Reading Time: 126 Minutes
Title: Eight Weeks
Author: Keira Marcos
Genre: First Time, Kid!fic, Romance
Relationship(s): Evan “Buck” Buckley/Eddie Diaz
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Violence-Graphic, Homophobia, Explicit Sex, Explicit Language, Discussion-Ableism, Minor Original Character Death, Canon-Typical Violence
Author Note: The canon divergence points happens during the tsunami as Buck and Christopher aren’t separated. Buck has awful parents.
Beta: Jilly James
Word Count: 85,202
Summary: After the tsunami, an event in Buck’s life forces him to make some changes. Everyone in his life reacts in ways that he couldn’t have possibly expected, and his friendship with Eddie takes the most amazing turn.
His parents flew in two days before the wedding and in the midst of Buck’s parents filing for mediation regarding visitation with Colin. It was infuriating, to say the least, and Buck had pulled no punches about how he felt about it. He’d had to put fifty bucks in the swear jar after that phone call from his lawyer, and Christopher had learned at least ten new curse word combinations that he promised not to repeat until he was an adult.
Eddie really didn’t want to deal with his parents on any personal level but hadn’t been able to think of a reason not to have them in his house as long as they behaved. He wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but Buck and Christopher had agreed that they should try to let them be decent about the family they were making before kicking them to the curb permanently.
“He hates me,” Buck muttered as he passed Colin into Eddie’s hands.
“He hates the bath,” Eddie said as he let the baby rest on his bare chest. “We’re just giants who feed him and take away his clothes right now.”
They’d both taken their shirts off for bath time since the last time had resulted in a shirt change due to getting soaking wet. How a tiny baby had gotten the best of them was neither here nor there. He walked through the living room where his parents were watching a movie with Chris and headed for the nursery so he could get Colin dressed.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise when his mother followed him. She hovered a little off to the side of the changing table, lips pursed as she watched him finish drying Colin off. He plucked up the baby lotion and poured some in his hand to warm it up.
“Problem?” Eddie asked mildly as he rubbed the lotion between his hands then started to smear it all over the baby.
“No, I…feel a little useless,” Helena admitted.
“Did you think we’d toss him your direction the moment you walked in the door?” Eddie asked. “Because we’re not doing that with anyone. You’re a guest in this house, and I’m not in the habit of asking guests to parent my kids.”
He grabbed a diaper from the stack.
“No powder?” she asked in confusion.
“No, it’s no longer recommended,” Eddie said. “It can cause a lot of respiratory problems and diseases. It’s even worse for girls as there are links to ovarian cancer being researched for talc-based ones. Cornstarch-based powder can make diaper rash worse. We had a whole research binge on it in the hospital. Regardless, no baby powder. His skin is a little dry, so we got a lotion rec from his doctor.”
He rolled socks on and wrapped the baby in a blanket. “We’ll do skin-to-skin after his next bottle, which Buck should have ready if you want to feed him.”
“I’d love to,” she said and smiled.
“If he fusses, don’t be upset. He’s getting picky about who feeds him. I don’t know if it’s because he’s reacting to the outside stress of Buck’s parents or what.”
“Maybe, babies can be sensitive to the moods of their parents. Sometimes you and your father would sit in his chair and brood together like two displeased gargoyles.” She grinned as Eddie passed her Colin. “I have pictures.”
He followed her back into the living room and picked up his shirt from the back of the chair. Buck had already retrieved his, he’d noted. Eddie pulled it over his head and checked his watch.
“It’s almost time for bed, Chris. Let’s get you in the shower.”
Chris nodded and slid forward on the couch.
“He can stay up since we’re here,” Ramon said.
“No, he can’t,” Eddie said pointedly, and his father started to speak but then closed his mouth with a deep frown. “Come on, mijo.”
Chris went to take a bath without any sort of protest, yawning as he left the room. Eddie just glared briefly at his father before following. Chris was practically asleep on his feet by the time he got him into pajamas.
“Did you want a story?”
Chris pulled off his glasses and put them on the nightstand. “I’m too tired. Babies are a lot of work.”
“Yeah, they are.” Eddie pulled the duvet up and tucked it around Chris. “Did you wake up a lot last night?”
“Just once,” Chris murmured and snuggled into his bed. “And it was fine cause I had to pee anyways. I don’t mind—Colin can’t help it.”
“True, but we can get you some earplugs maybe….” He trailed off when Chris shook his head. “Well, just let me know.”
“It would be weird if I couldn’t hear people up and moving around in the house,” Chris said and frowned. “That doesn’t seem safe.”
Chris had a different sort of awareness post-tsunami, and Eddie hated it, but he’d worked hard to make sure his son wasn’t upset about the change in himself that couldn’t really be helped. A little situational awareness never hurt anyone, Eddie supposed; he just wished that his son hadn’t gone through what he had to make such a shift in his personality.
“Okay, to sleep with you then. You can blackmail Buck into making you pancakes tomorrow.”
Chris grinned. “I already did! Peanut butter ones.”
Eddie laughed and pressed a kiss against Chris’ forehead. “Good. I love the peanut butter kind.”
“Wheat pancakes shouldn’t be that good,” Chris said. “I know he’s bribing me to eat the healthier version, but I don’t care because they’re great. Night, Daddy.”
He closed the door and returned to the living room. His parents were on the sofa together, and his mom was feeding the baby. He really didn’t want to bitch at his father while Colin was eating, so he just huffed a little and went in search of Buck. He found his soon-to-be husband in the kitchen on a laptop.
“Did they run you out of the living room?”
“Colin kept getting distracted by me,” Buck murmured as he made a note on the notepad beside him. “So, I came in here. Your father looks pissy.”
“He tried to tell me that Chris could stay up past his bedtime.”
“Like we need a cranky, miserable kid tomorrow?” Buck asked with a frown. “We’d catch hell getting him dressed and fed before 8am if he stayed up any longer.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Eddie pointed out. “What are you doing?”
“Reviewing grandparent’s rights in California. Mediation is the first step, but the thing is that they have zero relationship with Colin and have no grounds to say otherwise. They’re just trying to make my life difficult because I didn’t give them what they want, which is par for their course. Though we both know that visitation is just their path to seeking custody of him in a courtroom setting.” He closed the laptop. “So, I thought we could go to mediation together.”
“Do you think they’ll react badly to our relationship?”
“I think my mother will lose her shit,” Buck said. “She’s profoundly religious and homophobic on top of it. Then we’d have her on record being ugly and homophobic. There’s no way in hell a judge in California would ignore that and give them any sort of visitation at all.”
“True,” Eddie said. “Well, I’m game, of course, and there’s nothing she could say that would hurt me. And I’ll try to keep my temper under control. I don’t know them and can’t stand either of them on principle, so their opinions of me couldn’t matter less if I tried. After this, I think that you should file a lawsuit against them for harassment if they try anything else. They can’t just come into town, disrupt your life, demand our child, and get away with it.” He glanced back toward the living room where his parents were sitting quietly. Eddie knew very well that they could hear every single word being said. “That kind of entitlement is abusive in itself.”
“They’re both very used to subjugating others through psychological abuse,” Buck said. “I don’t remember a single day growing up in their house when I wasn’t told I was worthless or useless. I never understood it—now I do. Now I know they think of me as a defective spare parts baby.”
“Please stop calling yourself a spare parts baby,” Eddie demanded. “Seriously.”
“I don’t see myself that way,” Buck said. “But they certainly do, and you know it. It’s fine because I haven’t cared about their opinion of me in years. I stopped trying to earn their love when I was a teenager.”
“You shouldn’t have to earn your parent’s love,” Ramon said gruffly as he came into the kitchen with the empty bottle. “He’s getting fussy. Helena said he’ll want one of you.”
“It’s my turn for skin-to-skin,” Buck said with a yawn and stretched.
“Let me do it, and you can get ready for bed. We have that meeting first thing in the morning, and you’ve been running around since dawn,” Eddie said.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. A few hours of sleep now will…help.” Buck rubbed his face and waved a hand between them. “Do not yell at each other in front of the baby. I mean it. I’ll kick one of you out of the house, and the other will spend a week on the couch. You can decide between you which one gets the couch.”
Ramon snorted as Buck left them and walked to the sink. “Go rescue your mother from the pending tantrum.”
Moments later, Eddie settled on the sofa and arranged the blanket around Colin so his back wouldn’t get cold. His mother clearly had something on her mind, so Eddie just waited until she was ready to speak.
“I was thinking that Chris could spend the weekend with us at the hotel,” Helena said. “To give you and Buck a bit of a break.”
“No, but thanks for considering it,” Eddie said easily. Colin curled his fingers against his chest, so he adjusted the baby’s hand. “We’re gonna have to cut your nails.”
“I was petrified to do that,” Helena admitted. “Your abuela did it with me the first time with Sophia. Even then, I was worried I’d end up snipping her fingertip off. Her fingers were so small—you could see light through them.”
“If I can handle Chris’ wiggling and having muscle spasms through cutting his toenails…I figure I can handle Colin. Though Buck did get a special set of clippers with a magnifier and a safety guard for Chris last year. That helped out a lot. I wonder if they make a set like that small enough for a baby.” He considered pulling out his phone to check, but they were trying to avoid too much screen time when they were doing the skin-to-skin.
“Chris could’ve stayed up with us and finished his movie. We haven’t seen him in months.”
Eddie rubbed Colin’s back gently as he focused on his father. “This isn’t your house, and you have no authority here.” He watched his father’s eyes go wide. “There is no reason for him to be cranky and miserable tomorrow. His needs are more important to me than your wants.”
“Your schedule is so rigid,” Helena murmured. “Surely…” She trailed off with a frown when Eddie sighed.
“Listen, Chris is traumatized. His mother’s death compounded with the tsunami…he has PTSD. He has nightmares, gets stressed out easily, and if he doesn’t get enough rest, he’ll have a difficult time managing his emotions, and that makes him miserable. I know my son, and I know what he needs. A schedule makes him feel safe and in control, which is what he needs. You aren’t going to interfere with it in any way. Period. Accept it and move on.”
Colin started fussing and wiggling, so Eddie focused on him.
“My heart rate increased,” Eddie admitted and frowned as he tried to calm down. “It’s not what he’s used to, so it’s stressing him out. He doesn’t understand, of course, but his body is responding to the situation.” He took several deep breaths, and Colin slowly relaxed against him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I think you should both go so I can concentrate on this. He doesn’t deserve to be upset.”
“It’s not our fault you lost your temper,” Ramon said stiffly but stood to leave.
“My feelings regarding your boundary stomping are completely valid, and I’m allowed them,” Eddie said and glared at his father. “You don’t get to tell me otherwise, Pop. Mom, I’ll call tomorrow you, after we’ve met with the lawyer about the mediation, to let you know when you guys can come over.”
“You didn’t give your mother a reason why Chris can’t spend the weekend with us,” Ramon interjected.
“Neither of you are capable of caring for him,” Eddie said. “He has needs, both mental and physical, that you’d obviously struggle with.”
“That’s…” Helena frowned at him. “I don’t understand.”
“Can you lift sixty pounds and carry it for any distance, Mom? Moreover, do you think I trust either of you enough to let you around my still grieving child, unsupervised, when you both loathed his mother, and he knows it? He should feel free to express his grief, and he doesn’t around you. Please just go.”
* * * *
Carla arrived just in time for breakfast, and Eddie was relieved. Chris was thrilled to have her back and was updating her on his reading list while he shoveled peanut butter pancakes into his mouth. It was a perfect slice of normal, and that was clearly what they all needed because Buck had relaxed by degrees as they’d finished their meal.
Of course, by the time they arrived at Natalie Rutledge’s office, Buck was worked up again, which Eddie didn’t know how to manage. Buck was normally even-tempered and tended to fall on the happy side of any potential mood. Eddie had always kind of known that Buck’s parents would be a hot button for him and that had become all the more clear after they failed to show up when he’d taken a major injury.
He didn’t know what he expected, but the Buckleys were surprisingly normal-looking, considering their frankly evil behavior. Neither of them looked thrilled to be in the situation of their own making. Eddie figured they hadn’t expected to have to go through so many hoops to bully their son into surrendering custody of his own child.
Natalie sat down at the table. “Mr. Buckley, Mr. Diaz—this is William Cole, a court-approved mediator. He’s well-versed in the intricacies of grandparent rights and visitation. I’ve briefed him on the situation, and he’s aware that neither Phillip nor Margaret have any sort of relationship with their son’s infant. Mr. James Crane is Margaret and Phillip’s lawyer of record.”
Eddie gave them all a silent nod and laced his fingers together with Buck’s in an overt act of intimacy that had Margaret Buckley flinch and make a distinct face of outright disgust.
“Mr. Edmundo Diaz is engaged to Mr. Evan Buckley,” Natalie said smoothly. “As this situation has escalated in a way that will impact him and their family, he’ll be included going forward.”
“You can’t marry another man!” Margaret snapped, her voice hoarse with shock. “I won’t allow it, Evan.”
Buck stared at her. “I’m an adult, Margaret. You don’t get any sort of say in my relationships or my future marriage.”
“If you think I’m going to let my baby grow up in a home with a couple of fags….” She jerked back when Crane put a hand on her arm. “No, this will not be allowed! It’s disgusting and against the will of God!”
“Your overt homophobia, Mrs. Buckley, will make it difficult for any court in this state to approve even supervised visitation,” William Cole interjected, and everyone focused on him. “You have no relationship with the child, which is the bare minimum when it comes to securing grandparent rights in the state of California. I agreed to this meeting as a favor to both Mr. Crane and Ms. Rutledge—they made it clear that you seem to think you can take this to court and gain custody of your grandson.”
“We will,” Phillip said. “There’s no single way Evan is a fit father. He can’t even be bothered to provide his son with a proper mother.”
“Mr. Buckley is a popular and loved employee of the Los Angeles Fire Department,” Mr. Cole said smoothly. “He has no arrests, no official reprimands in his personnel file, and is engaged to be married to a decorated veteran of the United States Army. Mr. Diaz also has a fantastic record of service with the LAFD. They employ a highly qualified home health nurse to take care of their children when they’re on duty—above and beyond, really, even for their disabled child who’s at an age when a regular babysitter would be fine and less expensive. No court in this state, the only place you could file such a motion, by the way, would take their infant from them.”
“And that’s not even taking into account the mental health status of your wife, Mr. Buckley,” Natalie said evenly. “I have almost three hours of voice mails left on her daughter’s phone—every single bit of would be admissible in court. She screams through most of the recordings and demands her daughter kidnap Colin Buckley on four different occasions. The disgusting verbal abuse of her own daughter more than proves that she has no business being around a child of any age.
“Also, I will not hesitate to detail the reasons why Evan Buckley was born. Your son, Daniel Buckley, will be a part of the process. His disease and death will be part of discovery. The failed bone marrow transplant and records attached will be subject to court review. I have already interviewed six of Mr. Buckley’s teachers—middle school and high school. Several of them were genuinely surprised to find out that neither he nor his sister grew up in foster care since they never once met either of you nor did you respond to phone calls or emails from the schools your children attended.
“I can document the neglect of your youngest son starting as soon as the fourth grade. I haven’t tried to go back further, but then I don’t have to because Maddie Buckley is more than willing to testify to the fact that it was her job to take care of her brother starting at the age of eight and remained her duty until she went to college.”
“I’ve explained to my clients that the only privileges they have the potential for are what their son is willing to give them,” Crane said reluctantly. “They asked for mediation because they know he won’t allow visitation otherwise.”
“I certainly won’t, and mediation isn’t going to change my mind,” Buck said. “I’ve not spoken to either of them in a decade until last week, and I had no interest in ever seeing them again even before I found out that I’m a designer baby birthed for spare parts.” Both of his parents paled. “The thing is, as a parent, I understand your desperation. But what I can’t understand is how you don’t love me. I’m your son just as much as Daniel is. Maddie told me that Daniel loved me and was so happy when I was born. She also told me that you didn’t treat Daniel any better than you treated her—he was subjected to the same ugly behavior. She told me that you actually lectured him for getting sick in the first place and that the two of you berated him for hours for wasting your time on doctor’s visits before he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“The fact is that you’re both terrible people, and I don’t want you in my life. I won’t allow you to be in my son’s life. I consider myself an orphan and have for years. You coming here and demanding custody of my child after ten years of ignoring that I exist is just about the most selfish and disgusting thing I’ve ever had to personally witness. You don’t deserve to even be in the same room with my son.” He focused on his mother. “And Colin is not your baby.”
Margaret’s mouth trembled, but her eyes were hard with fury. Eddie didn’t like the look on her face at all. He watched as her nostrils flared, and Phillip caught her hand in a firm grip, but it didn’t pull her attention away from Buck.
“You don’t deserve to have a child,” she hissed. “Not after you failed Daniel! You don’t deserve to be happy, Evan. You don’t deserve to live while Daniel doesn’t!”
William Cole cleared his throat. “Mr. Crane, I can’t continue this mediation. Your client is…clearly mentally disturbed. I will be reporting this matter to the Department of Children and Family Services and to the LAPD, where I’m told a case file has already been opened regarding the threats and your client’s demands from her daughter.” He focused on Phillip Buckley. “I suggest that you take your wife home and get her help before this becomes a situation where legal charges are appropriate. Moreover, if the court asks, I will be morally obligated to reveal that in no single way do I believe that visitation with either of you is the best interest of Colin Buckley.”
He stood and picked up his bag. “Natalie, James—I’ll be available for disposition if it becomes required.” He focused on Crane. “But I suggest you stop wasting your client’s money and send them home. There is nothing here for them, and more than one person is willing to help their son prove that. I just added myself to the bottom of a long list.”
Buck stood, and Eddie left his chair. “This meeting is over then. I won’t agree to meet with my…relatives again, Ms. Rutledge. We have nothing left to discuss, and if they want to take this to court, then that’s fine. I look forward to them explaining themselves in front of a judge.” He focused on his parents. “While I don’t normally share personal details on my public Instagram—I would be willing to make an exception. I have over a million followers who’d love to hear all about my absent and emotionally abusive parents trying to steal my child from me. The Internet loves horrible shit like that. I’d probably increase my follower base by a factor of three in the first week of a trial proceeding.”
“People would probably start picketing in front of their house in Hershey,” Eddie said mildly. “Two white, homophobic conservatives trying to take the much loved and wanted baby of an interracial gay couple in California? The press would eat them both alive.”
“They’d probably have to hire personal security,” Natalie said dryly.
