Spring Leaves

an excerpt

Chapter One



I don't like it when this kind of thing happens. And Sean didn't like it either. It was written all over his face. The brass had a way of unexpectedly dropping ten-ton bricks on us Marshals out of the clear, blue sky. I had a feeling this one had more to do with Kieran Fox than me, but I wasn't going to voice that.

"Nicholas, why won't they tell you how long you'll be gone?" Sean insisted, sitting cross-legged on the bed, a bed we'd just finished messing up real fine.

"I guess because they don't know," I replied, walking over and kissing the tip of his nose. He was on the brink of giving me that pouty face. It made him look very young. I laughed whenever he did it. I suspected he enjoyed my reaction.

He waved a hand at me. "You're treating me like a child."

"Yes." I nodded. "You're doing that pouty face." I grinned.

He threw a pillow at me and missed. "Why you? I'd understand more if it was just Kieran."

There, he'd gone and said it. "We're Canadians. You can't have Americans investigating Mounties. It's politically incorrect."

"Technically, you are an American," he pointed out. "And Kieran has an American dad. I say you should be disqualified."

"Do you now?" I grinned at him as I put on my wristwatch. "Kieran was born in Canada and I grew up there from age zero. I think that qualifies us as Canadians."

"I can't argue your point if you keep picking my argument apart. Stop playing counselor-at-law." Sean sighed. "So, it's like the Canadian Government went looking for Canadians who had joined the U.S. Marshals Service or something?"

I shrugged. "Sean, I have to go." I met his gaze. "I was asked to do this. I'm doing this as much for my country as for the U.S. Marshals Service. There's definitely something wrong in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or as we call it, RCMP. It needs to be rooted out."

"Nigel Fox is not Canadian," Sean grumbled.

I laughed out loud. "Kieran's dad has dual citizenship now that he's the liaison in Canada."

"Maybe we should live in Canada," Sean announced.

I lifted an eyebrow. "You're a Southern boy. Why would you want to live in Canada?"

"I like polar bears and beavers...maple syrup...ah...let's see, Simple Plan and Rush and...gay marriage?"

I laughed at Sean's depiction of Canada. "You forgot Celine Dion and the invention of the Ski-doo."

"Forgive me," he mocked.

"You're not proposing, are you, Sean? You have to get on one knee for that."

He didn't laugh. He just shrugged and picked at the bedspread.

I walked over and perched on the edge of the bed. I took his chin in my hand and looked into his eyes. "There are no polar bears in Ottawa, sweetie. And I'd marry you in a heartbeat if that's what you wanted."

Sean threw his arms around me. "What I want--" He squeezed me tight. "--is for you not to leave me."

"You won't be alone. Marco is here."

He released me, his expression sour. "Right. About that. Nicholas," he said, as I got off the bed, "please find a place for that kid. He drives me nuts. He won't want to stay here without you anyway and we--"

"I want you to do me a favor," I interrupted. "Promise me you'll protect Marco from his father while I'm gone. Take some time to talk with him, find out what his interests are and--"

"I already know his interests." Sean scowled. "Main one is right there--" He pointed. "--between your legs. And I'm not discussing your cock with him!"

"I should hope not. Listen, Sean, he latched onto me at that game you sent us all to for revenge because your target shot herself in the foot. He's scared and I really think he wants to do the right thing. He needs direction."

"He needs a good, swift kick in the rubber parts!"

"I think he's been kicked around quite enough," I told him.

Sean sighed, giving me a silent nod. Then he slid off the bed and gave me a slap on the butt. "I wish to hell you guys would forget about that woman shooting herself. It was an accident!"

I smiled. "We'll forget about it--in a few years."

"Few years!"

I chuckled. "Look, the rubber foot with the ketchup was a great joke."

"Um, Jubilee missed his calling."

"You got revenge."

"My vengeance backfired. I never thought some delinquent would latch onto you as your groupie at a soccer match for bad boys. Now he's living with us!"

