Touche

an excerpt

Chapter One

Rain spat at the windshield as I drove up to the motel where Sam was staying. It was hot, humid, and the air so thick that moisture seemed to squeeze out of the clouds for its own relief.

Either that or God was crying because I was indulging in a colossal lapse in judgment. It had become my forte lately. My hands sweated as I gripped the wheel of my U.S. Marshal-issued SUV. I hadn't seen Sam for two weeks, and the last time had started out so great. He'd called me, told me he'd moved, and said, "Marco, come on by. Let's get something to eat."

Those were magical words. Words of hope. Of course, I'd gone straight to the Paradise Motel, which was only marginally better than the last garbage dump he'd been calling home, but the bed was great. The cotton sheets were a huge improvement on the last place, too. We'd had a ferociously hot romp and gone out for eats. I'd been looking forward to going back to his room for a rematch but disaster had struck.

Total and utter disaster.

My whole body relaxed now as I got my "fix" just by glimpsing his hog outside the room. Phew. His Harley was alone in its designated stall. I drove past the motel and turned the corner.

Why the hell was I shaking? I did surveillance work for a living. I did all kinds of sneaky things in the line of duty, but at this moment I was a wreck. I turned on the A/C and pulled to the curb, taking a couple of deep breaths.

Eight o'clock Monday morning. Dare I feed my addiction and try another sweep? There'd be tons of traffic, and he wouldn't necessarily notice me unless he was looking out of the window. Fuck. I hated this. I wanted to park and trot up to Sam's door, tell him I loved him, then ball his beautiful brains out.

But I couldn't. Especially since I had no idea what was going on between Sam and the owner of the red and black Harley Davidson Softail Fatboy...a big, expensive motorbike that had been parked beside Sam's a few days ago. I'd gone nuts. After I'd calmed down, I pulled favors with Dallas PD and asked for a license plate check. The bike belonged to some guy called Phoenix Manfredy.

In my office, I'd Googled him and found that Manfredy was a custom chopper builder who'd won awards for his work in his hometown of New York. He'd moved to Dallas to open the first of a Midwest chain of franchises. I really freaked out then. Manfredy was a biker and had celebrity friends. I'd studied his photos on his website and tried not to imagine the big, muscular, tattooed guy and Sam together.

You know...in bed.

Phoenix Manfredy and my man.

I'd wrestled with my jealousy and finally called Sam. I'd acted casual but was beginning to feel like a stalker. He was, frankly, lucky that I wasn't a bunny boiler. Like a whiny teenage girl instead of the big, bad U.S. Marshal that I was, I recorded our conversation and kept playing it over and over in my car. Sam had seemed pleased to hear from me at first, but had been evasive about meeting me anytime soon.

"Stuff's happening, Marco," he'd said.

"What sort of stuff?" I really hoped the "stuff" didn't involve Phoenix playing hide-the-sausage with Sam, who muttered, "I need to keep a low profile."

Yeah. A big kiss-off if ever I'd heard one. At the time I wondered--and still do--if Sam knew I'd been driving past his motel. Like a junkie weaning myself off smack, I'd skipped the drive-by for the past three days. The weekend had passed. A long, painful weekend during which I'd had plenty of downtime to let my mind wander frightening streets. I'd wondered if Sam had company again. What was he doing on Saturday night? Did he miss me? Did he think about me?

Things between us had been fine until a few of Sam's motorbike club members saw us having dinner that last night I'd been with him. Burgers. Man. That was it. Burgers and fries. It wasn't like we'd been dancing cheek to cheek or anything. We hadn't even been acting cozy, but they'd stormed the joint, teasing Sam, calling him faggot and a turncoat for hanging out with a U.S. Marshal. Our fun evening had collapsed around us.

I've never been one to hide my emotions well. Trace and Pauline, my landlords, surrogate parents, and best friends, had wriggled the truth out of me when I went home that night and watched TV with their twins. I saw the hurt look in Pauline's eyes and the sheer rage in Trace's.

They urged me to date, to find someone new.

"If you and Pauline ever had a fight and someone told you to meet someone new, would you want to?" I'd asked Trace.

