“HEY, RED, you alone again? Where’s Terry?” Dwayne Rappaport sidled up to the seat beside Red at the counter of the Hanover Grille. Red had been showing him the ropes over the past few weeks. Dwayne was no spring chicken when it came to police work. His dad had been sheriff of the Kansas county he grew up in, and he’d gone to the academy and served in Topeka originally, but it hadn’t been a particularly good fit for him.

“Yeah. Terry’s in New York doing some sort of photo shoot. Apparently it’s been decided that my boyfriend looks great in whatever underwear they’re selling, and because he can swim, they figure he can sell the stuff. I half expect they’ll have him blown up forty feet tall on some billboard in Times Square in his skivvies.” Red gulped his beer and went back to shoveling french fries into his mouth. “I know it’s the price that comes with winning, and I’m proud of him.”

Dwayne could hear the “but” just waiting to come out. “With that sort of thing, I suppose he has a short time to capitalize on it. He isn’t going to the 2020 games, is he?”

“No, thank God,” Red grumbled. “I love watching him compete. He’s like a fish when he’s in the water, all fluid motion and grace.” He pushed his empty plate to the side. “I hope he never gives up swimming. It’s when he’s at his most beautiful. But it’s the rest of the stuff that comes with it that bothers me. What I really want is to have him home with me. I don’t like it when he’s gone for weeks at a time because his agent has him booked as part of some victory tour. How many parades can he possibly ride in without having his head explode?” He finished his beer and motioned for a refill, and Dwayne wondered if that was a good idea.

“Red, how about I take you home? I’m sure Terry’s going to call you tonight, and the last thing you want is for him to know you’ve been drinking.”

Red seemed to think about it and asked for the check when Theresa came by. “I’m fine.”

“I’ll take you home. You don’t want to have to walk all the way back to city hall for your car, do you? Your car will be okay where it is.” He made sure Red paid his bill and got him off the stool and outside, and then they walked toward Dwayne’s old Focus.

“I’m sorry,” Red said as soon as Dwayne got behind the wheel. “I shouldn’t be bellyaching to you about my problems.” He hiccupped, and Dwayne wondered just how much he’d had to drink. Dwayne was used to being a shoulder to cry on. For years before his parents’ divorce, he’d been the one to whom both of them had complained about the other. Hell, neither of his parents had had to tell him they were separating. By the time it actually happened, Dwayne was relieved that the bickering and pulling at him was over.

“It’s no problem. If I had a boyfriend, I’d certainly want him home too.” That was a definite. Dwayne had met Terry a few times since he’d been working with Red, and in the looks department, Terry was most definitely Dwayne’s type. Not that he’d ever poach from another guy, and besides, despite whatever Terry and Red were going through at the moment, it was clear from the way they looked at each other that they cared deeply. Besides, Red was upset Terry was gone simply because he wanted Terry home with him. There were much worse things to be upset about. Just ask his parents. “When does Terry return?”

“Soon,” Red mumbled, scrubbing his big hands over his face. “God, how much did I have to drink? I hate getting maudlin. It really sucks.”

Dwayne started the engine and drove Red home, then made sure he got inside before heading to his own apartment.

Brock, one of his brother officers, had been living there until a few months ago, when he’d moved in with his boyfriend, Vincent, and needed to find a tenant for his old place. The timing had worked well, and Dwayne had been able to move right in.

After Topeka, Dwayne had been about to drop law enforcement altogether and take up another profession. Then he’d spotted a listing in Carlisle. He’d never heard of the place, but talking to a few friends and researching online had turned up an incredibly friendly place to work for someone of his persuasion. He’d been shocked to say the least, but he supposed if an agency created a welcoming atmosphere, they were going to get applicants looking for just such a place. Dwayne was tickled pink to have found a bureau packed with gay men, even if all of them were taken. But still, he’d despaired of finding a proper home after what he’d already been through, so the department here was a godsend.

Dwayne tossed his keys onto the secondhand kitchen table, grabbed the mail out of the box, and sorted through it as he climbed up the stairs. There was nothing but bills, so he added them to the pile of things he needed to pay. He wanted to go out and find something exciting to do. It was a Sunday night, and by some miracle, he wasn’t on shift. He’d thought of asking if there were any clubs in Harrisburg but realized there had to be some. Instead of calling one of the other officers, he grabbed his computer. Google was an amazing thing, and it took only seconds before he’d found Bronco’s and was hurrying to change.

