His fourteen-year-old brain was about to implode.
Deep down, Austen knew he should be terrified. And he was. Sort of. He’d been busted by a THIRDS agent. Even he knew not to fuck with these guys. His eyes darted again to the black tattoo on the guy’s neck. Jaguar Therian. Austen shivered, and not in a good way. Those jaws could easily fit over his tiny cheetah Therian head. Running would be stupid. Austen might be a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.
Then there was the part of him that was slightly intrigued. Agent Brodie wasn’t like any cop he’d ever met. The guy should have hauled Austen’s ass in by now, but he hadn’t. Why? That deep, gravelly voice caught Austen’s full attention. And those eyes. Wow.
“Where are your parents?”
Austen shrugged. “How should I know? They can be dead for all I care.” He didn’t care. His parents were assholes. They never loved him. He wasn’t perfect enough for their perfect house and perfect friends. He wasn’t Human enough. They could go to hell. Why was Agent Brodie looking at him like that? With that stupid sad face. Austen didn’t need anyone feeling sorry for him. He didn’t need anyone. Period.
“Did you run away?”
Austen took a step back. “I’m not going back to that shithole. They didn’t give a fuck about me, just the money they were paid for me. Fucking assholes.”
“Watch your language,” Brodie scolded in that annoying authority tone all cops had. Did they learn that during training?
Austen narrowed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest. Maybe it was time for a different tactic. Austen licked his bottom lip and moved into Agent Brodie’s personal space. He ran a finger up his chest.
“So, what’s a guy gotta do to be let off the hook, agent?” He quirked a smile and looked up at Brodie. Shit. Whatever it was, it was definitely not what Austen was doing. Brodie looked even more pissed. If that was possible. His nostrils flared, and he moved Austen’s hand away from him.
“Propositioning an officer aside, how old are you?”
Austen gave a sniff. “Fourteen going on thirty.”
“Jesus.” Brodie ran a hand through his hair before shaking his head and muttering something under his breath. Austen braced himself. Maybe he’d overstepped with Agent Brodie. Wouldn’t be the first time someone took a swing at him. Instead, Brodie’s brows drew together, his stupid sad face more than Austen could stand. He looked away.
“How long have you been working the streets?”
“I’m not a whore,” Austen grumbled. Sure, he’d done some things he wasn’t proud of, but he never sold his body. He’d rather starve.
“Then what was that all about?”
Austen shrugged. “I don’t know. Hormonal teenager and all that. Plus, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” And you haven’t treated me like shit under your shoe. He was surprised when Agent Brodie extended a hand to him.
“Why don’t we try again. I’m Sloane Brodie.”
Austen swallowed hard. He should really have made tracks by now. Why was he sticking around? He worried his bottom lip with his teeth. Man, he was such an idiot. All these years on the streets giving it as good as he got, getting kicked around, chased, beat up, and starved, and he was going to be done in by a cute guy with friendly smile and a kind face. One that was way out of his league in so many ways. Typical.
Fuck it. Austen held his hand out. “Austen Payne.” They shook hands, and Austen found himself smiling like a dope. “So, um, are you going to arrest me?”
Brodie cocked his head to one side and studied him. “Are you going to keep stealing?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Austen shoved his hands into his pockets.
Brodie nodded. “Where do you live?”
“Wherever I want.” The city was his playground, and at times his prison.
“Why don’t you let me help you,” Brodie offered gently. “We can go back to headquarters, and—”
“No way.” And there it was. The pity parade. Like he was going to trust some cop. Austen didn’t care that the guy was THIRDS. He wasn’t going to end up back in the system. They could kiss his ass. “I don’t need anyone’s help, okay. I can take care of myself. Have been since I was eight.” Brodie started to say something when Austen cut it. “Listen, I’m fine, okay? Been doing this a while now. I like the freedom. No one telling me what to do. Yelling.” Hitting. Making him feel like crap.
“You should be in school.”
