Three the Hard Way

Three the Hard Way (An ACRO Novella), by Sydney Croft
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-233-2
eBook release: 
Dec 1, 2014
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-234-9
Print release: 
Dec 1, 2014
Word count: 
43,000
Page count: 
174
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the ACRO universe.

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Lovers Taggart Brody and Justice McKinney possess special abilities that make them valuable to agencies who employ—or enslave—people with extraordinary talents. When tragedy tears them apart, Justice finds purpose working for the good guys: ACRO, the super-secret Agency for Covert Rare Operatives. But he never forgets Taggart or the past they once shared.

Heartbroken, Taggart runs from who he is . . . right into the arms of Ian Bridges. But Ian, battling his own demons, betrays Tag to the terrorist organization Itor. After months of torture, Tag manages to escape, but kills an ACRO agent in the process. 

With nowhere left to turn, Tag disappears into the Alaskan wilderness, but it’s only a matter of time before his enemies track him down. He reaches out to Justice, and somehow Ian finds him too, hoping to right his wrongs. With ACRO and Itor both bearing down, the three men must figure out how to forgive, how to work together, and how to love each other—or the coming battle will destroy them all.


Twenty percent of all proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the It Gets Better Project.

The It Gets Better Project’s mission is to communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them. Visit their website for more information and to find out how you can get involved: http://itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

“Hey, Taggart! Check this out!”

Taggart didn’t look up from the snare he was securing to a tree. Justice was probably just going to brag about his rock skipping skills anyway. Tag would have told him that he should be practicing setting traps, but Justice’s snares and deadfalls were almost as good as Tag’s. At ten years old, they could string tripwires, dig pitfalls, and lay ambushes like seasoned soldiers. Mostly, that was cool, but sometimes, secretly, he wished he could do normal stuff, like ride a bike or play video games with other kids. Being raised as survivalists sort of had its ups and downs.

“Tag! Look!”

Taggart finally turned to his best friend. Justice was standing at the edge of the pond, his hand outstretched, reaching for the metal rowboat twenty yards out. The boat, empty of everything but two wooden oars, was cutting through the water, coming at them fast enough to leave a wake.

“So you can attract metal objects,” Tag said, thoroughly unimpressed with Justice’s showing off. “I can too. And I learned how to control my magnetic gift a year earlier than you did.” His mom said he shouldn’t tease Justice about that, but Justice always rubbed in the fact that his ability was far more powerful. There was no way Tag could have drawn in the rowboat from that distance.

Justice grinned at him over his shoulder. “But can you repel metal?”

Suddenly, the boat came to an abrupt stop, and a second later, it pushed back in the opposite direction, its square stern making the reverse journey a little slower and rougher.

Tag ran over to his friend. “Dude! That’s awesome! Now you can fix the monkey bars you bent at school.”

A breeze blew Justice’s blond bangs into his eyes as he turned around to face Tag. The rowboat, forgotten now, bobbed around in a patch of lily pads. “Are you still mad about that? Seriously?”

“Someone could have seen you.” Tag picked up a flat, round rock and skipped it across the pond’s smooth surface.

“It was no big deal. I just wanted to see how strong my power is.”

That was a load of crap, as Tag’s mom would say. Justice was playing the whole thing off as if he’d bent the bars on purpose, but Tag had seen the way Justice had lost control of his emotions when a schoolyard bully had cruelly teased a crying girl near the slide, Two rusty nails and a wing nut had flown across the playground to stick to Justice and the monkey bars had begun to bow inward. Justice hadn’t stopped until Tag tackled him.

Still, Tag wasn’t going to humiliate his friend, and arguing would only make him mad anyway.

“You just need to be more careful. Our moms will kill us if they find out we’re using our powers in public. Worse, they’ll homeschool us again.”

They’d had to fight for the chance to go to public school because their mothers, fugitives from an evil agency that’d used them as human test subjects, wanted to keep them safe and out of the public eye. But Tag and Justice had finally convinced them that they could keep their powers under control. And mostly, they could.

And sure, there were times when they either weren’t careful or when they intentionally pushed the boundaries and did something stupid. But geez, they had these super cool powers they barely had the opportunity to use on the seventy acres of middle-of-nowhere Idaho where they lived.

“Maybe we should go back to being homeschooled,” Justice said quietly. “We don’t fit in with the other kids. And they think our moms are gay.”

Yeah, that was a recurring theme. Last month, Tag had punched the captain of the football team for calling their moms lesbos. Everyone seemed to think it was weird for two single women with kids to live next door to each other on property they owned together. Throw in the fact that their houses were what their moms called “off the grid,” and the townspeople figured there was a whole lot of weird going on out here.

“If we ever find a place for people like us,” Justice said as he skipped a rock that outdistanced Tag’s by three jumps, “we have to go.”

