Citywide (A Five Boroughs novella collection)

Citywide by Santino Hassell
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-663-7
eBook release: 
Nov 13, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-664-4
Print release: 
Nov 13, 2017
Word count: 
100,000
Page count: 
367
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Five Boroughs universe.

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

A record-breaking heat wave engulfs the Five Boroughs, and emotions run as hot as the temperatures.

In Rerouted, Chris Mendez is trying to live a drama-free life. That doesn't include another threesome with Jace and Aiden Fairbairn. But then a citywide blackout leaves them trapped together, and Chris is forced to re-examine everything he thought he knew about relationships and his own heart.

In Gridlocked, former Marine Tonya Maldonado is keeping real estate heiress Meredith Stone on permanent ignore. Mere isn't Tonya’s type. Not even close. Who cares if she kisses like a dream and has the filthiest mouth this side of the East River? But then a security detail at a summer party ends with her saving Mere's life and discovering they have more chemistry than she’d ever imagined.

In Derailed, Stephanie Quinones escapes the heat and her complicated love life by going on a company retreat. Trouble is, it's a couples’ retreat, and she lied about having a boyfriend. Unfortunately, the only person willing to play pretend is her on-again/off-again fling, Angel León. They’re currently "off again,” but after a week in the woods, Stephanie realizes she wouldn’t mind them being permanently on.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Chapter One

Being the only computer-savvy person in my squad was starting to get old.

Don’t get it twisted—computers had been my passion since I was old enough to get my pudgy five-year-old hands on the monstrosity of a computer my father had gifted to my mother one Christmas. I don’t know what he’d pawned or what hustle he’d done to score a machine that, at the time, had run over three grand, but she’d been thrilled. I’d been pretty psyched up too.

After that, I was balls-deep in computer games by the time EverQuest had come out, and was rebuilding my own machines before most of my friends had internet access in their houses. Which was how I’d turned into the go-to for free IT labor for the past twenty goddamn years when it came to relatives and friends.

It. Was. Old.

Especially since it had topped out at a hundred and five degrees today, and the shitty air conditioner in my best friend’s home office wasn’t doing much more than making noise. My entire body was covered in a sheen of sweat despite the ceiling fan lazily swishing above my head.

I scowled at Raymond’s old-as-fuck HP and the components I’d carefully spread out around me. There was so much wrong with the machine that I didn’t know where to start. It was full of dust, the fan had malfunctioned some time ago, and his motherboard was so dated that it didn’t have the correct slots for the kind of graphics card he wanted. Or enough space for more RAM.

Sucking my teeth, I jerked a thumb at the machine. “Bro, you’re assed out. You’re going to need to buy an upgraded machine or buy the parts so I can build you one, because you can’t upgrade some shit from 2005 with brand-new parts. The motherboard won’t support them.”

No response.

I blew into the tower, sending dust flying, and waved my hand with a cough. “And considering how disrespectfully you treat your shit, I don’t feel like building you a bomb gaming machine just so you can turn it into another dirty piece of junk.”

No response.

I glanced up to the sight of Raymond . . . not even in the room. He’d flat left my ass to tinker with his dinosaur. Irritation ran through me as I got to my feet, dusting off my hands, to track my tall, longhaired asshole of a best friend to wherever he’d gone. After his older brother had married and signed over his half of the property, Raymond had taken over the old Rodriguez home with his boyfriend. It looked way different from the dark cluttered place I’d played in as a kid.

Every time I walked around and peeped at their home office, library, workout room, and attic-turned-library, a twinge of jealousy went through me. Not because I was hating on how well Ray had made out for himself over the past couple of years, but because I still felt stuck. I lived in the same cramped studio above a store on Jamaica Avenue that I’d scored after high school, I drove the same hoopty inherited from my grandfather that was going to break down on me for good any day now, and I had the same lack of a love life. That had all been fine a few years ago, but now I was twenty-seven and frankly . . . ready to move ahead.

“Ey,” I bellowed, jogging down the stairs. “I swear to God if I walk in on y’all fucking again . . .”

I had no good follow-up remark for that because I’d been promised some of David’s bomb spaghetti, and I wasn’t leaving until I got fed. Maybe my lack of a fulfilled threat would scare them into compliance. Fear of the unknown, right? Right.

Following the smell of sautéing garlic and onions, I found my wayward friend and his blond boyfriend in the kitchen. They weren’t having sex, thankfully, but the sight of Raymond pressed against David’s back, nuzzling the side of his face while David chopped vegetables was . . . weird. Not only did David trust Ray to not startle him into lopping off a finger, but it was utterly bizarre to see Raymond so affectionate.

For all my life, Raymond had been the king of back claps—he’d give me pound as a greeting and goodbye, but no hugs. No mushy shit. But right now? It looked completely natural for him to be glued to his man with that soft smile on his face, like they were made to be in that exact position. And they were also absolutely gorgeous together. David smiling in the deep sunlight of the early evening, and Raymond tall and strong with his long hair once again spilling down his back. It was like a Pinterest photo for relationship goals.

Something inside of me cracked, just a little, and I backed out of the room. Unfortunately, my sneaker hit the linoleum wrong, eliciting a sharp squeak, and Raymond glanced over his shoulder. His smile morphed into confusion, and ah fuck—I was busted looking all emo again. It’d been happening frequently over the past couple of months. Even more so in the past few weeks, after I’d finally deactivated my profiles on every dating app and deleted them off my phone.

“Uh, sorry,” I muttered and turned to rush out of the room. I lifted my Yankees cap to swipe my hand over my hair, nervous and suddenly antsy to get out of the house. It wasn’t going to happen, mostly because they would think I was an idiot, but also because I was still banking on dinner and the only food at my crib was allegedly imported ramen.

Footsteps trailed behind me as I jogged up the stairs to return to their office and Raymond’s busted computer. I plopped down on the floor, fully intending to dive back into the part of my world where things aligned appropriately, clicked together when they were supposed to, and made perfect sense, but David slipped into the room. Which, shit. I could tell Raymond to fuck off and he’d be fine with it because he’d been my boy forever, but I couldn’t be a dick to David.

