Keegan Donaghue bounced one knee as he sat on a chair located in the sheriff’s administrative assistant’s office. Part of him felt like he was waiting outside the principal’s office in high school, not that his adoptive fathers would tolerate him causing any kind of trouble. He stared at the leather satchel dangling between his knees and blew out a steadying breath. He was here to speak with the big man himself—Sheriff Robin Burke.
A connecting door opened and a powerfully built male dressed in a khaki uniform shirt and dark pants appeared. The man ran fingers through his thick ebony hair, cut short for the job. His deep brown gaze settled on Keegan, who looked up at the noise.
“Hello, Mr. Donaghue, sorry about the wait. Please come on inside,” he said in a rich tenor voice that rumbled through Keegan’s insides. He held out a hand. “I’m Sheriff Robin Burke. Welcome to Shore Breeze.”
After rising from his seat, Keegan moved the strap of his leather bag to one shoulder and walked to the door. He shook the larger man’s hand. “Keegan Donaghue, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sheriff.”
“Come inside. I heard a lot about you from Brandon.” Robin escorted Keegan inside the decent-sized office then closed the door. “Would you like a bottle of water, coffee or soda?”
“Water would be wonderful. I hope most of what Dad said was promising,” Keegan said.
“Brandon is Dad?” Robin asked. With Keegan’s nod, he added, “What do you call Liam?”
“He’s Papa. I could never get used to calling them by their first names after the adoption. They were my dads, my parents, so we figured to split it that way.”
“It works for us. Papa Brandon or Papa Liam was too much of a mouthful.”
Robin chuckled as he pulled a bottle from a small fridge and tossed it toward Keegan, who caught it with ease then sat in the visitor’s chair. “As for what your dad told me, I’m sure Brandon exaggerated some and spoke plain when he needed. That’s how I remember Brandon from our time in the academy and Raleigh department. How are your fathers doing? Last time I saw Brandon and Liam was their promise ceremony.” Robin paused as if to figure out the timing. “Wow. That happened over ten years ago.”
“They’re both doing wonderful. They took time to help me move down here and settle into the apartment you secured for me. Thank you for that.”
“Not necessary. I do it for any incoming officers who need a place to stay.” Robin took a sip from a mug that had the sheriff’s logo splashed across the front. “What have your fathers been doing?”
“They had a small wedding after the Supreme Court decision. It was kind of sudden so they didn’t send out invites. It was a small, intimate deal. Papa says they’re finally legal and he can take all of Dad’s money.”
“He’s a detective. What money?”
They both laughed.
A little more at ease from the exchanged laughter, Keegan continued, “Dad is counting down to his retirement time. Another five years and he’s off for the sunset.”
“What about Liam? Does Brandon think Liam is even considering retirement?”
“It’s never going to happen. He’ll die with a piece of chalk in his hand,” Keegan said and the sheriff laughed again. “You can’t pull Papa out of the classroom. He’ll cling to it with his fingernails if Dad tries to make him retire. He loves teaching.”
“They’re still arguing about it.”
“Yup, but it’s always filled with love. That hasn’t changed. Their partnership is as strong as when they spoke with a scared kid after school looking for a way out of his personal hell,” Keegan said.
“They’re good men.”
“The very best, sir.”
Robin cleared his throat and leaned forward, bracing his arms on the desk. “Brandon explained the situation you got into and the break in your résumé. I spoke to your former supervisor and was impressed by what he told me about your skills and strengths when it comes to forensics.”
“Could you tell me what he said?”
“He explained the difficulties with your partner and your addiction causing the temporary suspension until IA finished their investigation. According to the official records, you weren’t in control of your actions. Your partner took advantage of your medical condition. Beyond the medicine prescribed by your doctor, the IA found the remaining time you were under the influence was a direct result of your partner’s control over the situation. You were cleared of any blame after a thorough second look by another forensic investigator and all of your work remained solid for those cases.”
