~Trust is given freely once.
~Power is for the popular. Gifts are for the principled.
The bomb detonated while Grier was still two blocks away.
The shockwave propelled him backward into a brick wall, and
his skull cracked against the masonry. Whipping his arms up to cover his face,
he hissed as a wave of heated air rushed past, leaving a thick cloud of dust
and debris in its wake.
As the rumbling faded and the screaming began, Grier pounded
his fist against the wall. "No!" Ten minutes, even five, would've
made the difference. Just that small amount and he could've reached the bomb to
disarm it. Instead he was huddled in an alley several blocks away while the
blaze licked the sky, coloring the lingering dust clouds red and orange. "God
damn you!" He slid down the bricks, hands pressed to his eyes. "I
won't forgive you for this," he whispered.
People stumbled onto the sidewalk, stepping over broken
glass and choking on the smell of death, too shocked to do anything but stare
or weep. Soon mournful sirens joined the chorus.
One sound stood out. Grier lifted his head, squinting
through the polluted air. A child stood at the alley's entrance. A girl. She
was weeping, clutching her small arms to her chest while she turned in a
circle. "Mommy! Mommy!"
Grier swiped a hand over his mouth, then pushed to his feet.
His sudden appearance frightened her. She cried harder, biting down on one
filthy, tear-stained fist. Grier stole into her mind, calming her fears.
"It's all right. Come here," he said, adding a subliminal suggestion
to the order.
The girl came. He hefted her into his arms and stepped back
into the shadows. "Don't be afraid," he crooned, smoothing her hair.
Pliant, she spooned against him, tiny hands clamped around the lapels of his
coat. Still, she trembled. "Mommy?"
"We’ll find her," he said, again reaching into her
thoughts, convincing her it was true.
He had no idea if it was. Was her mother a victim? Had
Grier's failure killed her as well?
A voice sounded in his head. Report. The girl rubbed
her face against his shirt, oblivious, but Grier snarled. He held her closer. Report,
the voice demanded again. A split second later, Grier's heightened senses
crackled, and he flattened himself against the building. Four men passed the
alley, their steps unhurried and purposeful, identical double-breasted trench
coats swishing against their suit slacks. As they walked by, Grier brushed over
their minds with a feather's touch. He recoiled. All four were agents, searching
The girl keened. "Shhh," Grier whispered, rocking
her as he watched the last man in line pause at the alley's entrance. Grier
tensed, but a moment later, the man moved on. Grier released the breath he'd
been holding. The chaos was too thick, the emotions in the crowd too high. They
couldn't sense him.
Report, the voice demanded again. His Monitor was
losing patience, but Grier's threshold for deception had been destroyed as thoroughly
as the bombed conference center. He set his jaw and severed the mental
connection, warding his mind against further intrusion. Somewhere not too far
away, his Monitor was writhing in agony from the terminated bond.
Grier didn't relish causing the man pain, though his remorse
wasn't as potent as it should have been. The taste of betrayal was too sharp,
the air thick with the smell of blood. The child in his arms might now be an
He pushed the hair off his face, grimacing when his hand
came away caked with dust. He did the same for the girl, exposing her lax
features. "Christine," he said, plucking the name from her head.
"We're going to find your mother now."
Dazed, eyes faraway, she nodded. Ignoring his burning lungs
and churning stomach, Grier pushed off the wall and, after a thorough sweep of
the street, mingled with the confused and terrified crowd.
He'd gone no more than a dozen steps when he heard the
Across the street, a woman ran back and forth, hobbling on
one high-heeled shoe. Her ripped blouse hung off her shoulder, exposing the
white, lacy bra beneath. Tears carved jagged tracks on her soot-stained cheeks.
"Christine!" she called again, sobbing.
Christine lifted her head from his shoulder.
Grier pushed through the crowd. The woman looked up when he
stopped in front of her. "I have her," he said. "I have
Christine." He let the woman scoop her out of his arms, then coaxed her to
sit on the curb.
"Jacqueline," he said, touching her mind.
The woman's face relaxed. Obedient, she answered,
"Stay here. Someone will help you." He slipped off
his coat and draped it over her shoulders, tucking it around Christine's small
body. "You're both going to be fine."
"Okay," Jacqueline said. She hugged Christine to
After one last look, Grier walked away. Each step added to
his rage and bitterness. He was finished leasing his talents and soul to the
Organization. Escaping would be the most difficult mission he'd ever attempted,
but he had motivation in abundance. There'd be no retirement party. No engraved
gold watch. They'd hunt him like an animal. But he'd never expected to live
past thirty-five, his job being what it was, so that milestone, passed three
years ago, was something to be proud of.
A very small, twisted something, in wake of this failure.
His defection would likely end in his death. But he would use
every resource, every gift, at his disposal to ensure that he lived through
today. Then he would focus on tomorrow. And if surviving one day at a time
guaranteed his freedom, then so be it.
Aleck Devlin swung his car into the last available parking space
on the street and turned off the engine. For a minute, he didn't move, just
listened to the quiet nighttime sounds of the neighborhood. His was a city
address, but the area was wealthy and secluded enough to ensure some privacy
and security. People kept to themselves, which was perfect for Aleck. They didn't
ask questions – another perk. And because of all that, he'd been able to keep
this apartment for over a year now, an unprecedented amount of time for someone
The name on the mailbox was Jeremy Long. Aleck bypassed it
without looking inside. Even his junk mail was infrequent enough that emptying it
once a month was sufficient. He was exhausted and sore and looking forward to
some peace and rest. This mission had taxed him. His vision blurred as he
fumbled with his keys, and he tried not to notice how his hand shook as he slid
the key home.
Before crossing the threshold, he extended his senses,
scanning the flat for anything unusual or out of place. The gesture was perfunctory;
the stale smell was enough to convince him no one had been inside since he'd
left two weeks ago. Still, he couldn't afford to let his guard down – ever – so
he completed the sweep, searching for any sign of life in the four connected
There was nothing. Aleck sighed and ran a hand through his
messy hair. Turning back to the door, he engaged the lock, which was state of
the art, even for the rich part of town, and strode for the bathroom, not bothering
with the lights. Keen night vision helped him navigate the apartment without so
much as a stubbed toe. He stripped with economical movements, then reached
across the large porcelain tub to open the faucets. A glance in the mirror
revealed sunken, pale cheeks, dull blue eyes, and rumpled chestnut brown hair. Not
a healthy looking reflection. Aleck grimaced. More like a prisoner of war.
Gushing water slicked his hair flat as Aleck stepped under
the spray. He tipped his head back, letting it saturate his scalp before
dipping forward and allowing the heat to soothe the bunched muscles in his
shoulders. The rushing water lulled him into a light meditation. Soon, even the
low-watt bulb became an annoyance, so he used his mind to extinguish it.
The mission had been long. Very long. Two agonizing weeks
with a novice Monitor. Several times, Aleck had been tempted to demand her
removal. Carrying another person in his head for so long drained his strength.
Aleck didn't begrudge the constant monitoring. His job was
fulfilling. He helped those in need. In his ten years with the Organization, he'd
traveled to every corner of the globe. He used his gifts and other abilities
without fear of retribution or ridicule.
In that respect, he was luckier than most. So he let the monitoring
The cooling water roused him from his meditation, and he
twisted the taps closed. Striding naked into the bedroom, he donned a pair of
lightweight sweat pants, but as he pulled a t-shirt over his head, his cell
phone rang. Bad sign. Already pining for the lost sleep, he flipped it open,
remaining quiet until he was prompted.
"Mr. Long?" a voice asked.
"Speaking," Aleck answered, cursing his hoarse
"The safe house at Wallaby and Fifth. One hour." Aleck
pressed his lips together as he listened to the static-peppered connection fall
silent. Fantastic. One fucking hour.
He slammed the phone shut and threw it onto the dresser.
Bare-footed, he padded into the main room where he'd left his duffel and
exchanged the sweat pants for a pair of jeans. They weren't clean, but they'd
have to do. He buttoned them as he walked the few steps to the kitchen and helped
himself to two potent painkillers. Stifling the migraine before it had a chance
to develop was the wisest course.
He was in no shape for immediate reassignment. In a rare fit
of insubordination, he decided that if they insisted on another Monitor right
away, he'd refuse. The last kid they'd put in his head had rattled around like
a ping-pong ball until Aleck had gone nearly insane.
He needed a break. For once, the Organization was going to
have to take no for an answer.
The safe house wasn't close, but taking the car could
compromise security. He jogged the two miles across town. The night was cool and
the run invigorated him. It had rained earlier and everything shimmered in the
glow of the streetlights. The reflective puddles brought old memories rising to
the surface, like dead, bloated bodies.
Aleck's pace faltered. Reminiscing about his childhood never
ended well. He tried wrestling the memories back to their cages, but they washed
forward, seeping through his defenses like the rivulets rushing through the
storm drains at his feet.
A car raced by, showering his ankles with a curtain of dirty
water, and unbidden, a memory swallowed him.
"Come on, Dixon. Don't be scared. That's it. See? There's
nothing to be afraid of. The water won't hurt you."
At eight going on nine, Aleck knew his family didn't love
him. His grandparents doted on his cousin, Dixon, but Aleck was a burden, one
thrust on them late in life from a daughter they'd forgotten long ago. Dixon
was their pride and joy, the golden child of their golden child. Aleck quelled
a surge of jealousy as he watched his grandfather coax his cousin into the
"But I can't see the bottom of it, Pap! How do I
know what's in there?" Dixon resisted when his grandfather tried to ease
him off the dock and into the water.
"There's nothing in the water that's going to hurt
you. Trust me." As Aleck watched, Dixon scrambled to his feet, out of his grandfather's
reach, and up onto the shore. "Dixon!" his grandfather yelled as the
skinny boy ran for the lake house. "Get back here! I won't let anything
happen to you! I promise!"
He cursed as Dixon disappeared through the door. Aleck opened
his mouth, then shut it again. His grandfather paid him no mind, just muttered
to himself and floated in the water next to the dock.
Aleck gathered the tatters of his innate bravery. "I'd
like to learn, Pap."
For a moment he thought his plea had gone unheard. Then
his grandfather stopped floating and stood up. The water, Aleck noticed, was
deep enough to lap at his beefy shoulders. "Would you, now?"
"Well, then. Come on over here, and I'll teach you. Just
because Dixon won't take advantage of the opportunity doesn't mean you should
be left out." He slapped the water with his hand and jerked his head,
urging Aleck onto the dock. Aleck couldn't believe his luck.
Grinning, he scampered from the grass onto the weathered
wood and rushed to where his grandfather was standing. He sat on the edge of
the dock and lowered his feet into the lake. The cool water felt wonderful between
his toes. When he glanced up, his grandfather was staring at him. "Are you
Aleck nodded and grinned even wider. His grandfather
stared for another moment before reaching up and gripping Aleck under the arms.
Aleck reached out and placed his hands on his grandfather's shoulders, bracing
himself. "Don't worry. There's nothing to be scared of," his
Aleck nodded, swallowing a nervous lump in his throat.
His grandfather's eyes narrowed. "I said don't be
scared. Trust me, Aleck."
Aleck relaxed his grip. Then, with no warning, his
grandfather ripped him from the dock, hoisted him into the air, and threw him
far out into the water.
Panic didn't register until the water closed over his
head. He held his breath, but his arms and legs felt leaden and unresponsive.
When he bobbed to the surface a moment later, he saw his grandfather watching
from a few feet away. Aleck screamed and reached for him. The last thing he heard
before slipping beneath the surface was laughter.
Aleck clenched his teeth and forced the memory away. Fatigue
was getting the better of him – tearing down his walls. He quickened his steps.
The faster he got the meeting over with, the sooner he could sleep.
There was little activity on the street; the safe house was
nestled in the middle of a residential district. As soon as he turned the
corner, he sensed the others. Five people were watching him: two on the street
and three from surrounding buildings. The extra surveillance was troubling, but
he was too well-trained to be nervous.
The house at Wallaby and Fifth was an unassuming brownstone,
exactly like a dozen others on the street, though its residents were anything
but pedestrian. There was no bell or knocker. Alex was expected, as always, to
let himself in. A subtle mental shove disengaged the lock, and he stepped into
the elegant foyer.
Graviel Mikrata, head of the Organization and mentor to the
young man standing in the entryway, smiled. To an outsider, Aleck would have
appeared relaxed, bored even, but Graviel knew better. He could feel the coiled
tension radiating from him.
"Greetings," he called from the balcony and Aleck
tilted his face up and smiled.
"I could feel you Graviel, although it was a very faint
vibration. You're getting very good at that."
Graviel nodded as he moved around the landing and descended
the stairs. "I have you to thank for such a nifty trick. I've worked many
years to discover a viable way to conceal my presence from the Gifted. I would
have never considered your approach. How did you ever discover it?"
Aleck's smile faded. "Necessity."
Graviel frowned and tugged on his beard as he approached. "I
didn't mean to dredge up old memories."
"It's all right. The past is just haunting me tonight."
Aleck inclined his head, acknowledging the apology, and
followed Graviel into a small parlor to the right of the foyer. Matching
armchairs sat side by side in front of a marble mantle. As they settled
themselves in front of the fire, Aleck sighed.
"How are you feeling?" Graviel asked, not immune
to Aleck's fatigue.
"Tired," Aleck replied with a terse smile. "I
was looking forward to some unmonitored rest."
Graviel nodded, and with a subtle gesture toward the
sideboard, levitated two coffee cups to the small table between their chairs. Aleck
rested his chin in one hand, using the fingers to massage his temple. "Show-off,"
"Your gifts far surpass mine in many areas. Far more
important areas, I might add. Don't be too impressed with my parlor tricks."
The two men shared a companionable laugh and for several minutes did nothing
but enjoy the coffee in silence.
Surreptitiously, Graviel watched Aleck. It was difficult to
believe that the confident young man sitting next to him was the same shy,
repressed boy he'd recruited at the age of sixteen. He stifled a sigh. He
shared Aleck's exhaustion. Unlike his young friend, he wouldn't be finding
relief in slumber. His weariness ran deeper. "Trust is given freely once,"
"And then it must be earned," Aleck finished for
Graviel dredged up a wan smile.
"I still remember that, you know," Aleck said. "The
first time we met." His eyes lost their focus. "I thought you were
lying to me. You said you'd earn my trust."
Graviel's stomach turned over. "And have I?" he
"You have. But it took a while."
"As all things of good quality do." Another
silence fell between them.
After a few minutes, Graviel spoke. "I understand there
were some problems with the Monitors during this assignment."
Aleck snorted into his coffee and crossed one leg over the
other. "You might say that."
"I apologize. We will work to prevent any such
unpleasantness in the future."
Frowning, Aleck set his cup down, then bent forward to
cradle his head in his hands. Graviel set a soothing hand on his back. "Headache?"
"I've taken something," Aleck's muffled voice
answered. He straightened, dislodging the hand, and Graviel drew back without a
word, knowing Aleck could be uncomfortable with any act of kindness or comfort,
even from a friend.
Aleck's shoulders were stiff. The boy had something on his
mind, and it was best he aired it before Graviel dropped even more
unpleasantness into his lap. He waited, sipping his coffee, knowing Aleck would
speak up when he was ready.
He didn't have to wait long.
"Why the Monitors at all, Graviel? I'm hardly one of
your borderline Gifteds. I have perfect control over my abilities. Why do you
continue to insist I use one?"
Ah, the Monitors.
Not every Gifted was suited for Aleck's job. Many had little
more than an increased awareness. But some had the ability to form a bond with
another person, allowing them to maintain contact over large distances. Dubbed 'Monitors'
in the Organization's early days, they were every agent's lifeline. And the
eyes and ears of the Directorate.
Graviel frowned. Valid as Aleck's point was, he lacked an understanding
of the Organization's scope. No agent operated without a Monitor, even the most
gifted of them all, and very few operatives could boast Aleck's power or abilities.
Only one really even came close.
Which brought him full circle to the matter, or rather person,
at hand. But first, Aleck's question deserved an answer.
It would have to be a dishonest one.
"No agent operates without a Monitor. This is for your
own safety, nothing else. How would we reach you if you were in danger, needed
help, and couldn't contact us through the usual channels?"
"Most of the rest of the world makes due," Aleck
said through clenched teeth.
"You aren't like the rest. You are special." Graviel
punctuated his last words by poking his thigh with a long, gnarled finger.
Aleck shook his head, but didn't answer. Graviel nodded. Subject
Complaining wasn't one of Aleck's faults. He was a model
agent and an amenable Gifted. Most were difficult to work with, forever second
guessing their orders and too arrogant for their own good. Sometimes even
"Aleck, I'm afraid we have a situation."
Aleck pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. "And
that would be?"
"One of our operatives has disappeared. A Gifted. His
name is Grier Crist."
Aleck sagged in his seat. He squinted at Graviel while
rubbing circles on his temples again. "Can't you track him through his
Monitor?" he asked with a wry smile. Graviel ignored his sarcasm.
"No. He broke the connection with his Monitor before he
Aleck shot up in his seat. "No. The termination must
have been forced."
"I'm afraid there was no coercion whatsoever. He did it
knowing the consequences." Graviel stroked his beard while he stared into
the fire. "It was a most horrible death for his Monitor. I feel
responsible," he finished in a low voice.
Aleck rose to his mentor's defense. "It wasn't your
fault." He leaned forward and placed his hand on Graviel's knee. "Please
don't blame yourself."
Surprise flickered through Graviel. Aleck was not one for
casual touch of any kind. Clearly, he didn't like the thought of Graviel
assuming responsibility for what had happened. Burying his guilt for taking
advantage of the boy's genuine concern, Graviel said, "I'm afraid I must
accept some level of culpability for this situation. The clues were right in front
of me. I just failed to notice them for what they were, blinded as I was by my
affection for this particular man."
"Do you believe he's turned rogue?" Aleck asked. "That
he'll somehow expose us?"
"Yes, that is exactly my concern, and the primary
concern of the Directorate."
Aleck blanched and fell silent.
Graviel shared his disquiet. The world at large was not the
problem. The public these days showed no more interest in another purported
secret government agency than they did in anything else. Rather, it was the
world's governments, and the pressure they could bring to bear on the
Directorate, that worried him. Should knowledge of the Organization become
public, Aleck would be snatched up like a lab rat, as would all Gifteds.
And that wasn't the only worry. If Grier deduced what was
really going on…
Graviel grew sick at the thought. He couldn't allow the Organization
to fall. Not now. Not with so much at stake.
"I won't let that happen," Aleck stated, echoing
Graviel's sentiment if not his reasoning. "What do we know about Crist?"
"Nothing. Only his last location."
"It'll be enough."
Banking on obscurity, Grier chose to hide in Manhattan. His Sutton Place residence consisted of four interconnected rooms, but dripped
opulence and came with the kind of original architectural detail that buyers
craved. Grier couldn't care less about stone gargoyles and marble columns.
Security was stringent, discreet, and round the clock. He'd deemed it
expensive, but affordable. His time with the Organization had paid well, and
his assets were secure in several different Swiss accounts.
He had no illusions that he'd be safe forever. The
Organization would track him down. But it'd been two weeks without a trace of
pursuit, and a cold trail meant a smaller chance of discovery.
Nightmares haunted his sleep – screams and smoke and sirens
– and often Grier woke with a shouted denial on his lips, drenched in sweat and
sick to his stomach. He'd followed the story in the days after the bombing,
morbidly fascinated with how high the number of dead climbed. He could've
stopped it, but he hadn't been fast enough. That haunted him most of all.
His living room window faced Central Park. Morning coffee in
hand, he caught his reflection in the glass. The absence of a Monitor had
spurred a miraculous recuperation. In the space of two weeks, his stamina and acuity
had skyrocketed, despite the disturbed sleep. He wondered if Graviel knew the
long-term side effects of constant monitoring.
The old fool most likely did.
Grier's skin, sallow to the point of being yellow, had regained
the healthy glow he'd enjoyed in his early twenties. His eyes glinted a sharper
green, his hair a richer black. Restless energy had replaced the draining
fatigue that had plagued him for years.
A vague hope had taken seed: that he'd find the peace he'd
spent years chasing. The hurdles were many, including a persistent idea that he
didn't deserve any measure of serenity. Not after letting so many die.
But he was going to try.
He slipped into his shoes and donned a light overcoat, one
that complimented his tailored trousers and linen shirt. His had never been the
boyish good looks of some, but more rakish. His cheek bones were high and prominent,
his nose angular. He kept his black hair shaggy, so that it fell just over his
deep-set eyes. It was a countenance that had served him well over the years,
and one to which he'd grown accustomed.
He locked the apartment behind him and rode the elevator to
the lobby. Greeting the doorman with a slight nod, he slipped out into the
sunshine. As was his habit, he extended his senses, searching for agents or
other Gifteds that may be close. He detected nothing, and with a self-satisfied
smile, turned up the street toward the deli.
A figure darted by, bumping his shoulder and nearly jarring
him off his feet. Grier twisted and caught himself as he stumbled.
When he straightened, the scathing comment he'd prepared
died on his lips. The man smiled at him, and he too straightened to his full
height, a couple inches shy of Grier's six foot three. Grier chastised his
inattention. At this rate, the Organization would have him in less than a
"I'm very sorry," the young man said, smile still
"It's no trouble," Grier mumbled, enchanted by the
way the sunlight reflected off the man's blue eyes.
The young man's smile faltered at the perusal, and Grier
brought himself up short. Unnerved, he offered a mumbled, "Good day,"
before walking away.
Trepidation creeping up his spine, Aleck watched Grier stalk
off. He was the only Gifted able to mask his presence from others like him, and
his talent was a closely guarded secret. He'd felt Grier's subtle probe of the
crowd when he'd exited the building, and he'd passed over Aleck without
What he hadn't expected from Grier was gracious politeness, and
he certainly hadn't been prepared for the flash of interest in his eyes. Grier's
appearance had thrown him, and Aleck didn't appreciate being caught off guard. Graviel's
grainy snapshot had been of a jaundiced and battered man, one who looked closer
to fifty than thirty-eight.
While Grier's skin was still pale, it was milky rather than
yellow, with healthy spots of pink smudged across the cheekbones. His hair had
been shiny and well groomed, his eyes a clear green. And although Aleck had
been unable to touch Grier's mind, lest he give himself away as a Gifted, he
sensed his contentment. All in all, Grier struck Aleck as a good man, and he
always trusted his instincts, ability-enhanced or not.
He turned and walked away, contemplating Grier's reaction.
Aleck knew he was considered handsome. And it wasn't unusual
for him to take advantage of that if the mission demanded it. But his personal
life was another matter. Attraction – sexual or otherwise – was a liability. He
didn't need or want romantic attachments, and the Organization frowned on them.
But this man, Grier, had been attracted to him. The question
was how to use that development to his advantage.
Conflicted, Aleck squeezed his eyes shut. It made better
sense to report Grier's position and go home. Leave the rest to Graviel. Yet he
hesitated. Grier wasn't what Aleck had expected, an incongruity that boosted
He slipped into a small shop across from Grier's apartment
building. His Monitor's presence buzzed in his head, but Aleck tuned her out. He
wasn't ready to make a move. He'd wait for Grier to return to his apartment, then
he'd choose a course of action. Smiling at the shopkeeper, Aleck began to flip
through the mountains of t-shirts and key chains.
Resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder took all the willpower
Grier possessed, which embarrassed him. He pinched his lips together and plowed
ahead, away from the man with the sparkling blue eyes. He pondered as he walked,
for once tuning out the thoughts of the people around him to instead focus on his
Sexual desire was an infrequent physiological response for
agents – yet another side-effect to the numbing exhaustion of hosting a
Monitor. Eventually the body forgot how to be aroused. But not forever, because
the electric feeling that had blossomed in his stomach and sizzled through his
groin had been clear enough.
He entered the deli and greeted the woman behind the
counter. Her face lit up when she saw him. "Hi, Mr. Swann, how are you
Grier returned the smile. "Fine, Carrie. Thank you. I'll
take the usual." Carrie bustled away to fix his meal, while Grier took
delight in the normality of the situation. He ran his palm along the counter,
past the stack of paper menus, smiling when he realized it had been days since
he'd consulted one.
Is this what an ordinary life felt like? Twenty years with
the Organization had tainted him. He'd helped many people, and for the most
part, had made the world a safer place – until recently.
His hand clenched on the edge of the counter, and a frown
replaced his smile. These past months had produced one suspicious, questionable
mission after another. If only he'd removed himself sooner, before the summit.
He was still deep in thought when Carrie returned with his
boxed sandwich and salad. Her friendly expression dimmed when she looked at
him, and Grier winced. "Thank you, Carrie," he said, forcing a smile.
"You're welcome, Mr. Swann," the small woman
replied. "You look a bit sad. Nothing's wrong, I hope?" As Grier
shook his head, he reached out and brushed against her mind, alleviating her
worry for him.
"I feel fine, but thank you for asking."
Her brilliant smile returned, and he left without another
word. On the walk home, hating himself for his weakness, Grier searched for the
Aleck watched Grier greet his doorman and disappear into the
lobby. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and leaned against the
storefront. For over an hour, he studied the building, considering his options.
The decision, when he made it, felt right. He wouldn't terminate the
assignment. Not yet.
Report, the voice sounded in his head for the third
time that hour.
Aleck chewed his bottom lip and stared at the building as he
replied. No contact yet.
Aleck woke to a pounding headache that grew tenfold when he
struggled to sit up. He swallowed the nausea and eased backward until his head
was again cushioned on the pillow. Blindly, he grabbed for the bottle of pills
on the nightstand and swallowed two, trying not to vomit at the bitter taste.
He cracked one eye at the digital clock by the bed and
cursed. Late as hell, but he wasn't going anywhere feeling like this. He closed
his eyes and waited for the painkillers to kick in. Light meditation helped the
pain, but it was a struggle to reach even the shallowest state of relaxation. A
small moan escaped when his cell phone began to ring, and he waited, hands
plastered to the sides of his head, until it fell silent.
Tense, he waited for the inevitable. If he'd been able to cross
the room without emptying the contents of his stomach, he would've answered the
phone. Not that it mattered. He'd worked with this Monitor before and knew how
she operated. The next call would come straight to him.
Report, Nora demanded.
"Fuck off," Aleck groaned and risked rolling over
to bury his head under the pillow.
"I said I'd report when I made contact, damn it, now
leave me alone," he yelled, swiping at the involuntary tears of pain that
leaked from his eyes. Nora took the hint, but the connection became an angry buzz
in his head.
Aleck threw the covers back and stumbled to the bathroom. His
accommodations were neither elegant nor seedy – a standard room in a mid-priced
hotel, where the chances of being noticed were slim to none.
He didn't bother with the harsh florescent lights, just whipped
his hand across the spigot, blasting frigid water into the sink. Taking large
handfuls, he splashed his face several times. For a long moment he stayed curled
over the counter, letting the water drip from his face and hair. When he risked
a glance in the mirror, his sunken, bloodshot eyes and hollow cheeks drew a
scowl. He'd have no chance of holding Grier's interest looking like this.
"Fuck it all," he whispered as he turned toward
the shower. Shucking his underwear, he climbed in. What on earth had possessed
him not to turn the dogs loose on Grier yesterday? Whatever the reason for his
poor judgment, Aleck vowed not to let it happen again today.
Grier frowned into his coffee. Choosing to eat in one of the
tucked-away booths instead of going home had been a bad decision. He conducted
sweep after sweep of the crowd, but couldn't detect any overt danger. Why was
he so uneasy?
He drew his coat around himself and hunched over his meal.
The noise was deafening, making it difficult to block the stray emotions of those
seated close. When a particularly vulgar thought from the man across the aisle slithered
its way into his brain, Grier gave a frustrated sigh and gathered up the remnants
of his meal. He would eat at home.
"Are you finished? I was just wondering if I could join
Grier froze, knowing before he even looked who was standing
over him. A quick glance confirmed his suspicions. "I was just leaving,"
he mumbled to the blue-eyed man.
"Oh, okay," the man said, but he didn't move away
from the table. Grier took a closer look at him, noticing things he'd missed
The man's eyes were the cobalt blue that Grier remembered,
but today they looked lifeless, the creases below smudged black. Pronounced fatigue
or high levels of stress, Grier guessed. Or both. He looked like a strung-out
drug addict. Or a Gifted after a long assignment. Anxious, Grier reached out
with his mind, searching for the telltale signature that all Gifteds carried.
He breathed an inaudible sigh of relief when he found nothing. Curiously, he
couldn't penetrate the man's head. That did happen occasionally.
The young man hovered. "I don't want to impose,"
he said. "But there aren't any empty tables, and I thought—" He
paused and licked his lips before flashing a lazy smile. "I was just
looking for a bit of conversation."
That's not all you're looking for, Grier thought, but kept
silent. Making a split second decision, he gestured to the empty chair, and
with a grin, the blue-eyed man dropped into it. "Thanks."
Grier nodded but didn't speak. The man smiled at him through
lowered lashes. "I'm Jeremy," he said, offering his hand. Grier
"Stephen," he reciprocated with a nod of greeting.
Jeremy leaned back in his chair.
"Nice to meet you," he said. He held Grier's stare
for another moment before turning to flag Carrie down.
"Yes, beautiful," Carrie teased as she bustled
over, "what can I get for you?"
"Whatever Stephen is having," Jeremy said. "It
looks delicious." Carrie's eyes crinkled at the corners when she smirked.
"Maybe he'll let you taste his."
Grier groaned. Just what he needed - a busybody matchmaker. "I'm
afraid not. He'll have to risk it."
"I'll risk it," Jeremy said with a wink.
"Coming right up, handsome."
Jeremy shook his head, watching as she slipped behind the
counter to prepare his lunch. "She looks out for you," he said, taking
a sip of the coffee she'd left behind.
Unnerved by his inability to read his companion, Grier was
cautious with his answers. "Apparently she's taken it upon herself to do
so. I didn't encourage it," he added.
Jeremy tapped his fingers on the table. "No, I expect
you didn't. You don't look the type to enjoy being fussed over."
Grier nodded, and, baffled by the mysterious Jeremy, let the
conversation die. The silence turned awkward, and Jeremy bit the inside of his
cheek. "Okay, Stephen. I can tell you're not comfortable with this." He
drained his cup and stood. "It was nice to meet you." The smile
returned as he fished out a couple of bills for the coffee. "Don't let Carrie
get too cocky," he teased as he turned away.
Grier shot out of his chair and grabbed Jeremy's arm. How
much longer was he going to let the Organization dictate his happiness? Damn
caution to hell; it was time to start living again. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid
I'm a little slow off the mark. My job…never mind." Grier loosened his
grip and let his hand slide down over Jeremy' fingers. "Please, I'd like
you to stay."
A strange look flashed in Jeremy's eyes. "I'd like
His act worked like a charm, though Aleck felt a twinge of
guilt when Grier asked him to stay. Time to remind himself what was at stake.
Grier had breached protocol, sacrificed his Monitor's life, and could be
working to expose the Organization.
Still, the shadowed, lonely look in his eyes haunted Aleck,
and – not for the first time –he questioned the validity of his intelligence
regarding Grier Crist. He itched to probe Grier's mind, to discover once and
for all what secrets he was hiding, but that would be foolhardy and dangerous. Grier
would recognize him for what he was, a Gifted, and would either flee or try to
kill him. Maybe both. Aleck would have to rely on his training and instincts,
both of which were well-developed, but not as impeccable or useful as his gifts.
He wasn't entirely comfortable playing the part of
interested paramour, but if it got him into Grier's apartment, he'd endure.
He felt like hell and looked it too. Grier had taken notice
of his haggard appearance and had tried to read him. He was suspicious; no
surprise there. Accepting Aleck's advances, though… that hadn't been smart. All
in all, Grier's erratic behavior was damn confusing.
"You started to say something about your work?" Aleck
asked as he settled back into his seat.
Grier shrugged one shoulder. "Yes. My employer got
himself mixed up in some shady business deals. I was caught in the crossfire
and left soon afterward."
Aleck adopted an empathetic expression, but was more
confused than ever. Grier's tone and body language didn't ring of any
falsehood. He couldn't detect the slightest hint that Grier was lying.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Aleck said. Grier's hands
clenched into fists on his lap.
"Thank you. We were close, and I was sorry to see him
Carrie arrived with his food, and Aleck used the distraction
to mask his dismay. Was Grier referring to Graviel? There was no way to know
for sure. Time to turn the conversation to more mundane things.
"I'm new to the area," Aleck said. "Perhaps
you can offer some recommendations for restaurants…besides this quality
establishment," he added when Carrie scowled and smacked him with her
notepad. Grier laughed as she stalked away, mumbling about the fickle tastes of
youngsters. Aleck joined in, his amusement genuine. "What shall I do to
sooth her ruffled feathers?" he asked with a chuckle.
Grier shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine." He
blew across the top of the steaming coffee. "I've just met her myself."
"You're new around here too?"
Grier went stiff. "I am."
Not squirming under Grier's sharp eyes took all of Aleck's
formidable acting abilities. "It's nice to meet someone like me." He
let the conversation lull once more. This time, it was anything but awkward.
"I live a few blocks away," Grier said in a low
voice. "Perhaps we could continue our conversation there."
Straightforward. Respectful, even. Though Grier's tone left
little question as to the nature of the invitation.
"I'd like that," Aleck answered in the same quiet
voice. Grier's eyes flashed with heat, and Aleck caught his breath. Unnerved,
he stood and offered his hand. Grier took it, his touch more a caress than a
shake, and Aleck's mouth went dry. "I just need to take care of something
first. Can I meet you there?"
Grier hesitated but rattled off his address. Aleck squeezed
his fingers, then rose and slipped out of the deli, heading in the opposite
direction from Grier's building. After two blocks, he ducked into a corner
store, made his way to the back, and leaned against one of the refrigerators
that lined the wall. It wasn't the best hiding place, but it would do.
The chilled glass felt wonderful so he turned around and
rested his forehead on it, pretending, when the owner came slinking back to
investigate, that he was having trouble choosing a drink. His head was
throbbing again, and this time he couldn't blame it on his Monitor. A few
minutes to gather himself, that was all he needed.
The owner leaned around the end of the aisle. "Either
buy something or get out," he yelled. "This ain't a hotel."
"You have atrocious manners," Aleck mumbled. He
turned his head, sliding his cheek along the condensation-coated glass. "Fuck
off." Adding a hint of mental suggestion to his words did the trick. The
owner blinked once and nodded.
"Right," he said as he turned away, scratching at
the stained t-shirt stretched over his belly. "I'll just fuck off."
If only everything was so easy. In a fit of frustration, Aleck
struck the glass with his fist. The cans inside rattled. Where was his
objectivity? The evidence didn't lie: Grier was dangerous. Why the hell did
Aleck want to trust him?
And why, he wondered, turning the other cheek against the
glass, was he having such a physical reaction to the man. He couldn't remember
the last time that had happened. Aleck disliked being touched, he always had.
No accounting for the tingle of anticipation in his chest then. He punched the
Bristling, Aleck answered – Have made contact,
stand by – then waited. There was no chance that would satisfy Nora.
What is your position and the position of the target?
Aleck pursed his lips. For some reason, he took exception to
Grier being called 'the target.' Will update in two hours, he sent. Nora's
response was immediate and angry.
Report your position and stand
"To hell with that," Aleck murmured. I'll report
in two hours. He punctuated his words with a forceful mental shove, hoping Nora
took the hint. He'd hate to have to resort to other measures. He didn't enjoy causing
his Monitors any pain, but he couldn't risk being interrupted while with Grier.
Braced for Nora's backlash, he was amazed when the link stayed quiet.
Aleck pushed off the bank of coolers and ran his fingers
through his hair. As he reached the front of the store, he caught his
reflection in the window and shook his head. What did Grier see in him? Aleck
paused and did his best to tame his wild mass of hair. Good thing the
disheveled look was in. Though there was still the matter of his tired eyes and
emaciated frame. Shrugging, he left the store and headed north.
If Grier found him attractive despite his faults, who was he
"An update, Ms. Picket?"
Nora jumped, upsetting the glass she'd been holding, and icy
water spilled over her notes and into her lap. Graviel snatched some tissues
from a nearby desk and handed them over. Nora grunted a thanks as she mopped up
the worst of the mess.
"I didn't mean to startle you."
"That's all right. It's my fault. I was preoccupied
with Aleck." Nora tossed the damp tissues into the trashcan and gestured
for Graviel to sit. He glanced around, then pulled a chair from the suite's
kitchen area and joined her. Their hotel wasn't anything special, but it beat
trying to monitor Aleck from the back of a van. Graviel watched Nora pluck at
her damp jeans and straighten her glasses. She wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Bad news, I take it? Aleck hasn't found him?" Nora's
pause put Graviel on guard. "Ms. Picket?"
"There has been contact." Nora stretched the words
out, pulling at the thick braid of hair hanging over her shoulder.
"But?" Graviel prompted, miffed at having to pry the
information from her.
"He refused to report his position, sir."
Graviel frowned and sat back in his chair. Not one to rush to
judgment, he pondered before he spoke. Nora was an experienced Monitor,
familiar with the protocol of such a situation. She would've pushed Aleck for
details. The fact that Aleck had refused was worrisome.
"I can try to reestablish contact," Nora offered. Graviel
sensed her hesitation.
"Did he hurt you?"
"No, sir," Nora insisted. "Not really. Just a
small sting. The situation is evolving quickly, and he needed privacy."
The situation. Leave it to Nora to euphemize the current
disaster. She was far too professional to ask why Aleck was tracking Grier
Crist, one of the Organization's best assets.
