Jud lay on his back and stared at the faded figures on the painted ceiling. In the flickering candlelight, their eyes glistened with a mixture of judgment and pity. The first time he'd walked into the sacristy of the Holy Outpost church a decade ago, he hadn't even noticed the intricate artwork. Much later, when he'd learned that the place of his deepest agony also summoned his greatest desire, he'd seen the saints for the messengers they were.
Though their once vivid colors had grown dull and discolored over the decades since their creation, the painted saints' enigmatic frowns sprinkled comfort down from their lofty perch. As Jud's wait stretched from mere minutes to long, unbearable hours, they kept silent vigil alongside the spirits who served as his constant companions.
"He'll be here."
Anxiety hit Jud like a fist to the gut. The pastel-colored saints swirled and blurred in his field of vision. He blinked back the sting of panicked tears and glanced in the direction of a familiar Texas twang.
A nearly transparent cowboy perched on the wide, shallow edge of the sacristycredens cabinet where Father Chuck Keenan kept his vestments. A ten-gallon hat drooped over the ghost's right eyebrow, casting most of his ethereal features in shadow. He'd been handsome at one time. The slant of a chiseled jaw was unmistakable even through the filmy fog that now made up his form.
Despite his appearance, Neil Woods was no cowherd or ranch hand. Before his passing, he'd been a lieutenant with the Las Vegas Police Department. He'd also been Jud's first ghostly encounter, all those years ago. And his toughest case. A case Jud had yet to crack, despite working on getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Neil's death for nearly a decade.
"I know, Neil. But today feels different. I'm just not sure--" Jud bit off the rest of that sentence. Voicing his doubts would make them real, and he wasn't ready to accept that his lover wasn't coming.
"He always comes," Neil insisted.
Ten years. In all that time, Derek had never missed a Christmas encounter. He showed up at midnight, as though summoned to Jud's side by love itself.
Jud's body ached inside, hurt in places his agonized emotions had scraped raw. "What time is it?"
"Four in the morning," another ghost answered. This one sported an antique soldier's uniform. The gray frock coat hanging to the spirit's midthigh looked like something that might have been worn by the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, but Jud was no expert on American history. He'd have to ask the man for his story someday.
Not today, though. He was off duty.
Despite the half dozen spirits who flittered around the sacristy, today Jud didn't belong to them. They had him the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. On Christmas, he was Derek's.
Jud gritted his teeth and forced his breathing to slow to something resembling normal respiration. But the mounting panic wouldn't ease.
What if Derek didn't come? What if he never came again?
He sucked in oxygen through his nose and forced himself to let it out slowly through his mouth. Father Chuck had taught him that technique ten years earlier, after Jud had stumbled from the church in a sickened daze, the image of Derek's broken body flashing like something out of a horror movie against his eyelids each time he blinked.
He breathed in the cloying scents of hot wax, burning wicks, and incense. Somewhere else in the church, someone slammed a door. Father Chuck usually locked up around midnight, except during the month of December, when he left the main entrance unlatched around the clock. People who'd have otherwise spent the holidays with Jack Daniels, or gambling their last dime at some low-rate casino, turned to Father Chuck and the Holy Outpost instead. Some came to find peace. Others, to find acceptance.
Then there were those like him, who came to find someone.
Jud's eyes drifted closed. He wouldn't sleep; he couldn't sleep, not with the icy dread trickling through his veins, but he could rest a while and imagine all the things he'd do when Derek finally came to him.
Fantasizing about how they'd spend what little time they had together eased some of the apprehension coiling in his chest. His muscles relaxed a fraction, though his cock stirred as desire pooled low in his groin. He clung to the memories of Derek's strong, sinewy body, of his magical mouth, his wicked hands.
We'll be together again, soon. Very, very soon.
He still didn't know how Derek did it. In the last decade, Jud had been visited by thousands of ghosts. Tens of thousands. All of them came to him in their ethereal forms, as insubstantial and otherworldly as any supernatural being.
But not Derek. Death hadn't turned him translucent. He didn't float, or drift through walls. He also didn't shadow Jud at all hours of the day and night.
He came once a year: on Christmas Day. He arrived as fully corporeal as he'd been in life, and he never wanted to talk about anything but Jud. For twenty-four hours, it was like being reunited with a lover who'd been gone somewhere far away--like in outer space, maybe.
Sometimes he even told people his lover was an astronaut. It was sure as shit a lot easier than explaining he fucked a dead man every three hundred sixty-fifth day and remained celibate the rest of the time.
Hell, when he put it that way, the whole thing sounded preposterous, even to him. He might have believed he hallucinated the encounters, perhaps overwrought by grief on the anniversary of his lover's death, except that the ghosts saw Derek too. All right, so a bunch of spirits weren't exactly reliable authorities on the state of his mental health, but Father Chuck was. And he'd seen Derek too.
"What time is it now?" Jud asked no one in particular.
"Four fifteen. Still well before dawn. He'll be here."
