Cross & Crown (A Sidewinder Story)
When Nick O'Flaherty arrives at the scene of a double homicide to find he has a witness to the crime, he thinks it’s his lucky day. But when he realizes his witness is suffering from amnesia and can’t even remember his own name, Nick wishes he’d gone with his gut and put in for vacation time.
Then Nick’s boyfriend and former Recon teammate, Kelly Abbott, joins him in Boston, and Nick finds his hands a little too full as the case and his personal life collide. The witness he’s dubbed “JD” is being tailed by Julian Cross, a retired CIA hitman. To complicate matters further, JD forms an attachment to Nick that Nick struggles not to respond to as they search for the key to JD’s identity.
Trying to determine whether JD is friend or foe as they investigate the crime puts them on the trail of a much older mystery. When multiple attempts are made on their lives, Nick is forced to turn to old enemies and new allies to solve a centuries-old crime before he and Kelly get added to the history books.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Detective Nick O’Flaherty climbed out of the unmarked car and took the opportunity to stretch his back as he looked around the chaotic downtown crime scene. Gawkers were lined up at a checkpoint near a narrow side-road intersection, even though it was barely sunup. An ambulance sat with its lights off near the storefront. Uniforms milled around, waiting for the coroner to show up.
“Hey, Tommy,” Nick said as one of the uniforms approached him. “How’re your girls?”
“Same as always, Detective, running the show. How’s your first week back off desk duty?”
“Blissfully boring. What’ve we got?” Nick asked him.
“Looks like a smash and grab gone wrong. Old bookstore. Shop’s all busted up. Two dead.”
“IDs?” Nick asked as he pulled a pair of latex gloves from his coat pocket.
“One’s the shop owner. We’re still waiting on the ID for the other. But there’s something else you got to see.”
Nick’s partner joined them, brushing against Nick’s shoulder. “Something besides the dead bodies?”
The officer nodded. “Good morning, Detective Hagan. Yes, we got a witness.”
“Hallefuckinlujah,” Nick muttered as he followed.
“Don’t thank your lucky stars just yet.”
Nick repressed a groan as Tommy led them toward some evidence tags in the middle of the road.
“This is where they found him,” Tommy said.
“In the road?” Nick asked.
“On the ground?” Hagan added.
“Yes, sirs. Thought he was another body at first.”
“Where is he?” Nick asked.
Hagan smacked Nick on the arm. “That’s why they gave us this one. So you could go question him and not fuck up a crime scene.”
“Hey,” Nick grunted.
“You’re the people person who donated half his liver to his dad,” Hagan said. “You take the easy part, I’ll go get coffee.”
Nick grunted as his stocky partner trundled off toward one of the trucks. Hagan and his love affair with coffee were a bane of Nick’s existence.
Nick glanced around the scene again. The front windows of the store had been busted out, probably shattered by the gunfire. Two bodies were sprawled on the sidewalk in front. Shelves of books inside had been toppled, the interior a mess of old tomes. Dust motes floated in the floodlights. Standing behind the barricades was a mass of onlookers.
Nick sighed heavily and scanned the crowd. He didn’t see anyone who looked like they might be trying to offer information, just a bunch of people with nothing better to do than gawk as the sun rose. Then his eyes landed on someone who looked familiar. Tall, broad shoulders, dark hair. He was wearing sunglasses, and his turned-up coat collar hid some of his face.
But Nick thought he recognized him. He started toward the barriers. “Garrett?”
The man ducked his head and disappeared into the crowd. Nick trailed to a stop. Zane Garrett would not have ignored Nick’s greeting. Nick had obviously been mistaken.
When Hagan returned with two steaming cups of coffee, they climbed back into their unmarked, and Nick dumped his coffee into the street before closing the door and heading off for the hospital to check on their witness.
Hagan’s coffee, and apparently his patience along with it, were reaching the dregs when they finally found the room their witness had been moved to after his MRI and CT scans and whatever else they’d put the poor guy through. An officer was on the door, and a nurse was in the room checking the man’s vitals.
He was sitting on the edge of his bed, a blanket around his shoulders. He had his head down. His hair was light and wavy, and he had a day’s worth of stubble. There was a bandage on his neck that seemed to stretch up into his hairline. He was wearing jeans and a blue cardigan, and his shoulder was covered in blood. He certainly wasn’t dressed for midnight acrobatics like a robbery, and though his current state spoke of more than just one bad night in a row, he didn’t ping Nick as an addict.
