“SO BRIAN says you used to be a porn star.”
In retrospect, it was a hell of a way to start a conversation.
After I realized he wasn’t answering, I looked up and saw that my friend, Charlie Ryder, was not breathing.
“Breathe,” I suggested, smiling at him.
As soon as he did, he sucked hot coffee down the wrong hole, burned his throat, and started coughing. Maybe air was overrated.
I got up to get him some water, gave him a pat on the back as I walked by, and when I returned, placed a tall glass down in front of him. “Sorry.”
His eyes were huge, and as I took my seat back down across from him at the table in the crowded diner, I noticed, like I didn’t usually, that his lime-green eyes were just the prettiest color I had ever seen in my life. I was also a fan of his short, closely cropped curls and his thick, perfectly curved brows. Normally, I didn’t really see the individual parts of the man, but instead, the whole that was my friend.
I saw Charlie’s face when he smiled, heard his voice when he yelled at me, and noticed the space he took up when he was sitting beside me in my truck. I was aware of him peripherally, but I didn’t focus on him. Today I was really looking at him. Today I noticed the fluid way he moved, the delicate cut of his features, and how fine-boned his hands were. The scrutiny had been brought on by something Brian had said.
My old high school friend was back in town to see his family and had looked me up just to have drinks and dinner. Or so he had said initially. I didn’t know he needed money at that point. So at the time, we had been walking out of the office when Charlie was on his way in from another job site. There were ten men, plus me and my partner Paul, so any number of us were coming and going through the office at all hours. The only person who never left the office was Alison Reynolds, Ali, who looked like she was sixteen but was actually ten years older than that. So I had waved, and Charlie had waved back, and Brian had been flash-frozen beside me, suddenly unable to move. When I walked around in front of him, he had pointed.
“Chaz,” he said.
I pointed to myself, chuckling. “Leo.”
“No,” he choked, swallowing hard, finally turning his head to look after Charlie. “Chaz. That’s Chaz Ryder.”
“Charlie Ryder.” I smiled at him. “But Chaz is close, I guess.”
“No, no, no,” he exhaled. “That’s Chaz Ryder; I’ve seen all his movies.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“He’s a porn star.”
I snorted out a laugh. “No, he’s really not.”
“That would be hard, since he works for me,” I assured him.
“Maybe now he does,” Brian agreed. “But I swear to God, Leo, all he used to do was go to the gym, pose for pictures in magazines, and fuck.”
But there was just no way.
WHEN we got back to my house in Easton, just outside Carson City, Brian took a seat in my office, opened up my laptop, got the Internet up, and after a few keystrokes, I was looking at a website for Dreamland Productions. There, dressed in black leather shorts that buttoned up the sides, leather boots that laced up to his knees, a leather harness, and nothing else was Chaz. His hair fell to the middle of his back, his manicured goatee lined his jaw, and matching stubble adorned his upper lip. His neon-green eyes were lined in dark forest green and narrowed in half. The full, pink, pouty lips were twisted into a gleaming, wicked smile, and every defined, rippling muscle on his carved physique was oiled. He looked like some Greek god playing at bondage. I had never in my life seen a more beautiful man. I wanted to lick every inch of him.
“Huh,” I said instead of moaning. “I bet he wore braces when he was a kid.”
“Who the fuck cares about his teeth?”
But the smile was made that much better because his teeth were perfect.
“You see? It’s him. You wanna see a video? I have a membership.”
“No.” I winced, because really, the idea of seeing any of my friends have sex was revolting. And I had put Charlie Ryder firmly into the “friend” category three years prior. He had started out just driving but quickly moved up with his work ethic and desire to learn. Once I knew he was going to be permanent, I stopped checking out his ass and started being one to him. If he was going to be around, I had to stop being polite. Surprisingly, like the rest of the men who worked for me, he seemed to be able to handle me being me. I was glad.
“Holy shit, Leo, have you tapped that?”
Gross. I pointed at the mouth-watering porn star on the screen. “That man is not the same one I have working for me.”
