“FUCKING SON of a bitch!” Martin Carmichael flipped off yet another car that simply drove by, ignoring his desperate attempts to flag somebody down. A sense of dread had begun when his car started making funny noises on this street in the middle of nowhere, and he knew he was in deep shit when all the lights on the console lit up like a Christmas tree before winking out like dying stars. The engine of his brand-new, very expensive Cadillac Escalade had made a sad, hiccupping sound, and then the car rolled to a halt. To add insult to injury, whatever had caused the spaceship electrics essentially driving the car to quit their service had also fried his cell that had been plugged into the car’s sound system. Damn modern gadgets and their tendency to blow up in your face.
Martin had faced some dire situations in his life before, but he would have never thought getting stranded on a lonely street in the vicinity of Miami would actually be one of them. As ex-military, the owner of a security firm that operated nationwide—and on occasion even internationally—and as a Dom, Martin made a living at being intimidating. It was part of his very being, and given that he was six foot five with the heavy build of a tank and the kind of muscle only obtained from working his body, he had intimidating mastered. Unfortunately, when stranded at the side of a road and in need of the help of strangers, being intimidating wasn’t helpful. In the last two hours since his car had broken down, about thirty other cars had come this way, and their drivers all ignored him, some of them even accelerating once they got a look at him.
Martin cursed again. He was wearing a suit, for fuck’s sake! Though, to be honest, said suit, although custom-made and perfectly tailored, gave him the air of a sophisticated mobster. Something he needed when dealing with the kind of customer he had just come from, but nothing that helped him get help. If he couldn’t stop a car in the next thirty minutes, he would have to start walking back home. The idea alone made him shudder in the very expensive designer shoes that were made for many things, but definitely not a long walk in the dust.
He heard the rumbling of a car and looked up just in time to see what had to be the oldest pickup truck in the States signal and then pull up next to his car. The first thing Martin noticed about the truck, besides its age, was the paintings. The thing was covered in them: snakes, lizards, geckos, salamanders. Some of them were so lifelike, it seemed as if they would crawl away any moment; others looked more like the paintings one expected to find on the walls of a cave. They all were done in brilliant colors, and Martin had to admit the truck looked stunning.
The driver’s door opened, and Martin’s breath caught in his throat. He didn’t know what he had expected; he only knew it wasn’t this. The man jumping down from the truck was five foot four and on the skinny side, but with lightly defined muscles under a shabby, dirty white muscle shirt. His shoulder-length black hair was partly held by a leather strap, though some loose strands were caressing his high cheekbones. Martin wondered if the man didn’t care about the wayward bangs or had given up on taming them. Either way, he looked cute, in an unkempt sort of way.
Martin liked twinks. No, he adored them. But he usually preferred them with a lot more makeup—he thought some men were simply made for eyeliner—perfectly groomed, and with fashionable clothes. If they were kind of scatterbrained and needed somebody to rely on, somebody to dominate them, then he was the Dom they’d been looking for.
This man was not groomed. He didn’t wear makeup, and even if his clothes had once been fashionable, they were just dirty now. He wore sneakers with holes in them, the skin on his hands looked rough, as if he didn’t know what hand lotion was for, and there was dirt under his nails. Except for his height, the man ticked none of Martin’s boxes, and yet Martin couldn’t take his eyes off him. There was something about him, about the way he looked at Martin without the fear and wariness people normally showed when they met him for the first time. Martin was intrigued.
The man opened his gorgeous mouth. “Hi, I’m Collin. Do you need help?”
His voice was a bit deeper than Martin had expected, but it sounded nice. He smiled. “Hi, Collin. I’m Martin, and yes, I need help. My car broke down and my cell is dead. Could you lend me yours so I can make a call and get somebody to pick me up?”
The beautiful face fell. Martin was wondering what he had done wrong when Collin started talking again. “I’m really sorry. I don’t have a cell. You know, they are kind of really expensive, and then you have to get a contract, and you have to pay for that as well, and then people can always reach you, which can be a bit inconvenient, and they always come in boring colors, and there’s so much you can do with them when all I want is to make a call, and I really don’t understand those message thingies, and Jude said I would just lose it anyway, which is probably right, because I always lose things, and then I can’t remember where they’re hiding, and a phone is good at hiding, all small and slim and not making a peep when you forget to feed it, which I would, because I’m not used to having one and my place is kind of messy, what with all the things lying around, and I wouldn’t want Dog to find it, because he would totally chew on it, and then it would be dead, just like the hare he caught last week, and boy, was that messy, and he wasn’t sorry at all, even though there was blood everywhere and I had to clean up and the tiny bits of fur wouldn’t come out of the cracks on the floor.” He paused and then brightened. “But I did get a pretty decent skull out of it, so I guess it’s kind of okay, although I’m not telling Dog, because then, maybe, he’ll think he has to get me more hares, and one is definitely enough, and did I mention that cleaning up was messy? Like totally?”
