Saturday, August 25, 2018

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Sanctuary by RJ Scott Part 1

A series of connected stories set against the backdrop of the Sanctuary Foundation. 

Sanctuary, a foundation offering witness protection to anyone whose safety is compromised.

Guarding Morgan #1
Morgan Drake witnesses a murder in an alleyway. He is the only person who can give evidence in prosecuting the cop responsible for the crime. When the FBI safe house where he’s being held is compromised, he follows the instructions of his agent in charge and runs.

Nik Valentinov works for Sanctuary, a foundation that offers witness protection when FBI security is questionable.

When Morgan’s handler sends him to Nik for safety, neither Morgan nor Nik could imagine that two weeks alone in a cabin in the woods could start something more. Something way more than just trying to keep Morgan alive. Something that makes their heart race more than danger…… Love.

The Only Easy Day #2
One dead girl, one scared witness, and two men trained as Navy SEALS. Whether searching for justice or revenge, the final showdown between them is the same—explosive.

Dale MacIntyre, former Navy SEAL, works for Sanctuary. He’s close to obtaining the evidence he needs to prove Elisabeth Costain’s death was ordered by them… until someone gets in his way.

Joseph Kinnon, active Navy SEAL, is back on U.S. soil for the first time in months, and he’s told the tragic news that his stepsister is dead, gunned down in an alley by an unknown assailant. He’s determined to find out who murdered her…until someone gets in his way.

They both want the Bullen family brought to account, but one wants justice and the other wants revenge. What happens between them, however, has nothing to do with either.

Face Value #3
Beckett Jamieson, AKA Robert Bullen, has been rescued by Sanctuary from a situation in which he nearly died and is left temporarily blind.

Doctor Kayden Summers is the Sanctuary operative assigned to look out for him.

It soon becomes clear Beckett is the key to evidence left by his mom. Evidence that may well destroy the Bullen family. The two men become involved in a critical retrieval situation and when bullets start to fly there is only one thing between Beckett and death. Kayden.

Volume 1
Guarding Morgan 
When Morgan's handler sends him to Nik for safety, neither Morgan nor Nik could imagine that two weeks alone in a cabin in the woods could start something more. Something way more than just trying to keep Morgan alive. Something that makes their heart race more than danger. Love.

The Only Easy Day 
Joseph and Dale want the same thing but have different methods of accomplishing their goals. They both want the Bullen family brought to account, but one wants justice and the other wants revenge. What happens between them, however, has nothing to do with either.

Face Value
Two men become involved in a critical retrieval situation and when bullets start to fly there is only one thing between Beckett and death. Kayden.

Original Series(#1-7) Review July 2015:
I'm doing an overall series review because in my opinion you can't just read one book, you must read the whole series to fully enjoy the tale.  Yes, each book is a standalone in regards to the couple that is featured and that each book has a separate part of the mystery that begins and ends but the series is centered around the bringing down of the Bullens family.

Now, I will say that some people might be a little put off by the suddenness of each couple getting together but I found them perfectly acceptable for both the characters and the scenarios.  Because of the possible life and death situations that the Sanctuary team members and their subsequent charges are placed in, I felt that it was very believable for each couple to realize grabbing life and love with everything they have when it's right in front of you, the right call.  This might be a turnoff for some but it was not for me.

I found it to be a well written, character driven tale that is definitely worth reading.  As I started out with, I think it should be read as one long story to get the sweeping effect of both the mystery and the love as well as the friendships that are explored.


Guarding Morgan #1
"Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…" The words were on repeat in Morgan Drake's head, a litany, over and over, in case he forgot. His FBI shadow had drummed the words into him until he could repeat them in his sleep.

"Just in case, Morgan, okay? If there's any problem, you take these keys and the car I showed you in the next door basement parking, and you take Highway Twenty West onto the 166, head for Altamont, Western Street, find a bookshop called Black Cat Books. Someone will locate you there, and he'll have a password, okay? Lemon Pie. He's a guy I trust with my life, and his name is Nik. I'm writing his cell number on this paper. You need to memorize it in case I can't contact him. Can you repeat… twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie. After me…"

He lost the rhythm of the words as a dark sedan overtook him and then peeled away at high speed. Dread gripped him again and he fought hard not to hyperventilate. Taylor had told him this car would be safe in every sense of the word. Fueled, in good condition, and with plates linking to an elementary teacher in Queens. The convoluted route to the garage where the car was housed meant he would probably have not been followed. Probably. He couldn't stop the car. "Don't stop driving Morgan. Don't you stop for anything or anyone once you get on the road. Not FBI, not cops, no one." Taylor always finished his sentences with the simple question: "Do you understand?" No, Morgan didn't understand.

From the minute he had made the decision to be the designated driver for an after work party, everything had gone to hell. An hour of complete terror, in which his world was ripped apart, ended with him in an FBI safe house guarded by a gruff agent who played a mean hand of poker. Obsessive and compulsive about Morgan's safety, Taylor Mitchell, FBI, ruled the house with an iron fist, not letting Morgan slip into the role of victim for an instant. They talked about what could go wrong. Taylor gave Morgan worst case scenarios that literally blew his mind—shooting, mayhem, and possible death. Morgan wasn't sure his protector was supposed to do that. But he liked the guy and if a choice presented itself between Taylor and the other agent who split the shifts? He would take the warnings every time. Especially given the other guy had bad breath and a corny line in come-ons.


Taylor and Morgan had only been talking before bed. Morgan had been looking for the reassurances he remained safe, and Taylor had been only able to say he would do everything in his power to keep Morgan safe. Should anything happen, or go wrong, he knew of another man, another agency quite separate from the FBI, to help Morgan. A private agency called Sanctuary. Only brought in at the worst of times, it was there as an option if needed. A friend of his now worked for Sanctuary, an agency providing protection for people in need. Actually more than a friend. His ex-FBI partner. Morgan waved the information away, naively so it turned out later.

"How can anything go wrong? I'm with the FBI, the trial is in two weeks, and then everything will be normal again."

"Even the FBI can be compromised, Morgan. Don't you watch TV?" Taylor had a serious expression on his face. Now, with Taylor lying shot, and possibly dead, on the floor of the house, all Morgan could concentrate on was the list of directions he needed to remember, the promise of some mystical safety within his reach.

He waited for the sedan to make a U-turn and come at him with some bad guy hanging out of the window with a gun, but instead the indicators flashed and the car left the highway. Morgan's breathing stayed erratic and panicked sounding, despite how much he tried to settle it, fueled by the pain in his chest, his left arm, and his throbbing head. He didn't want to chance the radio. Music might help him find some composure, but shit, what if it meant he didn't remember the words in the right order? He'd probably end up in Canada or something, the bad guys chasing him down and taking him out of the equation in some blood and gore shootout.

Yes, Morgan watched the TV procedural cop shows with clever detectives or FBI suits who flouted the law and kept the little man on the street safe. He also saw the first witnesses in these shows were inevitably shot between the eyes, the last link in evidence on a high profile murder case. He'd also seen that sometimes the FBI agent was corrupt and a cop could end up on the wrong side of the law. He liked those shows. He simply didn't want to be in one of those shows.

"Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie."

He struggled to keep from losing his shit and forced himself to unbend each finger of one hand away from the steering wheel. After he opened his window, the rush of cold early morning air cleared his eyes, and he breathed deeply, trying to gain control of his nerves. He checked the mirror. There was no one behind him; the road remained deserted, and he had a purpose.

Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…

"Forty-four ninety-five," the young guy behind the counter said with a wide yawn. Dressed in the red uniform of the gas station chain, he couldn't have been much past sixteen. Judging by the wide-eyed expression on his face when he looked up to see his new customer, he either showed classic signs of being high or he was really shocked at Nik's appearance. Nik tried not to laugh. Given what he'd seen in the restroom mirror—blond hair flat, brown eyes dull and bloodshot and pale skin—Nik imagined it was probably the latter.

Three in the morning had closed in on Nikolai Valentinov far too fast, exhaustion stinging his eyes. Self-preservation prompted the stop at a gas station a short way off Highway 20. He probably looked like some kind of gun-wielding, staring-eyed, about-to-kill-everyone maniac. Add in the fact he was very tall and dressed in black from head to toe and he could appear menacing at all the wrong moments. Poor cashier-kid and his shit shift choice.

Placing the most reassuring smile he could muster on his face, Nik carefully counted out the cash for the charge, and they swapped the sum total of five words in exchanging money for gas, Pepsi and a Snickers.

He stopped for a moment outside the main door and glanced back briefly at the cashier who remained staring at him with a wide eyed expression. Then he stretched his arms high and breathed in deeply. Copious amounts of caffeine kept him going, but the down effects were hard to rein in, not the least of which was the two minute piss he had taken in the not quite so clean and ironically labeled rest stop. Any kind of rest in the filth littered on every available surface of the outside building was not an option. Nik Valentinov may well have been way past simple tiredness, but even he had standards. Simply being weary had been pushed through on day three of his case, moving on to complete and utter exhaustion by day seven. Finally, this morning, his charge had given his evidence and had been rewarded, if that was the right word, with a place in witness relocation. Out of Nik's hands and hair, the witness was away from the auspices of the Sanctuary program and back into the system that only now had decided it would protect the witness.

