Long Time Gone (Hell or High Water, #2)
This title is #2 of the Hell or High Water series.
This title is part of the Extreme Escapes, Ltd. universe.
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Soldier of fortune Prophet Drews always worked alone—until Tom Boudreaux became his partner. But when Tom walked away three months ago, ostensibly to keep Prophet safe, Prophet learned the true meaning of being alone. Everyone knows that Prophet, a Navy SEAL turned CIA spook turned mercenary, can look after himself. Which means he must’ve driven his lover away.
Even with half a world between them, Prophet can’t get the man out of his head. Maybe that’s why he’s in New Orleans in the middle of a hurricane, protecting Tom’s aunt. But the only looter around is Tom, bursting back into Prophet’s life. It turns out that Prophet’s been stuck in Tom’s head—and heart—too.
Their explosive reunion gets even hotter when Tom is arrested for murder. As they fight to clear his name, they delve deep into his past, finding enemies among everyone they meet. Staying alive in such a dangerous world is hard enough, but they soon discover that fighting to stay together is the most difficult thing they’ve ever done.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Kasey Coetzee backed against the cold stone of the well’s sides, hiding her knife behind her. Abject terror choked her, but she swallowed it.
She would survive, dammit.
After being ignored for days, someone was leaning over the side of the well, blocking the light. She wasn’t sure which was the more horrifying prospect—being left to die down here or her captors pulling her out.
The last time they’d thrown several bottles of water to her—which had to be more than a full day and a half ago—one of them had called down, “Jy beter dit werd wees vir jou vader.”
You’d better be worth it to your father.
Now, a distinctively American voice said, “I’m here to help you, Kasey.” She sagged and sobbed with relief. Even if it was the CIA again, at least she would be out of this hole. She saw he was lowering something down to her only when it got close enough to grab, which she did. It was a harness with a pulley and she forced back her tears at the first near-taste of freedom.
“Step into the rig and I’ll get you up.”
Five days ago, her kidnappers—soldiers from her own country—had trapped her in here by lowering her into the well in a rig just like this, except her hands had been bound in front of her. She’d searched for days for something to cut the rope, which is how she’d found the knife.
And the bones.
The well was fifteen feet deep and both too smooth and too wide to climb. She’d tried, of course, but all she had to show for it were bloodied and bruised hands, her nails jagged and torn. At least it had been somewhat cool, thanks to the depth—that had been the only saving grace over the past few days.
But this man was her true saving grace, and his voice was a rough-and-tumble slide over her nerves. It was deep and low and commanding—a voice she wouldn’t have thought to disagree with.
“Kasey, you’re thinking too much,” he told her now. “Just step into the rig and I’ll haul you up. Go on, that’s it,” he encouraged as she pulled the rope around each leg. It was knotted to hold her around her thighs and waist, and as soon as she felt tension on the rope, she shoved the knife in the waistband of her jeans, grabbed onto one of the knots, and hooked her feet desperately into the smooth stones. She gained a foothold more easily now, thanks to the man’s strong grip on the rope.
“Come on now. I’ve got you.” He helped her up the unrelentingly smooth sides, his strength doing most of the work. When she got close enough to the top, she panicked and grabbed for his arms. Her muscles screamed, but he eased her up, making her do as little of the work as possible, and finally, the heat of the midday sun hit her face. She was halfway over the top when he grabbed her around the waist and hauled her completely out.
She remained balanced against him for a second, and even as she blinked to try to get used to the light, she could see a military-looking vehicle coming toward them through the heat shimmering off the sand. It must’ve been heading their way the entire time, but her rescuer seemed unconcerned as he set her feet on the ground and let her lean against the well. He immediately wound fabric around her head—she assumed it was for camouflage, like the one he wore—and in return, she shimmied the ropes off her legs.
“Can you walk?”
“Ja,” she rasped. Coughed. “Sorry, yes.”
“Okay. Come on then.” His tone was skeptical, but he let her try. She lurched forward, nearly fell face-first into the sand, and he caught her in his arms with a swift, easy movement, and carried her away from the well.
And still, the big green truck came closer. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for.”
How he could be so calm when the truck was advancing was beyond her. But it was lulling her into the same state, and she didn’t care anymore if it was a false sense of security. She was so tired of panicking. “My father?”
“Are you taking me to him?”
“No. It’s safer not to.”
She was supposed to have been safe last week, when the CIA had taken her away from her father’s house, claiming she was in grave danger. They were the only thing standing in the way of certain death, they’d told her. There are men who want to kidnap you. We’ve already got your father in a safe place. He wanted us to come and get you.
But they’d kept her away from her father, not with him. And not more than two days after putting her in a safe house, the two agents who’d been guarding her had been shot dead, and she’d been captured. Blindfolded, gagged, tied, thrown into a moving car, and brought here.
Now, she blinked and saw a tent. Two trucks were parked alongside it, and several bodies were strewn along the ground like they were made of nothing. Three terrorists down.
More are coming.
He helped her up into the back seat of one of the trucks by the tent and handed her a gun. “Stay down. Shoot anyone who comes close. Except me. Otherwise, just wait here.” As if she had someplace else to be.
She did as she was told, lying flat on her belly and peeking up to watch him walk toward the big green truck, his empty hands up in the air. The truck stopped near the other side of the well, and several men dressed in military camouflage got out with their weapons drawn. She instinctively started to raise her gun to save her rescuer, when, in a blur of motion, she saw him suddenly holding a pistol in each hand. With equal parts unmistakable grace and efficiency, he shot and killed the men before they could even register his weapons.
It was the second time in recent weeks she’d seen men killed. But this time, it was the bad guys who died.
She scrambled to the front seat as he jogged to the dead men’s now-abandoned vehicle, searched it, and walked back toward her with two bags. He put them into the back of the old Land Rover and got in next to her. The truck started up with a rattle and then a roar. As he drove, he slowly pulled the camouflaging from around his face, loosening it so it hung around his neck. Ready, she supposed, to be pulled up again quickly, if necessary.
She didn’t want to think about that.
She studied him surreptitiously as he drove—there were no true discernible paths, but he didn’t hesitate as he maneuvered the truck over the unforgiving landscape.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she said, and how stupid she sounded.
