Authors: Laura Kaye
To Amanda for saying yes to J & C
To Christi for saying
And to the readers for loving Jeremy. For real, y’all!
Love knows no distinctions,
it only knows the joy of finding in another
everything your soul needs to feel complete.
in front of the ruins of half of the warehouse building he owned in east Baltimore—his home for the past four years, and wondered what the hell had happened to his life.
As he carefully climbed up the pile of rubble, he didn’t blame his older brother Nick or the other guys from Nick’s former Army Special Forces team for what had happened. Not for his building being bombed by their enemies in the predawn hours the morning before, not for his tattoo shop being forced to close until the team’s investigation finally ended, and not for turning his home into a boardinghouse for the team, their girlfriends, and the new allies they’d found in the Raven Riders Motorcycle Club.
No. Jeremy didn’t blame Nick for the conspiracy and chaos that whirled all around them.
Because Jeremy felt like ten kinds of hell for not being able to do more to help Nick in the fight. A fight that went all the way back to Afghanistan, where the same assholes that attacked his building had also ambushed Nick’s team, injuring Nick, killing seven others, and ultimately getting Nick and the other four survivors—Shane McCallan, Edward “Easy” Cantrell, Derek “Marz” DiMarzio, and Beckett Murda—kicked out of the Army.
Actually, it was worse than not being able to help. Jeremy was a damn liability.
Stepping from the pile of broken bricks, crumbled concrete, and twisted steel onto what was left of the exposed second floor, Jeremy dug his hands into his hair and tilted his head back, his gaze dragging up to the gray early-morning sky visible through the ruined roof another story above. Nick and everyone else were inside celebrating the decryption of a microchip full of information critical to their investigation, but Jeremy just couldn’t put on a happy face right now.
Instead, his stomach plummeted as blurred memories sucked him back to the previous morning. Being awakened by gunfire. Nick asking if Jeremy was up to helping defend them. Running to the roof and exchanging fire with the thugs shooting from three black Suburbans down on the street. The thunderous impact of an explosive hitting the building.
And then all hell had really broken loose.
For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen, and then the roof had collapsed right underneath Jeremy. One minute there had been four stories of solid, hundred-year-old warehouse beneath his feet. The next . . . he was just falling.
Charlie had dived out of harm’s way, but Jeremy had frozen. Full-on deer-in-the-headlights. His brain hadn’t even registered what was happening before a painful clamp around his wrist hauled him back to safety. Nick had saved him. And because Jeremy had
to be saved, two members of the Ravens that had been up there with them—men whom Nick had been standing closer to—had fallen to their deaths and died, one because he hadn’t been able to hang on to the broken piece of rebar he’d managed to grab before Nick could get to him.
Jeremy would’ve liked to have thought that, in a crisis, he’d come through. But he hadn’t. And men had died.
That was on Jeremy’s shoulders. And the weight of it was so great he could barely keep from falling to his knees.
A tumble of bricks behind him.
Jeremy turned to see Charlie Merritt slowly making his way up.
The sight of the blond-haired man shot twin reactions through Jeremy’s veins. Concern, because Charlie was already injured. Two of his fingers had been amputated by kidnappers just two weeks before. And relief, because Charlie always had this aura of quiet around him that was so peaceful it calmed all the shit whirling inside Jer’s head. Which was really frickin’ ironic since Charlie was the kidnapping victim who’d just learned that his army-colonel father had been murdered in Afghanistan.
“I knew I’d find you out here,” Charlie said in that quiet way he had, his deep blue eyes trained on his footing.
“Yeah? Why’s that?” Jeremy asked as he extended a hand. Charlie grasped it as he made the last big step to the second floor. The touch was filled with the slow burn of attraction that Jeremy had felt toward the other man since they’d met after his rescue.
Charlie’s eyes met Jeremy’s, penetrating and intense, like he could read every thought Jeremy left unsaid. “Because I know this is hurting you.” The words were spoken so quietly that the warm May wind whistling through the ruins nearly swallowed them, but they still hit Jeremy’s chest like a thunderous clap.
All his life, Jeremy had been the one able to let almost everything roll right off his back. The one always cutting it up and laughing. The one who didn’t care what people said about his facial piercings or the ink that covered him from neck to toes or even his bisexuality. Hell, he stood here in a shirt that read,
I’m trying to give up SEXUAL INNUENDOS. But it’s hard . . . SO HARD!
But knowing he was responsible for the deaths of two men made him want to claw off his skin.
The backs of his eyes stinging, Jeremy turned away. He’d lost it once in front of Charlie. Yesterday. After the full weight of the attack had hit him. Last thing he wanted was to do it again. Because crying was so damn attractive. “All this can be fixed,” he managed, waving vaguely at their surroundings.
“Don’t do that,” Charlie said, his sneakers scuffing against the thin layer of debris that littered the concrete floor.
Jeremy crossed the room to the remains of a window. It overlooked Hard Ink’s giant, gravel-covered parking lot filled with the team’s cars and trucks and the black-and-chrome gleam of over a dozen motorcycles. He braced a hand against the brick. “Do what?”
