Chapter 1

 

EVERYTHING HAD a pattern. The trick to understanding the data was in the models. The algorithms. The points along a timeline that indicated the probability of what should come next.

Owen’s whole world revolved around patterns, but some things couldn’t be predicted. Whenever that happened, he thought back to something his mother once told him.

“Meet every surprise in life like you had a plan all along.”

Owen did not have a plan.

Looking around his apartment, he realized he also didn’t have furniture. He remembered the moving-without-furniture part of coming to a new city; he’d just forgotten how annoying living without it would be until he went out and bought something. All he had right now were boxes filled with clothing, electronics, kitchenware, and keepsakes.

He sat on one of the larger boxes amid the clutter, facing the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that led out to his balcony. The view beyond was humbling, a dozen stories up to look upon the glittering lights of the city, nestled in the heart of it. Owen had always loved cityscapes more than trees. He’d dreamed of having an apartment like this someday, and finally he had a job that let him afford it. He’d just hoped he’d be sharing it.

He never was good at new beginnings. He had to be out of his mind to pick up and move three hundred miles from home just to escape his ex.

Not that Harrison was the only reason Owen chose Atlas City. The mayor himself had offered Owen a consultation position while his new predictive models were put into use at the police department. One of the stipulations Owen had on any private or government organization using his patents was his personal involvement in implementation. Mayor King had agreed and brought Owen in to work part-time at the mayor’s office while things got up and running. The move to Atlas City also opened doors for him at Walker Tech and Nye Industries to sell his models for industrial use. He’d never want for anything again with the opportunities and money headed his way.

For now, the ACPD would be using the algorithms he’d created to predict where criminal activity was most likely to occur, allowing them to position officers more efficiently and maximize coverage on the streets. Owen’s models would save the city millions by better utilizing their current resources, and maybe even help save lives. It was everything he’d ever wanted, and if things went well here, his models could help even more people all over the country.

He should have been happy. He should have been ecstatic. But a shadow hung over him because of how things had ended with Harrison back in Middleton.

Habit caused Owen to wrap his fingers around his forearm. The bruises were gone now, no lasting damage, but sometimes it was like phantom pain when he thought about his ex. The older man he’d dated for years, who he’d lived with for years, who he’d believed would be the last person he ever came home to, had never physically harmed him until that night. Harrison’s abuse had been different, deeper, if not as visible as the bruises once were.

The sound of Owen’s ringtone startled him, sitting alone in the dark of his mostly empty apartment. He scrambled to remember where he’d put his phone before realizing it was in his pocket.

“Hello?”

“Uh-oh. Don’t tell me the moving company lost something? You sound about two seconds from having a pint of Häagen-Dazs for dinner again.”

Alyssa. Owen’s sister had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when he needed to hear her voice, ever since he was adopted into her family when he was ten.

Despite himself, he smiled. “I resent that stereotype.”

“I would too if I hadn’t caught you doing it multiple times before you moved.”

They shared a chuckle, though the memory of how true that was turned Owen’s expression sour.

The night he left Harrison, he could have gone to his adopted father, but Doug had never approved of the relationship.

“He’s twice your age!” was the common complaint.

He wasn’t twice Owen’s age, though close, since Owen had been twenty-one when they met and Harrison thirty-eight. That was four years ago, putting his “boyfriend” in his forties now, which shouldn’t have mattered, but Doug never let it go. He meant well, loved Owen like flesh and blood and had always been there for him, but sometimes that displayed as the classic overbearing father figure. Now Doug could finally say “I told you so.”

At least he’d never actually said that. Still, Owen hadn’t wanted to deal with Doug’s judgment, so he’d gone to Alyssa instead. Her husband, Casey, was one of Owen’s closest friends. They understood, but it was still awkward being a third wheel in their home for months before the call to Atlas City came.

Owen needed a change. He just hoped he hadn’t made a terrible mistake all because a bad breakup made it too difficult to stay in his hometown.

“I’ll get something substantial once I gather enough will to leave this box,” he said, patting the side of it so Alyssa could hear the thumps over the phone. “Like Thai food or pizza.”

