THE WORST memories weren’t really from the bomb. I barely remember that day. Just the time in the transport, joking with the guys, keeping an eye on the road, then fire and darkness. I never really saw the others die. One of the things I remembered was waking briefly in pain and confusion, hearing screams, and wondering why I didn’t hurt more. The heat beat down on me as I breathed in ash and gore, and I thought for sure I was gonna die. No chance for Nathan to tell me he told me so. I’d been itching for death for years, right?
Only now I didn’t want it. I imagined lying in the burning sun, surrounded by desert and pieces of my dead comrades, thinking anything other than how much I wanted to live and how stupid I was to have been there to begin with. But I was only awake a few minutes or so. The rat-tat-tat of gunfire echoed in the distance as I plummeted back into darkness.
The next time I awoke was in a field hospital. Even that was a brief mash of pain and too-bright lights. People shouted in several languages, none of which I recognized. I had a moment of terror fill my gut at the thought I might have been taken prisoner.
Something wrenched my hip hard, sending white-hot pain through my entire right side. Then the darkness took me back. The days after passed much the same: in and out of consciousness. I learned I was safe and that most of my team had died in the blast. I heard talk of losing a leg, maybe even half my arm, but wasn’t coherent enough to really understand what they were saying. That I’d woken more than a week and a half later stateside and whole was a surprise.
My dad standing over me with an expression of grim determination on his face was almost worse than the memory of lying in the blazing sun amidst the gore of my fallen brethren. The fact that I was strapped to the bed and the surrounding walls were painted a pale gray told me all I needed to know about the situation. This was the stuff of nightmares—a mental hospital.
It wasn’t my first trip. No, they’d put me there the first time at age eleven. I barely recalled that trip. The first of many that would arise until I escaped into the military six years later. But I was nowhere near well enough this time to escape like I had the last time. Nor did I have anywhere to go. Hell, I wasn’t sure if all my limbs were still where they were supposed to be or if when I took off the bandages I’d find only stumps.
Sometimes I still had nightmares about those weeks before Will came to free me. Not about the bomb, or even the faces of the hundreds of soldiers I’d met in my life—though the guys showed up sometimes after a particularly psychedelic drug combo had been forced on me. Oh the conversations the crazy could have with the dead….
The worst had been the memories of Nathan. I sometimes feared my heavily drugged brain had been conversing with his ghost, and not just a hallucination.
Will had snuck me out just before I’d completely lost my mind. Broken probably a half-dozen laws to find me a safe place to heal and legitimate people to prove I wasn’t nuts. My head was okay. Mostly. Better now that I had a home and something to live for. Someone to live for.
I opened my eyes, blinked up at the ceiling, and felt Ollie’s breath warm and tickling across the bare flesh of my shoulder where he’d buried his face. What had woken me? I listened for a minute, searching the room and the house for what had startled me awake. But as always, in the dead of night, the giant mansion we both called home was eerily silent.
I turned my head and smiled at Ollie. His pale brown, dark blond hair spilling just long enough to hide his eyes and trail over his ears. His skin ran in flawless golden lines I now knew intimately, covered at the hip only by one thin blanket. The heat was on so I didn’t worry he’d get cold.
He had come home from his first overseas modeling job—four days away—and despite his obvious exhaustion, had jumped me. His libido was supercharged whenever we were together, but nonexistent when anyone else approached. His kink was me. And I loved it.
He had to make sure I was real if we spent any time apart, so he’d touch me tentatively at first. Then would come the kiss, heated and devouring. And finally he’d drop into my lap and grind himself against me until we were both begging for more. Tonight had been no exception. Four days had made him clingy and needy. I was more than willing to try to keep up.
A glance back at the clock and I groaned at the fact that it was just after 3:00 a.m. After the marathon of sex we’d had, I should have been worn out too, not waking up to stare into the darkness at my moonlit lover, waiting for daylight to return. Not that staring at Ollie wasn’t worth the sleepiness I’d be rewarded with later in the day. I shifted in bed a little, hip cramping up. It would hurt later from being overworked. Even after months of rehab, daily stretching, exercise, and yoga with Ollie, that hip and leg were shot. I didn’t stop working it, but it didn’t stop hurting either.