"It's only temporary."

Sean sighed and nodded glumly.

I gave him another kiss. "Look into the correspondence program for upgrading. He told me he's got his high school diploma but it may not be enough to get him into college."

"Then what?" Sean was following me to the living. "He upgrades, he gets into college then a job...a place of his own and...shit. He's going to be here until we retire, Nicholas!"

"I can be a big help to you in your old age, Sean!" a voice called out from the sofa. The laugh track of some mindless comedy blared right after he said that.

Sean scowled.

"I'll give you sponge baths and make you warm milk!"

Sean gave me a look that said it all.

"He's got a quirky sense of humor." I hugged Sean before he could contradict that.

Marco came out from the living room. He was young still, barely eighteen, but already he was showing signs of being extremely good looking. He had an aura around him that I knew bothered Sean. It was seductive and very sexual. Of course Sean had nothing to worry about where I was concerned. My heart and body belonged to only one. Now, if I could only make Marco accept that.

"I'm going to miss you," Marco said. "I'll be very nervous without you being here." He threw his arms around me and hugged me. I disentangled myself and glanced over to see Sean's arms akimbo. He was ready to do damage. "Just a hug." I gave Sean a half-hearted smile.

Marco glared at Sean, and Sean took my arm and we walked outside.

"Don't say it," I cautioned, as Sean clutched my bag.

"Not saying anything."

I hugged Sean to me and thought about our houseguest while I waited for Kieran. Marco's father was a member of the notorious biker gang, Born Evil. Marco had grown up in that sub-culture and had been expected to take his place in the gang. The discovery of his sexual orientation was not a bonus from his father's perspective, and there had been a near indiscretion between him and the leader's nephew, who was slated to move up in the gang's hierarchy. Marco had basically allowed himself to get arrested to escape his father's abuse, preferring a juvenile institution to bikers.

Marco's dad has vowed to come and get him, force him back into the gang when Marco was released. I was trying to protect him, but Marco's blatant sexual desires consistently thrown in my direction, and his obvious dislike of Sean, were not going over well.

Kieran drove up a few minutes later and lifted a hand out of the car window to Sean. I couldn't see his expression but I didn't expect him to be in a jubilant mood.

"Call me," Sean said.

"I will," I told him then walked over to the car. I opened the back door and put my bag on the seat. I looked at the building one last time and Sean was no longer standing there. He'd gone inside. I guess he didn't want to see the car drive away. Either that or he intended to kill Marco.

I slipped into the passenger seat and closed the door. "Hey," I said.

Kieran Fox. I could write a book about Kieran. Beautiful. He was a beautiful man both inside and out, but at the moment, he didn't look happy. I didn't expect him to. Kieran had come to Texas a few years back. He'd been a cop in Vancouver--a narc--who'd fallen for a bad guy. Almost ruined his career, even though he'd hauled him in when he found out his connection to the Asian Mob. Kieran's reputation as a narc attracted the attention of the local Sheriff in Lone Trail, a small town outside Dallas, who recruited him to help clean up a drug problem. There, Kieran met Jubilee Mason, a U.S. Marshal, and a love story began.

Jubilee and Kieran were my friends and co-workers, and Texas had not been kind to them. "You okay?"

Kieran was pulling away from the curb. He stopped short to let a car go by but I knew his attention wasn't on the road. "Fine."

"Want me to drive?"

"What? Don't think I can drive now?"

"No, I..."

Kieran reached over and touched my arm but he didn't look at me. "Don't pay attention to me. I'm not in a great mood."

"I'm not really sure what we're in for here. You?" I knew if I changed the subject to work, it would take his mind off things at home.

"You won't be in Ottawa that long. I spoke to the brass." He sighed. "I'm not coming back."

My jaw dropped. I remember Kieran telling me that if this custody thing went through with Juan, Jubilee would move to Canada--but how long would it take?

"How is that going to work?" I asked.

