24 Karat Conspiracy Excerpt

“Indiana Jones meets Romancing the Stone — only gayer”

Trent Copeland, gay romance author, and his FBI-agent partner Reed Acton travel the world to apprehend smugglers of art and artifacts, sometimes quite unintentionally.

Book 4 in the Precious Gems Series
Sequel to Jaded

Former Ranger turned FBI agent Reed Acton faces his biggest challenge yet: a Christmas visit from partner Trent Copeland’s parents. He’s less equipped to handle hugs and holidays than the Taliban or international art thieves. When he’s assigned to track down a set of gold Babylonian artifacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum after the fall of Baghdad, things start to look up.

This time, Trent’s part of the mission, which takes them to exotic Istanbul. The crowded streets and labyrinthine markets fascinate Trent, but soon murder is on their trail. The investigation continues as Reed goes undercover at a US Army base, with Trent masquerading as his spouse. Surprisingly, fastidious and ever-fashionable Trent fits into base life right away and soon takes one of the suspects’ wives under his wing when domestic abuse rears its head.

Their faux marriage leads Reed to appreciate Trent in ways he never expected, strengthening their bond—until Reed has to confront the worst demons from his past: his relationship with his estranged family.

 

Available  at Amazon, Dreamspinner Press

Please check out the rest of the Precious Gems Series at Amazon, Dreamspinner, or your favorite bookseller.

 

Chapter One

 

8,000 Feet over Turkey

ARSLAN KADER felt the twelve-seat Cessna Grand Caravan lurch beneath him.

The passengers stopped chatting, so the only sound was that of the turboprop’s engine struggling against wind and air, interrupted by the sound of a crate sliding across the rear cargo area and hitting the wall of the fuselage with a sickening clunk and another shudder. That much weight shifting in the tail of the aircraft made it even more difficult to control.

“What’s going on back there?” one of the passengers shouted through the opening between the cockpit and the cabin.

“A little turbulence.” Arslan checked the gauges again. The choppy air caused the small plane to fight him for control. He felt rather than heard the crates shift again. He should have weighed each item and then stowed it himself. Why had he trusted these passengers?

An envelope full of cash—American dollars—had made him throw caution to the wind, literally.

“I should—” A stronger gust of wind rocked the plane. Arslan glanced back. “It’s not safe with that crate unsecured. There is still time to find a small airport before we reach the mountains.”

The passenger went aft and returned to his seat. Arslan heard him talking to the other man, the one who had paid him. He felt another shift and shudder.

“I can’t fly safely like this.”

“How long until our destination?”

“Three hours with good weather. Four like this.”

The turbulence abated, and Arslan was able to get the aircraft under control again.

“See, we’re fine,” the passenger said.

For now. Over the mountains the wind can change very quickly. I suggest we put down until this weather passes. I’ll radio to the next airstrip. I’m not—”

“No radio. We told you that.”

No radio and no flight plan. At their first meeting, when he’d balked at their conditions, they’d nodded, then stuffed more bills in the envelope.

“We heard you’re the best at this.”

“This” meaning flying to remote airports where he had friends working customs and the cargo wouldn’t be inspected. At least he’d given the cash to his son before they took off.

The wind continued to buffet the plane, and the instruments only confirmed what he already knew. They were losing altitude and they’d already gone off course. He kept the plane steady with one hand on the yoke and grabbed for the map with the other. Was there any place flat to land safely if he couldn’t convince them to land at an airport?

They were only thirty minutes into the flight from the tiny airport outside of Istanbul, already several hundred miles away.

A deafening crash quieted the passengers again. Two men and two women. Much younger women and clearly not wives. Arslan wasn’t ready to risk his life just to keep the men’s behavior secret from their families.

Arslan started praying, calling his wife’s name, talking to her more than to himself.

Shana, the money should keep you comfortable for at least two years.

Arslan lowered the wing angle to regain list and keep the engine from stalling. But the shifting cargo made him overshoot and he struggled to correct and avoid going into free fall. The older male passenger rushed into the cockpit only to be thrown to his knees. He grabbed at Arslan’s shoulder.

“Can’t you control this thing?”

Arslan gripped the controls and raked his gaze over the bad news he read in every display and warning light. “No. I can’t. Not anymore. We’re landing whether you like it or—”

With a final loud shudder from the aircraft the weather, the extra weight, and the shifting crate combined to send the five souls off course permanently.

 

Chapter Two

 

Los Angeles, California

December

“DO YOU know yet if you’ll be working over Christmas?” Trent Copeland asked. He’d been avoiding this subject, but he couldn’t wait any longer.

Reed Acton glanced up from the thick case file he had been reading, his expression simmering a notch below annoyance.

“How would I know that now? It’s only the first week in December. I have no idea if I’ll get called away for a case.”

“Well, I guess that’s not really my point. I wanted to talk about

Christmas. About our plans for Christmas.”

“Okay. What did you want to do?”

Trent glared at him for a second, then toned it back to a mild eye roll. “Reed, you realize that holiday travel plans need to be made months in advance? Not just a week or two?” The tone implied Reed required special education on the topic.

