“HEY, GINGER-BABY, I’ll give you twenty bucks to suck my dick.”

With a disdainful sneer, Tate Buchanan flipped his middle finger at the asshole in the car that had slowed down beside him.

“Going rate’s fifty.” Tate’s sneer turned into a grimace. That was the sort of thoughtless reply that was going to get him in trouble—again.

But seriously, twenty was just insulting. At least he thought it was. Money—or anything with numbers, really—confused the fuck out of him more often than not.

Still, he wasn’t a damned crack whore, and if he wanted to have sex with some perverted old goat, there were a number of his mother’s “boyfriends” who wouldn’t have objected to taking him for a spin. A shudder shook him. When he was younger, before he figured out how to use his fists, he’d had a few narrow escapes. But now that he was no longer a teenager, those dickless wonders his mother dated were a little more circumspect when they eyed him up. No one had tried to cop a feel since Tate had broken a few of the last guy’s fingers for his trouble.

“C’mon. You’re real pretty and I’ve only got a twenty.”

“Fuck off.” Tate kept walking, somehow managing to hold on to his temper and not lob a chunk of broken asphalt at the car. Did he fucking look like a charitable priest from the Church of Needs a Skanky Whore?

“Bitch.” The car squealed away.

Tate clenched his fists before continuing on, scuffing his shoes along the sidewalk. Even though it was well after sunset, humidity had thickened the air and katydids sang, audible even over the rush of traffic on the nearby highway. The night was aglow with neon signs and streetlights.

He didn’t know where to go. He’d gotten fired—again. Going home this early on a Friday night was a bad idea on so many levels, not the least of which was having to deal with his mom and her latest flavor of the month and their intoxicant of choice. In a few hours they’d have passed out and he could find his way to his room. Pathetic to still be living at home, but right now his options were his mom’s place or the street. Even if he was as stupid as everyone seemed to think, he was smart enough to know that even in Orlando, living homeless was no picnic.

He fingered the small amount of money in his pocket. He didn’t think he had enough to go to a bar, and there weren’t too many places around here to hang out cheaply. Not outside of library hours, at any rate. The whole area was designed to suck money out of unwary tourists. On the other hand, living so close to the tourist schlock meant a number of places he could try to get hired on, although at the rate he was going, the options were getting slimmer.

As he walked past the decaying, boarded-up motel that had found less success than other nearby motels, he realized there were two nearby options. This strip of motels and collection of stores offering tacky shell souvenirs fronted a small residential area and, more specifically, a playground. A little farther up, on the other side of Irlo Bronson Highway, was a classic sci-fi-styled minigolf course called Area 52, yet another touristy venue he’d been fired from. He hadn’t understood the meaning of the name before he started working there, but the manager, Mr. Singh, had explained it without acting like Tate was an idiot. He didn’t think it was nearly as clever as Mr. Singh did, but he would never tell him that.

More importantly, though, was the patch of dirt with some battered picnic tables the staff used for breaks during the day. Located behind the operations area and below the level of the greens, it wasn’t well lit enough for anyone to bother with at night, and he could easily get there without being seen.

He didn’t think any of the local dealers used either of those spots, at least not regularly, although he really only paid attention to the seedy underbelly of the tourist trade to make sure he avoided them. His life might be sort of shit, but following in his mother’s footsteps wouldn’t make anything easier. Getting hassled by them was no treat either, and he was already in a shitty mood. No telling what his temper would goad him into if he didn’t get some peace and quiet to wait out until well after midnight, when it would be safe to go home.

Spending a few hours in the dark didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, but it was better than the alternative. At least he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and his increasingly shabby work pants. Mosquitos loved him, and having his skin covered would help.

The last thing he wanted to do tomorrow was pound the pavement and look for yet another job. Most of the places he was qualified for didn’t bother putting ads online, so he didn’t even have the excuse of spending the day in the library, away from his mother’s recriminations.

Spring could be tricky. On one hand, there were a lot of tourists around for spring break, making all the fast-food joints and gift shops busy. On the other hand, most places had already hired on their extra staff. But if he could hang on to the next job for a couple of months, he’d be almost guaranteed a position throughout the summer. Maybe.

Tate sighed. Wishful thinking. The more time people spent with him, the less patience they had for him. No matter what job he got now, he’d likely be looking again in a couple of months, if not sooner.

