Shadows in the Light – Oscar & Max
In Haven’s Creed with meet Haven and Sammy, plus their core group. In Haven’s War, one of those members loses his life, and Haven wants to find the killer and show him what justice truly means. In that book, we meet Oscar, who used to work for the same outfit Haven does, but left when he did something that was frowned upon. Seems killing bad guys is okay, but killing good guys? Not so much.
PLEASE NOTE: This story was serialized a few years ago on my blog. The only changes have been a few corrections.
Twelve Years Ago
They say that the mirror never lies. Well, if what mine was saying turned out to be true, it was a fucking douchebag. For the first time in eighteen weeks, I dared to step in front of the damn thing and really give myself the once over. Probably shouldn’t have, because believe me, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Across my body were jagged pink lines where the shrapnel ripped through me. They were fading, unlike the jumble of memories in my head. I remember the white-hot pain as the pieces seared through my flesh. Looking at me today, you wouldn’t have guessed at one time I had been referred to as a pretty boy. Of course, this was before puberty. Dark hair with even darker eyes framed a face with soft, delicate skin that had never seen a zit in its life. I could walk in a room and heads—guys and girls—would turn in my direction. All that changed as I matured—well, physically at any rate. My body grew thicker, the layer of baby fat increased to more than love handles. My neck, which had never really been something to speak of, disappeared between my head and oversized body. It seemed overnight I went from being a twink to becoming the elephant man.
Still, I was loved by my parents. They doted on their little Oscar, and told me that I shouldn’t pay attention to what the kids at school said, because I was lovely inside and out. I snarkily told them they should invest in a good pair of glasses. They shook their head and ruffled my hair. Still, they reminded me every day how special I was to them, and even if no one saw it now, one day everyone would. It made my teen years bearable to me.
Then came the day I got home from school and found a line of police cars outside the little store we ran. I stood in shock as a policewoman hustled me to a waiting van, which whisked me away to a place for me to stay temporarily. All the while I cried, asking what was going on. I could see the looks of pity on their faces, and I knew. Later another officer came and explained that my parents, whom I’d loved more than life itself, had been murdered in cold blood. Oh, the police said it was a botched robbery. The store had been hit more than once, so it was possible, I guess. Still, I was seventeen, and the life I thought I was going to have went out the window. There wouldn’t be living in the sweet house where I grew up. I wouldn’t inherit the store and grow old there like my parents. I wouldn’t find someone to love. No, that life was denied me by the rage that filled me. I hated everyone and everything.
After I discovered no one wanted the sullen teen who stayed in his room all the time, I figured out I had a choice. I could continue the way I was going, or I could step up and be the man my parents saw. I chose the latter option and joined the Marines. Fortunately my eighteenth birthday was close enough that there wasn’t any hassle about my choices. It took a lot of time, and a shit ton of patience, but eventually the Corps gave me a new family. We were close, because you needed to have your team’s back. When they found out I was gay, not one of them gave a shit. Did they tease me? Hell, yes. Constantly. But not in a mean way. More in a ‘you’re our family and only we get to talk to you like this’ kind of way.
To them it was a fact of life, and I was their brother in arms. They took me under their wings and helped to shape my future. Together we worked to changed our bodies. Where I had been a hefty teen, I cultivated muscle. I was now a hulking bruiser. Six foot six, two hundred fifty pounds, and all of it lean and mean. They nicknamed me The Little Hulk, which was funny until we stripped off and went to the shower. When they saw what I had swinging between my legs, that name got changed to something a lot less flattering. Still, it was in fun, especially on the night I found Merkowitz waiting for me, desperate to know if I could get it up. I did and despite claims of being straight, he started out on his knees before I bent him over in the shower for my first ever sexual experience. I think it was better for me than it had been for him. I became cocky, while he endured some ribbing for the trouble he had getting over the wall on the obstacle course. We never told anyone what happened, it was never repeated, and as far as I knew, no one ever found out about it.
I tore away from my thoughts and tried to get back to perusing my reflection. As it usually did when I started thinking about my life, my mind refused to let go of the past. I scrubbed a hand over my hair. When I was younger, I’d kept it long. The weeks I’d gone without access to a barber had it growing back, curling at the ends. I preferred it shorn almost to the scalp.
The biggest change, though, was my outlook on… well, everything. When I was younger and coddled by my parents, I thought I had a near perfect life. Turns out everything I believed was colored by the freedoms I had. Once I got out into the world, I had to change my ideals because I saw too many who didn’t have even the basic necessities. My country, great as it was, had little problem turning a blind eye to the realities of life. I could no longer afford to be that person. I had to be better.
After we finished training, we got sent to the Middle East. Let me tell you, it was a total shit hole. It brought everything I learned about the US into razor sharp focus. You don’t know how much you miss things like clean water and a bed that you don’t have to turndown to ensure that nothing crawled in to escape the godawful heat. Guys finding a snake or scorpion in their beds wasn’t uncommon. Of course, having someone put it there so they could have a laugh at your reaction was just as likely. As much as it sucked, I was there with guys I’d literally become a man with. Ones who I forged friendships that would last a lifetime. Unfortunately, it turned out that life was pretty short-lived.
My squad of six men was sent to secure an area. To this day, I can’t recall why we were there, and what memories I do retain are hazy at best. Flashes of light, loud bangs, screams of dying men. I remember Patrick Murphy, a man of flame red hair, some of the greenest eyes, hovering over me, that perpetual smile of his assuring me everything would be okay. He knelt there, telling me he’d get me out, and we’d be fine. He put his hands under my armpits and dragged me away from—something. Then the expression on his face changed to one of shock and disbelief when part of his head was blown away. I remembered the light in his eyes went out as he toppled forward, the weight of his body as it covered mine, his blood as it seeped into my jacket. I pushed him off and grabbed his weapon. I don’t remember anything after that, except the doctors telling me how lucky I was that I survived with only a bunch of cuts.
Lucky. Fuck that. Losing my second family was worse in many ways. While I would always miss my parents, these were men who’d chosen me to be part of their lives. They weren’t my blood, but they were my brothers. And now they were gone. In one hellish instant, they went from being living, breathing people to corpses. That rage I had experienced at the death of my parents flared back to life, stronger than ever. I vowed to keep that in my heart, because it was what would keep me from being hurt again. No more would I allow myself the illusory family that let me have it all. Never again.
I was in the hospital for a little more than a week. The place was strange. I didn’t see anyone who wore a military uniform. What I did see was a wave of people who bustled around like ants. They were all dressed in crisp white jackets looking as though they were models instead of doctors. The only person who seemed to take an interest in me had on a name tag that said her name was Lilah.
She actually took the time to get to know me a little. She asked me how I ended up in the hospital, chatted while she checked my wounds, and once when I was angry at the world, challenged me to a game of strip poker. I laughed and told her that she didn’t have the equipment I needed to play with. She grinned and patted my hand.
Beside her, people rarely spoke to me, other than to ask me how I was feeling. Beyond that, it was mostly a lot of uh-huh and okay. When I asked why I was in a private place, instead of being in a military hospital, I was told that it would be explained in due time. That time came just prior to my second week when a tall, thin man, with bright blue eyes and a pencil-thin mustache stepped into my room. He dismissed the doctors who were checking on me. As soon as they scurried off, he closed the door. He didn’t say anything for a long while, just stood there and stared at me.
My anger at being looked at like a bug flared. “Can I help you?”
His gaze ran over my body, and a slight sneer crossed his face. His expression didn’t change as began to rattle things off. “Oscar Lee Goodwin, born December 23, 1985 to Myra and Jason Goodwin. Parents both deceased. No siblings, no immediate family. Decorated Marine, sole survivor of the 2005 attack on the Kenpa weapon depot.”
Hearing my life from his lips pissed me the fuck off. I tried to get out of bed, but moved too quickly. Shooting pain up my right side forced me back onto the bed, clutching at my ribs. Still didn’t stop me from giving the bastard a death glare, though.
“Who the hell are you?”
For the first time he gave me a smile. It wasn’t pleasant, more like someone who wasn’t used to social pleasantries. Or just didn’t give a shit about them. He stepped over the the bed and stared for a few more moments, then he extended his hand. “My name is Knight and I’m trying to determine if you’re going to be a member of my team.”
Six Years Ago
“You know what? Fuck you.”
Knight sat behind the big oak desk, his Cheshire grin in full force. It hadn’t improved any since I met him. “So you don’t want the job? That’s fine. I’m sure I can pass it over to Rook. He’ll probably have someone who’s willing to take it and get it done every bit as well as you could. Maybe I’ll ask him if Haven’s available.”
Haven. Again. I hadn’t met the man yet, but he’d apparently impressed the right people. Knight had lorded over me the fact that he’d not only gone through his training in record time, but he also tossed his gun to the guy in charge, telling him he couldn’t very well use it when it had been loaded with blanks. That kind of pissed me off, because I tried shooting the fuckers who got in my way. Carefully planted squibs made me think I’d gotten a killshot in, but it was all a bunch of bullshit. When I reached the end of my test, I was pumped and ready for more action. You’ve got no idea who quickly it sucks the wind from your sails to find out you’d been played. Which was exactly what Knight was doing now.
I got good marks in my training with the organization. Hand to hand, I didn’t find anyone I couldn’t take. My skills with a weapon were equally impressive, once I got done with my rehab. But no matter what I did, all I heard about was Haven. Was I jealous? Maybe a bit. Still, Knight assured me that I was every bit as good—if not better—than Rook’s guy. I wanted the chance to test that theory in the worst way.
Knight had a way of getting under my skin. Since that day in the hospital two years ago, he’d been on my back, pushing me to be better than I was. As much as I learned in the Marines, he and the group he represented taught me so much more. They gave me purpose that went beyond the Corps. Where I fought for nameless, faceless people in the military, Knight sent me to help people directly. I found out about them and made a connection to their anguish. Helping them helped me by bleeding a bit of that anger from me. It never lasted long, but the rare moments when I felt fully human, were something I cherished. And helped when I fucked my way through everyone I met.
God, those were the days.
Six Years Ago
“Pay attention, Oscar! This meeting is for your benefit, not mine.”
I heaved a sigh. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been listening to Knight. Young man in desperate need of cash, wealthy family, only beneficiary in the will. It also wouldn’t be the first time I’d heard the story, either. Shit, people could do some really fucked up stuff in the name of money. It was a lesson I’d learned over and over again in the six years I’d worked for the organization.
I ground my teeth. They had a job they wanted handled. I had someone who was stealing money from his family. No idea why they thought it would be difficult. I held up my hand and mocked a mouth talking. “All I heard after kill order was a lot of blah blah blah. Let me know if you’re going to come up with anything important.”
This time Knight sighed. “You know, you’re a pain in my ass.”
I waggled my eyebrows at him. “Not yet, but if you bend over—”
He waved a hand at the same time as he made a face as though he’d sucked on a lemon. “Yeah, no. Listen to me, this is important. The kid’s made threats against his family. They’re scared and holed up in their house. Maximillian Kearney hasn’t been seen or heard from in days, but that’s got them all the more nervous. They say he’s unstable, off his meds, and prone to violent outbursts. I know that normally we react instead of act, but in this case, I think it’s warranted to take preemptive action to ensure he’s not able to make good on his threats.”
I reached up and brushed the tip of my finger over his lips. “Your mouth is so pretty when you’re using it to make big words. What do you think it would look like around my cock?”
He huffed a disgusted breath. “You are a sick bastard. If you weren’t the best agent—”
I feigned shock. “I thought that was Haven.”
Knight shook his head. “I’ve never seen him in action. You, on the other hand? I sincerely doubt Rook’s guy holds a candle to you.”
I’d seen Haven in the field. He was brutal and took no prisoners. I once saw him cut off a guy’s hand who had touched a kid inappropriately. Then, when the guy started screaming, Haven shoved the bloody end in his mouth and duct taped it there, telling him if he wanted something in his mouth so badly he had to rape a little boy to get it, then Haven would help him out. He let the guy gag for close to an hour before he shot the fucker in the head. I was in total awe of him. Plus, he was hot. I would have given that bastard a ride to remember, if he wasn’t such a control freak.
My head snapped up and I glared at Knight. “Kill order. Got it. Give me an address and let me get to it.”
He gave me my file, wished me luck, then went back to whatever it was he’d been doing. The smile on his face as he tapped at the keys on his laptop freaked me out. It wasn’t often I saw him smile. Normally he had this perpetual scowl, which explained the deep lines around his eyes. I put it out of my mind, because I had a job to do.
I got into my car and checked the time. There was still two hours before I needed to be at the airport. I drove to the parking lot, parked, opened the trunk for my bag, then went in to check in for my flight. I sat on one of the benches, opened the folder, and began familiarizing myself with my target.
The file on Maximillian was thin at best. Art major, specialized in paints. Had attracted interest from galleries around the country with his technique of blending strange fluids into his paint to give them a deeper color. He’d used juice extracts, oils, and—my gaze froze on the words. “Fuck. Who the hell would use piss and come in paintings? And why would anyone want those things in their houses?”
The kid was a sicko all right. And if his family needed to be kept safe from him, then I’d be the one to do it. Plus, there was the benefit of my fee. One hundred thousand bucks per hit, with very few expenses, had allowed me to amass quite a nest egg. When—if—I quit, I’d have a very tidy sum to hold me over. But I liked my job. Aw, who was I kidding? I fucking love my job. There’s something about taking a scum sucking leech off the face of the earth and getting paid for it that did my heart proud.
As I waited for the plane that would take me to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I thumbed through the file again. It wasn’t my normal dossier. Usually Knight’s files held reams of paperwork, telling me everything from the target’s blood type to the date when they lost their virginity. Still, if this was all he’d been able to dig up on soon to be dead Maximillian, so be it. Knight had never steered me wrong before, and I saw nothing to suggest he’d ever do it in the future.
After they called for the flight to board, I found myself next to a woman dressed in full habit. I groaned and hoped to hell she wouldn’t sit next to me. Naturally, that’s exactly where she ended up. On the plus side, she had an eReader and had immersed herself in a book during most of the flight.
About an hour outside of Milwaukee we hit a bit of turbulence. It wasn’t anything major, but my seat mate dropped her Kindle into her lap and grabbed the armrest in a death grip., the flight was pretty standard. We were approaching the airport when the sister beside me crossed herself.
She gave me a smile and clutched her beads a tad tighter. “No. I fly around the country giving talks about domestic violence six times a year. I hate getting on one of these things. If God had meant for me to have wings, he would have made me an angel.”
I knew she meant it as a joke, but I couldn’t laugh. “It must be tough,” I said. “Hearing the stories of people who were abused by those that claimed to love them.”
Her smile faded just a tad, but I know she was feeling a deep pain to the core of her being. “It is, but I think it’s my calling. Besides, it’s not like I don’t have experience.” She pointed to a divot in her cheek.
She traced a finger over the scar. “Box cutter, actually. He came home one night, drunk off his ass. It wasn’t the first time. When he got there, I served him the meal I’d been keeping for three hours. He wasn’t happy. Said the roast was too dry, the mashed potatoes were cold, and the gravy was lumpy. I told him if he hadn’t been out to the bar without telling me, it would have been all moist and tender when he walked in the door. Well, that didn’t help the situation any. Apparently I’d become a lippy bitch and needed to be put in my place. It was the first—and last—time he ever raised a hand to me. After he passed out, I packed a few of my things and went to a friend’s house. She contacted the shelter and got me in. Long story short, he went to prison for three years, and is now under a restraining order, while I’m out there telling women—and men—they don’t have to accept violence in their safe spot.”
My snort may have been a tad inelegant. “And it doesn’t hurt if you save a few souls along the way, I guess.”
She frowned at me. “I wear jeans and a t-shirt with Calvin and Hobbes on it when I go into meetings. I never tell people I’m a nun, and don’t push my religious views on them. Yes, God helped me get through this, but my journey isn’t for everyone. When I sit down with a group, I’m Gina Garner, not Sister Mary Catherine. I think the journey back to being whole is hard enough without tossing another person into the mix.” She shrugged. “Besides, my beliefs and theirs? Not necessarily going to be the same thing, and I respect that.”
Okay, I felt like an asshole for thinking she’d used her position to turn a few people on to religion. I know that when I was in the military, God had been a big thing. We’d held prayer meetings and everything. I fell out of that habit when—I pressed down hard on the memory. Thinking about it now would only result in anger and the desire to get wasted.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
Her smile came back, full force. She reached out, took my hand, and twined our fingers together. “Nothing to apologize for, I promise. And what about you? Why are you going to Milwaukee?”
I choked back a laugh. What would she say that while she was out there saving souls, I was sending some straight to Hell? I hedged my answer. “Just some business. I don’t think I’ll be there more than a few hours.”
The captain’s voice informed us we would be landing in a few moments. He also gave us a short spiel about the flight, how he hoped we enjoyed it, and then welcomed us to Milwaukee International Airport.
She gazed out the window as we flew over the lake near downtown. “It’s a lovely place. You should give it a chance. You might like it. They call it a great place on a great lake, but for a lot of years, I called it home.”
I scoffed at the sentimentality. “They have snow in the winter. I promise you I won’t like it.”
She turned to me, her expression dead serious. “You won’t know what you can find if you don’t open your heart to it.”
I held back my disdain for what she was spouting. It wasn’t easy. I hated when religious people said your life would be better if you just follow their rules. “Thank you, Sister, but I’m not looking for anything.”
She placed her hand on my arm. I gazed from it to her earnest expression. “Everyone is looking for something. I know it’s crossing a line talking about religion with you. I get that you’re…hostile to the idea that someone is looking out for you.”
I turned to her, unable to school my features. “Hostile? Is that the word you’re going to use? Tell me something, Sister. And take all the time you need to think on this, okay? What kind of benevolent being allows people to get rich off the misery of others? Why in the hell would you even allow it? Either your God is a sick son of a bitch or he’s got the worst fucking sense of humor I’ve ever seen.”
If I thought she would be angry, Sister Gina had another ace up her sleeve. “I’m not going to tell you that God has a plan, because I don’t know that he does. All of this could be some random confluence of events a billion years or more in the making. Was it pure chance that I was seated next to you? Or are there larger forces at work beyond what we can see?”
“There’s nothing.” That much I was certain of. Seeing my own men get killed proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing else existed that could be called a god of peace or love.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough. It’s not my job to convince you. Besides, I could be full of shit and this is all just a toss of the dice. Look, I don’t claim to know all the answers. When I needed help, the sisters were there for me. I thought that doing this gave me a purpose in life. Now? Who the fuck knows? Maybe one day I’ll figure out what I’m really meant to do. Until that time, I might get the chance to help some people. At least until I figure shit out.”
I laughed at her coarse language. I now had a hard time picturing her as a nun, and found her to be someone I’d go to a bar with and get drunk. Shit, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.
“I thought you took vows or something?”
She bit her lip. “I did. And at the time, I thought it was what I wanted. Living with the others, working together? That gave me hope. But as time went on, I found myself questioning more and wondering if it really was the life for me. I’ve talked with my spiritual advisor several times, and he keeps reminding me that God moves in mysterious ways. He said there’s a plan for me, even if I haven’t figured it out for myself yet.”
She rolled her eyes. “He likes to think so.” She snickered. “Actually, he’s brilliant. He’s not trying to keep me as a nun, because he knows I have to be happy with what I’m doing. I’ve been giving talks to people around the country for the last three years, and it’s draining. So many horror stories and I know I’m only slapping a bandage on the wounds.” She turned and stared out the window. “Maybe one day when I grow up, I’ll figure out who Gina is.”
I liked this woman. She was something else.
“How long are you in town for, Gina?”
“Until Wednesday. I have a talk with a group of survivors on Monday and a lecture for the college students on the evils of rape and why they ought not be dicks. And I use the term to be gender neutral, because I know plenty of women who can only be described as dicks.”
She had me questioning everything I knew about nuns and religion. If she wasn’t a tight ass, maybe some of the rest of them weren’t either. When they opened the door to the plane, I took my chance. I slipped her a card with an assumed name and secondary number. Last thing I needed was for Knight to find out I had a nun’s number in my work phone. I’d never hear the end of the teasing. “I was hoping you might find time to go out and get a beer. Or a class of wine. Wait. Shit. Do nuns drink?”
“Yes, as long as we don’t make a….” She paused, then waggled her brows. “…habit of it.”
I blinked several times. I could tell she was waiting for a reply, but I was too flabbergasted to say anything. Finally she shrugged. “That one knocks them dead on bingo night.”
Truthfully, I had no idea what I expected, but Gina wasn’t any of those things. I’d always expected that nuns were dour people who looked down their noses at those who weren’t like them. Shit, I’d seen Sister Act…well, some of it. I agreed when Whoopi said she was surrounded by the penguins. When she didn’t poke her eyes out in the second half of the film, I lost interest.
