Chapter One

 

 

THE ALARM sounded, and Bull grunted and reached over to the clock next to the bed, slapping it off. The damned thing kept buzzing, so he slapped it again. It still wouldn’t shut up, so Bull actually looked at it and pressed the fucking “shut up” button. With the room now quiet, he rolled over and groaned softly. He remembered the huge bear of a man he’d brought home in the wee hours of the morning.

“Hey, bud, it’s time to get up and get going,” Bull said, lightly slapping the man’s huge ass. Big or not, the guy had had no idea what to do with it, and last night’s horizontal games had been fairly unmemorable. “I got things to do, and I’m sure you do too,” Bull said a little louder before he pushed back the covers and got out of bed. The guy began to stir, and Bull walked into the bathroom, scratching his hairy belly as he went. He used the toilet and then took the opportunity to splash some water on his face before returning to the bedroom. His trick from the night before—he used the term loosely because the guy was too old to be truly classified as a trick—was just pulling on his pants.

“I left my card on the nightstand. Call me if you want to do this again.” He smiled, but it only accentuated the wrinkles on his face. Bull couldn’t for the life of him remember the guy’s name, which was pathetic for both of them. His trick because he was so unmemorable, and for himself because he’d had so many one-night stands he didn’t bother to try to remember them any longer.

Bull smiled and nodded, stifling a yawn that the guy might take as an invitation to try to get them back to bed, and Bull had plenty of things to do. He grabbed a pair of sweats and stepped into them. He pulled on a T-shirt while the guy stepped into his shoes. “I’ll see you out,” Bull said and led the guy through his house toward the door. Bull lightly kissed the guy good-bye because, well, it seemed like the right thing to do. He watched the guy descend the stairs, then closed the door. After heading back to the bedroom, Bull stripped the bed and threw the sheets in the laundry hamper in the corner. He remade the bed and then walked into the bathroom, pulling off the T-shirt as he went.

He shaved his face and then his head. He loved the way his skin glistened in the light. It added to his image as a total badass, and that made his job that much easier. It also tended to keep most people away, which made his life a lot less fucking complicated. Leaving the remnants of shaving cream on his face and head, Bull shucked his sweats and started the shower. He waited for the water to warm, then stepped under it. Even though the sex from the night before hadn’t been particularly satisfying, he didn’t feel the need to take care of things himself, so he simply washed, rinsed, and then stepped out from under the water. He grabbed a towel and dried off before dropping it and standing in front of the mirror. “Fuck, I need to stop eating crap,” he groused as he pinched his slight belly. He wasn’t fat by any means, but he was big—another intimidation factor he loved. Bull added a stop at the gym to his day’s activities. The fact was, he hadn’t felt like doing anything all week and his chores were piling up, so he got dressed, pulled everything together, and got ready to leave.

He spent most of the day running his errands. He ended up at the gym in the early evening, which was fine, and did his workout. A few people he knew talked to him briefly at the gym, but other than that, he just did what he needed to do. After the workout, he cleaned up once again and then headed out to work at the club.

“Bull,” Harry, his business partner, called as soon as he walked in the back door. “We’re expecting a huge crowd tonight.”

“I know,” Bull answered flatly as he followed Harry back to the office area. He sat in his chair in the office. He thought about putting his feet on the desk, but Harry hated it, and he was one of the few people whose opinion mattered to Bull. In addition to being Bull’s business partner, Harry was also the closest thing to a real friend that Bull had. “I’ve already told the boys to be on their toes, and I’ll be out there the entire night.” It was Bull’s job to make sure the club remained secure and the crowd behaved. Sometimes it was a big job, like it was going to be tonight.

“These boys always bring in the crowd,” Harry said with a smile that Bull allowed himself to share. Nights like this, with the dancers, always packed the place, and as long as he and his team could keep the patrons from sneaking in their own alcohol, they made a killing on the bar sales. “But sometimes….”

Bull shivered in the warm office. “I know. If I see that drug-dealing bastard, Carter, I’ll throw him out myself, and this time I’ll aim for the dumpster.” That kind of shit always caused trouble, and on the nights when they brought in the exotic dancers, it was always worse. Harry knew how to run a club and how to bring in a crowd, and it was Bull’s job to secure the club entrance and make sure the place was safe. They’d had a major fight a year earlier that had cost them thousands. There was no way they were letting that happen again. They had been unable to open for days because of repairs, and some items had to be brought up to current code because they were making repairs. Not to mention the danger to their license.

“It’s not just Carter,” Harry said.

