Special Agent Ty Grady is cocky, abrasive, and indisputably the best at what he does. But when he's paired with Special Agent Zane Garrett, it's hate at first sight. Garrett is the perfect image of an agent: serious, sober, and focused, which makes their partnership a classic cliché: total opposites, good cop-bad cop, the odd couple.
Over time, however, Ty and Zane share more than just a partnership at the FBI—they grow first to like each other, and then to love each other. But with all the baggage and secrets they each carry, making their relationship work may prove as difficult as the cases they're called in to solve.
It’s been five years since Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett first worked together to solve the Tri-State murders, and time has been both harsh and kind. Engaged now, they face the challenge of planning a deeply uncertain future together. Zane is at the pinnacle of his career with one last mystery to solve, while Ty is at sea in a world where he’s no longer the tip of a spear.
There’s just one more hurdle in the way of their happy ever after: a traitor from their inner circle who threatens to burn their world to the ground.
Squeezed between the Vega cartel, an unknown mole, and too many alphabet agencies to count, Ty and Zane must gather all their strength and resources to beat the longest odds they’ve ever faced. To make it out alive, they’ll need help from every friend they’ve got. Even the friends who might betray their trust.
Where do I begin without giving any spoilers? With Crash & Burn we get to see nearly all of the characters we've come to love and a few we didn't love so much. At the heart of this story, we have the love and partnership of Ty and Zane, but just like the other installments of the series, that love is only part of the tale. We find truths that were so deeply hidden under mountains of lies that you find yourself questioning every character and their true motives and loyalty. The passion that has always been a huge part of these stories is still there as is the wit, the puns-some intentional and some not so much, the arguing, the laughter, and the friendships that hold this ragtag group together. I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever read a book that had me saying "Oh my God!" so many times. Some times it was said out of despair for what the character was contemplating, other times it was out of laughter not being able to believe the character said this or that, and a few times because I was on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how they were going to get out of the situation they found themselves in. A true masterpiece and a definite must add to your personal library.
Cut & Run #1
A series of murders in New York City has stymied the police and FBI alike, and they suspect the culprit is a single killer sending an indecipherable message. But when the two federal agents assigned to the investigation are taken out, the FBI takes a more personal interest in the case. Special Agent Ty Grady is pulled out of undercover work after his case blows up in his face. He's cocky, abrasive, and indisputably the best at what he does. But when he's paired with Special Agent Zane Garrett, it's hate at first sight. Garrett is the perfect image of an agent: serious, sober, and focused, which makes their partnership a classic cliche: total opposites, good cop-bad cop, the odd couple. They both know immediately that their partnership will pose more of an obstacle than the lack of evidence left by the murderer. Practically before their special assignment starts, the murderer strikes again - this time at them. Now on the run, trying to track down a man who has focused on killing his pursuers, Grady and Garrett will have to figure out how to work together before they become two more notches in the murderer's knife."
Sticks & Stones #2
Six months after nearly losing their lives to a serial killer in New York City, FBI Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett are suffering through something almost as frightening: the monotony of desk duty. When they're ordered to take a vacation for the good of everyone's sanity, Ty bites the bullet and takes Zane home with him to West Virginia, hoping the peace and quiet of the mountains will give them the chance to explore the explosive attraction they've so far been unable to reconcile with their professional partnership. Ty and Zane, along with Ty's father and brother, head up into the Appalachian mountains for a nice, relaxing hike deep into the woods... where no one will hear them scream. They find themselves facing danger from all directions: unpredictable weather, the unrelenting mountains, wild animals, fellow hikers with nothing to lose, and the most terrifying challenge of all. Each other.
Fish & Chips #3
Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett are back on the job, settled into a personal and professional relationship built on fierce protectiveness and blistering passion. Now they're assigned to impersonate two members of an international smuggling ring-an out-and-proud married couple-on a Christmas cruise in the Caribbean. As their boss says, surely they'd rather kiss each other than be shot at, and he has no idea how right he is. Portraying the wealthy criminals requires a particular change in attitude from Ty and Zane while dealing with the frustrating waiting game of their assignment. As it begins to affect how they treat each other in private, Ty and Zane realize there's more to being partners than watching each other's backs, and when the case takes an unexpected turn and threatens Ty's life, Ty and Zane will have to navigate seas of white lies and stormy secrets, including some of their own.
Divide & Conquer #4
Baltimore, Maryland, is a city in alarming distress. Rising violence is fanning the flames of public outrage, and all law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are catching blame. Thus the FBI’s latest ideas to improve public relations: a municipal softball league and workshops for community leaders. But the new commitments just mean more time Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett have to spend apart when they’re happily exploring how to be more than by-the-book partners.
Then the latest spate of crime explodes in their faces—literally—throwing the city, the Bureau, and Ty and Zane’s volatile partnership both in and out of the office into chaos. They’re hip-deep in trouble, trying to track down bombers and bank robbers in the dark with very few clues, and the only way to reach the light at the end of the tunnel together requires Ty and Zane to close their eyes and trust each other to the fiery end.
Armed & Dangerous #5
Left alone in Baltimore after his unpredictable lover bails, Special Agent Zane Garrett takes his frustration out on everything in his path until he is ordered to Chicago to back up an undercover operative. When he gets there, though, he finds himself face to face with his wayward partner, Special Agent Ty Grady. They have to deal with the uncertainty lingering between them while they work to retrieve their intended mark, a retired hit man and CIA wet-works operative named Julian Cross.
Ty, once a marine and now an FBI hotshot, has a penchant for being unpredictable, a trait Zane can vouch for. Zane is a man who once lived for his job but has come to realize his heartbreaking past doesn’t have to overshadow his future. They're partners, friends, lovers, and the go-to team for unusual cases. With Cross and his innocuous boyfriend, Cameron Jacobs, in tow, Ty and Zane must navigate the obstacles of a cross-country trek, including TSA pat-downs, blizzards, their uncooperative prisoners, CIA kill teams, a desperate lack of sleep or caffeine, and each other. Ty and Zane are determined to get Julian Cross to DC in one piece, but it’s starting to look like it might be the last thing they do.
Dine & Dash #5.5
A Ty and Zane ficlet. Takes place between Armed & Dangerous and Stars & Stripes.
Dine & Dash #5.5
A Ty and Zane ficlet. Takes place between Armed & Dangerous and Stars & Stripes.
Stars & Stripes #6
Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett have managed the impossible: a few months of peace and quiet. After nearly a year of personal and professional turmoil, they're living together conflict-free, work is going smoothly, and they're both happy, healthy, and home every night before dark. But anyone who knows them knows that can’t possibly last.
When an emergency call from home upsets the balance of their carefully arranged world, Ty and Zane must juggle family drama with a perplexing crime to save a helpless victim before time runs out.
From the mountains of West Virginia to a remote Texas horse ranch harboring more than just livestock and childhood memories, Ty and Zane must face their fears—and their families—to overcome an unlikely enemy and bring peace back into their newly shared world.
Touch & Geaux #7
After having their faces plastered across the news during a high-profile case, FBI Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett have become more useful to the Bureau posing for photo ops than working undercover. Just as Zane is beginning to consider retirement a viable option, Ty receives a distress call from a friend, leading them to a city rife with echoes from the past.
New Orleans wears its history on its streets, and it’s the one place Ty’s face could get him killed. Surrounded by trouble as soon as they land, Ty and Zane are swiftly confronted with a past from which Ty can’t hide—one with a surprising connection to Zane’s.
As threats close in from all directions, both men must come to terms with the lives they’ve led and the lies they’ve told. They soon discover that not all their secrets are out yet, and nothing lasts forever.
Ball & Chain #8
Home from their unexpected deployment, the former members of Marine Force Recon team Sidewinder rejoin their loved ones and try to pick up the pieces of the lives they were forced to leave behind. Ty Grady comes home to Zane Garrett, only to find that everything around him has changed—even the men he went to war with. He barely has time to adjust before his brother, Deuce, asks Ty to be his best man. But that isn’t all Deuce asks Ty to do, and Ty must call for backup to deal with the business issues of Deuce’s future father-in-law.
Nick O’Flaherty and Kelly Abbott join Ty and Zane at the wedding on an island in Scotland, thinking they’re there to assuage Deuce’s paranoia. But when bodies start dropping and boats start sinking, the four men get more involved with the festivities than they’d ever planned to.
With the clock ticking and the killer just as stuck on the isolated island as they are, Ty and Zane must navigate a veritable minefield of family, friends, and foes to stop the whole island from being destroyed.
Allison McFadden walked slowly in the cool night air, her arms tightly wrapped around her slim body to keep the wind from whipping at her coat. The man with her saw her shiver and gently put his arm around her, sending an electric jolt of anticipation through her.
She laughed softly, slightly giddy from the dirty martinis he had bought for her all night. He'd actually taken her to Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel; it was possibly the most romantic place she had ever been, complete with live piano music and a sophisticated, old-fashioned ambiance that had seduced her just as completely as he had.
He was witty and charming, and he was good-looking and chivalrous almost to a fault. He hadn't even stolen a kiss yet.
Allison smiled as she remembered how he'd taken her up to the murals that lined the walls of Bemelmans and told her about them; how some writer who had lived in the hotel had painted them and they'd been part of some children's books. She had tried to listen, but she had only been able to concentrate on his hand, resting just a little lower on her back than it had been earlier in the evening, and his lips moving next to her cheek as he spoke. She only remembered that the paintings were of animals in Central Park. There had been an elephant skating. And he had pointed out an armed rabbit stalking its fellow bunnies with an automatic weapon in one of the cartoon-like murals.
They'd both laughed at the morbid humor of it, and Allison loved the way he laughed.
Now, he was walking her home, like a true gentleman. He had asked the cab driver to stop several blocks away from her building to have the privilege of doing so. It was only their first date, and Allison couldn't believe that she was going to do what she was planning.
"Do you - would you - I mean, would you like to come up? For coffee, or - "
He smiled, and Allison was lost in the way it made his eyes warmer. He reached up and ran his hands through her hair, watching the way the blond strands glimmered in the artificial light of the street lamps.
"Is your roommate home?" he asked her softly, his intimate voice cutting through the chilly wind and right into her.
She licked her lips and nodded. "But she won't bother us," she insisted quickly, her words almost breathless as she reached out and smoothed her hand over his lapel, feeling his badge under the material.
"Then lead the way," he murmured with a smile.
It would have been the perfect time for him to kiss her, she thought, as she took his hand and led him into the building. It would have been just as ridiculously romantic as the rest of the night. But, she supposed, nothing could be perfect.
Hours later, as Allison struggled for her last breath, she couldn't help but wonder if he'd never kissed her because it would leave his DNA behind.
THE phone call could not have come at a worse time. FBI Special Agent Ty Grady was still pissed off and cursing about its unfortunate timing two days later as he sat alone in his living room.
Four weeks of undercover work - round-the-clock surveillance, phone taps, wires, bribing informants, and some high-speed tailing - all shot to shit because some rookie hotshot forgot to leave his cell phone at home. Bums begging on the street do not ring to the tune of a Mozart orchestra, and unfortunately for the team of tired undercover FBI agents tailing Antonio de la Vega, their target was aware of that particular bit of random information. He'd disappeared just as quickly as the rats on the New York sidewalks as Ty and his team had scrambled.
The operation had been blown, their target was now in some other country where they had no jurisdiction, and all their evidence would be bagged, tagged, and stuffed in a box in a basement, never to be seen again. The fact that most of what they'd done had been under Ty's direction and slightly irregular, depending on a high-profile collar in order to keep them from getting their asses fired and thrown in jail, was not helping Ty's mental state.
He sprawled on his sofa, still covered in sweat from his attempts to work out his frustration at the Bureau's Baltimore gym, and stared out at the city through the large windows on either side of the television. He could see his own reflection in the black screen of the plasma TV on the opposite wall, and he looked even more exhausted than he felt. He needed a shave; most of his handsome face was covered in three days' worth of beard, and his dark hair could probably use a trim. He was a large man, nearly three inches over six feet, and he usually carried his frame like a large cat, lithe and easy. Tonight, though, there was a slump to his broad shoulders as he sprawled. He had no intention of moving any time soon.
Not until his cell phone began to trill demandingly. With a heavy sigh, he snapped it off his waistband and flipped it open. "Grady," he answered curtly, his West Virginia drawl still pronounced after all the years he'd spent away from home.
"Special Agent Grady, Assistant Director Burns would like to see you," a clipped, professional voice informed him.
"When?" Ty asked flatly.
"Special Agent Grady, the Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigations Branch does not call to make appointments. He expects you in thirty minutes."
"Thirty minutes!" Ty blurted. "Do you have any idea where I am?"
"In your dirty underwear, no doubt. Be here in thirty," the voice answered in the same flat, businesslike tone before hanging up.
Ty closed his eyes and mentally kicked something. Thirty minutes to get into DC was going to require the flashy blue lights. Ty fucking hated the flashy blue lights.
"GREAT job, Special Agent Garrett. You are a credit to the Bureau," the Division Director said as he shook the man's hand. "A commendation will go in your file for your work, of course."
"Thank you, sir," FBI Special Agent Zane Garrett answered curtly as the other agents murmured quiet, slightly reluctant congratulations.
"And I get to reward you for your work well-done," the Director continued smoothly. "You;re being promoted out of the division. I'm very sad to see you go," he said smoothly, still pumping Zane's hand vigorously.
Zane shook his hand somberly, his face a mask of pure professionalism that covered the brutally honest thoughts he harbored beneath it. "I've enjoyed working for you, sir. But you know me; always looking to be where I can do the most for the Bureau."
"That's a good man. Say goodbye and get yourself upstairs. Assistant Director Burns wants to see you in ten."
Showing no hint of a smile - or the disdain for the praise over doing his boring-ass desk job - Zane turned and walked through the other agents he'd worked with in the division that pursued cybercrimes. He'd gotten along with them fairly well, considering he did his job, and sometimes theirs as well, with complete and utter focus. Zane knew many of his co-workers were just as happy to see him go as stay; his strict adherence to the rules and logical, single-minded work to achieve his goals were often tiring to those around him. He had goals, several of them, and they were all that mattered. None of them included working with this division any longer than necessary.
Looking around the open office, Zane knew with complete certainty he wouldn't miss it. While his obsessive attention to detail had steered him perfectly while on these assignments, he knew he was worth far more to the Bureau than serving on this mind-numbing, numbers-crunching detail. Now he would get his chance to prove it.
Shaking some hands and enduring a few 'so sorry to see you go' back slaps, he waved off his soon-to-be-former co-workers, told the office administrator he would be back later to clear out his desk, and walked out the door. He looked forward to seeing what the Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Branch had in store for him. He had worked damn hard for this promotion. It had to be good, since the man wanted to see him immediately.
Zane stopped into the bathroom to straighten his tie and check to make sure his close-cropped brown hair lay down neatly. The suit he wore was sharply tailored to his 6'5" frame, but it didn't hide the bulky muscles that moved under the fabric. His was not a body you'd expect to see riding a desk, a fact he was reminded of daily looking at the slightly pudgy agents who worked around him. He frowned slightly, surveying the crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes and the ridges of his twice-broken nose. With a displeased twitch, he ran his hands over his close-shaven cheeks and dismissed his image before buttoning his suit jacket and heading upstairs.
THE secretary gave Ty Grady a look over her glasses that clearly said she disapproved of the air he breathed. She lifted her chin and looked him up and down, wrinkling her nose at his appearance. "You're early," she announced with a touch of surprise to her voice.
Ty looked her up and down in return and cocked his head to the side. "I used the flashy blue lights," he told her with a helicopter motion of his finger.
She sniffed as she glanced over his unshaven face, scuffed leather jacket, jeans, and dirty cowboy boots. His T-shirt seemed to be particularly appalling to her sensibilities, even though it was clean. It was black and had the words Cocke County FBI in large white print on the front. Upon closer inspection, there were smaller words between the larger ones, and when she squinted she was able to read the entire shirt: 'I was probed in Cocke County by the FBI.' She made a small, insulted noise as she looked back up at him. Ty ignored her, leaving her looking slightly scandalized as he headed for the Assistant Director's door.
"You can't go in there yet!" she hissed as she stood from her desk and pointed at him.
He stopped at the door and turned around to look at her, blatantly putting his hand on the door handle and pushing it down with a smirk. Her mouth worked soundlessly, and she turned and scrambled for her intercom to announce him before he could get inside.
Assistant Director Richard Burns looked up at him in surprise and annoyance as Ty stepped into the office and closed the door behind him. "You wanted to see me, sir," Ty greeted, the words perfectly professional, but the tone somehow just as insolent as it always was.
"Sit down," the man ordered with a jab of his pen at one of the seats across from his desk. "We're waiting for one more person."
Ty moved to the seat and sat, his leather jacket sending up a tiny little cloud of dust as he flopped into the seat. He did a fairly good job of concealing his surprise. "Someone else?" he inquired evenly. "Am I being lynched?"
"If you keep your mouth shut for the next thirty minutes, you may not spend the night in jail. How about that?" Burns answered seriously without looking up from the papers he was signing.
Ty cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
ZANE Garrett entered the wide outer office to see the Assistant Director's secretary scurrying around her desk, obviously flustered. He paused, folding his hands behind his back. "Ma'am?" he asked politely when she didn't notice his entrance.
She looked up at him in surprise. "Special Agent Garrett, thank you for being prompt," she said, looking him up and down and nodding in approval of the tailored blue suit and silk tie. "You may go in now."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said evenly, proceeding to the door as she announced him through the intercom.
Burns looked up from the papers he was shuffling and gestured him in. "Come in, Special Agent Garrett. We've got some things to thrash out," he said to Zane, with a narrow-eyed look at the man sitting slumped in a chair in front of the desk.
"Yes, sir," Zane answered, moving to sit as the Director gestured. His eyes followed Burns' gaze. Only a blink betrayed Zane's surprise. The unkempt man sitting opposite Burns was a complete mess. Zane barely restrained the urge to sneer at him. Maybe he was an informant of some sort. He had that burnt-out, fidgety look to him.
Focusing on Burns again, Zane waited, composed and attentive, ready to start jumping through the next set of hoops.
Ty shifted in his seat, slouching further down and glancing over at the new man. God, the guy looked like he had just come off a printing press or something. "What are you doing, a how-to manual?" Ty asked the Assistant Director sarcastically. "Before and after?" he suggested wryly with a gesture at himself and then at the other man.
"Yes. You are sitting here before you get fired," Burns answered studiously. "And he is taking your job after you leave."
Ty pressed his lips tightly together and looked down at the shiny desktop sedately. Zane shifted his eyes between the man and Burns before narrowing them. He wondered why he had been asked to sit in on this meeting when the guy was obviously being fired. It seemed overly cruel. He clamped down hard on any further reaction and waited to see what would happen.
Ty licked his lips and looked up again to meet his superior's eyes almost defiantly.
"Fortunately for you, Grady, you have more lives than a cat," the man said to him with a small frown. "And you're getting another chance to prove to us that you can do this job without blowing shit up. I won't say one more, because God knows I'll just keep giving you more until you get yourself killed. Meet your new partner, Special Agent Zane Z. Garrett."
Zane couldn't have been more appalled, and it showed clearly in his reaction. This wreck of an agent was his new partner? "Director Burns," he started impulsively, but he caught his tongue and tightened his grip on the chair. What kind of reward was this?
"The hell he is!" Ty interrupted as he sat up straight. "I can't do my job with a - a - poster-boy partner," he practically stuttered angrily as he flopped his hand toward the squeaky-clean man next to him.
"And you can't do it without a partner, either, Special Agent Grady," Burns responded with a hard glare.
"Sir, it seems obvious," Zane said, not bothering to keep any edge of disapproval out of his voice, "that this agent needs more than I can possibly provide to help him. Frankly, it will take a miracle to make him even remotely professional. No one will take him seriously."
"Take me seriously?" Ty echoed in disbelief. "Christ, have those shoes ever even seen pavement? Shit," he exclaimed in a sudden panic. "Are you sending me to Cyber?" he asked Burns, who was sitting behind the desk and grinning like a small child at Christmas.
"Your tone of voice implies that investigating technological crime and terrorism might be below you," Zane said to him coldly as he leveled an even gaze on the other agent. "Perhaps you should consider requesting a transfer to professional staff. Or submitting your resignation altogether."
"Hey, fuck you, candy ass," Ty snarled without looking over at him.
"Quiet, both of you!" Burns barked suddenly. "Grady, you're staying in Criminal until you get your ass killed or do something so illegal even I can't cover for you, understand? Garrett, you're to make certain he doesn't do either of those things. Is that clear? And you will both like it."
Ty's eyes widened as he realized he was being assigned a bookkeeping babysitter, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. His stomach turned at the thought, but he supposed it was better than being fired. Or being in jail.
The thought of being attached to this troublemaking loose cannon was nearly enough to make Zane lose his composure. After all he'd done, all he'd worked for, this was all he was going to get. Despair threatened for a moment, and he had to take a deep breath to push it aside. He wanted to rail at Burns, but it wasn't his place to object. He'd make the best of this clusterfuck, and then leave this agent behind, just as he had the Cyber Division. That or go down in spectacular flames.
"Yes, sir," he acknowledged through clenched teeth.
"I expect you to learn from each other," Burns instructed, his heart going out to Zane Garrett. It was a shitty thing to do to him, sticking him with a man like Ty Grady after he'd worked his way back up from hell to be Cyber's top performing agent. But for this particular case, these two men were unusually qualified.
"Respectfully, sir, I understand you need someone riding herd on this - agent," Zane gritted out. "But what am I supposed to learn from him?" he asked, slanting a disbelieving look Grady's way.
Burns gave Ty a dubious glance and then shrugged apologetically in answer to Zane's query. He was well-acquainted with Garrett's past, but the man was resourceful. He'd had to be. He'd find a way to make this work.
"You can learn to kiss my ass," Ty shot back as he fumbled with the file his boss had chucked at him. "Just like you do everyone else's," he muttered.
Sticks & Stones
“SO, SPECIAL Agent Garrett, I understand you’ve finished your evaluations,” the Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division said from where he sat behind his large mahogany desk. The desk stood out against the drab colors of the paint and carpet and matched the wall of bookshelves that warmed the room.
FBI Special Agent Zane Garrett stood at the window, looking out at the wet, dirty streets of Washington, DC, and desperately wishing he could be anywhere else. He could see his boss in the window; the man behind the desk held several files in his hand as he looked at Zane with raised eyebrows.
Zane sneered at his own reflection in the window. The shadows under his eyes and wrinkles from his frown were pronounced above his slightly crooked nose, giving him a rough and tumble appearance even though he was clean-shaven. The scraped cheeks were in sharp contrast to his slightly overgrown dark brown hair. Looking at himself, he acknowledged that, despite the muscular build cloaked in black slacks and a royal blue dress shirt, he wasn’t any prize right now.
He had been assigned to the DC office for five weeks, along with his partner, after they’d been reunited in this very office following five miserable months apart. Upon receiving the new assignment, they had both been relegated to deskwork for various reasons, not the least of which was the physical and mental aftereffects of the turbulent past year or so. For him, it had been an especially rough year. Ty seemed better able to shake off the past than he did. Zane took a steadying breath and slid his hands into his pockets, shifting uncomfortably in place.
He winced and turned to look at Richard Burns. He’d known the meeting today would be… rocky.
“You passed the academic and physical testing, but you know that already. You also know you managed to flunk the mental evaluation that would have cleared you for field duty,” Burns said in concern.
Zane didn’t answer as he folded his arms in front of himself, wondering what he could say to explain. There was so much shit bouncing around in his head that he wasn’t sure himself why he’d had such a tough time with an evaluation he should have been able to bullshit through easily. He just hadn’t been able to focus.
“If there’s a legitimate reason you can’t get your head out of your ass, I’d like to hear it,” Burns invited as he looked back up at Zane. He paused, probably waiting to see if Zane would say anything. When he received no comment, Burns continued. “Is it your partner?” he asked carefully.
Zane’s shoulders stiffened, and he shook his head quickly. His partner had a reputation throughout the Bureau for being hard to work with; Zane had found in the last five weeks that he got more apologetic looks from his co-workers now that he was working with Special Agent Ty Grady than he’d gotten when his wife had died. But Zane didn’t have a problem working with Ty. Not for the same reason others did, anyway.
“It’s been hard,” he hedged. “Getting over what happened.”
That was an understatement. The truth was that he’d been fighting insomnia, acute headaches, and suffering through nightmares when he actually did sleep alone. Tracking down a serial killer intent on not being caught was hazardous to your health, both mentally and physically, and nearly getting killed in a vicious car wreck during the hunt almost six months ago had contributed to his problems. He’d recovered surprisingly well—physically. He’d attended his rehab appointments and gym times religiously. But the rest….
He’d been able to ignore it as long as he’d had Ty in bed next to him. When Zane first got into his company-issue extended-stay hotel suite, Ty had been there almost every night, only going home to Baltimore once or twice a week to switch out his clothing. Over the next five weeks, though, as they’d languished in deskwork waiting to be cleared for the field, the overnight stays had tapered off until Ty showed up only once or twice a week, if at all. The less Ty showed up, the less Zane slept. And while it did wonders for his physical rehab and workout schedule, it was also one of the reasons Zane had been feeling somewhat disconnected, both from his job and from his partner.
Burns watched him knowingly. “That’s certainly understandable,” he finally agreed. “Which is why I’ve decided to give you a few more weeks of vacation before your official evals take place.”
“What?” Zane asked in surprise. While he felt a wave of relief that he was getting a reprieve, he also felt his stomach plummet nervously. There was always a catch with Dick Burns.
“How’s your partner, Zane?” Burns asked.
Zane blinked a few times at the unexpected query. “Grady?” he asked warily.
Burns’ mouth turned up in a half smile. “Do you have another partner I should know about?”
“No,” Zane said quickly. “He’s fine.” He and Grady got along. Most of the time. Mostly in bed. The last few weeks had been a disappointing stretch, though; apparently not having a psychopath trying to kill them was slightly detrimental to forming any sort of personal relationship.
“Fine,” Burns repeated.
Zane waved a hand around. “Yeah. Fine. I guess. Trying to stay busy.” He rolled his eyes, thinking about the whirlwind of attitude and energy from Ty he dealt with every day. “He can’t sit still,” he told Burns.
Burns looked highly amused as he tipped back in his leather chair. “No, he can’t. He never could. But then, neither can you,” he pointed out, looking significantly at the comfortable wingback chairs in front of his desk.
Zane shrugged uncomfortably but took the hint and moved to the chair Burns had indicated. “Grady spends most of his free time at the gym, as far as I know,” he said, hoping to move the focus off himself. “At the office we try to keep him distracted so he doesn’t burn down the building.”
“How’s he handling deskwork?” Burns asked knowingly.
Zane glared at him, clearly communicating that he knew it was a bullshit question. “He’s about as helpful as you’d figure.”
“Yes, I heard about your little day trip down to Quantico,” Burns said as he frowned and pulled back his white shirtsleeve to check his watch.
“We did pretty damn well in that exercise,” Zane pointed out.
“If you consider going down in a blaze of glory and paintballs ‘doing well,’” Burns said with a hint of a smile. “The real test will come when you’re back in the field. If you ever get there,” he said seriously.
“You know how much Grady likes to win,” Zane muttered.
Burns pursed his lips and nodded. He seemed torn between amusement and concern. “Well, take comfort in the fact they weren’t real bullets, I guess,” he offered finally.
Zane leaned forward to brace his elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together. Although Ty’s actions at the time had been surprising, Zane figured he understood. It was just a game. Ty wouldn’t leave him alone when it counted. Not if there was anything he could do about it. “Real bullets change everything,” he answered.
