Chapter One

THE LUCKY Star resembled a prom set from an eighties movie. Streamers hung from the ceiling and a disco ball spun in the middle of the room, flashing tiny beams of light. In the corner a DJ played “Born to Run” from bass-heavy speakers, but the small crowd was even louder, screaming and blowing noisemakers as Sam Flynn stood holding his boyfriend Nathan’s hand. He blinked in surprise.

A banner reading HAPPY 29TH BIRTHDAY, SAM hung behind the bar, where everyone was hiding when Sam and Nathan entered.

“So this is why you wanted to hurry down here so fast,” Sam yelled in Nathan’s ear over the music.

Nathan chuckled and grabbed him around the waist. “Maybe.”

“You sneaky bastard.” Even though he’d stopped drinking, Sam loved the Star, not least because one of his best friends, Rachel Mayer, tended bar. She stood behind it, clapping and looking very self-satisfied. To her left her girlfriend Alex wore a glittery birthday hat over her short white-blonde bob. Further guests included Sam’s other best friend, Yuri Manella, and Damon Blake, who Sam hadn’t expected to see, since he’d recently moved from Stonebridge, Connecticut to Hartford. He gave Sam a smile and a nod.

“I wondered what you all were planning.” Sam tried to hide his grin and mostly failed. Some guys from Manella’s Landscaping whooped and raised beers to toast in the corner. Even Antonio Rivera, one of Nathan’s FBI buddies, was there.

“Are you surprised?” Nathan leaned down and kissed Sam on the cheek. His new beard scratched lightly against Sam’s skin.

“Hell yeah, but you shouldn’t have done all this.”

“Why not?” Nathan’s dark eyes glinted in the flashing lights of the disco ball. Sam hadn’t been sure about the beard at first, but it was growing on him—pun intended. Nathan looked hotter than ever. After six months of living together and over a year of dating, Sam still thought Nathan was the most attractive man he’d ever seen.

“Because you know I hate surprise parties.”

“I know you say you do, but I also know when you’re lying. Don’t I?” Nathan arched an eyebrow, and Sam flushed all over. He wondered what Nathan had planned for them later, after the party. In fact, he’d been tingling with anticipation since Nathan mentioned it over breakfast.

“Yes, sir.” He urged Nathan’s head down and whispered into his ear, grateful for the loud music. If any of his friends overheard him addressing Nathan in that way, he’d never live it down. They had no idea what he and his boyfriend got up to in the bedroom, and they didn’t need to know. Nathan responded with a devious smile.

After the song ended, the DJ spoke into the mic. “Welcome to the guest of honor, Sa-a-aaam Flynnnnn.” He played some annoying sound effects—fart noises and whistles—and Sam wondered where the hell Rachel had picked him up.

Everyone erupted into an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Sam rolled his eyes and leaned back into Nathan’s embrace. He didn’t mind being a year older, but for a long time he’d dreaded birthdays. They always reminded him of his parents, who had made a big deal over every milestone for both of their sons. This year he’d spent a quiet morning with Nathan and then gone to visit his little brother, Tim, at Shady Brook, the facility he’d lived in since a car accident had killed their parents and left him comatose over seven years before. Sam’s throat tightened. He wished Tim could be here.

The singing fizzled out into more shouts and whistles, and then the music started up at a more conversational volume. Sam and Nathan crossed the room toward the bar and greeted their friends.

“Hey, you,” said Rachel. “Happy birthday.” She slid him a Coke sans rum. “You should have seen the look on your face when you walked through the door.” She grinned and put both hands to her cheeks, making a silly “surprised” face.

“You’re all conniving and can’t be trusted,” said Sam. “But thank you.” He leaned over the bar and kissed her cheek. “You look great.”

“You like it?” Ever since high school, Rachel had worn her hair Afro-style and liked to streak it with color. Instead of her usual purple, however, this time she used silver.

“Yeah. It’s very dystopian future.”

“That’s what I was going for.”

Alex took advantage of his distraction to wrangle a party hat onto him from behind. He grunted with protest and went to remove it, but Rachel shook her head at him. “Don’t you dare. She’s so excited about those damn hats.”

