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Authors: BA Tortuga

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BOOK: The Terms of Release
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Fuck, he had a ton of questions. When had Sage gone in, exactly? What was it like, to have Christmas inside? Had there been Christmas? How in the hell did you ask that sort of thing when you were naked and sticky and leaning together on the oldest nattiest couch in history?

Win guessed you didn’t ask. He would bet Sage wouldn’t offer. All he could think to say was “Well, I sure hope I can help with that.”

“I reckon you can.” Sage grinned, eyes crinkling up. “First, though, let’s make it through Halloween without someone trying to burn Daddy’s barns down.”

His mouth flattened into a hard line. “I swear to God, if anyone messes with your folks….”

“They won’t.” Sage’s face was calm, quiet. “They’ll mess with me. I can take it. They won’t get through me to Momma or Daddy, either one.”

Win wanted to jump in front of Sage and protect him from everything, but that was silly. The man could cope. Sage was stronger than anyone gave him credit for.

Sage stood up, headed for the tiny bathroom, and brought out two washrags.

“Thanks, man,” Win said as he took one, then rubbed it over his skin, which was sensitive as hell.

Sage cleaned himself quickly, pulled on his shorts, and got two battered containers of ice cream out of the freezer. They settled in and grinned at each other, both of them sucking cream off their spoons.

“Ice cream’s good, huh?”

“It’s great.” Somehow it tasted better when he sat and ate it with Sage. He really wanted to stay the night, but it seemed crass to ask.

“You have to be in early tomorrow? I got the
Batman
movie.”

“Oh. No, I’m on second tomorrow. Grace is taking pity on me and scheduling me opposite the sheriff.” He leaned over and put his bowl down, then moved to snuggle with Sage. “Is this okay?”

“It is.” Sage grabbed the remote and turned on the TV, and the movie previews started.

“Thanks for letting me stick around.” The movie would start any second, and Win thought it was important for Sage to know he appreciated the companionship as much as the sex.

Sage leaned into his side and hummed. “I’m glad you can.”

He dared to kiss Sage’s temple before settling in and watching the movie. All in all, the night had gone way better than he’d feared it would when he showed up to a shirtless Sage and lost part of his mind.

After all, there’d been sex and ice cream.

C
HAPTER
T
WELVE

 

 

S
AGE
PULLED
into the parking lot of the diner, then went inside, his book in hand. The dinner crowd was mostly gone, and he nodded to Wilma.

“Sage! Hey, stranger. How goes it?”

“Just fine, ma’am. You doin’ all right?”

She beamed at him, gold tooth glinting. “Right as rain. I got chocolate, cherry, and pumpkin today.”

“Cherry, please.” He ignored the stares from the other tables and sat in the back with the new Lee Child book that Adam had brought him last night. They’d found out they shared not only taste in movies, but in books too.

He liked having Adam as a friend.

Momma and Daddy had been quiet on it, only inviting Adam over to the house for a cookout on Sunday afternoon with Rosemary and them. Adam had been noncommittal, saying he had to check the schedule and such. Sage got it. Rosemary’s Greg was a bastard of mammoth proportions. It would be damned hard to come and listen to him growl and spit. Adam wasn’t the kind to let people say awful things without stepping in.

Still, the man hadn’t said no, so maybe. Who knew?

Sage pulled the bookmark out of his book, nodding when his coffee appeared in front of him.

“I’ll get your pie, Sage.”

He offered Wilma a smile and relaxed, then sugared his coffee and settled into Jack Reacher’s world. The evening flew by, like it always did. The small crowd thinned out until it was only him, which was when Bulldog came in.

He nodded to the biker and grinned. “Evening.”

“Hey, there, Sage. How goes?”

“It goes. Been working on plumbing down at the place. Y’all doing okay?”

“Not bad. Been thinking of taking Wilma on a cruise.”

“Really? Y’all going to Mexico or Jamaica?”

“The Bahamas, actually. My mechanic, Hank? He says his wife loved it. We’ll have to fly to Florida instead of going out of Galveston, but it’ll be worth it.”

“Very cool. That sounds amazing.” Sage had never been on an airplane, didn’t reckon he ever would, now. “When are y’all going?”

“Not sure, exactly. Next month, maybe. Might need you to do a few things for me out at the house.”

“I can do that.” He knew about being neighborly, and they didn’t have a huge piece of land.

