Billionaire with Benefits (A Romancelandia Story)

Billionaire with Benefits (A Romancelandia Novel), by Anne Tenino
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-196-0
eBook release: 
Oct 20, 2014
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-197-7
Print release: 
Oct 20, 2014
Word count: 
117,500
Page count: 
443
Type: 

This title is #2 of the Romancelandia series.

This title is part of the Whitetail universe.

Ebook $6.99
Print $19.99   $15.99 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $26.98   $18.89 (30% off!)

It’s just a friend thing.

Before confessing his gayness to his best friend, Tierney Terrebonne’s sex life is strictly restroom. After confessing his gayness to his best friend . . . it doesn’t improve much. Why bother trying when the man he’s loved for fourteen years (see: “best friend”) is totally unattainable? Good thing Tierney is an old hand at accepting defeat; all it takes is a bottle of bourbon. Or fifty. Repeat as needed.

Dalton Lehnart has a history of dating wealthy, damaged, closeted, lying, cheating, no-good, cowardly men, so of course he’s immediately attracted to Tierney Terrebonne. Fortunately, Tierney is so dissolute that even Dalton’s feelings for the man would be better described as pity. Which becomes sympathy as they get to know each other. Followed by compassion, concern, caring, and hopefulness as Tierney struggles to change his life. When the man comes out very publicly and enters rehab, Dalton finds himself downright attached to Tierney. And as everyone knows, after attachment comes . . .

Uh oh.

But post-rehab Tierney can’t handle more than friendship, so Dalton should be safe from repeating his own past mistakes, right? Right?

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Spoilery warnings (click to read)

gay bashing

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

 

Fourteen Years Ago

 

One night in October, Tierney discovered an honest-to-fucking-God glory hole. He’d been on the way back to his room from a midweek party and stopped at Cambridge Hall to visit the facilities, going all the way to the basement restroom for a little (drunken) contemplation.

As soon as he sat on the throne, he spied the opening in the stall wall. His palms went sweaty. He’d watched enough porn on the internet to recognize it, but still thought he might be hallucinating. Any moment it would disappear.

It didn’t.

No way.

He leaned sideways—barely keeping his wasted butt on the john—to look through the hole.

Shit! There was a guy in there. Tierney’s pulse really took off then, all the blood draining from his head. Instinctively he leaned forward, putting his face between his knees—and into his briefs, hanging between them—to keep from fainting.

Tap tap tap. For a split second he knew it was his mother’s habitual knock on his bedroom door, and he jerked his head out of his underwear, eyes opening so wide they strained his lids.

Tap tap tap. It was a shoe. In the stall next to him. The shoe of the guy in there. And he was tapping. Like, knocking. Like he wanted to send a signal or wanted—

Tierney gasped.

“Dude.” A voice floated through the hole. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Tierney squeaked. “I just, you just. Surprised. Me. Um . . .”

The guy didn’t answer, but his foot moved. He was standing now, taking a step. Tierney heard the door lock opening over the drumming in his ears. He’s leaving. “Wait!”

The shoes stopped. “Yeah?” the anonymous voice asked after a second.

“Uh . . .” His heart thumped so hard he shook with it. Something he hadn’t experienced since realizing that, as a Terrebonne, he’d never be allowed to kiss a guy or touch someone else’s dick or feel male hands touch his.

Or get an anonymous blowjob through a glory hole from a man.

“Dude,” the anonymous man in question said, sounding twitchy, calling Tierney fully back into his current situation. In a men’s room stall that happened to have a hole to another dimension where a guy would suck his dick.

Next thing Tierney knew, he was hugging the wall like a gecko, hips straining to push even farther into the opening, the rough edges of particle board and laminate biting into the skin of his thighs, and then—thank fuck—someone’s breath on his cock. Tierney grunted when he felt the heat of the dude’s mouth on his skin, taking him in, no playing around like girls did because they didn’t really want to taste dick.

This isn’t a girl.

The guy’s lips wrapped around him and sucked hard, and seconds later Tierney was coming. Groaning, then panting so loudly he nearly drowned out the dude bitching about how fast he’d shot before slamming out of the stall. Tierney closed his eyes and rested his cheek against the cool surface, listening to the door to the restroom swing open, and then footsteps fade away.

Oh God. He’d done it. Anonymously. The Terrebonne family name would never even know.

***

Weeks later, lying in bed the night before Thanksgiving vacation, Tierney let his mind revisit his most recent trip to the glory hole. He’d pictured his friend Ian in the neighboring stall. Ian was so butch and blond and built all the good “B” words. He kept his hair trimmed short and didn’t go for the sloppy grunge look like the other guys in their dorm. All the guys but Tierney.

Ian was like him in other ways too. They had similar backgrounds in emergency services, except Ian’s family was blue-collar. They were all firefighters, while Tierney’s were all ambulance company owners. Ian smelled like engine oil and saltpeter—not that Tierney knew what saltpeter really smelled like. Sounded masculine, though.

They weren’t roommates—Tierney paid extra to have his own room—but they lived on the same floor. Ian liked his dad about as much as Tierney liked Grandfather, and somehow that led to the two of them hanging out a lot.

Like with other friends over the past five years, Tierney knew his desire to be with Ian was a little different than the normal straight guy’s impulse to chill out with dudes. But he mostly ignored that, until the day Ian had said, “Chicks are more trouble than they’re worth.”

That made Tierney start to wonder. He had no other reason to think Ian might lean his way, just a feeling. A strong one. There had to be other guys around like him, right? Ones who were into dudes, but not exactly gay. And maybe . . . Ian could be one?

There was only one way to find out.

***

The night after Tierney returned to school from the holiday, he had Ian in his dorm room, drunk on bourbon he’d brought back from home. The dude’s eyes were glassy, and he was working to focus them. But was he drunk enough for The Plan?

Tierney swallowed down a hysterical giggle with another swig from the bottle. One more test.

“So, like, you feel horny, man?” he asked, slouching against the side of his bed. Look casual. He was just a regular guy who talked about sex. Yep, nothing freaky here.

Ian’s eyes went wide, showing the whites all around his irises. Then he mirrored Tierney’s slouch. “Well, yeah. Always.”

“I can fix that for you, dude.”

Ian froze for a second before squinting. “What’re you talking ’bout?”

“Just, you know.” Tierney shrugged. “When I’m hurting, there’s a place I go to get taken care of.” He wanted to take another pull off the bottle, but his hands felt shaky. He didn’t need to showcase that.

“Like, you mean hookers’r something? ’Cause I’m n—”

“No, dude. No money changes hands. Just, there are people out there who like giving head as much as others like getting it, and I know how to find them.”

Ian’s tongue flicked out across his lower lip.

Oh yeah, he was into it.

After that, everything unfolded in flashes of activity. Are we really doing this? Must be, because he and Ian were going together across campus, moving in sync. Tierney watched his foot land on the asphalt path at the same instant Ian’s did, orangish in the glow of the security lights.

“Where are we going?” Ian’s question came out on clouds of breath, puffing into Tierney’s peripheral vision.

“Cambridge,” he answered, because one word was all he could manage.

Then they were there, and he yanked the door open, swinging it wide so nothing could block Ian’s path to the glory hole. Glory. The sound of their feet pounding down the stairs echoed in his ears. “It’s in the basement.”

“What is?”

He ignored the question, pulling ahead once they reached the hallway, footsteps keeping time with his heartbeat.

What if there isn’t anyone here? Had to be. Too important. He shouldered the men’s room door open, forcing swagger into his walk, only glancing into the mirror for a split second to make sure Ian was following him.

He was.

There were feet in the left stall. As far as he could figure glory hole etiquette, the guy who wanted to get sucked off stood in the one on the right.

He opened that one just as the lower half of a face appeared in the hole. He and Ian halted, and Tierney stared at the whiskered, dimpled chin and plump lips waiting there. So obvious it’s a man. The guy’s breathing echoed around the bathroom, or maybe just in Tierney’s ears. Fuck, what if he’d been wrong and Ian was about to freak? Too late to wimp out. He shoved his buddy inside. “Open your jeans and stick your dick through, dude. He wants it.”

Ian shifted his stance a couple of times, hands resting on his package, but his fingers hesitated on his fly button. “You gonna watch?”

Thank fuck, he was really going to do it. “No,” Tierney scoffed, moving far enough away to seem like he wasn’t looking, but keeping Ian in his peripheral vision. Tierney heard the sound of unzipping, and saw a flash of flesh as Ian untangled his cock from his pants. Tierney couldn’t not see that—turning his head, he caught a brief view of the tight skin and protruding veins of a raging erection before it disappeared through the hole.

Oh fuck. He could hear it. The slurp and suck, and then a hmmm, like the other guy enjoyed Ian’s flavor, and it was all Tierney could do to just stand there and let it happen. For the first time, he wanted to be in the left-hand stall but only because Ian was in the right. Only totally gay guys sucked dick. He wasn’t into that.

Except, if Ian was into it, Tierney would offer. On his knees, with lips parted.

The slam of a palm hitting the stall wall made Tierney flinch, but the moan that accompanied it—low and throaty and quickly cut off—told him Ian wanted this. More than liked it, because that noise had been laced with the same ache Tierney had had every time he’d been here.

He’s into it. He’s into guys.

Ian stumbled out, jeans still open, lurching forward, and hit the tile wall next to the sink, then slid down to sit on the floor, facing the glory hole.

Tap tap tap. The sucker wanted more, and Tierney was right there, as hard as he’d ever been. The whole time he was being blown, he watched Ian. The dude barely blinked, gaze fixed on the action. When his hands crept toward his groin, and the bulge in his briefs, Tierney came almost as fast as he had the first time. But this guy didn’t bitch, maybe because he’d had two loads. Tierney faked cool, doing up his jeans and stepping out to offer a hand up to Ian, who seemed too freaked to see it shaking. “Ready to go, or you want more?”

Ian shook his head, and pushed himself up to standing under his own power. “Let’s go.”

The whole way back to the dorm, Tierney kept having to remind himself to breathe. Ian was silent, walking rapidly with his hands shoved in his coat pockets. Tierney’s nerves stretched taut, waiting for him to say something, but Ian didn’t even look his way.

Had he fucked up?

Tierney stumbled, lurching into Ian’s side, brushing elbows. Ian jumped away, like contact with Tierney sent a thousand volts of revulsion right through him.

Oh fuck. Going up the stairs behind him, Tierney didn’t even watch the guy’s ass like he normally did, too caught up in internal panic. He’s never going to speak to me again. What the fuck had he been thinking? He’d exposed his own desires to someone else. Someone who knew him, who’d seen his face, unlike the guys in the Cambridge Hall men’s room.

Someone he liked.

What if he tells everyone I’m a homo?

“Later, dude,” Ian muttered when they reached their floor, hunching his shoulders around his ears and walking down the hall. Away from Tierney. It was late, the dorm was quiet, but the common areas were still well lit. Anyone who looked Tierney’s way could see it all right there in the glaring brightness: his fear and his insecurities and his stupidity. Maybe someone could even see the sinkhole that opened up in his gut. But no one was watching him; he was all alone, standing there long after Ian had reached his room and gone in.

