Elliott Meyer is a dedicated student . . . and a part-time sex worker. College is expensive, and after his mother’s death left his family struggling, he’s desperate to avoid drowning in debt. Problem is, he just lost his only client. Time to hit the clubs and find a new benefactor before bills start piling up.
Enter Aiden Kent: rich, handsome . . . and the nephew of Elliott’s former client. Rather than letting this drive a wedge between them, Aiden offers Elliott an opportunity. Aiden’s stressed out and has no time for a relationship. He’s eager to hire Elliott to provide all the benefits of a boyfriend with none of the responsibility. And they both swear it’s only a little weird.
But when their business arrangement starts to become a full-on relationship, things get complicated. Elliott won’t accept money from a romantic partner, and Aiden won’t continue their relationship if Elliott’s sleeping with other clients. With his future on the line, Elliott’s left with a terrible decision: risk his bright academic future, or lose Aiden forever.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Unwanted sexual advances
Drug use (Cannabis)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
People cursed the unflattering light of department-store fitting rooms, but Elliott was positive the worst-lit, most terribly angled, and least confidence-inspiring place to try to put together an outfit was a coed bathroom of a bustling college dorm.
“Looking good, Meyer,” Amanda from up the hall crowed on her way to the showers. Elliott cringed and tried to ignore her, along with anyone else who happened to come by.
Co. Freaking. Ed. Whose idea was that, even? Some sadist’s, likely.
The girls weren’t actually the worst part—that was the steady stream of guys who wanted to catch a quick shower before donning a thick layer of body spray and trying their luck at the local watering hole.
Elliott was focused on what he was doing, but the door squeaked, so any time someone came in, he knew it. He also had an eighty percent accuracy rate in guessing when it was a guy, because most of them would stop abruptly, their brain obviously catching up with their eyes and comprehending that there was a dude at the end of the row of sinks putting on eyeliner.
No one had given him a hard time, so far. It was unlikely anyone would, considering how liberal UCLA purported to be. They were young and Californian, living the dream with their progressive worldviews and leafy green vegetables. They were totally chill.
Yeah, sure. That was why eleven of the thirteen people who’d walked in on him had frozen in the doorway and clearly waged an internal battle. Did they want to proceed into unsafe territory or stage a retreat back into their comfortable world of polo shirts, classic rock, and chicken wings?
That wasn’t fair of him. He really shouldn’t stereotype, especially since—when he wasn’t wearing skintight cotton-Lycra blend on top and equally figure-hugging black jeans on the bottom—he could appreciate a good polo. And he hated kale, so he didn’t exactly fit the hippie-dippy archetype either.
Then again, he hadn't picked this school for its politics. Only for its great classes on ancient Greek politicians. And the inspiring faculty. And the PhD program a few years down the line . . .
The school had a lot to recommend it besides its atmosphere of acceptance.
Elliott finished connecting the soft-brown line that rimmed his eye, then uncapped his mascara. Before he’d bought it, he hadn’t even known there was more than one color of mascara, but then he’d gotten one with a barely there green tint, because the salesperson had told him it might bring out the green in his hazel eyes. He wasn’t so sure color theory worked that easily, but he figured as long as it stayed subtle, it couldn’t hurt.
He wiped most of the gunk off of the wand onto a scraggly piece of two-ply, since he wasn’t trying to kick up a slight breeze every time he blinked. All he wanted was to enhance what was already there, his best feature, according to one of his friend’s ex-girlfriends. (Unfair, she’d pronounced his eyelashes, huffily, back in high school.)
Where he was going, a pair of eyes like his——big and bright and moist from the irritation of the chemicals——would be a hit among a particular demographic. It had been a while since he’d actually been as innocent as his eyes convinced men he was, but, oh, could he convince them. He could likely do it without the getup too, but he wasn’t about to take that chance. He had bills to pay, and payment schedules would wait for no starving student.
When his lashes were as defined as they were going to get, he straightened and admired his handiwork. His clear skin was smooth, but not unnaturally so, and the eyes would be more of a draw than his pointed nose, or the hollows under his cheekbones that made him look gaunt at the wrong angle, no matter how many calories he pounded. He was too familiar with and critical of his face to be sure, but he thought he cleaned up well for someone who was objectively average.
The harsh light, unforgiving of his flaws, was actually the reason he was getting ready here, and not back in his room. Using a tiny hand mirror and the soft, fuzzy light of his desk lamp to judge the final product would be too big a risk. And if he could be halfway presentable in the godawful sickly glow of the fluorescent lights, he would look fucking fantastic under the flattering flashes of purple and green on the dance floor at Venom.
He smeared lipstick on his lips—barely darker than their natural pink color, but dark enough to give the illusion that they had already been put to good use that night. (They were his second-best feature, according to the same ex-girlfriend, though he disagreed. They were way too wide for his face.)
Wearing makeup was all a calculation. The eyes, to make him look innocent and awestruck. The lips, to make it obvious that, in spite of that, he wanted more than a free drink and a dance.
With every millimeter the pigment covered, more of the boring, nerdy Elliott went away. In his place? An Elliott who knew what he wanted and how to get it.
Thursday at a club like Venom was a completely unique experience. It lacked the crazed relief and barely disguised working man’s misery of Friday and the manic desperation of a busy Saturday. Venom was the classiest, cleanest place in the area; the music didn’t totally suck; and best of all, there was a roped-off VIP area with a regular bouncer who seemed to like Elliott in spite of himself.