“Remember that when you’re back in the field,” Burns requested wryly. “You have another evaluation set up in three weeks’ time,” Burns told Zane, his voice soft. “At which point I expect you to pass with flying colors. Your place is in the field,” he asserted. “If I can’t put you there after your vacation, I have no further use for you. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Zane swallowed hard on the bile in his throat. That meant either a forced transfer to a desk job in another division—which would be terrible—or early retirement. Zane didn’t even want to think about that. He wouldn’t have anything left without this job or his partner. Without Ty.
“Enjoy your time off, Zane, starting right now,” Burns offered sincerely. “Grady is getting several death threats a day from the office staff, so he’s been ‘granted’ two weeks of his own,” he added in a long-suffering voice. “What you do with your time off is none of my concern. Just don’t do it here.”
Zane suppressed a groan. The last vacation he’d taken was a disastrous trip back to Texas to see his family. Most of it had been spent avoiding his family. “All right,” he agreed, his tone resigned. At this point, sitting alone in his hotel suite would just make things worse, but he really didn’t know what else to do. He hadn’t felt this lost in a long time, and unlike the past, he didn’t have drugs or alcohol to blame or to turn to. This time it was all on him.
Burns was watching him closely. “Have you thought about seeing a psychiatrist?” he asked carefully.
Zane flinched. He’d known this was coming, but it didn’t make hearing it any less painful. He really didn’t want to go that route if he could avoid it. He wouldn’t wish all the shit in his head on anybody.
“When you get back, there’s someone I’d like you to speak to if you’re still having difficulty,” Burns told him with a sigh. “He’s not a Bureau doctor. He’s just a friend of mine who is very good.” Zane nodded slowly, and Burns took pity on him and smiled slightly. “Don’t worry, Garrett. It’ll be all right. Find a hobby or something. Take up knitting,” he suggested with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.
“Knitting,” Zane repeated flatly.
Burns nodded as there was a knock on the door to his office, and his harried assistant opened it. Burns waved her off as a man pushed past her to enter. Zane turned to see his partner and looked back at Burns with a frown, wondering what was going on.
“Come in, Special Agent Grady,” Burns greeted pleasantly, completely unfazed by Ty’s entrance. “Good to see you.”
“You’re a lousy liar, Dick,” Ty Grady muttered as he ushered Burns’ secretary back out and shut the door in her face. He turned back around and glowered. “I just got off the phone with my dad,” he announced accusingly. “Said he was looking forward to seeing me this week. Know anything about that?”
Burns merely cleared his throat and smiled.
Zane ran his eyes over Ty, skimming over the close-cropped hair and clean-shaven face before moving his attention down over the sand-colored suit and black shirt he was wearing. The tailored suits he’d been wearing while on duty in DC looked incredible on him, though Zane knew Ty hated to wear them. He managed to look loose and comfortable in them despite the almost constant fidgeting they caused him. The tie took the brunt of the fussing during the day. It was usually gone by lunch.
It was amusing to watch him, and Zane did so every day with not a little sympathy. Although, Zane admitted silently, it was worlds better to see his partner like this than as the still, silent ghost of himself Ty had been after the major concussion he’d suffered on their last case.
Right now, Ty looked annoyed, the slight wrinkling of his narrow nose matching his furrowed brow and sparking greenish eyes. He was angry; it was obvious in the sharp and annoyed movements of his lanky, muscled body and the tightness in his jaw.
Ty moved further into the office, glancing at Zane as if he were just noticing him there. He pointed at Zane accusingly. “What’s he done now?” he demanded of Burns.
“Why would you suppose he’s done anything?” Burns asked. Ty opened his mouth to speak, but Burns was faster. “From what I understand, you two are wreaking more havoc amongst the office drones than you ever did in the field. Got anything to say to that?”
“Yeah,” Ty huffed in response. “Stop giving my dad progress reports!”
“He’s an old friend, Ty,” Burns said to him in a low voice. “And I will talk to him whenever I goddamned please. Sit down,” he ordered.
Ty hesitated stubbornly for a moment and then reluctantly moved to obey, flopping into the seat beside Zane. He glared at his partner, as if his being there were somehow Zane’s fault. Zane rolled his eyes and turned his chin so he was looking back out the window.
“Why are we here?” Ty asked impatiently.
“To embarrass me for jackassing my eval,” Zane muttered.
“You’re here to amuse me,” Burns corrected in a sarcastically sweet tone. “But now that you mention the tests….”
Ty glanced over at Zane and frowned slightly. “What’s going on?” he asked, the annoyance draining away, replaced by growing concern.
“Why would you think anything’s going on?” Burns asked curiously. “Smell something in the wind, do you?”
“Uh huh,” Ty responded warily as he looked between them, either oblivious to Burns’ sarcasm or ignoring it.
“Garrett is going on a little vacation,” Burns answered as he leaned back in his chair.
“What? How long?” Ty demanded.
“What?” Ty repeated, slightly more panicked. “But who will I get to do my paperwork?”
“Jesus Christ,” Zane swore quietly. Burns was practically kicking his ass to the curb, and all Ty could think about was the paperwork. Classy.
“I’m still filling out forms from throwing his gun at that cab!” Ty told Burns.
Zane’s lips quirked. Every bullet fired from a service weapon had to be accompanied with a written report for the Bureau. Ty had fired… quite a few bullets at the cab that had almost smeared them across the highway in New York City. Zane didn’t know what paperwork you had to fill out for throwing your gun at something. He’d never tried that before. Hell, he’d never even thought of it before.
“Don’t worry about the paperwork,” Burns told Ty with a grin. “You can finish it when you get back.”
Ty went silent, pursing his lips as he gave both Burns and Zane measuring looks. “Where am I going?” he asked carefully as he looked between them again.
Zane knew Burns sometimes sent Ty off to mysterious places that never produced paperwork. He had yet to find the right opportunity to ask about that though. Ty probably thought he was being sent on one of those trips now. “I’m going on ‘vacation,’ remember?” Zane reminded him, internally bracing for impact.
“What, I have to go with him?” Ty asked incredulously. “Why the hell am I being punished too? Jesus Christ, Dick, I’d rather take his damn tests for him than be sent off into exile!”
“Would you do any better?” Burns asked pointedly.
Ty leaned forward in his chair and smacked his hand against the desk. “I have never fucked up an eval,” he protested in a hurt voice.
Burns slowly raised an eyebrow. He leaned forward and pushed the folders on his desk around slowly. Then he picked one up and tapped it on the desk, giving Ty a significant look.
“What?” Ty asked, his tone suspicious.
Burns silently slid the folder across the desk.
“What is this?” Ty asked as he took the folder and opened it.
“Your latest psych evaluation,” Burns answered without commenting further.
Ty frowned as he looked at the file and began shaking his head before he snapped the folder shut again, tossing it onto the desk. “Is this medical leave then?” he asked tightly.
Zane sat quietly, taking in the news that Ty must have failed his most recent psychological exam as well. He was surprised. While he himself—usually—was pretty damn good at lying his way through just about any test, Ty was an expert at hiding things he didn’t want other people to know, and mental problems would be at the top of that list. Zane frowned. Ty must not have recovered from the trauma suffered at the hands of the Tri-State killer as well as he claimed. Zane could understand that. He knew Ty had faced almost certain death when Tim Henninger had bricked him into a catacomb and left him in the dark to die. That had to affect a man, especially one whose sanity already teetered on the edge on a good day.
“As I told your partner, these results will never see the light of day,” Burns was informing Ty. “Your real evals will be given in two weeks. Zane’s in three. Until then, you are both officially on vacation.”
Ty was silent, staring at Burns until Burns actually shifted in his chair as he met Ty’s eyes.
“My dad knew you were sending me on vacation,” Ty stated. “He know what’s in that file too?” he asked him softly.
Burns gave a shake of his head in answer. “You know better,” he chastised. “But your father asks after you, Ty,” he said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “He worries. Maybe if you called home more often I wouldn’t have to give him news when I talk to him.”
Zane shook his head imperceptibly, feeling suddenly uncomfortable about being there. There’d always been something more between Grady and Dick Burns than merely a relationship between agent and director. Now he had some idea of what it was. Burns knew Ty’s family, and fairly well, from the sound of it. While their relationship seemed nice on the surface, he could imagine it was a nightmare for Ty, who was so protective of his privacy. Zane didn’t want to think about what he’d do if Burns had a direct line to his own father. He shifted to study his partner, whose face was stony and blank.
“Garrett, we’re done,” Burns announced without looking away from Ty. “Would you excuse us?”
Zane hesitated for a long moment and then murmured, “Yes, sir,” before standing and exiting the room without looking at his partner again. Once he got out of the main office and shut the door, he leaned back against the wall and exhaled heavily.
Well, it could have been worse.
TY LOOKED down at the file on the desk again, waiting until he heard the door click, and then he looked back up and met Burns’ eyes.
“I’m fine,” he said in a low voice.
“For now,” Burns answered. “Maybe.”
“Don’t do this, Dick,” Ty pleaded. “You take this job away from either of us, and we’re both done,” he said with a tap to his own temple.
Burns raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Both of you?”
Ty cocked his head, trying not to react too obviously to anything Burns said or did. But Burns didn’t look away; he just watched and waited.
“What?” Ty finally asked, feeling uncomfortable under the older man’s piercing gaze.
Finally sniffing, Burns relaxed back into his chair. “I have it on very good authority that without this particular job, you would have three more waiting for you,” he said with a sigh. “From organizations that would be less concerned about your mental health than I might be.”
Ty shifted, trying not to fidget.
“I know why you stay here, Ty, and I’m grateful to you,” Burns went on in a gentler tone. “But I begin to wonder how long I can keep you here before you just go stark raving mad on me. They’re still cleaning up paint in Hogan’s Alley.”
“That wasn’t all me,” Ty reminded defensively.
“You don’t owe me your dad’s loyalty,” Burns told him, ignoring his interruption. “Don’t think I don’t know that.”
Ty swallowed heavily and linked his fingers together, trying harder not to shift around in the creaky old wingback.
“It’s not necessarily you I’m worried about here, kiddo,” Burns continued. “If abnormal psych evals from you concerned me overly much, I’d never get any sleep.” He paused. “Tell me about your partner, Ty,” he requested. “How is he?”
Ty met Burns’ eyes carefully, wondering just how much the man knew about him and Zane. But it was safer to play dumb than it was to try and find out. No matter how well Ty knew Burns, something like fucking around with his partner wouldn’t go unpunished.
Ty shrugged, deciding to bypass the other comments for the one he was comfortable talking about. “He’s struggling a little,” he answered.
“Why haven’t you done anything? Or said anything?” Burns asked, his voice flat.
“To who?” Ty asked calmly. “You? You telling me you didn’t know? Thought he’d be okay right back in Miami after all we went through?” After healing up from his injuries in New York, Zane had been pitched right back into undercover work. It hadn’t gone particularly well, and although he’d kept away from the drugs and the drink, he’d definitely been a mess in the head when he’d gotten back to DC to be re-partnered with Ty.
Burns’ face took on a pinched look, and he shook his head. “I made a mistake, Ty. It happens to the best of us.”
“Yes, it does,” Ty agreed. He nodded at the file on the desk. “My marks are low, but they’re acceptable. So I’m guessing you want me gone for a reason. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m juggling some paperwork here,” Burns informed him, his shoulders sagging to show how exhausted he really was. “In order to bury these current tests, I have to have both of you make yourselves scarce for a while. Nothing more sinister than that,” he assured Ty.
“Dick,” Ty protested weakly. He hated the thought of sitting on his ass, twiddling his thumbs.
Burns raised his voice, speaking over Ty’s objections. “After these evaluations go through, you’ll both be reassigned to the Baltimore office. I bet you’ll be happy to return home.”
Ty eyed Burns warily. It would be good to get back to Baltimore. He had buddies there, and he considered the city home after nearly four years. He was still living there through the temporary DC assignment, making the commute every day and occasionally shacking up with Zane in his DC hotel room when he didn’t want to go home.
The drive back and forth was murder.
A move back to Baltimore was good news. But he knew there was something he was missing here, some catch in the arrangement that Dick was about to throw in. He had a feeling he knew what it was too.
“Have a nice trip, Ty,” Burns offered with a smile. “Say hello to the family for me,” he told him with a hint of mischief in his eyes.
Ty stared at him. “The family,” he echoed. “My family?”
Burns just smiled and pushed the folders in front of him into a neat stack once more. Ty warred with himself. He wanted to ask questions, but he didn’t feel like getting into it with Burns about his family. Or about Zane. “Is that all?” he asked after a long moment of contemplation.
“Unless you want to talk about which part of your training gave you the idea to use your partner as paintball repellant?” Burns inquired with a raised eyebrow.
Ty pursed his lips to keep a smile from forming.
“That’s what I thought,” Burns replied with a shake of his head. Ty saw his lips twitch in amusement. “Then yes, Special Agent Grady. That is all,” he confirmed without ever allowing the smile to surface.
“Next time can you do this on the phone?” Ty asked as he stood and turned away, heading for the door with a frown. “It’s a long fucking drive from Baltimore.”
“Say hello to Earl for me,” Burns requested, a smile in his voice.
Ty didn’t respond as he exited the office. He walked through the outer office, head down and face set in a worried frown as he contemplated the next two weeks. It was quite clear what he was supposed to do. A trip to West Virginia was in his immediate future. He ignored the hateful woman at the receptionist’s desk as he left the office and headed for the elevators.
Ty stopped abruptly and turned in place to look back at Zane in surprise. He hadn’t expected him to stick around. “Hey,” he responded, unable to think of anything else to say.
Zane’s face was blank, and his shoulders were pulled back stiff. He was obviously expecting some sort of bitching out over the evals. He was all geared up for a fight. It seemed like Zane was always geared up for a fight lately, and Ty was running out of ways to handle him. It was tiring, and he’d been seeking solitude more often than not just to give himself a break.
Ty gave him a jerk of his head. “Come buy me some coffee,” he requested as he hit the button for the elevator.
Zane frowned and walked slowly toward Ty and the elevator. “You don’t drink coffee,” he said with a suspicious note in his voice.
“So?” Ty responded with a slight tilt of his head as he looked sideways at Zane, who held his gaze only for a moment before dropping his eyes. Ty frowned. They weren’t connecting like they had been, and he wondered when it had happened and why neither of them had noticed. The only time they seemed to click on all cylinders was when they were working—or playing—and the thought made Ty slightly sad and maybe a little hurt. He brushed it off, though. There was no point in forcing the issue. Things like that came and went, whether you wanted them to or not.
Zane shrugged. “Fine. Coffee.” He looked at Ty speculatively. “What did Burns tell you?”
“That you’re fucked in the head,” Ty responded as he turned and looked at Zane with narrowed eyes, taking in how on edge Zane seemed. Defensive. “What have you been doing about it?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Doing what?” Ty asked in amusement. “Aside from me?” he added.
Zane’s lips compressed, but then his eyes closed for a moment, he half smiled, and some of the tension eased. He slid one hand into his pants pocket. “Planning my next chance?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Ty muttered as the elevator doors opened. He stepped in and punched the button for the ground floor. “Come on,” he said to Zane with a sigh. “I have to go home and pack.”
“You’re actually going somewhere?” Zane asked in surprise.
“I have not-so-subtle orders to go see my family,” Ty answered wryly. He cocked his head as he studied Zane again. “You’re going to spend three weeks just sitting around your hotel room and moping, aren’t you?” he asked knowingly.
Zane sighed and crossed his arms. “I don’t really know where I’d go. I’m not going to Texas again.”
Ty hesitated, looking him up and down. The thought of inviting Zane to accompany him to West Virginia was appealing, in a way. If things went south, Ty could throw Zane in front of his parents just like he had the paintballs. Use him as a sort of human sacrifice. And then there was the added benefit of having Zane close every night. He’d come to enjoy that when it still happened, despite how he wanted to throttle Zane sometimes.
“You want to come with me?” he asked tentatively.
Zane stared at him, obviously thinking it was a joke. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But I need you,” Ty told him as he reached out and stopped the doors from closing. He knew Zane well enough to know how to manipulate him. If Zane thought his partner was showing vulnerability, he’d fall for it every time. It was an amazingly predictable habit for his unpredictable partner. And there was more than a grain of truth in the words. “Come on,” he repeated.
Looking faintly surprised, Zane got on the elevator and stood next to him, waiting for an explanation. Ty remained silent, enjoying watching the other man struggle with the fact that he would have to ask for it. Zane actually lasted almost the entire elevator ride to the parking garage before he huffed softly. “Fine,” he said grudgingly. “What do you need me for?”
Ty smirked as he looked over at Zane, but the smile faded as he cleared his throat. “If I’m going home, I need something bigger than me to hide behind,” he said as he gestured to Zane’s larger frame.
“That actually did work out pretty well for me in the end last time,” Zane drawled, raising an eyebrow. He was obviously remembering the night after the trip to Quantico.
Ty let his eyes rake over the man suggestively. “You have other uses too,” he agreed.
“Home,” Zane said slowly, smiling a little at Ty’s playful words. “To West by-God Virginia? And you want me to just… tag along?”
“Yes,” Ty answered with a curt nod. That was exactly what he wanted. If Zane could survive a trip to West Virginia to meet the Gradys, he could live through anything. Like a cockroach.
An amused smile slowly pulled at Zane’s lips as the elevator doors opened onto the parking deck. “Just what is it you’re afraid of?”
Ty pursed his lips and waited a moment before moving out of the elevator without bothering to answer.
Zane huffed quietly and followed him. “Grady, you’re going to answer my question.”
“And you’re going to sprout wings and fly,” Ty shot back over his shoulder. “Do you have camping gear?”
“Camping… why the hell would I need camping gear in DC?” Zane asked, throwing up a hand. “Answer the question.”
“There are places to camp in DC,” Ty answered as he headed for his Bronco.
“Yeah, if you’re homeless in a city park,” Zane retorted. “Answer the question, Grady.”
“I did,” Ty said to him with a smirk he tried to hide. He seriously enjoyed riling Zane up. The results were often… heated. “I mean, if you want specific places to camp, I’m gonna need a map. And maybe some squeaky pens, you know, the ones that smell good?” he rambled, knowing it would annoy Zane and trying not to smile as he said it.
Zane stopped in place as Ty kept walking. After a long moment he shook his head and changed directions, heading for the far side of the parking garage. Zane had learned not long after they’d been reassigned that he didn’t have to stick around to deal with Ty’s verbal sparring. In some ways it was a nuisance, because now Ty had to work harder to annoy him, but it was refreshing, too, in that Zane wasn’t willing to be batted around like a mouse being taunted by a cat anymore.
“Hey!” Ty called after him with a melancholy smile. He did miss the verbal sparring sometimes.
“What?” Zane yelled back as he kept walking to his Valkyrie, parked in the corner about thirty yards away.
“You want to know why I don’t like going home?” Ty asked as he jangled his keys, the sound echoing in the cement parking garage.
“I believe I asked what you were afraid of, Grady. Two different things,” Zane responded as he picked up his helmet from the seat of the motorcycle. His voice bounded off the concrete of the parking deck and reached Ty almost as an echo.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” Ty answered immediately with a tilt of his head, his voice soft and serious.
Zane paused and turned back to study him. Ty smiled slightly. They were both still dealing with hang-ups and problems. While Zane certainly had a harder time dealing than Ty did, every once in a while it did Zane good to be reminded that he wasn’t alone in his struggles.
“You really want me to come?” Zane asked him uncertainly.
“What are we going to do while we’re there?”
“Eat home cooking and take a little hike in the woods,” Ty answered with a negligent shrug.
Zane’s shoulders relaxed. “There’s a difference between a little hike and needing camping gear.”
“Is there?” Ty asked innocently. He shook his head. “We just go up on the mountain. Stay there a week, maybe ten days,” he explained.
“Ten days,” Zane repeated flatly.
“Sometimes less,” Ty answered.
“I’ve never been to the mountains,” Zane said doubtfully as he set his helmet down.
“All the more reason to go,” Ty countered, though he was silently wondering how in the hell Zane had lived all his life without going into the mountains. Any mountains.
Zane nodded slowly. “Are we still getting coffee?” he asked after a moment.
“If you want it,” Ty answered with a shrug. “We need to go shopping. You’re gonna need some boots,” he told his partner with relish.
Fish & Chips
“HEY, Freddy, Scott, you got to check this out,” Special Agent Michelle Clancy said as she trotted into the free weights room of the FBI’s Baltimore field office gym.
“Busy,” Special Agent Fred Perrimore grunted as he strained with the barbell. His biceps bulged as he pressed up; sweat dotted the black skin along his closely shaved hairline.
“Believe me. It’s worth it,” Clancy told them in a singsong voice. Her ponytail bobbed along behind her as she bounced on the tips of her toes excitedly, the bright red hair clashing with her freckles and the flushed pink of her face.
Special Agent Scott Alston looked up from where he stood spotting Perrimore. “What is it?” he asked impatiently. Clancy was too easily worked up for a five-year veteran, and Perrimore always took too much weight. If he dropped the bar when Alston wasn’t paying attention, there would be shit tons of paperwork to fill out.
“Garrett and Grady are beating the shit out of each other,” Clancy answered with something resembling relish.
“So?” Perrimore asked in a strained voice. His large arms trembled with the effort to raise the bar and plates. “They’re always doing that.”
He was right, but Alston’s eyes widened with the news. He began to grin even as he helped pull the bar up and hastily settle it into its cradle with a clank. No way did he want to miss this.
“What the hell, man?” Perrimore complained as he sat up and gave them both an exasperated glare. Alston was already following Clancy out of the room when he heard Perrimore protest, “But what’s the big deal? They’re always doing that!”
Clancy and Alston emerged into the main gym, where several small groups of agents had dropped what they were doing to gather around the center boxing ring. As Clancy and Alston hurried to watch through the ropes, a chorus of groans and cheers went up as one of the men slammed to the mat with an impact that actually shook the entire ring.
“Get up, Grady! You can’t take that shit from him!” one of the watching agents called out in amusement.
Alston shook his head and folded his arms, listening as someone nearby filled him in on the events that had led up to this.
The fight had started out as a simple sparring match between partners. Nothing special. Nothing for anyone to pay much attention to. Several people in the main gym had been initially impressed that the newly arrived Special Agent Zane Garrett could hold his own with his temperamental, extremely well-trained partner, but that was about it. Today’s event appeared to have started as a training session, with Ty giving Zane pointers and lessons in some particular technique.
If Zane was trying to learn from Ty, he’d gone to the right place. Unfortunately, Ty wasn’t exactly mentor material. Everyone in the Baltimore office knew that Special Agent Ty Grady was good for one thing in the ring: embarrassing the hotshot rookies. If you really wanted to spar with him, you had to handicap him somehow. Alston personally preferred the knee-to-the-nuts-in-the-locker-room-prior-to-sparring method. That usually evened up the odds a little. Usually.
Heads began to turn when the gentle sparring, quips, and teasing between partners had become slightly more heated and the jabs had become true punches that caused the combatants to stagger back with each blow. It was common knowledge how difficult it was to work with Ty Grady. It had come as no surprise to anyone when Zane Garrett arrived that they were always at each other’s throats, especially when it turned out Zane was about as headstrong as Ty, which was really saying something. There was already a pool on how long the partnership would last.
“Now, come on, Grady. You taught me that move yourself,” Zane said as he backed away a couple steps, his wrapped fists still up and ready. His plain gray cotton T-shirt was soaked through with sweat and pulled across well-defined muscles as he shifted his shoulders. Alston had to admit Zane was a big dude and saw how he could be sort of intimidating. Not that it would matter a bit to Ty.
Ty rolled to his side and pushed himself up with a low groan. He wasn’t quite as tall or broad-shouldered as his partner, but he was solid from head to toe, still a big man in his own right. Alston was of the opinion that his attitude gave him a more imposing air than his bulk. Every agent here knew Ty Grady through one avenue or another. And everyone knew he was just one twist short of a slinky.
He was wearing a white shirt with a picture of a scarecrow on it accompanied by the words “out standing in his field.” Not one of the watching agents gave it a second glance. It was, they all knew, his favorite shirt.
Ty looked up at his partner and snarled at him, seemingly unaware of the people watching and now placing bets on who would be the winner. He rolled his shoulders and began to circle again, taped fists up and close to his face. Zane moved in a mirror image, watching Ty intently.
“There’s no way Garrett can stay in too long with Grady,” Alston predicted. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Zane. He seemed like an okay guy. Maybe a little dull and straight-laced. But it was Ty he was fighting. The former Marine was on a short fuse on the best of days. When he lost his temper, there was never any telling what would be rigged to blow by the end of the workday.
“He’s been in there twenty minutes already,” Clancy said, arms crossed as she watched.
“Yeah, but it didn’t get serious until a few minutes ago,” another agent told them.
“Garrett may surprise you,” Fred Perrimore said as he joined them. While he was built heavy and barrel-chested, Alston stood three inches taller than him at six feet, and they both towered over Clancy’s petite frame. “He’s got some moves.”
“Having ‘moves’ and being trained to kill by the government are not the same thing,” Alston said with a derisive laugh.
As if to emphasize his point, Ty moved in a graceful series of feints, jabs, and an arcing roundhouse kick to send Zane to the mat with a resounding thump. He danced away lightly before Zane could touch him.
“Hands ain’t the only things that hit, Garrett,” Ty said in a low voice, a slight smirk curling his lips.
Zane rolled into a crouch and twisted as he stood, his heel connecting with the back of Ty’s knee, forcing it to collapse as he punched Ty in the kidney.
Clancy winced. “I’m thinking Garrett can kick ass just fine,” she murmured.
They watched as Ty fell to his knees with a grunt of anger and pain, and then he just as quickly rolled and struck out, taking Zane’s legs out from under him, catching Zane’s knees between his two calves like a pair of scissors. The crowd groaned when Zane hit the mat a second time, and Ty pounced on him, getting an arm around his neck and rolling him up between his knees, trying to immobilize him.
“Should we stop this before Ty snaps his neck?” Clancy asked in morbid amusement. She and Alston shared a look, Alston privately thinking that he wouldn’t put it past Ty to do it. They shrugged at each other negligently, but then both winced when Zane somehow rocked forward and pulled Ty half over his shoulder before shoving him off to one side. Ty rolled away nimbly and sprang to his feet almost instantly.
“We need walls, partner,” Zane sniped as he got to his feet. “Something for you to splat against.”
Ty shook his head and reached up to the strap of the protective headgear required in the ring. He yanked at it and ripped the padded helmet off, tossing it over the ropes to land at the feet of several of the agents watching. He didn’t say anything to Zane, just held out one taped hand and gestured for him to bring it.
“Oh fuck, we’re going to have to fill out paperwork about this too,” Alston muttered to himself.
Zane’s eyes narrowed, and he cocked his head to one side before doing the same, pulling off his own helmet and sending it skidding off the mat to thunk to the floor. “What’s wrong, Grady?” he asked ruefully, raising his fists. “Cat got your tongue?”
Everyone watching groaned at the verbal jab. They’d all heard the story of what had happened to Ty and Zane in the mountains of West Virginia. Ty merely smirked without attacking. One of the fists he held up and ready was badly scarred from the cougar bite he’d received several weeks ago and the two subsequent surgeries he’d undergone to fix the damage. Zane’s taunt was a low blow.
Without warning, Zane lunged, leading with his left shoulder to shove all his weight into Ty, propelling him toward the ropes. It seemed to be what Ty had been waiting for, though, because he planted a foot and used Zane’s momentum to lift him completely off his feet and slam him down into the mat. The entire ring shook again, and a loud groan rippled through the audience.
