|Release Date||April 2009|
|Cover Artist||Deana C. Jamroz|
|Available At:||All Romance Ebooks (ebook)|
|Barnes & Noble (paperback)|
Freeman’s return to the city is quiet, without fuss — the way he likes things. But, he’s missed by more people than he thought: his ex-wife, his ex-lover, and his ex-business partner. One wants friendship, another one intimacy. The third just wants him the hell gone again.
Freeman — private, controlled — hasn’t time or appetite for trouble. But, when he strikes up an unusual, ill-advised friendship with young, lively, amoral Kit, it seems trouble’s come looking for both men, ready to expose secrets that can destroy the fragile trust they’ve built. Freeman’s more ready for the challenge than anyone realizes when the choice comes down to peace or Kit’s life.
I don’t know how the hell he ended up sitting next to me.
I sat in my usual place, out of the way. Clubs weren’t really my thing, but after the pubs closed they were the only places I could get some company with my drinking. Not that I wanted something one-on-one, not even conversation. Just company in the background: noise, babble, bodies. I don’t know what people would call me. Observer, not participant. Antisocial, maybe.
Bar Brand had an ugly name that made me wince and an equally ugly, dark decor that reflected more the patrons’ need for discretion and a swift, nameless hook-up than for stylish interior decoration. But then I wasn’t there for the trimmings, either. It was just somewhere to be.
The young man landed himself on the bench seat beside me abruptly, an invasion of gangly limbs and impatient breath, with his dark hair falling over his face. Nearly as tall as I was, but very thin. Younger, too, by several years. It was unusual to see that kind of energy and enthusiasm in someone who’d left his teenage years behind him. Especially not in a dive like this, a fine advertisement for the dangers of drink, drugs, and economic drudgery.
“Got a light?”
It was a familiar pick-up line, and I should have announced that – despite Bar Brand’s lurid advertising – I wasn’t here for that. But it was the end of the night and I’d worn out my discouraging grimace on other approaches some hours since. Besides, he clutched a spliff and looked like he genuinely needed a light. Silently, I offered him my matches.
He lit the joint and took a long, grateful draw. I sat in one of the darker corners of an already murky club and watched the ring of burning tobacco light up his angular face for a second or two. Young, yes. But enthusiastic, no. His eyes were bright, but artificially so – the lines around his mouth were deeper than they should have been at that age. Perhaps he saw me looking at him, because he grinned back. It made him look younger again and very striking.
We shared the joint for a while. He seemed settled there, and I didn’t feel inclined to move him on. When I passed it back over to him each time, he took hold of my wrist to steady himself. It wasn’t a come-on, just rather touching. He gradually relaxed but his eyes were still alert, continuously darting over the bar and the tablecloth-sized dance floor. Most of the tables were empty by now, an hour or so before closing time. The piped music throbbed in the background with an indistinguishable techno track. A barman in vinyl shorts that were uncomfortably tight around his thighs wiped the plastic-topped tables, yawning occasionally. My visitor was watching for a particular man, who I knew was still around. Of course, I knew many people there, even if they didn’t – or didn’t choose to – acknowledge me.
“I’m with George, you know?”
I didn’t answer him. He probably guessed I’d know who he meant. It was no surprise, but it wasn’t any business of mine and I didn’t intend to make it so. To each his own.
“He’s okay.” The young man chatted on as if I’d asked him to. His voice was quite deep for his age. Now that he’d relaxed, his movements were less coltish, more graceful. Just past the ungainly teenage years when the limbs move faster than intention, and just before the more solid assurance of late twenties, when adult inhibition takes control of the reins. He was good to look at. I admired the way he was so careless of his body and yet so artlessly sensual. I was jealous, maybe. I smiled to myself, surprised at the thought.
He gestured vaguely toward the bar. “Been in the city a few months. He’s looked after me, got me a job. Shown me the ropes. You know how things are with him?”
His question was rhetorical and we both knew it. My answer would have been yes, though probably not for the same reasons. There’d been plenty of young men like him; that was one of George’s hobbies, as was common knowledge.
