ALLIE K. ADAMS
– – – – –
First Response (TREX 1 Brief – FREE Read)
Rescue Me (TREX 2)
At Any Cost (TREX 3)
No Way Out (TREX 4 Special Edition Brief)
Seek and Destroy (TREX 5)
Under the Covers (TREX 6)
TREX Boxed Set – ONE (TREX 1-3)
Out of Time (TREX 7)
It Takes Two (TREX 8)
Merry TREXmas (TREX 9 Special Edition Brief)
Copyright © 2015 by Allie K. Adams
Cover design by Kari Ayasha, Cover to Cover Designs
All art and logo copyright © 2016 by Allie K. Adams
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.
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All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
Allie K. Adams
Christmas turns to chaos when the senior agents of TREX get together in Seattle for the holidays. What’s a forced reunion without a little laughter, a few tears, and a couple fistfights?
After too many hours under the same roof, too many alphas, and too little patience, tempers snap. The agents are out of their element in more ways than one, especially when the special director drops a bomb no one saw coming.
It takes a 12-year-old autistic boy and his faithful companion to remind them all of the true meaning of Christmas. His appearance and the reason behind it reminds the agents why they’re together in the first place.
Tactical Retrieval Experts (TREX) is a privately funded agency independent of law enforcement, military, or any governmental restrictions. Our focus is on tracking and retrieving anything or anyone. Simply put: we find things. Employing highly trained agents with unlimited resources and extensive experience in covert operations, we will find anything and with guaranteed confidentiality. No matter the circumstances. No matter the danger. Call on TREX—we find what’s been lost.
Washington State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Wayde Davis stood off from the rest of the group, his arms folded across his chest. Something was off. He couldn’t quite place it, which didn’t please him any. He might not have the uncanny ability to read people like his boss at TREX, but he could hold his own. As a dual agent between the two agencies, it was his job to pick up on a person’s tells. He used to be a member of the SBI’s Special Victims Unit taskforce, but after losing his partner last year and having the bureau bury the fact, he couldn’t make the jump to Homicide fast enough. Now every victim would get justice—as would the killer.
His attention zeroed in on the living room. He’d never seen so many stockings crowding a fireplace mantle. It was a fire hazard having that much flammable material so close to open flames. Try telling that to the women hanging stockings of every shape and size—both the stockings and the women.
Wayde watched his wife laugh alongside several TREX agents and their spouses, some of them TREX agents as well. Why the hell was his house ground zero for Christmas? An old friend had given the mansion on Lake Washington to him and Mia as a wedding present. They’d just celebrated their first year of marriage. He had hoped to take his wife away for the holidays, their final vacation before the baby came. What right did TREX have crashing the party? Sure, TREX had used it as HQ during the mission he’d met Mia. That didn’t give them permission to use it as headquarters for a TREXmas gathering.
Mia laughed, the melody dancing in the air and in her pretty jade eyes. She made being five months’ pregnant look good. Then again, she made everything look good. So did JT Weber, one hell of a field agent and the only woman able to deal with Special Director Dan Weber on a regular basis.
Wayde tensed every time Weber’s daughter stumbled too close to anything dangerous. The giant Christmas tree. The corners of all the tables. The cage in front of the fireplace. Hell, everything was dangerous when it came to a two-year-old. Especially Weber’s two-year-old. That kid had no fear as she chased the four-year-old around the room. It scared the hell out of Wayde knowing he’d have his own kid by April. Maybe he should start thinking about what it would take to baby proof this place.
Using his shoulder, he propped himself against the wall and crossed his arms as he glanced out the large living room window overlooking the water. He couldn’t shake the unease. Something didn’t fit. Why would the special director of TREX’s frontline divisions invite the special director of TREX’s sideline divisions to spend Christmas in Seattle? Dan Weber might be peers with Malcolm McKoy, but it was no secret they didn’t like each other.
So why the invite? And why on God’s green earth did Malcolm feel the need to cart all seven of his kids—all TREX agents but one—from Montana with him? As if it wasn’t already crowded enough with the Seattle-based agents here.
Spencer Allen, one of two Special Agents in Charge and Weber’s second-in-command, approached and mirrored Wayde’s stance. He gave Wayde a quick assessment with that smoky gaze. The SAC always noticed every detail. It came in handy on finds.
Right now, it was damn annoying.
“What?” Wayde snapped, immediately on the defensive. He didn’t trust Spencer when he looked at him like that.
“I didn’t say anything,” Spencer mused and tipped his lips into a grin.
“You didn’t have to.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Are there any circumstances where you actually enjoy yourself anymore? Or is that scowl permanent?”
“Don’t bust my balls. I don’t see why everyone has to congregate here.”
“You could have said no.”
Wayde looked at him. “Yeah, right. And end up with shit jobs for the next ten years? No, thank you.”
“You have the biggest place to house all these McKoys.”
“No shit,” Wayde chuckled. “There are a mess of them.”
“If not here, we would have had to clear out your old apartment building. The TREX agents living there wouldn’t have been too happy about that. Well, except for Jason Bowman. He’s got a thing for one of the McKoys. Now that he’s got his own place, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing it with Bailey.”
Ah, the old apartment building. It would have ended up bankrupting Wayde had TREX not stepped in to take it off his hands and transform it into housing for agents. They’d retrofitted it with only the best in high-end security. Some units were used as safe houses, as well. It was that secure. Wayde had been thrilled to sell it to TREX.
“You want to tell me what’s got you so uptight?” Spencer asked when Wayde didn’t so much as crack a smile at his comment. “Well, at least more uptight than usual.”
“How about you try anyway.”
Wayde sighed. “I want to know why everyone is here. It bugs the hell out of me that I can’t figure out why Weber invited Malcolm McKoy. Sure, I may have the biggest house, but that doesn’t explain the why behind bringing everyone together like some damn family reunion.”
“We’re all TREX.”
“That doesn’t explain why both directors are here. Why not Montana? That’s where half these people are from anyway.”
“Take a look around,” Spencer said and nodded at the frenzy of activity in the living room. David Snyder, the other SAC in TREX’s frontline division and Dan Weber’s closest friend, sat on the couch and watched his twins. The boys were behind a set of adjustable plastic gates locked together to make a giant playpen in the corner, throwing whatever they could at the adults. A four-year-old boy weaved in and out of everyone’s legs like a damn cat, retrieving toys and tossing them back into the pen. A little two-year-old girl followed him around like a lost puppy. They’d been at it for hours.
At least the youngest of the guests had finally cried herself to sleep. The screaming over everything else was like nails on a chalkboard. Just the thought of what Wayde was in for when he and Mia became parents had him close to stroking out.
His wife laughed at something the director’s wife said before pulling Spencer’s wife into the conversation. The three huddled and then regarded the men. Wayde and Spencer exchanged glances. Why the hell were they looking at them like that? The women laughed again and went back to hanging more stockings.
Bethany McKoy waddled in from the kitchen, a glass of milk in one hand and a cookie in the other. The baby she had cooking in there had to be close to popping out. Her husband Chris sat on the couch next to David and lit up the instant he spotted her. She rested on his lap and fed him some of her cookie. The wheelchair he still needed from time to time was a constant reminder of the spinal injury that’d left him permanently disabled.
The youngest of the McKoys, twins Bailey and Kaylee, sat at the large dining table with their brothers, playing some card game that forced them to shout out bullshit on occasion and earn glares from the mothers each and every time. Malcolm McKoy was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Director Dan, which sent Wayde’s guard inching higher. Where the hell were they?
“Chaos,” Wayde grunted. “That’s what I see.”
“I see family.” Spencer pushed away from the wall and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “I see TREX agents, some who’ve gone through hell and back. Others who have yet to get sucked into the one mission that changes them. I see men and women making the best of their time on this rock. You know what I don’t see?”
“Anyone miserable on Christmas—well, except for you. Our wives haven’t stopped smiling. Bethany hasn’t stopped eating.” They both chuckled. “Bailey just went through a breakup. You don’t see her moping.”
“The Bowman guy?”
“You don’t miss much,” he mused. “Jason Bowman. David bent my ear for an hour bitching about that guy. Apparently Jason and Bailey have a thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
“An off again, on again thing. Hell if I know. That’s what David called it before threatening to kill Jason for making Bailey cry.” He fell silent as he followed his son’s movements, the two-year-old right on the boy’s heels. The twin boys reached for the toddlers as more toys joined the others, both inside the pen and out. “My point is, we’re all together. Take advantage of it. You never know when fate will step in and change it all.”