“Food almost ready?” I asked, reaching for the canister of air. “Smells good.”

“Yeah, Stephanie gave me her recipe. I just pretend it’s mine.” David lingered by the door before shuffling closer to me. He sat on the floor, looking half Butler and half Rodriguez in tight shorts, but with a too-big sleeveless Nets jersey and Nike slides. “Are you okay?”

“Yup.”

“Are you sure?”

“Definitely sure.”

David frowned, worrying but not speaking, like he did when he wanted to help but wasn’t sure how. I’d noticed him in this spot a lot since he’d moved in with Raymond. He was constantly surrounded by Raymond’s Queens squad—the friends he’d grown up with in South Jamaica. We’d accepted David into our little crew, adopting him as if he was fam by proximity, but we all saw how careful he was about overstepping. Not wanting to insert himself too deep, or be too opinionated, because he was still finding his place. It drove me and Stephanie nuts, but I thought it was the reason why Tonya and Angel had warmed up to him.

“All right,” I said, relenting. “I guess seeing everyone be all domestic is starting to get to me.”

David nodded slowly, those warm brown eyes fixed on me as he probably took apart my statement and put it back together. “Why?”

“Because I’m always the odd man out? It’s been like this since high school, D. Everyone doing their thing—dating or getting laid—and me with my thumb up my ass flying solo.” I released a humorless chuckle. “You’d think that shit would have changed by now, but it hasn’t.”

“Why, though? You go on dates. I’ve seen you!”

It was true. OkCupid and Tinder hadn’t been unkind to me, but one-off dates or random hookups didn’t do it for me. Sure, I’d get laid, but . . . that really wasn’t what I wanted. Anyone could have sex, but sex had nothing on genuine companionship. And I was lonely. I had friends, but there was no one at home waiting for my text or call. No one waiting to light up a room when I walked in.

My brain flashed two faces in my mind, and a shiver ran through me. Nuh-uh. Off-limits fantasy. I corrected myself without indulging in wishful thing: there was no one waiting for me who would work in the long run. And I wanted a long run.

“I dunno, man,” I said with a sigh. “Something’s just always missing when I go out with a someone from OkCupid or whatever. I’ll meet a woman who is smart, pretty, ambitious—and we have a good time, but I’m not invested in it because we have no real connection, and I don’t know how to . . . make one happen.” I shrugged, frowning, wishing I could explain it better. “For me, I either click with someone straight off or I don’t. So me dating turns into me buying some woman food and us maybe even sleeping together, but it never goes any further except pointless dates and pointless sex that goes nowhere.”

David had folded his legs under him and was fanning himself. He sent a glare at the air conditioner, as if noticing for the first time that it wasn’t working. He probably didn’t use the room much. It had Rodriguez Cave written all over it, if I went by the empty energy drink cans and scattered game cases. Also, the giant Puerto Rican flag being used as a curtain.

“Okay, I’m going to just throw this out there,” he said tactfully. “Have you tried dating a guy?”

“Uh.” I glanced between him and the door, paranoid. “What do you mean by date?”

“Well . . . I know you’ve been with guys in the past . . .”

Jace kissed all over the column jutting between my thighs, showing it a lot of love. The tip of his tongue ran along every vein, traced the slit, and then went down to my balls.

I bit my fist and kept staring across the room at his husband—Aiden. My gaze flicked to his erection as it pressed against the thigh of his pants. Aiden kept his legs spread wide, obviously enjoying the attention even though he wasn’t touching himself just yet. He seemed to have more interest in watching me contort with pleasure as Jace took me down his throat.

“Oh, fuck yes,” I breathed. I braced both hands on the back of Jace’s head, gently helping him along as I bucked my hips. “Jesus Christ, you can suck.”

Across the room, Aiden drained his beer and set the bottle to the side. His gaze was molten, zeroing in on his man slobbering all over the erection between my thighs.

“Can anyone usually deep-throat that big dick?” he asked, voice hoarse.

Heat rose to my face. I fought the urge to jump up and flee the room. I had no idea why my friends knew so much about my slew of threesomes with Jace and Aiden Fairbairn, but I equally had no idea why it bothered me that they knew. When it came down to it, most of my friends were queer. Angel was the last hetero hold out. Why did it matter?

“I’ve only been with Aiden and Jace.” When David just looked at me calmly, waiting for me to add to the statement, my face grew hotter. “There was this other couple I met with . . .”

He leaned in, immediately intrigued. “Two guys?”

“No. A man and a woman.” The memory of that crash-and-burn experience still burned with mortification. “They didn’t say they were poly, though. So . . . not like Jace and Aiden.”

“Oh, so they wanted to try a threesome?”

“Yeah. Or . . . well . . .” I was pretty sure the exact thing had been her man having some cuckold fantasy. “I dunno, it was a sex thing. We met up a few times, but it was just him watching me and her? It was mad weird and awkward at first, but he seemed to get off on it.”

“Um. Did you get off on it? Because I always had the feeling that you actually liked being with two people? Not just participating in a voyeur kink.”

He was right. I’d wanted her husband to participate so we could all enjoy the experience together, but he’d just jacked it and watched. Then one day they’d invited me over while he was drinking, and he’d gotten jealous and flipped. Apparently, I’d worn out my welcome, even though I couldn’t pinpoint when it had happened. From my perspective, one moment we’d all been cool and the next . . . not so cool.

I didn’t know why I was so embarrassed thinking about it since nothing had actually happened except him asking me to leave, but . . . I couldn’t bring myself to tell David. Maybe because I’d known what they wanted would never replace the connection I’d had with Jace and Aiden the few times we’d slept together after the QFindr modeling shoot, and I’d tried anyway. I was that desperate to replicate the feeling of being wanted and shared by two people.

