“OKAY!” MIKEY O’Malley clapped his hands together and smiled at his charges. “So what do we do first?”
“Strap in!” A chorus of voices both deep and high answered him, and Mikey’s smile widened.
“You got it! So let’s get hooked up and we can start hiking!”
The kids surged forward, adults in close pursuit, and Mikey and his coworkers stayed busy for the next few minutes getting everyone into their harnesses and hooked in to the safety system. The AirHike attraction at Forest in the City Nature Park sent people climbing into the treetops through a series of rope bridges and platforms, strapped in securely so they wouldn’t fall. This group of parents with children who barely reached the minimum height would only be taking the lower third of the climb, but for the park—and for Mikey—making sure they made it through safely was priority number one.
Once the group had been sent safely off on their adventure, Mikey checked the time—an hour until his lunch break—and jogged over to the tangle of harnesses from the last group that came through. He grabbed a handful and started trying to straighten them out, checking all of them for any damage but paying particular attention to the smaller sets. In another couple of weeks, once he was fully trained and all the paperwork cleared, Mikey would be leading groups of summer-camp kids through the process, so he had extra incentive not just for taking more care with things but for keeping a close eye on the equipment he’d be using.
“Hey, Mikey!” Mikey looked over to where his supervisor stood near the tiny building that served as half storage and half office. Joey waved him over, so Mikey set down what he was working on and headed over. Before he could ask what was up, Joey said, “HR needs you to head over to the main office ASAP. Wouldn’t say why.”
A knot formed in Mikey’s stomach. “I was just going to finish—”
Joey shook his head. “Sorry. They said now. We’ll get things cleaned up here.”
Mikey swallowed hard and nodded before turning to head toward the clump of buildings at the center of the park. He couldn’t imagine why he’d been called in, especially for something his supervisor didn’t know about. Maybe it was something stupid, like a complaint from the parents of that Kevin kid yesterday who kept trying to get out of wearing a harness. He tried not to let his imagination run too far down the rabbit hole, but they certainly weren’t about to offer him a raise. He’d been working there less than a week.
The summer sun seared his back and shoulders as he crossed to the entry gates and waved his employee badge to be let through. Walking into the main office felt like crossing from a sauna into a deep freeze, and he shivered, only partly from the temperature drop. He remembered where to find HR, but it took him a few seconds of staring at the nameplate next to the door—Valerie deLuca, MBA, SPHR—and a few deep breaths before he could bring himself to knock.
Mikey opened the door slowly. “You needed to see me?”
The woman behind the desk didn’t smile. “Mr. O’Malley. Please come in, and have a seat. Close the door.”
Oh, this doesn’t sound good at all. Mikey followed instructions, twining his fingers together in his lap so he wouldn’t fidget. He couldn’t stop his leg from bouncing, though.
The woman—Valerie, Mikey reminded himself—reached for a folder. “Mr. O’Malley, I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend your employment temporarily.”
Shock like touching a live wire ran through Mikey. “Suspend? What did I do? I can’t—” He stopped and took a breath. “What happened?”
Valerie shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say at this point. As we informed you when you were hired, we perform enhanced background checks for staff members whose job duties may involve working with children without direct supervision. Unfortunately that check has found information of a nature that will require us to remove you from the schedule until we investigate more fully.”
She gave him a look that he supposed carried some degree of sympathy, but he had trouble feeling it. “I’ll need your badge for now. You may keep your parking permit and uniforms during the investigation, but please do not visit the park unless you are requested to come in to the office.”
She pulled a sheet of paper from the folder and held it out to him, and after a long moment, Mikey untangled his hands and reached to take it between shaking fingers. He had no clue what to say or what to do. Valerie pointed toward the paper.
“I suggest you take this home, read it, and perhaps speak to a lawyer,” she said. “I can’t provide you any further information at this time, but you may be able to find out more through the court system.”
Mikey glanced at the paper. The words “civil lawsuit” and “Florida” jumped out at him, but he couldn’t focus well enough to read more.
Mikey looked up.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you leave the premises now.”
Mikey jerked his head up and down. He pushed to his feet, the sheet of paper still gripped in his hand, and left the office. On autopilot he walked across the park to the employee lot. It wasn’t until he was in his car, cut off from the outside world, that what had just happened started to sink in.
Oh my God, he thought. What the fuck is going on?
He had his phone in his hand and Riley’s name up on the screen before he realized it, but he paused before he hit Send. His best friend and roommate would be the logical person to call, but slowly, as if led by an unseen hand, he clicked back to the contacts screen and chose a different name.
