Stars & Stripes
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Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett have managed the impossible: a few months of peace and quiet. After nearly a year of personal and professional turmoil, they're living together conflict-free, work is going smoothly, and they're both happy, healthy, and home every night before dark. But anyone who knows them knows that can’t possibly last.
When an emergency call from home upsets the balance of their carefully arranged world, Ty and Zane must juggle family drama with a perplexing crime to save a helpless victim before time runs out.
From the mountains of West Virginia to a remote Texas horse ranch harboring more than just livestock and childhood memories, Ty and Zane must face their fears—and their families—to overcome an unlikely enemy and bring peace back into their newly shared world.
Winner: Best Gay Erotic Romance in the 2012 Rainbow Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The waitress came up to their table in the middle of an argument. “Would you like some more iced tea?”
Zane Garrett looked from his ranting partner to the waitress and smiled. “Thanks.” He slid his glass across the small bar table so she could fill it from the pitcher she had in hand.
“No problem, Zane. More wings?”
“Yeah, but just the medium ones this time. I’m not too hot on the honey barbecue kind.”
“Bad pun penalty,” Ty Grady muttered from across the table.
The waitress laughed. She set a pint down in front of Ty and he pointed at her with his celery stick.
“Designated Hitter or real baseball?”
“I’m cutting you off,” she answered before turning away.
“No!” Ty called out, and Zane laughed, the sound almost lost in the midst of the mid-week revelry. Ty turned a glare on him, dipped his celery into a plastic cup of ranch dressing, and then pointed at Zane with it, sending drops of dressing flying. “You know what we should do next weekend?” he asked without seeming to notice he’d sprayed Zane with ranch.
Zane grabbed a napkin and wiped up the splatter on his shirt. These weekly outings were the only time Ty drank around him, and he seemed to make up for lost time at them. Zane didn’t mind. After a few months of regular Wednesday night baseball viewings at the local bar, he was used to Ty’s semi-drunken antics. He had to admit, he enjoyed Ty when he was drunk. And as long as Ty stuck to beer or wine, and Zane continued his AA meetings, he didn’t even fight cravings.
“Was that a rhetorical question?”
“No. We should go get me another tattoo.”
Zane loved to see Ty’s mind at work. At first blush it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to it, but once he’d started paying attention, he could see the tracks Ty’s thoughts followed. Sometimes Ty jumped a track and surprised him, though. Like now. Ty had never mentioned getting another tattoo, had never been caught admiring anyone’s body art. The only reason Ty had gotten the bulldog on his arm was because it meant something dear to him.
Zane watched him for a long moment, entranced by his lover just as he always was. What did people see when they looked at the two of them sitting here in the bar? Just two friends, watching the game, hanging out? Maybe they sat a little closer together than some guys would, maybe their shoulders brushed more than casual friends’ should. Maybe people saw two men in love. Zane hated living in fear of what other people might see, but until he or Ty retired, that was their life.
Zane looked at the bulldog on Ty’s arm and raised an eyebrow. “What would you get?”
Ty threw back what was left of his beer, then set the glass down hard, rattling the unstable bar table. He met Zane’s eyes. “Ballgame’s over. I’ve been cut off by Designated Daisy. Let’s go home and look for trouble.”
Zane swallowed hard as Ty’s purr hit a chord deep inside him that only Ty had ever been able to reach. He pulled out his wallet, picked through some cash, and tossed a few bills onto the table. “Ready when you are, Bulldog.”
Ty slid out of his seat, and when Zane came around the table, Ty’s arm snaked around his waist. Most likely it was to keep himself from weaving as they left the bar. Over the months, Ty had grown more comfortable being demonstrative in front of strangers, and it warmed Zane to his toes every time Ty did it, but it still sent a shiver of nerves through him. Ty had always been the more careful of the two of them, and even he was growing more careless as time went on. What if they were seen by someone who knew them? What if they were found out? Everyone at work knew they were living together, though no one thought anything of it yet except that they were sharing the cost of the mortgage. But they were destined to be outed eventually. The real questions, the ones that haunted him, were would it matter, and would he even care?
The summer heat hit them when they exited the bar, even though the sun had long ago set and a salty breeze was blowing in off the nearby harbor. Ty’s arm tightened on Zane’s waist, and Zane slid his hand around Ty’s shoulders as they headed for their row house on Ann Street. He was struck yet again by just how happy they were, despite the obstacles and worries hanging over their heads.