“A good place, though, right?” Tag’s mom always said that not everyone with a special ability was a good guy, and while Tag didn’t know much about why they were living in isolation, he knew it had something to do with a group of evil people with powers.

Justice skipped another stone. “A good place.”

Tag thought about that for a moment. He loved their little family, but at times, being different got lonely. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll go if you go.”

Justice grinned. “We definitely have to go together.”

“Pinky swear?”

Shaking his head, Justice reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his pocketknife. “Blood swear.”

Blood swear? That was serious stuff. Taggart held out his hand, palm up. “I’m in.”

Justice took his hand and put the tip of the blade to the heel of Tag’s palm. There was no hesitation, just Justice jabbing the knife into Tag’s flesh and slashing all the way to the base of Tag’s pinky.

“Ouch.” Tag hissed as he watched the thin streak of blood well up in the cut.

“Wuss,” Justice teased, and then it was his turn to hiss in pain as he sliced into his own palm.

They stood there next to the pond, the sun glinting through the canopy of trees, and met each other’s gaze. Even though they were different in coloring and build, looking into Justice’s blue eyes was always like looking into a mirror. They weren’t twins, weren’t even brothers, not by blood, anyway, but there were times when it felt as if they were two halves of one person.

This was one of those times.

“Ready?” Justice asked, and Tag nodded.

Somewhere in the distance, a coyote yipped, urging them on. They clasped hands, their blood mingling in their palms before dripping down their wrists.

Justice tightened his grip. “We can’t go back on this now.”

“We won’t.” Taggart worried a lot about the future, wondering every day if the bad guys were going to find them. But for the first time in years, he felt . . . peace. He and Justice would be together no matter what. “We’ll find other people like us, and we’ll be safe.”

“And we’ll do it together.”

“Always,” Tag said.

Justice squeezed his hand. “Always.”

 

Chapter One

Justice couldn’t ignore the message on his phone if his life depended on it. When his boss demanded he report in, Justice listened.

When his boss was Devlin O’Malley, head of the Agency for Covert Rare Operatives and a goddamned badass agent in his own right? Justice was practically at a full run to get to him ASAP, as Devlin’s message had not-so-subtly demanded.

Justice hadn’t been called to Devlin’s office like this—without any knowledge of why—since he’d been a brand-new agent. Back then, he’d been convinced he was being ushered in to get kicked out of the program he’d been desperate to join since the day he’d discovered its existence.

In actuality, Devlin had summoned him that time to welcome him into the fold—Justice had passed all his qualifiers with flying colors. And he’d continued to be a viable and valuable member of the ACRO team, especially after leading several key points on the major Itor bombing a few months ago.

Devlin had been running the agency since his parents died. He’d helped hundreds of agents with special abilities, much in the same way he’d helped Justice: by taking him into the ACRO company in the Catskills, training him, giving him a family. ACRO also took in some regular human agents too, for a variety of reasons—some of them from Dev’s days in the Air Force. ACRO was a formidable organization, and although they’d scored some major victories over the past years, evil was always too plentiful to eradicate fully.

“Go right in—he’s waiting. Not patiently,” Gigi told him cheerfully. She’d been Devlin’s PA for the past couple of years, and she was gorgeous. If you swung that way. Which he didn’t. But hell, he could still appreciate beauty. Which meant yeah, he could also appreciate the man who currently sat behind the big mahogany desk . . . and somehow managed to dwarf it. Justice suspected it would’ve swallowed most men, but Devlin was anything but.

“Hey, Devlin.”

“Justice. Sit.” Dev motioned to the chairs in front of his desk. Dev was feared, respected, and liked, which were qualities that Justice hadn’t associated as ever going together, especially not when they were linked with a leader. He’d learned that Dev encompassed all those qualities—and so many more—when he’d all but dragged himself in here four years earlier, devastated by the loss of his mother, among other things.

Sternly, Dev told him, “I need you to listen to something,” then pressed a button and a familiar voice growled out from the computer, “I need to talk to Justice.”

A chill ran down Justice’s spine.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you must have the wrong number.”

“Bullshit. He works at ACRO. Where the hell is he? Put him on the phone.”

And that’s when Justice heard Dev’s voice on the recording—he must’ve been called to intervene in the conversation. “Who the fuck is this? Because if you need help, you can just fucking ask.”

“I did. I asked. To speak. To Justice.”

“He’s not here. It’s me or nothing. Go.”

A pause, and then, “Fuck. I need his help. Tell him to call Tag. Or better yet, here.” He rattled off coordinates, which Justice put into the special mapping program on his phone.

Taggart. His Taggart. Somewhere in . . . Buttfuck, Alaska.

He stared down at the scar that ran from the inside of his palm, all the way to his pinky finger, then rubbed at the scar like that would do something magical, connect him to Tag in some way it hadn’t been able to before.

No, in some ways that goddamned scar had driven them further apart. So much for blood oaths.

“Is this the same Taggart you told me about? The one who wouldn’t come to ACRO with you?”