“Yes, Oscar. I’d like to meet you for a drink.” Her brow crinkled. “Wait. This isn’t some strange sex fantasy you’ve got going on, right? I mean I’m not a virgin, so get that out of your mind right now.”
The more she talked, the more I was convinced she and I could be friends. Well, as much as a holy woman could be friends with someone who killed in cold blood.
“Sorry, Sis, but we bat for the same team.” She eyed me curiously. “We both like the dick.”
People around us scowled, but Gina snorted. “Name the time and place.”
The flight attendant bid us a farewell as we departed the plane. “This is your city. You tell me.”
She rubbed her chin as we headed to the baggage carousel. I didn’t have but one small bag stowed, so it wouldn’t take me long.
“Well, I used to go to this place… What was it called? Ugh. You can never remember these things when you want.” She tapped her temple, then her eyes lit up. “Oh! Landmark Bowl. You can drink and do a little bowling at the same time.”
I gave her a dubious look.
“What? It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten my hand on some balls.”
And finally, she broke down my hesitancy and had me laughing. She did a fist pump and grinned so wide, I thought her face would split.
“I knew I’d get you eventually.”
“You’re nothing like I expected.” She smirked. “I didn’t know nuns could swear or drink.”
She shrugged as we watched for our bags. “Like I said before, when I come to give talks, I’m not Sister Mary Catherine. I’m Gina, and she’s got this problem with her mouth. Lippy bitch, remember? I’m not going out there to talk down to people. When I speak to college students, I’m going to swear up a storm. I’ll scream, pound on the lectern, even cry when I share my story.” She pinned me with a stare. “I’m going to use whatever tools are necessary to make them hear me. If it keeps one person from being hurt, then it was worth it to me. Of course, if I give a talk to a group of older people, I’d tone it down a little. Then, when I go back home, I’ll meet with my spiritual advisor, and tell him what I did. He’ll roll his eyes at me, say I did a good job, then send me back to work. Why? Does my language bother you?”
“Fuck, no.” I laughed. Then I grinned at her. “No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Her bag came around first. She picked it up, slung it over her shoulder, then turned to me. “So I’ll see you tonight?”
“Great. The place doesn’t really start jumping until around midnight. And I’ve been traveling nonstop for the last few days, so I can meet you there, say eleven? We’ll get a good lane, grab a few drinks, maybe a pizza, and get to know one another. Sound like a plan?”
“It does. Although you’re making this sound like a date.”
She laughed. It was a nice sound, bubbly and full of life. I could see why she was a popular speaker.
“Well, it is in a way. It’s been forever since I’ve been out, so I’m looking forward to it.” She launched herself into my arms, and I froze. Affection wasn’t really my thing, but I gave her a quick squeeze. She stepped back and scowled at me.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to hug? Try again.”
She wrapped her arms around my waist. I sighed and slid mine over her shoulders. When I turned her loose, she straight up scowled at me. It was funnier than hell. This woman stood all of five six or so, and I towered over her at six and a half feet.
“You know, you can bend, right. You make me feel like I’m hugging a tree.” I was going to tell her hugging wasn’t really my thing, but she cut me off. “We’re going to keep trying until you get it right. I’ve got nothing but time.”
I growled, pulled her close, and lifted her to my height. She put her arms around my thick neck and squeezed.
She kissed me on the cheek. “Now that’s what I call a hug.”
I put her back down on the floor. She cuffed me on the arm, straightened her bag on her shoulder, and headed for the doors. Before she left, she turned and gave me a wave. Warmth bloomed in my chest. Maybe she was right. Coming to Milwaukee had changed my outlook on life. I’d made myself a friend.
Of course, I was fully aware of how short lived that could be.
Knight’s information said that Maximillian would be at his family’s River Hills home between seven and eight in the evening. A niggle in the back of my brain made me wonder where he got such specific information, but I pushed it aside. Knight was in charge for a reason, and I trusted him with my life. And had many times.
My plan was simple. Kill Maximillian before he could do his family harm, call Knight to dispose of the body, then head off to meet Gina for beer and a pie. I hoped to hell she didn’t like anchovies on her pizza, because that could be a deal breaker.
When the cab dropped me off a little after four, I gaped. This place wasn’t a house, it was a fucking mansion. Three stories of masonry, glass, and steel, and what appeared to be a dormer at the top. The property covered about an acre and a half with a meticulously sculpted lawn, coupled with the prancing pony topiary, the front of the place screamed ostentation and power. I didn’t know the people, but I already wasn’t a fan. As I reconnoitered the place, nothing I saw changed my opinion. Everywhere I looked, there were disgusting displays of wealth. A pool wasn’t good enough for the Kearny’s. No, they needed a fucking waterpark. Slides that were taller than the house opened up into a pool that was just a bit smaller than some lakes, there were fountains that burst jets of water into the air, where they caught the last rays of the sun, turning into a misty rainbow, a gazebo that appeared as though it could seat thirty or more people, with a huge grill tucked away to one side. They even had a goddamned putting green. They were all things that screamed, ‘look at me, see how rich I am?’ It made me wonder if Maximillian had a reason for wanting them dead. Without stepping foot inside, it wasn’t difficult to tell that there was a lot of money riding on the outcome.
I shook my head and went back to assessing the property. My job wasn’t to critique, it was to eliminate a threat. I had to keep that in mind. No matter how gaudy I thought the whole place looked, no one deserved to die, especially over something as stupid as money.
Seven came and went with no sign of anyone approaching the house. By eight, I began to think maybe Knight had it wrong. There were lights on in the place, but no movement. That niggle returned. Something wasn’t right. When I tried to text Knight, I got no reply, which left the ball firmly in my court.
As I approached the house, another light went on at the top. I saw a silhouette sway, then drop to the ground. Every instinct I’d developed told me this wasn’t right. I rushed to the door, surprised to find it opened. I went inside, straining to hear any sound at all. Nothing reached my ears, but then again, with a house this size, there were so many places people could be. I decided to go to the dormer. I knew I’d seen something up there, so it seemed like a logical choice. I checked my phone again. Still nothing from Knight. This was unlike him.
I found a spiral staircase that led to the upper floors. I bet if I had time, I would probably have found an elevator. As I went up, I still heard nothing. It was surreal, because the family was supposed to be here. Yet there wasn’t so much as a peep.
As I got to the third floor, I found another set of stairs leading to the dormer. Gun in hand, I crept up the stairs. Now I heard it. Faint sounds, like moaning. No matter what my plan had been initially, now everything changed. I tried the knob, but it was locked. Shooting the lock really only worked in television, so that was out. I threw myself against the door, knowing I’d pay for it later. When it burst open, I was stunned at what I saw.
Blood spattered the walls and floor. So much spilled out of the corpses that were spread around the room that the royal blue carpeting had taken on a purplish hue. I took in the scene in a matter of seconds. An older man and woman lay on the floor, theirs mouths open, and their eyes glassy. In the corner the bodies of a young boy and girl. Their bodies were covered by that of a woman, and a man lay atop them. It took me a moment to notice the baby curled in the woman’s arms. All of them were dead from multiple stab wounds. My blood boiled. When I heard the moan again, I scoured the room. Behind a sofa, I found my target. Maximillian Kearney lay hidden, his clothes covered by patches of blood. In his hand was a butcher knife, the blade snapped off somewhere, probably in one of the bodies, but the six inches that remained were caked with viscous red liquid.
I grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to the middle of the room where I threw him to the floor.
“What the fuck did you do?”
His eyes kept rolling back into his head. He couldn’t fix his gaze on me. I could tell he tried, but his head lolled back, his mouth open wide, his breaths coming in short pants. White hot anger coursed through me. I wanted to beat this bastard until my hands were numb. It wouldn’t bring back his family, but it would give me an outlet for—
No. This was my failure. I’d missed it. No idea how, but he’d gotten in and killed these people. Those fucking babies, who could never have done him harm, were dead now because this fucker wanted money. I dropped next to him and shoved my gun under his chin.
“All this because you wanted cash? What kind of sick fuck are you?”
“Nooooooo…” He tried to lift his head, but it kept drooping back. Whatever the fuck he took must have been pretty potent. “Noooo….”
Max struggled to sit up, but I pushed him back down.
“You know, my friend Haven has this thing where he likes to tell bastards like you why they’re about to die. Looking around this room, I’ve got no doubt whatsoever you already know.”
I shoved the gun into his mouth, the barrel clacking against his teeth. His eyes were wide and red, the pupils blown so much, it practically drowned the… Holy shit, this kid had one brown and one blue iris. Freaky fucker.
I began to squeeze then trigger when I saw the tears. I hesitated. I never hesitated. But that niggle in the back of my mind kicked up to high. I’d never gotten a message back from Knight. If Max had come in here with the intent of killing his family, how could he have done it? He couldn’t even stand. I doubted they stood there and let him stab them to death. Things weren’t adding up. I drew my gun back and holstered it. I needed to figure this out before I killed anyone.
I stood up and went over to the older couple. I reached out and touched one of the wounds on her body. The blood was cold and sticky, so it wasn’t fresh. Rigidity on the eyelids, neck, and jaw also added to the puzzle. It took between two and fours after death before that set in. These people had been killed hours ago. Had Max gotten stoned after he killed them? It was possible.
I went through the room, looking for proof one way or another. I’d never killed an innocent person intentionally, and I wouldn’t do it now when there were so many questions unanswered. After fifteen minutes, I’d given up. Max had nothing on him, but I found fresh track marks in the crook of his elbow. The thing of it was, there were no needles, no scars from other injections, and it all made me more and more certain.
The text from Knight came three hours later.
Mission not complete?
I stared at the screen. Nothing about my previous texts, just him wanting to know if Max was dead. I glanced over to the bed where he lay, sweating profusely. He’d barely stirred and did a lot of moaning since I’d lugged him into the motel room. Whatever he was on, it was fucking him up. I’d stripped off the bloody clothes, washed him down as best I could, then wrapped him in what the motel laughably referred to as a bathrobe.
Mission complete. After not hearing from you, I had to make judgment calls.
There were no messages for several minutes, then my phone pinged. Was tied up with another agent. Any problems?
Time and again, Knight had gone to the wall for me. He pulled me in after my platoon had been ambushed and killed. He’d given me a home in the organization. Now I was betraying his confidence by not telling him things had gone south.
No problems. Have flight out tomorrow. Will be back home soon.
Great. Will have cleanup crew go take care of the place.
Which effectively meant that all evidence of my involvement would be erased. Of course, they wouldn’t find Max’s body, and that presented a new problem. I’d deal with that as it came up, though.
I thumbed through my contacts until I found the one I was looking for. My finger hovered over it briefly, then I pushed it.
“This is Lilah.”
Her tone was clipped and as efficient as always. I was about to put an inordinate amount of trust in her.
“Hey, Lilah. This is Citadel.” I cringed. I hated codenames. “Need to know something here. Anything I say to you now is covered by doctor patient confidentiality, right?”
She sighed. “Who did you kill this time?”
Lilah was good people. Normally I would have played with her for a while. This was not that time.
I growled. “Is this confidential?”
She grumbled something, but I chose to ignore it. “Yes. No one will know what we talked about. What’s going on?”
“I’ve got this kid here, his eyes are glassy, his speech is slurred, and he can barely walk. He’s got what appears to be a single needle mark on his arm. He’s been sweating like a pig, and moaning like he’s in pain. What do you think he might be on?”
She expelled a sharp breath. “I can’t diagnose something without seeing it firsthand. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say maybe ketamine or Methoxetamine. How long has he been this way?”
“I wish I knew. I was on a mission and he was in the house. It could have been hours before I left, but it’s definitely been at least two since I brought him back.”
She hummed. “It can’t be either one of those, then. They’ve got a short half-life. Off the top of my head, I’m going to say maybe Ativan. There could be other drugs mixed with it, but without doing blood tests I can’t say for sure.”
“So how do I bring him out of it?” Then I could determine whether or not to kill him.
“Without knowing what happened, I can only say time. If he doesn’t have track marks, then it’s likely he hasn’t been doing this for long, so it’s going to hit him harder than if he were taking it constantly and built up an immunity to it.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Oscar? Was he your target?”
A million things bounced around that I could say, but Lilah wasn’t a resource I could afford to lose. “Let’s just say it’s better off if you don’t know.”
“Oh, Oscar.” Her tone dripped with pity. If there was one thing I hated, it was having someone look at me with the expression I imagined her having.
“Do you want me to come to you? I can check him out.”
“No, but thank you for offering. Wisconsin is a pretty far distance to travel from Arizona. Plus, I can’t take the risk they’ll track you. I was serious when I said it was better that you not know.”
Max moaned again and he ran a hand over his stomach. When he sat up, his freaky eyes wide, and projectile vomited, I nearly lost my shit. Blood? Yeah, I can deal with that. Stabbing someone through the eye? No problem. Puke? Fuck, that’s disgusting.
“What’s going on?”
I’d almost forgotten Lilah was on the phone as I make sure Max didn’t collapse back and choke to death. “He’s puking. And that shit’s getting everywhere.”
“Okay, I’ll let you go. And, Oscar? Be careful.”
She hung up and I put the phone back in my pocket. She’d said be careful, but I’m pretty sure that ship had already sailed. When Max had expelled everything it seemed he was going to, I lay him back down and he closed his eyes. I went into the bathroom and came back with several bath towels, which I proceeded to use to clean Max and the bed up. Looked like I’d be sleeping on the floor.
As I mopped around the smelly mess, I peered down at him. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he trembled. I’d seen pictures of him, and clicking through them in my memory, I pulled up details. His face had never been this pale in any of them. I reached out and brushed his chestnut hair away from his brow, then swept across it with a washcloth. In my mind, the questions kept coming rapid-fire. If Max hadn’t done the murders, who had? Why did I suspect that Knight knew more than he was letting on? And what the hell was I going to do with Max if he wasinnocent?
Everything in me said to off him and get the hell out, but if he was innocent, it would piss me off.
I didn’t end up sleeping that night. I sat in the armchair, waiting to see if Max would wake up. The more I thought about it, the more I doubted he had killed anyone. This, of course, sent me off on new tangents, trying to connect the dots to form a picture that right now, I just couldn’t see.
At about one-thirty, Max opened his eyes again. He levered himself off the bed, and when he found me sitting in the chair, he let out a sharp cry, tumbled over the edge, and scrambled back as far as he could.
“Relax. I’m not going to hurt you.” At least not yet. “What’s your name?”
He continued shouting, and I sure as hell couldn’t have someone calling the cops. I stalked toward him and knelt down. He whimpered and drew into the corner, his arms wrapped around himself. There was no way this kid was a cold blooded killer. In the heat of the moment, anyone was capable of murder, but this act had been too brutal. Thinking back on the scene, it almost seemed to me that it had been setup to appear as though Max had done it in a drug induced frenzy.
“Look, your name is Maximillian, right?”
His eyes watered and his lips wobbled as he dipped his chin once. “I hate that name. Can you just call me Max?”
I gave him a smile. “Yeah, I can do that. You can call me…” Aw, fuck. “You can call me Citadel.” I understood what Max meant, because I really hated codenames.
“What are you going to do to me?” His voice, barely a whisper, was filled with fear. And it was a good question, but one I didn’t have an answer to. I chose to ignore it for the moment.
“What can you tell me about tonight?”
He cocked his head slightly to the right. His eyes were somewhat more focused, but his pupils were still huge. “What?”
“Where were you tonight?
His eyes drifted shut as he dropped his head against the wall. “My parents called and said… They told me…” He opened and eyes and huffed. “I can’t remember.”
I didn’t want him to be afraid of me, but he had information I needed. There wasn’t an urge to growl at him, demand that he tell me the truth, but . . Funny thing was, I knew he had been. Against my better judgment, I whipped out my phone and called Lilah again. “He says he doesn’t remember.”
“It’s possible. Ativan, and the class of drugs like it, can really mess you up. It’s why it’s so strictly controlled.”
This job was going right down the shitter. “So now what?”
She sighed. I noticed she seemed to do that a lot when we talked. “He’s just coming out from under the influence.” She paused for a breath. “It’s very possible he may never remember what happened. Some of these drugs cause memory loss. It’s short term, but while under the influence, he likely won’t recall anything that happened. You’ve got to be patient. I know it’s nearly impossible for you, but you need to dial it back and let him get back up to speed.”
Lilah wasn’t wrong. I took a deep breath. I needed answers, but badgering Max wasn’t going to get them for me. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Again, if you need me to come out and see him, I will. It doesn’t have to be anywhere in particular.”
My gaze darted back to Max. He had his arms wrapped around his knees, and sat rocking gently. There was a twinge in my stomach I couldn’t identify, but I pushed away the thoughts it brought up.
“I’ll let you know.” I hung up before she responded. My choices were limited now. I could kill Max, thus completing my contract. It seemed like that should be my only option. I had a signed kill order, and this was what I do. But…
And the but was the problem. This whole mess had me screwed up in the head. My instincts told me Max wasn’t responsible, but Knight had shown me the files.
Until I figured it out, Max was going to stay alive and I was going to protect him.
Making the decision was the easy part. How to go about achieving my goal was something totally different. Max was fragile, and what I had to tell him wasn’t going to be easy on him. There wasn’t a choice, though. I needed him ready to move.
I stood up, walked over to the tiny desk, turned the chair around, and plunked down.
“Okay, so we seem to have a situation here. I’ve got something I need to tell you, and I know you’re not going to want to hear it, but I don’t have the time to break it to you gently.”
His gaze narrowed as though he were assessing me. Seeing those eyes of his, darting up and down, still freaked me the fuck out. I needed my curiosity sated.
“First off, what’s up with your eyes?”
He lifted a hand and touched right below one of them. “What do you mean?”
“They’re… One’s blue and one’s brown.”
“Shit. He turned his gaze to the table. “I… I must have lost a contact. They’re both supposed to be blue.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. There was a sadness there, and it wanted to be acknowledged, but we needed to push on. And Max was about to learn, I don’t do subtle very well.
“Fine. Listen, this isn’t going to be pleasant, and I’m sorry about that, but we need to get out of here. Tonight your family was murdered. They were stabbed to death by someone who, I believe, wants me to think you did it.”
That got his attention. He practically flew out of his seat, his fists clenched at his side. “You’re lying!”
It was wrong of me, but time wasn’t on our side. I pulled the bag I’d stuffed his clothes into and tossed it to him. He pulled it open and for a second, I thought he was going to break down or, worse, puke again. Instead he fisted the bag in his hand and turned that freaky gaze of his on me.
The kid had a set on him, I won’t deny it. He was a solid foot shorter than me, slender, and judging by how soft his hands looked, he definitely was not a scrapper. But he stood there and stared me down. If he thought I was going to blink first, he was mistaken.
“I found you in the room, passed out behind the couch. There were seven other people there. All of them were dead, stabbed multiple times by a butcher knife that you had in your hand. So either you did it and you’re lying to me, or someone is trying to set you up. Now, Max, tell me which one it is.”
He deflated like a pricked balloon. His body went slack, and he turned away from me, his breathing hitched.
“Look, I’m sorry to be a prick. But if they’re after you, I need to know why. Is it about the money?”
That got his attention. He turned back toward me, his face set into a stony mask. “What money?”
“The information I got was that you were going to kill your family for the money.”
His expression turned to one of rage. “That’s bullshit! I would never hurt them. I loved my family, and I know they loved me. As for the money? There was no money. Not a goddamned dime.”
Now I knew he was lying to me. “I was in your house. I saw everything.”
“What you ‘saw’ was the house I grew up in. The one that my father had leveraged so much, he lost it all when the housing market collapsed. He and my mother were trying to come up with a way to save the place, but there was no way.” He sighed. “He had deep pockets, but there wasn’t enough to pull him out from under the mountain of debt that was crushing him. The bank had sent them a letter saying that they’d defaulted on their loan, and they were going to lose it all.”
Shit. None of my information had said anything about that. Had Knight known? He had to. Knight alwaysknew. The thought he hadn’t given me all the information made my stomach twist. And, what made it worse, the idea Max was now in danger because of us? Hell no.
Max began brooding, and I couldn’t blame him. I had been pretty blunt when I told him about this family, but I didn’t regret it. With what he told me, so many things added up and others began to paint a picture I didn’t like. There was no way Knight didn’t know about this. He was the man who had several sources he gathered his information from. He was so fucking anal about it, he refused to send me on a mission until I had the most minute details about my target.
The why of it escaped me. What reason did he have to lie? And how was Max involved? One thing I was certain of, I couldn’t leave Max on his own. If Knight—or whoever was doing this—got wind of the fact Max wasn’t dead, they’d sure as shit come after him. I sighed.
“We’ve found ourselves in a bit of a pickle here.”
Max chuckled. “My mom says…said that, too.”
His expression returned to the sad one and it bugged me that I didn’t like seeing it.
“I am sorry about your family. I know it doesn’t help, and I wish I could have prevented it.”
I knew his reaction times were off because of the drugs, but when his eyes went wide and his fear became so overpowering, I could practically smell it, I knew the reality had finally hit home.
