Home. Safe. Dillon. The words repeated over and over in Detective Gabriel D’Angelo’s brain, a mantra of comfort, as he rested his forehead on the steering wheel of his silver pickup in the parking lot behind his apartment building. Angel almost hadn’t made it. He’d miraculously survived the three-month deep-cover assignment from hell—three months that had somehow stretched to six—in the Mexican drug cartel that had been working its way up California and made the mistake of thinking they could set up shop here in Hilldale like they had in San Diego and LA. Survived almost unscratched, until everything went wrong.
The bust had gone sour at the last moment. The shit had hit the fan, the bullets flew, half their suspects had ended up dead or wounded, and Angel himself had barely made it out of there alive. Not unscathed, but near enough. Still, his arm burned like a son of a bitch, now that the shot of painkiller they’d given him had worn off, while he was being debriefed. Eight freaking hours, on top of the four he’d spent at the hospital. He wasn’t done with the debriefing either, not by a long shot, but the captain had seen he was completely burnt out, used up, running on fumes, when Angel had slipped into Spanish without realizing it. He’d spoken far more Spanish than English these past six months. He might look like an Anglo, with his bristle-blond hair and piercing blue eyes, but he spoke like a native. He’d grown up on a ranch in Tolerance, Texas, right on the border of Mexico.
With a curse, Angel yanked his thoughts away from those memories, for sanity’s sake. He’d never have gotten that close to dredging up the past if he weren’t half out of his mind with exhaustion. Maybe more than half. Angel had had less than four hours’ sleep in the past ninety-six hours, and during that time had been flying an adrenaline high and falling in the crash at least a dozen times, he’d been caught on the wrong side of the bust. Smack dab in that free-for-all, the shootout, he’d been shot, for Christ’s sake! Just the muscle of his bicep, nothing too severe, no nerve or bone damage, thank God, but still. Then, like an idiot, he hadn’t accepted the ride he’d been offered, and nearly died a second time.
He’d wanted to come home in his own truck, on his own terms. He’d needed to. It was part of the ritual, putting the deep-cover assignment behind him, changing back from the twisted, treacherous, coldhearted, vicious bastard he’d been posing as to the man he really was. It was more than that. He was coming out of cop mode, too, morphing from someone who could betray everyone around him in the name of the job to someone who was trusted but also worthy of that trust. One of the good guys. A man of honor. The man Dillon loved. Hopefully.
Six months. God! They’d been together less than three when he got the assignment. Six months without a word, a touch between them. Dillon could be dead for all…. Angel fought down the panic that thought brought. Dillon wasn’t dead. Angel knew he wasn’t. He’d had some very limited contact while he was on the inside of the operation, his partner on this assignment, his backup, Juanita Esperanza. She’d posed as his on-again, off-again girlfriend so the cartel wouldn’t get suspicious that he never got laid. She’d been his link to the good things, his real life, giving him word that Dillon was okay. Hell, the kid was thriving, in his job in the Surveillance Unit, in his classes at school. The kid didn’t need him anymore. He could….
Angel shook his head at his stupidity. Dillon loved him. Christ, the kid all but worshipped him. It was scary sometimes, knowing how much Dillon needed him. And he’d left Dillon alone to fend for himself, abandoned him, just like his father had when he threw him out onto the streets last year, fresh out of high school, just like his ex-boyfriend Connor had when he saw Dillon was broke, that the gravy train had dried up. No. No, it wasn’t like that. Angel hadn’t left him. It was his job. Dillon knew that, accepted it. It wasn’t his fault he was Dillon’s whole world. Dillon had lost all his so-called friends when he came out, when he was thrown out of his father’s house, his neighborhood, his social circle. Angel kept encouraging Dillon to make new friends, at work, but especially at school, kids his own age, ones he had something in common with. Dillon couldn’t spend all his time hanging out with some beaten-up bruiser of a cop twice his age.
God, he was tired. His mind was whirling in circles—no, spirals, bad ones, like drilling into an oil well, inky black viscous gunk. No, not oil. No, he wasn’t going to think of the oil rig he’d worked on that summer when he was eighteen, or how the pain in his damn arm felt too much like that rabid coyote bite he’d gotten when he was sixteen, not fucking thinking of anything that reminded him of Texas, of the ranch, of home. Of family, his other family, the one Dillon didn’t even know about. What was left of it. He swallowed hard, forcing a sudden flood of tears from his eyes. Christ, he hadn’t cried since… no! No, he wouldn’t go there.
Exhaustion had weakened all his emotional walls to a scary degree and everything was roiling right at the surface. Dillon was his family now, the only family he needed, no matter what long-lost faces had flashed in front of his mind’s eye when the bullets were flying, when he was hit, when he thought he might die.
Angel forced himself away from the one near-death experience to the slightly more recent one. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel on the way home. Out cold. He’d jerked back awake to the blare of the horn from the oncoming taxi and swerved his truck back over the double yellow line into his own lane just in time. Although the other driver had corrected too, he probably wouldn’t have hit him. Angel had stopped, shaking wildly. He’d nearly thrown up in the cab of his truck afterward; he’d barely pulled over in time to vomit on the asphalt instead. Now he was crashing again, the adrenaline surge long since spent, leaving him weak and shaky and way too far past exhausted. He just wanted to crawl into his own bed, wrap his arms around Dillon, and sleep for a week. He hadn’t seen the kid in six months and all he wanted to do was sleep. Damn, he was getting old. He hadn’t had company other than his own hand in months, and all he could think about was sleeping? And why the hell was he still in his truck, when he was home?
