IT WAS way too early for him to have the TV up so loud.
“Landry!” I yelled. “Remember the neighbors, babe!”
The noise didn’t stop, though, and since I didn’t want to hear from Mrs. Chun again (she’d bitched me out in Mandarin six times in the last month because the love of my life was a screamer), I rolled out of bed and walked toward the French doors that separated our bedroom from the living room. Only halfway there I realized it was freezing in the apartment. I pulled sweats on over my sleep shorts and yanked on my gray fleece hoodie before I staggered toward the door and opened it.
“Fuck you, Chris, get out!”
Okay, not the TV.
My boyfriend, partner, the man who had been with me for the last two years, was in the living room with another guy I had never seen before. The stranger was maybe six two, my height, brown haired, blue eyed, and utterly forgettable except that he was in my apartment.
“What’s going on?” I asked them both.
Both men turned to me.
“Hi,” the one I didn’t know said, crossing the room fast, his hand out in an obvious offer for me to take. “I’m Christian Carter—Chris—Landry’s brother.”
“It’s great to meet you,” he said.
“Pleasure,” I said, sounding dazed because I kind of was.
“Don’t touch him,” Landry growled, bolting over, yanking our hands apart, and shoving Chris backward. “Just get the fuck out!”
“Wait,” I ordered, grabbing Landry’s arm, because it was a lot of volume for first thing in the morning. “You’re his brother?” I asked Chris.
“Yes,” he answered and smiled at me. “And I came to see him because our mother is sick, and she wants to see him.”
I turned slowly to Landry.
“No no no, you don’t get to look at me like that. This is bullshit.”
“Baby.” His voice bottomed out as he took my face in his hands, stepping in front of me. “Please do not say the word mother and think of the wonderful woman who raised you and loves me and get confused. My mother is not like yours; she does not give a fuck about me.”
“That’s not true,” Chris chimed in hotly, and when I looked at him, I couldn’t help it. I softened because after studying him, I realized how much he resembled my boyfriend.
It wasn’t something you noticed right away. It took a few minutes of scrutiny, because what struck you first were the differences.
Landry Carter was six feet tall and had wavy, dark-blond hair that never, ever, did what he wanted it to. He had, like, eight cowlicks in it, so it sort of kicked out in all different directions, and he had given up trying to tame the thick mop years ago. Now he just washed it, ran product through it, and let it fall where it wanted. It hardly mattered, though, because when you were looking at him, you were staring at his eyes. Big, dark, expressive blue-green orbs that always crinkled to half their normal size when he was happy. The laugh lines around them were already deep at twenty-six. They were wicked with mischief and humor and constantly sparkled like he had a secret, and men and women were drawn to him like flies to honey. The man was decadent and irresistible and lit up rooms simply with his presence. Being a big extrovert helped. Not that he had always been that way; I knew that it was me giving him confidence that made him sometimes savagely loud. But he could get away with being occasionally obnoxious since he was so pretty to look at. An artist friend of ours had called him luminous once, and I agreed.
In comparison to Landry’s beauty, his brother was sort of plain, but I saw, on closer inspection, the similarity in their sharp, chiseled features, crooked smiles, and long curly lashes.
“Trev,” Landry said and took a breath.
“Let’s just sit down,” I said, grabbing Landry’s hand, lacing my fingers into his and tugging him after me to the couch. I flopped down hard, pulling him with me so we were both eyeing the man who had followed and taken a seat on the loveseat across from us.
“Can you catch me up?” I asked Chris.
“Sure.” He leaned forward, giving me a trace of a smile. “I’m Chris, like I said, and you’re Trevan Bean, right?”
“I am,” I assured him, tightening my hold on Landry’s hand because the slight tremble in him let me know he needed it. “So talk to me about your mother, Chris.”
He took a breath. “I flew in last night from Las Vegas because my father told me where Landry was, and he thought that it was better I came instead of him. I mean, you know, I wasn’t the one who cut him off when he was eighteen.”
I knew that part. My boyfriend had come out the night he graduated from high school, and his parents had lost their minds. He had been disowned, given a day to get whatever things of his he wanted out of their house, and informed that of course they would not be paying for college, and he could not take his car.
Hurt, lost, and alone, he had packed and left. He went from one friend’s house to another the whole summer until he figured things out with the help of his high school guidance counselor and the financial aid advisor at the school he had already been accepted to, the University of Michigan. He had always planned to run away to the opposite side of the country once he graduated, but he hadn’t expected to have to leave without a safety net. Landry knew who he was when he was fifteen, and even though his friends had told him that it would be okay, that of course his parents would accept him and love him, that his brothers and sister would never turn their backs on him, in the back of his mind, he never actually believed it. So even though he was sad—devastated—he was also resigned to the betrayal of a lifetime of having been told he would always have his family. He was not an optimist, the man I loved; he was a realist, and he knew what was going to happen.
He bought a used Honda Civic hatchback, stuffed it full of everything that was priceless, and drove away without looking back. That was eight years ago, and now he was twenty-six and that time had blown by without a word. They had never checked on him, not once. He hadn’t sent them an announcement when he got his bachelor’s degree, opened his business, or launched his website. They were the past; I was his future. They were not important to him, as he obviously wasn’t to them. His real family, he told people all the time, was mine.