He smiled, just a little. She noticed fresh blood on the sleeve of his T-shirt, but when she gasped, he shook his head as if to tell her he was fine.
“Why didn’t they kill you on sight?” she asked.
His mouth quirked to the side a touch. “That’s a record. Usually, someone knows me at least twenty-four hours before wanting me dead.”
She covered her mouth, but not before the laugh spilled out. A laugh, in the middle of all this shit. He was grinning too, and maybe inappropriateness during times of crisis was what got men like him through.
She didn’t think he’d answer her, but he said, “There’s a bounty on my head in this country. I’m worth more alive than dead.”
“What about me?” she asked.
“Same. But I’m worth more.”
“That doesn’t seem fair. I think I’m cuter.”
He glanced at her slyly. “Life’s a bitch.” Then he blinked and demanded, “Did you just call me cute in a roundabout way? Because I’m not fucking cute.”
She grinned again under her fist. If she didn’t laugh, she’d cry, because it was all there, bubbling up underneath the surface.
And God, he hadn’t said a word about what had happened in the desert, about the lives he’d taken for her, and why he’d done so. “Did my father hire you to come find me?”
“No,” he said bluntly. “He can’t do that.”
“So who hired you? Because the CIA told me that if I got captured, they wouldn’t negotiate for my release. And they said that the South African government wouldn’t either.”
“Did you see any negotiating?”
“No.” She rubbed her arms at a sudden chill, despite the heat. He pointed to the floor by her feet, where a blanket was rolled up. As she draped it over her shoulders, she asked, “You’re not with the CIA, then?”
“Fuck no.” He glanced at her. “Disappointed?”
“Best news I’ve heard all day,” she managed, and he gave a curt nod.
He was big. Fierce and determined, with gray eyes that were someplace between liquid steel and granite, a gaze that missed nothing when he glanced over at her. Even when he attended to her, he was watching everything around him, including where the truck was headed.
“You know what my father used to do?”
“I know. Nuclear physicists are all the rage nowadays.” There was an edge to the sarcasm, and she noted his hands tightened on the wheel when he spoke, but only for a second, and then they relaxed again.
“He’d retired from all of that. He’s a high school teacher. We live in Dar es Salaam under new names.”
“Forced retirement, no?”
“Ja,” she agreed. “South Africa stopped its nuclear program and left men like my father exposed.” Something she wasn’t supposed to reveal to another living soul. Because her father had worked on nuclear weapons, he was considered equal parts pariah and high-value target. She was his biggest liability. “We were well hidden. I don’t know how the CIA found us.”
Her rescuer snorted. “Yeah, they’re good like that.”
A swell of panic washed over her. “Did the CIA finding us trigger my kidnapping?”
“Yeah, I think so, Kasey,” he said, almost gently. “Breathe.”
She drew in a few shaky ones at his reminder. It was as if the adrenaline rush keeping her going until this point had also been stopping the panic. “My father never thought the CIA would try to force him to work with them.”
He glanced at her for a brief second, his jaw clenched, but he didn’t say anything except, “He was wrong.”
“Did they force him by saying they’d turn him over to the terrorists?”
His answer was careful. “The CIA protects their country’s best interests.”
So then, yes. Fuckers. “They made promises. I followed their rules. That nearly got me killed,” she said bitterly.
He didn’t say anything about that. Instead, he gestured to the back. “Grab some water. Go slow—I’m guessing they gave you the bare minimum.”
She reached over the seat to grab a couple of bottles. She handed him one and then opened one for herself. She did as he said, even though instinct nagged at her to swallow the entire bottle in one large gulp. He had food and water for her. She ate and drank gratefully, was hungrier than maybe she should be after such an ordeal, but he seemed pleased that she had an appetite.
After another half an hour, she was much calmer. He reached toward the radio, but before he touched the button, he said, “Rules are usually in place because they help the people who made them, more than the people who have to follow them. Same goes for people who have questions they want you to answer. Keep some shit just for you. Gives you an edge.”
Then he turned the knob and the low beat of the local music filled the truck. That plus the rumble of the truck lulled her to sleep. When she woke, she was in a hotel room. Tucked into bed. Safe.
But she wasn’t alone.
The woman who’d been sitting in the room with her introduced herself as Special Agent Lawler and explained that someone had called them with Kasey’s location and told them to come and guard her.
“Do you have any idea who that was?” Agent Lawler asked.
Kasey pulled the covers up like a shield. “He rescued me. I don’t remember him bringing me in here—I was asleep.”
“Did he drug you?”
“No.” She actually felt wide-awake, with none of the residual fuzziness she’d had from the initial kidnapping. “He saved me. What will you do for me?”
“You’re safe here. There are guards at the door.”
Kasey glanced between the closed door and the agent. “There were guards last time too.”
Agent Lawler’s face tightened, and she ignored Kasey’s words, instead asking again, “The man who rescued you—who was he?”
She blinked. “He didn’t tell me his name.”
“Did he say who sent him?”
“But he knew about your father.”
“He said he did.”
Why the man had helped her was a mystery. Why the CIA hadn’t been able to find her on their own was another, and they weren’t too happy with her when she’d pointed that out. They weren’t happy that she didn’t expand on what she and her rescuer had talked about either, but Kasey didn’t see that it was pertinent.
Later that day, she heard Agent Lawler whispering into her phone, “This is the fourth one this month, and she also won’t give any answers about him.” Her back was turned away from Kasey. “How the hell does this asshole engender such goodwill?”
Kasey couldn’t help but smile. Some people were just born like that.
It’s hotter than hell here. Reminds me a lot of home. You know, my Cajun voodoo home. I used to spend hours tracking my way through the swamps. I could go in there blindfolded and still know where I was. Could lead myself in the dark, based on the sounds around me. The feel of the bark and moss on my fingers. How the ground felt under my feet.
Hint: walk away from the squish or you’re headed into actual water. Seems simple, but people tend to panic in the dark. I don’t think you would. You take action.
I just fight.
I met Cope’s girlfriend on Skype. She’s very . . . perky. Doesn’t seem to fit with Cope. Not that I’m an expert on relationships.
You have to understand why I did it, Proph. I couldn’t risk you. With Cope, it’s different, and I don’t know why.