Justice nodded numbly. The deaths of their mothers at the hands of men with special powers had set them on opposite paths. Justice had embraced his own powers and joined ACRO to fight against evil, while Tag had cursed his abilities—and everyone else who wielded them.

“You wanna tell me how he got ACRO’s number?” Devlin asked.

Justice frowned. “We have a public number.”

“For the locals. Who think we’re a private security company. And that’s not the number your old buddy called.” Dev braced his forearms on the desk and leaned forward. “He called the secure line. So how did he get the number?”

Caught in the crosshairs of Dev’s intense, dark gaze, Justice squirmed, something he hadn’t done since Tag’s mom had given him a dress-down for breaking her favorite lamp while wrestling with Tag.

“I don’t know,” Justice said.

Dev gave a slow nod and leaned back in his chair. “Any idea where Taggart’s been?”

“None, sir. Devlin. Sorry.” He scrubbed his hand over his face, feeling like he was in some kind of daze. Devlin didn’t look angry, just concerned. “I tried his old phone number a few times. More than a few over the first year I came here. I’d hoped he’d keep it on, come to his senses eventually, but one day I called and a woman answered. She had no idea who Tag was or what I was talking about.” Tag had given the number up, and Justice remembered sitting there, clutching his phone, and realizing that his last tentative connection with Tag was gone. Not that he couldn’t find him if he really tried, of course, with ACRO’s resources, and he’d certainly thought about it over the years, but his anger at his one-time best friend always stopped him.

Dev paused for a moment before telling him, “Well, sometimes it takes years for people with special abilities to come to their senses. They’re not exactly the most trusting bunch.”

He should’ve trusted me. “Right.”

“Right,” Devlin echoed, tilting his head like he was assessing Justice for weakness.

Fuck that. “So Taggart needs rescuing,” he managed, although his voice sounded raw even to his own ears.

“Are you sure that’s Tag? Could it be someone pretending to be him?” When Justice immediately shook his head, Dev put his hand up in an I’m not done gesture. “Listen to me— This is your life. You need to make sure that’s him, and not someone pretending to be him. I want you to listen again and tell me if he’s giving you any kind of hidden message.”

“Like he’s being held hostage?”

“Exactly. That’s how Itor and some of the smaller agencies work. They play on our emotions. They use the people we love, and the people who love us.”

Justice snorted at that last part, because Tag had given up on him—and on loving him—four years ago when he’d turned into the world’s biggest asshole. But, at Devlin’s insistence, Justice listened to the recording four more times, the knife burrowing deeper into his heart each time. “Dev, it’s him. And he’s scared. He always gets extra assholish when he’s scared.”

Dev nodded. Steepled his fingers, rocked back in his chair, and asked, “Are you too close to this?”

“Uh, yeah.” Justice admitted it easily because come on. And Dev was pretty much a human lie detector anyway.

“Want me to send someone else?”

“No one else can handle Tag. Trust me.” He sighed, thinking of what a damned stubborn bastard Tag could be—never mind his powers, which Justice understood intimately.

“Any idea what he’s been involved in?”

For Dev, interrogation came as easily as breathing. At this point, it was an inescapable trait in all ACRO agents, and sometimes, asking questions in different ways elicited new information. Jolted the memory and shook free intel that could help. But not this time.

“I have no idea, Dev. I tried to bring him to ACRO with me. He refused. I haven’t spoken to him since I got here.” Justice ran a hand through his hair, fighting the urge to stand up and pace. “If Itor has him, we’ll get him back.”

“And if he’s still free, maybe on the run?”

“I’ll get him to come in with me this time. He has to.”

“If he refuses again?”

“I’ll bring him here against his will.” He spoke through gritted teeth—and he meant it.

“Good. He’s too valuable to leave in the open like that . . . if he’s still a free man.”

They both knew Dev was thinking about the mercenary Seducers, the ones Itor had been using recently in an attempt to rebuild by gathering up scattered Itor agents, as well as to bring in new recruits against their will. The merc Seducers Itor used were well trained and only worked for the highest bidder—fucking menaces and Itor’s best shot at reorganizing. That’s why there were bounties on most merc Seducers’ heads.

“So, what, if I can find a rogue Seducer along the way and bring him in along with Tag, it’s like a two-for-one special?”

Devlin sighed. “Something like that.” And Justice swore he saw just a hint of a smile.

“A perfect way to spent the Christmas holidays—bagging a merc.” And Justice meant it because Christmastime was Hell on Earth to begin with. Add to that the fact that Tag might reject him—again—and he had to have one bright spot.

“I just have one question, more for Tag than for you. Why ACRO now?”

“That’s the million-dollar question, Devlin. And it’s exactly what I intend to find out.”

