Monday, August 17, 2015

Taking A Chance (Restoration #3): First Two Chapters

Four weeks! Elliott and Augustus's love story was such an adventure for me. How do you give someone a happy ending with such a huge, devastating secret hanging over their heads, and with the last person on earth that they should fall in love with? The Restoration series has dealt with some pretty heavy topics over the course of three books, but it's been a journey of love for me, watching these men overcome terrible things on the way to their HEA's.

I hope you guys have enjoyed the first two Restoration installments, and that you enjoy TAKING A CHANCE just as much. Until September 14, here are the first two chapters to tide you over!





Chapter One

“Stop fidgeting.”

Auggie Rhinehart glared at his business partner, Steve Lawrence, the man who’d issued the less than helpful command. Auggie would have to sit on his hands to keep them still. He began to verbalize the thought, only to be cut off by the arrival of Sharon Russ, the WXKY reporter charged with keeping their upcoming interview under ninety seconds.

They were a sound bite, not a lead story, thank goodness, but this was still for the six o’clock evening news.

And it was live.

Sharon plunked down in the director’s chair angled toward Steve and Auggie, giving them each a brief smile before smoothing both her blouse and hair. All business, which gave Auggie hope that she’d focus on the design special he and Steve were promoting, rather than their public image.

“Fifteen seconds,” said someone wearing black head phones.

Auggie counted backward in his head, watching the camera trained on their trio set back in a corner of the very active studio. The red light changed to green. His insides curled up into tight knots and he flattened both palms against his thighs.

Sharon turned on a mega-watt smile. “Hi, everyone, I’m Sharon Russ and tonight I’m here with two folks you probably know from the hit renovation show Nailing It. Wilmington’s own Reno Duo, Steve Lawrence and Augustus Rhinehart.”

“Hey, all.” Steve waved to the camera.

“It’s a pleasure,” Auggie told her. Direct and simple. Good. His voice hadn’t shaken or gone too high.

“So we here at WXKY have been working with the Reno Duo on a very special project.” Sharon shifted her attention to them. “Why don’t you guys give our viewers a preview of what they can expect to see in on their televisions in April?”

“Absolutely, Sharon,” Steve said. He’d already agreed to take point during the interview. Auggie was fine being filmed while working on a renovation, but direct interviews like this turned him into a bumbling idiot.

He was getting tired of playing his role in their duo.

Steve continued mugging for the camera. “Last month we asked viewers to send in photos and videos of one room in their home that desperately needs a makeover, as well as a personal, meaningful item to use as inspiration for the makeover design. Augustus and I have worked tirelessly to choose four lucky homeowners who will receive that makeover.”

He went a little high on the final few words, nearly ending with an exclamation point.

“Just like on Nailing It, I’ll be handling the design while Augustus here plays the muscle.” Steve patted Auggie’s thigh—both a comment and a touch that didn’t bother him in the least, but he still gave his trademark side-eye.

Despite being as queer as Steve, Auggie had defaulted into the role of the straight man in their partnership, and their loyal fans ate it up. Auggie always looked uptight during interviews because all he could think about was giving something away, while Steve flamed away and charmed the audience.

Steve still had a few more bits of information to work out in the allotted time. “We’ll film each renovation over the course of the week, and then surprise the homeowner with a final reveal on Friday morning. WXKY will air each renovation during their regular six o’clock broadcast beginning the first week of April.”

“That sounds like a fantastic project,” Sharon said.

The clock ticked toward the end of his torture.

“Augustus?”

He worked to keep his expression smooth, his body language open. “Yes, Sharon?”

“You’re always the quiet one on Nailing It. What’s it like working with Steve and all of his energy?”

He could read between the lines. She was asking what was it like working for someone so openly gay.

He bit back a lot of problematic responses. “Steve is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met, and he’s a pleasure to work with. Some days his energy is even contagious.”

“Well, I know our viewers are looking forward to seeing more of you two on their screens in April, and best of luck with the new project.” Sharon angled directly toward the camera. “Back to you, Mike.”

The light went red.

Auggie sagged into his director’s chair as apprehension drained away, leaving him tired and a little hungry.

A production assistant un-miked them both quickly, and after only a few brief minutes of follow up with their segment producer, Auggie escaped the station and stepped out into fresh air. Or fresh air according to the city of Wilmington, which smelled largely of gasoline, exhaust, and stale water. 

Steve followed him out, as completely at ease with himself in public as Auggie was self-aware.

“Why do I keep letting you talk me into these things?” Auggie Rhinehart asked, and not for the first time in the last two and a half years.

Steve shrugged dramatically, then batted his white-blonde eyelashes. “Because you love me, and you’ll do anything to make me happy.”

Auggie snorted. “Try again.”

“Fine. Because you love what you do, and if the occasional anxiety-inducing interview is what it takes to stay successful you’ll do it, because you’re Augustus Fucking Rhinehart, and you never fail.”

Auggie wouldn’t go as far as saying never. He’d very definitely failed in his marriage to his ex-wife Jocelyn. He’d ignored his attraction to men since puberty, and he’d strived to become the best heterosexual he could be. Except at the end of the day, he was just as gay as Steve, and their audience and fans had no idea.

Steve was an interior designer with sixteen years of experience, and Auggie came from a carpentry and house-flipping background. They had used their combined experience to successfully produce two seasons of Nailing It, and WXKY had come to them with the idea of adapting their format and airing it in brief segments during the evening news. Both men had been excited by the opportunity.

“All I want,” Auggie said, “is for this project to get us the publicity we need to get a contract for season three.” Being in front of a camera all of the time wasn’t his favorite thing, but he loved the reveal moments, when homeowners saw the results of their hard work. Nailing It gave him that over and over again.

“Ditto, partner.” Steve hit the unlock button on his key fob. “Sooner or later, HGTV will notice us, and we’ll become the next Property Brothers.

“Except older and a lot more gay.”

“We’re not old, we’re well-seasoned.”

Auggie didn’t bother arguing with Steve’s dreams of reaching an audience outside of Wilmington and its surrounding suburbs. The chances were miniscule. Besides, higher profile meant more public scrutiny, and Auggie didn’t need anyone digging into his past mistakes. He had a hard enough time dealing on his own without reporters getting in his face.

He also liked working with WXKY. The new project was being produced as a three-week special broadcast. Filming in March gave everyone plenty of wiggle room in terms of things going wrong, homeowners pulling out at the last minute, or unexpected delays. Auggie and Steve would meet each owner on a Monday, see the room and meaningful object, figure out what they liked in terms of style, the next three days would be spent doing the makeover, and Friday would be the big reveal.

The four-minute episodes would then air in April, one home per week, over the course of five evening news segments.

The very brief episode lengths also meant more focus on the work and less on the two hosts. Auggie went along with the public perception that he was the straight man to the more flamboyantly gay Steve, because it sold them. The hook was a little cliché, but sometimes clichés worked.

In the parking lot, he caught the wide-eyed smile of a pretty woman in very high heels, who did a thorough once over of him as they passed. He played it up with a smile of his own, and he swore she blushed as she turned away.

“Get in the car, Casanova,” Steve said.

Auggie laughed as he slid into the passenger seat of Steve’s SUV. “Very funny.” He frequently caught attention from men and women for two very different reasons: he was six feet of solid muscle, and his race confused people.

He’d heard the “are you black/white/Haitian/Hispanic?” question since he was a child. His most common response was, “I’m me.” It shut most people up.

“You want to come over for dinner?” Steve asked as he eased into traffic. “Stephen is making his famous balsamic chicken.”

He groaned out of sheer disappointment, because Stephen’s balsamic chicken was amazing, and Auggie rarely turned down a dinner invitation. “I would but I have plans,” Auggie said.

Steve’s eyes went comically wide. “Oh my god, Augustus Rhinehart, don’t tell me you have a date.”

Don’t I wish.

“It’s Jack’s birthday.”

“Oh, well, I suppose that’s an acceptable excuse.”

“How old is he again?” Steve asked.

“Eighteen. It’s hard to believe.” Auggie still had vivid memories of the first time he’d held his nephew as a six-hour-old newborn. Jack was the closest thing Auggie would ever come to having a child of his own, and that was fine with him. The final four years of his marriage had been the worst because of Jocelyn’s insistence on them starting a family.

“Whole family coming out for it?”

“No, just us locals. JJ is in Chicago doing another show. Mom and Dad couldn’t make the drive on a Thursday, and May doesn’t like being in the car at night.”

“Right. Forgot that about May.”

Steve had only met Auggie’s entire extended family once, at a reunion party last summer. There was no reason for Steve to remember all of the things that set off Auggie’s baby sister.

“You get Jack anything good? First Playboy subscription?”

Auggie snorted hard through his nose. “His mother would kill me, thank you very much. I still don’t think she’s accepted her baby boy is eighteen.”

“Don’t tell me she’s deluded herself into believing he’s still a virgin, too?”

“No idea, but he lost that card sophomore year with a girl named Selina.”

“He told you that?”

“Sure. I’m the cool uncle because I’m on TV. Plus his father is an uptight prude.”

Steve laughed. “Tell me what you really think, partner.”

“You know I don’t have a problem speaking my mind.” His lack of filter had gotten him into a lot of trouble as a teenager. He’d learned to control it better as an adult. Most of the time.

They chatted blithely about nothing important on the drive to Auggie’s house in Talleyville. Auggie’s latest project home was a mid-century minimal Tudor cottage, built in 1952. He’d bought it from the original owner’s son for a steal last year. The exterior still needed some TLC, but he’d done most of the work he needed to do on the inside to bring the house into the twenty-first century. Two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, kitchen with an attached dining room. Perfect.

“Say Happy Birthday to Jack for me,” Steve said.

“Will do. See you Monday.” Auggie grabbed his briefcase from the back of the SUV. Steve honked once as he backed out, a signature move that Auggie swore he did to annoy the neighbors.

He didn’t have time to go inside, so he climbed into his two-door sports car and headed east towards Claymont. He was meeting his sister’s family at a local pizza place Jack loved that apparently made 48-inch pies—a location guaranteed to annoy April, who thrived on spending her investment banker husband’s money and proving how not-poor she was now.

