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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.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Karl woke up with the faint headachy feeling that accompanied dehydration, and lifted a hand to rub his face. For a few seconds, he couldn't figure out why the room was so hot—though the heat explained why he was naked. Where the hell was he? Then he remembered, and he rolled over to look at Adam, who was still, by the look of it, sleeping deeply. In sleep, with his face relaxed, Adam didn't look quite as young, though that didn't make him any less pleasant to watch. His eyelashes were dark against his cheeks, and his hair stuck up wildly. The skin around his mouth was reddened, and Karl knew that his own stubble was the likely culprit.

After half a minute or so, Adam stirred, then opened his eyes. “Uhm. Hey. Been awake long?”

“Not long at all.”

Adam knuckled at his eye and yawned. “God, what time is it?”

Karl glanced at the cheap alarm clock by the bed. The clock was balanced on a packing box that had been draped optimistically with a patterned cloth to cloak it. It still looked like shit. Adam was no Martha Stewart, but Karl wasn't planning to cast stones; his solution to decorating was to pay someone else to do it, after all. “Around eight.”

“Shit, I'm late for work.” Adam yawned again. “Can you give me a kiss before you yell at me for being late, or are we on the clock now?”

“Considering what we've done during working hours, I don't think a kiss is going to drastically alter our working relationship, but my breath might.” Karl worked a kink out of his neck. Adam's bed made sleeping on a forest floor look tempting.

Adam snorted, and before Karl could react, he was being kissed with an attention to detail that he definitely approved of. “Now we taste the same,” Adam said. “I think I've got a spare toothbrush, though; my dentist gave me one. It's got Buzz Lightyear on it, which kinda dates it, but I don't think toothbrushes have sell- by dates, and it's wrapped in plastic, so it should be safe.”

“Coffee?” Karl asked hopefully.

“I usually grab some from Della,” Adam admitted sheepishly. “She puts a pot on for you, and you never drink it all, so, uh, well, I—”

“Confession's good for the soul,” Karl said drily. So that was why there was never any left for the third cup he wanted. Brat. “Anything else you want to tell me while I'm still feeling mellow about the sex?”

Adam blinked at him, once, twice, and then smiled. “Not a thing, boss.”

“Is that a demotion from sir or a promotion?”

“I'll leave that up to you to decide.” Adam got out of bed. “I know you're my guest, but I really need to pee.” He stood there for a second, scratching his ribs, smiling sleepily down at Karl, and Karl felt his world lurch.

There was still a familiar tug of arousal as he took in Adam's stiff dick and, a moment later when Adam turned, an ass scattered with faint bruises, but he could handle that; he could deal. It was the tenderness that had crept in like a stray cat looking for a warm corner that was troubling Karl.

Tender. Teasing. Affectionate. Loving. He didn't do any of those, not with men Adam's age, not with anyone. The kid had breezed through Karl's barriers like they didn't exist, and Karl couldn't figure out how or when it'd happened.

He lay back, listening to the sound of a man peeing, washing, brushing his teeth—homey, reassuring sounds—and studied the apartment. There were spare rooms at his house bigger than the whole place, though he wasn't interested in offering Adam one of them.

He was interested in spending more nights with Adam lying beside him, though.

Life tasted better if you took big bites. If he was falling for Adam—and he wasn't ready to admit that, not yet—then he wanted Adam within reach. Maybe this weird infatuation would burn out if he got his fill of Adam's mix of innocence and wild, fucked-up passion.

Maybe.

Realizing that he was getting lost in his reverie instead of rising and dressing like he should be, Karl sighed and got up just as Adam came out of the bathroom. “Your turn,” Adam said, brushing a light kiss that tasted of mint over Karl's mouth on his way past.

Karl wasn't the type to spend lots of time primping—it only took him a minute to piss and brush his teeth with Adam's spare toothbrush, thoughtfully left for him on the edge of the sink. Then they both got dressed and were out the door.

“It looks okay,” Adam said, pausing near Karl's car, then giving him an apologetic glance. “I was a little worried it'd get scratched up or something.”

“Nah, it's fine.” It was, but even if it hadn't been, Karl wouldn't have stressed about it. “It's just a car. Not like it won't get scratched eventually.”

“Maybe, but I'd rather it didn't while it was parked outside my apartment,” Adam said. He walked backward toward the rear of the small lot where Karl could see the end of his truck peeking out from behind an old green sedan. “See you later?”

Now that, Karl thought, was the kind of good-bye he usually liked. Straightforward, unsentimental. “See you later.”

Still, as he got behind the wheel of his car, he couldn't help thinking that he would have preferred a kiss.

* * * * *

“You may need to go to London in person to finalize the details with Henderson on this last investment, but it's looking very promising,” Sophie said with a satisfied smile. “Within a month or so, all of your assets will be in secure holdings, diversified enough to provide economic stability—or as close as you can get these days—and we can begin to consider options for increasing your capital.”

“I've got three million dollars and a house worth another four and a half,” Karl said. “I don't need any more money.”

“The housing market is volatile right now, and your net worth is more like 2.6 million, very little of which is liquid,” Sophie corrected him. “You're not rich, Karl. Not yet. You have the potential to be, thanks to the seed money from the sale of the company and the other items you acquired—”

“Looted,” Karl corrected her. “And if I'm anything, it's mostly because of you.” He gestured at the desk she sat behind. “All this is your world, not mine. I was good at planning operations and making contacts, yes, but I'm not a businessman, Sophie, and this life just isn't working out for me the way I thought it would.”

“I've done exactly what you asked me to,” Sophie said sharply. “Karl, when you were in the hospital, you asked me to help with your finances, and I've handled them to the best of my ability—”

“You've been incredible,” Karl said, staring out of the window at grass kept green and lush by sprinklers. “After Johnny died, I expected you to leave the company, you know.”

“I thought about it,” Sophie admitted. “It was...hard still being there when he wasn't, but he knew the risks of the life he led and he loved it.”

“Adrenaline junkie, just like me,” Karl said. Johnny Lewis had been one of his best men, rock-steady when needed, and with a grin that just wouldn't quit when it wasn't. “No regrets.”

“No regrets,” Sophie echoed. It had been Johnny's way of saying good-bye: to his mother, to a buddy, to a girlfriend.

“You weren't tempted to stay on? Simes would have jumped at the chance to keep you.”

Sophie snorted, the wistful look leaving her face. “Work for that piece of shit? I don't think so.”

Karl raised his eyebrows in pretended shock. “I've never heard you use language like that about anyone, Sophie.”

“You never asked me what I thought about Simes before,” she said crisply. “Karl, let me finish all this, and then you can blow the lot of it at Las Vegas for all I care. I'll be in the south of France, soaking up the sun and drinking red wine.”

“You still want to do that?”

“Who wouldn't?” She said it archly and then sighed, her shoulders dropping. “Yes, I do. I want to go somewhere warm and relax for a few years. Maybe then I'll be able to think about starting a new life.” Her husband had died a few years before Johnny; she was alone now, and Karl could see why she'd need time to recoup. Sophie took a deep breath and nodded firmly. “Right now, I need to get back to work. If you aren't going to help me, go away.”

Karl liked her best when she was in this mood—stubborn and strong—even though he wouldn't have admitted it to her. “Fine. Thrown out of my own office by the hired help...”

“Quiet,” Sophie ordered, head already bent over her work. She waved a hand at him without looking up. “Out, out.”

Grinning, Karl went, feeling a little bit like a kid who'd been given permission to leave school before the end of the day. He glanced out the window over the stairs, unconsciously checking for Adam, but the grounds were big enough that there were plenty of times he didn't know where the kid was. No sign of him now. It was getting close to lunchtime, and he thought he'd invite Adam to eat with him, so he swung through the kitchen on his way to the side door.

“I'm going to ask Adam if he wants to join me for lunch,” he told Della, and she nodded.

“Would you like to eat in the dining room?”

Karl considered it and then shook his head. “In here is fine.” He often ate his own lunch out by the pool, which meant his tan was getting deeper by the day, but given that Adam had been working in the heat all morning, he assumed Adam would rather eat inside. “BLTs?”

“I thought you were avoiding bacon,” Della said.

“I'll make an exception for visitors. Kid could use some meat on his bones.”

Damn, it was hot out, even if the sun felt good as he strolled across the lawn. He could hear bees buzzing around some newly flowered bushes. Oh, there was Adam, wearing gardening gloves and crouching next to the small pond water feature that tended to attract frogs and dragonflies. He had his iPod on again, Karl noted, and didn't seem to see Karl until he was almost upon him. Then Adam stood up and took out his ear buds.

“Hey,” Karl said. “I didn't want to scare you.”

“You don't scare me,” Adam said, grinning. “What, did you find a dandelion? I thought I got them all.”

Karl waved at a bug that was circling his head. “No, no dandelions. You want to have lunch with me?”

“As long as it's not a date.” Adam took off his gloves and dropped them in the mulch next to the trowel he'd been using. “Is it noon already? Guess I lost track of— Ow!” He swatted suddenly at his arm, then pinched something small and wriggling between his fingers before letting go of it. “Shit.”

“You get stung?” Karl asked, even as Adam looked up at him with wide eyes. “What?”

“Bee,” Adam said, white underneath the pink of his sun-kissed cheeks. “Shit.” He was breathing too fast and bent to scrabble a small plastic box out of the lower pocket of his cargo pants. “Shit, shit.”

“You're allergic?” Karl asked. Stupid question; why else would Adam be panicking like this? He took the EpiPen from Adam's fumbling fingers, a slim container, marked with instructions Karl didn't need to read. First aid training in his job was a requirement. He took the green cap off the end of the storage tube, then the gray safety cap covering the injector tip. “Hold still.”

“Hurry up,” Adam said, sweat standing out on his face. He shoved his pants down, half turning so that Karl could inject him midthigh. Karl counted to ten under his breath and then withdrew the injector tip and began to massage the area with steady hands. After half a minute or so, he stopped. The sting was swelling up on Adam's arm, a livid red mark.

Karl dropped the used pen into its container and screwed the lid on again before slipping it into his shirt pocket.

“How are you doing?”

“Feel like crap,” Adam said, his voice tight. “God, I didn't even see it.”

The bee lay on the grass, a bright patch of yellow, striped with black. It was dying, struggling fitfully to fly. Karl crushed it under his heel without hesitation, removing it as a threat and ending its suffering. “Don't worry about it.” Karl helped Adam to fasten his pants and then put his arm around Adam's shoulders. “Let's get you to the emergency room.”

Adam shook his head. “You don't need to do that.”

“Sure I don't. I'll just let you collapse and die right here. Shut up and lean on me. I'm going to leave you on the bench over there and bring the car around.”

It was a measure of how shitty Adam had to be feeling that he didn't argue about any of it.

The drive to the hospital was a blur for Karl, focused on covering the five miles or so in as little time as possible without getting pulled over, which would be an unacceptable delay, and keeping an eye on Adam, slumped in the seat beside him. The epinephrine had helped; Adam's face had some color, but Karl wasn't taking any chances.

The emergency room was bustling and busy, though it wasn't too long before Adam was taken to an examination cubicle, Karl staying with him every step of the way. A nurse tried to get him to wait in the reception area, but he ignored her. Adam wasn't one of his men, but he was still Karl's responsibility.

“I hate this,” Adam said. He was lying flat on his back with a blood pressure monitor wrapped around his arm. “It's been a long time, though, but my—um, my mom, always nagged me about it, so I always carry the kit.”

“You can mention her,” Karl said, and Adam frowned and turned his head to look at him. “You meant your ex, huh, not your mom? What was her name, Julie?”

Adam blinked. “Julia.” The adrenaline, instead of making him talk faster to match the rapid heartbeat Karl could see fluttering at his temple, seemed to be slowing him down, mentally, at least. “Yeah. I just—it's awkward. Isn't it? Awkward?”

“Not that awkward.” Karl snagged the cheap plastic chair that was over against the wall and set it beside Adam's bed. “I talk about guys I used to fuck, sometimes. It doesn't seem to bother you.”

“Yeah, well. It does.” Adam was looking at the ceiling again, and his voice was flat. “It does bother me. I hate it.” In the silence that followed, the blood pressure monitor kicked in, expanding around Adam's upper arm and then, a moment later, displaying numbers on the digital screen. “Sorry,” Adam said. “Ignore me. The epi makes me kind of crazy.”

Karl wasn't sure he believed that—in fact, he was sure he didn't—but before he could say anything, a doctor in a white coat came bustling into the clinic, saying, “Aiden? What the hell happened? Kate said that you were—” The doctor stopped when he saw Karl; then his eyes shot over to Adam again.

“Sorry,” Adam said slowly. “I think you have the wrong room.” His gaze was steady as he looked at the doctor.

“Right—no, my mistake,” the doctor said, a few seconds too late, and Karl knew, suddenly, that something wasn't right here. Glancing at his clipboard, the doctor frowned deliberately and took a step backward. “Wrong patient. Sorry about that. I'll try to find out who's supposed to be in here with you.” He left, and Karl heard him say, “Kate? Kate!” rather loudly.

Karl waited for Adam to comment, but Adam had closed his eyes, shutting Karl out and leaving him to think it through himself, analyzing what had happened with as much objectivity as he could muster. The doctor's face had been tight with concern; whoever this Aiden was, he was more than just a patient to the man. How long had it taken for the concern to be replaced by confusion?

Too long.

The doctor had continued to talk to Adam even after getting a good look at his face, only breaking off when he'd seen Karl. The unconvincing, overdone frown, the panic in his voice as he'd called for the nurse...

A second doctor entered before Karl could decide how to play this. Brisk and businesslike, he began to question Adam, and Karl slipped out of the cubicle and glanced around. The first doctor was still talking to a nurse, presumably Kate, gesticulating back at Adam's cubicle and then running his hand through his hair, his expression harassed and concerned. Good-looking man, if you liked them pretty, Karl thought, but there was nothing about him that captured Karl's interest.

Another nurse passed by, and Karl stopped her with a gesture and smiled, making it as charming as he could. “Sorry to bother you. Is that Dr. Simpson over there?” He knew that it was a safe question. A Dr. Simpson had been paged when they walked in. The name had stuck in his head because it was the name of a childhood buddy.

“Who?” She followed Karl's gaze and shook her head. “No, that's Dr. Ceeley. Ask at reception, and they'll tell you which floor you need.” She was already moving away, giving him a fleeting, apologetic smile.

Karl moved closer to his target until he was within earshot, and then turned and pretended to be engrossed by a poster on the wall giving details of a blood donor clinic later that week.

“You should have told me he had someone with him!”

“Look, Scott, I'm pulling a double shift here; you're lucky I even recognized him. The way I feel right now, if my own mother got admitted, I'd probably ask her what her name was. What's the big deal? I sent Dr. Chavez in, so just chill, okay? Aiden's going to be fine; it's just an allergic reaction and not too serious by the sound of it.”

Karl watched Kate walk off out of the corner of his eye, indignation stiffening her spine. Ceeley muttered something under his breath that didn't sound very professional and took a step toward Adam's—Aiden's—cubicle, his face twisted indecisively. After a moment, he spun on his heel and walked away.

Karl was tempted to do the same, but he was in deep enough now that he wasn't sure he could without knowing whatever there was to know. So instead he went back to Adam—the name switch would be a hell of a thing to get used to, if he had to—and stood just inside the cubicle as Dr. Chavez finished asking Adam questions. “He'll be fine,” Chavez said to Karl. “We're just going to keep him for a while. He doesn't have a history of being biphasic, but better safe than sorry.”

“Uh-huh,” Karl said, even though he had no idea what that meant. Chavez nodded at them and left.

“I can go home in an hour,” Adam said quickly into the silence. “It's just that for the next day or so, there's a risk I could have another reaction, so I have to be prepared for that, and...” His voice trailed off and he glanced down at the floor as if scuffed tiles were suddenly fascinating. “I'll be okay. Honestly, it's not really likely anything will happen. It never has before. Like I said, I'll be fine.”

“Yes, you will,” Karl said affably. “Because you're coming home with me.”

“What? No, I can't. You can take me home, if it's no trouble and you don't mind hanging around here for the next hour, but—”

Karl smiled at him. “Do you really think I'd let you out of my sight?”

He took a grim satisfaction in seeing the way Adam had to fight to control his reaction to that.

Yeah, kid, wonder if your cover’s blown. Try and wriggle free all you want. I don’t know who you are or why you’ve been playing me, but your ass is still mine.

Scratch the surface, and Karl was just about ready to start shooting holes in people, but he could act a part if he tried, and until he knew more, he was going to try real hard. Disappointment and anger at his own gullibility warred with a concern that wouldn't quite die. Adam still looked like hell, pasty white and shaking, but Karl pushed all of that away to be dealt with later. He needed to know more, but he couldn't set the wheels in motion on that with Adam in earshot, and he guessed that given half a chance, left alone Adam would rabbit.

And not back to that shithole of an apartment. If that Ken doll of a doctor was more than Adam's friend—and Karl would have bet money on them being together—Adam probably lived in a much fancier place, with air-conditioning and a bed with a firm, level mattress, not a sagging, lumpy one.

So he'd get Adam home, tie him to a bed—hey, the kid liked it rough—and do some investigating. Find out just exactly who had been pulling his dandelions the last week or so.

Karl patted Adam's knee. “Lighten up, kid. I'll take care of you.”

Chapter Ten

Aiden was doing his best to keep it together, though it wasn't easy when he had adrenaline surging through him. It made him want to talk, so he had to try not to, since he was likely to say something he shouldn't. The thing with Scott—God, what bad fucking luck that had been. Scott had caught on faster than Aiden probably would have given him credit for, but not fast enough to escape Karl's notice. And the way Karl had been looking at him since then, he couldn't help his suspicion that Karl hadn't been able to write it off as nothing.

If he lost his nerve now, he'd blow the whole game. He just needed to stick it out a little longer.

“Come on, let's get you inside and comfortable,” Karl said, stopping the car in front of the house.

“I feel like my heart's gonna jump out of my chest. There is no comfortable.” At least Aiden didn't have to pretend to feel like shit, since that much was genuine. “If I didn't know what was causing it, I'd think I was dying.”

“Not on my watch,” Karl said. “I've never lost a guy to a bug, and I don't plan to start with my favorite weed puller.”

“Thanks. I think.” Aiden took a deep breath. “Karl, is it okay if I just find a bed to crash in? I'd really like to just sleep this off.”

And make a few phone calls once he was alone, starting with one to Diane.

“Just what I was going to suggest—no, make that insist—that you do,” Karl said, topping that with a friendly leer that sure looked genuine. “As long as we make it my bed. I promise to be a perfect gentleman, but if you get another reaction in the middle of the night, I want to be nearby.”

“Works for me,” Aiden said and let Karl help him out of the car and into the house. With any luck, he'd be pulled within the hour and the next time he saw Karl he'd be in an FBI-approved suit and tie and he could drop the innocent, naive act, a persona that the wild sex had pretty much left shredded anyway. He'd be in a position to help Karl too, if Karl would let him. Aiden tried to picture a forgiving, understanding Karl, assuring him that it was okay, he got it.

The picture kept wavering and breaking up.

Never mind. An hour and he'd get his life back. He had to focus on that. His screwed-up, fucked-up love life—and that included Scott as well as Karl—was secondary to the job, and it was time that he remembered that. Sure, it hadn't helped that Karl was the job, and Diane was going to kick his fucking ass when she discovered how involved with Karl Aiden had gotten, but he'd achieved his goal, and that had to count for something.

“Jesus,” Aiden said as he finally sat down on Karl's bed. It felt good to have a solid surface under him again—when he was walking around, even with Karl's arm supporting him, he felt like the super-fast beating of his heart meant his feet might lose contact with the ground. Lying down was better. “I feel like crap.”

“You don't look so hot,” Karl agreed. “Anything you need?”

“Can you get me something to eat? Protein, maybe?”

“Sure,” Karl said and pushed Aiden back gently, helping him to get comfortable against the pillows. Aiden tried to breathe normally, willing his body to calm down. He couldn't blame the bee for all of his agitation. “That's it. Lie down. I'll get your shoes. There. How about steak and eggs? Or there's some cold chicken in the fridge and a bowl of Della's potato salad; I can have that up here in five minutes.”

“Sounds great,” Aiden said, already planning to hit speed dial the minute the door closed on Karl. “Did I say thanks for taking care of me?”

“I'll expect you to show me how grateful you are later,” Karl said. “I've got some ideas about how you can do it. Now stop talking and rest.”

Aiden closed his eyes obediently, listening for the sound of footsteps followed by the door clicking shut. What he got was Karl using his cell to call the landline in the kitchen and ordering chicken and potato salad after giving Della a brief update on Aiden's condition. Who the hell phoned someone in another room of their own house?

Karl must have seen Aiden's incredulous look because he smiled. “I'm not usually this lazy, but my leg's hurting and I don't want to use the stairs more than I have to. Those hospital chairs were designed by a sadist.”

Shit. What did villains say while twirling their mustache? Oh, yeah. Curses. Foiled again.

Except he was the good guy, damn it.

“Why don't you get out of your pants at least?” Karl asked. “You can hide under the covers if you're shy, though Della's love life is epic, so I'm sure neither of us has anything she hasn't seen before.”

His pants held his phone, but there didn't seem like a good way to refuse, especially not when his pants were more than a little grubby at the knees and seat and Karl's sheets were a dazzling, pristine white. Aiden took his pants off and ducked under the sheets just as Della appeared with a laden tray and a concerned frown. She fussed over him, clucking in a way that he guessed was motherly, though it wasn't anything like his mother had ever been when he was sick. She'd doled out aspirin and ginger ale for everything from a cold to a twisted ankle.

The situation went from bad to much worse when Della was telling him all about her cousin Louise who was allergic to peanuts. Karl held up Aiden's pants, murmured something about getting them washed, and disappeared, moving without a hint of stiffness in his leg, before Aiden could finish swallowing a mouthful of tender, juicy, perfectly roasted chicken and tell him not to bother.

He had to hope that Karl would just put the pants directly into the wash without checking the pockets. That would mean his phone would be history, but it was preferable to Karl finding the phone and deciding to mess around with it— Jesus, this just got worse and worse, and Aiden didn't know whether to blame himself or the fucking bee that had set all this in motion. In an ideal world, he wouldn't have been carrying the cell phone in the first place. He should have left it in the truck. God, his brain was whirling in circles, and he knew he was likely to get himself in deeper and deeper with the epinephrine surging around his body. Maybe he should pretend to sleep for a while?

After he finished eating, of course. The food did make him feel better, a little more grounded. “Thank you,” he said to Della. “Really. This is great.”

He hadn't meant it as one, but she seemed to take this is as a dismissal. “Well, you let me know if you need anything else. I'm right downstairs.” And she left as Karl came back in, murmuring something to her that Aiden couldn't quite hear.

“How's the food?” Karl asked.

“Great,” Aiden said. “Late lunch, I guess. What about you? Aren't you going to eat something?” Maybe Karl would go down to the kitchen and give him a few minutes to think uninterrupted.

“Sure.” Karl sat on the bed next to him and stole a chicken leg off his plate. “As long as you don't mind sharing.”

“As long as you don't mind bits of chicken in your bed,” Aiden corrected him. It was so, so easy to forget about his real life and just be Adam, relaxed, having a good time with Karl. Too easy. “It's practically falling apart.”

“It's good,” Karl said solemnly, as if the way Della had cooked the chicken was the most important subject in the world. “She's got this rub she puts on the skin. It's a—”

“Secret blend of herbs and spices?” Aiden suggested before he could stop himself.

Karl's eyes gleamed with amusement. “Something like that.”

They finished the chicken between them and Karl cleared the dishes away to a table near the window. “I think you should try to sleep.”

“Okay,” Aiden said. Maybe Karl would leave then and he could sneak out, find a phone downstairs. “I'll try.”

Karl drew the curtains, bringing an early dusk to the room, and Aiden's eyes closed despite his efforts to keep them open. Thank God, Karl was moving now— toward the door? No, the bed. Aiden kept his eyes closed, the cool pillow a lullaby against his cheek, and then Karl leaned over to kiss him lightly on the forehead.

“Sleep well, Aiden.”

Time seemed to slow, as if it were giving Aiden plenty of time to register and process what Karl had said, but it was an illusion. There was too long a gap between Aiden reacting to the use of his real name, drowsy as he was, all the time in the world for Karl to fasten a cuff around one of Aiden's wrists with practiced ease.

“Hey!” Aiden kicked out, hampered by the sheets, Karl's sheets, winding and tangling around his legs. “No!”

Karl's weight was on him, holding him down against the bed, smothering him. Aiden gasped, his training deserting him for a precious second or two because his body knew this feeling, and with Karl's scent in every breath he took, it wanted to yield, not fight. His struggles were slowed by his momentary hesitation, futile anyway against a man who knew just where to apply pressure to Aiden's throat, cutting off his air for long enough that Aiden's head swam. Karl's hand slackened and he dragged Aiden's arm up and back, and the second cuff closed with a snick around one of the metal struts of the headboard.

Karl got off the bed and stared down at him, his face impassive. Aiden sucked in some much needed oxygen and coughed to clear his throat. His shoulder was already protesting the angle of his arm, but getting more comfortable would've meant turning his back on Karl. “I guess we have some stuff to talk about, because bondage isn't my thing.”

Karl shrugged. “If I wanted you cuffed during sex, I don't think you'd have minded, but we both know that's not why you're wearing them, Aiden.”

Panic welled up—there was his name again, his actual name, which meant Karl knew or at least suspected. God, he didn't want to die like this, helpless, chained, though it was looking a very real possibility if Karl reverted to old habits and eliminated a problem the easy way. “Karl—”

“We'll talk,” Karl said. “Just not yet. Do as you're told. Rest.”

Rest? How the fuck was he supposed to do that? “Karl...Karl! Hey!”

Karl was already at the door to the bedroom. He turned and said, “I sent everyone home, so it's just the two of us. No one can hear you, and I'm pretty sure no one's going to miss you for some time. So I think you should just get used to the idea that you're staying here for a while.” And he left, with Aiden handcuffed to the bed frame, alone.

Okay, okay. Think. There was a bunch of adrenaline in his system, both artificial and real, so this was his chance to get free if he was going to. Uncaring if he made noise, he shifted around onto his side, crushed his thumb against his palm, and tried to pull his hand out of the cuff. The bones in his hand protested, compressed to the point of creaking, skin at risk of being torn. Karl knew what he was doing; the cuff was tight as hell. Aiden shifted again, nearer to the headboard, and licked around his wrist, hoping that a little lubrication might make the difference. No dice, though, and he wasn't sure that a broken hand would free him either.

The next thing he focused on was the bed frame, but it was solidly built. He threw all his weight against it anyway, and the thing barely budged. Shit, he was in so much trouble. Losing it for a few seconds, Aiden gritted his teeth and tugged hard again on the cuff, as hard as he could, until his shoulder and elbow screamed, the joints stressed.

Finally, having tired himself, he gave up and just lay there, gasping, his heart racing and his arm aching.

Karl left him like that for about an hour. Maybe if Aiden had been James Bond, he'd have been able to break free using the laser beam cunningly hidden in his watch or something, but Adam's watch was a cheap Timex, and the FBI didn't have as many cool toys for their agents as Aiden had assumed when he was growing up. Or maybe he was just too junior to qualify for more than a gun and a badge. He lay, half dozing, and let his brain do the work, not his muscles.

There had been no time for Karl to find out anything before he'd cuffed Aiden to the bed, which meant that Karl was spooked as hell by the experience with Scott. After an hour on the Net or making calls, though, Karl would know all there was to know about him. So where would Karl go from there? Aiden tried to tell himself that Karl wouldn't kill a federal agent in cold blood, and managed to convince himself that was true. It didn't stop him from wondering what Karl would do, though.

Aiden groaned and banged his head against the pillow. Why the fuck hadn't he come clean to Karl earlier? He'd gotten enough information to make it likely that Karl would cooperate with the ongoing investigation into Simes's company, and as soon as he had that, he should have...

Stupid question. Stupid because he knew the answer: He'd dragged his feet because he craved what Karl, only Karl, could give him, and he didn't want to lose those moments when Karl turned him into a blissed-out, screaming wreck—nor the times when he connected with Karl, the two of them in sync, content. If the mission ended, he couldn't hide behind any excuses that he was letting Karl fuck him for the sake of the job, couldn't put off dealing with Scott and their inevitable breakup.

He'd timed it all wrong, and now—oh, God, what now?

The door opened and Karl walked in—empty-handed, apart from Aiden's pants, which he tossed onto the bed. Not that no gun visible meant that there wasn't a gun tucked away somewhere. Aiden eyed him warily. Karl smiled at him, his eyes empty of expression. Totally shut down. Aiden had never seen Karl like this, not even during the bar fight, and frankly, it was intimidating.

“How are you feeling?”

“Confused,” Aiden said, channeling Adam. “Karl, what's going on? Did something happen?”

