SOMETIMES there were just not enough hours in the day, and no matter what I did, I could not get everything done. I had gotten extra pressure when my boyfriend—partner, the man I would take a bullet for—had told me we had to go out of town to his grandfather’s eightieth birthday party. Due to the fact that I was a senior associate at the law firm where I practiced, I had to work extra long and extra late to clear my schedule so I could get away. As a result of that, we had not been able to fly out together, but I had made sure we would be sitting side by side for the trip home. Holding the man’s hand during takeoff and landing—he was a nervous flyer—was really something I enjoyed.
Getting off the plane at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, I made my way down the stairs toward the baggage claim. I turned my phone on as I walked and called my sentinel, Jael Ezran. Along with practicing law, I was also a warder, which meant I hunted and killed things that went bump in the night. I stood between people and the demon horde along with my fellow warders—five of us altogether—with our sentinel Jael Ezran. Every city had five warders and one sentinel to lead them. Every night we took to the streets in pairs, one of us rotating to have a night, or more than one, off. If there wasn’t much going on, only two went out. If there was a lot of activity, then Jael patrolled with us and we’d be out in teams of two or three. It just depended on the creatures from the pit.
But in the light of day, I would normally be at work doing the lawyer thing at Kessler, Torrance and Price. I would be a partner soon, Mrs. Kessler had told me. She liked me, the board liked me, and the fact that my caseload was the heaviest of the associates and my win record was close to perfect had put me over the top. And I was pleased—tired but pleased—that I had proven myself beyond a shadow of a doubt to be one of the men who would see to the firm’s enduring legacy. And now I had been told to catch my breath.
It was not in my nature to rest on my laurels once I had shown what I was capable of, but to my surprise, it was what the other partners at the firm wanted. Everyone strongly suggested I take on fewer clients, the consensus being that they wanted me around for the long haul, not burned out at thirty-five. They hoped I could now enjoy my time off, so that when I was at work, I would be 100-percent invested and not worried about missing out on time with my partner, the wonderful guy they got to see and talk with at every company function. Lately I had been offered time-shares, cabins in Aspen, villas on Lake Cuomo, and a cabana in Tahiti. They wanted me to stay, and they knew me well enough to know that if Joseph Locke was happy, I was happy too. Over the years, after seeing how everyone at the firm responded to the man I loved, I was so glad I had gone with my gut.
I had been courted by many firms out of law school but had decided on a smaller, more prestigious one many of my peers had promised would never promote me. I was gay, I was black—it would never happen. But I had sat with the managing partner and owner, Helene Kessler, and looked in her eyes, and her gaze was unwavering when she spoke candidly about my future and what she could see for me if I worked hard and made a believer out of her. She wanted me because of my brain. The rest—color, sexual orientation, even the car I drove—meant nothing.
As time passed, I saw that my decision had been the best one I could have made. I was proud that I worked for a law firm that had no concerns with the fact that I lived with and loved another man. I had heard horror stories from some of my fellow attorneys at other firms and could only say that, in my experience, there had been no problem with my homosexuality. Helene Kessler ran her firm based on performance, end of story. She didn’t really give a damn who you slept with… except for her brother-in-law Ray. The man in question was who I had just finished defending, and the people in his bed were of paramount importance to her.
I had been called to her office two days ago, and unlike our usual meetings, she was not sitting at her desk and inviting me to do the same. She was instead standing at her window, watching the rain pelt the glass. When she turned and looked at me, her eyes were clouded.
“Mrs. Kessler,” I said softly, gently, crossing the room to her side.
“Helene,” she corrected as she had been lately.
It would be strange to start calling her by her first name, but as she had become insistent, I had to honor her wishes. “Helene,” I acquiesced.
Silently, she passed me a file folder, and I was surprised to realize I was looking at the arrest sheet of her sister’s husband. I started flipping through it immediately.
“He needs to seek treatment for sex addiction and drug addiction,” she told me, her voice flat and hard like it never was.