“Not really.” Reed had never made holiday travel plans—or holiday plans at all—until he met Trent. And so far Trent had been happy to handle the arrangements, knowing Reed’s job was unpredictable. “Did you want to go somewhere particular?”

“It’s not what I want so much as…. You really don’t remember this discussion?” Trent took a deep breath and released it slowly, then gave up waiting for a reply. “My parents got their flights booked, and—”

“Your parents? Where are they going?” Reed actually sounded interested in the answer.

“Here, Reed. They’re coming to LA, don’t you remember? We discussed this at Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t remember much about Thanksgiving. I was only at your parents’ house for a day.”

I know.” Trent put his reaction on pause. He should have expected Reed’s selective amnesia to make an appearance. But this time Trent had to let Reed know what he wanted. Trent had made plans—plans he didn’t want to change. If that didn’t suit Reed, they’d find a compromise. “My parents want to spend Christmas with us this year. Last year it was too soon after Italy, and I didn’t want them to see me until I was feeling better. Since you didn’t enjoy Thanksgiving in Oklahoma at all, I thought it would work better if they come here. Then if you have to work again….” Trent waved one hand so he wouldn’t have to say what he thought about how Thanksgiving had turned out. He promised himself he wouldn’t get angry with Reed, or at least not to his face.

“You could go home to Oklahoma without me.”

“Reed, this is home. LA. You. I want to spend Christmas with you too.”

“Why? What’s so special about Christmas?”

“It’s Christmas. It’s a time to get together with family and the people who mean most to us.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Trent, you don’t have a regular nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday job, and your parents are retired. You can get together with them whenever you want. Why is everyone making such a fuss over Christmas?”

“I’m not the one making a fuss. You are. I don’t understand why you hate Christmas, so would you please tell me?” Trent was banging his head against a brick wall with a question like that, but if he didn’t ask, Reed would never explain.

Reed stiffened and some emotion flashed over his face before he finally replied. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Just what Trent had expected. He let out the pent-up breath as quietly as possible and went into his office and sat at the desk. He’d make his own plans with his parents, and Reed could join them if he wanted. It wasn’t the optimum solution, but starting an argument with Reed wouldn’t fix the problem. Reed’s problem.

Trent picked up a framed photo from his desk. It had been taken at Christmas the previous year. His older brother Robbie, sister Maggie, and their families descended on the Copelands’ house outside Tulsa and all managed to stay reasonably still for the split second required to take a group shot. His dad and brother wore Santa hats, and his mom wore a hideous red-and-green sweater his sister had knitted for her back in college. It was a family tradition. Maggie had become a much more accomplished knitter, but Mom still wore that monstrosity. It just wasn’t Christmas without it.

Maggie had been happily married for a decade and might have some advice for dealing with Reed. Trent pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed her.

“Hello?” It was Ricky, his ten-year-old nephew.

“Ricky? It’s Uncle Trent. How ya doing?”

“Great, Uncle Trent. How are you? Did you write a new book yet? Mom says I can’t read them till I’m thirty, but maybe you’d e-mail me one anyway?”

Trent was not about to send his nephew any of his steamy gay romance novels, but the request made him smile.

“I’ll think about it, Ricky. How’s school?”

“Fine. I did this science project and I only got a B+. I think I should have gotten an A, but Mrs. McGrath won’t change my grade.”

“I’m sure that won’t keep you from getting into college, Ricky.”

“I’m only ten. I hope not. Do you have to go to college to be a fireman?”

“Probably not.”

“Ricky, who’re you talking to?” Trent could hear Maggie’s voice in the background.

“Uncle Trent.”

“Let me talk to him.”

“When I’m done…. Mom!” There was a short scuffle and Maggie came on the line.

“Hi, Trent, what’s new?”

“Hey, Maggie. I was having a nice conversation with Ricky. What did he do for his school project?”

“Oh, he did the one where you grow seeds in the dark and different amounts of light.”

“Nothing much changes, does it?” They had all done that same project years earlier.

“Nope. So to what do I owe this call?”

“Yeah, I could use some advice. About Christmas.”

“I was hoping that wouldn’t be an issue. What can I do to help?”

“Reed doesn’t want to make plans. He thinks I should go home to

Mom and Dad’s again. Without him.”

“Why don’t you, then?”

“It’s not the actual plans that worry me. It’s his refusal to discuss the topic. He doesn’t want to be part of any holiday activities.”

Are you sure it’s the holidays?”

“What else could it be? You saw what happened at Thanksgiving. He was there one day, and when his boss called, he practically ran to the airport. Didn’t even want Mom and Dad to drive him.”

“That was really something. But I don’t think it’s the holidays that are a problem. I think it’s something else. Did you ask?”

“Of course I asked. He won’t discuss it. I don’t want an argument, but I can’t ignore the issue if I want a long-term relationship with Reed.” It had been nearly three years. That already was long-term for Reed.

“Do you want a long-term relationship with him?”

Trent opened his mouth to reply, then paused. What did he want? He’d been operating on the assumption that his relationship with Reed would keep going, but hadn’t given much consideration to where it was going. “Yes. I think so.”

