A little love for the fans!
Your (unedited) reward scene for the All-Star voting. Thanks for being patient with me.
Zane was on his way up the stairs when the doorbell rang. He debated not answering it before he headed back down, grumbling. It was Sunday, his only day off, and he didn’t want to deal with any shit today.
He peered through the peephole and his heart stuttered when he saw the Marine on the stoop. He was wearing a green and khaki service uniform, a Barracks Cover on his head. A seabag was slung over his shoulder, and he stood straight and tall as he looked out on the street, his back to the door.
Zane fumbled with the lock, his fingers suddenly unable to keep up with his racing heart. Was it news? Was it good or bad news? Why the hell would a Marine be standing on Zane’s stoop if it wasn’t news?
He swung the door open, feeling stupid and clumsy as the man turned to face him.
Nick gave him a wan smile and held up his hand. “No one’s hurt.”
Zane glared at him. He wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. And he wasn’t sure whether to hug him or hit him.
Nick laughed at Zane’s expression, the sound flat and tired. “Nothing’s wrong, I promise.”
Zane looked him up and down, inspecting him for injuries that would have sent him home. He had none that were visible. “Why are you here? How are you here?”
“Forty-eight hour special liberty.”
Zane frowned harder. He realized he was still gripping the door, making his knuckles hurt. He let go and shook his hand. “Special liberty?” he asked carefully.
“I have a cold,” Nick answered, deadpan. He left it at that and waited a beat. “Can I come in?”
Zane started, nodding as he stepped out of the way. “Yeah. Shit. Sorry, I just …”
“Panicked, I know. I’m sorry for the bait and switch, but I didn’t have anywhere to change out of the uniform,” Nick said as he stepped inside. He set his seabag down by the door, the same spot Ty always dropped his gym bag when he was tired after a long day.
Zane stared at it for a moment, letting the pain settle in his chest before he tried to take another breath. He finally tore his eyes away and looked up at Nick, trying to smile. Nick was watching him. He looked exhausted, but his frown was sympathetic. He had to sense Zane’s disappointment that he wasn’t Ty.
“You look good,” Zane managed to say with a wave of his hand at Nick.
Nick smirked. “I know. Marines always look good.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a leather billfold that appeared to hold his orders, then pulled a creased and battered envelope from the billfold and handed it to Zane.
Zane stared at it, licking his lips and steeling himself before he was able to reach for it. It was warm against his fingers, and the simple scroll of his name was a familiar one. It was from Ty, but it had the appearance of a letter which had seen many nights in someone’s pocket. Zane knew a lot of soldiers, sailors, and marines left a letter with a buddy in case they didn’t make it home. If Nick had been carrying this letter around every day for that reason, Zane didn’t want to read it. “This isn’t …”
“He knew I was coming home,” Nick answered, voice gentle. “He wrote it before I left.”
Zane released the breath he’d been holding in a rush. He turned the letter over, fingers shaking, desperate to rip it open and read the first communication he’d received from Ty in months.
Nick cleared his throat, getting Zane’s attention. “Garrett. I know my way around if you want to take that upstairs and read it. You can write him a response and I’ll carry it back with me.”
Zane blinked at him, fighting to breathe. “You only have forty-eight hours. You shouldn’t waste them.”
Nick raised both eyebrows and shook his head. “I’m not.”
Zane stared at him for another breathless second, then he lunged and wrapped Nick up in a hug. Nick began to laugh, patting him on the back awkwardly. “Go on,” he finally urged. “I’m going to steal some of Ty’s Cubans while you do that.”
“Deal,” Zane said as he backed away and then turned to head up the stairs, the letter pressed to his hip so his fingers wouldn’t tremble as he held it. He heard Nick in the kitchen, probably retrieving the portable safe Ty kept hidden below the kitchen sink where he stowed his Cuban cigars. Zane didn’t even care that Nick knew it was there. He went to his bedroom and sat on the end of the bed, looking down at the letter from Ty.
He almost didn’t want to open it. There was every possibility it might be the last thing he heard from Ty, and though he tried not to think that way, he was only human. The notion kept creeping in. What if this was it? What if this was the last thing they managed to say to each other? How could it ever be enough?
He forced himself to tear into the envelope before he could make himself sick.
I’m okay. We’re all okay. I miss you like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and I wanted you to know that. I can’t say more. Please don’t ask Nick details. Just know we’re doing our damnedest to get home.
It was signed formally, with the words Captain B. Tyler Grady scrawled across the bottom.
“Captain,” Zane murmured. He smiled even as his composure threatened. There was almost nothing to go on, but it was from Ty and that was all that mattered. Beneath the signature were eight numbers that seemed to be random and hold no meaning. Zane wondered first if they were perhaps a processing code, but they were in Ty’s handwriting.
After staring for a few more seconds, he realized what it was. A simple cypher. Ty had sent him an encoded message. He grabbed a pad of paper from the bedside table and began writing down the letters needed to replace the numbers, and it didn’t take long to decipher what the message said. “I love you.”
Zane began to laugh. Ty’d sent him a puzzle to play with.
It took him long minutes to write his response. He kept it just as short, just as succinct, knowing these letters were being read. He included his own cypher in return, with the message, “Aye aye, Captain,” just to throw Ty off.
He didn’t seal it, knowing it wouldn’t matter, and he thumped back down the stairs. Nick was nowhere to be found though. The living room was silent and nothing was out of place. Zane called his name, cocking his head to listen.