“I go to the library. There’s this nifty thing now called the internet and everything.”
Brodie arched an eyebrow at him.
“You really want to do something for me? You can buy me a slice of pizza from Gino’s over on 6th. And a Coke.”
Brodie blinked at him. “A pizza?”
“And a Coke. Man needs his sugar fix. Come on. Your good deed for the day.”
The guy seemed to mull it over then let out a heavy sigh. “Why the hell not. Let’s go.”
“Awesome!” On the way there, Austen talked a mile a minute. Next to the little old lady from the café who fed him, he didn’t generally have many people to talk to. They always wanted to know more about him, and the second he hinted to being on his own, they all wanted to save him. Fuck that. He’d saved himself. He was better off on his own. Less likely to get hurt that way.
Gino’s pizza was so good. Oh my God, so much cheese! The slices were almost as big as his head. And the soda was so good. Austen took another big bite, making Brodie chuckle. The guy wasn’t a talker, which was fine with Austen because he liked to talk. It helped him get a read on people, even if they didn’t know it was what he was doing. Frankly, Austen was surprised the guy had agreed. He’d even asked Gino for an extra-large slice just for Austen.
Austen moaned through a mouthful of pizza. Between bites he asked Brodie a billion questions about the THIRDS. The guy had been one of the first Team Leaders at the THIRDS. He’d worked there throughout college, and when he graduated, he started full time and was promoted shortly after. Austen would bet people were scared shitless of him. He had a “bad boy” vibe to him. What would that be like, knowing when you walked down the street people got out of your way. That perps all but shit themselves when you showed. Brodie probably looked bad ass in his uniform. Austen had seen the THIRDS in action around the city. It was exciting. Better than watching a movie.
Getting information out of the guy was like pulling teeth. He smiled at Austen, but Austen could tell he was studying him too. Why?
“Thanks for the pie, Brodie,” Austen said swallowing his last bite of pizza.
“Call me Sloane.”
“Okay.” Austen was ready for another round of questions when some huge guy with wide reddened eyes barged into the place, a knife in his hand.
“Nobody move!” The guy growled. Crap. A tiger Therian. A high-as-a-fucking-kite tiger Therian. The guy was so drugged up it was amazing he was still standing. “Everybody hand over your wallets. Any funny stuff and you’re gonna be sliced like pepperoni.”
Was this dude for real?
“Austen,” Sloane said quietly, his gaze never leaving the knife-wielding asshole. “When I get up, I want you to hide under the table.”
Get up? Austen stared at him. “Are you crazy? He’s like, humongous.”
“Just do it.” Sloane didn’t leave him time to argue. He stood, his hands up in front of him. “Take it easy there, friend.”
As Sloane blocked the guy’s view from him, Austen did as he was told, sliding under the table. He peeking out from the checkered table cloth, glancing around at the terrified customers. A few Humans looked like they were about to pass out.
“You trying to be a hero?” The tiger Therian sneered at Sloane. “I’ll show you what happens to heroes.” The guy turned to grab a little Therian girl, but before he could lay a hand on her, Sloane launched himself at the guy, slamming into him. The perp hit the wall, and a punch to the kidney had him releasing the knife.
Austen’s heart was in his throat as the guy lunged at Sloane, but Sloane was quicker, ducking under the guy’s fist and doing some fancy footwork that got him behind the perp. With a kick to the back of his knees, the tiger Therian stumbled forward and Sloane pounced. The tiger Therian hit the floor like a crumbling mountain. Holy shit! Agent Brodie had just taken down a tiger Therian! Austen watched mesmerized as Sloane forced the guy onto his stomach then twisted his arms behind his back. He reached into one of his jacket pockets and pulled out what looked like a Therian strength zip tie. He read the guy his rights, and sat on his back, eyes intense. The whole place erupted into cheers and applause, and Austen scrambled out from under the table. His face could barely contain his grin. That had been the coolest thing he’d ever seen!
