Chapter One

 

TWELVE-HOUR SHIFT in the ER—seventeen patients, three biters, and eight cups of subpar waiting room coffee. However you did the math, that was a long day. Tag frowned at his reflection in the fly-specked mirror as he looped the black silk tie around his neck. Unfortunately it wasn’t over yet.

Music—the unchallenging strains of familiar classical airs barely a step up from elevator Muzak—filtered up through the floor as he fumbled with his collar. Back in med school, nose deep in cricothyroidotomies and venous cannulation, he’d imagined himself at the cutting edge of neurological research at this stage in his career. Instead he was struggling with a bow tie before he went out to pick his colleagues’ pockets for grant money.

Four years ago he imagined he’d be happily married and settled down with a dog or possibly even a kid by now. Instead he was unhappily separated, and all his friends, the ones he still had since he left New York and moved to Plenty, CA three years ago, thought he needed to go and fuck someone new—as though something that lasted five years could really be over in two months.

Fold back, pinch the end, and through the loop….

The bow tie looked like a dog had tied it and then chewed on it. Tag gave one lopsided loop a halfhearted tug in an attempt to straighten it. Instead it just unraveled. To hell with it. He pulled the strip of silk loose from his collar and tossed it back into his locker. Emergency room doctors were supposed to be the bad boys of medicine. Tag unbuttoned the top two buttons on his collar and tugged it loose around his throat. There. That was on-brand.

Tag lifted the black tuxedo jacket off the hanger and shrugged it on. He’d bought it before the hospital’s big charity ball ten years ago, when he was a first-year medical resident. It seemed like a ridiculous expense at the time, but if nothing else, it motivated him to stay in shape. The waistband of the trousers was only a shade too tight—too many night shifts, too much Chinese takeout—but the fabric of the jacket still caught satisfyingly across the width of his shoulders.

It would do.

He raked his fingers through his hair, pushed the day’s frustrations to the back of his brain, and headed downstairs. The lobby had been decorated with swags of brand-red fabric and glossy white balloons, and long trestle tables were scattered around and laden with one-bite morsels to keep the donors content and talking.

Surgeons in evening wear, rented tuxes in black and floor-length gowns in the recommended muted jewel tones, chatted with businessmen and lawyers over glasses of midprice champagne. Cardio and neurology mostly, Tag noticed. They always had it easiest. Rich people worried about heart attacks and strokes before anything else.

ER was down the list. People never thought accidents would happen to them until they did.

Tag tucked a hand in his pocket, grabbed a glass of wine from a passing waiter, and headed out to worry some rich people. Car crashes, aneurysms, the unpleasant parasites you could bring home from visiting summer homes in exotic locales. Brains were sexy, but emergency medicine had variety on its side.

Half an hour later he had worked his way through a quarter of the room and tapped out his ability to laugh at borderline offensive humor. He leaned against a pillar, wine swapped for a glass of ice water, and waited to see if hotel heiress Hetty Alderdice’s anecdote about her trip to London would veer dubiously into race, gender, or ability. When it didn’t, he chuckled with polite relief.

“I actually had a patient who was in London last month,” he remarked as the laughter faded. Positioned at Alderdice’s elbow, Ned Blake, Tag’s best friend and pediatric oncology’s finest, rolled his eyes at the five-year-old story and then turned to grab another glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray. “Well, London and Madagascar. When she got sick, she blamed Madagascar, but actually she’d gotten rat-bite fever from a—”

“Tag,” Ned interrupted just as he hit his rhythm. “Here. You’ll need this.”

He shoved the flute into Tag’s hand. Straw-colored fizz slopped over the rim and trickled stickily over Tag’s fingers. Tag cursed and fumbled for a second, both hands full as the champagne dribbled onto his polished shoes.

“I’m fine, Ned,” he protested as he looked around for somewhere to offload the unwanted drink. “I’ve had a—”

Shit.

Tag stumbled over his own tongue as he finally saw what, or who, had made Ned think he needed a drink. His ex was here. Of course he was. Psychology needed funding too, and Kieran had always enjoyed these meat markets. Although Tag doubted the pretty boy on Kieran’s arm was here to compete for department funding.

“Son of a bitch,” Tag said. His heart crawled up into the back of his throat, the pulse of it loud in his ears, and his chest cramped painfully around where it had been.

“Is something wrong?” Alderdice asked as she raised a perfectly manicured eyebrow. She turned to follow the direction of Tag’s gaze across the crowded ballroom. She hazarded a guess. “Did someone… fall?”

“No. Nope. Nothing like that,” Ned said. He patted Alderdice’s shoulder to distract her and waved his hand at random toward one of the milling doctors. “Let me introduce you to… Bill. Dr. Havers. He’s got some wonderful stories.”

Ned grimaced at Tag, the expression either an apology or an injunction to behave, as he dragged a slightly baffled but cooperative Alderdice over to the hospital’s lead pathologist, who did, to be fair, have wonderful stories that not many people wanted to hear.

