Against the Grain

As the fiercest Defense Agent at the THIRDS, Destructive Delta’s Ash Keeler is foul-mouthed and foul-tempered. But his hard-lined approach always yields results, evident by his recent infiltration of the Coalition. Thanks to Ash’s skills and the help of his team, they finally put an end to the murdering extremist group for good, though not before Ash takes a bullet to save teammate Cael Maddock. As a result, Ash’s secrets start to surface, and he can no longer ignore what’s in his heart.

Cael Maddock is no stranger to heartache. As a Recon Agent for Destructive Delta, he has successfully maneuvered through the urban jungle that is New York City, picking up his own scars along the way. Yet nothing he’s ever faced has been more of a challenge than the heart of Ash Keeler, his supposedly straight teammate. Being in love isn’t the only danger he and Ash face as wounds reopen and new secrets emerge, forcing them to question old loyalties.

Chapter One

There was nowhere to run.

Ash Keeler had faced a hell of a lot in his life. He’d come up against terrorists, extremist groups, dangerous criminals, and lethal feral Therians. He’d been stabbed, taken hostage, had the shit beaten out of him, been shot—twice—but he’d never come face-to-face with the pissed-off dad of a potential romantic partner. And because lady luck had a habit of being a real bitch to him, the pissed-off dad before him also happened to be his sergeant.

After their last—unsanctioned—investigation, Bradley offered to open Bar Dekatria exclusively to Destructive Delta for a night of much-needed rest and relaxation. They’d been having a great time, even if some of them couldn’t drink thanks to Therian-strength antibiotics and painkillers. Ash was almost fully healed from his gunshot wound. Sloane still had a few weeks to recuperate, as did Cael, who was on crutches after that bastard Hogan fractured his leg. Luckily Cael was a quick healer, thanks to his cheetah Therian metabolism, so he’d be back to running full speed in no time. Ash couldn’t think about how much worse it could have been after Hogan had taken Cael. It made him want to tear the son of a bitch apart with his bare hands. Good thing he was already dead.

Everything had been going well at Dekatria until Maddock showed up with a baseball bat in his hand. Originally Ash thought the same as Sloane. That somehow their sergeant had found out about the mission. Instead Maddock had come to kick their asses for dating his sons under his nose. The only problem was Ash and Cael weren’t dating. Not that Ash hadn’t secretly thought about it. A lot. It was also the logical step for two Therians who happened to be in love.

Ash stood silently beside Sloane in the back end of Dekatria while Maddock glared at them, his nostrils flaring and the old beat-up baseball bat in his hand. How many others had come up against—what had Cael called it? That’s right, Old Betsy. How many potential boyfriends had seen the rough side of Old Betsy? And now here he was, his every instinct telling him to flee. It was hardly the first time they’d seen their sergeant pissed off, but this was a whole other level of pissed.

This was stupid. Ash was a top agent for the THIRDS with twenty years of experience, skilled in entry tactics and close-quarters combat. He could handle one Human officer holding a baseball bat.

“Which one of you heartthrobs wants to go first?” Maddock growled.

Ash didn’t hesitate. “Sloane.”

“Wow.” Sloane shook his head at him in disbelief. “Way to throw me under the bus, buddy.”

Ash gave his best friend an apologetic smile. It was better to let Sloane do the talking. Knowing Ash and his propensity to piss people off, he’d open his mouth and make things a whole lot worse. Sloane was their Team Leader. He had experience in hostage negotiation. Most people liked him, the ones he didn’t scare the hell out of. Meanwhile, the majority of people disliked Ash from the moment they laid eyes on him.

“Sarge, you have every right to be pissed,” Sloane stated gently, his hands held up in front of him in surrender. He motioned to the bat in Maddock’s hand. Their sarge appeared to give it some thought before he lowered the bat, though not completely. “I know I should’ve said something, but I promise you, Dex and I talked long and hard about this, about our relationship and the job. Whatever happens, we’ll work through it. We’re very serious about a future together. I love him, sir, and maybe I don’t deserve him, but I’m going to try my damn hardest to be worthy of him. His happiness is important to me.”

Maddock pursed his lips, and his eyes narrowed. “How long you been practicing that speech, son?”

Sloane shifted awkwardly despite his crutches. “A while now.”

“Your honesty is appreciated, despite your dumbass attempt to keep something like this from me. I know those boys better than they know themselves. As far as your relationship goes, I have no intention of meddling or telling you what to do. I also don’t have to tell you what’s at stake. If Sparks gets wind of this—”

“I’ll figure it out,” Sloane said, his voice grave. “I won’t let her break up the team. Not if she wants to keep me around. I know what I’m worth to her, to the Chief of Therian Defense. If I have to use that, I will.”

