Zachary Lees sat at the ancient oak table, reeling.
The note lay in front of him, carelessly strewn on top of Trasher’s comics. It sat amid the half-drunk coffees from Nathan and Og, up early today, and with the other countless things that signified a normal morning at home. The pound of bacon taken from the freezer, thawing; the dishes from last night’s bedtime snack piled in the sink. Trasher’s sweater tossed on top of Nathan and Og’s jackets from yesterday’s family outing to Silver Beach, all sloppy and mixing together.
A perfect mess…all of it.
Yet this scrap of paper changed everything. It threatened the happy family they’d managed to become, despite all odds. Everything was different now, only a minute later. It was all in danger.
It stunned Zach how things could change so quickly, yet even now, feel the same. The early morning breeze still flowed into the large country kitchen at the back of their home, the century building known as Hope House. It brought with it the scent of steel blue ocean waves and briny sea creatures from nearby Refuge Bay. It played down the narrow hallway like an ever-present spirit, drifted through to the dark, cloistered area at the front door and beyond.
But things were different now. It didn’t take the pain away. It didn’t take the shock away.
Molly, the scruffy white dog at his side, edged her chin onto his lap. She pushed her wet snout into his hand, and nudged. Nudged again. The Australian Shepherd fancied herself the guardian of everyone in the house, and more, of every single person in the tiny peninsula community off the greater Chesapeake Bay.
Zachary glanced down, and his heart panged. The dog was usually so cheerful and spirited. Now, she looked at him with troubled eyes.
“Aw, sweetheart,” he crooned, rubbing her head. “You know something’s wrong, don’t you?” The way she fixed her canine gaze on him, though, he could tell she knew this problem wouldn’t be fixed easily.
“It doesn’t take a mastermind to see there’s a problem. What the hell’s gotten into you?” Nathan Gentael, his best friend, stomped in through the backdoor of the ancient, yellow-bricked house that had been in his family for countless generations. He halted, then scanned Zachary with worried eyes. “We had a brilliant day at Silver Beach yesterday. Everyone was there, and even Orval was friendly. And it was our first day—“ his voice broke. “—our first day with our little girl. Officially ours.”
Zach blinked. He loved Trasher as if she was his own. He was Uncle Zach to her, as much of a guardian as Nathan and Og, her adoptive parents, were. They’d all worked so hard to provide her a stable and loving home. The kid—an anxious runaway when they’d met her—had been through so damn much.
Their efforts had paid off. Trasher—Emily when she allowed it—was officially Nathan and Og’s daughter.
But none of this was turning out to be the happily-ever-after they’d sought, though no one knew the trouble that had descended upon them yet, except for him. In fact, everything was going horribly in the opposite direction. And it all harkened back to the awful note that had come in the mail bright and early this morning.
The contents of that note threatened to ruin everything they’d built together. Worse, it was his fault. If he hadn’t led that awful life before, they’d all be fine. All the residents of Hope House would still be safe.
Trasher, Nathan and Og. Galen—the Irish drifter they’d taken in recently, who was proving to be such an asset around the place. He was a good man, and could fix anything, doing so with an artisan’s flair. Nathan’s Gram and Aunt Tilley too. They were both off on a trip right now, but would soon be back, and were an integral part of their family. All of them loved their forever home, Hope House.
It was also the home they were going to share with gay men that needed a refuge. With men that needed love and support, and time to recuperate. It was Nathan’s mission in life, and they’d all taken willing ownership of it.
Hope House. It meant something.
Now it was all threatened…because of him.
But this was his muck, all his own. He wouldn’t mess up the memories of the great day they’d had yesterday, celebrating with the Refuge Bay community. Not for the people he treasured more than anything else. He met Nathan’s worried perusal. “You’re right. It’s just….”
Make something up. Don’t tell him what’s going on. Though the way he’s looking at you, he might already know something big has landed.
Zach made an attempt at misdirection. “Um, did you speak to Trasher after she rode FireStar yesterday?”
Nathan was suddenly alert. “Is something wrong?”
“Our little girl did amazing on that beast. I tell you, she’s got the makings of a champion. A right champion.” Og strode into the room as he did every space—like a bulldozer. A commanding man, ex-military, he was used to taking charge of every situation. It had taken the soft yet firm soul of a poet to whip him into line and to break him from his lonely ways. It had taken Nathan.
