Chapter One

 

OH MY freaking god. I’m mad.

Ben Shane forced his eyes back to his computer screen so he wouldn’t stare at him. Him.

Outside the huge glass wall of his office, across the aisle in his admin’s cubicle, the handyman crawled on his knees under the desk, ratting out some kind of wire and cord nightmare. His blue T-shirt had pulled from his jeans and showed off two exquisite inches of creamy beige, slightly muscled, zero-fatted skin.

Ben swallowed hard and released his breath long and slow, contracting his lungs as he couldn’t quite contract lower parts of his anatomy. Perfection. Wide shoulders narrowing down the middle of his back like a roadway to even finer things—tiny waist, round butt. And yet he wasn’t big. Dusty Kincaid—Ben had casually asked his admin the guy’s name—couldn’t stand more than five eight with those lean muscles, like maybe a swimmer or long-distance runner. He bounced around ClearWater Technologies shedding sunshine into every corner, seemingly undaunted by all levels of stress and hysteria over impending deadlines and missed product releases. Apparently his job was simple. He was a gofer, handyman, box filler, and carrier. Whenever anyone needed any menial task done fast, they seemed to yell, “Dusty!”

But Ben didn’t know his story. Why was a guy who appeared to be maybe twenty-one or twenty-two doing this work? Did he have aspirations? Goals?

And why the hell do you care?

His phone buzzed on the desk, and he smiled. Well, kind of smiled. “Hi, Alan.”

“Hi, dear. What time shall I pick you up?”

Ben stared at the volume of emails that had come in just while he was mooning over a tight ass. Seriously? “How about seven?”

“Jesus, Ben, give it a rest. You’re the damned head of the foundation.”

“Yes, which means I work hardest and longest.” Wealthy from birth, Alan Ashland didn’t know the meaning of work. Man, what Ben could do with Alan’s money in the ClearWater Foundation, the nonprofit arm of ClearWater Technologies. It could mean clean water. Malaria cures. Alzheimer’s protocols. But damn, I’m lucky to have him.

The annoyance in Alan’s voice vibrated across the phone. “And if you’d get those gorillas out of your house, maybe I could spend the night, at least.”

“You can spend the night now. You just have to excuse a little mess.” He sighed very quietly.

“‘Little mess.’ Good God, the construction of the damned pyramids didn’t create as much chaos as your so-called renovations.”

Okay, his house had exactly one habitable room currently. In Ben’s defense, that habitable room was the bedroom, but Alan didn’t seem willing to wade through construction workers to get to the bed. Shortsighted of him. Some of those workers were adorable.

Ben snorted. “Come on, Alan. You wouldn’t like it if it were as quiet as the Egyptian tombs. You just hate the house.”

“Hurry up with your construction. When we get married, you’ll get better money for it if it’s got a new kitchen and bathrooms.”

Right. He really wanted to sell his house right after he renovated it. Damn. Ben didn’t have time for the same old argument. “I’ll see you at seven. Pick me up here.”

“Okay.”

Ben hung up and set the phone carefully on the desk. Alan was fun—sometimes. And everyone loved him so much. That includes me, right?

He glanced up again, but no Dusty. Good, maybe I’ll get some work done. He wiped a hand over his face. Right, and maybe I should spend some time working on why a happily engaged man is staring at other guys’ butts.

He settled down to answering the emails, but after about half an hour a tap on the door brought his head up again. “Hey, Craig.”

Craig Elson, his VP of marketing, stood in his doorway. “Hi, Ben. Got a minute?”

“Sure. Come on in.” Ben sat back, but he couldn’t keep his gaze from inspecting the hall and every person who walked by.

“I wanted to go over the advertising strategies for the foundation.” Craig followed Ben’s glance to the window. “But if you’re waiting for someone, I can come back.”

“Oh no, sorry. I’m not.” He pointed at the round conference table in the corner of his office. “I’d love to see them.”

