DETECTIVE Ivan Bekker limped into police headquarters. The taskforce had been a clusterfuck from word one. Both the Organized Crime Enforcement supervisor and his boss on the Drug Squad had butted heads from the beginning. The amazing thing was that they’d managed to succeed in pulling down several major players in the Russian mafia’s drug trafficking ring. The supposedly surgical sting had devolved into a messy shootout in the middle of the warehouse district.
There had been a number of injuries and bullet wounds, but somehow, none of the good guys died.
Ivan stared across the floor, past the detectives busy on computers, on the phone, scribbling on paper, to the empty desks by Inspector Nadar’s office. His friend, Kurt, had been loaded onto an ambulance, blood everywhere, and Kurt’s partner, Simon, had accompanied. Hadn’t taken long to figure out one of their own had been the hardest hit, and there was as yet no word on his status. It wasn’t fair; Kurt and Simon had been on loan from Homicide, and a fluke shot had taken Kurt down.
He trudged into the locker room and peeled off his gear. Before he could shed his blood-splattered clothes, Inspector Sergio Martelli, head of the Drug Squad, rushed in.
“Bekker, my office. Now.”
Always curt, today his boss sounded pissed off as well. Great. Just what Ivan was hoping for. All he wanted was a hot shower and the chance to go to the hospital, check on Kurt personally. Ivan had been drawn to Kurt after the man’s previous partner, Ben, had been killed on the job nearly a year ago. Not attracted, but something about Kurt changed after Ben’s death, making Ivan take note. A few weeks ago they’d gone out for drinks, and Kurt had come out to him. Most gay cops kept that information real close to the vest, and Kurt was no different, but Ivan was already out.
They’d managed drinks or dinner all of three times before today’s shit storm, but Ivan considered the man a friend. He couldn’t fucking die now.
With a baleful look at the showers, Ivan plucked the clammy, bloody shirt away from his body.
“Now, Bekker!” His boss’s voice reverberated through the room, like the drill sergeant everyone likened him to. In fact, he’d heard it hadn’t taken long for Martelli’s fellow cadets in the police academy to shorten Sergio to Serge and then to Sarge. Most people thought it was his rank, and he seemed to enjoy the word play.
Ivan slammed his locker shut and stomped toward his boss’s office. If he got blood all over Martelli’s visitor chairs, so the fuck what?
Outside in the hall, there was no sign of Martelli. Ivan’s steps slowed as lethargy battled his momentary anger. Surely Martelli’s voice, deep and booming though it was, hadn’t carried all the way from his office.
A couple officers gave him a wide berth as they walked past. Ivan didn’t blame them; he must look like an escapee from a horror movie. Hell, with his dark blond hair and the Slavic features he’d inherited from his mother, he looked a lot like the Russian gangster he’d shot to death earlier. And whose blood covered him now. Dead wasn’t a win, and even as bullets scudded into the walls around him, Ivan had dashed in to try and save the guy. He’d failed. Many of the drug dealers and gangsters were going to prison—some would be deported—but Ivan’s foe was headed for the morgue. When the paramedics arrived, they’d found out the young man’s name was Dmitri. They said you never forgot your first kill, and now he knew why.
Without knocking or otherwise announcing his presence, Ivan stalked into Martelli’s office and threw himself into the blue chair on the right side. Serve him right if Martelli had to get the damn thing reupholstered.
Nose buried in a report, Martelli didn’t appear to notice his arrival.
Ivan shifted in his chair a couple of times. He could have showered already.
Irritation and impatience got the better of him. “What the fuck is so important I couldn’t even change clothes first, Sarge?”
“Shut the door, Bekker.”
Anger heated his cheeks and neck. Was it possible to literally steam? Because Ivan was on the brink. He got up and slammed the door so hard he was sitting again before the reverberations ceased.
Lifting one grizzled, gray brow, Martelli stared at him. “Was that necessary?”
Ivan blinked at him. When in doubt, don’t say a damned thing that might be incriminating.
“What happened out there?”
Squinting, he tried to determine Martelli’s exact mood. Definitely pissed off, but Ivan can’t have been the only one to kill their target. With the amount of bullets flying around, it had been nothing short of a localized war zone. No way was he the only one up for investigation by the Special Investigations Unit.
He’d not intended to kill anyone, but he’d done nothing wrong. He shrugged and recounted events of the day, from his perspective. Martelli and the SIU were going to need information from many, many officers before anyone could fully piece together the picture of what happened today.
