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CORNERSTONE

J. Rocci



The Courting Series #2




SMASHWORDS EDITION

Copyright © 2017 by J. Rocci


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Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support.


This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


Contains Adult Reading Material


Discover other works by J. Rocci through the author’s official website:

http://www.jrocci.com/



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Author's Note


Josh and Garrison are two of my favorite characters to write: former Marines, one a cop, the other a lawyer, both reserved but so obviously in love. While Cornerstone is chronologically the second story in the Courting Series, it’s actually the first short story I ever wrote with Josh and Garrison -- the one that started it all. It can be read as a stand-alone story. I originally wrote this for Torquere Press' Holiday Sips, released in December 2009. I hope you enjoy Cornerstone, and check out the other stories in the Courting Series:

Commitment

Concordant

Concur

Competition

Connections




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CORNERSTONE


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Josh is in the middle of packing when Garrison finally gets home. Muttlee shoots out of his corner at the first jingle of keys, already excited by Josh's nervous pacing. Josh has to smile when he hears Garrison greet their beast of a German Shepherd.

Good, he wants to talk to Garrison before he leaves. Josh glances at the clock. Three hours to get to the airport. His smile slips.

Three hours and then he's gone for Christmas, maybe New Year's. Eight years and they've never spent the holidays apart. But they will this year, all due to a family Josh has barely spoken to in fourteen years. He rolls his t-shirts up tightly and shoves them in his old service duffel.

"Gee, honey, I know I burnt the roast last night, but that's no reason to run away," Garrison drawls from the bedroom doorway, looking pointedly at the duffel and not approaching the bed.

Aw, hell. Josh loves Garrison for his deep bass voice and his sarcastic tongue, but when Garrison directs the attitude his way, that usually means trouble. He really wants to avoid a fight.

"I have to head to Ohio," Josh says, words clipped out before he can stop himself.

Raising an eyebrow, Garrison loosens his tie and shrugs out of his suit jacket. "Ohio? What on earth is in Ohio?"

Lips thinning in consternation, Josh stares down at the ring on his left hand. There's this tightness in his chest he can't get rid of.

Garrison hangs his jacket in the closet, next to Josh's newly-laundered uniform. The rustle of the dry-cleaning bag fills the expectant silence.

Like a bandage, right? Just rip it off.

"My father died. Three weeks ago."

Garrison freezes in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt and looks sharply at Josh. Josh doesn't look up. He knows Garrison’s reading his body language, that Josh’s posture is a warning not to approach, loud and clear.

"I'm sorry to hear that, babe," Garrison says softly.

"Happens." Josh shrugs, and zips his pack with a quick jerk of the tab.

Garrison makes a disapproving noise, a little wounded on Josh's behalf. Josh doesn't know how else to take this pain, besides burying it in barb wire around himself.

"When do we leave?" Garrison asks, but then he pauses, takes in Josh's posture. "Do you want me to come with you?" Asked quietly, like he won't be hurt by whatever Josh says. Like he expects to be turned down.

Josh gives two quick shakes of his head, hard enough to feel the short brown spikes of his hair move, and doesn't let himself speak.

He needs Garrison to come with him more than anything in the world. Garrison with his spicy aftershave and his booming laugh, his bright smile so vibrant against his dark skin and his fancy imported shirts with silk ties -- all the scents and textures and good things that make Vermont home.

But this mess in Ohio -- it's best without witnesses. He doesn't want to drag Garrison down into his family issues and drama. Not around the holidays. Not when Garrison's normal, well-adjusted family will be hanging a stocking for Josh and going to Christmas Mass together and sitting down to dinner without screaming at each other.

He doesn't know what signal he gives, but Garrison's brown hands are wide, spreading along his sides, at his waist. Josh lets his eyes drift shut as those wonderful fingers slide up, curl around his shoulders and tug. Josh bows his head and leans back, soaks in the warmth radiating against him.

He feels Garrison breathe, slow and steady.

"Is there anything I can do from here?" Garrison murmurs, voice rumbling in his chest.

Josh reluctantly peels his eyes open. He's purposefully left some things to do, knowing Garrison hates to feel helpless.

"Book me a hotel?" he offers quietly. "I left a copy of my flight info on the desk. I'll need a rental, too."

"Consider it done." Garrison presses a gentle kiss to the nape of his neck, right above his worn t-shirt collar. "How long will you need to be there?"

"I don't know." Josh tenses. "My sister's the one who called. Said they had thirty days to carry out the old man's will. Didn't say what that meant, though, just that I really needed to come."

Garrison is quiet for a moment. "So probably longer than a couple days..."

"Yeah," Josh mumbles. Christmas is in four.

