Chapter 1

I PARKED my car away from the house in order to give the other guests room to park. I popped the trunk, then lifted out my large cooler bag. The street was quiet—too quiet. I walked up to Ronnie’s place, past the garage doors, which were closed, and to the back door. I set down the cooler and pulled out my phone. Yeah, I had the right day, and the text to prove it:

Where are you, Buttmuncher? Don’t forget the party today.

That had been sent two hours ago, in typical Ronnie style. I had finished what I was doing and said I’d be there an hour before the party started. Of course I would be there early; the man had no sense of style at all. Every summer he had one of these parties. They started at four and ran until whenever. Actually, they usually ran until everyone came to the realization that they’d had way too much booze and that there wasn’t going to be any real food available. Then they’d start to leave in search of something to eat to keep from chewing their own arms off.

I looked through the windows beside the door and saw nothing. I knocked, then tried the door. It was open, so I went inside. “Ronnie,” I called. “I’m here.” I grabbed the cooler and hauled it inside, closing the door behind me. The house was quiet, eerily so, especially when there would be forty people there within an hour. “Wherever you are, I’m going to put the stuff I brought in the fridge.” I went into the spotless kitchen. Everything gleamed: the counters, the stove, the sink. Of course they did, because they were never used. Ronnie never cooked. I was surprised the stainless-steel cooktop didn’t still have the protective plastic covering. It was that clean.

“Jesus Christ,” I muttered to myself when I opened the refrigerator door. Protein drinks, Red Bull, two cans of Diet Coke from the last time I was here, an old banana, which I threw out, and a tray of Jell-O shots. That was all. The beer for the party sat on the counter, still warm. With a sigh, I put the contents of the cooler bag in the fridge. “Ronnie, where the hell are you?”

I noticed the master bedroom door was closed, and I walked over to it, wondering if he’d fallen asleep or something. I heard rhythmic thumping from behind the door, then Ronnie’s voice as he said, “Yeah, baby, that’s it! Right there. You got it.”

“Ronnie!” I called and banged sharply on the door. “Finish whatever you’re doing, for God’s sake. You asked me to get here early.” I rolled my eyes. “If the party is a flop, it’s your funeral.”

I heard a squeak and a thump. Two seconds later the door flew open and a very naked Ronnie stepped out of the room, flushed, cock slick and pointed at the sky. I swallowed and tried not to look. Well, what I tried to do was look like I wasn’t looking, but that was damn difficult. “I’m busy.”

“Half your clients will be here in forty-five minutes,” I warned, knowing it would not be good if his multimillion-dollar clients found their financial representative naked and still in bed with his girlfriend.

“Shit.” He turned, and I couldn’t resist a slap across his ass. Yeah, it was copping a feel, and I was ashamed the minute I did it, but fucking hell. The man had an ass to die for… and that went along with the rest of him: rich Mediterranean skin, a body that had been worked and toned for years at the gym, powerful legs, and wide shoulders.

“I’ll get things ready for you. Just finish up and get out here,” I told him. He waved and kicked the door closed, and I went back into the kitchen because the last thing I needed to hear was him having sex. I knew it was stupid, but I had a crush on the guy. First, he was straight. He was also my friend—my best friend—and I wasn’t about to put that in jeopardy.

I went into the dining room and found exactly what I expected to see: the table was covered with various packages of cookies, chocolate, pretzels, chips, and for dessert… gummy bears. My teeth ached almost instantly. “For God’s sake, Ronnie, you’re almost forty years old, and you aren’t living in a frat house any longer.” I rearranged the sugar buffet on the table along the side, then went into the kitchen and got bowls for the chips and pretzels. As I was looking, I found hot dog and hamburger buns in a cupboard. “Again, these are clients, not frat brothers.”

Ronnie came out of the bedroom, dressed this time.

“You have clients coming to the party, right?”

He nodded.

“Top clients who trust you with millions of dollars, right?”

“Your point?” Ronnie asked in a huff.

“Do you still want them as clients tomorrow?” I asked him seriously.

