Chapter One

 

“OH MY God. Rodney, did you hear about the robbery? I saw them. I talked to them!” JJ LaRousse fluttered his hands, but he couldn’t help it. At six foot four and one ninety-eight, fluttery hands might be an incongruity, but sometimes his emotions won. Sometimes? Well, maybe all the time.

“Take an end before I drop it.” Rod’s short arms could barely grasp the edges of the giant painting, and it tipped precariously as he approached the booth. Rodney Mansfield’s small stature didn’t match his enormous personality.

“Sorry.” JJ grabbed the painting with one hand and lifted the burden. He glanced at the semi-impressionistic portrait of a drool-producing nude man lying on the grass in the sun, his big, relaxed cock illuminated by a ray of sunshine. Why can’t I find a guy like that? Well, maybe not lying on the grass nude, but a special guy. Still, having a partner meant taking care of someone, and that was so not his forte.

JJ set the canvas on the floor of the booth at the back beside the boxes of little clownish dolls they were hoping to sell for holiday gifts at the Winter Fantasy Art and Craft Show.

Rod leaned against the sales counter and pulled off the bright aqua scarf he’d wrapped around his neck three times. It might be December, but it was still a good sixty-five degrees outside. California winter. “Yeah, I heard people talking about the robbery when I came in. What happened, darling?”

JJ flopped down on a wooden crate that held more items from the gallery for the booth. “These two guys dressed like Santa Claus and an elf apparently came in early this morning when people were just starting to set up. Everybody thought they were part of the Santa’s Village display, so nobody suspected anything until Suzanne and Ollie saw them hanging around some of their jewelry boxes. Before Suzanne even realized what they’d done, the guys had stolen expensive stuff from them and a bunch of other booths too. When they went to look for them, the two men were gone.” He took a deep breath. “But I saw them!” His hands started to flutter, and he curled them into fists. “They came right by here. I talked to them!” He fanned his face. Fluttering again.

Rod reached out and grasped JJ’s hands. He smiled. Rod was so great at calming him down. Yes, he was a drama queen, but Rodney knew how to handle him. “What did you say to them?”

“Something about where they’d left their reindeer and weren’t they traveling a little early. God, how dumb could I be?”

Rod gazed at him intently. “Not your fault. Did they answer?”

“Yes.”

“And what did they say?”

“The big guy, Santa, said their sleigh was double-parked and you know how tough the meter maids are in Laguna. Oh hell, I laughed. Damn.”

“You’re going to have to tell all this to the police.”

JJ sighed. “I know. A cop in a uniform came over and said that a detective will be here soon to question me.” He pulled his hand from Rod’s grasp and started fanning again. He just couldn’t help it. “Oh God, I could die.”

Rod pointed to the back wall. “So let’s get the painting hung, and you can set up the rest of the booth. That’ll take your mind off it.”

“Okay.” Rod always knew what to do. JJ stood up and grabbed a hammer and hook he’d brought for the purpose. With Rod’s guidance, the gorgeous painting by Roman, the nom de plume of Rodney Mansfield, soon dominated the back wall of the booth. They probably wouldn’t sell it here. Most people attending the exhibition were looking for Christmas gifts, and a $15,000 painting wasn’t exactly a stocking stuffer, but it would attract people to the gallery later.

Rod stepped back. “Looks great.” He pointed at JJ’s head. “By the way, I like the new do.”

JJ patted a hand against his longish hair. He’d dyed it pink that morning from its usual brown. “I had a great role model.” It was true. Rod was JJ’s best example for how to be himself.

Rod laughed and flipped his red-and-green bangs. “I’m doing a holiday motif.”

Voices sounded from two booths down. “Ma’am, I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you wouldn’t mind.” JJ shivered. Was he scared of the police or reacting to that low, gravelly voice? He walked to the edge of the booth and peeked around the corner. Sweet dreams of baby gay boys—that was a hunk. JJ pulled back and started fanning.

Rod glanced up from his inspection of a piece of sculpture. “What?”