Karl sighed. “Confused? Really? Somehow, I doubt that. Okay, let's cut the crap. Your name's Aiden Russell, you live at 36 Cedar Street with that concerned but clueless doctor you didn't introduce me to. You're older than you told me, and— oh, yeah, let's save the best for last—you're an FBI agent.” Karl pursed his lips. “You bruised your wrist. I'm not taking responsibility for that; I told you to relax.”

“Kinda hard under the circumstances.”

“I don't see why. And it's your own fault; if you'd told me what you were before I left the room, you'd have only worn them for a few minutes.” Karl walked around the bed and unlocked the cuffs. “Sorry about that, Agent Russell. I hope you believe that if I'd known you were a Fed, I wouldn't have restrained you.”

Aiden's confusion was real enough now, but even as he tried to make sense of Karl's actions, he was flinching from the cold fury in Karl's eyes. The mouth was smiling, saying reassuring words in a polite, even respectful tone, but those eyes...fuck, Karl looked like killing Aiden painfully was at the top of his wish list.

“Look.” Aiden sat up and rubbed his sore wrist, hoping that a sign of vulnerability like that would take Karl's anger down a few notches. “I'm sorry about this. All of it. It was an assignment, and I needed to find out what you knew about Simes. Whether you were the spark that set him off or if he didn't flare until after you left. He's out of control. You know that just as well as the bureau does, but we knew you wouldn't admit it if we took you into custody and asked, and don't try to pretend otherwise. You'd have protected Blake Enterprises even if it isn't yours anymore. You'd have stood by your men.”

“I would,” Karl said. “Still will, in fact. So where does that leave you? Seems to me that you whored yourself out for a whole lot of nothing, Agent Russell.” He laughed, the sound mocking, corrosive. “Oh, wait, am I supposed to be more cooperative because we fucked? Was access to your ass my bribe? I've got news for you, kid. I've had people try to make me switch loyalties before, and the bids went as high as half a million before they got the message that Karl Blake couldn't be bought. And the worst of them never tried to pimp out one of their own men to sweeten the deal.” His mouth twisted in a grimace. “Fucking Feds. You make me sick, all of you. Get dressed and get the hell out.”

Aiden stood and grabbed his cargo pants off the bed, watching Karl warily as he started to pull them on. They hadn't been washed, not that he'd expected them to be. He wasn't going to leave, not so quickly, but at this point he suspected they'd both feel better if he wasn't half-naked. “I wasn't trying to buy anything with the sex. Well, maybe at first, and then—things got out of hand. I fucked up. Anyway, now we know. You don't like what Simes is doing any better than the rest of us do, and it's not just to protect yourself. They're going to take you in for questioning regardless, but at least now the stuff you say will be backed up by what you told me when you had no reason to cover your ass.”

“So, what, you did me a favor?” Karl sounded bitter, and Aiden couldn't blame him. “Besides, I didn't tell you anything until now. I told Adam, remember?”

“It doesn't matter,” Aiden said, shaking his head. “I mean, it does, but not that part of it.” He sighed. “I know this sucks, but if you can try to look at it as the best that could come of a bad situation...”

“Is that what he'll say? Your doctor, I mean. That it was all for the best and he understands? Uh, no, not seeing it, kid.”

Aiden couldn't keep his face from showing just how much he agreed with Karl's assessment of the situation. “Yeah. You're probably right about that. I've got to tell him, and when I do...” He bit down hard on his lip, needing the small, sharp pain to ground him before he met Karl's icily furious eyes. “Does it make you happy to know what I'm going to lose through this? Scott, hell, maybe even my job. I screwed up, Karl. I loved what I was getting from you so much that I just...I lost it. My objectivity, the commitment I'd made to Scott. It all just stopped mattering.”

“That doesn't make me happy.” Karl's mouth tightened. “In fact, it sounds like you're blaming me for your weakness. No. That's on your shoulders, not mine. I gave you the chance to say no, thanks, I'm not interested, every fucking step of the way. That day by the pool, you could have told me you were straight and I'd have known that you were lying, but I wouldn't have pushed. Or you could've said you were with someone, and I'd have backed off. You used sex to soften me up.” Karl gave him a smile that held no humor. “In a manner of speaking. Your choice. Or did they tell you to do that? Warn you it might happen? Is that why you were assigned to this case, because they knew you could bend over and beg real pretty?”

“Fuck you,” Aiden said hotly. “It wasn't like that.” Yet it had been, sort of, and he sank down on the bed and dropped his head onto his hands. There was no way left for Karl to hurt him, not really. Aiden had already done it to himself. “Yes,” he said, lifting his face to look at Karl again. “Yeah, one of the reasons they assigned me the job was because they knew I was gay. And yes, you have a certain reputation. Still, you're right, I shouldn't blame you for my mistakes, and I'm sorry. For all of it. Well, most of it.” He grinned ruefully, or tried to.

“What part aren't you sorry about?” Karl inquired, raising his eyebrows. “The sex, I'm guessing, because you might have enjoyed fooling me into thinking your ass was virgin territory—nice job there—but you weren't pretending that you loved what I did. Can't fake coming.”

“I wasn't pretending at all,” Aiden said forcefully. He was going to make Karl see that much, at least. “Trying to make you think it was new to me. God, do you have any idea how difficult it is to screw up a blowjob when you're really good at them? Or to keep acting when you're getting your brains screwed out by someone who's taking a sledgehammer to every button you've got?”

“Flattery. Won't work.”

“Oh, yes, it will,” Aiden said. He got off the bed and took the few steps needed to get in Karl's face. “You love hearing this. Like you loved hearing me beg for you to fuck me harder. We both got off on that and I'm only sorry that you never...we never—”

“What?”

Aiden closed his eyes. Shame and desire were heating his blood, painting his cheeks red and making his heart pound. “That you never got to see how good it could be. That you never got to sleep with Aiden. With me.”

“Aiden belongs to Scott.” Karl flicked a dismissive finger against Aiden's chin. It stung. “I don't share.” He tilted his head to the side, his lips pursed thoughtfully. “I didn't see much of your boyfriend, but he looks like the kind of guy who prefers Adam. When you ask him to hurt you, does he fuck your ass raw—or get out the Band-Aids?”

Torn by loyalty to a man who'd been nothing but good to him—just never, now that Aiden was able to admit it, good enough—Aiden tried for something honest by way of response. “That's not who he is. He did try, when I asked, but you're right. He'd prefer Adam. I think I've known that for a long time, but he loves me, and it was easier to let that be more important.”

“And now?” Karl asked it almost mockingly.

“Now?” Aiden sighed. “I guess my eyes are open.”

“Don't like what you see?”

Aiden felt like shoving the man, but instead he stepped back. “You really are an asshole sometimes, you know.”

“Looks like it's your type.” Karl's face had lost some of its impassivity. It didn't seem to matter how angry either of them was. When they got talking, they connected, got close. “Though if I was going to be honest...”

“Yes?”

Karl's hand slid into Aiden's hair and closed on enough of it to use as a way to bring Aiden's mouth in reach. Less painful to allow it than to fight it. Aiden tensed, not sure what he would do if Karl kissed him, but Karl just murmured, “I made an effort to be nice to you. Don't worry, though.” Karl's hand moved down to cup Aiden's jaw. “I won't make that mistake again.”

Being pushed away with a precise, forceful shove at his jaw didn't hurt as much as a punch would, but Aiden's teeth snapped closed with an audible click, and his head jerked back, jarring his neck. It wasn't the first time that Karl had been rough with him, but it was the first time that it had been prompted by anger, not arousal, and the difference that made was chilling.

The same way Aiden's teeth had snapped, so did his self-control, fury rising like a storm. He was fit, muscular, deceptively strong, and still no match for Karl, who outweighed him by a good thirty pounds and whose profession had required more of him physically than Aiden's ever had. None of that mattered, because Aiden's blow, aimed for Karl's face, wasn't about gaining the upper hand or winning a fight. It was about releasing the anger that made him see red. Anger at the situation, at the loss of his relationship with Scott, at the fact that he'd met Karl, this amazing man, but couldn't have him. It filled him and needed an outlet.

Karl must have seen it coming, because he jerked away and caught Aiden's fist in his own hand, using Aiden's momentum against him and spinning him around. Aiden's arm was twisted up and behind his back, and he couldn't struggle more than a couple of inches because of the way he was being restrained.

“Fuck you,” he spat, kicking backward at Karl's shin. The glancing blow, barefoot as he was, probably barely made an impression, so he said it again. “Fuck. You.

“Never gonna happen,” Karl said into his ear. “I don't roll over for anyone, remember?” He reached around and dragged his free hand down the front of Aiden's body, fingertips skimming Aiden's throat first, making Aiden swallow hard against the light pressure. The fingers didn't clutch and squeeze the breath from Aiden; Karl moved on, down to a nipple, pinching it hard through Aiden's T-shirt, one finger and thumb rolling it. The contrast between the delicate, precise assault coupled with the agony radiating from his arm was close to unbearable. Aiden's breath hissed out, and he stopped fighting. He had to get Karl off guard. Make him relax and then—Karl's hand, fingers crooked, slashed at Aiden's stomach.

Even through a T-shirt, Aiden could feel the passage of each fingernail as it dug in, and he panted harshly, knowing where Karl's hand would go next and that it would find him hard. Too much emotion and aggression in the room for his cock not to react, even if his brain was focused more on fighting, not fucking. The next touch was a caress, tauntingly light over the fabric covering his erection, and he arched up helplessly into the touch, chasing it, craving more and hating himself for it. Moving like that increased the pressure on his arm, but he didn't care, it didn't matter, because his arm was about to break, so Karl would have to let go, and then he could...he would...

“You want my help taking Simes out of the picture?” Karl said, the words making no sense at first because the heel of Karl's hand was rubbing over Aiden's cock, or maybe he was grinding against it, and he wasn't paying attention to anything except the pain in his arm and how good it felt to have something to distract him from it.

“Yes. Yes.” He hissed, shuddering under Karl's assault, which was so much more devastating than being beaten up would have been. “Yes, I want your help.”

“Then I want to get paid up front,” Karl said coldly and took his hand away. Aiden heard himself protest that loss with a needy whimper he wished he could have held back, but Karl wasn't listening. He released Aiden's arm and jerked Aiden around to face him. Aiden straightened out his arm with a bitten-off groan. Fuck, he could barely move it, his shoulder one bright, hot ball of pain. That would wear off, but right now, he couldn't use that arm much at all. “You were happy to whore yourself out before; you can spread your legs for me one last time. Show me what you can do with your mouth when there's no need to pretend you're new at this. Give me everything you've got, Aiden, and then we can head downtown to your nice, clean, tidy office, and I'll talk to your boss. If you're a good little agent, I might even let you shower first so you don't smell like me, let you change into something with long sleeves, so they can't see the marks we both know you'll beg for.”

It should have been a difficult decision, yet it wasn't, not at all. Karl wasn't asking for anything that Aiden didn't want to give, and part of Aiden thought that Karl was owed an apology. Kneeling to give it and using his mouth for more than contrite words would work. “Okay. Yes.”

Before he could come to his senses and change his mind, Aiden dropped to his knees. He only had one good hand right then, so he leaned in and mouthed at Karl's cock through his slacks, breathing warm air through the fabric. Part of him expected Karl to hit him, to push him away—and, in fact, Karl's hands were clenched into fists at his sides—but that didn't happen. Karl stood there and let Aiden undo his slacks and push them down to the floor.

It occurred to Aiden briefly that with Karl's pants around his ankles, he'd be slow as hell, but he put that thought aside because what he needed was to get Karl to cooperate, and what he wanted was this last opportunity to be with Karl, like this, before it was over. Then he'd have to break things off with Scott and move out of Scott's house. Hey, maybe that shitty apartment would come in handy for a few weeks while he looked for somewhere else to live.

It didn't matter. Right now, he was kneeling on Karl's plush bedroom rug and taking Karl's dick, half-hard, into his mouth. Aiden breathed in through his nose and slid his lips down to the base of Karl's cock, not gagging at all now that he was himself again and didn't have to pretend that he'd never done this before. He felt it harden against his flickering tongue, growing rigid within moments. Karl might be pissed off at Aiden, but his dick was more forgiving.

Aiden didn't touch himself, not even to adjust his erection, caught against his zipper and definitely in need of more space. This was Karl's dime, not his. For all the humiliation involved in the situation—and there was no way, no fucking way that this was going in his report, and the hell with full disclosure and accurate documentation, because this was between him and Karl—he couldn't help feeling a flicker of satisfaction, both that Karl would get to see what he could do and that Karl would ask for this from him.

Okay, maybe he was as fucked-up as Scott sometimes said he was, because he was on his knees sucking the dick of a man who'd just put him through an hour of hell, and he was enjoying it and doing everything he could to make sure that Karl was loving it too.

“You're made for this,” Karl said. His hands came up to clasp Aiden's head, slowly, reluctantly, as if Karl had wanted to keep them by his side. Karl held Aiden without trying to control what he did, fingers spread wide, thumbs moving in small circles against Aiden's skull. “Better at sucking me than investigating me. Maybe you need to rethink your career options. Agent, gardener, whore. I'd go for whore.”

The words were insulting, even cruel, but the voice that spoke them was shaking, rough and husky, giving away more than Karl probably wanted it to. Aiden raised his injured arm with an inward wince and cupped Karl's ass, rock- solid, the muscles tight with tension, kneading it soothingly, letting his actions speak for him.

He didn't want anything more than to feel Karl come in his mouth, to taste that familiar bitterness. It seemed only appropriate under the circumstances. Aiden put everything he had into pleasuring Karl, licking and sucking for all he was worth. Part of him was thinking about living up to Karl's expectations, sure, but the rest of him was only focused on how it felt to have Karl's erection stretching his lips wide, shoving its way over his tongue, blocking his supply of oxygen for brief moments that got longer as Karl was driven closer to the edge. With his good hand, Aiden kneaded Karl's balls, tugging on them gently. He listened to the sound of Karl's breathing as it became harsher, a commentary on his skill.

“God,” Karl choked out, the grip of his hands finally tightening as he began to drive into Aiden's mouth with a frantic, messy series of thrusts that Aiden couldn't anticipate, only accept. “Yeah, like that...oh, God...”

Aiden fought to keep his mouth working Karl's cock, but it was all getting a little hazy for him too. He was achingly hard, blindly jerking his hips up against air and the fabric of his cargo pants, neither of which was enough to get him off, though Karl's voice might be if he kept saying stuff and adding that rough moan of pleasure at the end. His jaw ached, his lips were rubbery and his chin was wet with drool, and he didn't give a fuck about any of that because Karl was coming with a final push forward that Aiden's throat took the brunt of. Karl slid so deep that Aiden hardly tasted the first jolt of spunk, though when Karl pulled back an inch or two, he got a final mouthful, thick and warm, coating his tongue and palate.

He sank back on his heels and without bothering to wipe his face dry, fumbled with his zipper. God, one touch, that was all he'd need—

“No,” Karl said, grabbing Aiden's hand and stopping him. “Get on the bed.”

Aiden blinked and looked up at Karl, who was bending over him, spent cock still more than half-hard. Most men would look vaguely pathetic like that; Karl just looked hot. He'd kicked off his pants and shorts, which helped. “What?”

“You heard me. On the bed. If you want to come, you're sure as hell not going to do it like that.”

Feeling a little bit dazed, Aiden obeyed, getting to his feet and moving to the bed, where he sat.

“Lie down,” Karl said. “On your back,” and Aiden did, obedience the easiest option right then. Karl sat beside him, not touching him, but looking. Oh yes, Karl was looking at Aiden, though maybe not in the way Aiden wanted to be looked at. “Now,” Karl said. “I want you to come. If you can do it in, hm...fifteen minutes, you get to. Otherwise, the timer runs out, and we're out of here. But no touching.”

Aiden stopped his tentative reach toward his open zipper.

“That's right.” Karl leaned in close, his breath warm against Aiden's ear. “Just from the sound of my voice. You can do that, Aiden, can't you? Oh, I know you. You can do this.”

The thought of performing with a hostile, sneering Karl watching was enough to make Aiden's arousal back off some—which didn't help at all, because under his momentary hesitation, he really needed to come. He gave Karl a sidelong glance.

Okay, so Karl didn't look like a man on the verge of snickering, which was something.

“Take down my pants,” Aiden said, hardly recognizing his voice. He sounded fraught and desperate, but that was exactly how he felt, so it made sense. The day had just been too much stress piled higher and deeper, and he needed this purely physical relief before it all got to him and he did something stupid. More stupid. “Give me some room to breathe.”

Karl considered his request and then, without warning, yanked Aiden's pants down to midthigh, taking his shorts with them. Bare to the air, his cock looked so ready to come that it was obscene, the head a deep, dark red, fluid beading it. Aiden stared down at it. There. His fingertips just there, the rest of his hand wrapped around the shaft...it'd be so easy that way. Or Karl's tongue lapping at the shiny glaze, sugar sticky. That would work too.

“Oh, yeah,” Karl said. “You're a whore who enjoys his work.”

“Stop calling me that,” Aiden said with more restraint than Karl deserved. “You said you never paid for sex, so I can't be a whore, or what does that make you?”

“A sucker.”

“I wish,” Aiden muttered and Karl chuckled.

“Poor kid. All rock hard and no one wants to play with you.”

He bent his head and blew teasingly across Aiden's belly, the stir of air like a shadow, weightless but still capable of being felt. Aiden's hands formed tight fists and Karl sighed. “You're going to grab yourself and spoil the fun, you know. Maybe I should cuff you again. Well?”

He didn't want to be cuffed, not again. Once had been more than enough, and even though he'd given up almost all control in this situation—and to say that he hadn't, or that he hadn't done so willingly, would have been a lie—he didn't think he could give up this one tiny remaining bit of it. He wanted to say yes, because it would take the responsibility for not touching himself out of his hands, literally, but instead he said, “No. Don't. I want to show you.” And wasn't that a loaded statement, layers of meaning piled on top of each other, making his head spin.

“Fine. It's your—” Karl cut himself off. Aiden appreciated it—he was pretty sure Karl had been about to say It’s your funeral, which wouldn't have done much for Aiden's mood, tenuous as it was. “Fine. Have it your way.” It was the kind of statement that Aiden was sure Karl hadn't meant to make, and somehow that made him feel better, knowing that Karl was off balance too.

Of course, this wasn't Aiden's way. It was just what he could get. Karl blew air over his stomach again, the breeze cool and tantalizing. Aiden's cock jerked, lifting up from his belly toward Karl.

And wasn't that what he'd done from the beginning of this, turned to Karl like one of those dandelions in the fucking grass, blindly seeking the heat and power that the man had and finding Karl just as drawn to him? What they were doing now wasn't how it usually was between them, and Aiden missed Karl's hands on him more than he would have been willing to admit, but he could still feel the connection between them.

“So talk to me,” Aiden said. Speaking calmly was an effort. “You said you could make me come that way. Do it. Just don't call me names.”

“I'm not sure I can talk to you without calling you names,” Karl admitted with the frankness Aiden had grown to expect from him. “You've disappointed me.”

“I know. And...I don't know if you'll believe me, and I'd understand if you can't, but I was going to tell you. I was. I didn't want you to find out like this. Not that everything would have been fine if I'd told you, but it would have been better, maybe. I'm sorry.”

“I don't want apologies,” Karl said. He traced Aiden's lower lip with a light fingertip, trailed down along Aiden's throat with the same incredibly light touch, then fluttered his hand bare millimeters above Aiden's chest, belly, cock. “Was I right about you? Can you come like this, even if I don't touch you? Just imagining what it would feel like to have my mouth on your body, my tongue trailing along your skin?”

Aiden made a small, hopeful sound and closed his eyes, concentrating on the sound of Karl's voice.

“Good. And what if it wasn't just my mouth? What if it was my hands, too?” Karl's voice was silky smooth, as velvety as the skin of his cock, soft. Picturing it made Aiden's toes curl. “I'd slick up my fingers and slide them into your ass, force you open, stretch you wide enough that it'd be right on the line of pain. You like that, don't you? You like being hurt.”

A whimper escaped Aiden, and he nodded slightly.

“I love hurting you like that,” Karl said and, God, how many people could say something like that in a matter-of-fact tone without a trace of guilt or shame? “I've jerked off thinking about you walking around with your skin marked up from my hands, remembering me every time you bent over or sat down on that fucked-raw ass of yours. Except it's not just yours, is it? It's mine, Aiden, Adam, whatever the fuck your name is. Your ass is mine, and if we'd had more time, I would have made sure not a day went by without me plugging it with something, no matter how goddamned sore it was. My fingers, my tongue, the thickest dildo I could buy. Stuff that hungry, hot hole full and watch you squirm and pant and beg me to push it deeper.”

“Please—” Aiden could feel tears gathering behind his eyelids, warm and wet, looking for a way to escape his tightly closed eyes. Tears of need and loss. “I would. I'd beg... Karl, please—”

“I wanted to do so much to you,” Karl murmured. “Slide my hand into you. Own you from the inside. Make you come over and over on my fist. God, I'm getting hard again just thinking about how you'd feel around my wrist, my arm, the sounds you'd make for me.”

Forget the sounds he would make; Aiden was making them now. Desperate, eager sounds as he imagined Karl's thick cock fucking him, Karl's fist, Jesus Christ, his whole fist in Aiden's ass and how it would hurt, how he'd make Aiden scream. Aiden almost didn't need Karl's voice now, though it certainly helped as it washed over him, pushing him in tiny increments toward the orgasm that he wanted so badly. “I'll make them,” he answered, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched on the sheets beneath him, aching dick cold at the tip where it was wet. “Anything. Anything you want, please.” It wasn't a rash promise. He meant it with everything he was.

Karl chuckled—the sound of it made Aiden groan, even though it wasn't an entirely happy one—and purred, “Right now I want you to come. Can you do that for me, Aiden?”

He shuddered and lifted his hips, fucking empty air. He was so close, and he told himself firmly that he could come like this, that he didn't need Karl to touch him. If he concentrated hard enough, he could pretend that Karl's hand was on him, jacking his dick, thumb slicking over the head, pinkie finger rubbing his balls at the bottom of each stroke. There, there, he was going to come, any second now—

“Yes,” Karl said, the single, quietly spoken word triumphant, assured, as if there had never been any doubt in Karl's mind that Aiden could do this for him.

It was all that Aiden needed. He pictured Karl staring at his cock as it hardened still further, as it jerked impatiently, and he felt his climax begin, unstoppable, his body's reaction out of his control and Karl's now. The relief was intense as his clamoring body got what it needed, though he missed Karl's hands on him, Karl's body pressed tightly against his.

Aiden opened his eyes during the last few moments of his orgasm. He expected to see Karl watching his cock as it shot, looking at the creamy trail spattered across his stomach and chest, but Karl—oh, God, Karl's gaze was fixed on Aiden's face, had been the whole time, from the angle at which he sat. Why that felt more intimate than watching him shoot, Aiden wasn't sure, but he could only return Karl's half smile with a wavering one of his own, too wiped to find words.

Karl touched Aiden's cheek with the back of his fingers, a gentler touch than any he'd ever given Aiden before, but the barrier was being built up again, and Karl's eyes were cool and distant. “Get cleaned up. I'll be downstairs when you're ready. I've got to make some calls.”

Chapter Eleven

By the time Aiden came down, Karl was waiting by the front door. “I'm taking my own car,” he announced, not giving Aiden the chance to suggest any other arrangement. “Just give me the address, and I'll meet you there. You can follow me, if it makes you feel more comfortable.”

Aiden didn't seem sure what to make of this. He nodded, his expression uncertain. “Okay, if that's how you want to do it.”

“I don't want to do it at all,” Karl pointed out. He still had a lot of anger simmering just below the surface of his skin, scratching at him like it wanted to get out. Hurt and betrayal weren't emotions he was used to feeling, and he wasn't dealing with either well. In the field, getting hurt had only involved physical damage, and he'd learned to handle pain and ignore it until the crisis was over. Betrayal, well, yes, that'd happened, but it'd been an occupational hazard rather than a personal issue, and his method of dealing with it couldn't be applied to Aiden. The US government tended to frown on killing its agents or leaving them broken and bleeding. Mixed in with his anger was enough residual attraction toward Aiden that he didn't really want to go that route anyway. He liked the kid, for fuck's sake. “Come on. Let's just go.”

“It's the main office off Northwest Highway,” Aiden said. “I'm on the third floor, but they won't let you in without me, so wait for me in the lobby. I'll call my boss on the way. Diane Simpson. She's... Look, we don't have to do this right now.”

“We do it now, or we don't do it at all,” Karl said flatly. Control. It was all about that, and if he could set the terms of this first meeting, all the better.

He'd called Sophie and briefly put her in the picture. It hadn't gone over well. She'd blamed herself for being fooled by the fake background the FBI had given Aiden, and although Karl privately thought she had reason, he'd cut her off.

Damage control, Sophie,” he'd snapped. “That’s the main priority now. And if you need to get the hell out, do it. I’ll understand.

I won’t leave you.” Her voice was controlled again, calm. “You didn’t leave Johnny. You stayed with him when he died, and you brought his body back to me. Admit nothing, give them nothing. If all they want is Simes, keep them focused on him.

Simes, they can have,” Karl said. “The rest of them, though—

Karl...” Sophie hesitated. “He doesn’t have many familiar faces on the books these days. You lost touch with the company when you were recovering, because it was killing you not being there with them, but I didn’t. People have moved on, those who could. In April he lost three men in an operation that went sour. I don’t think there’s anyone left with him that you really care about. And he’s taken back men you threw out for crossing the line. Mills. Taggart. They’re killers for hire, Karl. They’re scum, but that’s just what Simes is looking for.”

Shock had held him silent for a moment, but he didn't have time to take her to task over her failure to keep him informed. “We’ll talk about this,” he'd told her and let his annoyance show in his voice.

Aiden sighed, drawing Karl's attention away from brooding over the way Simes had fucked up the best damn PMC out there. “Fine, we do it now.”

He looked pale, his eyes shadowed, and the hand holding his car keys was shaking.

“You're okay to drive, right? I don't want you crashing into the back of my car,” Karl said tersely, cloaking his concern with brusqueness.

“I'm fine. It'll be a while before all this shit's out of my system, and in the meantime I'll... Never mind, it doesn't matter. I won't fuck up your car if that's all you care about.”

It wasn't that simple—of course Karl was pissed off, and pissed off enough that the thought of telling Aiden he did care about him wasn't something he was willing to do—but pretending it was simple made it easier to go get in the car. Aiden's truck, which was probably Adam's when it came right down to it, followed close behind him, and Karl found himself glancing into the rearview mirror far more often than was actually necessary, checking on Aiden's driving. Any sign that Aiden's concentration was wavering, and Karl was prepared to pull over and tell Aiden to get into his car instead.

By a miracle, the parking lot of the offices had a few spaces. Aiden, naturally, had one assigned to him, something that really brought home to Karl just what Aiden was.

A Fed. He'd been fucking a Fed, falling for one, letting Aiden get close to him on every level. Karl didn't think of himself as a criminal—he wasn’t—but it didn't mean that the thought of Aiden's job was a turn-on.

They met at the doors, and after a security check that took longer than Aiden was used to, going by his tight mouth and snapped-out words, they were both issued passes. Karl's said Visitor. Aiden's was fancier with a bar code across it.

“If you weren't in such a rush, I could've gotten changed at home and picked up my badge,” Aiden said when they were inside an elevator, headed up to see Diane Simpson.

It was the closest Karl had seen to a genuine pout on Aiden's face, and it lightened his mood considerably.

“You might have bumped into your doctor pal,” Karl pointed out, “and I think you've dealt with enough angry exes for one day, don't you?”

That got Karl a nasty look that made the smile he was trying to hold back that much harder to control. He loved seeing Aiden wound up and pissy. It was very soothing to his temper, a temper that had begun to heat up again now that he was about to be interrogated. He got to see a modified version of the annoyed look when Aiden's boss, Diane, insisted on speaking to Karl alone once Aiden had introduced them.

It was Diane's office in which they met, not a more typical interrogation room. Karl wasn't sure how to feel about that small courtesy. It was mildly reassuring, he supposed, though he was under no illusions that he was trusted. They'd assigned an agent to infiltrate his house, his life—his bed, for God's sake. Ungrateful, mistrustful—

“We appreciate your coming in, Mr. Blake,” Diane said when Aiden had left. She spoke with the drawl that Karl was getting used to, but her voice was all business.

“Not like I had much choice,” Karl pointed out acidly.

Diane had a clipboard, a file, and a digital recorder on the desk in front of her. She reminded Karl of his high-school principal about to launch into a speech about how vital to his future it was that he applied himself more to calculus. She'd been wrong about that. “I think you know how this goes. I'm going to ask some questions. You answer them.”

Karl took refuge in sarcasm. “I think I can handle that.”

