But at the time, diving into the ocean as the sun came up the morning after last night’s storm felt right. Felt pure. The stormy sea reflected Jensen’s state of mind, and diving into it seemed like the perfect thing to do.
Since his return to Seaview the week before, Jensen had spent most of his time on this beach. It wasn’t that he was avoiding the town, exactly. Everyone had been welcoming and happy to see him, just as they always were when he used to come here as a child with his parents. Everyone remembered him, of course. The town was too small not to keep track of every single resident, past and present. The townspeople knew why he’d stopped coming here after his parents died. They knew where he’d gone. And now they knew why he’d returned. Or at least, they thought they did.
Nursing a broken heart, recovering from a bad break-up, coming home to heal by reconnecting with his past. However those phrases explained Jensen’s return to Seaview, the town’s people had his back. And Jensen appreciated that, really he did. He just needed a little time alone, that’s all.
As soon as he broke the surface of the water, Jensen realized his mistake. The undertow was unexpectedly powerful, more powerful than he’d ever experienced. The waves were unusually tall, and he was suddenly several yards from shore and drifting fast.
Okay, stay calm. You’re a good swimmer.
He’d been swimming at this beach more times than he could count over the years, ever since he was a little kid. His father had always told him, “If you get caught in a riptide, don’t fight it. Go around it. Swim parallel to the shore until you find a place where the current lets you in.”
Jensen had been caught in riptides before, and he’d always done the right thing, always had managed to find a way back to shore.
This time was different. Post-storm, the waves were bigger than usual, much taller than he’d initially thought. He did his best to stay above water, to swim with each wave as it buoyed him up, then crashed over him as it came down again. But each time he came up for air, he was a little further from shore. Jensen could feel his limbs getting tired, even as he tried to relax, to let the waves buoy him. He knew that eventually they would wash him up onto shore; all he had to do was stay afloat until then.
Easier said than done, he soon realized. Keeping his head above water was taking more effort than he had thought. It wasn’t enough to simply float, or even to tread water. Both of these activities just got him swamped and pulled under, again and again, and he was losing strength faster than he would have liked. Too soon, Jensen was fighting just to keep his head above water, and the effort to resurface each time he got pulled down was draining his energy. Why the hell couldn’t he have just waited to take this swim? As it was, he was the only one on the beach at this hour, so the chances of anyone noticing a man struggling in the water were almost zero.
A little voice in the back of his mind whispered, You did this on purpose. You’ve been spiraling, passively suicidal, and this? This is deliberate.
But another part of him screamed, No! That’s not what this is! Reckless, maybe, but not suicidal! Over what? Getting dumped by an asshole? Should have left that son-of-a-bitch months ago. He only managed to wiggle his way into my life in the first place because I was vulnerable after Mom and Dad died. He’s not worth it!
Jensen struggled mightily then, determined beyond his own ability to master himself and the stormy sea alike. But he was no match for the power of the waves and the underwater which dragged him down relentlessly. In the end, he panicked, struggled wildly to reach shore and got dragged under so deep he got disoriented, swam deeper, realizing his mistake too late to reverse course.
His last thought was for the friend he hadn’t reached out to after he left Seaview; the one person who'd cared enough to try to prevent him from making the mistake that got him into this mess in the first place.
Jeff, I’m so sorry.
“Hey, buddy, are you okay?”
Jensen’s eyelids felt glued shut, crusty with sea-salt. When he forced them open, it took him a moment to understand what he was seeing. A head blocked the sunlight, a halo of light framing it, face completely in shadow. It was definitely male, though, attached to a long, graceful neck, broad, bare chest tapering down to a narrow waist. The voice was soft, kind, but strange to him. It had a decided southern twang.
“What happened?”Jensen croaked.
Jensen rolled to his side, wincing in pain as he tried to push himself up to sitting. The man’s hands were on his biceps, helping him, and it occurred to Jensen that the man had been touching him when he came to. The man had been doing chest compressions to get him to cough up the seawater in his lungs. That was why Jensen’s chest and ribs ached.
“You were in the water, face down,” the man said. “I pulled you out.”
“No way,” Jensen rasped hoarsely before being overcome by another coughing fit. He spat more seawater onto the sand, blinking at the man whose face he still couldn’t see clearly. “I grew up swimming here. I’ve been swimming in these waters all my life.”
But Jensen knew better. Something dark had driven him into the ocean this morning. He just wasn’t ready to admit it.
“Then you should’ve known better than to swim alone,” the man snapped. He sounded irritated, and it occurred to Jensen that he was not being very grateful. The guy did just save his life.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Jensen grumbled. He shivered, his teeth chattered, and his legs shook violently as he struggled to climb to his feet.
“Here, let me help you. You must be exhausted. Probably in shock, too. Let me call an ambulance...”
“I’ll be okay,” Jensen started to say, then another coughing fit hit him and he doubled over, legs all but collapsing beneath him.
The guy was right there, ducking under Jensen’s arm and holding his wrist, sliding his other arm around Jensen’s waist, supporting him so well that Jensen barely needed to walk.
Glancing sideways, Jensen was finally able to get a good look at his rescuer. The sight took his breath away. The man was gorgeous, with chiseled cheekbones over a sharp jaw and a pointed nose. High forehead wrinkled with concern. Slanted hazel eyes, filled with sympathy, piercing Jensen’s soul with the conviction that this person genuinely cared. Taller than Jensen by several inches.
“I live right up there.” Jensen nodded toward the beach house directly in front of them, over the seawall. He was more grateful for the support the guy was offering than he could admit. “If you could just help me get home...”
