Against the grain, p.5
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       Against The Grain, p.5
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet

  Cael turned to smile at Ash and appeared to have misjudged their proximity. Their bodies ended up pressed against each other, and Cael’s face flushed pink. Not wanting to embarrass him, Ash pretended he hadn’t noticed. Cael patted Ash’s bicep.

  “Don’t worry, big guy. I’m doing great. Thank you.”

  Ash pulled him closer and kissed the top of his head. “You’re welcome.”

  “Glad you boys could make it.”

  At the sound of Maddock’s voice, Ash stepped away, noticing how Cael’s smile faded. Cael wasn’t an idiot. Ash couldn’t even have his arm around Cael in front of his family. How pathetic was that? Having Cael so close and being unable to touch him was painful. Ash had loved the feel of Cael’s body against his. He’d dreamed of having Cael in his arms, of holding him and making love to him, and now Cael stood beside him, waiting for him to give them both what they’d wanted for so long. For now he’d work on spending a nice Thanksgiving day with Cael, his family, and friends.

  Maddock shook Sloane’s hand first, then Ash’s, lingering a little on Ash before letting go. Ash noticed the way Maddock’s eyes narrowed slightly. Had Maddock discussed their conversation at Dekatria with Cael? Ash figured he hadn’t, considering Cael hadn’t brought it up. He imagined Fuller was most likely a sensitive topic for Cael, and rightly so.

  “All right, let’s eat,” Maddock declared. “Everyone grab the potholders, and let’s get this show on the road.”

  They hopped to it. The whole thing resembled more a military procedure than the setting of a table. Under Maddock’s command, they all lined up, potholders in hand. Maddock pulled out a dish from the oven and handed it to the next person in line. The line moved, others returned from the dining room and joined the line once again to pick up their next dish. This continued until the table was set, leaving a large gap in the center for two turkeys. Once everything was in its place, Maddock motioned to the chairs.

  Ash pulled Cael’s chair out for him, and Cael once again blushed. God, he loved how sweet and beautiful Cael looked when he blushed. It sometimes annoyed Cael, but the guy had no control over it. Ash always noticed when Cael blushed. He tended not to bring it up so Cael wouldn’t feel self-conscious about it. Ash winked at Cael and nudged his cheek playfully before taking a seat at the table beside him, their chairs closer than he was certain they’d ever been before. Dex and Sloane sat across the table from them, and Maddock sat at the head.

  Maddock said grace, giving thanks for all they had, for their family, friends, and good health. While they served themselves and passed different dishes around, they all chatted and laughed. Most of it tended to involve Dex’s shenanigans. After they’d all eaten their fill, or in Dex’s case eaten his weight in turkey, Dex tapped his fork against his glass.

  “So, um, I—we have an announcement of sorts.” Dex took Sloane’s hand in his. “Sloane and I are moving in together.”

  “That’s awesome!” Cael got up and rounded the table to hug his brother and Sloane. “I’m so happy for you guys!”

  “What’s the arrangement?” Maddock asked curiously, and Ash noticed how Sloane subtly squeezed Dex’s hand.

  It always amazed him the kind of effect Maddock’s presence commanded off duty. Ash didn’t think Sloane was intimidated, but he respected Maddock. Everyone did.

  “I’m moving in with Dex,” Sloane replied. “It made more sense. Plus the labyrinth of ’80s memorabilia in Dex’s basement would never fit in my apartment.”

  Maddock nodded his agreement. “And your apartment?”

  “I might have a friend who’s interested in renting it.”

  “Congratulations, then. I’m happy for you,” Maddock said sincerely. He took his wineglass and lifted it in a toast. “To Dex and Sloane. Here’s to a future filled with love, happiness, and health. May there be many nights in each other’s arms and very few on the couch.” Maddock gave Dex a pointed look.

  “What? Why are you assuming I’ll be the one who ends up relegated to the couch?”

  Cael arched an eyebrow at his brother. “Remember when you ran up the down escalator at the mall, fell on your knees, and had to get stitches?”