Odd comment. Wayde faced Spencer and narrowed his gaze. The man shifted his eyes, avoiding his. “What aren’t you telling me? There’s a reason Weber invited McKoy. What is it?”
“What was that, Kathryn?” Spencer called out to his wife. Everyone else called her Kat. “Sure, I’ll get you some eggnog.”
“Me, too.” Chris lifted his empty glass. “Make mine leaded.”
“Chicken shit,” Wayde muttered lightly as Spencer marched off to carry out his duties.
It still bugged him he didn’t know where the directors had disappeared to.
His phone buzzed. Thank God. At least now he had an excuse to escape from all the noise. He hurried into the den and closed the door before checking the number. Alarms screamed in his brain. Why would his director at the SBI be calling him? Could this be the reason he’d felt off ever since his guests arrived? “Davis.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Wayde countered. “Why are you calling? Don’t tell me another church was robbed.”
“Worse. We’ve got a body.”
Well, hell. He would have taken the robbery over this. He tensed, readying himself to escape the chaos that had taken over his home. As soon as he thought of Mia, of the way she hadn’t stopped smiling since the first guest arrived, it gave him pause. If he left now, there’d be hell to pay when he returned, not to mention how many TREX agents would insist on tagging along.
“I know you’re off,” Lawson went on. “But, considering your, uh, connections…”
“Why do you need TREX’s help?” Wayde pinched the skin between his eyes. The minute Lawson had learned of all the dual agents within the SBI, he never hesitated to tap into the additional resources.
“We need all hands on deck on this one. Besides, you have a connection to the vic. Carmen Ramirez was found dead tonight.”
Why did he know that name? As soon as it came to him, he inhaled sharply. Vixens. That damn club and the underground sex ring Wayde had broken up had drawn in every horny man this side of the Rockies. His partner Rhonda used to talk about Carmen as one of the girls who’d wanted out—and then she’d disappeared. And Rhonda had ended up dead. TREX had found her, along with a dozen other women, locked in a cellar.
Carmen’s was the story the other women had hoped to have someday. Innocent woman drugged and sold off to the highest bidder for sex every night is rescued and turns her life around, becoming the face of hope. Of recovery. Of proof something good could come from such horror.
This was going to devastate Mia.
“Apparent suicide. She dove off her second-story balcony.”
Wayde closed his eyes and ground out a curse. She’d been doing so well and had even reconnected with her little brother. It must not have been enough. Deep down, she still battled the demons the rest of the women battled each and every day. He had to find a way to tell Mia before she heard it on the news. Until then, he’d gather as much information as he could. “What do you need?”
“I need TREX to find her little brother. He’s missing. We think he saw the whole thing and took off, unable to process it. He’s autistic and has limited communication. According to the beat cop who walks him home sometimes, he talks to his dog more than he talks to humans. It’s twenty degrees outside. If this kid is out there…”
“He’ll freeze to death if we don’t step in.”
Mia Davis closed her eyes, conjuring up Carmen’s pretty face. Her smile had been contagious. She’d talked about her little brother all time, about how proud she was he’d participated in gym class without having a meltdown or had said thank you without being prompted. Things Mia took for granted.
Her heart hurt for Hunter. He was out there in this freezing cold, snow falling off and on, alone and scared. And on Christmas Eve, of all days. She shuddered and hugged herself.
“His name is Hunter Ramirez.” It made sense for Kat, the head of TREX’s Search and Rescue Unit, to take point, her husband Spencer at her side. She pointed at the large flat screen in the den. The image of a kid with oversized front teeth and an awkward smile on his face took up the entire TV. “Twelve years old. Brown hair and eyes. He struggles with social cues and is scared of strangers, so you may have to speak to his beagle, Buster, in order to get Hunter to talk. Call for Buster when you’re out there. Hunter won’t answer if you call for him. Now, I’ve set up the grid to start here.”
“We’ll find him,” JT Weber assured Mia and pulled her into her arms, holding her close. “I promise, Mia. It’ll be okay.”
Why did TREX insist on making promises they’d never have the power to keep? As the wife of the special director, JT may have a lot of pull, but she couldn’t promise something like that. It wouldn’t be okay. Not for Carmen, who was now in the morgue. Not for Hunter, who might soon join his sister. Mia buried her face against JT’s shoulder and fought the tears threatening to break her.
“Let’s go.” Spencer gave the order. The TREX agents scattered, leaving Mia standing there, numb and helpless. Wayde had already left to join his SBI unit at the scene of Carmen’s death to comb for clues and rule out murder. It was routine for a team of agents to make an appearance at all potential homicides scenes.
The den, now dark and eerily silent, closed in on her. She didn’t want to stay in this room and left to find something warm to drink. Absentmindedly rubbing her belly, protecting the baby growing inside her, she walked into the kitchen to find the oldest of the McKoy siblings already there, heating water in the kettle.
“Hey, I’m making tea.” Charis smiled at Mia, something she always did. Smile. With dark brown hair and deep indigo eyes—traits she shared with all her siblings—she’d hit the gene pool lottery. Charis and her twin Chris got the curls. While her brother kept his hair short, Charis let hers grow long and wild. “You and Bethany get decaf for obvious reasons. Kat prefers OJ.”
“Thank you,” Mia whispered, not having the strength for anything else. One of the women she and Wayde had risked their lives to rescue had just taken hers. Tea wasn’t going to make this situation any better. Nothing would.
“That didn’t take long,” Spencer said loud enough for everyone else to hear. He poked his head into the kitchen and rested his attention on Mia. “Wayde found him and is on his way here.”
“Here?” A jolt of surprise rocked her. Why would he bring the boy here?
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Charis pointed out and handed her a steaming cup. “The chances they’ll find a social worker are slim to none, let alone one with the skills to handle a special needs case.”
Kaylee McKoy walked into the kitchen and grabbed a Diet Pepsi out of the fridge. “Even if they did find a case worker, they’d never find a place to house him tonight, not even temporarily. Foster care is tough enough without adding a kid who thinks differently.” She cracked open the soda and took a long drink.
“What kind of special needs?” Mia asked. Before anyone answered, the front foyer erupted with shouts. There was a crash and a scream. Spencer disappeared, as did Kaylee. Mia and Charis hurried after them and skidded to a stop.
A kid covered in dirt and grime, his lips blue and teeth chattering, thrashed against the men trying to subdue him. He screamed over and over, the sound heartbreaking and frightening at the same time.
“Stop it!” Kaylee shouted. When no one listened, the petite and youngest McKoy shoved her way into the frenzy of testosterone, not hesitating to use her fists, elbows, and whatever else she needed to get to Hunter. “Can’t you see you’re scaring him? Stand down! Stand the hell down!”
Hunter shrank into the corner, his wide gaze jumping from man to man before resting on Kaylee. When she eased forward a step, he pushed himself tighter into the corner. She froze and asked, “Where’s Buster?”
“Right here,” Wayde answered as he walked in, a beagle in his arms. The dog squirmed and jumped down, immediately rushing to Hunter’s side and standing between his master and the strangers surrounding them.
Hunter seemed to calm as he lowered to his knees and stroked Buster’s head. To Mia’s shock, Kaylee did the same and petted the dog. They didn’t say anything, just knelt facing each other, running their hands down the beagle’s back.
“Do you have any idea what’s happening?” Wayde asked Mia.
“Buster is Hunter’s therapy dog. I remember Carmen mentioning it during one of the group sessions. She thought having a therapy dog might help some of the women cope with what they’d been through.”
He wrapped his arm around her and casually placed her behind him. “Why don’t you fix him a plate of leftovers?”
“I can do that.”
She nodded and returned to the kitchen. By the time she had a plate heaping with turkey and all the trimmings, Kaylee had Hunter at the sink washing his hands and face. She didn’t touch him, instead demonstrating what she wanted him to do. They still hadn’t said a word to each other.
Mia set one plate on the table and the other on the floor. Once Buster made a beeline for the food, Hunter took a seat at the table and grabbed the fork. Wayde tensed behind her.
“Relax,” she said for his ears only. “He’s not going to take out a room full of TREX agents with a fork.”
“I didn’t know where else to bring him.”
“You did the right thing. He’s safe here. So are we.”
He kissed the back of her neck. “Lawson is on his way over with a couple unis to question him.”
“Call them off,” the special director said as he finally made an appearance at his own party, his attention on Hunter. “The boy isn’t about to talk to anyone in a uniform. Look at him.”