A thumb strokes his neck. "Sure you don't want me to tag along? I could hang out in the hotel room, offer my loving support through witty text messages."

Josh chuckles, like Garrison intended. He covers Garrison's hands with his own, feeling the heavy platinum ring like a promise between them, before stepping away to pick up his bag. Muttlee starts to nervously prance around their legs.

"You can do that from here, and not have to brave Burlington Airport the weekend before Christmas," he says ruefully, wanting to just laugh this off. He's so tempted to say yes. "Besides, my hometown doesn't exactly have five star hotels."

Garrison catches Josh’s wrist, pulls Josh in easily. His mouth is soft. Sweet.

"Wasn't thinking of me, babe," Garrison whispers against his lips before stealing another kiss.

Josh doesn't want to leave. His blood relatives may need him, but this is his family right here.

Josh leans back to consider Garrison's worried expression, the laugh lines around his mouth and eyes, the light stubble on his jaw.

"I'll survive." Pulling himself together, Josh straightens up and pulls out his phone. "Now, I need to call a cab, or I'll be late."

"If you think you're taking a cab, you got another think coming, mister." Garrison steps away and Josh wants him back. "Just let me change my shirt."


***


The airport is noisy and crowded. He hasn't traveled by himself in forever, not since before the Marines. To make it worse, he keeps picturing Muttlee's confused little face in the backseat when Josh got out of the car without him.

He wishes he were the type of person to slump in a corner of the waiting area with his mp3 player blasting, but he's a cop -- if you're not alert, you're just another victim. So he paces for a while, bag slung across his back. Holiday decorations are in all the concourse store windows. A young couple off to his left looks near their breaking point as their toddler keeps shrieking. A man in a business suit, briefcase at his feet, pokes at his PDA with a stylus, the clicking a counterpoint to the screaming kid.

People traveling for the holidays and work, and it's all so normal, so commonplace. It's easy to get lost in all the hustle and noise, to feel like an anonymous stranger in his own skin.

His phone vibrates in his jeans pocket and he digs it out, trying to ignore the shaking of his fingers. A text message is waiting for him.

I reserved you a hotel room and a car.

The address follows. Josh finds a pillar to lean against and quickly replies.

thnx

There's a delay and Josh can almost see Garrison rolling his eyes.

I know you can spell.

Josh smirks.

y bther? u can read it

But it hurts my soul.

Josh guffaws, stifling the noise in his fist. The people in his waiting area start standing, gathering their things. The young couple tries to wrangle the red-faced toddler. How they heard the boarding call, Josh doesn't know.

brding now

Love you. Be safe.

He shuffles on with the rest of the passengers in his section, stows his bag and slumps in his seat, staring out the window at the frost on the tarmac. It's gonna be a white Christmas. A large woman sits in the seat next to him and he shifts away.

He doesn't want to think about what's waiting for him on the ground in Ohio, so he thinks on what were their holiday plans. What they -- Garrison -- will have to excuse Josh from and go to alone. They've already attended the station holiday party at the usual pub and then the fancyshmancy formal dinner that Garrison's law firm always hosts.

Tomorrow would have been lunch at Rick and Emmanuel's, where all the friends out of their group who stay in the area for the holidays get together for food, drinks, and present exchanges.

Then, weather permitting, the three-hour drive down to Boston to spend Christmas through New Year's with Garrison's parents and all his extended family.

Instead, Josh is on a plane, heading toward an empty hotel room for the night, then tomorrow he's off to see his--

His broad thumb deftly types on the little keyboard before he heeds the flight attendant and turns his phone off.

Love you, too.

He spends the rest of the flight thinking about Garrison's smile and empties his mind of everything else.


***


The town hasn't changed in a decade and a half. Josh doesn't know what to think about that as he drives through it the next morning. He doesn't want to think about how disconcerting it is to drive a rental car through the same streets he'd learned to drive his father's truck on and to feel like he's still that shy kid back in high school, not a thirty-two-year-old cop with a life of his own two states away.

This town, this life -- it's not him. It never was.

His father had a set idea of what a man should and shouldn't do, what family duty was, and they weren't the same ideas that Josh had. There'd been words exchanged that a man couldn't easily take back.

The only time Josh tried to reconcile, years back, those words were thrown in his face and that was it. End of story, right?

For his father, it was. But the world doesn't work like that.

So here Josh is, knocking on his Mama's door with sweaty palms and a dry mouth like he's a stranger, a day after he found out his father was dead. He doesn't think about how he'd be more comfortable in his uniform with a sidearm holstered at his waist, a hat to hold. He shoves his hands in his pockets.

A gawky teenage boy opens the door, expression sullen. He's got the Dabbs eyebrows, and Josh blinks.

