include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Sentinel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.

A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Sentinel

Copyright © 2018 by Karrie Roman

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

September, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-949340-69-3

Print ISBN: 978-1-949340-72-3


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, and scenes of graphic violence.

Sentinel

Until You, Book Two

Karrie Roman

Table of Contents

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

About the Author

To the fabulous staff at NineStar Press for their patience, understanding and hard work. You are an awesome bunch. Thank you for bringing my dreams to life.


Prologue

“Last question.”

“What now for you, Ryan?”

“Um…the short answer is I really don’t know. I’m going to take some time with Lucas while the show is on hiatus and think about what’s next for me. I hope people will understand why I’ve chosen to step away from the spotlight and will be gracious enough to give me the space I need to work out where to go from here. But for right this minute, Lucas and I are getting on a plane to locations unknown and we’re going to relax and enjoy being us.”

The press conference was a compromise between the very intrusive media and Lucas and Ryan. They wanted some peace, some space to recover from the events of the last couple of months, and now that their show, Witches’ Hammer, had wrapped up for a break, and Lucas had been given a clean bill of health, they were taking some time for themselves. Nobody deserved it more after what they’d been through.

Ethan watched, ever vigilant, as they stepped down from the podium and walked hand in hand toward the waiting car. His gaze rested on their joined hands for a second or two too long, but it was hard to look away from something that he desired for himself so very much. Not that he wanted either Lucas or Ryan. They were both great men and smoking fucking hot, but they weren’t for him. What he wanted was what they had—intimacy and love.

After years of self-imposed isolation from anything resembling a close relationship, Ethan wanted more.

Once his two charges were settled in the car, Ethan climbed into the passenger seat and gave the nod to Max. The big car roared to life and Max deftly drove them toward the airport and their waiting plane.

His former bosses, Patricia and Roger Krispin, had let Ethan go from their security agency when he called to resign, as he’d breached their no-skeletons-in-the-closet rule, but Lucas and Ryan had hired him as their personal bodyguard and had kept the Krispin’s professional teams as backup whenever needed. Ethan would be traveling to Australia with them, and Harry and Christina would meet them there for extra security, if needed.

“Looking forward to the Aussie girls in their bikinis, Ethan?” Ryan asked from the back seat.

“I’m more of a man in…what do you Aussies call them…boardies type of guy.”

“Oh, shit…sorry. Well, there’s plenty of them too. Maybe we can find a hot lifeguard for you while we’re there.” He didn’t need to turn to know Lucas and Ryan would be giggling to themselves, no doubt planning some kind of setup for him. He loved working for these two men and often wondered at his good fortune, especially after the shit had hit the fan following the revelation of who he was.

For almost four weeks, Ryan and Lucas had dominated the front pages and headlined the news. When the media had discovered that Ethan Lockard had come out of the woodwork and was somehow embroiled in the Lovers saga, the scrutiny had begun to border on the ridiculous. Ethan had offered to resign and had given serious thought to running again. It would be harder to pick a new identity and hide this time, but he’d manage. He was so tired of running and so fucking tired of being lonely.

Eight years ago, he’d lost his entire family, and though he hadn’t allowed any of them to get too close, the men and women he’d worked with over the last few years had become a family of sorts. He wasn’t going to let his brother take another family away from him this time.

“Okay, jet’s fueled and ready. Wheels up as soon as you arrive.” Paulina’s voice sounded in his ear.

“Copy. We’re about ten minutes out. All clear,” he replied. Despite the press coverage and the revelations that had been made about him, nobody from Krispins had seemed to care. They’d all accepted his apology for lying to them and admitted they’d have probably done the same if they were in his shoes.

The only person he hadn’t seen or spoken to since his true identity had been discovered was Ben. He hadn’t been back to see Ben since that day at the hospital when he’d been exposed. Ben’s brother, Cameron, had called to let him know the doctors had successfully woken him and called a few more times with updates, but Ethan had refused when Cameron had told him Ben had been asking for him to visit. He was such a fucking coward, but he knew he couldn’t bear to see disappointment in Ben’s eyes. What if Ben hated him for lying and keeping his past quiet? Ethan could stand anybody else’s hatred—but not Ben’s.

The private jet was waiting on the tarmac as promised, and Max drove them virtually to the open door. Ethan scanned the area as the car pulled up. He expected no trouble, and thankfully, he found none. Once satisfied, he stepped out and moved around the front of the car so he could open the back door nearest to the plane. Lucas stepped out, closely followed by Ryan, their hands immediately re-entwined as soon as they were both clear of the car. Ethan felt that pang of envy bite into him again at the intimacy the two men shared. God, he wanted it.

It wasn’t the first private jet he’d been on, but it was one of the nicest. Lucas and Ryan were already seated on the sofa that ran along one side of the cabin by the time he boarded. Ethan took the single seat across from them. He’d seen the bedroom toward the back of the plane as he’d entered the jet and wondered, with a sly grin on his face, how long it’d take before Lucas and Ryan made use of that.

“How are you with flying, Ethan?” Lucas asked as he continued to settle himself in and clip his seat belt.

“No problem with it. I can’t say I’ve done a huge amount, but I don’t mind it. Once the captain turns the seat belt sign off, I’ll pop this chair back, shut my eyes, and keep them closed until we touch down.” Ethan didn’t miss the look the two men opposite him shared, no doubt delighted they would, more or less, have the jet to themselves.

The engines had been idling since they’d boarded, and Ethan both felt and heard them roar to life now.

“All passengers, please ensure your seat belts are engaged and prepare for takeoff,” came a disembodied voice over the PA. The jet eased forward, slowly rolling toward the runway. It turned easily—nothing like the clunky turns of much larger passenger planes—before coming to a brief stop.