Deep in thought, Tate rounded the wooden fence surrounding the outdoor trash bins and rocked to a stop. A flare of anger bloomed in his chest as he realized his anticipated haven was already occupied. Then his brain began to take in details. Three guys, two of whom were a little older than him, and a much younger third, who was bent face-first over one of the picnic tables, mostly naked. He had a spiky thatch of blond hair and blue eyes, wide and tear-filled, and more shockingly, a lurid “alien” green Area 52 tank top stuffed in his mouth, gagging him.

Fucking hell. Tate’s anger morphed and flared bright and hot. Even if he hadn’t recognized Kris from his short stint as a cashier at Area 52, it was obvious he wasn’t there by choice, and he didn’t have a chance of escaping his attackers. Tate didn’t have a phone, and even if Tate took off at a dead run, this kid would be violated and/or dead before he could get any help.

At that moment Kris’s gaze landed on Tate. On the off chance Tate was the sort to leave him to his fate, that pleading, terrified gaze would have changed his mind. A quick glance found him a broken piece of wood that would help, and he snatched it up and hurled himself into the clearing, yelling wildly.

He slammed the wood against the shoulder of the guy holding Kris down, knocking him off-balance. It was enough for Kris to wriggle away as Tate spun to face the other guy, who had already recovered from his surprise.

“Jealous? Don’t worry, we could have fun with both of you.”

Tate curled his lip, making sure he kept the two of them in his sight line. “Like I want any piece of your diseased worm.”

If there was anything Tate was good at, it was making people mad, and the burly one was no exception. He snarled and swiped but moved too slow, and Tate batted away the meaty paw with his board, causing a howl.

“Tate?” Kris asked behind him, voice shaky.

“For fuck’s sake, Kris, get out of here.” Tate didn’t have time to help Kris any more than he was, or he was going to get the beatdown of his life.

The scuff of dirt and gravel told him Kris had hightailed it away, and Tate grinned at the two men. “Think all us twinks are interchangeable?”

He hated guys who assumed one twink was the same as any other almost as much as he hated the guys who thought their cocks were made out of gold and therefore deserved to dip in whatever hole they fancied.

“Since you chased away our first choice, you’ll have to take his place.”

Like fucking hell. These assholes would soon learn the difference between an innocent kid earning money for college and a rat who’d been fighting for his virtue since puberty.

They flanked him but obviously hadn’t done this often, or they’d have moved simultaneously. Tate lashed out a foot, landing a vicious kick at the side of the taller one’s knee before swinging his makeshift bat at the burly one.

The taller one went down with a yelp, but the bigger guy kept coming, face red and scowling. Tate danced back, swinging again, hoping to catch him in the ribs. At this rate he was going to have to go for head shots, but he didn’t want to risk accidentally killing one of them. Jail wouldn’t work for him.

Suddenly someone grabbed his arms from behind. The burly one smiled, making fear bloom big enough to swamp Tate’s anger. He writhed and screamed obscenities at the top of his lungs, trying desperately to raise the board, but the taller guy was stronger than he looked. Instead, Tate kicked, but even the burly guy was bigger than he was and was able to avoid his legs.

“Let’s see how pretty you are with a fat lip. Or missing a few teeth.”

The burly one swung and landed a fist in his face. For a moment everything in Tate’s face went numb, but Tate knew better than to relax. The pain exploded, and Tate couldn’t hold back a shout.

“Fuck you! Motherfucking piece of shit!”

Each obscenity goaded the big guy into hitting him again, in the face and stomach, but Tate only stopped when one good blow knocked the breath out of him. He hung limply in the taller man’s grasp and desperately tried to suck air into his lungs.

The burly guy hooked his fingers in the neck of Tate’s shirt and pulled, ripping it into rags. Would have been a more impressive feat if the shirt wasn’t already threadbare and on the edge of disintegrating, but the loss of one of his few pieces of clothing—with no means to replace it—brought his anger roaring back. Instead of trying to kick the guy in front of him, he jammed his foot on the instep of the taller guy who’d imprisoned his arms, taking care to scrape along his shin on the way down.

