Charlie stared down into her drink, her third or fourth, she’d lost count. She was drinking alone tonight, which fortunately wasn’t all that common for her anymore. Yet here she was. Alone, depressed, tear-stained.
Impatiently, she wiped the corner of her eye and her nose, trying to look somewhat less pathetic. No one was paying attention to her, except the bartender who kept a tactful distance, but it wouldn’t do to seem weak in public. Not over something like this. She was Charlie fucking Matheson. She didn’t sit in bars and cry over a man.
Except, apparently, she did. What had the bartender called it after listening to Charlie’s tale of woe? “Emotionally unavailable.” Charlie was involved with a man who was “emotionally unavailable,” and tonight, it was making her life miserable.
It wasn’t like she and Bass hadn’t fought before. Hell, they fought all the time. It was part of what made their relationship so passionate and exciting. One of them would set off the other, and he’d end up backing her into a corner, or she jumping on top of him, and their heat would flare in another way entirely. That kind of fighting was good. This, wasn’t that.
This time, Charlie had tried to do something nice. Overcome with self-pity, she felt the telltale itching behind her nose that said a fresh round of tears was close.
Today was Bass’ birthday, which she only knew because Miles had mentioned it. Charlie still felt some anger at Miles for trying to keep her and Bass apart, but because he was family, she’d forgiven him, anyway. Bass and Miles still weren’t speaking to each other. Charlie knew that from Miles’ point of view, it was actually easier that way, not having to choose between Rachel and Bass. But she could tell that Bass missed Miles terribly, and it broke her heart to see.
A week before, she and Miles had been talking about a mission she and Bass were going on, and when they would be back. Miles had said at the time that it was good they’d avoid being on the road for Bass’ birthday because he usually had a pretty rough time. Charlie hadn’t asked what he meant by that, too distracted by her shame that in all her years of knowing Bass, it had never occurred to her to think about his birthday. But once she knew, she couldn’t un-know. And she’d wanted to do something for him. Because she loved him.
With that thought, the new tears did spill over. Damnit, she loved him, and somehow that was a major transgression. Because when Bass had gotten home and seen the gift she’d wrapped and set on the table, and the special dinner she’d brought home from the market (she wasn’t much of a cook), his reaction had not been what she’d expected.
He’d been cold, at first, going through their evening routine like he’d barely noticed, brushing off her attempt to wish him happy birthday. She should have known, at that point, to just let it go, but she figured he was just being moody Bass, pissed off about something unrelated to her, something Blanchard or Miles had done that he’d tell her about when he was ready.
But they finished eating, and Bass still hadn’t touched his present, avoiding it like it was a piece of dirty laundry sitting on the table. Charlie raised an eyebrow and asked if he was going to ignore it all night. And that’s when his façade collapsed.
“Damnit,” he said, pushing away from the table, getting to his feet. “Yeah, honestly, Charlie, I’d rather ignore this whole day. I realize you have some kind of fantasy world built up where shit like birthdays matter, but they just don’t, okay?”
Charlie was shocked, then furious. “What the hell is your problem?” she demanded. “I’m trying to do something nice for you, and you’re pissed off?”
“No one asked you to do that!” Bass yelled. “What do you want from me? You want me to put on a fucking birthday hat and blow out some candles, too?”
“No, Monroe, I don’t,” she spat, using the name she only called him when he was being especially infuriating. “I just want you to maybe say thank you? Smile? Act like a fucking human being for once.” Her face was flushed, adrenaline racing.
Bass snorted and shook his head. “Sorry. Thought you’d figured out by now that you’re not dealing with a human being, here.” With that, he’d turned and stormed out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, Charlie heard the door to their bedroom slam.
Enraged, Charlie wasted no time gathering her things and racing out the front door, slamming it loudly behind her, so Bass would know she was leaving. She wouldn’t be going after him, to try to soothe him and understand, not this time. He’d gone too far.
Then again, if Bass wanted to come find her, she’d made it very easy, heading straight for the busiest bar in town. So how much of a point was she really proving?
Charlie took a shuddering breath. The whiskey had dulled her rage and hurt somewhat. Now she just felt numb. It was a familiar feeling, but one she hadn’t felt since she and Bass had gotten together several months before. Usually, he made her feel alive, exhilarated, cherished. There had been plenty of times in her life when she felt painfully alone: after her mom left, after the Tower, after she’d found out Miles was her dad. But Bass had never made her feel that way. Until tonight.
Charlie tensed as someone slid onto the empty barstool next to her, and purposely kept her head turned away from him. There were several seats available at the other end of the bar that he’d ignored. But to her relief, the guy didn’t say anything. Maybe he wasn’t there to hit on her, after all.
The bartender came over. “What’ll you have, son?” she asked the interloper.
