Part One


Chapter One



HUNTER FROZE when he heard the muffled sound from somewhere down the alley. Years of training and his natural instinct made him ease back into the doorway he’d been about to leave. He pressed against the brick wall and made his eyes and ears relax, open to any new sounds instead of trying to chase down anything specific.

The sound came again. Movement, and then a muttering voice. As Hunter’s eyes adjusted to the dim light he was able to see the shapes. Two people, one standing, the other…. Oh. The other crouched, head bobbing rhythmically. Another low mutter, and the standing body started to move, rocking forward and back in its own, rougher rhythm.

It was a blind alley. Hunter had no intention of going back into the building he was leaving; his business there was finished and there was no potential for socializing. And maybe it was a previously uncovered strain of prudishness, but he didn’t think he wanted to walk by two people in the middle of a back-alley blowjob. Well, not prudish. His lips twitched. He was a romantic, that’s what it was. Didn’t want to interrupt something so beautiful.

He wondered how long they’d been going at it and whether he could expect a quick conclusion. He found himself easing forward, stepping carefully and keeping to the shadows. He was just curious, that was all. Gathering information.

As he got closer, the standing body’s words became clearer. “Take it, you fucking whore. Yeah, like that. Fucking take it.”

So much for romance. Hunter squinted, trying to make out where one body stopped and the other began. Well, that was clear in one area, but there was something odd about the crouched body, something that didn’t fit the expectations in Hunter’s mind. The crouched body was bigger than made sense. Hunter eased forward a little more and understood. A man. They were both men. The softer sounds came to him now, the wet slurping, the quiet grunts driven out of one of them with each thrust.

He moved closer. There was no excuse for it, but something about this was fascinating. Arousing, Hunter realized as he felt his cock shifting against his jeans. Well, that wasn’t something he generally let himself think about. But here, trapped in a blind alley with all of this going on right in front of him, he didn’t have much choice.

He realized his own breath was coming faster, and his mouth was dry as he tried to swallow his confusion. The stander was really going, now, fucking into the croucher’s mouth with something close to violence. “Fucking choke on it, whore,” he demanded, but somehow the croucher wasn’t. He was taking it, absorbing it all, his posture still completely submissive, no strain or struggle apparent.

Jesus Christ. Hunter was rock hard. He stared at the scene, resisted the urge to reach into his pants, and then jerked his head back with a start. The croucher’s head hadn’t moved, but Hunter’s vision had adjusted enough now that he could see details. He could see the croucher’s eyes. And they were angled away from the man fucking his mouth, staring right at Hunter.

Hunter froze. Even as the stander’s voice got louder, even as his curses turned into indistinct moans and a final shout of completion, Hunter stared into the eyes of the croucher, and the croucher stared right back.

“Oh, fuck,” the stander said, staggering away, his cock dropping from the croucher’s mouth. He braced himself against the brick wall and took a few deep breaths. The croucher broke eye contact then and rose gracefully to his feet. He was wearing a pair of ripped jeans and a too-small T-shirt, not enough clothing to keep him warm in the coolness of a fall evening, but he showed no sign of cold. He stood there, taller than the stander, lean to the point of skinniness, his eyes huge, his dark hair spiking out messily from his head. He looked like a teenager. There were so many reasons Hunter shouldn’t have found him beautiful.

“That was good, kid,” the stander said.

“Thanks.” His voice was hoarse. He glanced in Hunter’s direction, then turned his attention back to the stander. He held his empty hand out, palm up.

The stander snorted as if disgusted by the banality. “Yeah,” he growled, and he reached for his wallet. He pressed a single bill into the kid’s hand.

“No,” the kid said. “Forty, not twenty.”

Jesus. Forty dollars? Hunter hadn’t been with a prostitute since he was about the kid’s age, and even then it had been women, not men, but surely forty dollars was low for the kind of abuse the kid’s throat had just taken.

“Take it or leave it,” the john growled.

“The price is forty dollars,” the kid responded. “That’s what I told you.” His voice was still hoarse, still low, but there was steel in it.

Hunter had the inexplicable urge to step in. He knew better. He’d seen worse than this, had kept himself neutral and uninvolved through countless horrors in various war-torn nations. If he could watch a country’s army torch the grain reserves of an innocent village, he could watch a teenage hooker get stiffed out of some of his fee. He wasn’t part of this fight.

And fight was starting to look like the right word. The john stepped forward menacingly. He wasn’t as tall as the kid, but he was broader, a grown man with mature muscles. “Give me the twenty back, then, you little shit.”

“No,” the kid said. “The price is forty dollars.”

“I’m not taking food out of my kids’ mouths to give to a fucking whore like you,” the man responded. Then he moved, fast for someone his size, reaching forward and grabbing for the kid, clearly ready to wrestle him to the ground and reclaim his cash.

