Coming off a high-pressure undercover job for his company's covert
Retrievals Department, despite being on the edge of burnout, Jeff is
thrown straight into another mission, to trap illegal metal detectorists
who'll be planting a priceless reliquary in a field.
To be in the right place at the right time, Jeff seduces Alan, son of
the farmer who may or may not be in on the million dollar scam. Should
be straightforward, easy, and it is. Until Jeff finds himself falling
for Alan. But Alan is trying to shake off an obsessive ex-lover, and
doesn't want commitment, just their no strings, friends with benefits
relationship. Events have a way of changing minds.
~~~ * ~~~
harsh sounds etched into Jeff's brain like acid, and it wasn't until the tinny
backbeat registered that he managed to comprehend the torture was perpetrated
by his cell phone. And it was the Indiana Jones theme, which meant Nate
wanted him. Jeff swore, realized he was cursing in Russian, and swore again. In
English. He'd been debriefed and given a full medical in Moscow, of course, but that didn't mean Borya
Ivanovich was out of his thought processes.
he croaked, flailing his hand in the general direction of the night table. "Fuckfuckfuck…"
It could only be bad news, like the cancellation of his well-earned and
long-overdue vacation. He'd walked off the plane from Moscow
only ten hours ago and had proceeded to wash Russia and vodka out of his system
with good old American bourbon, so he was not inclined to be reasonable.
by luck than judgment, Jeff located his phone and pressed the key. "Nyet,"
he croaked. It would have been a snarl if his hangover had permitted it. "Shit.
No. Fuck off."
kid." Nate sounded weary, and Jeff acknowledged a faint twinge of
sympathy. His handler was no spring chicken, and it had been a rough assignment
for both of them. But Jeff hardened his heart.
He cut the connection, shoved the phone under the mattress, pulled the pillow
over his head, and tried to get back to sleep. It didn't work. Even muffled by
fabric and whatever else went into constructing a mattress, Indiana Jones
assaulted his senses again. Jeff whimpered and surrendered, fished out the cell
and fumbled for the correct key. "What?" he demanded. "I love
you like family, Nate, but I swear I'm going to break every bone in your body
if this is a callout."
Jeff moved the phone away from his ear and stared at it. He never brought
anyone to his apartment, or at least, he didn't remember doing so on this
occasion. Not that that meant much, given the amount of alcohol he'd poured
down his throat. Nate, on the other hand, sounded surprisingly sober.
Carefully, Jeff swiveled around to check out his bed. The other pillow was
pristine, no sign another head had rested on it, and the covers on the far side
were still tucked in. The en suite door stood open on a darkened bathroom, and
he couldn't hear a thing from the shower or toilet. "I think so."
sure! Come on, if I brought someone back with me, he sure as hell wouldn't be
sleeping on the fucking couch!" Jeff wracked his brain and managed to recall
stumbling from the club on his own and crawling into a cab. "I'm sure,"
How much have you drunk?"
I'm due this!" But it was more than time owed. After all those months
undercover, Jeff needed the space to crawl back into his own head, and his
handler knew it as well as he did, if not better.
know. It's tough," Nate said quietly, reasonably. "Thing is, it's an
me, Jeff. This is an easy case, nearest you'll get a paid vacation that counts
it's so easy, Boss-man can give it to someone else," Jeff muttered.
kiddo. It needs your gay ass."
Tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means." Jeff dragged his free
hand through his hair, fingers catching painfully in the tangles. "Nate?"
Nate repeated, and his regret was genuine, Jeff knew. "It's a skin-job. I
know we've just come out of the Kerzhakov assignment, but the boss wants you in
on this one. We'll get double our leave back at the end of it, he says."
want it in writing, signed and witnessed," Jeff snapped, giving in to the
inevitable. "Okay. Where and when?"
"Manhattan office, one
hour. Call a cab."
he answered grimly. "Right. Connolly does knows it's three o'clock in the
fucking morning, right?"