“From what I've heard of you, Mr. Blake, there's very little you can't handle.” Diane smiled, but Karl could sense the bite behind the words and wondered how much she knew about what had happened between him and Aiden. She picked up the clipboard. “Now, let me see—”

“You want to bring Simes down,” Karl said, interrupting her before she could start telling him his full name and how much he weighed. “He's operating outside your jurisdiction when he really crosses the line, but he's still on your books as a PMC you've used, and shit sticks. He's an embarrassment and a liability.”

Her eyes met his, and she set the clipboard down with exaggerated care and folded her hands on the desk. “Nice summation. I'd enjoy reading your reports if you worked for me. I'd get to go home earlier some nights, maybe. That's about it, yes. Agent Russell's report clears you of any ongoing involvement with Simes's business—”

“Who?” Karl asked. He frowned in pretended bewilderment and then let his expression clear. “Oh, you mean Adam, my gardener. Sorry.”

“I appreciate that you're annoyed by the methods we used to clear you,” Diane said evenly. “We couldn't risk asking you in a more direct way in case you were still affiliated with Blake Enterprises and you alerted Simes. You're known for being loyal to those you trust.” She made it sound like a character flaw.

“I am,” Karl said. “One of those on the trusted list used to be my government.” He gestured at her desk. “You've got files on me; you know me. I've put my life on the line for this country and the lives of my men. Not once but often. Sure, most of our jobs were fairly routine to start with, but it wasn't long before we were getting hired to do the cloak-and-dagger work too. We delivered. Always.”

“I know,” Diane murmured, a flicker of guilt in her eyes. “Believe me, Mr. Blake, your efforts were appreciated. Having said that, you wouldn't have been the first mercenary to be...tempted.”

“By what?” Karl demanded. “I've never taken any assignment that would hurt this country, and I've never been a killer for hire.”

“There are other temptations,” Diane said. She twisted a ring on her finger, next to her wedding ring, the diamonds set into the gold band catching the light. “And although Simes is our main focus...”

Shit. Karl kept his face impassive without effort, but he was less calm inside. Diamonds...if she knew about them...how did she know? A thought came to him, cold and unpleasant. The night Aiden had slept with him. The night Karl, drugged, unconscious, had been upstairs, leaving Aiden with full access to the house. Oh, that sneaky, treacherous little fuck. The sex and Aiden's patent distress at Karl's reaction to his innocent act had bought him some measure of forgiveness, but Karl wasn't inclined to allow Aiden any more if his suspicions were accurate.

“We're willing to overlook certain...misappropriations,” Diane went on, “if you're willing to go on record with what you know.”

“You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours?” Karl nodded slowly, understanding her perfectly. They didn't really care about the looting because he'd taken from people who were dead and the furthest thing imaginable from allies. Add in the fact that Sophie had tangled the transactions beautifully, making it difficult to prove the money in Karl's bank account came from an illegal source, and it was simpler to use the diamonds as a carrot and not a stick.

If he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, there was no reason not to come clean about Simes. He didn't owe the guy anything in the way of loyalty, and he didn't approve of the way Simes did business; hell, he didn't even like the man on a personal level. It wasn't squealing on him that bothered Karl, because as far as he was concerned, Simes deserved to spend the rest of his life locked up for the things he'd done.

What bothered him was being put in the position where he had no choice but to go along with what the Feds wanted. Being backed into a corner made him feel like a wild animal, ready to snap at anyone who came near, and Karl didn't appreciate being reminded just how close to their animal natures most people were at any given moment.

“It's a solution that benefits both parties,” Diane agreed. “I'm sure you can see that.”

See it, sure. Like it, not so much. “I guess I need a little time to think about it,” Karl said.

“I can give you twenty,” Diane said.

“Seconds or minutes? Hours or weeks?” Karl asked drily.

Diane's lips, brushed with a subtle dark pink lipstick, didn't even twitch. “Minutes. I'll even throw in a coffee.”

“How about a blowjob?” Karl said, his voice casual, bored. “Isn't that usually the way you get my cooperation?” He raised his eyebrows as Diane inhaled sharply, quick color matching her lips staining her cheeks. “I don't expect you to care about my feelings in this, but you do know the kid's planning to split up with his partner now? Next time, send someone single, or maybe save the sex for when it's life and death. This wasn't. You misjudged me, and he paid the price.”

Considering how pissed off he was at Aiden, it was odd that the thought of what the kid had sacrificed still made Karl angry on Aiden's behalf.

“He isn't a child.” Diane seemed to recover some of her professionalism. “Look, I'm not going to argue with you about him. He knew the job going in and chose to take the assignment. It was his decision.”

“Right. The way talking about Simes is mine? Not much of a choice if you ask me.”

Diane straightened her shoulders and stood up. “I'll just give you that twenty minutes, then. Coffee?”

The fact that the coffee was actually good was small consolation. The twenty minutes crawled by. It wasn't like Karl actually needed them to make his decision. He was going to have to cooperate, and he and Diane both knew it. The thinking time was a piece of the dance, creating the illusion that Karl had more control in the situation than he did. By the time Diane came back, he was more than ready to tell her, “Okay, you've got a deal, with one condition.”

“What's that?” Diane had closed the office door and now leaned against it.

“We do it without the kid. I can't work with him. Considering.” He gave her a look designed to make it clear that considering meant considering I’ve been fucking him.

Diane shook her head. “Unacceptable. He's the one who's up to speed on all of this. Another agent wouldn't be able to do half the job he can without a significant time investment, and you know as well as anyone that this is a time-sensitive issue.”

“I can't work with someone I don't trust.” That wasn't a lie. “He—”

“Did his job,” Diane said. “His loyalty was to the bureau, not you. He didn't betray anyone.” She pursed her lips. “His partner... Well, what he had with you was work, nothing more. He needs to be able to keep that part of his job separate from his personal life and understand that it doesn't count. I'll talk to him before he does anything stupid, like confessing his sins.”

Telling her that it had counted would just make him look pathetic, so Karl didn't bother. Experience told him that Diane wasn't going to move on this; in fact, he thought that the more he pushed, the greater pleasure she'd take in insisting that he and Aiden continue to work together.

“If he's the best you've got, then fine,” he said and took a final sip of his lukewarm coffee. “Let's get this over with.”

“Good.” Diane smiled a genuine smile for the first time since Karl had walked in and reached for the door handle. “I'll just get Agent Russell.”

Aiden came in alone a minute later, his expression strained. He'd changed into a pair of dress slacks and a shirt and tie, which gave him a completely different look that Karl had to admit, to himself at least, was a good one. “Hi,” he said. “Thanks for agreeing to do this. I'm not supposed to thank you, you know.”

“You're probably supposed to remind me that I'm doing it for my own good.”

“Something like that.” Aiden went over and sat down in a chair with its back to Diane's bookcase. “The situation sucks, I know. You want to get Simes where he can't hurt anyone else. I know that too. This is the best way to do that.”

“I told your boss that I didn't want to work with you,” Karl said bluntly. “How do you feel about it? One way or another, what we did screwed up your relationship, and even if I don't see myself to blame, I wouldn't be surprised if you disagreed with me.”

Aiden waved a hand, dismissing the idea. “It was already screwed up. I just hadn't realized it yet.”

Karl frowned at him. He hadn't thought the kid cared so little about his doctor. Apparently Aiden hadn't been finished, because he sighed and went on.

“He's a good man, and he deserves better than someone who'll cheat on him at the first opportunity. No, I'm not blaming you. If this assignment hadn't come along, it might have taken longer for me to find someone to fuck around with, but it probably would have happened sooner or later. Plus, it turns out, I'm not in love with him. So...” Aiden had shifted forward and was looking down at his hands.

For all his anger—which he was starting to accept was rooted in the fear that he'd made a fool of himself rather than a moral objection to what Aiden had done— Karl couldn't let that pass. Since they'd met, he'd been protecting Aiden, and even if Adam had been an assumed role, Aiden didn't really feel all that much different in some ways. Older and more experienced, sure, but the essential core of the man was unchanged.

Karl had liked Adam, and his instincts told him that, given the chance, he'd like Aiden too, though that wasn't likely to happen. The FBI might be liberal as fuck these days—legislation meant that they had to be—but if Aiden and he got together, and God knew, Aiden was tempting, Aiden could wave his career good-bye. No one would promote an agent in a relationship with a man whose life was a murky shade of gray in places. Karl wasn't the martyr type, but it wasn't fair to the kid to put him in a position like that. Not when all they had going for them was centered on sex. He closed his mind to the voice pointing out that they'd connected just as well out of bed as in it, and leaned back in his chair, favoring his leg, which was aching.

“You didn't cheat on him for kicks or even intentionally. Don't beat yourself up over it.”

“I'm not.” It was obviously a lie, but the kind Karl understood, even approved of. “I already called him and left a message on his voicemail.” Aiden gave Karl a sheepish look.

“Afraid you'd chicken out if you waited?”

“Yeah, pretty much. I told him we needed to talk as soon as I could get away, just that I wasn't sure when that would be. Nice, huh? This way he'll get to worry for an unlimited amount of time.” Aiden sighed again. “Anyway, we should focus on why we're here, I guess. Which means that I have to bring up something I don't think you're gonna like the sound of. Diane's hoping you can get together with Simes at his place, maybe get your hands on something incriminating. I tried to tell her that wasn't going to work—”

“It won't,” Karl said flatly, cutting Aiden off. “Not in a million years. I doubt very much that Simes would even let me in the door, and if he did, he'd be watching me like a hawk the whole time. He doesn't trust me.”

“Then we need to figure out something else.” Aiden rubbed his thigh where Karl had injected the EpiPen absently like he didn't know he was doing it, and Karl blanked for a moment on the feel of that bare skin against his hand. “Any ideas?”

“Nothing springs to mind,” Karl said. “Look, if we're doing this, we need to bring another person in on it too.”

Aiden frowned, all agent again, his face gaining a maturity that Karl found intriguing. “I'm not sure about that. The fewer people who know about this, the better, from a security perspective.”

“Sophie already knows everything,” Karl said. “I told her about you being more than just a weed puller, and she's really not happy that your background fooled her. Don't expect a birthday card this year. You're on her naughty list.”

“Sophie,” Aiden repeated thoughtfully. “She knows Simes too, right?”

“She was with me before he joined,” Karl said. “She's my right hand. I trust her, and so can—”

Aiden waved his hand, gesturing to Karl to shut up. Well, wasn't that new. “No, we've done our own security checks on Ms. Lewis. She's clean, and if you say that she's already cognizant of—”

“Stop talking like that,” Karl said irritably. “Sophie knows all my dirty little secrets, yes, and so do you. And I know some of yours, so can we stop playing fucking games and get this done tomorrow?”

He stood, letting his flash of temper at being manipulated this way fuel him. “You're still shaky. You need to rest. If you want to go and take care of things with Scott, do it now. Then pack a bag and get over to my place. You can stay in a spare room for the night, and tomorrow you, me, and Sophie will sit down and come up with something.”

Aiden opened his mouth to protest, but Karl just stared him down until Aiden closed it again. “You're tired,” Karl said, losing the anger and going for reason, “and I'm hungry. If you keep the break-up speech brief, you might be in time to persuade me to grill two steaks instead of just one. Well?”

He studied Aiden's face. The FBI agent did need more sleep, if the dark circles under his eyes were any indication. Aiden sighed and nodded as if arguing were just too much effort. “Okay. Okay, fine. You win.”

Maybe he did, Karl thought, but it was a small victory.

Chapter Twelve

God, he did not want to do this.

Aiden sat behind the wheel of the beat-up truck, parked in front of his house...Scott's house. It wasn't Aiden's anymore—or it wouldn't be in half an hour. By the time he'd gotten out of the office, there'd been a message on his voice mail from Scott saying that he'd made arrangements to be home that night and that he hoped Aiden could join him. Scott had sounded guarded, distant, like he could see what was coming and was protecting himself. Or maybe that was just Aiden's guilt making him read more into it than was there.

He could see the light on in the kitchen window and wondered what Scott was doing. Making dinner? Or figuring they wouldn't be eating?

Okay, he couldn't keep sitting there; it was stupid. He shoved the truck door open and got out onto the street, the pavement feeling alien and unfamiliar under his feet, his body still strung out.

It seemed like he should knock, so he did, even if immediately afterward he regretted it. More than anything else he might have done, it made clear that things were different. No easing into the discussion when he was beginning it as a visitor. Scott opened the door, and a shadow crossed his face. Before he could say anything, Aiden jumped in with both feet. “I have to move out. I'm sorry.”

Scott's eyes widened and he swallowed, the bob of his Adam's apple almost comical. “How did you find out?”

The day had thrown one shock after another at Aiden. This one barely registered because as Scott's words sank in, Aiden understood. “You've been seeing someone else,” he said slowly. “God, that's...okay, that's really, really funny.”

“What? Look, will you just come in?” Scott stepped back, and Aiden followed him inside. He needed to get some stuff, and they couldn't talk about this on the doorstep.

They ended up in the kitchen, where no meal was waiting, as if Scott had known that neither of them would have an appetite after this conversation.

“You know about Gary? I'm so sorry, Aiden. I really never meant for this to happen.”

“I don't know anything.” At that moment, it felt like a completely true statement. He was an idiot, and he had no idea what he was doing with his life. “Come on. Sit down.”

Scott pulled out a chair and sank into it. He looked worried and sad and a little bit scared, and Aiden felt bad for him. He was a good person, and he deserved to be with whomever would make him happy. “You didn't know?”

“I still don't,” Aiden pointed out. “Tell me now.”

“It was an accident,” Scott said. “I swear it was. I didn't want it to happen, it just...did. If you didn't know, then what was that message about?”

Aiden sat and lowered his head to rest on the table. Maybe it would be easier to say it if he didn't have to look at Scott's face. “Yeah, I...had an accident too. The work thing.”

“You fucked someone else?” Scott sounded pretty shocked for a man who'd just admitted to his own infidelity.

“Yeah. Did you?”

“Um...well. Yes, but it... Aiden, I'm sorry.”

He lifted his head and looked at his long-term boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. “Yeah. Me too.”

“I'd like to be able to blame it on your job,” Scott said slowly. “The hours you work, the way you're always on call. My job's like that too, though. I wish there was something I could point to and say that's what bugs me about you, but there's nothing. You're a great guy. I don't have any excuse for what I did to you. It's just, Gary and I fit together, and you and me, well, we're out of step. I don't know why, because it wasn't like that when we started. Was it?”

Aiden shook his head. He felt stifled, as if the air in the room had been stripped of everything he needed to breathe. “It was good. We were good. Just not...not now.”

Scott reached out his hand and put it over Aiden's for a moment, drawing it back when Aiden didn't respond. “Are you okay? You look like you're about to pass out. Are you having another reaction?”

The doctor, not the boyfriend, was showing. Aiden forced a smile. “No. It's just been one of those days, you know.”

“Do I ever,” Scott said with feeling. He cleared his throat. “Uh, that man you were with at the hospital. Was he...?”

“My target. Yes.”

“The one you've been...” Scott's words trailed off delicately, but Aiden wasn't in the mood for coy. He channeled Karl and answered bluntly.

“Fucking. Yes.”

“God.” Scott gave a gusty sigh and a shudder. “He scared the shit out of me. I can see why you were investigating him.”

“He can have that effect,” Aiden said drily. “We've cleared him, though. He was never one of the bad guys. In fact, he's helping us on the case now that he knows who I am.”

Scott bit his lip, guilt plain on his face. “I blew your cover, didn't I?”

“Yeah, but it wasn't your fault,” Aiden said with a sigh of his own. Aiden was getting tired of reassuring Scott that he'd done nothing wrong when really, Scott had.

“Sure it was. I just had no idea that you had anyone with you, so I didn't know to keep quiet. And then it took me longer than it should have to figure out what was going on. I hoped maybe you'd been able to salvage it—uh, the situation, not, you know, whatever you and that man had going. Obviously.”

“It's okay.” Aiden hesitated, then reached across the table to pat Scott's arm. “Really. Don't stress about it.”

“There's enough for both of us to stress about,” Scott agreed. “This is weird. I mean, I was all ready for you to be pissed off at me, and now I know I should be pissed off at you. Instead, I just feel kind of...”

“Relieved?” Aiden suggested.

“Uh-huh. What do you think that means?”

“That we're screwed up?” Aiden laughed a little bit.

“It's weirdly equal, this way,” Scott agreed with a chuckle. He sobered. “I don't know, though. After what Simon did to me, I swore I'd never cheat on anyone, but Gary... It wasn't casual and it wasn't intentional, if that makes sense. We were both working late one night and—”

Aiden shook his head and cut Scott off with a raised hand, palm out. “Don't. I really don't want to know.” He stood, and the room spun slightly. God, he felt so spaced-out right now and being here with Scott wasn't helping. Too much normality twisted askew. “I'm going to grab my toothbrush and some things, and I'm staying with Karl tonight. Purely business. I'll come back for the rest of my stuff later in the week, and I'll give you back my key then.”

“You don't have to hide it now,” Scott pointed out, looking just a little aggrieved that he'd been prevented from sharing the details of his affair. “You can tell me that you're moving in with him.”

“I'm using his spare room,” Aiden said tiredly. “He didn't take being played all that well. He's speaking to me, but anything else...I can't see it happening. We're through. Not that we were ever really together.”

“Just sex, hmm?” Scott said with the faintest hint of disapproval. “I get it.”

Really good sex. The best I ever had. Aiden walked out of the room before he did something stupid, like saying that aloud.

It didn't take him long to pack up a few things, and then before he knew it, he was standing at the front door with Scott, bag in hand. “So. Um...”

“Yeah,” Scott said. “This kind of sucks, you know?”

Aiden remembered all the good times they'd had—and there'd been a lot of them. Scott was smart and fun and... Wow, Aiden really had wasted a lot of time justifying all the reasons he should want to be with Scott instead of realizing that the reasons didn't matter. “Yeah. It does suck.”

“I'm sorry,” Scott offered again.

“Me too.”

“Should we...can we hug, do you think?”

“Sure.” Aiden set down his bag and stepped forward, putting his arms around Scott and resting his chin on Scott's shoulder as Scott's arms came around him. It was a familiar embrace, reassuring, and for a good half a minute or so, Aiden made no move to step out of it. He even closed his eyes and held Scott a little tighter. “Be happy, okay?”

“I'll try. You too.” Scott pulled back then and looked at him. “Find whatever it is you need.”

“Yeah. I hope things with Gary work out.”

“Thanks.”

Scott didn't walk him out to his truck. Aiden decided it was better to take it than his own car, just to be on the safe side. Even if Karl and Sophie knew who he was, his arrival in a nicer, much newer car might attract someone else's attention or suspicion. He shouldn't have even come home, really, but the thought of putting it off had made him crazy enough that it had seemed worth the risk.

Pulling away from the curb wasn't easy, even knowing that he'd be back in a few days for the rest of his stuff. Yet the farther away he got, the more his chest relaxed. By the time he pulled up to Karl's house, it was easier to breathe.

It was dark now, the summer night warm and noisy around him, cicadas trilling and some late birds calling to each other. Aiden got out of the truck and took himself, bag in hand, to the front door he'd used so rarely. Knocking on it felt like the start of something, a fresh start between him and Karl, without deception, maybe. With the discussion with Scott behind him, Aiden was feeling more optimistic. Maybe he and Karl could work something out, find some way to move past today. He couldn't deny that he wanted that, and for all his anger that day, Karl had given some indication that he felt the same way.

Karl opened the door, his expression neutral. “I was wondering if you'd changed your mind,” he said by way of a greeting. “Gone for the reconciliation and the makeup sex.”

“I think I would have had to lie to him to get there,” Aiden said. “I didn't want either one. I'm done with lying. Just...done. I can't do it anymore.”

“That's going to be a handicap in your line of work,” Karl observed, but his voice was free of malice. “So how did he take it?”

“Turns out he'd been seeing someone else,” Aiden said. He tried to smile, but that just wasn't happening. “Guess the feeling that we weren't the perfect couple went both ways.”

Karl grimaced. “Ouch. And knowing you, it doesn't stop you from feeling guilty about what we did.”

It should've been ridiculous that Karl could say something like that with so much assurance, as if their brief acquaintance was enough for him to have summed up Aiden's personality, but it wasn't. Aiden shrugged, all the answer he needed to give, and glanced at the stairs, a spectacular curving swoop of dark wood. “Where should I put my stuff?”

“I'll show you after we eat,” Karl said. “Just leave it there, and you can take it up later.”

“Okay.” Aiden bent to set down his bag. “I'm actually not that hungry.” In the wake of the meeting with Scott, and now that he wasn't anticipating it anymore, he was tired, like he'd just finished a long run or a hard day's work.

“I didn't ask if you were hungry,” Karl pointed out. “You need to eat. Come on.”

Wondering if this—ordering people to take care of themselves—was something Karl had picked up while running Blake Enterprises, Aiden obeyed, following Karl into the dining room, where the table was set with silverware and napkins, glasses of water, and a big bowl of salad, but no plates.

“Sit,” Karl told him. "Grill's hot; the steaks won't take long unless you like them like shoe leather."

"Medium rare is fine."

Aiden could soon smell the rich, heavy odor of seared meat wafting in from the patio, and five minutes later Karl came back with the plates, each of which had a thick steak and some roasted potatoes on it.

“Eat.” Karl set a plate in front of him and sat, picking up his knife and fork.

“Thanks,” Aiden said. “This is—”

“No talking,” Karl said, pointing at Aiden's plate with his knife. “Eat. We'll talk after.”

Sighing, Aiden obeyed the blunt, terse orders, cut his steak, and put the first bite into his mouth. The beef was beautifully cooked and tender as butter. It tasted perfect, and Aiden found himself eating several more bites quickly before he was able to sit back and slow down.

“I told you that you needed to eat,” Karl said when their plates were mostly empty and the salad in the bowl had been reduced to a few stray radicchio leaves.

Eating in silence had been oddly relaxing; no need to come up with conversation or pretend to be interested in what the other person was saying. Another time, Aiden would have felt differently about that—would have missed the easy flow of chat over food—but not tonight. The food had revived him but his mind still felt fuzzy around the edges. He speared a final chunk of potato and smiled at Karl when he'd swallowed it. “I'm full now.”

“You look better,” Karl agreed, returning the smile. He changed the subject abruptly as if he wanted to remind them both of just why Aiden was there. “I called Sophie. Filled her in. She'll be here at nine in the morning if that works for you.”

“Sure. That sounds good.” Aiden didn't really want to talk about work. He wasn't sure he wanted to talk at all. Words felt slippery and thick in his mouth, somehow, difficult to say. “After I help you clean up, would it be okay if I took a swim?”

Karl shrugged. “Sure. You know where everything is down there.”

Aiden reached for his plate, but Karl shook his head. “I don't need help moving a few plates to the kitchen, and I don't plan on washing them. If I did, Della would have a fit. Last time I tried to be considerate and rinse a few dishes, she said I chipped a bowl and left smears on the glasses.”

“If you're sure,” Aiden said doubtfully.

Karl met his eyes. “I don't say anything I'm not sure about. Swim. I'll put your bag outside your room so that you know which one it is.”

“Okay, cool. Thanks.” He felt on display, like a TV character or something, as he walked across the dining room toward the hallway that had a door leading into the yard. It was fucking awkward, but what he thought would be a relief turned into brief misery as the oppressive heat of the early evening smacked him in the face.

Knowing that no one else was on the property, he gave himself permission to do what he really wanted to do, which was to strip methodically as he crossed the grass toward the pool. First his tie, loosened and dropped to the ground. Then his shirt; it'd get grass stains on it, probably, but right then he didn't care. He walked out of his shoes and left them behind, bent long enough to pull off his socks, and stepped onto the patio. At the edge of the pool, he undid his slacks and shoved them and his briefs down in one smooth movement before doing a slow falling dive into the water.

The sting of chlorine in his eyes was easy to ignore when the water took the world away, narrowing Aiden's focus to the dim, murky shadows and the light that shone from the lamps surrounding the pool. He held his breath as long as he could, until his lungs were bursting, heart pounding in his ears, then pushed strongly off the bottom and gulped air while floating none too gracefully on his back.

The water lapped at his face as the waves he'd created washed back and forth in gentle smacks. He tried to hold still enough that they stopped altogether, moving his hands and feet the bare minimum needed to stay afloat. It was peaceful, in stark contrast to his life recently, and Aiden let the fugitive illusion that all was well soak into him with the water.

One night without thinking about his job, the case, his fucked-up record of relationships. That wasn't much to ask.

He sighed, rolled to his front, and began to swim, stroking slowly through the water, warm enough to be relaxing rather than refreshing. After three lengths, he turned his head and saw Karl watching him, standing at the edge of the pool, his hands shoved into the pockets of his slacks.

Karl didn't say anything, so Aiden, fired by a spark of something—rebellion? playfulness?—went back to swimming, knowing that every flash of his ass as he carved through the water was being watched, every strong, powerful movement of his arms and legs monitored. He began to swim faster, driven by that silent audience, his breath burning in his lungs as he plowed up and down the pool, loving the way his trained body gave him what he asked of it—more speed, a cleaner sweep of his limbs through the clear, warm water.

Finally, after eight or nine laps of this, he started to get tired, and the last thing he wanted was to exhaust himself and have to stop, panting like an idiot. He took a deep breath and dived down at an angle. He kept his eyes closed, letting his palms slide along the bottom of the pool, and then allowing the water and the air in his lungs to lift him to the surface slowly. He'd done a good job aiming. He was only a few feet from Karl.

Propping his forearms on the edge of the pool, Aiden said, “You coming in?”

“I think I'll stay dry for now,” Karl said. His gaze wandered over Aiden's face and shoulders. “You look different now that you aren't playing a part. Older. More confident. When I asked Adam to blow me, he blushed. You wouldn't, would you?”

The reminder of what he'd done and the way Karl was talking about Adam as if he were real made Aiden shiver despite the sultry heat of the night. “I was playing a role, but it wasn't a lie. I just channeled the way I was at the age Adam was supposed to be.” Craning his neck to look up at Karl was making him feel dizzy. With a grunt of effort, his arms like rubber, he pushed up out of the pool, grateful for the hand Karl hooked under his arm to help him.

“Do you miss being that innocent?” Karl asked.

Aiden let his feet dangle in the water. “Not really. It's easier to get hurt.”

Karl walked away, returning a moment later with a towel that he tossed so that it landed over Aiden's back, fluffy and heavy. “Getting hurt's easy at any age if you let yourself trust someone.”

Turning to look up and over his shoulder, Aiden tried to read Karl's expression, but the way that the shadows fell, it was difficult. He wished there was something he could say to erase the hurt. He wished none of it had ever happened. If he'd known things would end up this way, would he have refused the assignment? Or would he have accepted it anyway, because knowing Karl had been worth it even if Aiden couldn't have him?

He'd already apologized, and he didn't think Karl would appreciate another attempt. It would probably be more to alleviate his own guilt than to make Karl feel better, anyway, which was selfish.

It didn't seem like there was anything to say. Instead, Aiden shifted his weight and stood up, tugging the towel higher onto his shoulders so it wouldn't slip down. It left him naked in front of Karl, not much more than a foot of space between them. Aiden reached out and touched the front of Karl's shirt with only his fingertips, making contact with the fabric but not the skin underneath.

Karl's hand closed over his, warm and strong. “Not a good idea, kid.” He pushed Aiden's hand away, his grip lingering long enough that Aiden could taste how reluctant Karl was to let go. It didn't make sense. If Karl wanted him, why the rejection?

Aiden upped the ante, cupping Karl's jaw with his hand this time, skin on skin. “Feels like a great idea to me.”

“Yeah, well, you're wrong.” Still Karl stood there and let Aiden touch him. Aiden rubbed his thumb over Karl's lips and moved half a step closer, then brushed his mouth along the other side of Karl's jaw. There was still space between their bodies, but not much.

“I want to take you upstairs and lick every inch of you,” Aiden murmured.

Karl had seduced Aiden more than once with explicit words, desire bright in his eyes. Returning the favor seemed only fair, and Aiden already knew how liberating it was to be able to share every thought he had, every fantasy, with a man he couldn't shock or repel. He found himself craving that exhilaration again.

“Even the scars?”

Aiden pictured them, marks of violence carved into Karl's flesh, some pale with age, some still raw and new. He didn't get off on them, but they were part of Karl. “I want all of you,” he replied, making it simple.

“We can do this,” Karl said. “We can fuck again, and you can use your body to show me how sorry you are, use mine to get off and end this shitty day better than it deserves, but you'll still wake up tomorrow next to a man your boss thinks is scum, and when you're thinking with something other than this”—he dropped his hand, fondling Aiden's half-hard cock roughly—“you'll see what a bad idea that is.”

“That's where you’re wrong.” Aiden caught Karl's wrist in his grip, stilled its movements so he could think without distraction. “One, I don't care what Diane thinks, and two, I'm not going to see this as a bad idea no matter what part of me I'm thinking with. I like you. Even if you are an asshole sometimes.” He smiled at Karl, hoping for a smile in return.