"Yeah?" the kid says, tone bored.

"Anthony?" he asks, dumbfounded. Last time he'd seen the kid, little Anthony was in diapers.

The look is warier now, but still unimpressed. "Whatever, dude, I don't know you. What d'you want?"

"Anthony, that is no way to answer the..."

Mama looks older. Way older. Her once brown hair is all grey. She was always plump, but she's put on more weight. Josh got his height, his bulky frame, from his father, but his baby blues come from her. Those same bright eyes that are staring at him in shock now.

"Joshua?"

He finds a smile, stays out on the porch.

"Hi, Mama."


***


Mama eventually calms down enough to sit Josh at the kitchen table and tell Anthony to call his mother.

Josh really wasn't expecting the warm reception from Mama. He didn’t let himself think about it on the way, but this was festering in the back of his mind. He's definitely surprised.

In the face of that surprise -- sitting at the table surrounded by a familiar kitchen that he knows but has changed just enough to seem alien -- he finds himself slipping into what Garrison calls his "cop-mode": polite answers, solicitous but distant, reserved.

Mama's so anxious, fluttering around, peppering him with questions without giving him time to answer, that she doesn't seem to notice.

Mama's reaction has thrown him off balance, but it helps to prepare Josh for his little brother's scowling, pissed off face when Toby finally arrives.

"So what did Kay tell you to get you here so fast?" Toby demands, before he's even in the kitchen. "You think you're gonna get rich?"

"Tobias!" Mama snaps, quick as anything.

Both the boys are shocked into silence. Josh can't remember her ever raising her voice – the quiet shadow behind his father. He clears his throat.

"I'm not here for a fight, Toby."

Toby snorts. "You haven't been here for fifteen years."

"Joshua is a police officer in Vermont," Mama interrupts, a non-sequitur that throws them off, her voice back to her normal quiet tones as she sets a bowl full of casserole in front of Josh. Josh noticed at least a dozen covered containers in the fridge. "Do you want some Shepherd’s Pie, Toby? Mrs. Telluci made it on Sunday."

Toby keeps frowning at Josh. "No thank you, ma'am."

"Sit."

When Toby doesn't immediately comply, she repeats herself. Toby sits. Before he can start anything, though, the front door opens again.

"Joshua? Oh, my God."

Kayla's reception is much like Mama's. She tugs Josh out of his chair before he can finish his first bite, wrapping him in a fierce hug. Awkwardly, he pats her back and she sniffles, until she finally takes a step away.

"Hey..." he says, at a loss.

"I can't believe you're here. The private investigator wasn't sure he could even find you."

"You hired a PI?" Josh blinks. That's disconcerting.

"Mr. Beaugard said we had less than a month," Toby drawls with another snort. "So Anthony went through one of those people finder websites. When they couldn't find you, we hired a guy."

"Daddy wanted you here," Kayla says softly, squeezing Josh's arm.

"Shyeah, won't let us read the will without him, you mean," Toby spits out.

"I, ah," Mama starts, hesitant. "I let Rodney know Joshua was coming. He said he'd be here today, if you don't mind staying."

"Of course not, Mama. We have nowhere else to be," Kayla says, and takes a seat at the table.

"Joshua, finish your lunch."

Slowly, Josh sits. The entire day feels surreal.

"So, the PI found your phone number, but he didn't look into much else. He said you live in Vermont?" Kayla asks in the awkward silence. "That you're a cop?"

"Yeah," Josh replies between bites. "Been on the force seven years now. Was a Marine before that."

"So you did join." Kayla smiles. "You always wanted to."

"Enough to get kicked out of here," Toby mutters with a dark look. Kayla kicks him under the table.

"I did a six-year tour. Worked with explosive ordnance disposal before I got out."

"Isn't that dangerous?" Kayla asks at the same time Toby demands, "Why'd you quit, then?" with a resentful edge to his voice. "If it was everything you wanted so bad -- bad enough for Daddy to disown you and leave all of us behind -- why leave it?"

He's glaring at Josh, and Josh glances between them, at Mama's tense back while she does the dishes. He hasn't eaten much from his bowl, but his stomach flips.

"I met someone in the Corps and decided I wanted to settle down. We couldn't do that if we were still in the Marines."

"You're married?" Mama perks up at that, pauses in her dish-washing to turn around. He knows she noticed his ring earlier, but didn’t say anything.

"I-- Not technically." He ignores Toby's eye roll. "Garrison and me-- We have a civil union."

"Oh, Lordy, not another one," Toby mutters. Kayla kicks him again with a frown.

At Josh's questioning look, she explains, "Anthony's dad -- You remember Brian? -- He's gay. Mama and I joined PFLAG after he came out. How long ago was that, Mama?"

