Saturday, May 26, 2018

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Heroes by RJ Scott

A Reason to Stay #1
When SEAL, Viktor Zavodny, left small town America for the Navy he made sure he never had a reason to return for anything other than visiting family. He wanted to see the world and fight for his country and nothing, or no one, was getting in his way. He fights hard, and plays harder, and a succession of men and women share his bed.

But a phone call from his sister has him using his thirty day down time to go home instead of enjoying his usual thirty nights of random sex and sleep.

What he finds is a mystery on the Green Mountains and the only man attempting to make sense of seemingly unrelated deaths. His childhood friend and first love... Lieutenant Aiden Coleman, Sheriff.

There were reasons Viktor left his home. Not least Aiden Coleman with his small town innocence and his dreams of forever. Now Adam and Viktor need to work together to save lives and prove there is a hero in all of us.

When it's done, if they make it out alive, can Aiden persuade Viktor that he has a reason to stay? Maybe forever?

Last Marine Standing #2
Former Marine Recon, Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Jackson has secrets. The things he did for his country, the things he saw, must never be spoken about. Until that is, his team is targeted.

A shift in political alliances means one particular mission undertaken by Mac and his Fire Team needs to be wiped from the history books. Starting with the team itself.

Forest Ranger, Samuel Larson wants to find the Marines who saved his life. He just wants to say thank you. What he can’t know is that he's walking into a firestorm of betrayal and murder.

When Samuel arrives at Mac's place he throws Mac's plans for hiding out of the window. Abruptly Mac has to protect a man that threatens his heart, only this time he can't be sure he will succeed in keeping Sam alive.

When the people you trusted turn on you, when you are the last one standing, should you take your secrets to the grave? Or make the murderers pay?

Deacon's Law #3
How can you trust the man who tried to kill you?

Undercover cop Deacon Shepherd lost everything trying to maintain his cover - the man he loved and the future he craved. He walked away and never looked back because it was the only way to keep Rafael alive.

The last thing he needs is to be dragged back in that world, but an attempt on Rafael's life is enough to make him risk his heart again.

Rafael 'Rafe' Ramirez wakes up in the hospital, the victim of a hit and run. He’s horrified when the first face he sees is that of the man who betrayed him and left him for dead three years before. Witness protection had stripped Rafe of his family and friends, and now it seems his sacrifice to bring his Uncle to justice was for nothing.

Someone wants Rafe dead, and the only way he can stay alive is to go with the murdering drug dealer who broke his heart. But how can he ever trust Deacon, and how can Deacon protect Rafe without falling in love all over again?

A Reason to Stay #1
Original Review June 2014:
Loved the whole concept of this plot. The fight within both Aiden and Viktor to balance what is the right thing to do as a whole and what's right for themselves. The mystery flowed beautifully and kept my interest from page one to the last, which I never wanted to come. The connection between the two men is obvious, both instantaneous and distant, even if the distant part is of Viktor's making all on his own. Definitely a must read.

Last Marine Standing #2
Original Review June 2015:
This story had me from the beginning.  From Sam's painful past and Mac and his team's rescue to having a glimpse at what the future holds for Viktor and Aiden from A Reason to Stay all the way through Sam finding Mac and himself smack dab in the middle of a very dangerous situation.  Sam's need to say thank you leads him to love but are they willing to let that love blossom considering everything they are facing?  There is intriguing mystery and involving characters from beginning to end that captured my heart and nothing was able to draw my attention away, not even eating or sleeping.  I am eagerly awaiting book 3, Deacon's Law.

Deacon's Law #3
Original Review November 2017:
Deacon Shepherd has been given unwanted bodyguard duties as they have taken his focus away from his main undercover objective: get info to take down the Martinez family.  Not only has his focus been shifted but the nephew he's told to bodyguard has gotten under his skin.  Rafe Martinez may be the nephew to the head of the Martinez family but he's taken it upon himself to take his uncle down for his parents' murders.  Three years later, Rafe has a new name and a new life but the old life hasn't forgotten him, neither has Deacon.  Will they survive the dangers they now face and more importantly will they survive each other?

We fans of RJ Scott and her Heroes Trilogy have been waiting for Deacon's Law for about two years, I understand life gets in the way and most importantly characters don't always follow the author's timeline when it comes to speaking to the writer.  Characters can be tempermental little buggers that way😉 So you are probably wondering was Deacon & Rafe's tale worth the wait?  In a word: YES!

Deacon Shepherd is a man who is set on doing his job.  Rafe is a man who is set on avenging his parents' murders.  That is about as close to spoilers that you are going to get out of me but I will say that I really love how when they come together again after three years, Rafe doesn't just fall into Deacon's arms.  He makes the man work for it and I really found that appealing.  Deacon's Law has a little bit of everything: lust, murder, romance, mystery, heat, drama, and did I mention the passion? 😉 It's all there with RJ's usual flair and heart.  Oh, and for fans of one of her other series there is a special cameo that certainly made me smile.

As I said above, if you are like me and have been waiting for this tale for a couple of years you won't be disappointed and if this series is entirely new to you well, you'll love it too.  I should note that although each entry in the Heroes Trilogy is a standalone, I find they flow together better when read in order simply because there is some characters who pop up from previous entries.  That's just my opinion but if you do read them out of order you won't be lost either.  So if you're asking should you read Deacon's Law(or the Heroes Trilogy as a whole) my answer can be summed up in two little words: HELL YEAH!


A Reason to Stay #1
Chapter 1
Two Years Ago
“You remember Aiden Coleman?”

Viktor Zavodny looked up at the name he hadn’t heard in a long time. His sister was making cookies for some school event and talking aimlessly about everything she thought Viktor should know was going on in Steepleshend. He’d advanced to a new level of Angry Birds on his iPhone and had spent the last hour attempting to get past it. His sister’s talking was a backdrop to his concentration, and all he had to do was grunt occasionally. Aiden Coleman’s name, though, tore him away from deciding the angle and velocity of his exploding bird. Aiden Coleman was his first love. Or, rather, Aiden Coleman’s first love had been Viktor. Viktor’s first love had been the Navy and a very definite plan for his life that didn’t involve Aiden in any way, shape, or form. Still, Aiden had been cute.

“Yeah,” Viktor began cautiously. “I was a couple years above him in school.”

We kissed quite a bit before he started talking boyfriend status and I pulled back. He didn’t say that part aloud.

Monika tipped chocolate chips into the latest batch and concentrated so hard at scraping the mixture to include them that she stopped talking—just at the moment Viktor became interested.

“Moved away to be a cop up in Essex,” she continued, “but he’s coming back here to take up a deputy position in the sheriff’s office. He’s taking over his old house after his parents retired to Florida.”

The white house on the green, a sprawling, artfully decorated showpiece, was the pinnacle of the large houses around the center of this small town of only a thousand people. Aiden was that close? Viktor fidgeted in his seat and wondered how to get Monika talking without making it obvious he was curious about Aiden. It had to have been fourteen years since he’d last seen the boy who’d caught his eye. He was lying if he said he hadn’t caught himself thinking about the tall, skinny, dark-blond, blue-eyed rich kid on more than one occasion over the years. Sometimes, when he was in the direst of situations, it was good to focus on the parts of his life that remained unblemished by his career. Like his sister and his nephew and his school days. And all the potential that had been Aiden and what he represented.