This time when Zane was down, Ty didn’t try to merely immobilize him. He got in four or five rapid punches to the midsection before one wicked left to Zane’s unprotected face.
Shouts of protest came from the crowd, but no one moved to stop it. Zane balled up and took the clearly painful hits, and when Ty reared back for a last shot, Zane got one knee pulled back and shoved a foot into Ty’s gut, hard, before he started scrambling away from him. Ty stumbled backward, but then he attacked again, too quickly for Zane to get away.
“I think he’s getting pissed,” Alston observed drily.
“If Ty was pissed, Garrett’d be dead already,” Perrimore pointed out in a flat voice.
Another round of pained groans went up from the small crowd of watching agents as Ty tackled Zane and straddled him, pinning him with his knees.
“That hurt, dammit!” Ty growled at his partner as he held him to the mat by his neck.
“Fuck you, Meow Mix,” Zane hissed back as he got one hand on Ty’s shoulder—the arm holding him down—having just enough arm length to keep Ty from totally throttling him. He balled up his other fist and punched Ty in the gut. Everyone heard the thump of fist hitting solid muscle, but it didn’t dislodge him.
Ty turned his shoulder, slamming his elbow against the side of Zane’s head before grabbing him by the neck again with one hand and using the other hand to fend off Zane’s attempts at retaliation.
Anyone who knew Ty knew that he wasn’t trying to kill his partner, though. Cause brain damage, maybe. But not kill him.
“Guys, this is too much,” Clancy finally objected as she raised both her hands.
“You gonna get in there to separate them?” Alston asked incredulously as he watched Zane continue to fight off Ty’s other hand while bucking under him, trying to throw him off.
Clancy shook her head, and they watched in morbid amusement as Zane finally, somehow, got some leverage. The two men rolled across the mat in a badly orchestrated tumble, each man too stubborn to release the other as they grappled.
“What the hell is going on here?” an irritated voice bellowed from the doorway of the main gym.
The crowd of agents scattered. Ty and Zane stopped mid-throttle, looking up at their superior like two kids caught roughhousing in the living room.
Alston edged away toward the weight room, stopping just behind the doorway to peer around the corner with Clancy and two other curious agents.
In the middle of the ring, Ty turned his head to look at Special Agent in Charge Dan McCoy, who was glowering at them from several yards away. “Hey, Mac,” Ty greeted innocently as he straddled his bleeding partner. “Come down to work the glutes?” he asked with a sincere cock of his head.
Zane gasped for air and rapped his knuckles hard against Ty’s chest as he finally pried Ty’s fingers from his throat.
“You two, my office, now,” McCoy ordered as he pointed his finger at them. “If you can kick the shit out of each other, then you’re ready for your next assignment,” he muttered as he turned and stalked away.
As soon as McCoy was gone, someone from somewhere in the cavernous workout room wolf-whistled at Ty and Zane and proceeded to applaud the performance they’d given.
Ty stood and took a bow as Zane stalked off toward the locker rooms. Alston snorted and looked down at Perrimore with a shrug. “Better them than us.”
“I hear that,” Perrimore muttered as he returned to the weights.
ZANE let his head loll back and lifted one hand to gently prod his split lip. “Ow.”
“Whine about it. It’ll make it better,” Ty offered as he stood in front of his locker, his back to Zane, and unwrapped the tape from his hands with jerky, irritated movements.
“Bite me,” Zane muttered as he dug into his locker for a towel before starting in on the tape on his own hands. He spared an evil glance for Ty. “Teaching me to advance in a fight is a bad idea.”
“Teaching you to fight at all is an exercise in futility,” Ty responded in a matter-of-fact tone. “Luckily for you, I enjoy things like banging my head against a wall.”
“I enjoy banging your head against a wall too,” Zane replied as he tossed the balled-up tape at a nearby trash can. He let a small smile quirk his lips as he sat on the bench to unlace his shoes.
“Shut up,” Ty grunted at him. But even though his back was still turned to him, Zane could hear the smile in his voice. “And cut it out with the damn cat jokes, huh? They’re starting to catch on.”
“Fine, fine. No reason to get catty about it,” Zane told his partner with a barely concealed grin.
“A for effort,” Ty conceded charitably.
Zane kicked his shoes into his locker before pulling his T-shirt over his head and inspecting his abs and ribs. “You had to go for the ribs, didn’t you?” he said, his voice pained. He’d had his ribs cracked so many times he figured they might as well be superglued at this point. “Bastard,” he tacked on before shucking his socks and standing with his towel in hand.
“You leave them open,” Ty informed him. “Because you cover your head and cry like a little girl.”
Zane huffed. This was one of the problems with being Ty’s partner. While they were trying to learn to live with each other without significant personal injury, that didn’t necessarily carry over to their sparring sessions. “I didn’t cover once today,” he asserted. “Backed off, hell yes. Covered, no.”
Ty glanced over his bare shoulder and smirked. “Granted,” he allowed. “Think I should shower before McCoy hands us our asses, or should I go in smelling like victory?” he posed grandly as he opened up his locker and tossed his sweaty T-shirt into his gym bag.
Zane bit the inside of his lip against the first answer that came to mind as he deliberately looked his lover up and down, and he spent a few seconds revising what he could say without risking another smack upside the head. “I don’t believe McCoy would appreciate your… expression of ‘victory’.” McCoy wouldn’t appreciate Ty’s finely tuned musculature or his ass either, but Zane was more than happy to pick up the slack in that area.
“Quit ogling me, sidekick,” Ty warned without having to turn around. He grabbed for his shower caddy and a towel, and with one last smirk and wink at Zane, he headed for the showers.
Zane spared a moment to wish the locker room weren’t so busy this afternoon. He’d reached a point where Ty’s attitude and cockiness were more turn-ons than annoyances. They were harbingers of Ty’s playful good mood, which more often than not led to copious amounts of rough, passionate sex.
Zane decided he’d wait to shower until Ty was done. He could only deal with so much bodily temptation in one day.
THEY sat at McCoy’s conference table, behaving themselves and attempting to appear abashed.
Ty figured Dan McCoy knew him better than that, though. He was probably still getting a read on Zane, though, just like everyone else in the Baltimore office. They’d only been actively assigned to Baltimore for a few weeks now. Ty was at home. Zane was still an unknown to most everyone, despite the stories that had filtered through about their past escapades.
McCoy knew enough to know they were up to no good, anyway.
“I hope you got it out of your systems,” McCoy finally said to them in annoyance.
“We were just putting on a demonstration,” Ty explained easily. “Zane calls it ‘How to Get Your Ass Kicked’. It goes over real well with the rookies,” he drawled, overly pleased with himself.
Zane just sat there looking cool and comfortable in his well-fitted suit. He had a small smile on his face as he shook his head slightly at his partner.
“Shut up, Grady,” McCoy requested flatly.
“Right,” Ty muttered. He shifted in his seat and leaned forward. “You said you had an assignment for us?” he asked eagerly. He would take anything over the “getting up to speed” deskwork they’d been doing the last three weeks. Despite one blip up in the mountains of West Virginia, the last eight weeks of Ty’s life had been god-awful boring. Even Zane couldn’t keep Ty’s wavering attention for very long unless he had something shiny to wave around. Ty needed to be doing something or he began to go stir crazy.
McCoy’s lips curved into a slow, slightly malicious smile. “I do,” he answered. “Corbin and Del Porter,” he said as he retrieved a file.
“Who?” Ty asked, unimpressed.
McCoy smiled and reached to the middle of the table for a little white remote. He turned slightly and pushed a button, causing a small flat screen to flick on. A picture of a large cruise ship appeared on the screen bolted to the wall.
“Oh shit,” Ty found himself blurting before he could stop himself.
“This,” McCoy continued as if he hadn’t heard Ty, “is the Queen of the Mediterranean,” he told them with a wave of his fingers at the ship. “It is currently docked in Baltimore, preparing for a fifteen-day cruise to the Caribbean.”
“You’re not making us take a vacation, are you?” Ty asked in something close to panic.
Zane’s chin snapped up in alarm. “Jesus, Grady, we agreed not to even think that word, much less say it.”
“Corbin and Del Porter,” McCoy said loudly to curtail any more conversation, “were supposed to be on that ship tomorrow. But we finally got enough on these two to detain them.” He slid a file toward Ty and leaned back in his seat with a grin. “There’s a laundry list of no-nos we can pin on them with a little more evidence, and we’ll get it soon enough. What we want from you is something concrete on a few of their contacts.”
Ty scratched his head absently as he looked over the file. The two men were implicated in numerous high-dollar thefts: art, antiquities, rare gems. All stuff that was hard to steal and harder to fence. It was difficult to tell whether they were collectors or middlemen, but either way, if the FBI leaned on them, it could produce a lot of information on a lot of different high-end thieves and dealers.
But Ty and Zane weren’t leaners. They didn’t interrogate suspects who weren’t part of their own investigations. They didn’t know anything about this case and would be lost if they were asked to do the interrogation. Information wasn’t why they were here. He glanced to his side, where Zane shrugged one shoulder, having obviously come to the same conclusion.
“I’m not sure I understand why we’re here,” Ty said in confusion as he gestured between himself and Zane, still looking down at the file.
“You are here because you two roughly match the physical description of the two men we now have in custody,” McCoy answered with a wide grin.
Ty looked up at him suspiciously. McCoy seemed to be enjoying himself too much for this to be good news for Ty or Zane. Zane leaned forward in his seat, frowning, though he didn’t speak up.
“We look like them,” Ty reiterated flatly.
“Vaguely,” McCoy agreed. “Same build, mostly. Zane’s coloring.”
Ty glared at the man. “I’m not following,” he said slowly. “You want us to assume their identities? How’s that gonna work?” he asked.
“Corbin and Del Porter were booked to leave on that cruise tomorrow,” McCoy said again. “We have it on good authority they plan to meet several of their buyers and sellers while on this cruise, taking advantage of somewhat lax security and customs and what have you in the Caribbean. And since this will be the first instance of the two of them ever showing themselves physically in their business dealings, their contacts only have virtual interactions to go on. They won’t know you’re imposters. We can get a lot of information out of this if you two take their places and play your cards right.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of this,” Zane said. “We’ve not got word one on the case until today, and now we’re supposed to impersonate these guys?”
“You’ll be given a crash course. And you’re both professional bullshit artists; you’re perfect for it,” McCoy replied carelessly. Zane frowned at him.
Ty scratched slowly at his cheek. “Okay,” he said carefully. He still didn’t understand why McCoy seemed to be enjoying the prospect so much. There was a catch coming.
“You leave at nine in the morning. The rest of your team has already been put in place,” McCoy told them as he pushed another stack of files toward the center of the table.
“Our team?” Zane repeated. Ty sighed heavily and closed his eyes. There was the catch.
“You know the drill, Garrett, a team. Team leader, two more field agents, and tech support. Read the files so you don’t end up shooting one of them when you meet them. And Grady, we’ll be needing you to make just a few… alterations… to your appearance before you go,” he said as he studied Ty critically.
“What the hell are you talking about, McCoy? It’s not like he can gain fifty pounds overnight,” Zane said crossly.
“Nothing like that. Some hot wax and a little bleach, and he’ll be set,” McCoy continued, barely keeping himself from laughing now.
“Hot wax?” Ty asked in alarm. He heard Zane stifle a snort.
“Del Porter is what you would call… arm candy,” McCoy drawled with a smirk.
“Oh hell,” Zane muttered, leaning back, rubbing his hand over his face, and shifting in his chair uncomfortably. Ty glanced at him, not following.
“I see that Garrett has figured it out,” McCoy said, his voice nearly bubbly. Ty shook his head in confusion.
“I didn’t mention that?” McCoy asked in feigned innocence as he flipped through his notes as if he needed to check his information. “Corbin and Del Porter aren’t brothers, gentlemen. They’re lovers. Legally married, in fact.” He reached out and placed two silver rings on the desk in front of them. “Go ahead and put those on,” he instructed.
Zane went totally still, his eyes locked on the jewelry. Then his chin rose as his gaze shifted to McCoy. “Are you sure this is necessary?” he asked flatly.
Ty very carefully didn’t say anything in response as he stared at the shiny rings. He’d worn a wedding ring before as part of a cover. But this was different.
“The Porters are a very out gay couple,” McCoy continued, ignoring their reactions to the news. “The fact is well-known to all their contacts. It would be an alarm bell if you weren’t wearing the rings,” he said to Zane. “Corbin is what you’d call the brains of the operation. Del is… pretty.”
Ty still sat motionless, staring at McCoy with a churning in his gut as he realized what they were being thrown into. A very out gay couple amongst people who would expect them to act as such—including a team of their own people. He slowly reached out and picked up one of the rings, turning it over in his hand. It was a simple silver band, flat and wide. He glanced at Zane apprehensively. Zane still wore his own gold wedding ring on his finger. Ty didn’t know how his partner would react to replacing it, even temporarily. But Zane didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even twitch as he stared at the single ring still there in front of McCoy.
“Now understand: this may put you both in a few uncomfortable situations,” McCoy went on sincerely. “But you’ve both got UC experience, and I’m sure you’d both rather have to kiss each other than be shot at,” he joked. Ty cleared his throat and tried to restrain a smile. McCoy had no idea how right he was. “Those rings are all we’re going to provide you for this one,” he continued. “We’ve appropriated the bags they’d already packed for their cruise, so you’re set on being clothed and otherwise outfitted. Lucky for us, you two are even roughly the same sizes,” McCoy rambled as he stood. “Everything they needed for the deals they were making is in that luggage. You’ll have to smuggle weapons on board; we’ll come up with some sort of concealment for them in the luggage. The captain and head of security on board have been informed of your involvement, but you are not to break cover even with them unless absolutely necessary. Ty, if you find yourself in the brig, you stay there until they make port. You’ll have the rest of your team there if you get in trouble, but when you make land, you’re shit out of luck.”
McCoy stood at the end of his little speech, looking down at them with a raised eyebrow and a smile. Ty and Zane sat staring at him, their mouths hanging open as they listened.
Dan McCoy had been a good field agent, and he was a good Special Agent in Charge. Ty had even worked on a few cases with him before McCoy had been promoted, and they’d gotten on well—which was probably why McCoy was enjoying this so much and letting it show. Ty sort of wanted to hit him.
“Come with me,” McCoy invited with relish as he swept out the door.
A few moments after he disappeared, Zane stood abruptly with a sniff and straightened his jacket. Ty saw that he was grinding his teeth. He lowered his head and looked at the ring in his hand, not sure what to do or say about it. He supposed he would just put his on and let Zane work it out himself. He slipped it on his finger discreetly as he stood up. It was a little tight; he had to force it over the knuckle that was still a little swollen from the surgery he’d had to remove a piece of cougar tooth, but once it got on, it fit well. Ty very carefully didn’t give it any extra attention after that.
Zane reached out and plucked up the other ring, closing it into the fist of his right hand before turning on his heel to leave the room. Ty followed them out silently, dreading the hissy fit that would come soon enough.
They followed McCoy down a few floors to an interrogation room and filed into the observation half of one of the suites where an agent, Harry Lassiter, already stood at the glass. Ty and Zane nodded to the man as McCoy pointed through the two-way mirror. “Gentlemen, meet Del Porter.”
The man sitting at the table was handsome, probably about Ty’s height and build, just a little slimmer. He had short, spiky hair bleached an unnatural platinum blond that contrasted oddly with his dark tan. He wore a sleeveless vest that tied with a simple cord of leather at the crest of his ripped chest, and his entire upper body was well-muscled and toned. He was also clean-shaven and completely devoid of body hair.
He looked to Ty like he should be standing under a waterfall in a gay porno.
Zane paused in place, eyes a little wide, looking from Del to Ty to Del and back.
Ty blinked rapidly at the guy. “I’m supposed to be… him?” he finally asked in a stricken voice.
“Good thing you’re a hell of an actor,” Zane murmured as he continued comparing them.
Ty glared at him briefly and looked back at the man behind the glass. “I’ll never pull this off,” he said to the other men in the room.
Zane tipped his head to one side, openly appraising Ty’s body. “I don’t know,” he said distractedly. Ty looked back at him hatefully, feeling himself blushing under the scrutiny.
“He’s not what I’d call stupid. But he sure as hell isn’t the brightest bulb in the pack,” McCoy informed them. “He knows just enough to keep his mouth shut. But that and the fact that he’s pretty and got himself a rich husband are about all he’s got going for him.”
“Holy fuck, man,” Ty finally muttered. “I’m gonna be this dude for how long?”
“Relax, Grady. You have the easy end of this,” McCoy assured him. “Garrett’s guy is the real brains here, and no one who’s familiar with them will expect you to do anything but lay in the sun and work on your tan. Garrett? In the field, you’re the lead on this one. You’re calling the shots. Grady is just there as scenery and backup.”
Zane snorted as Ty turned to look at McCoy in outrage. Backup? They were partners; there was no lead and backup!
“Ty, we’ve booked you an appointment at some spa with a name I can’t pronounce,” McCoy went on as he handed Ty a slip of paper.
Ty reached out woodenly and took the certificate. “I’ll get on board with the hair color,” he bargained pleadingly. “You’re seriously gonna make me wax my chest?”
“You see that guy in there?” McCoy countered with a point of his finger at the man in the interrogation room.
Ty swallowed hard. He had done a lot of things he wasn’t proud of in order to assume identities that weren’t his. He’d changed his appearance, changed his behavior, treated decent people horribly to make an impression on a scumbag, prepared crack cocaine for others to smoke, taken lives, and any number of other things he didn’t care to remember. He knew how important a part the smallest thing could play when trying to convince a stranger that you were someone they thought they already knew. He looked down at the silver ring on his finger and back up at the man behind the glass with a heavy sigh.
“There’s a good man,” McCoy said with a pat to Ty’s shoulder.
Ty glanced at Zane as he felt himself blushing slowly. Though Zane’s face was composed, Ty could see the laughter in his eyes.
“I don’t know how they’ll get rid of the tattoo, but they’ve assured me they can,” McCoy added with another pat to Ty’s shoulder.
“What?” Ty cried as he looked at McCoy in outrage.
McCoy just smiled at him. “This guy was obviously never a Marine,” he reasoned. “Now, Grady, you get going,” he ordered before Ty could have a meltdown. “You’re getting the works, so you’ll probably be there all fucking day. Garrett, come with me,” McCoy said as he gestured for Zane to follow him. “I’ll introduce you to yourself,” he said wryly as they headed out the door.
Ty felt the sudden urge to beg Zane not to leave him there. He could feel the raised writing on the slip of thick, cream-colored paper in his hand. He looked down at it, thinking of all the procedures the makeover would entail. Salon Láurie… waxing, tanning, bleaching, manicures, lotions, scented mud….
Del Porter said something suddenly, complaining about being left in the room for so long. Ty turned to look at him in shock. He pointed his finger in outrage and turned to the other agent in the room. “He’s British?” Ty cried.
Special Agent Lassiter, who’d been standing there silently the whole time, covered his mouth with his hand and merely nodded in answer, unable to keep from laughing any longer.
“DO YOU realize what kind of shitfit Grady’s going to have over this when this is all done?” Zane asked McCoy as they walked down the nondescript hallway of holding and interrogation rooms.
“Oh, I’m looking forward to it,” McCoy said with relish. “I want pictures, Garrett. They’ll be great for the newsletter.”
Zane rolled his eyes. “I hope your insurance is up to date,” he said as they stopped at another door. “Grady doesn’t forget people who fuck around with him.”
“He gives as good as he gets,” McCoy said good-naturedly as he opened a door. Zane grunted and walked in.
The man on the other side of the two-way glass was as different from Del Porter as night was from day. And McCoy was right. Zane did have a general resemblance in height, build, and coloring. But Corbin Porter was definitely high-class. Or he thought he was: finely cut hair slicked back, a ruby stud in one ear, an expensive designer suit with a high-collared shirt rather than a tie, custom cuff links, manicured hands, and Italian leather on his feet. He held himself like a man accustomed to receiving respect, or possibly groveling.
“I didn’t say anything to Grady because I didn’t want to mitigate his horror. You’re going for a haircut and manicure too,” McCoy said with a twist to his lips.
Zane nodded distractedly as he studied Corbin Porter. The man was… arrogant. That was the word Zane was looking for. Arrogant. And possibly vain as well, but only to the point of knowing he was a fine-looking man.
He was also confident and controlled. He had propped one ankle over the opposite knee as he sat casually at the table, one forearm resting on the edge. He wasn’t fidgeting or twitching. He was simply waiting. What gave him away was the anger sparking in his eyes and the tightness around his mouth.
“Do you want to talk to him?” McCoy asked Zane.
Zane slowly shook his head. “I’ve met his type before.”
“He’s hardly a drug runner or a computer hacker,” McCoy pointed out.
“He’s a thug,” Zane murmured. “He’s dressed up pretty, but he’s still just a thug.”
“Explains the tattoo they’ll be giving you then.”
Zane blinked and turned his chin toward McCoy, who was grinning.
WHEN Zane and McCoy stepped back into the observation room of Del Porter’s interrogation suite, Zane had almost expected Ty to still be there, tying himself to the table and begging not to be taken to the salon.
But it was just Special Agent Lassiter, who had been joined by Special Agent Perrimore. They were standing at the glass, looking in at the prisoner with their heads cocked to the sides, like they were studying an animal in the zoo.
Zane peered through the glass as well. Ty was in there, sitting opposite Del, relaxed into the seat with his back to them, his legs crossed and his elbow resting on the table, almost like Corbin Porter had been. But Ty made it seem casual and easy, where Corbin had given off nothing but contempt and hostility. There was something different in Ty’s manner, too, but Zane couldn’t put a finger on it. He was too surprised to see Ty in there at all. He wasn’t the only one.
“What the hell is he doing?” McCoy asked in alarm.
“He said he wanted to talk to him,” Lassiter answered.
McCoy reached over and flipped the speaker switch.
“He told us not to listen in,” Lassiter told McCoy.
“Fuck that,” McCoy responded unthinkingly. “The guy’s actually talking—we might get something from him.”
“Not like we can use it in court,” Lassiter murmured under his breath, and he and Perrimore murmured quietly before snickering over the circumstances of the undercover case again. Zane ignored them in favor of watching Ty as the speakers tuned in.
“How long have you been married?” Ty was asking Del, who sat hunched and defensive, looking at Ty suspiciously.
Del didn’t answer; he merely looked down at his hands, probably studying his wedding ring. Zane resisted the urge to look down at his own. He knew, without a doubt, what sort of thoughts were running through Del’s mind. Zane squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before focusing on the scene again.
“Did you do it here in the States or did you go somewhere else?” Ty asked, his voice conveying what sounded like genuine interest.
“What the hell does Ty care?” Perrimore asked incredulously.
“He doesn’t. He’s building rapport, idiot,” Lassiter answered idly as he watched Ty closely. “We used to use him to prep suspects all the time. He’s charming.”
“You two will make a cute couple,” Perrimore drawled.
“Shut up. He also has a knack for giving off that dumb as a brick vibe, leaves them off guard.”
Ty continued, undeterred when Del still didn’t answer his queries. “My husband and I, we went to Boston,” Ty went on, picking up his hand and flashing the silver ring on his finger casually. The lie came shockingly easily to him. Del’s eyes flickered up to him, obviously surprised.
Everyone in the room turned to look at Zane.
“Ah, yes,” he drawled wryly as he felt their eyes on him. “He’s a sucker for red roses and opera.”
Perrimore and Lassiter snorted at him while McCoy chuckled and shook his head. “If there was baseball and Guinness involved, I’d half believe it,” McCoy muttered.
Zane rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the window.
“Lots of history up there,” Ty was saying with a tilt of his head.
In the room, Del sat up straighter. “I didn’t think they liked that sort of thing in the FBI,” he said with a slight curl of his lip. Zane was surprised to hear him speak with a British accent.
Ty shrugged. “You’re thinking military. Feds don’t have any problems with it. I do my job like anyone else,” he said with another wave of his hand. Zane couldn’t place what Ty was doing differently with his body, but it made him look… gentler. Not feminine, but… not as masculine as he was apt to be. Zane couldn’t really describe the effect other than to think that Ty looked less alpha. He realized suddenly, as Ty rolled his shoulders, that he was subtly mimicking the man sitting across from him.
It hit Zane right then what Ty was really doing in there. He had no intention of interrogating Del Porter. He was studying him.
Del nodded carefully. “How long have you been with him?” he asked, his tone tentative.
“Long enough to know better,” Ty answered with a smile. All of his answers were vague. White lies that wouldn’t test Ty’s conscience, Zane knew.
Del gave him a half smile and nodded, then looked back down at his hands.
Ty was silent, watching him. From his vantage point behind the glass, Zane could see what Ty was seeing. Fading bruises around the man’s wrists, a few on his upper arms.
“He treat you right?” Ty asked suddenly.
Del glanced up at him almost defiantly and nodded again. He held up his hands to display his wrists. “I like it rough,” he told Ty with a smirk.
McCoy had to clear his throat, and Zane turned a glare on him.
Ty chuckled and nodded. “I hear ya,” he responded neutrally. He continued to examine Del Porter, and the man watched him and waited almost curiously. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but he was still wary.
Zane shook his head as he watched through the glass.
“The little hamster in Ty’s head is probably bored,” Perrimore observed.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Porter,” Ty said abruptly as he nodded, as if having satisfied himself. He unfolded his legs and stood, heading for the door.
Del watched him go in surprise. “That’s it?” he asked in confusion. “You’re leaving?”
Ty stopped at the door and turned to look back at the man, his hand on the door handle. “I’m sorry. Did you need something else?” he asked with what seemed like honest surprise.
“You didn’t even ask me anything.”
Ty laughed and shook his head. “That ain’t my job, man,” he told Del dismissively before stepping out of the interrogation room and shutting the door firmly behind him.
Del Porter stared at the door and then looked at the mirrored glass incredulously.
“Somebody get Grady to the damn spa,” McCoy ordered under his breath as he stalked out of the room.
Divide & Conquer
CUED by the station jingle, the lights came up on the television newscast set, highlighting a slim, pleasant-faced black woman in a white blouse and green suit jacket sitting at the desk and tall, smiling man wearing a charcoal gray suit. The station logo appeared on the screen. “This is WBAL TV 11 News at 6. I’m Jeff Barns.”
“And I’m Alicia Harrison. Good evening.”
The camera focused on Harrison as a photo of a police car on fire appeared over her left shoulder. “Riots shook the city last night following the Ravens’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round playoff. It was the third riot since New Year’s Eve, and the violence continues to escalate. Andrea Gregg has more on the story.”
A siren cut to a night shot of a police car burning. People ran in front of it, taking photos and yelling as firefighters worked to douse the flames. The windows in the store behind them were smashed, glass scattered everywhere. A teenager was kicking in a final window in the background.
“For the third time in a month, residents of Baltimore have woken up to a city in ruins.”
The sound of glass shards crackling and dragging on concrete accompanied the shot change. An older, balding man was sweeping up glass in front of a store.
“They ransacked the place,” the man, identified by the title cards as Store Owner Steve Vilnick, said. “This is the second time this month. I’m not sure we’ll open again.”
As he kept sweeping, Gregg’s voice took over. “So far, no one has been seriously injured in the riots, but the property damage now reaches into the millions. Police say they are doing all they can to bring those responsible to justice, but tempers are beginning to fray. Today, city residents showed their frustration in a number of organized protests outside police headquarters.”
The shot changed to a demonstration outside the ugly facade of one of Baltimore’s many police district buildings.
“They aren’t doing enough,” a young woman identified as Jasmine Burke, student, said. “What have they done to stop it? Nothing. It’s getting so you can’t go around at night anymore without walking into the middle of a battleground.”