He didn't get it. “I think I liked you better when you were Adam,” Karl groused. At the look that must have crossed Aiden's face, he relented, though. “I'm kidding. Mostly. I just don't know when you got so pushy.”

“What about you?” Aiden asked. “If we do this, are you going to regret it in the morning? When you wake up with a Fed pressed up against you?”

Karl rolled his eyes. “You're not forbidden fruit, kid. We're on the same side, technically. I'm just having a hard time convincing everyone of that.” He made an exasperated sound and snatched his hand free. “I can't believe you idiots wasted time investigating me when Simes is out there having a ball in his own sick way. What the hell were you thinking?”

“You're not a saint,” Aiden pointed out. He wrapped the towel around his waist and tucked the edge in firmly. Karl didn't want to play? Fine. “This house proves that. How much did it cost? And where did you get the money? We weren't paying you that well.”

“The government wasn't our only employer.”

“The IRS might want you to prove that,” Aiden said. “Have you been audited recently? I'm told it makes cavity searches seem as friendly as a handshake.”

Karl glared at him. “I'm retired.”

“So?” Aiden countered. “You still have to pay taxes. Even on looted diamonds.”

“You know,” Karl said conversationally, after a short, charged silence, “I could forgive a lot of what you did, but snooping around my office while I was knocked out on painkillers was kinda low. Oh, I get it: perfect opportunity. What good agent could pass it up? Still pisses me off to think of you going through my papers and Sophie's.”

“I didn't—” Aiden closed his eyes for a moment. He wasn't going to feel guilty about doing his job. “It wasn't personal, okay?”

“No, but the blowjob I got to wake me up felt really personal,” Karl said, his voice dropping to a throaty rasp. “You really do get off on saying sorry with sex, don't you? Did you get on your knees for Scott every time you apologized to him? How about today when you confessed your sins? If I kissed you now, would I taste him on you?”

Karl's voice would have made Aiden hard even if he'd been standing in front of Diane, accused of treason. It was an autonomic response, as instinctual as breathing. “No,” he said. “You wouldn't. I didn't. What if I had? What if the inside of my mouth tasted like him? Would it piss you off? Or would you like it, knowing that I left him and came here to you?”

“Fuck,” Karl muttered under his breath. “You like pushing me, don't you?”

Aiden held his position when Karl moved closer, his chest rising and falling with quick, shallow breaths as he watched Karl's face tighten with intent. Karl hooked his finger in the folds of the towel at Aiden's waist and moved it from side to side, the teasing touch making Aiden gasp. God, the brush of a finger shouldn't feel that good, shouldn't make him ache for more.

Karl arched his eyebrows. “Are you sweating, Aiden? Feeling hot? Let me help you out with that.” Aiden's towel was ripped off, the friction of fabric against skin leaving a tingle over the skin of his back. “Naked suits you,” Karl said thoughtfully. “Nothing to hide behind but that pretty fucking smile.”

“I don't want to hide,” Aiden said. “Anything you want to know about me, I'll tell you.”

“Like you told me about Julia?” Karl inquired. “You made her sound real. Made me believe she existed. I think you need to apologize for that, don't you?”

His first instinct was to agree—to say yes, anything, Karl, whatever you want, yes—but a more stubborn part of him refused. “I was doing my job. Do you make apologies for having done yours?”

Karl frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, a solid, immovable force like something impossibly huge, a mountain, a continent. His mouth opened, closed, then opened again to say, “Completely different, and we're not talking about me.”

“Not all that different, and we're talking about both of us,” Aiden countered. “Look, I'm...I'm not saying I won't apologize if you want me to, because I'd probably do... Jesus, will you stop looking at me like that?” He stopped and blinked; he hadn't realized he was going to say that.

Karl looked as startled as Aiden felt. “Looking at you like what?”

“Like I'm some incredibly frustrating situation you have to deal with,” Aiden said, because he'd already come this far, and he might as well lay it all on the line. “I know that's not how you feel, not really. And if everything else went away—my job, Simes, hell, the whole world—I'd still want to be right here with you. So stop dicking around and agree to go upstairs with me, and we'll figure out the rest of it in the morning, together.” He stood there, his breath coming fast, his heart stuttering in his chest, and waited for Karl's reply.

For a long moment, he thought that Karl was going to turn and walk away, still determined to bear a grudge even if it brought both of them nothing but emptiness. The anticipation of that hurt more than anything Karl had ever done to him, the wrong kind of pain, the kind that left him feeling sick to his stomach, every nerve tense. He couldn't help it. He whispered, “Please,” as if it were a wish, a command, a code word. He didn't care how Karl interpreted it as long as it got him what he wanted.

“Tonight,” Karl said. “No promises about tomorrow, but you can have tonight, even if I think you'll fall asleep as soon as I get you into bed.” His hand rose, fitting itself to Aiden's jaw with an easy familiarity, the thumb stroking Aiden's cheek, the fingers caressing the strip of sensitive skin under Aiden's ear. “You're shivering. Grab another towel and come inside.”

Chapter Thirteen

Sunlight was streaming into the room, falling to lie in strips along the rug, and Aiden became aware that Karl was pressed up against him from behind, an arm around his waist. He realized, much to his dismay, that Karl had been right about the night before—he'd fallen asleep without even having a chance to make out with Karl, let alone have sex. In fact, his last conscious memory was of Karl chuckling softly and kissing him.

He turned in Karl's embrace, which of course woke the man up. Karl's eyes opened, and he turned his head so he could yawn into the pillow. “Sleep well?” Karl asked, sounding amused.

“I guess. I barely remember going to bed, I was so tired.” Aiden shifted, and his morning erection poked Karl's bare thigh.

“Yeah, I could tell.” Karl didn't seem too disappointed, but maybe that was because, like Aiden, he was hard, and Karl was a man who lived in the moment. “You were snoring for a while, but you stopped when I jabbed you, so you get points for that.”

“You jabbed me?” Aiden angled his body and shifted a few vital inches closer, so that the hard heat of Karl's cock was pressed against his hip. “With what? This?”

Karl chuckled. “Not that. You were dead to the world; I'm more into sex with the living.”

“I'm awake now,” Aiden hinted.

“And so is Sophie,” Karl said, “and she's never late, so I'm guessing she'll be arriving in about twenty minutes. We need to shower, dress, and eat something before then.”

“If I make my breakfast coffee and drink it while we work, does that give us time—”

“Time to do what? This?” Karl rolled them so that he was on top, capturing Aiden's wrists and dragging them up high and wide. Aiden moaned, already moving into the headspace where nothing mattered apart from Karl and the arousal heating his blood. He twisted his wrists in Karl's grip, not trying to break free, just needing to feel that grip tighten. The pillow was soft against the back of his hands, but Karl's fingers felt like steel.

“Yeah, that,” Aiden said, not bothering to hide the need in his eyes. “Anything.”

“No,” Karl said, the word growled out. “There isn't time. I told you no promises about tomorrow, and guess what day the calendar says it is.”

Fuck. “You want this as much as I do.”

Karl grinned down at him, the slick head of his dick damp against Aiden's belly. “More. I lay awake hard looking at you for a while last night. Thought about jerking off, but it seemed like a waste. Of course, if I'd known you were going to pull a Sleeping Beauty on me, I might have been a little less patient. Or changed my mind about not fucking corpses and rubbed off on you.”

“Bite me,” Aiden said with a scowl not entirely fake. If Karl got out of bed and left him high and dry, no amount of jerking off would do the job, and it was no comfort to know that Karl would be suffering too.

“I suppose there's time for that,” Karl said. “Where do you want it?”

God. Karl was such a glorious asshole sometimes—thinking about his teeth marking skin, even in a temporary way, gave Aiden goose bumps. “Anywhere,” Aiden said recklessly, then reconsidered. “Um, here. Right here.” He pressed his fingers to his collarbone, where the skin was stretched over the bone and he'd feel it as a near-constant reminder for as long as it lasted.

“Okay.” Karl bent his head and licked the spot, making Aiden's nipples tighten, then sucked at the thin skin without the slightest hint of teeth.

Aiden rocked his hips, rubbing his cock against Karl, the sensation good but not enough to do more than frustrate him. It made his next word accusing. “Tease.”

Karl's teeth closed sharply, and without warning, and Aiden made a sound between a gasp and a cry, shocked at the bright flash of pain even though he'd known it was coming. “Don't call me a tease,” Karl said, eyes dark as he looked down into Aiden's face.

“Sorry,” Aiden choked out, meaning it more than most apologies he'd made in his life.

“When have you ever asked for something from me without getting it?” Without waiting for an answer, Karl bit down again, sucking at the captured skin with enough force that Aiden cried out a second time, unsure if the wetness against his skin was spit or blood. The patch of skin felt hot, blood throbbing hard and fast, drawn to the surface. The pain was exquisitely balanced, a shade more than Aiden could bear, so that he chased the pleasure, working for it, his toes curled tight, his body straining up against Karl's.

“When have I ever left you hanging?” Karl snarled, and God, it wasn't blood, because Karl's mouth was clean, but Karl still looked capable of tearing Aiden's skin open.

Aiden made a pleading, desperate whine, words lost in the lust and love he felt right then.

“God, when you look at me like that, I lose it,” Karl said, and he sounded as close to losing control as Aiden was.

“Lose it,” Aiden begged. “You're not a tease. You've never left me hanging, so don't do it now. Just fuck me, please, Karl.” Somewhere around the word hanging, Karl choked and fumbled in the drawer beside the bed, rolled on a condom and got lube all over Aiden's balls when trying to squeeze it onto his fingers, then shoved impatiently into Aiden without any further prep. The whole thing probably took forty-five seconds, but to Aiden it felt like forever. By the time Karl was inside him, he couldn't do anything at all, couldn't move or think, and to his combined relief and dismay, he felt himself starting to come after only a couple of quick thrusts. “God, Karl—”

“Yeah,” Karl said and kept on fucking him, jolting Aiden's body from within, each stroke making his climax continue, even after his cock had finished shooting and his balls were dry. He rode the pleasure as Karl was riding him, and watched Karl's face contort, twisted into a grimace that Aiden knew from the inside, and then smooth out, eyes glazed over.

They lay there, sweaty, sated, until Karl caught sight of the clock by the bed and swore, slapping Aiden's ass. “Shower. Now.”

Aiden got out of bed, his legs shaky, but his mind clear, buzzing with energy.

Sex with Karl beat coffee as a way to wake up, and he had a feeling it was just as addictive.

* * * * *

“Sorry about this,” Karl said ten minutes later from the doorway of the office, where Sophie was already sitting behind the desk, her navy suit dark against the crisp cream of her shirt.

“For being late?” Sophie asked. “You're always late.”

“Not when it matters,” Karl argued. “And no, I meant for the whole thing. Putting you in this position.”

She shrugged and shifted some papers into a different pile. “It's part of the job, or at least a potential part. I've always known that. And I'm surprised you're apologizing, considering you can't be any happier about this than I am.”

It was rather pointed, and Karl understood what she was getting at—it might have been the first genuine apology he'd ever given her. He wasn't generally inclined to apologize for anything. Not his actions. Not the way he lived his life. “He'll be down in a minute,” he said, and Sophie lifted an eyebrow.

“I saw his truck outside, of course, but I didn't realize he'd...been upstairs.”

“Sure you did,” Karl told her. “You just didn't want to make assumptions, which I appreciate, but there's no need to pretend.”

“You don't like life easy, do you?”

“Huh?”

Sophie sighed impatiently. “You worked in a dangerous job, you took risks for the hell of it, and now you're sleeping with a man who works for the people investigating you? Tell me that you can't see the pattern here.”

“I don't like being bored,” Karl told her. “Aiden isn't boring.”

“Aiden.” She rolled her eyes. “Adam seemed nice enough, but I'm not sure I'm going to like Aiden. You know how much I hate people messing with my desk. They never put things back where they found them.”

That wouldn't have been the case with Aiden, Karl knew. The agent would have been scrupulously careful to leave everything as he'd found it. It was the intrusion Sophie objected to, and Karl couldn't blame her for that.

Karl walked over to her and put his arm around her shoulders for a brief hug, startling them both with the gesture. He loved Sophie like family, but he didn't often show it. “You will like him. He was following orders, getting the job done. He put the mission before himself, and you know what that's like.”

“Yes. I just don't see why you're interested in him now that you know it wasn't real. You're not the romantic type, Karl, so...” Her eyes widened, and a small, knowing smile curved her lips. “Oh! You're turning the tables on him? Keeping him close so that you can get inside information about what he's doing?”

It wasn't an unreasonable assumption to make, but Karl felt unreasonably annoyed by it. He leaned back against her desk and frowned down at her. “No, it's not like that. For the sake of his job, I don't think it's a good idea for us to be in any kind of relationship, but I'm not using him, and right now, he's not using me, either. We get along, in bed and out of it; it's as simple as that.”

“That's not simple at all,” Sophie said, her tone lemon-sour. “Fine. Have it your way; you usually do. Just don't start blowing kisses at him when I'm trying to work.”

“Sophie.” Karl waited until she met his eyes and then said quietly, “You're the closest thing I've got to family, though I don't know where I'd put you on the family tree.” Sophie could make numbers dance and vanish, and had a network of contacts that had proved invaluable on more than once occasion. Karl had once been smuggled over a border in the back of a truck filled with pigs, driven by a toothless ancient whose parting words had been a marriage proposal to Sophie that Karl had promised faithfully to pass on. After Johnny had died, her smile had turned brittle, but she had been the heart of the company. When she left to live in France, Karl knew just how much he was going to miss her.

“Eccentric aunt?” Sophie suggested, with the suspicion of a sniff.

“Maybe. As your devoted nephew, let me just say that I want you to play nice with the kid, okay? Please? For my sake?”

She sighed, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. That one strand was the only thing about her Karl had ever seen out of place. “Fine. I can't say I understand what you see in him, though; he's already caused you some trouble, and it's not as if it's going to get any easier. Why not turn your attention to someone more suitable?”

“More suitable?” Karl thought about laughing, but if you had to think about whether or not to do it, the moment had already passed. “Who do you think would be more suitable for an ex-merc like me, my darling aunt?”

“Definitely not a federal agent,” Sophie said, just as they both heard the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside.

Aiden was wearing another shirt and tie. This tie was a solid, somber blue, Karl noted, as if even Aiden's clothes were taking the situation seriously. As he came into the room, he didn't look happy. Not that Karl blamed him. “Hi,” he said to Karl, as if he hadn't been naked in his bed twenty minutes before. “Hello, Ms. Lewis. I'm sorry we have to meet under these conditions.”

“I've seen your alter ego around the grounds,” Sophie said coolly, but she shook Aiden's hand when he offered it. “I assume you prefer this line of work?”

“Actually, I didn't mind the landscaping,” Aiden said. “Could have lived without the dandelions, though.”

“They're growing on me,” Karl said, his mind flashing back to Aiden kneeling down in front of him to uproot one the day they met. “In fact, they're growing everywhere now that you've slacked off your duties.”

Aiden slanted an amused, unrepentant glance his way. “Sorry about that, but you'll have to live with them or hire a replacement for me.”

“Oh, you're irreplaceable,” Sophie said, enough of an edge to her voice that Aiden gave her a startled look.

“She's annoyed that you went through her desk,” Karl explained and left it up to Aiden to dig himself out of the hole he was in.

“I do things as an agent that I'd never do as myself,” Aiden said, his words sincere and spoken calmly. “I don't always like doing them, and that definitely qualifies as something I wish I could have avoided. It was too good a chance to pass up though.”

No apology or excuses. The kid had guts.

“I'm sure it was,” Sophie replied tartly, but Karl knew her well enough to detect a slight softening. Sophie liked well-mannered young men, and Aiden qualified there. “Now why don't you tell me exactly what the FBI wants from an old woman planning to retire.”

Sophie was fifty-five and could have passed for forty. Aiden blinked, blushed faintly, and then rallied. “You don't look old enough to be even thinking about retiring, Ms. Lewis, but we want to stop Simes from using what's essentially a small private army to make a lot of money illegally, leaving behind a body count that's become unacceptable even on his legitimate jobs.”

“They wanted me to go in and see if I could get my hands on some incriminating evidence,” Karl told Sophie, who rolled her eyes.

“That's hardly likely,” she said.

“Which is what I told Aiden. Simes doesn't trust me as far as he could throw me...which isn't actually a very useful phrase in this case.” Karl frowned.

“So we need to come up with a different way of getting the material,” Aiden said.

“You're the FBI,” Sophie said. “Can't you just get a search warrant and search his office?”

“He's probably not keeping the kinds of things we're looking for anywhere that's easily accessible. He's unethical as hell, but he's not stupid. Um, that's an assumption.” Aiden looked at Karl for confirmation.

“He's not what I'd call intelligent, but he's not stupid, you're right,” Karl said. “He's street-smart. He doesn't have much imagination, but when he puts a plan together, it's generally effective. Where he fails is coming up with something in the heat of the moment; if something unexpected happens, and God knows that happens often enough that it isn’t unexpected, he panics, and that's when he tends to turn to violence as a solution.”

“Give me an example.” Aiden focused on Karl, his eyes sharp with interest. “It could be useful.”

With Sophie in the room, Karl wasn't going to get too graphic, though he didn't mind sharing a few anecdotes. “Once, we were assigned to guard a convoy taking food and medical supplies to a valley. A flash flood had devastated the villages along the river, and the survivors needed help. We got to the valley, and an armed group on horseback came up to us. They said they'd deliver the supplies directly to the villagers in the camps they'd set up on higher ground, said they knew where they were and could be more effective than us, because they knew the area.”

“I'm guessing they weren't going to hand the supplies over for nothing?” Aiden commented.

Karl snorted. “No way. They would have sold them, and the hell with the villagers. It didn't matter. There were fifteen of them maybe, and we outnumbered them, plus our weapons were better. I'd gone ahead to scout out the terrain with a couple of men.” He nodded at Sophie. “Johnny was with me on that one.”

She nodded. “I remember.”

“Johnny?” Aiden asked. “Your son, you mean?”

“My son, yes,” Sophie said, her chin coming up. “He died on a mission a few months before Mr. Blake's retirement, but since you've probably investigated me thoroughly, I guess you already know that.”

“I do and I'm sorry,” Aiden said. “That must—I can't imagine how that would feel.” He glanced at Karl, his eyes warm with sympathy. “For both of you.”

“Yeah,” Karl said. “Losing someone on your team is never easy, but when it was Johnny...” He shook his head, refusing to give in to the regret the memory of Johnny Lewis's death evoked. “So I wasn't there, but if I had been, I'd have played along with them, maybe got something useful out of them. I'd left Simes in charge—didn't know what a psycho he was then—and he just gave the order to start firing. Killed every one of them and lost two of my men in the process.”

Aiden sighed. “Sounds typical of what he's like, based on the number of casualties from some of his more recent missions. Which is why we want to prosecute him. It's one thing when things go bad. You expect that to happen sometimes, though when it starts to happen more often than not, you have to investigate possible causes.”

“You're hoping,” Sophie said thoughtfully, leaning back in her chair and lacing her fingers over her stomach, “that I'll do it. Go in and meet with Simes. He probably wouldn't suspect that I'd have any motive to cause trouble for him, and I've heard—and no, I won't say from who, so don't bother asking—that he'd jump at the chance to have me back on board. Apparently the girl he has now isn't the brightest bulb—if she's even still there. Simes isn't very patient with failure.”

“Even if she was good at her job, she wouldn't hold a candle to you,” Karl said loyally, and the smile Sophie gave him made him wish he complimented her more often. God knew she deserved it. “But no, that's not what we're hoping.”

“It's probably the best option we've got.” Aiden looked at him.

Karl shook his head stubbornly. “No. I'm not sending her in there. No way.”

“You're my employer, Mr. Blake,” Sophie said. “That's where your responsibility for me ends. If I choose to do this, it has nothing to do with you.”

“Yes, it fucking does, Ms. Lewis,” Karl snapped back. “I told Johnny I'd make sure you were okay, and this breaks that promise. If Simes gets even a single doubt about your motives, he'll take you out. Oh, I'm sure he'd make it quick for old times' sake, but you'd still be dead.”

Sophie stood and slammed her hands down on the desk, her lips a thin line, her eyes blazing. “I'm doing this for Johnny as much as for you. Simes didn't send backup in time, and that's why you and Johnny were left isolated on that mission. I've always thought he did it deliberately, though God knows we couldn't prove it.”

“I thought about it,” Karl admitted slowly. “He wanted the company, and after that mission...”

Sophie nodded. Her eyes were dry, but her hands were shaking slightly, and Karl felt a pang of pity mixed with admiration for the way she was holding it together. “It all went to pieces,” she said. “The next time you went out on a high-risk mission, you weren't focused and you paid the price.”

“Yeah,” Karl said, rubbing his hand against his thigh. “And Simes got everything handed to him because I'd just fucking given up. I'd had a bellyful of it all.”

“He's not going to keep it,” Sophie said calmly. She sat down again and folded her hands in her lap. The passion left her face, replaced by the cool efficiency Karl was used to. “You got Johnny killed, Karl.”

“I did what?” Karl said, ignoring Aiden's jerk of surprise and the frown turned his way.

“You got drunk and it all came out. How you panicked, dragged Johnny in front of you when the rebels overran your position. Used him as a shield. Got to safety, threw a grenade to take out the attackers, and then claimed to have done all you could to save Johnny, when you knew it was your fault he died.”

“Thanks, Sophie,” Karl said drily. “I'm a real hero. Setting aside the fact that there's no way I'd let you do that, do you think he'd buy it?”

“No fucking way,” Aiden said sharply. “How the hell could he believe something as ridiculous as that?”

Amused and touched by Aiden's ready defense, Karl smiled at him. “Easy, kid. It's probably not that much of a stretch, really. When it comes to me—”

“Simes will believe anything that knocks Karl off the pedestal his men put him on,” Sophie finished. “And it's what he would have done, so he won't find it hard to accept.”

Privately, Karl doubted that even Simes would be that much of a bastard, but he didn't argue with Sophie.

“You really think that might work?” Aiden asked Sophie, his voice quiet, like he was actually considering an idea that Karl was really not happy with.

“I'll make it work,” she said without looking at Karl. “I hate everything about Simes. There's nothing I'd like better than to show him he isn't king of all he surveys.”

Something about Aiden's face had gone just a little bit distant, a little shuttered, and Karl thought he knew what it was about. Aiden wasn't doubting the plan. He was doubting whether Sophie could be trusted.

Sophie, apparently, knew it too. “You can trust me.”

“Can I?” Aiden asked, then snorted and shook his head. “Pretend I didn't say that.”

“She'd confirm it either way. I know her well enough to be able to say that yes, you can trust her. Which doesn't mean I think this is a good plan.” Karl rubbed the back of his neck, reluctant to give the plan any support. “But no, I can't think of anything else that's likely to work.”

“Fine,” said Sophie, a militant sparkle in her eyes now as she addressed Aiden directly. “So tell me what you'll need. He's going to keep records of everything; his operations might not all be legal, but he still has expenses, salaries, and he'd need to keep track of them. If I get you names of employers, and they're on the most- wanted list—”

“That would help,” Aiden said.

“And if I can talk to some of the few men left who remember me, get them to share?”

Karl bit his lip. “That's risky,” he objected. “They're involved too, Sophie. Simes goes down, they go down, and if they stuck with him, they're suspect.”

“Or just in need of work,” she pointed out. “It's not always easy to find a new job, and if Simes pays well, they'd stay with what they knew. There must be a couple of men left there we can get to testify in exchange for immunity.”

Aiden shrugged his shoulders. “If they're not directly involved in something really messy, I could arrange that, I guess, but no promises.”

“I can't believe we're doing this,” Karl said. He took a deep breath and stabbed his finger at Aiden. “She goes in protected. Monitored. I'm going to be right there, outside the offices, listening in.”

“I don't know if that's such a good idea,” Aiden said. “If Simes sees you—”

“He'll spot a Fed a mile off too,” Karl said. “We go in before Sophie. The company's office is in downtown Fort Worth. Third floor. Busy street. Plenty of places we can rent out and set up surveillance. We can go next door to him or across the street... Set up when he's not there, be waiting when he gets back. Move in enough food and drink that we don't have to leave often.”

“Well—” Aiden began.

Karl turned on him. “You and your boss wanted my help on this?” He gestured toward Sophie. “Our help? Then back off and let us do our job. We'll bring you Simes.”

“Not alone,” Aiden said just as firmly. “I'll run this by Diane, but if she agrees, I'm heading up the stakeout with you. You can't do it solo, and there's no way we could authorize your bringing in anyone else from your side of the fence. This stays need-to-know.”

“Fine. Who the hell would I tell anyway?” Karl threw up his hands in frustration and started to pace. “Just remember that if I'm not happy, I'm pulling the plug.”

“On your participation only. You don't speak for me,” Sophie reminded him.

He whirled to glare at her. “I'm trying to protect you from your own stupidity! Just because you think this is a good idea doesn't mean I'm going to let you rush into it without any safeguards. We're going to monitor you every step of the way, and at the slightest hint of trouble, you are out of there. This isn't a negotiation.”

“We'll do whatever it takes to make you comfortable,” Aiden promised, probably rashly. “Make a list if you have to.”

“Don't tempt me,” Karl muttered darkly. “I've already got some ideas.”

It made a change for those ideas to be about an Aiden who was fully dressed and unsmiling.

Chapter Fourteen

It was small consolation that renting an office—in the building next door to Simes's, as it turned out—was relatively simple and went off without a hitch. The buildings had been built at the same time and were, from what Karl could tell, almost identical in their basic structure, although the lobbies were vastly different in both design and decor. They chose the building they did not only because it had several vacant rental spaces to select from, one of which was directly across from what they believed to be Simes's personal office, but because it had a back entrance accessible to tenants, which meant Karl could park on the street behind the building, could come and go as he pleased without risk of running into Simes or anyone else who might recognize him.

Not that he intended to spend a lot of time coming and going. What he intended was to hole up and wait it out.

They'd hired a moving company that Aiden had used before to bring some stuff in for them—boxes, carefully labeled with words that in no way revealed what was inside them, including equipment that would allow them to listen in to what was going on next door. There was also a top-of-the-line computer. They'd told the landlord that they were a Web site design company just starting up, a bare-bones operation.

“This isn't one of those places you can use as an apartment,” the landlord had warned them, and Aiden had reassured him that they both had other places to live and that this was just an office for their start-up venture, nothing more.

“Simes is cautious,” Karl told Aiden as he helped him unpack. “He'll sweep for bugs, not every day, maybe, but randomly.”

“We're monitoring his cell phone too,” Aiden said. “We got a court order for that and everything we're doing here.”

“Legal snooping.”

“Completely legal. We can remotely activate the microphone in his cell so that it picks up what's going on around him.” Aiden shrugged. “If he keeps it in his pocket, we might not get a lot, but it's worth a shot.”

Working in a companionable silence, they set up the parabolic microphone system to listen into Simes's office. It had a range more than adequate to deal with the narrow alley between the buildings. The recording equipment connected to it was deceptively small and simple. Technology had come a long way in a short period of time, but Karl had kept up with it. It was his job to be aware of what was out there, in case it was used against him.

“I wonder what he's done to my office,” Karl said, picturing it clearly in his head. He'd deliberately kept it utilitarian but not scruffy, projecting a successful, professional look. “I think he'd have kept it; it was the only one that would work, really.”

“He's confirmed to be arriving back tonight from that bodyguard detail in LA,” Aiden said. “Sophie's all set to visit tomorrow?”

“Chomping at the bit,” Karl said shortly.

“It's going to be okay,” Aiden said. “I know you don't want to hear that, because it doesn't make you feel any better, but we're here and I can get backup from the local office in minutes.”

“It only takes a few seconds to pull a gun and shoot,” Karl told him. “You're not Superman. You can't move fast enough to stop that.”

“No one said there were no risks,” Aiden said.

“No one ever does.”

“Sophie's okay with it.” It wasn't the first or even the tenth time Aiden had pointed that out, and it wasn't as if repeating it enough would make Karl feel better.

Karl snorted. “Sophie doesn't understand how dangerous this is. I mean, she does, sort of, but not really.”

“I'm pretty sure she wouldn't agree with that statement,” Aiden said quietly, after a brief silence. “She lost her son.”

“You keep your mouth shut,” Karl snapped. “You don't understand, either, and what's worse, you have no excuse for not understanding. You should know better in your line of work.”

“You feel guilty.” Aiden was looking at him steadily. “Don't take it out on me.”

Karl closed his eyes, blocking out Aiden's face and the bare room they'd have to share for a few days or more. They couldn't spend all that time arguing, and they couldn't spend it naked. They had to work this as a team, and that meant that Karl had to get past his reservations and get on with the job. He opened his eyes and let his emotions drain away, leaving him alert and prepared without being keyed up. Bullets flying and combat situations required adrenaline and a shift to overdrive. Stakeouts were their own form of ordeal, where what mattered was preventing the tedium from causing you to overlook something. “I won't. Let's get set up and eat. We want to be able to focus when Simes gets back.”