“Shit.” Maddock ran a hand over his shaved head. “You really want to go up against them?”

Ash had never seen Sloane looking more determined. He wished he could be as confident about this as his friend.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my team together. My relationship with Dex is my business. What I do outside the job is my business. He’s my partner, and I’m not going anywhere without him.”

Maddock didn’t look pleased, but he gave Sloane a nod. “Okay. Now get lost.” He motioned to the door behind him. “Tell your boyfriend I expect assurances from him. I also expect him to help with Thanksgiving dinner. He wants to eat like a Therian, he can cook. I’ll see you both there.”

“Yes, sir.” Sloane smiled and headed for the door.

Hoping his sergeant might not notice, Ash made to slip past. He should’ve known better. Maddock put a hand to his chest to stop him. Damn. So close.

“I don’t think so, Keeler. You and I are going to have a little chat upstairs where it’s more comfortable and Dex is less likely to listen in. That boy’s like a damn ninja when he wants to eavesdrop, especially when it concerns Cael.” He turned and marched out the door. Reluctantly, Ash followed. Outside, everyone pretended not to notice, but he knew his nosey-ass team was following his every move. He stole a glance in Cael’s direction. His sweet face was filled with worry. Ash gave him a wink, hoping to ease his mind even if it didn’t ease his own.

Ash was sorely tempted to make a break for it, but he’d have to face Maddock at some point. They headed upstairs to the second floor of Dekatria, which Ash had forgotten was there. He and his team spent so much time downstairs around the bar and that godforsaken karaoke machine that he tended to forget Dekatria had two other floors, one of them a roof garden. Maybe he should check it out one evening and invite Cael up for a drink. Lou had rambled on about how gorgeous it was, with its fairy lights and candles. All romantic and shit. Romantic? What the hell was wrong with him? Here he was about to argue the fact he wasn’t dating Cael, and he was getting thoughts about having drinks with the guy up in a romantic roof garden. Get your shit together, Keeler.

He followed Maddock’s lead and slid into one of the booths, taking a seat across from Maddock and Old Betsy tucked on the bench beside him. Both of them sat in silence as Bradley placed coasters and soft drinks on the table without making eye contact. As soon as he was done he darted from the place like it might spontaneously combust. All right, time to man up and grow a pair.

“Sir, whatever you might think, Cael and I aren’t sleeping together. We’re not even together.”

Maddock’s frown deepened. “That’s what worries me.”

Not what he expected. “I’m confused.”

“Cael’s in love with you, and I know you care about him, maybe even love him. Hell, you took a bullet for him. And that’s not the first time you sustained injuries to keep him safe.”

Ash couldn’t bring himself to confirm Maddock’s statement about him loving Cael. He shifted uncomfortably and took a sip of his Coke. What he really needed was some vodka. “How long have you known?”

“I had my suspicions for a while but felt it wasn’t the right time to address it. With Dex, my suspicions were confirmed at the hospital.” Maddock let out a heavy sigh and sat back, his gaze off in the distance at nothing in particular. “When I saw him at Sloane’s bedside, his anguish clear as day as he tried not to fall apart, I knew he’d fallen in love. Broke my damn heart seeing him like that.”

“For what it’s worth,” Ash offered, “those two are crazy about each other. I’ve known Sloane since we were kids. Believe me. He’s in deep. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my best friend. You know Sloane. He might not be perfect, but he’s a good guy.”

“And you?”

God, he wished he were anywhere but here right now. He’d even take sitting in on one of Intel’s long-ass boring-as-fuck presentations with all their mind-numbing algorithms and PowerPoint presentations. They worked under the military branch of the government, and still they couldn’t escape those fucking things. “What about me?” Did his sergeant really want him to answer that? Besides, judging by his expression, Maddock already knew the answer.

“Sloane has his issues, and although he might need some sense knocked into him every once and a while, he finds his way. More importantly, I can see how he’s opened up with Dex. When things get rough, he turns to the man he loves. He’s grown more confident in himself and their relationship. He smiles more. Laughs. I haven’t seen him happy like this in a long time. It’s good. You on the other hand….” Maddock leaned forward, and his hard gaze pinned Ash to the spot. “I know behind that fierce roar of yours is a guy who isn’t as sure of himself as he pretends to be. You’re aggressive and, let’s face it, an asshole.”

And there it was in a nutshell. “Thanks, Sarge,” Ash muttered.

“I’m not done. You might be an asshole, but you’re a good man where it counts and a damn fine agent. I’d be a fool to say your methods haven’t provided results out in the field. There are no easy answers in this line of work, but you always find a way to cut straight through all the bullshit, and I respect that. But we’re not talking about fieldwork here. We’re talking about my son. I know you care about Cael, but you’ve got some angry demons inside of you looking to claw their way to the surface, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s the fact you don’t know who you are. Where does that leave Cael, besides on the road to a broken heart? You think I haven’t noticed how miserable he’s been since your undercover job? Or how he fucked up that training simulation?”