“Well, what do you know?” Terry drawled, crossing his arms over his broad chest. His face was as stern and bored as always, but the tiny, almost imperceptible upward tic of his lips gave him away. “The cat came back.”
Elliott rolled his eyes and leaned a hip against the heavy pole that the velvet barrier ropes were clipped onto. “Ugh. I hate cats. I’m more of a loyal lapdog, I think,” he said, just loud enough to be heard above the thumping music. Then he held his hands under his chin like paws and gave his most charming puppy-dog eyes.
Terry snorted, unaffected. “It’s been a while, Elliott. Did Innes finally get bored of that new place in Century Park?”
Ah, yes. There was the awkward moment Elliott had been expecting. He shrugged. “You’d know better than me. You seen him around?” If he was, then Elliott would have to cancel his plans for another week.
Terry’s eyebrows rose fractionally, but he showed no other emotion. “You’re not . . .” Elliott let him struggle for a few seconds, just for the fun of it.
“Together anymore?” Elliott finally prompted. “No. We broke it off a while back.”
“And now you’re here.”
“Now I’m here.”
Terry nodded and unclipped the rope barring the entrance to the upper level. He waved Elliott through without another word, or even a look that would betray what he was thinking. Terry’s discretion was one of the reasons why Elliott liked him so much, despite the fact that none of their conversations had lasted longer than the one they’d just had. It made a refreshing change that he never seemed to have an opinion about what Elliott was doing. Or had been doing and was attempting to do again.
Elliott approached the VIP bar, which was smaller but still way less crowded than the one on the main level. So far, it was managing not to reek of spilled liquor and frantic borderline alcoholism, so it got a gold star, along with Elliott’s patronage. There wasn’t anyone sitting on the gleaming chrome stools, either. The customers in this section preferred the secluded and dimly lit booths.
Venom wasn’t a gay bar, necessarily, and there was no advertisement about its free-for-all status, but the owners were equal opportunity moneymakers and kicked out anyone who had a problem with being hit on by the “wrong gender.”
The only other person waiting to be served got his drink and walked off to join everyone else in the shadows, so Elliott took a seat and ordered a 7 Up in a small glass, pointedly ignoring the bartender’s raised eyebrow. He didn’t even like 7 Up that much, but it was what he always ordered when he didn’t want his head muddled with alcohol, and he didn’t want to be the only person obviously not drinking. A clear, fizzy drink could pass for a gin and tonic without him having to drink the gin. Or the tonic, because that stuff was like salty ass in liquid form.
When the glass was set in front of him, he dropped a five-dollar bill on the bar and perched on one of the stools, sipping from the little straw, running his fingers through the condensation seeping across the countertop, and projecting hopefulness. After all the time he’d spent here with Innes, the place felt almost as familiar as his living room back home. However, the kind of person he wanted to attract would be more interested in young, easily impressed guys who didn’t know this club like the back of their hand.
He looked around the bar as he settled into his posture. Did he even like it here? Any feelings he had were amplified by nostalgia. He’d been here so many times with Innes. He’d met Innes here.
Those emotions were hard to forget: insecurity, baffled excitement . . . relief. A sexy, suave, rich lawyer had wanted to give him all the money he needed for whatever he cared to spend it on and all Elliott had had to do was have sex with the—hands-down—hottest guy who’d ever spoken to him and go to a few parties. Easy. No strings attached.
Elliott licked the sour taste of the 7 Up off his teeth with a small, bitter smile. Oh, yeah. So easy.
The worst part was that Innes hadn’t lied to him. Elliott couldn’t even curse Innes’s name for manipulating an impressionable nineteen-year-old into a life of prostitution he didn’t want and didn’t have the fortitude for. Innes hadn’t done anything except give Elliott the opportunity.
That was okay, though. There were plenty of other things Elliott had to curse Innes for.
“You look lonely.”
Right on schedule. Elliott fought down his satisfied smile before he faced the guy who thought he could use some company. The guy was a bit of a cliché, really. Nice suit, clean-shaven, white smile. Wide smile, like a predator.
“Oh, yeah? Why do you say that?” Elliott asked, then he flicked his tongue out to catch a stray drop of 7 Up on his bottom lip. He’d never admit it out loud, but the move wasn’t something that had come naturally to him. He’d practiced the tongue thing in the mirror until he was confident he could straddle the line between nervous and sexed-up.
“Well, you’re all alone, aren’t you?”
“There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely.” For introverted Elliott, at least. This guy seemed the type to go to five different bars in one weekend to avoid being subjected to his own company for longer than a few hours.
“And which are you?” The guy oozed into the bar, propping his leg on the rung of a stool, Captain Morgan style. Elliott barely restrained an eye roll at the display of Aggressive Body Language 101.
“You already guessed,” Elliott said, despite his disinterest.
The guy’s smile quirked with undeserved triumph. “Well, why don’t you let me fix that? I’ve got a whole table of people who’d love to get to know you.”
Elliott was of the opinion that some guys needed to try their lines in the mirror and see if they could keep a straight face while they imagined saying them to their sister or mother. Elliott would probably have taken a pass after that poor display if he hadn’t seen the table Dustin—Elliott was informed—was talking about.