“Of course I do.” He put his hands on his hips in a typical Ronnie passive-aggressive move.

I shook my head and held out my hand.

“What’s that for?” he asked.

“Money. If you want me to save your ass and keep everyone from talking about your dud party, give me money now.” Ronnie snatched his wallet off the counter and handed me a couple of twenties. I snatched the wallet and grabbed all the cash. “Saving your ass. Not a frat party.” I stepped closer. “Remember when your assistant Joan told you how she had to talk a client out of pulling his money after last year’s party?”

He swallowed and nodded.

“I’m going to save you, but I need to go now.” I handed him back his wallet and hurried toward the door. “I have salads in the refrigerator. I’ll put everything out when I get back.” I raced out and down to my car.

Thank God the Wegmans on Carlisle Pike was only ten minutes away. I parked in the lot and ran full tilt across the parking area and into the store. I barely slowed down until I reached the meat counter. “I need two dozen of those New York strips right there, and two dozen chicken thighs.” With the hot dogs and hamburgers, that should be enough food. “I’ll be back in five minutes to get them.”

The butcher-counter man seemed as dazed as I felt. I hurried to the deli and got veggie and fruit trays, a shrimp tray, some coleslaw, potato salad, and pasta salad. Wishing I’d remembered a cart, I looked around in vain until one of the store associates took pity on me and brought one over. I thanked him and put everything into it, hurried back to the meat counter, where the butcher handed me the meat, and then raced through the checkout and out to the car. When I got back to Ronnie’s, I had twenty minutes until the party started.

Ronnie stood outside the front door talking with two of the guys from the gym.

“Jerry, Bobby, give me a hand,” I called and popped the trunk.

“What’s all this?” Jerry asked. His eyes widened when he saw the food. “Thank God,” he whispered. “No repeat of last year, I take it.”

“Put the meat in the refrigerator and then find a couple of bowls. We can put the salads in them. Then get spoons—the serving spoons if you can find them.”

“You got it,” Jerry said. He hefted the packages as though they were weights. Jerry was maybe five foot six but built like a mini Hercules. He carried in what he could, and I got the rest.

“Is there change?” Ronnie asked, and I handed him three ones and some coins. His eyes bugged for a brief second, and then his expression returned to normal. “Thanks.” Ronnie was like that.

“No problem,” I told him and hurried inside. The guys were doing as I asked and had started setting out the food I’d purchased on the table, along with what I’d brought. I made sure the meat was in the refrigerator. I found the hot dogs and hamburgers in the freezer, so I transferred them to the counter to thaw for a while, wishing like hell I’d looked more thoroughly earlier. But they would be fine by the time cooking started in a few hours.

“Damn,” Ronnie called.

I followed the sound of his voice outside. “What?”

“This is awesome, Clay,” Ronnie said, looking over his table. “I should hire you to handle all my parties.” I rolled my eyes and swallowed the quip that threatened as he threw an arm around my shoulder and yanked me into a hug. “I mean it. You really did save my ass.”

I closed my eyes and did everything I could not to think about his ass, or how his arm felt against mine, or about the fact that he smelled like mild cologne, maybe some soap, definitely a touch of sweat, and that deep, low, earthy, spicy musk that I knew was all him. I moved away because the last thing I wanted was for Ronnie to realize that I was on the verge of full-on excitement just from the hug. He was only being friendly and appreciative, and I did not need him to freak out as guests began to arrive. “I’m glad to help.”

“Ron-nie,” a tall, young blonde said in a singsong way as she came outside. Her navy skirt, what there was of it, barely covered the subject from any angle, and her considerable assets were on full display in a white top with obviously no bra underneath. Just Ronnie’s type. “Are you coming inside?”

“In a minute, Cherie,” Ronnie told her. He released me, stepping back. She picked her way over in high-rise heels and wrapped an arm around Ronnie’s waist, whispering in his ear. Ronnie made brief introductions, and I shook her limp-fish hand.