“Yes, he is.” Brian leered at the screen. “And wait until I let everyone know that—”
“Don’t say a word to anyone, Bri,” I cautioned him. “Or you can kiss your loan goodbye.”
“What?” he yelled at me. Ostensibly he was in town to see his folks, but in reality, he was there to hit me up for money. I had agreed, but I could take my patronage away just as easily.
“You heard me,” I assured him. “If Charlie wants to put up drywall now instead of screw hot men, who are we to blow his cover?”
“You’re kidding, right? This is huge!” He turned to look up at me. “Leo, everybody’s been wondering what the hell happened to him. I mean he was just—he was Chaz Ryder, and then Rough Love came out four years ago and—”
“What’s Rough Love?”
“Lemme show you.”
“No,” I said, closing his laptop fast so he had to pull his hands free before I snapped it shut on his fingers. “Just tell me.”
He looked up at me, and I took a few steps back so he wouldn’t get a crick in his neck trying to hold my gaze. I wasn’t so tall, six-three, but when he was sitting with his head tilted back, it had to be annoying.
He shrugged. “I’ve seen it, like, I dunno, twenty times by now, and at first it was hot, and it still kind of is, and definitely if your kink goes to rape, to the fantasy of rape, it’s just—amazing, but the last time I watched it, I started to see what people mean in the online forums and chat rooms and stuff.”
“I’m not following.”
Quick breath. “Well, it starts out like it’s real, you know, like some guy invited Chaz Ryder, big porn star, out on a date, and they’re coming home, probably back to this guy’s place, and then suddenly they’re in this big empty room with ten other guys.”
My stomach did a quick twist into a knot.
“And then Chaz starts looking around, and he’s laughing, but then his face changes, and you can tell he’s getting pissed, you know? And then he starts yelling at Doran Lear, who everyone knows is his producer, and finally he starts screaming that no matter what, he’s not doing a gang bang, won’t ever do one no matter what Doran says.”
I could feel the hair start to rise on the back of my neck.
“And then they grab him.” He smiled at me, and I had a terrible urge to sink my fist into my friend’s face. “Fuck, Leo, it’s so hot. I mean, he’s struggling and screaming and yelling, and when they tear off his clothes and put the ball gag in his mouth, I mean—you should see him, he’s so… he’s gold all over. I mean just—fuck. And he has the most perfectly round little ass you have ever seen in your life, I mean, it’s beautiful, and when they start fucking him…. I’ll bet you a million guys have come watching that shit.”
I was ready to throw up.
“You should see him, he’s crying, and there’s tears, but the gag’s in, right, so all he can do is take it, and they just take turns, but you can see the condoms and the lube, you know? I mean, it’s not like—I mean, it couldn’t be real.”
But he didn’t sound completely convinced.
“And then one guy tries to bareback him, and you see these, like, huge guys come in and pull this idiot out of there, but then one of the bodyguards—and this guy’s dick is, like, massive.” He emphasized the word for me, touching his fingertips and thumbs together to give me an idea of the girth of the man’s cock. “He ends up fucking Chaz too.”
I took a few steps away from my friend, whom I had gone to high school with and played football with, because I really didn’t want to hurt him.
“I mean, it’s classic rape fantasy, classic gang bang, but the thing is… they didn’t tie him down. Usually they tie the guy up or use spreader bars or lock him in a swing or—”
“Go on,” I cut him off sharply.
“But this was different. They didn’t even want to put any marks on him. So they just held him, and everybody’s smiling the whole time and egging each other on, and we’ve all been watching Chaz bottom and top for years, so it’s just another film, right?”
But I knew even without seeing it that it was not.
“I mean, it can’t be real, and come to find out later that the guy who Chaz went there with, who supposedly was taking him somewhere for a big surprise, that guy was his boyfriend in real life. And that guy, Owen something, he fucked Chaz in the movie too.”
