Featuring Jack and Gabriel from SUGAR CRUSH
At every floorboard creak, swinging gate hinge, and faint tapping of a tree branch against a windowpane, he tensed. He sat with his back to the wall, broken and bleeding, tire iron in his hand, senses on alert, adrenaline racing through his blood. Alone, but not alone. Not from the sound of footsteps growing closer. Gathering his courage and channeling his rage, he readied for one final battle.
Jack ended the chapter there. Rocking the chair onto its back legs, he read through the last page he’d written. As he’d promised Gabriel months ago, the hero of this story abhorred all things horror, just like the love of Jack’s life.
He reached for a mug of coffee he’d long since drained, frowned to find it empty, and rolling his shoulders, stood.
The warm and quiet kitchen had been his writing spot since he rose at seven-thirty to a Good morning, Happy Valentine’s Day text from Gabe, and had stumbled into the kitchen for coffee.
They hadn’t seen each other in over a week. Jack’s deadline had kept him chained to his laptop and Gabriel had been pulling in some extra shifts at the bakery and spending his nights helping Ryan and Everson with their final wedding preparations, and last-minute tasks.
But like all good stories with happy endings, he’d finally get to see Gabe in late afternoon. Gabe was coming by to get ready for the wedding and pick up Jack so they could travel together. And then he’d have Gabe to himself for the whole weekend.
He couldn’t wait.
The doorbell rang. Jack glanced at the time. 1pm. Would that be another special delivery?
The dozen roses adorning Jack’s coffee table had arrived at nine AM. The bouquet of multi-colored cake pops on the kitchen counter had arrived at ten. The dozen heart-shaped balloons weighed down by a bag of conversation hearts had arrived at eleven. The box of strawberry and cream macarons on the table behind his laptop and the special anniversary edition with director’s cut and commentary of Jack’s favorite horror movie had arrived at noon.
He opened the door and grimaced at the fierce, biting wind and frigid temperature. Shane Brennan stood on the second step, bundled in a huge coat and Philadelphia Frenzy winter hat, holding two large Bliss Bakery bags and a drink carrier with two coffees.
Jack’s brows drew together as he motioned his best friend inside. “I didn’t expect to see you today. Figured you would be busy with wedding stuff.”
“I stopped by the bakery to pick up some cookies and cupcakes for all of the people filling my dad’s house, and Gabe asked me to deliver this to you on my way home.” He held out one of the bags.
“More presents?” Surprise shot through him and he dragged his hands through his hair before taking the bag from Shane. “He’s been sending me stuff all day.”
“I gathered that from the stuff in the living room and in here. I’m not surprised. He said he felt bad about you guys not being able to see each other this week.” Shane set the drink tray on the table. “You get one of the coffees too.”
“I could use a caffeine hit. Can you stay for a few minutes?”
“I’ve got some time. Wouldn’t mind some quiet.” Shane tossed his hat and gloves onto the table and hung his coat on the back of a chair. He pulled the two coffees from the tray, handed one to Jack, and then sat and took a long drink from his own coffee.
“And from that, I’m guessing your day has been anything but quiet.”
“Try the past few days. Ryan took extra shifts at the gym to make up for being out next week for the honeymoon, but since I’ve been off, my dad’s had me running around either picking wedding guests up from the airport or taking them out for site-seeing. His house has been filled with people all week. Today, everyone’s hanging out there.”
“I’m sorry. Here, have a macaron. No one makes them like Gabe.” He pushed the box in Shane’s direction. “How are Ryan and Everson holding up? Any wedding day jitters?”
“Ryan’s a little hyper, worrying about something going wrong now that they’ve issued the wind advisory and are calling for freezing rain tonight, but Leo’s been good at calming him down. Everson seems as cool as ever. Xavier and a few of their teammates are there. I think trading stories about football games and injuries is helping keep him relaxed.”
Jack glanced out the window at the overcast sky. “Hopefully the bad weather holds off until after the ceremony.”
“The last thing we need is icy roads and sidewalks.”
As if on cue, the wind whistled, rattling the windows. Jack sipped his coffee, glad to be inside the house, safe and warm. “That ice storm last year took out power lines and turned the streets into a skating rink. Breaking a bone or having a car accident tonight would suck for the wedding guests.”
