Brian had enjoyed the day with them, and he slept well in Kim’s guest room overnight. But it had been a strange interlude for a single gay man, a lawman of sorts, whose homelife involved quiet nights and modest amounts of Scotch whiskey, and whose only intimate encounters involved rope or leather, sometimes both, and always required some man’s willing submission. Having arrived at Kim’s house after spending Christmas Eve and morning with his parents in Portland, Brian had started to feel by the time he’d merged onto the freeway on the twenty-sixth that he’d fallen into a surreal movie where nothing quite made sense, like Johnny Depp in Dead Man. Or maybe not quite that sinister, but disorienting nevertheless.
He hit the radio button and smiled when vintage blues flowed from the speakers. Appropriate, he thought. It seemed just the kind of music Luki Vasquez would listen to, or even absently sing along with in his raspy but admittedly sexy voice. Until that moment, Brian hadn’t realized how much he truly looked forward to seeing Luki at the end of the morning’s drive—and Sonny James too. Not so many years ago, Luki had been his hero, a teacher, an example showing him how to be the kind of man that stood between innocence and ill intent. Brian still looked up to him—knew he always would. And Sonny, well…. Sonny had strength of a whole different type, and he knew a bit about the world. Knew how to love, for sure. The two of them together, Luki and Sonny, formed the only marital unit Brian had ever envied.
He recalled Luki’s voice over the phone the previous evening, a chance conversation, really. Luki had called Kim to wish her well on Christmas, and Kim had passed Brian the phone with a grin. The genuine warmth in Luki’s voice surprised Brian, coming as it did from a man who could freeze the blood in a person’s veins with a single glance of his pale blue eyes.
“I don’t want to take away from your time with Kim,” Luki had said, “but if you can get down this way, we’d love to see you.”
Brian had planned to leave Kim’s in the morning regardless—her family had their own plans for the afternoon, but his flight didn’t leave from Sea-Tac until the wee hours of the next day. It would be a lot of driving to the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, but doable, and Brian said so. “But,” he’d added, “aren’t you tired of company by now? I know you always have a crowd for the holidays.”
“Hell, no, Brian!” Luki had chuckled. “Truth is everybody’s tired of eating around here, and the house will be almost empty by tomorrow. But I’ve still got lots of food. I’ll feed you well—that’s a promise. Come on down.”
How could anyone refuse a famous Luki Vasquez feast, even one consisting of leftovers?
So Brian continued south until the junction with SR 16 west in Tacoma, and headed over the Hood Canal Bridge. He’d cross the slender Kitsap Peninsula, then take the Narrows Bridge across the sound to the Olympic Peninsula where Sonny’s house had, more than five years ago, become the Vasquez-James home. The sky hung low over the canal, drops materializing on Brian’s windshield as if the fog wept, and that triggered an uneasy memory—the one Brian had been avoiding since he’d first heard Luki’s voice the night before.
The memory of Jackie Vasquez.
When Brian had helped Luki find and rescue Jackie six years ago, the young man had been traumatized. He’d leaned into Brian—practically a stranger—for support, as if by instinct. Maybe because Brian, though young and fairly inexperienced at the time, had the dominant nature he now supposed he’d been born with, and Jackie had the makings of a born submissive. Whatever the reason Jackie turned to Brian, he hadn’t been conscious of it; that much was clear. Jackie had barely been aware at all. Tears had formed in his eyes just like the drops on the Sonata’s windshield, and then rolled down without a sound, as if the young man didn’t even know they were there.
Jackie had been the whole reason Brian had left Vasquez Security and fled to London for an education that would launch his career in British intelligence.
Six years earlier, Hawaii
FROM THE moment Brian saw Luki’s nephew, standing under the Hawaiian sun amongst the small crowd that had just witnessed Luki and Sonny’s wedding, he couldn’t bring himself to look away. He tried—glanced side to side to see who was watching, saw the look Sonny James gave him—a warning? The thing was, Jackie was a beautiful young man—no denying that—but how young? Brian thought he looked like no more than a teenager; he laughed like a very young person and seemed shy and sweet. But then, when Jackie turned and met Brian’s eyes, Brian would have sworn those eyes had seen centuries of pain, and with a sober look on his face, Jackie looked years older.
