FREE HOLIDAY STORY

Charlie Mac from Broken Mercies can surprise us. In A HALO FOR CHARLIE MAC, he snares Danny’s sister Kate with an intriguing proposition. This very short story occurs after the action in Broken Mercies and introduces the main character of my upcoming novel No Malice.

Happy Holidays!


I placed another ornament on the tree. Blissfully alone while my daughter baked cookies with her stepmom, I was free to caterwaul along with the carols playing on the speaker. The doorbell pealed.

I stopped mid-yowl. “Well, shoot.” I looked down on myself. I hadn’t yet showered after exercising. I turned down the speaker and tugged my damp, oversize T-shirt to make sure my generous hips were adequately covered, and then I peered through the peep hole.

My brain clanked to a stop.

No way. A world-famous country singer was not standing on my half-walled wooden porch. Wearing a Santa hat.

I fumbled open the door an inch. Deliciously cool night air rushed past me. “Charlie Mac?”

The Christmas lights adorning my house splotched color on his rugged clothing, handsome features, and dyed brown hair beneath the white-rimmed hat. “Howdy, Katie!”

My brain jerked back into gear, and I scowled. “It’s Kate. Only my brother uses that nickname.”

Well, one other man called me Katie, but I wasn’t thinking about him anymore.

Charlie Mac’s jolly smile faltered. Then his wattage flared brighter than the Christmas lights. “Okay, Kate, how are you?”

“I’m well, thank you. Please come in.” Accustomed to faking composure in strained circumstances, I gestured him inside as if I entertained mega stars every other day.

Charlie Mac entered my miniscule San Jose home. I’d never met my brother’s ex-boyfriend and occasional pain-in-the-butt music partner. I looked up at his face—way up—and stepped away to avoid toppling backward. My cheerful blue and yellow living room had shrunk to doll-size around his hulking frame.

He flicked a doubtful glance over my sweaty hair and apparel. “Caught you at a bad time?”

“On the contrary. I’m all dressed up for a Christmas party.”

My pleasure at his confused expression let me know I’d grown extra witchy during the week since The Kiss.

With that guy who no longer existed in my world.

In any case, my brother had loved Charlie Mac, so the closeted musician couldn’t be that bad. I summoned more courtesy. “Have a seat. Would you like some coffee?”

He stirred uneasily, and for the first time, I noticed the red accordion file in his big hand. “Thank you, ma-am.” His country accent had thickened. A single drop of sweat slid down his temple.

My antennae jangled. “Is something wrong with Danny?” I asked sharply.

“Not at all. I haven’t seen your brother in a while, but I haven’t heard of any trouble.” He seated himself on the pale blue love seat, and his knees hiked close to his jaw. With a glance that carried an extraordinary amount of apology given the way my brother had described his self-centeredness, he pushed my coffee table further away from the sofa. The increased space allowed him to lower his knees. He set the red file on the table and gave it a little pat.

Mystified, I sat on the matching chair jammed at a close angle to the sofa. “What brings you here, Charlie?”

He ran a blunt finger around the neck of his plaid shirt and cleared his throat. “Uh, the coffee, please?”

“Of course.” I jumped to my feet and returned with a full Christmas mug. “Sugar? Cream?”

“Nah.” He sipped and winced. “Maybe cream?”

“Sorry. I only drink decaf. I’ll make a fresh pot of real coffee if you like.”

He consulted his watch. “Just the cream, please.”

I retrieved the cream and returned to my seat, fascinated by his nerves. From Danny’s comments, I’d gathered Charlie Mac was a bully who stomped over everyone’s feelings in order to get his own way.

He pulled papers out of the accordion file. “I have a proposition.”

My eyebrows climbed my forehead. “Ya?”

He grimaced. “That Minnesota accent. You sound like your brother.”

Gee, no kidding.

“Now, listen. Daniel told me about your daughter’s special ed situation, and I have a good project for her school district.”

“Ya?” My mental gears ground. Where was he going with this?

“I’d like my charitable foundation to hire special education aides for your local classrooms.”

I regarded him politely, blinking in slow motion.

“Katie, darlin’, you doin’ all right there?”

“Aides?” I said faintly. “Why?”

He leaned forward. His mega-star energy dimmed, and lines deepened around his suddenly hollow eyes. “You know what happened to me last summer, and why it happened, right?”

The tragedy, like so many others of late, had originated in mental illness. “I’m very sorry, Charlie.”

“I never knew the reason for the condition that ran through my family until your brother educated me. I passed on that condition to one of my two boys.”

He firmed his mouth but couldn’t hide the hurt so familiar to me. I expanded my lungs to fight the empathy squeezing my chest. “I don’t believe there’s anything more painful than watching our children suffer.”

Sighing, he leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands. “I married because I wanted kids. I was honest with their mama about being in the closet, but it was better to divorce.” His fingers whitened in his twisted grip. “I’m not a very good daddy.”

His low-voiced confession pulled on my heart. The precious trust he’d extended gave me a clue how he’d snagged my brother’s love. I wanted to cradle the naked emotions of this man who was accustomed to bulldozing his way through life. “I don’t have bipolar myself, but it shreds me to see my flaws hurt my daughter. But Charlie, it’s impossible to be perfect for our kids, especially when we had a hard time growing up.”

He looked away. “It’s freaky as all hell to see Danny Boy’s eyes in your face.”

As with my mom and daughter, innocence quaked at the center of Charlie’s bipolar disorder that unbalanced everyone around him. Compassion wasn’t always the best response. “Danny hates that nickname.”

Sure enough, he straightened his spine, and his face pinched with annoyance. “Well, tough shi—er, nuggets. He used to love when I called him that.” His focus turned inward. Heat glazed his eyes.

“Hey!” I made a time-out gesture. “This is my brother we’re talking about.”

“Right.” Charlie Mac gave himself a rough shake and pulled the red file closer. “Now, pay attention, little lady, because this here’s a good idea. You want to help the special needs students, right? Teachers ought to do more than corral behavior. There has to be some real learning going on, so we’ll get more aides in the classrooms, even a few one-on-ones here and there.”

Unbelievable. “One-on-one aides.” A fantasy, like unicorns. Only rarer.

