Chapter 1

 

“IT WAS a dark and stormy night.” Clint stared at the screen in front of him, then rolled the chair back from his desk, gripped the edge, and banged his forehead on the hard, wooden surface.

Twice.

Straightening, he read the words on the monitor again. “What the—?” Clint spread his arms wide. “Is he kidding? He’s got to be kidding.”

He swung the chair around and looked at the two dogs sprawled on the floor behind him. “Seriously? Is he just nuts?”

The dogs were apparently unimpressed, though Phoenix, a large white mutt, thumped his tail and rolled onto his back, heaving a sigh and twisting from side to side a few times.

“I’ll take that as firm agreement. And he wonders why the hell he doesn’t sell anything.” Turning back to the monitor, Clint groaned softly when a new e-mail popped up. “Don’t look. Don’t look. Oh, who the hell am I kidding? I have to look.” He opened the e-mail and scanned it, reading parts to the dogs. “Sent the newest project in a separate e-mail, see what you think. Want to get together next weekend? Do something fun, you know we’ll be good together.” Clint shook his head. He’d answer later. “He lives in Minneapolis. It’s not like we’re just a short drive apart.”

That was a request Dylan had made a few times in the last few weeks. The invitation and how it was phrased struck Clint as odd, but then again, Dylan was what most people would consider a very unique individual. Some days it was more of an effort not to read between the lines with these sorts of things. Clint reasoned it was a hazard of being a writer of suspense. Everything turned into a conspiracy.

Phoenix yawned, brushed his tail along the floor for a few seconds, and went back to sleep. Clint let his hands drop so his palms rested against his knees for a few seconds before he stood. The other dog, Fern, moved from the floor in Clint’s office to the couch in the living room.

“Traitor,” Clint grumbled. He stood for a few minutes in the wide double doorway between the rooms, grabbed the doorframe, and stretched. “He wants me to beta read this crap and llove it, then commiserate when no one buys it. And what is with the ‘let’s get together’ thing all of a sudden? It’s not like I’m single, and he knows that. If he’s hinting at writing a book together, he’s really crazy. My name isn’t going on that crap.”

Fern yawned and curled into a ball while Phoenix snored.

“‘The publishers are biased. The reviewers don’t understand me…’ blah… blah. If I hear this shit one more time from him….” Clint looked from one dog to the other. “You guys aren’t even listening to me. When I say ‘eat,’ you two are all attentive.”

Both dogs rolled to their feet and stared expectantly at him, tails thumping, ears forward. Clint sighed and shook his head. “You two are so predictable. Okay, c’mon.” When he looked out the window, he wasn’t surprised to see the sunny afternoon fading. Clint was hungry too and decided it was time to think about dinner.

The dogs, however, always came first.

They trotted ahead of him through the small house and pattered down the stairs, each going to their respective bowl, waiting. While they ate, Clint leaned against the doorframe separating the finished from the unfinished part of the basement, his back to the stairs. The manuscript from Dylan wasn’t unusual. There were five authors, himself and four others, who corresponded with each other regularly. They traded projects they were working on for feedback, research assistance, and proofreading.

Dylan’s repeated invitations to meet, as well as other choice statements he’d made recently, had been slowly increasing over the last few months. Dylan Hatchet had sold his first book around the same time as Clint. They’d even started with the same publisher, a publisher Clint was still with. They’d met at the occasional conference and developed a friendly competition for the first few years. The problems with their friendship began when sales of Clint’s books began to climb steadily and Dylan’s did not.

Clint had always liked to write. He’d dabble here and there, but only started putting in serious effort after he was laid off from the steel mill where he’d worked since graduating high school. At first it was something to do—a sort of therapy—while looking for another job. There was only so much gardening and home renovations he could do with his newfound free time. A little encouragement from a few people, his partner Griff at the top of that list, and Clint’d started sending manuscripts to publishers. Not that he’d expected those efforts to lead anywhere. However, as Griff had pointed out, if Clint didn’t at least try, he was guaranteed to get nowhere.

His first book came out roughly nine months later, and he began putting a lot of time and effort into improving his skills. He took classes, badgered his editors constantly for help, and listened to advice handed out by more experienced authors to expand what he wrote and broaden his fan base.