Keegan swallowed as he listened to the sheriff. He knew where this would lead, all thanks to his former partner encouraging his OxyContin addiction after a back injury. It had messed him up in so many ways, but he’d fought through it all while in detox. All he needed was a chance. “Sir, I can—”
Robin held up a hand to stop him. “While IA cleared you of any guilt and reinstated your badge, the situation remains unsettling. I spoke with the principal, Joshua Roberts, and we decided together to offer this chance to you. There will be conditions upon your employment.”
“Conditions, sir?” Keegan asked, grateful they were at least willing to work with him, even with his sketchy past.
“While at the school, the head of the science department will shadow your classes. The same will happen here at the precinct. Overall, I believe you’re quite capable of doing this job and don’t foresee this shadowing going beyond a couple of months. No matter our belief, we need to take these additional steps to protect everyone within the school and the precinct. Understand?”
Robin gave him a nod and folded his hands back on the desk. “Are you committed to staying sober? If you fall back into using drugs, you’ll lose your license to teach and practice forensics. Permanently.”
“I’m going on a year and a half, sir. I swore to myself while I was in the hell known as detox that I would never slide back into addiction or that behavior. I made it through, got back on my feet, and my fathers suggested a fresh start in a different town. I received this chance here between your acceptance and my position at the school. I’m not going to screw it up,” Keegan said, his tone earnest and stronger toward the end.
“Thank you for the honesty.”
“I don’t wish to disappoint you.”
“I don’t think you will, Keegan, you sound far too determined. My officers know if they’re ever in trouble, my door is open and my support will be with them. Same goes for you,” Robin said with a smile.
“Thank you. I’ll remember it.”
“Now that we’ve got that out of the way…” Robin brushed his hands together as if to wipe away any concern. “You visited Personnel and set everything up. Right?”
“Yes. Also picked up my uniforms, but haven’t worn them yet since I technically haven’t started.”
“We’ll get to that part.” Robin pushed his chair back from the desk, then opened a drawer and pulled out a leather wallet. He placed it on the desk in front of Keegan. “This is yours. Welcome to the sheriff’s department, Keegan.”
Keegan picked up the wallet and flipped the top to find the simple silver star with the sheriff’s logo in the center. The opposite side held his new identification—he’d taken the picture earlier as part of the personnel stuff. “At least I don’t look like a total dork.”
“Thank you, sir,” Keegan said as he closed the wallet and tucked it into his back pocket.
“As for schedule, you start next week. Take the rest of this week to settle in, check out the town, and handle what you need with the school. I’m sure they have all kinds of paperwork there.”
“I need to get situated for the start of classes, find my classroom, and learn the science curriculum.”
“I’ve been in touch with Principal Roberts and we mapped out your schedules between your two positions. You have one late afternoon lab class. Other than that, you can be at the sheriff’s station by three in the afternoon.”
“Sounds good to me. What if I have a student meeting or something?”
“We’ll clear up those issues as they come along. I would like to give you a folder of a current case that’s been nagging our small town for some time. I want a fresh pair of eyes on it.”
“Don’t give me any details, sir. I want to look at it without anything altering my first impression. I prefer to do the same with a crime scene. I don’t want to know what the first officers on sight or the detectives assume happened. It could only confuse or alter my findings.”
“Even better. As with anything from this office, the papers and information are confidential and for your eyes only. You’re allowed to talk hypothetically without details to anyone.”
Robin picked up a deep brown paper portfolio and held it over the desk. Keegan took it with both hands, surprised at the weight.
“This is a priority case. You speak directly to me about anything.”
“Catch yourself up on the file and we’ll talk about it when you start next week. Anything else pops up, dispatch will let you know where and when. A senior crime scene tech will shadow your first few calls to clear up questions on specific procedures, but you received our forensics handbook.”
“I received that one and the general sheriff’s department handbook.”
“Go through those as well. Other than that, enjoy what time off you can get.”
“For now. I enjoyed our talk,” Robin said as he rose to his feet.
Keegan did the same and shook hands once more.
* * * *
During some downtime, Keegan walked around the small town he’d come to hoping to change his entire life. He adored the layout of the quaint downtown area. He enjoyed checking out the different restaurants.