There were moments when it was all surreal. He’d never expected to live with another person again, never expected to fall head over heels for someone again. For over two months now, he’d been waking to Ty’s arms wrapped around him every morning, and sometimes he wondered if he deserved it.
Other times he pondered how many tranquilizers it would take to bring Ty down, and whether he could do it before Ty killed him, but those moments passed quickly.
Now Ty’s body was hard and warm against his, but his movements were loose and relaxed. He was humming under his breath, and Zane knew it would soon turn into a song. He couldn’t help but smile as he pulled his lover closer. It might just be the rose-tinted color of love’s glasses, but there wasn’t a thing about Ty he didn’t find fascinating, amusing, or smoking hot. He loved it when Ty broke into song because Ty had a beautiful voice, drunk or not.
“It’s funny, you know?” Ty said. “How much things have changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“A couple years ago, at this point in the night, I’d be back in that bar with someone in the supply closet.”
Zane snorted and shook his head. “And now you just have to go home with me.”
“No,” Ty said, serious as he stopped and turned to look at Zane. “I don’t have to go home with you.”
Zane raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.
“I can’t wait to get home with you. Even if it’s just to crawl in bed and watch that stupid-ass show you like so much, I don’t care. Whatever I do, I’m glad I’m with you.”
Zane knew he was grinning like a fool, but sometimes Ty still managed to surprise him with his romantic, sentimental gestures.
Ty took his arm and continued to walk. Zane watched him out of the corner of his eye, amused and warmed all over.
“I love you,” Ty said out of the blue, his voice almost sing-song.
Zane laughed. “You’re drunk.”
“I loved you before I was drunk.”
Zane stopped walking and pulled Ty around to face him. The evening was full of the noises of summer night revelry, but the sidewalk was empty. He smiled and leaned in to kiss Ty. “I can’t remember a time that I was happier than I am right now.”
Ty smiled against his lips, his eyes closed as he wrapped his arms around Zane’s neck. “I bet we can top it when we get home.”
Zane growled and squeezed Ty’s ass before releasing him. “Let’s go find out.”
# # #
Ty lay tangled in the sheets of the bed he shared with Zane, his head under his pillow. His entire body ached from the gymnastics of the night before. He had carpet burns on his knees. He could feel every place that Zane’s fingers had dug in to hold him down. He was fairly certain there were teeth marks on his shoulder. His insides were a mash of aching, lingering pleasure, and his head was full of cotton. They had to work today, but not for a few hours. He didn’t intend to move until something worthwhile compelled him.
A rough hand settled on the small of his back. Ty hummed and started to smile. That was compelling.
He raised his head, letting his pillow slide away as he turned to peer at his bedmate. Zane was still asleep, his handsome face relaxed in the shadows of the early morning. Ty took the opportunity to stare. He’d never expected to have the privilege of waking up to someone he loved so dearly every day. Now that he did, he tried to appreciate it when he could.
Zane’s hair had grown longer, almost unruly. He’d taken to slicking it back when he worked, and the ends would curl around his ears. Ty loved it. He loved even more that Zane had lost the lines of stress he’d carried for so long, and there were threads of silver hair growing in near his ears that Ty found incredibly sexy.
He reached out to slide his fingers over Zane’s lips. Zane scrunched up his nose and jerked his head away, grunting in his sleep. Ty bit his lip to keep from laughing and reached to do it again. Zane swatted at him this time, barely missing his hand, and then shifted and twitched his lips.
Ty waited a moment, then touched Zane’s lips again, letting the tip of his finger brush against them with the utmost care.
Zane snorted and swatted at him again, smacking himself in the nose and waking with a start and a grunt. Ty pressed his face into his pillow and tried not to let his laughter shake his shoulders.
He felt Zane move, and peeked over his pillow at him. Zane was watching him, his dark eyes like sleepy obsidian in the morning light.
“You’re an ass,” Zane muttered, closing his eyes and turning his head.
Ty laughed and scooted closer, resting his chin on Zane’s chest and wrapping around him. He dragged his foot along Zane’s calf and slid it against his toes, enjoying the intimate contact and soaking in Zane’s warmth and calm.
For all that they enjoyed their rough and tumble sex, they were both surprisingly good at cuddling.
The bed jostled at their feet.
“Oh God,” Zane whispered.
Ty shushed him, holding his breath to keep still. They’d been caught off guard, with no covers over their naked bodies. They were defenseless. Ty bent his leg until his knee was covering Zane’s groin, but that was all the movement he was willing to risk as the bed jostled again.