As the engines rumbled louder and louder and he was pushed back into his seat as the jet surged forward, increasing its speed to get it off the ground, Ethan had a sudden, inexplicable urge to run to the door and jump from the moving craft. He knew deep in his gut he was leaving something—or someone—behind.

He was sure he had everything he needed, and anything he’d forgotten he’d be able to buy in Australia, but he couldn’t escape that feeling of loss. Then, as he looked over the lights of the city below, he thought about pale-blue eyes that were usually dancing with laughter or mischief but had instead been filled with pain and determination the last time he’d seen them open, and he knew in his heart what he’d left behind—or rather who.

Chapter One

ETHAN


“Have you heard anything more, Ethan?”

They were at thirty-seven thousand feet so Ethan should be fast asleep by now. He suspected he wouldn’t be getting much in the coming days, but no matter how many times he closed his eyes and tried to drift off, he remained steadfastly awake.

“No. I’ve tried the number she gave me, but it keeps going to voicemail.” Ethan turned to Ryan, who was standing at the door to the little bedroom on the private jet taking them back to the US much sooner than planned. It seemed like only yesterday they’d sat in these same seats heading toward a well-deserved break in Australia. “I’m sorry, again. You and Lucas could have stayed. Harry and Christina were there.”

“We know, but we owe you so much, if you need to get back to help your sister, then we’re coming with. Whatever we can do to help, we’re there.” They’d been holidaying in Australia for a few weeks when his sister’s call had come the day before. Ethan had offered to leave alone, but both Ryan and Lucas had packed up their picnic lunch on the pristinely white beach in the Great Barrier Reef and then moved heaven and earth to get them back to the mainland and out of the country.

“Thank you, Ryan. I wish she’d have told me more. It’s the not knowing that’s so fucking hard.”

“How long since you’ve heard from her?”

“Eight years.” Ethan hadn’t seen or heard from his sister since his brother’s trial. She’d idolized Ethan—before everything went to shit.

Ethan had been thirty-two when he’d sent his younger brother to prison and lost his family all at the same time. The last memory he had of Maggie was her being dragged from the courtroom by his parents, with tears streaming down her face, once the guilty verdict had been read. He hadn’t shown up for sentencing—his parents had made it abundantly clear that he was no longer part of their family and wouldn’t be welcome.

Ryan shifted uncomfortably and Ethan could tell he wanted to ask more, but Ryan was never one to pry.

“She used to call me Thor. Maggie was into mythology even before these Marvel movies came along. She used to tell the kids at school that her biggest brother was Thor, and if they messed with her, I’d mess with them. I’m sixteen years older than her, but we were close. I’m not much of a hero to her anymore.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Who did she call when she got into trouble? Seems she still thinks of you as her hero.”

Ethan nodded, trying to believe Ryan’s words but falling short. He was nobody’s hero.

“Try to sleep, Ethan. We’ve still got another eight hours before we get to LA to refuel and then another couple of hours to get to Casper.”

“Thanks, Ryan. Thanks again for organizing the plane and everything else. I appreciate it.”

Ryan nodded and turned back toward the bedroom. He stopped short of entering and then looked over his shoulder at Ethan. “I know what it’s like to have no family. To have no one but yourself to rely on. But you’re not alone now, Ethan. Whatever we can do…okay?”

Ethan swallowed past the knot in his throat and only nodded his head, not trusting his voice to come out steady. Ryan walked into the bedroom, and Ethan went back to the frustrating agony of trying to fall asleep when it just wouldn’t come.



It was a little over thirty-four hours since he’d gotten the desperate call for help from his sister, and Ethan felt dead on his feet. They’d landed in Casper forty minutes ago, and now he, Lucas, and Ryan were left standing with their luggage outside a large gray shed waiting for their helicopter to arrive. His ex-employers, the Krispins, had organized their travel plans and had promised a chopper waiting for them to take them on to Cody, where Maggie was living. Some kind of FAA issue had forbidden them from landing the jet directly at Cody airport, but the two to three hour drive time should have been considerably reduced, if the chopper had been here on time.

“Hey, I spoke to that head guy again and he said it’s five minutes out. We should hear the sound any minute. Flight time should be under an hour, depending on wind. Not much longer now,” Lucas advised him before he turned from Ethan and once again grabbed his boyfriend’s hand, the two speaking quietly to each other as they waited.

Within moments, Ethan heard the chop chop of the arriving helicopter’s rotors. He looked toward the noise and could make out a dark-colored helicopter approaching from the north. As it came in to land on the helipad, Ethan could see a large gold star, almost like a sheriff’s badge, on the underside and red-and-white stripes on the rotors. The craft itself was dark-blue with “rescue” emblazoned in large, white letters on the side. It was a rescue chopper?

One of the ground crew who’d come out to wave the pilot in called them forward once the chopper was safely down, opening the door to the cabin for them. The three each picked up their bags and ran forward, head down on instinct, toward the waiting helicopter.

There was a single seat behind the cockpit and two seats directly behind that. The stretcher lining the other side confirmed that it was indeed a rescue helicopter. Ethan jumped into the single seat and gave a wave to the watching pilot before clipping his seat belt. In seconds, they were airborne.

Liftoff was completely unlike taking off in a plane. The helicopter rose vertically, tilted its nose down, and suddenly they were racing back the way the chopper had come. The ground crew had given them each a helmet, and through it, Ethan could hear the pilot talking, he assumed, to the tower. It was a whole lot of jargon that made no sense to Ethan, but all he cared about was that he was getting closer and closer to his sister.

He wanted to ask the pilot how long until they arrived in Cody, once he’d stopped speaking to the tower, but he had no idea how to make himself heard through the helmet. He hadn’t glanced toward Ryan and Lucas but suspected they would have been enjoying the flight. Given different circumstances, he would have too.