“What are we paying them for?” Roy Monroe, store clerk, said. “They’ve made no arrests, got no leads. Man, after they smashed up the store I work in, we had to shut down for a week, and I didn’t get reimbursed for that time. Why are we still paying them?”
“I am concerned. Of course I’m concerned,” Bob Smitherman, banker, said. “Places that have always been safe in the city just aren’t anymore, and public events? After New Year’s, I’m avoiding them. Too many angry people and too few police.”
The shot switched to the Baltimore police chief. “We are, of course, doing all we can to stop the instigators of these riots, but we need the public’s help to restore peace and safety to our city. We can’t stand strong when we’re divided.”
A young woman in a light blue blazer appeared on screen holding a microphone. Her title read Andrea Gregg, WBAL reporter. A number appeared at the bottom of the screen. “Police are asking anyone with information or photos of rioters destroying property to call the tip line. You can also submit tips anonymously at www.baltimorepolice.org. This is Andrea Gregg, reporting for WBAL TV 11.”
THE steaming hot water poured down over his shoulders, and Special Agent Zane Garrett groaned, drawing it out as he rotated his head to stretch the tense muscles of his neck. The shower was a pleasure after the two-hour workout this morning that had culminated in another rough-and-tumble boxing match with his partner.
Zane let his eyes flutter shut, laid his head back to soak his hair, and released a long sigh while he enjoyed the pounding water pressure. This was an old gym, a small one tucked away in the basement of the FBI’s Baltimore field office. But Zane preferred it to the newer, shinier fitness center in town that some of the agents frequented. Mostly because this old locker room had wonderfully tall shower heads and he didn’t have to stoop—one of the hazards of being six foot five—and half-wall shower stalls, which meant he could sometimes ogle his very handsome partner without too much risk of being caught.
Straightening, Zane opened his eyes, switching his attention from the water trickling down his face to the man not even three feet away on the other side of the tiled barrier.
Special Agent Ty Grady stood with his face turned toward the water and his hands on the tile wall in front of him, his shoulders hunched forward and his back arched. His dark brown hair was cut short, shorter than usual, a necessity after being bleached blond for their last assignment. The water poured over and around his defined muscles, sloughing off the remains of the soap from his body and making the dull gold of his Marine Corps signet ring shine. Winding down in the shower was one of the few times Zane ever saw his partner that still, a true novelty when it came to Ty Grady.
Although if Ty stayed in place for more than a minute, Zane could get his hands on him…. Zane growled and ducked his head back under the water, reaching to turn down the water temperature before grabbing his bottle of body wash. His ability to keep the lust in check while at work was usually better than this.
When he glanced over a couple of breaths later, Ty was leaning his arms on the partition between them, smirking at him. Zane arched an eyebrow, wondering not for first time if Ty could read his mind.
Ty looked him up and down and then glanced over his shoulder at the otherwise empty showers. “So, I had a thought,” he told Zane casually.
“Danger, Will Robinson,” Zane commented as he squeezed gel into one hand and started soaping up.
“Don’t be like that,” Ty told him, his voice sounding hurt but carrying the undertone of mischief Zane was well used to.
Zane snorted and shifted under the water as he washed off so he could look at Ty without craning his neck. “You had a thought,” he prompted with a small smile.
“No, you’ll have to work for it now,” Ty responded with another smirk as he turned back to his own stream of water.
Zane rolled his eyes and chucked his wet washcloth over the divider, smiling as he heard the wet splat against Ty’s skin. Ty’s infectious laughter, mingling with the relaxing thrum of the water running through old pipes, rewarded his effort. Zane grinned, letting the little spark of warmth spread through him as he finished rinsing off.
He was reaching to shut off the water when a shrieking alarm pierced the soothing peace of water falling.
“Fire alarm. Time to go,” Ty announced calmly as he turned the water off and grabbed his towel from the far wall of the shower stall. He didn’t even dry off. He just wrapped the towel around his hips and headed for the exit as if there were nothing unusual about it.
Zane winced as he covered one ear. “Ty!” he called out as he snatched up his towel and hurried after his partner. He grabbed Ty’s arm when he caught up. “You can’t go outside soaking wet and practically naked in the middle of goddamn January!” He started tugging Ty back toward their lockers, where they could at least grab shorts and T-shirts and running shoes.
“Cold is better than on fire,” Ty argued, though he let Zane drag him back.
“There’s no fire down here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“And the exit is twenty yards away,” Zane said as he hurriedly pulled Ty along behind him. “Now get dressed. And shoes.”
“Garrett, when an alarm starts going off, I head for an exit!” Ty shouted unhappily. He wasn’t panicking, of course. Ty never panicked unless he was trapped in the dark or couldn’t find his beloved Bronco in the parking lot. He shucked the towel, pulled on a pair of shorts, and slid his feet into his worn athletic shoes. Then he grabbed Zane’s arm and gave him a tug toward the exit, heedless of Zane trying to get into his shorts.
“Okay, damn, give me one second!” Zane exclaimed, grabbing his T-shirt and towel after shoving his feet into his running shoes, resisting Ty’s yanking as he leaned over to snatch up Ty’s T-shirt before letting his partner pull him along.
“Drag your feet later, Lone Star. Either the building’s on fire or it’s a drill and we’ll be doing paperwork until our fingers bleed if we’re not out in time,” Ty insisted as he pulled Zane along the corridor toward the emergency exit. Ty was notoriously flighty and could be easily distracted, but in an emergency, he honed in on one thing and one thing alone: survival. There was no fighting the iron grip he had on Zane’s arm or his insistence that being half-naked and outside was better than any alternative right then.
“I’m thinking we’ll get a little leeway since we were in the showers,” Zane bit off as they thundered up the concrete steps out of the basement and through the emergency door that led outside into the bitter cold and wind.
The morning sun blinded Zane as they pushed through the emergency exit and emerged onto the wet sidewalk in front of the building. The next thing he knew, Ty was ducking in front of him as if taking cover from a projectile, and Zane turned instinctively to check the threat. A shocking slap exploded across his face in a spray of ice water across shower-flushed skin.
Another immediate snap, this one on his upper arm, another on his thigh as something else hit him, and more water splattered across him in the chilled air as he spluttered and wiped his eyes with one hand, striking out with the other at something dark flying toward his face. He felt the brief sensation of rubber on his fingers and then another painful snap like a rubber band, then more water. Zane swung toward movement at his left side. Five heartbeats had passed.
By the time Zane realized he’d just suffered through a barrage of colorful water balloons, Ty was standing again and looking at the rowdy crowd being pushed back behind the snow-dotted barriers on the sidewalk opposite the FBI building. More protesters.
Protesters lobbed more water balloons across the street. Ty deftly caught one, cradling it like a football to keep it from popping. He reared back as if preparing to sling it back toward the crowd.
“Grady!” Special Agent in Charge Dan McCoy barked from somewhere near the main entrance.
Ty’s shoulders slumped, making him look like a scolded puppy who was miraculously good at dodging water balloons, and he dropped his ammunition as more landed around them.
Zane wasn’t so calm. He angrily batted down the next balloon thrown at him, and it hit the concrete with a smack and splash. The frigid wind bit into his wet skin and sucked the breath from his lungs, and Zane couldn’t suppress the shudder, still feeling the sting of busting balloons on his skin. “What the hell?”
“Quit bitching. At least they’re full of water and not something worse,” Ty shot back at Zane through gritted teeth. He folded his hands over his chest and the white words on his blue T-shirt—“Relax, I’m hilarious”—and hunched his shoulders as he turned to look up at the concrete structure behind them. “Goddammit, it’s not on fire!”
Those around them close enough to hear began to laugh, including some of the protesters across the street. Zane shook his head. How the hell did Ty manage to relate to people without even trying? It would never cease to amaze him.
Another balloon sailed through the air, landing at the feet of a man with a bullhorn who stood near the entrance to the office building. He began to inform the crowd that any further action would be considered an attack on federal property and federal agents, and that arrests would be made. When the words “up to and including deadly force” came out of his mouth, the crowd began to rumble.
Zane had read the memos. But this was the first time he had personally run into an attack. “I guess they figure we won’t arrest them for assault,” he said with a shake of his head as he watched his breath practically crystallize as he exhaled, it was so cold.
Ty looked around the crowd, his face expressionless. “Couple rubber rounds int-to them should f-fix them up,” he decided, his teeth beginning to chatter in the cold.
Zane snorted. “Into the balloons, or into the crowd?” He crossed his arms, mirroring his partner, and took a step back. He glanced at Ty. “Imagine the paperwork.”
“Garrett! Grady! Get your asses back inside!” McCoy yelled from across the lawn. “I’m not signing off on the sick leave when you get pneumonia!”
“You say that now, but I’m n-not f-filling out any f-forms!” Ty yelled back, stuttering harder. He was watching one of the agents decked out in riot gear, specifically eyeing the gun filled with rubber bullets. Another volley of balloons, yellow and green and red and blue, pulsing with freezing water, sailed through the air toward them.
If Ty had one of those rifles in hand, he could make an impressive show of those flying targets; that might clear these people out fast. Zane knew that was exactly what Ty was thinking. He also knew Ty wasn’t thinking about the PR aftermath. Even when Ty considered the public backlash of his actions, he rarely cared.
“Fuck this,” Zane growled. He took Ty by the upper arm even as Ty took an impulsive step toward the man in riot gear. Zane turned them around and started pulling him back toward the building, dismissing the people watching and jeering at them.
“Those little yellow f-forms with the rippy s-sides, and the blue ones th-that ask the s-same questions f-fourteen times, and the goddamn p-pink ones that make your fingers b-blue,” Ty rambled as he followed along without protest. He sounded like Porky Pig. “I’d f-fill all those out if I could sh-shoot someone right now.”
“This time I’m with you. It would be worth it.” Another agent swiped an ID card for them, and Zane opened the side door to the building, shoved Ty inside, and followed, pulling the solid steel door shut behind them and wincing because the alarm was still wailing.
Ty threw his arm over Zane’s shoulders and hugged him close. His skin was cold against Zane’s. “This is g-getting ugly,” he said, not looking at Zane. Zane knew he was referring to the situation at large, the unrest in the city. He continued to speak, lowering his voice until Zane couldn’t hear him above the blaring warning.
“We need to go back to the showers. Hot water,” Zane said when he shuddered, and not in a good way. “Riot team will clear those assholes out before we leave. And you know whoever pulled that fire alarm is in deep shit.”
Ty shook his head. His fingers dragged against Zane’s skin as he removed his arm from Zane’s shoulders. “Work, work, work,” he murmured, shaking his head.
“I’m s-serious,” Zane said as the cold really started to set in. “I’m too cold.” His fingers were almost numb as he tried to grasp the bottom of his wet T-shirt to pull it over his head.
“I’ll warm you up later,” Ty promised. It was a nice thought, but not helpful right now. Ty had somehow mastered the shivering and teeth chattering already. He’d once told Zane that the best way to stop the shivering was to consciously relax your body, et voilà, no more shaking. But Zane had never gotten it to work.
Zane turned and led the way back to their lockers, managed to get his wet clothes off, and rubbed himself down roughly with his towel, trying to ward off the bone-aching chill.
The alarm abruptly cut off, but the ringing in Zane’s ears still covered any sound Ty might have been making behind him. Then three fingers touched the nape of Zane’s neck and dragged down his spine, between his shoulder blades, to the small of his back and across a hip as Ty moved past him. “Eight-hour workday to go, Lone Star. Suck it up,” Ty said as he popped open his own locker.
This time the shiver skittering across Zane’s skin had nothing to do with a chill and everything to do with finding the patience to get through the day while looking forward to that night.
THE blinking light on his phone drew Zane’s attention away from the report he was trying to parse. He always muted his phone when he was in the office, especially at times like today when the whole team—like school kids at desks in a little pod shaped like the Pentagon—was stuck slogging through their casework.
He was sitting with Michelle Clancy, Scott Alston, Fred Perrimore, and Harry Lassiter, the other members of their extended Bureau assignment team. Still, it could be a call from one of the other departments, a contact, or another agent. So Zane slid the cell out from under a pile of folders and thumbed off the key lock as he looked at the screen. It was a text message. Frowning a little, Zane hit the key to open the message.
Whats proper workplace etiquette for picking up computer and tossing out window? Open window first or break glass?
Zane blinked and read the text again. Then he focused on the number and realized who’d sent the message. He sighed and set his phone down, going back to his report. It wasn’t a message that needed an answer. His partner wasn’t more than ten feet away, sitting at his desk, staring at his computer screen and repeatedly tapping the same error key on his keyboard. If Ty wanted a response from Zane, he could just open his mouth and speak. When Zane glanced at him, he saw Ty sit back in his chair and cock his head at the computer. He’d stopped typing, and he looked listless and frustrated.
Ty’s computer never worked the way it was supposed to. The team joked that he had electromagnetic pulses going through him, because no matter what he touched, the machine nearly always messed up. The computer, the printer, the fax machine, sometimes even the automatic faucets in the bathrooms. They never worked correctly for him. He also hated paperwork with unusual passion, so it made it doubly funny.
Zane looked down at the files spread across the desk in front of him. He could sit and do detail-crunching all day; it appealed to his analytical brain. Ty, however, made no apologies for being bored by paperwork. He was definitely a man of action. Zane usually tried to at least send him out on errands, but today there wasn’t even that to throw in front of him. With one last glance at Ty, Zane went back to reconciling suspected criminal bank account transfer data connected to a series of kidnappings.
Several minutes later, the light on his phone blinked again. Zane stopped typing as he looked at the phone and then across the desks at Ty. He didn’t appear to have moved, and his phone was nowhere in sight. He wasn’t looking at Zane, and there was no ghost of a smile on his lips like there would have been if he’d been up to something. Zane had seen that smile too many times to miss even a hint of it. He picked up his phone and saw the second text message. Same phone number. He’d never gotten around to programming Ty’s name into the contact list.
He debated not even looking at the text; he wasn’t sure he wanted to encourage Ty to distract him from work. Then, after a moment, Zane shook himself. There was no reason to be so seriously uptight about this. He activated the phone to read the message.
The last 3 calls on my phone are for backup and pizza and sex. In that order. Cant decide what that says about me.
Zane almost forgot to repress his smile. The night before Ty had called him to say he’d ordered pizza and that Zane should pick it up on his way over. They had intended to watch some football in front of Ty’s big-screen TV, but pointless playoff games not featuring any of Ty’s favored teams weren’t enough to hold Ty’s attention for long. After the pizza was gone, they’d wound up in front of the TV all right, doing something entirely different than watching it.
Zane sniffed. He very purposefully did not shift in his chair as he set his phone down without answering or looking up at his partner.
Maybe he’d pick up dinner tonight too.
His phone almost immediately lit up again. Zane hadn’t even picked his pen back up. This time he glanced around the desks at their team members—none of them were paying him or Ty a bit of attention—before he poked at the phone to read the message.
You realize I have free texting plan right?
Obviously, ignoring Ty wasn’t going to work. But Zane pushed away the phone, determined to do his level best. Simply because the struggle would amuse Ty, if he were being honest with himself. And keeping Ty amused was good for the rest of humanity.
The phone lit up again, and when Zane’s eyes cut to look at Ty, his partner was leaning back in his chair, feet blatantly propped on his desk as he held his phone in his hands.
Zane kept typing with one hand as he unobtrusively shifted his phone across the papers strewn in front of him so he could hit the button and read the message without drawing attention to it.
Pop quiz partner. How many letters in the government alphabet?
Biting his tongue, Zane tried to decide what the answer to that would be. It was fifty-fifty that it was a joke. He figured Ty was trying to break him now, to get him to react, maybe even to laugh. As he checked his peripheral vision, he could see Ty watching him, his head lowered just enough to make him look slightly predatory. Zane knew that look too well. Most people who didn’t know Ty were intimidated by the glint in his hazel eyes and the slightly malicious curve to his full lips. But Zane had come to learn that Ty only wore that look when he was enjoying himself. And it made his clean-shaven, heart-shaped face that much more handsome, which irked Zane to no end. Irked and aroused.
Just to egg him on, Zane ignored the message, went back to working on the reconciliation, and tried to build up the resolve it would take not to react to Ty’s next attempt to break his cool.
The phone lit up again, and this time Ty had returned his attention to his computer when Zane surreptitiously glanced at him. Zane wondered how the hell Ty typed so fast on the itty-bitty phone keypad. He would have liked to have seen it, if it wouldn’t have spoiled their game.
He made them both wait five minutes through a discussion of assets with Alston before he hit the key to open the latest text message.
Answer: 19. ET went home on a UFO and the FBI went after him.
Zane blinked several times at the screen as he kept a straight face, though by all rights, that one did deserve a laugh. Who’d have known he’d be tapping into years of undercover experience to hide that he was playing text games in the office? He tapped his pen thoughtfully on the ledger as he stared at it blankly. He was certainly distracted now. He suspected Ty knew it. But they’d both continue to enjoy it if Zane tried not to admit it. He wouldn’t have dreamed of goofing off like this at work a year ago. Hell, six months ago. But Ty Grady had done his damnedest to yank the stick out of Zane’s ass….
The little message icon in the corner of his phone’s display began to blink, indicating he had yet another message. He hadn’t even seen Ty move. Was it possible to schedule these texts ahead of time? That would take quite a bit of forethought, but it was just the kind of plot Ty would favor. Zane shifted around his stack of folders, took a drink of coffee, and checked the message.
You know you want to laugh.
Score one for Zane Garrett. He looked up slowly, face composed, raising one eyebrow.
Ty was watching him. He winked when Zane met his eyes, but he wasn’t fully smiling yet. He still wore that infuriating smirk. Instead of answering in any way, Zane sniffed and turned to his computer. That reaction would surely get another out of his partner. Besides, Zane was intrigued now to see what Ty would come up with that would be enough to get Zane to laugh despite his practiced control.
He didn’t have to wait long for Ty’s next attempt. His phone lit up, and Zane was able to catch a glimpse of Ty reaching out to set his own phone on the desk. Zane deliberately waited a couple of minutes before turning in his chair to change out files and check the message.
Did you hear about the guy downstairs who lost his left arm and left leg in a wreck? Hes all right now.
Zane stared at the little screen really hard for a long moment before he was able to shake his head ever so slightly and turn away from the phone.
He slowly looked around at the rest of the team, wondering how none of them had caught on. Did they really pay so little attention? Or was it that they weren’t at all surprised to see Ty texting someone, and they just didn’t connect him with his partner? Zane knew Ty received about half a dozen text messages from various people on a normal day, but Ty rarely checked them or responded when he was working.
Zane deliberately shoved some files into his outbox and did not look in Ty’s direction. He turned his attention to a conversation between Clancy and Perrimore about calling a judge for a search warrant, but he was hyperaware of his partner.
He heard Ty’s chair squeak as he moved. Ty’s chair always squeaked because he was so damn hard on the thing, always moving around and fidgeting. His chair stayed broken and noisy, just like his computer.
Zane’s phone lit up again, and he keyed it with his right hand while answering a question from Clancy.
When she turned away, he finally glanced down at the phone.
What do you call a monkey in a mine field? A baboom.
He had to admit: that one was funny. This time Zane had to close his eyes to keep his reaction under control. When he opened them, he deliberately turned his chin to look right at Ty in an open challenge.
Ty’s feet were still propped up, and he was leaning one arm against his desk, fingers strategically covering his mouth as he shook silently. He was watching Zane, and his hand couldn’t cover the smile lines around his sparking eyes or the slight dimples that formed when he laughed.
Damn, Ty Grady was a fine-looking man. Even more so when he was relaxed and smiling.
Zane didn’t feel the urge to laugh anymore. Instead, he found his thoughts slightly more erotic, thinking about the man sitting several feet away and just exactly how fine-looking he was, both in and out of that suit. Zane pulled himself toward his desk in the rolling chair, just to get his lap under cover. Then he offered Ty an angelic smile.
Ty shook his head and bit his lip to stop his silent laughter, though the dimples were still there as he grinned. Zane stared after him for a few moments, thinking about just how amazing it was when Ty smiled or laughed and his eyes lit up and the hard shell melted away from him.
Ty waved his hand at Zane in apparent surrender as he turned his chair to face his own desk again, still shaking his head and laughing.
Zane doubted that was the end of it and expected another text message within a few minutes, but Special Agent Scott Alston chose that moment to stand up.
“Time to meet with McCoy,” he said to Ty and Perrimore.
“Have a good time, guys,” Clancy teased as she sipped at her melting smoothie.
Ty stood with a decent amount of grumbling and fanfare, making a show of gathering his files and his suit coat and getting his gun out of its drawer to slide it into his holster. Zane tidied a file, set it aside, and opened another as he watched Ty discreetly. “Say hello for me,” he said smugly. He knew that the only thing worse than paperwork, in Ty’s opinion, was a multi-departmental meeting where he was expected to sit still.
“Don’t break anything playing solitaire,” Ty shot back as the three of them headed toward the elevators.
Zane let the smile pull at his lips as he tapped his fingers on his phone and watched Ty walk away.
TY HAD his eyes closed and massaged the bridge of his nose as he leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair, slumping slightly. He was listening. Quite attentively, to his everlasting chagrin. But he could listen with his eyes closed.
He was pretty sure he, Alston, and Perrimore had all been summoned to this meeting by mistake anyway. So far they’d been over the escalating violence in the city, in particular a nasty case of arson in which a second explosion had been rigged with the express purpose of injuring or killing firefighters. Everyone was up in arms about it, including Ty. There would be a memorial for the slain heroes next week.
But while escalating violence could possibly be in Ty’s job description, arson certainly wasn’t.
Next they hit on a bank robbery that had “professional job” written all over it. They’d caught a break publicity-wise with that one, since it had happened on the same day as the arson tragedy and hadn’t received much press yet. What’s-His-Name from Financial Crimes was told to look for similar robberies in neighboring states over the weekend. Something that organized had probably been run before somewhere and would surely be run again. Soon.
Weekend assignments. Awesome.
And bank robberies weren’t Ty’s job either.
Then the agenda moved on to the negative image the FBI was being painted with of late and several avenues the PR people had come up with to nip it in the bud.
None of which had much of anything to do with Ty, so he still wasn’t exactly sure why he was supposed to be here at all.
“So,” Special Agent in Charge Dan McCoy was saying, “we’re going to give them what they want so they’ll get off our backs for a while. And Grady, the next time you and your partner want to blow something up, at least pretend you’re sorry afterward, got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Ty said as he opened his eyes and shifted to a slightly less outwardly miserable position. He wasn’t sorry, though. That fax machine had deserved what it got. And Zane had laughed his ass off.
There were only thirty minutes left in the work day, and then he was free to go do cartwheels in the parking lot. He glanced at Alston, who was asking another question, and then Ty’s pants pocket vibrated. He actually jerked in his seat before he could stop himself, quickly leaning forward to place his elbows on the table and cover the reaction.
“Something to add?” McCoy asked.
“Nothing constructive,” Ty admitted with an innocent smile.
McCoy rolled his eyes and nodded. As he continued outlining the plan to make the Bureau more “fan-friendly,” Ty leaned back again and pulled his phone out of his pocket slowly. He kept it under the table as he slid it open and pressed the button that would open the text message he’d received. Ty was almost surprised to see that it was from Zane and not one of the usual suspects.
Baby seal walks into a club.
He pressed his lips together tightly and looked up at McCoy as he tapped out his response to Zane’s weak opening gambit.
You shouldnt club baby seals. Bastard.
It wasn’t a minute before the phone vibrated in his hand again. He quickly set it to silent so no one would hear the vibrations, and then he glanced down at it to read the new message.
Energizer bunny arrested. Charged with battery.
Ty’s lips twitched as he tapped out a quick response.
Is he being held in a duracell?
He returned his attention to McCoy just in time. McCoy slid a file across the table toward him, and Ty opened it as he massaged his left temple.
It was a proposal that outlined a plan to pull as many government and municipal service organizations as possible into a softball league and then open up the games to the public. Ty huffed in amusement.
“Think you could get the ball rolling on that if it’s the plan we go with?” McCoy asked.
Ty nodded slowly and then looked up at McCoy. “I know a guy who knows a guy,” he drawled with an easy smile.
“I thought you might,” McCoy said, sounding pleased with himself.
That was why Ty was here, then, because he’d played on the Bureau team ever since he’d been transferred to Baltimore and knew just about everyone. That had to be it, because everyone knew Ty didn’t give a shit about public opinion and had nothing to do with bank robberies or fires.
McCoy moved on to the Financial Crimes dude who still didn’t have a name but had a whole hell of a lot of opinions, and Ty surreptitiously checked the phone again. The message icon blinked at him, and he flipped the phone open to read it.
Two peanuts walk into a bar. One was a salted.
Ty stared at it for a moment before looking up and licking the corner of his mouth to keep from smiling. Why the hell couldn’t Zane have done this when Ty was bored out of his mind and not sitting in a meeting? He was probably out there Googling jokes on his computer.
“Grady, what do you think?” McCoy asked.
Ty looked at his superior for a split-second of indecision, knowing full well he had absolutely no idea what he’d been asked. “I think it’s a shit idea,” he finally answered confidently.
“Care to expound on that?” McCoy asked him wryly.
“Not really,” Ty answered, his voice not quite as steady.
“Okay, at least we’re all in agreement on that one,” McCoy replied as he took a piece of paper that probably outlined another PR proposal and tossed it over his shoulder.
Ty slowly let out the breath he’d been holding and began tapping a response to Zane.
Fuck you zane. Fuck you. So much.
The answer came back quickly. Zane had to have been sitting there waiting.
I’ll get you a salami sandwich for dinner. With extra mayo.
Ty looked up and around the table, trying desperately to concentrate on what they were saying as he jabbed at the keys of his phone to respond. Zane’s attempts at seductive innuendo were funnier than his jokes.
All Ill get from you is fired.
If you go for an interview at a rubber stamp company, try to make a good impression.
Ty fought not to roll his eyes as he looked up from the phone he was still trying to hide in his lap. He refused to let one of Zane’s bad puns have the last word.
He had to sit for a moment, searching his store of bad jokes for an appropriate answer. He hated to sink to Zane’s level, but you had to fight pun with pun….
He looked up and took the next five minutes to answer questions and try to at least appear involved in the meeting. The idea about the FBI softball team and setting up tournaments with other city and state agency teams that would be open to the public seemed to be taking root. And Ty had become the focus of the planning, so he had to pay attention.
Ty liked the plan, actually. He didn’t know if it would work, but it was never a bad thing to put a human face on the big bad blue line every once in a while. A downside, as he pointed out, was that they might get backlash if too many people wondered why cops and ambulance drivers were playing softball while the city was being ransacked. But hell, they were already taking heat, so it couldn’t hurt.
Ty jotted down a few notes, people he’d need to contact within other agencies to see if they could set something up, city fields and scheduling and things that he really didn’t have time to deal with but would anyway. Then the conversation moved on, and Ty leaned back in his chair.
He stared at McCoy listlessly as his mind began to wander again. He tapped out his response to Zane slowly, trying to get the message out and pay attention at the same time.
If a hunter can shoot a deer with either hand does that make him bambidextrous?
Have you seen eagles catch their prey? They’re really talonted.
Ty closed his eyes. The puns were too much. They were just too stupid for his brain to deal with at the end of a long day. He decided to raise the white flag and live to think another day, so he eased back in his chair and slowly punched in the last message.
You win. Ill do anything please make it stop.
It took a minute, but Zane’s answer finally popped up.
Promise you’ll scream for me tonight.
Ty stared at the phone for just a moment too long. When he cleared his throat and looked up, McCoy was watching him expectantly.
Ty smiled at him widely, the smile that said he knew he’d been caught and wasn’t McCoy glad he was so good at his job so he didn’t have to punish him?
