HONEST TO God, he was going to murder the little son of a bitch. Pick up a shovel, walk across the room, and just swing it hard enough that Patrick’s head went flying—stupid red curls picking up all the dust on the workroom floor.
For ten years, Jacob had been happy, left alone in his Wyoming mountains, spelunking and searching for artifacts and random gemstones, photographing and recording and going about his job, his life’s work. His calling. He’d survived floods and blizzards, pissed-off bears, lost tourists, and territorial cowboys. He’d been blistered and frozen, hungry and sick as a dog. He’d loved every fucking minute of it.
And all it took was one phone call from the pretentious little fuck to have the rangers come up to hunt him and drag his happy ass to Cheyenne to get on a plane headed for Phoenix. In August.
Fuck him raw.
He wasn’t really sure why Dr. Gee-I-Sign-Your-Paychecks Hoder wanted him down here, besides just busting his balls. Of course, he probably would, had he been listening, but, goddamn, he was just a man made of flesh and bone, and God knew Hoder begged to be beaten soundly about the head and shoulders.
“…even listening to me? Goddammit, Plant! Can’t you get your head out of the altitude long enough to function?”
Of course, killing might be too good for the little fuck. “Why am I here, Hoder?”
“I’ve been telling you.” Patrick sighed, stormed across the room toward a little laptop set up near a pile of what he’d imagined were chicken bones, possibly guinea hens, something used in ritual, he’d bet, from the scattered markings on them.
“Is it AV club time already?” He couldn’t control the jibe. Patrick and he had graduated together, Patrick taking the scholastic route while he headed straight for the action.
“Shut up and come here, Jacob.” There was something in that voice, something a little odd, a little off. Something enough to make him curious and have him heading over to look at the little screen, tilting it to lose the glare. “Not too hard, the hinges are twitchy.”
He waved Patrick off, frowning at what he thought he was seeing. No. No, it couldn’t be. He squatted down, knees and new jeans creaking in harmony. The photo was blurred, fuzzy, but there was a stone wall, bones seemingly sunk into the rock. The bones themselves weren’t the fascination, though. Bodies had been interred in caves from the beginning of the human age. No, what fascinated him was the structure.
“Are those…?” He looked up into Patrick’s face, got the nod. Wings. Those bone structures were huge wings that appeared fused on the bony scapulae. Insane. Obviously a hoax. Undoubtedly a hoax.
A well-done hoax.
“These came in from an expedition in Sardinia. A series of caves were unearthed during some excavation of a nuraghe. They reached the bottom of the cavity and the stones literally crumbled away.”
“Yeah?” Like it mattered. He didn’t work overseas. Not his specialty. Not his problem.
“They spent three days down there, cataloging and recording, while we negotiated with the Italian government. I received the downloads a week ago with the initial findings. Photos, measurements. The bones are old enough to have fused with the cave wall. There’s no evidence the site’s been tampered with.”
“Okay? So?” He couldn’t imagine yet how they got the wings to merge so seamlessly; to build such a delicate structure spoke of amazing craftsmanship, patience. And if this find predated the nuraghi? That meant four-thousand-year-old craftsmanship.
Still, not his find and no reason to pull him off his mountain, but fascinating nonetheless.
“They received the go-ahead from the government, started excavating with a signor Carlo Monteverde.” He clicked the cursor, and more images appeared. The nuraghe’s exterior had been shot—the irregular elliptical-shaped fascia common for the ancient Mediterranean towers, the stones resting against one another, providing the support for the massive structure. Jacob grinned, chewed on his bottom lip. He always thought they looked like tits, honestly. Weird little Sardinian tits. Another photo of the inner cavity showed the south-facing entrance glowing with a yellow light, funneling the sun in and lighting the entire interior. All fairly typical of the stone mounds that had brought archaeologists to the Mediterranean for years. Then the images changed.
