Authors: Lori Foster
“The records you dug up gave us our first concrete evidence.” Dare clapped him on the shoulder. “Which reminds me, you’re due for a raise.”
“You can surprise me.” Chris grinned, but the humor faded beneath concern for the kids involved in the cult. “Seriously, if there’s anything else you need me to do, just let me know.”
Trace did a double take. “Jesus, you do everything already. What else is there?”
“Doing everything is easy when you’re Superman,” Dare joked.
“It’s getting late, so I better get on it. See you guys later.”
Dare watched him go, frowning. He sensed something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint it. Sure, the idea of kids involved in a cult, or in forced labor—that was terrible stuff.
But their work centered on that and worse on a day-to-day basis. Chris handled it with ease, dealing with everything from the travel plans to computer research to the running of his household.
Hands on his hips, Dare considered things.
“He seems off,” Trace said.
“Yeah, I know.”
Molly poked her head into the room. “I saw Chris leave. Does that mean you’re done working for the night?”
“We have a few more things to go over, why?”
Priss pushed in around Molly and strode toward Trace. “Because Chris is unhappy, and you two have to fix it.”
“Unhappy?” Dare went to Molly and pulled her into his side. “About what?”
Trace held up his hands when Priss reached for him. “Oh no, I’m not playing Cupid. Chris is a big boy. He can handle his own relationships without Dare or me butting in.”
Priss wrapped her arms around Trace despite his attitude. “But that’s just it. He can’t handle this.”
Dare frowned. “Matt left because Chris had work to do.”
“I know,” Molly said. “This time. But that’s not the problem.”
Trace gave up and hugged Priss closer. “So what’s the problem?”
“Chris’s reticence to get involved.”
about anything.” Dare tipped up Molly’s chin. “He’s plainspoken to a fault.”
“Not when he can’t be.” Priss pulled away from Trace, her stance confrontational. “And with you two, with what you do, he can’t be.”
Dare looked at Trace, but his friend looked as confused as he felt.
Molly sighed. “Dare, you and Trace do top-secret stuff, so naturally Chris doesn’t talk about that.”
“So Matt thinks he’s…” She winced. “An errand boy.”
Anger slowly stiffened Dare’s spine.
In disbelief, Trace said, “No fucking way.”
“What else can he think?” Priss gave Trace a shove—or she tried to. Trace didn’t budge. “All Matt knows is that Chris handles the household stuff, setting up appointments for the dogs and basically…”
“Being at my beck and call.”
Dare hated to admit it, but yeah, the women had a point.
“Arizona told me that she heard them arguing.”
Both men groaned. Arizona was a walking tornado of trouble. Thank God Spencer had a knack for keeping her happy.
Priss said, “She overheard—”
“Meaning she eavesdropped,” Trace countered.
“—Chris and Matt talking, and it was clear enough to her. She said she told them both they were idiots, because she figures if we’re here, Chris can have someone here, too.”
“Of course,” Trace and Dare said together.
“But have you ever told Chris that?” Molly asked.
“He’s not an idiot, honey.” Dare smoothed her hair. “As Arizona said, significant others are welcome.”
welcome,” Trace teased.
Molly nodded. “But we’re women.”
Both men smiled.
Priss shoved Trace again. “And while Matt is gay, he’s still a guy. And you two definitely treat guys differently.”
“As more of a threat,” Molly said.
Right again. Dare ran a hand over his head. “You know, it could be that Chris really isn’t interested.”
“Why would he be,” Priss said, “when Matt thinks he’s an errand boy?”
Dare eyed Molly. “You expect me to fix this?”
He looked at Trace. “I suppose we could pay Matt a visit.”
That made Trace grin, and the look was evil. “Yeah, let’s do that.”
This time Priss didn’t shove him. She hugged him tight. “Thank you. But Trace, be nice.”
“I’m always nice.”
And even Dare had to laugh at that.
Matt finished a masterpiece
—ombré highlights that glistened on the sleek hair of his thirty-three-year-old client. She looked amazing, and given her gratitude, she knew it was thanks to his magic.
