Authors: Tere Michaels
Nox stepped fully into the room and then shut the door firmly behind him. “You okay? I thought you’d be more excited about going home.”
“Mmmm. I have a complicated relationship with home.” Cade kicked the base of the bed lightly. “Weird shit with my brother. He’s the shining star. He stayed behind while I went off to suck dick professionally, so he could take over the family farm. Doesn’t matter that they’ve been spending my paychecks for the past few years to supplement their income—I’m still the black sheep. Showing up with this ragtag bunch of losers and a warrant hanging over my head? I can’t wait for my dad’s stern talking-to,” he said dryly.
Nox didn’t know what to say to that. His own family dynamic, pre- and poststorm, was nothing but an exercise in insanity with very little reference to the real world. Although, the distant father—Nox got that one all too well.
“Maybe we should skip the farm and see what we can figure out at the docks,” Nox offered. “Or you could head home yourself without the… baggage.”
“That you are,” Cade said, dry and vaguely amused, flashing tired blue eyes in his direction. “But Sam—he needs medical attention and a mom to fatten him up. You can’t drag him all over the place without a destination in mind. At least not yet.”
And that was the bottom line. Nox couldn’t come up with a long-term plan until Sam was better. Or until he knew what he was up against.
You know the plan
, a small voice muttered in the back of his head.
Hide Sam, then go off and get yourself killed.
“You’re right,” Nox said, almost absentmindedly.
Cade responded with raised eyebrows. “I am, aren’t I?”
“Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Nox picked up a rolled pair of gym socks and threw them at Cade’s head.
“So what do I introduce you as?” Cade’s curious gaze roamed over Nox. “To my family?”
Nox shrugged, leaning back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “Nox Mullens, your… friend.” They certainly weren’t just that, but Nox’s vocabulary didn’t have a word for what they were.
“Right,” Cade answered, his tone a bit frostier. He turned his attention back to the stack of clothing. “My friend Nox and his kid and a baby-faced ex-cop and two people I used to work with, one of whom might have been a hit woman of some kind.”
“If the authorities have already gotten there, it really depends on what they’ve been told. I mean, I’m hoping they don’t think you capable of bombing a building. That’s a good start.” Nox pushed off from the wall. He tried not to sink into the spiral of being in a place without his usual contacts or cover. Everything was new and uncertain, and the only person he could trust was Cade.
“Yeah, I know.” Cade picked up a black sweater, then threw it back down. He sounded defeated. “I keep pretending things are better, that there’s some sort of light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an oncoming train.”
Feeling awkward, Nox extended his hand and his fingertips just brushed across Cade’s shoulder. It wasn’t like he could disagree.
Cade stiffened under the touch. He stepped out of range of Nox’s hand, giving him a tight smile. “I’m going to finish packing up, then find something for lunch. Why don’t you… uh… check on Sam?”
Nox shoved his hands in his pockets, stepping back toward the door. “Okay.”
Cade didn’t respond. He went back to the clothes as Nox left the cabin.
up from his third nap of the day, annoyed as soon as he opened his eyes.
Everything hurt—his chest, his ribs, and his stomach. The coughing irritated every ache and pain, like he’d swallowed broken glass. Every once in a while he’d get a fever, and the slick of sweat over his skin felt like it weighed ten pounds.
He’d never felt this bad. He’d never been this frightened—because his dad looked unsure, and that was something Sam didn’t have a lot of experience with. Even the flush of excitement he once dreamed of feeling—off the island, out on the ocean, going someplace else for the first time in his life—he couldn’t enjoy a second of it. Things were too up in the air to celebrate freedom.
The only good part of this entire experience was Mason.
With his serious blue eyes and gentle demeanor, Mason made it all easier. He never left Sam alone, he played nurse and bodyguard—even if Sam drew the line at having him play bathroom escort—and his every touch and word was so tender.
In the midst of an unknown future, Sam was in love.
They hadn’t kissed or anything, but that was fine. Sam didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and their precarious current scenario wasn’t exactly conducive to dating.
