As soon as Max left the room, Kyle reached for the phone. He hesitated, with his fingers an inch from the handset, and listened to its beep indicating a call waiting.
Stefan Mortimer was at the other end of the call. That was a name Kyle hadn’t expected to hear again for a very long time, and the fact the man had contacted Kyle didn’t bode well. Especially considering Kyle thought, his and Stefan’s association had been put to bed a long time ago. A twinge of guilt accompanied the memories. He’d been the one told to leave, he was the one who’d had no choice but to go, but leaving Stefan behind had never sat well with him.
A combination of anxiety and fear fluttered in his chest as he picked up the handset and pressed the button to connect.
Only to be offered a line that was dead.
“Stefan?” Kyle said to the empty air. For a second he held the receiver to his ear, then, very deliberately, replaced the handset in the cradle. Kyle rested his head on his hands, scrubbing his face to clear the tension. When the door opened, he knew it was Ross. He always knew when it was Ross.
“He got cut off,” Ross announced.
Kyle nodded. “So I see.”
Ross sat down in the visitor’s chair directly opposite. “Is he a new client? Should I start a file for him?”
“No, an old….” How could he describe Stefan? Ex-lover, partner, old friend? “Someone I knew.”
Ross eased forward in his chair, his gray eyes bright with interest. “Knew? Like you used your experience as a spy to know?” he asked in his usual inquisitive tone.
“From before,” Kyle said. He was deliberately vague. As he was every time anyone at Bodyguards Inc. skirted near what Kyle used to do for a living. Ross loved to tease that Kyle had been CIA black ops. To be honest, Ross wasn’t that far from the truth—but that had been a long time ago now.
Ross frowned but didn’t keep it up.
“So, Max, then,” Kyle said. Changing the subject was probably the way to go. He couldn’t believe he’d just had Max in here telling him that he and Prince Lucien were an item. How the hell could the same thing happen to Bodyguards Inc. again after Ben and Adam had both fallen for their charges? “He crossed the line.”
“Seems like it’s getting to be a habit around here. First Adam, then Ben, and now Max. And I hear Lorna has a new boyfriend from her last case. Next it will be you.” Ross looked down at the iPad in his lap. “Or me,” he added.
The words were a knife through Kyle’s heart. Imagining Ross with anyone other than him was something guaranteed to put him in a bad mood. “Don’t have time for that,” he lied. If Ross took even one second to notice his boss as anything other than his boss, then Kyle would make time. But that was as likely as a snowy day in hell.
Ross chuckled. Like that was a joke. Like Kyle didn’t mean every syllable of it.
“Anyway,” Ross continued. “Max seems happy, and his prince is a hundred times cute. Did you see Lucien’s eyes? I’ve never seen eyes that dark before, and his hair. Can you imagine burying your fingers in hair like that? And he’s a prince.” Ross threw up a hand and smirked as he did so.
There was that stabbing again. Jealousy for real. Kyle didn’t have to analyze what he was feeling. Ross was talking about how sexy another man was, and abruptly, Kyle was in a headspace that screamed possessiveness. The idea of Ross finding himself a guy like Prince Lucien? Someone who pressed all his buttons? Someone Ross could fall in love with? That was enough to have the anxiety of Stefan’s phone call twist into something much worse. Jealousy.
“I have a solution,” Ross announced. “We need to vet all our clients, and if there’s any hint they are gay and single, we don’t take them on. But, that wouldn’t work for Lorna—she’s straight, and she still met someone. Hmm, we should relabel ourselves. This could be a good marketing thing.”
Ross ignored the warning in Kyle’s single word and instead drew an imaginary banner in the air in front of him. “Hire a bodyguard: meet the man for the rest of your life.”
Now it was Kyle’s turn to ignore Ross. He had too much on his mind to find Ross as sexy and cute as he normally did; he had to focus. “Take a note. We’ll need to do some research and dig up a couple of new bodyguards,” Kyle said. He needed to concentrate on the company—on BI—and making sure what he had built was stable and secure.