Aiden looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he settled for a nod, and they went back to opening boxes and unpacking.

* * * * *

Simes returned around six, and the microphone, noise-activated, kicked in. Aiden, wearing the headphones connected to the monitor and recorder, put the book he'd been reading down with a soft thud and beckoned Karl over.

Karl crossed the room in three long strides and grabbed the second pair of headphones. Unwilling to have both of them deaf to their surroundings, he pressed only one of the earcups to his ear.

“The flight was a bitch, and so was the client. Anything happen around here?”

“No, it's been quiet. Real quiet. Most of the company is out at Parker County doing some weapons training with those new assault rifles from Israel. There's just me and Tony here keeping an eye on things.”

“Well, that's going to change soon,” Simes said. “Got wind of something big over in Afghanistan from one of my contacts in DC, and I'm expecting to hear from them in the next day or two.”

“That's good, boss.” The man sounded polite but doubtful. Karl didn't recognize his voice, but Tony was probably Tony Torres, six feet six inches of brawn. Karl wouldn't have relied on Tony for much information. His loyalty was solely to his employer, whoever that person was, but there was no viciousness in the man.

“Yeah. How about getting me some coffee and maybe a sandwich? I'm going to fill out the paperwork and then go home so you two can go get drunk, get laid, whatever. Be back here at eight in the morning.”

“Sure thing.”

Karl put the headphones down and exchanged a smile with Aiden. The sound had been clear, and there would only be three men in the office when Sophie turned up. It was going well. Ignoring the voice in his head warning that no operation ever went smoothly first to last, he went to follow Simes's example and get a cup of coffee.

They'd set up the coffeemaker on the floor outside the bathroom. Karl would have been fine putting the thing on the back of the toilet—closer to the sink and easier than squatting down when they needed to make a fresh pot—but Aiden had insisted that was disgusting, and it had been simpler not to argue. The smell of his favorite beans was familiar, which weirded him out. Being in a strange place wasn't supposed to include the familiar.

“Can I have some too?” Aiden asked.

“Sure.” He knew how Aiden took his coffee—black, which as far as Karl was concerned was the only way to drink it. The two mugs he'd taken from his own kitchen still looked brand-new, even though he'd been using them for a while now. He handed one to Aiden and sat down. His leg had stopped complaining beyond the occasional twinge, at least.

“Must be Tony Torres he was talking about,” Aiden said, keeping his voice low.

Karl nodded. “Probably. Sophie said he was one of my men who was still around. I'd say he was harmless, but it's not really the right description of a man built like a tank. Don't know the guy Simes was talking to.”

Aiden took out his cell phone. “We've got people in position across the street who can answer that question for us. They should have photographed anyone entering or leaving.” He spoke briefly, guardedly, into his phone and ended the call without ceremony. “They're e-mailing us the photos. They compared them to the personnel files we have, and it looks like the two men on site are Torres and a man called Jimmy Rikers. You know him?”

“Yeah,” Karl said, frowning as he tried to match the name to a memory. He stood. “Let me see him.”

The e-mail arrived within moments, and Karl clicked his tongue reprovingly. “Oh, Brandon,” he murmured. “Your standards are slipping.”

“Bad guy?” Aiden asked.

Karl took a reflective sip of coffee. “Let's just say I wouldn't hire him the time he asked me to, even when it meant we did one mission short-handed. He's a thug. Limited imagination, out for himself, no one else, and he never quite managed to hide how much my being gay disgusted him. I didn't like him, but that's the only time our paths crossed, and that's going back a few years. What I know about him is mostly bar gossip.”

“It fits,” Aiden said. Another e-mail arrived and he opened it. “Simes just left. The building's empty.”

“I'm tempted to break in,” Karl said. “Just go in there and grab what we need.”

“Last resort,” Aiden said. “We don't have a warrant for that until we get more proof.”

“And we can't get proof without a warrant.”

“We can't, but Sophie can.”

Karl held up his hand. “Do me a favor and don't mention her again.”

Aiden smiled and sipped his coffee. “Okay. So what do you want to talk about?”

There was a futon against one wall, folded up into a couch to preserve the illusion that they weren't sleeping there. Karl went to sit on it, and Aiden followed, lounging back against the navy cushions, his dark pants smudged with dust, his white shirt open at the neck to show his throat. Reminding himself that they were both on duty, Karl wrapped his hands around his half-empty mug and stared at its contents, not at the man beside him.

“Why don't you start by telling me why you decided to go into this line of work?” he asked, genuinely curious. He'd done this Q and A before with Adam and gotten mostly lies; now he wanted the truth. They had hours to fill. They might as well satisfy his need to know more about a man who'd intrigued and annoyed him in equal quantities since they'd met.

“I don't know.” Aiden shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “When I finished my degrees—I double majored, Germanic and Slavic languages—someone, I don't even remember who it was, suggested that I could join the bureau. It sounded kind of exciting, I guess, but I didn't take it all that seriously as an idea until I passed the phase-one testing and they asked if I'd fill out a job application. My parents thought it was a good opportunity if I could get in. They're pretty practical, and they weren't all that crazy about my chances of making much of a living teaching high-school German, which was what I'd been leaning toward doing. Being an FBI agent sounded a hell of a lot more...romantic. I know, I know, that sounds stupid.”

Karl was still trying to absorb that the man he'd thought was fairly uneducated a few days ago was not only a Fed but a pretty fucking smart Fed at that. “Two languages?”

“Five total,” Aiden said. “German, Russian, and obviously English fluently, but also enough French and Italian to get by. I know a little bit in half a dozen others— not much more than a few words here and there.”

“You speak five languages,” Karl repeated.

Aiden smiled. “Yeah. Too bad I still can't figure out how to kill dandelions, huh?”

“Probably just means you've got a green thumb too, and even the weeds love you,” Karl said drily. He blew out a long breath. “Jesus. I've been sleeping with a linguistics expert.”

Aiden winced. “Yeah, and I've heard all the cunnilingus jokes, so spare me.”

That took Karl a moment to work out, which didn't help with his sudden feeling of insecurity. Given how good Aiden was at oral sex, the joke was probably on the poor snickering saps who never got to find that out. “Only if you help me come up with something I do better than you in the next two minutes before my self-esteem gets so low I pass out.”

Aiden chuckled. “You always just come right out and say stuff. You know that? I like it. Um, I've seen you fight, and you can kick my ass even with a fucked-up leg. You can probably outshoot me, too.”

“Probably,” Karl admitted without vanity, “but you've got to be pretty good at that yourself.”

Aiden shrugged and waggled his hand. “Not bad. Maybe we can go to the range some time and find out. Loser buys dinner.”

“It's a date,” Karl said without thinking. The sudden flash of hope and surprise in Aiden's eyes made him wish that he'd phrased that differently. “Figure of speech,” he said lightly.

“Yeah. Well.” Aiden finished his coffee and set his mug down on the floor next to the futon with a small clunk as it met the wooden floor. He sighed and leaned his head back on the cushion, his fair hair bright against the dark fabric. The way it stuck up, unruly, spiky, reminded Karl of a plant—a cactus, maybe, tough and resilient. “I'm thinking maybe I'm done.”

Karl frowned, taken by surprise. “Done?”

“With this. The job. It's not what I thought it was going to be, and even if I'm decent at it... I don't know, maybe my heart's not in it anymore. Maybe it never was.”

“So what'll you do instead? Go back to the high-school teaching job you planned on?”

“I don't know—maybe. It wouldn't be so bad. It'd be, well, more authentic than this, even if I didn't make a lot of money.” Aiden didn't sound convinced, though, and Karl had to wonder how much of his stated desire to leave the FBI had something to do with this particular assignment and what had happened between them.

“You like kids?”

“Doesn't everyone?” Aiden said.

Karl eyed the last inch of coffee in his cup. “That's not a real answer.”

“I don't know—I guess I never thought about it that much. They're okay.”

“I think you should like them a little better than they’re okay if you're going to spend the rest of your life working with them,” Karl pointed out.

“At least I'd have a rest of my life,” Aiden said. “Can't really say that for sure in this line of work.”

“You couldn't in mine, but I wouldn't have traded it.” Karl finished his coffee, the liquid no more than warm now, and set the mug down at his feet. “Funny, really—I still want the excitement, and I can't have it; you can, and you don't want it.”

“Being an agent is only exciting in small bursts,” Aiden pointed out. “I'm assigned to theft and violent crimes, in the jewelry- and gem-theft section. That's a lot of paperwork, tracking large gem sales to make sure the gems were obtained legally, that kind of stuff. The language skills are useful for that; I don't need a translator most of the time.” He pointedly didn't look at Karl. Diamonds were still a touchy subject between them. “This investigation with Simes is one that doesn't really fit neatly into a category—it just doesn't happen very often—so I got assigned to it because, well, I've had some experience in undercover work and—”

“You're gay,” Karl said flatly.

“It was a factor, yes,” Aiden said, his voice too matter-of-fact to be entirely convincing.

They sat in silence for a while, the room warm and dusty around them as the light outside faded to dusk. The street was busy with traffic and people passing by, though the tightly closed blinds seemed to mute the noise as much as the light.

“For a man who wants a risk-free life, you take plenty of risks in bed,” Karl said eventually. There was nothing to do apart from talk, and he wanted to discover more about Aiden, his curiosity like an itch, coupled with an odd possessiveness. He didn't want Aiden to have secrets. Karl wanted Aiden, all of him, and so far what he'd gotten hadn't been the full package. If he walked away once this was over, he wanted to do it with a full knowledge of the man who'd fooled and seduced him.

“Maybe that's the only place I really want it.” Aiden sounded thoughtful as he looked over at Karl. “And I didn't even know about it—not really, not how deep it went—until you.”

“Maybe,” Karl suggested, “it's not actually your thing at all. Maybe it was just Adam's.” He didn't believe that, not for a second, but he was curious to see how Aiden would react to the idea.

Aiden raised an eyebrow. “Is this the part where I explain to you about the difference between fantasy and reality? Please tell me you know the truth about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”

“And you think I’m the asshole?” Karl snorted. “I should be taking lessons from you.”

“No, it wasn't Adam's thing, and before you try to come up with some other excuse, I wasn't just experimenting, and it wasn't a phase. You obviously get off on it. Why do you think I can't?”

“I never took it that far before,” Karl admitted. “I went with men who could take a few bruises. When you're fucking someone in an alley behind a bar with a brick wall for a bed, it can leave a mark or two—”

“God.” Aiden shuddered, head to toe. “You... Shit, that's just so...”

“Sorry,” Karl said, insincerity dripping from the word. Aiden was flushed, his breathing rapid, and Karl didn't need to look down to know that Aiden was on his way to being hard. “Like I was saying, it wasn't so much something I looked for. It was just part of the kind of sex I had.”

“You could have done it in a bed, somewhere reasonably classy,” Aiden argued, visibly getting his emotions under control. “They didn't all have to be bar pickups you fucked in the john.”

“They weren't,” Karl said. “Those are just the ones who stand out.” He couldn't resist touching Aiden, his hand finding the smooth, warm skin at the back of Aiden's neck, curving around it. “With you...you pushed me places. I wanted to take care of you because I thought it was new and maybe scary to you, and when it turned out that what you wanted was that edge, that taste of pain, danger, whatever, I guess I found out it was in me to give.”

There'd been a few inches between them, but now Aiden shifted and turned, his knee pressing against Karl's thigh. “It was pretty intense.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“In a good way. It was—well, you know—the best sex I've ever had.” Aiden swallowed, his throat working, and Karl was tempted to slide his hand around to the front of Aiden's neck and tighten his grip, to feel the rasp of Aiden's breath. “I don't think Simes is coming back tonight.”

It was the kind of statement that could so easily be taken as innocent. Karl was impressed, but regardless of what his answer might be, he wanted to hear Aiden ask the question out loud. “Probably not.”

“So it's just us.” Aiden licked his lips.

“True.”

“We could...do you think we could?” That wasn't a complete question.

“I think we're going to,” Karl said. Around Aiden, he was discovering that arousal could strike—and it felt like a thunderbolt at times—between one breath, one word, one look and the next. Aiden would do or say something, and Karl would find himself held in place by the strength of his reaction, every sense focused solely on a man he shouldn't trust but did. “I want to hear you say it, though.” He moved his hand around and ran his thumb over Aiden's lips, a slow, deliberate drag of skin on skin. “Want to hear you tell me what it is you want. I'll give it to you when you do. Whatever it is.”

It was his version of a safe word, for his sake more than Aiden's. Karl had to know that what he did to Aiden was welcomed, invited. They went too close to lines he never thought he'd cross not to need something.

“Kiss me,” Aiden said and let out a soft moan against Karl's mouth when he did, one hand closing on Karl's upper arm. “Yes. More. Don't stop.”

The inside of Aiden's mouth was hot, and it tasted bitter like the black coffee they'd been drinking. Karl didn't think he'd ever get enough of it. He wanted to devour Aiden, to explore every inch of him inside and out, to know him, and that was the most fucked-up thing of all, wasn't it? Karl didn't get involved, not like this. Yet he was, and it was all happening so fast it made his head spin. It was ridiculous and amazing.

They kissed for a long time, neither of them making a move to undress. It was the first time they hadn't rushed toward orgasm, and Karl found that he liked it. They were in a comfortable spot, weren't going to be interrupted—not that Karl cared what anyone thought of his sex life—but it was nice to be able to relax and take it slow, to feel the gradual build of arousal. The angle was a little awkward, and eventually he nudged Aiden to move; Aiden seemed to think this was a request to straddle Karl's lap, which was a pleasant surprise as Aiden's weight settled across his thighs. He kissed Aiden again, both hands in the kid's hair.

Aiden could give as well as take. Right now, he was giving Karl kiss after kiss. Wet, messy, slow glides of his mouth over Karl's until it got to the point that if Aiden's spit were alcoholic, Karl would have been drunk. He was getting that same delicious feeling of lassitude, coupled with a zing every time Aiden's tongue flicked against his.

“You taste good,” Aiden murmured, pulling back a bare inch. “God, you taste so fucking good, Karl.”

This time, the kiss was on Karl's earlobe, with Aiden's teeth digging in as an encore, a swift, teasing nip. He put more of those slick, hot kisses down the side of Karl's throat and blew the damp skin dry. Karl rolled his head against the back of the couch, wanting that mouth on him everywhere. “What do you want?” Aiden asked him. “Tell me.”

“Slow is good,” Karl told him. He eyed the crisp white shirt Aiden was wearing, a shirt seemingly impervious to the muggy air, though Aiden was sweating now, the hollow at his throat musky, inviting. “You could take that shirt off. Let me look at you.”

“I could do that.” Aiden seemed more interested in biting the tender spot where Karl's neck and shoulder met, which made Karl's dick throb and goose bumps break out on his skin. Jesus, Aiden's teeth were sharp. The kid leaned away, grinding the back of his thigh against the base of Karl's erection as he undid the buttons of his shirt in a shockingly erotic striptease that bared the soft fuzz of chest hair and small, tight nipples. “Is this good?”

Karl lifted his hands and scraped his thumbnails over Aiden's nipples. Aiden hissed but moved into the touch, not away. “Yeah, it's good,” Karl told him. “Fuck, look at you. You're a hell of a lot better than good.” Impatient to get at more bare skin, Karl pushed Aiden's shirt over his shoulders and left it there, where it bunched around Aiden's arms and would, at the very least, give the illusion of restraint. “You like that. Like it when I hold you down and fuck you.” Karl curled a hand into the fabric of Aiden's shirt behind Aiden's back and leaned in to bite at Aiden's chest.

“I like it when you do it,” Aiden said with a gasp.

“Don't rush me,” Karl told him and gave Aiden's right nipple a reproving flick, his fingernail striking it hard enough to get a startled hiss. “Talk to me about that bookstore we met in.”

Now?” Aiden said incredulously. “Jesus, Karl, can't it wait?”

Karl smiled and bit at the reddened nipple, worrying the stiff point of flesh until it felt hot against his lips. “No, but you can. I want to see how long it takes for you to start begging. Hell, maybe I'll beat you to it if you keep wriggling like that. The bookstore. Were you there as Aiden or Adam? Was it a planned meeting? Were those books really ones you liked?”

Silence.

Karl tightened his grip on Aiden's shirt and watched the taut fabric cut into Aiden's arms. “Talk to me,” he said softly and let his free hand pass over Aiden's lips, mutinous, tightly closed. “We stop talking, and this is over too fast. I don't want fast tonight. I want to watch you break. Slowly. Real slow.”

For a long moment, Aiden was quiet, unmoving, and Karl thought this might not work, that somehow without meaning to, he'd stepped over a line that he knew had to exist somewhere but hadn't thought was so close by. Not that he had a preconceived notion of how all this was supposed to work...

“I was bored,” Aiden said softly. “I was supposed to be Adam and living in that shitty apartment, and I hadn't thought ahead about what I'd do at night. I had a TV but no cable. I even tried reading some of the newspapers people left sitting in the laundry room.”

As a reward for good behavior, Karl licked a wet stripe along Aiden's skin. “Keep going.”

“So I asked somebody, and they told me about the bookstore. I don't know if I ever would have found it otherwise. I figured I'd get a few books, something to keep me from going stir-crazy. It hardly crossed my mind that you might show up there.”

“I like reading for about the same reasons you do,” Karl said. “Keeps me from going crazy when I'm bored. I packed a couple of books for this assignment, just in case, but I have a feeling I won't be needing them.” He stared up at Aiden's face, all angles and blue eyes, Aiden's mouth relaxed again, kiss-swollen and ripe. “You do a good job of switching gears. Or maybe I didn't know Adam well enough to be able to tell what was normal for him.”

“Can we forget about Adam? Please?”

“Adam never pissed me off,” Karl said. It was amazing how much it still stung, the discovery that he'd been played. He really had to get over that, but it'd been a professional and personal failure on his part. He was off his game. He just hoped that he didn't freeze up at a crucial moment in the next few days.

“He would have eventually.” There was a bitterness to Aiden's voice that made Karl frown. “I seem to piss off just about everyone. Scott...even before you, he—” He shook his head and slid backward off Karl's lap, standing and pulling up his shirt in a jerky movement. “Sorry. Somewhere in all the talking, I lost interest in the sex. Next time maybe one of us should be gagged, and no, I'm not volunteering.”

Karl was still interested in sex, though only distantly. He was too busy kicking himself for ruining the mood and putting that desolate look in Aiden's eyes. “We shouldn't have been doing it anyway.”

“Right.” Aiden went to work buttoning his shirt and tucking it back in, gaze trained resolutely on the floor. “So just listen, and don't say anything, okay? This is... I need you not to touch me anymore. I can't do this if you're going to touch me. I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want to have to explain. You're smart. You can figure it out. Let's just do the job. Focus on the job.” He was talking to himself as much as to Karl, probably, but it didn't matter because he was right.

Whatever had been between them, whether it was based in truth or lies, was over.

It was time to focus on the job.

Chapter Fifteen

Karl slept for shit on the lumpy futon, turned on his side facing away from Aiden so he wouldn't be tempted to reach for him. By the time the sun was lightening the sky, he was up, making a fresh pot of coffee and wishing there was a way to infuse it directly into his veins. He'd need a hell of a lot more than his stomach would tolerate to make him feel alert.

Aiden stirred as the scent of coffee filled the room, rolling to his back and yawning. Karl watched him stretch, unselfconscious and relaxed, then averted his eyes when Aiden opened his. “Morning,” Karl said, determined not to let this be any more awkward than it was. “Coffee's on. I'm going to wash up.”

Aiden grunted, turned to his side, and buried his head back in the futon's cushions.

There was no shower, but there was a surprisingly large sink in the bathroom. Karl dealt with the basics and then stripped out of the clothes he'd slept in—shorts and a T-shirt—and, standing on a towel, gave himself a brief but thorough washdown. His leg was aching from the uncomfortable bed, and he missed the soothing beat of hot water pounding on it, but he'd deal with it. With the towel wrapped around his waist, he went back into the main room. “Bathroom's free.”

Aiden got out of bed and worked one of his shoulders, an irritable frown on his face as he eyed the futon. “Is that thing stuffed with rocks?”

“I'd say my side had the broken springs, but I'm not sure the thing even has any,” Karl said, searching through the bag of spare clothes he'd brought along for something to wear. He'd packed casual shirts that wouldn't crease and were long enough to conceal a gun carried in the small of his back without it being obvious. “We can swap places tonight if you want to.”

Aiden grunted again and disappeared into the bathroom, carrying his clean clothes with him. When he returned, dressed once again in a clean white shirt and dark pants, Karl handed him a cup of coffee and a day-old muffin from the food stacked in a box in the corner. Stakeouts and nutritional food just didn't go together. The grease from the muffin was slick on his fingers, but it smelled good. “Blueberry. The cranberry-lemon is mine, and I'm prepared to fight for it. They're my favorite.”

“Food's food,” Aiden mumbled, and went over to sit at the computer. “Nothing new,” he reported half a minute later. “We're still on.” He took a huge bite from his muffin, then cursed as crumbs went everywhere. “There's a great way to start the morning.”

“There are worse ways,” Karl said, even though he'd told himself that there'd be no unnecessary conversation that day. He wanted to keep this strictly business. That'd make it easier to walk away when this was over. And when it was over, he'd decided, he was getting out of the city, out of the state, and taking a nice long vacation somewhere. Maybe a cruise. Eat himself into a coma and take a thousand photographs he'd never look at again.

“I suck when I don't get enough sleep,” Aiden said, an apology camouflaged as a statement. “Ignore me.”

“Got it.”

Karl headed for the bag containing the books he'd packed. Looked like he was going to have plenty of time to see what happened to good old Bilbo Baggins.

By the time Sophie arrived in Simes's office, Karl was jittery as hell. He'd long since abandoned his book and was pacing restlessly when he wasn't taking his turn on the headphones. Simes wasn't doing much. Official business really did seem to have dried up, but he was making calls to people trying to drum something up overseas and getting some interest.

“There's talk about something going down on the Pakistan border soon,” Aiden reported, an intent look on his face as he listened to Simes talk. “Their Taliban is targeting US soldiers; there was a bomb at a school recently that killed three soldiers and four children. The violence is escalating, and there aren't enough troops to handle it all.”

“I thought the government wasn't using him anymore,” Karl said.

Aiden turned his head. “I don't think he'll be going out there to defend the US soldiers or the civilians. He'll be helping the people planting the bombs.”

“Fuck.” Karl felt a sick anger rise up. “He's using my company to do this. I sold it to him, let him take over—this is on my hands.”

“Not if we stop him,” Aiden reminded him. “And you didn't know he'd turn rogue like this. Hang on. Sophie just arrived.”

“What?” Karl crossed the room quickly and grabbed the spare headphones, his heart beating fast. Danger to himself was one thing, but to sit and listen as Sophie put herself in harm's way was harder than he could've imagined.

“Been a long time,” Simes was saying.

“Maybe too long,” Sophie said.

Simes cleared his throat. “I take it this isn't a social call.”

“Not exactly,” she agreed. “I was hoping you might have a few minutes. To talk.” Damn, she was doing a good job. There was even a quaver in her voice, like she was holding down some big emotions but wouldn't be able to continue to do it for long.

“Sure. Of course. As long as you're not gonna try to get me to divulge any deep, dark secrets.” Simes chuckled, though it didn't really sound like he was joking, not really. Karl knew that tone of voice, and he hoped Sophie did too. It was a warning.

Sophie didn't laugh. She wouldn't, not if she'd just found out that Karl had been responsible for her son's death. There was some moving around, and the closing of a door.

“Here, have a seat,” Simes said. “What's on your mind?”

“I've...just come into some information,” Sophie said. “I wanted to know if you knew. If it was true.”

“You're coming to me?” Simes sounded genuinely thrown by that. “No offense, but you always gave me the impression that I rated lower than pond scum because I didn't think Blake walked on water the way everybody else did. Why not ask him?”

Sophie let the pause gather weight and when she spoke, her voice was shaking. “It's because you never got along with Karl that I'm here. I can't...I can't trust any of his friends to give me the truth, and I can't ask him because he's the one...he...oh, God.”

“Hey, don't cry. God, don't, okay?” Simes sounded deeply uncomfortable, and Karl permitted himself a small, savage smile.

“I'm not crying!” Sophie snapped with a sniff that gave her away. “And if I think for one moment that you're protecting him because of some damned code of honor or something, I'll...I'll—”

“I wouldn't do that,” Simes said. “Think about it. I don't like the guy, but I've got no beef with you. Hell, for all the icy looks, you always helped me fill out the fuck—fill out the paperwork when tax time rolled around, right?”

“It was part of my job,” Sophie said. “Though you needed more help than most.”

Simes chuckled, genial now. “Yeah, I'm more of an action guy than an accountant. So spit it out. What's this information? Old Karl fiddling his tax returns?”

“It's about Johnny,” Sophie said, and Karl could feel the mood change in the room as clearly as if he were in there, growing somber and tense. “My Johnny and how he died.”

“Yeah, that was...he was a good kid. I'm sorry. I said I was sorry at the time, right?”

“Yes.” Sophie's voice was steadier now. “Everyone did. Everyone liked Johnny. Karl, he was like a father to him.”

“And?” Simes prompted.

“And he told me a pack of lies about how Johnny died,” Sophie said coldly. “A few nights ago, he was drinking—he's not supposed to, not with the painkillers, but he's changed. Retirement, being crippled. He's bored and he's indulging himself, going soft with self-pity. Men like him can't handle not working.”

“I can see that,” Simes said. “It's got to suck for him, though I can't say I regret it. That sniper bullet got me everything I wanted.”

Karl frowned, suspicion twisting in his gut. Yeah, it had been convenient. If Simes had been behind that bullet... He pushed the thought aside for later.

“He was babbling. God, he even started to cry,” Sophie said, disgust lying thickly on her words. “I left the room to make coffee, and when I came back, I overheard him. Just a few scraps, but it was enough. He used Johnny as a shield when their position was overrun. Grabbed him, held him close, let him take the bullets. The coward, the filthy, murdering coward...and he said he was sorry, like that mattered, like that counted for anything.” She broke down then, weeping with an angry passion that left Karl feeling deeply uncomfortable. Sophie just didn't cry, ever, and even knowing that she was acting didn't change how it made him feel to listen to her.

He heard movement, then Simes murmuring something awkwardly comforting.

“Don't touch me,” Sophie snapped, still crying. “Did you...did you know about this? So help me, if you knew and didn't tell me—”

“I didn't know,” Simes interrupted. “Ms. Lewis—Sophie—I swear I didn't know. I know we've never gotten along all that well, but you can't think I would have let you go off with Blake if I'd known he was responsible for Johnny's death in anything but an indirect way. I'd never do that. Johnny was a good man.”

“He was, and he deserved better than to die like that!” Sophie's voice dropped to an anguished whisper. “I couldn't believe...I didn't want to believe that it was true.”

There was a pause; then Simes said, “Here, take this.”

“Thank you.” Sophie was presumably wiping her eyes. “I-I apologize, Mr. Simes. It certainly wasn't my intention to weep all over your office like that.”

“It must have come as a shock, finding out,” Simes offered.

“You could say that. I was tempted to get a bit of revenge while he was incapacitated.” It sounded so convincing. Karl was impressed.

“No one would blame you for that.”

“I couldn't. He's been so good to me, giving me the job, trusting me with so much. I didn't want to...not without proof. Oh God, I don't know what to do! I can't see him. I can't look at him. I told him I needed a vacation, and really, there's nothing for me to do these days. I'm winding everything down, but...” Sophie took a deep breath. “Listen to me babbling. I'm not like this usually, but I feel so sickened. I haven't eaten. I can't sleep. I just keep seeing him with his arms around my son, and the bullets—”

“Stop it,” Simes said with a certain rough sympathy. “You're just upsetting yourself. Look, I can ask around, see if anyone knows what went down, but to be honest, something like this? Blake's not going to brag about it. You know what I'm saying? Makes him look bad, and everyone liked Johnny.”

“Then what can I do?” whispered Sophie, her voice raw with emotion. “I can leave my job with him. That's easy, that's done, and there's no way I'd ever raise a finger to help him now, but I want him to pay, and I can't prove anything.”

“You could hire me to put a bullet in his other leg,” Simes offered, then he added hastily, “That was a joke.”

Karl snorted. “No, it fucking wasn't,” he muttered under his breath. Aiden smiled, a fleeting grin that soon faded to the frowning intensity Karl found oddly appealing.

Sophie cleared her throat. “If anything needed to happen to Mr. Blake, I'd take care of it personally,” she said crisply. “This is a family matter.”

“Sure, sure,” Simes said agreeably.