Of all his siblings, April was the most determined to shed her inner city Philadelphia roots.

Auggie wanted to shed the sins of his past and find a way to live comfortably in his own skin.

Sonny’s Brick Oven was packed for seven o’clock on a Thursday night. Auggie claimed one of the last few parking spots in the attached lot. He removed his gift for Jack from his briefcase, locked the case in his trunk, then headed inside.

Warm, spiced air hit him in the face, a nice change from the early March chill. Warm tones of red and orange on the walls, fake archways that were more Grecian in style than Italian. Clusters of fake grapes that would make Steve gasp in horror. The place needed a do-over, but if the food was good he could forgive them a few design faux pas.

Jack waved from a booth near the back of the dining room. Auggie indicated to the hostess that he had a party waiting, then went to join his family. Jack stood up to give him a firm hug. As tall and rangy as his father, Jack had his mother’s dark eyes and cinnamon skin. April subjected him to a ridiculous double-cheek air-kiss, something Auggie worked hard not to roll his eyes at. Not a hair out of place, her blouse wrinkle-free, April looked as comfortable in the pizza place as a preacher in a whorehouse.

Silas fit right in. Despite his wealth and four-car garage, he wore a simple green sweater over jeans. Auggie wouldn’t call the man attractive, but he had the blue-eyed, brown-hair thing going for him that Auggie tended to find appealing.

The only face Auggie didn’t recognize was a teenage girl Jack introduced as Lindsay.

“His girlfriend,” April added with enough smugness in her voice that Auggie would lay money on Lindsay’s parents having money.

“Nice to meet you,” Auggie said.

“Jack talks about you all the time,” Lindsay said. “And I’ve seen you on TV. It sucks you cut the dreds off. They were really cool.”

“It was time for a change.”

Practically a non-answer, but he’d said the same thing to his producers. It wasn’t as if he could tell any of them the truth—that Auggie had learned his boyfriend of a year was also in a committed relationship with another man. He’d been lied to and had his heart broken, and it had led to a minor mid-life crisis that almost made his mother burst into tears when she saw him again—he’d cut off the fifteen-inch freeform dreadlocks he’d been cultivating since college. His producers went apoplectic, because he’d done it right before he and Steve began filming the second season of their show. The key grip nearly earned himself a black eye for asking, “Are you trying to look more white?”

Not like Auggie could tell him he was trying to look less like the dumbass who got used by the first guy he ever fell in love with.

Auggie squeezed into the booth on Jack and Linsday’s side, putting the skinny brunette all the way against the wall. Drinks were already on the table.

“I ordered you a ginger ale,” April said.

“Thank you.” He hadn’t liked ginger ale since he was fifteen, but April never seemed to get the memo.

“We also got mozzarella sticks and a plate of wings,” Jack said, visibly excited over the idea of greasy appetizers.

Auggie resisted the urge to grimace. He’d reached his limit of deep-fried food when he ordered French fries with his veggie wrap at lunch. His digestive system could only handle so much in a day before going on strike.

“Can we get the Monster Pie?” Jack asked.

“Only if everyone wants pizza,” Silas said directly to Auggie.

Auggie didn’t give him the satisfaction of a reaction. If Auggie said he’d rather order a salad, then Silas would say no to the giant pizza. Jack wanted that pizza, so Jack was getting that pizza. Spending a few hours in the morning running to the toilet was worth seeing his nephew happy.

The table settled on half plain, half sausage and pepperoni.

“I saw your interview on the news tonight,” April said. “Your new project sounds interesting. How exactly is it different from your other show?”

“The concept is similar, but the actual aired footage will be much more condensed,” Auggie replied. “We have a day of planning and then three whole days to do the work on the room, instead of flipping it in forty-eight hours. And the homeowners are locals who submitted their rooms and were chosen based on need, rather than the ability to fit the reno into a two-day timeframe.”

“That sounds really exciting,” Lindsay said. “Did they announce the winners?”

“They’ll do that on tomorrow night’s six o’clock broadcast. The homeowners will be contacted about thirty minutes before the broadcast.”

“Wow. You have a fun job. I’ve thought about going into interior design.”

“My partner Steve is the designer. I get to handle all of the big tools.”

Jack snorted his soda. Lindsay frowned, the innuendo going right over her pretty little head.
“Well, you do know something about tools,” Silas said.

Auggie mentally eye-rolled and held his tongue. Jack changed the subject to his final year playing catcher for his high school’s baseball team, and Auggie made the joke all by himself, in his head. When their waitress returned, Jack very proudly ordered the Monster Pie. Auggie silently ordered a bottle an anti-diarrheal medicine. Silas started rambling on about his latest deal, and Auggie mentally tuned out.

The monstrous pizza finally arrived and was sitting on a serving tray next to the table. Grease glistened on its surface like a harbinger of doom. Since Auggie was closest to it, he began doling out pieces of the giant pie to order, depending on the topping preference. Auggie found a small piece of cheese pizza with as much crust and little topping as possible for himself.

He would so much rather be at Steve and Stephen’s house eating chicken and sipping good wine.

By the time everyone was finished, half of the monster pie was left. Jack won a brief argument to take some of it home, and April declared they could trash the rest. Auggie resisted another actual eye-roll in favor of a mental one. April knew damned good and well what it felt like to go hungry, and now that she’d found money she tossed food like it meant nothing.

Annoyance crept under his skin and stayed put, a tiny shard of glass he could not dislodge.

A troop of the wait staff came out of the kitchen with a lit cake that probably cost as much as their entire dinner, singing “Happy Birthday” to Jack. Auggie picked his way through a slice of too-sweet chocolate cake. Jack ate a few bites before claiming he was full, but Auggie knew better. Jack’s favorite hadn’t been chocolate since he was twelve, but April didn’t seem to care. Tradition was tradition, and April knew best.

Auggie had high hopes of escaping the uncomfortable booth very, very soon, and then Lindsay smashed that by leaning past Jack and saying, “So J tells me you’re gay.”

He stared at the petite girl, and if Jack had the complexion to blush, he probably would have in that moment. Auggie hadn’t come out to anyone except his family, but he also hadn’t made them promise to keep it a secret. “Okay,” he said.

He found minor amusement in the fact that April looked like she’d just chewed on dog shit. Manners and all that.

Lindsay seemed perfectly oblivious. “So do you have, like, a boyfriend or something?”

I thought I did. Once. Turns out he was a cheating asshole.

“No.”

“Really?” Lindsay’s eyebrows arched into dramatic peaks. “But you’re so good looking.”

“It’s not, ah, something I’m looking for right now.”

“He’s still getting over his wife,” April said.

“Jocelyn and I have been divorced for three years,” Auggie said, maybe a little too defensively. “It was my call. I am very much over her, I am simply not looking for another relationship right now.”

“Too busy with your shows?” Lindsay asked.

“Yes.” Mostly a lie, but Auggie didn’t owe the girl an explanation. One person on the planet knew about the colossal mistake named Doug Swenson, and that was his best friend Connor. A year later and the lie still hurt. Even when Auggie was at his loneliest, giving real thought to trying to date again, that lingering pain kept him and his heart safely at home.

“That’s cool. But you know, I have an uncle who’s gay and kind of your age. If you start looking again.”

Auggie would have face-palmed if she wasn’t staring right at him. He was getting set up by his eighteen year-old nephew’s high school girlfriend. “I’ll, ah, keep that in mind, thank you.”

“Sure thing. So if you’re gay, how come no one really knows? On the show you play it so straight and all.”

“I’ve never said one way or the other on air. It’s the brand Steve and I created with the network, so we don’t do anything to change public perception.” And it kept people from digging into his divorce, harassing Jocelyn, and basically being a douche about something that wasn’t any of their business.

“Does anyone want any coffee or more soda?” the waitress asked, appearing in the nick of time to stop the godawful conversation.

“No, I think we’re all finished,” Silas replied.

The waitress plucked a slip from her black book and handed it over to Silas, who immediately gave her a credit card to run.

“Thanks for coming out for this, Uncle Auggie,” Jack said. “You gonna come to my baseball games?”

“As many as I can fit into my schedule,” Auggie replied.

“Awesome.”

The waitress promptly returned with receipts for Silas to sign. To April, she asked, “Would you like me to box up the rest of the cake?”

“No, you can throw it away,” April said.

Half of the two layer cake was leftover. “Why don’t you take it and share it with the kitchen staff?” Auggie suggested.

He earned a beaming smile for that. “Thank you so much, that’s very generous. I’ll have to ask my manager if that’s allowed.”

“If it is, then I hope you enjoy it.”

Auggie hated waste. He might have cut his hair and wore nice suits to work, but he damned well and sure would never forget where he came from. He owed too many people too many debts—and not the kind of debts that could be repaid with money.

Spiritual debts were almost impossible to wipe clean.

It didn’t stop him from trying, though.


Chapter Two

“Your last position was as an office assistant at Hyatt, Wheeler, and Greene,” Mr. Tight Ass said. He stared down at the resume over the slim rim of silver-frame glasses like the words on the typed page were illegible child’s scrawl.

“Yes, sir,” Elliott Quinn replied. He could look at the polished nameplate on the guy’s desk, but Mr. Tight Ass fit better. The guy had walked into Elliott’s interview like he had a permanent clench.

I am already fucked. Again.

“Tell me why you left.”

I no longer gave a good shit, so I stopped going in and they fired me. “I no longer felt like I fit in with that particular law firm. I left to pursue other opportunities.”

“I see.” Mr. Tight Ass looked at Elliott over the rim of those glasses. “Would your supervisor at Hyatt tell me the same thing?”

Elliott swallowed, his throat dry. He wasn’t nervous. Not after his eighth interview this week going exactly the same way. “They would see it a bit differently. I neglected to put in a proper two-week’s notice, so I was fired.”

“Why didn’t you give your notice?”

He kind of wanted to yank those glasses off the guy’s face, since he didn’t seem to need them for reading paper or seeing people. “I was simply ready to leave the company. It was an inexcusable mistake that I will never repeat again, you have my word.”