COCO LAMÉ, the screen read.
He hit Send.
A KNOCK at the window drew Mikey from the fugue of his thoughts. He looked out to see a familiar face bent over to look in at him. Cory Lassiter—a.k.a. Coco Lamé when he was in his drag persona—stirred up many different feelings in Mikey, but at that moment, the one he craved more than any other was comfort.
Feeling as if he were moving through a fog, Mikey untangled his arms from where he’d tucked them into the opposite sleeves of his hoodie and reached over to open the door. As soon as he did, Cory moved into the doorway and crouched down next to him. “Are you all right, honey?”
Mikey pulled his hoodie tighter around him. “I dunno.”
Cory laid a big hand on the side of his cheek. “You’re freezing, babe. How can you be freezing when it’s, like, a hundred and six out here?”
Mikey shrugged one shoulder. It wasn’t that hot, thanks in part to the forest that surrounded the open expanse of the parking lot, but even so he didn’t feel the heat. He felt like he had a solid core of ice inside him and he’d never be warm again. But he couldn’t force out words to explain it. Not when he didn’t even know why he was reacting like this.
Cory slid his hand to the back of Mikey’s neck, pushing the hood off his head. “Let’s get you home. Marianne offered to come with me, so she can drive your car. Okay?”
Mikey nodded. The warmth of Cory’s hand took the edge off the chill. He wished he could wrap Cory around him like his hoodie.
With Cory’s help Mikey climbed out of his car and moved the few feet to the passenger side of Cory’s car. Cory said something to a woman who stood nearby, and she answered softly, but Mikey didn’t pay much attention. He knew Marianne worked in Cory’s office, but he hadn’t met her. He just followed Cory’s lead until he was settled into Cory’s car with Cory in the driver’s seat.
“You just relax,” Cory said as he cranked the engine. “We’ll get you home and then worry about figuring all this out.”
Mikey nodded, tucked his hands back into his hoodie sleeves, and tilted his head back against the headrest, staring unseeing out the windshield.
“WHAT THE fuck, honey?”
Jimmy Black’s voice rang out through the speaker of Cory’s phone, which sat on the dining room table between them. Cory had gotten Mikey out of the car and into the house and sat him down with a mug of lemon tea before calling Jimmy, his longtime boyfriend and the third leg of the unconventional relationship Mikey had found himself drawn in to. Even in the middle of the day on a Friday, the busiest time at Jimmy’s resort an hour outside Atlanta, Jimmy had picked up Cory’s call on the first ring.
“I’m just tellin’ you what the paper says,” Cory replied. He’d pulled his chair right up next to Mikey’s, and his body heat, more than the hot tea, was finally starting to thaw Mikey out. “Somebody in Florida filed a lawsuit against Mikey, and whatever’s in it made his bosses think he wouldn’t be safe around kids. Like anyone would believe that kinda shit. But you’re the expert on this stuff, not me.”
Jimmy blew out a breath, the sound echoing through the room. “Okay. Let me get some shit taken care of, and I’ll come in.”
Mikey spoke up at that. “You don’t need to leave—”
Jimmy cut him off. “Yeah, I do. Shaun’s doing good, and that kid he recommended for the part-time stuff is working out fine. Our weekend guests are almost all checked in, and if there’s an emergency, I can get back here in an hour.” His voice turned teasing. “I can, in fact, leave for a day or two without the place falling apart.”
Mikey hadn’t spent as much time with Jimmy as he had with Cory, but if he knew one thing, it was that Jimmy wouldn’t be dissuaded once he’d made up his mind. He was much like Cory in that way, though the personalities of the two men complemented each other rather than conflicted. Where to Mikey Cory represented comfort, fun, and sensuality, Jimmy’s style tended more toward confidence and raw sexuality.
In this case, though, having Jimmy on the way was just as soothing as having Cory by his side. Mikey let the rest of Jimmy and Cory’s conversation wash over him, willing the hot liquid to thaw him out inside. He knew it wouldn’t work, but maybe if he wished hard enough….
Mikey lifted his head to find Cory leaning in close. “Jimmy’ll be here in a couple of hours. Let’s get you into bed. You had a pretty big shock. You need to rest.”
Mikey nodded again and let Cory pull him up out of his seat and lead him down the hallway to the master bedroom. Mikey’d spent the night here a time or two, Cory wrapped around him like a second blanket after a long make-out session, but he’d never slept all that well. He’d barely gotten adjusted to sleeping in Riley’s guest room after he’d turned his entire life upside down less than a month earlier.