Phillip stood and pulled Margaret from her chair. “Fine, Evan. Ruin your child’s life like you’ve ruined yours. I wash my hands of you and your sister. I’ll be writing you both out of the will, and don’t ever call asking us for money again.”
“When have I ever asked you for money?” Buck questioned. “Unless you count that time when I was eleven, and I needed money for groceries because neither of you had bothered to buy food for me for weeks.”
Eddie pulled gently on Buck’s hand as Phillip Buckley glared at them in silence. “We’re done here.”
“Yeah, we are,” Buck agreed.
* * * *
His parent’s rental car was in the driveway when they arrived, which was infuriating because he’d been explicit about the plan for the day and that he would call them when he was ready to see them. Eddie frowned at the car as he parked.
“For fuck’s sake,” Buck muttered. “At least they haven’t sent Carla home.”
“Carla knows they aren’t authorized to send her home,” Eddie said. “They tried it last time they were here, and she threatened to call the cops on them if they didn’t calm down. Well, she threatened to call Athena, which is probably worse than just dialing 9-1-1.”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed and unbuckled. “Well, let’s go rescue Chris from whatever mess your parents have made of his day. He’s going to be…it’ll probably be a rough night, and we’re fucking getting married tomorrow.”
“If they’ve made a mess, then they aren’t welcome at the ceremony or the party afterward,” Eddie said roughly. “It’s bullshit.”
His parents were seated on the couch, and Carla was in the kitchen working on her laptop. Chris was nowhere to be seen. Eddie spared his parents a single glance and held up a hand when his mother started to speak. He went into the kitchen.
Carla sent him a look. “They arrived during PT, which immediately threw him off-kilter. I shouldn’t have let them in, but….”
“I get it,” Eddie said wearily. “Them knocking incessantly on the door would’ve been just as disruptive. What else happened?”
“After PT, your mother tried to help with his shower, which really upset him, and he ended up yelling at her that he didn’t need help. Then, after that, they tried to cancel his afternoon reading so we could go to the park. Chris got progressively more upset until he couldn’t take it anymore and went to his room and locked the door. He refused to come out for lunch, and I didn’t pressure him.” She glanced toward the bassinet. “Colin slept through most of it and took a bottle about thirty minutes ago.” She shut her laptop. “Did you need me to stay or…?”
Eddie shook his head as he knew that Carla didn’t deserve to have to spend another rmoment with his parents. “Thank you for today,” he said wearily and rubbed his face. “We’ll see you in the morning?”
“Of course, baby, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
He left her to pack up her things and focused on his parents. “You both need to leave.”
“But…” Helena trailed off. “Don’t you want to hear our side of it?”
“What side is that?” Eddie demanded. “The part where you ignored the fact that I told you I would call you when you could come over? Or the part where you acted without a single bit of regard for Chris’ needs? How about we discuss all the boundaries you’ve stomped all over because what you think and want is more important than my child’s emotional and physical health?”
Buck came from the hall and leaned on the doorway leading into the living room. “He unlocked the door, but he doesn’t want to come out until they leave.”
“He didn’t eat lunch,” Eddie reported.
Buck grimaced and took a deep breath. “Which means he’ll probably skip his afternoon nap and have a difficult time sleeping tonight. We probably need to make an extra appointment with his therapist for next week. He said he did his reading in his room but is upset because he and Carla had made plans to watch an old Disney movie after lunch, and…your parents ruined their plans.” He left abruptly with a brief look at Helena and Ramon.
“You shouldn’t indulge this, Eddie,” Helena snapped. “This rigid schedule…”
“Makes him feel safe,” Eddie hissed. “And he’s fucking entitled to it, okay? The therapist has been working with him on it, and he’s relaxed a lot over the last few weeks, but you’ve probably set up him back months by ignoring his body autonomy and trying to force your own agenda. I told you that you’re not qualified to handle him. So, now Buck and I have to spend the rest of the day trying to mitigate the damage you’ve done, and you’re still trying to defend yourselves. So, leave.” His father just glared at him briefly before averting his gaze. “We’ll decide later this evening if you’re welcome at our wedding ceremony.”
His mother gaped at him in shock. “Eddie.”
“I’m really tired of you ignoring the things that I tell you,” Eddie said flatly. “It’s honestly difficult to take the fact that you treat strangers with more basic courtesy than you do me.” He rubbed his face when his father carefully pulled his mother from the house without another word.
A few moments passed before Carla appeared at his side, bag packed to go.
“They do love you both.”
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed. “But toxic love is no different than hatred when it comes to the damage it does.” He looked at her and found only understanding and acceptance in her face. “It’s also hard to accept their behaviors when absolutely no one else would even dare behave that way.”
“I was briefly tempted to try to speak with them,” Carla began. “But…it wouldn’t have gone well. I’m basically hired help as far as they are concerned.”
“You’re more family than they are,” Eddie muttered. “I certainly trust you more than I’ll ever trust them again.”
“That must hurt.”
“It hurts less than it probably should,” Eddie admitted. “I hope Buck’s parents will go away. It’s been made clear they have no legal route to take Colin from Buck. I don’t think either of them have the backbone for an illegal solution. They certainly couldn’t pull it off personally, and I doubt they have the local resources to hire someone to take him no matter how much Margaret Buckley would be on board with it.”
Carla huffed. “Seriously?”
“His mother is insane,” Eddie said quietly. “I think she…really believes that Colin is her son Daniel. Maybe seeing that first picture on Maddie’s Insta caused her to have some sort of psychotic break.”
“It’s just you both have horrible parents. What are the odds?”
“Chim has a terrible father,” Buck reported as he came back into the room with Chris in his arms. “And I’ve heard that Athena’s mom is a real ball-buster.” He paused and winced. “I mean, she’s not a nice lady.”
Chris laughed and looped his arms around Buck’s neck. “Buck said he’d make me a grilled cheese!”
“I wouldn’t say no to a grilled cheese if you do that garlic butter thing you do,” Eddie said and smiled when Buck just shook his head.
“Oh, yeah, garlic butter,” Chris agreed. “Awesome. We have some of that sourdough bread, too.”
“Well, now, I think you have your afternoon planned,” Carla said. “Chris, I’m sorry, I should’ve never allowed your grandparents in.”
“It’s not your job to make my grandparents behave, Carla,” Chris said seriously. “You can’t get paid enough for that.”
* * * *
“Do you really want to disinvite your parents?” Buck questioned as he dressed Colin.
There had been a global catastrophe in the baby’s diaper that had required a full-on bath to clean up and an emergency load of clothes because neither wanted to leave that situation for later.
“They just suck.” Eddie crossed his arms. “And I know, honestly, I should be grateful they aren’t like your parents….”
Buck held up a hand. “No, we’re not playing that game, Eds. Your parents suck equally to mine, to be frank, just in a different but no less damaging way. They are two sides of the same toxic coin, and that’s not a good thing. Yes, they appear to love you, but that love is steeped in judgment, entitlement, and a deep disrespect for our boundaries. Your mother is…a full-blown helicopter parent who never detached, and your father enables her. The worse part is that she’s acknowledged this and appears to take your concerns on board, then the moment your back is turned, she does what she wants.”
Eddie slouched against the wall. “Right. I thought we were making progress.”
“Progress isn’t linear,” Buck pointed out. “If it was—that whole growing as a person process would be a lot less traumatic because it would be predictable and easier to manage.” He focused on Colin. “Now that you’ve tortured us…you’ve gone to sleep without eating.”
“Sounds about right,” Eddie said.
Buck just laughed a little and picked the baby up. “Let’s put him in the Pack ‘n Play, then you can call your parents to tell them that they can come to the ceremony and that we’ll see them on Sunday at Abuela’s.”
“So, they don’t come to Bobby and Athena’s,” Eddie said. “While the rest of my family is invited.”
“Well, the fact is that there will be too many people there to truly keep an eye on them, and Chris deserves to have fun with the other kids without his grandmother there to ruin it for him.” Buck took a deep breath against Colin’s hair. “And we need to make our boundaries concrete going forward because what they did today in trying to prove you wrong—they used Chris like a weapon, Eddie.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Exactly like that. I feel…betrayed.” He pulled out his phone. “I’ll text them. I’d rather not hear anything they have to say right now.”
“Which is valid,” Buck murmured. “Let’s try to get some sleep in case Chris has a nightmare. Every minute of sleep is going to count tonight. We’re due at the courthouse at ten.”
Chris stuck to Abuela like a leech and barely acknowledged his grandparents when they arrived in the courtroom they’d reserved for the ceremony. It helped that Maddie Buckley had put herself directly on Chris’ other side with Colin in her arms and barely spared Helena a glance when the older woman had asked Chris if he wanted to sit with her. Buck and Eddie had watched the exchange from a few feet away.
“He gets this salty little attitude from you,” Eddie muttered, and Buck laughed.
Chim and Hen joined them at that point.
“Did you need someone to hold your rings?” Chim questioned.
“We’re getting ink, so we didn’t buy anything extra,” Eddie said.
“Of course, you’re getting rings inked on,” Chim said and rolled his eyes as Hen laughed. “It’s honestly kind of gross how stupid in love you are with each other.”
Buck blushed. “Shut up, Chim. It’s for safety.”
“It is a good option; I have to take my ring off on duty which was disconcerting at first.” She paused. “I’m considering a silicon band to wear for work.”
Chim cleared his throat. “Did you guys do all the paperwork?”
“Yeah, we’re just waiting for the judge to finish up his end, then he’ll come in to do the ceremony. After that, we’ll sign off on everything, and it’ll be done,” Eddie said and glanced toward his parents, who had taken a seat behind his grandmother. Neither looked particularly happy, but he didn’t have the energy to deal with them.
“Karen brought her camera to take pictures,” Hen reported and motioned toward her wife, who was actually taking a picture of Maddie, Chris, and Colin. “Since neither one of you mentioned it.”
“Honestly, I forgot,” Eddie admitted. “But thanks—that’s great. We obviously need more supervision than we’ve led ourselves to believe.”
Hen laughed and shook her head.
Soon enough, he was standing with Buck alone. He’d been telling himself all along that this was just a formality—another layer of legal protection. They hadn’t even seriously considered writing their own vows when they’d been told it was an option. They’d just picked from the list and avoided the use of words like obey, wife, and god. Eddie knew his parents wouldn’t consider the marriage real as it wasn’t taking place in the Catholic church. That Buck was another man just added a different layer of religious disapproval over the whole topic.
But it had been years since they’d brought religion up around him or tried to use it to manipulate him. The last time hadn’t gone well at all for them, and it was part of the reason he’d moved to Los Angeles. The main reason was their desire to take his son from him, but religion and the constant demands that he attend church around working two jobs had certainly factored in.
The officiant approached them at that point and offered them a smile. He’d been very friendly since the start, and that was nicer than Eddie had personally anticipated. It was impossible to tell how people of a certain age were going to respond to a gay relationship. Plus, there was the interracial factor, and racism was often worse than the homophobia in his experience. Perhaps that boiled down to the fact that he’d never had a public relationship with a man before Buck and most assumed him to be straight since he’d married a woman.
Everyone who wasn’t seated got seated under Athena’s direction. She just gave them a nod when Buck looked her way and tucked in beside Bobby in the very front row next to his abuela. Eddie didn’t know how the seating arrangement had been decided, but he had to think his parents were irritated to be seated on the second row at their only son’s wedding.
“Good afternoon, I am Judge Declan Montgomery, and I’m pleased to welcome you to my courtroom. It’s not often we have such a large group for a civil ceremony. It’s lovely to see a family brought together by love and respect in times like these. I am especially honored to be here to preside over this ceremony as I would not be here today if it were not for the brave and selfless acts of the 118. I don’t think any of you remember me, but about a year ago, you pulled me out of my burning house. When I saw that Firefighters Buckley and Diaz were on the docket to get married today—I made sure the ceremony ended up on my calendar.
“The world we live in is wrought with both joy and sadness. I’ve always said it is an act of courage to exist when there is so much potential for loss. It wasn’t until I nearly died that I came to understand that there is a special kind of courage and innate bravery in those who work as first responders.
“These two young men are blessed with that courage and bravery—since I’ve seen them in action, I can tell you that they work so seamlessly together that they might as well be one person, and it is awe-inspiring to see.
“Today, those of us in this room are blessed to witness a deceptively simple ceremony—that will create a bond of marriage and family between Edmundo Diaz and Evan Buckley.
“Evan, will you take Edmundo to be your wedded husband, to love him, comfort him, honor him, and keep him, forsaking all others, for so long as you both shall live?”
Buck squeezed Eddie’s hands gently. “I will.”
“Edmundo, will you take Evan to be your wedded husband, to love him, comfort him, honor him, and keep him, forsaking all others, for so long as you both shall live?”
Eddie swallowed hard, and despite his nerves, the words came easily. “I will.”
“Evan, since it is your sincere desire to become the husband of Edmundo, please recite your vow.”
“I, Evan, take you, Edmundo, to be my husband. In this moment, I promise before these witnesses to love you and care for you all of our days. I accept you with your faults and your strengths, even as I offer myself with my faults and my strengths. I promise to support you when you need support and to turn to you when I need support. I choose you as the one with whom I will spend my life and make a family.”
“Edmundo, since it is your sincere desire to become the husband of Evan, please recite your vow.”
“I, Edmundo, take you, Evan, to be my husband. In this moment, I promise before these witnesses to love you and care for you all of our days. I accept you with your faults and your strengths, even as I offer myself with my faults and my strengths. I promise to support you when you need support and to turn to you when I need support. I choose you as the one with whom I will spend my life and make a family.” Eddie relaxed, pleased that he’d easily managed to recite the vow they’d chosen to memorize. He’d worried that he might stumble over the words or actually fucking cry in the midst of it.
“In as much as Evan and Edmundo have consented together in wedlock and have witnessed the same before this company and pledged their vows to each other, by the authority vested in me by the State of California, it is my pleasure to declare you married.” Judge Montgomery smiled broadly. “You may seal your vows with a kiss.”
Because Buck knew him better than anyone else on Earth, Eddie received a brief, sweet kiss before they parted. He relaxed because he just wasn’t comfortable with a lot of scrutiny when it came to intimacy. It had been a huge stumbling block for Shannon, who’d have been content to make out like teenagers no matter the location. They endured an inappropriate amount of applause, and he was pretty sure he saw money change hands between Hen and Chim. He wondered what part they’d bet on.
Buck turned to the judge after a moment with a smile. “I did recognize you, sir. It’s just my policy not to bring up potentially traumatic circumstances when I meet people—especially off duty. How’s Frances?”
“She’s great, thanks for asking,” Montgomery said and patted Buck on the shoulder. “I did take her to that spa you suggested. It really helped with her nerves after the fire.”
Eddie frowned a little as the judge headed toward Bobby and Athena. “Frances?”
“His toy poodle. She was a nervous wreck after I pulled her out of her crate and carried her under my turnout coat to get her out of the house,” Buck said. “You don’t remember?”
He really didn’t. “You suggested he take his poodle to a spa?”
“I dated a girl who worked for a pet spa—she said it was very beneficial for stressed-out pets to get treatments,” Buck said in his defense. “Let’s corner Judge Montgomery to get the rest of the paperwork done. I think Bobby just invited him to the reception. I hope he brings Frances.”
* * * *
The judge showed up, and he did bring Frances, much to the delight of Buck, who basically traded their baby for a giddy poodle in a purple rhinestone collar. Judge Montgomery had only gotten to hold Colin about ten minutes before he got ambushed by Maddie and Abuela. Buck kept the dog.
Fortunately, they’d kept the whole thing casual, and there were no gifts in evidence as they’d requested not to receive any. Eddie sat down beside Chris, who was at one of the picnic tables with a plate and a cup of punch that Buck had set up him with before he’d been distracted by a conversation with Sophia’s man, Don. Don was easily ten years older than his sister, a career FBI agent, and Jewish. Eddie was really looking forward to watching his parents find out that Sophia was considering converting. It was petty, but he needed a little heat taken off of him, and that would certainly do it.
His parents hadn’t asked to attend the party and had left the courthouse after congratulating them both.
“So, what did your grandmother say to you?”
“She asked where I was spending the night tonight,” Chris said and made a face. “She said you and Buck should have adult time. I told her I was going home, and she said I should ask to spend the weekend with her and Abuelo. She said it was selfish to not give you and Buck any time alone.”
Eddie sighed. “Don’t worry about her and her opinions, okay?”
“She didn’t mean it anyways. Grandma just wanted an excuse to get me to ask you if I could stay at their hotel, and why would I want to do that? I bet it doesn’t even have a memory foam pillow, and I only like carrying my pillow to places I know. I’d hate for it to get messed up since Buck gave it to me.”
“Would you want to spend the night with them?” Eddie asked.
“No, not really. They aren’t…they treat me like a baby and don’t care about my feelings. I think they should go home to Texas really soon. They’re easier to deal with on FaceTme, and I don’t have to talk long because Abuelo doesn’t like the iPad. They aren’t nice to you, and that makes me uncomfortable. If they’re mean to Buck or Colin—I might yell at them again. And I know I shouldn’t yell at adults. But sometimes…it’s the only way to get Grandma to really pay attention, and that makes me sad.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said just as Buck joined them. He still had Frances. “If you traded our baby for that dog permanently….” He trailed off when Buck grinned and laughed.
“Colin’s inside taking a nap,” he said and pulled a baby monitor out of his pocket and put it on the table between them. “Maddie’s with him—the heat was giving her a bit of a headache. I think she was worried…that Margaret and Phillip would show up at the courthouse or something. As far as we know, they’re still here in LA.”
Eddie sighed. “I would’ve thought they’d already flown back to Pennsylvania.”
“We can’t control that,” Buck said and shrugged. “I’m trying not to think about them at all. We’ve enough going on as is without worrying about what crap they’re planning next. Natalie told me James Crane notified her that he’s no longer representing them. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“It leaves them floundering at least briefly, and there’s no telling where they’ll land,” Eddie said and glanced toward Chris, who was staring at the dog intently. “I think you need to hand over the poodle, Buck.”
Chris shoved aside his empty plate and immediately held out his hands. “Yes, please.”
Buck huffed a little but stood and walked around the table to put the little poodle in Chris’ hands. The dog took the transfer easily and proceeded to lick every inch of Chris she could reach.
Chris petted her brown curls with a smile. “She looks like chocolate ice cream.” He cuddled her close, and the dog sagged against his chest in contentment. “I really want a dog, Daddy.”
