IT HAD been a good night, my favorite kind. Nothing planned—just the fun of being out with a few close friends and letting the night lead you wherever it wanted. Lack of a destination always made the journey fun. Planning was for amateurs.
“See,” Rene Favreau said, smiling over his shoulder as he walked into the club ahead of me, “aren’t you glad I talked you into coming out with us?”
And I was, up until I saw who we were meeting at our last stop. I never understood the need in some people to add others to the mix when what you had with you was working out fine. It was probably the same principle in action that made people cheat. If one guy is hot, two would be better. The mentality to want, need, more was lost on me. I liked small groups, a tight circle of friends, and one lover at a time. But Rene wanted to dance and have fun and to him, the more the merrier. He had gotten a text that Graham Becker and some of his other friends and acquaintances were at a dance club in the Castro, so he had routed us there to meet them. I was suddenly ready to call it a night.
“Wait.” He slipped around in front of me, barring my path. “C’mon, Mal, just stay. You don’t even have to talk to Graham.”
But I would. He was there and I was there, and even in a large group, even with ten of us at a table being loud, I would get stuck at least acknowledging his presence and him mine. And then there would be trouble.
“Malic,” Graham muttered after maybe five minutes of us all sitting down.
You could feel the ice blow over the table. I shot Rene a look.
He nearly spit out his Chivas and water.
“What’s so funny?” Graham asked him.
He just shook his head, trying to breathe around the burn of having good Scotch go down the wrong hole.
Graham’s dark green eyes were back on me, staring daggers. This was what came of telling the truth.
“How ya been?” I asked politely.
“What the fuck do you care?”
I didn’t; I was making polite conversation, but if he was going to be a dick, I could easily ignore him.
A month ago we had been at a party together, and Graham had been really drunk. At one point in the night he was in my lap, arms wrapped around my neck, nearly dry humping my abdomen and whining for me to fuck his brains out. I had been more than willing to grant his request; he was tall, dark, and handsome, and the sexy green eyes made my cock hard. To cut down on drive time, I had suggested the bathroom. I was thinking of him. Fucking in the john, his face plastered up against the mirror, ass bared, was more comfortable than my car; it seemed like a good plan. I thought he’d be pleased. He was nowhere near it.
Apparently Graham Becker was not hot to be my hook-up for the evening. He was not a one-night stand kind of guy; the man was looking for a relationship. I just wanted to get laid. He was upset that he had misinterpreted my interest as long term when it was merely immediate. And then he was embarrassed. And then he took it out on me again and again and again until just seeing the man made me cringe. He could hate me if he wanted, that was his prerogative; he just didn’t need to be vocal about it.
“Lay off Mal,” Rene told him. “Give it a rest.”
“Why are you here?” Graham snapped at me. “Shouldn’t you be in your closet?”
He meant my club. My strip club. My straight strip club.
Ever since Graham had found out my club down on Mission was a girls-only venue, he had been giving me crap about it. Why did a gay man own a place where only women stripped? That made no logical sense. But it made perfect sense to me. At my strip club, Romeo’s Basement, you could only watch beautiful women writhe out of elaborate costumes; there were no boys on stage. I had purposely made it a gentleman’s club because hot men strutting around in nothing but G-strings would have been hard on me. Sleeping with your employees was bad for business as well as morale, so I made sure I was never tempted to do either. My explanation would not have interested the man who hated me. What he didn’t know was that I took my sex casually for a very serious reason. I didn’t want to hurt anyone.
I was not simply a cold-hearted bastard being a dick; I had nameless, soulless encounters in hopes that if they were fast, then the other person wouldn’t suffer. Yes, I wanted to get laid, but also, because I was a warder, if you weren’t my hearth and I screwed you, you could get hurt. Graham had had no idea of the very real jeopardy he was in.
