BLOOD HID most of Ivo’s knuckles, bits of skin peeling up from his aching joints. His left ring finger hurt every time he tried to flex it, a sure sign he’d popped or broken it. He didn’t dare check the straps of his glittering red heels. Taking his eyes off the brawny man he’d beaten to the ground moments before would be a bad idea, especially since the guy was probably aching to continue the fight.
But then, the whole evening had been one bad idea after another, and from the looks on the cops’ faces, Ivo wasn’t going to make any good ones any time soon.
“Fuck them.” It felt good to fling that at the cops, even under his breath. The police were one step above CPS workers in his book, unthinking machines who only cared about following rules regardless of right or wrong. Bear didn’t share his opinion. His older brother…. “Shit. Fucking hell. Bear.”
Barrett “Bear” Jackson was one of the gentlest men Ivo knew. He’d given up so much of his own life to make a home for Ivo and the rest of their band of brothers, battling with the courts to bring them all home while he built up a tattoo shop and taught them how to be better men along the way.
At seventeen, Ivo knew he was going to follow in Bear’s footsteps and one day sit in the shop’s stalls, inking his art under someone’s skin. People were going to seek him out, want his art on them, and pay him for it. He’d respect everyone who came through the shop’s door, no matter what they wanted—from a tiny heart on an ankle to a full back piece—because every drop of ink was important to the person getting their tattoo, no matter what Ivo thought of it. That was rule number one at 415 Ink. There were a lot of rules, changeable ones if he could make a good enough argument, but that was the one immutable law for everyone who sat down at the stalls.
Well, that and not to be an asshole. Ivo was having a really hard time with that one, but so did his brothers, Gus and Mace, so he figured he’d have some leeway where that was concerned.
Except for right now, because the cops were still circling and Ivo wasn’t exactly feeling like they were going to come down on his side.
Not with him wearing red glittering fuck-me heels, a plaid Catholic-schoolgirl skirt, and a white button-up shirt he’d stolen from Mace’s closet.
He’d been left next to one of the patrol cars and told to stay there by a cop who looked a lot like the guy he’d beaten up. There were no questions, just orders given by a broad-bellied, grizzled older man wearing a shiny badge. So he sat, fuming and shaking his hands, wondering how long of a silent treatment Bear would give him before his older brother found the words to dig into Ivo’s guilt and serve it back up to him.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know it would taste like hot, steaming shit, because that’s exactly what Ivo felt like at the moment—not that he was going to give the cops any satisfaction by showing it.
A fight was the last thing Ivo expected when he climbed out of Lucas’s bedroom window. Now that he thought about it, he probably could have just slipped out the front door instead, but there was something thrilling about sneaking out, especially wearing what he’d gone out with. As one of Ivo’s four older brothers, Luke was the most law-abiding, so using his window was the cherry on top of the whole sneaking-out sundae.
The area showed signs of gentrification, but there were still rough edges, dark places too dangerous for a seventeen-year-old boy in high heels to wander about… or at least that’s what people told him. Ivo didn’t share that opinion, at least not until tonight. He came down to dance, to lose himself in the thumping beat too loud to hear but strong enough to feel in his bones.
Ivo knew all of the cracks and crevices in the neighborhood. There were hidden places, sealed-up rooms where men did things to each other that he’d seen up close in some of the foster homes he’d been placed in. He hadn’t wanted that done to him then. He didn’t want it now. Some of the people he partied with liked their sex as rough and hard as it could get, and he was okay with that. They were adults, consenting and with free will.
Tonight wasn’t about that. Tonight he skirted too close to the edge of being on his knees, skin ground down into broken glass and his jaw cracked wide open to swallow another man’s dick.
And it wasn’t his idea to be there.
The heels were a bit loose, but it was the first time they fit well enough for Ivo to wear them out. Knowing he wouldn’t catch shit for what he was wearing but instead for going out so late, he’d slipped out of the rambling, stitched-together Craftsman that Bear bought cheap off a foreclosure and went out into the night, needing to wash the week off his skin with a bit of beer and a lot of music.
Most of the places he liked to go were easy to find, but there was one place—Rosie’s—where a million people could walk past the front door and never know they were going by one of the fiercest dance clubs in San Francisco. A locked black steel door with a window slot kept the world out during the week, but on Friday and Saturday nights, a large, silent man stood behind that window, sliding open the tiny door if someone knocked. As far as Ivo knew, no one was ever turned away, or maybe it was just him, because after he’d been taken there once by a casual friend he knew from school, that ratty metal black door always opened for him when he knocked.