Nik realized he hadn't moved from the spot where he'd stopped, and he had to admit, it made him more than merely a suspicious face. It made him a man who was simply plain odd, and a possible threat. Casually, he raised a hand in a small wave and finished the short distance to his car, stumbling over the island at the pump and finally, gratefully, leaning against the driver's door of his 4x4 and swallowing the first third of his Pepsi in seconds.

Nik could almost taste the downtime in his immediate future, three whole, entire, complete weeks away from close protection duty, from Sanctuary, from life. As much as he loved his job, the call of peace and isolation of his own place, with no high levels of alert and no college-aged hooker requiring his protection, called to him. Only him, and a beer or ten, and a good book, and fuck, at least one entire night of uninterrupted sleep, a rare commodity when on any case. He could function well with the benefits of small snatches of sleep until he let himself think "it's over", and then sleep was all he craved, all he needed. Another two hours and he would be home. Rolling his shoulders, he winced at the tightness in his neck and the familiar pain in his lower back and left knee. At this moment, standing here and looking up at the night sky, he felt every single one of his twenty-nine years, and then some.

Finishing off the Snickers bar in four bites, he aimed the wrapper for the wide open bin, missed by a good two inches, and then stooped to pick it up. He placed it in by hand, sighing at his complete lack of coordination. I shouldn't be driving; this is stupid. He was a danger to himself, and he wasn't entirely sure he would last the two hours left to home. The insistent lure of flashing neon across the highway called to him and the small no-tell motel offered a bed. Maybe not a fully clean bed, but hell, he had slept in worse. Maybe he should break this journey up. Resolving to do just that, he started the engine and yawned widely, feeling the crack in his jawbone. The ringing tone of his private cell didn't register as any kind of noise he recognized straight away. It just buzzed away in his subconscious until he finally put two and two together. The sound echoed low and he had to root for the source of the clatter in his laptop case. When he was on a job, his private cell stayed that way, private. To hear it sound still turned low reminded him he really needed to turn the damn thing up. Blinking at the screen, shock snapped him fully awake as he saw the name flashing there. He answered with a sense of urgency, thrown back three years to the working partnership he had invested so much into.

"Taylor?" He couldn't have stopped the alarm in his voice if he'd tried. The last time he'd heard from his ex-partner was over a year ago at his FBI debrief, a few weeks before he joined Sanctuary. To hear the man's voice now, a familiar southern drawl, twisted heavy, wet and rasping, sent concern skittering down his spine and chased exhaustion away in a rush of adrenaline.

"FBI safe house Albany compromised." Taylor's voice sounded more than wrong. Hearing the shakiness, the tone thick with pain, Nik didn't waste time on asking what had happened. Taylor didn't need to point out he needed help of some kind. Nik jumped into all business mode instantly.

"Talk," Nik snapped quickly. Training, instinct and friendship clicked instantly into place, and he focused every inch of his resources to listening.

"Shooter dead… mark gone to ground." Familiar words, and he knew exactly what he needed to say next.

"You tell them where?"

"Yeah. He knows. Can Sanctuary—"

"Me, not Sanctuary, I'm three hours out. I'll get him and make arrangements with Sanctuary. You're injured, call 911."

"On it." The call dropped, and Nik knew his friend would be contacting 911. Although injured, Taylor still appeared to be lucid enough to handle calling for medical help. Nik sent a quick thought of hope winging into the night and then snapped back to what he needed to do. He reached into the lock-box on the right of the dashboard. Fingerprint recognition released the security, and a small cover moved to reveal his work issued Glock G22. With practiced ease, he checked the chamber and slipped the loaded weapon into the shoulder holster under his black leather jacket. Taylor, plus an emergency call from a compromised FBI safe house, equaled a pressing need to be armed.

Lowering the driver window for the rush of cold air as he drove, he felt different as he left the gas station and turned back east on Highway 20. Gone was any idea of being off duty. He was focused, intent, and wide awake. Training kicked in immediately, and he was back in work mode. He assessed his location and what he knew, considering the information he had been given amounted to little. Not much to go on really, apart from his best friend and ex-FBI partner injured, a safe house compromised, and the shooter dead. The target Taylor had been protecting in the safe house had run. Who else was in the house? The feds would never leave just one guy with a witness. Was the other person dead? Maybe the witness had been injured. Would the witness himself actually listen to what Taylor had told him and try to find Nik?

Taylor had called him personally, instead of calling the safe house compromise in to FBI Operations. This meant one thing in Nik's mind. Inside job. Taylor clearly had a trust issue with handing knowledge elsewhere, especially internally. Unnecessary emotions flooded him, pushing aside the ice of his focus momentarily. Part of the job had to be to focus on the job, but shit, his gut churned, and he momentarily hoped to hell his best friend had phoned 911 straight after getting off the phone with him.

He wondered what kind of case his friend was on that he couldn't trust the FBI internally. Why hadn't he gone through official channels and approached Sanctuary? Why come to him direct? As newbie partners they had created a failsafe backup plan over beers and tacos just for this kind of situation. Only it had been in case either he or Taylor had been compromised, not a witness or someone involved in a case. Hell, it had started as a joke on a night out in a dingy bar. It was Taylor that started it; three sheets to the wind and in emotional mode. The beer took all his self-imposed barriers and kicked them to the curb.

"If something happens to me I want you to have my Spiderman comics," Taylor said seriously and downed the remainder of his beer in one gulp.

"Can I sell them?" Nik had replied. At that point he hadn’t realized Taylor was actually being serious.

"Only if you promise to use the proceeds to spend the whole lot in a gay bar in one night."

"What is it with you and getting me to gay bars?" Nik had laughed, but Taylor had clearly crossed the bridge to utterly inebriated.

"Well, you won't get to fuck anyone here." Taylor looked over his shoulder at the significant number of couples weaving on the floor in an approximation of dancing.

"I'm not desperate, and I don't need to pick up a guy in a bar," Nik said in defense. He then proceeded to change the subject. "Anyway, if I die, you can have my gun." There. That should shut his friend up with the awkward shit.

"Your gun?" Taylor's eyes widened comically, and then he snorted beer in a bark of a laugh. "Fuck, Nik. Your gun! That is all kinds of serious."

"Ha freaking ha."

"What if we're not dead?" Taylor's words slurred, and he leaned in against Nik. Nik didn't move. To have his drunken best friend leaning all over him this way to Sunday was the only affection he allowed. He sometimes thought it would make his non-existent love life one hell of a whole lot better if Taylor was gay. At least Taylor understood the whole "serving the country and having no life" decision Nik had made. Taylor had made it too. Still, hooking up with a woman had to be easier than snagging a man. Especially for mostly in-the-closet Nik.

"What do you mean not dead?"

"Like, y'know, shot or something."

"Or something?"

"Yeah. We're separated, and you're shot, and we need a place to go."

"How shot am I?" Nik asked laughing, his smile widening when his friend's eyes crossed at the contemplation of how shot Nik would be.

"A through shot. Your arm maybe. Of course, you would be stoic and all Nik-like."

"Nik-like?" This was getting funnier by the minute.

"Yeah, all heroic and shit. Anyway, so you're being Nik, and you've been compomi—compro—compri—shit."


"Yeah. That one. You could call me and we'd have this place we could meet up." Nik climbed down off his stool carefully, ensuring Taylor didn't slide sideways to the floor.

"I need a piss, man. Can you sit up straight?" Taylor made a big deal out of slumping sideways to the bar, calling the bartender over and asking for paper and a pen. By the time Nik came back from maneuvering in and out of drunken half-dancing, half-staggering couples, Taylor had a somewhat lucid plan in place in half-legible writing.

"We always need a backup plan, bro," he had stated seriously, or as seriously as he could given the seventh beer pushing him way over the edge.

Nik had pulled the paper out the next day after he had watched, with some amusement, Taylor grasping the porcelain god in their shared bathroom. Written in stone was what they planned to do if things went south. Should a case go to shit as FBI partners, they had a place they would run to, a place to meet and regroup. When Taylor could finally see straight and stop being sick, they thrashed out the details. A single spot in the middle of nowhere had been chosen with a pin on a map and backed up with consideration for Taylor's taste in good pie. This was between them, no one else would know where it was. Passwords and verbal codes were agreed upon, and it had kept them both alive on more than one occasion. They didn't always work cases together when in the FBI. Then Nik had been injured, not the through-shot Taylor had foretold but much worse. A shot carved into Nik's knee and forced early retirement from the FBI and his days as Taylor's partner were over.

Nik had left without ceremony, joined the Sanctuary organization and, for one reason or another, hadn't seen Taylor since. Not in the last year, when all they had managed was a few coded emails here and there.

He had immediately keyed the place he and Taylor had chosen into his security coded navigation system. Black Cat Books, a book store and coffee shop on Western Street in Altamont. A small, fairly insignificant town based on size, it was only half an hour in distance but more than fifty years in atmosphere from Albany, then a few more hours to New York itself. It didn't seem like a place people assigned special meaning to, apart, he guessed, from the people who lived there. The bookshop was the focus of the community. It was a large open warehouse type affair, with coffee shop and meeting room and a state-sponsored library to the rear. This was exactly where Taylor's runner would have been told to go. Nik only hoped the witness had listened to what Taylor had said.

He had keyed the zip code into the navigation system, although he didn't really need it for direction. He used it more for time. The sparse night time traffic and a rush of adrenaline allowed him to drive without killing himself, and meant he would make it there around six. He settled into the rhythm of the road, connecting a call to Sanctuary and nodding to himself when the call was answered on the first ring.