“So it was all staged, but fuck.” He exhaled sharply. “It’s so real and so totally hot, but suddenly after that, Chaz is just gone. There’s no more movies, no pictures, nothing. And since then, Doran Lear’s got nobody like Chaz. Nobody has his sex appeal or his body or anything. I mean he was gorgeous, no doubt about it, but he was also cute and adorable and wicked and wild—everybody wanted him. He was like this perfect combination of seduction and innocence and sweetness and heat. He was a big tease, and then he’d deliver, and when he had sex… fuck, Leo,” he groaned hoarsely. “He was loud and expressive, and it was all, ‘fuck me, do me, give it to me or I’m gonna die’.”
I looked at him, and there was almost a sadness that crossed his features.
“Guys like that, who make you believe it, make you believe they want it—it’s rare. Normally the acting is so bad and you know the guy’s just sayin’ the words, but with him it was different.” He sighed heavily. “Like I said, I have everything the man ever made.”
We were silent, and I found that as he stopped talking, I calmed.
“And now he fuckin’ works for you putting up drywall.”
“He does more than that,” I assured him.
“For how long?”
“Three years now.”
“Well, it’s been four since he made a movie. I wonder what he was doing for a year before he started working for you.”
“I have no idea.”
“Jesus Christ, Leo, you have a porn star working for you.”
But I really could not have cared less.
I had put an ad in the local paper for a driver, and Charlie had shown up. Everything he owned in the world, he had brought with him to the interview, and I had liked him right away. What I didn’t like was how jumpy he was around me. Finally, three weeks later, having thought it would fix itself, but no longer willing to wait, I had yelled at him and told him that I was done walking around on eggshells because it was my goddamn company, and he had better stop being scared of me because it was pissing me the hell off! Those huge chartreuse-colored eyes of his, his glorious cat eyes, got huge and round.
“Don’t be scared of me,” I ordered him. And I had snarled at him, which I knew was counter-productive, but I was mad. I had stood there, looming over him, and he was six feet tall, but I had three inches on him, so he still had to look up at me. “You make me feel like I’m a bad man, and I’m not. I’m one of the nicest guys you’ll ever fuckin’ meet. Ask my mother.” I was indignant.
“Yeah, my mother,” I groused at him, grabbing his bicep, nearly yanking him off his feet.
“Do you have any idea how big you are?”
I knew exactly how big I was. I had played football in high school, and when I blew out my knee in my junior year tackling a quarterback in the Sugar Bowl, my football career was over, but my engineering degree carried on. I graduated a year later and moved back to Nevada, to Easton, outside of Carson City, to get a job in construction.
It didn’t take me long to realize that being gay in the construction industry was a tough sell. So I used the money I had saved when I got my full scholarship, took out a loan, and started Foster (for me) West (for him) Construction with my brother-in-law Paul. His marriage to my sister had not lasted, much to his regret, but his partnership with me had. I knew without being told that he hoped that one day my feisty little sister would take him back. They had divorced because they weren’t happy, but I had never thought that was a good enough reason. Yes, Paul needed to communicate more. Yes, Theresa needed to be more forgiving of other people’s faults, but I had never thought it was reason enough to split up a home or a family.
But what did I know?
Our loan was paid in full in two years, and we were in the black in four. After that, it was all smooth sailing except for my social life. I still didn’t have one.
What I did have was my family, a strong circle of friends, and a professional network that was thriving. So having Charlie Ryder jumping at his shadow around me was annoying as crap.
I had dragged him to my truck, thrown him into the passenger seat, and told him that I would pulverize him if he tried to get out. When I slid in behind the steering wheel, his eyebrows were still raised.
“I dunno, am I allowed to breathe?”
“You’re fuckin’ hysterical.”
But I saw a grin I had never hoped to see.
“What did I ever do to you to make you treat me like a fuckin’ leper?”
“It’s not you,” he promised me. “Though you did just manhandle me.”
“Because you don’t respond to anything else,” I barked at him. “I have done everything else I can think of besides knock you out.”
“I can’t get through to you,” I told him, “I can’t get you to trust me, and honest to God, Charlie, if you don’t trust me, you can’t be here. Nobody works here. We live here. You get the difference?”