“You’re right, failing to give proper notice to an employer is an inexcusable mistake. It reeks of immaturity and a lack of focus on one’s profession.”

Elliott pulled hard on his instinct to snap back at the Prick in a Suit. No, he shouldn’t have quit his old job like he had, but he’d kind of been stuck in a deep pit of depression, drugs, and sex, and he hadn’t been taking his actual life very seriously. Now that he’d been out of rehab for three weeks, he needed to get his ass back into the working world. He had money in the bank, but his credit was for shit and getting a rental agreement in a decent building was proving impossible.

“You’re absolutely right.” It was time to kiss ass, and not in the fun way.

“Of course I am.”

His inner bitch shrieked to be let loose on Mr. Tight Ass.

“Care to explain your lack of employment from the month of October onward?”

No. He cleared his throat. “I have financial income from investments, so I was able to take some time off and get my head together. To decide what I wanted to do with my life.”

“And that is to become an administrative assistant again?”

Hell to the no, and italicize that shit.

Elliott didn’t want a job like his old one, but he knew how to file, answer phones, keep track of a schedule and handle demanding bosses. He hadn’t found himself or his true passion at Baybrook House, but he had found the strength to stay sober and live his life again.

A life very, very different from the one he’d nearly wrecked.

“It’s fulfilling work, sir, and it allows me to be part of a larger machine,” Elliott replied. “Hyatt, Wheeler, and Greene is a very well-respected law firm here in Newark, and I would be honored to be part of this team.”

“I see.” Mr. Tight Ass propped his elbows on the desk and curled his hands together. “You see, I am very good friends with Ralph Braxton, one of the senior partners at Braxton, Greene, Bessler and Brown. I heard a different story about your leaving there.”

Elliott’s stomach soured, the acid scorching the back of his throat. Here it comes.

“I heard about an up-and-coming assistant with dreams of becoming a paralegal, who then went off the deep end. He began showing up hung over and unkempt, and then he stopped showing up at all. Office gossip was he fell hard into drugs and then ended up in rehab.”

“That’s an interesting story.” Elliott knew he was fucked but he’d be damned if he’d admit to any of that. The old Elliott Quinn had done those idiotic things. That Elliott had died when he ran a box cutter down his left arm.

“One I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. Mr. Quinn, I don’t believe that you’re going to be a good fit here. Thank you for stopping by.”

Mr. Tight Ass didn’t stand or offer his hand. Elliott let himself out, his cheeks burning as he made a hasty retreat from the law office. He’d applied hoping a law firm outside of Wilmington would at least consider him for a position. Apparently his reputation preceded him all the way to Newark.

#

Elliott sat in his idling car and wallowed in familiar feelings of failure. He’d failed at realizing his boyfriend of two years had been having an ongoing affair. He’d failed at being there to support James and Boxer, his two best friends in the universe, when they’d both needed him last autumn. He’d failed to keep his job. He’d failed to keep his apartment. He’d failed at every-damned-thing.

That’s doubt talking. That’s the old you. Not the new you. The new you is fresh with a thousand possibilities.

And a resume with a six-month gap on it.

He reached for the glove compartment and stopped with his fingers on the latch. That had been a favorite hiding place for the mint tin he’d kept his uppers in, and the need was automatic. Something to keep him going when all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep. The craving clawed at his breastbone and twitched into his fingertips. He could see the tin, see the tablets that would make it all better.

Except this was a different car and he didn’t have anything stashed in it. He didn’t have anything stashed anywhere, because he’d been sober for one hundred and thirty-nine days.

Getting something would be easy. He’d erased his old contacts from his phone, but he knew where they hung out. Knew the best bars to check. Knew it was as easy as handing over some cash, and then the numbness would return. The carefree energy that would get him through the agony of his job search.

He had his phone out and dialing before he acted on that craving.

“Hey, Ell, how did the interview go?” James asked.

James Taggert was his best friend on the planet, and he was a recovering alcoholic. He’d get it. “It fucking sucked balls, and not the good kind of balls.” Elliott hated that his voice was shaking. “No one is going to hire me, Jay, and all I want right now is a hit.”

“Where are you?”

“Sitting in my car outside the office building of Mr. Tight Ass.”

“Who? Never mind. I just left work for the day. Do you want to meet up and talk?”

“Yes. You want to come over to Tori’s? It’ll take me about twenty minutes, but the spare key is in that fake rock by the back door.”

“I’ll meet you there. Go straight home, okay?”

“I will, I swear.”

“Good. See you in a bit.”

Elliott hung up, that clawing in his chest fainter, not as strong. He could breathe more easily.

He passed two liquor stores on the way home, each one an exercise in restraint. The temptation pulled at his good sense, and he nearly made a U-turn once. Only his promise to James kept him on track, finally pulling up by the curb in front of Tori and Allen’s house, and his temporary residence. They’d invited him to stay as long as he wanted, but Elliott wasn’t used to relying on other people. Plus his cat liked to dig up Allen’s house plants.

The house was in a middle-class neighborhood, in a boxy, single-story house with one of the best tended front yards on the block. Allen was always redoing the hedges or the flower beds, and they had potted plants all over the interior. Elliott had never seen so much greenery in one house.

James had parked parked on the opposite side of the street. Elliott grabbed the leather portfolio he used to house his resumes, then trotted up the stone path to the front porch. Alexander von Schtump greeted him at the door with her signature chirp. He dumped the portfolio on the floor and picked up his cat. She head-bumped his chin.

“At least someone likes me.”

She chirped again.

Something edible was in the house.. He followed the tantalizing aromas of tomatoes and spices into the kitchen. James sat at the dining table, munching on a slice of pizza loaded with toppings. Elliott took a moment to appreciate the beauty of James, gorgeous on his worst day, in a tailored blue suit, snacking on pizza.

“I got the supreme from Lido’s,” James said.

Elliott’s favorite. “Thanks. You didn’t have to.”

“I had an ulterior motive. I worked through lunch and I am starving.”

“Don’t tell your boyfriend that.”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

James’s boyfriend Nathan didn’t hover, exactly, but he knew James had a habit of focusing on his patients and not on himself. “My lips are sealed.” Elliott grabbed a hot slice out of the box. The first bite of cheese and pepperoni and bell pepper burst on his tongue.

Food had become a bit of a stand-in for booze, drugs, and sex, and Elliott had the waistline to prove it. In four months he’d gone from too-skinny to soft around the middle, his washboard abs a thing of the past. Everything was softer except his face. All those angles were still too sharp. He looked angry all the time, almost feral, and he didn’t like it.

I need to get my ass to a gym.

His doctor had been telling him that for over a month anyway, railing on him to stay physically healthy.

As if he had anyone to look his best for nowadays. His sex drive was next to nothing, utterly destroyed by the news he’d gotten in rehab. News that hadn’t shocked him like it should have, because he was the idiot who’d put himself at risk over and over again.

The front door opened and shut. “Ell? Is that Jay’s car?” Tori hollered from the front of the house.

“Yeah,” James shouted back.

“Hey you!” Light footsteps approached. Tori swept into the room, her spiky red hair tipped in blue glitter. “What do you think?”

“It’s fabulous,” Elliott said. Tori had her own personal style, and it reflected in both her appearance and her attitude. The tiny woman was the only female bartender at a leather bar called Rusty Nail, and even the toughest muscle bears knew not to mess with her. They embraced her colorful exterior, and she swore up and down that new hairstyles guaranteed good tips from the regulars.

“Thanks, baby.” She kissed him and James on the cheek, then helped herself to pizza.

“Should you be eating that?” Elliott asked. “How’s your stomach?”

Tori had been on and off with some kind of stomach bug for over a week. “I feel great today, Mom, thanks. Since you’re not jumping up and down screaming, I guess the interview didn’t go well?”

Elliott shrugged. “I’m never going find work at a law firm again unless I move across the country. I totally screwed myself.”

“I can ask around,” James said. “See if any of my colleagues are looking for office help.”

“Sure.” Elliott wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to work in a psychiatrist’s office. Exposure to crazy people probably wouldn’t do much good for his own addiction problems. But he needed a job, so nothing was out of the question.

“Is that a good idea?” Tori asked.

“The only medications we keep on hand are samples,” James replied, “and even those are under lock and key.”

“Yeah but the temptation?”

“Is everywhere,” Elliott said. “I could probably look at a picture of a pussy and want to get high.”

James cringed. “That would make anyone want to get high.”

Tori smacked him on the back of the head. “Don’t speak for straight men and lesbians.”

Elliott laughed. “I’m just saying the craving is always there. It probably always will be.”

“It fades a little with time,” James said. “But you’re right. It never really goes away.”

“So are you guys going to stay and watch the news?” Tori asked. She pulled cans of cola out of the fridge, one for each of them. “They’re doing the announcement.”

“I’ll be here,” Elliott replied.

Tori had entered her kitchen in a contest at a local news station for a free single-room makeover. Three winners would be announced on tonight’s six o’clock broadcast, and the room would be redone by a pair of local design experts. Elliott had never seen their show, but he’d heard about the Reno Duo via bar gossip. Gay designer and his drop-dead gorgeous straight partner.

Tori’s kitchen hadn’t been remodeled in decades, and it had a fifties avocado meets seventies brown/orange vibe to it. Tori used to say she loved the kitsch of it all. Lately she’d been eyeing the entire house for a makeover. There never seemed to be any extra money for the project, though. Tori’s income depended on tips, and her husband Allen had been laid off last month. He’d gotten a decent severance package, but they didn’t want to touch that money until he found something else.

He and Elliott spent their evenings together going over the classifieds and snacking on cheese curls.

“I’m meeting Nate at six,” James replied. “We’re having dinner with Wally.”

“And you’re eating pizza at four-thirty?” Elliott asked.

“Wally’s cooking, and according to Nate, he’s not that good. I’m going in prepared. Plus I skipped lunch.”