Understandable if Mason didn’t make a move; Sam sure as hell wasn’t looking his best these days.
It was fine.
“I got you some water from the galley,” Mason was saying as Sam blinked awake. “Do you need anything else?”
Mason stood next to the bed, wearing jeans and a button-down dress shirt, untucked, his blond hair damp. He’d showered while Sam was asleep—and Sam blushed at the thought of Mason in the next room. Naked and….
“Thanks,” Sam whispered, suddenly reminded of the pain he was in. He coughed into his hand as he struggled to sit up. Mason, of course, leaned over to help him, his big warm hands on Sam’s body, and Sam tried to keep his composure.
Thank God his body was too tired and broken to pop a boner.
Sam sat up and relaxed into the headboard, then watched Mason putter around the room—he straightened the blankets, collected used tissues and empty cups of tea, and readjusted the exact location of the water bottle on the nightstand. Checked his gun.
Sam sighed with absolute adoration.
“You’re a great nurse,” he murmured, ducking his eyes to the hills and valleys of the blanket over his legs. “You’re really good at taking care of people.”
“Oh well, thanks. I guess that’s my backup option now that I’m not a cop,” Mason said lightly.
Sam winced. This was his fault—and his family’s fault—that Mason was caught up in all this drama. “I’m—”
“No, it’s fine. I made my decisions.”
The floorboards creaked a little as Mason walked around the room.
“And hey, if I do decide to be a nurse, my high school girlfriend is an RN in Cambridge. I’ll give her a call,” Mason said lightheartedly—as Sam’s heart sank like a stone in the river.
“Girlfriend,” Sam said. At least he thought he did. His mouth was moving, he knew that. Air was being expelled from his lungs. Maybe there was sound, but he couldn’t tell over the roaring in his ears.
Wait—had he been wrong this entire time?
“Ex-girlfriend, I should say. We broke up before I moved to New York.”
Sam’s breath hitched. “Wow, pretty recent.” He prayed for a coughing fit, one that would destroy his voice forever so he’d never have to speak again.
“Yeah. It worked out for the best, though.” Mason’s voice got closer; Sam felt the mattress sink down next to his knees.
He didn’t look up.
“I mean, I’d hate to have to call her and tell her that I… I met someone else,” Mason said softly.
Sam’s breath caught in his throat—and a fit of coughing erupted at the least opportune moment. He slammed his hands down into the mattress as he doubled over. Not even Mason’s soothing hand on his back could help; he choked and gasped as his lungs burned and felt like they were twisting in his chest.
It took a few moments to catch his breath; he panted out the precious chokes of air until he could inhale without reacting badly.
Mason murmured comforting words and pushed tissues into Sam’s shaking hands. He wiped his mouth and eyes, pretending the tears weren’t shameful or emotional but were from the force of his coughs.
“Okay?” Mason whispered, pulling Sam into his arms.
Sam didn’t know how to answer that question, so he said nothing, laying his damp forehead against Mason’s shoulder, reveling in the warmth of having someone hold him so tenderly.
“I wish I could help you,” Mason said, his voice gentle against Sam’s ear. “I hate seeing you so sick.”
He wanted to say
I’ll be fine
, but those words were stuck in his wrecked throat and his terrified heart. He shook his head, an all-purpose answer and the only one he could think of.
“I wish we’d met under better circumstances” were the next words, and Sam jerked in Mason’s arms. He leaned back so he could look Mason in the eye.
“I wish….” Mason swallowed; his gaze was locked onto Sam’s face, earnest and emotional. “I’ve never… I mean. I guess I’ve found some guys attractive, but I uh… I’ve never….” He looked at Sam pleadingly.
Sam nodded, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Me neither,” he mouthed.
Relief illuminated Mason’s expression. “I like you so much,” he whispered, leaning closer. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Feverish and overwhelmed, Sam pressed their foreheads together, shaking as they touched. He wanted to tell Mason they had time, but the truth was, they really didn’t know.
“We’ll… figure… it… out…,” Sam mouthed, his voice just puffs of air. But Mason heard him, because he pulled Sam closer and closer until their bodies were curled around each other.
