Fresh out of The Academy, FBI Agent Riley Cordova is assigned to protect the infamous ‘Baby Capone’, son and murderer of one of Florida’s most notorious mobsters. But Nikolaj Strakosha isn’t at all what he expects. Sixteen, charming and whip-smart, Nikolaj is instantly loveable—in a brotherly way. Over the course of two years, Riley’s feelings deepen toward Nikolaj, becoming anything but fraternal.
Intellectually and artistically gifted, yet emotionally immature, Nikolaj ‘Cai’ Strakosha engenders protective feelings in nearly everyone he meets—much to his frustration. At sixteen, his attempt to rebel results in a series of heartbreaking events that brings Agent Riley Cordova into his life, and into his heart. But Riley treats him as gingerly as everyone else. Two years later, Cai rebels again. This time the stakes are even higher, the danger more significant, and Cai knows exactly what he’s getting himself into.
When Cai returns after a year abroad, he has a hit man and secrets riding hard on his trail. If Riley thought avoiding romance with the boy was difficult, the man Cai has grown into is a force stronger than a hurricane.
The pounding of feet behind him drew closer. Peter was catching up. Couldn’t have that.
Cai zigzagged around a shopkeeper, placed his hands on a nearby parked car and flipped over the hood and into the street. Landing on his toes, he used the momentum to spring forward and into Washington Park. He bypassed the trail and sprinted across the lawn, bits of leftover snow flicking out behind his sneakers as he increased his lead.
Alone with only his breath, threads of guilt tugged at him. Was he really going to spend their last day running together widening the gulf between them? This morning was not about showing Peter up; it was about time together.
He closed his eyes for a just quick second to savor the cold wind—to slow down a little. He turned, taking a few steps backward to see how far back he’d left his brother.
Peter caught up moments later. He brushed the flakes off Cai’s hood and gave it a tug before he ran off. “C’mon.”
This time Cai mostly kept pace, breaking ahead for a second when Peter playfully bumped him onto the lawn next to the path. When they reached the playground at the east end of the park, Peter cleared the snow off one swing and then took another for himself. Cai sat down, waiting for his rapid breathing to abate and trying not to let the frustration of Peter’s coddling get to him.
“Cold?” Peter asked at Cai’s shiver.
He should be used to the babying after ten years. Or he should say something about it. Today. Only, the last time he had brought it up, Peter had been shot. Had nearly died. And now, like that day two years ago, Cai was on the brink of leaving again and wanting to resolve the strain in their relationship. The congruencies made his skin crawl with uncertainty. As if the moment he started an argument, Peter would end up back on that hospital bed. “I’m fine.”
Cai stared at his feet, kicking little piles of white from the ground and revealing the ochre sand beneath. “Haven’t told him. Riley. About leaving. I haven’t told Riley about leaving.”
Peter got up from the swing and leaned against the support rods. “I know what you’re thinking, Cai. It’s not going to work. It doesn’t work like that.”
“I don’t really expect it to. But maybe…” Cai shrugged and blew heat into his cupped hands. “Sometimes it takes almost losing someone to see their worth.”
“You can’t make him love you.” Peter swiped a hand over his head, his hood falling back to reveal a wild tangle of auburn hair. Cai had painted his brother so many times, he could pick out the separate strands of gold and copper with a single glance. Yet he itched to capture his brother on canvas right now, because Peter, in all his exasperation, was so typically Peter.
“Stop projecting,” Cai said quietly, curling his hands into fists. “I’m not you. I don’t need him to love me in order to be with him.”
“You’re so sheltered, you don’t know what you need.”
“Whose fault is that?”
Peter’s nose twitched. He scrubbed at it before clearing his throat and answering. “Mine,” he said simply, a hint of apology in his voice.
That admission left Cai breathless and unable to respond right away.
Peter always had an excuse for the tight leash he held, never an acknowledgement of the harm it may have caused. Cai felt unbalanced now. His stomach roiled with apprehension, like someone had spilled balls of anxiety in there and they were bouncing around without gravity to slow them down. The strata of silver clouds still moved. His feet still held to the ground. The wind blew; snow wept from a mourning sky. All that was evidence the earth hadn’t spun off its axis. But, knowing that their relationship dynamics were changing, the world seemed shaky—a little less fixed in its rotation.
