House Hunt

by Jackie Keswick

House Hunt - Jackie Keswick
Editions:Paperback
Pages: 300
ePub
Pages: 300
Kindle
Pages: 300

Jack Horwood hates owing favors. But when a simple day out to treat Gareth to the best oysters in England leads to a discovery of drugs and counterfeit money—things that neither Jack nor Gareth have the jurisdiction to handle—he has to call in help. Help that doesn't come cheap, and that forces him to do something he promised himself he’d never do again—walk away from Gareth and the family he’s starting to make for himself.

Three months undercover is a long time. After missing Gareth’s birthday, Jack is determined not to miss their first anniversary. But coming home and being home are two very different things. So when he is asked to assist with a corporate espionage investigation, Jack can’t say no, despite knowing it will impact his already straining relationship.

Except, of course, he’s walking into a trap….

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Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

DAMN THAT brat and his stupid surprises! It was 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and Gareth stood in the kitchen with his second cup of tea. Despite the early hour, he was fully dressed and ready to go out, though his mood veered between expectant and mildly annoyed. He didn’t object to early mornings, not even on a weekend. He did object—rather a lot as it turned out—to waking up in an empty bed and having breakfast by himself just as he was getting used to having Jack around.

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It made him cranky when Jack returned to his Wimbledon home after work instead of staying with him. For one, he’d discovered that he slept better wrapped around Jack than he did when he had his large bed to himself. For another, Jack was prone to spend all night glued to his computer screens, drinking coffee, listening to the most unexpected music, and poking his nose into places he had no call to even know about. More than once had Gareth swung by Jack’s place on the way to work and found Jack still wearing the previous day’s clothes and without so much as an hour’s sleep to his name.

None of the late nights ever stopped Jack from doing his work—the man was far too professional for that­—but when Jack chased windmills, Gareth started to worry.

It couldn’t be argued that Jack needed that chase as much as he needed food, or that his windmills turned out to be bona fide dragons more often than not. Or that, compared to other ways to spend free time, Jack’s was a worthwhile pursuit. Despite all that, Gareth hated that each chase dragged Jack back into a mire he’d barely escaped. He liked it even less when Jack’s preoccupation forced them to spend the weekend apart.

Dealing with the aftermath of Ricky’s death and helping Nico and Daniel recover from their imprisonment in a brothel wasn’t easy on Jack. He put on a good front, but Jack was haunted by failures. Especially his own. The moments when Jack remembered the courageous teen he’d known so briefly were growing less frequent, though no less painful. Some days, Jack sought refuge in loud music and long sparring sessions. On other days, he found his solace in Gareth’s hot tub, often in the middle of the night when he could be alone with his thoughts, the clouds, and the chimes of nearby church bells.

Christmas had been a turning point. Seeing Nico grow more confident dealing with a roomful of detectives and Daniel step up and confront his parents had helped Jack relax. He started to believe that he could have his own family made of people he chose, and began to trust what was between him and Gareth instead of second-guessing everything either of them did or said.

He and Jack worked as well together as they had while they served, and Gareth was growing to love the time they spent away from work, with or without the two boys they were working to make part of their family.

Nico and Daniel had started school again. For most of the week, they lived with Gareth’s mother, who was their official foster parent while the courts considered Jack and Gareth’s guardianship application. Weekends and odd days were spent at Gareth’s home or Jack’s, and over the last four months, they had found a comfortable routine doing perfectly normal, mundane things like shopping, cooking, or crashing out on the couch watching movies.

The two boys grew more comfortable around strangers. Nightmares became rare occurrences rather than the norm, and Jack slowly lost the watchful, wary look. He laughed more often, and Gareth loved to hear it, though neither regular hours nor good food, cozy nights in, or great sex lessened Jack’s determination to chase down every person involved in Ricky’s death and Daniel’s and Nico’s imprisonment.

Gareth poured a third cup of tea while he kept one eye on his driveway and the other on the kitchen clock, glad that Jack wasn’t there to see him fidget. They had never discussed Jack’s need to dish out justice or Gareth’s misgivings about Jack involving himself without regard for his emotional or physical well-being. Gareth had never mentioned his dread that Jack wasn’t there to stay, that one day he’d realize that being with Gareth stopped him from doing what he wanted to do. Even without those discussions, Gareth knew something was brewing.

Jack had been twitchy for the last couple of weeks, vacillating between chasing child molesters, trying to identify the recipients of the data that Nancarrow Mining’s former finance director had leaked, and working to fend off hacking attacks while tracing their sources. Jack’s low-key mutterings and the helpless smiles of Donald Frazer, his partner on Nancarrow Mining’s network security desk, made it clear that Jack had been unable to settle on any of his tasks. The only time Jack focused was when he was in the gym, beating the crap out of the company’s legal counsel, Aidan Conrad, who had become his favorite sparring partner.

