Title: Running on Empty (Havoc Motorcycle Club #3)
Author: S.E. Jakes
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Release Date: April 29, 2019
Page Count: 204
After years of running wild, Linc might’ve finally run out of road.
After a brutal capture at the hands of the Heathens Motorcycle Club, Linc is just trying to heal, mentally and physically. But he’s got men in his life who are complicating everything. There’s Mercy — a Havoc MC biker and the man he is falling fast for — plus an undercover ATF agent and a rogue Havoc member.
But Mercy’s keeping him at arm’s length, and Linc is spinning. In an attempt to regain his equilibrium, he heads to the bar where he first met Mercy. Night after night, he escapes Havoc bonds and continues down his merry path of mayhem . . . mainly in the hopes that Mercy will give chase.
Since Linc’s capture by his old MC, Mercy’s been dealing with the fallout of his guilt. He’s trying to give Linc space and still watch over him — all without Linc’s knowledge. But with Linc’s old job calling and a threat to Havoc MC heating up, can they make their way back together?
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Havoc Motorcycle Club
About SE Jakes
SE Jakes writes m/m romance. She believes in happy endings and fighting for what you want in both fiction and real life. She lives in New York with her family and most days, she can be found happily writing (in bed). No really…
SE Jakes is the pen name for New York Times Bestselling author Stephanie Tyler, and half the co-write team of Sydney Croft. First published in 2011, SE Jakes has quickly risen to be a bestselling author in the LGBT romance genre, as well as a fan favorite. Her books are frequently highlighted in USA Today and her books have been reviewed by Library Journal and RT Books Magazine. She’s been nominated by several sites for Favorite M/M author of 2013 Tyler-2-big-2and finaling in the Goodreads MM Romance Readers Choice Awards in 7 categories. She writes for Riptide Publishing and she Indie publishes as well.
Running on Empty Excerpt
What you do to survive
Four months earlier . . .
When members of the Heathens Motorcycle Club first shoved Linc into the cell in the basement of their clubhouse, he’d asked, “Why?”
“You’re our gift to Havoc.” Bones smiled, and Linc resisted the urge to lunge at him, because it would only rip his arms out of their sockets. He’d already tested the mettle of the chains.
He could pop the cuffs, but he was surrounded. So he was biding his time, trying not to go fuck-nut crazy and hoping that sooner or later, members of Havoc MC—or at least his best friend, Rush, or his brother, Bram—would figure out where the fuck he was.
Or maybe Mercy. Mercy, a Havoc MC member, bail bondsman and the man Linc was currently sleeping with. But Mercy probably thought he’d flaked and run—that was his rep, after all, and he’d never tried to change it. Couldn’t. Also, he’d never wanted to stay anywhere the way he wanted to stay at Havoc.
The longer he was kept in the basement, the more he overheard. First it was just “Geoff” and then, “He’s Mercy now—what the fuck is that?” and then “This’ll teach him.” And over time, he was sure he’d convince himself a hundred times that he didn’t hear anything.
He knew what Mercy’s weight felt like on him, what the man’s tongue did to him, but he’d never known Mercy’s real first name. Mercy had never offered to share. Linc never pushed. When he’d been with Mercy, all he’d seen was a man who had his shit together. He’d never learned more about Mercy’s troubled past . . . it was only now he learned that, somehow, it was tied to his own kidnapping by the Heathens.
What Linc did know—he’d gone out on his bike, the one he’d been restoring with help from some of the Havoc guys, and he hadn’t planned on going far, but it’d been a nice night for a ride and he’d gotten caught up with the feel of the bike under him. Mercy was working out of town and Linc hadn’t needed to rush back.
He’d never felt the need to rush anywhere, so to think about Mercy like that was definitely weird for him.
