IT WAS way too early for him to have the TV up so loud.
“Landry!” I yelled. “Remember the neighbors, babe!”
The noise didn’t stop, though, and since I didn’t want to hear from Mrs. Chun again (she’d bitched me out in Mandarin six times in the last month because the love of my life was a screamer), I rolled out of bed and walked toward the French doors that separated our bedroom from the living room. Only halfway there I realized it was freezing in the apartment. I pulled sweats on over my sleep shorts and yanked on my gray fleece hoodie before I staggered toward the door and opened it.
“Fuck you, Chris, get out!”
Okay, not the TV.
My boyfriend, partner, the man who had been with me for the last two years, was in the living room with another guy I had never seen before. The stranger was maybe six two, my height, brown haired, blue eyed, and utterly forgettable except that he was in my apartment.
“What’s going on?” I asked them both.
Both men turned to me.
“Hi,” the one I didn’t know said, crossing the room fast, his hand out in an obvious offer for me to take. “I’m Christian Carter—Chris—Landry’s brother.”
“It’s great to meet you,” he said.
“Pleasure,” I said, sounding dazed because I kind of was.
“Don’t touch him,” Landry growled, bolting over, yanking our hands apart, and shoving Chris backward. “Just get the fuck out!”
“Wait,” I ordered, grabbing Landry’s arm, because it was a lot of volume for first thing in the morning. “You’re his brother?” I asked Chris.
“Yes,” he answered and smiled at me. “And I came to see him because our mother is sick, and she wants to see him.”
I turned slowly to Landry.
“No no no, you don’t get to look at me like that. This is bullshit.”
“Baby.” His voice bottomed out as he took my face in his hands, stepping in front of me. “Please do not say the word mother and think of the wonderful woman who raised you and loves me and get confused. My mother is not like yours; she does not give a fuck about me.”
“That’s not true,” Chris chimed in hotly, and when I looked at him, I couldn’t help it. I softened because after studying him, I realized how much he resembled my boyfriend.
It wasn’t something you noticed right away. It took a few minutes of scrutiny, because what struck you first were the differences.
Landry Carter was six feet tall and had wavy, dark-blond hair that never, ever, did what he wanted it to. He had, like, eight cowlicks in it, so it sort of kicked out in all different directions, and he had given up trying to tame the thick mop years ago. Now he just washed it, ran product through it, and let it fall where it wanted. It hardly mattered, though, because when you were looking at him, you were staring at his eyes. Big, dark, expressive blue-green orbs that always crinkled to half their normal size when he was happy. The laugh lines around them were already deep at twenty-six. They were wicked with mischief and humor and constantly sparkled like he had a secret, and men and women were drawn to him like flies to honey. The man was decadent and irresistible and lit up rooms simply with his presence. Being a big extrovert helped. Not that he had always been that way; I knew that it was me giving him confidence that made him sometimes savagely loud. But he could get away with being occasionally obnoxious since he was so pretty to look at. An artist friend of ours had called him luminous once, and I agreed.
In comparison to Landry’s beauty, his brother was sort of plain, but I saw, on closer inspection, the similarity in their sharp, chiseled features, crooked smiles, and long curly lashes.
“Trev,” Landry said and took a breath.
“Let’s just sit down,” I said, grabbing Landry’s hand, lacing my fingers into his and tugging him after me to the couch. I flopped down hard, pulling him with me so we were both eyeing the man who had followed and taken a seat on the loveseat across from us.
“Can you catch me up?” I asked Chris.
“Sure.” He leaned forward, giving me a trace of a smile. “I’m Chris, like I said, and you’re Trevan Bean, right?”
“I am,” I assured him, tightening my hold on Landry’s hand because the slight tremble in him let me know he needed it. “So talk to me about your mother, Chris.”
He took a breath. “I flew in last night from Las Vegas because my father told me where Landry was, and he thought that it was better I came instead of him. I mean, you know, I wasn’t the one who cut him off when he was eighteen.”
I knew that part. My boyfriend had come out the night he graduated from high school, and his parents had lost their minds. He had been disowned, given a day to get whatever things of his he wanted out of their house, and informed that of course they would not be paying for college, and he could not take his car.
Hurt, lost, and alone, he had packed and left. He went from one friend’s house to another the whole summer until he figured things out with the help of his high school guidance counselor and the financial aid advisor at the school he had already been accepted to, the University of Michigan. He had always planned to run away to the opposite side of the country once he graduated, but he hadn’t expected to have to leave without a safety net. Landry knew who he was when he was fifteen, and even though his friends had told him that it would be okay, that of course his parents would accept him and love him, that his brothers and sister would never turn their backs on him, in the back of his mind, he never actually believed it. So even though he was sad—devastated—he was also resigned to the betrayal of a lifetime of having been told he would always have his family. He was not an optimist, the man I loved; he was a realist, and he knew what was going to happen.