The guy had friends. Wealthy ones, if the open bottles of champagne on the table were any indication.
Dustin settled a hand on Elliott’s lower back as he introduced him to the group. Elliott only bothered remembering about half the names. The men who raked their eyes up and down his body in its tight, flattering clothes were the type he’d come searching for. The rest of them were probably part of the small demographic of people who came to Venom for the signature cocktails and the company, rather than the welcoming atmosphere.
There was an empty seat next to a man whose watch cost the yearly economy of a small country. Dustin pulled Elliott down next to him, instead.
“Sit with me, darling,” he purred, but it sounded more like a pissed-off Persian grumble. “That’s Kent’s seat, right, Tom?”
“Kent?” Elliott’s spine snapped straight from its shy, retiring curve, and his heartbeat picked up as he spotted a drink at the seat in question: an inch of amber liquid in a squat glass. It could have been Scotch straight up with a tiny spritz of lemon, just how Innes liked it, but there was no way to tell. The drink could belong to some other Kent. Kent was a first name too, right?
“Yeah, he’ll be back soon,” said Tom, the man across the table with the poorly hemmed cuffs. (And wasn’t it sick that even though Elliott was entering panic mode, he could still strike off one potential customer from the list because he noticed when someone was hanging with a crowd he couldn’t afford to be friendly with?)
“Who’s Kent?” Elliott asked, as casually as he could, trying for vague curiosity, but overshooting it to mild interest, if the tightening of Dustin’s lips was anything to go by.
“Lawyer. Expensive one.”
“Good, though,” one of the men across the table said, raising his glass in a salute. “You best not forget. His firm got my big brother out of a medium-sized problem just last month.”
“Sure,” Dustin said, with eyes only for Elliott. “Kent’s great, but I want to hear about you.”
Shit, shit, fuck. If “Kent” was Innes, then Elliott’s innocent act was up. Innes had a well-earned reputation for letting no new thing go unspoiled, and there was every chance that he’d ruin Elliott’s cultivated image with a sly remark.
Elliott needed to get out. He could try again another night with Dustin (or, more accurately, Dustin’s friends), but only if they didn’t know he’d been a fixture here until fairly recently.
“Uh, about me?” Elliott stammered, only half faking this time. “Not much to tell. Actually, I’m pretty boring, and it’s kind of past my bedtime, so I think I’m gonna, um, go?”
“What?” Dustin caught Elliott’s wrist as he stood to leave. “No, don’t do that, we’d miss you. Wouldn’t we, boys?” There was a chorus of noncommittal hums.
“Nah, really. I have to go. But it was nice meeting you.” The first attempt Elliott made to tug his arm from Dustin’s grasp was ineffectual, and that sent a frisson of fear down Elliott’s spine, but the second yank earned him his limb back, and he turned away from the table—
Only to walk into a warm, but unyielding wall. He stumbled back a step, but the wall—person—steadied him with hands on his shoulders.
“Sorry,” Elliott mumbled, and tried to step around them.
Elliott stopped and actually looked. The light was dim in the club, but it was bright enough for him to recognize the criminally square jawline, the strong eyebrows, and the frown.
“Kent,” Elliott blurted. “You’re Kent.”
“Aiden,” Innes’s nephew replied, his face scrunching up in a universal expression of duh.
Elliott winced. Fifteen seconds into their first conversation post-Innes, and Aiden thought Elliott had forgotten his name. “Yeah. I mean, of course. How are you?”
“What are you doing here?” Aiden demanded.
“Same as you, I guess. Drinking. Socializing.” Elliott jerked his head toward the table behind them, where Aiden’s drink had almost certainly gone room temperature.
Aiden’s lip curled as he glanced at the table, then it flattened into a neutral line. “With these assholes?”
“Yeah. Those ones. Who you were happily sitting with.”
Aiden’s eyes skittered down and away, and his jaw tightened.
Interesting. “Or not so happily?”
“Come on.” Aiden spread his hand across the thin material over Elliott’s back and propelled him across the VIP section and down the stairs. Dazed, Elliott let himself be led, stumbling over his feet as they pushed through the throng of dancing clubbers, but steadied by Aiden’s sweltering palm on his sweat-damp skin.
They’d made it to the exit and out into the cool air before Elliott realized that he could have jumped ship at any time. He’d been steered, not pulled, to Aiden’s destination of choice, and the difference between that and Dustin’s too-tight grip on his wrist was enough to make him decide to stick around.
“Can I help you?” Elliott asked, crossing his arms over his chest to seem unaffected, and to ward off the chill of the rapid temperature change between the stifling club air and the cool breeze. California was a sunny state, but January was still cold.
Aiden was taller than him, but not by much. With Aiden’s lean muscle mass, combined with a thunderous frown and dark, villainous stubble, Elliott might have been uncomfortable if he hadn’t learned from Innes that Aiden braked for butterflies that landed on the road.
“Why did you come here?” Aiden asked.
“The same reason most people come here. To hook up with someone.” That was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch. The kind of hookup he wanted was a little more expensive than usual.
“Really? A one-night stand is all you want?” Aiden’s face pulled into one of its default expressions: profound skepticism.
“And if it isn’t? What could that possibly have to do with you? Come on. Give me one good—I mean good—reason why you hauled me out here to give me the third degree. I’m not with Innes anymore. Remember?”
