Chapter 1


“BLAIR, MR. Montague would like to speak with you,” Marlene, Blair’s father’s secretary, said as she passed his desk on the way to get her boss some coffee. She smiled and dutifully refrained from rolling her eyes.

Blair would have. Hell, he did, and then he turned away as he closed the revenue projection report on his desk.

“Thanks, Marlene.” Blair stood and walked out of his seventies-paneled office to where she was filling his father’s mug. Blair got one of his own. If he was going to have to meet with his father, then he needed caffeine in a big way. Lord, everyone needed caffeine to deal with his father. Hell, heavy drugs and alcohol were a more inviting combination when dealing with his old man, but not an option. Not that he was a heavy drinker or did drugs, but his father was enough to make him want to start.

Marlene left the break area with two mugs—she apparently needed fortification as well—and they walked together back to his father’s equally dated office. She put the mug on his desk. “Blair is here, Mr. Montague.” She turned and left. Marlene and his father had worked together for twenty years and she still called him Mr. Montague, at his insistence. That said a lot about his dad, in Blair’s opinion.

“Come in here, boy. Don’t just stand out there.”

Blair went into the office and closed the door. You’d think a man who owned four casinos throughout Nevada would be able to afford a better office for himself and his staff. From what Blair had seen, his father could afford just about anything he wanted but was too damned cheap to update anything that wasn’t seen by the public. It probably made business sense, but the place was depressing as hell. He sat down in one of the orange chairs and waited. The furniture in this place was old enough that it could probably be sold as vintage to pay for redecorating the place. Of course his dad would just sell the stuff and buy cheap secondhand crap to replace it, pocket the difference, and move on.

“You wanted to see me?” Blair said quietly. His thoughts he kept to himself.

“Yes. I’m starting a new business venture, and I want you to make it happen for me.” He finally looked up from his computer, and Blair instantly felt a chill, like someone had pulled all the heat out of the room. “I want to diversify my holdings and see if we can supply some more of what we need. So I want to purchase ranchland so we can supply some of our own beef for the casino restaurants. These suppliers are gouging me right and left, and I intend to put a stop to it.”

Paying the same price as everyone else constituted gouging to his father. Blair had seen a number of invoices, and his father had actually negotiated great prices. Getting quality product for a low price was his father’s strength. Treating others as though they weren’t dirt under his feet was not.

“All right. What do you want me to do?”

“We’re going to put that expensive college education I paid for to work and see if it’s good for anything. I’m sending you to Newton, Montana. I know you’re familiar with the place.” He glared at Blair. “I’ve been in negotiations with a few people in the area to see their ranches. I have the details in this folder.”

“What do you need from me?” The last place on earth he wanted to go back to was Newton. After his mother and father divorced, she had moved around quite a bit, and they had spent a miserable year in Newton when Blair was sixteen. At least it had been miserable for Blair. An entire year of farm boys, ranch kids, cowgirls, and him with a target on his back because everyone knew he didn’t fit in. Blair was too… at the time he didn’t have the words, though now he did. He was too gay, but back then he’d still been trying to figure that out. With no one to talk to or friends to confide in, he had been miserable. Hell—teenage descent into the ninth level of hell, to be more precise.

“I can tell by your expression that you don’t want to go, and frankly I don’t care. I don’t have the time right now to make this happen, and Lord knows you do, so you’re going to go, and I’m not going to hear another word about it.” He glared at Blair, and another chill went through Blair, even though the room was too warm. His dad kept the AC at eighty because it cost money to cool the place. The office was in Las Vegas, for God’s sake. People roasted outside, but not in an office.

“Gee, thanks for caring,” Blair muttered.

“Don’t give me any of that. We made a deal, and you’re going to live up to it.”

“I’m not your indentured servant,” Blair protested. “I could be a real help to you if you’d let me.” He’d been to business school, and he could see that his father’s penny-pinching was costing him more money than it was saving in the long run. He’d tried to explain it to him, but his dad wouldn’t listen. He never did.

“I agreed to pay for that college education of yours, and you agreed to come here and learn my business. So learn it and keep quiet. I need you to go to Newton and make this happen. If you do, then I’ll consider giving you more autonomy. I’m thinking you could run the casino in Lake Tahoe. The manager is retiring in six months, and you could take his place. But you have to prove yourself, and this is how I want you to do it.” His father slid a computer printout to him. “Marlene has made your travel arrangements, and this is your flight information.”