“Owen….”

“Hey, I don’t have any dishes unpacked yet. Or food in the fridge. Or furniture, for that matter.”

“I told you not to let Harry have everything in the divorce.”

“It wasn’t a divorce.” Owen scowled. All his friends referred to it like that, which only made the loss feel worse, because he’d always wanted to get married someday. He still did. He just hated the idea of starting from square one. “And I didn’t want his things.”

“Some of it was your things.”

“None of it was mine, Lys. He chose everything in that apartment. It was always his, never mine, never ours. And I’m not completely devoid of amenities. I have a bed.”

“You have a mattress,” she said, just as Owen looked to his left through the bedroom door to see it resting on the floor like some minimalist mockery. “My mattress that Casey and I gave you so you wouldn’t be sleeping on the floor tonight. You still need a bedframe, dresser, table—”

“I can’t think about that right now. I’m meeting the mayor tomorrow and all my new contacts. I probably won’t even sleep. I’ll worry about furniture after work tomorrow.”

“How about you worry tonight?”

“Lyssa….”

“Relax, O. Check out the large kitchen box I helped pack.”

Perking up from where he sat, Owen scanned the apartment until he spotted the larger of his boxes labeled KITCHEN. “What did you do?” he asked as he headed toward it, expecting balloons or confetti to explode out the top in some lame attempt to make him smile, which honestly might have worked, but Alyssa was using her serious, practical tone. She couldn’t be hiding an entire apartment full of furniture in that box.

Only somehow, she was—a catalog full.

On the very top was a catalog for an express delivery furniture store that included rentals. Even from the cover, Owen could tell the furniture was more his style than anything Harrison had ever allowed. Owen liked color and character and light; Harrison was too rigid for that.

“This stuff looks….”

“Amazing?”

“Expensive.”

“Considering how much they’re paying you, nothing is out of your price range right now. Indulge a little. Plus, this way you can relax and choose some things you like tonight, make the order online, and have everything delivered tomorrow while you’re at work. If you fall in love with something, you can buy it. If you hate a piece once you see it, you can return it and get something new. I dog-eared pages of things I thought you might like.”

Owen was already flipping through and came upon a dog-eared page as she said that. There was a small kitchen table with four chairs, each a different color—red, blue, yellow, and black. Harrison would have hated the asymmetry, which meant Owen immediately wanted it.

“You are the best, Lys.”

“I know. Casey and I miss you already. Dad’s holding up okay but still grumbling about you moving thousands of miles away—his words, no matter how many times I tell him it’s a simple day trip in the car or a quick flight.”

“I hope he’s not too mad. Four years of Harry keeping me secluded, barely spending time with you guys or any of my friends, now just when we’d started to reconnect, I moved away. Maybe this was a bad idea….” He looked around the apartment again, feeling small and suffocated by so much space and so many miles between him and the closest people who loved him.

“Owen, Dad will get over it. This is important to you, something you’ve always wanted, the project you’ve been working on since you were a kid, and the one thing Harry wasn’t able to twist into one of his own patents.”

“Because I kept it from him.”

“You weren’t the bad guy. If you’d shared those models with Harry, he’d be the one getting cozy with Atlas City elite tomorrow. Instead, it’s you, like you deserve, like you’ve earned. Don’t run scared yet. This will be so good for you. But if you start to go out of your mind and feel too homesick, I’ll be on the first plane there.”

Owen smiled as he dropped into a cross-legged position on the floor to keep paging through the catalog. “Thanks, Lys. I can do this. It just doesn’t feel like home yet with only boxes around me. I’ll order dinner and have fun picking out furniture. Once I have the place decked out, I’ll send pictures. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Hey.” He frowned, reaching another dog-eared page, but this one had a business card stuck in the crease. “What’s this?”

Alyssa had been the biggest asset in helping Owen move, from finding the right apartment to hiring the moving company. She’d even made him lists of restaurants to check out, corner stores in his neighborhood for when he needed groceries, and random activities to try so he wouldn’t sit at home doing nothing when he wasn’t at work. She was a good sister and a loyal friend.