And he's the boss. See you soon."
groaned. Moving and feeling as if he were three times his thirty years, he
crawled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. This wasn't the worst
hangover he'd ever had by a long shot, but he'd planned on sleeping it off
before he started earning the next one. His vacation plans hadn't been
ambitious: get drunk, maybe have random anonymous sex if/when it was on offer,
and sleep off the alcohol. And remember to think in English. Lather, rinse,
life sucked. He stared at his reflection in the mirror, and for a moment the
fictional Borya Ivanovich gazed back at him. That face, with its wide blue eyes
and full, vulnerable mouth, framed by untidy waves of dark hair, looked more
like twenty than thirty, despite his defined cheekbones. His naked chest, bare
of any hair thanks to the depilation of even the few strands that tried to grow
around his areoles, was a sleek, creamy expanse of lightly defined muscles. So
were his limbs, making him as graceful as a classical Greek statue. The
apparent youthfulness was his stock in trade, but surely he had reached his
sell-by date now? Jeff swore and dragged a comb through his hair, taming the
wild curls and pushing them back from his face. At once his features looked
harder, older, more like himself. Then he forced himself to relax until his
eyes and mouth were his own again.
talent for sinking himself so deeply into his roles made him invaluable to the
Security and Retrievals Department of Davidson & Hart International
Insurance Inc., but when he spent a long time undercover, he found it hard to
slide back into himself. Nate helped, of course. That was one of the main
reasons why they were agent and handler.
Damiano Taylor," he said slowly. "From El Paso
via UC Berkeley and Quantico."
Though Quantico had been only a brief interlude
before he and the FBI agreed he wasn't their kind of material after all, and Texas had long since
been purged from his accent. By the time the last word of his mantra was
spoken, his own narrowed gaze and wry half-smile faced him. He gave himself a
mock salute. "Welcome home."
had half an hour to achieve something approaching functionality. Jeff showered,
brushed his teeth, and shambled into the small kitchen. He'd stocked up on quart
bottles of Gatorade beforehand, knowing they were the best things to rehydrate
him after a drinking session. After downing all of one and half of another,
along with a couple of Tylenol, he began to feel human again. More or less. The
twenty-four-hour diner down the block would provide him with a fast meal,
leaving him just enough time to get to Davidson & Hart's head office.
another swig from his bottle, Jeff slouched into the living room and dropped
onto his couch. The apartment was one of the perks of his job, but there wasn't
much to show it was any kind of home. It resembled a generic hotel room. No personal knickknacks
or clutter, no family photos, and as far as Jeff was concerned, no reason to
have them. Of course, Nate regularly got on his case about the Spartan aspect,
maintaining Jeff needed the anchors of familiar faces. Something, anything, to
remind him he was Jeff Taylor and not some case-related persona. Jeff
disagreed. He didn't spend a lot of time in America;
most of his cases were in Europe. All he
needed was a place to crash with a door he could shut. A place to unwind before
the next assignment. That was all.
time, the next assignment had caught up with him a lot sooner than he'd
expected. Jeff sighed and chugged the rest of the bottle. If Connolly kept his
side of the bargain, maybe he'd spend a few days in El Paso, catching up with the Taylor and
Vecellio clans. Then again, maybe not. Being with family was difficult. Not
because of his sexual orientation—they'd come to terms with his homosexuality
when he was in high school—but because the sheer weight of their expectations
became claustrophobic in a matter of hours.
didn't know he was anything more than a paper-pusher for Davidson & Hart, and
in their book he didn't stack up too well against his cardiovascular surgeon
brother. Not to mention one sister's criminal law degree and the other one's
doctorates in environmental sciences and geo-engineering. His own degrees in
Slavic studies and languages paled to insignificance, especially as he was
apparently wasting them sitting behind a desk.
those appearances were deceiving. While D&H specialized in supplying
security equipment and expertise to museums and art galleries, their Securities
& Retrievals Department had a little-advertised covert function. Stolen
items could be retrieved with extreme prejudice, with or without the
cooperation of the local law. And that’s where Jeff’s true expertise came in.
had soon dispelled the worst of Jeff's hangover, and his stomach started to
demand solid food. Within ten minutes he was in the diner, ordering from their
all-day breakfast menu. Another thirty minutes and he walked into his boss's
office to find his handler had arrived before him. Nate Renouf gave him a nod
and a rueful smile. Amazingly, Nate, who resembled a college professor with his
mane of prematurely white hair and neatly trimmed beard, showed no sign of a
hangover. His wife, Rose, had obviously taken control.
