Prologue

Donuts in the Morning

 

THE ALARM went off and Jackson Rivers groaned. “Really? You made the appointment for eight in the morning? Really?”

Ellery Cramer grunted. “Yes, really,” he said. “I’ll shower first if you want, but we’re going.”

“Augh!” Jackson pulled himself out of bed, and Ellery watched as he fumbled for the phone. “I’ll shower first, Counselor. This is my damned doctor’s appointment. There’s no reason for you to have to get up too.”

Of course there was, Ellery thought grumpily. Because if Ellery, personally, didn’t ride Jackson’s case about this doctor’s appointment, Jackson quite simply wouldn’t go.

They’d just gotten back two days ago from a case that had almost cost them their lives and had resulted in a lengthy hospital stay down in Southern California. Ellery’s body felt battered and bruised, just from the drive back to Sacramento, but he and Jackson had wanted to be home in Ellery’s gracious American River Drive ranch style so badly, they’d left as soon as possible, even though they’d had to split the trip into two four-hour stretches.

It was just so good to be home.

Ellery stood up and stripped out of his pajamas, wondering how cold it was outside. It had been mid-January when he and Jackson had gone south to investigate a rogue military megalomaniac who had been training assassins and turning them into serial killers. Karl Lacey had left one too many bodies in his wake. And after cleaning up a mess so gruesome that even one of his pets couldn’t stomach it, Jackson and Ellery had felt honor bound to stop him.

But the physical toll—on both of them now, but mostly on Jackson—had been brutal and long-lasting.

As Ellery made his way to the bathroom, he tried to count how many weeks Jackson had spent in the hospital. He didn’t bother to count the year Jackson had spent nearly a decade ago when a sniper had tried to take him out for wearing a wire to catch a dirty cop—that was old news. No, Ellery counted the times Jackson had been under care since they’d first gotten together in August.

Well, it had been three weeks from the drive-by on that case, the one that had rendered his shoulder mostly useless for the better part of a year.

Then there had been ten days from a raging infection in November, when they’d taken down the Dirty/Pretty killer and had been alerted to Karl Lacey’s presence in the first place. The infection had been bad—but the worst part was that Jackson had fallen into a swimming pool with a raging fever and his heart had seized. He’d been told he’d have a heart murmur for probably the rest of his life after that, and that eventually he’d need surgery to clean out the scar tissue left from the attack.

Jackson was still a thin, pale version of himself. Between the heart attack and the infection and seeing his mother dead in the morgue—God rot her junkie’s soul—he’d been left with a violent phobia of hospitals that, as far as Ellery was concerned, had occurred a day late and a dollar short.

And even that phobia hadn’t kept him out of trouble. Before they’d left for So-Cal, he’d had a planter fall on his head and, hey, hello, a concussion.

And then there was So-Cal.

Ellery paused at the bathroom door, leaning his head against the frame. His fault. This last one had been his fault. They’d been chasing down Karl Lacey and his partner in crime—some asshole named Hamblin—and in the chaos of a battlefield, and Jackson had given him a gun.

God, Ellery had been so proud. He’d only just learned to use one, and he’d listened to Lacey taunting the two of them, talking about “breakage” and “collateral damage” to dismiss the swath of carnage his serial killers had been leaving in their wake. And Ellery—Ellery Cramer, the defense attorney with the nice house in the spendy suburb and the educated liberal parents, who was known for being smart and sharp and never losing his cool—had fired on the guy blindly, through a tin wall.

And Lacey had fired back and almost taken him out.

Jackson had been wounded in the hospital when one more goddamned assassin had tried to finish the job.

Adjoining beds. They’d shared adjoining beds for two weeks.

Ellery sighed and stripped, then threw his stuff in the hamper before getting creakily into the shower with Jackson.

“This is nice,” Jackson murmured, wrapping his arms around Ellery’s shoulders. They were both thinner than they had been—but Jackson’s heart needed more weight at this point. That had been one of his promises upon leaving the hospital. The hospital itself left him too freaked-out to eat, to heal. He’d promised to eat regularly, to keep himself healthy, if they’d let him go. And they had.

“I felt like you needed me,” Ellery said weakly. He was tired. He really just wanted to sleep today. But God, even though Jackson liked Dr. Keller, the cardiologist he’d been seeing since November, Ellery just didn’t trust him to go to the appointment. Not right now. Not when even saying the words outpatient clinic made Jackson’s hands tremble.

“I do,” Jackson soothed, rocking them both back and forth. “I do need you.”

“You think maybe we can go out to lunch after this?” Ellery asked. “Maybe call up your sister? See if her boyfriend’s working?”

“Mike’s coming by with lunch,” Jackson laughed. “Probably about an hour after we get back.” Jade wasn’t, strictly speaking, Jackson’s sister. They had, in fact, dated during much of their early twenties. Or as Jackson put it, “booty called.” But Jade and her twin, Kaden, had been Jackson’s only family after Jackson’s mother pretty much bailed on the job in grade school, and the three of them were tighter than most blood siblings Ellery had known. Jade’s boyfriend, a redneck with the habit of saying the wrong thing politically while he was doing the right thing as a human being, was as devoted to Jackson as Jade was.

If Jackson didn’t need so many people looking after him, Ellery might be jealous.

As it was, he was just grateful for the help.