“He’s not on display.” Kaylee glanced over her shoulder, addressing the crowd that had pushed into the room. It was a large kitchen, but then again, TREX guys weren’t small. When no one moved, she grabbed Buster’s plate. “Come on, Hunter. Let’s eat out there where we won’t have an audience.”
Without a word, Hunter followed her, plate in hand, head down. Dan Weber snagged Wayde’s gaze. “Do you want to tell me what the hell that was about?”
“The kid had nowhere else to go.”
“So you bring him to a TREX briefing? Are you mental?”
“Is that what this is?” Wayde challenged. “A briefing usually involves one party telling everyone else what’s going on.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You invite everyone here and then disappear. I don’t know why you even bothered if you didn’t plan to take part.”
“You don’t know why because it’s above your pay grade, Agent Davis.”
“I’m not Agent Davis right now, and I’m not about to let you call the shots. Not in my own home. What aren’t you telling us?”
The director stormed out, leaving the rest of the agents all exchanging confused glances. As the silence grew, so did the tension. The looks of confusion transformed into glares and hardened expressions. Charis and Mia exchanged nervous looks and both retreated a step.
“I’m going to check on the boys,” Charis said and left the room.
“Typical,” Wayde growled.
“What did you just say?” David Snyder stepped into Wayde’s personal space. “Do you have a problem with my wife?”
Wayde didn’t back away. “Not your wife. I have a problem with your BFF, Weber. Once again, the special director is keeping something from the rest of us. Not exactly the best way to run things.”
“Watch what you say about him. Holiday or not, he’s still your boss.”
“As am I.” Spencer stepped between them before one of them threw a punch. “Stand down, both of you.” He sighed, looking tired. “That’s an order.”
“Figures you’d defend your pet project.”
Spencer faced David. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Wayde isn’t spec ops material, and you know it. Weber never even wanted him in TREX, and I trust our director’s judgment.”
“Over mine? Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’ve been going against him for a while now. Trying to get him to step down on that find by invoking Rule #202 like he’d lost his goddamn mind was another nail in the coffin.”
Spencer stiffened as his features turned to stone. He then recovered and defended his position. “He’s gotten worse, and you know it.”
“It’s because recruiting all these new people is diluting the agency. That’s why Weber is so selective over who he lets in. You need to trust him. He’s the director for a reason.”
“Yeah, because the last director died.”
David’s spine went ramrod straight. His usually jovial expression immediately hardened, as did his eyes. “You know what a piece of shit Donovan was. Who the hell are you to insinuate Weber took him out to get his job?”
“Boys,” JT said softly and stepped between them. “Spence isn’t insinuating anything.” She gave him a warning look. “Isn’t that right?” Spencer nodded curtly. She regarded David. “Why are you so upset about this?”
“I can’t believe you’re taking his side. He’s considering having Wayde replace Chris on TREX Team Two.”
“What else is he supposed to do? He needs a complete team.”
“Are you saying I’m not a complete man?” Chris demanded, his jaw set. He used the forearm crutches to pull him closer. “Just because I can’t walk without help doesn’t make me any less of an agent.”
“That’s not what I said.” JT shook her head. “I don’t even know how you made that leap. If you have a problem with the man you are now, deal with it, but don’t pretend you’re fine and then take it out on everyone else.”
“Just because you’re sleeping with the boss doesn’t give you the right to talk to my brother like that,” Bailey cut in.
“Excuse me?” JT turned to her. “He’s not the boss to me. He’s my husband.”
“I hate this agency,” Mitch, the only McKoy sibling not in TREX, snarled before jumping his gaze around to the others.
“That’s only because you can’t get into it,” Spencer fired back.
“Now just a damn minute.”
“Let’s calm down,” Mia said, but it had already escalated. They all grew louder and louder as the insults got more personal. JT and Bailey looked ready to draw claws. David defended Chris while Spencer defended Wayde. Mitch spewed venom about how much he hated TREX. Seth and Logan were the smart ones and had already left the room.
“Screw this!” Wayde shouted above everyone else. “I want you all out.”
“Wayde!” Mia’s jaw dropped. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“And I’m done with this bullshit. Why force us all together if it’s obvious we don’t get along?”
“For once, I agree with Wayde.” David thrust out his chin. “As soon as I can find a hotel, we’ll be out of here.”
“Get Bethany and me a room, too. I’m not sticking around to listen to any more of this shit.” Chris pulled himself out of the kitchen behind David.
Kat, who’d remained silent the entire argument, approached her husband. “It’s not that long of a drive back to Olympia. I’ll wake Emily if you get Jack ready. Are you okay to drive?”
“I’m a little tired. Let me talk to Wayde.” Spencer kissed her forehead. After she left, he regarded Wayde. “Overreact much?”
“Sorry, Spence. I’m just so damn tired of the bickering. We’re all adults. Can’t we act like it?”
“And you thought tossing everyone out on Christmas Eve was acting like an adult?”
“Should I bring everyone back in so you can yell at them again? This time you can just shout a single apology.”
“No,” Wayde chuckled and shook his head. “I was a global asshole. I’ll make my apology a little more personal.”
“Before you go, there’s something I want to discuss with you.” He drew in several breaths and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. Damn, did he look drained. “I guess the cat’s out of the bag. I had hoped to do this under better circumstances. I’d like to offer you a spot on Team Two.”
“Isn’t that special operations?” Mia asked, not bothering to hide the worry in her tone. TREX’s spec ops teams put themselves in the most danger and were gone for weeks at a time. She liked having a husband.
“There’s a lot of training involved before he’d be field ready,” Spencer explained. “We’re expanding spec ops by four more teams.” He looked at Wayde. “That’s why the directors brought us here. They wanted us to work together on the dynamics of the new teams.”
Wayde lowered his head. “A lot of good that did us. All it did was prove we can’t work together at all. Forcing a bunch of hardheaded men and women together without telling them why was a disaster waiting to happen. Add one little twist in the form of a terrified kid…”
“Instant explosion,” Spencer finished and sighed.
Kaylee sat at the table with Hunter, petting Buster and rolling her eyes as insult after insult flew from the lips of TREX agents scared of a kid. Give them guys with guns, weapons of mass destruction, terrorist threats. No problem. Give them one little boy they couldn’t reach with threats and they were out of their element.
“Buster thinks it’s too noisy in here. Why is everyone yelling?” Hunter asked as he kept his focus on the dog.
“Because they’re all dumb.”
He nodded. “Were they always dumb like me?”
“You?” Kaylee blew out a breath and smiled to play down his comment even though deep inside she seethed. So, his mind may not work like everyone else’s. So, he needed a dog to help him communicate. That didn’t make him dumb. She hated labels. “You may be the smartest person in the room.”
“I’m not smart.”
“You’re not dumb,” she countered sternly. “Adults turn dumb when they grow up. That’s why you’re the smartest one here.”
“What happens when I grow up?” His mouth fell open as he blinked rapidly. Just the thought of growing up, growing dumb, clearly terrified him.
“Don’t grow up.”
His jaw dropped lower as his eyes rounded. “Is that possible?”
“Anything is possible. Look at me. I’m never growing up.” And she meant it. Age was just a number. She refused to turn into Mrs. Apron and Pearls. If she ended up with a house on the hill, it would be turned into an animal shelter. She embraced her future of being the neighborhood crazy cat lady. And dog lady. And any other four-legged-friend lady.
It irritated her to no end how society labeled Hunter as dumb or an idiot simply because he didn’t learn at the same pace as someone else. Fish couldn’t climb trees. Monkeys couldn’t swim. Forcing them to do something so unnatural made no sense, but swap the two scenarios and they were animals in their element. That was Hunter. He was a monkey who just needed to find the right tree instead of being forced to swim.
If only humans were as compassionate and tolerant as animals.
“I’m never growing up,” Hunter repeated her words and followed his statement with a nod. More yelling, this time from Bailey as she called her on-again, off-again boyfriend several four-letter words. She stormed off and slammed a door, the phone firmly plastered to her ear. Hunter stared at the door. “Everyone looks mad.”
“They’re always mad.”
“At me.” It didn’t come out as a question, which only irritated Kaylee more. This kid had zero self-esteem, more than likely due to person after person labeling him as dumb, slow, or an idiot all because he learned differently. She hated people.
“Nope. They were mad before you got here.”
“Why? It’s Christmas. Buster thinks being mad on Christmas is like hating your own birthday.”
“Because of the presents?”