“You think I’m angry,” Cai said. “I’m not. It’s mostly frustration. I’m in love with Riley and he thinks I’m helpless. He thinks I’m incapable of an adult relationship. And he thinks that way, in part, because that’s what you think.” He forced in a deep breath and shifted his gaze to the mountains out west in order to avoid the excessive twitching of Peter’s Tourette’s. Peter’s loss of control was his fault. The balls in Cai’s stomach stretched and twisted into knots. “I’m not pretending to leave. I am leaving, Rabbit, no matter what Riley says. I need to be around people whose first instinct isn’t to ruffle my hair and wipe a freaking swing so I can sit down. You don’t need to hold onto me this tightly.”
“I know.” Peter ground his hand into his eye. “I’m sorry, Cai. I’m trying to let go. Cut me some slack?”
Here it was, the moment he could ask that burning question. “Why do you need to keep me safe from everything?”
The wind quieted, as if it sensed it couldn’t compete with the mounting tension. The hush of winter settled around them and waited. When the silence seemed stretched to bursting, Peter finally spoke. “It was that fetal pig.”
After focusing every one of his IQ points for two minutes, Cai couldn’t make the correlation between that statement and what they were talking about. And people called him confusing. “The one I dissected when I was like eight?”
“It was part of the curriculum. Mamma followed the tenth grade curriculum. I didn’t ask for a fetal pig because I’m some sort of ghoul.”
“Do you remember what you said?”
“I don’t um…” Without knowing why, Cai tensed defensively and crossed his arms over his chest. His heart ached with the force of its beat. “I don’t remember you there that day.”
“We were in the kitchen. Dare ‘n me.”
Dare and I, Cai almost corrected. But Peter was touchy about such things, so he kept silent.
“To take you to get ice cream.” Peter looked over. “You said ‘A dead one won’t teach me much, mamma. I can’t see its heart beating.’”
“Oh.” Well, that was true, wasn’t it? Cai looked at the snow and kicked the sand over the top of it.
Did Dare wonder about it, too? Did both his brothers believe he had a…jar of eyes or something worse hidden under his bed? “Is that why you guys made me watch Winnie the Pooh and Piglet Sing-A-Long like a hundred times?”
“Three weeks later you killed Daddy.”
Cai flinched, huddled into himself. That was why they smothered him? Holding on so tightly that Cai couldn’t breathe? Not Dare so much anymore, thankfully. They were afraid of what he might do? Didn’t they understand why Uncle Nikki had to die?
He hadn’t cried in two years, but the burn of heat behind his eyes grew unbearable. “Do you think I’m evil, Rabbit?”
Peter stomped over and shook his shoulders. “Don’t you ever think that, you little shit! Not ever.”
His brother had never been angry with him. At least not since he was four and cut the pages of Peter’s favorite comic book to create a colorful portrait of him by gluing the bits on his wall. The effect of this anger was more jarring than the shake itself. His teeth clacked on the last rattle before Peter squeezed at his own hair, the auburn spikes popping through his pale fingers. As Peter crouched, Cai reached over combed them down. Then he pressed his fingers across his brother’s freckled nose to stop the heartbreaking twitches. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Peter said, his hands dropping to Cai’s lap and gripping his thighs. ‘Okay’ in Peter-language meant a bevy of things: I love you. We’re all good now. Don’t hate me.
“You’re squashin’ my legs.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Peter whispered.
The weight of how little those words mattered to him hung over his shoulders, dragged them down as if gravity needed him closer. Gravity, it seemed, was not his ally today. He swallowed hard. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t miss his brother. He’d miss his whole family, such as it was. What hurt was that he would never hear those words from Riley. And that crushed him more than Peter’s fingers ever could.
Riley grabbed his keys from the bowl and lifted his coat off the rack in the entryway. As he considered getting something heavier to wear over his shirt, the doorbell rang. He answered it to a surprising blast of sunshine, the barest hint of a chill, and Nikolaj, a red hoodie tied around his waist, rising up on the balls of his feet.
Riley’s smile button got pushed. “Hey. Did we have plans?”
“Plans?” Nikolaj sank down to his heels with a deflated furrow of his brows. “No…I….”
“Nikolaj, I was teasing.”
“Oh. Um. You’re not very good at that.”
“Noted.” Riley laughed and ruffled the mop of black hair. “I’m going to pick up a pizza before the game. Want to wait here or come along?”
Riley closed the door and locked it. As they walked off, Fuzzbutt’s howls got a smile from them both.