“Take a note?” Ross muttered as he thumbed through his iPad. “Who even does that kind of thing?” Then he stopped at a page on the screen. “So yes, that is what I wanted to talk about. We have two new applicants you need to meet up with and do the usual due diligence. One is ex-MI5.” Ross raised an eyebrow at that and turned the screen so that Kyle could see the face that went with the application. “Look at Mr. Tall, Dark and Ripped,” he said.
Ross coughed to hide a laugh. “In summary, we are mostly down to the wire. I’ve turned down that reality show we worked on last year. And—” Ross sighed. “—Michael’s wife called in. He’s broken his leg.”
“Broke his leg how?”
“What the hell?”
Ross shrugged. “Maureen said he was teaching his nephew how to—” Ross peered at the screen. “—air and backside, whatever that means.”
Kyle sat back in his chair. He’d need to do the usual. ‘The usual’ was flowers, or chocolates, or whiskey, or something useful, along with a personal note from him and the reassurance that the operative would still be paid enough to keep going. All the operatives at BI were self-employed, but Kyle considered himself a good boss, and he had the finances to back up any support needed. “I’ll write something up.”
“Well, hang on. Listen to this before you decide. Michael then called in, straight after his wife. Turns out he can’t stand the idea of being at home. Apparently all four grandkids are staying for the summer holidays, and he’s desperate to get out, so he’s coming into the office.”
“You’re okay with that?” Kyle asked. Ross hated people interfering with his systems, and his stationery.
“Yeah, Michael’s okay. I’ll give him rules, and he’ll stick with it. He’s not like Adam.”
Kyle was too stressed to listen to another of Ross’s reasons why Adam was a wanker, as Ross so succinctly put it. Nor did he want to hear further elaboration as to the most recent place Adam had put Ross’s stapler. He resolved to change the subject, but he didn’t need to when the phone rang again. Before Kyle could reach it, Ross leaned over and picked it up.
“BI, how can I help?” There was silence, and Ross cast a glance at Kyle. “I’ll just pass you over.” He gave the handset to Kyle. “Stefan Mortimer.”
Without being asked, Ross left the room and pulled the door shut behind him, and abruptly Kyle had no excuse not to talk to Stefan.
“What’s wrong?” he said, cutting to the chase. There was no need to use his name. Stefan and he had been closer than lovers for three years, and they knew each other like no one else ever could. Under fire, behind enemy lines, undercover—they’d done it all.
“Thank fuck,” Stefan said. His voice was shaky, or was that the phone line? “I’m in the hospital,” he added. Then he coughed, as if his body wanted to underline such a defining statement.
Kyle and Stefan had done their time in hospital beds, and both had the scars to prove it, but why was that something Stefan needed to break protocol to announce? Something awful, earth-shattering… something important.
“Talk to me,” Kyle demanded without elaboration.
“K, Jason is dead. I fucking killed him.”
Stefan’s partner was dead? “Shit, Stefan—”
“I sent you it all. It’s been a week, fucking hope it gets there. I need your help.”
Kyle quickly went through the list of possible delivery options in his head. There was no email from Stefan, no voice message, nothing on the boards—which left the one thing that could work: good old-fashioned snail mail. Sent as something that may not make sense to anyone else. A standard spook-type thing.
“Okay.” He didn’t have to say anything else. If Stefan was contacting him after all this time, if Stefan needed his help, if Stefan was in trouble…. “I’ll look for it.”
Then the phone was dead. Kyle realized he had been gripping the handset so hard that his fingers were numb. He uncurled his grip and replaced the handset in the cradle, then pressed the intercom. “Ross, can I get the mail?”
“You’ve had it.”
“I need the other mail.”
Ross didn’t argue. “On it.”
Company protocol was to have what Ross called “other mail” stored for a few months. Ross never argued with why Kyle needed to look through it every so often. He probably put it down to his boss being an eccentric American. Just like he did with most of the other things Kyle did that Ross called weird.