“Care to share?” McCoy asked drily.
Ty looked around at the other people around the table and sighed heavily. Perrimore reached into his lap and grabbed the phone from him. Ty didn’t try to resist; that would just have made them even more curious. He’d never been more thankful that he rarely put real names into his contacts list, though.
Perrimore read the last message from Zane out loud, eyebrows raised. “Who’s Lone Star?” he asked with a grin as he looked at the name Ty had stored in his phone. “And does she carry a whip?”
“Everyone get out before my eyeballs explode,” McCoy ordered as he sat rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands.
Ty snatched his phone from Perrimore and whapped him in the head as they stood to leave. Alston trailed behind them, laughing the entire way.
ZANE looked up from the files he was stacking when he heard Ty’s voice, low and wry and borderline aggrieved. A smile pulled at Zane’s lips. There hadn’t been a reply to his last message of a little less than ten minutes ago.
“Hey, Garrett, have you met Grady’s latest fling? She sounds like a real piece of work,” Alston said as they arrived, chuckling. “Probably has the key to his handcuffs pierced through her tongue.”
That certainly wasn’t what Zane expected to hear when they came back from the meeting. So that probably meant Ty had been caught. He didn’t appear to have that “just outed by his co-workers” look about him, though, and Zane knew Ty nicknamed all his phone contacts, so he was relatively certain they were okay.
“Getting texts at work again, partner?” Zane drawled as he looked over to see Ty.
“Well, you know my type,” Ty responded with a saccharine smile as he passed Zane’s desk. “No self-control and loads of mental issues.” He did sound exasperated, though.
“That’s never seemed to bother you,” Zane answered as he stood up and lifted his suit jacket off the back of his chair.
Alston laughed and took off with a wave, not bothering to stick around to hear the banter the whole team had become used to. Clancy and Lassiter had departed half an hour ago, and Zane had seen Perrimore detour toward the elevators as the group came back from the meeting. So once Alston disappeared down the hall, it was just Zane and Ty as Ty locked up his desk drawers.
Ty glanced up at him darkly, and Zane grinned. Oh, he was so going to pay for his mischief tonight. The look in Ty’s eyes promised as much.
Ty looked around the nearly empty floor as he moved closer to Zane. He held his phone in his hand, overcoat draped over his arm. He stepped closer to Zane, his knuckles brushing against Zane’s stomach as he held the coat between them.
“Me scream for you, huh?” he asked in a low voice, his nearly green eyes raking across Zane’s features.
“Since you can’t take the punishment,” Zane said, feeling himself warm a little under Ty’s scrutiny.
“One more, Garrett,” Ty warned as he raised one finger. “One more and we’ll see who can go the longest in a cold bed.”
Zane frowned and huffed quietly. “Fine. You, screaming,” he reminded. “I did offer to bring you dinner.”
“Dinner later. My house. Bring clothes for the weekend, ’cause you won’t be making it home.” Ty didn’t say another word, just turned and headed for the elevator at a stroll, shrugging into his overcoat as he went.
Zane watched him go, enjoying the sight. “Score,” he said under his breath before he grabbed his phone and keys and hurried to follow.
Armed & Dangerous
THE scratch of the Montblanc pen whispered in the quiet, well-appointed office. Thick stone walls and double-paned bulletproof glass worked to dampen the traffic noise of downtown Washington, DC, and sumptuous carpet and soundproofing in the walls kept his office a haven of solitude amidst one of the busiest cities in the world.
Richard Burns, executive assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, flipped through page after page, initialing and signing. The Bureau may have moved into the digital age, but paperwork still made the gears turn. With a sniff, he closed the folder and tossed it into his outbox for his assistant to pick up. At least he didn’t have to write out his full title every time.
He was reaching to replace the fountain pen in its box when the buzzer on his phone interrupted him.
“Security just called, sir. You have a visitor,” his assistant’s tinny voice announced over the speaker.
“Who is it? I don’t have any appointments until two.”
“The ID provided is for a Mr. Randall Jonas. Central Intelligence Agency.”
Burns looked at the phone in surprise. “Send him through,” he said as he stood and began straightening his tie and suit jacket.
It took five minutes, give or take, and the buzzer went off again. “Sir, the escort is here with Mr. Jonas.”
Burns walked around his desk to greet his old friend when he came through the door. Randall Jonas had been one of three men in Burns’ original Marine Corps squadron who had returned from Vietnam. Earl Grady was the other. They were like his brothers, and Burns would never turn down a surprise visit from one of them. But when the door opened and Jonas was shown into his office, Burns knew immediately that something was wrong.
“You look like hell,” he said before he could think of a more appropriate way to say it.
Jonas nodded. “With good reason.”
Jonas didn’t look at all like the sharp CIA section chief Burns saw for an occasional drink at an upscale DC bar. Jonas looked worn, mussed around the edges, wild around the eyes. He was a large man with a lantern jaw, trending toward heavy in recent years, with gunmetal gray hair and eyes that were a washed out brown. He was usually full of good humor and charm, more a mischievous gnome than a spook. Right now, though, he looked like a bear being chased through the woods by bigfoot.
Burns offered him a hand to shake and then gestured toward the leather sofa in the corner of his office. “Forgive me for skipping over the pleasantries, but it seems like you might want me to. What’s happened?”
Jonas dragged a hand through his hair. “I really stepped in something nasty, Dick. I was about five minutes from being detained at Langley,” he said as he thumped onto the couch and pulled at the knot of his tie.
“You what?” Burns sat down across from Jonas.
“I came across something I was never meant to see. Long story short, someone within the Company has been using government assets to pull personal jobs for profit, and then offing the assets when they got wise. They turned the CIA into a hit service.”
“There was some paperwork that made me suspicious, so I started snooping around. And when I followed the trail, that son of a bitch led right back to me.”
Burns blinked at him. “What?”
“Richard, focus for me here. Someone’s setting me up to take the fall for ordering private hits. I found out before they got everything in place. So I picked up and ran.” Jonas waved a hand, dismissing any further detail of his escape from Langley.
Burns nodded, frowning hard. Abuse of power happened in the alphabet agencies just like anywhere else. Only it usually ended with death and destruction instead of bankruptcy, bailouts, or moving a factory to China.
“Someone within the CIA is eating their own. And you’re the fall guy. I gather following the trail in reverse can’t prove your innocence.”
“No, they’re just notes from one lackey to another, issuing orders,” Jonas said, leaning forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “It’s bad, Dick. I’m being framed for misuse of resources, running operations on my own authority, unsanctioned elimination of personnel, and if it really goes bad, treason. I’d definitely be put in jail for the rest of my natural life. That’s if whoever is responsible doesn’t just come after me as well. Assets are being cleaned. People are losing their lives.”
“I need some help, and you’re the only one I trust right now.”
Burns realized he was staring, and he nodded curtly. He knew this man, had known him for the better part of forty years, and he knew if Jonas said it, it was the truth. Even if he was a damn spook. “What do you need?”
“I need a contact brought in.”
“From what details I was able to pull together before I ran, there’s just one guy still alive who has the information needed to point to the bastard in charge of all this. They tried to clean him a year ago, but he got away.” Jonas shook his head. “They’ve been eliminating agents, Dick. Agent and handler teams going down or disappearing—for a couple of years now. Slowly, almost randomly, and I can’t say I would have caught on without coming across that file and getting suspicious.”
Jonas nodded as he sat up and then leaned back, looking truly miserable. “I’ve worked my ass off for the Company, Dick. I’m not going to let it go down this way. There’s a cell inside, one that’s not sanctioned and not supervised. I’m not sure how high it goes, other than too high if they’re gunning for me.”
“Do you have the stats on this contact? The one with the information?”
“Sort of. He went dark over a year ago. I’ve been in touch with his former handler.”
“Okay. We’ll get him pegged down and then I’ll send an agent after him. We’ll bring this to someone we can trust.”
“You can’t dispatch FBI resources, Dick. They’ll be monitoring everything.”
Burns raised an eyebrow at the paranoia, but that was a spook for you.
“Look, Richard, I don’t know much about your operations, other than the CIA uses you and whatever assets you’ve cultivated over here for certain jobs. I know you’ve got the means to do this off the board.”
Burns pursed his lips and scratched at his nose, trying to hide the discomfort. “I might know someone. I’ll mobilize him. And until we can get this mystery asset of yours in, you’ll stay here. Even the CIA isn’t going to storm FBI headquarters to get to you. Who’s the contact?”
“He’s a foreign national named Julian Cross. Records say he’d been taken out, but then he popped back up on the radar and rumor was he was still alive. When I talked to Blake Nichols, his former handler, he confirmed Cross is alive. For now. But he can’t get Cross to come in.” Jonas tapped his fingers on the arm of the couch, visibly agitated. “I have an address, and I can only hope this guy has the information I need. He’s the only one who could have it. All the others are dead.”
“Julian Cross,” Burns muttered as he scratched at his chin. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
Burns stood and went to his desk, waking his computer to type in a search. It returned nothing. But he knew the name. He tapped in a code and then searched again. This time the computer searched through a cache of hidden files, and it popped up with one file.
Burns snorted when he scanned the information contained in the file. Paris. Of course. He looked at Jonas. “Give me all the information you have. I’m putting my best man on it,” he said as he pulled a cell phone out of a locked drawer.
“If Cross doesn’t know who was giving those kill orders, no one does. But I have a feeling he put everything together and he thinks it was the CIA trying to kill him. That’s why he went off the grid. He won’t be easy to bring in,” Jonas said as he walked over to the desk, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. “This is it. Name, contacts, addresses. And your man should know Cross is a high-level federal asset and wet works operative—considered armed and extremely dangerous. He’s… very capable”
Burns nodded as he dialed, and he couldn’t help but smile. “They’ll get along famously.”
I’m sorry. Walls are closing in and I need to go.ZANE sat straight up in the bed, soaked in sweat, ears ringing as his lover’s name echoed off the walls. He had been dreaming, his mind taking him back to Ty’s living room and the dance they had shared. Ty’s name was still on his lips. He could still smell him and feel his arms around him as they swayed together. But that had been over a week ago.
It seemed he could still hear the music.
Zane shuddered and leaned over to grab up his cell phone. He swiped the screen to answer the call, interrupting the ringtone. “Ga-Garrett.”
The smooth voice struck Zane hard enough that he fell back onto one elbow, struggling to swallow the butterflies. He was too caught up in the dream. He wasn’t sure he was awake at all.
“Ty?” he said after too long a pause. It sounded plaintive. He rubbed his hand over his face.
“You sound horrible. Are you okay?”
Zane shook his head, and his gaze fell on the shaft of moonlight that painted the wall across the room. He tried to focus his eyes on it. It was just enough to provide a soft blue glow in the room. He wiped a hand across his forehead. It came away damp. “I… where the fuck have you been?”
“Calm down and I’ll tell you.”
Zane growled. He leaned over and groped for the almost empty bottle of water on the nightstand. It was tepid, but he took a few swallows anyway. “Calm down, my ass. Where are you?”
“Well,” Ty said, the word drawn out. Zane recognized the tone of voice Ty used when he was trying to figure out how to explain something that didn’t happen to normal people. “I’ve been told I’m in Tennessee. Or Kentucky. It wasn’t really clear. That’s not why I called.”
“Are you in one piece?” Zane asked. He curled his free hand into the sheet.
“So far. But listen, Zane, I don’t have much time. I got a call from Burns.”
Zane shivered and shifted back to lean against the headboard. That meant Ty wasn’t coming home any time soon, Zane was sure of it. When he spoke, his voice was dark and just barely controlled. “I’m listening.”
Ty was silent for a moment. “I miss you,” he said. He sounded wrecked, which didn’t help Zane feel any better. “But I have to go dark. He didn’t give me a choice this time.”
It was on the tip of Zane’s tongue to demand an explanation, but the regret in Ty’s voice stopped him. With anyone else, this conversation would have been ludicrous. Zane rubbed at his eyes. He’d only gone to bed a couple of hours ago, and far earlier in the evening than normal. Ty wouldn’t have expected to wake him.
“You scared the hell out of me, Ty.”
“I know,” Ty said, and though he sounded sympathetic, he didn’t necessarily sound contrite. “But I had to go. I don’t….”
Zane had known Ty wasn’t himself after their two weeks of hell. Zane had known, and he’d hoped to have the chance to help once they’d both caught their breath. But Ty’s midnight exit had upset that plan. Frustration and anger swamped Zane again, drowning his brief feeling of relief. “Do you know what I thought when I woke up without you?”
“Hopefully that you couldn’t wait to see me again? I left you a note,” Ty said, voice hopeful.
“Yeah, and you know what? It didn’t help!” Zane said, giving up on trying to be understanding. “That’s not something you want to find when you wake up to what’s supposed to be the first day of the rest of your life!”
“The what, now?”
Zane groaned, turned sideways, and flopped down onto his side. He pulled a pillow over his head and then talked anyway. His words came out muffled and stilted. “Beaumont. Tyler. Grady.”
“Wait, whoa, full names? What the hell, Garrett?”
“I told you I loved you, and the next day you were gone.”
Ty was silent, but Zane could hear him breathing. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and hoarse. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”
“Did you think at all?”
“I love you, Zane. I do, and you know it. And when I get home, we’re going to sit down and talk this out. I promise.”
“I told you I loved you.”
“And I appreciated that.”
Zane pulled the pillow away and rolled onto his back to stare up through the dark at the ceiling. “I told you twice.”
“What the hell does Burns want now? You’re supposed to be on wellness leave.”
Ty didn’t answer for a long time, long enough that Zane checked the display on his phone to make sure the call was still connected. Then he heard Ty huff. “God, I love it when you’re cranky like this. Promise to still be pissed when I get home, okay?”
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
Ty laughed affectionately, and Zane’s body responded to the sound despite the anger still washing over him. Zane grunted. There was no denying that his exasperating lover would be able to charm his way out of this. Damn him. But Zane was by far too angry to let it go so easily. “Are you saying you knew I loved you before I said it?”
“Come on, Zane. I’m a trained profiler. You really think I can’t tell when someone’s head over heels in love? You were just crunching the numbers.”
“The first time I told you—”
“You were scared shitless.”
Zane was silent. He wanted to deny it, but Ty was right. The day Ty had danced with him in his living room, he’d told Ty he loved him before he’d even realized the words were slipping out.
“You were terrified as soon as it came out, weren’t you?” Ty asked.
“If I hadn’t given you an out, what would you have done?”
Zane closed his eyes.
“You would have freaked out. And you were already freaking out anyway. Do you know how much it hurt to dismiss that? But you weren’t ready. And I needed you to say it for you. Not for me.”
Zane sniffed, feeling somewhat mollified. “Jesus, Ty. You know me too well.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Head over heels, huh?” Zane’s lips twitched into a very reluctant smile, and he rubbed at them, then dragged his fingers through the dark beard he’d let grow in during the past weeks as he’d been blind. He was still angry, but he tamped it down for the moment, just relieved to hear Ty’s voice. “What else do you know about me?”
Ty hummed. “I know you’re sleeping in my bed right now.”
Zane glanced around Ty’s bedroom and sighed. Dammit. “I’m still upset,” he muttered, not admitting anything. “I understand you were strung out, but goddamn, Ty. You could’ve said something, you could have talked to me about it instead of just—”
“I have no excuse. Sometimes I’m a selfish asshole.”
Dregs of the scare still sloshed through Zane, enough that he didn’t want to let it go, but he knew it wouldn’t solve anything to harp at Ty over the phone. He sighed instead. “What did Burns want?” he asked in a more even tone, knowing it was a question he wouldn’t have asked a week ago.
“I’m sorry, Zane,” Ty said, refusing to answer.
Zane’s jaw clenched. For good or for bad, Zane knew the drill. “You were ordered to go dark?”
“Meaning immediate deployment off the grid, no contact with noncombatants, no trail to trace, no idea when you’ll be back.”
“I had to call you.”
Zane swallowed hard as that sank in. With this call, Ty was breaking protocol and disobeying a direct order, something Zane knew Ty didn’t take lightly. All sorts of responses crowded on his tongue before a wry observation won out. “I hope there’s not a trace on your phone, or we’re seriously busted.”
“Quite frankly, Zane, I don’t care if we are,” Ty said with conviction. “Not anymore.”
“Grady,” Zane said, throat aching. “Do what you have to and then get your ass home.”
“I’m sorry, Zane. I’ll make this up to you.
“There better be groveling involved,” Zane muttered.
The call disconnected. Zane was left with silence and a sudden overwhelming sense of helplessness and worry. Ty was out there working a job alone, and Zane didn’t know any more now than he had a day ago. He swallowed hard and let the hand holding the phone fall to the side. After several minutes of focusing on trying to sort the upset from the lingering anger and not having much luck, he climbed out of the bed, yanked the sweaty sheets off the mattress, and headed down to the basement to put them in the washer.
He needed a shower and some iced tea—preferably from Long Island, but that wasn’t a good idea, so instant mix would do. He just hoped he could find enough work to keep him distracted until Ty returned and he could kick his ass.
RANDALL JONAS sat on Dick Burns’ couch with his head in his hands. There was a cot in the corner with pillows and folded blankets where he’d been sleeping, and there were whispers going around the office about why Burns wasn’t taking meetings.
When the cell phone in his pocket rang, Jonas nearly jumped out of his skin. Burns bit his lip to keep from smiling. His old friend had been out of the game too long for this cloak and dagger stuff.
Burns glanced over at him from where he sat at his desk. The phone was a burn phone, the number only known to two people: Burns and Blake Nichols, Julian Cross’ former handler.
Jonas turned the speaker on with an obvious sense of relief. “Nichols,” he said in a grave voice
“I was able to get in touch with Julian Cross, sir. He understands the situation.”
“But he wants no part in it.”
“He told me that he’s out and intends to stay out, sir. He wants no part in any of it. He said if anyone is sent to pick him up, they’ll return in a body bag. Since you know where he is, he’s packing up right now and preparing to move.”
Jonas closed his eyes. Burns slid his palm across his mouth.
“Cross is my friend, sir,” Nichols’ voice said on the speaker. “I don’t want him hurt. But I also know that if this doesn’t end he’s going to be a target for the rest of his life.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I want assurances that after this is over, Julian will be left alone.”
“Your word will do.”
Jonas met Burns’ eyes across the office. “I’ll go to bat for him.”
“I suppose that will have to do. He won’t be easy to detain, but I may have a way.”
“What do you propose?”
“I can arrange for his boyfriend to be at home at a certain time. If he calls Julian, Julian will come and could possibly be detained. But it has to be today.”
“That can be done.”
“Julian won’t go gently.”
“We’re aware of that fact.”
“Even so. If I were you, sir, I’d sure as hell send more than one guy.”
THE heavy thuds of wrapped fists hitting a punching bag echoed off the concrete block walls, as did the soft grunts of effort coming from the man abusing it. The FBI Baltimore field office gym was almost empty in the very early morning. That just meant Special Agent Zane Garrett didn’t have to deal with people watching him beat the stuffing out of a bag.
He focused on his target, using hands, feet, arms, legs, whatever combination worked as he let his body attack and his mind empty. Then, after one vicious kick, the stationary bag swung backward and a deep oomph and a hard thump interrupted Zane’s concentration.
“Garrett, what’s good, man?” Special Agent Fred Perrimore muttered wryly from where he sprawled on his ass on the mat behind the punching bag he’d been holding in place.
Zane lowered his fists and wiped the trailing sweat from his forehead with the back of his forearm. “Sorry, Freddy. I figured you were paying attention.”
“I was!” the stout, muscled black man said from the floor.
Zane offered him a grin and a hand. He helped the man to his feet.
“Need to talk about the prickly thing that crawled up your ass and died?” Perrimore asked, rubbing his hip with one hand.
“What do you mean?” Zane asked as he walked to the nearby bench and picked up his towel.
“You’ve been pissed for days, Garrett. You’d think your fifteen minutes of fame would make you friendlier, but no.”
“Don’t talk about publicity with me.” Zane had not enjoyed the continued media attention after his touchdown run with a bomb at Green Mount Cemetery last week. His snowflake of a partner had been granted a reprieve, three days off work to deal with the mental fallout. But not Zane, no, because he had used up all his comp time being blind and helpless.
“I’m just glad Grady hasn’t been here. You two would be taking each other apart in the ring,” Perrimore said with a nod to the boxing ring in the middle of the gym. He sprayed his face with his water bottle. “How the hell does he have so much damn leave time, anyway? Is he on psych eval again?”
Zane shrugged. He’d been a little on edge ever since he woke up and found a good-bye letter in bed next to him instead of his lover. Zane didn’t even know if Ty’s little mental health trip had helped him. That phone call had been two days ago, and no Ty in sight.
“He needed some time after the building fell in on us,” Zane murmured.
“Hell, Zane, I don’t doubt that. I’d be shocked if he were here. In fact, I’m shocked that you’ve been here.” Perrimore crossed his arms and focused his disapproval on Zane. “You were blind for a week. And being in that building when it came down on you and Grady? You should have taken time too. The docs would have signed off on the leave, no question.”
Zane edged up one shoulder as he punched halfheartedly at the bag, watching it waver. “I had plenty of time to sit and think when I couldn’t see. I need to be doing something, even if it is just paperwork. Mac’s not letting me go out, anyway.”
“Yeah,” Perrimore said with a firm nod. “Because you’re mean. He can’t risk the PR nightmare if you were on the streets.”
Zane didn’t think his behavior had been that bad. “You’re exaggerating.”
“You told Clancy to take her pom-poms and go home.”
Zane wrinkled his nose. “She was going on about how great What’s-His-Name from Financial Crimes is.”
“Yeah, well, you probably ought to apologize.”
“I’m not apologizing when she’s dating the guy.” Zane’s phone, sitting on the bench with his towel, began to chime. He turned to pick it up.
“They hooked up? Michelle and What’s-His-Name?”
“Yeah. Keeping it quiet, though, so keep your mouth shut,” Zane said as he looked at his phone’s display. It was a Washington, DC number, one he didn’t know.
“Why is she dating a guy from Financial Crimes?” Perrimore asked. He sounded exasperated.
Zane shrugged and hit the button to answer the call. “Special Agent Zane Garrett.”
“Garrett, Burns here,” the caller said. He didn’t offer his title, even though it was an impressive one. He didn’t even offer a hello. “I need you on a plane in less than two hours.”
Zane figured he must have looked surprised, because Perrimore frowned and pointed at the phone, mouthing, “Who is it?”
Zane shook his head. “A plane to where?”
“Chicago, but I don’t have time to explain further. There will be information in your locker,” Burns said, sounding harried and impatient.
Zane glanced at the clock high on the wall. It was almost five in the morning. Normally a call at this time would have caught Zane still in bed. “Guess it’s a good thing I’m at the office.”
“Should I tap someone else for this, Agent Garrett?” Burns asked, his customary composure somewhat lacking. “Because I’ve got less than fifteen minutes to find my man a backup, and I recall that you used to be less talkative.”
Zane frowned. There was something weird about this. “No, sir. I can leave immediately.”
“You do that, then. Take a lesson from your partner, Zane. Every minute you spend being a smartass is one minute on the other side that you’re not there for someone who’s counting on you.” He ended the call without waiting for Zane’s response.
Zane pulled the phone from his ear and looked at it as if it might lunge and snap his head off. “What the hell?” Whatever had happened had Burns more riled than Zane had ever heard him. Zane looked at Perrimore. “I gotta go.” He grabbed his towel and took off at a run for the locker room.
“Hey, what’s going on? Garrett!” Perrimore called after him.
Zane didn’t stop to answer. He could be showered and dressed and in his truck in ten minutes. BWI wasn’t far away.
Stars & Stripes
The waitress came up to their table in the middle of an argument. “Would you like some more iced tea?”
Zane Garrett looked from his ranting partner to the waitress and smiled. “Thanks.” He slid his glass across the small bar table so she could fill it from the pitcher she had in hand.
“No problem, Zane. More wings?”
“Yeah, but just the medium ones this time. I’m not too hot on the honey barbecue kind.”
“Bad pun penalty,” Ty Grady muttered from across the table.
The waitress laughed. She set a pint down in front of Ty and he pointed at her with his celery stick.
“Designated Hitter or real baseball?”
“I’m cutting you off,” she answered before turning away.
“No!” Ty called out, and Zane laughed, the sound almost lost in the midst of the mid-week revelry. Ty turned a glare on him, dipped his celery into a plastic cup of ranch dressing, and then pointed at Zane with it, sending drops of dressing flying. “You know what we should do next weekend?” he asked without seeming to notice he’d sprayed Zane with ranch.
Zane grabbed a napkin and wiped up the splatter on his shirt. These weekly outings were the only time Ty drank around him, and he seemed to make up for lost time at them. Zane didn’t mind. After a few months of regular Wednesday night baseball viewings at the local bar, he was used to Ty’s semi-drunken antics. He had to admit, he enjoyed Ty when he was drunk. And as long as Ty stuck to beer or wine, and Zane continued his AA meetings, he didn’t even fight cravings.
“Was that a rhetorical question?”
“No. We should go get me another tattoo.”
Zane loved to see Ty’s mind at work. At first blush it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to it, but once he’d started paying attention, he could see the tracks Ty’s thoughts followed. Sometimes Ty jumped a track and surprised him, though. Like now. Ty had never mentioned getting another tattoo, had never been caught admiring anyone’s body art. The only reason Ty had gotten the bulldog on his arm was because it meant something dear to him.
Zane watched him for a long moment, entranced by his lover just as he always was. What did people see when they looked at the two of them sitting here in the bar? Just two friends, watching the game, hanging out? Maybe they sat a little closer together than some guys would, maybe their shoulders brushed more than casual friends’ should. Maybe people saw two men in love. Zane hated living in fear of what other people might see, but until he or Ty retired, that was their life.
Zane looked at the bulldog on Ty’s arm and raised an eyebrow. “What would you get?”
Ty threw back what was left of his beer, then set the glass down hard, rattling the unstable bar table. He met Zane’s eyes. “Ballgame’s over. I’ve been cut off by Designated Daisy. Let’s go home and look for trouble.”
Zane swallowed hard as Ty’s purr hit a chord deep inside him that only Ty had ever been able to reach. He pulled out his wallet, picked through some cash, and tossed a few bills onto the table. “Ready when you are, Bulldog.”
Ty slid out of his seat, and when Zane came around the table, Ty’s arm snaked around his waist. Most likely it was to keep himself from weaving as they left the bar. Over the months, Ty had grown more comfortable being demonstrative in front of strangers, and it warmed Zane to his toes every time Ty did it, but it still sent a shiver of nerves through him. Ty had always been the more careful of the two of them, and even he was growing more careless as time went on. What if they were seen by someone who knew them? What if they were found out? Everyone at work knew they were living together, though no one thought anything of it yet except that they were sharing the cost of the mortgage. But they were destined to be outed eventually. The real questions, the ones that haunted him, were would it matter, and would he even care?
The summer heat hit them when they exited the bar, even though the sun had long ago set and a salty breeze was blowing in off the nearby harbor. Ty’s arm tightened on Zane’s waist, and Zane slid his hand around Ty’s shoulders as they headed for their row house on Ann Street. He was struck yet again by just how happy they were, despite the obstacles and worries hanging over their heads.
There were moments when it was all surreal. He’d never expected to live with another person again, never expected to fall head over heels for someone again. For over two months now, he’d been waking to Ty’s arms wrapped around him every morning, and sometimes he wondered if he deserved it.
Other times he pondered how many tranquilizers it would take to bring Ty down, and whether he could do it before Ty killed him, but those moments passed quickly.