“Of course,” the man answered. “But I really think you should see a doctor and get checked out.”
“I’ll be fine.” He leaned heavily against the man as they moved together up the beach, into dry, shifting sand. “I’m Jensen, by the way.”
“Jared,” the man said. “Jared Padalecki.”
“Well, Jared Padalecki, I think it’s past time to thank you for saving my life.” Jensen tried to chuckle, but started coughing again instead. “I guess I’m just lucky you happened to come down to the beach so early.”
“I live right over there.” Jared nodded to the house next to Jensen’s. “I try to come down every morning for a walk.”
Jensen frowned. “Danneel Harris’s house? You live with her?” Just his luck, the guy was straight. Of course he was.
Jared shook his head. “She rented it to me for the summer,” he explained. “She’s not using it right now.”
“Oh.” Jensen knew that. He and Danneel had been friends for years. Their parents had been friends. “Last I heard, Danneel moved to New York.”
Jared nodded. “That’s where I met her. She — she’s my therapist.”
“Oh.” Just his luck, Jensen thought. Jared was damaged goods. Jensen attracted those kinds of guys like flies. It was probably just as well that Jared was straight.
“I was in the Marines,” Jared explained. “Honorably discharged last year. Danneel really helped me get through some rough times.”
Jensen nodded. “She’s a good lady.”
Jared smiled, and Jensen watched in fascination as dimples popped out in his cheeks, creating even more angles for Jensen’s eyes to trace.
They had reached the steps over the seawall to Jensen’s yard, and Jensen pulled away reluctantly, immediately missing the warm weight of Jared’s body pressed against him.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jared’s sincerity was melting something cold in Jensen’s chest. He almost forgot how tired and achy he felt.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Jensen assured him. “Thanks for saving my life.”
He stuck out his hand, and for a moment Jared just stared at it. Then he took it in both of his.
“Of course! Oh my God, of course!”
A thrill went up Jensen’s arm to his neck, and he could feel himself blush to the roots of his hair. It took everything he had to pull his hand away.
“Hey, listen, you gotta let me thank you properly,” Jensen stammered. “I mean, what you did...What would’ve happened if you hadn’t come along...” He cleared his throat, tried again. “Let me cook you breakfast,” he suggested, surprising himself. “At least. I mean, I should shower and get all this sand off first, but then...Maybe in an hour or so?”
Jared’s face relaxed into another blinding smile, making Jensen’s chest bloom with warmth. He could fall for this guy, easy.
“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Jared said. “I mean, I’m still worried I might have cracked a rib or something...”
“No, I’m totally fine,” Jensen assured him, ignoring the aches in his chest and ribs. Just bruising. Nothing a little ibuprofen couldn’t take care of. “Besides. We’re neighbors. We should get to know each other.”
Jared ducked his head, grinning adorably, and bit his lower lip.
“I’d like that.”
Damn. Was he flirting? He wasn’t flirting, was he?
“All right, then.” Jensen nodded, turned to pull himself stiffly up the stairs. “I’ll see you in an hour.”
He thought about the courage and conviction it took to throw himself into a stormy ocean to save another human being. Jensen wasn’t sure he would’ve even recognized a floating body, much less reacted fast enough to save someone. He might have thought what he was seeing was just some jetsam from the storm.
Jared was a Marine, though. He must be used to jumping into dangerous situations, assessing risk and plunging in without hesitating. Recognizing do-or-die circumstances.
Jensen’s chest and arms were covered with bruises, just as he had suspected. Swallowing a couple of ibuprofen, Jensen looked at himself in the mirror, wondering if Jared could see how broken Jensen felt inside. Did he see what an idiot Jensen was? Could he tell that he’d thrown away the last five years of his life on a man who couldn’t love him? Was it obvious Jensen believed that Mark could make him a rockstar when Mark was really just out for himself?
Jensen shook himself. Stop with the self-pity, Ackles. That shit doesn’t help anybody.
Besides, gorgeous Jared Padalecki was coming over for breakfast, and Jensen might be falling for the guy.
Which merited a phone call.
“Jensen! Long time no hear!”
Danneel’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Growing up next door to each other, Jensen was only too aware of how long it had been since he’d last spoken to his friend.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” he agreed.
“I’m surprised you remember my number,” Danneel commented dryly.
“I’m surprised your number hasn’t changed,” Jensen countered. “Like, ever. Isn’t this the number you got when we graduated from high school?”
Danneel sucked in a breath. “It is. Now, dare I guess why you’re calling me after all this time?”
“You can try.” Jensen chuckled.
“Well, I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m gonna guess it has something to do with the man who just moved into my house.”
“How did you know?”
Jensen isn’t really surprised. Talking to Danneel, even after all this time, reminds him of how close they were once. Both had been only children who’d gravitated together out of necessity at first, then out of a common worldview and sense of humor, Danneel and Jensen had been natural friends and allies for as long as Jensen could remember. If he’d had a sister, he couldn’t imagine being closer to her than to Danneel.
Or taking her more for granted.
“Because I just got off the phone with him,” Danneel said, which did surprise Jensen.
“Oh yeah? What did he say?”
Danneel barked out a short laugh. “You know I can’t give away confidential information like that,” she said, but Jensen can hear the teasing tone in her voice. “He’s my patient.”
“Just tell me so I don’t waste my time, Dani. Is he straight?” Jensen tried to keep the eagerness out of his voice, but he suspected Danneel saw right through him
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Don’t toy with me, Dani,” Jensen chided. “I need to know if I’m wasting my time here.”
