DAMN THAT brat and his stupid surprises! It was 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and Gareth stood in the kitchen with his second cup of tea. Despite the early hour, he was fully dressed and ready to go out, though his mood veered between expectant and mildly annoyed. He didn’t object to early mornings, not even on a weekend. He did object—rather a lot as it turned out—to waking up in an empty bed and having breakfast by himself just as he was getting used to having Jack around.
It made him cranky when Jack returned to his Wimbledon home after work instead of staying with him. For one, he’d discovered that he slept better wrapped around Jack than he did when he had his large bed to himself. For another, Jack was prone to spend all night glued to his computer screens, drinking coffee, listening to the most unexpected music, and poking his nose into places he had no call to even know about. More than once had Gareth swung by Jack’s place on the way to work and found Jack still wearing the previous day’s clothes and without so much as an hour’s sleep to his name.
None of the late nights ever stopped Jack from doing his work—the man was far too professional for that—but when Jack chased windmills, Gareth started to worry.
It couldn’t be argued that Jack needed that chase as much as he needed food, or that his windmills turned out to be bona fide dragons more often than not. Or that, compared to other ways to spend free time, Jack’s was a worthwhile pursuit. Despite all that, Gareth hated that each chase dragged Jack back into a mire he’d barely escaped. He liked it even less when Jack’s preoccupation forced them to spend the weekend apart.
Dealing with the aftermath of Ricky’s death and helping Nico and Daniel recover from their imprisonment in a brothel wasn’t easy on Jack. He put on a good front, but Jack was haunted by failures. Especially his own. The moments when Jack remembered the courageous teen he’d known so briefly were growing less frequent, though no less painful. Some days, Jack sought refuge in loud music and long sparring sessions. On other days, he found his solace in Gareth’s hot tub, often in the middle of the night when he could be alone with his thoughts, the clouds, and the chimes of nearby church bells.
Christmas had been a turning point. Seeing Nico grow more confident dealing with a roomful of detectives and Daniel step up and confront his parents had helped Jack relax. He started to believe that he could have his own family made of people he chose, and began to trust what was between him and Gareth instead of second-guessing everything either of them did or said.
He and Jack worked as well together as they had while they served, and Gareth was growing to love the time they spent away from work, with or without the two boys they were working to make part of their family.
Nico and Daniel had started school again. For most of the week, they lived with Gareth’s mother, who was their official foster parent while the courts considered Jack and Gareth’s guardianship application. Weekends and odd days were spent at Gareth’s home or Jack’s, and over the last four months, they had found a comfortable routine doing perfectly normal, mundane things like shopping, cooking, or crashing out on the couch watching movies.
The two boys grew more comfortable around strangers. Nightmares became rare occurrences rather than the norm, and Jack slowly lost the watchful, wary look. He laughed more often, and Gareth loved to hear it, though neither regular hours nor good food, cozy nights in, or great sex lessened Jack’s determination to chase down every person involved in Ricky’s death and Daniel’s and Nico’s imprisonment.
Gareth poured a third cup of tea while he kept one eye on his driveway and the other on the kitchen clock, glad that Jack wasn’t there to see him fidget. They had never discussed Jack’s need to dish out justice or Gareth’s misgivings about Jack involving himself without regard for his emotional or physical well-being. Gareth had never mentioned his dread that Jack wasn’t there to stay, that one day he’d realize that being with Gareth stopped him from doing what he wanted to do. Even without those discussions, Gareth knew something was brewing.
Jack had been twitchy for the last couple of weeks, vacillating between chasing child molesters, trying to identify the recipients of the data that Nancarrow Mining’s former finance director had leaked, and working to fend off hacking attacks while tracing their sources. Jack’s low-key mutterings and the helpless smiles of Donald Frazer, his partner on Nancarrow Mining’s network security desk, made it clear that Jack had been unable to settle on any of his tasks. The only time Jack focused was when he was in the gym, beating the crap out of the company’s legal counsel, Aidan Conrad, who had become his favorite sparring partner.
So when Jack had suddenly suggested a day out, Gareth had agreed without hesitation. If Jack needed a change of scenery to spill what bothered him, then Gareth was all for it.
A deep, throaty rumble broke the quiet of the morning and Gareth frowned. It didn’t sound like Jack’s beloved Gixxer, and anyway, he had been told they were not riding to… wherever it was they were going. The sound neared and settled outside his house, and when Gareth opened the front door and walked to the end of the drive, he came face-to-face with Jack Horwood—in a way he’d never seen or imagined him before.