I know what you’re thinking—by that logic, Cope’s expendable. But that’s not it at all. It’s like . . . you took it, Prophet—you took the goddamned curse, and you wrapped it all up in that tornado of yours, and now it’s a part of you. Which means that staying away from you will keep you safe.
I keep picturing you, hanging there by your wrists in front of Sadiq. Fighting. Keep thinking that you’d been in that exact position before. I wake up in a cold sweat, not worried about me, but searching for you in that warehouse. I swear I can hear your heartbeat.
Maybe it would’ve helped us if I could’ve told you this face-to-face. Maybe you’re not getting these. Maybe everyone at EE is, or maybe you’re showing them to people and laughing your ass off at me. But that’s all right.
Subject: Cut the crap
Mick and Blue asked if I’d heard from you. Actually, they asked Cope, and they’re pissed and concerned, and I know the feeling.
I didn’t know two weeks could affect me so much.
I thought I could walk away from our partnership. I ran. I was scared. <—I almost deleted this line, but what the hell do I have to lose that I haven’t already?
No one knows where you are.
I’m not going to insult you by saying I’m sorry, because that’s too simple. I’m not sorry. I’m trying to take care of you.
But I could take better care of you if I was with you. I realize that now.
I’ve also realized that it’s really never too late. For anything.
Tom was losing his mind. He was resolutely ignoring The Weather Channel on the muted TV, but everything he was doing was punctuated with the thunk thunk thunk of Cope, lying flat on his back on the floor of EE, Ltd.’s Eritrea office, throwing a tennis ball against the ceiling and catching it. Left-handed. A million fucking times.
He’d told Tom he did it because he was right-handed and needed to up his advantage.
When it had started on day one of their partnership, four months ago, Tom swore Cope did it because he knew it drove Tom nuts. That was, until he’d reminded himself that he wasn’t dealing with Prophet any more. That Cope was as straight a shooter as it got. That Tom had chosen Cope. Deliberately.
Six months of working for EE and he was already on his second partner, just like normal. Except this time, it was his choice, not the curse that had plagued him his entire life.
The two weeks he’d been partnered with Prophet, they’d fought—each other and outsiders—and Tom had, of course, nearly gotten Prophet killed. Then, just to prove a point, he’d nearly gotten them both killed.
Finally, Phil had told him to make a choice—Prophet or Cope.
And here you are.
Tom had texted Prophet only a few times right after he’d chosen Cope as his partner. He’d gotten a couple of short, general answers back that he’d later discovered Prophet had sent out as mass texts to get everyone off his back. And then nothing.
But when he found out that Prophet had quit—or had been forced out of EE, depending on which version you believed—his chances of seeing Prophet again shrank dramatically. What if he never saw the man again?
And that’s when the anger had set in.
“He could at least let me know if he’s dead or alive,” he’d muttered to Cope time and time again.
Cope would tell him that Prophet was fine. “It’s not Prophet you have to worry about. He does the killing.” A half shrug and a smile. “Granted, sometimes Prophet does things that make you want to kill him, so maybe you should worry.”
“Comforting, Cope,” Tom had muttered, and Cope had merely shrugged the shrug of a man used to dealing with Prophet for years.
“I’m sure that wherever he is, he’s driving someone crazy,” Cope offered now, without stopping the throwing-the-ball-against-the-ceiling thing.
Tom sighed, because his first goddamned response was that he wanted Prophet to be driving him crazy. He played with the leather bracelet absently, the way he had since Prophet had put it on him, his mind tumbling through the mission, the cage match, the fights, Prophet getting shot . . . “Hey, do you have Mal’s number?”
The ball careened wildly off the wall. Tom ducked and caught it as it zinged by.
“Mal, as in . . . Mal?”
Tom threw Cope the ball. “Is there more than one? Dark hair. Tattoos. Can’t speak. Kind of an asshole. Do you know him?”
Cope snorted and started throwing the ball again. “Fucker’s crazy. Like, of all the crazy motherfuckers in the world—and Prophet holds a spot near the very top—Mal is so number one that he’s off the goddamned charts, sealed in a fucking box somewhere that’s lined with silver, encased in cement, and buried so deep in the goddamned ground, you’d hit China looking for it. That’s what I think of motherfucking, crazy-assed, don’t-let-him-on-the-same-goddamned-continent-as-me Mal.”
“So you don’t like him then?”
Cope shrugged. “He’s all right.” Thunk.
Tom sighed. “Can you get in touch with him?”
Thunk. “Not with a ten-foot pole attached to C4.”
Tom wondered if Natasha could, but he decided against letting everyone in the office know how pathetic he was. It was already pathetic enough that he’d been emailing Prophet every day, sometimes including scanned sketches like a lovesick puppy.
But writing daily to Prophet since the end of his first week in Eritrea had become the last thing Tom did every night, no matter what. The ritual calmed him and made him feel connected to the man who’d so desperately wanted to disconnect from him.
I might’ve quit you, Proph, but you quit me first. You just didn’t come right out and say it.
He hadn’t said that in his emails, though. Not at first. He’d kept them more focused on the job. Cope. His life in general.
But after the first few emails, he’d let himself say whatever the fuck he wanted. Trying to woo the man with words, making promises he might not be able to keep. But what else was new? If working with Prophet had taught him anything, it was that promises were dangerous, especially if they were worthwhile.
But now, after nearly four months without a single email back from Prophet, he knew he’d have to take things further to get in touch with the guy. If Phil ever gave him time off. It was almost as if Phil was purposefully keeping him too busy with constant training in between missions, so Tom couldn’t even consider going to find Prophet.
Phil did nothing by mistake, so Tom bit back complaints, continued to prove himself with each and every job he’d been assigned.
Cope liked working with him.
Cope was still alive.
Therefore, in Tom’s mind, Prophet had broken his bad luck karma.
Prophet had definitely broken something, and goddammit, even though Tom had made the choice, he wanted Prophet to come back and put all the pieces back together.
“The hurricane’s looking to be a direct hit,” Cope told him now, interrupting his rhythm to point at the TV overhead—he’d been watching it upside down all day, with the sound off so Tom wouldn’t worry too much. But the meteorologists had been having a field day with the fact that this hurricane was due to slam directly into New Orleans only days after Katrina’s late August anniversary.