Ash straightened. This was the first he’d heard about this. “When?”

“While you were working undercover to infiltrate the Coalition. Sloane executed a breaching simulation. The usual training session. Cael had been so wrapped up in his own little world, he looked at the wrong screen and gave Calvin the all clear.”

Shit. “Let me guess. It wasn’t clear.”

“Nope. Your partner shot him in the leg. Twice.”

“Wait, Calvin got shot? How? And where the hell was Hobbs?” No Human got the drop on Calvin from that distance, especially with any kind of firearm. The guy was the fastest shooter on their team and a fucking sniper. What the hell was going on? As if reading his thoughts, Maddock spoke up.

“Yeah, Cael wasn’t the only one who fucked up that day. Those two aren’t your problem. I’ll deal with them. The point is Cael’s focus wasn’t on the job, it was on you. Remember this, Keeler. Just because you don’t hear me or see me doesn’t mean I don’t know every little thing going on with my team.” Maddock sat back with a sigh. “Dex and Cael wear their hearts on their sleeves. It makes it easy to know what’s going on in their heads. It also makes it easy for someone to hurt them. I like you, for the most part. What I don’t like is where this is heading.”

“And where’s that?” Ash was curious. He wasn’t exactly a catch. Maddock had every right to be concerned. Ash’s track record for successful relationships left a lot to be desired. With Cael, it was different. Man, was that an understatement. It had been so much simpler when they’d been friends. Being affectionate toward Cael had come easy. Cael had brought out emotions in him he hadn’t known existed. Now Ash was having trouble figuring out which way was up.

“Let me tell you a little story.”

“Sarge, as much as I’m enjoying this little one on one, this is between me and Cael.” Ash turned to get up, surprised when Maddock put a hand out to stop him.

“Sit your ass down. You need to hear this.”

Ash didn’t question Maddock. He resumed his seat and listened, not liking the way his sergeant rubbed at the salt-and-pepper stubble on his jaw, as if he were reluctant to say whatever was on his mind. He seemed to come to a decision about it and nodded.

“Aside from the various boyfriends who dumped Cael for reasons ranging from his being smarter than them to things just not working out, there are two who are on my shit list. Those relegated to the Tony Maddock shit list are Therians I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. One, Shane Cruz. Despite Dex’s warning to his brother about falling for a straight guy, Cael fell for him anyway. The reason he’s on the shit list is because he used Cael’s feelings to take advantage of him, getting Cael to do his assignments. That dumbass not only graduated high school with high marks because of Cael, he earned himself a scholarship off Cael’s hard work. Then he packed up, changed his number, and fucked off to California. Broke Cael’s heart.”

Ash didn’t reply. If he did, only unpleasant words would come out. Wherever Shane Cruz was, Ash hoped karma came back to bite him on the ass or punch him in the balls. Ash preferred the latter.

“The second, he’s at the very top of the shit list.”

Maddock’s expression darkened, and Ash braced himself. He really didn’t want to hear this, but like an idiot, he sat there and listened.

“The only reason I didn’t throw his ass in jail or the fucking Hudson River is because Cael wouldn’t let me.”

“Jail?” Jesus, it was worse than he thought. Why hadn’t Cael told him? Cael shared everything with him, despite Ash’s inability to do the same more often than not. “Shouldn’t Cael be the one telling me all this?”

Maddock continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Have you noticed how Cael apologizes for everything? Even when he’s done nothing wrong? When there’s nothing for him to apologize for? Why do you think that is?”

Ash shrugged and sat back. “I figured it’s just part of his nature. He’s a sweet guy.”

“It’s not part of his nature,” Maddock growled, surprising Ash. “It’s what happens when a piece of shit like Don Fuller gets his claws into a guy like Cael. Nearly two years that son of a bitch put my boy through hell. You don’t know what it’s like to have your son come home with a black eye and know his boyfriend was the one responsible.”

“What the fuck?” Ash slammed his fist on the table, the drink glasses jumping and causing the soda to spill. He caught himself, remembering who he was talking to. “Sorry.” Ash swiped a handful of napkins from the dispenser at the end of the booth and promptly cleaned up the spilled liquid. He had to calm down. If he didn’t…. Fuck, he didn’t even want to think about it. Before his thoughts could turn ugly, Maddock continued.

“I never told Cael this, but that night, Dex kept me from doing something stupid.”