He bought a used Honda Civic hatchback, stuffed it full of everything that was priceless, and drove away without looking back. That was eight years ago, and now he was twenty-six and that time had blown by without a word. They had never checked on him, not once. He hadn’t sent them an announcement when he got his bachelor’s degree, opened his business, or launched his website. They were the past; I was his future. They were not important to him, as he obviously wasn’t to them. His real family, he told people all the time, was mine.
My mother adored him and my sister wanted to marry him. We spent every holiday with my family, had friends that were originally mine that were now his, and between his business and my job, we had finally saved enough to buy a house in Berkley, which was a suburb of Detroit. We were supposed to meet with a Realtor the following week to start looking at candidates for home sweet home. Everything was on track, so I was not crazy about Chris, the long-lost brother, being there, but since everything happened for a reason, as my father had always said, I just needed to keep an open mind.
“My mother is sick, Trevan,” Chris said to me. “And she wants to see her son.”
I turned to look at my boyfriend.
“No,” he said to me.
“Love,” I said gently.
“Fuck no!” he yelled, getting up.
“Where are you—”
“I’m gonna go make you some coffee before you pass out,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t even be awake yet.”
And he was right: I did need coffee. Just to try to remain vertical after the night before, I needed vast quantities of caffeine. The guys I had collected from at two in the morning had been partying hard, and along with their payment of a grand each plus the juice, the 20 percent they owed the house when they lost, they had graciously offered me a line to help drive away the exhaustion. It was a nice gesture, but I had been too poor to ever pick up cocaine as a habit, and now, on the verge of having everything I wanted, the idea of even flirting with an addiction to a thousand dollar a week habit did not sound appealing. Plus, my boy didn’t do drugs. He was a very good influence on me in more ways than one. I had plans to open up a restaurant, and nothing, especially a monkey on my back, was going to sidetrack me.
I looked back at Chris. “So talk to me.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to upset him, and I know he’s still very angry, but I really need you to help me convince him to come to Las Vegas. He needs to see my mother, see my folks. She needs to talk to him and make amends and get our family reunited and back on track. It’s what she wants, and we all want her to have it.”
I rubbed the top of my head, which was a nervous habit of mine, before grinding the heel of my hand into my left eyebrow. I was tired, which wasn’t helping me figure out what to do or say. “You have to think about it from his side, right? If your mother wasn’t sick, would they be talking?”
He took a breath. “I understand, but she’s in remission, so, you know, now’s the time.”
I looked at him. “Remission?”
“What kind of cancer?”
I took a breath. “I’m so sorry.”
There was only a quick nod in response.
“Here,” Landry announced as he returned, passing me a steaming cup that smelled like a lot of things besides coffee. He had obviously already had it made, as we didn’t have a time machine in our kitchen.
I looked up at him as he sank down onto the arm of my couch.
“There’s cinnamon in it,” he said, “and I used the vanilla creamer you like.”
I nodded before I took a sip. “Thanks. Why don’t you get your brother one, ’cause he looks like he could use it, while I go make a call.”
His usually blue-green wonderland eyes flicked to Chris. To see them clouded and flat pained me. “Do you want coffee?”
He got up again, his hand sliding over the top of my head. My hair was buzzed close to my skull and I knew he liked the feel of it under his fingers as many times as he’d told me. “Your phone is right there; you dumped it when you came in doing your shuffling zombie impression.”
I smiled at him and reached for my iPhone on the coffee table.
“But don’t call,” he ordered. “Text. I don’t want you to get stuck talking.”
“Knock it off,” he snapped irritably. “And we’re gonna talk about you smoking again.”
“I wasn’t smoking,” I assured him. “I was just in and out of a lot of back rooms and clubs last night. I quit. I told you I would, and I did.”
“Okay,” he said as he went through the swinging door into the kitchen.
Watching him, I realized that he must have been in bed with me before he got up. He was still dressed in his flannel pajama bottoms, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and heavy wool socks. But this was November in Royal Oak, Michigan, so it was already cold. By December Landry would have the space heaters out of storage. The radiator was not enough to keep the apartment the toasty warm that he liked it to be.
“Sorry,” I said to Chris as I punched in the security code on my phone. “I won’t be long.”
“Sure,” he replied, smiling at me.
I just needed to send a message with my total for the night. I was carrying close to sixty grand, but I sent the message that I had thirty and knew that when they saw the net, somebody would call to arrange a pickup. Usually I never carried even thirty, much less double that, but more than one of my usual clients had finally paid what they owed me. I had been floating several guys for a couple of weeks, and it was nice that they had all come through as promised. I had never thought, as close to the holidays as we were now, that they would all make good on their debts. It was a testament to the relationship we had that no one had welshed. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, pay other guys’ vouchers to the house, but I didn’t like to be a hardass and collect with muscle unless I had to.
“Done,” I told Chris, putting the phone face down on my right thigh.
“So, Trevan.” He squinted at me. “What is it you do?”
What to say. “I’m in collections,” I answered vaguely, so not wanting to get into it.
“Like, what kind?”
“He’s a runner,” Landry supplied as he walked back into the room with a cup of coffee for Chris and one for himself. He passed his brother a small mug and put his enormous café au lait cup down on the coffee table before leaning back beside me so his back was pressed into the left side of my chest.