A couple of minutes later Ross backed into the room. In his arms was the recycling box. He placed it in the center of the table and then left. He didn’t ask why Kyle wanted it in his office.
Methodically, Kyle worked his way through rejected CVs, some marketing letters, even a pile of pizza menus. Although how junk mail had made it up the driveway in the middle of nowhere to the manor house, he didn’t know.
Right near the bottom, in familiar writing with a Los Angeles stamp, was what he was looking for. A letter from a marketing company talking about search engine optimization. There, in a flimsy business card, was a tiny chip. Sometimes the old ways were the best ways.
Kyle stood and locked the office door as quietly as he could, then crossed to the wall safe and opened it. Pulling out the chip reader, left over from a much earlier time in his life, he inserted the chip and waited for it to read. Wiring it to the printer was a little more problematic, but finally he managed it, and before too long he had a sheaf of printed information. His blood ran cold at page one, and by page ten he realized what he had agreed to would be something a little more involved than “just helping out.” He pulled out his Glock and the cartridges, putting it into the top drawer of his desk, then locked the chip and the reader into the safe. He retook his seat to reread what had printed.
Grasping the papers in his hand, he unlocked his office door.
“Do we have anyone not booked out?”
Ross looked up from his desk, a frown on his expression and black ink on his cheek. The same black ink spread over his desk, and he looked flustered. “Fucking ink cartridge exploded on me,” he said.
“Do we have anyone free?”
Ross blinked at Kyle as if he couldn’t believe Kyle wasn’t taking the ink situation seriously. “No,” he said. “I told you, we’re backs to the wall at the moment. Unless you want to push up interviews for new operatives.”
“Fuck.” Kyle cursed and thought on his feet. Not even Jen was here at the moment. His sister and her husband were on a second-honeymoon, trying-for-a-baby thing that had her out of touch for a month of love on a beach.
Kyle thought on his feet. He had no choice. It was Ross or nothing. “Okay, get Michael in here.”
Ross sighed visibly, then wiggled his fingers in front of him. “Ink,” he explained. Then added, “Michael’s coming in tomorrow—”
“Jesus Christ, Ross! Just get Michael here today.”
Kyle went back into his office and shut the door. He hoped to hell that Ross would do his regular thing and just get on with it, that he wouldn’t come in and start asking questions.
The cover was simple—a couple on honeymoon. He’d done it before. But this case was different. This time he needed to blend in, in a very different way. This time he was a newly married man, and he needed a bride. Or a groom. Someone who would be his backup in an extremely toxic situation.
It could only be Ross.
Ross wasn’t just his PA. He wasn’t quite as well trained as the bodyguards on BI’s books; he just found his peace in paperwork and running BI alongside Kyle. But he knew how to handle himself.
Not with guns. Not with the CIA. Not with this. It’s too much. He argued with himself. Ross will be okay.
Then it hit him. What would he do if he had to spend time with Ross away from the office? How many of the secrets he held inside would come out? But there needed to be more than just Kyle himself on this; he needed someone else. And that someone else would have to be Ross, which was where the problems began. Ross wasn’t interested in Kyle; Ross didn’t want anything of what Kyle could give him.
Ross didn’t know Kyle was in love with him. Wanted him. Had wanted him since the first day they met.
Ross didn’t know that Kyle had tried and failed to find someone who actually looked back at him with anything like affection.
So how could he ask Ross to do what needed to be done?
He turned the sheets of paper one at a time and made notes on a pad, not looking up when Ross came into the office and took his regular seat.
“Michael’s coming in,” Ross announced.
“Thank you. And I’m sorry I shouted.”
Ross shrugged one shoulder. “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
“I need to take a case.”
“What case?” Ross asked. He sounded confused, and Kyle wanted to explain, but he couldn’t look up at Ross, let alone make words that explained what the hell was going on. “You don’t take on cases. What happened?”
“There’s something I have to do.”
“Is it a something that is connected to Stefan Mortimer? You looked really shocked to hear his name.”