“Why were you at my house?”
Not one to mince words, I decided to go with the truth. “I went there to… kill you.”
He scrambled toward the door, but I was on him immediately.
“Get off me! Help!”
I clamped a hand over his mouth. He continued to struggle beneath me. “Listen to me. I am not here to hurt you now. I work for an organization whose job it is to take out people who are after others. I was told you were there to murder your family, and it was my job to stop you. I don’t think you did it, but someone is trying awfully hard to make me think it was. Do you have any idea who would do something like that?”
Max gave a small shake of his head.
“If I take my hand away, will you listen and promise not to yell?”
This time a small nod. I didn’t even have my hand away from his mouth before he started crying out again and trying to buck me off him. I slapped my hand back where it had been. I’d never been in a situation like this before. Max should have been dead, and I was supposed to be on my way home.
“Listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you. Yes, you have no reason to believe me, I get it. But right now, I’m the only person who has a chance at keeping you alive. Do you understand me? If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already.”
His struggles lessened, but the mistrust in his eyes didn’t. When I pulled my hand away this time, he didn’t make a sound.
“This is so screwed up.”
Wasn’t that the understatement of the decade?
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Shit. I hadn’t even considered what to do with him. Sure as hell couldn’t call Bishop and say I needed a safe house for him. When I realized there was only one place I could take him I knew he’d be safe, I groaned.
“You ever been to Sequim, Washington?”
Sequim was often referred to as the lavender capital of North America. They grew the shit everywhere. Admittedly, it smelled nice, but sometimes it could be a little overpowering. I owned a tract of land there, five amazing acres right on the beach of the Salish sea. We’d driven twenty-six hours, then jumped on the ferry. Most of the trip, Max slept. He awoke just as the gated entry to the house—interlocking hearts, believe it or not—swung open. He blinked when he saw the gates.
I shrugged. “Thought about changing them when I got the place, but figured people were already comfortable seeing it, and I didn’t want anyone nosing around. Easier to leave them be.”
We continued along the drive, and the house came into view.
“You live here?” Max’s voice was filled with awe. He hadn’t said much since I rented a car to bring us here. It sucked for him, having lost his family, to be dragged into something he didn’t understand. I honestly wished there could be another way, because right now everything in him had to be in turmoil.
“I do.” I held out a hand and turned slowly, showing off the stunning views of the place. What do you think?”
He blinked a few times. “It’s beautiful.”
And it was. When I found the place, I knew it was going to be my home. I paid a local company to do the landscaping, which was right out of an arboretum—trees and shrubs I didn’t know the names of, blended in a sea of color with flowers of every hue. As we walked toward the house, Max’s gaze was drawn to the small wooden bridge that covered a creek that filled the air with a cacophony of frogs in the summertime.
The stream led to a manmade pond, which had concrete benches sitting near the waterside. It was a great place to go and think about nothing at all.
I ushered him toward the house. When the door swung open, his breath caught as we stepped into the living room. Tiered wooden hutches surrounded a marble and glass fireplace, which was lit when the breeze came off the ocean, where you could sit and gaze out the large panes of glass.
His voice was soft, reverent, when he stood at the windows. “Oh, damn.”
If he thought that was impressive… I showed him to the bedroom he would be using while he stayed here.
“You’re kidding, right?”
That was the first thing I said to myself every time I walked into the room. It was the smallest bedroom in the house, but it had a spectacular view of the sea.
“The beach is private, so you’re welcome to go down there to sit. I’m going to ask that you not venture off the property until I can get this sorted out. I need to ensure you’re safe.”
He shook his head. “This is all too much. Yesterday I was an artist, learning to paint in different mediums. Today I’m running from someone who apparently wants me dead.” He barked out a harsh laughed. “And don’t even get me started on why I’m trusting the man who came out and told me he had come to kill me.”
Max dropped to the bed like a rock, and buried his face in his hands.
“I can’t believe they’re gone. And my nieces and nephew.” He looked up at me, and tears filled his eyes. “Why would someone do this to them?”
I had no answer that I could give him. He cried for hours over their loss, and I could do nothing but watch. It wasn’t the performance that proved to me that Max hadn’t done it. It was the fact that his grief was as raw and genuine as anything I’d ever seen. I’d seen that haunted look every time I looked in the mirror after my brothers were wiped out.
I sat down on the bed and took his hand. “I’m not sure, but I swear to you I’ll find out.” It was a promise I wouldn’t take lightly.
After Max fell asleep, I trudged into my office. My options were limited now. The only sure thing was that Max needed to be protected. I considered contacting an outside security firm to send a bodyguard, but that wouldn’t work. Knight had his fingers in a lot of pies, and I couldn’t chance him finding out Max was with me.
I pulled my phone out and sent him a text. I’m back. Decided to take the scenic route home.
The reply was immediate. Glad to have you home. Cleaning crew took care of situation. No cases pending, enjoy some time off.
I put my phone away without replying. I grabbed my laptop and went to the website of the Milwaukee newspaper. There on the Metro section was the story about Max’s house being torched. The bodies that were found inside, and how they’d been brutally murdered. The details of the pending bankruptcy. Yet another thing that didn’t add up. Normally, Knight would send someone in to spin a story. The bodies of the victims never should have been found.
I wanted to slam my computer down, but didn’t want to disturb Max. I put it on the table, went to the window and opened it wide. The cool breeze and the relaxing scent of the ocean always calmed me. Not tonight, though. If I had any doubts about whether something was rotten, this blew them away. I wasn’t sure how or why, but Knight had been in on the murders of Max’s family. My boss—no, my friend—wasn’t the man I thought he was. He was as bad as the people who I got paid to take out.
I went to the sofa that sat near the window. It allowed me to look out at the sea and focus my thoughts. Tonight that wasn’t happening. Memories and facts collided in my head. The many times that Knight had my back, the knowledge he’d even accepted someone like me in the first place, and the laughs we’d shared during my time with the agency. But Max was asleep in his room. He was living, breathing proof that something was seriously wrong. I needed to figure out what it was and, if it turned out that Knight was involved, how I would deal with it.
The sigh from the hallway had me turning to find Max standing there, hands fidgeting.
“Can’t sleep. I keep thinking about my family. Heather would have been eight in a few weeks. Josiah lost his front tooth, and he was so proud of it. And Lou—” His voice broke and the tears were back again. “Can I sit with you?”
I gestured to the nearby chair. “Yeah, of course.”
I expected him to go sit where I indicated. Instead he gingerly sat next to me.
He wasn’t telling me something I didn’t know. “Anyone in these circumstances would be.”
“It’s just… I don’t have anyone I can talk to now. My family is gone. My parents. My brothers. My sister. Now it’s just me.”
Brothers? There were only two adult males in that room. I knew one of them had to be his father, and based on the resemblance I could only assume the other was his brother. Did I miss a body in the house? I never checked the whole thing. I didn’t want to give Max false hope, so I said nothing.
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?”
He nodded and stood up. He turned to face me, nibbling on his lower lip. “You won’t… You won’t leave, will you?”
“No, I won’t be going anywhere.” Though I knew Lilah would be pissed if she found out, especially since someone had already drugged Max, I had to ask. “Do you want me to see if I have something to help you sleep?”
He shook his head. “Would you believe I never used a drug since I was like thirteen? The guys at school were talking about pot, and they wanted me to get high with them. I said no. No aspirin, no cold medication. Nothing. And now, someone puts it into my body without my knowledge. Guess being good only gets you so far in life.”
He turned and shuffled back to his room, went inside, and closed the door behind him. I lay my head back against the couch and closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me. I sat there for hours, watching as the curtains billowed out, the breeze from the sea getting stronger. We were probably due for a storm. As close as we were to the water, flooding was a possibility. It hadn’t happened yet, but I figured one day it would.
I closed the window, not wanting the rain to get in. Maybe it was time I should get to sleep, too. I yawned and stretched, groaning when the muscles protested. I hadn’t gotten a workout done in a couple days, so I was due one tomorrow. Maybe that—
A peal of thunder rattled the house. The lightning flash that followed had been so bright, it illuminated the house as if it were midday. When I heard Max scream, I took off for his room and threw the door open. He lay wound up in the sheets, struggling to get free. I hurried over to him and put a hand on his chest to keep him still, while I unwrapped him. He slept through it, thank goodness.
Tomorrow would be another day for him to recall what he lost, and wonder if it was best he couldn’t remember. I glanced at the clock. Almost eleven. I slipped the phone from my pocket. I knew I shouldn’t, but I dialed Lilah’s number.
“Hey, Oscar.” She yawned. “What can I do for you? Is everything all right?”
“He’s having nightmares. His world is shattered, and there isn’t anyone he knows who can pick up the pieces.”
“Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you brought him home with you, so his physical and mental wellbeing has to be your responsibility.”
Me? “Oh, fuck no.”
“Then who else is he going to go to? Did you tell Knight about him?”
“No! And you better not say a fucking word.”
She huffed a breath. “I gave you a promise, and you know I never say anything I don’t mean.”
Lilah was an amazing woman. I trusted her to care for me on many occasions. A knife wound in the thigh, a gunshot through my side. Each of them had seen Lilah’s tender mercies. To say she was the devil was selling her short. I think she had a lot higher aspirations. But she was loyal and true. Her first priority had always been to her patients rather than the organization.
I filled her in on every scrap of information I had put together, which, I reminded her, was a lot of speculation on my part. “I’m going to have tread carefully if I’m going to do this at all.” No one could know what I was up to.
“You know you’re stepping onto a fire ant hill, right?”
Yeah, I knew. “What choice do I have? Knight might have had a hand in several murders. I can’t let that slide, and I sure as hell won’t let Max be hurt.”
“I get that. Really. But you better make damn certain that Knight is who you think. Because you’re running the risk of losing a friend if it goes south.”
Yeah, another thing I was fully aware of.
“So this is a gilded cage?”
Max’s voice grated on my nerves when he got like this. I’d explained to him several times over the last two weeks why he couldn’t leave the property. I very carefully let him know that he could go to the beach. I showed him where and how to dig for the clams he seemed to enjoy for dinner, how he could catch fish, and shit like that. Each time he had to be reminded he couldn’t leave, he bristled and it started an argument between us.
Admittedly, angry Max was better than the bouts of sadness that followed him around. He could go from sixty to zero in point two seconds if he saw something that reminded him of his family. Having been there myself, I got it. Not that I was going to explain that to him.
“I want to go to town. I’d like to get some art supplies, if that’s okay with you.”
I scratched my head. “Art supplies?” I’d already ordered him clothes so he had more than my oversized workout gear to wear. And now he wanted more?
He grumbled, got up from the couch and stepped out onto the porch that wrapped around three-fourths of the house. I followed, because I wanted to hear more about why he wanted art supplies.
The days following his coming here with me, I found he wasn’t so bad to have around. I came in from my workout one morning and found him in the kitchen. He had the coffee brewed and was in the process of making pancakes and sausage. It smelled amazing.
“I didn’t even know I had the stuff to make pancakes.”
His cheeks pinked. “I may have had to work some magic. Not sure you’re going to like them, but with what you’ve got on hand, it’s the best I could do.” He waved the spatula toward the table. “Sit, I’ll bring it over.”
The cakes were light and fluffy, drizzled with butter, and covered in raspberry jam. After the first mouthful, I was sure I’d died and gone to heaven. Or wherever people like me were going to go.
After that, he started making breakfast most mornings. I didn’t complain, because my idea of a morning meal was some toast to go with my coffee. I’d come in from my morning exercise, sit at the table and wait until he’d put a plate in front of me. He’d given me a list of things he’d like to have in the kitchen, and I contacted a few stores in the area that I did business with. While Max was out on the deck one day watching the waves of the sea as they lapped up onto the beach, Peter Cox, the son of a friend from town, delivered a huge batch of groceries. When he left, Max came in and his eyes went wide.
Funny thing… After spending time together, I’d gotten accustomed to seeing his eyes and found them to be his best feature. Weird, huh? He explained to me about his contacts, how he’d worn them so people would stop staring at him. He’d been teased about them since he was a kid, and I couldn’t understand it, because they made him unique, not the freak they’d told him he was.
“Are you even listening to me?”
His voice went up an octave, which meant that the argument I’d been hoping to avoid was about to kick into high gear.
“Honestly? No. Look, I told you and I told you, going outside of the property is dangerous to you. I get you hate being cooped up, and I wish things were different, but right now they’re not. And if you want to stay safe, you’re going to do what you’re told.”
He narrowed his gaze and his lower lip jutted out a bit. “Fine.”
In an attempt to smooth his ruffled feathers, I grabbed the laptop. “Tell you what. You sit down, make a list of everything you want, and I’ll get it for you.”
He reared back, a look of absolute horror on his face. “Oh my God, you don’t get it at all, do you? Are you really that clueless?”
His cheeks were stained scarlet, and I had a knot in my stomach that whatever I thought I was avoiding was about to bite me in the ass big time. He stood there pouting, and I had to keep myself from throwing him over my knee and treating him like the spoiled brat he had been acting like. But none of this had been his fault, and as Lilah said, I needed to dial it back.
“I don’t order stuff online. I go to the shop.” His expression reminded me of an adult who was trying to explain something to a child. “I need to get a feel for the paper to see if it will hold the paint. I check the brushes. I look through their new stuff to see if any of it would be useful.” He sighed. “I need the world, Citadel. It gives me inspiration.”
I grabbed his wrist and dragged him out into the yard. I swept my hand around the property. “That little bridge that crosses the creek? The birds hovering over the sea? That lone gull snatching food from the shore? That airplane silhouetted against the clouds? Every tree, shrub, bush, droplet of water here is an inspiration. You say you’re an ‘artist’, then let the world around you be your fucking muse.”
He had the decency to appear sheepish at least. “I’m sorry. I’m tired of being cooped up.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I know. I really wish I could take you out, show you around town, introduce you to some of the people I know. But like I said, right now it’s dangerous. I’ve reached out to some people I know, but so far I haven’t learned anything. I—”
The phone rang. When I looked at the screen, my curiosity was piqued. I didn’t recognize the number, and that had me wondering who would be calling. I pushed the accept button.
“Good morning, is this Mr. Oscar Goodwin?”
“My name is Margaret, I’m one of the sisters at St. Cecilia’s Convent.”
Aw, shit. Gina. I’d totally forgotten I was supposed to meet her. “Yes, of course. I assume you work with Gina—I mean Sister Mary Catherine?”
Her breath hitched.
“Is something wrong? My throat tightened.
There’s been… The police said she was mugged, but whoever did it…” She whimpered and my gut clenched. “Gina’s been hurt. I found your name in her calendar, and was hoping you might be able to shed some light on what happened to her. When I mentioned you to her, she simply said you were a friend.”
Max stepped into my space and put a hand on my arm. He slid the fingers of his left hand over my straining arm muscles. He may have thought I was nervous or anxious, but that wasn’t the case. I was pissed beyond belief.
I glanced over at Max. He’d been calling me ‘Citadel’ since he’d come to the house. He hadn’t asked me anything beyond calling me that. I had already dragged him into something, so maybe a little bone on my part would help.
“Oscar, please. Yes, I was supposed to meet Gina for…” I didn’t want to say drinks, because I had no idea what they’d say to that. “Pizza. We got talking while we were on the plane, and I thought she was funny. Can you tell me what happened?”
She hesitated a moment. “Someone found her in an alley. She’d been beaten and…and…” She sobbed. “Someone set her on fire.”
My blood boiled. “They what?”
“She’s been burned pretty badly. Her legs, stomach, and chest all received third degree burns. We were grateful that someone found her and was able to put the flames out. She was released into our care a few days ago. She’s upset and angry, but she won’t talk to us. We were hoping you might know something.”
My tone so cold, even Max stepped back. “I don’t, but I will find out. Tell me where she is.”
This event put a new wrinkle in things. I couldn’t very well take Max with me, but I also couldn’t leave him unprotected. I reached out to the only person I could think of.
“It’ll just be a few days, Lilah. I need to go check on Gina.”
“It’s fine. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I hated asking for favors. “Is there any way you can be here today? I need to go, but I can’t leave Max by himself. Maybe Kelly might know someone if you’re not available. Do you think Haven is trustworthy?” I knew he was. I’d run one mission with him, and the man was a beast. And he looked fucking edible in the shower.
“I said I’d be there. I have to take a commercial flight if you don’t want anyone knowing, but I’ll see what I can do to expedite it.”
“Whatever you need. I’ll pay for it, of course.”
“Oh, you know you will.” Her teasing put me at ease.
Max sat on the deck, staring out at the sea. He’d been pensive since I got off the phone with Knight. I hated that I needed his help on this, but he had resources I didn’t. He got me the information, and when I told him what was going on, he promised he’d have my back. There may have been a twinge of guilt on my part, but I pushed it away.
After I hung up, I went to my room and packed my bag. Damn, it was times like this I wished I had a major domo to make these things a little easier. Maybe I shouldn’t have scared off my last one…four. I packed quickly, my flight to Milwaukee booked for tomorrow afternoon. When I finished, I put the bag back in the case, checked my weapons, then went out to see what was up with Max.
He still sat, staring out at the water. The wind had picked up, creating small whitecaps that sloshed on the shore.
“How’s it going?”
He didn’t even turn. “Can I go with you?”
I bit back a sigh. “No. I wouldn’t be leaving if it wasn’t important, I need you to know that. Gina is… a friend.”
I didn’t want to tell him that I was supposed to meet her after I completed my assignment. As it stood, Max knew more than he should about me—where I lived, and my name—all things that I’d rarely shared. Plus, I’d broken a cardinal rule by telling him about the organization. I hadn’t mentioned names so if things went south, I’d be the one who was out a life. I’d have to give up my house and the connections I’d made, which would suck, because I liked where I was. Then there’s the fact that Knight would have to get me another new identity. And but the risks were a small price to pay for Max’s cooperation.
“I’m sorry. I know I promised I’d be here for you, but—” Fuck. How could I even explain this to him?
“Will you kill him?”
I reared back. We hadn’t talked about… my job since I admitted why I’d been at his house. “Who?”
“The man who hurt your friend. Will you kill him?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
He rolled his eyes. “You told me you were there to kill me and what your job is. So I’m asking now, is that where you’re going?”
Though I had no proof, I suspected it had been Gina’s ex-husband. I had no solid evidence, but when I talked with her, I would get the information I needed. When we spoke, Knight seemed surprised to hear from me, but when I explained what I needed, he got to work. I’d thumbed through the file that Knight had sent me. As expected, he tried to give me shit about being friends with a nun, but he stopped as soon as he realized how angry I was. When I asked how he knew about her, he told me the police had run down the name on the phone, which led them to him. He gave them an ironclad alibi, which meant they wouldn’t be looking at me as a suspect. This news had me doubting what I’d learned about him. Still, right now, it wasn’t something I could think about.
Kevin Gardner had a history of hurting people. Like Gina had said, when he’d been drunk, common sense went out the window. There were a few brawls, and another report of domestic violence filed by a woman he had been seeing after Gina dumped his stupid ass.
Max bit his lower lip and his breathing hitched as he asked the question.
“I don’t know.” It was the truth. Until I spoke with Gina, nothing would be decided.
Nashville was known for more than country and western music. Over the last few years, they had a large uptick in the number of people joining the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia convent, which went against the national trend. I couldn’t imagine people voluntarily going into a dark, musty place and actually giving their lives over to it. Of course, when the cab pulled up, I found what I’d pictured in my head wasn’t quite the truth.
The convent looked more like the place I went to school as a kid. The only difference being the building had several statues outside the building of men, hands clasped in prayer. I got out, paid the driver, and strode to the door of the place. Opening it was like a step back in time. I found myself in similar hallways, with the sounds of laughing children coming from one of the rooms. To be honest, it was a little surreal. I found the office and stepped inside.
“Good morning, sir. May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Sister Margaret. My name is Oscar Goodwin.”
She smiled at me. “ If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll let Sister Margaret know you’re here, Mr. Goodwin.”
It took only a few minutes before a tall, frail woman of about fifty stepped over to me. She had on a white habit with a black head covering. She gave me a toothy smile, but it seemed to me that there was a sadness behind her eyes. She held out her hand, and I took it in mine.
She kept hold of my hand as I stood. “Oscar, please.”
She beckoned me to follow her. We left the school and approached another building. I figured they must be the living quarters. “Thank you for coming. When I called, I wasn’t sure who you were when I called. I went through her phone, hoping to find someone who might talk to her. Mary Catherine has… Well, to be honest, she’s shut down. She refuses to take meals with us, barely speaks with the spiritual advisor, nothing. She’s already told him she’s planning to leave the order as soon as she’s able.”
None of it came as a surprise, really. She’d told me as much she wasn’t sure if this was her true calling anymore. Though I figured it would be longer than a few weeks. Then again, I didn’t expect she would have been attacked either.
