Prologue

 

 

The cell vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out, moving away from his companion, who had his face buried in a guidebook.

“Tiger One,” he whispered, suppressing a grin. Stupid fucking code names.

“One of the lions is missing. Hasn’t checked in for more than twelve hours. We’re in a code blue sit right now.” A missing agent? This was serious. No wonder they were calling him when he was supposed to be on vacation.

“Where was he?” Tiger One glanced at his companion again. Still reading.

“Not sure.”

“I can’t talk here. Let me go somewhere private so you can fill me in on everything.”

“Sure.”

Tiger One snapped his phone shut. He’d need to come up with a good excuse to get out of the afternoon’s plans. But it was a missing agent. Worth ruffling a few feathers for.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Una bugia tira l’altra.

One lie draws others after it.

—Italian proverb

 

Rome

 

TRENT COPELAND had expected more from the Vatican Museums. He and Reed had waited in line for nearly two hours just to get in. Or at least Trent had. Reed had said he felt a little unwell—that seafood at dinner the night before, maybe—then gone back to lie down at their hotel.

But Trent couldn’t enjoy the priceless treasures on his own. He didn’t want to. He wanted to share the joy of these beautiful paintings and sculptures with Reed, not stare silently at them alone. He could have stayed home in LA and taken a virtual museum tour if that was all he wanted.

He moved through the ancient rooms, barely absorbing Etruscan art and gems of Greek sculpture. He wandered down the long corridor toward the Renaissance masterpieces, stopping occasionally to glance at floor-to-ceiling tapestries and delicate hand-colored maps of the Roman Empire in all its stages. Even the exquisite trompe l’oeil ceiling didn’t give him any satisfaction as he shuffled toward the crowning glory contained by these walls.

A ceiling, to be more precise. But Trent wouldn’t even venture into the Sistine Chapel. Something this spectacular couldn’t be experienced alone. He wanted to share it with someone as special as the room itself: Reed.

And if Reed wasn’t well, it was doubly difficult for Trent to enjoy the splendor.

But Reed never got ill. The man had a cast-iron stomach. He could probably out-eat a goat. It was one of the things they’d—well, he wouldn’t say argued—differed over. Reed never took the same level of enjoyment in eating as Trent did. It had taken time, but lately Reed seemed more interested in eating, one of Trent’s greatest joys in life.

So was Reed really under the weather, or had he made an excuse rather than traipse around another museum? Despite his knowledge of art and antiquities, Reed’s tastes ran to the more austere Asian forms, rather than the elaborate Roman and European treasures at the Vatican. But he knew how much the Vatican and Sistine Chapel meant to Trent. He’d said he wanted to see them; had it only been to humor Trent?

And he certainly owed Trent. The previous day they’d gone to the Capuchin Crypt, a series of underground burial chambers—more like caves—filled with bones of dead monks and priests. It had creeped him out. It had been Reed’s idea to go—one of the few places he’d seemed excited about visiting, so Trent didn’t think twice about agreeing. But once they got in there with the heavy, dank air and all those bones decorating the walls around them, the ceiling seemed to lower down on them like in some Indiana Jones movie. The skulls laughed as cold sweat trickled down Trent’s spine. Just thinking about it again made his skin crawl. He brushed away some creepy-crawlies from his left arm and took a calming breath.

Damned Reed had talked Trent into staying by promising him payback with lavish sexual favors. He hadn’t paid the debt the previous night; now he’d run off feeling “unwell.” Reed might not want to look at painted ceilings or eight zillion sculptures, but he wouldn’t just leave Trent, not after the catacombs. Reed had a certain sense of duty Trent could always count on.

Reed must really be ill for him to have left, Trent concluded.

He took one last long glance up and down the corridor and pulled the guidebook out of his backpack. Not usually a “check-this-off-the-list” type of traveler, he shook off the guilt of consulting a list of “Vatican treasures not to be missed.”

He’d at least looked at them all, except for the Sistine Chapel.

That he’d save for next time. With Reed.

 

 

“TIGER One here.”

“You can cut that code name crap if you want, Reed.”

“Thank God. You know how much I hate it.” Reed chuckled as he settled on the edge of the bed.

“I do.”

“So, fill me in.

“I’ve got one agent unaccounted for, but his partner has a coded message from him that he can’t seem to crack.”

“Where do I fit in?” Reed swiveled so he could lean back against the pillows arrayed along the headboard, stretching out on the comfortable bed. “What makes you think I can break this particular code?”

“The missing agent is Peter Isett.”

Reed sat up with a jolt, heart racing. Peter is missing? “Still, why me? I’m on vacation. With Trent.” How much did White know?

“Isett was your first partner in the Bureau, right?”

“Yeah….” Reed waited to see if White knew more than that.

