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Cover of Learned Reactions, by Jayce Ellis, on Brunch Spread. Caption: Sunday Brunch Bites

Beloveds, I am SO excited for Learned Reactions! If you haven’t grabbed a copy, what are you waiting for? Best friends to lovers with a healthy dose of family and friends a little too unafraid to speak their mind. Normally I do Sunday Brunch Bites on, well, Sundays, but I’m making an exception for today’s release, and giving you a BONUS epilogue! This definitely assumes you read Learned Reactions, so if you haven’t, go on and do that first. I’ll wait. And when you’re ready, come back and read this!

“You really gone hug up on me all day like that?”

Carlton nuzzled into Deion’s back and pulled him tighter, then pressed a soft kiss to the back of his neck. “All day, all night, for the rest of our lives.”

Deion scoffed even as his eyes fluttered closed. “And you had the nerve to call me a sap. Marriage has turned you to a pile of goo.” Not that he was complaining, not even a little bit. He just couldn’t believe it was real.

Carlton straightened and turned Deion toward him, that familiar smirk firmly in place. “You know you love it.”

He did. He one-hundred percent did, but he wasn’t giving in to Carlton that damn easily.

“You guys almost ready?” Trey’s voice echoed through the bedroom door. “We’re gonna be late.”

Deion chuckled and pulled Carlton close. “The kids are calling.”

Carlton hitched a breath at the words, and yeah, Deion got it. Olivia was theirs. Their daughter. And Trey, while they hadn’t formally adopted him today, was as good as theirs too. His head swam at the thought.

A quick press of his lips to Deion’s, and Carlton pulled back. “Come on, we’ve got a party to get to.”

Only Carlton would corral a group of people who probably had other plans to come out for an impromptu wedding reception/dinner party on a grand total of eight hours’ notice. He’d expected to have a small family dinner with Ollie, Trey, and his parents, then have some epic sex with his husband—and no, that word would never get old either—before getting up tomorrow like it was any other day. But oh no, Carlton insisted on going out with everyone, and Deion hadn’t been able to deny the man a single thing for nearly twenty years. No sense in starting now.

They walked out the bedroom and found Ollie and Trey on the couch, watching a WWE fight. Ollie’s face lit up when she saw them. She stood and wrapped her arms around Carlton’s waist, then did the same to Deion. He held her tight and closed his eyes. They stayed like that for a moment before he heard a distinctly unsubtle cough, and found Trey tapping the bevel of his watch, one brow raised, even with the bright grin stretched across his face.

“Let’s get out of here before this guy reads us all the riot act.” Deion couldn’t even pretend to be irritated, and Ollie chuckled and moved away.

“He’s so impatient for his food.”

Trey ticked off his fingers. “One, I’m a growing boy. Two, it’s Lauriol Plaza. Three… there is no three,” he finished with a shrug. “Two’s more than enough.”

Carlton grabbed his coat and pulled it on. “He’s got a point.”

They filed out of the house and into his car for the ride. Trey and Ollie talked in the back, and Carlton snagged his hand and held it for the ride over. Deion couldn’t take his eyes off the sight of their fingers twined together, the glint of light off Deion’s ring peeking through. Surreal. 

Carlton pulled up to the entrance and threw the hazards on. “Parking’s always a mess. Go on in and I’ll be there in a few.” 

Trey and Ollie scrambled out and inside, but Deion lingered, pulling their joined hands to his lips for a kiss. “I love you.”

He was becoming familiar with the soft smile Carlton gave him, but it was no less meaningful to receive it. “I’m excited, D. We’re gonna have a great life together, and we’re gonna give a great one to Ollie.”

This man was born to be a father. How Deion had missed it for so many years was beyond him, but it was clear as day. Carlton had way too much love to give to keep it bottled inside, and now he had a family and some great friends who insisted on sharing that love with him. 

Deion kissed him briefly, then climbed out the car. The host pointed him up a set of stairs, where he could already hear Ollie bemoaning whatever she’d been watching before they left. Deion grinned. Ollie had taken up residence next to his mom, who looked at her like the wonder she was. She looked up at him, tears threatening, and she didn’t look like she gave a damn if they spilled over. Dad sat beside her, his hand a continual circle on her back. 