They chatted for a while about the party, until Sam realized Nathan had disappeared to talk with Rivera on the opposite side of the room. Nathan was smiling and laughing at something the older man said. Instead of the pang of jealousy Sam felt months before when he suspected Nathan might be attracted to Rivera, now he was simply pleased Nathan was enjoying himself. He only hoped Nathan wouldn’t be disappointed when his friend headed back to New York.

A slap on his arm made him turn. “Hey, stranger.” Yuri grinned at him, cheeks dimpling. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks. Great to see you, man.” Sam hugged his friend. They’d been partners in Yuri’s family landscaping business for years, but recently Sam had sold back his share in order to pursue his journalism career. He still worked part-time during the week, but it had been a while since he’d been on a project with Yuri. “How’re you? Had any hot dates?” Sam waggled his eyebrows.

“Oh, you know. A few here and there. Nothing serious.”

“Good for you.” Lord knows his friend deserved a little R & R after the breakup he’d gone through in December. Yuri had an amazing body, a sweet personality, and a sexy Greek accent to boot.

Yuri took a sip of beer and licked the foam off his top lip. “So, the big two-nine.”

“Yep.”

“Almost thirty.”

“Shut up.” Sam gave him a light punch. “And anyway, you’ll be here soon, my friend.”

“Attention.” Rachel started dinging a spoon against a glass. “Thank you all for coming. We’re here to celebrate Sam’s birthday. I wanted to plan a roast, but Nathan talked me out of it.” There were a couple of good-natured boos from the crowd and scattered laughter. Nathan shrugged sheepishly. “It’s a shame, because I have some really good material,” Rachel continued. “Sam, you’re a pain in the ass, but you’re our pain in the ass. I’ve known you for fifteen years, and I love the hell out of you. We’ve been through a lot together. I know this last year hasn’t been easy.” People nodded and murmured. Stonebridge was still recovering from a spree of arsons that had culminated in a Halloween-night explosion at the Episcopal Church, leaving a total of twelve people dead and many more injured.

Sam met Damon’s eyes from across the room. The teenager had been the lead suspect in the case until Sam and Nathan apprehended the real culprits, who were now safely behind bars. Damon gave him a half smile of commiseration.

“But our city is strong,” Rachel continued. “Our community is strong. We won’t be defeated when we have people like Sam in our corner. Not when we have people like Damon Blake, who’s here tonight and starting college in the fall. Let’s raise our glasses to Sam and Damon, and to Nathan, Sam’s sugar daddy, who you can thank for the open bar.”

Another cheer erupted, and Sam laughed and clapped. He made his way toward Damon.

“Hey man,” said Sam. “I’m glad you could make it. Thanks for coming.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it.” Damon thrust out a gift, looking slightly embarrassed. He ran his hand over his closely shaved head. “It’s not much.”

Sam was touched. He took the package, which felt decidedly like a paperback book, and then pulled Damon into a one-armed hug. “You didn’t have to. Things are going well?”

“Yeah. It’s weird to be out of town, but it’s a nice change of pace.”

Sam smiled. “Good to hear.” They chatted for a couple of minutes, until other partygoers started to interrupt. Sam put them off to say good-bye to Damon, who was getting ready to leave. As a rule, the bar didn’t allow minors after nine.

“Anyway, if you’re ever in Hartford.” Damon put out his hand.

“I’ve got your number.”

Sam scanned the crowd to find Nathan. Well-wishers and friends stopped him for hugs along the way. By the time he managed to get to his boyfriend, the music had switched from rock to club music with a sultry beat.

“Dance with me?” Sam asked.

“Of course.”

Nathan was a great dancer. He moved his hips in a seductive rhythm, staying close to Sam and guiding him onto the impromptu dance floor. Though Nathan was five inches taller, Sam never felt dwarfed by his height, but rather complemented by it, just as Nathan’s dark looks balanced his light. Sam wrapped his arms around Nathan’s back and felt his strong muscles working as they moved.

All eyes were on them. Sam caught a glimpse of Rachel, who gave him the two thumbs-up signal. They were showing off a little, but Sam figured it was his right. He was the birthday boy, after all, and he was dancing with the hottest guy in the room. Nathan leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Do your friends really call me your sugar daddy?”