“And exactly what are you doing in Seaview if you’re not wasting time?”
Jensen couldn’t answer that. It was too soon, too raw. He wasn’t ready.
Jensen took a deep breath. “I made a mistake,” he said. “Now I need to try to fix it.”
“Wow, that’s some admission.” Danneel whistled low. “Have you talked to him?”
“Not yet,” Jensen admitted grudgingly. They both knew who they were talking about. The name didn’t even need to be mentioned.
“Well, chop chop,” Danneel chided. “I’m sure he knows you’re in town.”
Jensen sighed. “Yeah, I’m sure he does. Listen, Dani, I gotta go. Talk, dark, and handsome is coming over for breakfast any minute.”
“Wow, that was quick!” Danneel breathed, pretending to be shocked.
“You already knew that,” Jensen accused. “He told you. Did he ask you about me?”
“Okay, okay, never mind. I’m gonna guess he did, which means maybe he’s interested, which means maybe he’s not as straight as I thought he was. Don’t say anything. Your silence speaks volumes.”
“God, Jensen, I forgot what a pain in the ass you were!” She sounded exasperated, but he knew better.
“Love you too, babe.”
“Look, you two have a nice breakfast. You can call me later to tell me all about it.”
Danneel hesitated, then said, “You know, never mind. Don’t call me. I can’t talk to you while he’s still my patient. Just — follow your instincts, Jensen. You used to be good at that.”
They both knew what she was referring to.
“And call Jeff,” she reminded him. “He deserves to hear from you like yesterday.”
“I know.” Jensen sighed. “I will.”
As he closed the connection, he heard a light knock on the porch door to the beach side of the house. Jared had showered and changed, too, his t-shirt and board shorts showing off his lean, muscled frame and giving him a casual, healthy vibe that Jensen liked immediately.
It didn’t hurt that he looked nothing like Mark Sheppard and was almost twice as tall.
“Hey, come in!” Jensen opened the screen door for Jared, then turned to lead him across the living room and into the kitchen. “I just got off the phone with Danneel.”
“You did?” Jared blushed, and Jensen decided right then that the man was adorable.
“Yeah, she told me you called her,” Jensen said. “Saving a drowning man first thing in the morning had to be a little traumatic for you. Sorry.”
“How are you feeling?” Jared’s concerned look was back.
“I’m fine,” Jensen assured him. “Showers are miracles, especially when you’ve got sand in places you never want to have sand in ever again.”
Jared blushed again. Damn, Jensen could get used to this.
“Cup of coffee?” he asked, reaching for the pot. “Black? With milk and sugar?”
“Sure.” Jared nodded. “Black is fine.”
As Jensen handed the mug of steaming coffee to Jared, their fingers brushed, sending electric sparks up Jensen’s neck into his scalp. Jared watched him as he took a sip, hazel eyes soft.
“This is good,” Jared commented.
“I’ll show you where to buy it,” Jensen responded without thinking. “You probably don’t know the town very well yet, am I right? I’d be happy to show you around.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jensen felt himself blush. He ducked his head and turned away to hide it, but he could feel Jared watching him.
“That would be great.” Jared’s soft voice made little tingles go up his spine, which Jensen desperately ignored as he opened the refrigerator to pull out butter, eggs, and cheese.
“I make a mean egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich,” he announced as he reached for a pan and a spatula. “Sit down.”
“Sounds amazing,” Jared answered as he sat down in one of the chairs at the formica-topped table. He looked around the kitchen. “Nice place.”
Jensen smiled. “Everything in this house is original from my childhood,” he said. “Some of it, like that table and chairs, date from my parents’ childhoods. My grandparents bought this house in the 1950s as a summer home, and I spent every summer here as a boy, just like my dad before me.”
“So you know the community fairly well,” Jared noted.
Jensen nodded. “Pretty well. Seaview year-round residents don’t leave. Ever. And those of us summer regulars have always been welcome here. We’re not tourists. Now, those folks...” Jensen pointed his spatula at Jared, and Jared ducked his head.
“Like me,” he said.
“No, you’re a summer regular, like me,” Jensen assured him. “You’re not just passing through. Once I introduce you around and tell people where you’re staying, everybody will be happy to take your money.”
Jared grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jensen offered to drive them the mile into town, and after asking again if Jensen was feeling alright, Jared accepted. Stopping for gas, Jensen introduced Jared to Jim, who ran the local garage as well as the station, then they dropped in on Kim and Briana, who ran the local grocer’s shop.
“You’ll need to drive into Portland to get most of your staples,” Kim told Jared after shaking his hand. “But we’re your best stop for locally-grown produce, baked goods and deli. Briana bakes a mean strawberry-rhubarb pie.”
Briana grinned, dimples popping, and it was suddenly a convention of dimples. They were popping out all over.
“First one’s on me,” she told Jared, indicating the table loaded with fresh-baked pies. “As a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.”
“Thank you. I’m honored.” Jared gave a little bow.
“Any friend of Jensen’s is a friend of ours,” Kim assured him, then turned her sharp gaze on Jensen. “Did you talk to Jeff yet?”
Jensen shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “Not yet.”
“Uh-huh.” Kim crossed her arms. “He already knows you’re here, you know.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Jensen said, nodding. “We’ll head over there after lunch.”
“You’d better have lunch at Sam’s Place,” Briana said. “She and Chad are expecting you.”
Jensen rolled his eyes and smirked at Jared. “Small town life.”
“Who’s Jeff?” Jared asked as they walked the groceries back to the car.
“Old friend,” Jensen answered. “He’s technically the mayor of this town. Also its sheriff. He used to take me deep-sea fishing when I was a kid.”