There was no chance Aiden wouldn’t remember. Aiden and Elliott hadn’t been exactly friendly when Elliott and Innes had been a thing, but they’d made small talk at countless parties and dinners and fundraisers that Innes had dragged him to.
Aiden had been working his way up from his position as a highly capable associate to having his name included under one of the Kents in Kent, Kent & Morris Law Office, but he hadn’t managed it before the end of Innes and Elliott’s arrangement, which, awkwardly, Aiden had known all about.
Innes hadn’t been exactly subtle.
Aiden didn’t seem homophobic, but he did seem to be a bit of a prude. Not to mention, he always looked incredibly busy and moderately exhausted. They’d mostly ignored each other, which had been easy to do, despite the fact that Aiden and Innes worked at the same company, one floor apart.
(Elliott had gotten off at the wrong floor the first time he’d come to the firm for a quickie in Innes’s office. He’d told the receptionist he was there to have lunch with Mr. Kent, and she’d assumed he’d been talking about Aiden, the younger of the two Kents. It had made for an uncomfortable conversation when Aiden had had to point him to the correct floor and watch Elliott do the walk of shame.)
“Of course I remember,” Aiden snapped, then he visibly gathered himself, and his lips firmed into a line. It wasn’t a smile, but it was closer to one than the glower from before. “Hard not to. It’s been boring without you, honestly.”
That surprised a laugh out of Elliott. “Innes hasn’t found someone new to scandalize people with?”
“Not yet. I think he’s finding you a tough act to follow. You were the most interesting person he’d seen in a while. Maybe ever. Definitely the smartest.”
This time, Elliott’s chuckle was bitter. “The smartest of all of Innes’s playthings. What a compliment.”
Aiden was too self-contained to shuffle his feet, but he looked like he wanted to. He stared at the brick wall behind Elliott’s head instead. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“How did you mean it? I never really knew how you felt about me. I don’t know if you think I’m . . .” Disgusting. Dirty. Stupid and shameless. Elliott could take his pick of the usual assumptions people made. It didn’t make a difference that none of them were true. People had a right to their opinions, just as Elliott had a right to ignore them.
“No. I don’t,” Aiden said. “Whatever it is you’re thinking, I don’t think that.”
“Then what are you doing here, Aiden? Why did you drag me out? It wasn’t for old time’s sake, that’s for sure.”
Aiden’s muscles worked under the taut skin of his jaw as he obviously tried to come up with an answer. The guy must have killer TMJ.
“Those guys are bad news,” Aiden blurted eventually.
Elliott rolled his eyes. “Good god, you sound like a cop in a movie set in the fifties. ‘I don’t trust ’em, Sly. He’s a rebel without a cause, ya see—’”
“I’m serious, Elliott. They aren’t . . . good people.”
Elliott threw up his hands. “You think I don’t know that? You think I’m gonna go out looking for a saint? Why, sure, Elliott, of course I’ll pay your tuition if you let me fuck you on the regular. But first, I have to feed the starving orphans. Oh, wait! You’re half an orphan, let me write you a check, keep the no-strings-attached sex, I can do without—”
Elliott’s mouth clicked shut, because Aiden no longer resembled a harried dad giving a last-minute lecture to a teenager. He seemed serious and genuinely concerned.
“Sorry,” Elliott mumbled, unclear as to exactly what he was apologizing for. He didn’t owe Aiden any explanations for what he did with his life.
“Please don’t go back in there and sit with them.” Aiden’s eyes shone in the light of the club’s neon sign, piercing and somber with streaks of acidic pink breaking up the dark brown. “I’m only here to keep a client coming back when his brother messes up again. If I had to worry about you as well as about keeping a straight face, I’d get another ulcer.”
Elliott winced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah. Innes would never let me hear the end of it. He already gives me a new bottle of Pepto-Bismol every week.”
Elliott snorted. “I bet he owns stock in it.”
He’d never laughed so much in Aiden’s presence before. He’d never had much reason to, despite Innes often sinking his teeth into his own nephew with his casual, cruel humor.
When it was some poor schmuck Innes was pleasantly ripping to pieces, it’d been easy for Elliott to get caught up in it, but he’d never been able to snicker along when it was Aiden, an almost acquaintance. Thankfully, Aiden had usually ignored Innes’s bait.
“I was glad to hear you weren’t seeing him anymore.” When Elliott frowned, Aiden rushed to explain. “I just mean that he isn’t good for you. Or anyone, really. Innes is family, and I know he has some good qualities if you look hard enough, but his bad ones far outweigh them. You’re better off without him, and I was happy when it seemed like you were done with this sort of thing.” Aiden jerked a thumb at the doors of Venom, where just as many people were leaving as arriving.
Elliott shifted his weight, flexing his toes in his dress shoes. They were tighter than he remembered. “Yeah, I probably am better off. But a guy’s gotta eat, you know?” And study at a school that was way out of his budget, and pour money into a debt incurred before the training wheels were off his bike. “So I continue to do ‘this sort of thing.’ Sorry to disappoint.”
“I’m not disappointed, that isn’t—” Aiden broke off and growled under his breath, glaring at the dirty sidewalk. The burn of bitterness and annoyance in Elliott’s throat calmed.
“For a big-shot lawyer, you’re putting your foot in your mouth a lot,” Elliott said with a rueful grin.