Eddie knew he was going to lose the dog battle, one way or another, because earlier in the year, Buck had suggested a service animal for Chris. Moreover, his son’s therapist had offered to recommend it as well, which would go a long way toward getting assistance in paying for a dog. He’d hesitated then because they really didn’t need that kind of help anymore. He figured it would be a difficult balancing act—accepting what Chris was due versus accepting the money that Buck had brought into their life.
* * * *
He’d expected the air in the loft to be a little stale. But the apartment was dust-free, and there was a light floral scent in the air. Eddie turned and found a vase of flowers on the kitchen island. Buck dropped their bag on the couch and put his keys in the bowl on the small table by the door.
“Maddie came over and cleaned up—she said it was a wedding present to us,” Buck said. “Also, we have a meal in the fridge from Bobby for later.” He started toward the kitchen, but Eddie caught his hand and pulled him in. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Eddie murmured and brushed his mouth over Buck’s. “We’re completely alone, and there’s nothing we need to do…for the first time in weeks.”
“It’s kind of weird,” Buck admitted. “Should we call and check on them?”
“I’m sure Hen and Karen have the whole situation under control,” Eddie said. “And they promised to text if anything happens.” He prodded him gently toward the stairs. “Let’s go to bed.”
“Sounds good,” Buck agreed and laced their fingers together as they headed up to the loft area where the bed was. “I have decided to keep this and lease it.”
“Good,” Eddie said. “You could probably get 2500 a month for it.”
“It was going for 2850 before it was put up for sale,” Buck said and pulled Eddie toward the bed. “I can’t believe we’re actually married.”
“I can’t believe we saved penetrative sex for our wedding night,” Eddie pointed out wryly and grinned when Buck laughed.
“No one would think me capable of such a thing,” Buck admitted and tucked his fingers into Eddie’s belt. He loosened the buckle easily. “But being with you—it doesn’t matter what we do—it’ll be perfect.”
Eddie agreed, but he wanted something in particular. He hoped that Buck was on board and didn’t have any concrete ideas about how the night should go.
“I want you to fuck me,” Eddie said, and he watched Buck’s eyes widen just a little in shock. “Is that okay?”
“You haven’t done that in a long time, right?” Buck questioned.
“I have a toy or two,” Eddie said and laughed when Buck huffed a little. “What?”
“Where are these toys? I haven’t seen any toys. I left my toys here at the loft so Chris wouldn’t find them by accident.”
“I have that old footlocker in the bottom of my closet.”
“From the Army? Yeah, I haven’t touched it…I figured it might have stuff in it that you didn’t want to talk about.” He pouted a little. “But it’s apparently full of dildos and sex swings and fun stuff.”
“Well, no sex swings,” Eddie allowed and pulled his belt from his slacks. “But sure, there’s some fun stuff in there.” He grinned when Buck made a face at him. “Am I the only one getting undressed?”
Buck quickly untucked his shirt and unbuttoned it.
“You didn’t say—are you good with fucking me?”
“You can have anything you want,” Buck said and wet his lips. “As often as you want it.”
“What a thing to tell a man,” Eddie murmured as he tossed aside his shirt and toed off his shoes.
He looked up and watched as Buck shimmied out of his boxers. His mouth went a little dry at all the soft, golden skin and the flex of muscles on display. Eddie watched as Buck pulled the duvet and sheet from the bed and tossed the lot on the floor. He discarded the rest of his clothes as quickly as he could then followed Buck onto the mattress.
Buck pulled him close with warm hands, touch gentle and knowing. It was fascinating and exciting to be the center of his husband’s attention. His first wedding had been stressful and full of his parents’ disapproval. It was night and day—well, he was sure the disapproval was still there, but they’d kept it to themselves.
Buck pulled his mouth from Eddie’s. “Hey, you with me?”
“Yeah,” Eddie murmured.
“You seem distracted.”
And that was the downside of being married to your best friend. Eddie relaxed on the mattress and sighed a little as Buck tucked close, then ran a hand gently over his abs.
“I just sort of had this brief flash of what it was like the day I married Shannon and how miserable my parents made the whole experience. They insisted on the marriage but still managed to disapprove of everything about it. They acted like we were a pair of teenagers instead of two adults who had a birth control accident.” He sighed. “It’s gotta be bad form to talk about this right now.”
Buck laughed and hooked his leg over Eddie’s thighs, then pressed the hard length of his cock against his hip. Eddie responded by running a hand down Buck’s back and cupping his ass.
“We can talk about anything,” Buck said and wrapped his hand around Eddie’s cock. “Or nothing at all.”
“That sounds…” Eddie sucked in a breath and shuddered as he tried to lift his hips into the stroke of Buck’s hand only to find he couldn’t because of Buck’s thigh. The pressure was superficial, and he could’ve pushed him off, but there was something about the weight that felt right and perfect.
As if Buck understood, he eased over Eddie and pushed between his thighs. Eddie spread his legs and tilted his hips so their cocks were pressed together. Buck braced himself over Eddie. “Is this how you want it, or do you want it on your knees?”
“Like this—I want to see you,” Eddie murmured.
“Did you want to handle your own prep, or can I take care of it?”
Eddie hesitated because that was an interesting question, and he wondered only briefly if he were being tested. Anyone who knew him would say that he had control issues.
He wet his lips. “You can do it.”
Buck flashed him a quick grin and reached out over to the nightstand to grab the lube and a condom. He dropped the condom on the mattress and rose up on his knees, then slicked up his fingers. Eddie spread his legs and braced his feet on the bed to give Buck plenty of room to work.
Buck leaned down and slowly licked up the length of Eddie’s cock.
“Jesus fucking…” Eddie threw one hand above his head and fisted it in a pillow even as his other curled against the back of Buck’s head briefly. He kept the touch light because he hated having someone try to give him directions when he was giving head and figured that Buck was much the same considering the man’s authority issues.
Fingers glanced knowingly over the rim of his asshole, and Eddie exhaled slowly. He pushed into the pressure and groaned. One thick finger slid in, and he bore down a little, then relaxed into it between one breath and another. The pleasure was sharp, intense, and addicting. Eddie couldn’t help but rock into each press of Buck’s finger and shuddered when another finger was added.
“Easy,” Buck murmured. “I’ve got you.”
“It’s good,” Eddie promised. “Perfect.”
“My cock is thick—so we need to get you ready for that. Let me know when you can take another finger,” Buck murmured. “You’re so gorgeous like this—fucking yourself on my fingers.”
Eddie wet his lips as he felt his face heat with a blush. Part of him wanted to stop moving, but it felt so good, and it had been a very long time since he’d trusted someone enough to give up any amount of control in bed. But he trusted Buck with everything, and it was galling that he could’ve lost his chance before he’d even realized it was something he could have.
“I love you.”
Buck looked up, offered him a bright grin, and quirked an eyebrow. “Are you going to turn into one of those people who emote all over the place during sex?”
“Shut up and give me another finger,” Eddie ordered as sternly as he could but ruined it with a breathless groan when Buck pressed purposefully against his prostate. “Oh…you…that’s perfect.”
Buck pulled his fingers free, grabbed the lube to add more, then pressed three fingers into him and thrust repeatedly. Eddie’s vision blurred, and he fisted both hands in the pillow under his head.
“I think you’re ready,” Buck murmured.
“Yes—so ready,” Eddie assured.
Buck pulled his fingers free, wiped his hand on the sheet beneath them, then reached for the condom.
“We don’t need that.”
Buck met his gaze and wet his lips before he flicked the condom over his shoulder. “I’ve never gone without.”
“It’ll be intense, warmer, and wetter,” Eddie murmured. “I’ve always found the desire to come stronger. I only went raw with Shannon.”
Buck picked up the lube and slicked up his cock with a sure, deft hand. He braced himself with one hand on the mattress and guided his cock into place with his free hand. Eddie sucked in a breath, bore down a little, and groaned as Buck pressed in with a slow, steady thrust. Despite the thorough prep, the penetration was intense, and Eddie loved the burn.
He hitched up one leg up as Buck moved over him—one full-body thrust after another. It felt so good that he could barely breathe for it. Eddie had often dismissed discussion of Buck’s sexual history, but now he was really relieved by the experience he was bringing to the table.
“Good?” Buck questioned.
“God, yes,” Eddie admitted in a rush and shuddered as Buck encouraged him to wrap his legs around his waist. A big, firm hand pressed against the back of Eddie’s thigh, a heady reminder of Buck’s strength as he lifted him off the mattress. “Perfect.”
“Is this how you want it? I told you—you can have anything you want.”
There was power in that, in the rush of having Buck do exactly as he wanted.
“Just make me come,” Eddie demanded. “Fuck me.”
Buck prodded one of Eddie’s legs roughly up onto a shoulder, cupped his hips, lifted him, and fucked into Eddie’s ass with one thrust after another. Eddie’s breath caught as he dug his hands into the sheets and held on. Adrenaline rushed through his body—hot and relentless. The position gave him little room to move, and he realized he liked it, which he’d have to unpack later. It was clear that Buck recognized it and was leaning into it to give Eddie exactly what he wanted.
He focused on Buck despite the desire to close his eyes and fall into the pleasure that he was being given. He watched his husband’s skin dampen with sweat. Buck’s eyes were dark, his breathing a little harsh, and his expression was intent. Eddie realized that he’d never seen this side of his man, and he loved it. Buck wrapped a hand around Eddie’s cock, and the pressure was enough to make him come hard.
He shuddered through the orgasm, clenched down on Buck’s cock, and felt greedy for it. Buck stilled briefly and gently rubbed his thumb over the head of Eddie’s leaking cock.
“Yeah,” Buck murmured. “You’re so hot like this—full of my cock—coming in my hand.”
“Come on,” Eddie encouraged. “Get yours.”
“You won’t be too sensitive?” Buck questioned even as he started to move.
“I’m good,” Eddie promised. “It feels great.”
He bit down on his lip briefly and groaned lowly each time the head of Buck’s cock brushed against his prostate. Eddie loved the sharp pleasure of prostate stimulation after he’d come, but he’d only ever experienced it with toys. It was different and so much better with an actual cock. All too soon, Buck was coming, and Eddie clenched down on him even as Buck’s hips slapped against his ass one final time.
“Damn,” Buck murmured and rubbed Eddie’s thighs gently as he put him down on the mattress and separated them. “Shower?”
“Shower,” Eddie agreed, but he relaxed on the bed and took a deep breath. “That was perfect.”
“Yeah, it was.” Buck leaned over him and pressed a soft kiss against his mouth. “I love you, too.”
“Don’t go emoting all over the place,” Eddie murmured and cupped the back of his head to bring him in for another kiss. “Also, you’re a great fuck. Wow. Your manwhore phase must have been stupidly epic.”
Buck grinned. “You’re welcome.”
* * * *
Buck meandered through the loft, packing personal stuff that hadn’t already migrated to the house. It just filled two boxes—not including the crate of cookware that he’d put together in the kitchen. He had a great set, and the ones at the house were not all that good, but he’d been making do. Now he wouldn’t have to. They actually had the same set of plates and cutlery, mostly because Buck had purchased both and replaced what Eddie had more than a year ago. Merging the sets just made sense, so they’d have plenty of everything.
“I think we need your TV.”
“It is bigger,” Buck agreed. “I’d also like to eventually move my bed, but I figure that can wait until we buy a new house. Then your bed could go into the room we set up for Carla.”
“Sounds good. Also, Chris is super attached to that pillow you bought him, so I figured we could get a few more?” Eddie leaned on the counter and took a sip of coffee.
“We should talk to his doctor about a mattress recommendation,” Buck said. “The one he has is fine, but as he gets older—he might need a different sort. Planning ahead will make that process easier. Especially because it won’t appear like he’s getting some sort of medical equipment, which I know he’s getting sensitive about. We can transition him into a full-size bed when we move. He’ll be excited to get a big bed and maybe won’t pay too much attention to the orthopedic mattress part.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Eddie agreed. “I’m worried how we can approach a service dog as an option when he clearly wants a pet.”
“He’s high functioning,” Buck murmured. “And doesn’t really need the physical support of a service animal. He’s dedicated to maintaining his mobility and adhering to his PT. I was thinking that maybe we could find a yoga class for him—Carla mentioned it.”
“So, you’re thinking more emotional support than service.”
“A fully trained service dog is the best option because emotional support animals don’t have the same access as a service animal. A certified service dog can go everywhere with him.”
“They’re expensive,” Eddie said finally and huffed a little. “I don’t want to be stubborn about it, but a service dog costs as much as a brand-new car, Buck.”
“We can afford it,” Buck returned and quirked an eyebrow before the doorbell rang. He went to answer since they’d ordered food. He returned quickly with a bag and a tray of coffees. “We won’t qualify for any assistance on this front due to our mutual assets and income. It wouldn’t be right to take it anyways, considering. Chris deserves the best possible support we can provide, Eds.”
“You’re right,” Eddie admitted, and Buck offered him a quick smile. “About all of it, and I won’t be obstructive about the whole thing. I think, since he doesn’t need a lot of physical support, that a smaller dog might be a better option. They live longer, and I think that’s important to consider.”
“I was thinking…that maybe a German Shepherd would be the best choice,” Buck admitted. “They’re protective, strong, loyal, intelligent, and well-behaved. Considering how they’re used by the police and military, they’re clearly easy to train and work well when given tasks. He might enjoy the security of a larger dog, and they live a decade or more so outside of an illness or an accident—a young animal would see him through to adulthood when he’ll certainly be better prepared to deal with the retirement and death of his service animal.”
“Retirement.” Eddie made a face.
“We’d retire him or her—work Chris into a relationship with a new animal, and the first would be a pet until they pass or have to be…put to rest for their own good. I’m not trying to be callous but having a plan in advance is for the best considering Chris’ issues with processing grief and trauma.” Buck sighed and unpacked their breakfast. “Let’s get comfortable and figure out what the best choice is for him, and we’ll contact the proper service to get a recommendation for a trainer.”
“Yeah, sounds good.”
Chris was relieved to have them home, evidenced by the fact that he handed Eddie his iPad the moment he walked in the door. Apparently, his grandparents had tried to FaceTme him repeatedly the night before and all morning. Buck was a little irritated because of how stressed Chris was, but Eddie looked like he was going to blow a gasket.
Buck took the iPad from Eddie and blocked Eddie’s parents. “For now, your grandparents can’t FaceTme you at all, okay?”
“Great,” Chris agreed and took the device back. “They kept interrupting our reading with calls, and it was really annoying. Carla sent them a reminder about my schedule, but they just ignored her. I guess they figured out you guys weren’t here.”
“Maybe one of my sisters might have mentioned our night at the loft to them by accident,” Eddie muttered. “Or just in passing because neither of them really understand how much my parents want to prove that I’m not fit….” He glanced toward Chris, who had sat on the couch. “You know.”
“You’re a great dad,” Chris said without looking up from his iPad. “Grandma’s just bossy. But there’s a difference between being in charge and being bossy. There was this boy in my math class last year who was really bossy. I don’t like him much. I don’t need anyone reminding me to get my crutches, but he did it all the time. I mean, seriously? Like I need to be told to get the crutches I’ve used since I learned to walk?” He huffed and frowned at the iPad.
“I’ll talk to her again.” Eddie rubbed the back of his head.
“I think….” Chris trailed off. “Maybe they need a time out.” He shrugged when Eddie stared at him in shock. “When I don’t do what I’m told—I get punished. Why should they get away with it?”
Eddie was at a loss because he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten into the position where he had to discipline his own damn parents. He just nodded and left the living room. He threw himself on the bed.
“Pouting?” Buck questioned. “Carla, Hen, Karen, and Denny ran away, by the way.”
“I’m brooding,” Eddie corrected. “And coming to terms with the fact that my parents are just…not going to ever treat me like an adult, at this rate. I mean, come on, there should be a damn rule about not having to put your own fucking parents in a time out because they can’t respect a simple boundary.”
“A boundary is only good as the enforcement that comes with it,” Buck pointed out. “Otherwise, it’s just a suggestion, and that’s exactly how both of your parents treat it.” He motioned between them. “They don’t take either of us all that seriously, and I don’t see that improving without a serious wake-up call for them. I don’t think they’re necessarily evil, but the dynamic isn’t healthy.”
“Right.” Eddie sat up and took a deep breath.
He looked down at his left hand and stared at the bandage around his ring finger. They’d gotten their new ink before coming home. It had been nice—getting the ring tattooed on. He’d never shared the same ink with another person before. Shannon had actually hated his tattoos and would’ve never gotten one of her own. He pulled out his phone and called his mother.
“Where are you?” he asked roughly as soon as she answered.
“At your abuela’s, are you coming over? We’re getting ready for lunch.”
“I’ll be there before dinner,” Eddie said shortly and ended the call without saying goodbye.
“Did you want me to go with you?” Buck questioned. “I think Bobby and Athena took the whole weekend off so we could take the kids to them.”
“No, it’s my mess, and I’ll handle it,” Eddie said. “Chris is stressed enough and would probably react badly if we both left again.”
“Yeah,” Buck said with a sigh. “Right, well, I don’t think they should come to the family party tomorrow. They clearly don’t know how to behave.”
“Agreed,” Eddie said and rubbed his head. “Fuck.” He stood. “I want to hold the baby.”
“He’s asleep, but he prefers to be held so…” Buck shrugged. “He’ll be taking a bottle soon anyways.”
Shortly, Eddie settled on the couch beside Chris with Colin. The baby had stirred just a little when he’d picked him up but hadn’t woken up. Chris shifted closer and leaned on his shoulder, and kept his attention on his iPad.
“It’s not your fault, Daddy,” Chris said. “They don’t respect your time—why would they respect mine?” He shrugged. “Grandma only cares about what she wants, and Abuelo just…well.”
“He just what?” Eddie questioned.
“I don’t know the word for it,” Chris admitted. “He just helps her get what she wants or whatever.”
“Enable,” Buck supplied as he sat a bottle down on the side table next to Eddie. “He enables her, either because he agrees with her or because he doesn’t care enough either way about whatever topic it is. When it comes to this situation—it’s because he agrees with her wholeheartedly, and he’s letting her do the heavy lifting.”
Eddie knew all of that to be true, but it hurt a little to hear it. He focused on Colin and closed his eyes briefly. Maybe it hurt for several reasons, but he really should be having one of the best days of his life. He’d just gotten married to a great partner that he loved and wanted. Chris should feel safe and happy, but he was more stressed than anything. He focused on Buck, who had slumped in the chair. He looked pissed off, which sucked because he’d been in a great mood after they got their ink done.