Nick slid his suit jacket aside to show his badge before approaching the witness. “Morning, sir,” he said.
The man looked up. He was haggard, with circles under his eyes. But he was handsome regardless, with eyes that were an unnervingly clear blue. And he seemed confused and scared. Nick couldn’t really blame him.
“I’m Detective O’Flaherty. This is Detective Hagan. Were you hurt this morning, sir?”
The man stared at Nick for a few seconds, his eyes glazing over. He blinked and focused his attention back on Nick. When he spoke, his accent wasn’t local. It was so far from local that Nick couldn’t begin to place it, other than he sounded a little Southern and a little British. It might have even been fake. “They said I was shot in the head.”
Nick could think of nothing to say to that. He glanced at the nurse for confirmation.
“He took a glancing blow. It knocked him unconscious, but didn’t penetrate the skull. And I told you to stay in bed,” she said, forcing the witness to recline and covering him with a sheet.
Nick gaped at her. “Jesus.”
The witness cleared his throat and fiddled with the sheet, obviously uncomfortable.
“What’s your name, sir?” Nick asked him.
“I don’t know.” He looked back at Nick, his expression sincerely distressed.
Nick sniffed and scratched at his chin, not sure whether to be annoyed or concerned. Either the man was exceptionally good at stonewalling, or he had a serious case of traumatic amnesia. “All right. Can you tell me what happened this morning?”
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t remember. I don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
“I know I got shot in the head.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
The witness winced. “No.”
“You don’t remember your name.”
“No, Detective. I’m sorry.”
Nick nodded and carefully patted the man on the shoulder. He turned to his partner, who stood near the doorway. Hagan had both eyebrows raised, his jaw working back and forth. Nick excused himself, and he and Hagan moved into the hallway, leaning their heads close to talk.
The officer on the door offered what little he knew. “He’s got no ID on him. Nothing; looks like whoever shot him thought he was dead and picked him clean.”
Hagan huffed. “So not only do we got a witness who’s got no idea what happened, he’s got no idea who he is?” He barely restrained an incredulous laugh. “That’s not a witness, it’s another motherfucking crime.”
Nick glanced over his shoulder through the door, to the man on the hospital bed. “No ID, no memory, shot in the head in the middle of a gunfight outside a robbery of a used bookstore. What. The. Fuck.”
“This ain’t a robbery,” Hagan said with a grunt. “You don’t shoot three people for an old book, I don’t care if it’s the Gutenberg Bible.”
Nick nodded. “You realize this guy could be the doer.”
“You think he’s faking?”
“He’s either a very lucky witness who lived through this, a perp who legit can’t remember, or he’s faking.” Nick shrugged.
“You were spec ops. You were trained to lie and shit. Can you tell if he’s lying?”
“Yeah, but if he’s faking, he’s damn good at it, ’cause I’m leaning toward believing him.”
They both turned to the witness again. He was once again sitting in bed with his head hanging and his eyes closed. His hands were trembling as they clenched at the blanket in his lap. The nurse had left him.
“What do we do?” Hagan asked.
Nick was at a loss. Did they treat the man as a witness or a suspect? “Either way, if he’s a perp or he’s a witness, he’ll need someone on him,” he finally said.
Hagan patted Nick’s shoulder. “Great. You go break the news to him, I’m going to get some coffee.”
Nick glared after his partner as the man lumbered off toward the nurses’ station. He took a deep breath to steady himself. It wasn’t his first case back since his surgery, but it was his first case back from behind a desk. He hadn’t been dealing with people lately so much as paperwork.
The witness looked up when Nick approached, and tried to straighten his shoulders, but they slumped again, probably under the weight of his injury and exhaustion.
Nick’s heart went out to him, and he had to fight to keep his attitude professional. “I’m going to have this officer stay with you in the hospital until they release you. Keep an eye on you. Then he’s going to bring you the station to talk with us a little more. That sound okay?”
The man nodded, then winced and brought his hand up to his bandage. “You think I’m in danger?”
Nick chewed on his lip for a second. “It’s a real possibility, I won’t lie.”
“It’s also a possibility I shot those people, isn’t it?”
Nick stared at him, shocked again by the man’s strange mix of perception and vulnerability. “That is also a possibility, yes.”