The famous Charlie Mac grin blazed, and his deep chuckle rumbled down my spine. “Surprised?”

“Unh.”

The chuckle rumbled again. I was swamped by a yearning to hear another man’s laughter, but he was a man I couldn’t have. Not ever.

“Charlie, why do you want to start your project here?”

He spread the papers over the table. “My ex-wife figured out what my son needs by way of special education, but we want to keep public focus away from him in Tennessee. Since you’re Danny Bo—er, that is, Daniel’s sister, I know about the book you wrote. True Love’s Cost will publicize the project because it helps people understand what causes special needs. The book hits the heart but good, little girl. Nice work.” He granted me his patented Charlie Mac charmed smile.

I barely stopped my lip from curling at The Great One’s compliment. “Plus you want Danny’s attention.”

The smile was replaced by a glare that probably intimidated most everyone on the planet, and then a laugh burst out of him. “You don’t scare easy. I’d swear you and Daniel were twins if I didn’t know you’re several years younger.”

I clamped my lips against the charisma radiating from him like a heat lamp and craved the quieter appeal of… no one. I didn’t want anyone. Really.

“Anyhow, I’m going to lasso other musicians to join the foundation, because let’s face it, the right kind of legal changes won’t be made any time soon. With a lot more help in the special ed classes, we’ll be able to catch a few kids before their frustration grows into violence.”

He paused and frowned. “Stop that.”

I shook my head. Stop what?

With a put-upon sigh, he stood and looked around, found the bathroom, and came back with a box of tissues.

Oh. I blew my nose.

“Shoot, your hazel eyes turn greener just like Daniel’s when he’s upset.” He touched my hair. “And this is the same shiny brown with red highlights.”

I jerked my head and narrowed said green-brown eyes.

His lips curved in a small, genuine smile, and I liked him much better without the star persona. He sat and pushed the file toward me. “Why don’t you look over these papers and see what you can do to help?”

“I couldn’t possibly. I’m too mixed up right now.” I wouldn’t be able to decipher the words.

Charlie Mac considered me and then nodded as if my appearance confirmed my statement. “All right. If I send my charity guy, you’ll work with him?”

“Ya.” How could I not?

“You don’t mind publicizing your book?”

“Publicity wouldn’t hurt my feelings. Did you read the novel?”

“Er, I tried a few years ago.” His left eye twitched. “I thought it might help me figure out how to keep Danny Boy.”

Quite an admission. “Must’ve been tough reading for you. The novel pulls no punches.” I’d been explicit about what happens to kids when parents ignore their own symptoms, and Danny had been tortured by Charlie Mac’s unwillingness to treat his bipolar disorder.

Yet I sensed no feverish energy bubbling beneath Charlie’s surface. At some point, he’d surrendered to treatment.

“Your book didn’t help me. Somehow I just wasn’t enough for Daniel.”

The lack of self-pity in his tone earned my instant respect. “You’re not so bad.” I waved at the papers. “You certainly have a good heart.”

“Not good enough for your brother.”

“Well, the sleeping around kind of bothered him.”

Guilt looked foreign on Charlie Mac’s face. “I couldn’t…. I can’t seem to…. Well, even when I take the meds… um. You know?”

I tilted my head. “I understand monogamy isn’t a sure thing.” I left out “in gay relationships,” because really, what did I know? However, my family’s traumas had taught me more than a little about addiction, and I was aware of Charlie’s dependence on the adrenaline of rage and sex. “In any case, I’m no one to judge. I’m addicted to carbs.”

He stuck out his chin. “If you can understand, why can’t your brother?”

“He has the right to ask for monogamy.”

An impossible goal. He pouted, and his maturity dropped from late thirties to early teens. “Shee-it.” He strode to the front door and swung it open.

“Charlie, are you sure it’s Danny’s approval you’re seeking with the school aide thing?”

He spun around. “I’m not looking for anyone’s approval!”

“Not even your own?”

He flinched. Then a grudging amusement gleamed in his eyes, revealing at least the start of self-awareness. I was impressed. Clearly he’d included therapy with his treatment, an enormous concession for an adult male with a fragile ego. “You and your brother. Scary what you see.” He turned to leave.

“Wait.” I grabbed a piece of holiday headgear from the box of decorations near the tree and approached him. “Bend.”

He obeyed. I removed his Santa hat and slipped on the headband that dangled an angel’s shiny gold halo over his head. Then I grasped his face and placed a kiss between his brows. “Thank you for inviting me into this miracle.”

Straightening, he gulped and accepted the Santa hat I extended. “Uh, sure.”

“Merry Christmas,” I quavered, though I was the one who’d received an overwhelming gift.

We blinked wet eyes at each other. He fiddled with the Santa hat. His nod bobbled the angel headgear, and he clomped down the porch. A dark SUV lurked at the curb. He climbed in, the engine turned, and the lights flashed on. The vehicle roared off.

I shut the door and turned up the Christmas music. The red folder called out to me. I sat and leafed through the pages. The plan was detailed and very workable. “Wow.” The file should’ve been labeled “Hope” in large, glittery letters.

I’d had enough experience to give advice about hiring aides, and my book could promote better understanding. If the pilot program succeeded, my numerous life failures might fade a little in comparison.

And maybe my inability to give a certain man what he deserved wouldn’t matter quite so much.

“Ave Maria” came over the speakers. I sat back and let a few more tears leak.

Charlie Mac might be shadowed by illness, but his halo cast a fierce glow.

BOOK GIVEAWAY! (CLOSED! THANK YOU FOR PARTICIPATING!)

Lucy Marker talks about the kindness of a roomful of gorgeous men in the Prism Book Alliance blog tour for the GRL 2015 retreat. You can still read the blog here:

CLICK HERE!

 

JEREMY'S FIRST CHRISTMAS

December 2006

December, 2006

Piano notes swept over Jeremy Evans in delicate waves. Rain tapped out an accompanying rhythm against the windows of the small San Jose rental, and he snuggled deeper into the comfy chair that molded his body like a warm hug. The chair had been placed beside the baby grand to tempt him to sit and stay a while.