So when Jack had suddenly suggested a day out, Gareth had agreed without hesitation. If Jack needed a change of scenery to spill what bothered him, then Gareth was all for it.

A deep, throaty rumble broke the quiet of the morning and Gareth frowned. It didn’t sound like Jack’s beloved Gixxer, and anyway, he had been told they were not riding to… wherever it was they were going. The sound neared and settled outside his house, and when Gareth opened the front door and walked to the end of the drive, he came face-to-face with Jack Horwood—in a way he’d never seen or imagined him before.

He was used to Jack in skintight jeans and with a screwdriver between his teeth, bent over desks, or crawling into spaces rodents would have found restrictive. He was used to Jack in leather, astride his bike, and Jack in sleeveless tops and jogging bottoms moving through kata with grace and precision. He was even used to Jack the tease, meshing leather, music, and suggestive moves until Gareth thought his skin would catch on fire. Jack appealed to him whatever incarnation he chose, and this time around he had surpassed himself.

Long, low-slung, and roofless, with sexy, graceful curves, the deep green two-seater sparkled in the early morning sunlight. Jack sat snugly ensconced in magnolia leather, a dark green fleece top and matching ball cap complementing the color of the car. Fingerless driving gloves of soft black leather and aviator sunglasses added to his rakish look. He grinned from ear to ear, revving the engine, playing with the throaty sound.

“Come on, Flynn, the morning’s wasting.”

“What the fuck is that?”

“Transport. Get your gear and get in before I wake the neighborhood,” Jack sniped at Gareth’s question. “This isn’t a sound you can ignore for long.”

Gareth had to agree. The deep bass notes of the car’s engine rippled down the street and back again. He quickly ducked inside and reached for wallet, phone, and keys before he grabbed a jacket from the rack and sunglasses and a ball cap from a drawer. Moments later he stood beside the car’s passenger door and frowned at the lack of a visible door handle. Surely Jack wasn’t expecting him to vault over the door?

Jack’s laugh, carefree and enticing, bubbled up over the engine’s rumble, and without Gareth being able to see what he did, the passenger door popped open, ready for Gareth to climb in.

The seat was a surprisingly long way down. And once he sat, all he could see were acres of creamy hide and gleaming walnut trim, with a tiny slice of glittering green bonnet stretching out in front of him.

“Where did you get this monster?” he asked as he pulled the seat belt across his chest and Jack peeled away from the curb with a deep V-8 growl that was sure to rattle windowpanes along the quiet cul-de-sac.

“It’s mine. Well, half of it is.”

“Who owns the other half?”

“Melanie Rookes.”

Gareth couldn’t help but stare. “What? How the hell did that happen?”

Jack’s smile was so wide even the crinkles at the corners of his eyes took note. “Old hat,” he confided, voice indulgent. “We were on assignment together and I sent her to find us some wheels. This is what she came back with.” He patted the steering wheel as he turned a corner and drove toward Kew Gardens. “I called her every name in the book, but we had so much fun with the thing, we kept it after we were done with the assignment. That woman’s one seriously talented mechanic, so Arnie stays with her most of the time.”

“Arnie?”

“I wanted to call him Tyson, but Mel wouldn’t let me. She has anger management issues.”

A surprised laugh burst from Gareth’s throat at that most absurd of understatements. Melanie Rookes was a talented mechanic, no doubt about it. She was a seriously talented sniper, too, provided that temper of hers didn’t land her in trouble. Gareth had served with her husband. He’d heard a few of the stories. “I can’t imagine the two of you together on assignment.”

“Don’t even try. It wasn’t pretty.”

Jack’s relaxed mood shifted to something darker, like the sun slipping behind a cloud. Gareth had seen far too much of that in the last six months. He stretched his hand across the center console and skimmed his fingertips over the tattoo on Jack’s left temple, skipping over the arm of the aviators in the process. “Don’t go there. Tell me instead where you’re taking me.”

Jack’s grin returned. “You keep whining about the lack of decent oysters, and I’m sick of hearing it. I’m going to get you some of the finest oysters in England, and then I’ll watch you eat them until you pop.”

“You don’t even like oysters.”

“So not the point,” Jack shot back as he smoothly filtered onto the anticlockwise side of the M25, slid into the outside lane, and floored the throttle. Traffic was light that early on a Sunday and he clearly hoped to be off the road to hell before that changed. “The real point here is that oysters are one of your favorite foods. And you whine about the bloody things even when you’re at Simpson’s eating them. So now you won’t have to.”

The engine in the deep green car didn’t just produce speed. Gareth could feel the V-8’s rumbling growl through the soles of his boots and the seat of his jeans. The acceleration pressed him into the cream leather bucket seat, the wind tried to rip the cap from his head, and they garnered more than a few envious looks as they shot past much of the early Sunday traffic.