Smith and Wesson had awoken.
The two fluffy orange cats were Ty’s “temporary” wards, but much to Zane’s chagrin, they’d been here for months now. They were exceptionally large and ill-tempered, and though they seemed to have developed a certain loyalty and affection for Ty, Zane insisted they were trying to kill him. Ty had never witnessed them doing anything spectacularly evil, but he would admit they pounced and hissed at Zane with unusual frequency. And if it was time for their breakfast, they weren’t averse to biting the tip of Ty’s nose and sinking their sharp little teeth into other sensitive areas.
Ty had a special interest in keeping Zane’s tender spots unscathed, hence his knee over Zane’s fun parts.
“I thought you closed the door last night,” Zane whispered.
“Oh Jesus. Can they open doors now?”
Ty wouldn’t have put it past these cats.
Zane’s phone began to ring from the bedside table, but neither man dared to move.
Ty grunted as one of the cats began walking up his body, using his long claws to help him balance as he made his way to Ty’s hip and plopped his fluffy butt down as if he’d just staked a claim. Ty reached back and rubbed the cat’s head, letting his fingers twirl the hair under his ear that Ty called his muttonchops. He knew it was Wesson just from the tenor of his purr.
“Why do you encourage them?”
“They’re good kitties.”
“They’re your minions.”
“Everyone needs a minion or two.”
“You won’t be so pleased when you find me ground up in their food bowl one day.”
Ty chuckled, trying not to shake too much.
They waited a few minutes to see if either cat was going to attack, and when it seemed they were safe, Ty rested his hand on Zane’s chest again and closed his eyes. Zane turned his head with infinite care and kissed Ty’s forehead.
Wesson gave him a warning growl.
“Mine,” Zane told the cat.
Ty smiled and ran his fingers through the sparse hair on Zane’s chest. Wesson growled again.
“If you make him attack me, I swear to God . . .”
“I can’t mind control the cats, Zane. Who called?”
Zane reached out with the utmost care to grab his phone. He was silent as he checked the display, and Ty watched his profile with all the devotion of a lover. It wasn’t hard to miss when Zane’s jaw clenched and his body tensed.
“What is it?”
“It’s my sister.”
Ty tried to get a better look at Zane’s eyes. He rarely spoke of his family, and Ty had always gotten the feeling it wasn’t just the strain of living far away that kept Zane from them. He’d never pushed, though, classing Zane’s family in the same category as his deceased wife or his addictions. If Zane wanted to talk about it, he’d bring it up.
“Good or bad?” Ty asked, rubbing his fingers over Zane’s chest to soothe him. Smith chose that moment to come out of hiding, pouncing on his moving fingers and landing on Zane’s chest. His claws sank in, turning the bed into a frenzy of cat fur, flying linens, and screaming FBI agents.
When the bloodshed was over, Zane had fled down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door to ward off any further attacks, leaving Ty to fend for himself. He laughed as he watched Smith and Wesson prowl down the hall, stalking Zane. They plopped down to stare at the bathroom door, tails twitching. It didn’t matter what Zane did for them, or how many times he fed them or threw Ty in their path, they still hated him.
Maybe they were trying to kill him.
Ty pulled on a pair of pants and headed downstairs, stepping over the cats without being molested, laughing again as he heard Zane come out of the bathroom and yowl in pain. After a few thumps and curses, Smith and Wesson thundered down the stairs to swarm Ty’s feet and wait for food.
“Good kitties,” Ty whispered to them. They were both purring so loudly it was impossible to hear Zane’s movements upstairs, but a few minutes later, Ty glanced up when Zane came stomping down the steps. He had his phone to his ear.
“Hey, Annie,” Zane said on the phone. He met Ty’s eyes and smirked as he swiped a piece of toast from one of the plates Ty was arranging. Ty swatted at him with a spatula, but missed. “No, no, it’s okay, I was up. What’s going on?”
Zane tensed as his sister spoke to him. Ty set the frying pan aside and watched his lover as an unsettling feeling started in his gut.
“Why the hell didn’t you call me earlier?” Zane blurted. “Do I need to come out there?”
Ty held his breath, straining his ears to hear. He couldn’t make out any of Annie’s words, but whatever she was saying was making Zane’s nostrils flare and his shoulders snap back. Classic signs that Zane was about to delve into Dark Mode.
Zane listened for a few more minutes, then bade his sister goodbye and hung up. He looked at Ty with wide eyes.