I skimmed the contents. Her brother-in-law was found with copious amounts of cocaine and with one—no, two— prostitutes, and—
“Ray was discovered with three escorts….” She trailed off.
“Where was—oh,” I said, because I finally saw the name of the third girl, woman—no, girl, just barely eighteen. Christ.
“Passed out, all four of them. The hotel manager called the police when there was no answer in the room after check-out time, and when he went in no one would wake up.” She took a breath. “Ray needs to be confined to a hospital so he can be treated,” she sighed. “His wife, my sister, is just….” She looked at me, saw me squinting at her. “Oh God, Marcus, we both know I was thinking of a judgeship, and now this? Jesus, I just need it to go away. I got it on Judge Rojas’s docket for the morning, so…. Just keep him out of jail, throw him in a psychiatric facility, and have them try and cure him of being a sex addict. Lock him up and throw away the key. I don’t give a damn, just—”
“I’ll handle it,” I promised, hand on her shoulder.
She nodded, covering my hand with hers for the briefest of moments before she started rubbing the bridge of her nose under her glasses, a quirk of hers when she was nervous.
“It won’t go away,” I said honestly. “But we’ll deal with it as quickly and quietly as we can. I promise you won’t have to deal with it. I’ll take care of everything.”
“I know you will,” she said. “You’re the only one I trust.”
I was pleased to hear it, and when I had gone straight to her office after court that morning, she had been waiting for me.
“It’s done. He’s in a treatment program, and he’ll do his time, six months, at that facility.”
She nodded, waiting.
“Your sister was there,” I said gently. “She cried a lot.”
“She’s an idiot.”
“You can’t help who you love.”
I shook my head. “You married the perfect man, and he died too soon, and I’m going to say this to you because we’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course,” she snapped. “Do you think I spend my holidays with just anyone?”
I smiled at her. “Now listen. It’s time, you know. Woman does not live by work alone.”
“Time to do what?”
“Bite your tongue,” she chided me, getting up and walking to the huge window in her enormous corner office.
“We’ll work on it.”
She made a dismissive noise.
“Don’t push me. I’ll have Joe call you.”
Her head turned so she could see me over her shoulder. “You and I both know that he’s irresistible. Please don’t sic him on me.”
“Well, then, I want to see you take a man to the opera fund-raiser in two weeks. If I have to go, you have to have a date.”
She grunted and did a quick turn so her back was against the glass. “What else about Ray?”
“If he messes up again, he’s going to do time, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it.”
“I talked to Weber Ford at the Chronicle, and he said he’d bury it as far back as he can.”
“You can’t be blamed for your family.”
“Oh, yes I can. Everything they do reflects on me.”
“It’ll be all right.”
“Or it won’t, but I refuse to just cover it up and end up owing the wrong people too much. It’s not worth my soul.”
“No. It’s not.”
“Thank you, Marcus. I’ll look forward to having you as a senior member of this firm.”
My gaze settled on hers in question.
“It’s time. We both know it is. Everyone here knows it is. You’ve worked hard; you’re the only one at this firm that every board member believes in. We’re voting Friday. I’ll have good news for you when you get back from your trip to… I’m sorry. Where are you going again?”
I chuckled. “Kentucky.”
Her face scrunched up tight. “What on earth for?”
“It’s great there, actually, and Joe’s grandfather is turning eighty.”
“I suspect he’s not the draw, but instead your charming partner.”
I arched a brow. “You think Joe’s charming?”
She laughed then, for the first time in days. “Yes, Marcus, I certainly do.”
A voice saying my name brought me from my thoughts and into the present. The phone had been picked up on the other end, but not by Jael, because he would have called me by my warder name, Marot, and not my given name. There was also the voice itself to take into account. What I was being treated to was a sound much softer, smoother, richer, a smoky tenor in comparison to the usual growl of my sentinel.
“Ryan,” I said, knowing the man’s voice as well as my own. He had been my fellow warder a long time.
“Tell Jael I landed in Lexington and I’m good, all right?”