Ash pushed the soggy napkins to one side. There was something in Maddock’s eyes, in his tone that said maybe he wished he’d done whatever it was he’d meant to do that night.

Maddock shook his head, his eyes filled with a pain and silent rage Ash imagined only a parent could feel, knowing their child was in danger.

“You should have heard Cael. Apologizing for that bastard, blaming himself for whatever it was that set Fuller off, promising he could handle it, that it wouldn’t happen again. After Cael cried himself to sleep, I went downstairs, grabbed the crowbar from my toolbox, and I headed out the door with every intention of beating the ever-living shit out of that son of a bitch. I didn’t care that he was a Therian, that I was a THIRDS officer. The entire time, I kept thinking, ‘How fucking dare he lay a hand on my boy?’ I got my keys out of my pocket, ready to get in the car, when Dex stepped in front of me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t let that asshole break up our family. I’ll take care of it.’ Cael couldn’t see what we saw. The only way to get him away from Fuller for good was for Dex to get through to Cael. Cael had to be the one to walk away, to really see Fuller for what he was.” Maddock rubbed his eyes. “Most heartbreaking year of my life. But Dex never gave up.”

Ash couldn’t believe what he’d heard. Maddock was even more protective of Cael than he was of Dex. Cael was the baby of the family, always coddled by his big brother and dad. Dex wouldn’t hesitate in taking someone down if they tried to hurt Cael. Hell, Dex had punched Ash in the face when he’d been undercover and said some harsh words to Cael in an attempt to keep him safe, and Ash was his teammate. Yet somehow that asshole Fuller had managed almost two years with Cael? God only knew what damage he’d caused in that time. Ash didn’t know what to do with this information other than feel rage.

“How could you let it happen?”

Maddock narrowed his eyes at him. “I didn’t let it happen, Keeler. You think if I’d known what was going on, I wouldn’t have addressed it sooner? Cael spent more time with that bastard than he did with his family. At first Dex and I thought it was just young love. It wasn’t. Fuller convinced Cael that he needed to devote all his time to him, because he couldn’t stand to be away from Cael. It was bullshit. Cael was falling hard, and Fuller knew it. He played it just right when we met him, said all the right things to come off as a genuinely decent guy. Something didn’t sit right with me, but I put it down to my never liking any guy looking to be Cael’s boyfriend. I pulled a background check on Fuller, and he was clean. The guy’d just been recruited to the THIRDS, for fuck’s sake.”

Ash could feel his anger threatening to burst free, but he maintained a firm grip. He needed to hear the rest of this, even if it killed him.

“Cael would make excuses every time we called about why he couldn’t come to dinner or hang out with his brother. It hurt Dex, but he respected Cael’s privacy. Of course, you know Dex can’t be ignored for long. He grew more and more suspicious. And when that boy gets something in his head, ain’t nothing gonna stop him. He’d show up at Cael’s school, his job at the campus coffee shop, wherever he could. That’s when we noticed little things. New insecurities Cael never had before. He was apologizing more. Seemed more skittish than usual, more down on himself. He’d always had confidence issues over his Therian form, but after some time with Fuller it was something else altogether.”

“What kind of Therian was Fuller?”

Maddock hesitated before replying. “He was a lion Therian.”

Fucking fantastic. Ash ran a hand over his hair. Because lion Therians didn’t have a bad enough reputation as it was. Of all the Felid Therians, they were the ones who got the most shit, that they were lazy, possessive, chest-beating assholes and bullies who only got off their asses when it was to their benefit. Ash had heard it all. Had been hearing it all his life. Luckily he didn’t really give a shit what people thought, but lion Therians like Fuller didn’t help matters.

“Anyway, after Cael refused to press charges against Fuller, Dex and I kept an eye on the guy. Call it invasion of privacy or whatever the hell you want, but that’s my son, and I wasn’t about to let Fuller hurt him again. That’s when we realized what was really going on. The way Fuller talked to Cael? He made him feel like he was the only guy in the world, made him feel loved and happy. Then he would pull the rug out from under him and crush him. It went on and on. He’d convinced Cael he was the weakest of the Felids. How he was small and useless. How he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. Then one day, Dex and Cael got into an argument. Dex threw his arms up in frustration, and Cael backed up against the wall. We’d been under the impression the black eye had been the first time Fuller had assaulted him. Cael swore left and right that Fuller had regretted it since and it had been the end of it. It was just the beginning.”

Ash jumped to his feet. “What?” His hands balled into fists, and he felt his vision sharpen, his fangs threatening to elongate. He had to get a grip.

“Sit down,” Maddock ordered quietly.

“How could you not know? You’re a fucking THIRDS agent. Dex was fucking HPF.”