“Well, until you know for sure, don’t let this family stuff get in the way. But maybe you need to consider if he has the same long-term goals for a relationship that you do.”

“Gee, Maggie, I asked for one simple thing, and now you have me reexamining everything about me and Reed.”

“That’s not what I intended, but it sounds like there are some areas where you two don’t see eye to eye. You need to decide how important they are to you.”

Trent sat back in his chair. “I get your point. Let me think about this for a while. Thanks.”

Trent put the phone down and stared at the photo again. He had a few framed pictures on the desk and the walls. Hardly anyone printed out photos anymore; everything was digital and online. But Trent enjoyed looking up at the photos, reliving the moments. Would there be any photos from this coming Christmas? Trent should make his own plans, though. Maggie was right about that. Reed could join in if he wanted, but if he didn’t, that wouldn’t stop Trent.

He picked up the phone again and dialed his parents’ number.

“Hello?” said a voice that sounded like a warm hug.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Trent, honey. How are you?”

“Good. I got your e-mail with your schedule, and I’m really glad you’re coming to LA. I’ll be there to meet you at baggage claim. I’ll make some plans, get tickets for a show and whichever museum has the best exhibition. Anything else you and Dad want to do?”

“Just to see you, dear. And Reed. He’ll be there, too, won’t he?”

Trent hesitated before replying. “I’m not sure what his plans are. He never knows in advance about work. You saw what happened at Thanksgiving.”

“Ah. Work. I see.” That noncommittal, nonconfrontational tone they must teach at Mom school.

Apparently he hadn’t gotten any better at lying. He didn’t have any good response.

“Look, Trent, if it’s going to be any trouble, we don’t have to go out there to see you.” The hurt in her voice came through loud and clear.

“No, Mom. It’s no trouble at all. I want you and Dad to come out here for Christmas. It’ll be a nice change for you. Enjoy the nice weather, eat some fresh seafood. But maybe I’m being selfish.”

“Selfish? Because Reed doesn’t want to spend time with us? What did we do? We tried so hard to make him feel welcome.”

“I know. That’s not what I mean about being selfish. If you come here, you won’t get to spend the holidays with Maggie or Robbie, and their kids.”

“We see them all the time. We don’t get to see you very often. We’ve already got their gifts, so we’ll drop them off and have a holiday dinner at Maggie’s before we fly out.”

“That sounds nice.” Trent would like to be there for a big family holiday dinner. Was he crazy to think bringing his parents to LA would be a substitute for the kind of holiday memories he loved? “I’ll send something early, too.”

“I’m sure the kids will be thrilled if you do.” She paused. “We can’t wait to see you. Less than two weeks now.” He could almost see the little crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she smiled.

“Me too. Love you and Dad.”

“Bye, sweetie.”

He hung up, not necessarily pleased with the conversation. He’d assuaged his own guilt about monopolizing his parents this year, but he’d let his mother know that Reed wasn’t particularly thrilled with their visit. He’d book them a room at a hotel around the corner so Reed wouldn’t feel they were invading his home. It would probably be more comfortable for everyone, even if Reed insisted he was looking forward to seeing them.

Trent picked up the photo from last Christmas again and hoped his mother would bring that awful sweater. The thought of it brought a smile to his lips.

“Trent?” Reed’s voice startled Trent, and he dropped the picture onto the desk. “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Trent didn’t turn toward the door. “What?”

“I made dinner. Well, I heated up the leftover pasta and made a salad. Aren’t you hungry yet?”

“Yeah.” Trent wasn’t quite ready to talk to Reed. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Sure.” Reed’s footsteps moved in the direction of the kitchen.

Trent spent another few minutes staring at the photo before he followed.


REED HAD lit a couple of candles and put them on the table while he waited for Trent, but if Trent noticed, he didn’t remark. This was Trent, Reed reasoned. Of course he noticed. Little romantic details like that were his job. That he didn’t mention the candles was troubling. Why had Reed expected mere candles to smooth things over?

As it was, Trent barely said ten words during the meal. He didn’t bring up Christmas, and Reed wasn’t about to broach the subject either. Not yet. Not until he had to. He’d have to sooner rather than later; he knew that much.

After the meal Trent went back into the office, ostensibly to do some writing, but Reed didn’t hear him tapping at the keyboard. He was probably looking at that photo again. Reed wished he knew the right thing to say or do, and it pained him that he couldn’t explain why he hated holidays so much. He couldn’t understand it himself, much less communicate to anyone else. Not even Trent.

He lingered over cleaning the kitchen, hoping Trent would come in for tea or dessert. He didn’t.

Reed got ready for bed and put the Lakers’ game on the bedroom television for about ten minutes, then picked up a book. How long would Trent hide in his office? Did he expect Reed to go in and apologize?

It was past midnight when Trent finally came into the bedroom.

“Oh, you’re still up.”

Reed looked up from his book. “Yeah. I just couldn’t put this one down.”

“Dan Brown or James Patterson?” Trent’s sneer indicated what he thought of Reed’s reading habits. He headed into the bathroom.

“Neither. Dumas. The Three Musketeers. Got it at Chapter Two.” Trent’s favorite used bookstore.