I put my hand in his soft, silky mop of hair, pushing it back out of his face, pulling his head down into my shoulder. The sigh that came up out of him made me smile, and watching his eyes close was very satisfying.
“You collect for a bookie?” Chris asked me, dragging my attention away from my boyfriend, who was basically thrumming with need.
“Yes, that’s what a runner is.”
“Do you carry a gun?” Chris wanted to know, scrutinizing my face.
“No, that’s asking for trouble.” I shook my head. “And most of the time I don’t get into any. I have regulars, and it’s not a big deal. When I do need backup, I have a friend that comes with me. My boss is a businessman. He gets the line from Vegas; guys bet with me once they know what it is; some lose, some win; I collect what’s owed.”
“It’s still illegal,” Chris reminded me.
“True,” I agreed, “but in all seriousness, with no record and the extent of my crime being the movement of money from point A to point B… what do you really think the cops would do to me if they caught me?”
“I guess not much.”
“Not that I want to find out, but I also must point out that the number of cops I collect from is vast.” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
“Is that how you met Landry?” he asked me with a trace of a smile. “Is he a closet gambling addict?”
“Hardly,” I assured him. “No, we met the old-fashioned way, at a party, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.”
“Eyes,” my boyfriend scoffed, nestling closer, turning his head to kiss my cheek.
“What?” I chuckled.
He turned to face me, his left hand reaching, fingers trailing over the right side of my face as he leaned forward so his lips could open on the side of my neck.
“I’m here,” I soothed him, my voice soft, coaxing. “Baby, I’m here.”
He nodded, and I heard him breathe. He had been holding his breath, seconds away from a full-blown panic attack that I had missed because I was tired. Normally, I would have been passed out in bed, and he would have gotten up and done his morning ritual and then kissed me before he left. As long as everything went along smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary, familiar sights and sounds, the normal pacing of his day, he was good, he was fine. But if there were changes, bumps, like a blast from the past, it was possible for him to combust. The breakdown I had just quelled was his typical reaction to glitches in his life, at least for as long as I’d known him. If I was there, he reached for me, I soothed him, and he took a breath and went on. It had been like that since we met.
I COULD remember the night he finally saw me like it was yesterday. He was waiting near the keg at a party we were both at, and I walked up beside him, grabbed a handful of his gorgeous ass, and when he turned to look at me, I asked him if he could see me.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I can feel your fingers too.”
“Are you sure you see me? I’ve been to a lot of parties you’ve been at, and it’s like I’m invisible,” I told him, not moving my hand, instead sliding my middle finger over the crease slowly, suggestively. “I wanna make sure to leave an impression this time.”
His breath quavered, which made my mouth dry. “Consider it made.”
“Lemme get this for you,” I said, letting him go and bumping him gently with my shoulder. “I’ll meet you outside on the balcony.”
“It’s cold out there.”
“It’s quiet. I’ll keep you warm.”
“You’re fulla shit.”
I tipped my head toward the sliding glass door anyway.
He left me then, heading for the patio. I got his beer and another Crown and Coke for me, grabbed my parka, and followed him out. He was shivering when I reached him, and when he exhaled, I could see it. I put my coat around him and stepped close so I could watch him drink.
“What?” He smiled at me, sniffling in the cold.
He scoffed. “You don’t hafta flatter me; I’ll suck your cock for you.” He looked over his shoulder. “There’s a corner over—”
“Yeah, I saw you doin’ that at Jimmy Drake’s party,” I cut him off, fisting a hand in his heavy wool sweater so he couldn’t move. “You were on your knees all night, huh?”
His eyes were back, finally actually meeting mine instead of looking everywhere but. I lifted my hand to his cheek and dragged my thumb over his gorgeous mouth. He had full lips, plump and dark and made to be kissed.
“How ’bout I kiss you and after that you can put your dick in my mouth.”
The huge eyes—blue-green, a color I remembered from a cup I had glazed in a ceramics class in high school, peacock blue, an absolute sum of the two—absorbed my face. “You don’t have to work this hard,” he told me. “I give it away.”
I grunted as I leaned in and took possession of the lips that had haunted my dreams. And he tasted like beer and peanuts with a hint of cherry Life Savers. I pulled away fast, took his beer back, put my drink on the table beside his, turned, and rushed him. My hands were on his face as I kissed him the second time, pile driving him into the wall, taking it all, his breath, his saliva, his whimpers and sighs. My tongue pushed and shoved his, tangling and stroking, as I ravaged him and took what I wanted. My hands went under his sweater, burrowed down beneath the T-shirt and found skin that was sleek, warm, and silky. His smooth stomach trembled under my hand, and when I shoved my knee between his thighs, his hoarse groan made me hard. I kissed him until he had to shove me off to breathe.
“Come home with me and lemme talk to you, because you’re confused about stuff.”
“Not confused,” he panted, long, feathery lashes fluttering. “Whore.”
“Not anymore,” I told him, and kissed him breathless again. I sucked his tongue into my mouth, loosened his belt, worked his jeans open, and got my hand down into his briefs.