It was hard work, but a job Clint discovered he loved, so he dove in and decided he could do this and do it well. He wasn’t at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, but he’d done a few local book signings and drawn a decent crowd. He was happy with how his new career was going.

For the past few months, though, Clint had been getting invitations from Dylan to meet up. It was odd since Clint lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and Dylan in Minneapolis, Minnesota—the distance made meeting face to face impractical. Dylan had also begun insinuating Griff must be abusive or ignored Clint. Neither of which was true, and Clint couldn’t understand where Dylan would get that impression. Yes, Griff worked long hours and was often called out of town for work, but Clint worked long hours as well. No, he and Griff weren’t all over each other like they’d been when they’d first met, but what couple was after ten years?

Clint was happy, content, and he was confused as to why anyone would think otherwise.

Then Dylan had started sending pictures. Not the normal vacation pictures or pictures of family and pets friends exchange, but photos of Dylan in various stages of undress. Never completely nude, but shirtless and wearing skimpy boxers, which was bad enough, but sometimes the boxers were wet.

The guy did part-time work for a landscaper, so he was tanned and toned and looked nice enough, but it was strange. Everything about Dylan seemed odd lately. He’d even taken a bit too much of an interest in Clint’s relationship with Griff, what they did in their free time, and their hobby of caving.

It was time to back away from Dylan; what had been a casual friendship had definitely shifted to territory uncomfortable for Clint. He didn’t want to hurt Dylan’s feelings, though. He’d sent a few e-mails telling Dylan some of his pictures weren’t appreciated, but it did no good. The guy was either dense or stubborn. Clint’s strategy to cope with Dylan had become to overlook his unsuitable behaviors.

Clint knew nothing about Dylan’s family or the people who lived near him. As far as Clint could tell, Dylan was alone in the world, and his sudden attachment to Clint was starting to feel creepy. So, lately, Clint had been taking longer and longer to answer e-mails and tried to keep subjects of conversation as neutral as possible or focused on writing projects.

The pictures Clint deleted. Griff would flip if he ever knew about those photos, not that Clint would blame him in the least. He would have loved to share some of his other concerns about Dylan’s well-being with Griff, but Clint knew the man would turn Dylan into one of America’s Most Wanted in under a minute.

Such was the hazard of sharing his life with a US Deputy Marshal.

He’d made a vow to himself long ago he’d never use Griff’s job or badge unless there was a solid, valid reason. Someone he’d known for a few years all of a sudden annoying him online was not solid or valid in Clint’s mind. Clint kept reminding himself Dylan was lonely and had no family. He was merely one of those people who didn’t get the concept of boundaries. That didn’t make him a criminal, just socially awkward.

Clint nearly jumped out of his skin when someone’s strong arm snaked around his waist and pulled him back against a firm body. Warm breath blew in his ear along with the words, “You left the door unlocked again. I could be the neighborhood whack job here to bludgeon you to death after defiling you.”

“You scared the crap out of me!” Clint yelped, trying to squirm away, but it was useless. “You’re the guy on this street with all the big guns.” Behind him Griff chuckled and used one finger to move Clint’s hair away from his neck. He pressed a soft kiss to the spot. Clint glared down at the dogs. “And you two! You need watchdog lessons.”

Griff let go of Clint, turned him, and shook him by the shoulders for a second. “Lock the goddamn doors. Even if someone smashes through the storm door, you’ll at least hear them.” He raised his eyebrows and leaned away from Clint, letting him go. “For me. Please.”

“What you really don’t want is some moron busting up the storm door since you’d have to help me replace it,” Clint muttered.

Griff pointed up. “Hey, I happen to have a deep appreciation for that door. Notice I’m tactfully not mentioning how delightful you are when you work on a construction project?” Clint burst out laughing. Griff’s blue-gray eyes twinkled, and the corners crinkled in the way Clint loved when Griff smiled. “Sorry I’m late,” Griff said, leaning down to pet the dogs.

“I’ll forgive you. It’s not like you have a regular-hours kind of job. Catch any bad guys today?”

Griff gave him a kiss on the lips, then said, “It’s what I do. But it was a slow day. Mostly working some cyber leads. You kill anyone today?”

