Saturday, August 5, 2017

Saturday's Series Spotlight: A Matter of Time by Mary Calmes


A Matter of Time Vol. 1 (#1-2)
Summary:
Jory Keyes leads a normal life as an architect's assistant until he is witness to a brutal murder. Though initially saved by police Detective Sam Kage, Jory refuses protective custody—he has a life he loves that he won't give up no matter who is after him. But Jory's life is in real jeopardy, especially after he agrees to testify about what he saw.

While dealing with attempts on his life, well-meaning friends who want to see him happy, an overly protective boss, and a slowly unfolding mystery that is much more sinister than he could ever imagine, the young gay man finds himself getting involved with Sam, the conflicted and closeted detective. And though Jory may survive the danger, he may not survive a broken heart.


A Matter of Time Vol. 2 (#3-4)
Summary:
Three years ago, Jory Harcourt changed his name and shut the door on a past full of pain, only to emerge stronger on the other side. He has a new career, a great working partner, and a satisfying life—except for the hole in his chest left behind when police Detective Sam Kage walked out with his heart.

Now Sam's back and he knows what he wants... and what he wants is Jory. Jory, who doesn't know if he can survive another break up or losing Sam to his dangerous job, resists returning to the arms of the only man he has ever truly loved. But when a serial killer with a score to settle targets Jory, he will have to decide if love is worth the danger as he tries to solve the case and keep Sam safe.


Bulletproof #5
Summary:
Jory Harcourt doesn't have to go looking for trouble. Wherever he goes, it seems to find him—particularly when his partner, Sam Kage, is working undercover on a federal task force.

After the recession forces him to close his business, Jory goes to work as a matchmaker and event planner. From there, it's only a matter of time before his big mouth and up-front attitude make him the rope in a tug-of-war between a trust fund baby and a drug-smuggling criminal. Then, as if that situation weren't delicate enough, Jory's undercover lover shows up working for the smuggler.

Between the men who want him and the men who just want him dead, Chicago is getting a little crowded for Jory, so on the advice of his brother, his boyfriend, and the FBI task force, he heads for Hawaii... where a serious accident threatens his quality of life. Can Sam and Jory keep the faith and prove that their relationship really is bulletproof?

Just Jory #5.5
Summary:
A free ficlet which is set in the time period between Bulletproof and But For You.


But For You #6
Summary:
Jory Harcourt is finally living the dream. Being married to US Marshal Sam Kage has changed him—it’s settled the tumult of their past and changed Jory from a guy who bails at the first sign of trouble to a man who stays and weathers the storm. He and Sam have two kids, a house in the burbs, and a badass minivan. Jory’s days of being an epicenter for disaster are over. Domestic life is good.

Which means it's exactly the right time for a shakeup on the home front. Sam’s ex turns up in an unexpected place. A hit man climbs up their balcony at a family reunion. And maybe both of those things have something to do with a witness who disappeared a year ago. Marital bliss just got a kick in the pants, but Jory won’t let anyone take his family away from him. Before he knew what it felt like to have a home, he would have run. Not anymore. He knows he and Sam need to handle things together, because that’s the only way they’re going to make it. 

Ears, Eggs, and Bunnies #6.5
Summary:
A Sam and Jory Easter Ficlet.








Parting Shot #7
Summary:
(Duncan Stiel from Acrobat)

Life has never been easy for Duncan Stiel. His childhood was the stuff of nightmares, and his day job as an undercover police officer forces him to hide his true self and occasionally lands him in the hospital. So when he finally meets the perfect man, it comes as no surprise that everything falls apart around him. What Duncan doesn’t expect is that the hardest hurdle to get over before he can make a life with Aaron Sutter is the one inside himself.

Everyone thinks Aaron has it all—looks, money, fame, and success beyond measure. Everyone, that is, except Aaron. At the end of the day, the cameras stop flashing, friends go back to their own lives, company business is handled, and Aaron is always alone. The moment he meets Duncan Stiel, Aaron knows he’ll do anything to hold onto the larger-than-life detective. But when he realizes money won’t buy him the ultimate happiness, Aaron needs to find the strength to give Duncan something much more important—his heart.

Piece of Cake #8
Summary:
After years of domestic partnership, Jory Harcourt and Sam Kage are finally going to make it official in their home state of Illinois. It’s been a long and rocky road, and nothing—not disasters at work, not the weather, not a possible stalker, not even getting beat up and having to attend the ceremony looking like he just got mugged—will make Jory wait one more day to make an honest man of the love of his life.

Should be a piece of cake, right?

Hannah's Big Night #8.5
Summary:
A Jory and Sam Thanksgiving Ficlet.

Another Day with Jory #8.6
Summary:
Jory holiday ficlet.

My Current Thoughts:
3rd Re-Read Overall Series Review 2017:
How can a series continue to get better and better with every new re-read?  Sam and Jory are absolutely not meant for each other, well at least that's what some would say considering how opposite they are from each other.  BUT!  Once you reach the second page after they first meet you realize that they are actually a perfect fit.  I say perfect not because their connection is Utopian but because the good and the bad blend and morph into a love that goes above and beyond first impressions.  To me perfect love is laughing, fighting, loving, frustration, inspiration, and everything in between which is exactly what Sam and Jory have, even if takes them awhile to figure it out.  Sam is gruff but he looks out for those in his heart, trust me you do not want to go after his family.  Jory is lovely who simply put, acts before he thinks but his heart is always in the right place.  Never before has a series made me laugh more and it isn't always Jory's antics that cause the giggles, its often Sam's reactions to his man's antics.  Mary Calmes' Matter of Time has definitely cemented its place on my annual Summer Re-Read List, the boys and their family and friends will never get old.

A Matter of Time Volume 1(#1 & #2)
2nd Re-Read Review July 2016:
I'm not usually one for re-reads, especially for the 3rd time but Sam & Jory are even better the third time around and will never get boring. Just LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them!!!

Original Review 2013:
I love reading the story of Jory and Sam, an intriguing love story that has ups and downs like a whacked out elevator that really sucked me in. I just couldn't stop reading it. There could be a little more description, as there is a considerable amount of dialogue and sometimes you really have to concentrate on who is saying what but it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the story.

A Matter of Time Volume 2(#3 & #4)
2nd Re-Read 2016:
Still amazing!! No words describe how much I love these boys. Seeing Sam finally accept fully who he is, well that's wonderful and Jory is . . . well he's Jory, nothing more nothing less. They work perfectly together.

Original Review 2013:
A great continuation of Jory and Sam's story of love, mystery, and acceptance of one's true nature. You just can't help but fall in love with Jory's heart and determination to find the truth and keep those around him safe. Sam is a bit more rough around the edges but he's just as loving and determined to keep Jory safe.

Bulletproof #5
2nd Re-Read Review 2016:
Jory and Sam just get better and better. As if we didn't already realize that Jory is a trouble magnate, then Bulletproof will definitely make it clear. Only Jory, I found myself saying that many times and loved it every time.

Original Review 2013:
This was a nice addition to the tale of Jory and Sam, although I don't think it was quite upto the same quality as the first stories. It still touched on many of the same feelings but acceptance doesn't seem to be one of the problems, by now they have both accepted each other just the way they are.

Just Jory #5.5
Re-Read Review 2016:
Still fabulous!!

Original Review: August 2015:
Can't believe I hadn't read this little ditty before. Great little free ficlet featuring my boys Jory & Sam.

But for You #6
2nd Re-Read 2016:
As much as I loved Jory & Sam when it was just them, now that they have 2 children, they are even better which I didn't think possible. As for Kola & Hannah, I don't think I've ever read 2 more adorable little kids. They may be adopted but they are definitely their parents' kids.

Original Review 2013:
This was a perfect addition to Jory and Sam's love story. Very interesting to see them in a complete family setting and still never lose a beat of their individual nature. They've both grown so much since their first meeting and yet maintain the fresh passion that brought them together all those years ago. Quite possibly the best in the series.

Ears, Eggs, & Bunnies #6.5
1st Re-Read 2016:
I originally read this August 2015 but never marked it here. I just re-read it and it's still fabulous as only Sam & Jory can be.

Parting Shot #7
Original Review 2015:
4-1/2 stars
I read Mary Calmes' A Matter of Time series two years ago and it was the 4th published M/M books that I checked out when I started reading the genre. When I first opened Parting Shot I just couldn't make myself read it because I had no interest in knowing Aaron and Duncan's tale. That had more to do with me not being ready to let go of Jory and Sam. When I decided to re-read Jory and Sam I was ready to learn all about Aaron and Duncan. So glad I did. I'll be honest, I did not love them at the same level I did Jory and Sam but I still enjoyed every word of Parting Shot. Duncan is like a mild version of Sam Kage but definitely not a mirror copy, he may be closeted at work but he's not closeted to himself. We get to see a little of why Aaron is the way we've come to know or think we know of him in the previous installments. So if you're like I was and couldn't read Parting Shot because it wasn't part of Sam and Jory's tale, I highly recommend taking a look because I missed out on a great love story.

Piece of Cake #8
1st Re-Read Review 2016:
I love Jory and Sam and now with Hannah & Kola it's amazing! Even better the second time around.

Original Review August 2015:
What a great treat for fans of Jory and Sam. Loved seeing them get married now that they would be recognized nationwide but more than that, I just loved seeing everyone in a new story. This is a wedding done in the only way Jory could possibly be part of, trouble magnet extraordinaire. Hannah and Kola are still precious and definitely their fathers' children. I won't lie, I would have loved it to have been longer but I was just over the moon to just have Jory, Sam, and everyone back. A short but amazing addition to the Matter of Time series.

Hannah's Big Night #8.5
1st Re-Read Review 2016:
Another one I originally read August 2015 & forgot to mark it here. I re-read it again and I love Hannah & Kola nearly as much as the dads, Sam & Jory. You can definitely see Hannah takes after Jory and Kola is more like Sam.

Another Day with Jory #8.6
Original Review January 2017:
What a wonderful post holiday treat! Saw a post about it on Facebook and immediately went to read it. I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Jory and Sam and the entire cast of characters from Mary Calmes' Matter of Time Universe. I think I love married and domesticated Sam & Jory as much if not a little more than them as flirty & fighting newbies. Just a wonderful addition to the series!!

RATING: 

A Matter of Time Vol 1
After careful thought and consideration I have come to the conclusion that things happen to me for two reasons. First, I have a terrible habit of tuning out in the middle of a conversation. I’ll hear the beginning, start thinking about what I’m going to do later, and then come back in time to hear the end. This gets particularly dicey when I’m getting directions, because you never want to ask someone to repeat something they have already gone over in specific detail. This is why I often end up in some spooky neighborhoods after dark. I’m winging it. Second, I am not the most discriminating person on the planet. So when a friend of mine asks me to do them a favor, I’ll usually just do it without asking a lot of questions. Not that I would be listening to the whole explanation anyway, since like I said, I’m probably the poster child for ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, unless you’re my boss or a really hot guy.

The night my friend Anna called me, sobbing on the other end of the phone, I immediately went into nurture mode and walked out of the club, so I could hear her better. There is no way to hear anything over trance music, so I had her wait to spill her guts. I was happily surprised to hear that she was finally leaving her husband. She had stayed with me or her sister many times, after he’d hit her for the millionth time. It’s hard to watch your friends come to class wearing oversized sunglasses, and makeup that’s so thick it could have been applied with a putty knife. Everyone knew her husband beat her, I just never knew how bad or constant it was. I lost track of her after graduation, when she moved to the suburbs, but when she called I was right back there, instantly in that place where I was ready to help any way I could. I told her that of course, I would do whatever she needed.

In all the movies on the Lifetime channel, which I watched the last time I was home sick—hung over and hurling—the wife always has to go back to get her kid’s stuffed animal from the house of horrors she lives in. But before she can put the pedal to the metal and point the late-model station wagon with the faux-wood paneling into the sunset, she has to return for Boo-Boo Bunny or Mr. Snuggles, or a teddy bear that has been loved so hard and long it now resembles an iguana. Anna didn’t have any kids, but what she did have was her beagle, George. She couldn’t go back, but neither could she leave without her partner in crime. They had apparently executed all manner of petty crimes and misdemeanors against her husband over the years. From peeing in shoes—George’s part—to hiding miscellaneous items—Anna’s part—they had made Brian Minor’s daily existence annoying, in exchange for the abuse he had handed out with fist and word. It had given her some degree of satisfaction knowing that, one day, vengeance would be hers. She knew she’d been a coward to not just leave, but she suspected her husband was far more sinister then he let on. So Anna was finally ready to call it a day with Brian but he would have suspected something, and probably killed her, if she’d tried to take her dog. She needed me to get her puppy to make a clean break of it. Because I wanted her out of there so badly, and because I would have gone back for my own dog were he still alive, there was no way to say no.

After leaving my friends dancing at a club on Halsted, I took a cab and headed out to the suburbs. I tried never to leave the city and had only been outside of downtown Chicago on two previous occasions. On the way over there I tried to remember where in the house she had told me the dog was, but since I hadn’t heard that part it was useless to try and dredge the information from my brain. I figured when I got to the house, which I had only been to once, it wouldn’t be hard to find a beagle.

The problem turned out to be finding the house itself. I forgot the address and I didn’t want to call Anna back and look like I hadn’t been listening. Even though I hadn’t. And by then enough time had gone by that if I had called her she would have wondered why I just didn’t call her earlier, so… the cabbie and I took the tour of La Grange until I remembered the street in an energy-drink-fuelled vision after I made him stop at a gas station. It had only taken two hours to get to her huge three-story apparition. I asked the driver to wait for me and he said he’d rather drink Clorox. I understood. I can be exhausting at times. I watched him drive away before I headed toward the house.

The front door swung open when I went to ring the doorbell. I called for Brian and got no response. When I called for George, I heard muffled barking from a room to the left. It was the study, and as soon as I walked in I realized the noise was coming from behind the curtain. When I checked, there was another door behind it. If you weren’t looking for it you would have never seen it, but there was no missing the high-pitched puppy whining. When I opened the door, George was all over me, whimpering, dancing, his whole little body moving with his wagging tail, trying like mad to claw through my jeans. I bent to pet him, and when I did, without meaning to, without even thinking about it, I stepped into the office. The door was open but behind the curtain, so even though I had never intended to hide, I ended up doing just that. It was only for a second and I was ready to step back out when I heard the crash. George yelped and retreated behind my leg. I peeked around the drape and saw a man lying on top of the remains of the heavy glass coffee table that I had walked by seconds earlier. He was covered in blood and mumbling softly.

There are those moments that seem like a strobe light is going off in your head. You see pieces of things but not the whole picture. I saw the shattered glass, the burnished black leather shoes of the guys standing on the royal blue Persian rug; I saw the polished marble floors and Brian holding a gun on the guy. It doesn’t sound like it does in the movies. When a gun goes off, there’s no boom, it’s more of a firecracker pop. I saw the guy jerk, heard him scream out “no,” and watched Brian unload the gun. It was fast, like a jump cut in a movie, and it was over. All the guys took a turn spitting on him, and it was at that moment that two things happened simultaneously. First, my phone rang, which does “Karma Chameleon,” and second, George bolted through the drape. I lunged for him and caught his collar but not in time to stop my forward momentum. It was like being on stage. I came out from behind the curtain. Like ta-dah!

My eyes swept the room; I saw every face before I settled on the one I knew the best, the guy holding the empty gun.

“Jory!” Brian roared, and because I have no fight reflex whatsoever, I went immediately to flight. I yanked on George’s collar and whipped him back into the other room. As I dived after him I heard the shots and Brian screaming my name. He’d never been all that crazy about me but we were definitely in another place by that moment.

I got my legs under me and ran. I yelled for George and he was running along beside me as fast as his little legs would carry him. I saw a guy in front of me but instead of slowing down I sped up. When he pulled his gun, I dropped to my knees and slid halfway across the polished wooden floor. It would have been very cool if I weren’t running for my life at the time. He fell on top of me, but I got untangled and ran for the front door. When I threw it open, I was faced with Darth Vader.

“Get down,” he ordered me, and what sounded like a baseball hit him in the chest.

I dove for the ground and he stepped on me and then somebody else kicked me and then my arm got yanked so hard I thought my shoulder was dislocated. Outside, someone dragged me to my feet before pulling me into the street where like a hundred police cars were, lights flashing everywhere. It was cold and I registered that before anything else. There were more shots and I got shoved back down to my knees on the ground. I lost my balance because I got bumped and pushed and then somebody covered me in a jacket that weighed like a thousand pounds. I fell back and George was on me, licking my face as I tried to breathe. I was winded and when I finally grabbed the dog and hugged him so he’d stop I realized four men were standing over me. Not one looked pleased. One guy in particular looked like he wanted to strangle me right there in the middle of the street.

“Two years of undercover work blown in seconds,” he told me icily.

What to say? “Sorry?”

“Who the fuck are you?” he snarled at me. The scowl looked permanent.

I coughed twice. My ribs hurt. “Jory Keyes.”

“What are you doing here, man?” one of the others snapped at me.

I tried to take in some air. “I came to get the dog,” I told them, which was really all the explanation I had. It had seemed like such a nothing task at the time.

“The dog?”

Their expressions were priceless and even lying there on the pavement I had to smile.