His gasp as I unsealed my mouth from his made me smile.
“You’re treating me like a whore.”
“I’m treating you like you’re mine,” I corrected him. “’Cause from now on… this only gets done with me.”
“No one keeps me,” he groaned, pushing up into my hand, eyes closed, mouth open, head back against the wall.
“Until now,” I said, reclaiming his mouth, chewing on his lip. I didn’t let him pull away until, between me jerking him off, putting hickeys on his neck, shoving my left hand down the back of his jeans, and sliding my fingers over his crease, he came in my fist with a shuddering, muffled yell.
“Jesus, you made me come with just your voice telling me to.”
That and a hand job with some frottage thrown in for good measure.
I chuckled and licked a line up the side of his neck to behind his ear, sucking the sensitive skin before returning to his sweet mouth. The man took direction well, and I liked that. I wiped my hand on the T-shirt I was wearing under my own sweater.
“What are you doing?” he snapped at me, shoving me away from him so he could take a gulp of air. “If you do that, you’ll have my cum on you.”
“It’ll just be the first of many times, right?”
He whimpered in the back of his throat. “Nobody wants me. I’m all used up and—”
“Nope.” I refused to hear it. “You’re a light, you’re my light, gonna be just mine.”
The tears came so fast. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the guy you’ve been blowing off for the last three months,” I told him, watching him tuck himself in, now that his brain was working again, and zip up. It was a shame not to be looking at his beautiful, long cut cock anymore, but I didn’t want anyone else getting an eyeful. “I told you, I see you all the time, everywhere, and you never gimme the time of day. I just got sick of it, figured it was time to do something about it.”
He lunged at me, arms wrapped tight around my neck, face in the side of my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry… forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive, you didn’t see me. Now you do.”
“Now I do,” he agreed and shivered hard.
“Your name is Landry, right?”
He nodded, pulling back from me.
“My name’s Trevan. Buckle your belt, ’cause we’re out of here.”
And he kissed me, laid one on me that was full of trembling hope and happiness that maybe he could rest and stop running and stop being alone unless he was on his knees.
I had been watching him for a while, stalking him when we showed up at the same places, and had tried to talk to him on a number of occasions. But he was so busy giving himself to anyone who asked that I, a good guy, a patient guy, a gentleman, never blipped on his radar. Because I liked what I saw outwardly—he was really just beautiful—I had to see if there was anything else there at all. Normally, no one caught my eye or kept my interest, so the fact that he had, had to mean something. Upon investigation, I discovered things about him.
The man was not a drug addict, but he did them to fit in. He didn’t really like to drink, but he did that too. He had vices that he could give up in a heartbeat because they were never his, just convenient excuses for others to put aside their inhibitions and use him. I told him no one but me was ever putting their hands on him again. The smile as he cried was heartbreaking and dazzling all at the same time.
Since he was the only reason I had gone to the party, once I buckled his belt for him—he hadn’t followed the last of my directions, too busy launching himself at me—I took his hand and led him back through the crowd. When I felt him stop, I turned and saw some guy with his hand on Landry’s bicep. Landry squeezed my hand tight, and I saw it in his eyes, the pleading. This was the very first test: was he really leaving with me, or would I let him go? It was funny but I never once thought, why didn’t he just tell the guy no. I understood, he had to see what I would say, what I would do. He couldn’t stick up for something, for the idea of us together, if he didn’t know he could count on it.
“You know me?” I asked the guy there, the stranger holding onto my new boyfriend.
I shrugged. “And you don’t wanna. Let go.” My voice was flat, my stare was level, and I stilled, waiting.
The stranger took my measure. “Whatever.” The guy balked and then turned to look at Landry. “I’ll catch you later. I’ll bring the lube and condoms.”
But he didn’t, because I took Landry Carter home with me, to my apartment, to my kitchen table where I fed him, and then to my bed to sleep.
“I thought you wanted to fuck me?” he asked worriedly, standing in my bedroom freshly showered and dressed in a pair of my pajamas.
“I wanna hold you,” I said with a smile, grabbing his hand, yanking him down on top of me. When I rolled him over on his side and spooned around him, brushing the hair away from the back of his neck before I kissed it, I thought he was going to fly apart with the trembling.
“Oh God.” He was back to crying.
I chuckled, and he took a heaving breath before snuggling back against me. When I woke up in the night, he was wrapped around me, head in the hollow of my neck, arm over me and leg over mine. He was very cute, and when I bent and kissed his forehead, Landry’s sigh was deep and long and content.
He needed me, and I needed him just as badly. No one ever let me just love them because I could. Men looked at me and saw a guy without a “real” job, a guy with only a high school education, a guy without a future or prospects. I looked scary, dangerous, and so they walked the other way. No one ever took the time to know me, to learn about my plans and what I wanted my life to be. They wanted a guarantee. No one wanted to build on me—no one but Landry.
I told him it was because he was hard up.
He told me he was definitely hard.
“You would know.”
