(Book One of Two)
This is Book One of Mike and John's story. Book Two is Ring Around The Sun.
John Griffin and Michael South – agents in the renegade counterterrorism agency Last Line, and closer than brothers. It’s a fast-lane life of danger and excitement. John loves every minute of it, but he’s facing one big problem now: his feelings for Mike have flared up from friendship into a passion he can no longer hide. And Mike, although the bravest and best of partners, doesn’t feel the same.
Their one sexual encounter leaves them baffled and alienated from one another. Mike is a haunted man, shaken by flashbacks to his past life as an MI5 agent and a mission in Russia that went terribly wrong. He’s been left with a need for violence between the sheets, and John isn’t prepared to hurt him.
Not everyone has Mike’s best interests at heart. Their ruthless boss hires a ghost from Mike’s past to help track down a Russian war criminal who’s planted a nuclear device in the heart of London. Anzhel Mattvei knows all of Mike’s dark secrets, and soon regains his former sexual thraldom over him, leaving Mike locked in battle for his will and his soul.
Anzhel has turned Mike into a human detonation device. Only John’s love can pull him back from the brink – and save the millions of lives in the fallout zone.
Covert Six headquarters—almost as anonymous as a bunker in the forest. Michael, half an hour early for his shift, stopped to lean on the railings of the dingy little West Ken square. Nothing much had changed since Victorian nannies had come here to wheel their charges in perambulators round the bushes. The redbrick walls of Guardian Chambers still loomed on all four sides, a pool of lingering night even at seven on a bright May morning.
A horrible place to work, really. The tide of regeneration that had swept through this part of the city had receded, leaving C6 beached, unrepentantly free of air conditioning, open plan, and natural daylight. Its corridors still smelled of dust. And, to the handful of men who worked there, it wasn’t known as C6 at all. It was Last Line.
The western wall—where Sir James Webb, Michael’s boss, kept his kingdom on the top three floors—was still punctuated by neon-lit windows. Sunshine seldom fought its way up there, even in the height of summer. Michael had no idea why the prospect of another day in its grim confines made him feel so bloody happy.
A window screeched—the sound of a sash being forced up past its dry rot and ancient paint. Casually Michael turned away to face the railings. He propped one trainer-clad foot on the low wall and began his stretches. His current flat was within jogging distance of Last Line, but only just. It was a hard run, and he’d need a shower—if he dared risk the clattering 1950s plumbing…
Ducking his head, concealing a smile, Michael continued his little charade of oblivion. He wasn’t sure why. It was part of the same impulse that had stopped him outside the building in the first place. His life in the service of Sir James was often lived at white-hot speed. He didn’t often take the time to consider its miracles. Ordinary mornings. Deep dreamless sleep. His health, his sanity…
“Mike, come on. The sodding kettle’s bust again.”
Michael straightened, letting the man leaning out of the window see that he could see him. Not an obvious miracle, John Griffin, with his hair still damp and his Merseyside baritone ringing off the redbrick. Impatient. Touchy as a wildcat until he got his caffeine fix, and somehow he was the kiss of death with electronics, leaving a trail of crashed computers and burned-out kitchenware behind him everywhere. He was a pain in the arse. He was also Michael’s partner, and—most ordinary miracle of all—his friend.
Pressing his hands against the base of his spine, Michael stretched the moment out a few seconds longer. Then he nodded and gestured to the door. On my way up.
“About bloody time.” John reached to grab the sash. Then he paused and flashed a grin that reached Michael through all the shadows of the square. “For the record?”
Michael thought at first he wouldn’t bother. He was tired from his run, and John’s childish contest over who could make it fastest up the stairs would die out sooner if Michael didn’t keep encouraging him by shaving the odd second off his time. But the teasing challenge in his partner’s voice suddenly grabbed him—warm and infectious as his laughter—and Michael seized the rail and took the first five steps at a bound.
He didn’t stand a chance, of course. He’d turned thirty last July, and in the three years since leaving MI5 had finally put on a little weight to match his height. He was solid. It pleased him. He felt more akin to the earth now, less likely to burn up and vanish. He could outrun John on an assault course, stay staunchly ahead of him when John had worn out his sprint and fallen back. Over the short stretch, though—not a chance. John, with his dancer’s frame, deceptively elegant over tempered-steel bones, would beat him every time.
But it was always worth a try. Exploding up out of the stairwell, Michael tore silently down the corridor, feet slipping on the worn linoleum. Three yards shy of the staffroom door, he put on the brakes, dropped to a nonchalant walk, and strolled in, picking invisible fluff off the front of his T-shirt. “Morning.”
John turned round from the counter. The kettle was fizzing dangerously on its stand behind him. One shaft of sunlight had found its way across the rooftops, apparently just for the purpose of striking agate green flare from his eyes. “Morning.” He glanced across the room. Their timing equipment was hardly Olympic standard—the second hand of a battered kitchen clock on the peeling wall. “You’re way off. My old granny could get up those stairs faster than that.”
“Yes,” Michael returned amiably. “I suppose an orangutan could.”
John stared at him, straight-faced, for almost five seconds. Then a snort of laughter escaped him. “Just fix the bloody kettle, will you?”
Michael shouldered him gently out of the way. He picked up the kettle, which promptly stopped fizzing, and settled it back on its base. “What did you do to it?”
“Nothing. Touched it. Is it okay now?”
“Fine. Sit down before you have an aneurysm. I’ll fix you your jet fuel.”
He was distantly grateful when John obeyed him. There were mornings—whole days, sometimes—when anything less than three feet of distance between them threatened to bring Michael’s world down in flames. Mornings like this one, when John had clearly thrown himself out of bed five minutes before he had to leave his flat and was still wet from his shower, his hair in soft otter brown waves down the back of his neck, the tang of his ridiculously expensive aftershave mixing with the spice of his damp skin. Gritting his teeth, Michael concentrated on spooning instant coffee into mugs. By the time he banged them down on the stained staff room table, his heart rate was normal again—and John, feet up on a chair, apparently absorbed in that morning’s Times, looked almost normal too, or at least sufficiently human that Michael could cope. Tousled, unshaved. His exquisite Amosu shirt badly in need of a press. “What’s on the agenda today, then?”
John yawned enormously, raising a belated hand to cover the perfect tonsils exposed. “Frigging paperwork again. We don’t trace back the contacts in the Irving case, Webb’s gonna have the aneurysm, not me.” He reached for his coffee, downed it scalding. “Mm. You’re a beautiful man, Michael South.”
Michael shook his head in wonder. “You’re a gannet with a throat of asbestos. Seriously, desk work again? We’ll both go blind at this rate.”
“Be honest with you, I could use an easy day. I thought I’d call in at the Vineyard last night—just on the off chance—and I ran into this guy I’d never seen there before. Not much to look at, but the biggest bloody—”
The buzzer by the door went off. Michael met John’s eyes. They shared a moment. Michael’s relief at being spared the details, John’s contrition for having been about to inflict them. Knocking back the rest of his coffee, John unfolded his long graceful limbs and went to lift the receiver on the wall-mounted phone. He listened for a few moments, then said, “Thank you, sir,” and hung up.
Michael raised an eyebrow. “Paperwork off, then?”
“Oh yes, my son. Grab your coat. We’ve pulled.”