“And I've taken up too much of your time,” Sophie continued. “Thank you for hearing me out.”

“What's the rush?” Simes said. “Look at me, not offering you a drink or anything. Let me get you some coffee. Maybe we can catch up a bit, huh? I don't want you walking out of here all shaky and upset.”

“That...that's very kind of you.” Sophie sounded unflatteringly startled, as if she hadn't expected even basic courtesy from Simes. Karl knew the man better. Simes was hoping to work on an emotionally vulnerable Sophie to get what intel he could out of her. “A glass of water would be nice.”

Karl could hear Simes moving around, then Sophie saying, “Thank you.”

“No problem. So what are you going to do now?”

“Take some time off until I think I can bear the sight of him, then go back and do what I need in order to finish up, I suppose.”

“And after that?” Simes was trying not to sound too eager, Karl thought, but was doing a shit job of it.

“I thought I'd go on a real vacation, a long one. Somewhere hot and sunny. Somewhere it will be easier to forget.” Sophie was telling the truth now, and even though Karl knew he wasn't responsible for Johnny's death in the way Sophie was pretending he was, he felt a surge of sorrow for her.

Simes said, “Hey, you're much too young to retire permanently.”

Sophie made a small sound of protest. “You're sweet, but that's not technically true. I don't know what I'll do.”

“Well, I know this might not be the time, but you could think about coming here. You know I could use you, and we'd work something out about compensation that you'd be very happy with.”

“Work for you?” Sophie said dubiously, with no stress on the final word, which showed a restraint Karl admired. “Oh, I'm not sure...”

“It's not like you don't know what's involved,” Simes pointed out. “You kept this place running; you know you did. Since you've been gone, I swear that computer out there's missed you. Crashes every day. I fired the idiot running the place last week, so I don't have anyone taking care of things. I got back from a job last night and had to do the paperwork myself. Last thing I needed, and the damn thing crashed right at the end, and I lost it all.”

“That's because it's old and needs replacing, but Mr. Blake would never let me upgrade,” Sophie said. Karl didn't have to imagine the toss of her head that went with the words. This was something he'd heard from Sophie often enough that he could've said the words with her.

“I'd let you get whatever you needed,” Simes promised. “New computer, printer—whatever.”

“Well...” Sophie hesitated and then said, “Will you think less of me if I tell you that I'm thinking about saying yes mostly because I know how much that man will hate me working for you?”

Simes laughed. “Not a chance. I appreciate a woman who knows where to bury the knife. So are we doing this?”

Sophie took an audible breath. “Yes. Why not? When do I start?”

“Tomorrow at eight?”

“That's so fast,” Sophie demurred. “I have a place I rent back in Dallas now, you know. I can't commute that far every day.”

“I'll give you the keys to one of our safe houses,” Simes said. “You can stay there for a few weeks while you make arrangements to rent somewhere here and have your stuff moved. If your landlord kicks up a fuss—”

“Oh, he won't,” Sophie said. “It's a monthly lease, and I pay in advance. It was never somewhere I planned to stay.”

“Sounds like we've taken care of all our problems,” Simes said easily.

“I just... I really don't know what to say. You've been so kind, and I didn't expect that at all.”

“Hey, I'm a nice guy.” Karl could picture the smile that went along with the words, charming and expansive—Simes's used-car-salesman smile. “And I know an asset when I see one.”

Karl took the headphones off and tossed them to the table, unable to listen any longer. Aiden stuck with it until Sophie left and then joined Karl at the coffee machine, where the dregs of the pot Karl had brewed earlier were turning to sludge.

“She did really well,” Aiden offered. “Great, actually.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Karl said sourly, considering drinking the sludge rather than making a fresh pot, even though he really didn't need the extra caffeine just then. He was wired, keyed up from being on edge listening to Sophie traipsing her way through the lion's den. He wished there were something to hit, or that he could go out and run for a couple of miles like he used to—his leg wouldn't tolerate that anymore, or at least not long enough for him to work off the adrenaline he had going.

“It makes you crazy.” Aiden was looking at the leftover coffee too, like he was also considering drinking it. Karl went to retrieve his mug before Aiden could beat him to the punch. “Her agreeing to work for him, even when you know it's not real.”

“A little bit,” Karl admitted, pouring sludge into his mug. “And it sure doesn't make me like him any more than I do, which might not be at all at this point anyway.”

Aiden frowned. “I'm not sure you need that coffee.”

“It's either drink it or throw it against the wall,” Karl said. He put the mug down before he was tempted to carry out his threat, his hands forming fists. He was clenching them so tightly it hurt, but that felt good right then. “Fuck, I just... God, I hate this. I really fucking hate it.” He kept the volume down with an effort, but the need to do so only added to his frustration. “Ever punched a wall?”

After a moment when Karl didn't think he was going to get an answer, Aiden shrugged. “Once. I was sixteen and I'd just gotten laughed at for being gay by a boy I had a crush on. Broke a finger, took the skin off my knuckles, and the wall didn't seem to care. Never did it again.”

“I think we all do it once,” Karl said. “Right now, I want to forget I'm too old to be that stupid and just feel that crunch and pretend it's his fucking nose breaking.”

“Yeah,” Aiden said, gently and with sympathy. “And it's not like you can go run up and down the stairwell, huh. Does swimming help?”

Aiden was trying to distract him, Karl thought, and appreciated the effort even though he didn't think it was going to work. “I don't know. I haven't been this keyed up since the leg.”

“No reason to be.” Aiden nodded, understanding softening his face.

Karl sighed. “Maybe I need to follow Sophie's example and take a long tropical vacation when this is all over.”

“You can afford to,” Aiden said. “At least the coffee would be better.” He offered Karl a tentative grin, and Karl found himself responding in kind.

“Hey, my coffee's good!”

“Until it's been sitting around for ages,” Aiden agreed. “Then I'm not sure any coffee's much good. Still better than nothing, though.”

“Yeah, I saw you considering it, and don't pretend you weren't.”

Aiden looked at him steadily. “I wouldn't. Too late for that, I think. You'd see right through me at this point, wouldn't you?”

“When it comes to the important stuff, I always do. Could from day one,” Karl said. “You're easy to read.”

“You didn't spot that I was an agent,” Aiden said a little uncertainly. He sounded unwilling to bring up a touchy subject but unable to let Karl's comment go unchallenged.

“I said important stuff,” Karl told him. “Being an agent's just your job. I couldn't care less what you call yourself, and if you want to pretend you're just past jailbait age when you're not, that's fine with me too. I'm talking about seeing what you want and need. What kind of man you are. I've never been in any doubt about those things.”

When Aiden bit his lower lip, Karl wanted to kiss him. “Why...why would you say that?” He sounded hurt, as if Karl had deliberately wounded him and he didn't know why.

Shit. “Because it's true,” Karl said. “Jesus, don't look at me like that, kid.”

“I'm not a kid,” Aiden said, his voice hardening. “I don't know how you can say something like that and just... Why would you do that? Make me think... God.” He moved away from Karl, sat down on the futon that they hadn't bothered to fold up.

“Hey.” Karl wanted to say something comforting, but that was what he'd tried to do before, and look where it was getting them. “What should I have said instead? What did you want me to say?”

Aiden shook his head. “It's not that. It's not that I'm...expecting something, or hoping for something else. Or whatever.”

Karl went over to him and crouched in front of Aiden, carefully not touching him, deliberately putting himself lower than Aiden. He'd negotiated with scared people, their fingers on triggers. He knew how to placate and appear less threatening just as he knew how to intimidate and overawe. “Aiden. Listen to me. You're a good man, okay? That’s what I can see. You got the job done, and it cost you, but you didn't back away. You knew what you had to do to get me to open up to you, and you didn't hesitate. Yeah, you enjoyed it physically, but emotionally it had to leave you feeling like hell. When I found out what you'd done, how much of it was a lie, I was angry and yeah, hurt, but part of that was for you, as much as me. They shouldn't have made you do that.”

Not putting his hands on Aiden to soothe and comfort was killing him.

“I want to make things easy for you again,” Karl continued when Aiden didn't reply, his face set in unhappy lines. “That's why I'm backing off, letting go. When it comes to you, I just want to grab you and hang on, but I've cost you Scott; I'm not going to be responsible for wrecking your career as well.”

“A career I don't care about,” Aiden said. “That's what you want to save for me? You want me, but you won't let yourself have me for my own good. Is that what you're saying?” He looked so conflicted, like he didn't know whether to be happy or sad.

“Basically.”

Aiden reached out and shoved Karl, who hadn't been expecting it and lost his balance, falling backward onto his ass. “Fuck you,” Aiden said. His voice was low, yet intense. “You think you have the right to make decisions for me without even asking me what I want?”

Karl got to his feet, his teeth gritted against a stab of pain from his leg.

Aiden tilted his head back to look up at Karl and said, “Well?”

“No,” Karl said. “I guess I don't. So what do you want? To give everything up for the sake of some good sex with a man you've known less than a month? I'm not worth that. I'm not like Simes, but I'm not a saint. And right now, my life's complicated as hell because for the first time, I don't know what I want to do with it.” He eyed Aiden, bitter regret choking him. “You want to be with me? Fine. Move in. I can afford to keep us both for the rest of our lives. We never have to lift a finger. We can fuck the rest of our lives away doing nothing worthwhile. How well do you think that will work out?”

“I'm not saying that!” Aiden stood up and walked over to the window that looked down onto the street below them. “I don't want to be your fuck toy, you asshole, and I... Okay, I can't say I don't give a shit if you're with me or not. That wouldn't be true. Either way I want you to be happy! And why do you think you know what I'm giving up, like it's some huge loss not to have a boyfriend who doesn't get me and a job I don't even know if I ever wanted in the first place? At least you knew what you wanted to do with your life once. I don't know if I ever did.” He was breathing heavily, his eyes bright as he looked at Karl with desperation.

It was an emotion Karl shared, though not one he was familiar with. For someone in a risky, hectic life, he'd always carried within him a core of certainty that he was where he wanted to be, doing something he loved. A single bullet had shattered that core, and months of arduous physical therapy and tedium had worn him down to the point where he was drifting, helpless. The connection he'd forged with Aiden had been a lifeline tugging him back to a contentment he'd thought was lost.

Doubt and misgivings battled a fierce longing for the man standing before him, and Karl took a step toward Aiden before he could stop himself, and then froze. “You told me not to touch you,” he said, his voice hoarse, “and it's the only thing I want to do right now. It makes it easy when I do that, and I want something to be easy for once, but you told me not to, and I've never done anything to you unless you said I could.” He took another step forward and held Aiden's gaze. “Tell me I can touch you,” he said and heard himself beg for something for the first time in his life.

“Yes,” Aiden said and was in his arms before he could say anything else. “You can touch me. Don't ever stop.” Aiden was solid and reassuring against Karl's body, arms circling him and holding on with such strength that Karl's eyes closed, and he couldn't do anything except tighten his own arms around Aiden and hold on in return. “It's okay,” Aiden said. “It's okay. We can do this. We can figure it out, okay? We'll figure it out.”

Karl wanted to respond, to assure Aiden verbally that he agreed, but he couldn't find words. All he could do was hang on, running one hand up and down along the lower part of Aiden's spine and breathing in the scent of his hair and skin.

“I might not know what I want to do with my life, but I know I want this. You.” Aiden's mouth brushed against Karl's ear. “I want you.”

“Okay,” Karl managed to say. “Shit, yes, okay. We'll work it out. We'll think of something.” He turned his head, blindly seeking the heat of Aiden's mouth, the kiss that followed as hungry and desperate as their words had been. Aiden was moaning against the thrust of Karl's tongue, grinding against Karl, all need and want. It was overwhelming, like everything about Aiden, but Karl didn't care. If Aiden wanted the edge, the danger, he wanted to be the one making it safe for Aiden to let go, and he could cope with overwhelming. He'd had practice.

Right now, it wasn't about sex and a climax, though Karl could feel Aiden's erection, insistent and hard against his thigh. It was just about holding on, pulling Aiden closer, Karl's hands moving over Aiden's back and ass in caresses that were rough and possessive.

A couple of weeks. That was all. Long enough to get addicted to this man. Long enough to care about losing him.

Aiden's hand slid up to the back of Karl's skull like it was testing the shape of it. Aiden pulled Karl closer, fitting Karl's chin and jaw over his shoulder and holding him again. Hugging, really, and it was weird how right that felt, considering Karl had never been a hugger. Apparently, things were different with Aiden. If Karl was being honest with himself, they had been right from the beginning. He didn't know why, and he wasn't sure he cared. All he knew was that he wanted Aiden, for real, and not just for the short term.

“God,” Aiden said, one arm wrapped firmly around Karl's waist. “I don't want to stop.”

“We've never been very good at it,” Karl said. “Why start now?” He felt exhilarated, taken from depressed to delighted in a wild swoop, a roller-coaster ride of emotion. Yeah, that was more like life as usual. He could handle this.

With a reluctance he didn't even try to hide, he pulled back a few inches. “We're still working,” he said and gave Aiden a quick grin. “I'm probably breaking all kinds of laws distracting a federal agent on duty like this.”

“You troublemaker, you.” Aiden took Karl's face gently between his hands and shook his face back and forth. “You're right, though, we're working. Or I am, at least. This—us—will have to wait until we've got Simes.”

“Great.” Karl sighed. It couldn't happen soon enough as far as he was concerned, though mostly that was about wanting Sophie's involvement in the situation to be completely over. Once she was in the clear, the rest of it didn't matter. Well, okay, it did, because he wanted Simes off the streets as badly as anyone, but she was his primary focus right then. “Yeah, okay. Just try to stop looking so...so...”

“Incredibly hot? Spectacularly fuckable?” Aiden kissed Karl once, then smiled. “I'll try.”

Chapter Sixteen

After three days without a shower, the two of them sleeping in shifts in case they missed something, Aiden was starting to dream of hot water, soap, and sex in no particular order. A loaded pizza and one, just one, ice-cold beer would be good too. He was sick of eating out of cans. The walls were closing in around him, and the only comfort was the knowledge that soon this would be over, and when it was, he could drag Karl into a shower—the one in Karl's bathroom was huge—and they could take care of getting clean and fucking each other's brains out at the same time. Multitasking was something he'd always scored high on in tests. He wasn't sure that he could work the pizza and the beer into the shower scenario, though.

“What do you like on your pizza?” he asked Karl idly.

“Pizza's good however it comes,” Karl said. “No olives, though.”

“I love olives,” Aiden said. “They're essential.”

“Then we always order two pizzas,” Karl said. “Now stop talking about them, because I'm seriously considering ordering one, and I don't think it'd be a good idea.”

“God, no,” Aiden agreed. He walked over to the small fridge and studied its contents dubiously. “I could make us a cheese and tomato sandwich. That's kind of like the word I've been forbidden to mention.”

“Sounds unappealing in comparison, but sure, thanks.”

Aiden took two paper plates from the stack. They were decorated around the edges with a flower pattern—simple, stylized daisies—and he found himself wondering just how many dandelions had popped up in the grass at Karl's place now that no one was watching for them. Not that it mattered, but it'd been fun in a way trying to keep on top of them, like a live video game, taking out the bad guys as they appeared on the screen.

Killing dandelions was one thing, though. Shooting someone was something else. Aiden had never fired his gun at a live target. He hoped that training and survival instinct would kick in and make it easy if he ever needed to, even if freezing was just as likely. He sneaked a glance at Karl, who was engrossed in a book. Karl wouldn't freeze. Aiden wasn't sure if that was reassuring or not.

The cell phone in his pocket vibrated. He abandoned the food and took out the phone.

“I'm calling to update you,” Diane said briskly.

Diane, he mouthed at Karl, who'd put his book down. “Yes?” he said into the phone.

“We have a team in place around the training compound, some distance back so they're not spotted. As soon as your contact confirms that her task is complete, we'll move, and there's another team in place outside your building ready to go at the same moment. This is going to be a coordinated, synchronous operation, you understand?”

“Yes,” Aiden said again, his mouth dry. “Should we—”

“Your only priority is to safeguard the intel your contact has,” Diane said sharply. “You are not, repeat, not to get involved in the arrests. You have a meet site arranged. As soon as you tell me that you're in possession of what we need, call me and we move in.”

“Right. I've got it. We're just monitoring the situation until we've got the evidence.” Sophie was going to smuggle out whatever information she could get her hands on, then meet Aiden and Karl in Reata, a busy restaurant on Houston Street, during her lunch break. Once Aiden had the information, Sophie's part in the deal was done, and the bureau could wrap things up.

Aiden looked at Karl, whose lips were pressed tightly together, his expression grim.

“Good,” Diane said. “I'll be waiting for y'all to call me.”

Karl had picked up the earpiece again and was listening intently. “I don't like this,” he said as Aiden hung up the phone.

“I know. It sucks. But it won't be much longer, and then this will all be over with.” They'd been careful to avoid talking about all the sex they'd like to be having, since there was no point in making themselves even more frustrated, but Aiden had been thinking about it—a lot—and he was pretty sure Karl had too. They were adults, and they could postpone gratification when they had to, but Aiden couldn't have said he was enjoying it.

“I have a bad feeling,” Karl said slowly. “I know, I know. It sounds crazy, and there's nothing I can really point to, nothing specific, that's making me think things might go bad, but I can't help it.”

“We've taken every precaution,” Aiden pointed out.

Karl cut him off, making an impatient gesture, frowning as he listened to something going on at Simes's office, and Aiden, heart quickening, joined him.

“Take my lunch break now,” Sophie was saying. “I shouldn't be gone the whole hour—for which you should be grateful, considering the state of your files.” Aiden didn't know Sophie all that well, but even he could imagine the stern expression on her face.

“Take the hour,” Simes said. “Hell, take two. You've earned it. What time did you go home last night?”

Aiden felt Karl tense, but he hadn't sensed any suspicion in Simes's voice, and Sophie's next words explained why. “I left with Mr. Torres, around seven,” Sophie said. “He very kindly walked me to my car.”

“Yeah, I told him to do that,” Simes said, his satisfaction clear. “No telling who's out there at that time of night.”

“I can take care of myself,” Sophie said primly, “but it was a thoughtful gesture. Thank you.”

“I take care of my people,” Simes said. Aiden had a file on his desk at work that said differently, describing an operation where Simes had reportedly shot a wounded man on his team to prevent him from being captured and giving away their escape route. Maybe Simes would justify that by claiming to have been protecting the team as a whole, but Aiden wasn't inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“Would you like to join me for lunch?” Sophie asked.

“Where are you going?”

Karl's breath hissed out. “What is she doing? What if he says yes?”

Aiden patted Karl's hand reassuringly and wished that he hadn't when Karl glared at him. Fine. No comforting.

“Oh, Reata, of course. Where else? I love their chicken enchiladas, and I might treat myself to a slice of chocolate torte, though I really shouldn't.”

“Thanks, but I'm more a burger-and-fries man,” Simes said. “See you later.”

“Don't touch the files on my desk,” Sophie said. “They're in the process of being alphabetized, and if they're disturbed...”

“I don't think Torres knows how to read,” Simes said.

Aiden's phone went off as Sophie replied, and he frowned. It couldn't be Sophie, clearly, and he couldn't think of a reason that Diane would call him. The phone was a throwaway, set up just for this mission, and only a handful of people had the number. He got it out. “Yes?”

“Special Agent Drake here. One of my agents was spotted by one of Simes's men, the alarm was raised and we're going in,” a voice said, the line crackling badly. “The team at your location has been given a go. Get your contact clear.”

“What? No! Abort that—”

“What the fuck is going on?” Karl snarled. “Give me that fucking phone.”

“No time,” the man said. “Shit, they've started firing—”

Karl snatched the phone out of Aiden's hand, and Aiden let him, more focused on his gun, which was inside a box next to the computer. “They're going in now at both locations,” he said, even as Karl swore into the cell phone and threw it to the floor. “Stay here.”

He ran, knowing that Karl wouldn't obey him—even without a weapon, Karl would put himself in danger for Sophie. The best Aiden could hope for was that Karl's leg would slow him down enough on the stairs that he wouldn't get next door until everything was over. Aiden's feet found a rhythm on the seldom-used, poorly lit staircase; down three floors, six flights total, the grip of his gun hard in his hand as he burst out of the stairwell and into the lobby of the building.

Bad luck—there was an older couple coming in through the front doors, and the woman got one look at Aiden's face, saw his gun, and screamed. Not that it mattered as far as alerting Simes went, since Aiden could hear shots being fired— damn, damn it—in the other building as soon as he shoved his way out onto the street. He didn't bother to explain that he was a federal agent or to order the couple to stay inside. Things were already going to hell next door, and he had to get up there and make sure Sophie was okay.

He was pretty sure if anything happened to Sophie, Karl wouldn't be able to forgive either Aiden or himself.

The lobby of Simes's building was nicer than the one where Aiden's temporary office was located—which meant more people. There was a chiropractor's small office on the first floor, clients coming and going. Aiden shouldered his way into the emergency stairwell and ran up the stairs, mentally counting steps as he went for no good reason other than to keep himself focused. He didn't hear more shots fired, but that didn't mean anything, not really, and he burst out onto the third floor, gun held in front of him. He almost tripped over the body of an agent lying on the carpet at his feet, blood in a dark pool around his head, his open eyes glassy in death.

In front of him were three more agents surrounding the door to Simes's office, all of them wearing bulletproof vests—which Aiden wasn't, thank you very much— and all of them with weapons trained on Simes, who was holding a gun to Sophie's head.

Sophie was pale but composed. Aiden didn't know how she could be, but she was, and she didn't acknowledge him with more than a flicker of her eyes that could've been a blink. Any hope he had that Simes didn't connect Sophie to the raid disappeared when Simes said coldly, “Shooting this two-faced bitch would be a pleasure, so don't push me. Guns down or she's dead.”

“Do it,” Aiden snapped, lowering his own weapon so that it was no longer pointing at Simes. Aiming it at the man's head had been automatic, his hand rising in a smooth, fluid movement. One of the agents turned his head slightly and gave Aiden a look that clearly said And who the fuck are you? but Aiden ignored him, concentrating on Simes. “I'm Agent Russell. I'm with the FBI, and I'm asking you to release your hostage.”

“Sure. When I'm safe, I'll leave her where you can find her, no problem at all.” From the sneer on Simes's face, it would be Sophie's body that would be left behind. “Cut the crap and get out of my way. All of you.”

Aiden's mind was working oddly, some parts of it blank, others filled with racing thoughts, tumbling chaotically, but his training held. He took a deep breath and felt his focus return, his brain sharp and clear. Two other men were with Simes. Where were they? As if in answer to his question, Rikers and Torres appeared behind Simes, guns out, looking prepared to fight.

Three against three, with Karl a possible ace in the hole—but there was Sophie to consider.

“Our orders are to take you in for questioning,” one of the agents said. “There's no need for this.”

“That's why you came in dressed for war? I don't think so.” Simes took a step back, not forward, and his men moved to the side, out of his way, like it was a move they'd rehearsed—which it probably was. Torres kicked the door closed as soon as there was space for it to shut, and a lock clicked audibly.

“Simes has locked himself in with the hostage,” one of the agents said into his walkie-talkie and swore a second later. “There's a fire escape.”

Which meant Karl should have known about it, unless it was a new addition to the building, Aiden thought. Either way, someone had fucked up big time in failing to note it. “Where does it end up?”

“In the alleyway between this building and thirty-nine.”

Aiden didn't hesitate. He ran for the stairwell again, thinking what a good thing it was the office was only on the third floor and not higher. He half expected to meet Karl on the stairs, but didn't. Other agents had blocked off part of the street in front of the building and were keeping the curious crowd that was forming back, which gave Aiden a clear path toward the alley. Before he reached the corner, he heard a shout and gunfire, and rounded the building in time to see Karl shoot Torres, who been about to jump down from the fire escape. The man fell instead, hitting the pavement hard and lying still. Aiden had no idea if he was dead or just wounded.

“Give it up, Simes,” Karl said, but Simes, with Sophie as a shield and Rikers next to him, was backing up toward a dark car parked in the alley. It was the same model as the vehicle registered to Simes.

“Take care of them,” Simes said, and Rikers lifted his gun toward Aiden and fired.

It happened so fast that Aiden didn't really have time to react, but he flinched to his right, and the bullet grazed the top of his left shoulder, not enough to do any real damage, but enough to hurt like hell. He didn't let go of his own gun, though, and while he was still aiming, Karl got off another shot, and Rikers dropped like a stone. In the meantime, Simes must have managed to shove Sophie into the car, because when Aiden looked again, the driver's-side door was closing and the car was reversing away from them down the alley.

“Shit,” Karl said. “You okay?”

“Fine, fine,” Aiden said. “There's a bureau car right behind us. Let's go.”

“You can't drive like that,” Karl said, indicating Aiden's bleeding arm even as they ran for the car.

“Just watch me,” said Aiden grimly, and half a minute later they were leaving the far end of the alley, tires screaming on the pavement. He had the pedal pushed almost to the floor. “Fuck, fuck! Where are they?” He couldn't see Simes's car, not anywhere.

“There!” Karl said a second later, pointing as Simes's car made a sharp right onto a side street. There was enough traffic that things were going to get very messy very fast, and Aiden had to hope that no innocent people would be hurt in the process. Including Sophie.

“He's heading for the airport,” Aiden said incredulously a few minutes later when their pursuit took them onto the Airport Freeway. “He's crazy; he'll never be able to get on a flight. The place will be crawling with cops and agents.”

“Will the agents back there think to alert the airport?” Karl asked, hanging on as Aiden increased the car's speed even more. They were swerving from lane to lane now, a chorus of horns serenading both Simes's car and theirs as indignant drivers protested their reckless progress.

Aiden nodded without taking his eyes off Simes's car. “I think so, but after the way they screwed things up... Do you have a phone? We left mine back there. Shit, did you see that? He's going to kill someone. We've got to get him off the freeway.”

Simes had crossed from one lane to the next with a squeal of tires, clipping the side of a sedan, which, when the panicked driver braked sharply, caused it to pick up another dent from the car behind it. Both cars were soon left behind them. Karl did turn his head briefly. “They're fine,” he reported. “Pulled off into the breakdown lane. I've got my phone.”

“Call Diane,” Aiden said. His hands were slippery on the wheel, the courses he'd taken that covered this scenario vivid in his head but somehow not relating well to the reality. They'd only been driving four or five minutes, but it felt like an hour. A knotted muscle between his shoulders ached fiercely, and he realized he was hunched forward. He told Karl Diane's number and listened distractedly as Karl dealt with Diane, who, judging by Karl's end of the conversation, had lost her customary cool.

“Airport's alerted, the cops are converging on our little convoy, and we've confirmed that the agent down didn't make it. He took a bullet to the head from Simes at point-blank range. I'm sorry.”

“God.” Aiden swallowed, nausea rising, though he'd already known that the man was dead. Dead. Over something as trivial as an agent at the training camp letting himself be seen or heard. Except it wasn't that simple, was it? Cause and effect...but it was Simes who'd pulled the trigger and ended the man's life, and Aiden didn't know what concatenation of events had made Simes the man he was.

“He's turning,” Karl said urgently, breaking Aiden's brief moment of introspection. “Going left onto Sylvania.”

“Good,” Aiden muttered. “That's quieter.”

“Not good. He's going too fast.” Karl's hands were braced on the dash.

Aiden glanced at Karl as they finished making the turn, the tires of Simes's car leaving dark gray smoke floating in the air. “You're wearing your seat belt, right?”

“Don't worry about me. Worry about driving,” Karl told him.

“I am, I am. Just put your fucking seat belt on!”

Simes narrowly missed hitting a car that was waiting to turn left. The back end of his car fishtailed wildly for a few seconds until Simes got it under control. He hit a plastic orange barrel that was warning motorists away from a large pothole near the side of the road. It exploded on impact, and a big chunk of it glanced off their windshield.

“Fuck,” Aiden muttered, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “Fuck, fuck. What the fuck is he doing? Is he crazy?”

“Probably.” Karl sounded calmer now. “Relax. Concentrate. You can do this.”

“He's turning again,” Aiden said unnecessarily, but he was feeling a little bit less frantic, which was good. He needed to focus. Simes had turned left at a set of lights. They'd been against him, but the road had been clear, in a residential area, and even at this time of day, there weren't many cars around. The road he'd turned onto was just as quiet, but in some ways that made it harder to go fast. Aiden was only too aware that a residential neighborhood like this would have children; he could see some. If his pursuit caused Simes to mount the curb and hit one of the kids on a bike or drawing in chalk on the sidewalk, absorbed in creating a gaudy masterpiece, it would be Aiden's fault.

Simes didn't seem to have any such scruples, but his car was weaving erratically even as it gathered speed. A T-junction lay ahead, at the end of a dip in the road, and as Aiden watched, so close now that he could see Sophie's mouth moving as she remonstrated with her kidnapper, Simes tried to turn right.