"Should I inform the Directorate?"
Graviel refocused on Nora. "Why would you do that, Ms.
Nora faltered. "I just thought…."
"Am I not a member of the Directorate?"
"Yes, sir. You are," Nora confirmed in a shaky
voice, drawing into herself. She reminded Graviel of a church mouse.
"Do I not, in fact, head the Directorate and the
"You do, sir. I—"
Graviel cut her off with a gesture. "I understand your
concern. Rest assured, the situation is well in hand."
She fell silent, for which Graviel was thankful. He had
little tolerance for curiosity or insubordination at the moment, and removing Nora
would make an unstable situation more volatile.
They were all walking a thin enough tightrope as it was.
Grier had paved his way; the doorman didn't gave Aleck a
second glance. Henry Shipton, his small, tasteful nametag said. Aleck paused
just inside the wide glass doors and waited until he had Henry's attention.
"I'm sorry," Aleck said. "But I'm supposed to
meet Mr. Swann—"
"Yes, he's expecting you." Henry clasped his hands
behind his back, his vague smile just twisted enough to indicate he knew the
precise reason for Aleck's visit.
"I'm afraid I've forgotten the apartment number," Aleck
admitted in a rush. Then, while Henry chuckled, Aleck reached into his mind and
planted a suggestion. He needed to drop his guard for a moment to do so and
prayed Grier was too preoccupied to notice the sudden presence of a Gifted so
close by. He planted the thought and retreated, raising his mental shields once
more. Henry blinked and stared at Aleck for a moment before his eyes cleared.
"No problem, young man. It's apartment 1508."
Aleck smiled his thanks and headed toward the elevator. It
was two-thirty. If all went as planned, he had fifteen minutes before Henry
called. He'd better make the most of it.
It always paid to plan for a hasty retreat, so once on the
fifteenth floor, Aleck made a circuit of the halls, memorizing the location of
the fire exits. Aware of how much time was passing, he returned to Grier's
apartment and knocked twice. Footsteps approached, but the door never opened. Aleck
frowned. Grier was standing right on the other side, he didn't need his gifts
to know that. Had he changed his mind?
Aleck's window of opportunity was slipping away. He lifted
his hand to knock again when the door swung open.
Show time. Aleck grinned, and Grier offered a small smile in
return. "Come in."
"Thanks." He brushed against Grier as he passed
into the room. "Very nice." Which was an understatement. Sunlight
poured in through the giant picture window. Beyond, Central Park spread out in
a patchwork of green and blue. The furniture was dark, a rich cherry. Aleck ran
his hand over the curved sofa back, admiring how its patterned brocade felt
silk-soft under his fingers. A trio of bold, minimalist prints lined the far
wall – the slashes of red and black complementing the chocolate-brown
upholstery. "I'm impressed."
"Thank you," Grier answered. "Would you like
"Yeah. That'd be great." Aleck waited for Grier to
move into the kitchen before circling the large room. "You have impeccable
taste," Aleck remarked as he skimmed the titles nestled in the bookcase.
"I can't take the credit," came a voice from over Aleck's
shoulder. Only his extensive training stopped Aleck from jumping out of his skin.
Grier had been busy in the kitchen five seconds ago.
"You used a designer?" Aleck asked, doing his best
to cover his surprise. Grier's sly smile indicated he'd failed.
"I rented it already furnished. The style appealed to
me, and I wasn't sure how long I would be here, hence my reluctance to purchase
furniture of my own."
Aleck took the proffered glass of scotch. "I imagine
this is very close to how you would've done it yourself."
"And why would you think that?" Grier watched Aleck
as he took a small sip of his drink.
Aleck shrugged. "Just a feeling." He cocked his
head to the side. "It suits you."
Grier watched Aleck for another moment, a hint of the burn Aleck
had seen earlier flaring in his eyes. "Shall we sit?"
Aleck wet his lips and Grier followed the furtive movement
with his eyes. "Sure," Aleck said, a little breathless. He took a
seat on the long couch, cursing himself the whole time. His shortness of breath
hadn't been feigned. Eight minutes to go. He could hold Grier off that long –
he just wasn't sure he wanted to. Aleck wrapped both hands around his tumbler
as Grier joined him.
"That's eighteen-year-old scotch. I hope you're able to
appreciate it," Grier said, and Aleck bit back a snort of laughter.
"Well, that was subtle. I'm twenty-six, in answer to
your question, and I always appreciate a good single malt."
Grier made a wry face. "Not as bad as I thought. I
still feel like a dirty old man."
"You don't look a day over thirty-five," Aleck
said. A phenomenon he was still puzzling over.
Grier raised an eyebrow. "Thirty-eight."
Another truth. As far as he could tell, Grier hadn't yet
lied to him. "You age well."
Grier downed the last of his scotch. "There's no need
to pay me compliments." Since that's not what you're here for, he
"I'll try to restrain myself."
Grier's eyes bore into him. Scrutiny normally made Aleck
twitchy, even if he hid it well, but Grier's attentions were producing an altogether
different reaction. Unfamiliar, but undeniable. He didn't protest when Grier
Henry whistled as he waved at the occasional passer-by,
greeting those he knew and even those he didn't. He studied people – not an unusual
hobby considering his job – but fifteen years in his position had made him a
connoisseur. Figuring them out wasn't all that hard. Take Mr. Swann, for
instance. Quiet and respectful, well-bred, and wealthy. Henry could always
smell money. Mr. Swann reeked of it.
As for Mr. Swann's guest…the handsome, bedraggled young man
hadn't been selling magazine subscriptions. No matter. Henry had perfected
discretion the same time his special sense of smell had kicked in. And the boy
had seemed the nice enough sort. He expected Mr. Swann to have as good a taste
in men as he had in every other aspect of his life. Class with a capital C, that
was Mr. Swann.
The giant clock on the building across the street caught his
eye. Two-forty. Henry's eyes went unfocused, and he blinked. Abandoning his
post, he pushed through the tall glass doors and strode across the marble floor
to the security station nestled behind the elevators. Once inside, he located
the fire warning system for unit 1508 and triggered the silent alarm. Closing
and locking the door behind him, he returned to his accustomed place just
outside the building. As soon as he stepped outside, a welcoming smile replaced
his blank stare.
Henry whistled and waved.
Two minutes later, the phone on his desk, located just
inside the doors, began to ring.
"You mentioned you were new in town, Jeremy. Was it
family that brought you here?"
Two minutes left until Henry's call. Grier had drawn closer,
his intentions clear. Which was why, when he sat back and asked about 'Jeremy's'
family, Aleck was taken aback. He recovered, but not fast enough for Grier's
shrewd eyes. "Have I touched on too personal a subject?"
You have no idea, Aleck thought. "No, it's fine.
My parents died when I was very young. My grandparents raised me. But we were
never close. I have no family to speak of."
"I'm sorry," Grier said. He placed his hand on Aleck's
knee. "Have we talked enough?"
One minute left. "Yeah," Aleck whispered.
Grier pressed close and curled one hand around Aleck's neck.
"So long," he whispered. "I'd forgotten."
Aleck had forgotten, too. His sexual experiences were few
and far in the past, but he didn't remember anything like this. What harm to
give in just once? Just for a moment. He turned his face toward Grier, who didn't
hesitate, but leaned forward to bring their lips together.
The telephone rang. Grier stopped, no more than a hair's
breadth away from Aleck's mouth. The second the loud trilling registered, Aleck
drew back, shaken by his loss of control.
Grier studied the phone, and Aleck took the opportunity to
escape across the couch. "Well that killed the mood."
"I never get calls," Grier said, voice pensive.
"Whoever it is has horrible timing," Aleck
grumbled. "Tell them to call back." He reclined back against the
cushion and spread his legs. Relieved, he saw Grier had lost interest in his seduction.
"I never get calls," Grier repeated before reaching
over the back of the sofa and plucking the receiver from its cradle. "Yes?"
Aleck watched and waited, not even pretending to be
uninterested in the conversation. He could make out bits and pieces, Henry's
voice rising and falling as he tried to placate his tenant. "I can assure
you, Henry," Grier said, "there's nothing on fire up here."
"Yet," Aleck cut in.
"Yes, fine. Fine. I'll be right down. No, I'll come
down." He punched the off button with more force than necessary. "I
have to go downstairs. There's a maintenance issue."
Aleck pouted. "Can I take a rain check?"
"No." Grier stood. "Stay. I'll be back
shortly." Rather than hurrying out, though, he hovered over Aleck, a small
frown on his lips. "Make yourself comfortable," he murmured, then
slipped out the door, shutting it behind him.
Aleck waited one minute before he rose from the couch. The desk
in the living room was a showpiece; it held nothing but stationery. He moved
on. Grier's bedroom was at the end of the hall, the door closed but unlocked. Slipping
inside, Aleck zeroed in on the laptop computer humming on the dresser. Knowing
his time was limited, he swiped his finger over the mouse pad, unsurprised when
a password prompt appeared. Letting his shielding slide, he rested his fingers
on the keyboard, and a few moments later saw the keystrokes in his mind.
He'd managed to type four numbers before Grier's fist
slammed into his side, knocking him into the dresser. The laptop crashed to the
floor. Aleck rolled and rose agilely to his feet, taking in the situation as he
nursed his bruised ribs. Grier was back, anger pouring off of him in great
waves. He rounded on Aleck, snarling, and began stalking him across the room.
"Stupid, arrogant boy!" he seethed. "Did you
think you could fool me with that absurd ruse? I was playing this game before
you knew what your cock was for."
Not the best time to remind Grier just how he'd been
deceived. Aleck feinted left, but before he could launch himself across the
bed, a blinding pain sliced through his head. He swore. Pushing it aside, he
struck out in a similar fashion.
A howl of agony was his reward. Aleck opened his mind,
revealing himself as a Gifted, and struck out again. Grier was expecting it
this time, though, and Aleck's attack failed. Their mental battle was a
deadlock. Time for a more roundabout strategy.
Aleck reached out with his mind, squeezed, and the light
fixture above Grier shattered. Grier ducked his face against the falling glass,
and Aleck jumped, tackling him onto the bed. The momentum carried them to the
floor where they struggled fiercely.
Grier rolled them as soon as they landed and wrapped his
hands around Aleck's neck. Aleck had a split second to be impressed by Grier's
strength and combat skills before his airway was cut off. Fighting back panic,
he fit his own arms between Grier's and pushed. The vise-like grip around his
throat loosened. With a Herculean effort, Aleck broke Grier's hold and threw
him off. Coughing and wheezing, he scrambled backward, but Grier was already up
and advancing again.
Aleck gathered his strength and pushed outward with his
mind. Grier flew back against the wall, smacking it with a loud crack, and moaning,
sank to the floor.
Aleck stumbled to his feet, keeping an eye on the dazed
agent. How could he have been so wrong about Grier? The bastard would have
choked him to death without a second thought. Alex had sensed it. The man was a
He stumbled a few feet closer, weaving as much from the physical
fight as from the mental. He opened his link with Nora, knowing it was past
time to report his location.
Grier opened his eyes. They were dazed and unfocused. "Do
yourself a favor, Crist," Aleck spat. "Stay down."
Before he could answer, something hard and heavy collided
with the back of his head. Everything went black.
As the other man dropped to the floor, Grier struggled to
his feet. His ears rang. He tasted copper and realized he'd bitten his tongue
when he hit the wall. Spitting the blood onto the carpet, he clutched the
doorframe until his dizziness passed. Maybe Graviel had a point about Monitors,
and there was an excellent reason for having one's libido repressed. He couldn't
remember the last time he'd been almost killed for thinking with his dick.
He stumbled across the room, kicking away the glass ashtray
he'd sent flying at the boy's head. There was an impressive pool of blood
accumulating on the carpet beneath.
Laying on the floor, dazed, knowing 'Jeremy' was a Gifted
and most likely bonded with a Monitor, Grier had wielded the opportunistic
weapon with more force than necessary. Now that the immediate danger had
passed, he cursed his panic. He refused to saddle his conscience with another
death. Besides he had some questions for Jeremy, in particular, how the hell he'd
hidden his presence from Grier.
Time was short; the Organization may already be en route. Grier
hoisted Jeremy up by his armpits and flipped him over. He couldn't have the
little shit bleeding everywhere while he dragged him downstairs. Hastily, he
assessed the damage, noting the cut was shallow, just very bloody. He held his
hand over the jagged tear in the skin, focused his power, and prompted the cut
to close. It was an ugly job, temporary at best. Healing wasn't his dominant
gift. But it would have to do.
Next, he gathered what he dared not leave behind: the
computer and his stash of forged identity papers. The majority of his assets
were safe in Swiss accounts. The money tied up in the apartment was lost, but
he was leaving on his own two feet, not in a body bag. More than an even trade.
He didn't give the pool of blood soaking into the carpet a
passing thought. Let Graviel deal with it; he specialized in cover-ups and
deception, after all. No one in New York would know what happened to Stephen
Swann. And no one would miss blue-eyes either; Jeremy's story was an utter
fabrication. He was a Gifted, an agent for the Organization.
Grier packed his duffel with his computer and other necessities.
Then, grimacing at the still-tacky blood, threw the kid over his shoulder in a
fireman's carry, and fled the apartment. He encountered two people on the way
to his car, one in the hall and one in the elevator. It was simple enough to
cloud their minds so that neither saw him carrying a bloodied man, obviously
hurt, maybe dead, over his shoulder. One even wished him a pleasant afternoon
as she exited the elevator at the lobby.
Once at his vehicle, Grier dumped Jeremy in the trunk, then
probed his mind, planting a suggestion that he remain asleep. Sooner or later, he'd
wake, but by then Grier would be ready and waiting.
He swung into the front seat and drove up and out of the
garage, joining the afternoon traffic snarl.
Nora's frantic call pulled Graviel from his nap. Alarmed, he
rushed to her side. "What's happened?"
"He was there, for a moment. He was hurt, I think. Then
nothing." Nora's voice fell to a whisper on the last word, and Graviel's
"But you can still sense him?"
"Barely is better than not at all, Nora," Graviel
There was little comfort in his statement, he knew. Grim, he
clasped the young Monitor on the shoulder. Nora flinched at the sudden touch,
then relaxed with a shaky sigh. Her reaction gave Graviel pause. Events had
been spiraling out of control for many months now, and the number of people he
trusted grew smaller every day. It was a dirty game, a dirty business, and he'd
made harsh choices. Not just with Aleck. With Grier as well.
He'd ignore her jumpiness. For now. "Alert me if there's
the slightest change."
Nora nodded, averting her eyes, and Graviel frowned. He left
her to her job and made his way back to the bedroom. Meditation would help him
focus; he'd need all his faculties when whatever was going on with Aleck and Grier
came to a head.
The bed was hard and the light from the hall too bright.
Altering the firmness of the mattress was beyond his control, but the lights
were another matter. Graviel made a curt gesture with his hand and the door
swung shut. Total darkness descended. He closed his eyes, recalling the first
time he'd spoken with Aleck. Not the first time he'd seen him. Not by a long
shot. But the first time he'd approached him about his gifts, his future, and
The boy looked pitiful eating alone while a dozen other
teenagers frolicked a few tables away. At sixteen, Aleck was pale and lanky. An
underachiever. A troublemaker. Graviel knew him inside and out. His family
ostracized him. His grandfather called him a freak. Aleck believed the entire
world was against him, but nothing could be further from the truth.
"You want to sit here?" Aleck sneered at him. "Are
"Yes," Graviel answered. "I'm not crazy,
but I would like to speak with you, if I may."
Aleck glanced around the small pizzeria before frowning
at Graviel. "I guess," he mumbled.
When Graviel slid into the booth across from him, Aleck
dropped his eyes. "What do you want?"
"To talk, Aleck."
Aleck's head shot up. "How do you know my name?"
Graviel smiled. "I've been watching you," he
admitted. He didn't mention for how long. If all went as he hoped, that fact
would come to light soon enough.
"Because you're special."
Aleck glared at Graviel through a messy fringe of brown
hair. "I'm not special," he whispered.
Graviel leaned forward. "You are." And with
that, he opened his mind and enveloped Aleck in a blanket of comfort and
companionship. Aleck gasped.
"You can do it too?"
Graviel nodded. "You're not alone, Aleck," he
said, "and you are very, very special."
"I don't understand."
"There are many like you. Extraordinary people with
extraordinary gifts, just like yours. Would you like me to tell you about them?"
Aleck bit his bottom lip and stayed silent. When he
gathered the courage to look Graviel in the eye, the older man smiled. He
reached across the table and covered Aleck's hand with his own. "You have nothing
to fear from me. I promise – I will never lie to you."
Aleck yanked his hand away. "We'll see."
"We will." Graviel removed a card from his
pocket and slid it across the table. With the exception of his phone number, it
was blank. "Trust is given freely once. And must be earned ever
Aleck cocked his head at the cryptic words. "What?"
"I know you've been hurt. I don't expect you to
trust me. Not right away. I am prepared to earn your loyalty. And your
friendship," Graviel added. His smile broadened. "I'm a patient man."
Ten years later, he had Aleck's trust and his friendship.
But for how long? Graviel scrubbed his hands over his face. If Aleck ever
discovered the depth of his deception, he'd lose the boy for good.
He'd wanted to save the Organization. Now he wondered if his
actions would be the death of it. If they could, in fact, mean the death of
It took Grier just over an hour to cross New Jersey. He followed
the interstate until the highway became a small two-lane country road. It ended
in a sleepy community, a pretentious little town where the wealthy of Manhattan spent their weekends, complete with cobbled streets and a Starbucks on every
corner. Storefronts mimicking those of Colonial times were framed by gas lamp-lined
sidewalks. A lake stretched the length of the valley below, its shores dotted
with colorful boathouses.
Grier was too furious to appreciate any of it. He'd almost
been caught, and by an agent whose experience couldn't possibly match his own.
Even more infuriating, despite everything, he was still fascinated with Jeremy,
or whatever his real name was. The boy had been able to hide his gifts, and
Grier wanted that power for himself.
His survival depended on it.
The lakefront cottage looked as it had in the pictures from
the real estate agent. Grier had rented it sight unseen the day he'd arrived in
New York, anticipating the need for a hasty escape at some point. Musty with
the smell of the lake, its stark plaster walls and crisscrossing oak ceiling
beams lent it an abandoned feel. A half-dozen sturdy pieces of furniture left
behind by the previous tenant dotted the living room. Grier made a hasty tour
of the house, raised the heat against the late spring chill, and deposited his
bag on one of the two chairs in the dining area.
When Jeremy woke, Grier would tell him the truth – that
would be a novel experience for the lad. If that failed, he'd try to sway him
in other ways. He prayed Jeremy wasn't one of the Organization's hive-minded;
Grier didn't want to kill him.
More exhausted by the second, he fumbled in his pocket for
his cell phone. Time to call in some favors. Loathe as he was to involve anyone
else, he doubted Keev would mind; he took a perverse amount of pleasure in screwing
the Organization whenever the opportunity arose. As Grier dialed, he gave
another mental nudge to his prisoner, but there was no response.
A long pause preceded any ringing – a positive sign. Keev
was where Grier needed him, which at the moment would be anywhere outside the United States.
"Speak to me," an aristocratic voice answered. Grier
rolled his eyes.
"It's official, Keev. You've forgotten every drop of
etiquette your mother ever managed to teach you."
"Grier!" A flurry of static burst over the line. Grier
heard the rise and fall of voices, then a door being opened and closed. The
voices faded, and the dull roar of the ocean replaced them. At least Keev was
trying to give himself some privacy. Propriety wasn't his forte.
"You've said that."
"Well, I'm saying it again, you idiot!"
"Keev, I don't think the people next door to me
heard you. Why not yell my name a little louder."
Personal experience had taught Grier some hard truths over
the years. Most important, and relevant to this situation, was that everything
came with a price. Keev would want something in return for his help. His
demands, though, were never unfair. And Grier trusted him.
"All right, I'll play along," Keev said, chuckling.
"How are you, Gertrude?"
"I've had a hell of a day, Edna."
"I prefer Anastasia."
"I'm sure you do," Grier replied.
More laughter crackled through the earpiece. "Remember
"I need a favor." It was prudent to cut to the
chase with Keev. He was as distractible as a child, and Grier couldn't afford
that at the moment. "Are you listening?"
"I'm all ears, Gertrude."
"I need to leave the country."
"What country are you in?"
"Don't play coy with me. You know exactly where I am."
Eighteen hundred miles away, Keev braced himself against the
balcony wall and squinted at the calm, blue waters of the Caribbean. Uncanny
how his thoughts had been on Grier just five minutes ago. Scowling, he smoothed
back his shoulder-length blond hair and flicked a speck of lint from his shirt.
Keev believed in three basic covenants: the easy way was
always best; despite what most people thought, the best laid plans could be
brought to fruition; and lastly, there was such a thing as coincidence. Take
now, for example. "I was just thinking about you," Keev admitted.
"I'm sure you were."
"Not like that. Although you know I'm always open to
such things." He glanced over his shoulder. Inside the house, his guests
partied on, oblivious to his absence. With practiced ease, he stepped out of
sight between two large potted palms. "Still there?"
"It would seem so. Although I'm growing grayer by the
second. Did you perhaps not hear the part of our conversation where I said I
needed help? I meant now."
"You're such a prick, Grier," Keev replied with
genuine affection. "Listen – I know you're in the States. Everyone knows
you're in the States, but they don't know where. The Organization has tracked
you that far, but I've heard nothing new since Saturday."
"They found me."
"Yes. And don't press for details. You won't be getting
them right now. I need passage out of the country – for two people."
Something banged against the glass door, and Keev peeked
around the palm. Two women stood at the window, looking left and right,
searching. Smirking, he drew back. He'd chosen a lime-colored silk shirt and
white linen slacks that morning and blended into his hiding place beautifully.
He'd almost worn black, but at the last moment something had made him choose
the green — karma did adore him. "Two people?"
"I believe that's what I said." There was a slight
pause. "Where are you?"
Keev flicked a frond out of his face. "He's in Europe. You can speak freely."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that. Roman can sense trouble
halfway around the globe."
Keev took a deep breath. Coincidence or not, he planned to
take advantage of the situation. He needed to pick Grier's brain. Something was
happening, and Keev's father was in the middle of it. Furthermore, the
Organization was involved. That was sure to interest Grier.
"I'll get you out. But I'm bringing you here."
"Are you mad?" Grier hissed.
"I need to talk to you."
"I have my own problems at the moment."
"That's my price," Keev insisted. "Safe passage
for you and your tagalong. You can go anywhere you like after you stop here.
And stop being such a bastard. You'll want to hear this, trust me."
Silence, but for static, followed his statement. Keev
"Why would anything you have to say interest me?" Grier
asked, all emotion absent from his voice. He sounded exhausted.
"Let's just say your problems and my problems are
related." Keev paused. He needed a hook, and the truth fit the bill. "It
seems my father, representing the collective Gifted not under Graviel's
thumb, has extended an olive branch to the Organization."
Grier snorted. "Impossible."
"Believe me, my friend. The massacre at the peace summit
was only the beginning. My father's in Europe, as I said. You'll be safe here
for a few hours. Then I'll arrange for you to go anywhere you like. Do we have
Static crackled through the line for several seconds. "We
do," Grier answered, sounding more tired than ever.
Grier ended the call and melted back into his chair.
He was out of options. If agreeing to a play date placated
Keev, Grier would go. Not that he believed for one second that Roman was
cozying up to Graviel. Many years ago, when Keev had manifested as a Gifted,
Graviel had tried to recruit him – to Roman's extreme annoyance. Keev's father
despised the Organization. There was a history there, one Grier wasn't privy
Shaking off his unease, he stood. Time to deal with the
He checked that the young agent was still unconscious before
opening the trunk and hoisting him over his shoulder. The front door was ten
steps away. Too far for Grier's taste. Just because he couldn't see the
neighbors didn't mean they couldn't see him. He carried Jeremy's limp body
inside, then cast out, searching for a spike in curiosity or fear from anyone
nearby. Nothing. Grier grunted in satisfaction.
He propped Jeremy up in one of the wooden chairs and secured
his hands and feet. A stopgap, nothing more, but if Jeremy didn't cooperate,
the bonds would slow the boy enough that Grier could overpower him – for good
After he'd fastened the plastic handcuffs, he retrieved a syringe
from his bag. Barozene – it was one tool he always had on hand. Some Gifteds,
including Graviel, called him crazy. He called them short-sighted. Over the
years, he'd employed the drug many times, though never quite like today.
He injected Jeremy, then retreated across the room. Now or
never. He awakened the other man with a sharp mental prod.
Disquiet plagued Aleck as he woke. Groggy, he tried to
stretch, but his limbs wouldn't cooperate. He jerked his arms, hissing when
sharp cuffs cut into his wrists. The back of his head throbbed, and his shirt
collar was tacky and clinging to his neck. He could smell blood.
Aleck stopped struggling. As familiar as the voice sounded,
he couldn't place it. Woozy and disoriented, he peeled his eyes open. The
blurry figure across the room sharpened into a wary-looking Grier Crist.
"You hit me," Aleck deduced.
Grier's arched eyebrow challenged the inanity of the
accusation, but he didn't speak. Aleck rolled his head, assessing the damage.
The blurred vision could be blamed on the head injury, but the bitter taste on
his tongue was something else altogether. Barozene.
"And drugged me."
Grier lowered himself into a chair. He crossed one leg over
the other. "I called you bad names too."
Aleck squinted at him. "Did you insult my mother?"
"Not that I recall."
"I'll let you live." Nausea swelled in Aleck's
gut. He swallowed it back with a low groan.
"How do you feel?"
"Dandy." Aleck tested the cuffs at his ankles,
even though the movement made the nausea worse. Bound, his gifts impaired by
the drug, he had few options. Barozene was the Organization's Achilles' heel –
the one chemical that could suppress a Gifted's talents. Every agent trained
with it, and Aleck knew how long an average dose would affect him.
He'd never thought to have it used against him by one of his
Grier seemed content to watch him suffer. Aleck tuned out
his smug smile. Years of training kept him calm and focused. He closed his eyes
and reached for Nora. Barozene made the simple task as difficult as slogging
through quicksand, but a few seconds later, he found her. It was a joyless
victory. He was too drugged to communicate, and the strain kicked his headache
up another several notches. An involuntary moan slipped past his lips. His
roiling stomach threatened to rebel.
"Here," Grier said.
Aleck opened his eyes. Grier was close, holding a tall glass
of water in front of Aleck's face. He considered refusing, but the promise of cool
liquid pouring down his throat was impossible to resist. He opened his mouth, Grier
tilted the glass to his lips, and he drank his fill. He half-expected Grier to
pull back at the last second, rescind the offer, but he kept the glass to Aleck's
lips until he was finished.
"That was a stupid thing to do," Grier said as he
backed away and set the glass on the table.
"All of it. I believe I may have overestimated you. Well,
your intelligence at least." Aleck ground his teeth at the tone. It was
easy enough to be condescending when your enemy was bound and drugged. Arrogant
A wry smile proved Grier had heard his thoughts. "I was
speaking of your attempt to contact your Monitor. Was the pain worth being able
to fondle your security blanket for a few precious seconds?"
Aleck remained silent. Grier circled behind his chair. "What's
your real name?"
Aleck ignored the question.
Grier leaned over his shoulder. His breath tickled Aleck's
ear. "I could rip it from your head, you know. But believe it or not, I
don't wish to add to your already considerable headache. Now, what is your
Aleck considered. Grier was right, of course. He could take
the information any time he wanted. It was a tiny thing – his name – but
capitulating wasn't something Aleck enjoyed. "Devlin."
Grier made a small sound of satisfaction. "First name?"
The questions ended. Grier hovered for a moment, then
retreated across the room. His chair, Aleck noted, was a full twenty feet away,
on the other side of the archway that separated the living and dining rooms.
Both areas were devoid of knick-knacks. The glass of water was the only
potential weapon in sight.
Grier didn't take chances.
Tired of the games and the pounding headache, Aleck let his
eyes fall closed. The sickness was beating down any attempt to ignore it, and
he feared he'd soon lose what little he had in his stomach. His skin grew
clammy. Pain slashed through him like a wild animal, clawing through his head,
down his neck, then into his fingers and toes. Sweat dripped between his
He heard a chair scrape. Footsteps approached. Maybe Grier
was coming to put him out of his misery. He'd almost welcome it at this point.
"When were your last meds?" Grier asked, in front
of him once more.
Aleck fought to remember. "This morning."
"Do you have them with you?"
Did he? The pain had shattered his ability to think. "I—"
Grier's hands came to rest on the sides of his head, and
"Relax. I'm not going to hurt you." Impaired by
the Barozene, Aleck couldn't sense the focused burst of energy Grier must have
sent, but the throbbing pain retreated a half dozen levels. Aleck whimpered in
relief. "Simpleton," Grier mumbled as he backed away.
"Thank you," Aleck said, confused by the kindness.
"You're welcome. Feeling better?"
"Yes. Some." Though if Grier was hoping to win
Aleck to his side with acts of mercy, he was wasting his time.
Grier took his seat. "It's temporary. As long as you're
hosting a Monitor, the pain will come back."
Aleck shrugged. Old news.
"Why not break the connection?"
"I would never do that!" Aleck shook himself,
caught off guard by a man who would heal him in one second and suggest murder
in the next.
Grier cocked his head. "Why ever not? She can't help
you right now. You have no idea where you are. Wouldn't you benefit from a
clearer head? Think better without the pain?"
"Not as the expense of her life!"
Grier's eyes widened. "Aleck," he said, "severing
the bond with your Monitor can be excruciating. But it isn't fatal." He let
the words sink in. "Who told you that it was?"
He could be lying. He had to be lying. "I don't believe
you," Aleck said. Grier's expression softened with sympathy, and a cold
ball of dread formed in Aleck's gut.
"Just how many other misconceptions are you harboring,
Aleck sucked in a breath, cursing the anger that burned
through him. How was this man able to push all his buttons? His cocksure
disposition, probably. Graviel had said he was arrogant.
How to sway him?
The stray thought had come from Grier. Aleck kept his face
blank, hiding his glee. The Barozene must be wearing off. If he could distract
Grier from that fact, he had a chance. Aleck pasted on a smile. "You're
trying to get me to question myself. I won't do it."
Grier sat back in his chair. "Very well. Cling to your
lies." He tapped his fingers on his knee. "What is your current
Aleck clenched his jaw shut.
"The Organization's still growing them headstrong, I
see. Let me guess. Locate and report my whereabouts."
Silence was Aleck's answer.
"Don't bother denying it. I know I'm right. You're a
field agent, not an assassin." Grier leaned forward in his chair. "You
lack the killer instinct."
"They weren't going to kill you—"
"Please," Grier interrupted, "don't insult my
intelligence. I gather your contacting me wasn't a designated part of your
Aleck dropped his eyes.
Body language, Aleck. You're giving yourself away.
Aleck's head shot up, and Grier's eyes widened when he
realized Aleck had heard his thought. "Fighting through the drug already?"
He pushed a hand through his hair, the first sign of frustration Aleck had seen.
"It wasn't a stipulation of the assignment to make
contact with you," Aleck replied, ignoring Grier's previous question.
"I didn't think so." Grier mumbled. "Then why
"I make my own rules."
"This is no time for jokes."
Aleck jerked at the cuffs, but they held. "My mind is
"Is it?" Grier's face grew pensive. "We'll
see." He tilted his head back, taking a deep breath, and for the first
time Aleck noticed a jagged scar bisecting his throat. "Would you like to
know why I've been disavowed?" he asked, implying the obvious reason wasn't
the real reason at all. Exactly what Aleck's instincts had told him at the very
beginning. Intrigued in spite of his current predicament, Aleck nodded. "Very
well," Grier said. "Is it possible for you to listen without
"I'll do my best."
"Your record in that regard doesn't inspire a lot of
What could Aleck say to that? Nothing. Except, "I won't
It should have been a clear signal to begin, but Grier didn't.
Silent, he frowned at his folded hands. Aleck counted off the seconds, content
to let the drug work through his system while Grier gathered his thoughts.
"The summit two weeks ago," Grier said, pushing
the words out with a visible effort.
At the mention of the massacre, a directionless tide of
anger rose in Aleck. Nearly a hundred people had been killed. "Terrorists,"
he spat. "We were too late to prevent it."
Grier rubbed the back of his neck, but he didn't shy away
from Aleck's stare. "I'm responsible."
Truth, Aleck's instincts told him. His stomach turned over
in disgust. And also disappointment – part of him had wanted Grier redeemed.
Grier read him easily. "Condemning me already? You've
yet to hear my side of the story."
"I tried to stop it."
Aleck flinched at the tortured tone.
"Believe me, Aleck." His hands were locked around
each other, the knuckles white. "I've always worked under the same
precepts you have, and for many more years. I've never killed another person."
Aleck had. More than once. "Then you've been lucky."
Or maybe just very good at what he did. Better than most. Better than Aleck.
"I have been," Grier agreed. If he'd picked up on
Aleck's self-pity, he gave no sign. He unfolded his hands and laid them, palms
down, on his knees. "My assignment was to infiltrate a splinter group that
was rumored to have targeted the summit. I achieved this. My show of loyalty
was to help assassinate the key leaders in attendance. It was, as you can
imagine, a complicated plan. Security was impenetrable."
Not for a Gifted, it wouldn't have been. It went without
saying, so Aleck kept quiet.
"The Organization's goal… my goal… was to demobilize
the terrorist group and corral the ringleaders."
"When they were all more or less together. On the night
of the attack."
Grier nodded. He didn't chastise Aleck for speaking. "That
night," Grier paused and swallowed, "my instructions were to clear a
path through security for those planting the bomb. I did so. I'd planned to return
and disarm it once the arrests were underway." Grier fumbled for the empty
"Get some more," Aleck suggested, but Grier shook
his head and replaced the glass on the table.
"I was tricked."
"Detained." He spat the word out as if it were
"By our people," Aleck inferred, incredulous.
Grier stared him down, willing Aleck to deny it. "They
held me there despite my protests. When I tried to leave against their wishes,
I was restrained. I managed to escape, but not in time."
"Jesus." Floundering – because damn it to hell,
Grier's words rang with conviction – Aleck grasped at straws. "Just how
much of this do you expect me to swallow?"
"All of it." His tone had a finality to it. These
were the facts, as Grier knew them. Aleck could take or leave them. His call.
Nora's voice gained strength with each passing moment. The
drug had run its course. Aleck examined the plastic cuffs, then focused his
mind. They snapped at once, and needles of pain stabbed through his calves. His
arms fared the same. Aleck rolled his shoulders and stretched his legs out in
front of him.
Grier's only reaction was to sigh.
Aleck gave him a verbal nudge. "If all this is true,
then who's responsible?"
"I don't think you want to know."
"How do you know what I want?"
Grier paused. "It was Graviel," he said, voice
Aleck blinked. "Who?"
"You heard me."
Surprise pushed Aleck to his feet, and he had to grab for
the chair back when his legs threatened to give. "That's ridiculous."
Grier's gaze never wavered. "It's the truth."
"I don't believe it. He would never…."
"He would never what?" Grier rose and paced the
room. "Twist the truth? Bend the rules? Compromise his ethics? Well, I can
promise you, he's done all of that and more."
"I would have sensed any duplicity." Aleck was
Grier stopped short and swiveled to face him. "Would
you have?" he asked. "Open your mind, Aleck. You'll see the truth."
"My mind is open," Aleck said "As much as you've
let it be with your drugs. I won't turn my back on a man who's been like a fath—"
He cut himself off too late.
He expected Grier to latch on to his slip. Embarrass him.
Expose his bias. Grier did none of those things.
The setting sun had thrown the house into shadow. Grier
retreated into the dining nook – far enough into the gloom that Aleck had
trouble judging his expression – and stared out the window at the choppy water.
"My father liked to gamble," he said.
Alex blinked at the non sequitur.
"I'm sure I don't have to tell you where I spent most
of my Saturdays, once he knew what I could do." Grier's hand clenched, and
for a moment, Aleck worried for the window, but all Grier did was place his
fist against the pane. "Graviel took me away from all of that."
So they shared a dysfunctional childhood. Many Gifteds had
similar stories. Families that didn't understand. Parents that took advantage. It
wasn't enough. Aleck hobbled across the floor, closing the distance between
them. "You're laying the blame on his shoulders a little too easily for my
"Easily!" Grier spun on him. "He's manipulated
us from the beginning. Kept us tired and clouded. I suppose he tells you there
are no ill-effects from constant monitoring."
Aleck lifted his chin. "He's always been upfront about
"I'm sure." Grier leaned back against the window
and crossed his arms in front of him. "Do you remember what it feels like
to wake up rested, Aleck? No? How about going more than a day without your
"What about sex, since you've brought it up? When
was the last time you had it? For Christ's sake, when was the last time you
No way in hell was he answering that question. Before he
could deflect, Nora's voice sounded in his head. Aleck?
Aleck faltered when the brief contact fanned the flames of
his headache. Taking a shaky breath, he pressed his fingers to his temples.
"Ask her," Grier said.
"Ask her what?"
"You know what. Ask her about breaking your connection.
See what she says."
"I know what she'll say," Aleck said through the
reawakened pain. "She knows the consequences."
Grier hissed and turned back to the window. "Blind,
ignorant fool," he mumbled.
Blind and ignorant. Two things Aleck swore he'd never be
again. Grier's intimate knowledge of his emotional triggers was sinister. A
test, then. Nora, he answered.
Thank God. Nora's relieved voice sliced through his
head like a jackhammer. Aleck winced. Report.