“No, but I’m damn close. How much do you know about grenades?”

“Um, we’ll need dinner for that. I know I’ve been working and not around a lot, so I hit the West Side Market on the way home. Bought some good stuff for the grill.” Griff took Clint’s hand and led the way up the stairs to the kitchen, Phoenix and Fern right behind them.

Griff paused at the landing and opened the side door, letting the dogs out into the backyard. Clint went to the right, up the next few steps to the kitchen, where half a dozen bags sat on the table. He started prowling through Griff’s purchases.

Griff laughed. “You’re like a little kid.” He opened a drawer right next to the doorway and deposited his badge, handcuffs, keys, and one of the two voice recorders he used for work. The other was kept on Clint’s desk, charging. Griff swapped them out every couple of days. He took his sidearm from his shoulder holster and removed the magazine, placing both into the drawer where he also kept a few loose magazines and another gun. Shutting the drawer, he snapped into place the safety lock Clint had rigged up for it years ago. It looked like a child safety lock, and unless someone searched the house or knew what Griff kept in that drawer, it wouldn’t attract attention. In all their years in the house, no guest had even glanced at it.

Clint shook his head, watching Griff lock the drawer. “Most people just have junk in the junk drawer, not a small armory—Ooooh, shrimp kabobs!”

“Don’t get too attached. We’re going to grill them. Found a new beer I thought you might like. It’s in the fridge already. I’m going to take a shower,” Griff said.

Clint didn’t have to watch to know what Griff was doing now. They’d lived eight of their ten years together in this house, and Griff’s routine was like clockwork. The shoulder holster was hung in the closet in Clint’s office. Suit and work shoes went to the larger walk-in closet in the attic. A T-shirt and Bermuda shorts would come out of one of the dressers up there, and Griff would don black leather sandals from the closet in their bedroom.

Twenty minutes later the tough, official-looking man who’d accosted him in the basement was replaced by the guy Clint had fallen for a decade ago. Tall, with light red-brown hair, blue-gray eyes, a quick smile, and broad shoulders, Griff was just a couple years shy of forty and still the rugged outdoorsman who had attracted Clint’s attention that first day they’d met. They were both from the Cleveland area in Ohio, but oddly enough had met in South Dakota at Jewel Cave National Monument. It was a huge system of caverns that experienced cavers as well as casual tourists could all enjoy.

Griff was already an experienced caver and Clint was brand new to the sport of slithering around in caves. He had always wanted to learn, and he spent the few weeks after high school graduation at Jewel Cave before starting his job at the steel mill. The vacation, a true adventure for Clint, was a graduation gift from his grandparents and parents.

His family had had mixed reactions to Clint coming out after he left high school. However, when Clint came home from his vacation with a boyfriend he’d met a thousand miles away who’d graduated from the same high school, only ten years earlier, his paternal grandmother had called it kismet and the deal was cemented. Clint had always been a favorite grandson, and she was outspoken in her support. The rest of his family must have decided if Clint’s being gay was all right with her, they didn’t dare argue.

Clint and Griff’s first attendance at a family function as a couple was tense at the beginning, but the charming, good-looking, college-educated man working his way up the ranks of the US Marshals had Clint’s relatives suitably impressed within hours. In the words of his dear grandmother, “Griff Diamond could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and look good doing it too.” Clint secretly thought she had a bit of a crush on Griff.

Clint and Griff had been together ever since, and all their vacation time was spent exploring various caves around the country. Jewel Cave remained their favorite, and they returned there every few years for extended vacations up to a month long.

Griff took two of the beers out of the cardboard carrier and handed one to Clint. He tapped Clint’s elbow with one of the bottles and stepped close, saying, “I’m going to GovSec again in the spring.”

“That big law enforcement conference? They making you do a talk again?”

“It was suggested. Want to come with? I hear you can bunk with a hot marshal.” Griff nudged Clint’s side. “I’m buying.”

Clint scratched the back of his head and glanced around the kitchen. “I… guess. I have a deadline then and….”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. We have time to talk about it and decide. If you can’t go, no big deal.”

Clint saw the hurt flash across Griff’s features, even though Griff covered it up quickly. Clint immediately picked up on the fact Griff said “can’t” instead of “don’t want to.” Guilt and a healthy dose of shame grabbed ahold of Clint and squeezed like a vise.