He had nodded.
“Whatever shit you’re carrying around, you gotta cut it loose, ’cause you can’t be part of the team if you’re gonna stand off to the side and just watch us. It won’t work.”
His eyes were searching my face, but I had no idea for what.
“Talk to my mother.”
“You were serious about that?”
I was always serious about my mother.
True to my word, I dragged him home to see Donna Foster. She took one look at him and decided that she was going to adopt him. It was fine with me—anything so he’d stop being startled, stop turning like a deer caught in the headlights whenever he didn’t know I was there, and stop catching his breath all the damn time. My mother explained that I was a slob, that I ate like a frat boy, and that I didn’t have a pet because I kept letting my plants die. I was good, she told him, inside and out, even if the outside needed a haircut.
Six months later, I suggested he take some self-defense classes, and you would have thought I came up with the cure for the common cold. I was told I was brilliant. But I knew that already.
I had seen a slow but steady change in Charlie Ryder over the past two years. His confidence in his work translated to an ease with clients that I liked so much that I moved him into the foreman position a year later. Even though he was young, twenty-three then, twenty-six, close to twenty-seven now, he had the respect of the men because he could do their job if he needed to. He could still get dirty even though he had never really been blue-collar like the rest of us. He was charming; he could finesse clients, whereas I ended up barking at people. He was sleek and gentle; I tended to yell. Paul wanted him to take on the liaison role between us and commercial customers, the larger scale clients, and put away his tool belt forever. It wasn’t sales, it was wining and dining and schmoozing, and I wasn’t sure that he would go for that. I had been secretly glad that Bill, another one of my guys, had taken a weeklong vacation, so Charlie had to fill in for him. I thought maybe he breathed better when he was outside. He was going to have to make a decision soon, though, because Paul had offered him an important place in our company, and Charlie couldn’t just draw out the decision indefinitely.
Back in the present, my eyes flicked to Charlie’s face, and I noticed that those stunning eyes of his were rimmed red and watering. I waited.
“He”—quiet cough—“your friend, he recognized me?”
Charlie took a deep, shaky breath, leaning back from the table. “Do you want me to work through the end of the week, or just leave now or—”
“What’re you talking about?”
He squinted at me.
I crossed my arms and waited.
“Leo, you can’t, I mean, I… I’ve been talking to people.”
Now I was confused. “You talk to a lot of people, Charlie.”
He caught his breath.
“No, don’t start that shit again.”
“The whole being afraid of me bullshit,” I growled at him. “I’ve never done anything but be nice to you, asshole, so don’t start getting skittish now. I don’t deserve it.”
He was stunned.
“I’m warning you.” I pointed at him.
His hands came up in defense. “No, I know, you don’t deserve—”
“And,” I cut him off, pointing at him, “I would have never even brought the porn crap up, but if you found out down the road that I knew, it would be like I was keeping something from you, and then you’d be wondering what kind of man I was all over again when you know already. So that’s why I told you I know, and it doesn’t have to go any further than this.”
He just stared at me.
“Speak,” I ordered.
“I’m just afraid that—”
“Afraid of what?” I growled at him.
“Not you!” he squeaked out, and it was funny, the noise, coupled with his denial. The timing, his words and mine, were strange, making it sound like he was lying.
“No, I swear, Leo,” he assured me, leaning forward, his eyes locked on mine. “Even at the beginning, I was never scared of you.”
“That’s crap. You used to all but jump out of your skin whenever I walked in the room.”
“It was never what you thought, not ever.”
But I sure as hell knew the truth.
“But beyond that, I—I…,” he stammered, “I’ve been talking to people and networking and—you can’t possibly want me to stay on and be, like, the one person people know in your company.”
“I was….” He trailed off, raking his fingers through his short, thick hair.
I tipped my head at his hand. “I saw a picture of you with long hair and a goatee and what I guess could pass for mustache. Is that why you keep your hair short and shave everyday now, so you don’t look anything like Chaz?”