I was a warder; warders killed demons. I killed demons. I hunted them with others just like me, five of us in all, plus my boss, the sentinel of the city, Jael Ezran. Every city had a sentinel, every sentinel had five warders, and all of them hunted demons together either in pairs or in a group. I fought things that went bump in the night, which was the heroic part that probably would have excited Graham. The part that would not have excited him was that sleeping with me could not only hurt his feelings when I left in the middle of the night but could actually kill him.
The kiss, the touch of a warder, if you were not their hearth, could be deadly. There were a select number of humans that could be intimate with us, and when we found one of them, it was a cause for celebration. It wasn’t like a hearth was the one and only mate of a warder; they were simply one of very few people that could handle being intimate with a warder.
Ryan, or Rindahl as my sentinel called him, one of the other four warders I hunted with, had recently found his hearth, and I could not imagine him ever letting the man go. When a warder found a hearth, usually it was because they had finally taken the step and slept with someone they loved. When they had sex they hoped, prayed, that that person was compatible with them. Ryan had wanted Julian, and so he had gambled on a future with the man. When he found out that Julian was his hearth, could truly be his, I had never seen him so happy. He even allowed Julian to watch us hunt. And it had only happened once, but to so indulge another simply out of love was horrifying. The very idea made me crave lots and lots of air and wide open spaces. Love, in all its many forms, seemed more about control to me than anything else. I would fight to make sure it never got a hold of me.
“No snappy comeback?”
I looked over at Graham, unsure of what he was talking about.
“Sorry, I stopped listening. What’d ya say?”
He threw up his hands, got up, and stalked away. I turned to look at Rene.
“You know you’re an ass, right?”
My mind had drifted, that was all. I didn’t try and piss people off deliberately, but it happened a lot nonetheless. I bored easily as a rule; it was hard to keep my interest. Those that could usually became my friends. “So, what, are you picking up a fuck buddy or not?”
“We say make love to or sleep with,” Rene corrected me, brows furrowed, scowl dark. “Why do you always have to be so goddamn crass?”
“Have the balls to say fuck, ’cause that’s all it is,” I said, yawning.
“If it’s hearts and flowers you really want, you should pick someone up at the library and ask them out for tea.”
“You do not have a romantic bone in your entire body.”
Which was probably true, but it didn’t change the facts. “If it’s romance you want, it ain’t happening at a club.”
He was still scowling at me, but I was right and we both knew it. “Malic, you know you’re never gonna find someone to put up with your bullshit, right?”
I grunted because that was simply a fact of life. I excused myself to go hit the head.
“I’m gonna get drinks. Whaddya want?” he called after me.
I yelled back for a Black and Tan and moved through the thick Saturday night crowd toward the bathroom. Once I reached it, I encountered something I never had before: a line.
“Something’s going on,” the guy in front of me said to my shoes.
“What?” I asked, annoyed. It would have been nice to have more people look me in the face, meet my eyes. But they didn’t.
“I think some hustler’s getting his ass beat.”
I moved by him and several others, but no one said a word. The theory was that my perpetual scowl coupled with my height and wingspan, as well as my shoulders and chest, made most guys give me room. When I stepped around the corner, inside the bathroom, I realized how dark the red neon made it. Because the space was so big, there were dark spots everywhere, and at the other end of the row of stalls, there was a guy standing guard.
The scream was from inside the stall, and I moved down toward it. I didn’t run, but it was easy to see that I was on my way down to have a word.
“Back off, man.” The guard put up his hand. “This is shit you don’t wanna be in.”
“Get off me!” Second yell from inside.
I shoved the guard back hard, and when he moved further than he thought he would, I got a wary glance. Power exhibited over others is either seductive or scary. He was scared; it was all over his face.
“Let him out… now,” I ordered, my voice low, cold.
He stared holes in me, but he turned and pounded on the door. “Greg, c’mon.”
I waited. Not that I couldn’t have picked the guy up and thrown him across the room. I was a warder, after all, I fought and killed demons, but it would have raised eyebrows and therefore questions if I put the man through the wall. I was solid and muscular, but the guy in front of me looked like he’d taken a few too many steroids. I might have been big, but the guy in front of me was bigger.