Shane grunted his assent and snagged one of the cookies from the box. “You and Gabe are still staying the night at the hotel, right?”
A Friday night wedding, on Valentine’s Day, at a boutique hotel in Center City, where he and Gabe had a room reserved, would be the perfect start to their own celebration. “Actually, I changed it to the whole weekend. I thought it would be nice. I’ve been working hard, and he’s been working hard, and a weekend away, even if it is in the same city, seemed like a good idea. And now, with the weather, I’m glad we won’t have to venture outside until Sunday afternoon.”
“Lucky. I’ll be shuttling people around the city all weekend.” Shane gestured to the bag he’d given Jack. “Gabe said that he’d be home in a few hours, but you should open that now.”
Jack pulled out the bakery’s tissue paper stamped with yellow cupcakes. Inside the bag lay a square bakery box and a large envelope. He set the envelope on the table and then opened the box. The scent of chocolate wafted toward him from an oversized cupcake covered with a cloud of white frosting and a sprinkling of red and pink hearts. A tiny card fluttered to the table. For us, for sharing, for later.
The smile that stretched across his face couldn’t be stopped. He gazed at the cupcake, picturing Gabe swirling the frosting from a piping bag, and the way his head tilted and his bit his lip when studying a finished product. The way the muscles in his forearms bunched… A throat clearing pulled Jack’s attention back to his surrounding. Cheeks heated, he glanced at Shane. “What?”
Arms crossed over his chest, eyes twinkling with his smile, Shane ate the other half of his cookie. “It’s just good to see you happy. I’m so glad things are working out with you guys.”
“I’m lucky I found him, and I’m lucky that he loves me too.” He set the cupcake box on the table, then opened the envelope. The top of a large red heart peeked out. He carefully pulled it free.
The heart-shaped Valentine constructed of thick, embossed paper, had elaborate cut-outs to resemble lace. Gabe’s handwriting filled the heart’s center. He’d transcribed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…
Jack’s gaze roamed the paper, taking in the words, warmth washed through him and tears pricked behind his eyes. Gabe loved him. Truly.
He turned the card over and on the back, at the bottom, written in Gabe’s script: Made with love, from Gabriel.
Jack blinked at the words. Gabe had handmade this beautiful creation???
Suddenly, the card Jack had bought—propped on the living room coffee table with his own gifts—didn’t seem nearly as special as it had earlier. Neither did the gifts. There were only two. Nowhere near the level that Gabe had been showering on him all day. What if Gabriel found his efforts lacking? What if Gabe misread those efforts and thought Jack didn’t care as deeply as he did?
Worry and desperation hung heavy on his shoulders. Shaking his head, he looked at Shane. “I wasn’t sure what to do or how big to go for our first Valentine’s Day together. But what I’ve done isn’t nearly enough.”
Shane’s brows drew together as he stared at the Valentine, then at the cupcake box. “You could make him something now."
Making something, crafting it with his own hands, just as Gabe had done, could help make up for it. But what? "Gabe will be home in a couple of hours. That doesn’t leave much time.”
He traced his finger over the sonnet. He was a horror novelist, not a poet. But he could talk about the eyes that always captivated him, and the way that the way Gabe’s smile lit up not only his face, but the entire room. And how Gabe was a soft place to land and also a tower of strength. All things he’d planned to say to the love of his life when they were alone in the hotel room that night, wrapped up in each other.
Shane picked up his coffee again. “Food always seems to be a good idea. Ryan offered to cook breakfast for everyone today. He made Everson heart-shaped pancakes. The rest of us got regular round ones.”
Laughing, Jack laid the Valentine on the table. “I’m sorry. Want me to make you some special pancakes sometime?”
Mouth quirking, Shane shook his head. “I’m good. But you could bake something for Gabe.”
“I haven’t tried baking him anything since that failed birthday cake.” He rolled his eyes at the memory. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve cooked dinners and breakfasts. But not desserts. That’s Gabe’s specialty.”
“Then he’d probably appreciate and be surprised by you taking a stab at baking something again.”