“Really?” Viktor finally said in his most practiced noncommittal tone. “Have you seen him?”

“No, Mandy told Stacia, who told Abbey, who then announced it at coffee last week. He had some huge falling-out with his parents, but apparently they reconciled just before they retired to the panhandle, the parents that is, not Aiden. Rumor is that he’s single, and Mandy had it on good authority that he’s gay, which is probably what caused the falling-out all those years ago.” She looked pointedly at Viktor. “Did I mention he was single? And gay?”

Viktor knew exactly where his sister was going with that. He could almost script it in his head. She would make some throwaway comments about the fact that Viktor was single and that while he was in town he was more than capable of picking up a boyfriend.

“Stop that,” he said irritably. Glancing at the clock, he realized he was two hours past his need for painkillers. That explained the knifing pain in his thigh. It seemed like Angry Birds must have been akin to a drug if stopping it made the pain come back with a vengeance. Maybe he should look into having cell phone games added to the list of pain-killing options for the team. He bet Joseph or the LT would go for that one.


“Stop what?” Monika asked innocently. “I wasn’t saying anything. Just that there’s a guy you used to know who’s in town, he’s available, and he swings at least one of the ways you appear to swing.” She laughed as she said that.

So sue me if I like everything on the menu, Viktor thought irritably. Doesn’t mean I’m interested in catching up on old times with every single available gay man in the town.

He’d compartmentalized Aiden into good times had at school, and he wasn’t ready to let those memories out of the box.

“You know exactly what you’re saying.” Viktor gestured at his leg, foot up on a stool and bandages peeking out from under his long shorts. An IED had sent shrapnel through the meaty part of his thigh—nicking an artery and causing him to code on the operating table—coupled with another piece embedded in his kneecap had him on enforced sick leave for six weeks. He was only a week in and already his sister had come up with twenty different ways to keep him occupied. Hooking up with someone from his past was a new one, though, even for her.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said with a grin. When she changed the subject to Ben’s science project, Viktor lost himself back in Angry Birds and refused to recall anything about Aiden or that long, hot summer where he almost decided, on the strength of a few heated, innocent kisses, that going into the Navy could wait.

“You still coming to the science fair tomorrow? Ben wants you there.”

“You didn’t have to add the emotional blackmail, you know. I told the kid I would go and I will.”

“You’re Mr. Grumpy this morning,” Monika commented cheerfully.

Viktor grunted, then ignored her. He liked being grumpy. People didn’t talk to him if he was grumpy.

* * * * *

Viktor stood by Ben’s science project, leaning on his crutches and wishing the ground would open up and swallow him. The pills that were supposed to alleviate the pain left him feeling nauseated, and his leg ached like a bitch. If there was one thing that Viktor didn’t do well, it was inactivity, and that was all he was capable of at the moment.

“Oh look, Aiden is here,” Monika said at his side.

Viktor groaned silently. “Did you know he’d be here?”

“His dad used to be on the judging panel, so I thought maybe he’d show his face.”

“Monika, I don’t need my big sister organizing my dates.”

Ben arrived back at his table, looking both nervous and excited. For a few seconds Viktor focused on Ben, but he couldn’t fail to see Aiden straightaway, milling around the tables amidst the crowd. He was still taller than Viktor, a couple inches maybe, and that skinny sixteen-year-old had become a man. Boy, had he become a man. With broad shoulders and a muscled back, Aiden was solid, and when he crouched down to look at something by the door, his jeans stretched obscenely over an incredibly fine ass. Viktor wished he could still run, preferably in the opposite direction. Aiden had been a temptation too far when Viktor had been eighteen and Aiden sixteen, and he was still that in his thirties. His dark-blond hair was cut short and he had designer stubble. Not the scruff that Viktor had, but stylish shaved-that-way stubble. He wore a pale blue-checked shirt and those sinful jeans. It seemed like a lot of people were reacquainting themselves with Aiden Coleman.

From his vantage point in the shadows behind Ben’s project, Viktor observed as Aiden moved closer and closer. From the way he stopped and talked to all the kids, he looked to be part of the judging panel on those damn projects. Had Monika known that? Was that why she insisted on Viktor supporting Ben in this thing?

Aiden clearly hadn’t noticed him, and Viktor shuffled back a little farther in the hope that it could remain that way. After the way they’d left everything all those years ago, Viktor felt nothing but embarrassment. The kid had professed love, the kind of love only a teenager could feel, and all Viktor had done was laugh. That had been one of the regrets that piled up in his head, but it didn’t mean he could fix it today. Aiden reached Ben’s table with its environmental project all laid out, looked directly at Viktor, and suddenly Viktor’s embarrassment turned into instant lust.

Jeez. Those eyes. That face. Aiden had become something more than he ever was. A man. A man who stared at Viktor like he was debating whether to acknowledge he even knew him. Aiden’s gaze moved to the display, and he engaged in a short question and answer session with Ben. Then he left. He said nothing to Viktor, didn’t even look at Viktor a second time.

Viktor wasn’t sure how that made him feel. Happy? Pissed? Relieved? Finally he settled on accepting. He’d humiliated a young, naive Aiden by laughing at his desire for them to be high school boyfriends, and the guilt still swirled inside him. Aiden had only been sixteen and he’d had stars in his eyes, but Viktor, on the other hand, was already in the mindset of keeping his sexuality a secret. The Navy wouldn’t willingly accept a guy with a boyfriend.

“I came in second,” Ben said with a wide grin, and Viktor showed his pride with a quick sideways hug for the kid. Ben must have got the science brains from his absentee dad, because Viktor and Monika were never known for their skills in science at school. It was weird given that Viktor was now an ordnance expert. He knew almost everything there was to know about the ways an explosive device could kill or how he could neutralize one before he was dead and forgotten. He had an excellent understanding of the math and science behind keeping his team alive.

As the fair settled down toward the handing out of certificates, Viktor chose a chair toward the back of the rows in the church hall and scooted a second chair back so he could elevate his left leg. Monika sat next to him.

“You okay?” she asked, concerned.

“Yep,” he answered. Then he lowered his voice. “I just had sex with Aiden in the bathroom,” he said.

She looked at him startled. “You did? Jesus, Viktor…” She seemed to realize what she had just said, in a church as well, and blushed. “Tell me you are yanking my chain.”

Viktor shrugged. “I’ll leave you to imagine how I could have sex while not actually being able to stand up for longer than five minutes at a time.” He winced as Monika slapped him on the arm.

“Asshole,” she whispered loudly. A couple a few rows ahead of them turned around at the noise and glared at Viktor and Monika disapprovingly.

“Veteran,” Viktor said firmly, just loud enough for them to hear.

They immediately appeared guilty and turned away.

“You can’t do that,” Monika admonished him, although she was laughing.