“Right. Good job. I’m going to need a written statement before you leave.”
“Before I leave?” What the fuck? He had no intention of writing any reports today. Not with Kurt in the hospital, condition unknown.
“Yes, I’m afraid I must insist.”
“Why, Sarge?” Ivan slammed his fists down on the armrests, but that wasn’t enough. He launched out of the chair with enough force to tilt it precariously before it wobbled back onto all four legs. Ivan didn’t even spare it a glance as he prowled about the room. He wasn’t as tall as some of the other officers, but he used his hard-won muscles to intimidate when needed. Unfortunately, Martelli was completely unaffected. Damn him. Then again, Ivan wasn’t like some of the ill-tempered idiots on the squad. Made a lot of people underestimate him.
His boss knew his capabilities, though, and even though Ivan paced like a restless lion, Martelli stared indulgently like he was nothing more than a fretful kitten.
He couldn’t let it go without a whimper. Whirling, he yanked the chair over and watched it skid to a stop at the wall. He stared at it, hands fisted at his side. Punching something would make him feel better—for a split second. There wasn’t a damn thing in the office that wouldn’t bust his knuckles if he tried, and since he normally punched with his gun hand, well… drawing or firing a gun with busted knuckles was no joy.
“Better?” Martelli asked.
Ivan unclenched his fists and slumped into the other chair. He took a bit of vicious satisfaction in getting blood and grime all over both chairs, but that wasn’t enough compensation for making Ivan do paperwork today.
“Interested in knowing why I need you to do this now?” The reproach in Martelli’s tone was unmistakable.
Ivan scraped at a streak of dried blood on the back of his hand that had escaped his initial hand wash.
“Fine.” His mother would have slapped him upside the head if he’d spoken to her with that tone, but Martelli wasn’t his mom, thank Christ.
“You, Kessel, and Gillespie are on admin leave, pending the SIU investigations. I don’t know who else from the other divisions are out, but there weren’t supposed to be any casualties. And there were ten, at last count. This is going to come back and bite me on the ass.”
“Fuck, Sarge, how will making me do paperwork help any?”
Taking a furtive look around the office, Martelli lowered his voice enough that Ivan had to lean in to hear him.
“I’ve got a job for you, completely off the books.”
Shock made him sit back. Martelli had grand plans to get into politics once he’d finished his twenty-five years on the force, backed by his wealthy society wife. As a result, Ivan had never known his boss to bend the rules, and now he was proposing… what, exactly?
“What kind of job?”
“You’re one of my best detectives, Bekker.”
He was? Ivan was damned good at his job, but finding out Martelli thought he was one of the best surprised him. Then again, maybe it made Martelli uncomfortable to show him any sort of favoritism since he was gay. Martelli was an effective leader, but he was usually deaf to the slurs and insults Ivan heard on a regular basis from some of the other officers and detectives—in that, he’d envied Kurt. Inspector Nadar in Homicide seemed a lot more politically correct than Martelli, reprimanding those who acted or spoke offensively. Most of the guys were fine; there were only a few rotten apples in the bunch.
Nevertheless… how did he respond? “Okay.”
Martelli nodded, as though he’d been waiting for some sort of acknowledgment from Ivan. Also weird. “We both know we got lucky today. Only one cop with life-threatening injuries. Considering….” Martelli’s voice dropped yet again.
A scowl deepened the creases on Martelli’s spray-tanned forehead. “Considering we’ve got a leak. Maybe worse.”
Ivan’s nostrils flared. Shit. He’d tried hard not to think it, but he’d been on more than one of these stings during his career, and this was the first time they’d been met with this degree of organized resistance.
“I don’t want to speculate yet. What I do want you to do is go undercover while you’re on your administrative leave. I hate to ask this of you, but we’ve got a tip that needs looking into, and I need you on it.”
Slumping back in his chair, Ivan stared at Martelli. This was so completely against regulations it wasn’t even funny. If this went south, Ivan could lose his job. But police work wasn’t always clean and proper, no matter how much they might wish it so. And if he lost his job over this, well, this wasn’t the first time he’d considered moving into another line of work. He’d wanted to be a cop to fix things, make things better, but he’d never realized he’d have to give up his personal life.
“What’s the job?”
“We got word that one of the suspected up-and-comers in Razhin’s organization has advertised for a roommate. I want you to get in there and see: one, if the connection is real; and two, if you can find some inside information on Razhin. If we can’t take him down, we’re going to have more incidents like today.”