“Sounds like an important guy,” Jared commented.
Jensen’s mouth quirked up in a sardonic grin. “Yeah, he’d like to think so.”
They drove the groceries home, then drove back into town for lunch.
Sam Ferris greeted Jensen with a warm hug, then stuck her hand out to Jared.
“And you must be Jared.”
Jared flashed his dimples at her as he took her hand. “Guilty.”
“You boys grab a table while I let Chad know you’re here. He’s going to want to say hello.”
“You say you’ve been gone five years?” Jared said as they slid into opposite sides of the nearest booth.
Jensen shrugged. “Like I said: everybody who’s ever lived here stays here forever. A five-year absence is nothing.”
“Huh. You still haven’t told me why you left,” Jared said.
Jensen’s chest clenched. His bruised ribs hurt. He owed Jared an explanation for saving his life. He needed to know what kind of loser Jensen really was before their friendship progressed any further.
Before they fell in love, if that was even possible.
Jensen was pretty sure that horse had already left the barn. But it wasn’t fair to Jared to let him think Jensen was a good choice for a friend, much less a lover.
That is, if Jared swung that way in the first place.
But really. What were the chances? Despite Danneel’s obvious hints, Jared might very well be straight. Or not as attracted to Jensen as Jensen was to him.
But Jensen had already read enough of Jared’s signals to believe that wasn’t the case. Jared seemed just as hooked as Jensen was, just as unwilling to part, just as hopeful of spending as much time together as possible. They’d known each other barely four hours and Jensen was already fairly certain of Jared’s interest.
Jensen really needed to come clean, soon.
Just not yet.
“Five years ago, my parents died in a car accident, out on the main road,” he confessed.
Jared’s eyes got big. “Oh my God, Jensen. I’m so sorry!”
“They were on their way here for the summer, just like always. I came out early that year, to work the fishing boat with Jeff, or I would’ve been in the car with them.”
“Hi, Jensen.” The waitress took that moment to bring them water and take their orders. Blonde and dimpled, Alona had spent her summers here since she was a child, like Jensen. Being six years younger, she hadn’t been on his radar when they were kids, but she’d started working at Sam’s about a year before Jensen left, and they’d become friends that summer.
Jensen had picked up a hoping-to-be-more-than-friends vibe from her back then, and was relieved when she barely glanced at him now.
“Jensen!” Chad waved from behind the counter. “Sam said you were here. Nice to have you back, man!”
“Thanks.” Jensen nodded at his old friend. He and Chad had spent many an evening drinking, shooting pool, watching sports at Sam’s other place, the Bar Down the Street. The place he met Mark. “Good to see you.”
“Bring your friend to the Bar some night,” Chad said. “We’ll catch up.”
Jensen nodded noncommittally and watched Chad disappear into the kitchen before turning back to Jared.
“You’d never know it by looking at him, but that man makes the best burger west of the Atlantic Ocean.”
“That so?” Jared nodded. “Well, I guess I’ll have to have one, then.”
After Alona left with their orders, Jared turned his soft hazel eyes on Jensen, sympathy and concern radiating off him like sunshine.
“I’m really sorry about your parents, Jensen,” he said quietly. “That must’ve been a terrible shock. No wonder you left.”
You have no idea, Jensen thought but didn’t say. It wasn’t something he liked to remember, the way he behaved that summer, after the accident. Drinking, yelling at Jeff to fuck off and leave him alone, taking up with Mark Sheppard just because he was dangerous and fucked Jensen like he didn’t care about him.
”You’re nothing but a pretty face,” Mark had snarled as he pounded into Jensen. ”Nobody could love you. Everybody just wants to fuck you.”
Jensen had spent five years of his life trying to prove Mark wrong, trying to show Mark that he was talented and capable. Worthy of Mark’s attention and support.
“Yeah, it hasn’t been easy,” Jensen admitted. “I miss them every day.”
“Wow, that’s really tough,” Jared said. “I can’t imagine losing both my parents at once, or either of them, really. They’ve been such a support to me, especially since I got back from deployment.”
“How has that been for you?”
Jensen wasn’t sure he should ask, thought it was probably none of his business, but he really liked Jared. Jared was open and honest, refreshingly down-to-earth and real, without any of the fake, name-dropping pretense Jensen saw so much of in the music business. Beyond being attracted to the man, Jensen really liked Jared. He could see a real friendship growing between them.
“Not easy sometimes,” Jared admitted. “I have nightmares. Anxiety, depression, panic attacks. Survival guilt. Classic post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“How do you deal with it?” Jensen asked, then hesitated. “Just tell me if I’m being too personal.”
“No, that’s okay,” Jared assured him. “It’s good to talk about it. Talking normalizes it.” He took a deep breath. “The truth is, I don’t deal as well as I’d like sometimes. I drink too much. I’m on and off various medications. Danneel has the patience of a saint, puts up with my late-night calls, spends way more time treating me than I can afford to pay her for.”
“She’s a good egg,” Jensen said.
“She is,” Jared agreed.
Their food arrived and both men dug in. Jared made appreciative moaning sounds which Jensen tried not to be aroused by but failed. Jensen ordered two pieces of pie for dessert when Alona came back to check on them.
“Baked by Briana,” Jensen explained when Jared lifted his eyebrows. “Strawberry-rhubarb is only the tip of the pie iceberg. That girl also makes a berry pie to die for, and her apple pie makes you feel like you died and went to heaven.”
Jared gave him a look that Jensen read as, “Okay, then. You know best. Let’s do this.”