 

 

GOD, LIFE here was different from Topeka. First thing, there was a gay bar back home, but dang, one had to know about it in order to find it. At least that was how it seemed. This was completely different. He could see the green dome of the state capitol building from the front door, and everyone was excited and jovial as they waited in line, with none of the trepidation he’d felt the one and only time he had the guts to track down the tiny bar in a back alley in Topeka.

The man at Bronco’s door was huge, and the scowl on his lips did not say welcome.

“Stop it, Bull,” a smaller man said as he sidled right up to him. “You’re scaring the patrons.” The slight blond man gazed up at the large stoic guy, and danged if that strict face didn’t break into a smile that could light half the city.

“I’m working, Zach.” Bull tried to growl but couldn’t pull it off with the smile. He turned to Dwayne and nodded, letting him pass on through. “No trouble.”

“Not likely,” Dwayne said and out of courtesy showed his law enforcement ID.

“From Carlisle.” Bull nodded and leaned close. “You let me know if you see anything that shouldn’t be happening. I appreciate it, and you have a good time!” His lips curled upward slightly, and Dwayne walked into the building.

The club was not what he’d expected. The one he’d been to was dingy and old. This was hot and new, with amazing splashes of color and a lighting system that danced to the beat of the music, adding to the pulse, excitement, and rhythm of the club. Dwayne inhaled the scent of beer, sweat, and raging testosterone. It sent a surge of desire running through him, and he plumped in his pants as his heart rate increased. He pressed his way up to the bar and ordered a beer, paid cash, then moved toward the tables, which were of course packed.

Zach, who he’d seen out front, sat with a group of guys, all sipping pink drinks, chatting wildly, and gesturing frantically until another group of men approached. They each wrapped their arms around one of the seated men, with the exception of Zach, who watched the front door.

Dwayne sipped his beer and scanned the club floor, trying to get the lay of the land. A tap on his shoulder startled him, and he turned and lowered his gaze to Zach.

“You can join us if you want.” He motioned to the table. “I heard you tell Bull that you were a police officer, and Angus is a firefighter. You looked new, so we thought….” Zach tilted his head toward an empty seat.

“Thanks.” This was all a little more than he was expecting. He followed Zach to the table.

“This is Kevin and his partner, Angus.” Zach pointed to each in turn. “Jeremy—his partner, Lowell, is around here somewhere, but it isn’t likely you’ll see him. He’s good at seeing without being seen. Tristan and his partner, Harry, who is Bull’s business partner in the club.”

“Dwayne,” he said, shaking hands with each of the guys.

“He’s a police officer in Carlisle,” Zach supplied.

“I moved here from Kansas a while ago.” Dwayne sat in the empty chair and wondered why he’d been asked over. It was clear all of these guys were spoken for, judging from the introductions and by the proprietary touches and the way the others seemed to watch specific places in the club, probably keeping an eye on their guys. “This is very different from back home.”

“Different good?” Zach asked, and Dwayne nodded.

“What was it like being a gay cop in Kansas?” Angus asked. “If anyone gives you trouble, I know plenty of people in your department who can help you.”

“Red’s been showing me the ropes,” Dwayne said and took a sip from his beer.

“Good man—the best.”

“And his partner is hot!” Jeremy fanned himself.

“You have a hot partner already,” Zach scolded.

“I know. But a boy can look, even if he doesn’t have any intention of developing wandering hands… or other body parts. Terry’s still hot, and he’s out-and-proud gay. He got some crap about it from what I understand, but he showed them all and won.” He raised his glass, and the others clinked it in a gay solidarity moment.

“Terry’s a real nice guy. Busy, though.” Dwayne kept the details of anything he and Red had discussed to himself.

“I bet he is…,” Zach said, his voice trailing off as something caught his eye.

“What is it?” Harry followed Zach’s gaze, then growled under his breath, pulling out his phone.

