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Truthful Change

Chapter Text

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...my doubts are dead,
My haunting sense of hollow shows: the change,
This truthful change in thee has killed it.
—The Princess by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Prologue

Aiden heard a shriek from the bathroom down the hall—which, if asked, he would have more politely referred to as a shout—and then cursing. Loud cursing. Loud, colorful cursing.

Luckily, Scott's house, though small, had thick walls.

At times like this, Aiden was glad that he'd accepted Scott's offer to move in a few months after they'd begun dating because he knew from experience that the neighbors in his previous apartment wouldn't have appreciated the swearing. In fact, he could have expected either annoyed banging on the wall shared by the two apartments or a nasty note slipped under his door. Maybe both. Now, though, he was the only person to hear Scott's protest, and they could make all the noise they wanted to while they were working things out, which it seemed like they were having to do more and more often these days.

“I'm sorry!” Aiden called when there was a pause.

The shower stopped running, and half a minute later Scott came storming out, hair soaking, towel barely wrapped around his waist. As far as methods of convincing Aiden not to use all the hot water in the tank went, it fell pretty short. “Six minutes,” Scott reminded him. “And then I get six, and neither one of us has to take a fucking freezing shower.”

“I thought you liked showers that included fucking,” Aiden said, blinking innocently at Scott and then watching, less innocently, as drops of water ran down over Scott's chest.

“I like hot water even better,” Scott said with a shiver that sent the towel sliding down his legs to the floor. He didn't bother trying to stop its descent, which made Aiden feel certain that forgiveness was his for the asking. Scott's cock was twitching, hardening just from the appreciative look it was getting.

Aiden took a step forward, already smiling. “So let me warm you up.”

“No,” Scott said with a firmness that managed to be completely unconvincing. “We're not doing this now. I'm on early duty at the hospital. I've got to be dry, dressed, and out of here in, uh, eight minutes, or I'll be late.”

“Drive faster,” Aiden suggested, and closed the gap between them. “If you get a ticket, I promise I'll take care of it.”

“I thought you said agents who did favors for friends were walking a fine line.”

Aiden slid a hand around the small of Scott's back—for all that he'd complained about his shower water turning cold, the man's skin was warm enough—and grinned. “I didn't say how I'd take care of it. I could always pay it. Come on; just a couple of minutes?” With Scott standing naked in front of him, smelling like shampoo, Aiden's interest in his breakfast had waned considerably.

Scott caught his bottom lip between his teeth and frowned thoughtfully as if Aiden were one of his patients with something really interesting wrong with him, like a mutated Black Death virus or something. Okay, he knew that look drove Aiden crazy, setting off all sorts of fantasies, like the one where a routine physical turned into hot and steamy sex on the examination table. The kind of fantasy that Scott would never go along with because he said it was against the Hippocratic oath, which was just bullshit. The truth was, Scott couldn't keep a straight face or stay in character as a lecherous doctor—not that it was much of a stretch—and nothing killed a scene like the giggles. Scott held the pose and then sighed, all faux reluctance. “I might let you blow me.”

“Oh yeah? Don't do me any favors,” Aiden murmured, leaning in and biting Scott's shoulder hard enough to make Scott squeak in protest, though gently enough that the mark it made wouldn't last for more than a couple of minutes. “You want that? My mouth on your cock?” He didn't wait for Scott's answer, because he already knew it; instead, he dropped gracefully to his knees and rubbed his freshly shaved jaw against Scott's dick.

Scott groaned, his hands already busy in Aiden's hair, ruffling it up into even wilder spikes than normal. Aiden combed it often, but whenever he walked past something that threw his reflection back at him, it always looked the same; a feathery, tousled dark blond mess. Scott's hair fell into shape at a look, dark brown and glossy. Tidy hair. Even down here, the wiry cloud of dark hair surrounding his cock looked orderly. Aiden squinted at it absently as he applied his tongue to all that squeaky-clean skin stretched tightly over whatever the hell kept an erection up. Blood, sure, but blood was liquid and this was solid, hot and hard, and it was going to taste way better than the protein shakes Scott kept trying to make him drink.

“Did you actually trim this?” he asked incredulously, tugging at a tuft of hair. “When I wanted you to shave it off, you said no way in hell.”

“Shut up and get back to sucking me,” Scott said, his voice gratifyingly breathless. Aiden had been working longer hours than usual since an outbreak of summer flu had left his office operating with several agents down, and Scott had been equally busy dealing with the sick and sneezing. Sex had become a luxury, sleep a matter of a few hours snatched whenever possible. This was the first time that they'd been awake and horny at the same time in what felt like weeks. Scott worked a hand free of Aiden's hair and traced around Aiden's lips with a fingertip. “God, you've got a pretty fucking mouth, you know that?”

It wasn't the first time Scott had told him so, though that didn't make it any less nice to hear it. Aiden let his eyes close as he leaned forward and shaped his lips around the tip of Scott's cock, concentrating on the feel of it pressing over his tongue. He breathed through his nose and shoved the heel of his left hand against his own erection through his pants—he loved sucking cock, and he loved it even more when he was turned on. Swirling his tongue around to spread moisture, he moaned softly, knowing that Scott liked how it felt when he did.

“Such a pretty mouth,” Scott said again.

Aiden, of course, couldn't talk around the cock in his mouth, so he didn't try. He sucked a little harder and then dragged his lower lip up the length of Scott's cock, pausing at the ridge just below the head, teasing.

“God, I can't—” Scott said. Aiden felt the tremor that ran through Scott's legs and the way Scott had to lock his muscles to keep upright. Oh, yeah, he was good at this. “I need you...need you to—”

“Hmm?” Aiden hummed around the cock shaping his mouth, prepared to indulge Scott in just about any request. He rubbed at his own erection a little harder, not caring if this ended with him coming in his pants. He could get washed up and changed in a minute or two, easy.

“Hurry,” Scott finished, taking the edge off Aiden's arousal. He liked the idea of a wham-bam quickie as much as the next guy; however, Scott sounded more impatient than desperate. “I really, really need to get to the hospital on time and— oh yeah. Like that, just like... God, you're killing me here.”

Aiden redoubled his efforts, determined to make Scott scream like a girl again as payback for the insult. Hurrying one of his blowjobs was like asking Rembrandt to paint faster. Some things shouldn't be rushed and this was one of them. He flickered his tongue across the head of Scott's cock every chance he got, rolling Scott's tight, still-damp balls in the palm of his hand, his fingers pressing into the smooth skin behind them in all the right places. One bonus of dating a doctor: Scott had given him a guided tour of his erogenous zones and in return introduced Aiden to some he didn't know he had.

“Oh fuck,” Scott muttered, not tugging hard on Aiden's hair that way Aiden always wished he would. “Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

This last was delivered in the most heartfelt tone imaginable, and it took Aiden a second to realize that it wasn't in reaction to the spectacular blowjob he was performing but, instead, to the trilling of Scott's cell phone.

“Sorry,” Scott gasped, and groaned in disappointment and frustration as he pulled away. “Sorry. Fuck.” Still naked, he stumbled toward the bedroom, and a moment later Aiden, the floor of the kitchen suddenly feeling incredibly hard against his knees, heard him bark, “Yes, what?”

Sighing, Aiden got up, left knee cracking, and adjusted his dick, which hadn't yet gotten the message that its hot date with his boyfriend had been canceled. If he wanted any action before he left for work, he'd obviously have to settle for his own hand as a partner, something he'd been doing way too often lately.

Chapter One

Karl Blake wouldn't have described himself as a perfectionist. If someone working for him got the job done efficiently and effectively—not quite the same thing—he was willing to forgive or overlook the occasional slip in a minor detail. Once. Possibly twice, if he liked the person.

He never liked anyone enough for there to be a third time.

Nature was allowed a certain latitude, which was one of the reasons why the land around his newly acquired house wasn't ruthlessly manicured and managed like most of his neighbors' grounds were. If grass grew green and lush, trees spread shade, and flower beds blossomed with color, Karl wasn't troubled by stray leaves falling or a faded petal or two.

Dandelions, on the other hand...

He walked over to the patch of yellow that had attracted his attention from the shaded patio where he'd been enjoying a solitary breakfast. Each step cost him a twinge from his left leg, but the pain was bearable these days, a dull throb if he did too much, a quiet ache in the night when his thigh muscles stiffened. It was healing. The doctors had told him that his leg would never be as strong as it had been, but they'd told him a lot of things that he'd ignored. He'd stopped using the cane the hospital had given him weeks before the date they'd told him he could abandon it.

The dandelions were a vigorous clump of dark green and gold, a fresh bud about to uncurl as the morning sunlight coaxed it open. Karl frowned at it, memories of his grandfather rooting them up with a long, wickedly sharp knife surfacing. The thick roots on a dandelion went down forever, white and tapering to points, winding through the soil.

The whirring sound of a mower broke into his thoughts, and he glanced up, shading his eyes. A young man dressed in jeans and with a white T-shirt knotted around his waist was pushing a mower, engine already running, over to the rose garden, where the paths were too narrow for the ride-on mower to be used. He was also ruining the careful stripes of dark and light green that the ride-on had left. Karl sucked in an exasperated breath and whistled long and sharp, the sound carrying, accompanying it with a curt beckoning wave of his hand when the whistle had no noticeable effect. The man turned the mower engine off and began to walk over to Karl, breaking into a loping run when Karl gestured to him impatiently.

He ran well, Karl noted, assessing the long legs and muscled chest with an idle interest. Fit without being bulked up, the exposed skin lightly tanned and sheened with sweat, and a face saved from being too handsome by angular cheekbones and a strong jaw. Older than the usual teenagers who seemed to work on his neighbors' yards—mid to late twenties, maybe.

Without greeting him, Karl pointed at the weed. “Get rid of this.”

The man inhaled sharply through his nose and looked away. Actually, come to think of it, it was possible he hadn't even looked directly at Karl's face yet, which made Karl study him all the more carefully. His cheeks were flushed underneath a few days' worth of stubble—probably designed to make him appear older than he was—and his eyes, trained on something over Karl's shoulder, were a shade of blue that a more romantic man might have thought of as warm.

“The weed,” Karl said, exasperated that this idiot was too slow to even grasp what he was asking.

“Yessir,” the man muttered. Despite the low tone, it was said politely enough, and he pulled a hand tool out of his back pocket and knelt on the fresh-cut lawn to dig up the dandelion. At least he knew to get the root, Karl thought. The man stood again, shoving the dandelion plant, root, dirt and all into the front pocket of his slightly-too-baggy pants, which now sported grass stains at the knees.

Karl couldn't help but eye the gardener with a flicker of cautious, automatic suspicion. Karl had broken through too many security systems and the layers of protection scared men surrounded themselves with not to be aware of prime areas of vulnerability, and staff, temporary or permanent, were always a risk and a target. Most people's loyalty could be bought or compromised.

When he'd made the decision to buy this estate, he'd known it would mean ripping out the old pool—strangely shaped and totally impractical, like the previous owners had let their nine-year-old daughter design it—and replacing it with a geometric one, since his doctors recommended swimming as a form of physical therapy. Building the new pool had been fairly straightforward; however, as a result the yard had been torn up in that whole area, requiring some pretty hefty landscaping work to bring it back up to par. Luckily, moving into an exclusive gated community like this one meant having access to the management company's list of vetted contractors.

Sophie, Karl's imperturbable, efficient secretary, had made the arrangements for the landscaping, which included a low retaining wall being built around the south end of the pool. The job had started while Karl was out of the country, tying up some loose ends, and this was the first time he'd seen the man the landscaping company had sent to apply the final touches.

“Adam, right?” He snapped his fingers, searching his memory for a last name, annoyed that it took him a moment to find it. Thirty-seven was too young to be fumbling for facts, even if he was still dealing with jet lag—and he hadn't finished his first cup of coffee because of that damned weed. “Adam Marshall.”

“That's me.” Adam trained his gaze toward Karl, yet didn't seem capable of looking him in the eye for more than a fraction of an instant. Instead, he stared at Karl's chest. “Is there—is there anything else you want me to do?”

“Other than your job, you mean?” Karl found himself somewhat amused. “Yes, sir.”

“No. Though that includes the weeds, so make sure you don't miss any.”

Adam blinked and nodded. “I will. I mean, I won't. Miss any. Sorry.” And he beat a hasty retreat without waiting to be dismissed, returning to the mower and starting it up again.

Karl made a more leisurely retreat to the patio and sat down, glad for the thick padding on the chair beneath him and the awning above. He ate some of his toast, now gone cold, and drank his coffee while reading the latest issue of the political magazine he favored. Later, he'd move on to iced coffee to keep cool, but no matter how sultry the day, he liked to start it with hot coffee. He'd just finished his breakfast and was brushing off his fingers when he heard a muttered curse from the side lawn, where the new landscaper was trying to start the lawnmower again, this time without success.

Sighing, Karl got up and went over to the machine and the young man. He watched as Adam tried again to start the mower. Observing the sharp tang of gasoline in the air, he said, “You flooded it.”

Adam glanced at him. “I did?”

“Give it a minute or three before you try again,” Karl advised.

“Okay. Um, I mean. Thanks. Sorry. I'm kind of new at this.” Adam stepped back and removed the T-shirt from around his waist, and then turned the material in his hands. For a moment Karl thought it was some nervous habit, but Adam, finding a clean spot on the shirt, used it to wipe his forehead. “I'm sorry. I'll—You don't have to—”

“Help you?” Karl suggested, amused by the effect he was having when he wasn’t trying to be intimidating. Not that he ever did try; it seemed to come naturally. He wasn't given to introspection, but he'd decided that it was based in his own belief that threats were worthless unless you were planning to carry them through. He'd never gone in for the theatrical, over-the-top posturing about ripping off body parts and stuffing them into various orifices. Too messy and impractical. It was just as effective to tell a man that Karl would break every bone in his hand unless he spilled the code needed to access a secure building filled with hostages. There was always something you could use as a hammer. “It's in my interests to be kind. It's my grass, and I want it trimmed before it's higher than the roses.”

He breathed in, the intense perfume from a bed of Peace roses overriding the pungency of the gasoline for a moment. He smiled at Adam, who still looked flustered. “Aren't you a little old to be new to cutting grass? It's how I earned money as a kid most summers. Five dollars a yard, and I raked the cuttings up afterward.” Five dollars and glass after glass of cool, sweet lemonade to wash down raisin- studded cookies from Mrs. Windsor, whose grandchildren had moved away to Texas and never visited. Now that Karl was living in Texas too, maybe he'd look them up and give them hell. Maybe not.

“I guess. I, um, haven't had a job for a long time. Not that I was in jail or anything!” Adam cleared his throat and looked longingly at the mower as if he wanted to try it again but knew it hadn't been long enough. “I just. Well... Now I need a job, and I used to know how to do this. Some things you don't forget. Others...” He shook his head. “Um, sorry. You probably didn't want to know all that. Sometimes I talk a lot. When I'm nervous.”

Boredom and jet lag combined to make Karl succumb to a rare urge to tease. “I make you nervous? Why?” He stepped closer, and now he could smell the sunscreen smeared across Adam's bare skin and the salt of his sweat, see the flecks of grass stuck to his hands and forearms. The sunlight poured down over them like honey, holding them in place because it was too hot to move and struggle, even this early in the morning. “What do you think I'm going to do to you, Adam?”

He didn't touch Adam, didn't let his voice flirt or insinuate as he asked his question in a level tone. No need, and no doubt about where the power lay between him and this young, wide-eyed man whose chest was rising and falling. Adam gulped in air as if it were cool water and he were thirsty. It lay with Karl. Always with Karl.

“I...I don't know.” Adam barely did more than whisper the words, yet he didn't step back, didn't move away even though Karl had deliberately entered his personal space.

“Pretty stupid to be nervous about something when it might be something you want.”

Adam opened his mouth to reply, looking stunned and uncertain, heat rising in his face. Abruptly Karl realized what he was doing. Shit, this was crazy. He needed to get laid, sure, and he could work that into his week, no trouble at all, but with one of his own. Not this kid, blushing, stammering out nothing that made any sense, his gaze flickering everywhere yet always returning to Karl's mouth.

He held up his hand, silencing Adam mid-babble, and jerked his head toward the mower. “Try it now. If it doesn't work, get the hell out of here.”

Setting his lips together, Adam did as he was told. On the first tug of the machine's cord, the engine stuttered, then roared to life. “I'm sorry,” Adam said, loudly enough to be heard over the noise, and shoved the mower away across the lawn.

“Yeah, kid,” Karl murmured, watching him move away, the stiffness of Adam's shoulders betraying an anger he hadn't dared to show directly, his hair sticking up in unruly spikes. “Me too.”

Retirement just wasn't working out for Karl. He wasn't sure why it had ever seemed like an option.

Adam disappeared from sight, the roar of the mower muted by distance. Karl idly ran his fingers over a rose, feeling the curved smoothness of its petals and the warning prick of a heavy thorn jutting out sharply from a thick green stem. It was going to be a long, dull day. Maybe he'd go back to bed and sleep it away, wake when it was night and go into the city, find a club. Forget who he used to be and what he'd become and just let himself have some fun. Drink tequila and shoot pool; pick up a muscleman with cold eyes and a tight ass and make him bend over, make him grunt and sweat and curse. Fuck him raw until they were both exhausted and sleep would come free of pain and regrets for once.

His cell phone dragged him back to the present. He sighed and reached for it. Sophie.

Maybe he'd just let her lay out his day for him, each hour filled neatly to the brim with routine and tedium, and use her flat voice to send him to sleep right here among the roses and the long grass.

Chapter Two

The next time he saw Adam was two days later. This time, there was no lawnmower. Adam was carefully pruning the newly planted azalea bushes around the pool, and Karl happened to catch sight of him out of the window. Adam had a piece of paper in his hand that he kept referring to after each snip of the shears, obviously some kind of cheat sheet. It was tempting to go out there and supervise; however, Karl told himself that he wouldn't. He was going to avoid Adam from now on, because there was no point in torturing either of them with the kind of interaction that would just be a repeat of the previous time's.

It was a hot day, though. A swim would feel good.

Karl changed into his swim trunks and slathered on some sunblock, then went out to the new pool. He didn't acknowledge Adam's presence at all, pretending that he hadn't even seen him. It would just make Adam uncomfortable.

The water, heated by solar power, was almost too warm, lapping against the steps leading down into the pool with languid slaps as Karl dived in and disturbed the pristine surface. It was a good pool, deep enough to make diving safe at one end and long enough to allow a swimmer to work up some momentum before needing to turn and push off again. And although the interior was a mosaic of aqua and green tiles, sparkling brightly, the pool was a sensible rectangle.

He swam without trying to impress Adam with excess speed, his body cleaving the water as noiselessly as possible, a skill he'd honed over the years. No need to worry that a splash would give his position away here and invite a bullet, but it was more effort to be careless than it was to be careful. The clean kiss of the water and the rhythmic beat of his arms and legs were enough to distract him from the prickle of awareness that told him Adam was watching him. It felt good to do this, to swim for pleasure—without it being part of a physical therapy session with a concerned trainer fretting when he pushed himself to the point where his legs were trembling and his throat tight with pain. Stupid of them to fuss; Karl knew his body's limits and when he could push and how hard. Always had.

He decided to complete one more length and then get out and sunbathe for a while, sprawled out under an umbrella on one of the wide, luxurious loungers dotted around the pool. Christ, it was like living in a hotel with no guests. Why had he bought this place, anyway? After his spartan quarters on the base and the years of sleeping rough on missions, he'd told himself that he'd earned a slice of the good life. He'd had a bellyful of it now. He could afford this large house, these acres of land, and the staff to keep both looking well maintained. Though did he want it? He wasn't sure that he did.

Adam dropped the shears and muttered something under his breath when Karl got out of the pool, water coursing off him. Karl grinned, hiding it in the thick towel he'd snagged, dazzlingly white, one of five stacked neatly on the small bar by the pool. Nice to know that he could make Adam nervous half-naked as well as fully clothed. Without vanity, he knew that he looked good, his body powerful, solid, scarred here and there, sure, though that was generally more of a turn-on for the men he fucked. It might have been for women, too, but Karl had never bothered to find out. He'd known what worked for him from his first hard-on, and it wasn't girls.

It wasn't usually sweet and shy, either, but Adam had enough going on behind those baby blues to stop Karl from slapping that label on him. Adam had gotten angry at being manipulated—hard to blame him for that—but he'd controlled that anger, which was what had made Karl intrigued enough to want to push him again.

It wasn't the nicest thing he could do to someone who needed a job and wanted to keep his employer, but Karl had never aimed for nice. It didn't get you what you wanted.

He tossed the towel down and got himself an ice-cold Shiner from the fridge behind the bar. The bubbles popped against his tongue, fizzing brightly, and he swallowed, caught up in the visceral pleasure of feeling strong again, and the hell with his shot-up leg. He set the beer down on the bar and caught Adam's longing stare.

“Want one?” he asked, and tapped a finger against the condensation-beaded glass. “Or do you want to keep killing the vegetation?” He'd been told that azaleas weren't politically correct; they needed too much water or something. Even so, Karl liked the showy blooms, and even if they were over for this year, he was looking forward to seeing them bloom in spring. Assuming he hadn't died of boredom in the intervening months.

“What? Am I?” Adam looked startled, then guilty, which wasn't part of Karl's plan.

“Nah,” he said, waving the idea away. “I'm just giving you a hard time. No, it's fine. Hot. I thought maybe you could use a break.”

Adam relaxed a little bit, seeming to consider the offer. “I probably shouldn't,” he said finally, glancing down at the shears on the ground. “I don't think Mr. Jackson would like it. He said you wanted this job done as fast as possible.” Jackson was the man in charge of keeping the gated community's approved list of contractors up to date, and probably the one who'd recommended Adam to Sophie.

“Who says we have to tell him?” Karl shrugged and took a second Shiner from the fridge, then dangled it tantalizingly in Adam's direction. “Besides, I'm the boss. What's he going to do, fire you for doing what I asked?”

Slowly, Adam brushed off his hands on his jeans and came around to where Karl was standing. He hesitated before reaching out to take the beer, and when he did his fingers touched Karl's for a little longer than was strictly necessary. “Thank you.”

“Drinking alone is a bad habit, and I've got enough of those,” Karl told him. He raised his eyebrows and gave Adam a mildly rueful smile. Time for frank and honest. “Are you still pissed off at me for the way I came on to you? It's not another habit of mine. I was jet-lagged, and to be honest, I wasn't even sure what month it was, never mind what day.”

It was amazing how often it had been part of his job to charm people. It took longer to get information out of people that way, and it sometimes left him feeling guiltier than punching an already battered face would have, but it was an option he'd used from time to time with some success. With Adam, it felt like cheating, but that was something else that Karl was good at. Stalwart and honest heroes were usually the first casualties. Karl had gone more for silent and sneaky, and the hell with fighting fair.

“I wasn't pissed off at you,” Adam protested. He'd twisted the cap off his bottle and was still holding it in his hand, distracted from his task by the discussion. He flushed. “Sorry—that was rude. I didn't mean—just, I wasn't mad. It's just that people—men. Men don't usually come on to me. Like that. Um, or at all.”

He lifted the bottle to his lips and drank quickly, like he needed an excuse to stop himself from talking so much. As soon as he lowered it, he was off again, like an out-of-control racehorse. Karl liked it. People who talked a lot didn't do a good job of keeping secrets, and an open book like Adam was refreshing; it meant that Karl didn't have to keep his guard up.

“Why were you jet-lagged?” Adam asked. “I mean, were you on vacation? I went to Italy once—it was incredible. Have you ever been?”

Italy. Rough red wine, pasta that needed a lot of chewing, and a locate-and- extract operation that had gone from simple to screwed up in the space of one phone call, leaving Karl scrambling to get his team out in one piece. He'd lost Dino on that one, watched him choke on blood and die, brown eyes glassy with shock and agony.

“I've seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” he replied. “It does. A lot. And, no, it was business, unfortunately.” He held out his hand, and Adam dropped the cap into it without thinking, responding to the unspoken command. Karl liked that instinctive obedience more than he should. “You were in Italy and no one tried to pick you up? A beautiful young man like you? No one pinched your ass in the street or blew you kisses from their scooter as they were driving by?” He was teasing Adam again, a rough jostle against his defenses, to test how much Adam would take.

Adam lowered his eyes and shook his head, then glanced up at Karl again. He was curious, Karl thought, which was good. “I was with someone. Um, a woman.”

“I figured.” Karl smiled encouragingly and drank some more of his own beer. “And she paid for everything; am I right?”

Flushing again, Adam nodded. “How—how did you know?”

Karl shrugged. “I guessed. You said you hadn't worked for a while. She was older?”

“Um. Yeah. Not by a lot, though.” Adam rubbed the rim of the bottle against his lower lip nervously, glancing at Karl again. He was nervous, probably anticipating that Karl would think of less of him for having been some kind of boy toy.

“I'm thirty-seven,” Karl said and let that hang between them for Adam to snap at or swim away from.

“Okay—she was older than you,” Adam admitted and offered Karl a shy smile. “I'm twenty-two.” He gave his age the same way Karl had—this is me, no pretenses, so here’s your chance to stop this before it even starts.

Karl nodded slowly. Younger than he'd expected based on appearance, yet it was what the folder in his office said, and the data had all been verified by Jackson and then Sophie before Adam had been allowed onto the property. It was old enough for most of what Karl had in mind. “You're not from around here, judging by the lack of a Texas accent.”

“I'm from New York originally.” Adam grimaced. “Liked the city, hated the winters. I always said when I grew up, I'd move south, and eventually I ended up here in Dallas.”

“New York? We were practically neighbors,” Karl said, stretching a point. “I grew up in Philly, but I've moved around a lot. Texas is okay for now.” Plano, on the edge of the city, had turned out to be not really his kind of place at all, though he didn't see himself sharing that with this wide-eyed kid. He decided to end the small talk and find out if Adam was willing to play. If he wasn't, there wasn't much point in continuing the conversation.

