by Lynn Kelling
As he approaches his twenty-second birthday, the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack in an alley that nearly cost him his life in a few different ways, Jaye Larson thinks he’s left behind the ghosts from his years spent incarcerated, but when he’s delivered a mysterious letter with terrifying implications, old monsters rear their ugly heads. His normal new life in remote Zus, Alaska, with his lover, Dixon Rowe, the heart of a found-family that supports Jaye in ways he’s never before dreamed possible, is threatened by old deals and ties he begins to fear may never be broken. While old alliances strive to draw Jaye backward, Dixon and the rest of their family are called to step up to keep him steady. When the letter turns out to be just the first clue in a chain leading both Jaye and Dixon back inside the walls of the Federal Corrections Institute of Sheridan, Oregon, all of them are left facing carefully-held secrets and terrible new truths that refuse to be ignored. (M/M)
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Chapter 5: No Going Back
The Expedition pulled into the gravel lot outside of the Zus utilities building which was the base of operations for Jaye’s work. It was located downtown, a short walk from the station. The pre-fab structure was divided into several offices for electric, plumbing, water, and sewer services. Having their workplaces near to each other helped on days when their schedules didn’t mesh. That morning, Dixon had left before dawn — hours before Jaye was due to work. He would also get home well before Jaye. A similar schedule the next day meant he’d need to catch some sleep instead of wake up to spend time together.
But they still had the chance to steal moments together if they needed to.
Sitting behind the wheel in the cozy confines of the SUV, Dixon sipped a mug of lukewarm coffee and watched Jaye. He stood a few steps around the corner from the building’s entrance, chatting and laughing with one of his co-workers — a guy in his thirties named Oki. While Oki leaned back against the building’s wall, smoking a cigarette, Jaye stood nearby, hands pushed way down in his pockets. Just watching body language said a lot. Jaye turned toward Oki. His shoulders were back. When he tossed his head, Dixon glimpsed Jaye’s wide smile and crinkled eyes, squinted shut to block some of the bright, mid-day sunlight.
That was how Dixon loved seeing him — carefree, interacting with people in a way that served not to gain him anything, but just to make him happy and more fulfilled.
Oki was a nice guy with a wife and three kids. He was born and raised in the towns around Zus. A tried and true local who treated Jaye, the ultimate outsider, with only friendliness and understanding. Jaye deserved as many of those types of friendships as he could get, so Dixon sat back and waited. As much as he’d been looking forward to his desperately needed talk with Jaye, it could wait.
A few sips later, Oki nodded toward the Expedition, idling well beyond Jaye’s turned back. Jaye spun, finally seeing the vehicle. Giving Oki a wave, his lips sounding out words Dixon couldn’t hear, Jaye took his leave of his friend and jogged over to Dixon.
The passenger door swung open.
“Hey, you should have honked or something.”
“Nah. No rush. Didn’t want to interrupt,” Dixon told him. He gave Oki a wave, which was returned with a smile. Stubbing out his butt, Oki tossed it in a small receptacle left for the employees and began to walk back into the building. “How’s he doing?”
“Good,” Jaye said, climbing into the seat, shutting the door and huddling around the heater’s vent. He rubbed his hands in the jet of hot air. “His wife’s been trying to get him to quit, since they have the baby. They try to keep the smoking outside only, to keep it away from the kids, but that means he’s outside a lot of time, in the cold, while she’s in with all three kids and no help. It’s tough, though. I’ve never been there, but I saw how desperate some guys get if their supply runs low or out. Anyway. How are you? How’s your day been, Trooper?”
“Here.” Dixon passed him the other coffee in the holder. “It’s probably not hot anymore, but Sesi brought in some imported coffee beans from somewhere or other. Tastes different, but good.”
“Thanks.” Jaye cupped his hands around the paper container, his eyes watchful, locked on Dixon, as he took a sip. Then he set the cup down between them in the center console and leaned over to give Dixon a kiss. Their lips grazed and Jaye’s keen gaze searched deeply into Dixon. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said, but knew his behavior was all the alert Jaye needed to spark his acute intuition. It was a talent that helped keep him alive in FCI Sheridan, but translated in strange ways out in the real world. Such as making him about five times as observant as everyone else Dixon encountered in his private life or in the course of his job.