Colin stirred in his arms and pursed his lips in displeasure as he woke up. Eddie reached for the bottle and laughed a little as the baby greedily sucked the nipple into his mouth.
“At least one of us is happy,” Chris said as he stared at Colin. “I’m glad he doesn’t understand, yet.” He frowned. “We should make sure that Grandma and Abuelo don’t hurt Colin’s feelings the way they hurt mine. Can we send them home? I don’t want them to ruin our party tomorrow.”
“Oh, mijo,” Eddie murmured. “I’m really sorry—I’ve spent entirely too much time trying to manage them, and that’s not fair to you.” He focused on Buck. “Do you have a card for Natalie?”
“Because I’m going to give it to my parents,” Eddie said grimly. “Would you call her and update her on the situation? Then let her know that I’m going to give my parents a time out, and it may lead to legal action on their part.”
“Sure,” Buck agreed.
* * * *
Eddie leaned on the table and stared at his hands. His sisters were silent, and his parents were seated across from him, looking defiant and foul-tempered.
“Today, before I came over here, Chris said that we should make sure that you two don’t hurt Colin’s feelings the way you hurt his.” He looked and found concern on their faces. “He says you don’t respect his time, which is true. You don’t respect his wishes, either. I’m actually fairly convinced that you don’t think he should be allowed to have his own opinions. You certainly think that about me, so why should my son be any different?”
“You left him with strangers last night instead of letting him spend time with us,” Ramon interjected. “And we’re the problem?”
“You’ve both pretty much been the problem since before he was born,” Eddie said evenly, and his mother flinched back in shock. “Mom micromanaged my life, my marriage, Shannon’s pregnancy, the birth, and Chris’ care. You both made my wife miserable and so sad that the first chance she got—she ran away. I know my own fault in that situation. I shouldn’t have left them in Texas. I should’ve worked my way into a base assignment in the states. I shouldn’t have signed up for a second tour, knowing I would end up in a combat zone.
“I’ve already told you that neither of you will have unsupervised contact with my children at this time, and I meant it. You run roughshod over Chris and have no regard for his wishes, abilities, and preferences. His schedule is of his own making, and it was approved by his therapist. Your opinion of the whole thing couldn’t matter less to me, but your inability to respect him and his choices have stressed him out and made him miserable.”
“He obviously needs a new therapist,” Helena said. “One that will fix the problem instead of trying to manage it.”
“Fix it?” Eddie questioned. “Are you fucking serious, Mom?” She jerked back from his harsh tone and probably the language. “Chris has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is no fixing it! All we have is management, and you’ve disrupted that to an abusive degree repeatedly over the last few days.”
“He wouldn’t be this way if you’d left him with us,” Helena said. “He’d have been safe with us—away from that bitch you married. He wouldn’t have been here to get caught in that tsunami. I told you that you would ruin him, and you have!”
“Chris is not ruined or broken,” Eddie said evenly. “And I doubt Shannon, and I would’ve ever married if you and Pop hadn’t insisted. But that’s neither here nor there—you can’t bother to respect Chris’ circumstances, his wishes, or the methods by which he manages his PTSD. As a result, you’ve been blocked from contacting him.”
“You can’t just keep us from contacting him!” Ramon snapped. “He’s our grandson! We have rights.”
Eddie pulled Natalie’s card from his pocket and put it on the table between them. “This is our lawyer.” He pushed the card across the table at them. “I don’t want to hear from you for the next six months—no visits, no calls, no emails, no texts, no FaceTme. After that, we can discuss limited, supervised contact with Chris that will begin and end at my discretion. I am done tolerating your toxic behavior. I will no longer defend myself, my parenting, or my decisions to either of you.
“As far as I’m concerned, being a grandparent is a privilege, and neither of you deserves it right now.”
“Eddie,” Helena began as tears gathered in her eyes. “You can’t…you can’t be serious. Is this what Buck told you to do? You’ve been married less than a full day, and he’s already making decisions?”
“No, this is my decision. He’s got a lot of heart and wants to think the best of you both because his parents are a literal damn nightmare. He believes you just need to adjust your expectations. Though, he also thinks that you both consider Chris a do-over child and that your desire to parent him makes it impossible for you to take me seriously as the father of my own child.” Eddie watched shock and anger drift over both of his parent’s faces. “He’d probably put all three of us in therapy if I’d given him a choice in this conversation.”
“I don’t need therapy,” Ramon said with a glare.
“Pop, you need all the therapy,” Eddie said evenly and just glared at his sister, Sophia, when she burst out laughing. “I’m serious.”
“I know you are,” Sophia said. “And you’re right—he needs it all. Mom, Eddie’s right, you know? Your behavior regarding Chris has never been normal, and it literally put me off even wanting kids. It’s one of the reasons Grant and I got divorced. He wanted children, and I told him that I didn’t…because of you.”
Helena’s mouth dropped open. “Sophia…how could you…think….”
“Eddie’s your favorite,” Adriana inserted flatly. “The golden child, the perfect son—right up until the day he knocked up his girlfriend. Then suddenly, nothing he did was good enough. Then Chris was diagnosed with CP, and everything got worse somehow with you both.” She waved a hand and slouched back in her own seat. “You made Shannon cry every single damn time you saw her. When Eddie told us she had left him, I wasn’t surprised at all. I thought it was shitty, but I also saw why. Whatever love she had for him couldn’t have been enough to endure putting up with the two of you. If you would do that to your favorite, then what could I expect? What could Sophia? I’ve never wanted kids, but it was all she talked about growing up.”
Eddie had never considered himself the favorite, but both of his sisters seemed to be in agreement, which made him feel horrible. “I figured I was the scapegoat.”
“Been to therapy yourself, huh?” Sophia questioned in an amused tone.
“I’ve been reading a book on toxic parents,” Eddie said and shrugged when his mother gasped in shock. “I started reading it so I could help Buck cope with whatever his parents were going to throw our way, but it was hard not to see our family in it.” He tapped the card and focused on his father. “I’ll get family news from Abuela, and if you want to pursue your so-called rights, you can give this card to your lawyer. But please be aware that even if you win limited, supervised visitation with Christopher that no court on this damn planet can make me speak to you again.”
“You’re not giving us a lot of choices here,” Helena said tightly.
“I’ve given you too many chances to do the right thing, Mom. You’ve hurt my son for the last time.”
“We’ve never hurt Christopher!” Ramon shouted.
“Do you honestly not see that emotional pain can be as damaging if not more so than physical pain?” Eddie demanded. “Ignoring his needs is abusive. Disparaging and undermining me as a parent in front of him is parental alienation, which is child abuse! Neither of you are capable or qualified to take care of him—not on an emotional level nor on a physical level. You just can’t do it, and you’d ruin his life trying. Well, I’m never going to allow that.”
He stood and took a deep breath.
“I suggest you both use the next six months to evaluate your behavior, adjust your expectations and get some damn therapy.” He waved a hand. “And if you can’t do any of that—then you can deal with the consequences of having limited, court-ordered access to Christopher until he’s an adult and is allowed to make his own decisions. And absolutely no access to Colin or any other children Buck and I have.”
“Can we see Chris and Colin before we leave?” Helena asked.
“No,” Eddie said. “Chris wants you to go home to El Paso today so you don’t ruin our party tomorrow.” He turned and focused on his grandmother. “Abuela, if they’re here tomorrow—we’ll leave.”
“They won’t be here,” she said firmly. “Tomorrow is to celebrate your new little family.” She glared pointed at her son when Ramon huffed. “And anyone who gets in the way of me holding my new great-grandson as long as I want will suffer for it.”
Eddie made a mental note to let Buck know that Abuela had called dibs on the baby. He really didn’t want to suffer whatever revenge she might have planned.
“We’re your family,” Helena said and stood. “You can’t just kick us out of your life and treat us like children by giving us a time out.”
“Right now—you’re just people I’m related to,” Eddie said evenly. “I’ve laid out my terms. Feel free to respond anyway you’d like, but if you come to my house, I’m calling the cops, and we’ll seek a restraining order.”
He walked around the table to leave, but his father grabbed his arm in a tight grip. Eddie looked down at his father’s hand. “Pop, please don’t put me in this position. It would break my heart to have to physically defend myself against you.”
Ramon let go. “Edmundo, we just want what’s best for him.”
“Neither of you have a damn clue what’s best for my son because you don’t listen,” Eddie said evenly. “You never have. You both make assumptions based on what you want and try to force those assumptions down the throats of everyone around you. Your own daughter just said that she gave up having children because she didn’t want to be treated the way the two of you treated Shannon and me. How can you not be sick over such a thing?”
* * * *
“Buck, can we talk?”
Buck looked up from the email he’d gotten from Natalie regarding grandparent rights in California. She’d send more information based on the situation with Eddie’s parents. There were a bunch of attachments, and she’d already started a review of case law regarding out-of-state grandparents, so he was expecting a new email shortly.
“Of course, Superman.” He set aside the laptop and turned on the couch so he could face Chris. “What’s going on?”
“It’s just…” Chris focused on his hands.
“It’s okay to be upset with your grandparents and love them at the same time,” Buck said.
“Oh, I know,” Chris said and shrugged. “They’re just not used to not getting their way. I think they’ll figure themselves out, but if they don’t, it won’t be our fault.”
Buck nodded. “Sounds good.” He paused and waited. “But I guessed wrong, huh? That wasn’t what you wanted to talk about.”
Chris laughed. “You’re normally pretty good at it.”
“Your dad never likes to talk about the things that really matter, so I have to drag it out of him. I’ve got lots of experience.” Buck cleared his throat. “Buddy, you can tell me anything. I’ve got your back, you know?”
Chris nodded and bit down on his bottom lip. “Can I call you papa now? Would that be okay?”
Buck swallowed hard and took a deep breath because he hadn’t expected that to be an issue at all. He’d figured that they’d cross that bridge during the adoption process. Moreover, it was a bit upsetting that Chris had worked himself up over something he considered a given. “I would be honored.”
“Really?” Chris questioned.
“Chris.” Buck plucked gently at a curl when the boy didn’t look at him. “What’s going on?”
“It’s just the adoption is about legal stuff, right? So, I won’t have to go live with Grandma and Abuelo if something happens to Daddy?” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “And I’m grateful, but I didn’t know if it meant….”
“Hey,” Buck said gently. “I love you and your dad, Chris. We didn’t take a traditional route to get here, and I can see how some people might only see our marriage as a step we took to provide some legal protections, but I meant every single word of the vows I made yesterday. And I’m very excited to adopt you. And nothing has ever made me so happy as the day your dad said we could make a family together.”
Chris threw himself at Buck, and he caught the boy easily. “I love you, too.” He sniffled against his neck. “And Colin. I’m going to be the best big brother.”
“You already are,” Buck said against Chris’ hair and patted his back gently.
They were still sitting on the couch, hugging it out, when the door opened, and Eddie came into the house. Buck watched him lock the door and put his keys in the basket on the table next to the door.
“You look like you’ve had the worst day of your life.”
Eddie shrugged a little but then joined them on the couch.
“You need a Superman hug.” Buck transferred Chris right over into his husband’s lap, which made the boy laugh and throw his arms around his dad’s neck. “How did it go?”
“Not the way they wanted,” Eddie said wearily and rubbed his nose through Chris’ curls. “Honestly, when I first got there, they seemed genuinely perplexed that I hadn’t brought both kids to see them. The entitlement is real. I gave them a six-month time-out—no contact at all. I don’t know if they’ll sue us or not. Abuela was clearly very upset with them, and Sophia revealed that she didn’t have kids with her first husband because of how our parents treated Shannon and me. And that her refusal to have kids directly led to the divorce.”
“Jesus,” Buck muttered.
“That’s terrible. I could have more cousins,” Chris said huffily and slouched against Eddie’s chest. “Buck says I can call him papa.”
“Oh yeah?” Eddie questioned and smiled against Chris’ head with a look in Buck’s direction. “That sounds great.”
“And that he loves us,” Chris said solemnly.
“Of course, he does,” Eddie said. “How could he not? We’re really awesome.”
Chris melted into a pile of giggles, and Buck just rolled his eyes when Eddie looked his way. A distinct odor caught his attention, and he turned to look toward the bassinet.
“Solid food is going to be the death of us,” Buck said and huffed when Eddie laughed. “That diaper is probably a straight-up crime scene!” He got up to retrieve the baby. Colin was kicking his feet and smiling. “You’re smiling. You’ve done this horrible thing to me, and you’re smiling about it.” He picked him up and turned to Eddie. “Natalie sent us some stuff to read through, and I’m expecting more. I think we probably need to get the home study done sooner rather than later. I also sent the realtor an email so we can set up appointments. I think we need a new address that your parents don’t have, at least for the time being.”
Eddie nodded. “Yeah, I think so, too, and that….”
“Sucks,” Buck supplied. “Majorly.”
* * * *
“Your mother has always been invested in her…authority.”
Eddie glanced toward his abuela, who had come to stand beside him at the grill. He’d taken over for one of his cousins due to what had amounted to a toddler fender bender. Both kids were okay but had been startled and furiously upset to end up on the ground in a two-tot pile-up.
“And your father allowed it,” Isabel continued. “From the start, she didn’t want him to listen to anything I had to say. The move to El Paso was to please her, so they could live near her parents instead of here with Ramon’s family. Even now, when she talks about you and Christopher going back to El Paso to be around family as if none of us count.”
He knew that. Just like he also knew that he easily had fifteen more family members in the greater Los Angeles area than he did in El Paso. His mother’s family was small in comparison.
“She really just means herself,” Eddie pointed out. “From the very start, she treated Chris like he was her child and everyone else was just in her way. She bullied Shannon into not breastfeeding for as long as she wanted. Looking back on it makes me furious. I didn’t defend my wife, Abuela, and I have to live with that. There’s no making up for it.”
“I wish I’d have known more about these circumstances,” Isabel said and took a deep breath. “But you cannot bear all of that guilt, nieto. None of us were kind to your Shannon, and it was never more obvious to me than the day we buried her. Your parents behaved so poorly that it shamed me.” She prodded him. “Turn over those ribs.”
He did as instructed even as his gaze drifted around the yard—lasering in on Chris and Buck then on Colin, who was ensconced in Sophia’s arms. His sister was clearly in love, and it was nice to see since she’d avoided children like the plague for years. He felt a little guilty about that and wondered if things would’ve been different for them all if he’d put his foot down with his parents years ago.
“Your father did call me when they landed this morning,” his abuela said. “He’s very angry. I warned him that I would not support him if they take you to court. I’ve tolerated much from him over the years, but I will not allow this to go unaddressed.” She patted his arm. “You are a very good man, Edmundo, and a better father than your own ever tried to be.”
“Abuela…” He cleared his throat and huffed a little. “I just need them to treat me like an adult and pay attention. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, right?”
“It’s not,” she assured him. “They believed that it would be all of us against you. Ramon didn’t realize that none of us would take his side. He is angry and perhaps even hurt.”
Eddie knew he would’ve been hurt in those circumstances.
“It’s really hard when you realize you can’t trust your own mother to back your play,” he admitted and glanced toward her. She shot him a shrewd, knowing look.
“I have always supported my son when he is right,” she said. “As I do for you. If you were doing something I disagreed with—I’d make my displeasure known.”
He grinned at her. “I know.”
“How did things go with Buck’s parents?”
“Honestly, they’re so horrible that I plan on installing a security system in our new house,” Eddie admitted. “His mother is completely insane, and I think she believes that Colin is her dead son.”
“Muy loco,” Isabel muttered under her breath and crossed herself. “She will leave our sweet baby Colin alone or else.”
Eddie grinned at her.
A half-hour later, he was on the porch with Colin, and Buck was playing soccer with a few of his cousins. Chris was dozing in the swing across from Eddie because Buck had worn him out with the soccer ball earlier.
“You’re a lucky man.”
He looked up and found Adriana leaning on the porch railing. “Yeah, I know.”
“He’s so good with Chris—patient and encouraging,” she said and glanced toward her nephew. “You really couldn’t ask for a better partner. He’s also hyper-aware of him in a way I didn’t expect.”
Eddie really didn’t know how asleep Chris was, so he just nodded as he wasn’t going to discuss what he considered a ramification of the tsunami. Buck had always paid attention to Chris, but after that day, he seemed to just instinctually keep track of him in a way that was born out of survivor trauma.
“Buck’s a natural parent,” Eddie said finally. “He has great instincts for it and is protective.”
He glanced out in the yard just in time to watch Buck pluck one of his younger cousins off their feet just short of the kid hitting the ground. He set the eleven-year-old down on his feet even as the boy started to laugh and picked up the soccer ball they were playing with.
“Pop really doesn’t approve,” she said. “But, you know that.”
“I do,” Eddie agreed. “And I don’t care. How can I?” He focused on Colin, who was awake and staring at him with bright blue eyes. He hoped they didn’t change. He knew that Taylor had blue eyes, but they were darker than Buck’s. “They don’t want me to have anyone but them.”
Adriana’s breath hitched a bit, and she took a deep breath. “Yeah, that’s about right, isn’t it? It’s like they resent us for growing up. Mom, especially.”
“Well, if I never grew up, then I can’t possibly be a parent, right?” Eddie questioned roughly. “If we’re still children, then they’re justified in micromanaging our lives until we can barely breathe.”
“You’re going to make me run screaming into the night,” she muttered and huffed a little. “But you’re right—I was thinking that I might move out here.”
“Seriously?” Eddie questioned.
“Sophia is,” she pointed out. “I think her man’s getting ready to pop the question, and his job is here. Since she’s started freelancing, she can work anywhere. It makes sense for her to move. He’s got an adorable little girl, by the way.”
“How long on his divorce?”
“I think…pretty much shortly after the kid was born. The mother got a job offer in DC and took it. He has full custody. The kid and Sophia get along like a house on fire.” Adriana took a long drink from her water glass. “And I’m not staying in El Paso by myself with our parents.”
“You don’t think they’d move here, right?” Eddie made a face at the thought.
“No,” Adriana said. “Mom’s not going to move out of her social circle and sphere of influence, Eddie. Besides, she wouldn’t have her sisters and aunts to validate her.” She made a face. “You’re going to sell your current house, right?”
“I’m just renting that house,” Eddie said. “Why?”
“I’m gonna need somewhere to live, and not having to look for a place would be nice.”
“You can have my loft,” Buck said as he dropped down on the porch steps and dug through the cooler for a bottle of water. “It’s all sleek, modern, and sexy. Great place to bring a friend…or two.”
She grinned at him.