“Listen, kid, are you interested in men at all? Because I'm bored and in the mood, and you're cute.” Okay, maybe cute wasn't the right word, but compared to the men Karl hung around with, Adam was apple-pie wholesome even if he had let some rich cougar chew on him. Adam's hand tightened on the bottle, his eyes widening, but the swift pass of his tongue across his lips as he swallowed hard was encouraging. “I want to finish this beer with you on your knees sucking me as I drink it, but say no and I'll accept that. I'm not interested in unwilling virgins—and I won't complain to Jackson about you if the answer's no; this is between us.”

Adam looked uncertain yet not horribly shocked by Karl's proposal. That was a good sign too. “I don't—I mean, I've never, really. Um, in high school there was this guy at a party, but we were pretty drunk, and it didn't go past making out. I, um...I liked it. I've thought about it, since then, but I'm—I don't know if I'd—You'd probably want someone who knew what they were doing.” Now he looked miserably disappointed, which was an even better sign.

“I've wanted you since I saw you,” Karl said bluntly. He'd never been afraid to admit to wanting something or someone. Hiding desire made it a weakness to be exploited; declaring it made it a goal. “Why don't we see what you can do?”

He walked over to the lounger, shoving down his clinging, wet shorts as he went and kicking them away unconcernedly. His place, his pool, and if anyone who worked for him was close enough to see or hear him, well, they wouldn't waste time in backing off. He didn't hire fools. He was half-hard already, anticipating the tentative licks and fumbling touches his cock was about to get, intrigued by the novelty of it.

He lay back on the chair and took a sip from his beer. Adam was still by the bar, his eyes wide, and Karl sighed. “Want some friendly advice? You need to get closer. A lot closer.”

“R-right,” Adam stammered and paused to take the towel off the bar on his way over, which showed initiative. There were more and more points in his favor, Karl thought as Adam put the towel down on the ground. Adam hesitated, standing over Karl for a long moment, but Karl's casual position seemed to give him courage, and he finally knelt and then rested a hand on Karl's bare thigh before looking left and right as if to make sure they were alone.

“It's fine—there's nobody around today. Don't worry about it.” It was more reassurance than he was used to giving, but it had also been a hell of a long time since he'd been with anyone this young and inexperienced. He was willing to cut the kid some slack. “Let's see what you've got.”

Adam hesitated again, and Karl waited patiently. Slowly, the hand on his thigh slid upward to his dick before closing around the base of it gently. “I don't know—I don't want to do this wrong.” Again, Karl waited, and again he was rewarded when Adam leaned in and pressed soft, warm lips to the head of his cock. Then Adam's tongue, too dry, trailed down along his shaft toward his balls. It rasped over Karl's skin, dragging at it, the discomfort perversely arousing because it seemed to prove that this really was Adam's first time doing this. Karl had never had the urge to tutor someone when it came to sex—well, he'd never needed to—but he'd trained men how to fight and shoot and done a good job, judging by the results he'd gotten. This really wasn't any different; you sweetened the dose with some sugar in the way of encouragement and dealt firmly with any slacking off by putting the fear of God into the lazy son of a bitch. Okay, maybe it was a little different...

He stopped Adam before his cock was skinned raw, sliding his hand along the back of Adam's neck and squeezing it gently enough. Startled eyes stared up at him, and Adam asked, “Did I...did I hurt you?”

“Slick things up a bit,” Karl said. “That helps too.” With a shiver at the thought of how it would feel, he tipped the bottle of beer up, allowing a trickle of liquid to splash down across his belly and cock, the chill like a blow against his warm skin. He bit back a groan, his hand clamping hard on Adam's neck, pushing his head down. “Clean me up.”

There wasn't any hesitation this time, although the flat of Adam's tongue across Karl's skin was still tentative, unsure. That just made it better; when Adam's fingertips ghosted over the sensitive flesh of Karl's balls, he groaned and tightened his ass, lifting his cock, wanting more contact. Adam might be uncertain, but he wasn't stupid. He responded to the unspoken request with a firmer touch, a more confident slicking of his tongue over the head of Karl's cock as he licked up the spilled beer.

“Good,” Karl said. “That's good.”

The encouragement seemed to help too. Adam alternated licking Karl's dick, balls, and thighs before moving to his belly, searching out every drop of beer and making Karl's nerves fire and spark. He experimented with sucking at the head of Karl's dick, though he didn't take it in deep enough to really provide the kind of stimulation it would take for Karl to come.

Karl relaxed, soaking up the attention. It had been months since he'd been touched by anyone who didn't see him as a patient, injured and weak. He didn't mind how long Adam took to get used to the idea of a man's dick filling his mouth; there was no rush. He growled a warning when Adam took too long scraping a stray pubic hair off his tongue, making faces that might have been funny any other time, but he allowed Adam to set his own pace for the most part. He was rewarded for his forbearance eventually by Adam taking a deep breath and bobbing his head down, taking in as much of Karl's erection as he could and, predictably, choking. Karl didn't mind the choking, though the scrape of Adam's teeth as he pulled back hastily wasn't pleasant. It hurt.

“Okay, enough.” Karl set his beer down on the ground. He hadn't been drinking it anyway, too absorbed in watching the way Adam's lips curved when they were forced open, the glitter of sweat across the man's forehead. “I get that this is new to you from that end, but you've been the one getting blown before, right? Give me what you like getting, and I'll tell you if I don't like it.”

He couldn't really think of much that would qualify as something he disliked; it was a blowjob, and he loved just about everything a mouth could do to his cock. Even biting turned him on if it was done right, sharp little digs that stung pleasurably, spicing up the action; though that took skill and control, and Adam was nowhere close to that level of expertise.

“Could you—um, do you think you could sit up more? Maybe like this?” Adam gestured and Karl went along with it, because why wouldn't he?

It did seem to help—Adam was able to take a lot more of him in with each bobbing movement of his head without choking, and seemed capable of remembering that he had free hands to do other things with, though he limited his attention to Karl's dick and balls for the most part. They could expand things later, assuming there was a later. For now, it had been long enough since Karl had been with someone that he was more than moderately turned on. He intended to enjoy every second of it and worry about the future when it rolled around.

Adam was making small sounds now, aroused, arousing sounds, little half grunt, half whimpers as he sucked, and damned if that wasn't enough to take Karl right to the edge. He'd always found that vocal partners were particularly pleasing, and Adam, with his tousled blond-tipped hair and hopeful eyes, was no exception.

The next time Adam glanced up at him, pink lips stretched around Karl's dick, Karl had to clench his jaw not to come right then.

“Don't stop,” he said, putting his hand on the back of Adam's neck again as a reminder. Of course, it was also a test, because he wanted to see what Adam would do if he started to come in his mouth. Pull away? Let him? “Okay. Okay...”

That was as much warning as he chose to give, and it felt so good to shudder out his orgasm that he might not have noticed if Adam had pulled away. He didn't, though. Didn't keep sucking, either, though the younger man stayed still until Karl let go of his neck. Then Adam sat back on his heels, swallowed—without making too much of a face—and wiped the back of his hand across his slightly swollen lips.

Karl silently passed Adam his beer. Adam's had been left to grow warm on the bar, and Karl didn't want Adam walking away just yet. Adam took it and drank from it without giving the neck the same swipe that his mouth had gotten. His throat muscles worked as he swallowed, greedy, thirsty gulps that sent a final lustful twinge through Karl's sated cock.

The bottle was empty when Adam handed it back with a sheepish yet relaxed grin.

Karl let it dangle from his fingers, swaying from side to side. “Not bad,” he said finally. “C-plus, maybe.” He glanced down at Adam's crotch, pleased to see the straining bulge of a hard cock. So it hadn't all been one-way. Good. “If you want to jerk off, you can. Out here with me watching, or if you're feeling shy, you can use the pool house.”

The pool house was fancy as hell—a large changing room containing a shower, a toilet and a sink, the walls tiled to match the pool, the floor some nonslip material that felt soft and warm against bare feet. More towels, a bewildering assortment of toiletries, a built-in hair dryer, shelves and hooks and mirrors... Karl had never used it. The house was his; if he wanted to drip over its hardwood floors or carpets on his way to his bedroom to change, he'd drip.

“Um...I'm okay.” It wasn't all that convincing—even Adam's expression showed the strain of his arousal. “Wait. C-plus?” He actually sounded affronted. “I swallowed!”

Karl quirked an eyebrow. “Easier than cleaning it up afterward—and yes, that would've been your job, no matter where it landed. C-plus. That's it. Next time don't sharpen your teeth on my dick or gag more than once. I'm not that big; you can handle it. It just takes practice. Find a friendly banana or something.”

Adam flushed and looked down, clearly sulking. An hour ago, Karl might have found that attitude irritating, but with Adam's mouth still red from sucking him, he was inclined to forgive a pout or two. Besides, if Adam cared about how well he'd performed, that was better than dismissing his failures with an airy, unconcerned “whatever” as one recruit had done after failing to get a single bullet near the head or the heart of his target on the range, claiming that a bullet anywhere was good enough to stop an enemy. Karl had been tempted to replace the paper target with the recruit and reenact the legend of William Tell until he calmed down—or missed. He'd restrained himself then, and he was too mellow to tease Adam now.

“For a first time, you did okay,” Karl relented enough to say. “Good enough for me to give you a second chance sometime if you're still interested. Like I said, no pressure. And before you ask, no tip either. I don't pay for sex.” A thought occurred to him, and he added, “And I don't give a fuck who knows I'm gay, just so we're clear on that; you get what I'm saying?”

He'd had one guy track him down and try to blackmail him with some fuzzy photos taken of them fucking in a hotel room, threatening to pass them around his unit if he didn't pay up. Karl had dragged the asshole to the break room and stuck the photos up on the notice board next to the ancient coffeemaker that produced scalding hot rocket fuel year after year with the weirdest series of gurgles and spits, like an enraged cat. They'd covered up holiday snapshots and take-out menus, curling up at the edges, a collage of skin and cocks and bare asses. Then he'd asked his men what they thought the photos were worth as the man beside him squirmed in a grip that Karl didn't bother to gentle, his face contorted as he fought for breath.

The suggestions had been obscene and inventive, until Gonzales had pointed out drily that photos like that were a dime a dozen and Karl, with a smile that showed his teeth, had handed the guy a dime, pointed at the door, and said softly, “Run.”

No one had chased him. Karl ran a small private army, but he didn't use it to fight his personal battles. Nonetheless, the asshole didn't slow down until he was at his car, fumbling with his keys, looking back over his shoulder, panicked and terrified. It suited him better than smug and greedy.

Adam, though, didn't seem to be any of those things. Intimidated, maybe, though that might just be his overall personality, not a reaction to Karl. “I get it,” Adam said quietly. “And I wouldn't want you to pay me for sex. I didn't want her to, either. My girlfriend, I mean. That's why I left her. I loved her, but I couldn't let her support me anymore. It was too complicated.”

That was the least amount of stammering Karl had heard out of the man. He nodded and briefly considered pulling his swim trunks back on, but they were wet and wouldn't feel good against his sun-warmed skin. He'd just walk back to the house in a towel.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Adam glanced around again, looking for an audience that didn't exist. Then, apparently reassured, he put his hand at the button of his jeans, thumb rubbing back and forth against his lower belly. “Can...can I? It's okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Karl said with complete sincerity and a certain amount of sympathy. The jeans weren't tight, but Adam didn't seem comfortable, and from all appearances he wasn't going to lose his hard-on without dealing with it directly. “Go for it.”

With a sigh of relief, Adam undid the button and then slid the zipper down. He was wearing plain gray briefs under the jeans, not all that tight, either. Tugging them down freed Adam's cock, which stood up and curved slightly to the right, the tip reddened and shiny.

“You're cut,” Karl observed. He wasn't, himself, though he'd been with plenty of guys who were and didn't really have a preference one way or the other. Just about any cock was a good cock as far as he was concerned.

Adam was blushing as he wrapped his hand around his erection and stroked it. “This is...kind of weird.”

Karl shrugged, watching Adam's face now, not what his hand was doing. The tips of Adam's ears were poking out of his hair at the sides, and they were distinctly red too, though Karl guessed that embarrassment wasn't going to be a barrier for long. Adam might be demurring, but his hand was getting busy. Karl could hear the soft, quick shush of palm on cock. “Doing it inside with the lights off or the door locked doesn't change anything. You're still jerking off. And if you think I'm going to look away...”

Adam gave him a headshake, his teeth gritted on a stifled whimper. Karl took pity on him and glanced down, allowing Adam the illusion of privacy when it came to the expression on his face, an all too familiar mix of anguish and ecstasy. Maybe he should have gotten Adam to jerk him, not blow him. The kid had this down, his hand blurring on his shaft, then slowing, working himself up until his heavy balls were snugged up tight, deeply red against a cloud of dark blond hair. Adam looked as if he was having fun, despite the setting and the audience, his hips jerking in short, powerful stabs, fucking the loose circle of his fingers as if they belonged to someone else. Karl wondered what Adam would do if he leaned over and knocked Adam's hand away, then replaced it with his own. Groan happily and let himself be used that way too? Panic? Endure it?

He didn't get the chance to find out. Adam was using both hands now, cupping and rolling his balls with one of them, tugging at them roughly now and then. He liked that; whenever he did it he made a small, pleased sound, deep in his throat, a sound Karl found himself waiting to hear again—wanting to hear often. Sexy as hell, this mix of blushing cheeks and knowledgeable hands. The kid was putting on quite a show.

Made him wonder if Adam had watched a lot of porn, actually. Or if his previous partner, the older woman, had liked to watch him get himself off. “God,” Adam whispered, like he didn't want to be overheard by anyone except Karl—and that made it even better for Karl, knowing that this was just for him—and then Adam jerked and came, catching some of the milky white fluid in his hand. He made a hell of a picture, shoulders twitching, stomach muscles pulled tight, teeth set firmly in his lower lip to hold back the groan he let loose as the last of the shudders rolled through him.

Adam lifted his eyes and met Karl's for a moment before they moved down to his hand again, focusing on the small puddle there. Then, deliberately, he lifted his hand to his face and licked it, obviously aware of Karl's gaze on him and liking it. “Is that...was that okay?”

Karl would have put money on that last move being Adam's idea of what was supposed to be hot rather than a genuine impulse to arouse or shock. Oh, yeah, the kid had watched porn. Which didn't stop it from being hot, of course. Watching the pink tip of Adam's tongue lapping up the cream worked for Karl and made him want to get his hands on Adam, touching and stroking that smooth, sun-hot skin and messing that tousled hair some more.

“You want a round of applause?” Karl gave it to him just to make Adam scowl and pout again, a slow clap and a grin. “Yeah, kid, that was hot. Thanks for sharing.” He yawned. “Shit, if I fall asleep here, I'll wake up toasted on one side.”

“Wouldn't want that,” Adam said sullenly and stood up. Karl watched through mostly closed eyelids as the younger man wiped his hand clean on the towel he'd been kneeling on, his dick, still half-hard, getting a perfunctory swipe too. Adam tucked himself away, fastened his jeans, and went over to grab the beer he'd left on the bar earlier. He drank half the bottle, frowned, and set it back down. “Well, um. Thanks. For the... Anyway, I'm going to go back to work now, so just let me know if you...need anything.”

“Count on it,” Karl said, still mellow from the sex. Even his leg had stopped hurting, though experience told him that the pain would return soon enough. Maybe after he'd walked back to the house and along a mile of hallway to his room. Adam walked over to pick up his shears again, and Karl stood and snagged a towel from the bar. He wrapped it around his waist and made sure that it was secure. Naked was one thing, but watching Adam jerk off had left him half-hard, and he wasn't prepared to share that much information about his mood with his staff. Staff. Shit, how the hell had he gotten to the point in his life when he had people employed to take care of him? Not that Della preparing food for him and a cleaning service twice a week really qualified. Sophie had suggested that he hire more people to live in, but Karl had refused. The house stayed clean enough; he didn't use most of it. One man, five bedrooms. How did that make any sense at all? “In fact, there's one thing you can do for me as soon as you've finished reducing the bushes to twigs.”

“What?” Adam asked, adding a reluctant “sir” as an afterthought.

Karl smiled. “There's another dandelion in the grass by the patio. That gets you a D for weed control, and that is something I'll fire your ass over. Trust me.” Karl guessed that the thought of a strongly worded complaint to Mr. Jackson would be a pretty effective threat, since that would result in Adam getting kicked off Jackson's list of approved contractors.

Adam's jaw set and he tightened his hand on the shears. Just the same, he nodded and said, his tone even, “Yes, sir. I'll get it.”

“Good. You do your job, and we won't have any trouble.” Karl knew on the one hand that he was probably making things between him and the kid harder, though on the other, chances were Adam would be even more interested in him if he were a mystery. Men usually appreciated things more if they had to work for them, and sex was no exception.

Chapter Three

“So if you take your holdings in Orbit Metals and reinvest them in the parent company—” Sophie paused, sighed, and dropped her pen on top of a stack of folders. The stack had diminished over the course of the meeting as some folders made it safely to the out tray, though not enough to make Karl see even a glimmer of hope that this ordeal was almost over. “Mr. Blake, are you even listening to me?”

“Sophie, you call me that when you're mad at me, and it never works all that well as a punishment, so let's just stick to Karl when you scold me.” Ninety degrees outside, and the woman was wearing a gray tailored suit and pantyhose. Of course, the house was an oasis of cool air, and Sophie wasn't the back-to-nature type, so maybe it did make sense. “Look, about this money. I want to invest it, sure; God knows I worked my ass off earning it, but—”

“You need to launder it first,” Sophie said crisply. “And if you don't want it to be stolen back from you by the accountants, you need to pay attention.”

“I didn't steal it all,” Karl said defensively. “I didn't even steal most of it. Hell, I didn't, technically, steal any of—”

It seemed to be his day for being interrupted. Sophie tapped a manicured fingernail on a few squares inches of desk not covered by paper and cleared her throat. “I'm not a lawyer, but just because what you took didn't belong to the people you took it from doesn't mean that it belonged to you.”

“They were dead,” Karl said when he'd worked his way through that. “I couldn't ask corpses questions about ownership, and if I'd left that stuff for the local cops, you can bet they'd have done exactly what I did. Kept it. Except I shared the profits with my team.” The best fucking mercenary troop money could hire. They'd deserved the bonus. One of the men working for Karl had been Sophie's son, though Johnny hadn't come back from that unexpectedly profitable mission. Johnny's share had gone to Sophie, which meant that she could stop giving him grief about it.

The stuff on the job in question had included a pouch of uncut diamonds, just waiting to be turned into glitter and gleam, and enough cocaine to ski on. Karl didn't do drugs and he didn't deal them—too messy in too many ways—but he hadn't objected to using the coke as bribes to get them out of Brazil fast.

Most of his money though had been earned the hard way, putting his life and the lives of his team on the line to get something done for whoever had hired them; governments, individuals, companies. Karl didn't care. They'd strayed into questionable territory now and then, and they'd sure as hell gone where they had no business being and left plenty of bodies behind, but Karl's conscience was reasonably clear. He'd never killed anyone for pleasure, and he'd never killed anyone who wasn't trying really hard to kill him.

So why was he being punished by an early retirement and this living hell of paperwork in a fancy house he was starting to hate? When had control of his life slipped away?

The when was easy: between the time the round left the sniper's barrel and the moment it burrowed into his thigh, ripping away muscle and chipping away bone.

And knowing that an inch or two higher and he'd have bled out or been left with just one leg didn't make him feel better. That hadn’t happened; this had. And it sucked.

“Can't you just take care of it?” he asked Sophie without much hope. It wasn't the first time he'd suggested it, and he knew what her answer would be, which was the reason it was easy to ask.

“Of course not. You know that if anything were to go wrong, I'd be the only one to blame, and you'd always wonder if I'd done it deliberately because I don't really approve.”

It was completely true, and Karl admired her for being bright enough to recognize it. He really didn’t want to give away control in this area, and he didn't want to put Sophie, who'd been very loyal, in a position of feeling uncomfortable. It was just that sometimes he wished he had something a little more interesting to focus his attention on.

Just then something much more interesting caught his eye. Out the window, over Sophie's shoulder, Karl could see Adam Marshall walking across the lawn, trundling a nearly empty wheelbarrow. It looked like he was headed toward the garden shed, where the yard tools and supplies were stored. Karl hadn't been in there since he'd bought the property. Even then he'd barely done more than glance inside, but he remembered it being dim and smelling of manure and bone meal, and that wouldn't have changed.

As Karl watched, Adam stopped outside the shed and took off the bandanna he'd tied around his head, rubbing it across his no doubt sweaty forehead. Adam bent to pick up a bottle of water tucked into the shade of the ramp that allowed easy access in and out of the building and tipped his head back while he drank. His skin would be hot from the sun, Karl knew.

“You're absolutely right,” he told Sophie. “This is important, and it needs my undivided attention.”

She was looking suspicious by the third word and resigned by the last. “You're going to walk out on me, aren't you?”

“As fast as I can before you throw that stapler at me,” Karl said cheerfully, walking briskly toward the door and freedom. He turned at the door. “I promise I'll work on this soon. Just not today. I've had enough.”

There was a flicker of understanding in her eyes as she nodded, and more than a little pity. That grated, ruining his relief at escaping from the office and the endless series of decisions about things that just didn't matter. It made what he had in mind a necessity, not an indulgence, because the way he felt right now, it was a choice between banging his head against a wall until he passed out, or banging Adam. The second option sounded less painful.

After a detour to his bedroom to pocket a couple of condoms and a dusty, half- empty bottle of lube that he'd bought in France—going by the language on the label—he made his way to the shed. If Adam wasn't in there, they could do this somewhere else, but he'd spent the last week thinking about the man off and on, often enough to be forced to admit that he wasn't ready to stop playing with him. He wanted to be the first to fuck Adam, and right now was the perfect time. He could spend weeks planning an operation, days staking out a target, but when it came to sex, Karl hated waiting. Flirting was fun for as long as it took to drink a beer. After that he wanted action.

On the way to the shed, he saw another dandelion and sighed. “Don't make me fire you,” he muttered and scuffed it to a green and yellow smear with his heel, gouging a hole in the grass in the process.

Adam was inside the shed, his back to the door, humming something to himself, an iPod attached to his belt. The earbuds he wore made it easy for Karl to close the door unnoticed and wedge it shut with a bag of peat. The shed had windows, but they were small, high, and curtained with webs and grime. With the door closed, the air was stifling and humid. Adam was untangling a piece of netting that had protected newly seeded grass from hungry birds, trying to fold the green mesh neatly. The shadow caused by the door closing brought his head jerking around, his lips parting with surprise when he saw Karl.

“Oh. Hi. Did you need...? Oh.” Adam's eyes darted around as he took in the closed door and Karl's expression. For a few seconds, he looked nervous enough that Karl thought this was going to be a bust; then Adam lifted a hand to just beneath his chin, tugged the earbuds free so that they dangled nearly to the floor, and leaned back against the shelf he'd been working at. With his elbows propped on the shelf, his hands rested below his waistband, neatly framing his cock.

Adam posed there for a few seconds, definitely aware of the picture he made, then stepped forward and reached for the front of Karl's slacks. He didn't unfasten them, just paused there as if waiting for confirmation that this was what Karl had in mind. Adam lifted his face, his blue eyes studying Karl's, and Karl wondered what was going through his mind. Had Adam gone to bed at night thinking about him, wondering what it would feel like to be with another man for the first time, to have Karl's cock in his ass? Had it been a romantic image in Adam's head, thoughts of silk sheets and a bottle of wine? It seemed unlikely that Adam would have imagined his first time would be in a stuffy garden shed, but Karl was hard and wanting, and none of that mattered enough for him to spend more time considering it, not when Adam's hands were poised just higher than he needed them.

Karl growled, “I want to fuck you. Right now. If that's not what you want, now's the time to say.” He slid one hand around to the small of Adam's back, knowing that would make it harder for Adam to say no. It wasn't fair, maybe, but being fair didn't often get him what he wanted. With the fingers of his other hand threaded into Adam's hair, he leaned in and took Adam's mouth with his own. There was nothing gentle or romantic about the kiss—it was fierce, their teeth clashing, Karl's tongue exploring Adam's. He shoved forward until Adam had no choice but to back up into the wall.

A little huff of air escaped Adam's lungs as he became the cushion between Karl and the rough-hewn shed wall, but even if his kissing wasn't as avid as Karl's, he was definitely participating. And he hadn't said no. Of course, Karl would stop if he did say no, no matter how far things had gone. Though he was hoping it wouldn't come to that. Adam was young enough that his sex drive had to be through the roof—his erection against Karl's hip was proof of that—and most young guys wanted to come as often as possible and didn't particularly care how it happened.

Adam dragged his mouth clear of Karl's for a moment—not to speak, just to get Karl's attention. He had it, though it still took an effort to focus on Adam with his brain and not his cock in control. Adam held Karl's questioning gaze for a mercifully brief moment and then nodded, agreeing silently to whatever Karl had in mind.

Karl wanted skin to touch and taste, the soft smudges of Adam's nipples to bite and suck until they were pebbled hard against his tongue, the trail of fair hair on Adam's stomach to wet down and darken with a lick. He wanted to put his fingers into Adam's ass and feel him on the inside, force more of those happy, eager sounds from Adam's mouth, along with some begging for more. Adam was new to this and young, but the body writhing against Karl's as they kissed again was all solid muscle and wiry strength. Karl wasn't worried about hurting him beyond the inevitable soreness that would come later. It'd been years since Karl had spread his legs to be fucked, but he remembered the burn and fire of those first clumsy, selfish thrusts. He knew he could do better than that for Adam. Maybe. He hoped so.

He got the lube and a condom out of his pocket. He put the bottle on the closest surface and handed the rubber to Adam. Before Adam got the wrong idea about who would be wearing it, Karl stepped back and opened his slacks. He was bare underneath them, and his cock stuck out from the gape of the zipper like an impudent tongue, red and wet-tipped. He leaned back against the shelf, mimicking Adam's position from earlier, and glanced down at his bare cock and then up at Adam, his meaning clear.