If I didn’t watch so much TV, real life wouldn’t be so disappointing. As it was, I was expecting the interrogation room from Law & Order and the reality was nothing like that. It wasn’t dark, it was really bright, and the metal table was bolted to the floor. The chairs were cold and metal without any padding, and just basically had no atmosphere or character to speak of. It was just plain anticlimactic and so I was bored. I had an ice pack on the back of my head, a Sprite for my stomach, which had gotten queasy when my adrenaline ran out, and a pen and paper so I could write down everything I remembered. I had recounted what I’d seen to a lot of different people ten different ways. When Anna had come to get George, they wouldn’t let me see her. She was being taken somewhere safe right that second. I couldn’t blame them. I didn’t want her to get hurt either. My head was down on my folded arms when the door opened. So many people had been in and out that I didn’t even look up.

“Mr. Keyes."

I rolled my head sideways and realized that Detective Sam Kage was back. He was, I’d decided, the one that hated me the most. I had screwed up his undercover investigation with my need to be rescued. He and his fellow vice detectives had to break cover, turn their guns on Brian Minor, and save me. The only luck they had all night was that Brian had actually killed a man in cold blood and they had an eyewitness to that… me. He was going to jail for a long time. It was just as good, they said, as racketeering, bribery, blackmail, and extortion. First-degree murder had its own time frame that worked for them.

“Sit up and look at me.”

I lifted my head off my arm and leaned back in my chair, staring at him. He had changed out of his Kevlar body armor and was now in a shirt and tie. He was trying to pull off mild-mannered police detective but I wasn’t buying it. I’d seen the beast inside of him already. The others, his tall but balding captain, his dark sort of eastern-European-looking partner and the two others, who looked like poster boys for the Marine Corps, all of them were nicer than Detective Kage. I wanted anyone else but him in the room with me.

“Mr. Keyes, you—”

“What kind of gun is that?” I asked, pointing to his holster.

“What?”

“What kind of gun?”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “I was just wondering.”

“It’s a Glock 22.”

“Okay,” I yawned, letting out a deep sigh. That exchange had maybe killed a second and a half. What was next on the agenda?

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Keyes.”

I looked back at him. “Whaddya wanna know?”

“Where are you from?”

“Kentucky,” I said flatly because I usually said LA or Miami just to make it sound more glamorous, but I figured he was looking for the truth, being a police officer and all.

“How long have you been in Chicago?”

“I moved here when I was seventeen.”

“You run away from home?”

“Nope. I graduated from high school when I was seventeen. See my birthday’s in January so I started school at four instead of—”

“Can we move on?”

Rude much?

“Well?”

“Rude much?” I said out loud instead of just thinking it in my head.

“Sorry, go on.”

“Never mind,” I snapped at him. I hated getting caught rambling on to people that didn’t give a crap. It was mortifying.

“Just talk already, sorry for interrupting.”

He wasn’t sorry, but I figured if I were waiting for actual sincerity I’d be sitting there a long time. I was better off just letting it go. What did it matter to me if he cared or didn’t? “Okay, so I got here and got a job and I’ve been here ever since.”

“Uh-huh. So what, your family’s still there in Kentucky?”

“No,” I breathed out. “There was only my grandmother and she died when I was ten.”

“Where are your folks?”

“I have no idea.”

“You have no idea where your father is.”

He said it like he didn’t believe it. “No. I don’t even know who he is. It doesn’t even say on my birth certificate, and my mother left when I was like three months old or something. Her name was… is Mandy, but that’s all I can tell you. She never came back so I’ve never met her.”

“I see. So you were raised by your grandmother, and when she died, what?”

“I went into foster care.”

He looked straight at me. “Any horror stories?”

“No, I was lucky. I lived in a group home from the time I was ten to the time when I graduated from high school.”

“You close to any of those people?”

“No. Why?”

“Why not?”

“I dunno. You’re acting like I have a character deficit or something.”

“Was I?”

“It was implied,” I assured him.

He grunted.

“It was a group home, Detective. It wasn’t the whole mother/father deal. It was like a dorm. I wasn’t close to anyone. They could have cared less if I was there or not.”

“Did that bother you?”

“I don’t need some bullshit psych eval here, all right? It was what it was, it doesn’t matter.”

He nodded. “So you graduated and what?”

“I bought a bus ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to Chicago, Illinois.”

“And so you got here and then what happened?

“Why is this important?”

“I just need some background, Mr. Keyes, if you don’t mind.”

Did I mind? “Okay, so I got here and got the job I have now. I worked all through college and when I was done I decided to stay instead of doing something else.”

“And where do you work?”

“I work at Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan,” I said proudly.

“By your tone I’m assuming I’m supposed to know what that is.”

I felt my brows draw together.

“What’s with the look?”

“Are you kidding?”

“No I’m not kidding.”

“You’re serious?”

“I said I was.”

“Huh.”

“What is whatever you said?”

“Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan… it’s one of the premier architectural firms in the city.”

“Uh-huh.”

“My boss, Dane Harcourt, he’s the main architect. Miles Brown does interior design and Sherman Cogan is the landscape architect.”

“What does main architect mean?”

“He designs houses.”

He stared at me a long minute. “Does he?”

“Yes. He’s very famous.”

“If he’s so famous why haven’t I ever heard of him?”

I scoffed at him. “I bet the people you haven’t heard of could fill a book, Detective.”

“You’re a punk, you know that?”

I smiled at him. “Particularly nice comeback, Detective.”

“So that’s it, no family, just you?”

“Just me.”

“This’ll be easy then.”

“What will?”

“Making you disappear.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Protective custody, witness protection… are you starting to get it?”

I shook my head. “Just tell me when I can go home.”

His eyes narrowed more than they already were. “Are you stupid?”

I just waited, staring at him.

“Mr. Keyes, you are never going home again. You are going into the witness protection program. Federal marshals will be here in the morning to transport you to—”

“Yeah, right,” I got up. I was tired of being treated like I did something wrong. “I’m going now. I’m beat and I gotta go to work in the morning.”

“Mr. Keyes, people want to kill you. Do you understand that? Brian Minor is very well connected and—”

“I gotta go,” I said as I got up and headed for the door.

“Mr. Keyes, you are going into protective custody.”

“Uh-huh,” I scoffed at him, stopping at the door only as long as it took to open it and go through. At the end of the hall, Brian was being walked to wherever he was being taken by two uniformed police officers.

“Jory!” he yelled at me. “You’re a dead man! Do you understand me? Dead!”

I smirked at him and flipped him off. He yanked free and came charging down the hall toward me. I had no idea what he thought he was going to do to me, handcuffed like he was, but he came anyway. He’d always been so big and brutish, one of those bull in a china shop kind of guys. A lot of big men were still fluid when they moved, like their size was perfect for them, but Brian had always seemed unaware of how strong he was or the confines of his own shoulders and legs. Plodding like an animal was what had forever come to mind. So when he got to me I ducked and crouched and swept my leg underneath him. He went down with a hard face-plant into the tile floor at my feet. I stood there a second and then very theatrically stepped over him.

“You sonofabitch!” he shrieked at me.

“Shut the hell up,” I said irritably.

“Jory!” he screamed at me as I jumped over his thrashing legs before he was buried under five policemen. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you… you fuckin’ faggot! You hear me! Jory! You goddamn cocksucker!”

“Oh, go to hell, Brian,” I groaned, turning to walk away from him. “And that whole faggot crap is so old. Who even uses that word anymore?”

“Jory!” he screamed after me.

“People with pickup trucks and gun racks, that’s who,” I chuckled, my own laughter sounding a little unhinged. I was ready to pass out.

“Jory!” His voice had lost some of its power but he was still shrieking.

I headed toward the stairs.

“Mr. Keyes!”

I pivoted around and Detective Kage was there with his nice captain that I’d met earlier and another of the square-cut jaw/square-cut hair guys who had been on the street with him. He did the two-fingered poke into my collarbone like he was trying to drill through my skin.

“Where the hell do you think—”

“Sam,” the captain cautioned him, putting up his hand. “Let’s not—”

“He’s an idiot,” he gestured at me, “and he’ll be dead this time tomorrow.”

“And who would do that? Brian?” I smirked at him. “Gimme a break.”

He gestured at me again but said nothing.

“Mr. Keyes,” the other detective began, his voice gentle, soothing. “Even though you think of Mr. Minor as simply the sonofabitch husband of one of your girlfriends, you must believe us when we tell you the man is not that benign. He’s a drug dealer, a murderer, and someone you don’t want to cross. There are a lot of people that don’t want him in the position of choosing between jail time or talking about them. You alone have the power to put him behind bars. Without you, he walks. Do you understand that?”

“I get it,” I told him. “I do. I will testify. I will do whatever you need so he never sees Anna again as long as he lives. I promise, but seriously—I have a life. I mean, I get from being here for the last five hours that you guys don’t think being someone’s assistant is important. But I promise you that, to my boss, I actually matter. I’ve got so much shit to do, you have no idea.” I let out a quick breath, finally shaking my head. “Call me and tell me what day I need to appear in court.” I said, heading down the stairs to the exit.

“Mr. Keyes.”

I sighed and turned around, looking up at the captain.

“They’ll come after people you love.”

I shrugged. “Good luck finding any.” I said, before I turned back away from him.

Outside the air was cold. I had forgotten I was still in my dancing clothes, which consisted that night of a black spandex T-shirt, tight, brown, distressed boot-cut jeans and motorcycle boots. So because it was November, I was freezing. It smelled like it was going to rain and the breeze was icy. My teeth started to chatter as I looked for a cab.

A car slowed down beside me and I heard the sound of the automatic window going down. When I turned, a guy was smiling at me from the driver’s side.

I waited for the come-on line.

“Hey, man, you need a lift?”

The whole ick factor of some middle-aged man in a van trying to pick me up in the same ride that he took his kids to school in made my skin crawl.

“I’m talking to you, pretty boy.”

“No thanks,” I said quickly, hoping he’d just drive away. “I don’t need a ride.”

“C’mon,” he persisted, “how much?”

“I’m not hustling, man, I’m just walkin’,” I said, moving faster.

“Sure you are,” he leered at me. “Get in.”

And I thought, it’s the club clothes outside of the club, downtown, walking the streets alone at two in the morning. I couldn’t fault his logic. I had rent boy written all over me. “I.…”

The horn scared us both. I jumped, and the guy was so startled that he gunned the motor and drove away. It would have been funny if my heart weren’t pounding so hard. I shivered in spite of myself and looked up when someone shouted my name.

I saw the enormous SUV then, named after something nautical, black and shiny, and through the lowered window was Detective Kage. He was motioning me over. I shoved my hands down in my pockets as I walked over to see what he wanted.

“Get in,” he snapped at me as soon as I peered in the window.

“I—”

“Mr. Keyes,” he said sharply, and the exasperation was not lost on me. “You’re this close to being put in the vehicle whether you like it or not.”

The way he said the word vehicle, so clinical, so like the cop that he was. Step away from the vehicle, put your hands on top of the vehicle, get in the vehicle.… it was funny. “Oh yeah?” I baited him because I figured I could move before he got a hold of me. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” he warned me, his gaze level and dark. “I think so.”

And it wasn’t so much the ominous tone or the way he was looking at me as the muscle that flexed in his jaw. I realized I was closer to jeopardy than I realized. He was bigger than me, so the chances that he could hurt me were pretty good.

I opened the door and climbed up into the seat, swinging the heavy door shut hard.

He grunted at me. “Put on your goddamn seat belt.”

“Do you know where I live?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he almost growled. He had one of those voices that was low and husky, the kind that under other circumstances I would have found sexy as hell.

“I don’t live in the city.” I wanted to make sure he knew where he was going. “I live just on the other side of Austin Avenue in Oak Park.”

He didn’t respond so I gave up. There was some cowboy crap playing on the radio but it was low so I didn’t complain.

“Did you hear me?” I asked him, checking.

“I know where you live,” he said fast, clearly exasperated. “It was one of the many questions you answered for me, as you may recall.”

I rolled my eyes as my phone rang. “Hello?” I answered.

“Where the hell did you go?” Taylor Grant asked me irritably.

“To get a friend out of a jam,” I smiled, slouching down in the seat.

“Were you gonna come back or call?”

I chuckled. “I thought that wasn’t our deal. Either one of us could split at any time. It’s your rule,” I reminded him cheerfully.

Long silence.

“Right?”

“Yeah, right,” he said, the annoyance clear in his voice. “So where are you?”

“On my way home.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Tell me where that is.”

“Nah. I’ll call you,” I told him.

“Jory,” he said softly. “Please lemme see—”

“Later,” I yawned and hung up. I wasn’t in the mood for company. I just wanted to go home, shower off the night, and pass out in my bed.

“Friend of yours?”

“Not really,” I told him, “just a guy.”

“You got a lot of guys?”

I turned slowly to look at him.

“What?” he asked gruffly.

“What kind of question is that?”

“Fair, I would say.”

I went back to staring out the window.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.” I clipped my answer, trying not to snap.

“Twenty-two,” he repeated.

“Yeah.”

“How can you afford to live alone?”

It was a weird question. “I told you already, I have a good job.”

“And what else?”

I turned again to look at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I think you know.”

“I don’t think I do, Detective. You need to spell it out for me.”

“Fine. Does some guy help you out with your rent in exchange for fucking you?”

That was definitely clear. “No,” I barely got out through my clenched jaw.

“No?”

“How do you know I’m even gay, Detective?”

He glanced at me, scoffing. “Dressed like that?”

“You know what, just lemme out.”

“Knock it off. Don’t be so dramatic.” He was annoyed and his voice was dripping with it. “All you guys are so goddamn dramatic.”

All you guys? “You mean gay guys?”

“Just drop it, all right? I’m tired and I don’t feel like getting into a pissing contest with you. I’m driving you ’cause if I don’t, you’re gonna freeze to death. You don’t even have a jacket.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Just sit there and shut up.”

And I granted his request and didn’t say another word to him for the rest of the ride. When he dumped me in front of the old Victorian house that had been converted into four apartments, I got out. I slammed the door and ran across the lawn without a backward glance. I didn’t check to see if he waited.

When I got inside I immediately fell down on my bed, fully clothed, with my shoes still on. I was exhausted. Having people shooting at you as you ran for your life was really very draining.

A Matter of Time Vol 2
The room was covered in roses. Pale, dusty-rose-colored petals were strewn over everything, the lighting, the colors, all of it giving you that romantic, soft-filtered feeling of femininity. It was stunning. The string quartet, the champagne, the servers in crisp white, it was all so elegant… and completely lost on the rest of the men at the table. They looked wrung out and I understood why. Three days of wedding was an uphill grind, and we were only on day two.

I had no idea who had ever decided that a bachelor party should be the night before the rehearsal dinner, but I was pretty sure that person was a sadist. Having barely recovered from staggering home as the sun came up, Dane’s groomsmen had been expected to be sober and high-functioning the following day by five, to be put through the repetitive practice of walking in and out of the church. They were also supposed to be impressed with the lovely room and intimate setting, when all they wanted to do was drink away the remnants of their hangovers. I was glad I had taken the time off from work for my brother’s wedding, since if I’d had to keep up my usual schedule of appointments I would have turned instantly to ash. When I was hounded to accompany them out carousing for the second night in a row, I snuck out instead, declining by way of absence, and went home to bed. It was the coward’s way, but I could never have kept up. They were all much better drinkers than me, which was saying a lot as I could normally hold my own.

The following morning when I reached the suite with my tuxedo draped over my arm, I was not surprised to find them still in their clothes from the night before. There was one on the floor, one on each couch, one in the wingback chair and Jude, Dane’s best man, alone in the bed, drooling. It was a sight to behold. When the door opened and it was Aja Greene—Dane’s fiancĂ©e and not the man himself—come to roust the boys, I felt really sorry for them. It was her wedding day, and they looked like roadkill. This was not the way to get on her good side.

“Are you kidding me?” she shrieked in the silence.

The moaning and whimpering made me smile as I started pouring coffee and water. I had brought a large bottle of Tylenol with me.

“Hey,” Rick Jenner said softly as he gestured me over to him. “What time is it?”

“It’s ten.” I smiled down at him. “The wedding’s not for another eight hours.”

“Then why is she screaming?”

“She’s not, actually.”

“It sounds like it to me.”

“Yeah, but you can probably hear paint peeling,” I suggested.

He only groaned.

“She’s only concerned that you guys aren’t gonna look pretty for pictures.”

“Owww.” He winced, patting the couch beside him. “Sit.”

“It was the last shot of tequila off the girl’s navel that did it,” I teased him. I could only imagine what the second night of debauchery had degraded to.

“How d’ya know?” He tried to smile, putting his head on my leg as soon as I sat down.

I smiled at him as I was bumped from the other side and hands gripped my shoulders.

Lance Simmons and Alex Greene, Aja’s brother, had joined me.

“Hey, fellas,” I teased them, looking sideways at Lance’s profile. “You guys all done barfing?”

“No,” he whined, his head on my shoulder. “Tell me what we have to eat for dinner.”

“Liver and onions,” I cackled evilly.

“Oh screw you,” he retched, leaning over to lie down on the couch. The leather had to be cool on his hot face. “Liver, my ass.”

“Alex.” I called his name softly.

“Mmmm.” He barely made a noise, his forehead against the back of my neck.