And that’s when he’d gotten the call . . . and that’s the point when everything changed. Instead of turning around and heading back to Shades without stopping, he’d pulled into the closest gas station to stop for a piss and a drink. He’d thought about texting Mercy to explain but he couldn’t. Instead, he’d texted him a picture of the sunset, which was ridiculous and sappy but fuck it, Linc had never held back shit. Couldn’t start now just because he’d started to . . . like . . . Mercy.
Yeah, like. That’s as much as he’d been willing to say. Plus, he still owed the guy bond. And he’d gone over the state line, but hell, he was coming back.
At least that’d been the plan. Getting jumped by asshole Heathens definitely hadn’t been. And even though Linc had fought, the shit they’d pumped him full of took effect before he could get in many punches. He did break a couple of noses though, he’d been told later as they kicked the shit out of him while he was still too numb to give a damn.
Now, with not so much as a goddamned Advil for two days, he gave a shit. After thirty-seven days, he was used to the pattern. They’d drug him up, beat him, torture him, and then nothing, because they wanted to watch him detox from whatever strong painkillers they were giving him to keep him pliant. And his body did, but not in a way that satisfied them.
Linc didn’t want to disappoint them, but hell, he was never the one with the addictive personality. That was more his brother Bram’s thing, and Bram was careful to not expose himself to shit like that. Linc liked pot and booze and feeling mellow, but he’d lived without it for long stretches of time—in the Army, when he was broke, when he felt he needed to make changes.
He’d kept track of how long the Heathens had kept him prisoner in their compound, by marking the cement of the cell floor, happy with himself that he was still semi-sane. They fed him, but half the time the shit was drugged too, and Linc was fucked enough without drugs. They’d never sat well in his system, which meant he slept a lot, which meant his whole keeping-track-of-the-days thing could be slightly off.
And, in between drugging him with whatever they got their hands on and Linc being alternately passed out and beaten, Bones would sit with him and tell him that he was Mercy’s brother, that he’d killed one of Mercy’s lovers before . . . and that there was a grave dug for him already, right next to Mercy’s first lover.
But that hadn’t been the worst of it, not by a long shot. Because Bones would detail exactly how that first lover had been killed. Excruciatingly vivid detail. And then he’d taken Linc on a field trip—not once, but several times—to the graves. He’d even threatened to make Linc climb into his, to make sure it fit.
In Linc’s mind, that was the worst thing they’d done to him, but it definitely hadn’t been the only form a torture. For men who hated fags, they sure hadn’t minded fucking him. When Linc had pointed that out, he’d gotten beaten for his efforts but hey, he hadn’t been there to make friends.
He’d never thought the POW training he’d gotten in the military would come in so handy in civilian life. Or that the training Castle had insisted he go through would be what got him through this hell.
But something different was happening now. He heard loud voices—Bones yelling at someone. Typically, they kept it quiet down here, because that added to the atmosphere of never knowing what would happen and when it would happen.
Something always did, though. Half the time he was too zoned out to care what the fuck they did to him. He kept his mouth shut and took what they gave him.
Today though, he refused to let himself ignore the yelling.
Today, for the first time in thirty-seven days, he had hope.
Drop all your troubles by the riverside
After his rescue, Linc stayed in the hospital just under two weeks. He’d been too restless to just sit around and get well, and so, with his doctor’s help—and Bram’s—he’d moved into a lake house to finish his recovery and figure out his next steps.
He’d also had help from another source, but no one knew about that, and if Linc had his way, no one would.
The house Linc had insisted Bram rent was old and rambling, the kind of light, airy house he’d always wished they’d lived in growing up. Even as a kid, all he remembered was dark, damp walls closing in . . . although Bram and their sister, Linnea, always got him through the darkness. But the lake? Bram had shitty memories of growing up in houses on the water, but for Linc, they brought the same amount of comfort that being with Bram did.
Bram thought Linc didn’t remember much about his near-drowning in another lake, another lifetime ago, by his father’s hand. Bram was wrong, but Linc didn’t see the purpose of dwelling on it or letting it change him. He brushed off the bad, focused on the good. The what’s next?
He just kept it moving.