Griff picked up one of the bags and headed out the side door to the backyard. “I’ll go get the fire started so we can eat.”

“Crap,” Clint grumbled. If he could have kicked himself in the nuts, he would have. Griff supported him in everything. He went to any event Clint asked him to and had kept after Clint until he submitted his first manuscript. He’d taken charge when Clint’s parents, sister, and niece had been killed by a drunk driver, then picked up the pieces of the mess Clint became. When Clint was swamped with edits and deadlines, Griff mowed Clint’s grandmother’s lawn and made sure her groceries were bought and doctor appointments kept. Griff’s parents had retired to Arizona and his brother lived in Maine, so he’d adopted Clint’s family years ago.

All of that aside, Clint liked going to the seminars and bigger conventions Griff attended periodically for his job. They were inspiration for the eco-thrillers Clint was so fond of writing. The various displays were interesting, and the people were fun to watch.

Clint looked over the rest of the food. Fortunately, Griff had bought watermelon. That gave Clint a few minutes to think about how to put this right while he cut the melon. He seemed to have been making this sort of mistake too often lately; his mouth had a nasty habit of engaging before his brain did. He loved Griff—a lot—but some days Clint could do with a bit less predictability. Their lives weren’t the ball of excitement and drama often depicted on television shows about cops and their families. In fact, Clint and Griff would probably be considered pathetically boring.

Clint piled the chunks of melon into a bowl and washed the sticky juice off his hands. He grabbed chew sticks for each dog on his way out the door. As soon as he was outside, the delightful aroma resulting from Griff’s grilling skills hit him and made his mouth water.

“Here you go,” Clint said. Phoenix and Fern were prancing on either side of him, obviously knowing he’d brought something for them. As soon as they had their treat, both dogs sprawled on the grass, engrossed in chewing.

Griff looked up from the grill, watching them for a few seconds, smiling. Clint set the bowl on the table and stood behind Griff, sliding his arms around his waist and resting his chin on Griff’s shoulder. He watched quietly for a few minutes while Griff turned the kabobs. He also had corn-on-the-cob cooking.

“Smells good,” Clint said.

“Thanks. We should be able to eat in a few minutes.”

Clint took a deep breath and inched closer. “You smell sort of good too.”

Griff turned his head slightly and arched one eyebrow. “You’re up to no good.” His voice was soft in the way he reserved for when he teased Clint.

“I do want to go to the conference with you, really I do. I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

Griff shrugged. “Like I said, we have time to work the details out. A drawback to working from home is you’re always working, I guess.”

“And a benefit is I can take my work with me. I’ll just spend a few hours in our room while you do your seminar stuff, but I want to go to your talks.” A warm tingle ran up the inside of Clint’s thighs. It had been too long since they’d made love. He had to concentrate to remember when the last time was. “We’ll have Wi-Fi, right?”

Griff chuckled, vibrating against Clint. He relaxed against Griff’s back even more. The feeling of warm, solid muscle trembling against him ever so slightly was suddenly very sexy. “Yes, of course there will be Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t dream of taking you somewhere with no Wi-Fi.”

“You have to admit, some of those people at that convention are a tad… um….”

“I think paranoid is the word you’re looking for,” Griff said. “You have the latest parts of your novel printed out?”

Clint smiled and nuzzled Griff’s neck. “I do.”

“Well, stop trying to cause trouble and go get it so I can read while I eat and work out this business with grenades. Don’t forget, I’m the only fan you have to please.”

“I’ll be right back.” Clint went into the house, snatched up the small stack of paper he had waiting, and returned to the patio in time to see Griff setting plates on the round iron-and-glass table. “It’s rough, needs work.”

“You let me be the judge of that,” Griff said. It had become sort of a tradition with them. Griff read everything first and was the last one to see a manuscript just before Clint sent his submission in.

“You’re biased. You do know I know that, right?”

Griff grinned and snorted, waving Clint off. He shuffled the papers in between bites of food. “Is this the grenade part? The good thing about grenades, and bombs in general, is they blow things apart. The bad thing about them is they blow things apart. Your investigative team is going to be spending a lot of time combing through debris flung far and wide, looking for evidence. Combine that with the fact you’re using dirty bombs, your characters will be wearing hazmat suits.”