"Hell, no." He'd scowled. "Oh, Marco. I had no idea you felt that way about him." His face twisted in grief. "I thought you were just bumpin' uglies."

"You knew about that?"

"I'm a U.S. Marshal," he'd said. "I can read people pretty good and I could tell when we ran into him a few weeks back that you were into each other. You kinda stand straighter when he's around. You smile a lot more, too."

Pauline had comforted me in her own way. Lots of hugs, extra cheese on my macaroni. She even baked my favorite oatmeal and raisin cookies and let me lick the dough batter off the beaters. Normally these were the twins' cheerful duties.

The twins were oblivious to my distress. I tried hard to hide my feelings around them. Philip sensed something was wrong, though, and offered me the last peanut butter cup in his dwindling treasure trove of Halloween candy. The child could have a future in diplomatic relations.

Trace, of course, had reason to dislike and distrust Sam. His former club members had tried to kill him. Trace and I had been shot in a near fatal assassination attempt that still gave me nightmares. Trace was right, of course, except I loved Sam. Loved him the way Trace loved Pauline, and their twins, Philip and Andre, loved the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I loved Sam the way my mentor, Nicholas Fournier, loved his partner, Sean Mercado, and my all-time U.S. Marshal super hero, Jubilee Mason, loved his husband, Kieran Fox.

Just this morning, I'd said all this to Trace who'd put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You poor kid. Let's have a beer after work."

I had agreed. Any social encounter was like a life preserver in the stormy seas of my fucked-up emotions. I was grateful for the workday ahead, not that I'd received any instructions yet. I'd watched Trace strap on his bulletproof vest for a witness protection assignment in the family court this morning. He claimed he was fit and well but he'd caught seven bullets in his upper body during the attack we'd endured. He was a walking miracle.

Now he was involved in a volatile case involving death threats against the judge and his family. He'd be working with Nicholas. Sean was working at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, traveling incognito on local flights since a new program had been implemented at the terminal. Passengers' hands were being dusted for explosives. Over the weekend, three people had been arrested, their checked baggage removed, and all their belongings examined.

Nothing suspicious had shown up with any of the passengers' possessions but all three had been booked on random flights to Austin, Texas. So Sean and a few other Marshals would be patrolling the skies between the two cities. Something was up...but what?

I sighed. I was still early for work and feeling a little more chipper now I knew that Sam was alone. I could do one more drive-by, then head to the office. Who knew? Maybe I'd even have the huevos to try calling him later. I stepped off the brake, eased back into the flow of traffic and circled the block.

Fuck! That pesky peckerhead, Phoenix Fucking Manfredy's bike was now parked beside Sam's. Why was he here so early in the morning? What the hell were they doing in that room? Discussing customized bikes? Or was Manfredy busy personalizing my lover's ass?

I checked the time on the dash. Eight oh three A.M. Shit. I had a full nine hours before I could meet Trace for that drink he'd promised me. I had a fleeting image of bullets flying, blood and glass crashing over me, Trace limp beside me. I took a deep breath and kept driving. I couldn't get past what I'd seen. It irked me. It pissed me off. No, it didn't. It devastated me.

All of the above.

I made it to the office and found that a few of the guys were milling around.

"Where's Pauline?" one of them griped. CJ Cook was a new recruit for the Dallas HQ but a veteran Marshal transferred from Atlanta, Georgia. CJ was an okay guy when he wasn't griping. "There's no coffee and no donuts. What the fuck?"

"It's Trace's first day back at work," I said. "He and Pauline wanted to spend a little extra time with the twins, explaining that he's gonna be okay. Nobody's gonna shoot their daddy today."

CJ looked at me. "Aren't they his stepsons?"

I gave him a withering look. Philip and Andre had lost their birth father to the war in Afghanistan, then their Uncle Jubilee, who'd helped raised them, had moved to Canada with his husband, Kieran, and their own son, Juan. Yes, technically speaking Trace was the boys' stepfather but he'd adopted them and couldn't love them any more if he tried. Even his daughter, Harley, adored those kids. She'd been away at school at Notre Dame but had come home on the weekends saying she missed the boys. Trace and Pauline were planning to fly to Indiana to take the twins to watch their basketball-star sister play against Northwestern University next weekend.