“The police have questioned her, but she won’t talk with them, either. They’re frustrated, and so am I to be honest. Mary Catherine is a bright, bubbly girl. We’ve gotten many letters about her lectures and how engaging she is. It hurts us to see her like this.”
We entered the building, which looked like an apartment, with a lobby and several doors with different numbers on them. Sister Margaret escorted me to the elevator which took us to the third floor, then to a room at the end of a long corridor. She knocked, but no one answered. This went on for the next four days. Each time I showed up, they ended up apologizing for me wasting my time. As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t over.
On the fifth day, I was a man on a mission. Today Gina would talk to me, no matter what.
The pattern repeated itself. We got to the room, knocked on the door, and were met with silence. The sister turned to me, a frown on her face. “Perhaps she’s taking a nap.”
Enough was enough. I stepped forward and pounded on the door. “Gina, it’s Oscar?”
I waited two seconds before I flung it open and stepped inside. The room smelled of antiseptic and flowers. Gina lay on the bed, staring out the small window in her room. The room, filled to bursting with blooms of different colors, was bright and airy. Not at all what I expected. And yes, I realize I was saying that a lot where nuns were concerned. I’m not a man who likes to admit when he’s wrong, but I was.
“Sister Mary? Oscar came to see you.”
I heard the catch of her breath. “I’ll take it from here, Sister.”
“Oh, I’m not sure—”
I closed the door, then strode over to the bed. A small, black chair was tucked under the desk. I pulled it out, spun it around, and sat backward on it.
“Mind telling me what happened?”
Finally she faced me, and I could see the anger simmering beneath the surface. Her cheeks were mottled red and her eyes were filled with fire.
“You were supposed to meet me.”
The accusatory tone I totally deserved. I had known since the phone call that this was on me. In trying to protect Max, I had failed Gina.
“I won’t make excuses. I should have been there. Sorry isn’t enough, I know.”
“Why weren’t you there?”
Tears spilled over the lids of her eyes, rushing to join those that had already stained her pillows.
“Remember when I told you that I had gone to Milwaukee on business? Things went—please forgive the expression—to hell. Nothing was like I’d been told, and a young man ended up in deep trouble.”
He features softened. “Is he okay?”
This was the Gina I expected to see. The one who was more concerned for the wellbeing of another before herself.
“Honestly? Right now I’m not sure.”
She reached out and put a hand over mine. “I’m sorry.”
I made a face. “Sorry for what? That mess was my fault and this… I’m so sorry. I should have been there for you.”
She turned away and went back to looking out the window. “If you have been there, you may have ended up dead.” Her breathing hitched. “Just like I almost did.”
“It’s been weeks. Why didn’t you call me? Or why not have someone let me know?”
Her expression morphed again. This time into disbelief. “For what? It was a one-time thing. We met at the airport. I mean it’s not like we were friends or anything, right?”
We weren’t, she was right. And I knew good and well that she had every right to be angry with me.
“I thought we were building on that. You’re not like I expected. I figured, you know, a nun would be all snooty and carrying around a ruler to whack kids on the hands for not listening.”
It was a slow change, she grinned, and a weight lifted from my chest.
“How are you feeling?”
She rubbed a hand over her stomach. “If I move wrong, it hurts. If I stay still, it hurts. If I get up to poop, it hurts.”
I couldn’t help the snort. Really. Okay, I didn’t even try. “You can still make me laugh.”
She winced. “I’m not joking.”
That familiar anger surged again. It was time to get some answers.
“So what happened?”
We’d gotten her off the bed. She moved with slow, deliberate steps until she got to armchair that had three potted plants sitting atop it. I moved those off, placing them on the floor, so she had somewhere to sit. After getting as comfortable as she could, she turned her gaze on me.
“I went to check in to my hotel first. A small place, but I didn’t need a whole lot since I was going to only be there a couple of days. Plus, living here, I don’t want for much. Anyway, I called an old friend and asked her if I could stop by for a visit. We talked for hours about everything going on in our lives. When I saw it was almost time to meet you, I said good bye, then headed to the bowling alley.”
She reached a trembling hand toward a bottle of water. I snatched it and opened it for her, then placed it on the small wooden table next to her.
“I waited. When you didn’t show, I figured something had come up. I didn’t bother trying to call, because what difference would it have made? I got up and went onto the street to catch a taxi home.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “I didn’t even notice him behind me. He grabbed my hair in one hand, covered my mouth with another, then dragged me off into the alley. When I saw who it was, I tried to talk to him. To get him to stop. I prayed, harder than I ever had for anything. I didn’t want to die.”
He body began to tremble. I got up, walked over, and wrapped my arms around her. “It’s going to be all right. Tell me who did this.”
“It was Kevin, my ex-husband. He started in about how I could visit an old friend, but was too good to say hello to him. He was drunk… I could smell the booze on his breath. He threw me to the ground, kicked me in the ribs, then started in about how I screwed up his life. How it was my fault he’d lost his job. Apparently, I was to blame for everything that went wrong for him. I tried to get up, but he punched me in the back of the head, causing me to fall forward and land on my face. He held me down, and all I could picture was him raping me. Instead I smelled smoke, and then felt the fire as it seared my skin. He got up, started more of my clothes on fire, and then ran off down the alley. I lay there, the skin peeling off my body, and I screamed.
“Two young men came rushing down the alley. They took their jackets off and wrapped them around me to smother the flames. If they hadn’t, I would have died there.”
“Why didn’t you tell this to the police?”
She turned away. “Because I was afraid. I thought I would die in that alley. And if he finds out I didn’t, I’m terrified he’ll come after me.”
“But Gina, the police can lock him up. This is attempted murder.”
Her eyes narrowed. “He’s not stupid. He’ll find a way to beat it. And he’s got friends. Even if they send him to prison, I’m going to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life, wondering what that noise was, did I see that shadow? It just… It doesn’t matter.”
It mattered to me. She mattered to me. And it was then, seeing the hollowness of her cheeks, the dark circles beneath her eyes, and the way she shook, I made the determination that for Gina to feel safe again, Kevin Gardner had to die.
Gina crawled back into the bed as soon as she returned from therapy. There would be many more surgeries in her future, attempts to repair the skin that had been horribly damaged. I was certain she’d pull through. If nothing else, the mere fact she survived showed how strong she could be. While she dozed, I called Lilah to see how Max was doing.
“He’s a good guy.” She paused. “No, he’s actually a great guy. We’ve been talking about art. I… may have taken him to the store to buy some supplies.”
I ground my teeth together. “You’re supposed to be protecting him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to leave the house.”
She sighed. “Stop that. He’s twenty-four, Oscar. He can’t be locked away forever. It’s been almost two months now. Are you any closer to figuring you what you’ll do? He’s been patient, but everyone has their limits. We have everything we need, so we won’t be going out again.”
She was so missing the point. “You are so missing the point. If someone comes for him, are you prepared? Do you have a gun? Will you use it if necessary? Lilah, someone tried to frame him for murder. They’re not going to give up if—”
“Blah, blah, blah. He’s not your pet, your slave, or your toy. If you had taken him out, he wouldn’t have had to beg me. Two hours we were out. We went straight to the gallery in town, bought canvases and brushes, plus about thirty different shades of blue, and now he’s standing on the deck, painting the sea. And you know what? He’s good. No, he’s incredible. When he paints, it’s almost like a photograph. You swear you’re there, smelling the salt as it drifts inland. If I had that kind of talent, do you think I wouldn’t need to express it? He sure as hell does.”
Her words cut me to the bone. She made sense, but I needed Max to stay alive. I wanted him to have a life to go back to when this was all over.
“No more. He can’t leave the house until I’m back. I know you are trying to help, but this makes things worse. Who’s to say he won’t want to go out again now? What good will it be to have him get killed before I can find out the truth. For that matter, are you certain he didn’t kill his family?”
Lilah barked a laugh. “My God, are you really that stupid? This man could no more hurt a person than he could a fly. And you know what? I think you know that. So get your head out of your ass for once, and get moving. Give Max his life back.” She paused, and I feared what her next words were going to be. “Or don’t you want him to go back to his life?’
Her words struck home. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Uh-huh. He cooks for you. Keeps the house clean. He says he’s even talked you into watching a movie with him. Sounds a little domestic to me.”
And that was the crux of the problem. I did like having Max in the house. He was every bit as good as a major domo, and I didn’t have to throw him out because he folded my fucking underwear. And, I had to admit, I really liked his pancakes.
“You can’t use this as a reason to keep him here. Find out who’s threatening him and deal with it. Then give him the option of leaving or staying. You might be surprised to find out what he chooses.”
I wasn’t. Was I? I’d been in contact with my sources, came at the problem from every angle. Had I been pushing my investigation aside because I liked having Max in the house? Shit. Now that Lilah mentioned it, I could see a dozen times I’d dismissed one of the findings or comment from people about Knight. While in my mind, I was pretty certain he was mixed up in this mess, I didn’t want to believe either. I’d been sabotaging myself—and Max—by not pursuing this like I would anything else.
“As soon as I’m done here, I’m coming home. Everything so far comes back to Knight. But for every reason I find to suspect him, I find another to believe him.”
“Is that because he’s your friend, or do you truly trust him?”
Did I trust Knight? If I had, would I be keeping Max a secret from him? I pushed back at the thoughts, because right now I had to focus on Gina. As soon as I finished in Milwaukee, I swore to myself that I would do right by Max.
“I have these memories of me and Knight. So many things the two of us have been through. Then I think about Max, what he’s had to deal with, and I have to ask if it’s because of my friend. Maybe you’re right. I thought I had been aggressively pursuing this, but seeing it from your point of view, maybe I haven’t been. I promise, as soon as I’m done here, I’m coming back. One way or another, I’ll know the truth, and Max can get on with his life.”
Gina woke up when they delivered her dinner. They offered me something, but I declined. She nibbled a little, but mostly she poked at the fish and coleslaw they brought her. I sat with her a little longer and we talked about her plans for the future. She said she would definitely be leaving the order as soon as she was able to. Her spiritual advisor told her to stay until she was well, and she didn’t have any other options at hand. I made a mental note to speak with Lilah about getting Gina the help she’d need after this was over.
A little after nine one of the other nuns stopped in with four pills that Gina reluctantly swallowed. It wasn’t long before her eyelids drooped and her voice slurred. I got up and stood over her In my job, I get to see the worst of the worst. Gina was like a breath of fresh air, and she needed to be cherished for what she brought to the world, not suffering because her dickwad ex couldn’t man the fuck up and deal with his shortcomings. Meh, overall it didn’t matter. This was his last night on earth anyway.
As I made my way to the outside, I called Lilah.
“If you’re calling to apologize, I’m more than happy to listen.”
“I’m not, but I’m hoping you’ll hear me out anyway.”
I told her about Gina, her injuries, what the doctors had said, and the prognosis. It was good, but I wanted it to be better than just good.
“Do you know anyone who might be able to help her?”
She hummed. “I know a few people who specialize in reconstructive surgery. There are also some psychologists I know who help victims of violent crimes.”
“Can you set up appointments for her? Whoever you need, I’m paying for them.”
For a moment she didn’t say anything. “Oscar?”
That tone. I’d heard it before. Lilah was about to ream me for something.
“What are you going to do?”
I huffed. “I think you’ve known me—known the job—to figure that out. Knight has signed the kill order.”
“Did you think to ask your friend if she wanted her ex dead? You said she was a nun. Pretty sure that it’s not in their job description to have people assassinated.”
No, it wasn’t. “She’s not going to be afraid her whole life.” At least on that I was certain.
“This isn’t the kind of people we normally deal with.”
It was a strain to hold in the anger that welled up in me. “Well, maybe it ought to be! He brutalized her. He fucking set her on fire. No matter how good your friends are at their jobs, Gina will always bear the scars of what he did to her.”
“So are you doing this for her or is it to assuage your guilt at not being there for her?”
“What’s the supposed to mean?” I rubbed the bridge of my nose, hoping to quell the headache. I hated being lectured.
“You know I don’t care if you kill him or not. We’ve all done things that for the greater good, but I just want to be sure you’re doing it for the right reason. If you kill him, and it wasn’t for her, that won’t take away the feelings of failing her.”
“No, you’re right. It won’t make it better for me, but hopefully it will make it better for her. She can’t be afraid anymore. If I had a conscience, I would rather deal with this the rest of my life, than have her always looking over her shoulder.” Even though she couldn’t see it, I grinned. “Besides, pretty sure you know how I feel about killing people.”
“Yeah, I know.” I heard a voice in the background. “Max said good night.”
There was an unusual warmth in my chest. Must have been the burrito I had in the airport.
“I have to go.” I hung up before she could say anything. I tapped the Uber app on my phone, told it where I was, where I wanted to go, and waited. About five minutes later, a car pulled up and I got in. The driver made the normal banal chitchat and I paid him about as much attention as he deserved. When I got to the house where Gina’s ex lived, I got out, paid the man, along with a healthy tip, then squared my shoulders. Showtime.
The house had definitely seen better days. The roof had shingles missing, the chimney needed tuck pointing, plastic flapped over two of the windows, while another had been busted out completely, and the paint had turned from a blue to a green-gray. In the driveway sat a beat up shit yellow Mustang. No doubt about it, once I took this guy out, the neighborhood’s property values would definitely be going back up.
Bits of concrete were lay scattered about on the sidewalk, making it an obstacle course as I stepped up to the door. I rang the bell, but heard nothing. Giving three sharp raps, I waited. A few moments later, I knocked again.
“What the fuck do you want?”
Mr. Congeniality, all right.
The door jerked open, and it was my first meeting with the man I’d come to kill. I hoped to hell he’d been better looking when he and Gina had gotten married, because she could definitely do better than the sack of shit that stood before me.
He leaned forward and narrowed his gaze. I could smell the booze on him from where I stood. “Yeah? Who’re you?”
I did my best to look hurt. “I know we haven’t seen each other for a while, but… Well, I’m Nate. I was at your wedding. Remember?”
He cocked his head and blinked a few times. “Oh, yeah. Okay, sure. I remember you. What do you want?”
“I’m in town on business. Thought I’d stop in and see how you and Gina are doing?”
He turned his nose up. “Bitch don’t live here no more. She fucking left me. Ungrateful c—”
“Aw, I’m sorry to hear that.” If I didn’t cut him off, I would have punched him in the face. “But, hey, that just means we can go out and not have to worry about her, right?”
“Go out? I haven’t got any money.”
“My treat. Since I gave you that shitty blender for a wedding gift, I figured I owe you.”
He smiled. “Sure. Sounds good.”
“Know a decent bar around here?”
“Yeah, I do. Lemme grab my coat.”
He disappeared inside the door, only to pop back out a few moments later, then locked the door and turned to face me. “All set.”
“I don’t have my car. I came by cab.”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “No problem. I’ll drive.”
I really didn’t want to get behind the wheel with someone who had obviously started drinking well before noon, but needed to see this through. The thought to off him in the house crossed my mind, but out of respect for Gina, I had to stick to my plan for this piece of shit.
We got in the car and he turned it on. He turned to me. “I’m glad you stopped by. How long are you in town for?”
“Just a couple of days.”
“Oh, great. We should get together while you’re here. I can show you around. There’s a strip joint that…”
I tuned him out. Just my fucking luck, he was a chatty drunk. I stared out the window and nodded occasionally, threw in an ‘uh-huh’ or two, and he was satisfied. We parked two blocks from the bar. Kevin told me it had better lighting, so no one would rip off his shitty car. Whatever. We walked to the tavern, Kevin keeping up a constant stream of chatter. It took only a few minutes to reach our destination, and while we stepped inside, I took in the layout of the property. The building, located in the nearly abandoned factory district near downtown, barely stood out. The place was a dump. Still, it was quiet and I could make do with what it provided.
When we walked in, there were two people at a table, huddled close together. She kept talking, while he pawed her breasts. Classy.
“Hey, Kev. Long time no see.”
The bartender, an older man, frowned at Kevin, who gave a sheepish grin.
“Been busy, Mick. You know how it goes.”
As he wiped his hands on the bar towel, the man pinned Kevin with a stare. “Yeah, and I know how it is when someone who hasn’t paid their tab in months walks through my door.” He glanced at me. “You I got no problem with, but he can’t buy you any booze.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. “It’s no problem. How much does he owe?”
The bartender narrowed his gaze, reached under the bar, and flipped through a notebook. He put it down and glared at me. “Eighty bucks.”
“No problem, I got it covered.” I pulled a hundred out of my wallet and tossed it on the bar. “Keep the change for the inconvenience.”
Mick snatched up the bill like he was afraid it would disappear. The sneer morphed into a gap-toothed smile. He wiped down the bar, then motioned for Kevin and I to sit.
Kevin was all smiles. “Thanks, Nate.” He waved a hand in my direction. “This is Nate. He was at my wedding. Stopped in to see how I was doing, now that the bitch fucked up my life.”
He nodded at me. “What can I get for you?”
“I just want a tonic and lime. Kev?”
“Tonic and lime? That’s a pussy drink.”
Oh, I so wanted this man dead. I wasn’t a fan of people who thought no wanting a drink somehow made someone less than a man. And, worse, that being less than a man somehow equaled being a female. One agent, Savior, would drink this bastard under the table, and then kick his ass.
“Maybe, but I had a long day of travel. If I drink too much, I’m going to pass out at the bar, then I won’t be able to pay for more drinks.”
He dipped his chin. “Yeah, I can see that.” He turned his attention to the bartender. “Gimme a bourbon.”
Since I was the one with the money, I got my drink first. The lime that floated in my tonic had seen better days. A shriveled rind, it rested at the top of the drink. While I stared at the crap he’d served me, the bartender put a scoop of ice in a glass, turned and grabbed a bottle of…what the fuck? I’d never even heard of Evan Williams. At least he poured a generous portion. He put the glass down in front of Kevin, who downed it in one gulp. He set the glass back on the bar and gestured for another.
For the next two hours Kevin’s glass didn’t stay empty long enough for him to take a breath, let alone engage in conversation. Mick kept glancing at my tonic, which I hadn’t touched.
“Something wrong with your drink?”
It wasn’t easy not to wince as I picked the glass up. “Nope.” It was warm and, oh God, so fucking gross. When Mick refilled it, I could have cried. Fortunately, with the way Kevin was slurring, I figured we weren’t going to be there much longer. Well, I wasn’t, at any rate.
Watching Kevin down the drinks made me physically ill. He’d had six glasses of the rotgut shit, and that was on top of already being three sheets to the wind. He must have a hell of a tolerance for booze, because that would have had me laid out after the second one.
Mick kept a close eye on Kevin, but as long as I kept paying for the drinks, he didn’t say anything. I glanced at the clock he had on the wall. It was nearly two and that meant closing time. Before he gave last call, I pointed to a bottle he had up on the shelf.
“Do you sell that by the bottle?”
He glanced back to see what I was indicating. “Everclear? Nah, it’s not legal for us to sell full bottles after nine. And right now, it could cost me my license. We mostly have it because it’s cheap and pretty popular with some of our… less discerning patrons.”
It took me a minute to realize he was serious. Since we’d come in, no one else had walked through the doors. The couple in the corner had practically had sex in the booth before they left. Not a word did Mick say. If those were his high class customers, I shuddered at the thought of seeing his ‘less discerning’ ones.
I took out my wallet once more. I slid another hundred over to him. “I’ll buy the bottle from you.”
His gaze darted to where the hundred lay. I could see temptation in his eyes. “I would, but…”
Another hundred and he was practically salivating.
He reached up on the shelf, grabbed the bottle, blew off a bit of dust, then put it on the bar in front of me. “Don’t tell anyone where you got it, and we have a deal.”
I slipped it into the pocket of my jacket. “As long as you don’t tell anyone I bought it, I think we’re good.”
He snorted. “Do you know how many times the cops asked me about something that went on around here? I know nothing, I see nothing, I say nothing.”
I tipped my head to him. “Appreciated.” Kevin mumbled something, but neither of us paid him any mind.
“Suppose I should be getting his drunk ass home.”
Mick sneered. “Toss his ass in the lake. If you hadn’t covered his tab, I would have kicked him out myself.” He reached beneath the bar. “Or I might have just shot him.”
He had a gun. Good to know.
I clapped Kevin on the shoulder. “We ought to get you home, big guy.”
He pawed my face, his chilled fingers mashing my mouth. “This is my buddy, Mick. He’s welcome here anytime. You just put him on my tab.”
Mick shot him a disgusted look. “He paid for yours, asshole.”
It seemed that Kevin was a graduate of the how to win friends award. The disdain that Mick had for him was plain to see. I got up, tossed another hundred on the bar top, and thanked Mick for his service.
“You come back anytime.” He gave me the first warm smile I’d seen from him. “Just leave… that at home.”
I chuckled, slung an arm over Kevin’s shoulder, and helped him to his feet. He moved unsteadily toward the door, and more than once I had to help him keep his balance. When we got outside, he reached into his pocket for his keys. He grunted when he couldn’t find them. Funny thing, I had pickpocketed those, as well as something else he had.