I heard another smack, that unmistakable sound of someone being hit, then a bang, and finally a guy stepped out who was almost as large as the one standing guard. The two of them could have easily passed for defensive linemen––massive muscle-bound guys with no necks.
“You gotta lotta balls, man,” he said, shoving me back as the two of them moved by me.
I slipped inside the stall, and there on the floor was an angel. Literally. The guy was dressed all in white, dusted in glitter in a Lycra T-shirt, white leather pants, and white patent leather Doc Martens. The huge, white feather-covered wings he was lying on completed his outfit.
“Shit,” I groaned, sliding down the wall beside him next to the toilet. His lip was split, there were big red blotches on his right cheek and throat, and his eyes were closed. He had either fainted or he was knocked out. “Hey, look at me.”
There was no movement.
I leaned back, squatting, and got out my cell, sending Rene a text because there was no way he would either hear his phone ring in the club or be able to talk on it.
I looked back down at the guy as he looked up… and was swallowed in big, warm, chocolate brown eyes framed in the longest, thickest eyelashes I had ever seen in my life. I could barely breathe.
I hated feeling like that.
His hand reached for my knee.
I cleared my throat. “You all right?”
He nodded, just staring up at me with those huge anime eyes. I instantly changed my mind about his age. Not a guy, a boy. Very young. Maybe, if you were stretching it, just barely legal. He had thick mahogany curls that fell over his ears and down the delicate slope of his neck, fragile features, and full, pink lips that were made to be devoured. He looked about five eight, five nine, built like a gymnast with a tight lean body, defined muscles, and smooth skin. He was beautiful, much too pretty to be on the floor of a bathroom.
“What’s your deal?” I asked him gently.
“You saved me,” he said, lifting himself up, his body very flexible, sliding over my knee and down against my abdomen.
“Wait.” I tried to stall him, but my balance was upset, so I ended up sitting on the floor with him in my lap.
“Why?” he asked, straddling my hips, tightening his legs as his hands went to my shoulders. “You saved me. You have to keep me now that you saved me.”
He was warm on top of me, sliding his tight little ass over my groin, wriggling to get a better angle.
His eyes narrowed in half, and he bit his bottom lip, pressing, pushing.
“Baby,” I said, because he was so young and so sweet. Tasting him would be heaven.
He leaned forward to kiss me, and when I lifted my head he came up short, his lips on my jaw.
“Stop. Stop,” I said, taking his wrists in my hands, pushing him back so he had to look at me. “We’re not gonna have this scene, okay? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head slowly, his eyes locked on mine. And it was then, after years of experience looking at and talking to men and women who came into my club, that I realized how drunk he really was.
“Why can’t I kiss you?”
I doubted he could even tell me his name. He was sloshed out of his gourd.
“I wanna thank you for being my hero.”
I let him go and put my hands on his face, looking at his lip, moving his head, lifting his chin so I could check his throat, his neck. His hands went to my chest as he tried to push himself forward, get closer.
“God, you’re beautiful,” he whispered, his hand slipping around the back of my neck. I could not even fathom the amount of alcohol that had to be in his system for him to think I was anywhere near hot. The beer goggles were on good and tight.
“I have never seen eyes like yours.”
Uh-huh. “They’re blue,” I said distractedly, checking him over. His neck was already darkening where he had been choked. Christ, who roughed up a guy this pretty?
“They’re like ice,” he said, shifting in my lap, sliding over my groin, notching his cleft over the bulge in my jeans. “They’re really scary.”
And he somehow made that sound good instead of bad. But that was hardly the point. The point was that he was trying to kill me. “Stop,” I told him again, realizing that to stand from the angle I was at in the cramped space, he’d have to move first. Normally I could have stood with anyone in my lap, but the maneuver was out of the question from where I was beside the toilet.
“Last stall!” I yelled back, and I heard Rene’s shoes clip the floor as he came closer. “Listen, that’s just my buddy Rene, okay? Nobody’s gonna hurt––”
“You smell great.” He inhaled, leaning forward, wrapping his arms around me as his head hit my collarbone. “And you feel amazing.”