“Whiskey,” the low voice replied, and Charlie looked up immediately. Jason. He met her eyes with concern and frustration but said nothing, looking away after a few moments, studying the rows of bottles lined up behind the bar.
Charlie stared at him, waiting for him to speak. He didn’t. Finally, with heavy sarcasm, she commented, “You never waste an opportunity, do you?”
“Are you okay?” Jason replied, ignoring her barb.
Charlie snorted, putting on her best bitchy smirk. “Yeah, I’m just great,” she said. “So nice of you to care.”
Jason didn’t need to reply. She knew what he would say. He did care. He’d stopped explicitly telling her so once she and Bass had moved in together a few weeks ago. But it was still in his eyes every time she would see him at work or in town. Jason had never given up on her, not for a second. Which was more than she could say for Bass, at the moment.
“I haven’t seen you like this,” Jason said. “Not in a long time. What happened?”
Charlie slid her glass back and forth idly along the bar. Slowly, enunciating every word, she said, “What makes you think I want to talk about it to you?”
“What. Did he do,” Jason insisted, cold anger creeping into his tone.
“Nothing! He didn’t do anything. It was my fault. I tried to make some big deal out of his birthday.” Charlie knew she shouldn’t be telling Jason this, but she did trust him. And she knew he would side with her. Maybe it would make her feel better.
Sure enough, he frowned at her explanation. “And now you’re the one at the bar crying? Because the big bad general doesn’t like birthday parties?” He shook his head in disbelief and disgust. “Jesus Christ.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Charlie defended Bass weakly. “I sort of ambushed him. It wasn’t fair.”
“What’s not fair is listening to you having to justify his bullshit,” Jason retorted. “Charlie, you are so much better than this. You deserve so much better.”
At that, Charlie rolled her eyes. “Better? Like you, right?”
“Me, whoever!” Jason replied impatiently. “I swear to God, if I thought that guy, or anyone else, could make you happy, I would leave you alone forever. But I’m looking at you now, and you don’t look happy. And that, I can’t handle.”
Charlie felt exhausted. Dropping her head into her hand, she said quietly, “I don’t want to fight with you. Not you, too.” She drained the rest of her drink with her free hand and felt her tears welling up again.
“Shit,” Jason said softly, then louder: “I’m sorry. You’re right.” Angling his body so she was caged between his legs, he rested one hand on her back. “You don’t need me giving you shit, on top of everything else. What would help? Another drink?” Charlie shrugged, and Jason took that as a yes, signaling the bartender. He began rubbing soothing circles on her lower back. Taking a few deep breaths, Charlie got herself back under control. The bartender delivered two more whiskeys, and she sipped hers instead of pounding it, which she figured was a good sign.
Charlie suddenly became aware of how close Jason was to her. She could feel the heat of his broad chest next to her shoulder, his strong thighs nearly touching hers. All she would have to do would be to turn slightly, and she would be in his embrace. Maybe that was the answer. Simple, wonderful Jason—there was no doubt he was “emotionally available.” He’d been wearing his heart on his sleeve since the day he met her. Even when he’d been lying to her about who he was, she’d had no doubt that “Nate’s” feelings for her were real.
Hesitantly, Charlie turned toward Jason. His face was serious, and his brown eyes still showed deep concern. Charlie noted, as she had many times, that objectively, he was incredibly handsome. She didn’t have the visceral reaction to him that she had to, well, Bass, but it was undeniably true.
“Jason, what if we…” she broke off. “I know you think we should…” He waited for her to finish her thought, not interrupting. “How did you know to be here?” she finally asked.
“I got lucky,” he answered. “Happened to come here tonight. But you know I’ll always be here for you. One way or another. That’s never changed.”
Suddenly, inexplicably, Charlie’s heart started to race as if she’d sprinted across the bar. Right away, she knew. Bass was there. She looked up, pulse pounding wildly, and spotted him near the door. To anyone else, he would look as he always did: jeans, t-shirt, leather jacket, hair carelessly mussed. To Charlie, who could recognize the desperate look on his face, he looked just as miserable as she felt.
His expression of misery quickly morphed into one of fury as he spotted Charlie, with Jason nearly holding her. Jason spotted Bass, too, and got to his feet, placing himself between Bass and Charlie as the other man stalked over to them.
Bass stopped just short of running into Jason, his eyes flashing with anger. Jason stood firm. His stance was wide, his body clearly tensed to fight.
“Neville,” Bass said, his voice strained. “You wanna get the hell out of my way?”
“No,” Jason said. “She’s not a city you can conquer, General,” he added. “And don’t you think you’ve done enough for one night?”
Bass met Charlie’s eyes over Jason’s shoulder, his gaze intense. Charlie wasn’t sure what to do, whether she wanted to talk to Bass or just wanted him to leave her the hell alone for awhile longer. He must have seen her hesitation, because he turned back to Jason.