But by the time he reached the kid’s position, the kid wasn’t there. He’d danced to the side, and he grabbed the back of the man’s coat and shoved him forward, using the man’s own momentum to bash him into the brick wall the kid had been standing in front of. The movement was quick, graceful, and efficient, and Hunter could appreciate it on a professional and aesthetic level.

“You won’t take food out of your kids’ mouths, but you’ll put your dick in mine?” The kid bent over, quickly finding the wallet in the dazed man’s back pocket. “Not for twenty fucking dollars you won’t.” He pulled another bill out of the man’s wallet, then looked thoughtfully down at him. He turned toward Hunter and then pulled the rest of the bills out of the wallet before tossing it down on the man’s head. “Service charge,” he said.

The man was struggling back to his feet and the kid stepped back cautiously, keeping himself positioned toward the open end of the alley. For sure the kid could outrun the big guy, so it was another smart move.

“Give me my money,” the man said.

Hunter had no idea what possessed him, but that was when he stepped forward. “I’ve already called the cops,” he lied. “I don’t want this shit going on in my alley. You need to clear out of here before they arrive.”

“Who the fuck are you?” the man demanded.

“I’m the guy who called the cops. It’s time to go.”

“Fuck!” The man stared at the kid, then jerked his head. “Come on, we’ll sort this out somewhere else.”

“I’m good here,” the kid said. He eased around, giving the man space to escape without getting too close.

“You’re a fucking thief!” the man yelled.

“And a whore,” the kid agreed. “You want to stick around and press charges? What would those hungry kids think about Daddy then?”

Felicitously, a siren sounded from somewhere nearby. It was the sort of neighborhood where a siren was hardly a rare event, but it seemed to be enough to kick the john into gear. “Fuck,” he swore. He took a heavy step toward the kid and growled, “I’m not going to fucking forget this. Next time I see you, you’re fucking dead.” Then he turned and stalked away, a bulky silhouette against the streetlight at the alley’s entrance.

They both watched him leave. Then the kid turned to Hunter. “I could have handled that, but thanks. I guess you didn’t really call the cops?”

“No,” Hunter admitted. He knew the next logical step. He needed to get his ass out of there, being careful at the alley entrance to make sure the john wasn’t sticking around and looking for revenge, and then he needed to forget all about this whole thing. He could put it out of his mind, if he just worked at it.

But he didn’t move, and the kid drew closer. He had high cheekbones, making his face almost delicate, and lush lips that were possibly a little swollen from his recent exertions. Pale skin that looked like it would tan well if it ever got the chance, and deep, dark eyes staring at Hunter as if trying to understand the secrets of the universe. Then he cut his gaze down and took in the still hard bulge in Hunter’s jeans. “Forty bucks,” he said softly. “Eighty bucks to fuck me.” He stepped closer and ran his hands down over his chest to the exposed inch of skin between his shirt and jeans. Hunter froze, and the kid smiled softly, as if he liked that response. “Or you can take me somewhere. Two hundred dollars for the rest of the night. You can have my mouth, my ass, whatever you want. You can fuck me blind, then wake up and do it again. Two hundred dollars. A bargain, right?”

Hunter knew he was staring. He knew what his answer had to be, but it took him longer than it should have to send the message from his brain to his dry, frozen mouth. Finally, though, he stepped jerkily backward and forced himself to laugh. “Sorry,” he said. “No sale.”

The kid frowned as if genuinely confused and looked down toward Hunter’s fly. “Why not? You broke?”

Hunter snorted. “No. You’re just not my type.”

The kid grinned as if he knew how cheesy his next words were and just didn’t care. “I’m everyone’s type,” he purred.

“I’m straight.”

“Really?” Another look, this one more pointed, toward the erection that would not die. “So was it the violence, then?” He squinted at Hunter’s face, then shrugged. “It’d cost extra, but you can beat me up if you want. Fuck me after or not, your call.”

“Jesus Christ!” Hunter stared at the kid, and finally he could feel his arousal fading. “That’s fucked up. You’d let someone beat you up for money? How much?”

The kid shrugged. “How hard do you want to go?”

“No, I don’t want to go at all. I just… why would you do that? How much money does it take to let someone do that to you?”

“What are you, a reporter?” The kid didn’t seem to like Hunter’s attitude, which probably wasn’t too surprising. “If you’re sure you’re not interested, then you’re wasting my time.” He took a backward step toward the mouth of the alley. “Last chance. You’re going to pass?”

It shouldn’t have been so hard to make himself say, “Yeah, I’m passing. Thanks.”

“If you change your mind, I’m outside the Belvedere Hotel most nights. I’d show you a good time, man.”

“Yeah, okay.” Hunter just wanted the kid to leave. He had one more day of business in town and then he could escape, get back to his cabin where he could live in peace, without any of this shit breaking into his day and confusing him.