“Cool.” Bulldog clapped him lightly on the shoulder and headed to the kitchen.

He heard Wilma’s squeal, her happy sounds perfect and young, like she was a teenager again. He ducked his head and smiled, surprised to find himself with friends, real friends he cared about.

“You hear her going on? Silly woman.” Bulldog was hilarious—the tattooed, fierce-looking biker teasing and playful.

Sage chuckled. “Well, that’s a good surprise, man.”

“It is. You ought to come out to the place over the next couple days. I’ll show you around.”

“I’m happy to, man.” He wrote down his cell number and passed it over.

“Cool.” Bulldog took it but was soon called away by one of the bikers.

The ebb and flow of the diner sounded good around Sage, tickling his ears while he read his book. He’d missed coming out, missed the pie and the coffee.

This was worth the trouble it would cause, damn it.

“You need anything else, honey?” Wilma stood there, coffeepot at the ready.

“No, ma’am. I’m right as rain.”

“Well, let me top you off so I can clean the pot.” She winked, and he realized maybe an hour had passed.

“Good book.” The place had emptied out except for him and Bulldog, and he finished his cup and left a twenty on the table. “I’m going to head out, y’all. You’re good?”

He didn’t worry about leaving Wilma with her man, but he would stay and walk them out, if they wanted.

“We’re on our way in two shakes.” Bulldog waved him out, grinning hugely.

He nodded, stuffed his book in his back pocket, and headed to his truck. He just made it outside the ring of light from the streetlights when he heard footsteps behind him and he spun, catching the blow on his shoulder and cheekbone instead of the back of his head.

There were no taunts, no curses or name-calling. In fact, the attack was like prison, quiet and vicious and coming at him from all sides in seconds.

He fought to keep his feet, to make it closer to the truck so he could keep his back to it. Sage knew better than to strike out. That only got your arms broken. No, he kept them tight to his body, his fists up in front of his face. He wanted to keep his teeth.

“Hey! What the fuck!” Bulldog’s roar was welcome, and Sage weathered another flurry of blows, a boot catching his blown knee.

A shot rang out, Sage flinching and waiting for the pain to tear through him. Instead, one of his attackers cried out and fell away, Bulldog wading in and whacking another with the barrel of a shotgun.

Two more started running even as Wilma hollered, “Win’s on the way, baby!”

Sage leaned against his truck, blinking through the blood stinging his eyes, fists still up. He couldn’t unclench them, couldn’t stop shaking.

“They’re gone. They’re gone, man.” Bulldog didn’t touch him, which he was grateful for. He might break.

“I didn’t hit anyone. I’m okay to drive.” He had to go before the cops showed.

“No. No way. You need a doctor.”

A siren wailed in the distance, and his gut clenched in instinctive denial. “I can’t. I can’t. I’ll go home.” He slipped into his truck, his knee screaming.

“Sage, no.” Bulldog tried to stop him, but Sage pulled the truck door closed.

“I’ll go home. Please. Please, I can’t. You know, huh?” Bulldog had to get it.

“I’ll send Win once all the mopping up is done.” Bulldog slapped the hood of the truck. “Go on.”

“Thanks, man.” He wiped his face off and started the engine.

Home.

He had to go home.

Had to.

Just in case they came after his folks.

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTEEN

 

 

W
IN
DROVE
to Sage’s folks’ ranch, hands clenched on the wheel of his truck. He’d gone home, trading the cruiser for his own ride. He hated wasting the time, but Bulldog had insisted. No cop cars.

The Reddings’ house was dark, but the lights were on at Sage’s trailer, so he went on up and knocked on the door. Penny hit the door like a freight train, barking violently.

“Hey. Hey, back off, sweetie. Who is it?”

“It’s Win. Adam. Can I come in?”

“Are you coming to arrest me? Because I didn’t do anything.” Sage sounded like he’d done swallowed a frog.

“No. No, Sage. I need to know you’re all right.” He shifted from foot to foot. “You’re not in trouble, and I won’t even ask if you want to press charges if you tell me not to.”

“I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anyone’s faces.” The door was unlocked and opened. “Come on in. Do you want a cup of coffee?”

“If you’ve got one, sure.” Win tried hard to keep his rage at bay when he stepped inside and got a good look at Sage. The bruises were vast and many, one eye swollen shut, and cheekbone ripped. The man held himself carefully, like he was afraid he’d shatter.

“God, babe.” His hands clenched and Win had to stop and clear his throat. “Do you need me to look at anything?”