After tipping him outrageously, she hugged him tightly and went off to set her follow-up appointment.
Matt turned to head back to his station and tripped over his own feet at the sight of Dare and Trace casually striding through his double front doors. The sensual menace of the men almost caused his heart to pop out of his chest.
Seven stylists worked for Matt. Each of them had a client in his or her chair. Two women worked the desk. A young man collected towels. A manicurist worked on an older woman, and a pedicurist had just walked a regular out. Five patrons filled the plush seats of the waiting room.
gaped in fascinated awe. And why not? Dare and Trace packed a visceral punch of massive proportions.
Dare led the way, looking around with casual insouciance. When he pulled off his dark sunglasses, Matt heard a collective inhalation.
Trace wore that same stony look he always had in Matt’s presence, but he moved through the elite and stylish salon as if he owned it.
They either didn’t notice, or more likely didn’t care, that the gaze of every occupant had locked on them the second they appeared. No one moved.
Dare walked right up to Matt. “Nice place.”
An invisible fist squeezed his windpipe, but Matt managed to strangle out, “Thanks.”
Trace flattened him with a look. “Got a private room somewhere so we can talk?”
The two receptionists suddenly appeared, all atwitter, doling out rapid-fire questions to gain attention.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“May I see you to a seat?”
“We have cola or lemon water or coffee.”
“If you want to leave me your name, I can—”
Belatedly, Matt took control. “They’re here to see me.” He shooed the disappointed women away, then gestured toward his office at the back of the building. “This way.”
Dare bared his teeth in a look that might have been a smile, but Matt just wasn’t sure. “We’ll be right behind you.”
Oh, great. He got one foot in front of the other, but it was like trying to walk calmly ahead of a stalking lion. All around him he felt the avid stares, the heated curiosity of workers and patrons.
Damn it. He put his head up and forced more confidence into his gait. When he reached the office, he pushed the door open and stepped aside.
Eyeing the cream-colored walls, the dark hardwood floor, the sleek furniture, Dare went in first. “You have good taste.”
Trace followed, looked around, and nodded. “High end. I like it.”
Their approval shouldn’t matter, but Matt felt his ears going hot anyway. “Thank you.” A new worry suddenly hit him, and he closed the door. “Is Chris…?”
“Oh.” So then what did they want? “Good.” He escaped to the other side of his desk and took his seat. “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”
Unfortunately, they got
by looming over him. Granted, they stood on the other side of the desk, but they didn’t sit, and they were both tall and…imposing.
Dare said, “You care about Chris.”
Good Lord. Surely that didn’t make him a security threat. “I…yes.”
“How much?” Trace wanted to know.
Matt frowned. Intimidating as they might be, his relationship with Chris was private. “Does Chris know you’re here?”
“No.” Dare propped a hip on the edge of his desk. “But I don’t keep secrets from him, so I’ll tell him.”
“We wanted to talk to you first.”
“Okaaaaay.” Matt looked from one to the other. “Why?”
“You called Chris an errand boy.”
Wow, and Dare sounded none too happy about that. “He isn’t?”
“Hell, no,” Trace said.
“So then…” Did he dare ask? This was his life, his love, his future.
. “What would you call him?”
Without hesitation, Dare said, “The heart and soul of our enterprise.”
“Invaluable,” Dare added. “A brother, best friend. Irreplaceable.”
Trace agreed. “Don’t let Chris’s lazy demeanor confuse you. You have a nice shop here.”
“Salon,” Matt corrected.
“I can see you do a fair amount of business.”
“Yes.” Matt all but beamed with pride. “I have a very exclusive clientele.”
Trace leaned in. “Chris could run this place without breaking a sweat.”
Matt knew Chris was capable; he didn’t need others to point it out. “Is that so?”
With a nod, Dare said, “He can run a household at the same time, too.”
The effusive gushing pushed Matt back in his chair. “You’re saying he runs your business?”
Both men nodded this time. “And then some.”
Now or never, Matt decided. He drew in a breath. “And your business is…?”
