THE VOW

 

 

THE sounds of the encampment surrounded Dexios and Lykon—the snap and crackle of the fires, the soft moans of men pleasuring themselves mixing with the snores of those who grabbed what rest they could. Dexios and Lykon had made their own little sanctuary behind the brush, closer to the shore, wrapped up in their blankets, cloaks, and each other.

Their urgent coupling had erased the fears of the day, yet Dexios was unable to put those fears completely behind him. It intruded upon his thoughts, pushing him to consider the days that would follow. He slid his hand down to Lykon’s muscled stomach and splayed his fingers. In the calm following the day’s battle he found that being near did not seem to be enough. He wanted to be nearer still.

Lykon chuckled, laid his hand over Dexios’s, and twined their fingers together. “You’re restless tonight. Share your mind with me, or is it my touch you seek again?” His voice dropped low with seductive intent as he stretched before settling in Dexios’s arms again, fitting against him as if he belonged there. Dexios held him closer, luxuriating in the warmth of Lykon’s back and the way his buttocks pressed against his groin.

Dexios wanted to ensure Lykon would always be there, and once again his thoughts jerked back to the day’s harrowing battle. Lykon was safe. He was here. Dexios’s arms tightened around him. “Reinforcements will arrive on the morrow,” Dexios said and kissed the side of Lykon’s neck, breathing him in. The blood and sweat had been washed away earlier, replaced with the clean brine of the ocean and Lykon’s own scent. “The fighting will be fierce once the enemy realizes they are cornered. They will not give way without a struggle.”

Lykon twisted to look back at him. “Whether they lay down their arms or continue to fight is of no matter. The outcome will be the same.” He smiled, a slow, sensual upturn of his lips that heated Dexios’s blood. “My sole concern is how many days I have left with you before we are sent home. I want to make the most of every moment.” He kissed Dexios, sliding a hand into his hair. “Come, I do not wish to speak more of battles, not when there are pleasures to explore.”

Dexios shifted and turned Lykon onto his back. The moon shone down on his face, illuminating the strong lines of his jaw and nose. The camp quieted for the night, allowing Dexios to hear the sound of the waves washing against the shore in the distance. Fitting, all things considered, and Dexios prayed that Cythera would hear his words to Lykon and bless them.

“The end of the war does not mean we have to part.” He stared down at Lykon, hovering over him. “I would rather stay by your side.”

Lykon frowned, slid his arm around Dexios’s waist, and pulled his weight down on him. “You do not speak sense. They will expect us back at home. We have duties awaiting us that have been long ignored.”

“Duties that others have taken up while we fought to keep them safe.” Dexios could not deny the want inside of him anymore. Not after the fierce fighting earlier today. Not after seeing Lykon fall and thinking the worst. The vivid memory still chilled him, the image etched behind his eyes of the enemy standing over his lover, spear poised to take his life. Somehow Dexios had found the divine strength to get to him, to stop the blow.

He slid his arms under Lykon, held him close, and reassured himself with the heat of his body. Why was Lykon not bothered by the same memories? Mere moments after his own close encounter with death, Lykon had saved him in return by shoving him out of the way and blocking a lethal strike to Dexios’s unguarded back.

They had both almost died this day. For what? So they could part after their friendship had changed into a relationship far more profound? Dexios loved him. He had not believed himself capable of such deep emotion until he had found Lykon. The fate he wanted for them did not include living apart and never seeing one another.

“What is it you are trying to say?” Lykon pushed him aside and sat up, bracing his hands behind him as he looked at Dexios with his eyebrows drawn together and a slight grimace twisting his lips. “Speak your thoughts plainly. Do you wish for us to join a mercenary unit to find another battle? I have no desire for more bloodshed. We have been fighting for years now. We’ve done what we set out to do. Our families and lands are safe.”

“No more fighting.” Dexios was done with seeing Lykon in danger, of tending to his wounds, and having his own wounds stitched by Lykon. “If we both go home we will not see each other again. At least not often enough for what I want.”

Dexios knelt in front of Lykon. His heart pounded, his chest tightened. “You know what is in my heart, Lykon, how I feel about you. You have said that you feel the same. Is it true?”