Viktor shrugged. “They tried to guilt us. I played the only card I have.” Then he too was smiling and he leaned in to bump shoulders with Monika. At least Aiden hadn’t walked over and punched him for what had happened the last day. Viktor chalked that up to a win.

Coughing over the microphone pulled his attention to the front. Viktor recognized Mr. Arnold, his old math teacher, standing on the slightly raised platform. “…welcome Aiden Coleman, who has recently moved back to town to take up a new role in the sheriff’s department. His family’s sponsorship of this annual event is something we thought we would lose when Annabelle and Richard left for warmer climes.” The crowd laughed at the obviously inside joke. “So I give you Aiden Coleman.”

Aiden moved onto the small stage and Viktor found himself straightening in his seat to get a clear look. No one would question him staring at Aiden when Aiden was up there talking. Viktor didn’t visit home much and he hadn’t physically laid eyes on the guy since school. How did that happen? They’d been friends, before the friendship turned to heated kisses and exploration, that was.

They’d had choices back then. Viktor always wanted to go into the Navy. He knew where he was going as soon as he finished school. He didn’t care about college. Aiden wanted a degree. Viktor didn’t want to stay in his hometown, but Aiden always said he wanted to stay local and make a difference. Viktor sighed as he listened to Aiden talk.

“…always a science nerd.” Aiden finished and left a pause for the people in the room to insert the appropriate response, in this case, laughter. “Someone once said to me that nerds were born to rule the world.” He looked pointedly around the room until his gaze rested on Viktor. “I’m not sure about the world, but having an education with science and math at its core is going to get you places.”

Viktor moved uneasily. He had been the one to say that to Aiden about nerds, likening Aiden’s abilities in exams to a glimpse of genius. He’d been teasing. Jeez. He felt himself growing warm. They’d been kissing and touching while watching Star Trek reruns in Aiden’s basement TV room. He remembered that very clearly.

“Anyway,” Aiden continued, “in third place…”

Viktor waited for Ben’s second-place award and clapped the loudest in the room, putting his fingers between his lips and whistling his approval. Ben waved and returned to his seat.

“He likes having you here,” Monika said as soon as she could be heard over the clapping. “He kinda misses out, not having a dad.” Viktor squeezed his sister’s hand. The anger that flared in her expressive green eyes made Viktor feel useless. He couldn’t handle her anger: he didn’t know what to say. Daniel had left the picture not long after Ben was born. Too young for responsibility was his excuse. In Viktor’s opinion, his sister had a lucky escape from the fucker who was way too happy to use his fists to solve issues. He may never have touched Monika, but there was something about him that seemed dangerous. Thank God they never tied the knot like Monika had wanted. Daniel had left in the night with nothing more than a scribbled note, but Viktor had tracked him down with his team’s help a few years back. Needless to say, Daniel Hillier had shown his true colors when Viktor found him in prison for GBH. Having an entire SEAL team visit him was enough to have him reconsidering ever getting back in Monika’s life. Viktor didn’t feel guilt—he’d seen the photos of the woman that Daniel had beaten. There was no way the fucker was having access to Viktor’s family.

People began to move, indicating the event was over, and Viktor tried his best to help Ben dismantle the project and pack it all away in the box. It was kind of difficult when he needed the crutches to keep him upright, but he did try. Monika had gone off, helping the organizers clean up.

“I’m proud of you, Ben,” Viktor said. He clapped his thirteen-year-old nephew on the back and ruffled his hair.

Ben screwed up his nose. “I wanted to beat Henry this time,” he said. Then he lowered his voice in an action so similar to Monika’s it made Viktor smile. “He always has the best ideas, but he’s an ass and no one likes how rude he is.”

“Maybe you will next time,” Viktor reassured him.

“Maybe next time you could help me?” Ben said suddenly. “We could do something about bombs or something.”

Viktor shook his head. The thought of his nephew anywhere near what he did was enough to send icy chills scurrying down his back. “Let’s leave the explosives for another day,” he said.

Ben looked disappointed. “It would be so cool if we could blow something up one day. Together.”

Viktor hoisted the last of the project into the box. Uncle/nephew bonding time over C4 and timers? Only in his world was that even possible.

“One day, maybe.”

Ben carried the large box to the car, and Viktor struggled alongside him. His leg ached like a mother and he knew he’d pushed too far today, but hell, he was sick of sitting around feeling like an axe was hovering over his head. The more he walked and proved he was okay, the more likely it was that he was damn well getting cleared to go back to the team. This was not holding him back.


Viktor turned as quickly as he was able to on uneven ground with a fucked leg and two crutches. The one thing he’d been hoping to avoid was staring right at him.

“Aiden,” he said simply.

“Nice to see you after all this time,” Aiden offered. He held out his hand, and carefully Viktor released the hold on his right crutch to shake it.

“You’re looking well,” Viktor countered. Fit, toned, sexy, grown-up: a man.

“Wish I could say the same to you,” Aiden offered with a half grimace, half smile. He gestured at Viktor and Viktor knew what he was seeing. The IED had sent gravel and dirt slicing into his neck and face, and his left eye was still swollen with the resulting infection. Viktor was limping and relying heavily on the crutches. He looked as bad as he felt.

“Yeah” was all he could think of to say.

“What happened to you?”

Viktor shrugged. “Walked into a door,” he deadpanned.

Aiden shifted his stance a little. “We should catch up,” he said.

“Beer,” Viktor suggested.

“I’ll call you.”

And with that, Aiden left.

Left Viktor standing like an idiot with his sister in his peripheral vision, smirking. That didn’t go how he’d expected. Finding himself on his ass in the dirt was how he’d expected it to end up. It wasn’t like he could defend himself, injured as he was, and Aiden had grown up.

After all, he was the one who did the leaving fourteen years ago. He was the one who fucked it all up. He was the fucker who laughed in Aiden’s hopeful face.

Last Marine Standing #2
2004, in Japan
“You’re the sensitive one. You do it.”

Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Jackson glanced at Bear, then took a second look when he realized the idiot was talking to him. “What?”

Bear’s tone was deadly serious as he spoke, but his eyes sparkled with amusement. “It’s genetic, right? You people have a sensitive side that the rest of us men don’t.”

Mac was instantly up in Bear’s space. The asshole had done nothing but rip on Mac since he’d come out to the team, and today was no different. Most of the time, Mac could ignore the teasing. After all, none of it was meant to hurt. But all four of them were still on a high after extraction, and Bear should know better than to push the limits.

“Do I look like the sensitive type?” Mac knew exactly how he looked: tired—no, exhausted—with the start of a beard and his fatigues, while clean, torn in places, evidence of what they’d done. The four of them on the team had been taking turns watching the kid in the hospital room, since no one was entirely sure the threat was over. They paired up, one inside the room, one outside. This was handover time, only this time… this time it was different. This time all four of them had heard the kid and the doctor talk. And what the doctor said had left them all quiet.

Bear put his hand on his hip and sashayed a little, which looked ridiculous.

Mac shoved him. “I will kill you.”

Bear squared his shoulders and smirked. “You could try.”