Trent stopped in the doorway and glanced back over his shoulder. Reed raised the slightly battered book as proof. Trent nodded and shut the bathroom door behind him. Usually he left it partially open when he got ready for bed. He came out wearing only a pair of worn gray sweats, tied at the waist—a bad sign. His cock flopped under the fabric as he walked toward the bed. He stopped to grab a T-shirt from a dresser drawer and pulled it on as he covered the last few steps. Another warning.

Putting clothes on for bed was Trent’s version of a Do Not Disturb sign.

Trent pulled the sheets back and slid into bed, glancing briefly at Reed as he did so.

“How was your writing tonight?” Reed asked.

“Good night.” Trent rolled over so his back was to Reed.

Reed closed the book and put it on the nightstand. He scooted under the sheets and turned toward Trent.

“Forget it, Reed.”

“Forget what?” Reed couldn’t help asking.

“Not interested in sex of any sort. Nothing, nada, niente, nichts, I don’t know any more languages.”

“Who said I wanted sex?”

“You’re completely naked.”

“Maybe I’m just warm tonight.”

“Your nipples are hard, like you’re cold. Not buying that.”

“If you’re so uninterested in sex, why are you paying attention to my nipples?” Fair question.

“They’re so damn big. I’d have to be blind not to notice. Even then I’d notice. They’re like Braille.”

“I have Braille nipples? Is that meant to be an insult or a compliment?”

Trent didn’t reply, but the bed shook slightly. Then Trent burst out laughing. “Shut up.”

“Come over here and read my Braille nipples. Tell me what they say.” “Shut up.” Trent nearly choked on the words he was laughing so hard.

Reed fought off his own laughter, but he couldn’t help smiling.

Trent sat up and pulled off the T-shirt. “Now I’m hot.”

“Then come over here and warm me up a little. You can rub my nipples and see if a genie comes out.”

“What, a genie in your shorts?” But Trent rolled toward Reed, grinning.

“I’m not wearing any shorts, which you also noticed.” Reed slid the covers down, in case Trent had forgotten. “Now you owe my nipples an apology.”

“I do?”

“Yes. And I think your genie is ready to come out too.” Reed glanced at the outline of Trent’s cock, thickening under the thin fabric of his sweats. “Can I help?” He reached toward the string and waited for Trent to nod before he untied them.

Trent moved closer and leaned up for a kiss, causing his sweats to slide down his hips. Reed helped slip them down and wrapped a hand around Trent’s cock while they continued to kiss. He certainly hadn’t expected Trent to snap out of his anger so easily, but Reed was grateful. He intended to demonstrate just how much.

Reed moved between Trent’s knees and took his cock into his mouth. He teased the head with his tongue and played with Trent’s balls. He slowed his movements, drawing out Trent’s enjoyment. Trent tangled his fingers in Reed’s short hair, and when Trent was close, Reed pushed a couple of fingers inside until he found the spot that made Trent gasp. As his moans turned to a whimper, Reed increased the pressure, and with a huge shudder, Trent came and Reed swallowed everything gladly.

Trent smiled, looking a little guilty at enjoying his orgasm so much. He closed his eyes, and Reed thought he might have fallen asleep. Well, it served Reed right. He’d upset Trent, and a mere blowjob wasn’t going to fix the problem.

But a moment later Trent rolled over and slid a hand down Reed’s torso while leaning in to take a nipple into his mouth.

“Mmmrry.”

“What?” Reed asked.

Trent let the nipple pop out of his mouth. “Just apologizing.” He grinned. “To the nipple.”

Reed lay back and relaxed, glad to see Trent playful again after the tense evening. Trent apologized to the other nipple and gave both plenty of attention while he used his hands on Reed. It wasn’t the best orgasm Trent had given him, but it was sincere, and Reed appreciated the effort. He got up to get a warm washcloth, even though technically it was Trent’s turn, and cleaned them both before sliding back under the sheets.

This time Trent didn’t turn away.

Reed sat up and looked down at Trent, who lay on his side, head on his pillow. “What did you plan for your parents’ visit?” Trent furrowed his brow. “What?” He sat up.

“I heard you talking to your mom.”

“I’m sorry, Reed, but I really can’t talk about my parents when you’ve got dried come on your chin.” He smiled and wiped at Reed’s chin with a thumb. “Okay. Let’s start over.”

“What are the plans now?”

“I thought you weren’t interested.”

“That’s not what I said. Am I not invited now?”

“I booked a room for them at the Andaz. They won’t be in your way.”

“They’re not in my way. They can stay here if you want.”

“I didn’t think you liked spending time with them. And to be honest, they think you don’t like them.”

Reed shook his head. How could he explain? He was sorry he’d given the Copelands that impression. “It’s not that. I just feel out of place.”

“Well, that’s why I thought bringing them here was a good idea. It’s more neutral territory—or it’s your place, since you live here now.”

“It wasn’t their house, Trent. That’s not what upset me at

Thanksgiving.”

“Upset? You were upset? I thought you couldn’t wait to leave.”

