A RIOT of red, pink, and white greeted Isaac when he stepped through the doors of the cozy restaurant. Festooned ribbons hung from the doorway, and elegant ice sculptures of cherubs slowly melted in a central fountain. Normally, he would have found the decorations tacky, but nothing at Berkley’s could ever be considered tacky. From the waiters’ crisp, white uniforms to the beautifully decorated tables, it all looked like a page from a trendy magazine. Today was St. Valentine’s Day, and nobody did special occasions quite like Berkley’s.
Maurice, the maître d’, stepped forward, a miniature rose peeking from his buttonhole. “Right this way, Mr. Lewis,” he said with a smile.
Mr. Lewis. Just one of the things Isaac loved about this place. The staff all knew him by name and that he was chauffeur and handyman to a wealthy and influential gay couple. Still, they treated him just the same as any other customer, including those who graced the silver screen. In a town that excelled at elitist snobbery, the acceptance made a refreshing change.
Tall and obsessively fit, with a dark complexion and shoulder-length dreadlocks, Isaac stood out in this crowd of upper middle-class diners. Fortunately, the restaurant didn’t require a suit and tie on weeknights, so his black silk button-down and black slacks weren’t out of place. This was as dressed up as he got, if he could help it. The other diners apparently approved, many casting admiring glances his way.
Ignoring them, he followed Maurice through the elegant dining room, the scents wafting from a nearby table causing his stomach to rumble. Candles artfully tucked into rose and lace centerpieces illuminated each table, the effect romantic without being sappy. He usually scoffed at any sentimental displays as being ridiculous nonsense, but this year was going to be different, he’d decided. This Valentine’s Day he had no intention of waiting around for Cupid’s arrow while pretending to be alone by choice. It may be Valentine’s Day, but it was also his birthday, and he knew exactly what he’d wish for while blowing out the candles on his cake.
He crossed from the main dining area into a private back room to an enthusiastic chorus of “Happy Birthday, Isaac!” Gathered around the table were all of his favorite people; well, except for one, and he should be making an appearance any second now. One of his employers, Alex Anderson, sat at the head of the table with his partner, Isaac’s other boss, Paul Sinclair, sitting at Alex’s left. Martha, Bernard, Theresa, and William, coworkers and friends, filled the rest of the chairs.
To Alex’s right, the seat of honor was conspicuously empty. That is, until Isaac filled it with his massive frame. A waiter stepped forward and filled his wine glass, then asked with a flirtatious wink if he’d like his usual. Isaac smiled and nodded, but offered the young man no further encouragement. He dined here often, and for more reasons than just the food. But Isaac hadn’t set his cap for any of the handsome young waiters; he had someone of more substance in mind.
His seat afforded him a good view of the restaurant through the private room’s entrance, and all during dinner he kept a vigil. With one eye trained on the kitchen door, he waited for a glimpse of the owner and executive chef of the trendy establishment while enjoying a bowl of his favorite French onion soup and Theresa’s tale of her grandchildren’s latest exploits.
Over fragrant dishes of Coquille St. Jacques Bernard and Martha extolled the virtues of retirement, and Isaac told of his pursuit of the perfect dining room table for his new condo. While he loved his condo, he sometimes missed living under Alex and Paul’s roof, if only for the company of the others who called the mansion home.
It wasn’t until the meal ended that the attractive Frenchman made an appearance. As usual, he was all bubbly energy, pausing at each table to chat a moment before moving on, giving Isaac plenty of time to look his fill.
The real reason he came here at every opportunity, good food notwithstanding, stepped up to the table and clapped his big, beefy hands together in delight. A waiter appeared a moment later, pushing a cart that held an enormous chocolate cake. Candle flames wavered as he approached.
“Mesdames et messieurs! What an honor to have you here with us again. Monsieur Lewis,” the big chef said, turning his full attention and brilliant smile on Isaac, “joyeux anniversaire!”
Thierry Guillaume was just about the sexiest thing Isaac had ever seen, with his round cheeks, golden-blond curls, sea-green eyes, and sturdy build—something Isaac required in a man. No reed-thin twinks need apply. His combination of looks and a rich accent that brushed Isaac’s libido like a caressing hand made the Frenchman the star of many a late-night fantasy.
Oh, Thierry wasn’t gorgeous by conventional standards, and with about forty pounds of extra weight on his comfortably padded body, he was hardly the Hollywood ideal. However, his height helped him carry the extra bulk well, making him appear less fat and more cuddly. Isaac, a mass of rippling, rock-hard muscles, liked something softer to snuggle up with, and in his eyes, Thierry was perfect. Isaac was also convinced that the man was only that large to accommodate his huge heart. If a friend fell ill or lost a loved one, the familiar black-and-gold Berkley’s van was sure to make a delivery.
