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Snow and Secrets

Stanford Creek, book 3

©RJ Scott, 2016/17

Published by Love Lane Books Limited

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1-78564-062-9

 

Cover Art by Meredith Russell

 

Stanford Creek, Book 3

First comes trust, then love… then the fight to stay alive.

 

Pop star Tyler Hart is desperate for peace after a humiliating public scandal. It seems like Stanford Creek may well be the place to lay low. After all, it worked for his friends and former bandmates, Cody and Danny. He borrows a cabin and settles in for a quiet Christmas…well, not quite.

 

Garrett Campbell is on the run. Wounded in the line of duty, he escapes to the only place he feels safe, Stanford Creek and his brother’s cabin. Only he doesn’t realize he’ll have a roommate, and a sexy one at that.

 

Amid snow falls and winter winds, passion burns bright. When danger threatens to follow Garrett, he has to decide whether to run again before his secrets could kill him and the man of his dreams.

Chapter One

Los Angeles, Pearson Talent Agency, August

 

“Just because you’re gay, it doesn’t mean you have to splash your gay everywhere.”

James Pearson, agent to the stars—well, agent to the nearly-stars—leaned over the desk with absolute focus in his expression as he spoke.

“I’m sorry?”

That was the polite response, when all Tyler Hart really wanted to say was “What the fuck?”

God, Ty, I try to support your lifestyle, I do, but do you really think this is going to go down well with management?”

James pushed his iPad across the desk and for a moment Ty didn’t want to touch it. He could see the Instagram layout but whatever had gotten his agent’s pants in a twist probably wasn’t something he’d want to see. James wasn’t normally the guy to panic, but ever since Ty, his twin Zachary, and Samuel Hudson had signed contracts to be the new lineup of Hudson Hart—a trio now—the straps had tightened, and he’d seen James pop one hell of a lot of antacids.

“Look at it,” James said.

“No. I don’t need to see it again.” Once was enough and the shame and horror had conspired to be the first to kill him.

James tossed the iPad to his desk. “I sold Tyler Hart to the record label as settled in a relationship with a normal guy, and you do this to me.”

Ty squirmed in his seat. He didn’t want to be a part of this conversation, he wanted to go to his place, hide in bed, wake up and for it all to be over. His hands were shaking and he curled his fingers into a fist and pushed them by his side in the chair. How had this happened? Why had he let it happen?

James was still looking at him like Ty had all the answers, and temper spiked. “One, my normal guy turned out to be the kind of man who decided he could sleep with anyone he wanted, and two, he was an asshole with reference to point one.”

James huffed in irritation. “But he was safe, a business man, someone with credibility.”

“He stole our money and fucked around on me.”

No one knows about the money, and at least with him you kept it behind closed doors.”

What do you mean, it?”

James poked at the iPad. “There are no videos of you being fucked by him out on the ’net.”

“Fuck you, James.”

No, Ty, fuck you for receiving a blowjob in a bathroom and getting caught on film.”

Ty’s chest tightened and the shaky feeling was getting worse. The hits had ramped up on this bathroom video every time he refreshed—by ten, by a hundred, by a thousand, until it had vanished, probably because James had it taken down, only for it to appear as another upload seconds later. Every hit was a violation and Ty couldn’t bear to see it, so he’d stopped looking at the video and the comments.

“James, you have to understand that I didn’t know I was being filmed,” he defended.

Ty, you were getting sucked off in a bathroom. Couldn’t you have waited until you got home, for fuck’s sake? How the hell can I sell you as being one of the nice gays when there is this shit out there? What frame of reference can I put you in? You’ve gone from being the cute one who danced to being the grown man who couldn’t keep it in his pants.”

“Frame of reference? What? Since when is who I love an issue? I’m gay, I sing, I dance, it’s who I am. The bathroom was a mistake, everyone makes mistakes.”

And what the hell was a nice gay?

None of this was making any sense. He’d been out since he was fifteen, out in the band, to his friends, to the public. He was labeled the cute gay one in Hudson Hart and he kind of liked the freedom he had with the honesty of it all.

James nudged the iPad closer and Ty looked down, peering closely at the blurry image. At first, all he saw was a mix of dancers on a dance floor. Then his eyes zeroed in on Zach and Sam, and he knew without a doubt that the blurry figure with their shirt off to the left was him, even though it wasn’t obvious.

“Have you seen the other photos out there? You’re practically naked on the dance floor.”

“We were all dancing. At a club. It was hot. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”

“Dancing I can handle,” James said. He rubbed at his eyes, and for the first time Ty saw a man who was on the edge. Likely he’d put out worse fires than this, but Ty wasn’t stupid. He knew this was bad. And then James passed over a piece of paper. “This not so much.”

The paper was actually a printout of an email, from some weird combination of letters and numbers at a Gmail account. The heading simply said, read this. 

So Ty did. The words were simple and to the point. “‘Two million or I’ll release the entire video.’”

There was more? For now the video cut off with a close-up of Ty’s face, his head back against the wall, his mouth slack, his eyes closed. What else had been videoed? The money shot? Shock spiked inside him as he read the next sentence threatening to release the video in forty-eight hours.

“Two million or the full video is released,” James summarized in case Ty hadn’t already realized exactly what was happening here.

“Who sent this?”

James ignored the question. “What happened that night? Is there more? Did you have… full relations… in the bathrooms at this club?”