Most of our conversations degraded to name-calling, tickling, water fights, food fights, pillow fights, kissing, groping, rubbing, and then him held down and begging. It had been working seamlessly for two years.
The first thing I did was remove him from his circle and put him into mine. It wasn’t that my friends were paragons of virtue. They were not perfect. But they were loyal and trustworthy and dependable and true. They were also, it turned out, really possessive, just like I was. So when some guy put his hands on Landry in a club, by the time I got back from the bathroom, the guy had already been run off, humiliated, jeered at, and one time, because the guy wasn’t hearing the no, hit. The message was clear: Landry Carter was no longer available, and he would not be passing himself around like a party favor anymore. He belonged to me and me alone.
In the two years we had been together, the changes in the man were stunning. After six months, I helped him live out his dream of opening his own jewelry store, and in midtown Detroit, in the middle of a recession, he still did well. There was an online catalog and a website, and you could visit the showroom and order custom pieces once you got there. When people wondered why I was so beautifully accessorized, I always told them. My triple-wrap leather bracelets were always complimented, and he said the best thing he ever did was make me wear them. I saw so many people, and they all saw my bracelets and asked me where to get one. As far as I knew, I was the only runner who carried his boyfriend’s business card.
He was doing well. Business was booming, his jewelry was in several upscale boutiques downtown, and he had just hired a public relations firm to help him launch a new line geared to the department store crowd. I was very proud of him, and between my savings and his being on the cusp of greatness, we were poised to move, buy a house, buy other property, and start to see a change in our lifestyle from living paycheck to paycheck to having some extra cash in the bank. I had done my days of peanut butter and ramen noodles before I met him, but when we first moved in together, before he knew what he wanted to do, it had been both of us on my single feast or famine money cycle. But things were looking way up for us, so the timing, with his family suddenly appearing, made me wary.
“SO TELL me,” Chris said, returning me to the present from my walk down memory lane. “How does it work?”
I was confused. Me and Landry? “What?”
“What you do for the bookie, how does that work?”
Bookie? Who even used that word anymore?
“I can tell you,” Landry offered, sitting up, leaning forward out of my hold but still pressed against me, his leg sliding over mine.
“Okay,” Chris agreed, and I could tell he was dying to get Landry to open up to him at all. And I understood; I was a slave to having the man’s attention myself. “Guys call Trev and ask, like, hey, what’s the line on whatever game, or gimme the line for half of the game or the over or the under, and then they place their bets. If they win, they get whatever they bet, but if they lose, they gotta pay what they bet plus the juice.”
“Juice?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s the money the house makes if you lose, it’s usually like 20 percent, but it could be more depending on the house. Trevan’s takes twenty.”
“But there’s all kinds of different bets,” Landry continued, fiddling with the black leather wrap bracelet on my left wrist, hematite and turquoise, before touching the hammered silver ring that made me look like I was married. “There’s teaser bets and parlay bets, but the more points you buy, the less your payout is.”
His eyes flicked to Chris to check if he was listening. He shouldn’t have worried.
“Let’s say,” he continued, “you have Green Bay and Indianapolis and the spread is ten points. Sometimes guys will say I want to teaser that bet by three points, so instead of the spread being ten points, it’s seven. But the more points you buy, the less your payout is.”
“Interesting,” Chris said, not caring in the least about my business but able to talk to his brother because of it. He looked over at me then. “So Trevan, where do you come in?”
“He’s the runner, like I said,” Landry answered for me. “Trev collects what’s owed and pays out winnings. On Monday and Tuesday he collects; on Wednesday he pays everybody.”
“So you’re popular on Wednesday.” Chris smiled at me.
“Pretty much, yeah.” I nodded.
“So what if guys don’t have the money to pay you? Do you break their legs?”
“No.” Landry grinned at him. “Trevan just cuts the guy off, and once the word’s out that you’re a welsher, you’re pretty much done, ya know?”
There was more to it than that, but my boyfriend did not need to know all the ins and outs of my business. I answered to the house, and if the guys that I went to collect from didn’t pay me, then the money had to come from somewhere. The house, or in this case, Adrian Eramo, didn’t care who paid me, he only cared that he got paid. Period.
“You’re not a cop now, are you?” Landry snapped suddenly, realizing everything he’d already said, his voice betraying him, the shiver in it. “You’re not here to hurt Trev.”
“No.” Chris’s voice nearly broke. “I’m here to get you to come home. That’s all I want. I’m just a college student, Lan, I’m completely nonthreatening, I assure you.”
Landry nodded, a quick shiver running through him as my phone rang. Normally I wouldn’t have even bothered with it, but the number was my boss, so I turned it to Landry so he could see it. He moved his leg from where it was between mine, and I stood up to answer it.
“Trev,” Landry said before I could walk away.
I looked at him but said nothing.
“Don’t be long.”
When I stroked my fingers through his hair, taking hold of a clump of it, he tipped his head back and closed his eyes. I bent and kissed his forehead, letting him go before I walked toward the living-room window that looked out on the park behind the apartment building. I answered by the eighth ring.
“What the fuck?”
Heavy sigh on the other end. “Yeah, sorry,” he grumbled. “Where the fuck are you?”
