One thing I hope comes through in all my books is the idea of family, those we are born into and the people we gather along the way. And, since I can’t seem to stop crossing over characters, anyone who’s read all my books knows it’s not uncommon to see characters from one series appear in another…a lot. Even the characters from Brewing Up Trouble, a book so far outside my South Florida world, turned up in His Premier. For new readers, this might not be such a good thing and I apologize in advance, but I promise I have a good reason—I love building connections that become part of the big family that I think of as my characters.
That’s what this month’s dual Slice of Life is about. Family. All of them. And by dual, I mean two scenes. Every month I (try to) write two Slice of Life scenes—one to appear on the blog for free and one for my patrons starting at the $5 a month level. Since these scenes average 2K to 3K each, that’s potentially 6K words going to extra content a month. It’s not always easy, let me tell you, but it’s something I’m committed to doing and sometimes what starts on the blog needs to continue. If you’re wondering if this happened before, the answer is yes. Saul’s birthday morning continued into an angst-ridden birthday dinner that didn’t go as he wanted.
This may seem like a shameless push for the Patreon, but why else would I have it if not to entice people to join it? Will you ever get to see those scenes if you never join? Sure, there will be a Slice of Life 2017 ebook up for sale next year.
All that said…it’s time to dive in. Since I know there are people who haven’t read every book, I will link the first character to appear from each book—so in the case of the opening, I linked Colin to his book with Arnaud where Jim and Michel are secondary characters. I hope that makes sense because I don’t want to go link crazy.
“You do know that thirty-three is not that big of a deal, right?” Colin told Arnaud again as Jim exited I-95 to pick up Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach. His driver smirked at him in the rearview mirror, clearly in on whatever plans had been made despite his many objections. Though he hadn’t celebrated his birthday in years, much to the horror of the other men in the house, Arnaud insisted that they do it up in style. “I really hope you didn’t make your brother go to any trouble.”
Instead of reassuring him, Arnaud scoffed, “Of course, I made Michel go to a lot of trouble because it’s your birthday and I’ve already missed out on too many of them.”
The reminder never failed to twist his insides. “That’s on me, not you, and…”
“Colin, stop.” Arnaud put a hand over his mouth, cutting off his words. “This is our second chance. It’s not a repeat of the first and I’m not trying to recreate anything. That doesn’t change the fact that there are things I…we…missed out on that bother me—like birthdays. Do you really believe that I was able to let the day pass without thinking about you and wishing for just this opportunity? Of course, we’re going to celebrate your life, Colin. It means the world to me.”
Colin tried to speak past the lump in his throat, but all he could do was stare in wonder. Just the idea of Arnaud remembering his birthday every year they were apart made him want to…fuck, he didn’t even know. It was touching and sad, sweet and heartbreaking, and it only made his stomach twist even more. The guilt that was only marginally easier since their reunion fed off those conflicting emotions, perverting Arnaud’s beautiful words until Colin had to look away.
“We’re not doing this tonight, Col.” There was nowhere to hide, not when Arnaud gripped his chin and forced his head around. “I’d be happy if we never had to do it again, honestly, but we are definitely not doing it tonight.”
The urge to apologize was there, scratching at his throat to get out and beg for forgiveness, and only the knowledge that Arnaud didn’t require either kept them inside. He wouldn’t ruin this night for Arnaud and that’s exactly how he saw it, even though it was his birthday. Thankfully, he was saved from saying anything when Jim pulled up in front of Michel’s restaurant.
As the car eased to a stop, Colin watched Arnaud’s concerned expression turn wary and he nearly groaned out loud. Before even turning around, Colin knew what he would find. The detached building boasted a front wall of floor to ceiling windows that showed off the beautiful dining room. When he looked, he saw that and dozens of familiar faces, balloons, banners…Arnaud hadn’t just taken him to dinner, he’d thrown him a party.
“Did you invite everyone we know?”
Arnaud snorted in open amusement. “I’m pretty sure there are people in there that I don’t know, so no. I invited everyone you care about and told them to invite anyone I might not have met yet.”
Colin used to think that list was small, but seeing them gathered together made him realize that despite his best attempts to maintain some distance, he was powerless to stop the Connor effect. Celebrating his birthday still wasn’t high on the to-do list, but he did enjoy their gatherings.
“You’re smiling.” The surprise in Arnaud’s voice tugged at one of the guilt strings, but then his lover smiled back. Thoroughly pleased with himself and not bothering to hide it, Arnaud scrambled through the door Jim opened and grabbed his hand to tug him out. “Come on, before it disappears!”
Laughing despite himself, Colin let himself be pulled along and when Arnaud yanked open the restaurant door, the wave of birthday wishes became thunderous. It was insane, really, that all these people had come together for him. That they’d taken time out of their lives to mark his day was…wow. Just wow.
“Don’t even think about bolting,” Jacky warned, grabbing his free arm in a death grip that was equal parts ‘you can’t leave your own party’ and ‘don’t you dare leave me alone in this crowd.’