JJ hissed. “Look. Oh my God, look at what’s coming to question me.” The fanning hand moved so fast it was probably invisible.

Rod stepped out into the walkway in front of the booth. The man knew no fear. Of course, he was a black belt in karate, but still. Rod glanced toward the neighboring display, then walked casually back into the booth. He lowered his voice. “I’ve seen that guy before. A Laguna cop. But I think he’s some transplant from New York City or something.”

“Holy shit, don’t tell me that.” JJ was going to faint.

Rod shook his head. “Come on, he’s just going to ask you some questions.”

“I know. Okay, yes.” Deep breath.

Rod lowered his voice to a whisper. “Besides, I think he might be gay.” Rod grinned like a canary that ate the cat.

“Oh God, be still my heart.”

Rod laughed. “Clearly, darling, you’re also a member of Alpha Males Anonymous.”

JJ sighed. “But you and David both got your alphas. In fact, David got two!” His boss, the gallery owner, David Underwood, had partnered with the two hunkiest Australian volleyball players God ever created.

“Yes, darling, and so will you.” He grinned. “Well, maybe not two. We’re not all that lucky.”

JJ shook his head. “I don’t know what I want. I mean, look at me. Everyone thinks I’m an alpha male. You’d expect me to be carrying a football instead of picking out sofa fabric. The only guys who like me are twinks looking for someone to take care of them.” But he knew he couldn’t take care of anybody. He’d sure proven that in his life. He tossed a piece of straw off the counter. “Besides, I don’t know if I like the tough, alpha types. They scare me. Oh hell, I don’t know anything. I really want a partner, but I play around. I can’t help myself.”

“You’re only twenty-three. Give yourself a break.” Rod winked. “Besides, you’re not looking for a type. You’re looking for a person.”

JJ smiled. Rod always made him feel better. “Thanks. You really are smart.” He grinned. “Oh, and sexy, of course.”

“So are you, darling. Sometimes you just let your emotions overrule your head.” Rod leaned in and said softly, “I saw that cop at a bar one time with a guy who could have just been a buddy. I mean, the other man was as straight-looking as they come. Football-player type, you know? But it was a gay bar in Santa Ana, so you figure it out.”

“Wow.”

Rod looped his scarf once around his neck. “I have to go back to the studio. I’ve got a model coming in at noon, and then I’m having a late lunch with my honey. He doesn’t have many classes today.”

JJ frowned. “Damn. I was hoping you could stay while I answered the cop’s questions.” He took a deep breath. “But say hi to Hunter for me.”

“You’ll do fine. Kiss-kiss, darling.” Rod smooched the air, gave JJ a hug around his upper chest, and walked out of the booth with that cocky stride of his. It would be great to be more like Rodney—brave and feisty, daring the world to criticize him. Yes, and having the most beautiful ex-firefighter turned teacher in all of Southern California as a lover. Why couldn’t he find that kind of love? Oh well.

JJ peeked around the corner again. The cop was right next door, and the quick glance took JJ’s breath away. Why? The guy was nice enough looking, but not some drop-dead gorgeous movie star. Medium height with short dark hair, a lean build, and slightly pockmarked face. There was something that radiated off him, though. Power or certainty… something.

JJ stared up at the morning sun. So Rod had seen this cop in a gay bar with a straight-looking guy. JJ fanned himself. He looked at the hand and clenched it into a fist. Hell, he was straight-looking as long as you didn’t spend five minutes with him. But that cop was about to get up close and personal. Could he do it? People always expected him to be tough and masculine. Maybe he could fake it. Did he want to? He’d spent so long accepting who he was. Still… maybe just once.

The kid who took tickets at the front gate ambled by.

JJ waved. “Ralphie.”

The big kid turned. “Hi, JJ.”

JJ wagged a finger toward him, and Ralphie came into the booth. JJ whispered, “Could I borrow your baseball cap?”

“And cover up that great do? Hell, man, why do that?”