Now Ty’s body was hard and warm against his, but his movements were loose and relaxed. He was humming under his breath, and Zane knew it would soon turn into a song. He couldn’t help but smile as he pulled his lover closer. It might just be the rose-tinted color of love’s glasses, but there wasn’t a thing about Ty he didn’t find fascinating, amusing, or smoking hot. He loved it when Ty broke into song because Ty had a beautiful voice, drunk or not.
“It’s funny, you know?” Ty said. “How much things have changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“A couple years ago, at this point in the night, I’d be back in that bar with someone in the supply closet.”
Zane snorted and shook his head. “And now you just have to go home with me.”
“No,” Ty said, serious as he stopped and turned to look at Zane. “I don’t have to go home with you.”
Zane raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.
“I can’t wait to get home with you. Even if it’s just to crawl in bed and watch that stupid-ass show you like so much, I don’t care. Whatever I do, I’m glad I’m with you.”
Zane knew he was grinning like a fool, but sometimes Ty still managed to surprise him with his romantic, sentimental gestures.
Ty took his arm and continued to walk. Zane watched him out of the corner of his eye, amused and warmed all over.
“I love you,” Ty said out of the blue, his voice almost sing-song.
Zane laughed. “You’re drunk.”
“I loved you before I was drunk.”
Zane stopped walking and pulled Ty around to face him. The evening was full of the noises of summer night revelry, but the sidewalk was empty. He smiled and leaned in to kiss Ty. “I can’t remember a time that I was happier than I am right now.”
Ty smiled against his lips, his eyes closed as he wrapped his arms around Zane’s neck. “I bet we can top it when we get home.”
Zane growled and squeezed Ty’s ass before releasing him. “Let’s go find out.”
*****Ty lay tangled in the sheets of the bed he shared with Zane, his head under his pillow. His entire body ached from the gymnastics of the night before. He had carpet burns on his knees. He could feel every place that Zane’s fingers had dug in to hold him down. He was fairly certain there were teeth marks on his shoulder. His insides were a mash of aching, lingering pleasure, and his head was full of cotton. They had to work today, but not for a few hours. He didn’t intend to move until something worthwhile compelled him.
A rough hand settled on the small of his back. Ty hummed and started to smile. That was compelling.
He raised his head, letting his pillow slide away as he turned to peer at his bedmate. Zane was still asleep, his handsome face relaxed in the shadows of the early morning. Ty took the opportunity to stare. He’d never expected to have the privilege of waking up to someone he loved so dearly every day. Now that he did, he tried to appreciate it when he could.
Zane’s hair had grown longer, almost unruly. He’d taken to slicking it back when he worked, and the ends would curl around his ears. Ty loved it. He loved even more that Zane had lost the lines of stress he’d carried for so long, and there were threads of silver hair growing in near his ears that Ty found incredibly sexy.
He reached out to slide his fingers over Zane’s lips. Zane scrunched up his nose and jerked his head away, grunting in his sleep. Ty bit his lip to keep from laughing and reached to do it again. Zane swatted at him this time, barely missing his hand, and then shifted and twitched his lips.
Ty waited a moment, then touched Zane’s lips again, letting the tip of his finger brush against them with the utmost care.
Zane snorted and swatted at him again, smacking himself in the nose and waking with a start and a grunt. Ty pressed his face into his pillow and tried not to let his laughter shake his shoulders.
He felt Zane move, and peeked over his pillow at him. Zane was watching him, his dark eyes like sleepy obsidian in the morning light.
“You’re an ass,” Zane muttered, closing his eyes and turning his head.
Ty laughed and scooted closer, resting his chin on Zane’s chest and wrapping around him. He dragged his foot along Zane’s calf and slid it against his toes, enjoying the intimate contact and soaking in Zane’s warmth and calm.
For all that they enjoyed their rough and tumble sex, they were both surprisingly good at cuddling.
The bed jostled at their feet.
“Oh God,” Zane whispered.
Ty shushed him, holding his breath to keep still. They’d been caught off guard, with no covers over their naked bodies. They were defenseless. Ty bent his leg until his knee was covering Zane’s groin, but that was all the movement he was willing to risk as the bed jostled again.
Smith and Wesson had awoken.
The two fluffy orange cats were Ty’s “temporary” wards, but much to Zane’s chagrin, they’d been here for months now. They were exceptionally large and ill-tempered, and though they seemed to have developed a certain loyalty and affection for Ty, Zane insisted they were trying to kill him. Ty had never witnessed them doing anything spectacularly evil, but he would admit they pounced and hissed at Zane with unusual frequency. And if it was time for their breakfast, they weren’t averse to biting the tip of Ty’s nose and sinking their sharp little teeth into other sensitive areas.
Ty had a special interest in keeping Zane’s tender spots unscathed, hence his knee over Zane’s fun parts.
“I thought you closed the door last night,” Zane whispered.
“Oh Jesus. Can they open doors now?”
Ty wouldn’t have put it past these cats.
Zane’s phone began to ring from the bedside table, but neither man dared to move.
Ty grunted as one of the cats began walking up his body, using his long claws to help him balance as he made his way to Ty’s hip and plopped his fluffy butt down as if he’d just staked a claim. Ty reached back and rubbed the cat’s head, letting his fingers twirl the hair under his ear that Ty called his muttonchops. He knew it was Wesson just from the tenor of his purr.
“Why do you encourage them?”
“They’re good kitties.”
“They’re your minions.”
“Everyone needs a minion or two.”
“You won’t be so pleased when you find me ground up in their food bowl one day.”
Ty chuckled, trying not to shake too much.
They waited a few minutes to see if either cat was going to attack, and when it seemed they were safe, Ty rested his hand on Zane’s chest again and closed his eyes. Zane turned his head with infinite care and kissed Ty’s forehead.
Wesson gave him a warning growl.
“Mine,” Zane told the cat.
Ty smiled and ran his fingers through the sparse hair on Zane’s chest. Wesson growled again.
“If you make him attack me, I swear to God . . .”
“I can’t mind control the cats, Zane. Who called?”
Zane reached out with the utmost care to grab his phone. He was silent as he checked the display, and Ty watched his profile with all the devotion of a lover. It wasn’t hard to miss when Zane’s jaw clenched and his body tensed.
“What is it?”
“It’s my sister.”
Ty tried to get a better look at Zane’s eyes. He rarely spoke of his family, and Ty had always gotten the feeling it wasn’t just the strain of living far away that kept Zane from them. He’d never pushed, though, classing Zane’s family in the same category as his deceased wife or his addictions. If Zane wanted to talk about it, he’d bring it up.
“Good or bad?” Ty asked, rubbing his fingers over Zane’s chest to soothe him. Smith chose that moment to come out of hiding, pouncing on his moving fingers and landing on Zane’s chest. His claws sank in, turning the bed into a frenzy of cat fur, flying linens, and screaming FBI agents.
When the bloodshed was over, Zane had fled down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door to ward off any further attacks, leaving Ty to fend for himself. He laughed as he watched Smith and Wesson prowl down the hall, stalking Zane. They plopped down to stare at the bathroom door, tails twitching. It didn’t matter what Zane did for them, or how many times he fed them or threw Ty in their path, they still hated him.
Maybe they were trying to kill him.
Ty pulled on a pair of pants and headed downstairs, stepping over the cats without being molested, laughing again as he heard Zane come out of the bathroom and yowl in pain. After a few thumps and curses, Smith and Wesson thundered down the stairs to swarm Ty’s feet and wait for food.
“Good kitties,” Ty whispered to them. They were both purring so loudly it was impossible to hear Zane’s movements upstairs, but a few minutes later, Ty glanced up when Zane came stomping down the steps. He had his phone to his ear.
“Hey, Annie,” Zane said on the phone. He met Ty’s eyes and smirked as he swiped a piece of toast from one of the plates Ty was arranging. Ty swatted at him with a spatula, but missed. “No, no, it’s okay, I was up. What’s going on?”
Zane tensed as his sister spoke to him. Ty set the frying pan aside and watched his lover as an unsettling feeling started in his gut.
“Why the hell didn’t you call me earlier?” Zane blurted. “Do I need to come out there?”
Ty held his breath, straining his ears to hear. He couldn’t make out any of Annie’s words, but whatever she was saying was making Zane’s nostrils flare and his shoulders snap back. Classic signs that Zane was about to delve into Dark Mode.
Zane listened for a few more minutes, then bade his sister goodbye and hung up. He looked at Ty with wide eyes.
“You okay? What happened?”
Zane didn’t answer immediately. When he did speak, Ty knew he was whitewashing whatever he’d just learned. “Annie said they’re having trouble on the ranch. Trespassers. They think maybe it’s poachers or rival breeders after the horse stock.”
“Okay,” Ty said, confused about why that would warrant a call to Zane. As far as he knew, Zane had little contact with his family. Even his sister, who Zane got on well with, rarely called just to chat. “So, what, you need to go down there?”
“I don’t know. I mean no. No, they don’t need me.”
“Then why’d they call you?”
Zane waved his hand. “I don’t know, Ty. I can’t help, so there’s no point.”
“If you need to go, we can figure something out at work.”
Ty arched an eyebrow. “Wow.”
Zane shook his head, although he looked conflicted and more than a little annoyed that Ty hadn’t just dropped it. “I’m sorry. If it’s still a problem when the weekend hits, I’ll head down there.”
“Yeah, can we drop it now?”
Ty nodded and watched with a frown as Zane headed back upstairs. He stopped halfway up, then turned and thumped back down.
“Forgot what I was doing,” he mumbled. He snatched another piece of toast before Ty could stop him.
“Shut up,” Zane said as he went back up the steps, taking them two at a time.
Ty watched him go, frown in place. Despite seeming to shrug it off, he knew Zane was worried. Whatever was going on in Texas, it was so much more than a few trespassers.
*****Ty jumped at the sound of a file folder hitting a box on the floor. He glanced up at Special Agent Scott Alston, who ignored the file when it skidded off the top of the stack to thump to the industrial-grade carpet. Alston leaned back in his chair as he loosened his tie, and then stuck his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
Their whole work group had been tasked with slogging through a load of files sent over from one of the other investigative teams, desperate to dredge up evidence on a case that was going colder by the day. There were literally hundreds of files, and the six of them were on their last hour before they could break for the weekend.
“Garrett, are you getting off on all this paperwork?” Alston asked.
“Zane went to the bathroom like five minutes ago, Scott,” Ty said. His words were marred by the yellow highlighter between his teeth. Both hands were full of papers, held aloft as he planted his elbows on his desk.
“Oh.” Alston said, running his fingers through his blond hair. Ty felt like Alston looked: exhausted, seeing double, and desperate to go home.
“Thank God it’s Friday,” Alston said on a deep sigh as he looked at the clock. Ty glanced at it too, out of habit. Close to quitting time.
His cell phone began to buzz at his hip, and he twisted to try to see the display. He had no free hands, and no free space on his desk to set one of the unorganized stacks down.
“Want me to get it?” Alston asked. He pushed out of his chair, and Ty nodded and stood as well, turning his hip toward Alston.
He spit the highlighter out. It clattered to the desk and rolled until it hit a stack of files too high to bounce over. Alston plucked the phone off his belt and hit the speaker button.
“Grady,” Ty said as Alston put the phone on the desk and took one of the stacks of papers from his hand. “Thanks,” Ty whispered.
“Hey, Ma,” Ty said, distracted as he and Alston tried to switch things around while still keeping the stacks in order.
“You’re not still at work, are you? I can call back.”
“No, I’m about done here.” Ty glanced up at Alston and waved a handful of files at the shredder nearby. Alston shook his head, and Ty nodded in response, managing to start an argument without a single word.
On the other side of the pod of desks, Michelle Clancy began to giggle.
“What’s going on?” Ty asked his mother as he sat down and leaned closer to the cell phone, struggling to finish up his last file and listen at the same time.
“Well, I need a favor. A few favors, actually. But they can wait ’til you get home and call me back.”
Ty rolled his eyes and shook his head. Alston chuckled as he leaned against Ty’s desk. “Ma, will you just get to the point, please?”
“Well, we’re aiming to fix the old tin roof on the storage shed this weekend ’cause it’s leaking,”
“Oh, God,” Ty groaned. He lowered his head, files forgotten. Alston squeezed his shoulder, mockingly comforting him.
“We wouldn’t need your help normally, but this morning I cut your daddy’s finger off, and he says he can’t hold a hammer.”
Ty’s head shot up. “You what?”
“Cut his finger off,” Mara said again, as if she hadn’t realized the news would be shocking.
The others were drifting closer, trying to hear the conversation. Ty sat silent a moment longer, his mouth agape. “On . . . purpose?”
“Well, no, it was an accident.”
“Right, of course.” He glanced up at his teammates to see all four of them watching and laughing.
“But it’s not like he don’t have four more fingers to work with. And it was only part of the little finger, and they sewed it back on. He has two hands, one of ’em can hold a hammer just fine, but no, he says he can’t do it.”
“Is he okay?”
“Well, yeah. Like I said, they sewed it back on. So can you come home this weekend and help out with the roof tomorrow? Deacon said he would come too, but you know how he gets with tools.”
Ty shook his head, mouth still hanging open as he tried to process. Clancy leaned over to catch his eye, even waving a hand at him. “Hi, Mama Grady! Ty’s checking his calendar to see if he can get away.”
“Don’t you lie to me, honey. He’s sitting there with his mouth hanging open, ain’t he?”
“Ty, if you come tonight, I’ll get your daddy to tell you all about it. Your brother and Livi’ll be here. It’ll be fun!”
“Fun does not start with a story about how you cut dad’s finger off!” Ty said, laughing despite himself.
“It does in my book. He deserved it.”
The others gave up on etiquette and laughed raucously. Ty shot them all a glare, and he finally dropped what he was doing and picked up his phone. He caught sight of Zane coming back down the hall. His partner had been sullen and distracted for the last day or two, and though he knew Zane was having issues over that call from Texas, he had his own problems to deal with now. He spun around in his chair to put his back to his coworkers, trying to turn the speaker off.
“Does it have to be this weekend?”
“Honey, if you can’t come help, that’s okay.”
Ty rolled his eyes and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Okay, Ma. I’ll leave after work and be there . . . I don’t know, a little before midnight.”
“Reverse psychology,” Fred Perrimore whispered.
“So that’s where Ty learned it,” Harry Lassiter said under his breath.
Mara either couldn’t hear them over the speaker that wouldn’t shut off or ignored them. “I’ll have pork chops waiting! And honey, will you bring that big sharp knife of yours with you? Your daddy’s is awful dull, and the whetstone went missing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ty said with trepidation.
“I’ll see you tonight! Bye-bye!” Mara said, then hung up the phone without waiting for more.
Ty stared at the phone as the display lit up, and then he looked up at the others, who were all trying to keep straight faces.
“Can we come?” Alston said, grinning widely.
“We’ll help!” Clancy said.
“Spoilsport,” Perrimore muttered, and they all drifted away to leave Ty to finish his paperwork.
Zane sat against the edge of Ty’s desk, in the same place Alston had occupied. He was frowning and seemed distracted, but that was nothing new. He was just close enough that Ty could have used his knee as an armrest, and though the thought hadn’t crossed his mind when Alston had been sitting there, he almost did it now without thinking. He stopped himself just in time, making it look like a frustrated flop of his hand.
This wasn’t the first time they’d come close to getting too friendly in front of their coworkers, and it was happening more frequently. He didn’t know how to address the problem, or if he even wanted to.
“What’s up?” Zane asked.
Ty stared at him for a moment, trying to decide how to answer that simple question. He was still distracted by Zane’s proximity, by the way he smelled, by how easy it was becoming to slip in front of co-workers who were trained to see mistakes.
He gave Zane the bare-bones version of his call from home, and after Zane had stopped laughing, Ty tapped him on the knee.
“You heard anything about Texas? You thinking about heading down there?”
Zane shrugged, though his expression clouded over and he looked down at the carpet rather than meet Ty’s eyes. “I haven’t had a call back. I don’t see any reason to bother.”
Ty sighed. He wanted to poke at that soft spot and see why it was there, and he added that to his list of shit to do. But he had some pretty pressing problems of his own to handle first. “Want to go to West Virginia and risk life and limb with me?”
Zane smirked and gave a single nod. “Sounds like fun.”
Touch & Geaux
Zane Garrett glanced up in time to see Alston toss a balled up scrap of paper across the pod of desks where their team of six sat. Ty Grady threw up his arms, signaling a touchdown as the paper skidded across his desk and into his lap.
“Garrett, Grady, in my office,” McCoy called from his door. He disappeared inside.
“What’d you guys do now?” Alston asked.
Zane rolled his eyes. “Wasn’t me.”
“This time,” Clancy chimed in.
“I hope it was me,” Ty said with relish. He stood and buttoned his suit, leaving a half-finished firearms discharge form open on his computer.
“Sometimes I wonder how far you’d go to get out of paperwork,” Alston said.
“Watch old episodes of Pinky and the Brain and you might get close,” Zane muttered, drawing snorts of laughter from their other two teammates.
“Before everything went digital, I had the Bureau docs convinced I was allergic to paper pulp,” Ty told them, dead serious. His hazel eyes were shining. “It was beautiful.”
“You’re allergic to everything else,” Zane said as he pushed out of his chair. “Come on. You know what he did to us the last time we made him wait.”
“Salon appointments,” Lassiter mused.
“PR lectures,” Alston said.
“Enforced vacation?” Clancy added.
“Christ, I don’t know which of those is worse,” Zane said. It was all part and parcel of being Ty Grady’s partner. And, Zane had to be honest, some of it was his own fault too.
Ty pointed around at each of his teammates, playfully threatening them as he trailed after Zane. He knocked on the doorjamb, peering into the Special Agent in Charge’s office. McCoy looked up from his computer screen and smirked.
A cold chill ran through Zane’s body. “Oh hell.”
“What now?” Ty blurted. They both knew that the look on McCoy’s face was a harbinger of doom.
McCoy shook his head and motioned for them to come in and close the door. Once Ty had pushed it shut, McCoy waved two sheets of paper at them. “Several weeks ago, we had a request put in. An unusual one, but it’s a reasonable step toward keeping our noses clean in the press.”
“Is this more PR bullshit?” Ty asked.
“It’s not bullshit,” McCoy had the gall to say with a straight face.
Zane sat with a deep sigh. “You’ve still got me giving a community lecture once a month as it is. The last one? The deputy mayor asked me if I’d speak to the Chamber of Commerce. How am I supposed to be a discreet, undercover criminal investigator when everyone knows who I am?”
“That’s a very good point,” Ty said.
“That’s one of the things I need to speak to you both about. Individually. Later,” McCoy added with a more somber cast to his face. “But for now we’ll deal with this one—very reasonable—request.”
“Which is?” Ty asked.
“There’s a fundraising calendar being put together by a local first responder organization.”
Ty stood up, holding his hand out toward McCoy as if to ward off evil. “Hell no!”
Zane blinked. “A calendar?”
McCoy nodded. “They’re using people from state, federal, and municipal organizations, and all proceeds are going to a fund set up to aid first responders injured in the line of duty.”
“Admirable,” Zane said.
“You’ve both been requested as . . . models,” McCoy managed to say without cracking a smile.
Zane looked from his partner back to McCoy. “You’re joking.” Ty was shaking his head, thumbing through numbers on the cell phone in his hand. Zane hadn’t even seen him pull it out.
“I never joke,” McCoy said with a hint of mischief. He looked to Ty. “If you’re intending to call Richard Burns to get you out of this, I won’t have it. The Bureau needs this and you’re the ones they want.”
Ty narrowed his eyes at McCoy, then turned his phone off and curled his lip at Zane. There was also a hint of apprehension in his expression, but he hid it quickly.
“We’ve been assured the photographs will be tastefully done,” McCoy said.
“Fine,” Zane said, pointing at Ty. “Send him. But why me?”
Ty shook his head and gestured toward Zane while raising one eyebrow at McCoy. “I think the real question is: Why do they need me when they have such a fine specimen right here?” he said, sounding like a used car salesman trying to sell a Pinto.
Zane reached out and whapped Ty on the back of the head.
Ty laughed and ducked away, still trying to sell Zane. “Little bit of eyeliner, some spray tan, I mean, come on! He’s beautiful!”
McCoy smiled, though he looked as if he was trying not to. “Am I to assume the two of you will agree to representing the Bureau in this?”
“I think ‘agree’ is too strong a term,” Zane said. “This is a bad idea. Remember when we were on TV?”
“Yes, Grady got fan mail for a month.”
“We burned it, as you should all evil things,” McCoy answered.
From Ty’s expression, he was trying to figure out if McCoy was being facetious or serious.
Zane laughed and wiped his hand over his face.
“I’m not going to force you, Garrett. But I am going to force Grady because he owes me.”
“What?” Ty shouted.
McCoy ignored him. “But I need an answer from you right now.”
Zane was still laughing over the absurdity of the idea as he glanced at Ty, weighing his options and wondering just what the punishment would be if he bowed out. Because there would be retribution from his partner. For sure. Of course, if he went along of his own free will, there might be a reward involved. A hot, naked, angry reward. Not that McCoy needed to know anything about that.
Ty flopped his hands. “I mean, hell, I have about as much say in it as I usually do, so why not? I’m game.”
Zane sighed. “I’ll never hear the end of it if I say no, will I?” Ty jerked his head to the side, raising an eyebrow higher in warning. He was a handsome man when he was annoyed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Fine, I’ll do it.”
“Good!” McCoy stood and clapped his hands together once. “Go now.”
“What?” Ty asked flatly.
“The crew is in the lobby to take you to a hotel for the photo shoot. Go. Now.”
Ty stood staring at him, head cocked, apparently immobilized by the prospect.
“How long have you known about this, and you’re just now telling us?” Zane asked. It was classic McCoy to sit on this for a week and then spring it on them at the last minute so they couldn’t wiggle out of it.
“They’re in the lobby waiting for you.” McCoy sat back down and waved his hand in dismissal, even picking up his pen and pretending to study a report.
Zane pushed out of his chair with an aggrieved sigh. It took two tugs to get Ty moving. As he pushed Ty out the door, Zane turned back to McCoy. “One of these days, Mac, one of these stunts is going to backfire on you in spectacular fashion.”
“But not today,” McCoy said, smug and smiling.
Zane growled and turned, only to bump into Ty, who had stopped right where Zane had left him. “Grady!”
“I changed my mind.”
“Too late.” Zane gave Ty a gentle shove toward the elevator.
Ty gave the emergency stairs a glance. He had always been an odd mix of cocksure and shy; part showman, part recluse. He loved a crowd, playing class clown or alpha dog or whatever the situation called for like a chameleon. Zane had seen videos of him from when he had been in service, dancing with other Marines, making fools of themselves to pass the time or entertain wounded companions. He was also willing to play up the sexy in person, using his good looks and charisma for any purpose he deemed fit. But as soon as someone tried to record it for posterity, Ty would freeze like he was hiding from a T-Rex. He would much rather be shot at than shot with a camera.
Zane ignored the glances from their curious coworkers, focusing instead on getting Ty into the elevator. Once the doors shut, he groaned and covered his face with both hands.
“This is not my fault,” Ty muttered as the elevator whisked them toward the lobby.
“Of course it’s your fault, Ty. Look at you.” Zane dropped his hands with a huff. “And what was he talking about with the ‘talk to you individually’ thing?”
Ty shrugged his broad shoulders, shaking his head and then peering at his hands like he was examining his fingernails. He definitely knew something.
“Ty,” Zane rumbled.
Ty glanced at Zane. “I don’t know,” he insisted. His eyes were wide and sincere, but he couldn’t fool Zane. Not after a year of living together.
Zane took a step, intending to pin his partner to the wall to get some answers, but then the elevator pinged to signal their arrival at the first floor, forcing him to halt.
“We will be discussing this later,” Zane said through gritted teeth.
Ty’s lips twitched and his eyes danced, but he didn’t argue.
“You know, I might not have minded this with a little forewarning,” Zane muttered. “How I became anyone’s idea of a goddamn pin-up, I have no idea.”
Ty just looked back at him, blinking innocuously. As the doors began to grind open, he smiled. “You’re my idea of a pin-up,” he whispered.
Zane snorted, amused by how easily Ty could still charm him. He brushed his fingertips over Ty’s lips before turning to lead the way out into the lobby.
They didn’t even get around the corner before three women in various styles of business attire stood and hurried over to them. “Agents Garrett and Grady, thank you so much for agreeing to support our little project!”
Ty gave them a charming smile, even though his discomfort was still obvious to Zane. “We can’t really take the credit,” he said, voice smooth as honey.
A slim blonde in her mid-thirties, with every hair on her head perfectly in place, shook both their hands, lingering over Ty. “If you’ll come with us, we have a van waiting.”
“A van?” Zane asked.
“To take us to the hotel.”
Zane slid his hands into his trouser pockets and gave an uncomfortable fake smile of his own. He and Ty fell into step as they trailed after the women.
“Tell me, Special Agent Garrett,” asked a rather matronly looking woman with a smile on her round cheeks. “Did you happen to ride your motorcycle to work today?”
Zane steps stuttered as they reached the lobby doors. Ty stifled a snicker by pretending to cough.
“Ah, no, ma’am, I’m afraid not,” Zane lied through his teeth. It’d just gotten warm enough to start riding the Valkyrie again, so of course he had.
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
The other woman, dressed in a dark blue pantsuit, just laughed. “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!”
Zane nodded, unconvinced.
“I’d rather chew on a light bulb,” Ty said under his breath.
“That motorcycle was my favorite idea,” the short woman said from the back seat of the van as soon as they’d all piled in.
“Oh Violet, forget the bike. We want the men, after all,” the lady in blue said. “I’m Cynthia, by the way.” She reached over the seat and shook Zane’s hand, then Ty’s.
“I’m Susan,” the blonde added, her voice low and pleasant. “I’m sorry, we should have introduced ourselves before. We’re just so excited you agreed to do this!”
“Susan’s the one who saw you both on the news,” Cynthia said.
Zane smirked. “Is that so?”
“I remember watching that newscast and getting shivers,” she confided, smiling at Zane and then turning her long lashes on Ty again. “The presence you both had in front of the camera? I just knew I had to have you.”
Zane could see Ty tensing, growing more uncomfortable with the situation. Flirting was like Ty’s natural mode of communication, but recently he had grown less likely to engage in it.
“That newscast wasn’t representative of us at work,” Ty finally said.
“Oh, but it was! You were at work!” Violet leaned over the back seat. “And it’s exactly what everyone thinks. That’s what we want on the calendar. Something dashing.”
“Daring,” Susan drawled.
“Dangerous,” Cynthia added with relish.
“I . . .” Ty shifted closer to Zane, nodding and clearing his throat.
“Since we did the BPD officers in the jail cell, maybe we could use the cuffs in this one?” Cynthia suggested.
Zane glanced at her, wondering if he should be scandalized.
“Okay, we have that CIA analyst in the suit already, sort of spy style,” Violet said, pulling out a notebook. “The bare-chested firemen. The two uniformed police officers in lockup. The EMT in the back of the ambulance. We need something different.”
“So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go with a roughed-up, ‘not afraid to get a suit dirty in the line of duty’ look. With the guns, of course, since we’ve not used any actual weapons in a picture yet.”
Ty looked down at his suit, his favorite Tom Ford suit, and visibly balked at the mention of getting it dirty. “Maybe you could put us in civvies and have us undercover,” he suggested as he smoothed a protective hand over his lapel.
Susan gasped and grabbed his arm. “Under covers!”
“No. What? No!” Ty blurted.
“That’s brilliant!” Cynthia exclaimed.
Zane felt a real flash of panic. “I really don’t think—”
“Oh, I like this even more than the motorcycle!”