Mac weighed the pros and cons. Bear certainly lived up to his nickname—broad, strong, straining the damn fatigues—but Mac knew his teammate’s weaknesses. He estimated he could take him in about five minutes, but he’d probably get a few broken bones in the process. He relaxed his stance, ready to go toe-to-toe with Bear, but Spider put a hand between the two men.

“The kid’s crying,” Spider pointed out helpfully.

Mac shot his friend a shocked look. Did Spider really think the best thing for the poor kid in the bed was to have some idiot go in and tell him everything would be okay?

“That doesn’t mean he needs one of us to talk to him,” he asserted.

Bear crossed his arms over his impossibly broad chest. “You saw the results of what they did, heard what he said. One of us should say something. Threaten to go kill someone or something.”

“We already killed everyone who hurt him,” Spider said evenly. “No one left to shoot.”

Mac and his team could have been back stateside, or at least on to another mission. But no, instead they were outside the kid’s room, where they had been over the last few days. They had no official reason to go home, there was no next mission yet, and the Under Secretary had demanded they stay. Something about the kid and his sister possibly still being in danger had all four Marines required to unofficially stand guard—at least they had something to do.

“I should say what?” Mac snapped. He was furious at himself for even being here in a situation he couldn’t control, let alone listening to the rest of his team who felt he should be interfering. Samuel Larson and his sister had nearly died, and what the Marines had found when they rescued the kids was more than enough to have Mac sick to his stomach.

The damn politician wanted to get Sam on camera thanking his rescuers. Mac doubted Sam was in any position to say thank you. If anything, this was merely a photo opportunity for Graeme Larson, the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.

Not one of the four of them said anything or indicated, even to each other, that they had heard anything. Not for the longest time. Then the doc left, and all of them were more than aware that the kid they’d rescued was in there. Distraught. And there was no sign of his dad, who was holding a press conference on the ground floor.

“So what do we do?”

Mac wasn’t surprised when Bear spoke. It was always Bear who vocalized everything as a way of rationalizing a mission or the consequences of said mission. He was the loud one, but he was also the one with an uncanny understanding of what should happen next. Mac valued his input. Until, of course, Bear had pointed out that Mac was the sensitive one.

“What do I say?” Mac asked a little desperately. He turned to the one member of the team he relied on for levelheaded advice.

“Nothing,” Spider said. “We could leave it. You and Bear take your turn on guard while Wade and I go downstairs and stand at the periphery of the Under Secretary’s press junket, look like hardass Marines, and make sure we don’t get our pictures taken.” They’d only been in Japan as ornaments anyhow. The joint op with the Japanese Ground Defense Force was more about promoting military interoperability and honing individual skills than being something the Marine Recon fireteam was used to.

Still, thank God they’d been here, given how quickly everything went to hell with the Under Secretary’s kids being kidnapped. Japan had no war constitution, but they were strategically positioned as a counterweight to China’s growing regional power. Japan and the US were friendlies, and the situation was delicate. The hard line was that the Japanese didn’t negotiate. They wouldn’t be pulling their troops out of Fallujah, even if kids were involved. The softer line, the one whispered in shadowed doorways, was get the Marines in, get the kids out, and destroy all evidence.

Thankfully Mac and his team had been in the right place at the right time.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Wade said. He was the fourth in the team and the man of few words.

Mac looked from Bear to Spider to Wade. Bear had given him a way out, Spider had challenged him to consider what he was doing, and Wade had implied he’d support anything Mac wanted to do—just the way it always worked.

“Fuck.” Mac straightened away from the wall, brushed himself down, and turned to face the kid’s room. He’d go in, say his piece, come back out, and then he could go back to being the team leader and kick some anti-US butt. Simple.

Spider clapped him on the shoulder. “Go do that sparkly thing.”

“Fuck you,” Mac muttered tiredly but with heat, “all of you, and for fuck’s sake, go watch the sister.” His team melted away, Spider patting his arm as he passed.

Mac pushed open the kid’s door, and the first thing Mac noticed as he shut the door behind him was how cold it was in the room. The window overlooking the parking lot was wide open. The second thing Mac noticed was that Sam was leaning out of the window, too far over, the pivot of the balance on his tummy on the sill. A lift of his bare feet and the kid would topple out of the window. Mac saw a thin trail of blood from the bed to the window—Sam had pulled out his IV. Trying not to spook him, Mac moved to stand close enough to Sam to be able to grab him if he did anything stupid.

Sam’s shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t look at Mac.

“Go away,” he said softly. There was no emotion in the words. They were flat, not grieving, not angry, not hyper. Just nothing.

“What are you doing over here?” Mac asked conversationally. He moved a little closer to peer out the window. They were five floors up, plenty enough height to get Sam killed on the concrete. How was it even possible that the window was open this wide? Surely, even in private rooms like this one, the hospital would cover themselves against jumpers? Then he noticed the shards of a plastic knife, probably left over from dinner, and the screws on the floor. There was intent in the knife and the screws and the open window. Sam was pale, near white, and covered in bandages, his left ankle in a cast, and his breathing labored.

“You wanna talk?” Mac began.

Sam didn’t move to look at him. “Nooo,” he slurred from what Mac assumed was a combination of pain and the meds he was using to control it.

“I think you should.”

“Leave me alone.” Sam’s face flushed scarlet against the white as he spoke, but he still refused to look at Mac.

“I think I’m okay here,” Mac offered gently. He didn’t know what else to do, but he knew one thing for certain, he wasn’t going anywhere. He had been handpicked for the team he was in charge of. He might have only been twenty-five, but he was the best. He was a Recon Marine, and he led a fireteam with three more of the best. They did things that never got reported in the press and few people even knew about. He’d seen things that would make a normal person sick to their stomach. None of that prepared him to deal with the aftermath and the victims, though.

“How long did you watch?” Sam asked after a long silence.

Mac observed a bead of blood bubble where the IV had been pulled out and said nothing as it slid down Sam’s hand and to the floor. Sam wasn’t bleeding out, but hell, he needed something to stop the loss or protect it from infection, surely. Mac had heard of a fellow Marine losing a pint of blood in an unrelenting drip that he’d never even realized had been happening. Slow, persistent loss could make Sam dizzy, and then he’d fall right out the damn window.

“What do you mean watch?”

“Me and Jo, in that place. You have to do that, right? Do recon and stuff where you count the insurgents and form a plan of action.”

Mac paused before answering. Sam wasn’t asking how long it had taken the team to intervene, but just how long they’d watched what was happening in the camp.

Mac could lie. He could say they turned up and instantly took the camp members out, but they’d been there two hours before night had fallen because the lack of light would make a difference to a successful mission. Sam was screaming and sobbing as he was dragged over rough ground and thrown into a room next to his sister, his pants in his hands and blood everywhere. So much blood.

After an uncomfortable silence, Mac couldn’t keep back an answer, and something told him he needed to be brutally honest. Sam deserved that. “An hour, maybe a bit more.”

Sam moaned, the sound coming from deep inside him, and he bowed his head in the cold air. The movement shifted his center of gravity, and for a second Mac thought he was going to tumble out. He reached out to grab him, but Sam stopped his own momentum and instead he gripped hard to the windowsill.