“You knew the whole time?” Of course, he did. Arnaud would need help connecting with everyone and they’d become thick as thieves. “And you managed to keep it a secret.”
“Well, duh. Did you think I’d refuse the chance to see this happy panic on your face?” Jacky grinned and drew him into a bone crushing hug. “Happy birthday, brother.”
As he got drawn further into the room, he could feel Jacky drift toward Arnaud as they stayed in step with him. Yes, thick as thieves, and he was so grateful that Arnaud understood and was happy to give Jacky what he needed.
“Well, would you look at that smile. Not only did we manage to surprise you, but you’re happy about it?” Bull asked as he drew him in for a one-armed hug. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“Could be shell shock.” Colin’s efforts to downplay it were met with hearty laughter and a pat on the back that he’d be feeling for days before Bull passed him off to his husband. Red took one look at his face and joined the laughter as he opened his arms. Colin sank into them gratefully and warned, “I think your man just snapped my spine.”
No concern was forthcoming, just more birthday wishes as another pair of arms wrangled him from Red. Billy held him by the shoulders and looked him over as if inspecting him for wrinkles or gray hairs. “Dude, happy to know you’re still older than me!”
Liam popped up between them, unintentionally—or probably totally intentionally—getting himself trapped between them and threw his arms around Colin, drawing him in for a strange three-way hug. “Ignore my man, Col. The closer he gets to the big three-o, the crazier he becomes.”
The reminder that they would have another reason to celebrate soon made him smile even though he was trying to pretend this shit didn’t make him as happy as it did. “Hmm, why do I feel like you’re planning something epic?”
“Because you’re a smart man?” Liam’s laughter drowned out Billy’s grumbling and then Colin was being jerked around to face Chris.
The behemoth was as grim faced as Colin had ever seen him and if he hadn’t known better, he might have stepped back from the impact. Just as quickly, those strong features settled into a little grin. Not overly jovial like the others, but serenely happy in a way that made Colin feel happy for him. It had been a long time in coming. “Happy birthday, Colin.”
Like Bull, Chris’s hug left him gasping for air and when he met Owen’s knowing smirk over Chris’s shoulder, he managed to squeak out a plea for help. “Your husband’s cutting off my oxygen supply.”
For his joke, Chris squeezed tighter, actually stealing his breath before he released him. Colin staggered back with a hand to his chest and gave him his best mock glare. “You realize I’m an old man now, right?”
“So, you admit it?” Owen asked as he eased up to Chris’s side. Unlike everyone else he encountered so far, his business partner didn’t immediately reach for him and Colin respected that. Of them all, he was the least touchy feely. It didn’t mean he felt less—in fact, they both put a lot of faith in their personal and professional relationship—just that Owen was uncomfortable showing it.
Colin rolled his eyes and looked around the room. “It’s not like anyone can hear anything over all this noise, so you’ll never be able to prove it.”
“S’okay. Chris and I heard it and that’s enough for me.” Owen slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “Happy birthday, old man.”
“Who the hell are you calling old?” Ty demanded as he and Chase got in their space. The smaller man was tucked beneath the arm of his husband looking kiss-swollen and lust-addled. No doubt, they’d just come from violating a bathroom stall and Colin couldn’t help but grin. There was something comforting in knowing that marriage and parenthood hadn’t changed them at all.
Owen considered Ty with a combination of caution and amusement. There was a time when he would have backed away, apologized profusely, and probably tripped over himself in fear. Though that fear wasn’t entirely gone and might never be, he held his ground and even smiled in the face of what they all knew was bluster. Not that Ty couldn’t back it up if he felt inclined, but he never turned that ruthless nature on them.
With a convincing grumble, Ty lamented, “Damn it, Chase, Owen’s not afraid of me anymore.”
“It’s okay, Master, you still make me quake inside.” If Chase was trying to be reassuring, all he sounded was turned on and seductive. No one was surprised when Ty threw a half-hearted ‘happy birthday’ over his shoulder as he dragged a very happy Chase back toward the bathroom.
“Hey, guys.” Davin pushed his way through the crowd, taking up Ty’s spot as he smoothed back his hair. As Alaric came up beside him, Colin looked them both over and smothered a grin. Though they were definitely less conspicuous about it, the hastily put together look was interesting on the normally perfectly coiffed Alaric Bennett.
Arnaud chose that moment to come up to him, three drinks in hand, and paused to look over the pair. If asked, he doubted they’d be able to point to a specific thing that gave it away. Alaric and Davin just had that debauched look about them. It was unexpected and kind of hot.
“Uh, wow, your friends really know how to party,” Arnaud quipped as he passed over a drink before handing one to Jacky.
Davin blushed, which should have looked ridiculous on the hulk of a man, and Alaric grinned adoringly at the image he presented. That was even hotter than their matching just-fucked look.