Growing up in Louisiana had given Tom a certain perspective on storms. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t quietly frantic about his aunt. She was just like everyone else in the damn state, even after Katrina. Resilient as hell, stubborn with it, and utterly unwilling to evacuate. But with Della’s heart problems and the storm amping up instead of downgrading like they’d said it would, he was worried. And in Eritrea.
But the storm was still five days out. Anything could happen in five days.
I know what you’d do, Proph. Nothing would stop you. I guess that’s what Phil’s worried about, because he told me he’d fire my ass if I even thought about leaving my post. He called my aunt for me, checked in. She’s got her supplies, and he said she’ll be okay. And I guess I’m supposed to be all right with that, but fuck it, something isn’t sitting right with me. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. I can hear you calling me Cajun or voodoo, clear as day.
The bayou’s my home. It’s where I learned to fight. Every time I head home, I expect things to be different—and they never are. That’s the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a new result.
It’s a dangerous place for me, Proph. But I keep getting pulled back. Maybe Phil not letting me go home’s for the best. At least that’s what I’m trying to believe.
Otherwise, Cope’s fine. I’ve gone four months without otherwise maiming him or getting him shot. That’s a pretty good record, considering how many times we’ve gone out on small jobs together. He’s a good teacher. Patient. Talks about his girlfriend a lot. I have to wear headphones when they have phone sex.
I always think about you during those times, Proph. Other times, yeah, but that’s when I miss you the most, and not just because you’re decent in bed.
Tom sat in front of his glowing computer screen—with his headphones on—and thought about not sending this one. It would be his one hundred and twenty-second email (and yes, he’d counted) without an answer, but in the end, he let it out into the universe, hoping that it might find its mark.
Twenty-four hours later
Blue slammed through the half-opened window.
On the fourth floor.
Prophet rolled his eyes. Blue, who wore a rope harness over his jeans and long-sleeved, thermal T—all black, of course—along with a black skullcap, even though it was hot as balls, looked unperturbed about having narrowly missed a table. And possibly killing himself.
“You just took out my screen,” Prophet told him. Didn’t bother to ask why Blue hadn’t used the door, because asking Blue that would be like asking God why he’d created the universe—the answer to both being Why the hell not? Which was Prophet’s answer to just about everything too.
“Your friend’s an asshole,” Blue informed Prophet as he ripped his cap off.
“Why is Mick my friend when he’s an asshole?”
“Because—” Blue stopped, pulled out his phone, and dialed. Ran his hands through his wild hair as he waited a beat, then said into the phone, “I just broke into Prophet’s place. Fourth floor. And I didn’t get a lecture. He didn’t say a word about danger. No, I won’t put him on. You can call him yourself.”
He ended the call and raised his hand triumphantly. “I’m going to get something to eat.”
Prophet’s cell phone started to ring.
“I wouldn’t mind dinner,” Prophet called after Blue, then picked up Mick’s call. “I hate it when Mommy and Daddy fight.”
“If you and Tom had fought instead of walking away from each other—”
Prophet interrupted. “I’m siding with Blue on this one.”
“You don’t even know why Blue’s pissed.”
“Empirically, it matters.”
“Did you hurt your back using that big word?”
“Is he using empirically again?” Blue demanded as he came back in from the kitchen.
“Where’s my dinner?” Prophet asked him.
“I put the water on to boil.” Blue motioned for him to hang up.
Prophet did, because he knew it would make Mick mad. “You know he’ll be here soon.”
Blue shrugged out of his shirt, leaving it like a trail along with the rope and his hat. By the time Prophet caught up to him in the kitchen, he had a Coke and was glancing down at his phone one more time before shoving it into his pocket. “Yeah, I know.”
And that’s why Blue could run, because Mick would always go after him. Prophet was semi-blown away by the simplicity of the entire situation.
Then again, neither Mick nor Blue came with much baggage. Not compared to him, anyway. “Steal anything good lately?”
“Lots.” Blue’s eyes lit up like a kid’s on Christmas. He turned to stir the pasta he’d put into a large pot. “I made bottled gravy—you don’t have any tomatoes.”
“Haven’t been home in a while.”
Prophet winced at the tone of Blue’s voice, but he didn’t say anything. Actually, he was surprised he’d been allowed an entire hour at home to himself.
He padded back into the living room, and after ten minutes, Blue was handing him a dish of pasta, putting the cheese and sodas on the coffee table.
“Nice couch,” Blue said.
Prophet gave a nod of agreement, especially because it had taken so much goddamned work to steal the thing the first several times he’d done so. The last time, Cillian had actually wired the thing to the alarm system, the suspicious bastard. But then Cillian had up and gone and given the couch to him.
He wanted to hate the guy. Wanted to be so freakin’ suspicious of him that he’d get angry if he thought about him. And he was goddamned suspicious. But he couldn’t get angry, and he hadn’t been able to figure out why yet.
So he’d kept in contact with Cillian, but in a strictly business capacity.
Well, mostly business. He told himself he needed to keep Cillian on the hook—and busy—but he’d be lying if he didn’t admit that he felt some kind of pull toward the lying bastard.
Because it would be fucking easy between you two.
Because it would be just sex. And maybe you trying to kill him. Or vice versa. There wouldn’t be more, not on Prophet’s end. But on Cillian’s? Who knew?
But Cillian was Mal’s job now. Mal was just sadistic enough to enjoy the hell out of it.
Prophet shoved Cillian out of his mind as he and Blue ate in comfortable silence. The spaghetti tasted better than anything he’d had in the past months, especially because Blue had seasoned it. Prophet had basically been eating to live, ignoring taste so he could get proper fuel.
After three bowls of pasta for Blue—who still had the appetite of a teenage boy—and two and counting for Prophet, Blue sat back and said, “So you and Tom . . .”
Prophet gritted his teeth. “There is no me and Tom.” Twirled the spaghetti on his fork. “Pick a new line of questioning.”
Blue ignored the warning. “He didn’t want to be your partner, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to fuck.” His gaze took in the sketches that Prophet had printed out and left on the coffee table, since this was his goddamned house, and then glanced back up at Prophet. “Figured you’d like it that way.”
“Want me to call Mick back?”
“Mick said you fell hard and you got scared.”
