Avery dumped the body he'd been carrying onto one of the beds and rotated his shoulder. With any luck, no one had followed them back to the hotel, and come the morning, tonight would be a forgotten episode. With as much alcohol as the idiot on the bed had consumed, he'd be lucky to survive a massive hangover when he woke.
And speaking of headaches... Avery massaged his temples, overdue for a good night's sleep. He took advantage of the quiet while he could. After locking the door, he stripped down to his Skivvies, slid under the covers of the unoccupied queen bed, and closed his eyes.
He opened them again--three hours later, according to the clock--and stared up at a bleary-eyed, aggravated, six-foot-three mess of trouble.
"You do that again, and I'll kick your ass back to Oregon."
"Oh, good. You're awake." Avery promptly closed his eyes, wanting a few more hours of sleep. Cleaning up after Nathan was getting old. Not that his new partner didn't have a reason for his benders and lashes of temper. Finding out one's mother had recently passed away could make the best of men emotional. God knew what he'd do if his own mother died.
"Wake up, dickhead."
Avery didn't budge, even when a heavy weight settled over his midsection and a large hand wrapped around his throat. He and Nathan were mostly evenly matched. Both were near the same height, had psychic abilities, and were muscled to the max, thanks to the exercises they were forced to do to remain sane. So any bouts on the mats should have ended evenly between them. Except Nathan didn't have Avery's skill at hand-to-hand combat. And the sore loser knew it.
Avery sighed and opened his eyes. Despite Nathan's stubble and bloodshot eyes, no one could claim he'd lost his looks. He never hurt for companionship, and Avery grudgingly saw why. Sexy and charming, Nathan Kraft invited smiles wherever he went. But lately, instead of his trademark charisma, grief clouded his mossy green eyes.
A hank of sandy brown hair fell over his forehead and blocked his gaze. That made it easier for Avery to do what needed to be done. Christ, seeing Nathan's grief up close choked him up, and he didn't like his susceptibility to the master manipulator.
Avery forced himself to remain calm and unaffected. "What do you want now? Want me to rock you back to sleep after saving you...again?"
Nathan shook the hair from his face and growled, "I didn't need saving. I was about to get blown by a cute blond football player before you interrupted--again. I don't need a nursemaid." He squeezed Avery's neck.
Avery gripped his thumb and twisted, pulling Nathan's hand free.
"Okay, that's it." He sat up and shoved Nathan to the floor. "You don't need a nursemaid? Great. I don't need to yank you back on track night after night." He paused, experiencing that familiar muck of emotion in his gut when he looked down at Nathan. "I'm sorry your mom died."
"Fuck you. She wasn't my mom."
Avery quirked a brow.
"Biologically, maybe. But she was my aunt." Nathan's voice broke, and Avery clenched his jaw not to respond. "My fucking mother, pretending to be my aunt. And now she's dead, because Malcolm isn't."
Avery, a clairvoyant, had foreseen Nathan's loss and knew he had to help. He'd envisioned them together, tracking down the stolen blade Malcolm Dixon had used to murder Nathan's aunt--mother. What a fucked-up situation. Family skeletons falling out of the closet left and right.
He empathized with the guy. Though he wouldn't classify them as friends, exactly, Avery had a heart. Nathan annoyed him to no end with his pranks, teasing, and irresponsible behavior. They seemed to get along as well as cats and dogs and made excellent sparring partners. Annoyance should have been the end to Avery's feelings toward Nathan Kraft.
Instead, every time they had dealings, Avery lusted after the jackass with every fiber of his being. It made no sense. Though he was open to sex with men or women, Nathan wasn't his type.
Regardless of his personal feelings, his professional instincts told him Nathan needed protection more than he needed to be searching for a killer. His partner had too much invested in the outcome. Nathan was still grieving, and his vulnerability made him a target for an enemy that needed serious watching.