The night was hazy, but Ty knew he’d gotten off at some point, remembered the hot wet suction, the short feeling of euphoria, the dizziness of alcohol making his muscles lax. He closed his eyes, desperate to remember it all. “I went out,” he began, “it was after I went home and found my ex in bed with another guy. I was a fucking cliché.” He paused as familiar anger and resignation twisted inside. “Zach and Sam took me out. Okay, we danced, had some beers, Zach got me home. I know I went into the bathroom and I know I … did that.”

“You have proof you went straight home after, no full sex in bathrooms?” James did that thing where he wrinkled his nose again. Okay, so bathrooms weren’t a good thing, but getting sucked by someone who knew what they were doing, that was something else altogether.

“I went home, on my own.”

“Why did you go to the bathroom? Was it to elicit this? Do you know the man who is on his knees? Hell, did you pay him?”

“I was drinking beer. Jack and Coke as well.” Some of that night was fuzzy, but Zach was looking after him. His twin never left his side, except for the bathroom visits. God, he’d been so angry that night at finding Cyrus in their bed with not one, but two, guys. Worst was that Cyrus asked him to join in, and thoughts of a future with a picket fence and kids were gone in an instant. He’d gotten in his car, driven within the speed limit to his brother’s place, the home he’d only moved out of a couple weeks before to live with Cyrus. Zach took one look at him and, dragging Sam along with them, they’d headed out to dance. He’d said that Hudson Hart needed to relax, and Ty didn’t argue. He, Sam and Zach…they were born to dance and sing.

That was his escape, and alcohol helped.

When he woke up in the morning in his old bedroom back at the house he’d bought with Zach, he was alone, sore from overdoing the dancing. Yes, he’d felt like at some point he’d had some kind of awesome blowjob, but not at the club, more in his dreams. He’d had way too much to drink. The video told him the bits that were missing. In graphic detail.

“What is on the rest of the video, Ty? What did you do?”

“I wouldn’t… not in a bathroom…” He scrubbed his face with his hands.

He’d spent an hour dancing, sometimes pressed against other men—this was a gay club, after all—and he’d been pissed at Cyrus, wanted nothing more than to just have fun.

Why did I go to the bathroom and let that happen?

Then a thought hit him. “You’re not paying the person with this video, right?” he asked. “We’re not going to acknowledge anything else exists?”

Although, part of him just wanted the money sent to whatever fucked-up bank account this email sender had. Not that he had two million in his bank, but he could maybe sell his share of the condo he’d bought with Zach; that would give him something.

“No. We’re not paying, you’re not paying. The record label is considering pulling you on the morality clause. I’m turning this email over to the police, and they’ll want to talk to you.”

Shame flooded Ty at the thought that people would want to know everything. Why did he drink so much? Why did he cling onto the stall when some random stranger went to his knees? Why did he let this happen to him?

He stood and for a second he didn’t know what to do. The shakiness was worse, the need to run was forcing his steps.

“I need to go,” he mumbled.

“Go home,” James said, with no affection and absolute focus, “let me deal with this fuck up until I can hand it over to the police.”

Ty turned to leave, but with his hand on the door knob his agent’s voice stopped him.

“Ty, you’ll want to find a new agent. I’m negotiating to remain with your brother and Sam, but I’m done with you, and with this shit.”

Ty didn’t say a word.

He just nodded.

He made it to the bathroom with moments to spare, falling to his knees and losing what little breakfast he’d managed to eat.

 

 

Unspecified Location, September

 

“Just because you’re gay, it doesn’t mean you can’t find love.”

Garrett Campbell ducked his head as another round slammed into the rocks above them. The bad guys were way too close and he cursed his stupidity at not calling for backup earlier.

“We’re talking about this now?” he snapped at Emmet who, like him, was ducked low behind the only freaking rock they could find.

All it would take was for the insurgents to realize they were out of ammo and they’d flank them and it would be over. They’d been cut off from their SEAL team and there was no way out of here. They had to hope and pray that the SEALs were out there doing whatever crazy shit they did to save the two idiot translators stuck on a mountainside.

“I’m sorry, G…”

“Stop apologizing.”

“Find love… okay?”

“I said, not now.”

“It’s never the right time,” Emmet said, and pressed his other hand on top of the first that was already covered in blood. “It’s a gut shot, but even with those you run out of time,” he added, and coughed. “And you won’t listen to me apologize again.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

Emmet looked at him with tears of pain in his eyes. “It was all for the best,” he mumbled and his eyes shut, his mouth slack.

“Fuck you, Emmet,” Garrett snapped. “Wake up.” He tapped Emmet’s cheek and Emmet opened his eyes, blinking at him, and for a second everything narrowed to this point in time. His friend needed medical attention, and soon, and he was pale and in agony, and he was still talking, albeit slurring.

Garrett could do this for him. He could talk his heart out until the world was put right.

“Like I’m in one place long enough to find a man, let alone fall in love with him.”

“Have a normal life, find your dancer.”

“What the fuck?”

The guns had silenced and he knew that it was just a matter of time before the men with the weapons and intention to kill would begin to circle around, cautiously checking behind the rock, finding two men—one with a stomach wound so severe that he wasn’t going to get out of here, and the other with a bullet in his lower back, and pain that radiated up his spine. He knew it was nearly time, Emmet knew it was nearly time, and yet there was a cautious acceptance and a hesitant smile on Emmet’s lips.