It took a lot longer to walk the two blocks to the car this way. When it finally came into sight, I turned him loose.
“I’m driving. You’re way too fucked up.”
“Nah, I’m good.” He stumbled toward the car and fell flat on his face. He got up, a soppy grin. “A little help?”
I drew my leg back and kicked him in the chest. He slammed into the side of the car, adding another dent to the door.
“What the fuck?”
I kicked him again. And again. And again. He curled up into a ball, his arms covering his head, all the time wailing for me to stop. When I did, he struggled to stand. I hit him in the back of the head, driving him face first into the concrete. As he tried once more, I pulled open the car door and pushed him inside. I withdrew the bottle from my jacket pocket.
“What are you doing?” His voice came out as a wheeze.
“Gina is a friend of mine. You hurt her, and I’m gonna return the favor.”
I cracked open the top of the bottle. Surprisingly, the shit didn’t smell. I figured it was going to be all kinds of nasty, but nope. I splashed some on his leg.
“Well, that was a waste, huh? Here, let me clean that up.”
From my pocket I extracted the lighter I’d taken when I snatched his keys. For a moment, I wondered if it was the same one he’d used on Gina. Wouldn’t that be poetic justice? I gave it a flick and it flared to life. I reached down and touched it to his pants. They went up in a blaze of blue and yellow, and an ear-shattering scream. The alcohol burned away quickly, but his clothes stayed alight. I quickly patted them out.
“Wow. That worked better than I thought it would.”
He tried to get out of the car, but I wasn’t having it. And, drunk as he was, he couldn’t really put up much of a fight.
I took the bottle and doused him with the rest of it. His eyes went wide as he saw me reach for the lighter again.
“Don’t do this, man.” He had tears, actual genuine tears, streaming down his face. Did I pause? No, not for a second. I lit him up like a fucking roman candle. The fire roared over his body, and he screamed and thrashed. The smell was awful. A sort of beefy-pork smell, combined with charcoal and sulfur.
As he shrieked, I shouted out. “Now that is how you burn someone, bitch.”
I stepped away from the car as it continued to smolder. The seat caught fire next, thick clouds of smoke adding to the already nauseating smells. Kevin had stopped screaming. Whether he asphyxiated or died from the shock, I don’t know, but he was well and truly gone. Gina would have her peace.
I turned from the car, knowing full well that in the morning it would be found if I didn’t have Knight do something about it. I was sorely tempted to leave him there, the tissues from his body feeding the fire until nothing was left but a husk, but that seemed a little mean.
Need a cleanup, aisle four. One well-done crispy critter. Probably want to tell them to bring air with them. This place reeks.
The reply came back a few moments later. GPS lock established. Crew will be there shortly.
I cast one last glance at what remained of Kevin Gardner as the car engulfed fully and hoped to hell Gina would be able to move on.
And now it’s time to deal with a problem a little closer to home.
Including an interminable wait of almost two and a half hours, it would take me nearly ten hours to get back home from Milwaukee. The only decent thing about it? A flight, a bus, and a ferry ride would give me plenty of time to think. Lilah could very well have been right. I saw the evidence in front of me, but I tried my best to deny it. Could there possibly be an excuse for what happened? Yes, of course. Was I going to trust him enough to confront him directly? My gut told me no, and I did my best to trust my instincts.
I did some mental Ping-Pong, trying to decide how to approach this situation. On the one hand, I could just kill Max and be done with it. Yeah, not really a viable option at this juncture. I could ignore it, but that could be pretty much the same as killing Max, because he wouldn’t stay cooped up forever. I knew what I had to do, even though it disturbed me, because it was something I couldn’t take back. If Knight was innocent, it would break our trust irrevocably.
Fuck. Moral decisions are hard.
As the plane landed, I called Lilah to let her know I was back in town. She sounded genuinely happy to hear it. Then she dropped a bombshell.
“I talked with Rook.”
Yeah, didn’t see that one coming. “What the fuck? I swear I told you that no one could know. Was that not you who gave me your word to keep it a secret?”
That was it. No apology, nothing. “Okay, what made you think this was okay in any way, shape, or form?”
“Because while Max slept last night, I sat here thinking about the situation. If you go up against Knight, what will the organization do? Do you think they’re going to let you accuse one of their highest ranking members and nothing will come of it?”
Well, now that she mentioned it, no. Fuck. “What did he say?”
She chuckled. “He gave me a number to give you. Day or night, you call it and he’ll answer. He doesn’t know whether or not Knight is guilty. He’s checking on his end to see what he can come up with.”
I started to protest, but Lilah cut me off.
“He’s being very discreet. He isn’t going through normal channels. Everything is being done through backdoor operatives. He asked for information, but if any exists, it’s going to be delivered to a dead drop. No one will trace this back to you or him.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “This is gonna suck, isn’t it?”
“Probably. I can’t see it ending well, no matter what.”
And neither could I. In every scenario I tried to come up with, it all ended in the worst way I could think of. I hated that she called Rook, but Lilah had a vantage point I didn’t.
“Thank you, I guess.”
She texted Rook’s number to me, and I saved it in my phone. As I boarded the ferry, I leaned back and closed my eyes. I picture Max, with his different color eyes, laying dead on the floor. The back of his head had been blown away, and nothing remained now but a smear on the floor. I jerked upright. Fuck.
The rest of the trip, my hands shook. Tension rippled through my body. It was as though a spring had been wound too tight and needed to snap back. When I bumped shoulders with a man stepping through the door of the station, the urge to punch him rode me hard. Gritting my teeth, I apologized, then continued on.
As soon as I pulled into my yard, I saw Max standing out on the deck. He wore a button-down short-sleeved white shirt, tan khaki pants, and a pair of sandals. He smiled and waved, and just like that, the jittery feelings disappeared. I got out of the car and Max bounded over to me. I was kind of surprised when he threw his arms around me and squeezed.
“Missed you.” Max stepped back and peered up at me. “Is your friend okay?”
I took two steps back. “Yeah, fine.”
His smile slipped a little. “Oh, okay.”
Lilah came out to greet me. She was wiping her hand on a dishtowel, beaming a smile at Max. “Are you finished with your painting?”
Max nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off me. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Lilah glaring at me. Not sure how I pissed her off since I just walked in the door, I shrugged. “What?”
She heaved a sigh. I noticed that I seemed to have the effect on people. She crossed the deck until she stood next to Max. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you go ahead and set the table for dinner? It should be done soon.”
His chin drooped. “Yeah, sure.”
He shuffled into the house. As soon as the door closed, Lilah rounded on me and snapped me with the towel.
I turned and scowled at her. “What the fuck?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? He’s been waiting for you to come home. He kept asking when you’d get here. The painting? He did it for you, and he was proud of the damned thing. Then you come back and barely acknowledged him.”
Her annoyance made no sense. “Okay, and?”
If looks could kill… “Are you always this much of an asshole and I just never noticed?”
I went inside and took a seat next to the fireplace, with Lilah hot on my heels. I turned my gaze on her. Much to her credit, she didn’t even flinch. The thing of it was, in my job, you ever thought of a woman as the weaker sex, they’d take you down and put a bullet in you before you could blink. Lilah definitely qualified as a badass. She might be a doctor, but if you judged her by that, you didn’t know her at all. Having dealt with her bedside manner more than once, I can tell you she knows how to put the hurt on people.
She stood there, hands on her hips. “Okay, I get that you’re a guy, but does that always mean you need to be oblivious?”
“I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”
Lilah shook her head. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. Agents are taught to keep the world under constant surveillance. You’re supposed to notice things. Yet in your own lives, you can be blind as a fucking bat.”
I held up a hand. “Bats aren’t actually blind, that’s a—”
“If you say one more word, the next time I have to do surgery on you, it’s going to be without anesthesia.”
The scariest thing about that threat was that it wasn’t a threat. She’d do it.
“Okay, so clue me in, Doctor. What am I supposed to notice?”
She stalked over to me and grabbed my hand. She dragged me with her into Max’s room. When we got there, she pointed at a painting on the wall. My jaw dropped.
“No shit, Sherlock. He’s been working on that since you left.”
It was an image of me, standing before a stormy sea. The sky was lit by lightning, the sea churned and crashed against the shore. Lilah wasn’t wrong. It looked so much like a photograph, as though Max had been there, watching me. Well, what would be me, if I’d ever stood out in a storm.
“Why would he make this?”
She rolled her eyes. “He likes you.”
“I like him, too.”
“No. He likes you. After you left, he did nothing but talk about you. How you liked his pancakes, and how you seemed genuinely happy when he made breakfast. He said you stopped scowling, and actually smiled. And, he said, you’d told him your name.”
Shit. “He heard me mention my name when they called about Gina. And yeah, I was glad about breakfast, because I didn’t have to make anything. It’s like having Micah back.”
“You hated Micah.”
That was true, but the man could cook like no one’s business. “Max takes care of the house. I appreciate that.”
She glared at me. “You know, if I was a man, I’d punch you right now. As it stands, I’m still considering it.”
I threw my hands in the air. “What do you want from me?”
“How about you to get a damned clue? Max wants you to notice him.”
“Uh, he lives here. It’s hard not to notice that.”
Lilah shook her head. “I give up. Dinner is done.”
She turned without another word and walked into the kitchen. Her reaction was weird. Okay, so Max liked me. Why did she expect that I returned those feelings? I appreciated the fact he was interested, but I didn’t do emotional entanglements. Fuck and flee had always been my motto.
“Oscar, your food is getting cold.”
Not unlike the reception I was certain I’d get when I went into the kitchen.
As soon as I sat down, Max brought a plate over and put it down in front of me. Lilah had made lasagna and herbed rolls. My stomach rumbled at the decadent smells. The rich tomato sauce, the tang of garlic, the scent of freshly shaved parmesan cheese.
I grabbed the serving spoon and started to heap my plate. “This looks good, Lilah.”
She puffed up her chest a bit. “Max made it.”
I stopped, the sauce dripped onto the tabletop. “You made this?”
His eyes were still downcast, but he nodded. “It’s my favorite meal.” His voice barely broke a whisper.
I put the spoon back and took a forkful. Goddamn, it was probably the best meal I’d had in years. It was tangy, but had a sweetness to it. The bread was fluffy and soft, and the butter melted on its warm surface. I’d had dinners in five-star restaurants that hadn’t been this delicious.
“It’s… I don’t know if incredible does it justice.” Max’s ears perked up. “It’s amazing. Thank you for making it for me.”
The frown morphed slowly, becoming a wide smile. He reached out and started to scoop up his own dinner, while Lilah nodded at me.
Max had talents. He could paint, he could cook.
I was going to miss him when he left.
Two more weeks went by far too quickly. I spoke with the sisters who told me that Gina had moved out of their housing and left the order. When I touched base with Lilah, she informed me that Gina had been contacted by two doctors who wanted to help her. She was making great strides in coming to terms with what her ex had done, and the skin grafts were proceeding nicely. There would always be scarring, of course, but it would be much less than it had been.
There was also the matter of the apartment that Gina now lived in. Apparently a kind soul saw to it that she had a place to live, rent free, for as long as she wanted. She’d decided to go back to school—paid for—and was beginning to blossom. I was happy for her, even though I found I missed her.
Max had been making himself indispensable. He no longer fussed about not leaving the house. In fact, he seemed to be making himself at home. He made all the meals, cleaned the house, and did a lot of painting. As a thank you for what he’d accomplished, I went to town under the auspices of picking up something for dinner. While there, I visited the tiny art gallery—Blank Canvas—and picked up a double order of what Lilah had bought for him last time. When I got home and presented it to him, he stood there, gaping at the gift. The rest of the night he walked on the clouds, until he disappeared into his room. As I went to bed, I could hear him singing softly to himself. Good thing the boy could paint, because singing was not one of his talents.
I woke early, the sound of gulls screaming at each other pulling me from a deep sleep. Even though it was too damned early, I felt refreshed. After a quick shower, I decided this morning I would make breakfast for Max. My skills in the kitchen weren’t nearly as impressive as his, but I knew my way around. When I stepped into the living room, I found Max on the couch, head in his hands. When he stopped breathing, I knew he realized I was there.
“Why are you awake?”
He glanced up and I could see the red in his eyes. “Haven’t been to sleep yet.”
Against my better judgment, I sat down beside him. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He shook his head.
I stood again, ready to go into the other room. “Okay. If you change your mind—”
“Wait.” When I looked at him, his face was screwed up as though he was about to cry. “Did you… Did you put your gun in my mouth?”
I froze. “What?”
“That night… I had a nightmare and I dreamt you put your gun in my mouth and said I was some kind of sick person.”
Fuck. I had said he was a sick fuck. While the memory might be hazy for him, it was vivid in my mind. The anger that had welled up in my gut, the overwhelming rage at seeing that baby dead in his mother’s arms.
“Yes.” I wouldn’t apologize. Not for what I’d said, and not for what I did.
“So it wasn’t a dream.” His eyes shimmered when he looked up. “Why didn’t you just do it and get it over with? I can’t… I can’t live without my family.”
He covered his face and began to cry. The heart wrenching sobs tore at me, and I didn’t know why. I’d killed men who cried, and never once did I feel a shred of remorse. Why then did Max’s make me feel as though I’d been wrong? Unbidden, I sat next to him and put a hand on his knee. When he threw himself into my arms, I stiffened, but then found myself stroking fingers through his hair and murmuring to him that it would be okay. Even I didn’t believe me.
We sat there for about twenty minutes before he went quiet. I glanced down at him and found he’d fallen asleep in my arms. He breathing was soft, and he sighed on occasion. I knew I should have gotten up, maybe carried him back to his room or laid him down on the couch to sleep. Instead I sat there, cradling him in my arms, until he shifted and lay across my lap.
Lilah’s words kept bouncing in my head. He likes you. He likes you. What did that even mean? How could you like someone who had been the root of your nightmares?
“I’m sorry.” Saying the words made it more real to me. The raw grief that Max had been experiencing somehow became important to me. The need to wipe it away consumed my thoughts. The desire for revenge on his behalf gnawed at my gut.
“It’s okay.” Max sat up and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “You didn’t hurt them.”
I hadn’t, but I’d failed to get into the house sooner. If I had, maybe all of this could have been avoided. And Max needed to know the truth. The whole truth.
“No, I didn’t. There are things you need to know, though.”
He tried to sit up, but I held him in place. My gut ached, and I didn’t have a clue why. It was a job. I’d done hundreds of them since I joined the agency, and none of them had affected me like this. I’d seen the inhumanity man can heap on other people. The depths they’ll sink to when they think no one cares, or that they’re above the law. My job had always been to show them they weren’t.
“My boss, a man called Knight, told me that you were threatening to kill your family.”
Max tried to rear up, but I wouldn’t let him. If he were to turn his eyes in my direction, I’d lose my resolve to see this through.
“I know you weren’t, but that night, I didn’t. See, I’ve been working with Knight for years. Never once, in all that time, did I have reason to doubt him. He’s always seemed to have my back, and I trusted him one hundred percent. Then I found you in a room with the bodies of the people I was supposed to protect, and I lost it. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s failing in my mission. It doesn’t happen often, but just enough to make it hurt.”
Max stilled as he listened to me. I put my hand back on his head and stroked his hair, happy with something to occupy my mind. His body stayed ramrod straight, and I knew both of us were worried about what was about to happen.
“When I saw you—saw them—my blood went cold. I was so fucking angry that I’d failed to protect them, and you were my outlet. If I killed you, then I got justice. Our motto is to protect when we can, and avenge when we can’t. That’s what I wanted that night. Revenge. And I was so…so close.”
My chest ached and my hands had gotten damp. Max lay there, his head in my lap, fingers twitching.
“I didn’t pull the trigger, because the part of my brain that is analytical told me things weren’t adding up. I forced myself to look at the situation logically. Then there was you…”
“Me?” His voice was raw.
“You were crying. You fought against whatever was in your system, not because you had hurt someone, but because you were hurting. Whatever happened in that room, it wasn’t because of you. You fought against what they did to you, because your family needed you.”
“And I failed them.”
That got my attention. I grabbed him by the arms and yanked him up, cupped his chin, and forced him to meet my gaze.
“You did nothing wrong. You’re lucky to be alive.”
He sneered at me. “Because you were going to kill me!” He barked out a harsh laugh. “God, do you know how fucked up that sounds?”
I did. “I do. My job isn’t pretty or nice. I’m not looking for absolution, nor am I going to apologize for what I’ve done. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, are alive because I kill for a living. Men, women, children. People who will never know how close they came to being another statistic.”
Max swallowed hard. “Like me.”
I turned him loose, but kept his attention. “Yeah, like you.”
“I don’t understand your job. It’s wrong to kill people, even if they’ve hurt someone.”
“What would you do if you found out who killed your family? Would you be satisfied with them going to prison? Or, worse, beating the rap? My way they can’t escape their fate. There will be no languishing in prison. People like that don’t think about what they’ve done and regret it. The people they kill are like notches on their belt. The more people they’ve hurt, the bigger their reputation. I—we—don’t allow those people to live. It’s harsh, it’s violent, but it’s also a permanent solution.”
Max was quiet for a moment, then he huffed a breath. “I honestly don’t know. My parents taught me that revenge was wrong. That a man should be able to hold his head up, knowing at the end of the day he did the right thing. And look what it got them. My heart says my family needs justice done, but you’re right. I’ve heard too many times that people get away with murder.”
“Not with me. I’ll hunt them to the ends of the earth if I have to.”
Max turned and tucked one leg under him. “But don’t you see? You’re not getting vengeance for the dead. They’ll never know. So what is it you’re really fighting for?”
No one had ever asked me that. What was I fighting for? I liked the thrill of the hunt, the rush I got when my target died. Max wasn’t wrong, though. People who were dead had no wishes. I glanced up and saw him sitting there, the most earnest expression on his face, and I had my answer. “People like you. Those who lived. Like Gina, who now has to find a new path in life. You’re right, vengeance does the dead no good, but I like to think it would bring a measure of peace to those who are left behind.”
Max got up. “I’m going to start breakfast.”
I grabbed his wrist. “Listen, I know what I’m doing seems wrong to you, and I get that you can’t wait to get out of here. I’m doing my best to move that along. I hope you can be patient with me a little longer.”
He nodded and pulled free. I sat there and watched him go, wondering why his opinion of me mattered in the least.
“Oscar, I have news!”
Lilah’s exuberance was probably the result of more than a few double espressos and powdered sugar donuts. “Do tell.”
“I had one of Knight’s agents in for a gunshot wound—”
“Doesn’t matter. She’s fine. She got the bad guy and saved the kid. What’s important is that she was telling me that she’d questioned Knight about the assignment, because she couldn’t figure out why he had a secondarytarget. She watched the guy, and as far as she could tell, he’d done nothing wrong.”
“Did she kill him?”
“Yes. And she’s still not certain it needed to be done. But you see, others are questioning the same things you are. Something’s wrong here.”
It was the information I needed to hear. Finally I’d gotten confirmation that others shared my suspicions of Knight.
“What are you going to do?”
What was I going to do? The whole thing still had a dreamlike quality to it, where I’d wake up and laugh it off. But the bodies of seven people proved to me it wasn’t. No, the devastated look on Max’s face is what told me it was all real.
“What I should have done in the first place.”
“You need help. Let me contact Rook and get Haven to—”
It took a lot of effort not to snap and ask her if she thought I wasn’t good enough, but I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Regardless, I had to deal with this myself. “No. This is my problem, and I’ll handle it.”
“And what about Max?”
I wouldn’t leave him alone, that’s for sure. “How’s your frequent flyer miles stacking up?”
She chuckled. “I already have a flight booked. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I thanked her and we hung up. The night, Max and I had a nice dinner—he made me some more garlic rolls—and sat down to watch television. When Max found an animated movie on Netflix, he sat back, crossed his legs, and grabbed the bowl of popcorn. His entire self morphed as he watched the movie. The stress that had been evident melted away, and he laughed. A true, genuine belly laugh over some shark named Bruce and how he swears to a little fish he’s not going to eat him because fish are friends, not food. I didn’t understand why he thought it was funny, but he absolutely melted as he watched the stupid thing. To be honest, Max’s reactions were better than the movie. He laughed, he shed a few tears, and he sighed a few times, looking so happy it made me want to put the movie on a loop, so he could be like that forever.
As the fish found his father with the help of some chick fish, Max leaned over until he head rested on my arm. After a time, I thought it seemed like a very uncomfortable position, so I grabbed one of the pillows Max had on the couch, placed it in my lap, and patted it. Max took the hint and scooted over to put his head down.
My head lit up with warning signs. This was too much. Too domestic. Too friendly. So many fucking toos that I shouldn’t be allowing, but I reached up and put my hand over his chest. He responded by snuggling in closer. I could smell the body wash and shampoo on him, and my cock responded to it.