Craig sat and slid his laptop toward Ben, who started scrolling through a series of bullet points on the goals for the campaign—showing corporate America and private donors the brand-building advantages of corporate responsibility. In other words, why they should give money to save whales or cure cancer instead of buying their CEO another beach house.

Craig leaned back in his chair. A tall, nice-looking guy, Craig tended to be on the shy side but was confident in his skills and really excelled at marketing, planning, and analytics. He’d come to the company the previous year, right before Ben had been brought on as VP and executive director of the ClearWater Foundation—the youngest VP in ClearWater’s history.

Movement beyond the glass wall of his office caught Ben’s eye. He looked up and froze. Dusty was back. This time he slowly bent at the waist as he unwound wires around Mary Kaye’s desk. Dear God. Ben’s face went cold, then hot.

“Uh, Ben?”

“Oh God, Craig I’m sorry. I was just, uh, concerned about the wiring going in at my assistant’s desk.” He dragged his eyes back to the laptop screen, trying to ignore the little smile tugging at Craig’s mouth.

Ben furrowed his brow in forced concentration.

Craig murmured, “He’s something, isn’t he?”

“What?”

Craig nodded his head toward the window. “Dusty. Like a ray of sunshine captured in a beautiful bottle.” He smiled. “He reminds me of my Jesse.”

Ben smiled to cover his embarrassment. “Do I know Jesse?”

“Oh right. I forget everyone hasn’t met him. My fiancé. Jesse Randall. First time I ever saw him, he was bounding into a coffee shop wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed I Would Bottom You So Hard.” Craig shook his head, but the smile on his face spoke of the sweetness of joy. “I was pretty much done for at that moment. He changed my life at every level, like I’d been someone else and suddenly became me.” He looked back at the screen. “I’ll bet Dusty has that power.”

Ben stared at the laptop. “Why do you say that?”

Craig shrugged. “It seems like it would be hard to ever tell him a lie.”

Just the idea made Ben swallow a lump in his throat.

“The hardest thing for me was making myself believe I deserved Jesse. I think that’s how it is with the special ones.” He smiled dreamily.

Ben dragged in a long but silent breath. He pointed at the laptop. “We need to add a reference to the importance of personal recommendation in the Asian community.” Maybe if he forced himself to talk about marketing, it would stop him from discussing Dusty Kincaid for the rest of the day, the way he wanted to.

A few minutes later, he managed to not look up when movement in his peripheral vision indicated that Dusty had left the area.

He glanced at Craig. “I didn’t realize you were gay.”

“Yeah. It’s nice to work at a company where that’s not a topic of discussion. Actually, it was Jesse who inspired me to apply for the job at ClearWater.”

“I’d love to meet him.”

Craig nodded. “We should make that happen.”

For a second Ben held Craig’s gaze. Damn, he wanted to talk. He wanted to spill his guts on… everything, but what the fuck did he have to complain about?

After Craig left, he settled down and worked his ass off until quarter to seven. Then he escaped to the men’s room, used his electric razor, brushed his teeth, and practiced smiling. Show how happy you are to be in this rarified company.

Fifteen minutes later, he left the lobby and went outside to meet Alan. They’d have to come back for his car, but Alan really liked to pick him up.

Ben sat on the bench beside the entrance, leaned his head against the granite wall, and closed his eyes for a minute. Working hard was his drug of choice. He’d been injected with it at his parents’ knees. His mom and dad started with nothing, both of them raised by single parents, if you could call them that—drug addicts who never held a job for more than a few days. All his parents wanted was to have a kid and give him a better life than they had. By the time Ben came along, they’d made a small success and worked even harder to expand it, sending Ben to the best schools, giving him lessons in music, art, tennis, golf—anything that could establish him in a new class of society. They celebrated every one of Ben’s successes, but getting engaged to Alan Ashland crowned Ben’s achievement in their eyes. He would be a duke to the crown prince of one of the world’s richest families.