Of course, there were problems inherent with that too.
“I could live here,” Bram said now, lying on his belly on the dock, propped on his elbows.
“You kind of are,” Linc told him, the sun beating down on his chest, warming him as he lay next to his brother, his body worn out in a pleasant way from his most recent swim.
“Smart-ass. You know what I mean.”
Yeah, he did. “Sweet misses you when you’re here.” Sweet being Havoc MC’s president, and his brother’s boyfriend. During Linc’s recovery, he’d watched Sweet attempt to push Bram away. Bram, of course, wasn’t one to be told what to do, and so Linc just looked upon their grand gestures as entertainment while he healed, happy to see that love did exist.
Bram and Sweet were firmly together now, evidenced by the fact that Sweet often spent the night here with Bram. And Linc was cool with that—his best friend, Sean Rush—and Rush’s boyfriend and Havoc’s XO, Ryker—stayed here together too. He was just happy for the company of people he was comfortable with.
Sometimes Tug would hang, and sometimes Boomer. Lately, Linc was able to stay here alone, although he knew someone from Havoc was always standing guard somewhere on the property.
He couldn’t be babysat forever. He had to get on with his life, get his shit together. And he was, because he also managed to not think about or ask about Mercy for several hours at a time each day. And it was a major accomplishment, considering he’d mainly thought about Mercy the entire incarceration. Of course, Mercy felt too guilty to come anywhere near him, and Linc let him off the hook by telling Bram he didn’t want to see Mercy and then banning him all together. Because everyone needed their lies to insulate them from the truth.
For the first several weeks, Linc couldn’t remember much about what happened. Being kept prisoner at the hands of the Heathens filtered through first, usually while he slept, which resulted in screaming nightmares. And then he recalled the day of his actual rescue. Every day, more detail filled out, and he forced himself to go over it as much as possible, because remembering meant getting stronger.
Now, he closed his eyes and turned his face toward the sun, letting the memories drift in . . .
He’d smelled the fire before the smoke had billowed into the basement, and then he’d blinked and Mercy was walking through the haze, tossing him the keys to his cuffs before slamming Bones against the cement wall.
Mercy had lit the goddamned place on fire.
“You go, Linc. Go now,” Mercy ordered him, and Linc knew that tone . . . and knew he was right. The smoke was thick and he’d unlocked his bonds, ignoring the urge to stay and watch Mercy beat the ever-loving shit out of Bones, and instead he navigated the dark hallways to get to the stairs. To get the hell out of here and into daylight. And he’d almost made it when Bruno came around the corner.
Thankfully, the keys hadn’t been the only thing Mercy had thrown at him. Now, Linc’s hands steadied as he drove the knife into Bruno’s neck, the way he’d been taught, the way he’d done a time or two before, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
With Bruno’s blood on his hands, Linc stepped out into the light, and into chaos. He stayed behind the tree line and made his way up the long drive toward the road, when he saw Bram’s truck come barreling down in a cloud of dust. Heathens were starting to gather, to look for someone to fight, someone to blame in a last-ditch effort. Bram stopped the truck when he saw Linc, and Linc yelled at him to stay put and ran to him. He recalled throwing himself into the back seat and lying down, feeling the lurch of the vehicle and hearing Bram say he wasn’t leaving his side.
The next minute, he was awake, in the hospital, and yes, Bram was there and Linc’s mind was fuzzy. He was shaking, coming down from being injected daily with drugs, and his ribs ached like hell every time he tried to breathe. But he was free.
It was hard to think about those first days post-capture—post-rescue—when he’d barely been able to move. When he’d refused to see Mercy, and told Misha and Bram and Rush that he wanted Mercy permanently barred from his room . . . and that was after he’d learned that Mercy had assumed he’d run . . . that Mercy hadn’t bothered to look for him, not until Bram had come to town.
He’d forced Bram to tell him, and his brother had done so—haltingly and reluctantly, as if not wanting to break Linc’s heart but knowing that lying wasn’t an option.