A host of emotions flashed through Maddock’s eyes, and Ash backed off. It wasn’t his intention to give his sergeant such a hard time over something that had pained his family so deeply, but Ash was finding it difficult to swallow all this. He couldn’t get past someone hurting Cael and getting away with it. Reluctantly, he forced himself to sit.

“Cael was already training to be a THIRDS agent. He’d graduated top of his class. He’s smart. He grew up in a cop house. Which meant he knew what we’d look for, knew how to conceal the evidence. What to do, what to say. Cael really believed Fuller was helping him be stronger, tougher. We tried to get him away from Fuller, but he was blinded by what he believed Fuller felt for him. The way the guy got into his head, twisted everything Cael thought about himself, about us? It still makes me sick thinking about it.”

Ash was forced to close his eyes. He hung his head in an attempt to gather his thoughts and keep calm. He couldn’t think about Fuller, couldn’t think about Cael bruised and in pain at the hands of someone who was a worthless piece of shit. Compartmentalize. That’s what he had to do, what he’d been doing all his life. There was a reason Maddock was telling him all this. His eyes flew open, and his head shot up.

“You think I’d harm Cael?” He couldn’t help the hurt in his voice. “Because if you’re telling me that after twenty years of knowing me you think I’m capable of laying a hand on Cael to hurt him, then you can have my badge right now.”

“Relax. I know you wouldn’t, and I’m not comparing you to Fuller. Like I said, you’re a good guy, whereas Fuller thought he was. I needed you to know because you’re not the only one battling demons. Cael just has a different way of dealing with them. The last thing he needs is someone adding to that pain. It took years for Cael to undo some of the damage Fuller had caused, and even now he’s still healing. Some wounds may never heal. I’m telling you because even if you sort out all your shit, you need to know it won’t be easy with him. He puts on a brave front a good deal of the time. Like Dex, he’s an expert at evasive tactics. If he doesn’t want you to see or know something, he will do what it takes to keep you out of the loop, and that’s dangerous for everyone. There’s still a lot you don’t know about Cael. Believe me.”

Ash frowned. “I know everything about Cael.” Didn’t he?

“Oh? So you know about the panic attacks?”

“What panic attacks?” Damn. Ash sighed. “No.” In the five years he’d known Cael, not once had he seen Cael experiencing a panic attack. He’d had moments of panic but never suffered a panic attack. Was it possible he had at some point and kept it hidden from Ash? How much had Cael kept secret from him? How much of himself had Cael held back?

“It’s been years since he’s had them, but he used to get them all the time when he was with Fuller. Really bad ones. I thought you should know so you can be prepared.”

“Thanks.” A part of him wished he hadn’t been told any of this. He hated not having been around to protect Cael. But then he could hardly look out for someone he hadn’t met yet. He could protect Cael now, and he had every intention of doing so. Maddock sat pensively.

“What happened to Fuller? Please tell me he’s not still with the THIRDS.” The guy definitely wasn’t Unit Alpha, or Ash would have recognized the name. He’d never heard it before now. The THIRDS wouldn’t keep a guy like Fuller around.

Maddock shook his head. “He didn’t last very long. Failed one of his psych evals due to violent tendencies and unresponsiveness where empathy was required. Ironically, it was during a Therian domestic violence scenario. Must have hit too close to home, and I’m guessing he couldn’t fake his way through it. Especially since by this point, Cael had pressed charges.

“It was after Fuller put Cael in the hospital with a broken arm and a concussion. That wasn’t what got him to press charges though. It was seeing Dex tackled to the floor by me and four of my agents when Fuller had the fucking nerve to show up at the hospital. If we hadn’t restrained Dex, who the hell knows what he would’ve done to Fuller. My guys got Fuller the hell out, and Cael managed to calm Dex down. Cael realized if he didn’t do something, his big brother would, and the end result would most likely be Dex throwing his career and maybe even his life away, all to protect him from Fuller. Cael wouldn’t let that happen. Fuller was charged with assault and battery. He failed his eval, was let go from the THIRDS, convicted of third-degree assault, and sentenced to a year in a Therian prison. That was years ago. Last I heard he was working construction in Carson City somewhere.”

“Good fucking riddance.” Ash took a sip of his drink. Though he would have preferred it if the guy had driven off a fucking cliff. He took comfort the guy had been sent to a Therian prison, or the Zoo, as some Therians referred to it. Locked away with the rest of the fucking animals. Maybe it was time to check up on Fuller and makes sure his ass was still in Carson City.

They sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts when Maddock broke through the quiet. “Son, do you want to be with him?”