Avery should have tried harder to convince their boss to keep Nathan at home. Back in Bend, Oregon, Nathan would have been working at the PowerUp! gym like the rest of the ex-agents of the government's now defunct Psychic Warfare Program, PWP. The gym allowed them the ability to work out, alleviating the buildup of toxic hormones within their genetically altered bodies. With the constant exercise and mental workouts they did in the other gym--the one below the public one that only their team knew about, they kept themselves safe and sane.
Safe and sane. Two words that didn't apply to Nathan recently.
He looked down at Nathan still sitting on the floor. "We'll find Malcolm. Your uncle might be able to stay one step ahead of the law, but he can't hide from us. I've already seen a piece of his future."
Nathan shook his head. "Yeah, in Bloomville, PA. But you don't know when he'll be there. I want the fucker dead like yesterday."
Nathan's haunted expression irritated him, because Avery wanted to soothe his hurt. That damn flutter in the pit of his stomach flared again. What the hell was it about this guy that got to him like no one had in a long time? Hell, try in forever.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Nathan scowled.
"Like what?" Damn. He sounded like his throat had been raked over gravel. He raised a knee to hide the hard-on growing. God forbid Nathan see that. He'd never hear the end of it.
"I'd think you want a fuck, but that's not your style, is it, big man?" Nathan sneered. "You're as straight as an arrow. If it's not missionary, I doubt you're game."
He'd love the chance to fuck Nathan out of his system and prove him wrong, but one of them had to remain in control and professional. Avery realized Nathan needed to lash out to deal with the upheaval in his life. But Christ, could the guy be any more appealing--annoying?
He counted to ten in his head before responding. "My sex life has nothing to do with you being a prick. Now try to behave like the agent I know you were trained to be, and--"
"And nothing. The PWP is dead, Major Holton. It has been for over a year now. So quit playing by their rules. I can't believe Jack stuck me with you for this case. We're never going to find Malcolm if you keep coloring inside the lines."
Avery ignored most of Nathan's mutterings, zeroing in on the fact that Nathan had checked up on him. Though he and the rest of the ex-PWP agents had been working together for the past year, he hadn't met but a few of them before the PWP had been shut down.
He raised a brow. "Curious about me, Kraft?"
There were so many ways Avery wanted to respond to that, but now wasn't the time. He cleared his throat. "That brings up a good point, though. We're paired together on an actual job. This isn't another training session, where I beat the shit out of you then you whine about it to Jack later. We have real work to do." He ignored the obscene gesture waved his way and continued. "If we don't have trust, this isn't going to work."
"First intelligent thing you've said in days."
Avery wanted very, very badly to go back to bed. He glared at the playboy, doing his best to ignore the washboard stomach begging for a feel. "Right now, what I know about you could fit on the head of a pin. You like to drink your pain away, you seem to be after anonymous hookups, and you're psychic. I'm the only one holding it together for both of us."
Nathan opened his mouth to argue, no doubt, so Avery continued. "Me? I spent eleven years in the United States Marine Corps. I was Force Recon and good at my job. Uncle Sam found out I could see glimpses of the future and recruited me for the PWP. I spent a year there in training and worked a few missions before they shut it down. That's me in a nutshell."
"Great. A jarhead with control issues. Just what I need on top of Malcolm's psychopathic tendencies."
"We'll find him. You need to be patient." But Avery knew better. Asking Nathan to be patient was like asking him to shut up for two seconds--not gonna happen. "Point of fact: we're here not only to find your uncle. We need that blade he's carrying. It's special, it's dangerous, and it belongs to our client."
"Tell me something I don't know."
Nathan rose from the floor and moved to sit on the edge of his bed. He stared down at his hands.
Avery had the feeling he had something on his mind he hadn't yet shared about the case, but Nathan said nothing more about his uncle. Instead he cleared his throat. "I don't want you carting my ass out of bars anymore."
Avery agreed. Four nights was four nights too many. "Then quit getting so drunk you can't tell one partner from another." Avery didn't like how territorial he'd felt last night in the bar. What the hell should he care if Nathan fucked every guy standing? "I overheard your boyfriend say he had plans to share your ass with two of his buddies, and they didn't seem to care if you were willing or not."
Nathan remained silent.