Og sidled closer to the lover he’d almost lost recently because of his own stupidity. He laid his hand on Nathan’s shoulder, and Zach watched as Og squeezed it as if to make sure he was really there.
Damn man could be such a marshmallow.
But not everyone got the soft Og. Most, in fact, didn’t, and would have argued it didn’t exist. Jake Augustine ‘Boom Boom’ Reiden—Og for short—was a shrewd, savvy and often harsh business owner. Past special forces with the feared and elite Delta North Team—a joint unit comprised of soldiers from the U.S. and Canada in the fine tradition of the Devil’s Brigade—they’d changed the course of the war. Now he was the owner of a gym in New York that trained boxers and was a champion boxer himself.
He was also a man hurting deeply because of family issues he couldn’t set right. It made him extra tough to deal with. Og spoke in his requisite demanding tone. “What’s wrong with Trasher?”
Oh, for hell’s sake. Zach stiffened. This was totally going sideways.
He pushed aside the missive he’d pulled from the envelope, and shoved it under a pile of paper. He’d see to it later. That note was the final reason for his dark mood, and it had to be dealt with. Though two other unpleasant things had already foisted themselves on his formerly cheerful demeanor this morning.
But how to deal with this latest issue when it had you spinning? He’d appreciated the dire warning he’d received a couple of days ago, courtesy of an old friend from New York. He’d told him very bad people from his past had surfaced and were looking. For him.
The note today proved he’d been right.
And that was just plain crazy shit, because when he’d left the gang, he’d done everything right. He’d paid his debts, taken care of all pending matters. He’d left nothing hanging, knowing how important it was to make a clean break. He’d tied everything up with a big, shiny fucking bow, he had.
Now, the gang was back. Wanting something he didn’t have, and worse? Had no chance in hell of getting. Everything in front of him could be wiped out. He didn’t know what to do.
He watched the people he loved again, just to remind himself they were still all there. At least, for this moment. It was all intact. The happy home, hard-won, he’d come to count on.
The way Nathan leaned into Og. How Og took his weight, seemed to become bigger, more expansive, by supporting the man glued to his side. The easy, yet deep communion between them.
And then, reason number two for his worry hit the room. Shrieking.
“Holy shit, what an awesome day! Did you guys see those burgers yesterday? And all that sea crap? It didn’t taste half bad! Though I bet Jamie he’d puke before me.” She looked up at them with beaming eyes, made her pronouncement with all the wonder a seven year-old could muster. “I didn’t puke at all!”
She ran, thudded into Nathan’s side. Nathan bumped Og, who hadn’t been ready and almost fell over, too.
“It was a bitchin’ day!” She looked up at them as they scrambled to right themselves, overjoyed and happily forgetful of the forbidden words flying from her mouth. They were trying to raise her as a lady, and not as a hooligan.
Yet, with her past, she could be forgiven for swearing like the toughest street kid. They’d plucked her from that life and willingly adjusted themselves around her. Though they all tried with the swearing and other untoward habits she’d picked up. Lord knew, they tried.
She continued in a rush. “FireStar’s amazing. Jonas says they’re ready to sell him to the perfect owner. I’m the perfect owner, right? I can buy him, right?”
Despite himself, Zach cringed. Caught the other two men cringing in unison as well. After what she’d been through, and how much she loved that stallion? And how much it seemed to love her? There wasn’t a dollar extra to buy that horse, but they’d all sell their own blood, if it came to that, to make sure she had every chance of having FireStar for her own.
“Right?” She repeated. “Can we?”
Another trifecta of winces. Great. Just like about every other expression that happened around Hope House these days, now that Trasher was a permanent resident, most of them happened in threes. Nathan, Og, and him, too.
Zach, the third wheel.
So there was the second reason in his priority list of shit that had happened today. It glowed in front of him like a flashing neon sign.
Trasher wanted that horse. Badly. The horse cost a pile of money. Worse, if someone else bought it, it would be gone from her life, and that could happen at any moment. Though she hadn’t tweaked to that fact yet.
Zach ran his gaze around the ancient kitchen. The old cupboards, the beat-up metal coffee pot they brewed dollar store coffee in. The junkyard plates and the relic appliances that barely kept going.