“Can’t we bring him?” Nikolaj asked, slowing down and popping a few pieces of colored candy into his mouth.
“A beagle in a pizza shop?”
“Oh. Yeah. I wanted to—before I…Never mind.”
“C’mon, kid. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll buy Fuzz a small sausage pizza.” He tucked his coat under his arm and slipped his hands in his jeans pockets. Half a block down, they entered an enclosed, wooden walkway temporarily built outside a construction site. Riley had the strangest urge to hold Nikolaj’s hand as it brushed against him.
“Do you think I’m evil?”
“What?” Riley halted, the wooden walls managing to echo his surprise.
“Because I liked Piglet. I really did think he was cute.”
Riley had learned long ago that if he fed the curiosity that gnawed during their conversations, he’d grow grey hairs by the end of them. Nikolaj always had a reason for saying what he did. More often than not, it was a reason only he understood. If asked, he would spend hours explaining how it came about. Best to go with the result rather than go on the journey of those thoughts. Riley asked anyway. Because he enjoyed hearing the way that brilliant mind worked. And because he cherished the soft cadence of Nikolaj’s voice. “Where’s this coming from?”
He leaned against the wall and wished he’d put on that extra layer. Not that a sweatshirt was the kind of armor that would help with the confusion Nikolaj kept punching him with, but at least he wouldn’t be shivering. He lifted his coat, but before he could put it on, he was dealt another surprise.
“Something Peter said. Or implied, I guess. I wondered if you and Austin thought so too.”
“No. I don’t think you’re evil. I’m very sure that neither your brother, nor his boyfriend, thinks you are either. Why is this coming up today?”
Nikolaj braced his foot on one side of Riley’s hip and scooted his back up the wall. The maneuver wasn’t out of character. When Nikolaj wasn’t painting, wasn’t stretching or crouching to add shadows and light to his murals, he seemed to be at a loss as to what to do with his arms and legs. Still, Riley should have been suspicious. Because one thing Nikolaj rarely did was initiate eye-contact.
“I was um…wondering.” Nikolaj’s grey eyes held a challenge with their directness. “If that’s why you won’t even kiss me?”
That hit close enough to the mark that Riley rubbed the unease from the back of his neck. Evil? He wouldn’t go that far. Capable of evil? Riley hadn’t answered that for himself yet. He wasn’t about to lay that burden on a kid who was still maturing. “I won’t kiss you because that would be cruel when I know you have feelings for me.” Though he wasn’t wearing it, Riley instinctively felt for the FBI badge he usually kept pinned to his belt. “And I won’t kiss you because you’re seventeen.”
“Eighteen. As of Tuesday.”
“And I’m twenty-eight.”
From the collar of his shirt, Nikolaj pulled a beaded metal necklace out and rolled it under his fingertips. Riley was incapable of not smiling at the gesture. “You know that’s FBI property,” he teased.
“You gave it to me.”
“To track you. When I was your bodyguard.”
“Come and get it, then.” Another foot planted next to Riley’s other hip, effectively caging him in. With the way that Nikolaj smiled, Riley would have to reexamine that whole “evil” conversation.
“What are you doing?”
“Flirting?” Nikolaj asked, his brows lifting. Then he swallowed loudly.
This must have been how Gulliver felt, trapped by something so small, but trapped nonetheless. Not that Cai was small at 6’2, but the gesture was small. “Let’s go,” Riley said, patting Cai’s thin leg. Cai didn’t move. Just kept those intense eyes fixed on him.
He’d never denied to himself that he wanted Cai—Nikolaj—but he’d remained stoic about it these last two years. Trying to keep things “brotherly.” That had become more difficult recently, as Cai—Nikolaj. Dammit—got older. Got bolder. “We’ve had this conversation be—“
“I’m leaving for Europe,” Cai blurted out.
Riley curled his fingers, barely conscious he had gripped a handful of Cai’s jeans. “That’s great. Where in Europe?”
“All over.” A fall of haphazardly sawn hair fell over Cai’s brow as he looked down. “Albania maybe, to see what’s left of my family.”
He patted Cai’s leg again; this time Cai complied and moved it, tucked his heel up underneath him. The other foot remained put. A signal Cai wasn’t moving. That maybe Riley would be walking the rest of the way alone. “Sounds fun. I would have killed to go to Europe for a few months at your age.”
“I’m not going for just a few months.” That blow clawed rather than punched. “Probably a year. Maybe more.”