I'm in trouble, Aleck replied.
How can I help?
Tell me the truth. He eyed Grier, but the man never
moved. Spine ramrod straight, he kept his back turned and his eyes on the lake.
Nora's answer was long in coming, and Aleck's flicker of doubt grew.
Okay, Nora said, wary.
He's going to kill me if I don't break our connection,
Aleck lied. But I won't do it if it means your death. A pregnant silence
Don't break the connection, Aleck. You'll be alone.
"You won't be alone."
Startled, Aleck realized Grier was watching him again. I'll
be dead, so it won't matter, Aleck said, continuing the ruse.
There must be another way.
No, Aleck said. There's no other way. Now – the
truth. Will you die if I break our bond?
She didn't answer, and Aleck felt his perfect little world
begin to crumble. Nora?
No, Aleck. It'll hurt like hell, but it won't kill me.
Aleck's breath left him in a rush. He reached out, steadying
himself on the window sill.
"Break it," Grier said.
Aleck tilted his head back against the glass. His heart was
racing – with anger, he realized. "Why didn't I ever see it? Why didn't I
ever sense it?"
Grier put his hand on Aleck's shoulder. "You didn't
want to. You never questioned what Graviel told you, so nothing rang false."
But it was all false. All questionable. His entire adult life
could be a sham. "I don't want to believe it," he whispered.
Grier's fingers pressed into his skin. "Please, Aleck. You
say Graviel can't be responsible for these things. Perhaps you're right."
Aleck grabbed at the words. "You don't really know what's
going on, do you?"
Grier shook his head. "You need the truth? I'll do what
I can to help you uncover it."
For a price, Aleck was sure. "You want something from
me in return."
"We both want something," Grier admitted. "You
might even say those somethings will determine the course of the rest of our
lives – as short as they may be. Whatever's happening, it's bigger than you and
I. It goes deeper than a sabotaged peace summit. It involves the Organization."
He paused. "It's time for you to decide. Are you going to crawl back to Graviel
for another round of corruption and lies? Or are you ready for the truth?"
The truth. Aleck knew it could go far beyond a painful
breach of trust. Every assignment was now suspect. Every life he'd taken was in
question. Had any been innocent? The odds were high. Too high to accept.
"I'll do it," Aleck said. "And God help him
if I don't like what I find." Even through his haze of anger, he felt
Grier's reaction: a combination of acceptance and relief. And on the periphery,
concern over Aleck's rage.
"However you find you've been wronged, remember your
That was rich. "What part?"
"The part that taught you responsibility."
Another of Graviel's axioms: gifts were for the principled. Good
thing irony was always up for grabs. Still, he wouldn't break his connection
without warning Nora. Despite her part in the deception, despite her lies, he
didn't hate her. I'm severing our bond, he sent. He felt her flinch.
If it keeps you safe, then do it.
With no additional warnings or explanations, Aleck reached
into his mind, found the source of their connection, and cut it. Just before
Nora's presence faded, a tendril of the backlash snuck through, stealing his
breath with its intensity. If Nora felt even a fraction of that pain, it would
be a fitting punishment.
Grier waited until Aleck collected himself. His hand crept
out, palm up, and Aleck took it, sealing their partnership.
"It begins," Grier said.
Nora braced herself for the pain, but the intensity of it still
caught her off guard. With a strangled yelp, she withered to the floor, pulling
a stack of papers with her. Waves of agony wracked her body. Time passed, she
had no idea how much, then a pair of arms encircled and steadied her as she
rode out the last of the bone-grinding tremors.
A questing presence in her mind filled the void left by Aleck's
withdrawal. "Easy now. The worst is over."
Nora doubted that. She peeked through her tear-damp hair.
Graviel looked calm. Too calm. His soothing mental touch betrayed nothing, but
she wasn't fooled.
"Better?" Graviel asked. He pulled back from Nora's
mind, ensuring his departure was slow and controlled.
Nora nodded. Her throat felt dry, her eyes scratchy. She'd
survived, but the experience wasn't one she'd forget.
Graviel fixed her with a grim look. "Is he dead, then?"
She tried to hide her shock, but Graviel was too perceptive.
His eyes narrowed to slits, and his lip peeled back in a silent snarl. He
hauled her off the floor and into a chair. Shocked by his strength, she had
little time to prepare before his barrage of questions began.
"He's not dead? Where is he? What happened? Why did he
break the connection?"
Nora fumbled with her glasses. "He's not dead. I don't
know where he is. He didn't say." Her voice caught on a sob. "May I
please have a drink?"
For a minute she thought Graviel would refuse. Then, without
a word, he snatched an empty glass from her table and carried it into the
kitchen. Wary, Nora watched him go. Her allegiance was to the Organization, but
her connection to Aleck was strong. They'd been paired many times. He trusted
her, at least he had. She still believed in him.
When Graviel returned with a glass of water, Nora drank it
down in three gulps. "Thank you," she whispered. Graviel nodded, but
didn't speak. His jaw was tight, his eyes twin shards of ice. He was waiting
Nora swallowed twice before she could speak. "I don't
know much else. He said his life was in danger. He, um…" She glanced at Graviel.
The man hadn't even blinked. "He didn't try to give me his location. I'm
guessing…I'm guessing he didn't know it."
Graviel stroked his beard as he digested the information. "You
say you believe he was unconscious for a time. It's likely he was unaware of
his exact whereabouts." He refocused on her. "Is that all?"
Nora took a deep breath. "That's all, sir," she
Graviel stared at her. Nora stared back, keeping her expression
open and her mind closed. She wasn't suicidal. Graviel could crush her with a
thought. Still, an uninvited probe of another Gifted would be an unforgivable
breach of etiquette. It was their creed, their unspoken law. She'd never known
Graviel to betray it.
Of course, she'd never known a situation like this one.
Hopefully it wasn't a day for firsts.
Her answers had been truthful, just not complete. Because at
the very last, before she and Aleck had been separated, she'd sensed no fear.
No danger. Instead there'd been confusion, betrayal, and a hot rush of anger,
tinged with bitterness and aimed at Graviel.
Nora would keep those facts to herself. She had no desire to
see Aleck added to the list of the hunted.
An eternity later, Graviel rose. He looked down at Nora,
face devoid of expression. "He's been compromised. That much is obvious,
despite the alarming lack of information. Alert the rest of the team."
While Nora made phone calls, Graviel excused himself to the
small bedroom and shut the door.
Damn Grier to hell and back. He'd take every opportunity to
poison Aleck's mind with his self-righteous propaganda when neither knew what
was at stake. Graviel's hands balled into fists. Twice now, he'd opened his
heart to other people. Twice now he'd been betrayed. He'd come to terms with
But Aleck…. Graviel knew the one thing that would drive him
away. "Trust is given freely once," he mumbled. He stumbled to the
bed and sank onto the edge. His cell phone sat on the bedside table, waiting. It
would be nothing to reach out. Grasp it. Seal both Aleck and Grier's fate.
Perhaps he should've confided in them both. Grier would've
understood the nature of their enemy. But would he have approved of Graviel's
unconventional solution? Probably not. And there was the crux of the matter. He'd
hoped it wouldn't happen, but he'd expected to lose Grier.
He'd not prepared himself to lose Aleck.
He scooped the phone off the table and dialed, blinking when
the numbers swam in front of his eyes. He pressed send and stared out the
window into the vibrant city beyond. "Forgive me, Aleck," he
Three thousand miles away, the phone was answered and Graviel
gave his report.
"Where are we going?"
The sullen tone made Grier's lips twitch. "I've made
arrangements to leave the country."
Aleck didn't comment, but did take increased notice of the
passing road signs. "Is that who you were talking to earlier?"
Grier considered ignoring him. "Yes," he relented,
"if you mean the phone call before we left the house. I needed to know
where to meet the plane."
Aleck shrugged. He was uncommunicative, still reeling from Graviel's
betrayal. It was, Grier knew, the first of many unpleasant realizations Aleck
would experience. He hoped the boy didn't pout this much after each such
The road stretched out before them. They'd wound down out of
the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania to an endless vista of rolling hills.
Besides the occasional passing car or stray cow, there was little to break the
monotony of farmland and pasture. Grier's lids drooped. Monitor or no, he'd
taxed himself to the limit of his capabilities. The warm car, the buzz of the
engine, and the plush seat worked in tandem to put him to sleep.
He fought it for an hour before Aleck roused from his sulk
to notice. "Why don't you rest? Let me drive."
Grier answered with a snort.
"You have to sleep sometime." Aleck turned away,
picking at a splotch of dried blood on his jeans. "You've got nothing to
fear from me. We've struck a bargain."
"So you say."
"I have some honor."
The implied more than you ever will made Grier
gnash his teeth. He didn't take the bait. "You have honor," he said
with a roll of his tired eyes. The car drifted to the shoulder and he jerked it
back onto the road. "You really are wet behind the ears."
"And you're exhausted. Let me drive." The cool,
unaffected tone belied Grier's accusation; Aleck hadn't reacted to the insult. "I've
given you my word. What more do you want, Grier?"
Now they were getting somewhere. Grier pulled onto the shoulder,
tossing gravel and dust into a cloud around the car and startling a groundhog
back under a pasture fence. The road was empty; there wasn't another car or
person in sight. "What I want is simple. In fact, you've probably already
guessed it. But as it's a rather important point – critical, you might say – it
bears repeating. Let's consider it a show of solidarity. How do you hide your
presence from me? Does it work on everyone? Who else has this talent?"
"Slow down." Aleck rolled down the window and
captured a deep breath of air. Grier did the same, willing his sleepy senses to
sharpen. "Let's cut to the chase, since I do know what you want,"
Aleck said. "How I hid myself from you…it's something that I can teach you."
Grier's nostrils flared. A spark of hope, the one that'd
died when he realized his New York sanctuary was compromised, took on new life.
"Obviously," Grier drawled. It was the proverbial
gold at the end of the rainbow. Hiding would still be his way of life, but at
least he could do so with a measure of peace. He glanced over to find Aleck
staring at him, face blank.
"Who can do it?" Aleck repeated, eyes locked on
Grier's. "Just me, at the moment. Well…" he paused, "and
Graviel, but he hasn't perfected it."
Grier slammed a fist against the steering wheel. He knew it'd
been too good to be true. Still, Graviel was just one person; he couldn't be
everywhere at once. "How kind of you to share," he said under his
"He asked nicely."
Well of course he would have. Graviel was all about
propriety – if he was serving afternoon tea. When it came to truth and honesty,
however, the old man took a pass. Grier indulged in a spot of self-indulgent
wallowing, then shoved it aside. Whatever friendship, whatever respect,
he believed had existed between Graviel and himself was dead. "This…ability…works
on everyone?" he asked, eyes focused on the road before them.
Aleck nodded. "I've never come across another Gifted
who could sense me if I was hiding myself. I can walk through a crowd of them
and not a single one would be the wiser."
Far more valuable than gold then. "Will you teach me?"
He phrased it as a question, in deference to Aleck's quirky desire for mutual
politeness. In the end, though, he knew Aleck would acquiesce. Solving the
mystery of Graviel's lies was too rich a boon. Check and mate. For better or
worse, they were now a team.
"Yes," Aleck said, confirming his suspicions. "I
Grier threw his door open. "Need a potty break? Please
"I'm good." Aleck unfastened his seatbelt. They
passed each other in front of the car and slipped into their new seats with
Grier waited until they were pulling back onto the road
before speaking. "No country music. No hip-hop, and don't even think about
tuning in to that psychopath Limbaugh."
Aleck floored the accelerator, and Grier fell back against
the seat with a grunt. "Anything else?"
"Yes. Don't sing."
"May I hum, master?"
Grier turned away before Aleck saw his lips twitch. He sank
into the seat and rested his forehead against the window. First he'd sleep,
then he'd beat back his growing affection for Aleck's dry wit.
"Where are we headed?"
"Go west, young man." Grier cracked an eye open. "Wake
me up in two hours."
"Yes, sir." Grier watched through lowered lids
while Aleck blew out a frustrated breath, then pushed a hand through his hair. "Ass,"
Grier closed his eyes. Despite his best efforts, a smile
crept across his face. "You know what, Devlin?" Aleck didn't answer,
and Grier risked another glance. Aleck had his hands at ten and two on the
steering wheel – didn't that just figure – and was concentrating on the road
like he was navigating through a tornado. A tic twitched in his jaw. Grier's
smile widened into a grin. "I've worked out part of your problem."
"Give me time. I expect the full scope of your neurosis
has yet to manifest."
Aleck swung to glare at him, and perhaps that dark, brooding
'fuck off' look worked on most, but all it did to Grier was kick his libido
into gear. Again. "Watch the road," he said, voice husky. Having
Aleck obey did nothing to dampen Grier's lust.
"You were saying?" Aleck asked, his tone equally strained.
What the hell had he been saying? The sharp rays of
the setting sun poured in through his window, and the drowsiness was setting
back in. He felt drunk with it, or maybe that was Aleck's presence. "I was
saying I'd figured out part of your problem."
"You're too damn honest." Grier closed his eyes.
He hadn't the energy to argue, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth,
he knew Aleck would want to debate them. He waited, growing groggier by the
minute, until Aleck spoke. Score one for predictability.
"Too honest. I'll work on that," Aleck said.
Disappointed, but too far gone to examine why, Grier slipped into a deep
Despite Grier's warnings, as soon as he was sleeping, Aleck
found a country music station and twisted the volume low. It was the act of a
rebellious teen, but he didn't care. He suspected Grier was so sound asleep
anyway that he'd snore through a war. The road began to twist and turn up
another mountain range, but traffic stayed light. Aleck had plenty of
opportunity to study his companion.
Even in sleep, Grier's body was tense; his fingers clutched
the seatbelt and his jaw shifted back and forth. His face was all sharp angles,
the features hawk-like. A shadow of dark hair covered his cheeks and chin.
Thoughtful, Aleck reached for his own face, scratching at the stubble as he
drove. His eyes wandered to Grier more than was prudent.
Two hours and twenty minutes later, he swung into a rest
stop, found a secluded parking space, and killed the engine. His head throbbed.
Tilting it back against the head rest, he listened to the ticking engine and
the distant sound of other travelers as they moved through the lot.
"Where are we?" Grier asked thickly.
"Somewhere in western Pennsylvania," Aleck said,
keeping his eyes closed. Beside him, Grier shifted and opened his door, and the
muted ruckus grew sharper. They sat together in silence for a time, listening.
Aleck tuned out the horns and engines and concentrated on the voices. Despite
the late hour, the lot was full. He opened his senses, surprised to find the
energy level so high. This time of night, most travelers were weary. He sure as
hell was. Beside him, he felt Grier doing the same, searching for other
Grier frowned. "You were there a minute ago, but now I
can't sense you."
Aleck smiled at the begrudged tone. "I think we're
alone. You're the only one I can feel in the immediate area."
"I concur." Again with the grudging respect. Aleck
held his tongue, not wanting to shatter their fragile peace. Grier swung his
legs out of the car. "I'll be back."
"I'll be along in a minute." Stretching his legs
would feel good, but first he needed to fight off his escalating headache.
Where had Grier stashed his painkillers?
"Behind my seat, side pocket of the duffel bag."
Grier smirked when Aleck blinked in surprise. "I don't need to read you to
know you're suffering. You do drama like a teenage girl."
The bag was easy to reach. Aleck hooked it with his right
hand and gave Grier the finger with his left. "Didn't you need to take a
piss?" The pills were right where they were supposed to be. Aleck resisted
the urge to claw the cap off.
"There's a bottle of water back there too." Grier
walked off, and Aleck dry-swallowed two capsules before fumbling behind the
seat for the water. Time was short, but he indulged in a light meditation,
turning his mind inward while he focused on easing the tension in his neck and
It was natural, as his body shut down, that his mind opened,
and he didn't fight it. He reached for Grier, keeping his touch light, but vigilant. He expected a rebuke, but none came. Pleased, Aleck tightened their connection. The thoughts of those around him dulled to a buzz. He felt the drug start to zing through his blood, dampening the last of the pain, and – now that Aleck knew what to look for – a good bit of his emotion. Eyes still closed, he frowned, for once resentful of the side-effect.
The sooner you wean yourself, the sooner you'll feel human again, Grasshopper, came Grier's voice.
"Christ, you're annoying," Aleck replied out loud. He sat up with a groan, pocketed the keys, and stepped out of the car. His body protested, and Aleck compensated by running through a short series of stretches. At the edge of his awareness, Grier's presence prickled with edginess. Aleck snorted and started across the parking lot. Did the bastard have any other state of mind besides grim and irascible?
He crossed under the harsh fluorescents of the gas station and started along the sidewalk to the restaurant, his stomach grumbling from the pervading odor of grease and smoke. Some carbs would do him good. And with the day he'd had, he deserved them.
A group of teenagers swarmed by, running toward the entrance, pushing each other as they raced to be the first inside. Aleck stepped out of their way, and in that minute, when his head was full of their adolescent ramblings, he sensed the presence of another Gifted.
He slammed his mind shut and stepped off the pavement into the shadows by the building's entrance. Hiding himself dulled his own senses to a certain degree, and knowing he'd just left Grier on his own with no warning kicked his concern up another notch. The chance that this person was a threat was slim, but it didn't pay to take chances. Aleck watched and waited. The sudden burst of adrenaline punched his headache back to full-force. No surprise there, and he could use the advantage. The pain helped him shake off the last of his lethargy.
He saw her before she saw him. Aleck hissed and slunk back against the brick, willing her not to turn her head. Of all the agents on the prowl that night, it had to be Kaye, one of the few Gifteds who knew him on sight. Her presence was no coincidence.
It'd been months since he'd seen her, but little about her appearance had changed. Little ever did. She swaggered by the nest of teens, and didn't even pause when every boy in the group swiveled to watch her pass. Her silk tank, pale pink, was tucked into the tightest pair of leather pants the boys had probably ever seen outside of Playboy, and her mass of blond hair framed a sculptured face and sky-blue eyes. Kaye had never believed in fading into the background, even on assignment.
She pushed through the doors and disappeared inside. Aleck waited a few seconds, then followed.
The noise was a physical thing, as stifling as the mass of bodies. His senses were tuned low, so he heard very little mental chatter. Entering a closed space with so many people meant muting his awareness, drowning out the thoughts of others so he could think. Grier would've done the same. Which meant he didn't know Kaye was following.
With fast food restaurants along the perimeter and seating in the middle, the building resembled a sports arena. A convenience store occupied one end of the dome and a bank of restrooms the other. Aleck had been mere seconds behind, but already Kaye was lost in the crowd.
"Fuck!" He risked stepping into the open and was rewarded with a flash of blonde hair near the alcove that housed the bathrooms. Aleck followed.
His heart slammed against his chest as he worked his way through the press of people. By the time he'd reached the wide hall that led to the toilets and vending machines, he'd traded panic for calm. His shoes made no sound on the tile and his body was loose and ready to fight. In increments, he opened his mind, casting out for Grier. All that bounced back was distress and anger. Then, in a condensed burst, pain.
Aleck broke into a run, bypassing both restrooms for the door marked "Employees Only" at the end of the corridor.
He skidded to a halt by the door, cursing at the electronic keypad. A simple lock he could've tumbled in a heartbeat, but not this. Another flash of pain pushed the air from his lungs. Tinged with fear – the first Aleck had felt – it faded after a few seconds.
Aleck slapped his palm over the pad, but before he could focus, the door swung outward, pushed by a man with a rolling bucket and mop. "Hey," he said to Aleck. "This area's off-limits, buddy."
"Move," Aleck snarled.
The man gasped with the force of the suggestion and jumped aside, tripping over his bucket and crashing to the floor. Aleck barreled through. To hell with caution.
The door opened on a string of connected kitchens for the food court restaurants. In the first, two men in matching blue visors chopped vegetables while their coworkers chatted in low voices over a sizzling deep fryer. They all stared when he rushed in. So much for slipping by unnoticed. Aleck ignored their curious looks and ploughed ahead to the next room. There, a half a dozen girls in red and white-striped shirts worked side by side, prepping pizzas. Stacks of flat cardboard boxes littered the floor, and an oven along the back wall threw garlic-smelling heat into the room. Aleck drew up short, panting. One of the girls gave a low cry and dropped her ladle. Another watched him with wide-eyes while she groped for the phone.
"Don't," Aleck said. "Keep working. Everything's fine."
Her hand stalled midair as the order penetrated her mind. "Okay." She went back to kneading her dough. The others followed suit, spreading sauce and shredded cheese onto the pizza shells, their jerky, uncoordinated movements indicative of forced suggestion.
Aleck spun in a circle. No sign of Grier or Kaye.
"Fuck it." He opened himself, exposing his presence to any Gifted that might be close. In return the world sharpened, like a camera brought into sudden focus. He sensed the girls' trepidation and heard their unspoken questions, but couldn't locate Grier. Enough wasted time. He chose the closest one and probed her mind.
She'd seen them. Five minutes ago. Grier first, then Kaye. Aleck jogged across the kitchen, through a short hall, and into the next area. There was no need to question any of the three people here. They were all sprawled on the floor, still as death. He knelt by the first, a teenage boy with the nametag Kurt pinned to his green polo, and checked his pulse. Just unconscious. Aleck blew out a relieved breath.
His connection with Grier buzzed and crackled. He was close, very close. More pain came, localized at his right shoulder. Aleck winced, but drew the sensation in instead of deflecting it, searching for the source.
There. He spun round to a door in the back, near the exit. A white laminate sign mounted on it said Dry Storage. Next to that was a hand-written post-it note that read order more napkins.
Aleck pushed the handle, edged the door open, and slipped inside. His silent entrance hadn't gone unnoticed. Grier lay on his side, facing the door. He was holding his right arm, and his lip was curled back in a grimace of pain. He looked straight at Aleck, but not a flicker of emotion crossed his face.
Kaye stood over him, brandishing a stun pen. "Where is he? Tell me!"
That answered one question. They hadn't felt his approach because they were both closed off, each protecting themselves from the other. It accounted for Kaye's choice of weapon. Her mental attacks, which were formidable, had proved ineffective against Grier's shields.
"Tell me!" she shouted again.
Grier shook his head.
"If you've hurt him, I swear to God--"
"Kaye," Aleck said. She spun at the sound of his voice. He took another step into the room, keeping one eye on the stunner as he slid closer. "I'm right here. I'm fine."
"Aleck." The warmth in her voice didn't last long. Her eyes narrowed. "You don't look like a prisoner to me."
"You're a clever one," Grier said with a grunt.
Kaye ignored him. Not a good sign. "And why is that? What's going on?" In the kitchen, someone screamed. A volley of shouts followed. Kaye backed up several steps, pressing herself against the wall. Her attention shifted between Aleck and Grier. "I was led to believe you were a hostage."
"By whom?" Aleck questioned.
"Who do you think?"
Graviel, of course. Aleck shook his head. "You were misled."
"Oh, for Christ's sake, enough of the games," Grier snarled. He reached out with his good hand and hauled himself to his feet, using the metal rack as leverage. Kaye watched, stunner tracking his movements. Grier jerked his chin in Aleck's direction. "As you can see, he's fine. So now what are you going to do?"
Aleck bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to jump at Kaye if she made a move in Grier's direction. The shouts from the kitchen grew more frantic, and Aleck nudged the door closed with his foot. It was thick and heavy, and the storeroom was down a short hall from the kitchen, but their hiding place wouldn't remain safe for long.
"What am I going to do?" Kaye took a deep breath and lowered the stun pen. "What can I do? I don't want any of us dead. Even you, Crist, and especially not Aleck or myself. I'm going to ask you to trust me." She ignored Grier's snort. "You can. Aleck does." She shot Aleck a tense smile. He didn't return it.
"No way in hell." Grier stumbled when his fingers slipped off the shelf, but he kept his feet. Aleck saw him flexing his fingers, testing the returning strength.
Kaye extended an imploring hand. "Let me bring you in. The fact that you haven't hurt Aleck will count for a lot. Come with me. Explain your actions." The stunner dropped further toward the floor. "He still believes in you."
There was no need to ask whom she meant. Even through Grier's shields, Aleck felt his spike of emotion.
"Does he?" Grier spat. "Please let him know that the sentiment isn't returned."
Kaye's smile faltered. "You've been given another chance, Crist. Don't fucking blow it. Let me bring you in."
"Not a chance."
Aleck read Kaye's intentions a split second before she acted – too late to warn Grier. She struck with the speed of a cobra, pulled, and dozens of boxes and cans flew from the shelves above and rained down on top of them. Grier rolled against the wall, shielding his head, and most of the projectiles bounced onto his shoulders and away. Aleck's precognition saved his life. He leapt to the side just as the shelf behind him broke away from the wall and crashed to the floor where he'd been standing a moment before.
Kaye's rush of triumph hit with the strength of a bullet, stealing his breath. So much for wanting him alive and well.
A box of cocktail napkins had burst open, spreading like a fan over a puddle of ketchup. Aleck took a running leap over the mess and landed next to Kaye. She whipped around, stun pen aimed at his chest, but Aleck was still off-balance, sliding on the spilled ketchup. He twisted and went down hard on one knee. Kaye stabbed at him again, but he deflected her arm with a vicious uppercut. The weapon flew across the room and under the collapsed shelf. Aleck shifted his weight, ready to kick Kaye's feet out from under her, but Grier was already there. He struck from behind with a bottle of olive oil, and Kaye's eyes rolled back in her head. She dropped like a brick. Aleck caught her and lowered her to the floor. He checked her pulse and pupils before glowering at Grier. "You hit her too hard."
Grier dropped the oil. It landed with a splat next to Kaye's shoulder. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." He nudged her with his toe, but she didn't move. "You know each other, I take it."
"Never seen her before in my life."
"There's a time and place for jokes, Aleck." Grier inched the door to the storeroom open and glanced outside. "Should I be relieved or scared that nobody came to investigate that racket?"
"Relieved, for now." Aleck smoothed Kaye's hair off her forehead before standing. "I'm a glass half-full kind of guy."
"I knew there was something else I didn't like about you."
"Besides my affection for country music?"
Grier ignored the remark and gestured at Kaye. "You've worked with her before."
It rankled to admit, but, "Yes. More than once."
"So you share a connection." This seemed to worry Grier more than anything else. "She can hurt you with it."
Grier answered with an arched eyebrow. "Do we bother with restraints?"
Aleck shook his head. "They won't hold her." Kaye's golden hair was matted and red. Ketchup accounted for most of it, but blood was trickling from a small cut on the back of her head. She twitched, then stirred. Aleck tensed. "She has a Monitor, I'm sure. We need to go."
"She'll follow as soon as she's able."
Aleck stood, facing off with Grier over Kaye's prone form. "I'm not going to kill her."
"Now you grow a conscience. Fine, let's go." Grier snatched a small paper bag off the floor and shoved it at Aleck. "Here."
"Your dinner." Grier moved to the door, and Aleck followed. "Don't say I never gave you anything."
They slunk down the short hall into the kitchen. A dozen people, including two security guards were gathered around the unconscious workers. "Hey!" one shouted. "You! Stop right there." Every head in the crowd swiveled in their direction. One, a girl from the next kitchen over, gasped and pointed. "That's them!"
Grier spoke to Aleck from the corner of his mouth. "We don't have time for this."
"I know." Aleck's eyes darted about the room, casting about for options. "Can you open the gas on those burners from here?"
Grier followed his gaze to the row of stovetops. "Are you trying to kill us or save us?"
"Can you?" Aleck growled. "Or not?"
Grier nodded, and Aleck swung his focus back to the security guards, trusting Grier to follow through. One started across the kitchen toward them, brandishing his billy club. He was looking Aleck right in the eye. Perfect. At the junction of the two cooking islands, Aleck stabbed a suggestion into his mind. The guard grunted and stumbled, then turned and cranked the gas burners to high. Flames whooshed to the ceiling. Several people in the crowd screamed. A moment later, as Aleck had hoped, a fire alarm pierced the air, and the sprinklers came to life, showering the room with water.
Glorious chaos. Grier even deigned to laugh as they fled through the kitchens and back into the hallway near the restrooms. Even there the sprinklers were spitting water, and Aleck thrust the bag of food under his jacket, protecting it from the deluge.
Navigating the crowd wasn't easy, but hundreds of people fleeing in a blind panic provided the perfect cover. Kaye's Monitor was likely close, maybe even in the building, but that wasn't the worst of it. Reinforcements were on the way – Aleck had little doubt about that – and those were the real danger. They'd come in numbers, and they'd come prepared. A solid head start was Aleck and Grier's best hope.
They were in a dead run halfway across the parking lot when Aleck felt Kaye fight her way to consciousness. Before he could cloak his presence, pain exploded through his head. Kaye clawed into his mind, screaming in frustration, and her rage drove him to his knees, turned his stomach inside out, and made him retch onto the pavement.
Dimly, Aleck felt Grier heft him up and over his shoulder, a move that drove an agonized cry from his lungs. Kaye struck again, too fast for him to defend himself, and his body convulsed, mouth contorting in a rictus of pain.
"Push her out! Hide yourself!" Grier demanded.
He couldn't. Fighting was beyond him. Breathing took all his strength. They reached the car and Grier tossed him into the passenger seat, where Aleck curled into a ball. He managed one gasping breath before Kaye struck again. It felt like a thousand hot needles sinking into his forehead. The bitch was using their connection to hurt him. At least Grier wasn't rubbing his face in it. Yet.
Grier swung into the driver's seat, slammed the car into gear, and they roared out of the parking lot and toward the onramp. "Any better?"
It was. Her attacks became less productive with distance. He ached everywhere, and his mouth felt swollen and dry, like it was stuffed with cotton. Rather than croak an answer, he nodded.
Grier hunched over the steering wheel. "I'm not going to say it."
"You bastard," Aleck said with a husky laugh. "You're thinking it. That's enough."
"What made you believe she wouldn't exploit your connection?" Grier grumbled something to himself before adding, "Too trusting. I'm adding that to your list of faults."
"Noted," Aleck conceded. "And also, fuck you."
Grier swung the car around a luggage-laden station wagon and roared up the shoulder, scraping the guard rail for a few seconds before shooting back onto the asphalt. The onramp ahead of them was clear, and he floored the accelerator. The engine protested with a high whine, but the car surged ahead, picking up speed. "Stay down," he hissed at Aleck when he stretched up to the window. "You don't need to give her a target."
"She doesn't need to see me for that." But he stayed crouched low, cursing Kaye, Graviel, and the whole fucking Organization.
"Might as well add me to that list," Grier said, and Aleck heaved an exhausted laugh.
"Am I broadcasting?"
"No." Grier frowned, pensive. "But I heard you loud and clear."
"Fantastic," was all Aleck could say to that. Now he had some sort of twisted bond with Grier. A weakness that, after Kaye's betrayal, made him uncomfortable and ambivalent.
Whatever hope, however small, that might have existed for him to reconcile with the Directorate was gone. He'd assaulted another agent, disobeyed a direct order to surrender himself, and – this was the worst – helped Grier escape. "I'm fucked."
"Agreed, but let's be fair, shall we?" Grier glanced at him, his face reflecting the pale glow of the dash lights. "You were pretty much fucked before now."
It was the truth. Aleck still hated him for saying it.
A sharp stab of pain knifed through his temple, followed by a wave of Kaye's seething rage, and he doubled over, groan escaping before he could choke it back. He laid his cheek on his knee and gritted his teeth against the urge to vomit. Grier's hand alighted on the back of his neck, blessedly cool. "Breathe through it."
"Fuck, it hurts."
"You have a foul mouth." Fingers curled into the hair at the nape of his neck. "Now shut up and listen. Listen to my voice."
It wouldn't be a hardship. Anything would beat Kaye's screeching anger. The indirect light of the passing headlights burned through his eyelids, going bright, then dark, then bright again, matching the ebb and flow of pain in his head.
"Are you listening, Aleck?"
"Yeah," Aleck rasped.
"She can't keep this up forever, and soon we'll be far enough away that she won't be able to reach you."
Reminding Grier that Kaye was already on their tail – and that she drove like a maniac – didn't seem worth the effort. Grier's fingers petted his neck, and Aleck concentrated on that and how it siphoned away some of his agony.
"I'm going to say this now before my good sense convinces me it's unnecessary." Grier's fingers stilled. "Thank you."
Despite everything, Aleck smiled. He bet that had hurt.
"Also, your actions were reckless and put innocent people in danger. As you're suffering from a head injury I'll forgive the sloppiness."
Aleck sighed when the fingers resumed their hypnotic stroking. "Thanks. I think." Kaye's voice grew dimmer, and Aleck turned his head so he could look at Grier. "You didn't give me much of a choice on how to play it. How did she corner you like that?"
A muscle twitched in Grier's jaw. "I was distracted."
"Just so we're clear – did you just admit to making a mistake?"
Grier swerved around another car. "I felt you shut yourself off."
"Sorry 'bout that. Couldn't warn you." Lifting onto his elbows didn't cause the pain to come crashing back, so Aleck risked sitting up against the seat. Grier's hand stayed with him, massaging.
"I understand. It was fair warning on its own. After that, I did what I could to lead her away from the crowds." He winced and rolled his shoulder. "She's a vindictive bitch, isn't she?"
As understatements went, it took the prize. "You could say that."
"She was worried for you."
"Until she realized—" Aleck cut the last part off. Until she'd realized that his loyalties had shifted, he'd almost said. Verbalizing it made it more real. He wasn't quite ready for that.
"Yes. Until then," Grier agreed. He pulled his hand away from Aleck's neck and nudged the crumpled paper bag. "Eat, if you can."
The intensity of Kaye's attack had slackened. All that remained was a furious, far-off echo of her rage. Aleck inhaled, taking in the odor of fried chicken, and waited for his stomach's verdict. It grumbled. "I think I can," he said, surprised. He unfurled the grease-stained bag and fished out a drumstick. "We should get off the highway."
"You're a brilliant strategist." Grier threw him a napkin. "Wipe your face."
"Christ, you're fussy." Aleck swiped it across his lips. "How far until the next exit?" He extracted another piece of chicken and waved it under Grier's nose. "Come on. Don't be a snob. You haven't eaten either."
Grier's expression made it clear Aleck might as well have been offering raw human flesh. "No. Thank you."
Aleck shrugged and dug into it himself. "Your loss."
"I'll cope. And we won't be taking the next exit. She'll expect that. Besides, the one we want is only a few miles farther along. We're less than an hour from our destination."
Aleck tossed the chicken bone back into the bag. There was a third piece near the bottom, but his head was starting to pound and his palms were damp. Another migraine, big surprise. Best not to risk stuffing himself if there was a chance of losing it all later. The adrenaline had burned off whatever good the first two pills had done, and it was still too early for more. Aleck kept strict control of his habit. He'd just have to suffer. "Mind if I try to rest?"
"I suggest you do." Grier's tone had lost its gruff edge. "Your mind's taken a beating today. I'm surprised you're still standing."
"Well, I'm not," Aleck mumbled. "Standing." Another tractor trailer came into view, and Grier moved into the left lane to pass it. They flew by too fast for Aleck to read the name painted onto the side, which meant the truck was crawling or Grier was speeding. "You'll get pulled over."
"You'd prefer your harpy friend catches us?"
Good point. "Okay." Aleck closed his eyes. "I defer to your superior judgment."
"About fucking time."
Aleck fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Crawford County airport was little more than a pub with a runway attached. There were aviation offices, with wide oak doors and engraved nameplates, but they were locked, and Grier noted a layer of dust on the fancy brass handles. He walked past without even bothering to knock. Around the other side of the terminal, a bar, complete with Pacman and a listing pool table, promised 'the coldest, most refreshing draft beer in town'.
There was a man huddled over his alcohol who looked promising. Tie askew, he was mumbling at the television, nursing a half-empty glass of piss-colored beer. The bartender was nowhere in sight. Grier stepped up and cleared his throat. "I need access to the tarmac, if you please. My plane is waiting."
"Oh yeah?" The man glanced over his shoulder. He took another long draw from his glass, depositing a foam mustache across his upper lip, and spun around on his bar stool. "That's your plane out there?"
"Yes." He'd glimpsed it through the fence. Keev's Lear was unmistakable. Flamboyant, but state of the art. Grier has used it more than once.
"It's missing a proper flight plan."
"That's because I don't want you to know where I'm going."
"You—" The man lumbered off his stool. He reeked of cheap beer. "You need to file a flight plan. That part's not optional, sir." He poked at Grier's chest with one chubby finger.
It was the poking that snapped Grier's temper. Lightning-quick, he grabbed the man's hand and squeezed. He reached into his mind and did the same. The man's eyes bulged. "Your interest in my private affairs is flattering," Grier said, voice low and calm, "but I won't be filing a flight plan. In fact, as soon as that plane has cleared the runway, you'll forget it was ever here."
The man's eyes lost focus. "That's right," he wheezed, pliant in Grier's grip. "I will."
"And I'll add, if I may, that you are a disgusting pig."
"Yes!" Bobbing his head made the man's double chin wiggle. "I am."
As a rule, such petty games were beneath him, but the day had been long. Grier could practically taste Keev's expensive scotch, and all he wanted was to be air-born so he could drink himself into the oblivion of sleep. At his current state of exhaustion, it wouldn't take much. And what trouble could Aleck get into while 35,000 feet above the earth? The trip should be peaceful.
He released the man's hand. "Your agreement pleases me. Shall we?"
"Let me just get the keys." The man knocked over a barstool in his rush to do Grier's bidding. He charged out the door like a bull, huffing for air after three steps. Grier's lip twisted; calling the man a pig had been more accurate than he'd realized. He was righting the stool when the bartender pushed through the swinging doors that connected the main area to the kitchen. He frowned at the abandoned beer. "Where'd Stu go?"