“Do your eyelids hurt?”

“If I straighten my head, I think it’ll explode.”

“Your sister’s coming.”

He whimpered before she yelled, “You guys need to get up!”

Her voice was like getting whiplash—fast and painful. I felt it run down my spine.

“Oh God,” Alex groaned from behind me, and we all laughed when we heard the bump as he hit the floor. “I think my eyes are bleeding.”

“Guys!” we heard Jude whine from the bedroom. “Will you shut the hell up!”

She whirled around to go see him, and at that moment I thanked God that I was not Jude Coughlin. There was not enough money in the world.

“Do something, J,” Rick begged me. “You’re the only one she loves.”

“J, you gotta make her stop yelling,” Alex begged me from the floor on the other side of the couch. “I seriously think it could kill me.”

“Is it really liver?” Lance moaned into the couch.

We all heard Jude give out a high-pitched, girly scream from the bedroom.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

“I think I’m gonna puke,” Rick said from my lap, covering his face with one of the throw pillows.

“I will kill you all if you do not get up!”

“J,” Lance almost cried, “make her stop.”

“Make her stop,” Rick seconded.

“Please make her stop,” Alex begged me.

“She’s your sister,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, but she loves you more than me.”

“Do you hear me?” she roared from the other room, obviously still torturing Jude.

“Ohmygod, just kill her,” Lance whispered, facedown on the couch now. “Why did you guys let me sleep folded up like a pretzel? I think my spine is broken.”

We all heard Jude scream again before there was a crash and a thump.

“I bet she dumped him out of bed,” Alex sighed from the floor.

“I’m okay,” he called out to us.

“Asshole got the bed,” Rick whined. “He deserves what he gets.”

“Where’s Rick?” she shouted as she came charging into the room.

He whimpered. “J, she’s gonna hurt me.”

“This is what comes of partying like rock stars.” I chuckled. “When you’re not.”

“Owww,” Alex whined.

“Where’s the ice bucket?” she yelled from across the room.

“J.…” Rick trailed off.

I called to her gently, but loud enough so she could hear me.

Aja Greene came striding across the room to me. “What?” she snapped out.

“How’re you this morning, pretty lady?” I smiled wide, looking up at the only other woman besides my work-wife, and best-friend, Dylan Greer that I could say I truly loved. In my life there had been my grandmother, Dylan, and my brother’s soon-to-be wife. These were the women who meant the world to me. “You feel okay?”

Her sigh was deep as she passed Lance and slapped him as hard as she could on the ass. He almost howled.

“Yes, baby.” She stopped in front of me, shoving Rick up and moving him before she leaned down to give me a kiss. “I feel great.”

I lifted my head, and the kiss I received was featherlight on my lips.

“Jory.” She smiled, hand sliding under my chin, over my jaw. “Come to my room really fast. I want you to meet my folks, and Dane’s people are there.”

Which meant that the Reid clan—Susan and Daniel Reid, Dane’s biological parents, and his siblings, two brothers and one sister—had arrived to attend the wedding.

“Okay,” I said, stifling a yawn and getting up.

“And you guys need to pull it together and get ready,” she snarled at the others. “Now!”

The muffled groans made me smile as she took my hand and tugged me after her toward the door. I heard them behind us, and then Rick asked if anyone knew where his sunglasses were. Funny to think that a CEO, a CFO, a partner at one of the major law firms in the city, and a bank manager could so resemble hungover frat boys.

“Look how beautiful,” she commented, raising our hands.

Her flawless, smooth, caramel skin against my permanent golden tan: we looked good together. People told us all the time.

“Hey.”

I looked at her.

“Did you ever think that your brother would marry a black girl?”

“Are you black?” I asked her.

She smiled wide and I saw the dimples I loved.

“Actually,” I sighed, “the minute I saw you, I knew you were the one.”

“You lie.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You asked him to dance.”

“I’m not the only one that ever did.”

“No, but you’re the only one who ever made him nervous.”

She sighed deeply. “I did, didn’t I?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I think we both knew what we wanted.”

“Yep. And you’re perfect for him.”

“Why?” She was fishing.

“’Cause you’re smart—school principals hafta be—beautiful, wicked-mean—”

“Mean?” She gasped in mock shock.

“You know you’re mean. You nearly killed those poor guys.”

“They’ll be lucky to live,” she growled, brows furrowing.

“You’re adorable,” I assured her, hand on her cheek. “And you are completely self-sufficient. You want Dane, but you don’t need him.”

Deep sigh. “Make no mistake, Jory, I need that man desperately.”

“Yeah, but you’re your own person. Your whole word doesn’t revolve around him.”

She thought a moment. “No, that’s true.”

“See? You love Dane, I know that, but you’re gonna be Aja Harcourt, not Mrs. Dane Harcourt.”

She nodded. “That’s true too.”

I shrugged. “That’s how I knew. All those other women just wanted to disappear inside him. You, we’re still gonna be able to see.”

She stopped suddenly and stared at me. “You have been amazing since the moment I laid eyes on you.”

“I wanted you for my brother,” I assured her.

“And I’m so glad you’re going to be mine.”

“But you gotta be sweet to the one you already have.”

She frowned again. “He better shape up, because if he ruins my wedding… so help me God, I will ruin him permanently.”

“Okay, now you’re gettin’ a little spooky.” I chuckled.

“Oh Jory.” She sighed. “I just love you. Come with me.”

And I did.

Aja’s eyes were huge and her mouth hung open. Her mother had an identical expression, as did all her bridesmaids and her maid of honor. It was probably the dancing. Her father, Judge Greene, and I were doing the twist to Fats Domino music and singing along as we did it. Currently, “My Girl Josephine” was bouncing out of the speakers.

“Miss Aja,” I heard her best friend Candace laugh out loud, “look at your father, girl.”

“Jory,” she called over to me, and I heard the deep chuckle. “Baby, what—”

“Leave him alone,” the judge cut her off playfully. “We’re busy.”

“Kenneth Greene, what in heaven’s name are you doing?” Aja’s mother asked her husband, her smile making her eyes sparkle.

Instead of answering, he motioned her over. Immediately she went to him, and seconds later he had her in his arms, dipping her low, dancing her around the suite.

Dane suddenly filled the doorway, standing beside the woman who would be his wife by the end of the day. It was funny to see his expression as he looked across the room to where I now danced in a circle of beautiful women. He tipped his head at me, and I smiled back. I watched him put an arm around Aja’s shoulders and pull her close before he kissed her cheek.

“Jory.” He called my name.

There were hands in my hair, on my back, sliding off my shoulders, clutching at my shirt before I got free to cross the room. As I stepped in front of Dane, he put a hand on the lapel of my dress shirt and pulled me forward into his arms.

“Thank you,” he said, face down in my shoulder.

My eyes flicked to Aja’s as he let me go and left as suddenly as he’d come.

“What’s going on?” she asked quickly.

I coughed once. “Mr. Reid came in here asking questions about you, and your dad took offence.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“It was no big deal,” I lied.

“Questions? What kind of questions?”

I shrugged. “He doesn’t know anything about you and Dane didn’t even invite them to anything but the wedding and reception, so… I guess they wanted to find out about you.”

“I see.”

“Well, your dad didn’t see. You can’t really blame him.”

She smiled at me. “It’s not like my dad to get upset about a few innocent inquiries.”

“It was a lot,” I defended her father. “I was uncomfortable too.”

She nodded. “So what happened?”

“Your dad said that the only family of Dane’s he worried about was me.” I grinned at her.

“Oh.” She nodded. “Since you and Dane are the only Harcourts in the place.”

“Right.” I smiled wide, leaning close and kissing her forehead. “At least until six o’clock.”

She sighed deeply.

“You’ll be the new Harcourt down front in the gown, right?”

In answer I got arms wrapped around my neck and she hugged me tight. “What did you do?”

“I went and got my iPod and asked your dad if he still had moves.”

I felt her shaking in my arms.

“As you can see, the man’s still got it.”

She clutched me tighter, her head back as the laughter bubbled up out of her.

When I glanced back at her folks, I was rewarded with the warm smile of her mother.

It had been tense. Dane’s parents, especially his father, questioning the judge about his daughter… it had started out so benign, just chatting, before quickly deteriorating into an all-out inquisition. They knew nothing about Aja and wanted to know everything. It had been well intended, but had come off as critical, biased, and almost racist. Dane and I were just walking back from our racquetball game and we heard the raised voices from the hall. We interrupted and Dane insisted on showing the Reids to his suite upstairs, away from the communal one being used so the wedding party could visit with guests or get something to eat before the ceremony. He took his parents, as well as his brothers Caleb and Jeremy and his sister Gwen, so the judge could recover and collect his thoughts. The look Dane had given me as he left had been so pained that I felt my chest tighten just looking at him. The last thing he wanted to do on his wedding day was upset his future father-in-law with people that were of minimal importance to him. The truth was, he simply liked the judge better than his biological family. I had to fix it. I had to restore the ease that the day had begun with; this, then, was what Dane’s look had conveyed on his exit. And I had accomplished it by dancing around the suite like an idiot with Aja’s dad.

“Jory, what would your brother do without you?” Aja asked me, again squeezing me tight.

“I dunno, but we’ll never hafta find out.”

“No.” She shook her head just barely. “We won’t.”

“Jory!” the judge called for me.

I ran back to him and he showed me that he could still do the bump. I thought Aja’s mother was going to pass out. That everyone was laughing was a very good thing.

The church was filled with a sea of people that all stood as the bride posed with her father at the end of the aisle. She was breathtakingly beautiful, simple and chic, and the pride on her father’s face made everyone smile. Dane’s parents and siblings sat in the front row on the right, Aja’s mother and grandparents on the left. Her extended family filled the first three pews, and after that were family friends and friends that were like family. Dane and Aja now shared a lot of the same people, those that would be spending their lives with them. The nearest and dearest of all were there with the groom on the stage as they waited for the bride to join them. Candace Jacobs stood, regal and stunning, head raised as she watched her best friend in the world walk toward the man she loved. All Aja’s bridesmaids were perfection in their strapless pewter mermaid gowns—long, graceful lines with upswept hair, flawless, smooth skin, resembling delicate, graceful swans. They were luminous.

Jude was resplendent in his Armani tuxedo, and stood beside Dane proudly, looking as though he had stepped from the pages of a magazine. I had never seen him look better. Dane’s friends had come together to stand at his side, all of them crisp and pressed, simply gorgeous, causing a stir when they had walked out to take their places on the stairs, descending down to me. I had worried at being included, not wanting to tarnish his moment being, as I was, without the same height, breadth of shoulder, or chest. Dane had not worried. He was less concerned with the perfect picture and more with his brother on stage with him. Aja, with the same desire, had drowned my objections.

And as I watched them, their hands entwined, speaking the words that would join them forever, I was thankful to be there, sharing their moment. It was humbling to be at the beginning of a new life, the one they would share together. I closed my eyes and breathed when they were presented. Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt, husband and wife. The picture etched in my mind forever of Aja lifting her head to receive his kiss, her eyes filled with him, his hands on her face, drawing her close as he bent to seal their lips together. Her arms went around his neck and he clutched her to his chest. They were stunning together, the picture of what love looked like. There was an eruption of applause when they parted and were introduced as husband and wife, a thundering sound that consumed the silence from seconds before. I could not imagine a more perfect moment.

The reception was lavish, money that I could not even dream of having being spent to give Aja the day she had dreamed of since she was ten. There were six courses of food accompanied by wine and champagne and any beverage a guest could request. People were in awe of the orchestra and the full dance floor and the thousands of candles that cast a warm glow through the room. The first dance for the bride and groom was fluid precision and mesmerizing to watch. They went naturally together, blending seamlessly because they fit. When Aja danced with her father, no one did anything else but stare at the dashing man and his daughter. Dane floated across the floor with Aja’s mother, and the same was true. Obvious from the way they all hugged afterwards that this was a union that had both their approval and support. Not surprising, as it was hard to imagine any parent not wanting Dane for a son-in-law.

I knew that Mrs. Reid had wanted the mother-son dance with Dane that he had given to Aja’s mom. In the end, Dane had invited his birth parents, along with his sister and two brothers, to come to his wedding, but it was me, without benefit of blood, who stood at his side. I was the one with the same name; I was the one he hugged tight after the ceremony. I was the one his wife called her new brother and her parents saw as the entirety of the family that he brought to the marriage.

I listened to the speeches. I was moved by Candace’s words to the bride, laughed at Jude’s to Dane, and when Dane and Aja stood and thanked the crowd for coming and celebrating with them, I was so happy for them that I stood and gave them the standing ovation with everyone else. When all seats had been retaken, Dane took a breath as Aja leaned into his side. I waved to the photographer and he caught it before they moved apart. I had a feeling it was going to be one of the best of the night. Before anything else happened, Alex stood and directed all attention to the screen at the side of the dance floor. When the curtain drew back, the images and the music began the montage of Dane and Aja, their families, their friends, and their times before meeting and after. The last shot was of Dane on his knees in front of Aja as he held a rose up to her. They both looked at me, in an instant remembering the trip to Carmel and the picture I had snapped. I was pleased with the tears in the bride’s eyes and Dane’s clenched jaw as Aja’s favorite Stevie Wonder song filled the room. The applause came like a roar as the guests went wild. Aja’s mother was up and out of her seat in one fluid movement, rushing from her table to mine to take me in her arms. She understood at last why I had needed to go through her photo albums with her. When she let me go, I turned to the bride and groom and gestured for them to take the floor. Dane led his wife past me, his hand lingering on my cheek for a moment before he walked by.

After midnight the orchestra retired and the DJ came in to keep the dancing going until the wee hours of the morning. Jackets and bow ties were shed, high heels were discarded, and the serious dancing began. I would have joined in but there were small details that needed attention. I had to hand out the “swag,” as Aja called it—going from table to table to personally make sure everyone got a keepsake from the wedding—coordinate with the catering manager, and arrange for all the disposable cameras on every table to be picked up.

When I felt the arms wrap around my waist, I turned in her embrace and found the bride.

“Come dance with me.” She smiled.

I smiled back and we went together to the floor. Always, the two of us together could not remain serious for even a minute. In her dress and my tuxedo, it translated to an over-the-top waltz. There were spins and dips and we basically had everyone laughing and clapping and calling for an encore when we were done. She told me over and over how much she loved me, and when Dane came to part us, instead of taking her into his arms, he wrapped an arm around my neck and led me from the crowd back to the table.

We sat together, leaning forward, elbows on knees, talking quietly.

“So, it goes without saying, but still… I have the woman I love, the brother I love, friends I love… there is no one more blessed than me.”

I looked into his dark gray eyes, saw the warmth there, and nodded. “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt couldn’t be here today to be with you.”

He nodded. “They are.”

“They would be so proud of you, Dane.”

His eyes absorbed me. “My family, the people who mean the world to me… are Aja and you.”

I smiled at him.

“I need you with me always.”

I nodded. “Same here.”

Hand on the back of my neck, he squeezed tight before he let go and stood. “Love you,” he said as he walked away. He barely got it out.

I sat back and watched him go, and there came a sudden feeling of absolute peace. I let my head fall back, my eyes close, and just breathed.

“Take that.”

I heard the click of a shutter and opened my eyes to find Aja hovering on the other side of the table with Candace and another bridesmaid. I glanced at the photographer before returning my gaze to the bride. “What’re you doing?”

She let out a deep breath but said nothing.

“Jory,” Candace said, drawing my attention. “Baby, I had no idea you were so pretty.”

I chuckled and looked again to Aja.

“You are, you know.”

“What?”

“Beautiful,” she told me, motioning me over to her. “It’s funny because you worried about standing up with the others, and the truth of the matter is that, Jory honey, you are the beauty of the bunch.”

“You love me.” I smiled wide, wrapping her up in my arms. “You’re a little biased.”

“I do love you, but that doesn’t make you any less gorgeous.”

I chuckled and squeezed her tight and she buried her face in my shoulder.

Candace bumped the bouquet into Jude’s girlfriend’s arms when Aja deliberately threw it at her an hour later, and the look on his face when he realized she had was priceless. The surge to the door to watch Dane and Aja leave in the Rolls Royce limousine pushed the wedding party from the front to the back. There was no way for any of us to even get close. Dane held up his hand for me and Aja blew me a kiss. I had my orders. In the three weeks they would be gone on their honeymoon, I had to coordinate movers. All her things, all his things needed to be in the new house in Highland Park by the time they got back. It was all me. I had promised to get it done, even with my busy schedule. My brother was counting on me.

People started to trickle out and the music changed to oldies that everyone could dance to and sing along with. I went and said good-bye to the Reids, gave Caleb a hug, and was surprised when Dane’s father made a point of saying how much he appreciated me putting a photo of their family in the montage.

“Of course.” I smiled at him.

He patted my back as I was squatting between his and his wife’s chairs.

“Jory, you’re such a good boy,” Mrs. Reid sighed, the tears welling in her eyes. “Dane certainly picked a wonderful brother.”

I leaned up and kissed her cheek and her hand stayed pressed to the side of my neck until she could breathe without crying. I thanked them all for coming, and Caleb told me how lucky Dane was to have me. I told him that I was the lucky one.