“He didn’t know, Linc. I know he’s hurting.” Bram had tried to soften all the blows, but it hadn’t helped.
“I don’t want to see him, okay?”
“Not now, I get it.”
“Not now. Not when I get out. Understood?”
And Bram had kept to his word. It hadn’t been hard to do because Mercy never showed, never called, never tried, which in turn made Linc angrier. Which was good, because angry was better than numb any day, and Linc never wanted to be numb again. He’d spent thirty-plus days in that state, and he didn’t need any reminders.
But he’d called Mercy at one point, at his weakest. After a nightmare that’d rocked him, he’d dialed Mercy’s number and practically begged the man to call him back. And then he’d waited around like a lovesick asshole for Mercy to call him back.
He was still waiting.
He’d thought, somehow, that Mercy would’ve been his refuge. Instead, that’s what the house became. He didn’t tell Bram how he’d discovered it, and eventually, Bram would realize that his rent checks on the place weren’t getting cashed, but for the next months post-capture, this house and the water would heal him better than any hospital ever could.
He’d have to take himself the rest of the way.
It don’t come easy
It took Mercy three weeks after taking down most of the Heathens’ compound to decide that enough was enough, that being angry wasn’t helping anything. So he got up and stopped mourning what was and he went back to his brothers.
Only Sweet and Tug knew that Mercy actually had left his house during those first weeks during his self-imposed house arrest. Every night, he’d snuck out of Havoc and headed to the hospital where Linc was, even though Linc had banned him from visiting, and he’d hold the watch in the hallway outside his door. It was the time that Linc most often had his nightmares, and Mercy knew he had to be there. Had to hear the screams, let them slice through him.
It was during those sleepless nights that he’d made decisions about his future. And once he’d made up his mind, there was no turning back. So after Linc had moved into the lake house, Mercy’s first stop was to Sweet, and he hadn’t needed to say much except, “I’d like to come back,” to which Sweet replied, “I didn’t think you’d ever left,” and just like that, Mercy prepared to slip back into the day-to-day world of Havoc.
But first, there would have to be some changes. Because between the Heathens MC attempting to regroup and their friends, the Pagans MC, vowing vengeance, there was another MC called Project X attempting to patch over the remaining Heathens and start a new chapter near Shades Run. Now more than ever, Havoc needed to keep the drugs and the white supremacists out of their area.
“The bonds shop’s not going to cut it anymore,” Mercy told Sweet in a graveled voice, two days after making appearances in the clubhouse and in church.
Now Sweet told him, with zero hesitation, “Just tell me what you need.”
“I need a more active role.” Sweet would understand why and why now. Before this, the bonds shop had been perfect—it gave Mercy the necessary insulation to keep his identity safe.
Now, there was no reason to bother. He’d grown up son of the Heathens MC president. He knew how to handle himself. He’d proven that at a young age, and again when he killed his brother months earlier after he’d kidnapped Linc in an attempt to draw Mercy out. He knew how to defend, and how and when to kill.
“Enforcer?” Sweet asked. “I know Tug would be happy with the help. You’ve got seniority so . . .”
“I’m not looking to take anyone’s job. I might have seniority but they’ve both been in their jobs for a while, and they’re jobs I never held. So it’s not about that.”
“And the shop?”
Mercy looked at him. “I’ve put some thought into that. I don’t know if having it in town works anymore. Maybe we need to move it closer to Havoc. But I’ll get back to you on that.”
Church had been called shortly after and many other decisions were made, including a lock-down of Havoc. Vann, a rogue Havoc member, would be called back into the compound indefinitely, and with that, the club officially circled the wagons.
Mercy was welcomed back by all his brothers in Havoc, some more subtly than others. Tug, of course, had picked him up and hugged him for what seemed like forever, and when he’d finally put Mercy down, he’d said, “Fuck the Heathens. You showed them. You’re one of us.”
And Mercy agreed.