“Bullshit.” His hand wrapped Dixon’s thigh, sparking distracting want. It was tempting to give in and indulge, wasting away precious minutes with some physical release. As always, Jaye was easy to turn on and ready to get dirty with the slightest hint it was welcomed or wanted.
Dixon felt the inviting heat coming off of Jaye’s lean body. The natural scent of his skin and hair got in Dixon’s head in all of the right ways. Jaye wasn’t one for cologne or fancy toiletries. The fragrance was all soap, water, and Jaye. Dixon loved it.
The feel of Jaye’s fingers moving over Dixon’s thigh, caressing, gently kneading, was intended, he knew, to turn him on and draw him out. The caresses drew higher, close to dangerous territory. Then the pad of Jaye’s thumb dragged over the swell of Dixon’s crotch. Dixon loved that too — how Jaye could cross lines instinctively, with all of the bravery, confidence, and love in the world. When they were together, there was nothing standoffish in him. All of Jaye only worked to draw Dixon in closer, taking him deeper. He was the greatest intoxicant Dixon had ever encountered.
There was more, too — the softness of his silky lips, the flirtatiousness of his dark eyelashes working to give Dixon only glimpses of the sharp intellect and wit found in his gorgeous eyes, the dark tumble of his hair over his forehead, the peek of his tattoos always hinting at his inherent wickedness, the pure sex of his body…
It was a lot to say no to.
“I’ve been thinking. I’ve made a decision.”
Jaye’s ministrations paused, only for a moment. Everything in him that actively worked to loosen Dixon’s ties hesitated. Dixon had spoken with authority and conviction, so he knew that it was his tone more than his words that had the effect they did.
“And what have you decided, Trooper Rowe?” Jaye murmured.
“I’ve decided,” Dixon explained slowly and deliberately, “how this is going to go.”
“Yes, sir,” Jaye said with a crooked, sinful grin. “How do you want me?”
“In ways you could never even imagine, gorgeous,” Dixon smiled, giving Jaye’s jaw a gentle brush of his fingertips.
There was a silence, then, and he saw the shift in Jaye happen, right before his eyes. Somehow, without any explanation, Jaye knew. Maybe he actually just flat-out read Dixon’s mind. Maybe he simply knew Dixon that well, after having so much time to study him in detail — physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
Did Jaye know Cash as well, too? After two years incarcerated together, he must. Dixon hated the thought of it, and it only strengthened his resolve further.
The nature of Jaye’s continued little caresses changed. The sex and lure of them became more soothing and placating instead. His gaze lowered submissively. His lips softened and his breathing became more rapid in exceedingly subtle ways.
So, Dixon took firmer hold of Jaye’s jaw, their bodies slightly turned toward each other in the front seat of the SUV. He didn’t care if anyone could see them, or was watching. They were the only people in existence in that moment.
Better than anyone, Dixon knew never to underestimate Jaye Larson, who was stronger and more capable than anyone else Dixon had met. But he also knew — better even than Cash, he would bet — the exact, fine webbing of the cracks in Jaye’s heart and soul. Cash had caused those, along with Ecker and so many others. Now, it was Dixon’s job to make sure the splintering not only didn’t worsen, but that nothing got close enough to break the most precious person in his life.
The more Jaye fell into his submissive role, the more Dixon rose to dominate. It felt right.
“I’ll be sending Cash a letter, requesting he call my work number. I’ll also request that he add me as an approved visitor.”
Jaye’s jaw clenched, but his gaze remained lowered. He didn’t say a word.
“You are not to contact him further, in any way. I will be the one to contact him.”
He watched Jaye breathe through his nose, his nostrils flaring momentarily. His head bowed slightly further.
“Swear to me that you’ll obey my command.”
“Look at me, J-bird.”
He did it instantly, confidently. Cool and hot at the same time, his gaze locked onto Dixon’s eyes, dancing back and forth between them.
“Do you understand why it has to be this way?”
“You’re protecting me.”
“We don’t know his intentions, and I don’t trust him not to hurt you. I know you feel indebted to him, so I am going to be the buffer between you two. You’re not his anymore. You’re mine. I intend to make that clear, as well.”
Jaye took a deeper breath and let it out.
“He won’t talk to you like he talks to me. You’re law. And he won’t like you for being close to me.”
“If he has a message to convey to you, he’ll find a way to give it to me instead.”