“Oh God, you saw them, what they did. Oh God, what do I do?” He was broken and crying, and his grip on the sill lessened.

Mac was out of his depth, and he glanced over his shoulder at the door, wishing that someone with a psychology degree and the ability to deal with this would walk through.

“We saw them put you back in the room. We saw you and Jo get out. We saw you run. We saw bravery and how you pushed your sister out of the way of the bullets. That is what we saw. That is all we saw.” He wasn’t lying. Even with infrared, they hadn’t seen what the guards did to Sam, just the aftermath.

Sam finally looked at him, his eyes swimming with tears.

“I didn’t mean to,” he said on a sob. “I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was terrified, and I just pushed her.” Sam clutched at his stomach and winced. If anything, he looked even more unsteady on his feet.

Mac moved a little closer, near enough to grab Sam and stop him from falling.

“Fuck, kid, being a hero isn’t always about slow-motion and the ability to consider things rationally, it’s about living in the moment and acting on instinct.”

Sam shook his head, so Mac didn’t push. Sam wasn’t going to be convinced in the space of a few seconds that what he’d done was heroic.

“I’m glad it was me and not Jo.”

And there it was again, the quiet heroism that Sam had inside him, that instinct he had to look after his sister.

Sam continued, “She’s a clever one, going to be in government one day like Dad. I’m just an artist, and I’m a man, I need to do that stuff, don’t I?”

Mac hesitated. He seemed to be doing a lot of that. His normally quick reactions to situations were lost in the need to say exactly the right thing to Sam.

“You’re important as well,” he said. “And no one is just an artist. What do you like drawing?”

“People. And trees and things, nature, y’know?” Sam offered quickly. He looked shy and had the most intense sincerity in his eyes. When he grew up, when he was legal, he’d be a looker. He was all soft smiles and gorgeous dark green eyes, almost forest green and brown in this light, framed with long sooty lashes.

“How do you think they knew?” Sam half whispered. He was staring down at the parking lot again.

Mac wasn’t following the question. “Knew what?” He turned when the door opened. A nurse hovered on the threshold, but Mac held up a hand indicating five. She frowned, and he smiled reassuringly. The last thing Sam needed now was someone fussing over his IV. Mac belatedly wondered if she had psychology experience and he should be asking her to stay, but she had held up three fingers, left, and shut the door after her.

“How did they know I was gay? No one knows. Not even Jo.”

Mac tensed. He suddenly realized where this was going. Sam thought his captors had abused him in the way they did because he was gay?

“It wouldn’t have mattered—”

“They hated me, and they hurt me. I don’t want that with any man I’m with.” Sam was broken, his voice harsh and his tears tracking down his cheeks.

Mac laid a hand on his shoulder and tugged him a little to pull him close. “It doesn’t have to hurt, kid.”

Sam leaned into him. “I can’t be gay.”

“Sam, if that is who you are, you can’t not be gay. I’m gay, and that is who I am.” Mac winced as he said the words. He hadn’t meant to speak so bluntly, but he was out to his team, he was out to his parents and friends. He wanted Sam to see it was a good thing.

Sam lifted reddened eyes to Mac, and there were so many questions in them. Mac stared at him for the longest time and saw Sam’s misery abate a little. He couldn’t help the smile he gave. But he could help the instant shock when Sam moved that little bit closer and kissed Mac full on the mouth.

Mac reared back and heard the yelp of pain as Sam lost his support and grabbed at Mac.

“Jeez, kid.” He reacted quickly. Sam began to cry again. Fuck. “It’s okay, kid.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam said between sobs. He was clutching his stomach and keening in pain. It was time to get him back into bed.

Mac reached around Sam and encouraged him away from the window, pulling it closed behind him. Taking the weight of the young guy was easy, he probably didn’t weigh more than one ten soaking wet, and Sam shuddered and groaned in pain as Mac guided him to bed. The two of them, Sam and Jo, had been captives for three days, and God knows what had happened beyond what Mac and the team had observed.

“Hang on,” he said in lame encouragement.

He opened the door and let the nurse in, then watched as she fussed around Sam. To her credit, she didn’t criticize Sam or call him on his actions. Neither did she call a doctor or ask Sam how he was feeling. When it was just the two of them, Mac pulled a chair up next to the bed.

Mac felt like introductions were in order. “So, I’m Mackenzie Jackson.”

“You stood inside my room for a while,” Sam began. He wasn’t looking at Mac. He was staring at some point in the corner of the room. The tears had stopped, but Mac wasn’t stupid, Sam might have cried, but that didn’t mean he’d dealt with everything he’d gone through. “Dad said something about you visiting, but I thought it would be after the press conference.” Sam tilted his head in thought. “After the conference would make sense,” he added. “From a political point of view.” He blushed and looked down at his hands in his lap. “Thank you,” he mumbled. He pulled a cell phone over from the small table and turned it over and over in his hands.

“It’s our job,” Mac answered. There was something about this boy, a fragility in him that wasn’t just to do with the tubes and wires but more to the way he held himself. Shy? Introverted? They’d already seen Jo: she was up and around and had laughed and joked through an entire five minutes with the press and Under Secretary in attendance. Of course, she hadn’t been sexually assaulted nor left in a hospital room long enough to be able to jimmy the window open far enough to be able to climb out and kill herself.

“So, yeah, where’s Dad?” Sam looked past Mac.

“Still in the conference so I understand. We were waiting outside.” Mac scooted the chair near the bed. He wasn’t going anywhere until he was sure Sam was going to be kind of okay or until orders had him moving away. Sam frowned at the action and looked uncertainly at the door.

“What?” he finally said. “Was there something… Is it Jo? But it wouldn’t be Jo. They wouldn’t have sent in a Marine. It would be a doctor, right? To tell me she was dead?” Sam babbled with fear, and Mac held up a hand to stop him.

“Jo will be fine. She and your dad are like a comic duo. Despite the bullet wound, she’s in good spirits.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “She was doing okay earlier. I just—you know, things can happen, one minute everything is fine, the next you’re dead on the floor… or something.”

“She’s fine. I just wanted to come in and see how you were doing.”

“Dad’ll kill me for breaking a window.”

“I’ll tell him I did it. He’s smaller than me,” Mac teased. Anything to get a small smile.

Sam shrugged, and the movement caused the phone to slide toward the edge of the bed. Mac caught it and placed it back on the side table.

“One of those Sony Walkman phones,” Mac said conversationally.

“Dad left it with me this morning. It’s brand new and he said it’s the best thing to play music, but I don’t have any tracks on there yet.”

Silence. Mac had no idea how to further this sensitive subject with the kid in the bed.

“You’re fourteen, right?”

Sam tilted his chin. “June first I’ll be fifteen.”

“Cool,” Mac said for something to say. “Look, you probably need to talk to the doctor, about… things. About what happened to you, so he knows what—”

Sam’s smile dropped in an instant at the reminder, and all of Mac’s calming work was lost as temper flashed in Sam’s eyes. “I’m not telling anyone else. You’d better not say a word. Get out,” he snapped.