“Shut up and watch the movie.”
Neither of us moved from that spot until the credits were over. Then Max sat up, took the popcorn bowl into the kitchen and put it in the dishwasher. When he came back, he sat back down and put his head in my lap again.
“Wanna watch another movie?”
He shook his head. “No, but thank you for asking.”
We sat there for several moments, neither of us speaking. I stared into those eyes, which held such power over me. Max’s lip quirked into a smile. “Hi.”
I had no idea what came over me, but I moved my hand and started stroking his hair. He purred in contentment and let loose with a shuddering sigh. This was wrong on so many levels. I didn’t do this. Fuck and flee, I reminded myself. But I sat there, indulging him, and he ate it up. When he rolled onto his back, and locked gazes with me, I would have sworn someone else was in control of my body. I wrapped my fingers around the back of my neck and pulled him up, mashing our mouths together. He reached up and tried to get his hands on me.
“Your hands stay at your side, or this ends now.”
“Okay.” He went limp and let me direct the kiss, his reactions, everything. Fuck, he was so pliant. Men I’d had before had always wanted at least some aspect of control, but Max gave himself over to me fully. When I stopped, he said nothing, simply laying there and panting. I slipped my arms under him and hefted him up. Max squeaked and put an arm around my neck to steady himself.
“What are we doing?”
I glared at him. “Whatever I want.”
He gave me a shy smile. “Yeah, okay.”
I carried him to my bedroom and placed him as gently as I could on the bed. I placed my hands on his chest and kneaded the firm flesh that his clothes hid. As each shirt button popped, his eyes became glazed and he whimpered. After I had it open, I ran my hands over his body, plucking at his nipples, which stood hard and solid.
“You’re not a virgin, right?”
He shook his head.
“When I ask you something, you’ll answer me. You need to let me hear the words.”
“No, I’m not a virgin.”
“And you’re a bottom?”
Because no one would ever top me in the sack.
“Good. I want you to strip for me, then crawl back into bed. You have to know, if we do this, I’m not going to go easy on you.”
“Okay.” His breathing hitched as he stood and let his shirt fall to the floor. He toed off his shoes, let his pants drop and then he stepped out of them. He stood there, arms at his side. He looked absolutely mouthwatering. Despite the time he spent in the sun, his skin was still pale. His torso and chest had the wispiest of hair, but not too much of it. His stomach was flat, with nice muscle definition.
I was so fucking lost.
I shoved him down on the bed and buried my face in his neck. I bit the tender skin, sucking it into my mouth. He responded beautifully as he arched off the bed, and cried out. My cock got harder just hearing the noises he made. I stood up and he stared at me as I stripped down. I threw my shirt somewhere, kicked my pants over into the corner, and then let him see what he was getting into.
My cock jutted out in front of me. I was proud of what I had between my legs. Just shy of ten inches, thick, veiny, and already dripping precum.
I wrapped a hand around my shaft. “You sure you want this?”
He responded by getting off the bed and dropping to his knees. He pushed my hand away and put both of his on me, as he leaned forward and nuzzled my rigid dick. He didn’t just stroke me, he worshiped my fucking cock. He planted kisses on the damn thing, licked from root to head, then back down. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I grabbed his face and pushed into his mouth. He proved his skills as he swirled his tongue around the head, dipping it into the slit. I wanted to bury myself in his throat, but I restrained myself. Soon I would have his ass, and that was where I wanted to shoot my load.
I pumped slowly, no more than a few inches, and he made the most of it. I’d never had anyone so eager to please. He was putty in my hands, but he also made the most of what power he had. I was lost in the sensation of his mouth, so fucking hot. When he gripped my legs and began bobbing his head, I stood there and let him do what he wanted. He was incredible.
He knelt back on his haunches, and smiled at me. I hoped to hell he was ready for the main event, because I needed to be inside him like now.
“On the bed, hands and knees.”
He scrambled to comply, placing himself in the middle of the mattress. Anyone else, and I would have simply gloved up and pushed in, but not Max. I’d already hurt him before, and I would do my best never to do it again.
I crawled up behind him, skimming a hand over his back. When I got to his ass, I placed a sharp smack on one cheek, then the other. My handprint stood out, bright red against the pale flesh.
“If you need me to stop, you just say so.”
“No. Please, don’t stop.”
Though he couldn’t see me, he’d said the magic words. I reached over into the nightstand and pulled out the lube and condom. Thank God for Magnums. I thought about prepping him with my fingers, so I could get inside him faster, but this had to be good for Max, too. So I did something I’ve never done before. I reached out and pushed his head down onto the the bed, so his ass was higher in the air. Then I leaned forward, spread his cheeks, and dove in.
I could taste the soap he’d used, delicate on his skin. But it didn’t dull his own natural aroma and taste. I could easily become addicted to this ass. I plunged my tongue into the hole, grinning to myself when his grunts turned into keening. Max was a vocal lover, it seemed, and I fucking loved it.
As his cries turned to pleading, I decided to move forward. I began to probe his hole with my finger, teasing the ring. He began to whimper, shiver, and beg for more. Never in my life had I wanted another person so badly. While my instincts told me it was wrong, my body didn’t care. It wanted to possess Max, to dominate him in every way.
I reached over and grabbed the bottle of lube. After flipping the top, I drizzled the viscous liquid over my fingers and pushed one back inside of Max. He threw his head back and groaned. Music to my ears. While I pushed in to the knuckle, I stroked my other hand down his back. He needed to be completely relaxed, because even though he said he wasn’t a virgin, I doubt he had anyone as big as me.
When Max began to rock himself on my finger, I added a second, then a third. It wasn’t long before he was writhing on the bed, shoving himself back onto my digits. When I pulled them back out, he whimpered and kept shimmying his hips. I quickly gloved up and got into position behind him.
“I hurt you, you tell me. Do you understand?”
He nodded. I smacked his ass and grinned when he hissed.
“Yes, I understand.”
Positioning myself, I took my shaft in hand and worked some lube over the condom. When the head of my cock touched his hole, Max didn’t even flinch.
“Push back. Take me at your pace.”
Fuck, I barely recognized my own voice it had gotten so husky. Max grunted as he pushed back, that tiny pucker opening for me. We groaned in unison. I’d been in some tight holes before, but this one took the cake.
He continued, slowly, impaling himself on my cock. When at last his ass met my legs, I knew I’d found a home. This was what I wanted, Max on his knees in front of me, letting me use him as I saw fit. I reached out and wrapped my hands around his waist. I held him tight as I leaned back, bringing him with me. It was awkward, but I finally got my legs stretched out.
I couldn’t see his face, but that meant he couldn’t see me either. As he rose up, I closed my eyes. This was as close to fucking nirvana as I ever expected to get. He moved slowly for a few times, then his pace picked up and he was slamming down on my cock. He threw his head back, all pretext of being in control gone. He was an animal now, wanting to sate his lust. He moved a hand toward his own cock, no doubt seeking relief. I thrust up to meet him, the sounds of skin on skin filling the room. I pressed my fingers into his hips, gripping him tight.
“Yes, oh, yes.”
His chanting was intoxicating, and it brought me to the edge fast. When Max cried out and his ass muscles locked around me, I probably did, too. They squeezed me, milking my orgasm from me. Not sure I’d ever shot so hard. Then he slumped over, his head lolling down. Slowly he raised himself off me, until I slipped free. My spent cock lay heavy on my stomach. I reached down, pulled off the condom, and made a perfect two point shot into the wastebasket. Then I flopped back, all my energy gone. Max stood, turned, and his expression had become unreadable.
He turned and started for the door.
He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. I held out my arm. For a moment he hesitated, then moved slowly toward the bed. He crawled in beside me and I wrapped myself around him. His small, lean body fit beside my larger frame. It was…nice.
I kissed his neck and he hummed in approval.
The next thing I knew, it was morning, the birds were chirping away, and I was alone.
Okay, I admit it, my heart was a lump in my throat when I got out of bed and couldn’t find Max in the kitchen or living room. He wasn’t on the deck when I went to check there. A million possible situations ran through my head, and not one of them ended well. The panic that welled up inside me refused to be contained. I needed Max where I could see him, ensure he was okay.
I checked every room in the house—twice—and still found nothing. I yanked my cell from my pocket, ready to dial Lilah, Rook, Kelly, Haven… Shit, I wanted everyone here to help me figure out where Max was. Then I saw it. Sitting in a tight swimsuit at the edge of the sea, the water lapping at his feet, head tilted back, full rays of the sun streaming down on his face, sat Max. He didn’t have a shirt on, and he was… singing. Badly. Oh, so fucking badly. I had never heard anything so beautiful.
Throwing open the sliding glass door, I stormed down to the beach and dropped to my knees next to him.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing?”
He tilted his head in my direction. “Uh, same thing I do most mornings before breakfast. I like to sit out here and watch the sun rise.”
“The sun rose hours ago.”
He sighed. “Yes, I know. It was glorious. The sky was awash in golds and reds as Apollo’s chariot dragged it into the heavens.”
I narrowed my gaze. “Are you drunk?”
His head flopped back and forth. “I don’t drink, remember? I’m a good boy. Didn’t do drugs, didn’t do alcohol. Didn’t do… sex.”
His words were a slap to my face. “You lied to me.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “If I hadn’t, would we have done that?”
“Shit, yes, we would have!”
He turned his attention fully to me. His eyes crinkled at the edges, like he was studying my face, trying to see if I was telling the truth.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I wanted you. I’m twenty-two years old. I’ve never had sex, because outside of marriage, it’s a sin, drugs are bad, people are inherently good. Evil deeds are the work of the devil.”
His string of words lost me. “I don’t understand.”
Max sighed. “My father was the biggest hypocrite. He kept talking about how good deeds were their own reward. How you had to serve your fellow man. Meanwhile, he was out taking houses away from people who couldn’t afford them, then spending money to make them better, so he could flip them. He was doing the secretary at the church, and we all knew it. He probably convinced himself that he was trying to provide for his family, but money had hooks in him and wouldn’t let go. When the market collapsed, he lost it all.”
“Still lost here.”
“I tried to be the son he wanted. He had his hopes pinned on me. I would go to school and become a doctor or a lawyer, I’d get married and me and my wife would have a bunch of kids. We’d be the trophy he could hold out to his friends and say, ‘check it out’. And I was on my way to living those dreams for him. I got good grades, I studied hard, did well on my exams. Turned down offers to party and sleep with Brian Thompson, the star of the football team. I was the kid he always wanted.
“Then I discovered art. I can’t describe the thrill that rushed through me when my shaky hand put a brush to the canvas for the first time. The awe I felt as a world opened up to me, showing itself slowly with each stroke. And the satisfaction that came when it was finally done. To me, that was every bit as heady as an orgasm.”
I blinked a few times. “Seriously? I was there last night. Are you telling me you scream like that when you paint?”
He cheeks flared to a deep scarlet. “No. What we did last night? To me, that was every bit as good, or better, than how I feel when I paint.”
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or insulted. “Is that a compliment?”
He laughed. “Yes, it’s a compliment. Last night was.. I don’t even know how to describe it. When I paint, I put everything of myself into what I’m doing. Last night, I let go of everything and let you do what you wanted. The thing is? You took care of me. I told you I wasn’t a virgin, but you were still gentle and kind. I… I didn’t expect that.”
He had no idea how much control it took to keep from taking him like I wanted. Seeing him spread out for me like that, giving himself to me, I had been in awe. Yeah, a lot of guys had bent over for me, but not one ever gave me themselves. Still, he had, and because he lied to me, that meant I needed to address that little problem right now.
He yelped when I grabbed his arm and dragged him over my lap.
“You know what happens when someone lies, right?”
Before he could answer, I brought my hand down hard on the sopping wet suit he wore. The smack was incredibly loud, as was his cry.
He struggled in my arms. “Stop that!”
I tightened my grip, because he wasn’t going anywhere until I was done. Bringing my hand down again, I swatted the other side.
“You lied to me, and I can’t have that. Your safety is in my hands. If I’m going to make sure nothing bad happens to you, I need to know everything. When you aren’t truthful, I might make a mistake and you’ll end up getting hurt.”
Four more swats—two to each cheek—and I let him go. He scrambled off my lap and stood, glaring at me, his arms crossed over his chest. He might be trying to be indignant, but the way the front of his suit was pushed out, told me everything I needed to know. I grabbed his leg and pulled him closer. Then yanked his suit down to his knees. He gasped and covered his crotch.
“Put your hands down.” Not a request.
He dropped them to his side. I reached out and slid my fingers over the taut skin of his cock. “Why are you trying to hide this from me?”
Max mumbled something, and I could see shame clearly written on his face.
“Look at me.” Slowly he turned his head toward me. “Now what did you say?”
“I said I’m small, all right? You’re…”
He held his hands apart like two feet, and I snorted.
“I’m also a foot taller than you, and outweigh you by probably a hundred pounds. I’m pretty sure it’s natural for me to be bigger.”
“Yeah, but I’m…” He sighed. “I’m very small.”
For the first time I focused on his cock. Okay, fine, it wasn’t the biggest I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t tiny either. It was five, maybe five and a half inches. It fit perfectly on his body. I leaned forward and took him into my mouth. He gasped and tried to push my head away. Fat chance. I wanted to do for him what he’d done last night, licking and sucking. I’d only given head a few times, and hated it, because I always choked. Max was the perfect size for me. I could go all the way down and nestle my face in his pubes. And from the sounds he was making, he had no problems with that at all.
“Stop. I’m gonna—”
Whatever it was he had been about to say was lost in a strangled cry. He pumped his load into my mouth, and it was good. A little salty, but also a little sweet. Kind of like Max himself. When I pulled off, his legs wobbled. I took his hand and helped him back down onto the sand.
First blow jobs are always intense. “Food for thought. You lie to me again, and you’re not getting another one of those.”
Not that I had any say so in the matter. As soon as Lilah got here, I was going to put my cleverly detailed plan into action. And, if all went as I expected, I would probably have a target on my back and could never see Max again.
When Lilah arrived, Max’s face went from one of happiness, to one of abject misery.
It wasn’t a question, so much as a statement of fact. “Yeah, I need to go take care of… something.”
“Does it have to do with me?”
I could lie, but that wasn’t my style. “Yep.”
“Don’t go.” His lip jutted out slightly. “Please.”
Lilah glanced between us, then must have realized something had happened, because she got this cat with the canary smile. “He’s got to go. Trust me, it’s for the best, otherwise you’ll be hiding forever.”
“I don’t care. As long as—”
I grabbed him and pulled him to me, not giving a shit what Lilah thought, but also to have him avoid saying something he’d regret. When I claimed his mouth, he sagged into my arms, allowing me to control the kiss. He made that small whimper I enjoyed hearing. When I broke away, he looked up at me.
“You’re not coming back, are you.”
Again he wasn’t asking.
“I’m going to do my best, but I won’t make a promise I can’t keep.” I let my gaze slide over to Lilah. She noticed me and nodded. “If something happens, Lilah is going to make sure you’re safe. Listen to her, do what she says, and for fuck’s sake, don’t stop painting.”
He gave a slow blink, then he rushed from the room. Lilah stepped over to me and put a hand on my arm. “You’re doing the right thing.”
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”
She gave a sad smile. “It’s what you were born to do.”
“Oh, hell no. I was born to run a store, but life had other plans for me.”
She cocked her head. “Won’t ask.”
That worked out, because I wouldn’t tell. I leaned over and kissed her lightly on the cheek “You’ll take care of him. Swear to me.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep him safe. Rook has a place I can take him if necessary.”
“He hasn’t told anyone, right?”
She frowned. “No, he hasn’t said a word, and he won’t. You can count on Rook. He’ll take this secret to his grave.”
I scowled at her. “Don’t be so melodramatic. As long as you’re sure he won’t tell anyone. Max’s safety is my priority.”
Lilah smirked. Fucking smirked. “Yeah, I can see that.”
“Fuck off.” I waved a dismissive hand in her direction as I went to grab my plane ticket and bag.
“I’ll see you when you get back.”
“Max, I’m leaving.” He didn’t reply. “Max?”
I set my back down and stomped to his room. When I threw open the door, he wasn’t there. When something thumped in my bedroom, I walked to the door and opened it. Max lay on the bed, curled on his side, with my pillow tucked to his chest. “I don’t want you to go.”
This scene right here? It’s why I don’t do emotions. Max’s feelings were hurt, and now I had to take the time to soothe his ruffled feathers. I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his back.
“It’s going to be fine.” Shit, even I didn’t really believe that.
“How?” He sat up, and turned toward me. The anger I saw in his expression had me worried. It was an emotion I’d yet to see from Max. “Tell me how it’s going to be fine, because to be honest, I can’t really see it. I know your job, I know the people you work for. Can you really tell me you’re going to walk in there, and everyone is going to say, ‘oops, our bad’ and it’s over with? I’m not stupid, so please don’t treat me like I am.”
I blew out a breath. He wanted honesty? Fine. “Okay, you’re right. I’m going to walk in there, and I’m going to either kill someone or I’m going to end up dead. Shit, if I kill him, I’m still probably going to end up dead. And guess what? I’m fine with that. They murdered your family, remember? I saw their bodies. I’m as responsible for it as they are, and I sure as fuck won’t forgive it. The only part of this equation that concerns you is that I want—no, I need—to be sure you’re okay. You’re my responsibility, and don’t you ever forget that.”
“How the hell are you responsible for it? Did you hold the knife? Just because you weren’t inside the house when it happened, doesn’t make you any more responsible than I am.” He sneered at me. “You know, I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Okay. You’ve had your say. If this is the last time I see you, do you really want those to be the last words you are able to say to me?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. “I know I’m acting like a spoiled child. I just… I really don’t want to hear from Lilah that you’re not coming back.” He slid closer. “Please don’t let us get that phone call.”
I leaned over and kissed him again. This time slow and lingering. When I licked his lips, he opened for me and sighed when I kissed him. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t acting like a brat. He was acting like a man who’d lost everything, who needed something to hold on to. The problem? I didn’t believe that for a second. I’d seen him break down and cry for his loss, because most people would. But I also saw the steel in his spine. No matter what happened, I knew for a fact that Max would go far if he gave himself the chance.
When I broke the kiss and stood, he grasped my arm. “Promise me.”
I wanted to tell him everything would be fine, but I couldn’t lie to him. “All I can say is I’ll do my very best. Hopefully that’ll be enough.”
He didn’t follow me out of the room, but then again, I didn’t expect he would. I grabbed my bag and headed out the door. One way or another, this would end soon.
I watched Knight like a hawk. For six days, I dogged his every step. He didn’t go many places, but when he left the house, I was on him. Trips to the store, to a restaurant, and once to see a play at the local community theater. It was all so normal, but… Something about it still set my teeth on edge.
Finally, I decided that the only way I’d get the information I wanted was to go in and look for it myself. And there was only one course of action I could take.
I went to his door and knocked.
When he opened, Knight’s smile was wide, genuine. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
A knife twisted in my gut. He held out a hand, and I took it. I had fallen for this nice guy routine since I knew him, but this time I wasn’t about to fall for it. “Well, you haven’t been giving me any assignments, so thought I should check in on you.”
He laughed and went back to his desk, then gestured for me to sit. I dropped my bag beside the chair, and slumped into it. Knight tapped a key on his computer, and started typing. “Believe it or not, it’s been pretty slow. I’ve had two that were well below your pay grade. Both were easy in and out. No need to go undercover since the people in question weren’t exactly hiding.” He tapped his fingers on top of the desk. “Are you hurting for money or something?”
He knew better. Knight had access to my bank accounts. I’m sure it was meant as a joke, but for some reason I no longer found him funny.
“Nah, I’m good. So, who does a guy gotta blow to get some coffee around here?”
Knight stood. “Coffee is easy. I don’t have any made, but give me a few minutes and I’ll make us a pot.”
“Sounds good. Then, after, we can get back to that conversation about your lips and my dick.”
He shook his head as he walked out the door. As soon as he was gone, I closed it and hurried to his computer. I did a quick search for Max’s name, not overly surprised when the file popped up. I opened it, my heart thudding like mad, and scanned it. It only took a few moments to find what I was looking for.
“Motherfucker.” Knight had noted a payment from he’d gotten from Mitchell Kearney. It didn’t say what it was for, but we didn’t take money for our assignments. Ever. There wasn’t much beyond it, but Knight had some explaining to do. Before I closed the search box, I noticed dozens of other files, some with names I remembered. Though I wasn’t religious by any means, I found myself tossing out wishes to anyone who might be listening that this wasn’t going to be as bad as I’d hoped.
I was wrong.