There was another too-long pause. A glance to the clock on the dashboard told Dixon that Jaye’s break was almost over.
“You’re not really going to see him face-to-face are you?”
“Seeing him will upset you.”
“You sound pretty sure of that.”
“I am sure. You know who he was to me. You know what he did to me. I was his whore for two years, and it wasn’t a private deal. He showed me off. He force-fucked me in front of the whole gang more times than I can count.”
Dixon refused to think about it. He instantly shut down the mental images, because the words alone were making him want to vomit or smash his fist through the windshield.
He closed his eyes. He started to let go of Jaye, and that must have been the opening he was looking for, because he took it.
His hand clasped over Dixon’s, keeping it in place, against the side of his jaw.
Just like that, Dixon had lost all power. Jaye had taken it.
“It would happen a lot in the showers. I’d be naked. Helpless. Without Cash, they would have all come in and raped me to death right there on the greasy tile with cockroaches hiding in the corners. And they would have done it laughing. The dirty guards would have let it happen. But I was a possession to Cash. I added to his value, but he had a reputation to uphold, so he wasn’t gentle. He’d pull my hair nearly hard enough to rip my scalp off, jam his cock up my ass, choke me a little. He wanted me to cry and fight with real fear, so he let it hurt enough to make the act sell. And that was all the time, Dix. That was daily. It wasn’t just Cash fucking me, either. He used me as payment. Gave me to others to fuck or touch as much as they wanted to, to pay off debts, and they were even less gentle. The things they called me? The things they did to my body? The ways I hurt, all the time? That’s why I have ghosts. That’s why I lost my fucking mind.”
“Stop,” Dixon demanded, his voice breaking.
“I owe Cash this call, this visit. I do. Because there is no way in hell I’d still be in one piece or above ground without him. But this is not someone I want you in contact with.”
“This is the way it has to be,” Dixon countered, standing his ground.“It’s this or nothing. I’m not bending on this. I won’t. He doesn’t get to have you anymore. He only goes through me.”
Jaye’s beautiful eyes searched his, but this time Dixon had to look away. It was too much. It was far too easy to believe not only every single word Jaye had said, but that he was still hiding the really bad stuff from him. Dixon couldn’t take it away, or help more than Jaye would let him do so, and it hurt. A lot. And when Dixon hurt, it showed. Always. He couldn’t help it. It’s what kept Marcus around, feeding off of Dixon’s anguish and shame like a vampire.
He started to cry, soundlessly, avoiding eye contact, jaw clenched. The tears rolled down his cheeks. Jaye brushed them away and kissed him over and over again, on his closed eyelids, on the tip of his nose, his cheek, his lips.
Dixon gathered him up in an awkward hug over the center console, holding him so tightly. He buried his face against Jaye’s skin, the soft curl of his hair, with one hand clasped behind his head and one on his back. Jaye brushed the skin at the back of Dixon’s neck.
“No one hurts me anymore. No one touches me but you,” Jaye told him.
Dixon’s breath hitched. In his mind, Jaye was screaming for help that wouldn’t come, sobbing to deaf ears, bleeding and breaking, and there was nothing he could do.
“It’s just a conversation,” Jaye said.
“We could just let it go,” Dixon begged.
Dixon relaxed his hold, sniffled and tried to get it together. Jaye kissed his forehead, his cheek, his knuckles.
“I love you so much,” Dixon breathed, his voice breaking and vision blurred.
“What I would have given,” Jaye replied, “to have had you sooner, Dixon.”
Dixon just gathered him up again, kissing his hair and caressing his back. “There’s no going back, for either of us.”
Jaye took his hand, weaving their fingers together. They stayed like that for several minutes, letting the clock wind down. When Jaye had to go, he closed his eyes while kissing Dixon, then turned, almost running back to the building as if by looking at Dixon at all, he would never leave.
Much later that evening, hours after Dixon had come home from his shift and gone to bed for some sleep after eating an early dinner of more re-heated stew, Jaye drove home from work. The sound of the car pulling up to the house and the gentle bang of the driver’s side door closing didn’t wake him — it didn’t usually — but he did roll over in bed with a sleepy grunt as Jaye closed the door as quickly as he could to shut out the chill. He saw Dixon draw the blankets up to cover himself more completely. Shedding his coat and shoes and going to stoke the waning flames in the hearth, Jaye crept around as silently as he could.
