Pete took a moment to catch his breath. He’d walked over from his last appointment just to get the exercise. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he felt just winded enough to be unprofessional.
His long hair had to be a tangled mess, too. Oh well — he was a decorator now, an artist. He was supposed to be a little disheveled.
At least he hoped the client would see it that way. Real estate developers rarely had much patience for the arts or those who practiced them, but Pete could hope certain stereotypes held sway.
He looked up at the building he’d come to see. His client had just finished renovating the interior. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pete hated it.
He hated the Gothic-type roof and its ridiculous dormers. He hated the arches. He hated the decorative patterns on the facade.
The thing had gargoyles on it, for crying out loud. Who put gargoyles on an apartment building in Manhattan? This wasn’t thirteenth-century Paris. No one here was trying to scare away evil spirits.
Everything about this building rubbed Pete the wrong way. He didn’t mind old buildings, but 1910 was downright young. Maybe it was old for New York, but a place like this was barely a century old. There were people still alive in this city who were older than the stupid building.
Okay, so this Cunningham guy had gutted the old dump and put in real, modern wiring. Didn’t that mean he’d also stripped out any remaining personality? Didn’t people buy into these places for the “charm” of the pre-war buildings?
Pete wasn’t sure he bought into the definition of charm as inclusive of cloth-covered wires and knob-and-tube circuits, but plenty of people did. They didn’t spend a fortune on a dump with gargoyles on the outside — lovingly restored from acid-rain damage, as near as Pete could tell — so they could have glass and concrete inside.
And seriously, why restore the gargoyles? They were just going to erode again, creating a hazard for pedestrians walking underneath. They had no historical value, and even less aesthetic merit. One of them was even mooning passersby. That was certainly not original to this building’s design, not in stately Gramercy Park.
Pete liked his old buildings old. He liked houses with floors on which Alexander Hamilton himself could have walked, or Jefferson. Lincoln, if that was the best he could do, but while Lincoln was certainly an outstanding statesman and American, he was dangerously young.
If Pete couldn’t get a truly old building, and those were rare in New York, he’d rather just go for modern. He liked glass and steel, sleek concrete and plunging descents.
This in-between stuff was for the birds. He’d happily let the birds have it, too.
He pressed his lips together and straightened his shoulders. His opinions about architecture didn’t matter. This was his life now.
He had an income from the Agency, sure, but how was he supposed to explain living in New York without having a job? His Agency allowance gave him enough to let him live here, but it wasn’t enough for him to have much of a life.
And Pete wasn’t exactly the “creepy recluse watching the city go by” type. He and Cooper, the marshal in charge of his case, had discussed the issue. They’d taken Pete’s talents and inclinations into account, and now he decorated other people’s homes. He got paid for it, and at least once a week he wondered if he’d made the right choice.
He hadn’t really regretted it, not yet. He might not love the architecture, and New York might have its drawbacks, but none of them compared to life with Dmitry. Even fewer of them compared to what his all-too-brief life would be like if Dmitry ever caught up to him.
With that grim thought firmly in mind, Pete strode into the lobby and announced himself to the doorman who yawned, bored and tired. Pete didn’t blame him; he probably wouldn’t have had a lot of interest in the job either.
Sure, it was rude to sit there and yawn in people’s faces, but he couldn’t exactly hold it against the guy. At least the doorman called Cunningham buzzed him through. “Sixteen-B,” he said with a sniff.
“Got it.” Pete headed for the elevators. “Thanks for your help.”
The elevators looked original to the building, right down to the shiny brass doors and the old-fashioned dial indicating the elevator’s current position. The whole setup appeared rickety enough to make Pete remember the prayers he’d had to learn back in grade school and long since forgotten.
The buttons looked ancient too, the kind that stood out from the panel and had to be pushed hard to register. Pete wondered if this thing wouldn’t do better with an elevator operator, or a complete replacement.
Once the elevator started moving, he realized it was all a very clever reproduction. Whoever designed the thing had clearly wanted the building to look as close to the original as possible, but he hadn’t skimped on convenience or safety. It moved without jerking or wobbling, and the mechanism was as silent as any in the big skyscrapers in which Pete had worked.