 

Chapter Two

The metallic snap of a leg trap clicking into its spring-loaded ready position rang out in the cold Arctic air. Taggart stepped away from his handiwork, covered his tracks, and trudged through several feet of snow to the building hidden thirty yards away in the forest. He was freezing his ass off by the time he shoved open the heavy door, when he got a face full of only slightly less cold air that told him he’d neglected the fire.

Wasn’t that just great. He’d never thought he’d see this godforsaken cabin again, yet here he was, playing Mountain Man and failing the basics. Didn’t matter that he owned this shithole; two and a half years ago, he’d traded life in the frigid Alaskan wilderness for the sun in Florida, and he hadn’t looked back.

He never looked back.

Until now.

But that’s what happened when you’re kidnapped from your bartending job in the Florida Keys by the same evil agency that had tortured and killed your mother. That had been a little over a year ago. Then a couple of months ago, ACRO had torn Itor apart, allowing him to break free of its grip and run like hell to his old cabin . . . a cabin he’d sworn he’d never come back to.

So yeah, he was doing the hindsight thing with every decision he’d ever agonized over and wondering which ones were wrong turns. At this point, the only decision he knew he’d gotten right was parting ways with Justice. There was too much pain between them, too many memories that were still too crystal clear with no dull edges to soften them.

Which was why contacting the man had been the hardest call of his life, made only after finally realizing he had nowhere left to run. This cabin was his last stand, and his choices came down to dying in a hail of bullets or begging Justice for help, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to let Itor take him again. So, yeah, crawling back to Justice beat bleeding out in the snow.

Barely.

And didn’t it just figure that ACRO had assholes running the switchboard? As if it didn’t suck enough to have to reach out to his former best friend and lover, he’d had to listen to some pompous prick tell him he couldn’t talk to Justice.

Itor had been full of pompous pricks too.

ACRO isn’t Itor, Tag, Justice’s voice rang in Tag’s memory. They’re different.

That had been Justice’s mantra from the day their mothers had finally told them everything they knew about the two agencies that employed—or enslaved—people with special abilities. The difference, according to Justice, was that Itor used and abused people, while ACRO helped them. They were different.

Fuck different. If that phone call was anything to go by, ACRO was run by arrogant fuckwads cut from the same cloth as Itor.

Shivering, he removed his snow gear and piled it next to the couch before making a beeline for the wood stove. The iron door creaked open, revealing a sad pile of dying embers. In the dim light streaming through the tiny bulletproof windows, he grabbed the closest thing that would burn—the slip of paper with ACRO’s number—and tossed it on top of the glowing embers. He watched with grim satisfaction as the note went up in flames, the last physical reminder he had of his time at Itor. Just one week before ACRO’s attack, he’d nearly been caught while copying a file containing basic Itor intel on ACRO. At the time, he wasn’t even sure what he was going to do with the information, but damn, today he’d thanked his lucky stars he had it.

Now he just had to wait and see if his theft paid off, or if calling Justice proved to be a waste of time.

Justice.

Shit.

He shoved a shard of kindling into the wood stove with more force than was necessary. A shower of sparks bounced off his flannel shirt, except the one that started to burn into the fabric. He slammed the stove’s door shut and slapped the damned ember onto the scuffed wood floor, where he crushed it with his boot.

Jesus. At this rate, he didn’t need to worry about Itor finding him and destroying the cabin; Taggart was going to do that himself.

Something cracked like a gunshot, ripping apart the silence. For a heartbeat, his magnetic ability exploded to life, ready for action, ready to use against . . . the pop of sap exploding in the fire.

Ah, damn, he was losing it. He scrubbed his hand over his face, hating that he was this twitchy, but hating more that his power had reared its ugly head. He hadn’t used it since the day he’d escaped Itor, hadn’t been tempted even once, so the fact that it had engaged so quickly and easily meant he was far more on edge than he’d thought.

Cursing, he flipped on the lights and strode across the room to the front window to peer out into the rapidly growing darkness. Nothing moved, but he’d know if so much as a coyote tried to approach the cabin. The leg trap he’d set a few minutes ago was just one tiny piece of a larger defense system. He’d also installed an arsenal of nonlethal booby-traps around the perimeter and four lethal measures closer in, all four controlled by a single phone on his counter.

Anyone trying to get to him would be in for a lot of nasty surprises. He just had to hope Justice would know what to look for. He should, since Tag had intentionally rigged the area with the kind of stuff he and Justice had played around with as kids. A fucked-up childhood, sure, but he was alive because of it. Every minute of the endless hours they’d spent practicing with traps had been worth it. So had all the time spent learning to shoot, to disguise themselves, to pickpocket, to track and set alarms—all done in preparation for the day Itor found them.

Turned out that you could never prepare for that.

He was about to fetch a beer from the fridge when the lights flickered. The generator needed more gas. He threw on his snow gear again, and ten minutes later, the generator was happy and he was back inside, trying to thaw himself.