The distant reply came from outside. Zane ambled out to the front stoop, but again he found no one there. “Nick?”
“Up here,” Nick called.
Zane craned his head, peering two stories up to the top floor balcony where Nick stood, leaning over and looking at him.
“How the fuck did you get past me?” Zane asked, chuckling at the memory of Nick and Kelly scaling a balcony in New Orleans.
“I have skills,” Nick said, his voice just low enough to travel down. He waved the cigar held between two long fingers. “Come share this thing with me.”
He disappeared over the railing, and Zane headed back inside to join him. He climbed past the bedrooms on the second floor and into the large attic room, where the door to the balcony was propped open and the curtains were flowing in a light breeze. Zane stood in the doorway, watching Nick for a moment. He was reclining in a rusty old lawn chair, his feet propped on the railing. He’d changed into jeans and a black T-shirt, and he was barefoot.
He held up the Cuban for Zane to take, and Zane moved to sit beside him, putting the cigar in his mouth. He watched Nick for several more seconds, studying him.
Zane had never paid a lot of attention to Nick, other than briefly deciding he was going to try to like him instead of hit him. He didn’t know him well, even though he was so much like Ty on the surface. He didn’t know his moods, and he couldn’t read him. But even Zane could see Nick wasn’t the same person he’d been in New Orleans.
“Got a response?” Nick asked when he finally looked over at Zane and smiled.
Zane handed him the envelope. “Are you okay?” he asked impulsively.
Nick looked up from folding the letter, his eyebrows jumping. “Why?”
“Well, I mean … you’re here. You’re not in Boston. I know I wasn’t the top person on your list to see, so … are you okay?”
Nick smiled, looking away from Zane to peer out over the city stretching beyond the balcony. Zane had sat up here with Ty many times. It was where Ty liked to come to think, to ponder their cases, to decompress after a stressful day. Nick had obviously been up here enough times to know that if he hadn’t propped the door open, he would have been locked out here by the faulty door.
“I’m not okay,” he finally said, his voice so soft and hoarse that Zane had to lean closer to hear.
Zane held his breath, waiting for Nick to elaborate. Nick remained silent, though.
“O’Flaherty,” Zane finally whispered.
Nick looked down, licking his lips. “I never thanked you for what you did.”
“Ty is my best friend,” Nick said. “He’s been the most constant thing I’ve had in my life. I know if you had forced him to choose between us, he would have chosen you. And he should have,” Nick added quickly with a glance at Zane. “Thank you for not making him choose.”
Zane had to take a few seconds to gather his thoughts as Nick met his gaze with striking green eyes. He finally found his voice. “I’m glad I didn’t. It would have killed him.”
They sat in silence, staring at each other for several more moments. Zane didn’t feel awkward about it, and the moment didn’t feel especially heavy or fraught. Nick had a way of making him feel at ease despite their rocky start, and Zane had to wonder if that was why he and Ty had remained so close for so long. Nick was the rock to Ty’s hurricane. He was impervious to Ty’s moods. It was like his superpower.
Nick plucked the cigar from Zane’s fingers and took a long drag on it. When he spoke again, smoke accompanied his words. “Doc’s flying in to meet up with me. He should be here soon. We’ll probably get some dinner. You’re welcome to come.”
“I’d like that. Thank you.”
Nick smiled and took another drag.
Zane began to laugh at the devious look in Nick’s eyes. “Oh my God. Ty told you to take me out to dinner, didn’t he?”
“That’s classified,” Nick drawled. He tilted his head back and blew a smoke ring toward the sunset.
“Great,” Zane grumbled. His eyes followed the ring as it wavered off on the breeze. He’d have to get Ty to teach him how to do that when he returned. “Now I’m a charity case.”
“Aren’t we all, Garrett?”
Zane nodded, smiling wryly. He propped his feet up on the railing. “I’ve always been a little jealous of you and Ty,” he admitted.
Nick glanced at him.
“I never had a friend like that. Someone I knew would be there no matter what. I can’t imagine what that’s like.”
Nick pursed his lips and gave a slow a nod. “Garrett, you have at least one friend like that now.”
Zane found his throat tightening at the sentiment. He didn’t fool himself into thinking Nick was offering any kind of loyalty that wasn’t attached to Ty, but it was more than he could remember having in years. “Thank you.”
Nick began to smile, and his words took on a sly hint. “So, dinner. You like Italian?”
Zane burst out laughing. “I know a place nearby.”
They were both still snickering when they heard a car door shut on the street below. “I see your smoke rings!” Kelly called from below. “I hear your evil cackling.”
Nick sat up and peered over the railing. He pushed out of his seat and left Zane sitting on the balcony without another word. He didn’t make a sound going down the stairs. Zane waved down to Kelly, who had a bag slung over his shoulder and was craning his neck to look up at him.
“Where’d Irish go?”
Before Zane could answer, Nick burst out of the front door and hopped the three steps to the sidewalk. His body hit Kelly hard and he picked him up off the ground. Kelly made a sound like a bird being hit by a car, but then he wrapped his arms and legs around Nick and held on so he wouldn’t fall as he was hugged.
Zane began to laugh even as a melancholy ache settled in his chest. He was glad to see the two friends reunited, but he couldn’t help but wish that was him and Ty down there.
“Not too long now,” he whispered to himself. “Keep it together, Garrett”
The scenes that follow will be included with the Shock & Awe paperback. So if you were on the fence about that one … go pre-order that puppy.