Hunter had a crush, a big one.
In the cafeteria late one night on his break at the hospital, he sipped at a coffee and focused on Shawn, the night desk clerk for the ER, sitting a few tables over. With long black hair tied back neatly and eyes of faded denim blue, Shawn had a lean body, his face long and bony. Tonight, he wore a brown turtleneck under a white-and-green-striped button-down. The rolled sleeves revealed muscled forearms dusted with golden hair, as mismatched to the dyed black hair as his pale eyebrows and lashes. A silver skull ring and silver studs in his ears appeared at odds with the lanyard and dangling ID card.
Hunter drank more coffee, barely tasting it. He’d tried to talk himself out of it, but he couldn’t squirm away from the attraction. When he’d walked past the registration desk to the water cooler—again—or hung out there a moment too long with an empty clipboard in his hands, he caught those tiny flicks of interest in Shawn’s eyes. Hunter must have given away his interest because the nurses smirked at his pretended obliviousness.
He bent to the not-very-engrossing crossword in the newspaper, imagining what tattoo might lie beneath Shawn’s cool demeanor. Maybe gargoyle wings across a broad and muscled back, or a snake wrapped around his thigh. Something more esoteric—a phrase in Latin, like Hunter’s own primum non nocere, or a bit of wisdom in Chinese characters. Or an old-school Aerosmith tat? Hunter glanced up from filling in the little squares with black ink blocks. He could have sworn Shawn hurriedly dropped his attention down to the paperback in his hands. He turned the page and shot a second glance at Hunter. Gazes locked and jumped away.
Heat rushed through Hunter all at once and climbed up to his face. Too aware of the black-haired man with biceps to die for and long legs to—well, never mind. Taking a boner back to the ER was not a good idea.
He had touched those biceps once when he gave Shawn a flu shot back in the fall. Shawn had taken the needle without a flinch.
Shawn stood with his tray in hand and walked toward the trash container behind Hunter. The back of his neck prickled as if Shawn breathed on the little hairs there. Hunter picked up his coffee cup once more but tasted only the dregs.
Good thing he’d decided to become a physician’s assistant and not an actor. He didn’t talk to Shawn unless he had to, the worst giveaway of all. No shy bones in his body, yet he feared conversation led to more conversation, to flirting, and the next thing he knew, they’d be going on a date, Hunter falling head over heels, and then the asshole—
Stop. You know how the story ends.
Behind him, Shawn cleared his throat. Hunter didn’t turn around. Shawn returned to his seat, picked up the paperback, and slumped down into the chair with a scowl.
Marisa slipped into the seat across the table from Hunter, and he smiled.
“I’m onto you,” she whispered.
“Uh-huh.” Hunter moved his body slightly so he could still see Shawn around her.
“You’ve been taking late lunch for three weeks now. I know why—or who.” She smiled, a small Hispanic woman with curly chestnut hair framing her heart-shaped face and hazel eyes. If Hunter weren’t himself, and she weren’t married, he thought he’d be with her. Her lips always gleamed with gloss, and her eyes snapped with fire when she got pissy. He loved it, most days, even when she aimed for him.
She leaned toward him. “Shawn, right?” Her eyes took on a warning snap now and dared him to contradict her.
“I don’t even know if he’s gay.” Which wasn’t true, but he knew better than to deny it to her face.
She sipped at her coffee with her gaze on him. Her mouth left lipstick smiles on the rim of the cup. “There’s something different about this one. And he’s lovely to look at.”
“Lovely.” Hunter snorted. Dead sexy Shawn. Hunter spied him out at the clubs twice now but avoided him there too. Shawn undulated like liquid fire across the dance floor.
“Talk to him, honey.”
“Please. Don’t.” He must have spoken louder than he meant to. Shawn glanced at them and away again.
“You’re letting Jerry’s death run your life.”
Hunter slapped the magazine down. “I’m too sober for this conversation.”
“It’s like he’s locked your heart away.”
Mindful of the potential audience, he lowered his voice. “You’re jumping way ahead here.”
She shook her head. “I know you. You have so much love to give, and I hate to see you suffer.”
Her probing questions about Hunter’s past, family, present situation were all familiar ground. Friendship he could manage; he recognized it when it was offered to him. He’d been out since he was nine. Always been out was what he told people. She was one of the few friends to whom he could confide nearly everything. Jerry’s addictions had killed him, but his family and friends blamed Hunter, and on a deeper emotional level, he blamed himself too. Marisa knew this, and it worried her. She wanted him to find love and move on, be part of a couple. She knew, but she didn’t understand.
He wasn’t abstinent now, not at twenty-five, and never got involved with anyone beyond one- and two-night stands. Hunter didn’t want to take responsibility for another heart.
When the tide of emotion and memory washed through him and left him able to speak again, he said, “I’m not suffering here.” He kept much of the darkness at bay with whiskey and anonymous sex. Who needed Prozac with a warm, muscled body in the bed?
“Stagnating,” Marisa said.
“Maintaining.” It had been a far prettier day in May, eight months ago now, when he walked out of the ER at Boston General to Jerry waiting for him in the parking lot with a gun.
“Ask him out on a date. An old-fashioned date where, at the end of the night, you kiss him good night.”
“Don’t get angry.” She patted his hand.
He whipped it away. “Too late.”
Marisa sighed. “I’ll make it up to you. Toni, Anna, and I are going to Twisters tonight. I’ll buy you a drink.”
Hunter gathered up his tray. He liked the ER crowd. They always had fun when they got together in off-work hours, and he agreed to meet her at Twisters before hitting the clubs.
