Hello, everyone. It was suggested that I write an “epilogue” of sorts to my most recent novel, Only You. The book can be purchased through NineStar Press, but this short final chapter is free. I hope you all enjoy.
Casey drove his new canary-yellow Tundra down the grated, half-mile-long driveway to the two-story farmhouse he’d bought just outside Clover City. Casey parked beside Rawley’s truck and got out, taking a moment to stretch. His wrist fractures and dislocated elbow had healed quickly enough, but he still had aches and stiffness in the joints on occasion. It was his left knee that gave him the most problems.
During the car accident, his knee had been dislocated and fractured. It had required two surgeries and a whole lot of physical therapy to get him walking normally again. He still limped after a day of activity, and sometimes felt like his knee would give out. Today was one of those days. Mindful of his leg’s weakened state, Casey walked to the mudroom entrance and went inside.
“Rawley,” Casey called out as he entered the kitchen.
The room was overly warm and smelled like a feast had been prepared, but it was spotless. The countertops were clear, sink empty. And the house was eerily quiet. Casey hung his keys on the rack by the door before heading into the main part of the house. The living room had been gutted in preparation for the remodel next week. The stone fireplace was the only thing left untouched because Casey loved it, but the floor and walls had been stripped down.
“Rawley, where are you?” Casey called again, his voice extra loud in the empty space. He knew Rawley could hear him.
“Rec room,” Rawley yelled back, and Casey headed down the narrow hall to the other side of the house.
Upon buying the large two-story, six-bedroom farmhouse Casey had rushed to pick up Rawley from work. He’d wanted their new home to be a surprise, and it certainly had been. Rawley vacillated between happiness, excitement, worry, and shock. He couldn’t believe Casey had wanted a future with him, had gone so far as to plan one. Casey had walked Rawley through the house, letting him take it in, and making suggestions for each room.
The large room at the far end of the house had been a mystery to them both, neither able to determine what it had been, so they decided to make it a recreation room. Casey had two pinball machines and a pool table he’d eventually move into the room. He also planned on installing a small wet bar along one of the longer walls. Rawley had already taken over one corner of the room. He’d had it wired for cable so he could hang the new flat screen Casey had bought him for his birthday. They’d placed one of Casey’s old sofas and a coffee table in front. They used the set-up as their living room until the real one was habitable. Casey entered the room and stopped.
“Surprise!” yelled a chorus of voices mixed with whistles and noise makers.
A large banner hung on the opposite wall read Happy Birthday, Casey. The ceiling was obscured behind balloons of every color. Several card tables had been set up along the back wall, piled high with food and sweets. The sliding doors leading to the back yard were open allowing the warmth of the afternoon to filter in. Several more tables and chairs had been placed outside.
The yard had also been turned into a makeshift lot where all his friends had parked their vehicles, positioned perfectly so that Casey hadn’t seen them when he’d returned home. Casey smiled broadly at everyone. Aunt Sylvia approached him first, arms opened wide. He hugged the small woman tightly against his chest.
“Happy birthday, honey,” she said into his ear.
“Thank you, Aunt Syl.”
She patted him on the back and then pulled away. Casey was greeted by everyone, embraced in hugs and his cheeks adorned with kisses. He couldn’t believe how many people had come out just to celebrate his birthday. One of Rawley’s deputies, Ted, was there with his wife. Trent was there with his new boyfriend, Andrew, a physical therapist at the rehab center Casey had grown all too familiar with. He’d introduced them one day when Trent visited. They’d become friends after Jordan had simply left Trent one night. No goodbye. No explanation. Casey hadn’t been surprised, but Trent had been devastated. But to see Trent and Andrew together now, it was like Jordan had never existed.
Jake and Ryan stood near the sitting area talking to several men who’d been instrumental in Casey’s survival after his accident. Leland and Joe were the EMTs who’d stabilized him after Matt and Cameron, two firefighters, had cut him out of the car. Casey didn’t know the names of everyone in attendance, but he recognized the faces of many of Rawley’s friends. It amazed Casey that all these people had come out here just to celebrate his birthday. His own parents had never felt the need to throw him a birthday party. Some of his old friends had, but those parties had been engineered as a way to get him drunk, naked, and willing to part with his money.
Rawley was the last to approach him. With a content smile, he cupped Casey’s jaw in his palms and rubbed his thumbs over Casey’s lips. It was something he did often since the accident and Casey loved it. Casey kissed the pad of a thumb and smiled at the man responsible for his current state of happiness.
“Thank you,” Casey whispered. “No one’s ever done this for me before.”
“I know. Sylvia told me. I wanted your first birthday with me to be one you’d never forget. Future ones might not be so elaborate, but we will always celebrate.”
