Sydney Croft

Three the Hard Way
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Lovers Taggart Brody and Justice McKinney possess special abilities that make them valuable to agencies who employ—or enslave—people with extraordinary talents. When tragedy tears them apart, Justice finds purpose working for the good guys: ACRO, the super-secret Agency for Covert Rare Operatives. But he never forgets Taggart or the past they once shared.

Heartbroken, Taggart runs from who he is . . . right into the arms of Ian Bridges. But Ian, battling his own demons, betrays Tag to the terrorist organization Itor. After months of torture, Tag manages to escape, but kills an ACRO agent in the process.

With nowhere left to turn, Tag disappears into the Alaskan wilderness, but it’s only a matter of time before his enemies track him down. He reaches out to Justice, and somehow Ian finds him too, hoping to right his wrongs. With ACRO and Itor both bearing down, the three men must figure out how to forgive, how to work together, and how to love each other—or the coming battle will destroy them all. 


November 2014
Riptide
ISBN-13: 978-1626492349

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Three the Hard Way

Prologue

“Hey, Taggart! Check this out!”

Taggart didn’t look up from the snare he was securing to a tree. Justice was probably just going to brag about his rock skipping skills anyway. Tag would have told him that he should be practicing setting traps, but Justice’s snares and deadfalls were almost as good as Tag’s. At ten years old, they could string tripwires, dig pitfalls, and lay ambushes like seasoned soldiers. Mostly, that was cool, but sometimes, secretly, he wished he could do normal stuff, like ride a bike or play video games with other kids. Being raised as survivalists sort of had its ups and downs.

“Tag! Look!”

Taggart finally turned to his best friend. Justice was standing at the edge of the pond, his hand outstretched, reaching for the metal rowboat twenty yards out. The boat, empty of everything but two wooden oars, was cutting through the water, coming at them fast enough to leave a wake.

“So you can attract metal objects,” Tag said, thoroughly unimpressed with Justice’s showing off. “I can too. And I learned how to control my magnetic gift a year earlier than you did.” His mom said he shouldn’t tease Justice about that, but Justice always rubbed in the fact that his ability was far more powerful. There was no way Tag could have drawn in the rowboat from that distance.

Justice grinned at him over his shoulder. “But can you repel metal?”

Suddenly, the boat came to an abrupt stop, and a second later, it pushed back in the opposite direction, its square stern making the reverse journey a little slower and rougher.

Tag ran over to his friend. “Dude! That’s awesome! Now you can fix the monkey bars you bent at school.”

A breeze blew Justice’s blond bangs into his eyes as he turned around to face Tag. The rowboat, forgotten now, bobbed around in a patch of lily pads. “Are you still mad about that? Seriously?”

“Someone could have seen you.” Tag picked up a flat, round rock and skipped it across the pond’s smooth surface.

“It was no big deal. I just wanted to see how strong my power is.”

That was a load of crap, as Tag’s mom would say. Justice was playing the whole thing off as if he’d bent the bars on purpose, but Tag had seen the way Justice had lost control of his emotions when a schoolyard bully had cruelly teased a crying girl near the slide, Two rusty nails and a wing nut had flown across the playground to stick to Justice and the monkey bars had begun to bow inward. Justice hadn’t stopped until Tag tackled him.

Still, Tag wasn’t going to humiliate his friend, and arguing would only make him mad anyway.

“You just need to be more careful. Our moms will kill us if they find out we’re using our powers in public. Worse, they’ll homeschool us again.”

They’d had to fight for the chance to go to public school because their mothers, fugitives from an evil agency that’d used them as human test subjects, wanted to keep them safe and out of the public eye. But Tag and Justice had finally convinced them that they could keep their powers under control. And mostly, they could.

And sure, there were times when they either weren’t careful or when they intentionally pushed the boundaries and did something stupid. But geez, they had these super cool powers they barely had the opportunity to use on the seventy acres of middle-of-nowhere Idaho where they lived.

“Maybe we should go back to being homeschooled,” Justice said quietly. “We don’t fit in with the other kids. And they think our moms are gay.”

Yeah, that was a recurring theme. Last month, Tag had punched the captain of the football team for calling their moms lesbos. Everyone seemed to think it was weird for two single women with kids to live next door to each other on property they owned together. Throw in the fact that their houses were what their moms called “off the grid,” and the townspeople figured there was a whole lot of weird going on out here.

“If we ever find a place for people like us,” Justice said as he skipped a rock that outdistanced Tag’s by three jumps, “we have to go.”

“A good place, though, right?” Tag’s mom always said that not everyone with a special ability was a good guy, and while Tag didn’t know much about why they were living in isolation, he knew it had something to do with a group of evil people with powers.

Justice skipped another stone. “A good place.”