When his shift was over early in the morning, he drove back to his apartment and crawled into bed as the day glowed behind the blackout curtains. The end of the week had left him exhausted, and his sleep was blessedly dreamless.
* * * * *
In Twisters, dark-wood-and-burgundy-leather seats and bumpers, cushioned stools, and low light filtering through stained glass made the place comfortable. Three bartenders were already hustling, their tip jars filling. By the time Hunter greeted the women, one of the bartenders had poured his Maker’s Mark over ice and set it in place. A second drink joined the first soon after. His friends had already had a few rounds themselves. He made a note to keep an eye on Marisa, a lightweight when it came to alcohol consumption.
A nice bar to start the weekend, and he reveled in the fact he had two more weekends off before he had to take the next weekend rotation at the hospital. He sipped and scanned the crowd.
Pretty, brittle, blonde Toni broke into Hunter’s reverie. “Why aren’t you straight, damn it?”
He ignored her, his mind on the clubs, and his hunger for male company tonight. He’d dressed to kill with an open-weave forest-green shirt he liked with his dark red hair and gray eyes. Tight black jeans emphasized the man bits, though his sartorial choices were lost on the mostly hetero male crowd in Twisters tonight.
“First lady to make a pass at Hunter pays for drinks, Toni,” Marisa reminded her, then licked a fleck of salt from her bright red lips.
Behind them, the door opened with a rush of cold wind.
“I am so over you anyway,” Toni said. “I want him.”
Hunter glanced over his shoulder to where she pointed a French-tipped nail.
“Damn.” He finished the whiskey and signaled for another. He turned to Marisa. “You didn’t set this up, did you? Tell me you didn’t.”
She glanced toward the doorway and laughed. “No, it’s kismet, baby.”
Hunter sneaked another peek over his shoulder as Shawn took off his jacket and hung it on the back of a chair at a tall bistro table. He wore a tight black T-shirt with a heavy metal band on the front and an open, black button-down with rolled-up sleeves. He picked up the drink menu, met Hunter’s eyes, and smiled, then frowned back down at the laminated card in his hand until the cocktail waitress approached him.
“Poor, poor Toni,” Hunter said with exaggerated pity. His gaze lingered on muscled forearms, long black hair, and the breadth of chest and shoulders.
She shot a glance over at Shawn again. “Him too? Poor me.”
Hunter scanned the bar. A couple of white-collar guys wearing suits and ties clustered around the opposite end of the bar.
“Breeders at three o’clock,” Hunter informed Toni.
She peered around him and raised her brows. “You have good taste.”
While Toni made preliminary eye contact with the suited men, Hunter turned to Marisa. “I don’t believe you.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t say nothing.” The tequila had eroded her English.
“What’s he drinking?” He wanted to turn around again but didn’t dare.
“Red wine. And he’s reading a book.” She winked. “He’s not your type.”
“Ha.” Hunter gulped the whiskey.
“Take it easy, there.” She frowned at him. “Hunter. I’m sorry. I’m pushy. I’ll shut up.”
“I don’t have the right, even if I think I do, to tell you how to feel. I’m your friend, but I’m a mother too.” Her black eyes got all swimmy with emotion. “It hurts me to see you in so much pain.”
“It hurts me to see you in so much tequila,” he told her gently. “I’m calling your husband.”
Hunter called Chuck, got Marisa into her cab, and returned to the bar to say good night to Toni and Anna, happily chatting with the guys in suits. They waved when he caught their attention. Hunter stopped at Shawn’s table. He lifted his blue eyes to Hunter in surprise. It was a solid punch to the solar plexus.
“Hey, Hunter.” His voice was rich and deep and resonated in Hunter’s chest over the celebratory noise in the bar. “Marisa okay?”
“Yeah.” Hunter lingered, unable to drag his gaze from Shawn’s eyes. They were a luminous blue in the low lighting, and the flame in the lamp on the table flickered in them.
Dare ya. Jerry’s voice, a memory, intruded on the present. You’re such a backwoods chickenshit.
Hunter must have made a sound of distress because Shawn put his hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”
Ignorant peckerhead woodbooger…
Pull your shit together!
“Would you like to go out?” Hunter’s voice, steady and strong, surprised him. He thought it would squeak like a teenager’s.
“I’m with someone.” Shawn removed his hand. “In fact, I’m waiting for him right now.” He gave a rueful laugh. “I’m shocked. I thought you were a snob.”
Ouch. Double ouch.
Hunter tried for casual as he shrugged it off. “Fine.” He yanked his hat onto his head. “See ya.” And strode out the door.
Once on the snowy sidewalk, he heaved a sigh of relief—free once again. A small ache settled around his heart, but he ignored it and hailed a cab.
* * * * *
On Monday, a little after seven in the morning, Hunter stood in the open ambulance bay as the cold wind between the buildings whipped bits of trash and new snow around. A hard blast slapped at his head and pushed a flap of hair into his eyes.
“Should shave my hair off,” Hunter said to Marisa.
His friend smoked a cigarette despite constant harping from Hunter to stop. Only one or two a day, she said, escaping her husband and kids to step out into their backyard to light up or, like now, at the end of her shift.
“Don’t you dare.” Marisa exhaled a final plume of smoke mixed with the pale steam of her breath. She dropped the butt and ground it out beneath her thick-soled shoe, then picked it up and flicked it unerringly into the bin at the hospital entrance with a smile. They weren’t supposed to smoke on hospital grounds, but it was too dangerous to go off-campus and into the neighborhood.