Blair opened his mouth and closed it again. There was no use arguing or making excuses. Giles Montague wasn’t going to listen to him for two seconds. His eyes were ice cold and his posture as rigid as Blair had ever seen it. All he could wonder was what in the hell he had ever done to make his father act this way. He’d always been respectful, and Lord knew he’d tried to make his dad proud of him. But nothing he did was ever good enough, and he was fairly certain that no matter the outcome of this little excursion, his father wouldn’t be pleased. “I’ll have to make some arrangements.” He took the sheet.

“Do whatever you have to do, but be on that plane tomorrow morning. I’ll give you the rest of the day off to take care of whatever business you need.” His father sounded magnanimous, but it was already approaching three in the afternoon. His dad was letting him go two hours early. Woo freaking hoo.

Blair stood up and walked toward the door. There was nothing else he could say to change his father’s mind, so he didn’t even try. He didn’t turn around as he pulled open the door and left.

“Honey, I have everything you need, and I put you up at the nice hotel in town instead of that fleabag your father wanted me to book.” Marlene turned toward his closed office door. “I told him it was full. I also rented you a truck because I figured that’s what most people drove there and you’d fit in better.”

Blair forced a smile. She had done the best she could for him. “I appreciate it. But I somehow doubt that if I lived to be a hundred I’d ever fit in there.” Blair turned toward the office door. “Why is my dad suddenly interested in Montana cattle ranches?”

“He says he wants to raise his own beef. From what I know, it makes sense to see if he can cut costs. This is a competitive business, and if he can charge less and get more people in, they’ll lose more money at the slots. That’s the casino business in a nutshell.” She pulled open her desk drawer and handed Blair an envelope. “I pulled this from petty cash so you wouldn’t have to use your own money for expenses. Just save the receipts and I’ll replace anything this doesn’t cover.”

The last time he’d traveled, his father had taken months to reimburse him, complaining about paying for things like dinner and gas. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, honey. While you’re there, you call if you need anything.” She looked toward the door once again. “Thankfully your father is going to be gone as well. He’s making a tour of Reno and Tahoe. Maybe he’ll leave me alone for a few days.” Whenever his father was out of the office, the place was bearable, but when he was there, the oppression settled over the place like a wool blanket in July.

Blair took everything and walked back to his broom-closet-sized office. He swore that at some point his father had turned a closet into an office, because there was barely room for a small desk in there. He closed the application he’d been working on and gathered his things while he picked up his phone and called his friend Todd.

“Are we still on for this weekend?” Todd asked a little breathlessly when he picked up the call. “I’m just about to head to the store to get the snacks and things.”

Blair sighed.

“Okay, let me guess—your father!” Todd’s disgust was plainly evident. “I really hate that man, and I can’t figure out why you don’t tell him to pound sand.” He huffed. “So what’s he got you doing this time, going downtown to clean the toilets?”

“I have to go to Montana.”

“Montana!” Todd said as though Blair had just said he was going to the Bates Motel for a weeklong stay. “Good God. Wait, didn’t you spend time there when you were a teenager or something?”

“Yeah. It was my time in hell atoning for my sins. Can you believe it? That’s why he’s sending me. I think my dad thinks I have connections there or something. And I do, if being shoved into lockers and bullied within an inch of my life counts. Then, yeah, I’m sure they’ll all remember me. I still have an indentation from the hook inside a locker on the back of my head.”

“Okay. So you’re going to Montana instead of camping in the desert with me.”

“I’m sorry.” They had been planning this trip for weeks.

“It’s all right, sweetheart. I know it’s that asshole father of yours. You promise me that you’ll take your kit along with you. He’ll try to squeeze all the life and creativity out of you, but don’t you let him. Not for a second. Take your things and work there. The open space should be inspirational.”

Blair had met Todd when they were in college. They’d taken a few of the same classes early on, but lived in the same dorm for years. They’d never been roommates, but they’d shared a bathroom and become good friends. Todd had been an art major, and he was supremely talented in Blair’s eyes. He’d also been jealous as hell of Todd because he could do what he wanted. Todd’s parents encouraged him to follow his passion, while Blair had to take business classes because that was all his father would pay for. Blair had snuck in a few art electives, enough for him to figure out that was what he truly loved.

“Are you still going to go?” Blair asked as he powered down his computer.

“No. It wouldn’t be any fun without you.” Now Blair felt guilty. “How long are you going to be in Montana? We can reschedule the trip for when you get back. You can tell me all about Montana—that should take about ten seconds—and then we can work and just hang out.”