“Home. Why, what’s up?”
He cleared his throat. “Did Ellis Kady place any bets with you last week?”
“No, I cut him off.”
Several ticks of silence went by. “Trevan, the man owns three nightclubs, a restaurant, and a car dealership. Why would you cut him off?”
He didn’t sound mad; he sounded more like he was fishing. Sometimes when I refused to take bets from people, Gabriel Pike called to find out why. He never forced me to go against my gut feeling, but he liked an explanation. If he felt I was being unreasonable, he would take the bet from the player himself. Most of the time, Gabe took my advice and let the client walk, but every now and then, he overruled me and the little voice in my head.
“T?” he prompted.
“I cut him off because he didn’t pay me two weeks in a row.”
“But you weren’t short.”
“Have you ever known me to be?”
Heavy sigh. “No, Trev, you’re the best goddamn runner I’ve ever had.”
“Well, that’s nice to hear, but I carry my friends, not assholes like Ellis Kady who think they’re too fuckin’ good to pay me.”
“What does he owe you?”
“That’s between me and Ellis,” I told him. “I paid you, you paid Adrian—I’m square with the house, and that’s how I like it. Whatever else is my problem.”
“Normally I would agree, but a couple of his boys just did a number on Benji. The police found him in an alley, and he had to go to the hospital.”
“Oh shit,” I groaned. I liked Benji Matthews. He was a nice guy, sweet and even tempered. When our paths crossed, we always ended up eating together or having a cup of coffee before going our separate ways. “How bad was he hurt?”
“I dunno. Tony went to the hospital, and he says he’s a mess, so now me and Ira and Pete are going back to see Kady and figure out what the fuck is going on.”
“Just the three of you?”
“No.” His voice dropped low.
I understood. I needed to stop asking questions about what they were going to do. “How do you know it was Kady?”
“He called Adrian and told him that any runners of his he found on the street were dead.”
“That’s pretty fuckin’ clear.”
“Okay.” I took a breath.
“I’m sending Francesco to pick up your drop.”
“If he’s coming right now, I’ll run down and give it to him, but if not, I’ll just bring it by in a few hours.”
“You sure? I know you, you hate carrying.”
“I’ll call Connie when I’m ready, and he can ride with me.”
Deep chuckle from him.
“Only you, Trev, I swear to God.”
“I’m missing something.”
“Jesus, T, Conrad Harris is a cold-blooded killer, but you’re on a first-name basis with the sociopath—more than first name, nickname, which is even worse.”
“He’s a good guy,” I defended my friend.
“He’s a goddamn hitman is what he is,” Gabe assured me.
“Never proven,” I said, and I was right, even though I knew as well as anyone what the man did for a living.
“He’s a contract killer, swear to God.”
“Says you.” Deny, deny, deny. Where Conrad was concerned, it was what I did. No one would ever catch me agreeing about what he was or wasn’t, especially on the phone. I didn’t care who was on the other end.
“Okay, T,” he acceded, patronizing me. “We’ll just pretend he ain’t scary or nothin’.”
“He’s not.” I sighed, because to me, he wasn’t. I could not speak for others.
“Uh-huh,” he grunted.
“Just… can we drop it?”
“Oh fuck yeah, let’s drop it. Tell me about Kady. How many weeks did you carry him?”
“Just two, and then I stopped taking his calls.”
“That’s probably when he called Benji.”
“I think he called Luis before that.” I yawned again, rubbing my eyes; they felt like they had sand in them.
“Does he owe Luis too?”
“I dunno, but you know him. Luis doesn’t let anybody chase their money. He’ll beat the shit outta you if you don’t pay up.”
“Yeah, I know, so I wonder… hold on.”
I stood there waiting while he turned our two-way call into a party line.
“Vargas, you there?”
Loud yawn. “Yeah, I’m here. What the fuck is going on? I just got in bed!”
At his best, Luis Vargas was an ass; tired and cranky just brought out more colorful and charming facets of his sparkling personality.
“Benji Matthews just got jumped by Ellis Kady and some of his guys. Talking to Trev,” Gabe sighed, “he says that Kady owes him money. Does he owe you money too?”
“Yeah, he owes me. I took his bets after Trevan cut him off. I figured the action was too large and that’s why the fairy didn’t want it.”
I loved being called a fairy just because I was gay. The fact that Vargas wouldn’t think of saying that shit to my face made me think that much less of him.
“What? Just ’cause you and Adrian don’t give a fuck that he takes it up the ass don’t mean the rest of us are down with it.”
“Can we get to the point?”
“Fine, I took the bets from Kady, but last week when I went to collect, he says he doesn’t have the fifteen he owes me and that he ain’t gonna have it this week either.”
“So I talked to him some and he basically told me that he needed me to carry him for another couple of weeks and then he’d have it.”
“What’d you say?”
“What the hell do you think I said? I told him to go fuck himself and to pay me my goddamn money.”
“Did he pay?”
“No, Benji paid me.”
“Yeah, he said that he’d get it from Kady, and he gave me what Kady owed.”
