Marco Dellburn's past as an abused teen provided him with the toughness needed to be a US Marshal. Encouraged by his idol, Jubilee Mason, Marco takes his advice and enrolls in all the grueling courses the Marshals have to offer. Upon graduation, finds he really does have a family in Jubilee and his husband, Kieran Fox, Nicholas Fournier and his lover Sean Mercado and especially Trace Thatcher, his surrogate dad and landlord.
In Trace and Pauline's home, Marco finds the protection and acceptance he never had at the hands of his brutal father, Kenny Dellburn, leader of the vicious motorcycle gang Born Evil. Trace, who shot Kenny in defense of Marco, is now a marked man wanted by Born Evil. There's another big problem too. Marco's deeply in love with the gang's new leader, Sam Channing... the man he can never be with but can't stop loving. The price to pay for this passion is turmoil. And death.
The morning of my final class at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glyncoe, Georgia, couldn't have come fast enough for me.
In spite of an intense twenty weeks of advanced forensics classes, I even beat the clock. At five fifty-four A.M., two minutes before my roommate's clock radio began blaring, I was awake. I pondered turning the damned thing off before it could start, but I wanted to hear the news. I should drag my ass out of bed and drop to the floor. I could do two-hundred push-ups and take a quick run before final session.
Instead, I remained warm and cozy, my thoughts already on the celebratory dinner my friends were organizing for me back home in Dallas.
Home. I felt a tug of emotion. I had no blood relatives waiting for me, but my friends were my family. Nicholas and Sean, the couple who had first befriended me, had visited me twice during my intense classes. They were two of the most well regarded U.S. Marshals in Dallas, and they had supported me all the way.
So had my mentor, Trace Thatcher. He'd also been here twice.
The biggest thrill had been when Jubilee Mason, one of the greatest U.S. Marshals of our times, had flown here with his husband, Kieran, and their son, Juan.
Jubilee is a legend, even though he and Kieran are no longer in the Marshals. It was Jubilee's encouragement that had brought me this far. I became a sort of hero when my classmates heard he was coming to FLETC, which we all pronounce as fletcee My course instructor even managed to persuade him to come and talk to us.
I can tell you with some pride that Jubilee insisted, "I'm only doing this for Marco."
For me! Marco Dellburn. Nobody would have predicted I'd be one of the new generation of marshals. I'd been a grade A cock-up my entire life. I'd spent my senior school years in juvie. My father, the late, unlamented Kenny Dellburn, had been one of the leaders of the motorcycle gang, Born Evil. He was dead. My Uncle Carter, the gang's official leader, hated me. He no doubt resented that I was a part of law enforcement.
And the real, actual leader of Born Evil, Sam Channing...well, he was my only regret.
Three years it had been since I'd had any real news of the guy, and I still had a soft spot for him. Soft spot. What a frickin' joke. I was still in love with him.
The clock radio began its thing and I tried not to think about how many push-ups I could have done in the time I'd lain here daydreaming.
My roommate groaned. "I swear I just shut my eyes."
I could have predicted that comment. He talked over the dying strains of a dumbass country song, "I Still Miss You Baby, But My Aim's Gettin' Better".
On second thought, maybe it wasn't so dumbass. It was the story of my life. The man I coveted probably felt that way about me. One day, I feared we'd meet in a dark alley or something, and I didn't think it would turn out well...for one of us.
I sighed as I thought about the road ahead. I'd been focused on this day for so long but hadn't actually thought much beyond it. All I wanted to do was work.
Having completed the most grueling, intense course ever devised in the history of mankind, just to enhance my career with the U.S. Marshals, should have been the proudest, happiest day of my life. And it was, really. But right now all I could think was how great it was gonna be to get away from my roommate, Cooter James Elmond.
I couldn't stand the guy and, like everyone else, I called him Cootie, even to his face.
He was a big fan of country music and redneck pastimes such as tractor pulls. He also had a thing about busty, blonde women, but he was more likely to get run over by a runaway tractor than to ever get laid, so he made do with off-color, childish remarks. And bawdy songs about women, which he would sing, even in his sleep.
"I'm so lonesome in the saddle... since my horse died," he began to sing. This wasn't a line from a song. It was one of his many cowboy joke songs. I waited for the refrain. It didn't take him too long. "You stole my wife, you horse thief."