The view below was magnificent once they’d passed the urban areas, nothing but green trees and lakes. They were just coming into winter, so though it would still be cold, there was no snow around. He wondered how his sister had ended up in this part of the country. It was a far cry from where she’d grown up in New Orleans.

“Jesus Christ, I wish I’d have known it was you.” The pilot’s voice uttered in his ear, and Ethan wondered if he was a Samdom fan. He knew the Krispins would have booked them under aliases, but he also knew Ryan and Lucas were the most famous celebrity couple in the world at the moment, and a couple of fake names wouldn’t keep them from being recognized by anyone who took even a passing glance at the news.

Ethan turned his gaze to gauge the reaction from the two stars, but they were both peering out the window, Lucas pointing out something he’d spotted to Ryan, and they both seemed blissfully unaware of the pilot’s comments.

“They can’t hear me, Ethan. I’m talking to you. What the fuck are you doing here?”

Even if he knew how to answer through the helmet, he couldn’t have because he had no fucking idea who this guy was or what his problem was. He knew he’d garnered plenty of attention in the press lately, too, thanks to the attack on Lucas and his role in the events.

The possibility that this man may have known or been related to one of his brother’s victims slammed into him, and despite being the one who’d put a stop to his brother’s murder spree, he knew it would be difficult for a victim’s friend or loved one to be confronted with the brother of their killer.

“Just talk. Your mic will pick you up, and I’ll be able to hear you. Tell me what the fuck you’re doing here.”

“I…ah…my sister lives in Cody and she called me for help. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I’m only here to help her, not cause trouble.” He had no way of knowing if he’d been heard, and as the silence stretched on he began to doubt that he had.

Finally, the pilot responded, “I thought you had nothing to do with your family?”

“I haven’t, not for eight years, but Maggie called me and I had to come.”

“Maggie Godfrey? Is that your sister?”

The fact that he didn’t know if that was her name hit him like a sledgehammer. He had no fucking idea if his sister was now Maggie Godfrey. If so, she’d either changed her name to hide her family history, as well, or she’d married.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure what name she goes by now.” Who the fuck was this guy?

“And those two. Why did they come?”

“They’re friends and they came to help if they can.” There was no way Ethan was telling this guy who they were. Chances were he already knew, but he hadn’t indicated that, so Ethan was keeping quiet. The pilot fell silent once again and Ethan let it lay. He really didn’t want to get into an argument with him, but once they landed he’d talk to him. If Maggie was hiding her identity, he didn’t want to ruin it for her. Maybe he could talk this guy into keeping who he was under wraps. Though it was a strong bet he wasn’t the only one in town who watched the news.

Another half hour passed in silence before Ethan heard the pilot’s voice again. The jargon was back so he must have been speaking to the tower wherever they were landing. He could see dwellings below, dotted randomly throughout the landscape. It was so green and rural compared to what he was used to.

“We’re coming in to Cody. There’s a rental car waiting for you guys. Should be another ten minutes and you’ll be on your way.”

Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour at most, and he’d be standing in front of his sister again. He remembered her as a kid, a teenager. She was an adult now and he’d missed it all; he had no idea what kind of woman she’d turned out to be. She’d always been sweet, kind-hearted. Had she lost that to the bitterness of being a Lockard? Surely, her childhood—her innocence—had been pounded out of her with the fall of the judge’s gavel. One brother in jail for murder, the other a pariah because he’d put him there.

The vertical drop of the helicopter was as off-putting as the takeoff. After flying solely in planes, it felt wrong—not scary—just wrong. Another person opened the door for them once they were on the ground while the chopper was powering down. He turned to look back at the pilot once he was out of the craft and saw he was removing his helmet, so hopefully, he’d be out soon. As eager as he was to get to Maggie, before they left he had to speak to this guy to ask for his discretion, for Maggie’s sake, if not his.

Ryan and Lucas had their bags and wandered toward the only building in sight, but Ethan stayed where he was at the side of the helicopter, waiting. The door to the cockpit finally opened, and Ethan watched as the pilot ducked to step out.

When the pilot moved away from the door, he stopped in front of Ethan and stood at his full height—he was a big man. Ethan was shocked when he got his first proper view of the man who seemed to dislike him so much.

“Cameron? Fucking hell.”

“Yeah, fucking hell,” Cameron replied and moved to walk away from him. Ethan considered grabbing his arm to stop him, but given the anger he’d felt dripping from the big man, he wasn’t at all sure he wouldn’t end up with a fist to his face for his trouble.

Nevertheless, he followed Cameron toward the building where Lucas and Ryan were waiting because he was determined to get him to promise to keep Maggie’s secret if that’s what she wanted. “Cameron, wait. Please.”

Cameron stopped and Ethan watched his back as he drew in deep breaths, his fists clenching before he turned to face him. “Please? Funny that. I seem to remember my brother asking me over and over again to please get you to come to see him in the hospital. I also remember me asking you over and over to please visit him. So, you know what, Ethan? I’m going to show you the same consideration you showed us and walk the fuck away from you—now, before I fucking do something I might one day regret.”

Jesus, Cameron was fucking pissed, and Ethan couldn’t blame him. He could only imagine how furious Ben must be. He should never have run like he did; he was a fucking coward and he deserved their anger. He watched as Cameron continued walking toward the building.

Back when his actions had sent his brother to jail and broken up his family, Ethan had never been ashamed of himself because he’d always known he’d done the right thing. This time, though, he was ashamed. He should have gone to see Ben in the hospital—even if it had only been to say goodbye and even if that would have hurt like fucking hell.