Isaac had kept his interest hidden because ever since he’d known the man, Thierry had been in a relationship. He may not have respected Victor, Thierry’s lover, but he did respect commitment and didn’t poach, no matter how sorely tempted. Now, however, he’d learned that the object of his desire was a free man, and he intended Victor’s loss to be his gain.
There was the little matter of the Frenchman’s success as an entrepreneur. Isaac was from another world and had done things that still gave him nightmares, even if he’d long since repented.
At least money wasn’t an issue. Thanks to the last couple he’d worked for, he inherited a comfortable nest egg, receiving specific instructions from his benefactors to “go after what he wanted with his whole heart.” Alfred and Byron’s generosity enabled him to honestly say he wasn’t after money; he had plenty of that on his own. He only continued to work for his current employers because he liked them, liked the work, and hadn’t yet adjusted to his change of fortunes. Maybe he couldn’t offer a lover a stellar background and connections, but at least he was financially secure.
Thierry stood beside the table, one massive hand brushing Isaac’s shoulder while he sang, “Happy Birthday,” in a rich baritone that many would have paid good money to hear on the opera circuit. At least, that’s what his bosses said. Isaac had never really learned to appreciate opera. And though Thierry sang in French, there was no mistaking the tune.
The rest of the table joined in, most singing in English, while Theresa’s shrill soprano added Spanish to the mix. The overall effect was surprisingly pleasant. Well, except for Alex’s contribution. The man may have been rich and gorgeous, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Paul, though not as loud as his partner, at least knew all the words.
Thierry placed the cake on the table, and Isaac took a deep breath, thought of his deepest desire—who, incidentally, was standing right next to him—and blew out the candles.
He was all set to ask Thierry to join them when a busboy hurried over and hissed frantically into the restaurateur’s ear. His brilliant smile fell and all the color fled his cheeks. “Tell him I’ll meet him out back,” Thierry whispered, brows knitting together. “Gentlemen, I do apologize. It seems my presence is needed in the kitchen.”
Just like that, Isaac’s opportunity slipped past, and if he didn’t do something soon, the night would end without his wish coming true.
He watched Thierry pass through the kitchen door, the spring in his step from mere moments ago noticeably missing. Interesting. When he turned back to his hosts, Isaac was met by matching grins. “What?”
Alex winked. “Well, you’ve certainly done enough staring. Are you going to ask him out or not?”
Isaac sighed. “You’re not starting that again, are you?” Sometimes he wished he’d never commented to Paul about “liking a man with some meat on his bones,” because it hadn’t taken his boss very long to figure out who he meant. And whatever Paul knew, he shared with his partner. Only, while Paul kept his opinions to himself, Alex didn’t, happily meddling at every opportunity. Paul was quieter in his matchmaking, but Isaac had long ago figured out why he’d been sent to Berkley’s on minor errands over the past few weeks. At times, Paul sent him under the pretext of planning parties for the Anderson-Sinclair household. And at others… well, how many of the restaurant’s dishes could possibly be left behind by accident?
With a smug grin, he admitted, “Well, I was going to, until the moment kind of came and went.”
Isaac knew Alex hadn’t liked the Frenchman much when they first met, because Thierry’s exuberance often overwhelmed the uninitiated. Over time and croissants they reached an understanding, and now Alex and Paul’s lavish parties were often catered by Berkley’s. Unfortunately, where Thierry went, Victor Reed invited himself along, as well. Isaac had taken an instant dislike to the arrogant little peacock with shifty, roving eyes and a forked tongue who butted into conversations to inject his uncouth opinions or made scathing remarks to the invited partygoers. Not to mention his slipping outside with the occasional guest, only to return a bit rumpled.
He never understood why Thierry either turned a blind eye or forgave the man. He had overheard Thierry’s profuse apologies the last time Vic had crashed a party, drank himself into oblivion, and made a fool of himself. Thank goodness Thierry had finally come to his senses and kicked the deadbeat out.
A look of disbelief on his face, Alex asked, “You’re going to give up without even trying? That certainly doesn’t sound like you.”
Paul, a long-time friend of Thierry’s, spoke up then. “Victor’s been gone for over six months now. Thierry has no intention of taking that jerk back this time, but if you don’t make your move soon, someone else just might.”
That got Isaac’s attention. He’d known Paul since the man was in his teens and had never once heard him say an unkind thing about anyone—well, except for Alex, back in their early days. For him to even utter the word “jerk,” Victor must have really gotten under Paul’s skin. Isaac also didn’t like the image that “someone else just might” brought to mind. He’d waited a long time for this—he wasn’t going to sit idly by and let someone else waltz off with his prize.