Closing my eyes, I feigned sleep but kept an ear open for the latest news.
"Marco," Cootie said from the narrow single bed just a few short feet away from me, "you awake?"
If I hadn't been, I was now. "What up, Cootie?"
He thought my nickname for him was a term of endearment. He couldn't have been more wrong and we couldn't have been more different, but for the past six weeks we'd been paired up on back-to-back advanced courses in Advanced Forensics Techniques in Crime Scene Investigations.
I was not only now a fully-qualified U.S. Marshal, but the folks back home in Dallas could no longer keep me on desk duty or relegate me to being a glorified chauffeur.
I'd graduated from my seventeen-and-a-half-week Marshal training course the previous summer and eked out a miserable existence as a bottom feeder until Jubilee came back into Dallas with Kieran and their son, Juan, for his sister Pauline's wedding to Trace.
Jubilee quit the service three years ago and moved to Canada with Kieran. Though he qualified for the Vancouver Police Department, fatherhood had become his obsession, so much so he switched gears and studied teaching. He now teaches kindergarten and first grade, and everyone we know calls him Kindergarten Cop.
Except Juan. He just calls him Dad. I think Jubilee and I were both a bit sad on Pauline and Trace's wedding day. He was sad that Juan, aged ten, no longer calls him Daddy, and I was sad I was still single and driving the other marshals around.
It had been a painful process for me in becoming a U.S. Marshal. When I first tried to apply for the service, I discovered my reading level wasn't acceptable. They said I was just below the median of eighth grade. Apparently that is the average reading age of most Americans.
Trace had been fantastic. He'd enrolled me in a crash reading course, but I'd taken even more classes. I wanted to be the best, biggest, baddest U.S. Marshal out there, but I'd focused on the physical stuff. I'd been devastated when they first rejected me.
I truly hadn't realized I had a severe lack of skills. I just thought I hated reading. Now I loved reading. I loved the news. I had a serious thirst for knowledge.
Even though I'd passed all my classes and graduated from the U.S. Marshals, they still didn't think I was mature enough for active duty.
Jubilee understood my pain. "Do some courses," he'd said at the wedding. We talked for two hours. He hunkered down with me and gave me so much invaluable insight and so many leads that I wrote on a dinner napkin. I have kept that napkin. It's one of my most treasured possessions. As he talked, I lamented--not for the first time--that the oldest branch of federal law enforcement in the history of the United States had lost such a good man.
He'd advised me to pick a specialty, and I had. I had a real passion, and I soon learned, an actual gift for subsurface and underwater crime scenes. I grinned now as Cootie kept yawning beside me. Yeah, I had me a special skill set, though I didn't think I'd get much chance to work underwater in Dallas, unless I wanted to investigate swamps.
"You nervous?" Cootie suddenly asked.
I opened my eyes and gazed at him. "Nervous? About what?"
"Going back into the real world."
For the first time, Cootie and I had something real to talk about. We couldn't have been more different physically. He was a tall, thin, gangly blond from Savannah, Georgia. His father was a highly regarded forensic pathologist who even had his own TV show and had pushed Cootie into pursuing a career in forensics. Cootie had no desire to do autopsies and had almost fainted when we attended one his father did in Savannah.
Can't say I blame him. The smell would never leave my mind.
So he was big and blond...I was big, as well, but I had unruly black hair that was desperate to be an afro when it grew out, and I had been very upset to give up my skull earring. I'd worn it since the eighth grade, probably around the time my reading skills went belly-up. U.S. Marshals don't wear earrings or have tattoos. But I've kept the earring. In fact, Jubilee's napkin is wrapped around it. I've grown. The hole in my ear hasn't. It probably never will close up, but then I figure it's a good reminder of where I've been. It's always good to remember the past.
As Trace once told me, "Those who forget their past are condemned to repeat it."
"You're going back to Dallas, right?" Cootie asked.
"I'm going to Quantico."
That surprised me. He'd bitched and moaned about our course schedule. And now he was going into the real lion's den?
"You think it's a bad idea?" He looked nervous now.
I shook my head and raised myself on one elbow. I didn't break eye contact. Cootie had discovered his acute aversion to the smell of dead bodies was a real help in another field. He'd been able to detect the scent of different components of the meth lab they'd cooked up for us in the fourth week of class.