“I didn’t plan it that way, but going home with you…” Reed paused, recalling the pangs of envy he’d felt watching the hugs and smiles as the Copelands welcomed Trent, and how he’d hated himself for feeling that way, especially when Trent’s family wanted to include him. “It made me realize that I don’t have a place that’s home to me. I don’t have a family waiting at the airport to meet me. I don’t have those things, and I didn’t think I wanted them….” Reed stopped because a huge lump had formed in his throat and he couldn’t breathe. An invisible elephant sat on his chest, crushing his ribs and lungs as his own family memories flowed over him.

Trent reached out to stroke Reed’s arm. The hand was warm, the touch firm. “You never talk about your family, Reed. But you can, if you want to. I’m here to listen.”

Reed nodded, not sure if he could—or should.

Trent couldn’t leave a silence alone. He had to fill it. Had to say something he thought would make Reed feel better. “My family wants to get to know you. They want to include you. If you let them, they’ll love you as much as—”

“As much as they loved Marc?” Reed wished he hadn’t said that. Where had that idea even come from? He’d never compared himself to Marc—Trent’s last partner, who had died in a sporting accident—before. Not out loud to Trent, anyway.

Trent smiled, but Reed noticed the flash of pain in his eyes. “No. As much as they love me. They want to love you too.”

“They do?”

“Why does that surprise you so much?”

Reed looked away. He wasn’t ready to answer that.

“Let’s go to sleep. We can talk more in the morning.” Trent leaned over and gave Reed a kiss, then turned off the light and settled back under the sheets. He scooted up against Reed.

Reed lay down, and Trent put an arm across his chest. Reed smiled even though Trent couldn’t see it in the dark. He was glad they hadn’t ended the day not speaking to each other.

But he still wasn’t sure how he’d deal with the Copelands.

 

Chapter Three

THREE DAYS before Christmas, they took Reed’s black Bureau SUV to pick up the Copelands from LAX. Trent’s parents were waiting outside baggage claim with a mountain of luggage. Reed popped the back door and got out, intending to help Trent load the cases, but Mrs. Copeland came around the back of the vehicle and intercepted Reed with a hug that probably violated the Geneva Convention. He held his arms away from his body, staring at Trent, trying to breathe, not sure how to respond. But she didn’t let go. Reed lowered his arms, slid them around her, and squeezed back.

“Now that’s a proper greeting, Reed.” She let go and kissed his cheek. “How are you?”

“Good, thanks.” He stepped back a pace and congratulated himself on surviving the hug. He hadn’t burst into flames and no ribs had broken. In fact, it had been kind of nice after that initial powerful squeeze. She smelled like cinnamon with a hint of woodsy smoke, like a fireplace. “It’s good to see you again.”

Not so good to see the head-to-toe red-and-green ensemble she had on. She wore a white shirt sporting dancing candy canes and boughs of holly over poison-green grandma pants.

“Glad to be here, out of the cold,” Mr. Copeland said. He had on a matching candy-cane shirt over plain old blue jeans. He held out his hand to shake Reed’s, luring him into another embrace that ended with Mr. Copeland slapping Reed on the shoulder. If Reed couldn’t fight off two elderly Oklahomans, he was losing his edge. “Gotta put on my Hollywood shades.” Mr. Copeland took a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on. “Do I look like a big movie star?” “Silly man!” Trent’s mom said.

“I don’t know,” Reed replied. “I don’t see many big movie stars around.”

“Don’t you? Why, we were hoping we’d see someone famous.

Trent? Won’t we see any stars?”

Reed glanced toward Trent and realized all the cases were already in the trunk. “Oh, Trent, I was going to help with that.” So much for his hug-avoidance tactics. He needed to brush up on those flagging Army Ranger skills.

“I got the bags. It was your turn to get hugged. I’m surprised they had any energy left after all the hugging they gave me.” Trent grinned.

Reed smiled. That had been his plan, which was why he’d waited a few moments before getting out. But the Copelands had saved some hugs for him anyway.

“Mrs. Copeland, come sit up front with me,” Reed said and opened the front passenger door for her.

“What’s this Mrs. Copeland nonsense? You call me Laura.” “Laura.” At least she hadn’t told him to call her Mom.

 


 

THEY DROVE to the Andaz, a small but luxurious hotel a block from their apartment, got Trent’s parents checked in, and had the suitcases brought up to their room. Reed hovered at the edge of the small suite as the Copelands oohed and aahed over the accommodations.

“Trent, this place is too fancy for us. We could stay at the Holiday Inn. We don’t need a suite. We’re not going to be spending that much time here, are we?”

That last comment brought Reed up short. Now they were here, the reality set in that for the next ten days, Rob and Laura would be a constant presence in their lives. Did they expect to be at the apartment most of the time? Having them stay here meant they wouldn’t be underfoot. That was how Trent had made it sound.

Why did that instill a rising dread in Reed’s gut? He could always call his boss, Tom White, if he needed an escape hatch. Besides, there was just as much chance of a real case heating up during the holidays—with all that cash and so many distracted shoppers, crime rates soared this time of year.

“We want you to be comfortable,” Trent replied.