The cave below the floor level of the nuraghe was damp, the stone near black, which given the white sands of Sardinia was… unusual, to say the least. People started appearing in the photographs, a black-and-silver-haired man with skin as leathered as his own, a handful of young eager faces that were the mark of grad students on assignment. Typical. Normal. Boring.
“Wait, go back.” A familiar face caught his attention, a woman with blue eyes wreathed in heavy wrinkles, a blond-and-white braid as thick as his wrist, and the finest archaeologist’s hands on earth for the last seventy years. “Annie. What the hell is Annie doing out there?”
“Dr. Key was leading the party. Sort of a last hurrah.” Patrick wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he knew why. The asshole knew Annie had terminal lung cancer, knew the doctors had told her to take it easy, try to let the chemo work. Let her body try to recover from fifty years of those evil-smelling cigars she smoked. Knew there was no way she ought to be gallivanting around Italy in the heat and….
“Was?” Oh. Oh, that was why they’d called him down.
“Was.” Patrick reached out, fingers squeezing his shoulder tight. “But that’s not all. I need you to listen to me, Jacob.”
“That’s not all? Is she dead? Is it…?”
Patrick squeezed harder, steadying him, digging into his skin. “They’re all gone, Plant. All of them. Dr. Key, Sheila Morgan, Rick Bay, Tony Underwood, Kathleen Harris, Carlo Monteverde. The police found all but one person in the group, dismembered, torn to bits, scattered over the cave.”
Jacob stood, the move sudden and sharp, sending his blood pressure down in a rush. There was no way. No way. “Who…?”
Who did this? Who was left? What the hell was going on?
“I don’t know. I have six people dead, one missing. We have to go out there; we have to take care of this.”
Jacob shook his head, the room spinning a little, gray walls melding with gray tables. No. No, this wasn’t fucking happening. “I’m not going. You send Annie’s body home, and I’ll bury it. I’m not flying out there.”
He’d sworn he’d stop going on wild goose chases ten years ago. He loved his mountains. His home. His life.
“Jacob, Caleb is missing.” Patrick clicked the cursor again, and there was another image of a tall, lean man, with the darkest eyes on earth, smiling back at him. He could see the ritual Polynesian tattoos crawling up the long neck from under the collar of the T-shirt. Jesus God. Ten years and the man hadn’t changed a bit. Not a bit.
The images changed again, the shot of carnage more than he could fathom, more than he could understand until he saw Annie’s hand, separated from her arm, the turquoise ring he’d given her for Mother’s Day five years ago on her index finger, the Mexican silver seeming to shine where it held the flat oval stone, with two garnets on either side.
His ass hit the floor of the lab with a slap, so fast he didn’t even realize he was falling.
“Shit. Someone get Dr. Key a glass of water! Now!” Patrick slapped Jacob’s face a little, crouching beside him. “You see? You have to come along. I need to know what Caleb’s capable of, how to find him.”
Jacob’s head just spun, the images of his mother’s ring and his lover’s smile whirling together, just like those optical illusions Annie used to amuse him with, a cage on one side, a robin on the other, spinning round and round until the bird was caught, trapped in the cage.
“Come on, Jacob. Come on. Stay with me now. We have to go. We’re booked on flights in the morning. Something important is at that site. Something important enough to murder for.”
“I don’t care about the site.”
“So, come find Caleb. With Annie gone, you’re the foremost expert on cave dwellers. You have to come.”
He looked down at his hands, saw how the blood was welling up from his palms where his nails dug in.
Christ, Annie. What were you thinking? Why did you go? Why did you take Caleb?
Why didn’t you tell me, Momma?
“Okay. Okay, Hoder.” He nodded, growling low at the shaking kid bringing the water. “Fuck that. I want tequila. Now. Two glasses. Patrick and me? We’re drinking to Annie tonight. To the best bitch on earth.”