As if he needed extra incentive to remain close to Danny Gilchrist. In the stormy December afternoon, cinnamon candles and the gas fireplace illuminated the muscles rippling across Danny’s back and shoulders beneath a tight black T-shirt. Denim-covered thighs surged with the movement of his feet on the pedals. The music’s sweetness perfectly suited his sensitive features: the slight curve of his mobile mouth, the fine nose, the fall of chestnut hair over his forehead…. Jeremy could stare forever.

Danny hummed a melody. Then he dropped the piano notes into a lower register, a more seductive backdrop for his velvety baritone that shivered down Jeremy’s spine. Danny didn’t stop playing, but his satisfied grin told Jeremy he’d noticed the reaction.

The deepening laugh lines around his eyes and mouth slammed an invisible mallet into Jeremy’s chest. Happiness looked so damn gorgeous on his guy.

What a change eleven months and a little bit of loving had made. Okay, a lot of loving. When they’d met in rehab last January, Danny had looked worn out and breakable, like a casual frown could wipe him out.

Even then, the first time their gazes connected, the unfiltered honesty in Danny’s hazel eyes told Jeremy he could be trusted to the marrow. Jeremy had promptly latched onto him with all of his might.

Smartest thing he’d ever done.

Danny was magical. He’d brought Jeremy into a dazzling world of fun and love. For the first time in his life, he actually wanted to wake up every morning.

And the music! He melted further into the chair. He closed his eyes, and the gentle notes transformed into color-drenched images. Danny worked over the song, altering the melody line, adding and taking away notes. He struck complicated chords not all once, but a single note at a time in rapid succession. Jeremy’s mental painting filled out.

Half an hour later, the final chords resonated, and the wordless humming trailed off. Jeremy kept his eyes closed, allowing the canvas in his mind to solidify.

“You’re smiling.”

Well, yeah. And Danny deserved a reward. He’d once admitted Jeremy’s blue laser glare flipped his switch big time, so Jeremy opened his eyes and shot out some heat.

Faster than a man his size should’ve been able to move, Danny leaped off the piano bench, lifted him from the chair and sat in his place. He settled Jeremy in his lap.

“What were you thinking?” He nuzzled Jeremy’s neck, triggering another shiver.

“What were you playing?” Jeremy countered.

“Ah.” Danny drew back. His eyes crinkled with an almost-smile. “You were painting out my music in your head. What does this one look like?”

“Stained glass, uh….” Jeremy groped for an adequate description. “Wavelets. They spread over a background barely tinted a sage green.” He stroked one of Danny’s palms. “The waves are about the size of your hands, almost clear on the bottom. They deepen in color until the edges are topped with darker rainbow lines.” He shook his head, frustrated. He hadn’t done the image justice. Danny was the lyricist who painted pictures with words.

“Wow.” Danny lifted their clasped hands and dropped a kiss on the back of Jeremy’s. “You’re so keyed into me. That was the impression I was going for. Soft waves of sound.”  

“We’re keyed into each other.” Jeremy cuddled closer. At thirty-nine, he was five years younger, several inches shorter and many pounds lighter than Danny, yet the safety he found in Danny’s arms came not from his size but from his solid gold heart.

“What were you playing?” he asked again. “With no lyrics, I had no clue.”

“Christmas song.”

Jeremy’s contentment dropped like a sack of cement, and he struggled to stand.

“Wait.” Danny grabbed his hips and held him in place. “You get that look every time Christmas is mentioned. Tell me what’s bugging you.”

Jeremy scowled. Danny might act like he had no self-confidence, but when he made a decision, he turned into a freaking bulldozer.

“Jer.”

“I don’t like Christmas. Never have. End of discussion.”  

Gentle fingers turned his face. “Hey.”

Danny’s relentless kindness drilled through his defenses, and he blinked fast to avoid tearing up. Except for those moments when Danny’s sweetness gave his heart an extra thump, he hadn’t cried in years—and never once for the creep who’d damn near ruined his life. “I already told you about it. I was sixteen. One of Mom’s johns tried to do stuff to me. I lost my temper.”

Danny ran his fingers through Jeremy’s hair. He claimed to love the dark blond, shoulder-length mess, and Jeremy would sooner slice off his nose than make him unhappy with a haircut. “I take it the incident happened around Christmastime?” When Jeremy said nothing, he prodded, “There’s more to the story.”

His gentleness wouldn’t let Jeremy skip over the ugliness. Jeremy slumped. “I washed dishes at a downtown restaurant, so it was after eleven when I got home. Mom had been shooting up as usual when I left for school that morning, so I checked on her in the bedroom.” His throat closed up.

Danny’s silence as he stroked his hair might as well have been a military order to keep talking.

Jeremy forced out more words, but they came out vibrating. “I hadn’t heard the guy walk into the apartment after me, because she was just there. On the bed. And the needle. It was… the needle was still stuck in her arm.”

“Oh, Jer.” Danny enclosed him in a vise-hold. “I’m so sorry. You never told me how she died. You were only sixteen, and you found her. Holy God.”

He squirmed free. Danny must have sensed his need to feel like an adult, because he didn’t resist when Jeremy moved to the padded arm of the chair. “I walked into the living room, and that POS pulled a knife on me. I lost it. I don’t know what made me finally stop hitting him. I came back to reality sitting on the couch holding the knife, and he was a mess on the floor.”

He stared at his hands, slippery with crimson horror, his knuckles swollen from the beating. He held a dripping knife.

“Hey.” Danny’s large hand moved over his, breaking up the image. “It’s a memory. Happened a long time ago. Now you’re here with me. Breathe.”

He gasped. He hadn’t realized his lungs had frozen. “Um. So I told him to go. He was too hurt to drive, and I let him call a friend. I sat there—” dripping gore and gagging— “until another loser came and got him. Then I cleaned up the linoleum floor, washed out the rags I used, changed clothes, and called 911.”

Police, paramedics and other officials had filled the tiny apartment, asking questions and poking around. He must’ve looked as sick as he felt, because everyone had been kind. And just as he’d figured, the obvious cause of death kept them from looking for evidence that might’ve messed up their conclusions, like traces of the john’s blood. He’d put on a long-sleeved shirt that hung over his swollen knuckles.