He set a few pieces of split logs into the dancing tongues of gold and orange, liking the heat on his hand and arm. Staring into the shapes made as the wood was consumed, Jaye thought back again on the looping process his thoughts had made that day after Dixon’s orders had been delivered.
He understood Dixon’s logic, and was prepared to honor it, but Dixon not only didn’t have the full story — he never would have the full story. There were aspects in the power dynamics long since established between Jaye “Johnny” Larson and Cassius “Cash” Jones that were so alien to a lawman like Dixon, Jaye knew he had to speak up. But what to say?
He’d spent so long keeping Cash and Dixon’s worlds apart, not only practically, but in Jaye’s mental space as well; he resisted with all his might the thought of them colliding. No good could come of it. But Cash was so determined, he’d had a man tortured and murdered just to send a message. And Dixon was equally determined to safeguard Jaye, with every bit of a lover’s whole-hearted devotion. How could something as immaterial as discomfort stand in the way of those types of motivations?
Jaye’s whole life had been a series of weird and wild balancing acts.
As a child, he had to strive for his own success and health while dealing with his only family in the form of a troubled, drug-addicted mother on a less-than-ideal career path. Love for Cora got him through until he met Kris, his first boyfriend, and a third dynamic was added to the mix. Then it became a dance of keeping both Kris and Cora happy or safe enough while also taking care of his own basic needs as a teenager with limited resources, trying to build a life for himself.
Once the attack happened, Cora and Kris quickly became non-factors. Then it was all about staying alive.
After the initial adjustment period, merely striving for survival wasn’t the only thing on Jaye’s plate. He also had to keep Cash, his owner and protector, happy. No matter what that meant. He also had to bob and weave around the guards. Some were in the pocket of Cash’s gang. Others were in the pocket of rivals. In that isolated world of FCI Sheridan, there were many players on the board and none of them were to be underestimated.
Now, having left Sheridan behind, Jaye was tasked with honoring Dixon as his partner, protector and true love, while simultaneously honoring Cash’s unfailing follow-through in keeping Jaye breathing air.
Just because Cash wasn’t physically nearby didn’t mean he wasn’t still in the game. He was, and might always be, a major player in Jaye’s life. Just because Dixon wanted Jaye to pretend Cash had been knocked off the board didn’t make it true. It had nothing to do with Jaye’s commitment to Dixon as his primary relationship and priority. It was about balance, and honor in the most basic sense.
Jaye never wanted to have to play Dixon and Cash off of each other. He wanted them each far, far away from the other. Now, he had no choice. He had to allow Dixon to call the shots in this. He had to let Dixon have his say. He’d earned at least that much.
“Hey,” he heard from a few feet behind him.
“Hey,” Jaye replied without turning around. The warmth of the fire heating his face, chest, and hands helped anchor him in the tangible rather than the psychological puzzle shifting around in his head.
“You want me to heat you up some food?”
“I can get it, Dix. But thank you. It never fails to stun me that I actually have someone willing to provide hot food for me on a regular basis.”
“C’mere. Sit with me a second.”
Jaye sighed and stood. With the cabin’s only light behind him, Dixon was in deep shadow as Jaye approached the bed. For a second, he imagined Cash there instead, taking up the left side of the bed, his many tattoos and scars only visible in the orange firelight when Jaye moved slightly to one side.
Strangely, the idea didn’t horrify Jaye. It just made him sad.
Cash would never get out. He would never have a home, or a lover kept only out of mutual devotion, and with no ulterior motives.
Way back in his mind, Jaye heard Cash screaming again. He heard the fight and the futility of their last moments together, and it hurt. There was a lot that wasn’t fair in the world, but something about Cash’s situation spoke deeply to Jaye of the massive failings of many levels of reality.
When Jaye turned to sit, the firelight caught Dixon’s golden-red hair, his bright blue eyes and creamy skin.
Dixon took Jaye’s hand, folding it up in a different kind of living, consuming warmth.
“We going to Brekken’s for dinner on Friday?”
“Yep. That’s the plan,” Dixon agreed. “The big day.”
Jaye felt instantly uncomfortable at the mention of his birthday. There was too much riding on it. He wished he could just skip the day entirely, sleep through it and call it a win. It would mark the third anniversary of the night of his attack.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go.”