“What’s the issue?” Dwayne asked, gazing around until he zeroed in on a guy who seemed too young to have been allowed inside. “Underage?”

“Yes,” Zach said. “Bull’s removed him before, but he keeps sneaking back in. I’ve never seen him drink, though, but you have to be twenty-one to get in.” He shook his head. “I talked to him once.”

“What’s his deal?” Dwayne asked, unable to take his gaze off him.

Zach sighed. “Near as I can tell, he’s one of those kids who came out and got thrown away. Dad found out he was gay and his welcome at home evaporated. I’m willing to bet he’s attempting to hustle to pay the bills and feed himself. It happens too often.”

“I’m going to see what’s going on,” Dwayne said. He set his glass at his place and made his way through the crowd to where the guy was looking around. Dwayne saw the kid turn toward him, and instantly attraction pinged him deep down, like an electric current. Blue eyes the color of a tropical bird met his, and damn, he found it hard to pull air into his lungs.

“Dwayne,” he said.

“Heaven,” the kid said. “As in, I can take you there.”

Dwayne rolled his eyes at the cheesy line. “I don’t think so.” He flashed a smile and his ID, and took Heaven’s arm so he couldn’t get away, though he didn’t want to hurt the kid. “You know, what you’re doing is only going to get you sent to jail, or worse.”

“Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Nope. I’m out of my jurisdiction. Let’s drop the cheesy lines and start with your real name.”

“A guy has to eat, you know.” He tried to shrug away from Dwayne, but that wasn’t going to happen.

“There are better ways to get some food in your body than selling it.” Dwayne moved them out of the center of the dance floor and turned Heaven so he could once again see into his eyes. “Now, your name.” Dwayne wasn’t sure if he was going to get it or not, but he held Heaven’s gaze until he blinked.

“Robin,” he finally answered, and damned if that wasn’t the perfect name for him.

“Now let me see some ID.” Dwayne noticed Bull making his way over. “I can turn you over to the guys from the club and they’ll put you out.”

Robin’s jaw set and he finally reached into his pocket to pull out a driver’s license. He handed it over, and Dwayne checked it closely. It looked real, and according to the date of birth, yesterday was Robin Cartwright’s birthday.

“Problem?” Bull asked without looking at Dwayne, who handed him the ID.

“It seems legit.”

“Of course it is,” Robin protested. “I’m old enough to be here.”

“Maybe, but hustling isn’t allowed and you know it.” Dwayne stared bullets at Robin because it would be a damn shame for a guy as pretty as him to get messed up with crap like that.

“You can’t blame a guy for trying,” Robin said with a shrug.

“You got this?” Bull asked, and Dwayne nodded.

“If I need anything, I’ll get someone,” he promised, and Bull hurried back to the front door. “You need to quit that shit. It won’t end well.” God, he felt like a father giving his kid a lecture.

“What would you know about it?” Robin snapped.

“Plenty,” he shot back, though he wasn’t up to sharing his personal story with a complete stranger.

Robin studied him and seemed to see what he needed to, because his posture relaxed a little.

“Now, can you play by the rules?”

Robin huffed and nodded. “I won’t try anything. I really came here to dance anyway.” Dwayne wasn’t sure how much of that he bought, but he released Robin and stepped back.

“You know I’ll be watching.”

Robin turned and made his way through the crowd. Damn, Dwayne hated to see him go. There was something in those eyes that mirrored the shock and pain Dwayne had been dealing with, but there was nothing he could do. He’d already learned the hard way he couldn’t fix everything and everyone.

He went back to the table and sat down.

“Hard to forget, isn’t he?” Zach asked.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Dwayne forced his attention back to the guys next to him rather than scanning the floor to see where Robin had gone. He intended to keep an eye on him but figured any misbehaving would happen later in the evening.

“How long have you guys been friends?” he asked to change the subject.

“Long time. The four of us used to go trawling for guys together. That was before Zach met Bull and decided we all needed to get paired up. It was like his mission.”

“Are you complaining, Jeremy?” Zach asked, and Jeremy shook his head. “I didn’t think so. We all got pretty lucky in the man department.” He turned to Dwayne. “What about you?”