She’d filled his ears at the picnic about FireStar. FireStar this, FireStar that. The proud beast hadn’t given anyone else a flicker of interest when they’d approached his pen. But the moment Trasher appeared on the lawn, running toward him? His russet ears had stood up dead straight, and his dark eyes had riveted to her little form. No one that watched them together doubted they had a thing, though who was boss of the duo still had to be sorted.
“Well, we’ll see about that, Princess,” Nathan mumbled, as he pulled her in close for a hug. “But…”
Og picked up the challenge. He routinely dealt with the toughest boxers at his gym, but this little scrap of a female was still a surprise element. He couldn’t rein her in, no matter how hard he tried. And try, he did. “Yeah, but watch your language, Missy. Do you remember that talk we had?”
Trasher glared at him. “The one we had like a million times?” But then she had the sudden grace—or the smarts— to appear remorseful. She did want something, after all. “Yeah. I remember.” She rhymed off the rules she remembered. “No bitchin’. No shit. No fuuu…”
Og clenched his eyes, among another trifecta of even harder winces from the men. He opted for distraction. Win one for the squirt.
“Time for breakfast, Missy. Run upstairs and wash up. After we eat, you can play outside with Molly. Lessons this afternoon, don’t forget.” He eyed Zach. “Uncle Zach, can you do the honors today for home-schooling? Pick the book for English class, assign the voices?”
Zach looked up, surprised. “Uh, sure. But…”
The little girl ran to him. She slammed into Molly, who spewed an unexpected grunt at the collision but held her place. Trasher threw her arms around Zach as he sat in the chair and hugged him tight.
Oh, dear Lord, but he loved her. Even as she yanked reason number one, the other blazing reason for his discomfort, out into the open.
“But he’s sad, Dad! ‘Cause Galen was packing earlier. And he liiikes Galen. Like likes him.” She reached up, held Zach’s face between her two little hands. He swore she spoke only to him. Her little, knowing heart, to his great big, currently sliced in two, grownup one.
Ha. Apparently not much difference between the two at the moment.
“He’s still in the cottage, Uncle Zach,” she said, referring to the man that had only shown up at Hope House a short while ago as its unofficial first tenant. Then, in her kid’s wisdom, she gave him the marching orders he needed.
“Why don’t you just go see what the hell he’s playing at?”
Galen Odin Watshammer Tilth finished sweeping the last bits of dirt and flotsam off the porch. There. You could practically eat off the damn thing. He eyed the hard strip of dirt along the side of the tiny cottage he’d been staying in for a few months on the edge of picturesque Refuge Bay. Growing plants were vying for space with the scrabbly weeds that had already taken hold. A deep sense of regret hit him.
I’ve got to speak, say the words out loud, to make all this real. Pretend. Because soon, it’ll only be a memory.
He pointed, with a strong flourish of his hand. “There. That would’ve been next. Weeds pulled, ground worked around the plants. Some staked for a helping hand. Compost spread, nothing too smelly. The old gals would have my hide.”
Ah. He felt better. The idea of a future here…
The game took hold of him. He stepped off the wooden porch he’d restored. It still needed a coat of finish to make it all one color, instead of this wild gradient of different hues–the pieces of wood had come from different sources. A patchwork porch. Though there’d never be cash for that, he already knew. He tramped around the tiny building, his gaze drinking in the ever-darkening, moody Chesapeake Bay morning sky around him.
So different from the Tilth Estate in upstate New York. So alive here.
Oh God, how he’d miss that big sky.
“Roses planted there this fall.” He nodded to the area where grey brambles grew, winding up in intricate patterns against the old cottage. “Yeah. Big, fat Queen Elizabeths, to bring in a pop of color. Pale pink…”
The image of the woman he loved slid into his consciousness as it always did. “Yellow, too. She loves those damn things.”
Always put a splash of yellow in a bouquet, son, to make the others shine. Our home in Ireland is known for its glorious blend of wild and domestic flowers…
The remembrance almost made him choke. Ma. Along with the home across the pond they’d left only a few years ago to join the business and the other branch of the family here in New York.
But he thrust it all down. “There, a couple of lilacs. Spirea, too. And underneath that spout…”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Galen almost jumped. But years of learning to school his responses paid off, and he stayed steady. He turned and faced the man that always seemed to attack him. The attractive, holy shit sexy, yet enigmatic man he couldn’t get out of his mind.
There was a firestorm of emotion on Zach’s face. Anger, for sure—he wasn’t even trying to hide that. Something fierce blazed in the man. But behind that? There was something else there, too.