Jensen grinned from ear to ear. This was a good day.
Jeff was not in his office. His wife, Samantha, who was also his deputy, greeted Jensen with a hug.
“He’s at the dock,” she told Jensen. “He knows you’re coming.”
“Of course he does,” Jensen sighed. “Let me guess: Kim told him.”
Samantha smiled. “You know how word travels in this town.” She patted his arm. “Don’t worry. He’s missed you. He may not act like it, but he’ll be glad to see you.”
Jensen squared his shoulders. “Since I told him to shove it last time I saw him, I’ll be surprised if that’s true.”
“Oh, it is,” Samantha assured him. “Just give it time, Jen. You two were meant to be.”
Jensen chuckled. “I don’t know about that.”
“It’ll be okay,” Samantha said, patting his arm again. “Now git.”
“Jeff.” Jensen greeted his old friend when he drew up even with the boat, shifting his feet awkwardly as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his board shorts.
“Hand me that trap,” Jeff ordered gruffly, not looking up as he gestured toward the trap.
“Sure thing.” Jensen hustled to obey, but Jeff still wouldn’t look at him. “So. I was hoping we could talk.”
“Hand me that net.” Jeff gestured toward the equipment on the dock.
“Yeah, sure.” Jensen obeyed, then took a deep breath. “Look, I know we parted on bad terms, and that’s my fault.”
“Sure is,” Jeff snapped, but Jensen took it as a good sign that the older man was finally responding to him.
“I was hoping you’d give me a chance to make it up to you.”
Jeff dropped the rope he was wrapping and stood up, pinning Jensen with a hard look.
“Five years, Jensen,” he growled bitterly. “Five years without a word.”
Jensen looked away, shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “I know. I’m sorry. I figured — after the way we parted — I figured you wouldn’t want to hear from me.”
Jeff shook his head sharply, rolling his shoulders, and for a brief moment, Jensen expected to be hit. He deserved it, that was certain.
“You made me think something had happened to you,” Jeff snapped. “I thought that psycho must’ve fucked you up good, or worse.”
Jensen swallowed. The fact that Jeff wasn’t far off made him more nervous than ever, but he wasn’t about to back down now. He’d come this far. Jeff’s friendship meant that much.
“I’m sorry,” Jensen said, his voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I didn’t mean to make you worry about me. Things were pretty intense for a while, and then I was just ashamed of myself for letting so much time go by.”
Jeff shook his head again, but now Jensen could see the emotion in his eyes.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make it up to you,” Jensen offered. “Please, let me make it up to you.”
When Jeff leapt out of his boat and grabbed Jensen, pulling him into a tight hug, Jensen’s chest swelled with relief. He’d forgotten how good it felt to be hugged like this. He’d forgotten how it felt to be loved. It felt so good he almost didn’t notice his aching ribs.
“Don’t do it again!” Jeff growled fiercely into the side of Jensen’s head. He kissed Jensen’s temple before releasing him, holding him at arm’s length while he got a good look at him. “What happened?”
Jensen shook his head and flushed with embarrassment.
“You don’t want to know,” he assured his old friend. “Let’s just say you were right. I fucked up, but it’s over now, and I’m here to try to make things right again.”
“You know Danneel was keeping tabs on you,” Jeff said, jumping back into his boat and picking up the rope he’d been wrapping. “She saw you at CBGB’s last fall.”
Jensen blinked. “Wow. She didn’t say. I had no idea.”
“I take it you’ve talked to her,” Jeff said dryly. “Couldn’t be bothered to call me, but you’ve talked to Dani.”
“Yeah. I — I called her this morning. She — There’s this guy.” Jensen rubbed the back of his neck, nervous again. “Former Marine. She let him rent the house for the summer.”
Jeff nodded. “The fellow with the Polish name.”
“You’ve met him?”
“Not yet, but I have a feeling I’m going to be invited to your place for barbecue tonight, so I’ll get to meet him then, am I right?”
Jensen huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, of course. You and Sam both. I owe it to you.”
“Jeff was like a big brother to me,” Jensen explained as he handed Jared an opened beer. “My dad was kind of hands-off as a parent, especially after I came out, and Jeff became a kind of substitute father to me as well.”
Jared frowned sympathetically. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “About your dad, I mean. That had to hurt.”
Jensen shrugged. “We were never that close to begin with,” he said. “Dad wanted a son who would follow in his footsteps, become an engineer or a doctor. When it became obvious I was better at art and music than math and science, he lost interest. Coming out was just the final excuse for his general disappointment in me.”
“Ouch.” Jared licked his lips, looked down at the grill. “You make me feel lucky. When I came out, my parents were completely chill. It was joining the Marines that made them nearly disown me.”
Jensen hardly heard another word Jared said as he went on about his family, his time in the Marine Corps.
Jared’s gay, and he’s apparently available.
This kind of luck didn’t happen to Jensen, and he was a little overwhelmed. The past five years had given him pain and tragedy and more than a little unhappiness. To suddenly feel hope again almost didn’t feel right. Jensen kept thinking there was a catch somewhere. The other shoe was about to drop.
Of course, Jeff and Sam took that moment to arrive, bearing gifts of fresh fish and exquisite wine. Jeff shook Jared’s hand, and when they smiled at each other, Jensen realized he was hosting yet another dimple convention. Sam raised her eyebrows at Jared and threw an approving look at Jensen, and Jensen blushed at being called out so obviously. Of course Sam could sense the attraction between them. She’d always been good at that.
“So you two just met?” Sam asked as she took the glass of wine Jensen offered.
