If you have had a chance to read it, then I know that you’re eager to spend some more time with Rowe and Noah. You’re also probably eager to know what’s going to happen next to our Unbreakable Boys. Don’t worry. Rinda and I are hard at work on not only Snow’s short story collection, as well as Devour, book 4 of the Unbreakable Bonds series. It’s time to finally get Ian’s story!
But in the meantime… to help you survive the wait…. here is a free short story of Noah and Rowe. It directly follows the events of Torch. Enjoy!
Piece of Pie
Rowe unbuckled his seatbelt but didn’t immediately get out of the warm car. His eyes locked on the Tupperware container tightly clutched in his left hand, because it was easier to look at that than the rows of headstones and statuary that filled the rolling hills around them. He hadn’t been back in a few months and in truth, he hadn’t expected it to be this hard. But then the man behind the steering wheel had a way of making the world just a little easier to tolerate.
“Hey,” Noah said, dragging his gaze up. Concern filled his expression, making his smile a little uncertain. “You want me to come with you?”
“No, I got this.”
Rowe reached for the door handle and Noah grabbed him by the lapel of his coat, jerking him across the center console so that Noah could press his nose into Rowe’s hair. “I wasn’t trying to push you out of the car. Take your time,” he whispered before brushing a soft kiss across his temple.
A smile teased one corner of Rowe’s mouth and some of the tension eased. It was just one of the many things he loved about this man. Noah was endlessly patient with him, always seeming happy to let Rowe move at his own pace. Well, except for sex. Then they were both frantically racing to get naked and as close as possible.
Noah nodded and released his hold on Rowe, sitting back in the driver’s seat. An easy smile slid across his handsome face, but it did nothing to mask the worry still filling his blue eyes. Rowe was tempted to lean across and kiss away the worry, but he instead opened the door and climbed out of the car.
Gravel crunched under foot as he walked down the wide asphalt road. The maples and oaks were barren now, but there was still a heavy green on the horizon from the various evergreens that filled the cemetery. Mel had always liked Spring Grove. They’d gone for walks here when they’d first been dating, enjoying the quiet of the park, the beautiful landscaping, and the interesting tombs. She’d gotten him laughing on more than one occasion as she crafted these overly elaborate and ridiculous tales about the owners of the over-the-top mausoleums.
A woman standing not more than a dozen yards from the car looked up at his approach and smiled. A shaft of pain lanced through his heart when he saw that smile. It was Mel’s smile, but it wasn’t Mel. Gretchen looked like her sister. Mel had been three years older, but they had the same smile, same eyes, same chin, so sometimes it was hard to look at Gretchen.
“You’re getting slow in your old age,” Gretchen called. She turned, lifting the baby heavily wrapped against the mild cold, higher onto her hip.
“It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I’m still trying to digest that meal. You try getting out of bed after that,” he replied, leaving the road to cut across the green lawn to the graveside. He stopped beside Gretchen and his eyes swept her face slowly, taking in the similarities. Her smile slipped a little as if she knew what he was doing. “It’s good to see you,” he finally said in a low, rough voice before bussing a kiss across her cheek.
“It’s about damn time too!” she snapped, turning sideways so that Rowe could see the little girl dressed in a pink coat and a little knit panda hat to cover her vulnerable ears. “Your niece has missed meeting you.”
Wide blue eyes met Rowe’s and she giggled.
Rowe cleared his throat twice before he could finally speak. “It’s good to meet you, Melody Rose.” He reached out a trembling hand and carefully rubbed his knuckle against her chubby cheek. “She’s gorgeous.”
Gretchen snorted. “Of course. She’s mine.”
Rowe’s smile returned and some of the weight on his chest eased. He hadn’t meant to stay away for so long, but Melody had been born not long after Mel’s death and he just couldn’t bring himself to go see her, see any of his wife’s family.
“And big. She’s going to be a terror, just like her mother, I’m sure.”
“You know you’re still family, right?” Gretchen asked, her voice serious for the first time since he’d joined her. Of course she wasn’t going to let him off the hook with some light banter and meaningless small talk. “Just because Mel is gone doesn’t mean you escape our crazy family. I know you’re tight with your boys, but you’re stuck with us…even when you get remarried.”
There was no stopping the chuckle. He’d always thought that Mel was a force to be reckoned with, but her sister was even worse. That hadn’t been an if. She fully expected Rowe to marry again.
“Have you started dating yet?”
“Gretch!” There was no small talk about the weather or work. She just dove straight into managing his life as if it was her job now that Mel was gone. There had been plenty of time over the years that he’d been with Mel that Rowe had gotten into shouting matches with Gretchen. He loved the woman, but she was pigheaded and nosy, convinced that she always knew what was best for everyone.