December in Alaska sucked. Oh, it might be a Christmas-lover’s wet dream, but Tag hadn’t celebrated since his and Justice’s mothers died on Christmas night.

The next day, he’d lost Justice too, but to ACRO. And the bitch of it was, Justice had gone willingly. The bastard had left Tag behind and had gone with people who were no different than the sick scumbags at Itor.

“They’re different,” Justice had insisted for the millionth time. “They’re the good guys.”

“You stupid fuck,” he muttered to the empty air as he grabbed that beer.

Good guys. Seriously? Did Justice think Itor thought of themselves as bad guys? Did the KGB, CIA, Mossad, think they were the bad guys? No fucking way. Everyone thought they were good guys. Hell, Al Qaeda and ISIS thought they were good guys too.

Ian thought he was a good guy.

Ian.

Goddammit, that Itor bastard had no business butting into Taggart’s ragey memories of Justice. But then, Ian had been pushy since the day he’d sauntered into Tag’s Key West bar, oozing sex and danger, just when Tag’d gotten to the point where Justice wasn’t on his mind every minute of every day.

He’d fallen hard for Ian, believing he was a sport-fishing charter boat captain. They’d spent six months fucking, talking, and fucking some more. Tag had told Ian his secrets—well, not about his powers or his mother’s time as a captive in a secret superagency, but he’d confided about his fucked-up life after his mom died and Justice left. He’d told Ian the sappiest fucking things about his feelings for Justice. Ian had been understanding. Kind. Loving.

And Tag had fallen for it, not knowing that Ian had been screening him for Itor. Six months to the day that Ian had come into Tag’s life, Itor captured him. Took him to a training facility in Japan, where he’d been poked, prodded, blackmailed, tortured, and finally sent to Itor’s Madrid base and forced to kill.

Because of Ian.

So now, here he was, once again hiding from Itor, but this time begging help from the organization he had avoided for so long.

Now he just had to wait and wonder who would get here first. ACRO or Itor. And the thing was, he didn’t know which would be worse. Especially because, while at Itor, he’d killed two ACRO agents.

So it was entirely possible that, by reaching out to Justice, he’d just signed his own death warrant.

And it could very well come at the hands of his childhood best friend and former lover.

 

Chapter Three

Justice landed the plane forty miles outside of the coordinates for Tag’s place at an outpost that let him pay for storage for the week. Then he used the snowmobile he’d brought along to get him a mile out.

From there, based on how Tag’s mind had worked, even before that fateful Christmas, he had to snowshoe it. And obviously nothing had changed because, as he’d suspected, it took him a good deal of time to thread through the death traps of doom Tag had laced through the heavy, crusted snow leading up to the metal, domed structure the coordinates indicated was his hideout.

Granted, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you could easily pass this place. It’d been built into the mountainside, blocked in by trees, and it didn’t stand out at first or even fifth glance.

After a freezing half an hour of battling his snowshoes, bulky snow gear, and Tag’s nonlethal traps—and Tag had definitely been practicing—Justice found the ones that could do far more damage.

Why the hell am I jumping through hoops for this asshole? Isn’t it enough that I jumped when he needed me? He faced the dome, took off his glove, and gave Tag’s cabin the finger.

And Tag must’ve been watching because Justice heard a subtle click, which meant the traps were shut off for the moment. Justice’s breath froze on his skin as he quickly crunched through the snow before the bastard turned them on again—for fun. Then the heavy front door jerked open before he’d put a single, booted foot on the porch, and Justice stilled at his first look at Taggart in four years.

Tag looked exhausted. He was as big as Justice remembered—at six feet six inches, he towered over most and had always made Justice feel tiny in comparison at six one. He was as hot as Justice remembered too, all dark hair and lazy amber eyes, and Justice willed his fucking libido to sit and stay.

Just because he hadn’t gotten laid recently wasn’t any reason to lose his shit.

Over Taggart.

His first love. The guy he’d wanted to spend the rest of his motherfucking life with.

The guy who’d promised Justice that he’d wanted nothing more than that as well. But instead of “Thanks for making the trip to come help me even though I’m an asshole,” Justice got a dose of Tag’s typical bullshit.

“What the fuck took you so long, Justice?” Tag demanded, his breath hanging in the still air.

“Good to see you too, Tag.”

Tag stared at him in that way he had. For a long moment, it was pure coldness but then . . . then his eyes flickered and yeah, there it was, that electricity between them that’d always been able to override everything else.

Until it hadn’t.

Tag swallowed hard, and Justice wondered if he could push him back into the cabin and fuck him on the floor—or the couch or the bed—before ushering him to the plane. “Come on in.”

Come in and fuck you against the wall? Not a problem. “I uh . . . look, we need to get back to my plane and get you to ACRO.”

Tag gestured to the wall of dark clouds looming to the north. “Can’t. Storm’s coming.”

“Okay, Yeti, thanks for the update. I can fly through storms. And look, nothing to the south,” Justice motioned over his shoulder. “So the faster you can shut up and get on the plane . . .”