“This morning.” Jensen nodded. “He saved my life. Literally,” he added when Sam and Jeff looked skeptical.
As Jensen explained what had happened that morning, he downplayed the danger and his own recklessness as much as he could, but Jeff still glared at him when he finished his story.
“You know better than to go out by yourself,” Jeff scolded. “Especially the morning after a storm.”
“I do,” Jensen agreed. “I wasn’t exactly using my best judgment.”
Jeff turned to Jared. “Seems I have you to thank for saving my boy’s life.”
Jared glanced at Jensen, hesitant, and Jensen could’ve kissed him. Jared was obviously wondering if there was something more than just a father-son, brotherly vibe between them.
“My training kicked in,” Jared said with a nod. “I was a medic in Afghanistan.”
“Lucky for Jensen,” Jeff commented dryly.
In more ways than one, Jensen added silently.
Their conversation turned to more general topics, and Jensen got to observe Jared as he won the approval of Jeff as well as Sam. It occurred to him that Danneel had set them up, and he wondered about that. It was too much of a coincidence, renting her house to Jared when she knew Jensen was going back to Seaview.
Now that he knew that she’d been following his singing career, it didn’t take much of a leap to imagine she planned the whole thing. She hadn’t liked Mark any more than Jeff did. It would be like her to play matchmaker now that Jensen and Mark had split up.
Jared was perfect for Jensen. Their acquaintance was less than twenty-four hours old, but Jensen was already smitten. He hadn’t expected to find love again so soon, yet here it was, six-foot-five and dimpled. Damn.
After dinner, the four friends moved out to the deck to watch the sunset. In the golden light, Jared’s features softened and glowed. The fading sunlight caught his hair in an effect that reminded Jensen of a halo, the way his face had first appeared to Jensen this morning. Jensen had to force himself not to stare.
“You ever been deep-sea fishing, Jared?” Jeff asked.
Jensen watched Jared turn his attention to Jeff, the view of his strong profile giving way to a view of his tan neck, thick dark hair curling around his collar.
“No, sir,” Jared answered.
Jeff returned his smile with real warmth. “Well, then, how about you come down to the dock in the morning and we head out for the day? Fishing grounds are always plentiful after a storm.”
“I’d like that,” Jared said, turning to give Jensen a hesitant look.
“Oh, Jensen can come, too,” Jeff assured him. “He’ll want to impress you with his fishing skills.”
Jensen blushed. He felt completely caught out. He wondered if this whole evening had been arranged to get him and Jared together.
Not that he minded. Seaview had always been a place of peace and comfort for Jensen, a place where he felt supported and cared for, that fateful night five years ago notwithstanding.
Jeff had tried to stop him. Jeff had known Mark was no good, but Jensen had been infatuated, excited by the prospect of being lead singer in Mark’s band. On the heels of his parents’ deaths, Jensen had been vulnerable. He’d needed the escape that Mark offered.
Mark had only ended up confirming Jensen’s sense of himself as trash, as the son who never measured up, always letting his dad down. Mark’s sarcastic, bad-boy attitude had fed Jensen’s lack of self-worth. He understood that now, but at the time Mark’s attention had been enticing. Falling in love with Mark had felt dangerous, rebellious, and terrifying, like riding a roller-coaster without a seatbelt.
When he’d agreed to leave town with Mark, Jeff had tried to stop him, of course. Jeff had tried to talk sense into him, but Jensen hadn’t listened. He’d said stupid things, called Jeff names, accused him of being overbearing and controlling.
“You’re not my dad!” Jensen had shouted. “You can’t tell me what to do!”
It was more than Jensen deserved, receiving Jeff’s forgiveness, especially after five years of radio silence. Jensen hadn’t earned Jeff’s love, yet here he was, giving it freely, just as he had before everything went to Hell.
“So, how long are you staying, Jen?” Jeff’s question pulled him out of his reverie.
Jensen took a deep breath. “At least for the summer,” he said. “I haven’t really thought much beyond that. I was planning to find part-time work, volunteer, help out as much as I’m needed here. This place always felt like home.”
“You’re always welcome, Jensen,” Sam assured him. “We’ve got more than enough work that needs doing around town to keep you as busy as you like this summer. You, too,” she nods to Jared. “Sheriff’s office needs painting, so does the bar. I’m sure Kim and Briana would appreciate the extra hand with the heavy lifting in their store room and with deliveries.”
“I could use an extra mate or two on my boat,” Jeff added. “The pay’s crap, but you can have all the fish you can eat.”
“Sounds really good. Thank you.” Jensen glanced at Jared, recognized the expression of a grateful man because he was feeling the same way.
“Well, you boys have an early start tomorrow.” Sam rose to her feet, gesturing to Jeff to follow her. “We’ll let you get your rest. Nice meeting you, Jared.”
Seeing the couple to the door, Jensen was certain they had planned the entire evening. Sam and Jeff knew about Jared because Danneel had called to explain it to them. They expected Jared and Jensen to become a couple because all indications pointed to the perfection of their union. Both men had suffered terribly but deserved a happy ending, according to Danneel. Jeff and Sam had agreed to help, contingent on Jensen’s apology to Jeff, which had happened this afternoon before the audition.
Jensen was a little stunned by how carefully Danneel had orchestrated the entire day.
Of course, she couldn’t have known that Jensen would accidentally almost drown himself this morning. That was the traumatic near-tragedy that she couldn’t have foreseen. Jeff would call her to tell her, even though she already knew, and she would act surprised, since she couldn’t tell him that Jared had already told her, patient confidentiality and all.