“I’m single and still trying to figure things out. Kansas was so very different.” That was an understatement. “By and large people are nice there, and I had some good friends, but when push came to shove, it turned out it wasn’t the place I thought it was.” Dwayne finished his beer and thought maybe he should just go home.

Zach, who was clearly the ringleader, had other ideas and grabbed his hand. “Let’s all dance.” He jumped off his stool and downed the last of his drink. “Don’t worry. I’m just being welcoming.”

“But what about Bull?” There was no way Dwayne wanted to tangle with him. “Why don’t you guys go and I’ll watch the table.”

Zach laughed. “No need. Lowell is around somewhere, and no one is going to take our table. It’s like one of the rules.”

“Yeah. No one wants to tangle with Bull, so everyone leaves Zach alone,” Tristan explained after downing the last of his drink, and turned to Harry. “Let’s go have some fun before you have to go back to work.” Tristan tugged Harry away, and soon he was nearly hanging off him. A pang of jealousy shot through Dwayne as he wished he had someone to hold on to him like that.

“Come on. We’ll find you someone to lerve… at least temporarily,” Zach teased, and they all headed for the dance floor. Zach moved his lithe body, and Dwayne turned away so he didn’t stare. It was difficult, but it soon became apparent Zach had his eyes on a different quarry, when Bull sauntered up and whisked Zach off his feet, almost literally.

One thing Dwayne knew how to do was dance. His mother had loved it, but his dad hadn’t, so Dwayne had been her dance partner more than once. Soon a guy danced up to Dwayne. Dwayne let the music take him, run through him, transport him with its throbbing beat. He closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them, the guy was closer, right in front of him. But he quickly turned away, and Dwayne realized his disappointment must have registered on his face. He’d wished the guy was Robin.

Dwayne turned to the other guys to dance as a group, hands above his head, having a good time and letting go of his trepidation.

The song ended and another began, this one slower. He didn’t have anyone to hold, so he moved back to the table while the guys paired up. A man, probably Lowell, held Jeremy in his arms, and Dwayne did his best not to let jealousy and loneliness wash over him. He sat down and ordered a beer from one of the servers before scanning the club. It didn’t take him long to find Robin, who stood off to one side, talking to a rather big guy. Alarm bells went off in the back of Dwayne’s mind. He’d been around enough men and worked in law enforcement just long enough to know who was very likely trouble. His foot bounced as he kept an eye on them.

The server returned, and Dwayne paid for the beer. When he swung back to where Robin had been, he didn’t see him any longer. Dwayne sent a silent wish that whatever Robin was up to, he came out of it all right.

The music changed once again, and the boys returned to the table, their conversation even more energetic and frenetic, if that was possible.

“Where’s Lowell?”

“He went back to work,” Jeremy explained.

“Lowell’s worked in areas that skirt the edges of society, and now he helps Bull with security and keeping undesirable elements outside the doors.”

“Was he some sort of spy?” Dwayne asked, intrigued and definitely curious.

“It’s hard to say. He left that life some time ago.” Zach caught the attention of one of the waiters and ordered another round of drinks. “I don’t know the details.”

“I don’t know a lot of them either,” Jeremy said. “I think it’s for our own safety.”

“See,” Zach began, pulling the conversation back to him, “the club has had trouble in the past with guys who try to come in here to deal and stuff like that. Harry and Bull don’t allow it, and they’ve been waging a near-constant battle. You know how it is—get rid of one rat and more move in. Lowell spots their activities, and we get rid of them and call the police.”

“What about guys like Robin who try to sell themselves?”

Tristan groaned. “Those are the really sad ones. Bull and Harry try to remove them, but this is a place filled with hundreds of gay men, and sometimes they get in, just like the dealers. It’s why Lowell, Bull, and Harry are so vigilant. I mean, this is the hottest club in town and they want to keep it that way, but without the influences that could ruin it.”

“The city isn’t always happy with having a gay club that’s so high profile. So they’re sometimes looking for a reason to shut us down. Fights, drugs, prostitution, and things like that are all reasons they could use. But we’re pretty good at taking care of ourselves.” Zach sipped his drink, his attention moving toward the door. After a few minutes, he picked up his glass and left the table without a word.

“What’s going on?”