A man pushed through the doors of the ER.
“Here’s our Shawn,” Marisa said in a low voice.
“He’s not ours,” Hunter said. “He’s someone else’s.”
“I did after you left. He turned me down and told me he was with someone.”
Shawn had dressed for the February weather in a gray hoodie under a black denim jacket and a Red Sox cap. With a long, loping stride, he stood about an inch taller than Hunter. He tipped his face up from under the bill of the cap, caught Hunter’s eye, and smiled.
“The hell he is,” Marisa muttered.
“Hey.” Hunter smiled back because he couldn’t help it. He’d avoided Shawn most of the night shift and planned on going back to an earlier dinner break for the rest of his life. Yet he missed seeing Shawn. The hookup he’d taken to his bed last Friday night and who spent the weekend hadn’t made him feel like this. They’d had some laughs, yet Hunter had been relieved when the guy left. Hunter’s heart skipped a beat when Shawn stopped and said hello to Marisa, then turned to him. Something fizzy and sweet bubbled in his veins, tingling under his skin. His heart stopped its aching as if a morphine drip were in Shawn’s smile.
“You’re angry at me?” Shawn’s pale brows shot up into his forehead.
“Not at all.”
His blue eyes kindled with relief. “You didn’t have a dinner break at your usual time.”
“No, I didn’t. I—” Hunter turned to Marisa, but she only smiled, I told you so in her eyes. He made himself face Shawn. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Shawn’s smile widened. “Okay, good.” He gazed up at the sky and the gathering clouds. “Feels like spring will never get here. February must be the longest month of the year.”
“Aren’t you cold? You don’t have a winter jacket?” Marisa scolded.
“Nah, I’m fine.”
Shawn walked down K Street. He put his hand on top of his cap to keep the wind from taking it and pushed the other hand into his pocket. As he turned at the corner and out of sight, he left Hunter with the impression he was lonely and cold.
“Chuck’s late. He’s usually waiting for you,” Hunter commented.
Hunter didn’t like to leave until Marisa’s husband arrived with their two small girls to pick her up. She opened her mouth to answer, but three gunshots blasted out into the low hum of traffic.
“Shit,” Hunter said. The shots came from the same direction Shawn had gone.
Screaming and shouting erupted, muted by the buildings standing between the shots and them. The notorious neighborhood drug corner, open for business day and night, lay in this direction. It sounded like they got who they came for.
Two more shots and the screech of tires followed as a big black SUV came around the corner and passed them. It barely missed Chuck as he pulled into the parking lot with the girls. Chuck leaned hard on the horn.
Marisa dialed 911 as Hunter began the run down K Street, but halfway there, Shawn turned the corner with a young black man dressed in baggy jeans and an over-sized sweater. He leaned heavily on Shawn, who had an arm slung around him. Hunter recognized the guy as one of the street-corner drug thugs, as Marisa called them. He bled from a wound to his leg, his eyes wild with pain and panic as he limped along.
“Anyone else hurt?” Hunter flung the guy’s other arm around him. Damn if he didn’t hear the screech of the SUV’s tires behind them as it came around again.
“No, just him. Faster,” Shawn urged the wounded man. “They’re coming back.”
“Hurts like a motherfucker. I’m gonna kill those motherfuckers. Motherfucker!”
Marisa ran for the ER, shooing her husband and kids inside, as the big black car turned the corner again. The boom of the bass increased as they lowered the window to take another shot at their prey. Marisa returned with a determined expression and a first-aid bag under her arm.
“Marisa! Stay back!” Hunter yelled.
“Mommy!” her daughter shrieked from the doorway of the ER, stopping her cold
“We’ve got him. Get to cover!” Hunter shouted at her. She turned back. When she got to the ER doors, Chuck ran out and yanked her inside.
“Fuck it if it hurts. Run for it!” Shawn pulled at the wounded man.
They ran, and gunfire followed, shattering one of the glass doors before it shut behind them. Sirens wailed in the distance, and Hunter hoped it was coming for them. A couple of doctors ran up and pushed the bleeding man, still cursing and griping, onto a gurney, then wheeled him down the hall to one of the exam rooms.
Shawn stood beside Hunter, watching them go. Hunter grabbed Shawn’s shoulder, shoved aside his open jacket, and found a few small spots of blood.
“Shawn, are you hurt?”
Shawn turned empty eyes on Hunter. He shook his head as if to clear it before turning away again.
“Sure, you’re all right?” Hunter persisted.
“Just reaction.” Shawn held up a trembling hand.
Hunter winced. “You did good, kept your head. Saved the guy’s life. Let’s get you something clean to wear.” Hunter patted him, reassuring himself.
Behind the nurses’ station, Hunter opened a drawer full of scrubs and found a shirt for Shawn, who slipped into the men’s room to change. When he came out again, Hunter dropped the hoodie and T-shirt into the biohazard bin.
Shawn flashed an incredibly sexy grin as he shrugged into his jacket, aimed his direct blue gaze into Hunter’s, and held him there for a heartbeat before turning to leave. “Thanks.”
As Shawn walked away, he raised a hand to Marisa and Chuck arguing in fierce whispers by the nurses’ station. One of their kids waved back, and he nodded. Just before the entrance to the ER, he stopped, and Hunter thought he meant to button his jacket.
The big black SUV had been driven up onto the sidewalk in front of the ER. The first police car screeched into the parking lot as two men got out of the SUV—white, older than the wounded drug dealer, heavier and harder appearing, with guns, already drawn. With the SUV in front of the doors, no one was getting in. And no one was getting out.