“I dunno what’s with your boy, Gabe, and when you tell me that Kady fucked up Benji’s shit, I gotta wonder what the hell’s with that, ya know?”
“Why didn’t you hire some muscle and go get your money from Kady before Benji paid you? It’s not like you to run scared.”
“Fuck you, I wasn’t scared,” Luis assured him. “I just don’t have the cash right now for enough guys.”
“How many guys did you think you needed?”
“At least five,” he grunted, “the way Kady’s fortified at his big club at Jericho; I wouldn’t wanna walk in there alone.”
Long pause. “Adrian can’t have people thinking they can fuck with his runners.”
“Nope.” Luis agreed.
“Does Kady have any backing?”
“You mean like muscle backing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to come stay at the house?”
“Should I ask Trevan?”
“Fuck no. He’s got Harris watchin’ his back and everybody knows it. Ain’t nobody gonna fuck with him. Even if he sees Trevan walking down the street, Kady ain’t stupid enough to fuck with him.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to you.”
Luis was gone a second later.
“Sorry about all the faggot crap, T.”
“Like I care,” I said, letting out a deep breath. I had never cared what Luis Vargas thought about me, and I certainly wasn’t going to start. “He’s a dick, he’s always been a dick, and he’ll always be a dick. Vargas can kiss my ass, but what I care about right now is Benji and the fact that if you add it all up, I think Kady owes us, like, two.”
“Are you shittin’ me?” He breathed out because he knew when I said two, I meant two hundred thousand.
“No, ’cause he owes me thirty, he owes Benji more than that, and he owes what Benji paid Luis for him. That’s bullshit that he doesn’t hafta pay.”
“Well, I think Adrian wants it, so just call Francesco for the next few days until you hear from me, all right?”
“Okay, so I’ll tell Francesco that you’ll be by to see him, when—around lunch or later?”
“Later. I gotta fuckin’ sleep.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to you.”
“Wait, which hospital is Benji at?”
“You gonna go?”
“Before you sleep?”
“Have to, right? I mean, I gotta check on him, see what he needs.”
“Get him whatever and just take it from petty cash when you get back.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Just do what I tell you––anything you think he wants.”
When he hung up, I realized how much I wanted to go to bed. I wanted to lie down, do the deep stretch and the whole-body shudder before I let out all the air in my body. I wanted to deflate and close my eyes, but first I needed to go to the hospital and see Benji.
Walking back to the couch, I met Landry’s eyes first.
“Everything all right, baby?”
“No, a friend of mine is in the hospital, so I should really go and check on him.”
“Who?” he asked, reaching toward me.
I took the offer of comfort, slipping his hand into mine. “A friend. You met him that time. Benji, soft voice,” I told him. “Sweet guy; you liked his accent, remember? He’s from Georgia.”
His fingers tightened. “I’m sorry. You want me to come with you?”
“Aww, no.” I shook my head and turned to smile at his brother. “But Chris, buddy, you gotta go. I ain’t leaving my boy here alone to deal with this shit, so we’ll have to table it, and you can come back tomorrow morning.”
“Why not tonight?”
“Tonight I have to sleep, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be at the hospital. And Landry has to go to work, and Tuesday’s his late night.”
“But we could just talk some more and then maybe—”
“If you push, you won’t be pleased that you did,” I told him, sliding my hand over my hair that was shaved close to my scalp. “He ain’t seein’ you without me, and I won’t let you see him at all if you don’t back off.”
“You don’t decide things for him.”
“Oh the fuck I don’t,” I told him, pointing. “There’s the door.”
He looked at Landry, but Landry was staring at me. Chris didn’t get it, but there was no way he would have. Our relationship was a twisted, codependent mess, but it worked for us, and within the snarl that it was, we functioned pretty well.
My restrictions on Landry let him function. Perhaps there was a better way for him to live, a way that didn’t factor belonging to me into the equation, but no one could argue with my results. The man had been on a downward spiral. I had seen his light going out, but now he was healthy and secure and successful, and between the two of us, me loving him, him letting me, we had done that. He was different now, but still, sometimes, he looked to me if things got dicey, if his space got too big, if he strayed too far from sight, from home. If he started to come undone, untethered, too buoyant, I yanked him back like a dog on a choke chain. It sounded bad, hard and brutal, but the domination soothed him.
When I said no, when I gave orders—come home, sit down, let me make dinner, eat, have a glass of wine, get in bed, kiss me—when I made him, he became grounded. At times his life snowballed, and that was when he needed me to make it stop. The minute he could take a breath and get himself centered, when he could feel the edge of where he belonged and what was his, everything was suddenly right again. Sometimes just seeing me did it, and other times he had to touch me, hold my hand, kiss me, fuck me; whatever he needed from me to show him where he was and that he was fine, I gave to him.
Of course, it was a fine line, and the reverse was true as well. At times Landry had to be managed, handled. There were, on occasion, times when I had to back off, let him make his own choices and let the man come to me. For the sake of his pride, every instance was not time for me to take charge. But I had to be attentive, to see when he was too angry or too fixated or too wound up to even respond to me. It was a dance and I knew the steps.