“Did he, now?”
“No,” Blue admitted, having the decency to look semi-sheepish. “He said that’s what you told him happened to him when he met me. Figured it could safely apply to you.”
“Go climb the building again.”
“Too easy,” Blue scoffed. “Are you home because of that spy downstairs or because of the hurricane?”
“Neither.” Prophet shifted irritably. “And does the entire fucking world know my business?”
“Only the people who give a shit about you,” Blue shot back, and Prophet wondered how such a fucking wiseass could’ve gotten under his skin so quickly.
And then he remembered: because the kid had risked everything to save Mick, and anyone who risked fucking everything—including themselves—was pretty damned okay in his book. And the kid wasn’t a kid at all.
Prophet pushed his bowl away. “Not that you don’t already know, since you obviously broke the fuck into my phone, but Cillian’s coming here tonight.”
Blue raised a brow.
“Not here. Like, to his own apartment. It’s his place too.” For the first time ever, they’d be in the same building at the same time.
Well, other than the warehouse, but that didn’t count.
Blue drawled, “Right.”
“Shut up.” For the first time, Prophet noticed the trail of sand leading from his suitcase to the edge of the couch. Sand would follow him fucking anywhere.
At least something had loyalty.
He snorted, and Blue looked at him strangely, then asked, “So if it’s not for the spy or for the hurricane, why did you come home?”
Why did you come home?
His phone echoed from the cup holder in the old Land Rover, his vehicle of choice when he was doing black-ops jobs OUTCONUS. He grabbed it, saw the number, and knew who it was and what they wanted.
“I’ve got another job for you.”
“I’m listening.” Prophet watched the specialist who’d been his last mission preparing to board a plane, never to be seen again by his family or friends.
“It’s an undercover assignment. You want it, get on the plane too.”
Prophet ran a hand over the bandana that he’d wrapped around his head to keep his too-long hair out of his eyes. The Land Rover was suddenly too fucking hot for his liking. “How much?”
The man on the other end of the phone laughed. “More than last time.” Because Prophet didn’t need the money. The question was inane, a way to avoid the inevitable.
“A year. No contact. Three specialists. You’re paid if they’re dead or alive.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Besides a very large check? This is your way back into the Agency. Once they know what you’ve been doing—”
Prophet laughed then, and it echoed through the truck, a sound so fucking foreign to him at this point that it made his throat tighten immediately. “I don’t want back in. And trust me, they fucking know.”
“You must want something, because you keep doing this.”
He looked over at the plane—the man he’d brought here safely had already boarded, and the pilot was at the door, pointing between it and Prophet.
In or out?
He’d known this offer was coming—in some ways, he’d been busting his ass just to get the damned thing. But whether he accepted or not wasn’t the point. Proving himself—to himself, to the assholes in the Agency, to the motherfucking world at large—proving that he was still the best one to work with the specialists because he had balls, brains, and a goddamned conscience . . . well, that had always been the point. Not the fucking money. Not getting back in.
Waiting in the safe house last night, with his latest mission snoring in the other room, he’d finally read Tom’s emails—all eleven billion of them—because he figured they’d be full of excuses or “it’s better this way” crap. Reading them was his way of saying good-bye, because, when the offer for the next job came—and he’d known it was coming—he had to be ready to leave everything and everyone behind.
Reading them had been the biggest fucking mistake.
“Decent in bed,” he growled into the phone, realizing Tom had gotten the rise out of him that he’d probably been looking for.
The man on the other end of the phone told him, “That’s not an answer.”
“It is for me.”
He blinked and finally answered Blue. “I came home because the jobs were done.”
“Uh-huh.” Blue crossed his arms. “Not sure why you lie to me, of all people. I’m the first one to admit that I still need to steal. And that I know Mick will chase me.”
There was so much truth in what Blue said that he couldn’t even look at the guy. And Blue also understood that and mercifully didn’t comment further on it. Prophet was pretty sure he’d bring it up again, but he was also pretty sure he didn’t like Blue taking pity on him now. “How’s working with Mick been? I mean, besides your need to break into other people’s houses to prove something to him?”
Blue shrugged. “For the most part, it’s pretty fucking cool.”
“Yeah, I figured you’d like it.” Prophet paused. “Cut him a break, all right? If he didn’t give a shit . . .”
“Was he this tough on a regular partner?”
“He never had one.”
“Just like you.”
“We both enjoy working alone.”
“Because watching someone else’s back makes you vulnerable?” Blue asked, and it was a sincere question.
“Yeah, it does, Blue. But for Mick, I know it’s worth it, okay?”
Blue nodded, looking down at his plate, a flush blossoming on his cheeks. He’d had a rough year—lost his sister, nearly got killed, went mostly legit, and fell in love.
Prophet clapped a hand on Blue’s shoulder, was about to get up and bring the dishes back into the kitchen when Blue asked, “When are you leaving for New Orleans?”
“Okay,” Blue said agreeably, then muttered, “And if you think I believe you, you’re dumber than you look.”
“You deserve to get beaten,” Prophet told him.
“That’s my job.” At the sound of Mick’s voice coming up from the bottom of the staircase, Blue’s shoulders stiffened.
“Shit,” he muttered.
“Busted,” Prophet told him, but Blue was already up, dressed, the rope wrapped around him with a grace that Prophet couldn’t help but admire.
“I’ll pay you if you give me a head start,” Blue said from the window ledge, his body half hanging out.
“I don’t need money.”
Blue fumbled into his pocket and tossed a small bag to Prophet. He opened it to find a beat-up gold ring with some kind of green stone with a scarab inscribed into it. “Where the fuck did you get this?”
“You know, around.” Blue waved, as if things of that caliber just dropped from the sky.
“This is an Egyptian artifact, isn’t it?”
“Blue . . .”
“Tell yourself it’s from the gift shop, if you have to.”
Prophet stuck it into his jeans pocket. “He’s going to find you.”
“Eventually.” Blue dropped out of sight, like a tattooed Santa Claus, just as Mick burst into the room.
“I don’t ever remember giving you a key,” Prophet told him.
“There are a lot of things you have selective memory about,” Mick started, and Prophet began to see the benefits of being able to drop out a window at any given time.