***

Tierney didn’t sleep all night, totally wired and steeling himself for the imminent public shaming. So preoccupied that, at five when he crept out to piss, he didn’t see Ian in the hall until he nearly ran into him.

“Hey,” Ian grunted, then yawned and ran his hand through his hair.

“Hey,” Tierney echoed.

As Ian passed, heading back toward his room, he added in a mumble, “See y’at breakfast.”

Tierney slumped, resting his weight against the wall until his leg muscles firmed up again.

Ian isn’t going to tell everyone.

The relief Tierney carried for the next couple of days made him feel light, and vulnerable to other positive emotions, like hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe, Ian was into guys, but he’d somehow missed the message that Tierney was too. Tierney had no reason to think so—they were nineteen, most guys their age would take any blowjob they could get even if the mouth came with a mustache—except for one thing: Ian was too careful to act “normal.” Before, if Tierney showed up for breakfast and there wasn’t a seat at the table, Ian wouldn’t have done shit, but now he told the other guys to shove over and make room. Things like that kept hope alive, like a small candle flame in Tierney’s heart. But it wasn’t until Ian searched him out in the common area the morning before they went home for Christmas that Tierney’s hope drove him to act.

“Wanna hang out tonight?” he asked, faking interest in a letter from his mother. She was always sending him stupid shit, reminding him of social obligations, or simply wondering how he was. Why couldn’t she call and leave a message he could pretend he never got?

“Sure.” Ian shrugged. “You care if I bring my girlfriend?”

Skid marks on my heart. He totally got the song now. But the deflated lungs got left out of the lyrics, so did the sputtering, dying flame of hope in his chest and the ringing in his ears.

“T? You okay, man?”

“Fine,” Tierney forced out. “I didn’t know you were seeing someone.” Muscles in his jaw wanted to clench and grind, but he fought them off.

“Yeah, uh, just started.” Ian licked his lip. “Her name’s Sherri.”

“Huh.” Mother. Fucker. “Guess I shouldn’t mention what happened the other night in front of her.”

And there it was, a flicker of emotion just before Ian’s face went completely blank. It told Tierney everything he needed to know: as far as Ian was concerned, that blowjob never happened.

“Our first date was the day after,” Ian told him in a monotone.

Part of Tierney wanted to stay and hit the prick. Punch him right in one of those opaque eyes of his. But a much bigger part of him was injured, hemorrhaging pain, and had to get the fuck away. “I forgot, I have shit to do tonight,” he choked out before turning and walking blindly down the hall to the exit. Outside, the cold hit him, scraping his internal organs with shards of ice. He needed a coat, but he wasn’t fucking going back. He might see that traitorous dick and do what-the-fuck-ever to him. Punch Ian until he loved Tierney back.

I love him?

I must. His eyes were blurring with tears, and his lungs were doing a weird shuddering thing, almost like sobs, except he wasn’t crying, just trying to survive. That had to be love, right? A black hole opened up inside him. He recognized it from a night five years ago, when—like his father and brother before him—he’d been required to have dinner with his grandfather on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. That night, Milton Terrebonne had made a point of telling Tierney that giving in to any deviant physical longings was not done. “As a Terrebonne,” Grandfather had intoned gravely, “it’s your duty, to yourself and the family, to master any unnatural urges. Not only because of our social standing, but because of your financial future. Am I clear?”

He’d been clear then, and many times since. And this situation with Ian, that was just another kind of reinforcement. Another message to Tierney’s secret self that it had to stay hidden. In the closet. Sex with guys had to be anonymous, and love . . .

Love sucks the big one.

Fuck this. Tierney went back to his room and finished the bottle of bourbon he’d shared with Ian that night. Then the tequila he’d brought as backup.

He wasn’t crying then, either.

***

The next day, he drove home hungover as fuck. When he arrived, he only told Agatha, managing to completely avoid his family before crashing in his bedroom.

Hours later, something woke him. He lay on his stomach, hugging his pillow, trying to figure out what it might have been.

Tap tap tap. His mother’s knock. Knuckles on wood, not a foot on linoleum.

“Yeah?” Tierney called, rolling over onto his back

“Darling,” Mother began before she’d even fully entered the room. “We don’t say, ‘Yeah,’ when we answer the door. You should say, ‘Come in,’ or, if you’re feeling brusque, you could say, ‘Enter,’ the way your grandfather does, but only rarely.”

“Sorry, Mother,” Tierney answered on autopilot, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“Your grandfather is expecting you to join him for an early dinner.”

Tierney froze. “Huh?”

“Tierney, we don’t say ‘huh.’ You may beg my pardon or, on occasion, even ask, ‘What?’ like your Grandfather Milton, but ‘huh’ is unacceptable.”

He sat up, watching his mother settle into the chair she’d insisted he have next to the window. “Um, what?”

She fixed him with a firm eye. “I beg your pardon?”

“I beg your pardon?” he parroted. He must not have Grandfather’s chops yet. Excuse me, we say “gravitas,” not “chops.”

“I said Grandfather is expecting you to join him for dinner.” She arranged herself, adjusting the folds of her dress. “In an hour.”

Fuck. He’d hoped his years of private dinners with the old guy, full of veiled comments and probing inquiries into his activities, were over. “Do I have to?”

Mother tilted her nose up slightly, but made no correction to Tierney’s “inelegant” question this time. “I’m certain I don’t need to answer that.”

Tierney swallowed his sigh. No way he was getting out of it; he should’ve known that already. Sucks. “Thanks, Mother. I better get dressed, hu—right?”

“Yes.” But she sat there a second, regarding him. “Don’t worry, darling. You haven’t done anything to make your grandfather disappointed in you . . .”

He could hear the have you? she didn’t tack on to the end of that statement hanging in the silence between them. “Nothing he knows about,” Tierney muttered, too low for her to catch.

“Don’t mumble,” she admonished him, then went on in a gentler tone. “Is something wrong, darling? You look a bit rough.”

Heart thumping, he nearly said it. That little candle of hope started flickering again, encouraging him. Could he actually tell her? What would she do? What was it he even needed to say? Or ask. Are Terrebonnes allowed to like dick? He opened his mouth, ready to try.

“Drinking is no way to get through college,” she said before he could let free whatever words wanted out of him. “Remember, even at a state school, you’ll make friendships that can turn into valuable contacts in the future. You don’t want them thinking you’re only interested in partying. If there’s some reason you’ve been imbibing so much, some sort of problem . . .?” She lifted her brows.

Tierney snapped his jaw shut, shaking his head. Thank fuck. How could he have thought she’d understand?

“Well, darling.” She sighed, pushing up out of her seat and clasping her hands. “Please try to remember how important this period of your life is. Drinking is fine, but not in such excess. Not all the time.” She smiled briefly, but then her lips turned down again. “If there is a problem, maybe you could have yourself examined by a professional?”

A professional what? Homo-exterminator? Could someone just gas or cut it out of him? He nearly laughed, but then Mother would want to know why, and Tierney was still too close to the edge. If he got into an argument with her it would all come spilling out. That’d be just like him.

“Fine, Mother,” he said. “If I have a problem, I’ll get it taken care of.” By the guy in the left-hand stall.

That was good enough for her. Her expression read pure relief as she excused herself and left. God fucking forbid he have a problem she had to deal with.

He scooted his butt to the edge of the bed and got up, heading for his bathroom. To the bourbon he kept stashed in his medicine cabinet. Alcohol was necessary when he needed some extra backbone.

***

The problem with taking a couple belts of booze, just enough to feel it but not enough to really catch a buzz, was that it made him all contemplative. While shaving, tilting his jaw sideways and stretching his skin taut, watching the long stroke of the disposable razor gliding along his neck, he got all caught up in thinking. About how Mother had almost offered some support, but then bailed.

Made sense. Wasn’t as if she could help him, anyway—she was as much under the Old Guy’s thumb as everyone else in this fucking family. The dude ruled through fear and uncertainty, kept them walking on eggs, never sure quite what the bastard’s expectations were or how they were failing to meet them. Like, with Tierney, he never came out and said anything, just made sidelong references to unnatural urges and hinted that deviating from “The Terrebonne Way” would negatively affect Tierney’s inheritance. Grandfather had never once said “homosexual,” but it didn’t matter what words he used, the meaning was clear: Terrebonnes weren’t gay. Period.

“Ouch!” He’d nicked his Adam’s apple, bad. Blood was seeping out, dribbling down from the cut. Staring at the growing red line, Tierney had one of those moments of clarity he usually tried to avoid. Slit my own throat. How fucking Freudian.

That’s what he was doing by listening to Grandfather, wasn’t it? Abiding by the dude’s rules, like the spineless fucker he was. Because the old guy knew his one weakness: Tierney couldn’t stomach being cast out. Every time he thought about defying Grandfather, he felt the truth of it—the yawning emptiness that would rip him apart, an intense ache of nothingness in his gut. That’s what he’d be. Nothing. An abomination.

Snatching up the towel and pressing it against his wound, Tierney yanked the door of the medicine cabinet open, getting rid of that fucking reflection of himself. Of his self-inflicted wound. He grabbed the bottle of bourbon, because alcohol was good for cuts, right? A few more gulps and sense began to return as the burn slid down his throat and into his gullet.

Mother had shut him down because she didn’t want to face it, just like Ian had. It was another message to his hidden self. No one wanted him to be gay. Not his family and not the guy he was in love with. He had no one to be gay for.

It’s not me. It’s him. Them. They were making him be straight.

Thank God, because for a minute there, he thought he might have some of his own expectations to live up to.

 

Chapter One

 

Present Day

 

Sunday was a day to play a game commonly called “rugby” but which Tierney thought of as “bloodletting and beer with a ball.” Sometimes he remembered the ball. Tierney’d always looked forward to Sundays, but when Ian had moved to the city and started playing on Tierney’s team, Sunday became the best day of Tierney’s week.

For a couple of months. Until Tierney figured out that, while he’d always thought of Ian as his closest friend and backup plan, Ian pretty much saw Tierney as not much more than an old college buddy.

Then, last week, when Tierney’d gone to pick him up for their scrimmage, Ian had been freshly showered and seemed too fucking loose. Relaxed.

Sated. As if he’d been banging some chick all night long.

A chick he had, like, feelings for.

Knocking on Ian’s door this particular Sunday afternoon, Tierney couldn’t shake his foul mood. So foul he was ready to quit playing rugby if his friend was going to be a dick. Last week, Ian had taken forever to answer. If that douche took too long to answer this week, Tierney’d—

Ian opened the door. “Hey man.”

Tierney’s anger switched gears. “Nice of you to show right away this time.” Stepping forward into the entry, he started forming his plan of verbal attack. “You ready or—”

A nearly naked guy stood in Ian’s bedroom doorway, blinking like he’d just woken up.

Christ. Tierney’s mouth was an uncharacteristic beat or two behind. “Dude?”

“Just a sec,” Ian said from the end of an echoey tunnel. “Almost ready.”