Ash nodded and tried to swallow past the lump in his throat from having Maddock call him son. Not even his own father had called him that. He’d called him a host of names but never that. Maddock had always been good to him, but did he really want his sergeant to know the truth? Sloane was the only one who knew about his past. What would Maddock think of him? Ash had never been very good with authority, which was ironic considering where he ended up. Respect was something to be earned. Anthony Maddock had gained it from day one. Even when they butted heads, Ash respected Maddock and strived to make him proud.

“So what’s the problem? Or is it none of my business?”

“It’s personal,” Ash replied quietly.

“Does it have to do with why you’re so hung up on the whole guy thing? No one cares about that anymore. And you’re both Therian, so you won’t get the same level of shit Sloane and Dex will get once their relationship is out there.” His frown deepened. “There’s a lot of stupid in this world. I hope those two are ready for it.”

“They can handle themselves. And I know no one will care that Cael’s a guy. You’re not the first to tell me that, believe me. The problem is I care, because the last time I gave into what I felt for a guy, my brother got killed.”

Maddock cursed under his breath. “Jesus, Ash. Why the hell didn’t I know you had a brother?”

“When Shultzon registered me, he made sure to keep certain personal information out of our files. I had a twin brother. Arlo. He was killed during the riots. We were just kids.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Can I ask what happened?”

“I fucked up, and Arlo paid the price. I was supposed to have been there the day he was killed, but I wasn’t. I was with this boy I had a crush on. I sent Arlo home on his own, and he was killed.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, but how do you know you wouldn’t have been killed along with him if you’d gone home together?”

Ash grimaced. “Now you sound like Sloane.”

“I would listen to him. He’s a smart guy. Whatever happened that day, no matter how tragic, isn’t your fault.”

His parents hadn’t thought so. They’d blamed him for Arlo’s death. He remembered that day clearly. He’d wanted to die. To be with Arlo and away from his parents, who hated him, from all the horrible things his father said to him, from the pain his father inflicted on him. Then Ash had shifted, and his world officially went to hell.

“Either way, that fucked me up, Sarge. I’ve tried to move on from it, but the thought of what I did, of how I wasn’t there to protect Arlo, it’s been eating away at me year after year after year. When I think of being with Cael, I think about how giving in to what I felt all those years ago brought nothing but pain and heartache. It destroyed my family. When I’m out with the team, with Cael, I tell myself no one knows what I’m really feeling or thinking. They don’t. Yet it feels like they do, like they’re judging me, condemning me. How can I be the man Cael deserves when the thought of holding his hand in public scares the ever-living shit out of me?” How was it he could compartmentalize everything else in his life, but when it came to Cael, everything was a jumbled mess.

“Have you talked to Cael about this?”

“No.” Ash frowned down at his fingers on the table. “I told him we’d sit down and talk, and we will. I need to figure things out.”

“You do that.” Maddock reached out and patted his arm before sliding out of the booth, taking Old Betsy with him. “Talk to each other. Let him help you. If you really care about him the way you say you do, then let him help you. Sometimes, no matter our strength, we need someone we care about to lean on, and that’s okay.” With that, Maddock headed for the stairs, but not before calling out over his shoulder. “Tell Sloane I expect you both over for Christmas dinner as well.”

Ash turned in his seat. “You want us to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with you?” After everything he’d just told him?

“Is that a problem?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Well, all right then.”

Maddock disappeared through the doorway, and Ash sat there for a moment. He couldn’t believe he’d opened up like that to his sergeant. Now that he had, he was glad he’d done it. Besides, Maddock deserved the truth, especially since it concerned Cael. Ash still had no clue what he was going to do, but Maddock was right. He needed to talk to Cael. Soon.

Ash headed back downstairs. Thankfully the music playing from the sound system wasn’t Dex’s annoying ’80s playlist, but a mix of classic rock and modern music. It was loud enough to enjoy but low enough where everyone could talk to each other without having to shout, which Ash hated. It’s why he rarely went to clubs. The music was so damned loud in those places he could barely hear himself think. And despite what most people believed, he did think. Too much at times. He dropped himself into the chair at the table next to Sloane. Dex sat across Sloane’s lap, and the two were so lost in each other, they hadn’t even noticed him. Ash didn’t interrupt. Instead he watched them, envious of the easy way his best friend smiled and laughed with his boyfriend. The love shone through in his eyes, and there was no hesitation when he kissed Dex. No second thought. It was natural. An extension of himself. He was in love with the man in his arms and unafraid of who knew or who saw. Granted, there was only their team in the bar, but had the place been filled to the brim with people, Sloane still wouldn’t have hesitated. His best friend’s only worry regarding his relationship with his partner was the job. Ash couldn’t see himself being so at ease out in the open with Cael.