Just like it had tonight.
He’d danced a lot longer than he wanted, and when Ivo finally tumbled outside, the rain-soaked streets were deserted, a wind sweeping through the back alleys and kicking up swirls of paper and garbage over the wet asphalt. Somewhere nearby, a taco shop was open, and his stomach growled when he caught a hint of grilled, lime-marinated beef through the stink of the dirty rain. Trusting his nose to lead him to food, he took one wrong turn and found himself staring down one of his worst nightmares—a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Ivo was debating his chances of making a break for it when one of the cops detached from the growing crowd of people standing on the street corner. His uniform fit snugly across his shoulders and chest, clinging to his thighs as he walked, the dark fabric eating up the light from the lamp that stretched out over the street. The man was maybe ten years older than Ivo, but his dark hair glistened with flecks of silver, gilded metal woven through the darker strands. He approached with purpose, his eyes pinning Ivo in place. There’d be no walking away from the scene. Not now. The man coming toward the patrol car Ivo leaned against walked with a steady purpose—not the kind of man who would take any shit from anyone.
He also possessed a rugged attractiveness that Ivo hated himself for noticing. It was one thing to notice a cop was good-looking, but it was something else to wonder what the guy tasted like.
Especially since he was skirting under the legal line and the cop probably wasn’t into guys wearing heels and makeup.
“Ivo?” The cop glanced at the notebook in his hand as he called out Ivo’s name. Points for the cop for getting the pronunciation right. “That how you say it?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
A nod was all the cop was going to get, but Ivo hitched himself up onto the squad car, mostly to ease the pressure on his strained ankle. The skirt rode up a bit and he tugged down the hem, trying not to expose too much of his thigh. It was a losing battle. Whoever wore the skirt first obviously didn’t give a shit about her school’s rules and hemmed the damned thing up as far as she could go. And since Ivo’s legs were more than likely longer than hers had been, sitting down in it bordered on obscene if he didn’t arrange the pleats correctly.
The cop didn’t so much as flinch. He simply stood there, waiting for Ivo to get settled before he continued.
“I’m Officer Nicholls. I’m going to take your statement. You need someone to look at those hands?” That was not what Ivo expected to come out of the cop’s mouth. The night hugged him, washing out the color of his eyes and hair, but it couldn’t take away the rough heat of his silky voice or the slight crook in his nose. The imperfection took his face from classically handsome to gorgeous—a masculine beauty made pretty by full lips and long lashes. He wore a street-weariness on his shoulders, as easy of a fit to his body as his police uniform. “EMTs will be here in a couple of minutes. I want them to take a good look at you when they get here.”
“Hands are fine,” Ivo grunted, shifting his position on the hood. “I don’t need anyone poking at me.”
“Not talking about your hands so much as your face. He got you good on your jaw.” The cop nodded down toward Ivo’s lap. “I’m going to have to take a picture of your injuries. I want to do that before the EMTs get ahold of you and wash you off.”
“Told you I don’t want—”
“They’re going to document your injuries for my report. You don’t have a choice on that. Might as well have them look at you.” He jerked his thumb toward the other side of the street. “They’re going to look at him too. I need both sides of the story, but since he’s finding it a little hard to talk with his teeth in his throat, I want to hear what you’ve got to say. Start from the beginning. Where were you coming from?”
It took Ivo all he had in him not to look at the closed black door to the right of him, but the cop spotted something, because Nicholls immediately glanced at the dance club’s tucked-away entrance.
“Rosie’s?” Nicholls’s attention returned to his notebook, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips. “You’re kind of young for that crowd. And for what they serve there too.”
“I didn’t drink,” Ivo said, leaning forward toward the cop. Huffing air out of his lungs, he breathed on Nicholls’s cheek. “Smell. Nothing but water. Need me to breathe into a tube? I’ll do that too.”
“Trust me. I’ve already signed you up for it. What time did you leave?”
“About forty minutes ago. I needed to catch the last bus home, so I was watching the time.” A bank clock ticked off in the far distance and Ivo groaned. It was too late now to catch anything but the shit he deserved to get from Bear.