Fletcher and Operation Janvier," Connolly said, placing two brown folders
in front of Jeff. Connolly's heavy-jowled features were set in his usual scowl.
He looked like Richard Nixon on a bad day, and as usual, there'd been no
preliminary greeting. "Your address and the keys to your apartment,"
Connolly continued. An envelope and a couple of keys joined the folders. "Renouf
will be based here until the action moves across the pond. He'll bring you up
to speed, so call him as soon as you've made contact with Fletcher. You're back
in the Leidenton office, and you start at oh eight hundred hours tomorrow. You
have fifteen days to make a solid acquisition, and I expect you to be with
Fletcher on the plane to England
at the end of it. Keep the expenses reasonable this time."
the hour Jeff had left Manhattan behind and was
driving a company car toward upstate New York's
Ulster County and Leidenton. Two case files sat
on the passenger seat beside him. One was an overview of the case, the other
dedicated to his target, and both were suspiciously thin. He hadn't gotten many
details from his boss, either. But Nate would be gathering everything
available, and he'd be updating Jeff later on.
the evening, Jeff had moved into the third-floor furnished apartment on the
edge of midtown Leidenton, stocked his freezer, refrigerator, and cabinets, and
renewed his acquaintance with the city. Jeff's first overt job with D&H had
been working out of the midtown office to design and then oversee the setup of
the Turnabout Gallery's new security system. The covert mission had been to
discover if the assistant director was involved in the smuggling of fifteenth-century
Flemish paintings into the US.
Both aspects of his assignment had been successful. These days the Turnabout
was still going strong, and so were the museums and galleries he'd known
before, plus some new ones. All the areas of Leidenton, uptown, midtown, and
downtown, were thriving.
spent the rest of Sunday evening going over the folders' contents again,
memorizing his target's face and history, what there was of it on file, as well
as the minimal details on the wider operation. The show was being run by the London office in conjunction with the Paris
branches, and his target, aka Alan Fletcher, would get him to the right place
at the right time.
Fletcher was gay, had recently come out of a relationship with a man named Carl
Cross, and on paper, Jeff's part in the overall scheme was easy. But he knew
well enough real life did not often follow neatly detailed plans, and the plans
for this gig were sketchy rather than detailed.
specialties were languages, electronic wizardry, and the occasional
skin-job—getting close to gay marks—rather than James Bond stunts, but he could
hold his own when it came to the rough stuff. He'd had all the usual training
in offensive defense, and he was up there with the best of them when it came to
handguns. He'd needed all his talents in Russia. S&R's overt face was
exactly what it claimed to be: security advice and installation, and the repossession
of goods when the buyer defaulted on payment. Standard stuff. Covertly, each
regional headquarters had a subsection of retrieval teams that functioned like
black ops specialists when necessary.
to the dacha, Kerzhakov's luxurious summer home in the country, and its
treasure trove of icons and other artworks Kerzhakov had stolen and otherwise
acquired for illegal export, had been the purpose of that retrieval operation.
It was the mother lode at the heart of the Russian's illegal empire, the place
where his records and most prized possessions were kept, and Jeff had been
assigned to infiltrate it. Long months had dragged by before Kerzhakov had been
besotted enough, and trusting enough, to take him there.
his teeth, Jeff evicted Borya from his mind one more time and concentrated on
his current assignment. He had a man to pick up tomorrow.