And now, just as he’d started to get into a groove, everything was getting flipped on end again. Maybe that was why he’d shut down so completely. He could only process so much at a time, and losing his job had driven him into overload.
Cory stopped next to the bed and pulled back the covers, which had been pulled up haphazardly but not straightened. “Off with your shoes and in you go,” he said, and Mikey followed orders, toeing off his sneakers and then climbing onto the mattress. He settled against a stack of fluffy white pillows that smelled of Cory’s shampoo, and he sighed, eyelids falling shut as Cory pulled the sheet up over him.
Cory’s lips touched his temple. “I’ll be back to check on you in a bit.”
Mikey nodded, but he was already half-asleep.
MIKEY COULDN’T take his eyes off Jimmy.
When Mikey woke after a brief nap, Jimmy was there, smiling and giving him a soft kiss before he took charge. He read the paper Mikey had gotten from work, and Mikey could hardly keep up with the expressions that crossed his face: curiosity, anger, frustration, and finally determination.
Now, phone to his ear, Jimmy paced the back patio outside the sliding-glass door from one end to the other with strides that seemed too long for his height. His face would appear carved of stone as he listened to the person on the other end, but then when he spoke, his expression would turn animated, alternately angry, conciliatory, and determined.
He was magnificent.
Mikey’s body took notice despite everything, and he looked away. Cory had set him up at the dining room table with some toast and tea, which he’d been nibbling and sipping at, and Mikey had pulled out his art history book to try to get some reading done. He’d been staring at the page for an hour, but every time he finished a paragraph, he had no idea what it had said.
Maybe he should just slam his forehead against the page. He might absorb the information by osmosis.
He sat there staring at his book without really reading it until the sliding-glass door opened. Mikey jerked his head up and met Jimmy’s gaze.
He didn’t like what he saw there.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Jimmy said. “Lemme get Cory in here so I can tell you both.” He raised his voice. “Hey, hot stuff! Get that fine ass in here!”
In seconds Cory appeared in the doorway. “What’d ya find out?”
Jimmy pulled out the chair closest to Mikey, then shoved it even closer, sat, and took one of Mikey’s hands in his. “Here’s the deal,” he started, looking Mikey in the eyes. “Somebody in Orange County, Florida, filed a lawsuit against you yesterday that had some pretty nasty allegations in it. I don’t know who it is yet, because I can’t get all the paperwork online, which is annoying because a lot of cases have that. I’m working on getting a copy, but it might take a while because it’s Fourth of July weekend.”
Mikey had no idea what to say, but Jimmy wasn’t done yet.
“Anyway, at some point you’re gonna get served.” Jimmy leaned in closer. “What that means is someone’s gonna show up where you are at and ask if you’re you. When that happens, wherever you are, just confirm your name and then take the papers they’re gonna give you. Don’t say anything else. Then you call me before you talk to anyone. You understand?”
Mikey’s head whirled. He’d seen people get served with court papers on TV, but he’d never seen it in person, much less had it happen to him. He blinked and managed to nod to acknowledge what Jimmy had said.
“But… what are they saying I did?”
Jimmy blew out a breath. “All I could get was a summary, not the specifics, but it’s something that’s supposed to have happened where you worked about seven or eight years ago. Do you remember?”
Mikey frowned. “I’ve only worked two places before now. I worked at a local place called Sliding Waters for a couple of summers while I was still in high school, then after I graduated, I got a job at Disney. I worked different jobs there, but those are the only places I worked until I moved up here. And I never had any kind of trouble except, like, being late to work a few times.”
Jimmy squeezed his hand. “Well, they’re apparently saying you touched a little girl inappropriately.”
Mikey jerked, but Jimmy held his hand fast. “What?” Mikey choked out. “I would never, ever do something like that!”
“I know,” Jimmy soothed. “But we’ll have to see it to know how to fight it. I’m gonna call around some more and see if I can get a copy of the lawsuit so we don’t have to wait until next week or for a process server to show up. If we were in Orlando, we could go down to the courthouse and get it in person. Or if they’d put the damn thing online,” he grumbled.
Cory broke in. “Hey. How about I call Evan and see if maybe his dad will do it? It’s not his usual kind of case, but to get the papers faster, at least?”
Jimmy shot him a quick smile. Cory had been close friends with Evan Day for years, and Evan had recently reconciled with his attorney father. “Great idea. Anything we can do to get the papers sooner is good. We need to know what we’re up against.”