They’d been friends for over five years now, ever since Garrett signed up for the translating contracts. Five years of having each other’s backs, and it had all gone to Hell.

“That little guy, the one you had a photo of… on… your phone.” Emmet coughed again, and this time the cough didn’t abate, even though he was desperately keeping it in.

“Tyler Hart, you mean?”

“Yeah, the singer, ass…” he coughed and there was blood there. He wiped it away, his hand shaking. “… and smile and dance moves.”

Garrett saw the blood, counted down the seconds until his friend’s death. “One day, buddy.”

“Tell me…”

“Not again, you want to hear it all again?”

Emmet nodded, blood on his lips, his eyes half closed.

“Yeah, my sister is marrying Tyler’s friend, I told you that story a million times.”

“Again,” Emmet sounded weaker.

Forcing back fears that threatened to steal his voice, at the anguish and pain on Emmet’s face, at the fact they wouldn’t see another day, he told Emmet how one day he would find Tyler. How he’d tell him about the poster the guys had put up on his wall. About the teasing, and the stories. He’d tell Tyler exactly what he felt, about how he had a stupid lusting crush on him, and he wouldn’t hold back on a single detail. The promise was an easy one to make; they weren’t getting off this mountain alive.

Men’s voices grew closer.

That was a bad sign, the language foreign but the meaning simple. They know we’re out of ammunition. Dead. Ours. We won.

And meanwhile Emmet was dying, and Garrett was so cold in the half light of early morning. When the first attacker appeared, lips drawn back in a snarl, cautious with his gun held straight in front, Garrett sighed quietly. He’d kind of known this was how things would end for him, ever since he signed on the dotted line as a translator. He tipped his chin and looked the man who would be killing him in the eyes, steady and sure; he wasn’t afraid to die.

But he had regrets that were acid inside him.

That he’d failed on this last mission.

That he couldn’t save Emmet.

That his family would never know who he really was.

And that he never once got to kiss a cutie who moved and sang like Tyler Hart.

Chapter Two

Los Angeles, 1st December

 

“I’m sorry,” Ty murmured as he looked down from the kitchen to the street below. The privacy blinds, and special covering for the glass, meant he could look out but no one could look in.

Not one of the seven eager paparazzi who seemed set on capturing Ty doing something that would mean they could sell the photos.

Hopefully a delivery man dropping to his knees, or maybe they were expecting something between Ty and Zach—a little bit of twincest or whatever they called it—to underscore Ty’s depravity. The latest articles out there, mostly online now, included one hell of a lot of photos of the twins hugging. And the headlines…the twins are so close.

Zach reached out and caught his hands, the only thing stopping them from clenching and unclenching from the fists they seemed to be in all the time. His brother’s touch calmed him a little, but it didn’t last long when Zach went back to sorting lunch.

“It’s not your fault, and if you make me say that again I’m hiding your PS4 controller.”

Zach finished making the PB&J sandwiches and separated them onto three plates, offering Ty the first. This twin thing they did, when PB&J was the only solution to angsty situations, was about the only normal that Ty had today.

He took the food, didn’t mean he’d actually eat it. Anxiety ate away at him, and ever since the damn video had hit the ’net and become a viral porn sensation, or some shit, he’d been a virtual prisoner in his own home. His hunger was the first thing to go, and he was in a constant state of feeling sick.

He’d switched agents, along with Zach. James Pearson was an asshole who didn’t really feel he could fully invest in Ty’s lifestyle. He still wanted to represent Zach, though. Fucker. He clearly didn’t know the twins; when Ty was asked to find new representation, Zach went with him, with Sam leaving not long after.

Now they were with Zee Childs, who represented the two members of the band who had left and moved off to a small town in Vermont. She had no worries about Ty or his sexuality, or the fact there was a video out there with him clinging to a stall, his mouth open, and his jeans around his knees. The guy on his knees didn’t turn his face once, and thank fuck the sound was shit over the thumping base from the dancefloor beyond, but still…

At least the second threatened part never happened. God knows what it showed, but it was in the hands of the authorities now, for them to track down who was attempting to blackmail the label and Ty, and what the video might contain.

Still, the original part kept resurfacing and the comments had become louder and stranger. The religious right with their say, concerned parents who said Ty was going to turn their kids gay. Plus a whole shit heap of media that wouldn’t leave him alone.

This wasn’t something that was going away overnight.

“Don’t hide the controller,” Annie joined them in the kitchen. Zach’s girlfriend was stunning, a model. From a family with generations of political aspirations, she was completely and utterly the odd one out. Her family wasn’t keen on her being with Zach, let alone even mixing in the same circle as Ty-the-gay, as her parents had taken to labelling him.

Not that she cared.

She earned a lot of money with her edgy blue-black hair and pale skin, huge green eyes, and dark makeup. Her kind of modeling jobs were a world away from selling perfumes or other socially acceptable gigs.

“Why not, it’s the only punishment Ty understands, he’s fucking welded to that thing.” Zach said, and slid a plate with a separate PB&J just for her.

She took a bite and rolled her eyes, kissing him on the cheek. “You love me so much.”

“I do,” Zach said with sincerity, and hugged her close.

Ty’s chest tightened with emotion at seeing his brother so in love. He didn’t envy Zach, but he wished he had that.

