Undercover cop Deacon Shepherd lost everything trying to maintain his cover – the man he loved and the future he craved. He walked away and never looked back because it was the only way to keep Rafe alive.
The last thing he needs is to be dragged back in that world, but an attempt on Rafe’s life is enough to make him risk his heart again.
Rafael ‘Rafe' Martinez wakes up in hospital, the victim of a hit and run. He’s stunned when the first face he sees is that of the man who betrayed him and left him for dead three years before. Witness protection had stripped Rafe of his name and now it seems someone from his past wants him dead. The only way he can stay alive is to trust the man who tried to kill him and then broke his heart. But how can he ever trust Deacon, and how can Deacon protect Rafe without falling in love all over again?
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“What the hell are you doing, Rafe?” Deacon asked, and edged closer, carefully.
Rafe was too near the edge of the lake in the darkness, and he didn’t want to spook the man. He’d been watching him from a distance, but when Rafe stepped closer to the inky depth of water, Deacon had to step forward. The lake was icy cold and deep here, and ice collected around the edges. The crystal in the pale moonlight would have been beautiful but all Deacon saw was danger.
“Looking,” Rafe murmured, and stepped even closer. The lake was around Rafe’s feet now, and Deacon realized that Rafe had stopped on a piece of ground that jutted into the ice.
He wanted to tell him to move away, but that wasn’t his job.
Neither of his jobs.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, and casually stepped closer; just out of grabbing distance, but close enough to try to stop him if he jumped into the lake.
“The ice is pretty here,” Rafe murmured.
He sounded contemplative, quiet, serious, and Deacon didn’t like that one little bit. He’d once talked a jumper off a ten-story building, and Rafe’s voice had that faraway quality that spoke of a decision made and an action that needed to be carried out.
“Come back,” he said; more ordered. He had to stay in character for now, but what if Rafe decided that he was jumping? What did Deacon do then? No one said he had to care about Rafe, but he did.
This was week three, and he’d seen Rafe bullied, and ignored, and seen him close his eyes to it all. He hadn’t seen a family who had welcomed a bereaved nephew and cousin into the fold. All he’d observed was that Rafe shouldn’t be there.
“What?” Rafe asked dreamily. Deacon had to think to remember what he’d asked.
“Come away from the edge,” he reworded the instruction. “You don’t want to slip in.”
Rafe let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “What if I do?”
“You could get me some skates, and I could glide on the water. I’ve never done that before; we didn’t have a lot of iced-over lakes in Miami. I’m surprised there is one here in California.”
“It won’t last,” Deacon said, and stepped a little closer. “Only on the coldest nights and just at the edge, but the water would be cold if you swam in it.”
He saw Rafe’s full-body shudder. “I don’t want to swim in it. It’s a horrible, scary lake, so deep you can’t see the bottom, and who knows what I’d find down there if I did.”
The lake was on Rafe’s uncle’s land, a natural crack in the terrain with an icy spring that fed it. Deacon had a feeling there were a lot of things in its depths that were never meant to be found again.
“I’ve skated on a frozen pond,” Deacon said, a little desperately – anything to get Rafe’s attention. “Back in Massachusetts, the pond in our town wasn’t deep, but it spread a good way, and it would ice over when it got cold.”
After a moment’s pause Rafe spoke. “When was that?”
Yes, he was talking back.
“When I was a kid. I used to go skating with my best friend, Mac.”
“No, I mean, how long did it… was it… I don’t know what I mean.”
Shit, this doesn’t sound good.
Deacon carried on. “There was always September first, and it was all rust and gold as far as the eye could see, and then you’d have the snow and ice and the cold of winter.”
Rafe shivered and wrapped his arms around himself, and Deacon took a cautious step forward. Keep talking.
“One day, maybe I’ll go visit there again in the Fall, and wait for the snow and cold so I can skate again. See my family, visit with friends.”
Rafe nodded, as if he was actually listening. “Friends are good,” he muttered, and then the tension slipped away from him and his arms fell to his sides.
What happened next was Deacon’s worries come to life. Rafe turned to face him, slipped on the ice that had crept onto the grass on the bank, and began to slide toward the water.
Deacon grabbed for Rafe, any part of him, getting a solid hold of his arm and hand and yanking him back, stumbling away from the water and tumbling to the ground, Rafe a solid weight on top of him.
He didn’t want this. He didn’t want sexy, intriguing Rafe sprawled over him, laughing like an idiot. He didn’t want Rafe at the lake, or even in the same fucking state as his asshole uncle and cousins. Trying to extricate himself from the pile of limbs he was tangled in was useless. Rafe was a dead weight, and seemed to be content being wrapped around Deacon.
