THE music pounded its way into Eric’s ears and chest. Each thud of the deep bass reverberated through his ribs and vibrated out his fingers. The sound overpowered even the background rumble of too many shouted conversations. He sat at the far end of the bar, perched precariously on the small stool, and watched the crowd with alcohol-dazed eyes.
He’d had too much to drink. Again. Once upon a time his brother Keith would have been mad and given him yet another lecture on his irresponsible behavior. Eric grimaced and stared at the writhing bodies that filled the tiny dance floor. Once upon a time only happened in fairy tales.
The flashes from the overhead lights were disorientating, the brilliant bursts of light painful and blinding as they cut through the dimness and seared across his vision. Eric swayed rhythmically as he tried to follow the flickering colors that kept time with the driving beat.
This was a mistake. He should have gone home once he left the cemetery. No, Eric corrected himself. Not home, the tiny apartment could never be home. He didn’t have one anymore. He had to face that every time he stood before the graves of his father and brother. Everything and everyone that had given his life meaning were gone, and there was nothing waiting for him but the empty and accusing silence.
Eric lifted his drink and brought it to his lips. Wetness splashed along his neck; he fumbled before he gave up and watched the glass hit the tiled floor beneath his feet and shatter. Whatever liquid hadn’t spilled down his shirtfront sprayed out in slowed motion onto the legs of those nearest to him.
No one noticed.
He slipped off the stool and braced himself with a hand on the wet surface of the bar. What would happen if he gave voice to the turmoil and pain inside him? Would the crowd turn and stare if he let loose and started screaming? Eric wanted to laugh, but he was afraid he’d start to cry instead. Christ, there was nothing worse than a maudlin drunk.
A hand gripped his arm. The tight grasp steadied him. Eric stared down, and his focus sharpened, allowing him to see the DayGlo bar stamp on the back. The fingers were broad; thick, untrimmed cuticles hid the white half-moon. Eric peered through the fog of alcohol and tried to see the face of the man who held him, but all Eric could distinguish between the flashes of light and dark were the thin lips that moved with a question it didn’t matter if he heard.
The hand pulled. It tugged Eric toward the back exit.
Eric looked at the mess he had left on the bar. Shreds of napkin and empty glasses surrounded the small pile of change that floated in the puddle of booze he had spilled. With a tiny measure of clarity Eric knew once again he had a choice. He could go along with the insistent hand and its owner in search of a brief moment of oblivion, or he could go home.
THE alley behind the bar was a dark space, a void both black and fetid. Trash pickup was still days away, and the narrow area was filled with the ripening odors of rotting food and stale beer trapped within the brick walls, unable to escape into the atmosphere. Overtop of it all lay the sharp, acrid smell of urine.
It couldn’t be called romantic by any stretch of imagination, but then, romance wasn’t what Eric was looking for. He turned his face to the side when the thin lips sought his.
“Come on, don’t be shy.” The voice panted into Eric’s ear, ragged with a mixture of lust and adrenaline that was palpable. The man stank of it almost as much as he stank of beer and sour sweat. Eric didn’t struggle or protest as his pants were unzipped, and the now familiar-hand ran over the bared skin of his ass in a token caress.
The handle of the trash can lid pressed uncomfortably into his stomach as Eric’s pliant body was spun around, bent, and held still. Any more force and he would have vomited. Eric didn’t want that. He needed to keep the alcohol he had consumed in his system. It was cheap anesthetic for life’s pain.
His arms dropped down by the metal sides of the can, and his knuckles brushed against the gritty pavement. Gravity strained his shoulders and forced his head further down. Eric grunted as his head spun with the sudden rush of blood.
Eric could hear the voice of the man standing behind him; the rough exclamations of anticipation and want. He needed the noise. It was the only thing he had found that would block out the voices in his head.
A perfunctory prep and then Eric arched upward at the overwhelming sensation, the dry scraping pain. He could feel the excitement of the stranger increase with the illicitness of the act. Eric just welcomed the burn and closed his eyes. That was his mistake. Without the external stimulation he was trapped in his head, held captive by his memories and falling into them with nothing to keep him safe.
