9:00 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, BACKYARD
The sun had set a few minutes before, the sky still lit with a soft, dusty blue tinged with hints of pink and orange. Jensen sat down beside Bo on the bench swing, tossing a small piece of wood into the fire in the firepit. Bo leaned into Jensen’s side, his phone pressed to his ear.
“Hey,” Dallas Silver greeted after the fourth ring.
“Hey.” Bo smiled faintly. “Since I’m still in Clinstone, I just wanted to say happy birthday.”
Dallas chuckled. “Thanks, Bo.”
“Mmhmm. Feel old yet?”
Dallas snorted. “Kinda hard not to. Forty-one years on this planet, you know. Had kids, got married, ran away, changed my identity, got arrested all in my thirties. I feel old.”
Bo rolled his eyes. “One would imagine. Do anything fun today?”
“Nah, not much. We went out for supper, and the kids spent the whole time on their phones.”
“I know!” Dallas exclaimed. “But it’s cool. Nothing I’m not used to, honestly. It’s basically all they’ve done since Kath and I came home. Still wish Holden hadn’t bought them phones in the first place, but I guess that’s how it works now.” He cleared his throat. “How’s the treehouse?”
“We’re putting up the walls tomorrow. We’ll add a little balcony, a door, and a trap door-type thing where the ladder comes up. We should be able to finish it tomorrow, really.”
Dallas chuckled. “You and Jensen have a lot more energy than I do.”
Bo snorted. “That’s because Jensen’s young. The man has a lot of energy to waste.” Jensen rolled his eyes, wrapping an arm around the blonde’s shoulders. “Well, I’ll let you go. We’re supposed to be roasting marshmallows here in a few. I’ll see you soon, all right?”
“Sounds like a plan, lab geek. Enjoy your evening.”
“You, too, Dallas.” Bo ended the call, tucking his phone back into his pocket. He looked up as the door opened and Kayla and Amber stepped out onto the back porch. Hati rushed out between them, leaping off the porch and dashing across the backyard. Kayla held the door open until Acamas had made her way outside. She closed the door before walking across the yard, Amber’s hand held in her own. “Find everything?” Bo asked.
“Yep,” Kayla said simply. She helped Amber climb into one of the lawn chairs before handing a grocery bag over to Jensen. “Do you know when we’re going back to L.A.?”
“Not for certain, sweetheart. After this case is over, we’ll spend the rest of the summer in L.A.,” Bo said. He cocked his head to the side. “Why?”
Kayla smiled. “I miss Grandma and Grandpa.”
A smile tugged at either corner of Bo’s mouth. “We’ll go back and see them really soon. Promise.”
“Okie dokie. Umm… where are the marshmallow roasting fork thingies?” Kayla questioned.
Bo chuckled, pointing up toward the house. “They should be hanging up by the grill, baby.” She nodded, heading back for the house. “I checked the calendar, and Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, which works perfectly for a wedding,” he said, looking up at Jensen.
“Mm, awesome.” Jensen kissed the top of his head. “Did you get your guest list done?” he asked.
“I sure did. Can I assume you did not?”
Jensen snorted. “Aww, babe, you know me far too well. I’ll do it tomorrow morning, though.” He cleared his throat, pulling the bag of marshmallows out of the grocery bag. He opened it and handed it over to Kayla. “Do you have the baby monitor?”
“Uh-huh. Mason twins are still sound asleep.” Acamas jumped onto the bench swing, curling up on Bo’s lap. He dropped a hand to rest on her back. “I’m thinking of booking Selene Morgan for photography. She did Mom and Dad’s second wedding, as well as Jake and Alice. She does things beautifully,” Bo said.
“Works for me, Eli.”
“But it’s your job to find a couple bands you’re interested in. We’ll listen to them all perform and we’ll choose one, but you know more about actual music than I do,” Bo said.
Jensen chuckled. “I’ll look into that tomorrow, too.” Bo nodded. “When we get back to L.A., what is it that you and Jamal are planning on doing?”
“Well, not counting poker, he wants to start showing me what kind of things I’ll be responsible for once I take over for him,” Bo said.
“Do you really have to be the person that takes his place?”
“Yes.” Bo pulled away from Jensen, a slight frown tugging at either corner of his mouth. “Will you…? Are you going to hate me? I’ll turn him down. I’ll give it up. I don’t… I don’t need to take over for him. He can find someone else.”
“Eli, Christ, I’m not going to hate you for it. I just… If you’ll be doing everything Jamal does now, I’ll spend every damn day worrying that you aren’t going to come home. I won’t sit around like some worried housewife, Bo.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be okay. I’ll be trained, Jensen. I can take care of myself,” Bo said.
“I… think that’s part of my problem. If you’re like Jamal, you won’t need us. You won’t need me. Jamal doesn’t need anyone but himself, Bo. What if you decide the same thing?”
“Two things. First, I won’t. I’m always going to need you and the girls. I’m always going to want kids of our own. I am always going to need you guys. Second, Jamal needs people other than himself. He needs Frank. He needs the guys he plays poker with. He needs me, you, us. He needs family. It’s the biggest part of his person. It’s the biggest part of my person, too.”
“One hundred percent, Jens,” Bo said softly.