As head of the Russian mafia in Toronto, Viktor Razhin was ultimately responsible for any drug or human trafficking the Russians had a hand in.
Martelli tapped a finger on his desk. “The information I have is that this new kid owns two properties and has spent the past few months delving into the marijuana market.”
“Marijuana? That’s a little small-time for Razhin, isn’t it?”
“From what I can tell, the kid’s an independent operator, and pot’s less dangerous and requires less capital to get started than major coke, crack, or meth operations.”
“And now he’s grown big enough for Razhin to take an interest? Savvy little entrepreneur. But why would a guy like that need or want a roommate?”
Rolling his eyes, Martelli handed over a sheet of paper. “No idea. Look into that if you get a chance, but the Razhin connection is your primary concern. Here’s the vitals. Make sure you shred it before you leave the office.”
“Not even a file?” Ivan frowned.
“Can’t afford one. I’m afraid even entering this into the system will alert the mole.”
Ivan scanned the sheet, but aside from a couple names, addresses, and contact numbers there was little for him to form an opinion. Parker Wakefield. Not a picture, not a driver’s license, not a school transcript, not even a credit report. Not a damned thing except for a notation that he attended the University of Toronto, was twenty-two, and had a boyfriend named Neil Travers. Ivan tried to keep the grimace off his face. Presumably Martelli trusted him, but the bullshit about being the best detective was no more than that. Martelli had chosen him for this operation because he was the only one on the team who was openly gay. Ivan knew of one other, and suspected a couple more, but no way was Martelli putting one of the homophobic asswipes on this.
“I’m a little old to be a college kid, or to need a roommate. How did you want me to play this?”
“Divorced man whose wife took him to the cleaners. I’m hoping he’ll have some sympathy for you, but either way, the housing coordinator at the university owes me a favor. You’ll be presented as the most viable candidate.”
“Wife?” Great. Back in the closet for yet another fucking undercover mission. “Does that mean I’ve got Trish as backup?” His partner would make the ultimate scorned wife. Most of the department thought Trish was a right royal bitch, but Ivan enjoyed her outspokenness, her willingness to call bullshit, and her quick wit. They got along great.
Martelli shook his head, and a tight band squeezed at his heart. If Trish was dirty, Ivan would know, dammit.
“If I don’t have Trish as backup, why can’t I go in as a gay man who just broke up with someone?” Nothing like the damned truth to sell an undercover story.
Martelli snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. That doesn’t have the same devastation as a divorce. We want him to be sympathetic and off guard.”
If Ivan hadn’t been sitting down, he would have fallen. His breath fled as though he’d been kicked in the gut. He’d lived with Colin longer than most departmental marriages lasted. Yet somehow, his relationship was less valid? Sure, he and Colin had never gotten married. Ivan wasn’t sure how that would work for a gay cop, but Colin had never pushed, and Ivan had been content with the state of their relationship. Until he came home early one day last fall and caught Colin fucking someone else in their bed. How was his pain, his sense of betrayal, not as valid?
Why was being gay always an uphill battle? This whole job wore him down, today more than most. Especially since Martelli’s urgency meant it was unlikely he’d be able to stop by the hospital and find out how Kurt was… if he was even going to live.
“So, I guess you don’t need me to seduce him?” Ivan tried to suppress the sour twist to his sarcasm but didn’t entirely succeed, given the puzzled look Martelli directed at him.
“No! I mean, no. Even if that pillow talk thing worked between two guys, he’s way too young for you.”
Martelli’s emphatic words and fierce blush had Ivan raising his brows. He’d been half joking, but he wasn’t sure why his boss was against a honey trap. If it weren’t for the fact thirty-four was practically dead by most gay men’s standards, he might be offended Martelli thought he didn’t have what it took to pull a twenty-two-year-old. Hell, the way he felt right now, he wasn’t sure he could pull a half-blind ninety-two year old.
He’d gone a little hog wild the past couple of months, but his recent practice with one-night stands didn’t provide the same skills required for a successful honey trap. To be fair, most operations didn’t require any of them to sleep with someone for the job. Too easy to lose perspective.
“Whatever. What about the SIU investigation? How am I going to participate? What about my gun?”
Martelli pulled out a cheap, generic cell phone and slid it across the desk. “Use this. I’ll call you from another burner phone and keep you apprised of your appointments. It’s not like anyone’s expecting you to hang around the house all day.”