Some of the tension leaked out of Aiden’s shoulders. “‘Big shot?’ You must have me confused with someone else.”
“Oh, really? Someone specific? What is he, about yea high—” Elliott drew a line across Aiden’s shoulder. “—with obsessively groomed hair and a superiority complex like whoa?”
Aiden’s lips trembled with suppressed laughter, like he thought Innes would jump out from behind a nearby dumpster if he badmouthed him too loud. “He’s the one. I’m no big shot. I only keep crooked CEOs out of prison.”
Elliott nodded sagely. “Noble.”
Aiden grimaced. “It pays the bills.”
“Lucky you.” It came out harsher than Elliott had intended, and tense silence followed. “Well, this has been bizarre, but I should probably get back to . . .” He gestured vaguely to the club door. “I’ll take your advice on Dustin and his friends. If you happen to know anyone in the market for someone to spoil in exchange for sexual favors, you know where to find me.”
He resisted the urge to bring out the double finger guns and turned away from Aiden, heading for the front door.
“I do know someone, actually.”
Elliott stopped and looked back over his shoulder, but he didn’t turn around. “You don’t say. And who would that be?”
Aiden’s blush was ruddy and dark, visible even under the pink lights of the sign. He stared at the ground and got redder and redder until he jerked a vague hand toward his own chest. It took Elliott a good few seconds to figure out what he meant.
“You’re joking,” Elliott said.
Aiden clenched his fists, then dug them into his pockets, shaking his head in a quick snapping motion. “Never mind. It was stupid anyway.”
He stepped past, but Elliott caught his arm before he could escape back into the club, digging sweaty fingers into the tailored suit jacket.
“No, it’s not stupid. I was just . . .” Surprised felt like a weak word for what he was. Absolutely floored would be closer. “You never seemed the type.”
Aiden froze, his eyes locked on Elliott’s grip on his arm. “What type do I seem like, then?”
“I don’t know, man, I haven’t really thought about it,” Elliott said, jabbing his fingers through his stiff, product-ridden hair. It was too easy to take a guess, though. Aiden seemed the type for an old-fashioned courtship. A standing appointment for movie night with popcorn and pj’s. A tense and perfect meet-the-parents dinner. A long engagement, because they were going to be together forever, so why hurry?
None of that aligned with what was being proposed, so he couldn’t be blamed for the spark of suspicion that flared neon bright.
“Are you doing this because you feel bad for me?” Elliott demanded, yanking his hand from Aiden’s arm. “Innes was a dick sometimes, but I dished it right back. If this is some sort of sick apology for whatever you think he did, you can—”
“Do you honestly think I like Innes enough to spend my own money apologizing on his behalf?”
That bit of bracing logic cut through the haze of misplaced annoyance and embarrassment, and the fight went out of Elliott. The breeze picked up and he shivered. He wanted to go home and scrape off the thin layer of makeup that was making his eyes twitch, then shed his tight clothes and feel sweet air on his legs again.
“No. I guess you wouldn’t. I just . . . It’s been a confusing night, so I’m really not up for whatever game you’re playing.”
“It isn’t a game.” Aiden’s stare was always intense, but tonight, his eyes seemed to glow. “I’m not Innes. I’m good at what I do, but I can’t play people like he can, and I don’t want to learn.”
He reached into his pocket and fished out a business card from his wallet. He offered it to Elliott. “Call me if you want. We can work something out. If not, then good luck, I guess.”
Elliott watched Aiden’s back as he retreated into the building, then glanced down at the card pinched in his white-knuckled fingers. The stock was thick, the typeface angular and unadorned. The lettering was black, not flashy gold or silver. Simple and straightforward. Like Aiden. Maybe.
Elliott tucked the card into the tiny, cramped front pocket of his jeans and kept his hand around it as he started his walk home under the bright street lights.
Maybe he could use a bit of simple.
As Elliott got to his door, some girls from down the hall went by, giggling and talking, their excitement peaked for a night only beginning while Elliott was turning in, like an old man waiting for the sun to go down so he could shut off the light.
Be safe, he wanted to shout after them, but he wasn’t their grandad, even if they did seem painfully young. Their youthful exuberance would probably wake him up on their journey home, and in the morning, he’d be grateful for his room on campus when he wouldn’t have to waste precious sleeping time on a long commute.
The pros and cons of dorm life were a constant struggle, but until 9 a.m. classes were banned, he’d pick proximity over peace and quiet.
In the privacy of his single room, he wiggled out of his pants and kicked them savagely into a corner, but they weren’t his biggest hurdle.
Waterproof mascara was even harder to get off than it was to put on. When he’d bought the stuff, he’d thought, Well, why wouldn’t I want it to be waterproof?
Because the way it clung was magic of the darkest variety.
After pitching his third makeup wipe, he gave up on getting the last traces of color. He might look haggard the next day, but he’d get extra participation marks for being more interested in the material than in sleep.
In his T-shirt and boxers, he climbed under the soft covers, fully expecting to drop off immediately.
No such luck.
All his tiredness vanished as soon as his head hit the pillow. He tossed around, trying to tap into the mental exhaustion he’d felt as he’d walked home, but eventually gave in to the inevitability of getting up again.