"He'll be along." Grier nudged at the bartender's mind, then rolled his eyes. "Go back to your internet porn."
The bartender blinked but obeyed without a word. The door swung shut behind him, and Grier took advantage of the unexpected solitude. He sent a tentative thought in Aleck's direction, and – to his surprise – received one in return. Nothing so complicated or cumbersome as words. Just a gentle return push: all clear. A refreshing turn of events, but bound not to last considering the way his luck had failed him so far that day. He thought again of Keev's well-stocked bar, and his mouth watered.
Stu returned, a large ring of keys in hand. If he knew what even a quarter of them were for, Grier would be shocked. "Excellent. Let's be on our way." He shooed Stu out the door. The nearest gate just happened to be the one closest to Keev's Learjet. Grier's eyes narrowed when he saw Aleck waiting for them. The night breeze was cool, and the whelp was propped up against the fence, shivering. Grier's bags were at his feet.
"I told you to wait in the car." A thorough once-over told him everything Aleck's stubborn silence didn't. The man's lips were pressed into a thin line, and he was clutching his arms close to his chest. Grier frowned. "Take a pill."
Aleck started to shake his head, then winced. "No."
Obstinate idiot. Grier approved of the effort, but the last thing he wanted was Aleck writhing in pain for the whole trip. No one would get any sleep. "We'll talk about it onboard." He accepted Aleck's silence as tacit agreement.
Stu began sifting through the keys, mumbling to himself as he held one after another up to the light. Aleck rubbed his temple while he watched. "Problem with the locals?"
"Not at all," Grier replied.
Stu stopped fussing with the keys and extended his hand to Aleck. "Hello! My name is Stu. I'm a pig."
Aleck shot Grier a dirty look. Grier shrugged, smile playing at his lips while Aleck shook the man's hand, then squeezed his arm. "You're not a pig." He reinforced his words by removing Grier's original subliminal suggestion and then thanked him for his help.
Didn't it figure that Grier had gone fifteen years without a partner, only to be saddled at this juncture with a god-damned boy scout. "Don't confuse the nice man, Aleck."
Aleck gave Stu's arm a final pat. "Was that necessary?"
"He was curious about our destination." And rude, not to mention repulsive. Grier had the facts on his side.
"I am," Stu piped up, dropping the keys again. "Curious. It's my job." Grier's temper began to simmer, a fact not lost on Aleck. Stepping forward, he put himself between the two. The sudden move sent him stumbling, but he caught a handful of fencing before he toppled. Only the strictest measure of self-control stopped Grier from reaching to steady him.
"Of course you are," Aleck said. "And your job's important." He took the heavy ring of keys and slipped them into Stu's pocket. Then he placed his hand over the gate latch. A moment later, the lock disengaged.
Grier's eyes narrowed, but impressed won out over angry. "Neat trick. Could you have mentioned it before?"
Aleck shrugged. "I've been able to tumble locks since I was five. Anyway, you still needed to deal with the flight plan issue."
Wobbling, he turned, and this time Grier didn't fight the urge. He elbowed Stu out of the way and slipped an arm around Aleck's waist. "Through being a hero?" he snarled in his ear.
Aleck shivered, but didn't answer.
"Have a safe trip!" Stu called as they slipped through the gate and started across the tarmac. "Where are you going again?"
"Now that's a man who takes his job seriously," Aleck said with a raspy chuckle.
Behind them, the Learjet's engine roared to life. Their little drama was being observed. Aleck turned back to answer, placing him chest to chest with Grier. He had to yell to be heard over the noise. "Disney World. It's my first time."
Stu shifted from one foot to the other. The keys jingled in his pocket. "Really?"
"It's his dream to ride the teacups," Grier said.
"Oh! I love the teacup ride." Stu waved.
Grier spun back to the plane, dragging Aleck with him. "I'll refrain from making all the obvious jokes."
"Not on my account, I hope. I can't get enough of your clever repartee."
If the barb had been delivered with dry humor instead of repressed pain, Grier may have enjoyed the exchange. But Aleck was mentally and physically compromised, and it was simple enough to call the pull in Grier's gut concern rather than the far more dangerous alternative.
The pilot met them at the base of the steps. Unlike any pilot Grier had ever seen, he wore ripped denim shorts and a tropical print button-down. The words Elvis Lives were tattooed across his left bicep. Black, curly hair protruded from beneath his Chicago Cubs ball cap. He greeted Grier and Aleck with a curt nod. "Gertrude and tagalong?"
The whine of the engine swallowed Grier's bark of laughter. "That's us."
The pilot gave Aleck a thorough once-over. "You pass." To Aleck's raised eyebrow, he said, "Orders from the boss. If you were too pretty, I was supposed to leave you behind."
Aleck's scowl was priceless. Grier drew him closer. "That sounds like Keev. Good thing you look like you've come through a war," he said into Aleck's ear as the pilot turned and climbed back into the plane.
"I'm sure your friend thought you were bringing a woman."
"I'm sure you couldn't be more wrong."
Grier helped Aleck navigate the narrow steps that led into the plane, then signaled to the lush bench tucked into one side of the aircraft. Two facing seats, a table between them, took up the other. Aleck grabbed the bulkhead as he surveyed the posh layout. "I'll take one of the seats."
"You'll take the couch. Stop acting like a child."
"I'm capable of making my own decisions."
"You're incapable of standing on your own at the moment. Are you trying to be a liability? If you've changed your mind and want me dead, just say so."
Aleck stiffened. Grier took advantage, swinging him past the wet bar, into the narrow aisle, and onto the long bench. Aleck went with all the cooperation of a rabid dog. The snarl he leveled at Grier when he let him go added to the imagery. Grier collapsed into one of the empty seats, then pointed lazily at him. "Play dead."
With a hiss of pain, Aleck flipped onto his side and glared. "Enjoying yourself?"
"I'm getting there."
"Are you sure you don't want me to fetch?"
"I thought about asking you to roll over." Grier fastened his seatbelt as the plane began to taxi. "But I doubt you're up to it." That shut him up. So sexual innuendo silenced Aleck as effectively as a gag. He'd be sure to take advantage of that, and often.
A curt warning from the pilot – "One for the money. Two for the show. Three to get ready. Now go, cat, go!" – and the plane surged ahead, engines roaring. When the lurch in Grier's stomach let him know they'd cleared the runway, he took his first deep breath in hours. The plane went into a steep climb, then arced south.
South. Safety, or at least the illusion of it. In truth, the plane was carrying them straight to the lion's den. Even if Roman was in Europe, meeting with Keev was a risk. Grier had given cursory thought to what his friend had hinted at over the phone, but if even a fraction of it were true, the Organization would have its eyes on Keev Petrova.
As the aircraft leveled off, Aleck made a small sound. He'd turned and was pressed face-first against the back of the cushioned bench. Not asleep. No one could rest while that tense. His spine was bowed, his shoulders hunched. His one visible hand was clenched on a belt buckle. Grier slipped from his seat and knelt on the floor next to him, frowning when Aleck flinched from his gentle touch. "What can I do?"
Aleck's laugh was stifled against the soft leather. "Erase this whole damn day?"
"Why stop there? As long as we're being escapist—" His lips twitched when Aleck gave another pained laugh, "—let's redo the entire month. Four weeks ago, I was in Rio. I was between assignments, Monitor-free, and my biggest concern was what seafood to sample for dinner."
"Sounds nice," Aleck wheezed.
"It was." Even if it hadn't been as carefree as he let on. He'd been well aware that something was afoot with Graviel. One hint to his old friend of his suspicions had landed him a two-week vacation in Brazil. Who was it that said that every man could be bought? They'd been right.
As before, Grier cupped the back of Aleck's neck in his palm and massaged the area. He kept up a steady monologue while stealing deep into Aleck's mind, dilating constricted blood vessels and numbing pain synapses. The muscles began to relax under his deft fingers, and Aleck sighed. "I feel like a puppy with you petting me all the time. Don't say it."
"I've no idea what you mean."
"You make me crazy," Aleck whispered.
Grier bit back his glib response. "How are you feeling?"
"Do you want me to keep going?"
"No. I'd hate that."
The attempt at humor earned him a reward; Grier pressed into the muscles, working his fingers in tighter circles until the cramps were gone and he'd pulled forth an appreciative groan. The needy sound stabbed through him like an arrow, and he jerked his hand away. Aleck made a wordless sound of protest. He rolled onto his back, assessing with half-lidded eyes. "What's wrong?" Then, without waiting for Grier to answer, said, "I can sense what you're feeling."
Grier stood and stepped back into his seat. "Congratulations."
"You didn't seem to mind before." Aleck propped himself up on his elbows. His face had lost its blotchy flush, and his eyes were clearer. "Why does it matter all of a sudden?"
Because the sentiment wasn't returned. However genuine Aleck's attentions had seemed, they'd been an act. A ruse to infiltrate Grier's apartment. Pursuing what wasn't on offer wasn't Grier's style. "Get some rest."
Aleck settled back onto the cushion. "What are you going to do?"
"Drink. Think. Sleep."
"A three-pronged strategy. I'm impressed."
"You should be. This isn't MacGyver. Surviving is going to take actual intelligence and planning."
Aleck yawned and threw an arm over his eyes. "Don't knock MacGyver. You haven't seen what I can do with a roll of duct tape."
Grier snapped his eyes shut. "Lights to low," he barked, and the cabin dimmed, leaving only a pale halo of light from the cockpit.
Aleck whistled. "Fancy. Is there a voice command to extract that pole from your ass?"
"Why? Did you need it for something?"
Blessed silence followed. Grier enjoyed his victory for a moment before going to raid Keev's liquor stash. By the time he'd poured himself three fingers of scotch and rounded up two ice cubes, Aleck was asleep, mouth parted and cheek cupped against his palm.
The intercom hissed, and the pilot's deep voice flowed over him like molasses. "Welcome to Love Me Tender Airways. Your approximate flying time to paradise will be four hours and fifty minutes. Make yourself at home, relax, and enjoy the flight. Let's rock, everybody. Let's rock."
Grier tilted his seat back and held the glass against his lips, reveling in the sharp odor of the liquor. Keev loved to surround himself with eccentric people; they tempered his mercurial nature. Being Roman Petrova's son would twist even a saint, and Grier had never begrudged Keev his bouts of ego. The boy was also prone to acts of selflessness, though predicting when those would occur was useless.
For a man just out of his early twenties, he'd seen much. Too much, Grier often thought. Their first meeting had proved that.
Paseo de la Reforma shimmered in the unforgiving Mexican sun, its sidewalks crammed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the parade. Under the portico of The Four Seasons, Grier smoked and watched. Snatches of conversations, some in Spanish, others in English, drifted to his ears, but none interested him. He crushed the hand-rolled cigarette under his shoe and slipped through the door before the bellhop could open it for him.
The lobby bustled, but with none of the brash reality of Reforma. Money smoothed such things. Expensive perfume and leather scented the air instead of sweat and local tobacco. Grier bypassed reception and rode the lift to the eighth floor. The bodyguard stationed outside the Presidential Suite took one look at him as he stepped off the elevator and reached beneath his suit jacket.
"Stop." Grier put his hand on the bodyguard's shoulder. "Time for your break. I'm here to relieve you."
"Oh." The bodyguard took one step, then turned, eyes clearing. "Wait—"
"I said, time for your break." Grier wasn't surprised the man was able to shake the mental suggestion. Petrova could afford the best, and often employed borderline Gifteds. "Take an hour," Grier said, putting more force behind his words the second time. "You deserve it."
"Damn right I do." The man buttoned his suit coat and headed for the elevator. "Petrova's a first-class prick."
"So I hear," Grier said to the bodyguard's retreating back. He knocked on the door, and a moment later Keev Petrova himself opened it. Barefooted, dressed in a loose linen shirt and black pants, he smiled at Grier.
"Ah, there you are." He swung the door wide. "Please come in."
Grier did, then shoved Keev hard against the wall. The boy's gasp was a little too enthusiastic for his taste. "Why are you following me?"
"It's complicated." To Grier's snarl, Keev amended, "but explainable. Not, however—" he pushed Grier away, "—before breakfast." He sauntered further into the suite and gestured at the elaborate spread of food. "Shall we?"
Grier eyed the table set for two. "Expecting someone?"
"You, of course. Champagne?" Keev extracted a bottle from a silver bucket. "Only the best for you, Grier Crist."
Wary, Grier sat, then nodded. Keev popped the cork and poured two glasses. "To us," he said, lifting his in a toast.
Grier didn't drink. "Are you even legal?"
"This is Mexico," Keev said with a roll of his eyes. "They spike the baby bottles with Sangria. And I won't answer that question on principle. You know how old I am."
Twenty-one. Grier knew quite a lot about Keev and the effort to finagle him away from his father. He'd been one of Graviel's few failures, and a spectacular one at that. Grier sipped his champagne. "Changed your mind about the Organization?"
"No. Just you." Keev's tongue darted out to lick the edge of his glass.
Grier cut into his Eggs Benedict while he mulled the odd turn of events. "Does your father use you like this often?"
"He doesn't use me at all. That's the difference between you and I."
Another stab at Graviel. What had the old man done to him? As Grier watched, Keev poured himself a second glass of champagne. He'd yet to pick up his fork. "What do you want?" Grier asked.
Keev shrugged. "Same as you. World peace."
They both chuckled.
"I thought the big money was in war and strife," Grier said. He accepted the strawberries, ignoring Keev's blatant caress as the bowl changed hands.
"For those who don't know how to make an honest living, maybe." Grier chuckled again, but Keev offered a stilted, bitter smile. "No, all right, I'll be honest. Since you're the first cultured company I've had in a week." Keev swished a plump strawberry through the cream. "I've heard much about you. I wanted to see your… skills… firsthand."
Grier chased the fruit with champagne. "And?"
"And," Keev frowned, "I'd planned to be spectacularly unimpressed, drown my disappointment in some dark, doe-eyed local, and return to civilization more cynical than ever."
"But I'm not unimpressed." Keev pushed his champagne aside, and Grier paused, eggs halfway to his mouth. Keev's struggle fascinated him. Before today, he'd been a name on paper. A spoiled brat, a highly Gifted one, but spoiled nonetheless. The son of a megalomaniac. Now he'd come to life, shattering preconceptions left and right.
"I watched you yesterday," Keev said. "You let a murderer escape."
Grier hid his surprise. "I did."
"In order to spare a child."
He had. His target was the most despicable of all human filth. One who hid behind the innocent. Grier dabbed his mouth with the corner of his napkin. "He's gained a day's reprieve, that's all."
"He's on your agenda for this morning?"
Keev's eyes glittered. "May I come along?"
Grier burst out laughing. "Your father would have my balls."
"Don't be a coward."
"It's self-preservation." Grier pushed away from the table. "The last thing I want is Roman Petrova's eye on me."
"You believe it isn't already?"
Keev snorted into his champagne. "I'll perpetuate your fantasy then." He stood and stretched, letting Grier admire the slender litheness of his body. "Well, enjoy yourself. Why not stop by afterward? Have dinner. Share the details."
"He's not a nice man," Keev said. And he's hurt me, his silence added. It's personal.
Grier's missions weren't personal. They were for a greater good. He didn't believe in petty revenge, or so he'd always told himself. But seeing a baby snatched from his mother's arms and hauled into harm's way…. "He's not a nice man," Grier agreed.
Keev gave a wolfish grin. "How refreshing that we see eye to eye. I'll expect you later, then? I can be discrete, you know, and my father is far—" he stepped close, "—far away."
He could've been in the next room, and it wouldn't have mattered just then. Anticipation was already tightening in Grier's chest. He indulged in one touch; he tucked a strand of loose hair behind Keev's ear. "I look forward to it."
Aleck and Grier exited the jet into cloying tropical heat.
Blinded by the rising sun, Aleck squinted to keep from stumbling down the stairs.
Sunglasses would've helped, but the past twenty-four hours had seen him cross
half a continent, and he'd barely had the chance to brush his teeth, let alone
shop for appropriate island attire.
Dressed in jeans and one of Grier's long-sleeved shirts, an
ensemble better suited to spring in New York, he was sweating before he reached
the bottom of the steps. Grier looked unaffected by the heat. Aleck shot him an
annoyed look, satisfied when he spied a trickle of perspiration run down the
The plane taxied off toward a distant hangar, and Aleck
glanced around the tarmac. He sensed no imminent danger, but took his cues from
Grier's tense posture.
"Where the hell are you, Keev?" Grier muttered. As
the words left his lips, a sleek limousine appeared out of the haze. It was
approaching at a fair clip, but Grier didn't seem concerned. Wary, Aleck eyed
it as he picked at his sticky shirt.
The car slid to a halt ten feet away, kicking up enough dust
to make Aleck cough. The driver, a tall, pale man, face etched with wrinkles,
got out to open one of the back doors, and a wave of arctic air rolled out.
Unprompted, Grier ducked his head and entered the car. Aleck didn't. The
immediate danger was behind them. No more following blindly until he had some
A second later, Grier's head reappeared. "What are you
waiting for? Get in."
Aleck shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. A
cultured voice drifted out of the cool haven. "What the fuck is wrong with
you, Grier? You're letting all the hot air in."
Grier shot Aleck an unreadable look. "You're upsetting Keev."
Aleck shrugged. "Too bad."
"Grier?" Keev called. "What sort of
uncultured trash have you picked up now? I refuse – do you hear me – refuse to
discuss this in a car at the airport. I want my cool house. I
want a drink. And preferably, a fuck. But if you're not up to that, I
understand. You've had a shitty couple of days, after all."
Aleck wasn't pleased to see Grier fighting a smile. He
stepped out of the car, took hold of Aleck's arm, and led them a few feet away.
"Aleck, I'm asking you to trust me on this. Not on everything. Just on
this. I believe Keev will keep us safe."
"On what evidence are you basing that?"
Grier's lips tightened. "He's my friend."
"Good for you."
"Good for you. You wanted the inside track on
what's happening with Graviel. This is where we start."
"Here?" Aleck made sure his voice was pitched high
enough to carry into the limo. "With that pompous ass?"
"What the fuck is going on out there?" Keev
The driver, who looked to be wilting by the second in his
black suit and hat, cleared his throat. Aleck took two steps back, out of
earshot. Eyes narrowed, Grier followed. "Do you realize what's at stake
here?" Aleck asked.
"My life, for one."
"And the lives of many others." The driver cleared
his throat again, and Aleck leaned close. "I need you invested in more
than just you. If what you've told me is even half true, I need you
committed to unraveling this mess."
Grier shook his head. "No. It's too late for that. I
said I'd help you uncover the truth. That doesn't include fighting your
righteous battles. Keep your high and mighty ideals to yourself. I'm finished
with the lot of them."
Aleck shook his head, searching Grier's face. "Even
"Him most of all."
For the first time since they'd met, Aleck sensed untruth
behind Grier's words. Oddly, Grier didn't appear to recognize it. "I
thought we had a bargain."
"We do. This is me upholding my end." Grier
pointed at the limo. "Get in the car."
It wasn't a matter of trust that made Aleck obey, but honor.
He'd made a promise, and he planned to follow through. Even if Grier reneged.
The chauffer looked relieved when Aleck stepped up to the door. He tipped his
hat as Aleck slid inside. Grier followed.
After the harsh glare of the Caribbean sun, the interior was
cool and dark. Aleck took the seat behind the driver, across from Grier's
friend. Grier nodded at him as he settled onto the cool leather next to Keev. It
was subtle, almost invisible, but Aleck recognized it for what it was. A
The driver slammed the door, cutting out the last of the
sunlight, and Aleck peered across the car, wanting a look at the famous Keev
Petrova. His blond hair was tied back into a short ponytail at the nape of his
neck. Light brown eyes bore into Aleck, measuring. Aleck melted back into his
seat. He wasn't intimidated.
"Champagne?" Keev offered, turning to Grier, his
gaze an alarming combination of adoring and predatory.
"No, thank you."
Keev tsked his disappointment. "Shame. I hate to drink
"Why not ask Aleck?"
"I think not." Keev's voice dripped disdain. "I
imagine the bottle costs more than his entire wardrobe."
Aleck rolled his eyes. Elitist bastard.
Keev sneered at him. "Ill-bred philistine. If my
considerable wealth intimidates you, you're more than welcome to ride with the
Startled, Aleck made a subtle probe of Keev's mind, and got
an angry sting for his trouble. He glared at Grier. "He's Gifted."
"I'm well aware." Grier stared out his window, fingers
drumming on his knee. "Empathic."
Keev gave a dramatic sigh. "Grier, you steal all my
"With the Organization?"
Keev gasped. "Bite your tongue, G.I. Joe. I'd never go
slumming with Graviel. And by the way," he leaned forward, "stay the
hell out of my head."
"Gladly." Aleck considered the offer of the front
"Suit yourself," Keev said. "I'd welcome a
bit of privacy, anyway."
So much for propriety; now the bastard was reading him.
Before Aleck could snap a reciprocal warning, his eyes were drawn to Keev's
hands, one of which was nestled between Grier's crossed legs. Something reared
up in him. He quelled it in a heartbeat, but Keev's widened eyes signaled he'd
grasped the stray emotion. Aleck scowled. He hated empaths.
Keev's eyes flashed. "Well, well, well," he
"What am I missing?" Grier asked as he took in the
silent battle of wills.
"Nothing." Aleck turned to the window.
"You're a pretty thing," Keev continued as if Aleck
hadn't spoken. "Though you look a bit underfed and over-monitored."
"Fuck off," Aleck muttered.
"Don't you agree, Grier?"
"Let it go."
Keev smug smile grated across Aleck's nerves. "If you
Keev fell silent, not that Aleck believed the warning would
muzzle the other man for long. Across the car, he heard the rustle of fabric,
the clink of a glass, and the low rumble of Grier's voice. Keev's answering
laugh was low and intimate.
Aleck set his jaw. He kept his eyes trained to the passing
scenery until the car turned onto a wide, paved drive, stopped at a set of high
gates, then rolled forward again when they swung open at a signal from the
driver. He risked a glance at Grier, but Keev had done a fair job of crawling
into his lap, not a spectacle Aleck had any interest in, so he turned back to
The drive wound through a grove of tall, shady palms and
down a hill, then burst into the sunshine at the bottom, in front of a
sprawling villa. The driver opened the door a moment later. Aleck made sure he
was the first out.
He supposed Keev's villa was tasteful – if four floors of bright peach stucco and a half a dozen bougainvillea-draped balconies could be considered so. Fifty foot palms swayed all around the structure and dotted the maze of gardens and courtyards that surrounded the two wings.
Aleck turned from his perusal to find Keev studying him. "What do you think, Aleck?"
"I aim to please."
"So I gathered," Aleck said under his breath.
"Stop sulking." Keev accepted a leather satchel from his driver, then swept past Aleck and up the wide steps. "There's plenty of Grier to go around."
"I'm not—" But Keev had already disappeared inside. Just as well.
The limo pulled away and circled behind the house, leaving Aleck and Grier alone on the crushed stone drive. Grier's scrutiny was a physical thing, pressing into Aleck's back. "What are we doing here?" Aleck asked.
Grier stepped up beside him. Hands thrust deep into his pockets, he followed Aleck's gaze to the wide front doors of the villa. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
Aleck arched a brow. "About?"
Grier took his elbow and led him around the side of the house, down a winding path shaded by coconut palms. Aleck shook him off as soon as he could. "About Keev," Grier said.
"And the pilot. And the driver." Aleck kicked at a stray pebble. "They were both Gifted."
"You sensed it."
"Yes. Neither was very strong."
Grier shrugged. He slowed his pace to match Aleck's. "We all have different strengths. There's no rhyme or reason to how our gifts develop."
True enough. "So Keev seeks out and employs Gifteds."
"Yes. So does his father." Grier caught Aleck's arm when he tried to brush past. "Believe it or not, there are those who live and thrive outside the Organization's nurturing umbrella."
"Careful. You sound almost bitter."
"Just almost?" A wry smile flickered across Grier's face.
"What are you trying to say?"
"That there is more to us than the Organization and those who oppose it."
"I know that." Aleck yanked on his arm, but this time Grier held tight. "But I'd rather use my gifts for something useful. I've got no desire to be an errand boy for some rich, spoiled brat.
Grier sighed. He released Aleck so unexpectedly that he stumbled on the loose gravel. "You see the world in black and white, Aleck."
Aleck squared his shoulders. "That's not true."
"Isn't it?" Grier shook his head. "Never mind. We're here because Keev has information for us. I can't believe things are as he says, but if they are…" His eyes pinned Aleck in place. "You'll have answers to some of your questions very soon." He motioned Aleck to follow as he started up a smaller path, this one hidden by overgrown foliage. Aleck imagined he navigated around Keev's bedroom with the same ease. The thought kept him rooted in place until the crunch of Grier's footsteps faded.
Through the trees came the gentle smack of waves on sand. The air was thick with the smell of salt and hibiscus. Ignoring Grier's command, Aleck followed the sounds of the ocean, staying on the original trail until it emptied him onto the beach.
Paradise. Keev's villa sat on a perfect arc of sand. A half-mile out to sea, waves broke over a coral reef. Inside the lagoon, the water spilled away from shore in a rainbow of blues, light aqua near the beach, cobalt in the center, and pale blue around the reef. The surface rippled like beveled glass, calm. And probably teeming with sharks.
Something he'd do well to remember.
He turned at the unfamiliar voice. The woman who'd appeared at the head of the path beckoned him closer. Exotic features enhanced her dark mocha skin and waist-length, curly hair, which she wore tied back with a swath of purple silk.
That was all she was wearing.
Aleck smirked. Poor Keev. Predictability was such a tragic fault. "Yes?"
"I've been sent to fetch you for lunch." She offered her hand.
"Thank you." Aleck ignored her waggling fingers. "This way?" She nodded and they ducked back into the shade of the trees. "And what is his majesty serving today?"
The woman giggled. "What would please you?" She slithered closer, pressing her breasts against his arm. Aleck peeled her off.
"A cheeseburger and fries?" They crossed a tiled veranda to an open-air dining room. Giant fans turned overhead, and three sets of tall wooden doors were open to the house beyond, spilling air-conditioned air over the table. Keev and Grier were already seated, Keev at the head and Grier to his right. The remaining seats – fourteen of them – were unoccupied. Aleck eyed the ornate covered platters. "But I bet we're having fish eggs or something, right?"
Undaunted, the woman wrapped herself around him again. "Perhaps I could offer something more to your liking."
"No, thanks." Getting free was like detaching a leech. He set her away and pulled out the chair next to Grier. "Fish eggs are fine."
She pouted until Keev sent her away with a wave. "She doesn't please you?"
"Not interested," Aleck answered.
"Not my type."
"No?" At Keev's subtle gesture, a man appeared and began serving food. Impeccably dressed, he flashed a coy smile as he poured wine into Aleck's glass. He was as fair as the beach escort had been dark, hair a pale yellow and eyes a light green. A smattering of freckles covered his nose and cheeks. He didn't look a day over sixteen.
Keev sipped his mimosa. "What's your type?"
Aleck ignored the servant's flirtations and choose ice water over the wine. "The kind you don't have to pay for."
"I haven't the faintest idea what you mean."
"I'm sure. Are you done throwing your concubines at me?"
"Would it be possible," Grier cut in, "to skip ahead to the part where we eat?"
A muscle twitched in Keev's jaw, but he managed a smile. For Grier's benefit, Aleck was sure. "Of course. My apologies. You've had a difficult day."
"Thank you." Grier slipped his napkin into his lap, and the conversation ended.
"So here we are." Keev snapped his fingers, and a different
group of women bore away the dishes and uneaten food. All beautiful, these
attendants were at least partially clothed in floral-print wraps. After a final
check – and a wave from Keev – the last one skittered by on bare feet and slid
the mahogany doors closed behind her. "There," Keev said. "Privacy."
Aleck eyed the dense foliage beyond the short stucco wall. "Because
nobody could be hiding out there listening."
Before Keev could sputter a denial, Grier nodded. "He's
right. This isn't a secure location to discuss the matters at hand."
"There's always my bedroom," Keev purred.
"We're interested in what you're storing in your other
brain," Aleck said. "The one you keep in your head."
"Boys." Grier laid a hand on Keev's arm when he
would've risen to confront Aleck. "This antagonism is getting tiresome.
Isn't there something you can bond over? A favorite toy, perhaps?"
Aleck blanched, and Keev – the bastard – saw it right away. "You're
so smart, Grier. It's why I love you." He twirled the dregs of his mimosa
around the bottom of his glass. "There is one thing Aleck and I share an
The barb hit its mark. Discomfited, Aleck rose from the
table and paced to the opposite end of the room. He kept his back to Keev and
Grier. "If you insist we whore ourselves out for your alleged crucial
information," he threw a dismissive glance over his shoulder, "I
suppose I've endured worse."
"Why you—Let me go, Grier!"
Aleck turned to watch Grier wrestle Keev to his side. He
stood and hauled the younger man out of his chair. Keev glared at Aleck.
Grier's voice put a chill in the air. "This ends now."
He strode forward, Keev's arm gripped in his hand, and gestured Aleck ahead of
him onto the beach path. "Let's take a walk."
Nobody spoke during the short trip to the lagoon. Once on
the sand, Grier gestured Aleck ahead. He went without a fuss, meandering to the
shoreline, where he stood watching the water lap at his feet.
Keev's lip curled. "How on earth did you get paired
"It's a long story. Not—" Grier said, squelching
the evil twinkle in Keev's eye – "one you'd be interested in."
"I don't know about that." Keev tugged on his
captured arm, and with one last warning look, Grier let him go. While Keev
brushed at his wrinkled clothing and mumbled about brutish behavior, Grier
His hands were out of sight, working at something, but when
his shirt billowed open on a light breeze, Grier figured out what. Aleck shrugged
the heavy material off his shoulders, and, after hesitating for a moment,
tossed it behind him onto the dry sand.
Keev gave an appreciative hum while he brushed at his
trousers. "Perhaps I was too quick to judge our dear Aleck."
"Leave him be," Grier snapped, then tempered his
tone. "We're not here for your pleasure."
Keev took a break from his grooming. "Oh, not you too."
Rather than acknowledge the cryptic remark, Grier stepped
into the sun. The heat descended on him like a heavy blanket. As though he
sensed Grier's presence, Aleck glanced over his shoulder. Their eyes met and
Behind him, Keev sighed.
"Are you going to help me?" Grier asked.
"Yes. All right, yes." The sullen tone had
disappeared. "You've just sucked all the entertainment value from the day
anyway." He stuck a loafer-encased toe into the sun. "But it's far
too hot to discuss it out here. You fetch Juliet, and I'll ready my office."
He forestalled Grier's automatic protest. "It's safe. I promise."
He turned up the path, disappearing behind a mass of giant
fronds. Steeling himself for another fight, Grier crossed the sand. By the time
he reached the shoreline, he wanted to shed his own shirt, the humidity was so
thick. Continuing their business in the house, spying eyes or not, was gaining
Caught off-guard by the quiet tone, Grier paused. Aleck's
shoulders were straight, his head high. Still, through the remnants of their
mental connection, Grier could sense tendrils of uncertainty and self-doubt –
the last two emotions he expected. They made him uneasy. And, if he were
honest, protective. Laughable, since Aleck had demonstrated more than once in
the past two days that he was anything but helpless.
Grier shook off his ruminations. "Keev's called a
truce. He's ready to talk if you're ready to listen."
He expected skepticism, but Aleck nodded. "Lead the
Keev glanced up as Grier and Aleck entered his study. "Close
the door, Grier."
Grier ran his fingers over the curved handle. "Where's
"I've got it." The panel under his desk controlled
everything from the door locks to the level of tint on his windows. He gestured
for them to sit, and Aleck dropped into a black wicker chaise, a picture of
nonchalance. Grier opted for a straight-backed chair facing the desk. Keev
leaned back, steepling his finger under his chin. "Let's get down to business,
Aleck arched an eyebrow but kept his mouth shut. Grier
nodded. "What do you know?"
"That pertains to your situation? Possibly nothing.
Possibly everything. Who knows what the truth is anymore?" He directed
this last at Aleck, stripping his usual sarcasm from the words.
Aleck rubbed his forehead and frowned.
"Tell me about your father and Graviel," Grier
said. "You intimated they'd formed a partnership of sorts."
Keev gave a short, disbelieving laugh. "Yes, who could've
seen that coming, I ask you."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures,"
Aleck cut in.
"And loose lips sink ships. Thank you, Aleck, for
exceeding our quota of idioms for the afternoon," Keev said, without
"It's the truth," Grier said, but Keev waved him
"I do hope you're not referring to my father. Desperate
is one thing that man is not."
"You're implying that Graviel initiated things."
Aleck scooted to the edge of the chair and sat with his elbows on his knees. "That's
not outside the realm of possibility. He tends to think outside the box. If he
considered such a merger beneficial, he well may have pursued it."
"But for what purpose?" Grier asked. "And why
"I've heard," Keev slid his fingers over his lips,
weighing his next words, "that there's a new faction of Gifteds gaining
Silence from Grier and Aleck implied the information was new
"Like a gang?" Aleck ventured.
"Nothing so innocuous, I'm afraid. These people put
even my father on edge. They're determined to upset the balance of things. Rumor
has it that a few have managed to insinuate themselves near the top of the
world's most powerful governments."
Aleck slouched backward. "Oh, please. We're speaking of
elected officials here. No Gifted can influence an entire election."
"One wouldn't need to be at the heart of things to do
damage," Grier reminded him. "A Gifted secretary, even a janitor, if
given opportunity, could change the world."
Said so plainly, it was unnerving. Aleck must've have felt
the same. With a muffled curse, he rose from his chair and paced the room.
Grier watched him; Keev studied them both. "Their activities have become
bolder of late," he added.
"This is all coming from your father?"
Keev nodded, and the lines around Grier's eyes grew deeper.
"It would be so easy," Aleck said as he stalked
the length of the room. "They'd have to do little more than sow mistrust."
"A danger in even the best of political climates,"
Keev blinked. "Money?" His tone carried a hearty
dose of condescension. "Just a guess."
"A good one, I'd wager," Grier muttered. "Could
this be just smoke and mirrors? Are we sure this faction exists?"
"My father believes it does. Graviel knows it does."
Keev played his fingers over the top of his desk before adding, "So do
you." That caught their attention. "The peace summit bombing,"
Grier's eyes flashed. "Those terrorists—?"
"Were an offshoot of the main group," Keev finished,
then choked when a tidal wave of anger crashed over him. He rose to his feet,
but Aleck got there first, crouching next to Grier's chair while he spoke in a
low, soothing tone. Jealousy wasn't an emotion Keev allowed himself. He pushed
it away, swallowing something that tasted like loss.
"That doesn't make any sense," Aleck said. "Graviel
put Grier undercover to destroy that group."
"Not his best work, I hear." Keev weathered Grier's
furious look. "You were set up to fail, my friend."
"I'd figured that part for myself." Grier sat
back, rubbing at his eyes. "Where does your father fit into all this?"
"He's been gathering his people for months. And now, I'm
told, he's approached the Organization about a partnership."
"Common enemy and all." Keev stood and made his
way to the wet bar near the window. He'd darkened the glass to a deep charcoal
grey to keep out the midday sun. Reflective on the outside, bulletproof, and
impervious to long-distance listening equipment, it was state of the art and
unbelievably decadent. He'd installed it last year, believing it another shiny
toy, nothing more.
But it had come in handy today, and didn't that threaten to
plunge him into a foul mood. He thrust his hand into the ice well, then hissed
when his finger caught on a razor-sharp shard. "Damn it." He held it
over the sink while he fumbled for a napkin.
"Here. Let me."
Keev startled at Aleck's voice, but what shocked was his
gentle touch. He wrapped a bar towel around the tip of Keev's bleeding finger,
then scooped some ice into a crystal tumbler and – after a sideways glance –
filled it with sparkling water.
Keev took a long, thoughtful sip before speaking. "Thank
"Are you all right?" Grier came up behind him,
allowing Aleck to escape.
"Fine. Where were we?"
"Ah." He returned to his seat, still cradling his
finger close to his stomach and eyeing Aleck. "Well, it's
self-explanatory, isn't it? United front and all that rubbish. Graviel has
allowed my father's people to join some of their current operations. In return,
Roman shares intelligence with the Directorate about the activities of this new
group as it comes to him."
Aleck spoke up. "You're talking in circles. Whose side
are you accusing Graviel of helping? Do you expect me to believe that Roman
Petrova, your father – one of the most self-serving men on the planet, if Grier's
opinion is anything to go by – is concerned about the level of suffering in the
Keev laughed. "He is a bastard, isn't he?"
Grier snorted as he raided the bar, plopping ice cubes one
by one into his glass.
"Say what you will about my father, Aleck, but his
interests are diversified and profitable in peace time. He has no desire
to see the world at war. Graviel, on the other hand…his fingers have been in
every international incident for the past twenty years. No one understands the
workings of the world's governments better than he. Who knows what motivates
"I do," Grier answered. "The Organization. It's
his child. His prodigal. He wouldn't take kindly to having it threatened. By
Keev rocked back in his chair. "Even by the most
powerful people in the world?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"That the bombing was a warning?" Keev spread his
hands in front of him. "A statement."
"By whom? And to whom?" Grier returned to
his seat. He'd chosen something a bit stronger than water, Keev saw. "And
why would Roman align himself with Graviel if he believes the man a traitor?"
"I didn't say I had all the answers, Grier."