  Sloane patted Dex’s hand. “Aw, I’m sure he didn’t know any better.”

  “He was twenty-three.”

  The table burst into laughter, except for Dex, who turned his nose up at them.

  “I thought I could outrun it.” Dex held his glass up. “All right you bunch of jokers, we were having a toast.”

  Everyone cheered and toasted, promised to help move them. They talked and ate. At one point, Ash felt Cael’s leg pressed up against his, and it was ridiculous how happy the tiny gesture made him. If it was even a gesture. Ash swiftly put it off to being an accident, but then a little later, Cael reached over and wiped a thumb over the corner of Ash’s mouth, telling him he had a breadcrumb.

  “You should have seen him,” Dex said with a laugh. “He looked so adorable with his cheetah fuzz shaped into spikes, from his head down to his back. Like a little spotted punk rocker.”

  Maddock shook his head at Dex. “It took me two hours to wash all the hair spray off your brother’s fur.”

  “We were pretending to be Guns N’ Roses,” Cael explained. “Dex was singing ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ and I was backup sing—er, chirping.”

  Ash laughed and playfully bumped Cael’s shoulder. “I’m going to have to agree with Dex. That’s adorable.” Even in his Therian form, Ash thought Cael was the sweetest thing he’d ever laid eyes on. Cael could be in his Therian form among thousands of cheetahs, and Ash would be able to point him out. His little gestures, the heart shape of his nose, or the way he chirped away, as if anyone not in their Therian form might understand him if he tried hard enough.

  Dex grabbed Sloane’s arm. “Tell me you recorded that. Doesn’t matter. I have witnesses.” Dex stood and motioned to all of them. “Witnesses! You all heard it. Ash said he agrees with me.”

  “Oh, good Lord. We’re never going to hear the end of this,” Maddock sighed, getting up to clear the dishes.

  “Do you realize how epic this moment is?” Dex said, helping clear up.

  “It’s not really that epic,” Maddock replied.

  Dex let out an exaggerated gasp. “Where have you been living? Ash Keeler has agreed with something I, Dexter J. Daley, has said.”

  “About your brother being adorable. Not exactly earthshattering. He’s thought that since they met.”

  The table fell into silence as they all gaped at Maddock. Well, this was news to Ash. What the hell? Seeming to notice the quiet, or more likely the lack of Dex talking, Maddock looked up.

  “What are you, fish? Close your mouths.”

  Four mouths promptly closed.

  “It’s not rocket science. I’ve known that boy since he joined, and he’s threatened every agent he’s ever met with kicking their ass. Except for Cael.”

  Hard to argue with that. It was the truth.

  Dex frowned at Ash. “You threatened to kick Hobbs’s ass?”

  Ash nodded. “Yep.” Was it his first week of being on the job? He was pretty sure it was the first week.

  “Dude, that’s not cool. Hobbs is awesome.”

  “He can also be a pain in the ass. Plus when we first met, I didn’t know he had selective mutism. I asked him a question, and he wouldn’t answer me. He’d whisper to Calvin, who’d answer for him. I got pissed off and told him if he didn’t tell me himself, I’d kick his ass.” Ash had never met a tiger Therian as big and insecure as Hobbs. The whole encounter had left him confused. Here was their new demolitions expert, and he couldn’t talk. How the fuck was he going to communicate with his team? Ash wasn’t proud to admit he’d had a shit fit. He understood the THIRDS was about equality and representation when it came to hiring, but he had been genuinely concerned about the safety of his team. Not long after, Ash had seen how wrong he’d been about Hobbs. Not that he’d admitted it.

  Dex let out a sound of disgust
. “Dude, not cool.”

  “I said I didn’t know. I apologized afterward, and that’s saying something.”

  Ash got up to help clear the dishes, with Dex going on about how he should really think about using some of those scented candles Rosa had gifted him. Ash proceeded to flip him off.

