Saturday, 25 August 2012


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.

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Chapter One

The 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.
"Fuck," 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.
More 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."
"Sorry, 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.
"No." 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."
"Are you alone?"
"Huh?" 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."
"Make sure."
"I'm 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," he repeated.
"God. How much have you drunk?"
"Listen, 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.
"I know. It's tough," Nate said quietly, reasonably. "Thing is, it's an emergency."
"Trust me, Jeff. This is an easy case, nearest you'll get a paid vacation that counts as work."
"If it's so easy, Boss-man can give it to someone else," Jeff muttered.
"Sorry, kiddo. It needs your gay ass."
"Shit! 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?"
"Sorry," 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."
"I 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."
"Yeah," he answered grimly. "Right. Connolly does knows it's three o'clock in the fucking morning, right?"
"Yup. And he's the boss. See you soon."
Jeff 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, repeat.
Sometimes 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.
His 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.
"Jefferson 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."
He 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.
Taking 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.
This 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.
They 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.
But 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.
Rehydration 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.
"Alan 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."
Within 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.
By 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.
He 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 and Rome branches, and his target, aka Alan Fletcher, would get him to the right place at the right time.
Alan 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.
Jeff's 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.
Access 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.
Gritting 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.

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