Casey opened for Rawley’s kiss, taking his tongue in for a quick taste. Casey wasn’t ready for the kiss to end when Rawley pulled away.
“I love you, Casey.”
“I love you, too,” Casey said. He’d been holding back the tears, but one slipped down his cheek. Rawley wiped it away gently.
“These better be happy tears.” Rawley said, brow creased.
“Yes. Happy mixed with a little pain and a lot of fatigue. I’m sorry.”
Rawley smiled and shook his head. “No apology needed. Let’s get some food in you so you can take a pain pill.” Rawley led Casey over to the first table in the buffet line.
“I said a little pain. What makes you think I need a pain pill?” Casey asked.
“You’re limping,” Rawley answered.
Casey had forgotten how he’d been favoring his left leg. The sheriff was always so observant. Rawley claimed Casey was just as observant when it came to him, knowing what he was feeling without him having to say it, but Rawley’s level of perception seemed much more honed.
They loaded up plates with sausage, chicken wings, pasta salad, and fruit. Casey made a note that he was going to make a second trip so he could try the food that didn’t fit on his plate the first run through. He forced a spoonful of yellow marshmallow something-or-other onto his plate simply because it was yellow. His friends knew him well. Casey turned a radiant smile on Rawley when he heard the resigned sigh.
“It’s yellow,” Casey said unnecessarily.
“Everything in your world would be yellow if you had your say,” Rawley grumbled. “Not everything can be yellow, love.”
Casey chuckled, picked up a can of soda, and waited for Rawley to join him. It was the same lighthearted argument they’d been having since moving in together. Yellow was Casey’s favorite color. It was bright and made him feel happy so naturally when it came to decorating, Casey leaned heavily toward the color. Rawley didn’t mind yellow as long as it was in small doses. The compromise had been one guest bath was decorated in yellow and the kitchen had gold accents. Casey figured in the future he’d be able to talk Rawley into painting one of the bedrooms yellow, but that was weeks away still.
The entire exterior of the house would have been the eye-catching color if it had been solely up to Casey, but Rawley had been strongly against it. Since he’d bought the house specifically to share with the man he loved, he’d given in to his boyfriend’s wishes for tan with blue accents. Casey grudgingly admitted the house looked great.
Casey stepped into the yard and looked around. Several people were already seated at tables, eating, talking, and simply enjoying the company to be had in the afternoon sun. Warmth at his back had him looking over his shoulder at Rawley who leaned down to press a soft, chaste kiss to his mouth.
“Hawaiian Breeze, baby,” Jake called.
“Excuse me,” Casey said and limped to the table as quickly as his bum knee and full hands allowed.
Jake shook the cocktail in his hand as Casey set his plate and soda on the table. Casey snatched the glass away and pretended to guzzle. Jake laughed as he lifted his own drink, while Ryan simply smiled and shook his head. Rawley quietly watched his antics as he slid into an empty chair.
“Really? Me and the yellow birthday cake lost out to one of Jake’s vodka cocktails?” Rawley asked.
“As things stand now, yes,” Casey answered.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, situation being what it is…people, social gathering and all.” Casey took a sip of vodka mixed with pineapple and cranberry juices as he flitted his hand to indicate the party around them.
“I am so lost,” Rawley mumbled. He shared a questioning look with Ryan, who shrugged in response.
“Man, that’s good,” he said to Jake, then to Rawley said, “Let me explain.” Casey adjusted his chair so that his knee was pressed firmly against Rawley’s thigh. “In our present situation, you lose to the vodka. Now, say one of Jake’s cocktails is sitting on the dresser, but on the bed is you covered in yellow birthday cake. Given that choice, you would totally win.” Casey smiled and winked as Rawley narrowed his eyes.
“Why would I be covered in cake?”
“Because it’s more fun to eat that way.”
“It’s also messy,” Rawley pointed out.
“Not the way I do it. I get it all. Every. Last. Crumb.” Casey licked his lips suggestively while holding Rawley’s intense gaze.
“Stop eye fucking each other and socialize with the peons,” Ryan reprimanded with a smile.
Casey reluctantly broke eye contact to focus on the plate of food in front of him. Once the chicken hit his tongue he realized he was starving. He cleaned the first plate in record time, and when he returned to the table with his second plate piled high, Rawley grabbed his hand.
“Are you having another cocktail?” Rawley asked.
“No. Too much alcohol makes me unsteady on my feet and my knee already feels like it’s going to buckle.”
Rawley pressed a pain pill into his palm. “You’re clearly hurting,” Rawley said in answer to Casey’s confused expression.