He shook his head and rubbed the beagle’s chin. Buster sighed contently and closed his eyes. “Presents don’t matter. They get lost or stolen. Not family. Sisters still hug you after you break the new TV. You still get a piece of pie even if you didn’t eat all your dinner. That’s because it’s Christmas. That’s why no one should be mad.”
“See?” Kaylee smiled wide, absolutely head-over-heels for this kid. “You really are the smartest person here.”
He grinned and nodded sheepishly. “I’m just Hunter.”
Her brother Seth joined them, followed by her brother Logan. Seth sat closest to the kid. “Looks like someone was hungry.” Hunter didn’t respond. Kaylee knew he wouldn’t, not until he had something to say. “Hunter, do you know what Asperger’s is? Or High-Functioning Autism? Has anyone ever used those terms with you before?”
Oh, hell no. Kaylee was fine until Seth started in with the terms to define Hunter. It immediately ticked her off. Who was he to slap a label on anyone? Sure, he was a doctor, but that didn’t give him the right. It didn’t give any doctor the right.
Doctor after doctor had tried to define what caused her to not speak until she was almost five. She didn’t pick up on social cues as any normal child would. She hated to be hugged. She hated to be touched. Period. That didn’t make her any less normal.
When the doctors diagnosed her with Asperger’s, her mother refused to let it define anything. Not a damn thing. Kaylee hadn’t received any special treatment growing up and didn’t expect any as a TREX agent. Years of behavioral therapy, of all the doctors telling her to do more of this and less of that, still drummed in her brain after all this time.
And still she wasn’t anywhere closer to normal.
It was unfair, the labels society placed on anyone outside the acceptable norm. She refused to let another kid go through too many years of being told he wasn’t normal, that something was wrong with him. They’d put him in special classes instead of teach him the way he learned. They’d write him off as mental all because they couldn’t understand him. Asshats.
“He may not understand what’s really going on,” Seth explained.
She’d had enough and snapped, “How would you know?”
“This isn’t the same thing as what you have.”
“Again, how would you know?” She stared him down, something she’d always been able to do. What she had? Pahlease. He had no idea what it was like growing up and failing every social encounter. Everyone loved Seth. Everyone thought Kaylee was weird. “You’ve said like two dozen words to him. That’s hardly enough for a diagnosis.”
“Come on, Kaylee.” Logan defended Seth. Of course. “He’s just trying to help.”
“Sure,” she laughed hollowly and rolled her eyes. “By labeling him?”
“It’s not a personal attack,” Chris explained after joining them at the table. “This has nothing to do with you or what your doctors said. Seth isn’t labeling anyone. He’s not that kind of doctor. Do you remember what I call normal?”
She eventually nodded and dropped her attention to her lap. “It’s just a setting on the dishwasher.”
She might have a great stare down, but Chris owned it. That stare also calmed her down enough to realize she’d missed yet another social cue.
“That’s a big tree.” Hunter asked and nodded at the gigantic tree in the corner of the living room. “Lots of presents.”
“It’s Christmas,” Chris explained. “Do you celebrate Christmas?” Hunter nodded slightly but said nothing. “Have you ever had a tree?”
He shook his head. “Buster is scared of squirrels. They hide in the trees like in that movie.”
Hunter didn’t answer.
“It’s okay,” Kaylee urged. “You see all these big, ugly guys sitting at the table with us?” Hunter quickly scanned and nodded. “They’re my brothers. That guy off in the corner pouting is also my brother. The woman with the curly hair is my sister.”
“Her babies look the same.”
“They’re twins. I’m a twin. So is that one.” She nodded at Chris. “In fact, he’s my sister’s twin.”
Hunter twisted his expression as he studied Chris. “He’s a boy.”
“Boys and girls can be twins, too. They don’t have to look alike.”
Hunter looked up, holding her gaze for a few seconds. It was the longest he’d looked at anyone so far. “Is yours a boy?”
Kaylee grinned. “Nope. I have another sister.”
“Seven,” he muttered. “Big tree for a big family. Ten aren’t family. Even more kids.” Hunter smiled. “Need a bigger tree.”
They all laughed, causing Hunter to grin even more. The McKoys got what it was like growing up with a special needs sibling. Kaylee had struggled, but with the help of her brothers and sisters, she’d had all the support she needed.
She nodded, understanding Hunter a little more every time he talked. Most people with Asperger’s had at least one thing that set them apart, at least one thing that scored off the charts. For her, it was protective instincts. For Hunter, it looked like the power of observation. He didn’t talk much and didn’t need to. He was too busy watching.
“Well, that’s awesome. There’s no vacancy anywhere,” David announced as he paced in front of the tree. “I’m half-tempted to drive back to Montana tonight.”
“You’d be driving by yourself.” Charis sat cross-legged in the playpen and helped her boys build with blocks. “We aren’t going anywhere.”
“Don’t sweetheart me,” she sang and set a block on top of the stack. “You lost your temper. You fix it. Don’t drag us into it.”
David set his jaw. “You don’t know what Wayde said.”
“I don’t care what he said,” she countered. “We are guests in his house and will remain that way until we leave the day after tomorrow. Find a way to kiss and make up.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Mitch grumbled. “Snyder doesn’t ever admit when he’s wrong.”
“Because I so rarely am.”
That comment earned groans and eye rolls all around.
“You were in the wrong,” Chris said to David.
“I was defending you, asshole.”
“Doesn’t make what you said to Wayde anywhere closer to right.”
David muttered something about ungrateful bastards and blew out a long breath before joining his wife and kids in the playpen. He immediately smiled when one of his boys backed up into his lap. That was more like it. Kaylee preferred happy humans to what so many had turned into tonight.
Dan stormed up the stairs, his wife on his heels. The director didn’t look happy. “We’re not leaving, JT. That’s final.”
“You’re not listening.”
“You’re right.” He stopped and whipped around. When she ran into him, he grasped her shoulders. “I’m not going to break up the team.”
“We’re not a team. David is being a complete ass.”
“I’m right here,” he growled and narrowed his eyes at her.
JT ignored him as she continued to vent to her husband in front of everyone. “I think we should go.”
“Not happening,” Dan snapped and stormed off into the den. She followed him and slammed the door.
“The adults don’t sound happy.” Hunter pointed out the obvious when the tense silence grew too much.
“I don’t think any of the adults are happy,” Mitch commented.
“Are you an adult?”
He wiggled his eyebrows. “Only when I have to be.”
Hunter grinned. “Buster has to pee.”
“I’ll take him out,” Logan offered as he stood. “I could use some air.”
“I’ll take Hunter,” Mitch added without skipping a beat. “Come on, little man. Let’s hit the can.”
Hunter tensed and leaned toward Kaylee. She nodded in reassurance. “He’s my brother, remember? And he’s a cop, which means he’s one of the good guys.”
“Do you know Officer Edwards?” he asked Mitch.
Mitch frowned. “I don’t think so. Who is he?”
“She,” Hunter corrected. “She lets me call her Max. She’s nice to Buster. Sometimes she walks us home when we stay out too late.” He sank lower. “I wish she was here.”
“Don’t worry.” Kaylee smiled. “We can ask Wayde to find her. We’re TREX. It’s what we do. In the meantime, we’ll all still be here when you get back.”
“Promise?” He shot her a quick look, pleading with her to not leave him. It broke her heart.
“Promise,” she whispered, not trusting her voice.
“Carmen promised and she’s gone now.”
That comment broke her. She dropped her gaze before the emotions swelling in her eyes gave her away.
“We’re not going anywhere, buddy.” Mitch nodded for Hunter to follow. He’d always been able to talk to Kaylee, too. Tolerance and patience must go with the badge. “Except to the bathroom. Come on. You can clean up a little, too. Sound good?”
Hunter went with Mitch while Seth went with Logan to take the dog outside, leaving Chris at the table with Kaylee. He studied her before saying, “You connect with him.”
“Because I’m not scared of him.” She related with him. She knew how terrifying it was to not understand when to say something and when to remain silent. She knew the struggles of not comprehending social cues or when someone was joking. She knew what it was like to grow up being the weird kid no one wanted to pick for their group. If she could make a difference in Hunter’s life, make sure he felt wanted if only for the here and now, she’d do it.
“I’m not scared,” Chris defended quickly. “Why would I be scared of a kid?”
“He’s different. God forbid you relate to that.” She glanced at the crutches leaning against the chair.
“Low blow, brat.”
She smiled sweetly. “I only speak the truth.”