“Kid, you need to move,” he muttered, willing away the arousal that was zipping through his body.
Rafe snorted another laugh. “You know I’m twenty-three, right? Legal in every state, or at least I think so.”
“Get off me.” Deacon tried to buck him off, but Rafe was hard against him, and heavy, and clinging like a freaking limpet.
“I know you’ve been looking at me,” Rafe murmured, dipping his head so they were close enough that Deacon could simply lean up a little and they would be kissing.
Remember the goal.
“Kid, Jesus,” he said, in an exasperated tone, which was heavily at odds with the arousal he was feeling at having gorgeous, sexy Rafe slumped over him.
But the tone didn’t work, and Rafe wasn’t moving.
In fact, he ramped the whole thing up so it was worse than before. He peppered Deacon’s face with kisses; small touches with each word, explaining why he wasn’t a kid and Deacon should kiss him back.
For a while – seconds, hours, he didn’t know – he tried to get away from this maniac with the kissing and the laughter, and then abruptly things changed.
In a smooth move, he twisted so it was Rafe on the ground under him, abruptly quiet and looking up at Deacon, his eyes wide.
“Deacon?” he asked, his tone wary.
And Deacon kissed him.
He held Rafe’s hands to the icy ground and kissed him, pressed him hard into the mud and explored Rafe’s sexy, pouty mouth with a thoroughness that had him near to coming in his pants as they rocked against each other.
This kiss was deliberate and needy and the want of it had been building ever since he’d arrived at the Martinez place.
“Deacon!” a voice called in the darkness, and Deacon was off Rafe and up on his feet within seconds, holding out a hand to help Rafe stand. He brushed himself off, and Rafe moved back and away into the shelter of the nearest tree.
“You got your eyes on him?” Chumo asked, his tone accusing.
“Following him around the lake,” Deacon reported, then turned away from Rafe’s cousin, the least psychotic of them. “Need to go.”
Chumo spun on his heel as though that was enough for him. His dad or brother had likely told him to go look for Rafe, and his job was done. When Chumo left, Rafe stepped back out with a soft laugh.
“That was close,” he said, coming to a stop right next to Deacon, his hand brushing Deacon’s arm.
Deacon rounded on Rafe. “Don’t fucking touch me,” he spat. Rafe blinked at him, startled, hurt in his expression.
“I saw your eyes,” Rafe murmured.
“Let’s get back.” Deacon turned to walk away, but Rafe didn’t follow.
“And I felt that kiss,” he added.
“I’m not repeating myself,” Deacon snapped.
This time he sensed Rafe following, and they made their way back to the main house. Rafe said nothing and went to his room quietly. Only when Rafe was in his room did Deacon ever feel truly able to deal with his real mission; finding evidence to tie this family to terrible crimes that destroyed lives.
This family, and possibly Rafe.
Rafe closed his bedroom door behind him. He wouldn’t need to come out of his room now until morning, and if he was lucky he could avoid his family and get to school without incident. Of course, Deacon would be right on his tail all the way to college, but he could handle that.
Or at least, he had been able to until just now.
Now? Well, hell, it would be a hundred kinds of awkward, facing Deacon after that kiss and then Deacon shutting down on him so abruptly.
For a second, Rafe had seen naked need in Deacon’s eyes, and then one word from Chumo and Deacon had pulled down the mask that was his hard-man persona. Rafe was convinced there was more to Deacon; he just didn’t know how to reach the man.
But the need for it burned in him, and he had no clue why. Lusting after one of the bad guys was going to compromise everything he was there to do, but that wasn’t enough to stop him. He was losing his freaking mind.
Lying back on his bed, he stared at the ceiling, and the unsettling feeling of being watched was back again. He hated this place, hated his family, just wanted to be back in Miami with his dad and his stories of how his mom had died. The only place he could find them again was in his memories, and he closed his eyes, thinking of one single day when everything had been okay. Of course, he’d never known his mom – she’d died a few weeks after he was born – but his dad had kept her memory alive with photos and stories. She’d danced, or so his dad had said, danced with crazy happiness in their kitchen, danced slow and crying when she was emotional; to hear his dad tell it, she’d been a whirlwind of motion. Every photo he had of her, she was smiling back at Rafe, but he didn’t have the photos here. They were boxed up in storage along with the rest of his life.
Was I really going to walk into that water?