Looking from one grinning face to the other, Isaac decided to agree with his employers on this one. No matter how great the odds, he’d always gotten what he wanted when it truly mattered, and wasn’t it high time he forgave himself for past shortcomings and got on with his life? Isaac sipped thoughtfully at his wine before asking, “What should I do?”
“Go get him, of course,” Paul answered with a snort, as though it should have been obvious.
Isaac studied his two bosses, who were as dissimilar as day and night. It wasn’t so long ago that they’d overcome their own differences to become partners. Now they were inseparable. If two such opposite personalities could find common ground, why couldn’t a dreadlocked, muscle-bound black man and a pale, blond French entrepreneur? Full of renewed determination, Isaac stood and placed his napkin on his plate. “I may not be back,” he said, grateful that he was officially off duty and not expected to drive them home.
“Go get him, Isaac,” Paul encouraged.
As many times as he’d been to Berkley’s, Isaac had never before been in the kitchen. Striding confidently through the swinging door through which Thierry had disappeared, intent on his mission, he fully expected to find the man attending to a kitchen emergency. A short, fat cook and a busboy stood listening at the back door, the cook wringing her hands and chewing her bottom lip nervously.
“Leon, do something!” she urged the busboy.
“Like what?” the kid, pimply faced and barely in his twenties by the looks of it, hissed back.
“There a problem?” Isaac asked.
The pair stared guiltily up at him. Finally, the youth spoke up. “They’re at it again,” he said with a resigned sigh.
“Who’s at it again?”
Two pairs of eyes shot nervously toward the door. This time, it was the cook who answered. “That man!” she snapped, apparently finding her courage. “He came here wanting money. He always wants money.”
Angry shouting erupted on the other side of the door, but only one voice spewed obscenities: the familiar nasal whine of Victor Reed. Thierry’s deeper tones were oddly silent for a two-party argument.
“Get back to work,” Isaac said, “I’ll take care of this.”
Without bothering to see if they complied, he left the kitchen and exited the restaurant through the front door, intent on finding out what was going on before barging in, guns blazing, like he wanted to. If Thierry needed help, he’d get it. If he didn’t, well, Isaac would cross that bridge when he got there.
As soon as he stepped out into the night air, he realized that Thierry did indeed need his help.
“Thierry, you pathetic tub of lard! You’re lucky I want you, ’cause no one else could possibly find a use for your fat ass!” resounded from the darkened alley behind the restaurant.
There was no mistaking the sound of flesh hitting flesh. For a moment Isaac stood by, holding his breath, waiting for Thierry to retaliate. Then it occurred to him that, as a man who made a living with his hands, fighting back wasn’t an option.
“No, Vic, please…,” Thierry pleaded.
Isaac had had enough. Rounding the corner, he saw exactly what he expected: a bully. Victor viciously pulled Thierry’s hair back with one hand while with the other bending two fingers at an angle that had to hurt like hell.
Isaac stopped himself from rashly wading in and ripping the asshole’s head off—he didn’t need assault charges or to drag his employers into resulting legal troubles. Instead he did his best to tune out Thierry’s frightened sobs and focus on the task at hand. He aimed the most hate-filled gaze he could muster on the lowlife Victor.
“This ain’t your business,” Victor snarled. He released his grip and Thierry snatched his hand back to cradle the injured digits against his chest. Good. Victor might just get to walk out of here under his own power for that. But if those fingers were broken….
“Oh, I think it is my business, Vic,” Isaac replied coolly, buffing his nails against the black dress shirt he wore, stretched tautly over a broad chest sculpted by daily workouts in the gym. He knew what he looked like, and used his body to full advantage, letting Victor see what he was up against. Hiding his true feelings on the matter, Isaac nodded nonchalantly to Thierry, who crouched timidly on the filthy pavement. If he had his way, the fear and hurt in the man’s eyes would never be there again. “The boss sent me to find him,” he lied, jerking his head to indicate Thierry. “They’re ready for dessert and want him to serve it—personally.”
Victor tugged harder on Thierry’s blond, curly locks, making Isaac flinch. Someone had tried that once with his dreads, and it hadn’t felt very good. Of course, the offender had never tried again, even after he regained the use of his hands.
Expression calm and cool, Isaac locked gazes with the bully’s calculating eyes. Oh, Victor would have to put on a good show in order to keep Thierry subdued, for that was the arrogant beast’s nature. In the end, he’d have no choice; he was quite obviously outmatched. Eventually, he’d drop the bluster and back down. Isaac just hoped the little bastard wouldn’t hurt Thierry too badly in the process. Working for a lawyer taught Isaac that proper procedure needed to be followed, but living on the streets had taught an entirely different lesson, one his body was itching to pass along to this scum who dared to prey on the wrong man.
It didn’t take long for Victor to realize he couldn’t win the battle. Shoving Thierry hard against the wall, he screamed, “You disgust me!” and then stalked off down the alley, sneering.