Not able to stop himself, Brian walked across the ancient, eroded lava that formed the ground on which Sonny and Luki had just said their vows, and held out his hand to the young man who had him confused—his emotions as well as his mind. He felt drawn, but what he felt wasn’t exactly the sexual pull he’d often felt when he spotted a likely partner. He didn’t understand the attraction, couldn’t put his mental finger on what it meant, but he couldn’t deny it either.
It was true, Brian admitted, Jackie’s unusual beauty was hard not to look at. His dark hair had a strong red cast, and his face was sprinkled with surprising dark freckles. His wide, almond-shaped gray eyes shone like polished silver. He would catch anyone’s eye.
“I’m Brian,” he said simply when he’d reached his destination directly in front of the young man.
“You work with my uncle Luki,” the young man said as he took the hand Brian offered and shook it briefly. “I’m Jackie Vasquez.” His manner seemed smooth, adult—until he giggled.
Brian saw Luki eyeing him from across the open space. That look was easy to figure: icy cold and calculating. Taking that as a heads-up, and the giggle as a clue, Brian realized his first impression was the right one—Jackie was young, jailbait if Brian’s intentions had been sexual. They weren’t—at least he didn’t think so—but it wouldn’t be wise to assume Luki knew that. And probably it wouldn’t be wise to test himself, either.
Brian casually stepped back a pace, widening the distance between them. “I’m glad to meet you,” he said, and then his search for a safe topic landed on the weather, as it so often does. “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful place—and it was a beautiful wedding, wasn’t it?”
“Which is perfect,” Jackie said, smiling. “’Cause Luki and Sonny are beautiful together.”
Brian smiled back and made small talk for a couple of minutes, making certain he didn’t touch the young man again—that handshake had been electric, though in an odd way. Brian felt like the touch communicated a sense of fate, as if they had been destined to meet. Still, as young as Jackie was, Brian thought it would be best to avoid any miscues that might lead the young man or his uncles to get the wrong idea. As soon as he politely could, he took his leave, and until the newlyweds drove away and the gathering disbursed, he fought Jackie’s constant—undoubtedly innocent and unintentional—magnetism.
Probably, he thought, I’ll never get that boy and his gorgeous eyes out of my mind.
But after the reception, Brian went into Honolulu and found a club. Deliberately, he found a man who looked nothing at all like Jackie, and—though he was still new at the art of being a Dom, successfully coaxed the stranger’s submission until satisfaction rained down on them both.
Back in Seattle the next day, he dropped Kim—Luki’s number one agent and Brian’s direct supervisor—at her home, retreated to his own tiny apartment in Fremont, and picked up the afghan he was crocheting. He noticed that the silvery-gray yarn came close to matching Jackie’s unforgettable eyes.
I should forget I ever laid eyes on that boy, Brian thought, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do that. Yet after giving it some thought, he realized that noticing Jackie’s remarkable looks and presence wasn’t the same as lust. He could and did forgive himself for appreciating beauty where he found it.
Nevertheless, Brian had done his best to keep his thoughts away from the young man. But those eyes, that thick, floppy, dark red hair, the giggle, dammit. Jackie remained an enigma—and perhaps that explained why he crept into Brian’s dreams no matter how insistently he barred him from his waking thoughts. The dreams seemed benign, though sometimes strange; Brian didn’t wake up feeling like a pedophile or some other monstrous kind of person. He understood that some connection had been forged instantly when he and Jackie met, although he had no way of knowing if Jackie felt its existence too. He still couldn’t begin to fathom the nature of that link. It wasn’t lust, wasn’t brotherly, and it couldn’t be friendship—they didn’t even know each other. Whatever the reason, though, Brian had seen Jackie so many times in his dreams he could count the dark freckles on his expressive face.