“It was okay,” I said finally. “But you’re right, it wasn’t what I wanted.”

David nodded slowly, frowning. I could tell he had a lot of questions, but he only asked, “Are you open to being with a man?”

“Yeah? I think. I mean, it can’t just be a sex thing if—” If I spent way too much time over the past year mooning over the what-ifs with two dudes. “—if I’d consider dating them, right?”

“Do you want to try dating them?” David asked hesitantly. “We can talk about it if you want.”

My first instinct was to change the subject, but why? If there was anyone safe to discuss this with without sarcasm and the playful joking of friends who’d known me forever, it was D. I stopped pretending to tinker with the computer and leaned against the wall, stretching my legs out in front of me.

“It’s like this. I’ve always been attracted to women. I always assumed I’d get a girlfriend, fall in love, we’d get married and have a few mini Mendez kids.” I thudded my head against the wall lightly. “But I’ve always been . . . comfortable with admiring a guy’s appearance. Like, Angel and Raymond? As a teen, it was hard not to notice how good-looking they were, although at first I chalked it up to jealousy. It wasn’t until I realized I, uh, didn’t mind looking at their dicks in their basketball shorts, or them all sweaty and shirtless at the park, that I wondered if there was anything else there.”

“Sounds familiar,” David said, smiling. “Except, for me, I had those thoughts super young. Like when I was in elementary. I thought at first I just wished I looked like the other boys because I was so soft and pretty, and people made fun of me for it.”

Frowning, I reached out to ruffle his hair. “Assholes.”

“Kids are awful,” he agreed, grinning. One thing about David that I loved was how huggable and touchy he was. Me and Stephanie were super affectionate, and it never fazed him. “But forget about me, keep talking. Raymond always knew he was into guys. He said he was just too lazy to hook up with one.”

I spluttered out a laugh. “Uh, yeah, sounds like him. But for me, I never had a huge urge to try to bone a guy. I just noticed them.” I swiped my hand under my hat again, cringing when it came back damp with sweat. “Anyway, it’s not like I can blame my lack of investment in relationships with women on some low-key desire to only be with dudes. Until recently, I never considered the idea with any seriousness. Like, there was no one I looked at and said, ‘Wow, I want to date them.’ You feel me?”

“Right,” David said, nodding. “Kinda heteroflexible, then?”

“Yeah, more or less. And I only know what that means because I went hunting down variations of queer labels after my second roll in the bed with Jace and Aiden. Obviously hetero didn’t apply to me as much as I thought it did. Or curious. But now that I know I’m for sure into guys, I don’t know if heteroflexible works.”

“You could just go with queer. Plenty of people think that works best for them.”

I’d never thought of that, and the suggestion was grounding. After realizing I wasn’t straight, I’d felt pressure to pick a label that would define me, but none of them had felt quite right.

“This convo is surreal, D. Those two got me so fucked up. Not just because I had to sit around and think about my bisexuality, but because that’s when all this morose shit started. That’s why I hooked up with that other couple even though it was weird.”

David hummed a bit. “Was it that . . . good?”

Aiden grabbed a handful of my hair from behind and jerked my head back so he could rumble in my ear. “Tell me you like it.”

“Bro, I fucking love it.”

He kissed my ear, then the side of my face, and back up again, all while steadily rocking against my hip. “I’m about to fill you up, so show me what that ass can do.”

“Yes,” Jace hissed. “That’s what I want to see.”

Aiden pushed my face away from him and grabbed my shoulders. He started in on me hard from the start, powering through and obliterating my nerves, as I panted open-mouthed and pushed back on him.

It wasn’t enough.

I wound up riding back onto his dick with such force that his hips slapped against my ass loudly in the silent room. He stopped gripping my shoulders in favor of grabbing my hips.

“Oh yeah,” he said breathlessly. “Just like that, Chris.”

I managed to keep the ass-clapping rhythm until Jace reached beneath me and started again with the earth-shattering handjob. Jesus Christ, they were trying to kill me.

“I’m—”

I didn’t even get the word out before my orgasm tore through me like a storm—lighting me up with bolts of pleasure that whited out my vision. Aiden shoved my head down and went harder, his pace punishing, until he rammed in as far as he could go and came with a shout.

“Uh. Yeah. Oddly, some of the best sex I’ve ever had in my life has been during threesomes,” I admitted. “Which, I know that’s weird for you to know since some of those were years ago with Steph and Ray, but it’s true. There’s just something really dope about sharing intimacy that way. Being that close to two other people at the same time is like being in the best fucking sandwich ever. All the giving and taking and giving . . .” I glanced over at David and cringed at his raised eyebrows. “Yeah, I’m going overboard.”

He laughed and waved his hands. “No way. I’m just surprised, I guess. You sound super poly for someone who only ever had dreams of a nuclear family.”

“Tell me about it. But I guess I only ever assumed I’d have a nuclear family because I come from a Catholic-as-fuck PR family. There weren’t any other options presented until recently.” I gave my head one last thud for good measure, then peeked at him from beneath the bill of my cap. “Can you give me some sage dating advice to help me out here?”

David snorted out a laugh, his eyes crinkling. “You want advice from me? Dude. I’ve been with Ray for almost three years this coming fall, and I am still a ball of jealous rage anytime anyone looks at him twice.”

“Because you’re a little blond territorial grizzly bear,” I said, snickering.

“‘Little’! Excuse you, sir. I am taller than you.”

I flipped him off without denying it. Mendez folk rarely topped out any higher than five foot eight, and I’d owned that years ago.

“Just give me advice,” I pressed. “You may be possessive as fuck, but you got my growly, mean-mugging, apathetic bastard bestie to fall in super-sappy love with you, so you must know some tricks to the trade.”

“I don’t though,” he said. “I mean, I get what you’re saying. I’ve been there. When I was with Caleb, we stayed together only because we thought it made sense, but we didn’t have chemistry. It was obvious it was never going to go anywhere.” David bit his lip, brows shooting together like they often did when he discussed his past relationship. “And unlike you, who doesn’t keep pushing it once you realize a relationship isn’t going anywhere, we tried to force it, until we were both miserable.”