They’d sometimes double dated, Zach and Annie, him and his ex, Cyrus. And there it was, thoughts about Cyrus crashing back into his head.

Ty had almost been in love with him. Zach and Annie had liked him, none of them had any idea that he was an asshole of epic proportions. They saw the superficial Cyrus, the one who played the game and smiled. A lot. Hell, he’d even fooled Zach.

But that wasn’t on Cyrus, or Zach, that was on Ty. He should have known.

“Hey, guys, I’ve been thinking…”

“Never a good thing,” Zach snarked. “Last time you did that was ’oh eight and you’ve never fully recovered.”

“Fuck off.”

“Loser,” Zach responded.

Not even the teasing helped the frantic tension inside Ty. “Look, listen to me. I’m going to get away for a while,” he announced when he only had half a sandwich left and Zach and Annie both had their mouths full. “Thought I’d go and visit Daniel and Cody.”

“Wait? What? You mean now?”

Zach stopped eating and dropped his sandwich to his plate. He looked hurt, and worried, and a hundred other things that Ty knew had to be inside his twin’s head, as much as they were in his own.

“Just for a while.”

“No, Ty—”

“The media have lost interest in you, and if I wasn’t here then they wouldn’t be outside our house like this.”

“I don’t give a fuck about them,” Zach said, with absolute passion and conviction.

“It’s not fair to Annie.”

“Like I give a shit,” Annie said immediately.

“But I do,” Ty said. “I’ve talked to Zee, she’s going to tell the press I’m away for December, that I’m back in January working on the album. She’ll seed social media.”

“Why?” Zach said.

“I told you.”

Zach smacked the flat of his hand to the counter. “No, you didn’t. I don’t buy this media bullshit.”

Zach moved around the counter and came to a stop right in front of Ty. Zach was an inch taller than him, his gray eyes just a little darker, but other than that they were identical, and it was like looking in a mirror. Just having Zach near him settled the anxiety in his chest. I’m not sure I can go, Zach, but I think I need to. Help me to go.

How did he word all that?

“Zee suggested it,” Ty began carefully. “It will get me out of the public eye, stop the pictures appearing all the time, let everything settle. Christmas will happen, I’ll get back into the studio. If I have a place with Hudson Hart, and we’ll move on.”

“Of course you have a place in the group.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Without you there is no Hudson Hart.” Ty had no hesitation in thinking his brother would back him up with anything he did, but what about the third member of the group? Sam hadn’t signed up for this.

“Zach, what about Sam, you can’t talk for him, too.”

“I told them,” Zach said, with urgency, “I said if they tried to take the group to two, just me and Sam, that we would walk, and Sam was right there next to me, agreeing with every word.”

“You have contracts.”

“Ones that they’re breaking if they try to get rid of you.”

“The morality clause—”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Zach snapped. He placed his hands on Ty’s shoulders and then pressed his forehead to Ty. “Nothing, okay?”

Ty needed his brother to say this, needed to hear someone had his back, but at the same time he couldn’t rely on Zach forever. As much as he wanted to stay in this place and never leave, basking in their freaky twin connection and the fact that Annie was so happy all the time, he couldn’t.

“I want to see Cody and Danny, and Hope, Danny’s daughter, I miss them.” He was lying. He did want to see his old friends, wanted to visit with Hope before she grew too big. Hell, he wanted to meet the women who had caught both Cody and Danny. But, it didn’t have to be now, it could have waited. Only his head hurt and his body was shaky and he felt his skin tighten and he couldn’t freaking breathe.

Zach didn’t have to know that, and Ty held his best poker face. Zach stared at him, and Ty kept the connection as long as he could until Zach backed away and nodded to the window.

“If the media find out where you are…”

“Zee talked to Cody. His girlfriend’s brother has this cabin outside of town, I’m staying there. And she’s already dropping it on Twitter that I’ve been seen at LAX heading for Hawaii.”

Zach pulled Ty close and they hugged, and then Annie joined in, and Ty held them so tight, like he never wanted to let them go.

“What about Christmas?” Zach said. “We’ve never been apart at Christmas.”

“Maybe you could visit.”

“Well, my family doesn’t want us there with them,” Annie huffed into the snuggled hug fest.

That made Ty break the circle. “Shit, Annie, is that my fault? Did they ask you to choose?”

“Yeah, kind of. I won’t lie to you,” she said with one of her soft smiles, and gripped Zach’s hand. “Degenerate. Bible. Abusive. Blah blah. So I chose the man I love and his awesome brother, whom I also love, over the family of racist, bigoted idiots who think you can go to a camp and come out straight. The ones that say me living with Zach is fornicating in the eyes of God.”

“Shit, Annie,” Ty couldn’t help the curse, or the feeling behind it.

“Whatever,” she said with a shrug. “Their loss.”

 

 

Zach came to find him as he packed; they normally packed together, could share clothes if they needed to. Zach had an armful of sweaters which he dumped unceremoniously into the suitcase.

“You’ll need those,” he said, and slumped on the bed. “It’s already snowing in Vermont, and it’s not LA, okay?”

Ty rearranged them and realized he had less space for his notebooks, so he took out a couple of T-shirts and a pair of jeans. The cottage had a washer and dryer, and a hot tub apparently, so he could wash his clothes and lounge in the luxury of hot bubbles while he was doing so.