Controlled Substance Crime Scenes had turned out to be pretty interesting for most of us. For Cootie it had appeared to be a calling. He could tell what household substances the instructors had used to cook up the potent drug that has become the bane of law enforcement officers all over the country.
We had all been asked to sniff the air and suggest what might have triggered the ingredients. A few of us tossed out ideas.
"Vicks NyQuil," Cootie had announced with confidence. The rest of us had stared at him. The guy who was best known for raunchy comments like, "I ain't never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I sure woke up with a few," did apparently have a few active brain cells.
"Beautiful," our instructor had said, "which is why Vicks NyQuil, among many other useful drugs, is now kept away from drugstore counters. We have to regulate who buys these products. Anyone who wants it now has to go to the pharmacist and show them ID. Their purchase goes into the computer which is kept in a federal database, in case they try to go to another drugstore, say one county over, and try to buy another one. They're only allowed to buy one bottle in a thirty-day period."
"So how are the meth heads able to cook up the drug if they're only allowed one bottle?" somebody asked.
"They break down the formula and cook the ingredients. It can be a highly volatile exercise. One wrong component can set the place on fire, which is why so many meth labs blow up," the instructor had said.
I lay in my bed watching Cootie, waiting to hear about Quantico.
"They think I should study more about chemicals," he said.
For the first time, I felt a grudging respect for the guy. "I think that's fantastic. You've found your niche there, dude."
"Niche? I don't have any of those. My sister doesn't have any kids yet."
I closed my eyes. I could have said, "Niche, not niece, fool." But I didn't. This was the new me. Kinder, more mature.
Cooter's hands were under the blankets. Man! He was jerking off right in front of me. His eyes were closed. Tight. He was like a little kid. If he couldn't see me, I couldn't see him. Ugh. I got out of bed, gave up on listening to the news, and took myself off for a run.
The final class was just a series of reminders. It was good to have those. By noon, my stuff was packed and I was on my way.
Upon my arrival at the airport in Dallas/Fort Worth, I have to confess, I cried like a baby when I saw Nicholas and Sean waiting for me. They held up a sign, Team Marco. Beside them, Trace, Pauline, and their thirteen-year-old twins, Philip and Andre, were also waiting for me. I was stunned to see one more member of the party, Trace's daughter, Harley. A rising basketball star with a college scholarship to Notre Dame, she was a statuesque African-American beauty. She could have been a supermodel, but her passions were philosophy and sports, and they'd gotten her into the fifth highest "dream school" for parents to enroll their kids.
She was an amazing girl, and we had bonded when I'd first gone to stay with Trace.
Back then, Trace was married to Harley's mom, but they got divorced and Cecilia had always been tough on Harley. Cecilia had hated me from the get-go. I never knew why, but she just was so unhappy. She'd ragged on Trace day and night. When they split, Harley had gone to visit Trace and Pauline and I knew she and Pauline adored one another. The twins adored Harley, too.
So Harley and I ended up being Pauline's older kids. We were one big, happy family. Now Harley would be heading to Indiana, but Trace and Pauline still had me.
Everyone rushed and hugged me, and I couldn't have been happier.
"My turn, my turn," a voice said, and I looked down to find Juan beaming up at me.
I was so excited to see him that I dropped down and held him.
He was so excited to see me he forgot that he no longer called his fathers Daddy. "Daddy, he's here! He's here!" He kept hugging my knee as Kieran and Jubilee pushed through the crush.
"You think he's a singer or somethin'?" I heard somebody ask, as they glanced over at all the attention I was getting.
No. I was a U.S. Marshal, and damned proud of it, too.
We all drove home. Home for me was my guest house that used to be the garage in back of Trace and Pauline's house. I paid rent and loved my little piece of paradise. All three boys trooped into my little quarters with me. I knew they were expecting gifts and I'd brought them.
I had FLETC sweatshirts for each of them and even though the evening was warm, they all insisted on wearing them.
"Oh boy, oh boy," they all said, running around the backyard showing off their new attire.
"You shouldn't have," Pauline told me. She hugged me though.
"How are you, hot Mama?" I asked.
I caught Trace's grin as she laughed. "Things haven't been the same without you," she said. The guys had fired up the barbecue, and my stomach rumbled at the thought of steak and burgers. But I sniffed something else on the air.