Then Mom had left the apartment for the last time zipped into in a black bag.

Danny gave his back a soothing rub. Jeremy gulped. She didn’t deserve his tears.

“The john didn’t make a fuss about what you did to him,” Danny said. “He knew he’d have been questioned about your mom’s death.”

“Exactly. He’s the one who got her the H. I never mentioned him to the police, and no one in that neighborhood ever confided in them, so I didn’t get into trouble. No one cared. She was just another dead addict in East San Jose.” He picked at the ratty brown velour on the chair arm. “So now you know. It was December 23rd. I don’t remember Christmas day,” he lied, because he didn’t want to pollute Danny with the screwed-up-ness of his life back then.

“You had no nice Christmases before then, Jer?”

Jeremy examined their joined hands.

Danny waited.

Detaching from him, Jeremy stood and looked into the cheery fire. He slid his hands into his jeans pockets. “Mom wouldn’t celebrate. Said she’d gotten knocked up with me around this time of year, and I’d ruined her life.”

“That bitch.” Danny stood, and his hands came around Jeremy’s waist. He was a solid wall at his back. “She was dirt-stupid and completely blind not to see how amazing you are.”

“We’re talking about an addict,” Jeremy reminded him, covering Danny’s arms with his own.

“But we weren’t like that. We didn’t neglect innocent kids before we sobered up.”

No, but Jeremy hadn’t been a good person by any stretch. “Anyway. That’s why I skip the holiday. I pretty much hibernate. I paint every night until most of the Christmas lights have come down.” A ritual purging. He slashed angry pigment on canvases and then destroyed them.

Danny turned him around. “Hey—”

“No. Don’t make a fuss. Tomorrow I’ll return to my apartment on the coast, and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”

Sticking out his jaw, Danny gripped Jeremy’s shoulders.

Oh, what now? Jeremy tried to mentally arm himself. Danny had way too much power over him.

“You know I had shitfire Christmases too, during my childhood and later on from the drinking.”

Immediately disarmed, Jeremy fingered the loose curls hanging over Danny’s forehead. Though he was forty-four, no silver threaded the shiny chestnut. “I hate how you suffered. Our sick moms aren’t an excuse for our addictions, but they sure as hell were the reasons we needed an escape in the first place.”

“Jer, other than the small slips that caused us to meet in rehab last January, you and I have been sober for years.”

“And?”

“And from now on, we’re going to create happy Christmas memories together.”

Stepping back, Jeremy shook his head. “No.” No messing with success. He’d managed to stay glued together for a lot of Christmases, and the last few had been entirely sober. “You go ahead and celebrate with your sisters. I’ll stay in Moss Beach.” He wanted to race home to the safe isolation of his above-garage apartment.

Danny smiled, and his eyebrows rose in shy appeal.

Jeremy’s chest hurt. “Don’t do that.” But Danny knew him too well. His spreading grin pulled more painful love from beneath Jeremy’s sternum. “Aw, Danny.” How could he deny something that meant so much to him?

“It’ll be good, you’ll see.” Danny rubbed his hands together like he’d been presented with a tableful of pastries. “We’ll buy a live tree in a bucket. We’ll keep it on the patio the rest of the year. And we’ll choose ornaments together to make sure we both like them.” Olive green overtook the brown in his hazel eyes, his particular tell of high emotion. “It’s been an age since I’ve had a real home to decorate.”

With a helpless wave of his hand, Jeremy tried again. “But I don’t even live here.”

“When we’re together, I’m home.”

Jeremy staggered. “Oh man, warn me when you’re going to drop a bomb like that.”

Danny pulled him into his arms. “Don’t you know how it works with us? If I’m not pulling you deeper, then you’re the one who’s dragging me along. At first, change always feels dangerous, but then we’re so damn happy.”

Jeremy groaned. “I know, but—”

Danny took his mouth in an invasive, joint-dissolving kiss. Little bursts of pleasure fired wherever their bodies made contact.

Sweet, hot bliss.

The kiss ended. Jeremy whimpered and strained to reconnect their mouths but met with resistance. He found himself wrapped around Danny, legs around his hips and arms around his neck.

Danny set him back on his feet, his hands slipping away from Jeremy’s butt. He tilted his head toward the front of the house. “Doorbell.”

Jeremy let his forehead hit Danny’s hard pecs. The bell gonged. “How did I miss that?”

“I’ll take it as a compliment.” Danny made sure his T-shirt drooped low over the front of his jeans and strode across the living room.

Jeremy didn’t bother adjusting his clothes. Anyone rude enough to drop by without calling first deserved to know they’d interrupted a private moment.

Danny opened the front door. “Deanna!”

Jeremy frowned. Danny’s plump sister stood beneath the porch roof, folding a pink umbrella with tiny, precise movements. Strain pulled at her eyes and mouth, and her dull brown hair hung limp on rounded shoulders. Her clothes were a caricature of wifely modesty: knee-length skirt, twinset and clunky pumps. She was three years younger than Danny but looked much older.

“What’s wrong?” Danny gestured her inside.

Deanna stepped into the living room. She cast a hungry glance around the modest tract home. “I’ve been wanting to see where you live. Nice.” She tried to smile, but her mouth didn’t make it past a grimace. “Much better than the last place I saw. When was that, about two years ago?”

“Yeah, the atmosphere here is great.” Danny rested a hand on the back of Jeremy’s neck. “Really great.”

Her gaze landed on Jeremy.

“Hello, Deanna.” He’d met the oldest of Danny’s three sisters a few months earlier at another sister’s house. Her husband was a minister, and manure reeked less than his sanctimonious arrogance. Richard Wells had made sure their accidental meeting was brief.

Which was just fine. Danny protected his sobriety by staying away from his troubled family. After meeting Disciple Dick, Jeremy fully endorsed his decision.

Deanna greeted Jeremy and turned to her brother. “I’m glad I got here before Richard. You need to prepare yourself. He plans to blackmail you.”

Danny’s jaw dropped, and his face emptied of comprehension.

Electric fury zapped through Jeremy. “What the hell!”