“I didn’t mean to—”

“I said, get out.” Gone was the shy, embarrassed, crying boy who’d kissed him. Instead there was confidence and anger.

“No,” Mac insisted. “Look, I’m sorry about… everything… I saw enough in the helo to know you’d been hurt, and my team… they thought… fuck, I wanted to talk to you.”

Sam grew agitated and yanked at a wire with a button on the end to call the nurse back in. “I don’t want to do any more talking. Forget everything.”

“I can’t. I came in here, and you were getting ready to throw yourself out a window—”

“I wasn’t, and I wouldn’t. I…” Sam’s face crumpled, and he began to cry. “It hurts and they… I wanted the pain to stop…” He yanked at his IV again.

Jesus. Mac grabbed his hand and stopped him from pulling the IV out. “Look. You can’t bottle it all up. Okay? Just because they thought it was fine to hurt a kid doesn’t mean that it will be like that when you meet the right person. Or that you’ll never come to terms with it.”

Sam covered his face with his hands, but not before Mac saw more tears in the kid’s eyes. “Please, go away.”

“I heard the doc say everything will be fine, and all you need to do is look after yourself—”

“You listened to what my doctor said? Fuck. I can’t do this.”

“I just wanted to say, your partner, when you’re older, he won’t care what happened if you tell him, explain to him. Okay?”

“Please—” Sam’s voice broke.

“And you should think about getting counseling.”

“Go away.”

Mac stood. He wanted to say something profound, even though the unsettling feeling that he shouldn’t have done any of this was stabbing him insistently. Damn Bear and his observations and Spider with his clever way of challenging Mac.

“I’m so sorry,” Mac said finally.

“Don’t come back,” Sam snapped, his hands still covering his eyes. Mac turned to the door and had taken a few steps when something whizzed past his head and connected with the doorframe. He glanced down to see the Sony phone in three pieces, the small screen cracked. He stooped to pick it up and placed it on a small table inside the room. Then he left.

Chapter Two
Sam cried himself to sleep. He had to sleep because when he was asleep he didn’t have to think about a single thing.

What the hell was Mackenzie Jackson thinking? Sam didn’t want to hear about how some mythical future partner would totally understand how he’d been abused and kept in a windowless room with his sister.

What Sam hadn’t counted on was that the dreams would visit him again. When they came, they were intense and as clear as if they were happening now. Was it from the medication they were pumping into him? Or because his brain was struggling to process what had happened to them? He didn’t know.

The dreams always started at the point when the two of them ran from the camp. They’d made it some way from the guards as quietly as they could. In Sam’s nightmare, the night was obsidian black, and he couldn’t see what was chasing them.

To his aching muscles and his pounding heart, it felt like he had run a marathon already. Blood ran freely from the wound in his stomach, and the pain was blinding, his lungs burning and his focus blurred. Then there were the guns. The thudding of bullets into the tree he was using to support his weight. The bullets slowed down in his dreams, like he could avoid them if he ducked, but his legs were jelly and he couldn’t move in the molasses-slow playback.

“Jo, guns.” Even in the dream, he could taste the copper of blood from cracked, bleeding lips.

I’m so tired. You need to run.

“Hurry! Sam!” Jo yanked at his arm, and the excruciating snap of agony had him stumbling into her. He fell into a tree, and ropes of gray slithered out from the trunk with hands grabbing at him, separating him from Jo.

“Go,” he shouted, but even as he shouted, there was no sound, only Jo staring at him, trapped by the same hands, and she was smiling. As another thud split the wood to his left, he shoved at Jo, pushed her out of the way, and she yelped as she stumbled, a small sound, nothing to show what had happened. Then in startlingly slow motion, she gripped Sam and slid to the ground, taking him with her. She stared at him, pinning him with her body, and he couldn’t move her, couldn’t understand why she had stopped running. Then there was blood. It spilled and pumped and covered him as his sister began to die with quiet acceptance.

He screamed soundlessly in his head, panic pushing him to move, but she was a dead weight and he was falling under her. Nothing could stop him, he was dying, and he wanted to run and he couldn’t.

Please don’t die. You can’t die. Jo.

A blinding light ripped the air apart around him, shouting, screaming, and the noise of guns.

Take him down. Clear. On your six. Clear. Clear.

Jesus, fuck, we should have moved sooner.

Are they even alive?

Sam opened his mouth to shout. The voice was American. The man was real—in the dream he was as real as if Sam could touch him. He was pulling at Sam, yanking him back from the free fall, and Sam was so grateful. Look at me! Help me! Help Jo. But he couldn’t speak or move, and when the pain was too intense, too much, as they pulled his sister from him, all he could do was lose his grip on life. He would die here, but that was okay, because then the nightmare would stop. Every ounce of fight had left him. He could easily let himself die here.

Kid? Wake up for me?

Is he alive?

I have a pulse. What about the girl?

Through and through, lost a lot of blood, stopped it.

Bear? Get me ex-fil. Spider, take him. I’ve got the girl. Wade, recon, and Bear?

Five minutes to ex-fil, sir. Kid? Sam?

Abruptly the tone of the words changed. “Sam, you need to wake up.”

Sam heard the talking in his sleep, the words around him, a haze of firm, capable tones, but if he opened his eyes, the pain would be worse. He knew it would.

“Sam, wake up, it’s just a nightmare.”

With his eyes closed, he could try to push back the cramping in his sides and stomach, the agony of his ankle, the terror of what he’d seen. Jo had to be dead. His beautiful sister was lying on him, unmoving, her blonde hair matted and red with blood.

Sam’s whole world tilted as someone lifted him and threw him over their shoulder like a sack of potatoes. His stomach rebelled, and he retched in time with the waves of pain.

They stopped moving, and Sam cracked open his eyes in his memories. Four men stood in front of him, one cradling Jo. Americans. Then it was nothing but the movement and noise and chaos, but in all of it, he felt safe.

Come on, kid, I need you awake here.

Should you be waking him?

Fuck off, Bear, he’s pulling his IV out again.

Was the guy trying to make it worse? Sam didn’t want to be awake, and the pain in his arms grounded him. “No…” Sam moaned. Or at least he thought he did. He didn’t know whether or not it was loud enough for anyone to hear.

And the nightmare let him go.

* * * * *

The beeping was the first thing he noticed. The pain was there but at a distance, and there was no other noise. No shouting, screaming, or guns. Just peace.

“Hi, Sam. You hurt yourself.”

A light flashed in his eyes, and the murmur of voices had him attempting to move his head.

Jo? He had to know. Where is Jo?

“We told you, Sam, Jo’s fine. Can you hear me?”

I can hear you.

“He’s crashing.”

* * * * *

Sam blinked open his eyes, then closed them immediately. This wasn’t the first time he’d awoken, but every time he tried to open his eyes, the light was too bright.

He tried again, slower this time. He pulled his hand up to shield his eyes, but something stopped him. Weakly, he pulled at the cannula preventing him from moving his hand, but he gave up when the fucking thing wouldn’t move.