He did hurt more after sitting for a while, but he hadn’t noticed his limp was worse. His ever-observant boyfriend had and worked the party, and the guests, in such a way that Casey didn’t have to get up. A few hours later, once the sun started going down behind the mountains, the cleanup began and people started for home. As had become the usual over the past several months, Jake and Ryan were the last to leave, helping Rawley with the moving of tables and chairs. Casey had offered to help as well but received an emphatic no from all three men. Instead, Rawley had helped him up the stairs to their bedroom where he found another surprise waiting for him.
At some point during the cleanup, Rawley had drawn a bath for Casey in the large two-person tub they’d picked out together. The lights were off, but the bathroom was illuminated by over a dozen votive candles placed along the edge of the tub and on the countertops. Casey undressed slowly as Rawley poured Epsom salt into the steaming water, and then helped Casey climb in. The warmth immediately soothed his achy muscles. He hurt far more than he’d initially realized. Rawley ran a hand through his hair before kissing him and leaving him to his bath. Casey leaned back in the tub, sinking lower into the hot water, and closed his eyes.
The surprise party had gone much better than he’d expected with quite a few more guests than he’d planned for. Rawley had originally planned to have the event catered, but when Sylvia had suggested Casey would enjoy a potluck setting more, he’d changed the invites. He was thankful he had because every guest had brought something so there’d been plenty for everyone. Casey had tried to help with the cleanup, but Rawley could see the man was in pain, even if he didn’t verbalize it.
Casey relaxing in the tub upstairs and cleanup complete, Rawley followed Ryan and Jake out the sliding door of the rec room into the back yard where their truck was parked. Jake hugged him goodbye before heading for the truck to wait for his husband. Ryan and Rawley shared a firm handshake after which Ryan pushed a small box into his hand. Rawley gripped the box tightly and nodded his thanks.
These two men had always been friendly towards Rawley, but ever since Casey had landed in his life, and completely upended it, he counted them as friends. He would forever be grateful for how they’d been there for Casey at every tough moment the young man had faced. They’d been the first true friends Casey had ever had in his life and Jake had rapidly taken up the duties of best friend and confidant. Ryan’s voice pulled Rawley’s attention back to the present.
“I know you struggle with the age difference, even now, but Casey is perfect for you,” Ryan said softly. “Just like Jake is perfect for me. We’re emotionally contained men and we’re good at hiding our feelings. But these boys, they soften us, bring us out, and make us say fuck it to the world just so we can have them in our lives. Don’t get squirrely on this and let uncertainty keep you from him.”
“I won’t,” Rawley assured him.
“Because Jake has his heart set on being man of honor and I swear to god if you take that from him—”
“I won’t,” Rawley repeated with a chuckle.
Not once had Ryan shied away from threatening Rawley’s well-being. Didn’t seem to matter he was the sheriff. He’d never called Ryan out on it because the threats were always made in defense of Jake or Casey.
“Thanks, again, for picking this up for me,” Rawley said, lifting his hand with the box in it.
“Thank me by going through with it,” Ryan said over his shoulder as he walked toward the truck. He kissed Jake as he opened the car door for him.
Rawley went back inside, making sure all the doors were locked before heading upstairs to the master suite, and Casey. He expected to find him curled up in bed asleep. It seemed to be all the poor guy was capable of doing for any length of time since the accident. Everyday activities still made him extremely tired, and he struggled with some level of pain on a daily basis. Rawley learned quickly that cold and wet made Casey’s knee hurt worse, so he did what he could to keep him indoors on those days.
Today had been warm and dry, but Casey had attended physical therapy. It was during those two hours that Rawley had gotten the party set up. He’d hated the idea that Casey’s birthday party would take place when he was in pain, but Jake had convinced him it wouldn’t matter to Casey, and it seemed he’d been correct.
When Rawley entered the bedroom to see the bed was empty, his heart skipped in a beat in panic. Squeezing the ring box tightly in his fist, he rushed into the bathroom. Casey was reclined in the tub, eyes closed, the soft glow of candlelight bathing his skin in dancing gold. Thick dark hair framed his face, dark lashes brushing his cheeks. The man was beautiful and simply looking at him made Rawley’s heart, as well as other anatomy, swell. He’d almost lost Casey in that accident, his carefree attitude, and his bright personality.
Rawley knelt beside the tub and dipped his hand into the now lukewarm water. The skin on Casey’s fingers and toes was beginning to wrinkle. He ran his hand over the scars that now adorned his lover’s body, again reminding him how lucky they both were that Casey had survived the crash. It had launched a whole Clover City campaign aimed at teens and young adults about the dangers of texting and driving, about any kind of distracted driving. Casey stirred as Rawley’s fingers brushed over his collarbone and down his arm to the elbow that had been dislocated. Before Casey opened his eyes, Rawley slid the small box under a towel on the shelf by the tub, and then grabbed the towel off the rod and shook it out.