“One of your many annoying traits,” Bailey teased as she sat next to her twin and leaned her head on Kaylee’s shoulder. “He asked me to be his plus one again.”
“And you turned him down.” She didn’t have to ask. Her sister was her own worst enemy with her rigid rules and the way she pushed people away. Jason loved her. Everyone knew it, even Bailey. It was the thought of being with a field agent that scared her. Too bad. They were actually great together. He didn’t put up with her shit.
“He knows better,” she whined in a huff. “We agreed to keep it casual. No strings.”
“Sounds like he wants strings. Who knows? Maybe you’ll use them to string a guitar and make beautiful music together. Would strings be so bad?”
“Yes.” Bailey was the only one Kaylee didn’t mind hugging her. Being stuck in the womb together for nine months and out for twenty-five years had gotten her used to her sister’s touch. “I can’t get serious with a frontline agent.”
“What’s wrong with a frontline agent?” Chris asked, offended.
Bailey lifted her head and stole a quick glance at the crutches. Shaking her head, she dropped her gaze behind a curtain of hair. Chicken.
“It’s fine.” Wayde spoke into his phone as he walked out of the kitchen. “Mia wants Hunter to stay. Trust me, Lawson. She gets whatever she wants. Happy wife…”
“Happy life,” Chris and David finished along with Wayde. They all chuckled.
Wayde went on. “I’ve got a house full of TREX agents. Hunter will be safe here for the next day or two. Give the social worker the night off. Who? I’ve never heard of Miles Anthony. Is he someone famous? No kidding? Right here in Seattle?”
“Miles Anthony?” Charis perked up. “What about him?”
“You know who that is?”
“We have several of his prints.” David glanced up as well. “He’s right up there with Ansel Adams with his black and whites. It’s too bad he doesn’t do them much anymore. I guess he owns a modeling studio now. Still shoots in black and white, which is weird since all the model crap is in color.”
“It’s not crap,” Bailey defended. “Miles Anthony is all about capturing the inner beauty. He dresses down his models. Makes them plain. Which, in turn…”
“Makes them even more beautiful,” Kaylee finished. “He cuts out everything fake, leaving the raw image.”
David stood and brushed a half-eaten cracker off his backside. “Why do you ask?”
“Apparently Hunter’s sister was a model at the Miles Anthony Studio downtown.” Wayde nodded at something the caller said. “Right, that’s the angle I’m thinking, too. It just got too much for her. Yeah, I feel for the kid. Okay. Thanks, Banks. Merry Christmas to you, too.” He ended the call and met the eyes of everyone now watching him. “That was Greg Banks in homicide. ME preliminarily ruled it a suicide. No sign of foul play. No forced entry. He’ll determine whether to officially rule suicide as COD tomorrow, but he’s pretty sure it is.”
“Selfish,” Kaylee muttered through clenched teeth. When Chris and Bailey both glanced at her, she shook her head, disgusted. She was done socializing and wanted to find a corner to hide in. What kind of sister was Carmen Ramirez to leave her kid brother, especially by killing herself? “I need some air.”
“Don’t run away,” Hunter said from behind her. She jerked her head up, surprised to see him there. He shook his head as he kept his attention on her. He never looked at her for that long. “Never run away.”
“Isn’t that what you did?”
“Kaylee,” Bailey reprimanded.
“What?” Of course, she’d missed yet another cue. Seeing that look of disappointment in her sister’s eyes twisted in her stomach. She dropped her gaze and delivered the one word in her vocabulary she used more than any other. “Sorry.”
“Buster ran,” Hunter explained. “Not away. Never away. I told him to find help. He found you.”
TREX Special Director Dan Weber sat off in the corner, staring at his reflection in one of the giant silver balls decorating the tree. Maybe it was a mistake bringing several of his senior agents together like this. He had hoped bringing them together would, well, bring them together. The team dynamics had taken a dive the past couple years. The tension had never been higher.
And it was his fault.
He needed to be a better director but didn’t know how. Hell, he’d never been much of a leader. He preferred to work alone. That way he wouldn’t have to argue with SACs, deal with pain-in-the-ass agents, or bury his best friend.
It was his fault the team had fallen apart. They couldn’t even spend a single evening together without it turning into WWIII. He’d done nothing but bark at everyone, glare at them when he couldn’t think of anything to say, or simply ignore them. No wonder they were at each other’s throats. That’s exactly how Dan directed.
He slid his lids closed and leaned his head against the wall as he sat on the floor. This had sounded like such a great idea when he’d pitched it to Malcolm McKoy. With threats multiplying like rabbits, TREX needed to be more proactive in the agency’s approach. Homeland Security had already beefed up several of its units. So had the FBI, CIA, and numerous other alphabet agencies. TREX used to be the forerunner in everything and had fallen behind. They were privately funded, so he couldn’t use budget concerns as an excuse.
It was him.
Which brought him full circle to why he’d wanted them all together. Dan and Malcolm both agreed to expand the agency. Vic Greene, the guy signing their paychecks, had approved the new org chart. The board had signed off on bringing in more agents.
Now he had to inform his senior agents they’d be losing agents to other teams, gaining new agents to train, and even sending existing agents back to Gahanna, TREX’s training camp, to learn new skills.
His SACs knew. Since David knew, that meant Charis knew. If Charis knew, the rest of the McKoys knew, too. Judging by the way Wayde kept stealing glances Spencer’s way like he wanted to say something but didn’t know how, he knew, too. It was time to tell the rest of the group which, ironically, left his wife as the last person to break the news to.
As Dan opened his eyes, he was surprised to find the kid sitting next to him. How’d he sneak up on him? Was he losing his touch? He’d always been able to bank on his ability to sense danger, read people, and pull miracles out of his ass. Why was the kid just sitting there? It bugged the shit out of him not being able to read this one.
“Can I help you with something?” he finally asked when the silence grew deafening.
“No.” He stared at the presents under the tree.
Ah, hell. This kid would wake up on Christmas morning and watch as everyone else opened presents, not having one damn present of his own. No kid should ever wake up to that. Dan made a mental note to change a few of the names on the packages so Hunter had something to open tomorrow. The generic gifts he’d gotten for most of the agents could easily be given to a twelve-year-old.
Which said something about the gifts Dan had picked out. Actually, he hadn’t picked them out. He’d asked JT to grab a handful of gloves, scarves, and hats. Jesus, even his gift-giving sucked ass.
“Buster thinks there are lots of presents,” Hunter pointed out as he played with one of the ornaments.
“There are lots of people,” Dan bounced back. “I bet Santa will leave a few for you under the tree.”
Hunter shook his head. “I know the secret.”
“There’s no Santa. Carmen told me. That’s the other reason why we never had a tree. We couldn’t pay for presents to put under it.”
What the hell? Who tells a kid there’s no Santa? And no tree? No presents? What was his sister thinking taking all that away? They didn’t need money to get into the Christmas spirit. The tree symbolized the spirit. The presents were a celebration. They didn’t have to be anything fancy. They didn’t have to be perfect. They just had to be. The rest would fall into place.
The epiphany hit him like a brick and twisted in his gut. He didn’t need to force the teams together. He didn’t have to be a perfect leader. He just had to lead. The rest would fall into place. How did he not see it until now?
He needed to stop micromanaging every damn find. He trusted his SACs and needed to trust them to make the right calls. That’s why he had them. They were his seconds, his friends. His family.
Hell, they were all his family. He trusted each and every one of the people here, even the irritable sheriff who hated TREX for tearing apart his family. Mitch was wrong. So wrong. TREX hadn’t torn them apart.
He had to make this right. In order to fix what he’d broken, he’d have to play nice with the patriarch of the family. And he would. Hell, he’d buy Malcolm McKoy a damn fruit basket if it gained them an inch in the miles of ground they needed to make up.
Before he did anything for himself and his team, he needed to give Hunter Ramirez something to believe in.
“I happen to know Santa is real.” He had to give this kid a reason to smile. Hunter had just lost his sister. He needed the magic of Christmas now more than ever.
“He is?” For the first time, the kid looked up long enough to meet Dan’s gaze for only a few seconds, but it was enough. Hope shined in Hunter’s eyes. Hope and restraint. He wanted to believe, but he didn’t want to be disappointed. He’d already been let down too many times.
“I know him personally.”
“You do?” His tone brightened.
“Santa is an honorary TREX agent, you know. He can find anything for anyone, anywhere.”
“Can he find my sister?”