The move was painful enough—the guy was wearing shorts—to free Tate’s arms, and he swung again, this time slamming the board against the side of the taller one’s face. He was too short to get a lot of leverage, but it still knocked the guy out, and Tate spun to face his remaining foe. His own vision swam and the sight in one eye wasn’t clear, but the scowl on the burly guy’s face was easy to distinguish.

“Goddamn tourists,” Tate snarled. These guys were maybe college guys, but they might be even older than that.

A familiar snick made sweat pop out all over Tate’s body, slicking his grip. He’d brought a piece of wood to a knife fight, and he was having difficulty seeing out of his left eye. If he lost his grip on the board now, he was a dead man.

He crouched, hoping he’d be able to block this guy long enough to get away while his companion was down for the count. He wasn’t stupid enough to stick around if running would save his life. Unfortunately, they’d turned, and the only easy way out—the way Tate had come in—was past the burly guy.

Then circles of light illuminated the area.

“Police! Drop your weapons!”

 

 

FUCKING HELL. So fucking close to getting out of here with his skin intact and without yet another run-in with the cops. Opening his fingers, he let his makeshift weapon slowly slip from his hand, gaze never leaving his opponent. If the dude opposite him was going to ignore the law’s directives, Tate wanted to be ready to drop to the ground when they opened fire.

Big and Burly wasn’t stupid, though, and he let his little switchblade fall, hands raised.

With some effort, Tate resisted the urge to turn tail and run. The last thing he needed was yet another arrest. He’d been lucky so far in that nothing had ever stuck, but he couldn’t rely on luck forever, and sooner or later his temper was going to land him in jail.

Yet another thing he was too stupid to do—control his temper like a sensible person.

He didn’t know if Kris had exaggerated the threat when he called in the cavalry or if the Kissimmee police were having a slow night, but there were way too many cops for him to risk doing a runner.

Leaning back against one of the picnic tables, he waited while officers dealt with the two other guys. A couple of EMTs hovered around the edges, moving closer as the two other men were zip-tied. If Tate had accidentally hit one of them too hard, he could be in real trouble. Funny how he’d wanted someplace to hang out until it was safe to go home. Jail was pretty much last on that list, well after just going home and dealing with his mom.

Despite the warm, humid evening, his fingers were freezing and wouldn’t stop shaking, so he folded his arms across his chest, tucking his fingers into his armpits.

One of the cops he’d run into a few times before, Officer Hernandez, glanced over as he finished with the big guy’s zip ties, and shook his head. Tate shrugged.

When he spoke, though, he directed his comments to Tate’s opponents. “Pretty stupid, guys, bringing a knife with you on vacation. Gonna make these charges a whole lot worse.”

The big guy gestured at Tate using his shoulder. “What about that guy? He had a weapon. He attacked us. We were just defending ourselves.”

Officer Hernandez glanced down at the ragged piece of wood lying at Tate’s feet. “The guy you tried to rape called 911. And I don’t see any other weapons besides the knife of yours we just confiscated.”

Tate relaxed just a bit. Over the years, he’d picked up all too much information about how the law worked, and weapons were a big no-no, especially one that actually made contact with someone. Tate never started the fights… well, he never started the physical fights, at least, but even still, he’d expected to get arrested just the same. Hernandez’s words gave him hope that if he stayed quiet and out of the way, this would all be over soon.

The big guy sputtered as Hernandez handed him off and waved in the EMTs.

“All clear.” Hernandez pointed at the skinnier guy. “That one’s still out cold, so take your pick.”

“Thanks, Diego,” the male EMT said. Diego. Interesting. Tate had never heard Hernandez’s first name before.

The EMTs, a man and a woman, conferred briefly, the man glancing quickly at Tate before saying something else to his partner. She nodded and unexpectedly crouched down beside the unconscious man, leaving the other guy to approach Tate.

Tate backed up as far as he could—which wasn’t very far. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Everyone was supposed to ignore him, although if it had been anyone other than Diego Hernandez, he stood a good chance of getting hauled in anyway. He tensed up, poised to run if it became necessary.

“Hey there. My name is Jaime. I’m just going to set my kit down here on the bench.”

Tate blinked, not entirely sure what to do with Jaime. Although his voice was soothing, he also approached like Tate was rabid or something.