"You baked a pie," I said.
"Several." She laughed.
"One of them wouldn't happen to be a chess pie, now would it?"
She batted her eyelids. "But of course it would."
I heard a shout from the driveway and sauntered over just in time to see Harley walloping Nicholas and Sean in a game of basketball.
"Coming to watch the burial?" she cracked.
"Just taking photos," I responded, pulling out my cell phone. Nicholas grabbed me and gave me a noogie.
I so regretted I ever taught him to give one of those.
At the barbecue, I held a plate in my hands, hoping for a stray piece of something to land in it as Trace flipped meat and chicken. Since the day he and Pauline had hooked up, the man seemed so damned cheerful. I'd stayed with them during the time his nasty divorce dragged on. He'd given his wife a very fair settlement and still seemed happy.
No matter what Cecilia had done, he blew it off. He cherished his life with Pauline and the boys. He had officially adopted them, but I knew for a fact he encouraged discussion and celebration of their fallen father, Oakie, who'd sacrificed his life for our country in the war in Afghanistan. Oakie's photos were in the house, his grave was always covered with flowers, and the boys had a living hero who loved and protected them.
Trace was a good man. A very good man. I worried sometimes that Born Evil would try to avenge my father's death because Trace was the one who shot him. Mind you, my father had showed up at Trace's house when I was first staying with him and Cecilia. Kenny had tried to take me. He would have hurt me. He'd beaten me up plenty in the past, and Trace knew that.
I still think Kenny would have killed me. I was convinced it was his intention. Why else would he show up with a few guns and drugs stuffed into his boots?
It had been three years and Born Evil had left us all alone. I hoped it stayed that way.
Trace looked at me. "You and I are teaming up on a new case tomorrow."
"Really." He grinned.
"Does it involve my typing up a load of reports?"
He laughed. "Only if you insist."
"You waiting for something there, Marco?" He indicated my plate with his tongs.
"Food. I need food."
"Here's a burger. Medium. Just how you like it." He tossed it onto my plate. I thanked him and began eating with my fingers. He shook his head mockingly. "That a new trick they taught you at FLETC?"
"They taught me a bunch of new tricks." I knew better than to ask him what the new case was. U.S. Marshals didn't discuss "bidness" over dinner, especially with kids around. I'd have to wait.
"Where's your uniform?" Pauline suddenly asked.
"Yeah--" her voice broke off. "Oh, they didn't give it you yet?" She scowled at her husband. "Trace, why doesn't he have it yet?"
"I'll get it," Philip said.
"No, I'll get it," Andre insisted.
Juan beat them both to the package. I was mystified since U.S. Marshals had no uniform. This was not a well-publicized fact.
Uniforms would be deadly in our work, traveling incognito on planes and protecting the important people we did. Our uniform, as such, was jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. For courtroom work, we wore suits. Nobody knew who we were. We could therefore pass as attorneys. That was one of the reasons why we didn't wear earrings. A few marshals I knew had tattoos from military life but were required, like Nicholas was, to always wear long sleeves, covering them in the line of duty.
We sometimes wore uniforms of certain agencies we helped, such as the Dallas Sheriff's department, but this hadn't happened since I'd been a marshal.
So what the heck was in the box?
"Open it," Nicholas said now, as Pauline got her digital camera ready.
The boys danced around as I lifted the lid off the big white box decorated with blue ribbons.
"Help me?" I asked the boys, who took the box from my hands and laid it atop the picnic table set with dishes and glassware. They lifted the tissue paper with reverent fingers and stared up at me.
Tears welled in my eyes when I saw a flak jacket with U.S. Marshal emblazoned across the breast.
"Put it on," the boys chanted. And I did. Pauline took a photo. Then everyone got in the act. I let the boys take turns posing for photos in the jacket.
"We have to put this photo of you in the local paper," Pauline said.
"No," I insisted.
She sighed. "You're right. It's just that we're so damned proud of you, Marco."
I couldn't keep my eyes off my jacket. I knew I would sleep in it tonight. Its presence in my life meant one thing. I had just been given official permission to join tactical maneuvers. I could, and would, be called on to help Dallas PD and the Texas Rangers for anything and everything from criminal apprehension, SWAT, natural disasters.
The jacket said I belonged. I was one of them.
Let the games begin.