"The fact that I heard them and you didn't is telling. One touch and you'd have known you were dealing with bad news. But you had no friggin' clue."
Nathan could touch an object and know its history. Psychometry, the art of knowing the history of an object by touching it. Nathan was the only one on the team with that particular talent, and he'd been an invaluable asset time and time again. Probably the reason Jack kept him on, considering Nathan's propensity for getting into trouble. Had Nathan reached out and touched his date's jacket, he would have sensed the bad vibes radiating from the weasel-faced asshole.
"Well, shit." Nathan ran a hand through his disheveled hair, and it made him look that much sexier.
Avery did his best to ignore the attraction, the way he'd been ignoring it for the past year, and continued berating his partner. "You know all about me. Now you? Who the hell knows? A foursome might be an average night on the town for Nathan Kraft. But no way in hell I'd let a buddy of mine fuck a stranger when he's so drunk he can barely stand." Nathan's clear chagrin gratified. Maybe he'd finally gotten through to the guy. "Don't worry." Avery rubbed his bruised knuckles, hidden under the sheet, against the bed. "I left them consoling each other when they knew they couldn't have you. You want 'em so bad? Go back tonight, sober. I'm sure they'll be there." And it won't bother me one bit. Not at all. Nope. Not going there.
The gay bar he'd fished Nathan out of had been hopping with men out to hook up. Half of them had been fucking in plain sight in the hallways at the back of the club. So not what Avery had needed to see while he'd been carrying his sexy, aggravating partner away.
"Please. That bar was a dive. I was drunk."
"And desperate," Avery added for good measure, pleased when Nathan glared at him. If the man was angry, he couldn't be sad.
"I suppose you want me to thank you?"
"Why would I expect gratitude from you? That would imply you have manners. Look, princess, if you're done with your hissy fit, can I get some sleep? Hauling your ass around at three in the morning cut into my night. Wake me by ten." With that, he turned away from Nathan, no longer able to see the man who occupied his thoughts too much for his peace of mind. With any luck, he wouldn't dream. Or at least, he wouldn't dream of Nathan.
Nathan glared at the giant mound of testosterone in the bed next to him but couldn't rightly argue with the guy. Once again Avery had had his back. Maybe Jack had been right to send the big jerk along for the ride. God knew, Nathan wasn't thinking straight.
He left his own bed and undressed as he walked to the bathroom. He purposely left a trail of nasty clothes, knowing it would annoy the neat freak he'd been partnered with. Nathan didn't know why, but annoying Avery actually made him feel good when he'd been feeling nothing but bad for days.
He'd been out of his mind with grief since he'd gotten the news, unable to think of anything but his aunt drowning in a pool of her own blood.
No, not my aunt. My mom.
For ten years he'd lived with the woman, thinking her his aunt. After Michelle Kraft died in a hit-and-run accident when he'd just passed his tenth birthday, he'd gone to live with her sister. Life was by no means perfect, far from it. But once they'd gotten Uncle Malcolm out of their lives, he'd found a true home. He'd had a life filled with love and happiness, cared for by a woman who understood him, who accepted his psychic nature and his sexuality without question.
And now she was dead, because the past never stayed buried.
He shut the door of the bathroom behind him, relieved his bladder, and heated up the shower. He stepped inside and let the water sluice over him, as if it could clean away the doubt and confusion and guilt that caked his mind.
Tears welled, and he wiped the offending emotion away. He couldn't handle thoughts of the past again, so he concentrated instead on the here and now. On the job. Avery had that right at least. Mindless, drunken sex with strangers wouldn't numb the pain. He'd been there, done that. It didn't work. Not to mention, it wasn't safe. He really should thank Avery, but then the bastard would be even more unbearable to live with.
At the thought, Nathan's cock hardened. As annoying as Avery Holton--Major Avery Holton--could be, there was no avoiding the fact that Nathan responded to him in every way. Excitement blossomed whenever he and Avery butted heads, which was often. But for Nathan, the arguments masked his attraction. Dealing with a half-naked Avery Holton in a hotel room, with nothing between them but a thin sheet and maybe a pair of underwear, was close to driving him insane.