Bull nodded slowly. He was well aware of that. “Let’s get started, then.” Harry stood, and Bull did as well. He left the office and headed out into the club, where he knew his team would be gathering. The bartenders were hard at work getting ready for the busy night. Glasses sparkled in the racks over the bar, and the tink of bottles hitting bottles reached Bull’s ears as liquor was stocked. To Bull, it was the sound of money—lots of money.

“Okay, guys,” Bull said as he approached the small group of four men who would be acting as bouncers this evening. “You all know the drill, but we’ve gotten wind of a new booze-smuggling scheme. They tape plastic bladders to their calves. So when you pat down, be sure to go all the way down to their ankles. Reggie, you did great last time finding those airline bottles. Keep it up and show the others.” He nodded once in acknowledgement. “At the first sign of trouble, call. Do not wait until it escalates. This room is going to be filled with guys hyped up on testosterone from the show with their judgment impaired by alcohol.” All four men nodded. “Any questions?” Bull asked and received headshakes. “Are there any questions?” he repeated more loudly.

“No,” they all answered.

“Good. Use your voices to project power. It works. If you’re quiet, they’ll mess with you. The force of your voice can prevent you from having to use your hands.” Bull looked at each of them. “Do you all have supplies of icy towels? If not, they’re in the freezer in back and behind the bar.” The bouncers nodded. “Where you can, use them instead of becoming physical.” The simple application of a frozen towel to the back of the neck was a quick way to separate two patrons rather than putting the bouncer in harm’s way. It also meant they didn’t have to touch them, which was a plus. “Let’s go to work. We open in ten minutes.”

They all began to file away. “Keep your eyes open,” Bull bellowed, and they all jumped. “See, the power of your voice. You all jumped. Make them do the same.”

“Yes, sir,” the four of them yelled, the sound echoing over the music that had just started blaring from the speakers. That earned them a smile.

They opened the doors on time, and Bull instantly felt his energy level rise and his senses sharpen as the first patrons walked through the door. At this hour they were few and far between, which was normal. People wouldn’t really begin to arrive until ten. The show was scheduled to start at eleven. Bull checked all the stations around the club, touching base with the shirtless bartenders as well as the people posted at each of the doors.

An hour before showtime, Bull relieved one of the men at the door and stood at the front of the line. Everyone had to pay a cover, and on a night like this, no way would he let in any of the bouncers’ friends, or the flirty twink who happened to catch their eye, for free. Every space in the club could be sold at least twice on a night like this, and it was his job, and to the advantage of his wallet, that he sell each of those spots.

By ten thirty, the line was long and becoming restless, because every twink, leather daddy, boy, slave, and dude in town wanted to see the members of the Philadelphia Inferno strip it all off, or as close to all as you could come in Harrisburg. A few fights broke out in line, and Bull either pulled men apart or used the towels to break them apart. He also sent those groups to the end of the line, which meant they were screwed for seeing the show. That ended the fight in a fucking hurry. No one wanted to land in nightclub purgatory, not after waiting an hour already. At ten minutes before eleven, a group of men approached the front of the line. They talked excitedly, and when their turn came, they stepped forward. There were three of them, all looking about twenty-one or twenty-two. He carded them. “I need to search you,” Bull told the first one.

The kid stepped forward and lifted his arms. “Search away, hot stuff,” he said, and as soon as Bull touched him, he began to giggle like a ten-year-old. Bull ignored it and checked the kid’s belt and up his back, then down his chest. All the while the kid was giggling and squirming like a demented belly dancer.

“Please empty your pockets,” Bull told him, and the kid turned out his pockets. Bull checked down his pant legs, and the kid began giggling again. “You got a problem?”

“You’re tickling me,” the kid said. Bull straightened up and crossed his arms over his chest.

“That’s some act, kid. What are you hiding?” Bull asked. He’d seen more tries at distraction than he could remember, but this was definitely a new one.

“Nothing. I’m just ticklish,” the kid said, the smile slipping from his adorably cute face and some of the light slipping from his eyes. What surprised Bull wasn’t the way the kid stared back at him—something almost no one did—or the way his bottom lip stuck out just enough to make Bull want to smile. It was the disappointment he felt that the kid wasn’t grinning anymore, because maybe he’d been smiling at him. Bull blinked that thought out of his mind. Pushing it away, he contemplated whether he should let the kid in.

“See how you react when someone’s touching all your sensitive spots.” Bull was about to tell the kid to take off when he reached out and ran his fingers over Bull’s belly. “Aren’t you ticklish?” he asked and continued working the tips of his long, slender fingers over Bull’s T-shirt.