Interesting. Maybe this job wouldn’t be quite so bad after all.
The sixteenth floor had two apartments. Pete had studied the plans Cunningham sent last night, and these looked like pretty stellar penthouse units. They had private roof decks and beautiful views, especially considering the location.
No wonder Cunningham had reserved one for himself. Pete would have done the same thing in his shoes. He’d probably get a small fortune for the other one.
Pete walked up to the unit with the elegant brass “B” on the door and knocked. Would his client be old and crotchety, like the last developer he’d had to deal with? That guy had been a nightmare.
He’d deliberately misgendered Pete over and over because of his long hair. You might want to see someone about that beard, little lady. Ugh, remembering the guy with his creepy little age spots on his creepy little hands still made Pete shudder.
Would he be young, like the client before that? Some smug, self-satisfied jerk like his ex, who was certain of his own genius, despite the fact that his color choices made people’s eyes bleed? That client still couldn’t move his properties, even in midtown and at a discount, because he’d insisted on a color scheme better suited to a banana split than a Manhattan office tower.
Chocolate, banana, and strawberry were great flavors. They did not convey professionalism.
The man who answered the door didn’t remind Pete of any of his prior clients, or of his ex-husband. He stood about six feet tall, with dark blond hair that would probably be wavy if he’d let it grow out enough. He had a stunningly strong jaw that had just enough stubble on it to hide a slight cleft in his chin.
His steely gray eyes lit up when he turned toward Pete who was instantly drawn in. He would have been handsome, if not for the green-and-gold plaid suit he wore over a body suit representing all of the internal organs.
Green and gold plaid, just like the girls’ uniforms at the Catholic school where Pete’s parents had sent him as a child. And a body suit that looked like an autopsy. Pete had never seen a man’s liver before even introducing himself.
“Er.” Pete looked him up and down. “Keegan Cunningham?” Someone had to be playing a joke on him. No real estate developer, no professional of any sort, would dress like this in public. Maybe there was a hidden camera somewhere.
“That’s me.” Cunningham held out a hand. “You must be Pete DeAngelis.”
Pete shook hands gingerly. With an outfit like that, he couldn’t be sure the hand wouldn’t deglove itself or something. How he’d explain that to the EMTs or police, he had no idea. Right now, nothing would surprise him.
“That’s me.” It had been a couple of years by now. He’d gotten used to the new last name. “Pleased to meet you. Are you ready to get started?”
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the terrible body suit. It seemed unreasonable to expect him to do so.
Cunningham’s responding grin was warm and effusive. “I’m beyond ready. I’ve been staying with my kid brother, and that’s getting uncomfortable. His cats keep biting me.
“I love this space, I love this building, but I’m kind of at an impasse with myself. I’ve spent so much time looking at the inside of this unit that I can’t think of a damn thing to do with it. You’d think I’d have a few ideas, but no. I just mostly want it to not look like my dads’ place.”
Pete nodded slowly as he walked into the empty apartment. It was a good-sized place, as befit the owner unit for a building like this. He’d known that from the plans, but seeing it in person was different. He could get a feel for the place this way.
Some of the rooms had odd shapes or sizes, like any building this old, and some had exposed brick. Neither of those features were serious challenges for Pete. They were fun points of interest.
“It has a lot of light,” he mused. A familiar scent piqued his interest. “You obviously had the walls painted recently. Did you pick white to have a fresh palate to start with, or because it wouldn’t clash with anything in your wardrobe?”
Maybe the crack about his wardrobe wasn’t the most professional thing to let slip, but Pete couldn’t stop himself.
Cunningham laughed. The insult didn’t bother him in the slightest, not that he let on anyway. He seemed like the kind of guy who laughed easily, like it came without any kind of block or barrier.
Pete liked that in a guy — not that he was looking. That was an important reminder for himself.
“You got me,” Cunningham said. “I like white. It reflects the light best, I think. It makes the room look open.
“I know it’s not necessarily authentic to the original aesthetic of the building, but neither are some of the green features we put in, either. We’re not actually Edwardian, and we don’t need to worry about soot from the gaslights marking up the walls…”
Pete chuckled in spite of himself. He wouldn’t have thought a guy dressed like that would know the first thing about interiors or color choice, or the Edwardians, for that matter. Pete knew better than most how appearances could be deceiving.