“I’m sorry.” She glanced at the open door, then went and closed it. Her hands shook as she turned the deadbolt. “I had to warn you. You know he’s trying to get into politics. He’s organized a fundraiser, an early Christmas concert. He was going to sing with a band, but he was such a brat they backed out. He latched onto the idea of you playing with him for free. He knows about your ex, Danny.” She crossed her arms over her ribs. “He knows Charlie Mac needs to hide his orientation because he’s a country musician.”

“But why blackmail? Why didn’t he just ask me to play for him?”

She gaped. “Would you have agreed?”

Danny flinched. “Well, no. No offense, but—”

“He’s not stupid. He knows you don’t like him. Besides, taking advantage is the only way he knows how to operate.” Her lip curled. “Perfect for politics.”

Jeremy stepped forward. “If you don’t like what he does, then why—”

The doorbell gonged, and she jumped. Her face greened. “Oh God. I really am sorry. I couldn’t talk him out of it.”

Jeremy’s brain cranked into gear. “I’m going to make a call.” He left the room. When he returned four minutes later, he sat beside Danny on the sofa and placed his cell phone face-down on the coffee table. No one needed to know Jeremy’s agent was listening in.

Disciple Dick occupied the recliner as if it was a throne. Deanna sat in the puffy armchair beside the piano, her back rigid. Jeremy was glad to see the fire in her eyes. Despite her appearance as a meek religious wife, the woman had guts.

So why did she stay with Richard? Surely there were jobs out there for a woman who’d never used her psychology degree. She didn’t need him.

“How are Mark and Irene?” His expression mild, Danny was the picture of calm, his hands resting lightly on relaxed thighs. And he’d neatly reminded Richard about their priorities. “They’re sixteen and fourteen now, right?”

“You needn’t concern yourself with my children. They’re fine. I don’t know what Dee told you,” Richard said with an accusatory look at his wife, “but I’ve been asked to start making myself known in Santa Clara County’s political arena. My backers want me to sing at a Christmas fundraiser this weekend. The musicians let me down at the last minute, and I’d like you to accompany me.”

Danny crossed an ankle over the opposite knee. “Details.”

Richard hesitated as if caught off guard by the lack of resistance. “Details?”

“What type of concert? When and where? How many people?” Danny inclined his head. “What’s the blackmail?”

Jeremy blew out a breath. Danny was so cool.  

“Uh.” Richard blinked.

Deanna gave her brother a look of warm admiration, and she eased back in the chair. Jeremy’s wasn’t surprised. Handing over her problems to Danny wasn’t a new thing. When they were young, she and her sisters had relied on him to handle their mother’s maniacal rage.

“Well, I have to admit I like your directness.” Richard snapped the cuffs of his white dress shirt. “It’s like this: I won’t tell anyone Charles MacPherson is gay if you play the piano while I sing on Saturday. The fundraiser is being held at the high school auditorium near my church in Los Gatos. We hope to have at least a couple hundred in attendance.”

“And what will you do if I tell a few people about your blackmail attempt? I have friends,” Danny said gently. He left unspoken the implication his friends had power and influence, which was true. Besides appropriating Jeremy’s two FBI buddies, Danny had maintained connections with Charlie Mac’s people, including his professional security.

The color drained from Disciple Dick’s face, leaving him pasty beneath improbably dark hair.

Deanna clenched the material of her skirt. “Please, Danny.” Her voice was thick with humiliation.

He stiffened, and his face closed like a fist.

Crap. There it was. Forget the gay country singer; the real blackmail involved the welfare of Danny’s niece and nephew. Deanna wouldn’t beg unless there’d been some sort of threat to her children. She’d convinced her family Richard never hit, but Jeremy knew about emotional abuse. The damage lasted forever.

Crossing his arms, Danny narrowed his eyes at the man who’d just devolved into Demonic Dick. “If I’m reading you correctly, you’re hooking up with the religious right. How will you explain an openly gay man playing backup?”

Richard waved his hand in dismissal. “I don’t care if you screw elephants. No one will see you. We’ll hang a mic above the piano in a room behind the stage, and the music will come over the speakers.” He paused. “You can sing backup if you want,” he threw out casually.

Jeremy and Danny exchanged a glance. Richard’s fake disinterest in vocal accompaniment suggested a dire need. Richard wanted him bad, and Danny had just gotten leverage.

“I’m sure you want the music to sound good.” Perfectly serene, Danny faced down a blackmailer with the threat of a subpar performance. Jeremy wanted to applaud.

Demonic Dick’s lips thinned. “You’ll do your best,” he declared as if passing a law.

Danny shifted into a more relaxed posture. “The music?”

The Dick pulled notepaper from his suit pocket. “Here’s the list. You have four days to practice, but you used to be Catholic. I’m sure you’ve played these songs before.”

Extending his hand a tiny distance, Danny waited. Jeremy bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at the power play.

With a heavy sigh that suggested Danny was an annoying child, Demonic Dick stood and gave him the note.

Danny set the paper on the stone-tiled coffee table and picked up the pencil he’s been using on sheet music. He crossed off two songs and added one more. “This will be the selection.”

Yes! Danny had taken the reins.

Eyeing the paper, Richard shrugged. “Fine. They’re all traditional.”

“And there will be a nativity scene on the stage beside you,” Danny said.

“Why?”

Danny widened his eyes. “Don’t you think everyone’s attention should be focused on the reason for the season?”

Turning abruptly, Richard resumed his kingly position on the recliner. “Fine.”

Of course he didn’t like being caught in a less than Christian light. Jeremy rubbed a finger over his lower lip, his mental gears turning. Richard’s vanity gave Danny a lot of room to maneuver.

The Dick snapped out a few more instructions about keeping the music sedate. He ordered Danny to help his son Mark set up before the concert. Mark’s friends would help too—if the twerp had any friends, that is.

Jeremy wanted to smack him. Could somebody be a dick and an ass at the same time?

A few minutes later, their ugly business concluded, Richard and Deanna left.

Jeremy spoke to his agent on the cell phone, disconnected, and joined Danny outside as the couple walked to their cars. The rain had stopped. Yellow streetlight reflected off water puddles, and the chilly air smelled crisp, washed clean of the pervasive San Jose smog.