He was lucky to get the place, but Justin, the sheriff who owned the cabin, didn’t actually live there.

Which was weird, right? Then Cody explained that instead, Justin lived over the sheriff’s office, which Ty guessed made sense given he was the law in the small Vermont town.

The cabin was all his, as long as he didn’t mind some isolation when he didn’t have visitors.

Actually, the amount of in-his-face people he’d had to work with over the last few months had been way too much, and isolation sounded kind of good. He’d convinced himself this was nothing more than a retreat, something he’d normally pay thousands for. This was a vacation. A holiday.

He almost believed it all the time now.

So he couldn’t go into Stanford Creek itself, but his friends would come from there and visit him. It had to be close, right? And maybe Zach and Annie could visit as well, closer to Christmas. And maybe, if he wore a cap and bundled up in a coat, he could get down there and see the shops, and Cody’s place, and Danny’s apartment, and the river.

“What will you do there?”

“Cody and Danny have some songs they said would be good for us, and I have a metric ton of books to catch up on. I might even do some writing.”

Zach let out an impatient huff. “This is bullshit.”

Ty sat next to him and knocked shoulders. “Look at me, Zach.” He held out his hands, the shaking noticeable. The tension in his chest so tight he couldn’t breathe. “I’m a fucking mess.”

“Then you should stay here, or I’ll come with you.”

“No, honestly, you need to stay here.”

“But this isn’t good,” Zach captured one hand and held tight. “I don’t like it when you get like this.”

“Zach—”

“And it hasn’t happened in a long time, and you need to stop spiraling.”

“I will. On my own, with my books, and everything I’ve learned from counselling, and you will be there on the other end of the phone.”

“Please, Ty, just think about staying here, or we could both go.” He was just saying the same thing over and over.

“No,” Ty allowed a little of his hard-won confidence to push its way into his tone, and Zach squeezed his hand. “This is me just getting my head straight so I come back in the New Year, and by that time there’ll be another scandal, someone else fucking up, and we’ll be done. My head will be straight. I’ll find… myself…”

“When are you leaving? Today?”

“I wasn’t going to,” he looked at his brother. “But I have to.”

You don’t have to go anywhere.”

Ty leaned in and side hugged Zach. “What would you do right now, if this was you?”

Zach looked like he was going to defend some position he had in his head, and then he sighed.

“I would want the peace as well, you know I would,” he finally admitted. Ty wasn’t the only one who suffered from anxieties; Zach knew what it was like.

He sneaked out of the building through the back entrance, the service elevator slow, and the hug from his brother even slower, and longer, and full of anxieties and sorrow.

“See you in a few weeks,” Ty murmured.

One last hug and exchanged love yous and he was in the SUV that Zee had arranged for him, and within five minutes he was on the road. In an hour he was at LAX, in three he was in the air.

And on his way to Stanford Creek, Vermont, to a cabin in the woods, where it snowed. He imagined the isolation, the peace, the chance to chill, and when he slept he dreamed of snowmen and hot chocolate. For the first time he didn’t dream of being chased, of running, or of his teeth falling out, all classic signs of losing his shit.

Go figure.

Chapter Three

The mandatory counselling helped Garrett, but the nightmares didn’t stop, nor did the pain in his back and his chest.

The back he could reason away; no muscles in any man could get away with being shredded by a bullet, and the bullet had been damn close to paralyzing him altogether.

His heart, not so much.

“You know you’re not trained for this? Right?” His handler Maria’s voice was crisp in his ear.

The same voice he heard in his nightmares, the one telling him that everything had gone wrong and that he and Emmet were going to die.

“Don’t keep saying that,” he murmured into the sensitive mic.

“This is a stupid freaking idea, Garrett. You’re a translator, not a SEAL.”

“Stop.”

“I won’t stop. We should have talked to Henry, to the rest of the SEAL team. They could be here, they could have your back.”

“They’re not even in the freaking country.”

“You don’t know that,” Maria groused. “But no, you have to be the hero and find out who the double agent is.”

“Maria, come on.”

“Well, I’m being serious. What are you going to do if someone calls this bluff and comes armed? Translate them to death?”

Garrett huffed into his mic. Yes, this was a stupid idea, but he couldn’t get Emmet out of his head; the images of the man dying with blood on his lips, apologizing for fucking up, were visceral and they hurt to recall. Putting intel out that Garrett knew something about what had gone wrong was a way of pulling whoever had betrayed them out of the dark corners they were hiding in. He could handle this; he had a gun, and he’d had training.

“You look tired,” Maria said, with a sigh.

“Maria, Jesus.”

“I want it on record that this is a fucking stupid idea. And also that you are the stupidest translator I have ever met.”

Slowly Garrett raised his middle finger toward the position where he knew she would be sitting, with her coffee and her due diligence and her safe little room.

She sighed. “Whatever, Campbell. You know I’m right. You’ve never even fired a weapon in anger.”

Silence again. There was no way he was talking about that. Didn’t matter what training he had, he was doing this for Emmet. Anyway, she knew he wasn’t going to be able to shoot anyone, but he could point his gun with extreme prejudice if he needed to.

This was a stupid idea, from way up high, the kind of thing that got the heroes in films in trouble.

The oldest trick in the book, but maybe one that someone would fall for thinking it was too dumb not to be really true.

