Chapter 1


IT ALWAYS amazed Wren that Tricks could be so busy, no matter what time of day he stopped in. Today, for example, it was three in the afternoon—a Friday yes, but still, three in the afternoon. And yet the stripper bar was crowded, mostly with older guys but some like Wren too. Younger, wearing snarky “What am I doing here?” expressions on their faces even as they cast furtive glances up at the two buff guys dancing in G-strings to the latest Lady Gaga anthem.

Outside, Chicago in summer was in full swing, but once you entered Tricks, you forgot all about the city and the season. The traffic sounds at the intersection of Belmont and Broadway, the rumble of the “L” a few blocks west, and the voices of many pedestrians mingling on the street disappeared. Tricks was a world unto itself, a universe where nearly naked men, alcohol fumes, colored lights, dirty floors, the clinking of ice in glasses, the husky music of men propositioning men, and mirrored walls all conspired together, creating something that was one part sleaze, one part gay, and one part home—at least for many of the men who frequented Tricks.

Tricks was all about escapism. Its dancers allowed you to free yourself from the shackles of your own body issues. Too skinny? Too fat? In between but nowhere near remarkably ripped? It was okay at Tricks, because the dancers were beautiful, and one could imagine they got their ripped and muscular physiques effortlessly from hanging out in bars, consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and tricking athletically with a parade of handsome strangers. The magic might work for you one day too.

Or at least that was the fantasy they were selling at Tricks.

And… if your self-esteem tank was running a little low, a wink or a smile from one of the dancers was enough to kick it up a notch. The hunky bartender calling you “Gorgeous” or “Stud” didn’t hurt either when he asked what he could get you. This kind of behavior from those who worked at Tricks was hard to swallow yet easy to cling to, making you believe, if only for a second, you were hot. You were wanted.

It was all part of the make-believe. And sometimes it was enough.

Wren Gallagher, all of twenty-three years old, today needed some of the escapism Tricks offered. Yes, he required it even at three in the afternoon. As the crowd jostled him, Wren kept his eye on the one open stool at the bar in front of him. It was like some sort of prize, an alcoholic holy grail, a place where he could park his skinny ass and maybe, just maybe, forget for a few hours what a crappy day he’d had.

Just as he elbowed his way through the laughing and chattering crowd of mostly middle-aged men and managed to get within inches of the vacant stool, a heavyset guy with a bottle of beer in one thick paw materialized out of nowhere to claim it. He was focused intently on the blond Adonis gyrating on the bar, so he didn’t see that there was competition for the stool.

Wren stopped and regarded the man, hoping his telepathy was in good enough working order that the man would feel the force of his gaze. At least one thing will go right on this shitty day, Wren thought, and that one thing—all I ask—is that this character makes eye contact with me.

Lo and behold, he did. Wren smiled prettily, trying to buoy up the older, balding man’s ego with the combined force of his slightly gap-toothed, turned-up-at-one-corner grin and his shock of red hair, his slender hips encased in denim, and the geek-allure vibe he knew he gave off. He knew because he had been told he was a sexy nerd on more than one occasion.

The guy did a bit of a double take when he saw Wren trying to make eye contact, smiling. He looked up at the dancer and back at Wren, as if he had to decide between one or the other. As if he had a choice….

Wren winked.

That was all it took. The older man stepped back, away from the stool, and gestured with his hands, the perfect gentleman, that Wren should take it.

Score one for Wren. He hopped up on the stool, smiling at this generous daddy who should have, by all rights, been sitting down right about now, and turned to try to catch the eye of the bartender.

“What do you want, handsome?”

The balding man pressed in close, thinking, Wren supposed, he now had some sort of advantage. The man placed a hand on the small of Wren’s back. Wren leaned forward and away from the guy, assailed by the potent aromas of alcohol and tobacco that emanated from the man’s very pores.

The man repeated, “What do you want, kid? I’m buying.”