I had tried unsuccessfully on many occasions to get him to a doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or any of the number of nice people listed in his medical coverage brochure when he signed himself and his employees, all eight of them, up for insurance. He had been confused about why I wanted him to see a shrink. What, precisely, did I think was wrong with him?
Hard to articulate the way he came apart when it happened so fast. By the time I was squeezing him tight, he was over it and asking me what I wanted for dinner. The first six months we were together, I had thought maybe I was the one who went a little crazy sometimes; maybe I was imagining Landry coming apart so he would need me. But the fact that I questioned myself at all told me I was actually okay. The old catch-22 premise came in handy when figuring out who was really nuts. Not that I thought the man I loved was crazy, but I knew that he needed more than love and affection. I worried about me dying, not because of what that would mean for me, but more for what that would mean for Landry. His mental health was pinned to me and not himself, and while I didn’t want it like that, it was a great big ego charge to know that he didn’t just want me, he needed me, too. It was twisted and I needed to fix it. I just wasn’t sure how.
“I guess I’ll go,” Chris said, looking at me warily as he stood up, returning my attention to him.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Landry offered.
“I’m jumping in the shower,” I told him.
I was surprised that he didn’t bring his coffee into the bathroom and talk to me. He normally did that in the morning, but I was in a hurry, so it was fine. I shaved, looked at my eyes in the mirror, and saw how red and raw they looked. There was no amount of Visine that could fix it; I needed to sleep, and that was it.
I called for Landry once I was out and changed, and when I was at the hall closet putting my camel hair coat and cashmere scarf on, he came walking out of the kitchen.
“I made you breakfast,” he told me as he crossed the room.
“Oh babe, I’m not awake enough to even eat yet. You have it, okay?” I smiled at him before checking in my shearling-lined denim jacket from the night before for my wallet.
I felt his hand on my shoulder. Turning, I was faced with the blue-green depths of his eyes. “What?”
“I’m worried about you.”
“Baby, I’m okay, just go to work.”
“You’re tired,” he said softly, his hand sliding around the side of my neck, stroking my nape. He leaned me forward so our foreheads touched, inhaling me.
“I’ll be okay,” I assured him, smiling as I drew back. “I just need my sunglasses.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go, huh?”
“No, I have to go, and you need to go to work.”
“Okay.” His voice dropped low as he closed his eyes. “But please call me if you need anything, all right?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “You know I will.”
“You’ll come home for dinner.”
“I don’t know what Benji’s gonna need. I don’t know if I have to go collect for him or pay people. I have to find out, and that could take time. I won’t know anything until I get there.”
“I can make pot roast. It’s your favorite.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“Just come home.”
He could get so fixated.
“You worked all night,” he cut me off sharply, his voice rising. “I hate it when I sleep alone, and I just… you need to not do that anymore. I hate it, I really hate it.”
“I told you that you could invite any of your friends over to stay with you when I—”
“I need to feel you next to me when I wake up in the middle of the night, Trev. That’s what I need.”
“I know.” And I did. Sometimes when he woke up alone in the dark, he would call for me, wanting to make sure it was me, in voice and body, there beside him. “I’m working on changing it.”
“It’s time,” he insisted.
“Okay.” I nodded, putting my hand on his smooth cheek. Seeing his eyes, the hunger in them, never failed to flip my stomach over. The man had no idea how sexy he was with his beautiful mouth that drove me right out of my mind. The way he kissed me; how expressive his lips were, and pliant; what they looked like when he smiled or laughed or smirked; and what they felt like stretched around my hard cock, gliding over skin he had made wet.
“You took that breath,” he accused me, looking pained.
“I did not,” I denied, even though I had.
“You want me on my knees.”
“No,” I lied.
“But I heard—”
“Hospital. I have to go.”
The idea of him sucking me off had me shivering with want. Whenever I got tired, I got horny, and I had no idea why.
“Trevan,” he whined my name.
I groaned softly.
I grabbed his face hard, stilling him completely, making him stop. “You think stupid shit sometimes. You think you have to do something for me to make me love you—like I could stop now even if I wanted to.”
He caught his breath.
“Just stop. I gotta go.” I sighed, dropping my hands off him, ready to leave.
He stilled my flight with hands clutched on my coat. “I’m gonna cook for you, so you need to come home, all right?”
The breathless promise, combined with the narrowing of his eyes, was so hot it made my heart stop.
He chuckled. “I just saw your eyes glaze over. I’ve got you.”
“Always,” I said, my breath hitching.
His thumb traced the length of my jaw. “So, tonight.”
I counted silently to ten. “Tonight.”
The smile lit up his beautiful, sharp-angled face. “Good.”
“Lemme go,” I sighed. “I need to see Benji.”
He suddenly leaned in and hugged me tight. “I love it when you give in, the noise you make… like you’re just so disgusted with me.”
I groaned as he laughed at me, certain that the only person in the world I would ever willingly give in to was standing right in front of me. And apparently he liked the noises I made when I did it.