“Watch,” Kevin said, bumping his elbow. Zach made his way across the dance floor, behind the bar, and through a door. “It’s Bull’s break time.” He snickered. “The two of them like to spend some quality time together.”

“Come on. Leave him alone. The two of them are so much in love, it’s amazing,” Jeremy said. “There’s nothing dirty going on. Zach always packs Bull something to eat, and they have a late-night snack together. They work really different hours, so this is a chance for them to see each other.” Jeremy glared at Kevin, who shrugged.

“Then you explain the just-fucked look he has when he comes back sometimes,” Tristan said.

“You’re just jealous. It’s been a while since you had that look,” Jeremy teased Tristan. Dwayne got the idea this was their usual banter and had probably been going on for years. He appreciated Zach including him in the group, so he waited until Zach returned before finishing his drink and saying good night. He left the club, stepping out into the humid summer air.

He said good night to Bull and thanked him for a great time.

“I hope you had fun.” This time Bull’s expression wasn’t so serious, and Dwayne wondered if maybe Tristan was right about what happened during his break.

“I did. Thanks.” The evening hadn’t been what he was expecting, but it had raised his spirits. He’d met some great people.

“Drive carefully.”

Dwayne nodded. He’d been very judicious about the amount he’d had to drink, and he figured he’d walk around for a little while to clear his head. Two beers in an evening weren’t much to be concerned about, but as a police officer, he’d seen the ravages of drinking and driving and had no intention of becoming a statistic.

The capitol complex shone like a beacon, and Dwayne headed in that direction. Light meant safety, and this wasn’t a familiar neighborhood for him. There were others on the street, some couples walking close together. It was a great summer night to be outside. He walked a block or so, the beat from the club still pulsing through the ground at his feet.

“That’s not what—” a voice called. Dwayne listened for more. “No!” Fear spiked the air, and Dwayne was on alert, listening for where the sound had come from. He heard the rip of fabric between passing cars. “I said no!” The voice got louder, and Dwayne picked up his pace.

“I paid, and you’re going to put out.”

Dwayne reached the alley entrance, stopped, and peered around the corner. A huge guy stood near a dingy brick wall. It was hard to see, but Dwayne could just make out another man pressed to the brick, the side of his face against the unyielding wall.

“That’s enough.”

“Get out of here. He and I have business,” the guy growled.

Dwayne stepped closer, ready for action. “You need to leave now!” He used his cop voice and saw the guy flinch. He might be big, but as Dwayne got a closer look, he saw the beer gut and flabby arms. This guy probably was used to throwing his weight around, but there really wasn’t much to him.

“Fuck off. I paid and I’m getting my money’s worth.”

“So you’re admitting to soliciting someone for sex… to a police officer. That makes my job very easy.” Dwayne pulled out his phone, and the lug took a step back and then ran the other way. Well, he sort of waddled fast, but the response was the one Dwayne wanted. He made sure the guy was gone and then helped the smaller man, who had crumpled to the alley floor.

“It’s all right. He’s gone.” Dwayne lifted the guy, who wasn’t verbally responding, off the concrete and carried him out to where there was more light. As soon as the glow from the street shone on golden hair, Dwayne knew who it was.

“Robin.” He caressed his cheek, and Robin groaned. Dwayne set him down and waited for the shock to wear off. “You want to tell me what happened?”

Robin managed to stand and rubbed the side of his face, then pulled the remains of his tattered shirt together. “No.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea already.” Dwayne half expected Robin to try to bolt, but instead he just shook, and Dwayne held him upright. “Let me guess. For all the bravado, this was the first time you’ve done anything like this.”

“Shit… I can take care of myself.” The defiance was back, and Dwayne was glad Robin was able to manage it, even if he knew it was all just a front.

“Like you did back there.” He wasn’t in the mood for nice at the moment. “I’m not dumb. I know what you were doing and what nearly happened. So you can tell me about it, or I can call some friends of mine and you can talk to them about prostitution.”

“You’re a real jerk, you know that?” Robin’s stomach rumbled loudly, and he put his hands over it as though it ached.