Smiling a little bit, Adam stepped closer and used his teeth to tear open the plastic packet that held the condom. He did it in a practiced sort of way. That was good, because familiar things made people relaxed, and this would be a hell of a lot more fun if he was relaxed. Then he reached out to caress Karl's dick with gentle fingers before he rolled the condom on slowly, bending a little to make sure he did a good job. It put his mouth close enough that he took the initiative and, after the condom was on, licked the head of Karl's cock through the latex. Karl made a soft, encouraging sound, and Adam went down to his knees and nuzzled at his balls, sucked one and then the other into his mouth.

As much as he might have enjoyed it another time, it was too much. Karl had been thinking about fucking for too long to put up with this kind of teasing. He hauled Adam to his feet and kissed him again, desire making his usually deft fingers awkward as he undid Adam's jeans and turned him around, bracing the younger man's hands against the wooden shelf before he reached for the lube. In his haste, he squeezed too much out of the bottle, and some of the slick, clear liquid dropped to the floor at their feet. Karl fisted his own dick first before probing between Adam's ass cheeks with a sticky finger.

He managed enough patience to keep his fingertip there, poised at Adam's opening, until he felt Adam relax a little bit and push back. It was all about giving it enough time, waiting until Adam's body stopped fighting the intrusion and let him in. When it finally did, Karl slid in to the first knuckle unexpectedly. Adam hissed, tensing up around his finger, and Karl reminded himself that no matter how eager he was to sink into that tight heat, this wasn't about hurting Adam. The kid might not be much more than an interesting and convenient fuck, but he could become a ready and willing partner if Karl did this right, made it a good experience instead of one that Adam might regret.

Keeping his finger in Adam's ass, Karl slicked his other fingers with more lube and then reached around to grasp Adam's dick, warm and solid in his hand. A little stroking and some careful movements of his finger, and he was able to get another one in next to the first apparently without Adam noticing. Adam's head hung as he moaned softly in pleasure.

Karl wanted to feel that silky, vicious clench of heat and muscle around his cock, not his fingers, though that didn't mean that he wasn't enjoying this. His cock would push in and bury itself deeper than his fingers could reach, bluntly probing, arrogantly spreading this hole wider to fit it perfectly, but his fingers—agile, stroking, exploring—would learn its shape and texture better. He felt Adam relax still more, the change almost imperceptible unless you were paying close attention. He held his hand in place, waiting—yes. There. Adam was panting now, soft, bewildered gasps, as if he were trying to work out why he was moving his ass like this, in these hesitant, curious shifts of position, trying to get more of what had to feel so fucking good. Karl made him wait for it, just long enough for Adam's head to rise, blindly turning. Then he drizzled more lube over the cleft of Adam's ass and watched it trickle down to where it was needed. Adam shivered as if he were freezing, and Karl pushed and withdrew, over and over, fucking Adam's hole with two slick fingers, working the clinging flesh until it yielded, accepting the intrusion, welcoming it as a connection made.

When he took his fingers away, Adam sobbed out something that might have been meant for no, yet even as Karl hesitated, Adam whispered, “In me. Please. I need it.”

It, not you. That stung more than it should have, though Karl was too aroused to work out why. The air was stifling. Karl felt sweat stick his clothes to him like glue, but it didn't matter. He palmed the curve of Adam's ass possessively, noting stray flecks of grass sticking to it that must have worked their way inside Adam's jeans. He wanted to lick them away, one by one, just not now, not now...

Now, Karl shoved his own slacks a bit farther down and checked to make sure the condom was still in position before he nudged the head of his dick into place and pressed forward. Adam froze at the contact, trembling, and Karl eased forward a quarter of an inch or so, just enough to feel like the world's most maddening tease. He stroked Adam's flank soothingly, even as he wanted nothing more than to shove forward into Adam's ass and fuck him hard and fast. Christ, the kid was tight as a vise, and he wasn't even inside him yet. “Relax,” he said gruffly. “Adam, relax.”

Adam whimpered and shivered, but Karl could feel him trying, the gradual release of the fantastic tension by degrees. Karl pressed forward again, maybe an inch this time, and Adam, through what sounded like clenched teeth, muttered, “Do it.”

Karl wasn't a martyr. He wanted it, Adam wanted it, and he'd waited long enough. He didn't pause to ask Adam if he was sure; he shoved forward quickly, burying his dick in Adam's ass like he'd wanted to for so many days. Adam gave a hoarse, startled shout and tried to stifle it, too late, by biting down on his own arm.

“No. I want to hear you,” Karl said in what emerged as a growl. He tugged sharply at the short spikes of Adam's hair to bring his head up before putting his hand back on Adam's hip, then eased back slowly, half reluctantly, already craving another hit of the surge of sensation that he got when he went deep. It was like sticking a wet finger against the end of a battery, a sizzle and a shock racing up from the base of his spine and curling around his balls. “Make all the noise you want. I'm the only one listening. It's just us here.” His voice was thick, hoarse, as if he were the one who'd been screaming. He was losing it after a few strokes, the need to fuck overwhelming any thoughts of making this easy on Adam.

With a groan as heartfelt as the ones Adam was making, he rode the kid's ass without restraint, his fingers bruising the skin on Adam's hips and ass, his cock driving into tender flesh, the lube making it work, lock and key, ass and cock. They fitted together; this felt right, and that thought freaked the fuck out of him, though he couldn't deny the truth of it.

Adam's head was thrown back now, still in the position Karl had tugged it into. Karl could see the tendons in Adam's throat standing out, the younger man's jaw thrust forward as he took what was given. He was making plenty of noise, sounds that escaped him with every thrust like they were being driven out of him without his consent, and his knuckles were white where they held on to the shelf. Every time Karl surged forward, Adam made an awkward, desperate backward shove of his hips to meet him. There was nothing graceful about it, and everything about him screamed inexperience, but that just made the whole thing hotter.

Freed of the need to be reassuring or encouraging—not that Karl was sure he could have spared the breath for either—he slowed down for a few strokes, ignoring the frantic mewl of protest from Adam, who seemed to be past coherent speech. This wasn't going to last much longer. It had been too long a dry spell for Karl to want it to, but he wanted it to be good, and he was quickly realizing that the more Adam got into it, the better it was for both of them. There was something so arousing about the way Adam was telling him with every arch of his hips, every incredulous groan, that he loved having a cock up his ass—no, dammit, Karl’s cock, just his.

Hang on, kid, he thought through a haze of lust. It can get better.

He'd fucked men for a couple of years without being aware that there was anything more involved than in-out, hard-fast, come-and-it's-over, before being told drily by a London bar pickup named Julian that it was a good idea to at least try to hit the happy spot, love. The brief anatomy lesson that had followed, with Julian patiently coaching him until each stroke had nudged Julian's prostate, Julian's kind, amused voice eventually faltering to become a long moan of pure enjoyment, had been a revelation. Karl still hadn't been tempted to try being on the receiving end again, though after that he'd given some thought about what his dick was doing when it was balls-deep in someone.

His injured leg protested the shift in position, but Karl was past caring about a twinge when every other part of him felt this good. He could tell when he'd found the right angle; Adam jerked like he'd been stung on the ass. If Adam hadn't been so out of breath, Karl guessed the strangled moan that followed would have been more of a howl at the moon.

“Oh my God,” Adam rasped out. “Again. Do that again. Please.”

Karl knew he wouldn't manage it for more than another dozen thrusts or so, because the twinge he could ignore would turn into a searing pain. Until that time, he intended to make this count. He pulled back and pressed in again, fast yet not too fast. Adam's reaction was the same that it had been the first time, maybe even more intense, and his ass contracted tightly around Karl's dick as he started, just like that, to come. Karl continued to fuck Adam through it, each thrust quick and sure, and didn't let himself come until Adam relaxed and whooped in a huge rush of air.

His climax, held back as it'd been, rolled over him like a wave, drowning him in sensation, heat spreading from his cock as it released its burden of spunk into the tight confines of the latex sheath. Karl had never fucked anyone bare and didn't plan to ever take that risk, but the thought of pulling out of Adam and leaving no trace behind of what they'd done was, in that moment of undiluted pleasure, unbearable. He leaned over and set his teeth into the curve where Adam's neck met his shoulder, tasting sweat-salted skin, smooth and tough. The bite was hard enough to bring a low moan from Adam—it didn't sound like a protest—yet not enough to break the skin. Just enough to mark. Karl sucked at the wet skin and let his body shudder through the last of his climax until nothing was left but a vast emptiness, waiting for normality to flow back in and break the connection they'd just made.

It would. It always did.

Chapter Four

Aiden's hands trembled slightly as he got behind the wheel of the battered pickup truck that was registered to Adam Marshall. The thing was seventeen years old and probably wasn't worth the five hundred dollars the FBI had paid for it. Still, it was a lot more believable as a vehicle that would be owned by a former boy toy who'd only just started his life over than the 2006 Saab sedan that belonged to Aiden Russell.

He missed his Saab.

As he turned the key and the pickup shuddered to life, he tried to tell himself that the sex hadn't meant anything. It hadn't. It was part of the job, something that he'd accepted as a possibility when he'd agreed to take this undercover assignment. Karl Blake had been efficient, and his company had been used by the US government on more than one occasion. His methods, however, had sometimes been questionable. The injury that had led to him selling his company to one of his men hadn't stopped the questions being asked. In fact, now that Karl was no longer in the spotlight but the shadows, there were more of them. Questions about the money Blake suddenly had to burn. Real worries about the direction his former company had taken since he'd sold it. Blake had spilled blood when needed. His successor, Brandon Simes, was wading through it. Aiden knew that, given enough time and a little bit of luck, he could get under Karl's defenses and find out what was going on. If Blake's retirement was a front—if he was siphoning off money from operations that crossed the line into criminal—the FBI wanted to know. And Aiden was fully committed to getting that information.

He hadn't expected, despite having read through the FBI's thorough files on Blake, that the guy would be so charismatic. Which was stupid. He should have read between the lines and figured that out in advance. Aiden was nine years older than his character, Adam. He'd worked some pretty serious cases, though never an undercover one as complicated as this. He'd prepared for his role for weeks before he ever stepped foot on Blake's estate, Adam's background carefully devised to both appeal to Blake and arouse as little suspicion as possible. Of course, if Aiden hadn't been gay, chances were he'd never have been given this opportunity. Everyone knew Karl Blake slept with men, and everyone involved expected that Blake would be more likely to open up to someone in bed than out of it.

And Aiden definitely hadn't guessed that Adam would be quite so appealing to Blake so quickly. Not that it was a bad thing. On the contrary, it was great. Aiden certainly didn't want to spend longer on this case than he needed to.

Remembering that he was supposed to be leaving, not sitting here in his truck possibly garnering suspicion, Aiden shifted into gear and drove off Karl's property onto the private road winding through the gated community. He nodded to Bill Devine, the security guard who was on duty at the gate, on his way out, flashing Devine his temporary pass. In his head, though, he was still bent over in the stuffy garden shed, wooden shelf splintering against his fingers, Blake's cock driving into his ass repeatedly.

He couldn't stop thinking about it on the way home.

He loved his partner Scott. Loved him and would never cheat on him. This didn't count; it was for work, and it wasn't like Aiden had wanted it. Hell, on the one hand, it was almost possible to convince himself that he wasn't even the one who'd been fucked by Blake. That had been Adam Marshall, after all. The only thing Aiden Russell had done that day was go to work. That his job had required he stand with his pants around his ankles was irrelevant. Besides, Blake had worn a condom. It'd been safe. That was all that mattered, and Scott never had to know about it.

Aiden had done his best not to share more than the bare minimum about his assignment with his lover, for everyone's sakes. Really, he shouldn't have told Scott anything at all, but given how much living a double life was going to complicate things, he hadn't been able to see any other way. He had to rent an apartment on Audelia in Adam's name and drive across town if he wanted to see Scott. It was all a huge pain in the ass, though worth it if they could get a handle on what Blake and his company were doing. Tonight was a really bad night to indulge in a few hours with Scott, but Aiden found himself needing to prove something to himself, and after he'd showered, scrubbing himself down until his skin tingled, he headed out.

It was worth it. When Aiden got out of the truck, his ass protesting what he'd done earlier with every pothole in the road, he reminded himself of that. He never drove up to the house, for the sake of his cover, but it was only a block and a half away from the parking lot. The house was in Scott's name, a house that Scott had bought right around the time he and Aiden had met. They'd talked about getting married—not because either of them was eager for a wedding, really, but more as a hypothetical exercise, a someday-when-things-in-this-country-change sort of discussion. For now, though, Aiden was pretty happy with things the way they were, even if his paycheck didn't match up to Scott's by a long way. Even if, sometimes, he felt like a kept man.

He looked around to make sure no one was watching him—not that he thought anyone would be—and then went up to the porch and unlocked the front door. Scott's car wasn't in the driveway, which meant he wasn't home from work yet. That was a relief. Aiden wanted half an hour or so to unwind, check in with his supervisor at work, and maybe even shower again. The ride over had left him sweating and sticky, though that wasn't why he felt grubby.

The call to Diane Simpson, his immediate boss at the Dallas branch office of the FBI, was brief and brisk, the details of what had happened reduced to carefully discreet phrases, dry as dust. A relationship had been initiated by the target, as they'd expected. No sign of suspicion at all from the target, no opportunity as yet to ask any questions. Yes, he'd be careful. No, he wouldn't rush anything. It was only toward the end of the conversation that Diane lowered her voice, concern softening it.

“Aiden? Are you okay with this? I know it's asking a lot.”

“It's fine.” His ass was throbbing, and if he concentrated on that feeling, even for a moment, a shiver of leftover arousal ran through him, icy water down his back. He'd hated it, and he'd still come harder than he remembered coming in months. Karl hadn't even touched him, for God's sake. Just that rough caress of his dick at the start, and then he'd brought Aiden to a gasping, quivering wreck with those relentless, perfect strokes. “I'm fine,” he added, when Diane didn't reply, her silence eloquent. “Look, I have to go and grab a shower. I'll report back when there's anything new.”

“Dave says howdy,” Diane told him.

Dave Johnson had mentored Aiden when he'd joined the bureau, an older man, stolid and taciturn, though capable of moving quickly when the situation called for it. He had a network of contacts that Aiden shamelessly tapped into when needed, and a way of passing on advice in a laconic drawl that made the words stick. Aiden was addicted to the molasses cookies Dave's wife Janet made, soft in the middle and crunchy around the edges, and it was killing him that he couldn't swing by their house to eat one in a kitchen filled with good smells and a warm welcome. Just too risky. Lots of people knew Dave, but Adam Marshall wouldn't.

“Tell him not to get used to the peace and quiet; I'll be back soon.” They'd worked together on several cases lately and still had paperwork from them to wrap up.

He spent longer in the shower than he should have, given that his hair was still damp from his first shower, scrubbing himself down twice with thick lather until he felt a little less dirty. It made him feel pretty screwed up that he started to get hard just thinking about what it had felt like to have Karl fuck him. He wanted to jerk off right then, with the hot water falling down onto his skin and the memory of Karl Blake's solid, unyielding dick working in and out of him. He hadn't done more than wrap his hand around his dick when he heard the sound of Scott getting home from work. Damn.

Hurriedly shutting off the water and reaching for a towel, Aiden called out, “That's you, right?” It was almost automatic, checking to make sure it was his partner entering the house and not a stranger breaking in.

“It's me,” Scott called back. “Are you in the shower?”

“Not anymore!” Aiden rubbed the towel across his hair to get rid of the worst of the water and then wrapped it around his waist. Jesus, his ass was going to be sore for days. Too bad that didn't seem to be enough to douse his arousal. He picked up his clothes from the floor and held them in front of him instead.

“Oh my God, are you actually picking up your dirty laundry?” Scott gasped, mocking him as they met in the hallway outside the bathroom door. “Are you okay? Maybe you're running a fever!” Scott reached a hand toward Aiden's forehead as if to check.

“I'm fine,” Aiden said irritably, even though he'd told himself he wouldn't be a grouch this evening. He didn't want to bring his work home. Especially this particular job. He started to push past Scott, but Scott grabbed on to his arm and stopped him.

“What the hell happened to you?” Scott's fingers probed gently at what Aiden had forgotten, the bite mark on the back of his neck. It was tender, and he winced away from Scott's touch.

“It's nothing.”

“Oh, it most certainly is something.” Scott's voice was tight now, edged with hurt and an all-too-ready suspicion. Aiden couldn't blame him, not when he had a hickey on his neck—and fuck you for that, Blake, you possessive asshole—even if at the time it'd been just what Aiden wanted, that brief flash of pain that had made the aftershocks of his climax last longer than usual. After the day he'd had, though, Scott's lack of trust was more than he could handle. “Who bit you, Aiden? It sure as hell isn't anything I did to you. You're the one who gets off on rough sex, not me. And this is fresh. I haven't seen you since Tuesday.”

Keep it simple, Aiden reminded himself. The simplest lies were the best. “I went into the office today, and there was this guy in reception—we think he might have been high on something. The EMT looked at it and said since it didn't break the skin I could just ice it. He wasn't wrong, was he?”

Scott shook his head and started for the kitchen. “No. Go sit on the bed, and I'll bring you an ice pack.”

All agents, Aiden thought, should date doctors, because there was nothing like having a good supply of first aid stuff and someone who knew how to use it. He went and sat on the bed, knowing that this would be one time Scott wouldn't complain about his wet towel leaving a damp spot on the comforter. “Sorry,” he offered when Scott joined him. “I had a shitty day. I shouldn't take it out on you.”

“No, but that doesn't mean you can't talk to me about it,” Scott said, sounding subdued as he applied the ice pack to Aiden's shoulder. “And if we're going to talk about shitty, I guess what I said back there qualifies. I'm sorry. You know I didn't mean it, right?”

Actually, Aiden was pretty sure that Scott had meant it, because it wasn't the first time he'd dealt with Scott's knee-jerk jealousy, a legacy from the boyfriend before Aiden, who'd apparently slept with enough men on the side to form a football team. Scott hadn't taken the discovery well, not that there was any reason that he should, and Aiden was more or less resigned to playing the scapegoat from time to time.

The rough-sex dig was something that Aiden really didn't want to think about or discuss. Not tonight. As he was toweling dry, he'd seen the faint marks Karl's fingers had left in his skin, bruise shadows, a reminder he didn't need of how Karl had used him without a hell of a lot of consideration.

Or, looked at another way, how Karl had given Adam just what he'd been begging for—and if it had hit some of Aiden's buttons at the same time, well, that didn't count.

Aiden's towel slipped, and he fastened it more securely around his waist before turning to smile reassuringly up at Scott. “Let's start over. How about I get dressed and make us some stir-fry?”

“Okay,” Scott said. “We've got shrimp in the fridge, and I think the green onions are still edible if you're not too fussy. If you're sure you're okay? There aren't any other bruises I don't know about?”

“I don't think so,” Aiden lied. “It all happened pretty fast. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know how it is.” There, see? That much was the truth, and the less complicated you made the lies, the easier they were to remember.

It didn't take long to put the promised stir-fry together, some red pepper and broccoli from the freezer joining the shrimp and green onion. Thank goodness for leftover cooked rice—that cut at least ten minutes off the job, so by the time Scott finished changing and came to join Aiden at the table, dinner was ready.

“How's it feeling?” Scott asked, gesturing at Aiden's neck.

“It's okay. Just a little sore. I'm sure in a couple of days I'll have forgotten all about it.” And there went another lie, Aiden thought as he set Scott's plate in front of him. As much as he wanted to, he didn't think he'd ever be able to smell mulch and peat moss again without thinking about Karl Blake, and he knew that he'd feel the bruise at the back of his neck for far longer than it was visible.

Scott speared a shrimp with his fork and bit it in half. “Mm—good. You really are a much better cook than I am.”

“You could be better if you tried,” Aiden said. Sometimes it felt like they were always having the same dozen conversations over and over again.

“I'd risk poisoning both of us,” Scott said ruefully. “Do you know how bad food poisoning can be? Sometimes we get people in who picked up campylobacter or shigella, and I can say with authority that it is not pretty. Once you get dehydrated, it's just a mess.” He launched into further descriptions, most of which weren't really appropriate dinnertime conversation, but luckily Aiden was used to it. Besides, a Scott who had warmed to his subject was animated and interesting to be around. What that subject might be wasn't all that important.

“You've really caught the sun,” Scott said as they settled down on the couch to watch TV, each with a Coke. Scott was on call, so he couldn't drink, and Aiden preferred not to. The beer he'd drunk by the pool had been the first he'd had in weeks. Aiden could count on both hands the number of times he'd actually been drunk. His dad had been a heavy drinker the whole time he was growing up, and hadn't gotten sober until after Aiden moved out of the house. Now his dad went to AA religiously, though he was still kind of an asshole sometimes. Someone had once tried to convince Aiden that his dad was still a drunk, just a sober drunk, but that didn't make any sense to Aiden. He didn't care all that much whether his dad was drunk or sober if the guy was a jerk either way. Regardless, Aiden had no intention of ever following in his father's footsteps.

“Yeah, I guess. Hot out there,” Aiden said evasively. He'd taken to wandering around topless as much as possible when there was even a small chance that his employer would see him. Bait to hook Blake, and it had worked. “Want to find a Grey’s Anatomy episode to mock? Or some procedural show I can pull to pieces?”

Scott set his drink down and turned to Aiden. “I can think of better things to do on a night when I'm home before midnight and you're actually here.”

Necking on the couch was one of Aiden's favorite forms of foreplay. Ten minutes tops, and they were usually heading for the bedroom or just getting down to it right there on the couch, yet even so, it was fun to kiss, hands moving over clothing, not bare skin, pretending that they weren't allowed to get past first base until one of them cracked and upped the ante with a hand slid past an eased-down zipper.

Tonight that kind of playful intimacy would be torture, and sitting on the couch wasn't all that comfortable, either. Karl wasn't hung like a porn star, but his dick was long and thick, more than Aiden was used to taking, especially when it'd all been so frenzied and urgent. He just hadn't cared how raw his ass would be, not when his body was screaming at him to get more of those hard slams that seemed to reach deep inside him and twist his world askew.

God, he was getting turned on just thinking about it. His sweating hand slipped on the condensation-beaded glass, and it spilled its contents over him, the couch, and the rug at their feet that Scott had brought back from India, cradled in his arms like a baby the way he told it. By the time Scott, tight-lipped and waving away Aiden's apologies and attempts to help with a brusque shake of his head, had cleaned up the mess, an early night turned out to be what they both wanted.

“Sorry,” Aiden said when the bedroom light had gone out. He was lying on his side, facing Scott, and he reached out his hand until he found Scott's arm.

“What for?” Scott didn't sound upset with him; that was something, at least.

It was a question he couldn't possibly answer, so Aiden stuck with the immediate. “The rug. I don't know... I'm kind of distracted right now. This assignment is a lot more intense than I was imagining. No... It's not more intense. I just didn't really appreciate what it would be like.”

Scott's hand slid into his. “You know you can talk about it if you need to. I'll never tell anyone. You can trust me.”

“I know. I do.” Aiden did trust Scott. “It's okay, I'm good. I just feel bad when I drag this shit home with me. You deserve better.”

“I've got better. I've got you. That's all I need.” Scott said it with complete sincerity. “Come over here.”

All reluctance gone, Aiden hitched himself closer to Scott until their legs were touching, his cheek cushioned on Scott's shoulder. “I love you, you know.”

“Mutual,” Scott said. He never said the actual words, something that bothered Aiden from time to time, though Scott seemed to think of it as a cute running joke. “So, do you want me to prove my devotion by way of a back rub? Because, honestly, you're tense as hell.”

“It's okay,” Aiden said. “What I could really use is a vacation.”

“You'll settle for the back rub, though, am I right?” Scott didn't wait for his answer, and was already getting up onto his knees, shoving Aiden gently onto his stomach and straddling him. “Hey, easy. Relax.”

Hearing that word made Aiden even more tense; it was what Karl Blake had said to Adam right before fucking the hell out of him. He tried his best, though, to let some of the tension go as Scott began to knead his back with careful, skilled doctor's hands. It felt good to be the focus of Scott's attention and to have nothing to do except lie there and slowly melt into the mattress, muscle by muscle, as Scott worked him over. That was the problem, though. He didn't feel that he deserved to enjoy this pampering and concern, but that kind of thinking wouldn't help anyone or get his job done, so he did his best to push the residual guilt aside.

“That's better,” Scott murmured approvingly, his fingertips making small, precise circles on Aiden's right shoulder blade. “Just give it up, babe.”

Aiden made a small, inarticulate sound of protest that the pillow muffled, and he screwed his eyes shut in disgust at his lack of control. He'd never had this hard a time keeping work and his personal life separate. Never. He'd worked undercover and assumed half a dozen different identities, charmed and deceived in the name of the greater good, and set it all aside at the end of the day. This assignment shouldn't be any different. Luckily, Scott interpreted the sound as one of approval, and his hands didn't falter as they gradually reduced Aiden to a drowsy state of physical, if not mental, bliss.

Chapter Five

Karl Blake drove slowly along the street in front of the bookstore, hoping for a parking space to open up. His injured leg was gradually improving, though that didn't mean he wanted to do a lot more walking than he had to. The store didn't close until nine—he'd called to check—so he still had a couple of hours to browse if the mood struck him.

He'd always liked to read, but while he'd been recovering from being shot, he'd been going through books at a startling rate. Now he was at the point where he needed to branch out and try some new authors, and his last attempt at ordering books online had ultimately proven to be a failure—only one of them had been any good. He figured being able to read the first couple of pages in the store would, in the long run, be a more accurate gauge.