“Will do.” He yawned first and ended with a sigh.
“Why’re you there?”
“Jael is thinking he wants to cook when Deidre’s warders come to visit next week.”
I wasn’t going to touch that one. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, you know that Deidre Macauley, the sentinel he’s been seeing from Edinburgh? She is having her warders fly over here to meet Jael, and he was thinking it would be a good idea to show them how well he could take care of her, so he was going to cook.”
“Yeah, see, Malic thought the same thing. He thought Jael should have the dinner catered or take everyone out, and then the warders could see that he actually has money and can provide well for their sentinel.”
Being a sentinel, being a warder, was not a paid gig. Some sentinels and some warders were nowhere near the top of the food chain. Because of Jael’s inheritance and some very shrewd investing, his family fortune had grown tenfold in his lifetime. He could provide Deidre with quite a nice life, if that was what she wanted. Having met the lady, however, I knew that no man would ever have to take care of her. It would be nice for him to show off for her warders, though.
“I don’t get the cooking.”
“Neither do I, but whatever.”
“So you’re there teaching him how to cook something.”
“Should I even ask what?”
“No, don’t ask. You don’t wanna know.”
I laughed at him because he sounded so pained. “Sorry,” I chuckled. “Just tell the big man I’m okay, and I’ll see you in a week.”
“What are you doing there again?”
“Joe’s grandfather’s birthday.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
Something occurred to me. “Maybe Deidre’s warders would like the idea of him cooking, of her being more involved with a man who treated his own warders like family—maybe that’s what’s up with the cooking.”
There was a moment of silence before he answered me. “Christ, it must be exhausting to be you, thinking about everything all the time.”
“I’ll call you if anyone dies,” he said.
“That’s not funny,” I told him.
“Did you pack your swords, or did you leave them at home?”
“Why would I pack my swords to come to a birthday party?”
“It is Kentucky.”
“So lemme get this straight. You’ve been all over the world, Mr. I-Used-To-Be-A-Model, but you think Lexington is some hick town where packing hook swords would be a good idea?”
“I have no idea.”
“I know you don’t. You’re just talking out of your ass.”
He huffed. Normally he wasn’t like that; he was thoughtful, not prejudiced against a place he didn’t know. Something was wrong.
“Are you going to tell me?” I asked.
“Tell you what?”
I stayed quiet and waited.
“I’m just irritated.” He sighed deeply, breaking down. “One of Deidre’s warders, Collin something, artistic type with A Flock of Seagulls haircut, is already here, and I’m thinking from the looks of things that he finds my boyfriend somewhat appealing.”
If I were there, I would have wished Collin with the ’80s retro haircut good luck. No one was taking Ryan Dean’s hearth away from him… no one. And since Ryan was the kind of gorgeous that people stopped on the street to watch walk by, he really had nothing to worry about. But he loved Julian Nash desperately, so it wasn’t all that surprising that he was worried. It was, however, needless.
“You know, I’ve actually met Julian,” I soothed him. “He’s kind of the loyal type.”
“No, I know. It’s just… where does Collin get off disrespecting me?”
“I doubt he realizes he is. He just sees an attractive man he knows has the strength to be the hearth of a warder, and so he’s interested. I’ll bet you it’s no more than that.”
He grunted on the other end.
As a rule, Ryan was not volatile, but having a hearth was still new for him. He and Julian had yet to hit six months.
“How do you not try and kill anyone that comes near Joe?”
“You trust your hearth, Ry. The man is my home just like Julian is yours.”
He exhaled, and I understood that he had been more upset than I realized, and now he was calmer. “Okay.”
“Good.” I smiled into the phone. “Call me if you want to talk some more or if you need help hiding the body.”
“Will do,” he sighed, and he hung up.
I turned the corner, putting my phone back in the breast pocket of my suit jacket as I crossed the baggage claim area.
I stopped and looked around but saw no one I knew.
“Honey, maybe that’s not—”
“It is, El. I know his walk.”