Apparently they’d already made up their minds to confide in him. Dare stood and came around to the left side of Matt’s desk. “We operate outside the law, but usually with immunity. We have contacts in law enforcement, but we only coordinate with them when necessary, and when it’s convenient.”
“We also have far-reaching political connections.” Trace moved in on the right side of the desk. “Connections that come in handy when we need the extra pull.”
“Or when we want to keep something buried.”
That sounded so ominous. They had him caged in, and Matt started to wonder about their specific purpose for the visit.
Gauging his chances of making an escape, he leaned forward.
And Dare said, “You will never, under any circumstances, repeat what we’re telling you.”
“I wouldn’t,” Matt swore.
Trace took his measure, and must have decided to believe him. “We save lives.”
Whoa. Matt collapsed back again. “How…” He had to clear his throat. “How does that work, exactly?”
“Human trafficking has become a very real problem that we’re good at solving.”
So they were heroes? Fascinating. Matt managed a weak laugh. “This is sort of hilarious, because all this time, I thought maybe you killed people.”
Neither Dare nor Trace smiled with him. Uh-oh.
When he cleared his throat this time, he sounded like a dying frog. “Forget I said that.”
Narrow-eyed with menace, Trace said, “You think scumbag traffickers give up victims without a fight?”
Dare added, “You think they miraculously stop dealing in flesh just because we free their captives?” His words were all the more deadly for his calm tone.
If his eyes got any wider, Matt thought they might fall out of his head. “No?”
That must have been the right answer, because they went back to singing Chris’s praises.
“Not many men could do everything Chris does in a day.”
“And even fewer are as ethical as he is.”
“Don’t let his preference for sloppy clothes fool you. He can handle himself.”
Matt pushed back his chair and stood. “I know, all right? I didn’t fall in love with him because he’s an obnoxious or inept person.” He paced past Dare, across the room and back again. “Now I understand why I can’t just drop in, and why Chris was so annoyed by that—and no, I won’t ever do that again.”
“He has to be circumspect in all things, and he has to guard my privacy at all costs.” Dare crossed his arms over his chest and regarded Matt. “I have no idea if that’s what’s holding him up. If it’s not, if Chris plain isn’t interested, then you won’t come back again uninvited.”
That idea was too repugnant to consider. “He is, I’m sure of it.”
“If that’s so, if he accepts you, then I have no problem with you coming and going freely.”
“It’s Chris’s choice.” Trace stepped toward the door. “Feel free to come to dinner tonight.”
“My place. Six o’clock.” Dare turned to leave too. “You can tell Chris that you know everything. That ought to cut through the confusion. But remember—”
“I will never breathe a word.” Hand over his heart, Matt said, “I swear.”
“I was going to say, remember that this is Chris’s decision. Whatever he wants, you will respect his wishes.” Dare paused at the door, glanced at Trace, and together they turned back to face Matt. “Good luck.”
Matt caught his breath. They wished him luck! “Thank you.”
After they finally exited his small office, Matt stood there, overwhelmed for several beats of his heart before he got his feet unglued. If this was to be the big night, he wanted to prepare.
Grabbing up his keys from his desk drawer, he hurried from the room. Luckily he didn’t have any clients waiting; he’d planned to spend the rest of the day going over his books. Aware of all the scandalized whispers from clients and employees alike, he stopped at the reservation desk to announce his departure for the day.
Everyone in the salon watched him go, their expressions rife with curiosity.
Especially when he started grinning.
Finally he’d be able to get a clear-cut answer from Chris. He only hoped it’d be the right answer, because he loved Chris. He wanted a life with him.
And he seriously never again wanted Dare or Trace to feel the need to visit his salon.
* * *
As he did at
the beginning of each month, Chris went through the house, filling all the printers with ink and paper, putting fresh toiletries in all the bathrooms, replacing old magazines with new, checking batteries in the smoke detectors and bulbs in all the lamps. He left Dare’s routine messages on his desk, with a calendar of upcoming appointments. Anything important was processed as it came in.