The door closed behind the last customer, and the noisy bar returned to silence, a booze-fumed, tacky-underfoot silence where the small noises Alex made seemed twice as loud. His ears rang as he picked up the broom to sweep out the crap on the floor behind the bar.
The front door opened again, and his shoulders tensed. He cursed himself for not locking it when he’d shoved out the last drunk patron, distracted by the e-mail he’d received. A rookie mistake. He groped under the bar for the bat the owner had urged him to use if he suspected he needed to.
“Excuse me,” the man in the doorway said. He’d been in the bar earlier, an Asian man along with a rather bland, nondescript white guy.
Alex looked closer, not letting go of the bat. “We’re closed. Need me to call a cab for you?”
The man appeared innocuous, but innocuous-looking people could still be trouble. The instincts Alex had honed all those months on the run had stayed with him. Director Flint’s warnings about retaliation flashed through his mind.
The guy opened his mouth to answer Alex’s question, but someone shoved him from behind before he could speak, and he stumbled. Alex grabbed the neck of the bat.
“Didja ask him? Is it him?” The pushy friend pressed himself forward a few steps, far drunker than his buddy.
“We’re. Closed.” Alex threw some menace behind the authority in his voice and revealed the bat. The Asian man flinched and grabbed at his friend, who fished in his pocket for something.
“It’s him. You. Boy Blue,” the drunk man burbled.
Alex froze, shifting gears. He tightened his grip on the bat. Anger fueled his ass up and over the bar to land a few feet in front of the drunk who pulled out a phone, aimed it in his direction, and blinded him with the flash.
“You fucker!” Alex reached out to slap the phone away—too late, because the man had thrust it back into his pocket. Alex smacked the bat against the tiles on the floor. It made a sharp, solid noise, and they both looked at him with drunken, slow-motion surprise. “Get out before I call the cops!”
“Asshole!” The first guy grabbed his friend again, shoved him out the door, and slammed it shut behind him.
Alex locked it this time and leaned against it, heart racing. When it began to slow, he took a deep breath and another, and his temper faded. He had a date tonight, and if he didn’t move his ass, he’d be late. Cranking up Dropkick Murphys to exorcise the intruders, Alex cleaned the place out in record time. Once done, he grabbed his phone and clicked on the video text. Happy Birthday! The handmade sign filled the screen. Alex smiled.
Bare feet on their unmade bed. Hunter wiggled his toes, and Alex laughed. The phone camera traveled along Hunter’s shins to his knees, all dusted with brown and copper-tinged hair, and as he bent his left knee, the sheet fell from his muscular thigh. Hey, the pointed birthday hat covered his… Hunter stretched like a big cat, and the tip of the hat rocked as he adjusted his hips. Alex swallowed hard, mesmerized as the camera swept across Hunter’s hips and flat belly, up the opposite side of his body, past an erect pink nipple, the tattoo, and the hairy armpit, along his biceps, which he flexed, then forearm to wrist and the silver bracelet around it. Alex’s heart gave a little lurch, beating faster. His boyfriend had handcuffed himself naked to the bed for his birthday.
Oh, honey. Alex groaned, grabbed his wallet and keys from the cash register, and ran for the door.
He jogged out into the warm June night, the sky clear and sparkling over Delingham as he jumped into the car. He hoped to get home without wrecking the care while Hunter’s video replayed in his head. His blood boiled for Hunter.
He drove through the quiet streets. Alex hadn’t wanted to come back to Delingham at all, but Hunter’s family had made sure the rent got paid on his apartment. At least they had a safe place to go to when Hunter recovered from Dale Markham’s accidental gunshot wound. Dale Markham, former FBI agent, rotting in jail—someplace hot, Alex hoped, good practice for when he got to hell. Nick Truman, too, but a big black hole existed where he’d once been. Maybe they had put him in Witness Protection like Nick had hoped. The case against the two men who had murdered Alex’s uncle had become a nonissue, since before they could be taken into custody, someone had killed them.
Nothing like thinking about those things to defeat his raging hard-on, so he blasted out Dropkick Murphys again to fuel up the testosterone.
“Here I come, baby,” he murmured.
Not finding a parking spot near the apartment building set him seething and grinding his teeth. His lot in life had improved, but not his temper. He dropped the keys twice on the front stairs and made it through the door before he considered alerting Hunter. Alex texted—coming up now—and smiled to think again of Hunter there, waiting, naked, and handcuffed to the bed. They’d talked about playing like this but hadn’t got around to it yet. In the video, Hunter had kept the wounded leg covered; he hated the scar, the asymmetry where they’d taken part of the muscle during surgery. Doing better after a pretty deep depression before his physical therapist motivated him on the road to getting back in shape.
Yeah, we’re doing good.
Alex kicked away his shoes and whipped off his socks. “It’s me!” In the bedroom, both the music and the lights were low. Alex opened the door, grinning from ear to ear. Hunter grinned back at him, naked on the bed, the party hat on his head tipped at a rakish angle. A second set of cuffs dangled off the tips of his fingers. Alex pulled his shirt up and over his head, wrecking his hair, but he didn’t care. Hunter’s eyes were on him; Alex wanted Hunter drinking him in as much as Alex drank in Hunter. Alex had set himself up with a rigorous workout schedule to prep for the physical part of the special agent application process. He didn’t know for sure if he’d get accepted, but the real payoff lay in Hunter’s eyes.