A car at the curb up ahead put on its turn signal and pulled away into traffic, and Karl grinned as he neatly slotted his silver BMW Z4—fast and flashy enough to be fun after years of being bounced around in Jeeps and Humvees, but not ridiculously expensive enough for Karl to care if it picked up a few knocks around town—into the space left behind. Funny how the little things could put him in a good mood. He was practically whistling as he got out and walked to the bookstore, and he even held the door for a woman pushing a stroller. The baby, about ten months old and sporting two new teeth, blew a spit bubble at him and shoved the stuffed bear it was holding into its mouth as it passed by.

Cute. Karl exchanged a smile with the baby's mother and then breathed in the smell of new books and the inevitable coffee that always seemed to go with it these days. In this case, it was a pot by the counter with a selection of mismatched mugs beside it rather than a vast selection of different brews. A bowl of sugar with a wet spoon beside it, crusted with granules, and a bowl containing small containers of creamer completed the display.

“Coffee's free,” a young assistant told him as she moved past him, her arms laden with a dozen or more copies of John Grisham's latest. “Not fancy, but it's fresh. I just made it. One per customer, and there's a tip jar if you're feeling generous.”

Karl began to reply, intending to ask her to point him to something interesting, but the books she was carrying tilted and started to slide, interrupting him. Karl caught the top one before it could fall to the floor, and held on to it, giving it a cursory once-over. He'd read some by Grisham in the past and liked them. He glanced at the assistant, a redhead, her hair a wild mass of tight curls, her impish face sprinkled with freckles.

“Any good?”

“Don't know; I haven't read it yet. Why don't you buy it and then come back and tell me all about it, sugar?”

Karl laughed, his mood still buoyant. “What if I don't like it? Do I get a refund?”

She pursed her lips. “You get a cup of coffee on the house.”

“I thought you said the coffee was already free.”

“If you want, I could charge you for it and give you a refund.” The stack of books began to wobble again and she straightened them deftly before giving him a charmingly rueful smile. “Oops! Got to go. Enjoy the book!”

Karl tucked it under his arm and glanced around. The store was a maze of shelving, luring a customer deep into a space that went back a lot farther than he'd expected. He bypassed shelves devoted to cookery, true crime, and travel, and paused by the gardening section. A glossy coffee table book with a brightly flowering pink azalea on the front caught his attention and made the half-smile on his face fade. For the last few days, every time he'd seen Adam in the garden, he'd been busy working. Adam had murmured a polite “Good morning, sir” when Karl had spoken to him, but he'd avoided Karl's gaze, and his knuckles had shown white as he gripped his trowel, kneeling down by a bed of lavender he was putting in.

Seeing Adam kneeling at his feet had put all kinds of ideas into Karl's head, and it was frustrating that he hadn't been able to put any of them into practice.

Maybe he'd been too rough? Adam had seemed half-dazed when Karl finished with him, but he'd given him a shy smile when Karl left. Adam had enjoyed being fucked; that had come across loud and clear. Wondering if Adam was worried about his job security once Karl got tired of him—he didn't need to, though Karl could see how it would be an issue—Karl rounded the corner and saw Adam by the fantasy section, his hands in his pockets, his jeans pulled tight over an ass that Karl most definitely wasn't tired of yet.

Seeming to sense someone's presence, Adam glanced over his shoulder, then blinked and turned when he saw who it was. For a moment, it was like looking at a stranger. Then Adam's mouth twitched into a smile that Karl had seen before, friendly, yet shy. “Um,” he said. “Hi. I didn't...expect to see you here. Or anywhere. I mean, other than your house.”

“Mm-hm,” Karl said, amused. “First time I've been in here. Is it any good?”

“As far as bookstores go, you mean?” Adam took his hands out of his pockets, seemed to realize he didn't know where else to put them, and shoved them back in. “Yeah, it's pretty good. And they'll order anything they don't have. It's not as quick as Amazon, maybe, but I'd rather support small local businesses than huge conglomerates.”

Karl's amusement grew. “Seems like you put a lot of thought into it.”

“Got to do something with all these brain cells while I'm digging in the dirt,” Adam said, then looked down. “Um, not that I don't appreciate the job. I do.”

“And I appreciate all the dead dandelions.” Karl said. He kept finding them here and there, but he'd also noticed some places in the grass where one had been dug up and the turf patted back carefully, so he gave Adam points for trying to keep on top of them. Dandelions were more of a problem in the spring, but clearly the type in his garden didn't know when to call it quits. “So what do you read when you're not taming my plants?” He looked over Adam's shoulder at a shelf of books whose covers predominately featured dragons and heroic men and women with swords. The ones shelved spine out were several inches wide and looked like they'd be difficult to hold comfortably. The Grisham under his arm seemed a little pedestrian by comparison.

“A lot of this stuff.” Adam gestured at the shelves behind him sheepishly. “I discovered it when I was a kid, and I guess I never outgrew it. Have you read Tolkien?”

“Not yet,” Karl admitted. “I keep meaning to, but I've never gotten around to it.”

“Seriously? Oh, man, you have to! There's nothing like him. The books are classics for a reason.” Adam turned and ran his hand along the books until he found the one he was looking for, then offered it to Karl. “Here, start with this one if Lord of the Rings is too intimidating.”

Karl read the cover. “The Hobbit. Wasn't this a cartoon?”

“Yeah, but pretend it wasn't. That was a totally different animal. Like...like the difference between Chicago deep dish and New York-style thin crust.” For the first time, Adam seemed confident and relaxed, like he was the different animal, or at least one that had stopped being so wary every second. “You'll like it.”

“What if I don't?” Karl wasn't seriously worried about it one way or the other. He was mostly curious to see how far he could take this without pushing Adam back into employee mode.

“Then I'll give you a refund,” Adam said cheerfully and grinned.

Delighted by this relaxed, confident Adam, Karl grinned back at him and tucked the book under his arm with the Grisham. “I want to buy more than these two, but unless you've got somewhere you need to be, how do you feel about a drink somewhere when we're both done here?”

He let his gaze drift over Adam's face, the two of them standing so close in the space between the shelves that Karl would only have needed to take a single short step to be able to kiss Adam. Not that he would, not here. He hadn't kissed Adam much, but it'd been too intense an experience for an audience. He wasn't sure that he could kiss Adam lightly, a fleeting brush of dry lips. Adam's mouth made Karl want to lick it, his tongue tracing the well-shaped lips, delving inside in search of a taste he couldn't define, but that was more of a turn-on than plain spit should be. Biting those lips Adam was licking right now, as if he could hear Karl's thoughts.

Biting just hard enough to sting, until they were warm and slightly swollen, would be interesting too, if only to see how Adam reacted. So far, Adam had gone along with everything Karl had suggested, though he hadn't made the first move. Karl wasn't sure how he felt about that. If anyone had to be in charge, it would be him; that was a given. Even so, passive and placid didn't do much for him.

Adam still hadn't replied, he realized. The young man looked uncertain but finally nodded and said, “Okay. Sure. Yeah, that'd be good.”

“Doesn't sound like you're convinced,” Karl said, more disappointed than he wanted to let on. “It's fine. You're allowed to say no.”

“I don't want to say no.” Adam shook his head. “It's not that. I just... I don't want you to hang out with me because you think you should.”

“Right, because that's what I do all the time, go around socializing with my employees out of a sense of obligation.” Karl rolled his eyes and whacked Adam very gently on the upper arm with his fist. “Don't be an idiot. If I didn't want to, I wouldn't have asked.”

“Okay, then. Yes, let's have a drink. Let me help you find some more books first, okay?”

It only took another fifteen minutes or so for Adam to pile enough books into Karl's arms that he could barely juggle them. “Okay, enough! Make a list or something if you're not done, because I'm declaring a moratorium.”

“A moratorium? Seriously?” Adam was grinning again, that same open grin he'd shared before.

“What, I'm not supposed to have a better than average vocabulary?” Karl set his pile of books down on the counter near the register. “I am literate, you know.”

“I know,” Adam said and gave Karl a sidelong glance. “I'm not supposed to go wandering around the house, and I don't, but I've eaten in the kitchen a couple of times, and there's usually a book lying around in there. I wondered why they didn't get tidied up; your kitchen's just about the neatest I've ever seen, but when I asked, Della told me that they were yours and she just worked around them until you came back for them.”

“I never realized I did that,” Karl admitted. “I put them down and forget where they are and have to retrace my steps. I'll tell her to just leave them in my study from now on.”

“Then she'll know I've been talking to you,” Adam said. “Kind of awkward.”

“Not for me,” Karl said. “I talk to whoever the hell I want.”

“Awkward for me,” Adam clarified. “She won't want to talk to me anymore if she thinks we're friends.”

“Are y'all ready to check out?” The young woman who'd offered Karl coffee earlier came up the register and straightened his tower of books into something more manageable. “Oh, I'm sorry. Was I interrupting?”

“No,” Karl told her, even though it wasn't precisely true. The sooner he paid, the sooner he could get somewhere with Adam where they wouldn't be interrupted. To his surprise, he was finding that he liked listening to what Adam had to say. “Yeah, I'm all set. Throw yours down here too.” This last was directed at Adam.

“No, that's okay. I've got them.” There was a sudden, stubborn set to Adam's jaw, and Karl realized he was offended.

“I wasn't offering to pay for them,” he said. “They just looked heavy.” It was the first time that he'd lied to Adam, the impulse rooted in the need to protect Adam's dignity in front of the assistant, but it was still a sign of weakness. Karl grimaced and retracted what he'd said. “Okay, I was offering, though only to speed this up. Or have you changed your mind about that drink?”

The assistant cleared her throat and smiled brightly. “I don't care who pays for what as long as someone does.”

“How about I pay for them?” Adam said and slapped a credit card and what Karl assumed was a loyalty card on the counter. “That way, you can save ten percent,” he told Karl, his expression daring Karl to comment.

“Thank you,” Karl said, refusing to get into an argument in public. Behind them was a line of two curious, unabashedly eavesdropping customers: an elderly man and a teenage girl clutching the latest Twilight novel to her chest as if it were her boyfriend. “That's very thoughtful of you.”

He'd find some way to repay Adam—a bonus in his paycheck or a meal to go along with the drinks. Karl didn't like owing favors.

A wave of heat struck them as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. “Ugh, it's hot,” Adam said. “I know I said I wanted that, but sometimes I think I should move north again. Somewhere there's lots of snow. Only on days when it's like this, but still. Skiing, snowmobiling...”

“You like to ski?” Karl asked. “My car's right over here. I can drive.”

“It's okay,” Adam said. “I actually wasn't very good at it, the few times I went. I guess I just miss the idea of it.” He sounded wistful as they walked toward Karl's car.

“Is there a place you like? To go for a drink, I mean.” Karl unlocked the car, and Adam got into the passenger seat as Karl went around into the street.

Adam shook his head. “Not really. I'm fine with wherever you want to go. Do you have a place?”

Karl hadn't lived in Plano long enough to know many places to drink. Most of his time in the area had been eaten up with physical therapy and trips abroad. He shrugged. “You probably know the bar scene better than I do. You've lived here awhile, right? Anywhere that has cold beer and maybe a pool table.”

Discomfort, or something like it, flitted across Adam's face, then was gone. “Well,” he said slowly. “I'm actually not much of a drinker. My dad's an alcoholic, so I try to keep it sensible. Which doesn't mean I don't drink. It's been kind of a long time since I went out, though. I think there's a place a couple of blocks up. It's a restaurant, maybe, with a bar in back? I don't know. I saw an ad for it a while ago, and it stuck.”

“Sounds good,” Karl said and adjusted the air-conditioning to high as he pulled out onto the street. “My dad drank too.” It was a strange thing to confide to someone he barely knew, but it seemed fair somehow.

“Not anymore?” Adam asked.

“Not for years,” Karl said. “He's dead. It wasn't the alcohol that killed him, though.”

Adam looked out the window and nodded. “I'm sorry.”

“Thanks.”

“What about you?” Adam asked after half a minute of silence. When Karl glanced at him, he added, “I mean, can you see that tendency in yourself? Like an addictive personality or whatever?”

It was a personal question, but given that Karl planned to ask a few of those himself later, he didn't shut Adam down. “Sure. Just with me, it was always about the risk. I got off on the danger, life on the line, each breath might be your last; you know the kind of thing.”

Adam's head whipped around. His expression, from what Karl could see using peripheral vision, was startled. “Danger?”

“You saw me naked,” Karl said. “Where do you think the scars came from?” There weren't many; he'd been good at what he did, but there were some a lot older than the bullet hole in his thigh. A white line snaked its way along his forearm, a memento of a knife whose intended pathway through Karl's body had been altered because at the same time Karl was being stabbed, his own knife was being buried deep in his attacker's belly. Add a gouge across the back of his calf from a piece of shrapnel he hadn't been able to outrun, some whose origins he'd half forgotten, plus the usual souvenirs of childhood recklessness, and his body told a story for anyone with eyes. “You don't know much about me, do you?”

“You're my boss at the moment. You must have money because you own a big estate—and a nice car, by the way,” Adam said, ticking points off on his fingers. “You like men. You're into rough sex.” He paused, then added, “You like to read. That's pretty much it. Oh! You don't like dandelions. I just, well... I didn't want to ask about the scars.”

“And I don't want to tell,” Karl said drily. “The house and everything that goes with it isn't really what I'm used to. I just found that I had more in my bank account than I expected when I was forced to retire, and my advisers seemed to think that real estate was the way to go when it came to investing some of it.” He nodded at a bar coming up on their side of the street. “Is that it? The Fillmore Pub?”

“Yeah. You can park around back.”

Proving that his luck was still in, there were a handful of spaces in the small lot behind the pub. Karl turned off the engine and glanced at Adam. “You really think I was rough with you? Too much for you to want to do it again?”

“Not too rough,” Adam said. “But rough? Yeah. I've got a bruise in the shape of your teeth on the back of my shoulder to prove it. It's cool. It was good. I, um... I liked it.” He flushed and bit his lip, looking down at his hands on his lap.

The bite. Karl rubbed his hand across his mouth without thinking, as if it were still watering from digging his teeth into Adam's shoulder. “I liked doing it, but if I do anything that crosses a line, tell me. I'm used to being with men who can take a lot, pretty much anything I can dish out, but I don't expect you to be like that. It's not something I always do. You just...you got me worked up. Take it as a compliment, if you want.”

Adam took a breath and let it out in a rush, nodding. “I'll tell you...if things get too...I don't know...intense. Or whatever. It was good, though. I'm hoping maybe we'll do it again at some point. If you want to.”

“I plan to,” Karl said. “Tonight, if we can make it work. First, though, I want that drink. Even if we both have club soda, not beer. And I want to talk to you. I don't go in for exchanging life stories, and this isn't a date, but if we're going to make a habit of fucking, I want to know more about you.” He ran his hand over Adam's thigh just to see if Adam would flinch or lean in toward him. He got a steady look instead and arched eyebrows. Adam was proving difficult to predict in some ways. “And I want to see how much my game suffers when I'm distracted by you leaning over the pool table, ass up, legs spread.”

“Distracting you is my only hope of coming close to winning,” Adam said, and he only hesitated for a few seconds before putting his own hand down on top of Karl's. “So I'll have to remember that.”

For a moment, Karl gave real consideration to driving them to the nearest hotel and the hell with getting to know any more about Adam than what places on his body made him whimper with pleasure when they were touched—or bitten. Deviating from a plan usually led to problems down the road, though, so he settled for turning his hand up to clasp Adam's briefly and then opening the car door.

They walked into the bar in a comfortable silence and found seats close to the pool table, currently occupied by a group of three men who were goofing around more than playing seriously. From the look of them, they were businessmen winding down after work. Their suit jackets were slung across the backs of chairs at an empty table, and they'd loosened the silk ties they wore.

Karl supposed that he had more in common with them now than he did his former teammates. It wasn't a thought designed to make him feel good about his life.

“So, a drink?” he said. “Or would you prefer that club soda?”

“A beer would be good.” Adam wasn't relaxed in his chair but still upright as if he didn't plan to be sitting long. “I'll get it, if you want.”

Before Adam could make good on his offer, a server came over to the table, notepad in her hand, which was yet another hint that this was a nicer place than your average neighborhood bar. “Good evening, gentlemen,” she said, smiling pleasantly. “Can I get y'all something to drink?”

“Two beers, whatever you have on tap.” Karl looked at Adam. “Unless you prefer something else?”

“I'm easy,” Adam said, with a twinkle in his eye.

No, you’re not. The thought popped into Karl's head from nowhere, a distillation of a dozen impressions. You just let me fuck you. That’s not the same thing.

The server reeled off a long list of beers, the words running together, and Karl stopped her, choosing a microbrew he'd come to like. “Two Shiners, please.”

“Coming right up. Do y'all want to look at a menu? We do some great burgers. I can recommend the Guinness-cheddar one, even if my hips love it way too much, and the best steak north of Dallas. Put a fork in it, and if it moos back atcha, you get nachos on the house.”

Karl held back from making a decision for both of them and raised his eyebrows at Adam, who shrugged. “A sandwich, maybe. I'm not all that hungry.”

The server chuckled. “Honey, after one of our sandwiches, you won't be hungry at all.” She walked away, calling in their order to the man behind the bar, and then returned with two laminated menus. “I'll bring the drinks over when Al's finished pouring them. Won't be a minute.”

By the time she'd set two tall, frosty beers in front of them, he'd already made his choice from the menu. “Tenderloin sandwich, fries on the side, and extra-hot horseradish if you've got it.”

“We've got it,” she said, her chin lifting as she smiled at him, daring him to ask for something they didn't have. Her manner softening, she turned to Adam, who was still studying the menu. “Are you ready, hon? I can come back if you're not.”

Adam hesitated, then looked up at her. “Make it two, I guess?” He sounded so uncertain that she waited until he seemed to find his footing again and repeated it. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Okay. It shouldn't be long. Let me know if you need anything else in the meantime.” She left, and Adam picked up his glass and took a few sips of beer hastily.

Karl wondered if it was wise to ask but decided to do so either way. “What set you off?”

“What do you mean?” Adam drank more beer, and Karl frowned. “Don't do that.”“Do what?”

“Pretend you don't know what I'm talking about.” That kind of deception—or attempt at deception, which was all it was, since Karl prided himself on being able to read people well—was one of the few things that really, truly pissed Karl off, and he wasn't able to keep his irritation out of his voice. “Don't do that.”

Adam was watching him carefully. “Okay,” he said slowly. “Okay. You mean not being able to decide what to order. I just...I guess I'm nervous. I know you said it's not, but this sort of feels like a date. And it kind of hit me, all of a sudden. That this is different. I've never done this with another guy, and it's...freaking me out a little bit, I guess.”

“It's not a date,” Karl said and wondered who was reading the situation more accurately. Because he was about to buy Adam dinner before taking him somewhere to have sex. For most people, that might qualify as a date. “I have no intention of starting a relationship with you. You work for me, in a way, even if I'm not directly paying your wages, and you're quite a bit younger, for a start.” That still bugged him. Adam just didn't come over like a man in his very early twenties. There was a gravity about him sometimes, a fleeting expression or random comment that contradicted the date on his job application and his physical appearance. “Not to mention the fact that we're just...” Karl shook his head, unable to put the gulf between them into words. An ex-merc and this oddly innocent kid? How did that work? “Different,” he finished. The background music was loud enough to give them privacy, so he opted for frankness. “For one thing, I've always known that I was gay. Not that I've ever dated anyone, either, but sitting here with you, thinking about what I want to do to you later isn't freaking me out at all.”

“Wait, you've never dated anyone?” Adam sounded interested instead of unsettled, now. “Ever?”

Karl shrugged. “Not in a traditional sense, no. Are you trying to direct the subject away from the fact that you're not gay?”

Adam blinked, then shook his head. “No. I was just surprised. About you and the not dating. Though I don't think the age difference is as big a deal as you do, and how do you know I'm not gay? Because I've only been with women until now?”

“You seem happy enough when we're having sex, so I have to assume you're not entirely straight.” Karl took a sip of his beer, still cold enough to numb his tongue pleasantly. He planned to make it last, so it'd probably be warm by the time he finished it, but for now it was just how he liked it. “I suppose you could be faking the enthusiasm, though I can't see the point. I'm not paying you to have sex with me, and I meant it when I said your job wasn't at risk if you turned me down.” He met Adam's eyes. “Or didn't you believe me when I said that?”

It would really piss him off if it turned out that Adam had bent over for him to placate him, not out of genuine arousal. Karl wasn't interested in unwilling partners. He'd accepted the fact that Adam's inexperience would mean that he had to go slowly. It hadn't mattered; in fact, it'd spiced things up. He wasn't prepared to continue if Adam wasn't enjoying himself wholeheartedly, though. Karl knew more than a few men who wouldn't have shared his scruples, but that was one line he wouldn't cross. He'd come on strong, yes, boredom and horniness combining to make him push hard, but he'd always given Adam the chance to say no.

“I believed you,” Adam said, sincerely enough that Karl thought he was telling the truth. “Doesn't it happen sometimes that someone thinks they're straight, then eventually realizes they're gay?” Karl gave him an arched eyebrow, and Adam looked down. “I may have been doing some reading on the Internet,” he mumbled.

Well, that made sense. Probably plenty of guys suppressed their homosexuality for their whole lives, telling themselves they were straight. It shouldn't come as any surprise that some only managed it until they were in their twenties or thirties.

“Maybe I am gay,” Adam went on. “Or maybe not. Maybe I just like you.”

Karl grunted skeptically. “Or maybe you just like getting fucked up the ass. I don't think I've done anything to make you like me.” He wasn't fishing for compliments. He knew that he had the kind of looks and body that plenty of men— and women until they got the not-interested message—got off on. Classically good- looking, no, though the face staring back at him when he shaved didn't break the glass, even if it was on the rugged side, his gray eyes cool, his brown hair cropped short. Hard, trained muscles had lost their edge during his convalescence, but not by much. His leg was weak, but he could still easily bench-press more than his own body weight.

Adam's expression had gone from curious to intent now, his eyes studying Karl. “I don't think you want me to like you.”

“I don't think I care if you do,” Karl countered. He paused, watching their server make her way through the scattered tables, their food in her hands. “No, that's not true. It's just not...” He fell silent, waiting for their food to be set down and the usual questions asked and answered before they were left alone again. When they were alone, he continued. “Let me try and lay this out for you. I'm used to long spells with no sex when I've been on a job.” That was one of his unbreakable rules—no screwing anyone on his team. Most of them were straight, but there were a few who'd made blunt offers he'd turned down. Things could get messy and complicated when sex was added to the mix, even when what was involved was just some friendly fucking to ease the tedium. “Now that I've retired, it's nothing but one long dry spell. I'm happy to go back to picking up someone in a bar now that I can walk without a cane, but you're easier. More convenient.” He salted his fries and picked one up, then bit into it, relishing the taste. “More fun.”

“Well, points for me, I guess.” Adam sounded circumspect about it, which was better than pissed off. “I sort of lost my social circle, when I left Julia. I mean, they weren't really my friends to begin with; they were always hers. I didn't have anything else outside of her and her friends and her life. I figured I'd focus on getting my feet under me for a couple of years before I worried about what would happen next. I wasn't going to date. I know, I know, this isn't a date...” He held his hands up in placation, then sighed. “I wasn't going to do anything, including having sex. Women are complicated; they've always been complicated. I won't lie, though. It'd be nice to have someone to get off with, without the complication.”

“Exactly,” Karl said. Thank God for comprehension dawning; he'd been wondering how he could put it any more simply than that. “No complications. Just sex when it's a good time for both of us until the job's over.” Watching Adam's long fingers dunk a fry in a pool of ketchup and a smear of that ketchup get licked from the corner of Adam's mouth a moment later, Karl felt that now was an excellent time. This place had a bathroom, didn't it? Adam seemed to be hungrier than he'd admitted to, though; the tenderloin sandwich was disappearing fast, though the horseradish was untouched. Karl picked up his own sandwich and took a bite. The beef was tender and the bread fresh; he slathered on some horseradish and savored his second mouthful.

“Everything fine here?”

Why did servers always ask you that when your mouth was full? Karl gave her a nod and swallowed, but she'd already gone over to the men playing pool, warning them to keep the noise down and taking their order for more drinks with a faint frown on her face. The men were getting raucous, though they didn't look like the type to start a fight. The two men waiting for their turn at the pool table who'd already tried to get the three men to move on were a different matter. Karl didn't judge by appearances, but he didn't make the mistake of ignoring what they told him either. He'd been listening to what was going on a few yards away without really taking it in, subconsciously aware of a potential situation in the making. Instincts that had kept him alive weren't kicking in, but they were warning him that a brawl wasn't out of the question.

Not his business. He'd wanted to play a game with Adam, but if the table wasn't free when they finished eating, there were other games they could play, after all.

They talked a little more as they ate, the conversation ranging from the addition of the new pool that had created the landscaping work Adam was doing now to a few of the books Adam had read recently. The whole time, Karl was aware of the conversation between the two groups of men over at the pool tables becoming less and less friendly, and if the quick glances Adam was throwing in that direction meant anything, so was he.

“They're having a good time,” Karl said casually, wondering what kind of response that might get.

“You think so?” Adam frowned and licked his thumb clean before hitching his chair back a couple of inches. “They've had a few too many.” He was watching the men openly now, seeming more thoughtful than worried.

“Let me take that for you,” the server said, appearing at their table again and picking up Adam's now empty plate. “I'm sorry about them. They've only been in here a few times, and there hasn't been any trouble until now.”

That was the moment when the bar's atmosphere, already unsettled, flipped over into full chaos. The two men who'd been hassling the pool players snapped at virtually the same time, one of them pushing another man to the floor and the second hitting the tallest pool player in the face. Time slowed down for Karl then. He got to his feet and put himself without thought into the midst of the fight, shielding a table of four women until they were able to flee to the relative safety of the bar. After that, it didn't take long for him to snap the pool cue out of someone else's hands. He used it to hit one of the troublemakers in the throat—not hard enough to kill him, but plenty hard to remove him from the fight with that one blow since few men can throw punches when they're on their knees struggling for breath.