Ethan was aware he was standing on the helipad, alone, probably looking like a fish out of water as he tried to parse the situation. He bent to pick up his bag and follow Cameron toward the building, but when he saw Cameron stop and quickly flick a look back to him over his shoulder, Ethan didn’t miss the distress on his face. Cameron began hurriedly walking forward now, and Ethan tried to see what had bothered him. He knew Ryan and Lucas were in front of him, but they were blocked by Cameron’s big body and Ethan hoped he wasn’t going to have words with them. They’d both gone to see Ben since he’d woken from his coma. They’d said their goodbyes, and as far as Ethan knew, they’d left on very friendly terms.

It was quiet now that the helicopter had completely powered down, and even from this distance, Ethan could hear quiet chatting coming from Ryan and Lucas. He also had no trouble hearing when Cameron suddenly called out in their direction. “No, fuck, what are you doing here? Let’s go. Now.”

Was he talking to Ryan and Lucas? Surely, he’d known it was them, and why was he so upset to see them?

“Is he really here?” A new voice floated to him, and Ethan’s heart fluttered as his stomach dropped. As if to confirm what Ethan already knew, Ben appeared from behind his brother’s body, his gaze already locked onto Ethan. Fuck, he looked good. And yet, at the same time, he looked wrong.

At the sound of Ben’s voice, Ethan stopped walking and was left standing stationary while his world flipped on its end again. Ben marched past Cameron, avoiding the arm that flung out to try to stop him. He stalked toward Ethan until they were standing inches apart.

This close, Ethan could see the usual lightness in Ben’s eyes had dimmed and the smile he always wore had morphed into a frown. It was wrong. His light caramel hair was longer and far curlier than usual. His body looked even tighter than it had—more buff—if that was possible, because Ben had always been damn fit. In spite of the fog of sadness that hung around him, Ben was the hottest fucking thing Ethan had ever seen.

There was at least four inches difference in height between them, so for Ben to reach up and grab the collar of his shirt, he had to go up on tiptoes. And, when he smacked his lips onto Ethan’s, he had to drag him down into the kiss.

It wasn’t a passionate kiss—it was an angry kiss. It was a “Fuck, I missed you, but I’m so fucking angry with you” kiss. It was their first kiss.

Before Ethan could even think about moving his lips against Ben’s to soften the onslaught, Ben pulled back. He released Ethan’s collar and Ethan couldn’t help wondering what came next. He had his answer when Ben cocked his arm back and unleashed the most brutal right hook Ethan had ever been the unhappy recipient of—and he couldn’t say it was undeserved.

Chapter Two

BEN


“Welcome to Wyoming, asshole,” Ben spat at Ethan’s kneeling form. Blood was dripping from between Ethan’s fingers where he was clutching at his nose. Ben didn’t think he’d broken it, but goddamn, it had felt fucking good.

Ethan peered up at him from behind his cupped hands, and Ben had to force himself not to lean down and comfort him. He’d promised himself that punch weeks ago when Ethan failed to come back to see him at the hospital, but the kiss had come out of the blue. Damn it.

When Ben had regained consciousness in the hospital, all he’d wanted was Ethan. He’d been told that he’d survived the effects of the fire, but Ben needed to see for himself. His last memory had been of them taking an unconscious Ethan away from him in the back of an ambulance. Fuck. Fuck! Ben had been in love with Ethan for years, and he hadn’t ever expected anything from him, but dammit, he’d needed to see for himself Ethan was fine, and he’d fucking denied Ben that opportunity.

The most painful part was that Ethan hadn’t cared enough to check on him, hadn’t fucking bothered to come and say goodbye before he’d jetted off to a country thousands of miles away. Ethan couldn’t have been clearer, if he’d had it written in skywriting, that he didn’t give a fuck about him. It hurt. It hurt far more than Craig Evers’s bullets had. He’d recovered from those, but he hadn’t recovered from Ethan.

“Ben, Jesus. Come on, let’s go,” Cameron’s voice was hesitant, nervous. He was probably wondering if there was more violence to come from him. Cameron had been by his side since the shooting, so he knew the damage that had been done. He knew the pain he was in. He turned to his brother to assure him he was done and spotted the horrified faces of Lucas and Ryan peering out from behind his brother.

Fuck Ethan. Fuck him straight to hell. He hadn’t wanted to do that in front of those two men. He’d lost control. After two exhausting years of rigidly controlling his feelings around Ethan, he was done. He had nothing left to fight with.

“I’m sorry, guys. I’m sorry, that was…”

“Exactly what he deserved,” Lucas suggested to him with a raised eyebrow.

“Lucas!” Ryan turned his horrified expression on his boyfriend.

“What? You heard Cameron back there. He didn’t even say goodbye to Ben, never went to see him once he woke up. What’s up with that?”

“It’s not our business, babe.” Ryan was pulling at Lucas’s arm now, dragging him from the awkward scene.

“Ben, I’m gonna take these two over to the car. I’ll wait for you there. Okay?”

“Thanks, Cam. I won’t be long.” He turned back to Ethan, who was standing again, with his head slightly tilted back and his fingers pinching his nose. “Ethan, I…um—”

“Don’t. I deserved that. It was shitty of me not to come to see you.” Ethan’s voice was muffled behind his hands and probably the blood trickling down the back of his throat. Ben had taken enough blows to know exactly how it felt.

Where did they go from here? If he was sensible, he’d say goodbye, get in the car with Cameron and forget that Ethan Stone—or was it Lockard now—was in town. Ben was many things but, clearly, sensible wasn’t one of them as he reached out to Ethan, circling his hand around his elbow to guide him.

“Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.” He began moving them forward, doing his best to ignore the tingles where his fingers were touching Ethan. “So, Ryan tells me you’re here to help your sister. What’s going on?”

Ethan bowed his head a little. Ben could tell the big man was hurting—and not just from the hit to his nose. “No clue. She called two days ago and said she needed help. Here I am.”