“He’s a nurse in my department,” one of the cardiologists in the group provided cheerfully as they turned to check Kieran out. He popped a cube of cheese in his mouth and added as he chewed, “Apparently they got caught fucking in Dr. Pierce’s office by that ER guy he was dating.”

Accurate enough, although Tag hadn’t realized the guy was a cardiology nurse. All he knew was that he had a tacky tattoo of a winged heart on his ass and was, in Kieran’s words, “Exciting, like you used to be.”

The cardiologist’s companion untangled her arms from her shawl so she could jab him in the ribs with a sharp elbow. “Shut up,” she hissed through still red lips.

“What?” the cardiologist protested as he rubbed his ribs. “It’s what I heard, that’s—”

Fuck it. Tag drained the glass of champagne in one unsatisfying draft, handed off the water to a confused lawyer, and stalked out. He managed not to look back to see if Kieran had noticed his departure, but he wanted to. In fact, it was only after he grabbed his bag, called for a driver from the hospital’s car service to come get him, and went out into the street to wait for it in the rain that some breathless little part of him gave up on the idea that Kieran would chase after him.

God knew why. He never had before. “If you want to storm out,” he always said, “you get to crawl back too.” There had been days, weeks, when their relationship was caught in limbo between the fight and Tag’s apology.

Now it was Kieran who had—royally—fucked up, and he showed no signs he wanted to apologize.

The indignation that had driven Tag out of the hospital flared again, hot as cinnamon in the back of his throat. He leaned back against a light and let the rain soak him as he waited for the cab. For the last two months, he’d been fucking reasonable, held his tongue, and swallowed his anger, accepted his own “role” in what happened because he wanted to hang on to that last rickety bridge back to where they’d been.

Meanwhile Kieran had just moved on.

“Bad boy of medicine,” he muttered aloud with scathing self-contempt as he pulled his iPhone out of his pocket. “More like a scorned wife from the fifties, crying in my fucking gin. To hell with it.”

There were fifteen unread messages stacked up, but he ignored them. It was probably just Ned, eager for assurance that Tag hadn’t done something stupid like kill himself or key Kieran’s pride-and-Porsche.

Tag flicked through the phone until he got to the app, the one he was definitely not ever going to use but hadn’t deleted either.

“Like Tinder,” Ned had explained as he downloaded it, as though Tag had been in a relationship since 1983, not just the last few years. “Only with more cocks.”

Online had never been Tag’s scene, to be fair. He’d always preferred to find his hookups the old-fashioned way—sweaty bars and dangerous glances, setups from friends, a fuck-it kiss to see what happened. Tonight he didn’t want a chase or, God forbid, a challenge. He’d already lost once, come in a hobbled second to a hot young tattooed thing, and he didn’t want to put his dinged ego through any more rejection.

No. Guaranteed preapproved satisfaction, that’s what he needed.

“Okay,” Tag muttered as he tapped the app to open it. “Let’s see how fucking exciting someone new can be.”

Ned had set up the profile for HotDoc with a two-year-old pic of him on holiday, scavenged from the depths of his phone. It wasn’t that far off what he looked like now—happier, but his hair was worse. It would do for an online date. It was probably at least as accurate as everyone else’s photo.

All Tag had to do was find the right green box to tap. He impatiently flicked through the options. It wasn’t like he actually cared, or had to care. That was the point. He didn’t need a connection. That was the last thing he wanted.

Maybe that was what made him stop on one headless-torso shot. Broad shoulders and lean hips, worn jeans that sagged carelessly low over the pubic bone. The expanse of tanned skin on show was decorated with stark, tribal lines of ink—a blank hot slate.

A car service sedan pulled up to the curb and waited expectantly. Tag had never been so grateful for the opportunity to misuse the hospital’s “don’t drink and drive” policy.

Tag hesitated in the chat window, thumbs poised over the keyboard. How much advice had he heard over the years? Hell, how much advice had he given, smug in his castle of committed relationship?

Just be yourself. That was always a favorite.

The cabbie rolled the window down. “Dr. Hayes?” she checked as she stuck her head out, one hand up to ward off the rain. “Everything okay?”

Sure,” Tag said. He quickly patted over the screen as he crossed the pavement. “Sorry, just finishing this.”

“Where d’ya want to go?” the driver asked as Tag got in. The back of the car—near midnight on a wet Friday—smelled of cheap perfume and damp. The driver reached up to adjust the rearview mirror, her eyes tired behind smudged glasses. “Home? Club? Can’t stay here. It’s no parking.”

“Just… go,” Tag said as he waved his hand absently down the road. “I’ll have the address in a minute.”

The driver shrugged and pulled away from the curb. Tag leaned back against the leather seat and stared at what he’d typed but hadn’t yet sent. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. Second thoughts? To suddenly be thrown back in time to when he was the hot young thing people wanted to fuck in an office?