Keeping his voice low, Isaac asked, “You all right?”
“I will be,” Thierry replied, his words sounding strained.
“Go back inside. If the boss asks, tell him I’ll be back in a few.”
He didn’t offer to help Thierry to his feet, wanting to minimize the humiliation, but instead turned away to allow the frightened man time to gather his wits and salvage what was left of his dignity. What Isaac needed to say to him could wait until later, in private. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the door click shut, knowing Thierry was safely inside. Now to take care of business, once and for all.
He proceeded cautiously down the alley. Victor could be charming when he wanted to be, else he’d never have caught the attention of such a sweet, trusting soul as Thierry Guillaume. Unfortunately, he was also a two-bit con man with a history of violence, who took advantage of those too weak to defend themselves. Isaac was familiar with the kind—he used to be one, though he, unlike Victor, was no longer proud of the fact. A bested predator made a dangerous animal, prone to getting even for imagined slights, such as being shown up in front of a victim. The fight for Thierry was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning.
Isaac caught movement from the corner of his eye and ducked a split-second before a bottle came crashing down out of nowhere, missing his temple by a hair’s breadth. Years’ worth of street instincts kicked in. For all his bulk, Isaac was fast on his feet—or off them. Throwing himself to the ground, he struck out with a muscular leg, sweeping Victor’s from under him. The guy yelled and went down, hitting the pavement with a thud. In one fluid movement, Isaac rose and snatched his opponent by the collar, lifting until the toes of the man’s shoes barely scraped the pavement. Victor flailed helplessly, too far away for his short arms to do any harm.
The darkness of the alley obscured the view, but Isaac knew from experience that Victor’s face was turning purple from the tight grip on his neck; he also knew just how far he could take things without causing permanent damage. Shaking his captive like a weightless rag doll, Isaac jeered, “What’s the matter, Vic? Not so bad-assed with someone who’ll fight back, are you?”
The only reply was a breathless squeak.
“What’s that? I can’t hear you, Vic.”
In a high falsetto mimicry of Victor’s voice, Isaac answered for him, “I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis. I’ll never do it again.”
“You bet your ass you won’t,” Isaac said in his own normal tone. “Here’s the deal: I let you live and, A, you’ll never come near Thierry again and, B, you send him flowers tomorrow and promise him you’ll leave him alone. And not just any flowers. He deserves red roses!”
“Go to hell!” Victor managed enough air to gasp.
Isaac smiled, and it wasn’t very friendly. It didn’t take a dyed-in-the-wool street fighter to recognize the sound of a switchblade when he snicked it open a moment later. In the dim light he saw Victor’s eyes widen in fear. Good. So the miserable bastard understood—there might be some hope for him yet. Isaac grinned, caressing Victor’s face with the edge of the razor-sharp blade. “I don’t think you fully understand, man,” he said, reveling in the tremors that shook his captive. Oh, but that was one temptation he had to fight, the compulsion to make others pay for their crimes—he’d sworn off years ago. “You blew your chance. Thierry ain’t yours no more.”
It took Victor only a moment to nod his agreement, especially since the knife had traveled down his body and was now pressed tightly against his groin.
It had been years since Isaac ran with a gang, but Vic didn’t know that. Wishing he’d thought to do so earlier, he reverted back to the guttural dialect he’d used on the streets, hoping to up the intimidation factor, as if a six-foot-six black man holding a ten-inch blade and threatening castration wasn’t intimidating enough. “Ma homies be watching,” he said, lips a mere breath away from Victor’s ear. He smiled at the shiver it provoked. It was nice to know that, after years of honest living, he hadn’t lost his touch. One never knew when it might prove useful—like now. “Don’ fuck wit ma prop’ty agin, or I’ll haf to come fuck wit you.”
Lowering the miserable excuse for a man to the ground, Isaac slowly pulled the knife back, anticipating underhanded tricks. Instead of the instant retaliation he expected, Victor seemed glued to the spot, rubbing his bruised throat and clutching his privates. Voice raspy, he husked, “Who the hell are you?” So, the arrogant little prick hadn’t noticed the servants at those fancy parties he’d crashed. That was a definite advantage now. Isaac would hate for his actions to be traced back to his employers.
“I’m T’s new big poppa,” he said, inventing the nickname out of thin air. “Don’t forget it or I gotta come back an’ get what you got ta keep tonight.”
Victor breathed a sigh of relief when Isaac snapped the blade shut and returned the weapon to the pocket from which it had come, never knowing that Isaac’s street-fighting skills were far more dangerous than a mere piece of sharp-edged steel—the blade merely served as a prop.
Once Victor had backed away down the alley out of hearing, Isaac muttered to himself, “Yeah, I’m his new boyfriend; he just don’t know it yet.”