Less than twenty hours after Mick left to chase down Blue, Prophet rolled into the Louisiana sunshine, the dog tags clanking randomly around the floor of his old Blazer. Sometimes they were under his feet and at others, they rattled around the floor of the backseat. Occasionally they’d get caught up under the driver’s seat and he wouldn’t see them for weeks, and then they’d reappear.
Ten-plus years and they hadn’t gotten caught in the pedals once. He’d thrown them into the truck the morning of John’s memorial service, and he hadn’t touched them since.
Not that he was superstitious or anything.
He had the windows rolled down, the sunroof open, and the sunshine felt good on his face as the breeze ruffled his too-long hair. Music blared, and he dodged slower moving cars at a good clip, all while keeping an eye out for cops, which was how he’d made the normally twenty-one-plus-hour trip in under eighteen.
It also helped that most law enforcement was being pulled in to handle storm-related shit. And that’s why Prophet was here after all, running toward the storm, rather than away from it, dragging an inconspicuous U-Haul behind his truck. The U-Haul held two generators. Food. Water. Guns. Cash. Enough to keep them safe and big enough to evacuate if necessary.
The French Quarter was one of the safer spots in terms of rising water. The biggest problems they’d face were loss of water and power. And looting.
The National Guard was directing people out of the city. Mandatory evacuation that half the residents wouldn’t follow. Of those remaining, half would call for help when it started to get bad, and more would call when it was too late for rescue.
But a significant number wouldn’t call ever. They’d live or die here. Tom’s aunt was among that group. Maybe Tom had more family in the actual bayou parish he’d been born in, but this aunt was the only one he’d been concerned with.
Prophet’s fingers drummed the wheel as Jackson Browne blared “Doctor My Eyes.”
“Got to be fucking kidding me,” he muttered, but he kept the song on anyway because he liked it. He’d had his regular check-up with the eye doctor just before he’d left for parts unknown.
Needed to schedule another one, but hell, it’s not like the doctors could do anything. The genetic disease that predestined him to some degree of blindness was already progressing, according to his last exam, and Prophet was pretty sure he’d know when it actually affected his day-to-day vision before they did.
When traffic slowed down, he noted the checkpoint, which meant he was right outside NOLA. In between the stop-and-go crawl, he checked his phone and saw Cillian’s text.
Did you run from me? Cillian had sent the text an hour after Prophet had packed and left. Because, contrary to what he’d told Blue, Prophet was supposed to meet Cillian. In his apartment. On Cillian’s couch.
“I ran from me,” Prophet muttered as he approached the checkpoint. Typed in Hurricane.
In your apartment?
Asshole. In Louisiana.
You have family there?
Ah, fuck it. Tom does. Gotta check on his aunt.
Tom’s family isn’t your problem. Neither is Tom.
That was all true. “And yet, you’re in a truck headed to help a man who gave you away like yesterday’s news.” Prophet shook his head at himself and dropped the phone into the cupholder without answering Cillian.
A camouflage-wearing Guardsman strode stiffly over to his truck. “You’re from out of state,” he barked at Prophet.
“Sir, we’re not letting any out-of-state residents past this point. Please turn your truck around.”
The guy was a former Marine. Even without the tattoo on his forearm of the globe and eagle and snake, Prophet would’ve known it because of his stance. He thought about pulling the military card, decided against it because he was feeling like too much of a dick. Especially after Cillian’s comments.
He flipped his fake FBI ID badge. “Gonna let me through now, son?”
Without waiting for the answer, he jerked the old Blazer through the barricade and gunned it, not bothering to look in his rearview.
Prophet: One. World: Zero.
Then again, Mother Nature was prepping to be the big bitch she was and would even out that score soon enough.
And he’d climbed out of hell for this, using Tom’s emails as a lifeline. Maybe just in time too. Because if he’d gone any deeper, he would’ve been unreachable in a way that no email could fix.
And that’s what he’d been going for, of course. Dig deep, forget anything that happened above ground. Even now, he could turn around. No one was actually expecting him up ahead, so he wouldn’t be missed. But his conscience wouldn’t allow it.
Goddamned motherfucking thing. If he could’ve cut it out with a knife, he might’ve.
He’d already argued with himself (and lost, obviously) that he wasn’t fit for human company—and by human, he meant civilian—and that’s who he’d be facing when he drove into New Orleans and the French Quarter and. . . Tom’s wealthy Aunt Della.
Did she know about him?
He didn’t know much about Tom’s past, beyond the jobs with the FBI and the sheriff’s department, but what little he did know made him angry. And he was in a really bad place inside his head to be around people who made him angry.
Who the hell had Tommy been fighting in that ring four months ago? Had to be family. Prophet had seen that same fury too often in John not to know that. And now . . . to have to face someone who had to have known what Tom had been going through as a kid . . .
Another Carole Morse, who saw nothing but an angry son and didn’t investigate further.
Another Judie Drews, who couldn’t do anything.
He mulled that over as he pulled into Della Boudreaux’s driveway but kept the truck running.
The house was old but refined, well tended, and cared for. Obviously, someone with money lived there, because this was one of the wealthier sections of the city. And he sat in his truck in the driveway, unable to get out and approach the door.
He hadn’t thought much beyond getting here to help Tommy’s aunt. But that was a start. He would help her because Tom’s words had helped him.
I’m not sorry. I’m trying to take care of you.
But I could take better care of you if I was with you. I realize that now.
I’ve also realized that it’s really never too late. For anything.
For now, that would have to be enough. He finally shut off the truck, got out, and walked up to the porch.
There was so much opportunity here, but Tom had grown up in the parishes of the bayou, not in the French Quarter. So why would he be so concerned about Della, who could probably afford the queen’s security?
He knocked on the door and was greeted by a shotgun to the chest. He stared down at the barrel and then the woman holding it. She was pretty. Cultured. And still somehow fierce, in ways that had nothing to do with the shotgun pointed at him.
And still, you didn’t protect Tommy.
He froze his anger, stopped thinking about Tom’s scars and his temper. He’d just have to use what anger he wasn’t able to tamp down to fuel his hurricane prep. “You’re doing it wrong.”
“Son, I’ve got a gun to your chest and you’re telling me that I’m doing it wrong?”