Tag thought about that for a moment. He loved their little family, but at times, being different got lonely. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll go if you go.”

Justice grinned. “We definitely have to go together.”

“Pinky swear?”

Shaking his head, Justice reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his pocketknife. “Blood swear.”

Blood swear? That was serious stuff. Taggart held out his hand, palm up. “I’m in.”

Justice took his hand and put the tip of the blade to the heel of Tag’s palm. There was no hesitation, just Justice jabbing the knife into Tag’s flesh and slashing all the way to the base of Tag’s pinky.

“Ouch.” Tag hissed as he watched the thin streak of blood well up in the cut.

“Wuss,” Justice teased, and then it was his turn to hiss in pain as he sliced into his own palm.

They stood there next to the pond, the sun glinting through the canopy of trees, and met each other’s gaze. Even though they were different in coloring and build, looking into Justice’s blue eyes was always like looking into a mirror. They weren’t twins, weren’t even brothers, not by blood, anyway, but there were times when it felt as if they were two halves of one person.

This was one of those times.

“Ready?” Justice asked, and Tag nodded.

Somewhere in the distance, a coyote yipped, urging them on. They clasped hands, their blood mingling in their palms before dripping down their wrists.

Justice tightened his grip. “We can’t go back on this now.”

“We won’t.” Taggart worried a lot about the future, wondering every day if the bad guys were going to find them. But for the first time in years, he felt . . . peace. He and Justice would be together no matter what. “We’ll find other people like us, and we’ll be safe.”

“And we’ll do it together.”

“Always,” Tag said.

Justice squeezed his hand. “Always.”

 

Chapter One

Justice couldn’t ignore the message on his phone if his life depended on it. When his boss demanded he report in, Justice listened.

When his boss was Devlin O’Malley, head of the Agency for Covert Rare Operatives and a goddamned badass agent in his own right? Justice was practically at a full run to get to him ASAP, as Devlin’s message had not-so-subtly demanded.

Justice hadn’t been called to Devlin’s office like this—without any knowledge of why—since he’d been a brand-new agent. Back then, he’d been convinced he was being ushered in to get kicked out of the program he’d been desperate to join since the day he’d discovered its existence.

In actuality, Devlin had summoned him that time to welcome him into the fold—Justice had passed all his qualifiers with flying colors. And he’d continued to be a viable and valuable member of the ACRO team, especially after leading several key points on the major Itor bombing a few months ago.

Devlin had been running the agency since his parents died. He’d helped hundreds of agents with special abilities, much in the same way he’d helped Justice: by taking him into the ACRO company in the Catskills, training him, giving him a family. ACRO also took in some regular human agents too, for a variety of reasons—some of them from Dev’s days in the Air Force. ACRO was a formidable organization, and although they’d scored some major victories over the past years, evil was always too plentiful to eradicate fully.

“Go right in—he’s waiting. Not patiently,” Gigi told him cheerfully. She’d been Devlin’s PA for the past couple of years, and she was gorgeous. If you swung that way. Which he didn’t. But hell, he could still appreciate beauty. Which meant yeah, he could also appreciate the man who currently sat behind the big mahogany desk . . . and somehow managed to dwarf it. Justice suspected it would’ve swallowed most men, but Devlin was anything but.

“Hey, Devlin.”

“Justice. Sit.” Dev motioned to the chairs in front of his desk. Dev was feared, respected, and liked, which were qualities that Justice hadn’t associated as ever going together, especially not when they were linked with a leader. He’d learned that Dev encompassed all those qualities—and so many more—when he’d all but dragged himself in here four years earlier, devastated by the loss of his mother, among other things.

Sternly, Dev told him, “I need you to listen to something,” then pressed a button and a familiar voice growled out from the computer, “I need to talk to Justice.”

class="excerpt"A chill ran down Justice’s spine.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you must have the wrong number.”

“Bullshit. He works at ACRO. Where the hell is he? Put him on the phone.”

And that’s when Justice heard Dev’s voice on the recording—he must’ve been called to intervene in the conversation. “Who the fuck is this? Because if you need help, you can just fucking ask.”

“I did. I asked. To speak. To Justice.”

“He’s not here. It’s me or nothing. Go.”

A pause, and then, “Fuck. I need his help. Tell him to call Tag. Or better yet, here.” He rattled off coordinates, which Justice put into the special mapping program on his phone.

Taggart. His Taggart. Somewhere in . . . Buttfuck, Alaska.

He stared down at the scar that ran from the inside of his palm, all the way to his pinky finger, then rubbed at the scar like that would do something magical, connect him to Tag in some way it hadn’t been able to before.

No, in some ways that goddamned scar had driven them further apart. So much for blood oaths.

“Is this the same Taggart you told me about? The one who wouldn’t come to ACRO with you?”