His eyes stayed on mine.
“Do you do it on purpose, or did you just this second figure out that you’re doing it?”
He cleared his throat. “No, I do it on purpose.”
I shrugged. “I can’t say I’m a fan of shaving every day”—I grinned at him, running my hand over the stubble on my face—“but I get keeping your hair short. That would be a pain in the ass to get plaster and paint out of it.”
He was staring at me like I’d grown another head.
“Are you done bein’ all weird about this? ’Cause I gotta stop at my folks’ place and drop off something for my dad and put in a can opener for my mother.”
He was still looking at me when I got up and pulled my knit cap out of the pocket of my heavy-lined, quilted, corduroy, beat–to-crap work jacket and pulled it down over my hair. I needed a haircut bad; my own thick, wavy hair was at my shoulders.
“Leo,” he croaked out, finally getting up, his eyes again locked on mine.
“What?” I asked, shivering. Even in the diner, it was still cold.
“Everything just stays the same?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Are you gonna tell Paul?”
“If you wanna tell Paul, you can, but I really don’t think it will matter to him. I think he’d see it as more of a selling point than anything else.” I chuckled. “You know him; he loves a good story.”
I hit his shoulder and dropped two twenties on the table, leaving Molly, our waitress, a twenty-five percent tip, and headed for the door.
“Wait.” He caught up with me. “Leo, you—”
“Stop,” I cut him off, grabbing him and pulling him out of the way of the stampede of people coming into the diner. It was the morning breakfast crowd, and it was survival of the fittest.
“Leo,” he sighed, and I coiled the arm I had around his shoulders a little tighter, my mouth close to his ear.
“Let it go, Charlie. Whoever you were isn’t who you are now.”
He stiffened in my embrace but didn’t move away. “You think I’m ashamed of what I did for a living?”
“Not at all,” I assured him, fisting my hand on the open flap of his parka for a minute before dropping my hand off him. “Why should you be?”
He turned to look at me. “Then what’d you mean?”
“I meant that you seem to like what you’re doing now better than doing porn, so the new guy you are now is the guy you really are.”
He squinted at me. “Do you even know what you said?”
I thought about it a second. “Maybe.” I grinned at him, waggling my eyebrows. “You want me to drop you at work before I go to—”
“No, I wanna talk to you some more.”
God, talking, not my favorite thing.
“Bye, Leo!” Molly called out from the kitchen as I reached the front door.
“Thanks, Mol; thanks, Abe,” I called to her father, who gave me the spatula wave from the other side of the grill. Stepping outside, I held the door open for Charlie and then for Jill Keaton, who reached up and patted my cheek as she went into the diner with her brood in tow. Her husband, bringing up the rear, I just laughed at.
“Dick,” he muttered under his breath as he passed me.
“I distinctly remember saying maybe you shouldn’t make a bet that big, Tom,” I teased him, cackling.
He flipped me off at the door, cracking a grin. “At least I have kids, Foster.”
“You have a baseball team, Keaton,” I laughed, giving him the finger back. “And when you need that second job to put them all through college, I’ll be here to give it to you.”
I was kidding; we always went back and forth, so I was surprised when he suddenly jogged across the space that separated us.
“I actually wanna talk to you about maybe helping me out on some contracts I have now. I don’t have any electricians, and since that’s your thing, I was thinking I’d call you.”
“That’d be great.” I smiled at him.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “Jill was pissed about that bet.”
I nodded. “And I told you at the time, never bet on intrastate rivalries. Those always get weird. Anything can happen. Guys play harder when it’s a rival.”
“Next time I’ll listen.”
“No, you won’t.” I patted his shoulder, turning for my truck.
“Later. Nice to see you, Charlie.”
“You, too, Tom.” I heard my friend and employee say jovially in return.
I cranked up the heater in the pickup; January in Nevada was cold, not like the Midwest, but still cold, and I was not a fan of freezing. Charlie slid into the passenger side and locked the door, putting his gloved hands next to the heater.