"That was a shitty thing to say," I snapped. "Trace loves those kids."

"Yeah," said Tony, another marshal. "What the fuck, man? We almost lost the guy. Those kids couldn't handle losing him."

"None of us could," I said. And we'd come so close too.

The weather had turned rough in the room and CJ backed down. He was a skinny, grizzled kinda guy, who looked like an old-style marshal. Maybe he'd seen too much shit. Maybe he'd just had enough, but he always seemed short on patience and positive vibes.

"Okay, okay." He threw his hands up. "I'll make the coffee to show there's no hard feelings, though you may not like the results." He paused, trying to lighten the tension between us all.

"I'd offer to whip up a batch of donuts but..."

"Squirt them out yer ass," one of the other guys said.

CJ raised a brow. "I can guarantee you won't like those results at all."

We all burst into laughter and not a moment too soon. Pauline rushed in, gorgeous and goddess-like in her high heels, black pencil skirt, and short-sleeve, black cashmere top. I'm no fashion guy, but Trace had bought her that top. He said she looked like a 1940s movie star in it, and she did. He loved her to dress up. She'd done her best, I thought, to make him happy on his return to active duty, but I suspected she'd revert to her soccer mom attire by the end of the week. She brandished two huge boxes of Hypnotic donuts.

"We have a box of Average Joe's and a box of Revolutionary donuts," she said. "Coffee's coming up."

"What are today's specials?" I asked. If I couldn't have Sam, I wanted an Evil Elvis.

"Evil Elvis." She winked at me. "I also picked up some Boo Bees, Homers, and Jennys." Her gaze swiveled to CJ. "And I got you a Canadian with extra bacon."

We surged behind her into the kitchen and snatched the boxes out of her hands.

"Honestly, you're worse than my kids," she teased. Her cell phone rang as she rinsed out the coffee pot. I knew it was Trace even before she said, "Hi, sweetie."

I squeezed into one of the few remaining chairs around the table and bit into my Evil Elvis, which was as sinful as it sounds--peanut butter, banana, bacon, and honey. I was so glad I'd grabbed it before the vultures could get their paws on it. As I let the honey ooze into my mouth, my cell phone rang at the same moment CJ Cook's did. We eyed each other for a second. Were we about to take an assignment together? Not that I minded, far from it. I'd learned a lot from CJ on the occasions I'd worked with him. I preferred working with Trace, my usual partner, but...

Checking the readout, I almost choked. My call wasn't work-related. It was Sam. I left the kitchen quickly and took the call in the hallway as peanut butter dripped down my fingers. I ate and licked fast, mumbling a hello to the man I missed more than anything.

"Did I get you at a bad time?" he asked, by way of a greeting."

"Naw. Just eating a donut."

He paused and I swear I could hear him smiling. "So I suppose I can't lure you away for breakfast?"

Fuck, man. Life just wasn't fair! I wanted breakfast with him more than I wanted to breathe. More than...

"Sorry," I said, surprised at the nonchalance in my own voice. "I'm working."

"Oh, yeah." Another brief silence. "Right. Listen, how about dinner?"

"Dinner sounds good."

"You still living at Trace's house?"

My cool veneer slipped. "Of course, I am. Hasn't been that long since I saw you."

"It feels like it." His voice came out in a growl. "I should never have let those idiots make me feel like shit for wanting to be with you."

"You feel like shit?"

"Sure I do. There's things I need to explain. Stuff's been happening."

"You mentioned that last time."

"The crap going on with the bullets and the cartel and all...it's still not over. And there's a new complication."

"You've met someone else."

I heard his ragged intake of breath. "Well, not that anything's happened, and I've told him about you. I told him there's someone else."

That mother fucker. I hate Phoenix Manfredy with my whole soul!

"So," I said, licking my sticky fingers, "Nothing's happened between you?"