“You okay? What happened?”
Zane didn’t answer immediately. When he did speak, Ty knew he was whitewashing whatever he’d just learned. “Annie said they’re having trouble on the ranch. Trespassers. They think maybe it’s poachers or rival breeders after the horse stock.”
“Okay,” Ty said, confused about why that would warrant a call to Zane. As far as he knew, Zane had little contact with his family. Even his sister, who Zane got on well with, rarely called just to chat. “So, what, you need to go down there?”
“I don’t know. I mean no. No, they don’t need me.”
“Then why’d they call you?”
Zane waved his hand. “I don’t know, Ty. I can’t help, so there’s no point.”
“If you need to go, we can figure something out at work.”
Ty arched an eyebrow. “Wow.”
Zane shook his head, although he looked conflicted and more than a little annoyed that Ty hadn’t just dropped it. “I’m sorry. If it’s still a problem when the weekend hits, I’ll head down there.”
“Yeah, can we drop it now?”
Ty nodded and watched with a frown as Zane headed back upstairs. He stopped halfway up, then turned and thumped back down.
“Forgot what I was doing,” he mumbled. He snatched another piece of toast before Ty could stop him.
“Shut up,” Zane said as he went back up the steps, taking them two at a time.
Ty watched him go, frown in place. Despite seeming to shrug it off, he knew Zane was worried. Whatever was going on in Texas, it was so much more than a few trespassers.
# # #
Ty jumped at the sound of a file folder hitting a box on the floor. He glanced up at Special Agent Scott Alston, who ignored the file when it skidded off the top of the stack to thump to the industrial-grade carpet. Alston leaned back in his chair as he loosened his tie, and then stuck his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
Their whole work group had been tasked with slogging through a load of files sent over from one of the other investigative teams, desperate to dredge up evidence on a case that was going colder by the day. There were literally hundreds of files, and the six of them were on their last hour before they could break for the weekend.
“Garrett, are you getting off on all this paperwork?” Alston asked.
“Zane went to the bathroom like five minutes ago, Scott,” Ty said. His words were marred by the yellow highlighter between his teeth. Both hands were full of papers, held aloft as he planted his elbows on his desk.
“Oh.” Alston said, running his fingers through his blond hair. Ty felt like Alston looked: exhausted, seeing double, and desperate to go home.
“Thank God it’s Friday,” Alston said on a deep sigh as he looked at the clock. Ty glanced at it too, out of habit. Close to quitting time.
His cell phone began to buzz at his hip, and he twisted to try to see the display. He had no free hands, and no free space on his desk to set one of the unorganized stacks down.
“Want me to get it?” Alston asked. He pushed out of his chair, and Ty nodded and stood as well, turning his hip toward Alston.
He spit the highlighter out. It clattered to the desk and rolled until it hit a stack of files too high to bounce over. Alston plucked the phone off his belt and hit the speaker button.
“Grady,” Ty said as Alston put the phone on the desk and took one of the stacks of papers from his hand. “Thanks,” Ty whispered.
“Hey, Ma,” Ty said, distracted as he and Alston tried to switch things around while still keeping the stacks in order.
“You’re not still at work, are you? I can call back.”
“No, I’m about done here.” Ty glanced up at Alston and waved a handful of files at the shredder nearby. Alston shook his head, and Ty nodded in response, managing to start an argument without a single word.
On the other side of the pod of desks, Michelle Clancy began to giggle.
“What’s going on?” Ty asked his mother as he sat down and leaned closer to the cell phone, struggling to finish up his last file and listen at the same time.
“Well, I need a favor. A few favors, actually. But they can wait ’til you get home and call me back.”
Ty rolled his eyes and shook his head. Alston chuckled as he leaned against Ty’s desk. “Ma, will you just get to the point, please?”
“Well, we’re aiming to fix the old tin roof on the storage shed this weekend ’cause it’s leaking,”
“Oh, God,” Ty groaned. He lowered his head, files forgotten. Alston squeezed his shoulder, mockingly comforting him.
“We wouldn’t need your help normally, but this morning I cut your daddy’s finger off, and he says he can’t hold a hammer.”
Ty’s head shot up. “You what?”
“Cut his finger off,” Mara said again, as if she hadn’t realized the news would be shocking.
The others were drifting closer, trying to hear the conversation. Ty sat silent a moment longer, his mouth agape. “On . . . purpose?”
“Well, no, it was an accident.”