“Think that’s for me and her to decide,” Bass said, clearly fighting for control over his temper. “But either way, you’re done here.”
“I’m done when she says I’m done.”
Bass laughed, his curled-lip, dangerous laugh that signified deadly rage. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” he practically growled, his voice vibrating with menace, every bit the ruthless dictator he’d once been. “I’ve watched you. For months, you’ve been hanging around, waiting for this moment. For me to fuck up so you can swoop in, the big hero. And for a long time I thought, let him try. She’s probably better off with him, anyway.”
“You’re goddamn right, she is,” Jason interrupted.
Bass drew closer to Jason, stepping to within inches of his face. “Probably. But it doesn’t matter. Don’t you get it yet? She’s mine.” Bass again looked beyond Jason, meeting Charlie’s eyes. “And I’m hers.” Looking back at Jason, he concluded, “And all you are is getting the fuck out of here before I break your neck.”
“You can try,” Jason challenged, not giving an inch, flexing his shoulders and arms slightly.
Bass scoffed. “Kid,” he said. “I ruled half a continent. Don’t you think I can kill someone if I have to? Or want to.” He let his words sink in, but Jason still wasn’t moving.
“Stop,” Charlie finally said. Immediately, both men focused on her instead of each other. “Jason, it’s alright,” she said. “I want… let me talk to him.”
Jason’s lips tightened, and he shook his head slightly. Reaching down and squeezing Charlie’s thigh reassuringly, he urged her, “You take care of yourself, okay?” With one last murderous glance at Bass, he walked away, leaving the bar without looking back.
Charlie looked at Bass warily as he stepped close to her. Despite her anger and indignation, her body responded to his nearness, the smell of him nearly making her dizzy, the urge to touch him overwhelming. “Can we get out of here?” he asked.
Deliberately, Charlie took a few seconds to finish her drink. Setting the glass down on the bar, she nodded and hopped up to stand beside him. As always, she loved how protected her made her feel, the way his body seemed to shield her, the way he was aware of everything in the room and ready to counter any threats.
They walked out of the bar. There was no sign of Jason, and Charlie was relieved. “Where are we going?” she asked, not even sure what Bass wanted from her at this point. Bass led her around to the back of the bar, then a few buildings down, behind the deserted general store.
The blue moonlight barely illuminated him as he stood before her. Bass ran one hand over his face. “God, Charlie, I’m so sorry,” he finally said softly, in a tone Charlie had never heard before. “I love you, and I’m sorry.” He looked at her pleadingly.
Charlie was shocked. He’d never before told her he loved her, and she saw what it had cost him to say so. But she couldn’t let him say it just to get out of their fight. It felt too easy.
“Just tell me why,” she asked. “I don’t understand. What did I do wrong?”
Bass shook his head. “Nothing. You didn’t do anything. It’s me, my shit.” He breathed in deeply, and she waited. “I just… I’d resolved a long time ago that I was done with birthdays. Miles isn’t exactly the gift-giving type, and everyone else who ever knew or cared about my birthday is…” His face crumpled slightly, and he finished, “…gone.”
Charlie’s heart sank. Stepping toward Bass, she wrapped her arms around his waist, and he fell into her, wrapping his arms around her tightly, burying his face in her neck, murmuring apologies. She shushed him, just holding him silently for awhile, processing what he’d told her. All of Bass’ family was gone. All his friends, too, except Miles, who was also as good as gone, now.
Finally, Bass collected himself and straightened, still holding her tightly against him. “I’ve spent the last decade or more convincing myself that it doesn’t matter. That it’s just another day, no reason to miss them any more on my birthday than on any other. But every year… it’s fucking hard. And then there’s you.” He laughed in amazement, tears shining in his eyes. “And you go and get me my first birthday present since the fucking lights went out. I didn’t know what to do.”
Charlie shook her head, “I had no idea,” she said. “I wouldn’t have surprised you if I’d thought about it.”
Bass pulled her closer, pressing his lips to her hair. “Stop,” he commanded, his voice hoarse with emotion. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re perfect. I’m so sorry I was such an asshole. I swear, I’ll keep trying to be a better man. But I’ll never deserve you.”
And, Charlie realized, that was a part of it, too. Because of his past, everyone he’d lost, hell even Miles’ influence, Bass didn’t think he deserved to be happy. Didn’t deserve something as simple as a birthday present. So because he was unable to accept it, he made sure it blew up in his face, instead. Charlie looked up at him, running her hand along his jawline.
“You deserve me,” she said simply. “I love you, too, Bass.”
He let out a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sob, and kissed her hard. She kissed him back. It was rough, and passionate, and still laced with the lingering traces of anger and hurt from their fight. Charlie fisted her hands in Bass’ t-shirt, pulling her against him violently, slamming their hips together. She felt a growl in his chest, and he tangled one hand in her hair, angling her chin up so that he could plunge his tongue deep inside her mouth.
