Before

 

THE YACHT sailed under the skeleton of the Verrazano Bridge, around the rusted pylons, and headed south. The captain and crew moved in perfect tandem, all armed, with two of the men patrolling the dock with eagle-eyed attention. Nox leaned against the port railing, welcoming the sun on his face and shoulders after being in that dark restaurant for so long. He watched the horizon, not the disappearing skyline behind him. He would rather think about the future.

Except….

A noise alerted him to the presence of someone else on the deck. He turned his head to find Rachel, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, coming to stand next to him. They hadn’t seen her for dinner, or the quick head count Nox insisted on.

His back stiffened; despite her seeming change of heart, Nox still couldn’t relax around Jenny.

Rachel.

“I meant what I said.” Nox let his gaze briefly rest on the choppy water below.

Rachel turned slowly to face him; in the scant light, he saw one eyebrow raised and a smirk of amusement on her face. “My word wasn’t good enough the first time?”

“I don’t trust you,” he murmured, low and urgent. Sam slept belowdecks, with Mason keeping watch. The crew, sleeping in shifts, was nowhere near. Cade had been in the shower when Nox had said he needed some air.

“You should learn to let go of the past, Nox. It was a long time ago, and we’re all different people,” she said, steely and calm.

“You’re still a murderer.”

Rachel laughed. “So are you, my darling.”

They stood in silence as the boat streamed through the water and out to sea.

“I’m curious—is Mr. White dead?” Rachel asked, breaking the quiet as the sun set completely in the distance.

Nox tightened his grip on the railing. “Yes.”

“You know, then?”

“Yes.”

“Mmm.” Rachel pulled the blanket around her shoulders to shield her neck and jaw. “Another thing to keep from young Sam.”

“He’s never going to know,” he responded calmly, finality in every syllable.

“About Mr. White? About your shared lineage?” Rachel tipped her head to one side, that smirk still dancing around her mouth. Behind them, a light went on, bathing them both.

“None of it.” He reached out, grabbed her upper arm, and squeezed it. “They’re all dead—my mother and father, that piece-of-shit rapist.” Nox paused. “Jenny.”

Rachel stared at him long and hard, then smiled. “True,” she said softly. “And Rachel is just some nice woman who helped you and Sam in your time of need. A friend of Cade’s. You’re his devoted father, who would do anything to protect him. All is right in his world.”

Nox’s stomach knotted. Every instinct reminded him Rachel could not be trusted. He didn’t answer her, just kept their gazes locked until she looked away, and then he dropped his hand from her arm.

“Change of subject?” Rachel asked.

He was just about to turn away, eager to check on Sam. Eager to crawl into bed with Cade. He paused a moment, though, his muscles tense as he waited. “What?”

“We got away pretty easily,” she said, head tilted to one side. “No one’s after us so far.”

Nox frowned. “I made sure….”

“Someone knew you were at the restaurant. They sent Damian and I there, but not the cops,” she mused. “Damian got a boat, found the only trustworthy crew in the city, apparently. Got an injured teenager, a cop, and several people with warrants out for their arrest all the way here without even a tail. For suspect number one, you sure didn’t attract attention.” At the end of her little speech, she paused. “Ever wonder—why didn’t they just kill you?”

 

HER WORDS took him aback, moving him a literal step back; then he turned on his heel and let his conflict over Rachel’s question fuel him down belowdecks. His emotions focused his physical movement, even as his mind bounced around.

Sam being let out of jail.

The warning when they could have easily put a bullet in his head. Getting out of the Iron Butterfly in enough time to save their lives.

In the master stateroom, Sam lay curled up under the blankets, Mason’s upper body spooned around him, one leg on the floor, his sidearm visible. Protecting Sam.

Nox felt gratitude and a pang of sadness at the same time, anger whooshing out of him like a pricked balloon. He’d done his best, getting them away from the city, away from the people trying to hurt them. Wanting answers took a backseat—at least for a moment.

He closed the door quietly and made his way to the smaller bedroom on the opposite side of the deck.

Nox moved in the darkness, making his way around the tiny stateroom. Their gear was stashed on top of a dresser in the corner, moonlight creating patterns as it shone through the round window over the bed. He stripped down to his underwear, silent and stealthy, his gun tucked under the mattress for the best access.

Clad only in boxers, Cade slept on, flat on his back, arms akimbo.

A spike of relief shot through Nox as he settled next to Cade. The mattress dipping roused Cade; he turned his head with a quiet sound of confusion.

“Shhh, go back to sleep,” Nox whispered, but Cade struggled to open his eyes even as he pulled Nox closer.

“Everything okay?”

“Fine.” Nox pressed a kiss against Cade’s ear. “Everything’s fine.”

Cade sighed, winding around him until Nox was a prisoner in the bed, trapped by the bulk of his lover’s body. Cade used him like a mattress, pressing him down as he got comfortable.

“Go to sleep,” Cade murmured into Nox’s chest. “We’re safe. Go to sleep.”