He paused to lift his phone and snap several pictures. He continued to send them to his fathers to prove he had ventured outside the apartment where they’d left him. They’d told him to get out and about, so he showed off this beautiful small town he’d discovered while living outside of work and home. They wanted him to try to be social, working through his therapy, and staying in the moment. He’d promised to do the best he could. At times it was difficult to keep the promise, but as he wandered, Keegan felt peace deep inside his center.
He came to a stop at his favorite shop.
Brilliant pieces of art caught his attention and he crossed the street to stand in front of the shop’s windows. He leaned back to read the artistic metal and glass sign—Fire Glass Studio. All of the artwork had been created from a mixture of mediums. After his first visit, Keegan had looked up the artist, Wyatt McBride, online. Seeing where the artist’s work had been displayed impressed him. Somehow, he always found a way to wander back to this place to see more. Something about this visit tugged him to step inside the elegantly designed gallery space. As the door closed behind him, the bell tingling, he pulled off his dark sunglasses and hung them from the neckline of his button-down Henley.
With a look around, he stepped over to an abstract piece. Created out of steel and glass, this one felt different. Other ones were pure blown glass, while clay and bronze items filled another section.
“Hello and welcome to Fire Glass Studio,” a female said. In contrast to the brilliant art, she wore a simple cream skirt and vest with a soft peach shirt. “Oh, I remember your face. You’ve walked through multiple times. Right?”
“Yes, you have an excellent memory. I don’t think I introduced myself the first time,” Keegan said.
“No, I don’t think we did.”
“The gallery was busy and I didn’t want to disturb anyone.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right. I’m used to running in multiple directions. I’m Marissa, the gallery manager,” she said.
“I’m Keegan. These pieces are magnificent. Does Mr. McBride always use different media?”
“Everything but paint and a canvas. Wyatt started with iron and steel but added the glass, clay and bronze over time.”
A corner display caught Keegan’s attention. “Those are different,” he said and walked over with Marissa.
“Wyatt offers studio and gallery space to upcoming artists. Sort of like an internship for them to learn their craft and how to run a studio of their own. This work belongs to one of his favorite students, Patrick McGowan.”
Keegan had heard a change in Marissa’s tone when she’d mentioned the other name. “Is he still around?”
“No, we lost him a couple of weeks ago after an extended battle with AIDS. Things haven’t quite returned to a normal routine around here. Before he became ill, these were the last pieces he created. We keep this display to honor his gift and support his battle with the illness,” Marissa said as she traced a finger along one of the support columns.
“I’m sorry to hear about his passing. I can visualize the drifting waves in this one,” Keegan said and pointed to one glass and clay item.
“Patrick called it Windswept.”
“I wish I could afford one of these unique pieces, but I moved here almost a month ago so money is a bit tight.”
“Really? Then let me offer a special welcome to Shore Breeze to you. What do you do?”
“I’m the new science teacher for the ninth and tenth grades along with some part-time work with the sheriff’s department. I arrived in time for teachers to get ready for the new school year. Lots of meetings, set-ups and getting to know the curriculum before the students start.”
“Wow. That sounds like you have a lot on your plate. What department with the sheriff?”
“Forensics. My other love along with science, but mostly in chemistry. One of my fathers is a brilliant CSI and I followed in his footsteps.”
“Good luck with both positions and I hope you come to love our little town.”
“From what I’ve seen of it this last month, I already do.” Keegan stopped when the bell tingled by the door.
“Hey, Mari, got the order for you and Wyatt,” a teenager called out. He held up and waved a bag. His ball cap and T-shirt had the logo for Vita Pita.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Marissa said and walked over to the teen.
As he looked at the display, Keegan slid his hands into his pockets and meandered to the other side of the gallery. A sign welcoming guests to visit the studio hung above an opening. Due to the machinery, supervision was required for any visitor. He’d check it out—there had to be someone in there who would do the supervising, right? By the opening, he’d swear loud music was playing somewhere. Double doors waited at the end of the hallway. When he pushed one handle, he grunted at the weight and the burst of sounds. The doors and the connecting walls had to be insulated to keep the gallery space quiet and undisturbed. He stepped around the door then let it close behind him.