"Who's leading this mysterious group?" Aleck
"I don't know."
Silence followed his statement. Hunched over, eyes on the
floor, Aleck radiated an agitation so thick it made Keev's skin crawl. Grier
twirled melting ice cubes round the bottom of his glass. "What else can
you tell us?"
"Not much. I'm included in very little, you know."
"By your own choice."
"Yes." He was the proverbial black sheep, with no
interest in his father's plans for grandeur and power. The methods turned his
stomach, something Roman accepted, though not with any measure of grace. The
kindest thing he ever said about his son was that he knew his own mind. His
criticisms were more cutting, but as Keev had little more than a thimbleful of
love for the man, the barbs flew wide.
"I don't trust your father," Grier said.
"I know." Few did, and with good reason.
"Always," Keev replied with an untroubled smile.
His personal safety wasn't something he'd worried over in the past. How things
Grier and Aleck shared a glance – Keev beat down another
wave of jealousy – then Grier snatched a slip of paper from the desk. He jotted
something down and handed it to Keev. "Call if you discover anything else
that might help us."
A muscle twitched in Grier's jaw. "Aleck."
Keev accepted the paper. "A new cell phone?"
"No. And I'll be disposing of the old one soon. That
number's for a message service. Just leave your name. I'll be in touch."
"A message service," Keev said with a sneer. "How
very 1980. Very well, but I'd like the same courtesy, if you don't mind."
Involved or no, it paid to be well-informed. He slipped the phone number into
his pocket. "And now, as I promised, transportation. Where would you like
Grier thought for a moment. "Somewhere where Graviel
and Roman can't find us."
"The South Pole?"
"Richmond, Virginia," Aleck said. Then, to Grier, "I
have a friend in that area. She can help us."
"No. There'll be an agent on every person you know,
down to your paperboy, hoping they'll be the lucky one to find us when we
"Nobody in the Organization knows these people. I've
made sure. Grier," he said, when the other man started to shake his head, "They
have a place we can hide. You've done what you said you would, but I still have
my portion of the bargain to fulfill."
Keev hummed and meandered to the bar. "Ooh. That sounds
promising. Take pictures, Grier." He laughed at Aleck's blush, but fell
silent when his gaze caught the bloody towel wrapped around his finger.
"Grier." Aleck said. "Trust me."
Keev went still, hand hovering over the decanter of brandy.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Grier nod. Jaw tight, he poured a double
shot. "Richmond, it is."
Nora pressed against the car door, making herself as small
as possible. Beside her, Graviel rolled a quarter back and forth between his
knuckles. She watched from the corner of her eye, but didn't stare outright. The
trick was meant to mesmerize her. She knew his ways.
The cab hit a bump, and the quarter fell, then stopped
mid-air before floating back into Graviel's palm. He closed his fist around it.
Nora glanced at his face, then snapped her eyes back to the window. Before her
fidgeting gave her away, she removed her glasses and rubbed them with a corner
of her shirt. Expression pinched, like he had a bad taste in his mouth, Graviel
began rolling the coin again. "Nora?"
She rubbed harder. "Yes, sir?"
"Nora?" A warning this time – albeit a gentle one.
She turned to meet his eyes.
His cell phone rang, and Nora melted with relief.
Graviel's clipped, "Yes?" made her glad she wasn't
the one who'd disturbed him. His eyes narrowed as he listened. "Richmond? You're positive?" He cradled the phone between his cheek and shoulder and
extracted a tiny gold pen from his pocket. At his snap, Nora produced a pad of
paper. She didn't look at what he scribbled across it. "When do they land?
Yes, I have it. Is Petrova with them?"
Nora perked up. She knew the name. But did Graviel mean the
father or the son?
"Thank you." Graviel snapped the phone closed.
Nora's curiosity was piqued, but she sure as hell wasn't going to ask.
"Nora," he said again, his tone the same, as if they'd never been
interrupted. And yet, his face had changed. He looked bleaker than before.
"How did Aleck strike you, the last time you were bonded?"
"Sir?" Nora squeaked. "I'm not sure I
"Did he seem troubled?"
"He seemed… tired," Nora answered.
"When he broke your connection, was he angry?"
Her hesitation damned her, yet Graviel showed no anger. He
sighed and once again the quarter began to roll. Back and forth. Back and
forth. Nora ripped her eyes away when she felt them drooping.
Graviel sighed. "What are you up to, Aleck?"
On guard for additional hostility, Aleck was surprised when
Keev excused himself to make their arrangements without a single snide word.
Left to his own devices, he paced the room, stopping to browse the titles in a
small bookshelf. "Hey, these are all in Russian."
Grier roused from his thoughts. "Yes."
"Huh." Aleck frowned at the bookcase.
"Are you surprised Keev reads Russian?"
"I'm surprised he reads," Aleck muttered, sliding
his finger over the spines. "Doesn't he have someone do it for him?"
Grier joined him and plucked a leather-bound book from the
shelf. "I suppose he might," he said, examining the title. "That
It did, but why? That's what Grier was asking. Aleck
retreated, plopping into Keev's chair and perusing the items that littered his
desk. He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut when he tasted another sharp insult
on the tip of his tongue.
A knowing smile crept over Grier's face. He replaced the
first book and chose another. "Who are these people you spoke of? The ones
"I'll tell you their names later. I'm sorry, but I've
kept the Organization's eye off of them for ten years. I'm not going to risk
Sighing, Grier snapped his book shut. "You still don't
Fuck, no, he tried to say, but what emerged was, "I'm
starting to." He scowled. "The people in Richmond are old friends.
Well, one is. From my childhood."
"You're still a child."
The criticism held little sting. Grier was staring out the
window at the water, pensive once more. Turning the tables, Aleck asked,
"How long have you known Keev?"
"Eight years. Longer, if you count how long I knew of
"He gets around?"
Grier shot him a look. "You could say that. Graviel
wanted him very badly."
"Really?" It was hard to picture. Maybe because he
didn't want to. Or perhaps because the idea of Keev being anyone's play-toy was
ridiculous. Aleck had known the man three hours and already accepted that.
"He usually gets what he wants."
"Who are we talking about again?"
Aleck laughed. "I'm beginning to see your point.
Graviel and Keev – it wouldn't have been a good fit in the long run."
"Oh, I don't know." Grier had grown pensive again.
"Life under his father's thumb is no picnic."
The annoyance returned, niggling. He was inclined to agree. Grier's
portrait of Roman hadn't been flattering, and knowing he and Graviel were working
together left Aleck uneasy.
Keev returned in a subdued mood, closing the door behind him
before he spoke. "It's done. You leave in three hours."
"Thank you." Grier stood, and Aleck followed his
lead. "I'd like to get some sleep, if you have no objections."
"None. Aleck?" Keev tilted his head at Aleck's
blank look. "Would you care to rest?"
Aleck shook his head. "Too keyed up. What else do you
have to do around here?"
"Ah." A spark of playfulness returned. "I'm
sure we can come up with something. Grier, you're capable of finding a bed on
your own, aren't you?" Keev threw the door open and ushered Aleck out.
"I think I have just the thing. Do you box, Aleck?"
Grier tagged along behind, frowning. "Perhaps—"
"Get some sleep," Aleck said. "I'll be fine."
Already the tension was spiraling higher, spurred by the promised challenge. He'd
welcome the chance to work out some aggression. Working it out on Keev would be
Keev shoved Grier into the nearest guest room.
"Nighty-night," he said with a curt wave. "Don't worry about
Aleck. I promise not to hurt him. Too much." He closed the door in
Grier's face. "Come on. Let's see if any of my toys make you happy."
Aleck studied Keev as they walked. He moved with a fluid
grace that Aleck lacked, but then Aleck also had two inches and a good twenty
pounds on him. He bet Keev relied on all that fancy footwork too, something
Aleck had never mastered.
They climbed down two sets of stairs, past various utility
rooms to a set of double doors. Keev pushed them open and marched inside. Whatever
Aleck had been expecting, this unadorned room wasn't it. "What, no naked
Keev flicked on the overhead lights. "I can arrange for
some if they motivate you."
"Nah." He took a deep breath of musty air, inspecting
the floor mats and punching bags. Along the far wall, a bank of open cabinets
held towels, tape, and other odds and ends. A bench ran the length, with pairs
of boxing gloves lined up in a neat row atop it. Grinning, Aleck rubbed his
"You never answered my question," Keev said as
they moved toward the bench. "Do you box?"
"I dabble." A pair of jet black gloves caught Aleck's
eye, and he scooped them up, testing the weight. He guessed at least sixteen
ounces. Perfect. "You?"
"Never before in my life." Keev pulled a pair of
shorts off the shelf and begin stripping down. He threw Aleck some wraps.
"And take your hands off my gloves."
Being right about something had never been so painful, Aleck
decided. Twenty minutes later, he stood in a semi-crouch, trying to catch his
breath while Keev danced around him, feet a blur. Keev's, "Had enough?"
pulled a snarl from his throat. He straightened his stance and began to stalk
him across the floor.
Keev blocked his next jab and cross – slippery bastard – but
couldn't dodge Aleck's hook. He went down hard. Aleck leaned over him.
Keev sighed. Through the headgear it sounded like a snake hissing. "I think…yes."
"Thank fucking God." Aleck left him on the floor and stumbled to the bench. He peeled the tape loose with his teeth and pried the gloves off, then sagged against the wall, grinning so wide his jaw hurt. His head ached, but the adrenaline rush was keeping it in
check. So was the sight of Keev limping his way, looking disheveled and not one
bit the uptight aristocrat. Aleck grabbed a fluffy white towel off the top of
the pile and lobbed it at him.
Keev caught it out of the air before it smacked him in the
"God, I needed that." The endorphins sharpened his
awareness to near painful levels. He felt it all. The trickle of perspiration
between his shoulder blades. The pull of overused muscles. The cold air gushing
out of the air-conditioner vent above his head. Keev's presence beside him, and
the dual thump of their hearts.
"You're a brute." Keev wiped the sweat from his
face and neck.
"Yeah. You're not bad either."
Keev groaned into the towel. "That wasn't a
"Sure it wasn't."
They both looked up when the doors opened. Grier's sigh
carried all the way across the room. "Is there blood?"
"Nope." Aleck looked Keev up and down. "I was
"Caveman ego is not charming. Grier, tell him."
Grier watched from the door, saying nothing.
"I wasn't trying to be charming."
"Sadly, I knew that." Keev winced as he stood.
"I need a shower. If you'll excuse me." Grier let him pass, but a
look passed between them, something intimate. Aleck felt too sated to care.
Grier nudged the abandoned gloves out of the way and sat. He
crossed his legs and stared down his nose at Aleck. "Did it occur to you
that your little grudge match might have exacerbated your headaches?"
"I feel great." He turned his grin on Grier. "Once
Keev takes a few punches, he isn't so bad."
Grier blinked. "That's the sort of statement that makes
psychoanalysts come in their pants, you realize."
Aleck rubbed the towel through his hair. "What's a
little transference between friends?"
"He's quick on his feet, though. I was right about
that. It's hard to get under his defenses."
Grier stood and offered his hand, which Aleck took.
"Let's hope his luck holds."
The Learjet that had brought them to the island waited on
the runway. Their pilot sat on the steps, smoking a thick cigar, sporting the
same cap and shorts as that morning, though the shirt was now electric blue
with red Mustang convertibles. He saluted Aleck as he climbed out of the car.
"Thank you," Grier said when Keev stepped out.
"Not as entertaining as usual, but I forgive you."
He nodded at Aleck. "Good luck."
Grier took Keev's arm and led him around the other side of
the car. Aleck slung both of their duffels over his shoulder and walked away
before Grier's quiet words carried to his ears. Privacy had been at a premium.
It was the least he could do.
The pilot motioned for Aleck to hand him the bags, and he
tossed them up before glancing over his shoulder. Grier was walking toward him.
Behind, Keev stood at the open door to his limo, watching. Aleck raised a hand,
and Keev returned the gesture before disappearing inside the car.
"Ready, kittens?" the pilot asked as Grier reached
This time, Aleck chose one of the seats, Grier took the one opposite,
and five minutes later the plane lifted into the air, the pilot's voice ringing
through the speaker: "I gave a letter to the postman. He put it in his sack. Bright and early next mornin'. He brought my letter back." He smacked his gum. It sounded like a firecracker over the intercom. "Goin' to Richmond."
They leveled off high above the clouds. "Feel free to
prowl about the cabin," the pilot droned. "Should be smooth
sailing." The opening chords of Crying in the Chapel drifted out of
Aleck shook his head when Grier offered him a drink. The
tension he'd shed was already creeping back. He flashed to the house by the
lake, and the desperation in Grier's voice. Then to Keev, and the cat-and-mouse
game he played with his father. To Nora, and her insistence he do what was
required to stay safe.
"What are you thinking about?" Grier asked,
watching from across the table.
"Nora," Aleck said. "My Monitor for this
assignment," he clarified.
Grier nodded. "Nora Picket?"
"You know her?"
"I do. She's one of the best."
Maybe, but still, "She lied to me." And then I
He hadn't been asking for comfort. Again, Grier surprised
"Nora has the poor luck of being very good at her job.
I suspect you can commiserate." His voice grew thoughtful. "I imagine
there are many like her, caught up in something they wish they weren't."
Richmond looked small from the air, a cluster of lights that
fanned out to the east, like a glass of spilled milk. Aleck watched the city
grow as they descended, already anticipating the visit despite the
circumstances. His headache had faded without his usual potent cocktail of
drugs. He couldn't remember the last time that had happened.
"Keev arranged a car for us," Grier said,
strapping on his seatbelt. "Where in Richmond do your friends live?"
"They don't," Aleck said, buckling up. "They
live in Annapolis. I didn't want to pick an airport any closer."
Grier accepted this in silence. "Let's hope they're
amenable to helping us."
"That won't be a problem." Because they had a few
minutes to spare, and Aleck felt it was time, he gave Grier the details he'd
been holding back. "Their names are Amelia and Henri Baptiste. I've known
Amelia the longest. We went to school together. Henri, her husband, I've known
for about six years. He's a doctor."
"How have you managed to keep your association with them
"With great care."
The pilot taxied to a hangar on the outskirts of the
commercial terminal. At the door, he handed them their duffels, then fled back
into the cockpit.
"Not very talkative," Aleck remarked as they
"No." Grier pointed to the bulky shadow at the end
of the hangar. "That's our transportation."
The walk from the plane to the car wasn't even a hundred
yards, and the area looked deserted, but Aleck's senses prickled. His step
Grier glanced over his shoulder, and Aleck held out his
"What is it?" Grier asked, turning.
"There's something—" He knew before he finished
the sentence. Sensed Kaye's presence in the building beyond. Saw the red dot
centered on Grier's chest. Grier followed his gaze down.
"Run, Aleck," he said, and Aleck did.
But not away.
He threw himself forward, tackling Grier even as he felt
Kaye pull the trigger. He took the bullet in his right side, just above his
hip, and it burrowed into his flesh like someone had stabbed him with a burning
spear. For a moment, his body went numb and the sound was sucked from the
night. Then he landed on top of Grier, and the world snapped back into focus.
He stifled his cry of pain in Grier's shoulder.
Grier rolled them, pulling another scream from Aleck when
his weight fell on the bullet wound, and they crashed against the side of the
hangar. "Don't move," Grier snarled.
Aleck sucked in a pained breath. "No problem."
Rising to his haunches like a wolf, Grier went still while
he scanned the area, then loped into the dark, his soft-soled shoes making
almost no sound on the asphalt. Cursing his helplessness, Aleck watched him go.
At least it was an even match. Kaye could no more hide from Grier than he from
her. Kaye had a gun, but her element of surprise was gone.
Grier's voice cut into his head. Hide. Then, she's
He tried. But every time he pressed a hand to the wound to
stem the bleeding, the spike of pain took his breath away. Shock set in,
dulling his reactions. He couldn't center.
Aleck! Hide yourself.
"I'm trying, you son of a bitch."
He closed his eyes. Cool metal at his back. Breathe. Pebbles
under his cheek. Breathe. Concentrate. Focus.
The screen came down. The blood seeping out of his side
darkened from crimson to maroon. The sounds he'd heard clearly moments before –
the slap of running feet, the bang of a door – disappeared. The sharp smell of
gasoline faded, and the night grew even darker. He'd done it. Grier had left
him deep in the shadow of the hangar wall. Short of Kaye stepping on him, he
was safe. Now it was a waiting game.
By the time Grier appeared out of the dark and dropped to
his knees beside him, anxiety was giving the pain a run for its money.
"Are you all right?"
Grier helped him struggle into a sitting position.
"Never better. Where is she?"
"She ran. Cowardly bitch. Can you stand?"
"Yeah." But Grier supported more of his weight
than he did. He gritted his teeth, ignoring the fresh warmth spreading across
his hip. "The car?"
"Compromised." They'd reached the edge of the
"Shit," was all he got out before Grier was moving
again, dragging Aleck across the open expanse of tarmac. Every drop of strength
went into staying upright while they sprinted through the bright light.
In the shadow of the next hangar, they found a lot full of
cars. "Here," Grier said, thumping Aleck against the passenger door
of the closest. "Perfect."
Aleck squinted. "A Kia? No way. I've got
His protests fell on deaf ears. Grier pushed him in. "You'll
have to suffer. The doors are unlocked. We're taking this one." Grumbling,
Aleck fumbled in the console, found nothing, then flipped open the driver's
seat visor. The keys dropped into Grier's lap as he swung into his seat. Grier
scooped them up, shaking his head. "Under the visor," he said as he
sped out of the lot. "Such sophisticated anti-theft measures."
"Maybe they want it stolen. Did you ever think about
that? It's a Kia." Grier took a speed bump at fifty miles per hour,
and Aleck yelped. "Okay, no more jokes, I promise." He fumbled to put
pressure where blood was bubbling out of the bullet hole. "Just please don't
do that again," he wheezed.
Grier killed the headlights, buried the speedometer needle,
and shot up the narrow access road to the highway. Bypassing the entry ramp, he
drove several blocks into the city before pulling into an alley. "How bad
"Hurts like a bastard."
Grier rummaged in the backseat, emerging with a wrinkled
towel. Folded over twice, it made a passable bandage. "Hold that."
"Okay." It took Aleck three tries, but he managed
to wedge it under his elbow. His stomach protested the exertion. "Don't
feel so good."
Grier pulled back onto the road. "You need a hospital."
"Henri's a doctor. Just stick with the original plan. Take
301 north to 50, then east into Annapolis."
"What's the address?"
The information took forever to come to mind. Aleck recited
it twice, gave crude directions, and Grier nodded. "I'll find it."
"Yeah. Okay." His fingers felt icy, and a
bone-deep cold set his teeth chattering. Unconsciousness pulled like a riptide.
Voices rang in his head. Kaye's. Keev's. Grier's.
"Hang on," Grier's voice was saying. "Hang
American suburbia: a combination of prosperity and debt,
little league and little affairs, and young people living old dreams. Grier
hated it. He couldn't deny, however, its suitability as a hiding place. How
fortunate that Aleck's friend and her husband wallowed here.
His concern for Aleck grew with each passing mile. He was
slumped against the door, arm curled over the bandage Grier had pressed against
the wound. Shallow, wheezing gasps came far too infrequently for Grier's taste.
An hour ago, Aleck had given up the ruse that the injury was superficial and
opted for petulant silence. To preserve some of the boy's dignity, Grier let
He swung his eyes back to the road, slowing the car as he
turned onto the Baptiste's street for the third time. Cruising the block would
rouse suspicion sooner or later. He'd already made two passes by the house, and
though another was prudent, he couldn't risk it. Aleck was getting worse.
Grier slowed the car and pulled to the curb in front of the
Baptiste's home, a sprawling cookie-cutter colonial with a white picket fence. A
generous covered porch was trimmed out in white railings and gingerbread
molding. He glanced around at the few close neighbors, taking in their similar
snow-white dwellings, and shook his head.
He put the car in park and killed the lights. Regardless of
what Aleck thought of these people, Grier didn't trust them. He needed to be
cautious, and dragging a gunshot victim onto the porch to bleed all over that
pristine white wood wouldn't make the best first impression. He leaned across
the seat and cupped Aleck's cheek in his hand. "Aleck." Aleck's
eyelids fluttered. He groaned but gave no sign he knew where he was. Grier's
jaw clenched at the lines of pain etched into his face. "Aleck," he
said again, louder this time. Aleck opened his eyes and blinked.
"Are we there?" he croaked. He shifted to look out
the window, but Grier held him still.
"Yes," he said. "I'll be right back."
"I should go. Talk to Amelia."
"No." Grier stroked his thumb over Aleck's cheek. "Stay
here. Moving will aggravate the injury, and you can't stand to lose more blood."
Aleck's eyes slid shut at the rebuke. "Yes, Mother."
Grier climbed out and started up the front walk. A motion
lamp clicked on, bathing the porch in yellow light, and he paused before
cursing and climbing the last two steps to the front door. He cast his senses
out, but besides the orange cat slinking through the rose bushes, he found
nothing. He wasn't being watched, proving his agitation wasn't due to any
threat, but rather to the man bleeding to death inside their stolen car.
No one answered the doorbell, and Grier frowned. He heard snatches
of thoughts and conversation from within; the house wasn't empty. He rang
again, twice, and a moment later heavy footsteps approached. Grier braced
himself as a tall, red-haired man yanked the door open. His eyes raked Grier
head to toe. "May I help you?" he asked, voice brusque.
"I hope so," Grier answered. "I'm looking for
Henri Baptiste was as Aleck described: imposing, with a
thick head of ginger hair and a beard to match. He wore a cabled cardigan over
a dress shirt and tan Dockers. At Grier's words, he stepped over the threshold
and set his hands on his hips. "May I ask why?"
Grier sighed. Seeking help here had been a mistake. He'd
thought about healing Aleck on his own, but his skills were inadequate to the
task. He couldn't remove a bullet with his mind, no matter how much he wanted
to. "I'm here on behalf of a friend. A Mr. Aleck Devlin."
Baptiste drew back, inhaling sharply. Grier tensed. "And
would that be Aleck's blood all over you, sir?" Baptiste asked.
Grier glanced down at his shirt, noticing the dark red
blotches that covered a fair portion of its front. He raised his eyes until
they met Baptiste's. "It is," he admitted.
"Henri? Who is it?" A woman bustled forward and
ducked under Baptiste's arm. The top of her head barely brushed the middle of
his chest. She slid her reading glasses up over her forehead as she squinted at
Grier. Cut into a fashionable bob, her black hair accentuated her milky skin and
dainty features. "Who are you?"
Baptiste stepped in front of her, but she shouldered in
front again, and he settled for a restraining hand on her arm. "This man
is here about Aleck, or so he says."
Grier let his silence answer for him.
Amelia focused on his stained shirt. "Where is he?
Where is Aleck?"
Grier looked over his shoulder to the car idling at the
curb. He wasn't shocked when Amelia gasped and tried to rush past. She was too
fast for her husband, but Grier caught her by the hand. "Wait."
She rounded on him like an angry cat, eyes blazing. "Is
"No." Grier glanced up and down the street. "But
I doubt you want your neighbors to see him in his current condition."
"That's our driveway, there." Baptiste pointed and
stepped forward to take Amelia. She struggled, but this time he held tight. "Pull
back by the garage. There's a door there that leads to my home office."
His instructions were matter-of-fact, but his voice was cold. Grier didn't take
"Don't thank me yet." Baptiste steered Amelia
inside. "I'll meet you in back."
Grier ran down the sidewalk to the car and slipped behind
the wheel. Aleck was unconscious again. Fresh blood had leaked over his hand
where he held the makeshift bandage. Grier jerked the car into gear and coasted
up the curved driveway. An addition with its own covered porch and private
entrance extended behind the main house, and he parked beside it. Baptiste was
at the passenger door before he'd shut off the engine, opening it and catching
Aleck's limp body when it slid forward. Behind him, Amelia cried out. "Get
the door, Amy," he ordered.
He hoisted Aleck into his arms and carried him up the steps
and inside. Grier lingered, eyes scanning the darkness, but high hedges hid the
yard from neighbor's prying eyes. So far, so good.
He locked the car and trudged up the steps into the office.
Amelia was drawing the blinds when he came in. Aleck and Baptiste were nowhere
in sight, though Grier heard the faint echo of movement in the room beyond. He
helped Amelia until all four windows were covered, then stood in the center of
the room and let her glare at him. He couldn't say the slap, when it came, was
unexpected. "I suppose you think you don't deserve that," she spat,
backing away, small chest heaving.
Grier touched his stinging cheek. "I do."
She deflated, then turned and buried her face in her hands. "Why?"
she asked, voice muffled. "Why does he do this?"
An excellent question with many answers, but Grier wouldn't
speak for Aleck. She spun back. "Are you reading my mind right now?"
He couldn't. All he had was a code of ethics he followed to
the letter and a measure of honor. Neither of those things would impress her.
Grier sank onto a padded seat, exhausted. "I can't." And he didn't
care. His concern was for Aleck, not what this woman thought of him.
Again the anger seemed to leave her, but even Grier, who
wasn't empathic in the least, sensed her lingering distress. She was trembling,
in mild shock. He reached for her hand. "Please. Would you check with your
husband for me? I'd like to know if Aleck is all right."
She frowned at their joined fingers, then nodded. "I
don't know your name."
"I'm Amelia." She sniffed, gave his hand a loose
shake, then let go.
Grier smiled. "I know."
With that fragile peace between them, she turned, tapped a
quiet knock on the exam room door, and slipped inside. Grier heard her ask a
muffled question. Baptiste's rumbling baritone answered, and a moment later,
the door opened, and Baptiste joined him in the waiting room. He chose a chair
close by and settled into it with a sigh. Red spatters dotted his cardigan and
Grier tore his gaze away from the blood. "How is he?"
"Stable. For now. I'm a bit worried about infection,
but the wound is straightforward and there was little serious damage. Some torn
muscle, blood loss." He folded his hands in his lap. "What can you
tell me about what happened?"
Grier hesitated. "What do you need to know?"
"Any additional information would be useful."
There was just enough truth in the statement that Grier
couldn't outright call Baptiste a liar. He answered with his own half-truths. "The
less I tell you, the better."
Baptiste snorted. "For who?"
"For all of us."
"Grier, is it?" Baptiste abandoned his pose of
disinterest and leaned forward. "Amelia told me your name."
"I've learned over the years to not question Aleck. He's
a good friend. An extraordinary friend, but I know just slightly more about him
than I do about you. Do you find that strange?"
"I find it unsurprising."
"I thought you might." Baptiste glanced to the
closed door of the exam room. "I don't ask unnecessary questions, and I
won't start now. For his safety, I need to know as much as you can tell me
about how he was shot."
Saying he stepped in front of a bullet meant for Grier would
be imprudent, nor was it important clinically, but the information was on the
tip of his tongue, along with the sharp taste of guilt. Grier swallowed it
back. "It was a rifle."
"I figured that for myself. Approximate range?"
Grier replayed the scene in his head. "A hundred yards
"How long ago?"
"Three hours." Grier began to relax.
"I'll refrain from asking why you didn't go to the ER,
although I'd like to know what your plans had been if you hadn't been able to
come to us."
Not a medically relevant question. Grier ignored it and
volleyed with, "We were on our way here, as it happens."
To this, Baptiste laughed. "I don't believe it. Aleck
treats Amelia with kid gloves. He never comes unless it's safe. Never. That
much I do know about him." He pinned Grier with a narrowed gaze.
"I'll have to let Aleck tell the rest. He has some
questions for you. And a favor."
Baptiste blew out a breath. "Things must be dire."
Not for Grier, but he wasn't the one with a hole in his
side. More guilt washed up his throat, and Baptiste's next words didn't help.
"He has a contusion. Here." Baptiste pressed a
finger to a spot on the back of his head. "Can you explain that?"
Grier stifled the urge to laugh. "Glass ashtray. That
was a couple of days ago." He noticed Baptiste didn't blink at the remark.
"Did he receive treatment for that?"
I stuffed him in a trunk. Grier winced. "Rudimentary."
"It looks bad enough to have caused a concussion. Has
he been nauseous, suffering headaches?"
Yes, as a matter of fact, but Grier had assumed they were
symptoms of mental trauma, not physical. Fuck. No wonder Aleck had been popping
his pills like candy. Grier swiped a hand over his face, forgetting he hadn't
answered Baptiste until the man spoke again.
"Are you injured?"
Grier took measure of Baptiste's tone before answering. "No."
"Relax. I'm not going to poison you. You weren't the
one who pulled the trigger." He paused. "Were you?"
"No." He'd considered it though, not all that long
ago. Something else he wouldn't mention. The thought of hurting Aleck now felt
foreign. "May I see him?"
Baptiste stroked his beard, then nodded. He motioned to the
The room was dim and smelled of disinfectant. Real wood
cabinets instead of laminate erased some of the impersonal feel of the space.
The tools of Baptiste's trade were well hidden in frosted glass jars and behind
cupboard doors, and the walls were painted a light sage green. Grier avoided
the trail of blood droplets spread across the wood floor and stepped close to
Amelia sat at his side, his big hand clasped her in tiny
one. Her eyes were shiny with tears, but she wasn't crying. She ignored Grier,
and he took the hint. Without a word, he hooked the rolling stool with his
foot, pulled it alongside the bed, then sat. Aleck's chest rose and fell with
steady, unlabored breaths, his face lax with whatever pain medication Baptiste
had pumped into him. His filthy clothes were gone, but trails of dried blood
still decorated his chest and stomach.
Grier fetched a washcloth from beside the sink, wet it, then
began to wipe the blood from his skin, but Amelia stayed his hand. "Let
me." She pried the cloth away. "Please."
He gave in, but kept a close watch as she worked, humming
approval at her thoroughness. "You've done this before. Do you have
She made a sound low in her throat, then shook her head. She
didn't elaborate, and Grier didn't ask her to. "I've been helping Henri
with his patients for years." She paused, cloth hovering over a smudge of
dried blood. "I've never had to do this for Aleck though."
Was that censure in her tone? He refused to probe her
thoughts, not after being accused of doing so earlier. He'd thought her anger
had been for him alone. Now he wondered. "He cares for you. Your safety
has always been his paramount concern."
"More paramount than his own, I happen to know. There've
been a few times—" She went to rinse the cloth. "Never mind. The more
he visits, the greater chance someone will find a connection between us. That's
what he says."
"He's telling the truth."
Amelia nodded. "He never did want me in his world."
"It was for your own protection."
She sniffed and started to reply when Aleck stirred. His
head rolled toward Grier's side of the bed, and his eyes fluttered open. Grier
leaned in. "Aleck?"
Aleck gave a lopsided smile. "Wow. I feel great."
Grier ignored Amelia's soft trill of laughter. "You're
full of painkillers."
"So—"Aleck lifted a shaky hand, and Grier took it.
"I should keep my mouth shut before I say something I'll regret? Hey, you
"Take your own excellent advice," Grier said. "Don't
Aleck's grin got wider. "Okay, but… thanks."
"For letting you get shot?"
"For getting me here. I was starting to feel like shit."
Grier bit his tongue until his eyes watered. He set Aleck's
hand aside and pushed back. The stool rolled away. "You were starting to look
like shit. Go to sleep." He pushed the suggestion, just a little.
Aleck sighed. "Okay." When his breathing had
evened out, Grier indulged in his own examination, stealing into Aleck's mind
to check his condition. Baptiste had called him stable, and Grier found nothing
to contradict that. He withdrew, relieved.
Across the table, Amelia stared at him with new eyes. "Forgive
me. I didn't realize."
Knowing it was a mistake, Grier asked, "Didn't realize
"I thought you were just another one of those people. I
didn't realize you were friends."
Friends. Denying it made little sense at this point. Grier's
face twisted into a scowl. Next thing, Aleck would assume Grier was an active
member in his little crusade. "We're acquaintances," Grier snapped.
Amelia clucked her tongue and resumed sponging Aleck clean. "Aleck
doesn't let people get close."
He'd known that, on some level. Just not the reason behind
"That's why I know you're more than acquaintances. He
Grier rolled his eyes. "He's higher than a kite."
"God, you are so like him," Amelia said under her
breath. She made one final swipe across Aleck's neck, then set the cloth aside.
She patted him dry with a soft towel, and Grier pulled the sheet up over his
chest. Together, they stood over his bed, watching him breathe until Amelia
shook herself. "Are you hungry? I've got the remnants of our dinner, if
"Coffee," Grier said. "Would be much
"Mmm." Amelia washed her hands. "And food, I
think. You look like you could use it. "He'll be fine," she said,
when Grier didn't follow her to the door. "Sleeping like a baby. Come on."
She led him down a long hallway that emptied into the main part of the house.
Baptiste was already in the kitchen, setting another place at the table. Grier
took in the intimate, candlelit setting, and understood why his first knock had
"I apologize for ruining your meal."
Baptiste grunted and took a casserole dish from Amelia. "It
wouldn't be the first time. I saw a patient on our wedding night, if I recall."
He hovered over the table, frowning at the flickering candles. "Don't
apologize for bringing Aleck." He looked ready to say more, perhaps a
roundabout insult directed at Grier, but Amelia shushed him.
"Let's eat. Before it goes cold again. Grier, sit here."
The remnants of the Baptiste's dinner would have made Keev's
mouth water. Rack of lamb, cooked to perfection, and wild rice with shallots.
To his embarrassment, Grier's stomach grumbled when Amelia sat his plate in
front of him.
Baptiste pointed with a fork. "This is our anniversary
dinner. Consider yourself lucky. Amelia doesn't work this kind of magic every
day. She's a busy woman."
"Thank you," seemed the appropriate response to
Baptiste's veiled annoyance. The man was king of his domain, and Grier had no
desire to fight him for the title. He obliged Amelia and ate when prompted. She
offered him wine, a Riesling that smelled crisp and fruity, but Grier declined.
He'd hoped the delayed meal would result in more eating and less conversation,
but Baptiste managed to shovel food into his mouth and still fire off enough
questions that Grier's food was cool before his plate was half empty.
"How long have you known Aleck?" Baptiste asked
around a mouthful of rice.
Grier chewed while deciding his answer. "Not long,
despite what your wife believes."
"What kind of trouble is he in?"
"You'll need to discuss that with him. I'm sorry."
"Does this have to do with that conglomerate he works
Grier's answers grew repetitive and awkward. Baptiste had said
he knew little about Aleck, and he hadn't been lying. As soon as the other man
took a sip of wine, Grier launched a defensive strike. "You're right. You
don't know him at all. How does this friendship between you survive?"
Amelia went still, but Baptiste, to his credit, shrugged. He
refilled his glass. "He was Amelia's friend when she needed one. He
protected her. Over the years, he's become a sort of… guardian angel, if you
will." He drank his wine. "Let's just say, we owe him."
Consciousness came long before Aleck opened his eyes. A hazy
memory of Henri leaning over him and Amelia's low-pitched voice in his ear
blunted the urge to panic. He remembered Grier forcing him into sleep, the
bastard. Still, he was safe. His head buzzed and his body tingled with warmth,
but no pain. Even his headache had disappeared. Aleck reveled in the
comfortable haze. A crooked smile spread over his face.
"Someone's having good dreams."
Aleck's grin grew. "Just dreaming about you,
sweetheart," he said with a slight slur. "It always makes me smile."
Amelia followed her short burst of laughter with a peck to
Aleck's forehead. "Flatterer. How are you feeling?"
"Um." He risked peeling his eyes open. The room
swam into focus. "Pretty good right now. Like I'm made of jello. What
magic elixir did Henri give me?"
"The magic elixir of morphine," Amelia replied in
his ear. She added another chaste kiss, a lingering press of lips at his
temple. "Enjoy it while you can."
"Oh, I plan to."
"Because he says that when it wears off all you get is
"Sadist," Aleck grunted. He wiggled his fingers,
testing, then curled his hands into fists. "I suppose he has a point. I
can't exactly defend myself against the evil hordes right now."
"You couldn't defend yourself against a small cat right
now," Grier's voice came from the doorway.
"You want to test that theory?" Aleck asked with a
hoarse laugh. "Because the sight of you holding a fluffy kitten would be worth
getting my eyes scratched out." He blinked to clear his swimming vision as
Grier came into view. Damp hair curled over the collar of his fresh shirt. The
fine lines around his eyes that Aleck now knew signaled fatigue were smoothed,
and his eyes were clear. He leaned over Aleck, one hand on either side of his
head. When the questing probe came, Aleck opened himself to it.
Grier sucked in a breath as Aleck drew him in, thickening
their existing connection and bridging the final distance between them. Too
trusting, Grier had called him, and Aleck hadn't denied it. He asked for
nothing in return, no window into Grier's thoughts, just offered more of what
he'd already given, this time without words.
I trust you.
"Reckless," Grier muttered, still hovering, closer
now. "Do you ever look before you jump?" A water droplet fell from
his hair and splashed onto Aleck's neck. Grier tracked it as it rolled down his
throat and into the hollow of his collarbone.
Close enough to see Grier's eyes dilate and his breathing
turn shallow, Aleck used their link to broadcast the spike in his own heartbeat.
Grier drew back, wetting his lips as he did, and heat, not from the morphine
this time, prickled across Aleck's skin. "I always look," he said in
a whisper, too low for Amelia to hear. Maybe it was the drugs, but none of his
usual apprehension plagued him. He wanted Grier closer, and instead he was
moving away. "Come here—"
Amelia cleared her throat. Aleck ripped his gaze from Grier
to find her studying him with suspicious disapproval. Her pinched expression
meant a lecture was on the way. He cut her off just as she took a breath to
speak. "Amy, is Henri home?"