“No. The jerk was the guy in the alley. I’m the man who saved your ass from God knows what.” Dwayne saw some of the fire go out of Robin’s eyes. “And you’re acting defensive to the guy who saved your ass, quite literally, from what was about to happen. So I think you can open up and tell me what’s really going on.”

Robin quivered once again. “I was about to leave the club because I wasn’t going to get anything in there. Too many people watching. That guy approached me and asked if I was up for a little fun. We left, and he paid me fifty bucks. I figured I could blow him as long as I was careful, but it turned out he wanted more than that, and I wasn’t going to give it to him, so he was planning to take what he wanted anyway.” Robin sniffed. “He stank and shuffled all the time, like he might have been sick or something, but fifty bucks will feed me for like two weeks. And….”

“How long has it been since you ate?” Dwayne asked.

“I don’t know. Probably yesterday.” Robin suddenly seemed even smaller and weaker. Dwayne knew he should be a little ashamed, but Robin’s vulnerability seemed to make him more attractive.

“Come on, then.” Dwayne guided Robin down the block to the corner. “There’s a diner just that way. We can get something to eat and then you can tell me what’s really going on.”

Robin snickered. “I could get you something.” He reached into his pocket. “I still got the fifty bucks.”

Dwayne pursed his lips and kept quiet. He wasn’t happy about how Robin got the money, but if it meant he could eat for a while, then so be it. “Come on. I’ll buy and you talk.” That was the deal, and he wasn’t backing down from it.

He guided Robin to the all-night diner, and they went inside the island of light. Dwayne blinked in the brightness and found a table. The server, who looked as old as the diner itself, approached the table. Dwayne ordered two burgers, fries, and two coffees. She took the order, turned away, and returned with their drinks. Dwayne waited until she poured before meeting Robin’s gaze. It was time for some answers.

“I got kicked out, okay?” Robin hissed. “My dad found out I was queer and kicked my ass to the curb.” He nearly knocked the cup over as he tried to slide out of the seat.

Dwayne held his arm, tilting his head to the side. He wasn’t letting Robin off that easy. “Settle down, Cisco.” He waited while Robin crossed his arms over his chest, staring defiantly back at him.

“My dad, well, stepdad… is a real douchebag. Like I said, he kicked me out, and my mom didn’t say shit about it. She let him put me on the street like I was a sack of garbage. I have, well, had a job and got a room to live in, but I got ‘laid off’”—he made air quotes—“last week. The boss said it was cutbacks, but I know it was because I didn’t say yes to his extracurricular activities. I don’t have any money and I’m going to get kicked out… so I needed cash and I figured I….” Robin put his hands over his face.

“It’s all right.”

“Bullshit, man. It’s not all right. My mom didn’t do anything. Don’t you get that? Yeah, my stepdad is a real tool, but my mom….” The pain in his voice rang in Dwayne’s ears. “She was supposed to take my side. How could she just turn away like that?” He leaned forward. “I’m her son. She raised me. Am I so useless and unlovable that she could simply give me up without a second thought?”

Dwayne didn’t have any answers for him. He wished to hell he did. “People do shit to each other all the time. I see it every day at work, and I don’t know what to tell you. Except that self-destructive behavior is something you’ll regret and pay for later. It comes with a cost, and it’s usually something you don’t understand until it’s too late.”

“What the fuck would you know about it?” Robin’s gaze raked over him.

“You’re not the only one who’s had to pay a price for being who they are,” Dwayne told him. “And I know it hurts like hell. But you have to figure out a way to get past it.”

“How in the hell do I do that? I have no job, and in a few days, I’m going to be homeless. The fifty bucks I traded my dignity for is all I have between me and starvation.”

The server brought their plates and set them on the table without a word. Robin stopped his grousing and ate a french fry before reaching for another. Soon his hands moved with a speed Dwayne didn’t know possible. The fries disappeared, and the burger didn’t last very long either. Dwayne ate his burger and put most of his fries on Robin’s plate, and he ate those too. By the time he was done, there wasn’t a crumb left.

“Come on.” Dwayne paid the check, and then he and Robin left the restaurant. “My car is over here, and I’ll take you home.”