A low-flying plane zoomed overhead.

“Fuck. Get in here.” Tag grabbed him and pulled him inside. Justice went along, one hand instinctively hovering over the sidearm in the specially made pocket of his jacket. Tag slammed the door behind them. “Where did you park?”

Grateful for the warmth in the cabin, Justice peeled off his gloves and bent to remove the snowshoes. “The plane? The nearest settlement. The snowmobile? A mile out, hidden by trees.” He started to open the door to check if the plane was still close, since this place was fucking soundproofed, but Tag stopped him.

“Don’t.”

“Who’s after you, Tag? What’s so bad that you contacted me—contacted ACRO—after all these years?”

“Don’t ask questions, Justice. You always ask too many questions.”

“Really?” Justice dropped his pack. Unzipped his jacket and let it fall as Tag watched him. “I guess I feel like questions are the way you get to know things. Like, I’m gonna pretend you asked me questions, like you should’ve. I’m great, Tag. Nice to hear from you. Awesome the way you endeared yourself to the motherfucking head of ACRO—you know, the place you want to go for help right now?”

Tag stared at him, unblinking. “I didn’t say I wanted to go to ACRO. I needed your help, Justice. Not ACRO’s.”

“One and the same,” Justice ground out.

“Fuck. When did you turn into such a self-righteous prick?”

“Same time you ditched our promise.” Justice held up his hand, the one with the scar from the blood oath, and yeah, maybe he’d been a bit dramatic about it. But fuck it all, Tag had been equally so. Then and now. “You brought me here, opened up all these old wounds—”

“I needed help.”

“And had me fly halfway around the world to do what? Drag your ass out of here and drop you . . . where? Into more trouble?” He kicked off his snow pants with jerky movements, heard the rip of stitches when they caught on his damned boots.

“You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

“You’re right. But I would’ve if you’d fucking kept your old phone number in service,” Justice pointed out. He hadn’t realized how much anger he’d built up inside against Taggart, but that asshole had deserted him, and when they’d needed each other most.

“You were trying to force me into ACRO.”

“Right. Because this is so much better.” Justice waved his hands around this metal biodome from hell. “I don’t care what happened to you or whatever else your protests are. You’re coming to ACRO with me.”

“Fuck that,” Tag snapped. “I called you. Not them.”

Unbelievable. “Do I really have to point out that you did call ACRO? Their extremely private number?”

Tag ground his molars loud enough for Justice to hear the scrape of enamel. “I didn’t have your number. Seems like ACRO erased your entire existence. So, yeah, I did what I had to do, and it worked. You’re here. ACRO can stay the hell out of it.”

So. Fucking. Stubborn. “Sorry, man, ACRO knows about you now, and there’s no taking that bullet out of the chamber.”

Tag snorted. “So . . . what? You’ll take me in against my will?” But he shifted uneasily.

“I’ll tie you up. Gag you if I have to.” Justice backed Tag against the wall, but Tag held out strong arms, his hands against Justice’s chest, keeping Justice from getting too close. “But you like that, right, Tag? Least, you always did.”

“Fuck you,” Tag spat out.

Justice looked between them. Tag’s hard cock was outlined against his pants, same as Justice’s. “You need me to tie you for this? The way you used to want it, so you could pretend it wasn’t you wanting me, that I was forcing it all on you? I know you liked that and hell, so did I.”

“Go away, Justice. This was a mistake.” Tag’s hands were still holding him off, but they’d also fisted—Tag’s sign of want and need—and fuck, it’d been too long.

“Was it? Or did you call me here on purpose because you missed this? Missed us?”

“No.”

Justice smiled at the lie. And this, at least, was as familiar as Tag being a miserable bastard. This zap of electricity that always passed between them had been theirs from their first moments fucking.

Justice leaned in, forcing Tag to bend his arms. He licked the side of Tag’s neck, a predator marking his prey. “You still smell the same. Taste the same. But I’m going to check everywhere, just to make sure.”

He planted his mouth down on Taggart’s, expecting resistance. What he got instead was Tag grabbing his hair, twisting his fingers in it, holding him close.

He was going to get Tag’s clothes off, fuck him, and then get him on the plane. Bound, gagged, whatever.

But first, he was going to fuck Taggart, and pray he didn’t wake up before it was over.

If this was another dream, he didn’t want to know.

***

This had to be a dream. Or a nightmare. Maybe both.

Four years after losing Justice, Tag’s body was reacting as if they were still together and nothing had changed. As if Justice hadn’t all but destroyed him.

Clearly, Justice hadn’t destroyed his dick because it was all, I’m so happy to see you!

Taggart ripped his mouth away, but Justice palmed his face in both hands and held him for his kiss. It was brutal and angry and Tag loved it as much as he hated it.