I worked my way slowly through the crowd, doing the last check, moving from table to table before I found the catering manager to thank him. Finally done, I changed back into jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and Converse sneakers and headed toward the door. I weaved through the crowd to say my last good nights to the wedding party and quickly kissed and hugged all the women. I found Rick, Lance, and Alex sitting together and stopped at their table.

“You wanna wait and catch a ride, J?” Rick asked me.

I smiled at him and shook my head.

“What’re we gonna do without him?” Jude asked as he walked up to lean on the back of one of the empty chairs. “He’s the first to fall.”

“We were always together,” Rick said softly, looking around at all of us. “It’s weird. It’s like the end of an era or something.”

“I feel like I should mourn my friend.”

I smiled at them as I hooked myself up to my iPod.

“You think it’s funny, J?” Rick asked me.

“No.” I took a deep breath, stepping away from the table. “But you gotta grow up sometime.”

“I’m not ready to get married,” Rick insisted. “And I definitely don’t want to be anybody’s father.”

“Okay,” I agreed, my eyes slipping over each of them in turn. “You guys take it easy. I’ll see ya round.”

“Gimme a call, J,” Rick insisted. “I’ll kick your ass at some racquetball or something.”

“Sure,” I lied before I pivoted around and headed for the door.

It was nice that, outside, it was crisp but not cold, a beautiful night—or early morning now—for the first week of October. It was funny, but unlike his friends, I felt nothing but contentment for Dane and a sort of peacefulness for me. I had seen my brother through a milestone in his life. I was very grateful.

Bulletproof #5
Chapter One
IN MY life I have been kidnapped twice, shot at, hit, chased down in a car, and yanked off the street. It sort of numbs you to surreal experiences. Because of all that, my brother Dane is certain that my gauge that senses weirdness is way out of whack. It’s possible. Things that other people, normal people, think are insane or horrifying don’t really faze me, so from time-to-time I have a hard time differentiating run-of-the-mill crazy from severe psychosis. I also need to check occasionally to make sure that something that I’ve said was okay, really is. I tend to be too accepting of situations and circumstances. Like if a good friend of mine asked me to keep a gun for them, I would probably do it simply because it’s my friend; why would I question it?

This capacity for trust drives my partner, my husband—we got married in Canada and we wear rings—Sam Kage, absolutely nuts. But lately, because he was away, I didn’t have to worry about explaining myself or my actions. I wanted to, though; I wanted to be interrogated because that way I’d know I was loved. Sam cared enough to grill me, and I missed it.

The man in question had been gone for three months, moving quickly to four, participating in a federal task force. I craved his presence, his touch, his smell on the sheets, his empty coffee cup in the sink, and the towels he left on the floor in the bathroom. I missed being in bed with him, and my body ached and throbbed with his absence. I had been working off my sexual energy at the gym, and I had been running like a man training for the marathon. I even beat my brother at racquetball, which the stars had to be aligned for me to be able to do. When Dane looked at me with wonder all over his face, I told him I needed Sam to come home so I could get laid. As always, when I over-shared, I got the look of disgust that he could do better than anybody.

I needed to keep busy, so working on the weekend had seemed like a good idea. That was why I had volunteered for a Saturday with Michelle Cooper instead of lying comatose around my loft for two days. Normally, when Sam was home, Saturdays were for sleeping in, hours of sex, and a late breakfast/early lunch. Sam in the morning with his gravel-filled voice, soft eyes, tousled hair, and stubbly beard could stop my heart. His smile when he first opened his smoky-blue eyes, the way they crinkled in half, the curve of his mouth… I couldn’t help it. I suddenly had to shift where I was standing on the train because my jeans were tight across the front. I needed to stop thinking about my man.

Fiddling with the platinum band on the ring finger of my left hand, I got off at the Oak Park platform and descended the stairs to the street. I loved it there, even used to live there, and was crazy about the little shops, the great restaurants, and the jewelry store that sold the Baltic Sea amber that my best friend, Dylan Greer, collected. It had stopped pouring, but it was dark and overcast, the street squishy and wet with puddles, the air still smelling like rain. Passing a restaurant, the aroma of syrup hit me, and I had a sudden craving for French toast. I made a mental note to stop for brunch at a restaurant I liked after my walk-through/meeting/consultation.

Three years ago, Aubrey Jenner, then Aubrey Flanagan, Dylan Greer, and I had our own business. But Harvest Design folded in the withering economy, and we were forced to sell and find new jobs. I could not find a job in my field and refused to go back to working for my brother, so I ended up at Synergy.

What I had thought would be an okay job at the time, when I needed something, anything, and I was desperate, I now realized was slowly rotting away my soul.

“Dramatic much?” Dylan had asked me over the phone.

She was still not enjoying her job as an entry-level graphic designer at Tateman Limited, either, but at least she was using her skill set.

“Oh, Jory, you are so using the gifts God gave you,” she snapped at me. “You talk to people better than anyone I know.”

I groaned.

“Then quit bitching about it and find a new goddamn job!”

And I needed to, but I could admit to being lazy because the job was effortless and I got paid pretty well.

“Call me later. I wanna go to that store that sells those weird spices, but that guy—”

“Peter.”

“Yeah, Peter. He hates me, so you hafta talk to him.”

“He likes you, don’t be stupid.”

“He likes you, Jory,” she assured me. “He wants to put his hands all over you. I can see it in that predatory way he looks at you.”

“Whatever,” I said, patronizing her.

“He does, you just don’t see it. You never see it until it’s too late.”

Whatever that meant. “Fine, I’ll call you later.”

“Good, go to work.”

So I did, and when I called her when I was done, we had gone shopping together. The spice store had been our third stop in Chinatown, and Peter had been his normal, helpful self. I was pretty sure that Dylan was delusional. She always saw more interest in the men around me than I caught myself. I suspected that she was stroking my ego.

But I really did need a new job because working at Synergy, being an assistant to a counselor who assisted a matchmaker, was so not my idea of fun.

At Synergy we did life makeovers; see the propaganda posing as collateral material. We came in, gutted your house, cleaned you up, and found you a partner. It was like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets The Millionaire Matchmaker, except there were no cameras and it took about a month from start to finish and had what they called check-ins or follow-ups, afterward.

I went first with a counselor and met the client, documented the horror of his or her life, and reported back to our matchmaker. There were five teams at Synergy, each headed up by a matchmaker. I worked for Michelle Cooper, one of six counselors who reported to Becker Rowe, our matchmaker, and finally to Blake Somersby, our managing director.

Reaching the house after eleven, I looked toward the front door and immediately saw Michelle and the rest of the team. Even if I had not been looking for her, there was no way to miss her. She was a knockout with her short-cropped blonde curls and green eyes looking at me like I was the Second Coming. She was crisp and polished in her Stella McCartney suit and gave the impression of cool poise even as she crooked her finger at me. My grin was huge as I walked toward her, my courier bag bumping against my hip as I moved fast to reach her.

“I could pass out right now with you being on time and all,” she said, laughing at me as I closed in on her.

“For you, I’ll be on time,” I said, returning her smile. “For Keith, I dunno.”

She nodded. “He does not like to work with you.”

“He’s a nozzle,” I told her, looking around at the others. “Am I right?”

“He’s right,” Lily Chow agreed with me loudly, while others grunted their agreement.

“See?”

“Jory!” She tried not to laugh. “He’s a peer of mine.”

“Like I care. He doesn’t want to work with me anymore anyway.”

“Yes, I know, only Gina and I like you.”

I opened my mouth to tell her that I didn’t give a crap, again, but she silenced me with her hand. “Fine,” I said, “but how come your husband’s lettin’ you work on the weekend? I thought you guys had a rule or something?”

“He has a big case.” She made a face. “He can’t even take a break today and have dinner with me, so I was flying solo anyway.”

“Oh good, then you can eat with me after,” I said, joining her and the others on the porch.

“I would love to do that, Mr. Harcourt.” She smiled at me.

“Good, it’s a date,” I said, reaching out to fix her crumpled collar, smoothing it back into place before smiling at the other four members of her team.

“Hey.”

I looked back at her.

“What’s wrong?”

I shrugged.

“Jory?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

She took hold of my arm and led me a couple feet away. “You hate this.”

“I don’t hate it,” I said as I fiddled with the silver chain around my neck. Sam had given me a Saint Jude medallion a couple years ago, and since he was the patron saint of policemen, I wore it to make sure he, the saint, knew I was paying attention. I wanted him looking after my man.

“Yeah, you do.”

“It’s fine, I promise.”

“J, event-coordinating is not my favorite part of the gig, either, but it’s a job, right? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I need the money.”

But she didn’t, not really. Her husband was a software engineer at a very high-profile firm downtown. I was the one who needed the job.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” I assured her. “Now, c’mon, let’s go in and see the travesty that the man and the house is.”

“Oh, I know,” she said, awe infusing her voice, “I can’t wait to get in there.”

“Really?”

“Jory, are you kidding? Look at this house. It must be amazing inside.”

I thought the outside looked a little rundown and crappy.

“Look at the stained glass and all the natural woodwork and—”

But she had to stop when the door opened and we were faced with a blond-haired, blue-eyed man looking at us quizzically, if not downright annoyed.

He was taller than me, but most men were. At five-nine, I was nowhere near big. But the stranger at the door was lean and muscular—not big muscular like Sam was, but few men were. The stranger’s frame was carved and strong, obvious since the T-shirt he was wearing was hugging his toned chest and torso like a second skin. It occurred to me that he looked like he belonged on skis in the Alps, wearing a parka, his first name Siegfried. I had the urge to yodel, but stifled it, instead turning my head to Michelle, as always deferring to the salesperson, as well as the woman, in our midst.

“Good afternoon.” Michelle smiled huge, giving the man the benefit of gleaming eyes, rows of perfect white, even teeth, and lips that curved in the corner into a gorgeous smile. She was adorable.

“Good morning.” He smiled back, taking hold of the hand she offered him.

“I’m Michelle Cooper from Synergy, and this is Jory Harcourt.”

“Pleasure to meet you both,” he said, smiling at me as well, grasping my hand tight.

“And you,” I assured him. “Are you ready to have us take over your life?”

“If I say sort of, will you hold it against me?”

I forced a smile before he looked back over at Michelle. After she introduced the rest of her team, he invited everyone in, moving out of the way so we could enter.

Inside, Michelle immediately started talking about the positives Mr. Fisher would experience from his partnership with us. We could assure him that… blah-blah-blah…. I ducked around the corner before I fell asleep on my feet. The sales spiels killed me, as did our boss Blake Somersby’s morning kick-off meetings, which was why I made sure to miss them on a daily basis. I sent others in my place instead, and Blake had told me on a number of occasions, when he found me in the halls later, that I was missed. I had asked him if he wanted me snoring in front of everyone. He had glowered at me, but as of yet had not insisted on my presence.

Inside the house, I was astounded at the complete and utter waste of space that it was. Mr. Fisher could do anything with his home and had instead chosen to do absolutely nothing. It could be a refuge, a palace, a sanctuary, and instead it was a frat house. It was so much more horrible than I could have ever imagined, down to the choice of music that was playing. Thankful that I had my iPod, I put in my earbuds and got out my digital camera to record the horror that was the man’s home. I was singing silently along with Eric Clapton, sunglasses up on top of my head, where I had shoved them when we walked in the house, when Michelle and our client joined me a half an hour later.

Hayes Fisher was smiling wide.

“What?” I asked, removing the left earbud.

“You’ve got a rock ’n’ roll heart?”

I grinned big. “Yep, how’dya know?”

He nodded. “I love Eric Clapton. Why don’t I have that album?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. As far as I can tell, you don’t have any good music.”

Michelle groaned.

“I’m sorry?” Mr. Fisher’s face fell as he scowled at me.

That fast I had annoyed him. It really was a gift. I glanced over at Michelle. “I don’t normally talk to clients for this very reason.”

She chuckled as I left the room to take more pictures.

I wasn’t charming, I tended to be blunt, and I had always felt that clients needed to know the truth about things. I had learned it when I worked for my brother Dane years ago. Dane just spoke his mind, and so I did too. It was a bad habit, though, as I was not the architectural god that he was. Dylan always told me that there were ways to tell people things. Honesty was sometimes not the best policy. I needed to learn finesse. I told her that if I didn’t already have it, that it probably wasn’t going to happen. I was thirty, for crissakes.

“Mr. Harcourt!”

I looked over my shoulder at the sound of my name.

“Are you listening to me?”

Of course not.

“Could you just… could you take those out of your ears so I can talk to you?”

I conceded to one earbud. I left the right one in. “Yeah?”

“Yeah?” He repeated the word irritably.

“Oh, yes?” Dane hated “yeah” too. My brother said that “yeah” was a plague on mankind, sloppy and overused. And he didn’t think he was uptight.

“What?”

“What can I do for you?” Now I was annoyed.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m detailing the horror,” I said like it was obvious, adding some snark to my voice for good measure.

“Pardon me?”

I gestured around.

“Do you have something to—”

Michelle tried to break into the conversation. “Mr. Fisher, I think—”

“Mr. Harcourt, you—”

“I’m busy,” I said, jiggling my digital camera so he could see it. “I’m just taking pictures so the design team can know what they’re up against.”

“Up against?”

“Well, yeah.”

“In what way?”

I gestured around so he’d realize I meant everything.

“You have a problem with my home?”

Michelle chuckled hollowly. “No, he—”

“Yeah,” I told him, “I have a problem. It looks like a frat house in here except it’s clean. No empty beer bottles in sight.”

“Pardon me?”

“It’s incredible what you haven’t done.”

“What?”

“What?” I was confused. I was speaking English, I was just sure of it.

Dark scowl, brows furrowing as he looked at me.

“Take that, for instance,” I said, pointing.

“It’s a beanbag chair,” he said defensively, rubbing the top of his head. “My friend’s kids love it.”

“Do they?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good. Can you give it to them?”

“What?”

“Jory,” Michelle began, “perhaps Mr. Fisher would like us to create a rec room for the—”

“Just tell us where to send it. I’ll have a courier over here to pick it up today.”

“Mr. Harcourt, you—”

“Christ.” I was in awe, surveying the nightmare. “It’s a mess in here.”

“Could you—”

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

Caught off guard, he gulped air and just nodded.

“Do you bring dates here?”

“I, what? Yes.” His voice dropped off as he cleared his throat. “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“I will.”

“You will or you won’t? You don’t sound too certain.”

“What? Yes, of course.”

“Okay.” I smirked at him, widening my eyes, making sure he knew I thought he was nuts. “As long as you’re sure.”

He turned to face Michelle. “Mrs. Cooper, your partner—”

“Mr. Fisher, I—”

I turned my iPod back up so I missed whatever they said to each other as I took in the details: the cinder block and plywood bookshelves, the milk crates holding his movie collection, the plastic lamp hanging in the living room, the gilded chain that hung from it, down back over the shade, falling to the middle of the floor, where it was then plugged into an orange utility extension cord that was in turn plugged into the far wall. It was beyond hideous. And then there was the spider plant in the corner.

The only other place I had seen a macramĂ© plant hanger before was in pictures of Sam’s parents’ house from the seventies. I think there was a shot of his mother sitting beside one in the living room. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of just the hanger and then one of me and the plant hanger together; I was doing my best Vanna White impression, and I e-mailed it to the project manager, Wade Fujihara. I got a quick text back and chuckled when I saw it. He was very confused about where I was or more precisely, in what time I was. I had taken the way-back machine to work, he was just certain.

“Jory!”

Realizing that she had been yelling, I took out my earbuds and looked at Michelle. She was right behind me, apparently had been for several minutes, and Hayes Fisher was standing next to her. “Yes?”

“Mr. Harcourt,” Mr. Fisher began sharply. “I—”

“You just moved back here right?”

“I’m—what?”

“I read that in the profile. You used to live in New York, but you’re originally from here, from Chicago, and you moved back after a horrible divorce ’cause your family’s here, right?”

“Yes, I—”

“So most of the crap in here is from the previous owner.”

“No, I—”

“You didn’t make them clean up, you just moved in, right?”

“No, this is all my—”

“Oh,” I said, drawing out the word. “Wow, so much for the benefit of the doubt, huh?”

“Mr. Harcourt!”

“Is this about the house or are we just chit-chatting?”

“You—”

“Sorry, you obviously have something to add,” I sighed, even as my mind drifted. It was why I had stopped going to church when I got old enough to decide for myself. I had informed my grandmother that I always felt bad because I would be thinking about chocolate chip cookies or something when I was supposed to be thinking about God.

“Do you have any idea how obnox—”

“You know what the coolest thing about driving is?” I asked, giving up for the moment on keeping myself on task.

“What? No, I do—”

“Do you want to know?”

“I—”

“Do you?”

“Mr.—”

“Do you?”

He took a breath, threw up his hands, and gestured for me to go ahead.

“Okay, so the coolest thing about driving is that if you make an ass of yourself at one light—stall out, roll too far into the intersection, miss the turn light until somebody honks at you—whatever, I mean it doesn’t matter ’cause by the time you get to the next light you’re with a whole new group of drivers that don’t know you from Adam. You’re new. You’re just another asshole in a car that’s drivin’ along just like them. I love that. It’s like a do-over at each red light.”

He was just staring at me.

“Cool, right?” I waggled my eyebrows at him.

His eyes, which were really a lovely shade of sky blue, were fixed on mine.