His second-to-last stop had been to Bram, the man he’d fought with and then fought alongside of . . . the man whose brother he’d almost destroyed with his secrets. Linc and Bram were on the outside (Linc’s choice, and Bram wouldn’t leave him alone) and Havoc men were patrolling their lake house, guarding them. Bram was armed but Sweet was worried.
“How could you have known?” Bram asked. He looked better than he had when he’d first come into their lives. He’d gotten off most of the painkillers he’d been using because of his near-death beating at the hands of the Heathens. He hadn’t quit the ATF yet, but his cover remained in place, among most of Havoc and with the Heathens and beyond.
“I should’ve. I got—”
“No, you didn’t get complacent,” Bram corrected before he could even say the word. “You were with your family. The Heathens? You never belonged with them.”
“I don’t know what to do . . . about Linc.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Bram confessed. “I just walk on eggshells around him and he does the same for me.”
“I don’t think he’ll see me.”
“Should that stop you from trying?” Bram smiled.
And his last stop? Would be a face-to-face that was long overdue.
How does it feel to be on your own
Linc woke from the nightmare with a sharp yell. It happened every single night like this, and he shouldn’t have been surprised but he still was, even after nearly sixty straight days of this shit. He’d been hoping that maybe the universe would grant him a reprieve after the first thirty-seven days. The logical side, the one that had gotten him through basic training and beyond, told him it didn’t work like that.
He wasn’t sure if it was the doorbell that’d yanked him out of the dream, but he wasn’t exactly in the mood to see anyone. Bram had a key, and so did Rush. So he went to the bathroom and took a piss, washed up, running his hands through his hair. It was longer than it had been, blonder too, from all the time spent in the sun, swimming in the lake.
The bruises had faded, along with DTs. The pain hadn’t.
Whoever was at the door had taken to slamming on it like it was their mission to break in. Fuck. Linc grabbed his piece and headed to the door, opened it fast, and held his weapon out.
Mercy was on the other side, just staring at him . . . not looking surprised at all to see Linc with a gun. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Mercy. It was like seeing a ghost and fuck, his voice went down Linc’s spine. It was raspy. Smoky. Hot as fuck and this was exactly why he hadn’t wanted to see Mercy. It was bad enough that Mercy knew what the Heathens had done to him—if not outright, then he definitely suspected. Bram had learned it from the docs who took care of Linc in the hospital and Linc? Well, he’d lived it, every humiliating, brutal moment of it. Sometimes he’d begged, even though he’d been too drugged to know what he’d been begging for.
And he’d endured all of that for a man who hadn’t made a move to see him since he’d escaped. Linc was sure Mercy had guilt, that seeing Linc reminded him of a fuckup. Now, Linc would always remind him of his past, and it was a past Mercy had tried for years to forget.
“What do you want?” Linc finally asked, his voice sounding rough, part under-use and part from near strangulation.
Mercy continued to stare at him, and Linc wanted to punch him. Linc knew he wasn’t the same man he’d been the last time they’d seen each other, and he never would be. And after two months, Mercy was just fucking standing there . . . and the last time Linc had seen him, he’d been stalking through Heathens, slaying all Linc’s dragons.
Mercy finally said, “I know you wanted me to stay away, but we need to talk.”
How the fuck would you know what I really wanted? Linc shook his head no, anger mixed with shame bubbling up inside of him where neither emotion had existed before. He’d never had to be the angry, scared kid. Bram had always taken care of him, protected him, shielded him from the bad shit by making sure Linc was surrounded by amazing memories.
But his memories of recent events shattered any pretense, remained front and center, and no matter how hard Bram tried to help, it wouldn’t work.
So now, confronted by Mercy, Linc’s mind was conflicted more than ever. Technically, none of it was Mercy’s fault.
Technically, all of it was.
The nightmare he’d woken from before the doorbell rang still shook him. He put the gun down on the table by the door and shoved his hands into his pockets so Mercy wouldn’t see the tremble that he hoped would leave soon.