It felt like heaven, and if this was the worst Sam’s body had ever experienced, the simple pleasure of Mason’s embrace made everything worth it. His heart pounded, and the warm scent of Mason’s body filled his senses. Nothing else mattered.
An aggressive knock on the door drove them apart; Sam whimpered as the sudden move sent his body into another ripple of pain. Mason caught him and then lowered him down onto the pillows.
“Sam?” The knock came again. Mason was already standing up, looking flustered as he pulled at his clothes, as if they had been doing something other than hugging. Sam forced himself not to squeal with joy.
“Yes, sir, you can come in,” Mason called, his voice cracking a little.
Sam wanted to point out that Mason didn’t have to be afraid of his father—but that was a lie.
Nox opened the door, his face already set in an expression of annoyance, with the protective flush that Sam knew all too well. He imagined the closed door was about to become a thing of the past—even if his father had to remove the thing from its hinges.
He waved weakly, but Nox’s face didn’t move out of its annoyed rictus.
“Mason, I’m going to spend a little time with my son now,” Nox said, measured and cool.
Mason gave Sam a weak smile, then turned to Nox. “Yes, sir, of course. I’ll be on the deck.”
Nox didn’t say another word; he barely moved out of the way so Mason could walk out the door.
Sam wanted to roll his eyes, but even that hurt.
When Mason cleared the doorway, Nox slammed the door shut.
“I brought a pen and paper so you don’t have to strain your voice,” he said brusquely and walked over to sit on the bed. He produced a small steno pad with a pen clipped onto the side.
“Thanks,” Sam mouthed, taking the offered items. Maybe he’d write a letter to Mason, tell him how he felt, what he wanted.
Doodle a few hearts.
Maybe explain how if his father decided to split off from the group, Mason could come with them.
“Use the paper. I want you to get well as soon as possible,” Nox said, resting his hands on his thighs.
He wasn’t looking at Sam.
That was never a good sign.
Sam flipped the pad open, then uncapped the pen.
“Doing my best,”
He showed the page to Nox, who nodded, his gaze still aimed toward the headboard, over Sam’s shoulder. “I know. I don’t mean to rush you. I’m just concerned that we won’t be able to stay long with Cade’s family. We might have to move again, quickly. But hopefully first, we’ll have time to get you well.”
“Where can we go? After the farm?”
Nox sighed, rubbing Sam’s knee over the blanket. “I don’t know yet. I’m sorry that I can’t give you a better answer, but we’ll figure it out.”
Sam’s stomach plunged. He knew how seriously his father took their safety. He still felt the heat of guilt for his part—even if he didn’t quite understand it—in the men who were after them, the ones who had targeted him with the letter.
He wanted to ask if this meant his dream of finding his biological parents was over.
He wanted to ask why these people were after them; was it just because of his father’s nocturnal activities?
So many questions, but the defeated look on Nox’s face directed his hand to write only one thing.
“I trust you, Dad.”
In the morning, if the power and Wi-Fi are working, he logs in to his virtual school. He loves all his classes, honestly, especially the ones with teachers who do video chats. There are people from all over the world in his class, kids whose families live in remote locations or in places without enough spots in school. Most have stories about being displaced by the storm, and most remember it because they’re all older than he is.
Sam is super smart.
After lunch, he sits back down at the tablet and does his homework. His science teacher, Ms. Begget, gives him extra work and more reading than anyone else. It’s not even extra credit. His English teacher does the same, sending him e-books not on their reading list.
Sam is lonely, and this is a good way to fill his time.
His father comes home at five, before curfew, usually tired and distracted. Sam’s gotten good at making dinner, though most of the time there isn’t much to it. Open some cans, toast some bread. Set their places on the kitchen island, fill two glasses with iced tea he makes himself.
Sometimes Sam eats alone, because his father is in a mood.
On those nights his father changes into his other uniform, straps on his gun, then heads out into the night. Sam hears the beeps on the alarm and knows his job.