“Next year I’m going to Hawaii or something,” I grumbled.
I turned my head to look at him.
“Did your friend Brian tell you why I quit doing porn?”
I leaned back and put the keys in the ignition. “He told me what he thought, what a lot of people think.”
He nodded. “Has he seen it?”
“Does he own it?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
He cleared his throat. “Did he show it to you?”
“I think he wanted to, but I don’t wanna see you having sex anymore than I wanna see Tom doing it, you know?”
I had meant for him to laugh, but he wasn’t.
“It’s called Rough Love.”
“Yeah, Brian said.”
“I think having ‘love’ anywhere in the title is the funniest thing ever.”
I had no idea what I should say. He was staring straight ahead, but I didn’t think he was seeing the strip mall we were currently parked in. I had a feeling he was looking at a whole other scene playing out in his head.
“’Cause it had nothing to do with love.” He started trembling ever so slightly.
“Charlie,” I said his name softly.
“Did he tell you about it?”
He nodded. “After they fucked me, I just laid there, and they all took turns kissing me everywhere like all of us were lovers and it was part of it.”
I wished I had been there to protect him, and I really wished he would stop sharing.
“That’s not in the final cut of the movie, but Doran has the footage to show to the cops if I ever say anything. But really, who would believe that a porn star got raped, gang banged by a bunch of guys he’d been with in one way or another in a ton of other movies? I mean, how ridiculous is that? How could it possibly have been rape?”
My heart hurt. “Charlie—”
“And they all used protection, so—”
“It doesn’t matter,” I cut him off, hand on the back of his head. “They hurt you, and they should suffer for that, but that’s up to you, Charlie. You are the only one who—”
“I went to a porn convention in Vegas,” he interrupted me, and his voice sounded like I had never heard it before, flat and dead. “That’s why I was in Nevada in the first place. Remember you asked me when you interviewed me? ‘What brings you to Nevada, Mr. Ryder?’,” he repeated the question from years ago. “I think I told you I had gone to Vegas to gamble, but I lied. I was in Vegas to kill Doran Lear.”
I stared at his beautiful profile, the chiseled features, the high cheekbones, and his impossibly thick eyelashes. He really was just the most stunning man, and the outside was hiding an inside of hurt.
“I took the gun I bought before I left, right after it happened, and I was going to shoot Doran, but when I had my chance, when… I chickened out. And how could I not go through with it? I mean, he planned it, he’s the one who talked my boyfriend into it, and he filmed it all and sold it, and people buy it and look at it and see me as a whore—”
“Fuck,” I groaned, pulling him sideways against my chest, tucking his face into my shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Charlie. It’s not a bad thing to trust; you just gotta find the right people, you know? And I promise you that most of the people who watch that video think it’s staged. They think you’re hot, they don’t think you’re pathetic, because it’s all an act. Only you and the guys in it know what really happened.”
He shifted against me, turning, tipping his head back so his lips brushed over my throat, his hands clutching at my sweater.
“And maybe even some of the guys didn’t really know what was going on.”
His lips parted, and his breath was warm on the side of my neck.
“I bet your boyfriend had no idea. I bet he called and called after to find out what was going on, and then when somebody finally told him, most likely that Doran guy, he probably called and called again to tell you how sorry he was. Your phone rang night and day with him begging you to take him back. Am I right?”
He nodded, and I felt the tip of his nose under my chin and, a second later, a soft whimper, closer to a whine from the back of his throat.
“I’m glad you didn’t shoot anybody,” I told him, slowly realizing that I was looking at an empty passenger seat because all six feet of lean, muscled Charlie Ryder was in my lap. “Where’s the gun now?”
There was a quiet cough from him. “I buried it in the foundation of the Coleman house.”
I chuckled. “That’s awesome. Mrs. Coleman would find that very romantic.”
“You think she would?”
“Since she writes murder mysteries for a living, I’m gonna go with yeah.”
He sighed deeply.
“You’re gonna be alright,” I pronounced.
I felt him nod before he slid back over into his s