Lykon stretched out his hand and cupped Dexios’s jaw. “I do. Don’t doubt that. I do not wish to think of what may happen on the morrow or the day after. You worry too much about the past and the future. Only the here and now matters. Love me here and let me love you in return.”

Dexios closed his eyes and turned his head to kiss Lykon’s calloused palm. He had tried to live in Lykon’s moment, and he thought he had succeeded until today. He could not get the image of the spear out of his head. He had almost lost Lykon earlier. When the war ended he would lose him still. Lose him to his family and the other life that awaited him. It made him ache inside to think so. “I want more. I want a lifetime with you. Say you want the same.”

“I do, but I do not see how we can have it.” Lykon brushed his fingers along Dexios’s jaw. “Our wants are passionate, not practical. We cannot let our hearts rule our minds.”

“Why not?” Dexios set his jaw, opened his eyes, and caught Lykon’s gaze. “We both have younger brothers who have taken up our duties at home, younger brothers who are about to take wives to breed more sons and daughters. Our families would demand too much if we returned home. We will have done our duty when this war ends. Let us find a place where we can be together. A place by the shore all our own.”

“What of our lands, our inheritances? Do you not wish to return home to see your family at least, and let them know you survived?”

“We can let them know together. I will travel with you to your home, and then we can visit my family one last time. I do not care for either lands or inheritances if you are not with me. We will be rewarded with many riches when the enemy is routed. We can use that coin to start over.”

“You ask much.” Lykon angled his body away and the uncertainty on his face made Dexios’s stomach clench. “I had not given thought to abandoning everything.”

“Not everything.” Dexios cupped Lykon’s face in his hands and turned it toward him. Dexios had never seen him look afraid before, not even during the fiercest battle. “I will be with you.”

Lykon remained quiet as he searched Dexios’s face. He must have seen something there that reassured him because some of the tension left his body. “I admit, I am unsure about returning home again after these last few years. I am not the same person I was when I left. I have no desire to marry and tend to the land….”

He looked away, the silence falling rich with unspoken promise. Dexios held his breath, waiting to hear what Lykon would say next. Some answers could not be prodded and pushed for. Then Lykon slanted a glance at him and continued in a softer voice, “And I have no wish to be parted from you. You have caught me unawares. I did not realize you harbored such thoughts.”

“I did not realize it either until today. I do not think I could have borne it if you had died.”

Understanding flickered in Lykon’s eyes. “You stopped the spear. I had no doubt that you would. We have guarded each other’s backs well.”

Dexios brushed his thumbs over Lykon’s cheeks and the rough scrape of unshaven skin grounded him. Not knowing had become an agony that tore him open more than any gaping wound. “Say you will go with me. Please, I love you.”

A smile flickered over Lykon’s lips and he leaned closer to brush his mouth over Dexios’s. “Yes,” he whispered.

Dexios sat back on his heels as relief washed through him. He grinned and kissed Lykon hard on the mouth. “Say it again. Swear it. Swear it in her name.”

Lykon laughed and tugged Dexios down on the makeshift bedding with him. “I swear it by Cythera, and the waves that gave birth to her shall hear my vow. I love you, Dexios. I will go where you go and I will stay by your side.” He kissed Dexios before he could respond and said against his lips, “No more words. Show me that you want me.”

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

GALEN KANELLIS stared at the four huge unmarked packing crates that filled the museum’s small storage room to the point that he had just enough space between each crate to slip through to open them. He scratched his head, frowned, and tried to remember what he’d ordered that would take up so much room. They were good on supplies for the studio, and the gallery gift shop had more than enough stock. Besides, nothing he ordered would’ve come in crates about to fall apart.

He called out to his personal assistant, Suzane Eberly, as he grabbed a crowbar. “I thought we weren’t going to have the pieces for the new exhibit shipped until Ella had a chance to do the mural. Are any of the boys still here? I’m going to need some help.”