Kim had called him one night a couple of weeks after they’d returned from Hawaii and explained that, because she had just given birth to her darling baby, Ramona, he was going to have to fill her shoes on a job. That would mean working directly under Luki Vasquez—a man Brian virtually idolized. At first, getting the chance to get close to the boss so early in his own career with Vasquez Security had seemed like a golden opportunity. But short days later, when he learned that Jackie Vasquez had disappeared, the case became a grenade planted in Brian’s heart.
When he heard the words, “Jackie’s gone,” Brian knew he would stop at nothing to get Jackie safe. His strange attraction no longer mattered. His devotion to his job and admiration for his employer meant nothing. All that mattered was finding Jackie and rescuing him—before his life or his sanity got wasted. Even if he, Brian, would never see the young man again, he’d be able to live in peace knowing Jackie remained alive and in the world in every sense.
In the days that followed, Brian lived out each moment in a deep hell. Faith was his byword—not faith in someone or something, but faith in the outcome. They would find Jackie before it became too late to save him. He’d come through it okay. That insistent blind faith—and the knowledge that Luki Vasquez headed up the search—functioned as his arsenal against the doubt that claimed equal time, equal territory in his mind. With doubt came terrible fear, yet in the end they had prevailed, as Brian’s heart had known they would. They found Jackie in Titus Crane’s remote private prison on a hot summer day in the arid Umatilla.
Brian’s resolve to leave Jackie alone had not lessened. Though at times he still felt very young and inexperienced, at twenty-two Brian was a man in the eyes of the law. Even more important, his own code said a young man not yet seventeen, and traumatized to boot, was off-limits. He wouldn’t forsake that. He couldn’t, wouldn’t betray his own honor.
But immediately after they had brought Jackie out safe, when Jackie sought shelter from his own pain behind the shield of Brian’s strength, Brian had let him lean. Brian let himself shelter Jackie even though he saw the looks that Jackie’s brother Josh shot him from the other side of the room. Even though he knew Luki’s old uncle Kaholo was watching every touch. Brian could handle it—he could let Jackie need him and not entertain anything that resembled lust. It was like receiving submission without dominating, and it was innocent, perhaps even pure. And the need was brief.
Only hours after Jackie’s rescue, arrangements were made for him to go to a better medical facility, a place where he would receive the care he needed. Josh would stay by his side and Kaholo too, so he could “keep an eye out,” as he said.
Once Brian shook off the nonstop tension of the hunt for Jackie, he made a decision to keep things as kosher as they should be. He trusted himself not to pursue Jackie—and not even to lust for him—knowing he was both young and wounded. Still, he would avoid any chance for temptation to arise, and any chance that anyone, including Jackie, would misinterpret his interest.
He told Luki, “I love working for you, boss, but I just can’t anymore.”
He’d tried to tell Luki that his leaving was because of the very unpleasant feeling he’d endured when he’d believed he’d shot someone dead that very day. Luki acknowledged that as valid, but challenged, “But that’s not the only reason, is it?”
And it wasn’t. The job—this case—had been demanding, and Brian had learned as much about his own capabilities under fire as he had about Luki. In the final confrontation—a shootout—not only had Brian nearly killed, he’d nearly been killed himself. He had Luki to thank for his life, but in the final tally, Brian had contributed a lot to secure Jackie’s rescue. He’d proven himself a capable, if still inexperienced, agent.
Yet, by the time they’d found Jackie, rescued him from that sociopath, and delivered him to a doctor’s care, Brian had known beyond doubt his career at Luki’s agency had to end.
Unable to deny that Luki Vasquez saw straight through him, Brian had picked up Jackie’s case file. On top, Jackie smiled back at him from a photo, all freckles and youth, but even there his eyes were full of the ghosts of his many wounds, all the abuses levied against him in the space of so few years.
Jackie: a boy, yet a soul of a thousand years.
He’d turned the picture toward Luki and smiled. “He’s sixteen, boss. I told you, I thought at first, when I met him, he was older. I didn’t have my guard up, if you know what I mean. I’m twenty-two—and I’m in love with him.” Brian knew that wasn’t exactly true, but he had no other way to explain it. He shook his head, and stated the obvious.
“I can’t stay.”