Except he knew exactly what Charlie was talking about. Because Charlie
cut right to the chase. His shyness meant he didn’t talk much, especially when they were with the whole team. But Charlie was brilliant. Maybe even a savant. And when he spoke, it was always worth hearing. And
Charlie’s fingers tugged at Jeremy’s arm, and warmth seeped into his blood.
“Look at me,” Charlie said, the unusual command of his words making Jeremy turn. “You helped save my life. You gave me and my sister a home. You’ve made a thousand sacrifices these past weeks.” The wind blew longish dark blond strands across Charlie’s intense blue eyes and he stepped closer, nearly backing Jeremy against the brick. They were evenly matched for height, which meant Charlie’s eyes were right at Jeremy’s. And so were his lips. “You are more kind and generous than anyone I’ve ever met. So don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt you that those guys died yesterday. And don’t think I don’t know you blame yourself for it.”
A knot lodged in Jeremy’s throat. Any other time, he would’ve cracked a joke about just how generous he could be. Complete with an eyebrow waggle. And an unspoken invitation. Now, he slumped against the brick and dropped his chin to his chest, his gaze blurrily focusing on the T-shirt Charlie had borrowed from him. It read,
That’s too much bacon! (Said no one ever.)
His kidnapping made returning to his home for any belongings too dangerous to attempt, so Charlie had been digging through Jeremy’s shirt collection to find the least innuendo-filled options.
Jeremy shuddered out a breath.
Charlie would know how he felt. Because the two of them were the only nonmilitary guys among the group, they’d often been thrown together. They helped the team behind the scenes by doing computer research with Marz or running communications and video surveillance when the team had an op out in the field.
When they weren’t working, they’d fallen into the habit of hanging out together. Jeremy had volunteered to keep an eye on a very sick Charlie when he’d first been rescued, and they’d just sorta clicked. Because of Jeremy’s habit of talking nonstop, Charlie had gotten to know him about as well as anyone did.
Charlie’s injured hand slowly lifted, and Jeremy didn’t miss that it was shaking just a little as it settled on Jeremy’s hip. The contact stole Jeremy’s breath, tight as it already was from the wave of emotion threatening to pull him under. His gaze whipped up to Charlie’s. If it wasn’t for the stubble roughening up the guy’s square jaw and the wisdom in his eyes born of pain, his handsome face might’ve appeared almost boyish. But as attractive as Jeremy found him, he appreciated even more what a good friend Charlie had become, how he seemed to know what Jeremy was thinking without him even having to say.
“You should be inside celebrating,” Jeremy said, his voice a raw scrape. “You and Marz did an amazing thing this morning.” An hour ago, Marz and Charlie had cracked open a heavily encrypted microchip that contained a wealth of information that not only seemed likely to help the team clear its name, but proved that Charlie’s father hadn’t been dirty, like they’d all thought. “And I’m so happy for you about your dad.”
A wounded darkness passed through Charlie’s gaze, but he finally nodded. “Didn’t feel right without you there.” Pink filtered into his cheeks, and damn if that wasn’t as cute as it was sexy. Jeremy wasn’t sure anything had ever made him blush.
“I’m just not—” Jeremy shrugged and looked down at Charlie’s chest again. Having seen the guy dress more than once, he knew that shirt covered lean muscle that ran from strong shoulders down to his narrow hips. Jeremy fisted his hands against the urge to burrow them under the hem of the tee. After weeks of looking, and wanting, he was
to touch. Jeremy found Charlie hard to read though, and hadn’t wanted to do anything to scare him off. “—very good company right now. I’m sorry if that—”
Charlie nudged Jeremy’s chin up with his hand, his fingers just barely touching Jer’s stubble-covered skin. And then his thumb landed softly against his lips.
Jeremy’s heartbeat kicked up and his lips fell open. Slowly, oh so tentatively, Charlie stroked the soft pad of his thumb back and forth across them.
“Charlie,” Jeremy whispered as arousal surged through his body, spiking his pulse, tensing his muscles, hardening his dick.
Uncertainty poured off Charlie as the man’s hand trembled where it touched him, but those blue eyes absolutely blazed desire. No way was Jeremy imagining that.
“You’re always good company, to me,” Charlie said in a low voice, his gaze dropping to Jeremy’s mouth. Charlie leaned in closer, and closer still, and Jeremy could hardly believe the other man was the one to initiate this. But he was fucking thrilled.
Anticipating that first soft brush of skin on skin, Jeremy swallowed hard Charlie was so close his shaky breath caressed Jeremy’s lips. His pace was maddening but so damn sexy Jer could barely breathe. And then Charlie’s eyelids fluttered closed and he was right there—
Charlie jumped back, his cheeks bright red, as both their cell phones impatiently demanded attention. Frustration roared through Jeremy at the interruption, especially as he spied Nick’s name on the caller ID.
Jeremy eyed Charlie as the other man checked his phone. Charlie ducked his head, averted his gaze, and hugged himself, and Jer hated the emotional distance that poured into the widening physical distance between them. Damnit.
Somehow, someway, Jeremy was getting that kiss.