My mother adored him and my sister wanted to marry him. We spent every holiday with my family, had friends that were originally mine that were now his, and between his business and my job, we had finally saved enough to buy a house in Berkley, which was a suburb of Detroit. We were supposed to meet with a Realtor the following week to start looking at candidates for home sweet home. Everything was on track, so I was not crazy about Chris, the long-lost brother, being there, but since everything happened for a reason, as my father had always said, I just needed to keep an open mind.
“My mother is sick, Trevan,” Chris said to me. “And she wants to see her son.”
I turned to look at my boyfriend.
“No,” he said to me.
“Love,” I said gently.
“Fuck no!” he yelled, getting up.
“Where are you—”
“I’m gonna go make you some coffee before you pass out,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t even be awake yet.”
And he was right: I did need coffee. Just to try to remain vertical after the night before, I needed vast quantities of caffeine. The guys I had collected from at two in the morning had been partying hard, and along with their payment of a grand each plus the juice, the 20 percent they owed the house when they lost, they had graciously offered me a line to help drive away the exhaustion. It was a nice gesture, but I had been too poor to ever pick up cocaine as a habit, and now, on the verge of having everything I wanted, the idea of even flirting with an addiction to a thousand dollar a week habit did not sound appealing. Plus, my boy didn’t do drugs. He was a very good influence on me in more ways than one. I had plans to open up a restaurant, and nothing, especially a monkey on my back, was going to sidetrack me.
I looked back at Chris. “So talk to me.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to upset him, and I know he’s still very angry, but I really need you to help me convince him to come to Las Vegas. He needs to see my mother, see my folks. She needs to talk to him and make amends and get our family reunited and back on track. It’s what she wants, and we all want her to have it.”
I rubbed the top of my head, which was a nervous habit of mine, before grinding the heel of my hand into my left eyebrow. I was tired, which wasn’t helping me figure out what to do or say. “You have to think about it from his side, right? If your mother wasn’t sick, would they be talking?”
He took a breath. “I understand, but she’s in remission, so, you know, now’s the time.”
I looked at him. “Remission?”
“What kind of cancer?”
I took a breath. “I’m so sorry.”
There was only a quick nod in response.
“Here,” Landry announced as he returned, passing me a steaming cup that smelled like a lot of things besides coffee. He had obviously already had it made, as we didn’t have a time machine in our kitchen.
I looked up at him as he sank down onto the arm of my couch.
“There’s cinnamon in it,” he said, “and I used the vanilla creamer you like.”
I nodded before I took a sip. “Thanks. Why don’t you get your brother one, ’cause he looks like he could use it, while I go make a call.”
His usually blue-green wonderland eyes flicked to Chris. To see them clouded and flat pained me. “Do you want coffee?”
He got up again, his hand sliding over the top of my head. My hair was buzzed close to my skull and I knew he liked the feel of it under his fingers as many times as he’d told me. “Your phone is right there; you dumped it when you came in doing your shuffling zombie impression.”
I smiled at him and reached for my iPhone on the coffee table.
“But don’t call,” he ordered. “Text. I don’t want you to get stuck talking.”
“Knock it off,” he snapped irritably. “And we’re gonna talk about you smoking again.”
“I wasn’t smoking,” I assured him. “I was just in and out of a lot of back rooms and clubs last night. I quit. I told you I would, and I did.”
“Okay,” he said as he went through the swinging door into the kitchen.
Watching him, I realized that he must have been in bed with me before he got up. He was still dressed in his flannel pajama bottoms, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and heavy wool socks. But this was November in Royal Oak, Michigan, so it was already cold. By December Landry would have the space heaters out of storage. The radiator was not enough to keep the apartment the toasty warm that he liked it to be.
“Sorry,” I said to Chris as I punched in the security code on my phone. “I won’t be long.”
“Sure,” he replied, smiling at me.
I just needed to send a message with my total for the night. I was carrying close to sixty grand, but I sent the message that I had thirty and knew that when they saw the net, somebody would call to arrange a pickup. Usually I never carried even thirty, much less double that, but more than one of my usual clients had finally paid what they owed me. I had been floating several guys for a couple of weeks, and it was nice that they had all come through as promised. I had never thought, as close to the holidays as we were now, that they would all make good on their debts. It was a testament to the relationship we had that no one had welshed. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, pay other guys’ vouchers to the house, but I didn’t like to be a hardass and collect with muscle unless I had to.
“Done,” I told Chris, putting the phone face down on my right thigh.
“So, Trevan.” He squinted at me. “What is it you do?”
What to say. “I’m in collections,” I answered vaguely, so not wanting to get into it.
“Like, what kind?”
“He’s a runner,” Landry supplied as he walked back into the room with a cup of coffee for Chris and one for himself. He passed his brother a small mug and put his enormous café au lait cup down on the coffee table before leaning back beside me so his back was pressed into the left side of my chest.