“Okay, I can work with that. What features of your fathers’ home do you not want to see here?”
“Any of them.” Cunningham’s jaw tightened for a second. Pete had obviously stepped on a land mine, but it was too late to back off now.
“They’ve got a place on the Upper West Side. It’s this huge old pile, and they keep it authentic to the original Victorian haunted-house look. It’s dark, no matter what kind of lighting you use or what time of day it is. It’s kind of gross, if you ask me, which they should have.
“It even smells old, like a mausoleum without the charm. It’s been in the family since it was built. I’m going to sell it to the cheeto-looking guy as soon as they kick off. He’ll tear it down and replace it with a hideous gold-plated tower, and I won’t care one bit. Hell, I’ll do a little dance.”
Pete shuddered. Gold plating had its place, he supposed, but it had its limits. “Nothing’s that ugly.”
“You don’t know my dads. Or their house.” Cunningham grinned brightly. “So do you think you can work with this? No gold plating, I promise.”
Pete looked around. He’d known he could work with it as soon as he saw it, but he didn’t want to look too eager. “Oh, of course. I’m thinking you want comfort, a bit of elegance, and a whole lot of white. Am I right?”
“Perfectly.” Cunningham smiled and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “All right, then.
“I’ve got a contract on the kitchen counter. If you don’t mind, I need to take off. I’m closing on some lower-income properties in the Bronx. I can’t wait to fix those suckers up.
“I’ve had my eye on them for years, but the landlord wouldn’t budge. They’re going to take a lot of work to make them habitable again, but it’s worth it, you know? By the time I’m done, no one’s going to know they’re ‘affordable housing.’” He rubbed his hands together. “They’re going to be gorgeous, and I can’t wait.”
Pete stared after Cunningham as the man left. He had no idea what that last comment might mean, but hoped he’d find out.
* * *
Keegan grinned all the way out to the Barton Gardens complex up in the Bronx. His new interior decorator, Pete, was special. No, he wasn’t just special, he was hot.
Tall and slim, with long, wavy dark hair and piercing blue eyes, he stood out as one of the prettiest guys Keegan had ever met. Keegan knew a lot of good-looking guys. Hell, he had his pick of pretty guys at the Hellion Club, any time he wanted one.
Pete DeAngelis was different.
And yeah, DeAngelis was different because no part of his job involved flirting with Keegan. That was probably part of the appeal, to be quite honest. If Keegan was going to earn the man’s affection, he would have to actually make an effort.
The omegas at the Hellion Club were awesome guys - available, open-minded, and fun to spend time with - but Keegan preferred to avoid that route unless he truly felt hard up.
He knew, better than anyone, that they all had a choice in the matter. Still, the way some members treated them irked Keegan, and he didn’t feel comfortable getting sexual or even flirtatious knowing how his comrades were prone to behaving.
DeAngelis, though. Keegan had no conflicts about his feelings toward Pete. The man would only share that gorgeous smile, sparkling blue eyes, and lithe dancer's body with Keegan if he damn well felt like it.
There were no occupational pressures on DeAngelis subtly influencing his decision, either. Which meant it would be a hell of a lot of fun for Keegan to be the one to convince him to share that gorgeous smile.
Keegan would take him to dinner, or maybe a show. Hell, why not both? Or maybe they could take a day, just for them, and go to the zoo.
They wouldn’t have to spend a ton of money to have a good time. Any rich jackhole could do that. Keegan would prove he could rock DeAngelis’ world without spending a dime, if he wanted to.
And Keegan wanted to.
It was all a pipe dream, of course. Keegan was far too busy to spend time hounding some poor omega to accept his love and affection, or whatever. The fantasy gave him a pleasant image to smile about on his way out to the Bronx, and that would be enough for him for now.
Maybe someday there would be a guy, omega or beta, who would be around and available at the right time. And then he would meet Keegan’s family, turn right around, and walk away.
At least, he would if he was anything like the man Keegan wanted him to be. He’d meet the family and see the mess it truly was.