Like the file Trace had requested, which Chris had handed over that morning.
The hall clock showed it to be a few minutes before six. Finished for the day, Chris detoured through the house to the backyard, where Dare stood at the grill turning ribs. Shirtless and in trunks, Spencer talked softly to Trace, who wore an unbuttoned shirt over khakis while he pored over papers opened on the patio table.
Dressed in a rainbow hue of summer colors, Molly, Priss and Arizona clustered on lounge chairs. They had their bare feet up, cool drinks in their hands as they talked quietly.
Sargie and Tai noticed Chris first, drawing the attention of the others. One by one, they turned to stare at him.
“What?” He looked down. “Did my shorts turn transparent?”
Folding his papers, Trace straightened. “Alani and Jackson aren’t coming over. Jackson said the baby kept him up last night.”
“Selfish bastard,” Chris said without heat. “Guess you’ll all have to do without me for dinner.”
“Why’s that?” Spencer asked.
He grinned. “I’m going over to see the baby. Sorry, but between you guys and her, she’ll win every time.”
Reluctantly, Dare turned to fully face him. “Before you do that, why don’t you see what Matt wants?”
After three beats of utter silence, he let out a breath. “He’s here?”
“On the dock,” Spencer explained, and he somehow sounded gentle.
Fuck that. Chris didn’t want anyone to be gentle. What he wanted he couldn’t have, but he’d deal with it. And yet his chest constricted with suffocating emotion…and elation.
Matt was here.
He went to the end of the patio, looked down the hill, and there was Matt sitting at the edge of the dock, once again with his pants rolled up and his feet in the water.
Trying to look unaffected, Chris glanced at Priss. “You invite him here again?”
“Actually,” Trace said, “Dare and I did.”
What the hell did that mean?
Almost in slow motion, Chris turned back to the group. The stares amplified. Exasperation sharpened his tone. “Are you waiting for me to do tricks, or what?”
Dare took control. He handed the tongs to Spencer and came forward two steps. “If you don’t want Matt around, tell him so. But far as we’re concerned, it’s fine.”
Fine? What the hell. “Gee, thanks.” Chris shouldered his way through them and started down the hill. What were they up to? Okay, he got it that the wives meddled. They had big hearts and wanted everyone to live in delirious happiness.
But Dare and Trace?
As he went past his house, Chris saw the overnight bag sitting by his door and he locked his jaw. With each step along the grassy path, his stomps grew heavier until he fairly rattled the dock when he reached it. Matt jumped up to greet him, and he looked…
Leaning in close, Chris spoke low and mean. “What the fuck, Matt? I told you that you couldn’t keep doing this.”
His tone didn’t daunt Matt one iota. Seeming far too pleased, Matt said, “They told me
Chris pulled back. “They, who?”
“Trace and Dare.” He gazed up the hill and, still smiling, gave a happy wave.
Chris jerked around, but everyone went conspicuously busy. Eyes narrowed, he turned back to Matt. “Everything, as in what exactly?”
Matt clasped his shoulder, and his voice softened. “I know what they do. I know what
do. They explained it all, and it makes perfect sense to me.”
No way. Chris held silent, disbelieving.
That didn’t dissuade Matt either. “I know they’re big, badass mercenaries who save people from human traffickers and a whole host of other awful situations. I know they can be deadly—literally. I know their work is top secret.” He inhaled. “And I know you’re key to things running smoothly. I’m so honored that they trust me.”
Again Chris jerked around to look at the others. This time they looked back, as if they’d expected his reaction.
Dare stood there, hands on his hips. Trace had his arms crossed over his chest. Spencer saluted him with a beer.
Well. He didn’t know what to say or think.
Still clasping his shoulder, Matt pulled him back around. Chris saw him swallow hard.
“I know,” Matt continued, “that they count on you too much for you to ever leave here.”
Feeling combative without really knowing why, Chris clenched his hands. “I’m here because I want to be.”
“I understand that, too. It’s a wonderful place. Peaceful and beautiful.” He searched Chris’s face. “I love it here.”