“But the only guy there is a black guy.”
“Ohmygod,” I heard the man I loved say in mock-shock. “Marcus is black?”
I finally saw a woman peeking out at me from behind a large pillar and began walking over to her. As the room opened up, I saw more pillars and benches beside them. My partner, Joseph Locke, was sitting on one and across from him were his mother and father and sister.
They could have been on a poster for all-American wholesome goodness, the Locke family in all their glory.
“Marcus,” Joe called to me, louder than his mother.
“I hear you,” I called over to him so he’d know.
“Then hurry the hell up,” he grumbled.
Had he been able to see me, he would have seen my scowl, but he couldn’t, so I had to wait and smack him once I got there.
“Christ, Marcus,” he growled when I clipped him on the shoulder.
“You deserve that,” his father rumbled, an older, taller version of the man I loved. He had dark brown hair and the same pale eyes that had been gifted to his son. “Learn some patience.”
“I haven’t had coffee,” I warned Joe, “so don’t screw with me.”
“Yes,” his mother agreed, standing up to hug me. “Leave Marcus alone.”
Her I liked. It was my boyfriend who was the grouch.
“How ya doin’, Deb?” I asked as I enfolded her in my arms.
I loved to look at my boyfriend’s mother: her dark blue eyes; short, wavy blonde hair; and sweet smile. I could see her in Joe, and I liked that.
She squeezed me tight, arms around my neck, and kissed my cheek, breathing out some tension. We had always gotten along well, even at our first meeting. I was always a big hit with parents; the word “lawyer” worked wonders.
“How was your flight?” Deb asked, leaning back to look up at my face, her arms dropping off my shoulders and resting on my chest. She was comfortable standing there in the circle of my arms. I was as much her kid as either Barbara or Joe, and that had been making me happy since I met her five, almost six years ago. I had lost my own mother when I was fifteen, so she was the only one I had.
“I had ‘the guy’ sitting next to me, you know, that ‘guy’, the one who wants to chat.”
“On the redeye.” She was annoyed for me. “My goodness, why didn’t he just let you get some sleep?”
“I know why,” Joe grumbled.
“Shhh,” I shushed him.
“Oh honey, you didn’t tell him you were a lawyer, did you?”
“That’s not the reason, Mother,” Joe snapped irritably.
“It was,” I lied, smiling suddenly, leaning to kiss her cheek. “I think he overheard me on the phone before we boarded.”
“How rude,” she continued.
“I’m never letting you fly alone again,” Joe muttered.
I ignored the love of my life in favor of his mother. “You look great by the way.”
“Guys hitting on you—what the hell, you wear a ring, for crissakes!”
“And I really love the haircut,” I continued.
“Finally!” she almost shouted. “Somebody noticed.”
“You got a haircut?” Barbara asked, sounding shocked.
Deb’s exasperated snort made everyone laugh as she gave me a last squeeze before releasing me to her husband, who came up behind her to hug me as well. I liked that my boyfriend’s father didn’t just shake my hand; it was nice that he had to hug me too.
“How are you, Marcus?” he asked when he let me go and looked up at my face. “You took the redeye out, huh? Tired?”
I groaned. “Yes, sir, but just get some coffee and food in me, and I’ll be ready to go.”
“Good.” He smiled before he stepped sideways so Joe’s sister Barbara could hug me.
I lifted Barbara Locke off her feet and crushed her against me.
“God, Marcus,” she giggled as I put her down, her hands on my face. “Why can’t I find one like you?”
“Oh sweetie, don’t worry. There’s the perfect guy out there just waiting for ya.”
And there was. Barbara was smart and funny and classically beautiful with big blue eyes and high cheekbones and full lips. If I were straight, she would have been mine. But as it was, her brother was the one I pined for.
“Suck-up,” Joe said under his breath.
“Joseph,” Barbara snapped at him as she stepped back beside her mother.
“Did you guys at least give him a snack this morning?” I asked his sister.