Sam. That was his name, the guy in Ian’s place. That skinny, flaming waiter Ian had met a few weeks ago. Tierney couldn’t breathe, blackness creeping into his vision from the sides, narrowing his focus down to a pinprick. Until all he could see was his closest friend in the world, the guy whose image he’d jacked off to a million times and who he’d fucking been holding out for, walking up to that emaciated pale twink on the other side of his living room and—

Jesus fucking Christ. Tierney’s palm hit the wall, holding him steady.

—Ian kissed Sam.

***

Halfway to their rugby game, during the tense, silent ride, a thought surfaced out of the white noise in Tierney’s head: that kiss was for show—Ian’s way of coming out to him. He’d figured out a while ago that Ian was, at least sometimes, into guys, and since he’d figured that out about Ian, the guy must know about him, right? And if Ian did know about Tierney, but hadn’t ever done anything about it . . . Motherfucker.

Fourteen years.

For fourteen years Tierney’d waited for a sign from Ian that the dude was interested in him, and it never came. Never an indication that he was ready for them to be together. Nothing. And now Sam happened along and stole Ian away before Tierney even knew he was a threat. Couldn’t the dude see that Sam was too femme and too gushy and too dorky and just not right for him? It was pretty fucking obvious to Tierney.

Except Ian had chosen Sam. Because he doesn’t want me.

When they neared the field, Tierney jumped out of Ian’s truck as soon as the dude had slowed enough to make it safe. Ish.

He’d make a much more appropriate partner for Ian. Couldn’t the dude fucking see that? “Obviously not,” Tierney muttered to himself just as he reached the group of players. One of his teammates gave him some side eye, but Tierney bared his teeth, and the guy averted his attention. Or at least his eyes. But the dude had to be perking his ears up, because Tierney was making a spectacle of himself, pacing and gesticulating.

Fourteen years.

This morning, Ian had killed the future Tierney’d waited for all this time. Hadn’t even thought about how it would affect him, had he?

“Goddamned coward.” He jerked around to find the pansy himself heading toward him. Tierney glared, trying to wither his friend where he stood, but Ian kept coming, until he stood almost toe to toe with Tierney. Close enough for spittle to fly in his face as Tierney let loose. “You motherfucking traitor!”

The gasp clued him in that the other rugby players were slowly circling them, rubbernecking.

Ian had the balls to fucking laugh. “Traitor to what?”

“To men.” Tierney’s fingers bit into his palms as he tried to hang on to his temper. “Straight men.” Guys who didn’t admit their secret longings.

Ian’s face went expressionless in that way he had. Cutting him out. “Why’s that, Tierney?” he asked. “’Cause I never told you? Maybe I thought you’d act just like this.”

“So it’s true? You’re fucking that fairy?” he half yelled, but he didn’t need an answer. “Just tell me one thing.” He could hear that little note of achiness in his voice. Hope that this could somehow be salvaged. “Why him?”

“Why not? Me being with him should mean fuck-all to you.”

He body-slammed Ian and knocked him on his ass, and something broke inside him. An internal organ he hadn’t even known he had, full of pus and bile he’d been storing up for the last twenty years. It hazed his vision with sickly green and plugged his ears so all he could hear were the things he was screaming to his best fucking friend, as Ian lay on the ground, gasping for breath. “Get up you fucking faggot! Bet you can’t fight a real man since that little nellie boy got you up his ass, can you? How is he, huh, Ian? Does he squeal like a pig when you—”

Ian hooked Tierney’s legs at the knee, taking him down and shutting Tierney up with his fist. Then it was all about fighting dirty. “Fourteen years. Fourteen years.” He couldn’t stop saying it, in between getting whaled on by Ian and doing his share of damage in return. He got in one good punch to Ian’s eye and was rewarded with a fierce surge of joy, burning away some of the sickness filling him. He redoubled his efforts, took his fourteen years of pain and fed it to Ian via bodily harm, cleaning himself out a little more every time his fist connected with flesh.

He’d never felt rage like this, or wanted to hurt another person so much.

Then he was being pulled away, up to standing, fighting the arms pinning his behind his back, unable to focus on anything but Ian’s face and his own desire to cave it in. Make Ian fully pay for those lost years.

Make him pay for caring about someone else enough to come out.

By the time the guys had let go of him—after Ian’d left—Tierney had gone numb, except for the parts of him that hurt from Ian’s fists. But that was physical pain, which was fine. He could deal. The emotional pain would kill him once he started feeling it again.

He had to get home before that happened. To the oblivion bourbon offered. One of the guys on the team gave him a ride back to his car, right in front of Ian’s place.

Whatever.

Before taking off, he had to rest his head on the steering wheel for a minute, squeezing his eyes shut and fighting off the first wave of his returning emotions. The little creatures he’d learned to keep trapped inside. The inmates he kept under lock and key so he could fulfill the role he’d been assigned. The role he’d thought he’d escape only if the stars aligned and Ian gave him the out.

Fourteen years of sacrifice and avoidance in his past and never letting himself look for another man because he had his fallback. Fourteen years of glory holes and women he didn’t really give a fuck about. Fourteen years of hiding, and being a lying, homophobic dick.

Fourteen fucking years.

Yeah, he was done with rugby.

***

It was a little over an hour until Dalton would meet the guy his boss, Ian (and Ian’s boyfriend Sam) had set him up with. He’d been unable to think of anything else since lunch, and now that it was the end of the day, he’d finally given himself busywork and let his mind dwell on his first real date in five years. While working his way through college, he’d only had time for casual encounters of the sexual kind and the occasional friend with benefits, so he was a little out of practice in the dating department. Thank God Ian and Sam were going to the Exposed Innerds concert too, so it wouldn’t just be him and the unknown guy named Miller.

Except, judging by the phone call he’d overheard earlier—Ian really didn’t understand the concept of a “private voice”—Sam and Ian might not be going. Not unless Ian apologized for whatever he’d done.

What had he done?

“I need to see Ian Cully. Now.”

At the sound of the voice behind him, Dalton dropped the forms he’d been tallying. Oh no. He was the face of the office, the first thing people saw when they walked in, and it was important to give the proper impression. Sucking in a quick, calming breath, he spun his chair around, fixing his most professional smile on his face.

“May I help you?” Even as he said it, the guy’s body language was answering, telling him he couldn’t help. This man considered himself a Very Important Person, and Dalton a Lowly Receptionist (somewhat like Lowly Worm, but gainfully employed). Forget that he wasn’t one—his official title was Office Specialist Two—he looked like a receptionist. Visitors like this saw Dalton sitting behind a faux-wood-decaled desk in the entryway of an institutional suite in a state government building and made the assumption. The man’s dismissive gaze flickered over Dalton, then focused on Ian’s door.

Ian’s not-quite-closed door.

Dalton immediately shifted gears, knowing from previous experience as an actual receptionist what was about to go down. Just as the visitor stepped forward, he stood, moving to block the man’s path.

Which allowed Dalton to really see him for the first time.

Troglodyte chic.

It just figured he’d find this guy attractive, didn’t it? Designer suit, artfully disarranged hair, muddy green eyes, and beard scruff. Not to mention beautiful bone structure, albeit under a slightly puffy face.

Ignore.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Cully is on a very important call at the moment, and can’t be disturbed. As a matter of fact, he’s booked for the rest of the day. May I schedule an appointment for you next week?”

The visitor stopped and narrowed his eyes, then took a step forward, invading Dalton’s personal space.

Oh, please. He’d become immune to that intimidation tactic long ago. He smiled pleasantly and held his ground.

So did his opponent, for another half minute. Long enough for Dalton to get a whiff of stale sweat and alcohol. Then the man stood down, losing his suspicious squint and revealing how bloodshot his eyes were. He backed off and ran a hand through his hair, turning his head to reveal a mashed, sticking-up section.

Ah. Not artfully disarranged. Dalton’s inattention cost him.

“How come none of the phone lines are lit up?” the visitor asked.

“I’m sure he just ended the call. Why don’t you sit down and I can buzz him and see if he might have time for you, Mr. . . .?”

“Tierney.” The man tried to sidestep Dalton. “I don’t think he’s busy; it’s four thirty on a Friday, and his door isn’t shut.” He maneuvered the other way, forcing Dalton a little closer to Ian’s office.

Time for a pity gambit. “Mr. Tierney, I’m new and it would make me look incompetent if I let you just barge in on him when—”

“Tierney’s my first name, and I know you’re new. You weren’t here two weeks ago when I came in.” He stopped trying to make Dalton give more ground and checked him out instead. A furtive, quick up and down Dalton knew very, very well.

“Mr. Tierney—”

“Terrebonne.”

Dalton unleashed his shyest smile, cocking his hip just slightly and biting his lip in fake—yet suggestive—insecurity. “Mr. Terrebonne, I’d be grateful if you’d just let me buzz you in first.”

Tierney Terrebonne stopped for a couple of seconds, blinking, focused on Dalton’s mouth.

Gotcha. His deduction about their visitor’s orientation was correct.

But Mr. Terrebonne shook off the effects of Dalton’s display within a second. “Why don’t you just tell him I’m here? You’re practically in his doorway.”

Dammit.

He gave in. “Please, just wait right here and let me at least announce you.” He placed his palm on the man’s shoulder.

Mr. Terrebonne froze at his touch. Dalton took advantage, whirling around and taking the last step to Ian’s doorway just as his boss’s voice floated out. “Hey, Dalton, you’re fine driving yourself, right? I need to pick up Sam for dinner and—”

“Ian? There’s someone here to see you.” He couldn’t stop himself from shifting his weight. “He seems anxious.”

His boss stared at him a second. “I can’t see anyone now. Tell him he has to make an appointment.”

Dalton lowered his voice. He could hear Ian’s visitor pacing behind him—a couple quick steps to either side. Any second and he’d shove past. “I said that, but he keeps insisting.”

Mr. Terrebonne was now peering over Dalton’s shoulder. “Dude, I really need to talk to you. I’m, um, I’m sorry. For last weekend.”

Dalton stayed put, providing his boss with the small amount of shield he still could, but his ears perked up in spite of himself. Ian had come in with a black eye on Monday. Judging by his boss’s expression right now, Mr. Terrebonne had something to do with that. Ian glanced at his watch, all his jaw muscles flexing. “You have a half hour, dude. That’s it.”

A half hour? That would be cutting it really close for dinner with his boyfriend. Especially to meet with some guy who’d punched him. Had Ian given Tierney any injuries? Dalton had to steel himself against the urge to turn and search the man’s face for fading bruises. Hopefully not on that perfectly angled jaw.

Oh shut up.

While he’d been lost in his imagination, Mr. Terrebonne had made some kind of reply. Ian shook his head, obviously to himself. “Gimme a minute.” He glanced back up, and whatever he saw made his face go hard. “Just go sit out there and wait for me,” he barked.

After a second, Dalton felt their visitor move off, and Ian lost his tense, jaw-ticking expression.

“Can you go a little early and wait for them? Then if I’m a couple minutes late . . . Please?”

Dalton tried to stay out of his employer’s personal business. Really, he did. But that look and request confirmed the suspicion he’d developed today: Ian and Sam were having some kind of problem or fight, and Ian desperately wanted to make up.