Jaime set the large plastic case down, snapped on a pair of gloves, and pulled a few instruments out before slowly entering Tate’s personal space. “What’s your name?”

“Why do you need to know?” Tate couldn’t stop himself from sounding belligerent, but people knowing things about him never went well. They either thought they could get something from him or thought they could interfere in his life.

“Okay, okay, we can start with something else. I want to check your vitals, and then I want to take a look at that eye.”

Tate swung his head around—too fast—and winced. Between the shadows and his rapidly swelling eye, he couldn’t see clearly what Jaime looked like, and for some stupid reason, he wanted to.

“Are you dizzy? Feeling sick?” Jaime asked slowly while shining a light in his eyes, then doing various other medical-type things. Jaime was a good bit larger, both in height and bulk, than Tate, and Tate had learned all too well that the bigger his opponents were, the harder Tate fell. Yet Jaime’s simple clinical touches calmed him in a way he’d never experienced, although he could hardly call it soothing, because it wasn’t.

Tate contemplated not answering, but something told him it would take a lot more to keep Jaime from pressing. “No. I’m fine.”

Jaime snorted, the unexpected sound almost coaxing a laugh out of Tate. “Okay, well, I can see you’re not exactly fine, but probably not concussed.”

After a few more minutes of Jaime’s quizzing, poking, and prodding, Officer Hernandez walked over. “What’s the verdict, Jaime? Is Troublemaker Tate heading to the hospital? Angelica’s going to need some help getting that other guy on the stretcher.”

Tate grimaced. So much for not telling Jaime his name. Thanks ever so much, Diego.

A moment hung between them, a sense that Jaime had questions he wasn’t willing to voice, but Tate wasn’t interested in offering up any more answers, and he hoped Jaime would go where he was needed.

“Thanks, Diego.” Jaime’s attention prickled at his skin, but Tate refused to look at him again. Fucker probably thought he’d won. “So, Tate, most of your injuries appear superficial, but I’d like to take you to the hospital, get a doctor to take a closer look at that eye.”

Hell no. He wrapped his arms around his body again. The couple of times he’d ended up in the hospital were times he’d been too out of it to refuse, and even the good drugs they gave for the pain didn’t make the cost—a cost he could ill afford—worth it. If the pain became unbearable, he could swipe some of his mom’s weed. She rarely used it, as alcohol was usually her favored method of oblivion.

“No.”

“Tate.” The way Jaime said his name, without any smugness but with a trace of pleading, made him shiver. Then he curled his lip in irritation. Jaime was the last in a long line of officious uniformed jackasses who just wanted to tell him what to do.

Mutinously, he stared over Jaime’s ear while also avoiding Officer Hernandez’s gaze.

Jaime sighed and handed him an instant cold pack before he efficiently packed up his medical case. “Keep that over your eye for about twenty minutes. If you have problems with your vision once the swelling goes down, if the swelling doesn’t go down, or if you start getting dizzy, please promise me you’ll go to Emergency or Urgent Care.”

“Fine.”

That prompted another sigh from Jaime. “A man of few words, you are, Tate.”

Hernandez laughed. “You’re just lucky all the ones you’re hearing are clean.”

Which made Tate want to scream a few obscenities, but he bit his lip to keep them contained. He was already squeaking by without an insufferable ride in a squad car, and he didn’t want to mess that up.

“Can I go?”

Jaime grabbed his case and stood up straight just as Tate swung his gaze to Hernandez. The portable lights the police had set up to illuminate Area 52’s almost-sort-of outdoor break room hit Jaime full-on, and Tate sucked in a breath. Jaime was beautiful, and would probably be even more so in the daytime, which, given the tiny crinkles at the corner of his eyes and a mouth that looked ready to grin at a moment’s notice, had to be his natural element. The harsh spotlights leeched any hint of warmth from his coloring, but Tate was certain that in the proper light, Jaime was made of lush browns and rich golds. Jaime was made of everything Tate found attractive—and was also exactly the type of man who’d never be caught dead hanging with trash like him.

“Yeah, go on, Tate.” Hernandez waved dismissively before turning back to the other cops.

Tate forced himself not to run—with his eye fucked, so was his depth perception. If he’d gone his whole life without knowing what Jaime looked like, without knowing the gentleness of Jaime’s touch, he would have been better off.