"I'd say six years or so," Mama says. She smiles at Josh, a little sad but still genuine. Josh remembers Brian as the mousy teenager that his father threatened with bodily harm after Kayla got knocked up before her sixteenth birthday. Babies having babies, Mama had wailed.

Brian was actually living at the Dabbs house when Josh left, since the kid's own parents kicked him out during the baby situation. It must have been a hard time, coming out after all that.

But something in Josh's chest unknots with their calm acceptance. Even Toby, for all that he's pissed at Josh, doesn't seem particularly pissed because of that.

"So, what does your Garrison do?" Kayla's asking, and Josh gives her his full attention.

"He's a lawyer. He works for the District Attorney's office."

"Oh, boy, a cop and a lawyer in the family," Toby drawls.

Kayla rolls her eyes. "Just ‘cause you dated a paralegal and she cheated on your sorry behind doesn't mean all lawyers are evil."

"I so beg to differ," Toby huffs.

"Well, maybe if you spent less time at the mill, you'd find yourself a steady girl--"

"The mill is what puts food on this table, and I don't see you complainin' about that--"

It sounds like a conversation they've had plenty of times, so Josh relaxes in his chair. When Kayla's taking a breath to respond, he asks, "How is the mill doing? Any problems with the recession?"

Toby gives him a measuring look. "Not more than we expected. We had to let a few part-timers go. We still got a government contract and we've been around long enough that our competitors have more to worry about than we do."

The Dabbs Paper Company has been the family business for three generations. That fact was the basis for all of Josh's problems with his father. Or rather, Josh's lack of interest in working at the mill for the rest of his life was.

"Toby's been running the floor since Daddy's first heart attack last year," Kayla says, eyes proud. "I've been handling all the executive work."

Toby frowns at her, and says pointedly to Josh, "Not like there's anyone else to do it, now is there?"

"Would anyone like some banana pudding?" Mama interrupts, placing bowls in front of them and puttering back for spoons. "Kayla, why don't you tell your brother how great Anthony's doing in school? That boy is smarter than us all."

Josh exchanges wary glances with his siblings, and Kayla starts talking.


***


“Joshua, you remember Rodney Beaugard?" Mama says brightly.

Josh looks up from watching the TV, where Anthony and Kayla are playing a first-person shooter game on his Xbox. Once the kid found out Josh owned a real gun, he hadn’t run out of awkward questions.

Standing, Josh reaches out to shake the Mr. Beaugard's hand. The man was in his father's acquaintance since high school, and last Josh heard, his small firm still handles all the company's legal work.

"Sir. Good to see you again."

"Please, call me Rodney." Beaugard's smile is tight, small. It doesn't reach his eyes. He nods at Kayla. "Kayla. Since we're on a strict schedule here, I don't mind doing a house call, but my wife is ready to filet me for dinner rather than the fish, so this will be need to be brief. I have a copy of the will for each of you. Is there somewhere we can sit down?"

"Come on to the dining room." Mama leads the way. She calls for Toby as she passes the basement stairs.

"All right." Beaugard sets his briefcase on the table and starts pulling papers out. "These are the copies. I'll give you a moment to look them over before we discuss the ramifications..."

Josh accepts his packet and starts reading. Years of being around Garrison -- mostly helping him study -- means that he understands the technical language some, but what he's reading can't be right.

"This says that I have to take over as CEO of the company," Josh says, shocked.

Toby's expression is murderous. "Say what? You're reading it wrong."

"I'm afraid he isn't, Mr. Dabbs," Beaugard says confidently. This is why he didn't look happy to be here. "It was William's express intent that Joshua becomes chief executive officer of the company and assumes control of William's share. Since that entails seventy percent of the company, Joshua is now the majority stakeholder in the business."

"This is ridiculous," Kayla manages after she finds her voice. "Daddy couldn't have seriously thought--"

"What happens if I don't?" Josh interrupts grimly.

Beaugard sighs. "Then William's assets are to be liquidated and the mill sold on the public market."

"Kayla and me still own thirty percent of the shares," Toby growls. "He can't do this! We have over two hundred employees who could lose their jobs if the mill is sold."

"This is insane," Kayla murmurs.

Mama doesn't say a word. She just stares down at her copy.

"There is a no-contest clause included," Beaugard continues, "So if you refuse to comply with his wishes, the inheritance is forfeit. Normally, this would mean distribution to a residuary estate, but he's outlined his specific wishes should any of his three children refuse."

"Excuse me?" Josh sputters as Toby yells, "The hell this is legal! Are you crazy?"

"The terms of your father's will are perfectly legal, Mr. Dabbs. Joshua must assume the position of chief executive officer at the mill within a month of William's death, or his share in the company will be sold to the highest bidder."