  When Cael stood to help, Ash put a hand to his shoulder.

  “Relax, I’ve got this.”

  He gave Cael a wink and walked the dirty dishes to the kitchen with Dex yammering on behind him. The guy was like a fucking mosquito buzzing in your ear and trying to suck the life out of you. Ash placed the dishes in the dishwasher, giving grunts and one-word replies. He grabbed the dishes from Dex and put those in as well. He wished he could stick Dex in there. Finally someone up there decided to give him a break, and Dex left the kitchen, singing some stupid song about a lion sleeping tonight or something.

  Ash frowned at Maddock. “Does he never shut up? How the hell did you live with him for so long?”

  “It’s called patience,” Maddock replied. “Not exactly your forte.”

  “Oh, I can be patient. That’s not what’s required when dealing with your oldest. I’d say ‘sedative’ is more the word you were looking for.”

  Maddock laughed. “Just get in there, Keeler.”

  Ash did as he was told, heading back into the dining room and resuming his seat beside Cael with a smile.

  “Miss me?”

  Cael chuckled and gave him a bashful push.

  Dex patted his full belly. “I think we should chill in the living room for a while. Come back for dessert in a bit. What do you guys say?”

  “Sounds good to me.”

  Sloane got up and followed Dex into the living room. Dex didn’t miss a beat, going on about some movie he wanted to see before Christmas. Cael followed his brother with Ash close behind him. Was it him, or was Dex talking more than ever? Ash sneaked a glance at Cael, who appeared to be lost in thought. Maybe he was overreacting and everything was just fine.

  A few hours later it was evident he’d spoken too soon. When Cael’s family was around, everything was great. There was never any time for things to get weird between him and Cael, what with Dex driving them all crazy as usual, Sloane running interference, and Maddock attempting not to throttle all of them. Then there were the few instances when he and Cael were alone. Like when Maddock went upstairs for a post-Thanksgiving-dinner nap, and Dex got all cuddly with Sloane. The two got to talking about something, and things got quiet between him and Cael. Ash used the opportunity to clear up the living room from the aftermath of Dex’s turkey sandwich. The guy might not be a Therian, but he put food away like one.

  Baking wasn’t the only thing Ash turned to when he was feeling anxious. Cleaning helped. There had been several instances around the house, usually when Dex and Sloane were sucking face or being all cute together, that things got quiet between him and Cael. It was almost like Cael was relying on his brother to fill every second of silence, which was beyond Dex’s capabilities, despite his talent for never shutting the hell up. At some point, Sloane needed some quiet, and that’s usually when he’d kiss Dex. Worked like a charm every time.

  Cael had gone off to the kitchen to prep dessert, seeing as how everyone would be waking up from their turkey-induced coma soon, and Ash decided to join him. His hands were shoved into his jean pockets, and he tried his best to appear casual.

  “Hey. Need help?”

  “Sure. I was about to remove the pies from the oven if you want to grab them for me. Just pop them on the counter.” He went back to sorting out leftovers into Tupperware containers and stacking them in the fridge. Ash removed the pies from the oven where they’d been keeping warm and placed them on the counter beside Cael.

  “Anything else I can do?”

  “Cabinet up top and to your right, there’s some serving dishes. Could you take half of each pie and place them on the dishes? The rest goes in the fridge.”

  “Why not just leave out the whole pie?” Ash asked curiously.

  “Because then Dex will eat the whole pie.”

  Of course. “Where the hell does he store it all?”

  Cael shrugged. “I have no idea.”

  “Then again, the way his mouth runs, he’s probably burning mass amounts of calories.”

  Cael chuckled. “And this is news to you?”

  They went back to their duties, and the room went quiet again. It was driving Ash nuts. Cael was being quiet, and Ash had no idea what to say to break the silence. What the hell should he talk about? What had they talked about before? It was like he was in uncharted territory, which was absurd. He’d known Cael for years, and they’d never had any trouble holding a conversation. Even when neither of them spoke, the silence had been comfortable.