JJ shrugged. “The police. You know.” He pointed at his head.

“Oh yeah. The gay thing. Sure, no problem.” Ralphie handed it over, and JJ popped the USC cap over his pink streaks. “How’s it look?”

“You’re positively collegiate, buddy.”

Yeah, US College of Decorators! “Thanks. I’ll bring it back before I go.”

“A-OK.” The kid left at the same sauntering pace.

JJ grabbed his jacket and slipped it on, then took a deep breath. Why was he doing this? Well, he could say he didn’t want the cop to think he was a stupid ninny whose eyewitness account couldn’t be trusted. Yeah. That was it. His story and he was sticking to it.

He bent over and started pulling more of the small dolls out of the box. Something moved in the tissue. Oh God, a spider! He threw the paper across the booth, jumped back, and fanned himself while the eight-legged foe crawled into the sawdust-covered pathway. “Good. Go. Go!” He flicked his hands. JJ hated to wish for the spider to get stepped on, but those were the facts.

Try again. Deep breath. Calm. Channel Steve McQueen. Well, maybe not that far.

He looked at the beautiful Christmas village he’d set up on a large side display table, complete with skaters on the mirror pond and tiny decorated trees. Carefully he placed the art objects into the scene. These dolls would bring in the money during Winter Fantasy because people could afford to give them as gifts. An original piece of art at a reasonable price. It was a great find for shoppers. He nestled a lovely red-and-green doll into a forest of tiny pines.

“That’s really pretty.”

“Oh.” JJ almost dropped the doll. He grabbed it firmly, placed it, breathed, and turned toward the husky voice. Showtime.

The cop raised the corners of his mouth slightly. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

Could he try out his own deep voice? JJ cleared his throat and dropped his tone from the usual stratosphere. “Not a problem. I wasn’t paying attention.” Blue. The guy’s eyes were a deep blue. Up close, his face had a classic structure that looked like it had been wrecked a bit: a high-bridged nose with a slight crook, as if somebody broke it once or twice, creamy skin marred by a few orange-peel-like marks, a light scar from the upper part of his neck that curved over his jaw. Scary. Ummmm… and sexy.

The policeman took out a small notebook—just like in the movies. “I’d like to ask you a few questions about what you saw today.”

JJ took hold of the edges of the counter so he could keep his hands still. “Okay.” He tried again, an octave lower. “Sure. Shoot.”

The guy flipped a page of the notebook. JJ stared at him and the question burst out. “Uh, what’s your name?”

The guy looked embarrassed. “I’m so sorry. I should have identified myself. I just… uh, I’m Detective Star.” He flashed his badge.

“What Star?”

“Excuse me?”

“What’s your first name?”

“Oh. Ryan.”

JJ smiled. “Nice name. I’m JJ LaRousse.”

The detective looked a little confused, but he wrote it down. “One S or two?”

“Two. And the JJ stands for Jamison Jeremiah.”

“So, Mr. LaRousse—”

“JJ.”

“JJ. Can you tell me where you were this morning at nine forty-five?”

JJ’s eyes widened. “Do you think I did the robberies?” He held the counter really tight.

“Mr.—uh, JJ—I was told that you saw the thieves, and I’m just trying to determine the chain of events.”

JJ breathed out. Relax! “Yes, uh, I was right here in this booth.”

“Can you describe what you saw?”

“I saw Santa Claus and his elf walking past really fast.” He looked into the blue eyes. “I guess I should say I saw two men dressed as those characters.”

“Can you describe them?”

“The Santa guy was kind of tall. A little taller than you, but not as tall as me.”

Star wrote. “So, about six feet one or so?”

“Probably, yes. The other guy was little. That’s one reason why I didn’t think anything strange. The elf was really small—like, he fit the costume. I figured they were just rehearsing for the Winter Fantasy Santa’s Village.”

“How small.”

JJ held out his hand at the middle of his chest.

“About five foot four?”

“Yeah, or maybe smaller.”