George Marshall owned this club – at least, he did the last time I’d been here – and probably plenty more by now. And other businesses in this part of town, where the nouveau riche and commercially shrewd had made a territory of their own in the last few years. This particular club sat on the outskirts of the more ambiguous area of the city, where new money mingled with old hardship, and the mix of ethnic cultures and confused moral codes was a tinderbox at times. But it was also an area that was vibrant and bold and fascinating, both to those who rode the changes and those who watched. Observers like me, I guess. A place where the aggression and resentment could breed both opportunity and opportunism. George had always been good at taking advantage of that.
He employed a lot of transient workers in these businesses. Ever astute, he tapped into the attraction this area held for young men passing through, seeking their ever elusive fortunes, or just looking to hide within the maelstrom of everyone else’s life. Near enough the centre of the capital, yet easier for transport and cheap lodgings. An area accessible to men who slipped through the cracks of the tax system and governmental bureaucracy, yet needed enough money to live on and find some entertainment.
And some of them caught his eye as playthings, as well.
I watched a couple of drunken club members weaving their way across the beer-soaked carpet toward the exit, arms around each other’s torsos, on their way to find another place to tryst. I could only hope for their sakes it was more salubrious, though in this part of town, the odds were against it. On the seat beside me, my visitor turned directly to me and stared. I was startled. His hand waved the last dregs of the joint at a point in the unidentified distance; his look was stark. “Anyway, you got anything else? I’ve got money. Some.”
I stared back into rich brown pools of frightened awareness. It was like all his humanity had parked up in his eyes, leaving the rest of his body a shell that drove on automatic under the buzzing neon lights. He was very attractive in a pale, gamin kind of way. He was no girl; I gave him that. But he had a vulnerability that seemed to have soaked right through him to the core, not just a look that was put on with low-slung jeans and a fashionably tight black T-shirt.
“I don’t have anything,” I said, which was true.
He frowned slightly under my scrutiny, his gaze shifting away. Then he laughed, softly and wearily. “Maybe I don’t have the money, either. I could do other stuff to pay for it, if you did. Suggest something?”
I just shook my head. He didn’t make the bargain sound very enticing, and I suspected it was only bravado. I wasn’t a good candidate for him, anyway. For one, I wasn’t in the market, and secondly, I knew the reason for his weariness.
I’d seen the pair of them arrive earlier in the night, his slender form beside George’s more mature bulk. George led the way as always: the owner, the executive, the man. Yes, I knew how he saw himself. I didn’t know if he recognised me in the corner booth, although when his proprietary gaze first ranged around the room, he hesitated for a minute. Then he took his position at his regular table over by the bar. The young man slipped into the seat beside him.
The years had been good to George, if anyone wanted to measure that in terms of expensive tailoring and a comfortable paunch. In the sickly fluorescent lights of the club, his skin still looked tanned and smooth. He was just over forty and his dark hair was thinning slightly at the temples but it was shot with attractive silver threads. He was handsome in that bold, arrogant way that always turned heads, and it was attention he craved. The suit fitted him so superbly that it must have given his tailor eternal bliss, and he moved with an elegant, graceful confidence that I remembered well. He was better fed, better served, better appointed than in years gone by – but still the same determined, resolute man. He turned his head briefly to his companion and made some indulgent joke. His laugh was genuine and generous, the white teeth shining, his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. George Marshall was a beacon of charm and style in the middle of one of the seediest establishments in the city. I’d never understood his fondness for Bar Brand. It was one of the first businesses he ever bought, in triumph and at a ludicrously cheap price from a local entrepreneur, who shortly afterward went bankrupt and also took up an invitation from Her Majesty’s government to a three-year stretch for fraud. Perhaps that history had piqued George’s superficial sentimentality. Whatever the reason, the club had obviously remained one of his favourites.
I’d been there at the time. And yes, I knew how things were with George.
His table was behind the dance floor and set up on a slightly raised platform. A waist-high wall ran alongside it, giving the impression of exclusivity, and his entourage of security men sat around him most of the time, keeping him supplied with drinks and dedication. They were part of his act; I knew that too. I’d rarely seen George physically threatened or needing such heavy-handed security, but they remained on call tonight, settling down for the rest of the evening’s entertainment. The young man’s face was something delicate in among some considerably uglier, older, muscle-bound men. A beacon of a very different sort. Of course, it wasn’t anything new to see George’s latest trophy on display. I had no desire to dwell on the scene, believe me, but something about this young man was different: he captured my interest early on.
