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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“I think Riley needs to sit down.” Zack’s voice was silky, seductive.
“I agree,” Brett replied.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
He rearranged the blanket so it was wrapped around Riley’s shoulders. “Can you walk?”
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“Probably doesn’t do much for the GHB.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”