Josh grinds his teeth to keep from shouting. Kayla keeps looking between him, Toby, and Beaugard with wide eyes. Toby looks like he's about to hurt someone.

"I advised William against including that clause, but he was adamant," Beaugard says with honest regret. "It was witnessed by myself and Dr. Hilburt. I insisted on having your father's physician present to attest to his mental competency."

That's when Toby hits the roof and starts ripping up his copy. "Mental competency? You think this is mentally competent? You need to get a check up, asshole--"

"Toby," Josh says in a level tone. "Calm down. I'll have Garrison look it over and we'll deal with this."

"Calm down? Calm down! Don't you tell me to calm down! This is all your damn fault--"

"Toby, come on," Kayla tries to intervene, but Toby's stepping around the table, getting in Josh's face. Josh pulls himself up to his full height to tower over Toby, keeping his expression neutral.

"Tobias." Mama finally lifts her head, eyes glistening. The three of them freeze and Beaugard looks on stoically. "It's nearly Christmas. Please. Let's not fight. Please? Just... take some time to think about this. It will work itself out."

Josh looks from Toby's red face to Kayla's upset frown.

"After all," Mama continues, voice wavering, "it brought us all together. That's a good thing, right?"


***


Josh needs time to himself. From Mama's tears and Toby's angry accusations, the afternoon has left him worn down. He heads to the hotel Garrison found for him. The place is bland, non-descript and corporate. It's perfect.

He just kicks his shoes in a corner, shucks his jacket on the floor, and flops on the bed while hitting his speed dial.

"Hey, babe," Garrison answers on the first ring. "How'd you sleep? You talk to your family yet?"

Just the sound of Garrison's voice makes Josh want to crawl into his phone, claw his way back home through it.

"God, I wish you were here right now." Josh sighs, and rubs at his face in frustration. "Next time I try to leave the state without you, kick me. Seriously. Anywhere you want."

"Anywhere? I'll definitely remember that." Garrison's tone may be dry, but there's warmth there. Comfort.

Josh soaks it in and tries not to sound too whiny. "This is all so fucked up and crazy."

"What's going on?" Garrison rumbles in that alert, two-steps-from-the-courtroom voice that normally sends all Josh's blood south. But he's too stressed to properly appreciate it and just gives Garrison a quick rundown of the day.

"You're serious?" He can hear Garrison blink over the phone. "Your father actually put his entire life's work in jeopardy, not to mention hundreds of jobs, just to get you back at the mill, when you obviously have no interest at all in it and he publicly disowned you over a decade ago?"

"Yup." Josh lets his head drop down, glad to let someone else do the reacting for a while. "In a nutshell."

"Wonders never cease, humanity can still surprise me..." Garrison is silent a moment, thinking. "Well, I don't do probate litigation, but I have some idea of how to proceed. We can contest this and have the will deemed invalid. There's no way he was of sound mind when he wrote that -- I'm surprised this Beaugard agreed to it -- but we would probably need a doctor's opinion to support that if the witnesses think he was competent."

"One of the witnesses was his doctor..."

"That muddles the waters a bit. From what you've told me, your family wants you to contest the will, which makes the proceedings easier in a way, but harder if we can't reach a satisfactory conclusion in -- what, less than seven days?” Garrison makes that noise that means he’s beginning to plot something. “I'll give Emmanuel a call; he used to do probate. I just can't believe your father jeopardized all those employees' livelihoods..."

"It's like a bad fucking romance novel," Josh growls. "And hell if I'm playing the damsel in distress."

"Hold on a sec," Garrison says, voice muffled with a strained grunt. "All right, I've got my laptop. Just let me buy my plane ticket and I'll be out tomorrow... Looks like in the morning..."

"You don't have to--"

"Anywhere I want, you said?" Garrison interrupts, tone sharp. "How about a kick in your slow behind?"

"Yes, dear."

Garrison laughs, big and rumble-y. "As if I believe that resigned act for a second."

Josh chuckles along before his grin fades. "You're supposed to be at your parents' tomorrow..."

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response." Garrison's tone is distracted, furious typing going on in the background. "No wait, I am. What do you think my mother will do to me if I show up without you and she hears about all this going down?"

Smiling up at ceiling, Josh sniffs. "Well, she does like me better..."

"Lies, vile lies. She just wants someone to talk sports with Dad to spare the sanity of the rest of us." The typing stops. "All right, I should be arriving around oh-nine-hundred tomorrow. Do I need to rent a car?"

"Nah, I'll come get you. Beaugard's willing to work tomorrow, so we can at least figure out a way ahead."

"Hm. Can you fax a copy of the will to the house for a read-ahead?"