The sounds around him blended, merging with the voices in his head, and despite his efforts to stay present, to stay connected to the pain of the stranger’s rough embrace, Eric felt himself slipping away until he was back in the courtroom listening to noise of the crowd behind him as he watched the Family Court Arbitration Team file back in.
It should have been quieter in the courtroom, shouldn’t it? Even after all this time the question still wore on Eric. Shouldn’t moments that held such momentous sway in a person’s life occur in an atmosphere of quiet and somber dignity? But that wasn’t the case.
To most it might have only been deemed background noise, but to Eric it was a constant din he couldn’t block out no matter how he tried. It rose and fell; an ocean of words, swells of conversation that he couldn’t ride out, that had no place in this moment. It went on and on, sweeping over him until he couldn’t focus on anything else, until he just wanted to scream for it stop. But he didn’t.
The door to the bar’s kitchen opened, allowing a narrow band of light to shine into the alley. Eric could hear the music spill out from the bar before whoever opened the door finished their cigarette, threw the butt on the ground, and headed back inside. The smell of the smoke lingered, momentarily masking everything else.
It was difficult to believe the majority of court proceedings, including this case dealing with a minor, were open to the public. Harder still to believe just how many observers showed up for the free entertainment.
Bread and circuses, Eric thought with disgust. There was a sudden burst of music behind him, some song he didn’t recognize. Cell phones were supposed to be turned off, but there always had to be one asshole in the crowd.
He tried not to fidget, tried to keep his hands flat on the surface of the wood table he was seated behind no matter how much they trembled. He hadn’t thought it would be so much like the movies. But it was. Even the courtroom was pretty much a copy of what he would expect to see on some cheesy television movie of the week or sitcom. Except this wasn’t funny, and Eric wasn’t laughing.
He still couldn’t believe this was happening.
His dick ground painfully into the cold metal of the lid beneath him. Eric wasn’t hard; this wasn’t about his getting off. He let the filth of the alley, the emptiness of the moment seep into him. Was it too much to hope it would finally replace the pain? He had tried before, but it was never enough. Surely he could forget now. Surely he could finally stop thinking about anything but right here and now.
Bonnie was seated in the row behind him. She and her new husband. Sara wasn’t anywhere to be seen. They wouldn’t let her come. They wouldn’t let him see her even this last time. Unable to help himself, Eric twisted in his seat, looking behind him for his sister-in-law.
Ex-sister-in-law, he guessed was the more appropriate term.
She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t meet his pleading eyes. She just sat huddled next to her new husband and cried softly into her handful of tissues. This was tearing her apart. That’s what she had told him when he had managed to corner her in the hallway outside the courtroom.
What the fuck did she think it was doing to him?
McMasters glared at him from her side. Excuse me, Eric thought bitterly. The Reverend McMasters. And there, as they say, was the rub. Eric knew that the good Reverend had instigated all of this, this entire sideshow. He had even warned Eric and told him what he would do, but Eric didn’t believe him, didn’t think he could really get away with it in this day and age.
Eric had been wrong.
He didn’t look up, didn’t try to respond to the hand as it groped between his legs and gave him a half-hearted squeeze. This wasn’t about forming a connection. Finally the stranger gave up and concentrated on his own ragged thrusts, his innate desire to dominate fueled by the alcohol he had consumed and the unexpected opportunity for casual cruelty Eric laid before him.
His lawyer nudged him, trying to get his attention to turn him back to the front of the courtroom, but Eric was held fast, stunned by the look of triumphant hatred directed at him from the bench that housed the Reverend and several of his uncharitable flock. Eric still couldn’t believe it was nothing more than his very existence that incurred such enmity.
Finally Eric allowed the lawyer to turn him around. The man spoke into his ear, words low and sharp, words that he didn’t hear and wouldn’t understand even if he had. Eric ran his finger around the collar of his shirt and tried not to notice how heavily he was sweating. So much was riding on this decision. The ruling of these strangers could change his whole life and everything that had given it meaning since the death of his father and brother.
After the accident, Eric’s lifestyle, as it was now being called, hadn’t mattered to anyone. Bonnie had been devastated. Without Keith she had crumbled. Eric had done what he thought was right and stepped in to take care of the family he had left. Unspoken was the knowledge that it was the only thing keeping Eric from crumbling as well.