Appointments. Had he lost his job along with his hypothetical wife? Or was he seriously going to have to hang out somewhere all day, pretending to fucking work? This op got shittier by the minute, but he wasn’t exactly anxious to get back to his half-empty apartment.
“What about a car?” If he was going in undercover, he couldn’t take his own car. It was one of the few indulgences he had, and not only was he not inclined to get it in the line of fire, he wouldn’t put it past Razhin’s people to discover his real identity through his car.
Martelli shook his head. “No car.”
No, of course not. Why the fuck would he get to have a car? The whole op was unsanctioned. The dread and unease, which had begun churning in his stomach as soon as he realized his bullet had taken down that kid, kicked into high gear. What the hell was he doing this for? Risking his job—the only thing he had left—for a half-assed undercover operation and a boss who didn’t think his relationships were worthy of regret or emotional trauma when they ended.
“You have to.” Martelli shot him a pleading look. “I don’t have anyone else I can trust.”
Holy hell. How had he forgotten about the mole? His discomfort and possible reprimand were nothing compared to protecting his fellow officers from a traitor. Kurt might be a new friend, but he deserved nothing less than Ivan’s full attention to this case. Not when the departmental leak might be the reason Kurt had gotten gunned down.
“Fine.” He couldn’t even ask to be kept informed about Kurt’s status. Too much intersection with his real life would only be dangerous for everyone involved, and he didn’t want anyone to trace numbers on his burner phone. Then again, if Kurt didn’t make it, all Ivan would have to do is open a newspaper. “I’ll get you your report before I leave, Sarge. Anything else I need?”
A key and a piece of paper with an address and a phone number on it joined the nondescript cell phone. “Liz arranged everything; you can move in tomorrow.”
“Liz? Who is Liz?”
“The housing coordinator at the university. She’s how I found out about the opening.” Martelli’s gaze dropped to his desk, focused, apparently, on the stapler he hadn’t stopped fiddling with over the past few minutes. Jesus. Was this Liz person his new girlfriend? For a man depending on his wife’s money and connections to launch a political career, he was surprisingly incapable of keeping his pants zipped.
“Whatever. I’ve got a report to write.” Ivan tossed the information sheet on the desk, scooped up his meager tools, and blew out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
The other officers and detectives suddenly looked a whole lot more sinister after his meeting. Home had ceased being a refuge after Colin betrayed him, and now he’d lost the comfort of work. He was too old and beat down for this shit.
IVAN quietly unlocked the door and stepped inside the house. This mission had come together fast and easy. Too easy. Ivan was partly suspicious and partly impressed. Maybe that’s what happened when stings didn’t need to have forms signed in triplicate and notarized by God himself. Just yesterday, he’d been sitting in Martelli’s office, agreeing to his unorthodox undercover operation, and today, he was a divorced straight man. Despite the lack of departmental support, he was able to use a fake ID from his last undercover bust, so he didn’t have to go in with his own ID with his real address on it.
Shaking his head, he closed the door behind him. Parker had, seemingly out of the blue, advertised for a roommate. Was it good luck? Or was it a sign this op was going down the shitter, with Ivan at the vortex? His years as a detective had taught Ivan that easy was a trick. A dangerous trompe l’oeil. But Martelli was less superstitious. Or just more sanguine when Ivan’s safety was on the line. Besides, maybe this was what happened with off-the-books ops.
“Hello?” Ivan called out. He’d yet to meet Parker, the owner of the house. The housing coordinator at the university had facilitated the entire transaction. He’d called her while filling out his report, and she confirmed she’d tell Parker he was moving in immediately. Presumably, Ivan would meet Parker’s boyfriend, but he didn’t want to meet them together. He needed to establish a rapport with his erstwhile roommate because Martelli suspected Parker had a soft spot for the underdog that Ivan intended to play up.
“Hello?” Ivan called again, but he heard nothing. The housing coordinator had assured him moving in on short notice wasn’t a problem, confirmed by the key his boss gave him yesterday, but Ivan expected a welcoming of some sort. One more indication Parker wasn’t a decent human being. As if the drug dealing wasn’t enough to convince him. Maybe the boyfriend could be saved from Parker’s dangerous aspirations.