“My sister does not need your den of iniquity,” Eddie muttered.
Buck laughed and leaned against the railing before focusing on Adriana. “Seriously, though, I’m going to be leasing it out, so it might as well go to someone I can trust with it.”
“The rent here is twice what you’d pay in El Paso,” Eddie pointed out, and his sister shrugged.
“I got half in the divorce,” Adriana said dryly. “And I’m going to sell the house, which my ex gave to me as a parting gift in case I ever needed funds to flee from our parents.”
“Wow,” Buck said. “But also, he might have considered it a bargain.”
Eddie winced because he knew Buck wasn’t wrong at all. Buck nudged his foot and offered him a smile.
“Relax, your parents are not equipped to make me cut and run. Seriously, your mom might as well be a cat in a tree compared to the five-alarm fire my mother is.”
Since that was unfortunately true, Eddie just nodded and focused on Colin, who was pursing his lips in demand. “He’s ready for a bottle, I think.”
Buck checked his watch. “Yeah, about that time.” He rolled to his feet. “Chris would probably rest better inside in the AC.”
Eddie knew the mechanics of violence and understood the primal forces at play in self-defense. But until the moment he opened the door of his own home and came face to face with a gun, he hadn’t understood what would wake up in him when it came to a threat against his children. Two men pushed in with enough force that he stumbled.
“Chris!” he shouted. “Tsunami!”
They didn’t have a family safe word, but Eddie knew that his son would react to that word without question. He didn’t dare look back as he put his body between where his son had been sitting and the gun.
“We’re not here for him,” the man with the gun said evenly. “Just the baby.”
“Kidnapping is a felony,” Eddie said as he held his hands in full view of the gunman. “Leaving the state would make it federal.”
“Get the baby,” the gunman gestured toward his silent accomplice.
“If you lay a hand on my son, I’ll kill you,” Eddie promised, and the younger man hesitated with wide eyes.
“Get the fucking baby, or we’re not getting paid.”
The accomplice moved toward the bassinet, and Eddie grabbed him without a single hesitation. He jerked him around, caught him by the chin, and held him in place even as the gun went off. A sharp snap of the body told him two things about the gunman—he was trigger happy, and he’d just shot his own partner in crime. He didn’t bother to look to see if the wound was fatal. Eddie shoved the accomplice at the gunman, and it turned into a brawl just like that.
The gun hit the carpet, and he managed to kick it all the way across the room, where it slid partially under the couch. The gunman lunged at him, and they hit the floor. Eddie grappled with his attacker even as he brought up his knee repeatedly—slamming into the other man’s side with all of his strength. The guy was big but not particularly fit and unprepared to deal with someone trained to fight. Eddie shoved him off, kicked him in the stomach, and rolled to his feet.
He got a big fist in the face but managed to stay on his feet. The asshole rushed at him and threw him into the coffee table. The wood shattered under their combined weight. Since his attacker easily had fifty pounds on him, Eddie knew his choices were limited, and he was the only defense his sons had. He grabbed the man’s head and broke his neck in one sharp jerk, then shoved him off. His vision tunneled a bit as he dragged the gunman to the accomplice, who was slowly but surely bleeding out on his living room floor.
Eddie went into the kitchen snagged the duct tape from the junk drawer and a hand towel. He wadded up the hand towel and shoved it against the chest wound, then forced the accomplice to hold it.
“Hold this! You’ll die if you don’t.”
“Is he dead?”
Eddie glanced toward the gunman and focused on the accomplice. “Yes, and you’ll die, too, if you let go of this towel.” And maybe even if he didn’t, but Eddie didn’t care.
He duct-taped their hands together even as the accomplice protested in shock and horror. Then he left them where they lay, tossing the duct tape aside and turning to the rest of the living room. Eddie made a shocked, horrified sound that felt foreign coming from his own body and stumbled toward the overturned bassinet. It must have gotten knocked over during the fight, but Colin wasn’t making a single sound. He sank to his knees and carefully shifted the bassinet away. He found nothing.
His mind raced because there had just been two men, and they were both accounted for. He lurched to his feet and stumbled down the hallway.
“Chris! Call out!”
“Daddy! We’re here! In your bedroom closet!”
We. Eddie pressed against his chest as he took in a shuddery breath and went into the bedroom. He opened the closet door and sank gratefully to his knees even as he started to hear sirens. Chris was tucked in the closet, Colin safe in his arms, and a cell phone was resting on the baby’s stomach.
“I called 9-1-1,” Chris said. “Everyone’s coming, Daddy.”
Eddie slid down onto his ass and leaned against the doorframe as he carefully picked up the phone with a bloody hand.
“I’m sorry I carried Colin—I know I’m not supposed to,” Chris said in a rush.
“You did just the right thing, mijo,” Eddie murmured. “You’re a real hero, okay?” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss against his son’s forehead as he took the phone off speaker and pressed it to his ear. “This is Firefighter Diaz with the 118. My home was invaded by two men in an attempt to kidnap one of my children. I’ve neutralized them.”
“Eddie, this is Josh. Maddie is on her way—she called Buck, but he’s an hour out at the SAR training facility. I have the 118 en route and Sergeant Grant as well.”
“Tell Sergeant Grant she’s going to need to bring in a detective,” Eddie said and ran his fingers gently through Chris’ curls. “One RA for a GSW to the chest and a medical examiner should be called for the other.”
“Are you injured?” Josh questioned.
“Might have a concussion, some busted knuckles, bruises,” Eddie reported. “Nothing major.”
“Two ambulances incoming, just in case,” Josh decided. “LAPD is now on the scene.”
“Tell them there’s a gun—it’s under the couch. Both intruders are in the living room—duct-taped together.”
“You duct-taped.…” Josh trailed off. “Understood.”
“LAPD! Firefighter Diaz, call out!”
“Athena’s here,” Eddie murmured. “Thanks for taking care of my kids, Josh.”
“I’m glad you’re all okay,” Josh said.
Eddie ended the call and shouted for Athena, who appeared in his bedroom doorway a little wild-eyed just a few moments after. She holstered her weapon when she saw them and activated her radio. “727-L30 reporting the scene secure. Relay to Firefighter Buckley that his family is safe.” She paused. “And tell him to stop speeding.”
“727-L30, Firefighter Buckley hitched a ride on a SAR chopper. He was determined to be too compromised to drive.”
“Understood,” Athena said and released her radio. She sank down to her knees beside Eddie and offered him her hand. He took it, and she exhaled slowly. “You look like hell.”
Eddie laughed a little but blinked rapidly as tears unexpectedly welled in his eyes. “We’re okay.”
“I see that,” she said gently. “Let’s get you up. Hen and Chim are waiting outside for you three.” She released his hand and focused on Chris. “Hey, I’m going to take Colin, okay?”
Chris’ fingers clenched briefly in the baby’s blankets, but then he nodded. “Okay. I left my crutches in the living room.”
“We’ll get them,” Athena murmured. “Everything’s going to be just fine, baby.”
Eddie carried Chris out of the house, crutches and all because it would’ve been difficult for him to navigate the mess, and he didn’t want his boy seeing the body. The intruder that had gotten shot had already been moved to an ambulance by the time they left the bedroom. He let Athena guide them to the ambulance, where Hen and Chim were being essentially corralled. From the looks on their faces, they weren’t happy to be held back. Bobby appeared at his side as he walked, settling a hand on his shoulder, briefly cupping Chris’ head with a look of relief on his face.
“SAR found an emergency helipad to land on about six blocks from here. I sent Bosko in the engine to get Buck.”
“Thanks,” Eddie said as he put Chris down on the gurney inside the ambulance and sat down on the bench. Hen cleared her throat and pointed at the gurney. He grimaced but moved to it.
He glanced toward Athena and found that she’d transferred Colin into Bobby’s care. Bobby was seated on the back of the ambulance, head bowed slightly as he breathed deeply against the baby’s skin. Athena’s hand was resting on Bobby’s neck, a comfort and perhaps an anchor point.
“The one with the gun said they were here to take Colin,” Eddie said, and Athena focused on him. “Someone needs to find out where Buck’s parents are.”
“Son of a bitch,” Athena said under her breath and squeezed Bobby’s shoulder briefly before she left them.
He endured a concussion check, which proved negative, and was holding an ice pack to his face while Hen cleaned his hand when Buck appeared at the back of the ambulance.
“Papa!” Chris practically threw himself out of the ambulance and at Buck, who caught him easily.
Buck clutched at Chris as they stared at each other. “Eds.”
“I’m okay,” Eddie said.
“They said.…” He trailed off and took a deep breath as he turned to press an urgent kiss against Chris’ forehead. “Maddie’s with a uniformed officer getting a few bags together for us so we can go to the loft.”
“You and the kids will go,” Eddie said. “I’ll have to go with a detective to be interviewed.” Hen paused for a few moments in her clean-up of his hand. “It’ll be fine.”
Buck closed his eyes briefly and reached out to touch Colin, who was still tucked against Bobby’s chest. “I’m going to ruin my parents.”
* * * *
Natalie Rutledge didn’t handle criminal law, but her partner, Isla North, did, so she’d met him at the police station with her partner in tow. The two women didn’t leave his side the whole time, which he was grateful for. He felt like he shouldn’t have anything to worry about, but he’d killed a white man and, as a person of color, he had every single right to be concerned that he wouldn’t be treated fairly.
Two detectives entered shortly after he drained a third bottle of water. He noted that Ms. North grabbed the bottle and tucked it into her bag as soon as he was finished with it. She’d already confiscated the first two. One of the detectives sent her a sour look.
“Habit,” she admitted and shrugged. “Mr. Diaz has nothing to worry about, and you would have no problem collecting his DNA from his house since it’s a crime scene.”
“I’m Andrew Myers, and this is my partner, Brad Rowe. You’ve had a difficult day Mr. Diaz. We don’t intend on making it worse.” He put a file down on the table as he sat. “The two men that invaded your home are named Willie Swift and Keith Langley. Both are well-known petty criminals who do odd jobs for a price. Neither had participated in a gun-related crime before today, as far as we can discern. Swift made it to the hospital and is in recovery from surgery. We have an officer with him, and in the ambulance, he admitted to being hired along with his partner to kidnap Colin Buckley. They were supposed to take the infant to a small motel just outside of the city. We dispatched a team and arrested three people.”
“Three?” Eddie questioned and shared a glance with Isla, who was staring at the cops in confusion.
“You’re being unusually forthcoming, Detective Myers,” Isla said. “The last time we were in a room like this—you barely said six words.”
Myers seemed to consider that. “The last time we were in this room, you were trying to get a ridiculously wealthy housewife a plea deal even though she’d admitted to stabbing her husband forty-seven times.”
Isla shrugged. “Some people get exactly what they deserve.”
“Today, you’re sitting next to a decorated Army veteran and war hero who defended his family during a home invasion,” Myers said. “Context really does matter.”
Eddie never had liked being called a war hero. It sat wrong, made his skin itch, and it stirred grief inside him that would never truly go away.
“Mr. Diaz, if you would tell us what happened for the record?”
“Yeah, I…sure. I was distracted—it was my first day at home alone since my husband was spending the whole day in an SAR training facility. Carla Price, our home health nurse, offered to come over, but it’s her day off. Chris, my oldest son, was having a difficult time settling because he had a nightmare last night. Buck almost stayed home because of it, but we agreed that he’d have to get used to us not being there all the time, and the stress was necessary.
“We had a package coming—more diapers. It’s a subscription service, so I just wasn’t paying attention when I opened the door. There were two men on my porch, and one pointed a gun in my face. I think…I tried to shut the door, but they shoved it open. It happened quickly. I shouted at Chris…said a word that would make him react and take me seriously. He left the living room as quickly as he could, but I didn’t see him. I stayed focused on the one the gun.”
“What word did you shout?” Myers questioned as he made notes.
Eddie glanced toward the digital recorder. “My son was on the Santa Monica pier when the tsunami hit. He barely survived it and only did so because of my husband. When the two men shoved their way into the house—I shouted tsunami because I knew it would cause my son to have a flight response. To my shame, I purposely tried to trigger his PTSD to get him to act.”
“Getting him out of the way kept him from getting hurt,” Isla said firmly. “He’s alive to have more therapy.”
Eddie laughed a little and rubbed his face with his less injured hand. He sort of hurt all over, but his hands were the worst. “I grabbed the one that didn’t have a gun and sort of jerked him around. I was going to use him as leverage, but…you said the dead one was named Langley?” He paused as Myers nodded. “Well, Langley shot Swift. I was a little shocked, but it made me realize that I wasn’t going to make it out of the situation alive if Langley kept the gun. I shoved Swift at him, and Langley lost control of the gun. I kicked it under the couch.
“It turned into a physical fight at that point. It was pretty obvious that he was used to using his size to control people but didn’t have much, if any, training when it came to an actual fight.”
“You were in the Army,” Myers interjected. “What kind of training have you had?”
“I went through basic training, which included training for hand-to-hand combat as part of the Modern Army Combatives program, advanced marksmanship, IED identification and deactivation, and finally survival skills. I also do MMA as a hobby which I started in the Army.” Eddie watched them absorb that. “I did one and a half tours with the Army and was honorably discharged due to injury.”
“Coming home with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart,” Myers said with a nod. “We pulled your employment record with the city.” He put one hand on the file in front of him. “You said he was using his size against you?”
“He weighed at least fifty pounds more than me,” Eddie said. “They probably waited until Buck left because they thought they could handle me. My husband is a pretty big guy, comparatively speaking. They would’ve considered him the real threat based on appearance.”
“How big?” Myers asked.
“6’2, about 190 pounds with a body fat percentage under five percent,” Eddie said. “My best weight is only about 145 pounds, and I have to work out regularly to maintain that much muscle. At any rate, someone who doesn’t know us would assume that Buck would be the one to watch in a fight, but he’s the sort that will catch a spider to release into the wild and post about it on Insta.” He took a deep breath. “Langley was fighting hard—maybe he was angry with me for not going along with the plan or because he’d shot his own partner. I can’t say if it was on purpose or not.
“If he had no real experience with guns, then maybe that was an accident. It was an older revolver with no safety. He sort of bull-rushed me, and we landed on the coffee table. He was trying to hold me down and punch me at the same time. I grabbed his head and broke his neck.” He looked down at his hands and focused on his wedding ink. They’d gone with a simple band since it would have to be retouched periodically.
“I went into the kitchen, grabbed a towel and the duct tape. I gave the towel to Swift for his wound—told him to hold it in place and duct-taped him to Langley’s body so he wouldn’t try to get away. Then I realized that, sometime during the altercation, Colin’s bassinet had been turned over.” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “For a moment, I thought he might be severely injured or dead because I didn’t hear any noises from him. There was no way he’d have slept through all of that. I went to the bassinet, but it was empty.
“I called out for Chris, and I found them both in the closet. Chris had taken Colin from the bassinet before he’d…well, he couldn’t have run. My oldest son has cerebral palsy. His mobility is good, and he’s high functioning, but he uses crutches. He had to leave those behind to carry Colin, something he’s not allowed to do due to his issues with balance. He’d called 9-1-1. I had my cell phone on the charger in my bedroom. I haven’t asked him if he went in there on purpose or if it was just a happy accident. Either way, shortly after I joined my children in the bedroom, the LAPD arrived.” He cleared his throat. “Can you tell me who was arrested at the motel?”
“Phillip and Margaret Buckley.” Myers flipped through his notebook. “And a lawyer named Chase Mackey. The investigation is ongoing; Sergeant Grant is on that scene.”
“Chase Mackey is a lawyer my husband knows,” Eddie said. “He tried to get Buck to sue the city in a matter related to his injury.” He paused when both cops looked confused. “He was the firefighter pinned under the ladder truck last fall.”
Myers grimaced. “Jesus.” He glanced toward the recorder and shook his head. “Would you like to add anything else to your statement?”
“I think that’s everything,” Eddie said.
“We’ll get this written up, you’ll sign it, and you’ll be free to go.” Myers stood.
Eddie shifted forward in his seat in surprise. “Just like that?”
“Unless forensics reveals something contrary to your statement,” Rowe said, speaking for the first time. “That could lead to some clarification questions. Initial reports from the scene support your assertion of self-defense with the use of deadly force.” He reached and turned off the digital recorder.
Deadly force. Eddie took a deep breath and slumped a little. “I thought…” He focused on his hands and smoothed one finger over the bandage that Hen had put into place with trembling hands. He’d never seen her hands shake like that before. “I thought I’d left this feeling behind when I was discharged from the Army.”
Isla patted him on the shoulder. “Save that for your therapist, big guy.”
Eddie laughed and rubbed his face. “Yeah, good idea.”
* * * *
Maddie Buckley, of all people, was waiting in the lobby when he exited the elevator. She hitched up her purse, marched over him, and grabbed his hand. “Is he done, Natalie?”
Natalie shared a look with her partner but then nodded. “We don’t expect charges.”
Maddie huffed. “There’d better not be charges.” She tugged his hand. “Come on, Eddie.”
She glared at a few cops as she all but dragged him out of the police station. He was tempted to apologize to them but refrained because he figured Maddie wouldn’t appreciate it. “I can’t believe they brought you down here at all! Like you need this kind of stress! Chris is upset and thinks you’re going to prison!”
Eddie winced and got into Maddie’s car without discussion. He slouched down in the passenger seat, and she huffed dramatically before starting the car. “And Buck is pacing and talking about hiring a private detective to investigate our parents.”
“They’ve been arrested,” Eddie interjected. “Along with a lawyer named Chase Mackey.”
“Oh, we know,” Maddie said darkly. “We’ve gotten some updates from Athena since you were down here for hours.”
“They had to get some preliminary scene reports before they could take my statement in case they had some questions,” Eddie pointed out and shrugged when she scowled at him.
“Buck’s blaming himself,” Maddie said. “Because of the Mackey thing more than our parents. He’s hell and gone from feeling guilty about the evil shit our parents do, but Mackey? He’s taking that on entirely because that asshole lawyer was really mad at him for not going through the lawsuit. Apparently, Buck’s case was so solid he could’ve won millions of dollars.”
“Yeah, I know,” Eddie said. “But he didn’t want money—he just wanted back on the job, but more importantly, he wanted Bobby to see him. But whatever Mackey’s done, it’s not Buck’s fault.” He glanced around as he realized they weren’t heading for the loft. “Where are we going?”
“Buck and the kids are with Bobby. Buck needed the support when you left with the detectives. Apparently, seeing you get put in the back of a cop’s car was…well, more than he could handle. At least they didn’t cuff you.”