The witness rubbed a trembling hand over his face. Nick placed a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to offer comfort. The man reached up and gripped his fingers hard. He didn’t raise his head or say anything. He just seemed to need the contact.
“It’ll be okay,” Nick whispered. “We’ll figure this out.”
“So, we got the shopkeeper’s daughter coming in to try to ID the body,” Hagan told Nick, returning from the station break room with two cups of coffee. They’d been partners for almost three years and Hagan still couldn’t remember that Nick didn’t drink coffee.
Hagan set the cup down in front of him, steaming and giving off a sickeningly strong smell.
“Throw that away,” Nick ordered.
“Whatever. You’re welcome.” Hagan sat and chucked his feet up on the desk opposite Nick’s. They were set up facing each other. Nick glared at the coffee cup, then his partner. Hagan gave him a toothy smile. “What else we got working?”
“Prints are going through the system for the other victim, and the amnesiac witness.” Nick held up a photograph from the crime scene. “Aside from the fact that the perps apparently riffled the bookshelves and made a damn mess of everything, the only things that seem to be missing were in this display cabinet.” He set it down and slid it across to Hagan. “Don’t get your coffee near that.”
“Yes, Mother.” Hagan picked it up, sipping his coffee as he studied the photo of the display case. The glass doors were intact, the wood unscathed. Whatever had been inside hadn’t been under lock and key. “I mean, what else does a bookstore display besides books?”
Nick shrugged. “I’ve seen some where they have antiques on show. They’re usually just for atmosphere, though, nothing worth a motherfucking heist.”
Hagan raised an eyebrow from behind the rim of his coffee cup.
“Yeah. Heist. Everything we have here is looking like a pro job. The security was disabled, there’s no sign of forced entry, and since the shopkeeper bled out where he fell on the sidewalk, it’s probable he wasn’t supposed to be there and the robbers literally ran into him on their way out and panicked.”
“That’s a lot to infer from what little we have.”
Nick shrugged. He’d always had a knack for seeing crime scenes lay out. He never denied that he could be wrong, but he usually wasn’t.
“One more odd job for this one, one of the dead guys had a bag under him. They found it when they moved the body. It had four books in it.”
“From the shop?” Hagan asked.
“We can only assume until the daughter gets here to ID them. They’re all old, too.”
“Just old? Or old as balls?”
Nick barked a laugh before he could stop himself. “The latter, I assume. Three early nineteenth century, one dating to the Revolutionary War. We can probably assume they were in that display case along with whatever objects were taken because everything else was just trashed, not stolen.”
“So, you’re a bookshop owner and you have this display case set up with rare books,” Hagan mused.
“The objects you’d put in there for atmosphere would be related to the books, right? Somehow?”
“In my world they would be,” Nick agreed. He pondered it briefly, then nodded and called over one of the uniformed officers working nearby. “Do me a favor, bud, put out some feelers to city pawnshops and dealers, stay on the lookout for artifacts dating from 1750 to 1820. They might be stolen.”
The officer nodded and headed off.
Hagan scowled at the photo again. “Was the case wiped clean? Why would they wipe it down if they were wearing gloves?”
“They didn’t. Get this. Best the Crime Lab can tell, they wiped the motherfucking dust off the case to ruin the outline of whatever objects were there.”
“Covering their tracks, or . . .?”
“I guess. At least slowing us down. Shouldn’t be hard to find out what was in there, though,” Nick said, still staring at the photos of the crime scene. He absently reached for the cup on his desk, taking a sip before remembering it was coffee.
He turned his head and spit it out into the trash can, coughing and gagging as Hagan laughed at him.
“Motherfucker,” Nick grumbled. He tossed the coffee cup into the trash and glared at his partner again.
“Detective O’Flaherty!” Captain Branson called from his office door. Nick turned in his chair and glanced over his shoulder. The captain waved him over.
“What’s up, sir?” he asked when he got closer.
“The witness from the bookshop?”
“He’s here. You need to get in on this one.”
Branson handed him a file. It was labeled John Doe. Nick shook his head; all it contained was the report from the hospital. He made his way to one of the interview rooms and greeted the officer on the door with a pat on the shoulder. When he entered the room, the blond man met his eyes.
“How you doing?” Nick asked as he sat opposite him.
“I would say I’ve been better, but . . . I don’t really know if that’s true,” the man said with a wry laugh.
Nick snorted. “Still got your sense of humor at least. That’s something.” He opened the file again. It was paltry at best. Useless. “They been calling you John Doe?”