Bull had to work not to crack a smile. Not because it tickled in the least, but because this kid would be forward enough to actually touch him. “No,” he snapped. “Move on inside before I change my mind.”

The kid pulled back his hand and lifted big brown puppy eyes to him for a few seconds before heading into the club. Bull swore softly to himself as he watched the kid walk away. When he returned his attention to where it should have been the entire time, he saw Greg, the other bouncer working the door, staring at him with a stupid grin on his face. Bull growled at him, and Greg turned back to the line, continuing to let people inside.

At five minutes to eleven, Bull called a halt. “We’re at our limit,” he said loudly, and those waiting in line let out a collective groan. “You’re welcome to wait, and we’ll let people in as others leave, but there’s nothing else we can do.” The guys all groaned again, and a few of them stepped out of line, giving up quickly. Others pressed forward, and Bull growled. “Stay where you are or go home! Those are your choices. There’s no more room, and that’s by city regulation.” The second guy in line stepped forward like he was about to argue, and Bull leaned down, getting right in the kid’s face. “Don’t even think about it.”

The guy looked over his shoulder, swallowed hard, and stepped back into line. Bull said nothing, but continued staring at him, watching the fight leach out of him.

“I can take care of things here,” Greg said.

Bull nodded. “You have any trouble, give me a call,” Bull told him and then stepped inside the club.

The place was rocking. Music blared, and everywhere he looked, boys were dancing, drinking, and moving to the beat. Bull found the spot he liked so he could watch the crowd and waited until the music died and lighting shifted. Harry stepped out onstage in a sequined tuxedo, and the crowd quieted. He explained the rules in no uncertain terms and then proceeded to undermine his speech by working the crowd into an expectant, carnal frenzy. Then he introduced the first dancer.

Bull tore his gaze away from the dancer and scanned the crowd. He wasn’t there to ogle or watch the strippers. He needed to stay focused on the crowd and potential trouble. The dancer began his routine, and Bull watched for people not watching the dancers. They were the ones there to cause trouble or with an agenda of their own. Everyone seemed to be watching the dancers, though. “Everything okay?” Harry asked, appearing next to him.

“Yes. They’re having a good time. I’m going to check outside and make sure the line’s okay. Then I’ll be back.” Bull moved around the edge of the undulating crowd toward the door. Everything was surprisingly quiet outside. The number of people in line had decreased considerably. There was nothing else he could do. Bull would love nothing more than to take their money, but it wasn’t likely to happen tonight, at least not until the show was over. Bull nodded to Greg and then went back inside.

He turned toward the stage and saw the tickler jumping up and down near the stage. Bull watched him bounce and jump up and down as the police officer onstage tore off his shirt and whipped it around his head. The guy shone with oil—he had smooth, perfect pecs and a deeply grooved stomach above hips that rocked and swayed to the music.

Bull shifted his gaze back to where the ticklish guy was bouncing. Up and down, up and down… then, he didn’t come up. Bull waited a few seconds and didn’t see him. Instantly he began winding through the crowd, pushing guys to the side. One of the good things about being as big as he was: people usually moved out of his way. Bull reached the front of the crowd and pushed several guys to the side in time to see the kid curled in a ball on the floor. Bull bent down and lifted him into his arms. The guy didn’t weigh much, and Bull began making his way back out. “Are you okay?” Bull asked as they approached the edge of the crowd.

“I think so,” the kid said, and Bull held him closer before carrying him to the back of the club and off the main floor to a quiet area they used for medical issues or to give patrons a chance to cool off. Bull rested him on the sofa.

“Did you get trampled?”

“I guess. I lost my balance when the guy next to me shoved me out of the way, and the next thing I know, I was looking up at a forest of legs that I figured were going to pound on me at any minute.” The kid took a deep breath. “I curled up to try to protect sensitive areas, and then you carried me out.”

“Did you get kicked anywhere?” Bull asked.

“A little, but I think I’m going to be okay. Nothing really hurts.” He stood up and took a few tentative steps. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Be careful when you get back out there. The crowd is really wired,” Bull warned. “Stay toward the back of the crowd. You should be able to see and still stay on your feet.”

“I will,” the kid said, and Bull led him out of the room and back to the club. Good as his word, the kid stayed toward the back, and Bull began scanning the crowd for trouble. However, he found he kept checking out the kid. As the dancing progressed, the energy and scent of testosterone in the room went through the roof. Bull kept an eagle eye on everyone and everything until the last dancer had wrapped up his routine. Only when the stage lights faded and the house music came on did he breathe a sigh of relief.