“I’m happy.” The tiny woman lifted an eyebrow, not looking the least bit convinced. “I am. I’m not saying there aren’t bad days and that I don’t miss the fu-crap out of her,” Rowe corrected, catching himself at the last second. Gretchen just chuckled. OK, so Melody wasn’t old enough to repeat his foul language yet, but he did want to see his niece and that meant at least trying to curb his swearing. “But I’m happy.”
“Good. But you didn’t answer my question. Are you dating?”
Rowe glared at Gretchen, knowing full well that it wouldn’t have the least bit impact on the woman. He just hoped that she wouldn’t notice that his cheeks felt like they were burning with embarrassment.
She gasped with delight and swung around to face the car. “Really? Is that who brought you? I saw you get out of the passenger side. Why didn’t she walk over with you? I want to meet her.”
Well…this was going to be interesting, but maybe it was better to do this now. Turning to face the car, Rowe lifted his hand and motioned for Noah to come over. He didn’t doubt in the least that the man had been watching him closely. Gretchen knew Lucas, Snow and the others, but she’d only ever known Rowe as a straight man. He wasn’t quite sure how the sister of his dead wife would react to this unexpected twist.
Noah pushed open the driver’s side door and stood in the opening, worry clear on his handsome face even at this distance. “You OK?” he called, but Rowe was more focused on Gretchen’s gasp beside him. Rowe just motioned again for Noah to come over.
“Are you shitting me?” Gretchen slowly said, her mouth hanging open as she watched Noah close the car door and walk over.
“Hey now! Tiny ears!” Rowe snapped, moving to put his hands over Melody’s ears.
“Oh fuck that. My daughter is going to have a full vocabulary.” She gave a little roll of her eyes and then looked at Noah again. “Are you serious? You’re dating a man?”
Gretchen cackled loudly before twisting back to look down at the headstone not more than three feet from them. “Do you see this?” she started as if she was talking directly to Melissa. “Your boy found himself a hottie!”
“Oh God,” Rowe muttered under his breath.
“She has got to be laughing her ass off and you know it,” Gretchen continued, lifting her gaze back to Rowe. “And sitting front row when you’re—”
“Gretch! Your daughter is right here.”
She just snickered and Rowe found himself fighting back a laugh as Noah stopped right beside him. He looked a little nervous as his eyes shifted from Rowe to Gretchen and then back. He couldn’t blame the man. It was enough that Rowe had made it clear at Thanksgiving that he and Noah were together, but meeting Gretchen was a little different. Definitely overwhelming.
“Gretchen, this is Noah Keegan, my boyfriend.” So maybe they hadn’t discussed labels like that just yet, but Rowe couldn’t regret it after the way Noah’s eyes widened and then the most beautiful smile spread across his face. “Noah, this is my sister-in-law Gretchen Patterson.”
Noah extended his hand. “A pleasure.”
“Seriously, I thought Lucas and Snow were sexy, but damn…you are just pushing all of my buttons with that smile.”
Noah just chuckled softly.
“And then two of you together must so freaking hot—”
“Oh fuck,” Rowe moaned. Noah smacked him on the back of the shoulder, causing him to jump.
“Watch your language!” he growled.
“She started it!” Rowe countered, pointing at Gretchen who laughed so hard she snorted.
“And who is this adorable princess?” Noah asked, rolling his eyes at Rowe.
“My niece, Melody Rose.”
“May I?” Noah asked, holding out both his hands. Gretchen didn’t hesitate as she easily shifted her daughter into Noah’s strong arms. Rowe watched as Noah cradled her close with a unexpected ease. Something in his chest tightened to see Noah softly murmuring to the little girl while rocking her slowly. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of Noah holding a baby, a look of pure joy filling his face.
Gretchen wrapped her now free arm around Rowe’s waist and laid her head against his shoulder. “Oh yeah, you did good,” she murmured.
“Mel would approve?”
Rowe looked down to see tears sparkling in Gretchen’s light brown eyes. “Damn it, Rowe. You made her so happy and I love you for that. I know she’d want you to be happy. If Noah makes you happy, then hold him tight and be happy. That’s all she’d want for you, honey.”
Pulling her tight against him, Rowe mumbled “Thank you” against her hair.
Gretchen roughly pushed away and wiped her eyes, gathering herself. “Enough of this. I’ve got to get Melody out of this cold. Did you bring it?”
Rowe lifted the Tupperware container in his other hand and Gretchen laughed.
“What is that?” Noah asked.
Removing the lid with a little flourish, he revealed a slice of pumpkin pie. “Courtesy of Ian.”
“What? No whipped cream?” Gretchen teased.
Dropping the lid on the ground, Rowe reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a tube of compressed whipped cream. He gave the container a few good shakes before he bit the lid and pulled it off. Depressing the nozzle, he sprayed a health dollop of whipped cream onto the slice of pie.
