Merry Christmas to all! It's been such a wonderful year, and I can't thank you, my loyal readers, enough for making me feel so joyous and blessed.
As my gift to you, here's the full first chapter of my next release, THE TRUTH AS HE KNOWS IT (Perspectives #1). It kicks off a new series, with a new cast (plus a few familiar faces along the way).
Officer Noel Carlson followed his partner down the breezeway toward apartment 303 and the source of their disturbance call. Even without the apartment number Noel would have been able to peg this place. A deep bass thrummed through the door, right into his chest, reminding him of late nights in hot, sweaty dance clubs. The neighbor who’d reported the party said the music had been going like that for over an hour, and it was already after one in the morning.
Officer Wade Benedict paused to adjust his hat before he hit the bell, then banged a meaty fist on the door for good measure. Noel flanked him, the junior officer in their partnership, allowing Benedict to take point.
The music continued, so Benedict bell-banged again. “Stratton Police Department!”
Noel glanced at the other three apartment doors on this floor, curious if anyone was watching through their peep holes. Enjoying the floor show. Cedar Hills was one of the nicest, newest complexes around Stratton, and far beyond Noel’s budget without at least two roommates. But his privacy was worth more than extra space and a pool, so he was happy enough renting a room above a church-run thrift store downtown.
Benedict pounded the door. “Police! Open up!”
Someone must have finally paid attention to his bellowing, because the music went down to a bearable volume. The front door opened, still on its chain. A sliver of a female face popped into view. “Show me your badge.”
Noel and Benedict took turns stepping into her line of sight so she could see the badges on their uniform shirts. The door shut, a chain slid, and they were allowed into a blast of air conditioning. Not unwelcome after walking through the late-May humidity.
The open floor plan gave Noel a clear view of the party still in progress. Pink and white streamers and balloons. A banner that said Happy Thirtieth, Sandy! . The remains of a demolished birthday cake on the kitchen island. Liquor bottles strewn about on various surfaces. Five women—two on the sofa, two in the kitchen, one by the door.
The woman who’d let them in was listing a bit, cheeks flushed, obviously intoxicated. “What’s the problem, Officer?”
Benedict grunted. “Are you the current tenant?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Olivia Presnell. Who’re you?”
“I’m Officer Benedict, this is Officer Carlson.”
Olivia smiled at Noel, practically batting her eyes. “You wear that big gun in the bedroom, Officer?”
Noel almost laughed at the awful attempt at flirting. “Ma’am, we received a noise nuisance call this evening.”
“Who was being noisy?” Olivia asked.
“You were,” Benedict said. He had a gruff, angry bear way about him that made everything he said sound like he was snarling. And it worked on Olivia, who slinked into the kitchen.
“I think it’s time you broke up the party and called cabs for your friends,” Noel said.
A grumble of protest came out of the living room. One of the women on the sofa cast a forlorn look at a closed door at the back of the apartment. Probably the bedroom. Something about it pinged Noel’s curiosity.
“Is this everyone who’s in the apartment?” Noel asked. “Or are there others?”
Sofa Lady glanced sharply at Olivia, who was frowning.
Unease rolled through Noel’s gut. “Is there someone in the bedroom?”
“Just the stripper,” Olivia replied, clipped. Annoyed. More sober than a moment ago, possibly from adrenaline.
Hiring strippers wasn’t illegal, as long as the transaction didn’t cross the line into prostitution. He glanced at Benedict, who tilted his head at the bedroom door. Clearly not volunteering to go get the guy.
Noel crossed the room and paused in front of the door. To Olivia, he said, “Will you please open the door?”
She heaved a put-upon sigh, then stalked over and twisted the knob. Noel nudged the door open with his foot, unsure exactly what to expect. The light was off, and a thick beam from the living room cut across the foot of a bed. Noel slid his hand along the wall until he could flip a light switch. A floor lamp in the corner flared to life.
A man sat in the middle of the bed, propped up with pillows, tied to the headboard by his wrists. He was mostly naked, except for a red thong and a pair of laced-up work boots, and goddamn, Noel had to work hard not to appreciate the long, lean expanse of male body on display. Or stare at the unusual monarch butterfly tattoo on his left hip. The stripper was gagged by a piece of cloth that did nothing to hide his pretty face, all sharp planes and high cheekbones. He kept blinking at Noel like he wasn’t quite awake. Everything about the scene felt off. Wrong.