Swinging around, Karl brought the cue up between the second drunk guy's legs, hitting him solidly in the balls. The guy collapsed instantly, though he managed to smack the cue on his way down, throwing Karl off balance and making him stagger into the nearest pool table. The point of contact was his still-healing leg. A flash of pain so breathtaking that he saw white went through him, and he leaned over the table, gasping and waiting for it to pass even as another part of his brain was monitoring the situation.

“Hey,” he heard close to his ear, as Adam's solid arm went around his waist. “Easy there. Breathe.”

Dazed, his breath coming in uneven pants, Karl leaned on Adam, dimly aware of a strength that he hadn't really acknowledged before. “I'm okay,” he managed to say. “Hit my fucking leg.”

“You hit more than that.”

It hurt too much to think. Fuck, it hurt more than getting shot had. Karl, who'd dragged himself through a mile of Florida swamp with a broken ankle and made good time doing it, found himself unable to contemplate walking to the nearest chair without help. This was ridiculous.

“I've got you,” Adam said into his ear, words that were meant to be reassuring, and were, though Karl tried to whip up some irritation at being spoken to like a kid with a scraped knee.

The babble of noise from around Karl rose and crashed over him, breaking into the moment. People were talking loudly, their voices excited or annoyed. Overturned furniture was being picked up, and from the floor, two men were making guttural sounds of pain. Karl straightened and pushed free of Adam for the two seconds long enough to realize that being independent wasn't going to work. His leg wouldn't take his weight at all. He grabbed on to a willing Adam again and steadied himself, assessing the situation automatically.

Two men down. The three pool players were standing, but blood was dripping from one man's nose, and one of his friends looked close to throwing up. The third was already jabbering into a phone, telling someone what had happened, as if the need to share something thrilling trumped helping his friend. Karl rolled his eyes and then turned slightly as a hand tugged at his sleeve.

“You need to get out of here,” the bartender said bluntly. “The cops are on the way. Feel free to blame me. I didn't make the call, but I would've if someone else hadn't done it first, and you deserve better than getting mixed up in a whole lot of questions. I don't know you, can't describe you, and the meal's on the house. Are we good here? Because if we are, there's an employees-only door at the side of the bar that leads out into the parking lot.”

“Yeah,” Karl said. “We're good.” To Adam, he said, “Let's go.” It was in a tone of voice that didn't allow for argument, and Adam didn't argue. He just shifted his weight to get a better grip on Karl and nodded.

It was a short trip to the side door and not far from there to Karl's car in the parking lot, though it felt like a hell of a lot farther because of the way he was limping. He was simultaneously grateful for Adam's presence and furious for needing him, which meant that when Adam paused to lean him against the hood, patting his pockets for his keys, Karl slapped Adam's hand away and snapped, “Fuck off.”

Adam held up his hands. “Sorry. I just thought... Well, you can't drive, can you?”

“No,” Karl snarled. “Though that doesn't mean you get to treat me like I'm not here. If you want something, ask.”

“I'll remember that,” Adam said patiently. “Can I please have your keys? Do you want to go to the emergency room?”

Fishing around in his pocket, Karl found his keys and shoved them at Adam, who took them. “No. No emergency room. I just need to get home and get off it.” He probably needed more than that, but he'd worry about that later, when they weren't standing in a darkened parking lot with the wail of police sirens in the distance.

“Okay, good.” Adam seemed more capable of dealing with unexpected situations than Karl would have guessed, and he managed to get Karl into the passenger seat without making his leg scream any louder than it already was. He adjusted the driver's seat, pulled the car neatly to the edge of the parking lot, waited until the police cruisers that had screeched to a halt in front of the restaurant were empty, and started up the street. “Do you have anything you can take? Pain pills or something?”

“No,” Karl said, trying not to growl as he gingerly straightened his leg as far as he could in the confines of the passenger seat well. Not very far, it turned out, and the effort made sweat stand out on his face. “Why would I need them? I was feeling fine until I lost my mind and got involved in a bar fight, of all things, trying to save the asses of three corporate jerks who can't hold their liquor. Jesus, how stupid can you get? If I ever show signs of being a hero again, feel free to stop me. It's really not my style.”

“It was your bad leg, right?” Adam turned his head to look at Karl, who managed not to bitch at him to keep his eyes on the road. “What? I saw you naked, remember? I might be clueless, but I can still tell when a scar is fresh. Are you sure you don't want to go to the ER?”

Karl gritted his teeth as they hit a bump in the road. “Fuck! Watch it. Yes, I'm sure I don't want to go to the fucking emergency room. What I want right now is for someone who can actually drive to replace you behind the wheel, because never mind a new leg, I'm going to need a new spine by the time you get me home.”

He knew it wasn't Adam's fault that the road was uneven. The other man had the sense to keep quiet for the rest of the drive, at least, and Karl clenched his jaw and didn't do more than mutter a few curses along the way.

When they'd pulled past the guard at the gate and driven through the community and up to the house, with Adam parking as close to the steps leading up to the front door as he could, Adam cleared his throat. “Is it safe to offer to help you inside, or do you want me to get someone less incompetent to do that?”

“If you let anyone see me like this, I'll beat you to death with the fucking cane I'll be using for the next week.” Karl grabbed Adam's wrist, holding him in place when Adam began to open the car door. “Come here.” Without waiting to see if Adam was too angry to want it, he hauled the man close for a kiss that was, he knew, more of an assault. He crushed Adam's mouth against his, his hand sliding up to cradle the back of Adam's head, and took a hit of the taste he'd been hungry for all night.

Adam didn't pull away, just kissed Karl back just as hungrily. Karl poured himself into it, eager for anything that would delay the inevitable need to make his painful way into the house and for a distraction from how thoroughly fucked-up his leg was. He didn't want to have to think about whether he'd ever fully recover from being shot—he far preferred licking his way into Adam's mouth, feeling the slick warmth of Adam's tongue across his own, the solid strength of Adam's skull in his hand. He'd have been pretty happy to stay there, kissing Adam all night.

Eventually, though, Adam did lean back slightly and murmur, “Hey, if you want to do this, let's at least get you inside and comfortable, okay?”

“I'm not sure I'm up for more than that, but I was damned if I was going to let you walk away without something to seal the deal.” Karl rested his forehead against Adam's for a moment, calming himself, preparing for what was going to be an unpleasant fifteen minutes or so. “Stick around long enough to get me upstairs? I really don't want to do it on my hands and knees, and that's looking likely.”

The house was empty. Sophie would have gone home to her small apartment a few miles away. There was a small room off the kitchen for Della, the housekeeper, to sleep in if Karl had a big party planned. He wasn't the partying type, so it had gone unused.

The house was empty. Lit up, waiting for him to come home, but empty.

It was a profoundly and unusually depressing thought, and it made him glad for Adam's presence as they made their way into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom that still didn't really feel like his. “Here, just—yeah, like that,” Adam said as Karl collapsed down onto the bed in relief. Not that that made his leg stop hurting like a mother, but at least getting his weight off it helped. “Hang on.”

Adam disappeared into the connecting bathroom and came back a minute later with a pill bottle and a glass of water.

“These, right?” He held the bottle so that Karl could see it, and Karl took it from him, popped the top off, and swallowed two pills dry—it was easier than sitting up for the water. It was also one pill more than he normally would have let himself take, and he wasn't sure he wanted to analyze that decision too carefully.

“Jesus, that knock hurt.” Karl looked at Adam, who was still standing beside the bed and still holding the glass of water. “Well, go on.”

“Go on, what?” Adam blinked, confused.

“Get out of here. Don't worry, I'll be fine. You don't have to feel guilty.” Karl shut his eyes, determined to pretend that he was drifting off to sleep.

Adam didn't leave. Even with his eyes closed, Karl could practically see him standing there. “You, um, want me to go?” Adam asked.

“Why would you want to stay? In about ten minutes, I'll be dead to the world. There's no need to stick around and play nurse, though thanks for the offer, I guess.”

Karl opened his eyes and sighed. Adam was managing to look both irresolute and immovable. Neat trick. “Look, I knocked my leg. A million nerve endings are screaming „bad boy' at me, and tomorrow, if it's still hurting, I'll get it checked out. Right now, I'm going to pass out and forget I was an idiot. I don't need help for that.”

“I could take your shoes and pants off, at least,” Adam said. “You don't want to go to sleep fully dressed.”

The pills would kick in soon, nibbling away at the edges of the pain and making it something Karl could surround and control. Barely. Moving to strip would set alarm bells ringing and sirens wailing again, but he knew that Adam was right. With any luck, halfway through he'd pass out completely. With a resigned nod, he lay back and waited for Adam to join him on the bed in a twisted version of how Karl had seen the evening ending.

Chapter Six

After easing off Karl's shoes and trousers as carefully as possible, Aiden folded the pants and put them on a nearby chair, shoes lined up neatly underneath it. He sat in another chair for a while, keeping quiet. “Can I get you anything?” he asked, keeping his voice low, after some time had passed. Karl mumbled something unintelligible. It occurred to Aiden that the pain pills were probably hitting Karl hard on top of the beer he'd had with dinner, although he could have expected an even deeper sleep if it hadn't been for the sandwich. He spent a few more minutes, calculating Karl's weight, the dosage of the pills, and how long Karl would be out.

This was the perfect opportunity to explore the house.

Aiden sat in the doorway and waited another ten minutes until Karl was fully relaxed and on the verge of snoring. “Karl?” he said, in a normal voice. There was no response.

In the hallway, Aiden slipped off his shoes and left them there, figuring he'd be quieter without them even if some of the house was carpeted in a thick white carpet so plush that it probably would have been comfortable to sleep on.

He knew more of the layout of the house than he'd revealed to Karl. Plans of it had been made available to him, and he'd studied them carefully, noting possible locations for a safe in the wall or under the floor. Now, freed of the need to watch his back, he moved swiftly through the house to Karl's office. It was as good a place to start as any, even though it was also the place most likely to be guarded by security devices. He hadn't confirmed the existence of cameras inside the house, but Aiden knew that there were some dotted around the gated community. He'd been inside the gatehouse a few times, chatting to Tony or his relief. There was a monitor system in place, with cameras on the road and the driveways, the images fed back to the gate and displayed on a split screen. No cameras on the houses themselves, though. The people who lived here valued their privacy and their safety; the two needs had to be juggled.

Inside the house was a different matter. Karl seemed to like his privacy, but a man in his position would know all about the need for security. He and his team had broken through enough of it in their time.

Aiden stood in the doorway of the office, chewing his lip. Go in and risk blowing his cover only to find nothing, or waste an opportunity that wouldn't come along again? There was really no choice. He'd been told by Diane that Karl's former team was getting ready to leave the country. Last time they'd done that, it'd been to carry out a raid on a camp of insurgents in Afghanistan to rescue a kidnapped British journalist. The raid had been financed by a group of businessmen who, from the little that Aiden had been told, weren't acting purely out of humanitarian impulses. The journalist, who'd been acting as a courier, had information they needed, and they were prepared to pay to get it. The journalist's fate was of less concern. To a certain extent, the operation had been a success. The journalist had been brought out alive—barely—however, the civilian casualties incurred had included several children, blown up when they'd strayed into the camp, begging for food at the same time that the charges the mercenaries had planted had been triggered.

From what Aiden knew of the man who'd taken over from Blake, Brandon Simes, that wouldn't have mattered at all.

Under Karl, the mercenaries had been an effective and reasonably contained force, one that the US government had used a few times. They'd carried out missions that, if less unofficial and less unorthodox, might have gotten them commendations. Instead, it'd made some of them wealthy men. Like Karl. Wealth obtained by looting, Aiden guessed.

The hope that Blake's former company, now under the direction of Simes, could be trusted or even brought back under control had been shattered after that mission. Aiden had been given the job of getting as much information from Karl Blake as he could. Was Simes's current modus operandi something that had started under Blake's supervision? Was it a tendency that had been lurking in Simes all along? Did Karl approve of what was going on? All right, that last one mattered more to Aiden personally than to the investigation, and that was something that bugged him. He wasn't supposed to give a shit about Blake. He certainly hadn't come into this intending to, and the fact that part of him was starting to like the guy confused the hell out of him.

Aiden really hated being confused.

A careful search of Karl's desk didn't turn up anything that Aiden could use. A few interesting and possibly incriminating tidbits, sure, but nothing that would be of value to the investigation, and that was what he was supposed to be focusing on. The desk that belonged to Karl's secretary was another matter. Aiden didn't dare risk turning on Sophie Lewis's computer; if access was logged, suspicion would fall on him, and it was most likely password protected, anyway. Even these days, though, people still clung to paper records—and one tip Aiden had picked up from his mentor, Dave, was to check wastepaper bins. Sophie's contained the usual mixture; used Kleenex, candy bar wrappers, an empty pen—and a sheet of scrap paper, torn into quarters and crumpled. Aiden smoothed the pieces out on the desk and did a very easy jigsaw puzzle. Aiden's department dealt mostly with stolen gems; the scribbled notations might have looked cryptic to a lot of people, but not to him. Sophie had been estimating the yield from the sale of diamonds. A lot of diamonds, judging by the total scribbled and circled. Was Sophie being overly optimistic? Aiden tapped his finger against the doodles in the corner of the paper, frowning. Hearts and arrows. That wasn't a code; it was the most desirable—and difficult—way to cut a diamond to maximize its brilliance. Aiden had seen that cut in his training through a hearts-and-arrows scope and marveled at the precision involved. One slip, and the perfection of the alignment of the facets was ruined and the effect lost. If some or all of these diamonds had been perfectly cut in that pattern, their value would appreciate considerably.

Diamonds. Blake had been on a mission in Brazil, close to the Mato Grosso region, which in the last fifty years or so had seen the discovery of many of the kimberlite pipes in which diamonds were so often found. The diamonds hadn't been extracted without spilling blood. Illegal prospectors had swarmed into the area, and in 2004 over forty had been killed in a single attack. If Blake's mission had involved the discovery of a cache of diamonds, belonging to a warlord maybe, and he'd calmly pocketed them...

Aiden exhaled, his mind whirling. Shit, this could explain everything about Karl's sudden wealth, but proving it wouldn't be easy, and prosecuting Blake for stealing something from a thief could result in a huge tangle of paperwork, especially if the diamonds had already been sold. The paper he held proved nothing; it was all pure speculation, though instinct told him that he was on the right track. The paper wasn't admissible evidence, but he took it anyway, folding it carefully and slipping it into his pocket.

Maybe they could use it as a lever, if nothing else.

He was uneasily aware that Karl was going to be difficult to manipulate. The idea was that once Aiden had something to hold over Karl, he could be pressured into cooperating with the investigation of Simes's excesses, always assuming that Blake wasn't involved with them. Nothing about the man indicated that he'd roll over on Simes without coercion; with Blake, loyalty went bone deep. However, he also had a reputation for being pragmatic. Spending time in prison—a lot of time— to protect a man who, from all accounts, was acting in a way Blake would disapprove of strongly, didn't make much sense.

Aiden was starting to think that a lot of things about Karl made no sense. The big house that fit him as well as shoes fit a duck. The impulse to protect, even when it cost him physically. The steamroller seduction routine, stripped of any tenderness, coupled with the unexpected flashes of consideration. If Aiden had been new to being fucked—and God, pretending he was had been so goddamned hard— Karl would have made the perfect man for his first experience. Not for everyone, granted. Scott would have freaked at the setting, the speed at which Karl had operated, and the biting, but Aiden had appreciated the oddly gentle handling until Karl was certain Adam was ready as much as he'd appreciated the thorough reaming of his ass that had followed.

The guilt that hit him later had rubbed off some of the shine, but in that moment he'd been flying.

He didn't let himself think about Karl's reaction when he discovered that his gardener was a Fed. With luck, he'd be working another case by then and their paths wouldn't cross. Dallas was a big city.

Nothing else to see here. Time to check on Karl one last time and then go home. Scott was working nights at the ER, so Adam might as well spend the night at home. His apartment was closer than the house Aiden shared with Scott.

Or maybe Adam should sleep in Karl's large bed, so that when Karl woke up, a concerned, friendly face was the first sight he saw.

He went back to Karl's room and wished there was some sort of handbook for this situation as he stood beside Karl's bed and watched the man sleep. What was the better option? To leave Karl on his own and avoid sparking the man's annoyance at needing to be watched over? Or to stay and hope that Karl would secretly—and probably only secretly—appreciate the concern shown?

It wasn't an easy call. If Karl put pain pills on top of beer, even that small amount, the better thing to do would be to stay. That brought into play the question of how Karl would feel waking up with Adam in his bed. In the end, Aiden stripped off all his clothes, pulled back the covers, and slid between the sheets. Surely a naked and willing partner would distract Karl from anything else he might think.

Aiden didn't intend to sleep, but he did. He dreamed of incidents he'd read about in Karl's file, confusing scenes merging into one another—the only constant Karl's face and gruff voice. When he woke, it was very early morning, still dark outside, and he was pressed to Karl's back with an arm thrown over the other man's waist, his lips against Karl's spine.

For a moment, caught in the dreamlike state of the just woken, he panicked. Not his bed, not his room, not Scott warm against him—but the bed was cradling him, the room, even in the dark, held no threats, and Karl's scent had wound itself into his memory at some point, as had the feel of Karl's lean, muscular body. Aiden exhaled and felt Karl stir, rousing from sleep between one breath and the next.

“Adam.”

Karl's voice was husky, pitched low, as if the darkness compelled a whisper, not a shout. He didn't sound surprised or welcoming; there was an amused resignation about the single word. Aiden—slipping into the role of Adam, the unsure, slightly nervous, flatteringly eager gardener—relaxed.

“I thought I told you to go home.” As he spoke, Karl's hand moved up to capture Aiden's, his fingers clasping and then stroking with a slow, sure touch. “You don't seem to be very good about following some orders, but I suppose I can't complain about you disobeying this one.”

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” Aiden said. His lips moved against Karl's skin as he spoke; it felt almost painfully intimate, and the rest of his body responded, nerves waking and coming alive. “I didn't want to leave you alone. What if something happened?”

“I'm a big boy,” Karl said. His hand moved, sliding down over his stomach, and took Aiden's with it. “See?”

The solid heat of Karl's erection fit perfectly into Aiden's hand, and he curled his fingers around it instinctively, Karl's hand still pressed against his. So easy to do from this angle, to grip and tease, his hand moving on Karl as it would on his own cock.

Karl sighed, a long, deep sigh of pleasure. “God, yes. Feels good.”

Aiden eased back to allow his own rapidly stiffening cock space and then let it rest against Karl's ass, snug yet not threatening as it might have been if he'd slid it between Karl's legs. Something told him that Karl didn't bottom, and Adam wouldn't push for something that Aiden would have loved if circumstances had been different.

If he wasn't with Scott.

Taking what Karl gave was one thing, part of his job; fucking him would feel like a new level of betrayal.

“How's the leg?” he murmured in Karl's ear, then licked the edge of it for good measure.

“Can't say I'm thinking about it too much right now,” Karl answered. He let his hand slide to Aiden's wrist and gripped it lightly as Aiden stroked him.

“Good. That's the idea.” As much as Aiden was trying to keep his distance emotionally, it wasn't easy when his dick was rubbing against Karl's bare ass, when Karl's cock was slicking over his fingers. He kissed the back of Karl's neck, then, remembering Adam's voice, whispered, “Can I, um...can I suck you again?”

Karl turned toward Aiden, wincing slightly as he settled into a comfortable position on his back and tugging Aiden's hair to pull him down into a kiss. “Stupid question.”

Aiden grinned and slid down along Karl's body until his lips were hovering over Karl's cock. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess it was.” And he took Karl into his mouth, making sure to allow his teeth to graze sensitive skin just a little bit to show his inexperience. He tried to remember what it had been like to suck cock back when he was young and clueless; it was weird to try to re-create that, but he did his best, and Karl's soft, encouraging moan spurred him on.

“You're a fast learner,” Karl murmured. “I like that.”

Aiden threw in a daring, experimental attempt to swallow Karl to the root and choked. That wasn't entirely faked; Karl's dick was a crucial inch, inch and a half, longer than Scott's, and without a visual to help, Aiden had misjudged his head bob. It got him a chuckle and a caressing, indulgent pat on his head. Karl in the morning, even before coffee, seemed unusually mellow. Aiden wondered just how long it'd been since Karl woke with company. Aiden loved turning to Scott in the morning and exchanging drowsy kisses, their mouths sticky with sleep, their hands roving over each other with a lazy familiarity. The ticking clock usually meant that they didn't have time for sex, though. Aiden beat off in the shower if he was really in the mood, or just let his morning wood be whittled down by the mundane nature of his morning routine. If Karl had been missing out on that—and he probably had, if he'd been going from casual date to bar pickup—maybe this would really get Aiden some brownie points.

“Right now, I like a lot of things about you,” Karl said, ending on a gasp as Aiden delivered some lavish, enthusiastic licks to the crown of Karl's dick. He was starting to get into this, even if it did feel like repeating first grade after graduating high school. Poor Karl; he'd never get to really see what Aiden could do with a cock in his mouth. Deep throating was the least of it. “Yeah, that's nice.”

“I like it too,” Aiden said against the base of Karl's dick, then turned his attention to Karl's balls. The skin there was so soft under the fuzz of hair, and the way that it crinkled and tightened with each lick of Aiden's tongue turned him on. He was aching now with his own need; he shifted so he could rub his erection against the sheets. Sucking one of Karl's balls with his mouth warm and relaxed earned him more moans, and teasing Karl's foreskin caused a sharp intake of breath and a drop of clear fluid to form at the tip. God, he really wanted this spectacular dick inside him again, fucking him long and hard. That thought, though, was immediately followed by a pang of guilt, and he pulled back, replacing his mouth with his hand as he looked up at Karl's face.

“What?” Karl asked.

Aiden shook his head, because he didn't know what he expected. “What...what do you want?” he asked instead, putting some of Adam's characteristic shyness into his tone. “I mean, I don't... Do you want to fuck me?”

“Top of my to-do list,” Karl said, his features indistinct, but growing clearer in the gradually lightening room. “We don't have to do that right now, though.”

“I want to,” Aiden said, surprising himself by the flash of hunger he felt, an ache of need replacing the guilt. Adam. He was Adam. Adam didn't have a boyfriend; Adam didn't care about anything except making Karl happy because Adam got off on the hint—hell, more than that—of danger and anger that colored Karl's words and actions. This was a wounded, caged lion, a man-eater, and Aiden was inside the cage with it, his hand petting a predator who'd proved in the bar just how easily he could go from purring to pouncing, claws out.

Aiden had claws of his own. God, it'd cost him, just watching that fight, not daring to join in because he could fake being new to sex but not to fighting, not in front of a pro. Like Adam, he didn't care if he got marked up as long as he could come up with a good excuse if Scott asked questions. The lines were starting to blur between him and his undercover identity. Karl knew that Adam liked being bitten and bruised up—just a little, just enough—so Aiden could let that side of himself out to play. How far could he take it?

With Scott, not far at all. Scott couldn't and wouldn't hurt him. Maybe it went along with being a doctor, but Aiden didn't think so. It wasn't like he wanted Scott to whip him bloody or leave scars. He just, sometimes at least, wanted sex with an edge that cut, a fire that burned. Not literally, which was how a freaked-out, disapproving Scott seemed to interpret Aiden's halting attempts to get across what it was he needed.

Karl didn't talk about it; he just did it as naturally as breathing, giving Aiden one hell of a wild ride in the process.

“Yeah?” Karl asked. When Aiden nodded his head, jerkily, just a shade too fast, but with his hand dropping down to palm his dick, sending a truer message of intent, Karl smiled. “Fine. Get what you need from the top drawer, left-hand side table. Then show me how well you can ride, cowboy.”

It didn't take long, even with some added hesitation, to find a condom and the lube in the drawer, nor to smooth the condom onto Karl's cock. It felt good in Aiden's hand, warm and solid, and Aiden knew it would feel even better inside him. He had to act like he didn't know what he was doing, though, so when he straddled Karl's torso he settled his weight on Karl's thighs, too low, then frowned and inched his way higher, his balls brushing against Karl's length as he moved.

“Sorry,” he muttered, keeping his gaze trained on the pillows instead of Karl's face.

“It's okay,” Karl said gently. “You'll figure it out.”

Aiden was sure that Karl liked this, the illusion of being the one in control, the one who knew what he was doing, the teacher, and it was easy enough to provide that illusion. It showed that the guy wasn't a total asshole, though, that he was kind enough to be encouraging instead of laughing at his partner's inept fumbling.

Of course, maybe Karl just didn't want to risk embarrassing him in case he bailed. There was virtually no danger of that, though Aiden decided to test Karl further—for no good reason other than to assuage his own curiosity—by accidentally squeezing the lube bottle too vigorously. The clear, slick liquid spilled out over Aiden's cupped hand and puddled on Karl's stomach, but Karl just said mildly, “No such thing as too much lube,” and scooped some of it up with his fingers to spread it over his condom-clad erection.

“I'll remember that,” Aiden said and, because Karl had earned it, leaned over and kissed him, a darting, brief touch of lips that didn't end a moment later, as Aiden had intended, but continued. It was awkward; Karl's hand was hovering, still slippery with lube, and Aiden was unbalanced, too much weight on his left hand, because his right still held the lube, yet somehow the kiss worked, turning openmouthed and intimate, their tongues touching, tasting. Aiden felt Karl's teeth tug at his lower lip, a habit of Karl's that made Aiden shiver with anticipation, a frisson of arousal sizzling through him.

They broke apart, staring at each other, Aiden dazed by the speed at which Karl got him to the point where his body was screaming at him to hurry, Karl eying him as if he were breakfast.

Without speaking, Karl reached down and held his cock up and away from his stomach, a spear of flesh that Aiden was dying to sink down onto, slowly, so very fucking slowly, inch by inch until they were both sweating, panting for the hard fucking to come. He capped the bottle and tossed it aside, then dragged his hand through the spilled lube on Karl's stomach. “I need some of this in me, right?”