Anthony Degruddy—a payment of $75,000 was made to take him out. No reason given, but the kill order had been signed by Knight. Emma Plathos—a payment of $40,000. James David—$25,000. Then the one that hit me. Scott DeVries—a payment of $10,000. DeVries had been my target. He was at the center of a child custody case, where, according to Knight, DeVries had been ordered to keep his distance because he’d abused the child. He hadn’t, and the the child was beaten nearly to death. He swore he hadn’t done it, but the jury hadn’t believed his story. They ended up deadlocked several times, before DeVries had been set free. This time someone finished the job on the little kid, but it couldn’t be pinned on DeVries. Knight had sent me after him. One bullet through the head made a big mess, but DeVries would never harm another child.
Only…he hadn’t. In black and white, with Knight’s authorization, I read that I’d terminated him with a bullet to the chest. Had I murdered someone for money?
The door opened and Knight stepped back into the room, carrying two coffee cups. When he saw what I was doing, his eyes went wide and his gaze began to dart around the room.
“You have one chance to explain this to me.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking.” He put the cups on the desk and stood up. “They were all legitimate kills.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Sure. Even the ones where you took money to have them executed.”
Knight took a step toward the door. I unzipped the nylon bag and pulled out my gun. Standard, run of the mill gun you could buy in most alleys.
“Don’t bother. You’re not going to run far enough or fast enough for me to not catch you.”
Dots of perspiration trickled down his brow. I thought I would feel at least a bit of guilt, but after seeing what I had, all I felt was the cool rage that flooded my body.
“What you read isn’t what you think.”
I stood, calm as I could be. “Then you need to explain it to me. Make me understand how you’re selling our services.” He glanced toward the gun. “Tell me!”
“They’re going to die anyway. Someone contacts me, they arrange the payment, and I do the investigation. If I think there’s enough evidence, I’ll sign a kill order.”
My hand trembled. “And what about Max? Who the hell is Mitchell Kearney?”
Now I could see the panic in Knight’s eyes. “His brother.”
“You took money from someone who was going to frame the kid for murder?”
Knight paled, and everything slotted into place.
“Fuck. You had a hand in killing those people.”
“No! I didn’t know he was going to do that. The deal was that Max Kearney would never make it to them. The timetable I gave you should have been followed to the letter. Something went wrong.”
“That’s it? That’s the excuse you’re going with? Seven people are dead, Knight. Three of them were children, who are never going to have another birthday.”
“It was a mistake!” He threw his hands in the air. “Fuck, you more than anyone should understand mistakes happening.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
He glared at me. Those brown eyes that I’d always though were kind, now seemed like a snake’s. They held no warmth at all. “Your team. Those men who went in to take out a warlord. Friendly fire. They died because of a logistical fuckup. The military collaborated to hush it up.”
If Knight hoped to rattle me or throw me off my game, he was wrong. I’d come to terms with my team’s deaths—mostly—because they were warriors who died fighting the good fight. No matter what, each of them had gone out a hero. “Thanks. Good to know the truth. Now back to Max.”
Knight’s voice took on a nasally quality. “His family’s death was a mistake. It was only supposed to be Max.”
I splayed my hands out on the desktop, being sure to keep my gun within easy reach. Hearing Knight talk like this, to say it was ‘only’ Max pissed me off. “And why did his brother want him dead? It’s not like there was any money. The family was broke, about to declare bankruptcy, so I fail to see the payout here.”
“The insurance money. The parents had a huge policy that would pay out to all of the kids.”
Money. It always fucking came down to money. Only I’d put that blame on Max, thinking he’d be the one who would benefit.
“What did he offer you?” I jumped up and slammed my hand on the desk. “What the fuck is the going price to have those of us who protect people assassinate them?”
He shrank back, but I wasn’t in the mood anymore. I rushed around the desk, grabbed him by his throat, and shoved him back until he slammed into the door.
“How much, Knight?”
“T-t-two million dollars.”
“So the deaths of one young man or seven others is a paltry two million dollars. Good to know.” I put the gun in his mouth, and his eyes went wide. I could see him begging me not to do this. “This is what I was going to do to Max. I was beyond angry, and wanted to make him pay for what I thought he’d done. The thing is, he was innocent. So was Scott DeVries. He never did a fucking thing, but you had me kill him. You made a murderer out of me.”
He hung limply in my grip, and in the space of a few seconds, all manner of potential outcomes flashed through my mind. I dismissed most of them, because there was only one way this was going to end.
I pulled the trigger. Knight’s body jolted back and slammed into the wall, then toppled over onto the carpet, the pool of blood spreading out from the fatal wound in his head. I waited for the shock or the guilt, but none came. Knight hadn’t been the person he pretended to be. He profited from the misery of others. And now he wouldn’t ever again.
Of course, this left me in a pretty shitty situation. Once it was determined that I’d killed him, the organization would be after me. They probably wouldn’t look kindly on people who murdered their bosses.
I took my phone from my pocket and typed in the number I’d hoped to never use.
His voice sounded not unlike Darth Vader. It was pretty cool, actually. I would have been impressed if the stain of blood wasn’t growing wider.
“This is Oscar. I need you to do me a favor.”
I heard a deep sigh from the other end of the line. “What have you done?”
“I killed Knight.”
“Care to tell me why?”
Rook was calm and grace under pressure, which I appreciated. I went down the list of Knight’s sins, and Rook listened. I understood why Haven had such respect for his handler. When I finished telling him what happened, I explained what I needed from him. “Max has to be kept safe at all costs. He can’t be mixed up in this. I’m happy to tell them what I’ve done, but they have to keep their hands off Max.”
A tapping sound came over the line. I imagined it was Rook’s finger on his desktop. I thought maybe he’d tell me to get stuffed and that my problems were just that.
“Here’s what I need you to do. You’ve got to listen to me and follow my instructions to the letter. Do you understand?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“Go to his computer, bring up his screen if it’s still active.”
I did as he’d told me. “Yes, it’s still up.”
“Good. I want you to search for these files. Alpha One, Omega Blue, Cyan Six, Ellipsis Nine. When you find them, I want you to offload them to either a thumb drive, or a virtual server. You must get hard copies of these and put them somewhere that no one but you is aware of.”
“Don’t question me. Just do what I say.”
“Yes, sir.” I followed his directions, finding the files and putting them on my virtual drive where I could retrieve them later. “Finished.”
“Now comes the part where you confess to what you’ve done. This is going to be dicey, you need to know that. The higher ups don’t take kindly to dissension in the ranks. They will be angry and will try to issue a kill order with your name on it.”
“I figured. I’m okay with dying, as long as Max is kept safe.”
Rook grumbled. “I’m trying to keep you both safe. Now open up his mail client.”
I knew that Rook was taking a huge risk by helping me. “Thank you.” The words weren’t enough.
“Don’t thank me. You’re going to owe me, and one day I’ll collect on that debt. Now here’s what I want you to do. In the To: field, I want you to type AK7173@chessboard.com and enter the subject as ‘My resignation’.”
After I’d finished doing that, Rook dictated the letter. He had me tell them that Knight was corrupt, that he’d been sending agents out to kill for money that he then claimed as his own. How I’d found out about it and decided it was necessary to end the threat to our organization who prided itself on the rules. After, he had me add that I’d taken information as a means of protecting myself from reprisal, and that any attempt or action taken against me would result in those files being distributed.
“This sounds like I’m burning a lot of bridges.”
“Because you are. Once you’ve done this, you can never undo it. You need to think carefully about whether this is—”
I signed my name and hit send. “Done.”
“Okay.” He sighed. “I’m going to wish you luck, Oscar. I hope this is worth it for you.”
“It is. I won’t allow an innocent to be hurt if I can help it. Plus, knowing that Knight had me kill someone for money? That kind of taints what we’re here to do.”
“I won’t bother to argue as it’s a moot point now. Now, get out of there, and don’t look back. Godspeed, Oscar.”
He hung up. It hit me that I was now well and truly screwed. I’d have to give up everything that belonged to the agency. My house, my property. Man, that sucked. I had to give myself a mental shake. The fact that my life had become a shambles didn’t matter. What needed to be focused on was the fact Max would be safe.
At least after I dealt with that other problem.
Finding Max’s brother wasn’t difficult. Turned out the son of a bitch had moved into their parents home. He’d gotten a lawyer who had found someone sympathetic and had the will expedited so that his family house wouldn’t be lost. Though I no longer had the resources I used to, I wouldn’t let this go. That was Max’s house, and he deserved it.
I could wax lyrical about how I tracked Mitchell Kearney. How he begged and pleaded for his life, and how I sneered at him and told him he wasn’t worth half the man his brother was before I pulled the trigger. But, no. None of that happened.
The truth of it is that I rang the bell and when he answered it, I shot him in the chest. He toppled over, eyes open, wheezed once or twice, then died. No muss, no fuss, and no guilt. I gave thought to someone finding his body, especially now that there wouldn’t be a cleanup crew, but I figured there were enough murders in the Milwaukee area that one more wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
The one thing I wasn’t looking forward to was telling Max the truth. He’d already thought he lost everything, only to find out that there’s always something else you can lose.
When I got home—after being gone two weeks—Max came flying out of the house and into my arms. I would have sworn he was part octopus the way he clung to me and had his hands everywhere.
“You’re okay. Tell me you’re okay.”
I peeled him off me. “I’m fine.”
“What happened? Did you…”
“Yeah, I did. And we need to talk.”
There wasn’t any sense in prolonging this anymore. Max followed me into the house, clutching my arm. When we got to the living room, I indicated that he should take a seat. I called Lilah in, so she could be there for him when he got pissed and demanded to leave. She sat next to him and took his hand. I could see the two of them had become close in my absence.
I told them the story, from beginning to end. Everything I’d discovered, all the things I’d done. I left out the graphic details about shooting Knight, but left no doubt that he was dead. Then I told Max about his brother. I could see the moment the news hit home. His face scrunched up and his fist clenched. He squeezed Lilah’s tighter than before.
“He’s… He’s dead?”
“Yes.” I waited for the explosion. And, again, Max surprised me.
“Mitch always loved having money. He thought it made him important. I had no idea about the insurance policies, because I didn’t really care. Money caused me more problems than it solved. It was always hard to tell if someone liked you for who you were, or if they wanted to be your friend because you could buy them things.”
“I’m sorry.” I hadn’t meant to say it, but it seemed appropriate.
He gave a sad smile. “Thanks. It should hurt more. Maybe after I think about it, then the pain will come. But right now, I find it hard to care like I should.”
“Probably. But you’re free now. You can go back to your life without worrying about whether someone is going to come after you. And you’ll have the money to do whatever you want.”
Max nodded, stood up, and turned to Lilah. “Can you take me back to the bus station?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want.”
He glanced over at me. “I guess.”
Max trudged off toward his room. Lilah stood up and glared at me. “If I had a towel, I’d snap you again.”
“For fuck’s sake, woman. Why now?”
“Max just lost everything, and I mean everything and you’re going to toss him out.”
Toss him out? I never said he had to go. “I’m not forcing him out.”
She held up a hand and made like her fingers were talking. “Oh, you can go back to your life.”
The way she mimicked me was pretty damn eerie.
“Did you ask Max what he wanted? Or are you so concerned with him leaving that it doesn’t matter?”
I held up a hand. “Okay, can I do anything that’s not going to piss you off?”
She pursed her lips. “Probably not.”
“What do you want me to do? What will make you happy?”
“Give him a chance to decide. These last few months he’s had no say in his life. Let him have one now.”
“Fine.” I huffed. “If nothing else, I’ll do it to shut you up.”
I trailed after Max and knocked on the door to his room. “Come in.” I opened it and found him throwing some clothes into a paper bag.
“I’ve got a suitcase if you want that.”
He shook his head. “This is fine. Unless you don’t want me to take the clothes. I can leave them, since you paid for them and all.”
His words were soft, but they had quite the edge to them. “What? No, those are yours to do with whatever you want.” I walked over to the bed and sat at the edge. “Listen, I was thinking that maybe I should ask you what you wanted to do. I mean, I know this is all a lot to take in, and if you need some time—”
“No, it’s fine.”
It didn’t sound fine. I reached out and put a hand on his arm. His skin pebbled. “Max? Will you look at me?”
He turned in my direction. His expression was that of someone on the verge of a breakdown. “I’m getting out. What more do you want from me?”
“The truth. Remember how we deal with lies? Do you want to be over my lap again?”
His cheeks pinked, and he fluttered his eyes a bit. “Yes.”
The answer confused me for a few moments. “Yes?”
“I want to be over your lap. I don’t want to go. I like it here. I like… I like taking care of you.”
Well, fuck me. “You know what I did.”
“Yeah, I do. You protected me. You’ve been doing it for months. And I… I like it. I’ve never had anyone care about what I want. I was supposed to be the dutiful son, do what my parents wanted. Then I met you and that changed. You cared that I was safe, you needed to be sure I wasn’t hurt. You cared about me. I don’t want to leave.”
I held out my arms and he threw himself into them.
“Don’t make me go. Please. At least not yet. Give me some time.”
I stroked his back until he calmed down. “You don’t have to go anywhere until you’re ready. I’m happy to have you stay.”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Yeah. To be honest, I like having you here. Come on, we should probably talk to Lilah.”
Max followed behind me, his hand on my arm. When we told Lilah, I swear she was happier than Max. She beamed a smile so radiant that it seemed pretty freaky, given the way she normally scowled at me.
Over the next few weeks, Max made himself at home. He still made breakfast, still took care of the house, and now he’d added taking care of me to his list of things to do. He still found time to paint incredible pictures that we hung in the house with pride.
The biggest change to our relationship over the next few weeks. Somehow Max had gone from having his own room to being in my bed full-time. What had been his room had been turned into a studio. A easel, drop cloths, all manner of brushes, paints in every color of the rainbow, and a stereo system that Max enjoyed listening to when he worked.
My life underwent some incredible changes in rapid succession after that. The first shock was when I got a call from an unknown number. The person on the other end identified himself as King, and told me that I had a brass set on me. He said he liked that in a person, but that I ought to not push beyond my reach. He told me that I was free and clear of the agency, that there would be no repercussions, as long as the information I’d taken never saw the light of day. I had no idea if my word was good enough, but it was all he was going to get.
We talked about my relationship with Max. I admit, I was shocked as hell that he knew about it, but he let me know that very little happened he wasn’t aware of. Turns out that Max had become the sole beneficiary of his parent’s will. Max shocked the hell out of me when he said he didn’t want the money. In fact, he didn’t want anything to do with that life, and wished he could have a do-over. Somehow King made that happen, as well as making sure the money from the will went to the Wisconsin Humane Society. Max went from being Maximillian Kearney to being Max Dobson, local artist. I didn’t dare ask how the hell King had arranged it.
The second big surprise came a month later when I decided that I couldn’t handle the lifestyle of the idle rich. I needed to be in the action. While returning to the agency was no longer an option, that didn’t mean I couldn’t become a freelancer. It started out small. Mostly bodyguard assignments, which weren’t bad. Then, as time went by and I gained a reputation, I got bigger cases that involved gunplay. Those were awesome. Eventually, though, I got the ones that people wanted kept off the books. They were more like the work I’d done for the organization. Covert, at best. And some of them got pretty damn bloody. The problem came in when I realized I needed help.
The decision made, I needed to put a team together to take care of the things that Knight used to, I tentatively reached out to Rook for his suggestions. Imagine the shock that came when my first candidate showed up at my door.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve tried calling, I looked you up online. It’s like you disappeared. If I hadn’t gotten a call from some guy telling me he knew where you were, I probably wouldn’t have found you at all.”
Fuck if I had a clue what was going on. She handed me a letter.
“This should explain everything.”
I opened it and took out a single sheet of paper.
You wanted a crew. Here she is. You already know her, so it should be pretty easy to get her up to speed on what you’re doing. Good luck. ~R
“How did you… I mean why are… Shit.” I scrubbed a hand over my head. “What are you doing here?”
She laughed and let herself into my house. Max came in from the other room, saw Gina, and turned around.
He stopped when she said his name. “Yes.” His voice had gone soft. Max wasn’t keen on people. Since I’d talked him into not wearing the colored contacts, he worried that the teasing he’d endured as a child would make a reappearance. Thus far, it hadn’t, which I was grateful for. I’d hate to have to kill someone.
She held out a hand. “I’m Gina. I’m going to be working with Oscar.”
“What the what now?”
When Gina laughed, I noticed that the lightness I’d heard in her tone when we first met wasn’t there anymore. The chuckle had been forced.
“I want to help you.”
“Okay, how does one go from being a former nun to wanting to help someone who does the work I do?”
She shrugged. “I thought about it a lot. After what you did to Kevin, I prayed. I asked God to tell me that the feelings I harbored were wrong, and to help me get over them. I read the bible. I talked with my spiritual advisor—not mentioning I knew who killed Kevin. And you know what each of them told me? That God had a plan for me, and that while it may not seem right or moral or ethical, sometimes the hardest decisions in life were to do the wrong things for the right reasons.
“You know I give talks to people about how to avoid domestic violence. You’re actually out there doing something. Do I agree with your methods? No. I truly wish there were a better way.” She stroked a hand over her stomach. “I know what’s involved, though. Better now than I think I ever did.”
“Okay, so how do you think you can help me?”
Her face lit up. “The guy who recruited me? He has been giving me training. I get to blow shit up, but also be in charge of my own crew. I’ve got people who know how to dispose of a body, people who can spin a tale so fantastic, you’re going to want to give them your firstborn, a woman who’s former military and excels at reading people.”
“I don’t get it. How can you justify giving up on your core beliefs like that?”
She tapped her fingers on her leg. “I don’t think I am. I’m still going to be helping people. I mean, I’m not going to go out and kill them, but me—and my team—can be there to back you up. We can divert, disseminate, and destroy if necessary.”
That sounded a lot like what the team that worked for Knight had done. “These people… Are they former associates?”
She nodded. “Rook contacted them and got them together. He put me in charge of them.” A deep sigh. “Look, I’m not saying this is going to be easy, and I’m sure as heck not saying I’ll be able to do it once we get down to the nitty gritty, but you saved me. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”
“You don’t owe me a damn thing.”
“Fine, maybe I owe it to myself then. A chance to build a life where I’m making a difference. When Rook called and we talked, he told me about some of the things you’ve done. It’s horrifying, and I know that God is all about vengeance being his, but sometimes a weapon is needed. Maybe you’re his sword.”
“If that’s what it takes to help you to be comfortable with my job.”
She laughed. “It doesn’t. None of this makes any sense to me, but Rook explained it was important work, and I get it. I want to be part of helping to save a person, mind, body, and soul, instead of just the aftermath.”
“Gina, you need to be—”
“I’m sure, Oscar. I want to help you help other people.”
And with those words, my team was ready.
As soon as I entered the door, the shirt and shoes came off and the volume on the stereo went up. I cued my favorite workout song, and let it vibrate the whole damn house. The beat and cadence of The Warrior Song by Sean Householder was perfect for a deep workout session, and after the mission I’d run with my old friend, Haven, had gone tits up—in the most horrifying way—I needed to get rid of the tension and anger that had been building even before we said our good byes at the airport. It took a lot of effort at least seem unaffected.
“You’ll call,” Haven told me, letting me know it wasn’t my choice.
I gave him a grin, but there wasn’t any mirth within me at all. I loved Haven, and I’d come to love his husband, Sammy. The two of the—plus Kelly and Lilah—were the closest thing I had to friends—family—but I needed to not be around them anymore. Deep down inside, I had the overwhelming urge to be home, to ensure that everything was still right. The psychotic son of a bitch that Haven had asked me to help him take down had been, but not before he’d killed a lot of people, including one I owed my life to.
“We’ll see.” I turned to Sammy and flashed him a grin. “You ever get tired of this piece of shit, you know where to find me.”
He laughed, glanced back to Haven, then shook his head. “Sorry, you’re not my type,” he said, as he wrapped his arm around Haven’s waist.
The love I could see between them had to be the most genuine I’d seen in a long time. It made the ache in the pit of my stomach even worse, because it made me think of home again. I was torn from my reverie when the volume on the stereo dropped to almost nothing.
“You’re home,” came the voice from behind me. I turned to find Max, my…ah, fuck it. I refused to put a label on what the two of us mean to one another.
Now at twenty-six, with spiky blond hair, heterochromatic eyes—one brown, the other blue. Most people were put off by his unique appearance, but I found him incredibly sexy. Whenever he walked, it was like watching liquid sin. He glided across the room—and believe me when I say, no other word would do justice to how he moved—and slid his arms around my neck.
“Missed you,” he murmured, as he rose up on his toes to snatch a kiss.
I breathed in his scent. The tang of sweat, the musk of someone who had been working hard, the oddly intoxicating aroma of paint that I could only associate with Max. That ache I’d felt since getting on the plane threatened to bring on the waterworks—and I did not cry. Max was here. He was whole. The worst part of Haven’s mission had been banging around in my head since the psychotic fucker said the words that nearly tore my soul from me. When I asked what was going to stop me from taking him apart, he got this sickly sweet smile and said, “The bomb I planted. I’m the only one who knows where it is. Don’t worry. It’s a simple device. I tell Oscar where I’ve hidden it; he calls Max and instructs him on how to turn it off. Easy enough. But if he kills me, then boom, no more Max.”