He’d been in this place five days. Somehow after his last memory of that Marine, Mac, talking at him about… God, he couldn’t think about that as the shame flooded him… Five days, that was what his dad had told him. Jo was awake and fine. She’d bled a lot, but she wasn’t dead, and at the end of the day, a shoulder wound wasn’t as impressive as the kind of damage Sam had sustained. The guards hadn’t kicked Jo or knifed her or used her as a punching bag. They’d left her alone. She just been shot, but even that had been a through and through.

Or that is what his dad said. Graeme Larson was happy enough to tell Sam all of this, about how brave Sam had been, about how not many fourteen-year-old boys would—or could—have survived.

Are you proud of me, Dad? Really? For not dying?

The way he felt, the images he had in his head, the shame and fear that dogged him and followed him into nightmares? Dying would have been easier.

Deacon's Law #3
Chapter 1 
Winter 2014
“What the hell are you doing, Rafe?” Deacon asked, and edged closer, carefully. 

Rafe was too near the edge of the lake in the darkness, and he didn’t want to spook the man. He’d been watching him from a distance, but when Rafe stepped closer to the inky depth of water, Deacon had to step forward. The lake was icy cold and deep here, and ice collected around the edges. The crystal in the pale moonlight would have been beautiful but all Deacon saw was danger. 

“Looking,” Rafe murmured, and stepped even closer. The lake was around Rafe’s feet now, and Deacon realized that Rafe had stopped on a piece of ground that jutted into the ice. 

He wanted to tell him to move away, but that wasn’t his job.

Neither of his jobs.

“What are you looking at?” he asked, and casually stepped closer; just out of grabbing distance, but close enough to try to stop him if he jumped into the lake.

“The ice is pretty here,” Rafe murmured. 

He sounded contemplative, quiet, serious, and Deacon didn’t like that one little bit. He’d once talked a jumper off a ten-story building, and Rafe’s voice had that faraway quality that spoke of a decision made and an action that needed to be carried out.

“Come back,” he said; more ordered. He had to stay in character for now, but what if Rafe decided that he was jumping? What did Deacon do then? No one said he had to care about Rafe, but he did. 

This was week three, and he’d seen Rafe bullied, and ignored, and seen him close his eyes to it all. He hadn’t seen a family who had welcomed a bereaved nephew and cousin into the fold. All he’d observed was that Rafe shouldn’t be there.

“What?” Rafe asked dreamily. Deacon had to think to remember what he’d asked. 

“Come away from the edge,” he reworded the instruction. “You don’t want to slip in.”

Rafe let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “What if I do?”



“You could get me some skates, and I could glide on the water. I’ve never done that before; we didn’t have a lot of iced-over lakes in Miami. I’m surprised there is one here in California.”

“It won’t last,” Deacon said, and stepped a little closer. “Only on the coldest nights and just at the edge, but the water would be cold if you swam in it.”

He saw Rafe’s full-body shudder. “I don’t want to swim in it. It’s a horrible, scary lake, so deep you can’t see the bottom, and who knows what I’d find down there if I did.”

The lake was on Rafe’s uncle’s land, a natural crack in the terrain with an icy spring that fed it. Deacon had a feeling there were a lot of things in its depths that were never meant to be found again.

“I’ve skated on a frozen pond,” Deacon said, a little desperately – anything to get Rafe’s attention. “Back in Massachusetts, the pond in our town wasn’t deep, but it spread a good way, and it would ice over when it got cold.”

After a moment’s pause Rafe spoke. “When was that?”

Yes, he was talking back.

“When I was a kid. I used to go skating with my best friend, Mac.”

“No, I mean, how long did it… was it… I don’t know what I mean.”

Shit, this doesn’t sound good.

Deacon carried on. “There was always September first, and it was all rust and gold as far as the eye could see, and then you’d have the snow and ice and the cold of winter.”

Rafe shivered and wrapped his arms around himself, and Deacon took a cautious step forward. Keep talking.

“One day, maybe I’ll go visit there again in the Fall, and wait for the snow and cold so I can skate again. See my family, visit with friends.”

Rafe nodded, as if he was actually listening. “Friends are good,” he muttered, and then the tension slipped away from him and his arms fell to his sides.

What happened next was Deacon’s worries come to life. Rafe turned to face him, slipped on the ice that had crept onto the grass on the bank, and began to slide toward the water. 

Deacon grabbed for Rafe, any part of him, getting a solid hold of his arm and hand and yanking him back, stumbling away from the water and tumbling to the ground, Rafe a solid weight on top of him. 

He didn’t want this. He didn’t want sexy, intriguing Rafe sprawled over him, laughing like an idiot. He didn’t want Rafe at the lake, or even in the same fucking state as his asshole uncle and cousins. Trying to extricate himself from the pile of limbs he was tangled in was useless. Rafe was a dead weight, and seemed to be content being wrapped around Deacon. 

“Kid, you need to move,” he muttered, willing away the arousal that was zipping through his body.

Rafe snorted another laugh. “You know I’m twenty-three, right? Legal in every state, or at least I think so.”

“Get off me.” Deacon tried to buck him off, but Rafe was hard against him, and heavy, and clinging like a freaking limpet. 

“I know you’ve been looking at me,” Rafe murmured, dipping his head so they were close enough that Deacon could simply lean up a little and they would be kissing.

Remember the goal.

“Kid, Jesus,” he said, in an exasperated tone, which was heavily at odds with the arousal he was feeling at having gorgeous, sexy Rafe slumped over him. 

But the tone didn’t work, and Rafe wasn’t moving.

In fact, he ramped the whole thing up so it was worse than before. He peppered Deacon’s face with kisses; small touches with each word, explaining why he wasn’t a kid and Deacon should kiss him back.

For a while – seconds, hours, he didn’t know – he tried to get away from this maniac with the kissing and the laughter, and then abruptly things changed.

In a smooth move, he twisted so it was Rafe on the ground under him, abruptly quiet and looking up at Deacon, his eyes wide. 

“Deacon?” he asked, his tone wary. 

And Deacon kissed him.

He held Rafe’s hands to the icy ground and kissed him, pressed him hard into the mud and explored Rafe’s sexy, pouty mouth with a thoroughness that had him near to coming in his pants as they rocked against each other. 

This kiss was deliberate and needy and the want of it had been building ever since he’d arrived at the Martinez place.

“Deacon!” a voice called in the darkness, and Deacon was off Rafe and up on his feet within seconds, holding out a hand to help Rafe stand. He brushed himself off, and Rafe moved back and away into the shelter of the nearest tree. 

“You got your eyes on him?” Chumo asked, his tone accusing. 

“Following him around the lake,” Deacon reported, then turned away from Rafe’s cousin, the least psychotic of them. “Need to go.”

Chumo spun on his heel as though that was enough for him. His dad or brother had likely told him to go look for Rafe, and his job was done. When Chumo left, Rafe stepped back out with a soft laugh. 

“That was close,” he said, coming to a stop right next to Deacon, his hand brushing Deacon’s arm.

Deacon rounded on Rafe. “Don’t fucking touch me,” he spat. Rafe blinked at him, startled, hurt in his expression.

“I saw your eyes,” Rafe murmured.

