as he licked the taste from his lips. “I didn’t mean to do that so soon.”
“Soon” seemed like an overstatement. Jamie had already spent more time with Daniel than anyone else all evening. He pulled Daniel closer, framing his face with his hands before kissing him again. “I did,” he said, smiling up into warm brown eyes that were almost all black pupils. Their next kiss was deeper.
Daniel slid his hands under Jamie’s jacket. He pressed them at the small of his back and pulled Jamie against the kind of solid torso that suggested real-life physical activity rather than hours spent sculpting in the gym. “Come with me?” His whisper, directly into Jamie’s ear, induced shivers.
Jamie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I guess I could. Just for a while.”
Daniel’s expression was intent, but it was his slow, hesitant half smile and his surprised “Really?” that sealed the deal for Jamie. That smile was the opposite of predatory, more pleased than serial killer. Jamie tuned out the memory of Gabe’s voice, telling him not to put his trust in strangers ever again. That was easy when Daniel’s smile widened.
Surely this guy didn’t count as a stranger now, did he? And anyway, a quick fuck must be better than giving in to a much worse temptation by drinking the entire bar dry. He’d get busy respecting himself in the morning for making at least one good self-control decision.
They moved through the crowd together, Daniel’s hand steady where he still pressed it lightly against Jamie’s back. As they neared the bar on the way to the elevators, Daniel veered off, shouting over the music that he needed a moment with someone. Jamie waited near a tray lined with neat rows of icy, mint-topped drinks.
His mouth dried, then quickly watered.
Why was this still so hard?
Daniel didn’t make things any easier by grabbing a couple of glasses from the tray when he returned. He took a sip from one as he held the other out to Jamie. Before Jamie could decline it, someone jostled Daniel and his arm jerked. The contents of the glass flew in an arc mirroring the curve of the bridge across the water.
Saved, Jamie thought as the liquid splashed him.
Saved from yet another twelve-step explanation. Jamie’s borrowed suit jacket getting soaked was better than explaining sobriety to a virtual stranger. In his limited experience, discussing that before hooking up was a surefire boner killer.
Daniel discarded the glasses, then helped Jamie wipe rum and club soda from his lapel with another handful of napkins. “Crap. I’m sorry. Let me get you a fresh drink.”
“No,” Jamie insisted. “Come on.” He wanted to get done before Alec returned. He’d already been gone longer than his hurried “Belle called. I’ll be back as soon as I can” had suggested. “Come on,” Jamie said again and summoned the elevator, wondering as he had a hundred times already what might have sent Alec running home after the months spent planning this party. Belle was in remission; surely that meant the worst of her illness was over?
The elevator’s ding of arrival was muted by the rooftop DJ’s music, its sound only fading once the doors closed behind them. Jamie wrapped his hand around Daniel’s tie and reeled him in. “Come on already, big guy. How about you show me what you got?”
Daniel didn’t waste time. He clutched Jamie by the elbows and pulled him into an embrace that had him pinned against a side wall. Jamie could feel the swell of Daniel’s cock press into his hip and belly, hard already, big, grinding, and insistent. He swallowed and caught his breath as Daniel cupped his ass with both hands and pulled him up to his tiptoes. Daniel moved his mouth down Jamie’s neck, and Jamie felt as if his entire blood supply were heading south too and pooling hotly in his groin just as fast as they descended. Daniel pressed his fingers between the cheeks of Jamie’s ass—persistent pressure right where he best liked it—and Jamie groaned aloud.
This was going to be awesome.
The ride down seemed to take forever. More than enough time for Daniel to find Jamie’s cock through his pants. His grip was just right, and Jamie was arching into it when a sudden ding made them lurch away from each other. Jamie peered in confusion at the illuminated numbers over the elevator doors. They’d traveled to the lobby rather than stopping just a few floors down.
The doors opened as Jamie adjusted himself, but the man who stood in the opening clearly noticed the way his pants had begun to tent.
