Against the grain, p.21
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       Against The Grain, p.21
 

         Part #5 of THIRDS series by Charlie Cochet
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  AUSTEN HEARD the door swish closed, and he stepped out from Sparks’s personal bathroom. He sat down on the edge of her desk.

  “You weren’t really going to break them up, were you?”

  Sparks waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I wasn’t. I needed to give them a little more motivation. There’s a lot of potential there.”

  She got that familiar look in her eyes, and Austen groaned.

  “Forget it. They’ll never join TIN.”

  “I know that,” she huffed, poking his leg with her pen. “Get your ass off my desk.”

  He hopped off and draped himself over one of the chairs across from her. “So, what then?”

  “You don’t have to be a TIN operative to work for TIN. You should know that better than anyone.” She went to work tapping away at her desk and logging into the secure TIN communication system.

  “You want them as freelancers?” Austen gaped at her.

  “What? Don’t look at me like that. With enough training, they could be exceptional. Look at Agent Maddock. He impressed me with the way he handled Fuller. And Keeler’s barely scratched the surface with their training.”

  “Maybe.”

  “I think Sloane and Dex can do extraordinary things together.” A slow smile crept onto her face. “They could be the first THIRDS power couple.”

  Austen gave a start. “You’re really fucking scary when you’re happy like that.”

  “Oh, shut up. You have no vision.”

  She brought up a THIRDS training schedule, and Austen thought about it. He knew Destructive Delta wouldn’t join TIN. They had trouble with the whole means to an end thing. They weren’t ruthless enough, couldn’t shut off their emotions the way TIN operatives could. But as freelancers? Maybe. He couldn’t help his smile

  Looked like things just got that little bit more interesting.

  CAEL WAS headed for the bullpen along with his team when Dex stopped in his tracks ahead of them and turned.

  “What just happened?”

  Sloane grabbed Dex’s arm and continued walking. “I don’t know, but keep walking before she changes her mind.”

  Dex’s mouth opened to reply, then closed. He turned and followed Sloane to their office, the rest of the team close on their heels. They had joined Sloane and Dex in their office when Ash’s phone went off. He pulled out his smartphone and frowned at the screen.

  “What is it?” Cael asked worriedly.

  “Don’t know. I don’t recognize the number.” Ash tapped the screen and put the phone to his ear. “Ash Keeler.”

  Cael watched Ash’s eyes widen. He put a hand to his mouth, tears in his eyes. Cael was immediately at his side.

  “Yes. Of course.” A big smile spread across Ash’s face, and he nodded, a tear rolling down his cheek. “That’d be great. I’ll ask him. I look forward to it too.” He ended the call and wiped his eyes and cheek.

  “Everything okay?” Sloane asked.

  Ash nodded, and Cael could tell he was trying hard to keep his emotions at bay. “Yeah, um. That was my mom. She’s left my dad, and she wants to have brunch on Sunday.”

  “Oh, Ash! That’s wonderful!”

  Cael threw his arms around Ash and hugged him while the rest of the team patted him on the back and congratulated him. They all knew what this meant to him. Cael was so happy for him. After composing himself, Ash looked down at Cael.

  “She wants you to come.”

  “Of course,” Cael said. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Ash, and he was thrilled that his boyfriend wanted him there at his side when he saw his mother after so many years without her, thinking she hated him.

  Sloane tapped his security code into his desk and brought up the team’s training schedule on the large board across from them.

  “Guess Monday’s going to be a whole new world for all of us.” He went to tap his desk when the board flickered and turned off. “What the hell?”

  They all observed the darkened screen when it suddenly flickered to life. The whole schedule had been amended and filled in with a list of training requirements for each of them for next year, some of them with techniques Cael was quite sure weren’t THIRDS requirements.

  Dex stared at the screen. “Um… please tell me that was you.”

  Sloane shook his head. “Nope.”

  Cael frowned. “Wait, does that say mixed martial arts?”

  “What’s that?” Dex said, spotting a little icon on the bottom right of the schedule. He leaned in for a better look. “It looks like….” His frown deepened. “Ruby slippers?” He arched an eyebrow and tapped the screen. It went black, and Dex cringed. “Shit, I think I broke it.”

  Blue words started scrolling across the screen.

  Welcome, Destructive Delta, to the TIN associate training program.

  They all gaped at the screen, with Dex verbalizing their thoughts. “What the fuck?”

  The door swished closed on its own, and the room went into privacy mode. Cael took a step closer to Ash. This whole thing was freaking him out. A small screen appeared in the corner of the board with Sparks waving at them.