The thought of it, of stepping into the ice, had been right there in his mind. He imagined the grief of losing his father slowly floating away as he sank to the bottom, and he rolled onto his front, his face buried in his pillows. The tears he cried were hot and fierce, but he didn’t sob, or shake; his grief was his alone.
I don’t want to die.
He hated his uncle, hated him with everything he had. He’d hated him as a child, and now, as an adult, when the grief wasn’t overwhelming everything else, he hated Arlo with every fiber of his being. His dad had been convinced that Uncle Arlo was evil.
“Arlo hated me for marrying his sister,” his dad had always said when whiskey had loosened his tongue. “But I didn’t care. My Santanna was everything to me, and when she gave me you, I couldn’t have loved anyone more. We didn’t need her family.” And then he would correct himself. “We don’t need her family.”
“Why did I even leave Miami?” Rafe muttered, and kicked the corner of the bed, wincing when the bed didn’t give way but his foot did.
He should have stayed in Miami, in the house he’d shared with his dad, surrounded by photos of his mom; hell, he should have listened to his dad and left well enough alone.
“Stay away from your mother’s brother,” he’d said over and over before he died. “That’s the bad side of the family. Your Uncle Arlo and his sons, your cousins, they are bad men.”
Growing up, he’d begun to associate the word “bad” with his uncle and his two cousins, Felix and Chumo. They were all the way over the other side of the country in California, and that was pretty much all that Rafe had known.
Until his dad had been dying and he’d told Rafe everything. Said he’d written everything down, located people who’d seen things, had evidence that Rafe’s uncle had killed Rafe’s mom. Beaten her to death. He’d gone to confront Arlo. He was sorry. He’d fucked up.
What Rafe heard had made his blood run cold. It had also had him organizing his last semester in California, citing that he needed to be with family now his father was dead. The lie sat uneasily with him, but his old college had been okay with it all, the bereavement counselor positively beaming as she ticked all the right boxes about this newly orphaned young man finding family to take care of him.
Grief at losing his dad, and a new acid of hate that was forcing its way into his heart, was what had sent him here.
His dad had been his everything. The mild-mannered man had taken him to peewee baseball, the dentist, school, helped him with homework, and not once had he spoken about his life in Cuba, or his family.
Not until that last week.
Not until the car had hit him, and he’d laid dying in a hospital, and he’d told Rafe what he’d lived with for so many years.
So many secrets that had changed Rafe’s life forever.
He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling again, considering how long he could keep up the pretense. He should have handed everything over to the cops, but then his dad would have been pulled into the mess posthumously, and his good name was the one thing that was left now of Héctor Ramirez; that and Rafe’s memories of his dad. He had details in his head of his mom’s supposed car accident, a statement from the first cop on the scene; she’d been run off the road just outside the town he was in now. Her car had been shoved off the road, but that had never made the official statements. The cause of the accident had been covered up; she’d been visiting her brother in California and she’d died tragically after she’d lost control of the car. Nothing about the dents that had to have been made by another vehicle. Everything had been covered up, or so his dad had thought. And the accident itself a cover-up for her being beaten to death by her brother.
His dad had sworn that was true.
Rafe didn’t know what to think.
Then there was the hit-and-run responsible for his dad’s death, less than a week after the only visit he’d ever made to visit his brother-in-law in California.
“I went to make him tell me what he’d done,” his dad had told him. “He told me he’d beaten his sister, as if it was okay, as if he was entitled. But I saw evil in his eyes. Always look into a man’s eyes, Rafael. It’s up to you to find out what he did.”
The burden of this weighed on Rafe. He wanted to know how his mom had died, who had killed his dad. But now, here in this house, he was losing his mind in the biggest way.
His Uncle Arlo had, of course, welcomed his beloved nephew with open arms, which Rafe had counted on – Arlo was big on family, and hadn’t batted an eyelid at his nephew living with him when Arlo was the only family Rafe had left. Particularly when Rafe had said nothing about his parents other than the normal exchange of superficial grief statements.
“I miss them,” Arlo had said with great feeling.
“Me too,” Rafe had said, keeping everything inside him.
One thing Arlo hadn’t welcomed him into was the business. Nope, everything had been pushed away, and he’d been kept separate, even so far as being assigned a bodyguard, for his own protection. Deacon had been hired to keep an eye on him. Or at least that was what Rafe thought. It was no accident that Deacon had turned up a couple of days after he had, nor that he was always everywhere Rafe went.
Rafe just needed to play the long game and get enough evidence together to back up his dad’s observations, see if they were more than just the ramblings of an old man, and then he could hand the whole lot over to the police.
Then he could make his uncle pay.