“So let’s have a do-over. I’m sorry for insulting your complete lack of interest in your own home, and you will forgive my blunt analysis of your colossal failure. How’d that be?”

His mouth was open, but nothing came out.

I looked over at Michelle. “I tried.”

She was just staring at me.

Gina Bailey, the only other counselor in the group I was in, knew better than to let me talk to clients. Michelle, apparently, had not gotten the memo. And I had tried to make myself scarce. It wasn’t my fault that the man was following me around.

I had to try and fix it. “Lemme ask you a serious question,” I said, rounding on Hayes Fisher. “Do you or do you not want somebody special in your life?”

“What?”

“Isn’t the point of all this for you to show off to everyone that you’re a catch?”

“The point of this is to—”

“It’s to find someone to marry, right? I mean, instead of going out and dating and doing the hard work yourself, you’re going through us, through a service, and we’re gonna throw a huge party where you’ll have a chance to show off your new digs and your money and where there will be several available women who are ready to settle down and become wives and mothers. Am I right?”

He was at a loss, that much was obvious.

“So suck up your pride about me telling you that this place looks like crap, which it does, by the way, and let us do our jobs without the hassle of listening to you moan and groan about how the crack den here ain’t so bad.”

“I’m sorry?”

I let my voice drop low. “Oh, you should be.”

“Crack den?”

I shrugged. “It’s gross.”

“I—”

“Are we all gonna get along? Yes or no ’cause I don’t wanna send Wade out here if you’re gonna give him crap. He’s sensitive.”

“He’s sens—”

“And a pompous ass, but that will work to your benefit because all he’ll want is what’s best for you.”

He stood there, staring at me.

“So,” I asked him, “are you in or are you out?”

“I… Mr. Har—”

“Jory,” I corrected him, reaching out to give him a hard pat on the arm. “It’s just Jory.”

“You—”

“In or out?” I asked again, pressing for an answer.

He stared at me for several minutes before he finally said, “In.”

“Great,” I said, gesturing behind him to Michelle, who was beaming at me.

He looked over his shoulder at her, and I went to move, but before I could, he was barring my path, sliding in front of me.

“Something else?”

“It’s just a bachelor pad. They all look the same.”

“No,” I assured him, stepping around him.

He was back in front of me fast, so fast, in fact, that I had to freeze mid-step or walk into him.

“What bachelors do you know?”

“Ones with better decorators,” I said, smiling at him.

“I—”

“Yeah,” I said, glancing around, “this is a travesty.”

“Mr. Har—”

“Jory,” I corrected again, walking away from him, which cut him off. I was surprised when he followed me again.

“Can you stop walking?”

“I’m working, Mr. Fisher,” I informed him, smiling at Michelle, who looked pained again. “I don’t get paid to just chit-chat all day.”

“What are you—”

“Huh,” I grunted as my eyes flew all over the room.

“Can you quit with that?”

“Sure,” I said distractedly, looking at all the empty walls, the space. “Jesus.”

He looked at me, scowling. “What would you do differently?”

“There’s just so much you could do.”

“Like what?”

“Like everything that Wade and his team suggest,” I assured him. “Just be open to it.”

He was speechless as I turned away, squinting at the walls.

“Wait.”

I looked back at him.

“You—”

“Hold that thought.” I smiled quickly, leaving his bedroom, wrinkling my nose like something smelled.

“What?”

“Amazing,” I said absently, taking in for the second time now the giant spool being used as a coffee table. I’d thought maybe the first time I was just seeing things. But it was there, big as life, smack dab in the middle of his living room. “Who knew you could still even get one of those.”

“I—”

“I need a picture,” I said, snapping the photo, framing it so Wade could see all the wasted space in the room. “Wade’s gonna pull something from laughing.”

“Mr. Har—”

“Jory,” I reminded him for what felt like the tenth time, leaving him alone so I could check one of the four unused bedrooms. It was full of sports equipment and athletic shoes. It smelled like wet dog.

The second bedroom was the one for guests. If you were a parolee, you would feel right at home. Stark was an understatement. The third bedroom was being used as an office, and in his room there were mirrors on the closet doors that didn’t fit and were cut in sort of squiggle shapes. I could not articulate my disgust. I took a picture for Wade, and the word “travesty” was texted back. I grunted my agreement.

I went to the kitchen, pulled out my laptop, and started uploading all the pictures I had taken. I sent them all to Wade and got a call back in five minutes. It was a new record.

“Hello, devil,” he greeted me, “I didn’t know they had reception in hell.”

I chuckled at the cool, cultured voice giving me sarcasm. “Oh, but they do.”

“Seriously,” he said, coughing, “I thought you were screwing with me with the plant hanger, trying to get me to laugh because I’m stuck here working on Saturday instead of antique shopping with my man, but now I gotta ask… am I actually looking at a beanbag chair?”

“You’re fulla shit. Antique shopping, my ass. Whaddya really shop for?”

Beats of silence went by.

“Wade.”

“So I’m in the market for a motorcycle, so what?”

I chuckled.

“Don’t tell anyone. All I’ll hear about is a fuckin’ midlife crisis that I’m not having.”

“Okay,” I assured him. “Not a word.”

He grunted. “Now, seriously… is that really a beanbag chair?”

“His friends’ kids like it,” I said cheerfully.

“Super, let’s get something cool for them like a trampoline with netting for the backyard. The kids will love it, and it won’t be an eyesore in the man’s house. God, it’s lime green too.”

“It’s the least of his problems.”

“Oh, amen,” he agreed wholeheartedly.

“Me and Michelle should be there around one.”

“I’ll have a martini waiting.”

I was laughing when I hung up, turning off my camera.

“You don’t have to plug it in?”

I turned to look at my client, who I hadn’t realized was there. “I’m sorry?”

“Your camera?”

“No, it’s Bluetooth,” I told him, “and I’ve got wireless, so the horror has been documented and sent on to frighten colleagues of mine.”

“Just—”

“You know,” I said, looking at him as I stuffed my laptop and camera back in my courier bag, giving him an indulgent smile, “it’s so much worse than I ever imagined possible, Mr. Fisher. Really, it’s like a bad porno set in here.”

“I will give you that it’s a little bare, but—”

My groan cut him off. “This place so needs a makeover. It’s a wonder you’re not suicidal.”

He swore under his breath.

“And it’s lucky you don’t have kids yet ’cause all the open space would be creepy at night.”

“What are you—”

“It must be scary as hell in here in the dark. When I was little, we just had a trailer, but even then when I woke up in the night, I used to pretend I was Frankenstein, ya know? I’d walk to the bathroom moaning, making the growling sort of noise he makes, doing his walk with my arms out ’cause I figured if the other monsters thought I was a monster, then they wouldn’t try and get me.”

He was staring at me, openmouthed.

“What?”

“You just… you….”

I smiled wide. “Back to the house, Mr. Fisher, I promise when we’re done, with the budget you’ve given us and the free rein over design, it will be stunning, okay?”

He was still looking at me weird.

“Mr. Fisher?”

“Is it really so horrible now?” he asked, flopping down onto one of his kitchen chairs. It creaked under his weight.

I looked at him and pointed. “That’ll hafta go too.”

“Christ,” he muttered.

I had to laugh.

His scowl deepened. “So what are you gonna do?” he asked me, his voice pained.

“Not me. Like I told you, the interior design team. That’s a whole separate entity.”

He looked up at me, and I wasn’t sure what I saw there.

“Mr. Fisher, I swear to God you don’t have to see me again until your big night.”

“Mr. Harcourt, you—”

“Okay,” I announced, “well, I gotta go because I’m starving, but another team will be in touch to go over timelines with you, and invitations and the list of who you want and who you don’t.” I offered him my hand.

He looked dazed, but he took my hand, and we shook.

I moved away from him, walking over to Michelle.

“I remember now,” she said, grinning at me, “you maul people into submission.”

“That’s right.” I winked at her, grabbing her hand and tugging her after me.

“Jory,” she said, laughing, “I have to say good-bye to the man.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, letting her go. “I’ll meet you at the restaurant. I’ll go get a table.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“I don’t know where I’m going.”

I squinted at her. “For French Toast, of course.”

“How was I supposed to know that? And please tell me where we’re going?”

I was used to traveling with Dylan. My best friend never missed a beat of what was going on in my head. I had to stop expecting it of others. I gave her the name of the place and told her where it was.

“Okay,” she said, smiling at me, the adoration there in her eyes. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Are you bringin’ the whole team?”

“No, doll, it’s just you and me.”

“Good,” I said, even though I liked the rest of the team. I just wasn’t up to making conversation with the whole group.

Halfway to the door, I turned around. “Everything’s gonna be all right, Mr. Fisher,” I assured him. “Michelle will plan the gala with you, Wade Fujihara will be here on Monday morning to go over the plans for renovating your space, and then someone else will be by with photos of the women interested in becoming your missus.”

He just stared at me, mouth open.

“Maybe if you play your cards right, then the night of the party you could get your date to stay over ’cause you really look like you need to get—”

“Jory!”

“What?”

Her expression was priceless.

“I thought clients wanted to be talked to like regular people?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Jory!”

Crap.

“Go to the restaurant, already. I’ll be there right behind you.”

She wanted me out. I didn’t need to be told twice.

I was scaling the front steps back down to the sidewalk when my name was called. Turning, I looked back up to the front door to find Hayes Fisher standing there, looking down at me.

“Yeah?” I called out.

He shook his head. “What kind of manners are those, not even offering your client lunch?”

“You mean brunch,” I corrected him.

“You’re kind of an ass, Mr. Har—Jory.”

“Kind of?” I teased him.

“Why don’t we all have brunch with you?”

“Why?” I asked, going back up the stairs I’d just come down.

“Why not?” he asked as I stepped in front of him.

That kind of logic always worked on me. “Okay, sure,” I said with a shrug.

“Hayes?”

We both turned to look at the scary-looking woman who had stepped out onto the porch beside him. I had never seen a scowl quite that dark—except for Sam’s.

“This is my assistant, Lisa, who Mrs. Cooper already met,” he said, smirking at me. “Lisa, this is Jory Harcourt.”

Her brows furrowed. I widened my eyes and gave her my big smile, the one that made even my brother, even when he was furious with me, stop yelling and listen. For a second I thought maybe she was going to hold onto the whole prison-guard vibe she had going and not thaw, but then, suddenly, her eyes softened, and she melted.

“It’s a pleasure,” she sighed, offering me her hand.

“And you,” I lowered my voice, making it deep, seductive as I took her hand and then covered it with my other.

“Oh,” Michelle breathed out as she too joined us.

Mr. Fisher’s mouth moved like he was going to speak, but instead he ended up just staring at me. I arched an eyebrow for him. “So are we going?”

“Yeah, um… Lisa cleared my schedule, and so I thought I would invite myself along to breakfast, er, brunch. I wanted to talk more to Mrs. Cooper, and we’re all hungry.”

“Michelle,” she corrected him.

“Michelle,” he repeated.

“Sure,” I agreed, drawing Lisa forward, tucking her hand under my arm. “Your assistant should come too,” I said, looking down into the girl’s big blue eyes. “Us support staff hafta stick together.”

She nodded, taking hold of my arm as we started down the front steps. I heard Michelle growl behind me.

But For You #6
Chapter One
THE man was a pig, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. Rosa Martinez, who lived on the other side of the Petersons, agreed with me. In fact, all the women who lived on our cul-de-sac were of the same mind. Oliver Peterson, whose wife had just caught him cheating on her—again —was filth. It wasn’t the fact that they already had two children; it was the fact that she was currently pregnant with a third.

Sam, the love of my life, my partner, husband, and the guy who was parenting two small people with me, just shook his head the night before and kissed me breathless after telling me for the nine-hundredth time to please not get involved. Leave the neighbors alone; this was not Housewives of Wherever, we were not on reality TV. I had explained over the McDonald’s that the man had brought home instead of having me cook—which, after the last time, we had both agreed would never happen again—that I was involved because I was her friend.

“No,” he told me as we put the kids down. “You use that word so loosely. She’s an acquaintance, Jory, she’s not a friend.”

“She’s my neighbor, Sam, and her man’s a dog, and if she needs my help with whatever, I’m gonna give it to her.”

“I’m not saying not to be nice to her, but just don’t stick your nose in their business.”

I ignored him.

“Jory Harcourt!”

I gave him the most indignant look I could manage. “So I’m what, nosy now? I’m the busybody neighbor?”

He threw up his hands in defeat.

I gave him a superior grunt because I thought he was on his way out of the bedroom to check the house, make sure all the doors were locked, make sure the stove burners were all off, but then I realized he hadn’t moved. “What?”

“You’re very cute.”

I squinted at him. “Thirty-five-year-old men are not cute.”

“You’ll always be the twenty-two-year-old club kid I saw for the first time lying in the street with a beagle on top of him.”

“I thought George was a Jack Russell.”

“Nope.” He came toward me. “Beagle.”

“Go away.” I smiled at him, trying to shoo him out of the room. “Go make sure the zombie horde can’t get us.”

But instead of leaving, he grabbed me and slammed me up against the wall in our room. With his hot mouth nibbling up the side of my neck, his hands frantically disrobing me, and his hard groin pressed to my ass, my mind went completely blank. There was no way to concentrate when I had 220 pounds of hard-muscled man focused on getting me in bed.

But the next day, as I staggered around my kitchen—I never had been and never would be a morning person—and saw my neighbors on their front porch, Christie Peterson smiling tentatively, her husband scowling, I just wanted to go over and punch him out. I had an idea what I must have looked like: robe on, T-shirt and pajama bottoms under that, bunny slippers looking all bright-eyed and happy, I resembled the nosy neighbor in every sense.

A throat cleared behind me.

“Don’t you have to go to work?” I asked pointedly. It was Wednesday, not Saturday.

The warm rumbling chuckle was next. “You think maybe now since you’ve got one kid in preschool and the other in first grade that you should start thinking about going back to working from your office?”

Obviously my sanity was in question, because I was still working from home. I hoped the look I gave him when I turned and squinted conveyed my displeasure.

He snorted out a laugh.

I all-out scowled at the supervisory Deputy US Marshal standing beside me at the kitchen sink. We had both been looking at the Petersons. “Why would you say that?”

“Say what?”

I growled.

He pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard line so he wouldn’t smile.

“Sam?”

“No reason.”

“Spit it out.”

He cleared his throat. “I just think that perhaps you being home during the day is giving you cabin fever, and maybe you need to get back out in the real world and talk to the grown-ups.”

I huffed out an exasperated breath. “Sam, just because I don’t go to the office doesn’t mean I’m starved for adult contact. I talk to Dylan every day, I talk to Fallon every day. They’re my business partners, they need me, and they keep me involved with what’s going on at the office.”

“Okay.”

“I send out more e-mails than both of them combined!”

“I’m sure you do,” he said, sliding his hand around the back of my neck, then squeezing gently, massaging, and easing me closer. “I just think that maybe getting out of this house during the day would do you some good.”

I batted his hand away, whirling on him. “I go to the store, to the park, drop kids off at school, pick them up… when do I not see people?”

He grunted, rolled his eyes, and put his coffee cup down in the sink before his dark smoky-blue eyes flicked to mine.

“No,” I almost squeaked, turning to run.

So not fast enough.

You would think that a big man could not move like that, with so much speed, but Sam Kage’s athleticism and strength were never to be underestimated. At forty-six, he was just as powerful as he’d been when I first met him, and I finally understood the whole getting better with age thing. The man looked the best he ever had, and he lived well in his skin, so content, so happy both personally and professionally.

I was so proud of him and told him so often. He was an amazing father, a wonderful husband, a great son, and the kind of friend anyone would be happy to claim. I was biased because I loved him, but still, I saw people look at him and knew the truth. Four years after beginning his new job as a marshal, he was now the supervisor of the Chicago field office, overseeing five other deputies and three clerks. I had thought once he moved up, he’d become a sheriff, but apparently all they did was add the “supervisory” in there. A sheriff was a totally different thing. It made no sense from a Western standpoint. In every movie I had ever seen, the deputy got moved up to sheriff. As usual, Sam had just shaken his head at me.

As I ducked around the island in the middle of the kitchen, I thought for half a second that I would get away from him, but as he grabbed, yanked, and pinned me against the refrigerator, I realized how wrong I had been.

“All I meant to imply,” he began, tilting my head up with a hand on my chin, “was that since you have a six-year-old and a four-year-old now, you can do a half day at the office instead of working full-time from home. It might be nice after you drop them off to pick up a fancy cup of coffee and go to your office and actually see Dylan and Fallon and talk to them face to face.”

I was really far too interested in his mouth to listen to him. He had the kind of lips made for kissing, plump and dark, and when he smiled, there was this curve in the corner that could break your heart. Not that the rest of his rugged features were without appeal. His dark smoky blue-gray eyes with the deep laugh lines at the corners, his long straight nose, the hard square jaw, and the thick copper-gold eyebrows were a treat too. And his voice, over the phone or in person, deep and husky, edged with a growl, could send rippling heat through my entire body. But the man’s mouth, the shape of it, the feel of it… really, I was a fan.

“Are you listening to me?”

I lifted up from my height of five nine to his of six four, and he bent down at the same time. Our lips met and parted, and his tongue slid deep to taste me.