  Cael caught Ash’s arm, took the pie from him, and placed it on the counter. “This is ridiculous. We’ve never been uncomfortable around each other. I know things have changed between us, but has it changed that much? I miss my friend.”

  He searched Ash’s eyes, pleading. All at once, Ash felt himself relax. He smiled down at Cael and put his hand to his cheek.

  “I miss my friend too.”

  “How about for the holidays, we put a hold on all the complicated stuff and just enjoy each other’s company? Do whatever feels right, and we’ll take it from there. No expectations, no waiting for the other shoe to drop, no overthinking things, and no pressure. Let’s relax and have some fun.”

  “I like the sound of that.” Just when he thought he couldn’t be more amazed by the wonderful young Therian before him, he was proven wrong. How could Cael be so insightful to his needs, so unselfish and understanding?

  “Good. Now let’s join the others before Dex eats all the cookies. He always hogs all the macadamia chocolate-chunk ones.”

  Cael narrowed his eyes, and Ash chuckled.

  “I’ll make sure he leaves you some.”

  Cael turned away to pick up one of the pie dishes when Ash gently caught his arm and pulled him back.

  “Question.” He should probably give more thought to what he was about to say, but fuck it. He couldn’t let Cael put in all the effort. Ash had to do his part, so he went with his gut.

  “Yeah?” Cael cocked his head to one side, and Ash hoped his face wasn’t as red as it felt.

  “If I get the urge to sneak a kiss at any point, would that be okay with you?”

  Cael brightened, and Ash’s silly heart did a flip.

  “I’d like that.”

  “Me too.”

  Ash pulled him into his embrace and kissed him. Not the peck on the cheek or the brief press of lips Ash had been expecting to give, but a kiss that had him all but dropping to his knees. It was sweet, warm, and tasted deliciously of Cael. Ash never wanted it to end. He felt Cael’s tongue against his lips, and Ash opened his mouth, inviting Cael to taste and explore. To his delight, Cael accepted, deepening their kiss. He pulled Cael against him, his arms wrapped tight around Cael as if he might try to escape. A low rumble of a moan reverberated from Cael’s chest, sending a shiver up Ash’s spine. So much adoration and need, with more passion than Ash could have imagined. Tentatively, Cael wrapped his arms around Ash, his fingers digging into the firm muscles of his back. Damn, it felt so good.

  As much as he told his heart not to give in so quickly, it was no use. Having Cael in his arms, feeling his strength, knowing the depth of Cael’s affections, had Ash surrendering himself without a second thought. He left himself bare. Every nerve ending, every vulnerable, tender inch of him. Ash brushed his lips over Cael’s as he pulled away, his thumb caressing Cael’s cheek. “You’re blushing,” he murmured breathlessly.

  “Sorry.”

  “I like it. I especially like that it’s because of me.”

  That certainly didn’t seem to help poor Cael’s blushing situation. His cheeks burned crimson. “It’s always because of you.”

  “I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re so beautiful. And the best
part is, you’re not even aware of how wonderful you are.”

  Cael shrugged bashfully. “I guess you bring out the best in me.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong.” Ash took Cael’s hand in his and placed it to his heart. “You bring out the best in me. I had no idea what my life was missing before I met you.” He felt it down to his core. What he was, what everyone thought of him, meant nothing compared to what Cael believed of him.

  “Are the pies ready?”

  Ash quickly pulled away as Dex entered the kitchen. He was torn between wanting to tell Dex what he could do with his pies and picking his heart up off the floor. This was how it had to be for now. For a slip of a moment, it had all been so perfect and right. Dex reminded him of the reality of their situation. Ash was grateful Cael had taken the first step in moving their relationship forward and reminded himself he couldn’t mess this up. For years he’d been denying to himself what he felt for Cael. Even when he’d resigned himself to the fact nothing could ever happen between them, the tiny flicker of hope never went out. Having Cael in his arms, kissing him, was more than he’d ever thought possible. Patience. He needed patience.