And now Wren found himself perched precariously upon the horns of a dilemma. Should he let the man buy him a drink and further encourage him, knowing fully that all he wanted, in spite of being placed squarely within arm’s reach of one hundred or more gay men, was simply to be left alone? Or should he gently but politely decline the man’s offer and make it clear he wasn’t interested?

His wink had led the man to believe otherwise. The simple yet eloquent signal had been used as a flirtatious device by gay and straight men alike for centuries. And it wouldn’t do to inform him that the wink had not been for purposes of sexual solicitation but to procure a measly stool. How craven was that? Wren now regretted taking the stool, wishing he had just let the man have it. The cost was too high. He contemplated getting down from it and walking right through the exit, heading toward the Lake Michigan waterfront, and licking his wounds there.

But Lake Michigan did not have Absolut vodka, nor did it have the seeming bliss of these dancers before him.

And he would be too alone at Lake Michigan. The old saw was true—one was never more alone than when in a crowd. He liked how alone being around all these other seemingly happy human beings made him feel.

“Kid? I’m talking to you.”

The guy was getting insistent and, Wren presumed, tired of being ignored. Wren could almost hear the older guy’s hopes being dashed. The hopes hitting the floor sounded like glass breaking.

“Sorry,” Wren said, looking up at the man. “I’m waiting for someone.” He turned away so the man couldn’t see the heat rising to his face, red as his hair, or the shame he knew must somehow be displayed in his eyes.

“Well, what the fuck were you winking at me for, then?”

Thankfully, the guy didn’t wait for Wren to answer. Wren wasn’t the kind of person who could be so cruel as to inform the guy he winked at him for a selfish reason—so he could sit down. And he was also not the kind of person who thought he deserved the stool because he was younger and prettier—even though he was. If pressed, Wren decided he would have smiled at the man, told him he found him irresistible, and that the wink was just an uncontrolled, unbidden response to his desire, even though he knew his boyfriend was on his way. He thought it might at least make the guy smile, and in that Wren could find a measure of forgiveness for his behavior.

But the man had wandered off into the crowd. Wren hoped he wasn’t hurt by Wren’s unwitting tease of a wink.

The bartender, a pale, skinny guy who had never learned the phrase “enough is enough” when it came to tattoos, sauntered up to him, dressed in a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off and jeans that hung too loosely on his way-too-slender hips. He smiled and revealed a mouthful of brown and decaying teeth. Wren wondered if he was a tweaker.

“What are you having?” he asked, fatigue apparent in voice, expression, and demeanor.

He barely met Wren’s eyes, and when he did, for only a moment, Wren noticed the bartender’s pupils nearly ate up his irises. Wren frowned, shaken.

“Uh, how about a vodka and tonic?”

The bartender, tweaker or no, squinted at him, cocking his head. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-three.” Wren rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the first time he’d been asked this question—nor did he think it would be the last. With his boyish face and slight frame, he had the appearance of a high school student. He wondered if he should grow a beard.

He was already reaching for his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans when the bartender asked him to prove it.

But his wallet wasn’t there. He tried the left pocket, just in case, then both front pockets, but all he came up with were his house keys, lint, and a few pieces of spare change. He leaned over to peer down at the floor, thinking maybe the wallet had inched its way out when he climbed aboard the stool he had waylaid.

The floor was empty—far from clean, but empty.

Wren felt heat rise to his face and his heart going rat-tat-tat in his chest, machine-gun style. Bad enough to be caught without ID in a bar, especially when he appeared all of sweet sixteen, but much worse to think of losing not only all his money, but also credit cards and forms of identification.

He threw the bartender what he knew had to be a sheepish grin. “I’m sorry, I seem to have lost my wallet.” Wren swiveled the stool to examine the floor once more.

“And your credibility.” The bartender scowled.