He caught Justice’s bottom lip between his teeth and bit down hard, tasted blood. Justice growled, and Tag moaned as the raw, erotic sound vibrated all the way to his groin. Memories of dozens of past against-the-wall make-out sessions flipped through his mind, a distraction that gave Justice the upper hand. In an instant, Justice wheeled him away from the wall, hooked his leg behind Tag’s knees, and took him to the hardwood floor.

His shoulder jammed on impact, and his ribs, fractured during the Itor/ACRO battle a couple of months ago, hurt like fuck, but he forgot all of that as Justice came down on top of him and pinned Tag’s thighs between his.

“You dick.” Justice ripped open Tag’s shirt, sending buttons flying. “I see your impulse control hasn’t improved.”

No, but Justice’s fighting skills had. For some reason that turned him on. Turned him on so much that when Justice fell forward, grinding his erection against Tag’s and plunging his tongue inside Tag’s mouth, he forgot to fight for a moment. God . . . so . . . good. Didn’t feel like they had four years of bad history behind them. And when Justice shifted to rip open Tag’s jeans and palm his cock, Tag damned near came the way he had back when they were teens and Justice had touched him for the first time.

Wrenching their mouths apart again, Tag grabbed Justice’s wrist. “We’re not doing this. I didn’t bring you here for— Motherfucker!”

His balls felt like they were in a clamp, throbbing in Justice’s tight fist. Justice’s touch was expert, holding him on the razor’s edge of pain but managing to make it erotic, and he wondered what he’d have to do or say to make the guy stop.

Or squeeze just a little harder.

They’d had angry sex before, but this was different. This wasn’t about Tag getting wasted and forgetting to help Justice study for his physics exam. This wasn’t about Justice flirting with another guy just to get a rise out of Tag. This was about real pain, and they had the real rage to back it up.

“I don’t care why you brought me here.” Justice’s fist twisted, just a little, and Tag hissed. “You knew we had to get this out of the way before anything else.”

Yeah, he knew that. He’d known it when he dialed ACRO. “I hate you.”

If Tag had said that four years ago, he’d have seen hurt in Justice’s baby blues. Now he saw only cynical amusement. “Enough to tell me to stop?”

Justice’s hold on his sac released, and the next thing he knew, Justice was fisting his cock instead. Tag damn near swallowed his tongue as his ex-lover’s hand slid up and down. It was over and he knew it. Fighting this was stupid, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t go down swinging.

Falling forward again, Justice pinched Tag’s lobe between his teeth. “Well?” he prompted. “Do you hate me enough to tell me to stop?”

Taggart arched into Justice’s palm. “I hate you enough to not let you fuck me.” He drove his fingers through Justice’s short hair and yanked his head back so he could look him in the eye. “No. Fucking.”

The only sign that Tag’s words had struck their target was Justice’s subtle inhale. Tag would never let anyone fuck him if he didn’t care about them, and Justice knew that. Never. Hell, he’d only ever bottomed for Justice and Ian. Only Justice and Ian had been inside his body. Inside his heart.

“I mean it, Justice,” Tag growled. “You so much as try, and I swear to God, I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Kill me?” Justice’s hand wedged lower inside Tag’s open jeans until his finger found Tag’s hole. Tag bit back a moan. “You don’t have a killer bone in your body.”

If you only knew. Tag jammed his fist into Justice’s ribs and bore down on a particularly sensitive nerve. “No. Fucking,” he repeated.

Justice conceded with a shallow nod. “For now.”

No, not for now. For forever.

But before Tag could say that, Justice slid down his body in a quick, agile move and opened his mouth over his cock. Holy shit. His hips came off the floor in a massive surge, seeking more of that wet warmth. Justice took him deep and then began a merciless, punishing suck-lick-swallow rhythm that made Tag’s vision go blurry.

But not blurry enough to be able to pretend that it wasn’t Justice’s blond head bobbing up and down on his dick. No, when he looked down his body at what his ex-lover was doing . . . Holy shit, this was really happening.

Part of him wanted to weep with relief—the rest of him dreaded the regret and self-loathing he’d experience the moment it was over.

Pleasure streaked through him, erasing all that emotionally charged bullshit in his head, and he surrendered to Justice’s masterful touch. There was plenty of time to mire himself in a black pit of remorse later.

Justice sucked hard, hollowing out his cheeks, and Tag shouted in ecstasy. He was about to blow—

Abruptly, Justice reared up, tore open his own jeans, and shoved them down with his boxer briefs. His cock sprung out, a beautiful dusky column of flesh that made Tag’s mouth water. He licked his lips as he watched Justice crawl up his body and put the head of that gorgeous cock against Tag’s lips.

“Open your mouth,” Justice said, his voice smoky and commanding, a combination that was impossible to resist. “Suck it.”

Taggart gave it to the count of five, just to be stubborn. Then, with as much control as he could muster, he parted his lips and accepted the easy push of Justice’s erection into his mouth.