Dalton smiled, hoping to reassure. “Of course. I’ll leave in five minutes.” He could wrap things up enough for the weekend in that amount of time. “Don’t worry,” he added when Ian’s face didn’t relax.

Finally, Ian’s shoulders eased down below his ears, so Dalton turned to go.

***

For midautumn, the weather was unexpectedly clear, with streaks of pink across in the sky as the sun set when Dalton arrived at the Monte Carlo club. A streetlight began to eke out a glow across the road from him, near the mouth of an alley. At the other end, he could see Simpson Avenue and the drugstore where he’d once bought condoms in an emergency.

Okay, twice. Or more. They had an impressive selection.

Being here, surrounded by all things LGBT, was comforting. Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the essence of the neighborhood, then took a second to glance around, wondering if he could afford an apartment here, now that he had a job but no tuition anymore. Probably not, since having a roommate wasn’t an option, at least not if he could help it. He was currently still living with four guys who he’d been in college with, and he was sick of it. He’d never really lived alone, not when he was paying his own way. At twenty-seven, it was time for him to take full responsibility for himself. If that priced him out of this neighborhood, he was okay with that.

The streetlight had finally gotten strong enough to illuminate this end of the passage, and two guys walking toward him down the alley caught his eye. He didn’t know what either of the guys he waited for looked like, but he had a feeling he’d recognize Sam from his sister’s description. According to her, Sam didn’t measure up to Ian physically. Andrea had called him a “flaming geek” and then went on and on about how cute he and Ian were together.

One of the guys was very tall and thin, with light hair. The other was more of a traditional bear shape—barrel-chested and stocky. They could be the guys he was here to meet . . . or maybe they were on a date? As they got closer to the well-lit part of the alley, he caught himself holding his breath, waiting to see their faces. Just a couple more feet.

The stocky guy said something that made the tall one laugh so hard he had to lean against the brick wall for support. It was cute, but Dalton needed them to get it over with and keep moving toward him. He leaned a couple of inches closer, onto the balls of his feet, as if that would help.

It didn’t. The guys had twisted around, and were looking back at the other end of the alley. Dalton shifted to see what they were seeing.

Five men were advancing on them, one of the group carrying a bat. They weren’t here to play baseball, that was obvious from the way they walked.

No.

Yes?

Could he be reading this right? Could something violent be happening? He was paralyzed, half bent to the side. Five guys, baseball bat—

“Sam, these guys could kill you!” the stocky guy yelled at the thin guy.

Sam. Dalton’s insides went to ice. He knew it was Ian’s Sam. As the group of men attacked, knocking Sam down, Dalton ran unthinkingly into the street. Fortunately, a car’s honking brought him out of his panic.

Forcing himself back to the sidewalk, in spite of the instincts making him want to go hit and fight—not to mention the liquid feeling in his gut—he tried to figure out what to do. He was supposed to be able to deal with this; his brothers had insisted he take self-defense classes.

Those classes and reality were very different.

Stop overthinking. He ran to the door of the Monte Carlo, blurting “Call the police,” as soon as he spied the host. “Someone’s getting beat up in the alley. I think it’s a bashing!”

Dalton dashed across the street, checking for cars, then paused to text Ian—911 I think Sam’s getting bashed behind the club—before continuing to creep toward the scene, hiding in what shadows he could find.

Oh God, Sam’s friend was down and they were circling around, kicking him over and over. Dalton’s body revolted, forcing him to stop a few seconds behind a dumpster for some dry heaves. So not safe. But he couldn’t just watch. He texted Ian again while assessing the situation as well as he could manage. What was the best approach? If he jumped one guy, the others would just attack him, right? He wasn’t good at this fighting thing, in spite of all his brothers’ practical instruction when they were kids, but maybe—

The guy with the bat lifted it over his head, about to slam it into the head of the man on the ground.

Dalton was most of the way down the alley before Sam struggled up and jumped on the batter’s back. Dalton stumbled in surprise, halting only a few feet away as the guy shook Sam off, then started taunting him. Pretending to swing, while the rest of the bashers watched and laughed.

Oh God. Dalton took a deep breath, sliding his shoulder along the brick wall, and inched closer, looking for an opportunity. Almost there.

Sirens.

“Sam!” From the other end of the alley, two more people were running toward them. Distracting Dalton, so that too late he turned back to see the basher swing at Sam with real intent this time, bat slicing through the air.

Sam was already falling, even before being hit. Avoiding it? Dalton tried to stop the bat’s arc, jumping the attacker, using his body weight and momentum to take the guy down. A jolt shuddered through his skeleton as the wood connected with Sam’s head. Then they were all three on the ground.

He couldn’t check on Sam, because the guy he’d knocked over squirmed under him, trying to punch him, and Dalton remembered enough of self-defense to avoid that. Or so he thought until the guy’s fist connected with his jaw. His neck made a snapping noise, stopping his head from flying back any farther. My brothers really weren’t hitting me that hard.

Shake it off. Except he couldn’t because he’d never been hit like that in his life, and it hurt. Disoriented, he rolled onto his side to curl into a ball and found an ankle right in front of his nose. His hand shot out and grabbed it, yanking back until everything connected to the ankle—the batter’s whole body—came down again with a thud he felt reverberate in his gut.

Yay me. Fuck you.

Then police were swarming everywhere, and they grabbed the batter when he jumped up once more. Dalton stayed where he was. It seemed safer. His muscles wanted to dissolve right there, but his eyes flickered around frantically, watching everything: the police cuffing someone, and two of the attackers being dragged back toward them by a big blond guy. Meanwhile, some black-haired guy was kneeling next to Sam, looking panicked.

Ian. Dalton needed to tell him. He still had his phone in one hand. It took some concentration to make his fingers hit the right letters. They hit him in the head with a baseball bat. If that didn’t get a response, Ian wasn’t the boyfriend Dalton thought he was.

An officer was suddenly talking to him, ordering him to stand up slowly, keep his hands in plain sight.

“I’ll cooperate. It wasn’t me. I’m not one of them.” Dalton gave up the security of the pavement, getting to his feet without using his hands, which wasn’t easy.

It took a few minutes to straighten things out, but soon Dalton ended up waiting next to a patrol car for a detective to come and question him. He felt almost normal, in a hyper-real kind of way. Totally still as everything bustled around him. An observer of the scene but apart from it.

When Ian arrived, Dalton’s heart nearly melted. Face pale, fingers trembling, he clung to Sam’s hand until the very last second, just before the ambulance doors closed on his arm.

“Sam, please, just be all right, okay?” Ian begged.

It was so sweet, Dalton forgot about what was really going on for a second while watching them.

“Hi there, Dalton? I’m Detective Johnson, and I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Oh yeah. I’m a witness to a crime. Dalton turned to see a guy in a rumpled pair of cargo pants and one of those department-issue nylon jackets. “I’m Dalton Lehnart.” Oh, maybe he needed to show some identification?

“I hear you did pretty well against one of those guys.”

“I did?” Dalton’s brain scrambled to catch up. “My brothers insisted I learn self-defense.”

The man nodded. “I know one of ’em, your brother Peter?”

Of course. Peter was a detective too. “He’s the oldest.” As if it mattered.

“Good guy,” Johnson said, sounding satisfied. Did that mean he didn’t need to see Dalton’s driver’s license? “Okay, why don’t you tell me what happened. Start from the beginning.”

 

Chapter Two

 

What a bizarre fucking night.

First he’d dragged Ian to some bar to apologize, then nearly confessed his feelings for the guy. But Ian had saved him—when Tierney had choked out that he was jealous of Sam, Ian jumped to the wrong conclusion. Except it was right.

“Shit,” Ian had said. “It’s true? You’re gay?”

Fessing up to that was easier than telling him what he’d really been saying.

Right after that, Ian had gotten a text, gone white as a sheet, and run out of the bar.

Tierney was still staring after the dude trying to figure out what was going on when his cell rang. It was his brother, Chase, and he almost didn’t answer.

He kind of wished he hadn’t. Because now he was sitting in a small private waiting room at the hospital, waiting for someone to come tell them that Grandfather had kicked it. For sure the old guy was going to croak—they didn’t put people in private waiting rooms unless the reaper was already knocking on someone’s door.

This had to be either karma or irony, but he couldn’t decide which. Now that he’d finally confessed to Ian about liking dick, Milton Terrebonne had had a massive and unexpected heart attack.

When the doctor eventually did come in and told them Grandfather had been pronounced dead at 7:03 p.m., Tierney felt nothing. Or everything. His emotions were chaotic, and it was all too confusing to make sense of, so he gave up and went numb.

While they waited for someone to show them to the emergency department so they could “spend some time with the deceased,” he sat next to his mother. She kept dabbing at tears—real ones, he could tell from long experience—and clutching his hand, her grip alternately loosening and tightening.

Father stood near the door, pale and tense, and Chase sat with his head hanging down and his fingers interlaced tightly between his knees. His wife Emily sat next to him.

How do I look to them?

“I don’t know what to do,” Mother said in his ear.

“Um, I think what we’re doing is fine.” They may own and operate an ambulance company, but none of them had ever worked as paramedics. Still, Tierney’d been on enough ride-alongs, and in enough hospitals, to know the drill. “Um, there might be quite a bit of cleaning up to do in order to make Grandfather look, you know, presentable.”

“Yes,” she whispered, pressing the side of her fist over her lips for a moment before continuing in a shaky voice. “What I meant is that your grandfather didn’t anticipate this.”

Who the hell anticipated having a massive heart attack after being declared healthy as a horse a month before?

“He didn’t leave any instructions.” Her voice rose, and her fingernails were starting to dig into Tierney’s hand. “I’m just not sure what the appropriate memorial—”

“Hyacinth.” Father sat across from her. “A social worker . . .” He adjusted his still-knotted tie. “Someone will be along soon to help us make the arrangements. In the absence of guidance from my—” he swallowed “—f-father, we’ll have to rely on their expertise.”

“But . . . will it be what Milton would want us to do?”

Father took a deep, quavering breath. “We’ll simply have to do our best. We have no other choice.”

“Oh no.” Mother’s voice broke, and she began ugly crying. Tierney patted her hand while his father and brother inspected the room for features of interest.

Finally, thank God, Emily moved to sit on the other side of Mother, putting her arm around the woman and murmuring to her. When his mother let go of Tierney to clutch at her daughter-in-law, he fled to a chair near his father.

“I’m sure we’ll be able to muddle along without him,” Father said, but he didn’t sound sure.

Tierney considered moving again, to sit next to Chase, but he and his brother couldn’t get along on a good day.

“A wake?” Mother asked, lifting her head and peering at Emily. “You think he would approve?”

“Of course,” Emily assured her. “I recently read in Forbes that the family of the Whitewash Consulting Group CEO held a wake in his honor.”

Forbes covered wakes? Not likely. The quick grimace Emily shot at Chase and then him told Tierney it was a lie, anyway. She got them, didn’t she? Emily understood that what his parents needed most in this moment was for someone to tell them what to do and how to behave as a proper Terrebonne.

I need a drink.

“Mr. Terrebonne?” A man appeared in the now-open doorway. Chase and Father stood. “If you’re ready . . .”