Wren shrugged. “I guess I need to leave, then.” Maybe if he retraced his steps from the “L” stop to the bar he’d find the wallet. Right. And maybe Rick Santorum will come out in favor of gay marriage, or no, maybe simply come out. You really think a wallet on the sidewalk is going to stay there, especially on a busy street like Belmont? Fat chance! And that’s only if you really did lose it or drop it on your way here. More likely is that someone on the crowded “L” train picked your pocket. Or maybe even someone here at Tricks. It’s crowded enough. Wren remembered suddenly the guy from whom he had stolen the stool, how he had leaned in close, trying, Wren thought, to interest him in a drink. Maybe he was actually getting close to grab Wren’s wallet. He looked around for the guy, but he was nowhere in sight. He’s probably out at Best Buy already, ringing up big screen TVs and computers on my only credit card.

The bartender said, “I guess you do, unless you want to cost us our license, kid.” He put a little emphasis on the “kid” part of the sentence.

Wren swiveled around to hop off his hard-won stool. He knew there was no point in arguing or pleading his case further. It had been one hell of a day so far, and it seemed only to be getting worse. No matter what he did, Wren was unable to cut himself a break. With what had driven him to the bar in the first place and now this, Wren figured he should just find a hole to crawl into somewhere.

Before he could get off the stool, though, Wren felt a strong hand grip his shoulder. A deep voice spoke over his head, stopping the bartender in his retreat from Wren.

“Hold on a gosh-darned second there, Chip. What seems to be the trouble here?”

“Kid doesn’t have any ID. Says he ‘lost his wallet.’” Chip made air quotes with his fingers, scowling.

Chip? Really? Wren couldn’t have dreamed up a person who looked less like a Chip than the bartender standing before him.

“Well, maybe he did. I think we should give our friend here the benefit of the doubt.”

Finally Wren allowed his gaze to light upon the man who was apparently coming to his rescue. And immediately Wren wondered how he hadn’t spotted this character before. Imagine, if you will, Ted Haggard and Pat Boone rolled into one wholesome package. The man standing behind Wren had that same “family-friendly” air, the same bright eyes, perfectly coiffed hair, and glowing skin that could only appear on the God-fearing.

His clothes bore out his physical attributes. The man wore a pair of pressed khakis with a crease so sharp you could cut your finger on it. An iron and plenty of starch had also been used to tame his blue-and-white-pinstriped dress shirt. His wine-colored belt and matching tassel loafers were both buffed to an almost mirrorlike sheen. The perfect capper to all this was that the guy also had a sweater knotted around his neck, even though it was probably in the high eighties outside.

He looked as though he had just stepped away from a convention of the National Organization for Marriage or the American Family Association.

So what the hell was he doing in a bar like Tricks? And talking to a tweaked-out bartender as though he knew him? Wren simply gazed at the man with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as though he had run across a honey badger scurrying along the floor of the bar. He was that out of place.

The bartender, Chip, seemed frozen in his tracks. He gave a wary grin to Wren’s savior, and Wren could tell he was trying to conceal the browning stumps of his teeth. He looked from Wren to the right-winger, then back again. Finally he addressed Wren.

“You said a gin and tonic, right?”

Wren swallowed, feeling as though he had just passed through the looking glass into some sort of alternate universe. “Actually, I asked for a vodka and tonic.”

Chip nodded but stood frozen in his spot until the man standing behind Wren said, “Well, hadn’t you better get this young man his libation? I’m sure he’s not your only thirsty customer this afternoon.”

“Sure, sure,” Chip said, turning to the bottles and spigots behind him. He called over his shoulder, “And can I get you anything?”

“The usual.” The man’s voice was honeyed, deep, the tones of a preacher or someone who spoke professionally. His diction was as crisp and precise as his clothing.

Chip grinned, and Wren could tell he was flustered.

The man behind him let out a sigh, a sibilant hiss that conveyed disgust better than if he had cursed. “A club soda, easy ice, with a twist of lemon. Tall.”

Chip smiled, heedless of the condition of his teeth. “Right. Coming right up.”

Chip turned to busy himself getting their drinks. The man behind Wren moved next to him and spoke in soft, polite tones to the young Latino occupying the stool adjacent to Wren’s.

“Would you mind if I sat here? I haven’t seen my friend in ages, and we’d really like to catch up. Would it be too much trouble?”