“Thanks,” Blair said softly.

“Don’t you dare feel bad about this. We’ll take our trip another time. You do what that asshole who sired you wants and then come back so we can have some fun. All I can say is that he better reward you if you pull this off.”

“He said if everything goes well, I can run the casino in Lake Tahoe.” At least that would put him hours away from his dad, and he’d only see him a few times a year, when he made his inspections.

“Is that what you want?” Todd asked.

Blair grabbed his bag and left his stuffy office, heading for the stairs.

“Right now all I really want is to get away from him. He’d be here in Vegas most of the time, and I’d be up in Tahoe. If he wanted to yell at me, he could do it over the phone, and then he’d hang up and I could go back to my life.”

“You know you’ll never have one as long as you work for your dad. A life, I mean. He’s never going to leave you alone, no matter what.”

Blair knew Todd was right, but if he worked for him a few more years and got some experience, he could move on and get out from under his dad’s thumb.

“Where are you now?” Todd asked.

“On my way home. Dad said I could have the rest of the day off.”

“Then let’s have dinner or something. Since I don’t need to go shopping, I’m going to work some more, but just come over when you’re ready, and we’ll hang out.”

“Thanks,” Blair said with very little energy. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with Todd. He loved his best friend. But the thought of going back to that town in Montana drained all his energy.

Blair hung up when he reached the main floor and headed out through the casino toward the parking lot. All around him the energy crackled with the expectation and anticipation that came with putting money into machines in the hope of hitting it big, tinged with the fact that for every winner there were ten losers. That was the real Las Vegas, but no one wanted to talk about that. At least not within earshot of any of the gamblers.

Blair said good-bye to the security men at the door and stepped out into the blast furnace of the afternoon heat. One of the valets hurried over, and as soon as he recognized Blair, rushed to get Blair’s car. Blair tipped him and then pulled away from the casino and away from downtown toward his quiet apartment. It didn’t take long before the car was pumping cool air, and he breathed a sigh of relief as his body cooled down for the first time that day.

Blair managed to find a parking space in the shade and got out of his car. The heat assaulted him instantly, and he walked inside as quickly as he could. He was tired and tempted to call Todd back and beg off for the evening, knowing he wouldn’t be good company for anyone. But he didn’t want to disappoint Todd, so he jumped in the shower, instantly feeling better. Once he was clean and dressed, Blair packed his bag for the following day and left it by the door, then went to meet Todd at his place.

Ten minutes later Blair knocked on the door of an old industrial building. Todd answered it in nothing but a pair of paper-thin jeans that barely hid anything. They were spattered in paint, just like Todd. Blair stepped inside, and Todd gave him a quick kiss before rushing back to what he’d been working on, saying, “I really need to finish this before everything dries on me.” Blair closed the door.

A huge canvas leaned against the far wall. It had been painted a deep blue. Todd had swirled watered-down yellow paint with his hands about a foot from the top. The paint had curved and twisted where he’d placed it and then it had run down the canvas. Where he’d touched it, the paint was yellow and so were some of the drips, but where the paint thinned, the yellow was semi-opaque and had turned green. The effect was stunning.

As Blair watched, Todd added red in the top space he’d left empty. The yellow had dried slightly, and the red ran over it, mixing to form oranges and purples. Blair watched speechlessly as Todd worked, his hands a complete blur. Within minutes he was done and stepped back. It was spectacular to see—all motion on the top and long drips mixing with each other on the bottom. It was random and yet ordered at the same time. “I love it, Todd,” Blair whispered, almost afraid he was going to burst the magic creative bubble.

Todd moved back slowly. The air in the room was still and relatively cool. “It should dry in a few minutes, and then I can breathe again. With the paint that loose, it dries really fast, but anything will disturb it.”

“Good thing it’s Vegas. We have no shortage of dry air,” Blair said.

Todd seemed to breathe easier and began cleaning up. He capped his colors, careful not to disturb the canvas. It took up most of the one wall, and as Blair looked, he saw more and more in it. The work was breathtaking. The color was nearly dry, and he loved the way the red had melded into the yellow swirls in a few places before running the rest of the way down the canvas. “Is it a commissioned piece?”

“No. The idea came to me and I decided to try it out. The first one didn’t work at all, but this certainly did.” Todd continued looking at his creation. “I was trying it on smaller canvases and it wasn’t working, so I made this one. Who cares if I can’t eat for a week as long as the art is good?”