“Yeah, it’s . . . it’s a name, I guess.”
“Yeah, I can see that getting old fast. Listen, all the John Does I ever knew were already dead, so how about I call you JD? That work for you?”
He nodded and gave Nick a tired smile. “Yeah. Yeah, that works.”
Nick was silent for a moment, studying the man. He looked even more worn than he had at the crime scene yesterday. Under that, Nick could see the fear. “Has anyone offered you coffee? Something to eat?”
“I had a bagel. Don’t have much appetite.”
“Okay.” Nick put both elbows on the table. “You remember anything new? Anything at all?”
“No, Detective, I’m sorry. The doctors said I have amnesia caused by the trauma. Physical or mental, they couldn’t say. They also couldn’t say when or if my memory would return. They said amnesia was a very case-by-case type of thing, so . . . it might all come rushing back, or it might come back in pieces. Or it might not at all. Ever.”
“Wow. That’s rough.”
JD laughed bitterly. He twisted his fingers and nodded.
Nick was having a hard time reading him, something he was usually pretty good at. JD’s exhaustion was masking everything else. Nick gave it a minute or so of silence, waiting to see if the man would begin to fidget or talk. But JD merely sat there, watching his hands, occasionally glancing up to meet Nick’s eyes.
Nick finally gave up on that tactic. He tapped the file in front of him. “Even though you don’t remember anything, we’re going to treat you as a witness and put you under protection. Ballistics are telling us there were at least two shooters. One was standing behind you, clipped you in the head.” Nick tapped his own head in the area where JD was bandaged. “Killed at least one of those two victims.”
“The other bullet hasn’t been recovered yet. We’ll know more soon. But until we get to the bottom of this, you need to be safe. Whoever did this won’t know you can’t ID them when they find out you aren’t dead.”
JD nodded. He glanced up at Nick, his blue eyes piercing. “You don’t have to dance around it, Detective.”
“I know I’m a suspect. It’s okay. You don’t have to mince words.”
Nick met his eyes for several seconds, letting JD see what suspects usually saw: a hardened, intelligent cop who would put them behind bars if they made even the tiniest of slips. “All right then. You are a suspect. Our only suspect, right now.”
Despite his show of bravado, JD blanched. Nick couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Not knowing who he was or what kind of man he was, it had to be terrifying. Add to that the fact that he was facing a potential murder charge? He had to be reeling.
Nick took his notepad and a pen from his pocket and placed it on the table, then slid it toward JD. “I’m going to go arrange for somewhere for you to stay tonight. While I’m gone, try to write down anything about yourself you can think of.”
JD frowned. “Like what? I already told you I don’t remember anything.”
Nick shrugged. “Anything. Anything you’ve noticed. Your feelings, your thoughts, tattoos or scars, your shoe size, do you have contacts, are you wearing underwear? Anything.”
JD laughed and reached for Nick’s notepad. “Okay.”
Nick smiled and left him there, hoping the exercise would at least keep JD’s mind off his troubles while Nick tried to find somewhere to stick him for the night.
It took him nearly half an hour to arrange for a hotel and an officer for the door. He and Hagan played a quick three out of five roshambo to decide who had to stay with him, and Nick won. Which was good, because he had plans this weekend.
When he returned to the interview room, Captain Branson was standing at the window, watching JD.
“Sir,” Nick said as he approached.
The captain turned. “You’re good with him, O’Flaherty. That’s the most he’s responded all night.”
“He’s just scared, sir. Anyone would be.”
“Stay on him. Babysit him. Play the good cop. He’s the biggest break we have in this case right now. If he’s comfortable, he’s more likely to remember. And if he’s faking, you’re more likely to figure it out.”
Nick cleared his throat and nodded. “Does that mean you want me to stick with him at the safe house?” he asked, unable to conceal the dread in his voice.
Branson smirked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t your boyfriend coming to town tonight?”
“Even I’m not that cruel. Take the weekend. Let Hagan bad cop him for a few days. After that, it’s O’Flaherty to the rescue, understand?”
“Of course, sir.”
Branson slapped him on the back. Nick watched him walk away, breathing out a sigh of relief, then glanced at the officer on the door.
“Do you even know how to play good cop, Detective?” the man drawled.