His skull was hard and it hurt for a minute when he knocked it against me.
“Do I even wanna know?” Rene asked as he appeared above me, brows furrowed as he held up his phone. “And can I just say that this is the weirdest text message you’ve ever sent me?”
“I need you in the bathroom?” He arched a brow for me. “For what?”
I shot him a look as the top of a wing nearly took out my left eye. “Shit.”
“Okay, Cupid,” Rene said, bending down to get his hands under the boy’s armpits. “Let’s get up.”
“Wait,” he protested, but Rene was too strong.
As he was put on his feet, I got up, and Rene and I stood there staring at the wobbly angel.
His thick eyebrows had a slight arch in the middle, which gave him a mischievous, almost wicked look, definitely alluring. He reminded me of those guys in paintings from the Renaissance, fragile looking with porcelain skin and big eyes. Because of all that, he was easily pulling off the angel costume.
“I’m Dylan.” He smiled up at me, his eyes heavy-lidded, biting his bottom lip. “What’s your name?”
“Malic.” I smiled down at him. “What are you doing in the bathroom, Dylan?”
The decadent look I was getting, like I was candy, was adorable, and I had to remind myself that he was much––spell it out in neon––too young for me. And drunk. God, he was so drunk.
He took a quick breath. “I’m not a rent boy, if that’s what you’re thinking. I work at Epic Create and Copy down off Powell.”
“I know where that is, we do some of our flyers and stuff there.”
“Oh yeah?” His eyes glinted in the low light. “I don’t remember ever seeing you come in. I would’ve totally remembered.”
“Totally,” Rene repeated, waggling his eyebrows at me.
“What do you do there?” I asked, ignoring both his compliment and my annoying friend.
“Assistant manager, I work second shift, sometimes graveyard.”
Rene turned and looked at me.
“At least this one’s not a stripper,” he said sarcastically.
“That guy didn’t strip at my club,” I said, defending myself.
“You have a strip club?” Dylan asked, way too interested in that bit of trivia.
“Not that you can go in,” I assured him. “You’re too young.”
“I’m nineteen,” he claimed.
“Which is way too young to be at a strip club,” I said, sighing. Why couldn’t he be older? Tougher? Or at least sober? “You know there are laws about serving alcohol to minors, right?”
“But I could just come to see you,” Dylan said excitedly. “Right?”
“Wrong.” I shook my head. “If you’re not a dancer, then what’re you doing in that outfit?”
“You think I look like a dancer?” He belched.
“Charming,” Rene groaned.
I smiled, I couldn’t help it. “What’s with the costume?”
Big smile. “I have a second job from now ’til”—he hiccupped—“January at that Christmas boutique in Union Square. I’m an angel.”
“No,” Rene teased him, “really?”
“It’s seasonal,” he told my friend seriously, nodding.
He really was the cutest thing.
“I wish I was a stripper, how cool would that be?”
He was much too adorable to be stripping; no one should see him take his clothes off who wasn’t planning on keeping him.
“Can I come home with you?” he asked, leering at me, his laughter bubbling up out of him like champagne.
“No,” I said, even though I had the urge to grab him tight and hold him… just crush him up against me; I wanted to feel his skin next to mine. “What’re you doing in here?”
“Oh, see, I was at a bar with some friends, and these guys came over and asked if I wanted to hit a club with them and then meet back up later with everyone else,” he explained, taking hold of the hem of my sweater. “And so I said sure but I didn’t know they thought they could… whatever.”
I nodded, moving back so my sweater pulled free of his hands. “Well, listen, we’re on our way out, so why don’t you come with us to make sure you don’t get in any more trouble tonight.”
“Okay.” He smiled up at me, stepping in close, arms wrapped around my waist.
“Oh for crissakes,” Rene groaned.
I looked up, and the guys that had left earlier were back. I shoved Dylan behind me and waited.
