Chapter One

 

FBI ANALYST Gabriel Lopez slowed as he came up on the light silver-blue hatchback pulled to the side of the road, an Avis sticker on its bumper. Luggage sat on the grassy shoulder, and the spare tire was leaning against the back of the car. He couldn’t quite see the driver where he or she was kneeling next to the rear wheel on the passenger side.

He almost kept driving; a childhood spent in one of the rougher neighborhoods of San Antonio warned him that the old help-I’ve-got-a-flat-tire routine could be a con or mugging waiting to happen. Except this wasn’t a dodgy urban street corner where gangs liked to hang out. This was a quiet country road where there was no one around for miles and miles.

His instincts were way up, looking for any signs this was a crime waiting to happen as he pulled up in front of the rental car—mostly to prove to the ridiculously overactive work-instincts he’d perfected at spotting underhanded assholes that he was not going to get swindled by some poor, probably lost tourist who had a flat tire. But that only ran secondary to his conscience, which wouldn’t let him drive past someone so obviously stranded if he wanted to be able to sleep tonight.

By the time he’d climbed out of his car, the driver had stood and was eyeing him warily, clutching the tire iron in his right hand but keeping it near his thigh. The guy was definitely not from around here. He wore designer-looking black jeans, white Converse high-tops, and a dark pink, lightweight shirt left unbuttoned to show the white V-neck T-shirt underneath. He had the striking contrast of dark hair and pale skin, like there was some Irish in his family tree, with an almost incongruous button nose and ocean-blue eyes. He was an understated kind of gorgeous that might not be immediately obvious to most people. Except Gabe sure as hell noticed. He stopped by the back of his own car and held up both hands.

“Guess I’m not the only one paranoid about strangers on the side of the road.” He indicated the tire iron and offered what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Though in my case it was a matter of whether I got the handcuffs out.”

The guy’s eyes widened a little, his shoulders tensing. “Sounds like something a serial killer would say.”

“Would it help to know I’m FBI?” He jerked a thumb at the little FBI sticker on the back of the bureau sedan he was driving.

“Anyone can stick up a sticker.”

“Smart. I like it.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his badge to flip open, even though he knew the guy wouldn’t be able to see it from this distance.

After a moment’s clear hesitation, the man came forward, gaze staying on his face until he was close enough to steal a glance at the badge.

“Looks real.” His grip on the tire iron finally relaxed.

“I’m Gabriel Lopez. Gabe to most people.”

The guy switched his importune weapon into his opposite fist and held out a hand. “Matt. I mean, Matthew York is my full name.”

They shook briefly and he couldn’t help noticing Matt had long, slender fingers, like an artist or musician.

“So, flat tire, huh? Need a hand?” He stepped back, putting a little distance between them, because Matt also smelled really good and it was starting to make him notice the guy on a level he didn’t need to be noticing a stranger stranded on the side of a road when he had a pressing assignment and was supposed to report to his superiors as soon as possible.

“Probably,” Matt replied with a self-deprecating smile. “You ever changed a flat before?”

“Actually, no.” He gave a quick laugh at the belated realization. “That’s what they have roadside assist for, right?”

“Yeah, if you want to wait—” Matt pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. “Two hours and forty-eight minutes for them.”

“Efficient,” he commented in a flat voice.

“So efficient,” Matt agreed with a grin that made his eyes look an even deeper shade of blue.

Don’t go there, he admonished himself. “Let’s get a look at the damage, then.”

He brushed by Matt and went around the car to see it was already jacked up, but none of the lug nuts had been loosened yet. Gabe unbuttoned his cuffs at each wrist, then rolled up his white shirtsleeves and flipped his tie over his shoulder. He started by unwinding the jack so he could loosen the lug nuts while the tire was still on the ground.

“Couldn’t get them loose?” He held a hand out for the tire iron.

“How’d you know?” Matt handed over the tool, brow creasing adorably, obviously realizing he’d been trying to do things the wrong way around.

“Sometimes when they’re put on in the factory with an air-pressure torque wrench, they end up too tight to screw off by hand.” He attached the tire iron and then held it with his left hand while he gave it a couple of sharp jabs with the heel of his right foot. It popped free and he finished loosening it by hand.

“How’d you know that?” Matt sounded fascinated and he had to say, a small part of him enjoyed the fact that he’d made such a good first impression. Which was dumb since they weren’t ever going to see each other again. Chance meeting on the side of the road? It sounded like the beginning of a clichéd rom-com.

And how to answer Matt’s question? He couldn’t exactly tell him he’d learned it because he’d gone out with his older brother a number of times in his early teenage years to jack expensive rims when their mom had been too wasted to go to work or lost yet another job and they needed food.

“Just one of those things you pick up along the way,” he finally replied as he worked on the remaining lug nuts.

“Hmm,” Matt said thoughtfully as if he was filing it away for future reference while he shifted to lean against the side of the car, watching him work. “Mind if I ask what an FBI agent is doing in the middle of nowhere?”

“Technically, I’m not an agent. I’m an analyst. And I’m on assignment.”

Matt crossed his arms, tilting his head a little, his attention fixed on Gabe’s hands. “What is the FBI analyzing all the way out here? Rednecks per square mile? How long it takes a person to lose their sanity with no civilization to speak of?”

“Wow, throw some salt on Texas,” he said with a hint of amusement in his voice. He finished with the lug nuts and shifted back so he could start wiggling the wheel free. “Hate it that much?”

Matt met his eyes with a rueful grin. “Sorry, it’s not Texas personally, more just anywhere that isn’t San Francisco.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

Matt nodded and straightened, gesturing toward the wheel. “Want me to give you a hand with that?”