Kieran cleared his throat. I could tell he was upset. "After this job, I'll be transferred temporarily to Interpol in Ottawa. I can have Nigel's job if I want in about a year. They're moving him back here."

"Oh. It sounds like this has been all arranged."

"Has."

"Are you going to work for Interpol?"

"I don't think so. I think I'll go back to the Vancouver Police."

"And the adoption?"

"As long as I stay out of the picture, Jubilee has a good chance of adopting Juan, especially with a woman in the picture."

"Woman?" That took me for a spin.

Kieran laughed for the first time. "Jubilee's sister."

"Oh." I wanted to hug him. I wanted to tell him I could imagine how this must hurt. Kieran had rescued the boy from white sex-slave traffickers. The little boy had clung to Kieran from day one, not letting go. Juan was Kieran's son. They'd had him as a foster son but were not allowed to adopt due to the fact that they were a gay couple. It didn't matter that they were both U.S. Marshals.

Alone, as a single dad, Jubilee had a shot. He was a U.S. citizen by birth. Legally adopting Juan was the only way Jubilee could bring him across the border into Canada, which he fully intended to do as soon as he could.

Meanwhile, Kieran was in exile. They wouldn't see each other until this adoption was final, not daring to do anything to jeopardize getting the little boy they both adored.

I wanted to cry. I couldn't imagine how Jubilee felt.

"You got quiet," Kieran said. We were headed to the airport, and early morning traffic was already piling up on the freeway.

"I guess it wasn't easy for you this morning." I wasn't sure if I should bring it up or not. I took a chance that maybe he needed to talk about it.

"No," he replied, putting on his dark sunglasses. "Juan wouldn't stop crying, and I couldn't tell him when Daddy was coming home. Jubilee just got quiet. He had tears in his eyes but he didn't want to cry in front of Juan." Kieran gripped the wheel. "Neither one of us slept. We sat up at the kitchen table. Jubilee held my hand. That's it."

The tears filled my eyes. I swallowed and looked at my hands. Silence followed as we went bumper to bumper.

"So--" I cleared my throat a few times. "--so what's going on with the Mounties and how do we play into it? Trace told me we have to wear one of those uniforms."

"Trace likes to joke around. Nigel will fill us in. He'll be there at the airport. He'll tell us what we need to know. From what I heard, we are investigating some people at the very top."

"Shit."

Kieran nodded, taking Exit 114 on the state highway for the airport. "That about sums it up. So, what's with the kid? He staying there with Sean while you're gone, or is Sean planning a murder?"

I grinned. "I'll know when I get back."

"You can fly home on weekends."

"Yeah, which probably means my cover will be working in the civilian branch of the RCMP?"

"I think you're right."

We were on the International Parkway now, heading to the tollbooth. Soon we'd be at the airport and on a plane taking us back to our country's capital. I knew we were both sad--Kieran, in a far worse position than me.

Just before we boarded, Kieran's cell phone rang. He seemed to hesitate before he picked. I heard him say, "Hi, love." It broke my heart all over again. He walked off and spoke quietly on the phone, then hung up. "Time to board," he said, taking off his sunglasses.

On the plane, Kieran ordered a double gin and seven, and I had a Coke.

"It feels strange being called on to investigate the Mounties, doesn't it?" I said.

I didn't expect an answer. Kieran took a swallow of the gin and made a face. "Now I remember why I hate gin."

I laughed. "Why did you order it?"

"Jubilee likes it. You know he likes sweet. Remember the honey butter on his pancakes."

"Yeah." I smiled.

"I'm more of a sour guy myself." He drained the glass.

"Must be your dark, Canadian side."

He smiled faintly. "You really think us Canadians are that different from the Americans?"

I pursed my lips. "In some ways we are. Our government is different, our values to some extent, not totally, but more secular. And the climate has an effect, cold winters, changing seasons. I don't know. I only know we love the same."

He nodded. "And we hurt the same." He turned his face and looked out the window.

I gave him his moment.