Angel opened the door and dragged himself out of the truck, trudging to the building entrance. He forced himself not to lean back against the elevator wall and close his eyes like he ached to. He’d fall asleep on his feet. They’d find him curled up on the floor of the elevator. He walked down the hall to an achingly familiar door. He caressed it like it was Dillon’s face. Home. Safe. Dillon. Thank God. He let himself in, creeping through the living room silently, not bothering to turn on the light, letting the ambient light from the street light his way. It was just after five in the morning, not yet dawn. He didn’t want to wake Dillon up, not when he didn’t have the strength to wake him up properly. Besides, Dillon might have the early shift, although Angel was hoping he could talk him into calling in sick. But he might have classes too. Was it Thursday? No, it would be Friday, now. Thursday was last night; it was morning. Shit, was it even still the summer semester, or had the fall semester started? Angel couldn’t remember what Juanita had told him; he couldn’t even think anymore.
Angel ghosted to the bedroom doorway and entered, crossing the bedroom soundlessly too. He stood by the bed for just a moment, inhaling deeply, soaking in the all but forgotten scents of home, staring at the blanket-shrouded form. No more sleeping alone with one eye open, his gun under his pillow. No more lies; no more drugs and filth and violence. Home, safe, home, safe, the voice in his head repeated, even as a second voice struck up the cadence Dillon, Dillon, Dillon. Work was all about danger and deceit, lies and treachery. Dillon was safe and sweet, honest and innocent, pure. This had been his toughest assignment ever. Dillon was his anchor now. He was what had kept him connected, sane, grounded.
Angel put his holstered Glock down gently on the nightstand next to his side of the bed, along with his cell phone, wallet and ID case, keys and the prescription bottle of Percocet they’d given him at the hospital, as if he’d ever go near a potentially addictive drug after where he’d been the past six months. He toed off his shoes, not even having the strength to undress. He’d showered at the station, changed into clean clothes. He hadn’t shaved off the perpetual three-day stubble that had been part of his cover, and his hair had grown way out of the familiar buzz cut, so that he barely recognized himself when he’d looked in the mirror, especially when he’d seen the cold, hard eyes, the harsh lines of six months of stress on his face, and four days of exhaustion. Dillon would be in for a shock in the morning, waking up with a strange man in his bed.
Angel climbed in to bed next to Dillon almost shyly. The familiar scent of Dillon’s baby shampoo, his body wash was stronger on the bed, much stronger. Relaxing for the first time in months, Angel dug his face into the soft, sweet hair, wrapping his arms around Dillon’s slender body. Wrong. The body felt wrong. Angel’s seeking hand cupped a soft, full breast, recoiling in shock even as the figure snapped awake and jerked violently, yelped and elbowed him viciously in the stomach. The strange woman lying in their bed scrambled away from him and started screaming loudly enough to wake the dead. A slender foot lashed out, catching him in the jaw, snapping his head back, and a second heel slammed into his bandaged arm.
Angel roared in pain and confusion and betrayal. Flickering synapses sparked violently to life as he scrambled for the lamp, falling headlong off the bed. The overhead bedroom light flared on seemingly of its own accord. “Mary!” a frantic voice called. Dillon, Dillon’s voice. But who the fuck was Mary, and what the hell was she doing in their bed?!
Angel stumbled to his feet, wild eyes scanning the room frantically, and then he froze, gaping. Dillon was across the bed from him, hugging a beautiful woman protectively. They were both half-naked. Angel saw a tumble of blond hair contrasting sharply against Dillon’s chocolate curls, eyes much lighter than Dillon’s, more gray than green. She had remarkably long legs for someone who was slightly more petite than Dillon. Angel could see every inch of those creamy legs, peeking out from under the shirt of Dillon’s green silk pajamas. The ones Angel had bought Dillon as one of his presents for Valentine’s Day, the ones that matched Dillon’s eyes, the ones Dillon, bare-chested, was currently wearing only the bottoms of.
A rage so deep it horrified him grabbed Angel in a stranglehold. A tiny, rational voice tried to tell him that he wasn’t really seeing what he thought he was, that there was a reasonable explanation why Dillon would be half-naked, holding someone else in their bedroom. It tried to convince him Dillon would never betray him like this, that if he did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be with a woman, but his eyes were telling him different. He’d been encouraging the kid to make some friends his own age, had been worried that Dillon was all work and no play. Well, it looked like the kid had been playing plenty while Angel was gone.
“Angel?” Dillon asked in shock and sudden recognition. “Oh my God, you’re here!” Angel saw the bright flashes of emotion cross Dillon’s face too fast to catalog, to name, and then Dillon flushed darkly. Shame, at being caught fucking a stranger in their bed.
Angel didn’t trust himself to speak. Worse, he didn’t trust himself not to hurt them. Something wild and primal, a terrifyingly real manifestation of the dark side he faked on his cover assignments, exploded over him. Out, he had to get out, get away from them before he hurt them. Angel ran, through the bedroom, the living room, to the front door. He flung open the door and ran into the hall, shaking with fury, almost plummeting headfirst down the emergency stairs as he took them two and three at a time. Get out, drive to a motel. Sleep, he had to sleep. He couldn’t think, not now, not like this, not with his gut churning and his hands balling into fists and the crushing weight in his chest threatening to bring him to his knees.