He was used to Jack in skintight jeans and with a screwdriver between his teeth, bent over desks, or crawling into spaces rodents would have found restrictive. He was used to Jack in leather, astride his bike, and Jack in sleeveless tops and jogging bottoms moving through kata with grace and precision. He was even used to Jack the tease, meshing leather, music, and suggestive moves until Gareth thought his skin would catch on fire. Jack appealed to him whatever incarnation he chose, and this time around he had surpassed himself.
Long, low-slung, and roofless, with sexy, graceful curves, the deep green two-seater sparkled in the early morning sunlight. Jack sat snugly ensconced in magnolia leather, a dark green fleece top and matching ball cap complementing the color of the car. Fingerless driving gloves of soft black leather and aviator sunglasses added to his rakish look. He grinned from ear to ear, revving the engine, playing with the throaty sound.
“Come on, Flynn, the morning’s wasting.”
“What the fuck is that?”
“Transport. Get your gear and get in before I wake the neighborhood,” Jack sniped at Gareth’s question. “This isn’t a sound you can ignore for long.”
Gareth had to agree. The deep bass notes of the car’s engine rippled down the street and back again. He quickly ducked inside and reached for wallet, phone, and keys before he grabbed a jacket from the rack and sunglasses and a ball cap from a drawer. Moments later he stood beside the car’s passenger door and frowned at the lack of a visible door handle. Surely Jack wasn’t expecting him to vault over the door?
Jack’s laugh, carefree and enticing, bubbled up over the engine’s rumble, and without Gareth being able to see what he did, the passenger door popped open, ready for Gareth to climb in.
The seat was a surprisingly long way down. And once he sat, all he could see were acres of creamy hide and gleaming walnut trim, with a tiny slice of glittering green bonnet stretching out in front of him.
“Where did you get this monster?” he asked as he pulled the seat belt across his chest and Jack peeled away from the curb with a deep V-8 growl that was sure to rattle windowpanes along the quiet cul-de-sac.
“It’s mine. Well, half of it is.”
“Who owns the other half?”
Gareth couldn’t help but stare. “What? How the hell did that happen?”
Jack’s smile was so wide even the crinkles at the corners of his eyes took note. “Old hat,” he confided, voice indulgent. “We were on assignment together and I sent her to find us some wheels. This is what she came back with.” He patted the steering wheel as he turned a corner and drove toward Kew Gardens. “I called her every name in the book, but we had so much fun with the thing, we kept it after we were done with the assignment. That woman’s one seriously talented mechanic, so Arnie stays with her most of the time.”
“I wanted to call him Tyson, but Mel wouldn’t let me. She has anger management issues.”
A surprised laugh burst from Gareth’s throat at that most absurd of understatements. Melanie Rookes was a talented mechanic, no doubt about it. She was a seriously talented sniper, too, provided that temper of hers didn’t land her in trouble. Gareth had served with her husband. He’d heard a few of the stories. “I can’t imagine the two of you together on assignment.”
“Don’t even try. It wasn’t pretty.”
Jack’s relaxed mood shifted to something darker, like the sun slipping behind a cloud. Gareth had seen far too much of that in the last six months. He stretched his hand across the center console and skimmed his fingertips over the tattoo on Jack’s left temple, skipping over the arm of the aviators in the process. “Don’t go there. Tell me instead where you’re taking me.”
Jack’s grin returned. “You keep whining about the lack of decent oysters, and I’m sick of hearing it. I’m going to get you some of the finest oysters in England, and then I’ll watch you eat them until you pop.”
“You don’t even like oysters.”
“So not the point,” Jack shot back as he smoothly filtered onto the anticlockwise side of the M25, slid into the outside lane, and floored the throttle. Traffic was light that early on a Sunday and he clearly hoped to be off the road to hell before that changed. “The real point here is that oysters are one of your favorite foods. And you whine about the bloody things even when you’re at Simpson’s eating them. So now you won’t have to.”
The engine in the deep green car didn’t just produce speed. Gareth could feel the V-8’s rumbling growl through the soles of his boots and the seat of his jeans. The acceleration pressed him into the cream leather bucket seat, the wind tried to rip the cap from his head, and they garnered more than a few envious looks as they shot past much of the early Sunday traffic.
It wasn’t until they reached the junction with the M2 that Gareth got a clue. “Whitstable,” he pronounced, gaping. “We’re going to Whitstable.”
“Yes. I told you.”
“You did not.”
“Some of the best oysters in England…?” Jack repeated his words from earlier and Gareth was sure that, safe behind his sunglasses, Jack was rolling his eyes. “Where else would I take you?”
Gareth hadn’t planned on a day by the seaside. He hadn’t planned on oysters or on Jack being in such a mercurial mood… but he wouldn’t change it for the world. So he relaxed. He let himself be hugged by magnolia leather, pushed his sleeves up, leaned his head back, and enjoyed the sunshine, the company, and the deep throaty rumble of a powerful V-8.