“Then you met Ray,” I said, smiling.

David’s face lit up. “Yes. Then I met Ray. And with him . . . I don’t know. Whenever I thought about who made me feel happiest, most at home, most wanted, it was his face that came to mind. When we were together, it felt right. And I would imagine a future where we were always together, and that would feel right too.”

Every word he said pinged in my brain and brought back memories of my trysts with the Fairbairns. We’d only been together a handful of times since meeting at the photoshoot last summer, but each and every one was ingrained in my mind. The way Jace would greet me with a hug and a shy smile, while Aiden looked on happily before kissing us in turn. Lying in bed wrapped up with them while UFC played in the background, Jace asking me questions while Aiden ordered takeout on his phone. The overwhelming feeling of being desired by both and being included in their world every time they’d pleaded with me to spend the night. How easily we’d fallen into a pattern of work and play the couple of times I’d spent the weekend with them. Aiden was often preoccupied with his job even on days he was supposed to have off, but there was never any tension about it when we were all together.

It had been eerie how quickly my brain had supplied images of myself with them for the long term. Me making dinner with Jace after work as we waited for Aiden to stumble home from his increasingly long days at QFindr—the start-up for the queer dating app he’d created with his half brother Caleb and Caleb’s boyfriend Oli—then us all unwinding together in front of the TV or with some beer while we shared stories about our days. No one ever feeling left out or forgotten or alone, just three dudes filling all the empty spaces left behind when there had only been two.

It had been so easy to imagine, but it was just a dream. Even though I’d clicked with them in that instant, magical way I so rarely clicked with anyone, I seemed to be the only one imagining that there’d someday be more than sex. It had taken a couple of months for me to catch on, but then I’d realized we weren’t going on dates. I wasn’t included in this huge life they had. And they still fucked other people. Regularly.

I’d always known they were open, but part of me had hoped maybe they’d . . . call me if they wanted a third. That was the moment when I’d checked myself and started pulling further and further away.

“You’re thinking about Jace and Aiden?”

I nodded, scowling.

David studied me, his pale-blond hair a golden halo in the late-evening sunlight streaming through the window. It was easy to see why Raymond had fallen for him when he was like this—thoughtful and quiet and trying to think of the best way to help without pushing too hard. On instinct, I bopped his nose. He smiled.

“Can I ask how the hell you got mixed up with those two?”

I fell back against the wall with a huff, thinking about the previous summer. It seemed like a lifetime ago when Raymond had approached me, Steph, and Tonya about the idea of modeling for the QFindr promotional campaign. He’d been so pumped about the plan—for the money and because he was finally owning his sexuality. His relationship. His entire self. Part of me had felt the same, even though I’d still been so confused about what I’d wanted from a relationship. Though some of that confusion had faded as soon as a set of laser eyes had focused on me . . .

“Jace,” I said with a fond smile. “He latched on to me at the QFindr shoot like a kid who’d just found a new toy. He had no idea if I was straight or queer, but he teased and flirted and propositioned, and I think he really enjoyed the fact that I joked along instead of getting all freaked out and panicky, you know? Except, then I realized he wasn’t joking, and we started texting, then he added Aiden into a group text, and I realized I really fucking liked talking to them both . . .”

David was nodding, his big brown eyes so wide that he looked like one of those Precious Moments dolls. I nudged him.

“Keep going,” he urged. “This is good shit.”

“Not really.” I snorted. “We scheduled a hangout and rescheduled a bunch of times before I finally agreed to go chill with them. Because, like, part of me knew they wanted to fuck, and part of me was still trying to pretend we were just gonna kick it and watch the fight.”

“And you fucked,” David said helpfully.

“We did both, actually. Had bomb sex, watched the fights, ate dinner, fucked some more.” I could feel my face warming as I said the words, which was weird because I wasn’t exactly a shy dude, but I’d never discussed sex with David before. It was sort of like admitting to a close relative that I watched hard-core gangbang porn. “Uh, anyways, it was weird because . . . I could feel myself getting too attached in that one weekend. Legitimately daydreaming about how dope it would be to feel that content and wanted on the regular, and those thoughts intensified after I hooked up with them a second time. But they’re still open, and sleeping with other people, so I backed off because it bothered me. It’s not like I was going to ask them to change their relationship and lifestyle for some dude they’d fucked a couple of times.”

David cringed. “Chris, you don’t know if that’s all they think of you.”

“But I don’t know that it’s not, either. They never said anything different. Most of all, they never dialed my number instead of going to Liberty X to hit up a sex party. So . . .”

He cringed deeper. “Did you tell either of them you had feelings for them beyond sex?”

“Fuck no. Not everyone is like me and catches feelings after a couple of rolls in the bed.” My face burned as I said it, but I knew David wouldn’t judge me. “Besides, after a lifetime of growing up and being rejected for other people—namely Ray and Angel—I’ve learned to cut my losses and run.”

David looked so bummed out for me that I pinched his cheek in the hopes I’d get a smile. He did so reluctantly. “You kept seeing them sometimes, though. Why didn’t you tell them then?”

“Because it was only whenever we happened to see each other at a QFindr event or at a party.”

“Like Caleb and Oli’s party around the holidays?” David asked dryly. “When Raymond confronted Aiden like an angry dad?”

I bobbed my head. “Yup. That was embarrassing.”

“It was ridiculous. Raymond is so overprotective.”

“Yeah, but it’s because he’s known since we were kids how sensitive I am about dating.” Still though, I’d been pissed at Raymond after hearing the story of him cornering Aiden and getting in his face. Apparently, he’d demanded what Aiden’s intentions were toward me, and Aiden had avoided answering. Probably because he’d had no real intentions other than blowing my socks off in a coatroom. “And it’s not like Aiden had some impressive answer for him.”