Wallace Carey was a police detective like James’s boyfriend Nathan Wolf. Wally had been shot last fall and temporarily paralyzed, but he’d been improving steadily. He’d apparently gone back to work last week. Riding a desk, but at least he was working.

“Riley and Boxer gonna be there?” Tori asked. Riley was Wally’s son. Elliott didn’t understand the whole thing, because a lot of it had unfolded while he was high, and then in rehab, but there had been a five-year rift between father and son. They hadn’t been in contact, and Riley had changed his name to avoid his father. After Wally was shot, Riley gave in and made contact and the pair was working on their relationship.

Or something.

Elliott only cared because it affected Boxer. Boxer was his other best friend, and if Boxer loved Riley… Well, Elliott was making an effort to like the kid.

“They were supposed to be,” James replied, “but they begged off last minute.”

“Boxer say why?” Elliott asked. Boxer was big on keeping promises.

“Only that he’d call me later tonight.”

Elliott nearly whipped out his cell phone. Boxer was the kind of gentle giant who did everything he could to take care of his friends, but when he needed something he backed off. Withdrew. Gave without taking. Clear sign that something was wrong. Boxer had done the same thing last fall when he broke up with Louis, acting like it was no big deal, keeping it all to himself.

Maybe him and Riley had a fight.

He didn’t wish any kind of unhappiness on Boxer, but those two didn’t make sense together. He’d barely spent any time around Boxer and Riley as a couple, since his own life had imploded at the height of their romance, but he had no reason to believe this thing with Riley wouldn’t end just as badly as Boxer’s last relationship had.  

“Do you know what’s going on?” Elliott asked Tori.

“I haven’t talked to either one of them today,” she said, already on her second slice of pizza.

Elliott stared at his half-eaten piece, concern overriding his hunger. “Maybe one of us should call him.”

“He said he’d call me,” James said.

“I know, but—”

“Don’t spend time worrying over it, you’ll make yourself crazy.”

And make him want to take something to calm the frenzy in his brain. “Yeah, okay.” Easier said than done but he’d try.

They ate in silence for a while. Elliott forced the rest of his slice down, along with the soda.

“You think any more about your tattoo?” Tori asked.

“Not really.” Elliott glanced at his left forearm. The fading scar stretched from inner wrist to elbow, a constant reminder of the morning he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. Winter was a good excuse for long sleeves, but as they eased into March the days were slowly warming. He wanted to get a tattoo of some sort to help cover the scar. Boxer had given him some books to look over, but he couldn’t decide.

He’d never really wanted a tattoo, and now he desperately needed one. “I want it to at least mean something, you know?” he said. “So when people ask I don’t have to tell them it’s window dressing for the time I sliced my arm open.”

James frowned, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by his phone emitting a mechanical “Psst!” sound. Text alert from Nathan. “Apparently I can stay for the newscast. Wally cancelled dinner.”

“Did he say why?” Tori asked.

“Nope.”

“Then invite Nate over. He can hang here with us while we all see if I’m getting a kitchen makeover.”

“What are the actual odds of you winning?” Elliott asked, while James typed.

“I don’t care. Have you seen my kitchen?”

“Many times.” Multiple times a day now that he was sponging off her.

“Then you understand I am in dire need.”

“Yes. I love you to pieces, Tor, but your kitchen is hideous.”

Tori thumped her fist against the kitchen table, making a vase of fake flowers rattle. “My point exactly.”

Elliott steadied the vase. The fake flowers inside were cheap and ugly, but the raspberry-red vase was gorgeous hand-blown glass. Something Tori and Allen had found at a flea market on their second date back in high school, and they had pooled their meager resources to buy it. Tori always said that’s when she’d known he was a keeper.

Another “Psst!” sound. “Nate said he’ll be here by six,” James said after checking his phone.

“Excellent,” Tori said. “Allen will be home at five-thirty-ish. It’s a party!”

A party to watch the evening news.

Whoopie.

The front doorbell rang. Tori looked over her shoulder, as if that would tell her who was on her porch. She got up and disappeared. Elliott strained to listen.

“Hey, Boxer!” Her surprised excitement carried. “How are you, baby?”

“I’m okay. Ell and Jay here?”

“Yep, in the kitchen. Jay brought pizza.”

Boxer’s heavier footsteps followed Tori’s. Elliott braced himself for something, anything. All of the changed plans and no explanations. A doozy was coming.

Elliott shared a look with James, whose lips were creased in a frown.

“What’s going on?” James asked. “Where’s Riley?”

“He went to see his dad,” Boxer said. “Thought it best. I wanted to talk to you guys alone.”

“What’s wrong?” Elliot’s insides curled into knots. If Riley did something to hurt him…

Boxer exhaled, and some of his height and bulk seemed to shrink. “Went to see the dermatologist today. He did another mole removal.” Everything in his posture and face told them what he hadn’t yet.

The doctor had found something.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Release Day: Finding Their Way (Restoration #2)



It's finally here! Book 2 of the Restoration series is live everywhere ebooks are sold!

This book is pretty special to me, because I genuinely started to hate it during edits. But the story needed the extra work, and the results are very much worth it.

I hope you agree. :)

Amazon
Nook
Carina Press

Monday, June 22, 2015

Finding Their Way -- First Three Chapters

Newsletter subscribers got this sneak peek last week, but since FINDING THEIR WAY releases in exactly four weeks, I figured it was time. Below are the first three chapters of FTW. This is my kinky book. It's also a book that I hated with a blazing passion last summer during edits, but now I love it to pieces. 

Riley and Boxer were such a fun couple to watch fall in love, because neither man expected the other to be exactly what he needed in a partner. As Elliott observes in his own book, they don't make a lot of sense on paper, but when they're together they complete each other.

Enjoy!

#*#



Chapter One

I hate wearing long sleeves in the summer.

Theo Carey hunched over the metal table in the gray room he’d been dumped in thirty minutes ago, resisting the urge to hide beneath it. His dad was hollering at the cop who’d brought Theo in with three of his friends—for doing nothing more conspicuous than walking the street at one in the morning and laughing too loudly. 

Okay, so they hadn’t landed in the best neighborhood, and maybe Dylan had been a little flashy with his red leather pants and ripped tank top, and maybe he shouldn’t have been so sassy, but the cop was an idiot. And now a beating was waiting for him when they got home. 

His dad met Theo’s eyes through the glass window. Acid flooded Theo’s stomach. He knew that expression. Anger and intent. 

Maybe he’ll believe me. It wasn’t my fault.

Yeah, and maybe tomorrow fairies would shoot out of his ass.

The cop said something else, then his dad nodded. The cop opened the door and stepped away. Wally Carey filled the doorway and his anger seeped inside, a living thing that Theo had run from for the past five years. Ever since the drinking got bad and the temper got shorter. 

“Not a single word,” Dad said, his voice dangerously even. “We’ll discuss this at home.”

Theo swallowed hard against rising bile. He nodded, and then followed his dad out of the police station and down to the curb where the car was parked, hands shoved as far into his pockets as he could get them. Which wasn’t very far, since these pants were his tightest pair. Suddenly the skintight jeans and black T-shirt with a graffiti skull on it was the worst possible clothing combination ever.

“Backseat.”

He complied without protest, frustrated that he was being treated like both a criminal and a child. It didn’t matter that he’d turned eighteen two days ago and tonight had been a celebration with his best friends. Dad hadn’t even given him a card, much less a “Happy Birthday.” He probably still thought of Theo as a seven-year-old who couldn’t ride a bike without falling off.

“Fucking pansy,” he’d said after Theo skinned both knees with his attempts and was fighting back tears. “Get back on the fucking bike and learn.”

That was Wally Carey’s method of teaching—beat it into you with fists or blood or nasty words. Sooner or later, his point was made.

And Theo still had scars on his knees.

He watched the scenery go by with a growing sense of dread while his dad drove them out of the city toward their house in Bellefonte. Fifteen minutes flew by in fear-coated silence, the only sound in the car the hum of the engine and occasional flick of the turn signal. Even drunk, his dad was a very careful driver.

“Go inside and wait for me in the living room,” he said once the car was in the driveway, engine still idling.

Theo didn’t ask for an explanation. He bolted inside, every instinct demanding he hide until the storm passed. Only this wasn’t a C- on a midterm. This wasn’t him leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Wally had been called down to the station to pick up his son, and the cops down there knew him. His dad was embarrassed, and he was angry. Time wouldn’t make it go away.

Maybe he’ll let me explain.

Theo stood behind one of the upholstered armchairs, keeping it between him and the living room door. Minutes passed, each one raising his anxiety level closer to nuclear. He bounced on his toes, adrenaline already pumping, anticipating the yelling. The fists. The dull pain that would follow.

The front door slammed. Heavy footsteps stormed closer. His dad’s intimidating presence sucked all of the air out of the room. “Do you have any fucking idea how embarrassed I was tonight? Going down to the station, to see people I work with for a fucking living, and taking you home like that?”

“I’m eighteen,” Theo said, surprised by the strength in his own voice. “They didn’t have to call you.”

“They know me. Of course they’re going to fucking call me. Who wouldn’t want to rub it in that the snarly, bad-tempered detective has a son who’s been picked up for prostitution?”

Theo flinched. “That’s not what happened.”

“No?” 

“I mean—” Okay, so yeah, that was why he and his friends had been picked up. “We weren’t doing anything illegal. We for sure as hell weren’t out there turning tricks.”

“That’s not what the arresting officer said.”

“The officer who entrapped us, you mean?” Dad’s eyebrows rose. An unexpected flare of anger broke free of Theo’s fear. “Yeah, I know that word. We’re walking down the street, minding our business, and a guy in a fancy car pulls up, asks us if anyone’s on the clock. Dylan was the idiot who wanted to yank the guy’s chain.”

“Oh right, your buddy solicits older men on the side for the fucking fun of it?”

“He wasn’t serious about it.” Theo caught himself before he started yelling. Why was this so hard for his dad to believe? “He was going to bait the guy, then embarrass the hell out of him. Dylan isn’t a hooker.”

“Fine, you say he’s not? Why the hell did the cops hassle you four at all, then?”

“Maybe they were bored.”