“I’m okay. I didn’t do anything.” Sage met his eyes. “I didn’t start anything.”

“I know that. Bulldog gave me an official report.” He stared right back. “I’m not here as a cop.”

“Oh, good.” Sage relaxed, shuffled to the kitchen, and started pouring two mugs of steaming joe. “He scared them off.”

“He did. Rubber bullets.” That had been smart on Bulldog’s part, not using live ammo. Fewer penalties that way.

“They didn’t say nothin’.”

“Nothing at all that you could make out?” Win’s arms ached with tension. He wanted to reach out so bad, but Sage was stiffly separate from him.

“Nothing at all. They just wanted to whup on me.”

“Sage.” Win reached out, needing to feel for himself that Sage wasn’t broken.

Sage stepped up and pushed into his hands with a soft groan. “Hell of a night.”

“I’m sorry, babe.” He didn’t even know what for, really, except that he hadn’t been there to stop it.

“Me too.” Sage leaned against him for a second, still and heavy.

Win knew it shouldn’t feel so good to have Sage’s trust, but it did. He held Sage loosely, feeling the heat of bruises.

“The pie was good tonight.”

“Was it?” Jesus. Sage was taking this whole thing like he deserved it, like it went with coffee and dessert.

“Yeah.” Sage took a deep breath. “Yeah, it was. I think I’m gonna hurl, honey. You just hang out here a minute.”

Win let Sage go, knowing how damned embarrassing it was to puke in front of someone. His first DB, or dead body, had done that to him, and he’d tossed his cookies in front of two other cops.

He put their coffee on the end table and turned on the TV. God, Sage was going to be fucking sore tomorrow. Maybe he could—hell, he didn’t know what he could do. Win sat on the couch, his hands dangling between his knees.

Sage came back in a pair of loose shorts and a T-shirt, and came to sit beside him. “Sorry, man. I haven’t… I don’t know what to do next.”

“I don’t either.” He shrugged, feeling oddly helpless. They were all about charting new territory, him and Sage.

“That makes it easier, somehow.” Sage leaned against his side.

“Does it?” He put his arm around Sage, careful not to jostle.

“Yeah. Sometimes I’m like the only son of a bitch that’s lost on earth.”

“Nah. We’re all wandering around in the dark.” That was true enough.

“Can you stay a little while? Watch a movie?”

“I can. What did you want to watch? I can put it on.” He could get more coffee, maybe a soft snack. Ice cream again.


Matrix
? I have it. Momma bought it for me at the Walmart in Greenville.”

“I like that one. Lots of leather and ducking bullets.” He could see how Sage might need a new world hero movie at the moment.

“Yeah. Yeah, I like special effects.” Sage handed him the DVD case, and those square hands were shaking, just a little bit.

“I’ll get some pillows and blankets, too, huh?”

“Yeah. You want me to warm up your coffee?”

“If you want to, babe. I don’t want you to have to get up.” No, he wanted to wrap himself around Sage and protect him.

He got the couch set up, the movie going, and then he toed off his boots. He needed to touch, hold on.

They got settled again, and he pulled Sage mostly onto his lap. “Is this okay? The heat will help with the soreness.”

“It’s better than okay. Thank you for coming over.” Sage pulled the blankets around them.

“I’m glad you’re mostly in one piece.” He kissed an unbruised bit of skin. His thoughts raced around like bumper cars in his head.

“I think one day they’re gonna kill me. I hope they wait ’til after Daddy’s gone and Momma’s sold the ranch.”

How the fuck could anyone talk about losing their life so fucking calmly?

“Not if I can help it.” No, if Sage’s folks moved on, Win would think about taking Sage where no one knew them. He blinked, the thought unexpected but sure and solid as all get-out. He would too. If he had the opportunity, he’d take the man and run.

Win sighed. What a mess. If he ever found out who the guys were who’d done this….

“It’s okay, Adam.” Sage snuggled right in, 90 percent asleep. “I won’t let no one hurt you.”

“I know.” The words came out, he hoped, with less surprise than he felt. Sage, offering to protect him. God, he was in love.

“’Kay.” Sage sighed, then started snoring, like the man was worn, bone deep.

Win figured Sage had earned the rest. He’d sit there as long as it took for Sage to get some too. He was on watch, now, and he wasn’t going to let anyone break his man.

BOOK: The Terms of Release
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