“He’ll do the motorcycle,” Ty tried, but they weren’t hearing him.
“Oh, this is perfect. I’ll call ahead and have them set up a bed.” Susan pulled out a cell phone as the ladies in the back seat chattered and jotted down notes.
Zane leaned in and hissed at Ty. “What have you done?”
Ty shrugged helplessly. “I . . . I’m . . . this is not my fault!”
*****Ty didn’t blame Zane for the glares he received as they rode to the penthouse suite together. He gave himself the same glares in the mirror as two makeup artists scruffed his hair. He had a napkin tucked into his collar to keep the hair product from touching the white V-neck T-shirt he was wearing. They weren’t putting makeup on him, thank God. Something about natural close-ups. Ty was trying to block it all out.
He stood when the man told him he was done, and the woman yanked the napkin out of his collar and nodded. Ty turned and headed for the other room in the suite where they’d set up all the cameras and flashing things and umbrellas and what the hell ever they were. In that room was also an artfully tousled bed dressed with charcoal-colored sheets, representing the gray world of undercover work.
Ty looked down at himself. It was close to what he would normally wear: tattered stonewashed jeans, thin T-shirt that stuck close to his frame, bare feet. They’d even left his accessories on him, deeming them stylish enough. A black rubber bracelet and brown leather string on one wrist, his black-banded silver dive watch on the other, his Marine Corps signet ring, and the compass rose on its leather cord. He still felt wildly out of place.
Then Zane walked in, shaking his head. He was dressed the same as Ty, only his T-shirt was black, and his dark jeans were even more threadbare. They’d mussed his hair, too, slicking it back and letting it curl around his ears.
Ty tried to fight down the gut reaction to seeing Zane like that, but it was impossible not to stare.
“You both look incredible!” Susan crooned as she came over and looked them up and down. She flipped her fingers through Zane’s hair, then turned to Ty and nodded approval. “Now, if you’ll both just climb into the bed, we’ll get this going!”
Ty fought back a nervous flutter and moved toward the bed, trying to relax his shoulders as he rolled onto it. Zane followed, not bothering to suppress a chuckle as he sprawled back against the headboard.
They sat side by side, long legs extended, arms crossed. Ty glanced sideways at Zane, unable to suppress the smirk. There was no denying they’d be laughing about this later. When Zane turned to meet Ty’s eyes, the camera popped and flashed. Zane shook his head, but he was smiling and his dark eyes reflected a spark when the flash went off.
“It appears you’re the good guy in this scenario,” Zane said, reaching out to pluck at the front of Ty’s white shirt.
“I think we’re in this one together.”
Zane’s jaw jumped as he fought a smile. Ty grinned and the camera went off again.
“Get it? Good and evil in bed together?” His words drew laughter, just not from Zane. “Come on, that’s funny!”
Zane rolled his eyes.
“It’s a pun!”
The cameras clicked away as they were instructed to move into various positions. Under the covers, on top of the covers, sitting up, stretched out flat, doing the same thing, doing different things. They were both repeatedly told to stop smiling, stop laughing, stop looking at each other. After a while, Ty began to feel disconcertingly okay with the whole thing, lying in bed with his partner in front of a dozen or so people who were snapping off pictures left and right. It was absurd.
“Okay, boys, time for something different,” Susan announced after a good half hour of them posing.
“Give us some last shots to finish, and we’ll have everything we need,” Susan requested. “Feel free to remove the shirts.”
Zane tipped his head to one side and shrugged, then gripped the hem of his shirt. Several people in the room tried hard not to stare.
Ty couldn’t blame them; Zane’s bare chest and muscular shoulders were definitely something to write home about. The camera continued taking pictures as Ty watched Zane strip the shirt off. Not to be outdone, Ty gave Zane a small wink and pulled his T-shirt off as well. When he tossed it toward one of the cameras on the periphery of the staged scene, Susan told the cameraman to zoom as close as he could to the scars that covered both men’s torsos.
Ty met Zane’s gaze. Zane’s eyes were drawn to Ty’s lips, and when he looked up again there was a new heat in his gaze. It stole Ty’s breath and he couldn’t look away.
“Gentlemen, keep looking at each other like that, please; these shots are incredible,” Susan told them.
Flashes continued to pop and the camera clicked away. It all faded as Ty stared at Zane.
“Well, I think that will certainly do it,” Violet finally said. Ty had to tear his eyes away before he was compelled to lean over and kiss his lover in front of all those cameras.
“Oh, definitely,” Susan agreed. “Agent Grady, come and take a look.”
Ty rolled out of bed and bent to pick up his discarded T-shirt, careful not to look back at Zane. He leaned next to her to look at the laptop. The photos taken were displayed in a grid on the screen, and Susan had the photographer go through them one by one, critiquing angles and posture, marking some as “no,” narrowing down the choices, all the while commenting on how photogenic Ty and Zane were.
“I think we’ll have to use one of the ones with the handcuffs,” Cynthia said, hesitance in her voice. “They’re cute and fit the tone of the rest of the calendar.”
Susan nodded. She pulled up one of the favorites. The picture showed Zane stretched out on the bed in the background, hands behind his head as he leaned against the headboard. He was smirking, an almost mischievous expression that was accented by smile lines and the streaks of gray hair at his temples, bare feet crossed at the ankles, biceps displayed prominently. Ty sat at the end of the bed in the foreground, leaning toward the camera, knees apart, elbows resting on them. He held a pair of handcuffs with one finger, letting them dangle. One eyebrow was arched, a sardonic expression on his face. It would probably end up being the photo used for the calendar—for the month of July, apparently, because it rhymed with FBI.
Cynthia sighed as she flipped through the rest of the shots. “These last ones . . .” She shook her head. “Those are something special though.”
Susan hummed as she looked at the last series of pictures. Ty leaned closer. They were more somber than he had thought they’d be, all black and white and gray. Zane looked pensive and melancholy, and even Ty’s playful smile seemed world-weary through the lens of the camera. The light highlighted the white slashes of scars on both their bodies. It seemed the only color in the entire canvas was the shock of Ty’s washed-out tattoo. There was nothing erotic about the picture. The sheets were barely in the frame, and it left nothing but the starkness of two warriors sharing something infinitely beyond the reach of the camera.
Ty swallowed hard, struck by the image in a way he couldn’t quite explain. “Can I get a few copies of one of those?” he asked.
Susan was already nodding before his words were out. “Of course,” she answered, eyes glued to the screen. “If you’ll just, um . . . sign the usage waivers and . . .” she waved toward a pile of papers, her eyes still on the screen.
Zane walked up to the other side of the makeshift desk, shirt back on, weapons back in hand already. “Are we done?”
Ty looked up at him, mouth gone dry. He nodded and met Zane’s eyes. “Come look at these,” he requested, voice hoarse.
Zane rounded the pile of equipment as the photographer walked over to the camera. Susan followed him, still talking. Cynthia and Violet chattered off to the side. Zane stopped at Ty’s side and looked down at the screen. Ty heard his sharp inhalation.
“Good, right?” Ty whispered.
“Yeah,” Zane breathed. “They’re not going to use . . . are they?” He pointed at the last few photos.
Ty looked over at Susan, the lines furrowing her clean brow, the look in her eyes. “No. They’re going for feel-good, not . . . not that.”
He studied the photos again, wondering what people would see in them. There was nothing sexual or even romantic there. But there was something.
“That’s us,” Zane said quietly. “Really us.”
“I asked for a copy,” Ty told him, watching him closely.
“Just one?” One corner of Zane’s mouth quirked. Then he looked up from the photo, and Ty could read Zane loud and clear. He wanted that photo, but more importantly, he wanted Ty, and he wanted him now.
“I’ll share,” Ty told him under his breath. He cleared his throat, needing to look away from the expression on Zane’s face before they really gave those cameras something to shoot. He picked up one of the waivers and signed it without reading over it, then handed the clipboard to Zane. “Did you get everything you needed from us?” he called to Susan.
They came over to fawn over Ty and Zane a little more, thanking them and praising the pictures they’d taken. One of the assistants took down some information and gave them both a card. Ty’s had Susan’s number handwritten on it. Then they were left alone to go change back into their suits.
“That was kind of fun,” Ty admitted as he stripped off the jeans in the little dressing area.
“Not too bad, I guess. Depends on how cheesy of a photo they end up choosing.” Zane changed jeans for suit pants and pulled his T-shirt off again. “I might have been less out of sorts with more warning. It was just . . . weird.”
Ty nodded as he stepped into his trousers. He glanced toward the outer room, seeing that everyone out there was occupied, and advanced on Zane even as he buttoned up his pants. He grabbed Zane’s face without warning and kissed him. Zane grunted in surprise but was quick on the uptake, hands gripping Ty’s upper arms as he joined in the kiss for the few intense seconds.
“McCoy never has to know we got done early,” Ty whispered as his hands dropped to Zane’s shoulders.
“I don’t give a shit about Mac. Let’s get out of here.”
Ty nodded and stooped to gather the rest of his clothes, tossing his tie around his neck and picking up his shoes and socks. Zane pulled his dress shirt on and did up three buttons, tucked it in haphazardly, just enough to get by, and gathered up the rest.
Ty jerked his head toward the door and headed for it. They weren’t far from the house, but they would have to get a cab. He’d rather walk than deal with the photographers and their kidnapper van again.
As soon as the door to the hotel room closed behind them, Ty looked up and down the hallway and then back at Zane with a grin.
“Let’s get a room.”
Zane laughed and shrugged. “Okay? You missing hotel bathrooms that much?”
The memory of their first time together flashed through Ty’s mind, and he nodded. Zane must have seen the hunger streaking through Ty’s eyes, because he started hurrying Ty down the hall toward the bank of elevators. Ty grinned, not even worrying about the shoes he carried or the fact that they both looked like they’d already been at it in a janitor’s closet somewhere.
Once in the elevator, everything hit the floor anyway, except for Ty, who hit the wall, pinned there by Zane’s firm body and demanding mouth. Ty could do nothing but moan and wrap his arms around Zane’s shoulders.
If someone had told him this morning that a surprise FBI photo shoot would end up with them making out in a hotel elevator, Ty probably wouldn’t have been shocked. He found it funny, anyway.
Zane pulled back for breath and set one palm flat on Ty’s chest, holding him in place while stepping backward. “Stay,” Zane ordered, pulling his hand away but still pointing at Ty.
Ty nodded wordlessly, wide-eyed and unashamed. Zane did up his buttons, smoothed his sleeves, and shrugged into his jacket, somehow managing to look mostly put together, even if his face was flushed and his hair was still mussed from the shoot. He had just shoved his feet into his dress shoes when the elevator door pinged and opened. “I’ll be right back,” he said, looking Ty up and down deliberately before growling and striding out of the elevator.
Even after all this time, the prospect of what Zane intended to do to him made Ty’s chest flutter.
The phone in his jacket began to ring. “No, no, no!” He fished it out anyway, checking he caller ID. “No!”
He looked up. Several people were backing away from the doors to find an alternate way up as he stood in the elevator shouting at his phone.
“Grady,” he growled when he answered the call.
“We’re ready here,” Dan McCoy said without further greeting.
Ty sighed. “Yes sir.”
He hung up just as Zane returned.
“No,” Zane said when he saw the look on Ty’s face and the phone in his hand. “No! How urgent is it?”
Ty shook his head. “It was Burns.”
*****Traffic was minimal as they made their way toward the Bureau office. Ty either wouldn’t or couldn’t fill Zane in on why they were needed, and he wouldn’t speculate as they walked together toward the elevators. Zane wasn’t surprised. Burns was pretty closed-mouthed with everything he did. It was odd that they’d come here when Burns had called them. Burns worked in DC, not Baltimore. But nothing Richard Burns did was normal.
Ty punched the button for their floor and then leaned against the elevator wall, watching Zane with sidelong glances. Zane gave him a small smile. Hopefully they’d be able to get back to that hotel suite before the night was over.
The elevator lurched to a stop and the doors shivered open. Ty didn’t move. Zane stepped out of the elevator first. He looked over his shoulder at Ty, frowning.
As soon as he turned, roughly three dozen coworkers and friends jumped out of their various hiding places amidst the desks and file cabinets and cubicle dividers, all of them yelling some version of “Surprise!”
Zane’s hand went to his gun, but Ty grabbed his wrist before he could pull it. Everyone was laughing and blowing on noisemakers, and for a long moment Zane just didn’t understand what was going on. “What the hell? This is what the damn calendar thing was for?”
Ty laughed and wrapped his arm around Zane’s shoulder. “Just an unfortunate necessity we managed to take advantage of. Happy twenty years with the Bureau, partner.”
Zane groaned and rolled his eyes as people all around them started whistling and applauding. “The first eighteen were easy,” he said, deadpan, drawing laughter as he jabbed Ty in the ribs with an elbow.
“But the last two were fun.”
“Our definitions of ‘fun’ clearly vary.”
“Whatever, Zane. There’s cake.”
Zane grinned. “You realize last month was actually twenty-one years, right?”
Ty shrugged, smiling crookedly. “Wouldn’t have been a surprise if we’d done it at the right time.”
Zane rolled his eyes, fighting the huge grin on his face.
“Congratulations, Garrett,” Clancy said as she approached them.
Others began surrounding him, offering him words of admiration, some bringing him cake, a drink, or a present. Probably thirty minutes had passed before Zane looked up and realized Ty was nowhere to be found.
“Where’s Grady?” he asked, looking over at Perrimore.
Perrimore shrugged. “Skipped out about fifteen minutes after you got here.”
Zane frowned and scanned the room. Why would Ty leave in the middle of a party he’d obviously helped plan? Zane shrugged it off. Lassiter gained his attention by approaching to shake his hand and ask for advice on how to be old. He was distracted by more laughter and light ribbing, and he lost track of time again, surrounded by the men and women he’d come to call his friends.
It was Good Friday, though, so the party cleared out quickly. Some left to spend the holiday with their families. Others wandered with every intention of heading to one of the local bars to continue what they’d started here. Zane sat at his desk looking at his twenty-year certificate, which had been stolen and framed while he was gone and then presented as a gift from the rest of his team. The back of the frame was signed by everyone he worked with. In the very middle, Ty’s signature stood out. Under it was written a simple note: “You’re the best partner I could have asked for.”
Zane smiled as he read it. It was so like Ty. Short, sweet, and with a meaning that was innocuous and yet so meaningful. He turned it over and ran his thumb across the glass. Twenty years.
He was so intent on the certificate and what it meant that he didn’t realize he had company until Ty sat on the edge of his desk.
Zane smiled and gazed up at his partner. “Where’d you run off to?”
“I was here,” Ty told him. “Wanted you to enjoy your day in the sun so I made myself scarce.”
“Would’ve been just fine with you next to me,” Zane said, but he smiled and shrugged. It was a sweet thought on Ty’s part, and they’d been making a point not to hover over each other at work functions. “Maybe you could have kept them from ragging on me about my age. Apparently I’m the old man of the department, which I find hard to believe.”
“No, I’m pretty sure you are.” Ty’s voice was teasing, but there wasn’t much heart behind the effort. He reached behind himself and picked something up he’d been hiding with his body, setting it in front of Zane with a wistful smile.
Zane stared at the row of delicate white flowers stemming from a sleek black pot, nonplussed until he realized what it was.
“An orchid.” He laughed, remembering the day Ty had suggested they cut and run to start a flower shop together and sell black-market orchids out of the back. He glanced up at Ty as warmth spread through him. Anyone who knew Ty may have said differently, but Zane knew he had a knack for sentimental gestures. Of the two of them, Ty was the real romantic.
Ty was smiling, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He was fidgeting, messing with the USMC signet ring on his finger.
“Hey, what’s that about?” Zane asked, keeping his voice low as he nudged Ty’s knee.
Ty looked up at the ceiling and inhaled deeply. “I think you could call it melancholy,” he admitted. He didn’t even try to deflect it with a joke or a denial.
“About . . . me being older than you?” Zane asked.
Ty shook his head and looked back down at the ring. “It’s just . . . what am I going to do when you retire?”
Zane blinked. “Retire? I . . . can’t say I’ve ever thought about it.” The words grew more painful as they came out, as it sunk in what Ty was thinking about. Them, apart. Or not together, anyway. No longer partners.
“Well, I think about it all the time.” Ty reached out and ran his hand down Zane’s face. “You ready to go home?”
The intimacy of both Ty’s comment and touch stopped Zane’s immediate reply, and he considered his lover for a long moment before nodding. “Yeah.”
Ty slid off the desk. He reached across it to gather his keys and coat. Zane’s mind flashed back to the photograph of them in bed together and suddenly it was important for him to say something. He stood up and stepped around the desk to stand close, catching Ty’s elbow with one hand. “Hey.”
They were close enough that Ty couldn’t even turn to face Zane. He tried to, brushing his cheek against Zane’s nose. Zane whispered in his ear. “I’m not going anywhere. Not without you.”
Ty smiled, crow’s feet appearing briefly. He was staring at Zane’s hand on his arm. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Zane said, even though it didn’t feel like the subject was resolved at all. He watched Ty for a moment, wondering if it was something they’d need to bring up later or if the melancholy Ty had admitted to would pass naturally. That’s how Ty usually handled these things.
“C’mon. I’ve got a hotel room all lined up for something dirty. I also have cake,” Zane growled as he stepped back to pick up the napkin-covered plate Alston had given him when he’d cleaned up. He dropped his voice to a near-whisper and grinned. “I’ll feed it to you.”
Ty laughed breathily and turned toward the elevators, shaking his head.
Zane glanced at the framed certificate and decided to leave it on his desk. It wasn’t something he wanted to think about at home. In the reflection, he caught sight of a figure moving down the hallway. They weren’t alone, after all. He turned to look over his shoulder and saw Richard Burns stepping into the stairwell. The door shut behind him, not making a sound. Zane stared for a moment, then hurried to catch up with Ty.
“I didn’t see Director Burns here during the party, did you?”
Ty shook his head and pushed the button on the elevator. “No, why?”
“He was here.”
Ty turned and glanced past Zane at the empty floor. “Pretty sure he wasn’t.”
“I’m pretty sure he was. I just saw him,” Zane said with another look at the stairwell. “We can probably catch him if the elevator hurries.”
But Ty shook his head. “Why would Dick be here?”
“You’re the one who said he called you.”
“I just used his name ’cause I knew you wouldn’t argue when I said we had to come here.”
Zane searched Ty’s eyes for any hint of a lie, but saw nothing to indicate one. He gave the stairwell door another hard glare. He knew what he’d seen. Why the hell was Richard Burns in Baltimore on a Friday night? And why wouldn’t he come say hello? What was brewing? The elevator dinged and Ty stepped in, holding the door.
Zane nodded, eyes still on the stairwell as an uneasiness began to settle in his chest.
Ball & ChainPublisher's Note: The following is a raw, unedited excerpt.
Zane relaxed back as a cool breeze off the water filtered through the trees to pass through the patio.
Ty glanced out at the moonlit strand of beach. The waves lapped at the shore, wiping away the footprints of those who’d come before, the sound masking the soft murmurs of conversation around them. “Now it looks like the beaches I know.”
“You okay?” Zane asked carefully.
Ty nodded as he pushed his chair back. “If I fall over when I stand up, you’re going to catch me, right?”
Zane smiled. “Of course I’ll catch you.”
Ty reached to take Zane’s hand and hefted himself up. He pulled Zane up with him and wavered closer to him, just tipsy enough to not care who saw them. Zane slid an arm around his shoulders and turned him toward the beach, getting him walking in that direction. Once they’d passed into the relative darkness of the beach, Ty slid his hand into Zane’s as they walked.
“You having fun yet?” he asked.
“Maybe not fun, but it’s been nice so far,” Zane said as he laced their fingers together. The watch at his wrist brushed against Ty’s as they walked. “I actually had a casual conversation with Burns. It was a little bizarre, but . . . getting there.”
“Try having him over for Thanksgiving dinner,” Ty said wryly as they hit the softer sand. They walked until there was nothing but moonlight to light their way. It was quiet and the breeze smelled of salt and Ty was happy. He came to a stop suddenly, pulling Zane closer to him. Zane hummed appreciatively and let his free hand fall to Ty’s hip as their chests bumped. Ty ran his nose up the side of Zane’s cheek, finally planning to take the kiss he’d been wanting all day when he heard a noise above the gentle surf. His entire body tensed and Zane leaned away from him.
Even here, remote and safe, he couldn’t seem to force his mind to relax. He cleared his throat and squeezed Zane’s hand, refusing to let his fingers slip away.
“Who the hell thinks walking on the beach in the freaking dark is romantic?” a woman’s voice asked breathlessly as the two figured came close enough to be heard over the lapping waves.
“Maybe it’s romantic if you’re being carried,” another woman suggested. “My calves are killing me!”
Ty and Zane both chuckled, exchanging quiet greetings as they passed the two women in the dark. The girls waved tiredly as they walked by, angling toward one of the cottages on the end of the shoreline. As they complained their way out of the sand, Zane tugged on Ty’s arm.
“C’mon. Nice, private cottage waiting.”
“I’m with them,” Ty told Zane as he allowed himself to be turned toward their cottage again. “We used to run with all our equipment in the sand until we threw up. Never really saw a beach as romantic.”
“I was going to suggest a run in the morning, but maybe not,” Zane said as he guided Ty along with a hand on his elbow. “And I’m probably the last person to ask about what’s romantic.”
Ty pointed a finger. “I will run in the late morning to early afternoon timeframe. Otherwise I intend to be hungover.” He waited a beat before glancing sideways at Zane. “Where were you married?”
“Church wedding in Austin,” Zane answered. There was a note of curiosity in his voice.
“Was it nice?” Ty asked carefully.
Zane snorted. “It was way overdone. My mom did the whole thing because we were living in Dallas at the time. But I guess it was okay. I don’t really remember much about it.” Zane made a noise in his throat.
“What, too much bachelor party?” Ty asked.
“No, it’s just . . .” Zane waved his hand around. “You stand there in this important ceremony, nervous as hell because everyone’s watching you and you don’t want to trip on the steps, and then it’s over and you don’t remember a single thing and it seems like such a waste of all that time.”
Ty snorted and shook his head. He glanced up at the lights ahead of them and squinted. “Please tell me you know which freaking tiki hut is ours.”
“Yes, I know which one is ours,” Zane assured him. “This is nice, that Deuce and Livi get to do something like this. Wedding and honeymoon all in one, stretch it out and take their time.”
“Yeah, well, Deuce is terrified of airplanes, so I’m guessing he only had enough tranquilizers for one trip,” Ty muttered. “I gather you didn’t get to do the honeymoon thing?”
“We were both working, and neither of us wanted to take time off right then,” Zane said with a shrug. He didn’t sound put out about it. “That stuff wasn’t really our kind of thing.”
Ty just nodded. The sand began to grow more firm as they came closer to the cottages and Ty stumbled when he unexpectedly hit hard ground.
True to his word, Zane caught him around the middle and steadied him. “Almost there,” Zane whispered.
Ty snorted and began to laugh as he wrapped an arm around Zane’s neck. Zane chuckled and squeezed Ty close as they started up the stairs. Zane had his key out and opened the door without taking his hand from Ty’s waist, gently pushing Ty inside. It was even darker inside, with just moonlight filtering in the louvered windows.
Ty stood motionless, letting his eyes adjust and knowing he would wind up faceplanting into the floor if he tried to walk through the darkness. The thought made him snicker quietly, and he clapped a hand over his mouth to stop it. Then Zane’s arms slid around his waist from behind, followed by his warm, hard body behind him.
Ty tilted his head to the side, biting his lip in an attempt to stop the laughter. He calmed briefly, but then another fit of snickering overtook him as Zane’s stubble tickled at his neck. He closed his eyes and shook silently as he tried not to laugh at the absurdity of the romantic location. He and Zane were definitely more of a backseat of the Mustang kind of couple.
“All right, funny guy,” Zane said. He smacked Ty on the hip. “You’re clearly entertained without my help.”
Ty reached out for his wrist, laughing out loud as he pulled Zane toward him in the dark. “No, don’t. I’ll be good.”
“You being good isn’t a problem,” Zane said as they bumped together. “Focused, yes. Good, no.”
Ty nodded determinedly and cleared his throat. “I’ll be focused,” he said seriously.
Zane leaned forward, his lips skimming from the corner of Ty’s mouth, along his cheekbone, and to his ear. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he whispered.
Ty moved his head, trying to meet Zane’s lips with his own, but Zane moved away too quickly for the kiss. Ty wrapped his arms around Zane’s shoulders. “I think you should do something I’ll be ashamed of in the morning.”
Zane gripped his hips and pushed their groins together. “Hmmm. What could I do that would make you blush if you thought about it tomorrow?”
“If I don’t get a kiss soon, I’m going to reach critical mass, understand?” He barely got the last word out when Zane’s mouth was on his, hot and hungry. Ty groaned and let Zane take control of it, hoping his lover knew which way the bed was. Zane ran one hand up his back to cup his head as he deepened the kiss, his other hand moving between them to pull at Ty’s shirt, drawing him into the darkness.
“So, how embarrassed would you be if someone at breakfast mentions hearing screaming from this end of the island?” Zane drawled.
“Just tell them I saw a crab, no one will ask questions.”
Zane laughed. He pulled his shirt over his head and then he was right there again, all muscles and hot skin. After another long kiss, Zane asked, “What’s your pleasure, baby?”
“You know exactly what I want,” Ty answered breathlessly. He pushed Zane toward the nearest of the two beds. They could see the bed in the moonlight, the bright white bedcover practically glowing blue as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. They came to the edge of the bed and Ty pulled Zane closer and kissed him hungrily as he fell back onto the soft mattress.
It wasn’t until it was too late that he remembered the gauzy rings of mosquito netting that hung over both beds. The clingy material wrapped around them as they fell into it, getting caught up between them and around their limbs and tightening as their weight pulled the net above and spun the supporting ring around and around.
“Hell.” Zane pushed off Ty and began batting at the netting, trying to find his way out of it. “Shit, I can’t see. Quit moving!”
Ty shook his head and started laughing all over again. He held his hands up obediently, trying not to move. But he was hopelessly encased in netting. He laughed harder, until he could barely catch his breath, and his laughter went from loud and ringing through the little loft to nearly silent as he tried and failed to pull in air. Zane’s cursing and struggling just made it funnier.
Finally Zane got loose and rolled away, his weight leaving the bed.
“Get some rest,” Zane said quietly as he moved around the dark room and out of Ty’s visual range. He sounded disgruntled. “You don’t want too much of a hangover tomorrow.”
“Wait, Zane, don’t go,” Ty said through his laughter. He tried to roll to go after him but wound up tangled even more in the soft netting. “It’s not funny, I swear,” he tried even as he snickered and tugged at the netting.
He heard Zane snort from the other bed. “Be careful.”
“You’re seriously leaving me here?” Ty asked, his voice a higher pitch than it usually was.
Zane was quiet for a long minute. He finally sighed. “No.” He moved, and a light flipped on, blindingly bright.
Ty winced away from it and tried to cover his eyes, but that only served to tangle him further in the netting, which was for some reason wildly funny.
Zane threw up his hands. “I am not even dealing with this,” he said, his voice trembling with laughter. He turned the light back off. “You’re a mess”
“No, Zane! Don’t leave me here!” Ty said in the most pitiful voice he could muster, which was ruined by the continuing peals of laughter he just couldn’t stop.
“Good night, Ty.”
After long moments of trying desperately to calm down, Ty finally managed to stop laughing and come to terms with the fact that Zane probably wasn’t going to fuck him tonight. He probably wasn’t even going to untangle him, and Ty was much too drunk and pleasantly sleepy to try to do it himself.