“No, so that’s why he’s like this. He needs food, and coffee too.”
“Marcus, honey, let me introduce you to Ellen—”
“Wait,” Joe snapped, reaching for me.
I grasped the questing hand, wrapping mine around it, noticing as always the warmth and the strength of his grip. This was not a man who sat in an office all day. He worked with his hands and he worked hard. As the owner and operator of Bumpy Road Limited, he could have taken a less physical role in his company, but he considered himself and everyone he employed to be part of the same team. He stocked shelves, talked to vendors, and called on accounts. He did every job in his company equally, which was why, I was certain, he was so beloved.
I squatted down beside the bench, hand on his knee as I looked up into his gorgeous clear blue eyes.
They were the first things I had ever noticed about him. They were pale, almost opaque cerulean with flecks of India ink in them. I had been out drinking, had turned to head back to the table from the bar—there to buy the last round—and he had suddenly been in front of me, and I was swallowed up in his gaze.
I had forgotten to breathe.
“You have a great laugh,” he’d told me. “I’ve been listening to it all night.”
I had tilted my head, realizing almost instantly that he was blind. “That’s the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard.” I smiled at him.
“Are you sure?” he teased me. “The very worst?”
The arch of his eyebrow was wicked, his dimples were sweet, and his plump parted lips, wet now as he licked them, were making my cock hard. The man made my mouth go dry.
I’d noticed the way the light hit his auburn hair, a play of brown and red. I’d appreciated the splatter of freckles across the bridge of his short, upturned nose and had seen the way his eyes narrowed seductively, the long, thick feathery lashes hooding them. I’d heard the soft moan under his breath. I’d wondered, with the part of my brain that was still working, why someone had not put a ring on the man’s finger. That fast, I thought I might want to keep him.
He knew what he was about, because standing there, head tilted, waiting, cute and sexy all at once, he’d had an agenda. I liked that. Men who played games, who weren’t sure what they wanted, were not for me. With the no-nonsense attitude he had going, already he had my undivided attention. I’d let my gaze go everywhere, missing no part of him. He was smaller than me, leaner-muscled, prettier, but solid and strong. I liked the daring tip of his head, his lips that were pale and pink and full, and the effect I had on his breathing. He was holding onto the back of the bar stool beside him, flexing and un-flexing his hand, waiting to see what I would say. As if there were ever any doubt. I wanted to eat him.
“I’m Marcus Roth,” I said hoarsely.
He let out a breath and thrust his hand at me. “Joseph Locke.”
I took the offered hand in mine, holding tight. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“And you,” he said, stepping forward, inhaling me.
I had thought that because he couldn’t see that he would be timid about his desire, as well as reticent to trust. But the man knew what he wanted, and when he’d asked me to get something to eat with him, I’d found that I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I liked the laugh lines in the corner of his eyes, found myself charmed by his rakish grin, and felt my pulse jump at the way he laced his fingers into mine. I was a big guy, six six, two hundred and fifty pounds of hard, heavy muscle; I was normally not on the receiving end of possessiveness. But Joe couldn’t see me, and so he didn’t know that he didn’t need to stake his claim in front of other people. He was all of five ten, trying to yank me after him wherever we went. I had been charmed completely.
Now five, almost six years later, he still had to show anyone who was looking that I belonged to him.
“I knew it was you,” he sighed as his hand slipped around the nape of my neck, pulling me closer to him. “I told my cousin, but she didn’t believe me.”
The man’s sightless eyes were really the most beautiful shade of blue I had ever seen. And I could gaze at them endlessly and enjoy them without him ever flushing with embarrassment and looking away. His eyes warmed me, and I was certain, everyone who ever met him.
“Yeah, well, it’s a damn parlor trick that you can tell a person by their frickin’ walk, so who could blame her?”
She gasped, but Joe and his family, the people who knew me and got me, started laughing instantly.
I arched an eyebrow for poor Ellen, who was the only one not getting the joke.