Galen continued to eye him. Oh, there was definitely something else there. Fear? Grief?
Despite all that, despite Galen’s deep understanding of human nature, he wasn’t going to take that shit. Not from anyone. He was done. He lifted a lazy brow to the man raging in front of him. Gave him a solid look, up and down. Noted as he did so that Zachary blinked under the scrutiny, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Ah. Excellent.
Galen turned from him deliberately, didn’t say a bloody word. That should do it. He continued his journey around the back.
Waiting…waiting…and there it was. Pretty much a scream behind him.
“What? And now you’re just ignoring me? Are you serious?”
Galen squared his shoulders and faced him. He didn’t need this man. Sure. A few months back, he’d needed help badly, and he’d done what he needed to get it. The maneuver had paid off, and he’d had a resting place that, as it turned out, he liked. Realized he could possibly love…for a damn long time.
Then life had intruded. He’d hoped they’d forgotten about him, stopped looking for him. But he’d gotten the text from Will only yesterday. Just a casual inquiry, but with enough caution behind it, his spidey senses had tingled.
Hey Buddy. Someone showed up here today asking about you. I think he was from your folks’ company. Are you alright?
A quick exchange with Will had reassured him that his friend had divulged nothing to the stranger. But it reminded him he could never stay in one place for long.
Even though he’d obviously been trying to forget that. The charm of Refuge Bay and its inhabitants—especially one in particular—had been working its magic on him. Tethering his soul to the oddly built yet stalwart, old structure known as Hope House.
But if his family figured out where he was holing up these days, they’d be coming for him. Worse, they’d make serious trouble for those that had taken him in. It was their way of controlling him, and it was effective. Hurt anyone who’s good to me. Bloody hell. That was when he’d realized he had to disappear. Fast.
He’d do whatever it took to keep them safe. Even if they’d never thank him or know that any of it had gone down. He’d push his feelings down as he’d learned to so many times before. All his bloody life, in fact.
Right now, though, he had this goddamn handsome buffoon raging in front of him. He’d sort him out first. The words flew, as full of his own shimmering pain as he was.
“I’ve done what you’ve asked—all of you—these past months, and have done beyond what you’re required. Regardless, I’m thankful. That stands.”
Galen gave Zachary a piercing look. “But don’t think for a bloody moment I won’t fight you, right here, right now. I’m about done with your attitude. Be a man, grow a pair, and learn how to rein it in. Or I’ll do it for you. Got it?”
Zach’s eyes widened. He swayed for a moment, wordless. Then he got his bluster back. “Of all the…”
“Think carefully. Whether or not we continue this conversation, or any conversation, ever again—depends on it.”
“Sorry. It won’t happen again.” Yet something more still blazed in Zach’s eyes. “You’re leaving us then, without a word?”
I have to. For your sakes. “Never said I’d be here long.”
Zach fell into step beside him, still brewing a dark mood as they strode around the cottage. “And what was all that you were mumbling about? Lilac bushes and roses? Doesn’t sound like a man who wants to be leaving.”
There wasn’t an answer to that, but he made a start. “It looks like…” He didn’t have a chance to get the words out.
Zach’s powerful hands gripped his shoulders and whirled him around. “We can protect you.” The words tumbled from his mouth. “I know you haven’t told us anything about your past, nothing at all. But if you’re running from something, from somebody, if you need help…”
Galen’s gaze fell on Zach’s face and drank it in. The emotion pouring from him. And he spun once again.
Like he had ever since he’d shown up here. Was lost in the craziness, the stupid attraction that always came upon him around this man.
And he wasn’t lost to the deeper meaning, the sweet shock of surprise in this man’s words.
He knows nothing of my past or if someone’s after me. Or if they are, how strong they are, how much power they have. What they’re capable of. But he cares for none of that. Just…he’ll protect me.
For someone who’d grown up with privilege, he’d rarely felt that urgent slash of care and concern for him in anyone other than his mother and Cees, his sister.
Then to land here and have it given so freely to him…
But Zach was on a roll. “Do you hear, Tilth? Are you listening? This is important.”
Out of control. That’s how I feel when I’m around you, when you turn that attention on me, Lees. Like I’m drowning…
Zach continued, full of heat. “We can and we damn well will protect you. No bullshit this time. I want to know, and I’m not the only one. What the fucking hell are you playing at?”