Tanner Mackay and Niall Sutherland were once far more than just fellow intelligence agents. But then a mission went horribly wrong and everything fell apart, sending Tanner into hiding and splitting the team and their affair wide apart. Now an unknown traitor is threatening the team, and their ex-boss is determined to reunite them before it’s too late. She finds Tanner in a run-down trailer park, bringing with her a most unwelcome refugee in need of temporary sanctuary: Niall, the man he thought he’d never have to face again. The man he’s sure feels exactly the same in return.
Trapped in a situation that’s both claustrophobic and highly dangerous, Tanner and Niall will have to revisit their past and reconsider their perceptions, their loyalties—and their desires—in order to survive, let alone forge a future together.
HONORABLE MENTION: Rainbow Awards
© Clare London
Niall sat carefully on the edge of my bed, so I had to roll over further to give him space. He already held the bandages, and his movements were smooth and efficient. I watched his hands work, long fingers wrapping the cloth around me, palms brushing against my bare skin. “Very little leakage,” he said. “It’s healing well.”
It didn’t hurt very much at all now, but I didn’t reply. My tongue felt thick in my mouth. That, or someone had cauterized my vocal chords in the last two minutes.
“When you were hit,” he said, and then paused. “Shit.”
I grimaced in the dim light, trying to see his expression.
“It was shock, obviously,” he said, as if he talked to himself. “I don’t know why else I felt so bad.”
“Three months, Tanner. I’ve not seen you for three months. Now I see you for a couple of days, under protest, for God’s sake, both of us uncomfortable with it all, both of us really pissed….”
“Yeah,” I said, my tongue having returned to life. “Ditto.”
“But I didn’t expect to feel this way.” He was looking away from me now, the unused roll of white bandage forgotten on his lap. His head tilted back, and I saw the silhouette of his throat as he swallowed. “I never thought being here with you would be this hard.”
“Niall,” I said. Rather ironically for me, I was beginning to realize just how hard it wasn’t. “Did you do that? When I went down. Did you cover me with your body?”
He was silent for a moment. He pressed his hands on his thighs and the mattress shifted under him. “There could have been more than one shot. I didn’t know how badly you’d been hit. You were an open target there on the ground.”
Explanations. But not excuses.
“It was a fucking stupid thing to do,” I said. I don’t think I meant to say it aloud.
Astonishingly, he laughed. “Yes, it was. It was the shock, like I said. I couldn’t believe how I felt when I saw you go down—when I saw your body fold against the bullet.” He looked at me then, and even in the dark I could see his expression. His eyes spoke for him. I thought you were dead.
I pulled myself up to sitting. The clean, fresh binding felt good, and strength was returning to my limbs. He stayed where he was, so we were almost face to face, less than a foot apart. “Guess we’re quits then.” He’d laid his hand on the sheet now, a few inches from my own. I looked down at it, at the splayed fingers, at the tendons tight with tension across the back of his hand.
He turned toward me again, a strong muscular shape in the half dark room. His voice had softened. “You look better. There’s color in your face.”
“Soon back to normal,” I said too brightly. If some sniper doesn’t get me first.
“The fight,” he said. “I regret it. Bitterly.”
“Yeah.” So do I, my heart screamed at me, but the words were still in the mire of self-pity at the back of my throat. “But that’s all over now, isn’t it? We’re both agreed on that.” I stared again at the dapples of shadow running over the skin of his hand. I knew my own hand ached to reach out and touch him. What was happening here to me? To us? My head remembered the hurtful shit, yet my body ached from the sensual memory of him.
“It was just so painful, Tanner. Such confusion.” His voice had an unfamiliar break in it. “To see you withdrawing from me—to see your awkwardness with me.”
“Better we parted,” I said very quietly. I didn’t want to discuss this; I didn’t want to hear this. “Guess we could have chosen a slightly less public way to do it, though.”
“Yes,” he said. “Definitely would have been better without the audience.” He laughed, but with no real humor. Sighing, he shifted on the bed and the bandages fell to the floor with a soft thump, rolling over against the wall. His hand opened on top of the sheet beside me, then fisted up again.
“How did it get so bad, Niall?” I was surprised again to hear my words aloud.
“I can’t tell you.”
“No of course you damned well can’t—”
“No,” he interrupted. “Because you won’t let me. I can’t find the words like you can. Never could. I may have been too quick to judge you, but then you never gave me time to find out to the contrary. You’re so abrasive sometimes.”
I pursed my mouth. “You’re not exactly sweetness and light yourself.”
And then he laughed again, genuinely, startling me afresh. “I don’t think I ever was, was I? You’re right. God knows how we ever got together in the first place.”
But we did.
His eyes met mine and held my gaze, demanding, perhaps, that I didn’t chicken out. There was a triangle of light in the center of each of his dark pupils, like someone had drawn him as a wide-eyed cartoon in the night. “It’s still not easy, is it? There’s too much—or not enough—between us. I’m sorry that all this is happening to you because of me. That I’m the target, not you. That you can’t continue on your search for your own space without my hindrance.”
The pained edge in his voice hurt me. And yet his eyes were still hungry. They drank me in, as if he’d been heavily dehydrated but now found relief. Things were shifting in my mind like a kaleidoscope. My memory of our relationship was taking on a new tone.
“Don’t be,” I said. “Don’t be sorry, that is. Whatever happens with this, I know I can trust you.”
“But you didn’t always before.”
“No,” I replied. Couldn’t trust myself at the moment, to know what was right.
“I… didn’t see that I had to justify myself to you, Tanner. About Joe, about anything. You should have known me better.”
Yeah. Maybe I should. Self-disgust crushed me, regret twisted its knife. “I was stupid. End of story.”
He shook his head very gently, and I felt the vibration in the air as we leaned in toward each other. I don’t know what happened next—or rather, I don’t know why we let it. It was as if something tugged at me against my will, as if both of us were lassoed and drawn in for capture, like hapless, dumb animals. The mattress creaked beneath us, and I felt a gentle crick in my neck as it stretched itself. Just a foot or so between us, didn’t I say? Our breath bridged it, combining in the cool night air. Our words were just whispered sound, our protests melted into raw emotion.
His hands never touched me, nor did I reach out those last few inches to hold him.
The only things that touched were our mouths.