“You guys are strangely cute.” Colin probably should have kept that to himself, but being surrounded by all the people he cared about and seeing their affection for one another was doing something to him.
“We’ve been called worse,” Alaric teased, then sobered. “Speaking of worse, I was talking with your old man earlier. He’s as uptight as I remember.”
Colin turned wide eyes on Arnaud. “You invited my parents?”
“Sort of?” Arnaud looked and sounded just as surprised as he was. “I invited Charlotte and your mom, but I had no idea he’d tag along.”
Sadly, it wasn’t something anyone would have expected. “Where is…?”
Before Colin could finish the question, the crowd parted and his grandmother was leading the Sinclair charge. There was a look of determination on her face, so Colin knew his father’s presence was more her doing than his desire. That alone made him wish the man hadn’t come. As if sensing his growing discomfort, Arnaud grasped his hand, Jacky planted himself on the other side, and the solid wall of a familiar chest pressed against his back
Despite feeling more stable than he had in years, Colin sank into that unyielding support as Saul’s deep, reassuring voice washed over him. “We’re all here with you.”
Though Colin’s gaze remained glued on his approaching relatives, he could feel the others in the room go on the defensive. Even Ty and Chase, who he was certain were otherwise engaged, appeared in his periphery looking fiercely protective. Whether they were actually standing behind him or metaphorically lending their support, the overwhelming presence of those around him made this easier.
Charlotte grinned when she stepped into his space, demanding his affection in that stately way of hers and Colin was glad to give it. As he took her in his arms, he wanted to whimper at the signs of age that seemed to be getting more pronounced with each passing year. That was life, he understood all too well, but he wasn’t ready to admit that she was a mere mortal or that someday he’d have to say goodbye. Thankfully, today was not that day.
“It’s going to be okay, Colin.” He wanted to believe her, but when he saw the unwelcoming stance his father had adopted, Colin knew that was just more of her wishful thinking.
She meant well, though, and he kept her close as his mother leaned in to give him her customary air kiss on each cheek. Like Owen, she wasn’t overly demonstrative, but it didn’t mean she didn’t love him. “Happy birthday, son.”
“Thank you, Mother.” As he watched her oh so politely thank Arnaud for including them, he could feel his father inch forward. Despite both their advancing years, Charles looked every inch the formidable presence Colin remembered from his youth.
Funny how he could look at his friends and see how far they’d come, yet Colin couldn’t get beyond the image the man had drilled into his head. It was ridiculous, actually, and not how he wanted to live the rest of his life. He was an adult, thirty-three as of today, wasn’t it time to let go of the issues that threatened his happiness?
The answer was unequivocally yes because it wasn’t just his happiness anymore and letting the past control him almost ruined the gift Arnaud was trying to give him. What had his lover said? That he would be happy if they never had to go there again. Colin agreed. He was tired of the hold it had on him.
“Father.” As an opener, it was lacking, but he wasn’t groveling and that was a huge start.
Charles cleared his throat and appraised him carefully. If he was aware that the room had gone completely silent in anticipation of his response, he didn’t show it. That was typical and Colin knew he wouldn’t cave to the pressure of the moment. Whatever his reasons for coming, he would see them through no matter what army Colin had at his back.
Knowing that, Colin braced and had no idea what to do when Charles closed the space between them and grabbed him in a rough hug. His own arms hung uselessly at his sides as he tried to reconcile what he believed would happen with the reality that his father was hugging him for the first time in his entire life. Still, it wasn’t until he saw the unmistakable shock on his mother’s face that he believed this was real and not just some grand illusion.
“Happy birthday, Colin.” Before he could formulate an appropriate response, Charles released him and stepped back two feet. Enough to give them both some much-needed space.
No one else made a sound, not even the wait staff, as they stared at one another and Colin honestly didn’t know what to say until he felt Arnaud’s hand tighten around his. The gentle reminder that he wasn’t alone loosened something inside him. Colin didn’t know where this was going, but he could either let the past rule this moment or he could start healing.
“Thank you. I’m glad you’re here.” They were more than just polite words and Colin tried to infuse them with the hope slowly building inside him. Before this moment, he didn’t believe there would ever be a reconciliation with his father and even though Arnaud hadn’t known he’d come, it was his gift that provided the opportunity.
“Me too.” Whatever else Charles was feeling in that moment, the sincerity of those two words bled into the room and released the pause button. Conversation resumed and music hummed in the background as Michel’s staff resumed mingling with trays of hors d’oeuvres. That seemed to jar his father out of whatever bubble they were in and he cleared his throat in the first sign of nerves Colin had ever seen. “If you have time this week, I was hoping we could talk. Maybe have lunch.”
“I’d like that,” Colin agreed wistfully as he watched his parents blend into the crowd and get caught up in a conversation with Bull. That was strange, but not unwelcome, and seeing them mingle with his friends had Colin looking at the man who made it all possible. “I love you.”
Arnaud was too busy kissing him to respond.