"I hope Jubilee doesn't hate leaving Texas," he said softly.

"He loves you," I said. "In fact, his love for you would outweigh any other love he could have, Kieran. I've seen it."

He turned to meet my gaze. "I'm going to pull on that Canadian spirit of mine, lean on it real hard to get me through this. You will look after him for me, won't you? He's a big tough guy but--" Kieran shook his head. "--he's pretty fragile down deep. I don't know how he's going to find his keys without my being there."

He looked away again. I knew he was crying softly and I couldn't help feel anger. Hate in this world tore apart people like Jubilee and Kieran. They didn't understand. How could they? And there was nothing I could do to change it. I so missed Sean at that moment.

Kieran eventually fell asleep but I couldn't. My mind raced. I thought about Juan, that sweet little boy, whose own parents sold him to child sex slavers like a piece of meat. Kieran told me he knew the moment he held the boy in his arms, he was his. Why would people want to tear a family apart, break a little boy's heart, separate two men who loved each other so much?

When Ottawa came into view almost five hours later, I'd have to say my heart swelled with pride. Sure, I'd over-idealize it at this moment. The love I felt for this country smothered my rationality. This country was far from perfect. I'd protested and complained about it many times in my life but there was one thing I knew. One day Jubilee, Kieran, and Juan would find a place here, and that was worth everything.

I woke Kieran as we were landing. He seemed beat. Lack of sleep and emotional pain were doing a number on him. We got through customs and walked through the airport like zombies. "I'm starving," Kieran said. "Where's my father?"

I'd almost forgotten that Agent Fox was Kieran's father. They'd reunited when Kieran came to Texas. His father had left when Kieran was a baby. He'd spent many years of his career deeply undercover with the U.S. Marshals Service. Now he was one of our main liaisons in Canada. Sometimes Kieran made reference to their relationship but most of the time he called him, Nigel.

The man appeared just as we got to the luggage carousel. You could tell they were father and son, both tall and well built, with dark hair and light eyes. Nigel looked far younger than his age, even though his hair was shot with a lot of silver. He must have been close to fifty.

"Hello Nicholas," Nigel said. "How are you?"

"Fine. And you?"

"Could be better. This case is kicking my ass." He looked at his son and gave him a smile. "No hug for your old man?"

Kieran hugged him, and they embraced for a little longer than was usual. I turned away and gave them time. Nigel was sad for Kieran. He was talking to him in a soft, fatherly voice, stroking his hair like he was small boy. Then it was over. They each put some distance between them.

"Hungry?" Nigel asked.

"Starved," Kieran and I both said in unison.

"Dinner is on me." Nigel grinned as we headed to the exit.

"You mean on the U.S. Marshals." Kieran chuckled.

Nigel threw our bags in the trunk and I crawled in the back seat. I liked Ottawa, but I hadn't been back here since my dad died. As a kid, I'd come here with my parents to see the tulips. In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent one hundred thousand tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered Princess Juliana and her daughters for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. The most noteworthy event during their time in Canada was the birth in 1943 of Princess Margriet to Princess Juliana at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

The maternity ward was declared to be officially a temporary part of international territory, so that she would be born in no country and would inherit only her Dutch citizenship from her mother. In 1946, Juliana sent another twenty thousand five hundred bulbs, requesting that a display be created for the hospital, and promised to send ten thousand more bulbs each year. I had no idea why I was thinking about that as Nigel drove in the direction of downtown Ottawa. With my parents both being reporters, I was like some sort of encyclopedia at times.

"You have a room at the Lord Elgin Hotel," Nigel announced, and I tried to focus. Maybe I was tired. I was certainly hungry. I'd sleep alone tonight and that had become something I dreaded.

"Nicholas," Nigel said.

"Yeah?" I looked up.

"I was saying to Kieran all the good things the Marshals Service has been saying about you."

"Oh, that's nice."

"With all your experience, you know, with the military then the Toronto Police, you are ripe for a promotion."