“I don’t know, no one’s ever let me do it.” Nick put his shoulder against the door and pushed into the room. JD’s head shot up. He’d been dozing. Nick smiled gently for him. “Doing okay?”
“I guess so.” He pushed the notepad across the table. “I wrote down everything I could think of.”
Nick took the notepad and flipped it over. JD had written bullet points in a neat block print. Nick snorted. It was the type of handwriting that was hard as hell to analyze. The kind that people who worked black ops often had a habit of using. Nick wrote in the same neat block print. “You always write like that?” he asked JD.
“I guess. Why?”
Nick shrugged one shoulder and stuck the notepad back in his pocket. “Muscle memory. It can be interesting. I’ll look over this in a bit. Right now I’m going to take you to get something to eat, then to a hotel so you can get some rest.”
JD stood hesitantly. “You’re taking me?”
“Yeah, my partner has some things to tie up before he can meet us there. Is that a problem?”
“No. No, I just assumed it’d be someone . . . lower on the rung.”
“I’m going to take you out there and get you settled, but Detective Hagan and a uniform are going to stay with you tonight,” Nick answered as he led JD out of the room.
“Is this going to be your case, Detective? I mean . . . you’re the one who’ll be working it?”
“That’s right, me and my partner.” Nick stopped and turned to face JD. They were almost the same height, but JD was thinner and more compact. He took a tiny step back when Nick faced him, like he was intimidated. Nick tried to give him a reassuring smile, but he knew himself well enough to know that when he smiled, it rarely reassured anyone. “I’ll figure this out, man. I promise.”
JD sat with his hands on the table, folded over each other. He played with his fingers as he took in his surroundings. Nick got the feeling that he was used to having something on or in his hands to mess with. A ring, maybe. There was no mark, though, no calluses to give evidence of anything being worn there recently.
JD’s eyes strayed to the memorabilia along the brick walls of the pub as he continued to fidget. Nick tried not to watch him too closely. He knew the scrutiny would make him nervous, and JD already had enough nervous energy to power a small appliance.
Nick supposed he couldn’t blame the guy, though. He looked away, trying to find something else to focus on for a while.
His eyes followed a waitress as she walked by, and his gaze landed right back on JD once she was gone. He had stopped moving, and his narrowed eyes were raking over the wall next to him. The lines around his mouth had relaxed.
Nick straightened. JD had the look of a man who might have recognized something. Nick glanced up at the reproduction plaque on the wall. He had sat under it many times, gazing at it idly as he waited for his food, reading the words when his dinner mate went to the bathroom, staring at it listlessly as he ordered for that last drink that would send him into taxi territory.
It was a common fake wood plaque, roughly two feet tall and one wide, featuring a frieze of a nameless baseball player in pinstripes—something many people had defaced over the years because those pinstripes looked far too much like Yankee pinstripes and this was Boston, baby. It was also covered in Red Sox stickers and graffiti.
Nick looked up at it dubiously, then back at JD. “Are you remembering something?”
JD was still scowling. He shook his head minutely, still examining the plaque. “I just . . . looking at that gives me a feeling I think is familiar.”
“Have you seen it before?”
“I don’t know. I think . . . I think maybe I hate the Yankees,” JD answered with a shrug.
Nick snorted and couldn’t help but smile as he took a drink.
“I guess that’s nothing spectacular, huh?”
“Well. It’s not going to help narrow you down from the crowd any.”
The amusement faded from JD’s eyes and he returned his attention to his hands, twisting his fingers together and shifting uneasily in the chair. Nick watched him in sympathy. He couldn’t begin to imagine what was going through his mind.
“Are you okay?”
JD was already shaking his head. He turned his head toward the bar as he leaned back in his seat. “I remember that Greg Maddux is the greatest pitcher ever to play the game and that Stan Musial had 3,630 hits in his career. I remember that Darth Vader is a bad guy and that vampires are suddenly good guys who sparkle. I remember that I like spinach and artichoke dip, but not when it comes with tortillas. I know that tequila will make me sick and just the thought of a worm at the bottom of a bottle will make me want to hurl. I know that the tattoo on your forearm means you were a Recon Marine and that makes you a Grade A badass, even if you kind of try to hide it. Probably because you like to go under the radar so you can have the advantage in a fight. But I don’t know my own name. I don’t know where I come from, how old I am.”