Jensen could almost hear her. “What? Well, that makes total sense, considering.”
“Considering what?” Jeff would bellow indignantly. “That Jensen almost died?”
“Jared’s Jensen’s knight-in-shining-armor,” Danneel would scoff. “He’s literally Jensen’s savior. His guardian angel.”
Jared crowded up behind Jensen as he waved goodbye to Jeff and Sam from the kitchen doorway. They probably already looked like a couple to Jeff and Sam. Jensen could feel Jared’s heat, and decided he was perfectly okay with everyone thinking they were together. In a way, they already were.
Which is why it felt perfectly natural when Jensen closed the door and turned around, into the warmth of Jared’s broad chest, and tipped his chin up to find Jared gazing down at him, eyes dark with intent.
“You know we’ve been set up, right?” Jensen asked with a smirk.
Jared nodded, lips quirking up in a dimpled grin. “Does it matter?”
Jensen scoffed lightly and dropped his eyes to Jared’s mouth. “I’m okay with it if you are.”
When Jared’s big hands closed around his head, Jensen shivered in anticipation and closed his eyes as Jared’s lips pressed softly against his, tentative.
Jensen grabbed Jared’s wrists when he started to pull away, urging him on, and Jared complied, his kisses getting deeper, more insistent.
Jensen slid his hands up Jared’s powerful arms, down his back. He pushed his body up against Jared’s, let him feel his erection.
Jared moaned. He gasped as Jensen’s hands reached the firm mounds of Jared’s ass, kneading them and pulling them tighter together.
“I should probably warn you, I have nightmares,” Jared murmured against Jensen’s neck as he kissed along it, then sucked into the skin just behind his ear. “I wake up screaming sometimes.”
“I’m just coming off a terrible relationship,” Jensen gasped, grinding his erection against Jared’s. “I’ve got serious daddy issues.”
“I’m a mess,” Jared murmured.
“I’m messier,” Jensen breathed, tipping his head back to give Jared better access to his throat. “I need you to fuck me.”
“I want to fuck you so bad,” Jared answered.
Jensen was too eager, too desperate. He went off like a rocket as soon as Jared shoved a hand down between them and squeezed his dick through his shorts.
“Shit!” Jensen panted, too loose and content to apologize. “That never happens.”
Jared chuckled, wrapped his arms around Jensen, and nibbled on his neck. “I’m flattered.”
It felt so good to be held by someone bigger, someone who was probably strong enough to hold him down, make him feel safe.
“Give me a minute,” Jensen mumbled. “Then I want to suck your cock.”
“I could probably carry you,” Jared offered. “Put you to bed, undress you, give you what you need.”
Jensen shivered. His dick twitched at the thought of Jared picking him up, carrying him to bed.
“I want to see you naked,” he growled
Jared chuckled. “That can happen.”
Jared undressed and spread out on Jensen’s bed was the wet-dream Jensen never thought he deserved. To be allowed to feast on so much tan, smooth skin spread over such taut muscles, to be held in Jared’s long arms and touched and caressed by Jared’s sensitive fingers, was a gift Jensen never could have imagined. He wasn’t worthy.
When Jared pushed into him, filling him fuller than he’d ever known, Jensen was sure he’d died and gone to Heaven. Getting a second chance after the mess he’d made of his life was one thing. Getting to have and to hold Jared, even if it was only for one night, was more than Jensen could have dreamed.
Jared was athletic and demanding, but careful of Jensen’s bruises at the same time, a thoughtful lover who nevertheless showed Jensen exactly how much Jared wanted him.
Later, when they were exhausted and lying sprawled side-by-side in the near-dark, Jensen traced Jared’s features with his eyes and fingertips, memorizing every curve and angle. The man had a near-perfect profile, strong brow and cheekbones giving way to the softest lips Jensen had ever kissed.
More than just the physical attraction, Jared struck Jensen as a good person, a kind man who had seen too much sadness and tragedy in his young life. Something about Jared brought out the protector in Jensen, a role he’d never taken with anyone in his life.
He liked it. It made Jensen feel useful. Important.
“Rise and shine, boys,” Jeff boomed. “Day’s wasting.”
“Coffee,” Jensen slurred.
“You can grab some from Kim’s,” Jeff said. “She’ll have breakfast sandwiches for both of you. Now, get a move on!”
Jensen ended the call and rolled over to find Jared blinking at him sleepily, his hair tousled around his face, making him look young and vulnerable.
“Hi yourself.” Jensen grinned wide, happier than he could remember ever feeling upon waking up next to another person.
“Are we okay?” Jared’s voice sounded young, rough with sleep.
Jensen turned towards him and slid a hand up his bare chest. “Better than okay.”
Jared grinned. “Good.”
Jensen giggled as he pushed Jared against the wall, kissed him back.
“You smell like fish,” he announced.
“You like it,” Jared countered.
“I like you,” Jensen admitted. He blushed. “Sorry. I don’t mean to put any pressure on you.”
Jared brushed the backs of his fingers gently along Jensen’s stubbled jaw.
“I like you, too,” he murmured, leaning down for another kiss.
It was hard to believe that less than forty-eight hours ago, Jensen had never laid eyes on Jared. Already they were in sync, moving together naturally, finishing each other’s sentences.
When Jeff decided they’d caught enough for the day, he turned them back to shore, letting Jensen show off more of his skills as he steered the boat into Seaview Cove and docked her.
Sam greeted them at the dock with fresh clam chowder for their dinner.
“Sam and Chad have a party planned at the Bar tonight,” she told them. “Consider yourselves formally invited.”