"Promotion?" I queried.

"Intelligence," Kieran added. "I read somewhere you're Mensa material."

"Oh that," I scoffed. "It's quite stupid, IQ."

Kieran laughed. "Maybe, except when your IQ is not higher than a squash."

Nigel started to laugh.

"Squash?" I grinned. "Whose IQ is no higher than squash?"

Kieran turned and glanced at me. "A squash of course."

"Ha, ha," I muttered.

We all laughed.

Nigel sprang for dinner on his expense account at a seafood place. Pricey. We weren't officially on the job, so we drank wine, lots of it--especially Kieran. We were pretty relaxed when we went back to the room and Nigel started to tell us what we were doing in Ottawa. He began by talking about the structure of the RCMP, especially the commissioner, a man named Stewart Benet.

"Benet has been a huge supporter of a joint program between members of the United States Coast Guard and the RCMP. This program is known as Shiprider."

"Basically," I said, "it began out of Michigan where members of both agencies rode on each other's boats in order to achieve a seamless operation of policing the waterways."

"Exactly," Nigel said.

Kieran lay back with his eyes half closed. "Hell, you are an encyclopedia," he murmured.

I made a face at him.

"You can see where this is going," Nigel said.

"The commissioner is turning a blind eye to something," I said as Nigel yawned.

"Not only Benet." Nigel shook his head. "A few chief superintendents, several inspectors, and one staff sergeant major."

"And a partridge in a pear tree," Kieran sang.

"You're drunk," his father accused.

"God, I hope so," he said softly.

"Shit," I said. "Do we have names?"

"Yes, and bank accounts that don't add up," Nigel said. "All we need is proof. How are your sea legs, Kieran?"

"Oh, just great." He stretched. "Right now?"

His father laughed. "Thankfully, no."

"And where am I going?" I asked.

"To hell," Kieran teased.

I grinned at him.

"You are now the new official overseer of Shiprider," Nigel told me, "appointed by the Governor General of Canada."

I was aghast.

Nigel threw me a big folder and stood. "Familiarize yourself with that."

My eyes widened.

"Yeah--" Kieran turned on his side and grunted. "--familiarize yourself, Nicholas."

"See you guys tomorrow."

"Hell," I moaned. "This document must be two hundred pages."

"You're the smart guy, with the IQ higher than zucchini," Kieran mumbled.

"Squash," I corrected. "And aren't you going to take off your clothes?"

Silence. Kieran was asleep.

I grumbled to myself and went to take a shower. It was a nice room, two double beds, but I guessed we weren't important enough to warrant two rooms. I came back to the bed and picked up the folder. I wondered where Sean was. I pressed the speed dial on my cell phone. It rang three times then I heard his voice. I closed my eyes. "Hey, baby."

"Nicholas! How was the flight? How is everyone?"

I smiled, happy to hear his voice. "Flight was okay. Kieran was sad. He drank too much and he's gone to sleep. He'll be all right."

"How's your room?"

"Average, nothing fancy."

"Any news on the case?"

"Yeah, but I can't discuss it. You know that. Are you working?"

"Paper work."

"Oh."

"And Marco is still alive."

"That's good."

"Depends on your point of view."

I laughed. "I love you for not killing him."

"You will reward me when you come home."

"I will be your slave."

"You are my slave, Nicholas," he said. "I'm sorry you don't know that."

I snuggled down on the pillow. "I do now."

"I gotta go. Jubilee wants to go for coffee. I don't think he can stand going home without me. He wants our family intact again. I really would love to sleep. Think it's going to have to wait."

"I feel so bad for them. I'm glad it's not us."

"Me too. They'll get through this. They love each other. I just hope this adoption thing doesn't take forever."

I stared resentfully at the papers in front of me. "Okay, I've got stuff to read. Talk soon?"

"Okay. Bye, sweetie."

"Bye, lover."

That folder was screaming at me. I picked it up and, with a sigh, opened it.

****