Nox didn’t argue, didn’t share the turmoil burning through his brain. They weren’t yet safe—they’d gotten away. Nox’s main concern was elevating their circumstances so Sam would be all right. So Cade was safe. They were going to South Carolina, and maybe everything would be okay.

Even as Nox’s heart steadied, with Cade in his arms, his brain refused to quiet.

Why didn’t they just kill you? Why?

 

  

Interlude

 

NOX BOYET is tired.

No—no, he’s exhausted.

He’s depleted of everything—hope and energy and the ability to raise his head off the pillow.

And the only reason he hasn’t gotten the gun hidden in the top of his closet and blown his brains out is the child sleeping next to him on the bed. Killing himself would mean killing his brother—his flesh and blood, his everything.

His son.

The snow is piled up outside, higher than the first floor windowsills. What little progress has been made repairing the neighborhood—the backhoes in the distance, the delivery of building materials to the store on the corner—was obliterated by the nor’easter dumping wet snow amid lightning and wind for the past three days.

There isn’t even the hope the National Guard will come by and offer to rescue them, because the Guard are long gone, like most of the people who used to live here.

Nox feels the weight of living push him down into the mattress. He’s moved most of their supplies up here to his bedroom. Canned food and bottles of water, the lanterns and flashlights—remnants of his mother’s paranoia—are all stacked around the bed in easy reach. Wadded-up towels block every window and door in a futile attempt to keep out the cold air.

He doesn’t want to get out of bed, out from under every blanket in the house.

The townhouse shakes and shudders under the assault. He vaguely wonders if it wouldn’t be a blessing if it crashed down on top of them—while Sam is asleep, and while Nox just doesn’t give a damn.

For five years he’s been pushing through. He’s protected his brother and raised him as best he can. Sam is a good kid with a friendly smile; he has more patience under the circumstances and hardship than Nox could have imagined having at that age. In his limited capacity of “fatherhood,” Nox thinks Sam is actually the strongest person in their fractured little family. So many days when things don’t go right—when the neighborhood violence feels like it’s going to come through the walls, or more mundane things like electricity fluctuations or water shortages that mean he can’t wash clothes or flush the toilets, or Sam is scared or sick or mad—Nox wants to cry with the helplessness.

His biggest accomplishment since that terrible day five years ago is keeping himself and Sam alive.

Sometimes it’s not enough.

The realization that he’s almost twenty-one, that they are alone—utterly and completely alone—has infected his bones like a vicious virus lately. The lack of adult human contact cuts into him in a way he didn’t imagine possible. He wants his confused mother and his distant father with a hunger that brings him to his knees.

He just wants more.

Sometimes he thinks of joining those people on the streets, the ones who live in the burned-out and abandoned houses that surround them. They take what they want and join together in gangs and packs to survive. There’s no honor, he knows that—how many of them beg him before he destroys their weapons and drugs? How many of them offer to give up other dealers?—but it tempts him. They wouldn’t care who he really is; they would help him hide from…

The drug dealers who had killed his father.

The tangled web wraps around his neck and squeezes. In the end he just has Sam and his own cracked moral compass.

Sam startles in his sleep, whimpering a little as he tightens his grip around the stuffed cat in his arms. It is an old toy from Nox’s childhood, a memento found in his mother’s closets a few years ago, and a reminder that Natalie—for all her difficulties and delusions—had loved him.

He cried for a day, clutching the stupid orange tabby while Sam gurgled clueless in his makeshift bassinet.

That cat stays in Sam’s arms while he sleeps, as they both hope to ward off the night terrors that seized Sam recently. Another thing that makes Nox feel so helpless.

So, so helpless.

“Shhh, it’s okay, Sam,” Nox murmurs, brushing his hand over Sam’s too-long curly black locks. They both need baths and clean clothes and clean sheets and something fresher than the endless cans of beans and soggy vegetables they’ve been consuming.

Or maybe the house will fall down on top of them, and it will all be blessedly over.

 

 

Now

 

SLEEP ELUDED Nox.

Cade’s gentle puffs of breath, his nearness and warmth as he lay with his back to Nox, the gentle rocking of the boat—they were so alien, so triggering to Nox’s insomnia that even the act of closing his eyes felt impossible. The questions hanging over his head gave way to the spiraling paranoia that had plagued him for so long; he felt like he was in the guillotine, awaiting execution.

Any second the blade could drop.

Were they really safe?

Was the ship being followed?

Where was his gun?

His body jerked, provoking a disruption in Cade’s gentle breaths. Nox held perfectly still until Cade’s rhythmic breathing settled, then zeroed in on the shadowed spot where the gun was.

The Sig, even hidden within his reach under the mattress, felt too far away.

If he were home, he would still be on patrol—circling the blocks of his territory, knocking off dealers and wandering users.

He’d still be performing an exercise in futility.

Nox blinked up at the shadows, his body humming with unspent energy and anger. All those nights, all those years, sacrificing his sanity and his body, protecting his corner of the city—they meant nothing in the end. The bigger picture spoke of something far uglier than people a few hits and bad decisions away from death wandering into his neighborhood.

He needed to find out more about the man in the warehouse, the one behind the death and disaster raining down on the city.