It wasn’t until they reached the junction with the M2 that Gareth got a clue. “Whitstable,” he pronounced, gaping. “We’re going to Whitstable.”

“Yes. I told you.”

“You did not.”

“Some of the best oysters in England…?” Jack repeated his words from earlier and Gareth was sure that, safe behind his sunglasses, Jack was rolling his eyes. “Where else would I take you?”

Gareth hadn’t planned on a day by the seaside. He hadn’t planned on oysters or on Jack being in such a mercurial mood… but he wouldn’t change it for the world. So he relaxed. He let himself be hugged by magnolia leather, pushed his sleeves up, leaned his head back, and enjoyed the sunshine, the company, and the deep throaty rumble of a powerful V-8.

 

EVEN THAT early in the day, Whitstable was a zoo. Cars and pedestrians clogged the narrow streets and traffic moved at an excruciatingly slow pace toward the seafront. To Gareth’s surprise, Jack knew which of the tiny back roads to take to get out of the snarl. It didn’t make their journey much faster, but listening to Jack grumble and swear at speed bumps and extra-tight turns was unexpectedly entertaining. Just as much as finding that his ears rang with echoes of the engine’s purr even after Jack had stopped in a small grass-covered space that could hold at most half a dozen cars. The three that were already there were a battered van, an even more battered Land Rover, and a Volvo estate car with a roof rack full of surfboards.

“That’s some smart transport,” he commented, watching Jack retrieve the roof from the car’s boot and fit it in place.

“Driven right, it turns your guts to jelly.” Jack nodded. “It’s unfortunate that these days I can’t demonstrate that and keep my license.”

“The advantages of being a spook….”

“…are few and far between.” Jack blipped the locks and turned toward the beach. “Come on, then, Flynn. Breakfast awaits.”

“It’s heading towards eleven. That makes it brunch, heathen.”

“Whatever. It’s food.”

The negligent wave was pure bait, and Gareth wanted to reach for Jack and pull him into a hug. Jack had a habit of skipping out on displays of affection when he was most in need of them, and this morning was no exception. Instead of asking for what he needed, Jack headed for the beach, upping his pace when he spotted a blond man who waved from the door of a sprawling, sky blue hut.

He was tall—taller than both Jack and Gareth—and his broad shoulders and muscled arms radiated strength. The bleached streaks in his thatch of pale hair were bright enough to be visible from half a beach away, and as they drew closer, Gareth noticed deep blue eyes that reflected the light off the water. The striking eyes weren’t what caught Gareth’s attention, though. No. Gareth Flynn was taken aback by the sheer joy that lit up the man’s face as soon as Jack drew close.

It was… disconcerting.

As was Jack’s reaction.

Jack, who was usually so protective of his personal space, held up his palm to be slapped before allowing the other man to pull him into a hard, tight hug and hold on to him longer than strictly necessary.

“You made excellent time,” the man praised, his voice a pleasant, low rumble that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Jack’s TVR. “I didn’t expect to see you much before lunch.”

“Nah. We got out early and far enough down the M26 before it got crazy,” Jack explained, stepping out of the man’s hold and giving him the once-over. “You’re looking good.”

“So are you.” Something unspoken passed between them, and then the deep blue gaze flicked to Gareth, who was silently debating if he had cause for concern. “I’m Dave. And you must be the guy suffering from oyster deprivation.”

“Gareth.” He took Dave’s outstretched hand. “And yes, you’re right.”

“No worries. I can fix you right up if you follow me.” He led them around the side of the hut and onto a small deck overlooking the pebble-strewn beach, where a table was laid for two with plates, glasses, finger bowls, and napkins. The hunger-inducing aromas of brine, wood smoke, and roasting garlic wafted from the open door of the shack.

“Beer or fizz?” Dave asked, despite it being early for lunch, and turned an appraising look toward Jack. “Or coffee?”

Gareth raised an eyebrow in question, but Jack, already stretched out in one of the comfy padded chairs, just waved. “Go ahead, I’m having far too much fun driving.”

“Fizz.” Gareth wasn’t surprised when Jack added a request for coffee a moment later. Jack would perish without a constant supply of caffeine; Gareth was sure of it.

The drinks arrived in due course along with a huge platter of oysters for Gareth and a plate of freshly smoked mackerel, a pint of griddled prawns in garlic and parsley butter, scallops Mornay, fresh bread, and smoked-salmon-and-asparagus flan for Jack.

“You’re not even gonna try one?” Gareth teased once he’d tested the supply and found it worth the early start to their morning.