“Yeah, but that could be because Raymond literally threatened to punch him. I had to drag them apart.” David shook his head and rolled his eyes. “So, that’s why you’ve been so moody for the last . . . three months?”

“Yup,” I said, popping the p. “I’m just tired of being single, man. Since I was a kid, I’d crush hard for one person and then mope for ages when it turned out to be only on my end, then give up and angst. I have a romantic heart, D.”

David gave me a high five. “You and me both. But, just so I’m clear, you never plan to tell Jace and Aiden that you have feelings for them? Ever?”

I shook my head, going for a light tone even though my gut coiled. “Not unless something changes. I try to avoid crushing rejection whenever possible. But even if they did also have feelings for me, I can’t handle being in an open relationship. My self-esteem would drop lower than it already is, my guy.”

David sighed slowly. “Yeah, I get it. I’m not secure enough for that kind of relationship arrangement either, even though I am in total awe of people who are.”

“Same, but I’m too old to go along with some shit I know would end with hurt feelings and drama. There’s zero point. I can be with two people, but I can’t be with two people who also want to have casual sex with . . . other people.”

“I understand.” David reached over to pat my leg, looking fretful and sad for me and the throuple that would never happen. “So, what are you going to do? From what I’ve heard from Steph, Jace gets swoony when he talks about you.”

“He talks about me with her?” The question came out fast and probably reeked of boyish desperation, but it had never occurred to me that they’d discuss me with other people. Not in a “swoony” way. “What did he say?”

David smiled. “I don’t know the details, but she was surprised at how smitten he seemed when he talked about wanting to get you in bed again.”

The knowledge warmed me. My entire adolescence and adulthood had been full of incidences where people passed me over for my taller, buffer, or hotter friends, but Jace and Aiden had not been shy or subtle about their desire for me. It was nice to know it persisted. Too bad it apparently only went back to us going to bed together.

Maybe he got swoony talking about us having sex again, but I got swoony thinking about his big dark eyes and the way they lit up whenever he was entranced by a book. Because that was a thing he did—read when he thought everyone else was sleeping. Sometimes I thought he didn’t sleep much at all.

“Maybe I’ll stop actively avoiding them and see where things go, but I’m not going to set my hopes on them to find my brand of domestic bliss.” I waved my hand vaguely. “Uh, whatever that brand is.”

David nodded, but he looked so sad for me that I wanted to smack myself in the head. Way to bring the whole party down.

“You fuckers done being emo?” Raymond called from the bottom of the stairs. “Because it’s like two thousand degrees in this kitchen, and I’ll be damned if I slave over this sauce by myself.”

David and I looked at each other with matching smirks before rising with identical sighs.

“I’m coming, drama queen,” he shouted down.

“I’ll help,” I offered. “Cooking is superior to trying to upgrade his crappy computer in this hot-ass room. Why is it so hot in March, anyway?”

David groaned and headed to the door. “Global warming? It sucks balls. This place is like a furnace in the summer, so I’m dreading summer if spring is already this fucking hot. Not to mention that weird stuff always happens during heat waves in this city. I guarantee the next few weeks will be full of drama.”

I sure as hell hoped not. The only way to get out of my funk was to go back to basics and enjoy the parts of my life that made me happy without complications: computers, UFC, and car rides with my windows down and music up. Anything more complex needed to take a back seat for now.

 

Chapter Two

I got the message as soon as we sat down to eat. One ping, then two, then three steady chirps of my phone indicating someone was trying to contact me with the quickness.

“Who dat?” Raymond asked around a mouthful of spaghetti. He hadn’t inquired about my mini meltdown after seeing him love on his guy, and he probably never would. He knew I’d let him in on the details if I wanted him to have them. “Tell them to fuck off during dinner.”

“You sound like your mother,” I informed him, grinning. “She was so pissed that cell phones were a thing when we were kids. She’d make a big pot of arroz con pollo, and then we sat there glued to our shit while stuffing food down our throats.”

Raymond smiled, and his gaze flicked to the wall before going back to his plate. They’d left up one of the ornate wooden etchings she’d brought back from Puerto Rico one summer. In exchange, they’d taken down the dozens of crosses.

“We need to invest in a better cooling system,” David grumbled. He’d sat back from his plate to fan himself. “We don’t have a window unit for every room, and it’s so expensive . . .”

They launched into a debate over fans versus window units, and the magic of central air, which was a rare find in NYC, while I slipped my phone from my pocket. Caleb Stone’s name glared up at me.

Huh.

Caleb: Hey Christopher.

Caleb: I know you worked with us on the QFindr photoshoot, but I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a pickle right now, and I might need to hire you for something other than how photogenic you are.

Caleb: I heard you’re an IT wizard.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Another fucker trying to use me for my mad computer skills? Although, he’d said hire . . .

Chris: Sure. What happened?

Caleb: This heat wave is killing us. We had a power surge, and I think the server racks we keep for the office are fried. The shared hard drives seem corrupted, and everything is a mess. Is it possible to restore the data? We had source code stored there.

Chris: You didn’t also have it in the cloud?

Caleb: :/ No. Oli was possessive of it and afraid of it being hacked or stolen.

Chris: Yiiikes. The app still up and running?

Caleb: Yes, those connect to servers that are stored elsewhere.

Chris: Okay, good. Well . . . I mean, it’s hard to say with just that description, yanno? When did this go down?

Caleb: We realized the damage . . . now. The last power surge was a few hours ago.

At six o’clock on a Friday. I’d left work at three today and was usually kept on a tight schedule, so I could imagine that QFindr staff had left already as well.

Chris: You don’t got any emergency IT dudes to come in?

Caleb: No. We’re still running with a very small staff, and our IT manager is visiting his mother in Florida. Aiden has been filling in for him, but his skills are limited in this capacity, and we’re frankly panicking.

Caleb: Aiden mentioned that you’re basically a walking computer so . . . I was hoping I could entice you to save us?