Alex worked the zipper of his jeans. “Have you been waiting long?” He stripped off his jeans and underwear.
“I’m fine. Come and have your birthday cake.” Hunter laughed, the sexy, dirty laugh Alex loved. Hunter’s whole body moved in a sinuous, inviting wiggle, and the cuffs rattled. Alex’s cock and heart led him right into the bed like the needle on a compass pointing true north. He straddled Hunter, their legs tangling together in the sheets. He ran his hands over Hunter’s bulging biceps; he and Hunter had been working out together.
Hunter, his dream of love, impossible, unreachable. His selfishness for staying with Hunter kept him awake at night, tossing and turning, his head filled with fear. Vargas or Truman would take Hunter from him, from the world, and he’d be left to live out his days without Hunter, knowing he had been the one to cause his death.
Alex kissed Hunter to burn away his fears. When he put his hand down on the bed to brace himself, he touched the second set of cuffs. “I can’t believe you did this for me.”
“I guess you liked the video?”
Alex froze for a moment, like he had in the bar when the drunk guy had called him Boy Blue. Looking around, he found the webcam on the nightstand beside Hunter’s laptop and moved it into the top drawer.
“Ah,” Hunter said. “I thought you might want to make a sex tape, you know, for us?” He smiled cute and sexy, but Alex shook his head.
“I want my cake.” He nibbled Hunter’s neck.
“Did something happen in the bar tonight?” Hunter’s eyes were so light blue they appeared gray, but this close they were dark with concern. “You looked worried there for a minute.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Alex assured him, hoping he spoke the truth.
“Okay?” Hunter bucked his hips under his. “Come on, baby. Let’s go. I’ve been lying here thinking about you and all the things you’re going to do to me when you get home.”
“You look good enough to eat. And lick.” Alex flicked his tongue across the letters of Hunter’s tattoo. When he took a hard little nipple in his mouth, Hunter arched his body with a moan, and Alex tightened his thighs around him. Hunter pulled at the cuffs. They rattled again, the play of straining muscle in his arms mesmerizing Alex. He unwrapped Hunter like a present, pulling the sheets from them both until they were naked. As he reached for the lube, he tightened one hand around both their cocks and squeezed and stroked them together. Hunter’s groans set his blood on fire, and he strained to keep from sinking into Hunter’s ass and fucking the daylights out of him.
“So ready for you.” He moaned, arching up against Alex, the heated slide of their skin making Alex shiver. “Come on, tiger.”
Alex moved Hunter’s wrist to the headboard and cuffed his other hand to the top of the wooden frame.
Monogamy had freed them from the tyranny of condoms. Hunter’s hot and ready flesh welcomed Alex, wrapping around his aching cock like a velvet glove, and he pummeled the soft nub of Hunter’s prostate until his body fell under Alex’s control. No wrestling with his bossy bottom—Hunter took what Alex gave him, and Alex gave everything he had. He stared into Hunter’s eyes as he fucked him, the eye contact a live wire between them while he drove into Hunter, so sexy, so much love.
“Coming,” Hunter groaned out, tears in his eyes. “Oh, God…Alex…I love you.”
Alex couldn’t form words. Hunter had melted his brain. Alex stroked him until he came in Alex’s hands, crying out his name as orgasm racked his body. Alex didn’t hold back anymore and came like a rocket.
* * * * *
By noontime, Alex cracked his eyelids open for good. They’d had a little more cake earlier in the morning, without the cuffs, and his insides were glowing with sated love and lust. The smell of coffee, French toast, and bacon reached him, and he hauled his ass out of bed. He showered, shaved, put on jeans, and headed for the kitchen, unable to make himself stop smiling.
Hunter plated up breakfast, even with the crutch under his arm; he grinned when he turned to set the plate on the kitchen table. Alex sat, and Hunter put a full coffee cup down in front of him, with a kiss to his forehead. “Happy Birthday, Alex.”
He was lucky to be alive to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday on a warm day in June with what seemed like every flower on the planet in bloom. Winter had hung on forever up north; it had even snowed in May. Somehow the bullets aimed in their direction had yet to find them.
He had more days of joy now than of the endless despair dogging him since he’d witnessed his uncle’s murder, been placed in protective custody, then been betrayed by his guardian agent Nicolas Truman. Another good man had died trying to protect Alex. He might have lost Hunter, because he’d refused to give up on Alex, taking him to his family of lawmen in the North Country for safety.
Hunter thought it odd Alex jumped at the chance when Director Flint suggested he apply to the FBI. The FBI had failed him—due to the rotten apples like Truman and Markham—who worked for Oscar Vargas, former leader of a Mexican drug cartel in Las Vegas. Vargas’s incompetent son and his friend had murdered Alex’s uncle, and Alex had been the only witness. Vargas had wanted him dead so his son wouldn’t have to go to jail.
Alex had a hard time seeing himself before it all happened; grad school so he could teach history had been derailed. Why wouldn’t he want to devote his energies to stopping men like Vargas from hurting innocent people and destroying their lives?
“What are you thinking about?” Hunter sat opposite Alex and leaned the crutch against the wall beside him.
“I’m psyching myself up to put my application into the special agent Talent Network tomorrow.” He didn’t know why he said it, because there’d been a great vibe going in the sunny kitchen up until this moment.
Hunter frowned. “You decided on applying as a linguistic specialist.”