Fucking goddamn it. This was why he’d fallen so hard for Ethan. How many people would fly back from Australia at a moment’s notice to help a sister who had written them off years ago? “Where are you staying?”

“The Best Western, I think. Patricia booked it for us.”

“No, you’re not. You’ll all stay at Cameron’s. His place is huge. Plenty of room and less chance of the whole town finding out that Lovers is here.”

“Ben, thank you, but I really don’t think Cameron is gonna want me there.”

“Oh, hell no, he’s not.” He grinned imagining his brother’s reaction. “But he’ll get over it.” Would Ben though? What the hell was he thinking? So much for pretending Ethan wasn’t in town.

They remained silent for the last bit of the walk to the car where Lucas was waiting with a wet cloth and a bag of ice. “Here, big guy.” He thrust the items at Ethan who grabbed at them and began gently dabbing at his nose with the cloth.

“Ah, Cam, I’ve um…invited them to stay at your place, less chance of any of them being recognized.” Ben could tell by the expression on Cameron’s face he was not in the least bit happy about his invitation. He loved that his brother was looking out for him, but this was the right thing to do.

“Jesus, Ben, I’m not happy about that. I mean if it was just these two…no problem, but I don’t really want that ass—”

“Cam, please. I know you’re angry, I haven’t forgiven the fucker, either, but he needs our help.”

Cameron flicked his glance between him and Ethan, his lips curling in anger whenever his gaze landed on Ethan. “Jesus, why here? I mean it’s a big fucking country so why did his sister have to wind up here?” But finally, Cameron nodded his assent. “All right, but one step outta line, Ethan, and I’ll take you down.”

Ben laughed and patted his brother’s chest. “All right, big brother, take it down a notch, okay?”

“Let’s go,” Cameron grumbled.

Ryan, Lucas, and Ethan followed behind in their rental car and reached Cameron’s place within ten minutes. It was a large house on a couple of acres on the outskirts of town. Cameron had bought it a few years ago when he got the job as rescue pilot for the sheriff’s department. His zone covered Yellowstone National Park, Shoshone National Forest, and across into Grand Teton National Park on occasion. It was fucking gorgeous out here. Cameron had done well for himself.

Ben watched as Ryan and Lucas got out of the big Tahoe they’d rented. They’d left the engine running and had grabbed some of the bags out already. Ryan was reaching for the last one as he and Cameron approached.

“Ethan wants to head straight over to his sister’s. So we’ll get his bag in and get settled while he’s gone. He thinks it’s best if he goes alone, since he doesn’t know what to expect and doesn’t want to freak her out by turning up with us,” Lucas explained.

Ben walked around to the passenger door, opened it, and climbed in. “Let’s go.”

“I think it would be best if I went alone,” Ethan tried.

“Yeah, I heard all that. Let’s go. I don’t care if I sit and wait outside, but I’m coming. Like you said, Ethan, you don’t know what to expect, so I’m gonna be there if you need me.” He clipped his seat belt and looked straight out the front window, but he could feel Ethan staring at him.

After a few moments, Ethan put the car in gear and pulled away from Cameron’s house. “Okay. You’re right, I guess. Maybe I should have someone there.”

Ben snorted. “I’m always right, Ethan. How many more times do I have to tell you that?”

“I know, I know. I somehow keep forgetting about your greatness.”

“Yeah, well maybe it’s time you stopped forgetting.” Ben couldn’t keep the hint of bitterness completely out of his words but threw in a laugh to, hopefully, disguise it from Ethan.

Ben realized Ethan must have already entered his sister’s address in the GPS when that electronic voice started spitting out directions. Nowhere in Cody was too far from anywhere else so in only minutes they were sitting outside of a bleak-looking little house fairly close to what would be the center of town. The yard was a little overgrown but not too bad—it looked as though whoever lived there cared but was perhaps too busy to maintain it scrupulously.

“You ready, Ethan?” Ben asked after they’d sat in the stationary car for a few minutes with Ethan just staring at the little house.

Ethan turned to him, sighed, and let Ben see how nervous he was. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in so long. What if she still hates me? What if I can’t help her, and I let her down again?”

Ben didn’t hesitate to put a comforting hand on Ethan’s thigh, feeling the muscle bunching under his fingers. “I know you would walk through hell for her…for anyone. How could that possibly be a disappointment? You won’t let her down.”

Ethan shook his head as though weighing Ben’s words and Ben could tell he’d found them wanting. “I let you down,” Ethan whispered.

What could Ben say to that? Ethan had let him down, but what he couldn’t figure out was why. It was out of character for Ethan to have taken off like he did. Ben knew that if nothing else they had been friends, and Ethan cared about him—he’d seen the look of fear in Ethan’s eyes when he’d been shot.

“Come on, man. Let’s go see your sister.” Ben opened his door and stepped out of the car, hoping Ethan would follow his lead.

They strode together up the short path. When they reached the front door, Ethan pressed the buzzer beside it. They could hear the sound echoing through the house and they waited. After several minutes they exchanged a look, and Ethan reached to press the buzzer again just as the door opened.

Ben hadn’t imagined what Ethan’s sister would look like, so he couldn’t say how close he’d been in his predictions, but when he saw the haggard-looking young woman before him, he was horrified.

She was a little shorter than him and far, far too skinny. Ink-black circles beneath her eyes contrasted vividly with the sickly pallor of her skin. She wore a beanie on her head, and Ben assumed if he were to pull it off, there’d be nothing but scalp beneath it. Ben had watched cancer ravage and eventually steal his mother from him, and he knew he was standing face-to-face with that same killer once more.

“Ethan?” Her voice was tiny and unsure, but Ben could see a spark in her eyes—hope or happiness, maybe?