The Latino, Wren could see, was beginning to form some sort of protest, but when he met the older man’s eyes, the fight went out of him like air out of a balloon.

“Sure thing, man. It’s all yours.”

He hopped from the stool, and Wren watched as he hurried away.

“My name is Davidson Chillingsworth, but you can call me Dave. Everybody does.”

He extended a perfectly manicured hand to Wren. Wren felt he had no choice but to take the hand and shake it. Chillingsworth’s grasp was firm and warm, his touch almost electric.

“I’m Wren. Wren Gallagher.” Suddenly the worries of the day dissipated in the sheer force that seemed to emanate from this man in waves. There was something commanding about his presence, something charismatic that made the concerns of one’s ordinary life seem trivial, no matter what they were. Wren felt almost as if he had been sucked into a spell.

“Wren? Now there’s a name one doesn’t hear every day. If I were a betting man—and I most decidedly am not—I would be willing to wager there’s a story behind that name.”

Wren shrugged. Chip set their drinks down before them, placing them each on a paper napkin and whispering “On the house” before hurrying away.

“My mom was something of a hippie, even though hippie days were way past her time, you know? When I was born, I was a month early and weighed barely four pounds. I was so small my mom said I put her in mind of a little bird. So, Wren.”

Dave looked him up and down and laughed. “You’re still on the small side, but you certainly seem to have filled out nicely.”

Dave’s gaze made Wren feel like he was on display, as though he were something getting prepared for weighing and measuring.

It’s like the guy’s evaluating me.

Wren didn’t know where the thought had come from.

“Well, yeah. I work out.” Wren grinned, immediately feeling foolish, and lifted the vodka and tonic to his lips with a trembling hand. Dave was making him nervous, he realized, and he didn’t quite understand why. It wasn’t the first time he had been hit on by an older man in Tricks, and he was pretty sure, all vanity aside, that it wouldn’t be the last. Tricks was that kind of place. It had a reputation for younger/older men pairings and an even seedier profile as a place where hustlers met up with clients.

“That much is obvious. You have excellent muscle tone and definition.”

Wren took another swallow of his drink and smiled, feeling like he was on a little firmer footing now. He expected Dave, at any moment, to follow up his comment with a squeeze of Wren’s bicep. This was a pickup, right? This guy knows the owner or has some other kind of pull in the bar and thinks he can get away with murder. Well, if he wants to ply me with a free drink or two, maybe I should just play along. He thought of the guy he had winked at earlier, and a small voice inside him admonished him not to play games. That everyone, no matter how old or decidedly unsexy, was worthy of respect.

Still, Wren didn’t know if he was smart enough to play games with this guy. There was something about him that caught him off guard, that paradoxically made him uneasy yet kept him rooted in place. “Thank you. I have to admit, though, most of the ripped stuff is just genetics. Lucky. I don’t work out that hard.”

Dave looked off, winsome. “Ah, to be young. To not have to work at it.”

Dave’s eyes, which Wren noticed for the first time were the palest shade of gray he had ever seen on a human being, focused on him.

“Enjoy it while it lasts, young man. Gravity and our metabolism catch up with us all too soon.”

They drank in silence for the next several minutes, and Wren watched as one of his favorite dancers, a blond named Arliss, mounted the stage to begin his set. Arliss was different from the other dancers. Sure, he had the lean, ripped bod and a memorable face, full lips and a mane of untamed pale blond hair, but the sleaze factor evident in most of the other dancers was absent when it came to Arliss. There was a sweetness about him, almost an innocence, despite the stories—stories that he had appeared in porn, that he narrowly escaped being the gangbang bottom in not only a bareback flick but a snuff film as well.

The story went that his boyfriend, Sean, had donned a leather mask and rescued him from the scene.

Who knew what was true and what was false at Tricks? Most of the dancers had tales to tell, and it was hard to separate the fabrications for the sake of color from the plain old unvarnished truth.