“Kade.” Ollie made a small noise of protest in his sleep. I pulled him back against me, rubbing the scruff of my face lightly against his cheek, but knew he wouldn’t wake. Four days of traveling, cameras shoved in his face, dodging paparazzi, and then several hours of sex should have him out until at least noon tomorrow. Well today, I supposed. Since Tomas opened the office at nine and my first work meeting wasn’t until eleven, there was no reason to get up yet.
I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment to get some ink. Was on the third round of a tat that was replacing some of my old stuff and hiding the scars on my right arm. Most of the color was already in from two other long sessions. This one was a touch up and last bit of detail. The tat covered the entire right arm. I was glad to be done. Or at least hoping to be finished for a few weeks. Tattooing over old work took longer. The colors were more vibrant this time, things I’d never have done when I served. But it was only one part of a larger plan. I had a lot of ink and a lot of damage to cover up. And the old stuff… it just didn’t fit anymore. Since they’d patched me back together in a field hospital, almost all of it was a mess anyway. A handful of skin grafts and thick white scars reminded me every day of the implosion of my life. The USMC with an eagle wrapped around my left bicep would stay—as it was oddly untouched—but color needed to be added. Life needed to be added.
A little over a year and a half ago, I’d been injured in a roadside bomb. Most of my teammates had been killed in the same explosion that ended my career as a Marine. The medics had to sew me back together. I’d been lucky to not lose the leg, but only barely. That bomb had blown up my world. I’d walked in a fog of fading memories and pain until finding my way into Ollie’s life. And finally getting a chance with him was like falling down the fucking rabbit hole: white rabbit, smoking caterpillar, creepy talking cats and all. Ollie was my Alice, my savior, and co-conspirator. Most days I felt like the Mad Hatter, following him around with an incoherent mash of madness lingering just beyond our existence. But I couldn’t recall ever being so happy.
I sighed and tucked my face into Ollie’s hair, sucking in the scent of him. He smelled like sex, sweat, and the orange-lavender body wash he used. Best of all he smelled like home. I closed my eyes and willed myself to go back to sleep. The house was quiet, the alarm was on—I’d set it the second Ollie walked in the door. Ollie was in my arms, and my Sig in the bedside drawer. We were safe.
An angry buzzing made me jerk awake. I must have dozed off fast, because it was now five in the morning. I glanced at my phone beside the bed and it was still, but Ollie’s bounced around the nightstand on his side of the bed. He didn’t budge. I reached over him, swallowing back a groan as my whole right side protested the movement, and snapped up the phone. It still buzzed angrily in my hand, screen glowing with brightness that had me blinking away tears. Then shock.
Jacob Elias, the screen said.
Jacob. As in Ollie’s ex-boyfriend Jacob? The rock star asshole? I went from sleepy to annoyed in two seconds flat. Why did he still have Ollie’s number? Why did Ollie still have Jacob programmed into his phone? Why was Jacob calling at five in the morning?
“Hello?” I answered hoping my irritation conveyed itself through the phone. There was a moment of silence and I glanced back at the screen to make sure it was still connected, then said, “Hello?” again.
“Who is this?” an unfamiliar male voice on the other side of the line demanded.
“You called me. Shouldn’t that be my question?”
“I didn’t call you. I called Ollie. I know this is still his phone. I had my PA check. So who are you and why do you have his phone?”
PA? Personal assistant? Was this really Jacob Elias the rock star calling Ollie at five in the morning? I tucked the blankets around Ollie and crawled out of bed so as not to wake him, then made my way downstairs. “This is his boyfriend Kade, wondering what the fuck you’re doing calling Ollie at five in the morning. Jacob, right?”
“Maybe you should ask him,” Jacob said, like he was implying they talked often. But I was with Ollie enough to know that wasn’t true. Ollie had a handful of people who were important to him: Will, Will’s wife Britney, Tomas, and Tyler. There were others that called or occasionally stopped by the office. Like his manager Terese or a designer who was working on something with him, but Jacob was not anywhere on that roster.
“I’m asking you,” I told him. Downstairs, I checked the alarms, doors and windows to make sure everything was secure—set the alarm for movement since I was up. A few months ago, Ollie had been attacked when someone broke into the house. He’d almost died. Even all my years serving my country as a Marine didn’t prepare me for the blood that day. It’s hard seeing strangers hurt, dying, or dead. Seeing someone you love…. Stupid how much I loved him. But he’d made it through. We’d made it through. And I wasn’t about to let the asshole ex-boyfriend ruin that now.