His dad took a few steps closer, fists rising. Theo scrambled for words, anything to keep them talking and away from the physical. “We didn’t do anything wrong, Dad, I swear.”

“Except soliciting a cop.”

“He solicited Dylan!” 

Shit, I yelled.

Theo couldn’t duck the slap fast enough. It grazed the side of his jaw and whipped his head to the side. Not the worst ever, but it woke him the hell up. Instead of the usual sickening fear, though, more anger rose. Tonight had been about his birthday. He didn’t deserve this kind of grief for doing nothing wrong.

“You watch your tone,” Dad warned, his eyes red and breath sour with whiskey. “You embarrassed the fuck out of me, got me out at one in the fucking morning, and now you’re gonna cop attitude?”

Theo ducked the second blow, then darted to the other side of the room. “You want to whale on someone, take it out on the fucking prick who set us up.”

“You show some goddamn respect.”

“We weren’t doing anything!”

“You must have been doing something!”

Rage made his vision blur. “Like what, walking while gay?” The rage died beneath a sudden chill as the enormity of what he’d blurted out sank in. 

His dad stared at him from the other side of the room, lips curling in disgust. “Dylan’s a faggot?”

Play along. Don’t make it worse.

No. He was eighteen. He was sick of lying, and he wasn’t going to put all of the blame for this shit heap onto Dylan, who’d only ever been a good friend. “Yeah, he is.” Theo swallowed hard while his insides shook apart. “Dylan and Joey and Miller.” All friends he’d met at the Gay-Straight Alliance in their high school. Friends he still kept in touch with two months after graduation. Friends who knew him like no one else—especially Dylan.

“And me, too,” Theo said.

Dad stared. “You too what?”

Mouth dry and pulse leaping, Theo managed to say it. “I’m gay.”

“Don’t fucking lie to protect your degenerate friends, Theo. People like that aren’t worth it.”

“I’m not lying.” Now that the truth was out, determination began overshadowing the good sense that was silently urging him to run. “I’m gay, and I’ve know it since I was fifteen.”

Dad’s face went blotchy again. Theo had nowhere to run, and then he was cornered between the wall and the side of a bookcase, a hand bunched in his shirt collar. Liquored breath fumed in his face. “Don’t you fucking lie to me. I’ll break your fucking neck.”

Theo’s bowels went watery. “It’s the truth.”

“No.” His dad shook him hard enough that the back of Theo’s head cracked against the wall. Pain flashed behind his eyes. “You’re goddamn lucky your mother isn’t alive to hear this bullshit.”

“Mom knew. I told her in the hospital. She didn’t care.”

“Don’t talk about her like that.” 

Theo registered the hard slam to the floor and the jolt through his shoulder. He curled into a ball, protecting his stomach and head from the one-two-three hard kicks that sent pain shocking through his back. He fully expected more, maybe a few cracks with the belt, but nothing came. 

They didn’t talk about Mom, not ever. Not in the two years since she’d died of liver cancer, and not about her death itself. Sudden and painful. From diagnosis to dead in five months. Theo had spent countless hours by her side, telling her stories and reminiscing about Before the Accident—before a drunk driver rammed the car carrying ten year-old Theo, his mother and his six month-old baby brother. Before his brother died on impact, devastating both of his parents, and destroying a life they’d never know again, with a happy husband/father who doted on his wife and two sons. Theo sometimes envied her the peace of death.

At least if he was dead, he wouldn’t have to put up with the drunk asshole he still called Dad.

“Take it back.”

Theo hazarded a peek through splayed fingers. His father was on the other side of the room, hand on the mantle near a photo of Mom. He didn’t have to ask what Dad wanted him to take back.

“I can’t.” Theo had finally said the words out loud. He couldn’t take them back, no matter what it cost him. “It’s the truth.”

“I won’t have a fucking faggot living under my roof.” He said it to the photo, but the meaning was clear. “We didn’t raise him that way, Margo.”

Something thick and hot settled in Theo’s throat. Something like tears, only he hadn’t cried since the funeral. He wasn’t going to cry over this. “I can’t change who I am, Dad.”

“Not under my roof.”

Theo crawled to his feet, his back aching, his cheek sore. One lunge and he’d flee. One snide remark, and he’d break. But his dad only had eyes for the past, lost to his anger and the drunken stupor that had been so rudely interrupted by Theo’s attempt at having a good time. 

At least you won’t be able to touch me again, you selfish bastard.

The thought did little to comfort him on the painful walk upstairs to his room. The room he’d lived in since he was six years old. Layers of his past covered the walls in the form of posters and pictures, drawings and magazine tear-outs. Old soccer trophies lined a shelf above his desk. Dozens of paperbacks lined another bookcase, mostly young adult mysteries and Agatha Christie. All of it seemed to belong to a different boy. Theodore Allen Carey had died tonight, killed by bigotry and hate. He was staying behind in this room. 

His eyes strayed to the bottom shelf of the bookcase where he kept his DVD collections. He had all six seasons of HBO’s Oz series. Ryan O’Reilly was his favorite character from that show. He lied, stole, cheated, used, conned, and was generally a bastard to get his own way. But more than that, he was a survivor. He took everything that life threw at him, and he either threw it back, or he found a way to make someone else responsible for it.

Theo found his backpack in the back of the closet. The six DVD sets went in first, and then he began stuffing the backpack with clothes.

I can do this. I survived Wally. I can survive anything.


Chapter Two

Riley McCage followed his boyfriend Brett down the wide hallway of a stranger’s penthouse apartment, his stomach going squirrely as he took in his surroundings. Men everywhere he turned, all ages and ethnicities. Older men with slicked back hair and tailored suits mingled with burly bears in leather harnesses. A boy his age knelt at the feet of another man, perfectly at ease wearing a collar and leash in public. A pair of bleach blond twinks were skinned down to identical pairs of blue briefs. Over the heady mix of sweat, cologne and alcohol, he identified the odor of sex.

Someone pinched his ass. Riley jumped and turned his head in time to see a blond man with stacks of intimidating muscles offer what was probably a smile, but came across as a leer. Riley’s skin crawled.

Jesus Christ, I’m going to kill him.

Brett tugged on his hand, smiling over his shoulder like he’d just won a damned prize, when all Riley wanted to do was leave. Tonight was Brett’s birthday, and he’d ambushed Riley with an invite to a “very exclusive party” and “please, baby, for my birthday?”

Nothing about this party was okay with Riley, and even though they’d only been dating for seven months, Brett should have known better. Their sex life was pretty damned vanilla, and Brett had never once complained. Never pushed Riley’s limits. Never hinted that Brett liked leather and exhibitionism. Then again, Riley really didn’t know much about Brett. Until now that hadn’t bothered him much, because Brett not discussing his own past meant Riley didn’t have to examine his, either.

The hallway opened up into a large living room with a kitchen to the far right, cut off by a high bar. More men, many with drinks in their hands. No familiar faces. Music pulsed a steady, wordless beat from a fancy sound system on the far left wall. Directly in front of them high windows and patio doors led out onto a deck brightened by dozens of lanterns. Indistinct shapes moved out there.

Braver folks than him. Riley wasn’t a fan of the night’s early October chill. Summer was more his season. And he’d dressed for a party, which meant tight jeans, a shiny blue tank top and no damned jacket. He had finally stopped shivering on the elevator ride up to the penthouse.

Attention came at them from all directions. The leers and open interest aimed at Brett turned into bored curiosity when they landed on Riley. And why not? Brett was fucking gorgeous. Five-ten, the body of an athlete that saw the gym five days a week, honey-blonde hair that was never out of place. His cheekbones could cut diamonds and he smiled like a movie star. Next to him, Riley felt like a frumpy housewife.

“Brett, baby!” 

A tall, good-looking man with a thick brown beard sauntered their way. He was decked out in leather, head to toe, and the look worked for him. He also had the big, burly build that generally made Riley anxious.

“Hey, Zack,” Brett said. The pair shared a lingering, full-bodied hug. Riley couldn’t hold his breath underwater for as long as they clung to each other. No one hugged a friend like that. “Zack, this is Riley McCage. Riley, an old friend of mine and our host. Zack Mattheson.”

An old friend of mine. Our host.

“Nice to meet you.” Riley forced a smile when Zack invaded his personal space with an overly friendly hug. “Your place is beautiful.”

“Thank you.” Zack wasn’t making any attempt to hide his appraisal of Riley. “I do like beautiful things.”

Riley instantly regretted his choice of outfit.

“And if I recall correctly, tonight is our Brett’s birthday, is it not?” Zack added, asking like a man who already knew the answer. “I think we’ll have to put together a special present for him later. What do you say, Riley?”

“Um, sure.” Riley had no idea what a special present meant, but something told him it involved leather. 

When the fuck had Brett gotten so kinky?

He was no blushing virgin—not by a long shot—but in the last few years he’d rarely dated and only had the occasional hookup with someone he knew. Usually a regular at Pot O Gold, where he bartended. Never a stranger. And he drew a hard limit with anal sex. None, giving or receiving. Most guys were fine with that for a one-off.

And then he’d met Brett through a mutual friend. Brett was the kind of guy Riley liked—similar height, even-tempered—and they had hit it off and gone out on an actual date. Brett hadn’t been turned off by his no-fucking policy, and they’d seen each other regularly for the last seven months. 

Tonight certainly explained Brett’s recent preference for more hardcore porn when they watched it together. Some of the models had turned Riley on, but he wasn’t into all of the heavy flogging and being tied up like a roped calf—especially by a guy who could break him in half. 

He’d been hit enough for a lifetime.

“You boys help yourself to drinks,” Zack told them. “I’ll see you both a little later.”

“Later, baby,” Brett said with a grin and a wink. 

He tamped down a flutter of irritation and didn’t comment until they both had margaritas in their hands, courtesy of the leather daddy working the bar. “I didn’t realize you knew the host.”

“You didn’t ask.” Brett dropped a hard kiss on his mouth. “Zack’s an old friend.”

“I got that.”

“You jealous, baby?”

“No, just surprised.”