THE PHONE rang, startling Ben out of a sound sleep, a deep dream of rafting down the Shoshone, the sun almost blinding him, his braids whipping furiously around his face as he and Mac tumbled and bounced in the river, both of them paddling furiously to back away from the unseen drop before them. He’d been so far into it that he just blinked for a second, trying to understand why they’d stopped moving.
“Ben. Love. Get the fucking phone before I rip it from the fucking wall.”
“Kiss my ass, Mac.” He scrabbled for the phone, managing to hit Talk before the answering machine picked up. “’Lo?”
“Ben?” The voice on the other end of the line was scratchy, the line full of static and pops.
“Yeah. Yeah, who is it? We got a bad connection, man.” Ben sat up, tugged the quilts around his waist as he turned on the bedside lamp so he could find the pad and pencil he left there for notes.
“It’s Jacob. Jacob Key.” Ben blinked, almost dropping the pencil in pure shock. Jacob didn’t live where men had phones. Hell, Jacob Key didn’t live where there were other men.
“Jacob? Where are you? Is everything okay?”
“Phoenix. I…. It’s Annie. Someone killed Annie.”
“Oh. Oh, Jacob.” He swung his legs out of the covers and wandered over to pull on some sweats, intending to head to his office. Mac had to open the museum at nine and could probably use some sleep. “I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“I don’t know. Patrick got me down here. She was in Italy digging, and something killed her, killed a bunch of them.”
“I don’t understand? A robber?” His dogs, Kono and Piah, followed him out of the bedroom, so he sidetracked through the kitchen to let them out, then grabbed a glass of milk.
“I don’t know. We don’t know. Hell, Caleb’s missing. They killed her, Ben, ripped her hand off. I saw a picture….” The soft, hitching breaths started, the drunken roll and sway of the words becoming sharper and closer to hysteria. He’d seen that hysteria once before, in Chicago during a conference that Dr. Hoder had insisted the man attend. Jacob’d done fine through the speeches, the keynote speech. Then the banquet with its crush and windowless ballroom and open bar had happened. Jacob wasn’t a drinker, not that he shared that information.
It had been an auspicious meeting.
“Easy. Easy. Are you alone?” Ben jotted down the need for more milk on the grocery list hanging on the fridge alongside a sketch of an eagle he’d rescued from Mac earlier in the week.
“I’m in the hotel.”
Ben let the huskies back in, Kono following him as he settled in his chair, grabbed his glasses, and tried to focus. Lord, poor Jacob. Even with the complex relationship the man had with his mother, they’d been almost passionately close—ready to murder each other in pure aggravation, but close. “How much have you had to drink?”
“I hear that.” He chuckled, booted up the computer, and nudged Kono with his foot, warming his toes on the pup’s fuzzy belly. “So when did this all happen?”
“About a week ago, Hoder said. We’re flying to Italy in the morning. I have to find Caleb.”
“Caleb?” Ben frowned, trying to remember from all the things he knew about Jacob, who the hell Caleb could—“Your ex? That Caleb?”
“But… what was he doing in Italy with Annie?” Some breakups were so big that you never had to meet the other party to know the world almost ended.
“Digging, I guess. How the hell should I know? She always liked him better than she liked me, anyway.”
The smell of coffee hit him, along with the soft light and hum from the television in the front room, Mac up and pottering, obviously curious.
“Bullshit. Annie loved you.” Ben sighed and started pacing, hand rubbing against the back of his neck. “Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t know. Come to Phoenix and beat Patrick for me?”
“Phoenix is a bit of a drive from Casper, Jacob, especially if you’re leaving in the morning.” Hell, it was morning.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. I just…. Shit, I needed to hear a friendly voice, and you’re the only asshole I know that doesn’t have a real job.”
“Fuck you, Key. I have a real job. I just get to do it from here.” He’d never started teaching, never even gone to work for a university, instead using his anthropology work and his contacts in the Ute community to write.
“Yeah, yeah. Had I known for a second that you were going to work with me for two years just to desert the cause? I’d’ve picked that pretty little blond guy from Boston.”