It wasn’t until Emily got out of her seat and helped Mother up that anyone moved. Then, like good little Terrebonnes, they all trooped off to go say their farewells to their overlord.

***

Standing in the emergency cubicle, surrounded by his silent family, Tierney looked down at the old guy’s disheveled body and it hit him.

He could never disappoint Grandfather again.

He could disappoint his parents, but if Grandfather Milton was the old God who turned people into pillars of salt for disobeying him, Father was the less frightening, less vengeful and largely absentee dude in the New Testament. Tierney didn’t know who that made Jesus, or what role his mother played in his analogy—she wasn’t the Virgin Mary, that was for sure—but it mattered less and less as he searched his grandparent’s slack, gray features for signs of condemnation.

He found none. The old bastard really was dead, unable to pass judgment anymore. For a brief second, everything changed inside Tierney, like he was viewing the scene through a kaleidoscope and it had switched patterns on him. Shifting and colliding with other things. Changing.

I could . . .

What? He couldn’t come out. Grandfather was dead, and Ian was in love with someone else. Tierney still didn’t have anyone to come out for. Or against.

No point in doing it at all. And with that, everything inside him settled back into its rightful, repressed place.

***

Monday evening after work, Dalton stood on Sam and Ian’s porch, casserole in hand, waiting for someone to respond to his knock. He’d been raised right—in case of tragedy, deliver a filling, throw-in-the-oven meal a few days later. He’d had to buy a Cheesy Chicken Noodle Bake at a trendy, nouveau home-style delicatessen on the way over, because he had no idea how to make something like that himself. His cooking skills were subsistence level at best, even after being kicked out of his parents’ house at eighteen.

It was taking a long time for someone to answer the door. Maybe they weren’t home? Ian had called in sick today, but everyone knew it was because of his injured boyfriend. Maybe they’d had to go to urgent care; Sam’s concussion might have gotten worse. But no, when Dalton checked behind him, Ian’s truck was at the curb.

Just as he turned back around, the door opened.

“Yes?” Ian stood there in jeans and a black T-shirt, barefoot, as hot as usual. “Dalton?”

“Uh-huh.” He nodded.

Ian yanked him inside, took the foil baking dish out of his hands, and gave him a one-armed, choking hug. “Thank you so much for helping Sam. Detective Johnson told me what you did and fuck I’m so glad you were there.”

Okay. Shock. His boss didn’t generally seem the type to hug anyone, or babble gratitude, but these were unusual circumstances. Dalton patted his shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

Ian let go of him so suddenly it knocked Dalton off-balance. “Sorry, didn’t mean to freak you out.”

“It’s okay.” He patted some more before stepping back.

They stared at each other for another few moments.

“I should put this in the kitchen. You want to see Sam? I mean, is that why you came over?”

Dalton jumped on the offer. “It is. I thought since, you know, we survived the, um, incident together, I should introduce myself.”

Ian led him a couple of steps into the living room, announcing, “There’s someone here to see you, kiddo.”

Sam’s upper body appeared over the back of the couch, his eyes wide, a book in his hand. He tilted his head. “Oh.” A line grew between his brows. “Hi?”

“This is Dalton,” Ian said.

“Oh. Ooooh. Oh, hi!”

Dalton pasted on a smile, suddenly jittery. “Hi. Sam.”

“Hi.”

“You aren’t really showing your vocabulary to its advantage,” Ian said.

Sam turned pink, ducking his head and grinning. “I guess not, huh?”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Dalton blurted. Awkward. So of course then he started with the inappropriate laughter, trying to stifle it behind his hand, which resulted in snorting.

Thank God Sam busted up too, giggling and honking, squeezing his eyes shut and rocking with it.

“Dalton brought us food,” Ian said when they’d quieted down enough to be heard over. “I’ll let you guys get to know each other while I put this away.” Maybe he said more, or rolled his eyes, or started laughing at them, but Dalton was still caught in the grip of his emotions and the release of tension he’d been carrying around for days. He leaned against the couch, trying to catch his breath. God, he’d needed that, hadn’t he?

“It’s nice to officially meet you too,” Sam said, calmer but still smiling. “Want to sit down?”

“I really want to.” Dalton flopped onto the chair next to the sofa, letting his body sink into it. “This is a nice chair. I need one like it when I get my own place.” It had beautiful lines, although Dalton would prefer a solid color.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know where Ian bought it, you’ll have to ask him. Maybe in California.”

Dalton wasn’t sure where to go from there, because it was the first time it occurred to him that Sam didn’t live here. But obviously he stayed a lot, or at least he did when he had a head injury.

Sam cleared his throat. “I need to—I want to thank you. For what you did the other night.” He waved a hand in the air. “You know, helping me.”

Dalton lurched forward, sitting upright. “I’m so sorry I didn’t stop him from hitting you.”

“You tried,” Sam said. “It means a lot. And you caught one of those guys—Jurgen couldn’t have done it all himself.”

“But you got a concussion. If I’d been able to st—”

“Oh my God, do not get your guilt all over me. Ian’s shed his everywhere in the last three days. I mean, thank you, but it’s not like you were the one who hit me.”

Again, not sure where to go now.

Eyeing him, Sam said, “I forgive you. Does that work?”

“I guess. Um, how’s your friend?”

Sam blinked. “My friend? He’s in the kitchen.”

“Uh, no. I meant the guy who was with you that night. My, well, date. Miller.”

“Oh God, it’s awful. He’s in the hospital still—he had to have emergency surgery because he was bleeding internally. One of his ribs, like, broke and punctured a lung. He had other cracked ribs and lots of contusions, whatever those are, and stitches.”

More guilt—he’d done nothing to help Miller. “I feel nauseous.”

“He’s the one those guys came after. I was just, like, collateral damage. They didn’t even know my name.”

“I’m sorry,” Dalton said, uselessly.

Sam chewed on his lip for a few seconds in silence. “I don’t want to be a dick, but can we talk about something else?”

“Please.” Thank God. “What are you reading?” He turned his head, trying to see the title of the book Sam had set on the coffee table. Were there really two bare-chested, headless male torsos on the cover?

“A romance novel,” Sam said.

Dalton looked at him.

Sam tilted his chin up. “I read them, and I’ve stopped attempting to justify it to people.”

“You mean they try to tell you that reading them is wrong or something?”

“I know, right?” He threw his hands in the air. “It’s always someone who’s never read them, either, so they have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s prejudice informed by ignorance, and it needs to stop.” He wrinkled his brow and cocked his head. “I’ve been thinking about starting, like, a pro-romance nonprofit that educates people about their literary value. Skillful wielding of genre tropes is an underrecognized art form.”

Dalton nodded politely.

“You don’t read them, do you?”

“No.” And he’d never felt badly about it before. Or thought about it. “Maybe you could recommend—”

“Oh! I’ll make you a list. Do you think you’d prefer gay romance or straight?”

Duh. “Gay, for sure.”

Dalton learned more about romance novels in the next ten minutes than he had in his entire life up to that point before they moved on to other subjects. Ian never came back into the room, and after initially suspecting he wasn’t going to in an attempt to let them “get to know each other,” Dalton forgot about him. Sam was interesting. Chatty and gossipy and not at all reserved. He started telling Dalton stories about his friends, Nik and Jurgen, who’d shown up that night after Dalton had. Nik—“my best friend”—was the guy who’d been so freaked out about Sam, and Jurgen—“Nik’s boyfriend. Oh, and he’s also Ian’s cousin”—was the one who’d caught some of the assailants. Then Sam wandered on to other people’s business.

He’d just finished telling Dalton about Ian coming out to his father—in a hushed tone, since, as he admitted, he probably shouldn’t be—when the doorbell rang.

Sam sighed. “We’ve been really popular since I got myself bashed.” He started to stand, but Ian materialized from the kitchen, ruffling his hand through Sam’s hair on his way past.

“I’ll get it.”

“He thinks I’m broken,” Sam whispered loudly. “He won’t let me do anything, just makes me lie on the couch all day and read. It’s awesome.”

“If my boyfriend had been beaten up, I’d do the same thing.”

Sam wasn’t listening, he was craning around to see who was at the door.

“Hey, man,” Ian said from the entryway, just as Sam’s eyes went impossibly wide. Dalton tried to surreptitiously look, but he wasn’t willing to half fall out of the chair. He probably wouldn’t even know whoever it was anyway.

“Can I come in?”

Oh, but he recognized that voice. Mr. Terrebonne. It sounded raspier than before, but it still had a quality Dalton could almost feel, like fingernails trailing up his spine. Totally bizarre. He turned to ask Sam—quietly—what he thought of Tierney’s voice, but Sam’s body language was weird. Stiff. Even his face muscles had set.

Then Tierney Terrebonne walked into the room, coming up short just inside the door. “Um, hey.” He fumbled his hand out of his pocket, lifting it to acknowledge Sam, then dropping it.

“Hello.”

He looked even worse than he had three days ago. His suit was crumpled, like he’d been sleeping in it, but Dalton knew it wasn’t the same one—definitely a different designer. Maybe he’d put it on over the weekend and not taken it off since.

Ian glanced at Dalton from behind Tierney’s shoulder, giving him a look he’d already learned from the office—the grin-and-bear-it expression, but without the grinning. He came up alongside Tierney. “You’ve met Dalton, right?”

Tierney tore his eyes away from Sam to tip his head at him, but he wasn’t truly paying attention. He turned back to Ian right away. “Dude, can I talk to you? In private?”

“Yeah, let’s go in the kitchen.” Dalton caught the quick grimace Ian flashed Sam on his way out of the room, but Tierney didn’t. The man was so wrapped up in his own head he probably couldn’t see anything.

Sam frowned, but waited until the two other men left before he said, “Tierney’s got issues.”

Well, yeah. “He’s pretty much wearing them for everyone to see.”

“Not all of them.” Sam snorted.

Dalton raised his eyebrows because it would be rude to outright ask.

Sam’s glance darted off to the side. “It probably isn’t something I should talk about,” he mumbled.

The guy had shared his boyfriend’s painful coming-out-to-his-father story, what else could there be that he wouldn’t feel comfortable shari—

Oh duh. “Tierney’s gay.”

Sam bit his lip, looking all around the room, possibly for an exit. Then he leaned forward and nodded quickly. “Totally in the closet. He hadn’t even told Ian until the other night. The night I was . . .”

“The night of the incident.”

Sam pointed at him, or what Dalton had said. “Yeah, that. But I already suspected, of course.”

Of course. “So that’s why he wanted to talk to Ian last Friday?”

“I don’t know if that’s the real reason.” Sam scrunched up his brow. “I think he only meant to apologize. You know,” Sam waved at his own face, “for the black eye, but the part about him being gay just came out. I think Ian kind of guessed. Because, you know, I’d already told him I thought it was possible.”

“You’re very perceptive,” Dalton said, nodding.

Sam beamed, making it clear what had attracted Ian to him initially. “Thank you. Anyway, now that I know that . . .” Sam shrugged. “I feel sorry for Tierney.”

Dalton’s gut tightened up, rejecting that unpalatable morsel. Pity was a horrible thing to inflict on someone like Tierney. He was a walking textbook example of low self-esteem. “Don’t tell him that.”