Garrett had sat here for forty-five minutes, in this tiny cramped space outside the office, waiting for the trap to be sprung, desperate to get his hands on the person who had compromised him and was responsible for Emmet’s death. He’d refused to sit idly by, and no one actually knew he was down here—well, apart from Maria anyway.

The only thing that pulled him through the rehab, kept him pushing to be able to leave the hospital, was the thought of getting his hands around the neck of this bastard.

“You think they’ll fall for it?” Maria mused.

God knows, Garrett thought privately. He actually considered this to be a long stretch. What bad guy fell for the ruse that they’d been found out, that there was evidence against them? What federal agent was that stupid? All it needed was for that one person to turn up at the office and Garrett would finally be done. He eased his foot a little more to the right, lessening the tension in his lower back, and waited.

And then, all he heard from Maria was a soft curse and a whispered incoming.

He waited until the suited figure passed him. A man stealthily moved out from behind the pillar and cautiously began to follow at enough of a distance that he could remain unseen.

All he needed was for the man to enter his code, and to move to room twenty-seven.

But that didn’t happen. The man stopped and exhaled noisily, turning on his heel and staring pointedly into the dark where Garrett sat.

Garrett couldn’t believe who he was looking at. Mark the IT guy was their inter-agency mole? Shock had Garrett moving out of the shadows, biting back the curse at the pain.

“Campbell,” the man said evenly. He looked a little surprised to see it was Garrett, likely because translators weren’t frontline responders.

Garrett held back his response. They had a list of suspects all down the chain, but this guy, Mark, their IT man? Only this wasn’t the Mark he knew, the amiable do anything for anyone man who brought cakes in on his birthday. This was a different animal, tense and focused, and armed.

“Mark,” he said in response. He held his own weapon at his side and remained casual. “Working late?”

Mark shrugged. “We both know why I’m here.”

That was an admission, and the way Mark was standing—alert, loose, his fingers moving by his side—Garrett recognized him as a man on the edge.

“What are you? CIA? NSA?” Garrett asked.

Mark said nothing.

“I don’t get it Mark, why would one of our own agencies want to jeopardize a mandated recovery of a hostage?”

Mark indicated Garrett’s hand. “You know as well as I do, that is classified. Now, put the gun away and we can talk.”

Garrett shook his head. “You won’t talk if I put the gun away.”

“You won’t use it.”

Hell, Mark even began to turn away, probably confident that Garrett wouldn’t use the gun.

“What about Emmet?”

Mark’s gaze sharpened, and he looked like he had something to say, but then shrugged. “Collateral damage,” he murmured, and then turned to face Garrett again. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, but there are things you don’t know.”

Garrett’s grip on his gun tightened and he remembered his training. “On your knees,” he ordered. “Hands behind your head.”

“No, Garrett. That isn’t how this ends,” Mark said. “I’m leaving and it’s done, and you go back to your languages and you stay out of this.” Mark looked worn down.

“It’s not done until you’re in custody.” Garrett insisted. “Knees, now.”

Mark sighed noisily, but something in Garrett’s tone must have told him he wasn’t playing around. He sank to his knees, but he kept his hands in front of him. Mark glanced left at the sound of a car starting, and for a second Garrett followed the look, enough time for Mark to move, enough time for him to go for his gun.

Not enough time to succeed. Garrett stepped closer, pressed the gun to Mark’s forehead, and repeated for him to put his hands behind his neck, reaching awkwardly for the gun in Mark’s holster, hating he was this close and misjudging the actions of what he assumed was a trained agent. Maybe he should have pulled in the SEALs after all.

The sound of the engine drew closer, the car speeding up, and this time Garrett had to look. The last he saw of Mark’s expression was stunned shock and fear, and then the car barreled into the kneeling Mark, who didn’t have a chance to move. Garrett jumped back at the last second, the scrape of bumper against his ankle. Mark’s body flew up and over the car, landing right by Garrett, his eyes sightless but hardly any blood. Garrett, gun in one hand, felt for a pulse. Nothing.

“Shit, did you get that?” he shouted.

“Shit! What the hell…”

“Did we get the plates? Maria? Did you get the plates?”

“The feed is black, what the hell happened?”

Garrett wished he knew.

 

 

Maria slumped into the seat next to him. “This is bullshit,” she groused. “One alphabet agency playing off against another one, how the fuck are we supposed to work—”

“You have something to add?” Travers asked. Their boss looked tired and pissed off. His IT guy was dead, one of his teams was involved, and there was no security footage to back anything up.

“No, sir,” she said.

He looked pointedly at Garrett. “You said he took responsibility for Emmet’s death.”

“Like I said, he called Emmet collateral damage.”

Travis thumped a fist on the table. “That doesn’t mean a God damned thing.”

“So we shake the tree again.” Garrett wasn’t letting this lie.

“No, we don’t, high-ups want this left alone. They’ve announced the tragic accidental death of Emmet, and that information surrounding the death is classified. So, all that shit you spouted that you knew something, is pushed back where it belongs.”

“Jesus—”

“He wants you to get your rehab done, and return in the New Year with fresh eyes, if you come back at all.”

“What?” Garrett sat forward in his chair, and winced at the pain that stabbed him.

“You know as well as I do they’re looking at a medical discharge, Garrett. That bullet fragment is real close to the spine.”

“I’m not leaving my position backing up the SEAL team until this is done.”

“You’re medically compromised,” Travers said. “No one is backing up anyone.”