Karl nodded. “Do it yourself this time. I want to see your face when you've got two fingers up you. Show me how that makes you feel.”

Strangely, that felt like the most intimate thing they'd done so far—it was one thing to let someone fuck him from behind, and another entirely to slide his own fingers up his ass while Karl watched his face. Aiden started with one, biting his lip as his body opened up around the intrusion and trying to be as rough as he could while making it look like he was being gentle. The addition of his second finger a minute later, awkward in this position, did make his erection wilt convincingly, and he let a small whimper escape him, his eyes searching out Karl's for the reassurance that Adam would want.

“Good,” Karl said, reading him just the way he'd hoped. “Tell me how it feels to fuck yourself with your fingers like that.”

“Not...not the way it does when you do it,” Aiden said, his voice shaky. “It's just—I want, I want your cock in me. Please.”

Karl grinned, his teeth showing white. All the better to eat you with, my dear. “You'll get it,” he promised. “Since you asked so nicely.”

Asked? Aiden had heard himself, and he'd been begging. He was willing to beg even more fluently and convincingly if it'd get him what he wanted.

“Come up here a minute,” Karl said unexpectedly and reached back to push the pillows up higher, supporting his head. When Aiden stared at him, allowing his confusion to show, Karl frowned and held up his hand, then snapped his fingers, a crisp, clean sound. “Get your ass up here. I want to get you hard again. Hell, you can even come if you want to. It might make it easier on you if you're relaxed.”

Awkwardly, his cock already showing renewed signs of interest, his fingers still buried deeply, Aiden shuffled up the bed until his cock was within reach of Karl's mouth. “I don't know... Should I stop? My fingers, I mean.”

Karl shook his head and reached around. His fingers, still coated with lube, slid into the crack of Aiden's ass. Holding Aiden's gaze, Karl let a single finger circle Aiden's hole, crammed with two fingers, aching for more. The moment before it was pushed inside, stretching Aiden wide, felt endless. Aiden's breath escaped him in a sobbed-out whimper and he offered a whisper. “Please...”

Three fingers hurt, but Karl's mouth was open, waiting, and Aiden arched his hips obediently, pushing inside it, then pulled back to grind helplessly against the fingers inside him because as much as he wanted the wet heat of Karl's mouth, he needed the burn in his ass more. It scratched every itch he had to be filled so painfully, to be so perfectly possessed. Even if two of the fingers were his, they were moving at Karl's command, back and forth, pushing deeper.

Karl let Aiden's cock rub against his cheek, leaving it damp. The sun was rising now, light sifting into the room through a window whose curtains were only half-drawn. “Still feel good?” Karl asked, his finger working in and out slowly. Aiden could feel it rub against his fingers, and the knowledge of what they were doing together sent a shudder through him, shame and lust competing for supremacy.

God, it hurt and it felt so good, and after a sex life in which he'd usually been the one in control, being Karl's puppet felt shockingly right. He didn't want it to stop. He let himself fuck Karl's mouth with a lazy abandon that was like drifting, floating, and for one incredible moment, he didn't care if he ever came. He just wanted to stop time right then and there.

In the next moment, his cock jolted and he started to come, and that was even better. He groaned, shuddering on his knees, the scalding heat of Karl's mouth around the tip of his erection a revelation. His balls throbbed with the last few spurts, and he slid his fingers—and Karl's finger at the same time—free, causing a ripple effect that made him groan again. Thigh muscles trembling with the effort of holding himself up, he eased his softening dick from between Karl's reddened, swollen lips, his ass clenching on nothing. He felt exhausted, devastated, and was grateful that Adam might have been silent following such a powerful orgasm because he, Aiden, had no words.

Karl ran his tongue over his lips, his gaze flickering between Aiden's cock and face. He nodded, as if Aiden had just answered a question that had never been spoken, and his hands moved to cup Aiden's ass, his fingers splayed wide, digging in.

Aiden wanted to beg again, this time for a break, but something in Karl's expression told him that he wouldn't get it. Karl had done what he'd done to get Aiden relaxed, and it had worked. He was floating, a wrung-out wreck, his ass ripe for the taking, worked open and ready by fingers and lube. Aiden fought to control his ragged breathing, hypnotized by the passes of Karl's tongue as it licked his lips clean, bringing the taste of Aiden's semen into his mouth again. Behind him, sheathed and hard, Karl's cock waited to be taken inside Aiden's body.

With a moan of both distress and delight, Aiden edged backward and sank down, the prod and nudge of Karl's cock a few inches away from where it needed to be. He writhed, wanton, shameless, and got the head lodged against the slippery opening to his body.

“Easy,” Karl cautioned him, hissing the word, his hands tightening in a warning on Aiden's ass as if to hold him in place.

“No. Now.”

Karl must have wanted it too, that forceful shove downward Aiden gave that sent Karl's cock plunging deep inside him, bringing a strangled cry from Aiden, because Karl's hands loosened their grip as soon as Aiden began to move.

They fucked like wild men, like men with nothing on their minds except the physical pleasure of bodies moving. Karl's thrusts were impatient, almost violent, but Aiden was doing everything he could to encourage more. He half turned and clamped a hand onto Karl's upraised knee for balance, his other hand braced on the mattress beside Karl's rib cage. It was an awkward position made more awkward by his awareness of Karl's bad leg and the fact that he was still post-orgasm shaky, muscles screaming for oxygen. He couldn't have paused, though, not even long enough for a few deep breaths. The sensation of his body being played by such a talent was a heady, addictive one.

“Don't stop,” he managed to get out. “God, Karl...more. I need—”

Karl snarled something that Aiden guessed was agreement and took a deep breath, his chest rising, the dark smattering of hair on it flattened with sweat. They both reeked of sex, sweat and lube, spunk and musk, smells Aiden loved, scents that stirred his body, rousing it to excesses he knew he'd regret later but never now. They could clean up, scrub their bodies until their skin smelled of nothing except soap and water, pale, bland scents. They could wash the creased, stained sheets, but neither would wipe the memory of the smell away.

Karl pushed himself up so that he was sitting, Aiden in his lap riding Karl's cock, and then he pushed Aiden backward, managing, despite his leg, to follow Aiden down so that they landed, sprawled, with Karl on top, his cock still half inside Aiden. One thrust, and he was as far in as he could get again. The new angle sent a shock of sensation through Aiden, and he wailed, a soundless, breathless wail, his mouth hanging open, pleasure robbing him of control. Oh God. Karl's teeth dug into Aiden's shoulder, a sharp, bright pain, and Aiden drew his nails down Karl's back in response, scoring the skin.

For that, Karl paused, though only long enough to put his hands on Aiden's knees, pushing them up and back until Aiden took over, hooking his hands under his knees. Aiden was wide open, spread out obscenely, completely, for Karl to look at and for a long moment, Karl did. His gaze traveled from Aiden's face, flushed hotly, tear-stained too, though Aiden would deny that, down to Aiden's cock, where a thin, clear line of fluid showed just how close he was to coming again.

Karl rubbed his thumb roughly through the fluid, smearing it across skin so sensitized that even a light touch would have been unbearable, before shoving his thumb into Aiden's mouth to suck. When Aiden was making garbled, whimpering sounds around it, Karl pulled his thumb free. Without taking his eyes off Aiden, he reached down and circled Aiden's stretched hole with his fingertips. “You want more?”

He shouldn't; his brain was still functioning enough to tell him that, to posit the question Would Adam want more? The rest of Aiden, his nervous system lit up like a Christmas tree, didn't care, though. It was what parted his lips to force out an affirmative that wasn't a word so much as a desperate whine. And Karl heard it, understood, and with his next hard thrust added one of his fingers along with his cock. Aiden's hands tightened on his legs, opening himself a few millimeters wider to lessen the burn. He was stretched to the limit, the fragile skin of his asshole on fire with it.

It took him a few more thrusts before he realized that the high-pitched keening was coming from him. God, he was so close to what he knew was going to be the best orgasm of his life. His balls hurt, his cock hurt, and every shift of Karl's body in either direction just pushed him closer to the edge.

Karl leaned in closer, propping his weight on his forearm. This put his chest close enough that Aiden's cock could brush against it, which took him even nearer to the explosion of ecstasy he knew was waiting for him. He wanted it, but his patience was exhausted. “I can't,” he gasped, arching his body under Karl's solid weight. “I'm so... God, please.”

“Come on, kid,” Karl said gruffly. “I've got you.” And shoved another finger into Aiden's ass, which was finally enough—there was a bright flare of pain, and Aiden cried out and convulsed as pleasure shot through him, grateful that Karl had him pinned down to keep him from flying apart. Karl's fingers slipped away, and Aiden felt his muscles clench greedily around Karl's cock, holding it in place. He needed it there as he slowly rebuilt what his climax had shattered. Karl was grounding him, real and solid, a reassuring weight. Aiden was having trouble breathing—partly because of that weight, partly because his body seemed to have forgotten the necessary steps.

Karl eased up a bit, braced on his forearms, his expression a blur through Aiden's unfocused eyes. Aiden let his legs slip down to the bed and sucked in deep, shaky gulps of air. He'd never been this wiped out by coming before. His body was reporting in about places that hurt, and the messages weren't getting through the fog of euphoria. Not yet.

Which was why, when Karl began to move, Aiden didn't moan a denial but a welcome, too wiped out to respond in the way Karl deserved, yet in the moment enough to stay relaxed and open. It didn't take long. Karl grunted, a raw, deep sound, and tensed, holding still for a second and then slamming into Aiden in a blurred series of thrusts that ended just as Aiden's mouth was trying to shape Karl's name.

Karl lowered himself, twisting so that he lay mostly on the bed, not Aiden, still inside him, though Aiden could already feel the slow withdrawal begin.

Aiden's arm was between the mattress and Karl's body—with effort, he moved it slightly, resting his hand on the small of Karl's back, which was slick with sweat. He could feel Karl's heartbeat thudding against his wrist, or maybe that was his own. It didn't matter. Right then, it felt like they were the same.

“Better move, or you're gonna be sore as hell,” Karl murmured finally and eased the rest of the way out of him.

Aiden winced. “Too late.” Now that the endorphins were starting to fade, the aches likely to overcome him later were blossoming.

“Got to pay the piper.” Karl spoke ruefully enough that Aiden realized he probably wasn't the only one suffering.

“Your leg—”

“Hurts like hell,” Karl said and bit Aiden's shoulder gently enough that it felt more like a kiss. “Don't worry; you were worth it.”

Chapter Seven

Aiden could feel Karl's eyes on him all that day, as he did hours of yard work with the sun beating down him, his aching ass a constant reminder of what they'd done that morning. It wouldn't have surprised him to find Karl smirking, though he never did no matter how many times he glanced at the man. Karl spent part of the day out at the pool, sometimes with a heat or ice pack on his sore leg. Aiden had tried to convince Karl to see a doctor, but he'd insisted that he hadn't done any real damage, just bruised it, so Aiden reminded himself that he didn't really care even if Adam was supposed to and let it drop.

He didn't wave before he walked out of Karl's sight for the last time that day.

The tedious job of driving Adam's shitty truck back home was extra tedious that day. Aiden was sore as hell in a dozen places and couldn't wait to get home to a long, hot bath, hoping that a soak would relieve some of his aches. He could have stayed at the apartment. With Scott working nights he knew he wouldn't get to— wouldn't have to—see him if he went home. The bottom line was that he was all tangled up inside and wanted the comfort of his own bed.

He'd just finished filling the tub with the hottest water the water heater could crank out, his clothes kicked into a pile in the hallway, when he heard the key in the front door. Without thinking, Aiden stepped to the bathroom door, closed it, and turned the lock. Then he slid into the tub, gasping as the heat of the water reddened his skin instantly.

A moment later, he could hear Scott in the kitchen, dropping his keys on the counter like he always did. A pause, and Scott said, “Aiden?”

He was tempted not to answer, to pretend that he hadn't heard, but guilt and practicality made him speak. “Yeah, it's me. I thought you were working tonight.”

“I was, but I, uh, traded shifts with Bill. Something he had planned; I didn't ask him many questions; you know Bill and his hot dates with married women.” Scott chuckled, but even with the door between them, Aiden could tell that there was something off about Scott's voice.

“Yeah, best not to get involved,” Aiden agreed.

“You want something to drink? There's some ginger ale in the fridge.”

Aiden was about to agree when he remembered the locked door and the reason for it. “Thanks, I'll pass for now.” He could see dark smudges on his body here and there; bruises the soap wouldn't remove. His hips, his ass, his upper arms... Karl held on tightly to something he wanted, and Aiden had gotten off on being that something. Now, with Scott so close to him, he just felt dirty. Used. Fuck, why couldn't he just stop this thing with Karl; let Diane haul Karl in for questioning and leave it at that?

Because I don’t want it to stop. He was sickened by himself. Not yet. Not when he can make me feel like this.

He fitted his fingertips to a line of bruises on his hip, his hand moving through the hot water with a dreamlike languor, and pressed down hard, closing his eyes as his dick twitched and began to harden. If he didn't look, he could pretend that it wasn't him doing the touching, that his hands were tied and he couldn't stop it.

Scott was moving around the house, then called, “Hey, I think I left my cell in the car—I'm just going to run out and check. I'll be right back.”

“Okay!” The distraction yanked Aiden out of the reverie he'd been drifting into, and he realized this was his chance to get out of the tub and dressed as he heard Scott opening the front door.

As fast as he could, Aiden got out of the tub, grabbed a towel from the rack, and started drying himself as he walked toward the bedroom. Still wet, he pulled on underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt. It wouldn't cover every bruise, because there were a few on his wrists, but at least it covered the worst of it. Scrubbing the towel over his head, he realized it shouldn't have taken Scott this long to walk to the car and back, so he headed for the front room and looked out the window to check.

Scott was leaning against his car, cell phone to his ear, talking into it with an expression that was hard to label. It made something in Aiden's gut tighten to see it, and before he could think about whether it was a good idea, he lifted his hand and tapped on the glass.

Scott's head jerked up, and he stared at the house, his face blank, then it cleared and he waved at Aiden, rolling his eyes as he pointed at the phone and mouthed something Aiden couldn't catch. Scott came back into the house a moment later, grinning cheerfully. “God, you forget to uncheck the box that says 'yes, tell me more about life insurance' and you regret it forever. Don't those people have lives?”

“I guess not,” Aiden said, choosing his words carefully. “Remember the one who called on Christmas Day to ask if we needed new windows and doors?”

“How could I forget?” Scott put his phone into his pants pocket instead of dumping it into the basket where they kept their keys and wallets. He walked over to Aiden. “Mmm. You smell clean. Damp but clean. Nice.” He put his arms around Aiden and nuzzled into his neck. “How was work? Still stressing you out?”

Aiden sighed and hugged Scott, letting his chin rest on Scott's shoulder. This felt good—simple, familiar, uncomplicated. “You could say that.”

“Yeah, you're all tense, poor baby. Well, since we're both home, do you want to go out for dinner or something? You were talking about that new Thai place a couple of weeks ago, and we still haven't gotten around to trying it. Or are you too tired?” Scott pulled back and took Aiden's face between his hands, studying it. It made Aiden feel exposed. He worried what Scott might see there; however, all Scott said was, “You've been spending a lot of time outside.”

That was okay; having been outside wasn't anything to feel guilty about. “Yeah.”

“And forgetting your sunblock. Just be careful, and make sure you've got your EpiPen with you if you're going to be messing around in any bushes.”

The phrase messing around freaked Aiden out for a second or two, and then he remembered that Scott was probably thinking about him creeping around spying on people, which was what Scott seemed to think his job was all about. “Yeah, right. EpiPen.” Aiden was allergic to bee stings, and although he hadn't had any incidents for years, he still carried his allergy kit around with him automatically.

“Do you have sunstroke?” Scott asked. “You're really vague somehow.”

Aiden shook his head. “I'm just tired. Thai sounds good. I'll get changed into something else.”

Something with long sleeves.

“You look fine,” Scott said, “but sure, don't let me stop you from dressing up, as long as I get to undress you later.”

Aiden forced a friendly leer. “You bet. How about I drive and you can drink? I heard they have a pretty nice wine list.”

Enough wine, and Scott would be sloppily sentimental—which was kind of endearing if you overlooked the slurring—and sleepy enough that persuading him sex could wait wouldn't be difficult. Aiden despised himself for manipulating Scott this way, though he didn't have much choice; he just didn't think that he could have sex with Scott, even if it was no more than rubbing off on each other. Not tonight.

It wasn't easy to get through the meal without his mind wandering, but Aiden did his best to keep his attention on Scott, and for the most part it seemed to work. At least, Scott didn't seem suspicious at all. Thank God. Things were fucked up, but what Aiden really needed right then was the opportunity to think them through. Scott happily drank the wine with which Aiden kept topping up his glass until the bottle was empty, and raved about the food the whole time. For his part, Aiden thought the food was fine, though not exceptional. Too bad he wasn't drunk enough to transform the meal into the kind of experience Scott seemed to be having.

Scott was relaxed and drunk on the drive home. “You're a good driver,” he said, rolling his head toward Aiden and grinning at him.

“You're drunk,” Aiden said, unable to hide his smile.

“That doesn't make you a not-good driver.” Scott frowned. “I mean, a bad driver.”

“No, but it means your opinion is suspect.” Aiden slowed down to turn onto their street.

“You just like saying that word,” Scott told him. “What, opinion?”

“No, suspect. Because you're in...what do you call it...law enforcement.”

“But I wasn't using it as a noun,” Aiden said, which seemed to confuse Scott so thoroughly that he didn't say anything until they pulled into their driveway.

“Hey! We're home! That was fast.” Scott narrowed his eyes at Aiden. “Were you speeding?”

“No,” Aiden said patiently. “You're still drunk.”

Scott's face fell. “I shouldn't be, right? Might have to work.”

“No,” Aiden said. “Not until tomorrow night. You're fine.”

“Okay,” Scott said uncertainly. “If you say so.”

The short trip from the car to the front door was complicated by Scott's decision to kiss Aiden at the same time that they were walking. Legs tangled together, Aiden had to support Scott in his arms until they regained their balance. “Got you.”

“I don't deserve you,” Scott said mournfully and patted Aiden's shoulder with a heavy, clumsy hand. “I got drunk, and you don't like that, and I wanted to do stuff to you tonight. Nice stuff. Stuff you like.”

“Sounds like fun,” Aiden said, working through his keys one-handed, looking for the one that fit the front door. Scott was leaning into Aiden's supporting arm, not taking much of his own weight. “Hold that thought.”

“I don't mind what we do,” Scott said once they were inside. He nodded and forgot to stop, his eyes earnest, his head bobbing. “Even if it's kinky stuff. Really. I'm cool with it. I just wanna make you happy. You make me happy.” He finally stopped nodding, which was good, because watching him was making Aiden feel dizzy.

“I do?” Aiden couldn't help asking. Kinky. For Scott that meant a playful smack on the rear or a half-assed attempt at bondage, knots slipping in a loosely tied scarf. Aiden didn't want that, any of it. It left him feeling on edge and depressed when Scott tried to be nice to him like that.

Scott blinked at him, confusion spilling across his face. “I think so. Aren't you happy? Is it me?”

Aiden felt a rush of love to accompany his guilt. “Oh, babe. Of course it's not you. It's not anything. You had a little too much wine, and it's making you think weird thoughts. That's all.”

“Oh. Really? Okay.” Scott sounded relieved. Aiden guided him toward the bedroom and pushed him down to sit on the bed.

“Get comfortable and lie down. I'll bring you some water, okay?”

“Mm-hm.”

Scott worked odd hours, though he was helped by being the kind of person who could lie down and fall asleep in minutes. Aiden took his time in the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge along with some ibuprofen. By the time he returned to the bedroom, Scott was stripped to his boxers and sprawled out on his stomach, snoring softly.

Relieved, Aiden put the bottle and pills on Scott's bedside table, then pulled the covers up over his partner. At least now he wouldn't have to explain why he wasn't in the mood for sex or have to pretend that he was more into it than he actually was. Which, if he was being honest with himself, he'd been doing for some time. He did love Scott, but the romantic feelings he'd had for him had faded shortly after they'd gotten together, and he'd told himself that was normal, even when the thought of it going on for years, maybe the rest of their lives, was profoundly depressing. Somewhere along the way, they'd become friends, and while that was good—great even—it wasn't enough in a relationship.

It wasn't Scott's fault, though. None of this was, and he deserved so much more than a boyfriend who was cheating on him, a boyfriend who, even when he wasn't actually screwing around, was deeply, profoundly dissatisfied. Scott should have been enough for anyone. He was good-looking, hardworking, intelligent, motivated, kind. Why did all those qualities add up to safe and dull?

Aiden went into the living room and slumped down on the couch, too exhausted to even turn on the TV. His thoughts were circling, chaotic and jumbled. It wasn't working out with Scott, was it? He wanted to blame Karl, and that wasn't fair, not really. Something told him that knowing about Scott's existence wouldn't have stopped Karl from making a play for Aiden—Adam—but Karl would have backed off if he'd gotten a firm refusal. Karl had always given Adam a choice.

No Karl in the picture, and Aiden might have kept pretending that what he had with Scott was enough for months, years even. And a pretense was all it would have been.

He shifted position, his ass throbbing. There was a tube of Anal-Eze in the bathroom, and he was going to need it if he wanted to get any sleep. He'd heard people say they'd been fucked raw, but it had just been words; his ass felt like the reality. The discomfort would pass. Karl had used plenty of lube, and they'd taken it slowly to start with, after all, but it didn't make sitting any easier. The deep burn was a constant reminder of what they'd done, though he didn't need it. If he closed his eyes, he saw Karl's gray eyes, narrowed with lust, felt the confident sweep of strong, calloused hands over his skin.

He moaned, the sound caught in his throat, and palmed his dick through his jeans, handling it roughly, squeezing it until he gasped. He'd felt like this all day, hovering on the edge of arousal, the most fleeting thought or touch sending him plummeting back down into that hot darkness he'd shared with Karl. He'd never experienced arousal this profound and constant. It was addictive, exhausting.

He wanted to crawl into Karl's bed and sleep with Karl's hand tight in his hair, holding him in place. He wanted Karl's cock in him again, filling him so that there was no emptiness left, no room for doubts. Karl's cock, his fingers—God, more than that, a plug to wear all day, pushed into him by Karl with a smooth, relentless shove, preparing him for Karl's fist—

He doubled over, his hands forming fists of their own until he forced them to relax, and found that he was panting harshly as he tried to control his reaction to that idea. Fuck, he was losing it. Totally losing it. His professional detachment, his focus, his fucking mind, all of it slipping away.

Time for Adam to take a day off.

* * * * *

Karl's leg was appreciably better by the next day, much to his relief, though his good mood was cut short when he discovered that Adam hadn't come to work. At first, he thought the kid was just working in the shed or on some other part of the property not easily seen from the house. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time, and it wasn't like Karl kept constant tabs on him. Still, he eventually broke down and called Jackson, who reported that Adam had called in sick, very apologetically.

It was easy enough to guess why Adam hadn't been able to come to work. Karl didn't feel guilty.

Well.

Not too guilty.

After all, Adam had put in a full day's work after getting his ass reamed, so it wasn't as if...and Karl had been careful, goddammit. Adam had been open, slick, begging for it, so why would... Karl sighed, accepting the answer he'd been shying away from. Okay, so it wasn't anything physical. Or nothing a healthy young man wouldn't get over in a day or two. Adam was missing because he was freaked out over what they'd done.

Truthfully, Karl was too. Not the actual mechanics. It had been wild and explosive, but it'd worked for him, and from Adam's reaction at the time, it'd been just what he wanted.

Except he shouldn't have wanted it. Talk about zero to sixty in under three seconds. A few days ago, Adam had never had sex with a man—never, from his reaction to a finger in his ass. To go from that level of naïveté to the demanding, imploring man writhing wantonly on Karl's cock and needing more was a shock to Karl, so most likely it'd been a revelation to Adam.

Karl liked playing hard in bed. It was his chosen way of decompressing after a mission, and it beat drinking himself into oblivion, drugs, or picking a fight, all popular options with men like him. Okay, Graves holed up with a book and Sandy lost himself in cyberspace playing World of Warcraft, but they were the exceptions. Karl, during his downtime, fucked men. Men who left his bed wincing, but smiling. Mostly. Adam, fresh from being a gentleman to his cougar, must be feeling as if his world had tipped sideways.

Again, nothing for Karl to feel guilty about. He'd opened a door, but Adam had chosen to walk through it, and what lay beyond had always been there, waiting for Adam to find it.

He decided to give Adam this one day and then call him tomorrow if Adam was still a no-show. He needed Adam here. The dandelions were popping up all over the goddamned lawn.

He was standing over one of them, kicking at it moodily, when his cell rang. For a second, before he realized that he'd never given Adam his number, he half expected to hear Adam's voice on the other end. Rolling his eyes at himself—maybe he'd send over a dozen red roses to complete his descent into mush—he snapped out a terse, “Yes?”

“Blake. How's retirement going?”

Well, there was a voice not designed to improve his mood. “Simes. It's fantastic, of course. Living in the lap of luxury. How are you?”

Not that he really cared. Sure, he'd been tired and ready for a break when his injury had occurred, but that didn't mean he'd been all that happy about relinquishing control of his company—his, started from the ground up, no one else handing it to him on a silver platter like it was his due—to Brandon Simes. Simes had been the only option, unfortunately. The only one with the skills and brains to run something complicated like a military company, and the only one with the balls to come see Karl at the hospital. It wasn't like Karl had had a choice, goddammit. He hadn't been thrilled about it then, and as time passed and he got word of what Simes had been up to, he liked it less and less.

“Great,” Simes said easily. That was one of the things about the man. Nothing seemed to faze him. No matter how messy and chaotic a situation got, Simes didn't seem to care. He could watch a human being bleed out in the dirt with the same disinterest he'd show a late-night infomercial. “Just thought I should check in, see what you're up to.”