"No. Not that it wasn't ah...enticing. But I guess I've grown accustomed to your face."

I winced. Did he have to use the word "custom?"

"That was a joke, lover."

"Yeah. I know." I walked down the hall to the john and washed my hands. I took a leak for good luck, washed my hands again, and walked back into the hallway. He hadn't said a word.

"Did you just pee?" he asked.

"Yep."

He laughed. "I miss that cock of yours."

"I miss yours, too."

"So, you'll have dinner with me?"

"I guess." I sensed a dangerous chill on the other end of the line. "Of course I will."

"What time should I pick you up? I'll come get you and take you some place really cool."

"Seven should be fine," I said. I figured I'd have a beer with Trace, who wouldn't want to make a whole night of it anyway, and we'd head home. I was suddenly counting the seconds until my workday finished. I prayed I wouldn't get some complicated, lengthy assignment.

"See you then, stud." He ended the call and I shook my head in amazement. Wow, I hadn't seen that coming. I had a date. A hot date! Who could I call to tell the good news? My main men were all working. Say, I could tell Pauline. I strode back toward the kitchen but found her in the hallway staring up at the "roll call" on the wall. She was on the verge of tears. Big, bad, beautiful Pauline never cried.

Every single U.S. Marshal office in the U.S. has this roll call on their walls. It lists the names of the two hundred marshals who have died in the line of duty. I knew she was thinking about Trace and how he could easily have joined these awful ranks. I ran to her and held her.

For a moment, she stiffened, then she began sobbing into my chest. I took her into the storeroom, where I assured her through a few of my own tears that Trace was safe. Nobody would hurt him.

"We could have lost both of you," she said. "You're a part of our family, Marco."

Nobody had ever said that to me before, but I felt about as tall as any man could feel just hearing her words.

"We're okay," I said. "Trace is okay. He's a strong man."

"I know he is, but it's not just me," she said, when she could finally talk. "The boys..."

"I know, Paul. They love him. He loves all of you. He's not going to die today."

She looked up through teary eyes, filled with hope and pain.

"He has everything to live for," I said. I realized in that moment when I got shot alongside Trace, I hadn't thought I had anything to live for. Except Sam.

"Do you know how I found out Oakie died?" she asked.

I knew Oakie had been her first husband and he'd died in Afghanistan in a suicide-bombing attack against U.S. forces.

"It was Dillon who told me," she said. "Dillon DePriest, our local sheriff back in Lone Trail. The Army sent out two men to tell me and, for some reason, they couldn't find our house. I'd always dreaded that knock at the door, but I didn't when it was Dillon. He came and told me. He sat and cried with me. And now he's gone, too. I don't want anything to happen to Trace."

I knew all about the dreaded knock at the door. For me, it had been expecting my crazy-ass father to show up. And he had. Trace had been married to his first wife then, and had taken me in, against her wishes. He'd mentored me, then when my father came for me, Trace had shot him, defending me. I never thought about Kenny anymore, except to feel relief that he could no longer torture and beat me mentally and physically. Trace and Pauline and the wonderful U.S. Marshal family I had, had taught me everything about love. And family. And how one piece of the puzzle meant as much as another.

I hugged her again and, for a moment, she seemed comforted. She pulled away from me, tears still rolling down her face.

"Trace said he would quit the Marshals if that's what I wanted," she said. "I almost said yes, but it would have been selfish." She drew a breath, her body shaking. "I reach out for him in the night and he's always there. I never thought I'd get over the grief when I lost Oakie, but Trace...what I feel for him is so different. So intense. I think it's because I'm not a kid anymore. I'm a grown woman. My roots are deep. I love harder now."

I would have given her a handkerchief but I didn't carry one.

Pauline wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "Please don't tell Trace I got upset. He'd only worry."

"I won't," I said.

"Thank you." She leaned up, kissed my cheek, and opened the door of the stockroom, scurrying down the hall. I stood in the doorway, watching her slip into the ladies' room. I wondered if I should wait and talk to her some more, but then my cell phone rang. This time it was work. I was surprised to hear Sean Mercado on the other end of the line.