But finding the business card made Owen question all of that.

Alyssa.” He balked. “You got me a referral for an escort service?

“Hear me out—”

“I don’t need to hire someone—”

“I’m not suggesting you do! I just thought it might be easier to have someone on standby for dinners and events if you weren’t ready to date yet and didn’t feel like answering questions about your love life. An escort could take the heat off, that’s all.”

Calming at her logic, Owen tried not to get too worked up over the implications. The card was sleek navy with silver writing, just the name, a website, and a phone number. “But isn’t like… sex implied?”

“Not legally.”

“Lyssa!”

“Nothing is implied, O. Is it easier for people to look the other way if sexy times go down, yes”—he cringed at her word choice—“but that doesn’t mean there’s obligation on either side. Some people really do hire escorts to escort them. Not that I’d judge if you needed more than that—”

“The last thing I need right now is mindless sex. That’s all I was to Harry. His little trophy. Convenient and obedient. I’d rather have someone around who’d hold me. Oh God.” He tipped back into a slow fall, stretching his legs out in front of him when he landed. “I sound like a failed greeting card.”

“Owen.” Alyssa giggled before shifting to earnest understanding. “Everyone needs different things at different points in their lives, and no need is more or less valid than another. I wish I could be there to hug you, honey. I really only meant the referral as an option for social events, no bad joke or pressure involved. You can totally ignore it.”

“Sorry, I’m not upset,” Owen said, staring at his ceiling. “It makes sense. I didn’t even think about social events. I do not want to have any real dates right now, but having the option to skip the ‘so are you seeing anyone?’ conversation would be such a relief. Divulging that I just got out of a long-term relationship would probably make me someone’s ‘project’ and they’d start setting me up with their neighbor’s cousin’s roommate and… urg, maybe I will call that agency.”

Alyssa giggled again, but lovingly not mocking. “First dinner and furniture.”

“Right. Dinner. Furniture. Disaster of a love life. That sounds like the right order.”

After another shared chuckle, she said, “It’s going to be okay. You’re moving on. You’re heading in a new direction all for you. You are so much more than Harrison Marsh.”

That’s what Owen had been telling himself for months. He knew in his bones it was true; he’d proven how successful he could be all on his own. He just wished being on his own wasn’t so lonely. “I know. Give my love to Casey. I’ll check in with you guys soon.”

“You better. I love you, O.”

“Love you too, Lys.”

Lurching into a sitting position again, Owen hung up the call and stuck the business card back in the catalog as he continued paging through it. He couldn’t imagine calling some stranger to be his date for whatever fancy event the mayor might drag him to, but the idea wasn’t completely ridiculous. He’d barely dated anyone before being caught in the whirlwind of Harrison Marsh. He probably did need a professional at this point.

But no, he doubted he’d drum up enough courage to call an escort, though he did like the agency’s name and implied speed in an emergency. If he ever got truly desperate, he had the option to call Nick of Time Escort Service to save him.

 

 

“NICK OF Time Escort Service. How may I help you?” Daphne the receptionist answered the phone as Cal passed her desk.

He hated coming into the office. While his name, photograph, and basic stats like height and age were all displayed in the agency’s online catalog, places of business that relied on anonymity for their clients tended to not have office hours open to the public. Payroll, the receptionist, and any handlers had office hours. Cal’s hours rarely included offices and were even more seldom during the day.

This morning, he had a bone to pick with the CEO.

“Mr. Mercer, may I help you with something?” Richard Raine Williams III, who Cal not so affectionately called Dick, barely glanced at the door when he stormed into his office. Daphne used to try to dissuade him from barging in unannounced, but she’d learned to let forces of nature run their course.

“Merlin’s on my schedule again,” Cal said as he planted himself in front of Dick. “I dropped him last week.”