Robin hesitated, but then followed Dwayne to his dark blue Focus. They slid inside and Robin gave him directions. Dwayne eventually pulled up to a run-down house on Fourth Street with half the shutters missing, and those that were there hung haphazardly as though they, too, were waiting to give up the ghost. The paint was peeling badly and the soffit had holes in it, allowing God knows what to get access to the attic.

Robin got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride and the food and, well… for everything else.”

Dwayne hated leaving Robin in a location like this. As he looked at the forlorn building, he wondered just what was up with the place. “Who’s the landlord?”

“It’s the guy who owns the building,” Robin answered.

“Does he live there?”

“No. There are six people, and we each have a room. The owner comes each week to collect the rent, and we better have the cash or we’re out.”

“How come there aren’t any lights?”

“Wait…. The power must be out.”

Dwayne looked up and down the street, but the lights were on everywhere else. “I bet your landlord didn’t pay the electric bill.” He put the car in park and got out.

“What are you doing?”

“Going in with you.” Dwayne followed Robin to the door, where he inserted his key and pushed it open to reveal complete chaos. The inside of the house was trashed, with stuff littering the floor everywhere. Robin raced inside and up the stairs, feet pounding. Dwayne trailed behind more carefully and caught up with Robin as he unlocked the door to a back room. “You need to get your things out of here.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’m willing to bet your ‘landlord’ doesn’t own this building and has been scamming all of you. He put you up here and collected rent. I suspect the owner got wind of it, had the power turned off, and cleared everyone out while you were gone.”

“Shit….” Robin groaned. “Now what do I do?” He started shaking again.

Dwayne sighed. “Get your things together and we’ll load them in the back of my car.” It didn’t look like there was much. Robin had been sleeping on some sort of foam mattress pad, with a few blankets. There were some boxes stacked in the corner, but otherwise the room was empty.

“Hey!” someone called up the stairs. “Anyone in here needs to get out before I call the police.”

“Are you the property owner?” Dwayne called back.

“Yes. I’m clearing all you squatters out.”

Dwayne’s suspicions had been confirmed. “I’ll go talk to him while you get your things. You can stay on my couch for tonight and figure things out in the morning.” He turned and carefully made his way down the stairs.

“We’re clearing out,” Dwayne said as he reached the main floor. “The people here were told the guy who rented them the rooms was the owner.”

“He wasn’t,” the owner snapped. “I reported him to the police, and they said they’d watch for him. Meanwhile, the building has been trashed and I’m going to have to clean it up before I can sell it and…” He went on. Dwayne didn’t pay too much attention to his grousing. The house had obviously been neglected for some time. Dwayne figured the owner would use the squatters as an excuse with his insurance company. “Now clear out so I can lock the door up and get out of here.”

Robin came down the stairs with his arms full.

“Is that it?” Dwayne asked.

“There’s one more box.”

“I’ll get it.” Dwayne hurried back up and got the box from the room. Then he went down and followed Robin to the car. They loaded his things into the trunk and headed out of town. Dwayne drove and wondered what in the hell he was doing. This was a guy he’d just met, and fuck all if this wasn’t going above and beyond just because he found the guy amazingly attractive. Maybe he needed to have his head examined. He’d just invited a complete stranger to stay at his house. This could turn out badly, very badly.

“Where do you live?” Robin asked as Dwayne made for the freeway.

“Carlisle. I have a single-bedroom apartment there.”

“I get it,” Robin said quietly. “You saved me so I could warm your bed instead of the slimebag’s.”

“No,” Dwayne said firmly. “You’ll be sleeping on my sofa until we can figure out what we’re going to do. I’m not going to leave you to stay on the street. And remember, I’m a police officer. I don’t bring guys home to ‘warm my bed,’ as you put it, in exchange for something. I don’t prostitute people, and you aren’t a prostitute—at least not yet.” He turned, letting Robin see his anger, then focused his attention on the road as the light in front of him changed to green.

“Then what do you want?” Robin crossed his arms over his chest.

“How about a little gratitude and maybe letting go of the chip on your shoulder? Oh, and a small attitude adjustment would be in order. People are more likely to help you if you don’t act like a dick to them.” He reached the freeway and took the on-ramp toward home.