“Let’s get back.” Deacon turned to walk away, but Rafe didn’t follow.

“And I felt that kiss,” he added.

“I’m not repeating myself,” Deacon snapped.

This time he sensed Rafe following, and they made their way back to the main house. Rafe said nothing and went to his room quietly. Only when Rafe was in his room did Deacon ever feel truly able to deal with his real mission; finding evidence to tie this family to terrible crimes that destroyed lives. 

This family, and possibly Rafe. 

Rafe closed his bedroom door behind him. He wouldn’t need to come out of his room now until morning, and if he was lucky he could avoid his family and get to school without incident. Of course, Deacon would be right on his tail all the way to college, but he could handle that. 

Or at least, he had been able to until just now.

Now? Well, hell, it would be a hundred kinds of awkward, facing Deacon after that kiss and then Deacon shutting down on him so abruptly.

For a second, Rafe had seen naked need in Deacon’s eyes, and then one word from Chumo and Deacon had pulled down the mask that was his hard-man persona. Rafe was convinced there was more to Deacon; he just didn’t know how to reach the man.

But the need for it burned in him, and he had no clue why. Lusting after one of the bad guys was going to compromise everything he was there to do, but that wasn’t enough to stop him. He was losing his freaking mind. 

Lying back on his bed, he stared at the ceiling, and the unsettling feeling of being watched was back again. He hated this place, hated his family, just wanted to be back in Miami with his dad and his stories of how his mom had died. The only place he could find them again was in his memories, and he closed his eyes, thinking of one single day when everything had been okay. Of course, he’d never known his mom – she’d died a few weeks after he was born – but his dad had kept her memory alive with photos and stories. She’d danced, or so his dad had said, danced with crazy happiness in their kitchen, danced slow and crying when she was emotional; to hear his dad tell it, she’d been a whirlwind of motion. Every photo he had of her, she was smiling back at Rafe, but he didn’t have the photos here. They were boxed up in storage along with the rest of his life.

Was I really going to walk into that water?

The thought of it, of stepping into the ice, had been right there in his mind. He imagined the grief of losing his father slowly floating away as he sank to the bottom, and he rolled onto his front, his face buried in his pillows. The tears he cried were hot and fierce, but he didn’t sob, or shake; his grief was his alone. 

I don’t want to die.

He hated his uncle, hated him with everything he had. He’d hated him as a child, and now, as an adult, when the grief wasn’t overwhelming everything else, he hated Arlo with every fiber of his being. His dad had been convinced that Uncle Arlo was evil.

“Arlo hated me for marrying his sister,” his dad had always said when whiskey had loosened his tongue. “But I didn’t care. My Santanna was everything to me, and when she gave me you, I couldn’t have loved anyone more. We didn’t need her family.” And then he would correct himself. “We don’t need her family.”

“Why did I even leave Miami?” Rafe muttered, and kicked the corner of the bed, wincing when the bed didn’t give way but his foot did. 

He should have stayed in Miami, in the house he’d shared with his dad, surrounded by photos of his mom; hell, he should have listened to his dad and left well enough alone.

“Stay away from your mother’s brother,” he’d said over and over before he died. “That’s the bad side of the family. Your Uncle Arlo and his sons, your cousins, they are bad men.”

Growing up, he’d begun to associate the word “bad” with his uncle and his two cousins, Felix and Chumo. They were all the way over the other side of the country in California, and that was pretty much all that Rafe had known.

Until his dad had been dying and he’d told Rafe everything. Said he’d written everything down, located people who’d seen things, had evidence that Rafe’s uncle had killed Rafe’s mom. Beaten her to death. He’d gone to confront Arlo. He was sorry. He’d fucked up. 

What Rafe heard had made his blood run cold. It had also had him organizing his last semester in California, citing that he needed to be with family now his father was dead. The lie sat uneasily with him, but his old college had been okay with it all, the bereavement counselor positively beaming as she ticked all the right boxes about this newly orphaned young man finding family to take care of him. 

Grief at losing his dad, and a new acid of hate that was forcing its way into his heart, was what had sent him here.

His dad had been his everything. The mild-mannered man had taken him to peewee baseball, the dentist, school, helped him with homework, and not once had he spoken about his life in Cuba, or his family. 

Not until that last week.

Not until the car had hit him, and he’d laid dying in a hospital, and he’d told Rafe what he’d lived with for so many years. 

So many secrets that had changed Rafe’s life forever.

He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling again, considering how long he could keep up the pretense. He should have handed everything over to the cops, but then his dad would have been pulled into the mess posthumously, and his good name was the one thing that was left now of Héctor Ramirez; that and Rafe’s memories of his dad. He had details in his head of his mom’s supposed car accident, a statement from the first cop on the scene; she’d been run off the road just outside the town he was in now. Her car had been shoved off the road, but that had never made the official statements. The cause of the accident had been covered up; she’d been visiting her brother in California and she’d died tragically after she’d lost control of the car. Nothing about the dents that had to have been made by another vehicle. Everything had been covered up, or so his dad had thought. And the accident itself a cover-up for her being beaten to death by her brother. 

His dad had sworn that was true.

Rafe didn’t know what to think.

Then there was the hit-and-run responsible for his dad’s death, less than a week after the only visit he’d ever made to visit his brother-in-law in California.

“I went to make him tell me what he’d done,” his dad had told him. “He told me he’d beaten his sister, as if it was okay, as if he was entitled. But I saw evil in his eyes. Always look into a man’s eyes, Rafael. It’s up to you to find out what he did.”

The burden of this weighed on Rafe. He wanted to know how his mom had died, who had killed his dad. But now, here in this house, he was losing his mind in the biggest way.

His Uncle Arlo had, of course, welcomed his beloved nephew with open arms, which Rafe had counted on – Arlo was big on family, and hadn’t batted an eyelid at his nephew living with him when Arlo was the only family Rafe had left. Particularly when Rafe had said nothing about his parents other than the normal exchange of superficial grief statements.

“I miss them,” Arlo had said with great feeling.

“Me too,” Rafe had said, keeping everything inside him.

One thing Arlo hadn’t welcomed him into was the business. Nope, everything had been pushed away, and he’d been kept separate, even so far as being assigned a bodyguard, for his own protection. Deacon had been hired to keep an eye on him. Or at least that was what Rafe thought. It was no accident that Deacon had turned up a couple of days after he had, nor that he was always everywhere Rafe went.

Rafe just needed to play the long game and get enough evidence together to back up his dad’s observations, see if they were more than just the ramblings of an old man, and then he could hand the whole lot over to the police. 

Then he could make his uncle pay.

Author Bio:
RJ’s goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.

RJ Scott is the bestselling author of over one hundred romance books. She writes emotional stories of complicated characters, cowboys, millionaire, princes, and the men who get mixed up in their lives. RJ is known for writing books that always end with a happy ever after. She lives just outside London and spends every waking minute she isn’t with family either reading or writing.

The last time she had a week’s break from writing she didn’t like it one little bit, and she has yet to meet a bottle of wine she couldn’t defeat.


A Reason to Stay #1

Last Marine Standing #2

Deacon's Law #3