"Enterprise Transports."

"I need to report an issue with a consignment in New York." There was a brief pause as a minute change in the air passed between them carrying the words, and then acknowledged confirmation of identity.

"Go ahead." The voice came across the air clear, concise, firm.

"Taylor called in a runner." There would be no need to explain who Taylor was. His new employers, a year of cases now, had a profile on everyone in Nik's life. Sanctuary certainly gave the impression they knew everything.

"Do you have a location?"

"Albany. The FBI safe house has been compromised. Taylor's down." Another pause and he heard tapping against a keyboard. The operator at Sanctuary understood he would want to know the situation with his ex-partner and was taking the time to check.

"It's already been called in, paramedics in attendance." Nik let out a breath he didn't even realize he had been holding. At least Taylor had managed to get help.

"Nik…" The voice changed slightly in tone, from all business to concern. "You're down for three weeks off-grid post-case. I can't allocate you. I need to get someone else to go in."

"No. I'm dealing with it." He didn't allow one drop of hesitation to show in his voice. His best friend had asked for his help, and by his standards, there could be no compromise. He wouldn't allow another Sanctuary agent to take the case.

"Noted," the operator confirmed. Nik imagined the woman on the end of the line shaking her head in exasperation. Sanctuary Operations, or Ops as they were normally called, were used to what they called "the idiot heroes" who worked for the foundation, with their I'm-dying-but-it's-okay bravado and weird codes of conduct. He couldn't tell one operator from the next, especially with the recording echo on the cell line. Although he had exchanged a few words with more than a few different operators in the office, he wasn't here to shoot the breeze or engage in polite conversation. He was all about cutting to the chase.

"I need to know what's open for me."

"Sanctuary Seven is empty. I'll send the GPS coordinates to your nav. Do you have an ETA?" Nik checked the screen and the new data that had been downloaded for S7. He added up the journey from here to Altamont, and then on to the general location of Sanctuary Seven, high in the Adirondacks, way past what people considered civilization. Every operative had a 4x4 as it was the only way to get to ninety percent of Sanctuary safe houses and he was convinced he would need it today imagining the type of accomadation there would be in the mountains. "Mid afternoon."

"Today?" The ops voice held no surprise. Sanctuary employees were used to working around tight deadlines.


"Stay in touch, Nikolai. Don't go off grid without letting us know."

He didn't answer. He wasn't going to promise anything he might not intend to be held to. He didn't know what he would find in Altamont. He pushed the speed far enough to make a difference but just below being pulled over. Who would he find at the bookshop? His entire focus on this case, Nik Valentinov was on the clock.

The Only Easy Day #2
Chapter 1
“Chief, locate for CAS.” The shout was passed down the line, barely audible over the gunfire, and into Chief Petty Officer Joseph Kinnon’s ear. The lieutenant was situated higher up the steep incline, pinned in that position. He was held down by the whine and thud of AK47 bullets that ripped and spat through the rocks of the mountain, but his message was loud and clear. They were trapped, and only close air support was going to solve this clusterfuck.

Joseph was by far the closest to the onslaught of Taliban forces and crawled on his belly to the viewpoint, only inches below an outcrop of rock and far too exposed for his liking. Gauging distance, he scrambled back to pass the intel.

“Danger close, five hundred,” he reported succinctly, and slid sideways as some random shot snagged the rock to his left and gouged a path in the blackness.

Information passed upwards was fast, and the decision passed back just as quick. Despite the team locked down this close to the target, there wasn’t another way out of this position. They had to call in close air support and chance getting decimated by friendly fire or killed by the large group of Taliban closing in. Joseph sent up a silent plea the pilot of the F-16 in this airspace was one hundred percent accurate. Bad timing had led a group of Taliban to the same path they traveled, and the small SEAL team was paying the price. No way back up the mountain, and no way forward, the journalist they were here to extract had pasted himself flat against the wall with horror across his face; they were stuck. One well-placed missile into the middle of the Taliban forces and it would be enough for the team of six and the journalist to make it the extraction point.

The terminal controller exchanged brief glances with Joseph. Dexter was his best friend, and their relationship went way back before SEAL training, commonly called BUD/s. Joseph nodded. He knew exactly what was going through his friend’s mind as he called in the ten-digit grid reference to command. Joseph lip read as Dexter added detail to the “danger close”, forces-speak for telling the F-16 pilot there was the potential to kill the good guys too. Dexter ducked as the Taliban concentrated their fire on the cluster of rocks behind him. They couldn’t know exactly where he was, but even random firing was sending bullets too close for comfort. Joseph rolled to his side and focused his fire on the flashes from the forces below them. He just hoped it was enough to give Dexter the space to complete the message on the UHF radio.

Finally Dexter passed a message up and down the team, the LT nodded and indicated heads down. The missile would be there in three. Joseph didn’t let up on his targeted shooting, and for a few minutes until “missile on target”, he and the rest of the team would be ensuring focus was on them.

The reporter had been an easy extraction. Taken hostage by the Taliban, they’d been keeping him in a safe house in the mountains of Afghanistan. Intelligence had led the US to his location, and they had watched to establish a pattern for his captors. Pattern established, Joseph and his team were inserted three miles away, on the other side of a mountain ridge. It had been, in SEAL terms, an easy extraction, and the journalist had not only still been alive but was able to walk out fairly unhurt.Then the shit hit the fan. With nothing more than bad timing, suddenly the team was pinned down by the sheer number of freaking Taliban coming at them with the barrage of small arms fire. They were fucked. Dexter signaled a “one” to Joseph and the others. This was it. This was win or fail spectacularly; what a way to go out. Fuentes sat on the journalist, their faces to the wall, hunkered down in a natural ditch formed by a crack in the earth between rocks. Dexter rolled and sheltered amongst the boulders strewn on the pathway. The LT and the rest of the team kept up fire until, one by one, they too took cover. There was no sense in letting the Taliban get any idea things were going down by giving out a ceasefire, and finally, it was only Joseph firing into the darkness in a random pattern. He glanced at Dexter, who held up a fist and then a five. Joseph counted down, and at one, he took final cover, curled in on himself with his head tucked low, every part of him sheltered by Afghan rock.

No noise indicated the targeting of a five-hundred-pound bomb, but when it hit the Taliban, it was deadly and quick. The pressure waves pressed Joseph’s eardrums, and he involuntary closed his eyes. The air rent about them, and the sound of violent roaring thunder shook the earth. As it threw debris high into the air, the low-end noise of the pressure wave rolled over the SEAL team, but there was no time to sit and wait to see if the hit had found target. Joseph was first, closest to the insurgents, and weapon high, he slid down the crumbling mountainside. The missile had done its work, but Joseph didn’t look for that. He wanted an all clear, and with only a few on target shots, he indicated back that the team could follow. There was still some small arms fire from the few remaining Taliban, but it was nothing the SEALs couldn’t handle, dodging forces and jogging with the journalist at the center. Dexter called in final extraction, and when Joseph slumped into the CH-47 Chinook, he closed his eyes. It would be days before his ears were back to normal. The helicopter dipped then took a wide low path over the Afghanistan flatlands.

“So,” Dexter started on a shout that broke through his team’s fractured hearing, “I’m thinking of asking Emily to marry me.”

And there it was. Normality after facing chaos and death. It was what SEALs did. They fought, they extracted, and they were the best. But, at the end of the day, they had survived and were alive. Listening as his best friend received advice from the team on how to propose, Joseph felt a twinge of something inside. The adrenaline inside him was trickling away and the reality of his life was replacing it in every single cell he had.

An empty apartment and a month of sleep. The sleep sounded good, but the empty part? That felt like shit.

* * * * *

The deck of the C-17 was freaking freezing, and not for the first time in eight hours of hell, Joseph wished he had two sleeping pads under him and not just one. Ramstein Air Base might be five hours in the past, but that meant at least another two or three until landing at Oceana Naval Air Station on the east coast. He was supposed to still be sleeping—that was the only way this enforced downtime worked for him. The Ambien had apparently long since lost its ability to send him back to sleep, and he was now way past wide awake. Everyone wanted to go home, but it was at moments like this, he wished for some magic way to blink and suddenly be in his own bed. The imposed cramped space was necessary if he wanted to get home, but he was a man of action, and all the clichés applied to him in spades. He wasn’t the man who sat still; he was the one who paced. He never walked; he always ran. Sucking it up until they landed was his only option. Still, he was tired enough to allow a small amount of self-indulgent misery at the cold and the smell and the aches that filtered through his determination to not complain.

His hip ached from lying on his right side as they crossed the ocean away from Basram to Germany and, with only a few hours break, onto the continental US. He was a SEAL, and his body had been through one hell of a lot, certainly more than the discomforts of sleeping in a C-17 cargo plane. The thought of what he normally put his body through and how much pain he could handle never failed to amuse him when all he could think of now was how freaking sore he felt all over. Thank goodness for small mercies that the vibration of the plane had lessened as soon as they hit cruising altitude. He hated the way the throbbing of the huge engines coursed through his body and rattled his bones. Twenty-six years old and his body felt like he was forty.