“You guys used a private code?”

“Yeah.” Lots of partners did. Apparently Peter still did, but why couldn’t his new partner break it?

“Peter’s working on an investigation into a shady auction house here in Rome. Rossetti’s. Heard of it?”

“No.” Reed doodled on a hotel notepad as he only half listened to White. Peter here in Rome, now? Was this a coincidence, or…? No, he was being ridiculous.

“…Tuesday.” White paused. “You got that?”

“Yeah,” Reed lied. White’s call about Peter’s absence still had him shaken. “We need to meet.”

“Just what I was about to suggest. Can you be at Piazza della Rotonda in two hours? Get a table outside and I’ll find you.”

“See you later.”

White disconnected, and Reed slammed the phone down.

This was the last thing he expected or wanted. How could he possibly explain any of this to Trent?

Truth was, Reed couldn’t.

 

 

TRENT made his way back to the Hotel d’Inghilterra, one of Rome’s most luxurious, on the Metro, getting off at Spagna, near the Spanish Steps, and walking the last part along the via dei Condotti, home of some of the most expensive shops, before he turned onto via Bocca di Leone—the lion’s mouth street. He loved that name. Loved the whole exclusive, elegant neighborhood. He moved more quickly than the usual leisurely Roman pace, passing people but trying not to plow through clusters of slower-walking pedestrians.

This particular street was full of exclusive boutiques and plenty of window shoppers, both foreign tourists and monied locals. Trent glanced around with more than a tiny bit of regret that he couldn’t enjoy the scenery any more than he had the exquisite museum pieces.

He strode thorough the beautifully appointed lobby of d’Inghilterra, past the sumptuous period furnishings fitting for its origins as a royal palazzo, and to the front desk, richly paneled in smooth dark wood, maybe walnut.

“Key for Room 27, please?” He didn’t want to knock and disturb Reed if he were asleep.

The desk clerk, a young woman with short honey-blonde hair and friendly blue eyes ringed with carefully applied eyeliner, peered out from behind an enormous crystal vase of calla lilies and handed him the key with a smile. He took the stairs three at a time up to the third floor and let himself into the room as quietly as possible.

He glanced around the spacious room, but Reed wasn’t there.

Instead, a brand-new suitcase sat open on the bed with part of the fabric lining pulled out. Trent peered in and saw a worn US passport tucked against the hard shell of the case. He picked it up.

A sound from the bathroom caught his attention. The shower.

Trent’s heart beat like a timpani as he assessed the situation. Reed had bought a new suitcase and packed it while Trent was supposed to be wandering—out of Reed’s way—around the Vatican Museums all afternoon.

Reed, naked, walked out of the bathroom, his short-cropped dark hair dripping onto his shoulders. He froze in his tracks as he spotted Trent staring at the suitcase on the bed.

“So, who’s Michael Reade?” Trent held the passport up.

Reed kept his gaze fixed on Trent’s hand as he let out a breath. “I am.” His eyes narrowed slightly, and an unidentifiable expression flashed across his features.

Was that fear or relief? Or something else entirely?

“New cover identity for a guy who’s supposedly retired?”

“Not exactly.” Reed looked away.

Trent tapped his foot about twenty times before he realized and stopped. He exhaled slowly and stared at Reed.

“It’s me. Another of my names.”

“Your real name?” Trent waited for a reply, but Reed stayed silent. “Then Reed Acton is fake? The guy I fell in love with and have been living with for six months is just all made-up?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then what exactly? Is anything you told me true?” Trent thought back to what Reed—Michael?—had told him. Very little. Trent hadn’t asked many questions, but he’d believed Reed/Michael’s answers.

Reed/Michael shrugged and stared at the floor some more. “Most of it.” He paused. “Some of it.”

“Are you really from New York?” “No.”

“Do you have two sisters and a dad who owns a shoe store?”

“No.” Reed/Michael was getting more agitated, shuffling from foot to foot.

Trent wasn’t too calm himself, but he thought he hid his anxiety better than Reed/Michael. “Let me stop guessing here. Why don’t you tell me something—just one thing—that’s actually true.”

Trent silently prayed for Reed to say “I love you.” Anything along those lines would work right now.

“That I never meant to hurt you.”

Disappointment stung Trent, but he did his best not to show it. “Oh, well that makes all the difference. I forgive you! Let’s hug and have some really hot make-up sex that I can put in my next book. Then we can just move on like this never happened.”

Reed/Michael looked up at Trent, hope or something like it glinting in his eyes. “Really?”

“Of course not.”

“Oh.”

Trent hadn’t expected to hear the pain in Reed’s voice. He wished he didn’t enjoy hearing it, but fuck yeah, he wanted to know Reed/Michael/whoever the hell this man really was felt as bad about this—no, worse—than Trent did.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs. He craned his neck to stare up at Reed. “Out with it. This is your one chance. Don’t lie now unless you want this to be last conversation we ever have.”