“It’s more comfortable than home,” Laura remarked and went into the bathroom. “Oh, lookie! Fancy shampoo and body wash!”

Now Reed knew where Trent had picked up that particular addiction.

“Really? What kind?” Trent went into the bathroom, and Rob Copeland shook his head and threw Reed a commiserating glance. They both broke out laughing. Then they stared at each other for an uncomfortable moment before Rob hoisted a suitcase onto the bed.

As blissful chatter filtered in from the bathroom, he transferred meticulously folded underwear into a drawer and had the job completed in under two minutes. Reed was impressed.

“Military?”

Rob nodded. “Joined the Corps at the tail end of Vietnam and stuck around for a while.” He didn’t elaborate. That alone told Reed he’d probably seen some heavy combat. Maybe they’d have something in common after all.

Reed drove home, while Trent and his parents enjoyed the fine weather by walking. He parked in their underground parking space and turned the engine off, but he didn’t get out. He needed a few minutes to collect his thoughts.

The Copelands had only been here for an hour, but already Reed felt the pressure of their visit. Why hadn’t he suggested a hotel farther away? Half a mile away was an even nicer hotel, and Reed would gladly have paid the difference to keep Trent’s parents out of their—his—hair. But that wouldn’t be fair to Trent. He hadn’t spent much time with his parents since Reed had moved to LA and into Trent’s condo—the one he and Marc had bought together.

Christmas with his parents meant a lot to Trent, so Reed would do his best to make sure he got it. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to be a big part of it. Two weeks with Trent’s parents shouldn’t be that arduous. He’d spent months in a Burmese prison camp, but this visit threatened to be more horrific. He hadn’t been meditating recently, which probably accounted for a large portion of his stress. He closed his eyes and did one of the visualization exercises that had gotten him through those months in the camp. When he finished he felt a measure of peace, so he made his way to the elevator to their top-floor apartment.

When he let himself in, he found Trent’s parents taking a tour of the place. He and Trent had carefully hidden anything that might cause anyone embarrassment and had done a thorough double check again that morning.

“I’m back,” Reed called as he shut the door and locked it. “How did you beat me home?”

“In here,” Trent called from the kitchen, making tea or coffee based on the sounds echoing through the living room. Reed went through to the kitchen. “What took you so long? We’ve been home for ages.”

“Ages?” Reed looked at his watch. He’d lost track of time. His meditations usually didn’t take long, but he was out of practice. “Traffic?” he said, not sure why he’d lied. He sat down at the table and watched Trent.

Did they schedule a parade down our street that I didn’t notice?” Trent gave Reed a glower that should have sliced his ear off. “Do you want coffee?” Trent added in an overly cheerful tone.

Reed really wanted a beer. It was midafternoon, so that wouldn’t make a very good impression. Then he realized that was a good sign, wanting to make a good impression rather than simply wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction. The problem was he’d already pissed off Trent, and that wasn’t good. At least with his parents around, Trent wouldn’t say anything to Reed about it. Their presence wasn’t all bad after all.

“I’m reheating the leftover frittata from last night,” Trent said as Reed joined Rob at the kitchen table.

“Damn airlines don’t feed you anymore.” Rob shook his head.

“Oh, I see you have some new art here,” Laura said from the living room. “Rob, come take a look.”

“Crap, I forgot to take down those X-rated woodblock prints I got in Japan.” Trent slapped his forehead after his dad left. He went back to measuring coffee into the French press. “Shit, I lost count. How many tablespoons did I put in there?”

“I don’t know.” Reed sat at the kitchen table and tried not to laugh at Trent’s nervousness. “Sorry about the pictures. I didn’t even think of it.”

“They’ll survive. Can you go out there and entertain them so they don’t start digging around in any drawers?”

One drawer in particular. The toy drawer. “I locked it. But I’ll go chat with them. Start again with the coffee after I’m gone.” He strode out into the living room where Rob was perusing the bookshelf.

“I see Trent’s books are all here. You like reading them, Reed?”

“They’re not my favorite genre, to be honest, but I have read every one of them. At least all the ones he’s written since we met. Sometimes he asks me to read when he’s writing, when he’s stuck on something.” Reed liked when Trent asked his opinion. What a change, he thought, from the first time he’d read one of Trent’s books, back in that hut in Thailand. Later on, when Reed had been held hostage by the Thai mobsters, he’d found reading Trent’s stories comforting somehow. Of course he’d never tell this to the Copelands.

“You into art also?”

“Yes, a little.” Trent’s parents didn’t know Reed worked for the FBI art squad. It was probably safe enough to tell them, but he’d let Trent make that decision. Later. If they ran out of things to talk about.

“I see you haven’t really changed all that much in the apartment since last time we were here, Trent,” Laura said as Trent came in with coffee and frittata. Reed scooted over to make room for him on the couch.

Oh, haven’t we?”

“It looks just about the same as when you were here with Marc. Just a couple of new pictures,” his father added.

Reed tried to steady his hand as he handed a cup of coffee to Laura. The mention of Marc rattled him. He stirred sugar into his coffee and concentrated on keeping his hand steady.