Gretchen tsked besides him. “Ian would have a fit if he knew you were putting that processed shit on his pie.”
“Well, Ian can get his ass out of bed next year and bring the good shit,” Rowe countered.
With a maniacal chuckle, Gretchen reached into the back pockets of her faded jeans and pulled out a fork, the silver shining in the murky fall sunlight.
Rowe jerked the container back, clutching it to his body while turning to hold it a distance from Gretchen and her fork. “Whoa! You said this pie was for Mel.”
“Well, I didn’t mean all of it! This is pie by Ian freaking Pierce. I’m getting at least a bite. Mel would totally understand.”
Rowe laughed, the sound echoing over the hills of the vast cemetery. “She would not! She’d tell you to get your own damn piece. Pumpkin was her favorite.”
“I will stab you with this fork and feed you to my daughter, Rowan Ward! Don’t hold out of me.”
He glared at his sister-in-law for a couple of seconds, struggling to hold back his smile, before he finally gave in. “Fine. Just a bite.”
With a squeal, she dug her fork into the pie and pushed aside the first bite with the tip. “We’ll save Mel the wish,” she murmured before cutting a second small bite. She moaned when she put it into her mouth, her eyes rolling back into her head. “I swear, I think Ian just laces everything with crack, it’s so damn good and addictive.” Rowe really couldn’t argue. The guy was brilliant in the kitchen. Gretchen went to cut another bite and Rowe tugged the container away, but she caught his arm. She held up the next bite for him and Rowe took it. The pie was still as good as the night before when Ian had made it fresh. Yeah, the whipped cream wasn’t as good as his homemade stuff, but there was no masking the awesomeness of pie filling or the buttery goodness of the crust.
While Rowe was still lost in the bliss of pumpkin pie, Gretchen cut another bite and carefully carried it over to Noah who was still holding Melody while watching them with a sweet smile. The man hesitated, his eyes looking on Rowe’s as if questioning whether he should accept. Rowe gave the barest nod, trying to ignore the lump that had formed in his throat. Noah let Gretchen feed him the pie and he moaned as the flavors hit his tongue.
Gretchen placed a little of the pumpkin filling on her finger and brushed it against her daughter’s lips who greedily licked it up.
“That’s lovely. Getting your daughter addicted to Ian’s cooking early,” Rowe teased when he was sure he could speak with a steady voice.
“It’ll drive her to be successful. Ian’s cooking will never be cheap.”
Gretchen took the Tupperware from Rowe and placed it in front of the headstone. As she straightened, she patted the cold granite and sniffed once. “Miss you, sweetie. Black Friday shopping just ain’t the same without you threatening the little old ladies.”
Rowe stood back, his eyes going over the letters of Mel’s name etched into the headstone. It was hard to imagine her buried under the earth there. But then, she wasn’t there. The earth couldn’t contain her. Melissa Ward had been pure energy and laughter and mischief. She was a brilliant light dazzling him every time she walking into the room. And his world would never be the same without her. Even after almost a year, he still thought about her every day, wondered what she’d think of Snow and Jude together or how she’d prod Lucas into pulling himself back together and proposing to Andrei.
And yeah…she would have loved Noah. He couldn’t imagine her not loving him when Rowe already loved him so much. Had always loved him.
Gretchen turned, her eyes still sparkling. Gripping the edge of Rowe’s coat, she pulled him down and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “I will see you at Christmas. Get used to the idea now.”
She then walked over to Noah and took back her daughter. Once Melody was settled in her arms, she brushed a kiss across Noah’s cheek as well. “Take good care of him or I’ll take my fork to your fucking balls.”
With a last wave goodbye, she walked back to her car, murmuring softly to her daughter. Rowe watched her for a moment before turning back to look at the headstone. Noah stepped close, putting his hand on Rowe’s shoulder. Reaching up, he pulled Noah’s hand down across his chest so that he was now wrapped in Noah’s strong arms, his back pressed to Noah’s chest.
Noah dipped his face forward, nuzzling Rowe’s hair. “Would she have liked me?”
“Mel would have fucking loved you,” Rowe said without hesitation.
Several second passed in comfortable silence before Noah spoke again. “Your sister-in-law is strange.”
Laughter bubbled up his throat until it finally broke free. With his head tilted back against Noah’s shoulder, he closed his eyes and let the joy fill him. In his mind, he could hear Mel laughing too. “You have no idea.” Rowe paused, looking down at Mel’s headstone one last time. “I miss you, baby.” He always would, but that was okay.
Stepping out of Noah’s arms, Rowe twined his fingers. “You’ll get to meet the whole family at Christmas. They’re all just like Gretchen.”
Noah just smiled at his, fingers tightening around Rowe’s. “Can’t wait.”
“Let’s go home.”