Dan’s chest tightened. He dropped his gaze to regroup after that question. He’d never been any good at softening his words and struggled to find the right ones. “Hunter, do you understand why you’re here? Why Agent Davis brought you here?” When his questions didn’t earn a response, he added, “Do you understand what happened to your sister?”
“She died,” he mumbled and rested his chin on his knee. Buster came over and sat in front of him, wagging his tail. Hunter scratched the dog behind his ears.
“Do you like Disney movies? Aladdin is one of my favorites.”
“I like the genie.”
Perfect. Dan nodded and went on. “Do you remember the rules for the wishes?”
“Can’t bring back the dead.” Hunter sighed. “I don’t want Santa to bring her back. I want him to make sure she’s in heaven. She gets lost.”
“I’ll deliver the message.” Ah, man. This kid tore at Dan’s heart. Yet, even though gut-wrenching, Hunter had referred to himself instead of the dog. Progress.
They sat in silence for a while, Hunter focused on Buster while Dan glanced around the room. It was getting late. Kat held a wide-awake little girl. Her husband had already put their son to bed and looked ready to collapse. It had to be exhausting running after a four-year-old who ran from a two-year-old all day. It pained Dan to no end knowing his daughter already had a crush at her age, and on Spencer’s kid.
Charis and David had disappeared with their boys, no doubt to get them to sleep. The adults would more than likely turn in as well. Ever since the kids came along, the parents crashed earlier and earlier. Dan had found himself happily turning in at the same time as his daughter regardless of the time. This adulting shit was hard.
Chris sat on the couch, rubbing Bethany’s swollen belly. They were damn happy despite the hand fate had dealt him after that find almost a year ago. Thanks to the piece of glass that had sliced through his spine, he’d never walk without forearm crutches or a cane again, when he walked at all. Half the time, he was confined to the chair. That put chasing after a kid in the not gonna happen category. Bethany was going to be one busy woman. At least Chris had his brother Mitch as his physical therapy coach. The PT instructor Chris had to help him relearn to walk was a hard ass, but Mitch put him to shame.
Bailey and Kaylee had resumed their card game, this time with the other women joining in. Seth and Logan sat on the opposite end of the table with their parents, losing to them in a game of team Trivial Pursuit. The occasional bullshit sounded, this time by the very ones glaring at the word earlier.
Wayde stood off in the corner, talking with Mitch. They were both law enforcement and clearly had reservations about TREX. Mitch had never made it a secret how he felt about the covert retrieval agency. Wayde, on the other hand, had come to TREX for help, not the other way around. They’d wanted his partner, not him. That didn’t make him any less of an agent now.
“Are you the boss?” Hunter asked, his attention at first on Buster then shifting to Dan.
“You and that man.” He nodded at Malcolm McKoy.
“That’s right.” How the hell did the kid know that? “You must have seen us talking earlier.”
“No.” After a silence that nearly had Dan chipping his teeth from grinding them, Hunter added, “No one talks to you.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? “I was talking to a lot of people earlier.”
Goddamn this kid’s one-word answers. Would it kill him to talk a little more? People needed more than one word and grunts.
Ah, Jesus. That was exactly what Dan had been giving his team since forever. They needed more. He needed to give them more. The epiphanies kept coming.
“They talk. You order. They don’t like it.”
“Then why don’t they say anything?”
Hunter looked at him. “You’re the boss.”
Son of a bitch. If his team couldn’t talk to him, they were all in serious trouble. This kid had a good eye and even better perception when it came to reading people. Dan was impressed. He shoulder-bumped Hunter and nodded at Spencer, half-asleep watching some old black-and-white show. “What can you tell me about him?”
The beagle settled at Dan’s feet. Hunter hinted at a grin as he petted the dog. “He wants a family.”
“He has a family,” Dan countered.
Hunter shook his head. “He wants more.”
Okay, fine. He’d buy that. Spencer had always been scared to settle down and have kids for fear Kat would one day get the call that changed everything. Being in spec ops was more than dangerous. It was terrifying, more for the spouse than the agent. His dad had died in the field, forcing his mom to raise Spencer on her own. It scared the hell out of him at the thought of Kat ever being forced to keep his memory alive through stories and pictures.
“Before it’s too late,” Hunter added.
Dan’s heart stopped as he riveted his eyes to the kid. He couldn’t hide the horror in his voice as he asked, “What do you mean?”
“What?” he barked, turning several heads. He stared down each and every set of eyes before returning his attention to the kid. “How sick?”
Hunter shrugged and frowned.
Dan wanted to scream for him to say more. Now he knew how it felt when he talked to his own team. Damn it. He hated epiphanies. Absolutely hated them. Never again would he leave any words out of the conversation when it came to his team. His family. They deserved every word he had. If that wasn’t enough, he’d learn more.
“How do you know he’s sick?” Dan pleaded, not bothering to hide the fear in his voice. It tightened all of his muscles and had him panting to breathe.
Hunter lifted his gaze. “His eyes look like my mom’s before she died.”
That’s when Dan saw it. Spencer’s eyes hadn’t been their usual smoky intensity. He seemed to tire easily, more easily than usual. Although he set his jaw and talked the talk, he didn’t seem to quite walk the walk lately.
Ah, hell. Dan recognized the effects of chemo when he saw it—now that he knew what to look for. Why the hell hadn’t Spencer said anything? He swallowed down the grief at watching yet another person close to him literally go through the battle of his life. Just as Dan’s mom had. She’d lost.
He made a mental note to be sure his second-in-command knew he had the entire TREX family behind him. No one should ever battle cancer alone. As long as Dan had any say in the matter, Spencer Allen would never be alone.
“Him?” Dan motioned at David as the guy raced through the living room searching for something. Once he found a pacifier under the table, he placed it in his mouth and shuddered. Dan knew the feeling. There had to be a better way to clean a binkie.
“He doesn’t want to miss anything.”
Interesting for a man who never missed a thing. David had the keenest eye Dan had ever seen. “Like?”
“He can’t keep up.”
“I don’t understand.” Which was a phrase he didn’t hear himself saying all that often.
“Too many details. Details make it hard to keep up.”
Again, it made sense in its own way. David hated to miss anything and spent way too much time combing through every detail instead of looking at the big picture. They were the perfect yin and yang since Dan only saw the bigger picture and failed on the details.
This kid was on to something. “What can you tell me about the rest of the people you see here?”
Hunter focused on Wayde and Mitch in the corner. “They don’t like you.”
Great. Just what he needed. Not exactly a confidence booster. Mitch he didn’t much care for, but Wayde had started to grow on him. He wouldn’t be adding him to his will any time soon, but he’d chosen the man’s house to spend Christmas. That said something even if Dan hadn’t.
“They do,” the kid said with a nod to the players of the card game. He regarded the Trivial Pursuit players. “Them, too.”
“How do I win them all over?” He sounded so pathetic asking a twelve-year-old kid how to manage his own team.
“Talk?” A concept absolutely foreign to Dan. “I don’t talk much.”
“You talk to me.”
Son of a bitch. The kid made perfect sense. He cut through all the clutter and bullshit when no one else could. “Know something? You’re pretty smart for a kid.”
“That’s what Kaylee said.” He shrugged. “I’m not smart. I’m just Hunter.”
“I’m pretty sure they mean the same thing. Any other words of wisdom?”
“I know. That’s why we’re all here.”
Hunter looked at him. “Is it?”
Goddamn. The kid kept nailing him with points so profound, they almost hurt to hear. “I wanted to bring them together to discuss the expansion of the agency.”
“Why not?” Dan countered.
“Because it’s Christmas. That should be why you’re all here.” After a long pause, he added, “I think Christmas presents is spelled wrong.”
Dan thought about that. Should it be Christmas presence? The more he let that sink in, the more sense it made. Christmas was more about the gift of being together rather than the gifts themselves. “Do you think society has had it wrong this whole time?”
“I don’t get society.”
“Neither do I, kid.” He sighed and leaned so their shoulders rested together. “Neither do I.”
It shouldn’t be this hard. They were just words. Yet, as Spencer worked to spit them out, he stumbled over his tongue and had already given up more than once. With Kathryn at his side, he’d never throw in the towel. Especially now with how much he stood to lose if he gave up.
The special directors had called everyone together in the den, which made no sense. It was smaller than the living room, had less seating, and with all these TREX agents, no one had enough room to stand without brushing shoulders with someone.