"Sure. I think the hotel has a little computer-slash-fax area."

"Good. Just -- be careful." Garrison's grim tone sobers Josh. "If this can negatively impact local lives, we don't want word of it getting out until everything is resolved."

"That's part of why Beaugard's willing to work this holiday," Josh murmurs, then clears his throat. "Hey, this is me you're talking to -- when am I not careful?"

"When it comes to people you care about," Garrison shoots right back. "But that's one of the things I love about you, babe."


***


Josh drives the two hours back to the airport early the next morning. There's a light dusting of white frost covering the fields to match the rime on the road. He rolls down the window to taste the metallic tang of snow on the air.

His phone vibrates as he pulls into airport arrivals. Garrison's mother.

"Hey, Mom," he answers with a smile. "I take it you heard."

"Good morning, baby," she says, sympathy in her voice. "We heard. Garrison drove down last night. How're you holding up?"

"It's, ah... a little stressful, to be honest. Nothing I can't handle." He scans the group of people just leaving baggage claims. "I'm at the airport waiting for Garrison now."

"Good. We're all worried here, baby. Even Aunt Lawanda, and you know how she is."

"Mmmhmm. You guys been getting up to shenanigans?"

"Child, let me tell you what that woman thinks is an appropriate gift for a nine-year-old--" He appreciates the obvious distraction. By the time Garrison slides into the car, Josh has updates on everyone in his family, down to second and third cousins.

"You sicced your mother on me," he says to Garrison after he hangs up.

"You love it." Garrison dismisses him with a wave and leans over for a quick kiss. "I'm starved. What time do I meet the in-laws?"

"We've got a few hours." Josh pulls the car away from the curb, heads back to the highway.

"What's this about you driving to Boston?"

"I couldn't find a kennel to take Muttlee," Garrison says casually, not fooling Josh. "You know that beast is on a watch list now. They probably warn each other about him."

"Pshh. So he ate one chain-link fence..."

"That is all on you. He didn't get it from my side."

"Uh-huh." He grins as Garrison's hand comes to rest on his thigh. Less than forty-eight hours and he's been in touch-withdrawal.

The silence is comfortable. Garrison shifts his big frame so he can watch Josh as he drives. Josh doesn't mind at all.

"You get the fax?" he finally asks after a while.

"Indeed I did. I also spent some time on the phone with Emmanuel. I think we may have a way to work with it without seriously inconveniencing everyone." Garrison frowns at the dashboard. "From the sound of things, your brother probably won't like it, but I think if we appeal to his sense of reason, he'll see it's the most expedient option."

"I love it when you use big words at me."

"I knew you only married me for my brain."

"Dang, you caught me out."


***


They talk strategy all the way back to the hotel. There's a diner across the street that Josh tried his first night in, and they have a quick lunch. Not exactly the Christmas Eve he'd imagined, but he's got Garrison now, so Christmas is looking up.

It's not until they're pulling up to Mama's house that Josh gets nervous. All this stuff with his father, it's bad enough. But now, after fourteen years, to just try to reconnect with his family like they're not strangers? He doesn't know how to talk to them. One look at Garrison's manicured nails and expensive suit -- his brown skin and even white teeth -- and they'll clam up tight. He knows it.

Garrison squeezes his hand. "You're getting those lines on your forehead again. Quit worrying."

"Can't help it."

"I know, babe. I know."

Beaugard's car is on the street. Josh knocks on the door and Anthony lets them in, craning his neck back to give Garrison a measuring look.

"Are you a cop, too?" the teenager demands, tone bored but eyes curious. "Josh gets to carry a gun."

"No, sir, I'm not. But I was a Marine," Garrison answers affably. "I do all my fighting in the courtroom these days."

"Well." Anthony sighs. "I guess that's cool, if you were a Marine. Uncle Toby says lawyers are soulless vampires trying to suck the life out of the common man."

It feels good to laugh. Garrison joins in, and that draws attention from the dining room.

"You must be Garrison." Kayla's the first to reach them. "Come on in. Anthony, take the man's coat, where are your manners?"

"Oh, that's all right, ma'am--"

Josh needn't have worried. Garrison is charming and out-going even when he's not trying to make a good impression, which he obviously is this time. He has Mama and Kayla enamored with him quickly enough, and even Toby starts to relax from his angry, defensive hunch.

"I don't mean to interrupt," Beaugard cuts in gently from the doorway. "But I only have so long before I need to leave..."

He ushers them into the dining room, where his briefcase is open again, papers stacked around it.

Josh glances at them -- copies of the company's financial records, inventory, charter. Even the title to Mama's house.