Sean and I hadn't always had the easiest relationship, but we were friends and family now.

"Everything okay?" I asked him.

"Yeah, so far, so good. Listen, we need some extra manpower on these damned flights. Are you doing anything right now? According to Rusty, our target team manager said you hadn't been assigned anything yet and we could really use your help."

My other line beeped. It was Central Dispatch, code 911. Emergency.

"Hold on," I said. I clicked over, and Trevor Davies, the watch commander of the local Dallas PD, was on the line with Tony LaFont, the U.S. Marshals' Fugitive Task Force chief.

"I just told Marshal Mercado I could spare you for his Austin flight case but I'm sorry, we've got a situation here." Tony's voice sounded scratchy. "We have two fugitives, armed and dangerous. You know Austin Howard, I believe. He stole a red Mustang convertible at a gas station. He and one of his associates apparently set up a drug deal at one of the pumps.

"The buyer showed up and had no money but was carrying a gun. Austin beat him to the trigger. He then shot the driver, pushed him out of the vehicle, and drove off with his sidekick, who shot the station attendant when he came running. The attendant's on his way to the emergency room. They're not sure he's gonna make it."

"What about the buyer?" I asked.

"He got shot in the head. Through and through."

"Who's his accomplice?"

"Waiting for ID on him, but we got tapes from the gas station." That was the one piece of good news in this stunning new development. Staging a drug buy in broad daylight in a public place meant that Austin didn't trust the buyer but, geez man, shooting the guy in the head, then plugging the station attendant? Austin had to be stoned or more stupid than I thought. Once he was caught, and he would be, there'd be no way out for him now.

"They're on the run. We need to catch these guys," Tony said.

Shit. Austin Howard was the crazy leader of the Howard family drug cartel. My brief dealings with Austin hadn't been much fun, but clearly he'd gone all the way to the demented side to pull off a stunt like that.

"Recon at the Thrifty Drugstore parking lot in fifteen minutes," Tony said.

"We appreciate your help, Marshal Dellburn," Trevor said, then the line went dead. I switched back over to Sean, who was busy talking to Tony on his other line.

"Stay safe, Marco," he said. I ran to the parking lot and found Nicholas Fournier waiting for me behind the wheel of his SUV.

"What are you doing here?" I asked him. "Why aren't you with Trace?"

"Suit up," he said. "I'm driving."

"What about Trace?" I asked again.

"Bomb threat at the courthouse. He escorted the judge home and he's staying with him for now. Tony called and said this was an emergency. Our old friend, Austin Howard, must have a death wish."

I unlocked my trunk and removed all my riot gear. My bulletproof vest was new since the last one got the stuffing trashed to shit in the ambush Trace and I had endured.

The bullet that had struck me came from the side after passing through Trace's body. I'd had a lot of physical therapy, but my hip still ached like a motherfucker sometimes. It was hard running any kind of distance, and sometimes at night it burned like crazy. Since the attack, we'd all been given upgraded level III Kevlar vests with additional inserts, giving us even more body coverage.

I stowed my hand weapons in my utility belt, picked up my semi-automatic assault rifle, and locked up. I jumped into Nicholas's front seat as he stepped on the gas.

We talked about what we knew as we raced to the parking lot of the local drug store. Eight units comprising sixteen men, including Dallas SWAT and U.S. Marshals stood under the glare of the hot sun in full riot gear, awaiting instructions. We all greeted each other then came the news. Austin and his buddy had traded in their stolen Mustang for a carjacked black Montero SUV that had Lojack.

"He has no idea we're monitoring his progress," Tony said. "We're going to surround the vehicle, which is now bouncing around on different levels of the High Five."

Oh, spiffing. The High Five was a five-level, five-freeway interchange connecting and interconnecting at several points. These jokers could keep us busy for hours and strangle all the traffic in the meantime.

"Choppers will come as soon as we're close to cutting them off." Tony issued instructions to each unit. We caught Freeway Seventy-five. As Nicholas and I turned to leave, he cut a glance at us. "They tell me his accomplice is somebody you know."

Before either of us could respond, Tony said, "Cooter James Elmond. Name ring a bell?"