The dreams? They’d take much longer.
“I can’t do this,” Linc finally managed. “You’re absolved, okay? I’m sure that’s what you’re looking for.”
Mercy’s back went up when Linc said that. He wanted to take Linc’s face in his hands, force Linc to look at him, but he kept his hands to himself. “It’s not about my conscience.”
At that, Linc finally met his gaze as if to silently say bullshit.
There was so much Linc didn’t know, and that was on Mercy. Because Mercy had chosen not to share that part of his life with anyone, except Sweet, and even Sweet didn’t know the entire truth.
“I don’t deserve your time. I know that. But Linc, fuck, I hate that you’re suffering.”
“So this is about me.” Linc’s voice was graveled, not the easy drawl Mercy had longed for every fucking night since Linc had gone missing. Every single night since Linc had been found.
And those months in between? Linc had suffered. Been to hell and back and Mercy was sure there was way more than had happened to Linc during his capture by the Heathens than anyone knew.
Everyone but Mercy, because he fucking knew . . . and that broke his fucking heart. “It’s only about you.”
“What makes you think I’d want to talk to you about anything?” Linc challenged, the haunted look in his eyes burned into Mercy’s mind.
He’d snuck into the hospital, and he’d watched Linc sleeping, tubes running in and out of him. He’d wanted to rip the blankets off Linc, check his body for scars, kiss away all the pain and hurt he’d endured. “Because you used to talk to me about things. Things you never told anyone.”
Linc didn’t argue. “That was a long time ago.”
“Not that long.”
“So you want to be my shrink now?” Linc asked carefully. “What do you really want?”
You to be better. You not to have gone through this.
You. “I’m sorry, Linc. Fuck, I’d give anything for that not to have happened to you. Anything. I’d have taken your place in a second.”
“Sure. Okay.” Linc nodded with a wave of his hand. “You’re absolved. Better?”
“Go away, Mercy. Go away and stay away. Clear enough?”
“Very. Except I’m not going to do what you’re asking.”
Linc turned away from him and Mercy forced himself to walk away, but not before telling him, “I’ll be back.”
“How comforting,” Linc muttered, then slammed the door behind him.
Once bitten, twice shy
True to his word, Mercy was back at Linc’s the next day. He knew that Bram split his time between Havoc and the lake house, but Bram had also told Sweet that Linc wanted to spend time alone, didn’t want to be too scared to be by himself. And yes, the immediate threat had passed, but hell, the Heathens were going to remain a threat to anyone attached to Havoc, which necessitated extra protection for all Havoc members and their families.
Whether or not Linc knew that there was a protection detail attached to him at all times, Mercy had no idea. But so far, Linc had mainly stayed close to the house, only straying as far as the lake to swim.
Today, Tug was on duty, staying a respectable distance from the house, and tonight, Rush would come and stay over with Linc. They’d been best friends since boot camp, and even with that, Mercy knew Ryker would be waiting outside all night, watching over the men.
But it should be you, and not outside, either.
Then again, Linc hadn’t realized Mercy was spending the night on his porch at night either.
Finally, Mercy pushed himself toward the backyard. Like he did every day, according to the other Havoc men who’d been on guard duty, Linc was swimming—back and forth across the length of the lake. Mercy counted twenty before Linc lifted his head, a subtle acknowledgment of his presence.
He didn’t doubt Linc had known he was here the whole time, situational awareness, which bothered the fuck out of him. Because how the hell had Linc missed the Heathens closing in around him on the day he’d been taken?
Yeah, blame the victim, Mercy. But it wasn’t that. He just desperately wanted things to have gone a different way.
Wanted Linc to have never crossed state lines. Wanted him to have stayed close to Havoc, where Heathens wouldn’t dare come close.
And you didn’t even think to look for him, Mercy chided himself. Not until he’d gotten in touch with Linc’s brother, Bram, who’d been undercover at the time—and recovering from a deadly near-beating from the Heathens MC. In an eerie twist, the Heathens had nearly killed one brother and then did their best to break the second, with no knowledge of their familial relationship.