Ben heard the lobby door open. He sighed and opened his eyes—to a dream.

Earphones plugged in his ears, Dusty sort of danced to the curb, then just kept bobbing and humming to the music only he could hear as he jotted something in a small notebook with a worn pencil.

Ben wanted—what? To go talk to Dusty? But what would he say? Something. Anything. Just to make contact. Would the guy think he was nuts? Oh God—

A car beeped, and a second later an old, faded silver sedan driven by a woman pulled up to the curb. The door opened, and Dusty hopped in the passenger seat. Just like that, any chance of actually meeting Dusty Kincaid drove away.

Who was that woman? His mother? Maybe even his wife? No, too old.

Again the question arose. Why the hell did he want to know?

Like a reminder from heaven, the rumble of Alan’s black Ferrari sounded through the circular drive in front of the ClearWater building, and then the car pulled in front. Ben rose from the bench, walked to the sexy sports car, bent down, and peered inside. He got a shiny smile back. Wow. Sometimes he forgot how gorgeous Alan was. The evening sun shone off his pale hair and made his brilliant blue eyes sparkle even more than normal.

Alan leaned across and opened the door, and Ben slid into the low, womblike leather seat that managed to vibrate with the purr of the car, right through his balls.

Alan leaned over and touched Ben’s cheek—not a gesture he did often but one Ben loved. Then he pressed his slightly cool, perfectly carved lips to Ben’s. When he pulled back, he smiled. “I’m sorry I was such a shit on the phone. Bad day, and I took it out on everyone. I couldn’t wait to see you. Highlight of my day.”

Well, damn. That was another reminder of why he’d been entranced with Alan to begin with. Charm, sweetness, and all that beauty didn’t count for nothing. “I’m happy to see you too. It’s been a long day.”

Alan pulled away from the curb, some soft rock playing on the sound system. They drove in silence toward the ocean. After a few not totally relaxed minutes, Alan turned down the sound. “I know you love to work, dear, but I hope once we’re married you’ll let yourself slow down a little.” He glanced over and smiled. He must have seen the stiffening in Ben’s face, because he said, “Remember you’ll be an Ashland. The family’s going to need your skills in so many ways. You’ll be just as busy, but with different things. More fun things.”

Ben smiled and gazed out the window. Why can nobody get that my work is fun?

“My folks are so excited about the party.” Alan turned into the super exclusive Newport Beach gated community where one of his family homes stared down over the ocean from the cliffs above.

At least on that subject, they could agree. “Mine too. They haven’t talked about much else for weeks.”

Alan laughed. “My mom’s like a kid getting ready for her first date.”

Ben chuckled to cover the odd churning in his stomach.

 

 

“HOW WAS work, Dusty?” As his mom turned left, the old car made that clunking sound again. Dusty Kincaid glanced over in time to see her wince. God, she looked so tired. He needed to find a way to get the car fixed so she didn’t have to worry. Yeah, put that on the list.

Quit! He took a deep breath and focused his mind on a pink cloud.

She gave him a smile. “You okay?”

“Oh yeah. Great.”

“So, work? How was it?”

He felt the smile creep across his face like a little cat.

“That’s a good reaction. Did something great happen?”

You mean other than Ben Shane’s beautiful smile? “Nothing specific. It’s just the people at ClearWater are so nice to me. I really like it there.”

“I’m glad, dear. Just be careful not to get overtired.”

“I’m careful.” He tried not to sound impatient. Nobody wanted more good stuff for him than his mom—even himself.

“Do you have a lot of studying to do tonight?”

“No ma’am.”

“Good. We’ll eat when we get home and then you can get to bed early. You may like ClearWater but they certainly want you there at the crack of dawn.”

Another familiar topic. “I have to be there early or I disturb the people in the offices. You know that.”