Jack rubbed his hand over the back of his neck as the idea rolled around in his mind. “That’s not a bad idea. Maybe cookies? I could handle cookies, right?”
“Sure. I have confidence in your abilities.” Shane’s phone pinged. He pulled it from his coat pocket, barked out a laugh, and then stood. “Ryan’s wondering if I’ve run off with the food. I should head back before he sends out a search party.”
Jack waited while Shane bundled himself into his coat, hat, and gloves, then walked him to the door. “See you tonight.”
“Good luck with the baking. Call Ryan if you need help. He’d probably appreciate the distraction.”
Back in the kitchen, Jack headed for his laptop. A search of Valentine’s Day recipes pulled up dozens of ideas. He amended that to easy Valentine’s recipes, and a photo of sugar cookies, cut into heart shapes, and decorated with frosting caught his attention. That looked easy enough.
He searched out the contents of his kitchen for the ingredients.
Thanks to Gabriel spending a lot of time at Jack’s home, the fridge and cabinets were stocked with all sorts of flours and oils and sugars and spices. Wanting Gabe to feel comfortable, he’d purchased a standing mixer, gadgets and utensils, baking pans, dishes, and sheets, a food processor, and anything that he noticed Gabe using on a regular basis at his own place.
Once all the ingredients were set on the counter, he turned back to his laptop and raised the volume on his playlist for the book’s inspiration. A rioting clash of pipes and drums and electric guitars blasted out. Grinning, he rolled up his sleeves, washed his hands, and got to work blending together butter, sugar, baking soda, salt, eggs, vanilla, and flour.
Per the recipe, the batter had to chill for at least one hour. Then the cookies had to bake, and then cool before they could be decorated. That would be cutting it close. Perhaps he could speed up the process by putting it in the freezer.
He divided the dough into two portions, hoping they would chill faster that way. Covered them, and popped them in the freezer. Then, set the timer—a winding dial one that was shaped like a cupcake—and then set another timer on his phone as a backup, and dived back into his book.
An hour later, beeping pulled him from the fight between the killer and his hero. He quickly pre-heated the oven and then grabbed the bowls from the freezer. Goosebumps broke out on his skin as the icy cold raced into his hands. He’d seen Gabe roll out dough a number of times, enough to know to flour the surface before he set the first portion of dough down to be rolled.
Rolling the dough proved to be harder than he’d thought. It had thoroughly chilled, but seemed almost stiff. Frowning, he put extra effort into the rolling. He’d followed the recipe exactly. Hopefully, nothing was wrong.
He couldn’t find cookie cutters, so he took a butter knife and cut the hearts freeform. Gabe could probably do that blindfolded and create perfectly symmetrical hearts. Hopefully, Jack’s would pass for artistic.
The recipe called for the baking sheets to be greased or lined. He lined them with paper and transferred the first heart, which ripped in two.
Using a spatula, he managed to move the rest without causing too much damage, but he did have to reshape more than a few. As he worked, his heart pounded and his shoulders grew tight, knotted by stress and concentration.
Finally, he slid both trays into the oven. Rolling his shoulders, he set the timer for ten minutes and picked up his coffee. Time to make the frosting. The recipe seemed easy enough, just some butter, confectioners sugar and vanilla, and the mixer took over when Jack realized that stirring it by hand wasn’t working, blending it far quicker and better than he could by hand.
The cookies in the photo were brightly colored. He dug into the back of the spice cabinet, searching for food coloring. Gabe preferred to tint things using natural flavors and colors when possible, but Jack didn’t have the knowledge to do that or the time to look it up, so food coloring would have to do. They’d used it at Christmas, so it had to be in there somewhere.
The scent of something… odd… hit him. What was that? Like… crayons? Frowning, sniffing harder, he turned away from his search of the cabinet. Cookies shouldn’t smell like that…
He opened the oven door. Smoke hit him along with the stench of acrid-smelling cookies. Coughing, he donned oven mitts, pulled the trays out and dropped them on top of the oven.
This was bad. This was so bad. What had happened?
The sound of the front door opening made his heart lurch.
“Jack?” Gabe’s voice called out. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Jack threw the mitts onto the counter, canceled the bake time and turned off the over, and twisted toward the doorway.