It was taken care of so they never would. But none of them could stop the Heathens permanently, although Mercy would try his damned best to eradicate them from their roots, in the town he’d grown up in, where the Heathens had burgeoned into the meth-pushing MC they’d become.
Walking onto a Heathens’ compound for the first time since he’d renounced them at sixteen had been like walking onto foreign soil. Finally, he’d done what he should’ve a long damned time ago. Now, he figured there were Heathens waiting in the wings to try to take up the mantle, but none of them were born-and-bred MC men, which would make it that much more difficult. Still, Mercy and Havoc would make sure that Heathens didn’t rise from the ashes, stronger than they’d been.
Linc swam languidly back to the dock, not rushing, not wanting another run-in with Mercy. He’d contemplated swimming for hours just to avoid another face-to-face but he was still not at a hundred percent.
“Nowhere fucking near,” he muttered, just before yanking his aching body up onto the dock. Swimming was the only thing these days that gave him peace of mind. In the water, nothing else mattered except keeping his body moving, like a shark. Move or die. Plus, he’d always believed water had healing properties that were damned near unmatched.
By the time he allowed himself to look up, Mercy was gone.
“Good,” he said out loud, even though it felt anything but. Because, since Mercy’s visit yesterday, Linc had been restless. Irritable. He’d made Bram go to Havoc to visit Sweet, because Bram had been fussing over him, and then he’d alternately paced and brooded the rest of the evening, thinking about their first time together.
It was the same night Mercy had posted his bond. Linc had gotten arrested for fighting outside of Bertha’s and Rush had called in a favor to Mercy.
After an hour of sitting in a cell in the sheriff’s office, Linc had looked up to see Mercy, in his Havoc rocker, at his cell door.
That had been the beginning of a roller-coaster ride that Linc had never wanted to get off. Because Mercy was insatiable, and had been Linc’s match in every way. Linc’s body thrummed for him. And now, dammit, he was hard as fuck, and stayed that way even after diving back into the chill of the lake. Instead of letting the memories drown him, he put his head down and swam and swam until he could barely breathe . . . and when he looked up again, Mercy was still gone.
Hours after Mercy left and Linc jerked off in the shower—twice—he was still restless as fuck. Before the sun went down, he decided to go back into the lake for another swim, hoping to tire himself out enough so he could sleep through his nightmares.
When he looked up halfway through his swim, he noted that this time, it was Castle who was waiting for him on the dock. Still, he didn’t rush his swim, took his time finishing—because routine soothed him more than anything else these days—before making his way over to the man whose house he was taking advantage of.
Castle would be unperturbed at having to wait. His patience was endless, unlike Mercy’s. The men were opposites in many ways, but it was apples and oranges, because Linc’s relationship with Castle was past . . . in every way except his job.
Because of that, he’d visited Linc in the first several days of his hospitalization, and offered him a way out of the sterile environment.
“There are too many eyes and ears. There’s a lake house—just say an old military friend offered it up.”
“And you’re that old military friend, aren’t you?” Linc asked.
Castle’s eyes were soft with memories. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you again.”
“None of this is your fault.”
“I brought you into it.”
“I’m a big boy, remember?”
Castle shook his head, his lips pressed together, and Linc could see how angry he was about Linc’s capture. “I remember everything, Linc.”
“You want me back to work.”
“I think you want yourself back. But let’s get you healed up first and then we’ll talk.”
Linc was angry, dizzy, and fully unprepared. But fuck, if he ever wanted to work this way again, he had to protect the covers he’d cultivated. So he took the keys and the papers and told Bram about the house.
Bram was no fan of hospitals himself, and he was just as eager to get Linc to a more normal location to heal.
“Hey,” Linc said now, hands on the dock.