Josh realizes with a sinking feeling that, as a family-owned business that hadn't really grown until his father took over, most of the assets are tied up in his parents' property, too. His father probably hadn't separated everything after the company had gotten more successful. If he rejects his father's will, Mama's out of a home. Was his father really that much of a bastard?

"All right," Garrison starts, getting serious. "Mr. Beaugard, I know you're intimately familiar with the circumstances, so if anything I propose will not be viable, please feel free to interject."

Beaugard nods, so Garrison continues. "After reviewing Mr. Dabbs' last will and testament, and consulting with a probate attorney, we believe the best course of action for everyone is for Josh to assume the position of chief--"

"Hell, no!" Toby explodes out of his chair. "You have no right--"

"Sir, please let me finish." Garrison is in full-on courtroom mode, eyes intense. "Your father's will does not specify a time table beyond the thirty-day implementation period. Nowhere in this does it say that Josh needs to remain the CEO after he assumes the position."

Toby slowly sits back down, expression wary. "But he wants Josh involved in the daily running, too..."

"Technically," Josh finds his voice. "It only requires that I assume the responsibilities of CEO. The daily running was implied through that, and from what Rodney informed us of the intent."

He looks at Beaugard, who nods again and clears his throat. "That is correct, Joshua. In informing you, I wished to communicate your father's... mind frame when the will was drafted. He had the idea that this would draw you back to Ohio. But. You are correct, Garrison. There are no other timetables specified."

"So what does that mean?" Toby growls.

"It means," Kayla says with a growing smile. "That Josh can do what Daddy wanted, but then turn around the next day and give up his spot, right? He doesn't have to stay if he doesn't want to."

Garrison exchanges a glance with Beaugard before returning her grin. "The paperwork will probably take longer than the next day, but yes. That is what we're saying. What we need to decide is how we're going to proceed. Josh?"

Josh leans forward. "I was thinking we split the company four ways. Toby and Kayla, you already have fifteen percent each. I give you both another ten percent, and then twenty-five to Mama. And Kayla's already been acting as CEO for months, we just make it official."

Toby glares at him. "So you're gonna be a silent partner or something? What if we do something you don't like?"

Josh finds it easy to meet Toby's gaze. "Bro, the two of you run that place now. Who am I to question that? But... I would like to stay involved somehow. If you guys don't mind?"

"I think that's great," Kayla says immediately, with a huge grin. "And this way, you'll have to come visit us."

She looks pointedly at Toby, who's stubbornly silent until he mumbles, "Yeah, okay. Whatever."

Josh turns to Mama. She's watching them with red eyes and he reaches out, takes her hand. He doesn't want to think about how hard this has been on her.

"Mama?" Kayla prompts.

"I think," Mama says quietly, squeezing Josh's hand, "that your daddy would be proud of you. All of you."

"Well," Beaugard says after a moment. "I'll have my staff prepare the paperwork as soon as they get back in the office."

When he rises, they all follow, shaking hands and seeing him out the door after he wraps everything up.

Josh pauses in the foyer, knowing what he wants, but afraid to impose. Mama decides it for him. She rests a light hand on his arm, then Garrison's.

"Stay for dinner. Please." She smiles at Garrison. "A big Christmas Eve dinner is a family tradition. We have some company coming over, and I'd love to introduce you..."

"Of course we'll stay, Mama," Josh agrees at the same time as Garrison.

It might not be the Christmas he planned on, but it’s looking great all the same.


***


The hotel room is toasty when they get back that night. Even after standing in front of the noisy heater for a moment, Josh still feels numb, cold to his bones. His fingers ache.

He feels a little guilty as Garrison putters around on the other side of the room -- as he gives Josh some space to deal with whatever's going on in his head.

It took them a few years to figure that out -- that, where Garrison prefers constant contact when he's stressed, even if it's just a touch to the small of his back, Josh has to process his thoughts first. Has to examine and label and file away his feelings before he can acknowledge they even exist, let alone be comfortable with anyone else acknowledging them. Garrison has the patience of a saint with him and his issues.

Eight years, and Josh is grateful for every damn day they're together.

He turns his head, watches Garrison strip out of his suit jacket, his expensive shirt that clings to the contours of his muscles. When Garrison's down to his undershirt, the white tank top bringing his abs and the solid line of his shoulders into stark relief, Josh steps away from the heater. He's still in his winter coat and he shrugs out of it, tosses it onto the bare hotel desk.

"I don't know about you," Garrison says, voice low, "but I could really use a hot shower."

"Yeah." Josh inhales deeply, tries to center himself, and sits on the edge of the king-size bed. "Sounds like a plan."

He can feel Garrison studying him. "How're you holding up?"