Cursing his inability to sleep, he half rolled to take the pressure off his hip and stopped only when he felt one of his team behind him. He couldn’t even recall who had grabbed the space there, but by the snoring, he assumed it was Dexter. His best friend was always watching his six and had done until they passed out the same week in BUD/s. Gritting his teeth, and with the comfort of his best friend’s breathing so obvious behind him, Joseph relaxed each muscle, resolutely ignoring the belt on his multi-cams digging into skin. He finally found the place inside him that allowed him to sleep perched on rocks or in caves with aerial assaults streaking the sky. He moved to that single and vital place where fighters in combat zones found themselves in, where they hoped they would be safe.

The changing quality of the engine noise was the first indication they were stateside, and he woke to a crouch in instant awareness. Clearly he had managed another few hours of shuteye, much to his shock. Expectation shot through him at the thought of standing on US soil again, and he stretched tall to work out some of the kinks. To sleep in a bed, eat food that wasn’t out of plastic, and to catch a breath was what the next thirty days were about. Lonely or not.

“N’thuck.” The words were mumbled in half sleep, and that was the first sign Dexter had pulled himself out of an Ambien and painkiller haze. Joseph moved as best he could to face his friend and blurted out a laugh at the sight before him. Dexter had taken a hit to the face by flying rocks, and the bruising was bad. The area around his friend’s nose was swollen so badly his eyes were squinting and only half open.

“You look worse than shit,” Joseph commented dryly.

“Thuck you,” Dexter replied.

“Emily’s gonna take one look at you and decide to marry me instead.”

“Not your gay ass,” Dexter countered.

Joseph laughed. His whole team knew about his preferences. It wasn’t that he was out to everyone in the service, but SEALs had trust. Your team was your life and held your life. Not one person in the team judged him for anything less than his skills or the SEAL acceptance that one day they might die for each other. Around him the rest of the team started pulling together sleeping bags and packs, and Joseph cast a brief look over at Adams, who remained in the green stage of post alcohol/Ambien mixing but who somehow managed to sport a broad and blinding grin. As the C-17 banked for final approach, Joseph took his seat. The landing was smooth, the rocking motion as the brakes engaged jarring, but the actual stopping itself was heaven. The plane rolled to journey’s end at just before zero one hundred, and then the small band of SEALs trudged tiredly from the plane.

When it came to disembarking, Joseph had never felt happier the SEALs never had to share a plane with anything other than a few combat support guys. Six guys getting off one plane made life a lot easier than a plane full of troops. As soon as his booted feet hit the blacktop, Joseph inhaled deeply of the fresh Virginia air. Everyone stood absolutely still for a few seconds, and Joseph glanced critically at each man. Apart from Dexter and his nose, the team of six men, by some luck and more than a little skill, had made it back largely unscathed. The way every man stood so utterly still meant he wasn’t the only one to be glad they’d made it back alive.

The team’s reactions to coming home varied from excited to resigned to way-too-exhausted-to-register. The night of landings was always the same. With unspoken agreement, the small group started the walk back to the main hanger where there would be some way of getting back to wherever the hell they all needed to go. Some, like him and Dexter, had apartments nearby; others had rooms in larger houses. All had to be within the one-hour recall when not on leave. He and Dexter walked side by side as the SEALs made their way from the immediate area to the regroup point.

“Fuck. Commander’s here.” The curse from Fuentes stopped him in his tracks.

Joseph startled at the pronouncement that spilled from the team’s newest recruit’s mouth. The words were tinged with newbie awe that the commanding officer was in attendance to their arrival home. Joseph was instantly watchful and tried to make out who the CO was looking at. The team usually had time to breathe before the official crap started, but the CO being here, standing silently and waiting for them to arrive, could mean only one thing. For one of the six in the team, there was bad news.

Something had happened while they were deployed, and for one of them, life had somehow changed when they were out of reach.

“Shit.” Even with the broken nose, Dexter uttered that single word very clearly and with an edge of fear. Dexter not only had the long-term girlfriend but two living parents and five siblings with associated partners and children. Jeez. Not Dexter.

The lieutenant held up a hand to stop his team and then walked swiftly ahead to stand toe-to-toe with the CO. They talked briefly, and the lieutenant turned to face his men with a look of resignation on his face.

“Chief Kinnon,” he started firmly. “Go with the CO.”

The entire bottom fell out of Joseph’s world, and he reached blindly to grip Dexter’s arm. Dexter took a step forward to go with Joseph, but he pulled him to a stop.

“It’s okay,” he reassured Dexter, and tugged his arm free. It wasn’t okay. It was far from being okay. He only had a few people outside his team that meant anything to him. Something had happened to his mom? It was the only thing he could think of, the only family he had, and that his CO was standing there waiting to tell him bad news was wrong.

He took the few short steps to the CO, a tall imposing man with a face carved from stone. Commander Finch hadn’t gotten to be a CO of elite SEAL teams by being the nice guy. He was tension and passion and loyalty all wrapped up in one commanding presence.

“Chief Kinnon.”


“Walk with me, son.”

Only training and blind obedience kept Joseph from freezing in the middle of the freaking airfield refusing to move and demanding answers right the fuck now. They reached a door and passed through it into the shaded corner of a huge hangar. Dim lighting was enough to see compassion on the CO’s face.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Joseph. While you were off radar, your stepsister passed away.”

Chapter 2

Of course Elisabeth. He had only one stepsister. When his mom had remarried two years before, he had inherited both her and a stepdad, Harvey Costain. He didn’t know them very well. He was never stateside long enough to form a real bond, but, jeez, his mom and Harvey must be devastated.

“You have my condolences.”

“What the fu—hell happened? Sir.” He added the belated sir on the end as his training kicking in with a vengeance.

“The police are conducting a murder investigation.”

“Murder?” Joseph dropped his pack to the floor as any energy he had slid straight out of him. ” How? Who?”

“If it’s any consolation, it was quick, and she wasn’t… harmed in any other way.”

Consolation? Quick wasn’t a consolation to any family. One day it might be. But now? Nothing made this easier to hear.

“She was coming to stay—we weren’t close—but she wanted to spend time with me…” He was rambling. Why the hell was he telling all this to a man who didn’t need to hear it? He could hear himself talking, but the shock weighed heavy on him, and suddenly the words just stopped. Emotion choked his throat. This leave was supposed to be him finally finding his role as a big brother, maybe even giving definition to his life. And from what she’d said, to Elisabeth’s life as well. She had called him and left messages when he’d come back last time, said she needed a friend, a brother, said it had been too long since their parents married for them to connect. His CO was still talking in that tone only reserved for those who had to dispatch bad news on a regular basis. Soft and low and so damn understanding.

“Is there someone who can help you? I can assign someone from the family liaison—”

“No,” Joseph said quickly. This was his family, and he didn’t need liaison or support or any of that official shit. His shoulders were plenty broad enough to handle what life threw at him. This would be no different. Priorities. It was all about priorities to make sense of the buzzing in his head. Intel was first. A SEAL was nothing without the intelligence gathering to back up a mission. Phone his mom to find out when it had happened and why it had happened. Pushing back the flood of sudden grief that forced its way forward, he fell back on his training.

“Can you make sure Dexter sees a medic, sir? And tell the lieutenant I’ll be back in the normal thirty days.”

“I will. And Joseph? Between you and me, if you plan on—” He paused. “—doing anything then just be careful. Good luck, son.”

It was a four-mile run to his apartment in Virginia Beach. Less than twenty minutes and he would be in his place. An hour and he could have showered Afghanistan from his skin, shaved his thick facial hair and packed. Three and he would be heading to Albany to find answers.

* * * * *

His apartment was just as he had left it—empty and clean. In a daze he went through the motions of finding the man under the layers of grime. Shaving the beard that protected his skin beneath removed the persona of soldier a scrape at a time, and the shower water was cold before he exited the stall. This was ritual; this was normal, and for a few minutes, he found solace in the repetition of actions that grounded him to the here and now. He heard his cell but didn’t answer it, just left it on charge as it was flat from its disuse and only showed one bar of charge. He knew Dexter was trying to contact him, but until he had his bags packed and he was on the road, he wasn’t ready to answer questions. Dexter stopped calling; instead he texted a simple call me, which Joseph knew was his friend’s way of offering unconditional support and showing he would back off and wait for Joseph to make the first move.

Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and grabbing a jacket from his closet, he checked he had wallet, keys, and his bag. Locking the door and crossing to his old Jeep, he hoped to God the damn thing started after sitting for so long. The heap started on the third turn just as Joseph thought his luck might well have run out. Three thirty-five in the morning, and he was heading north on highway 13.

Shock was something he knew one hell of a lot about. The dead and dying and the ones who watched… He had seen the horror of it all, and as detached as he had to be, he could categorize every single nuance of disbelief and grief. None of what he knew was even halfway real when he remembered his stepsister. He pulled off at a gas stop for fuel and grabbed a protein bar and a bottle of water. He couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer, and with a heavy heart, he dialed the number he knew by heart. His mom answered on the third ring. Proof that it didn’t matter what time of day he called; she would have a phone close by.

“Joseph,” she said calmly. “Did they tell you?”

“I’m so sorry, Mom. How is Harvey?” Joseph was a master at changing the subject, and his mom didn’t call him on it.

“Devastated. Totally heartbroken. We’ve had newspapers calling for interviews and people stalking us, taking photos. It’s only died down in the last month.” The last month? Why the hell had it garnered so much attention? “We tried to let you know. Passed it on to the right people. They said they would let you know when you were back in the US.”