He lowered his head. His eyes were misting over, whether from frustration, sorrow, or merely exhaustion was anyone’s guess. Nick was shocked by how observant the man was even in the midst of this ordeal, though, and the realization made him uneasy. Only one person had ever called him out for trying to appear less dangerous than he was, and Ty Grady was the most observant man Nick knew.
Then there was the tattoo. Nick had a lot of tattoos, including the Celtic cross that traced his spine from the nape of his neck to the small of his back; and the eagle, globe, and anchor that dominated his left shoulder. He also had one on each forearm, and while he usually hid them with dress shirts and suits, he’d rolled his sleeves up when he’d sat down at the pub.
On the right was an ornate Celtic knotwork gauntlet that covered his entire forearm from just below his wrist to an inch or so from his elbow. On the inside of his other forearm was the Force Recon Jack, one that usually got lost amidst the flashier work he had. It was a skull with breathing gear, with a spade and knife crossed behind it, and wings fluttering out from either side. The skull had thirteen bullet holes in it.
The knotwork gauntlet was far more impressive, but JD had zeroed in on the Jack in particular—the one with special meaning. Nick hadn’t met many people who actually knew what a Recon Jack even was, so the fact that JD did meant he might be associated with the military somehow. Closely associated.
“I can’t even tell you if I’m a good person or not,” JD said. His eyes betrayed the frustration and stark fear he’d been hiding so well up to this point. “I mean, what was I doing there in the middle of the night, stone-cold sober at a bookstore? I could be some sort of criminal and not even know it! I could be a cold-blooded killer, and you’re sitting here eating floppy chips with me!”
“Listen to me,” Nick said harshly. He leaned forward on the table, seeing the turmoil of his own past reflected in JD’s eyes. “We will find out who you are.”
“You can’t promise that, Detective.”
“The hell I can’t. And I’ll tell you one more thing. I’ve dealt with a lot of bad people before. None of them are ever torn up wondering if they’re a good person.”
JD swallowed, but the words seemed to mollify him. He calmed, his shoulders losing their tension. He sighed and gave Nick a weak smile. “When you put it that way . . .”
“Damn straight,” Nick said.
JD smiled softly. “You’re awfully optimistic for a cop.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, I thought all you police-type guys were these brooding, stoic, ‘drink yourself blind to drown out the ugliness of the world’ types.”
Nick barked a laugh. “You’re thinking of Vice.”
JD just shook his head. “This happy exterior is hiding some deep, dark secret in your past, isn’t it?”
Nick shook his head in amusement as he reached for his drink.
“You’re an alcoholic. You’re closeted. You obliterated an innocent town while you were in the Marines. You’re a macho cop who likes to shoot a pearl-handle .22.”
“I drink in moderation unless I’m pregaming, I’ve quite openly liked dick for the past couple of years, I obliterated a lot of things in the Marines, and the pearl-handle is a .38 Special with a pink tint to it,” Nick answered with a sly grin before taking a sip of his water.
JD laughed, his eyes sparkling. “You’re not mysterious at all. You should try amnesia.”
“I’ll leave that to you,” Nick offered with a mockingly humble shrug.
JD rolled his eyes. Nick took the opportunity to study him for a moment. He seemed better than he had, but that wasn’t saying a lot. He still had dark rings under his eyes, and prominent worry lines around his mouth and on his forehead. He probably wasn’t as old as he looked right now, maybe younger than Nick. He’d spent a lot of time in the sun, judging by the difference in his blond hair versus the scruff of darker beard growing in. He had no visible scars or tattoos, nothing to identify him with. And his strange blue eyes were truly haunting.
“So,” JD said on a sigh. “A hotel with an armed police guard?”
Nick stared at him thoughtfully. “Until we get all this straightened out, yeah.”
JD smiled weakly. “Sounds lovely. I don’t guess I can count on you being there at all, huh?”
“Not until the first of the week, but hopefully we’ll have this all figured out by then. You’ll be safe. And I’ll find out who you are. I promise.”
JD nodded, chewing on his lip. “You always keep your promises, Detective?”
Nick was silent for several tense seconds before smiling. “Yes, I do.”
“Then I believe you.”
“Good.” Nick grabbed his coat and slid from the booth, gesturing for JD to stand with him. “And right now I have to get you to your room, because I promised someone else I’d pick them up at the airport tonight.”