In the absence of either of those options, he hit send. The message flicked onto the screen, bright green in the dark.

Wanna fuck?

 

 

“YOU SURE about this?” the cab driver—Susan from San Diego, who’d been an accountant before her firm went belly-up and now had an upside-down mortgage and two side hustles to keep it going—asked as she pulled up in front of the bar. She kept the engine running as the rain hammered down on the car in heavy, unrelenting sheets. “This isn’t a part of town where you see people in tuxes.”

No kidding.

When they moved to Plenty, Kieran spent hours on Google to narrow down the “best” place for them to live. Gated community or hipster enclave had been a real dark-moment-of-the-soul decision for him. The Heights were one of the places that turned up consistently at the top of the “Worst Places to Live in Plenty.” It hit the trifecta of high crime rates, low property values, and poor infrastructure.

At the time Tag was skeptical. He’d been an ER doctor in New York, for fuck’s sake. There were shifts where all he did was dig out bullets and sew up knife wounds. The rough side of some hippy California town would hardly give him pause.

Apparently three years in Kieran’s hipster enclave had kind of blunted Tag’s edge. The boarded-up windows of abandoned houses, the scrawls of angry, overlapped graffiti, and the row of black primer bikes lined up under the half-lit neon light of the Sheep’s Shirt bar all made his stomach tighten with suburban anxiety.

That was the guy who got dumped, Tag thought dourly. He stiffened his spine and handed the hospital’s account slip through the seats to Susan.

“I know what I’m doing,” he said.

Susan pursed her lips in disapproval but took the slip.

“It’s your funeral,” she said portentously as Tag climbed out of the car. He slammed the door behind him and watched, already drenched again, as the car pulled away. Water dripped down the back of Tag’s neck, under his shirt, and he wondered if he should call Ned.

In case I turn up skinned, dismembered, and missing a cock, the guy who did it is called FightJunkie and has abs you could climb like a ladder.

Tag snorted and wiped his hand over his wet face to flick away the water. Under the circumstances, he thought he’d rather his last hours remain a mystery instead of a cautionary tale about internet safety.

The door to the bar slammed open, and two big men shoved out a heavyset man in stained denim and a ragged T-shirt.

“Sober up and fuck off, Boone,” one of them yelled before they slammed the door again. Boone staggered around, gave the bar a very dignified finger, and then headed around the side of the building. He paused on his way past Tag to give him a squinty look of suspicion.

“Fuck you,” he slurred, underlined with a jabbed finger, and then lurched away.

After a second Tag checked the directions in chat. They hadn’t changed, so he swore under his breath and headed around the side of the bar. A rusty set of stairs was stapled to the side of the building. It creaked under Tag’s weight as he headed to the second floor. Country music and the sounds of a rowdy good time pulsed through the cracked siding of the bar and vibrated under Tag’s feet.

Number 25A.

This was, it occurred to Tag as he knocked on the door, fucking ridiculous. What the hell was he about, soaked to the bone on a booty call in the Heights like some horny teenager? He’d had enough contempt for Kieran’s on-call fuck, but that was just careless. This verged on pathetic.

He took a step back and down when he misjudged the small landing as the door opened. The excuse he was about to make was lined up on the end of his tongue, the old doctor-on-call get-out-of-jail-free card. Then he saw the man who’d opened the door, and the words dried up on a wash of quick, uncomplicated lust. The thought of sex—after two months of angry, hopeful celibacy—had been a low-grade itch in his balls all the way over here. Now it flared to life, hot and eager, and scorched quickly through his hesitation.

“Sonofabitch,” the man drawled as he leaned against the doorframe, tattooed torso just as bare and ripped as in his photo. Light-brown hair stuck up in messy curls around a lean, sharply carved face that would have been handsome even without the ridiculously sensual full mouth framed by a scruff of day-old, gilt-pale stubble. The tilt of humor to that mouth carved a deep line in his cheek as its owner returned the favor and slowly looked Tag up and down. He raised his eyebrows. “You taking me to prom, Doc?”

Just because he was hot didn’t suddenly make this a good idea. Tag had seen enough good-looking bastards wheel their victims in and out of the ER. Psychosexual killers could have curls and skin the color of fresh honey.

He knew that. But standing on a narrow metal landing, soaked to the skin with Johnny Cash in the background, it seemed worth the risk.

“I had something else in mind,” Tag said thickly as he leaned in. He scruffed the back of the other man’s neck, the prickle of fresh-cut hair against his fingertips, and pulled him into a kiss. Heat crawled under his skin, an eager rush of lust that arrowed down to jostle his already hard cock. The lush mouth curled into a smirk under his.

“Good,” the blond muttered around Tag’s tongue. He hooked his fingers into the waistband of Tag’s trousers and tugged him through the door. “Cause I’ve got fuck all to wear.”