It was one of life’s sad little ironies that it took his father’s and brother’s deaths to make Eric attempt to assume the mantle of responsibility they had always wanted him to wear. It would seem that sorrow and guilt were more powerful motivators than all the poking and prodding they had done when they were alive.
Moving his new lover of only few weeks out and the pregnant Bonnie in had seemed like the right thing to do. She and his unborn niece were all Eric had left of his brother. At the time, Bonnie had been grateful for the support, both emotional and financial, that Eric provided. It was left unstated that she expected nothing less.
It had taken time, but gradually they had been able to function again. Eric and his sister-in-law had never cared for one another, but that didn’t matter now. They could pretend to be a family, and now his niece Sara was at the center of Eric’s heart. God, but she looked so much like Keith. She had his dark eyes and his obstinate manner. Eric loved her on sight.
Did it make any difference that deep down Eric had viewed this as his only chance to make things right? A way to move past the conflict that had always tarnished his relationship with his big brother? A way to change those things that couldn’t now be undone?
“God damn, you’re tight.” Eric could feel the stickiness run down his inner thigh as it was pushed out by the repetitive movements to join whatever rank fluids already coated the ground on the alley. God, he wanted to puke. He choked as the metal handle dug into his stomach once again, and the alcohol swirled in his gut. But the pain wasn’t enough to block out his memories, and moisture leaked from the corner of his eyes as he wondered what it would take before he could finally forget.
When Bonnie had first started dating it had been difficult. There was something about her, some incandescent spark that drew men to her. It was what attracted Keith, and Eric could only view her sharing it with another as a betrayal of his brother. Despite his feelings, Eric babysat for Sara like always, unwilling to let some stranger spend the time with her.
That was when the arguments had started. The yelling. Bonnie was still a young woman; she wasn’t the type to spend her time alone. That was her favorite refrain. She deserved to move on with her life even if Eric was content to stay buried in the past. Eric didn’t agree, but then, he didn’t have to. He had no legal standing in Sara’s life. Bonnie held the winning hand.
At least until Bonnie had become engaged to the Reverend. He was handsome, with blond hair and a husky physique that hinted at his days of college football. A stable man, he was the direct opposite of Bonnie and her need for excitement, and Eric couldn’t understand their connection.
Even though Thomas McMasters seemed to ground Eric’s flighty sister-in-law, Eric could only wonder about what Bonnie was thinking. Eric didn’t even know how they had met. A widower himself, the Reverend had moved slowly, giving Bonnie the time she had said she needed to adjust and get used to his ways.
It was only later that Eric understood that not only was McMasters a wealthy man, but that Bonnie was playing a part, seeing herself through McMasters’ eyes as the grieving widow and visualizing herself as his calm and capable helpmate, respected and loved by his welcoming congregation. Perhaps it was that promise of an outpouring of unconditional love and respect that swayed her.
Things hadn’t changed for Eric until Bonnie had acknowledged to the Reverend that her brother-in-law, the man she lived with who had practically raised her daughter, was bisexual with a stronger preference for the male of the species. Bonnie had never been able to understand that gender characteristics were less important to Eric than the emotional connection, and he could only wonder what she had told her fiancé.
Hell, Eric still didn’t know how his sexuality had even come up; but apparently it did. And hadn’t things gone to hell in a hand basket then?
The campaign against Eric had started just as slowly as the courtship did. “Insidious” was the word Eric used to describe it to his lawyer. There was nothing overt at first, nothing too obvious during the engagement. Even the wedding had gone smoothly enough. But afterward, once they were married and Bonnie and Sara moved from Eric’s house into the McMasters’ household, well, things had certainly changed then.
Suddenly Eric’s phone calls weren’t returned, his messages were lost, and his calls dropped. Eric’s visits with Sara became few and far between. How could he argue when she was playing with friends, having fun and being a kid? Bonnie had demanded. Was he really that selfish? Eric had heard it all. Before he had realized it, he had become an outsider in his niece’s life.
Perhaps Eric could have handled things differently. Maybe given time there would have been some common ground he and the Reverend could have found. Honestly, if Eric really would have believed things were this serious, he might even have gone out and found himself a girlfriend to smooth things over.