He didn't make it. The front tire on the driver's side was wobbling, working its way free after the collision with the barrel and the hole, and as Aiden tried to pull alongside Simes, the tire came off, bouncing, spinning wildly.

Simes's car lurched, its speed and the turn it was trying to make combining with the missing tire to make stability a thing of the past. It tilted to the side, like a stunt from a movie. The car, still going way too fast, started to flip, and everything became slow and fragmented, like a slide show in a dream.

Aiden let out an involuntary shout as he realized that Simes's car was headed straight for a tree at the other side of the intersection. At least there weren't any other cars coming from either direction. He stepped on the brakes, hard, the seat belt digging into his shoulder and chest, and without thinking he threw out a protective arm between Karl and the dashboard. Simes's car didn't roll completely but went three quarters of the way over and hit the tree so hard that Aiden felt the impact in the shudder and buckle of the road underneath their own car.

Karl was out of the car while Aiden was still putting it into park. Simes's car was almost upside down, smoke rising from the crumpled hood, the area around the driver's seat so crushed that Aiden didn't see how Simes could have survived the impact. The passenger door was toward them, but it was buckled and it didn't look capable of being opened.

As Aiden followed Karl, he saw Karl stumble in the gravel that lined the edge of the road and go down hard. “Sophie,” Karl said as Aiden reached him. He was clutching his bad leg, and his face was set in immovable lines, without even the faintest emotion.

“I've got her,” Aiden said and went toward the crashed car at a dead run.

He flung himself down on the ground beside the car, trying to see in the passenger side window. “Sophie! Can you hear me?” He didn't expect an answer and was surprised when he heard a muffled reply. “Hang on. I'm getting you out.”

It would have been safer to go in from the back, with the way the engine was smoking, but Aiden couldn't figure out how he'd get Sophie free over the seats, so it had to be the front windshield. He picked up a fist-sized rock from the ground and slid into the place between the front windshield and the hard-packed earth.

“Cover your eyes,” he told Sophie and slammed the rock into the already splintered windshield—the safety glass collapsed cooperatively and rained down onto him, one square landing in his mouth. He spat it out and knocked more of the glass free, squirming so he could see Sophie, who had undone her seat belt and turned herself right-side-up. There was blood on her face, and she looked dazed but determined.

“I think...I think he's dead,” she said.

“Don't worry about him.” Aiden reached out his right hand toward her, his left shoulder aching where it was pressed against the ground. There was more smoke now, black and thick, and Sophie coughed a few times before she grasped Aiden's fingers. He was trying to breathe shallowly so he wouldn't inhale too much of it, but he could feel the heat from a fire he couldn't see and hear the urgency in Karl's voice from not too far away as the other man told them to hurry up and get the hell out of there.

I'm trying, he thought and didn't bother to say it out loud. He was coughing too, and as he dragged Sophie inch by painful inch through the windshield, Aiden was grateful that he couldn't see the flames that he knew were growing by the second. He hitched himself backward, half-free of the wreckage, tugging her along with him and ignoring the sound of pain she made because there wasn't time to do this gently—it was now or never.

“Come on,” Karl said, appearing beside him and lending his strength to the task of getting Sophie clear. Then they were free, and Aiden could hear sirens coming nearer. Somehow, the three of them managed to stumble to the other car, where they collapsed onto the blacktop as Simes's car, now engulfed in flames, gave a halfhearted boom that wasn't a real explosion at all.

Aiden let himself fall onto his back. Above them, the sky was blue like it was any other day. “Is she okay?” he asked, coughing more.

“Pretty banged up,” Karl said and loomed over him. “You're still bleeding.”

“Yeah?” It was hard to care right then. The sirens were getting louder, and Aiden's mouth tasted terrible, like ash. “I really need a shower,” he said, and that was when the cavalry arrived.

Chapter Seventeen

Karl's leg was burning as if the fire that had engulfed Simes's car had reached out and struck him too. He'd felt it give way as he raced toward the car, bringing him down in much the same way that Simes's car had been reduced to scrap metal when its wheel had come off. It'd only been fifteen minutes or so since he'd dropped Aiden's phone and started to run, but he'd done more running in that short time than he had in months.

If Aiden hadn't been there, Sophie would have died. The thought chilled him, scared him, left him so weak with gratitude that he would have kissed Aiden's feet if it had been something Aiden wanted—which it probably wasn't. He settled for hovering over the man protectively as he was being patched up, with Aiden insisting that the bullet wound wasn't serious. It wasn't. Karl hated seeing Aiden's blood and the scored, torn skin, but viewed objectively the wound was a shallow scrape that had kept bleeding mostly because Aiden had kept moving. Once it'd been cleaned, a dressing applied, and a sling produced for Aiden to wear, Aiden insisted that he felt fine.

Experience told Karl that Aiden would change his mind about that later when the wound began to throb viciously.

Sophie was his main concern after Aiden. She had turned an interesting shade of gray, the composure she'd held on to throughout her ordeal deserting her as her stressed body demanded some reaction to the recent events. Her hands, scraped and bloody, shook when she took a bottle of water from a paramedic. Karl held her gently, barely squeezing her at all, and felt the shudders running through her in waves. He murmured reassurances, nonsense, anything to get her to stop shaking, and eventually she began to weep, smiling up at him through cathartic tears.

“We did it.”

“You did it,” Karl told her, “and now I'm going to let these people take you to the hospital, okay? We'll be right behind you.” His leg was killing him, but he could drive; he only needed one leg for that.

“Take this,” Sophie said, fumbling in the pocket of her ruined jacket, torn and soaked with blood from her head wound. It wasn't serious, from what Karl could see—God, they'd been so fucking lucky—but it would need stitches, and that would involve shaving some of her hair off. He winced at the thought of her probable reaction to that, guessing that she'd use it as a focal point for her emotions in the aftermath. She pushed a flash drive into his hand. “It's everything you needed. You'll still need it, won't you? It wasn't for nothing?”

Aiden appeared at Karl's side. “I still need it,” he said. “We'll have to account for our actions, and there were others involved; we'll need it.” He leaned down and kissed Sophie's cheek. “You're incredible.”

The sincerity of the simple compliment shone through. Sophie smiled and scrubbed impatiently at the tears leaving streaks through the blood and dirt on her face. “Thank you.”

Karl passed the flash drive to Aiden, who pocketed it with a nod of thanks, and they stepped back to let the ambulance doors close.

“So what happened here?” Karl turned to see a police officer scowling at them, his burly frame slouched against Aiden's car. “And the man in the car's dead, in case you were wondering. Neck snapped, maybe, and he's definitely on the well- done side.”

Aiden took out his badge and identified himself. “We appreciate your swift response,” he said politely. “The casualty is the fugitive we were chasing after he kidnapped a woman, but we'll be sending along our own ME to handle that. If you could deal with the traffic, maybe set up a roadblock until the wreckage has been cleared and the fire trucks have finished...”

The officer sighed. “Do all the dirty work after you Feds have had your fun, you mean?” he said sourly. “Sure thing, Agent Russell. No trouble at all.”

Karl debated punching the man in his surly mouth, but really, right then it was just too much effort. His leg hurt. He turned and limped off around Aiden's borrowed car to the driver's side and then paused, his hand on the door. Simes had been one hell of a mean son of a bitch, and Karl didn't feel any guilt or grief over his death, but they'd shared a drink after a mission once or twice, back when relations between them hadn't been so strained. For the sake of those times when they'd united in celebrating the fact that they'd survived, he turned his head and stared at the wreckage for a moment before nodding to himself and getting into the car.

A nod of the head. It was about all the bastard deserved.

“I just need another minute,” Aiden said, appearing at the window. He considered what he'd just said, then sighed. “Well, maybe ten. Are you okay?”

“I'm supposed to be asking you that.” Karl gestured at Aiden's arm. A car pulled up next to them, and a couple of men who were clearly Feds got out, buttoning their suit jackets.

“Okay, revise that back down to a minute and then we can get ourselves over to the hospital to check on Sophie.” Aiden stepped away to talk to the men, one of whom gave Karl such a dark look that Karl scowled at him in return, and within a couple of minutes—longer than Aiden had claimed but fewer than Karl had expected—he was getting into the passenger seat with a wince and a sigh. “Are you okay to drive? How's your leg?”

Karl scowled at him too. “Better than your arm, plus I didn't just bleed all over half the city. Stop asking stupid questions.”

He started up the car and headed for the hospital that Sophie had been taken to. It was about ten minutes away, on South Main Street, and Karl knew the city well enough not to need to think about where he was going. Aiden waited until they'd been driving for a few miles before asking, “Why the hell are you mad at me?”

“Because you're hurt.” The words popped out before Karl could censor them. He sighed, knowing that he'd just guaranteed he'd have to continue. “I don't like you being hurt. My bruises or bite marks on you, fine. I know you wanted them, and we both enjoyed putting them on you. That, your shoulder... You didn't ask for it, I didn't do it, and a few inches lower and you'd have been lying on the ground, dead, like that other poor bastard Simes shot.”

“Which doesn't explain why you're angry with me. I didn't ask Simes to tell his man to shoot me.”

Karl hissed with frustration and struck the steering wheel with the flat of his hand. “I'm angry because I've never been so scared in my life! You and Sophie, I love you both and I nearly lost you. Both of you. I've never gone into a fight feeling terrified before. If Simes had killed you, either of you, I'd have gone over to that car just to spit in his face and watch him burn.”

He was shaking as much as Sophie had been, he realized distantly.

“Hey,” Aiden said gently. “Pull over.”

“Fuck you,” Karl told him. Jesus, he was losing it. He shouldn't be behind the wheel. He was going to get them both killed, and the realization that he could be the cause of Aiden's death was the shock he needed to brake and pull over. Aiden had turned toward him, which had to be making his shoulder hurt, though his expression didn't show it. He didn't look anything apart from worried.

“It's okay,” Aiden said. “We're both okay. It's normal to be scared when people you care about are in danger, you know.”

“I know that,” Karl said harshly. “It's just adrenaline. I'm fine.”

“Yeah, you sound fine.” Aiden was sarcastic as he reached awkwardly across himself to grab on to Karl's shirt. “Come here.”

“Stop it. You're hurt.” It wasn't like Karl was going to break down and cry on Aiden's wounded shoulder—or even his good one. He was shaky and maybe even a little shocky, but he hadn't turned into someone else.

“Did it ever occur to you that I might need this?” Aiden asked. “Just for a second, okay?” He tugged at Karl, and reluctantly Karl let himself move closer and put an arm around Aiden's waist, careful not to hurt him. Aiden sighed, a long exhalation. “God, yes,” he whispered.

Karl moved back enough to stare into Aiden's eyes. They were shadowed with pain, and Karl tightened his grip without meaning to. “We made it,” he said, his voice as quiet as Aiden's had been. “It's over.”

Aiden just nodded, his hand rising to cup Karl's face. Warm hand. The day was sultry, but Karl didn't feel warm anywhere but that patch of skin under Aiden's hand. Heat was spreading from it, though, pushing through Karl's blood and bone, comforting him. Just one touch from Aiden, and all the tension, the worry, dissipated. He turned his head within the cradling grip and kissed Aiden's thumb. “We're not.”

It was enough of a question that Aiden answered it with a kiss, pulling Karl closer and sealing their lips together for a brief moment. “We haven't even started,” Aiden murmured against Karl's mouth. “And I don't give a fuck how much my arm and your leg hurt. Tonight we're sleeping in the same bed. We don't have to do more than sleep, but—”

Karl pulled away, reluctant to do so but mindful of Sophie. He turned the key in the ignition and grinned at Aiden, feeling a familiar exhilaration race through him, pushing aside the last of his jitters. They'd made it. All of them. Shit, yes. “Are you fucking kidding me? We survived a gunfight and a car chase, and you want to sleep tonight? If it weren't for Sophie, I'd be pointing this car at the nearest motel and you'd be naked and moaning thirty seconds after we checked in.”

Aiden's grin was wide and a little unsteady. “I have work to do,” he pointed out, though he didn't sound happy about it. “Reports—God, so many of them. Right now, though, all I really want is to be naked in the same bed with you. Let's try to get through the next couple of hours, and then we'll indulge ourselves, okay?”

They had to wait at the hospital before they could see Sophie—par for the course in Karl's experience, regardless of what country he'd been in, all hurry-up- and-wait—and the shoddy chairs in the waiting area, uncomfortable though they were, didn't do much to dampen his mood. Now that the shakes had passed, he felt fantastic. Even the pain in his leg registered as a good sensation, and he didn't care that tomorrow would be a different story.

“I hate these places,” Aiden said, coming back with two cups of coffee that Karl would have bet hundreds of dollars were vastly undrinkable. He handed one of them to Karl.

“At least we know she's okay,” Karl said. “Thanks.”

Aiden stared at him. “Who are you, and what did you do with Karl Blake?” he asked.

“You're allowed to feel good in the aftermath, you know.” Karl gave Aiden a stern look and hoped it wasn't coming across as too know-it-all. “It's one of things that makes the job worth it.”

“Well, I'm glad there's something that does.”

Within minutes, a nurse came to tell them that they could see Ms. Lewis, though only for a few minutes because she really needed her rest. Karl had heard it all before and knew that the hospital staff would be too busy to notice until they'd overstayed their welcome by a good hour at least—not that he intended to hang around here that long, not once he'd seen with his own eyes that Sophie was all right.

Sophie was sitting up in bed, her head bandaged, studying her reflection in a small mirror. Karl had seen her take that mirror out of her purse a hundred times or more to check that her hair was neat, her lipstick not smudged. Seeing her use it to look at her injuries made his mood darken again, but Aiden's hand brushed his back, grounding him.

“Will you look at me?” Sophie exclaimed. “I look dreadful.

Karl went straight to her and kissed her full on her pursed lips. “You look very dashing.”

Sophie patted his cheek and smiled up at him. “You're such a good liar, Karl.” She peered around him. “Do I get a kiss from you, young man?”

Aiden laughed aloud, the sound incongruous against the muted bustle of the hospital. “Sure. As many as you like.”

“One will do,” Sophie told him. She jerked her thumb at Karl. “Save the rest for him.”

“You're very chirpy,” Karl said suspiciously after moving aside so that Aiden could place a more circumspect peck on Sophie's cheek.

“Drugged,” Sophie said cheerfully. “Painkillers. I feel high as a kite.”

“Ah.” That actually made him feel better. She'd be back to normal when the drugs wore off.

“They're keeping me in for observation, but there's nothing really wrong with me,” Sophie said. “I'm bruised here and there, and I have this silly cut on my head. But really I'm absolutely fine.” She glanced between them. “Don't let me start gushing over you, or I'll embarrass myself. You know how grateful I am.”

“We know,” Karl said. He didn't brush away her thanks, though he was pretty sure Aiden, like him, didn't feel that they deserved it. “You're the one who did the hard work, though. You took him down.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” Sophie said. Her eyes filled with tears. Karl recognized that the drugs made her mood mercurial. Karl had been there, though he'd vacillated between morose and angry. He really didn't like being sick or injured. “That poor agent. Simes shot him without even hesitating, and he just...he crumpled. I didn't know it was like that. What you did. You and Simes and Johnny.”

“Don't think about it,” Aiden said gently. “Please.”

She sniffed, and Karl silently handed her a box of tissues from the bedside table, moving away with Aiden until she could regain her composure.

“I could go home now, you know,” Sophie said after a moment. “It's silly to use up a bed a sick person needs.”

“You'll be able to go home tomorrow, I'm sure,” Karl said. “And when I say home, I mean you're coming to stay with me for a few days.”

“Nonsense,” Sophie said. “Didn't you hear me say that I was fine?”

“Unless you want to get kidnapped twice in a week, you're coming home with me,” Karl retorted. No way was he letting her go back to her apartment until she was pain-free and he was certain that she'd recovered emotionally.

Sophie gave Aiden an exasperated look. “Is he this bossy with you?”

“Yes, ma'am,” Aiden said promptly.

“You know, that doesn't surprise me.” She sighed in a way that was probably at least partially feigned and waved her hand. “Fine, fine. Whatever you say. Now get this poor boy out of here so he can recover. And be gentle with him. Do you hear me, Mr. Blake?”

“I hear you,” Karl said. Which wasn't the same as making a promise or even agreeing with her.

A shadow fell across the doorway, and Karl tensed. It was only Diane, Aiden's boss, though. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “How are you, Ms. Lewis?”

“As I've just finished telling these two multiple times, I'm fine. Just a little bit banged up. How nice of you to check on me.”

“I wouldn't want you to think I wasn't very, very appreciative of what you did for us,” Diane said, coming into the room with the vase of flowers she was holding.

Sophie blinked. “I wouldn't want you to think,” she said slowly, “that I did it for you. I did it for Mr. Blake and to keep other people safe. And for my late son. Not for you.”

Diane looked flustered, and Karl felt almost sorry for her. Sophie was a formidable force. “Yes. Well. In any case, I'm grateful.”

Sophie inclined her bandaged head, looking—Karl was delighted to see— positively regal. “I trust that I'll be told the full details of the debacle that led to my kidnapping and the death of that poor man when your investigation is complete?”

Diane set the flowers down on the table at the end of Sophie's bed. “An investigation will certainly take place into Agent Miller's death, but I'm not sure—”

“You'll tell her,” Karl said coldly. “In fact, I think we'd all like to know exactly what happened.” He spared a moment's thought for Aiden—pissing off his boss probably wasn't in Aiden's best interests—but what had happened was too fresh and raw for him to care much about niceties like that.

Diane turned her head to look at him. “Off the record?”

“I'm not a reporter.”

She sighed and brushed her hand over her forehead as if she had a headache. She probably did, literally and metaphorically, after the way this had all gone down. “Okay, bottom line, the team around the training ground was spotted. Sun glinting off binoculars, movement in the bushes—we're not sure yet. They were spotted, one of Simes's men began firing when he saw our weapons, and before the situation could be brought under control, they called the team at the office and told them to move in.” She licked her lips, giving herself time to choose her next words, Karl guessed. “The agent in charge was concerned that Simes would be alerted by the men at the training ground and would flee before we could take him into custody.”

“And Sophie's safety didn't matter,” Karl said bitterly. She wasn't telling him anything that he didn't know, but hearing it spelled out like that left him so angry he wanted to take the tasteful arrangement of tulips she'd given to Sophie and hurl it at the equally tasteful abstract painting on the cream-colored wall.

“We hoped Simes's reaction wouldn't be so dramatic,” Diane said. “Of course we knew there was a chance of things going sour, because they always can. In the long run, though—”

“I quit,” Aiden interrupted, and the rest of them looked at him. “Sorry, but we all know what you were going to say, Diane. Explanations, excuses—it doesn't matter what you call them. They still boil down to a bunch of crap, and I don't know if I can be part of it anymore.”

“Aiden—” Karl reached out a hand toward the other man, but Aiden shook his head.

“No. I'm done. Maybe...maybe I just need a break. I don't know, but right now can I have a leave of absence or something?” Aiden asked beseechingly.

Diane was studying him closely. “You can put in an official request, and I'll support it. That's the closest thing to a promise I can make. You know it isn't uncommon for agents to need some time off after a difficult assignment, and you're entitled to at least a week for your injury. I think we can work something out.”

“Okay. Thanks. I guess I just need some time to figure out what I want to do next.” Aiden looked thoroughly miserable but determined, and Karl thought again that he wanted Aiden to change into a clean shirt so he didn't have to keep looking at him in the bloodstained one he had on.

“Come in tomorrow and I'll help you get the paperwork taken care of,” Diane said. She smiled at Sophie again. “Feel better, Ms. Lewis. I'll be in touch.” She left quickly, probably to avoid having any other curveballs thrown at her.

It had been a hell of a day.

Sophie leaned back against her pillow, looking suddenly tired. “You two boys ought to go on home now. I need some rest.”

“Why?” Karl said, teasing her gently even as he leaned down to kiss her again, this time on her forehead, warm against his lips. “You're fine, remember?”

She smiled, her eyes closing. She murmured something he didn't catch, but he didn't ask her to repeat. Sleep was the best thing for her.

They left the room practically on tiptoe, closing the door quietly behind them. Karl told the nurse on duty that Ms. Lewis was resting, and they left the hospital, emerging into the heat of a summer's day and heading for the car they'd borrowed.

“I'm starving,” Karl said, his stomach reminding him with a growl that excitement and tragedy were all very well, but missed meals were important too. “Can we put off returning this car until we get something to eat?”

“I feel like just leaving it here,” Aiden said, eying it with weary distaste. “It stinks of smoke, and there's blood all over the fucking place. We'd better take it back to the stakeout site, though. Some agent's missing it.” It occurred to Karl that the car might have belonged to the agent who'd been shot, though he didn't share that thought. “We need to pick up our stuff anyway and then...” He shook his head. “I don't know what comes after that.”

“We check into a fancy hotel room, assuming they let us past the door given that we're in the same condition as the car. We'll order room service, and we'll take a bath,” Karl said. “I don't want to go home in case Sophie needs us. I want to stay close to her.”

The next few hours were taken up by these errands, and when they'd finally checked into a hotel, Karl was weary, the adrenaline of earlier long faded. Aiden looked even worse than he had before, and he went immediately to the bed to lie down, without even bothering to kick off his shoes. “Wake me up tomorrow,” he mumbled into the pillow.

Karl frowned and took off Aiden's shoes for him. “Roll over. No, onto your back. I'm taking this shirt off you. I've looked at your blood enough for one day.”

His tone, or maybe just the words themselves, roused Aiden. He opened his eyes again and watched Karl carefully undo the strap on his sling and start to unbutton his shirt. “I can do that,” he said but made no move to.

“Yeah, so can I.” Karl had to remove the sling entirely to ease the stained shirt off Aiden's arm, but he did it as gently as he could, and Aiden didn't protest. It would have taken more self-control than Karl had right then not to run his hands over Aiden's skin once it was bare, and Aiden arched into his touch, obviously wanting the contact as much as Karl did. “Is it okay if I take the rest of your clothes off too?” Karl asked gruffly. Aiden nodded.

Stripping Aiden down turned out to be a mistake. Karl was tired and Aiden was hurt—but when Karl squatted to tug Aiden's pants and shorts over his feet, he was level with Aiden's cock, and he couldn't help catching his breath, hit by a sudden pang of yearning. It lay in a soft curve against the swell of Aiden's balls, framed by a fuzz of fair hair.

“I'm not planning to jump your bones; don't worry. I've just never seen you when you weren't hard,” Karl said when Aiden made an inquiring sound and peered down at him, propped up on one elbow.

“If you keep staring at me, it won't stay that way for long,” Aiden warned him. “I want to do more than look,” Karl said, “but we need to get cleaned up.” “Okay, okay.”

There was an oversize bathtub, and apparently plenty of hot water with which to fill it. It didn't take Karl long to get it half-full to allow for the level rising when they both got in. Then he dragged a slow but willing Aiden into the room and told him to get in.

“My bandage will get wet,” Aiden said. It wasn't a complaint so much as an observation, but Karl responded as if it had been the former.

“Yeah, so? I'll get you another one later if you need it. Come on.” Karl stepped in and sat behind Aiden, the heat of the water instantly reddening his skin and making his healing leg ache in a pleasant way. “Here, relax.” He pulled Aiden back against his chest and felt his body begin to respond to the close proximity.

“I think I have a bruise from the seat belt.” Aiden sounded sleepy. “Do you?”

“Don't think so.” Karl wasn't even sure he'd been wearing one. “I'm a little sore, but I've had a lot worse. How's the arm?”

“Hurts.” Shifting slightly, Aiden turned so he could look over his shoulder at Karl. “This was a good idea.”

“I have them from time to time,” Karl said, stroking Aiden's hair, already damp from the steamy air. “I figured we deserved some spoiling. I used to do this after a mission sometimes, if it was the kind where I'd spent weeks up to my ass in mud living off MREs and drinking sludge. Not the penthouse. Couldn't afford that, but a room that was a step up from the ordinary, you know? I'd spend the first night alone, doing just what we're doing now, soaking for an hour, stuffing my face with anything I wanted, watching TV, reading. Just enjoying the peace and being alone.”

“So how about the second night?” Aiden asked drowsily.

“I'd pick someone up in a bar, bring him back, fuck him hard,” Karl said, remembering not their faces but the sounds they'd made, the way they'd felt, asses tight and hot around his cock. “Then the next day I'd go back to work.”

Aiden squirmed the rest of the way around in Karl's arms and kissed him, mouth slick and wet. “So what's this?” he asked, voice soft and surprisingly arousing.

“This?”

“Is this the first night, or the second night? It can't be the first night, because you aren't alone, but...”

“It's both,” Karl said. “And neither. I'm not going back to work tomorrow, for one thing.” He touched Aiden's face, traced his cheekbones. It was bizarre and amazing how much he'd come to care about this man in just a few short weeks, and how impossible it was to imagine going back to life without him.

“You meant it. What you said before, in the car.”

Karl knew immediately what Aiden was referring to, though he didn't think he was ready to say it again. “Yes. I meant it.”

Aiden searched his eyes, then nodded. “Okay.”

“Just like that? Okay?”

“Mm-hm.” Aiden kissed him again, slower this time, opening his mouth to Karl's in a way that encouraged Karl to deepen the kiss. He lifted his knee and rubbed it against Karl's half-hard cock. “Want to pretend you picked me up in a bar?”

“Do I want to forget your face in the morning and never bother to ask your name? No.” Karl encouraged Aiden to slide up higher, and set his teeth into the flesh around Aiden's right nipple. He waited for Aiden's soft groan before biting down, sucking at the hardening nipple without holding back. Aiden writhed against him, panting harshly. The water sloshed from side to side.

Letting the taut nipple slip free, he glanced up at Aiden, who'd half closed his eyes, his lips parted. “Do I want to fuck you raw, make you beg and claw at my back and ass trying to get me in deeper? God, yes, but I can wait. I've never waited for anyone before; if they couldn't give me what I wanted when I wanted it, I moved on, but you... I've changed my rules for you, Aiden.” Deliberately, he kissed Aiden's bandaged shoulder. The hiss Aiden gave was part pain, part pleasure. “When that's healed, I'm going to bite it every fucking day. Put my own mark on you.”

“I want you to.” Aiden slid back down along Karl's body until their erections were rubbing against each other, the press of hard flesh delicious, maddening. “I'd let you do anything. Right now, I want—” He gasped as the head of Karl's dick caught and dragged over his balls, then whimpered and set his teeth where Karl's neck and shoulder met, bit down. “Take me to bed. I want you inside me.”

Karl groaned softly and grabbed on to Aiden's hips, torn between pulling him closer and pushing him away. “You're hurting. I don't want to make it worse.” The temptation to stay there in the hot, steaming water and bring Aiden off with just his hand was strong.

“You won't. You'll make it better.”

Karl shook his head. “The way we play? I'd probably put us both in hospital beds by the time we were through.” He ran his hand over Aiden's water-slick ass. “Let's try slow for a change.”

“Don't want slow,” Aiden muttered. “You don't want to? Fine. I'll take care of it myself.”

He dropped his hand to his dick, fondling it, his gaze challenging. Karl slapped his ass, the wet skin and the small room making the smack sound louder and more dramatic than it probably felt. Aiden jerked his head back and bit down on his lip, his hand stilling. “I want to,” Karl said evenly. “I just don't like fucking you when I've got to be careful. It's not easy with you. You tend to distract me, and I lose it.”

“Am I distracting you now?”

Karl looked him over. Damp, spiked-up hair, blue eyes glittering, the clear lines of his mouth just waiting to be bitten soft and smudged, and that solid, jutting erection, water-beaded and dark red. “Enough for me to be tempted,” he admitted, “but we're still taking it slow and doing it here. Easier to clean up, and today I want easy, okay?”

Aiden's fingers moved restlessly along the shaft of his cock. “My balls ache more than my shoulder, in case you care.” He sighed and kissed Karl. “Okay. You're in charge.”

They were words Karl liked hearing, maybe more than he would have wanted to admit. “Good boy,” he said and grinned at the way Aiden's eyes went dark. “Sit up here.” He patted the ledge between the tub and the tile wall, probably designed for holding things like shampoo and shower gel. But it would hold Aiden just as well, and Karl wanted to taste him, wanted that hard cock sliding between his lips and over his tongue.

Obeying—and oh, Karl liked that word too—Aiden sat up on the ledge, willingly spreading his thighs when Karl pushed them apart. He held his breath in anticipation as Karl moved in closer, blowing cooler air over the skin of his eager erection until it twitched and a bead of clear fluid formed at the reddened tip.

“How slow is slow?” Aiden sounded gratifyingly breathless. “Because I'm pretty sure blowjobs or handjobs require touching my dick with more than air.”