The crates looked as if they’d been waiting at the bottom of the abyss, with dried-up algae and barnacles clinging to the sides. The metal banding had rusted through in some parts, making it easy to pull off. The wooden slats were gray with age, the nails holding them down also rusted. Galen began prying off the lid to the nearest crate. He’d take a quick peek, no more, before help arrived, just long enough to assuage his burning curiosity. Nothing set his mind going with possibilities like an unopened box.

The slats cracked and splintered the moment he applied pressure, so Galen stopped to put on a pair of gloves before Suzane saw and threw a fit. He’d managed to get most of the lid removed in sections by the time he heard her heels coming toward the storeroom. “Where the hell did those come from?” Suzane demanded from the doorway.

Galen set aside the crowbar with a clatter and pulled off the top before he peered over his shoulder at her. She had her brunette wig on this morning, pulled back into an elegant twist, and was still on her power suit kick. Oh boy. That meant she was in her no-nonsense mood, and that wasn’t nearly as interesting as her blonde hippie days.

“I have no idea,” he admitted, yanking out handfuls of moldy straw. “Isn’t it cool? And I don’t care either, as long as it fits the new exhibit. It’s missing something.” He paused and gestured with his hands, trying to visualize it. “A center point to build the rest of the exhibit around. It’s been driving me nuts. No matter how much I rework the layout on paper, I can’t picture it as a whole.”

Suzane examined each of the crates, then turned to Galen with a frown, her eyebrows drawn together and her gray eyes far away. She probably had a checklist in her mind to match the one in her ever-present folder. “Where’s the shipping information?”

“Didn’t see any.” His fingers encountered layers of wool, and the thrill of discovery made his heart leap. Galen pulled out his pocketknife, then sliced with care through the padding. “Come on, baby,” he crooned low under his breath, “show me what you’ve got.”

“Four crates mysteriously appear in the middle of a locked storeroom, with no shipping information, and you’re not in the least bit suspicious,” Suzane said in exasperation and smacked him on the arm with her folder. “You are familiar with the story of the Trojan Horse, aren’t you?”

Galen nodded, only half listening as the gleam of metal appeared under the wool. He put away his knife and peeled back each layer. “Yeah, Greek story, right? Big horse, bad things. It would be amazing if this fits the new exhibit theme. Do you think it’s that old? The crate is falling apart.”

“If they were that old somebody would be clamoring for their return. Ancient relics just don’t pop up out of nowhere.” Suzane took the shred of blanket he handed her and wrinkled her nose. “Personally, I think it’s a prank. Who packs art in straw and old wool these days? It’s a hoax.”

The last layer of the blanket fell away to reveal a full-sized statue of a man in ancient armor; Galen’s breath caught. “Oh my, my, my, he’s beautiful. Help me get him out. I want to see him in the light.” Nick would love to see this. Galen shook his head with a pang of regret. It seemed like everything these days reminded him of the lover he’d walked away from. It was true, though; Nick would have gone into spasms of joy over this beauty. He had a passion for ancient art and a love for wreck diving. How he ended up as an HR manager still confused Galen.

“Wait a minute.” Suzane grabbed his arm when he reached to pull out the statue. “For the love of God, let me get you some help before you hurt it or yourself.” The thought of damaging the statue made Galen pause. “And while we’re waiting for the boys, we’re going to have a nice discussion about where these came from and what you plan on doing with them.”

Galen ran his hands over the statue, humming to himself as Suzane disappeared from the doorway. The statue was cast from some kind of metal, bronze most likely, with a nice verdigris, but it was hard to tell in the shadows. He hoped Suzane would be able to find some helpers. There were usually people hanging out in the attached studio every day either working on their own art, admiring others’ projects, or just enjoying a safe place to hang out. And if Knox was in today, that would be even better, since he worked for an art moving company and would know what to do and have the equipment to do it.

To distract himself, Galen pulled out the layout sheet that he had stuck in the back pocket of his worn jeans. After a few moments of searching, he located the pen behind his ear and began rearranging and making notes, though he knew he wouldn’t be satisfied with the flow of the exhibit until he saw what was in the other crates. If they were anything like the statue, he’d have to get them up, fiddle with the arrangement itself instead of looking at it on paper. It was only February. He still had several months to get it together. Ella’s mural came first.