Josh shrugs. "I still can't figure out why he did it, you know? Why he'd risk everything just to get me back here. Was he really that controlling? That... twisted? We had our differences, but I don't-- I can't think of him that way. I honestly--" He waves a hand in frustration. "I just don't know."

"I think," Garrison says slowly, "that, if he's anything like the man I love, he probably had a lot of pride. Maybe too much to tell his son he'd made a mistake. I think maybe this was his way of trying to fix his family."

"By essentially holding it hostage to his whim?" Josh asks incredulously.

Garrison shakes his head. "No. Your father was obviously a smart man, and Beaugard wasn't surprised at all when I pointed out what would be a glaring loophole to any lawyer worth his salt."

"You think he purposefully left it open like that?" Josh frowns. "But how did he know they'd be able to find me in time?"

With a shrug, Garrison toes off his shoes. "Who knows, maybe he hired a detective of his own?"

Josh glares down at his hands, not sure what to think. He's exhausted, frustrated, and more than a little bruised around the edges. Dinner at Mama's was good. His family wants to see him again.

He's going to be involved in their lives again.

He swallows and looks up at Garrison, who's watching him with hooded eyes. Josh lets some of the walls come down.

Garrison is solid and built, coming over to kneel in front of Josh, and Josh can't bring himself to look away. Every nerve ending in his body focuses on the hands approaching him. He can't even stand up.

"I think you need to quit thinking for a while," Garrison murmurs. "Let yourself relax a bit. And if I'm really nice, I might let you open a present early."

When Garrison's fingertips trail across his cheek, Josh inhales sharply. Garrison has a tender touch that strips him to his bones, chases the numbness and cold away. The smile he gets at his gasp lets him know that Garrison knows it, too.

"Don't need any presents," Josh whispers. "Long as I got you..."

Garrison tastes like his Irish coffee from dessert and his stubble burns along Josh's lips, jaw. Josh groans, opens himself up as Garrison's tongue slides into his mouth. Garrison's palms are cupping his face. Garrison's hips are under Josh's hands, and his grip tightens, pulls the other man closer until Garrison rises and straddles his lap, legs firmly on either side of Josh, pinning him to the bed. Heavy and rock-hard and all that's important.

His grip tightens as Garrison groans into his mouth when their crotches align, hard lengths pressing together. Josh's arms wrap around Garrison’s waist, as if he could draw Garrison into him. Inhale him, devour him. Never stop kissing until they're both old and gray. He runs his hand along Garrison's arm, into the neck of Garrison's tank top to stroke beautiful skin, so firm and warm. His lips slide across Garrison's cheek, rough stubble and sweat-flavored, and Garrison arches his back until Josh turns his attention to Garrison’s neck. Josh loves the way Garrison is open to anything Josh wants.

This is all Josh needs to be happy, and as he pushes Garrison's tank up and off, he revels in every detail of the chest in front of him. Because this is his, his body needs Garrison like it needs air.

Needs to have Garrison grinding down against him. Needs to be fumbling with their zippers and buttons. Needs to hear the breathy moan Garrison releases when Josh's hand is down his pants, gripping his scalding cock. It's all necessary for Josh's continued existence.

"God, I love you," Garrison pants against his temple.

Josh moans, hips pushing upward. "Want you to fuck me."

The musky scent of Garrison's come hits him as Garrison stiffens in his arms and groans Josh's name into his mouth. Josh keeps working Garrison's dick with his come covered hand, slick noises echoing until Garrison pulls away.

Garrison stands up and drops to his knees gracefully. He nuzzles Josh's throbbing dick, swallowing it down in one motion. Josh gasps and struggles to keep his eyes open because he doesn't want to miss any of this: the way his dick slides in and out of Garrison's mouth, the way his fingers look spread over Garrison's shaved head. He presses his thumbs to the hollows of Garrison's cheeks, feels the head of his cock moving.

His entire body is focused on Garrison's mouth and his fingers and the flush on his cheeks. Josh tries to make it last, but Garrison's talented hand curls around Josh's balls, rolls them, presses up behind them to rub over Josh's hole.

Garrison chokes a little when Josh pushes up and comes hard. He grins up at Josh, licking the dribble from his lips and chin.

"How about we take that shower now?" Garrison says, voice hoarse.

Josh grins, loose-limbed and exhausted. "Right behind you."

"Always."


End



Since 2006, J. Rocci has published LGBT romance stories, ranging from contemporary to steampunk to fantasy. Rocci currently lives near Washington D.C. with the love of her life and their furry children, and loves giving her characters happy endings. You can find Rocci on the web at:

http://www.jrocci.com/

http://j-rocci.dreamwidth.org/

http://jrocci.blogspot.com/

http://twitter.com/JayRocci/

http://jrocci.tumblr.com/



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