Book 6 in The Making Of A Man series
Jared and Alex Douglas-Ross enjoy the freedom of their lives as couple without children, but still intend to have one or two…someday.
Jared and Alex Douglas-Ross enjoy the freedom of their lives as couple without children, but still intend to have one or two…someday.
They register as foster parents as step in that direction, but any real plans for having a child remain a vague part of their future.
A time that turns out to be closer than they imagine when fire, once again, changes the course of their lives.
Jared drew Alex closer into his body. The wind was chilling despite the warmth of the heavy coats they wore. Alex happily tucked himself under Jared’s arm though his eyes never left the incredible view spread out before them, one made more breathtaking by the flurry of snow buffeted by the wind. The lights and elegance of Paris spread out before them a virtual feast for the eyes.
Alex grinned when Jared drew in a sharp breath and turned in an effort to see it all at once. He allowed Jared to pull him around in a tight circle, careful not to bother the other patrons enjoying the view from the Eiffel Tower that night.
“I told you it was amazing.” Alex guided Jared to the railing where they stood in momentary silence taking in the extraordinary beauty of the night before them.
“You didn’t do it justice,” Jared accused. Alex’s smile broadened in response to the half grin Jared gave him. “If you had, I may have found time to bring you before you were fifty.”
“I would have if you’d let me talk about it.” He nuzzled Jared’s cheek. “The last time I stood here was my sixteenth birthday. A lifetime ago.”
“And you let someone else kiss you.” Jared turned from the view to frown at him. Alex’s laugh rang out.
“That was totally your fault.” Alex touched Jared’s cheek with gloved fingers, but memory supplied the feel of bare skin under his caress. “Besides, it was the last time I kissed anyone but you.”
Jared didn’t say anything in response, but Alex didn’t mind. He was used to deciphering Jared’s expressions, and the one he wore in that moment was one of his favorites. He stepped into the warmth of Jared’s full embrace and accepted the tender kiss with a surge of affection.
“I love you, too,” Alex whispered into the cold air between them as they drew apart. Jared’s hand was bare, his fingers cold when he touched Alex’s face. He turned into the caress and his eyes fluttered closed when Jared’s thumb traced the line of his jaw, fingers sliding to curl around the back of his neck.
“It’s beautiful here, but I’m ready to go.” Jared rubbed his nose against Alex’s, his breath warm against his cheek as he spoke. “The view in our room is much better, and I still have a birthday present to give you.” Jared’s mouth covered Alex’s in a second kiss. Burning intensity replaced the tenderness, and want blazed through him in immediate response to Jared’s need. Passion built between them as their tongues slid together, creating a heated counterpoint to the wind and snow on their skin. Panting, Alex broke away with a laugh, his cheeks bright with more than the cold. He grabbed Jared’s hand and pulled him toward the exit.
* * * * *
Hours later, Jared lay splayed on the bed beside Alex. Blankets were twisted at their feet, sweat still sheened their bodies, and they’d yet to cool down enough to reach for them. They lay shoulder to shoulder, fingers entwined on the bed between them, and toes playing a lazy game of footsy.
“So, when exactly are you going to remember you’re pushing sixty?”
The fact Alex still sounded breathless brought a slow smile to Jared’s face. “I figure sometime around seventy,” he teased and turned to meet Alex’s eyes in the dimly lit room. “Maybe not even then if you’re still putting up with me.”
Alex rolled and snuggled against Jared. He rested his head on his shoulder. “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see then, won’t we?” Alex teased and nuzzled Jared’s neck and ear. “Thank you for bringing me. I know how much you like to be home for Christmas.”
“Since home is where you are, I guess it’s not much of a problem.” Jared smiled into Alex’s hair and hugged him close with the arm wrapped around his shoulders. “I miss everyone, but having you to myself is such a treat it makes up for missing the family bash.”
“You can be so sappy.” Alex didn’t sound unhappy by the fact. He pressed a kiss against Jared’s shoulder. “It’s a good thing we built that house for Clark and Stevie so big, or we’d have to hire a convention center when we have a reunion.”
“Good foresight on your part,” Jared laughed. “Who knew things would get so far out of hand?”
Alex lifted and looked down on Jared. “I did. That first Christmas after we were married, it became pretty clear that our family was going to be unconventional and very, very large.”
A Cry for Help
Alex rubbed a hand through his hair to knock the snow out of his dark curls before he climbed into the passenger side of the truck. He preferred his Camaro, but on wintery nights filled with snow and ice, he welcomed the security promised by the big vehicle.