But Arliss definitely set himself apart from his fellow dancers. Even now, as he moved sensuously to an old Madonna tune, “Ray of Light,” there was something faraway in his eyes. For a moment Wren forgot himself and simply watched Arliss dance in his black thong, admiring how the muscles rippled up from his legs, through his torso, and on, rising to a magnificent chest and broad shoulders. Most of the guys drooled, Wren knew, over that body, but Wren allowed himself to see where Arliss’s gaze focused. It lit across the bar on a fairly nondescript but cute man in glasses who wore a small smile that conveyed he was somewhere else as he met Arliss’s eyes.

For the two men, Wren thought, no one else existed. He knew the guy Arliss was looking at was his boyfriend, Sean. If you spent any time in Tricks at all, you knew Sean belonged to Arliss and vice versa. Sean practically never missed a night of Arliss dancing, and the two always went home together after Arliss finished working. They were the proof that, even in an environment like this one, where youth was fleeting, lust dominated, and relationships lasted as long as an orgasm, true love could still be found. Arliss and Sean proved that “the one” still existed out there for everyone.

Wren grinned and wondered what it would be like to have such love and devotion in one’s life. Wren had certainly never been fortunate enough to have it happen to him. He had had a series of boyfriends, more like hookups really, but no one ever stuck. He had never felt that magic the books, movies, and songs liked to play up as Love with a capital L.

Wren didn’t really know what romantic love was, and he wasn’t sure he’d recognize it if it came up and kissed him on the cheek and pinched his butt. He hoped one day he would find out. He was still very young, after all.

“You like him, the dancer?”

Dave’s voice yanked Wren out of his reverie, returning him with a jolt to the tacky confines of Tricks and an older, clean-cut man staring down his nose at him.

“Oh yeah,” Wren said, wistful. “Arliss. He’s gorgeous.” He met Dave’s stare. “And taken.” He nodded across the bar. “That’s his boyfriend, Sean, over there.” Wren shook his head. “True love. You know?”

“I do indeed know. True love is a rare and wondrous thing. For most of us, it comes along but once in a lifetime, and then only if we are very, very lucky.”

“Yeah.” Wren took a sip of his drink and wondered how he had ended up here talking love philosophy with a guy who looked like a televangelist. It just went to show, you never knew how your day would wind up. Like he didn’t expect to lose his shitty customer service job today when he woke up this morning, but he had.

“A good-looking young man like you must have to fend off the offers from knights in shining armor.”

Wren resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. “Not so much.” He shrugged. “I haven’t met Mr. Right yet. Lots of Mr. Right Nows, if you know what I’m sayin’, but no Mr. Right.” He looked pointedly at Dave. “And certainly no knight in shining armor.”

Dave laughed. “Well, perhaps I exaggerate.” He leaned in close and spoke softly to Wren, almost paternally. “But what if I told you, dear Wren, that I could help you meet your Mr. Right? What if I told you I could help open the door to that wondrous and rare opportunity?”

“I’d say you were full of shit.”

Dave made a tsk sound. “Cursing does not become you, dear boy. Nor does skepticism. Haven’t I at least piqued your curiosity?”

Not really, Wren wanted to say, but he reminded himself that the guy had bought him a drink and rescued him from being tossed out of the bar. Shouldn’t he at least be polite? “Well, yeah. But I don’t see how. I mean, no offense, you seem like a really nice guy and all, but I don’t know if we’re a match.”

Dave chuckled. “I didn’t mean me, dear fellow. Heavens! I daresay that biting off a love match with me would be a bit more than you could chew.”

Dave’s pale eyes went dark for just a moment—it was the most amazing thing.

“But I own a business which—how shall I put it?—facilitates young men meeting other men who may or may not possess the requisites for a match made in heaven. Those choices are ultimately up to the individuals involved.”

Okay, so Wren had no idea what this dude was talking about—and it was starting to creep him out. “I don’t get you.”

Before Dave could answer, Chip reapproached them. “Are you boys doing okay? Need anything?”

Dave considered Wren’s half-empty—or was that half-full?—glass and said hurriedly, “Two more of the same.”