She bit her lip, glancing between them. "Yes."
"I need to talk to both of you."
"I'm not sure you're—"
"It can't wait." He grasped her hand and squeezed.
Her pinched expression returned. "It'll be a few
minutes. He's making calls." Aleck nodded, and she backed away, still
watching both of them.
When the door closed behind her, Grier crossed his arms. "Think
she'll be back to ask about my intentions?"
Some clumsy maneuvering gave Aleck the leverage he needed to
sit up. "I think—whoa." The room spun. He felt himself tilting
forward off the table. "Grier."
Two hands steadied him. "What are you doing?"
"I want to be up and dressed when Henri and Amelia come
Aleck opened his eyes. Grier stood next to the table between
his splayed legs, holding him by the shoulders. Aleck picked at the thin sheet
pooled in his lap. "I don't want them looking at me like I'm an invalid.
Now are you going to help or let me stumble around naked until I find some
"Is that rhetorical? Because option two has merit."
Grier didn't wait for an answer, but kept one hand on Aleck's arm and reached
for the pile of clothing on the chair behind him. He shook out a shirt and slacks
and laid them atop the mussed sheet. "You're depleting my wardrobe."
"What do you want me to say?"
"How about, 'I promise to stop bleeding on your expensive
Aleck held up a finger. "Think about how dull our life
would be if I did."
"I like dull. One lives longer, or so I'm told."
Grier helped him shrug into the shirt, but Aleck's fingers felt thick and clumsy,
and after a minute Grier swatted them away and buttoned it himself. "Oh
yes, you're the picture of good health."
"It's the damn drugs," Aleck complained managing
the underwear for himself, though Grier held his arm when he slipped off the
table and onto his feet for the first time in twenty-four hours. "I feel
drunk." He shrugged Grier's hand away. "Don't say it."
"That I'm acting drunk."
"Fine." Grier handed him the pants. "You look
The slacks were too long, and pulling them too far over his
hips was out of the question. The wound still throbbed. Aleck cinched the belt
tight below the bandage. It was better than nothing. "Did you get a hold
Grier shook his head. "I didn't want to take a chance
of having the call traced here."
"He needs to know his security's been compromised."
Aleck turned up his shirt cuffs. "He could be in danger."
"He can take care of himself."
Grier's pensive frown gave Aleck pause. "Thank you,
then, for not taking the risk. We'll call as soon as we're clear. The thing is—"
Aleck frowned at the socks, then shoved them into his pocket and slipped his
bare feet into the loafers. "—we can't stay here much longer. One nosy
neighbor is all it takes. Kaye's smart. It might take her a while, but she'd
track us down."
"And then we'd have more of your friends shooting at
Aleck eased himself back onto the table, cringing when the
skin around the bullet wound pulled taut. "Funny."
"I won't put Amy and Henri in any more danger."
"No one knows you're here," Henri said, coming in,
Amelia at his heels. "We made sure." He looked Aleck up and down. "Did
I say you could get dressed?"
Grier's smile bordered on fond. "You don't know him
very well, do you?"
"I'm not going to take that chance," Aleck said,
ignoring them both. "We'll leave tonight."
"No!" Amelia slashed her hand through the air in
furious rejection. "You can't. Not in your condition."
"I'm fine." Aleck caught her hand, trapping it
between his own. "Trust me."
"Where will you go?" Henri asked.
"That," Aleck glanced at Grier, "is what I
wanted to talk to you about. We need someplace quiet. I need to recover, one.
But I also need some seclusion in order to… help Grier with some things. The
fewer people who see us, the better. In fact, if we could go without seeing
anyone, that would be ideal."
Henri stroked his beard. "You mean the beach house."
Aleck nodded. "You still have it, then?"
"The beach house?" Amelia asked. "It's not—"
"It's perfect," Henri said. "Aleck's right. Secluded.
No neighbors. Most people don't even know it's there. Plus it's in your mother's
name, Amy, and the trust still maintains the property."
Aleck rubbed Amelia's hands between his palms. "It's
not ideal. But if we're found there, someone will have to dig deep to find you
two, and I doubt they'd even try. The house is empty. It'll be assumed we took
advantage of that." He met Grier's eyes. "It's quiet, no people. That'll
be key for your training. A couple of weeks and we'll be gone, I promise, Henri."
"It's too secluded," Amy said. "If
your condition worsens, if there are complications, infection, relapse…."
"I won't be alone."
"Aleck." She pressed a hand to her mouth and shook
her head. "You're asking too much. You have to give me more."
"I can't. You know I can't."
She broke free with a vicious tug. Aleck lunged for her, too
late, and tipped off the table, but Henri caught him before he fell. Amelia ran
from the room.
"I'll talk to her." Henri patted Aleck's shoulder.
"We'll get you supplied and on the road tonight."
Henri had never been an easy man to read, and Aleck wasn't
going to try now. "I'm sorry," he said, at a loss. Henri nodded, not
meeting his eyes. The ache in Aleck's chest expanded. Staying away all these
years meant nothing if his actions put them in harm's way now. Henri turned
after Amelia, and Aleck let him go.
In the ensuing silence, Grier sighed. He drummed his fingers
on the counter, a thoughtful tap tap tap. "We can find another place. Not
connected with your friends."
Aleck swallowed his regret. "No. This is our best shot.
I need to heal. You need to learn."
"Will it take two weeks?"
"Well," Aleck slid from the table, holding his
side. "It took me years to master. I taught Graviel in about six months,
but I didn't see him every day, and I didn't know the best way to explain
things back then."
"You do now?"
"I'll do better this time around. Can you learn it in
two weeks? I don't know for sure, but I hope so. If anybody can, it's you."
Grier didn't react to the compliment. "And at the end
of two weeks?"
"You go get yourself a new life." He slid around
the table to the door, but Grier was faster. He caught Aleck's arm.
"I'm going after Graviel."
Aleck set his jaw. "I need to know."
"You already know. Didn't you hear a word Keev said?"
Grier gave him a shake. "Graviel's a part of this. He's
"I can't believe that."
Grier hissed in disgust and stalked to the door. "Sentimental
idiot. You don't want to believe it."
Aleck waited until he'd thrown the door open. "Neither
do you," he said to Grier's retreating back.
Grier took the first turn he came to and slammed through a
metal door into the Baptiste's garage. An empty paint can took the brunt of his
frustration and went sailing against the wall with a vicious kick. Damn Aleck
to hell. If he wanted to die, let him. The thought prompted another wave of
rage, and Grier slammed his fist into the nearest wall, where it sank into the
soft wallboard. He pulled free and snarled at the hole.
Amelia's soft tsk of censure startled him more than he cared
to admit. He rounded to where she knelt on the opposite side of the room,
sorting through boxes. "My apologies," he said, voice gruff.
Amelia pushed one box to the side and slid another between
her legs. Again, Grier was struck by how small she was. "Aleck's batting a
thousand today, isn't he?" she asked with a wry smile. "Did you get a
shot at him?"
"I—no." It was a tempting thought though.
"Shame," Amelia said with a sigh. "Someone
needs to hit him. Hard."
"That wouldn't accomplish anything."
"It'd make me feel better." They shared a
Grier picked his way across the garage, sliding in front of
a black Land Rover to where Amelia sat in a circle of boxes. "What are you
"Supplies. You'll have to stop for any fresh food you
want, but I have everything else you need." She ran her hand over a clear
plastic bag filled with blankets. "Aleck said the less public exposure,
the better. This should save you several stops."
"Thank you." Grier found an empty spot and sat.
The icy concrete cooled his anger. "How did you two meet?"
Amelia motioned for another box, and Grier slid it forward. "Isn't
that my line?" she asked. "Oh stop with that look." One by one,
she filled the bottom of the box with cans. "I'm not blind, Grier."
"It's not what you think."
"Isn't it?" Boxes of rice, instant potatoes, and
pasta got stacked on top of the canned vegetables. "You don't want to know
what I think. Although," she paused to check the expiration date on a box,
"if you did, you could just… look, couldn't you?"
Why lie? She already knew. "Yes."
"Hmmm." She folded the flaps closed and rested her
elbows on the cardboard. Chin in hand, she said, "To answer your question,
we met when I was in the fifth grade and Aleck was in the fourth. He was just a
little larger than I was, if you can believe that. His bitch of a grandmother
never fed him much." She stood, brushing grime off her jeans. "Grab
those?" She picked up a smaller box, slung it over her hip, and popped the
hatch on the Land Rover. "That one's pretty heavy. Let's put it on the
Grier shook his head. "We're not taking your car."
Amelia tilted her head back to laugh. "Oh yes, you are.
Don't argue with me. I've already had it out with my husband today, and I'm
angry enough that if Aleck weren't hurt, I'd knee him in the balls right now.
Don't you piss me off, too." She pulled herself up to her full four feet
eleven inches and glared.
Grier cleared his throat. "Where did you say you wanted
"Left side, on top of that one. You're not stupid. I
"And you're capable of standing up for yourself."
"Don't let my height fool you."
Grier handed her another box. "It doesn't, but your
husband mentioned something about Aleck protecting you."
She stilled, before shrugging. "Yes. From my father. He
was a sadistic bastard, almost as bad as Aleck's grandfather. They were a pair
of worthless souls, both dead now." She swiped a hand under her eye. "He—I—"
"Never mind," Grier said, infusing his voice with
suggestion. Presumptuous, but he was the one who'd brought the pain to the
surface. He eased into her mind and turned her thoughts to other things,
repelling her memories as he withdrew, but a few caught him, inky black with
pain and fear. He heard a man's voice, saw a pair of filthy hands, heard Amelia
He drew back so fast, he stumbled. Amelia cocked her head. "What
was I saying?"
"You were telling me about Aleck's family," Grier
said, swallowing the bad taste in his mouth.
"I was?" The thought bothered her, he saw. Then
she shrugged. "There's not much to say. He never knew his father, and his
mother died when he was still a baby. Drug overdose. His grandparents raised
Most of this Grier knew, from their first conversation in
his apartment. "His grandfather abused him?"
Amelia stuffed the bags of linens into the back of the Land
Rover, then pulled the hatch closed. "Yes." She motioned for Grier to
follow her out of the garage. "His favorite game," she said as they
walked, "was to trick Aleck, be nice to him, right before he hurt him.
There's only so much a little boy's heart can take, you know."
He did. Some of the mystery that was Aleck Devlin began to
fall into place.
"By the time I met him, he'd learned his lesson. He'd
stopped giving the old bastard chances to hurt him."
The damage would've been done by then. Fourth grade. Nine,
maybe ten years old. Grier took a deep breath when he found his teeth grinding
together. "What power does a child have?" he asked under his breath.
"Not a lot, as a general rule." She turned to face
him before they crossed the threshold into the kitchen. "But this is Aleck
we're talking about." They shared a conspiratorial grin. "He got my
father good too," she whispered, then pushed the door open.
Aleck was hunched over the table with Baptiste, speaking in
low tones. Both glanced up, then went back to their discussion. They had a map
spread out on the table in front of them, its accordion folds turning up at the
"And then one day," Amelia said, still in a
whisper, her eyes on Aleck's back. "A man came. He talked to Aleck, and
Aleck—" she gave a hiccupping laugh, "—he smiled. The man took
him away, and nothing's been the same since. If we're lucky, we see him every
six months or so. Once he didn't come for two years." Her voice broke on
the last word. Grier placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, wondering for the
first time just how deep Amelia Baptiste's feelings ran for her friend. "I
thought he was dead," she said. "I truly thought he was dead."
Grier, unsure to whether she was referring to then or now,
The desire to party or fuck his troubles away disappeared
with his two guests. Grier would've called it petulant. Keev deemed it
Grier hadn't explained how the Organization had tracked him
down, but it didn't take a genius to deduce Aleck was behind it. The man was
hiding something amongst all those churning emotions. So was Grier. And he'd
been scared, which was enough to give Keev nightmares. The time had come to
chose sides, but who were the players and what were their agendas? Where did
his father stand?
Burying one's head in the sand was all well and good, but he
had no desire to be shot in the ass.
He cast his book aside and considered what he knew. He was
missing something vital; the knowledge felt close, like he could brush it with
his fingertips. He tilted his head back against the cushion and closed his eyes.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Keev inspected the
caller ID before answering. "I thought you said you were getting rid of
"I haven't had the chance yet." Grier's voice was
clipped, all-business. "We ran into a problem."
"Oh?" Concern tickled Keev's chest. "Of what
"The sort that comes from a gun."
Keev's stomach flipped over. "Are you all right?"
Which meant, "Aleck?"
"Not so fine, but alive."
Embarrassed to find himself relieved, Keev countered with, "Haven't
you taught him how to duck?"
"Careful, Keev." Amusement leaked into Grier's
voice. "You sound almost worried."
So what if he did? Aleck wasn't a bad person. A bit
idealistic, rough around the edges, uptight, repressed… "How bad is he?"
"It was touch and go for a while. But I didn't call so
you could advertise how much you like him."
"Which would be not at all."
"They were waiting for us," Grier said.
Keev went cold. "Explain," he forced out between
"In Richmond. The Organization was waiting."
"Fuck!" Keev shot off the sofa. A black, marble
statuette was the nearest object of opportunity, and it shattered when he
hurled it against the wall. He hunched over the table, one hand fisted on the
surface while the other clutched the phone. "I'm sorry."
"You couldn't have known."
"I should have." The knowledge sparked another
burst of anger. He had a spy in his house. And God knows for how long and to
whom they reported. Graviel? His father? The last made his stomach flip. "I'll
deal with it." Today. Right now.
"Be careful, Keev."
"You always say that. Afraid I can't take care of
Silence answered him. Then Grier said, "I know you can."
Strains of a muffled conversation drifted over the line. "And Aleck says
thanks for your concern. It's touching." The connection went dead.
Keev stood with the phone to his ear until he'd wrestled his
rage to a manageable level. He'd promised them protection. Now his word meant
nothing. He had a house full of servants, most Gifted. An hour ago he'd
believed in them all. Now he trusted no one. He cursed and stalked to his
office. He'd start there, work backwards until he figured it out. And God help
the man or woman who'd betrayed him.
An hour later, he dropped into his chair and brooded.
Nothing. Not a trace – that his senses could pick up, at least. The next
logical step would be to prowl the house, flushing out the traitor with good
old-fashioned surliness and suspicion. He spun his chair to the window as
another surge of worry over Grier – and yes, damn it, Aleck – distracted him.
He felt his father before he saw him. Roman's emotional aura
preceded him everywhere, a mass of condescension and disdain. Unsettled by the
unannounced visit, Keev slipped a hand into his pocket and curled it around the
scrap of paper with Grier's phone number.
The door to his office opened. A cool rush of air brushed
his face, blowing a strand of blond hair over his chin. He plucked it away. "Father,"
he said, throwing the honorific over his shoulder, preempting Roman's greeting
with his own.
"Son," Roman countered. "I hope I'm not
intruding." He edged around the room, just out of sight, pausing at the
bar, then at the window to admire the view. It was a game he played, an
unnerving one, but Keev was a master of it himself. He refused to crane his
neck to follow Roman's progress.
"No, of course not. You're always welcome. Though I
admit it's unexpected. I thought you were in Italy."
"I was. That business is concluded." Roman
swaggered into sight. He was darker than Keev – who'd inherited his pale hair
and complexion from his mother – and broader across the shoulders. His height
was an intimidating 6'4", but he'd never needed it to control a situation.
That he did with his eyes. Dark brown, almost black, they could pierce a person's
soul. Austere as always, he settled into a chair – the same one Aleck had
chosen the day before yesterday – and crossed his legs. Long fingers picked at
his suit jacket buttons one by one, revealing more of the starched, white shirt
beneath. "I felt like a bit of sun."
"You're on holiday then?"
"Unfortunately, my schedule won't allow it. I have
several issues to attend to. And in four day's time, a meeting with my new allies."
The way he spit the word left little question as to how Roman felt about his fledgling
partnership with Graviel.
Keev slid his fingers back and forth over Grier's note. He'd
not closed off his thoughts. Only the guilty had a reason to hide. "New
Roman chose to pour himself a drink rather than answer. "I'd
like you to attend."
"We agreed long ago on this."
Roman's hand paused, then resumed pouring. "I realize
that. I'm asking as a special favor." He raised the glass to his lips. "Please.
Suspend your boycott of my affairs for one night?"
Manipulative bastard. "What sort of meeting?"
"A meeting of the minds." Roman cackled at his own
joke. Keev managed a tight smile.
"Mallorca. You haven't been there in years, have you?"
Roman topped off his drink before returning to his seat.
Keev wasn't sure what bothered him more: his father's
patronizing smile, or that he knew the last time Keev had been in Spain. "It's full of tourists this time of year," he hedged.
Roman's smile evaporated. "I won't have you left behind
on this. It's too important, and you've spent far too much of your life doing
nothing but dodging one difficult task after another. It's time to grow up. I'll
expect you to be there." He stood. "I've forwarded the details to
"As you wish."
He didn't realize he'd mauled Grier's scrap of paper into
several pieces until Roman paused at the door. "I understand you've had
"Several," Keev answered.
"Yes, but I was speaking of two in particular."
Well, Keev thought, anger once more threatening to
boil over, no question as to who the spy reports to. He met his father's
eyes but kept silent.
Roman sniffed. "I don't begrudge you your teenage
crush, Keev, but tread carefully."
"Don't confuse your loyalties," Roman said as he
left. The door closed with a soft click.
They left later that night, under cover of darkness. Amelia's
goodbye was teary and emotional, and even Aleck was relieved to drive away when
the time came.
"We shouldn't have taken their car," Grier said. "If
we're found, their involvement will be impossible to hide."
Aleck tilted the seat back and shifted onto his left hip. "There's
no arguing with her. Just drive."
Aleck pulled out the handheld GPS that Baptiste had given
him. "Wherever the magic eight ball leads us." He punched in the
address to the beach house.
"Does the magic eight ball say anything about when I'll
get my life back?"
Aleck grinned. He shook the GPS unit, then squinted at the
screen. It beeped. "It says: after you save the world."
"Poor deluded eight ball."
Aleck laughed. "Over the Bay Bridge and across the
peninsula to the Eastern Shore. If I remember right, it should take about three
hours. The way you drive, four."
Grier tapped the brakes and Aleck hit the dash with a thump.
"Buckle up. And also, shut up."
For as tense as Grier felt, the trip was dull. Aleck didn't
complain, but Grier knew his wound was tender. His headaches hadn't returned, and
an hour into the journey, he fell into a peaceful sleep, curled on his side
with the seatbelt tucked under his arm. Grier peeled the GPS from his fingers.
Two hours and fifteen minutes later, he pulled onto a
private lane that led off into scrub-covered dunes. Sand covered the pavement
in most places. The offer of the Land Rover made more sense now. A quarter of a
mile later, he made a sharp right between two dunes and almost plowed into the
His sudden lurching stop woke Aleck. He rubbed his eyes like
a five-year-old and squinted through the windshield. "Ah, here it is. Just
like I remember it." He untangled himself from his seatbelt. "I hope
you're not expecting anything too fancy."
Grier eyed the house. "Would running water be too much
to hope for?"
Aleck climbed the steps and squinted through the frosted
glass of the front door. "Looks pretty much like I remember."
"I was afraid of that."
Aleck beckoned him up onto the deck. "Come on. This isn't
its best side."
"I'm praying you're serious." He followed Aleck up
The Baptiste's beach house was a simple Cape Cod, raised on
stilts and surrounded on all four sides by expansive wood decks. Beachside, the
house was as impressive as Aleck promised, with large picture windows running
the length of the structure. Best of all, it was nestled between a run of
dunes, hidden from its neighbors. At one corner, a boardwalk led off toward the
beach. He heard the roar of the ocean and the morning cry of seagulls on the
breeze. The air tasted salty. The horizon grew brighter by the second, pale
pink tinged with purple.
Aleck fit a key into the back door. "Come on," he
called over his shoulder.
Grier had expected shag carpeting and wood paneling.
Instead, pale cherry flooring ran uninterrupted throughout. The living room was
painted a bright white, throwing the shaker furniture into sharp relief. The
kitchen lined one wall, all stainless steel and granite. A massive work island
connected the two areas.
Grier gave a low whistle. "I take back every bad thing
I said about Baptiste."
"You didn't say anything bad about him," Aleck
replied with a frown.
"Everything I thought then."
Aleck scratched the back of his head. "Want to unload
now or later?"
"Says the man who just had a two-hour nap." Two
identical bedrooms branched off the hallway, each with queen-sized beds. "I
don't relish waking up without coffee. Let's get it over with."
In the end, Grier carried the supplies and Aleck found a
place for them inside. By the time Grier had dropped the last box on the floor
and locked the door behind him, Aleck was pale and hugging his side. "I
think I'm done." He hobbled into the bathroom. Grier wedged a foot inside
before he could slam the door.
"Take off your clothes. Is there any fresh blood?"
"You just want to see me naked," Aleck peeled off
his shirt, then popped the buttons on his jeans and slid them low on his hips.
"I've seen you naked. Or have you forgotten?"
Aleck winced when Grier probed the wound. "Oh yeah.
What'd you think, by the way?"
"The room was cold, so I won't hold it against
Aleck's bark of laughter ended with him curled over in a
groan. Grier grabbed him by the nape of the neck and steered him into the
nearest bed. "Idiot," he said as he turned to leave.
"Grier, wait." Aleck pushed up onto his elbows. A
slash of sunlight snuck through a crack in the blinds, lighting one side of his
face. "Do you want to start that training?"
"Right now?" Grier hovered in the doorway. "Aren't
A low laugh drifted out of the dark. Aleck fell back to the
pillow, out of the light. "I'm not the one doing all the work. My part's
Grier hesitated. Eagerness battled with exhaustion, then
Aleck's fingers drifted into the sunbeam, coaxing. "Come on. We'll start
slow. It'll give you an idea of how it works."
Aleck scooted to the side in invitation – one Grier couldn't
resist. He lowered himself onto the edge of the mattress and reached for the
lamp, but Aleck grabbed his arm. "No."
Several seconds passed before Aleck blurted, "Darkness
might help you the first few times."
Interesting. And telling. "If you insist."
Aleck sighed and released his arm. "Okay, first—"
"Tell me about how you learned to do this," Grier
Aleck swallowed. "Why?"
That should've been obvious, yet Aleck's curiosity was genuine.
Was he so blind to what was inside him? "If you'd rather not…"
"No, it's okay. I, uh, taught myself. When I was a kid."
He crossed his arms behind his head. "It's not a gift. Not in the
strictest sense of the word. At least, I'm assuming that's the case, since it's
a skill that can be taught. It's more," he paused, "a state of mind."
Grier stared, trying to discern Aleck's features in the
dark. "Can you be more specific?"
"I—" Aleck shifted, agitated. "You have to
want to be invisible." His voice dropped at the end, the final syllables
of invisible no more than a breath of sound.
"Why?" Grier slid his hand across the blanket and
set it on Aleck's hip.
Aleck shrugged. His hand crept over Grier's. "That's
the way I do it. So that's how I'm going to teach you."
Topic closed for the evening, but not forever. Grier let it
go. He knew the reason, anyway, if what Amelia had let slip about Aleck's
childhood held a kernel of truth. "Invisible. That shouldn't be too hard."
"There are levels," Aleck continued. "Like…curtains.
The first level is like a sheer. It hides your gifts, that's all. Don't think
it'll be easy to master just because it's the first step. It's the hardest to
learn, but once you have it," he snapped his fingers, "piece of cake."
"Hmmm." Their tangled fingers had become too
distracting, so Grier pulled away and reclined near the foot of the bed. "What
are the other levels?"
Aleck's teeth flashed in the dark. "The next is for
when you want to fade into the background. People still see you. I mean, you register,
but they don't notice you. Do you know what I mean?"
Grier digested the words. "I believe so."
"It's dead useful. Especially in more intimate places,
like hotel lobbies or restaurants. No one gives me a second glance. Even if I
sit there for hours."
Disbelief began to replace excitement. "And the next?"
"Is the ultimate. I can become, for all intensive
purposes, invisible. Not literally, of course." He reached for Grier
again, touching him just above the knee. "I can't keep it up for very
long. It's good for split second evasion. Little else. And it's draining. Very
Getting his mind around the concept was draining. Grier
shook his head. "I can't believe that. I'm sorry, Aleck, but it's too
far-fetched. This isn't magic. It's science."
"Is that so?"
Grier tensed at the amused tone. "Yes. Gifts stem from
our brain. It's physiological, plain and simple. How else do you explain how a
drug can impair them? What you're suggesting…"
"It's not so different," Aleck insisted. "And
no one knows how our Gifts work, so who are you to put a limit on what's
Nobody, in the grand scheme of things. Still, it stretched
Grier's ability to accept. "That's enough for tonight," he said, mind
"Already?" Aleck's blunt fingernails scratched
across his jeans, edging higher on Grier's thigh. "Are you that tired?"
Grier sat up, swinging his leg out from under Aleck's hand,
ignoring his soft sound of disappointment. "No. And that's why I'm
leaving." Dodging Aleck's clumsy grab, he stood and backed across the room
to the door.
"Afraid I'll bite?"
"No." Grier clutched the doorframe. His mouth went
dry at Aleck's raspy chuckle.
"Afraid you will?"
"Yes." It was the truth.
His reward was a sharp intake of breath and stunned silence.
But as he spun to leave, Aleck laughed again. "How long are you going to
make me wait?"
Grier stepped into the hall and slammed the door. Standing
with his forehead against the wood, he listened to the muffled noises from the
other side. Bedsprings creaked. Cotton sheets swished against one another.
Running away, then asking for more was weak, but he couldn't
help himself. Palm flat against the door, Grier reached out with his mind, and
Aleck welcomed him in.
The pillow case felt silky against his cheek, and the
ceiling fan blew a steady breeze of cool air over his throat and across his
chest. His wound throbbed in time with his heart, just a dull ache now. His
stomach felt heavy, the rest of his body weightless. Under the blankets, he was
too hot. Clammy. Hard.
Aleck's voice drifted through the door, laced with too many
things to identify. "Good night, Grier."
"The sooner I'm rid of you, the better," Grier
grumbled, short of breath.
Keep telling yourself that. The last came through his
thoughts, a gentle caress. Grier tamped down the connection as best he could
and stalked away.
Learning Aleck's magic trick became his primary focus. Aleck
obliged by pushing him day and night, insisting his failures were guiding him
in the right direction.
"It's a process of elimination," Aleck said. "We'll
keep trying until we find what triggers a successful attempt."
"Must it be so dark?" Grier asked.
Aleck eyed him from where he'd propped himself against the
headboard. After the first day, he'd shunned the constant bed rest, but still
tired easily. "Need a nightlight?"
"I need an explanation. I'm afraid next you'll want a
circle of beeswax candles and a Ouija Board."
"That's advanced stuff. I never Ouija until the second
"And I delayed dinner for this." Grier turned to
go, but Aleck motioned him back.
"Okay," he conceded. "No more jokes. Promise."
He circled his finger in the air. "Close your eyes."
"Aleck." Grier's warning elicited another sly
"Grier," Aleck mimicked in the same tone. He sat
forward, holding a hand over his bandage. "Close your eyes."
Grier sighed, but obeyed. "No need to tell the rest. I
know it. Click my heels together and say, 'There's no place like home.'"
The room rang with Aleck's laughter. "If only we could,"
he said, tone so wistful that Grier swallowed his sharp retort. "Could I
get you to lie down next to me?"
Grier opened one eye and squinted at him.
"I'll be good." Aleck patted the bed. "We're
going to try something different tonight," he said once Grier was prone next
to him. He propped his head on his hand. "Relax."
"No, Grier. Relax. Do you meditate?"
Aleck smirked at the testy response. Before Grier could stop
him, he reached out and ran a finger over his forehead. "Meditate until
you feel clear-headed. You're too tense, and each time you try this and fail,
it gets worse."
"How silly of me. It's not as though it's a matter of
life and death."
His sarcasm bounced harmlessly away, judging my Aleck's
sleepy smile. "And you call me the drama queen." The finger returned,
tracing lines Grier hadn't realized were there. "Clear your mind. Then we'll
Grier mumbled his agreement. "What are you going to do?"
"Watch you." The one finger became two. They slid
over his temple and across the line of his cheek.
Achieving a deep state of relaxation took Grier very little
time. "Thought you didn't touch people," he said, slurring the words.
Aleck's voice sounded far away when he answered. "Thought
I didn't either."
Grier lined his troubling thoughts into a row and banished
them one by one. Some proved more difficult than others, but by the time he
reached the last – his inability to learn what Aleck was trying to teach him –
he felt refreshed. At some point, Aleck's fingers had fallen away. His breath
puffed against Grier's shoulder, long and even, and his body, close but not
touching, radiated comforting warmth. Rather than wake him, Grier tried to
puzzle out his failure.
Why wasn't it working when his need was so intense?
"You have to want for no one to see you," Aleck had said. "Like
you've never wanted anything more."
That was the crux of it. There was one person he didn't want
to be invisible to.
I just need it for a few moments, he told himself. Not
The last barrier slipped away. This time when he began the
exercise – when he tried to picture himself as invisible – the image came
without a fight. Grier reached for it with the care a child might reach for a
butterfly, afraid it would slip through his fingers. His surroundings, always
sharply focused because of his Gifts, blurred, like he was looking through a
fine mesh screen. So this was how most people saw the world.
The cadence of Aleck's breathing changed. The finger
returned, tracing his lips this time. "You did it," Aleck said, voice
thick with sleep, "I can't sense you."
He had it.
Handcrafted stone walls and cypress trees lined the road to
Valldemossa. Such a serene setting was sure to put Graviel on edge. He no doubt expected an ambush of some sort. Roman exited the limousine when it rolled to a stop outside the restaurant and breathed in the fragrant air. He dismissed his driver with a wave. "Remember, Keev," he said as he smoothed a hand down his coat. "Vigilance."
"Do you expect Graviel to let his shields slip in front of you?" Keev mumbled. He tapped a cigarette free from a silver case.
The answer, he saw, gave Keev pause. "My invitation makes sense now."
"Just now? Why am I not surprised?"
They entered the restaurant side-by-side. The maitre d' himself took their coats and led them across the room through a high archway into a smaller, more intimate space. Here, tall carved screens and groupings of potted plants gave the illusion of privacy. Dim lights threw shadows onto textured stucco walls.
Graviel rose to greet them, the surprise on his face masked in a heartbeat. The old man hadn't expected to see Keev, and he well knew the depth of the boy's Gifts. His worry was justified. Few could withstand Keev's empathic probes.
As they reached the table, Graviel turned and helped a woman to her feet. She was stunning, dressed in a strapless, floor-length black gown. Hair the color of spun gold was twisted into a chignon and fastened with a pearl-encrusted comb. It matched the strand ringing her throat. Icy blue eyes studied them both. They lingered on Roman.
"Graviel, you dog," Roman said, grinning like a wolf. "What is she, half your age?"
"That might be a bit generous," Keev threw in.
Graviel puffed up like a papa bear. "May I introduce Kaye Parks, my associate."
"My pleasure, gentlemen." Kaye held out one manicured hand.
Roman brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "The pleasure's all mine."
Keev cleared his throat. "I'm sure it is." He slid Kaye's chair out, and, with a final look at Roman, she slipped back into her seat. Roman smiled his approval when Keev was the first to extend his hand to Graviel.
Graviel held it in his own for several heartbeats. "Keev. It's been a long time."
"It has. How are you?"
"Well, thank you."
Fondness softened Graviel's features. Even after all these years, the fool held out hope that Keev would defect to his side. Bristling, Roman focused his attention on Kaye. "Wine, my dear?"
"No, thank you," she demurred. "I believe in keeping a clear head."
"You shouldn't give Roman such an opening, Kaye," Graviel said as he took his seat. "He enjoys his chauvinism act a bit too much."
The choked off sound that escaped Keev's throat made Roman's grip tighten on his wine. He tipped his glass at Graviel. Your point, old man.
Niceties concluded, the conversation lagged while the waiter poured fresh water and topped off their wine. Roman waited until the he'd settled the bottle back into the bucket and disappeared. "As much as I appreciate the venue, we should attend to business." He lowered his head, schooling his features to the appropriate level of anxiety. "There have been some disturbing developments."
Graviel's jaw clenched. "I didn't suspect I was at the top of your social calendar. What's happened?"
"I fear another attack is imminent."
"You have proof?"
"Only my intuition and the chatter my people are privy to. But the information comes from all corners of the globe, and from independent sources."
Kaye pressed her fingers to her lips. "Do you have any details?"
"Few." Roman flashed Kaye a confident smile. "But I won't allow another bloodbath. Whatever our previous disagreements, we must work together." Kaye's face flushed a soft pink.
Too easy. This was the enemy he'd spent so many years fearing? It was almost disappointing. He darted a glance at Keev to find the boy watching him, eyes narrowed in speculation. He relished his next words, anticipating the pain they would bring. "There's more. Your missing agents. They've joined the splinter group."
Graviel went statue-still, as if one move would shatter him. He bled denial from every pore. Keev's reaction was similar but not as desperate, and it held a touch of amusement. Kaye, however, nodded. Lips pressed into a bloodless line, she glared at Graviel. "I told you."
Keev took a slow, deep breath, and Roman knew he was picking up every nuance, every emotion, swirling through the air between them.
"No." Graviel thumped his fist on the table. "I won't believe it."
Roman shrugged. "That's your prerogative."
"No, it isn't!" Kaye rounded on Graviel. "How much evidence do you need? Would Aleck pointing a gun at you be convincing enough? He's not the man you thought he was. Accept it."
"I will not." His words, whisper-soft, carried enough power to rattle their silverware and spin the water in their goblets into tiny whirlpools. Kaye, used to such displays, Roman imagined, fell quiet, but her resentment was palpable. Disgraceful. Had Graviel's people no control?
"Suit yourself," Kaye said. "But the next time we cross paths, he won't get the benefit of my doubt. And I won't miss my next shot at Crist either."
Keev's reaction was a tightened grip on his napkin. Roman shot him a warning look. Murdering Graviel's new favorite pet would certainly strain relations. His temper tantrum would have to wait.
Keev swallowed once, twice, then made a show of straightening his place setting. "Moving on?"
Roman lifted his glass in a toast of agreement. "I believe it's time for a public show of our alliance. Hear me out," he implored when Graviel shook his head. "This group believes themselves to have two enemies. More importantly, two enemies who, well, let's not mince words, are enemies themselves. We must send a message." Roman shifted his attention to Kaye. "Together, we are stronger than they are. Do you not agree this could be a powerful deterrent to any further terrorism?"
"It would give them pause," Kaye said.
"And what have we to lose?" Roman asked. "I'll admit, I did not want to accept this partnership, but accept it I have." He leaned forward. "Let's make the most of our resources."
Graviel stroked his beard. His eyes bore into Roman. "What do you propose?"
"We bring our players together. Who knows how much serendipity we may create? How many of our people are already…friends?"
Graviel's eyes darted to Keev. "True."
"We cannot continue to circle each other in the dark and still hope to emerge the victors." This last he directed at Kaye, adding subdued desperation to his voice.
"He's right." Kaye laid a hand over Graviel's. A lock of hair slipped from her comb and swept her chest. It made her look, Roman thought, very young. Young enough to crave leadership for herself? The night was bearing unexpected fruit.
In the stillness that followed, Keev picked up his wine and held it to his lips. "I agree." He took a sip then set it down with a decisive plunk. "My father is right. We must work together."
Oh, well-played, son. Roman sensed victory close at hand. A den of lions wouldn't keep Graviel from his chance to take the elusive Keev under his wing. Sure enough…
"Very well." Graviel turned his palm in Kaye's and squeezed her fingers. "But I name the time and place."
Roman spread his hands in supplication. "I have no arguments." He raised his glass. "To a fresh start." Kaye beamed as she clinked her glass against his. Her blush had spread across the top of her breasts, and Roman made sure she noticed him take it in.
The first course arrived, and, as though their cooperation was already an art, all talk of business ceased until the dessert plates were cleared. Roman was watching Kaye when she went still and her eyes lost focus. So the child was hosting a Monitor. Forty years in the business and Graviel still played things too safe.
"I'm sorry," she said a moment later. "I'm afraid I have to leave."
Roman and Keev rose when she did. Graviel nodded.
Never one to let an opportunity pass, Roman took a gentle hold of her arm. "Allow me to escort you. Do you require a taxi?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Keev, play nice with our new friend," Roman purred as he led Kaye away. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Graviel had already pounced on the boy. Stroke of genius, bringing him. And here, on his arm, the opportunity for another. "Kaye," he said, as he helped her slip into her wrap. "Please be careful. You and I know the truth. Aleck is dangerous. Crist even more so." He squeezed her shoulders in a loose embrace. "Keep yourself safe."
She shook his hand. "I will," she said, adding after a short pause, "You do the same."
"Until we meet again." He helped her into the car and shut the door.
Graviel had wooed Keev Petrova for two years, to no avail.
Roman's lies corrupted the Organization's reputation beyond repair, and Keev
never gave him a chance. Graviel still grieved for the boy; his empathic skills
were unparalleled, and to have had his confidence and loyalty in this
Useless fantasies. He watched Keev walk ahead of them on the
path, unbothered by the veiled tension sparking between Roman and himself.
Unbothered, but not unaware. And listening. Always listening.