“Hey yourself.” Castle was sitting in one of the deck chairs, mirrored glasses on, looking handsome. “Glad you’re making use of the lake.”
Linc heaved himself out of the water. Every day, it because easier. He flopped into the chair next to Castle, letting the sun warn his body. The scars—the ones he hated the thought of showing Mercy—were on full display, and he noted Castle cataloging them.
“The house is awesome,” he said, as a way of taking Castle’s attention off them.
He didn’t say thanks about the house, because it wasn’t a favor. More like a barter. The FBI owed him, and this wasn’t a bad form of payment. And the distraction hadn’t stopped Castle from staring hard at his scars, his expression tight.
“I’m fine,” Linc said quietly.
“You’re strong,” Castle agreed, then paused, his face serious. “I want you to rest assured that Matlin’s been taken care of.”
The last time Linc had seen his old handler was in Texas, when his family and friends thought he’d run again and his attitude about that had always come down to, fuck it, there are worse things for family and friends to think about me . . . until it came to bite him in the ass when he’d been captured and his handler had totally and utterly failed him.
Because a handler was supposed to keep track of their charge, and keep them safe, on and off their ops.
That failure had gotten Linc reassigned to Castle, who’d apparently thrown a fit when he’d learned what’d happened to Linc. Considering they used to hook up when Linc was in the Army, he supposed it was good to know the guy was still in his corner.
He also supposed it was more serious than just hooking up, especially after Castle left the Army for the FBI and their weren’t rules against their relationship.
Castle had recruited Linc early in his Army career, after Linc had taken an E&E training seminar with him. Castle had been impressed enough with Linc’s skills—and his other high scores—and had discussed the possibilities of black-ops jobs with him. His sleeping with Castle hadn’t depended on the jobs—and vice versa—but for various reasons, they’d kept their relationship on the down-low.
“Are you thinking about getting back to it?”
Linc shrugged. “Guess it depends.”
“On how much you can explain to Mercy?” he asked and Linc nodded. “I don’t see him here, though.”
“You just missed him.” But he figured Castle knew that, probably waited for him to leave. “Don’t bullshit me like this. Say what you came here to say.”
“I know you’ve been through hell. I do. But I also know that just hanging out at Havoc isn’t you. Just because you let people think it is.”
Motorcycle clubs hadn’t been on Linc’s radar until he’d enlisted. Yeah, he’d known they existed, but until he’d been stationed near Shades Run, he hadn’t realized that there were differences between the clubs, whether they were one percenters or not, and how many wars were waged between the MCs. Or that they’d originally started out in order to help returning veterans.
He’d learned, before Mercy, that Havoc was founded by four such vets by buying cursed land and making a go of it.
Later, Ryker confirmed it. “The land liked them. Still does, so it watches out for us.”
After spending time on the compound, Linc could believe it. There was a good energy, a sense of peace and calm, no matter what was going on in the outside world.
But until Linc had served and gotten out, he hadn’t understood the importance of being with like minds, with men and women who understood what he’d dealt with in the Army. The shit he’d seen.
It was why he’d been drawn to Jethro as well. Jethro and Castle were old friends, so Linc had known Jethro for years. Meeting him as a Hangman went down without a hitch because Linc also understood the world of covert ops.
Because Linc was that world. “You can’t tell me I haven’t been exposed.”
“Listen, I’d have heard something by now. Heathens kept you hidden and by doing so, made it hell on you, but easy on your cover.”
“Great. Glad the cover is more important than my fucking life.”
“It’s not, Linc.” Castle looked remorseful, and Linc knew that he’d taken over being Linc’s handler because of the screwup that’d kept him locked in the Heathens basement for months. But still, the bitterness seeped in at unexpected times. Especially when he thought he’d finally put it behind him.
He was beginning to realize there was really no such thing. “I need time,” he repeated stubbornly.
“I won’t argue with you. Stay here as long as you need to. I’ll keep checking in.”
“To see if I’m ready?”
“To make sure you’re all right,” Castle corrected.