“For fuck’s sake, Jamie.” Alec’s son Owen held the doors open. “Take your— No, take off my jacket,” Owen spat roughly. “Cover yourself, before any decent human beings see you. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Jamie?” Daniel placed himself between them. “You know this guy?”
“Yeah.” Jamie wished he didn’t. “Daniel, this is Owen Bailey.” Jamie clenched his fist around the fabric of his borrowed jacket. “Alec’s son.”
“Alec’s?” Daniel sounded confused. “But—”
“But what?” Owen asked. “But I’m Asian? Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Jesus, why did Owen always have to be so combative?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” Daniel was clearly mortified, but Owen ignored him.
“Racism aside, yeah, I’m Alec’s son who’s been calling this waste of air for the last half hour.” Owen stepped around Daniel. “Would it have killed you to answer your phone?”
Jamie pulled his cell from his pocket. “It was switched off.” They made their way out of the elevator after some guests tried to enter. “What are you doing here anyway, Owen? You turned down your dad’s invitation, didn’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Forget I asked. I’m not actually interested.” Jamie grasped Daniel’s hand. “I’m busy, and you’re boring. Go find someone else to frown at.”
Owen huffed out a breath and then sniffed. “Oh my God. You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” His expression matched the disgust of his tone. “I should have guessed. Forget I was here. I knew I shouldn’t have bothered.” He stalked away, leaving the hotel while Daniel gaped at Jamie’s side.
“What the hell?”
“I’m sorry. He’s an asshole. I don’t know where he gets it from.” Jamie really didn’t. Alec was so easygoing, and Belle had such a huge heart, while Owen seemed the exact opposite.
“You still wanna…?” Daniel tilted his head toward the elevator.
“Let me just check my phone.” What could have made Owen come to find him? Missed calls filled the screen. Alec, Alec, Alec, Owen, Owen, Owen, along with a chain of unread texts.
“I’m sorry.” Jamie read message after message urgently asking him to call Alec. “I’m gonna have to go right now.” He dragged a hand through his hair, wrenching it free from a tangle.
Daniel reached out, hooked a curl for himself, and tugged it until Jamie looked up. “Rain check?”
“Sure.” But what were the chances they’d see each other again? Jamie took the business card Daniel offered anyway and passed him one of his own before he jogged out of the hotel foyer. Their chance had just gotten blown out of the water.
He picked up his pace when he saw Owen’s car double-parked across the street, and he listened to Alec’s message as soon as he slid into the seat next to Owen.
“Jamie.” The tone of Alec’s voice mail was tense, so strange compared to his usual calm and relaxed nature. “Jamie, I’m sending Owen. You need to get to the hospital as fast as you can.” It sounded as though his voice broke.
Jamie looked across at Owen, whose clenched jaw told its own story.
“Come quick,” Alec’s voice had lowered. It wavered more than Jamie could blame on a poor connection. He pressed his hand over his other ear, trying to hear what the man who’d gotten him through the toughest days of his life was trying to tell him.
“Please, please hurry, Jamie.” Alec was almost begging.
Owen pulled away from the curb, leaving the party behind them as Jamie replayed the message. He hoped it would have a different ending, but each time he heard Alec say the same thing.
“I’m not sure Belle’s gonna make it.”
Read Salvage, then read Recovery. They are both amazing stories. You won’t regret it!
Read the full review at
Ah this is a beautiful story that drags you into the Bailey family...
The emotional aspects of recovery and healing were handled with depth and sensitivity.
This is the best book I've read all year - buy it and love it.
Thoroughly enjoyed this sequel. Highly recommended.
Con Riley never fails to deliver a good plot with well fleshed-out characters! What I love about this book is the fact that three plots overlap with each other, well more like main problems but unlike some books who center around one problem, here it was far more intense that and made for a very, very good story. There wasn't a single dull or boring moment! The book's final few pages brought me to tears and what else but a quality book can do that to a reader?
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