Deanna stopped to give Danny a “call me” gesture behind Richard’s back.

“Dee,” Richard snapped as he strode to his pricy little coupe. “You need to pick up the kids from their lessons and get dinner ready.”

She made a face and dropped an unseen curtsy at the Dick, then hurried to her old sedan. They drove off.

“She’s got spirit,” Jeremy said, relieved. She would be okay.

Danny nodded. “Ya, I think she’ll be okay. I bet she stays with him because he won’t let her take the kids if she leaves. And she probably protects them from his bullying.”

“Unlike what your dad did for you.” A huge understatement. His sick, untreated mother had been vicious, and his dad had ingested a lifetime dose of wilful blindness.

Danny sighed and rubbed his forehead, his shoulders drooping. “My family makes me tired.”

Jeremy wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned into him. “What are you planning for the concert?”

Straightening, Danny pulled a smile from somewhere. “Your agent listened in?”

“Yeah, so we have a witness. He took notes.”

“Come inside. Let’s do some thinking.”

Four nights later, Jeremy sat in a folding chair beside the baby grand in the school cafeteria that doubled as an auditorium. Richard hadn’t wanted to shell out funds for the piano, but he’d fallen into temptation and rented the showy, high-quality accompaniment. And since the piano didn’t fit in the back room, he couldn’t prevent his gay brother-in-law’s visibility beside the small stage at one end of the cafeteria. He’d made up for the concession by arranging for a single spotlight over his podium.

Jeremy smiled. Their alternate plans would irritate the hell out of Demonic Dick.

The program was set to start in ten minutes. Only half of the folding chairs were occupied by an elderly crowd. Was this the majority of Richard’s parish? If so, he wasn’t looking at a successful run for whatever position his cronies eventually chose for him. They were aiming for city council or school superintendent. Jeremy knew of a great job for the Dick, but garbage collector wasn’t an elected position—and that occupation was too honorable anyway.

The Dick already stood behind the podium at center stage. Above him a large banner displayed his narrow face. Giant letters proclaimed “Richard Wells: A Good Man for Our Future.”

Jeremy had to look away. The shark-toothed, dead-eyed smile grossed him out.

Danny motioned him over. In defiance of Richard’s decree for dressy clothes, they’d worn denim and flannel. Danny looked relaxed and confident.

And hot.

Having accompanied him on a few concert mini-tours, Jeremy enjoyed watching fans pant for him, because they could look all they wanted. Only Jeremy received the smile Danny wore right now, his eyelids heavy, his lips full. Goose bumps dusted over Jeremy’s shoulders.

Danny rested a hand on Jeremy’s hip. “I haven’t thanked you,” he said in a low voice.

Jeremy fought to keep circulation going to his upper head. “For what?”

Danny pulled him into his arms, shocking him with a PDA in front of the rigid religious. A loud huff came from Richard’s microphone. Danny ignored his brother-in-law and gave Jeremy a thorough kiss before releasing him. “Thanks for helping with tonight’s arrangements.”

“Uh.” Jeremy straightened his plaid shirt and sucked in air. “Well.” He reassembled his brain. “You’d have done fine on your own. You’re not devious like me, but you’re tough when you need to be.”

“You’re not devious. You’re a survivor. That’s strength.”

His throat constricted. He looked at his scruffy boots.

“I mean it. You’re one of the smartest men I know.”

But he wasn’t smart at all. He’d made dumbass, destructive choices most of his life. He hadn’t been able to finish college, and he didn’t get math at all. Budgets were way beyond his skill set.

He didn’t know how he’d managed to land on his feet. He’d gotten lucky, earning enough with his paintings to pay his agent to keep the bills straight, and the step meetings helped him avoid stupid decisions.

And now he had Danny.

“We all have different abilities,” Danny said, as if reading his mind, something that had occurred with increasing frequency over the past few months. “I would’ve been lost if you hadn’t helped me get around my fears. I love you, Jer.”

Oh man, Danny was solid gold, through and through. Jeremy had to cross his arms over his chest to keep from leaping on him.

Danny hissed in a breath. “You can’t look at me like that in public!” He turned and sat at the piano, his discomfort clear.

A fierce smile stretched Jeremy’s face, and he put an extra flame into his stare.

Danny clapped his hands over his eyes. “Stop!”

Chuckling, Jeremy resumed his seat on the folding chair in the row nearest the piano. He needed to keep Danny in his line of sight, if not within grabbing distance. No telling how this concert would pan out.

Concert. Right. He snorted. He’d barely endured this afternoon’s rehearsal. What yahoo had told Richard he could sing? At least the mic had picked up Danny’s strong voice, fleshing out the minister’s warble. Danny had played the old standards at a pace so sedate even Richard could keep up.

If it weren’t for Danny’s secret arrangements with his band, tonight’s performance would hurt a lot of ears.

Jeremy looked up. Holiday-colored fabric hung from the high ceiling in rows of two-foot ruffles. The fabric provided festive decoration—and concealment. No one expected Richard to notice the temporary grid that hid a few lights and small speakers between rows of fabric. Even if Richard did notice the grid, he didn’t know what they’d planned, and it was too late to make changes.

Deanna’s son Mark had fallen in love with their idea. Deanna had obtained afterschool access to the cafeteria, and the band had set up with Mark’s enthusiastic help.

The lights went out section by section, and the audience quieted. Jeremy tried to get comfortable on the unforgiving metal of the folding chair. The next couple of hours were going to be fun.

Thirty minutes later, he twitched as if his skin crawled with insects. Demonic Dick was torturing the audience with his rant. Close-minded, dictatorial, and about as far from genuine Christianity as a person could be, he was particularly offensive about how homoSEXuals hurt Jesus.

As if Jesus wouldn’t be more outraged by people using his name for political gain. Consensual love? Non-issue.

Jeremy swallowed back a sudden rise of nausea. Posers like Demonic Dick hooked believers far too easily. It was 2006, and instead of moving toward more acceptance, a lot of scared sheep were falling back into black-and-white fundamentalism.