Across the room, he caught a familiar face in profile. Boxer was a regular at the Pot, often there with a group of friends. He was about Riley’s height, but had an extra thirty pounds of scary muscles and some of the best tattoo work Riley had ever seen.

Boxer was staring back at him from across the room. He winked, then tipped his drink glass.

Riley managed a polite smile before looking away. Someone he knew had seen him here in his best club clothes, chatting it up with the host. He despised being the subject of gossip or scrutiny, and if Boxer had a big mouth, it would be all over the Pot by Monday that Riley was into this kind of scene. Approaching Boxer to explain was out of the question, because it meant leaving the safety of Brett’s proximity.

The music changed from a gentle pulse to a more sensual rhythm. The bleach-blond twinks from the hall began a slow dance in the middle of the living room. As they rubbed their cocks together, tongues actively seeking each other’s tonsils, other partygoers settled in to watch the show. A few onlookers stroked themselves through their pants, indulging in the arousal thickening the air of the penthouse. Riley bit back a snort of disgust. He’d seen his fair share of erotic dancing while bartending, and had even walked in on people getting off together in the men’s room, but something about this was different. Staged. Unreal.

An illusion. 

Brett’s arm slid around his waist, his hand flat against Riley’s stomach. He moved behind Riley, plastered close enough for him to feel Brett’s erection pressing against his ass. Brett was enjoying the sex show and Riley wanted to bolt. This was Brett’s birthday, though, and Riley could endure it a little longer if it meant extra fun times once they were finally alone to celebrate.

Some of the other guests had paired off. Making out against a wall. Rubbing and touching on one of the sofas. No one seemed to care. Not even when Twink Number One dropped to his knees, tugged down the briefs of Twink Number Two, and began to suck him off. Someone even cheered.

“That’s so hot,” Brett whispered in his ear.

Riley didn’t answer. This was for Brett, not him.

On the other side of the room, Zack was watching them and he grinned when Riley caught his gaze. Riley fought against an instinctive grimace and gulped down his margarita. A new one found its way into his hand, and he worked on that while ignoring the sex show happening in front of him.

Brett slid his hand down to cup Riley’s groin. “Not enjoying yourself, baby?” 

“Surprised, is all.” He couldn’t tell Brett he was miserable, that he hated what was happening here and wanted to leave. Brett wanted this, and he didn’t want to lose Brett because he was a prude.

“It’s just sex. Nothing wrong with that.”

Who has sex in front of thirty-odd strangers?

Brett kept rubbing his crotch, and slowly the pressure overrode Riley’s brain and sent blood coursing south. Brett nuzzled at the side of his neck. “There’s my boy,” he whispered.

Riley tried to relax and let his dick get hard, because Brett wanted it. He’d never been publicly fondled before, and a few guys were watching them. Knowing that made Riley’s cheeks heat.

They’re just jealous. They know I’m in the arms of the most beautiful guy in Wilmington.

The third margarita went down too fast, warming his limbs and cottoning his mind. Brett’s caress became more insistent, and Riley forgot why Brett’s hand inside of his pants was a bad idea right now. He sagged harder into Brett’s embrace. Why was he so tired after only three margaritas?They hadn’t even tasted that strong, though third one was kind of extra salty.

A large body closed in. Riley blinked through misty eyes, unsure why the man was so out of focus. Big. Beard. Host.

Zack.

“I think Riley needs to sit down.” Zack’s voice was silky, seductive.

“I agree,” Brett replied.

Me too.

Somehow he lost his shirt in the shift from one room to another. Riley squinted at the new space, trying to figure out where he was supposed to sit. He didn’t see any chairs, or even a bed. And other people were already in the room, so that sucked. He needed a minute alone to clear his head.

“Water,” he said. Water would help.

A glass pressed against his lips. He slurped it down, not tasting the alcohol until it was too late. He coughed and sputtered. 

Nearby moans sent prickles of ice down his spine. Brett turned him around, and it took a moment for Riley to understand what he was seeing. A naked guy in some sort of contraption strung from the ceiling, legs in the air, and two other guys with him. The strung-up guy seemed to be enjoying himself. 

Don’t want to sit in here.

Cool air tickled around Riley’s legs. It curled around his naked dick, and the wrongness of that hit him in the chest, despite the fog still cottoning his brain. 

“I’ve waited seven months for this.” Brett squeezed Riley’s ass, skin on skin. “You’re going to be so gorgeous, baby.”

Waited for what?

Someone moved him again, away from the moaning man. Softness cradled his back, but it wasn’t a chair because he was reclining and his legs were up in the air, and what the actual fuck?

“B-brett?” Riley stammered.

“It’s okay, baby. God, you’re beautiful.”

No, I’m not.

He couldn’t move his arms or legs, which made no sense. Panic squeezed his lungs and he jerked. Hard. Couldn’t move. He was laying down, only not, and he couldn’t move. Hands ran up and down his chest and belly.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Brett said. “Trust me.”

“No.” That was the word he needed. No would work. He tried to say it again, only his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth.

“Are you sure about this?” Zack asked.

No! Make it stop!

“Yes.” Brett. “I told you he’s into it. Give me that.”

Round and solid forced its way into Riley’s mouth. He couldn’t close his mouth. Couldn’t breathe out of it. Everything around him was fuzzy, blurred, distant. His body felt so heavy.

Stop, stop, stop, please!

He forced out a noise.

Something or someone was touching his ass. Bile burned the back of his throat. He wanted to buck, to move, but his body had stopped listening to him. Even his ears were weird, like everything was underwater. All of the touches were far away. 

Indistinct.

“What the hell, Zack?”

He jerked toward the muffled, underwater voice. Boxer’s voice? Angry. Riley tried that deep-down noise again.

“Hey, this is Brett’s scene. I’m being a gracious host.”

“Fine, host, where’s the kid’s tissue? He can’t safeword out with that ball gag, so where’s the tissue or ribbon for him to drop?”

The words didn’t make a lot of sense to Riley. All he knew for sure was that he wasn’t being touched. He wasn’t being touched, and just maybe Boxer could get him out of this. He didn’t know what was happening, only that he didn’t like it. He squinted, trying to focus on the blurry bodies around him, except his head was spinning. All he could do was try and make Boxer understand with his eyes. 

Please don’t leave me.



Boxer was no stranger to scenes, or to parties like Zack’s. He hadn’t been to one in over a year because they hadn’t been his boyfriend’s thing, but he and Louis were officially over as of yesterday. Part of him was still processing the abrupt and unexpected way Louis had dumped him, but the rest of him was ready to channel his negative emotions into a good hard fuck. To let himself be dominated for a change. For someone built like Boxer, parties like this gave him a better chance of finding someone who was into the same things he liked.

He liked topping, sure, but sometimes he needed the opposite. He needed someone to order him around, take control, and make him their bitch. Louis, for all of his charms and style, had been a flaming bottom with zero interest in fucking Boxer, much less dominating him.

The best part about Zack’s parties—besides the eye candy—was the slim to zero chance of seeing anyone he knew outside of them. He certainly hadn’t expected to spot one of the Pot’s bartenders on the arm of a guy that used to do the opening bump-grind-and-fuck show for Zack. Riley had looked as comfortable as a nun in a whorehouse. He probably didn’t have a clue what kind of party he was walking into.

Zack was a nice guy, but Boxer didn’t trust Brett. Especially not when Riley went glassy-eyed, started listing all over the place, and then let himself be felt up in front of everyone.

Finding Riley strapped up in the hammock-style swing, ball gag in place, in Zack’s playroom, had sent hot waves of anger blazing through Boxer’s chest. The very obvious fear showing through the haze of whatever drug they’d given Riley should have stopped everything. Riley’s hands were empty, too. They hadn’t given him a way to halt the scene, and Boxer knew enough guys into the lifestyle to know you didn’t take away a sub’s ability to communicate the need to stop.

Ever.

“Look, this is my scene.” Brett sounded like a spoiled child who didn’t want a share his favorite toy—except Riley wasn’t a toy and this wasn’t happening. “Get the fuck out.”

“No.”

“No?”

At least Zack had the good sense not to defend Brett. What in the name of God almighty had he been thinking? “Take the gag out,” Boxer told Zack. “I want Riley to tell me he’s okay with this.”

Zack’s eyebrows lifted. “You know this kid?”

“Yes. Now take it off him.”

“Who are you, giving Zack orders?” Brett snarled. “This is his place.”

“Yes, it is, so he should be looking out for all of his guests. Not just the ones who used to suck his dick on the regular.”

Brett stiffened.

Zack unstrapped the ball gag.

The indistinct wail that ripped out of Riley’s throat sent shivers down Boxer’s spine. “It’s okay, Riley. It’s over. You’re safe now.” He shoved Brett aside and reached for the strap binding Riley’s right ankle. “Get him out of this thing right now.”

Zack helped him while Brett sulked by the wall, the asshole. Boxer ignored the audience on the other side of the room, his entire world focused on getting Riley the hell out of there. He kept reassuring Riley, hoping the kid could hear and understand. They managed to untangle Riley from the swing, but his coordination was shot. Boxer helped him sit against the wall.Riley didn’t seem to recognize or react to anything.

“What did you give him?” Boxer asked, working hard to keep his voice down so he didn’t scare Riley more.

“GHB,” Brett said. “Jesus, some birthday.” He flounced out of the room.

Boxer let him go. For now. 

Zack produced a blanket, and Boxer draped that around Riley while he got him back into his clothes. Riley pushed at him a few times, probably unable to distinguish good touching from bad right now. “I’m getting you dressed, Riley. You’re okay.” He turned to Zack. “I can’t believe you let this happen.”

“Brett swore to me Riley was cool. He said Riley liked to play up dubious consent, and they were doing the scene as his birthday present. Shit, Boxer, you know me.”

“You’re smarter than to take one guy’s word. You should have asked Riley before anything happened.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Boxer pointed at Riley, who was leaning into Boxer’s chest, his breathing rapid and shallow. “Apologize to him tomorrow when he’s sober.”

“I will. Are you taking him home?”

“I’m sure as hell not letting Brett take him home.”