  “Destructive Delta, this is your new training schedule. Austen will be your contact from this point on.”

  Austen appeared behind Sparks and leaned over her shoulder to wave at them. “What’s up, peeps?”

  Sparks glared at him, and with a grin, he pulled away and out of sight.

  “As I was saying. Austen will be your point of contact. Any time you see the symbol Agent Daley touched, it means you have a message from me not related to the THIRDS. The message will remain onscreen for a limited amount of time before it deletes itself permanently. All communication is untraceable. I have high hopes for Destructive Delta. I expect you won’t disappoint me.”

  “What’s going on?” Sloane asked. “What is all this?”

  “You’ll know more in due time. For now, continue with your duties and your training. Sparks out.”

  Before any of them could utter another word, the screen returned to their training schedule. The icon that had been on the bottom right was no longer there. Dex dropped himself into his chair as the room came out of privacy mode and the door opened.

  “So…,” Dex said. “Who’s up for a few drinks at Dekatria tonight?”

  Everyone put their hands up.

  “Good.” Dex swiveled in his chair, a puzzled look on his face. “Good. Okay. Fuck, this place is weird.”

  Everyone promised to meet up tonight at Dekatria, and Cael headed for his office behind Rosa. He was actually looking forward to setting up some boring algorithms for a change. Ash caught up to him, leaning in to speak quietly.

  “Pick you up at eight?”

  Cael’s pulse fluttered. “That sounds an awful lot like date talk, Agent Keeler.” Ash wriggled his brows, and Cael laughed. “Eight it is.”

  With a wink, Ash was off, catching up to Letty and giving her a playful push. Cael could hardly wait. He knew Ash would still be reserved at the bar out in the open, but he was just glad to be spending time with him after everything that had happened. With a skip in his step, he followed Rosa into their office for a conversation on what he should wear tonight.

  ASH TOOK a swig of his beer, his gaze on the dance floor, where Cael was dancing with their teammates. Everyone was out there, even Sloane and Dex, but Ash’s eyes remained on Cael and the easy way his body moved to the rhythm of the music, as if he could feel it down to his soul. His smile showed how much he loved it. The beat picked up, and Cael bounced around with Rosa and her girlfriend, Milena, who finally managed to get some time away from her job as an antiques dealer. Ash had no idea there was even such a demand for antiques, but then what the hell did he know about it? Letty danced with Dimples the firefighter, and Calvin was off to one side dancing with Hobbs, who was back on his real medication. Lou was behind the bar with Bradley, while Seb chatted to Taylor at the bar.

  Several guys had tried dancing with Cael, who’d polit
ely declined. Ash wasn’t overbearing. Cael could dance with whoever he liked, even if the thought of a guy getting close to Cael made Ash want to punch one of the asshats. They’d been having a great time. Dex did his stupid karaoke before everyone hit the dance floor except for Ash, who wasn’t much into it. Not that he couldn’t. He never really felt the urge to dance. Of course now….

  Cael threw his head back and laughed at something his brother said to him. Ash took another swig of his beer and put it down. He worried his bottom lip.

  “Fuck it.” Ash got up and waded through the mass of bodies on the dance floor, pressed together as they moved to the sensual rhythm of the pop song. Cael was dressed in his gray Converse sneakers, charcoal jeans, and a black V-neck long-sleeved T-shirt that accentuated his sinewy frame. His jaw was covered in stubble, and his silvery eyes sparkled to rival diamonds, his lips wide in a gorgeous smile.

  A Therian next to Cael with a wide grin was obviously flirting, his hand reaching out to take hold of Cael’s waist. Ash clamped a hand down on his wrist and loomed over him with a sweet smile.

  “Fuck off.”

  The guy swallowed hard and nodded fervently before taking off.

  Turning to Cael, Ash gave him a sheepish grin. “Sorry. That was mean.”

  Cael laughed. “And that bothers you?”

  “Nope,” Ash said with a shrug. “I just don’t want you to think I’m going to be some possessive Neanderthal.”

  Cael gave him a knowing look before asking, “So, what was that about?”

  Ash slipped his hand over the exposed skin between the waistband of Cael’s jeans and where his shirt had ridden up. “He was going to touch this. I didn’t like it.”

  He stepped closer, his fingers brushing and caressing Cael’s soft skin. Cael’s pupils dilated, and he licked his bottom lip. He stood stock still, waiting for Ash to make a move. With a sinful grin, Ash put his hands on Cael’s waist and pulled him up against him, his knee slipping between Cael’s legs.

  “Ash,” Cael gasped, looking around them.