Even Neil's low Texas drawl held a hint of doubt now. Funny, how ghosts could still lie to the living even once they had nothing to gain from the deception.
"You know men," a husky female voice said. "They like to keep you waiting so they can make a grand entrance. They want to be sure you're properly motivated to be grateful they showed up in the first place."
Jud didn't have to open his eyes. He remembered that voice, and he could picture the four-inch heels, the black tights, the deep V of her low-cut sweater. The ghost had a beehive of blonde hair that did more for her height than the shoes, completing the Jersey Girl look. Her eyes were rimmed with dark eyeliner and her eyelashes reached impossible lengths. In life, she must not have been one of those women content to strut what God gave her. Judging by the size of her ethereal tits, he'd bet his life savings that the word "natural" had never touched her lips.
A knock on the door saved him from having to answer. His heart leaped into his throat and he went from lying on the floor to standing upright in less than half a second. Even the spirits stopped their aimless drifting long enough to cast curious glances toward the door.
His world shrank, blanking out everything but that knock. Derek never knocked. He simply appeared, like something out of a fairy tale. One moment he wasn't there, then the next he was. Poof. Just like that. Prince Charming come from the beyond to fuck him senseless.
The door handle angled downward. Someone was clearly manipulating it from the other side, but damn, he was taking his sweet time about it. Maybe Jersey Girl had been right. Making an entrance, indeed.
Jud's pulse raced like accelerated thunder. He'd ached for this moment for so long. Each year seemed to grow lengthier, extending the time between Christmases, making the insufferable wait even more unbearable. And after the endless lonely months he'd been forced to endure, it was no wonder he was frazzled and antsy.
And horny. God, so very, very horny.
The door finally swung open. Jud took a step forward, then another. His knees wobbled, and he could barely think through the rush of euphoria cascading through his veins. Somehow, he managed to keep from staggering forward and throwing himself into the powerful arms awaiting him.
The candlelight flared brighter, casting a golden glow over the gap in the door. A shadow loomed there, dark and menacing and...tall.
Too tall. And too broad across the shoulders.
Jud squinted into the blackness. "Derek?" he asked, though every cell in his body told him otherwise.
The newcomer stepped inside the sacristy, and suddenly the room felt smaller. Jud backed up a step. The scent of ginger soap and coffee hit him first. Then, as the stranger stepped closer, the full impact of the man slammed into him, stealing his breath.
His first impression had been spot on. This guy was big, in a powerful, dangerous way. He wore a black T-shirt that molded over his firm chest. Strong, muscular arms stretched the sleeves to bursting. He had a rough-looking face, nothing like Derek's smooth, handsome features. His nose was slightly crooked, like it had been broken once--or maybe more than once. Full lips flattened into a serious line.
Despite the many other obvious differences, his eyes reminded Jud of Derek's. Dark and intense, they pinned him into place and seemed to look right through him.
A sharp jolt of awareness wrung an instant reaction from his neglected cock. His erection raged painfully against the seam of his zipper. Damn, but he needed Derek.
And he needed this man gone.
"You Jud Hess?" Even his voice was gruff, with a hint of something dark and elemental lingering beneath the ordinary words.
"Yeah. And you are?"
"Tyson..." He hesitated for a moment, then extended a large hand. "Ty Sullivan."
Instinctively, Jud slid his palm out and folded his fingers around Ty's hand. He realized his mistake as soon as their skin made contact and the hairs on his arm lifted as though tugged by waves of static electricity.
A sudden rush of heat pummeled Jud's groin. He set his jaw against it, but it was no use. Air slipped through his teeth in a hiss of raw need. He saw Ty's bottomless dark eyes grow round, while his lips parted in an "oh" of surprise.
Jud's entire body trembled. Lust hit with a force that shocked him, but he couldn't stop the potent rush of heat from blasting straight into his balls. Waves of pleasure took him sharply to the edge of control, so close he suddenly understood that if he didn't do something right this very moment, he'd lose the battle over his own body and shake this man's hand right into a wicked orgasm.
He jerked his hand out of Ty's grasp and wrenched himself away, stumbling backward. He would have kept moving if he didn't hit the wall at his back.
Ty made no attempt to follow. He, too, looked dazed, and his breath came in sharp, uneven pants.
They stared at each other from a safe distance, neither one willing to speak first.
"I hadn't realized..." Ty murmured after what seemed to Jud like the longest two minutes in human history. "You're...I can't believe...I mean, that was..."
Jud's emotions sizzled. A lightning storm of longing and confusion raged inside him. "What are you talking about?"
Ty lifted his head as though coming out of a trance. "You're a real person."
"Last I checked." He took a deep breath and fought to stay calm. "Look, I think you've got me confused with someone else. And this isn't a good time, anyway. Maybe we can talk about this...whatever it is, next week. Or next month. Make an appointment with my secretary. Come see me during office hours."
The man didn't need to know Jud hadn't had a secretary for over a decade. Or an office. Or anything resembling a real job.
Ty's voice lowered to a growl. "You don't understand. I need you."