That sounded about right. Joseph and the rest of the team were very often off radar and out of reach. It was standard procedure to make contact when it didn’t jeopardize what the SEALs were doing.

“Will you tell him I am so sorry for his loss?” Joseph offered gently. He had a lot of respect for Harvey and felt grief for what the other man had gone through.

“I will… wait—”

Joseph heard the phone being passed to another; he assumed it was Harvey.


“I am so sorry for your loss.” It felt wrong to say our loss. Harvey had lost a child, his daughter, and it must feel like nearing the end of times. Joseph had simply lost someone he’d begun to be friends with. It was a different world of pain.

“Where are you, son?” Harvey sounded exhausted, and Joseph didn’t bristle at the term “son”. He never had. When his mom had met Harvey, it was almost as if Joseph could finally let himself relax about who was looking after his mom. It felt real. Like a family. He had even received a readymade sister. Harvey had been more of a husband to his mom in two short years than Joseph’s real father had been. He’d been nothing more than a sperm donor when his mom was sixteen. Should he lie? Tell Harvey he was on base or due to ship out? Would the man stop him from what he wanted to do if he actually admitted he was planning on looking into this murder? Harvey could well have already resolved his emotions about losing his daughter, probably in an arena that didn’t include throwing himself in the middle of a murder investigation, as it did for Joseph.

“On my way to Albany on the 13,” he finally admitted.

“What are you going to do?” There was tension in Harvey’s voice, but no accusation or words to put Joseph’s intended actions on hold. The line went quiet, and he wished he could see Harvey’s expression. Had he put two and two together? Was the gentle man horrified or relieved Joseph was going to the place his daughter had been killed? Harvey and his mom living in Florida had never made Miami seem farther away.

“I’m going to find out why my stepsister died, sir,” he said very simply.

Harvey exhaled noisily, and his mom was back on the phone in seconds. She had watched Joseph go into the Navy, become a SEAL, get ordered overseas. Every single time she had waved him off with a smile and a promise she would be there when he came back. She knew it was what he was trained for, and he was well aware this time would be no different.

“What are you doing, Joseph?”

“Going to find out who killed Elisabeth and why.” He didn’t expect her to stop him from taking this path, but he was aware she would have something to say on the matter.

“Please, Joseph… stay safe. This is a very different kind of evil than what you are used to.”

“I’m always safe, Mom.” He was good at reassuring.

“How can we help?” Trust his mom to cut to the chase. He wanted to ask more about the case itself.

“If it’s not too hard, can you tell me what happened?”

“We don’t know much more than what was in the papers. Elisabeth was murdered in an alley at the back of a hotel near her home, and the shooter was a lifetime cop with a family. No one knows why she was there at that time or why she was shot. The case has been closed because the cop… Gareth Headley… admitted what he had done and is now serving time for his actions. Harvey wanted to stay in Albany and find out why the cop risked everything he had to kill someone, but his heart…” His mom had met Harvey volunteering in the heart unit at the local hospital. He might have been only in his early fifties, but, as he put it himself, he was on enough medication to rouse the dead.

“It’s enough for me to start.”

“Will you call us when you have anything?”

“I will, Mom.”

The call ended with the usual goodbyes. Whatever had happened to Elisabeth, he had thirty days to find the answer. Whoever had hurt his stepsister—killed her—wasn’t going to get away with this. Justice would be done. That much he was sure of.

Face Value #3
Chapter 1
“What the hell am I looking for?” Beckett Jamieson stood in the center of the room and then spun slowly in a full circle, cataloguing as much as he could. Nothing fit the description of what she had said would be here. There was no carved finial; in fact the bed looked new. Probably a lot newer than the eighteen years ago he was last here. But surely she would have known things could change before his twenty-first birthday. So the carving she talked of, maybe it wasn’t a decorative carving on a bed. He looked at the two freestanding drawer units that served as bedside tables. They were frustratingly simple in their design.

“Come on, Mom. There’s nothing that looks half way carved in this room. Help me out here.” Up until four weeks ago he hadn’t known that his birth mother had left this puzzle for him to solve. He had known since his tenth birthday that he was adopted but he had never felt any compulsion to charge across the States looking for nebulous family or for birth parents who clearly hadn’t wanted him. Not when he was ten and fixated on Transformers, or fifteen when he realized he was gay, or at eighteen when his college years were just beginning. Twenty-one was the magic year; but not through any intention of his.

His mom and dad, Isla and Derek Jamieson, the people who took him in as a small child, had taken any information they may have had on his real parents to their graves a few years before. All they had ever said was that everything would be made clear when he was twenty-one and old enough to be who he wanted to be. Being called in to meet Austin Mitchell, apparently the family lawyer, had been the catalyst for wanting and needing to know more.

The lawyer—”call me Austin”—had handed him a thick file that contained a letter in a sealed envelope and a carefully wrapped package. The label on the package held a simple missive: Happy twenty-first, Robert, with love, Mom.

“You knew my birth mother?” Beckett always looked on her as that. Isla Compton was his real mom. The one constant in his life; provider of cookies and hugs and one hell of a lot of love.

“I knew her well enough.” Austin said this in an utterly matter of fact way but Beckett could see the twitch of his lips and the sadness in his expression. Evidently Austin had known his birth mother well enough to grieve at her loss. Was it possible the older man had known her in a biblical sense?

“Were you…” Beckett wanted to say her lover? her husband? but that would have been rude. He didn’t do rude. “Special to her?” He finished lamely. It was all he could think of and a special relationship could explain why the lawyer was tasked with talking to Beckett on his twenty-first. Maybe this older guy was his birth father? Austin, looking a little shaken at the question, simply shook his head.

“So my real name is Robert?”

“Robert Edward Bullen.”

Beckett considered the name and its initial implications. He definitely wasn’t a Robert. He was Beckett. Beck. In no way was changing his name to Robert happening anytime in his future. There was a tiny teddy bear with the letter—the sort you gave a small child to decorate a crib or a carriage. When Beckett grasped it and felt the soft fur he suddenly wished that it would pull memories of before he was four to the surface. He couldn’t recall a single thing and he placed it on the desk.

“What about my birth dad?” Beckett asked carefully. In his head his mother had been a kid who became pregnant with no husband in the picture. It was easy to forgive her for dumping him if he used that reasoning.

“He’s still alive,” Austin said. Beckett looked up sharply.

“Does he know about me?”

“He knew you. He thought you died in the same car wreck as your mother.”

“So she is dead then. She died and then I was adopted. She didn’t give me up?”

“No.” Austin sighed and briefly closed his eyes. “There was no giving up. She died, you lived.” Austin’s voice was calm and rational. He continued, “I helped her by taking you and making you safe.”

Beckett blinked at the man. He really didn’t understand this. It sounded like the plot of a murder novel. “You made me safe? What do you mean?”

“I think the letter will begin to explain. I will give you your privacy and make some coffee for when you are ready to talk. The computer is yours.” Austin left the room without a backward glance and Beckett opened the package. Inside was a simple flat wooden box with a dark inked stamp on the lid. He examined the letters on the lid and realized they were his birth initials, RB. Sliding open the lid he found a chain. Heavy and gold, it was definitely a man’s chain and it was the size that fitted around a wrist—Beckett’s wrist.

Thrown back to the here and now Beckett felt for the chain. The heavy feel of it against his skin was reassuring and a connection to the woman who had brought him into the world. Emma Bullen. The letter had held little except a list of instructions and the usual things he imagined a letter of explanation held. He was Robert Bullen, son of Gregory Bullen, nephew to Senator Thomas Bullen and to Alastair Bullen. His birth father was alive, as were his uncles. It was the odd instruction that he should look for a carved area in his old room that had sent him to the mansion in the Catskills and to his biological father. Of course, he had done his research before he arrived.

What Beckett discovered wasn’t as much as he had hoped he would; well, not about his mom anyway. Emma Bullen had died in a car accident along with her son Robert—a fiery death on a twisting road in the mountains not far from the Bullen mansion. There were no witnesses and nothing left of the car except black twisted metal at the base of a cliff. So there he had sat; apparently he was Robert Bullen, and he had learned what he could about his family.

Gregory Bullen, his father, and his uncle, Alastair, were both businessmen with their fingers in one hell of a lot of pies. His other uncle, Thomas, was an honest to God senator, a whiter than white politician who rode high on the platform of strong moral values. The senator wasn’t that close to his two brothers but even an idiot who happened upon Greg and Alastair would see what kind of men they were. Mob. In every sense of the word. Extortion, drugs, prostitution; all wrapped up in a cloak of respectability. He wasn’t even sure how far the crimes extended.

And now he was in this old bedroom following the instructions from that letter, burned into his memory, looking for carvings that would lead him to God knows what. Whatever he found, she had written in the letter, was enough to make people pay for her death and would give him leverage against the family. Even now that sent a chill down Beckett’s spine. She knew she was going to die? That must have been an unbearable weight to hold without cracking.

There were grainy photos on the Internet from newspapers at the time of Emma’s death—the three brothers standing at a graveside, and the two coffins; one large and one small. Apparently both coffins were full of not much more than a collection of burned bones. The papers had printed that without apology. Sensationalist journalism at its best.

“Okay,” he said softly to himself. “If I was in this room, where would I think was safe?”

Crossing to the dresser, another simple wooden piece of furniture, he ran his fingers over the grain of the wood. When his mother had written the instructions, he had been so little as to have no memories of what this room had looked like.