“It’s my only chance to get in. I’m fluent in Spanish and in Mom Alice’s Mexicano—I’ve got French and Japanese for my foreign-language minor.” He said it like a mantra, as Hunter knew all this already. Maybe Alex wanted Hunter to try and talk him out of it one more time. Alex wanted this job more than anything in his life, and Hunter hated it. He didn’t say he hated it now, but he lowered his gaze and kept it on his plate, though he didn’t eat.
“You’re scary smart, mister.”
“I’m rusty. I need to pick up a couple review classes.” On top of the martial arts classes. “It’s bugging you.”
Hunter made a noncommittal sound. “It’s what you need to do. For John and because of Truman.”
“That’s not all.” Alex’s heart grew heavy.
Hunter looked up from the plate. “I get it. Why wouldn’t I? I respect you for wanting to be a part of the FBI.”
He hadn’t said it before, and Alex let out his breath. He needed to hear it from Hunter and to reassure him. “Your family puts their lives on the line every day.”
“I don’t buy the idea they’ll stick you in an office somewhere to push paper, right? Flint sees something in you, something the FBI can use.”
“You’re competitive. It’s part of the reason you survived.” Hunter poured syrup over his French toast. “It’s what they want. You’ll also be good at it because of me.”
Alex reached across the table for Hunter’s hand, and Hunter met him halfway. “I’ll be good at anything because of you. They still might not accept me.”
“You have a plan B. Getting your master’s and teaching. Or applying to the police academy.”
“I’m afraid—I don’t want this to come between us down the line.” Alex did want to protect Hunter, protect them both, and the FBI had become a place of safety now. Alex would always fear sure the fallout from his life ticked like a bomb out there.
“I hear Virginia is nice, with not much snow. I’m sure there’ll be work for me there. And it’s not like the ER anywhere is impervious to violence, considering how we, ah…met.” Hunter let go of Alex’s hand and picked up his fork. “And I’d love to prove Flint and you-know-who wrong.” He winked. “We keep talking, like we always do.”
The first time Alex had brought up the subject, Hunter, still recovering in the hospital but only days away from release. They’d fought about it, loud enough to bring a couple of shocked nurses in to check on them. Alex smiled at the memory.
Hunter sobered and put the fork down. “I understand. I do. But it’s going to change you, and I love you the way you are. The job is going to take you away from me. You’re always going to be traveling.”
“I want you to come home to. I didn’t think any of it would be easy for either of us, but you’ve been thinking about it.”
Hunter shrugged. “Who wants easy?” He nodded. “I’m with you, whatever you decide, whatever happens. I want you to be happy. Come on—we have a birthday to do. We can make the next train into Boston if we hurry our asses up.”
Sleeping With the Enemy
Hank rattled the keys in a one-handed grip to shake loose the house key from the rest. No lights on in the house, and beyond late for dinner. Starving and sleep deprived too. In his other hand, he held a thick file of case notes, because the night wasn’t over for him yet. At least Len had left the porch light on.
After letting himself into the house, he placed the file on the end table, keys on top, and toed off his shoes. The windbreaker he shrugged out of hadn’t done much to keep the cold spring off his back.
The rocking chair in the living room creaked. Hank spun around, hand going to his holster.
“Easy, cowboy.” Len yawned. He snapped on the table lamp beside him. “I fell asleep. What time is it?”
“Jesus, Len. It’s two in the damn morning. Let me put this away.” At the bottom of the closet, the gun safe sat on a shelf. He knelt, spun the dial around and tucked the gun away. When he turned, Len stood, arms across his chest, brown hair tousled. Another yawn stretched his mouth wide, and then he blinked like an owl behind his glasses. Hank, tired to the marrow, pulled Len into a bone-crunching hug, and Len laughed against his shoulder.
Relief tickled through him. On the drive home from the station, he’d feared the house would be empty. He inhaled the scent of Len’s pricey shampoo—vanilla and sweet tobacco with a hint of whiskey. His heart twisted with anxiety.
“I’m sorry. I—”
“You got caught up, I know. ’Sokay.” Len yawned again. “But I’m beat. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed wants me in bright and early tomorrow, so…” He stepped away from Hank’s embrace. Hank let him go with reluctance. “There’s lasagna and meatballs in the fridge. Or maybe you’re ready for bacon and eggs?”
“Neither. Both. I’ll figure it out while I read the case notes again. I need to make sure this guy doesn’t walk.”
Len turned back. “Hon? I know. You’ll be great. You always are. Night.”
“Night,” Hank responded as he picked up the paperwork. He sat in the rocker Len had vacated with the file in his lap and fell asleep with the first page between his fingers.
He awoke with a snort, thinking he’d heard Len’s muffled laughter and smiled. When he glanced at his watch, twenty minutes had passed since he’d first sat down. He could sleep in tomorrow, but he still wouldn’t have caught up on all the sleep he’d lost over this one. Hank stood and stretched his aching muscles, contemplating a shower, but his deepening desire for bed and maybe sex to relax him led him into the bedroom and not the kitchen. Len’s nightstand lamp glowed and his side of the bed rumpled but empty. Len’s soft giggle came from the other side of the bathroom door.
Hank rapped his knuckles against the oak. “Hey, babe?”
The toilet flushed. “I’m just washing up! Be right there.”
A cold weight settled into Hank’s belly at his husband’s rushed, the edge of guilty tone, slithery and with pointed scales brushing against his tender insides—a too-familiar feeling tilting the world on its axis. The bathroom door opened, and Len came out wreathed in the scent of mouthwash and minty toothpaste. “All yours.” He smiled but wouldn’t meet Hank’s eyes, making it all the harder for Hank to dislodge the sick feeling in his stomach.