Reality quickly kicked in. Hundreds of men who’d been drinking and teased to within an inch of their libido-driven lives were not the recipe for calm. A fight began just behind him. Bull turned and grabbed one of the men while another bouncer toweled the other. He loved it when big men squealed like girls, and those frozen towels often made them do just that. Bull was in no mood to find out what had caused the fight. Instead, he and the other bouncer half carried both men to the door and out into the night. The doorman let in two men who’d been waiting, and Bull’s night continued, with the routine repeating itself multiple times during the evening.

“So,” Bull heard from behind him. He turned slowly to see Tickle Boy standing behind him. “Can I ask you something?”

“I’m working,” Bull grunted and forced his gaze away from puppy-dog eyes, pouty lips, and a tight little body he wanted to do nasty things to. His pants tightened and Bull groaned. He so did not want to be doing his job with a hard-on for the rest of the night. Bull had learned long ago that his job did not involve getting turned on by anything he saw in the club. They had handsome dancers stripping to tiny G-strings at least twice a month, and he’d always been able to concentrate on what was important—his job. But this kid pulled his attention like nobody’s business, and he needed to get his head in the game or something was going to happen and he’d miss it. His job was to keep order and try to keep his patrons safe, often from each other.

“I know. But I want to know if you’re really as mean as you look.”

Bull growled again and bared his teeth slightly. That had always been guaranteed to scare off even the stupidest drunk. But fuck if the kid didn’t just stare at him. “I need to work.”

“Okay, fine,” the kid said and turned away. Bull watched him rejoin his friends, and they talked amongst themselves for a few seconds, glancing over at him. The kid coming to speak to him had probably been some kind of dare. Bull let his gaze roam over the crowd, but he saw nothing to catch his eye at the moment. Sure enough, within seconds he was staring at Tickle Boy.

“Someone has caught your eye,” Harry said from next to him. He was now dressed in his normal, mostly black clothing.

“No. Just making sure the kid I helped earlier is all right,” Bull said, turning his gaze to a group of men who were growing louder. He caught their attention and they instantly settled. He loved when he could stop an incident before it started.

“Sure you were,” Harry said. Bull glared at him, growling under his breath, and Harry didn’t push it. “So how have things been?”

“Not too bad, considering,” Bull answered without pulling his attention from the club floor. The DJ was really rocking the crowd and the bar was three deep with men, but the boys were getting them through. “It’s going to be a big night.” Bull glanced at Harry, and he nodded slightly before moving off, most likely to check on other areas. Bull took a deep breath and let himself relax for just a few seconds. Things were going remarkably well.

Too well—within minutes, something reached his ears that didn’t jibe with the music. He looked around and groaned loudly before taking off through the crowd. He approached the group of men just in time to see two guys pushing each other and others beginning to circle. “Break it up!” Bull projected over the music. They ignored him, and he called for help through his transmitter before jumping into the fray. One of the guys took a swipe at him. Bull dodged it, and damned if the other one didn’t try the same shit. He wasn’t so lucky the second time and took a punch to the cheek.

Bull growled and grabbed the guy, barrel-hugged him, and started toward the door. Yelling erupted behind him, and Bull twisted around, groaning under his breath.

“Let go of me,” the guy he held cried, struggling and kicking Bull in the shin. Bull grunted and squeezed harder. Thankfully, one of the other bouncers arrived, and Bull shoved the guy in his arms at him and took off back to what was quickly escalating into a larger altercation. He and his men converged and began pulling people apart with brute strength, frozen towels, and every other tool they had. When Bull got to the bottom of the pile, he groaned. “I should have known,” he said. He bent down to pull Tickle Boy to his feet, but then stopped. “Are you okay?”

The kid lifted his head slowly. His lip was bleeding, and he would definitely have one hell of a shiner. “I think so?”

“What did you do? Ask more people questions they don’t want to answer?” Bull said, extending his hand. Tickle Boy took it, and Bull helped him to his feet. “Let’s get you back where I can look at you.” Bull led him to the same room they’d been in before. “Trouble seems to follow you, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not my fault,” the kid said quickly.

“Somehow I find that hard to believe… or is it my company you can’t get enough of?” Bull asked and instantly wondered why he’d asked that.

“Believe it or not, those two gorillas were fighting over me like I was some kind of damsel in distress.” He touched his lip with his finger, and Bull handed him a tissue. “I’m Zach,” the kid said.