Sam laughed at the unexpected question. He’d almost forgotten what Rachel had called Nathan.

“Yup.” Not only did Nathan pay for Tim’s health care, he always objected whenever Sam reached for his wallet on other occasions. At least he allowed Sam to front his share of the rent for their apartment. It was one of the reasons he’d stayed on part-time at Manella’s. While he preferred writing to the landscaping work, it didn’t quite pay the bills.

Nathan frowned. “I’m not old enough to be a daddy.” His recent birthday—thirty-seven—had given him a taste of midlife crisis. Sam kept expecting him to show up at home with a new sports car and a babe in the passenger seat.

It made him consider his answer. “You’re so smoking hot, they have to call you something when they describe you, or they’ll embarrass themselves.”

“Nice save, but you’re lying. Your pulse picks up. Here.” Nathan put his hand to Sam’s racing jugular, sweeping his fingertip down the arch of Sam’s exposed neck.

“That’s not the only thing that makes my pulse race.” In fact the dirty dancing was creating a problematic situation for polite company. At least others had joined them on the dance floor. Rachel and Alex were swaying together a few feet away, staring at each other with grins on their faces.

“I’ve got plans for later. Can you wait?”

“I don’t know…. I might need a reminder in self-control.”

“Hmm. Just wait till you open your present.” Nathan leaned down to give Sam a brief, openmouthed kiss. Sam didn’t detect any booze, which meant Nathan was abstaining—he usually did as moral support for Sam when they went out, but it also meant they’d be playing later. Early on Nathan had made it clear each of them had to be sober when they scened. No booze, no drugs—which was fine with Sam. Being with Nathan was enough.

“So, what are we doing later?” Sam asked.

“You’ll have to be patient.”

They continued dancing for a couple more songs and then grabbed a few snacks from one of the side tables. Rachel announced it was time for presents.

“I told you guys, no presents,” he protested.

“Sit down and shut up.”

Most of them were inexpensive, which was fine with Sam—a few books and Blu-rays he wanted, a couple gag gifts from his work friends—but when it came time for Nathan’s gift, Sam paused and weighed the small package in his hands.

On Christmas Nathan had given him a new laptop computer, an ultrathin silver model he’d secretly drooled over for months. He hadn’t exactly been able to reject the gift sitting in Nathan’s parents’ living room, but it was an extravagance he felt a little ridiculous accepting, seeing as his own gifts to Nathan—the new Murakami novel and a sweater Rachel had helped him pick out in a desperate dash to the mall—were worth barely a fraction of what Nathan had paid. Of course Nathan hadn’t seen the problem, but later, after Sam explained his embarrassment, he promised no more expensive gifts unless they agreed beforehand. He hoped Nathan had taken their talk seriously and that, when he opened this present, he wouldn’t be confronted with a gold watch or something equally lavish.

When he opened the package, he frowned down at a simple silver keychain. It gleamed in his fingers. The initials on it read S+N.

A few guests muttered things like “oh how nice,” but Sam could tell they weren’t impressed.

“Do you like it?” Nathan asked. He was fighting a smile. There was obviously more to this present than met the eye.

Sam nodded. “I love it.”

The DJ stopped the music again, and Sam looked around, waiting for someone else to stand up and make an embarrassing speech.

“You guys. You guys,” Rachel said, grabbing the microphone from the front of the room. “Shut up and listen. The mayor is dead.”

“Oh, come on, Rach,” Sam called out. “It may be my birthday, but murder’s taking it a little far.” A few laughs from people nearby slowly faded as Rachel shook her head and held up her phone.

“I’m not joking. It’s all over Twitter. Looks like he was found unresponsive in his home a couple hours ago.”

Sam exchanged a glance with Nathan. It was huge news. He grabbed his phone and started scrolling through the #RIPMayorWhite hashtag. There was no more information than what Rachel had announced, but Sam felt his blood fire up. Things had been quiet the last few weeks, and he’d been waiting for a big story.

“Looks like I’ve got to take off,” said Rivera, slapping Nathan on the shoulder.