“They aren’t really using dirty bombs.”

Griff shrugged. “Same issue. Lots of extra equipment for the investigators and they’re out in the middle of nowhere. What good is blowing off a dirty bomb outside of a big population?”

“It’s a test for what comes later.”

“That makes sense. You should mention that before this part comes up. I’m thinking lose the grenades and just go with the bomb test. Same result, really. Bombers tend not to waste supplies either. They don’t like us—as in the people with guns and badges—to know what they have access to and what they can do. They also tend to stick with a few selected favorites.”

As they ate, Griff offered a few more comments. Dinner done, they sat outside enjoying the nice weather and the beer Griff had bought. When it started getting dark, they headed into the house.

“Do you mind if I…?” Clint waved in the direction of his office. “An hour, no more, I promise.”

Griff laughed softly, shaking his head. “Of course I don’t mind.”

“Leave this stuff. I’ll get it in the morning.” Clint waved at the dishes they’d just set in the sink.

“Okay.” Griff shrugged.

While Clint wrote, Griff was flopped on the couch, giving Clint updates on the baseball game he was watching. Clint’s office had double french doors that opened to the living room. He very rarely closed them. Phoenix sprawled in the doorway, and Fern was stretched on Griff’s legs.

When the television turned off, Clint looked up. A few seconds later, Griff’s hand rested on his shoulder, fingers rubbing gently. “We won.”

“Oh damn, I’m sorry,” Clint said.

“It was an hour… on Jupiter,” Griff said.

Clint held out a few pieces of paper. He rubbed at the back of his neck and put a sheepish expression on his face. “Could you read this part again?”

Griff gave him a mock stern look and picked up the papers. “The things I do for you.” He turned his arm and looked pointedly at his watch. “After midnight.” It wasn’t long before he set the papers on the corner of Clint’s desk. “Oh yeah, I like that a lot better.” He leaned over Clint’s shoulder, pointing at the monitor. “Tell me you didn’t write that.”

Clint had been scanning the latest chapter Dylan had sent him earlier. “No. It’s from Dylan.”

“Dylan? I met him at a convention last year?” Griff asked. When Clint nodded, Griff continued. “Six foot, light hair, thirtyish, and creepy.”

“He’s not cre—okay, yeah that’s him. Why do you describe everyone as a suspect?”

“I don’t… sorry.” He rested one hand on Clint’s head and brushed his fingers lightly over his hair a few times. “It’s a habit.”

“Hmm… I can only imagine how you first described me.”

“Let’s see. Over six foot. Mexican descent. Amazing smile and dimples in a few places. Soulful brown eyes and very thick and touchable hair,” Griff said softly. He gently tugged on a few strands of Clint’s hair.

Clint smiled. “You’re up to no good.”

“Yes, I am. So what is all this? One of those write-as-bad-as-possible contests?”

Clint burst out laughing. “I wish. Dylan has decided his problem is he needs more sex in his books.”

Griff leaned closer to the monitor. “Throbbing heat bat?” He straightened and pulled out the waistband of his shorts and looked down. “Hey, little buddy, you’re a throbbing heat bat.”

“Griff, stop that.”

“What? You laughed.” He leaned even closer to the monitor and pointed to a spot a few lines down. “Oh God, is that even possible? ‘Still joined, he picked his lover up and carried….’ What? That’s gotta hurt.” Griff looked from the screen to Clint to their bedroom door.

“Oh no, don’t even think about it.”

“You don’t want to try a little bit?”

“No,” Clint sputtered. “Hell, no!”

Griff squinted at the screen again. “Does he sign everything to you with Xs and Os?”

Clint shrugged. “I don’t know, I never paid attention or thought about it. Why?”

“That doesn’t strike you as odd? And what’s all this crap about Fern’s foot? He says he’s glad she’s walking better and then running around the yard fine?” Griff was firing off questions in rapid order.

“Don’t interrogate me. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. Lots of people knew about Fern’s foot when it happened. Readers like to hear about their favorite authors’ lives, so I blog about our dogs. Everyone likes cute dogs.”