And the kid left. No backward glance, but Hunter was glad to see him approach the entrance to the alley cautiously and then break into a jog as soon as he was clear. It was a rough line of work, but….

Hunter had been about to decide that the kid could take care of himself, but as soon as he’d thought the word rough his memory had treated him to an instant replay of the john fucking the kid’s mouth, the low, dirty sounds, the feral abandon, the unbelievable, undeniable hotness of the entire scene.

It was just sex, Hunter told himself, and he practically tore his fly open and reached inside to grab his insistent cock. It had appealed to Hunter as a pure, animalistic display. It wasn’t like blowjobs were just a gay thing. A good blowjob was a good blowjob, and Hunter could appreciate seeing one without it meaning anything. He jerked himself hard and fast, smearing wetness up and down his shaft, gasping after only a few strokes. He tried to think of women he’d been with, the best mouths he’d experienced, the hottest, wettest, tightest, most feminine goddamn lips that had ever been wrapped around his cock. But as he came, spurting onto the dirty asphalt of the dark alley, he wasn’t thinking about mouths at all. He was thinking about deep, dark eyes staring at him, watching him, seeing him for all he truly was.

He braced his forearm against the wall and sagged forward, trying to recover, trying to forget. He forced himself to laugh, a tight, unnatural chuff of desperate breath. It had been a quiet visit to town, up until that night.

Quiet, but important, he reminded himself. That was what he needed to focus on. He was trying to move on from his old life, but he didn’t want to burn bridges. Retirement, even if that seemed like a stupid word for someone in his midthirties to be using. And it didn’t make sense that he was working so hard to maintain his connections, not if he was actually planning to retire. A sabbatical, maybe. A leave of indeterminate length.

He did up his fly, trying to act as if he’d just taken a leak rather than masturbated to his fastest orgasm since he was a teenager. Yeah, he was taking a break. He rubbed his left shoulder, the bullet wound no longer painful but still a presence on his skin and in his mind. He was too old to think he was invincible, that was all. It made sense to look for a different role, or to take some time and figure out what he was after.

And what he was after was not a jailbait male prostitute. No. That had been a little glitch, but it didn’t mean anything. Easier to convince himself of that now that the pressure in his balls had subsided.

So he headed back to his midrange downtown hotel and flopped down on the bed of his single room. Maybe he needed to go out. He could find some female companionship. Hell, he could pay for some female companionship. Maybe he didn’t have a hard-on for gay kids, just for hookers. That would be easier to swallow.

Oh, fuck, swallow. The kid hadn’t choked, hadn’t seemed to struggle at all. He’d sucked that john dry, swallowed it all, taken it all like it was nothing. Hunter felt himself getting hard again, but this time he pulled himself to his feet and grabbed the bottle of Crown Royal from his dresser. Usually he wanted ice, but there was none in the bucket so he sloshed a shot into the nearest glass and knocked it back. Then another. Not quite drinking out of the bottle, but so close that he might as well have kept the glass clean. One more shot, then he let the burn in his throat and stomach distract him from the ache in his balls. He’d go out. He’d find a woman. It would all be fine.

He grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. Everything would be better in the morning.



“THIS IS an interesting challenge for us,” Trevor said. Considering his line of work, he was pretty damn pompous. Maybe it was because he was British. He looked around the boardroom, a location that had always struck Hunter as pretty damn pompous in itself. The people sitting around the table were wearing smooth and expensive suits, but the clothing wasn’t enough to camouflage their true natures any more than the boardroom could hide the sort of business they were in. Not for long.

Trevor seemed satisfied that he had everyone’s attention. “We want this company to be self-sustaining. We want it to fund our working lives and our retirements. So if Hunter wants to take some time off, this is a chance for us to work out the details of it all. What does it mean to be an active member of the firm? What does it mean to simply be a stockholder?”

“Well, I’m glad I could help you all out with that,” Hunter said.

Bentick snorted. He was South African, older than most of the people in the room, someone who should have been looking at his own version of retirement but didn’t seem at all interested in leaving the life. “It will affect the way the business is run,” he said. “Imagine if we all walked away and expected the money to keep coming. It wouldn’t work.”

“But if having equity doesn’t mean anything, why did we bother creating the company?” Larson was American, and had only agreed to base the company in Vancouver because it was close enough to the States for him to live on one side of the border and work on the other. “Sure, it’s nice to have more control over the jobs we take, but we could have done that as independents.”

“I don’t give a shit about the money,” Hunter said. He could see Larson rolling his eyes in disgust, but he continued anyway. “I need a break. I’ve got money saved. If you guys want to start declaring dividends, that’s great, I’ll take them. If you think you need to reinvest in the company, that’s fine too. I’m not working, so I don’t need a salary, I don’t need combat pay, none of that shit that we worked out when we got started.”