“Are you okay, son?” Gregory Bullen was at the door and Beckett immediately stood straight. There was a presence about Gregory that scared the shit out of him. The older man was built like a brick house, wide and strong, with years of lines carved into his weathered skin and hair as black as night. Imposing. Forceful. Strong.

“I was just looking.” Beckett shrugged. Let Gregory read whatever he wanted into that. His father entered the room and paused to look about him.

“Robert.” He acknowledged him. “Your mother,” he made a sign of the cross on his chest, “God rest her soul. She loved this room.”

“She did?” Beckett couldn’t help himself. He was starving for information about the person who had given him life. He even chose to ignore the instant burn of dislike inside him at being addressed as Robert.

“I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but she was never suited to a grand house like this. She was too simple for this place and she liked this room for what it was; a place to be herself.” Gregory said this with a faint hint of fond recollection but Beckett liked to think he could see through it to the intent beneath. There wasn’t any love lost in Gregory’s voice.

“What did I think of the house when I was here?” Beckett asked curiously. He may as well get some sense of his four-year-old self before he moved on.

“You loved this house. Every corner was a hiding place and every room an adventure.” This time there was real emotion in Gregory’s voice. Affection? Anger? Beckett wasn’t entirely sure. Gregory was a difficult man to feel. He continued, “Your uncle and I are attending our meetings. Would you like to join us in the city?”

Spending an hour in the chauffeur driven limo with Gregory and Alastair Bullen? Gregory as cold as ice and slimy to boot and Alastair a freaking intimidating bully with death in his eyes? Fuck no. Beckett had work to do here. Not least of which was finding any evidence his mother had hidden in this room and trying to get into Gregory’s computer for more information. Gregory was trying to make the effort, but not for the first time Beckett felt like there was nothing more than suspicion in their relationship. After all, he had returned after seventeen years and although it had been proven with a paternity test that he was Robert Bullen, Gregory still wasn’t throwing his arms wide open to welcome Beckett home. There had been serious discussions on where Beckett had been, who had looked after him, and what did Beckett remember. Beckett never thought he would be relieved he had no family left to speak of.

“No. Thank you,” he replied pleasantly. “I have a ton of studying to catch up on.” Beckett underlined the decision with what he hoped was a rueful smile and not a forced grimace. Gregory returned the smile although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Beckett wondered what the other man was going to say. He looked to be winding himself up for some emotional outpouring which, every time it happened, screwed with Beckett’s head.

“My son, the graduate,” he said instead. Then he turned on his heel and was gone.

Beckett waited until the car left; watched as the limo with its curved lines disappeared down the long drive. He added an extra five minutes and then continued to search the room. This time though, he had the freedom to really search and he pulled furniture away from walls.

His deal with the Assistant District Attorney was for him to provide information in return for help to get away. He had already seen what happened to someone who crossed the Bullens. Elisabeth’s death showed him that it was easy for someone to die at the hands of whomever the Bullens hired. He didn’t think for one minute that being the prodigal son would save him if they found out why he was really here.

That guy yesterday, Dale, had promised that he would help. All Beckett needed was to find the evidence his mom wrote that she had collected. He wondered what he looked for. Was it a disc? This had been seventeen years ago. If it was a disc it was probably some huge package that he hoped like hell hadn’t deteriorated to the point of not being readable. Maybe it was notes or photos?

Frustrated that he had found nothing he leaned back against the dresser and bowed his head. Why couldn’t he remember more about his childhood? Why was his mind a blank? Lifting his head to the heavens again he uttered a curse word and a plea for inspiration. Which is when he saw it.

The ceiling medallion around the light. Soft carved wood painted over with white gloss. Was it possible this was the place? There was only one way to find out. Pulling the chair from the dressing table to under the light he clambered to reach the carving. There was a lip around the edge that from the floor looked like it met the ceiling but that in actuality left a gap as wide as a finger to reach in. He hoped to hell that he wasn’t about to poke his fingers into live wires or spiders and associated creepy crawlies. Excitement had him pushing his hand in flat and reaching around. There was something there. A flat envelope? Papers? Shifting up onto his toes he pushed his hand in farther and managed to wiggle the item out. It finally popped free with a puff of dust which stung his eyes and tickled his nose. Carefully he checked for more inside the medallion but all he felt was wires. Satisfied he had found everything he jumped down from the chair. With a shaking hand he pulled out the single sheet of paper inside. Sighing he realized it was more cryptic notes; he started to re–read. He never saw who it was. Never had a chance to duck. A fist caught the side of his head and when the pain drove him to his knees he knew he was fucked.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Alastair’s voice. He clearly hadn’t gone with Gregory. It had been a lie that he was going, or a last minute change. Whatever. Alastair had a gun and he was pointing it at Beckett.

Beckett scrambled back and rolled into the bathroom shutting the door and holding it closed with his body. There was no lock. Fuck. Who didn’t have a lock on their bathroom door? The solid wood door may hold off a bullet but even so he debated scrambling away from it just in case.

Shit. What the hell was he doing? Why hadn’t he tried to talk himself out of this? He could have just said he was… fuck. He didn’t have a ready excuse.

“Stop being stupid, Robert, and come out of the bathroom.” Alastair’s voice was harsh and impatient.

“Beckett. My name is Beckett Jamieson.” Beckett shouted and leaned harder on the door as he pulled his cell from his pocket. There was no way out of this bathroom. No external window. The call connected quickly and he blurted out as much as he could. “I’m trapped in a bathroom. I fucked up and I’m scared. I can’t get out—” He never finished the call. The door was forced open; his own slight figure nothing to hold back his bear of an uncle and the phone went flying. It smashed into the porcelain of the tub and as suddenly as it had flown from his hand it lay in pieces on the floor.

The door pushed him inward and he grabbed for something to prevent his fall only to be stopped by Alastair grabbing at his neck and hair. Alastair had a choke hold on him and pulled Beckett up off of the ground so hard that Beckett saw spots before his eyes.

“I fucking knew it,” Alastair bit the words out angrily and with a shake of his hand Beckett felt consciousness slip away from him.

* * * * *

Something was biting into his wrists and it hurt. Rope? Twine? Something hard and unforgiving. Awareness was coming back to him a second at a time and blood coated his tongue. His hands were tied and he was slumped in the same chair he had used to reach the ceiling. His throat hurt. Really. Hurt.

“…computer. The cameras showed us.”

“That doesn’t mean—”

“Greg, this is why I said I would stay here and why I called you back from the city. I’ve been at him for nearly twenty-four hours and he’s given me shit. The prodigal son returns and you aren’t the least bit suspicious? Have you learned nothing? Shit. You always were the loose end in this family. First all-innocence-Emma, then Thomas and that bitch Elisabeth and now your freak of a son. Both my brothers are idiots—”

“Don’t talk to me like that—”

“Wait. Pretty boy is all woken up.”

Beckett blinked up at his uncle; Alastair’s face twisted in a sneer. He was up close and personal in Beckett’s face and he could smell the cloying cologne that Alastair must pour over himself. Suddenly he wished he was unconscious again. Alastair had been asking questions, punching him, and leaving him tied up in the bitterly cold room with the windows wide open. He had reached his limit. And now Gregory was here.

“Wha—” Beckett began. He could try and play innocent. Surely it wasn’t too late to retrieve some measure of control in this situation? “What happened? What is Uncle Alastair doing to me? Get him to untie me.”

Alastair stepped backward with a laugh and Gregory simply shrugged. Okay. Appealing to Gregory about his uncle wasn’t going to work.

“Dad?” There. Focus on the man who was responsible for his existence. Pain crossed Gregory’s face.

“Alastair?” Beckett watched Gregory appeal to his brother but Alastair shook his head. For a moment Beckett had felt like he’d actually connected with his father but it didn’t last.

“No, Greg. I don’t know what the fuck this is.” Alastair handed the open envelope to Gregory who pulled out a single sheet of paper and a key. “Maybe you’ll tell my brother what this is?” Alastair snapped and Beckett flinched as his uncle leaned closer.

“Something I remembered from when I was four,” Beckett lied.

“Bull. Shit.” The slap that accompanied the two succinct words snapped Beckett ‘s head sideways and his neck protested with sharp pain. “Read it out loud, Greg. What does it say?”

“You’ll need the other one but you know where it is. Texas has it,” Gregory read. “Then some shit in letters and numbers.” He crumpled the note and threw it on the floor. He turned the key in his hand. It was small and silver; nothing fancy. Beckett watched as Gregory pocketed it.

“The other what?” Alastair shouted into Beckett’s ear. “Another key? Where in Texas? Who do you know in Texas? What is the key for?”

“No one—” Beckett started but Alastair hit him again, and again. Always with the same questions. Where. Who. Why. His head snapped from side to side and bile clawed his throat. This seemed like the end of things; after a day of questions and dealing out pain Alastair was finally at the edge.

“Fuck, Alastair; what is wrong with you? You’ll kill him.” Even Gregory seemed shocked by the level of anger in Alastair and Beckett felt a glimmer of hope that Gregory would step in and stop this.

“You wanna know? You really want to know what this little shit has been doing?”

“What?” Gregory sounded lost.