Charlie knew she should probably still be wary, but she felt her body responding to Bass, her arousal spiking as he nearly lifted her off the ground in his desperation to be close to her. He shoved one of his thighs between hers, and she cried out at the sudden pressure against her core.
They kissed and bit at each other’s lips, necks, shoulders. Charlie pushed Bass’ jacket off, and he let it fall into the dirt, his shirt soon to follow. Bass’ skin was warm in contrast to the cool night air, and Charlie ran her hands over his tautly-muscled chest and abs, flicking her tongue over one hard nipple. Her hands ventured lower, feeling Bass’ thick arousal beneath his jeans. She worked him firmly, stroking his cock through the fabric. As she did, she looked up at him, seeing her own scorching lust mirrored back in his eyes.
“Yeah,” he encouraged her. “Yes, I want you. So fucking bad.”
“Here?” Charlie asked, her voice breathy. She could feel that she was desperately wet for him, crazy as it was.
Bass reached over, undid the button of her jeans, and slipped his hand inside the front of her panties, groaning as he felt her slickness. Charlie shifted her hips into him, pushing his fingers into her. “Yeah, here,” Bass grated, rubbing her clit firmly. “Wanna fuck you right here.” Charlie didn’t respond, too busy clinging to Bass’ shoulders as he fingered her, her pussy tightening with arousal. “You want that, too, baby?” he asked, stroking her in a relentless rhythm, making her whimper and writhe against him. “Want me inside you?”
“Fuck,” Charlie groaned as she tipped over the edge, climaxing for Bass easily, as she nearly always did. He quickly took his hands off her and pulled his cock out, stroking it slowly, his pants low on his hips. “Yeah,” she said. “I want you, too.”
“Turn around,” Bass commanded. She did. Charlie pushed her jeans down past her hips to her knees, then leaned over, bracing her hands on the side of the building. She felt Bass behind her, his hard cock between her thighs, and she gave a needy little moan as he stroked himself over her entrance, not pushing inside yet. Finally, he did, fucking her deep with one stroke, burying himself inside her. They both cried out, both needing it so badly, nearly broken with relief at being joined this way, after all they’d just been through.
The emotions of the night had been too intense for slow or gentle. Charlie felt Bass’ strong, warm hands on her hips, holding her as he fucked her brutally, his cock opening her to him, taking his pleasure, his due. Charlie reached down between her legs, stroking her clit as Bass pounded into her.
Bass slid his hands up her body, reaching underneath her tank top to cup her breasts, pinch her nipples, his arms wrapped around her pulling her against him as he fucked her. Charlie’s pleasure ratcheted up quickly as she felt Bass hitting her inside in that place that always made her scream. She swallowed her screams this time, but her orgasm ripped through her just as hard. She rode out the last aftershocks, rocking back on Bass’ cock, squeezing out the last tremors of her climax. She felt Bass’ strokes get faster inside her. He moved his hands back to her hips, gripping her hard as he found his release. Bass groaned deeply as he came inside her, thrusting into her erratically at the end. Charlie turned around and leaned on the wall behind her, and Bass leaned next to her. Both of them were breathing hard, and didn’t speak for a while, getting their clothes back on and absorbing the moment.
Eventually, Bass sank down to sit on the ground, and Charlie followed suit. He put his arm around her shoulder, tucking her into his side. From that angle, they could see the stars and the moon above the trees as they sat in the dry dirt.
“Thank you,” Bass finally said.
Charlie grinned in spite of herself. “You’re welcome. Don’t think I’ve ever heard you be so polite after sex.”
Bass laughed. “Yeah, thanks. No, thank you for the gift,” he said, growing serious. “For dinner. All of it. Should have said that in the first fucking place.”
Charlie nodded. “You should have. And you’re welcome. I guess you liked your present?” She reached over and fingered the necklace she’d gotten Bass that he was now wearing, a simple black leather cord with a clay disc hanging from it. A disc that bore the letter M, though not in the design that Bass had worn on his arm for most of his life, the one Charlie still bore on her arm.
“I do,” Bass confirmed. “It’s kind of nice, wearing my ‘M’ again.”
“Uh-uh,” Charlie corrected him. “That was what I thought when I first got it. But after tonight, I think it has to mean something else. Just to make sure you don’t forget.”
“M for Matheson.” She felt Bass tense beside her, and hurried to explain. “As in, Charlie Matheson. As in, property of.” He relaxed and chuckled slightly. “Don’t laugh,” she warned. “You can’t get out of it now.”
“Why would I want to get out of it?” he said, squeezing his arm around her. “Works for me.”
“Me, too,” Charlie agreed. “Happy birthday, Bass.”
* * *