The boy had barely left Dan’s side since the two of them had some sort of powwow by the Christmas tree earlier. Now here they all sat or stood, most of the kids in bed—except for Emily, who took after her mother in every way, stubborn streak and all. The adults waited on the leaders of the two divisions to explain why they were stuck in one of the smallest rooms in the entire mansion.
“It’s time we explained why you’re all here,” Malcolm McKoy said as he raised his glass of scotch. “It’s to propose a toast.”
Judging by the looks they shot each other, the agents didn’t believe that for a minute.
“You could have toasted via Skype,” Bailey pointed out, her arms crossed as she pouted in the corner.
Dear God above, his daughter would one day be a moody girl. Spencer refused to leave dealing with that on Kathryn alone. He refused to leave anything on her alone. Hell, he refused to leave her alone period. His family needed him. He needed his family even more. The reality of what he had yet to face was debilitating.
“Pipe down,” Mitch barked, coming to the aid of his dad and shocking the rest of them. He rarely spoke up in favor of anything TREX. Bailey thinned her lips and thumbed at the screen of her phone.
“TREX is expanding,” Dan announced, pulling in the attention. “Frontline will almost double in size.”
“Sideline will triple,” Malcolm added, his glass still in the air. “Our toast is to congratulate those in this room. You have been chosen to take an active part in the expansion. Each one of you will be a leader in your division.”
Spencer snagged David’s attention. They’d never agreed to this angle. The younger agents hadn’t been on any serious finds. How in the hell were they supposed to lead a team on one?
“Before we reassign duties, we’re going to play a little game.” Dan didn’t do games. He was the opposite of a game player. Game changer, maybe. What the hell was going on? “Each one of us is going to give up something no one else in this room knows.” His gaze rested on Spencer, those piercing blue eyes drilling into his resolve.
Oh shit. He knew.
“I hate this agency,” Mitch volunteered first.
“Everyone knows that,” Dan pointed out, his lips twitching into what Spencer could only describe as the start of a smile. “Got anything else?”
“I don’t like you that much, either.”
“That means you like him some.” Hunter spoke up, surprising several agents. That was the first time he’d volunteered anything, especially to the group.
“Thank you.” Dan nodded at the kid.
Hunter grinned wide. “You’re welcome.”
Holy shit, they’d somehow bonded and become one. Poor kid.
“I’ll go.” Wayde stood up from the arm of the chair Mia sat in. He turned to Spencer. “I really appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to be spec ops. I’m pretty damn happy being a dual agent between the SBI and TREX. I’d have to give that up. I’ve worked too hard to be a unit lead with the SBI.”
“No one gives up an invite to be one of the elite,” Kaylee said. “Are you crazy?”
“Give it to someone else,” Wayde said and returned to the arm of the chair, his hand searching for Mia’s. “I’ve got everything I need right here.”
Spencer nodded in agreement. It disappointed him knowing he’d have to open the position to an agent fresh out of SOLAS, TREX’s field training for Special Operations for Land, Air, and Sea, but he understood completely. “Fair enough.”
Seth was next. “I want to work in the bioterrorism unit.”
“I can make that happen.” Dan gave him a firm nod.
“Like hell,” Malcolm growled. “No boy of mine is working chemical warfare.”
“It’s my choice,” Seth fired back, clearly stunning his siblings, who all exchanged wide glances. Spencer had to admit, he was taken a bit off guard as well. Seth rarely if ever spoke back. To anyone. “I want to create the vaccines and antibodies needed to fight off the poisons put in dirty bombs. Terrorists are getting more creative. We need to be ready. I can help get us there.”
“New rule,” Dan jumped in as Malcolm drew in a sharp breath. “No telling someone he’s crazy in his choice.” He looked at Kaylee. “Or flat out telling him no.” He then looked at Malcolm. “This is a way to get to know each other as a team, not tear each other down. Now, who’s next?”
“After that pep talk?” Bailey mused, the sarcasm oozing from her tone. When all eyes were on her, she let out a sigh and stood to address the room. “I’ve decided to move to Seattle. Montana is too far away.”
“Too far away from what?” David pushed away from the wall, his spine rigid. “It had better not be because of—”
“Jason,” she cut him off. “It is. He’s letting me move into his place until I can find something. I heard what Hunter said when he was talking to the director. Christmas is about presence, not presents. We spend so much time worried about material things and push away the things we really want. I want to be with Jason.”
Kaylee stepped next to her twin and slid their hands together. “Bails is right. Life is too short to give into our fears.” She drew in a deep breath and faced Spencer. “I want to be considered for the position on Team Two.”
“You?” Bailey whispered. Her mouth fell open as tears swelled in her eyes. She shook her head, mouthing the word no over and over.
“It’s okay, sis. It’s okay. I promise it’s okay.” Kaylee pulled her into her arms. “You’re not going to lose me.” She grasped Bailey’s shoulders and held her gaze, repeating, “You’re not going to lose me.”
“But spec ops?” She flicked a quick look at Chris before centering on his crutches.
Kaylee spoke, pulling Bailey’s attention. “You have to let me do this. It’s all I’ve ever wanted but never did because I was too scared you’d hate me if I left. I know how you feel about field agents, especially spec ops.”
“Hey,” several of the agents protested, Spencer included.
“If this is because I want to move in with Jason…”
“You said it was just a place to stay,” David growled.
“It’s not that,” Kaylee corrected quickly. “It’s because you’re finally taking that leap. If you can do it, so can I.” They hugged.
Spencer swung his gaze to Dan and shrugged. Kaylee had more guts than the rest of her family combined. If she shot half as well as Logan, thought half as fast as Chris, and dug up intel anywhere near as quick as Charis, she’d make one hell of a spec ops agent.
Dan narrowed his eyes as he held Spencer’s. “Anything you want to offer up?”
Goddamn it. He didn’t want to announce it and make it sound like he was fishing for sympathy. But, it was out there now. With a deep sigh, he came out with it. “I’m going to be taking a little time off.”
“Another kid on the way?” Wayde asked. All eyes jumped to Kathryn. She shook her head and nodded for him to go on. Little Emily, her wild curls like a red halo, stared at him with those giant blue eyes. She looked just like her mom. He had to be here to watch her grow up. He just had to. That thought alone gave him the strength to keep going.
“I, uh…” he cleared his throat when his voice cracked. Jesus, it shouldn’t be this hard. He shouldn’t be scared. But, damn it, he was. Not for him, but for his family being forced to face a possible future without him. “I have cancer. Stage three.”
The collective gasp echoed through the room. He closed his eyes to gather enough resolve to not break down in front of them all. After several seconds, he glanced around and braced himself just as Charis ran over and threw her arms around his neck. He then looked to Dan, who’d paled and kept his head down, his expression guarded.
“Good thing you’re in TREX,” Hunter said when the silence grew so loud it rang.
Spencer cocked his head. “Why’s that?”
“You find anything. Even a cure for cancer.”
“And if we don’t?” He hated to ask, but since everyone else put their raw emotions out there, he held nothing back. Charis withdrew but still held Spencer’s arm.
Hunter looked around the room. “Cancer is just one thing. There are more of you. The odds aren’t looking good for cancer.”
Everyone chuckled, including Spencer. It was the first time he’d felt like smiling since hearing the news that had changed his entire outlook. Before, he was all about the job, using it to protect the family. Now, family came first. It should have always been that way.
“What kind of cancer?” Seth asked.
Several of the agents exchanged glances before Chris said what everyone else was thinking. “You’ve always been a pain in the ass.”
The room erupted in laughter. It was dark. Morbid, even. Yet, it was how the agents coped with tragedy, both present and future. They cracked jokes and jibed each other. It was their way of saying what no one had the guts to say—they loved each other and would always be there for their family, blood or not.
Logan hugged Spencer before slapping him on the back. “Let me just throw this out there. What if I take Team Two? Temporarily, of course. Give you a chance for some downtime. I doubt either of the Neely brothers will want a lead position. Granger and Burns are too busy cracking jokes, and you’re down a man anyway. Bring me in and let me take the team off your hands.”
“I’m losing the Neelys to Team Three, so I’m actually down three. If I step back, you’d only have two. That’s not enough for a team.”
Logan shoulders slumped. “Guess not.”
“Which is why you should head up one of the new teams,” Dan offered. “We’re putting together four new teams to have six in total ready for deployment. We’ve got Teams One through Four covered, so take your pick. Do you like Five or Six better?”
Logan grinned. “Six. That way I can use my thumb to signal my team. I’d rather keep my trigger finger free.” Considering he was one of the best sharpshooters in all of TREX, Spencer understood why.