“Whatever we got them for Christmas, it’s not enough,” Ellery murmured. Jackson was soaping his scarred body, and Ellery fought the temptation to hide. Jackson’s scars were legion and horrific—and there were a shit-ton more now than there had been when they’d met.

“I’ll make a note of that,” Jackson said, nuzzling his ear. “We need to add Ace and Sonny and Burton and Ernie to the Christmas list.”

Ellery groaned. “Seriously?”

“We’ll just send them something,” he said. “Or, you know, send Ace and Sonny something and have them give Burton and Ernie’s thing to them. Way way way in the future.”

Ace and Sonny owned a gas station in the middle of the desert, slightly south of hell. But they’d been there to help Jackson and Ellery take down Karl Lacey and his band of mercenaries, so Ellery could definitely agree to that. Ellery had seen much less contact with Burton and Ernie—and he wasn’t sure he wanted more.

Burton was a government assassin. No, he didn’t have business cards that stated that overtly, but after Jackson had recounted the parts of their adventure that Ellery had been unconscious for, Ellery would take it on faith. Burton had saved their bacon, and he’d saved Jackson’s family, and Jackson had apparently sworn fealty to him while Ellery had been in surgery.

Fantastic.

Ernie—Burton’s boyfriend—was a flakey psychic with no record of existence. And Ellery thought Ernie liked it that way. Once upon a time, Ellery got up, put on a suit, did paperwork, and only assassinated people verbally, but now, after knowing Jackson Rivers slightly less than a year, this was his life. Putting together a gift list for hit men and their psychic boyfriends.

Color him surprised.

But like Jackson said, Christmas was a whole ten months away.

“But first we recover,” Ellery said.

“Yessir.” Jackson squirted some soap in Ellery’s hair, and Ellery welcomed the warmth, the contact, the cosseting. Jackson was good at it, which wasn’t a surprise. The scars on his body were only the tip of the iceberg. His psychological damage was way, way worse. Jackson Rivers had been having nightmares for close to ten years now, and before Ellery, he’d kept them at bay with an endless parade of faceless people. At least, with anyone else, they’d be faceless. But with Jackson, the people he slept with were friends—just friends who didn’t get too close, who didn’t know what the nightmares were about, whom Jackson would never feel indebted to.

Ellery was, on all counts, the exception.

Jackson was, as a result, a stunningly good lover—good enough to use sex as a distraction, to try to pull the focus away from himself, often, but very, very good.

Ellery wanted some of that right now. Not the sex, but the good-lover thing. They both needed it. It had been a rough patch of road since August. It was time to recover.

“So,” he mumbled, holding his head back while Jackson used the showerhead to rinse his hair, “we go to this appointment, we come back for lunch, and then what?”

Jackson chuckled weakly. “Then we sleep.”

“What about tomorrow?”

“We stay awake a little longer.”

“And after that?”

“I know where this is going, Counselor.” Jackson gave his head one more pass and nuzzled his ear before putting the showerhead back. “You said it yourself. We’re finding a venue and starting up your practice. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I figure it’ll take four months or so before we get up to speed.”

Ellery smiled. “We’re going to spend a lot of that time naked. You know that, right?”

Jackson chuckled and turned off the water. “Looking forward to it.”

“Good,” he said, and they proceeded to dry off and dress casually. Jackson’s wardrobe hadn’t changed much in the last ten years, but Ellery had bought him a fleece jacket for the winters because he was tired of seeing Jackson wearing holey sweatshirts that should have been torn to shreds and used to wipe down cars.

They eschewed the “urban assault vehicle” that Ace and Sonny had gifted them with after their adventure down south and took Ellery’s Lexus instead. It wasn’t until they were pulling away from the house that Jackson saw the pink box on the doorstep.

“Hold on,” he said, waiting until the car stopped before going up to get the thing from the porch. He came back with the oddest look on his face.

“What?” Ellery asked.

“Breakfast?” Jackson said blankly.

“What?”

“I swear to God, Ellery, there’s fresh donuts inside. Sprinkles and old-fashioned’s and the regular glazed—”

“My favorite,” Ellery said, perking up. “Was there a note?”

Jackson shook his head. “Well, there’s a message.”

“What’s it say?”

Jackson looked at the words block printed on the pink bakery box. “It says, He told me to tell you, every day is recovery.”

Ellery grunted. “Who’s he?”

“Ernie.”

“No, seriously—”

Jackson sighed. “No, trust me. It’s Ernie. He brought us pastries when we were in the hospital, remember? And Burton has the means to get them here.”

“But isn’t Burton….” He looked at Jackson unhappily.

“Still tracking the serial killers Lacey trained? Yeah. There’s plenty of bad guys for Burton to kill.” Jackson still had Burton’s number memorized, of that, Ellery was sure. Burton’s entire unit had changed focus to chasing down Karl Lacey’s monsters—and Jackson and Ellery seemed to be trouble magnets.

“Then why do we rate donuts?”

Jackson shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m not looking a gift donut in the mouth. Ernie’s a baking genius, remember?”

Ellery had to laugh. “Fine. But no coffee until after your appointment.”

“What do you suppose it means? Recovery is every day?”

Ellery sighed. “I’m not sure. I just know we have to get through this day before we can get any further.”

“Then let’s hurry,” Jackson told him. “The quicker we get this over with, the quicker we can get on with our lives.”