“What I’m up against.”
Jimmy and Cory both turned to look at Mikey. He trembled all over, but he pulled his hand back from Jimmy’s grasp. “It’s me who’s up against this, not us. I’m the one who has to fight it.”
Cory reached out a hand. “Honey—”
“Don’t call me that.” Mikey felt as if he were watching himself from outside his body. “I’m twenty-five years old. I’m not a little kid who can’t do anything for himself. I can handle this.”
The cold seeped in again, but Mikey resisted the urge to wrap his arms around himself.
Silence hung in the air for long moments before Jimmy let out a soft breath. “No one thinks you’re a kid,” he said in a low voice that flowed over Mikey like a warm breeze. “You’re a man, and a strong one. You had to be to leave almost everything you knew behind to start over here.
“But this is a legal battle, Michael.” Mikey’s head popped up at that. “A legal battle means that you need a lawyer. Even people who are lawyers hire someone in a case like this.”
Mikey nodded slowly, his tense muscles unknotting one by one. “Okay. So I’ll call Evan and get his father’s phone number, and then I’ll call him.”
Jimmy smiled then. “Yeah, you do that. But just so you know, you do have access to another lawyer.”
Mikey stared at him. “You mean….”
“Juris Doctorate, University of Georgia, class of waaaaaay too many years ago.” Jimmy raised an eyebrow, which highlighted the gray hairs mixed in with the brown, reminding Mikey that Jimmy was fourteen years older. He knew that—and that Cory was halfway between them—but he usually didn’t think that much about it.
Mikey swallowed. “Why’d you quit?”
Jimmy shrugged a shoulder. “Didn’t like the grind. Quit after five years, did porn to pay the bills while I got a massage certification, bought a resort, and here I am. I haven’t had an active license in years, which is why I’m callin’ in favors now, but I’ve kept my fingers in the pie a little.” His smile dropped away, and he leaned in close. “Letting someone who knows the system help you isn’t being a kid,” he murmured. “The opposite, really. It’s just plain smart to use all the resources at your disposal.”
Mikey searched Jimmy’s face, seeing only concern and care, nothing that spoke of pity or condescension. Jimmy leaned in to press a quick kiss against his lips, and the touch sent shockwaves through Mikey’s body, far out of proportion to the lightness of the touch. Jimmy had kissed him only a handful of times so far, just enough to leave Mikey longing for more, and Mikey didn’t want to stop now.
But he had other matters to deal with first.
“Now,” Jimmy said, pushing back and planting his hands on his knees. “I’ll let you take care of calling Evan or Riley whoever and getting Evan’s dad’s info, and I’ll call a few people I know to see if we can get a copy of the lawsuit.”
Mikey glanced at Cory. “Actually I think I probably should go back to Riley’s,” he said. “He doesn’t know what’s going on yet, and all my stuff is over there, and….” He shrugged. “You guys are being awesome, but I need to be able to do some of this for myself, you know?”
“We get it,” Jimmy said, shooting Cory a look Mikey figured was probably meant to keep him from disagreeing. “Just remember, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Okay?”
Mikey nodded. “Okay.”
Jimmy stood then and pulled him up into a hug and another light kiss before passing him over to Cory for more of the same, but longer and with some playful groping added on. It got him laughing, as he was sure Cory intended, and by the time he’d gathered up his book, backpack, hoodie, and keys and headed out to his car, his heart felt several tons lighter.
DANCE MUSIC greeted Mikey when he unlocked and pushed open the door to Riley’s place, which was just starting to feel like home after almost a month. It helped to know Riley wanted him there so much he’d spent two years convincing Mikey to relocate from Orlando and was not just housing him but also paying for his tuition at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. A “Yeats scholarship,” Riley’s now-boyfriend Evan had called it—appropriate considering Riley’s wealthy family had its name plastered on all sorts of places around the city.
The music came from the kitchen, so Mikey headed that direction, expecting to find Riley elbow deep in some fancy concoction. He’d learned quickly that his friend and roommate enjoyed nothing better than trying out or creating a new recipe—unless it was hot sex with his ex-porn-star boyfriend.
Sure enough, Riley stood at the counter, bopping his hips to the beat as he cut up a pile of mushrooms on a cutting board. A big glass bowl next to his elbow held a riot of colorful vegetables—onions and peppers and potatoes, at least—and as Mikey watched, Riley scooped up the mushrooms and dumped them into the bowl too. The movement turned his head enough that he caught sight of Mikey and jumped slightly before grinning widely.