“Okay,” Jensen whispered. He kissed Bo, closing his eyes. “I love you, Eli. Don’t make me lose you.”
“I won’t be going anywhere, Jens. I love you. My happy ass is staying right here.”
11:30 PM; CLINSTONE, THE AUSTEN-TAYLOR HOUSEHOLD, KITCHEN
“I’m scared he’ll leave,” Bo said quietly, setting a cup of coffee in front of Cecilia. “I hadn’t thought of it before. I hadn’t even entertained the thought of him leaving me, but now all I can think about is him not being able to tolerate me any more.” He leaned forward, wrapping his hands around the coffee mug on the counter.
“You’re getting married, Bo. It’s normal to have doubts,” Cecilia said softly. “But why don’t you explain it to me a little more. Why do you suddenly feel he’ll leave?”
“He’s scared I’ll turn into Jamal and he said that I’d leave him and the girls behind. But… but what if it’s his way of letting me know that he’s planning on leaving?”
“It’s not like that at all, sweetheart. He’s worried about you, about… who you could turn into. He loves you. He doesn’t want to lose you.”
“I’ll be trained. I’ll be safe. I’m not going anywhere.”
“No, sweetheart, you’re not… you’re not listening. He is terrified that you aren’t going to be the man he fell in love with any more,” Cecilia said slowly.
“People change. People always change,” Bo said.
“I know. He knows that, too. It’s not that you aren’t allowed to change. It’s that he doesn’t want you to become someone you’re not. You’re intelligent, caring, loving, kind. You offer amazing advice and comfort to the people you’re close to. Replace Jamal, sure, but don’t replace everything that makes you you.”
“That’s all there is to it?” Bo asked after a moment of silence.
“That’s all there is to it,” Cecilia confirmed.
He nodded slowly, drumming his fingers against the mug in his hands. “When you were married, did you ever… fall out of love with him?”
“No. If you want an honest answer, no, I didn’t. I didn’t stop loving him when he ended up in jail or spent all of his money on drugs and hookers. I didn’t stop loving him when he stopped getting calls from his agent or when I was forced to be the only one supporting our life together.”
“So… if he changed so much from everything you fell in love with, it doesn’t matter how I change. Jensen will still love me,” Bo said.
Cecilia held up a hand. “That’s not what I said. I loved him because I wasn’t independent. I didn’t know how to be independent or alone. I loved him because I needed something to hold onto.”
He nodded, his gaze focused on the counter. “The only thing that’s going to change is that I’m going to learn how to trust myself again. Once Jamal’s done teaching me what I need to know, I’ll be able to trust my own decisions again. I won’t need people to always assure me I’m good enough,” he said.
“And that’s a damn good thing, Bo,” she said.
“What if…? Celia, he’s too young to get married. For God’s sake, he’s twenty-eight. I forced him into a family. I did that. I told him he could raise Kayla with me or he could leave. I’m the first person he’s ever actually dated, the first person he’s loved. I forced all of this on him. What happens when he finally realizes he doesn’t want any of this?” Bo asked.
“Sweetheart, you’re driving yourself insane,” Cecilia said softly. “Jensen loves you simply because he loves you. He chose you and Kayla because he wants a family with you. He bought two houses with you because that’s something he wants. He adopted Amber with you to grow your family. He wants twins with you because he wants a family, and he wants it with you. He proposed to you because he wants to be with you forever, Bo. Self-doubt damages a person. I would know. But you’re currently full of it. Let yourself be happy, Bo. You’re living the goddamn American dream. Don’t let the little voices in your head tell you that you don’t deserve that.”
“It’s really just self-doubt?” Bo asked.
“It’s really just that, sweetheart. You’ve been that way as long as I’ve known you. You find yourself in something really good, and you do everything to convince yourself that you don’t deserve it. It’s the reason you went to college in L.A. and moved away from your parents. They were good to you and you convinced yourself you didn’t deserve it. You’ve done your damnedest to convince yourself that you don’t deserve Jensen or Jamal or Jacob.”
“Why?” he asked in a whisper.
“Sweetheart, you know just as well as I do why you’re this way. Your biological parents were terrible to you,” she said softly. “They convinced you that you didn’t deserve to be loved because you weren’t normal, because you weren’t like the other kids. That has never left you, and it probably never will. But you have to know you’re worth it, Bo. You have to know that you deserve this. You deserve to be married and happy for the rest of your life. You deserve a family. You’re too good to have nothing.”
Bo touched a hand to his chest, lifting his gaze to Cecilia’s face. “Too good? Celia, I’m a killer. You know that,” he breathed.
“Jensen knows about… about your brother, doesn’t he?” Cecilia asked. He nodded. “And he’s still here, Bo. He knows why you did it. For… for family. He knows that, and he loves you for it. He’s not going anywhere.” She reached out, laying a hand over his arm. “You deserve him, Bo. Don’t ever tell yourself that you don’t.”
“Thank you,” he whispered. He sighed as Eve started crying. He took a small sip of his coffee before turning around and pulling open the refrigerator. He pulled out one of the bottles with a pink lid. He held it under the warm water. Satisfied with the temperature, he turned back to Cecilia, offering a smile. “I’ll be back a second, okay?”
“All right, Bo. Take your time.” She lifted her coffee mug. “I’ll be here.”
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