“Yes, I know.” She pulled onto their street, a tract that had seen better days. Except this group of houses had their day somewhere in the last century. Lots of kids played ball in the middle of the road and scampered to the sides as she drove by. A couple boys waved to Dusty. His eyes followed them, maybe still wishing he could have clocked more play time in the street when he was their age.

She parked in the driveway. The garage was so crammed with stuff they saved to take to the swap meet to sell that she couldn’t get the car in. She turned to him and smiled as brightly as her tired eyes could manage. “I really am glad you like the job, dear.”

He smiled back. She probably wouldn’t like the reason he particularly enjoyed this job.

 

 

BEN STARED out the window as Alan drove up the street, the too-close-together mansions on the right and the vast darkness of the Pacific on their left, toward the big house with a gazillion lights shining. Cars lined the street, crawling toward valets parking people’s expensive vehicles, since even the rich neighborhoods in this area didn’t have enough room for more than a few cars.

Alan gave a discreet honk, and one of the valets waved and ran to the gates blocking the driveway. A moment later the gates parted, and Alan managed to maneuver past the cars to turn into the driveway of his parents’ home. Alan’s home, truthfully. Alan had his own condo in Crystal Cove, but as his parents got older, he spent more and more time living in his suite in the family home. Though just thirty-three, Alan was an only child and therefore the sole inheritor of a vast fortune. Ben’s family was comfortable thanks to a buttload of hard work, but the kind of money his father had made paled next to Alan’s—a huge, rolling juggernaut of dollars flowing from oil, real estate, and many other self-generating assets.

After turning left in front of the house, Alan ferried the rumbling machine back to the huge garage and parked in front of it. Then he turned to Ben. “Showtime.”

“Yes, I guess it is.” He smiled.

“In case I forgot to say it, you look lovely tonight.”

“Thank you. You too.” So true. Alan wore a deep blue suit that showed off his fair hair and brilliant eyes perfectly. In deference to California casual, he wore no tie. Likewise, Ben’s open-necked white shirt he’d worn all day might be a tad more wilted than Alan’s but still passed as party ready with his favorite gray suit. Alan always said it complemented Ben’s auburn hair and green eyes.

Alan leaned forward and kissed Ben gently. “That’s on account. I’ll take you home with me after the party, and then you won’t need your car tonight. I can just take you to work in the morning.”

Ben bit his tongue. He hated staying at Alan’s on work nights. It got him to the office so late the next morning. “Sure. Sounds great.”

“Plus we’re a little behind on the roll-in-the-hay quotient, so maybe we can make it up. Sound good?”

Ben managed to nod his head with a smile.

Alan climbed out of the car and rounded the front to open Ben’s door. He insisted on the gesture although it made Ben feel a little like a 1950s prom queen from Alabama. Hell, lots of guys would kill for the courtesy. One more thing that made him feel ungrateful.

With an extended hand, Alan helped him out of the car. The fact that Ben, at nearly six-three, stood four inches taller than Alan likely made this operation look a little silly, but, of course, that might have been why Alan did it. He closed the door behind Ben and slid an arm around his waist. “You’re not nervous about this hoopla, are you?”

Ben frowned a little. “No. Should I be?”

“Not at all. It’s just that Daddy’s invited all his important investors, so he’s all over me like diamonds on a debutante to make a good impression.”

“But no pressure?” Ben gave him a half smile.

“Right.” Alan laughed and led Ben to the back of the house. “Let’s sneak in so we can avoid the big meeting-at-the-door scene.”

“I’m for that.”

The crowd at the front door couldn’t be much thicker than the one at the back, but this group was made up of caterers, waiters, bartenders, and one semihysterical coordinator hollering, “What do you mean, the shrimp are still frozen?”

Alan snorted and pulled Ben through the crush to the swinging door that led to the formal dining room. He flashed his teeth at Ben. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be in this life.” For a second Alan gave him an odd look, then threw open the door and stepped through, propelling Ben next to him.