  “What they think doesn’t matter.” Ash brushed his lips over Cael’s. “You’re what matters.” He kissed Cael, ignoring the cheers and catcalls around them. A joy he’d never known swept through Ash as he squeezed Cael to him, kissing him passionately without a care for who the fuck was watching them. With a breathless laugh, he pulled back and met Cael’s questioning gaze. “I love you, and I want everyone to know how damn lucky I am.”

  Cael threw his arms around Ash and kissed him. The world around them was reduced to nothing but music and the man in his arms. Ash knew he was an asshole. He was gruff and unapproachable. He did everything in his own belligerent way, but one thing he wasn’t was a fool. Ash had been blessed with the love of the amazing man in his arms, and he had no intention of ever letting go.

  When homicide detective Dexter J. Daley’s testimony helps send his partner away for murder, the consequences—and the media frenzy—aren’t far behind. He soon finds himself sans boyfriend, sans friends, and, after an unpleasant encounter in a parking garage after the trial, he’s lucky he doesn’t find himself sans teeth. Dex fears he’ll get transferred from the Human Police Force’s Sixth Precinct, or worse, get dismissed. Instead, his adoptive father—a sergeant at the Therian-Human Intelligence Recon Defense Squadron otherwise known as the THIRDS—pulls a few strings, and Dex gets recruited as a Defense Agent.

  Dex is determined to get his life back on track and eager to get started in his new job. But his first meeting with Team Leader Sloane Brodie, who also happens to be his new jaguar Therian partner, turns disastrous. When the team is called to investigate the murders of three HumaniTherian activists, it soon becomes clear to Dex that getting his partner and the rest of the tightknit team to accept him will be a lot harder than catching the killer—and every bit as dangerous.

  When a series of bombs go off in a Therian youth center, injuring members of THIRDS Team Destructive Delta and causing a rift between agents Dexter J. Daley and Sloane Brodie, peace seems unattainable. Especially when a new and frightening group, the Order of Adrasteia, appears to always be a step ahead. With panic and intolerance spreading and streets becoming littered with the Order’s propaganda, hostility between Humans and Therians grows daily. Dex and Sloane, along with the rest of the team, are determined to take down the Order and restore peace, not to mention settle a personal score. But the deeper the team investigates the bombings, the more they believe there’s a more sinister motive than a desire to shed blood and spread chaos.

  Discovering the frightful truth behind the Order’s intent forces Sloane to confront secrets from a past he thought he’d left behind for good, a past that could not only destroy him and his career, but also the reputation of the organization that made him all he is today. Now more than ever, Dex and Sloane need each other, and, along with trust, the strength of their bond will mean the difference between justice and all-out war.

  New York City’s streets are more dangerous than ever with the leaderless Order of Adrasteia and the Ikelos Coalition, a newly emerged Therian group, at war. Innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire and although the THIRDS round up more and more members of the Order in the hopes of keeping the volatile group from reorganizing, the members of the Coalition continue to escape and wreak havoc in the name of vigilante justice.

  Worse yet, someone inside the THIRDS has been feeding the Coalition information. It’s up to Destructive Delta to draw out the mole and put an end to the war before anyone else gets hurt. But to get the job done, the team will have to work through the aftereffects of the Therian Youth Center bombing. A skirmish with Coalition members leads Agent Dexter J. Daley to a shocking discovery and suddenly it becomes clear that the random violence isn’t so random. There’s more going on than Dex and Sloane originally believed, and their fiery partnership is put to the test. As the case takes an explosive turn, Dex and Sloane are in danger of losing more than their relationship.

  After an attack by the Coalition leaves THIRDS Team Leader Sloane Brodie critically injured, agent Dexter J. Daley swears to make Beck Hogan pay for what he’s done. But Dex’s plans for retribution are short-lived. With Ash still on leave with his own injuries, Sloane in the hospital, and Destructive Delta in the Coalition’s crosshairs, Lieutenant Sparks isn’t taking any chances. Dex’s team is pulled from the case, with the investigation handed to Team Leader Sebastian Hobbs. Dex refuses to stand by while another team goes after Hogan, and decides to put his old HPF detective skills to work to find Hogan before Theta Destructive, no matter the cost.

  With a lengthy and painful recovery ahead of him, the last thing Sloane needs is his partner out scouring the city, especially when the lies—however well-intentioned—begin to spiral out of control. Sloane is all too familiar with the desire to retaliate, but some things are more important, like the man who’s pledged to stand beside him. As Dex starts down a dark path, it’s up to Sloane to show him what’s at stake, and finally put a name to what’s in his heart.

 
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