“Your parents know you’re out?” Another glance up, but this time the cop’s eyes were softer, holding a bit of concern. “Or are you at home? Are you someplace safe? When we’re done here, can I take you someplace that’s safe, because if not, I will find somewhere for you to go.”
It was a valid question. Even in as liberal of a city as San Francisco, it was the kind of question Ivo would ask any other boy dressed up in heels and a skirt found on the streets at oh-dark-early in the morning. He knew too many guys who’d been rolled out of their houses, wearing bruises from fists that once wiped chocolate from their faces and tucked blankets up against their chins at night. For some families, it didn’t take a lot—a single confession, whispered across a table, and moments later there was blood and spit where once there’d been a pork chop on a dinner plate. Too many of his casual friends went from worrying about a chemistry-test score to scrambling to make money, no longer virgins and no longer caring, desperate to find someplace warm to sleep on a rainy night and enough cash to fill their bellies.
And sometimes their veins.
It wasn’t a lifestyle. No matter how hard people tried to put a spin on it, struggling to live wasn’t a choice, and numbing your brain while doing so sometimes was all a guy could do in order to survive the battle one more day.
Ivo knew all of those things, and he never once forgot how fucking lucky he was to have Bear, Mace, Luke, and Gus at his back.
Even though it seemed like he couldn’t stop making really shitty life choices while trying to find out exactly who he was.
“No, I’m good. I live with my brothers. They know I dress like this.” He grinned at the cop’s skeptical grimace. “But when you drop me off at my house, could you maybe just leave me at the curb? I don’t want them to know what happened tonight.”
“You’re not exactly convincing me that I’m going to leave you someplace safe when you’re saying that,” the cop warned, his voice going to a thick honey rumble that filled the crevices of Ivo’s pissiness, soothing away some of the sting along his pride. “Want to tell me why you don’t want me talking to your family? Is someone going to hurt you?”
“Hurt me? Oh fuck no,” Ivo replied, shaking his head. “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about that guy who tried to stick his dick in my mouth. Because if my brothers find out what he tried to pull on me, they’re going to kill him. Really slowly. And enjoy doing it.”
THE KID was dangerous.
Ivo Rogers was the kind of trouble Ruan figured God threw into his path to test his resolve. With a shock of dirty-blond hair, angelic face, and youthful, muscular body, the kid looked exactly like what Ruan figured Lucifer looked like, minus the wings. Not only was he hideously underaged—despite his ID promising Ivo Rogers would be eighteen in a few weeks—he was also stomping over every gender norm Ruan knew, donning a naughty schoolgirl outfit over his sculpted masculine body and embellishing the whole thing with a pair of red, sequined hooker shoes to stretch out his already too-long, too-tanned bare legs.
Better to take the tempting male Lolita back home and close the door on him. But damn, the kid made Ruan feel… old.
He never knew what it was like to not hide his attraction to men. The world had shifted around him, promising Ruan it was okay to come out of the shadows, that no one would take a swing at him or condemn him to hell for loving another man. But it was nights like tonight when Ruan once again learned those declarations of tolerances were only glittering wrapping paper masking a bundle of lies.
The call came over in a crackle of concern from dispatch, alerting the night shift of a disturbance near an underground dance club Ruan’d gone to a couple of times. It was a problem area, made more so by the men who stalked the exit, looking to score a blow job or more from any inebriated single guys stumbling out of the back exit late at night. The alleyway a few feet away was a haven of shadows and silence for some kids to make a quick buck, but he’d answered more than one call reporting an assault, and once in a great while, something even worse.
When the description of a man beaten nearly half to death close to the club came over the radio, Ruan’s heart sank. The last thing he wanted to see that night was the inside of an ER after dragging yet another young man to the hospital to be patched back together. Responding to the call, he’d braced himself to go through another heart-wrenching trip down to a pool of uncaring doctors while dragging a war-weary veteran off the dirty streets.
Instead, he found Lucifer dressed in a plaid skirt with moonlight-gray eyes and a wicked-as-sin grin.
“Okay, let’s deal with your brothers later. How about if you tell me what that guy over there did? We can go from there,” Ruan said, taking a quick look over his shoulder as an ambulance worked through the line of cop cars blocking the street. “Then after I grab some shots of your hands and face, the EMTs will patch you up so I can take you home.”
“You’re not going to take me in for kicking that guy’s ass?” The kid tilted his head back as he tugged down at the hem of the miniskirt he barely wore to cover his lean thighs. “How do you know I didn’t start it?”