“How much detail do you give out about our lives?”

“Griff. They’re dogs. However, if you’d rather, I can write about my overly paranoid US Marshal boyfriend and his exploits.”

“Clint, Dylan has focused on every little detail you have posted on your website and Facebook. Does he know your real name? Because keeping all of your friends and their secret identities straight is a challenge. Coming from me that says a lot; I’m supposed to be good at tracking aliases.” Griff’s voice was steadily going up in volume.

“Oh, for God’s sakes. Yes. A lot of people know Bishop Gryven and Clint Bishop are the same man. And they’re not aliases, Griff, they’re pen names!” Clint was shouting now. Because of Griff’s job, Clint used a pseudonym, combining his own last name and a play on Griff’s first name of Griffen. “I don’t advertise it, but it’s not a big secret, and you’ve known that for years.”

“This guy right here is not normal. How can you not see that?”

“Griff, he’s harmless.” Clint tried to sound convincing, but the truth was he wasn’t so sure. The way Griff’s eyes narrowed a small amount was a sure sign he sensed Clint’s resolve faltering. “He is,” Clint insisted.

“How do you know for sure?” Griff asked. He wasn’t shouting anymore, but Clint heard the anger and concern in his voice.

“Because not everyone is the criminal you think they are,” Clint grumbled. Maybe neither he nor Griff should have had that last beer. “You know what? I’m not doing this. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not ever.” Without waiting for a response, Clint stood abruptly, brushed past Griff, and stalked to the living room. He grabbed the remote control, flopped on the couch, made room for Fern when she jumped up with him, and stared at the television, not even knowing what he was watching.

Griff grunted and mumbled a few more unkind words about Dylan under his breath that Clint pretended not to hear, which was silly. The house was small, and just about everything Griff said could be heard. Clint heard Griff march through the room’s other door in the office, headed down the short hall and to their bedroom.

When Clint woke up, the room was lighter, the television off, and a blanket had been thrown over him. “Aww, crap,” he grumbled and swung around to sit up. Fern stood on his thighs; she licked his cheek and wagged her tail while he rubbed her ears. “Yeah, you guys hungry? Need out?” She barked, jumped off the couch, and turned in a few circles while Phoenix ran back and forth from the living room to the side door, his tail wagging as well. “You two are no help; what did you let me sleep here all night for?” he said and opened the door for them.

He heard the shower running, but the bathroom door was closed. They never closed the damn thing, and having one bathroom meant sometimes using it at the same time. Clint sighed. “I guess if I’m desperate, I can go outside and pee on a bush with the dogs.” Knocking on the bathroom door, Clint asked, “Want coffee?”

There was no answer. Clint leaned against the wall and waited. When the water turned off, he repeated his question.

The door opened and Griff stepped out. “I’m late. I’ll grab something downtown.”

Clint grabbed Griff’s arm. “Griff—”

Griff leaned in and brushed his lips over Clint’s cheek. “I’m late, really I am. Candice will twist my balls about it all day. It’s no big deal, honestly. I’ll call you later if I get the chance, and we’ll talk tonight.”

Clint got his turn in the bathroom while Griff dressed. After a quick shower, Clint went to the kitchen; he still wanted coffee. Griff’s laptop sat on the kitchen table, open but turned off, and Clint wondered how long he’d sat there working on it before showering. He thought about asking Griff what he’d been working on, but decided it was best not to seem like he was trying to pry. Dressed and shrugging into his shoulder holster, Griff walked through the kitchen, collected the things from their junk drawer, and closed the laptop before stuffing it into a carry bag that was slung over his opposite shoulder.

He stopped at the door and looked back. “Don’t forget, lock the doors.”

Griff wasn’t angry, Clint knew that, but Griff was hurt. Clint had screwed up. They fought, like any other couple did, but they had a hard and fast golden rule, and Clint had broken it. Even if they were angry, not speaking to one another, they always slept in the same bed. Maybe it was as far apart on that bed as possible, but neither had ever stayed the night on the couch, in another room, or in a hotel because of a fight.

Clint had more than overreacted to Griff’s trepidation surrounding Dylan. It didn’t help that Griff managed to put into words what Clint had been feeling and trying to dismiss for a while now. Clint