“They call me Bull,” he answered. He reached for another tissue and handed it to Zach. “You need to be more careful.”

“I didn’t do anything. Honest,” Zach said, putting up his hand. “I was talking to this guy and the other one came up and started giving him shit about it.” He lowered his gaze to his shoes. “Okay, I was probably flirting a little, but that’s no reason for them to go all ape on each other. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just having fun. The guy with the tattoos was telling me what he wanted to do once we got back to his place.” Zach shivered before squeezing his eyes closed and shaking his head. “Then the other guy, the one with the huge loops through his ears, started in. I was trying to get away, because I’m not some kind of boy slut, and the two of them started blaming each other, and then….” Zach stopped and dabbed his lip.

“Do you flirt with a lot of guys?” Bull asked. He took the tissues from Zach and threw them in the trash. He had an idea that Tickle Boy was as flirty as they came.

Zach shook his head violently. “Not usually. Today is my birthday, and the guys said I should let loose and have some fun. I didn’t know it was going to get me punched,” Zach said, and Bull believed him. The kid seemed confused. “The whole seeing strippers thing was my birthday present.” Zach smiled and then winced, touching another tissue to his lip. Then he stood up and walked toward the door. “Thank you for helping me. I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.” Zach left the room, and Bull stood up as well. He threw away the last of the tissues and walked back to the club floor.

He scanned the dance floor, now pulsing with mostly shirtless guys dancing and having the time of their lives. “Looking for someone?” Greg asked with a knowing smile as he came up to Bull. “You haven’t been able to take your eyes off that kid the entire evening.” Bull didn’t look at Greg. “See what he’s doing after closing.”

Bull continued looking for trouble, but found nothing other than guys having fun. “Make a run through the bathrooms and put the fear of God into anyone you find in there.”

Greg held up his hands. “Sorry I mentioned anything.” Bathroom duty was the worst and everyone knew it. Bull was instantly sorry he’d pulled rank on Greg. Nothing was ever going to happen between him and Zach. The kid was way too young, and Bull only did one-night stands. Zach might have been a flirt, but Bull knew once he delved into those brown eyes or found out just what Zach’s pouty lips could do…. No, Bull never picked up guys at his own club. He went to other places, but never here. It was bad for business, and he certainly didn’t want anyone knowing his personal business. As far as they were concerned, he had no life, and that was fine. No complications, no emotional attachments that led to dramatic scenes he didn’t need.

For the rest of the night, Bull broke up a few fights and handled issues at the door, but other than that, he spent most of the evening watching people. More than once he saw Zach with his friends, laughing. He appeared to be having a good time. His eye had already darkened, but that was only getting the kid more attention. At one point, Harry called Bull back to the office. They talked briefly, and then he returned to the club floor. Much to his chagrin, he looked over the crowd, but didn’t see Zach. More than once he cussed himself out under his breath for even looking, but the kid must have left. It was definitely for the best; Bull knew that. He wasn’t looking for any complications, and that young man was a walking, talking complication if he ever saw one.

“Last call!” went up through the club. A number of the patrons groaned and then headed to the bar for a final drink. Half an hour later, the music silenced, and Bull and his team began the process of rounding up the stragglers and getting them on their way. That included calling cabs and making sure no one was too drunk to drive home.

At three in the morning, Bull locked the club and walked through the now silent and largely dark space. He both loved and hated the club like this. He loved it because it was quiet, and after an entire night of blaring music, he relished the silence. And he hated it because it was empty, but he tried not to dwell on that too much. Whenever he thought about it, Bull reminded himself of all the reasons why he avoided entanglements. “I don’t need that shit,” he muttered under his breath and hurried across the floor and into the office.

“Talking to yourself?” Harry teased as he worked at his desk. “Another success,” he added when Bull dropped into his chair. “I’m almost done here.” Harry yawned and shifted to open the safe. Harry counted the cash for deposit, and then Bull verified it before Harry placed the take in the safe.

With the safe door closed and locked, Bull gathered his things and got ready to leave. They had one hard and fast rule: after closing, no one left alone, so Bull walked Harry out, and they set the alarm and went to their cars. Bull said good night to his partner and drove to his apartment. Once he got inside, he locked the door and poured a scotch over ice and sat in his chair.

In the club, there was no one more depressing than the guy who drank alone. Bull took a sip of the liquor and then downed the rest in one swallow. He thought about having another, but set the glass on the table beside the chair and turned on the television for company. He was asleep in less than fifteen minutes.