I reread the sentence several times, but my gaze kept zooming in on Aiden’s name. Given I’d just been moping over him, it was no wonder I was now obsessed with the fact that he had recommended me, even though it literally meant nothing. I was the “IT wizard” he happened to know, and that was all. It didn’t mean this was some sly way to get me in their office so he could woo me. Which was unfortunate. The very idea of seeing that red-stubbled square jaw and his beefy biceps made me feel funny in my pants. And the idea of us camping out with pizza and beer while I tried to put their electronics back together made me want to smile dorkily.

That was why this was a bad fucking idea. Even after I’d just decided to quit avoiding them and see if something happened, I was already mooning over theoretical hang-out sessions. Not even the sex part of those hang-out sessions. I just wanted to sit with him and chill.

Caleb: I’ll pay you a hundred an hour for however long it takes.

Chris: Fuck, dude, I’m not sure that’s a normal amount of money.

Caleb: That doesn’t matter. What matters is fixing this immediately.

I gnawed on my lower lip. That was decent money if I wound up stuck in their office for more than a couple of hours, but . . . I wasn’t sure I was prepared to face Aiden just yet. I needed a few beers and an amp-up speech to tell myself I could either keep it platonic or do sex with zero feels, and both seemed impossible.

Chris: Uh, how about you get back to me if you can’t find anyone else. K?

Caleb: Okay.

I instantly felt like shit, but this was self-preservation. I was good at making big statements about keeping my blah life simple and uncomplicated to avoid the hurt feelings that would inevitably come from ménages with poly folk, but things were bound to get nice and complex if I gave in.

“What’s up?” Raymond asked, nodding at my phone. “You’re making weird faces.”

“Oh. Nothing.”

He arched a brow. “So you’re just over there having a stroke?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I said. “All this heat is getting to me.” Ray glared, and I snickered. “Caleb asked if I could swoop by QFindr’s office and save their asses after a heat-induced computer issue. I’d probably make a few hundred easy.”

Raymond nodded slowly, chewing on a meatball with his brows all bunched together.

“I’m not doing it,” I added.

His brows smoothed, and I wasn’t even surprised. I’d asked him to back off on the overprotective stuff after his standoff with Aiden at Christmas, but I knew he was still wary of them. Of all of them, actually. Even Meredith, Ashton, and Charles, who were Stephanie’s new pals. I’d once asked what his deal was, and he’d flatly said he didn’t trust a bunch of rich white people who seemed to be trying to diversify their sex lives with his friends. Honestly? I couldn’t blame him.

“You sure? The money sounds good,” David said, not catching the hint or maybe not caring. He ignored his boyfriend’s irritated look. “Unless you’re tired of being the go-to IT guy for everyone.”

Leave it to David to be Mr. Diplomatic. Give me a reason for and against the decision without any personal bias, while ignoring the big elephant in the room. I’d probably hash out the pros and cons with him if Raymond wasn’t glaring at my phone as he stabbed a meatball with his fork.

“Nah, I’m good.” I looked around the table and pushed my chair back. “I’m gonna grab more bread.”

It gave me an excuse to avoid their watchful eyes and to get my shit together, because damn, I wasn’t used to being this scrutinized. I wasn’t used to having anything resembling drama. Out of all of us, I was the most low-key person in the squad, and I planned to keep it that way. So, I got the Italian bread and spent the next hour talking UFC, baseball, and food. By the time I left their house to head to my hoopty, I was too full for how hot it was outside and craving a cold beer.

I yanked the door open, dropped into the ripped leather seat of a Mazda that hadn’t seen any love since the early nineties, and turned the key. What I got in exchange was nada. It didn’t even stutter. Legit made zero sounds.

I stared at the steering wheel as sweat dripped down the side of my face, adding to my overwhelming feeling of being an overstuffed, overheated mess. A mess with a dead car.

“Carajo,” I muttered, slamming my fist against the steering wheel. “Always fucking something . . .”

With my tail between my legs, I returned to the house to let David and Raymond in on my misfortune, got a ride back to my apartment on the Avenue, and then stood in front of it feeling like an asshole. I should have called a tow truck to tow the fucking heap of metal to a junkyard and made a few bucks that way, although one of Tonya’s cousins could probably hook me up with a chop shop that would make me more.

There was no way I was going to sink money into repairing it. What I needed was money for a down payment on a new ride. Just like I’d been telling myself to save money for a down payment on another apartment. One off the fucking Avenue I’d been walking since childhood.

With a suck of my teeth and a lot of reluctant rocking on the balls of my feet, I pulled out my phone and called Caleb.

* * * * * * *

“Thank you so much for coming.”

“No prob, man.”

Caleb locked the glass door behind us as we stepped into the QFindr office, and I had to pick up my jaw from the floor. I always heard stories about how Facebook and Spotify started, the tale of the original founders and how it was once grassroots, and it was hard to believe because now they were mega corporations, but as I looked around QFindr HQ, I believed it.

The sorta-shitty queer dating app that I’d helped to alpha and beta test had morphed into something used internationally with gleaming glass offices in downtown Manhattan. I’d known it was a big deal when we’d done the photoshoot and my face had wound up on posters on buses and in the subway, but . . . somehow seeing a physical space made it real. When we’d done the photoshoot, they’d still been working out of a smaller rented space uptown.

“You really made out for yourself,” I said, trailing behind Caleb. He was wearing a three-piece suit, and I had on basketball shorts and sandals. I did a little tap dance as I followed him, ensuring the backs of my sandals slapped against the shiny floor.

Caleb looked over his shoulder, startled, and laughed. “What are you doing?”

I shrugged, grinning. “Being dumb.”

His eyes crinkled at the sides. “You’re adorable.”

Oh God. That word again. The bane of my entire life. Since junior high, I’d been the adorable one with the cute nose and dimples, the guy a little bit shorter than the rest, who’d been passed over for my giant muscular friends. But I wasn’t trying to fuck Caleb, so I just winked and kept following. I did sneak in a couple of more jigs on the way.