Garrett couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “A man just died in front of me, a friend of mine died thousands of miles away from his girlfriend and family. I have work to do.”

“Exactly, working with the translation team out of Washington. Just not actively with the SEAL team.”

“A desk job.”

Travers steepled his fingers. “At the moment you are compromised, mentally and physically. And that isn’t going to change.”

“Bullshit,” he snapped. If he could keep the pain at bay, who cared about the shard of metal wedged into the bone?

Travers held up a single finger. “Take the time, rest? Hell, it’s Christmas.”

Temper snapped inside Garrett and he launched to his feet, awkwardly and not without an accompanying hiss of pain. “How can you sit there and say that shit, when I watched my friend die?”

Maria stood as well and touched his arm. “All the leads are dead. I’ll work what I have, okay? We’ll find out where this goes.”

Garrett rounded on his handler, anger like acid in his belly, and then he saw her eyes and there was determination in them. “Maria…”

“I swear to you, I won’t leave a stone unturned. Go home. Rest. Rehab. See your family. We’ll be in contact every day.”

“You know as well as I do that Mark was a surgical kill, there will be someone out there who is responsible,” Travers added, although his tone was less passionate and more cautious.

“All I need is time,” Maria said.

Only when he was a few minutes outside of Stanford Creek did the shock of everything hit him. His family would welcome him, maybe even fuss over him if they actually knew the truth.

Apart from Justin, who would punch him.

He pulled over to the side of the road because he was shaky and for the longest time he sat there, in his SUV, his arms crossed over the steering wheel and his head resting on them.

The tap on the glass was enough to have him sitting up, recognizing the uniform and the man wearing it.

The man who looked at him with suspicion and then…something else? Confusion, happiness… hell, he could never tell with his brother.

Justin pulled open the door, and Garrett undid his belt and clambered out of the car awkwardly before Justin grabbed him, and then they bro-hugged.

“Got a call telling me there was a strange guy in a car on the side of the road, and did he need help,” Justin explained. Garrett nodded into Justin’s shoulder. “Everything okay?”

Garrett thought on his feet, eased back, and patted his belly. “Bad burgers,” he explained.

Justin did what all brothers did at the thought of what that meant and stepped back and away, holding up his hands in mock horror.

“Actually you look like shit,” he poked at the side of Garrett’s face. “Have you lost weight?”

“No.”

“You look like you need a good meal, and where’s the tan?”

“What?”

“You were in Singapore, it’s hot.” He said everything deliberately like he was explaining to a complete idiot. “So where’s the tan?”

Garrett was way too tired for the games where his brother attempted to trip him up.

“I was inside a lot,” he said. Because right there was the most excellent excuse he could think up and it was a crap one. But three weeks in the hospital, plus recuperation at his apartment wasn’t going to add up to getting brown under the sun.

“You never said you were coming home,” Justin pushed.

“Last minute thing.”

Justin peered at him in that way only a sibling could, calling him on his shit and waiting for Garrett to explain.

“Hmm,” he said finally, obviously realizing that he was getting nothing from Garrett. “You want to follow me into town? Does Kyle know you’re coming down?”

Normally Garrett stayed with his cousin when he was in town, but this time he needed something different. A place to lick his wounds and to be alone.

“No, I thought if it was okay with you, I could stay at the cabin, come down into town maybe in a few days?”

“My cabin?” Justin asked.

“Yeah, if that’s okay.”

“Why?”

“Just need to catch up on sleep, and you know Kyle snores.”

“Is everything okay?” Justin asked, far too perceptive for his own good.

So many secrets sat ready to spill, and hell, if he was going to tell anyone it would be his big brother, right? But, they weren’t his secrets to tell.

“Yeah, just, work is exhausting.”

“Being a pharmacy rep is exhausting?” Justin sounded skeptical. He also looked at Garrett in that way he had when he knew Garrett was lying but didn’t want to call him on it. The look that spoke of his respect for whatever Garrett kept inside him. Still, didn’t mean he couldn’t tease Garrett while he was being respectful about the big stuff.

“Lots of travel,” Garrett murmured.

“You missed Mom’s birthday,” Justin said.

I was unconscious on a mountainside.

“And you missed Rachel’s birthday as well. She is one pissed off cousin.”

For that one I had woken up to find I wasn’t dead at all and somehow I’d been scooped from being moments near death to arriving in a hospital.

“And,” Justin added, “You never call any of us. Have you lost your phone?”

No. It’s here. But what do I say to any of you? “Sorry,” he lied. “It’s been insane at work.”

“That’s it?” Justin said incredulously. “You’re not going to argue with me, or shove me…”

“No, like I said, I’m tired.”

Justin hesitated and then laid a heavy hand on Garrett’s shoulder, squeezing him. “You seriously look like shit, little brother.” There was compassion there, and warning, and concern.

“Just need to sleep.”

“The cabin is empty, but there’s one thing. There’s the chance you might have to share for a couple of days. A friend of Cody and Daniel’s said he’d come up at the weekend, looking to stay over Christmas.”

Shit, that wasn’t the best news in the world, but Garrett could probably pull it together and actually fake being friendly for a while, and then maybe he’d shore up enough reserve to go stay with Kyle. His cousin was his best friend, after all.

“I kind of said yes before I knew you’d be there,” Justin added. “Because you never call.” 