“Maggie? Oh, god, Maggie,” Ethan replied, carefully taking his sister into his arms. She was so tiny it seemed as though Ethan’s body had consumed her. Ethan didn’t hold her for long, and Ben wondered if that was because he was terrified he might break her—he certainly would have been.

“It’s so good to see you, Ethan. Come in, please.”

They followed her slow-moving frame into a dimly lit room with little in the way of furniture aside from two sofas facing each other. A small table was set up beside one of the sofas, with a tissue box, a half-empty glass of water, and several pill bottles. Ben could tell from the pillows and blankets scattered over it that the sofa was being used as a bed. Maggie practically fell onto it and pulled one of the covers over her legs.

Ben sat on the opposite sofa, and Ethan moved to sit beside his sister, gently taking her hand in one of his. “Maggie, this is Ben. He and I used to work together. His brother lives here in Cody, and I ran into— Jesus, Maggie. I’m so sorry. What…which one is it?”

“Pancreatic. Nothing more they can do. I’ve got…maybe six months.” Ben watched a tear slip down her cheek. He couldn’t look at Ethan because he didn’t know what he’d do if there were tears falling from his eyes. Maybe she’d called him here to ask his forgiveness before…

“No. No… There must be something. I’ve got… I’ve got some money, friends with more money, maybe there’s a treatment…”

Maggie shook her head. “Even if I had more money than Bill Gates, Ethan, there’s nothing more they can do.”

Ethan untangled his fingers from Maggie’s, stood, and started pacing around the small room. Feeling helpless was a terrible thing, and when a loved one had cancer, Ben knew from experience that feeling helpless was a constant state of being.

“I’m so sorry, Maggie,” Ben interjected when it became clear Ethan was lost in his grief. “What can we do to help? What can Ethan do?”

Ethan stopped and turned to his sister once Ben’s question was out. Maggie looked back and forth between the two men, and her gaze finally came to rest on his.

“I’m sorry, I think you’ve misunderstood. I didn’t ask Ethan for help for me. It’s nothing to do with my cancer.” She turned her gaze to her brother, and Ben watched her visibly straighten her spine. “Ethan, I asked you to come here because they’ve… They’ve kidnapped my babies.”

Chapter Three

ETHAN


He couldn’t have heard right. Kidnapped her babies. Maggie had babies? Maggie was dying and someone had taken her kids? What the hell was happening here?

“I’m sorry, what?” Ethan sat next to his sister, and this time she reached out and took his large hand in her much smaller, much frailer one.

“So much has happened since…since New Orleans. Um…where do I start? I guess back then.” She stopped to reach for her glass and take a sip of water. “Can I offer either of you anything?”

Ben jumped up from his seat on the opposite couch. “How about I make us all a cup of coffee or maybe tea while you two start talking?” he offered, and Ethan thanked god again that Ben had insisted on coming. Despite not being able to touch him as he wanted, simply knowing Ben was there had given him strength when that door had opened and he’d seen his sister standing before him so clearly unwell and suffering.

“Thank you. The kitchen’s through there. There’s…not much, but you should be able to hunt around for enough to make some tea. I’ll take mine black, no sugar. Thank you.”

“Same,” Ethan absentmindedly declared. He didn’t really drink tea, and if he did, he had it white with plenty of sugar, but right then it didn’t matter at all. Ben headed in the direction of the kitchen, and Ethan turned his full attention back to Maggie.

“Okay, so…um. After the trial, Mom and Dad…well, they didn’t handle it well. They blamed you for everything. They wouldn’t let me see you or call you or anything. They wiped you from the family as though you never existed. No photos, no mention of you, nothing of yours left in the house. The only way I had of rebelling was to refuse to visit Stewart. Every week they went, as though he hadn’t killed all those girls—some of them younger than I was then.”

Wiped from the family as though he’d never been. Jesus. He’d suspected they’d gone that far but to hear it confirmed? That hurt.

“When I was eighteen, I left—couldn’t take their shit anymore. I had no idea where you were or how to even begin trying to find you. Anyway, after a couple of weeks living on a friend’s couch, I met this guy…and, yes, you can guess where the story goes. I was young and so desperate for love I never saw the bad in him. Not until it was too late.” Maggie took another sip of her water and coughed a little. She may not want any help with her cancer, but at the very least, he was going to get her out of this dump and get her proper care.

“Peter was… He was part of a cult, a sort of survivalist, religious cult. I didn’t see it as a cult back then; all I saw was this group of people who would love me and look after me and not put me in second place behind a murderer. I…enthusiastically joined up. Peter was close to the leader. His name is Arnold Piper, and he believes he’s God’s spokesman on earth. They move around a lot. They live in a tent city, I guess, so they can move whenever Arnold, or god, deem it necessary. Now that I’m out, I can see it’s your garden-variety cult where the head guys marry a half-dozen or so women each and have a hundred kids with them so they can repopulate the earth with their ‘goodness.’ It’s not that big yet, thank god, but the numbers are growing. I was such a fool, Ethan. I didn’t even care at the start when the brides were getting younger and younger.”

Maggie swallowed and her tiny body was suddenly wracked with violent coughing. Ethan felt utterly useless when the only help he could offer was a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Ben came into the room with a couple of mugs of tea, handing one to Ethan and putting Maggie’s on the little table at her side. Then he moved around the back of the couch and began rubbing Maggie’s back. In moments, the coughing eased. Ethan flicked a glance at Ben, who gave him a small smile in return.

“Thank you,” Maggie murmured before taking a sip of tea. “Anyway, after nearly two years of being married to Peter, I started to get uncomfortable about what was going on. At the same time, Peter was getting angrier and angrier with me because I hadn’t gotten pregnant yet. One day Arnold…. God, I watched Arnold marry a fourteen-year-old girl, and she looked terrified. I knew then it was all so wrong and I wanted to get out. About the same time, I began to suspect I had finally gotten pregnant. I spoke to Peter and told him I wanted out… I was terrified of his reaction, but he was actually happy, because as it turns out, he thought I was useless to him since I hadn’t given him any children as god and Arnold demanded.”