Gabe came in, cheeks red from the cold, dressed in a black long sleeve Bliss Bakery T-shirt and jeans. His eyes immediately creased in concern. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was trying to bake you cookies, and I ruined them.”
The concern faded as Gabe’s smile bloomed. “You baked cookies for me?”
“I ruined them,” he repeated. “But I don’t know what I did wrong.”
Gabe walked over to inspect the trays. “You used wax paper to line the sheets? You can’t use that, it burns.”
“But I’ve seen you use paper.”
“Parchment paper. It’s not the same thing.”
A tidal wave of embarrassment swept over him. Jack dropped his head, gaze contemplating the floor. Maybe it could swallow him up. “I’m an idiot.”
Gabe closed the distance between them and took hold of Jack’s hands. “No. You’re not.”
“The recipe didn’t say parchment paper. It just said paper. I didn’t know.”
“I still appreciate the thought.” Gabe drew Jack into his arms, against his chest, and Jack inhaled the sugary warmth that was all Gabriel. Sighing, he held on. All day long, this was all he really wanted. Gabe’s echoing sigh, and the gentle hand in Jack’s curls, warmed him.
He turned his head until his lips met Gabe’s. They opened for him, allowing him to take what he needed. When his heartbeat felt steadier, he pulled back and gazed at Gabe’s face. “You did all of these amazing, thoughtful things for me all day.”
Gabriel’s forehead creased as his brows rose. “You liked everything? It wasn’t too much? I was afraid it was overkill, but I couldn’t help myself.”
“I loved it all. And I wanted to do something just as nice for you.”
Gabe resumed the gentle stroking of Jack’s hair. “I, ah, noticed some presents in the living room.”
His shrug was immediate. “They aren’t as good as yours were.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” But instead of moving away, Gabe stayed where he was and kept Jack in the circle of his arms. “All I wanted for today was to be with you, and I’m getting that right now. Anything else is a bonus. You’re my Valentine, Jack. And you’re perfect.”
The words were a balm. Jack held tight, reveling in the warmth and security and relief.
Gabe glanced as the oven. “We’ll turn on the exhaust fan and put out some cups of vinegar and some baking soda. That will help take the smell out of the air.”
“I’ll crack open the back door and window too.”
After they cleaned up the kitchen, Gabe drew Jack into the living room. “Can I open my presents?”
“Sure.” Jack sat beside Gabe on the couch, resisting the urge to pace as he tore into the larger gift.
Gabe peeled away the black paper studded with shiny black hearts and grinned at the pink boxer briefs covered with cupcakes and hearts in various hues of red and white. “I love them.”
He’d thought they would look perfect on Gabe the moment he’d spotted them online. “Do you? They aren’t too silly or stupid or—”
“They’re perfect.” Gabe leaned in and kissed him. “The cupcakes remind me of the red velvet ones you and I made for the holiday party. Remember what we did while the cupcakes were baking?”
His voice had deepened and Jack’s body hardened at the rasp of voice and the memory of Gabe taking him against the counter in the kitchen. His help in the kitchen that day had involved a lot of distracting touches, to the point where want and need had overtaken everything else, dragging Jack and Gabriel into an all-consuming heat and passion. “I remember. I thought of the same thing when I saw them.”
“Did you?” Eyes heavy-lidded, Gabe slid his hand to Jack’s neck and drew him closer for another kiss—a deeper, hotter exploration that lingered and promised and teased. “I’ll think of it every time I wear them.”
Jack blew out a breath. “I’m sure I will too.”
“We’ll have to add to the memories.” Gabe’s thumb swept across the backs of Jack’s fingers, stroking the skin below the knuckles. “What do you say, want to reenact that night?”
His limbs turned liquid and desire heated his blood. Even though the kitchen still smelled like burned plastic, and the cold air seeped in through the windows and door, with that one touch, he was transported to the heat of the kitchen on that cold December day and the way that Gabriel had played his body like the finest instrument. “Do we have time now?”
“I’m thinking of nice and slow, taking my time with you so you know how perfect you are to me.” Gabe’s blue eyes blazed with an intensity that took Jack’s breath away. “Tonight, after the wedding. And again tomorrow. All day tomorrow. Until we leave the hotel on Sunday afternoon. It’s a promise.”