Ivan glanced quickly into the living room and kitchen. Everything was neat and tidy, not even a dish in the sink. Somewhat unexpected, but even drug dealers might have standards for cleanliness. Ostensibly, Parker was going to university, but this didn’t look like any frat house he’d ever seen. Despite the lack of transcripts, Martelli believed Parker wasn’t taking a full course load, and he had no visible means of income. The lack of income might explain the need for a roommate, but it didn’t explain how Parker owned a house, nor why an up-and-comer in Razhin’s organization would need or want a roommate during the summer semester. Beyond finding out who Parker’s associates were, Ivan wanted to discover the answer to that question. Something wasn’t right here, and Ivan wanted to know what it was before he was staring down the barrel of a gun.
The row house, around a hundred years old, was tiny. A small kitchen, dining room, and living room-turned-media room made up the first floor, along with a small bathroom, which Ivan hadn’t expected. Most houses like this only had a single bathroom upstairs with the bedrooms. The first floor facilities weren’t original, and there was an incredible amount of wood trim—likely original—painted over in white in some sort of decorating travesty. A door led to the basement, but Ivan would have plenty of time to explore down there.
“Hello?” Ivan walked up the narrow staircase, the carpet doing nothing to muffle the creaking treads. This would have been a shit house to live in as a teen who wanted to sneak in after curfew. No one replied.
At the top of the stairs a small landing, too square to be considered a hallway, led to three rooms and another bathroom.
One of the bedrooms on the left had a futon, a couple of bookshelves, and a desk with a computer. Next, Ivan found a plain, sterile bedroom, devoid of any character. Presumably his. He’d been assured he was the only roommate, but this could be a guest room, and he could be stuck in the basement. Nevertheless, he dumped his duffle bag beside the bed and gave the functional and surprisingly clean bathroom a cursory peek before standing in front of the only closed door. When no one responded to his light knock, Ivan opened the door and stuck his head into the master bedroom.
The bed was huge. E-fucking-normous. One of those California king-size beds. Or some sort of optical illusion heightened by the narrowness of the room? Either way, he’d never known a college kid to own a king-size bed. Two narrow bedside tables flanked the barge of a bed, and they had to have been greased to slide into the space between mattress and wall.
Then there was the mess. Without the time to make any kind of search, all he could do was observe. After a moment, the jumble sorted itself into merely… stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Lush pillows and richly colored drapes accented the room, but cardboard boxes draped with T-shirts and jeans mingled with an extremely feminine vanity table and an exotic looking Asian folding screen. The headboard looked like wrought iron but was an IKEA catalogue standard. It didn’t match the wardrobe and dresser, both with a distinct Asian flair that matched the folding screen. The room didn’t scream drug-dealing university student, that was for fucking sure. Ivan didn’t have a clue what it all meant, aside from the fact that it was going to be a bitch to search Parker’s haven. God only knew what resided in the closet, but Ivan would have to find out eventually.
Ivan retreated and silently shut the door. He’d have to make time to thoroughly inspect Parker’s bedroom, but later. He had no idea when his roommate might return, and getting caught snooping his first hour in the house would not spell mission success.
Back on the first floor, he was still alone, so Ivan wandered downstairs.
The basement was damp and unfinished. An old beast of a furnace hulked in a shadowed corner. A few bare bulbs extending from ceiling beams illuminated the depressive gray of the cinder-block walls. Aside from the furnace, which Ivan could hardly believe functioned, the basement held nothing more than a few more cardboard boxes darkened with damp, a washer and dryer, and shelving units.
He pounded back up to the second floor and was unpacking his clothes when the front door opened.
Who the fuck was that? The smoky voice tightened Ivan’s belly like someone had just stroked his balls. Ivan closed the drawer, wondering if he should respond.
“Ivan, are you here?”
Oh, shit. Parker? Why hadn’t anyone warned him Parker’s voice was like dark amber honey distilled with sex?
“I’ll be down in a minute.” Ivan wasn’t sure how well his cover would work, but this wasn’t the best time for second thoughts. College had been a long fucking time past. Ivan looked younger than his thirty-four years, but Parker was more than ten years younger. How were they going to connect enough for Parker to trust him? And trust him maybe more than his boyfriend, Neil?
Drawing in a deep breath, Ivan wiped his palms on his jeans and mentally ran through his cover story. He was beginning to hate the undercover work. Or was it just the Drug Squad he hated? Each role became more grueling.
Ivan walked into the kitchen, where Parker was putting groceries into the fridge. He wore a soft, well-worn green T-shirt and a pair of loose jeans. Parker was slim and tall, probably a couple of inches taller than Ivan’s own five-eleven.