  Dex looked from Cael to Ash and back. “Shit. I interrupted something, didn’t I?”

  “No,” Ash replied, though he knew Dex would be able to see past his smile to the “I’m going to kick your ass later” look.

  Cael smiled sweetly, and Ash actually took a step to the side. Uh-oh. He knew that look. Cael was the sweetest guy he knew. He was also a little hellcat. Those claws were damn sharp. Ash had found himself at the receiving end of those razor-sharp claws and knew firsthand the sting they were capable of leaving behind.

  “Now that you’re here, you can go wake Dad from his nap.”

  “Aw, man. Seriously?” Dex whined. “Come on. You know he won’t throw anything at you. Why do I have to do it?”

  Cael folded his arms over his chest. “Tough. I called it. Go.”

  “Fine.” Dex stomped off to wake Maddock, which from the sounds of it was no easy feat.

  Cael turned to Ash with an apologetic smile. It had been so good while it lasted. With a smile, Ash motioned toward the pies.

  “You want me to help with these?”

  “Thanks. I’m going to grab the ice cream.”

  Ash took the pie dishes while Cael fished out spoons, bowls, paper towels, and the ice cream from the freezer. Together they walked into the living room, a loud thump causing Sloane to sit up in concern.

  “What was that?”

  “That was Dex falling over. Dad gets very cranky when woken up from his nap. It’s all cute and bearable when your kids are little and jumping on your bed to wake you, not so much when they’re thirty-five years old. My guess is Dad pulled the covers from under him.” Cael placed everything on the large coffee table and turned to Sloane with a big grin.

  “Expect lots of pouting.”

  Just as Cael had predicted, Dex entered the living room with his bottom lip jutted out as he rubbed his arm. “He could have at least pulled the blankets out when I was facing the carpet.”

  “That’s what you get for not waking me up like a normal person,” Maddock growled, dropping himself onto one of the armchairs. “Grown man,” Maddock mumbled, “jumping on the bed like he’s five. You wanna jump, I’ll give you jump. Just don’t come bitchin’ to me when you hit the hardwood floor.”

  “It’s the only way you’ll wake up,” Dex groused, snuggling up to Sloane with a pout. “I hurt my arm.”

  “No he didn’t,” Maddock countered, pointing to the pecan pie. “He’s just saying that so you’ll coddle him. He used to do that when he was little and he’d done something he wasn’t supposed to so he wouldn’t get in trouble.”

  Dex gasped. “So not true.”

  “Really?” Maddock scooped up some ice cream and plopped it down on his plate next to his pie. “When you took apart the VCR to see how it worked and I yelled at you, you started crying and saying your head hurt because the video shelf fell and hit you.”

  “It did fall.”

  “You were in the dining room, and the shelf fell two days earlier.”

  Ash couldn’t help joining in the laughter with Cael and Sloane. Dex and Maddock continued to argue over Dex’s convenient ouchies until Sloane did them all a favor and distracted Dex with pie. In the end, Dex got his way and then some, with Sloane coddling him and feeding him. Ash had a feeling that had been Dex’s intention the whole time. He’d give the guy credit. He was damn sneaky.

  After they all had their pie, Cael grabbed Dex by the ear and pulled him along to the kitchen to help him with the dishes, stating he wasn’t getting away with it this time. Apparently Dex was an expert at avoiding chores. He’d somehow managed to get away with it since they were kids.

  The rest of the evening was filled with fun and laughter. They played games and teased each other. Soon Maddock had said good night and turned in. Sloane and Dex would be staying in Dex’s old bedroom. Ash said he’d be fine on the couch. It was big enough for him. Maddock had brought plenty of blankets and pillows, and the heating would keep him warm. Dex was fighting sleep, so Sloane declared it was time for bed. Soon it was just Ash and Cael. The TV was on, and they were watching some holiday movies.

  Ash opened his duffel bag and fished out his pajamas. “I’m just going to change and brush my teeth.”

 
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