Minutes later there were flashing lights and blaring sirens. Austen watched with mouth gaping wide as half a dozen Therian agents in uniform thundered in, each one as big as the other. It was amazing they all fit in the place. As soon as a couple of the Therian agents hauled the perp away, Austen ran over to Sloane.
“Dude, that was fucking awesome! You totally kicked that guy’s ass, and he was like, ginormous! Do you know Jiu Jitsu? Are you trained in martial arts? How many forms of combat do you know? What if there’d been, like more of them? I bet you would have still totally kicked their asses.” Austen punched the air and kicked. How awesome would it be to bust moves like that? He’d bet no one ever got the drop on Sloane Brodie.
Sloane laughed and held his hands up. “Easy there, buddy. Might be time to cut down on the sugar.”
Austen was too freaking excited. He was practically vibrating with energy.
“Who’s the squirt?”
Austen turned at the deep growl. His eyes widened at the huge lion Therian agent looming over him. Damn, he looked mean.
“Ash, this is my pal, Austen. Austen, this is my best friend and teammate Ash Keeler.”
Austen took a slight step closer to Sloane, playing it cool. He gave Keeler a nod. “Yo.”
Before the guy could reply, two huge-ass tiger Therians in uniforms walked in. Holy freaking shit on a stick! Austen gaped. One of the tiger Therians smiled shyly and waved at him. The other which somehow was even bigger, quirked an eyebrow. He smiled at Sloane. Some kind of unspoken conversation seemed to happen between them. Like the whole team was so freaking in synch they didn’t even have to use words. What would it be like to work with these guys? To know they had your back. That you could… trust them? It just blew his mind.
“Who’s you friend?” The largest tiger Therian finally asked.
“Seb, Ethan, this is Austen. Austen, my friends and teammates, Seb and Ethan Hobbs.”
Austen looked between the two. They had the same last name. “You guys related?”
“Brothers,” the biggest one replied proudly, throwing his arm around the less giant of the two. What the hell did they feed these guys? The younger looking one just nodded. Did the guy talk? He hadn’t said a word yet. Suddenly Austen realized he was standing in a room with four apex predators. The biggest of the Felids. Oh. My. God.
Sloane turned to Austen. He reached into his pocket and took out a card. “I need to go, but if you need anything at all. You call me, okay?” He handed the card to Austen. It was all official with his name, email, and cell phone.
“Anything?” Austen asked, unable to help his grin.
Sloane chuckled. “Lord, help me. Yeah, anything.”
“Can we like, hang out?” Austen looked up then realized how stupid that sounded. “Never mind. You got shit to do. I mean, you got better things to do than hang around some nobody like me.”
Sloane frowned. He put his hand on Austen’s head. “Hey, you’re not a nobody. You’re a good kid. I’d love to hang out. But you gotta keep your nose clean, okay. I’m still an officer of the law, yeah?”
Austen beamed at him. “Yeah.” He followed everyone out, watched as Sloane climbed into the back of a big black tactical vehicle. Coolest thing ever!
That night he barely slept. It was cool, so he could sleep out on his fire escape. He took out his most prized possession, Sloane’s card and smiled at it. He ran a finger over it. There was something about Sloane. Like he understood Austen. Really understood. Maybe he’d had it rough too. He had a familiar sadness. The same kind Austen did everything he could not to think about. Well, now he had better, more exciting things to think about. Like kicking ass and taking names.
It was easy for Austen to keep up with Sloane and his team Destructive Delta. All he had to do was listen to THIRDS headquarters dispatch. It had meant doing a little thieving, but he told himself it was for a good cause. He was gonna help Sloane catch the bad guys. For now, he just wanted to be near the action. Watch the team, study then, see how they did things. Austen was learning. He watched DVDs, did research at the library. He’d even gotten a job. Sort of. Joey from The Big Palooka Gym had agreed to give him a few boxing lessons in return for taking out the trash, and cleaning up around the gym.