“Oh honey, while we’re here, we want to see Leah. She sent us pictures of the twins, and we told her we’d call. They’re just the cutest things!”

Trent glanced at Reed before answering. “Yes. They’re cute. You told her you were coming for a visit?”

“Yes. We keep in touch, you know.”

Reed sipped coffee and felt his teeth ache. He hadn’t realized how much sugar he had put in there, distracted as he was by the mention of Trent’s ex, Marc, and then Leah, Marc’s sister. He wouldn’t even analyze the sudden fear he’d felt at the way Trent’s face lit up at the mention of Leah’s twins. Did Trent like kids? Did he want kids?

He yanked his phone from his pocket. “I just got a text from my boss. Would you mind if I step out to call him back? It’ll only be a few minutes.” Reed set the mug down and made for the front door, heart pounding as if he were heading out on a combat mission.

What’s wrong with me? He stared at the door after he shut it behind him, knowing Trent would try to cover for him but give him hell—or the cold shoulder and everything below it. But Reed needed air. He fled down the stairs, his steps echoing in the stairwell. The brisk exercise calmed his nerves. Why did everything Trent’s parents said feel like some sort of judgment on him? He couldn’t imagine he was coming out very well in their estimation.

Not that leaving almost as soon as they arrived was going to improve his image.


 

TRENT WATCHED the door shut behind Reed and stirred his coffee so vigorously he splashed his hand and his pants. Luckily he was wearing jeans, so there wouldn’t be a noticeable stain.

“What was that about?” his father asked.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have come, honey,” his mother added. She glanced at Rob and he shrugged.

“He’ll be back in a little while. I think he needed a break.”

Break? You mean he’s not calling his boss?”

Trent shrugged, knowing he was opening a can of worms, but it was necessary to get the unpleasantness out of the way early.

“Why did he lie? Does he lie to you often?” His mother sounded shocked and pitying.

“I don’t think so. If he does it’s because he can’t tell me the truth, but that’s not what this is about right now.” “What is it about?” his mother asked.

“Mom, Reed’s just under pressure from having you visit.”

“See, we shouldn’t have come. Let’s go back to the hotel.” His father stood up.

“No, Dad. It’s not you. It’s him. He thinks you don’t like him very much.”

“Well, how can we like him? How can we even get to know him when he keeps running off?” his mother asked.

“Let’s forget what happened at Thanksgiving. That was work, and it was important. Let’s talk about today.”

“He ran off again today. Twice,” Trent’s dad said with a judgmental tone.

“Do you think he wanted to stay while you kept talking about Marc and Leah and Leah’s kids?”

“He knows about Marc, doesn’t he? He’s living in Marc’s apartment.”

“Of course he does. But like I said, he thinks you don’t like him, and then you say something to show how much you liked Marc and his family.”

His mother set her cup down on the coffee table. She reached out and patted Trent’s hand. “We did like Marc, and we do like his family. But I hadn’t thought about how Reed might interpret the comments. I didn’t mean to imply that kind of comparison.”

“He’s a little sensitive, isn’t he?” Trent’s father asked. “Maybe he lied about being in special ops too.”

Trent’s initial impulse was to defend Reed. His chest ached whenever someone misjudged him. It hurt twice as much when it was his own parents. It was so difficult to explain Reed without sounding like he was making excuses. Trent took a sip of coffee before responding.

“He didn’t lie. He’s just not used to family things. He doesn’t see his family, and he feels out of place in ours. All the attention and questions overwhelm him, like at Thanksgiving. It’s like going from zero to a thousand the way everyone asks him personal things.”

“Where’s his family?” Mom asked.

“I have no idea. He doesn’t talk about them. I just know the problems started when he came out to his dad. He hasn’t said much more.” Trent felt a wave of guilt wash over him. “But please don’t let on that I mentioned it. He had a very different childhood than I did, and he’s a very different person because of it. In the Army, and now with the FBI, he’s got to put aside a lot of emotion and feelings. It’s hard for him to turn all that back on, especially with you. He wants you to like him, but he’s afraid he’s not the kind of person you would like.”

“Oh. Oh, Son, I’m sorry we jumped to conclusions.” Trent’s dad nodded and picked up his coffee again. “What should we do?”

“Maybe avoid bringing up family, and if he decides not to join us for something, try not to take it personally. He took the week off from work for your visit, but I don’t want to push him into too many family activities.”

“It’s nice he took time off for our visit.” Trent’s mom looked guilty again and quickly glanced from Trent to his father.

“Reed does want to get to know you. He just doesn’t open up easily. Just stay low-key and don’t bombard him with personal questions.”

“We can do that, can’t we?” Trent’s dad glanced at his mom and she nodded.

“Of course we can. I’ll be more careful about Marc. But we do want to see Leah’s twins. Will that be okay?”

“Yes. I’d like to go with you.” Trent glanced at his watch. Reed had been gone twenty minutes. Trent would wait another five, then call if Reed hadn’t come back.

“What did he do in the Army?” Trent’s dad asked.

“He was in the Rangers. Special ops, secret missions. I don’t know more than that.”