“Because the guy who called it in saw the guy grab your hair from behind and try to drag you back into the alley. Now, maybe the story from the two of you would be he-said, he-said but I don’t think Mr. Watanabe really gives a shit about anything other than not getting blood on his sidewalk. I hear it’s a bitch to wash off, even with all the rain. Start talking, kid, so I can get you home before Prince Charming comes along to see if a glass slipper fits that hoof you call a foot.”
The story Ivo spun out wasn’t filled out with bragging or long tales of how he punched and fought his way clear of a man’s choking grasp. He kept it as lean as he could, forcing Ruan to draw out the details of the assault and prolong their conversation. By the time Ruan got the full story, Ivo’s knuckles were fully crusted over with dried blood, the bruise on his cheek and jaw had bloomed to a rich deep purple, and one of the kid’s heel straps was straining to hold in a swelling ankle.
And when the kid swung his leg, striking his heel against the squad car’s tire, he visibly flinched in pain.
“Okay, so let’s go over this again. He came up from behind you and grabbed your hair. Did you see him in the club before? Have any interaction with him earlier?” Another ambulance was arriving, pushing through the line. From the corner of his eye, Ruan spotted an EMT pulling a gurney from the back of the bus. “And keep in mind, I’m not putting blame on anyone here. I’m just trying to get an idea of what happened and how you got there.”
“Yeah, he was inside, but he didn’t come over. Only reason I knew his face was because he told the bar guy he’d pay for my drink. Since I don’t drink….” The kid shrugged. “He didn’t seem pissed off about it. I didn’t care. I was only there to grab some water, then head back out.”
“But you remembered him?”
“Dude, I’m over six feet tall without the heels. You don’t think I’m going to remember a guy taller than me pushing up against a bar?” Ivo spat back at him with a sly smile. “He was taller than everyone around him, so I got a real good look at his face.”
“And you recall faces well?” Ruan pressed. He knew how hard it was to see in a club, despite the flood of lights flashing about, so recognizing someone again outside of that environment was something he always questioned.
“I’m an artist and I’m apprenticing at my family’s shop. Portraiture is in my wheelhouse. I mean, I’m not as good as my brother Gus, but I’m pretty decent. I know faces. People have planes and angles. Everyone looks different. Not hard to spot those differences if you know what you’re looking for.” The kid stiffened, and Ruan saw an EMT heading over from the second ambulance. “I don’t want those guys touching me, okay? I can get cleaned up and shit at home.”
“So long as you let me document your injuries and sign a waiver, it’ll be okay.” Ruan hissed. “Well, no, I’ve got to get your guardian to sign off. You’re still a kid. Law’s pretty hard on that.”
“Great, so you have to wake Bear up?” Ivo huffed. “I kind of wanted to slide by with this. He’s going to make me mop the shop floor five times a day for sneaking out.”
“Should have thought about that before you put on those heels, then,” Ruan admonished, smothering a laugh when Ivo casually flipped him off. “Let me grab an ice pack at least for that ankle. Why do you wear those things if you can’t walk in them?”
Despite all the times he’d been in a church, Ruan never once thought he was in the presence of someone touched by grace. Right then, under the flashing lights of the nearby ambulances, Ruan saw a bit of heaven in the face of the complicated young man sitting on the SFPD squad car. His beauty was unmistakable—pure enough to be captured in marble or immortalized in the stained-glass window of an ancient cathedral. Intrigued, Ruan was enraptured by Ivo’s expression, a curious blend of innocence, wisdom, and resolute strength.
If it weren’t so ironic, Ruan would have laughed at the idea of a kid teaching him about the world, but there they were, standing on a bloodied street while a crowd milled about in the light rain. He should have been witnessing that moment in someplace holy, a grotto or blessed nave where saints once walked. That or he was watching a kid’s fall from grace, right before he delivered Ruan into his own personal hell.
Either way, Ivo Rogers had something inside of him, something strong driving him to be more than what Ruan could see, and it burned from within—a bright, hard light flaring up from Ivo’s soul.
“Because I promised someone one day I’d dance in them for him,” Ivo whispered, his face going pale beneath the odd glow from the streetlamp. “Tonight was that night, and I wasn’t going to let any fucking asshole who thinks his dick is a gift from God stop me. Not tonight. Not ever.”