 

 

REED looked down at Trent. How much did he want to fix this? Did he love Trent? Had he ever loved Trent? Sometimes he wasn’t sure, but at the moment he wished like hell they’d never met. Reed’s world had been so simple before Trent Copeland had sauntered into his life in the Bangkok airport and walked off with a map leading to the Ruby Buddha. What had happened had strained even Trent’s overactive imagination, but they’d lived through it all—kidnapping, Thai mobsters, Chinese triads—and somehow found common ground where they made each other happy.

“I wanted to be Reed Acton.” Reed finally found the words. “I wanted to keep being Reed, for you.” This wasn’t going at all the way he expected. He was fucking the whole thing up. But it wasn’t one of Trent’s books where he could just scrap the first chapter and start over.

Trent picked at the edge of one sleeve, studiously avoiding looking at Reed. But Reed continued anyway.

“When we got back to the States, I was supposed to become Michael Reade. Reed Acton supposedly got killed when they took down Kao Lung. The Bureau needed to kill him off to protect me. But I liked Reed. I liked who I was when I was with you. So I kept being Reed. I didn’t have his official ID anymore, but I wanted to be him, for you.”

Trent looked up, suspicion evident in his gaze. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Well, no. I got a driver’s license, and since I wasn’t working at a regular job, my real identity never mattered. The few jobs I did for the Bureau were under various names, but of course you never needed to know about that.”

“You did jobs for the FBI in LA?”

Oh, fuck. Reed had let that slip.

“Just a couple.”

Trent was halfway off the bed, and Reed held out a hand to stop him. “A couple of little things. Just simple information gathering, mostly local.”

“Mostly? But you never left LA, except with me. On the book tour.”

Reed kicked at an invisible spot on the plush carpeting. “Okay, one job used the book tour as cover. And I did travel to Rome as Michael Reade, but you didn’t ever look at my ID, did you?”

“No. You made our plane reservations. I guess I was too trusting.”

“No. You’re just normal. Normal people don’t check other people’s IDs. They believe each other.”

“Normal people are just suckers. I’m a normal sucker.” Trent flashed a weak smile. “I feel so much better.”

Reed heard Trent’s voice nearly crack, and he sat down next to him on the bed. “No. You’re not a sucker. But you are normal and trusting—”

“And look where it’s gotten me.” Trent pushed Reed away.

“It’s what I like about you. I like that you’re not suspicious of everyone. That you’re not used to everyone lying, or expecting more lies. I like—love—that about you. You’re real. You’re not a lie.”

“So you repaid my trust by lying? Nice. Irony or hypocrisy? Or both?” The bitterness in Trent’s voice burned into Reed’s heart.

“So you wanted to be him, keep being Reed Acton. Which means you aren’t him. And you aren’t the person I thought I was living with. Or the person I thought I loved. I don’t know who you are at all.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“How am I supposed to react to this kind of news? I’m thinking you’re a person who doesn’t exist except in my own imagination!” Trent stood up and pulled at his hair as he started to pace around the room. “I make this shit up for a living, but I don’t want to find out you’re only another person I’m making up. I want to be in a relationship with a real person. With a real name and their own fucking personality. Not my imagination!”

“I get it. I get it. Just… sit down. Please. Your pacing is driving me nuts.”

“Join the club.”

 

 

“DO YOU love me?” Trent wished he didn’t have to ask outright. Why couldn’t Reed just say it, damn him!

“Yes.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Trent stared at Reed, expecting to see flesh go up in flames. A whole new explanation for spontaneous human combustion occurred to him.

Reed smoothed a hand across his right shoulder, unconsciously moving to the knot of scarred flesh, a small indicator of far more extensive scars on his back. Maybe he could feel Trent’s gaze burning into his skin.

“I have to go right now, but I’ll be back. I promise. This is something I need to do.”

“Something requiring a new suitcase and a new identity?”

“Yeah. I know this is a really fucked-up way to explain any of this to you, and if there was any other way, I would have. But there’s an emergency. A job I have to help out with. It’ll take a day, maybe two.”

“Do I get a good-bye kiss?” Trent cocked his head and waited. He’d meant it as a joke. Not that he’d forgiven Reed/Michael for any of this.

Reed’s gaze softened as he looked directly at Trent. “Okay.”

“Hey, don’t do anything you don’t want to.” Trent waved Reed toward the door, but instead of turning away, Reed moved forward, taking hold of Trent’s elbow and pulling him in close.

Trent wished he didn’t like Reed’s strong grip on his arm. But he let Reed kiss him. At first Reed just pressed his lips against Trent’s, and then the kiss hardened, becoming much hotter than he’d expected. Reed curved his other arm around Trent’s waist, locking them together.