“Who were you talking to?”
With his back to Hank, Len said, “One of the new interns drunk-dialed me. She’s a hoot, so we talked. Come to bed, Hank. You must be wiped out.” He slid between the sheets and pulled back the covers on Hank’s side.
Liar, the serpent in his belly whispered.
Too tired to fight, he said, “I fell asleep in the rocker, so yeah, I guess I am.” He gathered up pajama bottoms and a T-shirt and headed into the bathroom. When he came out, Len lay facing away from Hank, his breathing even. Maybe asleep. Hank doubted it as he climbed into bed with his back to Len, his eyes wide in the darkness.
* * * * *
Hank slept later than usual, exhaustion stealing any memory of dreams he might have had. When he awoke, Len had already gone to work. What had Hank been so afraid of last night?
He went into the kitchen and started up the coffee, then shoved a bagel into the toaster oven. Not the first time one of Len’s friends had called drunk or upset. Len had a lot of friends. They helped him through Hank’s late nights. Although their marriage went to hell last spring, in the end, love forced them to work things out. Hank believed in Len, still believed the tearful, heartfelt promises of renewed fidelity.
But—he plopped down on a kitchen chair as if his bones had untied themselves—why did he have such a weird feeling last night? A couple of weird feelings, actually.
He stopped watching for the signs of guilt or innocence, he told himself. A cop first, he believed in the blue sense and going with gut feelings. Yet he spent too much time with liars, thieves, cheats and murderers, so maybe the distrust had rubbed off on him?
Or should he stick with his gut feeling Len had more to hide? It wouldn’t be the first time…but he’d hoped they’d done with the past. Ugh, second-guessing himself again. He couldn’t afford the drain on his confidence today.
The toaster oven tinged. With a fork, he dragged out the bagel. He loaded it with butter and the homemade strawberry jam his mother made. Licking his thumb, he dropped the two halves onto a plate and brought it back to the table.
He couldn’t trust much of humanity, going back to a time long before he’d become a cop. Hank didn’t want the scum bleeding into their relationship. Distrust bred more distrust. He often found it tough to leave the hard-guy persona behind at the office, to let his softer side out around Len. It’d been difficult when they first met, but Len had been patient. Well, Hank would be patient too. What if a family issue had set off Hank’s alarms, a secret Len couldn’t share yet?
He’d demolished the bagel as the wheels turned in his head. Sucking on his sticky-sweet fingers, he opened the fridge to grab another. Last night’s dinner sat wrapped in cellophane on the shelf.
He had to talk to Len. But first, where did he leave the damn file?
* * * * *
Hank’s court appearance went off without a hitch. Satisfied his part in the investigation and trial had ended, he first called Len at work and then made dinner plans at Len’s favorite place. He had the rest of the day off. He should have gone to the station and made a dent in the paperwork on his other cases, but man, he was too glad to have this particular case—a domestic homicide—off his chest and in the hands of the judge. He tried to coax Len home for a late nooner, but he couldn’t get away. Too bad. So. What to do? Couldn’t get dirty with Len, so maybe get clean, surprise him with a clean house? And the work would go a long way toward clearing Hank’s head.
He changed out of his suit and into old police academy sweats and T-shirt—behind a desk for four years, and he had the body of the twenty-year-old rookie ten years earlier. Sinewy and raw-boned, every time he looked in the mirror his Scots-Appalachian ancestors stared back; square jaw, ruddy complexion, and dirty-blond hair. The blue eyes, however, were harder and wiser.
Hank emptied the hamper in the bathroom and stripped the bed. He stuffed all he could manage into the clothes basket and headed for the laundry room. Balancing the basket on his hip, he crossed the living room, then backtracked a few steps to the laptop and flicked on the streaming music app he and Len shared. Sweet, serenading violins filled the room.
“Ugh.” Hank set down the basket and tapped the keys to get to his favorite country stream.
He put the sheets in the washer, then went through the pockets of their pants. He emptied the change into a jar, the notes into an old shoebox on a shelf. One of the handmade “gentleman’s” vests his mother stitched for him lay crumpled at the bottom of the basket. He shook it out and put it on a hanger, thinking of her. A bit of an affectation to wear them to work, but he loved them, and they looked good on him. So long as she stayed away from flowers and fruit patterns.
The afternoon flew by in a flurry of dust rags, vacuuming, and washing the kitchen floor. Their place wasn’t dirty, but it did show signs of many a lick and a promise, as his ma used to say. Len wanted to hire a housekeeper, but Hank thought it a needless expense. He liked to get back in touch with home too, to wrap himself in simple and safe. God, this case had been eating away at him—a murder-for-hire between a husband and wife.
His phone rang elsewhere in the house. When he followed the sound to the bedroom and glanced at the number for the collect-call service, his heart twisted. He took a deep breath and put a smile on his face, hoping it would show in his voice.
“Hey, Tripp! Glad to hear from you!”
“Hank, everything okay out there?” His brother’s laconic tone held a quiver of anxiety.
“Well, sure. I’m”—he tossed the rag in his hand into the hamper and sat on the bed—“cleaning the house.”
“Ma coming to visit?”
Hank laughed. “No, had time. What’s up? What do you need?”
“I didn’t call because I need… Shoot. I need underwear. And socks.”
“Got it. I’ll put them together with the science-fiction paperbacks I picked up. What’s the matter, brother?”
“Thanks. Nothing. Well. I had a bad feeling, had to call. It’s not like I can come around and check up on you.”
“We’re fine here. Did you call Ma?”