“So, you didn’t tell him you thought you may be pregnant?” Ben asked. He was back on the other sofa now with his cup of tea in his hands.

“No. No way. If I had, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have let me go. I came here to Cody and confirmed that I was pregnant…twin girls.” Maggie sobbed and Ethan’s heart clenched at the pain radiating from his sister. He put his arm around her narrow shoulders and pulled her to his chest as she softly wept. Her body felt so small against him, and Ethan felt sick at the thought of the life he’d abandoned his sister to. She’d never hated him, never turned her back on him, but he’d deserted her.

Maggie cried herself dry and then pulled away from him. She looked up and he did his best to give her a reassuring smile.

“They turned two about six months ago. Maya and Riley.”

“Beautiful names, Maggie,” Ben said into the silence that followed.

“You named one after me?” Ethan choked out.

“Yes, after you Ethan Reilly Lockard, or rather Stone now.”

“Tell us what happened,” Ethan encouraged once he had himself under control again.

“Well, the pregnancy went along fine. I got a job cleaning at one of the local hotels, and the owner there was really lovely. She let me stay in a little apartment over her garage, no charge, and she helped me out when I had to stop working to have the girls. Once they came along, I was able to go back to work because she let me work my hours around them. She’d watch the girls for me while I cleaned the rooms, and a local schoolgirl would babysit whenever she couldn’t do it. Everything was going great for a little over a year, and that’s when I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to go to the doctor. I was so tired all the time, so sick, and I had such bad back pain. He sent me for a few tests, and then he gave me the news about the cancer. He said I had about eighteen months. Two days was all it took to go from feeling a little poorly to be given a death sentence. It all happened so fast. I didn’t even cry when he told me. My head was spinning.”

“Did you have any treatment, Maggie?”

“A little. I started on chemo, but it made me so sick, Ethan, and the doctors said it wouldn’t cure me, only drag out the suffering, really. I couldn’t afford anything, anyway, once the insurance ran out.”

“What about Mom and Dad?”

“I haven’t spoken to them since I left. Not after what they did to you.”

Ethan would grovel and plead with Lucas and Ryan if he had to, and he didn’t care if he had to work for them for nothing for the rest of his life, but he was getting Maggie to the best damn specialists available. There was no room for pride when a loved one’s life was on the line.

“Elsie, she’s my boss, put me up here and she comes around when she can to help me out. She’s been so good to me, but she’s elderly herself and she hasn’t been well lately. She doesn’t even know… I haven’t told her about the girls.”

Ben sat farther forward in his seat. “When were they taken?”

“Five days ago. Peter… About a week ago, Peter turned up. It was a particularly bad day, and I didn’t have the energy to keep him out. He found the girls and he knew straight away they were his. I could see in his eyes that he wanted them. He stayed here and told me how happy he was and how we could be a family again, that Arnold would welcome me back now that I had provided the children god demanded. I didn’t have a chance of stopping him—I knew that. I was even prepared to go with him so I could do whatever I had to do to protect them at the commune, but it all changed again when he found out my diagnosis. When I woke up the next morning, they were gone. All three of them. He didn’t even take their clothes or any of their toys. Poor Maya hasn’t even got Cuddles and Riley… She can’t sleep without her little blanket.”

Ethan held her again, helpless, as her tears flowed freely. How had this happened to his sweet baby sister? Nobody deserved what was happening to Maggie, but least of all her. “I’m sorry, Ethan, that I’ve dragged you into this. I didn’t know who else to turn to.”

“Why didn’t you go to the cops?” Ben asked.

“Arnold is… He’s a mad man. He always told us that he was above the law and man’s laws didn’t apply to him. Peter told me once that Arnold never had to worry about people leaving and going to the cops, because they knew at the first hint of the law coming for him, he was going to, and I’m quoting here, ‘implement the Jonestown protocol.’”

Ethan’s stomach bottomed out. He didn’t know the details, but he knew enough to know that hundreds of people had died during the Jonestown incident, most by their own hand at the say-so of their leader, Jim Jones.

“I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk sending the cops and having that nutjob kill my girls and everyone else. I don’t trust that Peter would be able to say no to him. I think he’d do it… I think he’d kill my babies.” Maggie stood; it was slow and labored and Ethan’s heart throbbed again. “I’m gonna use the bathroom. Excuse me.”

As he watched her walk away from him, Ethan had the crazy thought that he never wanted her out of his sight again. All those years apart—wasted—lost. And now that they’d found each other again, there was so little time left to them.

Once she’d left the room, Ben stood and walked over to where he was sitting. Kneeling, he put his hands on Ethan’s thighs, slowly sliding them back and forth.

“Ethan, how’re you doing?”

“I…I’m not okay.” He shook his head. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he wanted to talk over with Ben because he knew he’d need this man if he had any hope of getting through this. He couldn’t get anything out though. He’d been hit with blow after blow since he’d walked through that front door, and nothing was making sense to him.

Ben stood and grabbed his hands, yanking him up, pulling him into a hug. Ethan knew he was the physically bigger man, but in that embrace he felt engulfed by Ben, wrapped up and so very safe. He knew that feeling would be fleeting, but he was going to enjoy it for as long as he could.

“I’m here, okay? I’m not going anywhere. We’ll get those babies back, Ethan. Your nieces… You’re an uncle,” Ben whispered into his ear.