Kiss. Ash turned away from Sloane and Dex as the memory of Cael kissing him entered his mind. He’d tried his hardest not to think about it, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of his life. Cael had tasted sweet and warm. Despite the state they’d both been in, Ash had caught a whiff of Cael’s intoxicating scent. Holding Cael in his arms…. He hadn’t wanted to let go. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since either.

“Hey, big guy. You okay?”

Ash blinked, his attention moving to Cael, who was watching him worriedly. Damn. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t noticed Cael arrive.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“I’m so sorry about my dad.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ash said with a warm smile. “Really, we just talked.”

“I can’t believe he totally freaked out like that.” Cael lowered himself onto the seat beside him, his crutch to one side.

“I can. He’s a good man. You’re very lucky.”

“I know. But sometimes he can be a little overprotective.”

Ash smiled and gave Cael’s jaw a playful nudge. “It’s hard not to be when it comes to you.”

Cael’s cheeks flushed that wonderful pink Ash loved so much. How could anyone hurt someone so warm and kind? The thought of that filth Don Fuller laying a hand on Cael had his blood boiling. He needed to calm down before he gave himself away. At some point he would tell Cael he knew about Fuller, but now was not the time.

“We’re heading home,” Sloane announced, sucking in a sharp breath as Dex helped him to his feet. “I hate to say it, but I could use a nap.”

“Showing your old age, huh?” Ash teased.

“Fuck off,” Sloane said, laughing. “We’re the same age.”

“Yeah, but I’m younger at heart.”

Sloane scooped up a cheese cube from the table and threw it at him. “Ass.”

His best friend still had some recovery to do after nearly losing his life to the explosion outside Dex’s house. The car bomb had been planted in Ash’s car by the same bastard who’d tried to kill him once before. Sloane had insisted Ash not feel guilty about it, but how could he not? The bomb had been in his car. It had been meant for him. What if he’d lost Sloane? A hand came to rest on his arm, and he smiled down at Cael. It’s like the guy could sense when he needed to be pulled out of his thoughts. He gave Cael a wink and turned back Sloane.

“Call if you need anything,” Ash said.

“Thanks.” The two started for the door when Dex narrowed his eyes at him. “Just remember what I said. Alaska.”

“I’m quaking in my boots,” Ash drawled, turning back to Cael after Sloane and Dex had said their good-byes to everyone and left. Maddock was gone, and everyone else sat at the bar chatting and laughing as Bradley attempted to show Lou how to twirl a bottle in his hand without dropping it.

Cael prodded Ash’s bicep. “Alaska? What’s in Alaska?”

“Nothing. Your brother’s being an ass hat. As usual.” Dex had threatened to annoy the ever-living fuck out of Ash if he hurt his baby brother, stating he’d drive Ash so crazy he’d end up asking for a transfer to Alaska. Like Ash wasn’t already used to Dex annoying the fuck out him.

“Oh.” Cael let out a yawn and laid his head against Ash’s shoulder. It was an innocent gesture. One Cael had done countless times. Usually Ash would rest his head against Cael’s in return. Now he felt self-conscious. Like maybe everyone around him would know how he felt. He cleared his throat and gently moved away to stand.

“I’m gonna head home.”

Cael stood and took hold of his crutch. “Want to share a cab?”


“Aw, you guys are leaving already?” Letty came skipping over and poked Ash in his side. She was clearly tipsy, though God only knew how many drinks she’d had. The woman could drink a Therian under the table. So could Calvin, for that matter. Pretty impressive considering they were the smaller of their Human teammates. Letty poked him again, and he gave her a playful shove away from him.

“Yeah, those of us on meds drinking nothing but juice have better places to be.” On the third poke, he threw an arm around her neck and pulled her against him. “Is there a breeze in here? I swear I feel something tickling my side.”

Letty laughed and punched him in the ribs before pushing him away. “Cabrón. Get lost, then.”

Rosa came over and kissed Cael’s cheek. “Rest up, gatito. Call me if you need me.”

“He’ll be fine,” Letty said, watching Ash intently. “Ash will take good care of him.”

“Speaking of. Are you two dating?” Rosa asked, looking from one to the other.

Cael opened his mouth, and Ash cut him off. “No.”

Letty cocked her head to one side but didn’t respond. His partner knew him well. She planned on accosting him later. Rosa was more persistent. “Then what the hell was Maddock going on about when he stormed in here?”

“It was a misunderstanding. Mind your own business,” he growled, snatching his coat off the back of his chair.

“Fine. Jesus.” Rosa waved them off and headed back to bar. Ash said his good-byes to the rest of them, helped Cael into his coat, and then out of the bar. It was a chilly November evening, and Ash called for a cab. Cael was quiet at his side.

“Sorry about that back there. I don’t want to stick a label on anything before we talk.”