He pulled into the parking lot at the dismal-looking housing complex he’d purchased a month ago. Barton Gardens had been a dump when Keegan first set his sights on it, more than twenty years ago. The landlord hadn’t done much to it since then.
Now the old man was gone, hopefully to hell. His heirs couldn’t wait to sell to that dumb sucker Cunningham. They’d been desperate to unload the dump, and Keegan hadn’t had to look into the buildings to see why.
The old man had been at least nominally religious. Keegan wasn’t, but he wished he could take comfort in the idea of the bastard facing some kind of final judgment right now.
If the son of a bitch had put any money at all into maintenance, just a little bit, the place might not be in the condition it was. Of course, if the bastard had maintained the property at all, Juan might be alive today.
Keegan was trying not to get mad about it, but it was like trying to hold back the tide. You’re fixing it, he reminded himself. You’re making it better. You can’t change the past, but you can make things better going forward.
Ty met him at the entrance to the main building, the one with the community room. It wasn’t hard to pick him out in the crowd. The kid looked like a funeral director — a short, pale funeral director.
Keegan understood that Ty’s firm was most kindly described as “stuffier than a turkey on Thanksgiving,” but would it kill Ty to use a tiny bit of color? At least in his tie, or something? He made a mental note to buy the guy a set of ties for Christmas, in every color of the rainbow.
They’d probably end up as cat toys, but at least he’d have made the effort. Keegan would avoid the sin of omission and all that stuff, and wasn’t that the important thing?
“I see you’re taking this seriously.” Ty looked Keegan up and down, lips puckered in disapproval. A few beads of sweat stood out at his temple, the only sign of nerves Ty would ever show. He only showed that one because he couldn’t stop it, or at least he hadn’t found a way to stop it yet. Knowing Ty, he’d try.
“You’re going to get wrinkles if you keep doing that.” Keegan tossed his little brother his best devil-may-care grin. “Has the Tenants’ Association shown up yet, or are there stragglers?”
Ty stood up a little bit straighter. “Oh, they’re here all right. They even brought their own crowbars. I thought that was considerate of them, under the circumstances.”
At least Ty stopped making that face that looked like he was sucking on a lemon. “Are you sure you don’t want to bring the police in for safety? These folks have no idea what’s going on; they’ve been told nothing, and they’re angry.
“And they should be angry. I overheard one of them telling her friend her foot went through the floorboards last night.”
“Jesus Christ.” Keegan cringed. That had probably been the tenant in Hudson 7C, Mrs. Cortez. Keegan had noticed their floor was questionable. He’d thought they had time to get to that one, but apparently he’d been wrong. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.
“Once I’ve told them why we’re here, and what we’re planning to do, I think they’ll be a little less hostile. In the meantime, let’s make sure we get a crew in there to evaluate and renovate as soon as possible.”
He headed inside, Ty right on his heels. For all of his fussing about safety, his brother didn’t hesitate to walk right in.
Keegan had been perfectly okay with bringing Ty along for this meeting. Keegan had gone into a lot of hostile rooms without having any problems. Plus, Ty might look like a stuffed shirt with hair on top, but he actually kicked a fair amount of ass. Ty could hold his own, make no mistake.
But when Keegan walked into the community room at Barton Gardens, he immediately regretted involving him at all. Sure, Ty was an adult and all that, but Keegan was his big brother, and Ty’s alpha until he found one of his own. It was Keegan’s job to take care of Ty and keep him safe until a quality guy showed up to take that role on.
While Keegan still had confidence in his mission here at Barton Gardens, and the rightness of what he was going to do, he’d seriously underestimated the hostility of the crowd. And Ty was right — they had every reason for their hostility.
There wasn’t anything he could do about it now, though. The die was cast, and it was too late to turn back now. He ignored the knot in his stomach and pushed through.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Keegan Cunningham, president and managing partner of Cunningham Properties LLP. As most of you know, I started the purchasing process for Barton Gardens about a month ago, and the deal closed a few days ago.
“It’s taken a little while to set up this meeting. I thought it was important for us to meet and talk about the Barton Gardens community, and our plans going forward, as well as to get a sense of your needs. I don’t want this to be a lecture; I want to make sure you all know everything you need to know, and say everything you need to say.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. Most of the tenants were women, primarily women of color. All of them were livid. Keegan would be angry too, if he had to live here.