Deb was snickering as she looked at me with smiling eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here. Joe’s been missing you,” she finished, patting my shoulder.
“I’m so embarrassed.”
I turned my head to look at Ellen, who was now standing on the other side of Joe.
“I didn’t mean to imply that—I just, no one told me that you were—”
“Black?” I asked her.
“Oh God,” she groaned, head in her hands.
Poor girl, she was turning a very vibrant shade of red. Joe’s father Elliot started laughing. Deb put her hand over her mouth, and Barbara giggled.
“What I meant to say—”
“Is that you were not expecting me to be black,” I teased her unrelentingly.
She opened her mouth to say something but shut it fast.
“I’m kidding.” I smiled wide. “You know that, right?”
She looked horrified.
“Oh sweetie,” I soothed her, standing up, lifting out of Joe’s embrace. “I—”
“Marcus’s friends didn’t expect me to be blind,” Joe cut me off, sounding annoyed. “But he’s the catch, not me, so if everyone could just drop it, I would love it.”
The area went silent, and I shook my head. It had been playful until he made it not so, and that wasn’t usual. There was actually something eating at him.
I leaned forward, offering my hand to his cousin. “Marcus Roth, pleasure to meet you.”
She surged forward, grasping my hand in both of hers. “I’m Ellen Rowe, and the pleasure is all mine, Marcus.”
I smiled at Ellen to reassure her and saw her stare at me. I forgot sometimes that to some people, an interracial couple was cause for surprise. For Joe’s parents and his sister, it had never been an issue. And they didn’t need to understand why I wanted to date him; the question was why more people didn’t. They got that Joe was a catch and loved me because I realized it as well. There was no dysfunction in my boyfriend’s family, and I was thankful for them all.
“Everyone in your family is nicer than you,” I told my boyfriend to make him smile.
He just scowled.
I could see how uncomfortable he was making everyone feel, so I reached out and put my fingers through his thick hair, dragging it back from his face. “Lighten up, Joey.”
“Sit down for a second,” he almost whined. “Dad, can you get Marcus’s garment bag, please, and his duffle? They’re the Louis Vuitton ones, and the tag has his business card on it. If the tag came off, there’s another one in a pocket in the back in Braille.”
“Course,” the older man said, turning to go.
“Elliot, I’ll get it,” I called out to him.
He waved at me to stay put, though, and then mouthed words at me. I read that Joe was upset? I looked up at Deb.
She cleared her throat. “This weekend has a lot of outdoor activities like horseback riding and a touring distillery and dancing at a friend’s house. I think Joe was slightly concerned about all that he would be able to do.”
And even as I nodded I realized that there was no way that this bit of news was what had my boyfriend in a twist. Joe was always up for anything, and he accepted help whenever he needed to. Something else was wrong.
I sank down onto the bench beside him, and instantly his knee was against mine.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too, baby,” I told him. Normally, at home in San Francisco, I would have put my arm around him and given him a kiss, but we were not there, and I didn’t feel comfortable here.
“Marcus?” Ellen smiled at me.
“How long have you and Joe been dating? He didn’t get a chance to tell me.”
“We don’t date,” Joe answered before I could. “We live together, have lived together for over four years. We’re partners. We have a civil union and rings.” He held up his left hand for her so she could see the thick gold ring. It was engraved inside, just as mine was, with our initials and the date we had made our love official in front of a crowd of our best friends and Joe’s parents and sister. So far, it had been the happiest day of my life.
“Oh.” She looked suitably educated.
“We dated for a year, and then he begged me to move in with him, and I said yes.”
“Begged?” I groused at him.
His lopsided grin, the one he gave me often, was suddenly there doing the wicked thing to his eyes where they heated and softened at the same time. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved and found the face I knew even sexier than usual.
“And what is it you do, Marcus?” Ellen asked me.
Joe supplied the answer before I could. “He’s a criminal lawyer at one of the biggest firms in San Francisco. He will make partner this year, the youngest in the firm’s history.”
And that was it. She was impressed.