At his desk, he pulled out his textbook for his Rediscovering Rome class, clicking on his lamp to start burning the midnight oil. Next to him, the heating vent puffed out tepid air uselessly, and Elliott’s warm bed called him back.
He could give sleep another try. Or he could lie under his blankets and stare at his phone for a few hours, wasting time until the sun came up . . .
Not if you want to make the ancient history faculty list before age thirty, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his mom’s piped up. If he wanted to stay in school until they had to give him three degrees to get rid of him, and make a living by publishing essays in esoteric journals for people like him to read, he couldn’t waste unexpected opportunities for productivity like this one.
He traced the cover of his book: a stock photo of a bust of Julius Caesar. He smiled as he remembered the one exactly like it that his mother had owned. They used to say good night to it along with his teddy bears on the way to bed.
It’d fallen off the shelf a couple of years after she’d died. It’d cracked down the middle, and he hadn’t wanted his dad to replace it, not when they hadn’t been sure where they’d get the money to replace his cheap, crumbling running shoes.
He opened the heavy book up to his bookmark, shaking off his midnight melancholy. At least now he was pulling his own weight, financially.
As soon as Elliott had graduated high school, he’d been working at a factory and pouring most of his paychecks into their debts. Ignoring his dad’s guilt and his own disappointment hadn’t been easy, but his mom’s medical bills hadn’t cared that they’d both wanted Elliott to go to college.
If their bills hadn’t been so high, Dad would never have let him put it off. He’d seen how much Elliott wanted to go, to fulfill both his own desires, and those of his parents, but Dad had needed the help, so UCLA had had to wait.
But he’d made it there eventually, and was working toward his dream. The payments were still high, but Dad never missed one, not with Elliott’s help.
See, Dad, he wanted to say, by phone, in person, email, anything. I’m doing exactly what you told me to do.
Well, not exactly. He’d never told Elliott to go out and find someone to pay him for a few hours of sex every week, but he’d done it anyway, and he didn’t regret it, not when it gave him the freedom to come back to this, his passion, while still having money to send, chipping away at the burden on his dad’s back.
His dad had never told Elliott that borrowing money would ruin him either. He hadn’t had to.
A burst of wild laughter from outside Elliott's door made him jump and drop his book to the desk. Instead of picking it up again, Elliott texted his dad about his new classes, and the professor he swore looked like an older, cooler version of himself. Wishful thinking, probably.
Despite the late hour, he’d barely put his phone down before he got a response.
Dad: Your mom always thought you’d make a great teacher. Keep working hard, and you’ll get there. Don’t stay up too late!
“Oh, Dad,” he whispered to his empty room. “You’re worried about the wrong things.”
Putting his phone away, he turned his attention back to his book. He managed to get almost to the end of the assigned readings before his eyes started to droop and the tiny font started blurring. After closing the cover and giving good old Jules a tap on his Roman nose, he climbed into bed. But still, sleep didn’t come.
He only had one person to blame.
Aiden Kent. The go-to guy for the less glamorous cases that needed competence, not flash—at least, according to Innes, who couldn’t be called a trustworthy source. Everything else Elliott knew had been gathered through the colored lens of being Innes’s pay-per-view boyfriend.
He’d never thought of Aiden in the way Aiden seemed to want him to. He had eyes, of course. There were some fabulous genes in the family.
But the bottom line was that he could do worse. Way worse.
He might have gone home with Dustin. The guy had been genuinely repellent, but if next semester’s tuition bill had loomed a little more menacingly in the back of Elliott’s mind, he might have sucked it up.
He would have felt like shit afterward, but his textbooks would’ve been paid off for the entire semester with the “gift” Dustin would’ve felt “generous” enough to give him. And if he was honest with himself, the shitty feeling probably wouldn’t have lasted long, because he knew that putting in some time between the sheets didn’t make him a bad person.
(He’d figured that out without a single therapy session. Not that he wouldn’t have appreciated a chaise lounge and a PhD, but he’d never wanted to ask Innes, Hey, could you pay for a shrink to screw my head on straight about me screwing you for tuition?)
Elliott groaned and flopped over onto his stomach, shutting out the ivory light that filtered through his window in irregular bars across the bottom half of the bed. He couldn’t do a damn thing without thinking of Innes in some way, which was highly annoying as well as illogical.
They’d never dated. They slept together, sat next to each other in clubs, and sometimes Elliott had let Innes dress him up and take him to thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners, but neither of them had ever forgotten that at the end of the night or in the morning, Elliott would go home to the dorm room that Innes’s money paid for, and study from the books that Innes’s money bought. That had been what they both wanted, until suddenly it hadn’t been. So it didn’t make sense that he felt like he was in a post-relationship slump.
Relationships involved trust. Elliott had seen that in his parents’ marriage until the day his mother had died. Trust was not something Elliott had ever had in Innes.
Aiden, though . . . he screamed trustworthy in every tense line of his well-built body. Being with Aiden would be a completely different experience.
His phone lit up in the darkness with a reminder about emailing Professor Martingale for book recommendations—the textbook for Poetry and Prose was fine, but uninspiring. Instead, he opened up his banking app.
His balance was the same. Enough to get him through a few weeks, if he managed not to run out of toothpaste, but not enough to start saving for next semester. Nowhere near enough to send to Dad.