Roman walked beside him, hands behind his back. At ease, but
for thirty years of history between them. Still not so trusting, but who could
blame him? The bench-lined path curved around a fountain, and even at this time
of the evening it was busy, filled with people pouring out of the restaurant to
enjoy the mild weather. "So strange," Graviel murmured.
"Strange?" Roman echoed.
Even after all these months, the sound of Roman's distinct
voice at his elbow was startling. "To be here with you." Graviel
motioned at the fountain. "At this place, celebrating a truce."
"Let's not go overboard," Roman said, and Graviel
chuckled. That was the Roman Petrova he knew.
"Perhaps it's presumptuous. But I'd hoped, once the
current crisis passes," Graviel stopped and waited for Roman to turn. He
did, gaze wary. "I'd hoped we could continue what is so obviously a
beneficial arrangement for us both."
Roman titled his head. "Let's see this through. When the time comes, I'd be willing to listen."
A twinge of distaste penetrated the wall Roman kept around his mind. At odds with his words, it derailed Graviel's reply. He pressed his mouth shut and nodded. A few steps later, he said, "Your son."
Roman's eyes rose from the ground to drill into Keev's back. "Yes?"
"Seems nothing like you."
"I imagine you're complimenting one of us," Roman said with a tight smile. "I just don't know who."
Graviel too watched Keev, but didn't comment. The boy's hands were slung into the pockets of his suit trousers. His jacket was unbuttoned, his tie loose. His attention shifted with lightning speed, from a child splashing in the fountain, to a couple kissing on a bench, to a baby crying in his mother's arms. "Unable to focus," Roman had described him months ago when Graviel had asked after his welfare. "And still happy to have turned you down."
Perhaps, but Roman saw what he wanted to – one of the major downfalls of always getting what one desired. Graviel, however, knew the truth: Keev didn't miss a trick.
"It pains me to say, but Keev is," Roman sighed, frowning at the ground, "a spoiled, privileged weakling whose primary concern is his next fuck."
As Graviel was still watching the spoiled weakling in question, he saw Keev's shoulders tense and his step falter. The boy was too far ahead to have heard the words, but not so far as to have missed the emotion behind them. A thrill raced through him at Roman's misstep. It wasn't much, perhaps, but an advantage it was. "Forgive me if I disagree."
"You're free to do as you like." The words masked a touch of impatience. A tactical retreat was in order. Graviel turned and held out his hand.
"I'll leave you now."
Never one to appreciate the moral high road, Roman nodded, but kept his arm at his side. The man hadn't an ounce of honor, Graviel decided. He dropped his hand, tipping his head in a curt farewell. "I'll be in contact about the arrangements."
He turned back up the path, leaving Roman and Keev to themselves.
Keev watched Graviel walk out of sight, his gait uneven, not as sure as it had been at the beginning of the night. Smirking, he chose a bench, lit a cigarette, and waited for his father. Roman took his time meandering up the path.
"Couldn't help baiting the old man, could you?" Keev asked, smoke leaking through his lips as he spoke. "Your new best friend." Said out loud, it sounded ridiculous. He choked on a laugh.
"What did you learn?" Roman took the seat beside him.
"Graviel is scared. Your accusation terrified him. He's losing control."
"And Ms. Parks?"
"Frustrated. Resentful. Her faith in Graviel is fading. And," Keev blew a ring of smoke into the air, "you captivate her."
"Excellent," Roman said, drawing the word out. He studied the people walking past, his semblance transmitting enough pretension that even those who noticed the scrutiny hurried by without challenging him. "Remember what I've taught you about weakness? Graviel's about to discover just how crippling it can be."
Keev rolled the cigarette between his fingers. "You don't sound very sympathetic."
This made Roman laugh out loud, a bitter, boisterous sound that startled those nearby. He met their eyes one by one until each scurried away. On the bench across the path, a nosy young woman looked longer than she should've. Keev felt her confusion as his father ripped into her thoughts. He gritted his teeth, averted his gaze, but movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention back. The girl dropped her book into her shoulder bag, walked across the path, and slid onto the bench beside Roman. When she put her hand on his knee, Roman sighed.
Keev's stomach roiled. "Must you?" he bit out.
"Weakness," Roman continued, "is what brings everyone down. Sooner or later." He kissed the girl's temple. She smiled at him with blank eyes. "A lesson you'd do well to remember."
Again his father ignored him. "Graviel is obsessed with Aleck Devlin."
"Only this." Roman took the girl's hand and placed it in his lap. "It's what Graviel didn't say tonight that revealed the most. Especially as it's common knowledge that his young protégé is in hiding with your best friend." He sneered as the last two words left his mouth.
Keev shrugged. He pinched the butt between his fingers, then flicked it to the ground.
Roman's nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. "Graviel's world is crumbling. His lies are coming back to haunt him. The Organization is faltering, the Directorate scared."
"Good times," Keev replied. His urge to fidget was overpowering. Rather than light a second cigarette, he clasped his hands in his lap. "At least in the past you would've thought so."
"Oh, I don't know." Roman grinned. At his side, the girl fumbled at his trousers, openly fondling him now. "I rather like it."
"I'm sure," Keev muttered. "Yet it lends little stability to your situation."
There was so much unsaid in those two words. Disquiet niggled at Keev. "You want the Organization weakened?" he guessed.
"Oh Keev." Roman dislodged the girl's hand. She didn't make a sound, but sat staring into the distance. "There's so much you don't know. The question is, can I trust you?"
The questioning of his loyalty, while sudden, didn't startle Keev. He'd been expecting it just marginally longer than he'd been preparing his answer. Years. A lifetime. He couldn't help lamenting the loss of his freedom, though. Perhaps that was what his father was counting on.
"You ask this now?" he answered, following the script of their little game.
"You are my weakness, Keev. I haven't asked because there are answers I have no desire to hear."
Pensive, Keev tapped his fingers on the bench, pretending to mull his father's ridiculous words. He doubted Roman would miss him any more than he would one of his thousand pairs of shoes. He kept his voice light. "I often say I trust no one. A lie, of course."
Roman tilted his head in acknowledgment. No man was an island. No successful one, at least. He'd preached as much to Keev since childhood.
"It may be trite, but blood is thicker than water." Despite his father's substantial shields, Keev felt the pride that emanated from Roman. "But why now? Why are you asking me to choose sides when you've been content to let me play the neutral party for so long?"
"Fair question. If I answer, may I ask one of my own?"
Absolutely not, Keev ached to say. Roman had been conciliatory so far, but that wouldn't last. And lying to the man was suicide. He pursed his lips, but nodded.
Roman turned to the girl and whispered in her ear. Brow furrowed, she rose and went back to her bench, where she pulled out a cell phone and began punching numbers. Keev watched with interest. "What did you tell her to do?"
Roman's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Never you mind. Now, my answer." He looped an arm over the back of the bench and slid close. Keev forced himself to stay relaxed. "There's a battle coming. I hope to keep it bloodless, but fate often takes these decisions from us, doesn't she?"
Keev watched and waited.
"In the end, there will be no Organization. No agents. No Monitors." He leaned close. "Only me. And you, I hope." His eyelids drooped, heavy with promised pleasure. "I've grown tired of Graviel's interference these past few years."
The truth hit Keev like a physical blow to the stomach, pushing the air from his lungs. The puzzle piece he'd been missing clicked into place. He couldn't keep the surprise off his face. "There is no rebel faction of Gifteds."
Roman licked his lips. "My turn?"
"Yes," Keev said, despising the fine tremor in his voice.
"When push comes to shove, will your loyalty be with me or with Grier?" He tilted his head. "Do you care for him?"
"That's two questions."
Roman's mouth split into a wide, toothy grin. His eyes rolled back like a crocodile and he chuckled. "So it is. Well, then. Pick which one you want to answer."
Clever bastard. To buy time, Keev turned his eyes back to the girl. Silent tears poured down her cheeks. The phone was still pressed to her ear.
"I'll answer both," Keev said, turning to meet his father's startled gaze. "I suppose I care for him. He's magnificent in bed."
Roman's eyes flashed. Keev braced himself, but continued. "And that's about all he's good for, to be frank. My emotional connection stems from his cock sucking skills. I'm man enough to admit it."
He stood, brushing loose cigarette ash from his suit. "I don't appreciate having to choose sides, Father. But if it's necessary, then I stand with you. I always have.
Roman's rage ebbed, leaving Keev limp with relief. Roman stroked his chin with a leather-gloved hand. "Thank you, son. That's all I needed to know."
Which could mean a host of things. The most dangerous of which was You can't fool me. For his sake, Keev prayed it meant something else altogether.
Aleck trudged up the steps from the beach to the boardwalk. The weathered planks followed the curve of the dune over the hill and down the other side. Scrub brush thrived above the tide line, growing in scattered clumps. Aleck squinted, but all he could see was the very top of the beach house roof. At the shoreline, even that wasn't visible. Amelia and Henri had given them the perfect hiding place.
Each day his stamina improved, and Grier had used what gifts he possessed to speed Aleck's recovery further. His efforts had made a significant difference. The flesh around the wound was already pink with new scar tissue, and Aleck's strength was returning by the hour. It fed his restlessness; his short morning walk had turned into a three-mile run. Not the wisest decision he'd ever made. His side was tender, and his body, accustomed to days of lethargy, ached. But, damn, he felt good. Wincing at the pull in his hamstrings, he fell into a series of stretches.
Lost in his thoughts, he missed Grier's approach. "What are you doing?" Grier glared his disapproval.
"Critical after exercise." The bastard didn't crack a smile. "Relax. I just took a short run."
The chastisement he expected never came. Grier's eyes ran the length of his body, then away. He stared out toward the ocean, frowning. "How do you feel?"
"Great. Ready for breakfast." Aleck started up the boardwalk toward the house. The twinge in his hip grew to a sting, but he ignored it. Grier fell in beside him, his agitation so plain that Aleck stifled a laugh. "What's up?"
"What do you mean?"
They reached the rear deck and Aleck went straight for the outdoor shower. He sank onto the bench, stifling a groan. Taking the weight off his legs was more of a relief than it should've been. No more sitting around. There'd be running every day until he was back in shape. Toeing off his sneakers and socks, he asked, "Something on your mind?"
Grier folded his arms over his chest. "You've fulfilled your end of the bargain."
"Yeah?" Aleck took in the defensive stance, then pulled his shirt off and ducked under the showerhead. Icy water drenched his face and hair. He stepped out of the spray and shook off the loose droplets. "Got a towel?" He swiped a hand over his face, rubbing the moisture out of his eyes.
"Huh." With that, Aleck made for the house.
Grier caught up as he was stepping through the sliding door. His fingers clamped around Aleck's arm. Not an easy feat as Aleck was still slick with water and perspiration. "Did you hear me?" he asked.
"Loud and clear. You're leaving." With exaggerated patience, Aleck unpeeled Grier's fingers. "Good luck." He ducked into his bedroom for another t-shirt, then into the kitchen for coffee. Grinding the beans, filling the pot, and flipping the switch took a few minutes. Aleck used the mindless task to cool his temper. Grier had been aloof for days, avoiding him. And now this? He couldn't even say goodbye like a normal person?
Impassive, Grier stood in the middle of the living room, eyes glued to the pile of sand Aleck had tracked in. Still pumped from his run, spoiling for a fight, Aleck slid up behind him. "Need help packing?"
Grier scuffed his toe through the sand. "Aleck—"
"Are you one of those people who always leaves something behind when they go?" One more step brought them within inches of each other. Fascinated, Aleck watched goose bumps erupt over Grier's neck. "No way, right? Too organized. Bet you put your name on all your stuff when you were a kid." Motivated by Grier's sharp breath, he swayed closer. He'd told himself he wasn't going to push. Or beg. But, damn it, he was tired of being ignored. "Bet you never lose anything," he whispered, then pressed his mouth to the side of Grier's neck, breathing in deeply.
Grier spun, wrenching Aleck's arm and shoving him against the back of the sofa. The momentum would've carried him over, but Grier caught a handful of his t-shirt, suspending him off-balance.
"Enough," Grier said. He gave Aleck a shake. "Do you understand?"
"No." He tried to yank away, and one of the seams in his shirt gave with an audible rip. The tendons in Grier's arms bulged, but otherwise he didn't react. Aleck growled low in his throat, days of resentment surging to the surface. "I don't understand. Did you forget how to fuck?"
"Did you remember you liked to?" Grier fired back.
"Isn't that obvious?"
"No! Nothing is obvious." Grier released him and Aleck tipped backward onto the cushions. "Except that you don't seem to care that your plan is going to get you killed. You're walking into a trap." He leaned forward, bracing himself on either side of Aleck's legs. "Damn it! This isn't my battle."
For several seconds, their harsh panting filled the room. Then Aleck threw an arm over his eyes and laughed. "Jesus, is that what you're afraid of?" He tucked in his legs and rolled off the couch, pointing at Grier once he was back on his feet. "I know where you stand, okay? You want to go? Then fucking go. That's your choice, and I respect it. But I'm making a different one." His tone softened. "You don't have to like it. Honestly, I don't give a shit whether you do or not." A couple of deep breaths calmed him further. "Are we clear?"
"You're going to die."
Aleck gave a grim smile. "You don't have much faith in me, do you? But anyway," he said, interrupting Grier's reply, "if that's what you think, then shouldn't you be willing to grant a dying man his last wish?"
"That's not the slightest bit funny," Grier said. His hands curled into tight fists.
"Okay, I'm sorry." Aleck edged around the couch. "Listen." He swallowed. "I got my information. You got your training. We're even."
"You got shot."
Aleck threw him a lopsided smile. "Oh, that's right. Totally forgot." He advanced, ignoring how Grier raised a hand in warning. Like that was going to stop him. "I guess we're not even." He grabbed Grier's hand out of the air and twisted, forcing it down. His turn. "You're leaving. I get it. I understand." He lifted his hands to Grier's neck, curling them around his throat while he stroked his thumbs across his mouth. He recalled the last time they'd been so close, in Grier's apartment. What he'd wished for then, he craved now. "Have we talked enough?"
Grier's breath caught. He'd made the connection. His hands pushed into Aleck's hair, clamping him in place. Still, the kiss was brutal enough to snap Aleck's head back and take the strength out of his knees. Boneless, he invited Grier to feast on his mouth and threw the doors to his mind wide open. A wave of lust rushed out.
When it connected, Grier's body jolted. He pushed Aleck away with a strangled shout. One hand flew to press against the erection tenting his pants. With the other, he pointed toward the bedrooms. "Finally," Aleck breathed. Grier advanced, and Aleck shuffled backward toward the hallway. "Which—"
Grier captured him for another rough kiss, then propelled him through the nearest door and tipped him onto the mattress. Aleck grinned. "Your room, then?" he asked, but his next words devolved into a moan when Grier, now shirtless, fell across him. He brushed their mouths together, nipping at Aleck's lower lip, before dipping to lick his neck.
A touch of anger colored his touch; he attacked with sharp teeth, his fingers ringing Aleck's wrists with enough pressure to bruise. Aleck met his desperation, arching into the bites and writhing just to feel Grier's grip turn punishing.
He protested when Grier released him. Until those hands scratched down his arms and over his chest to thumb his nipples. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," Aleck babbled in a hoarse whisper when Grier's tongue followed a similar path and sunk into the hollow of his sternum. His mouth was dry, his shorts damp. Frantic, he rutted against Grier's stomach.
For the first time in a week, the cell phone rang.
"No," Aleck whimpered.
Grier dropped his head to Aleck's chest. When the phone buzzed again, he lifted himself off to grab it. A check of the caller ID set him cursing. "Grier?" Aleck asked.
"It's the service."
"Of course it is. Fuck!" Still edging, Aleck smoothed a hand over the front of his shorts, pressing the nylon flat against his erection.
With uncharacteristic discomposure, Grier fumbled for a pen, dropped it, then tried to write with the wrong end. "You have a message for me?" he barked.
Aleck couldn't make out the answer.
"Yes," Grier snapped, scribbling down a number. "I have it. Thank you." He flipped the phone shut.
"Who else?" Grier pressed the speaker button, then dialed. Keev picked up on the first ring. His voice exploded through the phone with a mass of crackling static.
"Calm down." Grier jerked his pants higher on his hips. "I was busy."
"Don't even think about finishing that sentence." Keev spat a litany of curses. "I don't want the details of your disgustingly vanilla sex play. Wait, yes I do. Just not right now."
Aleck stretched to run his bare toes up Grier's leg.
"If," Keev continued, "for no other reason than to hear how Aleck begs for it like a ten-dollar whore."
"Hey, I thought you liked me now," Aleck said.
"Did I call you a five-dollar whore? No, I did not."
Grier set the phone on the nightstand and crawled across the mattress, bending his fingers around Aleck's cock. Aleck arched into the touch with a low groan. "What do you want, Keev?" Grier asked.
More static, then, "I've some news for you."
"Not good, I take it."
"I see fraternizing with Aleck hasn't damaged your IQ. Yet."
"Get to the point, please."
"You're not going to like it."
"Keev—" Grier warned.
"Do you remember that group we spoke of the last time we met?"
Grier pinched the bridge of his nose. "Are you being cryptic on purpose?"
"I'll take that as a yes. Guess what? It doesn't exist."
That got Aleck's attention. "That's good, isn't it?"
"I suppose that depends. I had dinner with Graviel a few nights ago. Oh, and someone who insinuated she'd taken a shot at you recently, Grier. Ring a bell?"
"Blonde, anyway. Afterward, I had an enlightening talk with my father. There were the usual protestations of his superiority, etcetera." Keev sighed. "Would you like the short version?"
"Any version would be appreciated," Grier said, toying with Aleck's navel.
"The splinter faction of Gifteds is my father's invention. Created to discredit Graviel and undermine the Organization."
Grier froze. His eyes locked on Aleck's. "Go on."
"He's bent on destroying Graviel. Well, those weren't his exact words, but read it how you like. He hinted at some sort of amnesty for any agent willing to see things his way."
"There won't be many," Aleck said, shaking his head.
Keev snorted. "You weren't at the same dinner table I was. But if you're the poster child for Graviel's pack of puppets, then you could be right. It'll be a slaughter of idealistic fools."
"What will be a slaughter?" Aleck asked.
Bypassing the question, Keev said, "Things haven't been going well for Graviel lately. His two favorite boys have run off, have you heard? And his operations are being thwarted left and right by this splinter group. He's quite desperate."
"Roman's manipulation is unbelievable," Grier muttered. "Only the strictest level of planning and skill would've fooled Graviel."
Keev hummed his agreement. "It is impressive, isn't it? If it weren't so damn evil, I'd congratulate the bastard. Not that Graviel isn't culpable. He's made some dirty deals since this began and long before that as well. I'm sorry, Aleck, but he's not the paragon of virtue you believe him to be."
"Somehow I doubt you're sorry," Aleck said.
"I am. In a way, it feels like—" Keev fell silent for a long time. "The point is, he's still a bastard in my book, but not the demon recent events have made him out to be." He paused. "There's more."
Grier met Aleck's worried gaze, but didn't speak.
"My father has tricked the Organization into arranging a… I don't even know what to call it. An all-hands meeting? Graviel, the Directorate, and all their toy soldiers on one side of the table. His people on the other."
Aleck sat up. "What for?"
"Oh Aleck, please tell me you're not that naïve."
"You're underestimating Graviel's powers, as well as the Directorate's," Aleck said. "Not to mention the Organization's Gifteds. They won't be so easy to kill."
"I wish I shared your optimism. My father's leaving very little to chance. The numbers won't be as even as you'd like to think. And even Graviel can defend himself against so many enemies at once."
Grim, Aleck asked, "When?
"Three days from now. Friday. We're still waiting on the details."
"Will you be there?" Grier asked.
A caustic chuckle drifted through the static. "Oh yes."
"Whose side are you on?" Aleck ignored Grier's sharp look.
Keev laughed. "Mine, of course. But," he sobered, "I won't bear witness to a massacre." Aleck saw the ghost of a smile pass over Grier's face. "So there you have it," Keev said. "It does promise to be exciting. Think about joining the party, why don't you." The last traces of amusement faded from his voice. "I can't say I wouldn't be happy to have you two at my back."
Grier answered before Aleck did. "We'll be in touch."
There was no promise in Grier's words, no hint of agreement. Keev heard it too. "Take care of yourself, Grier," he said, and Aleck heard the farewell clearly.
"You too." Grier disconnected the call.
Aleck's head spun. "You'd leave him. Your best friend."
"Keev's not helpless. I believe he can take care of himself." Grier tossed the phone onto the table.
Aleck watched it skid across the surface and thunk onto the floor. "I used to believe a lot of things."
The phone call banked their desperation. Grier stood and
stalked out of the room, and Aleck fell back onto the pillow, processing the
new information. He nibbled his lip as he plotted. The logistics of
infiltrating the meeting would be complicated. He could only put so much faith
in Keev; he'd have his own problems.
Aleck opened his mouth when Grier returned, a question on
his lips, but the bottle of oil in Grier's hand chased it way. "Good
thinking," he said, and Grier's eyes narrowed at his casual tone.
"Hardly ideal, but it'll do."
Grier shed his pants and underwear in one movement.
"—it will," Aleck said.
"Changed your mind?"
In answer, Aleck shimmied his shorts over his hips, and Grier
took over from there, sliding them off in one smooth movement before crawling
back up Aleck's body to mouth his reawakened cock. "Jesus," Aleck
whispered. He bucked up, as much to feel Grier's weight on his legs as to push
down his throat. Grier didn't protest, even when Aleck's control broke and he
clamped his hands onto Grier's head and fucked up into his mouth.
It couldn't last, but he sure as hell wasn't going to let it
end like this. Aleck fought for enough control – just a bit more, one more
thrust – then scrambled away, a whimper on his lips when he felt himself
tipping toward climax. "Stop."
"No stopping." Grier lifted onto his knees, then
curled one arm around each of Aleck's thighs and yanked, spreading them wide as
he dragged Aleck back. Oil splashed between them. Grier pushed Aleck's knees to
his stomach and curled over him. His teeth tugged at the tender skin of his
throat. "Hard? Fast? How do you want it?"
"Fuck," Aleck wheezed. "Don't know. I'm not—
Just do it."
Grier stilled. He lifted his head and studied Aleck's expression.
"Don't overanalyze." Aleck squirmed beneath him.
It took Grier another several heartbeats to move. More oil
spilled onto Aleck's thighs, and he gasped when Grier's hand spread it over his
balls and cock. Lost in a haze of lust, he didn't react at first when Grier
straddled him. "Wait, what—"
Grier planted one palm on Aleck's chest. He reached back
with the other, guiding Aleck inside him. Aleck's few sexual experiences were
ancient, but he remembered enough to keep still until told otherwise. Screwing
his eyes shut helped, but when Grier began to spew lewd comments and rock
backward, he gave up and snapped his hips up, driving deep.
"Fucking hell," he rasped, unable to rip
his eyes from Grier's toned body riding him. Grier's mouth fell open with every
thrust, and when he threw his weight forward, setting both hands on Aleck's
chest, taking complete control, Aleck knew the end was close. He had just
enough pride left to wrap both hands round Grier's neglected cock and take up
the same punishing tempo.
His battered dignity got a boost when Grier's breath
whooshed out of him. "Aleck," he panted, then threw his head back and
came, grunting with each powerful spasm. With a final shudder, he dropped
forward and Aleck grabbed his hips, bucking up twice more before losing himself
in his own climax.
Grier rolled away, but returned before Aleck could work up
enough energy to verbalize the where the hell are you going that was
stuck in his throat. A warm, wet cloth skimmed away most of the mess. Even
sleepy and sated, Aleck sensed the cursory nature of the task. "Forget
that," he muttered, seizing the cloth. It hit the floor with a splat.
Grier stretched out beside him, silent. Waiting.
"I'm going," Aleck said. He whispered it, hoping
to temper Grier's anger, at least for now, because he didn't need enmity or
repudiation. What he craved was more visceral: blunt fingernails marking his
skin; a strong, angular body holding him down; a hot, wet mouth on his cock. Two
weeks ago, that need had been a thousand miles away. Frivolous. Today it was
crucial, begot from a thousand shattered misconceptions.
He wrapped Grier in a tight embrace, and whispered again,
"I have to."
For all of Grier's quietude, he wasn't relaxed. Taut as a
bowstring, he laid in Aleck's arms.
"And thanks," Aleck said, nudging his nose against
Grier's throat. "For this. I—" He stopped, frustrated. The words that
wanted to come weren't right, so like Grier, he fell back on silence.
Above them, the ceiling fan turned, throwing a light breeze,
and Aleck pulled at the sheet he'd tossed to the side, slipping it up over
their legs to their shoulders. Grier shivered, still mute. What are you going
to do? Aleck wanted to ask. Where are you going to go? Self-serving questions,
and unreasonable, to be honest. No matter how things shook out with the
Organization, Grier wanted a clean break. A new life. It was a fair thing to
But that was tomorrow.
Aleck slid a hand down Grier's back, dipping his fingers
into the crease of his ass, and finally Grier moved, pushing back against the
probe. Aleck withdrew. "Nope. Want something different." He coaxed
one of Grier's hands lower over his own back, then lower, and a strangled moan
rang from Grier's throat, vibrating against Aleck's shoulder. His fingers
clenched into Aleck's flesh. "Please," Aleck murmured.
The muffled question threw him. He retreated far enough to
look Grier in the eye. "I want it. Afraid I'll break?"
"No. What I meant was, why are you going?"
Aleck swallowed his angry retort. "I've already
"You declared your intention to go. You didn't say
You know why. But he bit back the words, considering.
He wanted to destroy Roman. To help Keev. To find out once
and for all what kind of man Graviel was. The last point wouldn't decide the
fate of the world, but it would determine Aleck's future. Years were at stake, almost
half of his life. He needed to know, for certain, what he'd been fighting for.
"For completely selfish reasons," he admitted. "For
For a long time after that, they didn't speak. Grier rolled
Aleck beneath him and pressed in with his fingers. Soon he'd crossed an arm
over Aleck's chest, pinning him to the mattress while Aleck thrashed against
his hand. "Is this what you wanted," Grier hissed, twisting and
Aleck gasped for enough air to speak. "Not
exactly." He bucked against the restraint; Grier pushed him back.
"What else you got?" Aleck taunted.
What he had was the ability to drive every bit of air from
Aleck's lungs and a relentless, maddening rhythm that sent him into orgasm
embarrassingly soon. Again. He was still trembling, with his pulse thumping in
his ears and sparks of pleasure fizzling down his thighs, when Grier next
spoke. He untangled Aleck's legs from his waist and lowered them to the bed. Aleck
sprawled in a boneless heap, arms thrown over his face.
"If you insist on doing this," Grier said, still
shaky from his own release. "Then I'm coming with you."
Aleck scrubbed his hands over his cheeks, trying to
jumpstart his brain. "Why?"
"For selfish reasons."
When Nora was a child, her grandparents took her rafting on
the Rogue River. As much as she loved their house, high in the hills above the
gorge, surrounded by trees and gurgling streams, she'd hated the raft. Even at
that age, she'd seen it was nothing more than a piece of fabric filled with
air, its path ruled by the chaotic rush of the water. It was survival by pure
chance, and she was far too practical a child to accept that kind of risk.
Not that this trip, along the same river, was any different.
From the backseat of the rental car, she admired the
forest's dark beauty, even if the rolling turns made her feel sick. Being
bonded to Kaye didn't help; the woman's mind was a confused mess, and even
though Nora would never intrude where she wasn't invited, she recognized that
Kaye was keeping many of her thoughts hidden. She wasn't even sure why Kaye had
taken a Monitor for this meeting, except that Graviel had insisted on it.
Besides herself, Kaye, and Graviel, she'd sensed at least
four other Gifteds as they'd passed through the airport. Lord knew how many
others were descending on this secluded patch of wilderness. Such a gathering
was unprecedented, especially as not all were Organization. Some – many –
pledged a loose loyalty to Petrova, while others, Graviel had hinted, answered
only to themselves.
War did have a way of uniting the ranks.
She eased open the connection with Kaye before squeezing it
shut again. Her stomach rolled. There were disadvantages to being a good
Monitor. You got to work with the best, but sometimes the best were too
arrogant for their own good.
But not all. In the past, Nora had been paired with Aleck
several times, Grier twice, but Kaye more than everyone else put together. Kaye
made it no secret how she felt about the bond. It was distracting. Unnecessary.
She was too good for it. That kind of condescension got old.
"What precautions have you taken to keep our people
safe?" Kaye asked. Nora held her tongue. The question wasn't directed at
"I chose this location with great care." Graviel
didn't look up from his small notebook. "The lodge doesn't open until May.
This time of year, it's deserted."
"Surely it has a caretaker."
Graviel's mouth twitched. "He's been taken care
"But," Kaye swerved to avoid a squirrel in the
road, and Nora's stomach flipped, "it's too secluded. I don't like
"Seclusion ensures the safety of any innocent
bystanders. The lodge is accessible from two roads," Graviel said.
"We'll approach from the south. Roman and his people from the north. We'll
even enter the building from different directions. You studied the layout I
Graviel looked over his shoulder at Nora. She nodded. The
property was immense, and it was unlikely, if everyone followed the rules, that
the two sides would encounter each other before they were ready. It was a tidy
"You'll be perfectly safe," Graviel said as they
drove into a quaint, one stoplight town. "This is Grant Hollow, the last
we'll see of civilization for a while.
"How cute," Kaye said, smacking her gum.
Nora rolled her eyes.
"I just feel like we—" Kaye began, but Nora missed
the rest. At that moment, the car rolled past a café and something flashed in
the corner of her eye. No, it couldn't be. She craned her neck, then whipped it
back around when Graviel glanced over his shoulder. Nora produced a watery
smile, and he resumed his conversation with Kaye.
Nora wrung her hands in her lap. Aleck. She'd seen Aleck.
There was no doubt. Standing just inside the door to the café. What did it
mean? Had he defected to the enemy's side?
"Everything all right, Nora?"
She jumped. "Yes, sir. Just a bit nervous."
Kaye mumbled something, but Graviel gave her a reassuring
smile. "Caution is an admirable trait. Keep your eyes open."
Nora returned the smile. She planned to.
Thirty minutes later, the road made one last sickening turn
and broke through the trees at the top of the mountain. Nora caught her breath.
Grant Lodge was everything her research had promised. It straddled a cliff above
the gorge, its stone façade a gorgeous backdrop for the thick forest. A portion
of the lodge hung out high above the river with a wall of glass that promised a
If Nora understood the blueprints, that was the restaurant,
where the meeting would take place.
Kaye parked at the end of the south wing, and they climbed
out. "Follow me." Graviel led them inside, down an endless carpeted
hallway, and through an archway into the main reception area. Gloomy, lit by
the diffused light of the late-day sun, it looked as long as a football field.
A dozen groupings of couches and chairs were scattered throughout, covered with
white sheets. In the dark, they looked like great, hulking ghosts.
"Love the ambiance," Kaye muttered.
Nora sensed nothing, but Kaye spoke under her breath as they
approached the restaurant. "We're being watched."
"I'm aware," Graviel replied.
Roman met them just inside the doors, greeting Graviel with
a nod. He graced Kaye with a kiss on the back of her hand. "I’ve just
arrived myself. My compliments, Graviel, on the venue." He gestured behind
him to the glass wall. "Stunning."
In the center of the room, Nora noted, was a conference
table, perhaps twenty feet long. Those who had already arrived were standing on
one side or the other, casting suspicious looks across the table.
"May I have a word with you before we start?"
Roman gestured to a corner, and Graviel acquiesced with a nod.
"Nora," Kaye said as Graviel and Roman moved off.
"I need your help."
Nora clutched her bag and answered through their bond. What
"Not here," Kaye said.
Nora hung back as Kaye stepped through the doors and back
into the vast lobby. What could she want that she couldn't communicate through
their bond? Wary, Nora followed at a distance while Kaye walked further into
the gloom and descended a set of wide steps, trailing a hand over the banister.
"Hurry," she called over her shoulder. "We'll be missed
Nora reached the bottom of the steps and squinted into the
darkness. "Here," Kaye said, off to her right. A flashlight clicked
on, and Kaye gestured her closer. "This room has emergency lights, like
the restaurant. Come on." Throat dry, Nora followed her into what looked
like a small conference room.
"Thank you." Kaye closed the door and stood
"What did you need?"
Kaye sighed, dropping her head back against the door.
"I've come to a decision. I’m sorry, but I can't afford to be distracted
by you during this meeting."
Nora cocked her head. "I promise I'll keep the bond
"That's not it." Kaye's eyes narrowed. "And
you know it." She stalked forward. "I need a clear head. You know how
the Monitor bond impairs me."
Nora gathered her courage and didn't flinch. "To a very
small degree," she breathed. "But if you should need help, and have
no way to communicate that—"
"Everyone is going to be right there." Her
clipped laugh made Nora's skin crawl. "Graviel will be less than two feet
away." She curled her red-tipped fingernails around Nora's arm.
Nora shook her head. "I insist you don't.
"Nora." Kaye's eyes glittered. "I've already
decided. It's not up for debate. As for the protocol," she shook her head,
"I have a feeling it won't be an issue much longer."
"That's in the future, of course," Kaye said.
"But at the moment, there's Graviel to consider, and he wouldn't
"No, he wouldn't." Nora pressed her lips together.
"And neither do I." Kaye could be insensitive and unreasonable, but
Nora's job was to protect her. She took that responsibility to heart.
"I'm afraid your opinion doesn't count." Nora
swallowed at Kaye's snide tone. "If your gifts were a bit more developed….
But they're not, so you're not much use, are you?" She dropped her hand
and took two steps back. "Prepare yourself."
"Wait!" Panic clogged Nora's throat. She still
remembered the pain of Aleck's terminated bond. "Please. If you insist on
this, I—I have no say, but—"
"That's right. You have no say. I'm sorry, Nora. I
A quick probe of her thoughts convinced Nora that was the
truth. "Kaye," she pleaded. "Don't do this."
She felt Kaye waver, reconsider, but the relief was
short-lived. Kaye's eyes hardened with resolve. "You almost had me, dear.
I didn't know your gift of suggestion was so strong."
"There are many things you don't know." Before she
could continue, pain tore through her head. Every muscle in her body tensed in
agony. She crumpled to the thick carpet, throat locked around a scream.
An eternity later, the cramps eased, and she was able to
cry, tears soaking the dusty floor under her cheek. Trembling and short of
breath, she jumped when a hand touched her. It smoothed the hair off her brow.
"Should've killed that bitch when I had the chance," a voice said.
Then, "I'll have to remedy that error at the earliest opportunity."
Aleck ducked back inside the café, then made his way along
the bar, past the bathrooms, and out the back door. Grier was waiting.
"Could've sworn I saw Nora."
"I wouldn't be surprised." He paused, taking in
Aleck's pensive look. "Did she see you?"
"Maybe." Aleck shrugged. "It's too late to do
anything about it, one way or the other."
Grier cursed. "All it would take is one word in
Graviel's ear that we're here, and things will get a thousand times more
"I know." He peeked around the dumpster. "Are
you sure this guy is going to show?"
"Keev said he would."
Aleck tugged him out of sight against the wall. Smoothing
his fingers over Grier's stomach, he said, "You're doing great. I can't
sense you at all."
Grier captured his wandering hands. "As you said, it's
not difficult to maintain."
"Even while distracted?" Aleck slid a thigh
between his legs.
"Stay focused." But he twisted a hand in Aleck's
hair and pulled him in for a kiss. Aleck groaned, and Grier answered it,
yanking Aleck's head back and forcing his mouth wide with his tongue.
They broke apart at the unfamiliar voice. A man stood behind
them. Shorter than Aleck by several inches and bald, he frowned as he gave them
both a thorough once-over.
"Yes?" Grier answered, voice gruff.
The man's eyes were wide behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His
flannel jacket and hiking boots swam on his slender frame. "When you're
"We're finished." Grier shoved a grinning Aleck
"If you say so. Looks to me like things were just
getting interesting." He made a curt gesture – follow me – then strode
off. Any warning about keeping out of sight proved unnecessary. The man stayed
off the streets, leading them through a series of connected back lots, before
stopping at a battered Civic. He climbed inside without a word, and after a
short hesitation, they followed, Grier in the front, Aleck behind him.
"Sorry about the car. The boss said I needed something inconspicuous."
The man's lips twisted around the last word.
"At least you're not driving a minivan," Aleck
"There is a God after all," the man grumbled.
After a check of his mirrors, he pulled onto the road, ending the conversation
for a good fifteen minutes until he swung off the pavement and onto a rutted,
dirt lane. Uneven, it wound through a copse of trees and into a field. At the
far side of the clearing was a brick utility building. "End of the line,
boys." He pointed. "That's the property line there. Main lodge is
south through the trees, about a mile. The trail's pretty flat, but gets steep
near the end."
Aleck nodded. "Thanks for your help."
"I'm just the delivery boy. From the way it sounds,
you've got the shit job today." With a parting wave, he drove away, Civic
bouncing over the ruts and kicking up thick clouds of dust.
Grier circled the utility shed, checked his compass, then
motioned Aleck closer. "Okay, what's your plan?"
"Simple." Aleck slipped the small pack off his
back, crouching on the ground while he dug inside. He had a feeling Grier
wasn't going to approve, but, "Kill Roman."
Grier waited. Aleck smiled up at him while he pulled a pair
of tight leather gloves over his hands. "That's it?" Grier blurted.
Aleck shrugged. "I believe in keeping it simple."
"Except that's not simple, it's suicide."
"Oh," Aleck added, "and save as many people
as I can."
"Nora? Graviel? Kaye?" he added with a quirk of
"Kaye!" Grier roared. "She shot you." He
poked at Aleck's arm with every word.