I put my hand in his soft, silky mop of hair, pushing it back out of his face, pulling his head down into my shoulder. The sigh that came up out of him made me smile, and watching his eyes close was very satisfying.
“You collect for a bookie?” Chris asked me, dragging my attention away from my boyfriend, who was basically thrumming with need.
“Yes, that’s what a runner is.”
“Do you carry a gun?” Chris wanted to know, scrutinizing my face.
“No, that’s asking for trouble.” I shook my head. “And most of the time I don’t get into any. I have regulars, and it’s not a big deal. When I do need backup, I have a friend that comes with me. My boss is a businessman. He gets the line from Vegas; guys bet with me once they know what it is; some lose, some win; I collect what’s owed.”
“It’s still illegal,” Chris reminded me.
“True,” I agreed, “but in all seriousness, with no record and the extent of my crime being the movement of money from point A to point B… what do you really think the cops would do to me if they caught me?”
“I guess not much.”
“Not that I want to find out, but I also must point out that the number of cops I collect from is vast.” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
“Is that how you met Landry?” he asked me with a trace of a smile. “Is he a closet gambling addict?”
“Hardly,” I assured him. “No, we met the old-fashioned way, at a party, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.”
“Eyes,” my boyfriend scoffed, nestling closer, turning his head to kiss my cheek.
“What?” I chuckled.
He turned to face me, his left hand reaching, fingers trailing over the right side of my face as he leaned forward so his lips could open on the side of my neck.
“I’m here,” I soothed him, my voice soft, coaxing. “Baby, I’m here.”
He nodded, and I heard him breathe. He had been holding his breath, seconds away from a full-blown panic attack that I had missed because I was tired. Normally, I would have been passed out in bed, and he would have gotten up and done his morning ritual and then kissed me before he left. As long as everything went along smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary, familiar sights and sounds, the normal pacing of his day, he was good, he was fine. But if there were changes, bumps, like a blast from the past, it was possible for him to combust. The breakdown I had just quelled was his typical reaction to glitches in his life, at least for as long as I’d known him. If I was there, he reached for me, I soothed him, and he took a breath and went on. It had been like that since we met.
I COULD remember the night he finally saw me like it was yesterday. He was waiting near the keg at a party we were both at, and I walked up beside him, grabbed a handful of his gorgeous ass, and when he turned to look at me, I asked him if he could see me.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I can feel your fingers too.”
“Are you sure you see me? I’ve been to a lot of parties you’ve been at, and it’s like I’m invisible,” I told him, not moving my hand, instead sliding my middle finger over the crease slowly, suggestively. “I wanna make sure to leave an impression this time.”
His breath quavered, which made my mouth dry. “Consider it made.”
“Lemme get this for you,” I said, letting him go and bumping him gently with my shoulder. “I’ll meet you outside on the balcony.”
“It’s cold out there.”
“It’s quiet. I’ll keep you warm.”
“You’re fulla shit.”
I tipped my head toward the sliding glass door anyway.
He left me then, heading for the patio. I got his beer and another Crown and Coke for me, grabbed my parka, and followed him out. He was shivering when I reached him, and when he exhaled, I could see it. I put my coat around him and stepped close so I could watch him drink.
“What?” He smiled at me, sniffling in the cold.
He scoffed. “You don’t hafta flatter me; I’ll suck your cock for you.” He looked over his shoulder. “There’s a corner over—”
“Yeah, I saw you doin’ that at Jimmy Drake’s party,” I cut him off, fisting a hand in his heavy wool sweater so he couldn’t move. “You were on your knees all night, huh?”
His eyes were back, finally actually meeting mine instead of looking everywhere but. I lifted my hand to his cheek and dragged my thumb over his gorgeous mouth. He had full lips, plump and dark and made to be kissed.
“How ’bout I kiss you and after that you can put your dick in my mouth.”
The huge eyes—blue-green, a color I remembered from a cup I had glazed in a ceramics class in high school, peacock blue, an absolute sum of the two—absorbed my face. “You don’t have to work this hard,” he told me. “I give it away.”
I grunted as I leaned in and took possession of the lips that had haunted my dreams. And he tasted like beer and peanuts with a hint of cherry Life Savers. I pulled away fast, took his beer back, put my drink on the table beside his, turned, and rushed him. My hands were on his face as I kissed him the second time, pile driving him into the wall, taking it all, his breath, his saliva, his whimpers and sighs. My tongue pushed and shoved his, tangling and stroking, as I ravaged him and took what I wanted. My hands went under his sweater, burrowed down beneath the T-shirt and found skin that was sleek, warm, and silky. His smooth stomach trembled under my hand, and when I shoved my knee between his thighs, his hoarse groan made me hard. I kissed him until he had to shove me off to breathe.
“Come home with me and lemme talk to you, because you’re confused about stuff.”
“Not confused,” he panted, long, feathery lashes fluttering. “Whore.”
“Not anymore,” I told him, and kissed him breathless again. I sucked his tongue into my mouth, loosened his belt, worked his jeans open, and got my hand down into his briefs.
His gasp as I unsealed my mouth from his made me smile.
“You’re treating me like a whore.”