“It’s between Ollie and me.”
“Not anymore it’s not,” I told him.
“So you’re one of those overprotective boyfriends who dictates who he can and can’t talk to?”
“Only when the person calling is the asshole ex-boyfriend who cheated on him and got it plastered across every gossip rag in the world.” And broke Ollie’s heart and insulted him at every turn, permanently damaging his self-confidence. I left all that unsaid. I knew Ollie wouldn’t want Jacob to know how badly he’d hurt him.
“It wasn’t cheating. We had an open relationship,” Jacob said.
“Did Ollie know that?”
Jacob made a rude noise. “Of course. It’s how men like us live.”
Men like us? What the hell did that mean? I turned on the coffee pot figuring I might as well start my day. “What do you want, Jacob?” I wasn’t going to argue. If he’d really known Ollie at all, he’d have known Ollie was a one-man guy. He threw himself into a relationship like he threw himself into everything in life, feetfirst, flailing, and all in until he was practically drowning, consequences be damned. And while that attitude wasn’t always practical, it was endearing, honest, and in Ollie it worked well. Holding him back was sometimes a problem, but I didn’t have to do it that often. More often I just jumped with him.
“I want Ollie.”
There were so many things I could say to that, but I took the first meaning, intentionally ignoring possible other connotations. “He’s sleeping. It’s quarter after five in the fucking morning.”
“Will you have him call me when he wakes?”
“No. I will, however, tell him you called.” Not like I could delete the info from his phone without him knowing something was up. And that was sort of an asshole boyfriend thing to do even if I really wanted to do it.
Jacob was silent for a minute. The coffee pot gurgled up its final drops, and I pulled out a cup to pour my first taste for the day. Ollie drank tea. I had bought him a special tea brewer that sat right next to the coffee maker. He’d even made me a cup or two that wasn’t horrible. But I tended to enjoy the fruitier, noncaffeinated blends when it came to tea, while he liked chai, green, or Earl Grey, and it was just too early for anything other than coffee.
Finally he said, “What if it’s work related?”
I frowned into the phone. “Model or Haven Investigations? You should know I do most of the work at Haven now. Ollie only does the tech stuff. And somehow I don’t think his fashion designs would work with your current image. He doesn’t do leather.” Or anything overly masculine. Ollie had a bit of a texture fetish. He wore lace and things with weird layers of fabric crafted into flowers because it wasn’t flat. I had to admit pretty much everything he wore felt amazing when I touched him, so he was doing something right. I also knew almost nothing about fashion. He could rattle on for hours about a cut or design, and I’d just nod my head.
Again the silence. What was with Jacob?
“So he won’t be involved at all if I hired you guys?”
“Hired us for what?” I didn’t think there was anything HI could offer Jacob that he couldn’t buy from someplace bigger, more prestigious, exclusive, and more expensive.
Again he said nothing. Was he always so closemouthed? Ollie’s description of him hadn’t led me to believe that was true. I had sort of gotten the impression that Jacob liked to talk about Jacob. But I’d also spent the past few months bodyguarding a couple dozen celebrities who came my way thanks to Ollie’s reputation. They all really seemed to like talking about themselves. So maybe it was just a fame thing that Ollie had never quite picked up on. Most of them never really needed a guard. It was just for show in front of the cameras. Something about keeping relevant, Ollie told me. I didn’t care. It was easy money, which made up for the harder jobs of cheaters and stalking insurance fraud that involved a lot of sneaking around. Those cases never ended well. At least Ollie wasn’t doing them anymore unless I dragged him out to entertain me during a stakeout.
“Why don’t you call the office in a few hours and set up an appointment,” I told Jacob.
“Will Ollie be there?”
I wanted to snarl at him, but kept my head. The Marines had taught me a few things after all. “It depends on the case. Tomas will ask you a handful of questions to determine who you’ll be meeting with.” Though regardless of the answers, the meetings were almost always with me. The only exception was when Ollie had a new background check client coming in to ask questions and discuss contracts. That side of the business was a steady stream of income. Sure, there were cheaper services to be found online. Services that weren’t as thorough, lacked a guarantee, and didn’t have the personalized service Ollie offered. Ollie’s reputation for integrity created and grew that business. Once the contract was established, Tomas actually did a lot of the work. He’d let Ollie’s scripts run all day and created professional letters detailing the information each client wanted. It freed Ollie up to work on his designing and modeling.