But he had been hurt and angry, lost without Keith as his voice of reason, and now it was too late for any of that. Here he was with two restraining orders against him and this hearing in Family Court to decide his right to see his own niece.
Eric felt chilled. They were taking Keith’s daughter away from him. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
Eric heard the words, but they were distorted, the syllables drawn out and indecipherable. His lawyer nudged him, finally taking him by the arm and pulling him upright when he didn’t respond.
Someone else was talking. Was it the arbitrator? The Family Court therapist? Did it even matter?
A drop of sweat rolled down the pale and pimpled forehead of the lawyer who stood beside him. Not a good sign. Maybe that’s something else he should have done differently. Would a better lawyer have helped? Eric had been forced to sell his house to hire this one, and even then he still owed him money. Money he didn’t have.
More words. Should he be paying attention?
“Based on the claims presented by the minor child’s mother and adoptive father, the Court feels that it will be in the child’s best interest not to be exposed to the confusion and chaos of the defendant’s alternative lifestyle.”
Were they really talking about him? Eric wanted to laugh. What kind of alternative lifestyle had he been able to have in the past several years while raising an infant? People talked about the problems single mothers had trying to get a date; they had no clue what it was like trying to find a man willing to come over and wait until he could get Sara down for the night.
Suddenly the flow of words was interrupted by a low noise; Eric thought it was a groan. Was someone hurt? He wanted to look around, but he was trembling too much; legs and arms suddenly awkward and uncoordinated.
He was going to be sore tomorrow. Eric knew that. His body felt bruised. This guy had been a biter, and even now his shoulder stung. It would take time for his body to heal. But heal it would. It always did. He couldn’t say as much for the rest of him.
It was only when the words burst out of his mouth that Eric realized the noise had come from him. It was the sound of his heart breaking.
“No!” Eric yelled. “You can’t do this. Bonnie!” He turned to the seats behind him, searching for Sara’s mother. “Bonnie, please!” There was no pride left as he pleaded. “She’s all that’s left of Keith. You can’t take her away from me. You can’t.”
Bonnie was crying harder now, and he tried to go over to her, to talk to her, to make her understand, but there were hands pulling at his arms and then an arm around his neck, choking him, cutting off his air and his ability to speak.
“Don’t be foolish!” his lawyer hissed in his ear. “You’re only making things worse.”
The rest was a blur. Voices. Hands. Confusion swirled around him. His lawyer tried to get him to sit back down, brushing away the court officers and pushing him behind the table once again.
The flow of words continued to roll over him, pulling him under; drowning him beneath their weight, but Eric wasn’t listening anymore. The sound of the gavel was loud and decisive, but he couldn’t hear it.
“Hey, man. You okay?” Rough hands pulled Eric off the trash can, rolling him onto the ground. He lay there motionless, uncaring of his disheveled state, just another piece of discarded garbage in the alley. It hadn’t worked. His brain wouldn’t shut off. He couldn’t manage to forget no matter how he tried.
“Come on, snap out of it.” Rough hands slapped at his face. But they may as well have been smoke ghosting over him for all the impression they made. The distance between reality and the small, quiet space he had retreated to in his mind had become too great to cross.
Eric didn’t move. He could hear the footsteps as they hurried away; later the shrill sound of the sirens after he was found. But he couldn’t respond. He was lost inside his head, too busy trying to explain to the ghost of his dead brother how he had fucked things up once again.
“THE come stains are the worst, you know.”
The voice came from behind a startled Eric. He instinctively stood up, only to wince and rub his head where he hit it against the top of the limo’s unforgiving metal doorframe.
“Yeah,” the voice continued. “I hate them worse than puke. Come stains always mean somebody had a much better time than I did.”
Eric managed to stand up without further damage and turned to face the voice. One soft brown eye winked at him and then gave him an obvious up and down the likes of which he had not experienced in years. With that look the guy probably knew everything up to and including the length of his dick when hard.
“Hey.” Eric lightly protested the thoroughness. “Leave a guy some secrets.”