“Not unless I’m starving and there’s nothing else around,” Jack said with conviction. “I prefer my food dead.” He waved at the selection of smoked and griddled fish on his plate. “And sort of cooked.”

“So you’d eat a grilled oyster?”

“Oysters po’boys, devilled oysters, even oyster stew, I’ll eat. Live ones… no.”

Gareth stared until Jack grew uncomfortable and shifted in his seat.

“What?”

“Just thinking how long I’ve known you and how much I’ve yet to find out,” Gareth picked up another oyster shell and tipped his head back. The salty tang hit his throat and he shivered as his body remembered a similar sensation that had nothing to do with oysters, but everything to do with Jack. “I had no idea you’d own a car like this,” he said quickly to distract himself.

“Half,” Jack corrected. “And I wouldn’t own even that much if Mel wasn’t such a nutcase. No sane person would consider going undercover in that thing. But it made total sense to her.”

“Like nobody would think of becoming a spy with a tattoo on their face?”

“Oh, shut up.” Jack leaned his head into his hand, hiding the reminder he’d inked on his left temple seven years earlier.

“Do you see much of her?” Gareth didn’t admit that the idea alarmed him. Strife followed Melanie Rookes wherever she went, and Jack, who had seen enough strife for several lifetimes, didn’t need to get dragged into more of it by hanging with the wrong crowd.

“Gatting and Mel’s handler, Khandi, ran in a pack for a while,” Jack said while he ate. “We got roped into a lot of crazy stuff back then.”

Tom Gatting had been Jack’s handler during his time with MI6. He was the one who’d loaned Jack out to other agencies and who’d dragged him into cases Jack should never have been part of. Aidan Conrad had choice words to say whenever Gatting’s name came up, and Gareth wasn’t sure he wanted to meet the man. On the other hand, he’d never heard of Khandi, but knowing he was Mel’s handler didn’t inspire much confidence. Or too much.

“You’re wondering how he keeps Mel on the straight and narrow, right?” Jack smirked.

He did that sometimes, got right into Gareth’s head and rooted around in it as if it were his own damned attic. It was disconcerting as hell. Gareth didn’t answer, just raised the champagne flute to his lips and enjoyed the soft bite of the bubbles on his tongue.

“You are,” Jack maintained. He balanced a piece of flan on his fork, seemingly admiring the contrast of bright green and soft pink. “It’s not that difficult, actually. Khandi’s no stickler for protocol and he gives her a long leash. Provided she doesn’t attract too much of the wrong attention, he has her back.”

Jack’s voice sounded wistful and Gareth frowned. “Gatting didn’t have yours?”

“Don’t make me laugh. The only ass Gatting looks after is Gatting’s. Everybody else is collateral damage.”

“Then I’m surprised you stuck it out as long as you did,” Gareth said, fizz and sunshine and excellent oysters momentarily forgotten.

Jack didn’t answer for a long time. He fished a scallop out of its creamy grave and devoured it with relish, mopping up the Mornay sauce with a chunk of crusty french bread. “It’s not wise to get on the wrong side of a hacker,” he said eventually. “Once he’d learned that, Gatting was okay.”

“Right.” Gareth refilled his champagne glass and watched Jack from the corner of his eye. “One more question and then I’ll stop asking, I promise,” he said. “Is that why you joined MI6? That they gave you more opportunity to do what you love doing? It’s just that I’m getting the feeling you’d have been bored had you stayed in the Army.”

A little smile curled the corners of Jack’s mouth. “I didn’t leave the Army because I was bored. You already know that. Neither did I join the service because I needed entertainment. I’ve always been plenty able to amuse myself. And you know that too,” he said. “Now ask your question and then shut up.”

“What did you do to keep Gatting in line?”

Jack considered him for a moment, green eyes narrowed and teeth digging into his lower lip while he thought. Then he nodded. “I tripled his mortgage.”

Choking on an oyster, even if it was one of the best in England, wasn’t an enjoyable experience.

COLLAPSE

House Hunt is in the process of being re-issued.
It is currently not available for sale.

About the Author

Jackie Keswick was born behind the Iron Curtain with itchy feet, a bent for rocks and a recurring dream of stepping off a bus in the middle of nowhere to go home. She's worked in a hospital and as the only girl with 52 men on an oil rig, spent a winter in Moscow and a summer in Iceland and finally settled in the country of her dreams with her dream team: a husband, a cat, a tandem, a hammer and a laptop.

Jackie loves unexpected reunions and second chances, and men who don't follow the rules when those rules are stupid. She blogs about English history and food, has a thing for green eyes, and is a great believer in making up soundtracks for everything, including her characters and the cat.

And she still hasn't found the place where the bus stops.

For questions and comments, not restricted to green eyes, bus stops or recipes for traditional English food, you can find Jackie Keswick in all the usual places.

 

 


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