Chip hurried away. Quick sticks. Wren doubted the guy moved as fast for anyone else in the bar.

While Chip got their drinks, Dave pulled a black leather wallet from his pants pocket. The leather was rich, finely grained, and bore the discreet Prada logo in pewter. From it he extracted a business card and handed it to Wren.

Wren glanced down at the ivory card with its raised, shiny black lettering. The card bore only the words “À Louer” and a phone number with a North Side city prefix: 773.

“What does it mean?” Wren fingered the lettering on the card.

“It’s the name of my business. It’s French. It means ‘to connect, to find love.’”

Wren nodded, getting it. “So, what? You run some kind of escort service?”

Dave shook his head. “‘Escort service’ sounds so tawdry. I prefer to think of myself as a facilitator whereby men can meet other men. I like to think I help open a door to happiness. Yes.” Dave smiled, revealing rows of teeth that were so perfect and white Wren wondered if they were veneers or even dentures.

“Happiness. I see. Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.”

“Are you perhaps in the market for some happiness, Wren? And for making some money while you’re in the pursuit of it?”

Was this for real? Was this guy asking him to join his escort service?

Wren reminded himself that he had nowhere to go, no pressing engagements, nothing more to do this evening, really, than lick his wounds and contemplate his future as one of the multitudinous ranks of the unemployed in the good old US of A. So he bit. “Sure. I’m in the market for, as you put it, happiness. And my creditors would say I’m also in the market for some money.” Wren felt a sad grin slide across his face as he remembered that his wallet was stolen. The little money he had in his checking account, which amounted to approximately three hundred dollars last time he checked, could have already been depleted if someone had indeed picked his pocket.

Wren frowned as he remembered writing his ATM PIN number on a Post-it and tucking it into his now gone-missing wallet. Would the bank cover it if he reported a theft? Or would he just lose his money? And what was he doing sitting here anyway, when he should be at home, calling his bank and getting replacements for the contents of his wallet lined up?

But Dave obviously couldn’t hear the turmoil going on in Wren’s head. He simply smiled at Wren, giving him a foot in the door. Why he was giving him a foot in the door, Wren had no idea. There was no way he was going to be an escort, for fuck’s sake! He was better than that!

Yet Wren was too polite to just get up and walk away, especially now, when he could tell by the look on Dave’s face he was winding up to give his pitch. But he couldn’t resist applying a pin to the older man’s bubble. “But I don’t think I’d ever consider being an escort.” Wren looked around himself, at Arliss and the new dancer who had joined him on the stage, plus the other Tricks “entertainers,” who now mingled through the crowd, scantily clad in things like G-strings, jockstraps, and combat boots. “Besides, what would you need me for when you have all these lovelies who would jump at your opportunity?”

Dave rubbed his chin, seemingly pondering what Wren said. “My young man, first of all, I really prefer not to think of the fellows I employ as ‘escorts.’ They are not rent boys either. They are companions, handsome young men who trade their time in exchange for money. Time. It’s an important consideration. How they use that time—whether it’s to see a play, take a moonlight stroll on the beach, or do something more risqué—that’s up to them and their client. I do not engage in the commerce of sex for money. That’s much too indiscreet for me. I, as I said, facilitate time and companionship for people who might otherwise be too busy to arrange it for themselves. And really isn’t that what any working person does? Sells his time in exchange for money?”

“I suppose.” Wren took a long swallow of his V&T, which was getting weak as the ice melted. He wanted to advise Dave to “Tell it to the judge” but thought now was not the time to be a wiseass. Truthfully, he just wanted Dave to finish up so he could make a polite exit. Suddenly all this talk of money reminded him, imperatively, that he had more pressing concerns that overrode being a barfly, no matter how much he wanted to escape the reality of his world.