The main part of their space was open concept except for larger offices at each corner. I looked around, on instinct, and wondered which office was Aiden’s.

“Here we are,” Caleb said, leading me to a narrow room.

It was similar to the space we had at my job, where we stowed the racks of on-site servers. Just a narrow, chilly room with a few hard-core terminals that usually did nothing but exist for the rest of the network to access from everyone’s individual computers. Except, the last time our servers had seen damage, we hadn’t lost anything valuable. Definitely not anything like source code for an app worth millions.

Caleb hovered behind me. “How long will it take?”

“I don’t know until I start looking at it all,” I said. “I should be able to recover data with software instead of using a clean room, but—”

“What’s a clean room?” The worry in Caleb’s brow tripled. “That sounds frightening.”

“It’s a sterile environment for computer parts to be taken apart and worked on. But, like I said, we won’t need that.”

It didn’t seem to matter that I was reassuring him. Caleb was balls-deep in meltdown mode. I could see it in the way he gripped the front of his jacket and gnawed on his lower lip. A little shred of panic hit me, because while I knew the dude, I didn’t really know the dude. I wasn’t equipped to prevent a full-on coronary.

Ugh. I definitely hadn’t counted on him sticking around and flipping out the entire time I worked. I knew what I was doing, but doing my job while an anxiety-ridden millionaire bit his nails and stared at me was a setup for disaster. The only times I made mistakes were when people micromanaged me.

But how the hell could I ditch him when he was paying me a hundred bucks an hour to save his ass?

“Uh . . .” I rubbed the back of my head. “So . . .”

“Chris here yet?”

Aiden’s voice boomed through the office like he’d spoken through a megaphone. It should have been annoying, especially when each word dripped with the remnants of an old-school Irish American Queens accent that would grate coming from anyone else, but my lips turned up in a smile.

Aiden had a presence like the sun—warm and bright—and he commanded the attention of everyone who had the pleasure of being close to him. It had the same effect on me that’d been there from the start. Wanting to be close to him, to bask in his personality and big mouth and brawn, while also standing a bit taller to make sure he knew I measured up. I had a big personality too.

He strode up to us, and I struggled to keep my eyes on his face. Tough, considering his thick muscular thighs were looking more delicious than usual in a pair of dark pinstriped shorts and his biceps were exploding out of a short-sleeved white button-down. He had on fucking boat shoes, and my mouth still watered at the sight of his muscular legs. But I kept my expression the very definition of unaffected as I jerked my chin at him in greeting, even though looking at him from the neck up wasn’t much easier. The last time I’d stood before those big green eyes, broad jaw, and laughing mouth, he’d been gripping the side of my face, ginger stubble rubbing my cheek raw, as he fucked me and Jace played with my dick.

“’Sup, Red?” I drawled, all no big deal that we were in the same room for the first time in what felt like months. “What it do?”

Aiden looked me over, a long slow sweep up and down my body, before giving me the same tough-guy head nod. I didn’t know if his nonchalance was for Caleb’s benefit—who was apparently a real stickler for ethics within their company—or for me, since I’d been ignoring his texts for a while now.

“Shit’s not great with this fucking heat,” Aiden complained. “The power’s been blinking since the temp shot up this past weekend. Thanks for coming.”

“No sweat,” I said. “Wasn’t doing anything, anyway.”

“Really?” Aiden slid his phone out of his pocket and glanced at it, still talking. “I figured you’d be going out to the club.”

Heh. He thought he was so slick. When we’d first met, my Friday night MO had been to go drinking and dancing and spend a couple of hours flirting with pretty girls more for the fun of it rather than to truly try to get some culo. Even during the stretches of time when all we did was bullshit in a group text, Aiden had found a way to ask whether I’d met anyone on those nights out. I’d thought his apparent possessiveness had meant something, but we’d stuck to the same routine of fucking infrequently with no changes at all, so I’d eventually assumed his interest didn’t imply deeper feels.

I shook my head, not bothering to answer, and Caleb kept fretting over the servers. He was too distressed to chastise his half brother for interrogating the IT kid about his sex life, which meant he needed to take his ass on home before he started making me nervous.

“Okay, I’ll be real,” I told him. “I have no idea how long this will take, but I’m committed to staying late tonight and coming back tomorrow. You don’t need to stick around and watch.”

“I don’t mind,” Caleb said. “I’ll just worry the whole time if I go home.”

Grimacing, I glanced at Aiden. All it took was half a second of eye contact, and he understood. I could tell by the way he clapped a hand on Caleb’s arm to wheel him around, murmuring encouraging nonsense in a steady stream that Caleb was too polite to interrupt.

I watched their retreating backs, weirded out and a little turned on. I’d fucked Aiden Fairbairn only a few times in the past year, and yet he could read me like he’d been riding shotgun inside my body all along.

Shaking myself, I turned away from the server room to find something to write on. It was time to get to work and earn my money, not get hung up thinking about sex and two dudes I had no business obsessing over. It was usually easy to shift my brain from the wistful longing of a lonely bastard to nerd mode, and this time was no exception. I came up with a list of everything I’d need to do, and the supplies I might need, because a physical list always did more for me than a mental one.

It wasn’t until I finished scribbling did I look up to see Aiden leaning against the doorway. He looked like porn with his muscular arms and bedroom eyes, a big lug from the Rockaways who wanted to take care of me real good even though his method bordered on the right side of rough, but I managed to glance past him.

“Where’s Caleb?”

“Sent him home to Oli.”

“Appreciate it,” I said. “I work better alone, and he was on that next level of worried. Would have paced behind me the whole damn time.”

“He would have.” Aiden extended his arm to flick the bill of my cap. “What are you gonna do to thank me for saving you from that experience?”

I left my cap skewed sideways and arched my scarred brow at him. If there was one thing to be said about Aiden, it was that he never changed. He knew what he wanted and he’d come at you like a bull to get it.