“Fair enough.”

Zack shut the door as he left, and it took Boxer a moment to realize the playroom had cleared out. Boxer gazed down at the barely conscious mess of a kid in his arms. Although kid wasn’t really fair. Riley had bartended at the Pot for the last two years, so he was twenty-three at minimum, and he matched Boxer in height. He also seemed to carry the weight of someone who’d seen too much, experienced too much, even when he was laughing it up at the Pot.

“Well, I did plan on leaving with someone tonight,” Boxer said. “Hadn’t planned on it being like this, though.” He held Riley’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. “You with me, friend?”

Riley blinked hard, his pupils too wide. “Don’t.”

“I’m not going to hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you, okay?”

“Don’t want it.”

“I know. You’ve got your clothes on. No one is doing anything to you, okay? You understand me?”

Bleary eyes slid shut. “Box?”

“Yeah, it’s Boxer. We see each other at Pot O Gold sometimes.”

“Cold.”

He rearranged the blanket so it was wrapped around Riley’s shoulders. “Can you walk?”

“Try.”

Riley was still too drugged to manage much more than an undignified flop onto his side. Boxer decided to hell with it and picked him up. It was awkward and Riley was heavy, but it got them the hell out of the penthouse. Thank God it was late, because the elevator down was empty. Riley clung to him the entire way to Boxer’s car, and then he didn’t want to let go so Boxer could drive. 

Boxer couldn’t figure if that was trust or the kid just needed a hug.

Once Boxer was in the driver’s seat, he realized he didn’t know where Riley lived. Those pants didn’t have pockets for a wallet, and taking Riley to his own home probably wasn’t the best idea. Brett would know where he was, and Riley needed some peace and security for a few hours.

He’d get a good ribbing from his friends for taking in another stray, but it was the right thing to do. And it was only one night. He turned the key in the ignition and headed home.



Chapter Three

The overwhelming need to piss roused Riley out of a blackness that was too comfortable to leave behind. He pressed his face into his pillow, willing his throbbing bladder to leave him alone for a few more minutes. It didn’t listen. 

He peeled his eyelids apart, focusing on a bedside lamp that wasn’t his. Dread coiled tightly in his already upset stomach. Unfamiliar blue sheets. Not his bedroom. Not Brett’s either.

Shit, what happened last night?

The other side of the bed was empty. No photos on the walls or nightstand. Nothing really personal at all in the room. He didn’t remember anything after that first margarita. Had he and Brett had a fight? Who had he gone home with?

He rolled out of bed, surprised that he was still wearing the outfit he’d gone out in last night.

Party. Fuzzy. Bad stuff happened.

He didn’t want to think about the bad stuff until after he’d emptied his aching bladder. He peeked out the bedroom door into a short, dark hallway. To his right was an open area, probably the living room. The hall had three other doors, all shut. He picked the closest one and was relieved to have chosen the john. 

After he pissed out more liquid than he remembered drinking, he spared a glance at his reflection. Way too pale. Dark spots under his eyes. He looked like he had the flu, but it was probably just a hangover.

It still didn’t explain why he was here, and not with Brett.

Bad stuff.

He flushed, washed, then returned to the hallway. A light was on in the living room and the floor out there creaked. Riley crept to the end of the hall and glanced out. Dark leather furniture, dark wood tables. Lots of books along one wall. A floor lamp near a big leather chair was on. Riley checked the clock on the cable box. Four-thirty in the morning.

“I thought I heard you up and moving.” 

The familiar voice spoke from an alcove that looked like it led into a kitchen. Riley stared, shocked as hell to see the personification of his greatest anxieties standing there wearing flannel pants and a T-shirt that hugged every single muscle on Boxer’s broad chest. 

I went home with Boxer? What the hell was I thinking?

Bad things.

Boxer looked sleep rumpled, and there were sheets on the couch.

“Had to pee,” Riley replied dumbly.

“My fault. I made you drink a lot of water before you passed out. Helps with the morning after.”

“I guess.”

“Probably doesn’t do much for the GHB.”

“The what?”

Boxer stared at him, still on the far side of the room. Like he was afraid to come any closer. “Brett roofied you last night.”

“What?” His gut churned. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“He did it. He spiked one of your drinks. Do you remember anything about the party?”

Riley closed his eyes. He remembered being uncomfortable from the moment he walked in. Zack. Margaritas. Sex on display. “Not a lot after I started drinking. I didn’t want to be there. Why the hell would Brett drug me?” He looked from Boxer’s pajamas to his own party clothes. Stupid question, but he had to hear him say it. “Did we fuck last night?”

“No.” Zero hesitation and a flash of annoyance suggested truth. “I brought you here to sleep off the drug and the liquor. I camped out on the couch.”

“Does Brett know I’m here?”

“No reason he should.”

Exhaustion settled in his bones. Riley shuffled over to the couch and sank down, his stomach still sloshing. A brand-new headache was poking behind his eyes with a sharp stick. He hated not being able to remember. There was a reason he didn’t drink himself stupid like so many other guys his age.

“How do you know for sure Brett’s the one who drugged me?”

Boxer’s eyebrows went up. “Because when I asked him what he gave you, he said GHB. He didn’t deny it. He lied to Zack and said you were into the scene he’d planned.”

“Scene?” Riley rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What does that even mean? What happened last night?”

“I can only tell you what I saw and was told.”

“Fine.” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t bite, you know.”

Boxer sat down in an armchair, still a good ten feet away. For such a bulky, imposing guy, he seemed shy. Like he’d rather be anywhere except in his own home, explaining Riley’s forgotten evening. 

This is going to be bad.

“From the second I noticed you at the party, you looked uncomfortable,” Boxer said. “I knew it wasn’t your scene, and I was surprised you’d stayed. I was also surprised to see you there with Brett Jones.”

“Why? How do you know Brett?”

“Everyone at Zack’s parties knows Brett.”

He didn’t want to know, but Riley asked anyway. “How?”

“Remember the two blond guys dancing, then fucking?”

“I remember the dancing.” They’d fucked each other in front of an audience? Maybe it was a good thing he’d forgotten about the party.

“Until four years ago, that was Brett. He’s known Zack for a long time, longer than I have.”

“Have you fucked him?” The angry question surprised Riley as much as it seemed to surprise Boxer. Riley really didn’t know Brett at all, and he’d been a fool not to ask more questions. Brett had an entire past that Riley knew nothing about, had never expected to be quite so colorful, and last night he’d tried to pull Riley into it. Into something that had landed him in Boxer’s bedroom.

“Brett?” Boxer asked. “No. I’m not really into Ken-doll blondes.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s a fair question. I take it you didn’t know that about Brett?”

“No. Neither one of us is big on talking about the past.”

“The past can ambush you if you don’t know to watch for it.”

Riley didn’t possess the energy or mental faculties for a philosophical discussion about the past. “Tell me what this scene was. Please?”

Boxer was quiet for so long Riley almost asked again. “You went from uncomfortable to stumbling way too fast for it to be from drinking,” Boxer said. “And you were letting Brett openly fondle you in front of the other guests. When I saw Brett and Zack leading you toward the playroom, I got worried. You weren’t in any state of mind to make an informed decision in there, so I got out of the conversation I was in, and I followed you. I’ve been in Zack’s playroom before, and the second I walked in I knew it was wrong.”

Riley’s mouth and throat were dry. He wanted water, but he had to hear this. “What was?”

“Do you know what a sling is?”

“Like when you break your arm?”

Boxer shook his head. “It’s a leather harness. In a BDSM scene, a sub is strapped into it, usually on his back, and immobilized for sex play. Zack has two hammock-style slings in his playroom.”

“Someone was strapped into one of them?”

“You were, Riley.”

“What?” He hated the high-pitched squawk he’d belted out, but damn. 

“Brett had told Zack that you’d okayed the scene ahead of time. That you were into non-con play, and not to worry if you protested.”

Non-con? Okayed the scene? His insides churned.

Boxer disappeared, then returned with a tan plastic basin he plunked down on Riley’s lap. Riley clutched at it, just in case. Boxer sat on the other end of the couch, not quite so far away this time. He filled the room with his presence and somehow made Riley feel less alone.

“You were naked in the sling, with a ball gag in your mouth and no way to call off what was happening,” Boxer continued. “I could tell you were drugged and didn’t know what was going on. That’s why I stepped in and made Zack take the gag out. I wanted to hear from you that you wanted the scene, and you didn’t. So I got you out.”

A bitter, nasty taste filled his mouth. Naked in the sling. His insides were hot, slithery. He wanted to crawl out of his own skin and scrub it down with boiling water. He had to know. “Did Brett fuck me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Think?” He’d almost screamed the word. I’ve got to calm the fuck down.

“He had his dick out and a condom in his hand, but he hadn’t put the two together yet, so I’d say odds are good he didn’t.”

But he’d been about to. For all the times Brett told me he’s okay with us not fucking, he was going to go ahead and do it anyway. After fucking drugging me.

“I can’t believe Brett did that to me.” Riley slouched over the basin, as much for something to hold onto as because he was still very much in the land of Vomitus Immedius. “He knows I don’t do that. We’ve talked about it. Damn him.” His eyes prickled, but he would not cry over Brett. 

Fuck him.

“I’m real sorry, friend.”

He glanced at Boxer, who looked all kinds of miserable for no good reason. “You didn’t do anything to be sorry for. Hell, you saved me.” Riley wanted to cheer Boxer up somehow. Get that misery off Boxer’s face because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Maybe Brett thought he was somehow entitled to my ass because it was his birthday, but if you hadn’t followed us in there… Thank you. Seriously, thank you.”

A spark of anger chased away some of Boxer’s misery. “Guys like that piss me off. Think they can take what they want, consequences be damned. I don’t know what Brett thought was gonna happen when you sobered up and realized what he’d done.”

Nothing. Just like I didn’t do shit about Glenn.

Riley rubbed his hands over his bare arms. His sleeveless top didn’t cover much, and he was too damned exposed right now. 