Charis finally released Spencer’s arm and returned to her husband’s side. They exchanged glances before she spoke. “David and I have news.”
“More babies?” Helen McKoy, the matriarch of the McKoy clan, chimed in, a wide smile lighting up her features.
“God, no.” David spoke up quickly, earning a glare from his wife. He shrank back. “I mean, not right now.” It came out like a question.
“What?” Chris stiffened and sat up straight, definitely not happy at the news of his twin moving away. “Where?”
“Closer to you.”
“Closer?” Correction. Now he was definitely not happy. “You’re shitting me.”
She smiled warmly, either oblivious to her brother’s shock or ignoring it. Charis didn’t miss much, so Spencer leaned more toward her ignoring it. “It’s the house right next door to yours. Bethany and I already have plans to fence the two backyards so the kids can play together.”
Chris whipped his head around to his wife. “You knew about this?”
Bethany opened and closed her mouth several times before admitting, “It was my idea.” When Chris took a breath to protest, she hurried out the rest of her explanation. “I need help. I thought I could do this, but I can’t. I’m not afraid to admit that. When Charis told me they were looking to upgrade to a bigger house, I mentioned the one next door. It just sort of took off from there.”
“You’re okay with this?” he asked David.
“You’re my brother. I’m more than okay with whatever it takes to help out. Charis works from home now and I’m gone on assignment half the time. We can set up quite the intel office for you.”
“And I can come over whenever you need me. Even better, we can set up one big office.” Charis clapped as she smiled wide. “We’ll see each other every day!”
“Swell,” Chris groaned and rolled his eyes.
“Twins,” Hunter said, bouncing his gaze between Charis and Chris. “A boy and a girl. Her babies are twins.” He nodded at Bethany’s huge belly. “Twins?”
She shook her head and rubbed her rounded abdomen. “Just one.”
Hesitating, she then turned to Chris. “We’re sure. Aren’t we?”
“The doctor would have told us.”
“Twins,” Hunter repeated. “Lots of twins in this family. I like this family. It’s big. There are too many people to all disappear.”
“You’re a member of this family, too.” Dan shocked everyone with that statement. He’d never warmed up to anyone so fast. That included his wife.
JT stepped forward. “You found us, right? That makes you a junior TREX agent, you know.”
“Can I be a real agent someday?” Hunter beamed. “I’m really good at finding stuff.”
“You want to be a TREX agent when you grow up?” she asked.
He dropped his smile and immediately shook his head. “I don’t want to grow up.”
She brought her hands up like a traffic cop. “Then you don’t have to.”
His smile returned.
“How about you, Hunter?” Dan nudged the kid. “Do you have anything you want to share with the group? Something none of us know about you?”
He blushed hard and dropped his gaze.
Dan nudged him again. “You don’t have to.”
“Buster wants to,” he muttered. The room fell silent. He kept his attention on the dog at his feet as he finally spoke. “We weren’t home when Carmen died because we were…uh…” He shoved his hand deep into his front jeans pocket and pulled out a handful of wadded up cash. “We stole from the big church right by my house. We usually only take enough to buy food, but it was Christmas and I wanted to get my sister something nice.” He dropped the money to the floor and looked to Dan. “Are you going to take me to jail?”
“No,” Dan said and snapped his brow into a frown. “But you have to promise me you’ll never steal again.”
“I promise. Stealing is wrong. It doesn’t matter why. I’m sorry.”
“Does stealing hearts count?” Kathryn whispered in Spencer’s ear after sneaking up behind him. His daughter reached for him. He took her and cuddled her close on one side, and pulled his wife close to him on the other.
“He’s a pretty damn cute kid.” Spencer gave her a sideways glance. “Should I be worried?”
“I’ll let you know in a couple of years.”
He kissed the top of her head. Every day he thanked his lucky stars for reuniting him with Kathryn and starting a family. If he’d learned anything from tonight’s events, it was to live each moment like it was your last. His dad used to say a person could never look forward to the future if they couldn’t see beyond the past. Jack Allen had been a very smart man.
“What are you going to sing?” she asked as she batted those beautiful baby blues. His daughter followed suit and batted hers, too. Talk about stealing hearts. He melted as he always did around them.
“You always play the piano and sing on Christmas Eve.”
“At home,” he pointed out, but it was too late. Too many had heard Kathryn’s comment.
“I didn’t know you sang.” Wayde nodded toward the door. “We have a piano downstairs.”
In no time, the party moved to the large rec room on the first floor. Spencer sat at the piano and teased the keys as he warmed up. He loved to play. He wasn’t that great of a singer, but it didn’t matter. He was surrounded by his family. For them, he’d happily perform.
“I love Christmas music,” Hunter said and sat on the bench with Spencer. For a kid with communication issues and trouble with social cues, he had no problem fitting right in with this motley crew. “Do you know the one about being together every Christmas? Can that be us?”
Spencer played the intro to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Charis pulled her little sisters over to the piano. JT and Mia joined them. Even Bethany joined in as the women sang the first verse.
By the chorus, the men had joined in, some hitting the mark, but most completely off-key. They all laughed as they got the words wrong, laughed when they missed the notes, and never stopped smiling.
“And have yourself,” Spencer sang above them all. “A Merry little TREXmas now.”
Thank you for reading Merry TREXmas! Please consider leaving a review. It’s one of the absolute BEST things you can do for an author.
Interested in more TREX? Please visit my website at .
“If you’re looking for non-stop, heart-racing action and sizzling romance, look no further. Allie K. Adams will take you there—and more!” –USA Today bestselling author Lucy Monroe
Allie K. Adams is the USA Today bestselling author of several award-winning stories. An active member of the search and rescue, as well as having previously served as a reserve deputy, Allie has firsthand experience in most of the dangers she writes about. Known for her highly thrilling, deeply intense suspense romances, she can be found most days in front of her computer, saving the world one sizzling story at a time. She grew up in Seattle and now currently lives in southwest Montana with the hubs and various other wildlife.
She loves to hear from readers and encourages them to reach out to her through her website at .
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THE MURPH & GRACE SERIES — Psychological Thriller
I Will Find You (#1)
They All Scream (#2) – Coming Halloween 2016!
THE TREX ADVENTURES — Military Romantic Suspense
First Response (#1 TREX Brief – FREE READ)
Rescue Me (#2)
At Any Cost (#3)
TREX Boxed Set One (#1 – #3)
No Way Out (#4 TREX Brief – Special Edition)
Seek and Destroy (#5)
Under the Covers (#6)
Out of Time (#7)
It Takes Two (#8)
Merry TREXmas (#9 – Special Edition)
Girls On Film (#10)
THE BRACE SERIES — Police Romantic Suspense
Brace For Impact (#1)
Brace For Contact (#2) – Unabridged Version Coming Soon!
THE CAMPUS PLAYERS — Sassy New Adult
Grooming the Player (#1)
Hiring the Player (#2)
Playing the Player (#3) – Unabridged Version Coming Soon!
A Love Once Lost (Barbara Freethy’s The Callaways)
Taking Chances, Part 1 (HM Ward’s The Arrangement)
Truth or Dare (Carly Phillips’ Dare to Love)
Turn the Page (Tiffany A. Snow’s Kathleen Turner)
Taking Chances, Part 2 (HM Ward’s The Arrangement) – Coming Soon!
THE ROADHOUSE SERIES – Cowboy Romantic Suspense Serial
Riding Lessons – Masters’ Roadhouse, Part 1 (#1)
Riding Double – Masters’ Roadhouse, Part 2 (#2)
Riding Cowboys – Henry’s Roadhouse, Part 1 (#3) – Coming Soon!
Riding the Fence – Henry’s Roadhouse, Part 2 (#4) – Coming Soon!
Riding Bareback – Emerson’s Roadhouse, Part 1 (#5) – Coming Soon!
The Last Ride – Emerson’s Roadhouse, Part 2 (#6) – Coming Soon!
Christmas turns to chaos when the senior agents of TREX get together in Seattle for the holidays. What’s a forced reunion without a little laughter, a few tears, and a couple fistfights? After too many hours under the same roof, too many alphas, and too little patience, tempers snap. The agents are out of their element in more ways than one, especially when the special director drops a bomb no one saw coming. It takes a 12-year-old autistic boy and his faithful companion to remind them all of the true meaning of Christmas. His appearance and the reason behind it reminds the agents why they’re together in the first place.