Martin stared openmouthed at Collin. He had never heard anybody talk so fast and so much gibberish on one—no, two—breaths. It had to be a talent. Martin also started to suspect Collin was not necessarily playing with a full deck of cards, although he came across as charming rather than crazy. At least to Martin, who had seen all kinds of crazy between his time in the military and now with his clients. He found that, very often, the line between batshit crazy and eccentric was defined by the number of digits in one’s bank account. Collin didn’t look like he had much to offer in that respect, and Martin wondered briefly if he even had an account. Still, he was sweet, with an openness most people lost once they left childhood behind. And he was the only person who had stopped and offered help.
“Well, that’s too bad.”
Collin seemed to be deep in thought for a moment. Then his eyes lit up and a smile appeared on his face. “How about I give you a ride into town? If you tell me where you want to go, I can drive. I have enough gas and everything, and I’m a good driver. I swear!”
Collin’s eagerness made Martin smile as well. Such unblemished openness was refreshing.
“That would be very nice of you.”
Collin smiled, and the sun seemed to rise in his eyes. “Okeydokey. Hop on in!” He turned around and went back to the driver’s seat. Martin reached into his own car to retrieve the fried cell and then approached Collin’s truck. He didn’t think the data on his phone could be saved, but he had to make sure. Some of the addresses in there were worth quite a lot. When he tried to open the passenger’s side, the door wouldn’t budge. Martin tried again, and this time Collin leaned over and did something at the inside of the door, making a strange, clanking sound. The door opened, and Martin got in. Collin was chewing his lip. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, suddenly subdued. “The car is kind of old.”
Martin felt the urge to punish Collin for the lip chewing, and at the same time, the insane need to reassure him. Both feelings were so strong, it surprised him. He couldn’t remember when he had last experienced such deep emotions—and with a complete stranger to boot. Only Collin didn’t feel like a stranger. More like—home. And that was really weird, because Martin wasn’t into romantic shit like soul mates and love at first sight. Love was optional as soon as a contract was drawn up and signed. First came the rules, then everything else, if ever.
“There’s water in the back. I’m afraid it’s not cold anymore, but… well… if you’re thirsty….” Collin trailed off, uncertainty tinging every syllable. Martin cursed himself for letting his thoughts wander when he had to focus. Listening to Collin’s insecure half sentences made him wonder what had triggered the sudden change and if it was his fault.
“Thank you, Collin. That is very kind of you. And I know how cars can act up on you. I mean, at least yours is still going. Mine is completely dead.”
Martin watched Collin closely and saw the young man’s shoulders relax. He had to bite his tongue not to praise him. That probably wouldn’t go over so well. Instead he turned and searched for the water bottle in the small back space. When he looked into the bed of the truck, he saw old branches, stones, a piece of metal pipe, and the skull of a middle-sized animal, all in one messy heap. With the bottle in hand, he turned back to watch out the front window. After opening the top and downing the lukewarm water in a few eager gulps, he dared to phrase a question. “Interesting collection you got there.” Martin indicated with his thumb.
Collin’s cheeks reddened, if from embarrassment or joy, Martin couldn’t tell. He definitely seemed to be regaining his spirit, though, which was a plus as far as Martin was concerned. “It’s for my new project. I collected them today.”
The red deepened. Joy, Martin decided. Joy about his interest in something Collin did. If Martin had to bet, he would say that didn’t happen to Collin very often. Which was a shame. “I’m an artist. Or try to be one. I’m not very successful or famous or anything, but I earn enough to make a living, and this is my new project. I was looking for dreams.”
Martin could feel a mixture of insecurity and eagerness wafting from Collin. He was obviously deeply engaged with the subject, but at the same time unsure about Martin’s reaction to it. Martin felt himself flinching. Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable speaking about their passions. Especially not dark-haired young men with the greenest, most beautiful eyes Martin had ever seen and a smile that made him forget his own name.
“Sounds interesting. May I ask what the skull of an animal has to do with dreams?” He laughed to take the sting he just realized was there out of his words. “As you can probably guess from my question, I don’t have a very active imagination.” Unless it comes to torturing cute little twinks, making them writhe and moan and beg under my whip and my hands and my mouth.
Collin shot him a quick, darting look before he concentrated on the street again. “Actually, a lot. Shattered dreams, because a life has ended. The hope for a new life, because the cycle starts again. Time in the realm of dreams before the soul comes back to earth. The dreams of others, impacted by this death. The things the bones tell me. There’s a lot. You know—” Suddenly, as if some kind of switch had been hit, Collin fell back into his earlier fast-speaking rhythm.
“People always only see what’s right in front of them. They never look past the obvious. I mean, a skull is just bones, a reminder of somebody who’s no longer there. A very biological thing, made of collagen and calcium and other bits that can withstand the elements for quite some time, but ultimately they vanish too. And then there’s the story behind the bone, the force that drove it, the brain that lived safely inside, the soul that elevated it into being more than just a hard shell designed to protect something. Or take the metal pipe. I found it in the woods. Somebody dumped it there, and I’m not sure what it was for. It’s started to rust and there are things growing on it, I think moss and lichens, and there are little insects living inside, and it’s become kind of a city on its own, and now I’ve taken it away from the woods and changed its meaning again, and now the insects and the moss have to find a new place to live, and that spot in the woods is going to change as well, and nobody ever sees the chronological side of things, the before and after, the things that make the current state possible and define it through what they’ve been. By collecting all these things, I’ve become a catalyst, and the possibilities stretch endlessly in front of me, and it’s all colors and choices and forms and kind of hard to understand because it’s so brilliant and so bright and so confusing.”