But what could he do? He shook off his fear and checked out the audience. Even in the dim light, it was obvious they were bored. In the front row, fourteen-year-old Irene struggled to contain her yawns. Deanna sat quietly, the perfect image of a respectful wife. She must really love her kids, because wow. How else could she put on such an act for the Dick? The empty seat beside her raised Jeremy’s antennae. Mark should’ve been here by now.

A soft run of piano notes broke into Richard’s monologue, and the audience eagerly turned toward the piano. Jeremy had to smile. Even fundamentalists didn’t like long speeches.

“Well, I guess it’s time for that concert I promised you,” Richard said with a game smile. A smattering of applause rewarded him, and as if it was a signal, the doors at the back of the cafeteria opened. A swarm of teenagers entered, led by Mark. They chatted and laughed, screeching the metal chairs on the floor as they found their seats.

His mouth a slash of irritation, the Dick made a commanding gesture toward the piano.

Danny flashed a grin at Jeremy and launched into a slow carol. Richard began to sing. Breaking their agreement, Danny remained silent, and Richard’s tenor quavered. After long, painful minutes, the song finally ended. The applause was quietly polite. Sweat beaded Richard’s forehead. He guzzled water from a glass hidden within the podium.

Vindication warmed Jeremy. They’d trapped the minister with his vanity. The dirty look Richard threw at Danny was witnessed by the entire audience.

Taking mercy on everyone present, Danny finally provided vocal backup for the next carol. His voice resonated over Richard’s. Along with his sophisticated piano work, he produced a rich, beautiful ballad, and the crowd settled down to listen.

As planned, everyone was absorbed in Danny’s music. Hardly anyone paid attention to the back door opening and closing and unseen things happening in the back corners of the room.

At some point, the lighting had changed, bringing to life the large nativity on the stage. Richard had practically disappeared into darkness. Danny slid into a more religious song. His voice soared, and the audience looked spellbound. His baritone had incredible range.

Next came a fast, generic carol. A spotlight came on over a back corner, showing Danny’s bassist, who added depth with his guitar and harmonizing tenor. The audience twisted to locate the source of the new sound.

Jeremy checked the stage. Drowned out by the music, Richard faltered as he tried to keep up with the speeding tempo.

The opposite corner lit up, and Danny’s drummer burst into pounding rhythm. More musicians joined in from where they’d positioned themselves beneath new spotlights around the room. Their voices, a fiddle, and a second guitar added volume until the thunder rattled the cafeteria’s windows.

For the past few weeks, Danny and his band had been playing around with rocked-out Christmas songs. Now they smiled with the pleasure of entertaining.

And they were good. Jeremy couldn’t help jiggling his leg and wanted to jump up and dance. The younger segment of the crowd stood, hooting and clapping with the irresistible beat. After the carol came to a walloping conclusion, the audience went wild. Even the older people smiled and clapped. The band immediately launched into another number.

At the shadowed podium, Richard had stepped back, his hands on his hips. Jeremy met his scowl with a sweet smile. The pervert homo and his band had successfully hijacked the concert.

Jeremy turned to watch Danny. His shoulders and arms strained as he played. Every now and then, he lifted off the piano bench with the intensity of his enthusiasm. His body had become the music.

Thoughts of what Jeremy would do later with that body had him squirming in his chair.

After more than an hour of rowdy music, the band slowed and quieted until only the drums and a single guitar accompanied Danny’s piano. Then he sang solo, his voice once again soaring with reverent purity.

In Latin.

Jeremy clapped a hand over his mouth, stifling a shout of laughter. Richard might’ve been cringing with the rocked-out carols, but for sure the very Catholic hymn would curdle his belly.

The song finished very gently. For a moment, the audience remained quiet. Then they roared with applause.

A small light flicked on above the podium. It was empty. Richard quickly stepped up and clapped twice, rearranging his face into a pleasant expression. “Wasn’t that great? Now that’s enough, people.” He repeated his order until stopped applauding. “All right then. The kids will pass around the baskets, and please be generous. I provided you with this fun concert to benefit the charity named on the sign we posted by the door, and the rest of tonight’s funds will help elect someone you know will protect your values! Richard Wells!” He held up both arms.

The older crowed offered discreet applause. Mark and his buddies moved chairs around, chatted with everyone, and passed the baskets.

Jeremy noted sourly that Richard had never actually named the charity, a support group for parents of special needs children. Deanna had selected the group. Jeremy gave her credit. She made her mark wherever possible.

Richard stepped off the stage and greeted his well-wishers.

Young people surrounded Danny, eager for his attention and autograph. His indie music appealed to a wide audience. He looked into each person’s eyes, listening and responding with care. Jeremy never tired of watching his fans bloom under his focused interest.

Forget the banner above the stage. In this room, Danny was the good man.

And his music had heated up Jeremy something awful. He got to his feet. Danny aimed a smile at Jeremy that contained so much happiness Jeremy’s knees wobbled, and he had to grip the chair back.

Demonic Dick made his way through the crowd to Danny. “You sabotaged my concert,” he said between his teeth.

“Oh, it was great!” said a kid, exchanging a look with Mark.

Richard saw the look and gave Mark a lethal glare.

Jeremy’s heart stuttered. He wished Deanna could get her kids away, but Richard had powerful allies in the legal system, plus the financial backing of conservatives who viewed a man’s family as his possession.

From his greater height, Danny dipped his head and pinned Richard with a level stare. “I’ll be keeping an eye out for my sister and her kids. They’ll be cheerful and happy this entire Christmas season, isn’t that right?”

Richard’s face turned to stone, and his gray eyes iced over.

“Reverend Wells.” An older lady stood nearby with a large, overfilled manila envelope. “Thank you so much for the wonderful concert. Frankly, it was a lot better than we expected.” She beamed at Danny. “What fine musicians you are! You inspired such generosity. We’ll be able to provide extra training for families who struggle to care for their special needs children.”

With a plastic smile, Richard reached for the envelope. “My pleasure. I’ll send on your portion as soon as I deposit the checks.”

The gray-haired woman clasped the envelope to her chest. “I’m sorry. There must have been a miscommunication. As I arranged with the gentleman on the phone, we’ll give you forty percent after I’ve deposited the cash and checks made out to our organization.”