I’d been angry before. Shit, ask anyone who knew me and they’d tell you that it was pretty much my default setting, but the thought of Max dying was more than I could stand and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t love Max. He was a good guy, we had some hot times, but we weren’t anything more than friends with benefits.
At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
I fisted his hair, which he kept long enough for me to get a good grip, and yanked his head back as I sunk my teeth into his neck, leaving my mark. He hissed, then pressed closer. Max liked to be taken, hard and rough. He enjoyed the burn of my stubble on his neck, the sharp pain wherever my teeth closed. He told me it helped him to feel alive, and I intended on making sure he felt that way today, because he had no idea how close to death he could have been.
My words came out hoarse, evidence of the emotions I was straining to control. “Get on your knees.”
Without hesitation, he went down. My cock ached in my jeans. I reached for the tab, ready to yank it open, but he put his hand on mine.
He glanced up at me with a worshipful gaze as he rubbed my erection. “Let me.”
Nothing in my life turned me on more than seeing those to amazing eyes looking up at me. The expression on his face, one of absolute rapture, had me running my fingers through his hair. It was soft, silky and god, I missed it. I’d missed him. I could feel precum dripping down my leg. I nodded sharply toward my aching cock. I barely recognized my own rough voice when I croaked out, “Do it.”
His hands deftly popped the button, and he slowly slid the zipper down. He was teasing, but I wasn’t in the mood right now. I shoved the pants down, and grabbed him by the back of the head, then dragged him to my cock.
I pinned him with a stare and ground his face against my groin. “Suck.”
He opened his mouth and took me deep. Goddamn, it felt glorious. Max was incredibly talented, showing off all the tricks he’d learned in the years we’d been together. The fact I was the recipient made it so much better. I tightened my fingers in his hair, and started thrusting my hips, pushing my cock into his throat. He opened for me beautifully, swirling his tongue along the shaft when I pulled out, and sucking harder when I pushed in. I’d been with a lot of guys, but not one possessed Max’s talents for giving head.
I wanted to bend him over, have him screaming my name as I pounded him, but the truth was, I needed the release. I locked both hands around his head, then slammed in, my balls smacking on his chin. He gagged a little at the rough treatment, but we’d talked about this before. If he had problems, he only had to tap on my legs and I would stop. As much as I needed him rough, I wouldn’t hurt him.
He reached up and ran his fingers over the hair on my balls and that was it. Game over. I shouted as I forced him down on my cock, and held him there while I deposited my seed into his throat. Later we’d do this again, and I’d let him go at his own pace. He liked to taste me, but he also enjoyed being used. Max was perfect in every way.
Haven and Sammy had teased me while I’d been with them about my feelings for Max. I tried telling myself he was just a convenient body for me to use when the urge hit me, but the truth went far deeper. I denied it until there was the possibility I could lose it. When Joel had threatened to blow Max up, I thought my heart would explode from my chest. I could scarcely breathe at the thought I could lose Max. Even after Sammy told me there was no bomb, I had to force myself to stay at Haven’s side, to finish my mission, but I’d never done anything more difficult in my life. I needed to see Max, to prove that he was alive. It took me a few seconds to notice Max still knelt at my feet, stroking trembling legs. His smile destroyed the knots that had built up since I’d left him all those weeks ago.
His voice washed over me, reminding me again that I was home and he was safe. I put my hand on his head and stroked the silky softness. Inwardly I cursed myself. When had I gotten so goddamn weepy? Fuck it. Max was here, he was whole and that’s what was important. Since he came into my life, I didn’t even look at another dude. I might flirt a lot—as Haven could attest—but as long as I had Max at home, I wouldn’t ever look for sex somewhere else. Our kinks worked perfectly together. And he fucking turned me on like no one else ever could.
“Welcome home,” he said again, licking a stray drop from the head of my dick.
I dragged him to his feet and kissed him, running my tongue along his. This time there was less urgency, but no less passion.
“Rough one?” he asked, stepping back.
I bent over and hauled my jeans up. The thoughts of Max, laying dead in a smoldering heap, his body blown to bits still haunted my dreams like nothing else had. “You just don’t know.”
“You wanna talk about it?” he asked, rubbing his hands over my chest. “I wasn’t sure what was going on when you called and insisted I had to leave, then called back and said everything was fine.”
It felt good, being touched. Having Max to come home to made everything better. He knew enough not to ask if I said no, and was just there, giving me what I needed—food, a blow job, whatever—until all was right with the world again. Later we’d talk, but now I needed to show him how glad I was to be home.
“No. I just want to take you to bed. I need to be inside of you,” I answered, grabbing his ass and squeezing hard enough he squeaked.
He laughed when my stomach rumbled.
“I’ve got dinner done. I made you a twenty-two ounce ribeye steak with cheesy mashed potatoes, and creamed corn on the side.”
My mouth watered at the thought. “Really?”
He smacked me on the arm. “Hell, no. There’s some leftover lasagna in the fridge I can microwave for you. I didn’t know if you were getting back on time, and the steak would be like rubber by now.”
Little shit. This here was the reason I’d never let him get together with Haven’s boy. Between the two of them, he and I wouldn’t have a chance.
I wrapped my hand around his neck, and pushed him toward the kitchen. Touching him the way I was had given me the grounding I needed. With each step down the long hallway, I relaxed. Our place—and Max—were okay. I had to remind myself of that. I’d already lost enough on that fucked up mission, no way could it cost me Max.
Touching him as we moved through the house pushed a bit of the anxiety away, knowing I was home. Max had done a beautiful job decorating the house. Before he’d come to live with me, it had been Spartan at best. White walls, beige carpet. Ho hum would be the best way to describe it. Then Max came in and the place came alive. While I was getting ready to leave on a mission a few years ago—after we’d fucked the night away—he’d asked if he could spruce up the place a little. I gave him my credit card and told him to go nuts. He did. When I came back, I found he’d painted the walls deep green, which was offset by a cream trim. He’d also begun to draw a mural in the hallway. A forest scene, complete with a pond, a black jaguar, a skunk, and other animals could be seen hiding in the trees if you knew where to look. The whole thing soothed me. It was then I learned Max had talents outside of the bedroom. My boy could paint.
“That one’s new,” I said, pointing cerulean blue water cascading down from a snowcapped mountain. At the top, barely visible in the clouds, you could see a cave with light coming from it, as though someone lived there. I honestly hoped he never finished his work, because I delighted in finding every addition he did.
“I put that in last month.” He gave me a look that showed his displeasure.
Max’s work was beyond incredible. I’d seen photographs that had less detail. I’d been trying to convince him to sell his work in Windsongs, a small gallery in town, but he demurred. There were more than a dozen things throughout the house he’d done, and each one was unique. Desert scenes with a large moon breaking over the dark sands, a sea landscape with a whale breeching the waves, a field of deer that you would swear you could touch. My favorite, though, was one he’d done of the two of us, standing hand-in-hand as we watched the sunrise from our deck.
“Shit. Sorry.” My stomach knotted, because Max delighted in me seeing his art, finding new things. And here I’d just fucked up by not seeing something that should have been obvious to anyone with eyes.
He turned and ran a hand over my face. “You’re forgiven. Besides, it’s not like you don’t have other things on your mind.”
And I did. Before Haven called and said he needed my help, I’d been paid to take out the members of a cartel by their rivals. It had taken me weeks to get through the list, but the cool three million I’d charged them would keep Max in paints and brushes for a long time, and leave enough for us to take a vacation somewhere nice.
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have missed it. I suck.”
Max chuckled, and plucked my nipple. “Maybe later you can show me.”
The thing about our relationship is that normally Max serviced me and jacked off while he did. It was rare that I got to take care of his needs. Not by my choice. I loved the times he allowed it, because he came apart so easily, and getting him hot like that made for absolutely the most mind-blowing sex ever. Most times, though, he kept this wall between us when it came to me touching his cock. He claimed it was because he didn’t think he was endowed enough to satisfy me. Which was stupid. True, Max wasn’t hung. He had a respectable five-and-a-half inches. Deepthroating had never been easy for me, so having Max fit easily into my mouth was perfect.
“Don’t tease if you’re going to push me away again.” When he drew back, I realized I had been much harsher than I’d intended.
His eyes went wide, and my jaw ached as I ground my teeth together.
Again, I’d put my foot in my mouth. “Sorry. It’s just…it was a really bad mission. Probably the worst I’ve ever been on. Still, that’s no excuse for me taking it out on you.”
Max wound himself around me, his head resting on my chest. “I know, Oscar. I’m sorry about that.” He reached around and patted my back. “Let’s get you fed, then up to bed. Maybe some sleep will help.”
Sleep would be my idea of heaven right now. My bodyguard mission for Haven’s family kept me awake for weeks on end, and after the shitstorm I dealt with after… fuck, I still couldn’t believe he was dead. The images on my phone were a constant reminder that despite our best intentions, we’d failed and a friend had paid the price. I rubbed the bridge of my nose. Yeah, a week of shuteye would probably be a good start.
Max directed me to a chair, and told me to sit. I glared at him, but he ignored me. I huffed in my impotent rage, which caused him to chuckle. He went into the oven and pulled out a plate. “This is hot,” he warned me. He turned and put it down. Aw, fuck. A ribeye steak, at least two inches thick sat on the plate, perfectly seared. The potatoes were whipped with cheese and a dab of melted butter pooled in the middle, sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper. I smiled up at him, grateful for what I had. If a more perfect man existed, I’d never met him.
“Thank you,” I murmured, as I sliced into the steak. The first bite melted in my mouth, and reminded me again that Max was better than any majordomo I’d ever gotten from the agency. I mean, seriously? Not one of those fuckers ever offered to give me head. “I thought you didn’t make a steak.”
He grinned. “I tracked your flight in. I had it all ready to go, so just needed to finish it in the oven.”
He gave me a look, one I’d seen many times. Adoration mixed with something else. He leaned forward and kissed my cheek.
“I couldn’t keep the corn in the oven, but I’ll heat it up for you.”
He started for the refrigerator, but I grabbed his wrist and pulled him back, putting him on my lap. “Sit here.” I wrapped an arm around his waist, ensuring he understood I wanted him close. As soon as I was certain he wasn’t going to move. I sliced a thin piece of steak and picked it up with my fingers. I held it out to him, and Max opened to allow me to slip it into his mouth. He sucked the juice from the tips of my fingers, all the while holding my gaze.
“Tastes good.” His voice was soft, his tone seductive. “And so we’re clear, I mean you.”
“I know.” He arched his brows at my husky voice. “Later I’ll give you another taste. For now, let me feed you.”
Piece by piece, I fed him the steak, taking an occasional bite for myself. He accepted each bite with his teasing licks and nibbles. Before I knew it, the food was gone.
“I’ll make you some more.” He tried to stand, but I wouldn’t let him. Feeding him had chased away the sadness that clung to me, and now I was ready for a nap.
“Don’t.” I stifled a yawn. “It was delicious, but I’m exhausted. Let’s go to bed. I need some sleep in the worst way.”
He stood and took my hand. “I’ve got everything ready for you.” He tugged me along to the bedroom.
When he pushed open the door, the rush of cool air chilled my skin. I hated the heat, and trying to sleep when I was sweaty—especially when it wasn’t from sex—made me grumpy.
I stretched my arms, letting the cool air wash over me. “God, this feels so good.”
Max chuckled as he drew the covers back. “Sixty-eight degrees, just like you ask for it.”
Damn, I was exhausted. My arms were like lead when I tried to strip off. Max came over and brushed my hands away. In a few moments, I stood naked. Normally, I’d have Max on his knees again or bent over. Right now I couldn’t even manage a hard-on.
The bed barely gave as I lay down on it. One of the few things Haven and I agreed on—short of the best way to kill people—was the importance of spending money on a good bed. It made all the difference in the world to me.
Max bent over and kissed me gently. “I’ll wake you up for dinner.”
I scowled at him. “Where are you going?”
“I want to get the kitchen cleaned up, then maybe do some painting.”
No. Definitely not. He needed to be where I could see him. Touch him. “Fuck that. Get your skinny ass naked, and in the bed.”
He grinned as he started to strip off his shirt. “Are you sure I won’t be a distraction?” He showed a flash of his stomach, the downy hair leading down to a buried treasure.
“No.” My cock made a valiant effort to rise, but it took everything in me to stay awake right now. “You’ll lay here, and I’m going to wrap around you, and you’ll sleep.”
Though we didn’t really talk about it, Max suffered from nightmares. When your brother drugs you, then sends someone after you with a big gun, it tends to leave a lasting impression. The one thing I learned from that mission was that I couldn’t trust anyone’s intel except for mine. I could have killed Max, something I don’t necessarily regret as I was doing my job, but… Well, let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t. He had problems sleeping when I wasn’t home, and when I got back, I insisted he get into bed with me. It generally worked out. Not always, though.
He graced me with a smile. “Okay. I can do that.”
He stopped the striptease and shucked the remainder of his clothes. He got onto the bed and pressed his lithe body against mine. After I pulled the covers up over us, I wrapped an arm around his thin waist and buried my nose in his hair. The smell of jasmine shampoo tickled my senses. Max had a thing for scent, and the exotic warmth melded with his own aroma beautifully.
“I love you, Oscar.” He snuggled against me as sleep took him.
I kissed his hair, but said nothing. His words did set my mind to work, and though I was dead on my feet, sleep was a long while in coming.
I’d been home almost two months and Max hadn’t stopped fussing over me. He had me sit out on the deck, the waves of the sea bringing that crisp, clean smell along with them. Max would bring me food out, and sit with me as I ate. Then he’d clear away the dishes and come back out to rub my back or feet.
Every time I tried to say I had something to take care of, he objected. I wasn’t allowed to do anything more strenuous than a good fuck, and after being gone all that time, I had a lot to make up for in that department. But even I had my limits.
Still, I could see how happy it made Max to take care of me. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he had a smile so wide, I could count every one of his pearly whites. I’d always come back from jobs and never gave a moment’s thought to what I’d spoken about with Haven. How did Max stay after all these years? Any sane person would have walked out. I was a good lay, but not that good. And when I came back, I got all the fucking I could handle, and loved the shit out of all the pampering.
This time it was different. After the threat to Max’s life, the thought I could lose him, everything became sharper, more focused. For six years Max had put up with me. He’d told me countless times that he loved me, and never once complained when I didn’t say it back. In that dark moment, when I thought he was about to die, I realized how I’d taken advantage of the situation.
“I need you to go into town.”
He swallowed hard. He hated going by himself, and even when I went with him he’d say he would be happy to stay at home.
“Why?” The words were filled with dread.
“I ordered you something from the shop. I thought you might want to pick it up yourself.”
“Can’t you come with me?”
I shook my head. He pouted. I chuckled and reached out to rub his head. “It’ll be fine, I promise.”
By the time he left, I was a ball of nervous energy. For what I was about to do, everything had to be perfect. I hurried around, putting things where I wanted them. By two, I was mostly ready. I hoped. When the phone rang, and I saw it was the gallery, I swiped my finger across the screen to answer it.
“He’s on his way.”
“Thanks, Mel. I appreciate it.”
“Not sure what you’re doing, but you’d better be good to him. I expect another show in six months, and if you fuck this up for me—”
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
His comeback was instantaneous. “No, I kiss yours.”
“You know my mom is dead, right?”
“Meh. Desperate times lead to desperate measures.”
I snorted. Mom would have appreciated the joke. And she’d been gone long enough, I didn’t take offense at it. Plus, Mel was kind of warped anyway.
“I promise, I’m not going to hurt him. At least not any more than he wants me to.”
“Okay, that’s crossing into TMM territory.”
I blinked. “Don’t you mean TMI?”
“No, TMM. Tell Me More. Sequim is a small town, so I’m living my life through you.” He laughed, and it was infectious. Mine was more from nerves, though. The thought that this could all blow up in my face rattled around in my head. If I didn’t get off the phone, Max would be home, and I wouldn’t be ready.
“I have to go. He should be back shortly.”
“Okay. Later.” Before I disconnected, I heard Mel call my name.
“I hope you make him happy. He worships the ground you walk on.”
I knew he did, it humbled me.
When the car pulled up, I did my best to act casual, even though my guts were churning. Max came in, a bright smile on his face.
“You bought all that stuff for me?”
It wasn’t much. Sure as hell a lot less than what he deserved. “I did.”
He came over and gave me a slow, lingering kiss. When he broke away, his cheeks were pink and his lips slightly swollen. “Thank you.”
I reached down and swatted him on the ass. “Go paint until dinner.”
He was a giddy as a little kid. He rushed to the car, grabbed up the supplies, then began hauling them in while I started one of the frozen pizzas Max had ordered. It wouldn’t take too long, and after, if everything went well, we’d have things to discuss.
Max had been vibrating during dinner. He kept glancing toward his studio, and his fingers never stopped twitching. After we ate, he hurried back to it, leaving me to clean up. It was fine, though. I grabbed all of the dishes, threw them into the dishwasher, then sat down to wait until a good time had passed.
When I heard Max go into the bathroom to perform his nightly ritual, I knew the time had come.
Max came in from the other room, toothbrush in his hand, and a ring of paste around his lips. His confusion was adorable. He blinked a few times, then stared at me. “Movie night?”
“That’s what I said.” I put a bowl of popcorn on the table. “Sit down and shut up.”
He shrugged, went back into the bathroom for a moment, then came out paste free. He moved to the couch and took a seat. Normally I would sit on the other end of the couch and Max would move in my direction. Tonight I sat beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.
He leaned back, looked at my arm, then glared at me. “Okay, who the heck are you?”
I ignored him and picked up the remote to start the movie which had already been queued.
“Hercules? Okay, now I know something is wrong.”
He made to stand, but I pulled him back down. “Stay there.” When he gave me the side-eye, I glared back at him. “Problem?”
“You hate animated movies.”
“I’m making an exception. Now shut up.”
About twenty minutes into the movie, Max snuggled into my side like he always did. The way he fit, slotted in next to me, was perfect. Max was perfect.
The movie played through, but my attention was on the man sitting beside me. Max, as usual, laughed, cried, and at one point, sobbed. He threw himself heart and soul into everything he did. Whether painting, reading a book, watching a movie, or calling out my name while I fucked him, Max could be moved by so many emotions. When the part where Meg was singing came on, he sniffled and ran the sleeve of his sweater over his face.
I tucked an arm around him and gave a squeeze. “You’ve seen this already. Why are you crying?”
“Because it’s beautiful. It’s a love story and…” He stopped, his lower lip quivering.
Max shook his head. “Nothing.”
I picked up the remote to pause the movie. He turned to me, confusion obvious.
His voice was strained and the expression on his face told me more than his words ever could. “She loves him, but she won’t say it.”
“Remind you of someone?”
His face scrunched up. We’d been together six years. Six amazing, wonderful years, and never once had I said the words he’d probably been dying to hear. Haven said them to Sammy. Kelly said them to Lilah. Why did I refuse to say them to Max?
“Look at me.”
He peered from beneath his lashes. I bent over and kissed his forehead.
“For the longest time, I told myself that I didn’t need to say the words, because you knew how I felt. I’d convinced myself that I wouldn’t have to ever utter them, and I was fine with that. But I’m not so sure anymore. So I’m going to ask you a question, and you’re going to answer for me. Do you know how I feel about you?”
He was still for a moment, then nodded.
“Words. That still hasn’t changed. I need to hear them.”
He sighed. “I think I do.”
“You think?” Well, that didn’t sound good.
“I mean I usually do, but sometimes when I hear you talking with someone about bending them over the table and…you know, I… Well, I guess I’m not sure.”
I stood and dragged him up to me.
“Okay, so… I tease. A lot. There’s one thing you need to know, and I swear to you on everything I believe, this is the truth. In all my life, no one or nothing has meant to me as much as you do. Take away everything from me, and as long as you’re there, I’ll be okay. Do you understand?”
No, not good enough. Not by a long shot. I grabbed his hair and yanked his head back. I kissed him until he couldn’t breathe. When I turned him loose, his eyes were wide. He reached up and touched his lips, still moist from my tongue.
“I love you, Max.” His face scrunched up and tears fell from his eyes. I had a feeling I fucked up badly. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong?” He scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “You can’t be that stupid. I’ve been dying to hear those words from you. I would have given anything for you to say them. Literally anything. And you said them.”
Shit. I had been a total asshole. “I mean them, too.”
My phone rang.
He put his hand over my pocket, and I could see his eyes pleading with me. “Let it go to voicemail.”
I wanted to, but that never worked out well. I pulled the phone out and when I glanced at the caller ID, I knew I had to take it.
“I’m sorry, but…” I swiped a finger over the accept button, hoping to hell it wasn’t who I thought it was. “This is Oscar.”
“This is King. You’re needed.”
And with those words, the happy moment Max and I were to share, went to shit.