Even here, in the community room, the place outsiders were most likely to see, the ceiling had vast water stains and the air reeked of mold. The folks Keegan had sent in to evaluate the place had assured him the tenant units were worse.
“One more slumlord here to squeeze us dry!” shouted a woman with a heavy West Indian accent in the back.
Keegan managed a wry grin. “I can see why you’d think that. You don’t have any reason to believe otherwise.
“First things first — effective on the first day of the month, all of you will see a reduction in your rent. The amount of the reduction is going to be determined by a formula, administered by my handsome and charming attorney here.”
Ty waved. His smile looked a little forced, but he waved. “The formula,” he explained, “for what it’s worth, is calculated by reported income, the number of issues found with your apartment, and the number of residents enrolled in school. Frankly, you’re all paying too much for what you’ve got right now, even with housing assistance, and we’re not okay with that.”
Keegan nodded and moved along. “Second, all of you had your homes inspected as part of the purchase process. I apologize for that. I know it wasn’t exactly fun for you, but it’s a normal part of purchasing any piece of real estate, and I needed to know exactly how big a job I was taking on.
“Most of these buildings are close to being condemned, but that’s not any secret to any of you.” He looked around and met a few of the tenants’ eyes. “I’m renovating every unit, every building, but my priority has to go to the units that are in the worst shape.
“Ms. Suarez, I know your sink is dripping. I’m going to get to it. But the floor under Mr. Carmody’s bathroom is squishy, and I don’t want his toilet to land on the crib underneath, so…”
A few people chuckled. Keegan warmed up a little, and the knot in his stomach unclenched. This might not go as badly as he’d thought, after all. “There are going to be some inconveniences. And I’m sorry. We’ll take care of you as best we can in the meantime.
“I’m not evicting anyone, and I’m not moving in a bunch of rich folks to gentrify the neighborhood. This is always going to be your space, okay? My lawyer has drawn up documents ensuring that this complex will only be available to people in this income bracket, for as long as the law allows.
“I’m going to get maintenance training for some of you so you can be building supers, for which you will be paid. That way, routine issues can be dealt with immediately. And we’re going to make sure that each of your homes are livable, comfortable, and a place you can be proud to call home.”
A Black woman near the middle of the room stood up. “What’s the catch?”
Keegan huffed out a little laugh. “There’s no catch.” He tugged at his collar. “I’ll be honest. I’ve had my eye on this place for a long time, from before I could even buy property under my own name.
“I had a friend who used to live here. He went to my school on a scholarship. He came home on vacation, stepped on a rusty nail, got tetanus, and died.
“I promised myself then, at his memorial service, that I’d buy this place and make it safe in honor of Juan, but the old owner wouldn’t sell.”
Ty put a hand on Keegan’s back, giving him quiet strength. A few people in the crowd nodded. Maybe they’d known Juan, maybe they hadn’t. They’d all known a similar story, whether here or in another complex.
“You’ll keep us posted?” a younger woman with a scar on her face asked.
“He will.” Ty stood up a little straighter. “Any changes, to anything, will be communicated in writing, in English and in Spanish, as far in advance as circumstances allow.
“If you know one of your neighbors needs information in a different language, please let us know, and we’ll make sure they get what they need in a language they can understand. This is New York; we’ve got neighbors from all over the world. We’ll find a way to get them the help they need.
“There may be emergency situations that don’t allow for much advance notice, but every effort will be made.” He held up a stack of business cards. “If there are any problems in that regard, call me or him directly. We’ll make it right.”
The tenants murmured quietly amongst themselves. They didn’t look like they believed Keegan, but they didn’t seem ready to attack anymore. Keegan and Ty were able to leave without having to call for reinforcements. Keegan was in almost as good a mood when he left as he was when he’d shown up.
Maybe he could hire Pete DeAngelis to design the public spaces at Barton Gardens. He didn’t have time to date anyone, and he wouldn’t willingly expose a decent human being to his family, but he liked the guy and wouldn’t mind giving him the business.
And if it meant having someone pleasant and nice to look at during the renovations, so much the better.