It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the singer warbled and Jack huffed in annoyance. “Yeah, right.” He was sprawled in the deep window seat in Gareth’s kitchen, fiddling with a tablet while Gareth cooked. He wasn’t seriously chasing anything or anyone right then, just tying up lose ends and trawling for interesting tidbits. Rain lashed the windows, but he was warm, dry and surrounded by the comforting scents of orange, cinnamon and roasting meat. He also had ample opportunity to ogle his lover – which had become a favourite pastime ever since he’d returned from his undercover assignment – and there was even a mug of mulled wine by his elbow. Life was decidedly good if only… “How about some real music instead of that drivel?”
“Uplifting Christmas music don’t do it for you?”
“It’s only uplifting if you have that whole Christmas kaboosh down. If you’re spending the third Christmas Day in a row in hospital, that saccharine rubbish is depressing enough to kill you.”
Gareth laid the wooden spoon down and crossed the kitchen to the sound dock while wiping his hands on the dishcloth that draped his left shoulder. He stopped the running playlist and scrolled through their music collection. “What do you fancy?” he asked quietly.
Jack thunked his head against the window in frustration. “I know you love Christmas,” he apologised, eyes closed. “And I’m really trying to get into the whole… hey, how about that medieval choral music you have there?” He hummed a few bars of Gaudete and relaxed when Gareth chuckled.
“Nothing.” Gareth returned to the stove and the pots busily bubbling on four of the six burners. “I’ve just never put you and choir music into the same thought.”
Jack shrugged and hung on to his smile even though it took some doing. In the last fifteen months he had grown only marginally more comfortable sharing events from his past. “St. Martin in the Fields isn’t far from St. Thomas’ Hospital,” he said by way of explanation, grateful that Gareth knew him well enough not to ask.
A message flashed up on his tablet and he smiled wide even as he was enjoying the view of Gareth bending over a saucepan to taste the contents. “You are a witch with scary cat ears,” he told his tablet.
Jack’s grin was veering towards goofy and he knew it. “Got a Happy Christmas email – just as I was remembering the second Christmas I spent in hospital. That woman is a witch. She can hear me thinking.”
Gareth pulled a tray of golden venison pies from the oven and set them on the counter to cool. They looked gorgeous and smelled even better so Jack hopped from his perch and crossed the kitchen. He expected a snark comment about the mental health of anyone burdened with the contents of his mind, but Gareth was clearly a mind reader himself. Without prompting he held out a fork, followed a moment later by a pie on a plate.
“Have I met her?”
“No. Though I’m thinking of introducing you. She’s bound to hit you over the head with a rolling pin when she realises who you are.”
Jack waved off the question when something else occurred to him. “On second thoughts, maybe she’ll hit me over the head with the rolling pin for walking away from so fine an ass.”
“You mean she knows about us?”
“Sort of.” The venison pie was a thing of beauty, made entirely of succulent chunks of meat, thick spicy gravy and richly scented steam. Standing close to Gareth, surrounded by warmth and food, Jack found it much easier to tell the story than he’d thought.
“I rented rooms from Mel when I first… well, after I left,” he began and took another bite of pie. “I was supposed be at Rio’s but I was feeling sorry for myself,” he continued the story once he’d finished his mouthful. “Mel is this tiny slip of a woman, five feet nothing, but a spitfire like you wouldn’t believe. She wasn’t going to let me spend Christmas alone with a few bottles of Jack, and nothing I said could change her mind. On Christmas morning she dragged me out of bed to help with the turkey when she had a heart attack. Right there in her kitchen.”
“I took her to St. Thomas’ – hey, I even remembered to turn off the oven before I hoofed it out of there! – and they sent her straight for bypass surgery. I sat there in the surgical ward, waiting to hear how she was, and they had that uplifting stuff on a loop,” he waved a hand towards the sound system to remind Gareth of their earlier conversation. “Drove me nuts.”
A second pie landed on his plate before he could ask and Jack grinned crookedly. “Bribery will get you anything.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” There was a hint of a lazy smile in Gareth’s voice. “Now finish your story.”