Dave took a sip of his club soda and went on. “Wren, I could set you up so you could meet lots of desirable men. Our clients are not what you’d imagine when you think of the term ‘escort service.’ The men who patronize À Louer are executives or professionals, most of them young and attractive. What they don’t have is time. They have very busy professional lives, working sixty- to eighty-hour weeks. If I had a nickel for every time one of them told me how they simply cannot spare the time to hunt for a potential suitor online or in the bars or even in some other form of social engagement—well—let’s just say I wouldn’t need to run this business.

“The men you will be meeting will be good-looking. Young. Intelligent. They will be catches. I promise. We screen our clientele very carefully. Not only do we interview every applicant, we do background checks. I have a private detective on retainer.”

Dave boldly invaded Wren’s personal space, putting his face so close to Wren’s that, for a moment, Wren feared the guy was moving in for a kiss. “That’s how much I care about my boys. They are like sons to me, and I want to be sure they go with only gentlemen, the kind any of them would be proud to bring home to Mother.” Dave licked his lips.

“So you’re safe, you’d meet lots of handsome, eligible men, and you’d make lots of money. How can you resist that? And, might I add, many of my boys have found ‘the one’ as they worked.”

Dave bowed his head, but Wren could see the proud grin playing about his lips. “I hate losing them, but it does my heart good when I see one of the boys and a client find love.” He sighed. “It’s magic.”

Wren thought Oh brother. “Why me?”

“Because you’re a beautiful boy. You don’t look, as so many here in Tricks do, like someone who’s been around the proverbial block. You look fresh. Unspoiled. You are the kind of young man my clients prize. And I can tell, just from our brief exchange here tonight, that you have a good head on your shoulders. But mainly I like the innocent aura you have about you, something you’re probably not even aware of, which only serves to make you more charming.” Dave smiled and laid a paternal hand on Wren’s knee.

Wren didn’t know how unsullied he was. Looks, he thought, can be deceiving. He hadn’t been a virgin since he was fifteen, when he gave up his ass to an older classmate on a camping trip to Wisconsin. The young Wren discovered he had an untapped capacity and taste for bottoming and had had no compunction about indulging that taste going forward. He knew he wasn’t a whore, but he was a bit of a slut—and felt no guilt about it.

Still. Let Dave see what he sees. It was nice to be perceived as fresh and unspoiled. And these days, appearances were everything, right?

Dave tried another tack. “Young man, if you don’t mind my asking, how much do you make?”

Wren laughed. “That’s pretty personal, dude.”

“I know, but I just want a basis for comparison. Humor me.”

Wren debated. How much should he tell this man? Was it really any of his business? Yet there burned within him a curiosity. Having never been in such an odd situation, Wren was forced to admit to himself he was intrigued, even if he still wasn’t willing to entertain the idea of “selling it.” He preferred to give it away for free. Somehow that just seemed more civilized and less sleazy. It was what most of the world did, right?

But what would be the harm in talking a bit more to Dave? See if he would perhaps dangle some figures in front of him? “Actually, Dave, I just lost my job. I was working in customer service for an online retailer, one you’ve heard of.” Wren rolled his eyes. “They said I wasn’t meeting some insane quota for number of calls per hour.” Wren shrugged. “I like to help people, which is why I took the job in the first place. And helping takes time… more than they were willing to give. So I got called into my boss’s office this afternoon.” Wren grinned, but the smile didn’t extend to his eyes. “I knew it was over when he said to close the door and take a seat. So cliché.”

“See? I knew you were a person who cared,” Dave said. “Your obvious talent was going to waste at this enterprise.”

“Yeah, well…”

Wren rattled the ice in his empty glass. Dave called Chip over to order him another drink.

“So, to answer your question, I make zilch, zero, nada.” Once the new drink was set down before him, Wren took it up and gulped half of it down in one go. “I’ll get unemployment, I’m sure, and something else will come along eventually. It always does.”

“Don’t you see?” Dave wondered. “It already has. Opportunity has come knocking, my friend. Aren’t you going to answer the door?”

Wren took another swallow. “So how much we talkin’ here?” The alcohol emboldened him. Let’s cut to the chase.