Unable to stop it and not particularly wanting to, Trent opened his mouth, and a tiny moan slipped out as Reed’s tongue slipped in. The kiss continued, deepened. Reed pressed his naked body tight against Trent.

Damn, it felt good. Reed would be able to feel Trent’s cock hardening.

But so was Reed’s.

And Trent gave up the idea of putting a halt to anything.

They ended up on the bed, both naked, hands and mouths everywhere, giving and taking, taking and demanding more.

When Reed’s cock slipped between Trent’s legs, he pulled Reed tight, grabbing at his ass, encouraging him to hurry up.

“What’re we doing?” Reed half groaned.

“I kind of thought you were going to fuck me now.”

“Is that what you want?”

Trent lay on his back, legs spread, one knee hooked over Reed’s shoulder. Of course that was what he wanted.

“Make it count, whoever you are.”

“Trent—”

Trent stopped Reed’s words with a rough kiss, and when he let go, Reed plunged in.

Trent didn’t let go of his earlier anger at Reed. He used it.

Reed started out slow. But Trent grabbed Reed’s hips and dragged him in deep and hard.

“Fast. Hard and fast.”

Reed sped up his movements as Trent kept pulling at him. Soon Trent couldn’t tell where he ended and Reed began. They tore and grabbed at each other, more a battle than anything to do with love. When Reed slowed or softened his movements, Trent demanded more.

“It’s going to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Yeah, right. “Just do what I want for now.”

Trent didn’t usually like it this rough, but he didn’t let up, and soon his brain turned off, just his body making the decisions, with the occasional demand or direction for Reed. He raked his hands across Reed’s back, fingertips tracing the scar tissue criss-crossing Reed’s back and shoulders. The rough, angry ridges seemed deeper. Trent fought off the urge to scratch into them, to see if Reed had any real feeling after all, physical or emotional.

On top of him, Reed pounded away, grunting, hips stuttering, any rhythm long gone as his own animal instincts took over. He pulled and grabbed at any part of Trent his hands could reach as his cock dug in deep and hard and fast, each thrust rocking Trent’s entire frame, setting every nerve ending on fire. Trent slipped a hand between their sweaty bodies and tugged at his cock, wanting to make this last but needing it to be finished. He didn’t know what he said or did, was just incredibly aware of every inch of his body connected to Reed. Every thrust tore into him, rubbed him raw. Reed’s grasp tightened, fingers ripping into the very fiber of Trent’s muscles. Reed’s head smacked Trent’s chin, grazed his lip, and the pain echoed through Trent’s entire body, but it still wasn’t enough to drown out the pain screaming through his brain. It overwhelmed even the pleasure of his orgasm when it happened.

Reed barely seemed to notice as he took even more from Trent.

When Reed got very close, he made a choking grunt Trent had come to expect. Reed fastened his mouth against the flesh of Trent’s chest, a couple of inches above his left nipple. The force of Reed’s orgasm made his teeth snap shut, and Trent felt another slice of pain while Reed’s cock spasmed and spurted inside him. He held Reed tight against him, their two bodies finally slowing from the frenzied pace of their fucking.

Reed’s cock had barely stilled inside him when Trent rolled Reed off and pushed him away. “Get out of here, Reed.”

“Wha?” Reed panted, barely able to form words. He peered at Trent.

Trent pushed at him again, but Reed didn’t let go. Trent punched Reed’s cheek—not full strength, just enough to get the message across.

Reed punched back, a hard right hook to the jaw that surprised Trent with its power and speed. He could see from the shock on Reed’s on face that he hadn’t intended to strike back, but Reed’s reflexes were ingrained. They’d taken over even when he faced no real danger. If Trent needed any more proof they didn’t belong together, that Reed didn’t want Trent around, he had it now.

Trent’s head ached worse than ever, but he would gladly have taken a dozen hits to the body, instead of the one he’d taken to the heart.

“Take your stuff and leave.” Trent climbed out of bed, his body aching, sore, battered, and bloody. His asshole was on fire. He’d never before felt this amount of pain, or this level of revulsion. He wanted Reed gone.

Trent didn’t give Reed a chance to recover or respond. He pulled him off the bed with one arm and hauled him toward the door, each step triggering additional pain. He opened the door and pushed Reed out, then the suitcase. He slammed the door shut and sat back on the bed.

Even sitting hurt, and he rotated so he was leaning on one hip. He raked his fingers through his hair as Reed pounded on the door.

“Good-bye, Michael,” Trent roared. “Go away!”

The pounding continued until Trent heard voices in the hallway, a woman’s startled shriek. Then Reed/Michael was silent. Hopefully he was gone.