While listening to the horror of his sister’s life story, the fact that he was an uncle had been completely lost on him. “I’m an uncle,” he murmured. He wanted to stand there forever, wrapped up in the warmth and strength of Ben’s body, basking in the news of his baby nieces. But he had work to do. He had to rescue them. He wouldn’t let anything happen to them. Was it even possible to love people you’d never met? Because he’d never met Maya and Riley but he already knew he’d lay down his life for them in a heartbeat.

Ben released him and they both sat again. Ethan kept his gaze on Ben as he settled on the sofa. For the two years they’d worked together, Ethan had always known Ben to be reliable, and deadly, if needed. He couldn’t have asked for anyone better to be here with him now. His face throbbed where Ben had hit him earlier as if to remind him of the skill the younger man possessed. It also reminded him of that fucking kiss that he didn’t want to dwell on yet. He was so fucked.

“How do you wanna play this?” Ben asked.

“I’m not sure, yet. We’ve gotta get some more intel from Maggie. See if she knows where they’re camped, numbers, weapons. This can’t turn into another Waco, especially not with kids involved.”

“Look, what say we round Maggie up, get her back to Cameron’s, and get this thing started.”

“You think Cameron’ll be okay with another guest?”

“She’s not staying here, Ethan. Cam’s got a couple of days off, and Lucas and Ryan are there to help. They can watch her while we go in and get the girls.”

Ethan had already decided that Lucas and Ryan would be staying behind when they went wherever the hell they had to go to rescue his nieces. As generous as their offer to come to help had been, they had no experience with this sort of thing, and he was pretty sure neither of them had expected this sort of help to be needed.

“Ben, you don’t have—”

“If you finish that fucking sentence, I’m gonna give you a matching black eye to go with that nose. I’m going with you. Whatever it takes, I’m in.”

Chapter Four

BEN


“Maggie?”

“Hello, Cameron.” The short trip from her place to Cameron’s seemed to have exhausted Maggie, who leaned heavily on her brother as they made their way from the car to the open front door where Cameron was waiting.

Ben had a small bag filled with Maggie’s scant belongings and medications. He’d arrange for the rest of her stuff and her daughters’ clothes and toys to be picked up at some point. Right now, he simply wanted to get her settled inside so she’d be able to rest. Ben could hardly believe the tale he’d heard from her, and he could only imagine the anguish Ethan must be feeling.

Cameron continued watching Maggie and Ethan as they made their way through the door, Ben close on their heels. Ben spared a glance at his brother as he passed him and murmured, “I’ll explain soon.”

Ethan and Maggie had stopped just inside the door, neither knowing the house at all. “This way,” Ben called to them and began leading them down the hallway toward the bedrooms. He’d put Maggie in his room as it had a bathroom attached so she’d have a bit of privacy. Ryan and Lucas would have been put in the next largest room, and he had no doubt Cameron would have Ethan’s things in the smallest, dingiest room. That left Ben with the sofa, not that he cared; he could sleep anywhere—something that had come in handy over the years.

There was no time to change the bedding, so Ben pulled the covers up and helped Maggie to lie down once they were in the room. Ethan covered her with the blanket that had been at the end of the bed. Ben was pretty confident she’d been asleep before her head had even hit the pillow. He left her bag in the corner of the room and walked to the door. Looking back, he saw Ethan standing over his sister, unmoving—a silent sentinel.

At almost forty, Ethan was nine years older than Ben, but that was just a number as far as Ben was concerned. Ethan was the most beautiful and amazing man Ben had ever met. He clearly remembered the first time he’d laid eyes on him in the Krispin’s office. He’d been newly hired by Patricia and she’d called Ethan in to take him under his wing, so to speak. Ben was not a shy man in any way, but he’d found himself tongue-tied when he’d come face-to-face with six-foot-four of hotness.

Ethan’s dark brown hair had grayed a little at the temples, and he’d started wearing a hint of a beard since that day, but he still took Ben’s breath away every single damn time he laid eyes on him. How no one had ever picked up on Ben’s feelings was a mystery—maybe he was a better fucking actor than the two stars currently in the house.

“Ethan,” he whispered, trying hard not to wake Maggie. Ethan heard him though and turned his head. “I’ll be right outside, okay?”

Ethan nodded and Ben just caught the whispered “thank you” as he turned back to his sister. He knew Cameron would be waiting for some answers, and as angry as his brother was with Ethan, Ben knew he was a good guy who would never turn away people who needed help.

Ben found Cameron sitting with Ryan and Lucas on the outdoor lounge set on the deck. There was a gorgeous view from the back of Cameron’s house that Ben had spent many hours enjoying since he’d arrived here to recuperate after the shooting. Ben could be quiet when he needed to be, and none of the men on the deck had noticed his approach. He leaned against the wall, listening to both Lucas and Ryan telling Cameron how wonderful Ethan was. They knew what Ethan had done, or rather hadn’t done, after the shooting, but he didn’t think they knew why it had hurt so fucking much. Cameron knew everything; he’d confessed to his brother that he was in love with Ethan and had been for years. He wished now he had never told him; he hated that Cameron thought less of Ethan because of it.

“He sure is one of the good guys,” he interrupted as Ryan was trying to sell Ethan’s positive traits to Cameron. And it was true. Ethan was a decent guy, but he had flaws—like every other person on the planet.

“How are they?” Lucas asked as he joined them on one of the sofas.

“Maggie’s asleep. Ethan’s…watching over her.”

Cameron sat forward in his seat and asked, “What’s going on, Ben? What kind of trouble is Maggie in?”

If they were going to help Maggie, and if there was any hope of getting Ethan’s nieces back, there couldn’t be any secrets, so Ben told them all as much as he knew.

It was Ryan who rather succinctly summed up the situation. “Oh, fuck, that’s awful.” It was more than awful; it was fucking tragic, and the fact that there were at least two innocent little girls in harm’s way made Ben’s blood boil.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-29 show above.)