Suzane returned and launched into a lecture about proper documentation, verification, and dating. There were probably some other things mixed in there, but they slipped his mind almost as soon as he heard them. He nodded, made assuring sounds, and scribbled while she talked. Knox had to hurry up; if he didn’t get all of those statues out of the boxes soon he was going to jump out of his skin. This was better than the Christmas when he was ten, when he was so sure that the giant box in the garage had held a new bike.

“What do you think?” Galen asked as he stepped back and gestured toward the layout with a flourish.

“Mr. K? You needed something?” Knox Marwick hovered in the doorway, his broad shoulders filling the space. He was a big kid, taller than Nick…. Galen broke off the thought with an inward groan. Five months, three weeks and six days, and still Galen thought about him more every day. He couldn’t pinpoint when that had started happening.

“There you are! You have to come see this.” Galen grinned at Knox and waved toward the crates. “Would you get the statue free and help me see what’s in the other crates? Like right this minute? I get the impression that I’m going to be contracting you to move and set them up for me. But I need to see them to be sure.”

“Not a problem. It shouldn’t take me long to break them down. If you want, I can call my boss and see if they can send some extra men when you want to haul them to the exhibit room.”

“That would be great.” Galen grabbed his layout sheet and squeezed by him. “Suzane and I will get out of your way.”

“What’s the point in looking at your new layout when you’re just going to change it again? You won’t stop playing around with it until everything is in place.” Suzane leaned over to study the doorknob and lock on the storeroom door. “It doesn’t look like it’s been tampered with.”

“Why would anyone break in just to leave art behind instead of stealing it? I’m sure we’ll find the paperwork once it’s all cleared away.” He handed Suzane his layout and she took it with a sigh. “You have to admit, it’s missing something.”

“Yes, only I doubt this trouble-waiting-to-happen is going to fill that void.”

Galen’s eyes fell on the uncovered first statue. A sense of reverent awe filled him and his jaw dropped. The man stood with his legs spread slightly apart, his arms outstretched and curled as if he had been in the midst of an embrace. Sunlight streamed through the window, giving the metal a burnished, glowing quality. The aged bronze with a nice warm patina made Galen’s fingertips itch to caress it. “Oh wow, will you look at him? He’s perfect.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty hot.” Knox carried out the sections of crate and the shreds of wool. “I’ll be right back to get the rest.”

Galen moved closer and ran his hand over the man’s muscled arm. The metal was smooth and strangely warm. His hair lay in a shaggy mess about his head, which was tilted to one side, his lips parted and pursed. He made Galen think of kissing. It had been too long since he’d been kissed just right. He only had himself to blame. He’d been the one to put a temporary moratorium on casual flings. That was after he’d broken things off with Nick only to wonder what if too many times when he was alone at night.

“I think you’re crazy if you intend on actually making this a part of the exhibit.” Suzane came up beside him and gave his shoulder a shake. “You don’t even know if it’s authentic or not, or how old it is, or why someone would just give it to you with no information or explanation. It’s going to come back and bite you in the ass, I just know it.”

“Bites on the ass can be fun.”

Suzane smacked him with the folder. “You’re incorrigible. I’m serious. You’ve sunk your entire inheritance into this museum. I’m not going to let you ruin all your hard work because someone dangled a statue of a half-naked muscled man in front of you.”

“The authenticity can be researched.” Galen flashed a smile at her. “That’s what you’re good at. I want you to find everything you can about him. As for who our mysterious donor is and why they were so generous, I don’t care. If I ever meet them I’m going to kiss him or her.”

“People don’t give things for nothing.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure? Besides, the upcoming exhibit is new homoerotic interpretations on the ancient world, so even if it isn’t old it’ll still work.”

Suzane groaned. “You don’t even know if it’s homoerotic or not. Remember the theme for your museum? Gay love, sex, and life? You can’t have a centerpiece for a new exhibit that runs counter to what you’ve established. Not after all the work we’ve put into making a name for it.”