“I went voluntarily,” Eddie pointed out. “Getting it over with was the best choice, and giving my statement as quickly as I could was also to my benefit. I had nothing to hide, Maddie.”
“I know,” she said and offered him a brittle smile. “I came down here to get you because I was the calmest. I don’t think your abuela has spoken a single word of English in hours. There was a report on the local news, and it went viral—because of Buck’s connection, and someone leaked a lot of details. Athena’s furious about that. Your parents called Isabel and demanded to be told what happened, but….” Maddie flushed. “My Spanish is really rusty, but I think she told them to fuck off.”
Eddie snorted. “No way.”
“Yes way,” Maddie assured. “Regardless, Sophia called them and told them that you were fine and that no one was hurt. She made sure they understood they were not welcome to come here for whatever that is worth. Buck told me that they treat boundaries like suggestions.” Her hands tightened on the wheel. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” Eddie asked in confusion.
“It’s my fault our wretched parents even know about Colin,” Maddie said, and her breath hitched. “They’d have never bothered with Evan at all if I hadn’t stupidly posted that picture or if I’d taken my mother off my Instagram like I wanted to after she attended Doug’s funeral and acted like I was awful for having a problem with it.” She wiped her face hastily with one hand and frowned at the traffic.
“Maddie, you can’t take that on. They could have found out about Colin in any number of ways, and I think the results would’ve been the same. It isn’t like you thought your parents would go completely off the rails and hire a couple of thugs to kidnap the baby.”
She exhaled. “Granted. Who’d think that was possible? They’re freaking middle-class Wonder Bread boomers from Pennsylvania.”
“Wonder Bread?” he repeated with a sharp laugh.
“The dullest, most boring white bread you can possibly buy,” Maddie confirmed. “My dad’s an accountant, for fuck’s sake. We’re going to end up profiled on some stupid true-crime podcast, Eddie. This is horrible.”
Eddie kind of liked true crime podcasts, but he wasn’t interested in being the subject of one. Shortly, they were parked in front of Bobby and Athena’s house. Sophia practically burst out of the house the moment he left the car, and he realized that everyone really had congregated at the Grant-Nash house. His sister’s hug was the demanding sort, but she’d always hugged as tightly as she could.
“Chris wouldn’t go to sleep without him, so Bobby put all three of them in the guest room,” Sophia said as she guided him into the house.
“Have you eaten?” Maddie questioned as they entered the house.
“A sandwich a few hours ago,” Eddie said. “I’m fine.”
“We ordered pizza,” Bobby reported as they entered the kitchen. “Buck and Chris ate. Colin’s fussy, but he’s taken two bottles.”
“Let me check in with Chris, so he’ll know I’m not in prison,” Eddie said and took a deep breath. “And I could use another ice pack for my face. That asshole had a fist like a cast-iron skillet.”
“Looks it,” Boddy admitted. “I’ll set one up.” He jerked his head towards the stairs. “First door on the left.”
His abuela was sitting in a chair in the living room, so Eddie stopped, took the hand she offered, and leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Sorry.”
“No sorries,” she whispered and cupped his head gently. “What a day you’ve had. How can I help?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Call my parents and tell them not to come here. I can’t handle them right now, Abuela. They’re just a different kind of threat, and it would make me…extremely hostile in a way I can’t readily explain.”
“I understand,” she soothed and kissed his cheek. “I will call Ramon and his wife.” Eddie raised an eyebrow at the phrasing but nodded. It seemed that his mother had suffered a bit of a downgrade since the last time he’d spoken with his abuela and wondered what kind of background conversations had been taking place.
She released him, and he went up the stairs, feeling heavy and a little lost. There was no guilt to be had when it came to Langley, but he was worried about additional trauma Chris would face because of the situation. He opened the door, and Buck immediately sat up from where he was leaning against the headboard. Eddie eased inside and shut the door as quietly as he could.
Buck slid off the bed and caught him in a hug. “Eddie.”
The hug hurt, but Eddie just held on as tightly as he could because there had been a few moments earlier in the day when he’d been worried that he’d die. He pressed his face against Buck’s neck and inhaling the scent of soap and aftershave. He felt filthy in comparison.
“I need a shower.”
“There’s a small en suite,” Buck murmured and pressed a soft kiss against his temple. “I’ve been so worried about you, Eds. How’s your head?”
“Sore,” Eddie confessed. “I feel like I haven’t slept in days and….” He glanced toward the bed and found Chris sitting up, rubbing his eyes with both fists. “Hey.”
“Hi, Daddy,” Chris said and yawned, then held out his hands in demand.
Buck released him easily enough, and Eddie sat down on the edge of the bed to draw Chris close.
“I was worried about you,” Chris said and let his head rest on Eddie’s shoulder. “Were the cops mean to you?”
“The cops were…not bad at all,” Eddie responded. “I just had to tell them what happened and sign a piece of paper. They probably won’t have any more questions for me but, if they do, it won’t be terrible.”
He rubbed Chris’ back and shared a look with Buck before his gaze drifted to the Pack ‘n Play in the room. It was green and blue—theirs was blue and white. He raised an eyebrow in question in Buck’s direction.
“We couldn’t take much from the house because of the investigation,” Buck said. “So, I bought another. I wanted him to be comfortable. I contacted the realtor and refined our criteria. I’ve also lined up a moving company.”
They hadn’t finished settling Shannon’s estate, which Eddie had wanted to wait for so he could have money to contribute to the new house’s down payment. But considering the circumstances, he knew that he’d have to swallow his pride on that issue. So, he nodded, and Buck quirked an eyebrow at him.
“It’s for the best,” Eddie said and took a deep breath. “I just…yeah. I don’t care what we get at this point as long as we can get a security system. Close to Carla and the station would be preferred. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to live next to a bunch of jerks, though. Or in a neighborhood with an outrageous HOA.”
Buck took a deep breath. “I also added another 100k to our budget.”
“You’re pushing it,” Eddie observed and shot his husband a look.
“My parents aren’t going to go to prison for very long, Eddie. One or both will be out in less than five years, and you know it. I won’t make it easy for them to come at us again. They almost…you could’ve been….”
“Killed,” Chris supplied, his voice muffled against his neck. His fingers tightened on Eddie’s shoulders, and he shuddered.
Eddie took a deep breath then smoothed down Chris’ curls. “Okay…okay. Whatever you guys want is fine.”
Hours later, he’d been fed twice, had a very long shower, and his sister had taken his abuela home. Eddie found himself lingering on the patio with Athena and Bobby. Maddie Buckley was conked out on the couch because no one had been interested in trying to make her leave. Chim had gone home since he would be on duty as acting captain for the next shift.
“The first time I killed another person,” Eddie began and took a deep breath, then closed his eyes. “I’d been pulled for medic training, so I hadn’t expected to get a lot of direct action as a result. They said I was calm under pressure and that I had the right personality for a field medic. I was fine with that. I hadn’t joined the Army to make war, anyway. I’d done it to escape my parents. But nothing goes to pot quicker in a war zone than a plan. I wasn’t unprepared for it, regardless. Basic training isn’t all that basic when it’s all said and done.
“But I was nineteen, halfway around the world from my family, and I had a stranger’s blood on my hands.” He paused. “Literally. I was in a small camp waiting for a transfer to a bigger operation. I was attacked by an insurgent who’d snuck into the camp to spy, and I ended up using my knife to escape. It was so slick with blood that I had a hard time holding on to it. I came away without a scratch. My CO said I was lucky. I felt like I’d destroyed myself—that I would never be the man I could’ve been because I’d killed someone else.” Eddie looked at his hands found them steady despite the storm of emotion tumbling around in his chest. “And I wasn’t wrong about that. I stopped being a fool-hearted boy that very day, and I don’t know…who I would’ve been if I hadn’t joined the Army.” He cleared his throat. “But I lived through it when the two men on guard duty did not. We found their bodies early the next morning after searching for hours.”
“Do you resent your parents?” Athena asked curiously. “Because you joined the Army to escape them.”
“I did when I was younger, but I’ve learned to own my decisions for good or bad,” Eddie murmured. “I do resent the hell of them, but not for that. At eighteen, I felt like I had no options, and I ran. I ran again when I came here because I was suffocating in El Paso, and I couldn’t let them do to Chris what they’d done to me. It would’ve been worse with him because my mother’s…special brand of helicopter parenting would’ve rendered him helpless well into adulthood.”
He grimaced and picked up the baby monitor, which he’d taken with him despite the fact that Buck wasn’t really sleeping and was in the room with the kids. “Though she’s fond of saying that I will or have ruined my son’s life by bringing him here. She blames me for his PTSD as if he wouldn’t be an emotional hot mess if I’d left him with them?”
Bobby cleared his throat. “Has it always been that way? One criticism after another with them?”’
“I haven’t done a single thing right since…I was around twelve or so,” Eddie admitted. “So, I guess when I started toward manhood and stopped being a child she could micromanage without my protesting. I certainly tried to protest her behavior, but my father didn’t tolerate it. No one was allowed to displease his wife, and I was never an exception to that as a child. He took a belt to me whenever I proved to be too frustrating for her—which was at least monthly for a few years because I wasn’t the perfect child she expected me to be.”
Athena sucked air in through her teeth. “I can’t tell you how many times I was spanked for my own good as a child. When May was four, I caught her trying to stick a fork in a socket. I freaked out and slapped her butt. Just the once because I was so horrified to have done it that I burst into tears. She ended up consoling me and patting my face while she told me it would be okay.”
“Chris was diagnosed with CP long before spanking was even a discussion. I was never on board with hitting him, and I don’t think Shannon did. After I was discharged and came home—the thought of being violent around my child was sickening. I hate that he even heard what took place in that house today.”
“You should sleep,” Bobby said quietly.
“I can’t…” Eddie shook his head. “Not, yet. My head’s not right, and I might have a nightmare. I could hurt one of them, and today’s been bad enough without throwing another level of unspeakable trauma on top of it.”
“Then I’ll wake up Maddie so she can sleep in the guest room with Buck and the kids,” Athena said. “And you can have the couch. May and Harry are here, but I’ll make sure they know not to touch you without some kind of warning.”
“Thanks,” Eddie said and blinked back tears. He swallowed the desire to apologize for being a fucked-up mess.
* * * *
Buck pulled the bedroom door shut and went in search of his husband. He’d waited until Maddie had gone back to sleep before getting up. Chris had woken up when Athena had escorted his sleepy sister into the room and had cuddled up with Maddie without hesitation, which had made her smile so happily that it had been kind of hard to look at.
Eddied was sitting on the couch, a blanket across his lap, and the baby monitor in his hand. He set it aside as Buck slipped onto the couch to sit with him. “Here, take him.”
“I…” Eddie took a deep breath but then took Colin with trembling hands. “I killed someone today, Buck.”
“I know,” he said simply. “I’m going to sue them—all three of them. They’ll face criminal charges, of course, but I’m going to make sure they have nothing when they get out. I’d sue the guy that got shot, but apparently, he doesn’t have a pot to piss in any way.”
“I think Natalie Rutledge might be a bad influence on you,” Eddie said. “But I’m not really mad about it. Her partner’s a real shark, by the way.”
“Natalie can be, too, in the right circumstances. I did my research—because I wanted to make sure my rights as Colin’s parent couldn’t be questioned by someone later without some kind of criminal offense. Taylor reached out to make sure we were all okay. She said to tell you…that’s she’s relieved that you’re with us and that you’ll keep our family safe.”
“Maybe she was a little more attached to you than she wanted to let on,” Eddie said.
“Maybe, but she’s happy where she is and happy for us,” Buck said. “Abby called, too.”
Eddie sighed. “That’s the last thing I want to hear about, honestly.”
“I know. I reminded her that I didn’t want to hear from her, and I went ahead and blocked her again. She asked some pretty ugly questions.”
“About letting your son be around a killer,” Eddie surmised.
“Yeah, something that like that. I wasn’t…polite in my response. I doubt she’ll try again because that was the last fucking thing I needed today, and I made that clear.” He reached out and put a hand on Eddie’s shoulder. He squeezed gently. “I’m going to get him a bottle, then you’ll tell me why you’re sleeping down here.”
The look he got told him that Eddie didn’t want to talk about it, but they were certainly gonna talk about it at length. He heated up a bottle and brought it back to the couch, where Colin was starting to fuss. Buck passed the bottle to Eddie, who took it with a small frown but then focused on the baby.
“I’m a mess, Buck. Sleeping is probably going to be difficult for a while, and there’ll be nightmares. I’d hate to wake up and hurt someone in the midst of it.” He took a deep breath. “I certainly can’t sleep beside Chris when I’m like this. I know he’d probably rest better with me there, but I’m afraid…desperately afraid that I’ll injure him.”
“Have you ever?” Buck questioned.
“I…no, not Chris, but I shoved Shannon away from me when she tried to wake me up from a nightmare after I came home,” he said. “Scared the hell out of her. She didn’t blame me or accuse me of doing it on purpose, but the emotional damage was significant. She clearly stopped trusting me after that.”
“I’ve woken you up multiple times from nightmares,” Buck pointed out. “At work, on the couch at home…you’ve never shoved me away or tried to hit me. If anything, Eddie, you turn into a complete cuddle monster.”
Eddie flushed. “Shut up.”
“Last time you had a nightmare, you practically sat in my lap,” Buck pointed out and laughed when Eddie tried to glare at him. “At the time, it was kind of awful because I’d wanted to get you in my lap for ages, but that wasn’t how I wanted it to happen.”
“We are in Athena’s house,” Eddie muttered. “Don’t flirt with me.”
“We are definitely going to the loft tomorrow, then,” Buck responded seriously. “I don’t care how much Bobby wants to coddle us.”
One of the more infuriating consequences of the kidnapping attempt and the investigation into it was that Buck withdrew from SAR certification. He was told he could come back at any point, but it really irritated Eddie to have their plans disrupted because Buck’s parents were selfish, destructive pieces of shit. There were a lot of legal issues going on, plus house hunting, and Eddie was due back to work within a week. Buck had cut short his own paternity leave to get into a SAR session because Eddie was still at home, and they thought it would be a good time to transition.
They’d realized too late that they were far too involved in Chris’ schedule on days when it should be him and Carla. Just the idea of Buck going back to work had stressed Chris out completely, and he’d had a nightmare about his mother that he’d yet to discuss with them. The only reason Eddie knew it was about Shannon was that Chris had woken up screaming for his mother, and he hadn’t done that even after she died.
The police had released the house to them, but Chris had completely melted down the first time they’d discussed returning to it, so Eddie and Buck were taking turns going to the house to pack personal stuff. They’d culled the list of potential houses down to two; both were close enough to perfect as far as location and size went. Eddie had seen pictures of both and had kind of fallen in love with a build from the 1970s in a Mediterranean style.
It was in an older neighborhood that had been updated a bit, and it sat on over an acre of land. He’d grown up in a traditional brick ranch-style house, and Buck had disdained anything that looked like it might have even flirted with a Victorian. The house was one level with an open floor plan and had five bedrooms. Buck had specified at least that many bedrooms because he wanted an extra bedroom plus a room for Carla. She spent so much time in the house that she certainly deserved to have her own bedroom.
It also had a pool which was a bit silly in Eddie’s mind, but it had become a sticking point for Buck due to the physical therapy options available for a pool. Eddie knew that Buck’s leg would never really be the same and regular exercise of the right sort was paramount to his mobility and his ability to stay on the job. So, he’d given in on the pool front pretty quickly.
The loft currently resembled Grand Central Station. Adriana had returned to LA as quickly as she could. Their parents thought she was there working on their behalf, which she’d confessed to Eddie and Sophia immediately upon arrival. His sisters and Maddie Buckley had bonded to the point where Eddie actually feared for the entire state of California. Adriana had taken one look at the loft, nodded, and asked for a lease.
Sophia’s man, Don, had come around to check on Eddie and offered to stick his federal foot in the case if it would help. So far, the LAPD had treated him with a great deal of respect, and he was relieved by that, but he’d passed Don’s information on to Isla North in case it was needed.
Willie Swift had taken a plea deal before he’d even gotten out of the hospital, which had pissed Buck off. Eddie was fine with it because he hadn’t wanted to testify in a trial that would’ve been open to the public. Buck’s profile was high enough as is, thanks to the LAFD’s investment in making him their poster boy; there was no need for a public trial that revealed the details of what had happened during the home invasion. Everyone knowing just the bare facts was too much.
Due to the news of the attempted kidnapping going viral, their marriage was also known, so the PR department had been subtly suggesting that Buck update his public Insta with family pictures. Eddie had nixed that shit immediately, and thankfully, Buck had agreed with him. When PR had pushed it, they’d had to contact the chief’s office about it. The request had gone away quickly after that.
Eddie had figured that he’d eventually end up on Buck’s public Insta, but he really didn’t want the kids on it. There would be a push to soften his image, to brush away the remnants of the soldier he’d been so that people would be comfortable with him on the job as a first responder. People treated you differently when they knew for certain that you’d taken the life of another person, necessary or not.
Just being a veteran had often put that question on the table, and sometimes people were obscenely bold about it. He could go his whole life without being asked if he’d seen any action while he’d served, again. Even his own father had asked in a roundabout way. Eddie hadn’t answered him and hadn’t brought up his service at all until recently.
“You okay?” Adriana dropped down beside him on the couch and frowned at him. Since she’d been talking to their parents on the phone, he wasn’t surprised by her general demeanor. “You need some more ice for your face?”
“No, it’s fine. All the swelling is gone.” He touched the most vivid of the bruises under his right eye. “Just looks awful. How are they?”
“Furious,” Adriana said. “I thought they’d be hurt, you know? And I think they certainly tried to put on like they were before they left LA, but by the time I saw them again in El Paso, they were just angry. I know they consulted a lawyer and apparently didn’t like what they were told. I overheard Mom telling Pop that they should try to prevent Buck from adopting Christopher, but Pop reminded her that the lawyer told them it would do no good at all to try that. He said he wasn’t going to waste money on a lawsuit that would gain them nothing and cost them all of their children.
“Mom doesn’t believe that Sophia and I will stop talking to them. She also thinks, and I hate to say this to you, that they need to save Christopher from you. No one is going to ever be a better parent than her, apparently.”
“I’ve known that for a while,” Eddie said. “Sometimes, I think they’re disappointed in my continued survival, and they’d rather I be dead than be disobedient.” He shrugged when his sister gaped at him. “It’s just the perspective I’ve been working with for a while.”