“Sorry.” The unrepentant smirk under the tousled dark curls didn’t match the sentiment, and Eric was unable to keep himself from smiling back. Even though the unknotted tie was in danger of sliding off one shoulder, the black pants, vest, and white shirt immediately identified the newcomer as a fellow driver.
There were six of the stretch limousines parked in the big open bay of Discreet Limousine’s garage complex. Eric had seen a couple of the other drivers in passing when he showed up early for his new job, his intent to familiarize himself before the start of his shift. This dark-haired beauty hadn’t been one of them.
“You the new guy?” Long eyelashes fanned down over the sideways glance as the newcomer inhaled on his cigarette. The wisps of smoke curled up as he pursed his lips slightly on the exhalation. Oh yeah, Eric thought. Definitely a real charmer.
“Yeah, that would be me. Name’s Eric, Eric Moss.” Eric politely stuck his hand out and watched as the smirk deepened but no hand was extended in response, just another exhalation of blue smoke.
“I’m Christopher Walsh. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll wait to shake until after you wash up.”
“What?” Eric stared at him, his grey-green eyes clouded with confusion. What was he missing?
“And just so you know, there are rubber gloves on the back shelf. Brad thinks it’s funny to hide them from us, but wading elbow deep in strange DNA is not part of the job description.”
“Fuck,” Eric swore glumly as Christopher’s initial greeting finally made sense and he looked at the suddenly suspect stains on the backseat in the vehicle. The very same backseat he had been scrubbing on his knees only moments before.
“Exactly.” Christopher just laughed at the look on Eric’s face and dropped his cigarette on the concrete floor of the garage. He ground the butt out with his booted foot, uncaring of the mess left behind. “New to the business?”
“Like it doesn’t show?” Eric replied in disgust, amazed at his ignorance.
“You’re smart enough to clean your ride before your first trip out, that’ll help avoid some first-night surprises. One of the reasons Dino didn’t last was that he didn’t keep his ride clean and the boss was getting too many complaints from the customers.”
The slender hips shifted, pressing against the gleaming side of the limo, pulling the already close fit of the trousers even tighter and offering Eric a better view of some very nice scenery.
“What were some of the other reasons?” Eric asked, curious about his predecessor even as he convinced himself there was no harm in looking at the show playing out before him.
Christopher avoided the question, just shifted his hips once again; smiling as Eric’s grey-green eyes automatically followed the motion. “Some of us go to the dive across the street to wind down when the shift’s over. Why don’t you come with us?”
Eric hesitated. The young man was friendly enough, certainly a flirt, but it had been hard enough to snag this job with his background, and he didn’t want to do anything stupid just yet.
“Don’t worry,” Christopher assured him. “I’m not asking you to go steady or anything. Just some coffee with your fellow drivers.”
“Sorry.” Eric looked sheepish for a moment. “Yeah, sure. That’d be fine.”
The overhead intercom crackled to life, and an impatient voice echoed through the garage.
“C’mon, Walsh, stop eye-fucking the new guy and get ready to roll.”
Eric could only smile once again as he watched Christopher give the overhead speaker the finger before sauntering off with a wave. Realizing he had laughed more today than he had since his arrival in Las Vegas, Eric admired the young man’s slender hips as they provocatively swiveled their way out the door before he headed to the back of the garage where the cleaning supplies were kept.
He was determined to find those rubber gloves and finish cleaning things up before he took the big stretch out. God, he was nervous. It was his first night driving the busy Vegas streets, and he wanted everything to go smoothly.
Eric needed to keep this job. He didn’t have anything or anyone to fall back on.
Just like Christopher had said, there were boxes of latex gloves piled up behind an assortment of red shop cloths. Not the best hiding place, but if you didn’t know to look, like Eric hadn’t, it was easy to miss them. He wondered about the asshole who thought it was a joke to hide them.
“You learn fast.”
Eric spun around and waved his hand at the cloud of cigarette smoke that filled the air behind him. Did everyone who worked here smoke?
The man standing behind him might have been attractive beneath his covering of grease and grime; it was hard to say. He was wearing overalls so encrusted with dirt they probably could have stood up by themselves, and Eric couldn’t tell what color the hair was underneath the filthy bandana that covered his head.