“I know, right?” Sam tilted his head. “You’re very perceptive yourself.”

That was a nice thing to hear. “Thank you.”

Sam smiled. “You want to hang out sometime?”

Dalton was brought up short. Not because he didn’t want to—he did—but because he hadn’t expected this. He hadn’t thought about it at all beforehand, but it hit him now that he’d expected this to be a courtesy visit, and then he’d go back to being Ian’s employee.

When he saw Sam’s smile slowly turning into a frown, Dalton blurted, “I’d love to. Maybe we could go to the gym?”

“The gym? Do I look like a guy who works out?”

“Uhhh . . .” How should he answer that?

Sam shook his head vigorously. “Let’s just do lunch sometime.”

“I can do that.” He was eager to, even. And that was his cue to leave. Dalton stood, digging in his hoodie pocket for his keys. “I should go. I don’t want to tire you out.”

“Yeah, ’cause my constitution is so delicate and all.” Sam stood too, walking Dalton to the door while reciting his cell number and then typing Dalton’s into his contacts. Just before leaving, Dalton turned to give him a hug. He didn’t know if it was living through a trauma together, or if they would have clicked anyway, but he really liked Sam. Sam hugged him back, so maybe the feeling was mutual.

The raised voices sort of ruined the moment, though.

Make that raised voice—Tierney’s only. And judging by the stomping, he was headed toward them. Dalton let go of Sam, both of them turning as Tierney stormed into the entryway, then rounded on Ian and pointed at him. “I trusted you, dude.”

“You can trust me as much as I can trust you,” Ian said calmly, reaching past Tierney to open the door. A muscle flickered in his jaw, regardless of how mellow his voice was.

Neck cording with tension and fists clenching, Tierney growled.

Ian stepped back. Not a retreat, but a move toward Sam, wrapping an arm around him and pulling him close.

Tierney gasped, so quietly Dalton wasn’t sure he heard it, until he saw the man’s face in the second before he left. Deep lines were etched across his forehead. Pained ones. He turned, shouted “Fuck!” then slammed out.

“He really knows how to make an exit,” Sam said conversationally.

Ian snorted a laugh. Then he leaned close to kiss Sam on the temple. “You should rest, kiddo. Don’t let that asshole bug you.”

“I’m not the one he was yelling at.” Sam laid a hand on Ian’s chest. “And I’ve rested enough.”

God, they were having a moment in the aftermath of Tierney’s very different kind of moment, and all Dalton could do was stand here watching them. “I should go.”

Ian nodded, not even bothering to look at him. “Probably.”

Sam whacked his boyfriend on the shoulder, then said to Dalton, “This is such a surreal way to begin a friendship, isn’t it?”

Uh, yeah. “Totally.”

***

If you sit here any longer, I will kick your ass, Tierney threatened himself. But it didn’t do any good. Five minutes later, he was still on the curb in front of Ian’s house, staring between his knees at the asphalt. The only difference now was that his butt was cold and it was a little closer to sunset. Fucking October.

He really should get the hell away from this place. The emotions he kept locked down inside him were staging a riot, and he needed to get out of the public eye before one of the inmates got control and caused problems.

Well, more problems. Life would be easier if he didn’t have to live through it in his own skin.

He hadn’t even managed to tell Ian about his grandfather’s death. But seriously, he’d had to convince Ian to not out him first. After what went down with Sam and the bashing the other night, he’d thought the dude would be more understanding. Ian’s assurance that Sam was the only one who knew didn’t fill Tierney with confidence. He knew how shit happened—Sam would share it with just one person, who’d just share with one person, and so on. Before long, everyone would know. Ian had apologized, but then he’d come up with some crap about Sam having already figured it out.

No one could just guess Tierney was gay. Ian had to have told him.

They’d argued about it until Tierney couldn’t listen to Sam’s name one more time and he lost it. He might have said some stuff that was a little over the top after that. When his anger took control, it tended to make him talk trash, usually trash he couldn’t remember very well later.

“Jesus Christ,” he groaned, running his hands across his face and gripping his hair.

“Are you all right?”

He didn’t need to lift his head; he knew it was the guy from Ian’s office. Dalton. “Uh, nooo.”

The dude’s footsteps came closer. “Can I do anything to help?”

Suck me off? “I doubt it.”

Dalton didn’t go away. He stood there a few more seconds before saying, “If you need to talk, we could go get coffee or something.”

Tierney jerked his head up. “Are you always this annoying?” Persistent fucker.

Dalton didn’t react the way Tierney’d expected—hoped, possibly. Oh, the guy got pissed, nostrils flaring and looking down his nose at Tierney, but he didn’t try to flay him with words like Tierney would have. He simply said, “Probably.”

“The last thing I need is some amateur head shrink, dude. What, you got an A in Psych 101 so now you’ve got mad skills?” See? The flaying with words.

Dalton arched his brows and crossed his arms over his chest, but he still didn’t leave. It gave Tierney a chance to really study him. The dude was no Ian, but he had definite appeal. A slim but not skinny body that Tierney bet was nicely toned under that hoodie. He could see the swell of biceps just stretching Dalton’s sweatshirt. I’d let him blow me.

He was on his feet before he realized where his mind had gone. Maybe something would work out tonight. Dude probably already knew Tierney was gay—he’d bet Dalton was Sam’s one person. May as well get the most out of this queer clusterfuck.

“I’m sorry for being a dick. Let me buy you a drink to make up for it?” As he said it, panic reared up. We don’t do this. Try to pick up guys. It was strictly outside the boundaries he’d set when he’d started playing the role expected of him.

Shut up. Grandfather’s dead, and we’ve just never done it before. Until now, he’d been strictly restroom.

Dalton narrowed his eyes, until Tierney almost couldn’t see their blue color in the shadows. “I don’t drink much.”

“It’s okay, I can drink enough for both of us.” Smooth. You the man.

“Well, that makes your invitation very appealing.” Dalton shoved his bangs off his forehead, but they fell back within a second, flopping over his brow. How could such a blond guy have such dark lashes? Even in the dusk, his hair was so bright it almost glowed. His cheeks had little spots of color—Tierney had really annoyed him, hadn’t he?

Sweet. He could work with that because he was the man. Time to kick the remorse into a higher gear. “I overreacted.”

Dalton huffed. “Are you talking about out here with me, or in there with Ian? And Sam?”

Tierney’s stomach seized up but otherwise he ignored the reference to his friend and his friend’s lover. “If you’d rather get coffee, I can do that instead.”

Finally Dalton met his eyes again, tightening his lips but giving him a brow lift. “I’m offering you a chance to talk if you want—or not, if you don’t—not an opportunity to fuck me.”

Sam had told him. He had to unclench his fist in order to keep his voice relaxed. “Who said anything about hooking up?”

Dalton’s lip curled. “You’re far more obvious than you think.”

“You’re pretty fucking obvious yourself. You flame almost as brightly as Sam. What’s it like to be a stereotype?”

Before he could blink, Dalton was right up in Tierney’s face, and yes, he was a couple inches shorter, but Tierney still found himself intimidated. And invigorated, because anger was seductive, and Dalton was much more than Tierney had originally thought, and he had those eyes and his hair was sexy with the long-in-front-and-short-in-back thing. What would his bangs feel like brushing across Tierney’s naked skin?

Get a grip. He stepped toward the guy, until they nearly touched, like he’d fallen into Dalton’s gravitational field. I’d love to orbit you, baby.

Dalton didn’t back down, jaw set, eyes flashing in the twilight, and voice too controlled. “Mister Terrebonne. I get that you’re a closet case—”

“I knew Sam couldn’t keep that to himself!”

Dalton ignored him, even though Tierney had nearly yelled down his throat. “I even get that you’re scared, but I will not be a handy punching bag for your existential distress, and I won’t apologize for being who I am. I’ve been there and done that, which is more than you can say.”

Tierney swallowed, trying to unstick some kind of response, but his throat clogged up on him, strangling his words.

Dalton leaned forward, and now their chests were touching, his hoodie sliding and catching against Tierney’s coat, and his lips so close Tierney could feel them move just below his ear. “And in the future?” he whispered. “Anytime you start thinking you’re better than me because you pretend to be straight? You just remember you wanted to tap this.”

Tierney couldn’t breathe. Fuck, what if it was an allergic reaction to too much reality? Dalton stepped off, releasing Tierney from his field. Enough so he could sip some air.

But of course the dude wasn’t done slicing and dicing him. “I’d recommend not taking it out on other people either, if you want to have any friends left.” He started to go, then stopped, pointing his finger at Tierney. “And if you try to do anything to ruin Sam and Ian’s relationship, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

Panic had filled his gut and petrified his diaphragm, and the rest of Tierney’s emotions began their eddying dance. They were starting to really whirl by the time Dalton shoved past him, leaving.

Don’t let him go. In his addled state, the guy suddenly looked more like a life preserver than the cause of Tierney’s internal rough seas. He whirled around. “I could drink coffee,” he croaked, then cringed. He may as well have sliced open his torso and invited Dalton to have a peek inside the asylum. Jesus fucking Christ, he was pathetic.

But the dude had stopped. “Are you saying you do want someone to talk to?” Dalton stood there, still within inches. Waiting for Tierney to answer.

What’s my answer? He stared at Dalton’s ear, right in front of his face, and the dude’s hair where it had been clipped short over the curve of it.

It seemed like a trustworthy ear. “I do.” Tierney cleared the frog out of his throat. “Want someone to talk to.”

Fuck. Dizzy spell.

“Enough to not be a dick?”

He swallowed. “Um, could you define that for me?”

Dalton sighed, turning to him. “Can you try not to pick me up?”

“I can try that.”

“Just platonic.” Dalton pointed at him, index finger an inch from Tierney’s nose. “And don’t make me regret this.” He dropped his hand, giving Tierney a warning look. “I’m taking my own car.”

“Of course.” Tierney nodded. “I’ll follow you. Lead me where you want me to go.”

 

Chapter Three

 

Tierney had been endearingly unkempt, with his head in his hands and a defeated slope to his spine as he’d sat on the curb outside Ian’s place. That was Dalton’s thin veneer of an excuse for why he’d offered to listen to the guy’s woes.

Groan. Completely shameful that he still had a weakness for guys like Tierney. Wounded, self-hating assholes who needed reforming. Guys who had flash and cash, but no substance. What he needed was to meet an attractive, wounded, self-healing asshole, then he could trick himself into liking the guy but wouldn’t have to deal with the drama of the guy not liking himself. In his experience, men who didn’t like themselves made selfish boyfriends, and that was the most polite thing he could say about them.

Not that he considered Tierney potential boyfriend material. Dalton was simply being kind, and the slight twinge of emotional pain in his chest was simply the sympathy he’d have for any human being in the man’s position.

Giving himself a firm nod and ignoring pangs of empathy, he gripped the steering wheel tighter and drove in a straight line until he had to turn at an intersection, randomly going right when—ta-da!—a coffee shop appeared. They were on the west side of the city, which Dalton wasn’t very familiar with, but he’d be damned if he’d ask Tierney whether he knew of a place nearby.