Jensen couldn’t quite help the shiver of dread that slipped up his spine at mention of the place where he’d first laid eyes on his ex. When he felt Jared’s hand on his shoulder and caught the look of concern in his eyes, Jensen sighed.
“I’ll be alright,” he assured Jared. “It’s just some bad memories, that’s all.”
“Let’s go make some new ones.” Jared’s hazel eyes radiated sincerity and sympathy, and Jensen flushed warm with gratitude.
After the mistakes he’d made, after all his idiocy, he still couldn’t quite believe he’d found Jared. This beautiful, kind man couldn’t possibly want such a damaged, crazy fool as Jensen.
When they got home to shower and change before dinner, Jared showed Jensen exactly how wrong he was. He spread Jensen out on the bed, tasted and touched every inch of him before opening him up. As Jared pushed inside him, Jensen gave a choked cry and almost came untouched. He wrapped his arms and legs around Jared and held on as Jared pounded into him, grunting and sweating. Jared shoved a hand down between them, grabbed Jensen’s cock as he started to come, sending Jensen over the edge. They came down together, breathing hard, blissed out and drowsy. Jensen drifted to sleep with Jared draped over him, lips pressed to his temple.
As Jensen scanned the room, he tried not to recall the last time he was here. Mark Sheppard and his Hellboys were on stage, tearing the place apart with a hard-driving sound that fit Jensen’s mood perfectly. He had made a beeline for the bar, started in with a couple of tequila shots before grabbing a beer and making his way up front to watch the band.
Mark obviously had his eye on Jensen from the moment he walked through the door. When the band took a break, Mark bought Jensen a drink, then took him out back in the alley for a blowjob. Jensen was tipsy enough, desperate and lonely, grieving, and flattered. Easy pickings. When Mark offered to bring him onstage for a song or two, Jensen didn’t even consider refusing.
“You’re good,” Mark assured him afterwards. “You should sing professionally. With your looks and charisma, you’d be a perfect front man for my Hellboys.”
Jensen agreed to Mark’s terms without giving it due consideration. Reckless, he saw now. He was so eager to get on with his life, to get past the ache in his chest left by his parents’ deaths, he didn’t think carefully about what it meant when he said yes to Mark’s deal.
It was a deal with a devil, but Jensen didn’t recognize that at the time.
Jared’s entrance into his life, on the other hand, felt Heaven-sent. The fact that Jared was his literal savior made him the perfect foil for Mark, his literal opposite. Jensen still wasn’t sure what it meant that Jared was with him now, in the same place where Jensen had nearly thrown his life away five years ago.
Life could be funny that way.
Watching Jared fit in here, watching all of Jensen’s old Seaview friends welcome Jared like he truly belonged, broke something in Jensen. Or fixed something, maybe. It almost felt like going back in time, making a different choice that fateful day.
But he wouldn’t be here today, with Jared, if that had happened. Jensen wouldn’t have thrown himself into the ocean two mornings ago, and Jared wouldn’t have saved him. Everything had to happen the way it did for Jared and Jensen to end up here. If Jensen’s five miserable years with Mark had an upside, it would be meeting Jared at the end of them, after the nightmare was finally over.
When Chris Kane’s band hit the stage, Jensen motioned for Jared to get up with him, to move toward the stage where they could watch the band. And when Chris called him up, introducing him to the room full of old friends who already knew him and were all glad to see him, Jensen barely hesitated. It felt good to take the mic and face the crowd of familiar faces, all nodding and moving to the music. He’d played open-mics and jam nights here many times, but this was his first time singing here as a professional.
It felt good. The crowd knew him and loved him. They forgave him for abandoning them five years ago, welcomed him back with open arms.
When Jensen’s eyes met Jared’s, his chest clenched with emotion. His eyes filled with unshed tears. Jared smiled his support and understanding and it was almost more than Jensen could bear.
He was truly home at last.
“I let everybody down,” he mumbled into Jared’s chest. “I let them all down, but they welcomed me back anyway. I don’t deserve them.”
“Shh,” Jared murmured. “Yes, you do. You belong here. Everybody makes mistakes, but you came back. You’re here now. You’ll be here all summer. Plenty of time to make it up to them.”
Jensen drew a deep breath, let it out slow. He pressed his lips against Jared’s left pec, over his heart.
“You make me seem better than I am,” Jensen said. His voice was choked with emotion. “I’m not a good person.”
Jared took Jensen’s face in his hands, tipped it up so he could look at him.
“I know I haven’t known you very long, but I know that’s not true,” he said, almost stern. “You’ve had a rough time. That happens to everybody sometimes. But you’re a good person, Jensen. I can tell just by how much Jeff cares about you. All these people care about you. They’ve known you from before, back when you were just you. They can’t all be wrong.”
Jared took a deep breath, swiped his thumb along Jensen’s cheek.
“Don’t let that bastard define who you are. You are the only one who gets to do that, you hear me?”
Jensen smiled despite himself. Jared was so fierce, so certain.
“Danneel teach you that?” he teased. “It sounds like something she would say.”
Jared grinned, responding to Jensen’s smile as if he can’t help himself. “Maybe?”
Jensen nodded. “I’ll make it up to them,” he promised.
As Jared held him, Jensen relaxed and grew sleepy. Being in Jared’s arms was the safest place he’d ever been since he was a child. It was already becoming the one place he never wanted to leave.
Just before he slipped into unconsciousness, Jensen heard the mournful toll of the buoy, the one that he’d heard all his life, the one that warned ships off the rocks directly out to sea.
The one that kept them safe.