“They were upset about the news report of the home invasion.”
Eddie hummed under his breath and glanced toward Maddie and Sophia, who were both staring at him with the same kind of wounded shock. Having three older sisters to boss him around suddenly seemed like a deal-breaker. Buck was lucky he came with a really adorable baby.
“Or were they just upset that they couldn’t call me and berate me for endangering Christopher?” Eddie questioned, and Adriana opened her mouth then shut it with a furious huff. “They’re probably really bent to miss out on yet another opportunity to tell me I’ve ruined my child’s life by moving to LA. That’s their favorite lecture, second only to the one about single parenthood, which they’ll have to give up now that I’ve remarried. They can probably still use the one about Chris needing a proper mother, but that one always rang false coming out of Mom’s mouth since she really meant she should be his mother.”
His phone pinged with a new text, so he checked it. “Buck’s here.” He responded with okay, and a key was inserted in the lock.
The door opened, and Buck entered with a big duffle which he dropped on the floor. “Everything is packed in the moving pod, and it’ll be stored until we close on the house.” He ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath.
Eddie wondered how he was going to kick their sisters out. They’d been fluttering around him like a trio of little birds since Buck had left earlier in the day. Sophia stood and checked her watch.
“Well, let’s go, girls. Ikea awaits no woman.”
Buck looked utterly relieved, and that earned him three identical looks of sisterly indignation. “Sorry. I’m just really tired.”
Maddie’s gaze narrowed. “Which one called you, Evan?”
Buck exhaled and waved both hands. “Chase Mackey made bail. He tried to say that our parents had a custody agreement that I’d signed. He wanted me to testify to that in court. I told him he was full of shit, and I’d never, ever give my parents my kid. I called Natalie to tell her about the call, and she’s writing a cease and desist. I had to go down to the police station to report the call because it’s borderline witness tampering, and there’s probably a case for extortion since he threatened to divulge stuff I told him during my initial interview with him regarding my intention to sue to the city because they were letting Bobby keep me benched for no damn good reason.” He waved both hands in fury and stalked off toward the stairs. “Have fun at Ikea.”
Eddie sighed and checked his watch. Chris was due home from his outing with Carla in two hours, and Colin was probably going to sleep for another hour.
“Should one of us stay?” Sophia questioned.
“No, it’ll be easier to get him calmed down if we’re alone. You guys have fun spending more money than you should. Check out the bed frames—we’re considering picking Chris out a full-size bed for the new house. The mattress will be orthopedic, but the frame needn’t be a special order.”
Buck had retreated all the way to the shower by the time Eddie got rid of their sisters and followed him up. He leaned a hip on the bathroom counter and watched his husband through the glass door.
“You like what you see?” Buck questioned.
“I love what I see,” Eddie returned and grinned when Buck huffed.
“I was trying to be sexy.”
“You’re pretty much always sexy,” Eddie returned with a laugh. “It’s one of my burdens.” He cleared his throat. “Mackey’s involvement isn’t your fault.”
“He sought them out,” Buck snapped as he left the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. “On fucking purpose, Eddie, to make me pay for not going through with filing the lawsuit. And that motherfucker knew where you lived because I’d already started giving him information for subpoenas. He could’ve gotten you fucking murdered trying to get revenge, and I….”
Eddie caught his hand and pulled him close. “Hey, come here.”
“I’ll get your clothes wet.”
“I don’t care,” Eddie murmured. “Things are hard right now. I get it, and I wish I could make all of it just go away, but we’re going to be fine.”
“What if those cops change their mind and decide you should be in jail?” Buck demanded. “What if there is someone else out there that Mackey or my parents hired that we don’t even know about?” He took a deep breath. “What if your parents take this as an opportunity to sue us? To say we’re unfit?”
“I’d like to see any lawyer get up and court in argue that I’m an unfit parent because I defended our children and our home,” Eddie said darkly. “I think Natalie would enjoy that particular circumstance, too. She asked if we wanted her to follow up with a formal cease and desist letter—outlining the terms of our no contact period with my parents. I told her we’d let her know if it became necessary.”
He cupped Buck’s head in a gentle grip and took a deep breath. “None of this is your fault.”
“It feels like it is,” Buck confessed. “I can’t explain how scared I was when I got that call from Maddie telling me that Christopher had called 9-1-1.” He let his forehead rest against Eddie’s, and he took a shuddery breath. “In that moment, two men I’d never seen before were in a position to destroy my whole life. I can’t….” He exhaled and started to shake.
“Shhh,” Eddie murmured and pressed a soft kiss against his mouth. “Everything is okay, querido. I promise.” He kissed him again. “We finally got here, and I won’t let anyone take what we’ve built from us.”
“Okay,” Buck said and took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
“Kiss me,” Eddie murmured.
Buck tilted his head just a bit and pressed their mouths together in a gentle kiss. His hands settled lightly on Eddie’s hips as the kiss deepened. Want burned between them, and Eddie loosened the towel. He dropped it on the floor and hummed under his breath as he wrapped a hand around Buck’s half-hard cock.
“You’ve got a lot of bruising,” Buck murmured.
“It’ll be fine,” Eddie assured. “We got a couple of hours to ourselves. Let’s take some of that time for just us.”
Buck deftly unbuckled Eddie’s belt and pulled it free from his jeans. “How do you want it?”
“What about what you want?” Eddie questioned.
“I just want you,” Buck admitted. “It doesn’t matter how because it will be amazing.”
Eddie released Buck’s cock reluctantly so he could pull his shirt over his head. He dropped it in the pile of clothes that Buck had left on the floor. They worked his jeans and boxers off impatiently, then Buck urged him toward the bed. Buck spread out on the bed, and Eddie crawled up between his thighs. He settled on top of him with a soft little moan and sought Buck’s mouth for a brief kiss.
Buck’s fingers skimmed along Eddie’s rib cage gently. “It looks painful.”
“It’s fine, I swear,” Eddie said.
“You should fuck me,” Buck decided. “Unless you’re too sore then….”
“I’ve felt worse from a workout,” Eddie said. “Even my face doesn’t hurt all that much. It’s just tender.”
“I hate that someone put their hands on you,” Buck admitted and stroked a hand down Eddie’s back. “The lube’s in the nightstand.”
Eddie retrieved the lube without further discussion. Buck relaxed on the bed, put his feet flat, and spread his legs. He licked his lips and closed the lube. He put the lube aside and ran his hands down Buck’s thighs, then leaned down to lick up the length of his husband’s thick cock. He sucked him in, and Buck’s hips flexed just a little, then fingers drifted through his hair.
Eddie loved to have a cock in his mouth—the weight and the thick glide of flesh along his tongue was such a turn-on that he’d come more than once as a younger man. He’d learned to keep the feelings in check over time and rarely gave in to the desire to come while he was blowing someone. He’d never given a blow job without a condom, so the taste was new and very exciting. Taking someone raw into his body was such a new thing that it was hard not to get worked up quickly.
“Eddie, please,” Buck gasped and rocked up into his mouth. “Fuck me, please.”
Eddie grabbed the lube, slicked up his fingers, and worked open Buck’s asshole until Buck was rocking on his fingers and fisting his hands into the sheets. He pulled his fingers free and went to slick up his cock. Buck rolled to his knees, and Eddie’s mouth went a little dry. He ran his clean hand down Buck’s back, gripped his left hip, and pressed the head of his cock against Buck’s opening. He pushed in slowly.
Buck’s breath caught, and he rocked into the penetration with a needy groan.
“Amazing,” Buck admitted with a soft gasp. “Jesus, Eddie, I’m already so close.”
Eddie sucked in a deep breath as he worked his cock in Buck’s tight ass. “Me, too. You feel so good—hot and tight. Next time I tell you sleep is a better idea than sex, remind me of this.”
Buck laughed a little, but it turned into a groan as he started to rock into Eddie’s thrusts. “Harder, please.”
Eddie gave in and started to pound Buck’s ass, their skin slapped together lewdly, and Buck fell apart in his hands. He was coming far sooner than he expected to, but Buck tightened around him and shuddered through an intense orgasm of his own, so Eddie just rubbed his husband’s back as he stilled. He pulled out carefully and prodded Buck gently onto his side. Eddie curled up with him and took a deep breath against his still-damp hair.
Buck grabbed his hand and laced their fingers together. “One of those detectives called me. They want me to give a statement about Mackey and my parents.”
“Have you called Natalie?”
“Yeah, Ms. North is going to handle making an appointment,” Buck said. “I just…I hate this, Eds.”
“I know,” Eddie murmured.
“And I need another shower because someone got me dirty.”
Eddie grinned and pressed a kiss against his shoulder. “Let’s take one together. I’ve…” He trailed off because Colin started to cry.
“At least we finished,” Buck said with a small laugh as Eddie rolled from the bed and went in search of something to put on.
* * * *
Athena was leaning against the wall outside of the interview room when Buck and Isla North were escorted into the area and were introduced to two detectives.
“Something wrong?” Buck questioned as he stopped in front of her.
She looked him over, gaze narrowed. “Yes, but nothing you did. I just wanted to check in with you.” His gaze flicked to Detective Myers, and the man straightened slightly. Buck knew that the man technically outranked Athena, but he appeared to have a healthy fear of her anyways.
“Be nice to my boy, Andy,” Athena said and shot him a hard look before patting Buck on the arm and leaving.
Myers exhaled. “Oh, you’re that firefighter.”
“What?” Buck questioned.
Detective Rowe made a face. “We heard Sergeant Grant practically adopted one of her new husband’s firefighters. We just didn’t know which one.”
Buck flushed. “Oddly, we got off to a terrible start.”
“Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Myers said. “The sarge likes a challenge. She trained me and shoved me toward the detective exam before I realized I was ready.” He motioned Buck into the interview room. “Let’s get started, Mr. Buckley.”
Buck pulled the chair out for Isla, then took a seat after she did. He exhaled. “You’ve already spoken to my sister, right?”
“Yes,” Myers said. “She gave us a lot of background on your parents, and on the childhood you shared.”
“Yes, she asked that we not discuss your brother with you, Mr. Buckley.”
“Maddie thinks I need protecting from that,” Buck murmured. “But she’s been protecting me from it since she was nine years old and doesn’t know how to stop. I have no memories of Daniel, which is probably for the best considering everything else. My parents had me for spare parts. We could pretty it up—if it would make you more comfortable. Though, I don’t think savior sibling is all that much better.
“Sometimes, I think about what would’ve happened if Daniel had survived that first transplant. What else would I have been made to give him over the years? Would bone marrow have been the most of it or the least? Would I have been expected to give him a kidney or part of my liver? Was there any limit on how I would’ve been used to sustain my older brother?”
“Based on your parent’s recent actions, I would say no,” Myers said grimly. “And that’s disgusting.” He cleared his throat. “Would you say that your parents neglected you as a child?”
“Yes,” Buck said simply. “On every single level. My sister took care of me. I remember, at various points during my life, I called her mom. I would say I am the man I am today because of my sister. I can’t imagine what sort of man my parents would’ve raised. Perhaps, a man who would’ve gratefully tossed his son at them to avoid the responsibility.”
“Is there any situation where you would’ve given your child to your parents to raise?”
“Would you…expand on that?” Myers prodded.
Buck nodded. “My parents hate me—they blame me for the death of my older brother and consider me defective. My son already shares a strong resemblance with me. I know my mother sees Daniel when she looks at Colin but having seen pictures of my brother, I know that my son isn’t going to look like him as he grows older. He’s going to look like me, and I can’t see how she wouldn’t have started to hate the sight of him.
“Moreover, they’re both small-minded, selfish, homophobic, and cruel. I was never physically abused as a child, but my parents excelled at psychological and emotional abuse. It was practically a hobby for them.”
Myers nodded and made several notes. Buck focused on the digital recorder sitting between them and wondered how the interviews with his parents had gone.
“Based on the complaint you filed against Chase Mackey, you’re aware that your parents have claimed that you signed a custody agreement with them. They further claim that they sent Keith Langley and Willie Swift to the house to retrieve the child with your permission and your husband attacked them without provocation.”
“Eddie wouldn’t…have responded as he did if the two men had just showed up with some sort of bogus paperwork,” Buck said. “He would’ve shut the door and called the cops.”
“Their story doesn’t hold any weight considering the fact that both Swift and Langley are convicted felons, and they brought a gun. The physical evidence supports your husband’s account at any rate, and Swift has confessed in full as part of a plea deal,” Myers explained. “Ms. North has expressed your displeasure at Swift’s plea deal, which I understand. But it’s Swift’s second felony strike; his plea deal has more to do with where he will serve his time versus how much time he will serve.
“Swift knows he’s looking at twenty-five years for participating in an attempted kidnapping. He’s facing felony assault and home invasion charges as well. He wants to go upstate so he’s close to his ex-wife in the hopes that she’ll bring his kids to visit.”
Buck made a face but nodded. He wasn’t sure he’d want to bring his kids to state prison, but if Eddie had…. He pushed that thought aside because Eddie wasn’t going to be charged for defending himself.
“I arranged for you to receive transcripts of the two meetings that I had with my parents,” Buck said.
“We got them and the recordings as well,” Myers said. “Both meetings were enlightening and demonstrated exactly what we expected they would. The DA will find the material beneficial to her case. Thank you for releasing it. We’d have never gotten it otherwise due to attorney-client privilege.”
“I don’t want my parents getting away with what they’ve done. They could’ve gotten my husband and children killed,” Buck said. “And I know they don’t care. I wouldn’t be surprised if hiring a hitman was something they’d considered as well. They might assume they’d get custody of my child if I were dead.”
“But they wouldn’t have?”
“I have an airtight will,” Buck said. “My husband is adopting Colin, but he’s also named as the first guardian of choice in my will. Our jobs are dangerous, and we didn’t want there to be any questions if one of us were to die before the adoptions were final.”
“Tell us how you met Chase Mackey,” Myers said.
“I was working as a fire marshal while on light duty,” Buck explained. “He was in a building that ended up being used as a testing location. Someone was injured during a fire drill, and he tried to get them to sue the city. When he found out I was the firefighter that was injured during the bombing, he tried to get me to sue the city for compensation. Later, after I found out my captain was personally keeping me off the job due to his own issues, I had a meeting with Mackey about suing the department and Captain Nash personally.
“In the midst of that, I found out that a former lover was pregnant with my child. I set aside everything after that and told Mackey I wasn’t going to pursue the lawsuit. I didn’t give him a reason why because it wasn’t his business. He called me a dozen times over a period of a week until I threatened to file charges against him for harassment. I really didn’t have time to deal with him or the mess that was being made of my requalification for the department.
“Mackey was very irritated with me because he believed I had a very good chance of winning a lawsuit against the city, which would’ve resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. I cost him a significant payday as far as he was concerned. The last time we spoke, I told him that he wasn’t entitled to earn money off my trauma, and he told me to go fuck myself. I didn’t expect to hear from him again. I don’t know how he found my parents.”
“We know,” Myers said. “As it turns out, Mackey shares a private investigator with a law firm called Crane, Franklin, & Moore. When James Crane stopped representing your parents, the PI took the information he’d gathered to Mackey to get a second payday since he remembered your name and knew that Mackey was gunning for you. Unfortunately, we can’t file charges against the PI, and we have invested ourselves in trying to find something to charge him with.”
“What about attorney-client privilege?” Buck questioned.
“Your parents could file a complaint, and that could result in a few misdemeanor charges and the loss of his license, and that would also implicate Mackey. There is a deal on the table for Mackey; he’s looking at a few years for facilitation, and he’ll lose his license to practice law in this state,” Myers explained. “We’re still investigating how Swift and Langley became involved. Mackey has no established history with them.”
“Then maybe the PI,” Isla suggested.
“It’s an option,” Myers said neutrally. “We’re working all the angles, Ms. North. Mr. Buckley’s chief reached out to my chief to make sure of it.”
Buck flushed. “Sorry. I had no idea…” He huffed. “Just sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Detective Rowe interjected, then inclined his head. “Well, it’s probably your fault that you look like a male model that just stepped off the cover of a fitness magazine, and the LAFD’s PR department is overly invested in your image.”
“They called you, too?” Buck blushed and rolled his eyes at the same time.
“Many times,” Myers said and made a face. “I think I might have promised one of those people, my first-born child, if they would leave me alone. They wouldn’t want him—he’s in his furious fours and turning out to be just like his mother.”
Buck laughed. “I could try to rein them in. Or I can call the chief’s office because I had to do that earlier in the week when they decided I should start posting family pictures to my public Insta. That’s never going to happen. The most they might ever get is the back of his head, and I’m honestly on the fence about that. Our oldest son has a social media presence because he was in the tsunami. There are dozens of pictures of him on Insta and Facebook taken by survivors of that day. He was thrilled with it all and tagged himself all over the place. But Colin isn’t old enough to make that kind of choice and won’t be for years.”
“Do you have any questions for us?”
“Is my mother going to be able to get out of this due to her mental capacity?” Buck questioned. “Because I think she lost the plot, and I know Maddie thinks the same.”
“She will be evaluated by a court-appointed psychologist,” Myers said. “The DA has already started that process because she hasn’t been…easy to deal with during interviews and her bail hearing was a complete shit show.” He paused. “Pardon my language, ma’am.”
Isla raised a dark brown eyebrow at him. “I’ve heard worse, Detective.”
“Both of my parents were denied bail, right?”
“They were deemed to be flight risks due to the fact that they live out of state and have a large amount of disposable income. I don’t expect that to change, but your father has appealed the judge’s decision regarding his own bail.”
“But not my mother’s,” Buck said. “Not a surprise—he’s always put himself first. Additionally, he could be getting ready to set her up for the whole thing. He’s not big on personal responsibility either.”
* * * *
The house was ridiculous and was literally listed as a Tuscan villa. Eddie knew the asking price had been well out of their budget, but it had recently been reduced in price because it had been on the market for over a year, and the owner really wanted to sell. The realtor had given them a tour and left them to explore on their own at Buck’s request. He helped Christopher up on a stool at the bar in the kitchen.
“I…” Eddie glanced out French doors that led outside to the backyard. There was a decent-sized pool and an adobe privacy fence that encompassed the entire backyard. “I know you can afford it.”
“We can afford it,” Buck corrected. “We’re just twenty minutes from the station and a little over fifteen from the school. The house inspection went very well. All the wiring was updated five years ago. Carla’s commute would be five miles longer, but we should start paying her mileage anyway. There’s no HOA to worry about. The appliances are new and are included in the price. The furniture is all staging, but we can keep anything we like.”