Kelly Abbott’s flight from Colorado had taken nearly four hours longer than it should have, including a lengthy layover in Charlotte where he’d played with every gadget in the Brookstone store and then made good use of the bar. He was tired, a little wobbly, and had a cramp in his neck because he’d fallen asleep with his head against the window instead of drooling on the guy next to him on the plane.
When he hit the escalators that would take him down to the baggage claim at Logan, he bent to scan the crowd below for Nick. It was June in Massachusetts, so it wasn’t like people were all bundled up, but it was busy as hell, so it was hard to tell if Nick was down there.
Before Kelly had left his house for the Denver airport this morning, Nick had warned him that he might have to send a car to pick him up if his new case warranted it. Kelly didn’t mind; in fact, he was the reason Nick had gone back to work at all.
Nick had been ready to quit. He’d been a cop for almost as many years as he’d been a Marine, but when the Corps had called him back for a last tour of duty, something inside Nick had snapped. He’d come home and declared he was done with carrying a gun. Kelly had given it a few weeks to let the boredom set in before convincing Nick he was acting rashly.
Nick never acted rashly; that was Kelly’s job. Besides, he’d been bored as hell without his badge, so he’d gone back to the department for a test run. The first few months had gone off without a hitch.
Kelly was halfway down the escalator when he caught sight of Nick, and his heart skipped a beat. Nick was dressed in a suit and tie, with a tan trench coat that made him look like a private eye from the ’50s. He was wearing his badge on his belt, and Kelly’s trained eyes could see the telltale outline of a gun at his hip. He had his phone out, frowning at the screen.
Kelly’s feet hit the end of the escalator as he stared, and he nearly fell all over himself.
He stumbled out into the baggage claim area, and Nick obviously saw the motion out of the side of his eye because he looked up quickly, flinching like he might be going for his gun. A smile graced his handsome face when he saw Kelly, though, and he moved toward him, meeting him halfway and wrapping him up in a hug.
“Have a nice trip?” he asked, laughing softly.
“Shut up. Jesus, you look good.”
Nick kissed his cheek, then his lips. He didn’t linger over it, though. “I barely got here, didn’t have time to change. You look rough, babe.”
“I feel rough. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Nick grabbed his hand to halt him as Kelly marched toward the door. “Don’t you have a suitcase?”
Kelly glanced at the crowd around the baggage conveyors. His shoulders slumped. All he wanted to do was get Nick somewhere private. Now. “Oh yeah.”
Nick pulled him closer, sliding his hands under Kelly’s jacket to rest on the small of his back. He kissed him gently, with the crowds bustling around them. Kelly realized this might be their first official PDA, and neither of them cared.
Nick rested his temple against Kelly’s and smiled against his neck. “I missed you.”
“Me too.” Kelly wrapped his arm around Nick’s neck and dropped his carry-on bag to the floor to get another kiss, but Nick raised his head instead.
“Is that your bag? With all the patches on it?”
Kelly grunted and turned to the conveyor. His rucksack had patches from almost every destination he’d traveled, so it was hard to miss. “Yeah. Fucking cockblock.”
Nick burst out laughing. It was a sound Kelly had sorely missed. It sent a shiver through him, making the scar of the bullet wound on his chest throb. He rubbed at it as Nick kissed him again before letting him go and then striding over to catch his rucksack for him. The coat made him look even wider at the shoulders than he already was. Kelly flashed back to all the many mornings he’d seen Nick stalking across whatever camp, base, or ship they’d been stationed on, barking orders.
He wondered sometimes how he’d gone five years in Recon without molesting his friend. He’d either been absolutely blind to the attraction or he was rewriting the memories in his head, because damn.
Nick returned, Kelly’s bag thrown over his shoulder and a smile on his face. “Ready to go home?”
“You’re not even going to feed me first?” Kelly teased. “Just going to take me to your boat and fuck me?”
“That’s SOP, yeah. Come on.” He led Kelly out into the brisk evening.
His Range Rover was parked in a no loading zone right beside the taxi lane, and airport security was standing beside it, writing out a ticket. Nick handed Kelly his bag and gestured for him to load it in the car. Kelly watched him as he slid his overcoat and suit jacket aside and tapped the badge on his belt with one long finger.
The rent-a-cop gave him a wave and moved away, and Kelly climbed into the passenger side. Nick got into the car a moment later, grinning crookedly.
“You just abused your authority,” Kelly told him.
Nick nodded and started the car.
“You enjoyed it, didn’t you?”
Nick side-eyed him. “So did you.”