The heat and noise struck him first. The noise was loud rock and alternative music blasting through speakers, along with the bangs of metal hitting metal.
Keegan stopped at the sight of the huge two-story space, which was almost like a warehouse with a forge dominating the center. Shelves wrapped around the walls and were filled with all kinds of materials. Massive machines filled the floor space along with worktables.
In the middle of the room, not far from the forge, a man worked and fought with the metal.
Keegan’s jaw dropped at the sight of the six-foot plus frame dressed in faded jeans, heavy work boots, a tattered T-shirt, and a leather apron. He licked his lips when he watched the fabulous muscles in the artist’s arms, shoulders and back clench and work as he pulled and curled the bar. Not far from the artist stood a growing structure with an interior frame. Different pieces of metal were ready to be either formed or attached to the structure.
“Holy fuck,” Keegan muttered as his cock responded. A pulse deep in his belly thumped. This was more than a craving for the drugs—this was a purely different kind of need.
Well hell, if I’d known he was here during my first visit, I would have hung out here all day. Gorgeous eye candy.
In between the sounds of the loud music, Keegan could hear the man arguing and cursing the metal bar.
“Come on, you little fucker, cooperate and curl. Curl, you son of a bitch.” He heaved his whole weight against the stubborn piece. “There you go. Got you now.”
Keegan grinned while he listened to the odd shift from cursing to coaxing.
“Found your way back here, huh?”
Keegan jumped, startled by Marissa’s voice. He held a hand to his chest.
“Sorry,” Marissa said with a chuckle.
“No problem. It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have wandered away from the gallery,” Keegan admitted.
“I had a feeling you would be here. At least you remained in the doorway,” Marissa said. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
“Oh yeah, he is…” Keegan flushed and looked at Marissa. “You weren’t talking about him.”
“Not really, but yeah, he’s a fine piece of work. Too bad for me, he swings your way.”
“If I knew he was back here during my first visit…” Keegan trailed off with a shake of his head.
“Don’t blame you.” She winked and reached behind him to flick a switch that raised and lowered the volume of the music. “Only way I can alert him.”
“What is it, Mari? I’m dealing with a pain-in-the-ass piece of iron.”
“Wyatt, you got a visitor,” Marissa said. “I also have lunch.”
“Visitor? Don’t recall a visitor’s appointment. Leave the lunch on the table.”
“Don’t worry. He’s all grump and no bite,” Marissa said to Keegan.
Keegan licked his lower lip again when the artist turned away from the clamping station where he worked to bend and curl the iron bar.
Wyatt removed his gloves in answer. He left the bar and headed over to where Keegan stood. “I’m Wyatt McBride.”
“Keegan. Keegan Donaghue.”
“Would you like a tour or something?”
“No, no, I don’t want to disturb you. I can see most of it from here and you appear quite busy. Perhaps another time,” Keegan said.
Marissa dug into his lower back with her elbow.
Keegan shook his head. He glanced back. Wyatt tilted his head. A flush colored Keegan’s cheeks at him getting caught.
Wyatt chuckled. “I’m always working back here on one project or another. This particular bar is being a pain in the ass. Excuse my language.”
“I hang around cops and hear much worse.”
“Cops, huh? Are you a law officer?”
“No, I prefer forensics. I like putting a crime scene puzzle together.”
“Interesting way of looking at it.”
“I enjoy looking at the world in a different way.” Keegan pointed back toward the iron bar. “What seems to be the trouble with the bar?”
“Not quite sure. Think I need to heat it up again and get it more malleable. Sheer brute strength isn’t working this time around.” He pressed his hands to his lower back and stretched.
Keegan swallowed hard again. He checked out the magnificent inked sleeve covering Wyatt’s left arm. Oh crap, he’s gorgeous and inked. I’m so screwed.
“I wandered by your gallery earlier, but this time decided to venture deeper inside,” Keegan said. “Your work is intriguing and gorgeous.”
“Thanks. Are you visiting Shore Breeze?”