“Horseshit. One, you couldn’t have worked with a Yankee. Two, you would have worked with me just for the sex. And three? Well, I never said I was into it for the academia.”
“No. No, you didn’t. Damned Injun.” They both chuckled.
That friendship hadn’t ever really faded. It was hard to dislike a man you only had to see one or two days a year.
“Mac’s fine. Probably growling because I woke him up letting the dogs out.” It couldn’t be too bad, though. There was coffee.
“Tell that worthless Scot that I’m sorry. I just needed to talk to someone not Patrick.”
“That worthless Scot understands. He’s got a bunch of high muckety-mucks coming in to the museum in the morning, anyway. He wasn’t sleeping deep.”
“Then you’re not blowing him well enough.”
Ben hooted, smiling up at Mac as he appeared in the doorway, copper curls wild and rumpled. “Jacob says I’m not blowing you well enough, Mac.”
Mac snorted, gave over a two-fingered salute before handing him a cup of coffee. “Tell that tall Southern cunt that he’s just jealous that he’ll never feel it again.”
Jacob laughed again; then the sound faded. “I think I’m gonna pour my ass into bed, Ben. I’ll call you when I get landed over there, talk to the police.”
“Anything you need, Jacob. Just call.”
They did the traditional good-bye shit, then Ben hung up, sighed. “Somebody killed his mother and kidnapped a… friend.”
“No shit?” Mac blinked owlishly and sat on the edge of his desk. “What the fuck happened?”
“They’re leaving for Italy tomorrow. He didn’t give me much detail. The man’s drunk off his ass.” He watched his e-mail download, the little bell noises seeming to blend one into the other. Annie Key. Dead. Damn.
Mac’s thin fingers landed on his bare shoulder, the heat of them making his skin goose pimple up. “Love, come on. Bed. It’s late. Early. Whatever.”
“I won’t be able to sleep, Mac.”
Those bright eyes just danced, pink tongue sliding out to wet Mac’s lips. “Who said anything about sleeping, Ben?”
Oh. Oh, right. “Nobody. Nobody at all.”
“That’s right.” Mac’s hands were insistent, dragging him across the office and down the hallway, the wood floor cool on his bare feet, even though it was the dead of summer. “Old boyfriends call in the middle of the night, wake us up, love. I might have to be jealous.”
“Like you have a jealous bone in your body, Mac.” Hell, the man wasn’t entirely opposed to friends-with-benefits, so long as they were all there. He reached up, straightened a painting as they walked, fingers just brushing Mac’s signature.
“Shut up, love. I’m learning.” Those big hands landed on his ass, shoving down his sweats before goosing him good and hard, and they were both laughing as they landed on the big bed. Mac felt solid behind him, taller and broader than he’d ever be, cock stiff and heated against his thigh.
“Mmm. What were we doing?” He pushed the quilts down and snuggled into the sheets, loving how they smelled, how they were still a little warm from his and Mac’s body heat.
“Fucking, love. We were fucking. Touching. Looking to come good and hard before crashing for another hour. You didn’t get enough rest, did you?” Mac’s lips found the nape of his neck, pushing his heavy mass of hair to the side, teeth just threatening.
“I’m slow on the uptake, that’s all.” Ben chuckled through his moan, his skin starting to tingle.
One of Mac’s hands slid around, slipped down his belly to cup his cock, thumb rubbing the heavy vein along the shaft, just like he needed. “Not that slow, love. This isn’t slow.”
“Uh-huh.” Slow was good. He was a fan. Or quick. Whatever.
He got a bite, deep and bruising, up where no one could see. Up where he would feel it, all day. Up where his hair would brush it every time he moved his head. Ben arched, his ass rubbing Mac’s hip, that long, thin prick, and he could feel Mac’s groan on that sensitive skin under Mac’s lips.