“Hi there!” he exclaimed, setting down his knife and then wiping his hands on the towel tucked into the pocket of the black apron he wore. “I was wondering where you were. I know you don’t have class tonight.”
Everything came rushing back into Mikey’s mind, and he sagged into a chair at the kitchen table. “I didn’t,” he said. “I was at Cory’s. It’s… well, it’s kind of a long story.”
Riley studied his face for a long moment. “All right,” he finally said. “Let me get this finished up and in the oven, and we’ll have a little sit-down.”
Mikey slumped forward, folding his hands on the table and resting his chin on top. “Whatcha making?” he asked, though his appetite had deserted him.
“Roasted vegetables,” Riley answered, turning back to his cutting board. “Just have a few more mushrooms to cut up, and then it’s olive oil, seasoning, and into the oven for a bit.”
Mikey watched as Riley did just what he said, adding oil and spices and then tossing everything with his hands before pouring it all into a baking pan. He put the pan into the oven, which was already on, and then took enough time to wash and dry his hands before crossing to the fridge.
“Ginger ale?” he asked, and Mikey half shrugged, half nodded. Whatever would do.
A minute later Riley put a tall glass in front of Mikey and settled into the seat next to him with his own drink. “All right, so tell me what’s got you so upset.”
Mikey sat up long enough to take a sip of the ginger ale. He put the glass back down and watched a drop of condensation roll down the side. “Somebody in Florida sued me, and now my job thinks I’m gonna do something bad to a kid.” Well, that’s to the point, he thought.
Riley’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me?” he finally managed, and Mikey shot him an “as if” look in response. “No, of course you wouldn’t kid about something like that,” Riley said. “What the hell, Mikey?”
Mikey blew out a breath and went back to resting his chin on his hands. “They did a background check because some of my job would be working one on one with kids. And the people who did the check sent some kind of letter to my job, and they told me because I work with kids that I couldn’t work there until it got cleared up. Cory got Jimmy, and Jimmy got a little more info, but we can’t do much until I actually get served papers or whatever.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” Riley reached over and patted Mikey’s arm. “When Evan gets home, we’ll call his dad. If he can’t help, I bet he knows someone who can.”
Relief washed over Mikey that he hadn’t even needed to ask. Despite this mess, it sure seemed like he’d picked the right group of guys to hang around with.
He managed to give Riley a small smile. “Thanks,” he said. “I was going to ask, but….”
Riley laughed softly. “It’s easier when someone beats you to the offer, isn’t it?”
Mikey’s halfhearted smile widened into a small grin. “Always.”
Riley nodded toward Mikey’s glass. “Drink your ginger ale,” he ordered, reaching for his own glass. “I’ve got some chicken to cook. Evan’s due home in about half an hour, and we’ll talk over dinner.”
Mikey straightened up and reached for his drink. “Okay,” he agreed, settling in to watch as Riley jumped up and got back to work.
“I’M NOT sure how much help Dad can be.” Evan cut another piece of chicken as he spoke. “He does mostly personal-injury stuff, so it’s not really his area of expertise.”
At Riley’s prompting, Mikey had laid out the story with a little more detail than he’d given Riley, though he still didn’t know the whole story himself. Mikey toyed with a piece of roasted potato. “Yeah, I know. I thought he might know someone who could help if he can’t.” He sighed. “It’s not like I have money to hire some high-powered cutthroat guy to nip this in the bud. I might not even have a job anymore.”
Mikey jerked his head up at Riley’s sharp tone.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Riley said. “Even if we can’t find a lawyer who’ll take the case pro bono, you know I’m not about to leave you hanging.” He pointed his fork at Mikey, cutting off his automatic protest. “I’ve already got a lot invested in you.” A smile played around his lips. “I’m not going to lose out because some lowlife thinks they can take you down.”
Mikey sat up straighter. “Hang on,” he said. “Why would anyone think taking me down would do them any good? I’ve got nothing anyone would want, just a beat-up Chevy and some art supplies.”
Riley’s eyes widened. “Damn,” he drawled out. “We should’ve thought of that already.”
Evan looked back and forth between them. “I think I’m missing something here.”
Riley kept his gaze on Mikey as he spoke. “It’s not Mikey they’re after,” he said. “They want someone with way deeper pockets paying the bills.”
Mikey leaned back in his chair, air whooshing out of his lungs as Riley continued. “And the Reverend Robert J. O’Malley, pastor of a flock of thousands, has all the deep they could wish for.”
His father. He should’ve figured it out sooner.
That changed everything.