“And you are well within your rights to do so. However”—the Englishman flicked his eyes up from his computer screen—“if you would like someone removed from your calendar, you need to go through the proper channels to dismiss that client and work through scheduling and accounts. When you do not, the chain of command is interrupted and someone spends several wasted minutes on changes they might have avoided.”

“Like me?”

“I was going to say Kendra in Accounts.” Dick’s insufferable deadpan irked Cal like few things could. “But I realize your time is more precious than the rest of ours.”

Crossing his arms over his tailored suit, Cal stood his ground. His greatest selling point to clients was his precise nature—not to say his looks weren’t an asset. “Don’t bullshit me, Dick. I told Lara I was dropping him. Shouldn’t the paperwork be her responsibility?”

“It is. You still need to sign it. And put something in the dismissal report other than you get a ‘bad feeling’ about him.”

Cal thought back to his latest encounter with Merlin—a man of sizable means and expensive tastes, recently forty, dripping with poise and sarcasm, much like Cal himself—and grimaced. “It’s a feeling. What more is there to explain? Have my instincts ever been wrong?”

The continued stare from Dick proved he hadn’t forgotten the clients Cal had demanded the agency dismiss in the past, and not always because they were his, who’d turned out to be unsavory for one reason or another. “No, but rather than cut ties with Mr. Merlin outright, I would like to give other escorts the opportunity—”

“I wouldn’t recommend that.”

Dick sighed, but Cal was not going to budge. Atlas City was large enough that the agency could afford to drop rich assholes like Merlin without missing any quotas. Cal had never had trouble with the man. He treated him well, carried on a good conversation, followed the rules when things got intimate, but Cal couldn’t shake the feeling that something was funny about him.

“Get him off my schedule, and off the roster.”

“Of course, Mr. Mercer,” Dick conceded. “Comfort for my escorts first and foremost, always.”

He meant it, Cal never doubted that, which was the primary reason he remained loyal to the agency and always would, even when the rest of the time the CEO was a prick. “Thank you.” Turning briskly, he made to take his leave.

“And do fill your vacant spot within the next few weeks, if you would. We are getting a bit full up. Perhaps you’d consider taking on a new regular.”

Cal bristled as he reached the door and shot an icy expression over his shoulder. “I’ll see what comes up.”

Nick of Time allowed their escorts to vet and refuse anyone who chose them for a night—especially if a night turned into a regular occurrence. The client wouldn’t be told they were refused, just that the escort was unavailable. Cal had a full schedule of regulars and very rarely took on new clients. He was picky about who he spent his time with, especially if that involved joining someone in bed, and it always did where work was concerned. He didn’t take clients only looking for arm candy; he knew where his strengths lay.

The healthcare for Nick of Time was bar none as well, and clients had to go through an approval process with up-to-date medical records just like the escorts. After being accepted onto the roster, clients could have first pick of who they wanted for a night, though they were encouraged to choose second and third options since first-choice escorts were often popular and already booked. If an escort was fully stacked for their schedule, they were removed from the catalog until they became available again, but the final decision always came down to whether the escorts themselves were willing to accept who’d chosen them.

Still, there had been times when Cal agreed to see a client, saw them for a night, but even though the man or woman desired his company in the future, he deemed them unfit to become a regular. He’d kept Merlin on his calendar for far too long.

Making a quick left out of Dick’s office, Cal headed for his handler—Lara Tyler. In a pinch, she was more bodyguard than secretary, but that part of her resume wasn’t on the books. Cal had never used her services in that regard, but a few escorts had, and the stories they told were part of why so many gifts and flowers stacked up on her desk come Christmas.

Cal’s mouth was already open in preparation to speak when he rounded the corner into her office and was interrupted by a stack of papers being smacked against his chest. He coughed as he looked down at the well-manicured hand attached to them.

“Those would be the forms I neglected to sign?”

“What gave them away?” Lara said with mild scorn bleeding through her smile—a deadly smile, made all the deadlier with red lips framed by a pretty face. Lara would have made an excellent escort herself, not that many people would dare tell her that. “I’m assuming you already gave Richard an earful?”