“Hi,” Ivan said softly.
Parker didn’t turn but continued with his task while Ivan took in what he could see of Parker from behind. His hair was dark brown, spiked with golden tips that looked like a blond dye job growing out, a look Ivan had a sneaking fondness for.
“Hi.” Parker placed the last container of yogurt on a shelf and shut the door. “There. All done. I was hoping to finish before you got here.”
Parker turned around.
Ivan clutched at the counter.
Oh holy hell. Ivan had expected a complication, but not like this. Parker was fucking gorgeous. Almost androgynous, with sharply chiseled features and soft-looking full lips. And his eyes. Eyes that looked like the smooth stones at the bottom of a creek bed. Gray, green, flecks of gold, surrounded by the thickest, longest lashes Ivan had ever seen on a man. Ivan could stare at those eyes for hours. The hair was perfect for him. It suited this damned amazing-looking man. Who could be a fucking model if he wanted to be.
Oh God. Ivan had to live with him. Try to be friends with him. Keep his hands off him and pretend to be fucking straight.
“Sorry, I’m Parker.” Parker held out his hand, his sweet smile softening the planes of his face like the old silver-screen stars seen through Vaseline-smeared lenses.
Ivan stepped closer to the counter and shook Parker’s hand, thankful the counter was high enough to hide the bulge growing in his pants.
“I’m Ivan.” His voice was gruff, probably sounded curt. At least, he hoped it did. If Parker knew how appealing he was to Ivan, it would be impossible to find out what he needed to know. Hitting on someone’s boyfriend wasn’t cool, especially when it wasn’t one of the stated parameters of the op. Even if Martelli believed gay men fucked instead of shaking hands, it would be difficult for Ivan to entice this hot young thing into his bed. Ivan was good-looking, but nothing like this Adonis. And he wasn’t old enough to satisfy any daddy kink Parker might have.
“Nice to meet you.” Parker’s voice rumbled through his narrow chest. He didn’t look skinny or bony, but that deep voice definitely didn’t match his physique.
“Do you drink?” Parker asked.
“Yeah, sure, just about anything.” True, but that made him sound like a lush.
“Oh, good. I hoped you might. I brought some beer home. Thought we could order a pizza, have a few beers, and get to know each other.”
Ivan stared at Parker. This was more considerate than he’d expected from his organized crime-connected, drug-dealing roomie.
“Uh. If you want, that is.” Parker’s smile slipped away at Ivan’s lengthy pause, replaced by a hesitant look. Ivan felt like he’d singlehandedly pulled the clouds across the sun. How could one smile make such a fucking difference?
“Sure. That sounds great. My treat.” Ivan tried to regain his lost ground. An unhappy Parker would not be a forthcoming Parker.
Parker tilted his head to the side, like a bird. “Oh. But I thought….” His cheeks pinked up, and he dropped his gaze.
Christ. His fucking cover. He had to get into the mindset of Ivan Baker, loser. “Hey, it’s okay. My wife took just about everything in the divorce, but I can spring for a pizza without raiding the sofa cushions for change. I promise.”
Parker chuckled, and that thousand-calorie smile returned. It was a treat on which Ivan wanted to gorge himself. Why, oh why, couldn’t Parker look like the fucking lowlifes he arrested all the time? Not one criminal had ever filled him with the urge to slide his fingers into their hair, desperate to pull lips down atop his own.
FUCK. Parker’s new roommate was pissed about something. Nerves twisted his stomach. Maybe he should have asked for a woman. Parker didn’t know how to make friends with guys, especially not sexy, straight, older guys who probably had boatloads of life experience and… what would they talk about? He didn’t know a lot about sports or cars or sex with women. Hell, he hadn’t had sex with many people at all, despite having given up his virginity six years ago.
Neil thought he was an idiot for wanting a roommate. The sweet lady at the university housing office told him mid-semester was the worst time to search for one. When she’d called telling him she had a candidate, although not a student, Parker had been ecstatic. A newly divorced man might be as lonely as he was, because the emptiness of his place was crushing him, and Neil refused to move in. He certainly hadn’t expected to find the guy attractive.
“So, beer?” Parker proffered the chilled bottle, hoping the booze would ease the way. He didn’t want Neil to be right. The desperation to prove Neil wrong intensified as Ivan’s lips thinned and he reached out for the bottle.