“I had him followed. He was cozy with Elisabeth, you know that, but I dealt with that. Then he had a meeting yesterday with a PI, some guy in a shopping center and fuck knows what he handed over. Security cameras have him using your computer in your office, Greg. Taking copies of files.” Another hit and Beckett felt bile rise in him. He was going to be sick. Alastair pulled him to his feet. “Tell him what you were doing you little shit—”

“Studying—” Beckett blurted out the single word. Alastair’s expression held derision.

“In your private files, Greg.”

“Dad?” Beckett pasted his best pleading expression on his face. May as well use the possible connection. There was nothing in Gregory’s eyes. No compassion or fatherly affection. Just ice.

“You never came here to find me, did you Robert.” Gregory’s voice was flat. There was no question in what he said. “Did she tell you to come here? What did you come here to do? Kill me? Avenge what happened to her?”

“No—” All the breath left his body as Gregory ended what Alastair had started even as Alastair held him. The barrier had broken and the hate and violence Gregory had been hiding behind his mask of civility was out in force. The punches he threw connected with Beckett ‘s chest, the pain quick and sharp.

“Have you shown anyone? What did you do with the files?”

“I didn’t—I was studying—” Beckett felt consciousness slip away from him. Step by step his vision was blurring and the only thing keeping him standing was the tight grip Alastair had on his arm. The next hit wrenched the socket hard and he felt something tear and snap in his arm.

“I told you he was talking to Elisabeth. Fuck, Greg. I told you we should have shut him down as soon as he arrived here.” Alastair released his arm and Beckett dropped to the chair. It scooted backward until the wooden back hit the bed and only sheer willpower kept Beckett upright. “He’ll need to die. Like Elisabeth.”

“Okay. I don’t have the stomach for this—” Greg didn’t sound sad or grieved. His words were bitter and staccato. “You find out what he knows. What he’s done.”

“I got it, brother. Leave it to me.” There was an unholy glee in Alastair’s voice. This was a man who enjoyed hurting and killing.

“I want names and numbers and when you’re finished put his body on the mountain.” Greg said dispassionately. Beckett heard the words and fear chased up his spine. Mind numbing and utterly all-consuming terror. He lifted his head, barely able to see through the slits of his swollen eyes. Greg was staring at him. “You could have had it all Robert. All of it.”

Then everything went to hell.

Shouting. Demands. A gun. A shot. Then strong arms pulling him upright and a muttered. “Got you, kid.”

Beckett allowed himself to be pulled up, his only conscious thought getting to the key and the letter. He fell to his knees, the curse of whoever held him ripe in the air, and scrambled to where Gregory lay in a widening pool of blood. Beckett snatched at the letter and then dug through blood and gore to find the key. He couldn’t see anything in the blur of pain and was feeling his way around pushing aside material and sticky blood.

“Fuck. Kid—”

“Wait—” he screamed the words in his head but all that left his cracked, bloodied lips was a near whimper.

“We gotta go. Dale, for fuck’s sake—”

Beckett’s fingers closed around the small key and with a thrill of triumph he clambered to stand.

“You’re not taking him—” Alastair’s voice, the sound of a scuffle and Beckett was pushed violently from behind. As he fell his head connected with the edge of the dresser and his last conscious thought was that he was alive and he had the letter and the key. The rest would sort itself out.

Chapter 2
“It’s been three days. Shouldn’t he at least be conscious?” The words filtered into Beckett’s thoughts. His dreams. Experimentally he attempted to turn his head, anything but nothing happened. His brain told him he could move but his body wasn’t helping.

“Today.” Another voice replied simply.

“He still looks like shit.” The first voice was familiar. Beckett wanted to ask who it was. Where was he? Why couldn’t he move?

“He’ll be back to being a pretty boy in days.” The second man was talking with very little emotion in his voice, not like the first who seemed anxious. Was this second guy a doctor? Was it two doctors? “Talking of pretty boys, I am assuming Joseph has gone now?”

“Ten minutes ago.” That sounded like Dale. So he was with Dale? Inch by inch the tension seeped from his brain. If Dale had him then he wasn’t near Gregory and Alastair Bullen.

“That was some intense shit you had going with super-SEAL.” The second guy’s tone was pure sarcasm.

“Yeah.” A loud laugh framed the response “He’s an intense guy.”

“You’re good together—”

“Jeez, Kayden, that sounds almost poetic coming from you.”

“Fuck poetic. Just, the ass on that man, hell, not to mention you. That is one SEAL sandwich I would die to get in the middle of.”

There was laughter and the other guy left, leaving the one called Kayden with Beckett. He knew that because Kayden was talking to him. Soft and low, his voice was like honey and Beckett desperately tried to move to acknowledge he could hear. The voice was reassuring, comforting and he was clinging to every syllable.

“Hell,” Kayden was saying, “damn idiot operative falls in love with a SEAL. Can’t see that lasting past the next mission. If you’re gonna be gay you need to choose the ones who don’t go off getting themselves shot at.” There was a pause and Beckett felt hands on him pressing and pushing over his body. Kayden continued conversationally, “But, shit kid, the chemistry those two had going was intense. Wish you coulda woken up in time to see Joseph. Hell, he was a sight for sore eyes. Tall and dark, with the sweetest ass you ever laid your eyes on. Not that this would interest you normal types. But jeez. To tap that… hmmmm.

“Now Robert… how about you open your eyes for me?”

Beckett, I’m Beckett. Please don’t call me Robert. The words just wouldn’t form. Trapped in his head they buzzed and clung to his brain.

“I know you’re in there, kid.” Kayden continued. “Your vitals are good, your responses are mostly there but you won’t let yourself wake up. So how about opening your eyes for me? I could use the company.”

Beckett tried damn hard. He wanted to see the man whose voice was a balm to his pain. He forced himself to relax as tension and pain knifed through his head. Unbearable pain. It had to stop. He wanted to open his eyes. Open your eyes. Open.

I want to open my eyes.

“Okay. I get it. You think I’m going to be boring.”

No. Please help me with the pain.

“So. You’re not waking up this morning then. Shit. I bet Dale a twenty you’d be awake today. Don’t you go making a liar out of me, kid. I want you up and at ’em by evening.” Kayden, his doctor it seemed, had a voice that wrapped its way around his thoughts. It made Beckett want to wake up for the Doc. “I’m pushing your meds ’cause you look like shit.”

Meds? Meds were good. But what kind of doctor spoke like that? And Dale was here? Dale whom he’d spoken to in the coffee shop? Dale who had promised he would be okay? Wait. Was it Dale at the mansion? Was it Dale who had spoken to him and held him together in the stumbling half-conscious walk from mansion to car? A trickle inside him and the pain in his head began to ease.

“So, I’ll be outside if you need me, Robert, yeah? Usual place, kid.”

Stop calling me Robert.

Stop calling me kid.

* * * * *

Doctor Kayden Summers wasn’t feeling this case at all. Not only was it a non-official off-record-but-really-Sanctuary case, which made the whole thing a pain in the ass, but the kid remained unconscious. He prided himself on knowing what a patient needed. Hell, he was a fully-fledged doctor at twenty-six with four years ER training under his belt and a raft of experience in blunt trauma that went years back.

Given his experience of patient care, the kid should be awake by now. As much as he’d joked with Dale, the part where the kid wasn’t waking up formed a worry that niggled at him. He made coffee and slumped in the plush sofa of the main lounge. The room was closest to the medical area and if he didn’t have the TV on he could hear if he was needed. Television was a necessary evil and he only watched it to catch up on news. It wasn’t as if he were a sports fan, or that much into reality TV, to bother with it. Given he hadn’t seen a television until the age of around thirteen meant his formative years had shaped him into someone that really couldn’t be bothered with the shit forced on most kids.

His cell vibrated and danced on the wooden table that he had his feet up on and he glanced at the caller ID. For some reason Jake had a stick up his ass about where Kayden’s head was at. He didn’t answer. He may well owe Jake Callahan his life but that didn’t mean he had to put up with the shit that Jake kept throwing at him. The phone vibrated again. It moved closer to the edge of the table. Next time it would fall off into the deep pile rug. That would solve the problem.

“I’m packing up,” Dale announced from the doorway.

“Thought you were here for two more days?”

“Nik’s picking me up and Jake called.” As he spoke Dale checked his gun and then he slid it into his shoulder holster. “He had a message for you.”

“Yeah?” Kayden could well imagine what Jake wanted to say to him.

“He says, and I quote, ‘get that fucker to answer his phone’.” A grin broke across Dale’s face. Smiling was something Dale had been doing a lot of in the past few days and it unnerved Kayden. A fuck was a fuck. Sex had never made Kayden freaking smile like some hormonal girl. He ignored the feeling of envy that pricked inside him at what Dale seemed to have found with Joseph. They didn’t know he’d been listening, but he couldn’t help it. Hearing exchanged promises of more for both of them was wrong in Kayden’s head. Man or woman, nothing lasted long enough in this world for enduring attachments. Dale may well fancy himself in love with Joseph but love was like having a perpetual Achilles heel.

Attachments? Love? Just makes you weak, boy.

His dad’s words were indelibly etched into his soul. That and ten years of military-based training. He had stopped listening to his dad’s warped view of the world a long time before the old man died. He smirked inwardly and some of that humor must have shown on his face.

“What’s funny?” Dale asked as he rolled his neck and stretched.

“Nothing. Just shit in my head.” He shrugged and Dale crossed his arms over his chest.

“Phone Jake, yeah?” he said simply.