“What can I say, I hate the bureaucratic side to the job,” Cal said, accepting the papers and following her to the desk. “I prefer to be more… hands-on.”

Unmoved by the waggle of his eyebrow, Lara pushed a pen at him next, said “Put your hands to work with this then, Calvin,” and spun her computer to face her while she perched on the corner of her desk. “Need an updated schedule with Merlin removed?”

“Please.” He started to peruse his paperwork; it was a very thick stack in his opinion.

“Piper’s back from vacation. Wondered if you could pencil him in tonight.”

“Gladly.” The client Cal had dubbed Piper because he played principal clarinet in the Atlas City Philharmonic tipped well and was easy to please with the right praises for his playing and condescending talk about the art his parents bought that he therefore despised.

Cal loved art and music, and Piper, while young, was worthy of every bit of praise Cal had ever given him. But much of high society, which was the majority of Cal’s clients, revolved around trash masquerading as treasure, and that he couldn’t stomach.

“Also, Prince had to reschedule for Wednesday. With Merlin out, you’re free that day, so I gave her a maybe.”

“You can confirm. Have you seen Rhys around—”

“Where’s my damn bonus, Tyler?” A booming voice preceded one of Cal’s dearest friends and fellow escort, Rhys Kane. He could slap on the charm on a dime and be whatever a client wanted, but he was surly and blunt when himself. Cal found it refreshing.

“Your referral bonus will be in the next paycheck, Rhys. I told you,” Lara said. “End of the month.”

Rhys grumbled. He stood a good inch taller than Cal’s six-foot-one and was nearly twice as broad. His larger, muscled form attracted a narrower group of clients, but he was never without a full schedule. “I should get a bonus straight from Johnny for this one. You shoulda seen his face comin’ back from his first night with this chick.” He smirked at Cal. “I think the poor sap’s in love.”

“What’d he dub her?”

“Jane.”

“Bit dull, isn’t it?” Cal frowned.

“Like Tarzan and Jane. Apparently, she’s got a thing for safaris, and you know how Johnny likes to travel.”

Rhys,” Lara interjected. “We aren’t a matchmaking service. Stop setting up referrals with ulterior motives to knock out your competition.”

“Who’s got ulterior motives?” Rhys shrugged. Johnny wasn’t as large as Rhys but he did fill a similar demographic, and several past escorts had quit after Rhys handed them referrals. Rhys swore it was coincidence, but sometimes Cal wondered. “I just figured she’d like the guy, so I passed her his card at a party. That’s what referrals are for. Whadda you got goin’ on?” He returned his attention to Cal.

“Piper and Prince this week.”

“Merlin too?”

Out,” Cal said, signing his name with a flourish on the last page.

“’Bout time,” Rhys huffed.

“You’ve never even met the man,” Lara said, taking back the signed forms and her pen.

“Cal’s word’s good enough for me.”

Shaking her head at them, Lara set the papers in her outbox. “You know how Richard frowns on this shop talk.”

“That’s why we use codenames for clients,” Cal said. “All in good fun. No identities lost.”

“Why do ya call him Merlin again?” Rhys asked.

“Coz he’s a magician, Rhys. I can never figure out his secrets.” With most of the day free and his evening newly planned, Cal decided to make the most of running into his friend. “Breakfast?”

“You’re on, pal. But till I get that bonus”—he poked Cal pointedly in the shoulder—“yer buyin’.”

Cal expected as much. Heading out of the office, he turned to say his farewells to Lara, but she was already in front of him, pressing another paper to his chest—the schedule he hadn’t noticed her print.

“Since you prefer ‘hands-on,’” she said, even though she’d email and text it to him later. “But next time… paperwork first.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cal said with a bow. “You know, you don’t rag on Rhys about these things.”

Lara’s eyes always had a sparkle of danger in them, especially when she was in the right. “Don’t let the loud bark fool you, Calvin. Rhys is the most reliable one of the whole bunch.”

“But I’m still the most popular.” Cal winked, priding himself on the smile he wheedled out of her before he followed after his friend.