They both moaned. Tag knew every ridge, bump, and vein of Justice’s cock, and fuck, this was like coming home. Like four years hadn’t passed. Tag left all the anger and hatred behind and began to pleasure Justice eagerly, gripping his jeans-clad ass in one hand, while he wrapped the other around Justice’s thick length. His own cock was demanding attention, but the bastard could wait.

Pulling Justice in more, Tag forced him to fall forward and brace himself on his palms as he straddled Tag. The leverage allowed Justice to pump his hips and fuck Tag’s mouth the way they both liked it.

Closing his eyes, Tag concentrated on the warmth radiating from Justice, warmth he’d missed for a long time. He’d ached for this . . . but had he ached for the sex, or for Justice?

If the sound of Justice’s panting breaths was any indication, he was aching, too. Good. Tag was going to make him ache a little more.

Baring his teeth, he scraped them lightly along Justice’s shaft, wringing a hiss of pleasure-pain from him before sucking him deep and repeating it all again. And again.

When he was done punishing Justice—for now—he swallowed hard on his cock, and Justice groaned. “So good. You’re the best at that.”

Ian had said the same thing, and fuck that thought—Ian and his betrayal had no place in what was going on here, now, with Justice and his betrayal.

Tag’s cock was straining and his balls were throbbing, and this was enough foreplay. Wrapping his arm around Justice’s thigh, he forced him to shift positions. For a moment, Justice withdrew from Tag’s mouth, but a couple of seconds later, he was straddling Tag’s head again and sinking his wet cock back between Tag’s lips. Tag moaned around his shaft as Justice’s warm mouth engulfed Tag’s erection and sucked it deep.

Tag knew Justice had never liked this position, but he loved it, top or bottom—loved giving and taking pleasure equally—and he lasted approximately ten seconds before his balls tugged tight and his climax blasted through his cock. Justice swallowed, milking Tag hard, and even before the last spasms of Tag’s bliss faded away, Justice was also coming, his hot semen splashing into Tag’s hungry mouth.

Tag took it all, licking and sucking as Justice did the same, taking every last drop Tag had to give. His pulse pounded in ears as pleasure wracked him, and inside his chest, his heart was knocking painfully against his ribs as if warning him against feeling anything besides lust and anger for this man.

His ticker didn’t have to worry. Even now, utterly spent and his body trembling, Tag’s mind was filling up with all the reasons why what they had done was a terrible idea. No doubt Justice’s thoughts were heading in the same direction.

Groaning, Justice shifted off Tag and rolled to the side, his soft, glistening cock resting against his hard abs just inches away from Tag’s face. Four years ago, he’d have loved that. Now, feeling exposed, Tag tucked and buttoned up, but Justice apparently didn’t give a rat’s ass, just lay there, chest heaving under the red Iron Man sweatshirt he wore. The ratty, threadbare Iron Man sweatshirt Tag had gotten Justice as a gag gift during their first year of college.

“Iron Man, get it?” Tag engaged his power, and a pair of scissors flew off the counter and landed in his palm. “You’ll always be attracted to me.”

Justice rolled his eyes. “Lame, man. Lame.” In a flash of motion, he hooked his arm around Tag’s neck and drew him in for a kiss. “I don’t need a metal suit to be attracted to you,” he murmured. “I’m yours.”

Tag snorted out loud.

“You wanna let me in on the joke?” Justice asked.

No, not really. The last thing Tag wanted to do was acknowledge the damned thing, because Justice didn’t do anything randomly. Putting on that sweatshirt today had been a deliberate choice. Either he was trying to mess with Tag’s head, or he was trying to punch him in the heart.

What a jackass.

“I’m just wondering why you didn’t dress for Alaska in the winter. You could have frozen out there—” Tag broke off as Justice tugged up the hem of the sweatshirt to reveal a layer of fleece and a thermal shirt.

“I’m not an idiot.” Justice’s voice was as rough and raw as what they’d just done on the floor.

Shit. This had been as much a fight as it’d been sex . . . and Tag wasn’t sure who’d won.

“Did you hear that?” Justice murmured. “A click—”

The door banged open, and a blast of cold and snow roared into the cabin, bringing with it Tag’s second visitor of the day.

The second man he’d ever loved.

The second man who’d ever betrayed him.

from MM Good Book Reviews

Lust, deceit, betrayal, feisty attitudes, excitement, adventure, action, and lots of danger. And I am not just talking about the dangers coming for them, but the danger that comes from three men wanting each other and fighting the pull.

from Delighted Reader

A delicious blend of ‘enemies to lovers to reunion romance’...a wonderful experience.

from Crystal's Many Reviewers

[A]n amazing action packed book from start to finish.

from Kristy's Brain Food

...I enjoyed the book immensely.

from The Kimi-chan Experience

Action. Explosions. Intrigue. Special powers. And a fair amount of sexy times too.