“If I have to.” Subject closed, Kayden deliberately picked his cell up from the table and pretended to scrutinize it. Dale huffed his own laugh and left, presumably to pack his gear. Kayden wondered for a moment if Dale’s new posting was all on the up and up, or if it was more of this unofficial shit. If the case he was on now, babysitting this kid who’d had the snot kicked out of him, had been official then Sanctuary would have put him in one of the city located safe houses with medical units. Being out in the middle of freaking nowhere surrounded by trees and behind a wall of security smacked too much of his childhood. Jake knew damn well Kayden only took cases in the damn city. So why dump him here?

His cell vibrated again and Kayden simply turned the phone off. All he was doing was delaying the inevitable lecture. He wasn’t actually cutting off total lines of communication simply because the whole place was wired to Sanctuary ops. Jeez. You could even contact them from the bathrooms. Still, he felt a little thrill at ending the call. Jake Callahan may well be rich enough to have created, run, and built the Sanctuary Foundation but hell if that meant a thing to Kayden. To him, Jake was his annoying elder stepbrother. The young man who, at the tender age of nineteen along with his dad, had liberated Kayden and a few others from a compound at the ass end of nowhere. An ex-veteran compound, it was all Kayden had known from a young age but when Jake arrived as part of some liberating mission, fourteen-year-old Kayden had been the first to switch sides.

Hell. That was only because his dad had made him.

“You’re a waste to us here. Fucking useless when all you want to do is book learn.” His dad had spat that at him with the fire of trauma-driven hate in his eyes. “May as well do what they say and move out. I can’t protect you no more. You have to make your own way.” Stupid thing was, book learning remained a useful tool. With both the learning and the experience Kayden was the best in the compound. The best learner, the best fighter, the best at strategy. Still, nothing he had done for his father had ever been good enough and the young Kayden had tried so damn hard every single day.

Kayden closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the sofa. Only when his dad had held his hand tightly with blood and air escaping his chest from a wound as big as Kayden’s fist did he get the real reason why his dad had screamed he was useless. It was, according to the fucking idiot, the only way Jack Summers knew to get him to leave the place that his dad called his own form of sanctuary.

God knows why Kayden was so damned introspective today. He turned the cell back on and near immediately it vibrated in his hand. This time Kayden answered the call with a curt hello.

“Kayden. Stop avoiding my calls.” Jeez. Jake sounded pissed.

“I’m not avoiding them. I was busy.” Kayden lied. Jake didn’t even call him on it but he was used to Kayden’s avoidance tactics.

“Dale’s been re-assigned so you’re Robert Bullen aka Beckett Jamieson’s case controller now.”

“There’s not a lot to control. The kid’s still unconscious.”

“Still?” Jake sounded skeptical and professional pride put Kayden’s back up. He contemplated retorting with reasons why the kid, beaten to within a breath of dying, was probably not choosing to join humanity for a while but he didn’t. That the trauma the young man had undergone had left him with internal injuries and a fractured arm and swelling so bad on his face that it was near unthinkable he would ever heal. Instead, Kayden resorted to what Jake expected from him. What everyone expected from him.

“I poked him with a stick. He didn’t move.”

Jake snorted. He could see through his brother’s smoke blowing instinctively. “Just keep me apprised.”

“I’ll keep you apprised.” Kayden confirmed with sarcasm dripping from the words.

“Hell K, what crawled up your ass and died?” For the first time in a while Jake sounded stressed and tired. It wasn’t easy juggling millions of dollars in investments to the face of the world and then running Sanctuary behind the scenes. Added to that he knew Jake was being shadowed by some kind of FBI internal investigator. What the hell for no one other than Jake knew. As a man he should be respecting Jake and answering civilly. As a younger brother he really didn’t know what to say to Jake’s question. ‘You sent me to the middle of freaking nowhere with a comatose patient’, would probably be a start. Instead he just chose silence and finally Jake huffed his disapproval. “Not all your cases can be action filled little brother.”

Kayden frowned and felt more than a little uncomfortable. Jeez. How did Jake do that? How did he manage to cut to the heart of what drove Kayden’s bad mood.

“You know I don’t do sitting around well. I have all this need in me to get physical. I’d give anything for a good fist fight,” Kayden replied. Jake was the only one on this earth he would ever say that to. The restrained violence that lived inside of Kayden was only thinly veiled by civility. He had a temper but it never blew. He couldn’t allow it to. That would mean losing control and Kayden didn’t lose control. Ever.

“A few days, K. Get him awake and debrief him. Then we can move him to another safe house, assign this elsewhere.” He paused and Kayden imagined his brother ticking off items in his head. “Also, we have a training camp for some newbies and I could use your skills on that after you’re done.”

Great. Just what he needed. Raw recruits from the alphabets—FBI, CIA, who the hell ever. All needing to be retaught skills and how to control being the one that stopped the bullet.

“I need my martial arts expert,” Jake continued. “I need the strategy expert.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Kayden waved away the words. He didn’t need to hear he was the best. Jake had him on the training team for hand to hand, strategy and survival. Whatever people insisted on labeling his skills, he knew that was the type of thinking that led to letting your guard down, didn’t keep you at your peak. He had learned his lessons well and scars on his back and thighs proved just how much he had suffered for what he got wrong. At least in Sanctuary the training was civilized and included beer after. The irony of it all was being so damn good at hurting and defending didn’t count for anything when the call to want to train as a medic happened. The intensity of his focus led him to want to be a healer. He had seen so much illness and pain, psychological damage, and PTSD that went untreated or remained misunderstood when his dad refused outside help for his fellow Veterans. Kayden wanted to learn to fix everyone. Jake had never commented when Kayden had announced his degree choice. Just supported the decision in the way an elder brother would.

Kayden’s portion of the Callahan estate stretched into the millions and became his entitlement when Callahan senior had adopted Kayden officially. Not that Kayden wanted it nor did he officially change his surname from Summers. Still. It saw him through medical school and as soon as he had that pass under his belt he was back at Sanctuary. Home.

“I’ll get him conscious, assess him, then pass him off. Agreed?” Kayden asked. Kayden could help a person heal physically. He knew exactly how every nerve and muscle connected in a web of life inside a broken body. He could support broken bones and organize meds. He just preferred it when his patients were awake.

Jake sighed. “Okay. Agreed. Keep in touch, K.”

“Yeah.” He ended the call there. They didn’t need to exchange anything else. What was unsaid remained in his head and would be in Jake’s. The brotherly things that men had a hard time vocalizing.

“He give you a hard time?” Dale piled three bags on the table and knocked Kayden’s feet off of their comfortable perch.

“Big brothers do that.” Kayden offered with a grimace.

“Did he mention the training camp?” Dale wasn’t looking at him. He was rifling through his munitions bag and carefully pulling pieces of a dismantled Sig from the inside.

“Yeah, he did.”

“You take care,” Dale said simply. He picked up his bags and with the disarming wide grin, that really would not give up, Dale left Sanctuary eighteen.

* * * * *

Kayden checked in on the kid and analyzed another problem he was having at the moment. The young guy remained unconscious and the bruising on his face was spectacular; a myriad of green and black as well as splits in the skin. The bruises would disappear; the splits would close when the swelling decreased. Under the sheet Robert’s body was covered in similar marks. Clearly the Bullen brothers had decided that the prodigal son’s return was a good excuse for using the kid as a punching bag. Kayden wondered if Robert had given anything up under the punishment that had been meted out. What the hell did they think he had that warranted this kind of abuse? Compassion flooded him as it did whenever an innocent was caught up in something dark and undefinable.

Had he broken or had Dale and Joseph arrived in time to stop anything being said? Gregory may well be dead but Alastair was alive and bemoaning his brother’s terrible self-inflicted accident. Kayden pulled the sheet back to check on his patient and that there was where his final source of stress with this whole shit-fest of an assignment lay. Shit, the kid was pretty.

Very fit, tall and slim but not too skinny. Possibly five nine or ten he was all lean, toned flesh with a swimmer’s build—narrow and spare. He was naked under the sheet and Kayden felt like some kind of pervert to be checking vitals and at the same time checking everything else. Every single mark and muscle stood indelibly burned into Kayden’s brain. From the top of his patient’s head and his short dark hair to the tip of his toes he was gorgeous and that thought made him squirm.

Kayden was twenty-six; only five years older than the kid in years but so much older in experience. That didn’t stop Kayden from thinking what he did. Shit. Really, under the bruises and the pain the kid was gorgeous. And the very fact that Kayden even registered that with someone as young and in need of protection as Robert Bullen made him feel sick with himself. Besides, Robert was straight as evidenced by the girlfriend murdered in the alley.

It had been too long since he had enjoyed fucking someone. At least three months. Way too long. Perving on a patient was top of his no go list.

Dropping the sheet he edged back, noted vitals on the pad at the end of the bed then left his patient’s room. For some really strange reason he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the innocent youth that lay in that bed.

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 is the author of the over one hundred novels and discovered romance in books at a very young age. She realized that if there wasn’t romance on the page, she could create it in her head, and is a lifelong writer.

She lives and works out of her home in the beautiful English countryside, spends her spare time reading, watching films, and enjoying time with her family.

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

She’s always thrilled to hear from readers, bloggers and other writers. Please contact via the following links below.


Guarding Morgan #1

The Only Easy Day #2
Face Value #3

Volume 1