The sounds from the peanut gallery—choking and retching—and the tug on my robe instantly drained the heat from the encounter. Sam snorted out a laugh as he broke the kiss, both of us eyeing the short people standing close to us.

“That’s disgusting,” Kola assured me with a glare that a six-year-old shouldn’t have had, full of judgment and revulsion.

“Why?” I asked snidely.

“Your mouth has germs,” he informed me haughtily. “That’s why you told Hannah not to lick Chilly.”

“No, I told her not to lick Chilly because the cat doesn’t like to be licked by her.”

“He licks his body.”

“He does,” Hannah, our four-year-old, agreed with a nod. “Kola’s right.”

“But he doesn’t want you to do it,” I assured my daughter, directing my comment to her.

“How do you know?” Kola questioned.

“Yeah,” Hannah Banana chimed in again, always her big brother’s backup. “How do you know?”

I had to think.

Kola waited, squinting at me.

Hannah was waiting as well, one of her perfectly shaped dark brows arching. It was new. She had the same way of looking at me that her father did, like I was an idiot.

“Do not lick the cat! Nobody licks the cat!” Sam ordered when the silence stretched for too long.

I started laughing; only my husband would have to make such rules.

He looked down at his son, Mykola Thomas Kage, six years old going on forty, who was full of questions and opinions.

We had adopted him when he was three, from an agency in the Netherlands. When we had made the final trip to bring him home, he had seen us from the window of the orphanage director’s office and run to the door to meet us. We had been there two weeks and he already called Sam Daddy, which Sam was madly in love with hearing. But though Kola had been taught the American word meaning father, it was not his, not the one he had grown up hearing and had been waiting to use for someone who belonged to him. So he had tried out the one he knew on me.

Pa.

So simple a word but it meant so much.

I had heard it in the streets when we visited, along with the more formal, vader, and seen kids run to their fathers using it. Not the papa I knew, not what Sam’s father was called by his grandchildren, but instead just pa. When Kola called to me, I answered to it, and his face, the way it lit up, the absolute blinding joy, had been a gift.

Sam was Daddy, and Daddy represented Kola’s new life and his new family in the United States, and I was the comfort of the old. I was Pa, and he had named me.

Of course it didn’t matter to me what name he settled on. He could have called me Jory for all I cared; he was my kid, and that was all I gave a damn about. He was legally and completely mine and Sam’s, and that was what mattered. And we were good, the three of us, until the first agency we had contacted back when we’d started the whole adoption process called to tell us that there was a little girl from Montevideo ready for adoption. I had forgotten about them because they had never come through, but that turned out not to be the case. You heard from them when it was time, and it finally was.

I was surprised, Sam unsure, until the professional but not personable and definitely not warm gentleman slid the picture across the desk for us. He needed to know if we wanted the little girl in the photograph.

Yes, we wanted the angel very much.

Our family went from three to four with the coming of the little sister that Kola wanted nothing to do with until we were all home under one roof. He resented all of us going to the airport to pick her up, hated her crying in the car, and was really annoyed that Sam was carrying her instead of him. He was starting to fret, it was all over his face—until Sam knelt and picked him up too. Kids are so funny. As soon as Kola figured out that Hannah was planning on sharing us with him, that she wasn’t there to take his spot, that nothing was changing in the love department, just some tweaking in the time area, he decided he liked her. And now, with him at six and her at four, their bond was noticeable.

They fought like cats and dogs… but only sometimes. She cried, he moped, they chased each other and roughhoused, but nine times out of ten, I found her in his room in the morning. When we were out, he held her hand, he fixed things when she couldn’t, and he was supremely patient when she was trying to impart some tidbit of information. I was like, Spit it out, kid, but Kola just nodded and waited until some incident about a bug on a flower was all communicated in excruciating detail.

He brushed her off if she fell down, made her remember her mittens and hat, and could be counted on to translate her wishes to others if Sam and I were absent. Dylan Greer, my best friend, was really surprised because she was certain that, sometimes, Hannah Banana—or B, as we all called her—spoke in tongues. But Kola would just say that she wanted milk or a crayon or a flashlight. And he was never wrong. He was an excellent big brother, and she adored him.

Hannah Regina Kage—her middle name after Sam’s mother—had the most adorable little button nose on the planet. I would lean in to kiss her sometimes and nibble on her nose instead. It made her squeal with delight. Putting her toes in my mouth was also cause for raucous laughter. Even at a year old, she had a good laugh. It was not timid or soft. She was small, but how she expressed herself was big. People heard the deep, throaty sound and were enchanted. I had been under her spell at first glance.

In our neighborhood in River Park, sometimes people still looked at us when we were out walking. And most questioned Kola when they got close, since with his deep-set cobalt-blue eyes, sharp European features, and dark-brown hair, he didn’t look like either me or Sam. But Hannah, who was half-Uruguayan, was obviously adopted. What was funny, though, was that people sometimes questioned whether Gentry—born with my brother Dane’s charcoal eyes instead of my sister-in-law Aja’s honey-brown ones—actually belonged to his own mother. I always wondered why people cared. If your kid was blue and you were orange, who gave a crap as long as you loved and cherished the blue kid? People still surprised me.

“Pa.”

Hannah was looking up at me like I was the village idiot.

“What?”

“If Kola can’t lick Chilly, you can’t lick Daddy.”

I had a terrible image of giving Sam a blow job just then, and he probably knew it, which was why he grabbed me and covered my mouth with his hand. “Will you two go finish your breakfast, please?”

They left then, but not without casting looks back.

Sam moved his hand but bent and kissed me. I received it happily, and of course, there was more retching.

“Kola Kage!” I admonished him even as I laughed. “Will you knock that off?”

“Ewww,” Hannah squeaked out.

When I looked over at them, Kola was mixing his oatmeal with butter and brown sugar, making it burp with his spoon.

“Just eat it,” I told him.

“I’m making it edible.”

Edible. Damn kid and his damn vocabulary.

“Leave the Petersons alone,” Sam sighed, long-suffering as he was.

“I am.” I bit my bottom lip.

“Jory…,” he cautioned me.

I tried for innocent.

“Daddy,” Kola said, back beside us, looking up at Sam.

“Don’t lick the cat,” Sam reiterated, bending down to one knee as his son stepped into his arms and put his hands on his face. “All right?”

“Okay.” Kola nodded.

“Okay,” Sam sighed, pulling Kola close, hugging him tight for a minute.

“What’s homonic?”

“I dunno.” Sam yawned, leaning back so father and son could look at each other. “Where’d you hear it?”

“Pa told Auntie Dyl that Jake’s parents won’t let him come play at my house ’cause they’re homonic.”

Sam nodded. “That’s homophobic, and that means that Jake’s parents don’t want him to come over because you have two fathers.”

Kola squinted at Sam. “Why?”

“Some people just don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Well, I think that some people are afraid of what it means.”

He shook his head. “What does it mean?”

“That if you can have two fathers, maybe things are changing.”

His scowl made his little eyebrows furrow. It was adorable. “I don’t understand.”

“I think you will when you’re older, buddy.”

“It’s dumb.”

“Yes it is,” Sam agreed, hugging him again. “But I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.” He hugged Sam back tight, both arms wrapped around his neck. “Stuart and his mom are coming with me and Pa and Hannah and Uncle Evan and Bryce and Seth and Auntie Dyl and Mica and Mabel and Tess and her dad to the movies next Saturday, so Jake’s the one who’s missing out.”

“Who’s coming again?” Sam teased him.

“Stuart and his mom are coming with—”

“Stop,” I cut Kola off. “Your father heard you the first time.”

Sam grunted and looked up at me. “How come I didn’t get invited to the movies?”

“First”—I smiled at him—“the Chipmunks give you hives, and secondly, won’t you be fishing with Pat and Chaz that Saturday?”

“What Saturday are we talking about?”

“We’re leaving tomorrow for Phoenix, for the reunion, and we’ll come home Sunday.”

“Yes, I know this.”

“Okay, so then I’m talking about not this coming Saturday, since we’ll be out of town, but the one after that.”

“Oh, so that’s right, then.” He smiled brightly. “I’ll be fishing. Sorry I won’t make the movie, babe.”

“Liar,” I said flatly.

He cackled.

But it was going to be fun. I was going with my two kids, my buddy Evan was bringing his sons Bryce and Seth, and Dylan was schlepping her two kids: her son, Mica, who was her oldest, and Mabel, her daughter, who was the same age as Kola. It was unfortunate that they had made another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but all the kids were dying to see it, so we were making a day of it. I was still waiting to hear from Aja to see if she was coming along as well. I knew that Robert and Gentry were just as interested in helium-fueled rodents as the rest of our kids, but Aja wasn’t, and she could use a day off.

Aja, who had been in the public school realm when she first married my brother, as first a principal and then assistant superintendent of schools, had found herself unable to enact change at that level. Aja could not amend policy or allocate funds, but instead of growing bitter about what she saw happening around her—the apathy and deliberate ignorance—she decided to do something about it. In her present position as the associate dean of education at De Paul University, training and inspiring the next generation of teachers, she was preparing bright minds for the real world as well as toughening skins. She armed them and motivated them and made sure they knew she would always be a resource for them even after they graduated. All that plus parenting two children, being a wife, attending a myriad of social functions with her husband, and the result was a worn-out Aja Harcourt. I wanted to help lessen her load.

As I was driving back home after dropping off Kola and Hannah—they both went to the same Montessori school close to Oak Park—I called Aja from the car and offered to take her two short people off her hands instead of having her join us. I was immediately called a saint.

“Jory, I need some me and Dane time.”

“How ’bout I pick Robbie and Gen up next Friday after school and keep them until Sunday morning? We’ll all go to brunch and you can have them back. But that gives you Friday night and all day Saturday. Whaddya say?”

I thought she was going to cry, she was so thankful.

“So is that a yes?”

“Ohmygod, yes, that’s a yes!”

“You’re starting to sound like me.”

“Thank you, baby.”

“What is family for?”

“But you’re the only one I trust.”

“That’s not true.” I smiled into the phone as I turned from the side street I was on into traffic on Harlem Avenue, heading for home. I went maybe ten feet before I and everyone else on the street came to a grinding halt.

“Yes, but since Carmen got her dream job globetrotting around the world and my folks fled to Florida and Alex to Delaware, you and Sam are the only family I’ve got here.”

“You have a lot of other girlfriends,” I told her as I tried to see what the problem was around the SUV in front of me.

“I know, but I would check in with the others, I don’t need to check with you and Sam. He’ll kill anyone that comes near my kids, and you worry more than I do.”

“I don’t worry.”

She snorted out a laugh over the phone.

“That was very undignified,” I said as I leaned back in the driver’s seat of the sleek black minivan I utterly adored. Everyone else I knew had SUVs that were, I was certain, helping to destroy the environment. My minivan was not part of Satan’s master plan, and I loved my car that proclaimed me married with children as well as safety conscious. I was looking forward to Kola starting soccer in the spring so the picture of domestic bliss would be complete. I had a sweater all picked out.

“You bring it out of me,” Aja cackled.

“Whatever, I’ll call you when I get back from the reunion on Sunday.”

She started snickering.

“What?”

“Family reunion.” She was laughing now. “Oh the horror!”

“It’ll be fine,” I told her as I noticed a man striding by my window. It was weird that he was walking down the middle of the street and not on the sidewalk, but since we were in gridlock, he was in no danger of getting run over. “Hey, your kids like Mountain Dew and Oreos, right?”

“They’re staying with you for two days. Feed them whatever you want.”

I was laughing when I hung up, but when the SUV in front of me suddenly reversed, crashing into my front bumper, I yelled and laid on my horn. But the car didn’t stop—it kept grinding metal, and I realized that he, or she, was trying to get enough of an angle to go up onto the curb to the right.

I took a picture of the license plate with my phone, thanked God that my kids weren’t with me, and was about to call the police to report the accident when I saw the passenger door of the SUV open. What was confusing was that the small woman who scrambled out had keys in her hand. It was like she had been driving but had not wanted to get out of the driver’s side door. When she flung open the back door, a little rocket seat was visible: she had a toddler.

I got out fast and went around the back of my van—even as the guy in the car behind me honked, leaned out, and told me to get back behind the fucking wheel—and darted to her side.

She whirled on me with a can of pepper spray in hand.

“Wait! I’m here to help.”

Her eyes were huge as she looked at me, shoved the can into my chest, and told me to look out for the guy so she could get her son out of the car. She had been too frightened to even open her door.

“What guy?”

“I don’t know, some psycho. I think he killed the man in the car in front of me,” she cried. “I think he has a gun or—oh God!”

Turning, I saw a man advancing on us. “Move your fucking cars!”

“Get inside!” I ordered her. “Lock it!”

She climbed into the backseat around her kid, and I heard the locks behind me as the man advanced on me fast.

He had a lug wrench, not a gun, and since I could run if I needed to, I went from terrified to annoyed very quickly. “What the hell are you doing?” I barked at him. “You’re scaring the crap out of this lady!”

“Move your cars! This whole street is just full of fucking cars!”

He wasn’t even looking at me; I doubt he could have told me where he was or what he was doing. Maybe the road rage had made him snap; perhaps something else. I didn’t know and I didn’t care—he was carrying around an automotive tool like a weapon. That was really my only concern. The lady in the SUV was freaked because her kid was in the car and this guy was acting crazy. If my kids were with me, I would have had the same reaction.

“Stop,” I ordered him. “Don’t come any closer.”

He kept coming, and he raised the wrench like maybe he was thinking of braining me with it. I aimed the nozzle of the pepper spray and made sure to get his face.

His scream was loud and wounded, but he didn’t drop the tool.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

It was the guy who had yelled at me earlier, whose car was in gridlock behind mine.

“You just attacked this guy?” he roared right before he hit me.

I went down hard, hitting the van as I bounced off it, but from my angle, I could see the guy I had sprayed coming at him.

Kicking hard, I knocked the guy who had just hit me off balance, and he tumbled to the ground beside me.

“What the fuck are you—”

“Look out!” I yelled as the guy with the lug wrench came after us.

“Oh shit,” he screamed, scrambling back away from me, moving to run.

“Drop the weapon!”

“Get on the ground!”

Normally, policemen—even though I’m married to an ex one—are not my favorite people. As a rule, they catch me doing crap I shouldn’t be but somehow miss everyone else talking on their cell phones, running red lights, and speeding.

But right at that moment, as I saw the uniforms, noted the drawn guns, and heard the orders being roared out, I was comforted.

The guy dropped the lug wrench and went to his knees.

“All the way down, face on the pavement!”

“You saved my life,” the guy who hit me said.

“I—”

But something slammed the back of my head, and everything went dark.


MY HUSBAND, my brother, family, and friends would say that yes, Jory Harcourt is a trouble magnet, but I think it’s more coincidence than anything else when fate decides to screw with me. Especially this time: I was going home from dropping off my kids, a trip I made Monday through Friday, normally without incident. How was I to know that I would end up in the crosshairs of accidental crazy?

“A what?” the policeman who was taking my statement at the hospital asked.

“Trouble magnet,” I told him as I sighed deeply.

“How did you get knocked out?” he asked me.

“I guess the lady I told to stay in her SUV, she opened the door really fast and I was sitting right beside her car and… you know.”

He nodded. “I see.”

“That’s why vans are better, the doors slide,” I educated him.

His smile was patronizing.

“I—”

“Jory!” His yell bounced off the walls, and I winced.

The officer looked startled. “Who was—”

“Scooch back,” I ordered, and took a breath to get the required amount of air into my lungs. “In here!”

The curtain was flung open moments later and there was Sam, jaw clenched, muscles cording in his neck, eyes dark and full of too many things to soothe at once.

“Detective Kage?”

Sam turned to the officer.

“Oh, no, marshal.” He tried to smile at my glowering man.

Sam’s attention returned to me, and I smiled as I lifted my arms for him.

Moving fast, Sam closed the short distance between us and hauled me forward and crushed me against him.

It was not gentle; the entire movement was jarring and hard.

I loved it.

“Scared me,” he said as he clutched me tight.

I knew I had, which was the reason for the grab. I leaned into him, nuzzled my face into the crook of his neck, and slid my arms under the suit jacket and over the crisp dress shirt. He smelled good, a faint trace of cologne, fabric softener, and warm male. I whimpered softly in the back of my throat.

“Those calls take years off my life, you know?”

“What calls?”

“The Jory’s in the hospital calls.”

I nodded, and there was a rumble of a grunt before he leaned back and looked down into my face. His eyes clocked me, checking, making sure I was whole and safe.

“I’m fine,” I said as he lifted his hand and knotted it into my hair, tilting my head back as he examined my right eye and my cheek.

“Yeah, you don’t look fine,” he said, and his voice was low and menacing. “Who did this?”

“There was a guy behind me, and he didn’t understand why I sprayed the man with the lug wrench, and he—”

“Stop,” he cut me off, dropping his hand from my hair as he turned his head to the policeman. “Talk.”

I could tell from his change of tone that he wasn’t waiting on me, but apparently the officer could not. “Hello?” Sam snapped icily.

“Oh-oh,” the guy stammered and then recounted to Sam the events of the morning.

“So the lady in the SUV knocked him out when she opened the door?” He was trying to make sure he understood everything.

“Yes.”

Sam grunted.