Collin took a deep breath of much-needed oxygen and glanced over at Martin with a wary look. “I’m talking too much again.” He sounded very timid, and the fire and sparkle were gone. “I’m sorry. Jude says I shouldn’t, but sometimes I forget and then….”
Martin couldn’t stand it any longer. He held up his hand. “Stop right there, Collin. There is nothing you have to apologize for. I enjoy listening to you. I can tell how much you love your art, how deep your thoughts run. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about something you love. And if I make kind of a strange face now and then, that’s not because you bore me, but because your ideas are very complex and it takes some serious thinking to understand them.”
He smiled reassuringly at Collin, and when he saw the happy smile on the young man’s face, decided to try a little joke. “Plus, you can talk real fast and that takes some getting used to.”
Collin’s cheeks reddened, but he chuckled, obviously understanding that Martin was trying to lighten the mood.
Collin drove at a moderate speed, and they could already see Miami in the distance. The mood in the car was tranquil with an underlying tension. Martin could practically see the wheels in Collin’s head turning as he tried to find a topic that would prevent him from babbling again. Since he was curious what Collin would do, Martin kept his silence. Finally Collin said, “Why were you stranded out there?”
Given the complex time-and-cause speech Collin had just made, the question was logical, and it impressed Martin how the young man could keep the red line of the conversation even though he seemed to deviate from it by asking for the obvious. Martin understood, though, that Collin wasn’t asking about the car breaking down. Not really. He smiled and decided to play along. “I have a security firm, and one of my clients lives out there. He has just built a new house, and I helped him with the security system. Today was kind of a wrap-up, and I’m glad to say everything went smoothly.”
“Is that why you’re wearing a costume?”
The question startled Martin. “What do you mean?” His voice might have been a bit sterner than he intended, because Collin’s fingers gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I can’t always say what’s on the tip of my tongue. I keep forgetting that.”
“No, it’s fine. You just surprised me. Few people would ask such a question. So, how do you mean it?”
Collin stared at the road ahead. “This is not you. This suit is somebody else, somebody who had something to do, but it’s not you. At least, not all of you. The clothes you’re wearing are part of a projection other people have of you, and you’re using it. I’m just wondering why somebody as strong and independent as you would need a disguise.”
Martin was speechless for a moment. Without any effort, Collin had seen past the designer wear and right into the heart of the matter. “Is that why you stopped for me? Because you saw that I’m not a gangster?” He meant to make it sound light, but the truth was, sometimes it bothered him how people only ever saw the brute strength in him and were happy to assume the worst.
Collin glanced over before he concentrated on driving again. “If I were afraid of strength, I wouldn’t have stopped. The person under the suit is much more dangerous than the one the suit is projecting. You know that. I can feel your confidence. It surrounds you like a halo, and that’s what’s drawn me to you. Something I don’t have.” Collin smiled crookedly. “Besides, I know what it’s like to be stranded at the side of the road.”
There was a wealth of pain in that one sentence, and Martin felt the urge to take Collin in his arms and make all the bad memories go away. There was nothing he could do at the moment, though, not only because Collin was driving, but also because Martin hadn’t yet verified his assumption about Collin being gay. So he deadpanned, “I’m just glad you stopped for me, even though I was in costume.”
That brought him a quick glance and a light chuckle, and the mood lifted again. As they neared Miami, Collin had to concentrate on traffic and the directions Martin was giving him, so their conversation lulled a bit. It was already past six when Collin finally pulled over in front of the office building where M&O Security had its headquarters, and Martin knew he had to either ask Collin out or forget about him. “Thank you very much for helping me out, Collin. Do you have a landline where I can reach you? I would love to invite you to dinner as a thank-you.”
Collin seemed a bit surprised at first, but then a smile blossomed on his face. “That would be real nice. And I do have a landline.” He rattled off the number, and Martin quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper he found in the side of the passenger’s door.
“Thank you again, Collin. I’ll be calling you later, and we can set up a da—” Almost too late Martin realized the potential innuendo. Even though he was pretty sure Collin wouldn’t recognize it as such, he still didn’t want to take the risk. He would feel Collin out once they were on the date/thank-you dinner. “Um, day.”
Collin still smiled, seemingly oblivious of Martin’s almost-slipup. Martin got out of the truck, patted the door, and wished Collin a good journey. Then he stood outside the building, waiting for the taillights of the truck to disappear into traffic. It was ridiculous, but Martin couldn’t help it. There was something about Collin—he shook his head. He was acting like a lovesick fool just because some pretty piece of ass had taken him for a ride. It was high time for him to get laid. Only it wouldn’t be that easy. Not with the image of Collin floating through his mind. Martin couldn’t believe it. Almost thirty-five years, and now he was falling in love? Impossible. Richard would tease him into next year if he could see him now.