“But we don’t want to lose you entirely,” Trevor said smoothly. “We formed this company based on combining unique men with unique skills, working together, creating something bigger than the whole of its parts. Without you, there’s a piece missing.”

Hunter shook his head. “I’m a grunt. What’s unique?”

Trevor’s smile was almost oily. “You have a way of getting things done,” he said. “The martial arts skills….” He shrugged. “Possibly we can find someone to match you there. Possibly. But you’re resourceful. You’re our man on the ground.”

“I’m your man in the ground, if things keep going the way they have been. I care about the business, and I take pride in my work, but I’m heading for a body bag or an unmarked grave.” He shook his head. “Fuck that. I’ve given you as many of my contacts as I can, and I’ll stay in touch if you want. But in terms of boots-on-the-ground work? I’m out.”

“I’m not sure we can accept that,” Bentick said calmly.

Hunter scowled at him in disbelief. “What? What the fuck? You can’t accept it? So get some fucking therapy, come back to reality, and fucking adjust.” He shook his head. “I’m out. Maybe I’ll be back, maybe I won’t. You want to start making a fuss, acting like you have some sort of fucking control over me?” He glanced at Bentick, then turned to Trevor. “You try that, you’ll see how fucking resourceful I can be.”

Trevor nodded as if this was exactly the response he had expected. “Another one of your strengths. You’re not easily intimidated.” He smiled, then soothingly said, “We’re all on the same team. And you need some time. We understand that. I think we should absolutely keep in touch, but get yourself healthy. Mentally fit. Then come back and we’ll sort everything out.”

Hunter didn’t like the word choices. As if he were mentally unfit. But he was done with the conversation. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, too busy entertaining the laughing redhead he’d found in a downtown club, and he just wanted the meeting to be over. “Fine,” he said. “I met with the Antonov guys last night, told them I was taking a break. Told them to contact Larson if they needed anything. Everything else is taken care of, right?”

“You’ll be at your cabin?” Trevor asked mildly. “That’s where we can reach you? I’m not sure we have an exact location on that.”

“I’m planning to travel,” Hunter lied. “Try my cell, or e-mail.”

“And your sister?” Bentick said with a smile that showed he knew what he was doing. “She’s still your next of kin? She’s who we should contact if—”

“Stay away from her,” Hunter warned. “If I come back, and if something goes wrong and you need to tell somebody, yeah, you tell her. But while I’m away?” He shook his head. It was a room full of hard men, but none of them could meet his gaze as he looked around and growled, “Anyone contacts her or goes near her while I’m away, there’s going to be a serious fucking problem.”

“Hey.” It was a new voice to the conversation, but one familiar to Hunter from countless missions, the calm, controlled woman speaking into his ear in the middle of any hairy situation. Wendy Traynor leaned forward in her chair and said, “We are a team.” She looked at Larson and said, “That’s why we created the company. Because we wanted to be able to trust the people we worked with. Right?” She waited for everyone to process her observation. “So let’s not let that fall apart now.” Her voice had been soft to that point but it hardened as she said, “Let’s remember that if anyone in this room takes advantage of the information we’ve shared with each other, if anyone betrays the trust that was the whole point of all of this, then that person will be facing all of the rest of us, combined. And even without Hunter’s help….” She smiled proudly. “This is a group that gets shit done. So we should not be messed with.”

“Fuck yeah,” someone said, and there was a chorus of agreement.

It was Wendy’s specialty. Kind of a cliché, probably, for a woman to be the emotional heart while the men dealt with the guts and gore and practicality. But Hunter had seen enough of Wendy to know that she was as practical as she needed to be, and her ability to manipulate people was just one more aspect of that practicality. Men expected her to live in the land of emotions, so she’d learned the terrain and figured out how to fight there like a native. Didn’t mean she couldn’t step out of that world anytime she wanted to. She’d go from a cooing mother to a demanding drill sergeant in the time it took to change channels on her radio set, if that was what the mission demanded. He trusted her as much as he trusted any of them, and he was glad she was speaking up for him. Further than that, he wouldn’t go.

“So, we’re good,” he said, standing up. “I’m out for the foreseeable future. You’ll contact me if I can help from a distance, but you won’t bother me with requests to do fieldwork, ’cause that ain’t gonna happen. Okay?”

“Take care of yourself,” Larson said. He sounded genuine. “And keep in touch.”

Hunter nodded and made his way out of the room. He tried not to think about the conversation that was probably going on behind him, but he had about as much luck dismissing those thoughts as he’d had forgetting about the kid in the alley.

There’d been a time when his brain was as disciplined as his body, but apparently that time was gone. Another damn good reason to get out of the field. He strode out of the building and took a deep breath of cool autumn air. He had his freedom; now he just needed to figure out what to do with it.