“Right, of course.” He glanced up at his teammates to see all four of them watching and laughing.
“But it’s not like he don’t have four more fingers to work with. And it was only part of the little finger, and they sewed it back on. He has two hands, one of ’em can hold a hammer just fine, but no, he says he can’t do it.”
“Is he okay?”
“Well, yeah. Like I said, they sewed it back on. So can you come home this weekend and help out with the roof tomorrow? Deacon said he would come too, but you know how he gets with tools.”
Ty shook his head, mouth still hanging open as he tried to process. Clancy leaned over to catch his eye, even waving a hand at him. “Hi, Mama Grady! Ty’s checking his calendar to see if he can get away.”
“Don’t you lie to me, honey. He’s sitting there with his mouth hanging open, ain’t he?”
“Ty, if you come tonight, I’ll get your daddy to tell you all about it. Your brother and Livi’ll be here. It’ll be fun!”
“Fun does not start with a story about how you cut dad’s finger off!” Ty said, laughing despite himself.
“It does in my book. He deserved it.”
The others gave up on etiquette and laughed raucously. Ty shot them all a glare, and he finally dropped what he was doing and picked up his phone. He caught sight of Zane coming back down the hall. His partner had been sullen and distracted for the last day or two, and though he knew Zane was having issues over that call from Texas, he had his own problems to deal with now. He spun around in his chair to put his back to his coworkers, trying to turn the speaker off.
“Does it have to be this weekend?”
“Honey, if you can’t come help, that’s okay.”
Ty rolled his eyes and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Okay, Ma. I’ll leave after work and be there . . . I don’t know, a little before midnight.”
“Reverse psychology,” Fred Perrimore whispered.
“So that’s where Ty learned it,” Harry Lassiter said under his breath.
Mara either couldn’t hear them over the speaker that wouldn’t shut off or ignored them. “I’ll have pork chops waiting! And honey, will you bring that big sharp knife of yours with you? Your daddy’s is awful dull, and the whetstone went missing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ty said with trepidation.
“I’ll see you tonight! Bye-bye!” Mara said, then hung up the phone without waiting for more.
Ty stared at the phone as the display lit up, and then he looked up at the others, who were all trying to keep straight faces.
“Can we come?” Alston said, grinning widely.
“We’ll help!” Clancy said.
“Spoilsport,” Perrimore muttered, and they all drifted away to leave Ty to finish his paperwork.
Zane sat against the edge of Ty’s desk, in the same place Alston had occupied. He was frowning and seemed distracted, but that was nothing new. He was just close enough that Ty could have used his knee as an armrest, and though the thought hadn’t crossed his mind when Alston had been sitting there, he almost did it now without thinking. He stopped himself just in time, making it look like a frustrated flop of his hand.
This wasn’t the first time they’d come close to getting too friendly in front of their coworkers, and it was happening more frequently. He didn’t know how to address the problem, or if he even wanted to.
“What’s up?” Zane asked.
Ty stared at him for a moment, trying to decide how to answer that simple question. He was still distracted by Zane’s proximity, by the way he smelled, by how easy it was becoming to slip in front of co-workers who were trained to see mistakes.
He gave Zane the bare-bones version of his call from home, and after Zane had stopped laughing, Ty tapped him on the knee.
“You heard anything about Texas? You thinking about heading down there?”
Zane shrugged, though his expression clouded over and he looked down at the carpet rather than meet Ty’s eyes. “I haven’t had a call back. I don’t see any reason to bother.”
Ty sighed. He wanted to poke at that soft spot and see why it was there, and he added that to his list of shit to do. But he had some pretty pressing problems of his own to handle first. “Want to go to West Virginia and risk life and limb with me?”
Zane smirked and gave a single nod. “Sounds like fun.”
The Cut & Run series continues to be an incredibly enjoyable one to read, and Ty and Zane are two of my favorite characters ever. Suspenseful and funny, Stars & Stripes is one story I know I’ll read again and again . . .
Happy and totally hot . . . If Ty and Zane aren't part of your world, you are truly missing out. Simply put, this is my all time favorite m/m series.
The romance in this book is delightful. The action is quick and fun to read. The sex is as hot as Texas in July and Ty and Zane are so beautiful together that they'll stay with you forever.
. . . I’ve used the word “favorite” to describe nearly all of the books in the Cut & Run series but I mean it this time! Ty and Zane’s relationship is epic in this book . . . I was in reader euphoria . . .
[S]o good. This is a must read.