I shifted away from them. The perfume she’d bathed in had me on the verge of sneezing myself to death. Jerry and Bobby moved to either side of me. I glanced at them, stifling a smile. “Put your eyes and tongues back in your head.”

Jerry nudged my shoulder. “That’s easy for you to say.”

I nudged him back. “Go open the garage and get the grill out and set up.” I turned to Bobby. “You’re the grill master. I’m going to go in and prep the meat before everyone gets here.” The two of them hurried off, and I went inside, getting to work. I found spices and seasonings in the cupboard. Thank goodness one of Ronnie’s exes had liked to cook.

“You know this is a party,” Ronnie’s mother, Dolores, said about ten minutes later as she came up behind me.

I turned, holding my hands away, but still got a kiss on each cheek. “And you know if I didn’t help, everyone would go hungry or lapse into a sugar coma.”

“Tell me about it. I nearly didn’t come, because last year I almost starved to death.” Her eyes blazed for a second. “I see Ronnie learned his lesson this year.”

I stared at her for three seconds, tilting my head.

“You did it?” she asked.

“Yeah, I made him pay.”

Dolores patted my arm. “You’re a great friend. Ronnie is brilliant, but he has the common sense of a beetle, and let’s face it, he thinks with his dick more than his brain. The man can make money grow like weeds, God bless him, but the rest….” She shook her head slowly. “But he’s a good son.”

“Ronnie saved me,” I whispered and glanced over my shoulder. Her attention was elsewhere, and I didn’t repeat what I’d said. Ronnie was also a good friend. I said nothing more for the moment. Dolores seemed to want to talk, and I didn’t want to derail her train of thought. I returned to work as she leaned against the counter.

“I met someone,” she whispered. “He’s lived near me for some time, and he’s really nice.” She was clearly very nervous, and now I understood why. “I’m scared to tell Ronnie.”

“I can understand that. In the sauna at the gym the other day, he was still lamenting the loss of his dad.” Gary had died nearly two years earlier of cancer—from diagnosis to death was just six weeks.

“It’s the OCD.”

“I know. What others would process, deal with, and get over, gets stuck for him. But that obsessive-compulsive thing he does makes him a great investment manager and serves him and all his clients well. In many ways, he’s turned it to his advantage, but when it comes to losing his dad, he can’t seem to get past it. He knows he needs to, but he just can’t. Not yet.” I closed the first Ziploc bag with the steaks and seasoning and put the whole thing back in the refrigerator to marinate for a while, then began making up the next one.

“The thing is, I want to tell him about Eric, but….”

I thought about what to advise her while I finished seasoning the beef and put it away. More people were arriving, and the house was beginning to get loud. “If you want my opinion—and mind you, that’s all it is—I suggest you wait until you know it’s serious and a relationship that will last.” I peered around the corner. Ronnie stood with another gym friend, Mark, and his wife, a local doctor. I’d had dinner with them and Ronnie after the gym many times. Ronnie was occupied, so there was no chance of him overhearing. “You know he’s going to flip, so make sure it’s worth it.” I grinned. “And be sure to let me know when you’re going to do it, so I can watch.”

She threw her head back and howled. “I knew I liked you for a reason.” She leaned closer. “Do you think Ronnie’s serious about this girl? Or is it just a physical thing?” I had to give her credit—she had no illusions about her son. She had once told me about having the cabin next to him on a cruise ship and needing earplugs… for one night. After that she apparently laid down the law. Dolores was quite a woman. She had to be, with Ronnie as her son. He had no shame at all. “What are you going to do with the chicken thighs?”

“Just a little seasoning,” I said. I opened the cupboard again and got out what I needed. “And a dash of heat.” I smiled, knowing Ronnie loved spicy food. I added a little more Tabasco and worked the meat around until it was all covered. Then I sealed the bag.

“Mom, you old whore,” Ronnie said, striding into the room. “There are some people I’d like you to meet.” She shook her head and looked about ready to smack him. Ronnie was all about effect, and Dolores had heard Ronnie’s smack talk before.

“My son, the smart-mouthed hound dog.” She grabbed his ear for a second before letting him lead her out of the room.