“Thanks. Have you got a local pizza place you like, or should I just call Pizza Pizza?”
“Pizza Pizza’s good.” It was Parker’s favorite, anyway. Being able to call a single phone number, no matter where you were in the city, and get a decent pizza delivered was a boon to both students and stoners alike.
“I saw you had a sweet TV out there. Want to put something on while I call?”
“Uh, sure.” What the hell was he supposed to put on? Clearly they weren’t going to talk. Probably that was too much to expect. They weren’t on a date. Parker grimaced. He assumed straight guys used TV as an avoidance mechanism, just like the gay guys he knew.
With a sigh, he sank down on the couch. Neil had talked him into getting the entertainment system, but it hadn’t taken long for Parker to realize it wasn’t for Parker’s benefit. He fiddled with the remote, postponing turning it on.
“What do you want on your pizza?” Ivan called from the kitchen.
Parker rubbed his belly and frowned. “Pepperoni’s fine.”
He couldn’t tell what Ivan’s grunt meant, but the subsequent low rumble was obviously the man ordering pizza, even though Parker couldn’t distinguish any specific words.
A few minutes later, while Parker stared at the remote in his hands, Ivan strode out of the kitchen and flung himself down in the armchair. The room seemed smaller, somehow, even though Ivan was a couple inches shorter than Parker. Those shoulders, though, were wide enough to steal Parker’s breath, and under the boring blue golf shirt was a super fit body. Not that he would have tried anything if Ivan had sat beside him on the couch. The proximity of good-looking men made him squirmy and stupid.
Ivan stretched out a hand, and Parker stared at it for a moment before he let out an embarrassed chuff of laughter and handed over the remote.
“Let’s see what you’ve got to make this TV worthwhile.”
Ivan flipped on the TV with the practiced hand of a veteran. The huge expanse of flesh on the enormous screen clued Parker in to what Neil had been watching last as the room filled with moans and the slick sound of adequately lubed fucking. The camera pulled back to bring into focus a giant cock pumping into someone’s ass. Parker’s entire body chilled as all available blood rushed to his face—probably not the moviemaker’s intended result. He leapt over the coffee table, slamming his shin against it as he went, and scrabbled at the DVD player. Goddamn Neil.
Doing his best to block the screen with his body, Parker waited an eternity for the disc to slide out. After what seemed like several hellish minutes, the blessed blue menu screen replaced the oversized cock, set of balls, and full moon. He snatched the disc out of the player and tossed it behind the TV. Serve Neil right if it broke. Probably pirated anyway.
With dread—and a face on fire—Parker turned back to Ivan. Had he noticed it was two guys fucking? When Parker first advertised for a roommate, it never occurred to him to mention he was gay, but suddenly that seemed a huge mistake. The hard, curved biceps peeking out of his short sleeves were testament to the power Ivan could put behind a punch. Parker’s shin throbbed, reminding him of how vulnerable a body could be.
Stunned wasn’t disgusted—or homicidal—was it? Or in this case, homo-cidal?
Ivan’s lips worked, but he didn’t say anything.
“It’s not mine.” Parker wanted to call back the words as soon as they escaped. Seriously, could he have sounded any more guilty?
Ivan cut a glance at the couch, and Parker’s face burned hotter than before. Was he imagining Parker sitting there, jerking off? Would it be any less embarrassing—or icky—to explain it was Neil? Because Parker didn’t want to think about that either. Undoubtedly, Ivan was pleased he hadn’t sat on the couch. It was going to take a supreme effort of will for Parker to sit back on the couch before he’d had it scotch-guarded.
“Okay.” Ivan sounded almost like he believed Parker. “You want to…?” Ivan waved the remote, and a fresh flood of mortification swamped Parker as he moved from his protective and obstructive stance in front of the TV.
Trying not to be too obvious, Parker inspected the couch. He couldn’t see any new stains, and he limped around the coffee table to sit down gingerly.
Ivan flipped on the retro video station before turning to him. Parker hadn’t really taken the time to look at his new roommate in the kitchen, but now he did. Ivan had the wide-set eyes and sharply defined cheekbones Parker associated with Eastern European men, similar to the guys Neil had brought around on occasion, but so rugged and gorgeous it hurt. Golden blond hair and dark blue eyes and a body without an ounce of fat, although Parker wouldn’t mind making a thorough, naked inspection to be sure. Just as some of the blood left his face—finally—for a point farther south, Ivan raised a brow questioningly.