“For a price,” Eddie muttered.
“Yeah, of course,” Buck said and grinned. “Consider it an investment. A house like this is going to only increase in value due to the location, style, and size. The market is in a little depression right now, so we’re getting lucky on the price. We can fence the front and put a security gate into place.”
“I like the living room furniture,” Eddie admitted. “But the dining table is awful.”
“I like these stools,” Christopher announced and smiled when they both looked his way. “And the big couch in the living room. Our TV would look awesome where they have that small one. Carla could have her own room, which would be nice. Can I have the room with the bathroom in the back? It has a walk-in shower.”
Eddie had already tagged that room for Chris, even if it was on the opposite side of the house from the master suite. He shared a glance with Buck, who was smiling at Christopher in such a way that he sort of gave up any kind of argument against buying the house, which was a little too big for them. Even with a portion of the garage being turned into a home gym, it would still fit three cars. Eddie could already hear the snide comments his parents would make about the whole thing.
“Let’s make an offer then,” Eddie said, and Chris cheered. “Don’t get attached, mijo; it might not be accepted.”
The offer was accepted before they made it back to the loft, and Eddie decided to overlook how smug Buck was about the whole thing because Chris hadn’t stopped smiling since they’d toured the house, and that was priceless. Colin hated riding in the car, so Eddie was walking up and down the length of the bottom floor of the loft when there was a sharp knock on the door.
His whole body tensed, and his fingers curled into the blanket his son was wrapped in. Absolutely no one he’d want to see would knock on their door right now without texting ahead. Buck left the kitchen where he and Chris had been investigating the chest freezer that they’d brought over from the house. They still had a stupid amount of food left. He watched as Buck checked the peephole and turned to him with a grimace.
“My parents,” he guessed flatly.
Buck nodded. “I didn’t know they had my address.”
“I picked up Chris from here. They stayed in the car, but they could’ve asked anyone in the building where you lived and gotten the apartment number,” Eddie said.
He touched his face with his free hand. It had been two weeks since the attempted kidnapping, so the bruises were all but gone. Another knock was followed quickly by the pressing of the doorbell. After he’d sent his parents back to Texas things had actually been peaceful until two assholes had invaded his house. He looked down at Colin and found himself being stared at intently.
“My parents are awful,” he told the baby, and Colin made a soft, delighted sound at being spoken to. He focused on Buck. “What do you want to do?”
“I’ll take Chris upstairs and set him up with his iPad and some headphones,” Buck said. “Then you can decide what to tell them.”
“I want to tell them to fuck completely off,” Eddie hissed and glanced toward Chris, who grinned.
“The F word is worth five dollars, Daddy,” Chris said. “At this rate, I’ll have enough to pay for a whole weekend at Disney by the time Colin can walk!”
Buck laughed and plucked him up out of the chair he was seated in. “Grab your iPad.”
Chris snagged the device, and Eddie took the baby to the Pack ‘n Play while Buck took Chris up to the lofted bedroom. The loft was sort of a mess because they were living out of crates and had set up Chris’s bed in one corner downstairs. The hunt for the house had quickly taken on a serious urgency when they realized that they couldn’t even make out in bed without Chris hearing.
He was halfway to the door when someone pounded on it with a fist. Eddie unlocked it quickly and jerked it open.
“What the fuck?” he demanded in a low tone, and his mother dropped her hand with a look of surprise. “Do you honestly think showing up here, uninvited and banging on my door after the experience we had is appropriate?”
Helena gasped, then glared at him. “We’re here to take Chris back to El Paso.”
“Are you out of your damn mind?” Buck demanded, and the door was pulled from Eddie’s grasp. “The last person that threatened to take one of his kids is dead.” He pulled Eddie back from the doorway. “Come in so my neighbors don’t have to listen to whatever disgusting explanation you plan to give Eddie for why he should give our son to you so you can ruin his self-esteem, destroy his potential, and create a person who will be dependent on you until the day you die.”
Eddie tightened his jaw to keep his own mouth from dropping open completely. Neither of his parents were successful as they were staring at Buck slack-jawed. They eased into the apartment, and his father shut the door behind him.
“We’ve heard that Chris refuses to go back to the house,” Ramon said shortly. “He’ll feel safe in our home, so he should come with us.”
“I don’t want to ever live in El Paso again as long as I live!” Chris shouted cheerfully from the loft area.
“Christopher,” Buck said firmly. “Put on your headphones like I told you.”
“Okay, Papa, sorry,” Chris said a little huffily.
“Who are you to tell my grandson what to do?” Helena demanded.
“His parent—you know that thing you never have been and never will be?” Buck questioned and raised an eyebrow when she glared at him. “Seriously. Get over it. It’s never going to happen—not even if we both drop dead tomorrow. We have an extensive list of people who are in line to get custody of both of our children, and you aren’t on that list at all.
“I’ve been trying to be nice about all of this,” Buck continued. “Because you aren’t outright evil, like my parents, but you’re intrusive, demanding, boundary avoidant, manipulative, controlling, self-righteous, ableist, and entitled. It’s true that Chris doesn’t want to go back to the old house, so today we went out and bought him a new one. Closing starts tomorrow, and we’ll be able to move in within the week. I own this apartment outright, so it isn’t like we’re homeless in the meantime. You were told to leave us alone for six months. It’s just been like forty-six days. Why are you here? This is the last thing Eddie needs.”
“Are you going to let him talk to us like this?” Ramon demanded.
Eddie crossed his arms over his chest. “Before I introduced the two of you to Shannon, I asked her to be respectful. I begged her to put up with your nosy questions and your judgment to keep the peace. Frankly, I’m ashamed of myself for it because I asked her to suffer just so I wouldn’t have to put up with you bitching about her having an attitude problem. Buck can say anything he wants to you and, for the record, I agree with everything he said. Except I would add that you don’t actually care what I need. You haven’t cared about that in well…honestly, it’s probably been more than a decade.”
“You were attacked and nearly killed,” Helena said. “No would one tell us anything about what happened. We had to hear on the news that you killed a man in front of Christopher!”
“I wasn’t nearly killed,” Eddie said evenly. “The Army taught me to defend myself, and I came out of the situation with a few bruises. Christopher did not witness the fight or the…death. He was hiding in my bedroom. I know Sophia told you all of this because I was sitting right beside her when she explained what happened!”
“I didn’t even see the body, Grandma!” Christopher interjected. “Daddy covered my whole face!”
“Christopher!” Eddie exclaimed in exasperation. “Headphones!”
“All right, fine, Daddy!”
“He gets that from you,” Eddie told Buck.
“I had zero to do with his actual conception,” Buck protested.
“Shannon was mouthy, you’re mouthy….” Eddie flicked a hand. “Same difference.”
“That was rude,” Buck told him, but his eyes were bright with laughter. He focused on Helena and Ramon. “Did it cross your minds, even once, to even ask if Eddie was willing to make an exception in our period of no contact due to the circumstances?”
“Isabel told us we weren’t allowed to come here,” Helena said. “She said Eddie didn’t want to see us. But we have a right to see our own son!”
“Let’s stop pretending you’re here to see me,” Eddie cut in, and both of his parents focused on him. “The first words out of your mouth, Mother, made your intentions more than clear. I already know that you were told by a lawyer that you have no chance of taking Christopher from us legally. And a large portion of the state knows how it would work out for someone to try an illegal option. I also know you asked some questions about the adoption.” His gaze flicked to the loft. “And I want you to know that I’m disgusted and furious that you think you have the right to interfere in our choices in such a way. I was going to wait to discuss that particular subject when we resumed contact later in the year but now is a good a time as any.
“Your lack of respect for me, my marriage, and the family I’ve made with Buck is making it difficult to want you in our lives in any single way. You need to go, and your six-month time-out is starting over. If you violate my wishes again on this issue, it’ll be a year. And if that doesn’t work, then it will be permanent.”
Helena took a deep breath and glared at Buck. “This is your fault.”
Buck raised an eyebrow in that arrogant, white boy way that had driven Eddie nuts the first time they’d met and tilted his head to stare at her. “Just like it was Shannon’s? Her fault she got pregnant, her fault that Eddie didn’t leave the Army, her fault that she couldn’t handle you, motherhood, and a husband with PTSD at the same time?
“So, listen, Helena, I’d like to say I like you and that I’m doing you a favor by explaining this, but I don’t like you right now, and it’s not a favor. There is absolutely nothing you can say or do that will make me leave your son. And we’re never moving to El Paso. Frankly, if he wanted to leave LA, my first suggestion would be Seattle. We could earn forty percent more money there based on our skill sets, education, experience, and certifications. We’d make about half our current salaries in Texas. We can’t take that kind of pay cut and provide Christopher with the medical care he deserves without dipping into the funds we’re putting aside for college and our own retirement, which would be grossly unfair to all of us.
“So, to sum this all up for you, I don’t care what you think or what you want. You can blame me for your own behavior all damn day long, and I won’t lose a single night of sleep over it. I grew up in the same house with a woman who wished I was dead, and I only think about her when I literally have no choice.” Colin started to fuss, so Buck walked to the Pack ‘n Play. “You’re just really rude, honestly, and it should be weird to say this to you—but grow up.”
Eddie snorted as Buck picked up Colin and went upstairs with him with a final look of what could only be called disappointment in his mother’s direction. He focused on his parents and found his mother looking utterly shocked. His father looked weird and dejected.
“You can go,” he said firmly. “And don’t bang on my door ever again because I actually do have PTSD, and no one does that shit to me but you and strangers who don’t know any better. I told you years ago not to bang on my damn door.”
“We should get a camera doorbell for the new house, Daddy!”
“Buck!” Eddie exclaimed.
“His headphones need to be charged, Eds,” Buck said in amusement.
“You and Papa owe the swear jar eighteen dollars!” Christopher called out. “Grandma and Abuelo can put in 10 for being butthurt over boundaries!” He paused. “And you can pay my two bucks, too, Abuelo! ‘Cause I’m not supposed to say butthurt!” He paused. “Four dollars!”
Ramon huffed, then pulled out his wallet. He took out a twenty, which he put on the coffee table. “For the swear jar.”
“Paying in advance?” Eddie questioned.
Ramon shrugged. “He’ll probably say butthurt again before the night is over.” He made a face. “Do I want to look that up?”
“Probably not,” Eddie admitted.
“Helena,” Ramon said quietly and gestured toward the door.
“But…” Tears welled in her eyes. “Ramon.”
“Corazón, if we do not learn from this, our only son will spend the rest of his life believing that we don’t love him enough to offer him even the smallest amount of respect. Is that what you want?”
“Is not your child,” Ramon said gently. “He never was. Do you wish to turn into a wretched beast of a woman who’d plot the kidnapping of her own grandchild? Nearly get him killed in the process? That Buckley woman didn’t care who got hurt as long as she got what she wanted.”
“No, I don’t want that. I’d never risk their lives.” Tears spilled down her cheeks, and Eddie stilled the urge to tell her it would be okay because he didn’t know if that was true. Additionally, comforting her would send the wrong message.
“Come, we’ll get all the therapy our children think we need. And this time, you will take it to heart instead of just pretending to.”
Eddie hoped they had really good insurance. He walked to the door as his father opened it and gently urged his mother out into the hall. Ramon paused and hesitated just briefly before he cupped Eddie’s cheek.
“You’re a good man, Edmundo. Better than I deserve to be able to claim as a son. Thank you for surviving. It would’ve broken my heart if you had not. Adriana told me that you believed we wished you dead, and it was difficult to hear. The biggest fear I had while you served in the Army was that I would outlive you. Don’t do such a thing to this foolish old man, eh?”
“Pop.” Eddie cleared his throat.
Ramon smiled sadly and left. Eddie watched his parents walk away, their hands catching and holding as they did so. It reminded him of when he was little, and that hurt, so he shut the door and put all the locks back into place.
He went into the kitchen to warm a bottle then walked up the steps to the loft. Chris was sprawled out on the end of the bed with his iPad, and Buck was resting against the headboard with Colin on his chest. He took the bottle when Eddie offered it. He dropped down on the bed with his family and focused on Chris, who was staring at the iPad in a way that told him he really wasn’t reading.
“You okay, mijo?”
Chris shrugged. “Love shouldn’t be mean.”
“No, it shouldn’t.”
Chris abandoned the iPad and crawled up the bed to sit between them. He leaned on Eddie but turned to watch Colin eat. “I hope they figure it out soon.”
“But….” Chris took a deep breath. “If they don’t, we’ll be okay.”
Eddie kissed the top of his head and shared a look with Buck. “Yeah, we will. We have the best team.”
Ten Months Later
Eddie yawned as he pulled the keys from the ignition and glanced over at Buck. His husband was asleep against the passenger side door of the truck. He reached out and ran a hand down Buck’s arm. “We’re home.”
“Gah,” Buck muttered. “Did you want to take bets on how things went with your parents and Carla?”
“Only if it’s filthy,” Eddie said wryly. “Because honestly, I deserve something dirty and borderline depraved for allowing them to stay in the house. Why you thought we needed five bedrooms….”
“I figured I’d wait another year and tell you that I want another baby,” Buck said frankly, and Eddie smiled at him. “But you know that, so I don’t know why you’re pretending otherwise.”
“I saw the surrogacy agency pamphlets in your top drawer,” Eddie said and caught his hand. “And I’m totally on board with it. Whenever you’re ready. Now let’s go see if Chris is ready to yeet his grandparents back to Texas all by himself.”
After a moment, he released Buck’s hand, and they left the truck. Eddie knew that Buck had been hesitating on the more children conversation for several reasons—the main one being the trial situation. Chase Mackey had taken a plea deal eventually, but Margaret and Phillip Buckley had both gone to court. They’d tried and failed to look like poor, put upon grandparents with a cruel son who wouldn’t let them see their grandchild. They’d been convicted and sentenced to just twenty-four months in jail each.
Eddie shook those thoughts off because thinking about the whole thing just made him mad. The door from the garage leading into the house was in the kitchen. The moment the door opened, there was a pattering of little feet, paws, and the thump crutches on hardwood floors heading their way. Colin had recently conquered walking and was insistent on taking on the world by himself, so he wasn’t surprised when the one-year-old was leading the way in their direction.
“Pa! Da!” He made grabby hands in both of their directions, eager for hugs.
Buck snatched him up first and pressed a noisy kiss against his cheek. “You have the look of a boy who had too much fruit for breakfast.”
“He ate a whole peach,” Chris reported as he came into the kitchen.
Harper, his service dog, followed along behind him. In the end, the dog trainer had matched Chris with a bright but gentle Border Collie. The two had fallen in love at first sight.
He took Colin from Buck. “Where are your grandparents?”
“Abuelo is in the pool, and Grandma is standing off to the side lecturing him about skin cancer even though she smothered him in sunscreen,” Chris said as Carla came into the room.
She had Chris’ backpack in hand. “Did you boys end up at that big fire downtown?”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted. “It was not great.”
She gave them a look over and nodded. “Well, I’ll take Chris to school and come back for Colin.”
“You’re off duty,” Eddie said and yawned. “And I’m not above making my mother earn her keep around here.” He pulled Colin’s fingers out of his hair, and the toddler giggled. “How’d that go?”
“Surprisingly well,” Carla reported. “She seems to have refocused all of her attention on your father, but considering his health scare a few months ago, he only has himself to blame. A man can’t have even a minor heart attack in front of a micromanager like your mother and expect to get away with it.”
Eddie nodded. His father’s heart attack had been the inciting incident, really, that broke the ice on the situation with his parents. He wasn’t going to give an inch, ever, but his mom had demonstrated a willingness, finally, to respect his boundaries. As long as she kept her issues to herself or at least focused on her own husband, Eddie figured they’d all be okay.
They got a very quick hug each from Christopher, who had made it clear he was getting too old for such things before Carla took him to school. Eddie walked into the living room and dropped onto the couch with Colin still in his arms.
“Da!” Colin tugged on his T-shirt. “Da. Pol.”
“No pool,” Eddie said firmly, and Colin poked out his lip. He tried to smooth down the baby’s strawberry blonde curls. “Don’t give me that look. I’m immune to it. Your papa has been giving me that look for years, and I don’t give him what he wants either.”
“You dirty liar,” Buck murmured as he slid onto the couch with him.
“Pa. Pol. Peas.” Colin reached out to Buck with a big pout and bright blue tear-filled eyes.
Buck laughed. “No pool—we’re super tired, and you think you’re invincible.” Colin slumped against Eddie’s chest with a huff.
Helena came through the doors and looked them over. “When’s the last time you two ate?”
“It’s been…hours,” Buck admitted and yawned. “We spent half of the shift on the same fire. I think someone passed around sandwiches at one point, but I was on the ladder.”
“I gave you a sandwich that time,” Eddie reminded. “But we both missed the second round because we were inside.”
“I don’t remember eating,” Buck admitted. “What was it?”
Eddie frowned because he wasn’t all that certain. “It was Subway. Maybe roasted chicken? It’s a big blur.” He yawned.
“What do you two normally do when you come home exhausted like this?” Helena questioned.
“Carla stays, or we sleep in shifts,” Buck admitted. “Sometimes a mixture of the two depending on the day. We have the next four days off, so we’ll catch up.” He plucked Colin up from Eddie’s lap. “But you’re here, so you can take this little monster while we eat and pass out for a few hours.”
Eddie watched his mom shift Colin around in her arms, clearly startled because she hadn’t been asked to do anything for either of the kids since her arrival the day before. He just grinned at her as Buck headed toward the kitchen.
“Does this mean he likes me again?” Helena asked hesitantly.
“Working on it!” Buck called from the kitchen. “Eds, you cool with reheated pizza?”
“I would love reheated pizza,” Eddie admitted and hopped right up because he wasn’t above eating like a college student, and pizza sounded amazing. “He’ll ask to go in the pool. He’s honestly a handful and exhausting to keep track of in the water. So, no pool.”
“Is that why the pool is fenced?”
“Well, our insurance company demanded that. How the previous owner got away without doing it, I don’t know, but yeah, we fenced the pool before he could walk.” Eddie stretched and headed for the kitchen.
He turned and found his mom still standing in the same place.
She took a deep breath and smiled as Colin babbled against her cheek. “Thanks.”
“For what?” Eddie asked.
“Trusting me…at least a little. I know I’ve got a lot of making up to do.”
“We’ll get there,” Eddie said and glanced toward the kitchen where Buck was putting a cookie sheet full of pizza in the convection oven that he’d insisted on. “Love can surprise you in really amazing ways, sometimes.”