Dixon gave him a disbelieving look. “No way. We’ve been over this. We need to give you some happy memories to associate with it. You deserve that. As someone who loves you very much, I want to see you happy on that day more than anything. It means a lot to me too.”
“All right,” Jaye surrendered. “We don’t need to get into it.”
“Okay. What’s up?” He rubbed the back of Jaye’s hand and gave him a patient but knowing glance. “I know that look. Makes you seem fifty-two instead of twenty-two. Whatever you’re carrying, gimme some.”
“You didn’t send the letter yet, right?”
Dixon’s expression softened into a humble little smile. “No, I’m not that good.”
“Okay. I know you can be compulsive with this stuff once it’s on your To Do list, so I just wanted to make sure.”
Jaye let out a heavy breath and tried to figure out how to say it. It used to be so much easier to get what he wanted from Dixon. He could seduce the decisions out of him. But they were way beyond that now. Their relationship had matured along with them. Now, talking things out had become key — not that he was any good at it.
“He won’t trust you. Cash. As hard as he’s tried to get me his message, he might just rip up your letter without even reading it at the first sign it’s from a lawman. And he’d just try to come at me some other way.”
“So what do you suggest?”
He gazed down at his hand, cocooned now in both of Dixon’s. He wished Dixon could do that with all of him — just hold him so gently and keep him far out of harm’s way.
“You need to let me tell you what to say. Cash sent his message in code. Our message back has to be the same. They’ll read it. Screen it. So it has to be carefully considered to let Cash know I had you send it for me, and that you know enough of what’s gone on to cement your status as a reliable link to me.”
“You need me to tell him things only the two of you would know,” Dixon paraphrased.
“Yes. You have to understand how smart this guy is. He’s excellent at reading people. He will know you hate his guts. That alone will only contribute to his mistrust of you.”
“J-bird, I don’t give a flying fuck what this guy thinks of me. The goal here is to find out what the hell he wants with you, then to be abso-fucking-lutely done with all of it. For good. I know you think you owe him, but my job here is to mediate, resolve whatever this is, and make it go away. I see it in your face, how you do care about him, and that fucking kills me, kid. But I get it. I’m not dumb either. But if you’re looking for anything more than closure here, tell me now. Please.”
Just like it was yesterday instead of three years ago, Jaye heard…
You feel that, right? How I’m still fucking that hole? How that’s gonna be throbbing for days? And you ain’t gonna sit or shit right for a long damn time? That’s our deal. That’s my hole, now. It’s mine, not yours. No one else touches it. You do what I say, no matter what it is.
God, but it made him tired. He let it sag his posture and drain a little more of his fading energy. It had been a long day.
“No, you’re right,” Jaye said. “I used to argue with the ghosts all the time. Nightly. About whether it was rape or not. He made me bleed. He made it hurt. As long as he was out of solitary, he hardly ever gave me a night off. It was only when I was on death’s doorstep and high as a kite that he laid off a little. He gave me to other men as payment, to fuck. He’d watch and monitor it usually, but for the most part just let them have at it and say whatever shit they wanted to me. He wasn’t a good guy. But you don’t understand the life he’s living in there. You just don’t. You don’t know what it was really like, for him or me. The promises we made to each other? Those are just as binding as any other type of vows. They mean something. Cash is locked up in there for the rest of his life, and what we had together was the closest thing to something good and real and meaningful that he will likely ever have, and they didn’t…” His voice choked off. He angrily wiped his eyes dry and tried to pull the awful truth of it all out of him somehow. “They didn’t let us say goodbye. They planted drugs in his cell to prevent it, so he’d be out of the way the whole week before I left and it was such a fucking low blow, Dix. I hear him screaming. He was screaming my name and…” He shook his head. He couldn’t give anymore.
Dixon pulled him down into a soft hug. Jaye swung his legs up onto the bed, buried his face against Dixon’s skin and tried to breathe.
“I can’t love him, but I have to respect him,” Jaye managed.
“I know. I know you do.” Dixon kissed the top of Jaye’s head and held him in the embrace. “We’ll work it out, all right? The best way we can.”
“I just don’t want you to have to carry this alone. You’ve already got way too much on your shoulders, and I’m here for you in whatever ways you need.”
The words were so perfect, they physically hurt Jaye to hear. With a soft moan, he curled further into the hug and let it soothe some of the old aches, wondering what he’d ever done to deserve such kindness.
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