“That was good.” Rubbing his overstuffed belly, Alex groaned and leaned against the seat.
Jared settled behind the steering wheel with a grin in Alex’s direction. “I figured that out considering how much you ate. You better remember you aren’t as young as you used to be.” Jared gave Alex a teasing grin before he started the truck and turned his attention to backing out of the snow-covered parking lot.
“What? Are you saying I’m getting fat?” Alex’s eyes grew round, and he lifted his shirt to stare at his concave belly. He looked up to see Jared’s gaze had drifted from watching for traffic to Alex’s exposed skin. He jerked his shirt down. “Road! Dude!”
Jared rolled his eyes and checked for traffic. “Parking lot. I can’t believe you still say dude. What are you, twelve?”
Alex made an aggrieved noise as Jared pulled out into the empty road. “That’s it, make fun of a guy for trying to hold onto his youth. It’s Clark’s fault anyhow, blame him. Do you really think I’m fat?”
Jared sighed. He turned up the heat and the radio. “Alex, after the year you had, I don’t think you could get fat if you ate like that every day. Which you don’t.”
Sensing they were on the verge of another ‘you need to eat more’ discussion, Alex regretted teasing Jared. “I eat.” The protest slipped out despite his best intentions. He couldn’t force his appetite to return to pre-fire dimensions.
“Hmm.” Jared turned down an unfamiliar street, and Alex sat up to peer through the windshield.
“Where are we going?” The wipers kept the snow cleared off the windshield, but the roads were slick with ice. Alex didn’t think it seemed like a good night to go off the beaten path.
“I heard one of the houses south of the tracks has a bad roof. I won’t be able to see much, but I wanted to drive by and check on the overall condition of the house.” Jared’s lips tightened and he studied the buildings on the side of the road as businesses gave way to houses that grew more dilapidated with every mile. “Some of the ones back here need a lot more than a new roof to be habitable, if they’re even salvageable.”
Alex swallowed any protest about driving through such a bad part of town at night. Once Jared got it into his head to help someone, nothing would keep him from doing everything he could to make it happen. Alex had the feeling the rest of the winter would be spent trying to turn houses that should be abandoned into safe homes. Despite his misgivings, pride warmed his heart. Jared’s compassion was one of the things he loved most about his husband.
A flicker caught Alex’s eye and he leaned closer to the side window, rubbing the fog off the glass with his sleeve. “Jared, what’s that?” He saw the flicker again, bright against the dark of the night. “Is that a fire?”
Jared downshifted, slowing the truck and peering down a side street little wider than an alley in the direction Alex pointed. “I don’t know.” He sounded reluctant to investigate, and Alex knew why.
“Stop worrying about me. What if someone’s in trouble? We have to go see.” Alex turned to face Jared. His brow furrowed as he looked over Alex’s shoulder out the window.
“Damn.” Putting the truck into gear, he turned down the narrow lane. Alex studied the street sign as they passed it.
“Merry Street. Yeah, right,” he muttered and focused on the flickering light. It grew steadily brighter as they approached. “God, Jared.” Alex tried to open the truck door as soon as it became obvious they’d happened upon a house fire.
Jared grabbed his arm. “Alex! We’re still moving.” Alex made himself sit still, hand clutching the door handle. One side of the small building burned furiously, but no one was in sight. The truck rolled to a stop. In spite of his alarm, Alex couldn’t make himself open the door; fear formed a burning knot in his belly and his chest constricted. On the verge of panic, his eyes fixed in horror on the conflagration in front of him.
In the reflection of the window, he saw Jared reach for him, but before he could respond, a small dark form barreled into the side of the truck. Startled, Alex stared. Small fists beat on the truck.
“Help! You have to help me!” The sound of a terror and panic he remembered all too well drove Alex out of the truck in a way nothing else could have. Heart hammering, he rushed to the side of the frantic figure.
A boy, somewhere between thirteen and fifteen, launched himself at Alex. He was dressed only in a pair of old jeans and ragged sweatshirt with nothing on his feet. He clutched Alex’s coat. “Sissy is in there! Please help her. I can’t get in. I tried and I can’t, it’s so hot. Please. Do something, please.”