A couple of excited whoops came from the hallway. Sighing, he reached for the earplugs on his nightstand. If he was going to call the number on Aiden’s business card in the morning, he wanted to be at the top of his game.
On Saturday, Elliott raised his hand to knock, lowered it, then raised it again.
He hated these fancy apartment buildings, mostly because he never knew whether he was supposed to knock. Aiden had buzzed him in downstairs, so was he going to open the door after a suitable waiting period? Was Elliott supposed to announce his presence, or would that be horribly gauche?
The door didn’t even have a peephole so Aiden could see it was him instead of a stranger who’d shanked Elliott in the elevator and was about to rob the apartment blind. That wasn’t likely to happen, but Elliott’s dad had taught him well. He had all kinds of hang-ups from being a cop’s kid.
He ended up knocking once, softly. Then he worried whether it was loud enough to be heard. Should he knock again? What if Aiden had heard? That would make him seem impatient.
Aiden opened the door.
“Hi,” Aiden said with a small, neutral smile that thankfully didn’t scream, Come in, sit down, we’ll have tea and discuss how much I’m willing to pay you to have access to your glorious booty 24/7.
Elliott swallowed and stepped past the threshold, then hopped on one foot to remove one of his sneakers. Apparently Aiden’s was a shoes-off household, a concept that shattered Elliott’s unrealistic assumption that Aiden spent all day fully buttoned and laced.
He fell over into the wall trying to tug off his second shoe without untying it all the way, then blushed and grimaced when Aiden’s expressive eyebrows rose to mock him wordlessly.
When Elliott was finally shoeless, Aiden led the way into the airy apartment. It was cozier than he’d have expected such an expensive piece of real estate to be. It had the kind of polished, ultra-coordinated, yet Cheerio-bland vibe of professional decorating, but there were a few more personal touches.
A couple of luridly covered crime novels had been shoved onto a windowsill next to a thriving potted plant. A pair of socks languished under the coffee table. Pictures lined the walls, blown up large so smiling faces took up most of the space.
Several looked familiar, though Elliott didn’t think he’d met any of them. (He could have, given the circles he used to frequent, and might frequent again soon.) The recognizable features meant that some were probably Innes’s nieces and nephews, who he talked about more than he thought he did. The rest would be Innes’s siblings, who he never talked about, even though he worked with some of them.
“I thought we could sit in here,” Aiden said, gesturing to the cluster of couches.
Elliott mentally shook himself back into his professional headspace. He’d learned with Innes that when he was working, he needed to be a different version of himself.
Here, he needed to be a confident, collected man about town, with enough knowledge on obscure topics to make conversation over dinner with anyone, and the experience in bed to please the pickiest partner. The experience part hadn’t been a lie after about a month with Innes. The man had been a good teacher, and Elliott was nothing if not a quick study. What worked with the uncle should work just fine for the nephew.
That thought made Elliott feel gross, and he couldn’t suppress a shudder as he sank onto the plush brown leather couch across from Aiden.
“Are you cold?” Aiden asked.
“What?” There was a special kind of intimidation that wealthy men wielded without thinking, and Elliott was out of practice with it. “No. I’m fine.”
“Would you like a drink?” Aiden put his hands on his knees and froze, like he was fighting every instinct not to go and pour something, anything, in a glass, because that’s what was expected of him.
Elliott shook his head anyway. I don’t drink on the job.”
“No, not— I meant water. Or I have tea. Green or chamomile. I’m out of peppermint.”
Elliott really needed to quit being surprised by Aiden. “Thanks, but no. I’d like to get down to business, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh. Of course.”
Aiden brushed his palms on his pants, then folded them in the air between his knees, then put them back on his thighs again. Watching those nervous hands, Elliott could finally take a full, deep breath.
“Are you still serious about what you said the other day?” Elliott leaned back against the couch. He let his legs relax so they were slightly open. The effect wasn’t quite as good as that scene in Basic Instinct, but he liked to think he was channeling a bit of early-nineties Sharon Stone. “I figured when you didn’t ignore my text that you were. But do you really want an arrangement like what I had with Innes?”
Aiden winced. “I’m not like Innes.”
“I know. If you were, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Aiden looked up at him, his eyebrows climbing.
“I was the one who broke it off, remember?”
Aiden’s lips twitched in a smile. “I remember. He sulked for weeks.”
“Did he?” Elliott slapped the leather couch cushion beside his knee and forgot about being seductive, bringing up his socked feet and crossing them underneath him, leaning forward like a kid at story time. “That faker, he acted like he was all relieved that I beat him to it.”
“No, he was definitely put out. He had to go alone to the lymphoma research gala, and he was so pissy the whole night that he made a waiter cry.”
Elliott laughed, though he felt bad for the poor waiter. “He would. He likes to deny it, but he actually loves those things. It’s an excuse to get dressed up and pretend he’s better than everyone else.”
“That’s Innes’s favorite thing to do, aside from terrorizing his aides when he’s in a bad mood.” Aiden grimaced. “You might want to avoid them for a while. Last I heard, they were joking about getting your head on a pike for not giving them any warning before you left him in the bad mood to end all bad moods.”
Elliott snorted. “He was probably mad that he had to go out and find somebody new to have sex with on the regular. The man is such a hedonist, he can’t go a week without getting some before he gets whiny.”