Mac took one of his hands, fingers twining with his and holding on tight. Their rings clicked together, pinched the webbing of his fingers. He grinned, turned his head to see the gold and Colombian amber of his contrasting with the silver and turquoise of Mac’s—they were a vanity, but something about the sight of them together just felt right.
And if anyone thought it was girly, they kept their mouths shut, didn’t they?
Oh. The bite brought him right back, this one farther down, almost where his collar would be, Mac’s lips wet and burning where they touched him.
“Don’t lie—you’re hideously bad at it, for a writer.” Mac shifted, slid, settled where that long cock was slipping against his crease.
“Was that a compliment?”
“Okay. Thank you.” God, he loved laughing with his man. He truly did.
They started moving, rocking with the natural rhythm they always found. The old bed started to sing in time with them, the headboard groaning as Mac pushed and he rolled, teeth and hands and hips dancing together just so, and Ben got lost in it.
“Love when you’re like this, Ben. So hot. Just wanting me.” Mac’s mouth moved, slipped up an inch, and then that tongue licked. The way the skin tingled, Ben’d bet there was already a bruise resting there, black and blue, ringed with teeth marks.
“Uh-huh. Don’t stop, Mac. Feels good.” Their fingers squeezed, Mac’s skin almost glowing pale against his.
“No intention of stopping, love. None at all.” The soft burr pushed him that much higher, made him need that much more.
“Good. Good. Right there.” Mac knew every fucking inch of him, through and through.
“Aye. Right there. Love.” That thumb worked him harder, the wet tip of Mac’s cock sliding and slicking him, teasing him with a promise for later, when they had time to play, to touch, to fuck good and hard. His hips rolled, eyes closing as he rode wave after wave of pleasure. “You wait. Tonight, we’ll play. Tonight I’ll slick you up, pull you down on my prick, love. Make you ride.”
Oh. Oh, shit. Shit, he was going to…. To…. Oh.
One more nip and he was coming, seed shooting from him and slicking Mac’s hand, his balls just aching with it, warmth flooding him and leaving him gasping and boneless against the sheets. It didn’t take long for Mac to follow, groaning, wet heat spraying against his ass, the small of his back.
Mac panted, lips brushing his shoulder, eyelashes tickling his skin. “Better, love?”
He felt Mac stretch, reach for one of the hand towels kept in the bedside table. Between the two of them, they cleaned up, got settled under the covers, the only real light the red LED numbers on the clock radio.
His cheek lay on Mac’s shoulder, Mac’s heart beating against his spine. His mind wandered to Jacob—stuck in Italy with Dr. Hoder, mourning the hard, brilliant woman who had been Dr. Annie. God. Poor man.
“You want to talk about it, love?” Mac’s hands stroked his belly, soft and warm.
“I don’t know. I just…. Jacob sounded so lost.”
“Aye, but losing a parent is hard, especially unexpectedly, yeah?”
“Were they close?”
“Yes and no. Dr. Key was brilliant, fierce. All about her work.”
He felt Mac’s laugh. “You mean, like mother like son?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Ben grinned, relaxing. “But can you imagine? Being five and scraping your knee and taking it to someone like Jacob? Or suffering through acne? Coming out? Your first broken heart?”
His parents had been… parents.
“Oh, love. You’re just…. You’ve got that odd, mystical, everything-should-be-loving thing going on. Most people don’t. Not at all.”
“Are you saying I’m soft?”
Mac’s hand slipped down, cupped his cock. “Right now? Yeah, love.”
Ben nodded, grinned, Mac’s hand soothing him, bringing him closer and closer to sleep. “Yeah. And I’m keeping you.”
“Good man. Sleep, love. We’ll call Jacob together. Tomorrow.”
He got a chuckle, a squeeze, and then Mac started snoring quietly, breath tickling his shoulder, so warm, so soft. Ben didn’t sleep, but he rested, watching the branches of the pine trees move outside the bedroom window.