“I could get you off without touching it at all,” Karl said absently, tracing a whorl of fine, fair hair on Aiden's inner thigh with his thumb. Round and round...and under the light pressure of his thumb he could feel muscles tense. “My fingers up your ass, my mouth biting your nipple until it's stinging, hot, like the rest of you—or maybe I'd just talk dirty to you, see if you got off on that.” He glanced up at Aiden, sliding his hands back and forth on Aiden's thighs, forcing them wider. “Sluts don't need touching or blowing,” he said deliberately, holding Aiden's gaze, watching every tiny reaction. “They just spread and beg and take what they can get. Maybe we'll go out to the bedroom and I'll make you lie down, arms and legs wide, hiding nothing, and jerk off on you. I bet you'd come when my spunk hit you. I'd even aim at your dick. How about that? Would that count as touching?”

“Fuck you,” Aiden said. “I'm not a slut.”

“My slut,” Karl told him. “And I want it as much as you do, so maybe we both are.”

“What I want,” Aiden said, his voice low and forceful, “is to get off sometime today. If that's okay with you, of course.”

“Sarcasm, impatience...” Karl sighed, making sure his mouth was close enough to Aiden's dick for the slow exhalation to be felt. “Is that part of your training, Agent Russell?” God, he loved winding Aiden up, spicing their arousal with a little combativeness.

Aiden slid his hand around to the back of Karl's neck. He didn't tug Karl closer, which Karl would have resisted, but he squeezed and said raggedly, “Please, Karl. I need you to touch me. After I come, you can do whatever you want, okay? Please?” He sounded desperate, like he'd slipped into a space where he wasn't playing anymore.

That wasn't where Karl wanted to take him. He said, “I've got you, kid,” and leaned in to take Aiden's dick into his mouth, all the way down to the base. Aiden cried out and lifted his hips, fucking Karl's mouth in slow, shallow strokes.

“Shit,” Aiden muttered. “I'm gonna come. Karl—”

Karl pulled back, licked the head of Aiden's cock until Aiden shivered. “So come.” He started sucking Aiden again, the little sounds Aiden was making encouraging him to be as thorough as possible. He kept thinking Aiden would come any second, but after a good five minutes, it still hadn't happened and Karl's jaw was starting to get sore.

“I can't,” Aiden said. “God, I can't. Would you—I need you to fuck me, Karl.”

“If that's a critique of the way I suck cock, thanks for nothing,” Karl said as he took his mouth away from Aiden's cock, still standing strong and, if a cock could have an expression, looking desperate to come.

“It's not.” Aiden's voice was ragged around the edges. “I loved it, love everything you do to me. I just need more tonight. Shit—please, Karl.”

Given that they were in a bath full of water, telling Aiden that he wasn't into dry fucks might seem confusing, but it wasn't just lube that was needed. Karl sighed, not entirely displeased about the idea of fucking Aiden but really not wanting to leave the hot bath. “Turn around, ass up as high as you can without drowning. I'll be back in a minute.”

Aiden didn't say thank you, just nodded, chewing down on his lip again, and started to turn as soon as Karl had hauled himself out of the bath on wobbly legs.

A box of condoms with a small bottle of lube tucked inside it was buried at the bottom of Karl's pack. He got to it by simply turning the pack upside down and shaking the contents out onto the thick, soft carpet, now damp in spots since he hadn't bothered with anything as superfluous as a towel. He dried his hands on a T- shirt in need of washing and suited up. The lube was water based, which wasn't ideal, but he didn't plan to fuck Aiden under the water, and from the look of the kid, he'd come within a few strokes, anyway.

Walking back into the bathroom, he was greeted by the sight of Aiden's ass, pink from the hot water, thrust up wantonly, with Aiden leaning on the shallow ledge, his head hanging down, his breathing loud and fast. The bandage on his shoulder was soaked; it'd definitely need changing, but it didn't hold Karl's attention. The sway of Aiden's hips, the glimpse of his balls, tight and full, succeeded much better.

“Jesus, you look hot like that,” Karl said involuntarily.

“I do?” Aiden turned his head and looked at Karl, took in the sight of him with his cock condom-wrapped and ready.

“God, yes. If I didn't already want you more than I should, seeing you like that would make me.”

“More than you should?” Aiden sounded worried, and Karl hastened to step back into the tub and reassure him with more than just words.

“I'm not sure I should want anyone as much as I want you,” he said. It probably wasn't the best way to put it, but it was hard to focus on that when Aiden was in front of him like a feast, all bare skin and that sweet, hot ass. “I've never felt this way about anyone else for longer than the hour or two it took to get them into bed. This is different. God, it's so much better.” He was pressed up to Aiden from behind now, his erection seeking entrance, and he didn't have it in him to wait.

Aiden flexed his spine, the curve of it shifting as Karl slid slowly into him. “God. Yes.”

In some ways, this was Karl's favorite position—there was nothing like being able to watch his dick disappear into Aiden's body. The only way it could have been better was if he could have seen Aiden's face at the same time, even though he could make a pretty good guess at what it looked like, pleasure softening Aiden's features. Karl pulled back slowly, feeling every millimeter of sensation, nerves singing. He gripped on to Aiden's hips more tightly, and Aiden whimpered, trembling. “Okay?” He knew it was, but he wanted to hear it.

“Yes. Yes. Don't stop—I'm so close.” Aiden was so tight around Karl's dick that Karl was a little afraid of hurting him.

“You want me to touch you?”

“No. Yes. God, I don't know. I want—I need...”

Karl dug his fingers into hot, damp skin, his knees protesting the surface. A bath wasn't the most comfortable location for this kind of fucking, and even the huge tub didn't give him much room to work, but there was no denying that the feel of the water lapping up against him was an interesting sensation. He leaned over and bit Aiden's neck, then his earlobe, sharp, rough bites, dragging his teeth over Aiden's skin. He didn't want blood; he just wanted marks for him to see as he drove into Aiden's ass, and he wanted to help Aiden get to where he needed to go. A horse needed spurs and a whip when it was flagging. Karl didn't have either of those and wouldn't have used them if he did, but his teeth seemed to work just fine. His own arousal burned bright, though he wasn't as frantic to get off as Aiden was. Shit, maybe he was getting old, but right then, feeling Aiden come would be enough to satisfy him. He could almost taste Aiden's arousal coating his skin, musk and salt.

“I know what you need,” he said into Aiden's ear, his hips moving in short, strong thrusts, the words spilling from him. “Need me splitting your ass open, need me filling you so there's no room for anything but how fucking good it feels. God, you're so fucking tight, feel so fucking good—”

His next few thrusts drove a series of openmouthed cries from Aiden, each sound a little more high-pitched than the one preceding it, and then Aiden's body convulsed around Karl as he came. Karl slid his hand around to hold Aiden's cock, wanting to feel each pulse, wanting the fluid to slick his fingers. Aiden was tense, muscles taut as his ass clenched down in waves around Karl's dick.

It was hard to move, but Karl didn't need to. The hot, undulating grip of the channel he was sheathed in, the sounds Aiden were making, were enough to trip his own switch, and he came a few heartbeats after Aiden with a groan that tore out of him, rasping his throat. He kept his hand cupped around Aiden's dick, his palm wet with spunk, and eased out of Aiden's ass, taking care of the condom one-handed. He tossed it at the wastepaper bin by the toilet, not caring if it hit its target or not, and wrapped his arm around Aiden's waist, supporting him. Aiden was pretty much a dead weight, but Karl eased them both back so that they were lying in the water, or what was left of it. A few gallons seemed to have slopped over the side, hopefully to be soaked up by the towels and bathmat.

Aiden lay quietly within Karl's arms, his head resting on Karl's shoulder, his eyes closed. Karl closed his own, just for a moment, savoring the euphoria of a climax he'd been looking forward to for days. His leg ached, his stomach was growling, and he had the mother of all headaches pounding at his skull, but he couldn't help smiling. After a minute or two, he tapped the top of Aiden's head. “It's the wrong way around, but since you let me fuck you, how about I buy you dinner?”

Aiden chuckled and turned his head to kiss the nearest part of Karl, which turned out to be his upper arm. “Sounds good. I'm actually kind of hungry—I didn't think I would be. I keep thinking about all the places where things could have gone wrong.” His arm, draped around Karl's waist, tightened briefly. “I guess you're more used to this kind of thing than I am.”

“Or than you will be.” Karl couldn't deny that he liked the idea of Aiden leaving the FBI, more because he wanted Aiden safe than because he didn't like the thought of being with a federal agent. Hell, in some ways being partnered with Agent Russell would have been a form of protection. It was the worry about Aiden's physical well-being that made Karl want him out of it.

“Yeah.” Aiden sighed and, at Karl's gentle urging, got up and stepped out of the tub, reaching for a towel and handing another to Karl. “Jeez, we flooded the place. Careful—don't slip.”

Funny that, even though Karl found himself worrying about Aiden, he didn't like it when Aiden worried about him. “I won't,” he grumbled. “Should I remind you that you're the one who looks like he went ten rounds with a heavyweight?”

“I don't look that bad,” Aiden protested, looking at himself in the somewhat foggy mirror. “Well. Maybe a little.”

“You don't notice at the time,” Karl said, going to stand behind Aiden. He rested his hands on Aiden's shoulders, and met Aiden's eyes in the mirror. “You scramble over rocks, skid over sand or gravel, take a bullet even, and it's nothing, doesn't even register, because you're focused on staying alive or keeping someone else from dying. It's the closest I've ever come to feeling like that superhero I told you I wanted to be. Then you turn back into Clark Kent, and wham, every single cut and scrape starts to hurt and reminds you that you're human.” He peeled away the soaked dressing on Aiden's arm and tossed it into the sink, then kissed the edge of the torn, raw flesh. “Gotta tell you, kid, from where I was lying, you looked pretty heroic saving Sophie. Let me know how I can thank you for that.”

“I don't need to be thanked.” Aiden looked at him, still in the mirror instead of turning around when he easily could have. “I mostly did it for me. I didn't know if I could live with myself if you blamed me for something happening to her. Even if you never wanted to talk to me again.” He sounded uncertain, and his gaze went down—in that moment, he reminded Karl more of “Adam” than he had since he'd learned the truth.

“I don't know how I'd have reacted if anything had happened to her,” Karl admitted. “Badly, that's for sure, but you wouldn't have been the person at the top of my who-to-kill list. Simes would. Followed by your boss and whoever gave the order to rush the building.”

“You're joking, right?” Aiden sounded worried enough that Karl grinned.

“It wounds me that you have to ask.” His smile faded. “No, I wouldn't have killed any Feds, but if Sophie had died and Simes made it, he wouldn't have outlived her by long. He knew he was dead when he held a gun on her. He ran when there was nowhere to run to, because he knew what I'd do to him after that. I used to feel that way about a few people, but it's a shortlist of two right now. Anyone really hurts Sophie or you, and they die. Period.”

“Shit, Karl, you can't say that in front of a federal agent,” Aiden protested, his eyes wide.

“I'm not. I'm saying it in private to my...” Karl shrugged. “Boyfriend, partner, whatever the hell title you want, if fucktoy's not acceptable, and I'm guessing it isn't.”

“It really isn't,” Aiden said, a warning snap in his voice, “and neither is threatening to kill people.”

“Promising,” Karl corrected him. “And you're both fine, barring some bumps and bruises, so it doesn't matter, does it?”

“I guess not.” Aiden lifted his own hand to cover Karl's, which was still resting on Aidan's shoulder next to the ragged gash the bullet had left behind. “Boyfriend?” He was smiling slightly.

Karl rolled his eyes. “Not if you're going to be like that about it.”

“What, happy?” Aiden teased. “You supposed to want your boyfriend to be happy, you know.”

“I want you to be happy,” Karl muttered. “I just don't want you to be a smug little bastard about it.”

Aiden was ridiculously cheerful now. “Not a bastard, and I can prove it. In fact, I think I will. I think you should come home with me and meet my parents. They've got their problems—I told you about Dad's drinking—but they're family, you know?”

“You've got to be kidding me.”

“Nope. It'll be great.”

“Except for the part where I'm not Scott,” Karl pointed out and immediately regretted it when Aiden's face fell. “Shit, I didn't mean to say that.”

“No, it's okay, and yeah, I guess I need to talk to them before I do anything.” Aiden turned away and walked into the bedroom, a towel around his hips, and began to sort through his spare clothing. “I need to talk to them about a lot of things,” he added.

Like leaving a job he'd been in for years and starting a relationship with what most people would consider a killer for hire, though Karl had never thought of himself that way.

“I don't mind meeting them,” Karl said, aiming for tactful not truthful. “Eventually. I've just never—remember the part where all of this is new to me?”

Aiden glanced back at him, the suspicion of a gleam in his eye. “You mean I'd finally get to see you quaking in your boots, pale with fear?”

“I can guarantee it,” Karl said drily.

Aiden shimmied into jeans, which suited him better than his dark pants in Karl's opinion, and picked up a plain white T-shirt. Karl shook his head. “Hold up. Let me put a fresh dressing on that arm. You can look over the room service menu and decide what size steak you think you can tackle.”

“Big,” Aiden said. “No, huge, actually. It's okay—I don't care if I get blood on this shirt.”

“I do.” Karl pointed at the bed. “Sit.”

He always had a small first aid kit with him, and this didn't require more than a couple of gauze squares and some medical tape. He finished taping on the last piece as Aiden hung up the phone from ordering their food. “Twenty minutes.”

“Could have slaughtered the cow and cooked it ourselves in that amount of time,” Karl said, feeling irritable with hunger and the physical reminder of Aiden's injury. He pressed on a corner of tape that was already stuck down, then slid his hand into Aiden's hair and pulled his mouth closer for a kiss that was slow and tender, letting all his emotion for Aiden enter into it. It was exhilarating and a little scary, but he'd never been the type to shy away from something just because there was a little danger involved.

Or maybe he had and just hadn't realized it? He set that question aside to think about later, much, much later, and concentrated on the kiss, allowing Aiden's responses to guide him as one kiss became many. Had he ever kissed someone like this before—long, sweet kisses, tongues gliding lazily, lips slipping and meeting, their breathing regular? He didn't think so. Tired, hungry, his body still humming from his climax, he was kissing Aiden for the pure joy of tasting him, holding him close.

“You're addictive. You know that?” he murmured, moving his lips to Aiden's throat and giving it openmouthed kisses, still with no urgency firing him, just a desire to touch, taste. “I can't get enough of you. Being with you. All of it, not just the sex. What the hell did you do to me?”

“I have no idea. I'd ask you the same question, but I don't think you know the answer any more than I do.” Aiden sighed and ran his fingers through Karl's hair. “Not sure I care. Feels good.”

Karl wasn't sure if Aiden was talking about the attention to his neck and ear specifically or their being together in general. He dragged his lower lip along the outer edge of Aiden's ear, and Aiden shivered.

“You're giving me goose bumps.”

“Yeah.” Karl did it again. Damn, he liked making Aiden shiver, liked watching Aiden's skin prickle and knowing that all those nerves flaring to life with pleasure were waking up because of him. “How's the arm?”

“Arm?” Aiden sounded dazed. “What arm? I'm supposed to have an arm now?”

“You,” Karl told him, “are a hedonist.”

“Only with you,” Aiden said, and Karl thought that was about the best compliment he'd ever received.

Epilogue

“Don't be like that,” Sophie scolded Aiden, who had his hands in his pockets and what he was pretty sure was a sulky look on his face. “Karl, don't you let him get away with acting like a spoiled little boy.”

“I don't think he's too fond of good-byes,” Karl said.

That was an understatement, but Aiden shoved down what he was feeling and stepped in to kiss Sophie's cheek. “Take care of yourself, okay?” he said, and turned to walk to the pool.

“This isn't good-bye!” Sophie called after him. “I'll see you in a few weeks!”

Knowing that didn't make it a lot easier. Part of Aiden didn't like the thought that he wouldn't be able to keep an eye on Sophie, something that had become second nature during the time since she'd been released from the hospital. Now she was getting into the limo Karl had hired to drive her to the airport. Even though he and Karl were going to be joining her at her rented French villa in about a month's time, Aiden was feeling edgy and unsettled.

He paused in his wandering to pick two dandelions from the grass and sat in one of the chairs near the pool. He heard when the car drove away, and a minute or so later Karl's shadow fell over him. Aiden turned and smiled up at Karl, twisting the dandelion stems between his fingers. “Present for you.”

Karl grinned and took one from him, using it to trace along Aiden's jaw in a light, tickling caress. “You're such a romantic.”

“I know who the romantic in this relationship is, and it isn't me,” Aiden said. For a man who would quite happily take Aiden to the edge and push him over when it came to sex, Karl was always careful about making sure Aiden had something soft to land on. Maybe being protective wasn't the same as romantic, but it worked for both of them.

“And I know who'd better not plan on doing anything energetic tomorrow. Now that we're alone, I can fuck you without caring how much noise you make, and I'm gonna make you scream, kid,” Karl said with a deeply satisfied sigh. “Loud and long.”

“Sounds like fun,” Aiden said. “Except for the part about me screaming. I don't scream.”

“You will,” Karl said easily. “I won't stop hammering into your ass until you do.”

“I take it back about you being the romantic one,” Aiden said. Jesus, he was hard already, his body taking Karl's words and translating them into specifics. With Sophie in the house, they'd both felt mildly inhibited, though it hadn't stopped them from making love entirely. Karl had made up for that lack by talking dirty to Aiden every chance he got, winding the two of them up so much that one night Aiden had blown Karl in the kitchen when Sophie was taking a shower, his hand busy dealing with his own hard-on, and the hell with the mess. He'd discovered that jerking off just didn't cut it these days. He eyed Karl speculatively. “How much of what you said you'd do to me are you going to go through with?”

Karl dragged the chair beside Aiden's closer and sat, his bare legs tanned and long in the loose khaki shorts he was wearing. He ran the dandelion over the back of his hand and then sniffed it before setting it down on the table between them. “I don't know. As much of it as you want? There wasn't anything there that I'm not prepared to do, if that's what you mean.”

“I want to be comfortable,” Aiden said. His arm was well healed, not even bothering him anymore, and all his bruises had faded. Right then, he didn't want anything else as much as he wanted Karl to fuck him. “And I don't want to sunburn my ass. Or any part of me, actually.”

“What if I want to redden your ass some other way?” Karl grinned, and Aiden grinned back.

“You'd have to catch me first,” he said—and bolted.

He felt the ghost of Karl's fingers trying to catch enough of his torn jean shorts to stop him, but he was too quick for Karl. The fact that he was laughing like a crazy person as he ran did slow him down, and Karl, even with his injured leg, caught him at the door and pinned him to it with the solid bulk of his weight.

“Shit,” Aiden said, still laughing. “When did you get so fast, old man?”

“Right around the same time you turned into such a brat.” Karl tickled him mercilessly.

“Aah! Stop!” Aiden wheezed and flailed, all training he'd ever had gone in the face of Karl's determined fingers. “Uncle! I surrender!”

“Music to my ears,” Karl said. “Upstairs. Get naked.”

It was an order Aiden found difficult to obey since Karl coupled it with a kiss, leaning into Aiden and rubbing up against him like a big cat, practically purring when Aiden grabbed his ass to bring their bodies even closer. “Or I could blow you right here against the door,” Karl murmured before licking the side of Aiden's neck. “Give the neighbors a reason to celebrate when I sell this place and they get a nice normal family moving in.”

“This door isn't overlooked,” Aiden pointed out. “Do whatever the hell you want to me.”

Karl moaned. “Jesus, kid, you say stuff like that and I get imaginative on the spot. No. Upstairs. I want to spread you out and play with you. See what you can take before you do that surrendering thing again.”

Aiden didn't know whether to pout or smile—he settled for doing as he'd been told, though the trip through the cool house and up the wide staircase that led to the second floor had never seemed so long. He could practically feel Karl's gaze on him, studying his ass, maybe even picturing it bare.

“Okay,” Karl said as soon as they were in the bedroom. “Naked. Bed.”

“What does it look like I'm doing?” Aiden's T-shirt hit the floor, followed in quick succession by his shorts and briefs. He threw himself down onto the bed, luxuriating in the fact that the house was empty and the comforter was top of the line. “Here you go. All yours.”

Karl, who had taken off his own shirt but was still wearing his shorts—and God, it was almost unfair that he was built the way he was, hardly an ounce of fat on him, muscles beautiful beneath his tanned skin—stepped closer to the bed and stood looking down at Aiden. “Yeah,” he said, his voice gruff. “All mine.”

“How does that feel?” Aiden asked after Karl had shucked out of the last of his clothes and straddled him, Karl's hands planted on either side of his head. “Knowing that there's nothing I wouldn't let you do to me?”

It wasn't strictly true, of course. There was a lot Aiden would say no to, but he could feel safe saying it, turning himself on with the words, because what Karl liked—and didn't like—matched his own preferences, as far as he could tell. He almost wanted to push at their limits, though, just to see...

Karl shuddered, his gray eyes opaque, half-closed. “God. Like nothing on earth.” He picked up Aiden's hand and brought it to his cock, rigid and hot. “See? You haven't even touched me, and I'm hard for you.” He shifted his grip so his hand circled Aiden's wrist and slowly forced Aiden's hand up and back, pinning it to the bed. Aiden resisted, just to feel Karl bring his strength to bear, just to feel conquered, and felt his other wrist grabbed and slammed into place before he could fight back. Arousal, lust, a dizzying, heady anticipation combined to make his body pliant, eager.

“Got you,” Karl said, his thumbs caressing the pulse points at Aiden's wrist. “Struggle. Try to get free. I want to see your face when you accept that you can't.”

He was strong, but Karl was stronger and outweighed him, plus had gravity on his side—no matter how Aiden struggled, he couldn't free himself. With Karl holding him down seemingly effortlessly, Aiden shifted his weight, squirmed, wrists burning from the friction Karl's grip produced when he tried to get away. He knew that Karl wanted that moment of surrender, and that made him stubborn—it made him want to fight it. Eventually, though, he wore himself out and let himself go limp, panting, staring up at Karl almost defiantly. “Fine. You win.”

“Lucky me.” Karl leaned down to kiss him, and Aiden resisted it for a few seconds before giving in there too. “Such a nice prize.”

“You already had me.” Aiden was hard as hell, his erection half-trapped under Karl's thigh.

“I know. I just like it better this way.” Karl nipped at Aiden's earlobe, catching the tender flesh there and making it hot, making it sting. “So do you.”

He released Aiden's wrists abruptly and knelt up, giving himself enough space to roll Aiden to his stomach. Aiden let himself be manhandled, more interested now in what Karl had planned than fighting him. He arched up his ass and reached beneath himself to adjust his erection so that it wasn't bent at a painful angle. Then he got his hand visible again quickly before Karl decided that counted as playing with something Karl tended to get possessive about once they were actually fucking.

Karl's hand closed around the back of his neck, squeezing it, and Aiden felt his breath catch. God, that got him every time, and Karl knew it. He shivered, his ass rising up imploringly, involuntarily, the few inches it was able, at least. Karl chuckled and smoothed his free hand over it, his weight resting against Aiden's thighs. “Only just started, kid.”

This was the part that was hardest for Aiden—the waiting. He'd come to realize that he wasn't all that patient a person, and when he wanted something— especially when he wanted sexual gratification—he wanted it now. Karl, on the other hand, was a lot more willing to take his time, to smile as Aiden whimpered and begged and did everything possible to drive Karl to the point where his control would waver and then snap. “God, I want you,” he tried.

“Yeah, I can tell.” Karl's weight shifted, and a second later there was the sharp, unexpected pain of Karl's teeth biting down on Aiden's right ass cheek.

“Fuck!” The bite stung briefly before the pain faded, but then it was followed by another bite. This time, Aiden managed not to swear, setting his jaw.

Karl slapped Aiden's ass. “We're alone, remember? And I like to hear you.”

He'd almost forgotten that Karl liked when he was loud. They'd been trying to keep as quiet as possible while Sophie was staying at the house. “I'll bet I'd be really loud if you'd fuck me.”

“You're so impatient.” Karl sounded amused and shifted his weight again, opening the drawer beside the bed. Aiden hoped he was getting a condom, though it didn't seem likely they'd be using it soon enough to suit Aiden.

He heard the familiar click of a lube bottle being opened, then felt Karl's cool, slick fingers at his opening. Aiden moaned and made himself relax as he was slowly stretched by what was probably two fingers that first teased at the sensitive skin before pressing deep inside. God, it felt good, and it felt even better when Karl added a third finger. Not good enough to make him come, but enough so that he lifted his face when he groaned even more loudly.

“I want to do more than three fingers some time,” Karl said, as casually as if he were asking Aiden what toppings he wanted on a pizza. “My hand. Is that something you'd like?”

The thought of it, Karl's hand, God, his fist, inside him, made Aiden skin prickle with sweat, heat washing over him. “I don't know,” he managed to say over the roar of blood in his ears. “Maybe. Yes. God, I've never—”

“I haven't either,” Karl said. “Never been with anyone who'd want to go there, and I don't know that it's something I'd want to do a lot, but...yeah.” Aiden felt Karl's mouth brush over his back, a reassurance more than a kiss. “Not today, though. I'm not rushing into it.”

“Okay,” Aiden said. “More patience. Okay.”

“Got to get you ready,” Karl said with a matter-of-fact tone that was sexier than a husky drawl. “I'm big, but still...”

“Modest too,” Aiden said. God, Karl was pulling his fingers out, a slow withdrawal that was only bearable because it meant, surely, that he was about to get fucked by what was, he had to agree, an impressively sized cock. Average for a porn star maybe, but bigger than any Aiden had taken, though his experience wasn't that wide.

“I'm guessing if they modeled this on someone, he isn't modest,” Karl remarked and laid a dildo beside Aiden's head that made him blink in shock before he pictured it in him and whimpered eagerly.

“Are you—” Aiden didn't need to finish asking the question, because he could feel the solid heft of the dildo—which was bigger than Karl's cock, much bigger— pushing into him. The stretch of it went from good to painful in no time at all. Aiden tried to breathe slowly through his nose, tried to relax instead of tensing up, but it was impossible.

Karl's other hand stroked over Aiden's lower back. “Hey, easy. Breathe. Relax.”

“Easy...for you to say,” Aiden panted, each exhalation sounding like a whine. “Don't stop.” It hurt and he wanted it.

But the dildo had stopped moving, and Karl said, “If you want me to keep going, then relax.”

“I'm trying.” The fake cock felt so huge inside him he couldn't imagine being able to relax enough for it to make any difference. “Just do it!” Maybe after it was in, his body would adjust.

“No,” Karl said. “We're doing this my way, not yours. Take a couple of deep breaths or something.”

Aiden inhaled slowly, filling his lungs, but that seemed to make his ass tighten even more around the dildo. He whimpered as the burning increased and worried at the same time that Karl would stop, would take the dildo out entirely and call it quits. “Don't...don't stop, please.” There were tears in his eyes.

“I won't stop. Ever,” Karl said. “Not if you want it. Not when you need it. Only if it's too much. Is it?”

Aiden shook his head and felt Karl's voice touched him as deeply as he wanted that damned dildo to go. He felt his body yield to the force of his need, and Karl pushed it deeper, working it with a gentle, inexorable kindness that made his tears flow sweet and easy.

“Come for me,” Karl whispered, lying beside Aiden, his hand still on the dildo. Oh God, so huge, so perfect, touching Aiden everywhere. No, not the dildo: Karl. His hand was guiding it, moving it in slow, short thrusts that felt impossibly good, his voice coaxing, commanding Aiden's body to take what was there, so close, so necessary, his empty hand brushing the tears from Aiden's face as they fell.

“Love you,” Aiden said in a whisper that felt like a scream as his body shattered. “Karl...”

It was so powerful that he lost everything except Karl in the moments that followed. He floated, drifting, dimly aware of his heart pounding in his chest, his lungs heaving for air—but those were the physical things, and they didn't matter.

“There you go,” Karl said softly. “Easy now.” He withdrew the dildo carefully, but it still hurt and Aiden whimpered. “There. Okay?”

“Okay.” It was a struggle to get that one word out.

“Good. Shh, easy.” Karl's hand moved over Aiden's skin, wiping him clean with something soft that might have been a washcloth or a tissue. “God, you have no idea what that looked like, do you?”

“Need a mirror,” Aiden said, though he didn't mean it. He didn't need to know what he looked like. With an effort, he rolled toward Karl and kissed him, and felt Karl's cock hard against his hip. “Fuck me if you want to. Or you can come in my mouth?” He felt overpoweringly grateful for the state he'd reached. “What do you want to do?”

“Nothing involving your ass,” Karl said, palming it lightly. “Believe me, you'll regret it if I do.” He kissed Aiden, his tongue sliding inside Aiden's mouth, the touch and taste of it familiar now. “Just relax. There's no rush. You're not going anywhere, are you?”

It wasn't entirely a rhetorical question. Aiden, still floating, euphoric, knew that. His future was as open as the rest of the day, full of possibilities. He had some ideas, but beyond the certainty that he was through being an agent, he hadn't settled on anything. He didn't need to, not right then.

Everything would work itself out in the long run, as long as he and Karl were together. As far as he was concerned, that was all that mattered.

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~