“Closer isn’t better.” He disarmed her with a swift motion, then offered the weapon back to her. “Further away you are, the less unpredictable I can be.”
Della’s eyes had opened wide with surprise, but she recovered fast. Took the shotgun back and said, “Okay. Knock again so we can start over.”
“I’d rather spend time getting you ready for the hurricane.”
She tilted her head and assessed him. “Friend of my nephew’s?”
“Tom and I worked together.”
“Think I won’t notice you avoided the question?” Prophet raised a brow, and she shook her head. “Tom didn’t tell me you were coming.”
He held up his phone to show the list of messages from Tom, proof that he actually knew the man well. “My name’s Prophet. And that’s his work email, right?”
“I thought he was busy with work, but I see he’s got a lot of time to send emails,” she said coolly. “Nice to meet you, Prophet. Why did you bring a U-Haul? Are you also moving in?”
“Supplies. Unless you’d like to evacuate?”
“Never have. Never will. And I have supplies, you know. This isn’t my first hurricane.”
“You don’t have supplies like mine.”
She moved aside to let him in, and, after a brief pause as he realized there had never been any escape, he entered.
The house was just as nice inside. He thought back to Tommy’s rental apartment, half an old Victorian near EE’s HQ and wondered if that was a conscious thing, if somehow this home pulled to Tommy that badly.
“Is there anyone else who’ll be staying with you during the storm?” he asked, taking in the portable oxygen concentrator a few feet away.
“Roger and Dave rent the third floor. They’ve lived with me for the past ten years, but they’re completely useless during storms.”
“I heard that.”
Prophet had seen the man coming down the stairs before he’d spoken. Della simply rolled her eyes. “Prophet, meet Roger. Prophet is Tom’s friend—he’s got supplies and he’ll get us through the worst of the storm.”
“Is that right?” Roger asked.
“I’ll do my best,” Prophet said as he shook hands with Roger.
He looked to be in his late sixties. A man Prophet assumed to be Dave followed closely behind. Both men were still handsome—Dave was taller and thinner, Roger shorter and mouthier—and Prophet liked that they had no problem holding hands, in front of a stranger or otherwise.
Roger saw him glance at their hands. “We’ve been together thirty years.”
Prophet had known John for nine—best friends for all of it, lovers for four years. Add to that teammates and confidantes. Sometimes Prophet had loved him, and sometimes it had been just the opposite, which he suspected happened in every long-term relationship.
“You didn’t ask what it feels like to be with the same person for so long,” Roger noted. “Which means either you are or were in a long-term relationship yourself, so you know what it feels like, or you’re built for one.”
“Please ignore his rambling pontifications—they’re well-meaning but totally insane.” Dave dropped his voice to a stage whisper. “He’s already been drinking.”
“Hurricanes frighten me,” Roger said.
“We’ve got him,” Dave said, pointing to Prophet. “Does it look like anything frightens him?”
“Well, does it? Wait, don’t answer that.” Roger held up a hand. “I need more wine.”
Yes, they had a great hurricane plan—drink themselves silly. Granted, from where Prophet stood, it seemed like a decent way to go.
“So, you work with Tom,” Roger continued. “And your wife or girlfriend doesn’t mind that you’re here?”
Prophet gave a smile that was harder than he thought to muster because Tom’s face flashed in front of his eyes. And then it got easier because Tom would get pissed being associated with the word girl. “I’m single at the moment.”
They weren’t trying to dig—they’d read him as straight. Most did, and Prophet liked it only because he never liked anyone knowing things about him.
He also liked surprising the hell out of people.
Dave sighed. “Before we interrogate the man, why don’t we let him get settled so he can save us.”
Roger lifted a wineglass in Prophet’s direction.
Della had pointed him in the direction of a bedroom on the second floor, and Prophet checked it out quickly. He only planned on using it for scoping rather than sleeping, but he didn’t tell her that. Just like he didn’t mention the inflatable boat and the power engine and oars he’d keep on the second floor, in case they needed to float the hell out of there.
And then he got to work. He wore his iPod most of the day, blasting lots of classic rock so he could pretend not to hear Della or Roger or Dave trying to engage him in conversation—as he’d predicted, he just wasn’t there yet. Back from battle and not ready for civilians. And it would pass, but not before the hurricane hit. And maybe he wasn’t good at hiding his thousand-yard stare, because they really hadn’t tried to talk to him much anyway.
They did, however, talk about him a little, because they thought he couldn’t hear, and Della said she was worried about Tom, but other than that, they went about their business.
Mainly, they were helpful and unobtrusive.
It took him the rest of the day and overnight to finish his prep sufficiently enough in his eyes. First, he built the pad for the generator, and while it set, he worked on everything else.
Eventually, the groceries were inside. Prophet’s truck was in back, away from the trees and wires, ready for an evac, if necessary. Radios, batteries, just-in-case flashlights, and water were set up.
“Neighbors?” he’d asked earlier.
Della had rolled her eyes. “Most of them evacuated. They like to follow rules.”
He knew he couldn’t say something like rules are important with a straight face, so he didn’t bother.
Finally, he installed the generator to the panel, which thankfully wasn’t as old as the house, because otherwise the thing would be useless. Still, he only wired for essentials so he wouldn’t overload anything.
By then, the rain had started in earnest, the wind picking up quickly, a warning that this hurricane wasn’t slowing down.
By 0600, he was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by maps and his laptop, making several evac plans, just in case. GPS would be down, and even though—thanks to EE—his was satellite powered and installed directly into his truck, he didn’t trust anything to work the way it was supposed to. He’d also gone through Della’s medications, making sure she had more than enough, and he’d made a few calls to ensure he could get more in a hurry. Because that shit you couldn’t fool around with.
As early morning ambled along, Della wandered into the kitchen. He’d made a full pot of coffee, and she poured herself a cup while he continued to concentrate on what was in front of him.
He didn’t look up, not until she slid sandwiches and a glass of lemonade next to him.
“You haven’t eaten much since you got here, and you can’t live on coffee alone,” she told him, and his stomach growled in agreement with her. He’d had a PowerBar at some point, and some soda, but that wasn’t exactly the breakfast of champions.
“I got wrapped up,” he admitted.
“I’m grateful, but I can’t let you starve.”