“No, I got it.” He tugged the wheel free, ending with streaks of dust and grime on his previously pristine white shirt. “No point in both of us getting dirty.”

While he manhandled the flat aside, Matt went to roll around the new tire.

“Thanks,” Gabe murmured as he took it and then lifted it into place. “You’re a long way from home. What brings you this far south?”

“Stupidity,” Matt muttered under his breath, almost too low for him to hear, but then covered it with a smile. “Family obligations.”

“You have family out here?” Why did questions keep coming out of his mouth? Blame it on his profession and the need to always build a complete picture of people, places, and situations no matter where he went.

“Just one particular family member. Who is a moron, for the record.”

There was definitely a story there, but Matt didn’t offer anything else, and Gabe determinedly reined in his impulse to ask for more details.

“What about you?” Matt asked after a moment of silence as Gabe finished fitting the wheel in place and started tightening the nuts.

“What about me?” he repeated, not letting himself look any higher than Matt’s Converse-clad ankles.

“Where’s home?”

“Right now, I’m stationed in the Houston FBI office, but I’ve been thinking about making a change, going somewhere bigger, maybe in a different state. I grew up in San Antonio, though.”

“So no moronic family members to chase halfway across the country?”

This time, he did glance up. The question seemed innocent enough on the surface, but being an FBI analyst, he easily caught the undertone, the unspoken sentiment. Was the guy fishing, or was that just wishful thinking? Though Gabe was supposed to be 100 percent in work mode for the next few days, Matt was the kind of temptation that was almost too hard to ignore. Gabe was trying to fight off the idea of asking where he was going and if they could maybe get a drink together. A business trip fling didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world in the face of those gorgeous blue eyes.

“My older brother still lives in San Antonio with his wife and two kids,” he finally answered. “Otherwise it’s just me.”

He finished with the tire and moved to unwind the jack, while Matt shifted out of his way.

“Being an FBI analyst must keep you pretty busy.”

“It has its moments.” Great, now he was spouting clichés. The car came down to rest on its new wheel, and he started packing away the tools.

“Here, I’ll do that if you don’t mind lifting the flat into the trunk?” Matt didn’t give him a chance to answer but took everything out of his hands, their fingers brushing momentarily. Gabe firmly told himself he was imaging the tingles that shot up his arm and the slight intake of breath Matt made as if he’d experienced the same thing.

Going to the back of the car, he made short work of putting the flat tire away and then held up the floor partition while Matt leaned in to slip the tools into the compartment. And he was certainly not looking at where Matt’s shirt rode up to reveal a black, silver-detailed belt—like something a rock star would wear—around his trim waist, or a hint of smooth pale skin at his hip.

Okay, he was totally looking.

Matt shifted back and Gabe didn’t bring his gaze up quick enough, most definitely getting caught checking out his ass. But holy hell, it looked fucking hot in those tight black jeans.

He simply arched an eyebrow, deciding he wasn’t going to play dumb.

A hint of red bloomed on Matt’s cheeks and Gabe just about died right then.

Oh my God.

He could count on one hand the number of people he knew who actually blushed. On Matt, it was absolutely adorable and entirely endearing, and he’d never thought until that moment that a cute guy blushing could be such a turn-on.

“Um, so thanks,” Matt said, suddenly seeming flustered when he’d been so chatty up until now. “For the tire, I mean.”

“You’re welcome.” He sent him a warm smile, unequivocally able to say stopping to help had been the right call to make. “Need some help getting your luggage back in?”

Why the hell did that come out sounding so damned suggestive? He had to bite his lip over a laugh as Matt’s blush deepened even more. Oh, that’d been totally worth it.

“Ah, no. Thanks. I can get it in myself.”

He hadn’t thought Matt could get any more flustered or turn a deeper shade of red, but now even the tips of his ears were a fetching pink color after those possibly ill-thought-out words left his lips.

“Thanks for stopping,” Matt rushed out, avoiding his gaze and heading for his luggage. “I won’t keep you anymore since you’re on the clock.”

“Happy to help,” he replied, backing up a reluctant step since it seemed Matt was determined to be rid of him. Even so, the temptation to ask him out for a drink was practically pushing the words up his throat. But Matt had been right. He was on the clock. Undoubtedly Deputy Assistant Director Foley would be entirely unimpressed if he got a clue Gabe was screwing around on bureau time—literally. So he chalked up their chance encounter to one of those things. In another life, maybe.

“Nice meeting you,” he said instead of let’s get a drink and maybe a room and maybe a bed and maybe a whole bunch of lube and condoms.

“Likewise,” Matt called back, still avoiding his gaze as he towed his luggage toward the trunk of the rental.

Gabe turned and climbed back into his car, sneaking one last look in the rearview mirror as he pulled onto the road, catching Matt staring after him. Damn, maybe he should have at least offered the guy his number. He shrugged at himself, since it was too late now, and instead put his mind firmly back into work mode.

Once he got to Everness and checked into his motel room, he had local residents to interview, the sheriff’s office to liaise with, and a risk assessment report to compile on a white-nationalist group who just might be the next homegrown terrorist network the FBI needed to monitor and/or take apart.

Nope, there definitely wasn’t room in his itinerary over the coming days for hot sex with a hot stranger from San Francisco, no matter how cute he was when he got flustered or how adorable that blush had been. He found his mind wandering into the territory of speculating whether that flush of color extended down Matt’s neck or over his chest. Gabe sighed and shifted a little in his seat as his cock stirred with interest at inadvertently picturing the guy naked.

Work, he reminded himself firmly. The coming days in Everness were sure to be a fun-filled adventure of small-town interdepartmental office politics, distrustful locals, and dealing with hostile members of the little racist white-supremacist group living on the outskirts of town.

Oh yeah, good times were coming….