And it made no sense. Nathan was smarter than that. He knew better than to try to convince a straight man to try something new. Recriminations and hatred festered. He didn't plan to go that route. Once was enough, and he'd learned a valuable lesson.
There were enough playmates to be had without resorting to the unattainable. He had his share of willing men waiting for him at home in Bend. Even out here, in bumfuck Pennsylvania, the gays flocked to him. Hell, if he were some other dude, he'd fuck himself in a heartbeat. He had looks and charm, and he knew it. Aunt Danielle had always said--
No, fucking don't go there. The hollow feeling in his chest nauseated him, and he reached blindly for the soap. Concentrating on getting clean, he calmed himself enough to think about anything but her.
His looks and outgoing personality had stood him well through life. It didn't hurt that he liked sports and being physical. The years spent playing football in high school and college had helped his segue into physical training. But in that line of work, the constant touch, learning about things best kept secret, had pushed him out of that occupation into consultant work for various security firms and police departments. He'd made a good bit of money, and then someone from the government called. Why work local when he could work federal? Added to that, they'd offered to help him harness and control his gift, maybe even expand it.
The PWP had been a godsend. A place where he could work with other psychics, where he'd done good things for the right reasons. Or so he'd thought. Apparently someone in the organization hadn't been playing by the rules, because they'd disbanded the program over a year ago.
He'd left with several of the others. Now denied the dosages of gene-altering drugs that had helped strengthen his psychic gift, if he didn't physically and mentally train every day, his mind turned chaotic and even violent. Nathan already had those tendencies. He had no intention of allowing himself to get too out of control. So he worked out with people who knew the real him.
People like Avery.
A vision of the black-haired giant took over his mind's eye. Massive arms, a broad chest, thick thighs. Grappling with Avery and dealing with his sharp wit always gave him a hard-on. Avery was such a fucking man. With a groan, Nathan took his cock in hand and stroked. Envisioning Avery's deep, dark blue eyes, that short black hair, and his square jaw, Nathan stroked faster. Avery had lips made for sucking cock. With a fuller lower lip and a wide mouth that didn't often curl in amusement, Avery was sheer perfection wasted on a straight man. Nathan had a tough time not sighing like a lovesick teenager whenever the big man smiled.
But in Nathan's fantasies, Avery begged to touch, to suck, to feel. Avery would want to kneel, open his mouth, and swallow Nathan's cock. He'd rim Nathan's ass, lick and fondle his balls, and jerk Nathan off. Then he'd bend Nathan over and take him without restraint.
Nathan panted as his climax neared. In another scenario, he imagined Avery bending over, allowing Nathan to fuck him hard. No condom, no protection, just Nathan buried to the hilt up that fine, muscular ass...
"Oh fuck," he whispered and shot over the tile of the stall.
The water erased the evidence of his need, if not the need itself. Now freed from the frustration riding him hard, Nathan finished his shower and turned off the water. He dried off and left the bathroom wrapped in a towel. In the morning light, he glanced at Avery, now asleep and on his back, the sheets bunched around his waist.
A dusting of black hair covered his brawny chest. The flat copper of his nipples made Nathan's mouth water. But they needed some rings, clamps, or better yet, Nathan's mouth.
To his irritation, he started to get hard again.
Hell, no. Avery Holton, you are nothing but Mr. Wrong. Though his partner certainly could be counted on when it came to the job, such close proximity played hell with Nathan's libido. He had an insane urge to rip away Avery's covers. He thought of sucking Avery's nipples, those tempting buds now erect due to the frigid air in the room. But knowing his unflappable partner, Avery would wake up calm. The control freak wouldn't let annoyance show on his face, but he'd clench his fists tight and lock his jaw, the way he did every time Nathan bothered him.
Sucking his nipples will do more than annoy him. The thought of Avery's horrified, stunned reaction surprised a chuckle out of his mouth. His mood oddly lightened, Nathan crawled into his bed to catch a few hours of sleep. Now that his drunk had worn off, his brain refused to function past the need to close his eyes.