“I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, man, but––”
Rene stepped in close to me. “Back up, man, we don’t want any trouble.”
And even though they were both bigger and younger than Rene and me, they backed off fast. I knew that had my friend been there alone, it was doubtful they would have left. He had a nice face and kind gray eyes with laugh lines at the corners. He was the guy that stopped for people stranded on the freeway in the rain—he wasn’t scaring anyone. It was me. I scared them. I made them uneasy, caused them to fear for their continued safety. I was intimidating just standing still and I knew it. Even if I wasn’t holding my spatha, the sword that gladiators used to use in the coliseum, I was still spooky. I was the guy you crossed the street to avoid having to walk by.
“Cocktease,” one of the men called over to Dylan.
“Get out,” Rene ordered them, and they moved a little faster.
“Big scary Rene Favreau,” I teased him, and he smiled wide, his hand on my back.
“Let’s go eat,” he said, looking at Dylan. “You got friends you can call after?”
“Okay, c’mon, we’re not leaving you here.”
Dylan looked back and forth between Rene and I. “Are you guys––”
“No,” he said flatly. “Now c’mon.”
Dylan nodded, but turned to look at me, checking to see what I was doing, whether I was coming or not, to see which way I was walking.
The way I was being looked at, what the hell was that about?
It was fun to watch the rest of Rene’s friends when he and I joined them with Dylan. His pal Sean could not take his eyes off him, offering to go get him some ice for his lip. Dylan eased closer to me, and when I looked down at him, he smiled.
“Will you buy me a drink?”
I gave him a look. “Sure. Whaddya want? Milk?”
He scowled up at me. “Hah, funny, I’m twenty-four, ya know.”
“Really.” I nodded because that was interesting. He had aged five years from the bathroom to the floor.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah.”
“That's funny, because you already told me you were nineteen in the bathroom.”
I smiled down at him. An angel swearing was funny. “How’d you even get in here?”
After a minute of staring at me, he answered. “The doorman knows me, we make their drink menus and coupons and stuff.”
“I see. So he let you in here even though you’re underage?”
“I’m barely underage. I’ll be twenty-one in two years.”
I grinned lazily. “Do you even know what you’re saying at this point?”
He made a noise in the back of his throat. “Who cares, I’m legal to do what’s important.”
“Oh,” I said, chuckling. “That is important.”
He grinned wide. “It is right this second.”
“Stop flirting; it ain’t gonna work.”
“Just––kill your motor.”
“C’mon, let’s have a drink together. I have a really good fake ID.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’m gonna buy you some food instead.”
“And take me home after?” he asked suggestively, his eyes all over me.
“’Cause you’re too young for me,” I explained.
“How old are you?”
“Mal,” Rene said, his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll meet you at Dad’s Diner on Folsom. Whoever gets there first gets the table.”
“Hey, Malic, can I ride with you and Dylan?” Sean asked me.
“Sure,” I agreed, what the hell.
So I had an angel and a guy that wanted to get into the angel’s very tight leather pants hanging out with me. On the street I realized that Dylan was freezing. I immediately traded him his wings for my heavy leather jacket, and he wrapped himself up.
“Thanks, Malic,” he said, smiling at me.
I took them to my silver Mercedes, and once Dylan was belted in the front and Sean in back, I pulled away from the curb. As I drove the streets of San Francisco I listened to them talk, Sean telling Dylan all about his job as an associate at a law firm. He was trying to impress the younger man; I knew the hard sell when I heard it.
“Malic, what do you do?” Dylan asked, and I could feel his eyes on me.
“I own a strip club, I already told you that,” I reminded him. “Now tell me where you live.”
“What kind of what?”
“What kind of strip club?”
“The kind women strip at.”
“Yes, only women.”
“I repeat… where do you live?”
“Just in case your friends don’t show up and I might need to take you home.”
“Malic, why don’t I just come home with you instead?”
“You can come home with me,” Sean volunteered with a leer.
Dylan’s hand went to my thigh. “I wanna go home with Malic.”