“Rangers?” Trent’s dad nodded, lips pursed. “Wow, that’s some rough stuff.”

“Probably. I know some of what he’s done since he joined the Bureau and….” Trent wondered if he should tell them about Reed being imprisoned in a Burmese camp. “Well, he’s survived some really awful things. He’s got a bunch of those little ribbons on his uniform. And a Purple Heart.”

“Oh dear.” His mother covered her mouth with a hand and glanced at his dad.

“Enough said, Son.” His dad nodded and looked a little guilty. Maybe he was remembering some of his own horrific experiences in

Vietnam. Trent was lucky he’d never had to fight, and he hadn’t understood what his father might have gone through in combat until he’d met Reed.

“Let me just check and see where he is.” Trent pulled his phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed Reed.

A cell phone rang just outside the apartment door.

“I’m just coming in now,” Reed said, and his voice echoed over the phone and from the hallway. “Sorry about that.”


“WERE YOU standing outside the door the whole time?” Trent couldn’t help asking.

“No. I wasn’t. I walked around the block. And I stopped to get this.” He pulled a bag out from behind his back and handed it to Trent.

“What’s this?”

“Some steaks. I thought we could grill them tonight. It’s nice weather, and the rooftop would be a nice place for a picnic. Is that okay, or did you have other plans for dinner?”

Trent felt like a jerk for assuming the worst about Reed’s escape from the apartment. He took the package from Reed and peeked inside. They were good steaks. Really good. Expensive. “That sounds like a fine idea to me.” He glanced at his parents, who nodded in unison. “I’ll put these in the fridge.”

“We should have enough in the fridge for side dishes, veggies, salad, don’t you think? Or I can get something else….” Reed had followed Trent into the kitchen.

“I’m sure this is fine. And when did you turn into Stepford FBI agent/boyfriend?” Trent only half smiled. Reed was overplaying the helpful partner thing.

“I felt bad for leaving, and I wanted to make up for it.” Reed shrugged and glanced out the window. Trent had overreacted too, even though he’d made excuses for Reed to his parents. “Look, I’m sorry. I just felt kind of overwhelmed, and I don’t do family very well.”

“I know. I asked them to back off a little, too, and not smother you.”

“You did? Now I feel like some sort of after-school special.”

“Don’t. They assume everyone likes the same things they do, including the same attention. But they hadn’t realized they weren’t very tactful about Marc.” Trent wished he hadn’t mentioned him again. So much had changed in his life since he’d met Reed. He couldn’t bear to say Marc’s name before, and now Trent could talk about him calmly. Odd that now it was Reed who didn’t want to discuss him.


 

“SHIT. YOU told them I was sensitive about Marc?”

“I noticed your reaction.”

Reed eased the breath out through his nose. Trent was right, and it embarrassed Reed. Until he’d met Trent, he’d never felt inadequate or worried about things like meeting mothers or giving the right impression. Usually the impression he wanted to give was to scare the living daylights out of the other guy, but that was at work, when he went undercover and had to deal with criminals to catch other criminals.

In domestic situations, Reed was a fish out of water. And Trent was so damned domestic. Reed hadn’t realized how much he liked that. Which was why he cared what Trent’s family thought of him.

“Well, now I feel like an insecure idiot.”

“That’s not what they think.”

“We’ll talk about this later. They’ll think we’re arguing in here if we don’t go back out to the living room.”

“Okay. But thanks for thinking of the steaks.” Trent planted a kiss on Reed’s cheek and wrapped his arms around him.

“Could I get some water?” Laura came into the kitchen and surprised

Reed when she spoke. “Sorry to intrude.”

Trent didn’t unwrap his arms for a moment, which both embarrassed and pleased Reed. He liked that Trent didn’t treat him differently around his parents. If it had been Reed’s parents—well, that was never going to happen, but if it did, Reed wouldn’t touch Trent in the same zip code. Which contributed to Reed’s aversion to even discussing his parents.

“No intrusion.” Reed got a glass from the cabinet. “Do you want ice?

Regular water or sparkling?”

“Oh my, so many choices.”

Reed opened the fridge. “We have sparkling with lemon”—he held up the bottle—“or lime, or….”

“Just plain water with ice.”

“Cubes or crushed?” Reed asked.

“Reed!” Trent laughed and his mother joined in.

Reed looked at Laura.

“Cubes, please.” She grinned.

“What about another glass for Rob?”

“We’ll share.”

Trent shook his head before turning to her. “Mom, we have a dishwasher and lots of glasses. You can have your own glass.”

“We like sharing.” She grinned again and turned back toward the living room.

“I like sharing too.” Reed gave Trent a kiss with a little tongue and then proceeded to fill another glass with ice cubes and sparkling water. “Ready?”

“Yeah.” Trent shook his head and went back into the living room with Reed.

They sat down on the couch, and for the first time since he’d met Trent’s parents, Reed didn’t feel pressure. He didn’t need to hide who or what he was, or how he felt about Trent.


Available  at Amazon, Dreamspinner Press

Please check out the rest of the Precious Gems Series at Amazon, Dreamspinner, or your favorite bookseller.

Save

Save

Save

0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *