Something was bothering his little brother. Not that Don needed any special bond with him or skills of detection to figure that out. Charlie had been—well, not moping, exactly. But he was more distracted than usual and wasn’t even pretending to watch the baseball game Don had turned on.
He must be gnawing at some problem in his head. Don’s gut said it wasn’t a math problem though. Was he still shaken up by the sniper case? No. Charlie had been a wreck for a few minutes right after the sniper fired at him, but he calmed down soon enough. He hadn’t seemed traumatized or anything in the intervening days.
Maybe the kid was just trying to figure out where he stood with Amita. Yeah, that was more likely. Life would be so much easier if he would just go on and ask her out.
Don shifted a little in his chair and took another gulp of beer. Damn. The Dodgers looked like crap this season. And this game was just painful—how’d they manage to let a guy escape a run down? Talk about your easy outs . . .
“What would you say if—if another guy asked you out?”
Oh man. So that’s what was bothering him? Some guy asked him out and he didn’t know how to respond without offending anyone. Well, at least that had an easy answer.
“It’s no big deal, Charlie." He set his beer down. "I just look the guy in the eye and say, ‘Thanks, man. I appreciate the compliment, but I’m straight.’”
Charlie’s eyes widened. “Ah, that sounds like a response you’ve actually used. More than once.”
Don gave him a look. “You do remember that I work in LA, right?”
“Yeah, but—how often has it happened?”
“A couple of times.” He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s no big deal. Why? Is some guy refusing to take no for an answer?”
“No, it’s not that. In fact, he said that if I told him I wasn’t interested, he’d back off.”
“Good.” Don turned back to the game, but this miserable inning was still going. “So what’s the problem?”
“I, um—I didn’t tell him I wasn’t interested.”
Don blinked. Then he clicked off the TV and turned back to his brother. Terrible game anyway. “Charlie, you have to be direct about stuff like this. You know better than to lead somebody on.”
“I’m not leading him on.”
“You’re not? But . . .” Don let his voice trail off. Wait, what was Charlie trying to tell him?
He stared at his brother. His brother stared right back.
Don swallowed. Could Charlie be gay? He had crushed on girls before. He had dated before, right? On the other hand—well, it would explain why he was so slow on the uptake with Amita.
But it didn’t matter. Charlie could be gay or straight or bi or whatever. He was still Charlie. Don would be okay with it. He would force himself to be okay with it. He wasn’t some Neanderthal, damn it.
He took a deep breath, sensing that he’d better not screw this conversation up. However well he and Charlie had been getting along recently, things were still kind of tentative between them. “Okay, buddy. You have something you want to tell me?”
Charlie just kept staring at him.
“Look, I—I promise I won’t freak on you, okay?”
“Okay. I told him that I think I’m mostly straight.”
“Charlie, how can you not know?”
He rolled his eyes. “How should I know? It’s not like I have any experience with—with another man.”
“You shouldn’t need experience to know whether you’re attracted to guys or not.” Uh-oh. Charlie’s face was turning red, probably from a combination of anger and embarrassment. “Okay, okay. Let’s back up. So do you want to go out with this guy?”
Charlie looked down at his hands. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
Don closed his eyes and scrubbed his forehead with his right hand. He should have kept his mouth shut—he should have just encouraged Charlie to talk. But he couldn’t help himself. “You see, this—this is why I think Mom and Dad made a mistake by sending you to Princeton so young.”
“What? Don, what does that have to do with it?”
He let his hand drop and looked up at his little brother. “If you had gone to college at a normal age—without Mom there to chaperone you—you would have experimented and figured all this stuff out back then.”
“Well, I didn’t. And I was too busy to experiment anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah. All right, look. It doesn’t matter. You just—you have to decide whether you want to go out with this guy or not.”
Charlie scrunched his brow up. “Well, I think I said yes to a date. I mean, I’m not sure it’s a date date—but, um, we’re going someplace together this weekend.”
“Hiking. We didn’t decide on an exact location yet.”
“Hiking?” Damn. Charlie was a grown man. Don should just stay out of this. Hell, he should be happy to wash his hands of the situation. He remembered all those high school years when he resented having to look after Charlie. Why did he feel so compelled to play the protective older brother now?
Maybe because he couldn’t ignore the alarms in his head. “Okay. Charlie, I know I’m going to sound paranoid. But how well do you know this guy?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yeah, it matters. You have to be careful. Trust me on this—I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff.”
Now Charlie was bright red. This wasn’t good.
“I, um, only met him recently,” Charlie admitted. “But he seems like a good guy. I wouldn’t call him safe, exactly. But he’s an agent. You know, with the Bureau. I don’t think he’d hurt Don Eppes’s little brother.”
“He’s an agent?” Don sat up straight. “Who he is?”
“Um, I’d rather not say. I don’t even know if he’s out.”
“If he asked you on a date, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s out. Besides, there’s no rule in the Bureau against being gay. And I won’t say anything to anyone else, I promise.”
Charlie was silent.
“Is it David? Please tell me it’s David. I’d be okay with that.”
“No, it’s not—wait. David’s gay?”
Don shrugged again. “I have no idea. But I would have been good with you dating him. He’s—you know. A gentleman. He wouldn’t rush you into anything.”
Charlie folded his arms over his chest. “Well, it’s not him. And, besides, I’ve known him for a while. He’s not a recent acquaintance.”
Don put his chin on his hand and just stared at his little brother. Charlie might be stubborn, but he had to know Don wasn’t about to let this go. “You have to give me something, buddy. We have our share of—of questionable characters in the Bureau, believe me.”
“You wouldn’t be worried like this if it was a woman, Don.”
“That’s true. But, come on. You just told me that you’re going hiking on a maybe date with some guy who’s not really safe.”
This weird little smile lit up Charlie’s face. “He isn’t safe, but—I’m not afraid of him. I like him.”
Don’s stomach started twisting as he realized how easy the answer was. A not-safe agent that Charlie had only recently met? One who had the audacity to ask the kid out? And one who liked hiking? “Edgerton.”
Charlie didn’t have to answer. That guilty blush was all the confirmation Don needed. Could his face get any redder?
So Edgerton was gay. Or maybe bi. Hell, maybe just opportunistic. Why wasn’t Don surprised?
He didn’t explode. He was damn proud of himself for that. He chewed on his words instead, making sure they were palatable before he spit them out. “Listen, buddy. You just—you went through a harrowing experience, okay? A sniper took a shot at you and almost killed you.”
“Yes. And Ian took him out.”
Ian? So Edgerton and Charlie were already on a first name basis. “Yeah, he did. And thank God for that. But Edgerton is—you know. A good guy, but a little scary. And you—you might be, ah, kind of hero worshiping him right now. Who knows? Maybe you’re not really into him. Maybe this is just gratitude.”
“I don’t know what it is, Donny, but it’s not just gratitude.”
“All the same, maybe you should wait a while. Let things settle before you go out with him.”
“But he’ll be gone soon! He’ll be back at Quantico or onto some other assignment.”
“Yeah, well, he’ll be back this way eventually.”
“Maybe, but I don’t want to wait. Come on, Don. Do you really think he’s going to kill me and bury my body somewhere?”
“If he did, we’d never find your remains. Or his tracks.”
Charlie grinned. “No, probably not. But you don’t really think he’s an ax murderer, do you?”
“No. But Edgerton is—” He broke off, searching for the words. “Do you know why so few pitchers become managers? Why it’s usually catchers or short stops instead?”
His brother looked surprised by the question, but he seemed to give it serious thought. “Well, a pitcher has to have a razor sharp focus on what he’s doing. You know, it’s all about his duel with the batter. I mean, he has to pay attention to base runners too, but still. Catchers and short stops, though, have to know what’s going on everywhere on the field. All the time.”
“Right. Edgerton’s got a razor sharp focus, Charlie, just like a pitcher. He might have his sights set on you right now, but that won’t last. He’s not going to think about you when he has a job at hand. He’s not going to consider your feelings when it comes to accepting an assignment, no matter where it takes him or how much danger it puts him in. He’s not going to call you when he’s in the middle of a job.”
Charlie squirmed, looking impatient. “Donny, I’m not looking to marry the guy.”
“You don’t know what you’re looking for. You don’t know what the hell orientation you are. You don’t know that you’re really into Edgerton and not just hero-worshipping him for saving your life.”
Don held up a hand. “Okay. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re legitimately into him. You have no idea how hard or how fast you’ll fall, Charlie. And Edgerton—he’s not the kind of guy to stick around. Besides, remember that razor focus. You really think he’s going to have the patience for someone who doesn’t know what he wants?”
That stubborn look was back in his brother’s eyes. “He says he likes me. And he knows—he knows I’m still figuring stuff out. And you know he’s not going to ax murder me on this hike or anything.”
Don played his last card. “What about Amita?”
Charlie swallowed. “Amita is my student.”
She wouldn’t always be, but Don didn’t say that out loud. “Okay, buddy. Look, I don’t want to know the details about what you two get up to—but, you know. Take precautions and stuff.”
That earned him another eye roll. “Don . . .”
“Fine. I don’t think it’s going to come to that, but okay. You’re not going to say anything to Dad, are you?”
“I mean, if it ever became a thing, I’d tell him.”
“And you’re not going to pull Ian aside, right?”
Shit. Don had hoped he wouldn’t think to ask that. “Yes, I am.”
“Sure I can. Don’t worry—he’ll understand.”
“Come on, Don. I’m not a little kid. Mom and Dad aren’t forcing you to watch over me anymore.”
“Yeah, well, there’s no way I’m going to let Edgerton date my baby brother without issuing a warning.”
“Planning on chaperoning us too?”
“You know, putting you under surveillance might not be a bad idea.”
Don ignored that, but he could feel himself starting to relax again. Everything he’d said about Edgerton and his razor sharp focus was true—but maybe it wasn’t a bad thing. Charlie might have a sore heart for a while when things ended between him and the sniper, but he’d get over it. There was no real risk of something permanent with the guy.
Edgerton and Charlie, though. How bizarre.
Don turned back to his brother. “Out of curiosity, what do you guys talk about?”
“Well, tonight I’m going to call him and warn him about my over-protective brother.”
“Yeah, I figured. But, believe me, he’s already expecting a talk with me.”
Charlie considered that. “Huh. You’re probably right.”
“Come on, man, what else? I mean, he’s not into math. And you’re not into specialized forces.”
“We did fine at lunch today.” Charlie smiled. “It was fun. He thinks my math is the equivalent of voodoo. Useful voodoo, but voodoo.”
“So you’re trying to convince him otherwise?”
“Yup. You going to put the game back on?”
Don shook his head a little—he was trying to clear it of any lingering images of Edgerton with his little brother—and picked up the remote. “Sure. Let’s see if see if the Dodgers made it out of that massacre.”