When I glanced over again a little later, the companion had gone from his seat. My view of George was partially obscured behind the other men, ranged around the table like columns around an amphitheatre, their backs turned to me as if shielding him. One of them was laughing; another one leaned in against George as if whispering into his ear. Like some damned religious painting. It took me a moment to realise what else was odd. They were all looking at the same spot, some place down around George’s seat, all watching what was happening there. I also watched as George’s head went back and his back arched. I saw the shine of his carefully pressed, brilliantly white shirt under his open jacket. His hand came into view, hovering just above his lap, resting on a dark, moving object between his legs. The young man’s head.
George was directing operations like the despot he was. A broad hand, long, strong fingers, a touch that owed far more to pressure than guidance. Pushing the other man’s head up and down, dictating the pace to his personal satisfaction. His table remained in half shadow behind the dance floor, though there were few enough people dancing that night. I had no desire to waste my evening watching the sordid scene, the players moving intermittently in and out of my line of sight. But before I looked away again, I saw two slim hands snake their way up toward George’s hips, fumbling at the buttons of his shirt, grasping a handful of expensive silk. George nodded once, and the security man seated on his left grabbed the hands and lifted them away. Even from my distant position, it looked more like capture than caress.
I was appalled by George’s audacity, though he was infamous for taking what he wanted, exactly when he wanted it. It went on for a while, so maybe he had some problems getting off in full view of the patrons, despite their disinterest. Maybe the young man was shuffling around under the table, playing some disgusting game of roulette with the whole group, or at least those whose predilections it suited. No one else in the club seemed to notice or care. The whole place was squalid and neglected, a few guys swaying listlessly on the dance floor to remixed ’80s hits, and the barman wiping beer glasses that would forever remain smeared. It had always been that way, the club never rising above its sordid origins, despite regular layers of new paint and aggressive promotion. I saw the top of the companion’s head a few more times but never more than a hint of his face, drifting like that of a pale, dispossessed ghost, his distorted features darting in and out of the fitful light.
I mean, there were booths out the back for it. Of course, that presupposed that George had the decency to be discreet.
I’d thought about doing something, about stopping it. I wasn’t entirely sure why. To be honest, from what little I could see and hear, the young man hadn’t looked unwilling. But there are a hell of a lot of stages between rape and relationship, and I knew that better than most. The decision was finally made for me when the group broke up and the chairs were pushed back, the sudden movement accompanied by some rough laughter. A couple of the security men left the table, and money was pushed about for more drinks. A slim figure emerged in the seat to George’s right; its head was bowed down toward the tabletop, the features hidden by tousled hair. One glance at George’s laughing face and I’d turned my back on the lot of them. My last look had seen no casualties. Not obvious ones, anyway.
Now I caught the young man’s eyes on me again and realised he knew what I was thinking about. All of it. I wasn’t used to such a close connection.
“You saw me.” He frowned slightly. His head tilted as if he were about to look back over to George’s table again, but he resisted. “With him. I know you did.”
I looked back at him. “It’s your business.”
He was puzzled at my reaction – or lack of it. “Yes,” he said tightly and rather belligerently. “It is, isn’t it? It’s a party, you see. A bit of fun.”
Maybe he was expecting accusation from me – disgust, curiosity. Whatever. I was silent, sipping the remains of a weak, overpriced beer that I wasn’t particularly interested in.
“I’m okay with it,” he said, with the residue of defensive swagger. Maybe silence unnerved him. “It’s my choice. It’s just a laugh. It’s not like he owns me.” Neither of us said any more, but yet was both implied and inferred.
I sighed. “Sure,” I said, no judgement in my tone.
His gaze flickered over me as if still trying to find out something more. Then, suddenly, he grinned again and yawned, stretching his arms out and arching his back a little. It startled me.
“Right. Just want to rest for a bit now. That okay?”
I nodded. Even so, it was a further surprise when he slid a little closer to me on the seat and rested his head on my shoulder. He didn’t ask for anything else, but when I felt his body begin to sag against me, I put my arm behind him and held him securely while he slept.
I looked around the emptying club but no one came near the booth, probably deliberately. I knew that no one would bother us. I was known here; I was known in a lot of places, whether they liked it or not. There might be trouble about it tomorrow, but this young man wouldn’t be going home with George tonight.
I looked at my almost-empty glass on the table in front of us and settled back into my seat, my visitor gently snoring in the crook of my arm.