“We were just playing,” Olivia said behind him.
Noel ignored her. He approached the figure on the bed slowly. Dark brown eyes focused on him, really seemed to see him, then went wide. He jerked against the cloth binding his wrists. Muffled words didn’t quite make it around the gag, but Noel would be damned if they didn’t sound like “Help me ”.
He undid the gag, which appeared to be someone’s scarf.
The stripper licked his lips, fear settling into his dark eyes. “This isn’t what it looks like,” he said.
“What does it look like?” Noel undid the knot on the guy’s right hand.
“I’m not a prostitute, I swear. She paid me to strip for her friends, but nothing else. I’m not into this.”
Noel let the guy undo his other wrist for himself. “Not into what? Getting tied up with silk scarves?”
“No, I’m not.” He got loose, then slid to the other side of the bed.
“Then why were you?”
Noel glanced at the door where Olivia was watching, her expression hawkish. This entire scenario felt wrong to Noel, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The stripper seemed genuinely scared of something—getting caught taking money for sex, probably. But Noel hadn’t seen any money exchange hands, so he had no evidence of prostitution. And what a stripper did when he was off the clock was not Noel’s business.
So why did he want to know why the dark-haired man hunched over on the bed looked so haunted?
“What’s your name?” Noel asked.
“Are you impaired, Shane?”
“I didn’t drink tonight.”
“What about drugs?”
“Anything you’d like to report about the party tonight?”
“No. I’d really like to go home now, if I’m not under arrest.”
“You aren’t under arrest.” Noel pulled out a notepad and pen. “But I do need some information for my report.”
“Shane Joseph, twenty-four, I live at 240 Naylor Street.” Shane rattled off a phone number. “Would you like my social security number too?”
The initial fear was sloughing off, leaving a lot of attitude in its place. Attitude that sharpened handsome features into something fierce. Almost feral. And the fact that Shane was still only wearing that thong made the whole shift sexier than it had any right to be, and Noel had to quit thinking like that. He was on the clock, damn it.
“No, that’ll do it,” Noel replied.
Shane fetched a patched backpack from the floor by the dresser, then disappeared into the master bathroom. Noel returned to the outer room, where Benedict was taking down personal information while the party attendees called for rides. A minute later, Shane stormed past and out the front door.
It slammed shut and Olivia jumped.
“Next time you want to throw a party,” Noel said, “watch your volume. And maybe skip the stripper.”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Believe me, I will not be referring him to my girlfriends.”
He curbed the urge to ask why. Shane had a body he looked like he knew how to use— Quit it. Just quit. No sexy thoughts about strippers he’d ousted from a birthday party gone wild.
Noel took a bit of perverse joy in writing the noise citation. He handed it over to Olivia. “I hope the party was worth the cost. Good night, ma’am.”
If she could afford this place, she could probably afford a seventy-five dollar ticket. But the glare she leveled at him was worth it, because he’d gotten under her skin. Maybe she’d think twice before she blasted her stereo that loud again.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck it all and then some.
Shane had to drive super slow and super careful because he’d lied to the cop when he said he didn’t have any drugs in his system. Or was it really a lie, when Shane had been drugged without his consent? Didn’t matter. All he’d wanted was to get out. Out of that fucking apartment, away from those obnoxious women, and out from under the curious, concerned gaze of the golden-haired cop who’d freed him.
Two years of stripping and he’d never landed in such a fucked-up situation, and thank Christ someone finally called the cops on those crazy bitches. He was tempted to change his online ad to male-only parties, but right now he couldn’t afford the potential income loss. He’d learn from this fuckup, like he learned from all of his many, many mistakes.
New rule: no more breaking your old rule about not drinking anything at a gig that isn’t a brand-new, sealed bottle of water.
A glass of cold root beer—weakness though it might be—wasn’t worth it.
Shane finally made it to the far side of town. The poor side. Parsons Square wasn’t a square so much as a long dirt road with a lot of rundown trailers dropped every twenty feet or so. Postage-stamp yards with too many weeds. Small parking areas often full of cars on concrete blocks, or no vehicle at all. Sometimes Shane left his rusty hatchback unlocked on purpose, hoping someone would steal it. No one ever did.