Suspicion had flared at the first sound of Simes's voice, and that idle question was gasoline on the flames. The Simes he knew wouldn't give a flying fuck about anyone's state of health or mind, least of all the man he'd seen as a rival. “This and that. Keeping busy. You know how it is.”

“In other words, mind my own fucking business?” Simes chuckled. “Never mind. We both know I don't care.”

“Honesty. How unexpected,” Karl said drily. “What do you want? And the answer's no.”

“It really isn't. Not to this question.” Simes was silent for a moment and then said abruptly, “All the government work's dried up since you left. Why? Is it because of you? Did you warn people off us?”

“I told you the answer would be no,” Karl said. “Why would I do that? I don't like you, but that doesn't mean that I want to see the company go down in flames.”

“So why did you cut all your connections with us?”

“Because if I'm not there, if I'm not involved, I'm not willing to take the fall if something goes wrong,” Karl snapped. “You know how it works. There's no way you can run a PMC from a desk. You have to be there, with the team, in the field. Once that bullet hit, I was out of a job. I walked away. Clean break.”

“It didn't have to be that way. I'd have kept you on. Tactically, you'd have been an asset.”

Karl snorted. “Yeah, that would've worked so well. Look, if that's all you wanted—”

“Find out why we've been blacklisted,” Simes urged him. “You've got contacts, and no one's talking to me.”

“I had contacts,” Karl corrected him. “I don't have any favors to call in, and I'm not interested in helping you out. If I had to guess, you've done this to yourself.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“How many civilians died on your last job?” Karl asked pointedly. “You make a mess, Simes. You don't care about keeping it clean. These days, that doesn't fly.”

He could picture the contemptuous sneer twisting Simes's face as he replied. “Cry me a river, Blake. Collateral damage happens. You know that and so should the politicians. Don't tell me your hands are clean, because we both know you didn't get your reputation by saving kittens from trees.”

“Compared to yours, my hands are fucking spotless,” Karl said and ended the call without ceremony.

A call from Simes. Just what was needed to make this shitty day a darker shade of brown.

* * * * *

His official excuse to Diane was that he needed a day in the office to catch up on his paperwork, though really what Aiden needed was a day away from Karl Blake, a day to clear his head. The man was infuriating in more ways than Aiden could begin to count; he'd try, though, for the sake of the bureau's body of knowledge. He'd been at it for about an hour when there was a tap at his door and Diane, not waiting for a reply, stuck her head in.

“Hi,” she said. “Sorry to interrupt—I got your message earlier, and I wanted to see how it was going. I was in a meeting until now, or I would have checked in sooner.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Aiden told her. “It's okay.” It wasn't, not really. He was finding it three times harder than usual to focus on the reports in front of him, but he was determined to get through them if it took him all day. Which it probably would.

“That doesn't sound particularly convincing.” Diane came in and shut the door behind her, then perched herself on the chair across from his desk, her red hair falling in a shiny sweep to her shoulders. “You look like hell. Is yard work really that bad?”

Aiden snorted. “It's not the yard work—it's Blake.”

“He has a reputation for being difficult,” Diane said. “Ask anyone who's ever met him, and they'll say he's an asshole. He's giving you a hard time?”

Rubbing the back of his neck, which was still slightly sunburned, Aiden shrugged. “I don't know. He's not that much of an asshole, really—kind of blunt, and he says what he thinks without worrying about filtering it, but there's nothing wrong with that. Well, there is, but only sometimes, and it's not like he's going to hold his tongue around a guy who he thinks is just a dumb kid mowing his lawn, you know?”

Diane nodded and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk. “So what is it? And don't try to tell me it's nothing. You've got dark circles under your eyes like you haven't slept in days, and I know the paperwork was an excuse to get out of the field for a few hours.”

Aiden sighed. “It really is nothing.” He knew she wouldn't accept that, and he didn't blame her, but he felt like he had to give it a try.

“How's getting close to him working out?” Diane asked. The question managed to be both blunt and delicate at the same time. What she probably meant to ask was if Aiden had gotten naked for Karl, bent over for him, sucked him off, not once, but twice, whimpered for him, begged, screamed out for more...

Or maybe she just wanted to know if Karl liked him.

“We bumped into each other in a store and went for a drink,” Aiden said, wondering if she already knew that. Probably. There would be surveillance on Karl when he left his house.

“Mm,” Diane said, carefully noncommittal. “I heard about the fight.”

“Not his fault,” Aiden said and knew that he'd answered a shade too fast. “He was trying to protect—oh, it doesn't matter. Yeah, we're getting along. I got the chance to poke around in his office too, and I found out something that might point to where he got the money.” He filled Diane in on the piece of paper and his suspicions, but she seemed less interested in it than he'd expected.

“It could be useful if we want to apply pressure,” she said finally, “but I don't see it being something we'd have any luck nailing him on. Still, I'll look into it. We're more concerned about his involvement with Simes.”

Aiden shrugged. “He hasn't mentioned his former company or anything he's got going on right now. There was a business trip, though that was probably concerned with selling the diamonds. I get the impression that he's bored, and that doesn't fit with him being involved with Blake Enterprises.”

“And yet he had a phone call from Simes this morning,” Diane said.

“He did?” Aiden processed that. “No way of knowing what they discussed?”

“No. They spoke for a couple of minutes, though.”

“Every piece of intel we have says those two hate each other's guts.”

“Could be a front,” Diane said. She shrugged. “We can't waste much more time on doing this the slow way. I'll investigate the diamond angle, and if it's something we can use for leverage, we'll bring Blake in and get him to roll on Simes in exchange for immunity on the looting—maybe. No promises. Think you can gain his confidence enough that he'd trust you to be the one handling him? He could be really useful. From what I've heard, he did good work in the past. For an asshole with an itchy trigger finger.”

“I think he's starting to trust me,” Aiden said slowly. He hoped it was true, because he felt like he was on the verge of being able to start a conversation with Blake that might get him some of the information they were looking for, and that, he reminded himself, was what this was all about. Would Karl trust Adam enough to spill his guts? He wouldn't know until he tried.

“You're sleeping with him,” Diane said when the pause had stretched out too long, and Aiden dropped his head down into his hands. “Yeah. Look, if this is too much—”

“It's not,” Aiden said, lifting his face quickly. “I can do this. It's just more complicated than I was imagining originally.”

“And how many times have agents working undercover said that?” Diane reached out and patted his hand. “I know. You're sure you don't want to pull the plug on this now?”

Aiden shook his head. “I'm making progress. A couple more days and I'll get him to open up.” And he’ll open me up and fuck me raw if I give him half a chance, and I’ll love every second of it.

“He's not just fucking with your body,” Diane observed, studying his face. “You know I won't push, but if you want to talk about it, I'm here.”

She meant well, Aiden knew, but he couldn't even sort it out in his own mind, let alone begin to make sense of it out loud. “Maybe at some point,” he told her. “Not yet.”

“What about Scott?” Diane had met Scott once or twice, though they'd never really clicked. Scott had been aware of the need to impress Aiden's immediate superior and tried a little too hard. It had been awkward, and Diane, though she respected Scott's choice of career, clearly found him boring. “How much does he know about what's going on?”

“Nothing,” Aiden said. “I mean, he knows I'm undercover doing yard work, and about the apartment, but that's it.”

“He doesn't mind your not being around?”

Aiden closed his eyes for a moment. Oh, this was going to go down well. “Um, actually, mostly, I am. I'm careful. I always go to the apartment first, but I watch my back when I sneak out.”

“You should be staying there full-time,” Diane said sharply, her disapproval plain. “If Blake suspects anything and has you followed to the apartment—”

“He won't,” Aiden said, guiltily aware that she was right. Undercover meant living a new life 24-7, and he wasn't doing that. This wasn't like infiltrating a gang, though; outside work hours, Karl shouldn't have any interest in where his landscaper was.

“He might now,” Diane pointed out. “He might want to see you. If you walk into the apartment and he knocks on the door and you've disappeared, you don't think that'll make him ask questions? What if he finds out about Scott, and you're putting Scott in danger?”

Aiden flashed back to the fight in the bar and the ruthless efficiency that Karl had shown. Scott wouldn't stand a chance in hell against that kind of trained aggression and purpose.

“You need to tell Scott that you're staying at the apartment every night and that you can't see him or contact him until this is over,” Diane said with finality. “That's an order.”

He nodded, because it wasn't like he had a choice in the matter. Plus she was right. He'd been able to get away with it earlier, but now he might not, and there was no way he could justify putting Scott in the line of possible fire. “Okay. Right. Got it.”

His terse reply softened Diane, who sighed. “I meant it about listening when you're ready to talk. You know I won't judge you, Aiden.”

Aiden wasn't so sure of that, not with what was going on with him and Blake, but he said, “I know. Thanks.”

Happily, Diane seemed to take this as the natural end of the conversation. She stood up and adjusted her suit jacket, tugging it down at the waist until it lay smoothly along her body. Part of Aiden wondered what it would be like to see a woman's body and desire it. He was glad he didn't have to do more than wonder. “Okay—make sure you get copies of your paperwork to me before you leave tonight. And check in tomorrow.”

“I will,” Aiden said, making a mental note that he had to call Scott and let him know what was going on.

In some ways, not having to see Scott would make this easier, but in others it was probably the final nail in the coffin of their relationship.

Aiden wasn't sure how he felt about that.

* * * * *

Adam was back at work the next day, looking tired but moving easily enough. Karl stood at his bedroom window and watched Adam weeding, conscious of an emotion that didn't usually trouble him: uncertainty. He'd spoken to Adam that morning in the kitchen, a brief greeting as Karl topped up his coffee cup from the pot over Della's protests that she could do it. Adam had filled a water bottle from the jug of filtered water in the fridge, replied that he was fine when Karl had mentioned the sick day, and left before Karl could say anything else.

Not much of a conversation.

Karl wasn't sure what to do next, but when Adam stood, twisting stiff shoulders, and pulled up his faded navy T-shirt to mop at his face, exposing a flash of taut stomach, Karl found himself turning away from the window and walking out of his bedroom, heading for the stairs. If Adam had changed his mind about this thing they had doing, fine, but Karl wanted to hear him say it.

Adam glanced up when Karl joined him by the compost heap, a handful of green weeds, already wilting, sliding from his hands and back into the wheelbarrow. “Hi.”

Karl looked him over. Lines of tension around his eyes, bruises here and there on his arms, and the usually spiky hair lank and flat. “You look like hell. How much of that is because of me?”

Sighing, Adam brushed his hands off on his jeans and shoved them into his pockets. He kept his gaze at about the level of Karl's knees. “Do you really want to know?”

“I wouldn't have asked if I didn't,” Karl said, the concern he'd been feeling morphing into annoyance. “If you want this to stop, I'll accept that. All you have to do is tell me. But you have to tell me.”

Adam looked up at that, his eyes worried and upset. “I don't want it to stop!”

“Okay.” More relieved than he would have admitted, Karl tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his slacks and deliberately relaxed his shoulders. “Good. So if it's not a roundabout way of making a statement, what is it? A freak-out over your sudden homosexual tendencies?”

“Maybe.” Adam presented the word reluctantly, then, even more reluctantly, changed it to, “Yes. Probably. I don't know.

“It's me trying to accept something I didn't know about myself until a couple of days ago. And seeing you, being with you, makes it hard to forget about it, I guess. It's all front-and-center, and I don't know what to do with it. It's not you, though. It's me.” He grimaced. Karl suspected that it was supposed to be some kind of ironic smile, but it didn't make it that far. “Except in this case it really is me. It's not an excuse or whatever. I'm sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Karl said with a shrug. Truthfully, Adam's issues weren't something that he could relate to. He'd never had a problem accepting what he wanted and needed from life in any area, and that most definitely included sex. He'd been told that it was one of his less endearing qualities often enough that he knew he was in the minority. “Like I said, this isn't serious, you and me, but I guess finding out you're gay is something you're going to have to live with long after I'm a distant memory. I get it. Sort of.”

Adam looked at him then, something more like genuine amusement showing for a moment. “You're pretty unforgettable.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“And it's not just the sex,” Adam continued, the words spoken in a low voice, though there was no one around. “It's the way we do it. God. It's so—”

“Huh?” Karl felt confusion rise again, unsettling and disconcerting, as Adam's voice faltered. “It's not rocket science, kid. Insert tab A into hole B. In this case, my cock into your ass. Take it from someone with years of experience—we're doing it right.”

Adam pushed his hair back off his face with both hands, leaving a smudge of dirt on his forehead. He rubbed absently at one of the bruises on his forearm, his palm curving around it protectively. “That's not what I meant.”

Karl frowned and then blew out a gusty breath as he put the pieces together. “So that's it? You're having a meltdown because you think you're some sort of freak for liking it rough? Kid, you have no idea. What we did worked for both of us, so don't book an appointment with your therapist. You're normal.” He grinned. “Or we're both freaks, but do I look like I care as long as the sex is that good? And it was, right?”

“Yeah. It was.” Adam smiled at him uncertainly. It made him look even younger. “I can't stop thinking about it.”

“It's been on my mind too,” Karl admitted. He picked up a handful of weeds from the barrow, noting a single flower—something blue—that'd gotten uprooted along with whatever was tangled around it. “What's this?”

Adam peered at it. “Forget-me-not?”

Karl was about to point out that even he knew they were a spring flower and ask what kind of gardener Adam was anyway, when he realized that Adam had been joking. “Very funny.”

“I do stand-up every Saturday night. Not really,” Adam added before Karl could comment. He shook his head, looking rueful. “I guess I never realized how difficult it is to joke around with someone when you don't know anything about them. I mean, for all you know, that was me being serious.”

“I think the penny would've dropped before I embarrassed myself by asking for a ticket,” Karl said. “You don't seem like the type to get off on performing for an audience.”

That got him a shy, sidelong glance, with the tip of Adam's tongue darting out to lick at his lips. A moment later, his mind going just where he'd wanted Adam's to, Karl could feel himself growing aroused. Jesus, the kid was like a walking aphrodisiac. He'd never been into the kind of clubs with sex on stage and in every dark corner; the public sex didn't bother him, but the dark corners made him edgy. Still, the thought of Adam up there on stage, bare and blushing, bent over and waiting, was an intriguing one.

“You know,” Adam said hesitantly, “we could do something to change that. The not knowing each other part, I mean. Unless you just wanted to keep it all about the sex, and that's fine, I'm not pushing for more. I just...” He took a deep breath. “You...you could come over to my place sometime, maybe? I could cook... No, I like you too much to do that to you. I could order in, and we could talk before we—”

“Fuck?” The moment he said it, Karl wished he hadn't. Adam was already flushed, looking deeply uncomfortable, and Jesus, what was wrong with him that he couldn't be nice? “Sorry. Too many years being around soldiers. We're not really the take-home-to-meet-Mom type. Sounds good to me. How about tonight? You busy?”

Yeah, he had it bad. One day without seeing the kid, and he was jittery, needing a fix. Addicted to Adam. Shit, this couldn't end well.

“Tonight's good. That'd be nice. To have somebody over, I mean. Well, not just anybody. You.” Adam had flipped over into babble mode, apparently. “My apartment seems really quiet. Lonely. I guess I'm not used to it yet.”

Karl knew what that was like, not that he was going to say so out loud. “Yeah. I can bring dinner, if you want.”

“No, no, that's okay. I'll take care of it. Um, six-thirty?” Adam suggested. “That'll give me a chance to, uh, get home and clean up. Is that too late? For dinner, I mean.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Karl said, mildly bemused by the way he'd agreed to a meal at Adam's place. It wasn't that he'd never socialized with someone he'd slept with. He'd had relationships that lasted a few weeks in the past and mixed in with the getting naked part had been a meal or two, some drinks... Never at someone's home, though.

It didn't matter how novel a situation it was. Karl knew that he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to get to know Adam better, and seeing where he lived would give him some useful clues about the man.

Adam told him an address that Karl already knew, and then stepped in closer, a grin curving his lips. “You know what? Now you’re the one looking freaked. I feel better. Thanks.”

Karl narrowed his eyes and discovered that Adam wasn't easy to intimidate anymore. The grin grew wider.

Strangely, that made Karl feel better too. Adam was a trip and a half. Karl couldn't remember the last time he'd been so interested in another man.

It felt good.

Chapter Eight

Adam's apartment building was pretty run-down, though it wasn't like Karl had expected anything else, given the state of the younger man's truck. The small parking lot beside the building held a number of other cars in similar condition— rusted, banged up, none of them less than seven or eight years old. Karl knew it should have made him hesitant to leave his own almost-new car parked among them, but it didn't. It was just a car, and if something happened to it, he'd get another one.

Doing the kind of work he had for so many years had a way of putting things in perspective.

The front door to the lobby of the building had a broken lock, which was probably a good thing since what had likely been an intercom system had been ripped out, leaving visitors without any way of contacting tenants. Karl eyed the rickety elevator suspiciously and even considered, for a few seconds, whether he'd be better off taking the stairs. His leg was feeling better, though, and he decided he'd rather chance the elevator than screw it up again.

When he got to the fourth floor and knocked at Adam's door, it was opened immediately. Adam was wearing a plain gray T-shirt and what was likely his newest pair of jeans. “Hey, you found me,” he said. He looked relaxed enough, but the way his thumbs were twitching out a beat against his thighs told the real truth.

“Yeah. That GPS technology comes in handy sometimes,” Karl said. No point in giving away the fact that he'd already learned pretty much the whole city's geography and committed it to memory.

“Well, come in. Do you want a drink? I have beer.” Adam shut the door behind him.

“Yeah, great.” Karl could feel the heat and humidity in the air—no air- conditioning in this apartment, that was for sure—and he unbuttoned the second button of his shirt. He was carrying his jacket—no way was he leaving it in the car in this area—and he tossed it over the couch.

Adam went over to the tiny kitchen area of what was really just one room, took a Shiner out of a fridge that had seen better days, snagged one that had been sitting on the countertop on his way back over to Karl, and pressed the blessedly cool bottle into Karl's hand. “I don't know if this is your favorite, but at least I knew you'd drink it,” Adam said cheerfully, gesturing with his own Shiner.

“Good call,” Karl said with more enthusiasm than was really warranted, thoughtful though the gesture had been. He heard the fake heartiness in his voice and winced. “Sorry. This is new territory for me.”

Thankfully, Adam didn't look puzzled or ask him what he meant. “Me too, just for different reasons, I guess. Look, why don't you come and sit down?”

It would have been so much easier to just walk over to the bed in the corner than sink down—and down—into the cushions of a beat-up couch, but Karl resisted the urge to skip over the talking and the food to get to the part that he was comfortable with. He wasn't hungry, but he was curious.

“So how long have you lived here?”

“It's a dump, isn't it?” Adam glanced around as if he were seeing it through Karl's eyes. “Cheap, though, and I'm saving up, so it works for me.”

Calling it a dump was being polite. The painted walls were grubby with years of fingerprints and food stains; the carpet was thin and sticky. Karl had stayed in worse, much worse, though the comparison was jarring between it and the house he'd just left, filled with cool air, fragrant with flowers, room after room furnished with an eye to comfort as well as style.

“What are you saving for? A better place? New car?”

Adam nodded but didn't go into specifics, instead answering Karl's earlier question. “I've been here a little over a month. Just paid the second month's rent. Thanks for that, by the way.” When Karl raised an eyebrow, Adam went on. “The job. The paycheck. I know Mr. Jackson was the one who recommended me, but I still appreciate it. I promise I'll get a handle on those dandelions.”

“Yeah.” God, this was going beyond awkward and into excruciating. Was this how regular people lived? Karl was grateful he hadn't had to experience it before now.

“You don't want to be here,” Adam said flatly, disappointed, and Karl felt guilty for being so transparent.

“It's not that,” he said. “I don't want to be doing this, I guess. The small talk. I'm no good at it.”

“And you don't like doing things you're no good at,” Adam observed. “What do you want to do? We could go out and play pool, like we were supposed to the other night. Would that be better? Shit—I forgot about the food.” He checked his watch. “It's supposed to be here any minute.”

“I don't like failing,” Karl corrected him. “And if you're going to feed me, not kick my ass out for being a jerk, I'll count that as a partial success at least.” He swallowed some beer in a futile attempt to cool down. “God, it's hot in here. I think I saw some fans in the basement of my place; you're welcome to borrow a couple.”

“You talk about that house like it doesn't belong to you,” Adam said slowly. “Like you didn't buy the fans or choose the carpet or have anything to do with it.”

“I paid for it,” Karl said. “Sophie did all the furnishing—and the carpet's the one whoever had the place before me picked out. Do I look like the kind of guy who goes for white carpets, for God's sake?”

“Not at all,” Adam said. He was sitting close enough on the couch for Karl to see the sheen of sweat on Adam's forehead. Close enough to kiss—but that would end the conversation, and Karl didn't want that. He didn't want the food to be delivered in the middle of them having sex, either. “Okay, not wanting to be bothered with decorating and all that makes sense, I guess.”

It was said doubtfully enough that Karl threw him a bone. “Do you know what I used to do before I got this?” He tapped his leg. “We started to talk about it at the bar and then things got busy. It's not a secret, though. I was a mercenary. Owned my own company. I'm used to barracks and sleeping in tents if I'm lucky, and when I wasn't doing that, I lived in a place a few steps up from this, definitely, but nothing fancy. I was never there, so what was the point?”

“A mercenary?” Adam repeated. “I thought you were a businessman or something. God, your leg—did you get shot?”

There was surprise there, but no disgust or, worse, excitement. Karl had met his share of groupies who thought what he did was both cool and hot, neither of which matched the reality of his job as far as Karl was concerned. He avoided them, despite the fact that they were easy pickings when it came to sex. He was never going to be that desperate to get laid.

“Yeah. Not the first time, but it was the one that counted. I can walk now, but I'm not fit for active duty, and as far as I'm concerned, if I'm not out there with my men, I'm out of the game altogether.” Karl sipped more of his beer. “My life might be boring now, but it's better than sitting on my ass in an office, filling in forms in fucking triplicate for the government every time one of my men stubs his toe or fires his weapon.”

Adam was frowning now, sitting forward. “How many times? Have you been shot, I mean?”

Karl thought about it for a few seconds. “Four. One here—” He ruffled his fingers through his hair over his right ear, where the small scar was invisible now. “Here, in my left arm—it just went through, no permanent damage—and here, across my ribs. That one hardly counts. It was just a graze. And then the leg.”

“Jesus Christ.” Adam finished his own beer and set the bottle down on a table that looked like it had been made by nailing a few boards together. “I can't even imagine. And if you hadn't been shot in the leg, you'd still be doing that job?”

“If I wasn't shot then, I would have been shot some other time,” Karl said, trying to make it sound like it didn't matter. “It's not the kind of career that you retire from at age sixty-five. At some point, sooner or later, you get hurt, and that's it. Or if you're less lucky, you just get killed.”

There was a knock at the door, and Adam got up to answer it, still looking faintly incredulous. Five minutes later, they were both sitting at the kitchen table with a collection of Chinese-food containers spread out in front of them. Adam's plates matched, although they looked old as hell, the pattern faded. “There's...huh, I can never tell what any of this stuff is once I get it home. I can't even tell if this is chicken or pork.” He held the container out toward Karl.

“Doesn't matter to me,” Karl said. “It's all good. There's not much I won't eat.”

“Yeah, I'm the same way.” Adam took a battered shrimp from a different container and bit into it with relish. “Mm. Deep-fat fried. One of the most important food groups.”

“Along with caffeine,” Karl agreed. He'd tried to pay for the food, or at least his half of it, but Adam had refused. Add in the books that Adam had bought Karl, and the amount owing was starting to become a problem for Karl. Given the way that Adam lived, the kid couldn't afford to be a noble idiot. Karl paying his share wasn't charity or even close to it. “Look, if you want to earn more than you can make doing my yard work, I'm sure I could—”

“No,” Adam said before Karl had finished speaking. He said it through a mouthful of rice, though Karl was willing to overlook the lack of table manners because Adam looked alarmed. Did he think it was a roundabout way of firing him? Or an offer to pay for the sex, even though Karl had made it clear that he didn't do that? “I'm happy doing what I'm doing right now, and no offense, but I can take care of myself.”

Karl raised one shoulder in a shrug and pulled the lemon chicken closer. “No problem. If you change your mind, let me know.”

“Mm,” Adam said, which could have meant anything from yes to no fucking way.

It occurred to Karl that he'd spilled out a lot about himself, but Adam wasn't reciprocating. He decided to nudge Adam while the man was on edge. Fighting fair was for losers. “When you were growing up, what did you see yourself doing? Any dreams, ambitions?”

God, he sounded like a therapist. Why was it so easy to growl out an order for Adam to blow him and so difficult to chat?

“Not this,” Adam said bitterly, then sighed and shook his head. “Sorry. That was... I shouldn't take it out on you. It's not your fault I fucked up my life.”

“It's barely started,” Karl told him. “You're still young. Plenty of time to get things back on track.”

“Yeah, I know. I know.” Adam set his fork down and sat back in his chair. “It's okay; I don't need a pep talk, and you sure as hell don't want to be giving one.” He lifted a hand and let it fall again. “A scientist.”

“You wanted to be a scientist?”

“Uh-huh. Something really nerdy, with Bunsen burners and goggles and chemistry sets. I know, it's stupid. It was the kind of thing kids think about.”

“Hey, I get that. There were a couple of years when I thought I could be a superhero.”

Adam's lips twitched into an almost-smile. “Seriously?”

“I was seven at the time, so sure, why not? I even had a cape. It might have started out life as a bedsheet, but that's what an imagination's for.” Karl flicked his finger at a wrapped fortune cookie that had fallen out of the bag with the rest of the food. “And a flexible attitude, because you don't get one of those handed to you at eighteen, telling you what you're going to be. I wanted to be a marine, but I just didn't take orders well. They didn't mind me being an arrogant little punk to start with, but they couldn't train the cockiness out of me.” Karl chewed a mouthful of rice, remembering the bleak days after he'd washed out when he'd been floundering for the first time in his life, at a loss. “Got a job offer for a PMC. You know what that is? Polite way of saying mercenaries. A private military company—and when the man running it got killed eight or nine years down the line, I took over, made it mine. Good times until that damn sniper took my leg out.”