Richard’s face bloated red.

Mark touched his dad’s arm. “We did what you asked, going through the audience and reminding everyone how to address their checks. Some people will be mailing checks directly to the charity later. You did a good thing, Dad.”

“Thank you again, all of you. Goodnight, and have a wonderful Christmas!” They returned the woman’s sentiments, and she left.

Richard turned an ugly look on Danny, who laughed with genuine surprise. “Wow, that’s cool, Richard.” He thumped his shoulder. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

The kids around them applauded and tossed out compliments. Mark led them away to start racking chairs.

Deanna approached, and Richard’s glare turned nuclear.

“Don’t blame Danny or Mark,” she said. “I’m the one who directed the funds to special needs.”

Jeremy’s admiration for the tough lady multiplied. She was taking the hit for Danny, never mind that it had been Jeremy’s agent who’d made the financial arrangements.

“You selfish bitch. You stole money from the concert to benefit your crazy niece.”

Danny made a choked noise, and Jeremy’s jaw dropped. Who was selfish? Deanna’s niece suffered terribly with mental illness.

“Well, something had to be done,” she snapped. “You have no idea what a self-centered image you’ve been projecting. Now people think you’re wonderful.”

In timely validation, a sedate couple approached Richard and congratulated him on his generosity to the special needs organization. They had a granddaughter who would benefit from the extra help.

“Mind you, that music was a bit loud, but it was happy,” the gentleman said, with a paternal smile for Danny. He shook Richard’s hand and departed.

Richard spread his glower over his wife, his son, Jeremy, and Danny.

Jeremy lifted his brows. What would Demonic Dick try now? He’d been neatly shunted aside and left with no recourse.

Richard growled and stalked to the back door, shaking potential voters’ hands as they left. Deanna went to thank each musician, and the place began to clear out.

A few kids remained glued to Danny. “Time to go,” Jeremy told him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way Danny had pounded away at the piano, his hair sweat-soaked, his eyes narrow with musical satisfaction that would come from an entirely different source later tonight. He shifted his feet. “Danny?”

Discussing music with a boy who fingered the baby grand piano keys with awe, Danny glanced at Jeremy. “Just a sec.”

Resigned, Jeremy joined the chair-racking efforts. Five minutes later, he returned to the baby grand. Most of the band had left. “Danny.”

“Ya, just a sec.” His Minnesota accent thickened with the level of his distraction. “That’s great!” he said to the kid playing the piano. “You really ought to keep up your lessons.”

Jeremy hated racking chairs. His shoulders got enough of a workout with painting and housecleaning. He went back to the chairs anyway.

Ten minutes dragged by. The filled racks had been pushed into their closets on the sides of the room. Demonic Dick had taken Deanna and Irene home. Only Mark and the kid at the piano remained, plus a couple of boys who were fawning over the bassist and his guitar.

“Let’s go,” Jeremy said to Danny. He grabbed their rain jackets from the bench and marched to the exit. Mark leaned against the wall beside the door, waiting with the keys to lock up.

“I’ll be there in a sec,” Danny called.

Jeremy yanked open the heavy door. “Danny, I’ve been waiting for ‘sec’s’ for a long time!”

Instant silence.

Squinting, he blinked at Mark. “Seconds,” he enunciated to the kid. “I’ve been waiting to leave for a lot of seconds.”

Mark shook his head with pity, his eyes dancing. “No coming back from that one.”

Unable to disagree, he stomped outside to wait for Danny to unlock the car.

A few minutes later, Danny admitted him to the passenger seat, and then he went around to the driver’s side. He started the engine and took off. The silence stretched, and Jeremy wondered how hard he was working not to laugh.

It started to rain. They’d been driving for ten minutes in the downpour before Jeremy broke. He had to know. “Grayson heard?”

“Ya.” Danny boomed with laughter.

Jeremy sighed. The bassist wouldn’t keep “waiting for sec’s” from the band. They would tease him for years.

Fifteen minutes later, Danny was no longer laughing as he pulled into the driveway of his rental. He gave Jeremy a significant look and dashed through the rain to unlock the front door.

Oh boy. Jeremy’s eagerness took the starch out of his legs, and his clumsy scramble from the car landed him on his hands and knees in a puddle, splashing his face and hair. He said some very un-Christmasy words and got to his feet, shut the car door and scanned the area. Even with the tightly packed houses in the economically-challenged neighborhood, no one appeared to have witnessed his loss of dignity.

“Jer, get in here.”

He stumbled to the door.

Danny grasped his upper arm and looked him over. “You stopped for a swim?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly.” He felt about two years old. “And it’s your fault. You got me too excited.”

A blazing smile lit Dan’s face, burning off Jeremy’s chill. Then Danny’s smile dimmed. “You need a shower to get warmed up.”

Dripping and muddy, Jeremy lifted a brow. “Join me?”

Much later, clean, warm, and utterly relaxed, they collapsed on Danny’s super-comfortable poo-brown sofa. The Christmas tree glowed. The fire danced in the hearth. Cinnamon candles filled the room with a holiday scent.

“You know,” Danny said, running his fingers through Jeremy’s hair, “you gave yourself a huge gift this week.”

Wanting to purr like a contented cat, Jeremy stirred himself to ask what he meant.

“You helped me take the concert away from a destructive jerk and turn it into Christmas fun.”

“A lot of people worked to make tonight come out right.”

“And you helped me empower my sister and her son, and you got your agent to fix it so kids will benefit from the money intended for dirty politics. I’d say that’s a pretty good accomplishment for this time of year.” He gestured around the cheerful room. Somehow they’d managed to decorate during the chaos of the past few days. “A lot to celebrate, don’t you think?”

Jeremy looked at the glittery tree ornaments and the angel candle holders he’d picked out. He swallowed around a boulder in his throat.

“We love each other, right, Jer?”

The lights around them haloed, but Jeremy didn’t blink away the tears that smeared his vision. Danny had earned nothing less than his full heart.

“We’re happy,” Danny stated.

“Yes,” Jeremy agreed, hot joy filling his chest.

The soft contentment in Danny’s eyes welcomed him home. “Then Merry First Christmas, Jeremy.”