“I get it.” Cael tried to straighten out the scarf around his neck while still holding onto his crutch. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Thank you for being so patient with me. I know I don’t deserve it.” Ash turned to face him and gently took hold of the scarf he’d given Cael earlier in the evening. It looked better on him anyway. The silver and dark grays brought out his eyes. Ash had fallen deep into those amazing silvery eyes from day one. “I’m sorry for pushing you away.” He paused, his hand coming to rest against Cael’s neck. His skin was warm and soft.

“It’s okay, Ash.” Cael leaned into Ash’s touch, a shy smile on his handsome face. “We’ll work it out.”

“Yeah.” Ash smiled when the cab appeared. He pulled away and opened the back door, then motioned for Cael to get in first, taking hold of his crutch for him. It was awkward with his leg, but Cael managed it, though Ash could have done without seeing Cael’s ass in the air when he opted for crawling across the seat. Lord, give me strength. He passed Cael his crutch and climbed in next to him, doing his best to ignore how Cael put the crutch beside the window so he could sit closer to Ash. As a large Therian, there typically wasn’t a whole lot of room for him in the back of these old New York cabs. His head touched the ceiling, so he had to slump a bit.

“So, what did you and my dad talk about?” Cael asked after giving the cab driver his address.

“You. He’s worried about you. About us.” He murmured the last part. Which was stupid. Like the cab driver gave a fuck. “He’s afraid I’ll hurt you, and he’s right to be.”

“Don’t worry about him. He won’t bug you,” Cael said. “He knows you.”

Ash wanted to point out that’s exactly why Maddock was worried, but he didn’t. Usually when they shared a cab, Ash would put his arm around Cael, and he hated that things felt different. He’d lived for those moments. The innocent touches that weren’t so innocent. They had become a sweet form of torture for him. Now that the possibility of more loomed on the horizon, he couldn’t shake his discomfort and self-consciousness. Their relationship had changed whether he liked it or not. They couldn’t go back to the way things were, but if they couldn’t move forward, where did it leave them?

Thankfully, the cab pulled up to Cael’s brownstone, where he occupied the top floor apartment. It was spacious yet cozy, with a playful style fitting of its owner. Ash told the cab driver to wait as he helped Cael climb out. He walked Cael to the front steps, careful neither of them slipped on any ice. Cael opened the front door and turned with a shy smile.

“Do you want to come in? You could stay for dinner. We could hang out.”

“I would, but I need to sort out some insurance paperwork on my car. I want to get the new one before we’re called back in.” That had to be the most pathetic excuse in the history of excuses.

“Right. Sorry. Forgot about that.”

Cael bit his bottom lip and leaned into Ash, who took a step back.

“I need to go. I’ll call you later.”

The disappointment on Cael’s face hit Ash hard. Please don’t let this be the start of a disturbing trend. He hated disappointing Cael. He hated hurting him even more. This wasn’t how he wanted things to go at all, but no matter how much he told himself to man up, he backed off like a goddamn coward. Cael simply nodded his understanding.

“Have a good night, Ash.”

There was no sweet smile, no hug, only Cael closing the door while Ash remained on the other side staring at the scuffed wood like an idiot. He lifted his fist to knock, then stopped himself. With a shake of his head at his own absurdity, he turned and descended the steps to the sidewalk and the idle cab parked at the curb. The whole way home, he stared numbly at the passing scenery from the backseat. Maddock expected him and Sloane to spend the holidays with him and his family. It sounded less and less like a good idea. Last year they’d all had a great time, but things had been simpler for everyone then. Dex and Sloane hadn’t been dating. He’d had fun with Cael like he always did, with no confusing emotions to muddy up the waters of their friendship.

Dex and Sloane had finally reached a stable point in their relationship, even if his best friend had thrown him for a loop by stating he was moving in with Dex. Of course, that hadn’t surprised him as much as Sloane’s admission to having marked Dex. Sloane was a Therian, but Ash wondered if his best friend was aware of how serious a commitment he’d just made. Neither of them had much experience with a committed functional relationship until now. Ash was still trying to wrap his head around Sloane in love, much less being all domestic and shit. From what Ash gathered, Sloane actually liked it. He liked getting up before Dex and making them breakfast. They took turns cooking or ordered takeout, took turns washing the dishes and clearing up, even doing laundry. Did his friend enjoy it because it was what normal couples did? Because all their life they’d struggled with finding a little piece of normalcy in the chaos that spawned them? Ash cooked and did chores around the house, but he didn’t think of himself as domestic. He just liked taking care of his shit. Everything clean and in its place. But being told to take out the trash, wash the dishes, or pick up a gallon of milk on his way home? Ash didn’t like the sound of that. At least not until he thought of Cael, and then everything he thought he knew flew out the window.

I am so fucked.