He woke to dirty clothes hitting him in the face.
"Rise and shine, twinkle toes."
Nathan shoved his beer-smelling clothes to the floor and cracked his jaw on a yawn. "I really hate it when you try to be cute."
"Yeah? Well, I'm not the fucking maid. Clean up after yourself."
"Um, we're in a hotel. They actually hire maids to clean up."
"Pack up your shit, and let's go." Avery glared down at him from an impressive height.
Nathan knew the man had an inch on him, putting him close to if not over six-four. God knew, Avery didn't need another edge over Nathan. Mr. Cool and Collected could rarely be beaten in the gym. The major had huge muscles and the wherewithal to use them. Even Nathan, for all his prowess in martial training, had rarely beaten Avery in hand-to-hand combat.
"Today, princess." Avery sighed. "Checkout is in a half hour. You were supposed to wake me up at ten."
The clock read eleven thirty. "Sue me." Nathan sat up and stretched.
Avery turned away and hauled his duffel bag over his shoulder. Already packed and ready to go. Typical. "I'll meet you at the car. Now get it in gear. We have a meet-and-greet with our realtor in another hour."
Nathan groaned. "I still don't like this. It's stupid. Malcolm will see through us in a heartbeat. Just because you had a vision of him in that stupid town is no reason to think he'll find us now."
"I saw snow on the ground in my vision, like the white stuff there today."
"There's snow in Bloomville eight months out of the year," Nathan said drily. He knew. He'd spent three long years there. Just outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, Bloomville had harsh winters, short summers, and a small population. "You know this cover is stupid. There's no way we won't be noticed right away."
"But that's the point. We'll be noticed. Business partners sharing a house in Bloomville while we make renovations on the Dixon house. What could be better?"
It was on the tip of Nathan's tongue to ask why Avery hadn't considered them posing as lovers instead of business associates, but he didn't want to push the bully. Not until he'd had a cup of coffee at least. "It's the Dixon House Inn now. Oh man, I friggin' hate Bloomville." Nathan had never been so glad to see the end of that house in his life. And now he was going back to it...and all the memories stored there.
"Suck it up, and quit whining. I'll be waiting." Avery left without another word.
"Asshole." Nathan got up, brushed his teeth, and dressed. Then he threw his belongings in his bag and carried it over his shoulder and out the door with five minutes to spare. He met Avery at their rental SUV at noon.
Instead of acting like an annoyed SOB, Avery reclined in his seat, his hands behind his head, while he listened to classic rock. At least he had decent taste in music.
Nathan tossed his bag into the back, then joined Avery in the front. "Why is it you're always driving?" Nathan sat in the passenger seat. Again.
"Because I'm in charge of our little operation."
"My seniority. I served twelve years--eleven years in the service and another with the PWP. So that makes me top dog. You did what? A few years with the government? Lightweight."
Nathan glared at him. "I've been with the PWP longer than you have. Three years, Major. So give me the keys."
Avery snorted and sat up. He adjusted his seat, strapped in, then started the vehicle. "Dream on. You're probably still a little drunk from last night. You smelled like a brewery."
Nathan flushed. "Yeah, well, it won't happen again."
They pulled out of the parking lot and drove through snow-cleared roads. The weather looked bleak. The gray, cloudy sky promised more snow. No sun in sight.
"Good to know you plan to sober up," Avery murmured. "'Cause next time I might let them have you."
Nathan scoffed. "Yeah, right. Your savior complex won't let you. Mr. Responsible? Not do the right thing? That'll be the day." He stared straight ahead, but a glance out the corner of his eye showed Avery's fingers tighten on the wheel.
He smothered a grin.
"Being responsible is not a curse. It's a calling." Avery turned up the radio, and Pink Floyd blared through the speakers. "Remember your cover. You blow this, I'm gonna take it out on your ass, and not in a way you'd like."
Nathan shot him the finger.
Instead of anger, arousal lit Nathan from head to toe.
The hour until Bloomville seemed to last forever.