“No, I moved here and started working at the high school,” Keegan said. “Had some free time so I wanted to walk around and see where things were located.”
“Oh, welcome to town then. Wait,” Wyatt said and made a rolling motion with his hands. “Backtrack a moment. High school? Weren’t you talking about forensics and cops earlier?”
Keegan chuckled and rocked back on his heels. “I’m a bit of an oddball when it comes to jobs. I’m doing both.”
“Part-time school teacher and forensics detective for the sheriff.”
“That’s got to be a crazy schedule. Heh, wonder if you’re going to have my nephew in your class. He’s going to enter the high school in the next week or so as a mid-year transfer.”
“I’m getting used to it, but I like being busy.” Keegan paused at the mention of a nephew, not a son, and wondered how that worked. “Perhaps he could become one of my students. I teach ninth and tenth grades.”
“You must be busy to do all that.” Wyatt tilted his head back and forth. “He’s transferring in as a freshman. You might see him in class.”
“I don’t like being bored and sitting around,” Keegan said. As for being bored, it isn’t a good thing if it equals thoughts drifting to craving Oxy and getting high. Can’t go there. He slid one hand into a pocket and fingered the year sober coin he’d received from the rehab clinic. The touch of it helped ground his racing thoughts. “I noticed some of your work is displayed up north.”
“I visited Shore Breeze for Pride Week and that was it. I left my home in the north and never left. Fell in love with this sleepy little town.”
“Hmm. Happens in the spring. The celebration packs this town to where you feel like a sardine at times. Not a spot on the beach is open for anyone to plop their ass on the sand. Every type of LGBT flag you can imagine flies all over the place. Never had a better time or felt more welcome. So, I moved.”
“Do you get much business with the gallery?”
Wyatt tilted his head at the odd question, but answered, “Believe it or not, yup, as do all the other stores around here. Marissa says we’re advertised in Pensacola and other big towns to draw visitors across the bridge and find this little place.”
“Good to know,” Keegan said and glanced to look for Marissa, but she’d left them at some point in the conversation. “I should umm…let you get some lunch and back to your work.”
“Oh, yeah, lunch would be good.” Wyatt stepped to the side and grabbed the bag with one grimy hand. “I would shake hands, but I’m a mess.” He gestured to his sweaty, blackened outfit. “Nature of working with metals, glass and fire.”
“Is it hard work?”
“At times it can become harder than anything, but it’s what I enjoy doing. I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk.”
“Or in front of an easel?”
Wyatt dragged his fingers through floppy, sweat-soaked dark-blond hair.
Keegan checked out Wyatt’s inked sleeve. A glorious dragon wrapped around Wyatt’s upper arm and shoulder. The main design on his arm was a spiral of gradually increasing sizes of rainbow-colored stars winding a path from his wrist to his shoulder. The stars cut through a dramatic tree of life with black birds flying from the branches. A phoenix curled around the trunk and his inner arm. Lotus flowers rained down from the phoenix’s tail feather. There were a few hidden images, but he couldn’t make them out. Part of him wanted to strip the man so he could inspect the entire sleeve and see what else he had inked. He also wouldn’t mind checking to see how ripped Wyatt’s body was under his clothes.
“…always welcome any time back here,” Wyatt said, but Keegan hadn’t heard the beginning part.
Wyatt grinned, his teeth a flash of white amid the grime and sweat. “Letting you know you’re welcome here any time—just stay where you’re standing unless I’m escorting you. Too many machines can harm someone if they don’t know what they’re doing and the forge can get damn hot.”
“Oh, right. Thank you. I’ll make sure to come by another time,” Keegan said and backed out of the area.
With a deliberate drop of his gaze over Keegan’s body, Wyatt smiled in a lazier fashion. “I hope you do, Keegan Donaghue.”
Caught in the power of Wyatt’s sensual pull, Keegan swallowed hard as his body thumped with desire. He couldn’t follow through, not now. Not at this point in his life. He needed to get his feet steady underneath him. He turned and left both the workroom and the gallery, his mind racing with thoughts and sensations.