Riley slumped against the wall again as Cai looked up. “That’s…when do you leave?” The difficulty in holding his smile proved too much. It faltered and slipped away.
“Friday.” Cai brought his thumb up and gnawed at the nail as he checked the corridor.
“Yeah? That’s still great. Great experience.” He passed a hand over his mouth and strained for a smile.. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Peter hadn’t agreed until just this morning. I asked him last month. I have a little money from working at the law offices, but he and Austin had to chip in some too.”
A waft of freezing wind slithered between them and sent goosebumps alighting across Riley’s skin. “My mother will miss you taking her to church.” Don’t be a jackass. “I’ll miss you, too, Nikolaj.”
Cai stopped shredding his nails and wrapped his arms around himself. He looked so vulnerable, even a bit angelic, suspended above the floor as he was, not at all like the murderer of a notorious mafia boss. “Kiss me goodbye, Riley,” he said. “Please?”
And what could that hurt? Cai would forget him in a few months and do what he should do—experience the world and the people in it. A kiss that he’d denied them both these last two years? A kiss wouldn’t hold Cai back. Wouldn’t tether him at eighteen to a man ten years his senior.
What could it hurt?
Riley stepped forward and brushed his thumb across Cai’s cheek, took in those wide grey eyes, the slim chest heaving breaths. Cai’s arms slowly uncurled, long fingers hesitating and then pressing against Riley’s stomach and gliding up.
“Close your eyes.” He expected a held breath and puckered lips, but Cai’s mouth merely parted and exhaled a plume of candy-scented mist. Skittles. Riley knew the smell. Skittles, and turpentine, and oil paint, and whispered words, answers in the form of questions, the way he bounced on his toes when he had something to say, the thin feel of the bones in his wrist. Riley knew every scent and every nuance of this boy. Every one except his taste.
He dipped forward, inhaled and savored the future memory, and drew his lips across Cai’s.
Then Riley remembered why this was such a bad idea.
The intent was to kiss him once and pull away, but Cai opened for him, ghosted his hands up, tugged Riley in while twisting locks of his hair. Seconds became breathless minutes as Riley pressed closer, his tongue sweeping in to steal the sweetness from Cai’s mouth. His coat fell to the ground as he dug his fingers into those slim hips, stole control of the kiss, bit the edge of Cai’s bottom lip, yanked him closer, off the wall, until their hips and chests came together, and Cai had to plant his feet firmly down, had to wrap his arms around Riley’s neck in order to hold his balance. Too far. But he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t hear anything but the wind and the small noises Cai made as he ground his hips against Riley’s.
It took a car horn to drag him from the undertow of Cai’s taste.
“Tell me to stay. Tell me to stay. Tell me.” Cai flicked a button on Riley’s shirt, snuck his cold hand inside and rested it where Riley’s heart beat a telling drumfire against his chest. He leaned in for another kiss.
Riley turned his head briefly, until he had focus, and the strength not to give in again.
Nothing but breath between them as they stood—Cai with his eyes closed, his lips wet and red, along with the skin near his mouth. Riley smoothed at the spots his stubble had marred. He should have shaved today.
He should have stopped this.
He should never have answered his door.
“Have a safe flight.”
All the energy crackling between them seemed to be carried off by the wind twisting through the tunnel. Cai pulled his hands away and hugged himself again. “I won’t wait for you. I love you, but I won’t wait for you.”
“You shouldn’t.” Riley gathered a slow, unsteady breath and stepped back. “You shouldn’t wait for me.”
“You want me to leave,” Cai said quietly.
“Yes. I want you to find out who you are. To become something other than Baby Capone or Peter’s and Darryl’s brother. You’ve missed so many things. When have you ever laughed, Nikolaj? In the last two years, when have you laughed?”
“I…” The furrowed brow said it all. The seconds ticked by as Cai chewed his nail again and concentrated. Riley knew the answer because Peter had told him. Not once. Not once in two years.
“Go to Europe. Meet pretty Parisian boys. See the Louvre. Paint.” He swept the tangle of hair from Cai’s eye. “Leave your old life behind for a while and be whoever you want.”
Cai remained in place as Riley started to walk away. Over the roar of traffic, he could still hear the quiet words at his back. “What are you going to do when it’s too late? When I’ve found someone else?”
It wasn’t until he braced against the door of the restaurant that he realized he’d left his coat behind.
“What are you going to do when it’s too late?”
Move on. Like I should have done two years ago.