“She’s really sorry about it. She told me that your partner there saved her life.”

That didn’t make it any better, at least for Sam.

“My van is—”

“We’ll take care of the van and get you a rental until it’s fixed. Just don’t worry about it.”

“No, I know,” I snapped at him. Sometimes—a lot of the time—Sam treated me like an invalid. It was happening more and more lately, like I needed to be taken care of, same as the kids, because I couldn’t think for myself or reason things out. “I just wanted to know where my vehicle was towed to… Officer.”

I had turned to the man in uniform, pinned him with my gaze—my question was directed to him—and he was still looking at Sam to see if he should answer me.

“Officer?”

“I can find out where the—”

“No,” I shut Sam down, eyes wide as I waited. “Where’s my car?”

“We, um.” He coughed as he passed me a business card from his clipboard. “Had it towed to a garage downtown and—”

“Just stop,” Sam barked at me, snatching the card away. “Sit here while I go find your doctor and figure out if you have a concussion or—”

“Sam—”

“After I get you home, then we’ll worry about the damn van.”

“I can—”

“Stop,” he ordered again, and because I didn’t want to have a scene, I went still and quiet and stared at the clock on the wall.

The officer muttered something and left, and Sam told me that he had to go and find out about the other people in the accident and would see about my release at the same time.

I stayed quiet.

“You’re gonna sulk now?”

I turned my head and was about to say something when he lifted his hand.

“I don’t wanna fight with you. Just let me do this.”

“I’m not a child, Sam. I can take care of my own car. I can do—”

“So I shouldn’t be here? I shouldn’t have even come?”

“No, I just… lately it seems to be the Sam Show and not the Sam and Jory Show. You do everything, and I don’t get why that’s happening.”

His eyes searched mine.

“Sam? Do you think I’m helpless?”

The glare I was getting would have terrified most people. But this was the guy who loved me, and as always, when I stopped and actually used my brain, I understood what was really going on.

He was terrified.

I had scared the crap out of him that morning, and because he was waiting for the other shoe to drop anyway… it was almost like he was expecting bad news. And he was—he was expecting the worst.

“You think me and Kola and Hannah could get taken away.”

“What? No,” he said quietly, not a lot of force behind his words. “No.”

He was such a liar.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, putting my hands on his heavily muscled chest, unable to stop myself from curling my fingers into his shirt, holding on. Yes, he was being overprotective, but not for the reasons I thought. He didn’t think I was stupid; he just didn’t want to let me, or his kids, out of his sight for any reason. Not ever. And because he was trying not to be suffocating, he was managing the exact opposite. “I wasn’t thinking.”

He took a breath. “What’re you talking about?”

“The more you work, the more you see, the more you realize that this, what we have, is not the norm. Most people don’t get the kind of happiness that we have, the home we have, so you get over protective and smothering.”

He furrowed his brows, and I smiled up at him as I hooked my legs around the back of his thighs. He leaned closer, hands on either side of me on the narrow hospital bed. “You think you know me?”

I nodded, my fingers unclenching from his shirt. “Yes. I know you well.”

He bent toward me, and I twined an arm around his neck to draw him close. His breath fanned softly across my face before his mouth settled over mine.

I loved to kiss him. Whenever, however, for as long as he’d let me or as long as he wanted to. I was his for the taking.

He swept his tongue in, mating it with mine, tangled, rubbed, pushed, and shoved. Our lips never parted, not once, even for air. I felt his arms wrap around me, crush me to his chest, and hold tight. I had a hand knotted in his hair, and the moan I couldn’t stifle was low and aching. When he suddenly shoved me back, breaking the scorching, devouring contact, my whine of protest was loud.

He was flushed and panting, his lips swollen, his pupils blown as he stared at me.

I was breathing hard, my lungs heaving for air as I smiled at him.

“Crap.” He finally managed to get out a word.

My smile was wicked.

“You’re not supposed to kiss me at work.”

“You kissed me,” I reminded him.

“Crap,” he said again and swallowed hard as he straightened up, stepping away from me, obviously fighting to get his body back under control.

“You can nail me in your car.”

His frown came fast, and so did my grin.

“What?” I smiled wide.

“A Deputy US Marshal does not nail his spouse in the car.”

I arched an eyebrow for him. “Are you sure?”

He pointed at me. “I will take you home to our bed and nail you.”

“Oh yes, please.” I waggled my eyebrows for him.

“Just sit there,” he growled at me. “And wait while I get you signed out of here so we can go get the kids.”

“Not today, Marshal,” I told him.

He looked surprised. “You didn’t plan to pick up your children today?”

“No, your mom’s picking them up and then we’re going there for dinner.”

He squinted at me.

“You know she’s a planner,” I said cheerfully.

“Lemme get this straight,” he sighed. “We’re gonna be with them on a plane tomorrow, with them at a resort from Thursday to Saturday, and then with them again on a plane on Sunday coming home, but we’re still eating with them tonight because they won’t see us?”

“Your mom likes to coordinate and you know this, so just let it go.”

“Why?” He was annoyed.

“Why does she like to plan things or why are we indulging her?”

“The second one,” he grumbled. “Why do we do that?”

“Because we love her,” I said like it was obvious.

“No, screw that. I’m gonna call her and tell her we—”

“Why would you rock the boat? Why would you upset the delicate balance of all things Regina?”

I loved his mother, Regina Kage, with absolute abandon, and of everyone—her own children, their spouses, and all her grandchildren combined—she and I got along best. The reasons for that were twofold: first, because I’d never had a mother and craved one like a drug; second, and most of all, because I didn’t ever try to change her. We never fought; I allowed her to rearrange anything in my house she wanted, make suggestions on parenting—because really, her kids came out good, so where was the argument?—and most of all, when she fussed, whenever she fussed, I was at her disposal to lend a hand. We were good.

“Jory—”

“Let it go, Sam.”

He rolled his eyes, but we both knew he wouldn’t say a word. No one said a word to Regina Kage. We all did exactly as she wanted. She was the matriarch, after all.

“Seriously, though, we should cancel, you’re in no—”

“I’m fine, and besides, I think she had trip itineraries printed up, and I want to make sure to get mine.”

He was disgusted, but I got the smile I was after with the shake of his head, the you are too much and I give up one that I loved.

“So,” I said softly as my gaze skated over him. God, I loved looking at him. The broad shoulders that the suit jacket accentuated, the snug fit of the tailored dress shirt over his massive chest, and the stubble that covered his square, chiseled jaw even though he’d shaved that morning before work.

“What?” he asked, and his voice was husky as he stared at me.

“You’re gonna take me home?”

“Yes.”

“And stay with me?”

“Yeah. I want to make sure you’re okay.”

I stared into those eyes that I loved as much now as I had the first time he’d kissed me all those years ago. “You’re taking care of me again.”

He grunted and it was all male, all growly bear. “And?”

“And it’s nice.” I smiled at him, taking a loose hold of his tie.

He sighed and I got a trace of a smile. “Okay, I’ll be right back.”

“Wait,” I said before he could leave.

“Why? What?”

“Come gimme kiss.”

“No.” He snorted out a laugh and then bent and kissed my forehead before he walked out of the room.

I was lost in thought, every brain cell I possessed absorbed with Sam Kage and what I was going to do to him with an afternoon alone, when my name was called.

“Mr. Harcourt?”

When I turned, there was a doctor there, and I registered almost instantly that it really wasn’t fair. He got to look like that and be brilliant? Normally you were smart or pretty, not both. He even had bright blue-green eyes. I noticed that because they were the exact shade of turquoise that I wanted when I was growing up. I had hated my brown eyes with a passion. Now things were different. My daughter and I had almost the same shade of deep chocolate brown with hints of gold, and the man who woke up in bed with me every morning never failed to mention that as eyes went, mine were his favorite color.

“Mr. Harcourt?”

“Yeah, sorry.” I flashed him a quick grin. “That’s me.”

“Hi.” He smiled warmly as he closed in, offering me his hand. “I’m Dr. Dwyer, and—”

“Jory, you—”

“Sam?”

My doctor called my man by his first name.

Sam stood there looking utterly gobsmacked.

Both men, my partner and the doctor, froze as they stood staring at each other.

What the hell…?

Doctor Dwyer had been interrupted by Sam’s return, and Sam had apparently been quite startled to see the doctor when he came charging back into the room.

I kept looking between them, feeling weirder by the second.

“Kevin,” Sam finally said.

The man took a step forward, and the smile, the light that hit his eyes, the shiver that ran through his long, lean swimmer’s frame, was not to be mistaken for anything other than absolute, quivering, pulse-pounding, blood-racing joy. Whoever he was, he was deliriously surprised and delighted to see Sam Kage.

I waited and realized that I had stopped breathing.

Who was this heavenly creature, this doctor who was looking at Sam like he was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his entire life?

“You….” Sam sucked in a breath. “What are you doing here?”

“Jesus,” the doctor gasped and rushed forward, arms lifted, ready to reach out and grab hold, reclaim.

Sam moved faster, meeting him and cutting him off, so basically, with his forward momentum halted, the good doctor was brought up short, almost to a jarring, lose-your-balance stop. Sam leaned, gave him the guy clench, tight-tight, then pushed off and back so Dr. Dwyer was basically left abandoned and bewildered, arms empty, looking lost.

“Nice to see you,” Sam said quickly, stepping close to the bed and taking my hand at the same time. “Jory, this is Dr. Kevin Dwyer. We met in Columbia when I was there working that drug bust after Dom went into witness protection. He was with Doctors Without Borders at that time. What are you doing here in Chicago?”

Years ago, Sam had left me recovering in the hospital to track down a drug cartel in Colombia on a tip from his corrupt partner. We had been apart for three years, and at some point he had met the good doctor.

Dr. Dwyer seriously looked like someone had punched him in the gut or run him over with a truck. It was hard to tell which better described him at that moment. “I,” he started but stopped, and then his eyes flicked to mine. “Jory?”

I smiled at him. “Yes.”

He nodded. “Sam told me all about you.”

And yet Sam had never, ever mentioned Kevin Dwyer to me. “Did you date?” I asked the doctor, because I didn’t mess around.

“Jor—”

“No,” he cut Sam off. “We lived together for three months.”

And my world imploded.

Parting Shot #7
Chapter One
I NEEDED the job to be over so I could go home.

The realization was sort of amazing, because I love New York. Any reason to visit, to eat in Hell’s Kitchen, walk through Central Park, or soak up Times Square at night was good. So, the fact that I couldn’t wait to leave told me something important.

And it had everything to do with Aaron Sutter.

I thought I knew all about beautiful men. I’d slept with enough of them. Gym bunnies I screwed in clubs, twinks on their knees in alleys, and guys I took to hotels that charged by the hour. I never bothered if they weren’t gorgeous. But not one of them could hold a candle to the millionaire.

Billionaire?

I wasn’t sure, hadn’t checked into it. He was loaded; that was all I knew. Not that I cared. It made no difference. I was already willing to take care of him, be the guy—his guy—the one he could count on. That he was in the closet too had been my big flashing neon sign that I was finally in the same place with another person. It was scary and amazing at the same time.

Whenever I met a guy someplace besides a bar or a club, they were all about having me meet friends, go for drinks with them, and basically let it be known I was gay. Thing was, I couldn’t do that. I was a police detective in Chicago; being out and proud was not an option if I ever wanted to move up. And though I knew one detective who had done it, he hadn’t stayed on the force, instead becoming a federal marshal. I kidded myself for a short time and thought that was the way I wanted to go as well, but I liked being a homicide detective, bringing closure to people’s lives, finding and punishing those responsible. I really wanted to keep doing what I was doing, and the fact of the matter was, so far, I had not found a guy important enough to pick over the job. The one long-term relationship I’d had, two years of my life, had ended over my not being an out and proud gay man.

The moment I’d met Aaron Sutter, though, a warning bell went off in the back of my head. I knew just from talking to him for a few minutes that the only way to be with him was serious. He was not a quick fuck; he was the guy you made a home with. Strangely, that didn’t scare me. My fine-tuned flight reflex never kicked in.

It didn’t hurt that he was stunning to look at. With his lean, muscled frame, sharp-angled features, and bright blue eyes, I wanted him instantly. When his turquoise gaze met mine, a throb of desire made my chest tight, and it was hard to remember my name. My whole life, I’d been such a sucker for beauty, but halfway through dinner with mutual friends, I knew the truth. It was more. I would do anything to spend some time with him, any that he would allow.

I liked the way the man talked. The sound of his voice—the resonance, the husky quality of it—decadent and sexy. His laugh was good, deep, not timid or quiet. More importantly, he was funny and sarcastic and quick with the barbs. He was smart, and brains being even hotter than looks, I was a goner.

“Wake up, Stiel,” a voice commanded through my earpiece.

Jerking out of my thoughts, I looked across the room to the entrance of the club.

“Head in the game. Evanston’s coming in now.”

I was covering the back door, so there was no way out for the mob enforcer once he came in. The two men he killed in Chicago, and the three here in New York, would put a needle in his arm if he didn’t roll over on his boss. Everyone thought he would die before he gave up any names, but I knew a coward when I saw one.

Once this was finished, I could get on a plane for home, and when I was in my own place, call Aaron Sutter and ask if I could see him.

I really wanted to see him.


AFTER the first time we’d spent the night together, I had to get on a plane the next morning. Skipping the shower before I left was my choice. The idea of carrying him around on my skin all day had been so very needed.

“You don’t want to wash up?” he teased, a lazy grin on his face, as he watched me from where he lay sprawled across his California king.

“No,” I said, my voice hoarse because just looking at him, at his skin covered in marks I’d put there, at his swollen lips and sleep-tousled hair, made my heart stop. “I wanna smell like you a little longer.”

“Oh,” he said, obviously caught off guard.

It had been wild when we’d hit the door of his place the night before. The second the lock clicked, we were wrestling off jackets and shirts.

Aaron grabbed lube and condoms off a table by the wall, and pushed them at me before his hands went to his belt. He almost lost his balance when I shoved him forward, but recovered enough to stop from going face-first into the wall.

“Hold still,” I growled as I came up behind him, grabbing his hip to make sure he didn’t move.

“Yes,” he promised, palms flat on the black-stained wood, head leaning against his bicep, his breathing rough and shaky.

I shoved my briefs and jeans to my knees, rolled on the condom, and flipped open the cap on the lube.

“Duncan,” he cried, and I liked my name all garbled with yearning.

Shucking his underwear and jeans to his ankles, I reached around and fisted his cock with a lube-slicked hand, slathering my sheathed dick with the other.

“Please,” he begged, his voice ragged and low. “I want you in me.”

The tremble that ran through him was beautiful to see, the want and trust there a gift. When I slid two fingers into him, I realized how tight he was. “Tell me the last time you bottomed.”

“Can’t,” he hissed. “Never have.”

I froze.

“No-no-no,” he whimpered, arching his back, thrusting his ass out. “I want it. You have no idea how long I’ve—but it’s not in me to ask. I can’t. I won’t.”

Whoever was with him had to simply know, and mind reading was a tough gig.

“I—Duncan!”

I got it. He was goddamn Aaron Sutter, and scary billionaire pillars of power did not ask anyone to fuck them. Ever. Until now, until me.

But the way he pushed on my fingers, rolled his head on his shoulders, and moaned endlessly—it was too much. “Grab your cock,” I ordered.

“Just let me—I need… I want to feel you.”

I took him at his word, spread the gorgeous round globes of his ass, and lined up the head of my cock with his pretty pink hole.

“Go slow.”

I would do nothing else.

He trusted me, wanted me, and I would make the act tender and gentle. I would do for Aaron Sutter what I would have wanted.

“Duncan… I need you.”

I moved like molasses poured in winter, covering him, plastering my chest to his back, my right arm around his neck, my hand on his hip, holding him still as I pressed inside him.

“Duncan!”

“Easy,” I soothed him, behind his ear and kissing down the side of his neck. His reaction to each graze of my lips—the slow relaxing, the calm settling in his core—spoke to how much he wanted me there.

A fine sheen of sweat broke out over his shoulders, and he panted softly even as his body clenched tight around mine. I longed to be buried in him, to thrust deep, but slowly sinking inside Aaron, inch by delicious inch, was something I found I craved even more. His body opened, stretching around me, wanting me in just as much as he wanted me out. The war of it, the muscles rippling around me, was almost more than I could bear.

“You feel so good,” I growled into his skin, loving the salty taste of his sweat, sucking, licking, and finally nibbling up the side of his throat.

“Don’t stop.”

I didn’t. I slid farther, pushing, breaching, and then I was suddenly there, buried to the hilt, my balls against his ass. He turned his head, and I reached over his shoulder to kiss him, my tongue taking absolute possession––mauling him until I felt the last trace of fight in the man disappear.

“Could you….” He swallowed. “Tighter.”

He was so vulnerable, naked in a way that had nothing to do with clothes. I wanted him to know he could wear me, that he had me.

I wrapped him up tight so he could feel my heart beating against his back.

His hands moved from the wall to my hips, and he slowly undulated against me.

“Oh fuck,” I said and chuckled into his sweaty hair, rubbing my chin over his shoulder. “I won’t last if you keep doing that.” Every tingling, electric shiver made him jolt against me, and the muscles in his ass rippled around my shaft.