Boxer got up to rummage around in a closet by the front door. He came back with a huge navy sweatshirt that said First State Landscaping over a silkscreen of a shrub and gardening sheers.

“I know it’s big, but it’s warm.” Boxer held it out, a gentle smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.

Something about that smile hit Riley right in the gut, and he’d have worn that sweatshirt if he was outside in Death Valley at a hundred and forty degrees. He slipped it on over the idiotic party shirt, immediately comforted by the soft warmth. The fabric smelled like earth and cologne.

“Listen, I’m not gonna push you out the door,” Boxer said. “I don’t have any place to be until lunch, so if you wanna sleep some more that’s cool with me.”

Riley had crashed on enough friends’ couches over the years that he had no shame left. He was pretty sure if he tried to walk to the front door, he’d fall over. Or barf. Probably both. And he didn’t want to do either in front of Boxer. God only knew what the guy thought of him already.

“I hope you’re serious, because I’m taking you up on that.”

“Wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it.”

Walking back to the bedroom was too much trouble, so Riley dragged his feet up onto the cushions and wrapped his arms around a shaggy pillow. Lying flat on his side settled his stomach enough that placing the basin on the floor was an acceptable risk.

“I probably won’t fall back to sleep now that I’m up,” Boxer said. “So if you want something, you ask.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Riley closed his eyes and drifted quickly. Something warm fell over his legs, and he didn’t have to look to know Boxer had covered him with some kind of blanket.

Why couldn’t Brett have been exactly like him?



Boxer stood a while, watching Riley fall asleep on his couch, clutching the old blue pillow like it could keep him safe. He looked even younger like that, swallowed up by Boxer’s sweatshirt and the afghan Nan had knitted decades ago. Nothing like the confident, flirtatious bartender he remembered from Pot O Gold.

He wanted to go out there and wring Brett’s neck for putting all that shame and anger into Riley’s eyes. Boxer had hated telling Riley about his boyfriend’s betrayal. He had always hated being the bearer of bad news, but this had felt different in a way he couldn’t describe. Almost personal, when he barely knew Riley.

Hell, he didn’t even know Riley’s last name.

The only reason he’d put Riley in his bedroom, rather than the spare bedroom, was that the sheets hadn’t been changed and the room needed to be aired out. The third, smallest bedroom was full of Louis’s things. He’d moved straight from Boxer to some new guy whose studio apartment had no storage space. Boxer had given him a month to collect his crap before he hauled it all to the Goodwill.

No one came to visit, and Boxer didn’t have extended family that he knew about. His mother was no longer welcome in his life, and the same went for his brother while he was using. And Nan…wasting away in a nursing home after a massive stroke three years ago. A wrinkled shell of the vibrant woman who’d raised him.

Boxer prayed often for another stroke or heart attack to take her away and give her the peace she deserved. He liked having Riley there, even if it was only for a few more hours of sleep.

The couch wasn’t the most comfortable, but he hesitated to move Riley back to the bedroom. He seemed content enough, and Boxer didn’t want to wake him, so he returned to his room and picked up the anthology of vampire stories he’d been working his way through for the last couple of weeks. 

He liked reading. It relaxed him after a long day working in the sun, digging in the dirt. And he liked paranormal stuff, especially vampires. The only trouble was, he was a slow reader, so short story collections and skinny paperbacks were easier than big books. So far, this particular collection had been hit and miss in terms of quality.

The new story was a sexy one. Broody vampire male stalking a hot human female he wanted to claim. The descriptions were vivid and erotic, and in his mind, Boxer reassigned the human female role to a hot guy with wavy dark-brown hair and wide brown eyes. Much better.

By the end of the story, much hot sex was had and the human had let herself—cough-himself-cough—be turned into a vampire, as well. And it was past seven, the sun lightening the autumn morning sky. 

Four days into October and he already missed the early summer sunrises.

He checked on Riley, who hadn’t moved an inch and was lost to whatever kind of sleep he’d found. Best guess was peaceful, judging by the lack of movement or grumbling. After a quick shower, he checked the incision on his left bicep and then covered it with a small bandage. The one he’d worn last night was a soggy mess in the wastebasket. In order to disguise the fact that the mole removal had bisected the tribal tattoo that wrapped around his arm, he’d used a flesh colored bandage and a black marker to redraw the pattern.

He’d been lucky that the mole hadn’t been melanoma. 

He threw on a pair of comfortable jeans and undershirt, then layered on a red flannel and rolled up the sleeves. Saturday clothes.

Riley was still dead to the world, so he made a pot of coffee as quietly as possible, and then mixed together some pancake batter. He’d eaten a plate of breakfast and was on his second mug of coffee by the time a low moan trickled from the living room. Boxer abandoned his chair at the kitchen table and checked on his guest.

The pillow was on the floor, the blanket thrown off. Riley had turned onto his back, but he didn’t seem awake. His eyes were scrunched shut, and his face was red and sweaty. Pain or a bad dream; Boxer couldn’t tell from the kitchen. He inched closer. Riley was breathing really fast.

Nightmare.

“Wake up.” He stopped at the foot of the couch and shook Riley’s ankle. “Riley?”

Riley shot up like a jack-in-the-box, eyes wide, hands clutching at the bulky sweatshirt. He sucked in air, awareness leaking in to replace the blind fear. He blinked hard. “Boxer?”

“Sorry about that.”

“No, it’s fine. Thanks for waking me up.” He rubbed both hands up his face and through his tangled hair, leaving it an even worse rat’s nest. 

Boxer fetched a glass of water for him. He didn’t know what else to do.

Riley gulped it down, some of the red disappearing from his face. “Thanks.” He stared into the bottom of the empty glass. “You ever have one of those nightmares where you know it’s a dream, but you can’t figure out how to wake up, so all the scary stuff just keeps happening?”

“Can’t say I have. I don’t really remember what I dream about.”

“Oh.”

He hated hearing Riley so disappointed. “Sounds bad, though. I’m glad I woke you up. And I’m sorry you were dreaming about scary stuff.” He was usually pretty good at sounding out his friends’ problems, so he took a leap. “Anything you need to get off your chest?”

Something angry flashed in Riley’s big brown eyes. “You mean besides my boyfriend slipping me a roofie so he could have sex with me? You need my life story, too?”

Boxer held up his hands in surrender. That had been an awfully snarly reaction to a polite question. “Figured I’d offer. You want coffee?”

“What? Oh, no, I’m fine.” He made a face. “Relatively speaking. I still kind of want to hurl and I’m thirsty as hell. Those are going to go well together, huh?”

“How about a pancake? Dry. It’ll soak up some of the mess in your stomach and help the water settle.”

“Sure, okay.”

Boxer hadn’t said the right thing yet, damn it. “You want a shower? I can find you some sweatpants that might not fall off you.”

“Your waist isn’t that much bigger than mine. Most of your width is in your arms and shoulders.”

“You noticed?”

“I pay attention to guys. I am gay, you know.”

“Obviously. That why you bartend at the Pot?” 

Riley shrugged. “A friend of a friend’s sister got me the job. I like it.”

“Sister?” Very few women had ever worked at the Pot. If Boxer thought hard enough, he could probably name the handful who’d been there in the six years that he’d patronized the place. Even though Pot O Gold was a regular restaurant during the day,
serving lunch and dinner to gay and straight people, it was a known gay bar after nine, so it tended to keep a mostly gay male staff.

“Yeah, Becca Olson. She’s a chef. She got another job right around the time I got my bartending license and moved up from being a daytime waiter.”

“What made you want to bartend?”

“Donner.” Riley grinned. “I’d see him doing his flare tricks to get bigger tips. He’s always so comfortable behind the bar. It’s a good barrier. Harder for customers to grab your ass.”

The idea of random strangers groping Riley ticked him off, and Boxer wasn’t sure why. Riley wasn’t his to protect or get offended over. He was barely a friend.

A friend he’d seen naked and vulnerable last night, and he never wanted that to happen to Riley again. No one deserved what he’d been through.

Boxer tried to put all the pieces together. “You bartend for the social aspect, so you can stare at hot guys, and because it keeps you safe.”

“I guess so.” Riley tilted his head to the side. “Are you like a closet psychiatrist, or something?”

“No, but one of my best friends is. Not closeted. He’s a real therapist. Guess some of his habits have rubbed off on me over the years.” 

He went into the kitchen to work on that pancake. Ending the conversation so abruptly was rude, but he hadn’t been sure how else to avoid potential questions. James was the psychiatrist in question, and he preferred keeping his private life as Dr. James Taggert separate from his social life as Tag. Not that Tag was going to be around much longer—not like he used to be. James was stupidly in love with his best friend of fifteen years, Nathan Wolf. Something Boxer had only received confirmation on a week ago, even though he’d suspected something for a while.

He liked James and Nathan together. They made sense.

Boxer had worked too damned hard to make him and Louis make sense, and in the end it hadn’t happened. He’d allowed himself to finally fall in love and hope for a forever, only for it to toss him onto his ass. Never again. Single was easier. 

He watched bubbles appear on the top of the pancake batter. Almost time to flip. 

A loud creak on the floor nearly made him drop his turner. Riley had managed to shuffle his way into the kitchen with the afghan bundled around his shoulders, making quite the bulky package over the sweatshirt. His thin legs looked almost comical in comparison. 

“You up to eating at the table?” Boxer asked.

“I think so.” Riley made it across the linoleum floor, then plunked down into one of the three mismatched kitchen chairs. He gazed around, probably taking in the décor and appliances that hadn’t been new since the seventies.

Nan liked her things, and Boxer couldn’t make himself change too much while she was still lingering.

He flipped the pancake, poured Riley another glass of filtered water from the tap, and was back to plate the food before it got overdone.

“I feel like I should leave a tip on the table,” Riley said once he’d been served. He looked kind of flabbergasted. “You’re handy in a kitchen.”

Boxer added coffee to his mug, then took the chair to the right of Riley’s. “Had to be. I’ve mostly been on my own for the last four years and fast food is hell on my body.”

Riley seemed poised to respond, and then his eyes suddenly went wide. He dropped his forehead into his open palm and said, “Fuck my life.”