“Of course. Let us know what’s going on, Tony.”

“You bet.”

Once Rivera was gone, the room erupted in conversation. At Sam’s prompting, Rachel turned on the bar TV and flicked to the news channels. It hadn’t yet reached the national level, but the local ten o’clock was reporting from St. Mary’s hospital.

The reporter talking to the studio newscaster cocked his head as he listened into his earpiece. “That’s right, Ted. Mayor White was apparently found in his bedroom by his wife earlier this evening.”

“Any word on cause of death yet, Brian?” the newscaster asked.

“No word yet, but there are rumors the mayor was suffering from angina over the past few months. It may have been a heart attack.”

“Very true,” said Ted the newscaster. “We know he was trying to get in shape and lose some weight under doctor’s orders. It’s been slow going because of his age.”

The mayor was sixty-three—a large man with a well-known passion for greasy double cheeseburgers. Heart attack did seem the most likely scenario. After a few more questions with not much detail provided from the on-ground reporter, Rachel turned the TV off and the music started back up. No one in the bar had much love for the mayor, whose policies had always favored the rich suburbs of West Stonebridge over the grittier downtown. While Sam wasn’t exactly fond of his deputy either, surely the guy couldn’t be worse than White. And then, during the next election cycle, maybe some new blood would have a chance.

“So, what do you think? You want to get out of here?” Nathan asked as the party started to break up.

“Hell, yeah.” Sam was itching to get back to his computer.

He said good-bye to everyone and followed Nathan into the pleasant May night. It would be another month or so before things heated up for the summer, and Sam enjoyed the temperate spring.

“I can’t believe the mayor’s dead,” he said, falling into step beside Nathan as they walked the seven blocks back to their place.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better gift.” Nathan elbowed his side.

“Oh, come on. I’m not heartless. But after what happened on Halloween, the guy was clearly unfit for office. He should have resigned months ago.”

“True.”

After the bombing of the Episcopal Church, Mayor White had received a ton of criticism from all sides. Sam had written a scathing piece on his blog, and even the normally pro-White Gazette had published some op-ed pieces condemning his decision to hold the Halloween block party, even though the arsonist terrorizing the city was still on the loose.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” said Sam, “I’m not happy the guy’s dead, but maybe this is a blessing in disguise for the city.”

“Maybe so.”

“I wonder if Judy White’s down at the hospital. Maybe we can pop by quickly, see if she needs a shoulder to cry on?” If he could get the scoop straight from the mayor’s wife, leave the Gazette in the dust….

“No. Not tonight. You’re going to let it go for tonight.”

“But—”

Nathan shook his head. “It can wait. But I can’t.” He opened his hand. There, on the flat of his palm, was a small key. A frisson of excitement ran up Sam’s spine. He thought of the silver keychain.

“Is that for—”

“Yes.”

“Well, I suppose the mayor will still be dead in the morning.” Sam was buzzing with anticipation by the time they entered the building and hit the button for the elevator. He still got a kick out of living in a place that actually had one.

Upstairs their white cat, Shadow, was lounging sleepily on the rug near the door. She immediately sprang to her feet and began meowing for her dinner. Then she narrowed her blue eyes accusingly when neither paid her any attention.

“All right. All right,” Nathan said, picking her up. Then he looked at Sam. “I’m going to feed the cat first. You, go get into position and stay quiet. I don’t want to hear a sound.”

“With or without the blindfold?”

“With. Hold this key in your lips.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, sir.”

Sam’s belly swooped at Nathan’s dominant tone. “Okay, sir.” He quickly entered the bedroom, kicked off his shoes, and yanked his shirt over his head. The blindfold was in the black box they kept under the bed, along with the other equipment they used for play. Sam ran his fingers over the flat paddle Nathan gave him several months before. The smooth wood was cool to the touch, and he shivered remembering the first time they used it. He hoped they’d use it tonight.

After he grabbed the blindfold and undressed, he kneeled at the foot of the bed with his hands behind his head, cock already hard. The metallic taste of the key wasn’t pleasant, but Sam wasn’t about to disobey Nathan—he was too eager to see what it would unlock.