“You didn’t sabotage your own company just to set up some weird-ass seduction, did you? Because I’mma tell Caleb, and that poor bastard won’t ever forgive you.”

Aiden burst out laughing, eyes twinkling, as he yanked me into one of his big bear hugs. I was a strong dude, but he had so much mass on me that I felt dwarfed once he squeezed. I’d been brought up affectionate, so I felt qualified to say that Aiden gave the best hugs. Second maybe only to Nunzio.

“You always smell so good,” Aiden rumbled in my ear. “I could fucking eat you.”

I scrambled my way out of his muscular arms and backed away, holding out a wagging finger. It was ridiculous, especially when he began advancing on me like a red-haired panther in his slick biz cas outfit while I slid all over the floor in my chanclas.

“Calm yourself, Aiden. I’m here to work, not to fuck.”

“You can do both.”

Aiden lunged at me. Lunged. Like a cartoon character. Or a horny Batman villain. Laughing incredulously, I spun away from him and took off running through the great purple expanse of QFindr offices.

“I’m going to spank that round ass of yours when I catch you,” he called after me. “Fucking brat.”

I skidded to a stop by a strange array of standing desks and workout equipment lined up along a wall of windows. He’d loped behind me, grinning broadly, and clearly enjoying my shenanigans. He always did. They always did. My refusal to act like an adult eighty percent of the time was ninety percent of my charm.

“We’re not fucking, you big orange bastard.”

“‘Orange’?” Aiden huffed. “Don’t be a dick.”

“My bad. We’re not fucking, you big ginger bastard.” I waggled my eyebrows at him. “Better?”

“Much.”

Aiden crossed the distance between us in two long strides and grabbed the front of my shirt. He was all over me again, barely giving me room to think or breathe or exist without him touching me. His tongue lashed against my mouth with a wet demand for entrance that I instantly acquiesced to. I slanted my mouth, groaning when he slid his hot tongue inside, and slammed my hips against his as he gripped me tight with his huge hands.

The last time I’d tasted that Aiden flavor of chewing gum and beer had been a couple of months ago at Stephanie’s birthday party. The event had been a strange mix of working class and celebutante, with my boys from the block rubbing elbows with her new friends from the Upper West Side. We’d had a blast partying until dawn at her friend Mere’s fairy-tale mansion, but it had been Aiden and Jace in the spare bedroom with their quick hands that had really blown my mind. While everyone danced and drank and enjoyed each other two floors below, Jace and Aiden had shared my body.

Aiden pressed his fingers to my lips, trying to shush me, but nothing worked except for him sliding them into my mouth. I sucked messily as my hands shook where they were gripping Jace’s shoulders.

He was squeezing me so tight, slamming back on my dick relentlessly, and it was almost too much. Between the feel of being encased by his tight muscles and heat, and Aiden inside my own ass, I was losing my mind. The perfect rhythm I’d managed just a moment ago was a disaster, and I could feel my orgasm approaching.

“More,” Jace pleaded, gripping the metal headboard and rocking backward. “Chris, please. Just use me.”

Aiden’s hips rutted against me in a particularly violent thrust. His groan was muffled as he released, and I imagined him biting his fist. Once he pulled out of me, I flipped Jace onto his back, pressed his knees back, and fucked him until he was shouting and coming without touching his dick.

“Fuck,” he whispered, once we’d collapsed in a sweaty pile. A dreamy smile crossed his lips, eyes shut, as I trailed kisses down his face and neck. “I haven’t come that hard since that night at Liberty with the football players.”

My entire body went rigid, my heart slamming in my chest. When Aiden chuckled and ruffled Jace’s hair, my stomach sank.

Even the memory felt like a kick in the nuts. I hadn’t been angry, because I’d known they went to Liberty X. I’d known my experiences with them were random flings. For all I knew, the football player hookup had been months or even years ago. And yet, my jealousy had nearly strangled me until I’d abruptly bailed on them. Cue the lack of returning text messages and avoidance.

I jerked away from Aiden, breathing hard. He didn’t get the hint, or maybe didn’t notice I was trying to nudge one in his direction. He cupped my face and trailed wet kisses along my jaw, making soft sounds of pleasure as though he was worshipping me with every touch.

“Stop,” I rasped. “I’m here to work.”

“You can work later.” Aiden stopped pawing me only when he realized I was continuing to hold my body away from his. He searched my face, brow furrowed and meaty hands now placed on his hips. “What’s wrong?”

“We haven’t seen each other in a while.” I straightened my hat and took deep breaths, trying to check my pulse as if that would deflate my throbbing erection. Judging by the way his gaze slipped down and stayed, he could see it clearly outlined in the shiny material of my shorts. Like I’d said so many times before—God had clearly taken the inches off my height and added them to my cock. “Maybe we should catch up before we go straight to slanging dick.”

“Why not both?” he rumbled, sounding baffled and ferocious. “I’ve missed you. Especially since you’ve been scarce in the group text. Couldn’t even lure you out with talk of the Diaz brothers fighting or the new PlayStation console.”

I wiped my lower lip with my knuckles, avoiding his eyes to sweep around the office, as if some wayward QFindr employee could have seen our make-out session. There was zero chance anyone was around, but chasing phantoms was preferable to looking at Aiden while guilt slunk around the pit of my stomach. It snuffed out my arousal and left me feeling cold.

Now that we were facing each other, I felt like an asshole for bailing on them with no explanation. And for avoiding the texts. I should have explained. I should get over my insecure bullshit and explain now. Or at least after I finished the job Caleb had hired me to do.

“Listen, we should probably talk about all this shit,” I said after a beat of silence. “But we need to do it after I fix the servers, and when Jace is here. The three of us being one hundred percent real once and for all.”

Aiden had gone from confused to wary and now appeared flat-out alarmed. “All right, well, Jace is on his way.”

So much for buying time and gathering my thoughts.

“Why is he even—”

The lights in the office went out, leaving me and Aiden standing next to the window cast in nothing more than shadows and the light from the moon.