Alex’s heart seemed to freeze in his chest, and his eyes rose to the fire. Someone was trapped. He took one step and then another and then he was running toward the burning house. There had to be time, he couldn’t let someone die. He could find a way. He didn’t know Jared had caught up with him until he took him down in a full-body tackle.
“Over my dead body,” he growled, eyes hard in the shifting light of the fire. Before Alex could answer, the slight form of the boy flashed by, and Jared barely caught him by the sleeve, pulling him to an abrupt stop.
“LET ME GO! She’s just a baby.” The boy sobbed, fighting against Jared as the fire burned brighter. It seemed to be worst on the right side of the building. Alex realized it was an abandoned business, not a home at all. He didn’t have time to ask any of the multitude of questions suddenly buzzing through his mind. The kid collapsed beside them, crying so hard his body shook with it. “She’s just a baby, please. Please.”
Jared looked up at the fire and jumped to his feet. Alex let him haul him up by the hand.
“Get me the blanket from behind the seat. I’ll do it.” Jared’s command fell flat between them. Alex stared at him in wide-eyed horror.
Letting Jared go felt a hundred times worse that doing it himself. “No.” The word whispered out without Alex’s permission. He couldn’t risk Jared, not for anything. Terror sent chilling tendrils down his spine at what he read in his eyes.
* * * * *
Jared laid a comforting hand on Alex’s arm. “You know we have to try. Now run. I need that blanket.” Jared shoved him in the direction of the vehicle and turned to the shivering, distraught boy. “Where is she?”
“The room by the back, but the fire is in the hallway and I can’t get back inside. There’s a window, but I can’t get it open.” The boy’s dark brown eyes fixed on Jared’s face. “Will you get her? She’s not even one yet.”
Jared broke eye contact with the boy when Alex ran up with the blanket. Jared unfolded it and shoved the blanket into the snow before stripping off his coat. He thrust it toward Alex. “Get the kid into this and in the truck; he doesn’t even have on a pair of shoes. Call 911. Stay. In. The. Truck.”
Without waiting for Alex to respond, Jared snatched the blanket out of the snow and wrapped it around his head and shoulders, using his hands to clasp it closed from the inside. The snow clinging to the blanket sent an icy chill down his back, but he ignored it and headed for the back of the small building at a run.
Around back Jared spotted the small window right away. The panes were broken where the boy had tried to get inside, but it remained firmly closed. The heat increased the closer he got to the building as the fire sizzled and spit in the falling snow. One half of the building had been completely engulfed in flame, and Jared knew he had no business going inside. The snow in the blanket melted and trickled steams of lukewarm water down his back. Heart pounding, he approached the window with caution, his attention focused on deciding what to do.
If he got it open, the window would be a tight fit for him to climb through. He didn’t know how he’d get out with a baby in arms. Letting the blanket drop into the snow at his feet, Jared grabbed the edge of the frame and attempted to push it upward. It became immediately clear the wood had warped. The window stuck fast, refusing to open. Jared couldn’t hear anything from inside, and peering through the broken glass didn’t help; he couldn’t see through the smoke. If he didn’t get in there soon, anyone inside wouldn’t be alive to save whether or not the fire reached the room.
Taking a step back, Jared closed his eyes and took a deep breath, but the effort to calm his racing heart failed as soon as he drew the smoke into his lungs. He bent double, coughing. Something just under the porch caught his eye. Kneeling, Jared reached out and closed his hand around the familiar shape of a hammer’s grip. Not as good as a crowbar but a damn sight better than nothing. Getting back to his feet, hope suddenly reborn, Jared attacked the window. He slipped the claw under the edge and was rewarded when the old wood gave way, splitting under the pressure. He slid the tool along the window ledge, using the leverage it gave him to tear out the bottom of the window. Jared used the blanket to knock out the rest of the glass, and once the pressure of the misshapen wood had been eased, the window slid open with a rough noise that grated on his ears.
Laying the blanket over the ledge, Jared wormed his way through the opening to drop inside to the floor. He crouched there, disoriented. The shapes he could make out looked more like a storeroom than a bedroom, and for a second he thought he’d come through the wrong window. Jared dug in his pocket for his keys and used the small flashlight he had attached to the ring in an attempt to see. Despite the shelves and boxes, he identified the small portable crib right away, relieved know the baby was close to the floor and out of the worst of the smoke. He edged forward. The floor felt unnaturally warm under his hands and he worried the fire had made its way under the building. If it had the place could collapse any second. Flames licked under the tightly closed door, and the sight made his heart stutter.