Deion walked over and knelt down next to them. “I promised you, didn’t I?”

Ma’s laugh was watery, but she nodded and patted his cheek. “You did, but this is better than anything I could have imagined.”

He couldn’t agree more. He kissed her, squeezed Dad’s shoulder, then leaned across the large circular table and dapped up Jaq, Matt, and Lawrence. “Gwen couldn’t make it?” he asked Lawrence, who snorted.

“Gwen said it was too much love and if she were around it any longer she’d have to have all her teeth pulled.”

Deion snorted. That sounded like something she would say.

“I got one more surprise for y’all.”

Deion straightened at the sound of Carlton’s voice and damn near fell over. Beverley stood there, wearing that classic sheath dress with a pair of boots, her arms open wide. Deion couldn’t help it. He rushed her.

“What in the hell are you doing here?”

She laughed before tugging Carlton’s hand and pulling him close. “This darling boy called me a week ago and arranged it all. I couldn’t make it out for the wedding, but I had to make sure I could share this day with you.”

Carlton’s eyes were soft, but Deion could see from the way his chest puffed out how inordinately pleased he was with himself. As well he should be. Deion turned Ms. Bev to the group and introduced her to everyone. She and Ma shared a long hug, destined to be the best of friends. Carlton looped an arm over him and pressed a kiss to his temples. The surrounding “awww”s were a healthy mix of happy and disgusted, and they both laughed as Carlton dragged them down to sit.

Deion leaned forward and raised a glass to Lawrence, who raised a brow in response. “Thank you.”

Lawrence toasted him and sat back. “You’re welcome, but for what, exactly?”

“For handling the adoption for us, but more than that, for being the sounding board we both needed.”

Lawrence’s face tipped up into a grin and he nodded in acknowledgment. Next to him, Jaq frowned. “I feel like I missed something.”

Carlton shifted and rested his head on Deion’s shoulder. “You were busy with the collection. And with falling in love and everything.”

Jaq huffed and nestled into Matt, who winked at them over his head. “Don’t even start. You know you conveniently forgot to mention it when we hung out at Christmas.” He poked Deion in the side, and Deion fought to swallow the shriek that threatened to escape. “And don’t think I didn’t notice how you didn’t say anything when I saw you at the park. I’m mad at all of you.”

He cuddled into Matt and closed his eyes. Matt looked down at him, his expression as sappy as the one Deion saw more and more from Carlton, then grinned up at them. “The swirls hit him hard.”

“A polite way of saying he’s drunk,” Carlton laughed.

“Tipsy. Definitely a little tipsy, but not drunk.”

Deion laughed and settled in more. His parents and Ms. Bev were deep in conversation, somehow Ollie had roped both Lawrence and Trey into her wrestling musings, and Matt and Jaq were deep in a whispered conversation.

“What’s on your mind?” Carlton’s breath ghosted his skin and he shivered at the touch.

“That I don’t know what I did to get this lucky.”

“You waited for me. To get out of my head, then get my head out of my ass and realize I already had everything I needed.”

“That is disgustingly cute.”

Deion glared across the table at Lawrence, whose smile belied his words. Next to him, Ollie’s moue of discontent actually matched Lawrence’s words, and Deion tilted his head. “What?”

She scoffed. “This is what I’m going to have to deal with for the next four years, isn’t it?”

Deion looked at Carlton, who could barely contain his laugh. They looked back at her and spoke simultaneously. “Yes.” 

To his absolute surprise, she broke out into a grin. “Good. I missed it. Love you guys.”

A moment of quiet settled around the table, and Deion breathed deep, remembering how much Trey and Ollie had lost. He and Carlton couldn’t replace their parents, didn’t want to try, but they’d be the best damn parents they could be.

He raised a glass. “To Carrie and Lamar.”

Carlton closed his eyes, blew out a breath, and nodded. “To my sister and that big-headed lug she married.”

“Hey!” Trey protested. “I got that big head.”

“Yeah, you did, kid. I’m sorry.”

Trey’s resulting cackle reverberated around the table. The table raised their glasses and toasted, and Deion settled in for the start of the rest of his life.