“Well,” he sighed, his movements accompanied by the clanking of the spinning wheel above him. “This was not what I had in mind when I told you I wanted to be ashamed of myself in the morning.”
Crash & Burn
Zane Garrett sat in his cushy chair in the Baltimore field office, staring at the frosted glass on his door. It read Special Agent in Charge, and it was the title he’d been working toward since he’d entered the academy. Aside from a post in Washington, it was the pinnacle of any agent’s ambitions. In charge of one of the fifty-six FBI field offices.
Five years ago, Zane would have been doing a Snoopy dance behind his closed door the moment he’d taken possession.
Now, though, Zane hated—no—Zane despised sitting behind this desk all day.
He tossed his feet up and clunked his heels on the corner, leaning back in his chair. Fuck this desk.
Zane glanced at his watch. It was a gift from Ty, a surprise from last Christmas. Underneath, the engraving read simply “Yours.” Classic Grady: succinct, romantic, and not at all incriminating. It made Zane smile whenever he checked the time.
He still had ten minutes to his nebulous lunch hour, so he pulled out his phone and dialed Ty.
“Grady,” Ty said after just two rings. Even though he’d resigned from the Bureau a year ago, he still answered his phone as if he expected someone to be calling him to go kill something.
“Hey, doll,” Zane drawled. “How’s your day going?”
“Pretty good, actually. What’s up?”
“I had a thought.”
“God help us,” Ty said under his breath.
“Do you think Burns was the endgame?”
On his first day in the new office, Zane had swept it for bugs. He’d only found one, which rather surprised him. He’d already known it was there, hidden beneath the desk; Richard Burns himself had shown it to Zane and Ty before he’d died. Zane had destroyed it: an opening gambit in a game of chess where pawns were people and kings lived or died on how soon they realized they were playing.
Ty was silent for a few heartbeats. “What?”
“I sweep this office every fucking day, waiting for another bug. Nada.” Zane rocked in his chair and rolled his head from side to side. “Nothing on our phones, either. Do you think it’s possible we were being watched because of our connection to Burns? That he was the target, and I’m just spinning my wheels here when I could be in bed with you all day?”
“Well. Are we still going with your chess metaphor?”
“I like my chess metaphor.”
Ty laughed, and the sound warmed Zane to an unhealthy degree. “Okay. Isn’t chess all about patience and strategy?”
Zane groaned and rubbed at his temple.
“You’re going insane, aren’t you?” Ty asked fondly.
“I feel like this must be what your brain does all the time. Squirrels juggling knives in there.”
Ty snorted. “I think, on the larger scale, it’s our move. You know? We’ve been quiet since Scotland. You’re stuck behind a desk, I’m playing Mister Fix-It. What’s there to spy on?”
“But how would they know that if they’re not spying on us?”
Ty made a clucking sound. “Maybe they are.”
When Zane hung up a few minutes later, having secured a dinner date with his fiancé, he was still frowning. Maybe they are.
Ty’s words haunted him for the rest of the day. Maybe they are. But how? He scanned the office one last time with his device, but registered nothing. He waited until most of his agents were gone for the day, until the floor was clear, and he walked through every cubicle, methodically checking every nook and cranny. He even checked the bathrooms.
Well, at least he knew the entire fucking building was clear of listening devices now.
Finding their mole was Zane’s final mission, and it was eating him alive. The mole who’d been spying on them for God knew how long. The mole whose connections and motivations were still mysteries to them. The mole who’d damn near gotten them killed in New Orleans.
The mole who’d caused Richard Burns to be murdered.
He stood waiting for the elevators, muttering to himself as he checked the batteries in the damn detector. “You’re obsessing, Garrett. You’ve been spending too much time with Ty.”
He shoved the batteries back into the thing and tucked it into his leather satchel as the elevator dinged. He glanced up, eyes wide as he realized what he’d just said.
Why the hell would anyone bug Zane at work if half of his or her interest was in Ty? It had been effective when they were partnered; they’d been together all the time. But now? Ty wasn’t here. Ty was at home.
Home. The row house.
*****Ty paced through the living room of the row house, listening to Zane’s voice mail greeting for the fourth time in the last hour. Zane was hours late now. He was never this late.
“Oh, I’ll leave you a message, you son of a . . .” He left a one-word message at the beep this time: “Asshole!”
He tossed his phone at the couch as he prowled by. He hated being stuck like this. And Zane knew he hated it! Zane never did anything even remotely dangerous without calling Ty first, because he knew Ty would rain down hellfire on Baltimore looking for him if he went radio silent. The cartel was still out there, lurking. And Ty didn’t have Zane’s back now.
He stomped out to the back stoop and threw himself down on the top step. This step had seen him through many of his dark moods over the years, and now he sat out here a lot, staring at his Mustang, while Zane was at work. She was Nightmist Blue, a hauntingly beautiful and historically accurate deep hue, with two thick white racing stripes going up her center and a white interior to match. She was finally done, inside and out, and Ty had stuck with vintage parts right up until he got to the electronics, when he’d found pieces online made to look vintage but that were entirely modern. She could sync with an MP3 player, keep your ass warm in the winter, and start up with the press of a button from the comfort of your home.
She was so beautiful that Ty hadn’t had the heart to cover her up since he’d finished her, even though the weather this winter had been especially harsh and dark.
Ty was fairly certain that was more about his state of mind than the weather, though. And now it seemed that Zane was going to start disregarding their dinner plans and not bother to tell Ty when he’d be late coming home.
Ty shook his head. One pass, that was all that bastard would get before Ty threw a fit of epic proportions.
He could only sit here for a few minutes before concern and restlessness got to him again and he headed back inside, going for the cabinet under the kitchen sink where he kept his new stash of Cubans.
His sharp ears caught the scratch of keys at the door before he could reach his stash. He stomped to the front door, prepared to give Zane an earful. The door didn’t open, though. Ty heard the keys jangle and a soft curse from the other side. He threw the dead bolt and yanked the door open, and Zane stumbled inside as he tried to get his keys out of the lock.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Ty shouted.
Zane waved a hand at him, and the smell of alcohol wafted off him with the cold wind.
Ty gaped. “Are you . . . are you drunk?” he asked, voice going higher.
“If I am?” Zane challenged as he leaned against the open door.
Ty opened his mouth to respond but nothing came. He stood blinking at the man in his doorway like it wasn’t the man he’d been living with for almost three years.
“God, Ty, don’t be so fucking uptight,” Zane said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. He discarded his wool overcoat and his suit jacket and kicked the door closed. Snowflakes wafted in with him, drifting to the wood floors as Zane tossed his satchel aside.
Ty couldn’t even decide if he was awake right now, much less what to say if this wasn’t some sort of hallucination. The last time Zane had fallen off the wagon, he’d tossed Ty through a table. The time before, he’d ignored Ty’s bid for assistance and left him alone to be hung over the side of a cruise ship by two Italian goons. Zane wasn’t exactly a good person when he drank, which was why he’d been working so fucking hard at sobriety.
Zane was digging in his pocket for something, and as he scrounged around for it, he took hold of Ty’s arm and pushed. Ty moved with him more out of shock than anything else, gritting his teeth as Zane shoved him against the wall.
“God, did you swim in it? What is that, tequila?” The smell was so strong he could have licked Zane and gotten buzzed. Anger began to boil deep in Ty’s gut. After everything that’d happened, after everything that could still happen, and Zane had just . . . decided to go out for a drink? The rage came out in a shout that echoed off the brick wall of the row house. “You don’t even like tequila! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Zane pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, then brought his finger to his lips in a shushing motion. Ty growled at him, but Zane raised the paper before Ty could rev up for a retort. Ty read the note with barely concealed contempt.
House is bugged. Play along.
Ty blinked at the paper, and then Zane kissed him. There wasn’t a hint of alcohol on his lips or tongue; the scent was coming off his shirt. Ty had taught him that trick. Zane shoved the note into Ty’s pocket, then grabbed his hip and pressed him hard against the wall to deepen the kiss.
The row house was bugged? Ty wasn’t quite sure how Zane pretending to be drunk would help with that, but he was willing to play along until he could get a better explanation. Mostly because Zane had him shoved against the wall and was kissing him like he had when they’d first met: sharp and messy, mean and desperate.
Ty returned the ferocity of the kiss, pushing back. It was rare that he could convince Zane to really manhandle him, but it was fun. Zane doing it without provocation was downright legendary.
Zane ground against him, rough gasps escaping as they kissed. It was as if he were trying to eat Ty alive, a sort of passion they’d kind of forgotten about over the years.
Zane started pawing at Ty’s shirt. “Fucking buttons.” The volume of his grumbling was exaggerated, but it worked to make him sound inebriated. He shoved his hand into Ty’s pants as he rubbed himself against Ty’s thigh.
“Hey,” Ty barked, and he swatted at Zane’s hands. He lowered his voice to a bare whisper, speaking against Zane’s cheek to further muffle his words. “Careful with the goods there, Hoss, you break it, you bought it.”
“I already bought it,” Zane whispered, smiling against Ty’s lips. “You got to fight back a little if this is going to work.”
Ty scowled. Zane went to work on his neck, licking and sucking, and Ty’s eyes drifted closed as a thrill ran through him. Zane wanted a fight that sounded bad enough for Ty to kick him out of the house without alerting anyone that they knew about the listening devices. And he apparently thought a nice violent round of sex would do.
Fair enough. If there was one thing Ty and Zane knew how to do, it was abuse each other for fun.
Ty gave Zane’s shoulder a shove and sneered at him. “Go sober up! I’m not dealing with you when you’re drunk.”
Zane nodded encouragingly, looking relieved that Ty had caught on. He mouthed the words, “I love you.” Then he shoved Ty’s shoulders back against the wall. “Hold still,” he ordered in a tone he so rarely used that for a moment Ty did exactly as he’d been told rather than putting up the fight he was supposed to.
This was some next-level role-play. Ty bit his lip against a grin. Fuck, this might turn out to be too fun. They could have accomplished the same thing by throwing shit at each other and shouting, but this at least gave them a chance to whisper to each other, to get a little bit of a plan together. And hell, when had they ever passed up a chance to maul each other?
Zane pushed at Ty’s pants, then grunted in frustration when he couldn’t get the fly undone. Ty had spent most of the day at the bookstore, tearing out its insides, and he was wearing a pair of work pants stiff enough to protect him from sharp edges and hot surfaces. They weren’t exactly made for being groped in. Hell, they were more suited to being burned alive in, as tough as they were.
Ty gave Zane a taunting grin. “What’s wrong, Garrett, got butterfingers? What else is limp tonight?”
Zane retaliated by grabbing Ty’s work shirt and ripping it open. A button flew up and pegged Ty in the chin. He closed his eyes and snorted, then let out a muffled grunt when Zane’s lips met his. Zane bit him hard enough to sting.
“Ow! Jesus, Zane!”
“Get these off.” Zane tugged at the pants.
“Get them off yourself! You can’t handle a fucking zipper, you sure as hell can’t handle me.”
Zane gave him a pointed look and tugged at the zipper again. He leaned closer and whispered, “No seriously, I can’t get these off.”
Ty rolled his eyes. So much for a spontaneous mauling. He tugged at the zipper to his work pants, but they were stuck. He glanced up at Zane, his cheeks heating as he bit the inside of his lip, trying not to laugh. “Uhh.”
Zane didn’t waste more time on buttons. He pulled his dress shirt over his head, tossed it away, and slid one of his knives from its sheath at his wrist.
“Garrett.” Ty held up a hand, trying to press himself further into the wall. He didn’t have to fake the fear in his voice. “Don’t you fucking dare! Not the knife!”
“Hold still,” Zane ordered again with a hint of sadistic glee.
Ty squeezed his eyes closed and turned his head away. If he was going to lose a chunk of himself in a sex-related accident, he definitely didn’t want to watch. Zane sliced his waistband cleanly, though, the cold edge of the knife against Ty’s hip sending a shiver up his spine.
Zane shoved Ty’s pants down his hips, his fingertips gliding reverently against Ty’s skin. The knife blade was still down there somewhere, but Ty forgot all about it when he met Zane’s eyes. They were nearly black, not their usual warm shade of brown, and filled with real heat. It made Ty’s breath hitch.
His eyes flicked to the knife still in Zane’s hand. “You think you need that?”
Zane hummed and pressed his bare chest to Ty’s. He rubbed his nose against Ty’s jaw, then ran it up to Ty’s cheekbone, his lips grazing skin. Ty’s eyes drifted closed when Zane kissed his cheek.
He was peripherally aware of Zane putting his knife back into its sheath, then removing both of them from his wrists and setting them on the table next to the door where they kept their keys, badges, guns, and miscellaneous weaponry. Ty held Zane’s gaze, though, and Zane smiled warmly. How many times had they fucked and forgotten to disarm first? It had caused some odd injuries over the years.
Zane’s hand slid down the taut muscles of Ty’s stomach, fingers grazing the juncture of his hip and the base of his cock. Ty was only half-hard, but Zane would soon remedy that if he continued in this manner. He nosed his way along Ty’s jaw again and nuzzled against Ty’s neck to kiss and nip at his favorite spot right above Ty’s collarbone.
“Zane,” Ty begged. Then he remembered they were supposed to be fighting and he was supposed to be angry, not begging Zane to touch him. He grunted in frustration. This wasn’t going to work.
Zane winked at him, his eyes sparkling with mischief and lust. God, how Ty loved the man. He had to dig deep for harsh words that would sell their little act.
“It’s going to take more than a couple licks and a sloppy handjob to get me off, jackass.”
Zane raised an eyebrow, a smirk flitting across his lips. Ty mirrored the expression, offering a silent challenge. What, Zane thought they were going to fake angry sex and not get down and dirty for this one? Please.
Zane jerked open his fly and shoved the fabric out of the way. He jutted his chin out to kiss Ty, then with one last squeeze, let go and spun him around to thump his chest against the wall. Then Zane kicked his ankles apart, gasping as he curled one hand over Ty’s shoulder and shoved his hard cock against Ty’s ass, nudging between his cheeks.
“Fuck,” Zane whispered, and they both groaned. Zane rested his forehead against the back of Ty’s shoulder, their bodies pressed tight from thigh to chest, warm and hard and familiar. When he spoke, he muffled his words by pressing his lips into Ty’s skin. “We’ve got to figure out how to move this upstairs.”
Ty nodded. If they weren’t careful, they’d enjoy this too much and forget to sell the conflict. “You think you’re fucking me without lube, you’ve lost your damn mind.”
Zane laughed almost cruelly. “Can’t have you bitching because you’re sore.”
Ty shoved away from the wall, and Zane stumbled back. He barely caught himself before he tripped over his satchel on the floor. Ty kicked out of his ruined work pants and his briefs, and then yanked his shirt off his shoulders. They were never going to find all the damn buttons to it anyway.
“Go to Hell, Garrett, go sober up somewhere,” he snarled, and he stomped off toward the stairs. When he reached the foot of the steps, he glanced over his shoulder to find Zane following him, head cocked, blatantly leering at Ty’s bare ass. Zane met his eyes and winked. Ty gestured for him to come at him. They’d make another scene here to sell the charade . . . and Ty was pretty sure there was some lube stashed in one of the kitchen drawers, within reach if they wound up getting carried away.
Zane moved in front of Ty, and then trailed the backs of his fingers down Ty’s cheek, giving him a chaste little kiss before he stepped back and shoved Ty into the wall. The rough brick bit at Ty’s skin, and Zane’s body hit him a moment later, knocking the breath out of him.
Zane kissed him, silencing him, and Ty’s fingers found their way into Zane’s mess of dark, curly hair. He hitched one leg up Zane’s hip, and Zane grabbed the back of his thigh, thrusting their cocks together. They both groaned, loud enough that even a discount listening device from Walmart could have picked up the sound.
“Right here,” Zane growled, and he raised a bottle of lube he’d grabbed from somewhere.
“Where the fuck did that come from?”
“You take lube with you to work?” Ty shouted, genuinely outraged.
Zane bit his ear and whispered, “It’s from the trip to Seattle, baby.”
Ty’s body responded to the memory of that particular business trip. Zane had taken Ty with him, knowing he’d have more downtime than work to do. They hadn’t exactly spent their free time sightseeing.
Ty set one foot on the stair railing and pushed, helping Zane to hoist him up the wall. Zane was jacking himself with one slick hand, coating himself in preparation. He bit down on Ty’s collarbone hard enough to make Ty cry out, then he did it again as if the sound had spurred him on.
Zane was either actually losing control, or he was pretending so well even Ty believed him. And Ty liked it. A lot. “Come on,” he whispered, and he rose up onto his toes, pushing harder against the stair rail with his other foot.
He tried at the same time not to tense, but it was near impossible when he was holding himself against the wall. Zane shoved one slick finger into him, and Ty gasped. Yeah, this was going to hurt a little. He scrabbled against the rough brick for something to grab, then settled on grabbing Zane.
“Okay?” Zane whispered against his ear.
“Tell me to stop if you need to,” Zane bit out before jerking his finger free and lining himself up.
Ty nodded again, and Zane started to push in. He was going to leave his mark on Ty tonight, fake or not.
Then Zane stopped, his body stiffening and the head of his cock just barely breaching Ty. He shuddered in Ty’s arms, and his cock pulsed, pushing at tense muscles. He dug his fingers into Ty’s thigh and set his forehead against Ty’s neck. “Fuck, Ty.”
“Zane,” Ty gasped. Then he grinned, nipping at Zane’s ear. “Sell it, baby, come on. Fuck me.”
Zane raised his head, his dark eyes flashing.
Ty shivered with anticipation and nodded. “Hard.”
Zane huffed and snapped his hips, once, twice, forcing himself in with a low growl. Ty banged his head against the brick wall, eyes squeezed shut, gritting his teeth through the burn of the entry. “Come on, Garrett,” he taunted even as his voice trembled. “That the best you got?”
Zane thrust in again, his cock spreading Ty open further. The brick dragged against Ty’s skin, and his muscles were screaming as he tried to hold himself up with the banister. Zane’s grasping fingers found their way into Ty’s hair and yanked his head to the side as he shoved deeper into him.
“Fuck!” Zane finally shouted, sounding frustrated when he couldn’t get Ty’s body at the right angle to sink all the way in.
Ty grunted and tried to push against him, but he had no leverage. Zane was gasping with each thump. He growled and bit down on Ty’s shoulder, his teeth dragging over bone. His thrusts grew even more frenzied as he used all his strength, taking more of Ty’s weight.
Ty threw his head back and groaned wantonly. It was as close to getting mauled as he could come. Zane gripped him tight, aiming to bruise, to maim and claim, and bit down harder as his breathing went ragged.
It seemed like Zane was close to coming, and they’d forgotten to keep up their little charade. Ty’d forgotten to make even a peep of complaint over the fake abuse, and Zane had forgotten to abuse.
“God damn it,” he ground out. He kissed Ty again, the heat banking to a low simmer, his thrusts slowing until the swollen head of his cock once again pushed at Ty’s muscles until he wanted to scream for Zane to move. Zane pulled out, loosening his hold. Without the solidity of his body or his hands holding him up, Ty had to thump his foot back to the top step. His entire body throbbed with need and pain and frustration.
He swallowed hard. “What’s wrong,” he managed to ask. “Can’t even finish?”
“Get your ass upstairs,” Zane snarled.
Zane grabbed his jaw, holding his head still as their eyes met. “Or nothing,” he said, voice pitched just loud enough to be picked up.
Ty gazed into his eyes, a smile growing. “So hot,” he whispered.
Zane’s lips twitched, and he nodded his head toward the stairs.
Ty had to slide against Zane to take the first step up. The way Zane was looking at him, all fire and desire, sweat dripping down his temples, Ty sort of felt like a squirrel slipping past a big dog. He only made it two steps before Zane’s resolve apparently went up in smoke, and he tackled Ty to the stairs.
Ty grunted when he hit. Zane was on top of him before he could even try to right himself, biting at Ty’s shoulder, dragging his teeth against the skin until he could place a kiss on Ty’s neck.
Ty cursed loudly, struggling to hold back a groan. Zane had a hand on Ty’s hip, pulling Ty’s ass toward him, and his damp belly and chest were pressed against Ty’s back.
The head of his cock pushed against Ty again, his hands digging into Ty’s ribs as he held him still, and he only waited long enough for Ty to push his ass against him before he shoved inside again.
Ty cried out, turning it into an outraged scream for the sake of the bug. Zane’s hand smacked against the step beside Ty’s head, and Ty grabbed for it, holding on as Zane moved inside him, his thighs slapping against Ty’s, his free fingers grasping Ty’s flank and leaving stinging trails behind as he tried to hold Ty’s body still for those brutal thrusts.
Ty raised his head long enough to look up to the doorway where a nice cushy bed was waiting for them. Instead, he was on his fucking knees on the stairs, gripping the iron railing as Zane fucked him into the sharp corners of the steps. Then Zane’s cock hit his prostate, and he screamed.
Zane grabbed his hair and yanked his head back, forcing Ty up onto all fours. Zane kissed his neck, then his ear. “Why haven’t we fucking done this before?” he panted.
“Broken bones,” Ty whispered back, huffing a laugh as Zane buried his face against Ty’s shoulder and groaned.
“You know you fucking love it,” Zane said, voice louder.
Ty gritted his teeth, fighting off the very real pleasure to try to find the right words. “Just get off and get out, for Christ’s sake,” he finally growled.
Zane shook his head. “Not that easy.”
His hand snaked around Ty’s body, groping, lingering in the sweat forming on Ty’s tense muscles. He pulled Ty close, then shoved his weight sideways. He wound up sitting on a step, lounging with his long legs reaching the floor, and Ty straddling him.
His hand closed around Ty’s cock, and he leaned back, taking Ty with him. Ty’s USMC ring clanged when he grabbed for the railing. Zane’s cock boring deeper into him as his weight pushed him down had him close to coming.
“Move,” Zane ordered.
Ty banged his head against Zane’s shoulder. “Go to Hell. You want to get off, you do the work.”
Zane laughed, and though it wasn’t genuine, he did a good job of selling the evil chuckle. He wrapped his slick fingers around Ty’s cock, sliding them around the head and down the shaft.
Ty groaned, not even sure what sound he’d intended to come out. He jutted his hips toward Zane’s hand, moving Zane inside him. “Fuck you, Zane. Fuck you so much,” he murmured, earning a very real, gentle chuckle that he felt against his back.
Zane jacked him harder, forcing his hips to move and his body to contort. He grabbed a handful of Zane’s hair and yanked at him, begging for a kiss. When Zane curled down to deliver, he shifted inside Ty, hitting his prostate again. Ty broke the kiss by shouting Zane’s name against his lips.
“That’s it, Grady, come on!” Zane yelled against Ty’s cheek.
Ty growled for the benefit of the listening devices, and Zane’s grip tightened on his chest, nails digging in.
“Move, Ty, for God’s sake,” Zane pleaded with short, gasping breaths.
Ty shimmied his hips, then dropped down, crying out as he reseated himself. Zane lost his hold on any remaining composure, bucking his hips and pulling Ty back to lie flat with him as he came inside him. Zane’s hand never stopped moving on Ty’s cock, though, and Ty struggled against the coming orgasm. It wouldn’t really sell their fight if he got off in the end. He turned his head toward Zane, desperately seeking anything to muffle the sounds.
Zane clapped a hand over his mouth, and that was all it took. Ty bucked his hips, squeezing his eyes shut and grasping at Zane’s hips and ribs as Zane jacked him through it. He spurted over his stomach and thighs, and his toes curled as he moaned against Zane’s hand.
They were both panting and sweaty when it was over, and Zane was straining beneath him as he tried to keep them both from sliding down the stairs. Ty’s breathing was ragged against Zane’s hand, and Zane let him loose cautiously, as if releasing a wild animal.
Ty arched his back, forcing Zane out of him. They both bit back their groans, and Ty rolled to his belly again.
“Fuck, Garrett,” he said softly.
Zane put his hand to his ear as if he hadn’t heard.
Ty growled, then pushed to his hands and knees. “Fuck!” he shouted. He slammed his hand against a step, and Zane jumped. “Fuck you, Garrett!”
Zane whirled his finger in the air, telling Ty to continue, then pushed himself to his feet and darted to the front door, not making a sound. Ty watched him for a moment before taking a deep breath and starting in on a loud, rambling rant that would cover any sounds Zane made as he moved around the lower floor. He had his bug detector in hand now, moving past all the usual places.
As Ty was bitching loudly about how Zane never did the dishes anyway and fuck him, Zane signaled to an electrical outlet near the kitchen.
“Get your shit, and get out until you can fucking handle yourself, Jesus Christ!” Ty shouted.
“Whatever, Ty,” Zane said as he headed for Ty and the stairs. “Work’s hard enough. I don’t need your whiny bullshit on top of it.” He stopped long enough to grab Ty and kiss him, whispering something unintelligible against Ty’s lips. Then he stomped up the steps.
Ty followed, silent on the balls of his feet. When he reached the landing, Zane indicated the table on Ty’s side of the bed. Ty nodded, then headed back downstairs.
A few minutes later, Zane thumped down the steps, wearing sweatpants and one of Ty’s T-shirts, a gray one with stylized pink writing that read “The 3rd rule of fight club is have fun and try your best.” He had a garment bag and Ty’s go bag full of emergency supplies slung over his shoulder.
Ty pointed at it, frowning. “Mine,” he mouthed.
“Mine now,” Zane said back, smirking as he gave Ty one last kiss and then headed for the kitchen. Their little scene ended with the slamming of the back door and the revving of Zane’s Valkyrie.
This is my overall series review. In anticipation of the release for the final book, I pledged to reread the first 8, which for me is a big deal because rereading is not easy for me, especially when the original read was only about a year or so before. I told myself that I would just sort of "skim" through parts that I remembered and yet would still let me feel prepared for number 9. I was about a chapter into Cut & Run when I forgot just how much fun the banter between Ty and Zane could be and the whole idea of "skimming" went right out the window. These stories are so well written that even though I remembered how each mystery played out I was still riveted as each one fell into place. I am deeply saddened and a little heart broken to know that there won't be anymore new entries into the story of Ty and Zane. However, they will forever live in our hearts, minds, and out personal libraries where we can revisit them whenever we feel the pull. And of course, knowing that the Sidewinder series isn't over, we will still be immersed in the same universe where Ty and Zane exist and I'm sure we'll hear from them again throughout Nick & Kelly's adventures. I just want to add a special thank you to Madeline Urban and Abigail Roux who created the Cut & Run 'verse and to congratulate Miss Roux for continuing on when her writing partner retired. I can't imagine trying to go solo writing Ty and Zane but she did a fabulous job. So thank you for endless hours of enjoyment that we the readers have been able to lose ourselves in.
Madeleine Urban is a down-home Kentucky girl who’s been writing since she could hold a crayon. Although she has written and published on her own, she truly excels when writing with co-authors. She lives with her husband, who is very supportive of her work, and two canine kids who only allow her to hug them when she has food. She wants to live at Disney World, the home of fairy dust, because she believes that with hard work, a little luck, and beloved family and friends, dreams really can come true.
MADELEINE URBAN RETIRED
Nov. 17, 2011 - I have made the personal decision to stop writing, for reasons that are important to me, including focusing on my family and my health. Writing and publishing comes with a whole set of expectations and pressures, and I find that it's just too much. While I am sad that this will upset and/or even anger readers, this is the right decision for me.
Abigail Roux will be continuing the Ty and Zane series, and I know she'll do a great job.
Crash & Burn #9
Cut & Run #1
Sticks & Stones #2
Fish & Chips #3
Divide & Conquer #4
Armed & Dangerous #5
Dine & Dash #5.5
Stars & Stripes #6
Touch & Geaux #7
Ball & Chain #8