The amused half smile at Innes’s expense disappeared abruptly, and Aiden coughed, looking down at the floor. Elliott’s face heated up, and he swallowed a stammering apology that would only make things more awkward.
Blowing out a long breath, he forced himself not to play with the top button of his stiffly ironed collar. There was a reason why he’d bothered with business casual: he’d hoped it would remind him that they were making a new agreement, not reminiscing on old times.
They were never going to get anywhere if neither of them volunteered to start the necessary conversation. All he could do was hope that honesty was the best policy in this case.
“This is weird, isn’t it?”
Aiden huffed a laugh, but his posture eased somewhat. “Yeah, a little.”
“Listen.” Elliott leaned forward again, trying to exude a self-assuredness he didn’t feel. “I thought about coming in here and pretending I didn’t even know your uncle. I could’ve put on an act like I hadn’t done this sort of thing before. But somehow, I didn’t think that would be your style. I thought you’d be the kind of person who wouldn’t want the romantic bullshit when we both know I’m a done deal. Was I right?”
Aiden hesitated, and Elliott’s heart rate rocketed, but he pressed harder.
“Tell me honestly. Would I blow this by treating it as the business arrangement it is?”
Aiden shook his head, but his shoulders were still up around his ears, so Elliott couldn’t be entirely relieved.
“No, you wouldn’t blow it,” Aiden admitted. “I do appreciate you being honest with me.”
He couldn’t quite meet Elliott’s eyes, though, so Elliott pressed, “But?”
The cracking of Aiden’s knuckles was loud in the quiet room. In any other situation, with anyone else, it might’ve been a cheesy-mob-flick move, but Elliott could tell it was a stress relief thing. It must have worked, because Aiden let out a long breath and said, more confidently, “I don’t think what I want from this is what Innes wanted.”
“How so?” Elliott watched as Aiden struggled again, opening his mouth a couple of times, but failing to articulate anything. Elliott helped him out. “Innes wanted a trophy. An attractive statue he could parade around to make the execs uncomfortable at dinner parties. He also wanted sex that fit into his schedule without him having to put in the effort to go out and find someone to take back to his place who wasn’t a thief, a psycho, or a legitimately good person who didn’t deserve to get thrown out on their ass at dawn.”
The description was frank. It was awkward too, and not just for Aiden. But Aiden needed to know how far Elliott was willing to go, and being honest was the only way to do that.
Aiden nodded, ruddy-cheeked. “That’s what I thought.” He looked slightly ill. Elliott didn’t really have any family other than his dad, but he could imagine how much he wouldn’t want to picture his uncle having sex with someone fifteen years his junior.
“That’s not what you want, though?”
“So tell me.” He sat through another taut hesitation, deliberately not thinking about the kinky desires that might be keeping Aiden tongue-tied, then bluffed through his unease. “Come on, lay it on me. I promise not to laugh. It wouldn’t be good for business.”
Aiden’s eyebrows knitted up in a glare directed at the floor, but he also relaxed noticeably. It still took him a few long moments, but eventually, he met Elliott’s eyes.
“I want— God, this is so embarrassing. It’s such a rom-com cliché. Innes wanted sex.” He pulled a face. “And I’m not going to lie and say I’m not interested in that, but the fact is, I don’t want to kick you out.”
Elliott was a bit perplexed. Maybe Aiden was working up to the request that needed safewords and negotiations. “What would we do instead?”
A small, soft smile flirted with Aiden’s lips, and he stopped gripping his hands together so tightly and turned his palms toward himself, staring down at them like they’d give him the answers to the universe.
“Cuddle,” he said, at length. “Stay warm under the covers. Get up when we feel like it.”
Elliott sat back on Aiden’s plush leather couch in his swanky high-rise apartment. “You want a relationship,” he said slowly, feeling out the words.
Aiden sighed. “Not really. That’s my problem. I don’t want the stress that comes along with that. Sometimes—most of the time—I will want you to leave, but I don’t want to be worried I’m going to mess things up by asking to be alone. I don’t want to have to worry that I’m not texting you enough, or that my place isn’t clean. I don’t want to have to make conversation if I’m too tired.”
Elliott nodded, a clearer picture starting to form. “So, basically, you want to skip past the dating stage to the meat and potatoes, but not have to give a shit about my feelings getting hurt when you forget to take out the trash.”
Aiden stilled, barely breathing, then tension bled out of his body. “Exactly.”
“Huh,” Elliott said. “You’re right. That is a cliché.”
Aiden huffed a laugh. “God, I know. Busy lawyer doesn’t have the time or the energy to date, pays someone to cuddle with him instead. It’s almost as bad as Pretty Woman.”
Elliott sat up ramrod straight, slapping his hands down on the gleaming black coffee table. “Okay, rule number one: never mention that movie again.”
Aiden’s eyes widened. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you—”
“Something about Richard Gere’s stupid smug face makes me irrationally angry. I can’t stand it. Runaway Bride is just as bad.”
The switch in Aiden’s expression from panicked to annoyed was so fast, Elliott got whiplash, but it was worth it. Aiden shook his head and gave his tiny almost-smile again. Elliott grinned and settled back into the couch, enjoying the buttery leather and plush cushions while he could. He didn’t know if he’d get another chance.
But despite the surprises, he was starting to get hopeful.
Word Count: 86,000
Page Count: 262
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 10/05/2020
Release Date: 10/05/2020