"Cooter?" we said in unison.

I sure as heck couldn't believe what I was hearing. Last time I'd seen my former roommate from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glyncoe, Georgia, he'd been laid up in the hospital at death's door. He'd managed to fudge his way into FLETC with nobody checking his credentials because his father was Dr. James Elmond, a celebrated forensic pathologist.

It soon transpired that Cooter wasn't connected to any branch of law enforcement but apparently had an unhealthy obsession with it. He'd infiltrated the Howard drug cartel, posing as a weapons and drug buyer named Frank Nadeau. I'd been there when he and Sam had showed up to talk business with Austin Howard.

I'd recognized Cooter straight away and assumed he was working undercover. Somehow, he fell into the hands of Sam's club members and sustained a severe beating. I was stunned to know that he was not only alive and kicking, but evidently as big an asshole as ever.

What was he doing staging drug deals with Austin Howard? Austin had thrown him to the wolves, at the mercy of Sam's nutcase club members. Trace and I had traveled to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Coastal Crime Lab in Savannah to interview his father about Cooter and his extremely dangerous friendship with the real Frank Nadeau, who'd turned out to be one of Sam's top men, known in the ranks as Fossy.

Fossy and Cooter had stolen a valuable cache of bullets that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security mistakenly shipped to the wrong address. They'd been trying to sell them and that's when things went pear-shaped.

Dr. Elmond hadn't been able to give us much information about his son, but the emerging picture we gleaned of Cooter had been discomforting. Trace and I had driven out of the building, and within seconds had been swarmed by my Uncle Carter and Sixty-nine, another of Sam's associates. Somehow they'd found out we were in Savannah and tried to kill us.

I hadn't given much thought to Cooter since then, but I knew that Uncle Carter was dead and Sixty-nine had been arrested at the charity drive organized by Sam and his mortal enemies, The Bloods.

Those two rival gangs had hated working together, but they'd raised tons of cash for the local children's hospital and the elementary school.

But Cooter... Man, this was a shock. We all walked to our vehicles, with Tony sending our coordinates to our iPads and cell phones. We took off for Freeway Seventy-five, Tony's voice crackling over the radio.

I couldn't quite hear him and picked up my cell phone. It was like a scene from a bad movie. Ahead of us was a woman standing by a blue Camaro, flagging us down. Something didn't seem right. In fact, as we approached, I saw two people running from opposite sides of the street.

God help me, the nightmare was beginning again. I saw guns, heard Nicholas shouting, and in spite of the two masked men brandishing assault weapons, Nicholas took off. The woman in the Camaro followed us. I tried to radio for help but it didn't work.

Strange.

I used my cell phone, Nicholas screaming at me. "It's a set-up. Holy shit. I can't get out of it!" Each corner we took, more vehicles blocked us. I was on the line with 911, trying to give them details. Not one vehicle ahead of us had a license plate. Suddenly, somebody rammed our vehicle from behind. We hit a telegraph pole and my door opened.

Somebody maced me in the face and I started screaming. Nicholas tried to hold onto me. I kicked and lunged--blind, panicked, and agonized as I was. I felt several pairs of hands grabbing me, and somehow managed to shove my cell phone into my side pocket of my cargo pants.

The hands that gripped me tossed me into the back of a van. I could see it through my burning, puffy eyes. If I could keep my cell phone on, they could track me.

"Nice work," said a chilling, calm voice. I lay on the floor of the filthy hold of the van as the vehicle sped away. I almost tumbled out of the back door when somebody kicked me back inside and a hood came over my face. The mace ran into my nose and mouth and breathing was almost impossible.

The man with the icy voice placed his hand on my neck and pushed me into the raggedy carpet even harder.

"You think you can get away with being Sam Channing's fuck buddy? Think again."

I tried to place the voice, wondering if I'd heard it. The voice moved away, and a foot crunched onto my head. The stomping was horrendous. I thought I would die. Or was I already dead?

My spirit seemed to leave my body. But I couldn't die. Not when I had a hot date.

Not when I loved...

Sam.