Probably because they knew his brother, and no one wanted to be on Jason McShane’s shit list. His reputation spoke for itself.
He pulled into his half of the gravel lot next to the trailer he shared with Jason. Jason’s own ancient pickup wasn’t there. Shane shut off his engine and stared at the empty spot, trying to remember which job Jason had tonight.
Wake up, shithead. Warrick’s.
Jason had taken on an off-the-books security guard gig at a local junkyard not too long ago. Friday through Tuesday, ten at night to six in the morning. Monday through Friday he worked eight to five at East Street Pets & Feed, making Friday, Monday and Tuesday super long days. Only for another year or so. Two max. They were almost out from under Shane’s medical bills.
Shane let himself inside, then went straight into the bathroom to shower. While he waited for the hot water to start, he stuffed his clothes into the bottom of the hamper. Even though he’d only worn the jeans and T-shirt for thirty minutes, they still felt dirty. He kind of wanted to burn the thong, but he couldn’t waste money buying a new one, and women liked the red thong.
Cold fingers raked down his spine. He climbed into the stall shower while the warming water was still searching for hot, but he didn’t care. He grabbed the bar of soap and lathered it up as best he could. The cheap stuff from the dollar store didn’t make great suds, but it did its job in terms of cleaning, so he rubbed it all over. Through his hair, across his neck, abs, his junk. Legs. Knees. Not an inch of skin went unwashed, and he still couldn’t shake the feeling of being touched.
Shane had three rules when it came to this job: no photos, no videos, no touching.
At least two of the three had been violated tonight. He couldn’t be as sure about anyone videoing him. Not after the roofie kicked in.
He stayed in the shower until the hot water ran out, which was really stupid because the water heater cost them on the electric bill. The trailer was stuffy and hot, because they only used the two window units when it got humid and unbearable, and even though it was late May, the weather had been unseasonably warm. Didn’t stop him from throwing on a pair of light cotton sleep pants and a long-sleeved tee. He wanted to be covered up, damn it.
Exhaustion settled in around the edges. Shane flopped down on his narrow single bed, which took up half the space in his tiny bedroom. Turned on the paper lantern that hung over his bed. He wanted to sleep, but he had “homework” first. Supposedly every night, because he’d promised, but sometimes life got in the way. He hadn’t done his homework in over week, but he had to get this shit out before it ate him up.
He tugged the tattered spiral notebook out from beneath his bed, where it resided with dozens of others, all filled. Edge to edge, both sides of each page. This one was getting full. He’d have to buy another soon.
Tonight sucked. Really sucked. Like for the first time since I started stripping I want to stop but I know I can’t. We need the money, and it’s my fault we need the money, so it’s like my penance. Is that the word? Penance? I think that’s the word. I’m not telling Jason about it because he’ll get upset. He doesn’t like me doing this anyway, even though it’s only a few times a month and it pays good. Better than the deli, if you break it down by the hour, plus I don’t have to claim it on my taxes. But it really sucked. It’s like my rules didn’t matter, because some spoiled bitch had a birthday, and some people don’t know stripper =/= hooker. Fuck. Fuck them. They don’t get to control my life. I’m in control.
Shane shoved the notebook under his pillow. He didn’t feel in control. He stared at the pair of pill bottles on the shelf next to his bed. He didn’t have to work at the deli until midafternoon. Maybe something to take the edge off and help him sleep. Sleep and not dream about the hot cop who’d rescued him.
A hot cop whose name he didn’t know. He hadn’t even had the sense to look at the nametag in his mad dash out of the apartment.
Didn’t fucking matter. He wasn’t about to call the guy up and thank him for the save, then offer a blowjob as a reward. As much as he’d like to—no. Hot cops didn’t grow on trees in small towns like Stratton, and Stratton had its quota filled in Officer Briggs. He’d seen the man both on-duty and off-duty with his partner and their little girl. Sometimes the family ate at the deli.
Shane would kill for the simplicity of that kind of life—a pipe dream, for him. He came with too much baggage for most guys to handle, and rehashing it hurt too much to bother. Guys like Shane got casual fucks, dead-end jobs and rusty old trailers. They didn’t get hot, put-together cops like his mystery savior.