“Who needs food?” they said together and then laughed. All through college they had spent their food money on art supplies. Todd because it had been a choice of creating or eating sometimes; Blair because he’d had to hide it from his father.

“Did you pack your art case to take with you? I expect something fabulous to come out of this trip, and I’d better not see any pictures of cows and crap.” Todd hurried over to his computer, the keyboard spattered with small bits of every color in the rainbow. No one could ever doubt what Todd loved—it was written all over his face, chest, legs, and everything in his studio home. There was very little that hadn’t been touched by Todd’s paint. His art was as exuberant and bold as the man himself. “See? I brought up pictures. This is what I want you to paint.” He opened sweeping landscape photographs.

“I used to live there, remember? I know what it looks like.”

“Yeah,” Todd said and turned away from the computer screen. “But I don’t know how it looked to you. That’s a photograph. I want to see that same scenery through your eyes. If it seems ugly because of what happened, then make it harsh and dark—I don’t care, but I want to see it as you see it.”

Blair wasn’t sure he could. “I’ll try.” There were so many emotions mixed up with that place. “I never fit in there, though I wanted to for a while, but it wasn’t going to happen, so I just stopped trying.” Blair continued looking at the photo on the screen. “My mother loved it there. She fit right in without even trying, but she left because of me.”

“Did you say she moved back?”

“Yeah. She and my stepfather live ten miles from Newton. He has a huge ranch, and my mom rides every day. She even does senior rodeo events.”

“Then take the time while you’re there to see her and do all the family crap.”

“I doubt that’s what my dad had in mind. He and my mother hate each other. Their marriage was rocky. I think Mom married Dad because she thought he’d be able to give her the kind of life she wanted. But my dad wasn’t about to give anyone anything. He made her learn to deal blackjack and then put her to work in one of the casinos. He was making money hand over fist, and she still had to work.” The stingy, miserly bastard.

“Your dad is who he is,” Todd commented philosophically. “God himself couldn’t change him.”

“You’re probably right.” The computer screen went dark, and Blair turned back to Todd. “What did you have planned for tonight?”

“I have a case of the good beer in the refrigerator, and we can order a pizza and veg.”

“Or we could do a project together,” Blair offered. That must have triggered Todd’s imagination because he was already hurrying across the room. “I see you like that.”

“Duh,” Todd said. “What did you have in mind?” He rummaged in the corner and came up with two guns. “How about paintball? We can set up canvases outside once the sun starts to set. There’s enough light from the parking lot lights that we can see to shoot. The colors are primary, so there isn’t any subtlety.”

“It’s about texture and pattern,” Blair said.

“Exactly, and if you want, I could draw a sketch of your father on one of the canvases.”

“That’s it.” Blair picked up one of the canvases. “How about an ‘it gets better’ piece?” Blair closed his eyes. “We both had trouble with bullies in school. So let’s do portraits of them and then shoot the paintballs at them. It can be an anti-bullying statement.” Blair chuckled. “And it would make me feel a hell of a lot better.” Especially if he was heading back to Newton.

“All right. Doing a full portrait will take time.”

“I’m thinking if we make the image ghostly….”

“You do whatever you want with your image, that’s the cool thing. My bully is different from yours and carries a very different feeling. Yours pushed you into lockers, while mine befriended me and then once he could tell I was gay, he spread it all over the school and made my life a living hell. He was supposed to be my friend, and sometimes when we weren’t in school he’d be nice to me, but then as soon as other kids were around, he’d turn nasty again.” Todd set up two work surfaces and then hurried away to the kitchen area, returning shortly with a couple of beers and some snacks. “I have tons of supplies, so do whatever you want with your portrait.”

Blair settled in one of Todd’s chairs. He wasn’t planning to paint, so he didn’t feel it necessary to change his clothes. Todd had put the paintball guns away, so the shooting would have to wait for a while until they were done. “You need to have this done before you get back from Montana. That way we can have a shooting party in a few weeks.”

They worked quietly for an hour. Blair leaned over to see what Todd was doing. His drawing was slightly stylized to make the person seem mean, dark, and cruel. The face itself was normal enough, but the mouth and eyes were chilling. There was no doubt that this person had hurt Todd deeply, the pain evident in every line. Blair’s image wasn’t as blatant, but then he hadn’t thought about this man in quite a while.

“I love the menace in his eyes. Who is he?” Todd asked.

“Royal Masters.”