Kyle glanced up at the question. Ross’s gray eyes looked troubled. “What I can tell you is that this is a job for the two of us, me and you.” He held up a hand to stop Ross talking. “I need you to back me up on this. For a week, maybe ten days tops, we need to go undercover.”
“I don’t know how… I mean… I’m not….” Ross began. Then he sighed. “I don’t understand.”
“All I can tell you is that we’re needed, and this is a matter of national security.”
Ross’s eyes widened. “Like James Bond-type national security?”
“Not as dramatic as that. We need to get to a place called Stratton Bridge, and I’m sorry, but we have to leave today.”
“What about my clothes? My laptop?”
“You can go home, get some clothes, take a laptop to stay connected to the office. When we get there, though, you will have a cover.”
“Wait. Is this a bodyguard job? You’re looking out for someone and you need me there to run the information side?”
“No, yes, and no.” Kyle sighed. “You have to trust me on this when I say it’s important, but I need something more than information.”
Ross sat forward in his chair and looked deadly serious. “I do trust you, Kyle. You know that.”
“Then all I can say is we’re going undercover, both of us. I’ll be with you every inch of the way.”
Ross smiled and pushed his hair back off his face, leaving a streak of black on his forehead; evidently, he hadn’t managed to wash off all the ink. “Undercover. Cool. What as? I could be a doctor or a teacher. Probably more a teacher, I guess. Not sure I’d be able to handle—”
“My husband,” Kyle broke in. “The room we have, it’s more of a suite.” He recalled the information Stefan had given him: the block booking of the only available room, which had just been renovated. “We need to be on our honeymoon. Trust me, it’s the best cover.”
Ross’s lips were in a round O, surprise on his face. “We’re acting—” He coughed to clear his throat. “—married?”
Kyle focused in on the streak of black, trying not to let any emotion show on his face. “They only have the one room, just open after renovation, the honeymoon suite. I need your decision now.”
While he waited tensely for Ross’s reply, Kyle considered. He could go on his own, and when asked where his husband was, he could easily pretend he was getting divorced from his pretend husband. But why would he still need a honeymoon suite? He’d nearly talked himself into that one when Ross looked at him directly.
So many emotions passed over Ross’s face that Kyle couldn’t identify them all. He saw confusion, excitement, disappointment, the whole gamut of emotions. Then he saw Ross pull himself straight, and the smile returned. “We need a magnificent back story,” Ross said. And with that he’d agreed to play his part, and his and Kyle’s cover story was in place. “I’ll get some stuff. Give me thirty.”
Ross left, and Kyle listened for the distinctive growl of Ross’s black and red motorbike. He couldn’t help himself; he looked out of his window to the parking area below and saw Ross astride the beast of a machine that allowed him to zip around the country roads here.
“You’ll kill yourself, Ross,” he’d said when Ross had pulled up a few months ago as proud as a mom with a new baby.
“This, old man, is a Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade, and it’s not dangerous, it’s fun.”
Ross reminded Kyle far too often that there were ten years separating them, but being thirty-five, Kyle didn’t feel like an old man. He just preferred his Jaguar to the danger of the open road in nothing more than leather and a helmet.
“Says the man who moaned all last Friday that he had a paper cut.”
And now, there he was. He’d pulled on his leathers, and fuck, he looked like sex on legs. That gorgeous ass in leather, a black biker’s jacket hugging his slim figure. So different to the patient, organized, stapler-loving Ross that Kyle had in his head. This Ross, the one on the bike, was wild and sexy and asking to be—
Kyle had to stop himself, and he cursed Stefan for dropping him in the shit from a great height. He and Ross, in a honeymoon suite, for a week—maybe more—and with Ross wanting a magnificent backstory when Kyle couldn’t imagine what this case was going to bring him.
Espionage, agents, attempted murder, a favor to a friend thousands of miles away, and a new line in environmental disaster. Not to mention being undercover as married: with the man he was head over heels in love with in real life.
Just how wrong could this possibly go?