“It’s you I had the funny feeling about.”
“But we’re okay here.”
“You and Len getting along all right?”
“Sure, same as always, I guess. Don’t worry,” he said. “How about you? Getting along okay?”
“Same as always,” Tripp returned. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Still looking out for me, aren’t you?” Hank cleared his throat and rubbed at his stinging eyes. Here it comes… “Thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me every time we talk, Bean.”
Hank’s tears spilled over. “It’s not fair. You shouldn’t be in there.” He sounded like a little kid, the bean Tripp had nicknamed him for.
“You’re the one cop who thinks so.” Tripp rumbled a laugh though it turned into a cough. “I’d do it again. He was gonna kill you. That’s the black-and-white of it.”
“Yeah, he…” Hank pushed down the memories, like he always did, to be present for Tripp.
“Last we talked, she sounded good. Misses you too.”
“Be nice to see her, if she wanted.”
“I’ll talk to her. You know how she is—talks herself into seeing you, gets excited, then talks herself out of it.”
“Okay, yeah, so soon?” Tripp spoke to one of the prison guards, Hank assumed. “Time flies, little brother. Take care. Be careful.”
“You too, Tripp. I’ll see you.” The assurance rang hollow in his own ears.
The line disconnected. Hank headed for the workshop in the garage because now he needed to hammer.
* * * * *
Len arrived late. No surprise there.
“You’re mad.” He sat across from Hank. “I can’t believe it.”
“I’m not mad. I must have my mad face on still. Sorry.” A couple of beers and a few shots in the bar hadn’t eased his mood any after talking to Tripp. “It’s not you.”
“What happened? I thought you said your testimony went well?” Len opened the wine menu and perused it. “What are you having?”
“Nothing happened. And I don’t know yet.”
“You had time to look at the menu.” Len glanced up at him. “You’re mad, hon.”
“Talked to Tripp.”
Len nodded. “And you don’t want to talk about it.”
Len’s subtle pout wormed its way around Hank’s heart and found a way in. He made a deliberate effort to soften his tone before he said, “How was your day?”
“Crappy. My boss ran me ragged. I’m glad you called, though.” Len smiled, a real one lighting up his blue eyes.
Hank’s heart jumped. “We should take a weekend away.”
“I don’t think I can right now.” Len slapped down the wine menu and picked up the dinner one. “You should have spoken up before.”
“I can’t either, Len. It popped into my head,” Hank confessed. “I miss you, and we live in the same house.”
The server approached to take their order, but they hadn’t decided yet. Len picked up the wine list again and talked to him about wine choices, listening and nodding to the server’s advice.
“You got shrimp and grits tonight?” Hank asked when they were done.
“No, sir, I’m sorry.”
“We could share the seafood paella,” Len suggested.
“Sure. Another Johnnie Walker Black too.”
“I guess I’m driving.” Len handed the wine list to the server. “A glass of Vinho Verde, please. And a basket of bread as soon as you can, thanks.”
The server removed the menus and filled the water glasses through their silence.
When he left, Hank asked, “What’s that?”
“What?” Len unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. “The wine? It’s Portuguese—it’s a young white.”
“Since when do you like wine? You’ve been a Captain-and-Coke guy since we met.”
Len blushed. “One of my friends at the office is into wine-and-food pairings. It rubs off after a while.”
“The new intern?”
“The one who called you last night. The drunk one.”
Len shot him a sharp glance. “Aren’t you celebrating the end of your case? I asked you what’s wrong because you won’t tell me, and now you’re picking a fight.”
“I just asked—like a real conversation.”
“Like a real relationship and not an interrogation,” Len snapped. “Where there’s communication and trust?”
The server dropped off their drinks and the bread and departed with haste.
They sat in silence again until Hank said, “My bad. I’m sorry.” He swallowed hard. Maybe time to face facts. The anxious feeling churning in his gut resembled the one from last time, the last time Len left him and put him through hell. He closed his eyes for a moment.
“Are you okay? Eat the bread. You didn’t have lunch today, did you?”
Hank sighed, shoving down his fears, not ready to air them out. “I’m celebrating the fact I helped send a total scumbag to prison. I’m mourning the fact there are five more scumbags and their files sitting on my desk waiting for me.”
Len took his hand. “Okay. You must feel like you’re drowning in it.” He squeezed Hank’s hand. “Me too.”
Hank wished he could tell Len more about Tripp, but as a rule, he’d purged his brother and much of his past from personal relationships early on. No one at the station needed to know. Len worked as a paralegal for a civil-rights lawyer, but he’d grown up sheltered and upper-middle class. It would hurt Len to know the ugly truths making up Hank’s childhood. Len met Hank’s mother a few times, but she lived in West Virginia. She didn’t talk much about Tripp herself.
“Yeah.” Hank nodded. “The devil’s in the details.”
“Maybe we should get proactive about making time for a weekend?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Up to the lake, maybe? Beth will let us use their place.”
Beth, the nice sister. “Peace and quiet would be good,” Hank said.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m tired and need a break.
“I’ll ask her.” As Len’s expression brightened, a familiar tug of affection around his heart kicked in again—and the push and pull of craving for intimacy and fear of opening himself to Len, to anyone. Of fucking it up because of the ugliness inside.
They went home after dinner still talking about a trip anywhere, together. Making slow love in clean sheets with the music turned down low would have been the best way to end the day and to start a new chapter in their relationship. But Hank tasted good-bye in Len’s kisses, and it took him a long time to drift into an uneasy sleep.