“Why?” Sean asked with a chuckle, patting my shoulder. “No offense, buddy, but I’m way cuter than you.”
And he was. Cute was not a word that described me. I got “scary” a lot, and “cold” and “intimidating” and “mean.” I heard “mean” the most.
“Don’t you think I’m cute, Dylan?” Sean asked.
He didn’t answer, which caused me to turn from the road so I could see him. Big, dark, liquid brown eyes absorbed my face.
“I’m not looking for cute,” Dylan said to Sean while he stared me right in the eye. “I’m looking for a man.”
I just smiled as I turned the corner.
The restaurant was small and cozy, and I went first into the booth with Dylan in the middle between Sean and me. Rene was minutes behind me, taking a seat across from me. He had just started asking me what I was going to have when I realized that the angel was trying to wedge himself onto my lap.
“What’re you doing?”
“I wanna be on the other side of you,” he said, rubbing his cheek against my bicep, leaning into me.
“’Cause I do.”
I looked over him and realized that Sean was much too close, and neither of his hands was on the table. Since I didn’t want my angel to be molested—it would annoy me—I agreed. I shifted back and he went over my legs, ass sliding over my crotch provocatively as he wriggled against me and dropped down on my left side. Wedged between the wall and me, he was in heaven.
“Stop,” I chuckled, as his hand slid over my thigh.
I felt him shiver against me.
“What’re you gonna eat?”
He focused on his menu even as he pressed himself into my side from shoulder to hip.
After the late-night, early-morning snack, Sean had to go with Rene after we ate; there was no more stalling. They had a BDSM club to hit. Dylan was all hot to go, he wanted me to tie him up, but I assured him that he was going home because he was, for the hundredth time, too young. So I was alone as I walked him toward his apartment. It turned out that all Dylan’s friends were out partying, and he didn’t feel like meeting up with them after all. As I escorted him home, strolling through his neighborhood, I couldn’t stop smiling. Hard to remember the last time I was in Haight-Ashbury.
“Why’re you smiling?” he asked me.
“I just remember coming here when I first moved to the city. I feel so old right now.”
“You’re only thirty.”
“Yeah, but compared to you, that’s ancient.”
He pointed and we went down an alley, around the back of a building, up stairs, and inside. It was like a maze, and inside it was no better.
He lived with three other guys in an apartment no bigger than five hundred square feet. One of the rooms had a bunk bed in it, and the other had a futon against one wall and a mattress and box spring on the other. The kitchen had a stove with one burner and no oven. The microwave oven sat on top of the refrigerator.
“Seriously, why are you smiling?” he asked, turning to face me.
“I just remember living like this. My first roommate and me, I think our place was smaller. Our apartment was in the Tenderloin and the refrigerator was outside on the fire escape and we opened it through the window.”
“Yeah, small,” I said with a smile, passing him the wings I was carrying for him.
“Oh, thank you.”
“Can’t lose those.” I smiled at him.
“Where is he now?”
I squinted at him. “I dunno, that was like a hundred years ago.”
He snorted out a laugh, ending with a giggle. The food had helped a little, but he was still really wasted. “You’re not that old.”
I gave him a grunt.
He cleared his throat and took a breath. “Listen, I don’t want you to think bad about me.”
“No, baby,” I told him, “I don’t think anything bad.” In actuality, I had thought nothing at all. I couldn’t imagine I would ever see him again after I walked out of his apartment.
“’Cause I usually don’t drink or do anything but work and go to school, but tonight when I got off and my friends asked me to come out and everyone told me to forget about taking the costume all the way home, that I should just leave it on and change my… oh shit.”
“Oh shit what?” I asked because how pale he got suddenly was spooky.
“I left my bag in my friend’s car.”
“So what, you can get it tomorrow.”
“But I need my books for school on Monday, and my wallet’s in there and… shit.”
He looked really upset.
So I had to fix it. “Let’s try calling whoever you left your bag with. Where’s your phone?”
It was wedged inside his back pocket, how, because of how tight the leather pants were, I ha