“I wish I had one of my boys here with me so I could give you a concrete example. But you’ll just have to use your imagination. The last boy I hired, who, of course, is still with me, came to me nine months ago. At that time he was a mess. Drinking too much, promiscuous, and riddled with unsavory diseases. He was all of twenty-one years old and on the fast track to an early death. I found him outside Ann Sather’s restaurant, just a few blocks from here. He was panhandling.” Dave engaged and held Wren’s gaze. “And do you know that boy offered to perform oral congress on me for ten bucks?” Dave shook his head.

“Hey. That’s a bargain you won’t find at T.J.Maxx,” Wren quipped.

Dave let the remark pass. “Long story short, I took him in. I got him sorted out. Got him going to AA, where he admitted, finally, to himself that he had a problem that was ruining his life and controlling him. I got him eating right. I had him start a running regimen, and today he runs five or six miles along the lakefront with ease, thanks to no more hangovers and no more cancer sticks.”

Wren fingered the pack of Marlboros in his pocket, feeling heat rise to his face. What would Dave think if he knew?

Dave groped in his rear pocket and pulled out his wallet once more. From it he extracted a photograph showing a gorgeous young man with thick black hair, glowing olive skin, and the bright eyes of an abstainer. “This is Evan. If you could see him when I met him, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Wren stared down at the photo. “Woof,” he whispered. The guy was smokin’ hot. Hell, Wren thought, even I’d consider paying him.

“Evan lives on his own now. Over on Roscoe, just off the Inner Drive, in a nice one-bedroom in a vintage building. Small, tasteful, and elegant. A place that would have been far out of his reach a year ago at this time, but now it’s his. He’s looking for a condo to buy and easily affords the $2,000 a month rent he’s paying. He has beautiful clothes and drives a late-model Lexus.” Dave shrugged. “He’s no billionaire, but he’s comfortable and far better off than most of his peers.”

Wren’s mother had a saying: “Honeybunch, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Wren had heard her use the expression a hundred times at least, usually when she was watching yet another infomercial late at night on HGTV or the Food Network.

She was usually right.

So, if I just peddle my ass, I could drive a Lexus and live in a fancy neighborhood? Why not? I mean, I’m giving it away anyway, and if this guy thinks he can get me set up, where’s the harm?

Where indeed? What about your self-respect? And who knows what strings this Dave would attach to such an enterprise? Wren was sure Dave took his cut, in cash and perhaps even in trade. The thought of being forced to be sexual with Dave made Wren’s stomach churn. Clean and wholesome-looking as he was, there was something off about the man, something creepy Wren had yet to put his finger on.

“I don’t know,” Wren said. Suddenly the dancers seemed sleazy, and the drinks sat uncomfortably within him, igniting a headache behind his right eye. All at once he’d had enough of Dave and his pipe dreams, for he was certain that’s what they were.

Dave probably didn’t even know the young man in the picture he showed him. His Prada wallet was most likely a fake. And all this here tonight was just a line of carefully crafted bullshit to get Wren into bed.

Well, he wasn’t that naïve.

And even if this character did run some sort of escort business, he doubted very much it delivered the kind of champagne lifestyle Dave wanted him to believe it did.

“I can see you doubt me,” Dave said, somber for once. “It’s written all over that stunning face.”

Wren shifted uncomfortably on his stool. “It’s not that,” he lied. “I’m just so, so tired. And it’s been a rotten day. It’s all catchin’ up with me, you know?”

Dave nodded, picking his card up from the bar, and pressed it into Wren’s hand. “Well, you think about what we’ve talked about. And please, hang on to the card for a while. You may find that you want to give me a call after all.” He leaned closer. “There’s no obligation to talk further, Wren, or I can more fully outline your options. Will you do me the favor of at least thinking things over?”

“Sure.” Wren nodded, getting down unsteadily from the stool. “I’ll give you a call if I’m interested.”

“You do that.”

Wren started to walk away, but Dave grabbed him by the wrist. Their eyes met.

Dave said, “You won’t be sorry.”

Wren smiled and walked out of Tricks.