“But it was definitely a man?”

JJ cocked his head. “Good question.”

Again, that gaze speared him. “Close your eyes and picture the two of them and see if you remember anything that would indicate if the person might have been female.”

JJ closed his eyes. Wow. The detective smelled good. Like citrus with some honey in it. A soft smell, not overpowering at all. Maybe he could just snuggle his head against Ryan’s neck and inhale deeply. “Ummm.”

“Excuse me?”

“Uh, sorry. The elf had big feet, and I think he had tennies under the elf shoe covering. I’d guess a man.” His eyes flew open. “Yes, Adam’s apple. The guy had one.”

Detective Star smiled. Oh god of sweet homosexual love. Like flashing white perfection in that otherwise imperfect face. JJ’s cock leaped up in greeting. Hello, Starshine.

The cop beamed at him. “Good job, JJ. Now what else can you remember?”

Oh my, how he loved pleasing the nice detective. “Santa was wearing a phony beard, but he had black stubble on his cheek above it. He had on sunglasses. Cheap ones. Prada knockoffs you might get on the street in Santa Ana.” Okay, maybe too much information. “Uh, he was wearing some padding, but I think he probably had some fat of his own. The elf was skinny. And”—he closed his eyes and pulled up the picture again—“he had weird eyes.”

“How weird?”

“Kind of pale and a little scary-looking.”

“Could they have been contacts?”

“Doubt it.” He closed his eyes again. Oh, he loved that scent. He opened them. “I couldn’t see the elf’s hair because he wore a full wig, but I’ll bet it was red.”

Star frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“He had those freckles that some redheads have. Might be.”

“Is there anything else?”

JJ nodded. Could he think of twenty more things to keep the good detective here? “The bigger man spoke to me, and he had an accent of some kind.”

“What kind?”

JJ screwed up his nose. “Hmm. It was a little like Southern, but… I know, I think it was like Boston or New England or something. Sort of flat-sounding.”

“Was the voice deep?”

JJ breathed out slowly. “Not as deep as yours.”

Star’s blue eyes flashed up at him.

“Uh, I mean you have a low voice. The Santa’s voice was higher and nasally.”

“Do you think you would recognize it again?”

“Possibly.”

Star asked him a few more questions about what the robbers had said and where they seemed to be going. He flipped the notebook closed. “You’ve been extremely helpful. Thank you for your time.”

JJ tried to keep his voice low. “Anytime.”

Star looked back at him for a moment. “I may have a few more questions. Is there somewhere I can reach you?”

Oh, be still my heart. JJ recited his cell number, and Star wrote it in his notebook—on a separate page. Oh my.

“So, you a Trojan?”

“What?” JJ swallowed.

Star pointed at his head. “USC.”

“Oh, uh, no. Just a, uh, fan.”

That blazing smile again. “You like football.” It wasn’t a question, thank God.

“I’ve been known to watch a game.” JJ held his breath.

The appraising blue eyes stared into his. “Thanks again for your great help.”

“My pleasure.” Or at least his cock’s pleasure.

Detective Ryan Star walked away toward a group of uniformed officers gathered at the booth across from JJ’s. The cop’s jeans clung to lean, muscled thighs, and the tweed sports jacket had an obligatory feel, like maybe it wasn’t something he wore in his free time. It wasn’t something he should wear at all. That man needed a dresser. JJ sighed. Fat effing chance it would be him.

JJ went back to the display, trying hard to look manly while positioning dolls on a snow scene. He glanced up and caught his breath. Star was staring at him. JJ wanted to fan himself so bad. Man up.

He stared down at the doll in his hands. Why the hell was he trying to impress this guy? The detective was scary and his job was violent, two things JJ hated. But there was that second while he was questioning JJ when Star had looked embarrassed that he’d forgotten to show his credentials. Was that a hint of the vulnerable man underneath? Naw, he probably just felt uncomfortable around a creampuff like JJ.

What had he been thinking?

He’d been known to watch a football game? Not in this life.