“We roast our own beans,” a sign proclaimed, and Dalton could smell the truth of it—the typical scents of sour and burnt—before he turned into the asphalt parking lot. Tierney’s car was pulling in behind him when Dalton glanced in the mirror. His own gaze caught him for a second, a bright strip of Tierney’s headlight reflected onto his face. “I cannot believe I’m doing this.”

As he parked and got out, then watched Tierney do the same on the other side of the lot, the man’s car registered for the first time. The color was a dirty cream, and in the low light of dusk and streetlamp, he mistook it for a Jaguar. It had that sports car in sedan’s clothing look that high-end automobiles had adopted recently.

He felt less derisive when he remembered noticing the signature BMW headlights in his rearview. Beemers weren’t as pretentious, if just as poorly designed in recent years.

Then he realized how much time he’d spent dwelling on Tierney’s choice of ride and he lost all derision.

Sigh. This was going to be such a trial, battling his own susceptibilities and Tierney’s douchebaggery. But standing there, watching the man approach, he began to revise that thought. Tierney’s swagger was missing. He walked toward Dalton with his hands shoved in his pockets, head down, and shoulders hunched in. It was windy, blowing through Dalton’s sweatshirt, but not so cold he shivered, so he doubted Tierney was chilly. Nervous, and possibly a little cowed. Exposing a hint of the soft underbelly that Dalton had been secretly (and traitorously) hoping the man had.

Someday, empathy would be the death of him, wouldn’t it? “Is this place all right?” he asked, as if it mattered what Tierney thought. But it did, even if he tried to deny it.

Tierney stopped in a pool of yellowish light right in front of Dalton. The buzzing of the bulb made a very appropriate soundtrack for the man’s fidgeting. He licked his lip in quick movements, shifted his weight, and avoided Dalton’s gaze, or answering his question.

He stood there so long Dalton reached out to touch him, a quick brush of fingers across his arm. “Are you okay?”

Tierney swallowed. Then again. “Did you . . .” He took a huge breath and blew it out, straightening his shoulders and looking Dalton in the eye at last. “When you said that about not doing anything to ruin Ian and Sam’s relationship, what did you mean?”

Oh no. He’d been angry and he shouldn’t have said it, but it had all fallen together in his head in that instant: Tierney’s expression when Ian put his arm around Sam, and the way he’d come into the office last Friday and to Ian’s place today, wanting to talk. Dalton would lay money on Tierney being in love with his friend. No wonder he was such a douche bag. The guy was in horrible pain, wasn’t he?

Dalton was silent too long, or his expression gave him away, because Tierney croaked like a frog: wordlessly, mouth hanging open, face paling. Dalton grabbed the man’s shoulder as he swayed, then pulled him toward the car where he could prop himself upright until he regained enough equilibrium to do it on his own.

“It’s okay,” Dalton soothed.

“What?” Tierney panted. “What’s okay?”

Um . . . “It’s okay about Ian.” Cringe. Not really, but he had nothing else to offer.

Tierney slumped against the car so hard it rocked. Dalton gripped his arm and stepped closer, trying to shore him up. Physically or emotionally, he didn’t know. “I’m sure I’m the only one who’s noticed. Ian hasn’t, I’m positive.” Please let that be true.

Tierney began wheezing. Too bad Dalton didn’t still carry Xanax with him everywhere, but he hadn’t needed it for years, not since the months after he’d been kicked out of his parents’ house and reality had slapped him in the face.

“K-kinda—” wheeze, Tierney said.

Dalton leaned forward to hear better, close enough to see how clammy Tierney’s skin was.

“Pathetic,” Tierney spit out, barely louder than the buzzing of the lot light. “Kinda pathetic.”

“It’s not.” Dalton shook his head. “It just . . . it just is. You can’t help how you feel sometimes, no matter how wrong it is.” He had the personal experience to back it up.

They stood there forever like that, Dalton inches from Tierney, breathing in a regular pattern as if he could get Tierney’s lungs to settle down just by setting a good example. Either that or time worked and eventually Tierney calmed. He was less pasty and the sweat that had popped out on his forehead had disappeared.

Dalton sighed silently, backed off, and glanced around. Someone was watching them intently from the window of the coffee shop. An employee judging by the apron.

Dalton was just about to suggest they go in or leave when Tierney muttered, “What a fucking mess.”

Oh, he totally concurred. “I’m sorry.”

Tierney snorted halfheartedly. “It’s not your fault; you didn’t get them together, right?”

“I mean I’m sorry for saying anything. For even trying to talk to you outside of their house. I should have left you alone.” Maybe other guys wouldn’t feel guilty for breaking an ego this fragile, but Dalton couldn’t help it.

Tierney shoved his hands in his pockets, looking up from under his brows. “No, it’s okay. I feel better.” He swallowed. “At least someone else knows, now. I’m not alone.” He flinched, closing his eyes.

Dalton pretended not to notice that Tierney’d admitted to loneliness, glancing away, toward the window again. The employee was gone—maybe she’d decided they were harmless. “Do you want to go inside and get that coffee now?”

Tierney’s eyes popped open. “I guess.” He took a deep breath and straightened up. “Oh, good. A Klunhausen’s.”

Of course. Of course Tierney would be one of those guys who liked Klunhausen’s. The chain was the “it” coffee purveyor in the city. If Dalton had noticed earlier, he would have driven on by and found someplace else. Except not, because they really did have fantastic coffee. How else would they get away with charging nearly twenty bucks a pound for their regular roast? Not that he ever bought it, but sometimes he let himself have a latte there.

This time he indulged in a mocha because Tierney insisted on paying for it. Dalton let him. The way the guy wouldn’t meet his eyes and his fidgety body language convinced him there wouldn’t be any more “I’m such a big dawg you should be into me” crap.

He hated to admit it, but humility did make the man a little, tiny bit more appealing. God, he was such a sucker for damaged men. Coming here was a horrible idea. “I can’t believe I agreed to have coffee with Tierney Terrebonne,” he muttered to himself while they waited by the barista’s counter for their drinks.

Tierney took a step closer to him. “Did you just say my name?”

Cringe. He hadn’t thought he’d said it loud enough to be heard over the espresso machine and other ambient noises. Dalton turned to him, forcing his eyes wide. “No. I was talking to myself, but I don’t think I said anything that sounded like ‘Mr. Terrebonne.’” Oh, seriously, that just sounded wrong now. He knew the man’s darkest secret, after all.

Tierney squinted. “Are you ever going to call me by my first name?”

“Um . . .” Too intimate. “If you insist, I suppose I’d have to.” Oh, that was gracious.

“I insist.” Tierney tipped his chin, and his nostrils flared. But then he shifted his weight and his air of command disappeared. “Please don’t call me that anymore.”

Did he have to look at Dalton that way? “Okay. Tierney.”

Zing.

Oh no.

Tierney compounded Dalton’s small attraction problem by smiling suddenly and brilliantly. “Thank you.”

“Tall mocha with whip,” the barista announced. Thank God for impeccable timing.

***

Dalton led them to a dark, semisecluded corner of the shop, and Tierney couldn’t help wondering why. Because he was sensitive to Tierney’s being in the closet, or because it was a good atmosphere for a serious talk between near strangers? Whichever, they sat down at a rickety table with thin, scrollwork iron legs that were all a different height. Every time either of them set their cups on the marble top, the whole thing rocked in a new direction, creaking.

That was the bulk of their conversation for the first few minutes. Dalton sipped and looked around, but didn’t say anything, just occasionally glanced across the table.

I need a drink. “I love the coffee here,” Tierney blurted.

Dalton nodded. “It’s good.”

“Yeah. The quality of my coffee’s almost as important as the quality of my bourbon.” Tierney took out his flask, tipping some liquid gold into his vanilla latte.

Dalton didn’t say anything, just tilted his head and watched.

Tierney put the flask back and gripped his mug between both hands, taking a few drinks, one after the other, letting it scald him a little but not to the point of real pain. “Yeah, I love coffee. Especially when I’m hungover. I buy beans here and make it at home. I have one of those machines that grinds the—”

Dalton’s fingers landed on Tierney’s forearm, and the babble pouring out of him stopped. The heat of the guy’s touch rolled over him, relaxing Tierney’s shoulders and loosening his chest enough to let him take a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“For what?” the dude asked.

Tierney turned his mug around by its handle. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“I don’t know, is it?” Dalton’s fingers slid away, back across the table.

God, did he have to say it? “For not telling Ian.”

“Well, I haven’t had a chance, but why are you so sure I won’t?” When Tierney jerked his head up, Dalton was blowing on his drink, as if the subject wasn’t important.

“You won’t.” Tierney swallowed. “Will you?”

Dalton arched his brow.

Tierney was familiar with anger in all its subtle shades, but it still took him a minute to puzzle out the source of Dalton’s irritation. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I mean, I don’t think you’ll tell him, but . . .” He couldn’t come up with any more explanation. “I didn’t plan on telling you at all.” Lame finish.

Dalton made a face at him, the adult version of sticking out his tongue. “Of course I won’t tell him. I wouldn’t do that. It would be like outing someone.”

Tierney blinked. “There are people who’d do it.”

“Would you? If it was me in your shoes?”

Tierney licked his lip. “I don’t really know you,” he hedged. It was true—they’d only seen each other twice and both times were weird circumstances. It didn’t matter that Tierney felt like he knew the guy better.

Dalton pursed his lips. “You know me as well as I know you.”

Tierney dropped his gaze, running his fingers up and down the sides of his cup. “I might.” He swallowed. “Out you.”

Dalton didn’t respond.

Tierney took a whack at explaining. “You gotta understand, I’m in charge of government affairs and PR for the company, and for us, PR means making sure the local politicians are indebted to us. I use every advantage I have over someone to get what I need. I manipulate people. That kind of attitude bleeds over into my personal life, I guess.”

Dalton eyed him, pinning him like a bug. “Do you have to do your job that way?”

“It’s how I do it.” Tierney shrugged nonchalantly. He hoped. “It’s how I was trained to do it, from freaking birth.” Nice. He’d sounded plenty bitter there.

“I don’t understand.” Dalton’s nose scrunched up, and Tierney found himself fascinated by the tiny details of his expression. The small lines and the way Dalton’s brows pulled in, and how blue his eyes were even in this light.

“Um, Metropolitan Ambulance is a family company,” he explained absently.

“So you were, what, groomed for this position?” More of that nose wrinkling, and now he’d tilted his head so shadows slipped into the hollows of his cheeks and the line of his chin, while the light glinted in his hair.

Dalton had to be the hottest guy he’d ever sat across from. Totally different from Ian, but sexy as hell.

“Tierney?”

Fuck, he was stunning. “Huh?” The shadows shifted again, sliding around to highlight other features of Dalton’s face, like the slight but graceful curve of his temple. For a brief second, Tierney recognized the sensation—kaleidoscopic. Just like the other night when he’d seen Grandfather’s body, things fragmented and changed, showing a new perspective or something like that. A different way to see his world. “Grandfather’s dead.”

Dalton leaned forward, his expression changing into one of concern. “Did you just say your grandfather died?”