Justice nodded numbly. The deaths of their mothers at the hands of men with special powers had set them on opposite paths. Justice had embraced his own powers and joined ACRO to fight against evil, while Tag had cursed his abilities—and everyone else who wielded them.

“You wanna tell me how he got ACRO’s number?” Devlin asked.

Justice frowned. “We have a public number.”

“For the locals. Who think we’re a private security company. And that’s not the number your old buddy called.” Dev braced his forearms on the desk and leaned forward. “He called the secure line. So how did he get the number?”

Caught in the crosshairs of Dev’s intense, dark gaze, Justice squirmed, something he hadn’t done since Tag’s mom had given him a dress-down for breaking her favorite lamp while wrestling with Tag.

“I don’t know,” Justice said.

Dev gave a slow nod and leaned back in his chair. “Any idea where Taggart’s been?”

“None, sir. Devlin. Sorry.” He scrubbed his hand over his face, feeling like he was in some kind of daze. Devlin didn’t look angry, just concerned. “I tried his old phone number a few times. More than a few over the first year I came here. I’d hoped he’d keep it on, come to his senses eventually, but one day I called and a woman answered. She had no idea who Tag was or what I was talking about.” Tag had given the number up, and Justice remembered sitting there, clutching his phone, and realizing that his last tentative connection with Tag was gone. Not that he couldn’t find him if he really tried, of course, with ACRO’s resources, and he’d certainly thought about it over the years, but his anger at his one-time best friend always stopped him.

Dev paused for a moment before telling him, “Well, sometimes it takes years for people with special abilities to come to their senses. They’re not exactly the most trusting bunch.”

He should’ve trusted me. “Right.”

“Right,” Devlin echoed, tilting his head like he was assessing Justice for weakness.

Fuck that. “So Taggart needs rescuing,” he managed, although his voice sounded raw even to his own ears.

“Are you sure that’s Tag? Could it be someone pretending to be him?” When Justice immediately shook his head, Dev put his hand up in an I’m not done gesture. “Listen to me— This is your life. You need to make sure that’s him, and not someone pretending to be him. I want you to listen again and tell me if he’s giving you any kind of hidden message.”

“Like he’s being held hostage?”

“Exactly. That’s how Itor and some of the smaller agencies work. They play on our emotions. They use the people we love, and the people who love us.”

Justice snorted at that last part, because Tag had given up on him—and on loving him—four years ago when he’d turned into the world’s biggest asshole. But, at Devlin’s insistence, Justice listened to the recording four more times, the knife burrowing deeper into his heart each time. “Dev, it’s him. And he’s scared. He always gets extra assholish when he’s scared.”

Dev nodded. Steepled his fingers, rocked back in his chair, and asked, “Are you too close to this?”

“Uh, yeah.” Justice admitted it easily because come on. And Dev was pretty much a human lie detector anyway.

“Want me to send someone else?”

“No one else can handle Tag. Trust me.” He sighed, thinking of what a damned stubborn bastard Tag could be—never mind his powers, which Justice understood intimately.

“Any idea what he’s been involved in?”

For Dev, interrogation came as easily as breathing. At this point, it was an inescapable trait in all ACRO agents, and sometimes, asking questions in different ways elicited new information. Jolted the memory and shook free intel that could help. But not this time.

“I have no idea, Dev. I tried to bring him to ACRO with me. He refused. I haven’t spoken to him since I got here.” Justice ran a hand through his hair, fighting the urge to stand up and pace. “If Itor has him, we’ll get him back.”

“And if he’s still free, maybe on the run?”

“I’ll get him to come in with me this time. He has to.”

“If he refuses again?”

“I’ll bring him here against his will.” He spoke through gritted teeth—and he meant it.

“Good. He’s too valuable to leave in the open like that . . . if he’s still a free man.”

They both knew Dev was thinking about the mercenary Seducers, the ones Itor had been using recently in an attempt to rebuild by gathering up scattered Itor agents, as well as to bring in new recruits against their will. The merc Seducers Itor used were well trained and only worked for the highest bidder—fucking menaces and Itor’s best shot at reorganizing. That’s why there were bounties on most merc Seducers’ heads.

“So, what, if I can find a rogue Seducer along the way and bring him in along with Tag, it’s like a two-for-one special?”

Devlin sighed. “Something like that.” And Justice swore he saw just a hint of a smile.

“A perfect way to spent the Christmas holidays—bagging a merc.” And Justice meant it because Christmastime was Hell on Earth to begin with. Add to that the fact that Tag might reject him—again—and he had to have one bright spot.

“I just have one question, more for Tag than for you. Why ACRO now?”

“That’s the million-dollar question, Devlin. And it’s exactly what I intend to find out.”

 

·end of excerpt·

 

 

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