Jack leaned against Gareth, giving him most of his weight. His lover’s warmth was comforting in more than just the physical way and when Gareth wrapped an arm around him and pulled him tight, Jack didn’t try to hide the content sigh that made its way out of his throat.
Mel McDonald had turned what could have been one of the worst days in his life into something he didn’t have time or reason to regret. From the moment he met her, the woman had amazed him with her capacity to look out for others. So merely calling an ambulance when she doubled over in her kitchen clutching her chest hadn’t even been an option. Instead, Jack had thrown her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, turned off the oven and hoofed it to the hospital in the best Army tradition. Luckily, she didn’t live far and maybe one day he’d even tell Gareth about that mad dash with a scared, barely breathing woman in his arms.
“The operation lasted for hours. I couldn’t sit still and the music was torture until one of the nurses took pity and sent me to St. Martin’s to calm down. I listened to the choir, then went home to wait for her family to arrive. When I came back to the hospital a few hours later, Mel was out of the OR and in a room without piped music.”
“You saved her life.”
Jack shrugged, glad that he could remember the events without the desolation he’d felt then. He set his empty plate down, draped his arms around Gareth’s neck and rested his head on Gareth’s shoulder. “She saved mine, too. So I’d say we’re even.”
“Do you still see her?”
“Sure. I was even thinking of inviting her here on Christmas Day.”
“Really?” The delight in Gareth’s voice was impossible to miss. He’d started his Open House at Christmas Day while he still served and had no intention to break the tradition now that he was a civilian. His hands slipped around Jack’s waist and into the back pockets of his tight black jeans. “Why didn’t you?”
“Brand new granddaughter. I promised to keep an eye on her flat while she puts the fear of god into the rest of the Scots.” Jack brushed a soft kiss over Gareth’s lips, catching a trace of the relish Gareth had been cooking and a hint of red wine. “Hmmm,” he purred. “You taste inviting.”
“So I have no need for bribery to lure you upstairs?” Gareth’s hands closed over Jack’s ass and heat flashed through Jack as Gareth pulled him hard against his thigh.
“You never do,” Jack admitted and he knew it was true. Whether it was need at its most basic, or a few quiet hours leisurely exploring each other, whether Jack needed to stop thinking, or Gareth needed help relaxing, Jack never needed to be convinced. He loved the feel of Gareth’s hands on him, loved that the other man knew him better than anyone else alive and that sometimes a simple look was enough to set his blood on fire. Jack tightened his arms around Gareth’s neck and let himself float on a wave of arousal. The heat in Gareth’s eyes was enticing. Just as enticing as the clear intent in the hands that kneaded his ass and rocked their bodies together. If Gareth wanted to take this upstairs, Jack would be more than willing. “Don’t wanna stop you from…”
Gareth couldn’t see Jack waving at his kitchen, but he must have felt the movement. In answer, the hands on Jack’s butt grew more insistent, hitching the younger man higher and urging his body closer. “I’m done with the pots for now,” he growled, voice made from husk and gravel. “Not done with you.”
Gareth’s lips closed over Jack’s, his tongue sought entry and moments later Jack was lost in heat and want and spice. Gareth was ravenous, the kiss devouring and before Jack realised that they’d moved at all his back hit the sheets of their bed. An instant later Gareth landed on top of him, driving Jack’s body deep into the mattress. Hands yanked the polo shirt from Jack’s belt and pushed it up. A rough pinch and twist to his nipple had Jack’s body jerking in a confused mix of shock and pleasure.
“Gareth!” He gasped the name, head spinning from lack of oxygen. His hands found the hot skin and rippling muscles of his lover’s back. He hadn’t noticed Gareth shedding his shirt, but he took full advantage of the fact that the man was bare from the waist up. His fingers clung, blunt nails dug long furrows while Gareth kissed him as if he was trying to eat him alive.
Having Gareth maul him without restraint was heady stuff, since his lover was usually the epitome of controlled and deliberate. But when Gareth held Jack’s head still and started to drag long lines of kisses from Jack’s ear to his collarbone, Jack couldn’t muster the brainpower to wonder what had happened to get Gareth into this sort of mood. He was far too turned on.