Jacob sighed. “You can’t just have him meet with me?”
“Give me a good reason, Jacob.”
“Wanting to see him isn’t good enough?”
“Not by a long shot. We’re exclusive. Ollie and me. There is no open relationship going on between us. We live together. We sleep in the same bed. Do I need to be clearer?”
“I saw pictures of you together at the New Year’s Ball in LA.”
I frowned. Okay. What did that have to do with anything? Ollie had designed dresses for two very up-and-coming actresses. We’d both attended. I’d never had so many people wanting my photograph, but we’d been back page news. More of a best dressed review than any scandalous articles about Ollie and me dating. “So?”
“Why you?” he asked quietly.
Again a comment that could have so many meanings. “How do you want me to take that, Jacob? Think hard, Jacob. A wrong answer is not going to get you any closer to Ollie.”
“I’ll call the office later,” he finally said and hung up without a good-bye. I glanced through the phone to see that he’d called a half-dozen times in the past twelve hours. All of them marked as missed calls. In fact, there was one just before 3:00 a.m., which had likely been what woke me.
Arms wrapped around me from behind, and Ollie rested his chin on my shoulder. He was warm and nude against my back. But I hadn’t dressed either. “You should be sleeping,” I told him, turning my head to kiss the side of his face.
“You weren’t in bed,” he protested.
It was too late for me to go back to bed. Not if I wanted to eat and get to my tat appointment on time. “I gotta jump in the shower. Going to finish up my tat today.” I put my coffee cup down and turned so I could better hold him, and kiss him. He sighed against my lips.
“You taste like coffee,” he grumbled.
“Better than come,” I told him.
A smile touched his lips—probably because he was remembering how many times I’d swallowed him down last night. “I’ll shower with you.”
“Only if we use the new bathroom. Yours is not big enough for hanky-panky.” I’d finished renovation on the second-floor bath. The shower area was huge and mostly open, surrounded by natural stones and many showerheads. There was also a Jacuzzi tub, double sink, and a private commode area. It was about four times the size of the bathroom in Ollie’s room and twice as big as the one attached to my room. The big bathroom was attached to the largest bedroom in the house, but had a separate entrance from the hall. The bedroom was meant to have a sitting room as well, but it’d been closed off since the day Ollie moved in, filled with his brother’s things. Eventually I’d finish renovating that room and move in so I could work on the bedroom and bathroom I currently used. But I needed Ollie to be okay with me using the space first since originally it was going to be Nathan’s.
We still had our separate spaces, though rarely slept apart. Many of my things had migrated to Ollie’s space upstairs, but it was casual, unintentional, and nonintrusive. I didn’t want to push him. He wasn’t as fragile as Will and Britney thought he was, but he did need his space. On the rare occasion I went to bed in my room, I often woke with him curled up beside me. Sometimes he just needed to be alone in his head. I got that. He knew to come find me the second he was ready for company.
He snickered. “Hanky-panky. You talk so weird sometimes.”
“I’m old,” I told him, accepting another kiss. Thirty-four to his twenty-three.
“Hmm. Not old.” His right hand caressed my thigh and his left trailed over the scruff on my face. Again with the texture fetish. Loved to touch, and could spend hours running his hands over my skin, scars and all. They weren’t imperfections to him. They were just part of me, and I belonged to him.
I growled and nipped his lower lip. “We should continue this upstairs,” I said.
“You only say that ’cause last time we had sex in the kitchen you slipped on jizz and nearly cracked your head open on the counter.” His grin was huge. “I laughed so hard I thought I was gonna pee.”
I had twisted the shit out of my hip too. But Ollie’s laughter had been infectious that day. We’d ended up on the kitchen floor to finish what we started, which left my back and leg in competition as to which hurt more when we were finished. Afterglow only lasted so long.
“Yep. You’ve discovered my devious plan.” I let him lead me upstairs to feast on him before breakfast. The day was looking up.