But the eyes. Damn. What a pair of eyes. If Christopher was all warm and cozy, this guy was pure ice. Eric felt immediately exposed, naked beneath the laser sharp focus of the pale blue eyes that traveled over his body.
The touch of those eyes burned.
“Hey,” Eric replied. He felt awkward and fumbled for the right words. “I was just looking for these.” He flapped the gloves in his hand and immediately flushed at how stupid that was. It was obvious what he had been doing.
“You the new guy?” The words were the same as Christopher’s, but the tone, the intonation, hell, the very lips that shaped the words were different.
Eric couldn’t ignore the pull of the other man. All of Christopher’s flirting hadn’t struck him the way one glance from this man did. It was like a signal his body was trained to receive and one he had hoped never to receive again. Right now everything inside Eric was pinging madly away, begging for a chance to feel those callused hands on his bare skin, pressing on his throat, holding him down. This guy was dangerous.
Eric wanted him.
“Yeah.” Eric forced a smile onto his face in an effort to hide his instinctive reaction. “I’m Eric Moss.”
Unlike Christopher, this guy had no compunction about taking Eric’s hand in his and giving it a firm shake. Eric was breathless, energized by the feeling of the warm skin touching his. His cock twitched in his pants, stirring with an interest he had thought lost to him along with everything else in his life.
Eric forced himself to draw his hand back slowly, fighting both that unexpected jolt of desire and the rudimentary sense of self-preservation that demanded he run from this man as fast as he could.
“I’m Brad Torres.” Pale eyes watched as Eric stared down at the grease covering his palm in silent fascination. “Sorry about that.”
Eric felt marked. There was no other word for it. He grew even harder as he acknowledged the feeling. He knew he should move away, but he couldn’t manage to do anything but stare wordlessly at his outstretched hand.
The moment of silence lengthened, and then Brad took a red shop cloth from out of his pocket and cradled Eric’s hand in his. The mechanic steadily wiped the grease away before rubbing his thumb over Eric’s palm without comment.
“You’d better get going.” Brad finally released Eric’s hand and gave him a gentle push toward the open bay. “Almost time for you to roll.”
IT was still early in the morning, the last few songs someone had selected on the decrepit jukebox were approaching a world class level of bad, the noise in the diner was practically ear-splitting, and the ancient waitress (Eric thought she might be a matched pair with the jukebox) was one scary-looking broad. But the coffee was hot and damn good, and after his first nerve-wracking night of driving Eric was almost in heaven.
“Hey!” Somebody pushed at his elbow resting on the table, and Eric’s eyes jerked open. “You’ve not gone to sleep on us have you?”
“Nah.” Eric inhaled the wonderful aroma from his mug once again. “Just enjoying the moment.”
Blue eyes widened, and then the driver, Warren, Eric thought his name was, began to mock him. “Ooooh, enjoying the moment.” His impersonation of Eric was accurate enough to send the rest of the table into peals of laughter, and even Eric had to join in, amused at the ease with which the young man imitated him.
“At least you’re drinking coffee instead of that other crap like Christopher.” That was from the tall African-American man with the shocking bleached blond Afro sitting across from him.
“What kind of crap is Christopher drinking?” Damn, he had been half-asleep when introduced to everyone sitting at the table, and he couldn’t remember anyone’s name. Eric looked over at Christopher, but the young man was staring down into his plate, quite a change from the outgoing flirt he had been earlier.
“Some God-awful shit he claims is decaf, but I tried it once, and I think it’s actually dishwater. I’m Rob by the way.”
Eric nodded his thanks at the reminder and sipped gratefully at his own strong mug of coffee. He was going to have to do better on the names. It was funny, after the first cup the waitress didn’t look quite so scary. Was there such a thing as coffee goggles?
“And I’m Daniel,” a new voice added. “Don’t sweat it. You’ll catch on. Focus on the first names and forget about the rest. Half the time we don’t remember them ourselves.” With a cocky smile, Daniel (another blond, but natural, Eric registered) stood and waved his arm over the heads of the group seated at the table.
“We’re a mixed group here. If it helps you can remember that Warren and Christopher are our token brunets, and despite his efforts to look like an escapee from the NBA, Rob and I are the attractive ones of the bunch. Being a redhead like you