“Yeah.” He sat back, shaking himself out of his fog. Christ, he must seem like a huge dork. “Yeah,” he repeated. “I did.”

“Oh.” Dalton’s face went wide—eyes opening farther and his lips parting. “I’m so sorry.”

“’S okay,” Tierney shrugged. “I hated the bastard anyway.” The dude—Dalton, not Grandfather—had a beautiful mouth. Sculpted. His fingers twitched, wanting to feel it and see if it was as smooth as it looked.

But Dalton was pulling back from him and closing up. Crossing his arms over his chest and hardening his jaw, the way he had earlier when Tierney’d pissed him off. What other reactions could he get out of the dude? Happiness? Sympathy? Desire? Affection? I want affection, something whispered inside him, so quietly Tierney could pretend he hadn’t heard anything.

“You do realize that makes you sound like a monumental prick?” Dalton asked, one eyebrow lifting.

“What?” Then it hit him, what he’d said. He squeezed his eyes shut for a second, as if that would reset this conversation. Like he could get a do-over. “Just . . . lemme explain?” His mind raced, trying to get a handle on exactly what reason he’d give for hating his grandparent, searching Dalton’s face for clues. Little hints of emotion that might tell Tierney which way to spin this.

Dalton regarded him steadily from under his light brows, lips in a tight, straight line.

Tell him the truth.

No way. He couldn’t do that, could he? He’d never told anyone . . . but Grandfather couldn’t touch him anymore. Tierney may not have a reason to come out, but he could do this much, couldn’t he? Tell someone why. Tell this guy why.

Don’t wanna do it.

He opened his mouth to say something else—pretty much anything—and Dalton was leaning toward him again, wrapping long fingers around his drink.

I care what he thinks.

“Um,” Tierney began, then had to clear his throat. Oh shit, he was going to tell him the truth, wasn’t he? “Um, see, a long time ago, like, before I was born, Grandfather started the ambulance company.”

***

Some people who said, “I hated my grandfather,” could be given the benefit of the doubt. Dalton would assume they had a justifiable reason for their feelings. In his experience, losing family was too painful for casual hatred, so someone who had personal integrity wouldn’t say that carelessly.

An hour ago, he never would have credited Tierney with having personal integrity; he was only here because the man needed a sympathetic ear. And Dalton’s sympathetic ear had heard something in the time they’d been here. Not words, per se, but hints of someone other than a two-dimensional guy with a skanky libido whose entire self-worth was tied up in designer clothes and a flashy car.

That kept Dalton seated, listening to Tierney talk about how his grandfather had gone from mechanic to ambulance company owner.

As Tierney told his story, more clues fell into place, painting a picture of his past—what had made him the man he was today. It didn’t take long to figure out the grandfather had had a lot of control over Tierney’s life, and that was the root of the hatred.

“So, see, Grandfather had specific ideas about how we should run the business and, like, conduct ourselves, and he wasn’t shy about ordering us to do what he thought we should, you know?” Tierney waited, as if he needed Dalton to confirm he’d followed this much.

“Mm-hmm.” Dalton nodded.

“He lived in the ‘guest house’ on our property. You know, I never met my grandmother?” Tierney spun his empty cup around, but didn’t seem to need a response this time. “She died before I was born, and he only had one painting of her in the house. No photos or anything; guess the old guy didn’t like her much.” He flicked a glance toward Dalton. “Is this boring?”

Not at all. “Not really.” He shrugged, not sure why he was pretending nonchalance. Maybe it had to do with his sense that Tierney didn’t normally share this much, and if Dalton overreacted, he’d shut down. “If you want to talk, I’ll listen.” Too much encouragement or too little?

Tierney sank into himself, shoulders pulling toward his ears.

Too little. “What did he do to you to make you hate him?” Oh no. Now he’d gone too far in the other direction. “Um, if you want to tell me.”

Tierney tucked his chin into his chest. “It’s kind of a long story.”

“I’ll listen.”

Swallowing, Tierney straightened up, revealing his pale face and the tightened muscles around his eyes. It made him look haunted. Or hunted. “He had lots of expectations, and he’d manipulate or bully me or whatever to make me live up to them.” He fiddled with his empty cup, turning it by its handle, then took a deep breath before continuing. “He grew up poor. I’m not even supposed to know that, you know? But Mother slipped up one night and mentioned it. So, he got rich and that meant, like, keeping up appearances. He married a socialite, and did everything he thought a guy of his station should do. And then his son came along, and he made sure his son did everything necessary to maintain the reputation of the family. Then his son married a socialite and had kids, and those kids had to live up to the family name.”

All at once Dalton knew where this was going. It was so obvious. A full-blown ache for Tierney bloomed in his chest as he leaned across the table. “A gay grandson wouldn’t be acceptable.”

“It’s not done by Terrebonnes,” Tierney whispered, staring into his mug. Then he moved, a blur of motion as he reached into his inner suit pocket and grabbed his flask, unscrewing the cap with a practiced twist of his fingers and dumping some more of the contents into his cup, then taking a drink. Not a gulp, but far more than a sip. “Fuck, I can’t believe I’m telling you this.” He swiped his sleeve across his mouth, everything changing with the motion and the words. His eyes narrowed and some of his mask fell back into place. “You already know too much about me and now . . .” He shook his head, frowning.

“I’m sorry.” Dalton took a chance, touching Tierney’s hand briefly, his fingertips brushing across the long bones on the back of it. Offering comfort, but also trying to reach that other side of him again. The real man.

“Dude.” Tierney sat back, pulling away, taking another drink as he glanced around the coffee shop. “I don’t— I’ve never told anyone that. Anyone.” His frown had grown into a glower that he trained on Dalton. As if Dalton had made him confess.

“I won’t repeat it.” But maybe Tierney should, because it would help everyone understand him so much more. See why he could be such a douche bag, and how much of his psyche was at stake. Trained from birth. Tierney’d said that about his career, but clearly acting the part was a habit ingrained into his whole being. The public facade was all about self-defense, which Dalton had already assumed, but now that he knew why, it didn’t seem so abhorrent. Or weak. Tierney was struggling to deal with his situation . . . or had Dalton read that wrong?

“I would’ve done it,” Tierney asserted. “If I’d had a real reason to come out, I would’ve defied the old guy. Told him to shove his trust fund up his ass,” he continued, thrusting his chest forward in that way men who were trying to prove their masculinity did.

Dalton picked up his stir stick from the table and put it into the dregs of his mocha, swishing it around, giving himself something to focus on besides Tierney. His hands held steady, but he jittered inside. “You have a reason now.”

“What?” Tierney jerked in his peripheral vision. “What reason?”

He glanced up to see the man’s face had gone pale again. “Well, it’s more that you no longer have a reason to stay in the closet now that your grandfather is dead.”

“What about the rest of my family?” Tierney’s machismo deflated as the words spilled out. He ran a hand through his hair, gripped it for a second, then released it. “Grandfather brainwashed them too.”

Dalton dipped his chin, in concession to the note of panic in Tierney’s voice rather than his words.

“Besides, it’s too fucking late for me.”

He laid down his stir stick, resting his hands faux-carelessly on the table. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”

“Thirty-four.”

That’s about what he would have guessed. “That’s a lot of your life left to stay in the closet.” He shouldn’t be pushing this. He believed each person had to come out in their own way; personal experience told him it was best. But it just seemed so obvious that Tierney could be an okay guy—maybe even a nice guy—if he’d drop the act.

“Yeah?” Tierney was back to glowering. “It’s my life. I thought we were here talking so you could, I dunno, express your sympathies, not psychoanalyze me. Or, like, fix me.” He shoved away from the table, chair legs scraping on the tile floor, but stayed seated, eyeing Dalton from the increased distance between them.

“I’m sorry,” Dalton said, even though he didn’t mean it. “I’m not trying to fix you. I just thought you might not see the situation clearly. Sometimes when people are too emotionally involved—”

“I’m not emotionally involved.” Tierney sliced his hand through the air and continued through clenched teeth. “Didn’t you hear what I said? I don’t have any reason to come out.”

Dalton blinked, trying to follow the logic.

“I don’t have any emotional involvements. Not now,” Tierney went on, then suddenly his glare became a sly twist of his lips. “Unless you wanna be my reason to come out?”

“I barely know you.” He winced on the inside. Could’ve come up with something more concrete.

Tierney brushed off that defense. “So? I haven’t known any of the guys who’ve sucked my dick as well as I know you.” He leaned forward, his mocking smile getting downright mean. “Besides, you think you know me well enough to tell me what to do.”

“That’s not what I—”

“Is that your game? Are you one of those dudes who’re on a crusade to make everyone come out?”

“No!” How did this happen so fast? Thirty seconds ago Tierney was the emotionally vulnerable one and now he’d turned the tables. The difference was that Dalton hadn’t been trying to twist the knife in the other man’s wounds. He took a calming breath. “I shouldn’t have said any of that earlier. It really is none of my business. I wanted to . . .” He couldn’t fight his nervous energy anymore, so he picked up his empty cup and held it between his palms, curling fingers around like it gave him warmth. “I thought I could help.”

“Oh, so that’s your angle, huh?” Tierney sneered. “You get off on giving ‘help.’ Is it a power thing, or are you a guy who needs to feel superior?”

Tierney’s words made sense, but Dalton still couldn’t quite grasp them, because the attack was so off base. “Is it really so hard for you to believe someone would be sympathetic to your situation and simply want to give you support?”

“Uh, yeah,” Tierney scoffed. “In my world? People don’t do anybody any favors unless they’re getting something out of it.”

“So, in your world, I’m getting an emotional payoff from exploiting your pain?”

One corner of Tierney’s contemptuous smile crumbled, like his defenses weren’t holding up, but he recovered, smirking. “Exactly.”

“I’m so sorry you think this way. Live this way.” Dalton leaned forward as he pulled his coat off the back of the chair, touching Tierney’s arm one last time. “I understand that you think no one is capable of being kind to you, but I’m not sitting here talking to you because I’m getting anything out of it.” He squeezed Tierney’s arm so hard he could feel the bone through the man’s suit jacket, then he let go and stood. “I just saw another human being in pain, and tried to make things better. I won’t make the mistake of thinking you want to escape your miserable existence again.”

As he walked away, he thought he heard Tierney mutter, “Better not, dude.” At the door, when Dalton checked the man’s reflection in the glass, he could make out Tierney’s sulking, slouching self, arms crossed over his chest. All alone in his personal emotional stew, which was apparently how he intended to stay.

Dalton had to tell the ache under his ribs to give it up numerous times as he drove home, but it didn’t listen.

from My Fiction Nook

From the moment I started reading, until the very last page, I laughed and giggled, but also winced, and there were a few tears in my eyes (damn onions) whenever Tierney reveals yet another of his layers.

from MM Good Book Reviews (by Pixie)

I recommend this to those who love angsty coming out stories, difficult relationships, fighting for control of your own life, discovering love at a sensitive time and a fantastic ending.

from Jenn D.

[A] great balance of funny and dealing with the serious issues.

from The Nocturnal Library

[T]his book will make you cry those ugly tears, but they’ll make the wonderful ending that much sweeter.