He wanted to know where Mr. White got his messages. He needed the names of the people who killed his father, the ones who gave the orders to kill everyone at the sanitarium. Every last person who had contributed to the destruction of his family—Nox thirsted for their identities.

And then what?

Maybe he’d storm back into the city and kill them all, a bloody-handed avenger to punish them for all the destruction they’d brought to his family.

Maybe he’d bring their wrongdoings to light—and in this fantasy someone cared, someone took the weight of retribution from his hands and let him go free.

When Nox thought about his life, when he traveled the extremes—wealth to poverty, normalcy to chaos—he felt keenly aware of his lack of power. He saw the manipulation, the decisions made by people he’d never met, turning his reality into a nightmare.

But in the end, it was the knowledge that Sam would have died with his mother that shook Nox to his very marrow and fed his anger. Maybe he could walk away from all of it, but not from Natalie, and not from Sam.

He gasped in the dark, the weight of knowledge pressing down on his heart. The pounding thud of its beat filled his ears until it was the only thing he heard.

One choice he’d made, one decision.

That was all it took to change the course of his world.

The decision to leave the city made perfect sense—Sam needed a safe place, and Cade didn’t belong in that mess. Sailing down the coast was logical.

And none of that very sensible thinking stopped the clanging alarm in his head.

Nox wanted safety. Almost as much as he wanted revenge.

If he didn’t have Sam, he wouldn’t rest until every last one of them paid for their crimes. But because of his son, he had changed his course.

Logic and vengeance battled each other for his commitment, for his allegiance. And now, panting and gasping in the dark, Nox had another decision to make.

 

 

TIME PASSED with Nox’s body fighting his brain to peace. He needed to sleep, to relax—his mind wasn’t even forming coherent thoughts. He had a sliver of moonlight and the rock of the boat to keep him company, along with Cade’s heavy weight against him.

With a sharp intake of breath, Cade began to move, rolling back against Nox with a shiver. Instinctively Nox reached around to pull him close, and their bodies shifted together like matching puzzle pieces. Cade made a sound of contentment as they touched, then deepened the contact as he ground his hips back—against Nox’s suddenly interested dick.

Distraction beckoned. For a moment he could shove aside his incessant circular thinking, push aside the exhaustion and inability to rest that were wearing at him. He trailed his hand down Cade’s arm, following the curve of muscles and warm skin, then circled his wrist for a moment before retracing his path back to his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Cade murmured, twining his legs between Nox’s as he arched sleepily, opening his body—curve of neck, open knees—like an offering that Nox couldn’t refuse.

Nox didn’t hesitate. He let his hands wander over Cade’s chest, teasing pecs through the thin material of his shirt. Cade twisted in response, reaching back to grasp Nox’s hip.

The request was now quite clear.

Even the diversion of a tempting Cade in his arms—the press of his dick against the firm tease of Cade’s ass, the wordless insistence of satisfaction—couldn’t shut down Nox’s brain. As much as he wanted to sink into Cade’s body….

Nox slid his arm underneath Cade’s shoulder and pulled him closer against his chest; he pressed his free hand against the inside of his thigh, urging his legs open wider. Cade made a sleepy sound of confusion that morphed into a guttural purr as Nox tucked his hand up through the leg opening of Cade’s boxers.

The sweat-damp warmth of Cade’s cock teased under his fingers; Nox let himself play for a moment at the crease of his inner thigh. He manipulated the soft furred sac until Cade started to move his hips. He clasped Cade’s dick with a smooth hand and stroked slowly, root to tip, until Cade rocked and moaned, chasing his own pleasure against Nox’s hand.

It felt surreal, almost confusing in the silent intimacy of actually knowing a lover, knowing how he sounded when he was close, knowing the jerk and twitch of his body and letting that sound, that scent ignore your own desire.

Like Cade used his hand, Nox used Cade’s body to get off, everything damp and rough and speeding up as they fed off each other’s need. Nox’s breath stuttered as Cade ground roughly against his dick, caught in the trap of Nox’s hand and the cradle of his hips.

His hand slick and his orgasm close, Nox rolled them both over, pressing Cade into the mattress. The eager groan, muffled by the pillow, spurred Nox on—he locked his knees on either side of Cade’s hips, bracing himself with his free hand.

The sharp sting of rubbing against his shorts, rutting against Cade, kept everything in focus. He rocked with abandon, slotting his covered dick in the valley of Cade’s ass, feeling the stiffening of Cade’s body as he spilled over Nox’s palm.

It hurt as he pulled his hand free, and somehow that fed more movement, faster until the combination squeezed his balls and he came in his shorts somewhere around the small of Cade’s back.

He collapsed next to Cade, breathing frantically. The sway of the boat caught up with him for a moment, knocking the ground out from under him until he felt like the bed was floating.

Cade didn’t turn over or say anything. His quiet gasps didn’t morph into anything else.

They lay there in silence, Nox closing his eyes until the room regained gravity.

Exhaustion snuck up on him, his body overwhelming his mind as he finally dropped off to sleep.