Robin sat silently as Dwayne drove, arms still folded over his chest as though he was just waiting for something bad to happen. “Fine,” he eventually muttered. “How long you been a cop?”

“I moved here a few months ago, and just because I’m a cop doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.” Hell, he’d stopped Robin and pulled his ass back from the brink of what could have been a life-altering or ending mistake. “I could have ended up exactly where you are.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Robin asked.

“Sheer luck. My family wasn’t too happy I liked guys, but they never talked much about stuff, and when they found out, they figured it was a phase or something and it would somehow go away. I never brought it up with them, and as long as they didn’t see it, the gayness didn’t exist. I guess silence and denial were my friends until they weren’t.” Everything had fallen apart very quickly. “The thing is, I’m not someone out to take advantage of you. I don’t want anything other than for you to be on your best behavior. I have some friends who might be able to help you if you let them.”

“Yeah? What will they want, ’cause everyone wants something and no one does shit for nothing.” The skepticism rolled off him as he turned away.

Dwayne tightened his hands on the wheel. “First, clean up your mouth, and second, my friends are cops who’ve seen enough bad stuff that they try to help those they can. They aren’t going to want anything from you other than you not acting like a dick. Are you starting to see a theme here?” He tightened his hands on the wheel.

“Fine. I’ll pretend you’re my mother and put on my best manners, waiting for when you, like everyone else, decide I’m not worth anything.” Robin turned away, looking out the window as lights passed by.

Dwayne didn’t have an argument for him. He couldn’t change Robin’s past, and though he’d do his best to try to help him, Dwayne wasn’t sure what he could do. “Take things one day at a time.” That was what the counselor had told him after all hell had broken loose at home. It had been really helpful when the shit kept getting deeper and deeper by the day, with no end in sight.

“Just try a little gratitude and less snark. It isn’t going to hurt you, is it?”

“No.” The answer was short but without the accompanying commentary, so maybe that was an improvement.

The tires hummed as he continued down the freeway. It took a good twenty minutes to get out to the Carlisle area, then off at his exit and through the traffic lights to the main intersection of town. Dwayne made the partial trip around the block to his parking space. It was late and he was tired, but he needed to get Robin settled.

“Let’s get your things,” he said, popping open the trunk. He grabbed a box and left the other one for Robin. “You can leave the bedroll. You won’t need it, and it’ll be fine in the trunk for now.” He closed the lid and led Robin around the block to the front of the building. He unlocked the door and climbed the stairs, listening to the heavy trudges of Robin’s feet. For God’s sake, he wasn’t leading him to the gallows.

“Where do you want my stuff?” He indicated the box he held.

“Set it by the side of the sofa. I’ll get you some blankets. The bathroom is right in there, and I’ll see if I can find some things for you to use if you need them.”

“I got stuff,” Robin said, putting his box on top of the one Dwayne had already set down.

Dwayne went to his room and found his extra sheets and a blanket and a pillow, then took them to the living room and set them on one end of the tartan plaid sofa. “I’ll get you a bottle of water and then I need to go to bed.”

Robin looked so confused as he stood and stared at the sofa and then back at Dwayne, as though he really couldn’t believe that Dwayne didn’t want something from him.

Dwayne got the water and handed it to him. “Just get some rest, and we’ll talk in the morning.”

Robin nodded but seemed lost.

Dwayne made up the sofa and finally left the room, went to his bedroom, and closed the door. He undressed and pulled on clean boxers and a T-shirt. Then he used the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to get into bed. He listened to the sofa springs squeak a little in his otherwise quiet apartment. Dwayne tried to imagine what Robin was doing, and then footsteps sounded outside. The door to the bathroom closed, and Dwayne shut his eyes. He was nervous as hell. Dwayne had actually brought a near stranger home to his apartment and was letting the guy sleep on his sofa. Good Lord, had he completely lost his mind?

“Good night, Dwayne,” Robin said once the bathroom door opened again. Then soft footfalls headed to the living room, the light switched off, and the sofa springs squeaked again.

Dwayne sighed and tried to go to sleep. The problem was, every time his mind started drifting off, he saw images of blue eyes and blond hair, and Robin swinging his backside as he danced. He knew the dancing part was all his imagination, but the danged thing kept him up well into the night.