“Come on, handsome. Time for bed.”
Casey folded his legs and got them under him using extreme care. Rawley helped him to his feet and out of the tub before gently wrapping him in the towel. He pulled Casey to him and rubbed his back. Casey leaned into the embrace, resting his hands at Rawley’s hips and tucking his face into the juncture of Rawley’s neck and shoulder.
“Did you enjoy your birthday?” Rawley murmured.
“Mmhmm,” Casey mumbled against the skin of Rawley’s neck. “Love you.”
Rawley smiled and moved away but continued to lend his physical strength as Casey was severely unsteady as they walked into the bedroom.
“Into bed with you.”
Once Casey was in bed, he covered him with the blankets and returned to the bathroom to drain the tub and blow out the candles. He removed the ring box from its hiding place, set it on the sink, and stared at it as he undressed. He’d planned for the night to end with the proposal, and perhaps a little lovemaking, but Casey was clearly exhausted. Rawley carried the ring into the bedroom and placed it on the bedside table next to the untouched slice of birthday cake. He turned the light out and climbed into bed, spooning up behind Casey and wrapping him securely in his arms. It was the only way Rawley could fall asleep anymore.
“I love you, Casey Holden,” he whispered against the shell of Casey’s ear. Maybe they would have the cake for breakfast and he’d propose then.
As if reading his thoughts, Casey mumbled, “I want a house full of kids and a wedding in the forest.”
Rawley had never given much thought to having kids. They’d always seemed like an impossible dream. Then again, finding a man he could love as much as he loved Casey had once felt like an impossible dream.
“Let’s focus on getting married first,” Rawley whispered.
“I want sunflowers,” Casey said.
“You’re killing me with the yellow, handsome, and sunflowers don’t grow in forests, but I promise, if you say you’ll marry me…and guarantee that Jake can be your man of honor,” he added as an afterthought. “Then I will make it rain sunflowers.”
“You’re weird asking for Jake to be man of honor,” Casey said, very clearly.
“Yeah, I’ll explain that later. Roll over.”
It seemed Casey was more awake than he’d thought. Rawley rolled away from Casey’s warmth to grab the ring box off the table while simultaneously turning on the lamp. It cast dim light across the bed, leaving the majority of the room in shadow. Rawley opened the box and was once again struck by how perfect the gold band and two small yellow diamonds were. He’d known this was the ring for Casey the moment he’d laid eyes on it at the jewelry store. He pulled the ring from the box and turned back to Casey, who stared up at him. Rawley held the ring between his fingers. This wasn’t exactly the marriage proposal he’d planned, but like Casey, and the ring, he knew this moment was perfect.
“Casey Holden, will you marry me?”
“Yes, I will, Sheriff Rawley Maximillian Kane,” Casey said with a huge smile, all signs of fatigue gone.
Rawley smiled broadly but gave a low growl. Casey had used his title and his middle name, which he knew Rawley hated. Cheeky little shit. But he’d said yes and that was all that mattered. As he slid the ring onto Casey’s finger, his heart beat erratically in his chest. Rawley couldn’t believe they were actually doing this. They were getting married. Casey wanted him for the long haul. He kissed Casey with undisguised passion and joy. Casey pushed against his chest and they rolled until Casey straddled his hips.
“I’m glad you asked. When I bought this house, I had meant to propose to you, but I chickened out. I was so afraid you’d say no,” Casey told him.
Rawley didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He had no words because truth was, he had no idea how he would have reacted if Casey had proposed to him…with a house. It had been hard enough to say yes when Casey had asked him to move in all those months ago. Rawley still struggled with Casey being nineteen years his junior and that Casey had almost died on him, just like Alex had. Over the past several months of living together, being close to each other, Rawley had found a way to cope with those issues. Rawley decided to let his actions speak for him and he rubbed his palms over Casey’s thighs.
“This position isn’t hurting your knee?”
“A little,” Casey admitted and then smiled wickedly. “Is that birthday cake?”
Casey straightened his legs and flatted his body on top of Rawley. Rawley watched as Casey reached over to pick up the slice of yellow-frosted cake from the plate and bring it to Rawley’s chest. Rawley raised his eyebrows in question.
“Ever licked frosting off someone’s body before?” Casey asked before sticking his tongue out and taking a small amount of frosting into his mouth.
“No,” Rawley answered, voice thick and rough with arousal.
“Had anyone lick it off you?”
Casey took another swipe at the cake with his tongue and Rawley lost all ability to talk. The damn man was gorgeous and sexy as hell, and he knew exactly what he was going. In answer to Casey’s question, he just shook his head. Casey shifted down Rawley’s body, taking the blankets with him, and licked his lips.
“Well, have I got an engagement present for you.”