Garrett ignored the pointed barb. “Who is the friend?”

Not Tyler Hart. He wasn’t that lucky that the sexy guy he had the hots for was visiting Stanford Creek. Then it hit him, if it was Tyler Hart then he’d likely turn into an idiot about keeping promises to Emmet as his friend died in his arms.

“Ty or Tyler or something.”

Well, shit. Really? Not that he’d be interested in a tired, washed-up guy like me who feels older than his years. He guessed grief and pain was enough to have him feeling a long way past melancholy.

Justin was still talking. “…big fuckup in LA, he’s coming out to lick his wounds. I don’t know much else, only the media is all over him, so don’t be a dick to him, okay?”

“What? Me?” Garrett couldn’t help feeling affronted at that comment. “Everyone loves me, it’s just you I’m a dick to.”

Justin’s radio crackled to life, and he answered the call in codes that Garrett had to pretend he didn’t understand, and then he smiled when Justin said he needed to go. Sometimes he wished his line of upholding the law was more dealing with a shoplifter and less hostage retrieval on foreign soil.

“I have to go,” Justin said. “Visit us, okay? Stop Megs from driving in the snow.”

Something in Justin’s voice had him instantly concerned. Their sister was pregnant, the babies are due at Christmas.

“Is she okay? Are the babies okay?”

Justin looked down at his feet briefly. “Just worry about her is all.”

That is what Justin did, he worried about his family, and supported and cared for people. Likely he was driving Megs mad with his concern.

Something inside Garrett melted a little. So often his guard went up the minute he was anywhere near his big brother, because Justin never let up with the damn questions all the time. “Let me catch up on sleep, jet lag and all that, and I promise I’ll visit soon.”

Then, with every muscle in his back screaming in protest, he climbed back in the SUV and headed for the cabin.

He didn’t look back, but he knew Justin wouldn’t move until he was out of sight.

Because that is the kind of thing Justin did.

 

 

The inside was just as he remembered it: the main living area, a combination of seating, a wood burning stove and a TV, a counter separating the kitchen. The place didn’t look lived-in, there wasn’t any sign that Justin actually spent any time here at all. No discarded magazines, or mail, or dirty bowls in the sink. He knew his brother would never move in, wedded as he was to his career, but who was Garrett to talk? At least Justin had a place he’d invested in. Garrett rented a one-room apartment in Burlington and had nothing to his name, apart from a healthy bank account.

There were three doors from here, the bathroom and the two bedrooms, and he dumped his stuff on the bed in the first bedroom, the one very close to the kitchen.

Less of a way to walk in the night if the cramps get bad.

A notification had him checking his phone with anticipation; Maria had said she was sending intel over, but it was nothing new, and not even her analysis of grainy security images from the gas station near the office was of any use.

He fired a response back with thanks and then put the phone on to charge. Power here was from solar generation and a backup generator, the place was a new build—only three years old—and he was warm enough.

And all he wanted to do was sleep, but when he closed his he saw Emmet, dying in front of him, and Mark being hit by the car. So he stared mostly at the ceiling until finally, even his self-recriminations, guilt, and anger couldn’t fight sleep.

Chapter Four

Tyler stopped the rental car at the end of the lane leading up to the cabin. The instructions had been clear; seemed like Sheriff Justin was used to explaining where exactly in the middle of freaking nowhere his cabin was.

The navigation put the cabin at least thirty minutes’ drive outside of Stanford Creek, and he considered going into town first to see the guys. But, no one was actually expecting him until the weekend, so he had a few days grace before he visited with Cody and Daniel, and he liked the idea of settling in the cabin and maybe catching up on sleep.

He needed that time, the space to just enjoy having no one following him around. The latest tweet he’d seen shared, by a user with the Twitter handle of something like TyBigFan, was that he’d been spotted at the Honolulu airport; no one had outright verified but there were no denials issued by the record label management.

Zee, however, asked that Tyler Hart be left alone to enjoy his holiday on the beach.

Zach simply posted a vague mention of wishing he could be surfing with his twin.

And that was it. To everyone that seemed to care so much about his movements he was in Hawaii and no one outside of close friends and family knew he was in Vermont at all.

No one expected him to be in Vermont. He hadn’t expected to end up in Vermont. Still, he was here now, and after firing a quick text to his brother, Ty pulled his bags from the trunk and locked the car.

The snow was thick; he doubted any kind of snow plow could make it this far off the I-91, and it was untouched for this cabin and the two others he’d passed on the way in. A familiar excitement spurred him on through the snow, and he loved the fact he was the first to stand on the fresh fall, his boots leaving deep footprints as he walked. There wasn’t a lot of snow in LA, or in San Diego where he’d grown up, and the wonder of all the white stuff wasn’t leaving him anytime soon. He trudged up to the cabin, his calves burning with exertion, and was pleased to see the final stretch of the path was actually cleared, snow in neat piles to either side. There was a key somewhere here; Justin had been specific about its location and he was looking for the third board from the right, but he didn’t need a key when the door swung open as Tyler put a boot on the first step up to the porch.

“Hey,” the voice said from the darkness of the doorway, and Tyler peered into the gloom.

“Justin?” he asked.

A tall man, solidly built man, in an off-white sweater stepped out of the doorway and onto the porch.

“The other brother,” the man said, and moved closer, gesturing to take a bag and hold out a hand at the same time. “Garrett.”


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