Galen knelt down to examine all the glorious little details, the ridged lines on the man’s legs indicating scars, the realism in his hands as they gripped someone who had disappeared long ago. “I’m not sure about erotic; maybe the second half is in another crate,” he mused, though for the life of him he couldn’t figure out how they’d fit together, much less how they’d come apart in the first place. “But there are definite gay overtones.”

“And what makes you think that other than wishes and a dirty mind?”

Galen twisted and looked up at her as he pointed to the base of the statue. “There are two discarded helmets, which makes me think two men are involved.”

“Damn, you’re right.” Suzane sighed and pulled out her phone. “Okay, I’ll look into it. I have to admit, he looks Hellenic in style.”

Knox returned and began working on the second crate. The nails screamed in protest when he pulled apart the top and it fell apart. Galen gave Suzane a grateful smile. “Did I tell you that I like your new brunette do?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m immune to your sad attempt at flattery.”

“Go do whatever you have to do to prove me right. Please, prove me right. Get whatever tests and research you need. These statues are to stay on site. Whatever funding or overtime you need, it’s approved. You’re the best; I’ve told you that, right? I’d be lost without you.”

Suzane made an exasperated sound, though her eyes lit up with pleasure. “Yeah, I know. You need me. I’ll work on getting this big boy dated.” A wicked smile crossed her lips. “Hey, maybe you should call what’s-his-name who you refuse to mention. That wreck diver. ’Cause these statues look like they came from one, and he might have some insights.”

“You’re an evil woman.” Before Galen could say anything else, the second statue was revealed, the same man, now naked in every glorious detail and fully aroused. “Oh my God, just look at him. Can you freaking believe it, Knox? People are going to come here in droves just to see him.”

“You have to put these statues in your exhibit.” Knox came to stand beside him. “Don’t let her talk you out of it. You’re the owner, right?”

“Galen!”

“I’m the owner, she’s the boss.” Galen tore his eyes away and pulled out his cell phone. “Looks like I have some calls to make. Shout when the rest are uncovered.”

“Will do, Mr. K.”

Galen climbed to the top of the tower to his office. He loved this small square room, the highest point in the old firehouse that he’d bought and renovated. A huge half-circle window dominated two sides of the room and the other sides contained two more windows next to each other so he had an almost panoramic view of the Seattle neighborhood. He’d left the exposed brick walls alone, and, with the polished wood floors, they gave the room a homey feeling.

He propped his feet up on his desk as he stared at his cell phone. He should call his lawyer, have him look into any insurance claims, see what it would take to keep the statues in-house. He would keep them no matter what it took.

Nicholas Charisteas. Galen’s thoughts drifted right back to the man who refused to get out of his head. He hadn’t spoken to him in months. He doubted Nick would want to hear from him now, even if he had left him an open invitation to contact him when he got his head out of his ass.

Galen smiled and tapped his phone against his cheek. He’d deserved that. And a fired-up, passionate Nick took his breath away. He scrolled through his contacts until he came to Nick’s name—the only one of his flings that he’d programmed in there.

This wasn’t the first time he’d looked up his number, and once again he hesitated. There would be no way around things getting complicated. He didn’t know if he was ready for complicated. And it wouldn’t be fair to come bursting back into Nick’s life if he wasn’t. Of course, there was always the possibility he was being too arrogant. Nick might have zero interest in him after all this time.

Galen hit Send before he could change his mind and his stomach jumped when the phone rang. What was he thinking? To his consternation and relief, a young man answered, and it took Galen a moment to unscramble his brain long enough to realize that he’d accidentally called Nick’s work instead of his cell.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Charisteas is in a meeting. May I ask who’s calling?”

“Just tell him Galen Kanellis called.” He paused and his stomach sank further. He was an idiot. This was stupid. And Nick was going to laugh his ass off if he knew how much he had tied himself into knots over a simple phone call that Galen would’ve shrugged off six months ago.

“Hey, Mr. K.” Knox’s excited voice came up through the hole in his office floor that still contained a fireman’s pole and cut through Galen’s circling thoughts. “You have got to come see these dudes.”

 

 

NICK CHARISTEAS ducked into his office and dumped the stack of files on his desk. He was in hell. Absolute, literal hell that involved endless wait times on the phone and reams of papers that kept getting higher every day. Financial security was not worth this bullshit.