"Yeah, but she was aiming for you."
Grier dropped his own pack to the ground, muttering
something that sounded a bit like, "Fucking crazy."
Aleck flexed his hands, testing the fit of the gloves.
"Wish you'd stayed in Maryland?"
"That's the least of what I wish right now." Grier
pulled out a folded canvas bag and slipped it inside his jacket.
"Barozene," he said to Aleck's questioning glance. "Not quite as
dramatic as 'Kill Roman', but it will have to do."
Aleck laughed as he swung his pack over his shoulder.
"So I’m a brute, as Keev likes to say, and you have all the finesse.
Sounds about right." His smile died. "Do you think…?"
"He's not stupid." Grier stood. He cupped Aleck's
cheek in his hand for a moment. "Keev knows you're not coming for the
"The man's his father. He must feel something."
"Oh, he feels something." Grier started off
through the woods. "We don't choose our parents. Believe me, Aleck, he'll
bear you no ill will."
They jogged the first part of the trail, slowing when it
began to weave up a steep hill. At the top, the trees ended at a cluster of
giant boulders. Aleck gave a low whistle when he saw the lodge. "Jesus,
it's huge. Looks like it's hanging right over the edge."
"Part of it is."
Aleck craned his neck. "How far to the bottom?"
"A long way." Grier flashed a grin over his
shoulder. "Fancy a swim?"
Grier fished a pair of compact binoculars from his pack.
"Roman's people are everywhere."
"That would be going against the agreement. But, yes,
of course they are. There." Grier pointed to a spot below the northern
entrance. "There's the one Keev said to look for." Grier shouldered
his pack, and Aleck did the same. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
In the end, it was too easy, something that made Aleck more
tense than not. They circled the area, approaching the building from where it
hung out over the gorge. There they found the guard loyal to Keev. Adrenaline
jolted into Aleck's system when the man pulled his gun. "Gertrude?"
Grier leveled a quelling look at Aleck when he choked on a
laugh. "Yes," he answered, and two minutes later, they were creeping
through the lobby on their way to the restaurant. Grier motioned Aleck behind
one of the tall reception counters, then back into an empty office.
"How the hell does Keev know who's loyal to him from
one day to the next?" Aleck asked.
"You're mixing father and son. Keev doesn't have
trouble keeping his people once he's acquired them." Shaking his head, he
said, "It's a game they play. Ever since Keev was old enough to understand
"Roman allows it?"
"He encourages it."
"For the first time, I'm happy to be an orphan."
I've arranged some security, Roman had said when he
pulled Graviel aside. Don't be alarmed.
But he was alarmed, even if he refused to let Roman see it.
The agreement had been no weapons. No show of force or coercion. They'd yet to
begin, and already Roman was changing the rules. It didn't bode well.
Graviel ran his tongue over his teeth. The air tasted thick.
One Gifted in a room put a low buzz in his head, like a
honey bee. Several made enough ambient noise to confuse him, if he allowed it. This
many – he looked around, counting at least twenty on his side, an equal number
on Roman's – charged the air. The deep drone made the hair at the back of his
neck stand on end. His ability to manipulate objects wasn't unique, but rare
enough that he though he might be the sole person in the room who could see
the air vibrate with power.
He cursed the distraction, even though he'd prepared for it.
Time to find Kaye. He greeted each of his people in turn on his way to the
door. They'd arrived individually and in pairs. His elite. They represented the
whole of the Organization.
Standing on the other side of the table was a group of men
and women Graviel had never seen before. Roman's contingent. The best of his
people. While Graviel's group chatted in low voices, these stood without
speaking, eyes playing over their counterparts.
Notably, Keev was missing.
Roman called to him. "Leaving, Graviel? It's time to
Graviel nodded. "I believe we're all here. Let me fetch
Kaye." He touched the curved handle.
"And the Directorate?"
Roman had risen from his chair. His eyes glittered like ice.
"I was led to believe they would be attending."
Graviel's shoulders shook with silent laughter. He gestured
to the group. "Right in front of you." At his nod, a half a dozen
people – four men and two women – stepped forward and took a seat on Graviel's
side of the table.
Roman's lip curled back in a sneer. "These
"Did you believe the Directorate a complement of stuffy
old men?" Graviel shook his head. "No, Roman. The only stuffy old man
is me. And," he added with a twinkle in his eyes, "you. Now if you'll
excuse me." He stepped out into the hall.
Immediately, the air thinned, rushing into his grateful
He turned to see Kaye approaching, her blonde hair a bright
glimmer in the dark. "Kaye. Where have you been?"
"Taking care of Nora. I'm afraid she isn't well. It's
nothing serious," she said when Graviel made to push past. "Just
overwhelmed, I think." Her smile didn't reach her eyes.
He'd been fighting feelings of unease since they'd arrived. First
Roman's small betrayal, and now Nora was ill. The tickling disquiet grew.
"If you're sure she's all right," he said, choosing his words with
care. "We're about to begin."
She hooked her hand around his elbow. "My apologies. By
all means, let's begin."
Through a small slit in the door, Aleck watched Graviel lead
Kaye back inside. "They're starting. Does that mean the Directorate is
here? I didn't see them arrive."
Grier's hand trailed over his back. "Yet another
misconception. I was once a member of the Directorate, Aleck. They're
not a faceless league of manipulators, hiding in a tower somewhere. They're
"Graviel created the Directorate to balance his doctrine.
The members change, but they are always there, tempering his vision. He is,
after all, one man. The Organization's primary directive has always been to
serve. Power is for the popular."
"Gifts are for the principled," Aleck finished for
"If I didn't believe in the system, I would've walked
away long before now."
"If that's true, then how could the Directorate let
this happen? Wasn't there anyone who saw the deception for what it was?"
Grier leaned around Aleck, scanning the lobby. "They're
young. Blinded by Graviel's presence. Intelligent and highly gifted, but easily
influenced. That Graviel never took advantage of that before now is a
miracle." He turned his face into Aleck's hair for a moment, then sighed.
"It's a sham. Not a one has the balls to challenge him. Which is, no
doubt, why Graviel never considered you for a seat."
Aleck couldn't help but smile. "But you're a member."
"Was. In my youth."
Aleck snorted. "Not much of a check and balance."
"No." He slid an arm around Aleck's waist.
Aleck drew further inside the room, leaving nothing but the
narrowest crack in the door. Two people came into view, climbing the stairs
Kaye had ascended a few minutes ago. Even in the dim light, they were unmistakable.
Aleck was out the door before Grier could catch him, sliding
across the polished wood to meet them at the top of the steps. He looped an arm
around Nora's waist, taking most of her weight from Keev. "What the hell
happened? And where have you been? We’ve been waiting for fifteen
Keev glared at Aleck. "Keeping an eye on your
"She's not my girlfriend."
"I'm his Monitor," Nora rasped.
"Not you," Keev said. "The blonde."
"She's not my girlfriend either," Aleck pointed out.
"Aleck!" Grier hissed, appearing at their side.
"The guards! Get out of sight!" Together, they helped Nora race
across the open space and into the reception office. There, Grier took over,
guiding her to a plush seat.
"Thank you, Grier," she whispered, shaking.
"Aleck. I was right. I did see you in town."
Aleck pushed in front of Keev to sit by her side. "What
When Nora's eyes filled with tears, Keev answered. "I
don't know. I saw Kaye slip away, and I followed. She took—" He waved a
hand in Nora's direction.
"Nora," Nora said, gracing Keev with a tender smile.
"She took Nora downstairs, but came back alone about
five minutes later."
Nora sniffed. "I'm finished with that witch."
"Are you bonded with Kaye right now?" Grier cut
"No. Not anymore." Nora gulped. "She broke
our connection. Said she needed to be clearheaded."
Keev's sharp bark of laughter made them all jump. "She's
taken with my father. Two guesses as to why she didn't want a Monitor privy to
"Are you all right?" Grier squeezed her hand.
"Fine. It hurt, but," her eye slid to Aleck.
"I kind of knew what was coming."
"Fuck, Nora," Aleck said, "I'm sorry about
"I deserved it. No, I did," she insisted when
Aleck shook his head. "You shouldn't have been told such horrible lies.
But Graviel thought…"
"Yeah." Aleck shot to his feet and paced.
"We're running out of time." Keev straightened his
clothing. "I need to join my father."
"No," Aleck and Grier said in unison. "That
makes no sense," Grier continued. "All it does is put one more person
in harm's way. We need to lure Roman out."
Keev shook his head. "That's not going to stop things
at this point. What you need is someone inside who can minimize the damage when
all hell breaks lose. Which it will. Soon."
"What?" Nora sat up straighter. "I don't
"It's a trap," Aleck told her. "Roman means
to destroy the Organization. And anybody else who gets in his way."
"All the more reason," Grier snarled at Keev,
"for you to stay the hell away."
"He's right," Aleck said. "The last thing we
need is another liability."
Keev moved so fast, Aleck never saw the punch coming. Nora
squeaked in fright when he crashed into the wall and slid to the floor. Shocked
into silence, nobody moved. Gingerly, Aleck shifted his jaw back and forth,
pressing his fingers along his chin. "Okay, I deserved that."
"Damn right you did," Keev spit out, glaring at
him. The standoff lasted another moment before Keev extended his hand. Aleck
took it, and Keev pulled him up.
"Okay," Aleck said, swaying. "I've got a
great idea. Let's send Keev in."
Nora clamped a hand over her mouth, trying to stifle a burst
of nervous laughter.
"To do what?" Grier asked.
"Well," Aleck lifted his eyes to the ceiling for a
moment, "we still have the Barozene. Keev, you'll be sitting next to your
old man, right? Think you might get a shot at him?"
"I'll make sure I do." Keev took the capped
syringe from Grier. "Where do I stick it?"
Aleck arched an eyebrow. "With an opening like that, you
expect me to give you a serious answer?"
Some of the tension lifted. Grier laughed as Aleck and Keev
grinned at each other. But Nora's next words sobered them. "And me. Let me
"No." Grier slashed his hand through the air.
Nora pursed her lips. "Why not?"
"Will you punch me if I said you'd be a liability?"
Nora pushed her glasses higher on her nose. "Roman
Petrova isn't the only threat." She held her hand out for a syringe. "I'll
be seated close to Kaye, maybe even next to her. If her loyalty's in question,
then she's a threat. Give me a chance to neutralize the bitch."
Aleck barked a laugh, but Grier's struggle was plain. He
didn't hand over the drug.
"Nora, are you sure?" Aleck crouched next to her.
"After what you've just been through?"
A commotion on the other side of the door drew Grier's
attention, and everyone fell silent. He slipped out to investigate, returning a
minute later, somber. "More of Roman's watchdogs. These are armed. They've
spread out across the lobby."
"Covering the exits," Keev confirmed. "My
father doesn't plan to let anyone go without a fight. Grier, we can't wait any
Cursing under his breath, Grier snatched back the syringe
he'd handed to Keev and unzipped his bag. "Give me a moment. I can
concentrate the dose so that even a few drops will do the trick."
Keev craned his neck as Grier started refilling the
syringes. "You're useful to have around, aren't you?"
"I can make microwave popcorn too," Grier said,
focused on his task.
"Truly a man of many talents."
"Enough games." Aleck took one of the syringes and
handed it to Nora. "Here's the plan."
With Keev's steadying hand on her elbow, Nora was able to
look the guard in the eye and not flinch. The slight weight of the syringe in
her pocket was a constant reminder of her mission – one she'd have to bury deep
if she didn't want Kaye or Graviel to see it.
"What are you waiting for?" Keev snapped at the
guard. "Open the door. I’m late enough."
"Yes sir, Mr. Petrova."
When the guard turned away, Keev winked at her. More nervous
giggles bubbled up her throat. She swallowed them back. The door swung open to
the room beyond and in a flash, the terror returned.
Keev squeezed her arm. "You're doing fine," he said
from the corner of his mouth as he guided her inside. "Father," he
said, louder. "My apologies."
Graviel left his seat, shaking off Kaye's hand as he rushed
forward. "Nora," he said, taking her from Keev. "Kaye said you
"I was feeling ill, and then got lost trying to find my
way back. Mr. Petrova was kind enough to help me." She turned to flash a thankful
smile at Keev, but he'd already retreated to his father's side. The father and
son shared a look she couldn't decipher.
"This place is a maze. Come and sit." Graviel pulled
out a chair next to Kaye. So far, so good. Nora ducked her head, ignoring
Kaye's piercing gaze, but dared to raise her eyes to Roman. "I'm very
sorry for interrupting."
Roman inclined his head. "How fortunate that my son was
in the right place at the right time."
"Yes." She forced a smile onto her face, hoping it
didn't look as much like a grimace as it felt. Free of Kaye's bond, she could
feel the tension and distrust radiating from every corner of the room.
Roman continued to stare, and Nora dropped her eyes,
fingering the weapon in her pocket.
Sending Nora into danger hadn't been Aleck's first choice.
He watched Keev lead her inside before turning to Grier. "Okay, time to
kill the lights. Which way?"
Side by side, they crept through the reception area, at
times passing within feet of Roman's men. Complacent, the guards were scanning
for the Gifted, not for anyone else. Aleck and Grier evaded them easily.
Grier ducked into an alcove at the far end of the lobby, and
Aleck followed. Coat racks lined the walls, and hangers littered the floor.
"How much farther?" Aleck whispered.
"Not much. The electrical main is two flights down. The
stairs are across this hall." Grier looked around the doorframe, then ducked
back. "Two guards," he whispered.
Aleck shrugged. "Even odds."
Grier shook his head, guided Aleck to the archway, and
pointed. On the balcony overhead, another two guards stood watch. "We
can't take these two without those noticing," Grier breathed in his ear. "And
any noise will carry. We need to neutralize all four at once."
Aleck mouthed a curse. They could, of course. But not
without alerting every other guard in the building, and Roman as well. Using
their Gifts would be like lighting a signal fire. "We're running out of
"We can circle outside the building and look for
another way in." Grier eased out of the alcove, but Aleck caught the
collar of his shirt and shook his head. No time.
He lunged forward, catching Grier off-guard with a quick,
rough kiss. "Be careful," he said against his lips. Grier's eyes
widened with understanding, but too late. Aleck sprinted into the open.
He opened his mind, revealing himself, and Grier's fury
speared into his head like a hot poker. A moment later, running feet approached
from two directions. Aleck couldn't help grinning when all four guards appeared
out of the gloom, guns trained on him. He lifted his hands when prompted. In
his peripheral vision, he saw a low shadow dash across the floor and down the
open stairwell. Mission accomplished.
"Hey," he said to the nearest guard, "isn't
there a party around here or something?"
"How do you know about that?" the man barked.
"Saw it written on the wall of the john."
Without moving an inch, the man struck, and Aleck crumpled
to the floor as pain exploded through his head. "Bring him," he heard
the leader say. "You two get back to your post."
The pain ended, but Aleck stayed down, curled into a fetal
position while he gasped for breath. He grunted when the first guard nudged him
with his foot. "Get up. Time to party."
"I thought you'd never ask," Aleck wheezed,
struggling to his feet. "If that's what a bad joke gets me, what happens
if I really piss you off?"
"I have a feeling you might find out. Let's go."
The man shoved him forward. Aleck went docilely. At the door, they paused, and
Aleck heard muffled voices from the other side. When the guard knocked, they
"Enter," someone called. That had to be Roman.
Aleck had heard the same aristocratic tone in Keev's voice.
The guard opened the door and pushed Aleck through. He
stumbled a few steps before righting himself, and murmurs erupted around the
table. The guard steered him across the room to stand in front of Roman.
"Aleck." Graviel pushed himself up, setting two
shaky hands on the table. Whatever he'd planned to say next, he reconsidered.
The ensuing silence gave Aleck a chance to reconnoiter. Nora was sitting next
to Kaye. Good. He made sure his gaze didn't linger on Keev, but was relieved to
see him seated beside Roman. Perfect.
"Aleck," Roman drawled, breaking the tense
Aleck saluted him. "Sorry I'm late."
"I don't believe you were invited."
"Now that hurts my feelings."
"And why is that?" Roman stood, placing a hand on
Keev's shoulder when he tried to rise as well. Keev's face was a white mask,
fixed on Aleck. "You've joined the enemy," Roman said. "You have
no business here."
"No!" Graviel shouted. "I don't believe it.
Aleck ran his eyes over the Directorate, dismayed to find
them wide-eyed and inert. He couldn't stall forever. Damn it, where was Grier?
"Aleck," Graviel repeated. "Tell him he's
wrong. I know you, son. I know you."
In spite of all the lies between them, that was true.
Graviel knew him. He hoped the reverse still held. "You've been
tricked," he said to Graviel. "Petrova means to kill you."
A collective gasp went up from Graviel's side of the table,
yet Roman's people were still. Aleck knew the moment when Graviel realized the
Still, Roman played his game. "You come here daring to
spread these lies." He pounded his fist on the table, shouting at Graviel.
"Remove him. Before I do."
Graviel didn't move, and Aleck shook his head. "It's
"How wrong you are," Roman hissed under his breath.
He focused his gaze across the table.
Before Aleck could process the energy that surged past him,
Kaye shot from her seat. Bright splotches of red colored her cheeks. Even
halfway across the room, her anger rocked Aleck back on his heels. She lunged
under her jacket, and suddenly there was a gun in her hand.
"Traitor!" she cried as she fired.
As her finger squeezed the trigger, Keev hit Aleck from
behind, driving him into the floor. Aleck's head slammed into the wood, and the
bullet thudded into the wall above his head, spitting plaster down on both of
them. His vision went white from the blow, and came back double, but he still
saw what happened next.
Nora leapt from her seat, pulling the syringe from her
pocket as she did, and jabbed it into Kaye's neck. Kaye gasped and twisted, but
Nora followed, depressing the plunger and emptying the drug into her bloodstream.
Aleck felt like cheering.
Kaye yanked out the syringe and threw it across the room.
"You bitch!" she screamed, swiveling to point the gun at Nora.
"No!" Graviel yelled, echoing Aleck's shouted
warning. He stepped in front of a cowering Nora, hands out. "No, Kaye!"
Kaye pulled the trigger. Graviel spun backward, then
crumpled to the ground. Nora released a splitting scream, and the room erupted
Feeling sick, Aleck glanced over his shoulder. Keev was
still on the ground, but he wasn't watching the drama unfold across the room. His
eyes were on Roman, who was standing over them, murderous gaze glued to an
identical syringe clutched in Keev's hand, and the liquid swirling inside of
"Shit," Aleck said.
The lights went out.
Aleck kicked and his boot met something soft and yielding.
He heard the snap of a bone and a grunt of pain. He spun into a crouch, intent
on launching himself toward Roman, but Keev caught him. "Aleck, no."
He threw his weight forward, holding him down. "I didn't get a chance to
Behind them, a door smashed open, letting in a touch of
grayish light. Aleck squinted, then pounded his fist against the floor when a
figure limped through. "He's getting away."
The shouts grew more frantic. Chairs toppled. A glass
pitcher shattered on the floor. Aleck cringed. At least Kaye seemed to be the
only one with a gun.
Even as the thought passed his mind, the doors to the lobby
where thrown open and one of Roman's guards panned a bright spotlight over the
space. He lowered the light and hefted a machine gun against his shoulder.
Before Aleck could shout a warning, there was a deafening spatter of gunfire. The
picture window shattered, raining glass into the gorge below. Wind charged in.
The shredded blinds drifted to the floor, and the last of the day's sunshine
lit up the room, tinting everything pink.
"Jesus." Aleck ducked against the flying glass,
then shouted, "What the fuck are you doing? Stop shooting!"
Miraculously, his order was obeyed. He craned his neck,
desperate for a glimpse of Graviel or Nora, but he couldn't see through the
throng of panicked people. Few were fighting; most were converging on the lobby
doors, trying to escape.
Keev grabbed the syringe off the floor and scuttled toward
the rear door after his father. Cursing under his breath, Aleck followed.
Grier had wanted to kill Aleck when he ran off. Reckless little
bastard! Fuming, he'd waited, and a few seconds later, the men at the top of the
stairs abandoned their post. Aleck had lifted the curtain on his gifts,
As much as Grier wanted to throttle him, the diversion
worked. He slipped out of his hiding place and bent low to dash across the
floor and onto the steps. He crept down a half a flight before turning to peer
at Aleck through the banister. Four guards surrounded him. Aleck had fallen to
the floor, clutching his head.
Rage ballooned in Grier's chest. His legs twitched,
desperate to carry him back. Instead, he slithered down the rest of the steps
before rising to take the next flight at a run, then pushed through the double
metal doors into the maintenance area of the lodge. Once inside, he pulled a
small flashlight from his pocket.
Two deep breaths calmed him enough to recall Keev's
instructions. Second right, third left, down a short flight of metal steps, and
there it was. The electrical main. The lock had been cut, the chain puddled on
the ground next to it. That made sense. Graviel's people had been there earlier,
reconnecting power to the restaurant. A secondary breaker was also active: the emergency
lighting. Grier stuck the flashlight between his teeth, reached for the main
breaker, and flipped it down with a loud snap.
The bulb above his head went out, and the low whirring of
the back-up generator died. The ensuing silence seemed to have physical weight.
Grier didn't move. The only sounds were his harsh breathing and thumping heart.
Far away, so faint it was nothing more than a breath of
sound, someone screamed. Grier took off toward the restaurant at a run.
The trip back felt endless. He topped the stairs to the
lobby still running, the small beam of his flashlight a beacon if anybody
wanted a shot at him, but there was no gunfire, no shouts for him to stop.
The sun had set. The barest hint of light shone through the
windows, but it was enough for Grier to see someone throw open the restaurant
doors, swing a gun up to his shoulder, and fire off a dozen rounds. More
screams erupted from the room.
He heard Aleck shout, and the relief almost buckled his
He didn't slow as he came up behind the shooter. Bending
low, he tackled him at the knees, driving the weapon up and away. The man went
down with a grunt, and Grier finished the job with a vicious blow to the side
of his face.
"Aleck!" he shouted as he gained his feet.
No one answered. People rushed past on both sides, jostling
him backward, their expressions a mix of fear, anger, and confusion. He fought
his way back into the room, and in the pale light saw Graviel sprawled on the
floor, blood seeping from his stomach and Nora huddled over him. Graviel's eyes
crackled with rage. "You," he said. He pointed with one shaking
finger, but not at Grier.
Grier followed his gaze.
A few feet away, Kaye stood, arms outstretched. "I'm
sorry. I'm so sorry," she cried. "Please."
Blood bubbled out of Graviel's mouth. Sobbing, Nora tried to
wipe it away with the edge of her shirt, but more came behind it, dripping
across his cheek and onto her leg.
Grier's heart clenched. He fell to his knees by Nora's side.
Trembling, Kaye dropped the gun. It clattered on the floor.
Graviel's stare never wavered. He sucked in a wet breath. His
pupils dilated, then shrunk to pinpricks. No words passed his lips, but Kaye's
head snapped back. Her fingers locked apart, and her mouth opened in a silent
scream. Graceless as a string puppet, she turned and began a clumsy run for the
"Graviel, no," Nora whispered, but Grier said
nothing. It was too late.
Kaye never slowed, even when the sleeve of her blouse caught
on a shard of glass, ripping a jagged hole in the fabric. She jumped, arms and
legs still pumping when gravity caught and carried her down and out of sight.
Tearing his eyes away from the scrap of material caught on
the glass, Grier looked at Graviel. The old man gave him a sad smile. "A
"I wasn't speaking about Kaye." Graviel fumbled
for Grier's hand. The clasp of his fingers was familiar, the grip of a man
who'd once saved him. "Don't I always say, no mistake should go
"No," Grier replied, hoarse. "You always say
we should learn from our mistakes."
Graviel struggled for another breath. One corner of his
mouth, still wet with blood, turned upward. "So I do." His fingers
went tight around Grier's. "Then you, my son, must learn from mine."
"I don't want—"
"Watch out for Aleck. Watch out for all of them.
Please." Graviel shut his eyes.
"No!" Grier covered the bullet wound with his
hand, calling up as much power as he could to repair the damage. Within
seconds, he realized the futility. Graviel's body had shut down. His heart
struggled on, even when his lungs ceased to fill. Jaw clenched, Grier watched
as the artery in his neck stuttered, then finally went still.
Only then did he acknowledge the watchers.
A circle of people stood around them. The Directorate, he
assumed. Most of the rest had fled. There was no more reason to hide. Grier
dropped his shields, flinching at how his improved vision sharpened the details
of Graviel's slack face and the coppery smell of blood. Grief crushed down on
him, not all of it from the men and women clustered around the body.
"The end of an era," Nora said. She laid a hand on
Caught in a storm of conflicting emotions, Grier stood,
swiping a blood-covered hand over this shirt. "Go," he choked,
addressing the Directorate. "It's not safe here." He bowed his head,
sensing when they moved off. "You too, Nora."
"I'll take care of him. Go."
Despite the order, Nora stayed on the floor, legs tucked
beneath her and Graviel's head on her lap. Her glasses were crooked. A thin
spray of blood covered one lens. "So it's over?"
Grier extended his senses past the empty room, searching.
Aleck's return touch held relief and affection. And a sense of urgency.
"No," Grier said. "Not yet.
Aleck let Keev take the lead. Two levels down, they found a
set of security doors torn from their hinges. Aleck's step faltered at the
snapped metal. "Did he do that?"
"I'm afraid so." Keev leapt over the obstacle
Beyond was a sweeping veranda, carved into the side of the
cliff. When the resort was open, Aleck imagined it was filled with
umbrella-shaded tables and lounge chairs, but at the moment it held nothing but
a few dead branches. It stretched from one end of the lodge to the other. A
short wall of stones separated it from the forest beyond. Every few feet,
faded, red-lettered signs warned of the danger.
Do not cross.
Keev vaulted over it, and Aleck followed. They slid down a
steep incline onto the next terrace of earth and rock. Keev paused, and Aleck
bent over his knees to catch his breath. "How the hell is he moving so
fast? I broke his fucking leg."
Keev's face twisted into a frown. "He knows he has no
chance of outrunning us. He's setting a trap."
"Scary. Let's go."
Sunset had faded to full dusk. The sound of the river filled
Aleck's ears, echoing up and down the gorge until he couldn't tell from which
direction it came. His only clue was the sloping terrain. One slip was all it
would take. He reached for Keev's arm. "Careful."
"I'm trying," Keev said, voice strained. He said
something else, but it was lost in the roar of the water. They slid down
another steep bank, clutching at exposed roots. The trees had thinned, and a
cool mist bathed Aleck's skin. The river.
His feet hit the next terrace to find Keev huddled on the
ground, clutching his leg. Aleck crouched over him. "Did you hurt
"No." Keev wiped a bead of sweat off his brow.
"My father's sharing his pain."
"He's trying to slow you down." Aleck pulled at
his fingers. "Give me the syringe."
The details of Keev's expression were lost in the falling
darkness. "Are you going to use it?"
Which isn't what he meant, Aleck knew. "If I get the
Keev pressed it into his palm. "Be careful."
"Aleck." Keev grabbed him before he could move.
"He'll try to trick you, and he's very good."
Aleck curled his fingers around the syringe. "Stay
put." He moved off, extending his senses in a wide arc. He absorbed the
lay of the terrain, felt Roman's presence ahead of him – though not too far
ahead. Pain was slowing his progress, dulling his ability to fight. Aleck dug
into his mind, memorizing his route, then followed.
Roman had pushed through a thicket. There. At the next drop,
he'd turned left, following the trail to an opening in the brush. Aleck
followed, mapping Roman's every move in his head. Maybe the bastard would fall
before Aleck ever reached him.
Gaining confidence, Aleck sped his pace. He was closing in.
In his mind, he saw Roman take the next drop onto a large, flat boulder, then
pick up a trail heading north, away from the gorge.
"Oh no, you don't." No way was the bastard going
to get away from him. Aleck jumped down the incline, but where he expected his
feet to hit rock, there was nothing. Gasping in surprise, he twisted, hooking a
tree root with his arm. The syringe flew from his fingers and fell,
disappearing into the mist below. Stopping his fall had almost pulled his shoulder
from its socket. "What the fuck?" he wheezed, eyes tearing from the
There was no rock, no wide terrace of trees. No trail
heading north. The image in his head blurred, then faded. Keev's warning had
been warranted. Even hurt and weakening, Roman's powers were formidable. The
suggestion he'd embedded in Aleck's head had been seamless, the illusion
Grunting, Aleck hoisted himself a few feet higher.
"End of the line, Aleck."
Aleck jerked his head in the direction of the voice. Roman
was so close, Aleck could've touched him. He too had wedged himself against a
tree root. With one arm, he clung to the side of the cliff. His other hand held
a gun, aimed at Aleck.
"Yeah, that suits me just fine. I've wanted off this
crazy ride since it started." He gathered himself and struck, but Roman rebuffed
the mental attack, swatting at it like he would a fly. Aleck couldn't help but
"Is that the best you have, boy?" Roman sneered.
"Pathetic." He cocked the gun.
"Well, actually," Aleck said, "no." With
a deep breath, he reached for the power he hadn't sought in years, his ultimate
camouflage, and made himself invisible. He had no idea if the illusion would
fool someone as gifted as Roman, but it was his only shot. The night turned
darker, sounds grew muffled. He prayed the ruse worked.
Roman's shocked shout was all the confirmation he needed.
Vertigo took hold as the strain of maintaining the illusion
worsened. His hand slid from the tree root, and before his strength left him
altogether, he let go and lunged toward the gun. It went off when his fingers
closed around it, the report deafening, but the bullet went wide, ricocheting
off the cliff face. Aleck ripped it from Roman's hand and tossed it away.
Roman let loose another strangled cry and began to slip, and
Aleck kicked at his stomach, helping him along. With his own strength flagging,
he revealed himself, grinning manically when Roman's eyes bulged.
"How did you—?"
Aleck kicked again and Roman's fingers lost their grip.
"Bye-bye," Aleck growled as Roman dropped over the edge.
Roman's lips peeled back in a snarl. Just as he went over, he
grabbed Aleck's foot, yanking him off-balance. Gasping, Aleck threw himself
backward, scrabbling for a handhold, but his fingers found nothing but dirt and
smooth rock. He shot toward the abyss.
Then jerked to a halt when a hand clamped onto his.
He tore his eyes away from where his legs hung out over the
drop and tipped his head back, smiling into Grier's worried face. "Nice
"I'll try." But he was so weak that even saying
the words was a struggle. In the end, it was Grier who did most of the work,
manhandling them both up the cliff face until he'd reached flat ground.
Panting, he collapsed on a bed of matted pine needles. Aleck curled against his
"See? Everything went perfectly," Aleck said a few
minutes later. "And you were all worried."
Grier's hand tightened on his hair. "Shut up. Before I
throw you over myself."
Heavy footfalls approached. Keev dropped to the ground next
to them, setting his arms on his bent knees. "Just so you both know, I've
satisfied my quota on heroics for the next century."
Aleck pushed himself upright. "Your father—"
"He's dead, Aleck. Please don't apologize. It would be
an empty sentiment. For both of us." Like an animal that had caught a
scent, he lifted his head, nostrils flaring, then swiveled to look up the hill.
"What are they feeling?" Grier asked him, staring
at the dozens of shadowy figures watching from above.
Keev inhaled again, but shook his head.
One by one, the figures turned and moved off into the night.
A few minutes later, they were once more alone.
Grier helped Aleck and Keev to their feet. "Now,"
he said, brushing dirt from his pants, "it's over."
Two weeks after Grier watched Keev's bodyguards hustle him into his limo and down the mountain, and thirteen days after Aleck decided they'd return to the beach house, Grier woke to his cell phone vibrating on the bedside table. He caught it on the second ring, answering before he was fully awake. "I'm getting tired of this, Keev," he said. No need to check the caller ID. Only two people had his number, and one was in bed next to him.
"No, you're not. You love the sound of my voice in the morning."
"It's the middle of the night here. As you well know." Grier rolled onto his back and stretched. "Just like it was when you called yesterday."
"Don't be a baby. Want to know what I'm having for breakfast?"
"Are you really that lonely?" Grier propped the phone between his ear and the pillow.
"Crepes," Keev said. "Tell me crepes aren't the most decadent thing in the world."
"They suit you," Grier agreed. "Goodbye."
"So you're retired now," Keev said before Grier could punch the end button. Silverware clattered in the background.
His eyes felt gritty. Grier scrubbed at them, noticing how his hands still smelled like Aleck. "I'm not having this conversation right now."
"Why? Are the two of you busy?"
Grier stretched an arm to the opposite side of the bed. His fingers touched nothing but bare sheets.
"What do you want?" He sat up, squinting around the dark bedroom. No Aleck.
"I had another call." Chewing filled the line.
"I'm not your message service." Keev's voice faded, then returned stronger. "This is getting tiresome."
The pop of a champagne bottle in his ear made Grier jump. Giving up on sleep, he wrestled into a pair of jeans and padded into the living room. "Tell them you don't know where I am," he said, scanning the room.
"That would be a lie."
"Which goes against your moral code all of a sudden?"
"Grier, all these people are looking for is information. Some guidance."
"No, they want someone to tell them what to do. Not interested."
The kitchen was empty. Frowing, Grier wandered back into the bedroom. Keev's voice turned sharp, leaving laziness behind. "You're talking like this war ended on top of that mountain."
Keev snorted. "You think I wouldn’t like to say yes?"
The grudging tone gave Grier pause. "So your father’s goons are making trouble."
"They’re trying. I can only do so much. They want nothing to do with me, and I can’t say I don’t return the sentiment. Your people have a chance of keeping them in line, but they're too disorganized at the moment."
Back to that. "They're not my people."
"Deny all you like."
"Goodbye, Keev." He'd started to snap the phone closed when Keev's frustrated reply came through.
"Shall I give them Aleck’s number, then?"
Grier froze. Silent, he put the phone back to his ear.
"That got you," Keev said. "You can’t wrap him in cotton and keep him locked in that beach house forever. He’s going to get restless."
Grier kept his gaze averted from the empty bed.
"Your apathy isn’t helping anything. If you have no intention of getting involved, at least make that public knowledge." He took a sip of something, his champagne, Grier assumed, then smacked his lips. "They’re waiting for you."
Grier set his hand on Aleck's pillow. He hadn't been gone long. The case still felt warm. "Enjoy the crepes," Grier said. He hung up.
Back in the living room, he noticed what he hadn't before: a low whistle of wind, like the breathy sound of a flute. There was a two inch gap in the sliding door. Grier pushed it open and stepped out onto the deck.
The breeze held a touch of spring chill, not enough to warrant a jacket, but Grier swiped his shirt from the bench by the shower – where he'd left it earlier when Aleck had stripped it from him – then followed the boardwalk to the beach.
The moon reflecting off the water bathed the sand in a pale yellow light. He saw Aleck right away. Seated just above the tide line, he was tossing shells into the waves. Grier watched for a long time, Keev's words playing in his head in an endless loop. After several minutes, Aleck turned and waved him forward.
"How long were you going to stand there?" he asked when Grier sat down next to him. Aleck's knees were bent. His fingers dug in the sand between his legs, looking for shell fragments.
Grier had no idea. Most likely, if Aleck hadn't beckoned him forward, he would've gone back to bed and brooded, as he had the last three nights he'd awakened to find Aleck gone. "Keev called."
Aleck gave a low laugh. "Again?"
"He says," Grier found a stick and began twisting it through the wet sand, "that he's tired of being my message service."
"I bet. So he got another call."
Grier opened his mouth to answer before he realized it wasn't a question.
"Anything else? No report on today's breakfast?"
"Of course." Aleck wiped his hands on his jeans and scooted closer. His thigh pressed against Grier's. He fell silent, something that made Grier more nervous than not.
Soon it grew too thick to tolerate. "Aleck—"
"You're not going to return this message either, are you?"
"I don't know," Grier answered. His fingers crept into Aleck's hair, taming where the wind had blown it wild. "There's appeal to letting them find their own feet. Elect new leadership."
"They've done that."
"Someone who gives a shit would make more sense."
No laugh from Aleck. He stared at the ocean.
"Graviel asked— Before he died—" Grier stabbed his stick into the sand. "He wanted me to take care of them."
"You can't be held hostage by a dying man's request."
Grier shot him a look. "Do you believe that?"
"Isn't that what you want to hear?"
"I'd rather hear your honest opinion." His hand sank through Aleck's hair to his neck. Aleck arched into the touch. He turned to look Grier in the eye.
"You don't owe him anything, Grier, but we could use your help."
Grier's gut twisted. "We?"
"Don't look so surprised. Because I know you're not. Disappointed, maybe."
An accurate summation. He pushed it aside and let his fingers wander. Aleck's skin was sandy. The ridges of his spine felt cool under Grier's fingers.
Aleck shivered, but his voice held steady. "I'll be leaving soon. Roman may have been our biggest threat, but he wasn't the only one."
"Now who's living a dead man's dream?"
"Same rules as before," Aleck said, ignoring the cutting remark. "No hard feelings if you choose to chase the things you want instead of coming along."
The things he wanted were mutually exclusive. "I'll need to think about it," Grier murmured. He curled a hand around Aleck's hip, and Aleck leaned into him, his surge of contentment a sure sign he'd picked up on the lie.
"Okay. How long do you want?"
Grier kissed him. "One more day."
"One more day," Aleck agreed.
One more day of invisibility. Then they'd deal with what had to be done.
Copyright © 2009 Gay Authors. Gay Authors is owned and operated by CDEJR Web Services, Inc.