Why’d you let Tom get hit? he wanted to ask back, but even he wasn’t that much of a dick. Not when he could stuff a sandwich in his mouth instead.
“You’re close with Tom?” she asked delicately.
“We were partnered up on a job.” That was as truthful an answer as he could give.
She sat across from him at the table, her shoulders squared as if she’d read him and was expecting battle. “And now?”
Prophet was unable to keep the anger out of his voice when he said, “I’ve seen the bottom of his feet.” It was the first time he’d ever let himself actively think about that, never mind speak about it to anyone. The first time he’d allowed himself to dwell on it.
The majority of Tom’s scars were covered up by his tattoos, but his feet . . . There was no way to cover the scars of old cigarette burns on the soles of his feet.
Tom had to know Prophet had seen them. But he’d offered no explanation, and Prophet wouldn’t push something he understood all too well.
“I’ve seen them too,” she said quietly, the kind of quiet that held a carefully concealed rage. “I was the one who took him to the ER. But it was too late to stop them from scarring.”
He didn’t bother to hide his heavy sarcasm. “Right. Can’t let them scar.” He was tired as hell of concealed rage. Hiding shit was where all the trouble started.
She blinked. “Listen up, boy—don’t come in here thinking you know everything.”
“I think I know enough.”
Della sighed. Muttered something that he was pretty sure were Cajun curses before telling him, “Tom stayed with me on and off his whole life. I’m his father’s sister. My brother and I aren’t close. He always said I thought I was too good for the bayou. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe I just didn’t like the violence. Tom’s mother didn’t fit in there either.”
Prophet watched her hands wrap around the delicate teacup in a stranglehold.
“You probably want to know why I didn’t just keep him here all the time.”
“Or why you didn’t call CPS or social services.”
She stared at him, anger flashing in her eyes before spitting out tightly, “Prophet, I don’t owe you an explanation, but I’ll give you one. I was a single woman. Family, yes, but in those days, they wanted a complete family, and that was an extremely narrow definition. Make no mistake about it, I wanted him here. My door was open.” She tapped on the table. “His father didn’t care where he stayed. Tom was the one who chose to go back and forth. It was almost like he’d come here, gain his strength, and then throw himself back into the wild.”
Prophet stared at the scarred table and saw that he’d unconsciously fisted his hands at some point during the conversation. “Yeah, that sounds like the Tommy I know.”
“I’ve never heard anyone call him Tommy, but I like it.” Her drawl was soft. “I don’t know why he felt like he needed to take that kind of punishment. I told him he didn’t, and I know he believed me.”
“He understood it, Della. There’s a difference.”
He unfisted his hands only when she reached out and covered them with her open ones and said, “Sounds like you two have a lot in common.”
“You’ve got that voodoo shit happening too?”
“No, but you don’t hide your anger well.”
“Not when it comes to him.” He paused. “Voodoo or not, you do know about me. About what happened at EE.”
She took her hands off his and pointed to the sandwich. He took a bite and only then did she answer his question. “Yes. He called. He told me that he’d made what felt like the hardest decision he’d ever had to make. I asked him if it felt right, and he said that it hurt, which meant it must be right.” She pressed her lips together. “I told him that sometimes it hurts when it’s wrong, too, and that he had to start learning how to tell the difference.”
“I’m not the easiest man either.”
“No shit.” She grinned and took a sip of her coffee. “What about your family?”
“There’s just my mom. I don’t see her often.”
“By choice, or because of your job?”
“I blame it on the job.” He paused. “Tom’s worried about you.”
“He’s always worried about me. Thinks I’m too alone. But I’ve got tenants who’ve become close friends. That’s all I need.”
Roger stage-whispered into Prophet’s ear (Prophet had heard him coming a mile away), “She needs a man, but she never married, because she was too stubborn.” Della shook her finger at him. “And she’s got this wicked, bat-like hearing.”
“I was not stubborn. Connor wouldn’t have been a good choice.”
“He was hot,” Roger said. “Hot is always the good choice.”
“That’s been going on for thirty years. If it hasn’t happened already . . .” Della waved her hand and trailed off.
“Where’s Connor now?” Prophet asked.
“I hear from him every once in a while.” Della shrugged. “He’s a wanderer. And I knew he’d break my heart if I let him. So I didn’t.”
Prophet saw the pain in her face. His chest squeezed a little, because it was obvious she still loved the guy after all these years.
He excused himself, went out onto the covered back porch, despite the rain and wind that still managed to find its way underneath, and sat with his phone in hand, staring at the number on the screen but refusing to hit Call.
The dread got worse each month, even though he knew what his mother would say. She’d complain about the pills and the hospital, but first, she’d tell him that a man called, looking for him. He hadn’t bothered changing her number. Because if they were still bothering her, it meant they were no closer to finding him.
Besides that, he made sure her phone and internet signals bounced off enough towers that they would never be traced back to her. The last thing he needed was his mother in the middle of a ransom war. The facility she was in received similar treatment in regards to their internet systems. His mom’s doctors too.
Finally, he sent the call and let the phone ring while he held his breath.
She answered with, “You’re late.”
“By four minutes.”
“Late is late.”
He put his head back against the cushions of the wicker couch and didn’t say anything. Sweat trickled down his face and neck—the humidity was fucking wicked, and the only way to get his body used to it was to let his body get used to it.
“Now you’re not speaking to me?” she asked.
“Never said that.”
“That man called again, looking for you.”
His gut tightened. “And what’d you tell him?”
“That you weren’t here. That I didn’t know where you were. Then I told him to fuck off.” She sounded so proud.
“That’s good, Mom. Thanks.”
She sighed, an exaggeratedly exasperated sound. “I don’t like it here.”
Same thing, every time, but he answered that the same way he always did. “Why not?”
“They won’t give me my pills.”
At least she was taking her meds regularly. He spoke to her doctors weekly to ensure that.
“They give you the pills you need.”
“Not always. They forget. You never forgot.”
No, he hadn’t. And that reminder made him feel worse, not better. “I’ll remind them, okay? I’ll take care of it.”
Because he always took care of it.
Yes, yes, YES!! [I] love this series and these two characters.
I loved everything about this book.
I was blown away with this book!
I love this author . . . [S]he is one of the reasons I now only read m/m romance.
Prophet is the man.