The jingle of a belt buckle, the hiss of a zip and Gareth’s hands dragged Jack’s briefs and jeans down and off before Jack could rouse himself enough to help. More jingling and swish of cloth and then Gareth was naked, too.
Teeth grazed his inner thigh and Jack bit a shout in half before desperately trying to swallow the groan Gareth’s teeth dragging over his hipbone forced out of him. There would be marks come morning, but it wasn’t rough play as much as strategically applied torture and Jack was losing his mind at a shockingly rapid rate. He never heard the pop of the bottle cap – too lost in the drag of teeth on skin – but he felt it when slick fingers rubbed over his entrance, pressing and teasing.
He groaned, bucking against Gareth’s hold, but the damn man wasn’t taking the hint. They’d played in the shower that morning, so as far as Jack was concerned all Gareth’s careful fingering was nothing but added torture. He waited for Gareth’s husky chuckle to confirm his suspicion, but fingers were all he got. Insistent fingers, then more teeth over his hipbone and then… finally… a hot mouth where he needed it most.
Jack didn’t care that his thrashing turned the sheets into a tangled mess. He didn’t care that his curses and moans bounced off the walls. He wasn’t usually that loud, but then Gareth wasn’t usually so driven. It was unbelievably hot and Jack howled with relief when Gareth finally leaned against the backs of Jack’s thighs and buried himself in Jack’s ass in one long stroke. It was beyond infuriating when the damn man then went totally still. Jack was a quivering mess of anticipation, desire strung so tight it hurt. Yet all Gareth seemed to want was lean over him and kiss him slowly and thoroughly, as if he’d never done it before.
Lack of air forced a tiny distance between their lips, enough to turn the devouring kiss into a soft slide of lips.
“Goddammit Gareth, move,” Jack pleaded, his hot breath blowing across Gareth’s lips. “You’re killing me.” And in truth, Jack was burning up, his skin too tight, his body on overload and all he needed was friction. He tried to shift his hips, but Gareth’s weight held him pinned and helpless.
“I should have never let you go,” Gareth husked, mouth so close to Jack’s ear the words raised goosebumps on Jack’s body. “Should have told you. Should never….”
Gareth started to move in hard, short strokes, while he continued to whisper apologies in Jack’s ear. In an instant, Jack’s mind was beyond making sense of spoken words. Heat seared through Jack at each hard thrust, fire consumed him from the inside out, his mind clouded with bliss and the tension built into a fiery wave that finally swamped him.
He might have shouted Gareth’s name… or curses… but it mattered little until their passion was spent and the fierce need to touch and take gentled into endless, languid kisses.
Jack had never had that with a lover before, that aftermath of touching and kissing and just being together without the need to move, explain or even talk. He found it peaceful and oddly reassuring that even his mind was quiet when they lay together basking in each other like this, that puzzles just explained themselves and problems unravelled without serious thought.
“Tell me,” he requested after a time and wasn’t surprised when Gareth answered with nothing but a deep, heartfelt sigh and another long kiss.
“It’s silly,” the man finally admitted a long while later. “Every time I hear more of your past I wish I’d tried to stop you from leaving all those years ago.”
“You did try,” Jack reminded him.
“Not hard enough. If I’d told you how I felt, you might have-”
“Bullshit.” Jack rolled and stretched out on top of his lover. Hot skin met hot skin from ankle to sternum. He leaned on his elbows and smiled into Gareth’s amber eyes. “I ran because I was scared,” he said without a hint of apology in his voice. “I thought I loved you. And I’d almost gotten you killed. If you’d told me how you felt I would have freaked out.”
“But you had to go through so much shit-”
Jack stopped the recriminations with his lips, letting the soft kiss grow increasingly heated. “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t, and you know it,” he said. His hands found their way into Gareth’s hair to grip and pin, his hips rocked in a gentle rhythm and lips, teeth and tongue marked a trail from Gareth’s lower lip to his ear and back until the man was clutching at Jack’s back, moaning and shivering. “That’s better,” Jack husked, breathing warm breath over Gareth’s ear and dragging his hips down with clear intent. “Now stop beating yourself up over things you can’t change. And do something about the things you can.”