For weeks Austen showed up wherever Destructive Delta did. He didn’t get in the way, and just watched from the sidelines. He wasn’t stupid. Sloane had been surprised to see him the first time. The second time he didn’t look happy. The third he told Austen he shouldn’t be there. This call out had been particularly hairy. It had required some of Sloane’s teammates to be in their Therian forms. Watching a lion Therian and two tiger Therians chase down a couple of Jaguar Therians had been both thrilling and terrifying. Uh-oh. Sloane had that brooding look about him. He pulled Austen to one side.
“Austen, buddy, you can’t keep showing up like this. It’s too dangerous.”
“I can handle it.” Austen perked up. “Hey, maybe I can help.” The thought got his heart racing. “That would be so cool. I’m super-fast. In my Therian form I could trip these guys up. They’d never catch me. Plus, I’ve been practicing.” He bust out some of his moves. “I’ve been working out too.” He flexed his arm then shrugged when nothing happened. “It’ll get there.”
“Austen.” Sloane put his hands on Austen’s shoulders, holding him in place. “You know I love hanging out with you, and I love how enthusiastic you are, but I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you because I let you get involved. My team and I have been trained professionally for years.”
“I know, but….” Austen felt the back of his eyes burning, and he hated it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried. God, he was such a baby. “I just…. I’ve never been good at anything, but I’m good at this. I’m good at sneaking around, of getting into places without being seen. And this time, it’s not to steal something, but to… to do something that matters. I want to matter. Like you.”
Sloane blinked at him before his expression softened. “You do matter, Austen.” He let out a sigh, his hands dropping to his sides. “You feel strongly about this, huh?”
Austen nodded pathetically.
“Okay. How do you feel about doing some reconnaissance work for me on occasion? Nothing dangerous. Just checking some things out? Keeping an eye on someone?”
Austen’s gasp was huge. He threw his arms around Sloane. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” He pulled back, his smile so big his face hurt. No one had ever trusted him with anything. “I swear I won’t let you down.” Never ever. He would never let Sloane Brodie down. At that moment he knew he’d do anything for Sloane.
Sloane had gotten him a cell phone, paid for by the THIRDS and everything. He even got some money. Sloane called it a “freelancer’s fee”, but Austen was pretty sure it was just Sloane making sure he had money for food and clothes. Austen would work hard during the day and study, because agents needed to be smart. He kept an eye on his phone. When Sloane called him he took off like a bolt of lightning. He did a lot of surveillance, usually on family members of perps the team was hunting down. Making sure no one made contact. He also couriered stuff, or followed people. No one ever suspected him. He was just another kid in New York City.
If anyone approached Austen, he used his charm. He wasn’t above playing sweet innocent Billy who was running errands for his sick grandma. His dimples went a long way with women and the elderly. With guys it was a little tougher. He used his humor instead. No matter what he did, he was loving every minute of him. And he was good. Whenever Sloane praised him he thought he’d float away.
When Austen arrived at the park, he was surprised—and maybe a teeny jealous—at the tall, busty woman with red hair standing beside Sloane. She looked like some retro pin-up girl. Curves in all the right places. She was a cougar Therian. Austen approached with caution. Sloane hadn’t said he was bringing anyone. Was this his girlfriend?
“Austen, I’d like you to meet Lieutenant Sonya Sparks. Lieutenant, this is Austen.”
Lieutenant? “Your boss?”
“Well, one of my bosses, yeah.”
Wow. Cool. Austen held his hand out, and was caught in her intense gaze.
“Austen, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” She took his hand, her grip firm. “Sloane’s told me so much about you.”
“He has?” Austen looked at Sloane who gave him a wink. He turned his attention back to the lieutenant.
“Yes, he has. I have to say, I’m impressed.” She motioned ahead of her. “Why don’t we take a walk. I’d like to talk to you about your work with the THIRDS. I think you and I are going to do wonderful things together, Austen.”
Austen smiled widely. Something told him his life was about to change.