Parker coughed and glanced at the video playing on the TV. He didn’t recognize it, but there was a lot of spiky, bleached hair. He shouldn’t have been staring at his new roommate, assuming he hadn’t scared Ivan off already. Even if Ivan wasn’t straight, he was way out of Parker’s league. Probably thought he was nothing more than some dumb university kid who spent all his free time whacking off on the sofa.
The silence stretched out endlessly, punctuated by the distinctive wail of eighties electronica. Ivan must not have realized the DVD had shown two guys fucking, or he would have said something, wouldn’t he? Although Ivan’s intent stare was very much like one of his professors trying to catch someone in a lie, which was a little weird.
“Did you, uh, find your room? Is it okay? We can move some of the furniture around. The laundry’s downstairs, and we can make a schedule for cleaning and shopping and stuff and—” Parker broke off. His words had accelerated, but he hadn’t been able to put on the brakes until his breath ran out, even though Ivan’s eyes had widened partway through his speech. Embarrassment flared in his face—again—and he bit his lip to stop himself from saying another word. This was why he didn’t have many friends aside from Neil. Neil was the only one who’d hung out with the fat kid and stuck around after Parker had shed the weight but retained his social idiocy.
Ivan frowned, and Parker frowned back, unsure where to go from here. He shifted his legs and caught his shin on the edge of the coffee table again.
“Ow. Fuck.” Throbbing pain exploded where he’d hit his leg during his ungainly leap over the table, and he wrapped a hand around it, rocking and biting his lip to keep in any whimpers.
“Let me look.” Ivan left his seat to drop to his knees by Parker, making him freeze.
With gentle fingers, Ivan moved Parker’s hand and slid the leg of Parker’s jeans up. He pressed his fingers around the contusion, the pain making Parker hiss.
“You’re going to have a nasty bruise, and you broke the skin, but not badly. No fracture, I don’t think. Have you got a first aid kit?” Ivan stared up into his face, and Parker had a little trouble catching his breath.
“Yes, um, in the bathroom. Under the sink.” Parker waved toward the front of the house.
Ivan patted his knee and rose, heading for the bathroom.
“Most houses this old don’t have bathrooms on this floor.” The tile inside the bathroom made Ivan’s voice warble slightly.
“True. But after my mom got sick, we had a bathroom put in so she could stay at home and not worry about stairs.”
White plastic box in hand, Ivan stepped out of the bathroom and stared at Parker. Again.
“Your mom lived here?” Ivan glanced around the room, and Parker nodded.
“Yeah. Near the end, she had difficulty getting around, so we had the bathroom put in and set this room up as a bedroom.”
“Where does she live now?”
Parker dropped his gaze to the purplish, bloodied lump on his shin and shrugged. His mom had been his best friend, and although he’d had a couple years to prepare for her death, it had still rocked him. Even now, almost six months later, he’d sometimes call out to her when he got home. At least Neil had never heard him do that.
“Oh, when did… I mean… I didn’t….”
The sound of Ivan stumbling over his words like Parker usually did had him looking up. The sympathy on Ivan’s face had his eyes burning.
“I didn’t realize, Parker,” Ivan said as he walked closer.
“Why would you?”
Getting himself under control was easier when Ivan transferred his attention to cleaning Parker’s leg. He bit back an offer to do it himself. Would be the more manly, self-sufficient route, but it had been so long since someone had touched him tenderly, selflessly, and with true caring.
The swipe of an alcohol swab over the scrape made Parker flinch, but the unexpected waft of coolness as Ivan blew on it brought goose bumps up on his nape. Did Ivan have kids? Was that how he learned to take care of minor injuries like this?
Ivan continued on with his first aid. “How long has it been?”
“Six months. Cancer.” Parker didn’t need any clarification for Ivan’s question.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Ivan placed a couple of bandages over the cut, his fingers warm against Parker’s skin.
“Thanks.” He cleared his throat.
As he pulled Parker’s pant leg back down, Ivan lifted his head. Parker had never seen such beautiful blue eyes before, and the compassion filling them warmed his belly.
The doorbell rang, and Ivan sprang back, nearly toppling over onto his ass.
“Guess that’s the pizza.” Ivan headed for the door, pulling out his wallet.
Suddenly chilled, Parker wrapped his arms around himself. He couldn’t decide if living with Ivan was going to be heaven or hell.