He flung himself in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off the incipient headache. If he could just clear his mind of insurance forms for ten minutes, he’d be golden for the rest of the day. He took out his darts and swiveled his chair around to the small dartboard he’d stuck onto the bookcase.

The first dart landed next to the outer rim and Nick winced. He did not want to explain to management how another book got punctured. He took careful aim and the second hit dead center. By the time he ran out of darts, the tension in his shoulders had started to ease and the knots in his stomach had unraveled. Nick rose to grab the darts for another quick round when his eyes fell on the poster of Santorini he had tacked to the wall.

Six more months. Then he would have three blessed weeks on a charter boat in the Greek Islands, diving, getting back in touch with his roots, and hopefully this time, bringing back the prominence to his family’s name. That’s why he worked this job. It gave him the pay, the insurance, and the vacation time for these twice-yearly jaunts around the world. He came in sick, saved up every scrap of leave just for these little escapes. If he was the one to find the Dexios Collection, it would be his ticket back home. Finding the Collection would fix everything.

Nick’s phone rang and he peered at the display with a grimace for the name there, Jessica Blandford, no doubt calling to bitch again about staffing. Nothing made her happy. Nick ignored the ringing and turned back toward the dartboard. He threw the dart harder than he intended and it sank all the way up to its shaft into the workplace safety sign he had hanging next to the bookcase. “Crap.”

A brisk knock at the door made him jump and cast a quick glance at the offending dart. Before he could answer, the door opened and his assistant Sean walked in with several message slips in his hand and two paper cups of coffee.

“You have a meeting in ten minutes, and you might want to call Jessica back before it starts.”

“I do?” Nick sat up at his desk and pulled up his calendar. “I thought I was free to catch up on paperwork for the rest of the afternoon.”

“You were, but this came up regarding you-know-who, and they want it addressed immediately.”

Nick scowled and shuffled through the files on his desk. “Got it, thanks. Any other messages I should know about beforehand?”

“No, I think they can wait. The barista you’ve been ogling wrote his number down for you.” Sean handed him one of the coffees with a number emblazoned on the side without batting an eyelash.

Nick took it with a slight flush and a cough. “Thanks, sorry about that.”

“Not a problem.” Sean handed him the slips of paper. “Jessica called twice, Hodson’s Funeral Home sent a fax about the insurance papers for McCleary, that teller in the Market Street branch, oh, and somebody named Galen called. I didn’t quite catch his last name, sorry.”

“Galen Kanellis?” Nick dropped the message slips on his desk unread as thoughts of work and considerations of a hot barista disappeared right out of his head, all because of the power of one name. He had made such a fool out of himself over Galen.

“Yeah, that’s it. He didn’t wait on the line long enough for me to get the spelling of his last name. He didn’t leave a number either.”

Nick’s heart twisted, and he squashed the burgeoning hope inside of him before it could take root. He’d been down that road with Galen, and he’d crashed hard right into the wall of reality. “Okay, thanks.” Nick waved him off and stared unseeing at his desk as he remembered the last time they’d been together.

Wow. Galen Kanellis. Nick had written him off as a lost cause. It seemed like the only things they had in common were an interest in art and some fabulous sex. He had been such a sucker for those dark eyes that had held secrets Nick had never been able to get him to reveal, secrets and pain. Galen had been running from something and running hard.

“Hey, Sean. If he calls back give him my cell number.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them and reconsider. Oh, what the hell, what did it matter? It wasn’t like Galen would call twice. Of course, Nick could do it first.

Nick snorted and picked up the fax from the funeral home. No, if Galen really wanted to hook back up with him he had to show Nick. He wouldn’t accept dribbles anymore. Not after he’d already lost his heart once and had it handed back to him. Not after Galen had walked away without looking back.

He should have been used to it by now. His mom left. And she’d contacted him and his brothers later on too. Nick still didn’t understand what her motivation had been, because it hadn’t lasted a whole year before she was gone again.

He rubbed his temple when the headache threatened to return. At least Galen had given him the courtesy of honesty. He hadn’t lied and pretended to love him