“Please.” The word was barely audible, more a shaky huff of air than a sound. His passion-glazed eyes lifted to me. “Use me.”

I couldn’t pull out a couple of inches and then plunge back inside him like they did in all the best pornos. I was too swollen with arousal and he was too tight. All I could do was make the strokes as smooth as possible.

“Duncan!” he yelled, and his muscles squeezed tight, wringing a response from me, the sizzling heat simmering in the base of my spine.

I wanted to feel my body fit into his, wanted the give and take, the slow build and the blind rush of nothing but adrenaline and the euphoric high before the crash. I wanted to fuck him so hard only I would ever do. Once would never be enough.

“I need you,” he ground out.

I knew he did.

“Don’t leave me.”

“No,” I promised and pushed into him.

He was loud, and I loved it because there was no need to guess what he wanted, and his tears were of no consequence because they were about walls breaking and nothing bad.

I curled over him; my face pressed into the back of his neck, kissing gently, before I took hold of his hips and began the rhythm of thrust and retreat.

“Harder,” he moaned.

“Come!” I demanded because I was too close, too engorged inside him, but I needed him sated first.

“I… Duncan….”

I shifted my angle and didn’t have to guess if I got the spot I was after. He lost his language; there was only a guttural cry before he splattered over the wall in front of him. My climax was seconds behind his, and as we stood together, aftershocks wracking through us, I realized I was probably holding him too tight.

“Oh,” I said softly and tried to ease free.

“No,” he stopped me, content within the cocoon of my arms. “Stay.”

And I had, all night, but I tried to leave with my pride intact the next morning. Telling the man I wanted to carry the smell of his sweat on me all day, that washing his dried come off my stomach from his second orgasm of the night was not something I wanted to do, was probably too much for the morning after our first date. I would scare him to death.

When he sat up and stared at me, I charged toward the door. I didn’t want to hear I was being stupid, and I was sorry I’d said it even as it had come out. I had a tendency to get attached way too fast.

“Duncan.”

I stopped and glanced over my shoulder.

“Will you call me when you get back?”

It took everything in me not to turn and bolt to the bed and kiss him until he begged me to stay. He looked so good, so tempting, so much like home, I had to swallow down my heart to not move. “Yeah,” I said huskily, “if you want.”

He nodded. “Please.”

I tried to smile but it didn’t come off, more a grimace of pain than anything else, I was sure. “Okay. I’ll see ya.”

“You don’t need my driver to—”

“Nah. I got a cab waiting outside.”

“Oh,” he exhaled.

I didn’t want to say “okay” again, so I opened the door and left.

It felt wrong to leave him. Staying seemed right, but I was too scared to tell him. And even though I had only known him for twelve hours, since dinner the night before, the thought of leaving him was physically painful.

I never stayed. I always ran the next morning. Sometimes I went home with people, but as soon as we were done, I made an excuse to bail. I had to leave. I never wanted to sleep with and hold someone until first Nate, my ex, and now, suddenly, a man I didn’t expect.

Sharing a bed with Aaron Sutter was something I couldn’t get out of my head. After a week, the desire was getting the better of me. I was dying to see him.

“HERE we go.”

Jolted back to the task at hand, I watched as two men walked into the club. The second one was familiar, but I couldn’t instantly place him.

“Visual confirmed. Everyone move.”

I watched Evanston weave his way through the crowd at the dance club and stop in front of Joaquin Hierra’s table.

“Wait—wait, new player, new player! All units hold.”

As soon as I saw the third man pushing to get through the throng, I recognized him immediately. Once I did, everything fell into place, and it was a mess.

Goddamn it!

Moving fast, I was behind Joaquin and leaned down to whisper in his ear before I had time to apprise anyone of my intentions.

“This guy with your boy is hot, Boss,” I said softly. “He’s got a federal marshal right on his ass.”

He stiffened, grabbed the lapel of my suit jacket, and held tight as he took in the sight of Evanston and Dr. Kevin Dwyer, the man I thought looked familiar. “You’re sure?”

“Yep. Right there behind him, you see?”

Joaquin leaned close, looked around Evanston, and had to see Sam Kage barging his way by people in the teeming club, dressed as he always was at work: in a suit with a top coat over it, badge on his belt, and a holstered gun on the opposite side.

“Can you get me out of here?”

“I’ll create a diversion; you go out the back with Benny and Andre.”

He fisted his hand in my dress shirt. “Is it Evanston? Is he dirty?”

I had a second to decide if I was going to be the guy. Was I going to be the one wired for sound, or would I pass the baton to someone else?

It had been so simple: I was undercover to wait for Evanston to show up. He was an enforcer for the Delgado cartel and had been sent to Chicago to clean up two loose ends. Unfortunately, Jared Gibson, 15, got caught in the crossfire. I promised his mother, when we figured out how her son died, that I would bring the man to justice. She counted on me.

Riley Evanston had been dispatched by Esau Modella who was in charge of security and enforcement for the crime family. I followed Evanston to New York because it was my priority, to bring him in so he could stand trial. It was my department’s chief concern.

In New York, where our fugitive had run to, the police there were following Arjun Ruiz and the drugs he moved into the city. They were out to bust one of the largest drug suppliers in the city of New York. We were after a killer. I understood our goals did not meet, but my captain, Lorena Gaines, had been sure Chicago homicide and New York vice could find common ground. But it was not to be.

Because no interdepartmental cooperation happened in this instance, the feds stepped in to coordinate a task force that would supposedly let us all reach our goals. Since I was already in place shadowing Joaquin, working as his muscle, I stayed, along with others I didn’t know. It was strange to think some of the men I had met were undercover, just like I was.

I had been hired by Hierra based on a faked background, and several incarcerated criminals had vouched for me in exchange for new privileges and other concessions. It had been easy to pull off, and even though I was on the fringe working for Hierra—the man himself a pawn on the vast chessboard that was the Delgado crime family—it gave me access to Evanston, who had been sent to collect payment from Joaquin for his sloppy work in Chicago. Why the higher ups had sent Evanston to get the Delgado family money from Joaquin, I didn’t know. Evanston moved drugs; his end wasn’t murder, so it didn’t make much sense. Perhaps he was being tested, groomed to move up—it hardly mattered to me. The important thing was, Evanston was in my sights. I could break cover and bust him. And that seemed like the plan until right that second.

It would take months to get another guy close to Hierra, and I was there, right there, ready to show my loyalty in a huge way, poised to become his most trusted man or simply disappear at the end of the bust.

I could go home, or I could stay and work with vice in New York. If I saved Joaquin from a federal marshal, I was in, and he would want me permanently on the payroll. Because yes, getting close to Joaquin Hierra had netted us Riley Evanston, but if I got in deep with Hierra, we could get access, eventually, to the whole operation, the big fish, the top tier of the Delgado drug cartel. Right now I was low level, but I could be in, just because he thought I was saving him from federal custody. Maybe Sam Kage showing up was not such a bad thing.

And maybe it was the worst.

I had only seconds to decide.

“He’s gotta be dirty,” I said flatly, staring back at the man with unwavering regard. “He led the feds here.”

“How do you know?”

I tipped my head toward Sam and lied. “That’s the same fed who took Javier Musa into protective custody. I saw him at the courthouse when they picked him up after he testified against Pascal.”

His eyes widened; and he stood and slipped around me. “Tonight,” he said, and then he moved away through the crowd.

“Where the hell is he going?” Evanston snarled at me.

I came around the table, Andre squeezed my shoulder as I moved by him, and Benny patted my back as I faced the mob enforcer. “What the fuck are you doing bringing a goddamn federal fugitive into Joaquin’s place?”

“What?” he gasped, head swiveling to Kevin Dwyer. “You’ve got a tail?”

“No,” Dwyer scoffed even as Sam yelled Freeze! over the driving trance music.

“You stupid fuck,” I snarled at Evanston, swinging on him.

The man had a good fifty pounds of muscle on me, and at six four, two twenty, I was not small myself. So when he blocked my throw and drove his fist into my face, I knew it was going to hurt.

It was a fight then, with yelling and screaming, stampeding for the exits, punches flying, and finally guns being drawn.

I wound up on the bottom of a pile, stepped on, kicked, punched, and cut. I had no idea who had the knife, but the diversion created an irresistible opportunity for someone looking to take out a rival. My money was on Pedro, who had never liked me. I was the one who had taken his friend Musa’s place in his boss’s circle after his buddy went to prison for trafficking in stolen goods. He had never made it a secret he didn’t trust me, and even though he did, in fact, have good reason, since I was undercover, he didn’t know that.

By the time I was pulled out from under all the other bodies, I was bleeding enough to know I needed stitches.

“This one’s gotta go to the hospital before booking,” Sam Kage yelled, pulling me to my feet fast, but more gently, I was certain, than anyone would be able to discern.

When he shoved me up against the wall, I groaned.

“Broken?” He asked, leaning in close, talking in my ear as he pinned me there.

“Bruised,” I muttered, giving him the lowdown on the state of my ribs. “Just losing blood.”

“Hold on,” he said so only I could hear.

Like I had a choice.

Ten minutes later, I was in an ambulance, on my back, looking up at Sam Kage.

“Asshole,” I barked as the EMT tried to stop the bleeding.

He shrugged his massive shoulders.

“How the fuck does your guy know my guy?” We couldn’t do names in front of the tired-looking EMT.

“Before your guy was hired muscle for the family, he worked for my guy.”

“Who’s really the doctor,” I grunted.

“Actually, the doctor is the bad guy,” Sam mocked me. “I mean, if you’re concerned about being precise.”

“How the fuck is Salcedo walking around to begin with?” I yelled, using his name before I could stop myself. “I thought he was in federal custody?”

“We had one more leak,” Sam informed me. “But we’re all good now, obviously.”

“What if you lose him again?”

“My team is on it,” Sam assured me. “Mine. You understand?”

I was quiet, the pain getting to me. “Yeah.”

He stayed with me, which I didn’t expect. As the hours rolled by in the hospital, as I got twenty-seven stitches down my left side over my ribs, as the drugs made me a little loopy, and as a full inventory of cuts, bruises, and a split lip was taken, Sam remained.

“Why are you here?”

“’Cause nobody else is,” he said frankly, one eyebrow lifting like I was stupid.

And because he’d made me feel like crap with that answer, I took a shot at him. “So, how does Jory feel about you working with your ex?”

“I’m not working with him, asshole, I’m recapturing him, and Jory’s glad he’s back in custody.”

“And that’s all?”

“He knows me, Duncan; he knows who I love and who I don’t give a shit about.”

I squinted. “Yeah, but you and that Salcedo guy, that was on like Donkey Kong in Colombia, huh?”

He was horrified. “What did they give you?”

It had to be something strong, because I was smiling like an idiot and using Nintendo references. My instinct for self-preservation was MIA.

“And no.” He shook his head.

“I heard all about it, Kage,” I huffed out. “You were with the good doctor for a year while you—”

“For your information—” Sam cut me off, his voice low and dark, making me just a little nervous. Yes, we were friends, but the man was menacing, no way around it. “I screwed the doctor for three months while me and Jory were apart. It never meant shit. If I could take it back, would I? Oh hell yeah, I would, but not why you think.”

“Why do I think?”

“I never thought of it like cheating on Jory,” he explained. “A year had gone by. He was sleeping around by that time, and so was I. The reason I wish it didn’t happen was because of how it made me feel.”

“How’d ya feel?”

“Like crap,” he barked at me. “You know when you confessed to me that you screw guys at bathhouses and places like that?”

“Thanks for bringing that shit up,” I groused.

“Just—do you remember?”

“Yes, I fuckin’ remember!” I flared.

“You know how gross you feel when you do it?”

“I do.”

“It’s was like that,” he confessed. “I didn’t care any more about Kevin Dwyer than you do about all those guys you fuck and forget, but—”

“Even from the little I know of Jory, I bet he doesn’t think it was nothing.”

“Because it lasted longer than one night,” he grumbled. “Jory fucked a ton of guys while we were apart, but the one he spent any time with—”

“Aaron,” I supplied.

“Yeah. Aaron he had feelings for.”

“So since Jory cared about Aaron, he figures you cared about the doctor.”

“Yeah.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No,” Sam sighed. “I really didn’t.”

“But you were together how long?”

“Three months.”

“So, that’s kind of a dick thing you did there.”

“Yeah, I know!” he barked at me. “I told you that already.”

“Okay, so Jory thinks what?”

“Jory thinks I was as attached to Salcedo as he was to Aaron, because he thinks we have the same kind of heart. In fact, he thinks everyone’s heart works just like his.”

“They don’t,” I said sadly.

“No, they don’t. But that’s why I’m here, to protect him.”

It was funny to hear gentle words from such a fierce man.

“I’ve never loved anyone but him, and that’s why I had to get him back. When you’re faced with the truth, you have to act on it.”

It seemed like he was trying to get me to admit something.

“Did you love your professor?” he asked.

He was talking about my ex, Nathan Qells, the only man I had ever been in a real, grown-up relationship with.

“Did you love him the way I love Jory?”

“Why are you asking me that?”

He shrugged before leaning back in his chair. “Sorry, buddy; you’re the one who wanted to go swimming in the deep end.”

I studied him a minute. He was right. I had been the one to try and pry out secrets. And I knew why. I was all hopped up on drugs. If I weren’t, I would have never had the balls to talk to Sam so openly. “No.”

“No what?”

I cleared my throat. “No, I wasn’t in love with Nate the same way you love Jory. I chose my job over him. You chose Jory over the job.”

“I actually never had to make that decision,” he said thoughtfully. “I was fortunate. By the time Jory and I were ready for me to say what we were; I had a captain who got it and a new partner who didn’t care who I slept with. Right after that, I became a marshal.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m pretty much set. I do my job well and no one screws with me. If they look, they see I have a domestic partner, but why would they even look?”

“Your own little don’t ask, don’t tell, huh?”

“That’s belittling a lot of pain there.”

“I ain’t belittling anything. I just don’t have the luxury you did. I didn’t get to go off and work with the DEA for two years and switch from homicide to vice or become a marshal. I like my job. I like catching the bad guy. This is all I know how to do.”

“So do it, but don’t forget that I’ve seen how you look at Jory.”

My heart almost stopped. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Not like that, idiot.” He glared at me. “I’ve seen you look at Jory and how he looks at me, and I know you fuckin’ want that. You want a man to come home to. I get it.”

I scoffed. “So you think Jory thinks you walk on water, huh?”

“No,” he said huskily. “Jory can see every single one of my faults. He just forgives them. And I know how he looks at me. I know I’m loved. Who loves you?”

And it was a question I couldn’t answer.


AFTER Sam finally left, they moved me to another room and fixed all the reports with my fake name, Tucker Ross. Soon after, DEA agent, Derrick Chun, and his partner, Agent Maxwell Owens, were brought into my room by Special Agent Conner Wray. He thanked me, shook my hand, and cautioned me to be careful. It was nice that he gave me his card, with his cell number scribbled on the back, and said if I got in trouble, to call. The look he shot the two DEA agents was not kind. Yes, they were all working together, but it was more than obvious Wray thought they might get me killed.

“We won’t let you get killed” was the first thing Chun imparted.

It did not inspire confidence.

They left quickly, promised to be in touch, gave me an untraceable cell to hide, which was not great, considering I was in the hospital, and then I was alone to consider the state of my life. It was fucked, was what it was.

Piece of Cake #8
Chapter One
IT WAS my wedding day, so of course, Sam Kage, the love of my life, was standing in the middle of our quiet suburban street in a navy three-piece suit with a yellow tie and a gorgeous yellow orchid boutonniere with his foot on the jugular of a guy who’d just tried to shoot me.

The gun, equipped with a suppressor, was now in the hand of police Lieutenant Duncan Stiel, a friend and guest at my ceremony, who had picked it up using paper towels from my kitchen. He was currently standing there, also in the middle of the street, looking stunned as Sam reminded him that this was par for the course with me. Duncan’s husband—my ex, billionaire real estate mogul Aaron Sutter—was looking at me and shaking his head.

“What?”

He lifted his hands in total disbelief. “Who gets shot at on their wedding day?”

“This is not my fault.”

His squint told me he didn’t believe me.

“I—”

“Jory, goddamnit!” Sam bellowed from the road as we all heard the sirens.

I turned from Aaron to him. “How is this my fault?” I called over.

“I’m going to beat you!” he threatened, and his snarl was only made slightly less terrifying because he was in the suit we’d bought specifically for this occasion, for our wedding. The man was stunning, just the power radiating off of him making me want to run out there into the street and climb him like a tree. And since he was supposed to exchange vows with me in less than ten minutes, it was hard for me to take the threat seriously.

“We’re still getting married, right?”

Author Bio:
Mary Calmes lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and two children and loves all the seasons except summer. She graduated from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Due to the fact that it is English lit and not English grammar, do not ask her to point out a clause for you, as it will so not happen. She loves writing, becoming immersed in the process, and falling into the work. She can even tell you what her characters smell like. She loves buying books and going to conventions to meet her fans.

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A Matter of Time Volume 1
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A Matter of Time Volume 2
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Bulletproof #5
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Just Jory #5.5

But For You #6
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Ears, Eggs, and Bunnies #6.5

Parting Shot #7
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Piece of Cake #8
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Hannah's Big Night #8.5

Another Day with Jory #8.6

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