He drained his bottle of beer. “You've gotten more out of me than I planned to tell. 'Fess up, kid: you're a gardener by day, priest by night?”

“Shit—how'd you know? It was supposed to be a secret.” Adam picked his fork up again and toyed with the food on his plate. He didn't seem inclined to eat any more of the meal. “More like gardener by day, gay at night. Kind of a surprise.” He looked up at Karl's face. “I want to see.”

“See what?”

“Your scars. All of you, if it's okay. When you're done eating, I mean.” Adam smiled tentatively, like he thought maybe Karl would say no.

The thought of lying naked on the bed in the corner, with the late-evening sunlight illuminating his body and giving him nowhere to hide, Adam touching him with light, gentle fingers, his gaze intent, concerned, was terrifying. Karl couldn't use that as a reason to say no, though. Adam had never shaken his head, no matter what Karl had asked of him, and his apprehension would have been far more justified than Karl's.

“You've seen me before,” Karl said, the words difficult to say. So hot in here...heat like pressure, like a hand pushing down on him. “Seen all of me.”

“Not really,” Adam said. “I was too busy panicking to look the first few times, and in your room, well, it was dark. I'm not nervous now. I want to see. I want to touch you. I want... God, you know what I want.”

Karl stood, leaving the remnants of his meal to congeal on the plate. “I'm getting an idea,” he said. This room, stifling, squalid, wasn't the place he'd have chosen for this—it was a step down from the shed—but it had a bed and it had Adam. They didn't need more than that.

Okay, maybe something more; he took a bottle of lube and a strip of condoms out of his jacket and held them up for Adam to see. “When you've finished looking, can we put these to use? Or is it too soon?” Karl wasn't prepared to fuck Adam if his ass was still raw. There was a difference between pushing limits when you needed it, after building up to that level of intensity, and sex that was painful from start to finish with no joy or relief involved.

“I don't think it's too soon, but I guess we won't know until we try.” Adam walked over to where Karl stood and reached out to tug on the front of his shirt lightly. “Can I take this off you?”

“Can you? Sure. I'm happy to do it myself, but if you want to, go for it.” Following Adam to the bed, Karl toed off his shoes and spread his arms at his side.

Adam had gone from confident to hesitant again—sometimes it happened so fast Karl couldn't even see the shift. He slowly unbuttoned the rest of Karl's shirt, then moved around behind Karl and slipped the shirt over his shoulders. It felt good to get rid of even that one layer in the heat of the apartment; it felt better when Adam's lips brushed over the back of Karl's neck. “I like how you look,” Adam said quietly, dropping Karl's shirt over the footboard of the bed. A gentle hand ran up along Karl's spine, and he felt himself getting hard.

Coming to stand in front of Karl again, Adam reached for Karl's belt. He undid the belt, unfastened Karl's trousers, smiled at him sweetly, and let the whole works drop to the floor with a light thud.

“That's better. Would you lie down, please?”

The air was sticky. Honey air, Karl's grandmother had called it, while she sat and rocked on her porch, fanning herself slowly as the sun set and the air turned golden. Would Adam's skin taste sweet when Karl licked a cool stripe across it, or better yet, tangy with the salt-musk that Karl's mouth was thirsty for? Karl focused his thoughts on that, not the way the cheap sheets felt, coarse against his damp back and ass as he lay down.

Adam skinned out of his clothes until he was down to a pair of skimpy dark red briefs, tight and revealing. They failed to completely contain his erection, the head of which poked up over the waistband. Adam glanced down at himself, smiled, and hooked his thumb into the top of his briefs, tugging them down another inch.

“I think I washed them on hot.”

“And I think you're a fucking tease,” Karl growled without any bite to it. God, he wanted to get his mouth around what was on offer and suck it dry. He didn't turn over for anyone, but sucking dick didn't bother him one bit. He sprawled out on the bed, arms and legs spread. “This what you wanted to see?”

“Yes. God, I've been dying to.” Adam whispered the words as he sank down onto the mattress beside Karl. It was said so genuinely, with a hint of something like worship, that Karl couldn't help a rush of emotion he wasn't sure he could define. “I want to look, and I want to touch you. Everywhere. Can I?”

Karl found himself unable to respond flippantly, so he just nodded.

The focus with which Adam studied him was shiver inducing. Starting at his feet, Adam ran careful fingers along Karl's skin, keeping his touch firm enough that it didn't tickle, which Karl appreciated even if he could have ignored the unpleasant aspects of the sensation. Adam put a hand under Karl's right knee and lifted it, then trailed his hand along the back of Karl's thigh. Karl's cock, more than half-hard already, gave a slow, hungry throb.

“It must have hurt a lot,” Adam mused, touching the scar tissue along Karl's other thigh with a featherlight touch. The raised, discolored skin was half-numb, the nerves twisted and deadened. “Worse than anything?”

Karl considered the question. “Close to.”

“If you hadn't been hurt so badly, you'd just go back to that life?”

“Probably, but that's not an option now.” Lying there with Adam touching him, it didn't seem like such a tragedy. “Looked at one way, it saved my life. Got me out before I retired to a smaller place. Coffin-sized.”

“Yeah,” Adam said. He glanced up through lashes several shades darker than his hair. “No regrets?”

“It's over,” Karl said. “I don't look back. Something's broken, I move on. I've moved. You should too. There's a scar on my ribs that needs some TLC.”

Adam hummed, visibly considering his options, his lower lip dented as he bit into it. “Kiss it better, you mean?”

“Couldn't hurt.”

The dry brush of Adam's mouth left heat behind, a friction burn that his tongue extinguished a moment later. The scar had faded to a streak of white skin, raised slightly, and Adam traced it over and over, his tongue lapping the skin with a fierce dedication, as if he could wear it away. Karl endured it until his skin felt raw and wet, then said, “Enough.”

“You want me to stop?” Adam's eyes were hazy, his moist lips parted. “You're not very patient, you know.”

“Don't stop,” Karl said. “Just move on again.”

“Say ‘please' and maybe I will.”

“Fuck,” Karl said on a gasp as Adam began to nip at the raised welt with his teeth, plucking at the skin with the dainty cruelty of a cat. “Please—fuck—”

“Please move?”

Karl shook his head and let his eyes slide closed as the sunlight spilled red over them and the shadows gathered thickly in the small, hot room. Let Adam do what he wanted. Let him kiss and bite each scar, each reminder of a time when Karl had been too slow, in the wrong place, unlucky. Just this once, he'd permit Adam to play with him, turn him to his stomach. Let Adam rest his hand on Karl's back, hold him down with the lightest of pressures and whisper in his ear that he was almost done, almost finished, just let me...

He'd let Adam do this just for a little while longer. Because this adoring, tormenting exploration felt so good, and Karl's cock was rigid and full, but it wasn't clamoring at him to hurry.

He could feel sweat prickling on his skin, and the arches of his feet curled and relaxed, curled and relaxed as Adam's attentions moved from one sensitive spot to the next.

When Adam's fingertips slid into his hair and found the scar hidden there, Karl sighed and closed his eyes. “They had to shave it to clean it up, didn't they?” It wasn't a real question, more a casual musing, so Karl didn't answer. “A couple of stitches, maybe.”

Adam leaned in and kissed the side of Karl's head, his hair, and as happy as Karl was to let Adam direct this, he couldn't stop from shifting and turning his head, his mouth a mute offering for the taking. Adam took it, warm lips on Karl's own, hand on his hip directing Karl to roll over onto his side and make more room on the bed for Adam to stretch out beside him.

“Thanks,” Adam murmured. “I needed to do that. I wanted to know you—a little bit better, anyway.” He inched closer, pressing against the length of Karl's body, hot and damp with sweat, smelling like salt and the heady tang of male perspiration. “Want a turn?”

Karl laughed and tilted Adam's head back, nipping at his jaw. “Want these off you,” he said, pushing Adam over and pulling off the too-small briefs so that Adam was gloriously naked, spread out next to him.

“Thank God,” Adam said. “I was starting to worry about gangrene, they were so tight. I'm blaming you for that, by the way.”

“Is that so?” Karl said. He put his hand over the bruises he'd left on Adam's hip a few days before. Different angle, but it didn't matter; they were his. Adam shivered, his eyes shining. Oh, God, this was going to be so good. “Want me to show you how very sorry I am...not?”

“Yes. Please. I don't want anything else. Just this.” Adam met his gaze steadily. “Just you.”

* * * * *

There were so many things that Aiden said, as Adam, that would have been true for either of them. That was how it was supposed to be, undercover, when you could manage it, and it was turning out that it demonstrated how well suited Aiden was for this assignment. Because right then, the only thing he wanted was Karl. Aiden, Adam, it didn't matter.

Karl leaned over him, muscular arms supporting his weight. He'd probably lost muscle since his injury, yet you wouldn't know it by looking at him—he was incredibly cut, his body as close to perfect as Aiden had ever seen. “Gonna try not to fuck you raw this time,” Karl said with some regret.

Aiden didn't know if it was regret over having reamed him so good last time or over not being able to this time. “Whatever you want to do. Anything.” Again, it was totally honest. If Karl had wanted to fuck him upside down while wearing a clown mask, Aiden probably would have agreed.

“What I want to do...” The words emerged on a sigh. “I should just want to fuck you. Wham-bam. Done.”

“Then do it like that,” Aiden said. He'd hoped this would last much longer than some of their other encounters, now that there was no rush or risk of discovery, though if Karl wanted it fast and hard, that worked too, the idea of being taken like that making arousal twist through him. It didn't matter how quickly it ended if it began with Karl's gray eyes staring at him with that intent, yearning hunger. “So far everything you do works for me.”

He rolled his head restlessly on the pillow, waiting for the moment when Karl's hand touched him again. God, his nipples were aching, drawn up into tight points; he couldn't recall ever being really aware of them during sex before. He'd had partners touch them or suck on them, but it had never registered as more than vaguely pleasant. He wanted to see what Karl's mouth felt like on them. He could just ask, but maybe he didn't need to.

Aiden drew his hand over his stomach and up to a hard nipple. He circled it lightly, then stuck two fingers in his mouth and brought them back to the small, stiff point of flesh, tweaking it, pinching it, never looking away from Karl.

“Is that your way of asking for something?” Karl asked. The head of his cock rubbed against Adam's hip and stomach as Karl leaned in closer, leaving traces of moisture that felt cool on Aiden's hot skin. “You want something from me, you gotta ask. I want to hear it, loud and clear. Scream it, whisper it, but you've got to say it out loud.”

It wasn't easy to put the words out there. Aiden had always been the one doing to his partner—especially Scott, who had a hard time being anything beside submissive in bed—and it was more difficult than he'd thought to ask to be the one done to. Not difficult to accept it, no; that part was simpler than anything Aiden had ever done. Admitting to it out loud, that he wanted it, that he needed it...that was something else entirely. “Touch me,” Aiden said. “Please. Here.” He pinched his nipple again, then groaned as Karl lowered his mouth to it and bit down.

Karl's lips weren't gentle, but Aiden didn't want gentle. He wanted this casual, wanton roughness, Karl playing him like a kid with a Nintendo. Karl worried at Aiden's nipple with his teeth, flicked the other with the edge of his thumbnail until it screamed with sensation, and Aiden couldn't help arching his body upward, grinding his cock against the sharp edge of Karl's pelvic bone.

“God,” he said. “Karl, fuck me. Please, just fuck me now.”

Eyes dark with arousal, Karl knelt up and tore open a condom packet, smoothing the latex over his erection with the easy grace of familiarity. He drizzled lube over his hand, curled his fist around his cock a couple of times, then shoved Aiden's thighs farther apart impatiently and lined himself up, the wet tip of his dick pressed against Aiden's asshole. To Aiden's surprise, Karl didn't just push into him, but paused. “You ready?”

Aiden nodded and lifted his hips. “Yes, God. Don't screw around. Just—” Karl flexed and slid into him a couple of inches, and Aiden didn't finish what he'd been about to say. His ass stretched to accommodate Karl's dick, burning where the lube slicked sensitive, still-raw flesh, and he whimpered at how good it felt.

“If this hurts—really hurts—you tell me,” Karl warned him and delivered a slap to Aiden's thigh for emphasis. It was too light to leave a sting, but it sent a jolt through Aiden's balls. Karl was like a triple fucking espresso in some ways. “Are we clear on that?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” There was no universe where he'd meant that seriously, none, but by the time the words, impudent, challenging, hung in the air, Aiden was already regretting them. Fuck, he just couldn't stop pushing Karl, and considering how Karl poured it on even when he wasn’t being teased and taunted, maybe Aiden had a suicidal streak he didn't know about.

Karl gave him the wolfish grin again, the scary one that Aiden liked a lot more than he should. “Oh, yeah. That's good, Adam, that's really smart. Want to know what I do when people under me mouth off?” He moved an inch deeper and then withdrew, tearing a groan from Aiden. “And you're definitely under me this time. I'm calling all the shots, babe.”

“I know. I know.” There wasn't much Aiden knew right then, but the fact that Karl was the one in charge was part of it.

He also knew, deeper down, that he was supposed to be the one with the upper hand in this situation, even if it was supposed to look exactly like it did, with Karl thinking he was the one in control. The fucked-up thing was that it was no illusion. Karl really was the one in control, and Aiden was in so far over his head that it was laughable.

Or it would have been if he weren't flat on his back with Karl's dick forcing its way into his ass, deep, as deep as it could go.

“Please,” Aiden said, helpless. “Please.”

“God, you have no idea how hot you look when you're begging for me to fuck you,” Karl said with a groan. Aiden liked the way that Karl just came out and said stuff like that instead of pretending that he was too tough to be as into this as Aiden was. Karl didn't seem interested in hiding anything. That was worth taking into account, but right then, Aiden couldn't bring himself to care about the investigation. The original reason he was letting Karl do this—do anything—to him was still there, somewhere, but it was buried under the lust. And mixed in with the lust were some emotions that Aiden wanted to shove down out of sight. He liked Karl. Admired him, even. He'd lost his objectivity around the moment Karl lost those clinging, wet swim trunks and told Aiden to blow him. “Makes me want to say no just to watch you squirm—yeah, like that. Fuck, so hot.”

Sweat and skin against his clawing, clutching hands, and oh, this didn't hurt at all now that Karl was splitting him open with stroke after stroke delivered at a slow, relentless tempo, unvarying, frustrating. Karl was taking them both somewhere, but he was pacing, his hands holding Aiden by his side, when Aiden wanted to run flat-out, his breath rasping in his throat, his heartbeat pounding like his feet on the ground.

“More...please...”

“Not yet,” Karl whispered into his ear before biting at the lobe and making it throb hotly. “You're not ready.”

“I am. Fuck, I'm ready—”

“Not if you can still talk,” Karl said.

Aiden whined in frustration and tightened his ass and thighs, lifting his hips and squeezing Karl's dick at the same time.

“Troublemaker,” Karl growled and didn't change his pace. “Don't think you can push me into anything, kid.”

“Please.” Aiden breathed it, closed his eyes. “Please, please, please.” He concentrated on the feel of Karl's cock moving in his ass, forward and back, and felt his own cock get even harder.

“Like it rough, don't you.” Karl withdrew, paused, and then shoved himself deep inside Aiden without warning. Aiden cried out and the headboard smacked into the wall at about the same time. God, he was so close, so, so close. Just a little bit more and he could come, with Karl's hand on him or without; it didn't matter. Another pause, and another quick, hard thrust, the pressure on Aiden's prostate so intense that he sobbed. His hands, which had been on Karl's back, slid lower and gripped on to Karl's ass.

“Newsflash, kid,” Karl said, the words slicing through the fog of pleasure surrounding Aiden, cutting it into pieces for a brief moment before the cloud re- formed. “So do I, so don't hold back.”

Aiden didn't want to, but months of being careful with Scott had left him hesitant of letting go. It led to arguments, cold silences, and for one week of hell, no sex at all, until the marks his fingernails had left on Scott's back had healed. He dug his fingers deeper into Karl's ass, carefully, peering up at Karl's face to make sure that he wasn't misreading Karl's words.

Karl's mouth tightened, all the warning Aiden got that he was in trouble, and then withdrew far enough that only the head of his cock was still inside Aiden. “If you want this again, you'd better start giving me everything you've got,” Karl said. “All or nothing. If you fuck up, I'll tell you, but the biggest mistake you can make—”

“I get it,” Aiden rasped out, furious that he'd lost the feeling of being filled, taken, over something as stupid as a single upward glance.

The bottle of lube was resting against his thigh, and he grabbed it, squeezing out a dollop one-handed and managing to get at least some onto his fingers. Karl had said he didn't bottom; fine. It didn't mean that a finger in his ass was off-limits.

Aiden placed his dry hand at the top of Karl's spine, fingers crooked, nails poised to strike, and raked them down the length of Karl's back, giving Karl a savage grin as he did it. Before the howl left Karl's lips, he worked his finger into Karl's ass. Not far. He was flat on his back and didn't have the reach, but far enough to feel Karl's body welcome him, allowing the intrusion.

“Not holding back,” he panted out. Jesus, he wanted Karl like air right now. Scary how much he needed this heavy, strong body, this controlling, annoying bastard of an ex-merc. “What about you?”

“What about me? You sure you want to find out?” Karl didn't wait for a reply, though, just started moving hard and fast.

For his part, Aiden did his best to hang on to Karl's ass with one hand and fuck it with the other, but that was basically all it was: hanging on for the ride. And a hell of a ride it was too. Karl fucked him like he'd been holding back all his life and a switch had been flipped so that he didn't have to anymore. Each thrust was so forceful that the bed rocked under them, the headboard hitting the wall and the box spring squeaking. Aiden's ass burned, his prostate screamed. His whole body was on fire, his nerves sparking and popping, and every second he could feel his arousal building. Any second now he was going to come, and when he did, it was going to be spectacular.

“Fuck,” Karl snarled and shifted back onto his knees, jerking Aiden with him and snapping his hips. Aiden's eyes opened and focused on Karl's face, on the almost-smile Karl was wearing, so he knew when Karl started to come, and it was the same moment that Aiden started to come. His cock pulsed, shooting onto his belly and chest, and he could feel Karl's ass contracting around the first knuckle of his finger—the only part that was still inside it—as Karl came. Karl's dick throbbed, making Aiden whimper as his already abused ass protested.

His finger slipped free a moment before Karl's cock slid out of him, and he closed his eyes, savoring the emptiness as much as he had the fullness. He was gasping for breath, gulping in air, his heart pounding. His ass was on fire. Okay, that had been too soon since the last time, definitely too soon.

But, God, it'd felt good.

Karl moved to lie beside him after tossing the tied-off condom unceremoniously into an overflowing wastepaper basket that Aiden kept meaning to empty. He picked up Aiden's hand and wrapped his fingers around Aiden's, squeezing hard for a moment. “I guess I asked for that, though we're clear that nothing else goes in my ass, right?”

“Shame,” Aiden said. “I was kinda looking forward to rimming you, just to see what it was like, but I'll cross it off my do-to-Karl list if you insist.”

Karl's hand moved to Aiden's throat, caressing it before digging in just enough to freak Aiden out, though it was only for a second. With his hand still locked in place, Karl kissed Aiden, his tongue fucking Aiden's mouth with forceful sharp stabs, mimicking an act that Aiden had never experienced at either end.

“I'll show you what it's like some time,” Karl said, his mouth close to Aiden's. “All you have to do is ask.”

“Not beg?” Aiden said, making it a question, not a challenge. He was too wiped to fight.

Karl kissed him again, a leisurely, possessive kiss that lasted long enough for Aiden's heart to stop racing. “Only if you get off on begging me. It's not a requirement.”

“Good to know.” Aiden tried to drag his mind back to what he was supposed to be concentrating on, but it wasn't easy. He pulled Karl's hand away from his throat and pressed his lips to Karl's wrist; then he stretched and rolled over onto his stomach, ignoring the sticky mess that made on the sheets. “Ugh. How's your leg? Is it still sore from the other night?”

“Not too much. We've really got to do something about finding you those fans— it's so hot in here.” Karl propped himself up on his elbow, seemingly willing to lounge.

“I guess I'm used to it—but if you don't like it, next time we can fuck at your place.” Aiden said it playfully, and Karl grinned and slapped him on the ass, making him wince despite himself.

“Shit, sorry,” Karl said, sounding it. He rubbed Aiden's bare ass cheek apologetically. “I wasn't thinking.”

Good. “It's okay. Apparently, I can take it. I mean, I'm not tough like you.” Aiden rolled onto his side facing Karl and traced around Karl's nipple with a fingertip. “I don't think I could take being shot.” He was lucky that the only time he had been shot he'd been wearing a vest, so there were no lingering scars to arouse suspicion—there'd only been a heck of a bruise and a cracked rib, both of which had healed without leaving anything behind.

“I don't know. You seem tough enough to me.”

“So what happened after you left your job? Did the company—what did you call it? A PCM or whatever—close down? Or did someone take over for you, the way you took over for someone else?” Aiden was completely relaxed in the aftermath of their sex, and he didn't sound anything apart from mildly curious—he felt confident that Karl wouldn't think anything of his questions.

“Huh? Where the hell did that come from?”

Shit, maybe he'd underestimated Karl's instincts, though Karl had sounded surprised, not suspicious.

“We were supposed to be talking, and I'm feeling guilty about going off track,” Aiden said without hesitation. “Next, I'm going to ask your star sign, your favorite flavor of ice cream, and if you've even cracked the cover on a single one of the books I made you get.”

Karl laughed. “Okay, in reverse order, yes, I started The Hobbit and can I just say giant spiders freak me out? Uh, mint chocolate chip, Taurus, and yeah, someone took over. My team was too tight a unit to disband; it would have been a waste. The guy who bought me out was one of my men. Asshole, but good at his job. Mean son of a bitch, though.”

“You didn't like him?”

“Can't stand him,” Karl said succinctly. “I only put up with him because he got the job done, and even then...” He frowned, his gaze going distant. “He's the kind of person who deals with an ant in the kitchen by burning down the house. He's a sledgehammer, and they can be useful, but our job isn't all brute force and bullets. He never got that.”

“He sounds scary,” Aiden said. “The kind of man who ends up in the headlines with words like atrocities and bloodbath next to his name.”

Karl looked away, and when he spoke, his voice was clipped and cool. “Yeah. Maybe. Not my problem now.”

Aiden knew when to back off, and anyway he'd been given what he wanted. Karl wasn't connected to Simes and wasn't a fan of his style. No way of knowing for sure if Karl was telling the truth, but Aiden's gut told him that Karl meant every word. The relief he felt wasn't solely or even mostly professional, which was disturbing, but that issue could wait. He had enough to deal with right here and now. Karl's presence made it difficult to concentrate on anything except the man himself. “So are you at all interested in my top ten ice cream flavors? Mint chocolate chip's a solid seventh, just so you know.”

“Yeah? So what's number one?” Karl seemed to be trying to find his good mood again, which Aiden appreciated.

“It's this weird stuff they used to make at the gelato place—” He'd been about to say on the other side of the city, but remembered in time that he was supposed to be new here and wouldn't have had much time or money to be exploring gelaterias. “Um...where I was living before. It's chocolate, but they put cayenne pepper in it. I know it sounds bizarre, but it's really good. Different, you know? Plus I like spicy stuff.” Aiden stroked his hand tentatively over Karl's hip. “What about your number one?”

“The mint chocolate chip? Oh, it was my favorite as a kid, that's all. I don't think I've eaten ice cream in years.”

“That's just sad,” Aiden told him. “We need to change that.”

“You want our next non-date to be at a Dairy Queen?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Karl was smiling now, the serious part of the conversation lost in the flow of conversation. The stilted awkwardness of earlier had vanished. “I'm not committing to that, but I'd like to try going out with you again.” He stretched and yawned unselfconsciously. “Okay, can we hit the shower before I fall asleep and wake up stuck to your bed?”

“Sure. I even did laundry the other day, and I've got a clean set of sheets to replace these. Although it's so hot...maybe you don't want to stay? Which is totally not a way of asking you to leave. It'd be nice to have—” Damn it, Aiden was screwing up again, or at least he thought he might be. Would Adam admit that it was Karl specifically that he wanted sleeping beside him? Or would he keep it casual? It was confusing because Aiden suspected that Karl would like the idea of being wanted, he just wouldn't like liking it. “I'd like to sleep next to you, but I get it if you'd rather go home and actually, you know, be comfortable.” He offered Karl an awkward smile and a shrug.

“Body heat's the last thing we need,” Karl agreed. “On the other hand, it's getting darker, which should cool things off and there's a Walmart two blocks over.”

“So?”

“So after we shower, we're going there and we're buying a fan. Two. No, I’m buying them.” Karl patted Aiden's face, looking pleased with himself for some reason. “And if we're having a sleepover, I want popcorn, and if you don't have it in, they'll sell that too.”

A fan would be nice. More than nice. Aiden hesitated and then capitulated. Pride was one thing, but Adam would know when to let Karl be generous. “Sure. Okay. If they have any fans left, that is. Got to say, though, I take deep offense at the idea that I wouldn't have popcorn. Apologize, or I'll make you take the first shower, with all the nasty hot water.”

“Wait, nasty? What's nasty about it? Okay, fine, I'm sorry.” Karl shoved him playfully. “But it better be good popcorn!”

“You know, I don't think I want to share it with you,” Aiden said, grinning and shoving Karl back, then jumping out of bed before there could be retaliation. “No popcorn for you!”

“Someone's spent too much time watching television,” Karl sing-songed and came at him with a speed that was a little alarming considering the guy had a bad leg, and Aiden ran the few steps to the bathroom and tried to shut the door before Karl could join him.

He didn't try very hard, though.