Wishing he could speed time forward, Jack traced a line from Gabe’s beard to his chest. “I can’t wait.”
Gabe sat back and opened the smaller package. Jack watched his face as he unwrapped the wireless ear buds. Gabe’s brows rose and his gaze flew to Jack’s. “No way! I’ve been thinking about buying these for months. How did you know I wanted them?”
Jack grinned. He’d witnessed on several occasions how the wires had frustrated Gabe. Considering the man used them on an almost daily basis, listening to audiobooks on the way to and from work, a change was needed. “I saw how much the wires bugged you and I wanted your audiobook listening experience to be happy.”
Gabe set them down and launched himself into Jack’s arms, knocking them to a half-sitting half-lying tangle of limbs. “Jack, why wouldn’t you think this is a perfect gift?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “It’s not a trip to Paris, or I love you written in the sky, or an avalanche of heart-shaped confetti, or anything like that.”
“It shows how much you pay attention to me, and how you want to make things better.” Gabe stroked his hand over Jack’s cheek. “Just by being in my life, you make it better.”
The words warmed him, soothed something deep within, and made his heart sing. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” Gabe pulled him closer, until their lips met. Soft and slow, the kiss centered him, and Jack poured all of his love into the action, willing Gabe to feel the depths of his emotion. After a long while, Gabe sat up and smiled. “We should start getting ready. I told Ryan we’d meet them at the hotel early.”
Jack stood and extended his hand and drew Gabe to his feet. “I need to shower. I smell like the kitchen disaster.”
“Wait. I didn’t open my card yet.” Gabe peeled open the envelope. The card’s front had an illustration of a typewriter and a heart. Inside, the caption read You’re just my type. Beneath that, Jack had written: I could write all the words forever and they still wouldn’t be enough to tell you how much I love you.
He bit his lip, shifting his weight from foot to foot, waiting for Gabe’s response.
“Jack.” Gabe’s whisper touched something deep inside of him. He set the card down and pulled Jack into his arms. “I’m never getting rid of this card.”
Jack held him, stroking Gabe’s back as the embrace continued and Gabriel shifted and then tightened his hold. He kissed the side of Gabe’s neck. “I sometimes wish I were a poet instead. You deserve the best words, the greatest, most lyrical—”
Gabe leaned back and pressed a finger to Jack’s lips. “I have everything I need with you. Everything. You’re perfect for me.”
Jack saw the truth in Gabe’s gaze, nodded and smiled. “Same.”
“Good.” Gabe brushed his fingers along Jack’s jaw. “Now that’s settled, let’s go upstairs.”
But instead of walking toward the stairs, Gabe stepped into the kitchen. He emerged with the bowl of frosting and a sexy smile.
Jack paused with one foot on the first step. “What are you doing with that?”
“Did you try this?”
“No.” For a moment, panicked horror filled him. “Is it awful?”
“Here.” Gabe scooped some on his finger, brought it to Jack’s lips, and painted them with a slow swipe. Jack licked at the concoction. Vanilla and so much sweetness. “It’s good, right?”
Gabe’s mouth closed over Jack’s lips and his tongue traced a path along the seam. He deepened the kiss, and desire curled through Jack’s blood, as potent as any sugar rush. “So good.”
As they kissed, want and need and heat and passion tumbled into each other, a raging storm gathering speed. When Jack raised his head, one hand clenched into Gabe’s shirt and the other exploring the skin underneath, the last thing he wanted to do was press pause on their time together. He glanced at the clock on the wall by the bookshelf. “We have some time before we have to go, don’t we?”
Gabe released a ragged breath. He slipped his hand from Jack’s hair and laced his fingers with the hand Jack had just freed from his shirt. “We do. I waited all day for some time with you. I don’t want to wait several more hours. We can steal some extra minutes.”
Hand in hand, they walked up the stairs, ready for more kisses and tastes of sugar and to celebrate their love.
To read Jack and Gabriel's romance, check out SUGAR CRUSH.
And below is the recipe that Jack made:
Thanks for reading! Happy Valentine's Day!