MIKEL MAXWELL stared at the empty boxes scattered around the bedroom, knowing he could no longer put off the task at hand. Like it or not, painful as it would certainly be, he had to—he needed to—sort through Slate’s clothes and send them to the Salvation Army, or some other charitable origination that could put them to good use. It was rather foolish, just leaving them in the closet to gather dust. Slate wouldn’t have wanted that; he would have wanted his belongings to be passed on, to someone who needed them, and he would have scolded Mikel for having stubbornly held on to them for this long. He had been gone for nearly two years—nineteen months and two weeks, to be exact—but Mikel was still grieving him, as if only days had passed, since Drake Summerfield had broken the tragic news that Slate’s latest mission for the Freedom Defense Agency (FDA) had gone terribly wrong and Slate was missing and presumed dead, along with the rest of his five-man team.
Mikel had refused to believe it, at first; he had insisted there was a mistake, that Slate would be fine. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the reality that Slate was gone, and not having a body only made it easier for him to hold on to hope. He repeatedly demanded that Drake keep searching, he protested and he raged when all official searches were called off; he blamed Drake for having talked Slate into one last mission, after Slate had made it clear he wanted to leave fieldwork and take on an official office position, so he and Mikel could build their lives together.
Slate had explained to his superiors that being away from his lover for weeks—and sometimes months—on end simply didn’t work for him; he wanted to be able to go home to Mikel every night and while Mikel would never have asked Slate to give up fieldwork, he had been relieved when his lover decided to do so on his own.
For three years, Mikel and Slate had managed to build and maintain a relationship, despite the dangerous and chaotic nature of Slate’s work, but it hadn’t proven easy. It was difficult on Mikel whenever Slate had to disappear for long periods of time and Slate hated it as well, because he often missed out on big events in Mikel’s life, such as his first showing in a major New York gallery, to say nothing of the more minor, but still meaningfully occasions, like Christmas and birthdays and special anniversaries. Some would have grown weary and walked away, but the idea had never crossed Mikel’s mind; he couldn’t have walked away from Slate even if he had wanted to, because Slate was the love of his life, something Mikel had realized right away, when a friend of a friend had introduced them at a festive, beachfront Fourth Of July barbecue.
He nearly lost his breath, looking at Slate for the first time. He had never seen a man more masculine or more beautiful, with darkly lashed cornflower-blue eyes, thick blond hair, and rich, honey-toned skin.
At six-two, he was solid muscle, hard and warm; he was the picture of perfection, dressed that first day in cut-off jean shorts and a sleeveless blue T-shirt that made his eyes even more vibrant. Mikel fell into those eyes headfirst. He couldn’t help himself. He was normally reserved and shy. He’d had only two lovers in his twenty-three years and neither of them had made him feel what Slate did with one look; the man made desire burn in his stomach and spread throughout his body like lava and he knew he was in very serious trouble. But truth be told, he didn’t care. For the first time in his young life, Mikel allowed the emotions—the need—to guide him and while he was completely shocked when Slate appeared to be just as intensely attracted to him, there was no second-guessing himself, no reservations. And when Slate asked him to go back to his place for a drink, Mikel readily agreed.
He knew they would end up doing much more than having a drink and they did; they had the most remarkable sex Mikel had ever experienced and Slate made him feel desire and emotions unlike any he had thought possible.
Next to a man like Slate—next to most men—Mikel figured he was average at best; his five-six frame was lean, his black hair curly, untamed, his skin ivory, and his eyes more hazel than green or brown, but Slate’s words, Slate’s touch, made him feel truly beautiful and desirable. He lost count of all the times they made love that first night—a night Mikel had believed would be a one-night stand, but the next morning, Slate cooked him breakfast, they made love again… and the day and another amazing night went by in a haze of sensual delight. It felt like heaven. Mikel didn’t want it to end; he wanted the feelings to continue and, much to his surprise, Slate wanted to know when he could see him again. As simply as that, the greatest love affair of his life began.
The following night, Slate took him out to dinner and over coffee, Slate explained—as much as he could—about his work with the FDA; repeatedly, he apologized for not being able to share very much, but most of what he did tended to be highly classified, which he admitted sounded cliché. But he had been with the FDA for nearly a decade and the work was difficult and dangerous, he didn’t deny that, and his missions usually required him to be out of touch for weeks, sometimes months, and he wanted Mikel to be aware of that up front. It was more than some people could handle, Slate understood that, and he offered Mikel an out, but Mikel didn’t want one; despite the short amount of time that had passed since their meeting, Mikel knew he wanted Slate—he was already well on his way to being completely addicted—and Slate was truly and openly pleased when Mikel told him he wasn’t going anywhere. He didn’t care how hard it might be or how complicated, because they could make it work, if they wanted each other badly enough. At Slate’s request, Mikel went home with him again that night. Less than two months later, Slate asked him to move in.
Slate had a beautiful home on the beach, left to him by his grandmother. To celebrate Mikel’s moving in with him, he had one of the half-dozen bedrooms converted into a fully operational studio that was more elaborate than any Mikel had ever imagined. It was the most amazing gift anyone had given him and that first night, officially living together, they made love in the studio and afterward, Mikel managed to convince Slate to pose for him for a nude painting that, once finished, Mikel kept displayed in his studio.
To Mikel’s dismay, two weeks later, Slate left on a mission—the first one he had accepted, since they had gotten together—and the night before he was scheduled to leave, Mikel met Drake Summerfield for the first time and decided he didn’t like the other man. It was obvious to him that Drake had an interest in Slate that went well beyond professional; he was technically Mikel’s superior, but a personal desire was there and Mikel sensed it and he mentioned it to Slate, who admitted that Drake had made his interest known in the past and Slate had rejected him. He felt no attraction for Drake, who was certainly attractive, with dark brown hair and brown eyes; the only man Slate wanted was Mikel. He had the love of his life, and Mikel was confident in that knowledge. He knew Drake really wasn’t a threat and never would be one.
“Nothing can pull us apart or come between us, Mikel, and when I leave, I promise that I will always, always come back to you, because I love you.”
For three years, every time he left for a mission, Slate whispered those words before he walked out the door and time and time again, he kept that promise, coming back home—sometimes battered and tired— and somehow, somewhere along the line, Mikel simply began taking for granted that Slate would always come home.
Until the day he didn’t.